Rating: R because angsty Ben swears
Word count: 2,808
Summary: His father dies the day before the Harvest Festival.
A/N: This fic comes from several places. 1) When looking at the Hiatus Fest Challenge, I was toying with the idea of Past/Future, and contemplating on how we know relatively little about Ben’s past, and this is what happened and is probably not really a challenge answer. So, please forgive me that. 2) I love, love, love all the fluff and positive energy of this fandom (it has brought me out of 2 year fandom/LJ abstinence), but I was cravin’ some angst. 3) This may or may not be a thinly veiled piece of propaganda for my Give Ben a Beard Campaign (of which, to my knowledge, I am the only advocate). Title from Gregory Alan Isakov's "The Stable Song."
His father dies the day before the Harvest Festival.
It would just fucking figure.
He’s eating waffles.
“Benji, you have to come home.”
His sister’s voice is strange on the other end of the line, but he ignores it with that awkward, stunted laugh he affects when someone asks to keep money in the budget for doughnuts at the weekly staff meeting. And he’s standing from the booth, explaining in his practiced voice that he has Very Important Matters To Attend To and he’s pretending that it’s something other than Leslie as he kicks a stone from the sidewalk.
“Ben. Ben. Dad’s dead.”
He blinks and looks through the slated blinds of J.J.’s at Leslie’s confused smile and is still.
Ben hasn’t heard a word that Leslie has said since he walked back into the diner and calmly informed her that his father’s funeral will be in four days.
But he does feel the warmth of her hand through his shirt.
He’s never seen her face so stormy or her eyes bright with tears, and he doesn’t understand why she is upset - she’s never met his father.
And maybe they kiss at the festival in the lights and the sounds and the fry-cakes. And maybe it’s whimsical and perfect and she asks him for forever and he stays. And she laughs through the corn maze and grips his hand and sighs his name and blinks awake next to him.
And maybe he’s sleeping in his childhood bed with the Han Solo sheets with feet hanging off the end with shit to show for the inexplicable catch in his chest that feels like his heart is in a perpetual state of sleep start.
The morning of the Harvest Festival he wakes to a text from Leslie:
Wish you were here.
He almost calls her right then to tell her that it almost physically hurts him not to see the product of her love and labors. That there was not a snowball’s chance in hell (and okay, maybe he was going to phrase that less like an eighty year old woman) she was ever going to lose her job. That he -
Instead he wipes his hand across his eyes and responds:
He hopes she understands.
When he stares down into the casket during the wake, he realizes that this is the first time he has seen his father in two years.
For a sliver of moment, Ben feels what he thinks is regret but is probably all that coffee on an empty stomach and seeing a dead body primped and stuffed and masquerading as a sleeping person.
His father wouldn’t have given two shits about Harvest Festival.
“Oh Benji, you should have seen it!” There’s reverence in her tired exhalations.
“Yeah?” His ceiling has a crack stretching from the corner by the window to just above his bed that scared him when he was a kid. Now he wants it to swallow him whole.
“It was just like I remembered it - like I was ten again and Trevor Ames was so nervous to hold my hand on the ferris wheel that he threw up caramel corn all over my saddle shoes.”
Ben starts to feel a pull at the sides of his mouth, like the suggestion of a smile, and its the most movement his face has managed in days, his whole being in a short of instinctive stasis. “Someone threw up on you?”
“Yeah. Well, no. Not this year. Though we did have to take Tom to the EMT tent because he ate four candy apples whole and got mild cyanide poisoning.”
Pawnee fucking stupid simple bizarre wonderful middle-of-nowhere town. “Oh. Is he okay?”
Her sigh is that of a long suffering sibling. “Just a tummy ache.”
“Well that’s good.”
The absence of her voice for several seconds dings and echos through him like he’s hallow. “People asked about you.”
He knows she lying. She has to be. “Yeah? Who?”
“Oh, just people.” It’s evasive and he hopes it means she thought about him when she was eating funnel cake and riding the tilt-a-whirl and judging the gourd competition. “Told them you’d be back in no time.”
It’s a sentence that is also a question and he has to dampen the hope that flares like a stray spark in a doused fire.
“Absolutely.” It’s a word that is also a lie. And frankly, he feels like shit for lying to Leslie but he can’t ruin this moment for her right now. (Or for himself, as he carefully constructs a world that involves more late-night phone calls as he lies in bed ready to count the diphthongs and phonemes and every other gliding sound her tongue and mouth form as he falls asleep.)
“Listen, it’s late, and I know the - I know you have a busy day tomorrow. So, goodnight Ben Wyatt.”
She pulls the bottom card and the house falls.
“Goodnight, Leslie Knope.”
Somehow he feels like this is all his fault - his father being lowered into the ground and his mother looking like a lost little girl.
So much has been his doing - so many lives have been lost in different ways; slashed programs slashed dreams slashed jobs, a machete deftly wielded and mercilessly swung.
And this isn’t any different.
When he looks up he hopes to see a shock of whiteblonde hair, but only sees Mrs. Galley looking at him like he signed his father’s death warrant.
He is druck. Drunk. Heisverydrunk.
“Benji! Benji Wyatt! Mayor of the wild frontier!” Leslie is singing loudly with her shoes in her hand and her path veering wildly this way and that.
Ben giggles. Yes, he giggles - he can feel the high notes in the back of his throat. “You know, my parents grounded me for that.”
Now it’s Leslie’s turn to giggle. “Did they give you a time out, too?”
He nods with staged solemnity. “Made me write ‘I will not bankrupt my city’ one thousand times.”
This round of laughter literally seems to knock her off her feet and he finds himself sprawling in the dew-wet grass next to her. “But really, my dad. My father. He didn’t talk to me for like, like three months after that.”
And it’s like someone’s hit mute and the only sound is the shree of a barn owl. He looks at her face like milk in the moonlight, watches her plum mouth open and close with a soft, “Oh, Ben.”
Which are apparently the only sounds he needs to divulge secrets locked and wrapped and sealed and whatever the fuck one does with secrets buried so deep. He tells her about the trial. About how he honestly thought he could make things better, that in the end it would work itself out. How a jury of one’s peers feels really fucking different when your peers are all 30 years older than you and keep calling you ‘son.’ How he wore the same stupid, polyester plaid tie he wore to prom.
“And I got up to the witness stand. I got up and I don’t even remember swearing in or putting my hand on the Bible or anything. I just looked up and there were so many goddamn people crammed into this stupid, tiny court room. And I knew, I knew that they were there to see me fail. Every. last. one of them.”
There’s a wet trail from the corner of her eye to the wreath of curls around her face and he wants to stop, really he does. But he needs her to understand the radio show and Perd Hapley and Pawnee Today. He needs her of any person on this planet - if there is a being who is just - to understand him.
“And there was my father, looking at me like he couldn’t believe I was a part of him. Like, like, this was all some fucking colossal plan I had concocted to punish him. And he was the only thing I could see the whole time and I just froze and I don’t think I ever started moving again.”
He feels her hand skim his open palm, and he gently twines their fingers.
He thinks he sees a shooting star and he wishes on it. Whatever. It’s probably just a satellite, anyway.
He’s on the back porch of his childhood home looking at the tumble-down swing set he and his sister used to play pirates on and his phone has dialed her number before his mind can process that his fingers have moved across the keys.
“Tell me this is not my fault.”
“This is not your fault.” It’s automatic, free of hesitation and completely, heartbreakingly genuine.
She’s telling him how heart failure is the leading cause of death and she should know (Pawnee, fourth in obesity) and her words are like the swaying of a boat and he feels safe.
When she says, “You’re a good person, Ben,” he feels it wash over him like swimming in a lake at night.
When he was twelve, his father taught him how to play chess.
(And so began a life of failure and constant disappointment.)
It was the most time he had spent with his father since he was seven and they went camping as a family and he got poison ivy and his father rubbed calamine on his shins. But he doesn’t remember much about those first games (played on an old wooden set that had been given to his father by his father before him) except for The Gambit.
“There’s great risk in that maneuver,” his father had lectured, “But also great gain.”
Time and time Ben would push forward his pawn, opening with a sacrifice, waiting in anticipation for the upper hand. What he failed to see until this moment was that the sacrifice was always in vain (he only beat his father once), and that every move he’s made since then - failed mayor for auditor, Partridge for Indianapolis, career for actual life - has been a failed gambit and he should know by now not to open each chapter of his life with a sacrifice.
He knows better, really, than to gambit with a heavy piece. In Pawnee, his mistake was to gambit the queen.
The whip and crack of the sharp autumn air is ripping through his car, his veins, as he drives and feels the sun.
Dusk has almost drained the day to the last lee when he pulls over and sits next to the tattered cardboard box and shucks his shoes roughly on the rounded stones.
It’s fall and the water is biting but he wades in, past his knees, soaking his jeans that have been carelessly rolled up, and looks at the box clutched to his chest. Newspapers and shirts and ties, a pair of glasses and a broken pocket watch - all that’s left of his father, of the shadow. Ben considers his mother who carefully packed this capsule for him to treasure and he considers the man who once helped him build an O gauge replica of a Union Pacific locomotive and checked his closest for Tuskens at night and never forgave him.
And heaves the box and all its pain and its memories into the Mississippi.
He squints his eyes at the orangepink sky and thinks about the current taking it through Iowa and getting it muddy as it passes the arch in St. Louis that he’s never taken the time to see (has Leslie been there and eaten gooey butter cake and laughed in the Missouri summer with someone else?) and he sees the river spit it out in New Orleans where no one looks at it or thinks about it again.
It feels damn good.
As he drives though Onalaska, he sees a carnival with twinkling lights and a ferris wheel and a corn maze and an inane hand-painted wooden sign and his chest contracts and he suddenly hates every moment he spent telling Leslie no and every moment he didn’t kiss her when he wanted to and every goddamn moment he stared at the wall of the Microtel and told himself he wasn’t worthy.
And he almost stops but this is just some poor man’s Pawnee and he can’t even see a pumpkin the size of Jeep anyway.
He’s lost track of time and its really late (or really early), so it doesn’t shock him when he gets her voicemail.
“Listen, Leslie. I’m really sorry if my call just woke you up or whatever, but I just, I’m driving home - to Indianapolis - and there was this, this fair or something. And you weren’t there. I mean, of course you weren’t there, it was in Wisconsin, but I mean, all fairs should have you there because the people probably didn’t have enough kettle corn or something and the hay ride was in the parking lot and who does that? And wow. I am really, really awful at saying what I mean, aren’t I?
“But what I realized was that, what I want to say is that...I miss you. And- and I know that I am cynical and a complete failure at communication and an auditor - which is like, probably the least sexy job ever. Well, that sewage guy Bob is probably less sexy. And I know that I like calzones and frankly, they have their purpose, because how are you supposed to- the point I am trying to make is that - I am not good enough for you. I am not worthy of your kindness and your smile and your, your soul. But. But you make me so much better. You make me better, Leslie Knope. And I want that. I want that so much it hurts.
“And this is probably freaking you out to hear this, but I just needed to tell you. Yeah. So...tell everyone in Pawnee who was asking about me that I’ll be back soon.”
For all of the confidence he gained and the clarity with which he has been suddenly struck, he feels lost when he gets to his apartment and throws his keys on the empty table. The high of the sharp focus his life is now in feels cold and too-real in this lonely space with the minimalist furniture. So he stands stock-still like a lost little boy and watches the wall.
When a loud knock resonates through the nearly empty room, his brow knits in confusion and he wonders briefly what complaint a neighbor could possibly have for a man who has been absent for nearly his entire lease.
But when he opens the door, it’s Leslie and he doesn’t remember how to move his mouth to form words.
“Ben?” She’s looking at him like she doesn’t know him and it’s like falling on ice. But she reaches a tentative hand to his face and he realizes as her fingertips skim the coarse hair on his jaw that he hasn’t shaved in weeks.
“Yeah,” it’s a wisp, a breathy hint of a word. He licks his chapped lips and tries again. “Yeah.”
The curve of her lip is sweet and sympathetic and loving and so many things at once and he feels so overwhelmed, that when she wraps her arms around his waist in a tight hug, he nearly collapses.
And for the first time since he got that (damn, worthless, life-changing) phone call at J.J.’s, he cries.
And she kisses him like she means it and he prays prays prays that she does. And it’s better than that card-house corn-maze kiss he had woven so many times in meetings and while sipping his Miller Light alone in Room 203. It’s not expected and it’s not fairy tale and her face is red from the scratch of his beard and she pulls back and mutters, “Like the beard, Benji. Very Lincoln.”
And he laughs. He laughs for the first time in so, so long. And he kisses her so, so long, with his hands in her whiteblonde hair, on her waist and across the soft, flat plain of her stomach.
And later when his Pendleton is pushed off his shoulders and her Ann Taylor petites are a puddle, she sighs his name and grips his hand and she asks him to stay.
The scarlet line that blazes across his pillow in the early hours nearly blinds him as he comes out of the first restful night he’s had in years.
His mouth turns up lazily when he sees Leslie curled into the white cotton.
She blinks awake next to him.