It had been another mismatched attempt to run a simple election dinner. Leslie had realised as she descended the stage resignedly, although the sight of her under qualified team filled her with the usual fondness, that her campaign was never going to run in the smooth way she had imagined as a young girl. In fact, it had been more of a surprise to her that she was excited, intrigued almost, to see if it was possible to win a city council position in such a manner. Because in all truth, despite it being her lifelong dream, there was no group of people she would rather lose an election with than those who met her at the bottom of the steps from the stage.
“Not bad, given the circumstances,” Ron was first to greet her, a fleeting but friendly look of satisfaction beneath his moustache, not quite a smile, but by his standards, an expression of pure joy. Leslie nodded absentmindedly, pleased to see her friends but hoping to see just one face amongst the small crowd that surrounded her.
“Where’s Ben?” she asked casually, ignoring the usual, persistent worry that filled her head. Whilst it was a blessing to have such an active mind when trying to come up with new parks schemes, she often cursed her runaway thoughts when a lack of her campaign manager left her with only a few morbid thoughts. They were only backed up when the rest of the group began to look around, equally confused.
“He was here at the start of your talk,” Ann assured her, still glancing around the haphazardly decorated room where local business representatives had began to eat. A few of them continued to flick through a hurriedly put together leaflet, Ben's handiwork, nodding to themselves at Leslie's proposed changes. It may have been a rushed job, but her misfit team knew how to pull off an event on a small budget.
“Maybe he’s talking to some of the endorsers,” Leslie said eventually although there was no sign of the familiar windswept brown hair amongst the mostly greying heads around the room. Ann was quick to nod, a strained smile on her face as she continued to look around. April stood close to Andy, the latter looking oblivious as she displayed a rare expression of concern. The group dispersed and Leslie took off after April's retreating figure, ignoring the voice of her campaign manager in her head telling her she should talk to the business managers.
April ducked into the women's toilets at the end of the corridor as Leslie rounded the corner and narrowed her eyes. The younger woman was not known to disappear so swiftly when there were opportunities to pour salt in someone's drink or else cause trouble in some other creative manner.
She was stood at the sinks, washing her hands automatically but only focusing on her reflection in the mirror, staring with a thoughtful frown. Leslie moved to stand behind her, her own reflection mimicking the look of concern, dressed up in her usual blazer and shirt. She tried to smile at April, looking into her reflected eyes but only meeting conflict.
“He left the room after he looked at his phone.” She spoke quietly and in her usual dismissive tone as if they were discussing nothing more interesting than the lacklustre weather. “His face was all screwed up, you know? I mean, he was tired, we all are, but he looked unhappy too.” Leslie moved forward, barely noticing her hands as they pressed firmly on the washbasins.
“How long ago?” she asked urgently. April shrugged, sighing deeply when Leslie's expression refused to let her get away with such a nonchalant answer.
“It's like Ann said; he was there for the start of the speech,” she echoed monotonously, “You’d just finished that crappy joke about Lil' Sebastian, still too soon by the way, when he got the text. He frowned for a minute and then put his drink down on the side and walked out of the room.” Leslie did not speak for a moment, her own eyebrows creased into a frown until she looked up more determinedly.
“Get everyone together and meet me backstage in five minutes,” she ordered quickly, her hand on the door handle before April had a chance to respond.
“But they’ll all be talking to random rich people by now,” she complained quietly, dragging her feet after Leslie, “Isn't your campaign more important than where Ben went? Maybe someone died, people tend to get all sad about that, don’t they?” Leslie spun on her heel, raising her eyebrows in a silent challenge.
“I’m not talking to any of those officials until Ben has been found, okay?” She did not wait for an answer, leaving April to round up the rest of the group like a herd of sheep. They returned behind the curtain that draped across the stage one at a time, all of them hiding yawns and tired stretches.
“We need to find Ben,” Leslie began when all but April had returned, “He left halfway through the speech and didn’t tell anyone where he was going.”
“Maybe he went to get a drink,” Tom suggested as if it was the most obvious solution. Ron nodded in agreement, a look of mild exasperation on his face, “He’s been working harder than everyone all week Leslie - he probably wanted to get away from it all for a minute.”
“By himself?” Leslie asked unconvinced. She remembered him pointing out a small bar on the short drive over to the venue but pointedly remembered him suggest that they went there together to celebrate after the evening was over.
“I always drink alone,” Ron justified under his breath, “He drinks weak alcohol anyway; perhaps he is finally embarrassed of his low alcohol tolerance.” Ann and Leslie both shot him an angry look as the rest of the group continued to talk over each other.
“-He probably went home-”
“-went back to the office-”
“-remembered something urgent-”
“-forgot to record Game of Thrones...”
Everyone turned to look at Tom who threw his hands up in protest, his mouth shaped into a tight circle.
“What? The guy's a nerd,” he defended in a high pitch, “Just enjoy the night, Leslie. Ben will be back before you know it.”
Ben was not back before she knew it. He did not return to the dinner all night, leaving Leslie to circle the room without him hovering at her side, leaving each conversation and waiting for the sarcastic comment to come from over her shoulder but never hearing one. She secured some more votes, rolled her eyes at some insistent Newport supporters and spent most of her time undoing the damage Jennifer Barkley, Bobby's famous, well-qualified campaign manager, had caused.
“Something's happened,” she finally burst out as the final patrons shook her hand and left the now sorry looking, decrepit room. Ann took hold of her hands and led her to one corner, seating her on a nearby chair and pulling up her own. In a second, there was a glass in her hand and Ann's insistent gestures for her to drink.
“You can’t shut me up with alcohol,” Leslie complained between sips, “Ben doesn’t do this sort of thing. He never takes off like this. And April said he looked worried. Should we call the police? Do we need to file a missing person's report?” Ann rubbed her forehead exhaustedly, shaking her head at each comment and waiting for a break in the breathless tirade.
“Listen, Leslie. He went home, wanted to take advantage of having the house to himself. I don’t think he slept last night and it’s nearly flu season so maybe he didn’t feel well. April and Andy have left already and if he isn’t at home, I’m sure they’ll let you know.” Leslie disliked that there even was an 'if' but her worries fell on deaf ears when another drink arrived in her free hand.
“We're all tired, especially you,” Ann reassured her quietly, “Let us clear up here and then I’ll drive you home.” She spoke slowly as if she was addressing a child, patting Leslie's knee sympathetically and joining Donna and Jerry as they folded a table cloth between them.
“-he is used to a life on the road,” Donna was saying as she came within hearing distance, “Maybe this is what he does: drops failing projects before they can ruin his reputation even more.” Jerry shook his head but wasn’t able to argue back before Ann interrupted.
“He’s been gone for a couple of hours!” she exclaimed, lowering her voice when Leslie's downcast eyes raised in her direction slightly, “Leslie thinks he’s gone missing, Tom says he’s drowning his sorrows in alcohol and now you’re jumping to the conclusion that he just takes off all the time.” Donna held up her hands at first but then looked towards the ground ashamedly.
“You’re right,” she conceded uncharacteristically softly, “I’m just really not in the mood to go on a wild goose chase.” Ann patted her arm knowingly and worked through her options in her head, settling on the kindest one.
“That won’t be necessary,” she said firmly, “Ben will be at Andy and April's, we just need to wait for them to call.”
Leslie's phone rang as the final tables were stacked to one side and the campaign poster was pulled from the wall. She picked up quickly, listening intently to a rambled, rushed explanation.
“And we looked in every room,” Andy was saying anxiously, clearly reluctant to say the one most important sentence, “I’m sure it’s fine though. Oh, and April wants to talk to you.” The phone was exchanged and the speaker crackled slightly as it brushed over someone's clothes.
“April?” Leslie asked quietly, hopefully.
“He’s not here,” she replied bluntly although her voice wavered gently, “No one has been here since this afternoon, it’s still as much of a tip as me and Andy left it in. There’s no way an organised nerd like Ben would be able to sleep somewhere so untidy.” It would have sounded like an insult if April hadn’t sounded so unusually fond of Ben's fussing tendencies. Leslie found herself smiling longingly at the sound of April's backhanded compliments but it faltered when she realised the implications. Ann had crossed the room and stood expectantly, gesturing questioningly.
“He hasn’t been home.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Chapter by LongLiveZorp (ravenclaw_scar), ravenclaw_scar
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It was dark and a little cold. His wrists were chilled by the unfamiliar feeling of handcuffs that bound them behind his back. The chair he had woken up in was uncomfortable and rickety, one leg shorter than the rest and he rocked backwards and forwards with each slow, painful shift on the seat. The swinging glow of the lamp overhead had flickered out some hours before, abandoning him alone in the damp room that could only be a cellar. But where?
“Don’t sugarcoat it,” Leslie erupted suddenly, pacing the length of the parks and recreation office. She swung around mid-stride and cast her glance across the rest of the room. Ron stood expressionless at the door of his office, one shoulder leant against the wooden frame, his own eyes staring back at her unwaveringly, face unreadable. Chris had joined them from his office with an unfamiliar downcast expression. He sat with Ann and Tom at the small circular table that had long since been cleared of the folders that burdened it. April and Andy were sat beside her desk, neither looking more awake than they had the night before, stifling yawns and occasionally nudging each other as their heads moved to rest on the other's shoulder.
“We can file a missing person's report,” Ron spoke up first surprisingly, “He hasn’t been seen all night and he isn’t answering his phone. Ben has proven himself to be reliable, Leslie, he wouldn’t leave without saying anything, no matter how urgent the situation.” There was a chorus of agreement that didn’t calm Leslie as she leant against a desk with a frustrated sigh.
“But what do we do?” she persisted firmly, her hands restless as they moved obsessively between the hem of her shirt and the rhythm she tapped incessantly on the oak table. Ann stood up and moved to be in front of her, stopping her constant actions and taking a deep breath.
“We sit back and let the police do their job without getting in the way,” she spoke rapidly, pressing her words into the small gap Leslie allowed her before complaining, “You need to concentrate on your campaign with only a few weeks to go. If you stop working now, it will all have been for nothing. Besides, Ben would want you to work on the campaign, wouldn’t he?” Leslie winced at the thought of what Ben 'would want' but nodded robotically anyway, a sudden craving for her comfort food, waffles, growing in her stomach.
“I picked up his clipboard from the living room this morning,” Andy suggested tentatively, “It says door to door work for everyone today.” Now with a sense of direction Leslie stood up more enthusiastically and scooped up a pile of strewn leaflets, thrusting a handful into each person's hands.
“Come on then,” she said, managing a smile, “Let's keep up with Ben's plan for when he gets back.”
He wasn’t left alone for too long; the pitch black darkness of the opposite wall flooded with light from a staircase for a moment before the door shut out the glow again. She walked in front of him for a while, high heeled shoes echoing loudly on the concrete floor. His feet shuffled away from her involuntarily and he leant back into the chair when she came close.
“What do you want?” he asked, feeling flustered, “I didn’t do anything.” She laughed to herself a little, fixing a smirk on her face and leant forward further.
“You see, I’m set to make a lot of money if Bobby Newport wins this election,” she explained delicately, tasting each word with satisfaction, “His father has big plans for Pawnee but I don’t care about those. The people here are much too devoted to their stupid sweet factories after all; they’d do anything for him. He can do what he wants with this town after I’ve left with the money.”
“And what do I have to do with that?” he asked bitterly, a feeling of protection for the town he had grown to love, for the people he cared for.
“A lot, as a matter of fact. Leslie's campaign has to fail.” Ben bit back a laugh of his own and shook his head with a light smile on his bowed face.
“You give me too much credit if you think Leslie and the others can’t win this campaign without me,” he replied calmly, “Anyway, she knows what to do by now, you should have got to me sooner.” The lightbulb flickered dimly for a moment, illuminating her thoughtful expression, eyes narrowed in perplexing triumph.
“I’m sure she could run without a campaign manager,” she spoke delicately, “But without you? The thought of you not being there behind her; do you really think Leslie will continue to run for City Council whilst you are missing?” Ben nodded derisively, refusing to show his weakened resolve but not trusting himself to speak, feeling the threat of stuttered hesitation on his lips.
“And you, Ben, you know her policies.” He shrugged noncommitally but felt the pit of his stomach widen. “Mr. Newport Senior will be pleased to hear Leslie's policies ahead of time. Bobby is rather, to put it nicely, forgetful and he tends to mess up the simplest of public events, never mind, say, a debate.” Ben's hands wriggled in their restraints more urgently although his face continued to display little reaction.
“I’m not going to give up this city to a family like the Newport's,” he said defiantly, “It will take more than a damp cellar and handcuffs to get Leslie's campaign plan out of me.” He silently praised himself, his tone wavering but never stumbling over the words. It reminded him of Leslie's trial and of the statement he made, a simple statement that he wanted to say clearly the first time she heard it, 'l love you.'
“We'll see about that,” she said, cracking her knuckles behind her back and sending a shudder through Ben's hunched back, “I don’t usually like to get my hands dirty, but... I want to see this town crash and burn at the Newports' feet.”
Ron returned to the parks department after offloading his leaflets to the nearest passerby’s. His office chair far to comfortable and the solitude more than welcoming, he shut his door, pulling the blind down firmly and reaching into his desk for a whittling knife and small block of wood. He shaved the corners methodically, feeling his mind drift lazily into distraction, daydreaming of anything but his office and the campaign.
The phone in his office rang directly, he call not going through April's phone as it usually did. He frowned, placing the wood on the small pile of shavings that had collected on his desk and paused for a moment, hand hovering above the phone uncertainly. It wasn’t an appealing thought, picking up the phone, but he reasoned with himself logically albeit reluctantly that it could be the police again.
“Ron Swanson,” he spoke into the receiver, hearing only a rustle and static, “Hello?” It sounded as if the other phone was being fumbled with and he almost hung up, curses ready on his tongue when a voice spoke up.
“Ron?” It was Ben's voice, sounding distant and unclear but definitely his, “Can you hear me?” He spoke quietly as if in a rush and the background noise of shuffling continued softly.
“Where are you?” Ron set straight to work, insisting gently but firmly, “Did someone take you?” More sounds of movement and then a pause; Ben's breathing filled the line for a moment, sounding slightly rushed and panicked.
“It’s for the best you don’t know,” he replied evenly, “I just wanted to make sure Leslie was still going ahead with the campaign.” Ron almost laughed out loud and probably would have done if it wasn’t for Ben's insistence.
“For now,” he said quickly, “But she won’t do this without you, Ben. And as much as I hate the idea of someone competent running the government, I’d rather it was Leslie than anyone else.” Ben hummed in agreement but did not speak for some time.
“Just make sure she knows how important it is that she beats Newport, alright?” he sounded a little desperate and as exhausted as he had at the sponsors' dinner the night before, “I’ll be alright Ron, just get her through the next few weeks.” Ron hesitated for a moment before clearing his throat and muttering his next question as if slightly embarrassed.
“Are you sure?” he asked tentatively, “You sound panicked, son, and I don’t think everything is quite as alright as you are claiming.” Ben sighed audibly over the line.
“It’s not great here,” he admitted, his voice dropping to a whisper, “I can manage for a little while but I’m afraid I might let something important slip about the campaign. I can’t do that to Leslie. Ron-” He stopped talking again and his sporadic breaths returned, undertones of pain infiltrating his laboured exhalations.
“I don’t understand,” Ron replied equally as quietly, “How is the campaign so important that this has happened?”
“Newport has a plan,” Ben explained impatiently, “All he needs is Bobby in a position of power and then Pawnee will be under his control. I know you hate the government Ron, but this plan is more than a few budget cuts.”
“I don’t hate Leslie,” Ron reminded him, almost fondly, “And Newport has been a threat to this town my whole life. What do I tell Leslie and everyone else?”
“Nothing,” Ben settled on hopefully, “Just keep pushing the campaign. If she knows you spoke to me, it’ll be all she thinks about.” Ron nodded to himself, firmly ignoring the guilt that crept up on him.
“I'll try to keep it quiet,” he promised, pausing again to think, “You better know what you’re doing, Wyatt. I can motivate Leslie for a couple of weeks but I can’t bring you back from the dead.” Ben laughed humourlessly, coughing slightly.
“It’s not that bad,” he protested weakly, “Anyway, I don’t think she would resort to that.”
“Who is she anyway?” Ron asked more persistently.
“If I tell you, she’ll know I’ve found a way to speak to someone. She didn’t take the phone from my back pocket because she found my campaign phone in my jacket pocket. I don’t know how long I can hide it from her,” he admitted with a touch of fear.
“Don’t risk yourself for this campaign,” Ron warned agitatedly, “Leslie will never forgive me if I endorse this sort of behaviour.” The line crackled again, louder sounds erupting from the speaker although he seemed to still be alone. Ben no longer replied and the line soon clicked dead, leaving Ron to sit alone with his thoughts. He heard April and Andy talking loudly down the hallway from the department and retrieved his whittling knife, scraping away at the rough bark with more attack, his face as expressionless as ever.
“Hey Ron! Guess what? We got Champion to pee on every lamppost that had Bobby Newport's posters on them,” Andy bounced into his office with his usual boundless energy, one hand gesticulating expressively as the other clung to a dog lead. Ron's top lip curled into a displeased sneer as the rescue dog's muddy feet pottered across his clean carpet but his mind quickly wandered elsewhere.
“Can I speak to April in private?” he asked Andy nonchalantly who nodded enthusiastically, running from the room and shouting April's name down the corridor again. She returned with her usual sullen expression fixed on her face and sat on his desk, legs swinging mechanically against the oak.
Ron stood up and shut his door, resting his flat palms against the closed blind for a moment and exhaling slowly.
“I am telling you this in confidence. It will not be repeated outside of this room unless I have given you the authority to do so, understand?” he spoke rapidly, his tone clipped and firm. April shrugged her shoulders before nodding in confusion at the sight of his deeply furrowed brow.
“Ben phoned me,” he admitted matter of factly, “I am of the opinion that he may be in danger but he is insistent that we should focus on Leslie's campaign. Something about the Newport’s and some plan if Bobby gets the seat.” April frowned to herself for a moment, glancing through the small crack between the blind and the window frame, catching a glimpse of Andy.
“Why are you telling me? What about the others?”
“Ben is the best judge of his own situation right now. In my experience, it is best not to get involved in these sorts of things.” Ron often hoped to impart some wisdom on the younger, impressionable girl but this time April folded her arms and fixed him with a stare.
“I think Ben is blinded by doing what is best for Leslie when he’s the one in trouble,” she fired back neutrally, her tone in no way conveying her heightened sense of concern for her and Andy's housemate.
“You don’t often care for people so much,” Ron observed with one raised eyebrow.
“Well, Ben has helped us with the house and he puts up with everything we do,” April reasoned obstinately, “He still moved in with us, even after seeing marbles frying in a pan. And don’t we owe it to Leslie to tell her the truth?” Ron shrugged indecisively, his ears pricking at the sound of conversation reaching the doors of the department.
“I’ll leave it up to you then,” he gave in eventually, “Just remember what Ben wanted.” April nodded and left the room, pulling the blind down the remainder of the way and shutting the door tightly, just how Ron liked it. The older man sat back in his chair in the relative darkness of his office, annoyingly unable to clear his mind of the predicament Ben was in, hearing his voice on every movement of the air.
Thank you for reading as always.
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Ron found Leslie sat on the bench beneath the wild flower mural late into the evening. The hallways had long since grown quiet, leaving only the mechanical ticking of pipes and the occasional hum of the emergency lighting. Her blonde hair fell in its usual cascade, obscuring her face as he sat at the other end of the wooden seat, his hand absentmindedly running up and down the beech armrests.
“You didn’t tell me,” she began accusatorially, ignoring his light sigh, “Ben went to you for help over me and you didn’t do anything to rescue him.”
“Leslie,” Ron complained gruffly, “That isn’t how this works. Ben's only concern was for you and the campaign; he made me promise to ensure that you win, regardless of what happens to him. Something bigger than us; you, me and him; is happening in Pawnee and as much as I’d like to see the government torn to shreds, this is my home and the home of my friends. The Newport’s have some sort of plan to flatten this town if they get the power to do so and you know the other councilmen; Jamm wouldn’t need much persuasion to cross over to their side.”
“But what about Ben?” she asked in a small voice, kicking her feet against the side of the bench like a child. Ron did not speak for some time, tilting his head to trail his eyes across the wildflowers, one of the few morals that didn’t depict one of the many battles in Pawnee's history or else have some reference to Eagleton.
“The police have been informed.” Ron felt as if he was repeating himself all too frequently, calming the rest of the department when April made her choice to tell them about Ron's phone call, retreating to his office and continuing to quell the concern with the same, less than consoling phrase. He was a broken record, needle jamming against the grooves.
“That isn’t enough,” she appealed to him more softly, the steamrolling dying away as she closed her eyes, “Ben would tell us he was okay if there was a gun held to his head just to keep us out of harm's way. I would do the same for all of you, so would Ann, so would Tom-”
“So would I,” Ron interjected firmly, “But we don’t know where he is and I can’t risk phoning him again in case someone found the phone. It was enough of a risk for him to have kept it with him in the first place.” Leslie fell silent but didn’t look defeated - instead, the firm expression of determination she wore before every meeting and presentation had returned with a vengeance and it wasn’t long before she was back on her feet, leading the way to her office and, no doubt, countless folders of ideas.
The two faces had blurred into one several hours ago. One came and the other left but Ben was never alone in the sufffocatingly small room. His arms ached from being held behind his back for so long and his head rested permanently against his chest, fatigued and with growing pain. His mind had detached itself from his body at some point between visits from the two women and he no longer replied to their questions, both parties well aware that he would only refuse to give up information.
His captors, on the other hand, were more than happy to divulge their plan to him as they paced circles around his chair, standing behind his head and leaning in close to his ear, causing him to duck away uncomfortably.
Nick Newport Senior had a small fortune lying untouched, he was told with a sort of jealous hunger. He was getting old and the money was lying around untouched with no real use. The man had a gold mine in Sweetums, churning out reliable profits every year without fail but he wanted more. Pawnee was a failing town, fighting to keep its head above the water and he was more than happy to be the one to push them under entirely. The town would become one huge factory, the townspeople persuaded to stay with promises of sweetums products, or else blackmailed to do so. Both women seemed to suggest that the products were more than an incentive, eyes wrinking at the mention of the candy bars packed full of chemicals with long, indecipherable names.
And Pawnee would fall, leaving the Newport’s to run away across the fence to Eagleton with an even greater fortune and an untouchable future as the prisoners of Pawnee continued to work for them. Ben thought of the parks department being forced to work for such an ethically incorrect company and shuddered, the image of Leslie's hard earned parks flattened by factories easily enough motivation to resist their attempts to learn her policies.
“What are Leslie's debate tactics?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are her policies on education?”
“I won’t say.”
“As campaign manager, what is your strategy?
And every unanswered question came punctuated with a kick or a punch, his head ringing and stomach aching painfully. Occasionally, a particularly strong hit would send his chair to the floor, giving him a short break as he was lifted back up to sit straight, closing his eyes with a stifled yawn. At first he had wondered what Jennifer Barkley was thinking, using these tactics when she could very well win the election without knowing Leslie's campaign as well as he did.
“I’ve been promised a very large paycheque,” she hissed frustratedly when her time was up, “I have to get something out of you before she does if I want my bonus, Benjamin. Mr. Newport had promised several extra raises if we can get some credible information.”
And of course there was her. Far worse than Jennifer, and with much more of a motive to get to him; not to get to Leslie but rather setting her sights higher up the food chain.
“Ron is unhappy when Leslie is unhappy. Leslie is unhappy when you aren’t around,” she had explained delightedly when one of his groans turned into a questioning huff of breath, “You’re just an intermediate.”
Ben was just about fed up of being everyone else's gambling chips and punching bags. He wasn’t all too familiar with Ron's history of marriage although he was almost certain the second woman stood in front of him was Tammy 2, her ratty eyes looking at him scrutinisingly over librarian's glasses. She was far worse than Jennifer, no more violent and desperate but also slightly maniacal, her long, scratching fingernails occasionally stroking a line down his jawbone with a predatory look behind her eyes. Initially he had kicked out at her, only finding his feet were quickly restrained against the wobbling legs of his chair, confining his movements even more claustrophobically to small shuffles and back stretches.
But Leslie was okay, and that was all Ben needed to know, along with the security of the phone in his pocket, to hold onto the threads of his composure.
“We need to come up with a list of Ben's enemies,” Leslie instructed the small room of tired but coffee fuelled people. They had all been rudely awoken soon after going to bed by Leslie's insistent phone calls, pleading with them to meet her at City Hall. Tom sat on the small table in the centre of the room, swing his legs above the floor and rubbing one eye with a yawn.
“Ben's a complete nerd, Leslie,” he whined despite her angry expression, “He doesn’t have enemies.”
“Well you don’t seem to like him all that much,” Ann replied for Leslie who had turned her back on Tom with a huffing sigh, “So we could add one name to the list already.” She fixed him with a pointed stare that he shied away from instantly and backed down from.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, unusually subdued, “But honestly, who hates him enough to kidnap him?”
“He’s running a city council campaign, idiot,” April quipped from the other side of the room, “There are plenty of people who might want to sabotage Leslie. Most of this city is completely sexist anyway.” Leslie smiled to herself at that, and then smiled at April for some time.
“What?” April's sullen expression returned and she hopped from the windowsill she had sat on and joined Andy against the wall, “It’s a fact.”
“April's right,” Leslie realised happily, “We need to think bigger; who has anything against any one of us? Who could they get to by taking Ben?” She seemed reluctant to outwardly admit that the only real motive was her campaign, a poorly concealed glimmer of guilt in her eyes.
“I think we should assume it is someone opposed to the campaign,” Ron told her gently from the door of his office, “The rest of us have done very little to be paid attention to for.” Leslie nodded reluctantly and turned away to write on the whiteboard she had wheeled in from the meeting room. In the corner was an acronym; WATCHFUL that she had delighted in explaining to the tired group as they first began to turn up.
“We have to be watchful - waffles, active, tenacious, cautious, heroic, fast, understanding and legal... we have to still follow the law,” she conceded with a glint of mischief in her eyes, “Mostly.”
“And waffles?” Andy had asked when he walked through the door with his arm around April. Leslie looked at the acronym with squinting eyes for a moment before laughing to herself.
“I was hungry when I wrote this. Also stressed,” she looked longingly down the open corridor, “I could really eat all the breakfast food in Pawnee right now.”
Still thinking of a list of suspects, her back was turned to the room as she scribbled another set of names, each less likely than the next but making the small group feel better about their investigation. Ron's phone rang from his office, prompting every set of eyes to follow each other over to the clock, which read 01:43.
“A call to the office at 1 o'clock in the morning,” Ron observed with a glance in Leslie's direction, “It seems unlikely since I never answer the phone during working hours anyway.”
“Maybe they thought you’d turned nocturnal and you might pick up the phone in the middle of the night,” Andy suggested with a proud nod of his head, “Some people work really weird hours. When do they even sleep?”
“In the day,” Ann replied with a look of amazement on her face, “Andy! You lived with me whilst I did night shifts at the hospital.” He shrugged and looked back to the open office door as the phone continued to call out to them.
“They are being very persistent,” Ron noted once more, his eyes watching Leslie who had stood perfectly still, her hand still half raised to write. “Excuse me for a moment.”
Ron walked into the office and shut the door firmly behind him, the loud click stirring Leslie from her position and prompting her feet to follow after him, slipping into the office and pulling the blind down anxiously. The rest of the department sat in silence, ears straining to listen to the small hints of conversation beyond the closed door. April subtly buried her head into Andy's t-shirt, feeling the rough and worn printed design scratching against her cheek. His arm circled her shoulders absentmindedly and he leant his chin onto her forehead. Chris watched from across the room, registering the dull but now familiar pang of longing in his chest for something like what they had.
Ron’s hand hovered for a moment above the phone displaying the perfect stillness of a surgeon's dexterous fingers. Leslie hid her own shaking hands behind her back, clasping them together as she rocked backwards and forwards on her heels. Ron gruffly muttered a greeting and then met her eyes nodding almost unnoticeably and turning his attention back to the phone pressed to his ear.
The cold was something Ben couldn’t get used to, hating the sensation of his bones freezing beneath his skin and the stiff, creaking noise that reverberated through his limbs with every slight movement. He had grown to resent the restraints around his legs, cursing himself liberally under his breath for a single moment of defiance that had left him so much more vulnerable.
And left alone to his thoughts for the first time in hours, he worked his hands between the wooden slats that would have supported his back if he wasn’t slumped so far forwards in the old chair and produced the small phone from his pocket, clasping it between forefinger and thumb. He did what he had done before, navigating the touch screen almost blindly, occasionally twisting his head around to glance unnaturally over his shoulder but relenting when the growing pains through his body caught up with him. He wasn’t quite sure how he had come to know Ron's office number off by heart but he was sure it probably had something to do with the fact that it usually took twenty attempts to even get him to pick up, never mind actually have a conversation.
He left the number waiting to be dialled and pulled his arms further up the back of the chair, nudging the phone towards his shoulder with sluggish, seal like actions and clamped the small device between his head and neck, rubbing his skin against the green call button as he did so and hearing the dull yet reassuring dialling tone through the static. He found himself monumentally thankful in that moment; thankful that he hadn’t misdialled the wrong number, thankful that he got signal wherever he was, and, well, less grateful for the general situation but he had realised with experience that, with him, it was celebrating the small things or spiralling wildly.
It took a lot of waiting, during which he wondered what time it was, unable to reach his phone as it balanced against his shoulder to see the clock. He was about to give up, assuming it was some ungodly hour in the middle of the night when Ron's voice muttered a greeting.
“I thought you weren’t going to pick up,” Ben admitted, surprised, after spending a few hours sat in rarely broken silence, to hear his own voice sounding more splintered than he had expected.
“It is the middle of the night, son,” Ron replied with a cryptic hint of amusement in his voice, “But we're all here anyway.” Ben had to think for a moment to find a reason for the whole department to be in the city council building at such an odd hour, narrowing it down to him or the campaign. And with Leslie, he reminded himself, it was very likely to be a combination of the two. He had spent far too many nights lying awake as she schemed in her sleep, aloud, unfortunately, and occasionally waking up for a brief moment of delirium in which she would bounce some ideas off of her exhausted companion before being pulled under once more. The thought of Leslie and a warm bed was a little too much to deal with, however, so he suppressed the thought firmly and shook his head back into the present.
“Are you still there, Ben?” Ron didn’t exactly exude concern but Ben rarely heard him use such a tone unless he was providing a small moment of comfort for Leslie, the two of them sharing an odd, inexplicable bond that Ben was quite sure he would never fully comprehend.
“Yes, sorry,” he rambled slightly, “Everyone’s at work in the middle of the night, right?” Ron hummed in agreement and fell silent for a moment, sounding as if he was talking to someone in the room with him, hand slightly muffling the receiver. Ben shut his eyes in a fit of mild contentment, the mere sound of a friendly human, if Ron could be considered that, enough to thaw his bones slightly.
“Ben?” Leslie's voice suddenly filled his room and his head and his entire body, flooding everything with an unnatural warmth. He found himself smiling through relentlessly threatening tears as her hitched breaths conveyed the same.
“Leslie,” he whispered, feeling his voice crack between the two syllables of one of his favourite words; coming in at a close second to calzone, “Are you ok?” She almost laughed, her usual cackle reduced to a weak, choking cough followed by a wholehearted sniff.
“I would be if you were,” she admitted softly, “Please tell us who's doing this to you.” Ben glanced towards the firmly closed door, squinting in the darkness and sighed heavily to himself.
“I can’t, Les,” he replied more desperately, “It will ruin your campaign and more people will get hurt. Just concentrate on the election, okay? I can get out of here whenever.” He didn’t add the slightly morbid thought that crossed his mind concerning leaving the room in a body bag, unconvincingly reassuring himself that neither woman seemed intent on murder for their own personal gain. He wouldn’t put it past Tammy though.
“I can’t win the election without you,” Leslie whined frustratedly before changing the conversation, “Just tell me what their doing to you, Ben, please.”
“Nothing too bad,” Ben promised, crossing his numb fingers as the handcuffs rattled against the chair, “I don’t want to tell them anything.” His voice dropped further at that, an accidentally pained huff escaping his chapped lips as he moved his back, feeling his ribs complain loudly. Leslie audibly bit back a harsh reply opting for a soft 'oh' laced with cutting pangs of guilt that hurt Ben far more than the cuts and bruises. He looked up hurriedly at the sound of footsteps, feeling his stiff body tense up further with a sudden wave of panic.
“I’ve got to go,” he choked out through a harsh inhalation, allowing the phone to drop from his shoulder with a skittering thud against the floor. The screen lit up feebly in protest, still displaying Ron's number and the timer that counted up the too few minutes of hurried conversation they had managed. He rocked in the chair, biting down on his cheek to hide a muted groan and covered the small device as well as he could. The door opened in front of him, casting a fluorescent, weak light into his eyes that was still enough to make him wince and recoil violently like a vampire in sunlight. Ben really missed seeing the sun, or just outside in general.
Leslie frowned thoughtfully as Ben hurriedly said goodbye, wondering why the call continued, broadcasting a loud crack as if the phone had been dropped to the floor in panic. She looked up at Ron's watchful face, pressing a button in the handset so the sounds of the mysterious room were audible to both of them. It was quiet for a moment, with only a small scraping sound and what sounded like a heavy breath. Leslie winced to herself, recognising even Ben's laboured breaths after nursing him through a weekend cold some weeks before.
“Benjamin.” The voice was different but detached, unrecognisable from such a distance and so faint that both Leslie and Ron leant towards the small speaker intently to hear each word. “Ready to talk yet?”
“No.” Ben sounded more fragile than he had with Leslie, his voice wavering uncertainly, betraying the nerves that coursed through his veins. Leslie found herself clawing at the desk uncontrollably, caught between a need to hear what happened next and the temptation to launch the phone at a nearby window.
“I do like it when you choose the hard way,” the voice, definitely feminine, spoke again, “Shall we get started?” There was another echoing silence where the woman seemed to lose interest in asking any questions, the phone broadcasting only the sound of her pacing on what sounded like a tiled floor. Leslie held her breath tightly, chest pent up with unrelenting anger and frustration. And god did she want to break something, or else demolish a pile of waffles and whipped cream.
She suppressed a whimper of her own when Ben released a similar wounded sound, barely registering Ron's warning hand on her own as she leant heavily on the desk. Overcome by a wave of nausea, she ducked her head towards the floor, finding interest in the weaving fabric of the carpet beneath her feet. It was enough, for the moment, to block out the continuing sounds of muted pain.
Ron sat perfectly still in his chair, eyes wandering between the phone and Leslie, hiding a flinch as Ben's voice occasionally rose before falling away with a small cough. He was seconds away from stopping the call when Leslie straightened and waved his hand away, sitting on the table and listening more determinedly. And Ron had to agree, it was their only lead.
“You never struck me as the talkative type,” the voice grunted with frustration, “But I rather hoped you would be a little less uptight.” Ben did not reply, accelerating Leslie's racing heart further, if that were possible. The silence grew to a crescendo again before dying away violently with a loud crashing sound, followed swiftly by an insupressable cry. Leslie's eyes snapped closed, far too late to enclose the readily available tears that fell on instinct at such a sound and providing a darkness not quite black enough to block out the harsh reality in front of her.
“What's this?” Leslie felt her blood run cold at the inquisitive nature of the voice, shying away from the speaker as the voice grew suddenly louder and all the more threatening as it tutted, “You have been a naughty boy, Benjamin.” Ron's hand drew closer to the phone but still, Leslie waved it away with a shake of her head. She grabbed a scrap of paper and hurriedly scrawled a note, passing it to her counterpart.
Do we talk?
Ron shrugged imperceptibly, grabbing a pen himself but seeming unsure of what to write.
“Now, who has Ben been talking to without my permission?” The voice seemed muffled as if the person was trying to obscure it slightly but it was definitely addressed towards Leslie and Ron. The former looked to the latter in panic and stayed silent upon his expression.
“Bad choice,” they scolded with an audible smirk, and moments later Ben mumbled incoherently after several dull thuds. Leslie wringed her hands together in sympathetic agony and looked more pointedly at Ron who swallowed with visible guilt before nodding.
“This is Leslie Knope,” she squeaked out eventually, “And you are?” The voice laughed to itself in reply and took time to think.
“An old acquaintsnce of yours, Leslie Knope,” they settled on eventually, “I do hope I haven’t caused you any inconvenience; Ben here makes excellent company.” Leslie shivered to herself but fixed her trademark steely glance and rolled her shoulders back with resolve.
“What do you want?” she asked determinedly, not too surprised to hear a similar, taunting laugh in reply.
“Nothing - not from you anyway,” the voice replied cryptically, “But I have money to make so I must be off now. It’s child's play really; after all if you can’t get the top off of a piggy bank you just have to hit it hard enough, right?” Leslie clenched and unclenched her fists periodically and shook her head firmly, feeling her hair flail down her back as she moved violently.
“Leave Ben out of this,” She mustered up her commanding tone, “It has nothing to do with him.”
“Oh, but it does Leslie Knope, so much more than you understand.” And the line went dead.
Ben's face had been pressed against the concrete for some time, the sound of Leslie's voice so close yet still so unattainable. He felt his head spin uncomfortably when his eyes drifted closed and his stomach protested far more than before. He tried to shift his shoulder and found it tightly locked beneath his body which shivered relentlessly. The end of the phone call seemed to happen at the other end of an echoing tunnel and he barely even felt the rough hands pulling at his unreceptive limbs, righting the chair with him still attached to it.
Hazel irises hidden from the world, he felt a sharp stinging sensation across his cheek that focused his eyes rapidly on the familiar face of Tammy Swanson, her own eyes watching him over the thick rimmed glasses that balanced on the crooked end of her nose. She grinned delightedly, gripping the phone triumphantly and looking at him with an off putting sense of satisfaction. Leaning close to his ringing ear she muttered a small victory speech and left him again with his thoughts and a few more blossoming bruises.
Three days passed, although Ben had no way of knowing in the vacuum of darkness he lay in. At some point a visit to the floor had become more permanent, his head uncomfortably pressing into the dirt and dust on the floor. He closed his eyes most of the time, unwilling to look at himself for too long and unable to avoid the pining images of Leslie that swam before him in the darkness of the room.
It was quiet above him, the ceiling only occasionally creaking with the exertion of supporting someone as they walked over him. He sometimes strained to listen to the arguments of the two desperate women as they competed to earn money but more often than not allowed their conversations fall away into the background of dripping pipes and floorboards.
Then, he heard knocking on a distant door.
Leslie had pushed the phone conversation out of her head, only remembering it when a lack of control in her sleep resurfaced the painful, raw memories. Ron had returned to the main room with an unfamiliar sense of resolve, recounting the phone call briefly and erasing the male names from the growing list of suspects.
Three days later very little had developed, the police had driven up and down nearby roads with no success and quietly began to file what evidence they had in the back of a cupboard somewhere. Leslie was angry for a little while, spending far too long arguing at the door of the chief of police, wondering why they couldn’t trace a simple phone call. 'Budget cuts' he had said; the department was suffering.
She threw herself into the campaign more determinedly, dragging a reluctant Chris from door to door just to get him out of his house. With his dating life on hold and best friend gone, the usually cheerful man had even stopped his occasional visits to the local therapist. He would stand two steps behind her as she handed someone a leaflet and launched into a long list of her policies, his eyes darting around the quiet streets vacantly and without purpose.
“This seems to be literally the most unproductive thing we could be doing,” he eventually stopped between houses, “How does this help anyone?”
“No one will vote if they don’t see me out and about,” Leslie replied patiently, her back facing him as he hopped restlessly between his feet. He sighed loudly and dragged his feet in front of her, a look she had never noticed before in his eyes.
“I meant how does this help Ben?” he emphasised more confidently, the hardness behind his pupils replaced with a sudden faint light of hope and the old Chris returned, “I want to be out looking for him; you have so many points on Bobby at the moment.” Leslie didn’t add that they were points that could so easily be lost in the final few days, not even addressing the fact that she had a debate the next night and no opening speech to give - Ben had promised to help with that after all.
“What do you suggest?” she asked kindly although failing to hide the irritation seeping into her words, “What more is there to be done?” Chris shrugged, annoyed once more that he didn’t have an answer. And he really didn’t - the 10k run had done nothing to slow his thoughts, a good eight hours sleep had been intermittent and fitful with uncharacteristic worry, the supplements did nothing to calm his rising blood pressure. He found a little comfort in Ann who seemed to shoulder much of the worry for Leslie in public, until the blonde woman broke behind close doors and then Ann became a shoulder and a warm voice.
Andy and April had each other, Leslie and Ann had each other, even Jerry had a family to spend his days with. Chris had been offered Ben's room on a temporary basis but turned it down almost immediately, not only shuddering at the thought of sleeping in a missing man's bed but also well aware of Ben's housemates' habits. Chris was already sleeping badly enough without the distraction of April needing to fix the internet at 2am.
“Come on,” Leslie patted his tensing bicep lightly, “Let’s move onto the next house.” He nodded numbly, his nose wrinkling at the state of the building in front of them. Surrounded by an almost Eagleton standard neighbourhood of picket fence houses, this one stood out like a sore thumb, a window boarded up with a plank of splintering wood and the front lawn messy and unkempt. The iron gate that led to a weed-infested path creaked sorely on its hinges and several of the cobblestones rocked under their feet.
“Well, we take the votes where we can get them,” Leslie muttered under her breath to Chris as she rapped smartly in the door with her knuckles. Some flakes of weathered paint fell away to the floor, landing on Chris's black, polished shoes. He tapped his foot against the crumbling stone to shake them off and turned his attention back to the quiet house.
“I’ll bet you lunch at JJ's that this guy's an eccentric one,” she spoke again with an infectiously mischievous glint in her eye. Chris smiled through a reply, nodding his head, knowing full well that he was probably about to buy Leslie a meal. After all, who would live in a place like that in their right mind?
Jennifer Barkley had arrived at the house early that morning. She had taken up a routine with Tammy, covering the days as her counterpart did the nights. There was something almost primal in the look she gave Ben each day when she arrived and took up her place in the basement, raking her eyes across his figure and counting the new injuries. She was a little surprised that Tammy hadn’t got through his walls yet for he looked worn down every morning and almost noticeably thinner every time she glanced at him. What food she had grudgingly given to him the day before had returned in a small puddle of sick at the base of his head that morning. Perhaps it would have been better to let him have it earlier, before Tammy had a chance to send a trademark kick towards his stomach.
Ben usually had his eyes open when she pushed the door open a crack and looked him over with an unwelcome smile but that day they had been tightly closed, not even flickering open when she kicked lightly at his fallen head. One arm looked more out of place than it had and his cheek contained more than a couple more shades of green and yellow than she could remember. His breaths came in involuntarily gasps, inhaling the stale air more out of necessity than choice.
“You had fun last night,” she observed Tammy in the makeshift kitchen as she made herself a strong coffee. The shorter woman laughed airily over her shoulder but quickly narrowed her eyes at her competitor.
“I do hope I haven’t worn him down enough for you to swoop in today,” she replied with a singly raised eyebrow. So Ben still hadn’t given in, Jennifer thought to herself, a sick sense of satisfaction populating her money hungry veins. And the bonus was still up for grabs. Admittedly, more money was not something she needed but the life of luxury she had grown accustomed to required a larger paycheque than most employers were willing to give. Jennifer had eventually rolled her sleeves up and taken less mainstream jobs.
“You took his handcuffs off,” she spoke up again, watching Tammy closely. The other woman shrugged and reached into her pocket, dropping the cold metal restraints on the kitchen table.
“He stopped fighting back long ago,” she reasoned with a smirk, “I used some plastic ties I found lying around. He won’t go far now I’ve finished with him for another day; can barely open his eyes.”
She finally left Tammy to her breakfast of burnt toast and black coffee, descending the steps to their own personal hell, still not too surprised to be greeted by closed eyes and incoherent mumbling. She crouched on the floor and tapped at his cheek forcefully. One eye slid open and watched her warily, every movement sending a shiver down his spine. His once crisp button down shirt had hitched up his stomach, displaying the full array of bruises and worse. Jennifer had vaguely noticed a few more robust instruments lying in the corner of the room, crusted over with more than just rust and swallowed her own surprise strongly.
“One more day to get your tactics for the debate, huh?” she asked coldly, watching him close his eyes again tiredly. She had learnt quickly to leave a pause, allowing him to reply if he felt the need to.
“Just get on with it,” he repeated several times until she heard him clearly, following up with a weak cough and a sigh. She shook her head in frustration but did as he asked. Ben was breaking but still not far enough.
She stopped upon hearing a knock, swiftly dropping to the floor and covering Ben's mouth with one hand. She felt his face slick with sweat and his eyelids, once flying open with every hint of pain, scrunched up before half revealing his eyes as they watered. Hissing under her breath at him to stay quiet she crossed the room, hearing him whisper under his breath rapidly as he heard the pile of tools move as she searched through them. She made a mental note to herself as she grabbed a piece of stained fabric and crossed the room back to the shuddering, muttering figure, hoping he wasn’t being too loud.
Ben didn’t shy away when she forced the material between his teeth and tied it tightly behind his head, only wincing as it cut through his bruised cheeks but continuing to mumble anxiously from behind the cloth. She sat down on the floor next to him and tilted her head to one side, straining to hear the conversation above her.
“Tammy Swanson,” Leslie greeted coolly, glancing into the dark interior of the house, “I didn’t expect to find you so far away from the rat hole you call the library.”
“Borrowed any books recently, Leslie?” the woman replied, settling into their usual routine easily, “Because I think you’ll be owing the library a lot of money if you don’t turn around and start walking.” The feisty council worker laughed hollowly and turned to Chris with narrowed eyes.
“This is Tammy Swanson, scum of the earth,” she introduced with a frown, “She’s one of the people who made Ron miserable and won’t just leave him alone.”
“Chris Traeger,” Chris held out his hand, not failing to notice that the hand held out in return was less than clean. His fingers brushed at the hand sanitiser he kept in his pocket at all times but he didn’t want to look rude. Tammy grinned wolfishly from behind her glasses and leant casually against the doorframe, enjoying herself far too much to remember Ben in the basement.
“We're canvassing,” Leslie informed her, holding up a sign from a stack that rested against her leg, “If you would like to show your support and vote for me, would you consider placing this in your window?” Leslie was never one to shy away from a challenge and she fixed the smirking woman with a pointed stare as she held the sign out insistently.
Jennifer moved away from Ben who had stilled considerably over time and ascended the first few steps, freezing at the sound of Leslie Knope's voice. And Tammy sounded as if she was having far too much fun to turn away the suspicious woman as quickly as she could. Jennifer crept to the top of the steps, sparing a glance back to the swinging closed door behind her and crossing the hallway quickly to an empty room across the corridor. She posted herself at the intact window, only just seeing Chris and Leslie on the doorstep as she craned her neck. A car pulled up at the gate and someone she vaguely recognised as Ron Swanson soon stood at the gate, calling to Chris but stopping when he saw Tammy.
Jennifer was not entirely acquainted with Tammy's history with men although she had only heard negative things, finding herself not all that surprised after witnessing Ben after the first few nights. She listened to Leslie's campaign spiel for a minute longer, suddenly locking eyes with Ron who had stopped just beyond the gate, his gaze landing in her and staying as Chris tried to turn him around.
“Why is Jennifer Barkley in the same house as my ex-wife?” he asked Chris curiously before striding up the path, “There is only one explanation for this.” Leslie was still reciting her policies to an ever entertained Tammy when Ron pushed past her gently first and then manoeuvred Tammy to one side more forcefully.
“Where are you keeping him?”
Ben's brain closed down at the grating sound of the tools in the corner of the room, his head struggling for a moment to turn into his blind spot. Jennifer returned with a cloth and thankfully nothing more but this didn’t stop his muffled, nonsensical pleads. She left him for a moment, footsteps falling away into the dull soundtrack of water and - voices?
He tried to move as cool, fresh air met his exposed skin and entered his lungs as he breathed hungrily. The voices rose in his ears but didn’t quite reach his brain, remaining as a buzzing sound over the static that crashed over him. And then there were footsteps, hurried and desperate, calls that still remained a mystery to him and a shadow blocking the light of the recently opened door.
“You have Ben!” Leslie accused suddenly as she caught onto Ron's line of inquiry. Jennifer appeared in front of them with anger in her eyes and she stopped Ron in his tracks. Tammy squared up to Leslie inside of the door and Chris slipped between the two of them as the latter called to him.
“Find him, Chris,” Leslie shouted desperately, “I'll handle the Wicked Witch from the West.”
“I’ve got the Wicked Witch of the East,” Ron replied determinedly before glancing over his shoulder to Chris, “Get Ben out of here if you can.”
And then Chris was sprinting for the steps, the short distance suddenly seeming like a marathon to the distance runner, his breath exhausted and painful in seconds as he crashed into the room. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he fumbled for a light switch behind him on the wall, finding it and bathing the room in a cold, white glow. Ben was in front of him and then not as he rapidly blinked his eyes and turned away with a silent whisper to himself.
“Ben?” He was down on his knees a moment later, hands wavering over the body beneath him, fleeting touches across his arm and shoulder pulling away tentatively. He ripped the material from around his mouth and sat back in shock. Eventually Ben's eyes focused on his face and he managed a weak, quirked smile through insistent tears.
“It’s ok, we've found you now,” Chris continued to mutter, looking over his friend anxiously, making an inventory of problems, shifting them into priority order in his mind, not liking what he could see but refusing to drop the light tone in his voice, “You’re coming home.”
Chris was suddenly reminded of the first time he had heard of Benjamin Wyatt, the man with a ruthless reputation for slashing budgets, successfully but harshly, one of the few auditors who could distance themselves from the lives of the people they put out of work.
“We think you would benefit from having a partner, someone who could use your gentler hand,” the officials had told him as a smile grew on his face. A partner, a friend to intrude on foreign towns with, a familiar face as the rest of them were forgotten within two or three new councils.
“A gentler hand?” he had asked curiously, his optimism not allowing him to conjure an image of some old, fed up man or woman who was far too experienced to care anymore, someone who wouldn’t want to find a new vegan restaurant each evening or spend their downtime in one terrible motel or another together, wistfully pointing out houses they wouldn’t mind settling down in given the chance on the long drives.
“Let’s just say, when he works alone he gets a lot of angry complaints and death threats,” the official spoke with a sympathetic smile on her face, “He’s very nice otherwise; a bit quirky but then again, I expect you could get on with most people.”
And he was a little unusual, spending the first two hour trip at the wheel as Chris hummed to himself cheerfully. Ben was quiet, certainly awkward but with a shy, charming disposition that Chris grew to like in the silence that followed them down the highway. And the light that illuminated his eyes across the dinner table as he got onto the topic of Harry Potter plotholes, firmly defending the series he loved dearly, cracking jokes that Chris laughed along with, some of the more obscure references reminding him to brush up on nerd culture. And to his word, Ben would try every odd restaurant Chris pulled him to after a run, although he refused to join him for any exercise, growing over time to enjoy the salad and falafel he was forced to put up with.
But now, seeing his oldest, truest friend strewn across the floor with a painful, not quite genuine smile on his face, Chris felt his own expression slip and his hand came to rest on the mop of ruffled brown hair fondly. He could feel the quivering mass beneath him still for a moment as he pressed more firmly against him, his other hand gently rubbing feeling back into Ben's bare arms. They sat and lay in silence, Ben's hands, moving against the restraints desperately, enough to awake Chris from his thoughts. He looked around the room for a moment and noticed a small pile of tools in the corner. Swallowing a lump in his throat, he tore himself away from the sight of Ben's heavy lidded eyes watching him in disbelief and crept across the concrete, kicking the instruments with his feet and rifling through them. He settled on a small, clean knife, trying to hide it from view a little from Ben who had involuntarily begun to panic, his entire body plagued with shivers.
“Sssh,” Chris murmured, carding his fingers through the lank brown hair once more, positioning himself behind Ben and pressing the small knife against the plastic ties and cutting at them slowly. The door at the top of the stairs creaked open, allowing the sounds of shouting and arguing to carry down the staircase, sending more shakes through Ben's pale hands. Chris paused for a moment, gripping one of the hands in his own and watching the door with a growing sense of fear.
April poked her head around the door and blinked harshly a few times at Ben before focusing on Chris. She tentatively stepped into the room, her feet shuffling awkwardly on the stone as she swallowed visibly and sat down in front of Ben's now closed eyes. Without speaking, she rested a hand in his hair and slowly rubbed circles through his scalp, nodding once at Chris who began to cut at the rope again, finally pulling it away and leaving harsh red marks and swollen wrists.
“I’m going to roll you over,” he spoke to Ben tentatively who screwed his eyes closed again after watching April thoughtfully for a while. He nodded almost imperceptibly and tensed noticeably. April shifted onto her heels and cupped his head softly in her hands, following Chris's actions as they rolled Ben over, illiciting only a hitched breath and moan.
Ben's hands, now resting at his sides, crept across the floor slowly, patting at April's hand and then Chris's, his eyes wider and more grateful as he stared between them. April returned his smile reluctantly, allowing her hair to obscure her face from Chris as she glanced at Ben.
“The wifi broke,” she informed him quietly. He seemed to process the words slowly before laughing silently to himself.
“Did you switch it on and off again?” It was the first sentence he had spoken, fully displaying his shattered, aching voice as he smiled softly. April shook her head and smiled again to herself.
“Andy pulled every cable out from the wall and now we can’t work out where they’re all meant to go,” she admitted with another sigh, “And the fire alarm went off a few times when we tried to cook last night.” Ben shook his head to himself with a wince and squeezed the younger girl's hand.
“A few times,” he echoed wistfully with a small cough, “Why didn’t you give up after the first time?” Chris laughed to himself, recalling the conversations in the city manager's officer each morning where Ben would sit on his desk and inform Chris of the latest disaster in the Dwyer-Ludgate-Wyatt residence as he did push ups on the floor. Most days it was the fire alarm, although sometimes it was a leaking pipe or a flooding bath that left Ben looking more frustrated than amused, never quite losing his underlying affection for the young couple.
Ben's eyes were slipping closed a little more frequently as Chris tugged his jumper over his head and cut scraps of it with the small knife that chilled his hand. He had seen the other tools, some not quite so clean and shivered slightly to himself. April seemed to pick up on his sudden discomfort, returning her hand to Ben's hair and combing through it in both an action to reassure the man beneath her and the man beside her.
Ben's shirt revealed the worst of the skin level damage, his small mumbles rising considerably in pitch and volume as Chris tugged the threadbare material away from him. His stomach was lined with bruises that accented the visible ribs and every breath shuddered through his spluttering chest, a few cuts not quite clotted and looking quite fresh. Chris placed the strips of jumper across the worst of them, applying hesitant pressure to the freshest wounds and suppressing a string of expletives.
“What else hurts, Ben?” Chris kept him talking as he worked, disliking the length of time between each labouring breath. Ben's eyes blinked open as he thought for a moment, lifting one hand over his chest and tapping at his other arm, frowning as he did so.
“Arm and shoulder,” Chris made a mental note, “And your legs?” Ben shifted them hesitantly, one leg spasming as they were still held together by a set of restraints that needed a key. Ben cried out before clamping his mouth shut and apologising under his breath. April stood up, announcing she would look for them when Ben began to shudder again.
“No, no, no,” he disagreed almost silently, “Don’t go up there.” Chris patted his healthy shoulder reassuringly and April stooped again to tentatively hug his frail body, murmuring a soft, intelligible comment in his ear. She stood up again and left quickly, pausing at the doorway to look back but shaking her head and running up the stairs two at a time.
“Who’s here?” Ben eventually murmured, his voice dying away with every conversation as his left leg continued to contort involuntarily. Chris paused in his makeshift sling making and looked up towards the ceiling as footsteps continued to clatter overhead.
“Ron and Leslie,” he breathed out eventually, noticing the tension in Ben's shoulder tighten before loosening forcibly as he exhaled in pain. Chris fastened the jumper across Ben's arm, bending it gently into the material and tying the fabric at the base of his neck.
“Try to keep your shoulder still,” Chris instructed firmly, “I think it’s dislocated, and your arm might be broken somewhere. Your leg doesn’t seem great either.” Ben nodded distractedly, his eyes fixed on the ceiling intently as footsteps clattered down the stairs again. April burst through the door with a set of keys and dropped to her knees at Ben's feet, trying each one individually. She had been followed by Leslie who stood, looking no worse for wear, at the doorway with a hand covering her mouth. Chris glanced up, noting that Ben's eyes had drifted shut again and gestured Leslie over insistently.
“Hey, Ben,” he murmured and then again more loudly, “Ben, can you hear me?” The man on the floor nodded minutely and tried to open his eyes completely before snapping them shut with a poorly concealed groan.
“Head hurts,” he admitted softly to Chris, his voice drawing Leslie closer as she sat on the floor, hands still pulled into her sides. April had loosened the handcuffs, pulling them away from Ben's legs and throwing them into the opposite corner of the room with a grimace. She straightened his legs out cautiously, rubbing circles across them as he flinched and rocked back on her heels as she watched Leslie hesitate, crossing around Ben's figure and sitting next to her. Chris watched as she guided Leslie's unresponsive hand to Ben's forehead and left it there as her fingers began to fiddle absentmindedly with the loose strands of his hair.
“Les?” Ben shifted carefully, his eyes squinting open curiously, “Are you okay?” She laughed through a watery smile and held onto his hair more firmly, eyes never leaving his own.
“I’m fine,” she replied, “I’m really fine.” He smiled to himself contentedly and turned his attention to the door where Ron had appeared silently. The older man nodded to him warmly, turning away to go back up the stairs when he was satisfied, phone in hand.
An ambulance appeared a few minutes later and Ann appeared in Ron's place with the paramedic team. She enclosed Leslie in a firm hug as Ben was taken away, hushing her complaints and reaching around her to hold Chris's outstretched hand with a smile. April leant against the wall outside with Ron, the two of them patting Ben's shoulder as the stretcher moved past them. Ron shook his head to himself after they had left, huffing in frustration.
“You had to let them go,” she reasoned with him logically, “It was the only way they’d let us have the keys and his leg was going to get really painful if we didn’t do something.” Ron nodded reluctantly but didn’t reply with an agreement of his own. Tammy had walked all over him far too many times.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Chapter by LongLiveZorp (ravenclaw_scar), ravenclaw_scar
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Leslie isn’t quite sure if it is a lack of sleep or pure disbelief that makes her question what she sees whenever her eyes find the strength to look up from their intense study of her bitten fingernails, but she strongly suspects it is a combination of both. Because, right in front of her, there is Ben Wyatt, human disaster to some, friend to many and the one man she wants to wake up from this nightmare next to. But he needs to wake up from his own first.
She tricks herself a few times into selfishly wanting to see his eyes purely because she can’t remember the precise shade of his irises. That is a lie, of course; Leslie Knope is far too observant and would probably have a scrapbook stuffed to bursting with every small item she could find that got close to the shade of his eyes. She had them memorised the first time she really looked up at him, her own reflecting his wide eyed, shyly smiling expression in the glowing candlelight of her pupils. Of course, that isn’t to say that she wouldn’t do almost anything to see them again, as cheerful and expressive as the many times he had caught her gaze across the room, conveying every word under the sun in a second long glance.
He’s surrounded by wires and she plays the cliché part of the grieving partner, sat at his bedside, heroically refusing to go home to shower and living off of cheap hospital coffee and even cheaper canteen food. And it isn’t as romantic as it is in the movies - the plastic chair hurts her back and the fluorescent tube lighting doesn’t help the fatigued headache that sends her eyes spinning. Ben is in more pain, she reminds herself frequently, pain she can do nothing to remove, take none of it on her own shoulders for just a second.
It’s like watching a newborn baby sleep, she decides late one night (or perhaps early one morning) as the sounds of the hospital fall away behind her. Every twitching muscle or slightly more forceful breath eliciting a reaction from whoever turns up to keep her company. But at the same time, it is far from witnessing the miracle of childbirth or the joy of welcoming new life. Ben should be campaigning at her side, phoning her up at all hours of the day with that gentle insistence in his tone that only works on her, or maybe he should be turning up at her house one evening with a folder full of debate notes that they will never quite get to between the spontaneous baking sessions and all night conversations.
Leslie knows what Ben looks like when he sleeps. Especially recently, she marvels at the way the lines across his forehead melt back into his skin as his eyes close. She watches his chest rise in such a calm manner, detached from the panicked rush of breath that releases a tirade of statistics and advice when she asks for it in the day. But now the creases are still there, even without his eyes to make him seem happier. If anything they are deeper, cutting a hard line across his smooth forehead, creating cliffs for her fingers to climb when they find their way to the tangled mess of hair that fans out over the pillows.
She relishes the company of others during the day, happily watching them come and go every couple of hours, starting with an update on the campaign that she still manages to run remotely from a hospital chair and slowly divulging their stories, relaxing into the tension of the room, wistfully laughing at Jerry's latest misfortune. It’s at times like these that Leslie feels a little sorry for the older man; hearing four different stories, each separated by mere hours, enough to make her believe in curses, and quietly thank whoever left Jerry with such a volatile one. It feels natural to laugh and comfortable, despite the sight that would catch her eyes if she took them away from Andy's animated expression, never failing to notice his stare fixed on her and never deviating in the direction of Ben for too long.
Leslie Knope may be observant and an over planner but she surprises herself when she is shocked to find out that her friends care so much for the man she loves. Andy, usually as far off the ball as it is possible to be, with all of his oxymorons and failed attempts at philosophical discussion, fails to hide the hurt in his eyes when he first greets Ben. He speaks to him as if he is in the room, patting the top of his head cautiously before looking to Leslie, checking if he is behaving suitably. His usually loud voice takes on the same quality that everyone else's has in the hospital; quiet with a cloying overtone of sympathy for the ill. His hands fiddle with the corner of the bedsheets when he speaks to Leslie, as if he is putting all of his unquenchable energy into the simple action of folding and unfolding the soft cotton.
“I wish I’d been there,” he eventually addresses the subject head on, his eyes finally meeting Ben's closed eyelids wistfully like he’s talking to him and he’s the only one in the room, “I keep getting the feeling I could have helped or just, I don’t know, done something.” Leslie nodded thoughtfully to herself, removing a hand from Ben's to squeeze his shoulder. She had seen Ben speak of Andy and April as if they were his unruly siblings, rolling his eyes amusedly at their behaviour but never losing the fond smile that graced his face.
“He'll be back to saving your house every five minutes soon enough,” she promised Andy eventually, believing that if she put enough behind the simple statement that it might come true.
April took over after Andy, pausing at the door with an unusual look of hesitation before hugging him on the threshold of the room and joining Leslie. She perched on the edge of her chair uncomfortably and barely spoke for a little while. Leslie wasn’t quite sure if she could ever remember seeing the April that had calmly reached over in the basement to guide her hand across to Ben, nor the April that Chris had thanked earnestly as the ambulance drove away, describing how she had placed a gentle, thoughtful hand against Ben's quivering forehead, softly mussing his hair.
“Ben will be fine,” she said bluntly, her voice not quite so affected by the whitewashed walls and sterile tiles, “All the doctors say it looks worse than it is.” Leslie, well accustomed to the honest reassurances of Ron, smiled softly to herself, already feeling the benefits of Swanson-esque support.
“Ron has taught you well,” she replied playfully, nudging April lightly with an elbow and watching the younger girl roll her eyes in a way that only teenagers and young adults can manage.
“You’re good for him,” she said suddenly, nodding her head in Ben's direction, “He was way too wound up before you two got together. And when he was in a bad mood, he’d never agree to do the washing up two days in a row or cook a meal for us.” Leslie again tried to imagine the dynamic of the house of misfits, never quite picturing the three of them sitting down to a home cooked meal for tea or talking as one washed up and the others dried.
“He can actually make fairly good calzones,” April continued with a small grin playing on her lips as she paused, “Now, at least. It took a few attempts and some raw dough for tea but-” She trailed off with an equally as wilting smile that couldn’t quite reach her eyes. Leslie stared into Ben's paling face for the thousandth time and projected happy, smiling Ben on top of it, with flour in his hair that he had combed through with his fingers in exasperation when the calzones weren’t quite right. She closed her eyes and saw the rueful smile on his face as Andy and April tried his food for the first time, one saying anything to please the aspiring chef and the other letting him know the truth, albeit more gently than she usually would.
Tom and Donna stopped by for tea, each carrying a hurriedly put together bag of 'nerd essentials' as Tom called them. Leslie worked her way through the items one at a time, stacking the small collection of box sets at the foot of the bed and draping the Star Wars blanket that the two of them had somehow found in one of the old charity shops outside the hospital. She didn’t fail to notice the guilt on Tom's face, the young man visibly struggling to express everything at once - the selfish craving to tease Ben just a little to see the reluctant smile and shake of his head, and the more unfamiliar desire to hug him as a friend and an equal, and to tell him just that.
“We thought, if he ever needed to treat himself,” Donna said, trailing off softly as they left. Tom settled his hand on Leslie's shoulder for a moment, nodding almost formally at her and sneaking a hand onto Ben's leg briefly before he followed Donna quickly, his shoulders hunched and unsure of themselves.
Leslie sees Ann every so often in the small window of the door, rushing between rooms, occasionally popping her head around the door to rapidly give her an update. The hospital is busy, constantly pulling her from room to room when all she really wants is to end her overtime shift and take a break with Leslie. The doctors have kept her away from Ben's folders and, before that, the surgery. A conflict of interests, they called it, but Ann can’t help but disagree - she would be far less distracted if she knew what was going on behind closed doors.
It is late evening when Ben's occasional twitches become the telltale movements of groggy consciousness. Leslie's head has long since fallen back against the plastic chair, her blonde hair acting as a makeshift pillow as she stifles yawn after yawn. They finished the operation in the middle of the afternoon, finally allowing her to sit at his side and she hadn’t moved every since.
First, it is his good hand, flexing cautiously, wrist rubbing against the bed covers experimentally. The movement extends to his fingertips as they brush over the cotton. The hard lines across his forehead, furrowed in concentration, fade away slightly, his downturned mouth settling in a straight line, his breathing slowing to a resting rate.
“Ben?” Her voice is rough with disuse and concern, whispering his name as if it is the most sacred word in the English language. Ben's hand turns palm up in response, his fingers reaching out blindly for her hand. She takes it gratefully, feeling his hand unnaturally cooling her skin but pushing the thought to the back of her mind and resting a tired chin against the bed.
“Can you open your eyes?” Her words carry a desperate pleading sense of hope that she can’t help but expose, overtaken by the need to see those brown irises with her own eyes. He seems to contemplate the idea for a while, stilling to the point that she believes he is unconscious once more before a single eyelid slides open an inch. Ben blinks hard for a few moments, the sterile white walls bouncing a bright, artificial light around the room and then shifts his head to glance in her direction. One side of his mouth turns up contentedly, a ghost of the bashful smile he used to wear as they casually flirted returning to his all too pale face, paired constantly with a look of worry.
“I’m so sorry,” he mutters suddenly, his eyebrows lowering over his pooling eyes in a frown, “I hope I didn’t tell them anything to ruin the campaign.” His voice is too soft, too vulnerable and Leslie all but launches herself at him, pulling up short and gently putting her arms around him in a half embrace. She replies with whispered reassurances, breathing softly into his ear as her own eyes moisten. She feels a single hand reach up as far as he can manage, rubbing her side tenderly. And when she pulls away, his hand is still against hers, shaking slightly at the prospect of losing contact with her.
“You did so much for me,” she replies more loudly, “Being a councilwoman isn’t worth all of that.” Ben shakes his head firmly, wanting to say so much more but letting his head fall against the pillow with a cough and a sigh, his eyes already misting over with fatigue.
“Newport,” he begins again with half closed eyes as she hushes him with a squeeze of his hand. Ben's eyes clench closed for a moment before relaxing again and Leslie watches in silence, feeling the iron grip on her fingers fall away as he slips into a fitful sleep.
“What did they do to you?” she murmurs under her breath, gaze trailing over the clipboard at the base of his bed and knowing that it answers all of her questions. But for once in her life, Leslie does not want to know the answer, no matter how painful and disappointing because there is something so blissful about ignorance; she could spend her life thinking Ben is just a little quieter and more nervous. She doesn’t want to consider the dislocated shoulder and fractured leg or the bruised ribs and scars down his front and back. She doesn’t like to think about the reason why he might shiver and look off into space every now and then, especially refusing to acknowledge the fact that he will toss and turn through the night, hearing things she can’t silence and seeing things she can’t turn him away from.
And Leslie's biggest problem is that she knows all of this, deep down in the vault of her subconscious, because no matter how many times she imagined the national anthem blaring in her head as the doctors spoke to her in that horribly sympathetic tone, she heard every word amplified a thousand times and, as Ben faces his own nightmares, she too will come to head to head with her own.
Thank you to anyone who has left kudos so far!
I really appreciate anyone who chooses to read this and I hope you are enjoying the more frequent updates
“They cancelled the debate?” Ben had been awake for longer periods of time, holding tentative, shaky conversation in the same fragmented tone that placed an unfamiliar pressure on her chest. She had sat in the same room for four days, thoughts of the campaign often falling to the back of her mind, even the declining polling results not quite enough to distract her from Ben.
“Postponed it,” she corrected gently, “It turns out that debates aren’t well attended when the front runner of an election isn’t able to turn up. They rescheduled for tonight, remember?” Ben hummed in the vague way that strongly suggested he didn’t remember the fact at all but Leslie only smiled reassuringly in response, well aware that she had told him when he was at his most tired the day before.
“Opening statement?” He raised his eyebrows in a very 'Ben' way, reminding Leslie achingly of what she had started to refer to as before. Before two people who were getting away with everything had ruined it all.
What amazed Leslie the most was the fact that Jennifer Barkley was somehow still in the public eye, shouldering the responsibility of Bobby Newport's campaign despite the allegations made against her. Ben had made a statement with the police, his hands shaking both out of habit and because it was the new norm. Leslie had been hopeful at first before quickly realising that rich people like Jennifer don’t get involved in such job offers without an excellent set of lawyers and a touch of influence backing them. Others, like Tammy, just learned to disappear.
Ron had been unexpectedly angry when he came to visit for the first time the day before. He had expressed to Leslie his confusion about visiting people who were yet to regain consciousness in a hospital, attempting to justify his absence for the first few days. Leslie, however, had been reliably informed by April that he had, in fact, been holed up in his office with a stormy expression on his face.
“You look,” he had said in greeting to Ben, “Well.” The man lying in a hospital bed had managed an amused snort, taking the offered hand and shaking it gently. Ron, to his credit, had consented to keeping Ben company as Leslie made her daily hour break at her house, changing clothes and throwing together campaign plans that she couldn’t manage from the hospital room. She returned to the two men sitting in what she took to be a contented silence, Ben lying flat on his bed and watching the ceiling tiles interestedly as Ron kept his eyes steadily trained on him. Leslie noted fondly, that a dead eyed stare from Ron Swanson was about as affectionate as you could get. It was certainly one way of showing sympathy.
“So?” Ben prompted from the present and Leslie shook her head before launching into a short paragraph the two of them had written several weeks before. It was short but clear, similar to her initial announcement that she was running for city council which was, in Ben's words, 'simple' but, she hoped, effective. She had tried to picture delivering the lines to a room full of people, stood behind a debating lectern, surrounded by her opponents but recently the image had been harder to conjure. Leslie didn’t like a fantasy that didn’t include Ben stood off stage with a clipboard in hand, nodding his support whenever she caught his eye apprehensively.
“I wish you could be there,” she found herself saying, only reprimanding herself when he winced to himself ashamedly. She stuttered for a moment, trying to backtrack and then paused with a sad smile. “I know you’ll be watching from here, though.” Ben didn’t seem particularly happy about the situation either, sending a weak glare in the direction of the unreliable television in the corner of the room before returning his eyes to Leslie apologetically.
“If I can stay awake for that long,” he mumbled under his breath, yawning as if to prove a point. Leslie rubbed a circle on the still pale skin in his hand and shook her head dismissively.
“I don’t mind either way,” she promised convincingly, “I think you could quote my responses word for word by now anyway.” Ben laughed softly to himself in agreement and sunk his head back into the pillow with a happier sigh. A knock on the door signalled the arrival of the doctor, however, something that immediately set his face in a downcast expression.
“Another assessment, Mr. Wyatt,” the man, who had levels of enthusiasm to rival Chris Traeger, announced cheerfully, “Let's get you sat up.” Leslie didn’t like to watch as they followed a long list of injuries on some sick treasure hunt across Ben's bruised body but forced herself to stay in the room, desperate not to worry Ben anymore than he already appeared to be in moments of silence that fell between them.
He sat up painfully, his legs swinging over the side of the bed, one in a cast and the other brushing impatiently against the floor. For someone so opposed to exercise, Ben was unusually desperate to be out of bed and moving again. The doctor untied his hospital gown from his neck and allowed the thin fabric to fall into his lap, revealing a full assortment of things to tend to. The bruises were easier to stomach, once you were used to them, now tainted a shade of yellow that almost allowed them to blend back into the skin in a way they hadn’t when they were a violent purple. The bandages made Leslie shiver, imagining what was possibly so bad that they had to strap it up. She had seen most of the cuts and scrapes but usually managed to avert her eyes for most of them, choosing instead to watch Ben's gently contoured face as the almost permanent lines fluctuated and deepened with each movement.
The sling from his arm had been removed already after setting his shoulder back in place. Ben tested the fingers experimentally every so often, almost an absentminded habit now, as if he expected them to stop working one day. Leslie liked watching the slender fingers stroke the bedcovers automatically each hour if only for the uncensored look of relief that would dart across his face as he felt the soft cotton between them. He had been doing a few minutes of physiotherapy with his leg a couple of times each day, quickly picking up a good technique with crutches and disappointedly returning to his room when he was turned around at the end of the corridor.
“I could go further,” he would always tell her earnestly as his eyes slipped closed, body still left exhausted by a few minutes of exercise. She would nod and agree with a bemused smile on her face as he drifted off for a short nap, never sleeping too long.
“All seems well,” the doctor said brightly, consulting his chart for a moment and then looking up with an even wider grin plastered to his face, “We could be looking at sending you home today or tomorrow.” Leslie hid her initial reaction of apprehension with one of happiness before noticing Ben's own mouth set in a worried line.
“Walking up and down the corridor makes me tired enough to nap for an hour,” he reasoned softly, averting his eyes as he often did when questioning someone else's authority. The doctor waved off his concern with the usual response that everything was exactly as they expected it to be at this stage.
“Could I have a word, Ms. Knope?” he inquired on the way out, prompting Ben to pull a face that strongly suggested that he disagreed with the previous statement. Leslie followed him outside anxiously, leaving the door open a crack for her own peace of mind and glancing up and down the corridor to calm herself down.
“Physically, Ben is improving at a rate we would hope for, considering what happened to him in such a short period of time,” the doctor said with a very familiar smile. Leslie already anticipated the 'but' coming afterwards, well versed in the methods of letting someone down slowly from experience.
“We are a little worried about how he is coping with everything,” he disclosed with another sympathetic grimace, “Mentally he seems trapped in the moment. The fatigue after exercise is very possibly triggered by the way he is thinking, he is still concerned with inconveniencing people he cares about and he refuses to address the situation head on.” Listening to the list, Leslie was quite sure she could justify these reactions quite naturally but she simply nodded in agreement and let the doctor walk away with a promise that everything would work out in the end. Whenever the end was.
She leant in the doorway of his room for a moment, watching his eyes lazily flutter open and close, glancing up at the dancing patterns of dying sunlight on his ceiling. Ben's soft brown hair was bathed in the soft glow of red evening light and he almost looked comfortable in the warmth.
“You need to go,” he prompted suddenly, still speaking quietly but punctuating his words with that lopsided smile that sent her heart running after her accelerated breath. She scuffed her feet across the tiles and screwed her eyes closed grumpily.
“Leslie,” he drew out the final syllable with a slight laugh before waving one hand at the corridor behind her, “You need to get to the debate. Familiarise yourself with the layout and your surroundings so you can focus on what you’re saying. I know you can beat Bobby, even with the points gap in the polls.” Leslie frowned at him for a moment in a futile attempt to show her disappointment; Ben had been given a strict restraining order from all things to do with her campaign, although some of the nicer nurses still slipped him a newspaper when she wasn’t looking.
“I’ll see you later,” she promised with a dejected smile, “Chris said he’d keep you company.” The corners of Ben's mouth turned up slightly and he nodded cheerfully despite the yawn he stifled with the palm of his hand.
“I'll compile a list of the vitamins I’ve been given then,” he replied with a small snicker to himself. She shook her head in mock disappointment, tutting to herself as she closed the door on the happiest sound she’d heard in days.
Chris approached the small room half an hour later with far less than the usual bounce in his stride. He wasn’t just a massive germophobe on his own behalf, hating the sight of any of his friends in any sort of distress or discomfort. Ben came top of that list, still the only real connection Chris had from life before Pawnee. He loved the town and the people, but there was something comforting, homely almost, about looking up from his desk and seeing Ben's face deep in thought. It reminded Chris of surreptitious glances as the other man drove them to another unfriendly town in debt, hands tapping against the steering wheel as he fought off the boredom of such a menial task. Chris had eventually come up with several 'brain games' to keep Ben distracted, unable to keep his own smile growing at the sight of a similar expression blossoming on Ben's face with every overcomplicated mental maths sum he was given.
He knocked on the door, still not quite sure why he always followed the same routine since Ben was aware he was coming, but hovered there nonetheless until his straining ears heard a more upbeat acknowledgement than normal coming from the room. Ben was sat up straighter against the pillows, still visibly fighting off sleep but, if Chris squinted a little, almost looking like the old Ben. Or not the 'old Ben,' as Chris reminded himself firmly, as he was still the same person. He didn’t need to be babied or fussed over because they were two of the worst things to do to Ben.
“Chris,” he greeted, “You’ll be just in time for the start.” He waved over at the small TV with a more crestfallen expression, every fibre of his being wanting to be sucked into the tiny, grainy image on the screen, just standing to one side of the ornate red curtains. Chris thought to himself for a moment and then jogged from the room without anything but a quick explanation.
“It's about time you get some fresh air, Ben Wyatt.”
It was remarkable how quickly someone could be discharged from hospital when two insufferably optimistic people put their heads together. The doctor Ben had seen earlier, whose name he had never quite caught in the rapid, between breaths outbursts of conversation, seemed rather more excited to discharge him than the patient himself. Chris agreed quickly that Ben was more than ready to return home, despite the fact that the latter found himself yearning to stop for a break in the waiting room after crutching down from his room.
It also seemed as if Chris had been planning for such a moment several days in advance. He had returned from his car after an inhumanly short period of time with a familiar button up and pair of black jeans, swinging a pair of lace up shoes between his fingers. Ben trailed the plaid pattern of the soft, blue button-down, relishing the light fabric as it hugged against his body in a way the scratchy hospital gown never quite managed as it hung from his shoulders.
“Come on, Ben Wyatt,” Chris' eyes were illuminated with a new glimmer of excitement and hope, “We'll be just in time for the second half if we run to the car.” Ben raised one eyebrow and didn’t reply for a moment, allowing Chris the time to follow his pointing finger to the crutches he leant on for support.
“Maybe not running,” Chris corrected himself with an almost sheepish smile, “But we still need to move fast.” He clapped his hands together loudly in the almost silent waiting room, causing the remainder of the patients who hadn’t already been staring at him as he shouted loudly to turn to watch the short exchange. Ben drew his head back as his hands came together loudly and grimaced at the echoing sound.
“You might as well give a motivating speech to the entire room while you’re at it,” he replied eventually before nodding his head over to the exit, just catching a glimpse of Chris' slightly beaten up car as it waited in the car park. Chris seemed to approve of his idea, shouting out a series of well wishes as the automatic door shut behind them. Ben was hit by a crisp breeze, stiff on the air and closed his eyes contentedly in the late evening sunlight. He had enjoyed feeling it creep across the back of his neck as he lay in his room, but nothing compared to the naked feeling of slight warmth on his skin.
“Isn’t it just a lovely day!” Chris was watching him cheerfully out of the corner of his eye, breathing in the clean air, slightly intermingled with car exhaust fumes as Ben took in the most ordinary sight of a parking lot with the admiration of an art lover setting their eyes on a masterpiece for the first time.
“The little things, huh?” Ben commented finally, before setting off for the familiar chipped paintwork and dented doors; the battle scars of a state auditor's car. Chris followed close behind, smiling to himself more widely before muttering a short response under his breath. “The little things indeed.”
Leslie managed to suppress the need to glance offstage after the first three questions. At first she felt an all too familiar urge to glance into Ben's eyes every few seconds, the same feeling that had overtaken her frequently as he slept unconsciously in hospital. She found her mind wandering, reeling off facts about one policy of the other as she firmly told herself not to push the podium away from her and shout some profanities in the direction of Jennifer Barkley.
The aforementioned witch, as Leslie had taken to calling her (although not around Ben, as even mentioning her seemed unwise) stood where Ben should have been standing, giving Bobby condescending nods and thumbs up every time he managed to string a few words into a coherent sentence. But Leslie found she couldn’t hate him, no matter how hard she tried to mock his naive language and desperate pleading to the audience in her head. Bobby Newport, whilst he was a fully grown man who could probably make his own decisions by now, had been misled by his father and he seemed all too kind and quite frankly helpless for that to be his fault. He didn’t know Ben had been tied up in a basement somewhere, and would never have agreed to those sorts of underhand tactics if he could think for himself, Leslie assured herself. After all, it was Newport Senior who had the big ideas, as far as she was aware, so surely it was he who came up with the master plan.
Jennifer Barkley was being unbelievably confident however, showing her face in public as her DNA lay all over a house that had held another campaign manager captive. She retained that Washington, white toothed smile and still managed to keep every hair in place, something that made Leslie pat down the birds nest on top of her head every so often. The chief of police claimed that there had been no evidence to find in the decrepit house, although his eyes lowered every time he saw Leslie out and about, and he glanced towards the shredder in the corner of his office each time Leslie went to inquire again. However, ambitious as she was, even Leslie Knope couldn’t bring down both Jen Barkley and the Newport’s, not without someone of authority on her side, something she was severely lacking.
Ben and Chris heard the call for final statements as they rounded the backstage curtain and stood off to one side. Ben shook his head to keep his eyes from starting to close and hid a yawn in the sleeve of his shirt. He couldn’t help but feel the guilt rise up inside of him as Leslie gave an impassioned closing statement, wondering if he would have been better staying at hospital, if only to actually have watched the entire debate. Chris shook his head at his side as if reading his mind.
“She'll be over the moon,” he whispered reassuringly, patting Ben's shoulder gingerly, his hand hovering in midair for a moment.
“What?” Ben muttered distractedly, looking over his shoulder.
“Shauna Malwae-Tweep,” Chris exclaimed under his breath, nodding his head not too subtly in the direction of the young journalist, “Do you mind if I go and say hello?” Ben shook his head despite the soft tremble that ran through his hand as it gripped his crutch more tightly. Chris had already done enough, he reasoned, and the poor man really needed some luck with the women in his life.
“I won’t be more than a minute,” Chris promised although Ben had heard this before and almost rolled his eyes, a low chuckle escaping on his next breath. Small talk for Chris involved a break down of every family member and friend he was aware of, covering every small detail of their lives in the last few weeks. Ben had made the mistake of mentioning his sister's foray into veganism once several years before. Despite the fact that she quit only two weeks after trying it, Chris still opened every conversation concerning her with a suggestion for a new restaurant or a recipe for her to make for herself at home. It was fair to say, the younger auditor had learned his lesson.
“Ben?” Amidst the sight of Chris bouncing over to Shauna, the applause for the candidates in the auditorium had died away, signalling the exit of the hopeful applicants, Leslie leading them off the stage before stopping at the curtain. Her mouth was open and curled into a soft look of delighted surprise, one that lifted the corner of Ben's mouth up mischievously. He hobbled forward one step, only to be barrelled into by a mass of blonde curls and garbled comments, directed into his neck as she clung on tightly.
“Hey, calm down,” he murmured into the familiar smell of her tropical shampoo, his fingers flexing from their grips on his crutches and gently encircling her waist as her own made tight fists against his shirt.
“You’re here,” she said finally, pulling away with a slightly wet but glowing smile, aggressively brushing at her eyes before launching herself back against his chest. He laughed lightly against her head and she soon giggled to herself, the sound muffled by the soft fabric against her face.
“Chris said we should surprise you,” he said as she pulled away completely, still holding one of his hands over the crutch, “He’s gone to talk to some people.” Leslie furrowed her brow slightly at Shauna as the two of them talked animatedly down the hallway but eventually smiled nonetheless.
“I would reprimand you for letting him chase after a loose cannon like her but today is about you and the fact you’re stood right here. Out of hospital!” She smiled broadly up at him as he laughed again at her widened eyes and unquenchable cheeriness. He felt his hands settle into the handrests, no longer clenching at the plastic so tightly or shaking from the loss of her touch.
“It won’t last if you keep jumping me like that,” he replied jokingly and although her cheeks blushed a pleasant shade of pink, she still tightly embraced him again, somehow avoiding every remaining bandage and bruised rib with her circling hands. Ben decided, with his chin on her forehead, that she probably had a map of his injuries hidden in a folder somewhere, no doubt detailing every spot to avoid with her bone crushing hugs. Truthfully, he probably wouldn’t complain if she did hold him a little too tightly next to a bruise, the ache only reminding himself of what he would do to keep her close to him; it was a small price to pay.
“Leslie.” That voice. Leslie felt Ben's shoulders tense and his teeth chatter involuntarily. His head lifted from her own tentatively and her hand felt his own begin to shudder uncontrollably. She turned around, her own back wanting to stay turned, her eyes wanting to remain blind to the witch who introduced herself.
“And Ben,” Jennifer turned to him and Leslie watched him pale to a further shade of white below his usual complexion. The sight sent her fists curling against her side and she rounded on Jen with a laser sharp glare already fixed on her face.
“The debate is over and we have some celebrating to do,” she announced icily, watching the previously devious expression on Jennifer's face be replaced with disappointment, “So if you don’t mind...” She patted a hand tentatively against Ben's shoulder, watching his eyes raise from the floor to meet her own, the same quivering fear replaced with their usual hazel warmth.
“Oh, you’re no fun,” Jennifer complained with a smirk before turning irritatedly at the sound of Bobby tripping over one of the nearby lecterns. Leslie took Ben more firmly by the arm and led him further away from the backstage curtains, waiting for his arm to relax and for the tension to seep from his tightened muscles.
“How's the leg?” Ben, somehow, tensed further at the sound of her voice again, his pupils constricting as he shook his head towards the floor and took a sharp intake of breath. Leslie continued to guide him almost blindly as his eyelids clenched shut, the rhythm of his crutches against the wooden floor only stuttering for a moment before falling into sync with her firm footsteps. Out of the corner of her eye she could see his mind working rapidly, the same deer in the headlights look he got at the mention of Ice Town returning to his face. His breath shook in a similar way to the late night confessions of his failures and fears, nightmares that would pale in comparison to what was coming forcing him awake as the angry shouts of Partridge followed him from his dream. His skin would be slick with sweat when Leslie woke up from her light sleep, running a hand down his chest cautiously, feeling every compression and eruption of his erratic heartbeat.
It was the same now, his unsteady pulse pounding through his arms and legs, his forehead shining under the overhead lights. Ben was in a waking nightmare with Leslie, and the pinch she gave her arm wasn’t enough to wake them up.
Ben didn’t realise late night becoming early morning, lying in bed with his head facing the blank ceiling. Time seemed to pass at varying speeds, sometimes accelerating through a couple of hours, often dragging out a minute into a thousand. His mind had long since left the room, wandering the state of Indiana, an infuriatingly good tour guide if you wanted to see the sights of Ben Wyatt's mistakes. He remembered small conversations, that had ended with him looking like a fool, from years ago, voices he couldn’t remember resurfacing in his head and echoing around the emptiness. They made a whistle stop journey to Partridge, taking in great landmarks such as the half built Ice Town and the road he first got shouted at on.
Eventually, the seconds stopped toying with him and the sound of birds began to fill the rapidly brightening room. Ben's eyes flickered to the window, watching as the pale curtains saturated with sunlight, the first stray beams casting shadows across the assortment of objects Leslie chose to keep on her bedroom floor. He lay with his head tilted to one side, frowning at a selection of porcelain raccoon statues and old, half-finished scrapbooks. He’d grown used to picking small scraps of paper and confetti out of his unkempt hair in the mornings, always finding the remenants of a late night crafts session hiding under the covers. The previous evening, however, he had realised the bed was free of its usual clutter and drawn the upsetting conclusion; Leslie hadn’t been herself recently.
For Ben, that only meant two things. He needed to find a reliable source of waffles quickly and it was time to put a brave face on. After all, he’d had all night to wallow in his own failures - his days were for Leslie's campaign. Ben continued to plan his more optimistic frame of mind, only stopping himself from testing out his smiling muscles when he wondered just how crazy it would make him look. An arm on his shoulder sent his head tilting further on the pillow to see a tired Leslie resting her head against his own.
“You alright?” Leslie was often incoherent in the mornings, the only time Ben could persuade her to do anything she didn’t want to do and only managing it becuase she was so bleary eyed and half asleep that anything could be pitched as a brilliant idea. He nodded in a way that he hoped was convincing and gently propped himself up against the wall.
“Sleep well?” he asked softly, smiling as she nuzzled her face further against his shoulder. It wasn’t often that Leslie would stay in bed for more than a minute or so after waking up but she seemed contented to lie still for a moment longer.
“Better now you’re back,” she whispered against his neck, sending a small shiver down his spine, “What about you?”
Ben thought about the shape of the small crack in the ceiling plaster above his head and the fact that the image was firmly stored in his long term memory after focusing on it for so long. He considered the number of times he had been through everything in his head, trying to remember a moment in the night where his brain had grown tired and switched off for a moment. He found himself drawing a blank.
“I slept fine,” he mumbled distractedly before flashing a surely unconvincing smile in her direction and stretching his arms away from his sides, “Do you want to get waffles for breakfast?” Leslie's eyes brightened at the suggestion before narrowing scrutinisingly.
“You can’t deflect with talk of breakfast food,” she warned him, teasingly punching his arm but retaining her harsh stare. Ben glanced away from the eye contact and cleared his throat, his plan already slipping from his grasp.
“I can't really remember what was sleeping and what was - something else,” he admitted quietly, “I did a lot of thinking, you know?” She nodded with a sympathetic sigh and rested her head back against his own. He took her wrist in his hands and squeezed it softly with a small smile.
“We can cancel some of our campaign work for today,” she suggested, “Just take a day to breathe.” He shook his head convincingly and sat up straight with the intention of getting out of bed.
“You can’t afford to lose anymore points against Newport at this point, Les,” he reminded her coaxingly, “We can’t give up after everything we’ve done.” Leslie wanted to add that really it was everything Ben had done but bit her tongue and nodded.
They sat amongst political biographies of obscure party representatives in the kitchen, using spare copies of Leslie's campaign advert DVD as coasters and eating off of the only clean plates. Ben had relaxed his no clutter rule since almost moving in with Leslie, forcing himself not to compulsively clear away what he considered junk, unprepared for the speech he’d get from Leslie about the value of every item he touched. They rifled through the local papers, looking for angles to get on top of the other candidates and listened to the TV news channel in the background. Leslie's eyes never fully left Ben's figure, sometimes staring blatantly at his face as he read, otherwise watching his hand as it tapped a natural rhythm on the countertop. It was a habit he’d never had before, once growing frustrated when April knocked her pen against a table in his office for the entirety of a meeting. He didn’t seem to enjoy the silences they used to sit in comfortably, prickling at the sound of water in the pipes and filling in the quiet with finger tapping or small, incidental comments.
“I have just been told that there is breaking news,” Perd Hapley's voice suddenly caught their attention, “Yes, this is news that is important and I shall read it now. The news is that Bobby Newport Senior has been found dead at his house. He passed away late yesterday night. We do not know anything else at this point so that is all of the news that is breaking. Stay tuned for updates when we are updated.”
“Dead,” Ben echoed numbly, his rhythms stopping immediately as he ran a hand through his hair, “Just like that?” Leslie sat silently for another moment, her finger hovering above the untouched whipped cream above her waffle, poised to dip into it. Ben glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and circled her shoulders with his arm.
“That can’t be right,” she muttered sluggishly, looking up at Ben with a frown that deepened over time, “I wanted - needed - that’s just not fair!” She stood up suddenly from her chair and stood by the window, her stumbled words continuing in a stream under her breath. She spun around and almost glared at Ben who was halfway to grabbing his crutches and joining her.
“Don’t,” she pleaded softly, joining him at the table again with another frown, “Don’t get up for him.”
“I'm getting up for you,” Ben reasoned firmly, “You didn’t have anything worthwhile to say to him, Leslie. Seeing him would only have hurt both of us.” She clasped both hands over his which had begun to shake very slightly and rested her chin on top of them.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” she grumbled with a reluctantly mischievous smile, “I was going to do the worst, but still technically legal, thing I could think of - cream pie to the face?” Ben chuckled under his breath and felt his shoulders loosen from their previously tight knots.
“Well, now I feel like I’ve missed out on a spectacle,” he mourned teasingly, “We could always go to the funeral.”
“I feel like that would be a little insensitive,” Leslie mused before shrugging, “But on the other hand, he didn't seem like the sensitive sort. Still, it would be bad for my public image so close to the election, right?” Ben nodded firmly in case she really was considering it and slid the half full whipped cream can out of reach. Leslie continued to watch the unrelated news stories with disinterest as Ben started to think again.
“D'you think Jennifer had anything to do with it?” he asked suddenly and Leslie turned around in her chair with wide eyes.
“I don’t know. She was getting paid by him, wasn’t she?” Leslie questioned reluctantly, still trying to avoid the subject altogether, “It seems like a poor decision on her part to murder the man who had all of the money.” Ben shrugged contemplatively and began to scrape the remainder of his food onto Leslie's plate, stacking one on top of the other. Leslie picked them up with a pointed stare before he could move and went to the sink to clean them.
“Maybe she got greedy,” Ben suggested matter for factly, “Or Tammy.” Leslie's shoulders visibly tightened and she put the plate she was washing down and turned around with a heavy exhalation.
“Ben. There’s nothing we can do if that is the case. You’ve got to be more careful with what you get involved in now,” she launched into the lecture Ben had been expecting since his eyes first opened for more than a minute at a time, “I was already contemplating doing the final few days of campaigning with you based here so no one could get to you. We can’t get involved in any of this - you’ll get yourself hurt again.”
“I can look after myself,” Ben assured her gently, retrieving his crutches from beneath the table as if to prove a point and levering himself up into a standing position, “I know you might be worried about all of this but they have no reason to come after any of us now.”
“Except the fact that you got away on your own terms, with our help and that probably pissed them off,” Leslie retorted loudly, her voice suddenly becoming that of his conscience from the previous night. Ben shook his head to clear the doubt that resurfaced and found her standing in front of him when he reopened his eyes.
“I’m not letting you out of my sight,” she promised earnestly, wrapping her hands around his waist again and resting her head against his chest, “I will steamroller you into submission, Wyatt. I don’t care if it means I have to handcuff you to me but we are not leaving each other's sides until Jen Barkley has left Pawnee.” Ben hummed in response, hiding his smile in her hair as he rested his head on top of hers, pressing a light kiss against her forehead.
“You should be careful too,” he warned her concernedly, “I heard from April that you called them the witches from the Wizard of Oz when you came to rescue me. Somehow, I don’t think Tammy will have taken that lightly.” Leslie muffled a short laugh in his chest and shrugged her shoulders.
“From the sound of things, they’d have to get through you if they wanted to get to me though,” she said, patting his arms consolingly, “And you once punched a man.”
“Yeah, I did that once,” Ben repeated sarcastically, “Because I’m the definition of masculine. I’ve punched one guy in the nose once.” Leslie slapped lightly at his arm and frowned to herself.
“You wouldn’t be you if you acted like Ron all the time,” she reassured him strongly, “I wouldn’t want to spend all of my time with you if you were beating up anyone who came near me. Trust me, I prefer diplomat Ben Wyatt over provoked violence Ben. And you felt guilty about hitting that guy for several days even after you apologised, several times, to anyone you saw.”
“He probably had a bruise,” Ben held up one hand in surrrender as he stabilised himself with the other, “And I know I’m not the strongest man around but I get the feeling that these people don’t listen to words all that often.” He waved his hand towards the TV as it showed a family photo of the Newport’s and Leslie suddenly froze.
“If Newport Senior's dead,” she began hopefully, “Does that mean his plan to take over Pawnee won’t happen, even if Bobby gets elected?”
“It would certainly reduce the pressure on you,” Ben said wistfully before his brow furrowed, “But I expect there are members of the family that share the same dream and now, the same fortune.”
“We’d better get to work then,” Leslie agreed, “If only we could send the Newport’s a bouquet of flowers to express our sympathies but secretly fill them with whipped cream.”
“I’m not sure that would be effective,” Ben replied with a smirk, “People don’t tend to bury their own faces in flowers.”
“Bobby is pretty ignorant though.”
“Yeah. Save if for after the campaign.”