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Falling by the Rules

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At 12:30, Leslie noticed her stomach growling and looked up at the light bulb that she’d made sure was replaced a few weeks earlier. It was beaming brightly now, taunting her with the things that she could accomplish and the things that she couldn’t.

The person she wanted to invite to JJ’s for lunch but was powerless to.

She wished she could call up the maintenance guy and order him to fix the weird thing that was going on in her chest lately. She envisioned that conversation:

I don’t know how to fix impossible relationships, he’d complain.

Learn it! she’d command him. And all would be right with the world.

“Earth to Leslie! Earth to Leslie!” Tom’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Stop staring at the ceiling. You’re freaking me out.”

She’d momentarily forgotten Tom was in the room. Or that he existed. “Sorry, I just … I guess I’m hungry. Trying to decide what I want.”

“Why don’t you eat with Ben anymore?” Tom whined, somehow making this situation about himself, and what did he care? “I miss being able to enjoy my bento box and US Weekly in peace once in a while.”

She rolled her eyes at him, and he leaned back to prop his feet on his desk, then asked with mock concern, “So what’s the problem—he’s gotten too uppity with the new job, or you finally realized what a huge nerd he is?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Leslie said.

“Suit yourself,” Tom said, raising his US Weekly like a curtain between them.

She wanted to go eat with Ben, but things had changed between them the past few weeks, ever since that day in his living room when they’d tacitly acknowledged their troublesome predicament. After that, she had stopped dropping by his office just to smile at him goofily and ask him random stuff. It used to cheer her up to see him turn all awkward whenever she showed up; it was like, if she couldn’t be with him, at least she could feel the power of making him momentarily forget the word “hands.” Then it had just started feeling like torture—to him, to her, to everyone involved.

Ben, for his part, had reverted to acting studiously professional, more distant and businesslike than he had ever been before, and she understood why, but it still bugged.

So, what then? They couldn’t be together, so they couldn’t be anything? That just sucked eggs, and not the colorful Easter kind either.

If only this was a work problem, she’d know exactly what to do: schedule a meeting, bringing the relevant parties together in a room to brainstorm solutions. And …

But wait. That just might be crazy enough to work.

She picked up her phone, glancing sideways at Tom to make sure he wasn’t paying attention.

“Ben Wyatt,” the voice came over the line.

“Ben,” her voice came out as a squeak, and she cleared her throat nervously. “It’s Leslie. Leslie Knope of the parks department.” Tom looked up from his magazine to give her a weird look, so she shot him a quick keep-your-mouth-shut glare.

Ben, who was obviously nicer than Tom, let it slide. “Um … hi, Leslie. What can I do for you?”

“I’d like to meet with you … about … some details for …” Why hadn’t she thought of an excuse before picking up the phone? “Astronomy night. Yes, we need to meet about astronomy night.”

There was a pause at the other end of the line.

“Oh, um … I thought we had everything squared away for that. Is there a problem?”

“No, no problem!” Leslie said quickly. “There’s just … I just think … there’s more to talk about, is all.”

Another pause, and she wondered if she was being too transparent—or transparent enough. Was it better to give him some warning about the meeting’s true agenda, or to spring it on him? Toss-up.

“Right. Okay,” Ben finally agreed. “So … when do you want to meet?”

She thought that Tom and the rest of the parks staff would clear out at 5, so they could talk alone. “I have a lot to think about, to get ready, before we talk, so how about the end of the workday? You can come by my office?”

She heard Ben take a breath on the other end of the line, and if a breath could be less than professional, she thought this one was. “Sure. No problem. I’ll come by at about 5.”

“Very good, Mr. Wyatt,” Leslie said, too formally, spinning in her chair to face the wall so she wouldn’t have to see Tom giving her a look.

“Yeah … er, okay. Bye … Ms. Knope.”

Leslie winced. He was so getting the wrong idea. But they were going to have a conversation, and that was what mattered.

--

As Ben hung up the phone, he felt like he could see phantom question marks floating in the air in giant comic book bubbles.

Something about this felt weird. Leslie was being too professional, if there was such a thing, and it made him think she was covering for something that wasn’t going to be very professional at all. He was struggling to put her out of his mind anyway these days, and this was not going to help.

Just before 5, he grabbed his files related to the astronomy program, ignoring the odd feeling that he wasn’t going to need them. Then he put them down again to straighten his tie, ducking quickly into Chris’s empty office to use a mirror and make sure his hair wasn’t sticking up funny. Rolling his eyes at himself, he set off. Before he got half a dozen steps down the hallway, he realized he’d forgotten to pick the files back up and had to double back.

By the time he reached the parks department, he was feeling pretty jumpy, even for himself.

Leslie waved him in and motioned him to take the seat opposite her desk. “Thank you for coming,” she said primly, being overly professional again in a way that just made him more anxious.

She slid a sheet of paper across the desk to him, and for the briefest instant he had an impression of kids passing secret notes in class, but when he looked down, it was an agenda.

He cocked an eyebrow at her incredulously. “We have an agenda?”

With her head bent down toward her own copy, she gave him a small smile, peering out at him from beneath her eyelashes. “I hope we do,” she said under her breath, in a way that pretty much confirmed his suspicions that this wasn’t going to be a straightforward meeting between colleagues, and surprisingly that was what put him more at ease. It almost felt more dangerous when they were trying to hide their feelings, like they were cranking them down into a jack-in-the-box toy that at any moment could explode with inconvenient laughter and music.

Taking a breath, he looked down at the agenda and saw three items:

A. Astronomy Night
B. Interoffice Dating Policy
C. Lunch

His heart lurching into his throat, he looked up at Leslie in a panic. “Um … I don’t think—”

But she cut him off, back in business meeting mode. “It turns out that everything’s in order for astronomy night after all, so let’s skip to Item B. Mr. Wyatt, as assistant city manager, I thought you might be able to clarify a few specifics of the interoffice dating policy for me.”

Ben had the sudden urge to beg off, feigning illness or a dentist appointment or an alternate identity as a superhero who just then had to rush off to save someone. But he was really curious where this was going. “What specifically would you like to know … Ms. Knope?”

He didn’t know why Leslie had reverted to last names, but he knew why he did it. It was a defense mechanism, something he usually did when he was new to a town and budget discussions were getting heated, as a way of keeping the conflict impersonal. This wasn’t exactly a conflict … yet … but he felt like he needed to keep it impersonal just the same. For self-preservation reasons.

She looked at him boldly. “I want to know exactly what is and what isn’t allowed … according to this policy. Just in case. For future reference. In case anyone wants to know.”

“Leslie …” he started, and so much for keeping it impersonal. Cracks were already zig-zagging like crazy across his flimsy makeshift armor.

She ignored him while pulling out a legal pad, on which she drew a line down the middle to make two columns, and headed them “YES” and “NO.” He couldn’t believe she was actually serious about this.

“Let’s get started. Talking inside city hall—that’s a yes, right?”

“Yes …” he agreed, folding his arms across his chest and eying her guardedly.

“Meeting outside city hall as long as other people are there or it’s a work-related function—that’s okay, too, right?”

He nodded silently, and she jotted a note in the “yes” column.

“Coworkers meeting outside city hall as just two people?”

He shifted in his seat, uncrossing and recrossing his arms. “That’s … probably a gray area.”

She put down her pen and looked about ready to argue with him, and it reminded Ben of every other meeting in which they’d respectfully clashed. And despite the awkward subject matter, something about the atmosphere at least felt familiar.

“If two people are just friends,” she launched in, “and they want to hang out outside of work, what’s the harm in that? Just last Friday, Tom and Donna went to the Snakehole Lounge. They’re not a couple, obviously, and there’s nothing wrong with going out together. Or, sometimes, Ron and I have lunch at JJ’s. We’re friends, and that’s something that friends do. It’s no big deal. It’s just talking someplace where there’s food.”

“Um … right,” Ben agreed tentatively, trying to think of how to counter what Leslie was saying without referring to the purple polka-dotted elephant in the room. “But it’s different. You and Ron aren’t … other people.”

She narrowed her eyes at him thoughtfully, and he knew that she knew “other people” meant them. “But what about—you asked me out for a drink the very first week you were in Pawnee. Was that over the line?”

“That was different! That was before …” before what—before he’d fallen for her? To be honest, he had been pretty smitten even then. “That was before I worked for Pawnee,” he finished lamely. “Look, I said it’s a gray area.”

Leslie frowned at him a moment, then nodded once and looked down at her sheet of paper. Finally she sketched a bubble that straddled the two columns and wrote inside: “two people hanging out outside of work.” He knew the word she was looking for but not writing was “date,” but then again, that would have landed in the definite “no” column.

“Onto touching now. Handshakes are a yes, I assume?”

“Sure …” Ben felt the panic rising in his throat again. It was after hours, the lights were dimming, and she was seriously going to list all the ways people could touch each other?

“Hugs?”

“Um … gray area.” He flashed back to their brief hug at the Harvest Festival, not wanting to think that could never happen again. “Maybe if two people are friends, and it’s not too … if it’s quick enough and … if it’s just hands involved and not …”

She smiled at him and wrote the word “hugs” in the “gray area” bubble.

Then she looked thoughtful again. “What about … just … incidental touches. Okay, for example, let’s say Ron does something well and I pat him on the back. Or, um, I’m talking to Tom, and he touches my upper arm, just in passing.”

Ben didn’t want the image of Tom touching Leslie ever again, not after the health initiative meeting. But if they weren’t talking about Tom … “Yeah, er, um, that might be okay. I could see how that might happen.” Shouldn’t happen, but … whatever. He wasn’t made of steel.

Leslie still had a very all-business expression on her face, but her eyes glittered with something that definitely wasn’t. “What if two people are sitting next to each other at a meeting, and they want to hold hands under the conference table, but no one else can see?”

Ben snorted, swiping a hand across his face. “That’s, um … no. No, that can’t happen.”

She scribbled a note in the “no” column, then paused with a smile that was equal parts affectionate and wicked. “How about … making out after hours.”

He jerked his eyes away from her, fixed them on a speck of chipped paint on the wall to her left, and cleared his throat. “Definitely not. No,” he forced himself to say, despite every cell in his body disagreeing vehemently.

When he finally forced himself to look back, he caught her with a dreamy smile on her face that she quickly hid.

“Thanks for clearing that up. I, um … okay! Item C!” she said a little too brightly.

He looked down at the agenda, kind of grateful she’d ensured some order to this absurd little meeting.

“Lunch?” he asked her faintly.

“Yes. I think we should go back to eating lunch together, Ben.”

“Oh … um …” They’d been over this already, hadn’t they?

She grinned at him. “Relax. Inside City Hall. No rules broken. I just … I miss you, and I want to see you more often.”

“I miss you too,” he said without thinking, meeting her eyes in a moment that felt far too intimate, far too beyond anything that could be neatly placed in a “yes” or “no” column.

After a few troubling seconds, she pulled her gaze away and shuffled some papers on her desk. “That’s the real reason I called this meeting.”

He smiled in spite of himself. “Yeah, that was real, um, subtle.”

But she looked more serious, more vulnerable than she had since that evening in his living room. “I know there are things we can’t do. But I can’t take this, not doing anything, so I think instead, we should be doing everything on the ‘yes’ list.”

Ben let his eyes linger on that column, even took a longing gander at the “grey area” and the “no” lists. It was tempting, but an awful, foolish way out of this strange little purgatory.

“Leslie,” he pleaded softly, all efforts at pretense going out the window. “How am I supposed to get over you if you’re around all the time?”

She looked taken aback for a moment. “You don’t. I don’t want you to,” she said, looking like the idea hadn’t occurred to her. “Look, I’ve thought about this. And every other way around the rule requires some big risk or some huge change, and I don’t think we’re there yet. Think of this as a temporary solution. We can take some time to get to know each other while we figure out if what we have warrants a bigger solution.”

Ben stared at her for a moment, thinking about what she was proposing. It was a very Leslie idea, somehow both cautious and audacious. And he realized he already knew that he was going to want the bigger solution down the line, whatever that might be.

If he was that far gone already, really, what did he have to lose?

“Lunch tomorrow?” he finally agreed.

“It’s a date!” she exclaimed gleefully. “I mean, it’s not a date. That’s the whole point.”

He just hoped he knew what he was getting himself into.

--

The next morning, Leslie stood in her closet for far longer than usual trying to decide what to wear. Part of her wanted to put on a dress, because Ben hadn’t really seen her in a dress, but she didn’t want to scare him off either, since he seemed a little lukewarm on the wisdom of the plan. Finally she settled on a pretty floral blouse under a smart pantsuit.

To avoid her usual panic, she was thinking of this as their second da—er, lunch. In retrospect, she was thinking that their first had been on the day of the burger cookoff, and it had gone swimmingly before she even knew what was happening. Still, just to be on the safe side, she tucked a few conversation topic notecards into a pocket on the inside of her blazer.

Ben arrived at the mural at the same time as she did, wearing a nice V-neck sweater that made her wonder if he was trying to look nice for her or if he had just been cold that morning.

“Hi, you, uh, you look … very professional,” he said as they sat down with their lunches.

She beamed at him, choosing to read between the lines. “Thank you. You, also, as well. Very professional.”

The notecards never saw the light of day, never even crossed her mind. With Halloween just past, she filled him in on her latest attempts to thwart boy villain Greg Pikitis, and then the conversation naturally segued to childhood Halloween costumes.

“I bet you were every Star Wars character possible,” Leslie said.

“Nope,” Ben corrected her. “I didn’t really gain a full appreciation for the movies until I grew up. I was Handy Smurf one year. All I can remember is how much the blue face paint itched.”

“No way! Me too. Not Handy, though, Papa Smurf.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Not Smurfette?”

“Nuh-uh,” Leslie shook her head vehemently. “I so wanted to be Papa Smurf. He was such a good leader, gentle and wise, don’t you remember that?”

His gaze changed from amusement to fondness, in that way he had a habit of looking at her before the anti-romance edict came down, and she felt her cheeks turning a shade unprofessionally pink.

Then he looked away, embarrassed. “Oh, I know what my favorite costume was,” Ben said abruptly, in an obvious attempt to squelch the tension. “Alf. I was Alf one year.”

Now it was Leslie’s turn to stare at him in disbelief, as she flashed back to the dream she’d had about marrying the furry alien. And it wasn’t like she was crazy enough to believe that it was some kind of sign or omen, but—

Looking at the sweet, amazing guy sitting next to her, she couldn’t help but think that this might be the last meal she ever approached armed with notecards.

--

They started to meet for lunch almost every day, usually by the mural, sometimes at one or the other’s desk, depending on who else was around. Ben was relieved by how quickly the weirdness wore off and they were just able to enjoy each other’s company. It felt like any relationship—all the anxiety frontloaded, and then released during the first few weeks as you realize that the person you like likes you back, and it all just starts to feel normal and good.

“Andy knows, by the way,” he mentioned one day.

Her eyes widened in alarm. “He knows … what exactly?”

“He noticed a vibe. I told him … well, I told him the truth. That we … but that we’re not … because of the rule.”

“Oh.” She furrowed her brow, thinking about this. “Then April probably knows too, right?”

Ben shrugged. “Probably. She hasn’t said anything to me.”

“April can keep a secret. But Andy, he’s so … Andy. How are you not worried about this getting out?”

Ben raised an eyebrow at her, amused. “What getting out? That we eat lunch together? I don’t think that’s a big secret, Leslie.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess you’re right.”

She was frowning, and he had the feeling he should reassure her that this was more to him, even if it didn’t look like it to the rest of the world.

But how to say something without actually saying anything? Then he had an idea—maybe his roommates could help them out after all.

“Did you ever hear about the fight that April and Andy had at Harvest Festival?” he asked her.

“They had a fight? They seem okay now.”

“Yeah, I didn’t hear about it until later—there was so much else going on—but it sounded like a big one.”

“What happened?” Leslie asked with mild curiosity, still looking a little sad, and Ben tried to hurry to the part of this conversation that might make her feel better.

“April said, ‘I love you’ for the first time, and Andy responded with, ‘Dude, that’s awesomesauce.’”

Leslie nodded her head with a small smile. “Yep, that sounds like Andy. I can see how that wouldn’t go over well with April.”

“It didn’t. But then later she realized that to him, it was the same thing. It was his way of saying ‘I love you’ back to her.”

She smiled wistfully. “Well, considering they were married a few weeks later, it seems like it all worked out okay.”

Ben felt a stab of envy for his roommates, for the fact that could say whatever they wanted to each other.

“Yeah,” he agreed, furrowing his brow while choosing his next words carefully. “I’ve been thinking … we should have something to say to each other.”

Leslie looked at him with two big question marks in her eyes. “We have things to say to each other. That’s why we have these lunches, right?”

“No, I mean, something to say. Like ‘Dude, that’s awesomesauce.’ Something that we could say to each other, and no one else would understand, but we would know what it meant.”

Her eyes lit up, and he could tell she was getting it now. “A secret code.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ve always wanted to have a secret language with somebody. We could pretend we’re international spies.”

He laughed, imagining briefly that Leslie as a kid must have been, well, maybe not the most popular kid in the neighborhood, but certainly the most interesting.

“Or we could just, you know, say the things that we’re not allowed to say to each other,” he pointed out gently.

“That! Yes. Let’s do that.”

She looked happily lost in thought for a minute, then abruptly declared, “I’m in the mood for waffles.”

Ben glanced at the mostly eaten cheeseburger on Leslie’s plate in disbelief.

“You’re kidding me. We just ate.”

“No, I mean …” she turned to look him in the eye. “I mean, I’m in the mood for waffles.”

Ben giggled, sliding down the wall behind him a little bit and hunching his shoulders forward self-consciously. It kind of sounded less like dude, that's awesomesauce and a little more like dude, I want to jump you. “That’s um, that’s, er, that’s what you’re going to say?”

Leslie grinned at him, innocently, and he didn’t think the double, um, triple entendre had been intended. “Don’t you think it’s perfect? I always want waffles. Nobody will ever suspect a thing.”

He exhaled slowly. If Leslie was going to express her feelings through waffles, well, that was something. He knew how much she loved waffles.

“That’s true. Okay. You’re right. I like it.”

“Now you. What are you going to say?”

Ben mulled that over. Something about the budget? Too much room for confusion. Office supplies? Leslie, I need to borrow some paper clips. Said once, okay, but any more than that, and it was going to seem weird, like he had a paper clip fetish. And it certainly didn’t have the romantic oomph of waffles.

“What if I just compared you to various Star Wars characters? I’ve done that before. It wouldn’t be too obvious.”

She grinned. “Well, it’s not exactly a summer’s day. But I’ll take what I can get.”

Ben sighed. “A summer’s day would be more apt. But, you know.”

“Yeah. I know.” She bit her lip thoughtfully. “Maybe you shouldn’t make comparisons. That might be too difficult to work into conversation. Just mention something Star Wars-y, and I’ll get it.”

He laughed, gazing at her affectionately. “What if I just want to mention Star Wars and not have it be about you?”

Leslie rolled her eyes. “Control yourself, then. This will be good for you.”

Then something occurred to him. “Hey, what are you going to say when you really do want waffles? How am I going to know the difference?”

“Oh, I always want waffles. You can just assume.”

--

Ron called Leslie into his office one day and told her to close the door.

“I know you know about the interoffice dating policy,” he said, glowering a little through his mustache.

Suddenly she felt like a kid in the principal’s office and had a ridiculous panicky moment of wondering whether Ron had called her mother.

“Yes, I know about that. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t want you to tell me what you’re doing, because one, I don’t care, and two, I don’t want to risk knowing something if someone comes asking. But I have eyes, and I want to make sure you’re being careful.”

“I’m being careful, Ron, don’t worry,” Leslie said, nodding in a way that was meant to be reassuring and serious, but judging by Ron’s worried face, probably just made her look guilty.

“How careful? Because I don’t want to have to pick up the slack if you lost your job over some silliness.”

“Nothing’s happening, Ron. I swear that to you. We’re just talking. Getting to know each other, seeing if … just seeing if.”

Ron narrowed his eyes incredulously. “What’s the endgame here? I’m only asking because I don’t want you moping around, not doing your job, if it doesn’t work out.”

Leslie couldn’t help grinning. She loved when Ron tried to act like he didn’t care when he so obviously did. “I don’t know exactly. But I’m not worried about it. I trust him.”

Ron frowned at her, then did a little wave indicating she could leave. As she reached for the doorknob, he suddenly called to her.

“Leslie. Just … look, I know how hard you work and how much your career means to you. But … there’s something to be said for someone you can trust that way.”

She smiled down at the doorknob before turning it. “Thanks, Ron.”

--

One Friday night, Ben was settling into a living room chair with a bowl of homemade pot pie and the new Newsweek when April came over to sit nearby. She ominously rested an elbow on the couch arm, propped her head on her fist, and peered at him like he was an exhibit at the Smithsonian.

He smiled at her doubtfully, then looked back at his magazine. Ben liked April, he really did, and he even felt like they might get along well given time. But for now, he found her highly disconcerting, particularly when she turned her attention toward him.

“Why are you always here?” she asked in her usual monotone.

“I live here,” he pointed out in what he realized was a remarkably similar tone of voice. “Remember, I pay rent?”

“No. Why are you always here?” she repeated, smiling at him like a serial killer.

“Where else would I be?” he asked, trying not to sound defensive.

“I dunno. Do you date? Do you want to be alone forever, reading magazines and cooking for one?”

Ben frowned at her. “I told you that you could have some pot pie if you want. I made it for everyone.”

April wrinkled her nose at the thought, but at that moment Andy joined them, shaking his head in admonishment. “April, don’t. Ben’s not … just, you don’t know the whole situation, so …”

Oh, wonderful, Mr. Subtlety had joined them.

April grinned gleefully, settling in against Andy on the couch. “There’s a ‘whole situation’?”

“I’ve been sworn to secrecy,” Andy said solemnly.

“I never swore you to secrecy,” Ben muttered, trying to concentrate, for no other particular reason than just to have something to do at this moment, on an article about the economy of Kazakhstan.

“You didn’t?” Andy sounded confused, which was not an unusual sound for him. “Well, do you mind then? I try not to keep secrets from April.”

Ben waved his hands permissively. What did it matter—April would make fun of him no matter what she knew.

“Ben’s dating Leslie, but they can’t see each other outside City Hall.”

Ben looked up from his article to see April’s mouth suck itself into a giant O, and sighed. “It’s not dating if you never see each other outside work and if you never, uh, you know,” he pointed out, holding his magazine up so that they might not see his ears burning red.

Andy giggled like a fourteen-year-old. “Nah, you’re dating. If you like each other, and you’re not seeing anyone else, you’re together.”

“No, dating would be against the rules. What we’re doing is not breaking any rules,” Ben said flatly, glancing up to see Andy give him an exaggerated wink.

“Got it, bro,” Andy said.

And Ben just might have been wrong about April, because she was looking at him with an expression that more resembled sympathy than pity. “That sucks,” she said.

“Yeah, it does suck,” Ben agreed quietly, and this time they left him to read his magazine in peace.

--

“Chris tried to set me up again,” Ben mentioned one day during lunch.

Leslie set aside The Book of Questions, which she’d been using to get to know him once they’d gotten through all the usual family, childhood, and teenaged mayor stuff. Now she had really useful pieces of information, such as the fact that he’d rather be blind than deaf, and that he’d sooner pass up $1 million than give up talking to his best friend.

“How’d you get out of that?”

“I told him I’m not interested in dating anyone right now,” he said matter-of-factly.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh yeah?”

He grinned ruefully at her. “Nah. I’m too busy not-dating someone right now.”

Alarm bells went off in her head. “You told him that?”

“Or course not. That’s … something Chris would never understand.”

“Poor Chris. He means well. You know something weird, you guys have been partners for so long, he probably thinks of you as his best friend.”

“You think? That’s a weird thought.”

“So who is your best friend?”

“Um …”

“Tom? You guys seem to click. Or is it Andy now?”

Ben raised a skeptical eyebrow at her, in a way that made her wonder who else had been in his life before he came to Pawnee.

“You have friends I don’t know about?”

“Not … exactly.”

She just looked back at him, confused.

“It’s you, Leslie,” he said, as if it should be obvious.

“Oh.” And he was right, it should have been obvious, that Ben had somehow grown to rival even Ann in her life, in the way that significant others almost always eclipse everyone else. And even if Ben wasn’t exactly her significant other, he was … significant. He had become the person she went to first for advice and leaned on for comfort and most wanted to be around when she was happy.

She put a hand on his forearm, and his gaze slid meaningfully up from her fingers to her eyes.

“You’re mine, too,” she said softly, even as the electricity zinging between them clearly stated they weren’t ever and never could be just friends, at all. And she wouldn’t give that up for all the money in the world.

--

One day in February, Ben got to City Hall extra early to sneak into Leslie’s office and remove all of her ink pens before she arrived. Then he replaced them with the same number of similar-looking but dried-out pens that he’d been collecting for months—ever since her comment about playing international spies gave him this idea.

After creeping through the eerie darkness back to his side of the building, he took advantage of the early-morning quiet to go over his notes. Just before 8 a.m., he went to the conference room for a meeting with the parks department staff about plans for the next fiscal year.

“Good morning,” Leslie greeted him brightly. “You know, I already had breakfast but I’m weirdly in the mood for waffles right now.”

He grinned at her as he organized his papers in front of him. “You and your appetite, you're worse than a wookie.”

“NERD!” Tom shot at him predictably.

“Okay, let’s get started, guys,” Ben said, returning to full-business mode.

A few minutes in, Ben noticed out of the corner of his eye that Leslie was reaching for the pen she had clipped to the inside of her binder, and his heart fluttered a bit. It was action time.

He watched her start to make a note on her pad, shake the pen, and try again unsuccessfully. He waited, knowing her well enough to know that she always came prepared with two pens to any meeting. The second used-up pen came out, and Leslie frowned when it too failed to write anything.

Without more than a glance in her direction, and without missing a beat in his presentation—a feat that he was really quite proud of—he picked up a writing utensil from beside his folder and slid it across to her. She flashed him a quick, grateful smile, and he had to keep himself from grinning because she didn’t even realize the half of it.

It had taken him quite a lot of searching on the Internet and one trip to a strange little comic store in Snerling to locate a spy pen that wrote in real ink and not the invisible stuff that could only be read with an LED light. Because as cool as that might have seemed, he really wanted a pen that Leslie could use to take actual notes and that would blend in with all of the other boring pens in the office. This one had the hidden message slot, but not the bulky battery compartment.

It was so well-disguised, unfortunately, he was going to have to hint heavily to Leslie that she should take a closer look.

At the end of the meeting, she tried to hand it back to him. “See you at lunch?”

“Of course,” he said, as everyone else filed out of the meeting room. People couldn’t run fast enough from a budget meeting. “But keep the pen. I want you to have it.”

A puzzled little smile flashed across her face. “Oh, um, thanks.”

“I thought you could use it for espionage. Or … other, you know, purposes.”

Her eyes narrowed into two confused slits as she looked between him and the pen, and then her whole face lit up into an expression that either said the pen was the coolest, or that he was coolest. Probably both, he thought with a self-satisfied smile.

“Seriously? Noooo. You didn’t.”

“Um, yeah, I did,” he said, ducking his head and rubbing a hand against the back of his neck. “It’s nothing. Just … happy Presidents Day. A day late.”

“Presidents Day?”

“Yeah, I just thought, it’s the February holiday we can celebrate, right? Practically required to, I would think, being government employees … and all.”

She smiled at him affectionately, and he thought she might kiss him, if they were any other two people in any other building in the world, just as they would have a thousand times before this. But they weren’t, and they didn’t, and the fact was weighing heavily on him these days.

Instead she reached for his hand and squeezed it once, briefly, crossing the line just the slightest bit. “Thank you. This might be one of the best things I’ve ever gotten from a … friend.”

He smiled back at her. “Oh, um, here you might want these back.” He handed her a ziploc bag containing her actual pen stash, and she took it, rolling her eyes at him in happy disbelief.

As he watched her walk away, he pictured her reading his message on the tiny slip of paper inside, which was also, probably, just the slightest bit over the line. It said, “You’re great. You have great ideas. And I hope that someday you won’t have to read between the lines. Waffles and wookies forever, Ben.”

--

“So what’s living with April and Andy like?” Leslie inquired as they ate sandwiches by the mural one day. One of the nice things about this hallway was that hardly anyone used it, so they could practically be alone together here.

Ben shrugged. “It’s good. It’s fun. Most of the time. April hid all my plaid shirts the other day, so that was a thing.”

Leslie giggled, bringing a hand up to cover her mouth until she swallowed her bite. “That explains it. I was wondering what made you wear the Lil Sebastian tee-shirt to work the other day.”

“It’s … it feels kind of like being a dad. I’m the only mature person in the house. Nobody ever unloads the dishwasher or takes out the trash unless I say something. I practically had to ground Andy the other day for trying to melt toy soldiers in the microwave again. The weird thing is, I think he would have let me ground him.”

Leslie laughed at the image, and at the fact that apparently this had happened more than once. “I can totally see you as a dad. Very stern, but fair. You’d be great.”

Then she gulped, realizing what she’d said. When she met Ben’s eyes, there was something there that defied all efforts to stay within professionally prescribed boundaries. And what the heck, they were trying to get to know each other, and this would be good information to have, so …

“Do you think you want kids?” she asked. “Real kids, I mean?”

He looked back at her, serious, thoughtful. Scared, maybe?

“I think I do,” he finally said. “I always assumed I would someday, but never met the right person who I wanted to do that with … before. But I think I’d enjoy it. It’s … well, it’s the ultimate project, isn’t it?”

As he was talking, his eyes were flicking nervously between her and his sandwich in a way she was having trouble reading, like maybe he was trying to convince her, or maybe he was just trying to gauge her reaction, and he really cared what she thought.

The ultimate project. It surprised her, but she really liked the sound of that, liked the way it was making her stomach flip. And suddenly she was picturing Ben holding a baby, Ben pushing a baby on a swing at a park, and … holy mountains of whipped cream, she wanted Ben’s babies.

“I don’t have to have kids,” Ben blurted, perhaps misreading her expression. “If the other person didn’t feel that way. I could live without it. I just, I think I like the idea.”

Leslie smiled at him shyly. “I think I do too. I’ve always been very career-focused, and I’ve dated a lot of the wrong people, so it hasn’t been something that’s been on my mind, but … yeah. I think I’d be up for that. With the right person.”

He smiled, relieved and joyful looking, then started stammering. “Leslie, um … something to do with Star Wars. Everything Star Wars. You know what I mean.”

She grinned at him, knowing exactly what he meant. “It’s okay,” she murmured. “I’m not the least bit hungry, but I could devour a mountain of waffles right now.”

--

“Is there anything else I should know about you?” Ben decided to ask Leslie one day in April. They had been meeting like this for almost six months, and that seemed to him to be near the outward bounds of anything that could be called a temporary solution. Feeling as strongly as he did, he didn’t feel like he could go on much longer being in her life halfway.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean … we’ve spent a lot of time getting to know each other, and I was wondering what’s left to know. I think it’s nearing the time where we should start talking about what’s next.”

“Oh.” Leslie looked startled.

“Anything you’ve been holding back?” Ben prodded gently. He didn’t actually need any more information since he’d already made up his mind about what he was going to do. But knowing her and how cautious she could be sometimes, he felt like he should give her this last chance to feel like every important issue had been covered.

She frowned, considering. “You’ve never been to my house.”

“Nope, I haven’t,” he agreed. They’d covered a lot of territory in more than a hundred office lunches, but some things were still out of bounds. “Against the rules.”

“You should know that it’s messy.”

He laughed. “I’ve been living with April and Andy. I think I can deal with messy.”

“Can you?” she asked nervously, and the implications of this little exchange hovered in the air, making him feel lightheaded.

“Yeah, I think so. I do like things somewhat orderly. Would you mind if … someone … cleaned? And organized? Would that be too invasive?”

He had thought she might be offended, but instead she looked relieved. “I once hired one of the community education instructors to clean up. I think I would have asked her to marry me if I’d been a lesbian. And if Indiana allowed gay marriage. We don’t even let our gay penguins get married here.”

He started a bit at the casual mention of the word married, even if had nothing to do with him. “Well, okay, then,” he stammered. “That sounds good. I mean, not the anti-gay marriage laws, but the … um, house, er, situation.”

“What side of the bed do you sleep on?” she asked suddenly, and his eyes widened at the thought of this hypothetical world where he was organizing her stuff and sleeping in her bed.

“Um … I don’t know. It’s always just depended on the motel. Whichever side the alarm clock was on. So in other words, I’m flexible.”

“I’m flexible in bed too,” she said, and then her fingers flew to her mouth when she realized how that sounded, and he tried to hide his smile. “What’s your middle name?” she added quickly to cover.

“Atticus,” Ben admitted after a moment’s hesitation. He didn’t usually like to tell people his middle name, but this was Leslie, and he wasn’t hiding anything anymore.

She looked at him sympathetically. “Ouch.”

“Thanks. My mom really liked To Kill a Mockingbird.”

At that, her smile shifted from amused to affectionate. “You know what? Never mind. It suits you perfectly. Mine’s Barbara.”

“That’s pretty,” he said softly, and it felt good.

It felt like the last little puzzle piece sliding in and fitting just right.

--

“Get your coat, Knope. We’re going for a walk.”

Leslie looked up, startled, to see the familiar sight of a smiling Ben leaning against her office doorway.

“Out? You mean out of the building?”

Tom cut in, “Just because you’re a workaholic, Leslie, doesn’t mean everybody is. Go out with your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my—whatever. I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

Ben cleared his throat. “Leslie, just this once, do what Tom says.”

This was against the rules they’d been meticulously following, but something about his tone of voice told her she shouldn’t argue. Once they got out of the building, he set off down the sidewalk, and she hurried to follow him.

“Ben, are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Not yet. Just pretend we’re any two people, going for a walk. Maybe I just needed some fresh air.”

She did notice him taking a deep breath at that moment, but it didn’t seem like an “enjoying the fresh air” breath as much as a “trying not to lose it” breath. She was a little worried, but before she got up the nerve to pry, she noticed what street they were turning onto.

“Are we going to Ann’s house? Is Ann in trouble?” she asked worriedly.

“Not Ann’s house,” Ben said simply, then tugged her hand a little to pull her across the street. They were at Lot 48.

Ben turned to face her with a look of determination in his eyes, and her heart skipped a beat as she thought that maybe he had some big news about the park she wanted to build. Maybe he’d applied for a grant without telling her, or …

“I think I figured out the solution to our problem.”

It took her a moment to realize he wasn’t talking about Lot 48, but referring to the problem. Her heart fluttered for a different reason, as for the millionth time she ran through all the possible solutions in her head. All of them pretty much still sucked.

“Uh-oh. Is this something I’m not going to like?”

He squinted his eyes at her. “Um … I think you’ll like it. I hope you will. But I think it’s also going to freak you out. So try to be open-minded and hear me out.”

He was making her really nervous. “Out with it, Ben!”

“Okay, um, well, I don’t know where to begin with this, so I guess I’ll just jump right in and say it.” He paused, took a deep breath, as she held hers. “I think we should get married.”

Without meaning to, she took a giant step back from him, started looking around as if she had dropped something—like her mind—then seriously considered whether she could outrun him. She was quick, but his legs were longer, and he’d played baseball, so …

“Leslie! Stop. You said you’d hear me out.”

She stared up at him, aghast that he was doing this. After all this time, didn’t he know her at all?

“We’re not April and Andy!” she blurted. “We can’t just jump into something without looking first.”

“No, we’re not April and Andy,” he agreed calmly, taking her freakout in perfect stride. “We’re Ben and Leslie, two people who are years older and eons more mature than those two, who know what we want and are thinking of practical ways to make it happen.”

“Practical?” she echoed faintly. The word seemed completely out of place in a conversation as absurd as this one.

Ben sat down on the grass, and it weirdly crossed her mind that he was probably going to stain his khakis, but when he gestured for her to sit down next to him, she did. It seemed like the least she could do if she was going to have to shoot down his impulsive proposal.

“Yes, practical,” Ben said in an incongruously reasonable voice. “I’m sorry if that’s not very romantic, but it’s romantic too, believe me. And I hardly think this is leaping without looking, because all I’ve been doing for the past year is looking without leaping, and … I’m ready to leap.” He smiled sideways at her with a boyish charm that made her waver, because he was so cute, and she wanted to say yes to anything he ever asked her, and maybe it wouldn’t hurt just to hear him out. “Leslie, I know everything I need to know about you. I know this is what I want. And I’m pretty sure it’s what you want too. I think it’s time to either go big or—”

“Or go home,” she finished. “You stole my line.”

“It’s a good line,” he said softly. “Look, this was your idea to take things slowly, to get to know each other before doing anything rash. Where did you want this to end up?”

Uttered by someone else, that question might have sounded almost accusatory, like he was shifting responsibility onto her for getting them to this point, with this big crazy thing on the table. But out of his mouth, the words sounded caring, because it really mattered to him what she wanted out of this.

She considered that for a moment, thought about how wonderful he truly was: how she trusted him so completely, how he made her laugh and made her happy, how he inspired her every day with his quiet dedication and decency. And he was right—this was where she wanted to end up.

Eventually, somewhere down the line.

“We haven’t even dated each other yet!” she protested, clawing her fingers through the grass, making a little bald spot on the earth.

“Yes, we have,” he disagreed calmly. “You know that’s what we’ve been doing, and I’ve known it, and the whole office knows it. The only one we’ve been fooling is Chris. We’ve been dating for six months, and at our age, I think that’s plenty of time to figure it out.”

She struggled to find a flaw in that reasoning. “I’ve never even kissed you, though.”

He smiled in his lopsided way at her. “If I was bad at it, would that change anything?”

“No. I think I’d just have to give you lessons.” To be honest, she couldn’t imagine him being bad at it. She’d imagined it so many times, in so many different ways, and it was never bad.

“I don’t need lessons,” Ben said simply.

“Okay,” she said quietly. For a moment, she wanted to find out so badly what it would be like to kiss him, if she had to marry him to try it, that seemed like a completely reasonable concession to make.

“So … what do you think?”

Ben was being so patient with her, but he was looking at her expectantly now too, and she still couldn’t wrap her head around the craziness. So instead she flipped her mind from the personal to the professional issue. “I don’t get it. How is this a solution?”

He reverted back to business Ben, making his case. “It takes away the scandal. It’s not exactly fair or right that it works this way, but being married would make our relationship easier to swallow. It’s a public contract with each other, something that gets it out into the open in a way that seems honorable and respectable. People don’t like sordid affairs. But they like marriages.”

She looked at him doubtfully. “And you think Chris would be one of the people swallowing that?”

“I think so. I have to admit, I’m not positive. But that’s the other reason to get married. It means we’re in it together, that whatever happens, we face the consequences, and we figure it out. Together.”

She was struck by the way he was being simultaneously practical and rash, so reasonable and yet so romantic, so measured and so … Ben. He was really being very Ben right now. And even though she pretty much knew the answer, she had to ask the question.

“What if Chris didn’t exist, if our jobs weren’t a factor, if other people weren’t a factor. Would you still be proposing to me?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Ben said without hesitation. “I’m sorry, I thought that was obvious. But yes, I’m asking first and foremost for myself. Because I want to marry you.”

The way he was looking at her, with so much affection, so much intensity and earnestness, she was having trouble remembering any of the reasons she was hesitating. Smiling, she took his hand in hers. “You’re very persuasive. You should really run for public office someday.”

He laughed a little bit, his eyes still shining with emotion. “The only person I care about persuading right now is you.”

She kind of liked the way he was laying out his case but not pressuring her, not rushing her, just patiently waiting. He didn’t even seem worried, as if he knew that whether this happened tomorrow or two years from now, it was going to happen. Suddenly she realized she knew that too.

Maybe he was right, and it didn’t matter if they made it official now or later.

But she stalled for just a little longer. He had how many days or weeks—or months—to get used to the idea, and she wanted at least a few more minutes.

“Why did you bring me here?” she asked instead, gesturing at the open lot, the empty space that symbolized what she hadn’t been able to accomplish yet in her professional life. It seemed an odd location for a proposal.

He swiped the hand that wasn’t holding hers across his eyes. “Oh, um, I meant to get to that. It just felt right, for a few different reasons. Do you remember telling me the story of the bulldozer?”

“Yep, I remember.” She had made him laugh, but she wasn’t sure what that had to with today.

“It’s a very Leslie story to me. How you were confronted with this giant hole in the earth and did everything you could to fix it, and when the whole world conspired against you, you just up and drove the bulldozer yourself.”

She laughed softly. “I didn’t drive it myself. I hired a guy. And that didn’t even work out because—you know the story.”

“Okay, I know, but the image in my head is Leslie on a bulldozer, filling in life’s holes, making this ugly lot into a place where something could grow.”

She found herself kind of in awe of the way that everything sounded better when Ben was saying it. For someone who left such dour first impressions, he had a way of seeing the best in her, in other people, in everything. “And that’s why you brought me here?”

“Partly. That, and it feels like a blank slate, a good place for something to begin. You asked me to stay in Pawnee to help you build something. Maybe that’s a park.” He paused to smile tenderly at her, squeezing her fingers. “Maybe it’s a future. A family.”

She held tight onto is hand, feeling so light that she could blow away in the slightest breeze, and he was the perfect anchor.

“That’s quite poetic for a numbers guy.” Her eyes started to tear up as she realized how far they’d come in six months. Ben had long ago stopped being reserved and jumpy around her, had grown more and more at ease. She thought she might be the only person to ever see him like this, so eloquent and open, and it made her feel special, like he was her secret, and she never had to share this Ben with anyone else. This Ben was hers.

“You know what I think this lot would be good for?” she said finally, realizing she was ready after all. “I think it’s the perfect spot to have a wedding.”

He laughed softly, relieved sounding, sort of like he’d been holding his breath. Maybe he’d been more nervous than he’d let on. “I knew you’d get there. That is, in fact, the other reason I brought you here.” He arched his eyebrows at her hopefully. “So that’s a yes?”

“That’s a yes,” she said, grinning at him. He threw an arm around her and pulled her close, and she fell against him, smiling and crying a little bit into his shirt.

Just then Ann came up behind them, startling them apart. They both stood up, brushing grass off their work clothes and smiling guiltily.

“Hi, sorry, I just spotted you two from my window. Is something going on?” Ann looked searchingly between them. “I didn’t mean to barge in. I thought there might be a parks department event going on, but …”

Leslie reached for Ben’s hand again. “No, don’t go! I’m glad you’re here. We have news, and you can be the first to know. We …” She looked sideways at Ben, feeling a euphoric rush at the anticipation of saying the words out loud. “We just got engaged.”

Ann’s face lit up, and she threw her arms around Leslie, and the two friends hugged and laughed, rocking back and forth and practically doing a little dance while Ben stood smiling awkwardly off to the side. Then Ann turned to face Ben, and they made like they were going to shake hands before she pulled him in for a hug too.

Ben’s ears were red, and he reverted to the stammering bundle of nerves who Leslie had first fallen for. “Yeah, we just, um… we decided … it would be best to …”

“Ben, stop!” Ann exclaimed. “You don’t have to explain to me. You guys are in love. It’s perfect. I couldn’t be happier for you.”

Leslie was a little taken aback by how Ann was just taking this huge news in stride. “You knew?”

Ann eyed her best friend with skepticism and affection. “Oh, honey, you are not that sneaky.” Ben laughed and Ann pointed a gently accusatory finger at him. “You, Bambi eyes, are even less so.”

--

The next afternoon, Ben and Leslie walked into Chris’s office together. Ben was not looking forward to this meeting. He felt fairly good about what he thought the outcome would be, but he still wasn’t eager to talk about his personal life with Chris.

“Ben Wyatt! Leslie Knope!” Chris greeted them with his usual cheerfulness. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this meeting? Don’t keep me in suspense. Do you two have another wonderfully amazing project in the works that you wanted to tell me about in person?”

Ben shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his feet. “Um … sort of. You might say that.”

“The ultimate project,” Leslie interjected, beaming in a way that reminded Ben all too clearly of why they were doing this.

“Well, I can’t wait to hear all about it,” Chris said, gesturing to the two seats across from his desk, and Ben and Leslie sat down.

“Um … before we get to that, let me just back up,” Ben said, clearing his throat and glancing at Leslie again to rally his courage. They’d agreed that Ben should do most of the talking, since he had the longest history with Chris. “Leslie and I have both worked in government a long time, and you know how important professionalism is to each of us. As such, we’ve had complete respect for the policies you’ve enacted to avoid impropriety, including the interoffice dating policy.”

Chris pursed his lips a little, and Ben knew he wasn’t going to like this next part, but he forged on. “Do you remember last fall when I asked you about dating someone in the office? Well, um … the person I was asking you about was Leslie.”

His eyebrows shooting up, Chris cut him off. “Ben, I’m sorry, but we’ve been over this. I simply can’t make exceptions.”

This was pretty much exactly how Ben had expected this to go. But he was far from finished. “Chris, how long have we worked together? A long time. I’m not asking for an exception. I’m just asking you to hear me out.”

Chris grimaced in anticipation of unpleasantness, but he agreed. “You’re right, I apologize. Go on.”

“As I said, Leslie and I both respect your policy, and for that reason, we’ve avoided a romantic relationship. We’ve never met outside the workplace, and we haven’t done anything inappropriate. We’ve been very careful about that. But we do have a strong friendship, and out of that—”

“We fell in love,” Leslie interrupted with a smile that lit up her face, and he might have been annoyed at her for not just letting him get through this, but what she said was true. He was very much in love.

“Yes, that,” Ben agreed self-consciously. Chris looked like he was about to say something, but Ben raised his hand to stop him. “So, um, even though we haven’t crossed any lines, we’ve been brainstorming solutions to our problem, and we have come up with one that we’re both pretty happy about. I hope you’ll be happy with it too. I think it’s pretty reasonable, and it makes lots of, er, good sense.”

Chris looked like he was trying very hard to reserve judgment. “You two are some of the best problem-solvers in the building. Let’s hear it.”

Ben glanced at the floor, the ceiling, at Leslie, searching for a way to make this sound less crazy, more respectful of law and order. He didn’t see one, so he just looked Chris in the eye and said it. “We decided to get married.”

For a second he wasn’t sure if his boss was going to kiss him or slap him. Then he settled on a bewildered frown. “I don’t get it. Is this some kind of prank? Is it … an April Fool’s Day joke? If it is, very well done! You had me fooled. It is May, of course, but …”

“It’s no joke,” Ben assured him. “We, we’re, um, in love, and we’re getting married. My hope is that by making it official and very public, we can avoid any appearance of a scandal, and that you and the citizens of Pawnee won’t object to our happiness. But I’m prepared to tender my resignation if necessary.”

Leslie swung around to face him with fire in her eyes. “Ben! Don’t … you’re not supposed to …”

He held up a hand and tried to communicate with his eyes that she should trust him, even as he was kind of holding his breath hoping that his instincts had been correct. If not, he knew that immediately following this meeting, he and Leslie were going to have their first big fight as a couple, right after which he’d start polishing up his resume.

But he didn’t think any of that was going to be necessary. He had worked with Chris a long time, and he knew how much he was valued in this partnership. Ben hardly thought he needed Chris to fend off death threats in the same way he had before Pawnee, but he still believed Chris needed him to be the practical realist who steered him away from overpromising everything to everybody. Chris wasn’t going to let him go easily.

Chris still looked like he didn’t know what to think. “You two expect me to believe that you decided to get married without ever dating each other? I’m sorry, but I just don’t find that believable.”

“Believe it.” Ben pushed two sheets of paper across the desk. They were notarized affidavits that he’d had both Andy and April sign, swearing to the fact that he’d had no social life since moving in with them. They’d both signed them almost a little too eagerly.

“I see,” Chris said as he read, then looked up at Leslie. “And what about Tom Haverford? I don’t know how you expect me to take this seriously when you have a known history of interoffice romance.”

Leslie solemnly handed him another sworn affidavit, this one that Tom had written himself: Leslie Knope and I have never ever had a romantic relationship. I think of her as an older brother, and I find the idea disgusting and, frankly, insulting. She kissed me once out of revenge, and I have lived in terror ever since that she would do it again. But aside from that, Leslie is the most professional, hard-working, and all-around most boring person I know, and she would never engage in anything as interesting as a forbidden love affair.

Chris considered for a long moment. “You’ve left me no other choice,” he finally started to say as he stood up from his chair, and Ben held his breath during the longest pause for punctuation ever, “but to wish you a hearty congratulations.”

With a big smile, Chris circled the desk to shake hands and plant a small kiss on each of their foreheads, and Ben felt the weight of the world lifting off his shoulders, as well as relief that he was a tiny bit shorter than the other man, or else he might have gotten that kiss directly on the mouth.

“But wait, does that mean …” Leslie started to say, and Ben realized she was right to sound worried. Chris hadn’t exactly announced a decision on his job situation either way.

“The City Council will have to approve a change to your job description, Ben,” Chris said. “You’ll no longer be able to oversee the parks department, so Ron and Leslie will have to report directly to me. I see no problem with that, as Ron and Leslie are two of my absolute favorite employees.”

Ben couldn’t remember a time when so much had gone his way in so few days. “What happened to not making exceptions?” he couldn’t help but ask, even as he was kicking himself for not just accepting the good news.

“I’ll make an exception for marriage, because you’re right, it is different from a tawdry affair. It might even be good PR for us,” Chris replied, putting his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “And I know what you’re going to ask next, so let me put you out of your misery right away. I would love to be your best man. It would give me no greater pleasure than to stand up next to my best friend on his wedding day.”

“Oh, um …” Ben stammered, surprised that Leslie had been right—maybe Chris did see him that way. He pictured how disappointed Tom might be, and wondered for a moment which bachelor’s party would be worse: one with skeevy strippers or one with vegetable loaf. But he was in a pretty accommodating mood all the sudden. “Sure. Thanks. I, um, might have more than one best man, though.” If Andy could do it, why couldn’t he?

Chris slapped him lightly on the back. “The more the merrier! But wait a second. You two mentioned a really big project in the works. What was that all about?”

“Er, well, we, um, didn’t mean …”

“A family!” Leslie blurted happily.

“Not yet!” Ben added quickly, thinking how he couldn’t exactly have impregnated her with a handshake. “But someday … hopefully someday soon.”

“Oh! Well, congratulations to both of you, from the bottom of my heart,” Chris said while stripping off his work clothes to reveal his running gear. “Now if you two don’t mind, I’ve got to run, but I promise, I will be thinking of your love the entire time.”

As Chris disappeared down the hallway, Ben shook off the creepiness of that last remark and turned to his … his … well, his fiancée. He was going to have to get used to that.

He picked up her left hand and looked down at the finger where her wedding band was going to be, sighing happily as he bent down to kiss her for the first time ever.

But Leslie’s fingers flew up between their mouths before he got there. “Shouldn’t we wait for City Council approval?”

Seriously? The absurdity of how long they’d waited and the hoops they’d had to jump through to get here unloaded on him like an avalanche at that moment, and he snapped. “No! I’m not—no way. I’m not waiting for a single other person to sign off on this. I’m kissing you.”

He reached for the hand that was still blocking her mouth and gently moved it down to her side, while slowly backing her against the office wall, out of sight of the doorway, and was relieved that she went willingly.

“Death star,” he whispered, because old habits die hard, and slowly descended his lips toward hers, kissing her gently but thoroughly before letting her go. And, wow. They were going to be doing a lot more of that from now on.

“You were right, you don’t need lessons,” she murmured, catching her breath, then added more brightly: “Hey, you want to go get some waffles?”

He grinned, as he started to follow her down the hallway. “Yeah, okay. I guess we’re allowed to do that now. Er, wait, did you mean …?”

But she just winked at him and tugged him toward the exit, and he let it go, because this was exactly what he wanted.

They were finally leaving City Hall.