Actions

Work Header

In My Blood

Chapter Text

In the morning, the nurses brought a breakfast platter along with a new pair of glasses for Luke, whose prescription he’d been wearing wasn’t quite right. Apparently he’d shared his favorite color with the pediatric nurses during the eye exam and Luke was so excited about his rectangular green frames--and seeing more clearly, for sure.

The chief researcher returned to let Beca know that her blood sample checked out, and his team was already hard at work replicating the vaccine for others. With the compounds Beca’s dad used, they were confident that they might be able to come up with a cure if the fungus is caught in the early stages. That news caused pride to bloom in Beca’s chest, and she graciously accepted the gifts his team provided--new iPhones for Beca and Chloe, iPads loaded with games and cartoons for the kids, and a brand new version of the Jeep they’d ridden across the country--this one a forest green color with all the bells and whistles, packed with donations of clothing.

By late morning, the hospital discharged them and they climbed into their new car, Beca fiddling with the navigation system (Farewell, paper maps! You were a pain in the ass most of the time but usually reliable!) before they hit the road to drive north. They stopped midway at a diner for lunch before making the long last leg toward Portland. Luckily the ride didn’t seem long--at least, to Beca and the kids, thanks to the radio (for Beca, who was fascinated by the new music she’d missed) and the iPads for the kids. In the backseat, with their new peacoats keeping them warm over their sweaters and jeans and boots, they huddled together and played on their electronics, happily exploring the features and showing each other funny apps or taking pictures with the camera. It was such a happy sight to see whenever Beca peered through the rearview mirror.

*

Although there was no longer a need for watch shifts or security sweeps, ingrained habit still caused Chloe to rise fairly early. It was still a strange change of pace that would take some getting used to when the nurses arrived with breakfast already prepared for them, but it was undeniably a welcome change. She fired a quick grin and thumbs up at Luke, who beamed at her with his new glasses over some fruit and a waffle that he'd positively drowned in syrup.

While Beca spoke with the researcher, Chloe helped the kids wash up and brush their teeth after breakfast. In what was undoubtedly a first for them, getting ready and dressed for the day was actually a more prolonged activity, due entirely to the fact that the kids had more clothing choices than they'd ever had available to them before. While they'd dressed for function and survival before, the kids now spent a solid ten minutes debating over the different shirts and sweaters that had been provided for them. It filled Chloe with endlessly affectionate warmth to see the kids being able to express their own personalities through their clothing choices for the first time. Luke was overcome with excitement to find a sweater that matched the same shade of green as his new glasses, while Nell was delighted when she stumbled across a purple sweater in the pile that was easily nicer than any of her salvaged belongings. She knew they were likely to spend many more mornings in such a fashion when they were informed that their new Jeep was packed with more clothing donations for all of them.

It was strange to have a phone in her hand again--when was the last time they actually had functioning cell towers back east? Even so, everyone she still cared about was still further east and out of contact anyway, no matter how nice the new phone in her hand was. She briefly considered dialing the phone number of her childhood home--how strange, she mused, that it was one of the things that had stayed seared into her memory after all these years--before she decided against it. There was no guarantee that the number would even be the same now, and she didn't think she could bear to learn the truth over something as impersonal as a phone call. Instead, she typed in the number on her phone's keypad and only hesitated briefly before saving it as a contact titled 'Mom and Dad.'

Although it was familiar territory to find themselves all piled back into a vehicle after they were discharged, there was no denying that everything else was different. The Jeep itself was in excellent condition, as evidenced by the navigation system that captured Beca's attention for several minutes before they set out. While the kids were piled into the backseat as usual, their attention was riveted this time by their new iPads. The concept itself was completely foreign to the kids, but they seemed content to discover new things on their devices through trial-and-error. It was obvious when they discovered new features or stumbled upon a new game, because delighted gasps and chatter filled the vehicle each time.

It felt both completely surreal and pleasantly domestic, driving down well-maintained roads and listening to new music over the radio while the kids entertained themselves in the backseat. Chloe tried to interact as cheerily as ever and keep up with the jokes and laughter that occasionally filled the car, but she grew quieter and more pensive with every mile that carried them closer to her childhood home. She only realized how quiet she'd become when Beca turned off the navigation system and deferred to her for directions.

As she quietly directed Beca through the once-familiar neighborhood streets, she marveled at what had changed, what had stayed the same. When Beca pulled the vehicle to a stop in front of the house she indicated, she forgot how to breathe for a moment. It was the home where she'd spent her childhood--the same shutters on the windows, the cheery plants in the kitchen window, the large tree in the backyard that had once held a tree house, the driveway where she'd scraped her knees learning to ride a bike.

*

It was well after dark by the time they turned onto Chloe’s street, picturesque with snow-covered houses and lawns and Christmas lights strung up on rooftops and trees. Beca pulled up to the curb, right in front of the well-shoveled path that led up to the front door. The lights on in the house were definitely a good sign, but Beca was well aware someone else could live there by now. She took Chloe’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “You go ahead,” she said before releasing her hand. “We’ll be right behind you. Whatever happens… we’ll figure it out together.”

*

Beca's hand in hers brought her back to herself. Chloe turned away from the window to face Beca, her smile shaky even as she returned the squeeze of her hand. "Thanks, Becs."

Steeling herself, she took a deep breath before reaching for her seatbelt and opening the car door. The walkway up to the house was shoveled and well-maintained, and emotion tightened her throat when the first porch step creaked just as it always had. She froze as she reached the front door, that slab of wood suddenly seeming more daunting than any of the dangers she'd faced in the last few years of her life. She realized with a start that she'd been staring at the wreath that hung on the door with unseeing eyes, and she curled one hand into a fist and forced it up to rap against the door several times before her nerve evaporated.

*

When Chloe approached the front door to her childhood home, Beca helped the kids out of the car. They stood and watched from the bottom of the walkway near the vehicle as Beca’s chest tightened in anxious anticipation for Chloe, holding both Luke and Nellie’s mitten-covered hands on each side, breathing in shallow puffs of frigid, visible air. She had never been a big proponent of wishing--wishes rarely came true in her experience, but Beca found herself putting every shred of anything she ever believed in to will this to happen.

Please let it be them. Please let it be Chloe's parents. Please, please, please.

“Who lives here?” Nellie asked in a shy whisper.

“I--I'm not sure yet, we'll know in a minute." Beca glanced down to offer the kids a hopefully reassuring smile through the trembling nerves wracking her body.

Please be the Beales. Please let it be them. I’ll never wish for anything else in my life--just let it be them.

*

Muffled footsteps reached Chloe from the front hallway, and her hands shook so badly at her sides that she grasped at the lapels of her jacket to steady them. When the doorknob rattled as it turned, she stopped breathing entirely.

The door swung inward, and Chloe found herself staring into the same blue eyes she'd inherited from her mother. Dimly, some part of her brain realized with a start that she now stood several inches taller than her mother.

Connie Beale, her standard smile of welcome already in place, froze midway through her greeting. Chloe was sure she'd forgotten what oxygen was altogether--there was no way she could possibly draw in breath around the emotion that clogged her throat and the tears that immediately stung at her eyes.

"Connie? Who is it at this hour?" It was an achingly familiar voice from her past that called from within the house, and a strangled sound of disbelief was all that Connie was able to muster in return. When no answer was forthcoming, Chloe heard the heavy footfall of boots in the hallway. Her father, tall and lean as ever, appeared over his wife's shoulder and froze just as Connie had done.

They were her parents. A little more gray at their temples and threaded through their hair, a few more lines at the corners of their eyes and tracing their faces, but undeniably real and alive and hers.

"Hi."

It was the only word she could muster, and that one word itself was choked with tears and scarcely more than a whisper.

She collapsed in against them, and she felt them fold in around her. If not for the doorframe, they might have all ended up in a crumpled mess in the open doorway. She couldn't be sure how long they stayed like that, her shoulders wracked with cathartic sobs, feeling the shoulder of her jacket dampen with her mother's tears, her father's arms wrapped solidly around both of them.

When her tears finally slowed, she sniffled and wiped at her eyes with a sheepish, watery puff of laughter. Her parents' arms loosened around her, but they didn't stray far. Her mother's hands cupped her cheeks and smoothed over her hair, as if needing the physical contact to assure herself that her daughter standing in front of her wasn't a hallucination.

*

The instant the door flung open and Chloe paused and didn’t immediately launch into apology for having the wrong house or turn back around-- Beca knew. She knew it in the beat before Chloe launched forward and Beca saw two sets of arms wrap tightly around her Chloe. Their Chloe.

Beca choked a quiet sob, a few tears streaking down her cheeks. If anyone in the world deserved this, to reunite with their family after living through hell for the past five or so years, it was Chloe. Hands down. And though she couldn’t possibly be more happy for her, the dull ache thumped in her chest at the sharp reminder she’d never have that. Her family was gone.

“Who’re those people Chloe’s huggin’?” Luke asked with wary curiosity shining in his eyes.

Luke’s tiny voice jarred Beca back to herself, and she instantly took back her last thought… because her family wasn’t gone. They were holding her hands and hugging her parents at the moment. Sniffling, she managed to rein in her emotions and released Nell’s hand only to hastily wipe at her own cheeks. “That’s Chloe’s mommy and daddy,” Beca answered, grinning when Chloe waved them over. “I bet they’re the nicest people in the world. Let’s go meet them, okay?”

She waited, making sure she had nods of confirmation from both kids--she’d hang back if they were uncomfortable, but they both agreed right away.

“I wish we had a mommy and a daddy,” Nellie said as they took their first few steps, quiet enough for only Beca to hear.

Beca squeezed Nell’s hand and shot her a sad smile.

*

"I--how did you--we didn't--" Connie was at a loss, her hands fluttering in front of her, seemingly unable to land on a solid thought to express all that she was feeling. "Come in! Oh, honey, come on in here, I can't--"

Chloe’s parents stepped back to urge her into the house, and it jarred Chloe back into awareness. "Oh, there's--I have people with me. There are people you need to meet." She turned back towards the road where the vehicle was parked against the curb and Beca and the kids slowly approached, waving for them to join her on the porch.

When her three companions stepped onto the porch, she turned back to her parents with a beaming smile. "Mom, Dad, this is Beca," she informed them, reaching over to briefly grasp at Beca's upper arm. "And these awesome kiddos right here are Nell and Luke." Although they seemed shy in the presence of new people, the twins offered small waves in return. "Everybody, this is my mom and dad."

Connie and Frank seemed understandably floored, both by the reappearance of their daughter and by the fact that she had traveling companions with her. "Well," Frank seemed to recover first, although he had to clear his throat when his voice wavered slightly. "No sense in standing around out here in the cold. All of you come on inside, we'll put on some coffee or hot chocolate or--or whatever you prefer."

*

Beca had been so focused on wishing and hoping that both of Chloe’s parents would be alive and well and here that she hadn’t realized how terrifying it would be to actually stand in front of them. She’d never been good with people--older people especially, and though she knew she was supposed to offer a handshake, Luke and Nell held her hands too tight for her to even think about releasing them yet. So instead, Beca managed a genuine tight-lipped smile, her eyes still shining with unshed tears. “It’s good to meet you,” she rasped, making sure to lock gazes with both Chloe’s mom and dad.

At Mr. Beale’s offer, Beca let out a soft gasp and glanced back at the kids on either side of her. “Oh my goodness, hot chocolate? You two haven’t even experienced chocolate yet--you might even like it better than the iPads… and the pizza.”

“Better than pizza?” Luke’s high pitched question carried nervous but skeptical. Pizza was the best thing in the world, okay? He was sure of it.

“I wanna try some hot chocolate,” Nellie declared, bold as ever.

“I wanna try some hot chocolate please,” Beca reminded her gently, leading both kids into the house as she offered an apologetic grin to Mr. Beale. “Sorry, sir--we’re, uh, still working on manners and stuff. Myself included.” Okay, so that was a lame joke but it wasn’t exactly far from the truth?

*

When Beca, Nell, and Luke were once again by Chloe’s side and meeting her parents for the first time, it was a sense of completeness that Chloe couldn't possibly quantify with words. She could see the questions in her parents' eyes, wondering who these new people were to Chloe, but for now, gratitude that they'd played a part in Chloe coming home won out. For the first time in a long time, she realized that they had exactly that: time. Time, without fears about survival or knowing that each day might be their last. She intended to make the most of it.

Connie gave a self-conscious titter of laughter, dabbing at the tears on her cheeks as introductions were made. "Sorry, I'm a mess right now--but it's nice to meet you. All of you."

Frank gave a nod in that quiet, thoughtful way of his, letting his gaze linger on Beca and each of the twins for a moment before a crooked grin pulled at his features. "Good to meet you guys."

Upon hearing the kids' skepticism that hot chocolate could rival pizza, a laugh from Chloe filtered back to them as she led them into the house with her parents. Her mom lingered close and took Chloe's jacket as soon as she slipped it off, bustling to hang it on the coat rack by the door.

Frank waved off Beca's apology masked as a joke with a hint of a smile. "I'm still working on my manners too, so we'll call it even."

Connie seemed almost relieved to have something to focus on, a physical outlet for the live wire of energy that had been sparked by having so many shocking revelations in such quick succession. She was already buzzing around the kitchen as Frank led the others to the small kitchen table that was nestled in a nook of the kitchen that overlooked a large window facing out at the yard. Connie put a pot of coffee on to brew before she set about making hot chocolate. Mugs were pulled down from the cabinet and set in a tidy cluster on the counter, ready to be filled with everyone's drink of choice.

"Oh, you guys are gonna love hot chocolate," Chloe beamed as the kids scrambled up into chairs around the table. "It was one of my favorites when I was little too."

Now that she was in her childhood home, the happiness that infused her entire body felt undeniably giddy. There would be questions and explanations later, but for now, she was in the warm, cozy kitchen with many of the same trinkets that had decorated the room throughout her childhood.

"In fact..." Her look turned thoughtful as she learned in conspiratorially towards the kids, as if imparting a great secret meant only for them. "I know the secret to the perfect hot chocolate."

Firing a quick grin at them over her shoulder, she bustled over to the refrigerator and searched through it for a moment before she found a can of whipped cream. Intent on finding the next ingredients, she was halfway across the kitchen before her steps faltered, realizing that she hadn't set foot in this kitchen in years. Taking a chance, she shuffled over to the small corner cabinet and pulled the door open. Somehow, the sight of all of her mom's spices and seasonings still neatly tucked away in that same cabinet caused another knot of emotion to tighten in her chest. Maybe some things, no matter how small, never changed. She quickly grabbed the container of cinnamon and, on a whim, selected a small bottle of sprinkles that she saw as well. Might as well go all out for the kids' first experience with hot chocolate, right?

She turned away from the cabinet, only to find her parents watching her with expressions that she knew must have been reflected on her own face when her mother opened the front door: like they almost still couldn't believe that she was there, inhabiting the same space as them, but they were scared to look away for fear that she might disappear if they took their eyes off of her for even a second. She could understand the feeling to the very core of her being.

Gathering up their very necessary hot chocolate supplies, she carried them back to the table and arranged them in the middle of the table. It wasn't long before her mother followed behind with several mugs carefully balanced in her hands, and she set a mug in front of both Nell and Luke before handing one to Chloe. "Beca, dear, what would you like to drink?"

While her mother fussed over Beca's drink choice, Chloe scooted her chair a little closer to Nell and Luke. "Okay, I'm gonna show you how hot chocolate's really done," she intoned with excitement. Reaching for the whipped cream, she shook the can for a moment before dispensing some on top of her hot chocolate in a tidy little swirl. Next, she sprinkled some cinnamon on top of that, and then for good measure, she added a few sprinkles to top it off.

The twins sat up straighter in their chairs and watched her whole demonstration with vivid curiosity. "Now, we've gotta give it a few minutes to cool off and be careful, because we don't wanna burn our tongues. But do you wanna try this stuff and see if you wanna add it to yours?" she offered. Their heads rose and fell in unison in sharp, eager nods. Taking care not to make a mess, she let the twins try little samples of each of the ingredients she had added to see if they liked them for themselves.

"Beca! You've gotta try this!" Luke leaned halfway over the table in his attempt to push the can of whipped cream closer to Beca.

"I like these," Nell declared decisively, very intent on separating her sprinkles out according to color before she ate them.

*

The warmth in both ambiance and temperature in the Beale household was almost overwhelming; the houses they’d entered (so, so many over the years) had always been the opposite. Beca crouched to help the kids remove their mittens and tuck them safely into their pockets before she assisted with the peacoat buttons, too. Once the kids were more comfortable, Beca unzipped her black coat and unwound the scarf from her neck, running her fingers through her hair. The gray knitted sweater they offered wasn’t far from Beca’s preferred style, slouchy and off the shoulder and a little too long.

Beca’s grin curled with more appreciation when Chloe’s dad joked along with her, and she made sure to neatly hang the kids’ coats, along with her own, on the coat rack along with Chloe’s. It was so strange, being a guest in a living, breathing house. Things like where she chucked her coat or left her boots never mattered before, and Beca was extra cognizant of not messing up because it was Chloe’s house, so she moved about with extra reverent sort of caution, following into the kitchen with everyone else.

She knew she should probably sit, but Beca, too, had a nervous energy bouncing around in her body and she moved behind the table to stand behind the twins, one hand anxiously stroking through Nell’s hair--a move that soothed her more than the kid, probably. It truly amused Beca how much Chloe’s mom reminded her of Chloe--her easy, genuine warmth, the way she bustled about to make others comfortable, and of course, those familiar eyes. They helped disarm Beca as much as Chloe’s dad’s unassuming, stable presence. “Coffee sounds amazing. Thanks, Mrs. Beale.” God, there was a nonfunctioning coffee pot in almost every single abandoned house and cabin they’d crashed in, so she’d been craving some for… literally years. Beca never drank coffee before the outbreak--she was too young, she supposed--but the smell reminded her of her parents and mornings in her childhood home.

The way Chloe flitted about her family kitchen only served to pull an achingly fond smile to Beca’s expression, and she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the way she so sweetly made the kids more comfortable, sharing her own childhood secrets. Really, it was probably a good thing the Beales couldn’t stop staring at their daughter--they’d probably be confused by the almost cartoonish heart eyes Beca couldn’t figure out how to mask at the moment, shining bright at their daughter.

Once again, Luke’s excited call tore her attention back to him and she chuckled, reaching out to snag the can of whipped cream. Shaking it up, she tilted her head back and squirted a dollop into her mouth, earning a shriek of laughter pealing from the kids. It was only after she swallowed the mouthful of sugary cream that she wrinkled her nose in apology at Chloe’s parents. “Sorry, um--we only just made it across the barricade last night in San Francisco and almost everything is brand new to these guys.” So much for manners.

*

It was strange for Chloe to overhear her dad's quip to Beca and feel jolted right back to her adolescence, when her dad had always entertained her friends with purposely lame jokes that Chloe pretended to be mortified by. Things were so preliminary and so fresh, having the people she cared about most all gathered together in one place like this, and she found that she couldn't keep the smile off of her face as their voices drifted behind her on the short trek to the kitchen.

A knowing look was directed at Beca when she shuffled to stand behind the kids instead of sitting, although her expression was laced with affectionate softness as Beca doted over the kids in her nervous buzz of energy. In the meantime, Connie bustled away back across the kitchen, humming under her breath out of absentminded habit as she poured cups of coffee for both Beca and Frank. "Here you go," she offered with a smile as she returned to the small, cozy nook where the others were clustered, setting one mug down in front of Frank. Rather than questioning Beca's lingering near the kids, she merely gave an understanding smile and reached across the table to set Beca's coffee near the kids' mugs of hot chocolate so she could reach it whenever she wished.

It was only once everyone else had been tended to that Connie poured one more cup of coffee, this time for herself, nursing the warmth of the mug in her hands. She returned to claim a seat at the table right in the midst of the twins trying out all of the different ingredients, and she laughed indulgently when the can of whipped cream seemed to be a resounding success among their new guests. In fact, there was no trace of rebuke on her features when Beca responded to Luke's prodding about whipped cream by spraying some of it into her mouth--instead, she laughed cheerily alongside the kids, her daughter, and her husband.

"I'm just glad it wasn't Frank for once," she offered with a jokingly exaggerated long-suffering sigh in response to Beca's apology.

Frank looked entirely unabashed by the teasing admonishment, lifting his coffee cup in a cheeky gesture to the kids and Beca, as if saluting his co-conspirators. "I think trying hot chocolate for the first time calls for bending the rules a little, don't you?" In that moment, with the mischievous but warm twist of his lips and the gleam in his eyes, it was easy to see the lighthearted nature that Chloe shared with her dad as well, even when she was physically more of a carbon copy of her mom.

The kids watched him carefully for a moment, as if trying to gauge what to make of these new people, before smiles broke back across their faces and they nodded in agreement. Watching her dad and the twins with a smile, Chloe lifted her hot chocolate to her lips and took a careful sip. It was still quite hot, but not unbearably so if she sipped slowly at it.

Noticing Chloe's first sip, the kids scrambled to join in, clearly too eager to be deterred by the thought of burning their tongues. "Careful, guys, it's still hot," Chloe cautioned as the kids lifted their mugs. It was a comically adorable sight, the mugs large in their small hands and made all the more exaggerated by the whipped cream concoctions that topped their drinks.

As soon as those first sips were taken and they had a moment to process the new flavors of such a sugary treat, the twins' eyes widened with identical, adorable wonder.

"This is good!" Nell exclaimed, voice loud in her excitement. Luke's head darted back and forth between Beca and Chloe, almost like he couldn't make sense of the fact that he'd never experienced hot chocolate before this exact moment. The scene was made all the more hilarious and adorable because of the fact that neither of the twins had been spared from getting whipped cream on the tips of their noses as they tried to maneuver their mugs.

Chloe chuckled and leaned forward to grab a napkin off the table and wipe the sugary residue off of the kids' faces. "I think that's the official stamp of approval, how about you?" Her question was directed at Beca, her eyes darting upward over the tops of the kids' heads to pin Beca with a sunny grin.

*

“Thanks, Mrs. Beale,” Beca said as she reached for her coffee, fixed with some cream and sugar. She sipped it and let her eyes flutter closed to savor the taste, just as she had with the french fries and pizza last night and all of the food she’d eaten since then. Her taste buds seemed ultra-sensitive--maybe it was the result of eating the same bland foods for years, or maybe it was entirely psychological. Either way, she swore she could taste more than she could even before. It was truly bizarre.

She opened her eyes to find Chloe leaning forward to clean the creamy excess from the kids’ noses, earning giggles from the children. They kept on drinking, though, not seeming to mind in the slightest. “Definitely, yeah. Pretty sure they’re gonna be chocoholics.”

“Are you gonna do the doors, Beca?” Nellie’s excitement over the hot chocolate dimmed when she glanced to the backdoor of the house, spotting it unboarded and unbarricaded. They’d developed such a ritual when moving from shelter to shelter, it was no surprise to Beca they expected some things to stay the same.

“I can help,” Luke insisted, turning around; his eyes popped wider at the large bay window overlooking the backyard. “That’s a really big window,” he added in a surprised whisper. But clearly he was up to the challenge.

Beca offered an easy grin, her heart panging with a little sadness. Those instincts would die off eventually for the kids--their brains were still so impressionable, and she had a feeling they’d forget much of what they’d been through as they grew older. She carded her fingers through the Nell’s hair. “We don’t need to do any of that stuff anymore. We’re safe now, remember? Anywhere we go from here on out--we don’t have to worry like we used to.”

“Are we gonna sleep here?” Luke asked, already accepting Beca’s answer without question and blinking imploringly across the table at Chloe. It was already past what had become their semi-regular bedtime, but no doubt the excitement over the hot chocolate and newness of meeting Chloe’s parents were enough to keep them up with minimal yawning… for now.

“I like it better here than in the hop-sital,” Nell declared.

“Hospital,” Beca corrected with a gentle smile. “We don’t have to go back to the hospital.”

*

"Totes chocoholics. We've created some little monsters," Chloe agreed with an exaggerated wink and a quick tickle to Nell's side, which earned another chorus of laughter from the twins. After all of the things they'd faced before, the simple pleasure of watching the kids eagerly enjoying their hot chocolate and giggling over small antics like whipped cream on their noses infused her with such a visceral jolt of pure happiness that it was almost overwhelming. It was possibly the first pure, unadulterated moment of giddy happiness that the kids had had in their lives that wasn't marred in some way by even their young awareness of the world around them.

Or so she thought, at least until Nell's eyes fell on the door that led out to the back yard and her smile dimmed, replaced by thoughtful wariness. She noticed Luke's demeanor take on a similar hesitance when he noticed where Nell's attention had turned, but even then, Chloe wasn't prepared for the ache of emotion in her chest at Nell's question. She could see the uneasy curiosity that was piqued in her parents. That would mean more questions later, more grim or heartbreaking answers. Even if they'd heard some about the conditions that survivors beyond the barricade faced, they couldn't possibly understand the daily precautions that had become ingrained routine.

Her eyes followed Luke's observation over to the bay window, but even as she opened her mouth to try to salvage the misunderstanding and offer some explanation, Beca was already smoothly offering a reassurance that this newfound relaxation wasn't a fluke or short-lived condition for them.

Even though Luke's question was directed at Chloe, something about it seemed to jar her mother back into action. "Oh!" Her hands fluttered in front of her for a moment before finally wrapping around her coffee cup again in a stabilizing gesture. "Of course, you're all welcome to stay here, if you'd like to. We have plenty of room. We'd love to have you all stay, really, as long as you'd like."

Chloe met her mom's eyes then, and even though she felt the slight prickle of tears that threatened, her smile was genuine and appreciative. It was clear that her parents didn't want their newly returned daughter going anywhere else right now, and who could blame them? This reunion, joyous though it had been so far, was only scratching the surface of the catching up that needed to happen between them. But more than that, it was the kind of welcoming gesture that her parents would have made without a second thought regardless. Growing up, it had always been known that any of her friends had a place in their home if they needed it, and that clearly hadn't changed.

Meanwhile, Luke and Nell both eagerly nodded their heads and smiled across the table at Mrs. Beale, clearly very taken with the warm ambience of the house and wanting to enjoy it for longer.

"In that case," Chloe breezed, thankful that it had been sorted out so easily. "It's getting pretty late. So you two finish your drinks, and then we're going to call it a night, okay?"

"I wanna wear some of my new PJs," Nell declared grandly, dutifully taking another sip of her hot chocolate.

"Totes. We'll find some more pajamas that are just as soft and nice as the ones from last night," Chloe promised, firing a grin at Nell over the rim of her mug. She was glad that the kids agreed so readily, because she was pretty sure that yawning and half-lidded eyes weren't too far away, judging by the hour.

"Wonderful! I've got some fresh sheets for the guest room in the linen closet, I can go grab those." Connie pushed back in her chair and rose with her coffee mug, once again bustling around to rinse out her cup in the sink before placing it in the dishwasher. She disappeared down the hallway towards the linen closet, a few disjointed notes of humming once against floating behind her.

"If you all need to get some of your stuff out of the Jeep, I can help carry things in," Frank offered, tipping his coffee mug back to finish the last of it. "Just like she said, you're welcome to stay here as long as you'd like. So I dunno if you have plans, or--or any of that, but you can get as settled here as you want to, whatever you feel like."

*

Beca knew Chloe’s parents had dozens, if not hundreds of questions swirling around in their still-shocked brains. How could they not? Their only daughter returned to them after several years with no contact, having traveled from literally across the entire country, somehow. She finished off her coffee before offering appreciative grins at both Mr. and Mrs. Beale, insisting to the former that they didn’t have many things and she could bring the bags in herself. (They’d need to take a trip to Target or something in a few days, but Beca was pretty sure exposing the kids to something like that would need to be a delicate process. One step at a time.)

Though she’d driven for the majority of the day, Beca wasn’t tired. She helped the kids through their bedtime routine, grateful they seemed to enjoy things like brushing their teeth and washing their faces with running water. The pajamas helped, as did the Beales’ cozy guest room, and when Beca tucked in the kids for the night, she reassured them that this was a safe house, that she and Chloe would be right across the hall if they needed anything at all or woke up scared. She intentionally left the curtains open, the moonlight pouring in to provide a decent night light, and kissed their foreheads before they snuggled together and fell asleep.

After quietly backing out of the room and closing the door behind her, she found Chloe and gently took her elbow. “Do you want to go down and talk with them alone? Or would you rather I go with you? I’m good either way--I just wanna help and not get in the way of your family time and stuff, y’know?” She genuinely didn’t know if it would be better for her to tagalong to help answer some of the tougher questions, or stay back so Chloe could break the news of whatever she felt comfortable sharing without her there.

*

Once again, Chloe found herself grateful for the kids' amiability and their sweet natures, as they offered no protest once their hot chocolate was finished and it was time to turn in for the night. While Beca led the kids upstairs to wash up and get changed into pajamas for the night, Chloe lingered for a few minutes in the kitchen with the intention of cleaning up. She moved slowly through the room that somehow seemed both achingly familiar and surreal in how long it had been since she'd set foot in this space. The settings around her had remained the same, and Chloe had to admit that she was the one for whom everything else was different. She was the changed one, not this home. She might remember where things were organized in the cabinets and smile at the familiar trinkets that lined the kitchen windowsill with her mother's plants, but she was a different person than the Chloe who had last stood here. She gave herself time to absorb all of those swirling thoughts, moving at a slow, thoughtful pace as she gathered up mugs from the table and took them to the sink. It wasn't quite like re-familiarizing herself with the space itself--it was remembering how to exist in this space without the realities that had defined her life for the past few years.

Once the cups had all been rinsed and placed carefully in the dishwasher, she headed upstairs. Even tracing that old path upstairs was strange--fourteen stairs, the same hardwood that had always lined them, a little more well-worn than they once had been. Approaching the guest bedroom helped quell some of that strangeness though, and she paused briefly in the doorway as Beca was pulling the blankets over the twins and kissing their foreheads. Aside from the slight rustle of blankets as the kids got settled, they were already quiet and dozing off by the time Beca slipped out of the room.

Beca's hand at her elbow pulled her from the strange reverie that being back in this house seemed to have lulled her into, and her features softened with a smile at the thoughtful concern behind Beca's questions. "Would you...be up for going with me? There's a lot to cover, it might help them to hear it from both of us, we can fill in the gaps." While she didn't verbalize it, she also felt the need for the steadying strength of Beca's presence, because as overjoyed as she was to be back with her parents, she knew there was so much that they needed to talk about and some of the darker or more heartbreaking parts of the last few years were daunting to think about sharing. "And you don't--it's going to be a lot, we don't have to put all of that on them right now, we can take some time if they need it. I don't know how much they'll be up for hearing all at once."

The fact of the matter was that her parents had no way of knowing what it was really like out there past the barricade, if they'd been here all this time. She didn't know how much the remaining government had shared with people here in the safe zone, but no information like that could really convey what life and survival had been like for them. She could only imagine that it would be unsettling for her parents to hear about everything their only child had faced during their separation, not to mention what survival had looked like in general, so she was prepared to give them time to process if they needed it.

*

It was hard enough, struggling to lose both parents and a sister. Beca couldn't even imagine how much worse it must have been for the Beales to lose their only child. Not that she was comparing grief or anything, but it seemed so much heavier, somehow, when you're supposed to outlive your parents. You weren't supposed to outlive your children. The Chloe shaped hole it must've left in their hearts… Beca ached for them, for the mourning and thick curtain of grief they must've shared. Must have still endured, up until the moment Chloe knocked on their front door again. How difficult it must have been for the Beales to continue living in this home where they raised their daughter, her traces and spirit evident in every part of the house. It spoke to their strength both individually and also the strength of their bond. It made perfect sense to Beca, knowing the strong daughter they raised.

“Yeah, of course. I'll follow your lead.” Beca flashed what she hoped was an encouraging smirk, slipping her hand into Chloe's and offering a squeeze before releasing. That was something else Chloe would tell her parents, in time--the nature of their relationship, their plan to officially adopt the kids. And Beca would be right there with her to continue to support them all through this readjustment period.

Beca treaded lightly on her socks with no holes, slipping her hands into her oversized sleeves as they found Chloe's parents in the living room, just as cozy as the kitchen had been, with a fire crackling in the fireplace and the Christmas tree lit up in the corner. Beca longed to tour herself around the room, to get a better look at some of those framed photographs that no doubt boasted pictures of younger Chloe. But for now, she settled in the corner of the empty loveseat, casting another appreciative, still somewhat nervous grin at the Beales. (Really she was desperate to make a good impression, and she wasn't ever really confident in her ability to hold conversations like a functional human.)

*

Now that she was here in her parents' home, Chloe found herself rattled by the thought of the talk that was to come. Not that it diminished her joy at being reunited with her parents, but it was daunting to think of the things that she would have to share with them. Survival wasn't a kind thing, and she had done things that chipped away at the very core of her just in order to make it through some days, just as all survivors out there had been forced to do. What child would ever want to have to look their parents in the eyes and tell them about years and years of trial and hardship and grisly decisions that sometimes didn't have a good answer? She wasn't worried about judgment from her parents, but she knew there were things that they wouldn't understand, things that had to be lived through in order to comprehend them.

Beca was, as always, a godsend in those moments of anxiety. "Thanks, Becs." A current of affection coursed through her, and she matched the quick squeeze of Beca's hand with her own in the hopes of conveying that to her. There would be more to tell her parents in time, both about her relationship with Beca and their plans with the twins, but she had to take this one step at a time for now. Besides, they still needed to find a good moment to talk to the twins about the prospect of adoption first.

It was easy to locate her parents in the living room, although walking through the open archway to find them cozily lit by firelight and the twinkle of Christmas lights caused a tightening ache in her chest that was quickly becoming familiar with each aspect of her old life that she was reintroduced to here. Her parents had been talking quietly when they entered the room, but they immediately looked up and fell silent, offering welcoming smiles at the appearance of Chloe and Beca. Chloe settled next to Beca on the loveseat, and she was grateful that the smaller size of the furniture didn't make it suspicious when her shoulder brushed against Beca's, since she found herself craving that physical contact for comfort.

"Did the kids get to sleep alright?" Connie's eyes were filled with a familiar, maternal concern, no matter the fact that she had only met the twins that evening.

"Yeah. Beca tucked them in about five seconds ago, and I think they're both already out like a light," Chloe confided with a puff of laughter and a scrunch of her nose. As that moment of levity ebbed, she straightened in her seat. "So...I think it goes without saying that we should talk."

Her parents, undoubtedly expecting just such a thing, suddenly looked more alert. Frank sat up straighter in his recliner, and Chloe saw that her mother was sitting close to the edge of her seat where she was perched on the end of the couch closest to Frank's chair.

"I don't really...even know where to start with all of this," Chloe confessed, her expression lined not with worry, but with mild trepidation of everything that had to be recounted. "So if it's okay with both of you, I'd like to--try to tell you the story, as much and as best I can, and we can go from there. I know you must have a million questions, so...I'll try to answer everything as well as I can. Does that sound okay?"

"Of course, sweetie. I...we can't even imagine how difficult this must be. For both of you," Connie amended, giving a nod of acknowledgment to Beca as well. "Just...take your time, we'll listen to anything you have to say." Frank, while silent in his agreement, nonetheless leaned forward in his recliner to squeeze Chloe's forearm with a hint of an encouraging smile.

Drawing in a deep breath, Chloe began to unravel the tale of her life since the outbreak. It was halting at times, both because the chaotic beginning of the outbreak felt like a lifetime ago and because she often had to search for the words to fully express the realities of what they'd faced. She detailed the initial panic and confusion, the lack of information that had plagued everyone and had only grown worse once various forms of communication started to go down. It took time to share the details of how both her and Aubrey had made it out of the city, as well as the people they'd met along the way as they tried to eke out an existence in that initial chaos, but her parents listened patiently. Barden came next, after a chronicle of their time spent on the road avoiding military outposts and more dangerous areas, and a pang of emotion caused her voice to shake as she described the settlement and the small, makeshift family who had once crowded into that shared house with her.

She lost track of time as she continued in that fashion--explaining what life had been like in Barden, the skills she'd learned as they all tried to build a secure life there, the occasional threats that cropped up, the brief forays beyond the gates. It was only then that she arrived at that fateful day when Beca's motorcycle had arrived in Barden, with Emily on the back of a bike behind a wounded but acerbic driver.

"Beca saved Emily's life that day. So I figured the least I could do was patch her up, no matter how grumpy she was." The moment of lightness was a rare reprieve from the story she'd been sharing, and her shoulder nudged Beca's as she flashed her a knowing grin. "Beca actually had two friends, Amy and Jesse, who tracked her down and joined us there."

Her expression faltered then, remembering all that had come next. While she briefly touched upon the time that Beca and her friends had spent at Barden, there was no avoiding what had come next. "And then Barden...fell. There was an attack. We all had to leave in a rush."

Blue eyes turned towards Beca then, sharing a look of understanding that could only run between two people who had been there to witness it.

"We've been on the road ever since, for the most part."

*

Beca wasn’t sure Chloe was okay with her jumping in, but she wanted to give Chloe a break. Her parents seemed curious and terrified but enraptured by the tale, so she wanted to provide more information. Hopefully information that would make them understand clearer and also feel pride in their daughter, because that was important to Beca, too. “I didn’t know Chloe until early this past summer, but I think you should know--even with everything she’d been up to through that point, I’ve never in my life met anyone so kind and gentle and--and good. Chloe says I was grumpy but really--I wasn’t kind. I was--actually pretty mean to her, to her friends, at first. I didn’t trust them, at first, and I really--I was a di--uh, a jerk.” She let her head hang in shame for a few seconds before popping back up to courageously look back at her parents. “But it’s important you know a little about me, I think, to make the rest of the story make sense.”

Beca took a few minutes to explain about her family from Maine, her father and his research of the fungus, along with the vaccine. How she’d endured for years by camping with her two companions, relying on her survivalist and marksmanship skills. Losing her sister. Getting bitten and surviving (twice, she mentioned, though one came much later). The mission. And then she caught up with Chloe’s part--when Barden fell, with watery eyes and a more gravelly tone, thick with emotion. But she pressed on, grateful for Chloe’s presence beside her.

“So after Barden fell, we traveled northwest and eventually found a safe enough settlement willing to take everyone in Missouri. I couldn’t stay. I had to get to Denver, to the researchers--” She took a breath, a warm grin spreading on her lips. “Chloe volunteered to come with me. She could’ve--should’ve stayed at the settlement, in relative safety with her friends, but she didn’t. She said she wanted to make a real difference. She wanted to help me. And--god, she did. I wouldn’t have made it here without her, I want you to know that.”

She paused for a moment. “We found the kids hiding in the back of an abandoned car a few months ago, their caretaker taken out by a group of hungry scavs--uh, scavengers. So we took them with us, and they’ve been with us ever since. We made it to Denver, but the lab had been deserted for some time, and I managed to find a few notebooks and maps and that--that led us to San Francisco, where we arrived yesterday. The hospital checked us all out and I’m working with the researchers so they can study my blood and stuff, they said they’ll be able to make a vaccine if not an eventual early-stage cure for the fungus, so…” She cast another grin at Chloe. “So we did it. And now… now we’re here.”

*

When Beca's voice arose to replace hers in the momentary lull of quiet, she cast a sidelong, appreciative gaze at the woman beside her. She understood that it must be daunting to share her own side of the story with Chloe's long-separated parents that she had only just met, but once again, she had to admire Beca's perseverance and intuitiveness where Chloe was concerned. She reached across her body to briefly grasp at Beca's upper arm in a fond squeeze, meant both as an expression of gratitude and as a bolstering gesture as Beca shared more of their story. "The lack of trust was understandable though. Some people--trust can be a tricky thing out there, all of us learned that. But Beca came around," she interjected, feeling the need to clarify. Maybe Beca had been surly and standoffish, but she hadn't been as awful as she seemed to think. How could she, when she'd been willing to pull her own weight and teach them about things like shooting and survival?

Chloe lapsed into silence as Beca segued into more of her background in order to give her parents helpful context, but her focus was no less keen as she listened. Although it was all information that she'd heard before, she was thankful for Beca's willingness to share it. She heard the emotion that clogged Beca's voice as she reached the attack on Barden in her recounting of the story, and her shoulder pressed more solidly against Beca's to offer support.

It was surreal to hear their story condensed down so much. It couldn't hope to convey the struggle that had pervaded the days, the fear that was felt every single day because of the knowledge that dangers could be lurking in any place. It was for the best though--this was already likely an information overload for her parents, not to mention the emotional toll of hearing this about their only child's life, so it was better to summarize where they could and spare some details for if or when they came up. "You know I couldn't do that," she insisted, her voice turning soft as she looked at Beca. Clearing her throat, she turned back to level a solemn look at her parents. "You both taught me that. I had to help if I could."

Some of the tension that had built throughout the retelling eased into a smile as they reached the part of the story where they'd first encountered the kids. The circumstances had been grim and heartbreaking, but those kids were a source of light for her each and every day since they'd met. "Now we're here," she echoed, casting a tight-lipped smile at Beca that was both proud and a little melancholy. It had taken so much to get here. "And Beca's help is going to make a huge difference, I just know it. There's so many--there are people beyond the barricade who are going to benefit once they've developed a cure or a vaccine. It could really help make all the difference."

Her throat felt tight as she turned back to face her mom and dad, and she had to clear her throat before she could find her voice again. "And I didn't--I had no way of knowing about either of you. So as soon as we could leave the hospital...we came straight here. And here you are." Her eyes fluttered in rapid blinks to combat the sting of tears, but a shaky smile tugged at her lips nonetheless. "And I know this is just...so, so much to take in, so--we can answer questions, or give you time to process, or whatever you need."

Her parents were silent for a long moment, but even in the soft lighting of the room, Chloe was sure she saw the telltale glimmer of tears in her parents' eyes as they watched her. She could see that her parents' hands were joined in the space between his chair and her seat on the couch, clasped tight.

Her mother was finally the first to speak, although she had to draw in a shuddering, uneven breath first. "That's..." Her voice failed her with a strangled cough, and she shook her head before she tried again. "We had no idea it was like that. We got reports during the outbreak and as everything fell apart, but--we didn't know what life was like there."

"We tried getting in touch with you. Hell, we even tried getting through to Aubrey's dad, but we never had any luck. The military, everything was in chaos back then. We even tried to load up the car, thinking maybe...I don't know, but they'd already started stopping people before they could leave the state and building that barricade." Her father's voice carried a note of haunted softness that she couldn't recall ever hearing before.

"I understand," Chloe insisted without hesitation, because she did. Things had been too chaotic in those first days and weeks after the outbreak started, and her parents very likely would have ended up dead if they'd made it out of the state before the military started halting people there. "I'm just glad you're still here."

"And we're just glad that you're here. That you're alive and--and you came back to us." Connie's voice wavered with emotion, but when she turned to Beca next, there was a resolved, maternal appreciation in her eyes that could only come from a parent who had felt such fear where their child was concerned. "And thank you for helping her make it back."

*

Beca’s chest tightened with even more emotion when the Beales described how they tried to reach Chloe after the outbreak. Of course Chloe would understand, but that didn’t make it any less upsetting. She supposed they could only try to focus on now--on the future they never thought they’d be able to have. Difficult as it had been, difficult as it would be to let the truth of the harsh realities of the past few years to digest, Chloe and her parents would have the rest of their lives to make new memories. When Chloe’s mom looked at her with those bright blue eyes glimmering with emotion--eyes that had become so familiar to Beca, eyes she’d learned to love and trust--Beca swallowed the thick emotion in her throat and nodded tightly.

The clock struck eleven and Beca and Chloe retired to bed, leaving with the promise that they’d talk again tomorrow night, and the night after, and however long it took to get all of their questions answered, however many they came up with. Beca once again thanked the Beales for their hospitality, and as she and Chloe left the living room and headed toward the staircase, Beca paused with one hand on the railing, blinking out toward the jeep.

“I left all of my weapons in the truck,” she whispered, her lip catching between her teeth as she fought with herself, trying to convince herself of the same thing she repeated to the twins several times since last night. “I know I don’t--I don’t need them, but I--” She didn’t want to bring a gun into this house. Not now and not ever. Her weapons had become a security blanket and she wasn’t sure she could sleep without them, but it was a habit she had to break sooner rather than later. Now, preferably. So, swallowing that anxiety churning in her gut, she shook her head and willed herself to trudge upward.

*

Before turning in for the night, Chloe crossed the room to pull each of her parents into a tight, clinging hug. It didn't erase the years of separation, but as she found herself once again in those solid embraces, it felt like a step towards growth and understanding. It was the knowledge that they would be there in the morning--a certainty that she hadn't had for years--that made it easier to pace out of the living room on quiet footsteps and head for the stairs.

It was only when Beca's steps faltered that Chloe snapped out of the daze of fatigue that had settled over her. She turned towards Beca with a furrow of curiosity in her brow, but the uneasy whisper from Beca alerted her before any questions could spring to her lips. Her gut instinct might have been to offer to go to the Jeep with Beca to retrieve some of their weapons, but the torn look on Beca's face and the churn of uncertainty in her own gut silenced those thoughts before they ever reached her lips. They would have to adjust to a life without the constant weight of weapons on their hips and slung across their backs--going to get their weapons tonight would only be a temporary bandage over a problem that they had to learn to heal from.

"Hey." Her voice was gentle and understanding as she reached over to take Beca's hand in hers, because she understood. Even she had grown accustomed to have a gun within reach in case of emergency, so she could only imagine how Beca felt. "It's okay. Do you want to...we could double check the doors and all, if you think that will help you feel better?" That in itself was still technically unnecessary, since they were safe and sound here, but maybe the routine of it would help Beca rest easier in the knowledge that there was nothing to fear here. One hand lifted to cup Beca's cheek, her thumb running a light path over the curve of Beca's jaw. "We're safe here, Becs. We can finally relax. You helped get us this far, where we can be safe and not worry." Objectively, she knew that Beca understood that, but if Beca needed the reassurance of hearing it out loud, then Chloe would say it as many times as she needed to hear it.

*

Chloe’s solid presence and words helped jar Beca back to the present, her words reassuring and calming as Beca worked through that short-lived bout of intense anxiety. She shook her head when Chloe offered to double check locks--that was another habit to break, and Beca was more of a cold turkey kind of gal than the weaning off sort. “No, it’s okay, you’re right. There’s no need for any of that. Thank you.” Beca reached up to cover Chloe’s hand on her cheek, threading their fingers together and turning her head to press a kiss to Chloe’s palm, lips twisting in a tired trademark smirk as she continued walking up the stairs. She was super curious to see Chloe’s childhood bedroom and also eager to change into her pajamas and sleep in a heated room for once. In the flurry of everything since they’d arrived, Beca only really spent time in the hall bathroom and the guest room when she got the kids washed up for bed. It would be nice to settle in with Chloe and relax without having that heavy unknown weight of Chloe’s parents’ fate on her mind. They knew, now. They were okay, and they’d heal in time. They all would.

Once they entered Chloe’s bedroom, Beca grinned at the space and moved to crouch by the suitcase to pull out the soft, checkered drawstring pajama bottoms and a tank top. She fished out Chloe’s PJs, too, and held them out for her. “You doing okay?” she asked when she stood again, eyes bright and searching. She knew Chloe was thrilled to be back with her parents, to find them healthy and here, but the conversation had been heavy as hell and her emotions must be all over the place, considering Beca’s swirled like some sort of feelings tornado vortex inside her, too.

*

They had grown attuned enough in their bond that she could sense Beca returning to her, pushing through that flare of anxiety even as she shook her head to dissent that offer. While she was glad that Beca had been able to overcome that seize of worry spurred by the loss of their secure routine, there would have been no judgment there regardless; it might have been illogical to worry in a safe environment, but such deeply ingrained habits were hard to break and there was an understandable emotional backlash that came with interrupting that routine. "You're welcome, Becs, it's okay. This is going to be an adjustment for all of us." Despite the weariness that lined Beca's face and the matching fatigue that Chloe felt, her features gentled with a smile at the kiss that was brushed across her palm. It was only when Beca started up the stairs again that Chloe fell into step behind her, relieved to see that her demeanor seemed to have settled back closer to quiet tranquility after that flare of nerves. It was small, but it was a step in the right direction as they all looked forward to that unified goal of healing and growing together with time.

Somehow, in all of the emotional upheaval of seeing her parents again, she hadn't thought about what it would be like to step into her bedroom again. Everything was exactly as she remembered it: the posters on the walls, the desk that sat tucked into one corner near the window, the pictures of family and friends that stood in frames around the room. Her footsteps halted on an uncertain stutter step just inside the doorway. Blue eyes peered around the room in a slow pan, and she moved as if in a trance, crossing the room to the bookshelf that stood against one wall. Amid the paperbacks and trinkets that littered the shelves, one framed photograph stood in a place of pride. Smiling faces peered out at her from behind the glass--Chloe and Aubrey stood with their arms wrapped around each other, beaming out at the camera, while Chloe's smiling parents stood on either side of the girls and Aubrey's dad stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Frank, looking content but more reserved. Her fingertips traced across the familiar faces that were behind the glass, and it was Beca's voice that startled her from that reverie.

She turned over her shoulder to face Beca, blinking for a moment before she seemed to register the pajamas that were being offered out to her. Crossing the few steps, she reached out to accept the garments and mustered a small smile. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. Being back here is just...it's a lot." She wasn't at all ungrateful for the immense joy of finding her parents safe here, but she knew Beca would understand. Even with her happiness, just setting foot back in this house after years of absence had her rattled and trying to readjust.

*

Beca nodded in understanding, tossing the clothes on the foot of Chloe's bed before reaching up to cradle her face. “Yeah, it's a lot. That's a huge understatement.” She cracked a smirk, thumbs stroking Chloe's cheekbones as she held her gaze. “Like you said, it's an adjustment. Some days will be tougher, but we'll get through those together, okay? I'm not going anywhere unless you want me to. I promise. And if there's anything I can do to help… anything at all, anytime, you name it.” It was no secret that making Chloe happy became Beca's new life focus ever since… jeez, probably pretty damn soon after they'd met at Barden, if she were being honest. (Not that she'd own up to that… Beca maintained she had badass cred to live up to even now, thank you very much.) She waited with patient, calm, warm eyes full of adoration. Despite the anxiety still nipping at her nerves, being here, with Chloe… the proximity soothed her more than anything.

*

The rest of the haze of the past cleared from her eyes when Beca's hands on her face helped narrow the focal point of her attention down to nothing aside from Beca standing in front of her. It was clear that Beca's steady presence helped bring her back to herself, because a snort of laughter and a quirk of her lips accompanied Beca's words. "I think you stole my line," she teased, the words breathed out with a whisper of laughter. Nonetheless, her chin dipped with a small but decisive nod. "Together. That's how we've gotten this far anyway, isn't it? It seems to be a pretty good formula for us." That was an understatement, because Beca had proven to be everything that Chloe hadn't known she needed before Beca strolled into her life, and she had only strengthened and calmed Chloe with her presence ever since. "We're a team. Just like always."

Her hands briefly grasped at Beca's hips before slipping around, palms pressing solid and certain at the small of Beca's back. "And maybe...within the next few days, we might have a chance to talk to the kids? About adoption and everything? The neighborhood's really nice, maybe we could take them for a walk and let them play in the snow to help them get out for a little while and then maybe we can talk, just us and them." She didn't want to overwhelm the kids with too many new things at once, so she wouldn't press the issue if they seemed hesitant about it, but they had enjoyed the brief moments when they'd been able to play outside before. It was cold, so any outing would probably be pretty abbreviated, but the kids hadn't had a chance to enjoy snow the way it was meant to be appreciated yet. They would have to broach the subject with the kids sooner or later, and there was really no sense in delaying the inevitable, unless they decided that the news might be too much all at once for the twins.

*

The first truly serene smile tugged on Beca’s lips in maybe… ever, once Chloe hit her with the one-two punch of confirming their partnership and also making a plan to tell the kids about their plan to become an actual, legal family. Beca’s hands slipped from Chloe’s cheeks to intertwine behind her neck, finding more security in the closeness. “Yeah, that sounds perfect. And… the chief researcher dude said he’d take care of setting up our housing when we decided what we wanted and where, so--whenever you’re ready, we’ll start looking for somewhere for the four of us. Somewhere really close to here would be great--I’d love to do regular visits with your parents, maybe do, um--some sort of regular dinner or Sunday brunch or whatever…” God, it was still so damn weird, talking about this stuff. Making real, solid plans for the future, after everything. “But we can stay here as long as you want. I’m not in any rush.” She pressed a warm kiss to the corner of Chloe’s mouth. “Wanna get some sleep?” Ordinarily Beca would fight sleep to savor a few extra minutes staying up with Chloe, but they had a long, exhausting day of travel leading to a happy but emotionally draining reunion, she had to remind herself that they had time. They had so much time now.

*

It never ceased to amaze Chloe how Beca seemed to be able to anticipate and calm her anxieties, but considering the hidden layers of caring and protective gentleness that she'd discovered over their time together, maybe it wasn't all that surprising. Either way, Beca's proximity made it easy to settle back into a semblance of calm, which made it that much easier for emotional weariness to finally sweep over her to its fullest extent. She changed and pulled on her pajamas with slow, tired limbs and slipped into bed, scooting across to the opposite side of the bed so Beca could join her. It was surreal to curl onto her side in the cozy cocoon of her old bed, and as she tugged the blankets up to her shoulders, she caught an inhale of the laundry detergent that her mom used. That simple, fresh scent transported her back to her childhood in that instant, but after the emotional upheaval of the day, this rediscovery didn't prompt yet another swell of emotion that threatened to spill over into tears. Instead, it filled every cell of her being with such a contented happiness that she sank against the mattress with a soft, pleased sigh. When Beca joined her in the bed, she instantly scooted closer, slinging an arm low around Beca's waist and cuddling in against her. With the heating in the house keeping the room at a comfortable warmth, the softness of pajamas and a plush mattress wrapping her up in maximum coziness, and Beca at her side, she drifted off to sleep almost instantly when she let her eyes close.

It was the first time in ages that she woke slowly and of her own accord, rather than the long spells of exhausted sleep her injury had sent her into or the instant alertness that typically came with each new morning out on the road in order to make sure nothing had gone awry during the night. She took stock of her surroundings as the room came into focus around her through somewhat bleary eyes. The curtains were drawn, but she could see the hints of morning sun that radiated through the light blue fabric, turning it an even lighter shade beneath the sun's rays. Her back arched with a languish stretch and a yawn, her fingers brushing the headboard above her when her arms stretched out over her head. It was on the tail end of her jaw-popping yawn that she realized there was a difference from the night before: the bedroom door had been inched open just a crack, and as she lifted her head from the pillow, she spotted two familiar sets of eyes peering at her from the sliver in the door.

"Morning, guys," she greeted, her voice low and hoarse with the vestiges of sleep but carrying an edge of laughter. That greeting seemed to be all the acknowledgment the twins needed to push the door open further, shuffling into the room. Nell's hair was sleep-mussed and a comically large cowlick stood up on one side of Luke's head, and they both moved slowly with the last, clinging remnants of sleep.

"We woke up but we didn't wanna go downstairs without you," Luke confided, knocking his glasses askew when he reached beneath the lens to rub at his eye.

Nell's shoulders squared, as if she didn't want to admit to shying away from going back downstairs without Beca and Chloe. "We wanted to see if you were awake," she declared, her little chin lifting.

"You caught me, I'm wide awake." Chloe pushed herself into a sitting position on her side of the bed, peering over slightly to see if the kids' entrance had woken Beca. As she did that, she finally registered the pleasant aroma that had worked its way into the room once the kids opened the door. Flashing a broad grin at Luke and Nell, she pointed out, "And I think we're in luck, it smells like we've got breakfast waiting for us downstairs. Are you guys hungry?"

The kids, although they still seemed to be adjusting to having access to food anytime they liked and being able to eat as much as they wanted, brightened at the question and offered quick, matching nods.

*

While Chloe fell asleep almost instantly, Beca lay awake, absentmindedly stroking Chloe’s arm as she slept. She stared at Chloe’s ceiling, soothed by her steady breathing as she listened to the living, breathing house--the whirrs of the heating system, the soft strains of the television from what must’ve been the Beales’ bedroom, a leaky faucet in the hall bath. She’d become so attuned to sensing danger that her hearing was almost too sharp, and she resisted the urge several times to crawl out of bed and check the front and back doors with Chloe’s mantra repeating in her head over and over again. Exhaustion won out over her mental exercises, and eventually, sleep took Beca, too.

Familiar voices wrenched her from slumber, and Beca grumbled into the pillow while she stirred. Her eyes cracked to a slit as they adjusted to the natural light, a sleepy smile pulling at her lips when she spotted the kids and Chloe looking well rested. The scent of breakfast hit her olfactory senses and she groaned. “Oh my god, that’s bacon... I missed bacon…” That and another potent smell filtered into the room and she gave a happy sigh. “And coffee. M’gonna need coffee every day for the rest of my life.”

The promise of a full breakfast was enough to pull Beca into an upright position and she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, moving to drape herself over Chloe’s back to pull her in for a hug from behind. “Guess we better get down there, huh?”

*

Chloe’s attention broke from the kids for a moment when she heard an indistinct grumble and felt the sleepy shift of movement behind her. A snort of laughter quickly followed when Beca positively groaned at the aroma of breakfast, which earned giggles from the kids that they tried to hide behind their hands. The hospital had been great about providing food before, but nothing could beat a home-cooked meal. "We'd better run, guys, otherwise Beca might eat all the bacon before we even get there," she teased, scrunching her nose with amusement at the kids.

Through their laughter, a sliver of confusion still worked its way in and Chloe realized what must have thrown them off about her statement. "Oh! Bacon's another breakfast food, it's super awesome. We'll give it a try if you want, I bet you'll like it."

Another laugh resounded around the room when the sleep-warm weight of Beca draped over her back, the chuckle trailing off with a contented sigh at the lighthearted moment. "Beca's right, let's head down there and enjoy some breakfast before it gets cold." Not that they weren't all accustomed to cold or lukewarm food on occasion, but conditions like that were a thing of the past now and she had to keep reminding herself of that.

The twins bolted for the door and back into the hallway, clearly eager for breakfast now that they knew Beca and Chloe were awake to join them. Watching the kids scramble from the room, Chloe chuckled low under her breath again and turned her head enough to press a kiss to Beca's cheek. "Morning, Becs. We'd better get down there, breakfast might not be a match for them."

Although there was some reluctance to leave the warm nest of blankets and body warmth of the bed with Beca, she slowly extricated herself and pushed to her feet. Another yawn caught up with her as she gave a stretch upon standing, running her hands through her hair in little more than a cursory attempt to make it look presentable.

When she stepped out into the hall, she found the kids waiting for them at the top of the stairs. As soon as Chloe was in sight, they all but stampeded down the stairs with slightly clumsy but excited footsteps, their earlier shyness clearly outmatched by the promise of breakfast and the knowledge that Beca and Chloe were awake now.

Needless to say, the kids beat her to the kitchen, where her dad was already sipping a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper at the table and her mom was transferring a fresh batch of pancakes onto a plate to cool. "Morning, Mom. Morning, Dad," Chloe greeted as she strolled into the kitchen.

"Oh, good morning, honey. Good morning, Nell, Luke," Connie responded warmly, looking over her shoulder to smile at all of them. After their talk last night, she still seemed cheery and fairly well-rested this morning. The magic of moms, Chloe reasoned internally. "We've got plenty of breakfast and everything's ready now, so all of you help yourselves to whatever you want."

Plates and silverware had already been set out on the counter, so Chloe helped both of the kids grab their own plate and fork. She moved along the counter space where the food had all been laid out, helping the kids dole out pancakes and bacon and scrambled eggs onto their plates. "Syrup and everything's on the table over there, let's go sit down," she urged, sending the kids off to the table ahead of her. They set their plates down on the table and scrambled up into chairs right next to each other, already reaching for the bottle of syrup to no doubt drown half of their plate in it. Some time outside might be needed just to wear off that sugar rush from breakfast, she noted with amusement.

With the kids taken care of, Chloe headed for the coffeepot next, pulling down a mug for herself and setting an extra one beside the coffeepot for Beca. Clearly Beca had been looking forward to the caffeine, after all. Taking the time to mix some creamer and sugar into her coffee, she tested the hot brew with an experimental sip. Finding it just to her liking, she breathed a pleased sigh as one hip leaned against the kitchen counter, content to just appreciate the scene for a moment.

*

Beca’s sleep-coated snicker paired with Chloe’s laugh when the kids bounced back into the hallway, super eager to try actual breakfast foods. They’d definitely created little monsters with introducing all this new food so soon, but really, how could they deny them anything after the life they’d led up until this point? She brightened when Chloe kissed her cheek, reluctantly releasing her so they could both follow Luke and Nellie downstairs.

She pulled a hoodie over her pajamas and padded into the kitchen barefoot, casting Mrs. Beale an appreciative grin. “Thank you for all of this. Smells amazing.” As Chloe predicted, the coffee lured her attention before the food, and she offered Chloe a playful little hip check as she reached for the mug and began fixing her own cup (just a splash of cream and a little sugar). Beca headed over to the table cradling her precious java and sat beside Frank and across from the kids, shooting them a faux-exasperated sigh. “Don’t forget to chew and breathe. The food’s not gonna disappear,” she reminded them, content to sit with her coffee for a few minutes as she woke more fully.

Without any sort of preamble or announcement, Frank gently slid the front page of the paper in front of Beca. She blinked in confusion for a moment--but only for a moment, as the smiling face of her father beamed up at her from the page. She remembered that picture--her mom made him get a haircut before his professional photoshoot from when he’d been published in some nerdy magazine. “Oh…” Beca’s breath caught and she couldn’t stop the wave of emotion crashing through her, tears flooding her eyes as she forced herself to look away from the black and white photo and instead read the article.

CDC Discovers Breakthrough in Cordyceps Fungus Research--Vaccine, Possible Cure

As the head researcher had promised Beca, her father had been named the scientist behind it all, and her own name left out. After the writer detailed information about the vaccine--the hows and whens and wheres of its eventual availability to the public, the process of manufacturing it into a cure, conjectures about how this could turn the tide of this war--the last paragraph paid homage to her father’s life. They boasted his academic and research-based accomplishments, outlined his areas of study and other notable contributions to the field, and the last line read: Above his accolades, Dr. Robert Mitchell cherished his family; he resided in Maine with his beloved wife and two daughters.

It took another moment for Beca to find her voice as she looked up at Frank. “Can I--”

“Keep it. Of course,” Frank insisted, reaching out to rest his hand atop Beca’s and offer a gentle, grounding squeeze.

Luckily, the kids were too busy chattering on about the various new types of foods on their plate to notice the side conversation; she didn’t want to bring down their excitement at all, and fortunately theirs was contagious, bringing Beca back to herself. She took a steadying breath before folding up the paper and moving to the counter to fix her own breakfast plate, thanking Connie yet again.

She remained mostly quiet and introspective throughout breakfast, savoring each bite of food and each ounce of contentment radiating off everyone at the table. Toward the end of the meal, she nodded toward the large bay window behind the kids. “Snowed a lot overnight,” she observed aloud, shooting a quick, knowing grin over at Chloe. “Kinda seems like a good day to play outside.”

The kids gasped and somehow, their already happy expressions cranked up several notches. They hadn’t been allowed to play in the snow before--it broke Beca’s heart, but footprints in the snow would have only drawn attention of passersby, which could’ve proved super dangerous. Now, though. Now they could definitely make up for it.

*

The hip check earned a noticeable uptick at the corners of Chloe's mouth, and her eyes narrowed at Beca in a lighthearted and entirely unconvincing glare. While Beca savored her first sips of heavenly caffeine, Chloe went to grab a plate and pile it with a respectable portion of breakfast for herself. Who could ever turn down pancakes, after all? By the time she'd prepared her own plate, everyone else had meandered over to the table--even her mom seemed to finally be content with her breakfast preparations and had taken her usual seat next to Frank. (She remembered them sitting almost shoulder-to-shoulder and exchanging their favorite sections of the newspaper as they sipped their coffee each morning, and she'd found it grossly adorable as a kid.) Chloe claimed the final empty set between Beca and Luke, returning the grin that the kids fired at her (although hers was noticeably less syrup-covered).

Chloe had barely picked up her fork when she noticed her father slide part of the paper over to Beca. Curiosity got the best of her, since she couldn't imagine why her father would feel the need to share the newspaper with Beca completely unprompted. As soon as her eyes alighted on the bold headline, understanding replaced that question in her mind. Even though she'd never met Beca's father, she knew the smiling man in black and white on the front page must be him.

She didn't want to be intrusive by leaning over to peek at the article in its entirety, but her gaze lingered on Beca's profile while her attention was on the words in front of her. While Chloe still wished there was something that could have been done to save Beca's family, and likely always would--an irrational wish, since she hadn't even known Beca before they'd passed away, but a sincere one nonetheless--she still felt a bittersweet note of pride and longing to see that Beca's father was getting the recognition he deserved. He truly might have helped turn the tide of this disaster and save countless lives, even if he hadn't lived to see it for himself. He would have been proud of Beca too, she knew that much with certainty.

She didn't want to cause a noticeable enough scene to catch the attention of the kids and spark questions about it, so she waited until Beca folded up the paper to settle one hand on Beca's knee beneath the table and give a gentle squeeze before Beca rose to fix her breakfast. Seeing her father's picture like that and seeing the accolades and praises that were already being given to him must have been rattling and emotional for Beca, even if Chloe knew that she must also feel pride that he was receiving acknowledgement for his achievement. It was something she would ask about later to ensure that Beca felt okay, but now wasn't the time, not in front of everyone else.

When Beca rose to go fix her own plate, Chloe cast a soft, grateful smile at her father across the table. His head inclined in a faint nod of acknowledgement over the rim of his coffee mug, and his expression was a gentle one.

She didn't try to press Beca on her quietness throughout breakfast; she deserved the time to process seeing the news about her father. Luckily, the kids offered no lack of entertainment as they happily chattered away about breakfast and everything around them. It was impossible not to feel her mood lift once again as she watched their bright, lively faces.

That was never more true than when Beca mentioned the possibility of playing in the snow. In fact, she was surprised they didn't completely rocket out of their seats and through the ceiling at the very mention of it, judging by their expressions of glee. "Finish your breakfast first. Then we'll see about bundling up and going out for a while," she assured them.

Even with Chloe's gentle insistence, the kids seemed to inhale the rest of their breakfast before her very eyes, despite Beca's earlier reminder to chew their food. Their haste definitely showed, since Luke had a smear of syrup on his chin, but she obviously couldn't begrudge their enthusiasm at all. When there were so many new experiences available to them, it was enticing to want to try all of them at once. The kids bounced impatiently in their seats as they waited for the adults to finish their breakfast and give them permission to go outside, but they once again showed their well-behaved demeanor by not whining or questioning how long it was going to take them.

Taking one final bite of bacon, Chloe pushed her seat back from the table. "Okay, let's put our plates up and we can go get ready." The kids practically leapt from their seats to comply, carrying their plates over to the sink and helping Chloe rinse them off before depositing them in the dishwasher.

"Oh, I can get the rest of this. All of you go have fun," Connie fussed, waving them away from any further tidying up around the kitchen.

Luke and Nell's heads swiveled between Chloe and Beca for confirmation, and after a beat, an indulgent smile spread across her face. "Okay, let's go put on plenty of warm clothes and we'll go out."

That was all the kids needed to hear before they were bolting down the hall and thundering back up the stairs to their room. Chloe crossed back to the table to rest a light hand against Beca's back. "I'm gonna start helping them get bundled up, if you wanna finish up and then join us?" She knew that Beca was likely finished with her meal as well, but she wanted to give her an opportunity to take a few minutes to herself first if she wanted to process the news about her dad.

*

Chloe’s touches, brief and gentle as they were, helped to settle Beca and keep her in the moment despite the emotional rollercoaster rocketing her back to the past. She cast her an appreciative grin when she got a head start on helping the kids bundle up, and Beca took another minute to collect herself in the pleasant quiet of the Beales’ kitchen. After she took a few more bites to clear her plate, she brought the dish to the sink and offered to finish cleaning up, to which Connie abruptly shooed her away to go play with the kids.

By the time she arrived upstairs, the kids were mostly ready to go. Beca pulled on her warmest clothes and the waterproofed boots that had been given to her last night, buttoning the warm coat and making sure to pull on her scarf and knitted beanie and gloves. The sight of the kids bundled up so tightly was kind of hilarious and adorable, but they didn’t seem to mind the fact that they could barely move in so many layers as they opened the backdoor and Nell and Luke bolted down the back porch steps into the yard, where a foot of snow had accumulated overnight.

For the next hour, the four of them had a blast in the snow. They worked together to build a snowman, and after explaining the elements needed to complete the creation, the kids took delicate care to find the perfect arm-sticks and rocks for the face. Beca taught Luke and Nell how to pack solid snowballs, which led to a pretty intense snowball fight (Beca may have tackled Chloe in the snow… she had no regrets about that, especially when the kids nearly lost their minds at how funny it was.). There were no hard feelings though, because each of them got their shots in, and their “teams” broke apart after a few minutes as they chucked heaps of snow until they collapsed together, flushed and happy and content.

It was only when Beca realized her fingertips started feeling numb that she declared playtime over for now, and the kids--their faces flushed from the cold and all of the raucous laughter--didn’t protest at all, hopping up the porch steps behind Beca. She removed their outer layers beneath the covered porch, not wanting to drag a bunch of snow-coated clothes into Connie and Frank’s kitchen, but they had plenty of layers on so it wasn’t a big deal when they kicked off their boots and padded through the kitchen in their socks, trudging upstairs with exhausted, but delighted expressions.

Nellie requested PJs and Luke bobbed his head in agreement, and Beca and Chloe helped them change into their warm, comfy clothes they’d slept in the night before. Both chatted about the snowball fight, unable to decide who was a clear winner, but they vowed to try again next time it snowed as they scurried to crawl under the blankets of the guest bed.

Beca flashed a nervous sort of grin at Chloe before refocusing on the kids, moving to sit on the side of the mattress and twist her body to face them. “Hey, um--before you guys pass out, we wanted to talk to you about something.”

The change in her tone had Nell and Luke sitting up straighter, more alert as they sat up side-by-side in bed.

“Now that… things are safe. Now that we don’t have to travel a lot or worry about things like food and where to sleep and stuff, we wanted to know what you thought about… about the four of us being a family. For good.”

A flash of confusion crossed both kids’ faces and it was Nellie who spoke up. “But you said we’re already a family.”

“We are,” Beca insisted, grinning. “But there’s a thing called adoption, and if we sign the papers, it’ll officially make us a family. It’ll make me and Chloe--we’ll be your parents. Forever.”

Luke’s jaw dropped in a comically adorable way. “You mean… you’re gonna be our mommy and--” His brow furrowed. “Daddy?”

No, Luke,” Nell corrected. “A daddy is a boy. So--two mommies--” She glanced between Beca and Chloe for reassurance, but also her eyes widened as she processed that in her six-year-old brain. “You’re gonna be our mommies?”

Beca nodded slowly. “Yeah. I mean, if that’s what you both want.” There was a slight waver in her voice. “We love you two very much. Whatever you decide--that won’t change, okay? We can talk more about this another time, if you want, too. But no matter what, we’re gonna take care of you and make sure you to never have to worry about--”

Nell cut Beca off by launching forward, flinging her arms around Beca’s neck and burying her face in her neck, clinging and nodding fiercely.

Beca remembered her wish she’d spoken aloud just before they met the Beales, and Beca choked a sob into her soft, snow-damp hair as she hugged her back with all she had.

*

Chloe settled on the mattress beside Beca so they could both face the kids, and she was grateful for their immediate attentiveness when Beca started speaking to them. Even as Beca took the lead on broaching the topic of adoption with them and explaining some of what it meant, her hand found Beca's atop the blankets and gave a reassuring squeeze. The kids, bless their kind hearts, were as attentive as ever as they worked to make sense of everything that was being shared with them.

Tears sprung to her eyes when Nell said she thought they already were a family, because it was beyond affecting to hear the little girl express the same thing that Chloe felt herself. She was glad that it seemed to make sense to the twins that they were a family, this would just be a legal process to help cement that so there was no danger of them being separated for any reason.

Chloe had more assurances on the tip of her tongue--assurances that they could think it over, that they didn't have to decide right now, that they could ask whatever questions they needed to help them understand the offer--but Nell derailed all of that by launching her tiny frame at Beca.

Luke scrambled from beneath the blankets in Nell's stead and clambered into Chloe's lap with only minimally less body-launching enthusiasm than Nell had. Her arms immediately wrapped around the young boy, and with his face pressed in tightly against her shoulder as he squeezed her with all his might, she could feel the dampness of his hair under her chin and even the curve of his smile that was pressed into her shoulder. She shifted over on the mattress until she bumped against Beca, their shoulders pressed tightly together, and Luke unlooped one arm from around Chloe only so he could lean halfway over and cling to Nell as well. The angle was slightly awkward and Chloe's arm wrapped more firmly around Luke to keep him from toppling right over, but she wouldn't have changed it for the world.

"We love you both so much," she said thickly with emotion, the words only slightly muffled when she pressed a kiss to the top of Luke's head. "So if you're okay with this, then we would be so happy to officially be a family. But Beca and I are gonna look out for you and take care of you no matter what, even if there's questions you wanna ask about this or something you want us to explain."

She felt Luke's arm tighten around her in response, and she only barely contained a sob of her own at that, although her body shuddered with the effort of holding it back. "Nellie and I wanna be a family too," Luke mumbled against the fabric of her shirt, and Chloe squeezed her eyes shut for a moment against the force of the emotion that washed over her to hear that. It was a little more uncommon to hear Luke vocalize a strong stance like that instead of letting Nell take charge and be the bold one, and she felt both a swell of pride and a faint curiosity if they'd ever talked about thinking of Beca and Chloe as their family before.

"We'd love that too. So if you both feel that way, then the people from before are going to help us all find a great home where we can live." Her eyes stung with a sudden threat of tears and she had to swallow thickly against the pang of emotion that clutched at her heart when she realized that the kids had never had a home of their own. Even when they'd stayed in places for a little longer than usual, it had always been with the awareness that they would move on eventually. "And hey, you can each have your own room too. You could decorate it however you want, it would be super fun."

"Where is that gonna be?" She could see the light of fascination in Nell's eyes at the prospect of having their own house and their own rooms, but there was also some curious hesitation there too. Even after they'd crossed the barricade and been told over and over that they were safe, they'd still been on the move quite a bit--first the hospital, then Chloe's parents' house, and now the talk of settling somewhere else.

"We're not sure yet. We'd want you both to have some say in it too, we want to pick the perfect spot for all of us," Chloe explained with gentle patience. "But...maybe we could look somewhere around here? If that's something you guys would want, and if you like being around my parents too?"

It wasn't something they'd had a chance to discuss, especially since those plans had been on hold until they could discuss adoption with the kids, but it was a possibility. She wanted the kids to know that they had options now, and part of being a family was them being able to share their input about the decisions they made.

*

Beca and Nellie both released an arm to bring Chloe and Luke into their family group hug. Hearing Luke speak up for the pair of them--timid, nervous Luke, speaking with such firm assurance--only made Beca weep harder. “Happy tears,” she reassured them with a sniffle, once they all pulled back and her cheeks were wet and blotchy. (Seriously, Beca. Get your shit together.) Her wide smile and words seemed to ease any concern that may have sparked from the kids, and Beca leaned her head against Chloe’s shoulder as Chloe spoke about the house.

“Mhm, and this’ll be our house for as long as we want to live there. And if we stay close to Mr. and Mrs. Beale, we can visit here whenever you want to. I’m sure they’d love that.”

Luke and Nell nodded without hesitation, their little alert faces still bright with wide-eyed wonder as they processed all of this.

Beca’s mind was suddenly reeling with all of the features she wanted for their house--a state of the art security system, for peace of mind. A bathroom with a large soaking tub that would fit both her and Chloe. A large backyard with a swingset for the kids. Maybe a pet or two. She’d never let herself dare to dream before, and now, all of the possibilities seemed endless.

One step at a time. For now, she reached out to help tuck the kids back in. “Get some sleep, you guys. We can talk more about this after a nap.” She cast a watery smirk at Chloe. “After we all nap, ‘cause someone was relentless out there and shoved snow in my hood.”

The kids giggled as they huddled together beneath the blankets and Beca leaned over to kiss both of their foreheads. “Have a good nap, little snow monsters.”

Luke’s voice replied first. “You too, mommies.”

Okay, so Beca wasn’t exactly ready for that one, and she damn near lost it all over again as they turned off the light and slipped across the hall. When they were safely settled back inside Chloe’s room, Beca looked up at Chloe with a wild sort of disbelieving look. “Holy shit. I can’t believe--I didn’t think it’d go that well,” she said, emitting a puff of laughter. “Guess we’re gonna have to tell your parents sooner rather than later, huh?” But later. After they had some time to themselves to process all of this together.

*

Although they'd shared many hugs in their time together, there was something undeniably special about that one, sharing their first group hug now that they knew they would officially be a family. Family wasn't something that could be quantified or validated by a piece of paper--all four of them already knew they were family--but she was anxious to see the legal process done and sorted so they would have full custody of the twins and they could look towards the future. Now that they had a promising future to actually anticipate for themselves, she couldn't wait to experience every moment of it.

"Absolutely. No more moving all the time and having to be so careful. It'll be our home and we can decorate it however we want and have so much fun making it comfortable for all of us," she agreed to build upon what Beca had promised.

Seeing the pure, unguarded awe reflected at them from the kids' wide-eyed gazes reinforced once again how revolutionary a thought that was for them. They'd never known that kind of security before, much less the stability of falling asleep in the same bed every night.

She had to admit that Beca providing the breakthrough for the vaccine had a huge benefit, since they would have plenty of options in finding the perfect place for themselves. Their exposure to the help that the government here provided to refugees of the outbreak had been fairly limited so far, but she was sure that housing was provided for those who made it to the barricade. Nonetheless, they had enough leeway thanks to their position that they would be able to find the perfect house for their whole, new family to settle into.

There would be plenty of time for that later though. For now, the kids had tired themselves out playing in the snow and then handled having a big question like adoption dropped on them, so a nap was well in order. "Get some good sleep, kiddos. You can come find us if you wake up and need us." Her chin lifted in a faux haughty gesture at Beca's smirk. "All's fair in love and snow."

Chloe had just followed behind Beca and leaned over to kiss the kids on their foreheads, and she was straightening back to her full height when Luke's words stole the breath from her lungs. Outwardly, she froze for only a beat before an even wider (albeit slightly teary) smile blossomed across her features. "Sleep well."

Chloe barely made it out of the room and across the hall to her own room before the massive sigh she'd been holding in slumped her shoulders. "Oh my god, I nearly lost it in there," she admitted, although she felt sure that Beca already knew that and shared the sentiment. There was a pointed upturn to her lips at Beca's observation about her parents. "What's one more huge life change to throw at them?" There was an amused, almost disbelieving upward lilt to her voice as she shook her head.

"For now though...I think the kids had the right idea with pajamas," she declared sagely. Stepping back from Beca, she scooped up their comfy clothes from the night before and offered Beca's out to her. "Big life moments are easier to process when you're comfy. That's just a fact." A fact, as declared by Nurse Chloe. It seemed reasonable enough, right? Either way, having some downtime to cuddle up with Beca and process the developments of the day so far sounded amazing right about now. They were all wonderful changes that made her hopeful for the future, but that didn't mean that processing so many big changes didn't cause their energy to take a significant hit.

*

Beca hurried to swap her damp underclothes for pajamas, groaning as her muscles--toned from years of survival related combat yet proved no match for a casual snowball fight, apparently--tinged with soreness as she crawled back into Chloe’s childhood bed. Curled up there, Beca snuggled into Chloe, happily chatting about their future plans with the kids--their family--until they fell asleep. Honestly, Beca didn’t think she would fall asleep for a nap after such a peaceful sleep, but apparently her body craved more of it to make up for years of fitful, restless sleeping with one eye open.

The rest of the day passed with more joyful tears as Beca and Chloe shared with the Beales both the nature of their relationship and their plans to adopt the kids. As expected, the Beales’ reactions were nothing but ecstatic and supportive, and they were thrilled to hear of their plans to settle down somewhere nearby. Beca and Chloe promised to stay with the Beales through the holidays, not wanting to make the transition too jarring for Luke and Nell.

Upon Luke’s adorably pleading request, they decided to order pizza for dinner. Though Connie originally volunteered to cook, they couldn’t resist indulging the innocent request, especially when Nellie’s face lit up at the possibility for more pizza, too. When Beca caught the Beales alone at some point during the day, she worked out a surprise for Chloe, after she’d been texting arrangements back and forth with her contact in the government. (It was the first thing she quietly requested from them after her vaccine turned out to be the missing key to their research--she just hadn’t said anything to Chloe for fear that they wouldn’t be able to fulfill their end of the bargain, or if anything went wrong with the extraction process.)

And so, soon after Beca called and ordered the pizzas, the doorbell chimed in the Beales’ house while the six of them cuddled up in the living room, the kids each nestled into Frank and Connie as they watched the claymation version of Rudolph. In on the surprise, Connie cast a grin to Chloe as she gently stroked Luke’s back, the little boy transfixed by the animation and the story on the TV. “Would you get the door, honey? The pizzas have already been paid for.”

“I’ll be right behind you to help,” Beca insisted.

When Chloe opened the door, she wouldn’t find the pizza delivery person. Instead, she’d find Aubrey--looking tired but healthy and shellshocked-happy, as they had been upon finding the still-thriving sliver of the country. Behind her, huddled together in their new coats and hats and scarves, some bouncing with eager excitement for their unexpected reunion, stood their cluster of friends--Stacie, Cynthia Rose, Emily, Jesse, and Amy.

*

No matter how many times Chloe had watched those same claymation Christmas movies growing up, she was still riveted by the chance to rediscover them now. It was only the doorbell sounding through the house that broke her attention from the movie, but she offered no protest when her mom asked her to retrieve the pizzas. Considering how adorably the kids were cuddled up with her parents at the moment, she couldn't bear to disturb them.

She padded to the door in her fuzzy sock-clad feet, pulling open the front door to receive their cheesy pizza goodness. Instead, she pulled up short when a group of people were crowded in front of the door on the porch. Very familiar people.

"What--"

Chloe found that she didn't have the words to express the sight before her as her brain momentarily short circuited with shock, but she was swarmed by the group before any more words were needed anyway. Aubrey reached her first and pulled her into a crushing hug, with the rest of the girls and Jesse all crowding in and jostling the entire cluster of people in their haste to reach Chloe and Beca.

"Oh my god."

"Look at you guys!"

"Look at this house."

Excited chatter exploded around her, and while most of it was lost in an incoherent jumble as everyone spoke at once in their disbelieving excitement, the specifics of the words weren't needed to understand the current of emotion that sparked through everyone like a live wire.

"What are you--how did you guys get here?" Even as she spoke, Chloe already knew the answer. Beca. There was no other explanation. She hadn't been able to speak to their government contact about their friends yet, and the government wouldn't have known where to retrieve their companions or even that they needed to be extracted at all if they hadn't been told.

"Beca must have pulled a few strings." The weary but sincere smile on Aubrey's face confirmed her suspicions.

With a small jolt, Chloe suddenly stepped back and gestured everyone indoors. "What are we standing around in the cold for? Everyone get in here! Come on, come in and get warmed up, we've got food on the way and we have plenty of drinks if you want something." She could only hope that if Beca and her parents were all in on this, then they'd accounted for the larger number of people when ordering pizza. "I can't believe you guys are here!"

Scarves, hats, and jackets were shed as the group all spilled into the front hallway of her parents' home, everyone making quick work of hanging their winter gear on the coat rack near the door so they could get out of the crowded entryway.

Chloe beckoned them further into the house, with all of them trailing along behind her with similar expressions of awe and disbelief on their faces as they observed the well-kept house and the warm glow of lights throughout the house. She was sure that must have been how she'd looked only days before.

She buzzed with happiness as she turned to face all of them, unable to stifle the beaming smile that split across her face. "I'm so glad you all made it out safe! You'll have to tell me everything we missed. Are you guys hungry? I'm sure we could find snacks before the pizza gets here. Or thirsty? There's plenty in the kitchen--"

"Chlo, we're okay. Take a breath," Aubrey chuckled, a hand on Chloe's arm quieting her.

"Holy shit, did you say pizza though?" The characteristically booming question came from Amy somewhere in the shuffle of the group.

*

After Aubrey surmised that Beca pulled a few strings, Beca--lingering behind Chloe with her arms crossed over her chest and a pretty satisfied, smug grin on her lips (because Aubrey would owe her forever now, so there’s that)--offered a slight shrug. “I really waffled for a minute there on whether or not to put your name on the extraction list, Posen. You’re welcome.” She only managed that one smart ass comment before Amy barreled at her, wrapping her in a bear hug and lifting her off the ground. “Put me down!” Beca cried, but she laughed as she wriggled out of Amy’s grasp.

Jesse pulled Beca into a hug next, and Beca returned the gesture with tightness in her throat. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” he said, thick and quiet, swallowing the lump of emotion down.

“Yeah, same here,” Beca rasped, pulling back and shooting him a watery grin. “Here, I--you guys need to come in and meet some really important people.” Once they’d all tossed their coats and hats and scarves on the now overflowing coat rack, Beca waved them into the living room, where Mr. and Mrs. Beale sat together on the couch with the kids in their laps, whispering to them in encouragement--clearly the sudden upswell of noise startled them, but the Beales quickly helped them calm.

“This is Mr. and Mrs. Beale, Chloe’s parents.” Beca cast them an appreciative smile as she crossed the room and the kids hurried over to her like a magnet, with Luke wrapping his arms around her middle and Nell clutching her hand. “This is Luke and Nell. They’re--” Beca grinned at Chloe. “They’re our kids. Chloe and I--we met them on the road, and we’re adopting them.” Beca crouched and wrapped a supportive arm around each twin. “These are our best friends. They’re really fun, and I bet you’re gonna see them around a whole lot.”

“Oh my gosh, they’re so cute!” Emily bounced on the spot and waved, her earnest excitement palpable as she took a few strides toward them and dropped to her knees, offering them each a hand--which the kids took with hesitant smiles. “I’m Emily, it’s so nice to meet you!”

“Auntie Emily,” Aubrey corrected, striding forward and placing a supportive hand on Emily’s shoulder, casting a surprisingly warm grin down at the twins. “I’m Auntie Aubrey.”

Luke leaned over to cup his small hand over his mouth as he whispered a question in Beca’s ear.

Beca’s grin spread wider and she nodded. “Yep. That means they’re all family, too.” She introduced the rest of them, one at a time. Auntie Cynthia Rose, Auntie Stacie, Uncle Jesse, and--

“Auntie Amy reporting for duty, your favorite auntie!” In the brief delay, Amy had returned to the front door to collect the six boxes of large pizzas Beca had ordered--more than enough for everyone--and carried them in her arms to the living room. She strained her head around the pizza boxes to smile at the kids. “I’m gonna demolish all this pizza myself--if that’s all right with you little dingos?”

Luke and Nell gasped, but Beca quickly assured them she was kidding.

The Beales sprung from the couch to help guide Amy--and the pizzas--to the kitchen, where the herd of hungry aunts and one uncle followed, with the kids bouncing eagerly behind them.

Beca caught Chloe’s hand in the now empty living room, stealing a slow and tender kiss as a chorus of carefree laughter echoed from their favorite people in the adjacent room.

Having everyone together again sealed it--they were finally warm, safe, and happy.

This was the start of the rest of their lives.