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you're totally repeating "liminal" to yourself now

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“So, the condoms are, like, booby trapped?”

Andy’s face can’t decide whether to snicker uncontrollably or just go straight to lighting up brighter than an exploding sun at this freshly-revealed emergency meeting topic.

“It wasn’t on purpose!” Leslie snaps, before quickly regaining her composure. “Sorry, that got heated. The condoms weren’t . . . damaged . . . on purpose. We don’t think. There was a thing with a machine, and some kind of ink that eats through latex,” she waves her hands around in an approximation, apparently, of a condom being run through a printing press, “I don’t know, the lady on the phone was incredibly rude, and she had a very thick Jamaic-ish-an accent, and I think my blood sugar was low or something.”

“Have you been sneaking NutriYums again?” Ann interrupts as she enters the conference room.

“Ann! Sweet, beautiful, favorite Ann!”

Leslie hugs Ann in greeting despite Ann’s crossed arms and suspicious expression. Leslie jostles Ann back and forth until Ann finally grins and pries her arms out of Leslie’s grasp to hug her back, but before she can fully disentangle to take a seat at the table, Leslie jumps back a little and holds Ann at arm’s length. Her face lights up even brighter than Andy’s.

“I just had the greatest idea. How would you like to go undercover in a secret sting operation?!”

“Um, of course I want to go undercover in a secret sting operation! As long as it’s Monday, or Wednesday, or Thursday before 6 p.m. because those are my days off this week.”

“Those would be your days off,” April mutters.

Ann pulls a face but lets it go unanswered.

“Um, problem.”

“What, Tom?” Leslie asks, distractedly. She’s tilting her head and squinting at Ann, reaching out and fingering the hem of Ann’s scrub top in an appraising manner.

“Ann, sweetheart, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because believe me it has no bearing on how much I would like to photograph you in a bathtub filled with hundred-dollar-bills and champagne-“

“Okay, I have no idea what’s going on, but I am positive that can’t be relevant,” Ann cuts him off.

“Good call,” Ben pipes up, giving Ann a reassuring nod and a tip of his pen from his spot at the far corner of the conference table.

“You call me if you’re still lookin’ to fill up that bathtub, baby.”

The room falls silent as eight heads swivel from Donna to Tom and back again. Tom’s mouth hangs wide open.

Andy throws out a too-loud “EY-OH!” which serves to startle the meeting back into action.

“Ann, do you have any clothes from Holli-crombie or Allister and Flinch or wherever these young people shop to dress themselves nowadays?”

“Well, no, Ron, I don’t shop at either of those stores because I’m a grown up and I don’t enjoy the smell of that pepper-water cologne they spray in the air vents at Abercrombie and Fitch. You know, there really should be some kind of ordinance for air pollution or something against that, Leslie do you think we could-“

“Totally ripped off from Tommy Fresh,” Tom sighs.

“Aren’t we supposed to be discussing a plan for sneaking into the STD Awareness Fair and testing the condoms to see if the ink really did damage them?”

Now nine heads swivel over to Jerry and shake disapprovingly, silently, in unison.

“So not the point, Jerry,” Tom grits out through clenched teeth.

_

 

The condoms are pretty difficult to track down since Ben’s spending most of his time trying to make sure April doesn’t drink anything unidentifiable, or get hit-on (too much), or recruited to beer pong and/or flippy cup teams. After a near-altercation involving a trifecta of all of these threats in the form of an over-confident art major – Ben wins; it’s not technically that big a deal since, you know, art major, but still – he resorts to holding April’s wrist in a vice-grip and dragging/leading (depending on her oscillating degree of interest and amenability) her around with him. He thinks if she’s within arm’s reach they won’t get into any trouble.

He’s technically right, depending on one’s definition.

 

_

 

Ben stands really close to April. Closer than Andy does, but then Andy’s usually rocking back and forth on his feet and making really huge weird motions with his arms even when he’s supposed to be standing still so he’s probably just trying to protect her from his rampant dorky flailing all the time or something.

April leans against a wall in a corner and Ben stands with his hands in his pockets. Seriously, really close to her. His shirt keeps brushing against her arm, which means his stomach is brushing against her arm because he’s one of those tragically skinny guys who wear clothes that fit.

They’re not his usual clothes either; Ben’s literally been wearing a button down shirt every single time April’s seen him, until tonight. It’s pathetic. Like, there are other shirts he could wear that wouldn’t have collars that highlight the angle of his jaw, and that don’t hug the curve of his lower back where they’re tucked into his tight khakis like he’s trying to look like some kind of hipster-accountant-librarian. And that aren’t plaid. Plaid’s just fucking ugly.

Tonight he’s wearing flip flops (feet make her want to barf) and kind of beat up jeans that sit low on his hips and a white baseball tee with dark green sleeves.

He basically just looks old and unemployed, instead of old and nerdy.

“You should get me a beer.”

“Aren’t you under twenty one?”

“Um, yeah, this is a college party.”

“Well yeah but, we’re here on semi-official business. I don’t think we should-”

“Or I could go ask that guy for a drink.”

April turns deliberately and stares at a doughy red-faced guy dressed all in black holding a milk jug half-full of something clear-ish green. She looks back up at Ben, because she has to look up because he’s still basically on top of her standing up super straight and awkward and essentially being the worst spy ever. He’s looking really concerned at Milk Jug Guy like it’s threatening or something to be at a party with a milk jug of unidentifiable liquor. Suddenly her nose is almost touching Ben’s shoulder because he’s shifted to stand even closer, like, shielding her or something with his old shriveled body.

April un-tucks one of her hands from its place between her other arm and her side and edges her knuckles against his stomach through his t-shirt. Just to see if she can crumble one of his surely osteoporosis-ridden bones. Ben turns and looks down at her and she tucks her hand away again.

“Fine, one beer. Stay here, alright?” he adds.

He’s already scanning the room for the keg and he touches her hip with one hand and her elbow with the other like he’s positioning her to remain stationary; he probably thinks if she moves from this exact spot she’s going to fall out a window or something. Like she’s only safe with him standing weirdly close to her and pursing his lips at Milk Jug Guy’s Milk Jug of Depravity and Youth.

“Not too much foam,” she pipes up and kicks at Ben’s calf as he steps away.

He glances over his shoulder with an eye-roll, but he’s smiling a little. April smirks in this really enigmatic and cool way she has and folds her arms and slumps further into the corner.

Ben comes back with a single red cup in his hand a minute later and offers it to her. April peeks over the rim of the cup at the thick foam covering the surface and glares at him. He smirks back at her with a raised eyebrow.

“Suit yourself,” he says, and takes a sip.

Apparently semi-off-the-clock-Ben finds his own lameness incredibly amusing. April grumbles wordlessly in reply and averts her eyes but she just ends up staring at his neck because, again, Ben’s proximity and height are completely ruining her view from this very awesome corner she’s standing in.

There’s a little patch of razor burn over his adam’s apple, sliding up and down when he swallows.

“So what are we supposed to be looking for anyway?”

She snatches the beer from his hands and takes a long drink before handing it back to him and wiping her mouth on her sleeve.

“I guess we’re looking for people who . . . look like they’re going to be, y’know, using the, uh, the con-the condoms.”

April stands up a little straighter to glance over his shoulder. She sees a door ajar on the other side of the main room and grabs a fistful of Ben’s t-shirt as she slips past him.

“C’mon.”

“Where are we going?”

“Just follow me, come on.”

April reaches back, finds his elbow and then slides her hand down his forearm and blindly fits her hand against his. A loudly-laughing blonde who’s falling out of her layered tank tops steps back into April’s path and Ben runs into her back and their linked hands get trapped between them and somehow that ends up meaning Ben kind of touches her ass.

It probably doesn’t count.

When they get a little bit of space between them again his hand closes around hers instead of just sitting there all loose and awkward with fingertips poking out everywhere to unintentionally grope whatever they can reach, which is better. Not like helping an elderly man across a crowded party like she’s some kind of girl scout is fun, but at least he’s not, like, accidentally touching her inappropriately for someone who’s kind of her boss and then clearing his throat and blushing like he’s never gotten a handful of ass cheek before. Even Ben must’ve touched a female butt before, and that’s a generous assumption given his wardrobe.

Whatever, it’s just weird and this girl who’s in April’s way is loud and not moving and it’s really hot in the middle of the room with everybody crushed together yelling over the music and everybody else’s yelling. Finally April maneuvers past the blonde and through the rest of the crowd, yanking Ben along behind her, and they make it to the door on the other side of the room.

He realizes, when he sees two girls staring aggressively from behind their red plastic cups, how it looks. He was just led across a room by April, and they’re poking around for an empty bedroom. April turns back and looks up at him and part of him is suddenly really concerned with not blowing their cover by shrugging and dropping April’s hand to check his phone for the check-in text from Leslie that is surely waiting for him.

April sticks her head into the darkened room and calls,

“Hello? Are there any people having protected sex in here?”

Nobody yells or throws anything so she figures it’s empty.

“Any luck?” Ben asks.

He’s still holding her hand.

She pokes her head back out to answer him, but he can’t hear her and he leans in to put his ear next to her mouth which means he’s basically breathing all over her neck. April shakes her head instead of answering.

Ben winces as the song changes to something with even louder bass, and leans in close to her again, motioning with the beer in his hand and nudging her back through the doorway. He’s actually trying to shuffle her into the room fairly quickly because he’s half sure she’s going to up her usual level of difficulty and start thrashing around and screaming “date rape” or something just to fuck with him.

“At least it’ll be quieter,” he half-shouts.

But she just backs up willingly, still holding onto his hand, staring up at him and not glowering really at all. Really, she’s a pretty girl when she’s not frowning.

She half-stumbles and bangs her shoulder into the edge of the door. Ben just kind of grins at her like he’s suddenly Daniel Craig or some shit just because she ran into a door walking backwards. He pushes the door open wider with his free hand and with the other lifts their hands up over April’s head and twirls her so she’s facing forward before following her into the pitch black room with a hand lightly brushing against her back.

“Hey, that was a pretty swell dance move, Ben. Did you see that on Lawrence Welk?”

“Yeah, right after I ate my fiber and voted for Eisenhower,” Ben sighs as he leans back against the door to close it, hoping to get some relief from the painfully loud music.

It’s pitch black. Before he can adjust to that, April’s clumsily running her hands up his chest and then lightly trailing her fingers over his neck, his jaw, and then his mouth. She could be trying to orient herself in the darkness. Or she could be kind of feeling him up.

He reaches up to pull her hands away but he forgets he’s holding half a beer and he drops the cup, splashing beer over them both. There’s a few seconds of confused curse words and half-sentences spat out between them and then coldness seeping through his shirt against his side, and he’s still trying to keep track of April. His hands land squarely on her hips and then she’s shifting closer to him and her hands are on his stomach again and she mumbles “gross.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your shirt, it’s all,” she picks at it with her fingers a few times, holding the damp fabric away from his skin and reaching underneath to lay one hand against the corresponding damp spot on his actual stomach.

“Take it off.”

“Um.”

“Come on, it’s gross. Why would you wear a gross shirt soaked with beer when you can just take it off.”

He stutters for probably an hour.

“You’re kind of a guy, Ben, it’s not like it’s socially unacceptable for you to not wear a shirt in public even though you’re like forty-five or something.”

He finds himself smiling at this, which is weird, but he can hear this smile in her voice, like she’s being teasing and flirtatious and it’s such a bizarrely pleasant and unexpected surprise that he’s basically stunned into submission.

“April, how old do you actually think I am?”

“I don’t know, like, forty-seven and three-quarters. On Tuesday.”

She pulls the hem of his shirt up and he lifts his arms obediently over his head with absolutely zero protest and then he’s just standing in a dark room with April and he’s not wearing half of his clothes. One third if you count underwear. Really, he’s only twenty-five percent naked because he still has his shoes on. One of them is wet; he can feel beer getting sticky between his toes which might be the worst sensation he’s ever experienced.

Ben mutters, “Thirty-fucking-five. That’s not even middle-aged,” he adds lamely.

“It is if you die when you’re seventy.”

“Congratulations on knowing basic math.”

“Yaaaaay.”

April cheers herself on for knowing basic math and Ben for having such a totally firm grasp of how to be sarcastic.

Ben sighs.

“I . . . don’t look that young. I guess.”

He blindly knocks his arm into hers, since they still haven’t found the lightswitch. Given that he’s shirtless he’s not terribly anxious to find the light, which is either stupidly reckless or self-preservation from more of April’s heated judgement, or both.

“Not compared to you anyway,” he adds belatedly. “You look, like, eleven years old, tops.”

April shoves back. “Whatever, old man.”

“Child.”

“Grandpa.”

“Tween.”

“Nerd.”

“That’s not age-related.”

“Okay, Jerry.”

“Hey, hey, whoa. Too far.”

“Yeah you’re right. I’m sorry. That was really mean.”

“Eh. Don’t worry about it.”

The bass is still thumping mind-numbingly even muted through the door.

“Okay, come on. We have to go . . . find condoms,” Ben says finally.

“Yep.”

Neither of them move. Ben doesn’t even know where his shirt is anymore.

“Shut up,” April mutters suddenly.

“I wasn’t-whmf.”

April’s fingertips nudge against his mouth first and then she’s kissing him.

When he thinks back on all this later, he can tick all the boxes (mentally, he would never ever commit any of this to document) that should have warned him this was coming.

But in the moment? His brain dribbles out his ears.

She isn’t even kissing him to kiss him at first; she just wants to see if she can do it. Like, he took his shirt off with basically zero convincing so it’s kind of the next logical step to see what else she can get him to do. She pushes her hands up into his hair and tugs until he finally unfreezes and accepts her mouth on his. April figures she wins so she starts to pull back but then Ben’s hand is on her jaw and he’s almost holding her in place or pulling her closer and his thumb rubs back and forth on her cheek and she forgets about backing off.

Her hands have slipped out of his hair and now they’re just resting on his bare chest while he holds her and kisses her and makes this humming noise that vibrates against her tongue and makes her fingers twitch and curl against his skin.

It’s not like he’s doing her a favor or something, by kissing her back; if anything he’s the lucky one since he’s the skinny old guy kissing the young hot college girl. Even though she’s not technically in college. They’re at college and he’s the old one with the cologne and the . . . hands.

They both taste a little like shitty beer and this pitch black room on the other side of a door from a room full of raucous cacophony and April saw this thing about liminal spaces the other day and this is it: liminal. Even saying it is like touching the tip of her tongue to his lips - liminal - except there’s clearly absolutely nothing on the other side of this several moments of insanity because the only thing weirder than kissing Ben once would be kissing him again.

This is ostensibly a bedroom so there should be a bed, but neither of them could see it if there was, nor are they trying to find a light switch to remedy that when Ben turns them around so April’s back is against the wall. He leans one arm against the wall next to her head and makes that humming sound again, deeper and rougher and buzzing through his lips over her throat and down her spine. April shivers and tightens her arms twined around his neck, breaking away just enough to take a breath.

The music is still incredibly loud and they’re standing incredibly close. Her breath feathers warmly against his collarbone. He opens and closes his hands nervously over her hips. Her shirt rides up and he ends up touching her skin and he feels her respond, just this little squirm and a tiny sound in the back of her throat. It makes him smile again, because April is usually so aggressively unpleasant and right now she’s just this soft pretty girl sliding her little hands over his shoulders.

“Um,” April murmurs.

He can still hear that smile in her voice. Ben swallows and closes his eyes against the black of the room.

“Okay,” he says eventually.

Slowly, afraid of spooking the wild animal that is April’s whim, he begins to extricate himself.

“New plan,” he continues, pushing himself back into sane adult mode. “You stay here in this dark room, alone, while I go find a stash of defective condoms and once I do, I will come back here and find you, and you better not be drinking anything from a milk jug.”

There’s a beat while April silently boils over with rage, disappointment, and embarrassment all at once. The whole thing would have been a disaster if one of them hadn’t stopped but it really shouldn’t have been him because he’s Ben and it’s just so like him to be predictable one second after completely unpredictably kissing her back even though he clearly, stupidly, hadn’t seen it coming when she did.

“What if it’s milk?” April asks, ignoring how her voice sounds under the noise.

“No.” Ben says shortly.

“What if it’s water, they have water in those milk jugs sometimes-”

“No,” Ben sighs tiredly, stepping back and clearly fishing around for his shirt.

April wraps her arms around her middle and shoves her chin out at nothing. “Are we like, role-playing right now?”

–“What?”

“Because you’re being a huge dick and I thought you were starting to turn into a human, but I guess not.”

Ben closed-eyes sighs, she can tell even in the dark. “April-”

She chews savagely on her lower lip. If she licks it it’ll taste like him.

How. Fucking. Awkward. She wants to bolt and go home, find a new job and never have to look Ben in the face again. She settles for sighing in disgust before she explains,

“When you first came to Pawnee you were this complete Nazi-hard-ass-prick”

–“Wow”

–“and then with the Freddy Spaghetti thing it seemed like maybe you were gonna be nice and not ruin everybody’s lives and take their jobs. And then, tonight.”

April leaves the sentence unfinished and stares at her shoes. There’s a swish of fabric and the smell of Ben’s soap plus damp beer, so he’s apparently found his shirt.

“How did you know?” Ben asks. “About Freddy Spaghetti?”

“Leslie told me.”

Maybe she smiles a little bit.

Look, Leslie was so fucking happy that day when Ben came through for them that she was basically shitting rainbows all over the place and given the complete fucking mess with Andy and how terrible and awkward things had been since then, Leslie being thrilled and relaxed and not completely stressed out when she told April to enjoy her time off and they’d see her again soon was just nice.

It made April feel like maybe everything would be okay. Which is bizarre since it was weird old mean Ben that indirectly made it happen, but. Whatever.

“If you tell anyone about this I’ll murder you in your sleep,” April spits out.

She reaches behind her and flips on the light - it was there the whole fucking time, but apparently neither of them really felt the need to see what they were doing which is. Not a thought to pursue - completely blinding them both for a few solid seconds. Ben winces and squints and actually swears under his breath. April keeps her eyes open so wide they sting and water.

Ben awkwardly sticks out a hand to shake. “Mutually assured murder,” he agrees.

April sneers and shoves half-heartedly at him to knock his hand away, accidentally leaning into his chest for a second before she can push off and turn around. He touches her elbow for a second. It’s not nice or anything.

_

 

So. That happened. They never did find the condoms.

_