Originally, of course, 'The Plan' had been to become president of her college clubs, and perhaps the student body. She had held those positions at various times throughout grade and high school, but no real voter would pay attention to that. No, she needed something more prestigious; something that wasn't, in the worst years, judged solely on popularity and who would look best on the cover of the year book.
Not that Leslie was bitter. She didn't have time for bitterness. She had four clubs to join and at least three more to organise from scratch.
No, what bothered her was what the plan hadn't taken into account: the idea that someone her age, a mere eighteen years old, could get himself elected Mayor of an entire town. How was she meant to compete with that?
"Oh, calm down, Les," Lindsay said, poking her in the head with her own pen, and dropping a candy bar on her desk. Leslie smiled in return. It may not be waffles, but give her time. Eventually the school administration would listen to her reasoning and add hot food vending machines to the dorms.
Until then, chocolate would be the solution to all of her energy problems.
"It's one kid, in a place no one's heard of. Like anyone'll remember his name in a month," Lindsay continued, flopping on to the bed and fanning herself with her comfort copy of Horse and Riders Monthly.
"Benji Wyatt," Leslie parroted automatically. Lindsay stuck her tongue out, so Leslie crossed her eyes and yelped when her already aching head protested.
"I mean it," Lindsay said, waving the magazine around carelessly. She almost hit Leslie's lamp which, in her secret heart, Leslie wouldn't mind so much. Her mother had gifted it to her, and though Leslie wasn't entirely sure what her taste was yet, she thought that perhaps that lamp wasn't it. "It's a stunt. Haven't there been places whose Mayor was a dog?"
"But what if he's good?" Leslie argued. Or intended to argue, anyway. It sounded more like a hysterical shriek, because damnit she was tired, and she'd had a plan for this, and now none of the clubs really seemed to want her, no matter how hard she tried, and the student government rep laughed at the idea of a Freshman president, and now Benji Wyatt, who did sound like a dog, was beating her at everything. "What if he's so good that he becomes Governor, and then Senator, then President, and no one votes for me, because Benji Wyatt is so much better."
Lindsay laughed, her eyes crinkling in that way they always did when she was laughing at what Leslie did, but not really Leslie. That's why Lindsay was her best friend. She never looked down on her like everyone else did. She just laughed, and gave her candy, and poked her with things when it looked like Leslie was getting upset.
This time it was the long, connected twisty straw they had made while watching reruns and seeing whether popcorn was more palatable when you tipped m & ms right in.
"Firstly, the name Benji Wyatt sounds like a dog," Lindsay pointed out. Leslie ducked her head and grinned a little. "I would not vote for a kid who sounds like a dog. Secondly, he's not likely to be Governor or Congressman or Senator of Indiana, now, is he? So he'll only be competition when it comes to being President, and by then you'll have proven how much better you are than he is."
"Are you sure?" Leslie asked doubtfully, wiping drops of soda that had remained in the straw just to make her sticky.
"Of course I am," Lindsay said, abandoning her straw for the biology text she'd originally been after. "I'm your best friend. Would I mislead you?"
"No," Leslie agreed. "No, you're right. I still have time. Even if I wasn't mayor of Pawnee at eighteen."
Linsday rolled her eyes. Leslie turned hers back to 'The Plan'. It obviously needed some re-working.
THE FIRST JOB
Summa Cum Laude. Valedictorian of her graduating class. A Masters in Political Science. She had not made president of the student body, it being as much of a popularity contest as it had been in High School, but without the pity votes, but she had worked on the school newspaper, volunteered at the library and organised more than a dozen student rallies and protests.
Her academic advisers had assured her that whatever career she decided upon, she would have no trouble whatsoever in securing employment after graduation. She would be an asset to any company, or, yes, the government should she want it. All she need do is have confidence in herself, and the world would be hers.
Leslie wasn't sure if they'd lied, but they'd definitely bent the truth. First, of course, she had applied to the local chapter of the democratic party, and expressed her interest in running for office. They had quite literally laughed her, and her 'wilfully naïve lack of experience' out of their office.
So she had applied to City Hall, and offered her expertise to the Mayor as a general speechwriter/researcher/dogsbody. Neither Mayor Gundersen nor his secretary had bothered to answer her at all. Neither had, after a repeat of the act, any of the city councillors. She waited by the phone for nearly a week before her mother, not so gently, informed her that she needed to pull herself together.
The library had been the worst. Even with references from her volunteer position in college, and a glowing phone call from her former supervisor, the horrid witch who had interviewed her, Tabby Swann, or whatever the horrid woman's name was had said…well, Leslie didn't permit herself to think in that sort of language.
If that was the sort of treatment she could expect from the Pawnee Library Service, then Leslie would do her best to never give them her patronage again.
So she tried the City Manager's office, the planning and development office, even the office for environmental affairs. All either brushed her off or ignored her completely. The harder she tried, the more people seemed to turn against her, to brush her aside with a cruel twist of their lips.
Like Leslie was a joke, and not the kind sort she had shared with Lindsay.
"You're being ridiculous," her mother told her, when she found Leslie curled on the couch, covered in a quilt she had spent the whole night making when she could not sleep, digging into a full tub of ice cream. "You're an adult Leslie, for goodness sake. Act like it."
"Yes, Mom," she answered robotically. Still, she put the ice cream away, went to get the paper from outdoors, and for the first day of the third month in a row she began circling any job in the newspaper that she thought might point her in even the vaguest direction of politics.
Which was when she got the interview for the Parks and Recreation department.
She had intended to do her best, she truly had. Then she had met Ron Swanson, and the man pressed buttons inside her that she didn't realise she had, and so all of her opinions had come tumbling out. It was humiliating beyond all belief, though she knew better than to show it, so she kept a bright smile on and counted her lucky stars that at least she had not raised her voice.
"Mr Swanson had some interesting things to say about you," her mother told her when she got home. Leslie flushed in embarrassment, holding hands to her trembling cheeks. She hadn't thought he'd be a gossip, that the news would travel so fast…
"I'm sorry," Leslie said. Her face was hot against her palms, so she snatched them away and clutched them together in her lap. "I just wanted to…"
"To what? Embarrass me among my co-workers? Make a bigger fool of yourself?" Her mother's harsh words weren't mitigated much by the soft hand on her head, but Leslie knew that Marlene surely had her best interests at heart. Still, it would be nice to hear soft words rather than harsh sometimes, to see a smile rather than a disappointed frown.
"No, I didn't mean to do either of those things," Leslie agreed. Marlene swept her hair away from her forehead and pressed a kiss to it.
"I'll take care of it," she said with a sigh. Leslie assumed she must have, because three days later she gets a call back from Mr Swanson with a job offer. She just wished she had gotten the job on her own.
Some days, when Ron doesn't seem much to like her but refuses to outright dismiss her, she believes that perhaps she did.
"But I want you to run my campaign," Leslie said. She was bordering on pouting; Ben had that sweet, part-goofy smile he always got when he thought she was being particularly stubborn and adorable. It always made her want to melt in to him, and give in to whatever it was he was being determined about.
Well, he called it determined. Leslie maintained that he was the stubborn one.
"Look how well you did when I ran for city councillor," she pointed out, sliding her arms around his waist. She can hear the triplets thumping around upstairs, one dancing, one hammering together some kind of project and the third making some unholy wail with whichever instrument said triplet had taken up for an extracurricular. Disturbingly, she couldn't often tell.
"This is a bit different babe," Ben said, threading his hands into her hair. He still did this when he was about to kiss her, and Leslie still adored him each any every time. "Hardly the big leagues."
"What about my campaign for Governor," she pointed out, wriggling her hips against him with a soft giggle. "You crushed the competition."
Leslie drew her lips over Ben's, the sweet kiss contrasting with the sharp tug on her hair. He let go almost immediately, but Leslie still felt the thrill from it, the warmth she never quite grew out of, despite the dire warnings she'd had from everybody.
"I love it when you crush the competition," she whispered. Ben sighed against her cheek, resting his chin on the top of her head.
"Leslie," he half-growled. Leslie was tempted to end the argument then and there for some quality adult time, but said time would inevitably get interrupted by one loud voice or another. "This is the Presidential Primaries. I'm not qualified for that."
"If course you are," she insisted. "You're a congressman."
"That's another problem," Ben said, pulling away. "Leslie, I love my job, you know that. And I'm up for re-election this year myself. You know I'd love to help you, I'll do anything for you, but if I want to keep my job I'm going to have to focus on my own campaign."
Leslie huffed, and flopped on to the couch. He had a point there, yes, but she had no idea to do this without Ben. Everything wonderful in her life had started when he had come into it, had given her the confidence she needed to go for the things she wanted, rather than sit back and hope she could impress her way into it.
Well, Ben and…
"Hey," she said brightening. "Do you think Ann-"
"No," Ben said, cutting her off firmly. "Ann would not like to be your campaign manager. Remember what happened last time?"
"That was years ago," Leslie swore. "I bet she's loads better at it now, she's probably been practicing, just waiting for this moment!"
"Ann is not qualified either," Ben said, but the goofy smile was back. He tucked himself next to her, his gorgeous, compact body curling in beautifully against her side.
"Ann can do anything," Leslie said, cutting off when Ben poked his finger into her side. "She can!"
"I have a better plan," Ben said, holding up his phone. There was a call already holding, and Leslie knew that she'd been out-manoeuvred. She hated when he did that; it was her job to be ahead of the curve, and now she'd need to think of at least double the ways to get back at him and make his life better.
"Hello?" Leslie said, pecking at the button on the Grizzl phone.
"Hi Leslie, you look old. We're going to have to work on that," Jen Barklay said over the line. Leslie growled and picked up one of the cushions, biting into it so that she didn't respond how she really wanted to to Jen's standard bluntness. "Now, I assume you have your speeches planned. Great. Throw them out. We'll start again."
Leslie glared at her husband and pouted. That goofy smile wasn't so cute now.
THE VICE PRESIDENT
"Dude, you have to make me your Vice President," April said loudly, bouncing Jack on her lap and Lucy in her arms. "I could put everyone who isn't an animal in prison, and change my sister's name to Bratalie!"
"Yeah, Leslie!" Andy jumped up, tipping over both his coffee table and all the food that had been resting on it. Despite most of it ending up on either his clothes or squashed under his shoes, he leapt over the couch to land beside her, putting his overly-excited head on her lap. "Oh man. I could be Bert Macklin. Like, for real!"
"I'm making Ben my Vice President," Leslie said, grabbing a tissue from her purse to wipe the juice, sweat and hair out of Andy's eyes. Champion, ever the opportunist, had struggled up from his place by the kitchen door and limped his way slowly over to where he could scarf up as many bagels as possible.
Leslie remember when they'd adopted him. She didn't want to think about how old he must be now.
"You're what?" Ben asked. He walked backwards, slowly, until he tripped over Leslie's legs and collapsed next to her.
Sonia, ever enchanted by the two Ludgate-Dwyer offspring (and strangely insistent that their real names were Jack-o-Lantern and Lucifer), laughed at him. She was the only person Leslie knew that could get away with it.
"Ben's going to be my Vice President," Leslie said. April moaned a soft nooooooo, whyyyyyyyy, and Jack threw the last biscuit he had been holding into her hair.
"Babe, shouldn't we talk about this?" Ben asked. Leslie's heart sank. She knew that phrase. That phrase meant they did have to give the triplets vegetables, that it wasn't really a good idea to use her power as Governor to shut down the Indiana Library system, and that no, they weren't going to spend their fourth family vacation in a row camping in the Pawnee National Park.
Her response was cut off when April shoved Lucy into her lap, and twirled Jack around before darting into the kitchen and dunking him into the sink. Jack squealed in delight, then doubled his volume when his father ran in after them and shoved his head into the sink beside him.
"I thought you wanted to be Vice President," Leslie said, confused.
"I did. I do," Ben said. "Look, it's silly, but…"
"But what?" Leslie challenged, gently untangling her hair from Lucy's small fingers.
"It's silly, but I always dreamed I'd be President someday," he hurried, smiling tightly. "And I know being Vice President doesn't preclude that, but…I can't imagine the thought of that, could you? Of knowing I'd get the job if something happened to you."
"Nothing's going to happen to me," Leslie said.
"I know, I do, I just…" Ben groaned, and stuck his head in his hands. "I like my job, Leslie, I'm good at it. And I love you, but working together…"
"Would be amazing, I know!" Leslie chirped.
"Honey, it'd be a disaster. You know that," Ben said. Leslie shook her head in protest, but he pushed on despite it. "This isn't what I want. I'm sorry. I want you to be President, I do, and you will be. I just…want to keep my own job, my own place. Not be an extension of yours."
Leslie didn't want to admit defeat, but that she could understand. She'd spent so much of her life in the shadow of someone else, wanting to be someone, something, that always seemed out of reach. She didn't want Ben to resent her for taking away the parts of himself that he liked the most.
"I understand," she said reluctantly. "I'll find someone else."
"Me!" April flicked water in Leslie's direction, scooping Lucy out of Leslie's arms.
"I wonder if Joe Biden's available," Leslie said dreamily. Ben chuckled, and Leslie shot him a mischievous grin. "Or I could ask Ann, that beautiful, health conscious renaissance sculpture."
"BERT MACKLIN!" Andy screamed from the kitchen, nearly drowning out April's despairing "Leslie, no!"
THE INAUGURATION PARTY
"You have bacon-wrapped shrimp," Ron announced, the remains of one in his moustache, an intact one in his hand. "I don't believe in government, but if this how yours will cater I might be willing to make an exception."
"Well, I got them for you," Leslie said, patting him on the arm. He smiled at her, big and hairy, and Leslie gave in to her happiness and threw her arms around him.
"Dear God, woman!" Ron exclaimed, but it had none of the usual rebuke. Leslie would almost swear there was a laugh behind it. "You'll ruin the food! You've barely started the job, don't contribute to flagrant government waste on your first day."
"I'll do my best," Leslie said, only letting go when she received a reassuring pat on the back and the closest Ron ever got to a soft expression.
"I just want you to know," he cleared his throat and looked away, back straightening. "You know I don’t often vote in these farces of democracy, but…well, Leslie, I voted for you."
"Thank you, Ron," Leslie sniffed, wiping her eyes. She capitulated to his silent wishes and refrained from giving him another hug, but when the waiter came buy she snagged a mini-burger for each of them, and switched her flute of champagne for one of the carefully placed glass of whiskey. "To democracy."
"To the best decision a farcical ceremony could make!" Ron returned, clinking their glasses together.
She was swept away then, to talk to excited new cabinet members, and wary members of the opposing party. It was only when Ben slid up beside her, a comforting hand on the small of her back, that Leslie was able to relax enough to remind herself: this is real, I, Leslie Knope, am President of the United States of America, and it is a job that I can do.
"Of course you can," Ben whispered, reading her mind as he always did when she really needed him to. He tugged her away from the intense crowd and turned her around to face a couple that had just come through the door.
"Ann!" Leslie squealed, in a way that was not at all dignified for a President. She wasn't sure whether she or Ann reached out first, but it was enough to remind her that she had dearly missed her best friend's hugs. "My sweet, otherworldly muse, you made it!"
"We made it," Chris enthused, tugging her out of Ann's arms to give her his own, just-too-tight hug. "This is literally the most patriotic I have ever felt. You are going to make a fantastic President, Leslie."
"Damn straight," Donna said from behind her. From what she remembered, Joe had stayed behind to take care of 'Teach-Yo-Self'. She would have to take another opportunity to explain to him in detail her educational plan that would take the foundation national, and then perhaps even integrate it properly back into the curriculum. "President Boss Bitch, you're going to rock it."
"You could have worn something fancier," Tom added, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his hands. "But hey. We all knew you'd get here, Leslie. Never expected much improvement on the whole fashion thing."
He gestured to her while he said fashion, and Leslie resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him as she would have at Lindsay once upon a time. Just like when she…oh.
"When I was eighteen," she told Ben slowly, so happy that she wanted to dance across the room screaming at the top of her lungs. "I was sure that you'd get here first. Because you were Mayor and I couldn't even be class president."
Ben looked at her incredulously, then laughed, tugging her close.
"When I was eighteen, I never thought I'd be allowed to see this building, let alone live in it," he whispered to her. "Thank you. For being you, and inspiring me."
"To Leslie!" Ron cheered loudly, his shrimp raised alongside his whiskey glass. "President of the United States."
"To Leslie," Tom echoed. "President of Awesome."
They clinked their glasses together, one perfect, co-ordinated motion. The lights sparkled off the crystal, and Leslie knew that she would never be happier than this.
Then another glass hit theirs, spilling most of the liquid out of all of them.
"To Leslie," another voice stuttered.
"Damnit, Gerry," she muttered, and brushed the bubbly liquid off her satin gown.
Leslie lay with her head laid on Ben's chest, tracing her fingers up and down the X-Wing design on his Wednesday pyjamas. He was frowning at her, his serious, we really need to talk about this frown.
"You're going to have to choose your endorsement soon, babe," he told her. "The nominations for primaries are due soon, and you know how much weight your opinion will have."
"I do," Leslie agreed, stretching slightly. It was uncomfortable to lie like this, one hand tucked under, and pressed tightly against her leg. "I've been thinking about that."
"And it can't be Ann," he added sternly. "Or April, no matter how much she's been bugging you."
Leslie sniffed in mock outrage. While it was true that Ann would make a luminous figurehead for the ages, she had finally come to accept that politics bored the snot out of her best friend. Now that her journey was coming to an end, she felt relaxed, almost languid. All the desperation she had once held on to, all the determination to make people see the way she did, seemed to have faded.
Eight years of compromise will teach you that. Knowing that you've achieved your goals, that people respect you and take you seriously will do it more so. She knows now, that her greatest enemy and her greatest strength have always been herself.
"I know, honey," she said absently, her crushed hand starting to go numb. "I've made my decision. My reasoned decision on who I'm going to back. I just wanted to clear it with you first."
"You know I'll support whatever decision you make," Ben said, his soft smile the same one that had charmed her since that first Freddy Spaghetti concert. His hair may be greyer, but he'd remained lean, muscled and compact, like the precious elven prince she'd always loved. Besides, at least they were still a few decades away from the one hundred that was approaching Gerry in eighteen months. That was terrifying.
"I hoped you'd say that," Leslie smiled up at him, her most disarming and charming one. His eyes narrowed immediately. Twenty-odd years of marriage had taught him all of the best of her tricks, but every once in a while it was worth the effort of trying.
"What are you planning?" He asked, far too suspicious for Leslie's liking.
"What makes you think I'm planning anything?" She asked innocently. He glared at her, then flipped them both over, pinning the hand that had been on his chest to the bed. Leslie flailed with the previously crushed one, trying desperately to keep what she was holding out of his grasp. "No, no, no, you can't!"
Ben apparently seemed to think he could, because he made grabbing motions with his hands while Leslie bucked and writhed, squirming until she could wriggle out of his grasp. Ben tried to chase her around the bed and Leslie dived over it, laughing, and pressing the first number on her newly rearranged speed dial.
"I'll press it," she warned.
"Leslie," he growled and Leslie shook her head.
"Do you trust me?" She asked simply. Ben stopped trying to chase her and stood by the bed warily. Finally he nodded, seriously, and Leslie held out the phone and pressed call.
"Ben, you've decided you're going to run!" Jen said, her image raising from the screen, looking perfectly polished. "You look old. We're going to have to work on that."
Ben raised his eyebrows and quirked his head at her.
"He has my endorsement," Leslie confirmed, rearranging her tangled grey hair. "I think he'll win."
"So do I," Jen agreed. "Shall we get to work?"