“Life is all about memories. Memories and waffles and friends. Thus, I believe,” Leslie says to the camera, firm and bright, standing in a dim city hall corridor, “that all moments should be scrapbooked.”
After a moment, the smile on her face trembles at the corners and then disappears, and she ducks her head, mouth thinning into a frown when she swallows. When she looks up again, her eyes look a little wetter, and she’s nodding, as if to encourage herself to keep standing.
“Even the hard ones,” she finishes, and her voice breaks just the tiniest bit.
“Okay, listen,” Leslie barks into her cell phone, finger waving in the air with abandon. “Listen, Ann!”
“I’m listening,” Ann’s voice replies unsurely.
Leslie is sitting cross-legged on the family room floor in her house in a striped shirt and jeans and waffle-print ankle socks, hair tied in a ponytail, looking furious and gobsmacked all at once. The triplets are on a class trip to Indianapolis.
“No, no, Ann, I need you to listen! Are you listening? Are you paying attention; are you sure?”
“Leslie, I’m listening; I’ve—I’ve been listening,” Ann says. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Ben,” Leslie says, nose scrunching up in fury, “okay, Ben thinks that we—he says—he says he thinks he needs a few days away from home! Can you believe that? I mean can you actually believe that?”
“Oh, thank God,” Ann’s exhale of relief crackles on the speaker, and at Leslie’s indignant noise, she scrambles to recover. “Sorry, the way you were talking, I thought—I thought that, like, Garry had died, or you’d... lost the race or something.”
“What? No; God! No! This is way more tragic and horrible than either of those things!” Leslie shouts. “Ann! I’m in the middle of a crisis here! What if he divorces me? What if he takes the kids?” She gasps in horror, paling. “Oh! What if he takes the Star Wars special editions?”
“Okay, let’s not jump to the ‘divorce’ conclusion quite yet,” Ann says soothingly. She’s standing in the kitchen at the house in Bloomington, one hand braced at the base of her back, very pregnant. She leans back against the edge of the counter with a sigh. “Did he tell you why he feels that way? I mean did he give any kind of explanation?”
“I...” Leslie flummoxes. “Maybe. I don’t know. I got kind of... angry and obstinate and didn’t let him talk.”
“What? Break? Huh? You? You... a few days away from home? P-Pfff! Few days, schmew days! Few days away, how about a million and two days to stay? You’re probably just tired. Have you eaten lunch? Or breakfast? Maybe it’s hunger! Hunger can make you delusional, you know. Or dehydration. Ben, you really need to start taking better care of yourself! Ha, ha, I mean, seriously! Grow up!”
As Leslie’s frantic attempts to avoid the situation escalate, Ben slowly turns his head toward the camera, looking lost. She punches him in the arm like she’s joshing around with him. It makes him rattle.
“But I do that all the time!” Leslie insists presently. On the other end of the phone, Ann makes a deadpan face. “Besides, he was being ridiculous! What, was I just supposed to let him be ridiculous?”
“Maybe just this once you could have, yeah,” Ann says. “And maybe... don’t call it ridiculous when your husband says he needs to get away from home for a few days. I mean, even if it is ridiculous, it’s still how he feels.”
“Ugh, damn it. You’re right; I know you’re right, Ann, you wise, superb colugo,” Leslie growls. “Is this why Ron hates feelings? Because I think I get that now.”
“I don’t really think—”
“Explain, Ann! You’re good at feelings, right? With your gentle, empathic nurse powers? Why is he doing this?!” Leslie pounds one small fist on the coffee table, making the remote jump and jitter from the force.
“Well,” Ann says after some feigned thought, “hasn’t he been mentioning that he’s feeling like he doesn’t get much time with you? That the campaign is kind of wearing him out?”
(“I am in the middle of campaigning for governor of Indiana,” Leslie tells the camera, giving a spirited bob of the head. “And I’m the luckiest human in the universe, because all of my friends are helping me out. It’s exciting, and crazy, and Ben has supported me every step of the way.”
She pauses, frowning unsurely. “Though I may have let us fall to the wayside a bit from time to time, you know, recently. But, like, only a little.”)
(“I mean, I just really feel like... I see more of you on the news than I do at the house lately,” Ben says quietly at the dinner table after the kids have gone to bed, about a week ago. “This campaign stuff is amazing, and thrilling, and I love doing it, you know I do; but I love you, too, and I miss you. I miss—” He blinks hard, shaking his head as though startled. “Babe, are you listening?”
The camera pans over to Leslie scribbling frantically at a spread of scattered papers so thick and bountiful as to obscure the table surface on her side. She looks exhausted, wearing a Cyndi Lauper shirt under a gray blazer.
“Hm? Oh.” She reaches distractedly across the table as if to grab his hand but instead grabs the bread roll off of his plate and takes it. “Babe, the new Star Wars is gonna be great, I promise.”
Ben clamps his mouth shut, lips drawn into a thin line, and turns his head toward the camera, locking eyes with some invisible sympathetic party, and shrugs cynically in surrender.)
“I don’t think he’s mentioned that... specifically, no,” Leslie says in a stiff voice.
Ann narrows her eyes. “Uh-huh.”
“This is so stupid,” Leslie growls, gesticulating so wildly that it makes her hair bounce. “It’s the twenty-first century, people! A woman shouldn’t have to choose between who and what she wants! I mean, crimeny! Just because Garth freakin’ Blundin still lives in the 1880s doesn’t mean everybody should!”
“Preaching to the choir,” Ann tells her. Then, more gently, “You know, Leslie, this kind of thing happens in every relationship. Things have been kind of crazy lately with the campaign and kids and—”
“What? No, they haven’t!” Leslie says. “I’ve had things totally under control and Ben’s amazing! On top of it! Filled with chill! Was that hip? I can’t even tell anymore. Oh, God, where’s Tom? He would know. I should call Tom.”
“Don’t call Tom,” Ann says.
“I’m calling Tom.”
“No, Leslie; no—”
“Thanks, Ann; I knew you were in agreement with me on all matters discussed today! Miss you bye!”
“Leslie—” At the sound of the dial tone, Ann jerks the phone away from her ear, her whole face scrunched up, looking offended. “Oh, come on.”
TWO DAYS LATER
“Here’s something I’d conveniently forgotten until this exact moment,” Leslie tells the camera with almost manic pep. Her hair is disheveled and her blazer is rumpled, and she looks like she hasn’t sat down in many, many hours. “Children, while delightful and brilliant and the gleam of sunlight that will save the world long after I am dead and buried, are essentially small, fully charged Energizer batteries! Batteries who require care and attention at all times, and who really should have fought their mom and dad more on those many, many after-school lessons and activities! Batteries who are incompatible with the Leslie-Running-For-Governor system! For a proper gauge of what I have to deal with right now, please visualize three of those batteries!” She beams, all teeth. “Yeah!”
“It would just be for one night,” Leslie says, hands clasped imploringly at her chest, standing in an all-too-familiar doorway. Wesley and Sonia are bickering vociferously in the background about which classic Power Ranger is superior; Steven is engrossed in the Oregon Trail 3D HD remake on his 3DS. “You’re my only hope, which, now that I’m saying it, is terrifying and absurd, but I’m trying not to dwell on it too much.”
The camera shifts to reveal April and Andy. Andy’s arm is slung around April’s shoulders, and April is apathetically gnawing on a piece of gum.
“I mean, Tom is completely out of the question, Donna just started laughing when I asked her, and there’s no one else we know who has any experience with children or raising children or a bunch of free time—” April stares at the fourth wall, and smirks. “So please. Please. I’m begging you. There’s just—something’s going on right now, and I’ve already talked to them about it, but...”
April gasps with simulated delight. “Oh my God, are you finally divorcing Ben?”
“No, our love is pure and eternal and it’s just hitting a small hiccup right now!” Leslie cheerfully rebuffs her without hesitation. “I just need a day. Just a day. You’re both passably capable grown-ups, and they love you, and you know how to make mac-n-cheese. Please.”
“Leslie, holy hell, of course!” Andy exclaims, then claps a hand over his mouth. “Crap, I said hell, didn’t I? Hell, I said crap, too! Wait! Fudge sundaes!”
“The point is, we’ll do it,” April says, arms folded. “But only if you prick your finger with a needle and give me your blood and some of Ben’s hair.” She locks eyes with the camera. “For secret reasons.”
“Okay, April, I’m just going to assume you’re joking,” Leslie tells her.
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not; I’m a witch, Leslie! A witch!”
Andy chuckles fondly. “She’s not.”
“CHAMPION!” the triplets suddenly roar, crowding past Leslie to sprint into the house toward the dog, who has just bounced into view from the kitchen and is now hopping to them with renewed vigor.
“No, but it totally works out,” Andy says without missing a beat at the boisterous interruption. “Cuz I’m pretty much a stay-at-home musician anyhow, so they’ll have...” He gesticulates slowly, clearly trying to look smart and responsible. “My presence... at nearly all times. Except when I have to poop, or when Power Rangers is on. Or when I sleep. And I sleep a lot, so...” He squints at the ceiling, counting his fingers with concentration. “They’ll have my presence for... maybe like... seven hours a day? Cuz I take a really long time to poop. So...”
“Okay, uh, Andy will poop; I will take care of the kids,” April says, setting a hand on Andy’s arm appreciatively. “And by take care of them I mean teach them the dark arts and trade them to a black market dealer for three wolverines.”
Leslie lets out a long, ragged sigh, staring emptily at the ground, and starts chanting in a whisper, “Only hope. Only hope.”
“I’m no good at this stuff,” Leslie says, slouched over her kitchen table with her chin resting dejectedly on her crossed arms. “I’ve been calling Ben’s cell phone every 25 minutes—to no answer, by the way, and his voicemail filled up after only twelve messages, which is insanity—but the truth is, I have no clue what I’d say if he actually picked up. I’m really good at putting a positive spin on people being mad at me. But that doesn’t exactly help me here.”
She ponders something for a moment, and then, with a spark of inspiration in her eyes, sits bolt upright, gazing resolutely into the distance.
“Here’s something I am good at, though,” she declares, a grin slowly blossoming on her face. “Pestering the people I love and cherish for their advice on my personal, very emotional conundrums.”
Somewhere in the woods of the Pawnee National Park, Ron Swanson abruptly stops in his tracks with a single, deep shudder.
He stonily lifts his head, scanning the empty forest around him, and lets out a low, disgruntled, “Hrrmmm.”
SIX HOURS LATER
Leslie is standing in the main room of the Parks office, consulting a note pad with illustrations of various breakfast foods in the corners of each page.
“So I asked Tom, and he quoted Ke$ha lyrics at me and used a lot of strange slang I didn’t understand until I went away, but I think he was trying to imply that Ben and I should just sex the problem away, which, while tempting, doesn’t seem like the best solution. Then I asked Donna, and she said I shouldn’t bother her with such things, but that if it got really bad, I could ask her again, and depending on how generous she was feeling in the moment and on how willing I was to buy her several mimosas, she may or may not discuss it with me. April told me I should just steal Ben’s identity and use his money to bribe people into pretending he never existed so he would think he had entered the Twilight Zone. Andy lost focus two sentences in. I’m a little too frightened of Craig to bother. And Ron just told me that love is futile and I should stop fighting a losing battle against the inexorable wheel of time.” She drops her arms to her sides incredulously, eyes wide with disbelief. “Who else around here could conceivably have anything useful to say?”
“You know, Leslie,” Jerry says from his seat at the center table, setting down his sandwich, “communication and mutual respect are the key to any successful relationship. If you and Ben were just honest and upfront with each other about your feelings, you’d save yourself a lotta grief. And the lack of time together issue, y’know... even just setting aside an hour or two every week to just spend with each other, whether it’s going out to dinner or playing a round of Scrabble... it really makes all the diff—”
“Shut up, Terry; some of us have our own problems to work out, all right? Excuse me!” Leslie cries out to a passing janitor, striding for the door to flag him down. “Sir, excuse me; I need to ask your advice about...”
Jerry shrugs, mutters, “well, what can ya do,” and returns to his sandwich.
Leslie paces her bedroom later that evening, cell phone pressed to her ear.
“Hello?” Chris Traeger’s voice pipes up from the other end after two rings.
“Chris, hi, it’s—”
“Leslie Knope!” Chris exclaims. “Hello! Are you calling for the lovely Ann Perkins? She’s talking to Ben on the patio right now; can I have her call you back?”
Leslie sighs, defeated and irked, but nods in tetchy understanding.
“Sure, fine, just tell her I’m—”
“Wait,” she croaks. “Wait. She’s talking with who on the patio?”
Silence descends like a falling piano, for just enough seconds too long that it’s entirely possible Chris has had a heart attack and died.
“Oh,” he says at last. “Oh, dear. Ann is going to be very angry at me for that thing I just said.”
“I’m coming over there,” Leslie says, slowly and coldly. “Right now.”
“And I certainly know better than to argue with Leslie Knope on a point involving Ben Wyatt,” Chris replies cheerfully. “See you soon! Ooh, should I cook up some portobello mushrooms, or—”
Leslie hangs up.
“She knows?” Ben says weakly, staring up at an apologetic Chris and an irate Ann.
He’s seated at their dinner table in a t-shirt with blueprints of the Millenium Falcon on it and a pair of sweatpants. It’s dark outside.
“She knows,” Chris whispers. “I’m... truly sorry, Ben.” He perks up. “But, on the bright side, this will be an excellent opportunity for me to test out my conflict resolution ski—”
“NO,” Ben and Ann shout in unison.
Chris deflates. “Right. Well. I will be in the exercise room, chiseling my quadriceps. Call me if you need any conflict resolution, or, if you need encouragement. Good luck!”
Ann scowls at his retreating back until it has vanished from her field of vision, and only then does she return her attention to Ben.
“I’m so sorry,” she tells him.
“No, I mean, it’s fine,” Ben replies. “Well, it’s not fine. Entirely. But it was gonna happen eventually.” He pauses, tilting his head unsurely at her. “I’m just worried Leslie will be mad at you for this. I mean, you did kinda conceal the fact that I’ve been staying with you guys...”
“Oh, don’t even worry about it; she’ll probably forgive me halfway through the drive over here,” Ann says with a fond roll of her eyes. She leans over, patting Ben on the shoulder. “You just worry about yourself, champ.”
Ben opens his mouth to say something, but just then, the doorbell rings. He and Ann crane their necks toward the sound in unison, and then look back at each other, locking eyes. Ben looks petrified.
“First thing you might wanna do when she comes in is duck,” Ann tells him. “Otherwise... well, good luck.”
“Otherwise?” Ben rasps, but Ann has already left.
Moments pass. Ben closes his eyes and curls his hands into loose fists on his knees, gulping. There’s a shuffle of feet from the entrance alcove down the hall, a few indecipherable quiet murmurs from Leslie and Ann, and then, Leslie storms into view.
She does not say a word when she comes to a halt in front of him.
Ben visibly takes a breath, shallow and thin, staring directly up into Leslie’s brazen eyes. She doesn’t move; neither does he.
After a while, he swallows and says, “Hey.”
“Hi,” Leslie replies sharply. She tightens her grip on her purse, but doesn’t sit down. “How... how are you?”
“Oh, I’m, uh.” Ben’s eyes flit down evasively. “I mean, I’ve been better, I guess.” He pauses, shooting a measured glance back up at her. “How, uh... how about you, how are you doing?”
“Great,” Leslie says, forcing a smile. It slips off almost instantly, and she bows her head. “No, that’s a lie. Awful. Awful, actually. I’m completely awful.”
An expression of pain quivers across Ben’s face, then vanishes. All that makes it out of him is a subdued, “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Leslie says quietly, lips crumpled. Her eyes are glistening, but no tears are coming, and her voice is steady. “But, hey. Occupational hazard, right?”
“I’d say... life hazard, more like,” Ben jokes weakly. He clears his throat, finally unable to keep up looking at her. “But... if it helps, I’ve been pretty awful, too.”
Leslie coughs out a laugh. “That does help a little, actually; thank you.”
For what must be the first time in a while, Ben smiles. “Happy to be of assistance.”
Finally, Leslie slumps her shoulders, sets her purse down, and pulls out the chair opposite him. Silence grows between them, but it’s not as strained as it was the first time; Ben is fidgeting with his fingers, avoiding Leslie’s unwavering, unreadable stare.
“Ben,” she finally asks, “can I say something?”
After a beat, Ben nods. “Sure.”
Leslie takes a breath, closing her eyes until it fills it up, and then lets it out again.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “You are the single most important person in my life. You are my rock. You are as much a dream come true as being governor would be, or as cleaning filthy garbage out of a polluted river for a town I love is.” Ben fixes the camera with a deadpan look, unnoticed. “I’m sorry I made you feel like you weren’t, or like you had to compete. I have a lot of ambitions. That’s never going to change. I want to do so much and be so much; I always have, but... now I want to do it and be it with you. I mean, maybe I’d be able to handle it without you, but... I don’t want to have to put that to the test. I don’t want to try to find out. Ever. So—”
“Leslie,” Ben interjects abruptly, leaning forward and, abandoning inhibitions, grasping both of her hands in his across the table. “Okay, listen to me. Never stop being ambitious. On the long list of things I love about you, that’s pretty much at the top. I don’t ever want you to give up something you want because of me. I don’t ever want to put you in that position.”
Leslie looks pained. “Babe, come on. You give up things you want for me all the time, and—”
“Because you’re what I want,” Ben says. “And that’ll never change. And I didn’t leave because I’m trying to make you feel guilty, or because I want you to stop running for governor to spend more time with me... it doesn’t have anything to do with you. I just caught myself thinking a few times—selfishly—that I should be more important. And I knew I was wrong, and it made me feel like the world’s biggest creep. What does it say about me if I want my wife to give up her dreams just so we can watch Game of Thrones on Sunday nights? I just... I didn’t want to be that guy. So I ran away.”
Leslie shakes her head minutely at him, curling her fingers more tightly around his. “Babe, you aren’t that guy. I miss having time to spend with you, too; I just—I get so caught up in what I’m doing that I need to be forcibly reminded to do it every now and then. And that doesn’t mean I don’t love you, or that you aren’t as important; I just... it’s just... me. But I promise, from this day forth... if you look me in the eyes once a week and tell me that we are watching at least one episode of Star Trek or you are walking out the door... I will make an effort to accept it.”
“Leslie, God; I’m not gonna threaten you with abandonment if you—”
“The point is,” Leslie talks over him, “we’re in this together. We always have been, and we always will be, and if ‘this’ ever tries coming between us, well, ‘this’ can suck it, ‘cause we’re gonna kick this’s selfish butt." She grimaces as though she's just swallowed something sour. "This is sounding more and more awkward as I go on. I regret trying to be pithy now.”
“Yeah, just goes to show you what happens when you try to be funny, Leslie,” Ben says, masking the wetness of his eyes with a wry smile.
“What! I’m plenty funny! Have you heard my Rodney Dangerfield?” She straightens, clearly preparing to do her Rodney Dangerfield. “N-Now, so, my wife—”
“Leslie, I love you,” Ben cuts her off, “but if you say one more word in your Rodney Dangerfield voice, I am leaving and I am taking the children.” He trails off, eyes going briefly glassy as the weight of his sentence sinks in. “Good Lord. We have children, don’t we?”
Leslie chortles, open-mouthed and sunny. “We sure do. We’re completely insane.”
“Completely!” Ben agrees. “Who the hell’s idea was that?”
“Yeah, what was their problem? Definitely not one of the best decisions any two humans have ever made in the history of the earth.”
Ben softens, watching her laugh, stroking her wrist with his thumb. “Sorry for being a selfish jackass.”
“It’s okay,” Leslie assures him, gently and genuinely. “We’re both selfish jackasses once in a while. We’re allowed.”
Ben stands, crosses the outside of the table, and bends down to meet her mouth with his. She lingers on him, eyes fluttering closed, smiling.
From the next room, there is an audible sniffle, and Leslie and Ben break apart simultaneously to look toward the source.
“Chris, for God’s sake,” Ben says exasperatedly.
“I’m sorry!” Chris splutters from the doorway, crouched beside the refrigerator and somewhat out of sight, clutching a box of tissues to his chest. “It’s just... there is... literally... nothing in this world so beautiful, or so rare, as having the opportunity to watch love triumph over adversity right before your eyes.” He springs to his feet, flinging his arms wide. “Oh, God, I love you both so very much, Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt, my two favorite people in this universe; come here! Bring it in!”
“Oh boy,” Leslie mutters under her breath at the same time Ben whispers, “Ohhhh, God.”
But they both walk toward him anyway, absentmindedly clasping hands as they go. Before they reach Chris, Ben looks over at Leslie and asks, “So, wait, who has the kids, if you're here?”
Leslie stutters out, “Uh, I, uh, hired a sitter. Yep.”
“So,” Andy says, face blank with panic, “okay, here’s a hypothetical question for you... what would I do if, like, totally hypothetically, by the way, I lost three nine-year-olds in a Disney Store?”
The camera pans out to show April, sipping a blue raspberry Icee, wearing sunglasses.
“Oh my God, Andy, stop worrying,” she says. “If you add all of their ages together they’re, like, 27. A whole fully functioning adult. Totally responsible. They’ll be fine.”
Andy looks briefly excited at the prospect of redemption, and then glances at the ceiling, considering April’s words. After a second, he looks down again, shaking his head.
“No,” he says. “No, that doesn’t add up. They won’t be. They’re all gonna die and Leslie’s gonna disown us.”
“See?” Leslie says, one hand braced on her hip and the other on the kitchen counter. “Fight, schmight. Ben and I are unconquerable. We’re Franklin and Eleanor. We’re Simba and Nala. We’re Brad and Angelina, Amelia and George, Paul and Joanne; we’re...”
“Babe,” Ben interrupts, poking his head around the corner of the doorway, “Game of Thrones time, remember?”
Leslie beams at him, and then back at the camera with like expression, looking proud and lovely and ready to face anything the world has to offer.
“We’re Leslie and Ben,” she says, and turns away to join him.