“Of course, you know, my favorite is the waffles, but they have amazing omelets and breakfast combinations, too,” Leslie is saying as they push through the doors of the diner. “I could actually live on JJ’s food, I think.”
Ben smiles at her. “I think you already do.”
She grins, not denying anything. She makes a beeline for her favorite booth, which is open, thank goodness. Coming to breakfast at JJ’s is at the very top of her Things to Do Once We Tell Everyone list. They’re planning to inform Chris of their relationship today, and the Pawnee media won’t get a hold of the story for hours yet. She hopes. Besides, she needs this to give her strength before the meeting. “Anyway, I’m so excited to get to come back here with you again! I hope JJ is working today, I want to introduce you.”
Leslie’s phone goes off. She reads it quickly. Today’s the day! You can do it! She smiles.
“Ann?” Ben asks.
“Sweet, beautiful Ann,” she confirms.
The waitress is there in another moment, one of the things Leslie loves about this place. “Usual, Leslie?” she says, pulling out her pad.
“Of course, Kami.” Leslie nods. “But I think my boyfriend here,” she adds gleefully, “will need a few minutes to look over the menu.”
Kami’s eyes go wide with surprise. “Boyfriend? Really?” She dumps her pad on the table and squeezes both of their forearms affectionately. “Congratulations, you two!”
“Thanks!” Leslie beams. Ben nods, pretty pleased himself.
“I’ll be back with your coffee in a minute, Leslie. Black coffee for you?” Kami asks Ben.
Leslie shudders. “The coffee is amazing here, but I still can’t see how you can drink that stuff.”
Ben shrugs. “Maybe you’ll have to show me how it’s really done sometime.”
“You’re on,” Leslie says, pressing her finger forcefully to the table.
She looks back at Kami and frowns. “How did she know you take it black? Either she has an amazing memory, or...”
“Or,” he says, “a lucky guess?”
She’s not buying it. “You've been coming here without me, too? A lot?”
He looks uncomfortable. “Yes. Sometimes. When I could. Sorry?”
“Aw, that’s okay. Who can resist JJ’s!” She winks to put him at ease. “You clearly have good taste.”
He relaxes and winks back. “It must be why we’re incredibly compatible.”
“Don’t oversell it,” she teases. “So, what’s your favorite thing on the menu?”
He flips a page and purses his lips. “Not sure. Everything I’ve tried is good.”
“Aha!” she says. “I can help you find your favorite menu item. Operation: Diner Deliciousness underway.”
He lifts an eyebrow.
“I can work on the title.”
Their coffees arrive, but not with Kami, with JJ himself. “JJ!” Leslie says, rising to give him a quick, warm hug. “I can’t remember if you’ve met before, but this is Ben Wyatt, my boyfriend.”
Ben holds out his hand for a shake, an odd look on his face.
JJ ignores Ben’s outstretched hand. “This guy?” JJ chortles. “Sure, I know him! He’s one of the regulars now!”
Leslie gasps slightly and then pierces Ben with a look. “Sorry?” he repeats quietly.
JJ goes on, “When I heard from Kami that you two were together, I just had to come over and congratulate you myself. And if you don’t mind my saying so...”
Ben leaps on the chance to distract Leslie. “Say what?”
“I think it’s pretty romantic how you both had the same favorite booth.”
Leslie’s expression softens, her earlier surprise melting away. “Really?” she asks Ben.
“Yeah,” he says, eyes on his shoes.
She reaches over to take one of his hands. “Then we’re never going to sit anywhere else.”
He looks back up into her eyes and all is forgiven.
“You ready to order?” JJ asks.
“I’ll have...” He scans a page quickly and points at one of the items. “...the oatmeal.”
“Really?” JJ and Leslie say together with identical frowns.
Mid-Morning Coffee Break
“And then you add one, two, three teaspoons of sugar,” Leslie says, pouring from the sugar dispenser. “Or to taste.”
“You know exactly how many teaspoons that was?” Ben asks. They’re taking a much-needed coffee break – he from job interviews, she from campaign planning.
“Oh, don’t question my sugar-measuring skills.”
Ben lifts his hands in surrender. “Never.”
“Stir well. Add one half and half.”
“And what’s next?”
She shakes a can of whipped cream that the wait staff gave her and squirts a dollop onto a spoon. “Stir a little into the mixture until it’s dissolved. Then top with one, two, three, four good squirts of whipped cream.” She sprays the last bit with a flourish.
“Doesn’t look too difficult.”
“All right, then. Your turn.” She gestures to Mary Beth, who is on shift this morning. “Can we get a second cup, please?”
Mary Beth brings a clean ceramic cup and fills the cup halfway only. “There you go, sweetheart.”
Ben pulls the cup toward him, and arranges the sugar and both types of cream in a semicircle around it. “Okay, so I start with the half and half..?” He reaches for it.
Leslie almost slaps his hand away. “No, no, no! Weren’t you listening?”
He dodges her hand easily. “Just kidding.” She scowls cutely but settles back. He prepares the concoction precisely, not making a single mistake... that he can tell.
“Perfect,” she says, sounding proud.
“No, not yet,” he says, then reaches into his satchel for the crowning touch. Unwrapping a miniature candy cane, he slides it into the side of the mug. “There.”
She tilts her head.
“What? It’s the holidays.”
She pulls the mug toward her and takes an experimental sip. Her eyes close as she savors the taste. “Mmm,” she says finally. “Points for innovation. You’re hired.” Somehow she manages to take another long drink of the coffee with one hand while texting with the other.
He pumps a fist. “Yesssss. Official campaign coffee maker. Has a nice ring.” His phone buzzes in his pocket and he looks at it. It’s a text from Ann. Congratulations!
“You deserve every bit of that title. But next time...” Leslie pulls out the candy cane and slowly sucks the froth from the tip. Then she winks. “Don’t be afraid to use a bigger candy cane.”
“So I think that’s the last one.”
“You have indeed had the last sandwich on the menu. So?”
Ben frowns in thought. “Still not sure.”
Leslie groans in frustration, texting Ann without looking down. “I was sure it was gonna be one of those!” Ann wants a play-by-play, of course.
“I mean, they’re all good, but... nothing just screams ‘favorite.’” He pulls a menu from the rack on the side of the table and opens it up. “I guess there’s always the dinner menu still to look forward to.”
JJ comes by, an expectant look on his face. “How was everything?”
“Just ‘good’?” he asks Ben pointedly.
JJ turns to Leslie. “Nothin’ yet, huh?”
“Nope,” she says. “But we’re going to keep fighting the good fight.” Ann texts back. I'm SO gonna win this. Leslie responds, The game isn’t over yet, my dear.
Ben is flipping through the menu idly. “You know, you should really consider adding ca–”
“No calzones.” Leslie and JJ say in unison.
“I told you that before. What kind of place do you think I’m running here?” He walks away, shaking his head.
“Now this might make the list.” Ben lifts another bite of deep-dish apple pie to his mouth. “Oh, my god.” Crumbs escape from the sides but he doesn’t care.
“Their apple pie is divine. You should try the strawberry when it’s in season.” She cuts into her waffle and swirls it around in the syrup. “It tastes like summer on a fork.”
“I believe you. If it’s half as good as this is...” The warm juices mix with the flaky crust, and he’s not sure how much of the resulting euphoria is the sugar or being out with Leslie on a Tuesday afternoon. He managed to convince her to take a break from the campaign trail for an hour – which is an accomplishment deserving of this slice of heaven.
“You know what would make that better?” she asks with a little half-smile.
“Whipped cream, right?” He shakes his head. “I don’t know about that. It’s pretty damn good the way it is.”
“Try it.” She hands over the can.
He shrugs, happy to indulge her. He places a precise dollop in the center of the remaining bits and takes a bite. “Ehh,” he says.
She looks around the diner. He wonders why. It’s pretty slow today, mostly just them and the waitstaff. Then she gets up and slides in next to him. “You have to try it this way.”
She takes a clean fork from one of the unused settings, and separates a single bite. She shakes the can once slowly, then a quick jiggle, then gives it a vigorous shake. Positioning the nozzle above the forkful, she adds a sizable mound of cream. She pauses... then puts the bite into her own mouth. Without warning, she kisses him. He’s too surprised to do anything but open to her.
The flavors of apple, cream, crust… and Leslie… mingle in his mouth, sweeter than pie has ever tasted. When she pulls back, all he can manage in a scratchy voice is, “Whoa. Definitely better.”
She smiles, pleased with herself, and moves back to the other side of the table.
Ben clears his throat. “How soon do you have to be back?”
She gives him an answering smile. He can hear her phone buzzing in her bag, but she actually ignores it.
The next time Carol, their waitress, checks the table, it's empty, save for dishes and a twenty dollar bill.
“Have you ever even tried the other dishes?” Ben is asking.
Of course she has. She’s eaten everything on JJ’s menu. “Yes. I just know what I like.”
“How long has it been since you had say...” He scans the page. “...the fried chicken dinner. Or the meatloaf.”
“Um...” She looks upward in thought and bites her lip. She really can’t remember. Was it before or after she joined the Parks department? “A couple years ago?”
“What about the grilled cheese?”
“Ah!” She pounces on it. “That I had last month.”
“What kind of bread?”
Need he ask? “White.”
He nods, trying to prove a point. “I told you,” she says, unapologetic, “I know what I like.”
“I just think... as long as we’re making me try every single menu item, that you should try to step out of your comfort zone. A little.”
“Yes. Try wheat. Or rye!” He looks up at Patty, who has been waiting patiently for an order for the past few minutes. “You do have rye?”
Patty looks unsure. “I... don’t think so.”
“Okay, rye, then.”
Leslie makes a face. “Rye?”
“You could add pickles...?”
Leslie sighs. “Okay. For you.”
When their food arrives, Leslie dutifully takes a bite of the grilled cheese on rye. She tries to school her face to mask how awful it tastes, but by Ben’s smirk she knows she’s failing.
He finishes chewing his bite of chicken-fried steak and holds out a napkin to her. “You can spit it out if you need to.”
“I can do this...” But a moment later she spits it out into the napkin. “Oh, hell no, that’s nasty.”
A ham sandwich on white bread, prepared just the way she likes, arrives at the table. “Your friend Ann called us to have this ready, just in case.” Ben just shakes his head with disbelief – he never even saw Leslie texting her.
Leslie gives Patty a grateful smile. “You. Are the best. But especially Ann.” She dives into the sandwich with relish.
Ben ends up eating the cheese sandwich for her – he’s not a fan of chicken-fried anything despite his promise – but she makes him brush his teeth before kissing him again.
“See? Isn’t it better to fill up here than on overpriced Swedish Fish?” They head for their table. “And I know for a fact that none of that money goes back into the local economy. Unlike here–”
She stops, totally flabbergasted. She’s just realizing how empty the diner is, very unusual for seven o’clock at night. Their usual table is decked out with wine glasses, candles and flowers. She spins to look at Ben. “You did this?”
“I did.” He’s been keeping it a secret for over a week. He’s amazed she didn’t get it out of him. Though actually, he shouldn’t be, because he had help. Ann promised she could keep Leslie distracted while he prepared this, and Ann was as good as her word. Even he was thinking it now: sweet, beautiful Ann. “With some help.”
Leslie comes close and gives him a tender kiss on the cheek. “Thank you.”
He gestures grandly to her seat. “Happy anniversary.”
She sits as settles herself before she does a double take. “Anniversary?” He can see her counting in her mind. “It’s not since our first kiss... or since we went public...”
He sits down before he says, “Since we first met.”
Her expression of confusion softens into warmth. “Oh, Ben,” she says softly.
Kami brings out two covered trays. No fancy silver platters for them – JJ’s has never used anything fancier than ceramic ware. Carefully she sets them in front of Leslie and then Ben, pretending as if this were a state occasion. It isn’t, but Ben wants it to feel just as special. Kami smiles at both of them and then asks Ben, “Will that be all?”
“Yes, thank you.” He picks up his napkin and settles it on his lap, in no hurry.
Leslie watches him, expectantly. “May we remove the covers?”
“If you wish.”
He watches her struggle only briefly with the decision. She removes the plastic cover with a happy gasp to see a beautifully decorated waffle in the shape of her face. Frosting, whipped cream and various hard candies make up her hair, eyes, lips... The folks here outdid themselves – but that’s Pawnee for you.
“Too pretty to eat?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” she says with a smirk, cutting the nose off and popping it into her mouth. “I was going to say,” she continues while chewing, “that it’s almost perfect.”
“Yeah! I mean... where’s my Ben?”
“So that you can bite my head off?” he teases.
“Or just... eat you all up...”
He reaches for her plate. “If that’s so, maybe I should switch plates with–”
She blocks him with her fork, laughing. “No way.” She eats another piece of the face and then points at his still-covered plate. “So what’s under there?”
“Oh, this?” he says, nonchalant. “Just the answer to the question you’ve been asking for weeks.”
She sets down the fork. “Really?”
She immediately pulls out her phone and starts typing.
“What are you doing? Does Ann have to know this second?”
She looks at him as if he should know better. “Yes.” The phone buzzes back. “Okay, we’re ready.”
“We–? Never mind.” He places his hand on the cover, pauses just long enough to let her get antsy. “And now... Ben’s favorite meal at JJ’s... is...” He removes it with a flourish. Below is a meatball sub sandwich.
“Oh, darn it.” Leslie says.
“Ann and I had a bet – and she won.” Leslie starts typing on her phone again.
“She knew I would choose a meatball sub?”
“She did! I totally had you pegged for the marinated chicken breast.” She bites her lip when the phone buzzes again. “I owe her lunches for a week.”
He frowns. “But I never reacted strongly to either of those.”
Leslie shrugs. “She’s a trained nurse. She can read people.”
He takes her hand. “Are you disappointed?”
She starts a little. “No. Oh, no. I’m not disappointed. Actually, I think I like that you can still surprise me.” She gestures around the table. “This proves it.” She lifts up off her seat and kisses him once, twice, tasting, as always, sweeter than sugar.
They never make it to the movie after all.
Patty nudges Mary Beth. “Look who’s here again, at this time of night.”
Mary Beth looks toward the front door, where a couple is walking in. “Huh, weren’t they just in here earlier?”
“Yeah, but you know Leslie. If she has a craving...” Patty grabs a couple of menus to take over.
Mary Beth prepares a few things herself. A couple of mugs, some fresh place settings, a can of... “Oh, crap.”
“What?” Patty asks, turning back.
Mary Beth only says, “Stall them, I’ll be back as soon as I can find a 24-hour market!” She grabs her coat from the back and heads out the back door in a rush. JJ will kill them if he finds out they ran out of whipped cream. Anything for their best customers.