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In My Blood

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Beca should’ve been hungry. They hadn’t eaten in two days, after all. But after finding no fucking game in the woods they’d been inhabiting for a week and a half, she had no choice but to take the bike and set off to find food. At the very least, she’d get a few hours’ reprieve from Amy’s bitching about starving to death or Jesse looking at her with those helplessly worried puppy eyes--the sort that always made her feel equal parts shitty and guilty and frustrated. She knew they both cared about her. She just wished they didn’t.

As she rode off on her black triumph motorcycle in search of rations at sunset, clad in her leather jacket and black v-neck t-shirt beneath, ripped jeans with her trusty combat boots laced up to her knees, she contemplated for the eight thousandth time leaving Amy and Jesse. They’d be pretty helpless without her hunting and fighting skills, but she’d been beyond shitty company for the past 6 months especially and besides, what the fuck was the point of staying alive anymore? Surviving wasn’t living. Beca couldn’t remember the last time she lived, and honestly? She was fucking tired.

But her companions needed food and she made them a promise to get some, so she followed a ways behind a pickup truck which led her to what looked like a warehouse not too far from the road. She parked her bike and ducked behind a dumpster to survey the scene. She crouched and moved behind a broken down Buick, quietly making her way closer to the warehouse until she found a window. Beca peered through and watched the scene unfold--a group of people running what appeared to be a pop-up mini-marketplace, clearly desperate to unload their goods. Beca knew well that these types of places were like ticking fucking time-bombs, but if she could get in and out quickly, that would be good enough. She watched as three men and a younger girl entered and spread out, shopping around in the bins of supplies and pilfered canned food. The rumbling of a truck engine had Beca ducking behind the car once more, peering up as she watched five guys with assault rifles pile out of an armored jeep. “Shit,” Beca hissed as the scavengers took out the guards with relative ease and raided the market, yelling commands and firing shots (and being way too fucking loud, the morons). It would only be a matter of minutes before--

The clickers staggered inside while the scavs filled sacks with stolen goods, nondiscriminatory in their quest for human flesh. Chaos ensued, and Beca turned to leave until the piercing shriek of the younger girl echoed through the warehouse and carried through the crack in the window. “Holy shit--” Before she hesitated again, Beca steeled herself, climbed up and used her boot to kick in the window, hopping into the fray. Armed to the teeth with both a hunting rifle and sheathed machete slung across her back, a pistol on one hip and a revolver on the other, and a switchblade tucked safely into her boot, Beca pumped her shotgun and fired at one of the clickers, the headshot dropping the diseased to the ground immediately. She fired another--this time at a scav who raised his gun to the girl, hitting him square in the back. When he dropped to the ground, Beca raced around and took the girl by the arm, pulling her behind a barrel. “Stay down, kid.” The fighting ensued, and Beca fought with her shotgun until she needed to reload, swapping for her revolver instead. Gritting her teeth, she dodged a flaming projectile and fired at a clicker from her knees.

She retreated back to the barrel and took the girl by the wrist, tugging her along. “Keep your head down. Jesus, you’re taller than I thought,” she mumbled, pulling her toward the temporary path she’d cleared en route to the warehouse doors. She turned her head just in time to watch a scav fire at them. Beca took the younger, taller girl around the middle and put her own body between the kid’s and the bullet, taking the hit instead. Adrenaline pumping, Beca pulled a knife from her belt and flung it true, the blade piercing the scav’s neck. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” Still holding tight to the girl’s wrist, they raced outside toward Beca’s bike. “Get on,” Beca commanded, and the girl hurriedly obliged.

“Oh my god, thank you so much--my name’s Emily, and the guys I came with are dead and oh my god--”

Beca didn’t realize the bullet bit her side until she reached up to shove her spare helmet onto the girl’s--Emily’s--head. “Fuck,” she growled, glancing back to find two more clickers scrambling toward them. Beca made sure her weapons were in place as she mounted her bike in front of the kid, leaning to the side to fish a rag from her supply bag latched to her bike. “Wrap your arm around my waist and hold the fuck on. And--press here, hard.” She positioned the girl’s hand over the balled up rag just above her hip, pushing that hand against the wound she didn’t have time to inspect. “Don’t let go of that spot, you hear me?” Emily nodded and Beca revved her engine, leaning forward and shifting into gear, tearing up the road into the night.

They rode nine miles in the dark until they reached the fortified settlement, the kid directing her from behind the entire way. Beca grew more lightheaded as the minutes passed, but she managed to stay alert through the barricaded gate. She spotted the guards and relief washed over her. At least they weren’t military. Beca and her crew found similar fortified civilian-run communities, even passing through a few to barter or trade when they got desperate, but they never stayed longer than an hour. She didn’t trust them. She didn’t really trust anyone, not completely. She glared through her helmet at the guard who checked Emily’s identification, and she vaguely heard Emily’s pressured tone quickly explaining what happened on her supply run before they were let inside. Emily once again directed her to a row of houses, pointing to the one she called home.

“Here ya go, kid,” Beca grumbled, pulling up outside and putting the bike in park, nudging the kickstand with her toe. She leaned hard over her handlebars and her breathing came in shallow gasps. Motherfucking scavs. She’d have a hell of a patch job to work on herself once she got back to their camp. ...As soon as the kid got the fuck off her bike. “C’mon, off, I gotta get the fuck out of here. Don’t do anything stupid like that again.”

Emily carefully dismounted the bike, swinging her long leg off the back and pulling the helmet off. “Oh my god, sorry, okay, I’m off! Thank you so much though, I can’t even begin to--” She looked back to find her foul-mouthed savior slumped forward and clutching her side. The same side she’d told her to grip hard. Emily looked down and found her own hand covered in blood. The girl’s blood, clearly. “Shit.” She turned to face the house, spotting the windows half or fully open. “Stacie! Chloe! Aubrey! Someone--hurry!”

As soon as help in the form of her friends came, Emily braced her hand on her rescuer’s back and motioned to her, her voice and body still quaking with shock from the whole traumatic ordeal. “Please, oh-em-gee, you gotta help her--we got ambushed and the guys I was with died and there were armored men with guns and like, six clickers, and this girl, she’s like freakin’ Wonder Woman, okay? But with so many guns! She killed, like, three big guys and three clickers by herself and when she saw one shooting toward me she jumped in front of me and she got shot--”

“Dude, I’m fucking fine,” Beca croaked, muffled through her helmet as she struggled to sit upright.

“She’s lying, look at all the blood!” Emily held up her hand. “She drove me back here and I didn’t realize how badly she was bleeding! Don’t let her leave, okay?? Please help her!”

*

Chloe wasn't worrying. Really, she wasn't. It was just...there was always some level of worry when any of them had to venture out on a salvage run, and she couldn't help taking note of the passage of time with every minute that ticked by until Emily reappeared within the walls of their settlement. She didn't particularly like Emily going on supply runs outside of the settlement, but when everyone pulled their weight to survive, there were no exceptions. Besides, Emily had accompanied some of their very capable salvagers this time, so she reasoned with herself that there was no need for worry. (There was always reason to worry out there though.)

And while their small group within the larger community all stuck close and looked after one another, there was an unspoken agreement that they were all especially protective of Emily. She was the youngest of them all, and by some miracle, she'd managed to retain some measure of her innocence and optimism in the midst of this world they had to fight against tooth and nail every single day. Chloe couldn't help wanting to shelter her away from some of the worst that was out there to witness and experience--if that was even possible anymore--and she knew the girls all felt the same way. They might express it in different ways, but Emily had been taken under their wing and felt like an honorary kid sister to all of them.

In the meantime during Emily's absence, Chloe had been helping Stacie patch a leaky spot in the ceiling of their house. When there was a lull in tasks that needed to be done around the settlement, then it was better to take care of small nuisances like this before they became big problems. Besides, the menial task helped keep her mind off of worrying about Emily until she returned (okay, it didn't really work, but at least it kept her hands busy instead of leaving her to mindlessly fret). They'd managed to find the source of the leak and repair it a few days before, but tasks around the community had kept them busy enough that they were just now getting around to fixing the damage it had done to the ceiling in the living room.

With a tarp spread across the floor beneath the leaky patch on the ceiling to catch any residual water, they'd spent the better part of the late afternoon cutting out the drywall that showed signs of water damage. Once they were both satisfied that they'd gotten rid of the damaged parts, they'd set to work cutting out wooden braces to fit the hole in the ceiling. Chloe was balanced on the ladder, screwing the last of the wooden braces into place, when the rumble of a motorcycle filled the air outside and filtered in through their open windows. Chloe didn't think anything of it at first, since several of the residents had working vehicles that they used to make supply runs and other necessary trips outside of their fortified walls. It wasn't the sound of the truck Emily had left in earlier, so she didn't take much note of it.

The sounds of a commotion outside, followed by Emily's frantic cries for their help, had them all running for the door, hands already straying to pistols and knives that were a constant presence in hip and thigh holsters by now. Chloe was a few steps behind Aubrey and Stacie by the time she scrambled down from the ladder, but adrenaline fueled her steps as she spilled out of the house into the rapidly dwindling last light of the day.

She spotted Stacie and Aubrey running towards Emily, who was standing next to an unfamiliar motorcycle and a more petite figure slumped over the handlebars. Her stomach lurched with worry and fear when she saw the fresh blood that coated Emily's hands, and Aubrey was already grabbing Emily and inspecting her for injuries or--god forbid, bites--by the time Chloe reached them.

Emily seemed almost unaware of their own worry, too fueled by adrenaline and panic and trauma from everything that had just occurred, and she gestured sharply and erratically several times as Aubrey tried to corral her into letting her look her over. The words tumbled out of the younger girl in an almost indiscernible rush, but the picture began to coalesce in Chloe's head as she looked back and forth between a babbling Emily and the slouched rider on the motorcycle.

“Em, we'll take care of it. Go wait inside." Aubrey's voice was sharp and authoritative, the tone that always emerged when she was going into crisis management mode.

"But Aub--"

"Emily." The younger girl wilted beneath Aubrey's tone that invited no further disagreement, but she lingered for a moment longer with worried eyes fixated on the stranger until she turned and trudged towards the front door of the house.

With Emily in the house, Chloe turned her attention back to their friend's mysterious savior. Now that she wasn't filled with panicked worry about Emily and the younger girl wasn't lingering there, she could focus on handling the situation. Aubrey's tone had been a little harsh, but Chloe thought she might have been right in getting Emily away from the bloodshed so they could deal with it.

Up close, it was easy to tell that the woman on the motorcycle was in bad shape. It was hard to discern the extent of her injuries thanks to her leather jacket and dark shirt that concealed some of the blood she'd lost, but it was clear from the way she carried herself that Emily's assessment that it was serious had been correct.

A glance over her shoulder revealing Emily hiding out around the doorway of the house, big, concerned brown eyes peeking around the door frame as she tried to keep an eye on the situation. Emily's concern sparked a similar twinge of sympathetic worry within Chloe. She stepped in closer, despite Aubrey's hand at her shoulder and a questioning look. She ducked her head slightly in an attempt to catch the woman's attention, even though she couldn't discern much through the face shield on her helmet.

"Emily's right, you can't drive like this." Chloe felt Stacie step in closer beside her, clearly trying to assess the woman's injuries as well. "If you'll come with us, we can help you."

*

The struggle to stay conscious had Beca fighting the pull harder with each passing minute. Fuck. “I’ve driven through worse,” she spat back through gritted teeth, left hand tightening on her handle until her knuckles whitened. Telling Beca she couldn’t do something only made her want to do it more. Her right hand remained clutching the bloodsoaked rag beneath her jacket--the one Emily had held while she’d driven here. In the next beat, a cold sweat blossomed from her heaving chest up to her head and she gave into the reflex to yank her damn helmet off so she could fucking breathe, reaching up with her left hand to push it up over her head, long brown waves tumbling from the loose ponytail that had been tucked up underneath. Beca didn’t realize she'd been cut on the side of her head during the warehouse tussle, right near her hairline--not deep, but head wounds were always bleeders, and the blood streaked down the side of her face near her ear and onto her neck, most of it dried by now. Steely grey-blue eyes looked around, assessing the scene without the filter of her helmet’s visor. They landed on the redhaired girl first, and she froze for a few seconds when she realized she was looking her over--probably checking for bites. Good. She wasn’t a complete idiot, then. And then she shifted her gaze toward the brunette who approached, and finally, the blonde. Three attractive young women, all around college age? Her unfocused eyes fluttered toward the window next, where she spotted two more girls looking out at her. It was so absurd that cross between a dry laugh and a scoff passed her lips, her voice more gravelly when she spoke again. “What the fuck is this, some sort of fucking sorority house? Are those seriously a thing in real life?” She barely considered the request to go with them, shaking her head. “Thanks for the offer, but I don’t need your help. I can take care of myself.” Only her body betrayed and she grimaced in pain, muttering a slew of colorful swears as she tried twisting away from the girls to assess the wound at her side that she could barely see based on her angle with no mirror, let alone with hardly any light.

*

Chloe’s jaw tightened to bite back an observation that just because she had (allegedly) driven through worse before didn't mean that she had to now, especially when help was being offered to her. She flinched back from the sudden movement when the woman moved to jerk her helmet up over her head, her eyes widening slightly at the face that was revealed by the rapid motion. She was younger than Chloe would've expected--hell, she had to be younger than Chloe herself, if she had to guess--and she was pretty, even beneath the scowl that twisted her features and the blood that stood out starkly against her pale skin. The blood that streaked down the side of her face and neck was another cause of concern though. At first glance, the wound didn't seem very deep, but it was difficult to tell for sure if there were any other wounds to worry about until the blood was cleaned away. If she'd taken a blow to the head during the confrontation, there was also the chance of concussion too, which was even more reason for her not to be taking off on her motorcycle as night fell around them. Without the obstruction of the helmet, she could tell that the woman's eyes were just as wary as she surveyed all of them. The last thing she expected from her was a laugh, no matter how disdainful it managed to sound.

"Yeah, you're just in time for the sorority mixer," Stacie drawled with lazy sarcasm over Chloe's shoulder.

She twisted around to shoot a warning look at Stacie--not helping, Stace--but her head quickly whipped back around when the woman declined their offer but followed it with a wince and several mumbled curses. She glanced back at Aubrey, and she could tell from the way her lips pursed and the muscles in her jaw jumped that Aubrey was worrying at the inside of her cheek with her teeth. She suspected that Aubrey was having a crisis of conscience. As no-nonsense as she was, Aubrey likely would've cut someone loose without a second thought if they protested as vehemently as this woman was. But she'd also saved Emily's life, and that was an act that none of them could ever take lightly. Chloe, for her part, couldn't in good conscience just let this woman go without trying to attend to her wounds first. For one thing, Emily would probably never forgive them if they didn't try to do their best to help. Maybe Aubrey would give her hell for it later, but she'd deal with that if and when it came up. Turning back to the woman, she started to reach towards her before she thought better of it, holding her hand out, palm facing up, in what was meant to be a placating gesture. "Okay, why don't you come inside? You can use some of our stuff and get cleaned up, none of us will bother you if that's what you want," she ventured, hoping the offer would be enough to sway her. "The light's almost gone, you're not gonna be able to see much to take care of that out here." She nodded towards the wound in her side, as if to illustrate her point.

*

A flicker of confliction crossed Beca’s expression and she glanced around, hastily assessing her options. She hated that these girls were right--she’d probably fucking die if she tried taking the bike out of here in such a state. She also didn’t have any wound cleaning supplies with her--a big fucking mistake in leaving their camp in a rush. With a heavy sigh, Beca shakily swung her leg over the side of the bike and she steading herself on her feet, grabbing her patchwork satchel and staggering toward the door. Her weapons hung heavy around her, but she sure as shit wasn’t going to leave them with her bike (or let them out of her sight at all, for that matter). “Where should I--”

Emily met Beca at the door and ushered her into a living room. Only there did Beca drop her bag at her feet and begin peeling off her weapons one by one, laying them out on the coffee table. First her hunting rifle and machete, which relieved the weight from her shoulders, and then her handguns at her hips. Finally, she winced as she shrugged off her leather jacket, tossing it aside to reveal a shocking mix of tattoos and scars littering the exposed pale skin of her arms. Her left wrist sported a tattoo of a pair of headphones, and on that same forearm the words Luck Runs Out in script. She took a steadying breath before hitching up her side and pulling back the rag to reveal a chunk of skin missing from where the bullet bit her side. At least the bullet wasn’t lodged inside of her, but fuck. She’d already lost a lot of blood. “I need, uh… alcohol. And, um--duct tape, if you’ve got it?” Sure, Beca’s on-the-fly healing tactics weren’t always the smoothest, but they’d served her okay so far. She was also too damn stubborn and lightheaded to realize that wound was too deep for what she asked for.

*

Chloe stayed very still for the prolonged measure of time as the woman seemed to be debating the offer. Maybe it was ridiculous, but she didn't want to spook her in any way. When she finally seemed to concede and swung her leg over the side of her motorbike, Chloe let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. Aubrey looked like she wanted to protest when the girl carried all of her weapons towards the house with her, but Chloe laid a gentle hand on her arm and leveled her with an imploring look. The stranger looked like she could barely stay on her feet very steadily, so Chloe couldn't blame her for wanting to feel a little more secure.

Chloe wasn't even remotely surprised when Emily gave up any ruse of staying away as soon as Beca reached the door. Aubrey's features pinched into a scowl when she noticed, but she didn't say anything. Maybe she was too busy weighing whether she was more annoyed with Chloe or Emily at the moment. While the woman relieved herself of her weapons and shrugged out of her jacket, Chloe hurried to retrieve the first aid kit they kept in their home. The kit had been an amazing find for them, and they'd been able to supplement it over time with additional supplies that they found on scavenging runs or traded with people who passed through their settlement. By the time she returned to the living room, the girl had shed her jacket and Chloe found her eyes tracing the tattoos and scars that stood out on her fair skin. She shook it off after the small lapse in focus--most of them had their share of scars by now, whether physical or mental. Sometimes both. "Here's the first aid stuff we have." Her features twisted into a sympathetic wince when she stepped close enough to see her wound in sharper detail. It was better than the bullet still being in the wound--bullet removal was not exactly in her repertoire of skills--but it was still undeniably gory and the blood loss must have been pretty significant. "There's alcohol in there. But, um--not to like, intrude or anything, but...I don't think duct tape's gonna be enough for that." Chloe's medical knowledge was far from comprehensive, but between her and Stacie, they'd been able to patch up the minor injuries that had cropped up in the past, and that bullet had definitely caused a considerable wound.

*

Had she not just thrown her own ass on the line for their friend, Beca probably would've felt a twinge of guilt accepting the redhaired girl's offer of a first aid kit; she knew first hand how difficult those were to keep stocked nowadays, and she never accepted anything without offering something in return. Maybe that was fucked up logic or morals or whatever considering she just straight up murdered some dudes who weren't bitten, but survival of the fittest, right?

She shot a hard glare at her when she commented on her tried and true duct tape method. “What’re you, some sort of doctor or nurse or something? I told you I can… I can handle…” Nope. Beca swayed on the spot before everything went black, and she passed out before she hit the floor.

*

Her jaw tightened when the girl directed a glare at her. She knew she'd promised not to bother her, but judging from that wound, it would be counterproductive to try to patch it up that way, only for it to eventually come back to bite her in the ass. (Chloe wasn't always the best at minding her own business when she saw someone in need. Aubrey had cautioned her against it countless times by now.) "Oh, shit." Although she noticed the split second when color drained from the woman's face and she swayed on the spot, with her hands full with the first aid supplies, she fumbled with the kit and almost dropped it in her haste, but ultimately, there was nothing she could do to catch the woman in time.

Emily startled with a gasp and scrambled to drop to her knees next to the woman, while Chloe hurried to set the kit aside on the table before doing the same. She checked the woman's pulse, finding it a little weak but steady. It was no surprise that blood loss had caught up to her though.

"Well, ya had to see that one coming," Stacie observed dryly, having wandered into the house just in time to witness the rather anticlimactic crumple onto the floor.

"Stacie, shut up and help us move her."

Between Chloe, Emily, and Stacie, they were able to gingerly lift the unconscious woman from the floor and transfer her onto the couch. She was small and quite light, but all three of them wanted to be as careful as possible not to jostle her too much with her wound, so the extra hands were a huge help. With the woman stretched out on the couch, Chloe and Stacie knelt side by side in front of the couch to inspect the bullet wound. It was vastly easier without the stranger arguing with them at every turn, imagine that.

Stacie gave a low, impressed whistle as she studied the chunk of skin that had been gouged out by the path of the bullet. "They got her pretty good."

"Yeah, they did." Chloe's voice was quiet and thoughtful as she looked back and forth between the wound and the first aid kit. "You think it needs stitches?"

Stacie's momentary silence spoke volumes. In fact, it told Chloe all she needed to know. When Stacie finally turned to her, she arched a wry eyebrow before she spoke. "Think she's gonna be pissed at us when she wakes up?"

Chloe worried at her bottom lip with her teeth before offering a shrug. "I mean...probably, but it's better than bleeding out."

With that decided, Chloe and Stacie jumped into action like a well-oiled machine. Chloe went to go sterilize the first aid equipment they'd managed to salvage, while Stacie cleaned and irrigated the wound as best she could with the improvised equipment they did have at their disposal. The two of them had become somewhat the de facto medics of the group over time. While neither of them had been old enough at the time of the outbreak to have much in the way of medical training--the occasional first aid class in school and summer internships at vet offices probably didn't count for much--they were both the most medically-minded out of the group, and between the two of them, they'd managed to handle the minor injuries that had befallen their group so far. They'd only had to do stitches once or twice before though, and those had been on smaller injuries than a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Today was just full of the unexpected, it seemed. None of it was ideal, but wasn't that just the way of life now?

Once they had both cleaned their hands as well, they set to work cleaning the edges of the wound and suturing it. As they worked, Chloe was one again reminded of how surreal their lives could be from day to day. In a perfect world (or hell, even just a somewhat normal world), she would've been in school learning how to do this in a professional medical setting. Instead, she was trying to keep a perfect stranger from bleeding out on their couch.

“You know Aubrey's pissed about this," Stacie said in a low undertone as they were suturing the wound closed. (Single loop stitches, rather than a running stitch, just like a former nurse in the settlement had showed them before. God, her life was weird sometimes.)

"I know," Chloe admitted. She used the task before them as an excuse not to look over and meet Stacie's eyes. "I'll deal with her later, take the heat. None of you guys have to worry about anything."

Stacie made a noncommittal, unconvinced sound at her side, but otherwise said nothing. Once they were finished, they covered the wound with gauze and secured it in place with some tape (there, the girl had gotten her wish for some duct tape in a slightly different way, since they had to work with what they had). While Chloe and Stacie moved to gather up the mess they'd made around the couch, Emily appeared timidly around the corner that led down the hallway.

"How is she? Is she gonna be okay?" Her eyes were wide and her voice was soft as she surveyed the woman on the couch. Emily had always had a soft heart, and Chloe knew she must be feeling the effects even more so since the woman had been injured while protecting her.

"She's gonna be fine, Em. She should be all patched up now," Chloe assured her as she moved past her to the kitchen, offering a small smile to the younger girl.

Once Stacie had helped clean up, she headed for the door and tossed a quick parting remark over her shoulder. "I'm gonna go update Aubrey and see what's going on outside."

With Stacie gone, Emily turned to Chloe, although Chloe noticed that she didn't quite meet Chloe's eyes. Instead, her gaze was lowered and the toe of her worn sneaker scuffed against the floor beneath her. "I can sit with her, if you want."

Chloe gave her shoulder a squeeze as she passed her, and when the gesture finally pulled Emily's gaze up to meet hers, she offered a smile and a nod. "Sure. Just let one of us know when she wakes up, okay?"

Emily nodded much more vigorously then, seemingly buoyed by Chloe's agreement, and she scrambled to retrieve a book from her things before settling down on the floor with her back against the couch. Chloe recognized the book as one they'd stumbled across before ending up at their current settlement. The book had definitely seen better days, and Emily had probably read it a dozen times by now, but it seemed to be a source of comfort to her. Who was Chloe to deny her something like that?

With Emily sitting watch over their peculiar guest, Chloe moved around the house, cleaning up the mess that she and Stacie had left from their efforts to patch up the ceiling earlier when Emily had returned so abruptly. There was no telling how long the woman would be out for anyway, so Chloe figured she might as well get things back into some semblance of order, since Emily seemed content to keep an eye on her in the meantime.

Chapter Text

Beca woke with a start just before sunrise, moving to sit up before she remembered what had happened last night. Searing pain screamed from her side and she flopped back down. Onto a couch. In... a house. Fuck, what--?

Her eyes blinked into focus at a girl curled up on the floor asleep, clutching what appeared to be a book to her chest. Thank god she was okay, after everything. (Well... physically, at least. Nobody was really okay anymore.) Mentally berating herself for passing out, she sat up slowly this time, carefully. More deep aches radiated from her side and she pulled up her shirt to squint down at what looked to be some sort of surgical patch job, gauze and tape indicating that redheaded girl had fixed her up against her wishes. Grumbling under her breath, she removed the blanket someone had draped over her lap and instead settled it over the younger girl on the floor. Emily. Beca then reached for her revolver, reinserting it back into its holster still hanging low on her hips. She had to get the hell out of there before any of those girls woke up.

*

Tired didn't even begin to describe it. After night had long since fallen and the woman still hadn't woken up, Chloe had slipped out of the house to go find Aubrey, who she knew was scheduled to be on watch at the community's wall that night. Emily was still keeping watch over their unexpected guest, after all, and Stacie had returned to the house as well, so Chloe reasoned that there were plenty of people on hand if anything happened while she was gone. She trudged up the path towards the perimeter that surrounded the settlement, the beam of her flashlight bouncing lazily around the path since she could practically walk this route in her sleep by now. No doubt Aubrey would chastise her about vigilance if she'd been by her side at that moment. But no, Aubrey swam into view out of the darkness instead as Chloe approached, and she cleared her throat so Aubrey would know she was there. The house closest to the perimeter had an elevated deck, and the community had converted it into a watch post of sorts that could overlook the fortifications and spot any encroaching threats.

Aubrey turned to glance at her as she reached the top of the staircase, but said nothing and turned her gaze back out over the perimeter as Chloe moved to stand by her side at the railing. So it was going to be one of those nights. If Aubrey wasn't speaking to her, then clearly her best friend was still simmering in her frustration about Chloe's decision to bring a complete stranger into their home and give her medical attention. (Trust had been one of the first things Aubrey had lost, after...well, everything.) Chloe wasn't sure how much time lapsed between them in relative silence, broken only by the nighttime sounds of insects and the occasional shuffling of other guards along the perimeter.

"Why don't you go get some sleep? I'll finish your shift." Chloe wasn't entirely sure what prompted her to finally break the quiet with that offer. Maybe it was some sort of penance or an apology--an olive branch extended after their clear disagreement about how the situation should've been handled. There was a pregnant pause of silence before Aubrey finally gave a stiff, jerky nod and pushed away from the railing.

"Thanks. See you back at the house." It was probably the most she was going to get for now, but she'd take it. Aubrey would undoubtedly bring it up whenever she was ready to address the actual situation.

"Okay. Sleep well."

The sound of Aubrey's footsteps receded down the staircase, and Chloe was left with nothing but the quiet and her own thoughts. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, and Chloe had to pace the length of the deck occasionally to rouse herself from the sleepy boredom she lapsed into with the passing hours. She was relieved when the next person arrived to replace her, and she offered a hint of a smile as she brushed past him to make her way down the stairs.

Chloe trudged back up the path towards their house, rubbing blearily at one eye as her shoulders rose and fell with a heavy sigh. The edges of the sky were beginning to lighten from inky black to dark, muted blue as sunrise approached, but no actual light spilled over the horizon yet. As she pushed her way through the front door, she froze when movement from the couch drew her attention. Emily was asleep, but the stranger was very much awake. The fact that she'd finally woken after her ordeal was enough to cause Chloe's shoulders to sag with relief...at least until she noticed the revolver that had been returned to the woman's holster.

"You don't have to sneak out, you know." Her voice was pitched low, so as not to disturb Emily, and she closed the door quietly behind her before shuffling further into the living room.

*

The voice made Beca turn too quickly, sucking in her breath on a sharp inhale as she reminded herself she got shot last night. She willed herself to relax again at the sight of the same girl who’d coaxed her into the house the night before. At least she was alone this time.

“Yeah, I do,” Beca countered in an equally low tone, wincing as she rolled her stiff neck before reaching for her 9mm pistol to sheathe in its own holster. She shakily pushed to her feet, swaying a bit on the spot as she steadied herself. That much blood loss was no fucking joke, apparently. Regardless of that little voice telling her not to be a dumbass and to lie down for a while longer, she reached for her leather jacket and tucked it under her arm. “Thanks for not letting me die, I guess, even though you should’ve. I’m not worth whatever resources you used to patch me up. Trust me.” Another agonizing grimace crossed her features as she lifted her rifle, attempting to pull its strap across her body but deciding against it when raising her arm proved too damn painful. Fuck. “Prob’ly not worth whatever scolding that blonde bitch gave you, too.” She didn’t remember everything from the night before, but she remembered that scathing look on the other girl’s face as she crossed the threshold into the house with her weapons.

*

She winced apologetically when the girl twisted around too quickly, feeling a twinge of guilt when accidentally catching her off guard had clearly agitated her injury. She hadn't meant to surprise the other girl with her entrance, but she internally chastised that she should have been more mindful about it.

Chloe fought back a sigh of mild exasperation when the girl brushed her remark aside with those countered words of her own and continued to gather her weapons. She took an instinctive step forward when the girl pushed herself up from the couch and immediately swayed in place, before she caught herself. The stranger hadn't exactly been receptive to any of her other offers to help, after all. It was clear that her injury had taken a lot out of her and was still hurting her though (obviously, it was a freakin' gunshot wound), but she seemed stubbornly determined to get the hell out of dodge as quickly as possible. Her expression was an undisguised tableau of surprise at the blunt honesty in the girl's voice as she thanked Chloe but immediately grumbled that it wasn't worth it. "You saved Emily. It was the least we could do." Her eyes tracked the movement when the girl tried to hoist the rifle to adjust the strap over her, only to quickly halt that attempt. "Aubrey's not a bitch. Don't call her that." Her voice was a little sharper than she'd intended in the otherwise quiet space, and her shoulders hunched awkwardly as she crossed her arms over her chest. Aubrey's own stresses could get the best of her sometimes, but she'd saved their lives countless times over. "Are you sure you're okay to be driving like that? You should at least rest a little while longer."

*

Beca’s brow lifted and she shot a pointed look of surprise at the redhead when she so fiercely defended her friend. “Look, you seem--nice and all,” Beca started, wrinkling her nose as she pulled her sheathed machete onto her lap. “But you don’t have to do this. I helped your friend, you patched me up. We’re even. I don’t like owing people favors, okay? So I’m just gonna take my shit and get out of your way.” She had a mission to complete anyway, and her friends were probably annoyingly worried.

Beca!

As if on cue, a muffled, robotic voice echoed through Beca’s satchel, startling Emily out of her sleep.

“Shit,” Beca muttered, grimacing as she reached for her bag. The Walkie only activated when its partner device was in range, so it seemed Amy and Jesse set off in search for her when she didn’t return last night.

The Australian voice rang through again. “Beca. Come in. Base to Beca. You’re, like, ten hours late, and I may or may not have eaten your twerpy boyfriend--

“Who is that?” Emily asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

A pressured, slightly panicked male voice carried through next. “Becs, are you there? Are you hurt? Make a noise if you hear us--”

“--Preferably a noise that lets us know you’ve found actual food--”

Beca finally wrenched the walkie from her bag, pressing the orange button on the side. “I’m here. I’m fine. I’m leaving, gonna come and find you guys--”

Thank god. Becs, where are you?

Beca looked to both Emily and the redhead. “Uh--I’m in some settlement--”

“The Barden Settlement!” Emily provided.

She nodded her thanks to Emily. “Got kinda derailed last night. Where should I--” She hissed, trying to stand too quickly again. “--meet you guys?”

Becs, you’re not okay. I can tell,” Jesse said, making Beca roll her eyes. “We’ll come to you, alright? Just hold tight.

Is there by any chance a McDonald’s in the Barden Settlement? Like, I could totally go for a quarter pounder with cheese, or a twenty-piece nugget with some fries, maybe an cheesy gordita crunch--

Jesse cut her off. “--Amy, that’s Taco Bell… we’ve got your coordinates, we’re on our way, Bec!

Beca sighed, shaking her head and managing an apologetic look over at the young woman who’d patched her. “Don’t worry, I won’t bring them in here. I’ll wait outside.”

*

Although the girl's demeanor erred on the extreme side of standoffish, Chloe had to admit that her reasoning made a certain kind of sense. Very few people liked the idea of feeling indebted towards anyone else anymore. These days, the stakes were too high and resources were too low. They'd all been through their own trials and tribulations just to survive, and Chloe had seen it harden plenty of people. Hell, sometimes that was just a necessity to make it through the day.

The crackle of noise and a sudden voice not only jolted Emily awake, but also startled Chloe with the unexpected sharpness of it in the quiet room. Despite the fatigue that rested heavily on her shoulders, her attention sharpened before comprehension dawned when the girl started digging through her bag.

Beca.

At least now she had a name to put with the face.

Her features twisted with a vaguely bemused smile when the voice on the other end continued with a slight crackle of static. Australian? Well, that was definitely a new one around here.

When Emily looked around in confusion as she tried to blink away the heavy blanket of sleep, Chloe offered her a reassuring smile. The younger girl's hair was a bit of a disheveled mess and there was a red mark on her cheek where she'd fallen asleep using her book as a makeshift pillow, and the image made Chloe's heart pang with tenderness for her.

Chloe slipped further into the room as she listened to the overlapping exchange of voices coming through the walkie talkie as Beca worked to fish the device out of her bag. Her eyes cut sharply to Emily when she piped up with the name of their settlement.

Well, so much for using caution.

There was another thing that Aubrey would undoubtedly be less than thrilled about.

Emily seemed to realize her lapse in the next instant, because she shot Chloe a sheepish look. Aubrey had always warned them against giving away too much information or their coordinates where strangers were concerned. They'd had travelers pass through the settlement before, but it had usually been people who had stumbled upon them on their trek to...wherever any of them were heading these days. Chloe shot her a reassuring smile though, hoping to settle any unease. Aubrey didn't have to know that Emily had been the one who provided the information to Beca. If it came down to it, Chloe could easily claim to have done it.

The Australian woman's--Amy, apparently--rant about fast food option pulled a giggle from Emily. In the next moment, however, she seemed aghast when the two people on the walkie signed off and Beca spoke to Chloe.

"You can't go out there yet! You're still hurt!"

"Em, it's okay," Chloe piped up, holding a hand up in a placating gesture towards her. It was no surprise that Emily, who was already a bleeding heart, had a moral objection to sending the woman who'd saved her back out there right after being patched up.

Chloe turned her focus back to Beca then, shoulders rising and falling with a shrug. "You're already here, you might as well wait for them in here where it's safer." As for whatever happened when her friends arrived, they'd cross that bridge when they got to it. They had mentioned food though... "We've traded with people who have passed through before, if you guys are looking for food.”

*

With a heavy sigh, Beca shoved the walkie talkie back into her bag before raking a hand through her hair. Her voice, while still gruff, softened the slightest bit around the edges now that Emily was awake and clearly worried. “I’m not anymore, kid. See?” Beca shifted and hitched up her t-shirt enough so Emily could see the taped gauze. “Your friend here fixed me up, so I’m fine. Just a little sore.” Her gut told her to argue more, to insist on going back outside--but she didn’t want to stress out the younger girl more than she already had, so she eased herself back down to sit on the couch.

She hadn’t missed the sharp look the slightly older young woman shot to Emily when she revealed the name of the settlement. “Just tell your not bitchy friend I held a gun to your head ‘til you told me what it’s called or whatever. We’ve got GPS on our walkies, so they would’ve found me eventually anyway.” She kept her hand wrapped around the pommel of the machete lying across her lap as more of a self-soothing action than anything else. “They’ve got a 16-mile radius, so. Should be here in a little while.” If they didn’t get held up by any unpredictable run-ins, but she hoped that wouldn’t be a problem, especially so damn early in the morning. Her eyes kept darting between Emily and the other girl, lingering on the redhead for a few extra seconds when she mentioned a potential trade. She shrugged, knowing not to look too eager. “Maybe.” Beca wasn’t really the negotiator--that had been Amy’s thing, with Jesse as backup. “Do you even sleep?” That time, Beca didn’t even mean to sound rude. She really did look a little more strung out than Emily, and she was just putting the evidence together. Or trying to, at least.

*

It wasn't lost on Chloe that Beca's tone was at least marginally more tolerant when she was addressing Emily. That was kind of the effect Emily had on most people, being mean to her would've been like kicking a puppy. Emily scrutinized the patch of gauze that partially covered Beca's side when Beca lifted her shirt enough to reassure her. "You still got shot," Emily mumbled in a soft undertone, but she seemed mollified enough that she shifted to lean back against the couch for support once again. She brightened again in the next moment, flashing a smile and a thumbs up at Chloe from across the room.

"Nice patch job, Chloe!"

"Thanks, Em." Sure, it was kind of weird to have her honorary kid sister complimenting her on patching up a gunshot wound in such a nonchalant tone, but life was weird these days.

It was Chloe's turn to look mildly sheepish when she realized that Beca had caught the look she gave Emily. "Aubrey will be fine," she insisted. It came out less firm than she would have liked, but she reasoned that she hadn't taken the bait on that sarcastic 'not bitchy friend' remark, so she was still taking it as a win.

Her eyes were steady on Beca when she proposed the idea of a trade, but the other girl was predictably stoic and nonchalant with her response. She had no idea if Beca and her friends would even have anything of value that anyone in the settlement would want to trade for, but it didn't hurt to at least put the idea out there. Anything beyond that was kind of out of her hands, depending on what the people around the community might be looking for at the moment. "Well, the option's there if you guys are interested."

The suddenness of Beca's next question earned an arched eyebrow from Chloe. The question did remind her of how long she'd been running without sleep, but there was no use in focusing on that at the moment. "Nope. Resident vampire here," she retorted with breezy nonchalance. Of course, her body promptly betrayed her when she had to lock her jaw to fight back a yawn. Damn it.

"Chloe, not cool. We can't have clickers and vampires. S'not fair." Emily absently picked at a slightly torn corner on the cover of her book as she shot Chloe an exasperated look that really only managed to be amusing.

Chloe's lips quirked with a wry smile. "You're right, Em. What was I thinking?"

Emily seemed placated by that response, and in true Emily form, her brain was already bouncing around to some new topic. She turned to look at Beca with open curiosity. "Are you and your friends from a settlement? Do you travel together? Are they as badass as you are?"

Chloe snorted a poorly concealed laugh at the typical Emily tidal wave of questions. Trying to rein in Emily's curiosity was usually a losing battle, and it wasn't often that she got to interact with new people anyway.

*

Beca knew she had to mentally prepare for a battle with Jesse and Amy, and she felt a headache coming on as the dread settled in. They’d always begged to stay at a settlement, even for a temporary length of time, and Beca always flat-out refused. She knew she’d be in for an argument when they arrived, because she was already there. If, of course, they could talk whoever was in charge here of granting them shelter, which… Beca knew that was going to be difficult, but she also knew Amy’s freakish powers of persuasion.

“I’ve been shot before. It sucks, but… it happens.” She shrugged, listening in on the conversation between Emily and… Chloe. Chloe. Of course her name was Chloe. She just… seemed like a goddamn Chloe, didn’t she? Whatever, it made sense to Beca. (She also filed the name Aubrey away for later, too. And jesus--wasn’t that such a sorority girl thing, all their names ending in an --ee sound? Emily, Chloe, Aubrey… it was almost comical.)

Their back-and-forth suddenly reminded Beca so much of her sister and she had to look away, inhaling shakily through her nose and forcing an exhale through her mouth to shove back that sudden swell of traitorous emotion. At least she could pass it off as healing pain.

It took an extra few seconds to realize Emily had flung several curious questions at her. “No, we don’t… belong anywhere. And I can’t seem to shake ‘em,” Beca mumbled, though the corners of her lips twitched in the faintest upward direction before returning to its stubborn flat line. And at the last question, Beca snorted. “Nobody’s as badass as me, kid.” She furrowed her brow. “What were you doing out there with those worthless dudes who couldn’t protect you?”

*

Emily looked openly startled by Beca's nonchalant admission that she'd been shot before, and Chloe was certain that her face must have displayed a lesser but no less genuine degree of the same kind of surprise. Being shot, unfortunately, wasn't a very rare fact of life these days, but it was shocking to hear someone so young talking about it in such a matter-of-fact manner. And most of the people in the settlement who ventured out and got shot didn't make it back. Emily's voice was a little hushed when she spoke again after that. "Have you really?"

Even in the midst of her brief exchange with Emily, Chloe took note of the sharp inhale from Beca, but she assumed it must have been another twinge of pain. Considering her earlier reactions to trying to move around, it was clear that she had a path of healing ahead of her, if she wouldn't be too stubborn to keep it from healing properly.

Although Emily had been more vocal about it, Chloe listened to Beca's answers with her own degree of curiosity. It struck her as profoundly sad, somehow, to hear that Beca and her friends didn't belong anywhere. She could relate to the sentiment to some degree though, because while she was grateful for the security that the settlement provided, she gained her real sense of belonging and purpose from the small group of girls she called family by now.

Beca's assertion about her own badassness earned another laugh from Emily, who seemed delighted by the gruff wryness of their guest. Chloe's lips pressed into a thin line to conceal a smile at the interplay between them. Great, Emily had a little hero worship going on, go figure.

However, in the next instant, Chloe bristled at the question about the men from the settlement who had been with Emily on her supply run. It only amplified when she saw the way Emily's face fell and she seemed to shrink in on herself, pulling her knees up to her chest from her spot on the floor.

"Hey--"

"They were really nice guys." Emily's voice, soft though it was, was enough to halt Chloe's own protest. They both knew that nice didn't count for very much anymore, but she also understood Emily's sadness about the whole ordeal. "Everything just--happened so fast."

"Even the most capable people can't account for everything and can get caught off guard," Chloe pointed out, crossing her arms over her chest again. She hadn't known the men from the settlement very well, but they'd always been helpful and willing to pull their own weight around the community. Regardless, she felt the need to stick up for them in that moment. Maybe her own guilt at Emily being on that supply run in the first place was part of it, but that was a thought for another time.

*

Beca’s lips twitched into a slight frown when Emily curled up on herself, her freakishly long legs pulling to her chest. “I’m sure they were plenty nice.” But ‘nice’ didn’t fucking matter, was Beca’s afterthought that she managed to self-censor (not that Chloe or maybe even Emily didn’t read into it anyway). ‘Nice’ didn’t actually exist anymore, if it ever did. It was a miracle those guys didn’t fucking rape Emily and leave her in a ditch somewhere. What the hell were they thinking, sending someone like her out on a supply run? Shit, these girls were so fucking naive.

Drumming her fingertips along the leather-covered flat of her blade, she cast a look at Chloe. “Yeah, that shit happens more than you think it does. That’s why it’s important to know what the fuck you’re doing--especially if you take unarmed kids with you…” She sighed, shaking her head and tapping her holstered pistol on her left hip. “What d’you have here, weapons-wise?” The question was directed at Chloe before glancing back at Emily. “You have your own gun, right? Someone taught you how to fire it properly?”

*

Beca's concession about the guys who had been accompanying Emily wasn't exactly convincing, but Chloe didn't push the issue. Whatever Beca thought she understood about their community, at the end of the day, she didn't actually know them. Chloe wasn't naive enough to think that good intentions ranked very high on people's list of priorities anymore, but those guys had been from their community, and it didn't sit right with her to think ill of people who had been doing their part in trying to provide for the settlement.

The set of her shoulders tightened at the implication that they didn't know what they were doing, as if they weren't living in this exact same nightmare that she was and they'd made it this far together already. Emily's arms wrapped around her legs as she watched the two of them, unease setting in at the change in the direction of the conversation. "We have our own weapons. Mostly pistols and revolvers, but we have a few rifles. The community at large has more."

Emily startled slightly when she realized that Beca had addressed her with a question too, and she looked to Chloe for confirmation.

"We all know how to shoot," Chloe interjected, and Emily's expression smoothed out into a less anxious one. Aubrey was the only one of them who had known how to shoot before the outbreak, but she had been diligent about teaching them everything from marksmanship to disassembling and cleaning a gun. They had all been hesitant about having to teach Emily to shoot, but no amount of wanting to shelter her could change the fact that it was a matter of life or death if she was ever by herself. And true to Chloe's worries, she hadn't been there with Emily on the supply run, and everything had gone wrong. If not for Beca, Emily would be dead right now. The reminder sent a lurch of renewed guilt and sickly fear curling in the pit of her stomach. "We're not completely helpless or whatever you're thinking," Chloe pointed out, her chin lifting slightly. Emily glanced back and forth between them anxiously, her shoulders hunching at the awkwardness in the room.

*

Beca gave a slow, processing bob of her head when Chloe explained their weapons situation, reaching up to rake a hand through her hair with a sigh. “That’s not bad, but you’ll need more. Especially if you can get your hands on a shotgun or two for the house. I get that you do the whole… community living thing here, but if there’s ever a mass break-in of scavs or clickers or both, it’s every man for himself, no matter how nice people seem. That’s just how it is. So you should each have a handgun and a rifle or pistol, and some sort of blade to keep on you at all times--a pocket knife, at minimum, but I’m talking more of a switchblade or dagger or hatchet, something for close-range combat, or a last resort if your gun jams or you run out of ammo.” She could tell by the roundness of Emily’s eyes that she’d maybe gone too far, and Beca pressed her lips together tightly in a hint of an apologetic grin. “Look, kid. I’m not trying to scare you, I’m just trying to make sure you’re more prepared for next time.” She shot another look at Chloe. “I didn’t say you were completely helpless.”

*

The muscles in her jaw twitched as Beca cautioned them against the possibilities of what could happen if their walls were ever breached. Maybe it was the fatigue, or the stresses of the previous day, but it took the limits of her patience to rein in her frustration at having a stranger prod at the fact that it would be every person for themselves in the event of an attack. It also made her curious what Beca must have gone through outside these walls to view everything in such a harsh light--not that Chloe didn't understand the state of the world, but Beca's mindset seemed especially cynical.

"We know. Some of us--we carry the knives and stuff that we've been able to salvage. And we're always on the lookout for more stuff." Those were all realities that they'd discussed before, because Aubrey was the most cautious of them all. Living in a community provided added security, but people could turn on you in an instant if it meant protecting themselves in the event of an attack. Chloe bristled again as Beca elaborated on the measures they should be taking to arm and protect themselves. It wasn't anything she didn't already know and wasn't like they weren't trying, but resources weren't exactly always easy to come by anymore. Especially not weapons, which were sometimes guarded even more fiercely than food and first aid supplies. After all, a full stomach didn't mean anything if you didn't have a way of protecting yourself when a clicker showed up. Her brow furrowed with concern when Beca's remark directed at Emily pulled her attention to the younger girl. "Em, it's okay." Her voice softened, and while Emily looked at her and bobbed her head in a nod, she wasn't sure that Emily was entirely convinced. She huffed a disbelieving scoff at the deliberate mention of not being completely helpless. "Thanks for making the distinction."

*

According to Beca, people holing up long-term in these types of settlements didn’t understand the state of the world. Not really. She would’ve put her money on it that none of these girls had ever had to face a clicker up close, even. Emily, especially, judging by her piercing shriek upon seeing one--which was the opposite of what you were supposed to do. She needed more training, clearly. They all probably did. But she knew she probably shouldn’t piss off Chloe more than she already had, so she bit her tongue. Better late than never, right?

 

“Hey,” Beca said, that guilt prickling in her stomach when Emily didn’t return to her sunnier spirits. “You saved me, too. If you hadn’t kept pressure on this on our ride back here…” She motioned to her patched up side. “You’re pretty damn brave, you know?” She had to be, considering these girls obviously kept her way too fucking sheltered here. (Not that she could blame them, but… Beca always veered on the side of wake-up calls and reality, even for the younger ones.)

*

Although her eyes remained unflinching on Beca, Chloe forced herself to draw in a deep breath and release it slowly when Beca didn't say anything further about their situation in the settlement. The past day or so had already been stressful enough and being somewhat at odds with Aubrey over Beca's arrival in the first place had her on edge, but she mentally chastised that it was no reason to lose her temper. She knew that she shouldn't let the observations and judgments of a perfect stranger who didn't even know their whole situation get to her, despite the knee jerk reaction she felt to defend the life they'd established for themselves here.

Although she didn't buoy right back to her typical cheery disposition with Beca's words, it was clear that Emily was genuinely listening to her, and the set of her shoulders squared almost proudly when Beca pointed out her own contribution to making it back to the settlement safely. "Really?" That seemed to be all it took to open the proverbial floodgates for Emily, because she twisted to look at Beca more directly then. "Because I totally didn't realize you were bleeding like that when we were riding? That was like--so crazy. I just--you told me to do that, so I did, y'know?" Chloe could tell that Emily obviously felt some measure of consolation for having played a part in helping Beca, despite the unsettling other events of the day. Emily had ventured out only a few times since they'd joined up with the settlement, but nothing that extreme had happened on the previous trips.

*

“You did. You should be proud of yourself.” The last thing Beca wanted was for Emily to feel any guilt about her getting shot. It wasn’t as if Emily asked her to jump in and get her out of there, after all. She didn’t mean to make her feel bad about not being armed, either, though… she still seriously had questions for the rest of the girls for letting her go on that run. Before she could even think about how to broach that subject again, though, three sharp knocks echoed into the living room from the front door.

The sun decided to peek over the horizon line as the beat up Toyota Corolla approached the settlement. After talking with the guards manning the front gate, they rolled up to the curb and parked behind Beca’s bike. Jesse and Amy both had dark circles under their eyes as they stood in front of the door where their curmudgeonly companion was hopefully housed.

Jesse shoved his hands in his pockets, craning his neck to try to peer into the nearby window. “Be cool, Amy. We don’t know what kind of people have her here.”

You be cool,” Amy shot back, reaching up to adjust her high ponytail. “And get your hands out of your pockets. You’re less threatening that way. Not that you’re ever particularly manly and threatening…”

He rolled his eyes and clasped his hands in front of him instead, reminding himself he had a pistol concealed inside his denim jacket. Just in case.

*

Without any sort of time frame for when Beca's friends would be arriving, the sharp knock at the door startled a small flinch from her. She turned towards the direction of the front door, before glancing back at Beca and Emily.

"Em, will you go wake the other girls up? Tell them we'll do breakfast soon." While that was true, since the sun had finally decided to make its appearance and the sky outside the windows was brightening, it was also an unspoken code for 'hey, it would be great to have everyone else awake and alert when we're about to have more unfamiliar people in our house.' Besides, Aubrey was going to find out about this arrangement sooner or later, so she might as well go ahead and rip the bandage off, so to speak.

Emily nodded and unfurled her long limbs from her spot on the floor as she stood and disappeared down the hallway, while Chloe crossed the room to the front door. As she approached the door, it occurred to her that it had gone from them harboring one injured stranger in their home to having several other strangers arrive on their doorstep all over the course of one night.

Aubrey was most definitely going to ream her out when she woke up.

Chloe pulled the front door open a crack, and despite the exhaustion she felt after a sleepless night, her eyes were still alert as she took in the sight of the two people standing on the doorstep. She was greeted by the visual of a curvier blonde woman--the Australian, she presumed--and an unassuming young man, who must have been the guy who sounded so concerned on the walkie talkie earlier. Her eyes flickered past them briefly to catch sight of the Corolla that was now parked behind Beca's bike, before returning to them.

"You guys must be Beca's friends." She leaned against the door frame, effectively blocking the gap of space until she had confirmation from them. Not that she struck a particularly imposing figure even on the best of days, but it was best to err on the side of caution and check first.

*

“Yeah--hey there!” Jesse offered his hand with a genuine (albeit tired) smile, even though the stranger remained in the doorframe. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Jesse Swanson, this is Amy--we are indeed here to pick up that third leg of our tripod of ours, if she’s here? That bike’s hers out front, she’s about yay high--” he held up his hand to the height of his shoulder to illustrate. “--carries her body weight in weaponry, favorite color black, perpetually stormy expression--”

Amy cut him off. “--more importantly if you’ve got any food, we’re happy to trade. We’ve got things on us, in the car, or--you know, I happen to be an excellent entertainer, if you like dancing? All types of dancing. Modern dance, bellydance, ballet--bit rusty there, though--”

While Jesse and Amy rambled on, Beca got to her feet again and staggered quietly behind Chloe, gently resting her hand against the small of her back for a fraction of a second before she pulled back, her cheeks flushing. The move was really to steady herself, warn Chloe she was approaching. Stupid, really. “Sorry,” she muttered, continuing in a low voice to Chloe. “They’re harmless. Emily could take ‘em down by herself, probably.” Clearing her throat, she stepped back and called to them with enough volume to carry over the threshold. “I’m here, weirdos.”

*

A bemused smile briefly flitted across Chloe's face when Jesse extended his hand and immediately launched into a small ramble introducing himself and describing Beca. With only a little tentativeness, she reached out to accept his offered hand and shake it. She barely managed to conceal a laugh when the blonde (Amy, she noted) cut him off and interjected with an impassioned plea about trading for food, and--was she really offering to dance in exchange for food? Okay, these two were officially the last thing she'd expected from Beca's companions.

"Y'know, I'm not sure we're in need of any dance styles at the moment, but we can definitely ask around about trading for supplies," she assured, torn somewhere between confusion and amusement. "That description definitely rings a bell though."

Speak of the devil. The light pressure of a hand against her back caught her slightly off guard, and her head turned to see what Beca stood at her shoulder. The gesture was surprisingly soft for someone who had been caustic more often than not ever since she showed up, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared and Chloe's look softened when Beca seemed almost embarrassed by the gesture. "I dunno, that ballet sounds pretty deadly," she returned in a quiet undertone, lips quirking upward. Chloe pushed the door open wider and shifted aside enough to let Jesse and Amy see Beca in the doorway. "Sorry we worried you guys. When she showed up, we didn't know she was traveling with anyone." A thought occurred to her, and she glanced at Beca before turning back to the two newcomers. "She should be all patched up now, but you guys should still keep an eye on her to make sure she's healing up all right." She highly suspected that Beca would downplay her injury to her companions, if she even revealed anything at all, so this might be her best chance of making sure they knew to look out for her.

*

“Oh her ballet’s deadly alright. She can’t plie without farting,” Beca mumbled back at Chloe, rolling her eyes. Chloe’s slight smile made Beca take another step back, a fresh twinge of guilt blooming in her chest. She’d really been a dick, hadn’t she? Not like she could help it… but she didn’t deserve this girl’s hospitality. Not anymore, at least, now that her debt had been paid off. “I’m just gonna--I’m gonna grab my stuff. One sec.” Her right arm remained hanging at her side protectively as she tried not to think about how much each step hurt and how she really could go for more sleep.

Jesse grinned at Chloe, casting a set of puppy dog eyes across to Beca as he watched her sort through her weapons on the coffee table. “Hey, no need to be sorry. We’re really, really appreciative for you taking her in for the night, and whatever you did to help her. She’s not really one to admit she needs help, but you probably got the sense of that, huh?”

While Beca gathered her things, Amy took a small tour of the lower level of the house, peeking her head around corners but still staying within Chloe’s eye range. “Beca, it’s really nice here. Like… really nice. And not just here, but in this whole settlement? Like… we should… see if we can stay a bit… I mean, don’t get me wrong, you know how much I loooove camping. Soooo much. But a few days without sleeping in shifts… might be a nice change of pace? What d’you think, Jess?”

Jesse winced, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck. “Amy’s got a point, Bec. Especially if you’re…” He watched her move a lot slower than usual, favoring one side. “Injured? You don’t look that good, babe. You kinda look like you might fall over or pass out--”

“I’m fine,” Beca insisted, grumbling a few swears under her breath as she struggled to pull her jacket back on. “We’re not staying here.”

“But Beca, please…” Amy frowned. “They’ve got food here, and we could figure out a nice trade, and maybe not sleep on the dirt so I wake up with yet another twig up my bum, and the security guy here was really hot and--” She blinked at Chloe, staring at her as though seeing her for the first time. “Wait. I thought gingers were extinct…”

*

A whisper of surprise flashed across Chloe’s face when Beca played along with her response and actually returned it with a quiet, sarcastic observation of her own that could constitute a joke. Well, she definitely hadn't seen that one coming. Before she could even think of responding, Beca stepped further away before excusing herself to gather the rest of her stuff that was still in the living room. She couldn't help but notice how Beca favored one side as she crossed the room though, and she suddenly felt even more justified in cautioning Jesse and Amy about keeping an eye on Beca. Clearly her stubbornness wasn't going to relent on its own.

For all of Beca's apparent stoicism, Jesse was seemingly the complete opposite, as evidenced by the way his eyes followed Beca from across the room. "Of course. She helped one of us out too, so it was the least we could do to return the favor." Her lips quirked with a hint of a smile at Jesse. "I might've picked up on that a little, yeah."

Chloe didn't protest as Amy explored the living room and ventured a little further, while still remaining in her line of vision. Amy's exploration seemed to be motivation by genuine curiosity, rather than any exploitative or malicious intent, but that didn't mean that Chloe kept any less of a close eye on her. It never hurt to be sure, just in case.

Her eyebrows lifted in a mild show of surprise when Amy started trying to work the angle of convincing Beca that they should stay at the settlement for a while. Even more surprising was when Jesse seemed to agree with Amy, despite his apparent fondness for Beca (it wasn't exactly the most difficult thing to pick up on in the first place, and the small 'babe' he slipped in seemed to confirm her observations).

What wasn't surprising was Beca's continued insistence that they weren't staying at the settlement. Chloe knew that plenty of people were mistrustful of long-term settlements or military-controlled zones these days (many people didn't seem to make much of a distinction between the two), but she couldn't understand turning down an opportunity to heal for a while in a more secure environment.

Her line of thought was derailed when Amy suddenly stopped and blinked at her, as if baffled by her mere presence. "What?" Her look was equally confused, although for different reasons. "I don't--not all gingers are extinct. Living proof and all, y'know."

Amy looked almost skeptical, as if the physical evidence of Chloe standing right in front of her wasn't enough to convince her. So that was...weird. Chloe decided to push past it though in order to make her case.

"We've had people who have passed through and stayed before," she said, glancing between the three newcomers and hoping to convene that their settlement wasn't instantly and unfairly hostile to new faces. "We all--I mean, you'd have to pitch in, we all have assigned stuff around here. But I'll bet there's room somewhere, and--"

"What the hell, Chloe?"

Chloe grimaced and turned to face the sharp voice that cut through the room like a knife. Aubrey stood at the mouth of the hallway that opened into the living room, with Emily peering wide-eyed and worried over her shoulder at Chloe. Well, that was just freakin' great. She was suddenly reminded of the fact that if the old 'if looks could kill' adage was literal, Aubrey would be committing several murders right in that instant.

Chloe took several steps across the room towards Aubrey, hands lifting towards her friend in a hopefully conciliatory gesture as she interjected herself between Aubrey and the three new people. "They're Beca's friends, they came here to find her. They're looking to trade with anyone here who needs anything." Surely Aubrey could see the logic in that, they'd had travelers pass through for bartering and trading before.

"And you just decided to let them in here without checking with anyone first?"

"I was there!" Emily's piped up interjection was clearly meant to bolster support for Chloe, but she immediately shrank back from the sharp glare that Aubrey spun to pin on her. Okay, not helping then.

*

Amy’s face turned from ginger-related confusion to lighting up with glee. “Oh we are really good at pitching in. We’ve got the One-Woman Beca Mitchell Clicker Defense Squad right there--” she said, pointing over at Beca (who snorted and rolled her eyes yet again). “--and when she’s feeling a bit better she can hunt you guys, like… a crap-ton of game. You want a big ol’ buck? Beca’s got it right between the eyes, every single time. How ‘bout some squirrels for an appetizer? Or a few rabbits? Or even a nice grizzly bear, or a giant moose…”

Beca sighed and shook her head. “We’re in the south, Amy. We’re not gonna find a moose.”

Undeterred by that bit of information, Amy kept on. “And Jesse is really good at the typically female gender roles, such as cleaning and cooking and washing our clothes…”

“Thanks, Amy.” Jesse moved into the living room to help Beca then, brushing a kiss to her forehead and cupping her cheek, which she allowed for a second as she muttered a few words of reassurance to him before she kept packing up more of her shit.

All three of them turned their sharp attention to Aubrey once she made her presence known. Beca called across the living room. “Hey, chill out. She checked their IDs first.” Well, she made sure Beca knew who they were, which was… sort of the same thing, right? Maybe she let them in too quickly, but Beca felt the inexplicable need to stick up for Chloe in this scenario. “And they’re only gonna be in here sucking up your oxygen for another minute ‘cause we’re leaving.”

“But Beca--” Amy frowned. “Please?” She turned to Aubrey next, sensing she was the one with all the power. “We’ve got rare items for trade in the car. Things we’ve picked up along our journey. We’ve got loads of… office supplies… which you think wouldn’t be useful but we found an abandoned Staples and yeah it’d been mostly picked over but we got some jumbo bags of rubber bands and they’re really the most useful thing… plus manilla envelopes, loads of assorted color pens--” Her eyes found Emily. “You like coloring, child? We’ve got so many pens…”

*

Chloe listened with growing amusement as Amy detailed all of the ways in which they could be a benefit to the community. Maybe she should have been more reticent around complete strangers, but Amy was so amusing in a rather bizarre way that it was almost impossible not to be drawn in, purely out of curiosity for what would come out of her mouth next. Everything she said seemed to reinforce what Emily had shared with them about Beca's competency in handling the scavs and the clickers in their confrontation before. In fact, all of the details were beginning to solidify to reinforce that image--both Amy and Emily's stories, the fact that she'd even been on her feet by the time she reached the settlement, the scars that Chloe had noticed on her arms, and the entire array of weapons that she apparently used with proficiency.

"A moose would be a heck of a find here," she pointed out, unable to resist playing along a bit with Amy's increasingly outlandish speculation.

Naturally, her eyes followed Jesse as Amy started in on his skills next, so she took note of the small moment of affection that was conveyed to Beca. Clearly there was something there, because that was certainly more than she'd seen Beca allow from anyone else so far.

Her surprised quickly shifted into a look of gratitude when Beca stuck up for her in the face of Aubrey's temper, even if her claim was technically a bit of an exaggeration. "And the guards checked them at the gate. Aubrey, they're just trying to get their friend and maybe find some supplies or a place to crash for a while." That assertion was immediately undermined when Beca spoke up again to insist that they were leaving, and Chloe was certain that Aubrey's vitriol hadn't exactly done anything to sway Beca's stance on getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

When Amy launched into her spiel trying to appeal to Aubrey with office supplies, of all things, Chloe lifted one hand to rub at her temple against the headache she could feel forming there. Amy really wasn't helping their case with her imploring appeal, because Chloe knew well enough that Aubrey wasn't about to be swayed by a bunch of pens and envelopes.

"If it's fine with the rest of the community, then why shouldn't they be allowed to stay?" She knew that Aubrey was largely mistrustful of new faces--and with good reason, because Chloe wasn't saying they should throw caution to the wind--but she seemed especially set in her ways with the animosity she'd displayed ever since Beca showed up. Was she really so angry with Chloe for taking Beca in to help in the first place that she was taking it out on them now? "We've had people show up and trade or even stay before, Bree, so why is this any different?"

"We don't know anything about them, Chloe." Her nostrils flared as her lips thinned into a tight frown, and the set of her shoulders was rigid as she stared them all down. It was Aubrey at her most combative, and Chloe's gut twisted anxiously with dread and confusion at the vitriol from her best friend.

"Beca saved my life." Emily's voice was soft and almost meek when she spoke up, but clearly her conscience wouldn't let her go without reminding them of that fact. Even if it put her in the path of Aubrey's displeasure too, it seemed. "She helped me out, and they're all just trying to find a safe place just like everyone else is, and that should count for something."

*

Beca limped back over toward Chloe just when she asked why it’s different, shrugging even though it twinged her side. “Maybe because I didn’t kiss her ass with gratitude when she didn’t immediately cast me back out there last night,” Beca said, loud enough for Aubrey to hear and not giving a single fuck. “We’re gonna get out of here. Thanks again for the stitches and the couch.”

Jesse scrambled to follow. “Bec, wait--” When she passed him and slipped back into the entryway toward the door, he held up both hands as if the gesture would calm Aubrey. “We’ve got better stuff to trade than pens, okay?” He shot a look at Amy, who shrugged, before looking with pleading eyes up at Aubrey. “Just--give us a sec?”

“Give her a tranquilizer dart,” Beca muttered on her way out, slumping against the porch railing for a moment as she tried catching her breath. She fished into the pocket of her jacket for her aviators and shoved them on her face, mumbling some more swears to herself as she sunk down to sit on the steps while Jesse and Amy no doubt would continue fighting that fight to trade and stay.

Jesse took a steadying breath once he watched Beca sit and not immediately approach her motorcycle. He’d always been the calm presence among the three of them. He turned back to Aubrey with a hand over his chest. “I know you don’t know us, but that can change. My name’s Jesse. I’m 19. I love movies and singing and I make a damn good pancake. I’m from upstate New York… and I’m happy to tell you whatever you want to know about me if it’ll make you more comfortable.” He dared to take a few steps forward, slowly. “Aubrey, please. When Beca’s not firing on all cylinders, we don’t stand much of a chance out there,” Jesse reasoned. “We just need a few days. We’ll do whatever work you need done around here, anything you want. We’ll stay out of your way, follow whatever rules you have.”

“Unless they’re dumb rules,” Amy muttered, and when Jesse shot her a look, she nodded. “Yeah, we’ll follow all the rules. And I’ll even throw in some dancing on the house. Katniss out there is all about the wilderness life but I’m definitely not.”

*

Chloe's eyes slid shut for a moment and her shoulders slumped with a heavy sigh at Beca's acerbic statement that Aubrey most definitely heard. Remarks like that weren't exactly helping Chloe bring Aubrey around to any kind of understanding for the small group of newcomers. Then again, Beca didn't seem particularly concerned with ingratiating herself to Aubrey like the other two seemed to. "Beca--"

She turned to follow Beca with her eyes as she hobbled her way back to the front door and out onto the porch. She shot Jesse an apologetic look as he watched Beca go before turning back to Aubrey, because she had to admire his persistence in trying to state their case to Aubrey.

When Jesse tried to win Aubrey over, Chloe had to admit that there was a certain puppy dog quality to him. She knew that she was too easily taken in by people sometimes (Aubrey had always warned her against that), but there was an earnestness to him that she had to admit made her want to stick up for them even more. And despite her oddities, Amy seemed willing to work within the boundaries of the settlement rules if it meant getting to stay within the safety of their fortifications.

"There are more people here than just us, Aubrey. If everyone else is fine with them staying, then it's really out of our hands anyway." She knew that Aubrey would hate her pointing that out and would likely see it as Chloe undermining her authority, but the fact of the matter was that Aubrey wasn't the ultimate authority in the settlement. Chloe didn't like having to resort to forcing Aubrey's hand either, but she found that she couldn't just let the matter rest. Beca shouldn't really have even been walking around, much less riding her motorcycle or camping out in the woods and scavenging for food, and it was pretty clear that Jesse and Amy weren't exactly adept at roughing it outside the perimeter walls without Beca at peak health.

Sure enough, Aubrey bristled at the remark, and Chloe saw her knuckles turn white with the force of her grip when her hands curled into fists at her sides. When she finally found her voice again through her simmering anger, it was Chloe she turned to with a cutting look. "If they screw any of us over, just remember that you're the one who wanted them here." With that, she stormed past them and out the front door, the thumping of her boots receding away down the porch steps and out of hearing range. As much as she hated it, that was as much of a concession as they were going to get from Aubrey right now.

"Chlo..." Emily looked uncertain as she watched her and fidgeted with the hem of her shirt between her fingers, clearly torn at having angered Aubrey despite her desire to help the others.

"It'll be okay, Em." She forced a smile at Emily, before turning to Jesse and Amy. "I'm sorry about that, guys. That--she'll come around, just give her some time."

*

Beca was too tired to move or even flinch as she sat on the steps listening to Jesse plead for shelter and Amy plead for food and the sorority girls fighting, her shoulder pressed tightly into the side of the porch railing as she slumped heavily against it, her eyes closing beneath her sunglasses. She’d slept, so why was she still so damn exhausted? When Aubrey stormed out, she resisted the sudden urge to stick her leg out and trip her. She just didn’t like her, okay?

Amy wrinkled her nose as Aubrey stormed off, casting an apologetic look to Chloe and Emily. “We can talk to the hot guards--maybe there’s another house here with some spare space?”

Beca didn’t want to chime in but there must be at least two, thinking of the guys who died last night on the run with Emily. She didn’t bring them up again, though. Her heavy sigh indicated she’d given up the fight to leave the settlement, at least for now.

Jesse nodded toward Amy. “Amy’s got a point, Chloe. We don’t want to make things harder on you here. Harder than we already have…”

Amy peered outside, suddenly curious about the settlement itself. “So what’ve you got in your little village here, anyway? Are there, like… communal eating places, drinking places, communal showers…?”

They never stayed in one of these settlements to understand how the community aspect worked, and Jesse found himself equally as curious. “Or do you mostly stick to yourselves but have jobs around here to help each other? Where do you think we can be of most service?”

*

Although tension once again settled into the tight set of her shoulders, because she knew she would have to deal with Aubrey's anger over this arrangement sooner or later, her absence at least gave them the chance to discuss details and specifics for the immediate moment. From her vantage point, she could see Beca sitting on the porch steps and leaning against the railing, so she figured that was as much of an admission of begrudging agreement as they would get from her.

She lifted a hand to put a gentle halt to Jesse and Amy's assurances that they didn't want to cause more trouble. "I'll ask around and see what kind of space is available," she reassured, offering a hint of a smile. "If we don't sort anything out before tonight, you're welcome to crash here until we can make some arrangements. Don't worry about it, I can handle Aubrey." She seemed to be doing a lot of that lately anyway.

She wasn't particularly surprised when the two of them had questions about the set-up the community had going on here. If they'd mostly been on the move and camping out, then it was understandable that they weren't familiar with the community setting and the different responsibilities that came with it.

"Um...you can kinda socialize as much or as little as you like. We have a space big enough for everyone to eat together and we'll do bigger meals sometimes, but some people prefer to keep to themselves," she offered with a shrug. She could understand the impulse. Some people just didn't want to get close to others anymore, and she could accept that even if she didn't always agree with it.

"Other than that, we all have tasks and stuff around here to keep things running and pull our own weight. A lot of us are on rotation for supply runs and keeping watching at night." There were a few who weren't able to venture out and do the kind of strenuous things that supply runs could require, but they found other areas to contribute. "Jesse, if you are a pretty good cook, I'm sure they'd be happy to have an extra pair of hands helping out with the food stuff. We have kind of a--a food bank set up, we divvy up the everyday stuff, but like I said, we'll do bigger communal meals sometimes."

Her curious gaze turned on Amy then. The Australian certainly had a gift for gab, but Chloe wasn't sure what her particular skill set might be in terms of the practical day-to-day responsibilities of the settlement. "I hate to say it, Amy, but there's no dance troupe here to join. What stuff are you good at?"

*

They both listened with rapt attention as Chloe explained some of the setup there. Jesse nodded along. “I’d be happy to help with the cooking, whatever you need. Amy and I can take turns on watch, too. We’re used to sleeping in shifts through the night, so nighttime or daytime watch duty would be no problem for either of us.”

Amy flashed Chloe a thumbs up when she mentioned socialization. “In that case, I look forward to meeting your fellow settlement-mates. Particularly the straight hot men.” And when Chloe asked what else she was good with, Amy’s answer was immediate. “Emotional support.” She nodded along. “I’m really good at listening and giving advice, and provide a very cushiony shoulder to cry on. Jesse can attest to that, Beca not so much…”

Jesse rolled his eyes and headed over toward Beca. “Amy can cook, too. She can pretty much do anything if she puts her mind to it, and I’m sure she’ll be much more forthcoming with offering help since she wants to stay here so badly…” He shot her another pointed look before gently taking Beca’s arm. “C’mon, Becs, you gotta rest for real. That couch is calling your name in there.”

Beca mumbled a protest but was otherwise too tired to argue, shuffling back into the house with Jesse’s guidance. She once again shrugged off her jacket and managed to pull her sunglasses off to set on the table before curling back up on that couch, stifling a yawn. “Hate bein’ useless,” she grumbled, her eyes fluttering closed.

“Don’t worry. Soon as you’re all healed up, you’ll get out there and snag a few deer and earn your own keep.” Jesse worked to untie Beca’s tall boots and tug them off, pulling the quilt over her lower half.

*

Some of the tension of the previous night and this morning softened into a grateful look as Jesse so readily agreed to her suggestions. At least someone today thought she had a decent idea, rather than wanting to bite her head off. "That would be great. And hey, at least it won't be every night like it is out there? So that should be a plus, right?"

It pulled a quiet laugh from her when Amy was so eager to meet the other people around the settlement. Apparently nothing could keep the eccentric Australian down for very long. "I'm sure the straight hot men look forward to meeting you too, Amy." She was pretty sure those guys had no idea what was in store for them, if her brief interaction with Amy was anything to judge by. Her lips ticked upwards into a slightly bemused smile, but she couldn't help her amusement at Amy's instant answer. "Sure, we can probably scrounge up a shrink's couch around here somewhere," she quipped in return.

"Awesome. I'm sure we'll find something she can help with then, there's pretty much always something to be done around here." She was glad to see that Jesse had a little more luck in coaxing Beca back into the house and over to the couch, although perhaps she was too exhausted from the previous night's ordeal and the blood loss to put up much of a fuss at this point. Either way, Chloe was just glad to see her resting.

As Jesse worked to get Beca settled on the couch and pulled the blanket over her, Chloe couldn't stifle a hint of a smile at the image. For such a heavily-touted badass, Beca looked very small curled up on the couch. "I'm sure we'll take you up on that once you're feeling better. For now, you're on healing duty though."

Emily was watching them with a more hopeful expression now that things seemed to have calmed down (for the time being, at least), and Chloe smiled over at her before she addressed Jesse and Amy again. "Emily woke the girls up just a bit ago, so we're probably gonna grab some breakfast if you two wanna join us. And we can bring something back for Beca when we're done." She didn't know how long Beca had gone without food before her initial encounter with Emily, but keeping her energy up with a late breakfast would be an important part of the healing process too.

Jesse and Amy remained their positive, gracious (and slightly inappropriate, in Amy’s case) selves while Chloe introduced them to the rest of the girls living in their house. They showed equal appreciation when they met others around the settlement while Chloe toured them around all day and helped them get settled in. They woke Beca to eat a bit during lunch time, but after that, they let her sleep, knowing she was less likely to argue and stubbornly try to overexert herself while unconscious.

Chapter Text

Beca slept hard--harder than she’d slept in a really long time. She woke disoriented once more, having to remind herself why she lay on a couch and inside of a house that hadn’t been abandoned. She didn’t move too quickly this time, though the dull ache in her side set in once she was awake enough to process it. She always refused painkillers they had on hand, though. She didn’t want to waste supplies, for one. (And there was also the screwed up reason where she was still punishing herself for what happened six months ago, but she wasn’t gonna unpack that shit probably… ever, if she had a say.)

She pushed herself to sit up fully, noting how dark and calm and quiet the house sat, save for the predictable rhythm of Amy’s snores coming from the other side of the coffee table. Jesse slept on the carpet nearby, his chest rising and falling in peaceful crests. Making sure to stay quiet enough to not wake them, she winced as she pulled her boots back on, lacing them all the way up her calves as per usual. Beca lazily braided her hair to keep it somewhat controlled, tying it off in front and letting it hang over her left shoulder. She picked up her revolver and holster, quickly hooking it so it sat low around her hips, but she left the rest of her weapons on the table. Amy and Jesse clearly did a lot of work to earn these people’s trust, the last thing she wanted to do was seem like a threat and screw all of that up, despite her extreme discomfort at being there to begin with.

It was as if her body knew she’d been within four solid walls for too long; maybe she’d developed claustrophobia of sorts over the years, but she needed fresh air. She needed to move. And as soon as she stepped onto the front porch into the cooler night air, she closed her eyes for a moment to appreciate its crispness. She regretted not grabbing her jacket, but the chill in the air also felt good against her bare arms and neck. Refreshing, sort of.

She set off down the street, a slight but still noticeable limp in her step as she wandered down the quiet pathway, walking by other houses for a while and wondering who lived there. If Jesse and Amy met them already. If they were filled with older people, younger people, families, friends… and how much shit they’d been through to get there. Beca shied away from meeting new people often, but she’d met enough to know that everyone had a story to tell. The same story told by thousands of different points of view, it seemed.

Beca finally reached what seemed to be the hub of the settlement, a few people milling about chatting or working. A few cast her confused or wary glances, but some smiled. One greeted her with a warm welcome, which was kind of weird. She continued circling the hub until she found a larger tent-like structure, a few torches lit to illuminate the space. She spotted several barrels lined up along one side, large bags of what must’ve been something like oats or rice stacked in a small mountain on the other side. Lingering by the entrance, she watched the folks inside for a moment until her eyes fell on Chloe… and then she watched her specifically, taking in the way she moved and her facial expressions when she spoke to others. Maybe it was creepy, but she couldn’t really find it in her to look away for some reason. Or… jesus, maybe she was sleepwalking.

*

Chloe once again found herself immensely grateful for the girls who had become her family, because all of the girls in the house were much friendlier and more receptive when Chloe made the rounds of introductions between them and Jesse and Amy. Maybe having the other girls on her side would help sway Aubrey over to relaxing her animosity towards having the three new faces around. She wasn't exactly holding her breath about that, but she could always stay hopeful, right? In the meantime, she warned the girls against disturbing Beca's sleep and gave Jesse and Amy a fairly thorough tour of the settlement. There would still be details to sort out as they got settled, but at least this way they would be more familiar with the layout and how things functioned around here. It became clear why food had been such a priority for them in negotiating a stay here, because while they were gracious, they were also quick to devour the rations they were given for breakfast. Even Beca ate without complaint when they returned to the house, but again, Chloe wondered with a note of amusement if that was because she might still be half-asleep.

Once Jesse and Amy had been shown around and left to settle in a bit and the girls had dispersed to occupy their day with whatever tasks awaited them, Chloe was beyond grateful for a lull in anyone needing anything from her. She peeked in on Emily to check on her, only to find the younger girl curled up in a makeshift cocoon with her blanket. Chloe was sure that Emily must still be rattled and exhausted from the confrontation on the supply run, and the events of the trip and very little sleep seemed to have caught up with her. She left her to sleep for the time being, knowing that she needed the rest. In fact, sleep sounded like the most beautiful thing Chloe had ever heard of at the moment. She barely took the time to shuck off her own jacket and kick off her boots before she collapsed onto the mattress she'd claimed as her own. She pulled her blanket up over her shoulders and burrowed her face against the soft, well-worn fabric, and after a sleepless night and plenty of exhausting tension, she was out like a light within minutes.

Perhaps sensing that she didn't need to waste the entire day, her internal clock roused her sometime in the late afternoon. Rubbing the bleary heaviness of sleep from her eyes, she yawned and stretched her arms over her head before pulling her hair up into a messy bun. After a brief pause to shove her feet back into her boots and shrug her jacket on, she paced the length of the home and passed a still-sleeping Beca on her way through the living room and out the front door. The girls seemed to have taken Jesse and Amy under their wings, because she found the newcomers with Stacie and Flo once she started walking the familiar paths of the community.

The encroachment of dusk meant an early dinner, and Chloe ushered Jesse and Amy to the communal eating area with her so they could get a better sense of the crowd within the walls of the Barden settlement. Dinner usually drew a bigger crowd, since people wanted to sit around and catch up, whereas breakfast and lunch were typically grabbed on the way to some task or another. The girls tugged Jesse and Amy into open seats with them, and before too long, Amy was regaling the entire vicinity with some crazy story. Mid-laugh, Chloe looked up across the dining area and met Aubrey's eyes. Other than a noticeable tightening of her jaw, Aubrey turned back to the man she'd been talking to without any further acknowledgement of Chloe. Okay...still pissed off then. Chloe picked at her food more listlessly then, but she resolved to give Aubrey some more time until frayed nerves and flared tempers had a chance to settle.

As darkness fell more completely, Chloe shooed Jesse and Amy back to the house with the rest of the girls and told them to get a good night's sleep. She was sure they both sorely needed it. Despite her own nap's relative brevity, she was still buzzing with too much restless energy to go back to the house just yet. Instead, she veered off towards the area that held their food stores. Sure enough, she reliably found several of the community members there, already sorting out and dividing up some of the rations for the next few days. A few of the older women in the community didn't have the physical fortitude any longer to venture outside on hunting excursions or scavenging missions, but they could organize and ration the community's food supply like seasoned pros.

They'd already recruited a few younger people to help move and distribute the larger bags and crates of food where they were directed to, and Chloe jumped right in to help. Idle chatter and jokes were exchanged as everyone moved around each other with relative ease, and one of the younger guys who was close to her age kept up a running commentary under his breath as they worked that seemed to be designed to earn a few laughs from her.

He was midway through telling her a story when her gaze lifted as she turned to move a crate of canned food and her eyes landed on Beca hovering near the entrance. Beca looked almost hesitant lingering a small distance away from everyone else, or maybe that was the constantly shifting shadows that the torches cast. Either way, Chloe didn't try to fight the impulse to go check on her. She turned to halt his story with a quick smile and a hand on his arm before she strolled across the area to Beca.

"Hey there, look who's awake," she said by way of greeting, offering a smile as she approached. "How are you feeling?"

*

Beca may have been sorely lacking in social skills, particularly in the area of reading cues, but she would’ve been an idiot not to notice how that guy was flirting with Chloe. Her brow knit for a moment as she watched their interaction, not close enough to hear actual words but noting Chloe’s different types of smiles--she had more than two already (one where she was trying to politely get someone to do something, one where she needed to politely make a getaway, and… a new one, unguarded, that she wore when she approached her). It was weird, okay? Who had that many smiles?

Beca hadn’t really smiled in a long time, but she did manage a weak flicker of a tight-lipped grin as Chloe greeted her. “Like I got shot and someone stitched me back together with a needle and thread,” she said with a shrug, shoving her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I’d say I slept like the dead but that’s not… really an okay expression to use anymore, is it…?” She wrinkled her nose in apology. “Didn’t mean to interrupt you here. Figured I missed the tour and it’d be a good idea to… get a lay of the land, y’know?” She cleared her throat. For some weird as hell reason, Chloe made Beca feel like she had to talk more than she wanted to. Like, there was some sort of word-vomit trigger. Or maybe she’d spent so long only speaking the two languages of ‘Amy’ and ‘Jesse’ that she forgot how to talk to other people. That made more sense, really.

*

While Chloe knew that Beca still had a road of recovery ahead of her (which promised to be made all the more difficult because of her stubbornness), it was a relief to see her up and walking around with a little more stability now. Beca was clearly made of sterner stuff...then again, everything she'd witnessed of her so far had proven that to be true. Even though she'd been around Beca the night before and earlier today, it struck her with a mild note of surprise how petite Beca was even in comparison to Chloe herself. That observation hadn't exactly been her top priority when she'd been stitching Beca back together or squaring off with Aubrey, after all. Still, she knew all too well that size wasn't a reflection of capability, and Beca seemed to be the embodiment of that.

Maybe she shouldn't laugh at such a morbid observation, but a quiet chuckle escaped her nonetheless as she reached Beca's side. "Really? You must've had a pretty badass nurse," she countered, lips twitching to betray the hint of another smile. Her nose scrunched and her shoulders rose jerkily in a shrug at Beca's question. "Probably not, but I don't think a morbid pun is the worst thing to deal with these days." It seemed pretty inconsequential, in the grand scheme of things. At the mention of exploring the settlement to familiarize herself, Chloe glanced back over her shoulder towards where the handful of community members were distributing the last of the food stores for the next few days. "No it's fine, I think Tom and the ladies are finishing up, they've got a handle on things," she assured as she turned back to face Beca. "Want me to show you around? Most people are turning in for the night, so it should be pretty quiet around here." Something made her think the lack of a crowd might be something Beca appreciated.

*

“Ah, so you are a nurse. Could've told me that before I asked for the duct tape.” At Chloe's offer, Beca shrugged again. “Only if you want. I can see myself around since I missed the official tour. I mean, you probably have other things you need to be doing…” A sudden realization hit her--that she missed pretty much the entire day. “Did Jesse and Amy… they were okay? Amy can be a little intense… you probably figured that out by now. I saw you got them blankets and stuff. Thanks for that.” She cast Chloe an appreciative nod.

*

"Well...not exactly a nurse, but I've patched some people up before," Chloe admitted, looking almost sheepish at the concession. She tipped her head towards the darkness that sprawled outside of the tent structure where they stood, the light from the torches only casting a warm glow of light outside for a few feet before they tapered off. "Of course, it's no problem." She fell into a leisurely pace as she headed outside of the food bank, fishing in the jacket of her pocket until she retrieved a flashlight and clicked it on. The beam swept the ground in front of them as she paused for a moment before taking a left turn outside of the tent-like structure, trusting that Beca would come with her. "Oh, they were completely fine. I showed them around, got them some food, introduced them around to people. Honestly, I think Amy already has some people won over thanks to her stories." Chloe wasn't sure she actually trusted the veracity of the stories, but some lighthearted entertainment was always welcomed these days. The hand not clasping the flashlight waved in a vague gesture to brush aside her thanks. "No thanks necessary. It wasn't much, but it was what I could find on short notice." She glanced sidelong at Beca then. "I hope we didn't bother you when you were sleeping. The girls can be...kinda loud sometimes. They'll probably get along great with Amy, actually."

*

Beca considered that for a moment before shrugging. “Just ‘cause you didn’t go through a program or whatever doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing. One good teacher’s all you need.” Beca didn’t go to military school, and she liked to think she knew more about marksmanship than those dumbasses in the quarantine zones the government straps bulletproof vests on and hands semi-automatic weapons. In fact, she’d proved she did on several occasions. She followed Chloe away from the food bank and fell into step beside her, grateful she kept her pace slow. Walking still hurt like a bitch with every other step, but she wasn’t a complainer. “Good,” she said. “Yeah, I can vouch for most of her crazy stories that came from the past year, scary enough. She’s gotten us out of some shitty situations with pretty insane tactics.” Beca shook her head when Chloe waved off her thank you. “I know it’s not a big deal to you, but I really appreciate it. And nobody woke me up, which is kinda weird ‘cause I’m usually a pretty light sleeper. How many more…uh, girls… live with you?” She got the sense from Chloe’s words that there were at least a few she hadn’t met yet.

*

The look she turned on Beca was curious and contemplative, but she nodded in agreement after a moment. "I guess you're right. We're all learning our own skills out here, even if sometimes it's something you never expected." Preexisting skills had been honed by the trials and tribulations of daily life, while everyone had discovered new things about themselves that had contributed to their own survival. Chloe was no exception, even when it struck her as incredibly surreal on some days. "Amy seems...interesting, for sure. I think she's kind of a breath of fresh air for everyone," she admitted with a soft huff of laughter. She looked at Beca more solemnly when she persisted with her thanks. "You're welcome. I'm happy to help out."

The corners of her mouth twitched upwards into a smirk at Beca's question, and she casting a teasing look over at her. "Sorority house, remember?" There was no way she could miss a chance to call back to Beca's earlier grumbling about them at the house. "Let's see...you've met Emily, Stacie, and Aubrey. So there are about four or five girls you haven't met." She figured that would probably sound pretty crazy to Beca, who apparently valued her solitude and didn't seem to buy into the appeal of settlements. It didn't take long to draw close to the communal dining area, which now sat empty and quiet after everyone had retired for the night. "This is where we have any big meals," she said, lifting her flashlight to shine the beam across makeshift seats and tables that were arranged around the area. "Like I said earlier, you don't have to come over here if you don't want to. There's usually a bigger crowd for dinner, but everyone's free to do whatever they want." Jesse and Amy had seemed happy to jump in with everyone else, but she suspected that Beca might be a little more hesitant about it.

*

“Ah, right. Sorority house.” Amusement flickered in Beca’s eyes, wondering what it must be like to share a house with, like… ten other girls. It sounded weird as hell to someone who spent the last five to seven years with two to three other people at a time. She knew she was more of a lone wolf by nature, but Beca saw the value of a pack. Especially small ones. She took in the space of the dining area, appreciating the creativity people seemed to use to craft chairs and tables out of other salvaged items. “Gotcha,” she said in acknowledgement, her eyes darting to that flashlight. “We have a stock of batteries, if you need any. All different sizes, even some rechargeables and solar-charged packs.” Batteries were like gold these days, and Beca wasn’t sure if Amy talked about trades yet. But Beca was determined to figure out a way to earn their keep aside from just pitching in around the settlement. “And I have an extra shotgun tucked away in the Corolla. You should have that, too.”

*

“Sure, it's like the new normal for sororities: we kill clickers and braid each other's hair." Her lips curved up in a way that betrayed her jest before she could even finish getting the sentence out. At least Beca didn't immediately seem horrified by the idea of that many girls piled into the same house, especially since they'd probably be crashing with them for at least a little while until they could figure out where space might be available. She wanted the three of them to feel welcomed, or whatever came close to 'welcomed' in the world they lived in now.

Although it was largely concealed in the gloom of night, her face brightened at the mention of batteries. "Really? Awesome, those are a huge help." Batteries were a scarcity to be found at all, and even then, there was no guarantee that they wouldn't have degraded past the point of usability thanks to being left exposed to the elements or other factors. So the mention of a whole stock of batteries, not to mention some rechargeable or solar-powered ones, felt like a huge win. Plus, on a purely pragmatic level, Chloe knew that something that valuable would definitely endear them to the people of the community with the prospect of trades. Her eyebrows lifted in a show of surprise at Beca's next offer. "Are you sure?" Most people weren't exactly keen on parting ways with any of their weapons these days, not when having a stockpile could always increase your odds of survival.

*

Beca’s brow shot up with a sudden rush of curiosity. She knew Chloe was making a joke, but… “How many have you killed?” The question burst from her before she had a chance to think on whether or not it was too personal. It wasn’t for her, but… she knew some people were weird about killing, even those who’d been bitten and turned. This settlement seemed to be around a while, highly efficient and impressively fortified… she’d been assuming these girls had never actually had to fight. But maybe they had more experience than she thought. She nodded at the batteries, knowing she’d never offer something if she wasn’t sure. Same for the shotgun. “Yeah, I mean… you can’t have my Fiona, but the spare… yeah. It’s yours if you want it, along with some ammo and a training session, if you need it.” She didn’t want to assume they didn’t have experience with shotguns since they had other types of guns in the house, but if not, she didn’t mind showing them how to operate one. She hadn’t even realized she’d slipped and called her own shotgun by the name she’d bestowed upon it once she picked it up last year.

*

The laughter died on her lips at Beca's sudden curiosity and the blurted question, replaced by surprise and a note of trepidation. "Oh--" She cleared her throat as her boot scuffed at the grass beneath her feet. "A few. Not very many, but a handful--like, four or five." Most of those had been accumulated during their trek to find shelter in the early days of the outbreak before finding the settlement, although one had come during a supply run gone slightly wrong. None of them were exactly her favorite memories to think back on. She was quiet for a moment in the darkness before she managed to hitch a smile back into place. "I mean, I know it's not exactly much by badass standards..." She let the rebounding joke hang in the hair between them, hoping Beca would latch on to that instead. When Beca reassured her of her offer, her smile bounced back with more sincere force behind it then. "Thank you, Beca. I really appreciate it. And I definitely wouldn't say no to some pointers or a lesson, I'm not as comfortable with a shotgun." In the realm of weapons she'd been forced to handle since the outbreak, a shotgun ranked pretty high as one of the least familiar. "Wait..." Her eyes lit up with delight as a thought occurred to her. "Your gun's named Fiona?"

*

She scrunched up her nose in apology at Chloe’s sudden change in demeanor, inwardly chiding herself for asking such a dumb question. A personal question. A dumb, personal question. Chloe answered it though, much to Beca’s surprise. Her joke put Beca’s worries at ease and she even cracked the hint of a grin, staring down at the grass as they walked. “Don’t sell yourself short. I thought you were a virgin.” She blinked, her ears heating suddenly heating up. “A clicker-killing--nevermind,” she mumbled, shaking her head. Cool, Beca. She dared a glance back at Chloe in time to see that wide smile, which only served to somehow mess up her insides more. What the hell? She reached up to fiddle with the end of her braid as a distraction… especially when Chloe called her out on her slip up. “Shit. Uh--” She squinted guiltily over at Chloe. “Yeah. Fiona’s my shotgun. I’ve got a gun sorority, you got a problem with that?”

*

Even though she didn't know the specifics, she could only assume that her numbers paled in comparison to Beca's. Considering Beca and her friends had been camping out and traveling together, it was only logical that they would've encountered so many more threats than Chloe had behind the walls of the settlement. Her laugh was sharp and boisterous in the still air of the night before she caught herself, but there was no hope of containing it after Beca's word fumble. "Gosh, at least buy me dinner first before you start insinuating things," she teased, catching herself at the last second before she bumped Beca's shoulder with her own like she would've done with any of the girls. It felt nice to laugh though, and it was made all the more amusing because of how flustered the otherwise hyper-capable Beca seemed to be by her slip up.

She could feel Beca's eyes on her in the relative darkness, so her head shook quickly even as she gave a close-lipped grin, trying to conceal that smile and failing miserably. "Not at all. You two sound like a badass gun sorority duo." Yep, totally a thing, she'd just decided. Vestiges of a smile still lingered on her face when the silhouette of the fence loomed out of the darkness as they approached at their leisurely pace. "Here we are. The gate where you came in is a little further down there to our right," she said, shining her flashlight beam in the direction she'd indicated, although it did little to illuminate that far down. "Anyway, this runs around the whole settlement, and we have people stationed at intervals all the way around this wall. We all take turns on watch, but some people pick it up more often. Whatever suits them, I guess. That's where I was last night." As she spoke, another beam of light landed on them, and she glanced up at the deck that doubled as a guard post to spot a man on watch checking to see who was walking around at night. She lifted her hand in a wave and flashed a smile at him, and after a moment, the flashlight beam swept away from them again.

*

Chloe’s laugh was… definitely something. It carried in the air between them like a familiar melody, and it somehow managed to pull a wider grin from Beca, much as she tried to force it back as she rolled her eyes. She deserved the ribbing for the dumb comment, she supposed. She nudged Chloe right back without hesitation. “Okay, so. First of all, offering you a shotgun free of charge is way better than dinner. Second of all, that dude by the food would probably get all pissy and I really don’t have any patience for dealing with jealous boyfriends.” A quiet scoff escaped. “It’s not a duo. This is Annie,” Beca paused to pat the revolver on her hip. “My 9 millimeter pistol, my first baby, is Stevie. And my rifle’s named Gwen.” Yes, they were all named after Beca’s favorite musicians, and no, she didn’t have regrets about that. Chloe could tease her if she wanted, but whatever. She loved her guns and the comfort and protection they provided. She followed Chloe’s flashlight as she explained the watch along the perimeter of their settlement, squinting up at the sudden shock of right light shining down on them from above, grateful when they didn't require more explanation as to why they were out late. “How long have you guys been here?” It could’ve been another grim question, but maybe not as much as the last one.

*

Despite Beca's best efforts to hide her smile, Chloe spotted it and her own smile widened in response. "It's possible you have weird standards, Beca." Although she was probably right about the shotgun, given their present reality. Her brow furrowed with confusion for a beat at the mention of jealous boyfriends. "Dude by the--oh, Tom? Tom's not my boyfriend." Talking during daily tasks totally didn't constitute dating. She held her free hand up in mock surrender. "Whoa, I didn't mean to offend the whole sorority." She listened with rapt attention and a growing smile as Beca pointed out each gun in turn and shared their names with Chloe. "Okay, I know you're gonna hate this, I can already sense it, but I've gotta say it--that's kind of adorable." She figured Beca was probably the kind of girl who protested any kind of label like 'adorable' on principle, but come on, she stood by that assessment.

She glanced over at Beca as they walked parallel with the wall around the settlement, her expression turning thoughtful again. "About...three and a half years, give or take? Aubrey and I were on the run for a while, that's when a lot of us all wound up together along the way. And we found another place to stay with a bigger group for a while--smaller, not as protected as this place. But..." She sighed, her shoulders rising and falling with the motion. "We ended up going our separate ways. They wanted to try for a military zone, we didn't." She shook her head after a slight pause, trying to dispel the memories of that more chaotic time. "What about you? How long have you been with Jesse and Amy?”

*

Beca snorted at Chloe’s insistence that Tom wasn’t her boyfriend. “Seriously? Dude, his eyes were flashing little hearts redder than your hair and he was practically drooling.” And if Beca could spot that from across the tent, Chloe must’ve known he was pretty damn taken with her. Not that it was her business… and not that she actually cared, so. Whatever. The instant Chloe declared her named weapons adorable, her brow furrowed and she gave a grumpy huff, crossing her arms over her chest to perfect her standard stormy expression. “Hey, hey, hey. Listen up and listen good, Nurse Chloe. Nothing about me is adorable. Clearly you’re going a little off the deep end from staying in one place for so damn long.” Three and a half years, holy shit. Beca had rarely stayed in one spot for more than three and a half days (except a few weeks during rough winters when they were up north, but that was out of necessity). Aubrey had been with Chloe long before that. She was starting to understand why Chloe was so defensive of her, but in Beca’s mind, that didn’t excuse her shitty behavior. “Smart move, you know. Avoiding the military zone.” Obviously she knew it on some level, since they didn’t go there.

She should’ve predicted the volley of the question back in her court, and she kept her eyes ahead. “I left Maine three years ago, found Jesse in upstate New York about two years ago. Tried to shake him off for a while, but he… grew on me, I guess. Kinda like a fungus.” She winced as soon as those last few words tumbled out of her mouth. “Right, not funny. Uh… then we found Amy in an abandoned Cold Stone Creamery in North Carolina… apparently gummy bears never expire.” It was almost the whole truth, she just left out her sister. Which… felt shittier than she thought it would, but she couldn’t… she couldn’t talk about it. Not yet.

*

Chloe gave a scoff of incredulous laughter and a shake of her head, although she felt her face warm with mild embarrassment beneath the speculation. "That still doesn't mean he's my boyfriend," she pointed out with breezy confidence. It wasn't that she was oblivious, but she had kept Tom at a friendly but polite distance at times when there were other things to focus on (namely the girls, because they were her top priority, always). Her teasing observation provoked pretty much the exact reaction she'd been anticipating from Beca, and she laughed once again when Beca even crossed her arms to add to the whole surly effect. If she thought that was helping her case, she was sorely mistaken. (Okay, Chloe probably would find it intimidating, knowing what she did of Beca's skills, if not for the fact that Beca had actually been joking with her in return during their walk.) "Or maybe you've been out on your own for so long with only Jesse and Amy for company that you haven't had an outside observer to your adorableness." It wasn't the strongest counterpoint, but whatever. Especially since Jesse seemed perfectly cognizant about that aspect of Beca, as she'd observed already.

Her lips twisted with a faint, understanding frown when Beca backed up the avoidance of military zones. "Yeah, we...uh--we didn't like some of the stuff we were hearing about the military zones. It didn't seem worth risking it." She almost mentioned Aubrey's father--how all of the girls had been mired in tense disagreement for days over the possibility of the military zone, because some thought they'd do well if they could contact Aubrey's father, while others were more hesitant--but she quickly decided that it wasn't her place to mention right here and now. Aubrey probably didn't want these new people knowing anything more about her than what she chose to reveal, and Chloe wanted to be respectful of that.

Chloe's attention was fixed on Beca as she shared more of her story, and the only sounds aside from Beca's voice were the rustle of grass beneath their feet and the nighttime buzzing of insects. It made the moment feel quieter and more contained, reinforcing the awareness that they seemingly had a private bubble around them as they walked through the largely deserted paths of the settlement. "Jesse seems nice. I can see where he's the kind of guy who sticks with you." He definitely had that puppy dog quality, she'd witnessed that much already. Her chuckle was quiet when Beca revealed where they'd first encountered Amy. Somehow, that detail was just so perfectly Amy, at least from what she'd seen so far. "Living on gummy bears, true survival instincts right there. Can't believe you guys haven't been hauling around a sweet stash of gummy bears ever since," she mused jokingly with a sidelong grin. Their slow stroll had carried them partway along the perimeter of the wall and through an area where more homes rose up from the darkness, but the windows were dark and nobody seemed to stir within as they walked past.

*

“Fine, but he probably wants to be,” Beca muttered, wondering why she was pushing that point. Maybe she wanted to make sure she was okay, if he was her… not boyfriend, or even just flirted with her a lot. She wanted to know if he was respectful and stuff? Not that Chloe couldn't handle herself, but she kinda seemed a little naive. She was glad to drop the subject though, reaching out to give Chloe's arm a shove when she used the a-word again directed at her. “You're asking for it, Nurse Chloe,” Beca grumbled, managing to bite back about eighty percent of her grin. Dammit. She nodded along in agreement about the military zones, because she'd never heard anything positive about them, and her dad warned her to avoid them at all costs.

When Chloe brought up Jesse, Beca swallowed the lump that formed hard and fast in her throat. “Yeah. He's a good guy. Too good, y'know? He should've ditched me a long time ago.” She let that admission hang in the air, glancing up at the stars. Chloe's chuckle brought her back. “Oh, Amy lugged around a ten pound bag for a month. It was ridiculous. She accidentally left it at a campsite… we had to go back for it, and of course by the time we returned to the spot there were clickers surrounding the area. But did I get her fucking gummy bears so I wouldn't have to hear her whining about them for the next few weeks? Yep.” Beca sighed at the memory, shaking her head in mostly feigned exasperation.

*

"Thanks for the insight, Detective Beca," she teased, casting a grin at Beca beside her. She had nothing against Tom at all--in fact, he was very nice and helpful when they worked together around the settlement, and it was nice to have other people close to her age around--but mostly she was amused by Beca's insistence about the whole matter. Even as she dramatically swayed a little with the shove from Beca, her laugh was completely unrepentant. "Oh, so I've got a real title now? Aren't people supposed to listen to their medical professionals?" Calling herself a professional was stretching the absolute limits of credulity on that, but it worked just fine for the purposes of teasing Beca about the dreaded 'adorable' label. She was almost grateful when Beca seemed to agree with their previous decision on military zones but didn't mention the topic further, because she firmly told herself there was nothing to be gained from getting lost in speculation about the past.

The full impact of Beca's words hit her, and her head swiveled to watch Beca's face as she lifted a tentative hand to Beca's shoulder--normally she would never hesitate about gestures like that, but she also wasn't sure what Beca was comfortable with. "Hey, don't say that. Jesse obviously cares about having you around. And you're good too." When Beca seemed to return to herself from whatever distant place of contemplation her mind had ventured, Chloe moved comfortably with the change of topic. In fact, she chuckled under her breath as Beca recounted their early antics with Amy. "Oh my god, did you really? Her knight in shining...leather jacket." The reference to her jacket finally made Chloe aware that Beca must have left it back at the house, and a faint wrinkle of concern furrowed her brow. "Are you cold?"

*

“That's Special Agent Mitchell, actually,” she shot back with a heatless glare. “Never promised to be a good patient. And I don't remember signing up for you to stitch me up in the first place, so that agreement wouldn't hold true anyway.” Obviously she didn't have much of a choice, since she would've bled out if Chloe hadn't acted.

Beca didn't shrug Chloe off when she touched her shoulder, but she leveled her with a lingering look, her eyes swirling with confusion and pain and deep sadness. “You don't know that, Chloe. Just because I helped Emily doesn't make me a good person.” What even counted as a good person anymore, anyway? People with ordinarily good morals were put in positions where they had to steal and even kill to survive, and not just clickers. Shoving her hands back into her pockets, she managed another tight grin at Chloe's reaction to the gummy bear fiasco. “If you had to listen to Amy's bitching for more than an hour, you'd happily walk into a den full of clickers, too.” Beca shook her head. “I'm fine.” The cool air felt refreshing, and she'd grown used to dealing with the elements over the years.

*

“Oh my bad, I didn't realize I was talking to such a big deal," she conceded, doing a very poor job of concealing her smile (not that she tried particularly hard). When Beca once again pointed out that she'd never asked for Chloe's medical help, she rolled her eyes but the gesture completely lacked the earlier exasperation she'd felt when Beca had first arrived. "Oh, don't mention it, Beca, you're totes welcome." Her voice was purposely light and nonchalant as she shot a smirk at Beca.

Chloe's breath froze in her chest at the myriad emotions that glimmered in Beca's eyes when she turned to face her, brow knitting with concern for the things Beca must have seen and experienced to have such depths of hurt and sadness. "Well--I know I don't know you well, but I'd bet you're better than you think. A lot of people wouldn't have saved Emily or protected Jesse and Amy the way you have." Goodness had become a pretty skewed sliding scale these days, but she knew that regardless of whatever might haunt Beca from her past, her actions still spoke better of her than she seemed to think of herself. "It sounds like she's gonna be running this place before too long," she ventured with a huff of laughter. Chloe's lips pursed like she wanted to pursue the point further, but she nodded after a moment. "Okay. Let me know if you get cold though."

*

“Didn’t say I was a big deal. Correcting you on my title is all,” Beca muttered, silently marveling at how weirdly easy it was, talking to someone like Chloe. She normally clammed up more than normal with strangers, let Jesse and Amy do the talking (which was basically the norm anyway). Her accent was funny, too. Well, not as much her accent as her… word choice. “Totes…” Beca replied, quirking a brow at the ridiculous abbreviation.

She didn’t argue Chloe’s point. Not that it was or wasn’t true, but it spoke more about Chloe’s desire to see the good in people than it said about her. Chloe barely knew her, after all. And suddenly, not that she’d admit this to Chloe, she kind of understood Aubrey’s point that Chloe was too trusting. Not that Aubrey wasn’t a bitch or way too fucking dramatic for her liking, but the point stood. It was easier to let that part of their conversation lapse than ask more questions or poke holes into Chloe’s goodness theory, because she totally could if given the chance. “Yeah, probably. Don’t be surprised if she climbs up on the tables at dinner and you start having regular singing and dancing performances.” Beca huffed a short, dry laugh. “What are you gonna do if I get cold? Take your jacket off and give it to me? Then you’ll be cold.”

*

"Well I appreciate it. I wouldn't want to misidentify a special agent," she pointed out as if it was a matter of any real concern. It's not like the world had much need for either detectives or special agents anymore. It was more than a little amusing to test the waters and see where Beca was willing to loosen her guard enough to joke with Chloe in return, and she found that she really enjoyed it as Beca seemed more receptive to it. "Yeah, totes. What, you don't like the full sorority girl experience?" Sure, she hadn't picked up that particular slang through any sorority association, but it seemed to fit well enough for the currently running joke.

It didn't escape her notice when Beca didn't offer any kind of rebuttal or further remark on the subject, but she wasn't so naive as to think she'd convinced Beca with just a few words. She'd found that most people didn't like talking about their past or the things they'd all been forced to do in order to survive, and she knew that Beca's hurt and scars must go a lot deeper than Chloe could even hope to venture from what she knew of her. She couldn't pretend to know what Beca had gone through out there, but she felt a pang of sympathy deep in her chest at the emotion she'd seen in her eyes. She did a double take when Beca's prediction about Amy settled in, a smile already curving her lips. "Wait, is that a real thing? Because I love singing, I'd back her on that." Well, she had, once upon a time when that was the sort of thing that people still did. Her shoulders lifted and fell with a casual shrug. "Well...yeah, that was the plan. I've been wearing it, so I'd be fine."

*

Beca scrunched up her face. “So you're telling me I should get used to hearing things like oh-em-gee and giggles and shit for the next few days. Got it.” She let out a groan at Chloe’s excitement about Amy’s entertainer tendencies. “Of course you do. Of course you would. Don’t encourage her. Not that she needs it, but… shit. Between Amy and Jesse and you there’ll be a full goddamn musical performance here by the end of the week. ” With a dramatic sigh, Beca kicked a small rock with the tip of her boot. “I’m good, but how chivalrous of you.” She cast a side-glance and the smallest smirk over at Chloe.

*

"Wow, way to stereotype, Beca. That hurts," she gasped, pressing a hand over her heart as if she hadn't been doing the exact same thing herself with the joke in the first place. Just as she expected, Beca's lack of enthusiasm about Amy's performing was almost palpable. "What's wrong with that? Music is awesome. I've gotta admit, encouraging Amy seems like a slippery slope though." Her eyes widened with remembrance when Beca jogged her memory. "Ooh, that's right, Jesse did say he loves singing. You got a problem with that? A performance could be good for morale!" It was entirely hypothetical for the purposes of teasing Beca, since they would never take risks with something that unnecessarily loud that might attract clickers or other attention, but she laughed nonetheless. Beca's smirk, no matter how faint, prompted a full grin and another shrug from Chloe. "I guess it's not dead, after all."

*

“I’m pretty positive I heard Emily drop a couple oh-em-gees already, so. Evidence. Nothing’s wrong with singing, like… in general, but you try listening to those two singing for hours on end and never shutting up. That’s the main reason why I picked up the bike last year. I almost strangled them in the car on several occasions, so.” That sadness mixed with a sudden dose of longing in Beca’s eyes, which she kept trained ahead of her while the subject stayed on music. She missed music more than she cared to admit, but she couldn’t sing anymore. Couldn’t and wouldn’t. Daring another look over at Chloe, she continued marveling at how damn sweet and smiley she was, in the face of everything. Her question blurted before she could think to reword it. “Has anyone ever told you you're kind of a weirdo?”

*

“Em always does that, we're doomed already if you start counting her oh-em-gees against us." Her smile softened with fond affection at the mention of Emily, because moments like that reminded her that in spite of everything else, Emily was still a goofy, slightly clumsy, endearing kid. While Chloe thought the mental image of Jesse and Amy tearing their way through an epic singing session in the car was pretty hilarious, she could see where Beca might butt heads with them over it. "I bet they put on a hell of a show. But let me guess, having a cool motorcycle doesn't suck either, right?" She sensed a slight shift in Beca's demeanor for a beat of silence, but she didn't mention it. Sometimes people had their own issues with things like singing that had once been so normal but now seemed so odd and out of place most of the time. Everyone coped with things differently. Beca's sudden, slightly graceless question earned a brow raise of surprise, but it quickly smoothed away into a look that was close to amusement. "Well, not as nicely as that," she shot back, but her voice was tinged with laughter. "So you think I'm a weirdo, huh?"

*

Beca shrugged. “I mean, she’s an impressionable kid, so she had to learn it from somewhere. And she’s been living with you guys, so…” It was a pretty logical connect-the-dots in Beca’s mind, and she was sticking with that. “It’s not that they’re not good singers, because they are actually pretty good. The annoying part’s how they haven’t heard a new song in several years so they just repeat the old ones over and over and over… and look, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the classics, but if I hear them duet Bohemian Rhapsody one more time…” She reached up to rub at her temples at the sudden memory because they were so ridiculous. “Yeah, I do.” She didn’t have to explain herself, did she? Beca couldn’t bite back the fuller smirk shifting her lips. “You think my bike’s cool, huh?” This whole thing kind of blew Beca’s mind because she was never the cool one, she was always the weird one. Not that Chloe thinking her motorcycle was cool transferred to Chloe thinking Beca was cool, but whatever, okay?

*

“I don't think I like what you're implying, Beca." The scandalized huff didn't carry any real conviction behind it. Yeah, Emily was around a whole gaggle of high energy girls pretty much all the time, so it was probably unavoidable. She couldn't help herself, as soon as Beca mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody, she hummed a little snippet of the familiar melody under her breath. "In their defense, that's a really catchy song...although not after a dozen times, I get it. I guess not having any new music kinda cramps their style." When Beca even rubbed her temples to illustrate her exasperation, she rolled her eyes and bit back a smile. One eyebrow quirked upward with amusement when Beca confirmed her assessment but didn't elaborate further. "Fair enough." She rolled her eyes once again when Beca seemed pleased with herself at being deemed cool. "Oh come on, you know it's cool. You've got the whole motorcycle, leather jacket, aviator sunglasses cool vibe going," she scoffed, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. That stuff was pretty much objectively cool!

*

“I’ve been trying to tell you I’m not a nice person,” Beca offered in response, rolling her eyes once Chloe started humming the Queen hit. “Yeah, exactly. Try a dozen times in a row. Sometimes I think they just hate me. Cruel and unusual punishment is still a thing without an active constitution, or at least it should be.” Chloe didn’t seem to take any offense to being called a weirdo… which only served to make her more of a weirdo, in Beca’s eyes. A low, rumbly chuckle--the closest Beca had gotten to a laugh in months, honestly--echoed with strain into the night as Chloe detailed her ‘cool vibe’, and a surge of guilt bubbled up behind it in her throat. It felt like a reminder that she wasn’t supposed to laugh or feel joy anymore. “That shit--it’s all practical stuff, y’know,” she said, trying to wave it off as color tinged her pale cheeks.

*

“Yep, good point, that's definitely what's gonna push me over the edge with my opinion of you," she offered sagely, nodding her head in a way that convey feigned solemnity. "Okay, a dozen times might be a bit much even for me. Not sure you're gonna have much luck with the cruel and unusual punishment argument though. Prosecuting people for Queen-related auditory assaults was probably one of the first things to go." The first quiet notes of a chuckle from Beca surprised Chloe, but pleasantly so, and her smile brightened accordingly, completely abandoning any pretense of being exasperated with Beca for not recognizing the inherent coolness of the facade she put forth. "Suuure, I'll bet that's what every biker tells themselves," she prodded, her voice drawn out and lilting in her teasing. A thought occurred to her, and the question it sparked was propelled from her lips on a wave of curiosity before she could second guess it. "What about the tattoos? Are those practical?"

*

Beca couldn’t seem to wipe the smirk from her lips, especially when Chloe mentioned her ink. “Yeah, but not the ones you’ve seen,” Beca shot back without thinking, a deeper flush creeping over the back of her neck and spreading over her chest upon realizing the implication there. God, was she fucking flirting? She didn’t know how to flirt. Didn’t she? (She didn’t. Right. Definitely not.) She only hoped Chloe wasn’t letting her imagination run wild at the suggestion, and she waited until they took a few more paces to stop walking, looking at Chloe full on before she said something else ridiculous. Not that Chloe seemed to mind, but still, she was bound to blow it soon anyway, somehow. “Sorry, I don’t--” She wrinkled her nose and bit her lip for a moment as she tried to find words to explain herself. “I don’t do this. I don’t--talk much. To new people, I mean. Much or at all, even, so I’m not very…” She trailed off with a whispered swear. “I don’t understand, okay? I don’t get why it feels easy with you.”

*

Her eyebrows shot upwards in a show of genuine surprise at the retort that rolled so easily from Beca's tongue, because it was the last thing she expected from her. Okay, so she didn't want to be presumptuous and label it flirting (there was Jesse, after all, couldn't forget that little fact), but the remark sure as hell came across as suggestive. "Wow, a woman of mystery, I see how it is." She was aware of Beca suddenly dropping out of pace from beside her, so she halted and turned on her heel to face Beca more directly. Her expression quickly shifted from mild confusion to a softer empathy when Beca fumbled with her words a few times and seemed to be looking for the right thing to say. "Well, you seem to be doing pretty okay, if you ask me," she said, aiming for reassuring. She forced herself to rein in a rather pleased smile that wanted to surface when Beca said talking to her was easy, but she firmly reminded herself that it wasn't the time. Not when Beca was clearly flustered by this.

"It's okay," she assured her, lips pressing into a whisper of a smile. "I get that like--a place like this isn't your usual deal and you're not usually around a whole bunch of people or whatever. But...I mean, I'm always around if you do wanna talk. There's no judgment here, Beca, I've liked talking to you so far." It went beyond the novelty of having new faces around, because she'd genuinely enjoyed their talk during the stroll around the settlement.

*

The funny thing was that even though her super suggestive reply made Beca all flustered, there was genuine truth underneath it. She had a very practical tattoo, but she couldn’t explain it to Chloe or anyone without facing massive consequences. She wasn’t surprised when Chloe’s reply radiated warmth and compassion--it seemed to be her thing, after all (the opposite of Beca, go figure). It didn’t mean Beca didn’t feel like a jerk anyway. “I didn’t mean… I don’t wanna stop talking to you, I just… it’s weird. For me. It’s different, but it’s not… it’s not bad.” Suddenly, she desperately wanted a break from being the focus of conversation, even if she’d brought it on herself with her awkwardness and trying to explain herself (which made it even more awkward, why was she like this?). “Can you, uh… tell me more about… you?” The urge to learn more about someone had never been so persistent, though that curiosity paired with dread, knowing how things were and how dumb it was to try to make friends. She’d been shitty at that before the zombie apocalypse.

*

Chloe had honestly been surprised that Beca had been so receptive to the easy flow of conversation between them during their walk, so she felt a twinge of understanding now when the reality of it all seemed to have caught up with Beca. Trying to put herself into some sort of mindset of how Beca must feel, she could imagine that it probably was weird for Beca to go through such an exhausting, harrowing sequence of events over the past few days and then find herself on a leisurely stroll talking to a near stranger. Even if Chloe tried to be welcoming and give people what they needed from her, she could understand how this whole atmosphere might have Beca feeling a little topsy turvy. "Cool, because I'd like to keep talking to you too. So...we can go at your speed, whatever you're comfortable with." She did finally allow a smile to peek through then, aimed at emphasizing her point and hopefully bolstering Beca's comfort level. When Beca seemed intent on changing the subject, she took it in stride. "Of course, what do you wanna know? I'm a pretty open book." That was generally a fairly accurate rule of thumb anyway, but there was added motivation behind it if it would help put Beca at ease once again.

*

It had been kind of a whirlwind 24 hours for Beca, hadn’t it? The trek to find food ending in chaos, winding up in a sorority house in a settlement, waking up with stitches in her side, sleeping for more than twelve consecutive hours (which hadn’t happened maybe ever), and now this conversation with Chloe, which was strange as fuck because it was somehow simultaneously incredibly comfortable and incredibly uncomfortable all at once.

The corners of her mouth twitched into the hint of another grin when Chloe mentioned she was an open book. “Why does that somehow not surprise me? I dunno, whatever you want to tell me, I guess.” She wanted to ask about Chloe’s background, but she knew how dangerous it was to mention before to anyone. That’d be super fucking hypocritical of her, too, since family was the last thing Beca wanted to talk about. But she also wanted to know so much more. “Maybe like… things you like besides stitching people up and singing and smiling all the time? Things you don’t like? Um… what made you want to be a medic?”

*

It felt strange to think that it had only been a little over a day ago that Beca had swept into the settlement like a whirlwind under Emily's direction, with Jesse and Amy not too far behind. Maybe that was because their arrival had effectively broken the monotony of what daily life looked like in the settlement (stitching up a surly, disagreeable stranger would do that, as it turned out), or maybe it was because all three of them were such distinctive personalities in their own right. Whereas Jesse and Amy had been much more proactive about wanting to familiarize themselves with everyone else in the community, Chloe was grateful for this opportunity to get to know Beca a little better in a quieter environment.

For that reason, she gamely rolled her eyes at Beca but soldiered on to satisfy Beca's curiosity. "Well...I mostly spend my time with the girls. They're like my family now, so...they're the most important thing to me." The statement was paired with a shrug and a smile that was only a little sad around the edges. "I like big dinners with the people here. It makes everything feel more connected, y'know? And I like the stuff they bring back from supply runs sometimes, like...the stuff that doesn't have much practical use, but it's still fun? Books, old mementos and things...I dunno, that's the kind of stuff that makes the days more interesting than just the same chores and routines. I like nature, but--I'm not so sure nature likes us back anymore." Well, the problem wasn't so much with nature itself, but with the dangers that could now lurk anywhere outside of these walls. Her smile turned a little wistful for a moment before her gaze flickered over to Beca again. "I actually wanted to be a vet. Y'know, before all of this. So it kinda just made sense to pick up as much as I could along the way, and Stacie's smart as hell--like, scary smart--so we learned a lot by trial and error together. If it's what I can do to help, then I want to do it."

*

It didn’t surprise Beca to hear Chloe’s not-sorority-sisters hit the list first, but it tugged at Beca’s heartstrings to hear that when she remembered how pissed off Aubrey had been when she stormed off the porch. She listened to Chloe’s words, trying to commit everything to memory as she rattled off things she enjoyed, but the bitchy blonde sat in the front of her mind. “Hey, how badly did I screw things up for you with Aubrey?” She wasn’t supposed to care this much, but here she was, feeling bad for fucking up, or at least making things harder on Chloe. “A vet, huh?” She cast another long side-glance at Chloe, dramatically sizing her up and down before nodding. “Yeah, that makes sense.” Stacie. It took her a minute to place her, but she fuzzily remembered the taller brunette helping her into the house. “Well, I’m glad I could, uh… donate my body to science or whatever. I’m really rackin’ up these wicked fucking scars. Soon I’ll look like Frankenstein, I guess.”

*

After her mini ramble, Chloe was surprised when what Beca took away from all of it was Aubrey. In fact, the last thing she expected was for Beca to single out the tense confrontation that had passed between them earlier. She cleared her throat as she gazed out into the darkness, scuffing the toe of her boot against the grass beneath her feet. "Don't worry about it, that's not--none of that was your fault. Aubrey and I will work things out." They always did, it was just a matter of giving Aubrey time until she felt comfortable doing exactly that. Aubrey had been angry about Chloe's decision to treat Beca's gunshot wound and invite the three of them to stay in the community, so Chloe would be the one to deal with it.

A grin reappeared when Beca looked her over before making that statement. "What, is there a specific vet look now?" She narrowed her eyes jokingly at Beca to match her question. There was a renewed surge of curiosity when Beca mentioned the collection of scars she had, but she quashed those questions. People rarely took it well when they were asked about things like that. "Frankenstein's monster. Frankenstein was the scientist." Her nose scrunched with an apologetic wince when her thoughts caught up to her instinctively blurted words. "Sorry, I--that's so obnoxious. As if that even really matters." A self-deprecating huff of laughter and a roll of her eyes followed her words.

*

Even though Chloe insisted it wasn't her fault, it didn't mean she didn't indirectly cause the problem. If she hadn't shown up, there wouldn't be one. “Okay. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.” She shrugged and bit back another grin. “Yeah, there's definitely a vet look, and you've got it. Pretty sure it's mostly in those big doe eyes you've got.” Was that weird? It felt weird coming out of her mouth, and she refocused on the path in front of her while Chloe corrected her literary faux pas. Her brow shot sky high as she watched Chloe fumble to apologize. It was kind of adorable. Not that she'd admit that or use that word aloud ever, damn. Talk about a nail in the badass coffin. “Soooo you’re a nerd, too. Noted.” Beca paused for a moment before asking, “So what's his name, then? Frankenstein's monster. Don't tell me it's something lame.”

*

Gratitude slipped in at the edges of her smile when Beca didn't press the issue. "Yeah, of course. Thanks." She appreciated the offer, even though she knew she likely wouldn't take Beca up on it. Aubrey was kind of a tricky person to handle sometimes, and she hadn't exactly taken a liking to Beca or her friends. Her smile felt uncharacteristically shy, although she told herself it was probably because she wouldn't have imagined a phrase like 'big doe eyes' coming out of Beca's mouth. "I don't think doe eyes would get anyone very far with that." Being dubbed a nerd was probably the least she deserved for her impulsive correction. "I'm not a nerd, shut up." That didn't mean she wouldn't protest the (probably accurate) claim, apparently.

One corner of her mouth quirked with amusement when Beca actually continued that train of thought. "Um...he doesn't really officially have a name in the book. Mostly they call him 'the creature,' stuff like that. Some people call him Adam for like, convenience sake I guess, because Frankenstein compares him to Adam from the Bible, I think. But he doesn't have a real name. It's kinda sad, if you think about it." Her shoulders hunched as she shoved her free hand into the front pocket of her jeans, the beam of the flashlight sweeping in a lazy arc in front of them. She felt her cheeks heat with a sheepish flush in the aftermath of her little deviation. How dumb was it to feel that way about old high school literature, considering everything else going on around them? Super dumb.

*

Beca shot Chloe a look that said you’re definitely a fucking nerd, deal with it, but didn’t press it verbally. Especially when Chloe went on her nerdy explanation about the character. Beca kept her hands in her pockets and listened intently, responding in a lower voice after Chloe finished. “Yeah, but it kinda make sense. Naming something automatically makes you feel closer to it. Attached. Not knowing someone’s name makes it easier to keep ‘em at a safer distance. Sometimes it's better, especially if you know you're gonna have to cut ties or whatever. My dad would never let me name the baby chicks knowing we’d be eating ‘em someday, which I didn’t get ‘til I was older, but yeah. Sad but real, I guess.” That’s why her guns had names but her blades didn’t; she had to leave those behind, oftentimes sunken into the body of some dude or clicker, and she picked up new blades where she could. “Not that I know shit about classic literature. Obviously.” She quirked a brow over at Chloe again, hoping she wouldn’t think she was a dumbass for not knowing that about Frankenstein.

*

She narrowed her eyes in retaliation to Beca's look, but there wasn't much in the way of a convincing counterargument that she could offer. Hell, her glare wasn't even convincing, so she didn't have much of an argument to stand on. Her lips thinned into a straight line as Beca mused about the nature of not getting too connected to things or people. It made an undeniable amount of sense, especially in the world they lived in now. Still, that had always been one of the things that Chloe struggled with most after the outbreak. "Yeah, but he made him. It's not like--keeping a careful distance from something new. He shouldn't get to just create something and then not take responsibility for it. It's not really the creature's fault for trying to find a place and then getting mad when the world rejects him, is it?" She couldn't pinpoint why that thought bothered her so much, especially when it had no actual bearing on the reality of her life.

This new world was good at prompting moral quandaries, it seemed. She forced a scoff of laughter and gave a vague shake of her head, trying to dispel those thoughts and play the whole thing off with some measure of nonchalance. "Sorry, that's dumb. Like, it's not like it even matters, right?" Beca probably did think she was a complete and total weirdo now, having feelings about old literature that didn't affect their lives at all. She could totally blame the lack of sleep, right? Seemed reasonable.

*

“It’s not dumb,” Beca insisted, a bit more force behind her words than she’d intended. “It matters if it’s important to you.” Beca cared about lots of shit that would seem ridiculous to anyone else. Or--at least, she used to. “For what it’s worth, I think that’s really shitty of him, too.” Not that her opinion meant much, particularly on a topic she knew next to nothing about. She glanced up to see them nearing the sorority house, her bike still parked in front with Jesse’s Corolla behind it. “Hey, thanks for--showing me around and stuff.” Their walk felt shorter than it should’ve been, even though she was sure she talked more than she had collectively the whole prior week.

*

The corners of her lips twitched with a ghost of a smile at the fierce insistence behind Beca's words. "Thanks, Beca." Her voice was soft but sincere, and she had that renewed feeling of existing in a bubble of just the two of them for the moment as the quiet community slumbered all around them. She blinked in mild surprise when Beca's statement pulled her attention to the fact that they'd arrived back at the house. Apparently her feet had carried her on autopilot while they'd been caught up in their conversation, because the time itself had seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. "Of course, no problem. And hey, if you have any more questions about--anything around here, you can always ask," she offered with a smile. As they drew closer to the front porch, she glanced over at Beca. "Do you guys have everything you need so far?"

*

Beca huffed out the hint of a chuckle at Chloe’s question, taking the few steps up the porch. “Are you serious? We have more than we normally have, thanks to you.” She reached for the door handle and paused, daring another glance back at her tour guide. It was still super fucking weird, how she felt so different interacting with her over everyone else. But that would probably fade in time, she reasoned. Maybe it was just leftover appreciation for the surgical save. That must be it. “Guess I’ll try to get some more sleep. You probably should too, vampire.” She flashed a tight-lipped grin. “Goodnight, Chloe.” With that, she quietly twisted the doorknob and pushed inside the house, quietly limping her way back to the couch. She checked on both Amy and Jesse, both still breathing evenly, and noting she’d never seen them sleeping so peacefully.

It was then that she made her decision--once she healed up, she’d leave them behind. They’d be pissed at her, sure, but they’d also be safer and happier, and that meant more.

*

Chloe lingered a half step behind Beca as they ascended the few porch stairs, silently making sure that she made it up them without any trouble from her injury. "Well...okay, fair point. But I still wanted to check." She clicked her flashlight off and pocketed it again once they were on the porch, but she still caught Beca's look when she paused at the door and turned back to regard Chloe. "Sounds like a good plan. You've gotta heal up, Special Agent Mitchell." Her smile widened. "Goodnight, Beca."

She slipped into the house behind Beca, checking the lock behind them before softly treading towards the hallway. She could hear the soft snores that emanated from the living room, and a hint of a smile pulled at her lips. It was second nature by then to avoid the floorboards that creaked as she slipped down the hallway into her room, once again shedding her jacket and boots once she crossed the threshold. She really couldn't have guessed that this situation would've unfurled the way it had so far, but whether expected or not, the recollection still had a smile tugging at her lips as she slipped into bed for the night.

*

Chapter Text

For the next week, Beca, Amy, and Jesse learned all they could about the settlement and how they could pitch in. Jesse and Amy pulled their weight and then some, with Jesse helping out most in the communal kitchen and Amy acting as a jack-of-all-trades, helping out with smaller projects about the settlement and making friends with everyone as she did so. While Beca was forced to continue healing up inside the house, she took on nightly watch duty upon her insistence (she wanted to feel useful somehow if they weren’t gonna let her hunt for them). Stacie removed Beca’s stitches after a week, though she needed to keep it dry and covered as much as possible.

After her first talk with Chloe, Beca retreated back into herself--especially when other people were around. With each passing day, it became clear that her plan to leave was the right one. Necessary. So getting more attached to anyone here, it didn’t make sense, and she tried desperately to avoid it. Much as she tried to keep people away entirely, she couldn’t shove Emily off when she sat by her in the sorority house to eat her breakfast or Cynthia Rose, whom Beca had grown to like, when she joined her to sit during watch duty. Her rare moments with just Chloe filled her with that same strange knotty feeling in the pit of her stomach, an impossible dissonant desire to pull her closer and push her away. She avoided the communal areas when possible, taking her meals back with her to eat at the house alone or with Jesse when he followed her, but he usually only made her feel guilty for not being social enough, for not giving the settlement and the people there a real chance. He didn’t get it. He wanted her to change, but she couldn’t. She’d never be enough for him.

On the ninth day, she slept later than usual, waking to an empty house. Her stomach growled with a reminder she’d missed breakfast, too, and she reluctantly pulled her jacket and boots on and made her way to the communal tent. What she found there didn’t surprise her--Amy standing atop a picnic table with Emily on one side and Jesse on the other, singing with shockingly impressive harmony as people played instruments to accompany their voices. (One dude had a beat-up guitar, another drummed on different sized buckets with branches shaped into drumsticks, another blew into a harmonica.) The strung up lights flickered low overhead, and when Beca lingered in the archway, watching the trio sing and the dozens of people drinking and dancing merrily--a rare and welcome break from the long hours of working to keep their settlement safe and functional, Beca knew--someone approached and offered her a bottle of pilfered beer. She examined the bottle and noted its high alcohol content--the higher the number, the less likely it was expired, and she popped the top off and took a sip, pulling a face. Warm beer. Well, better than nothing, she supposed.

*

After the first day or two, life settled back into much the same routine it had before. The community adjusted to integrate the three newcomers to their ranks, just as they had done for other travelers and survivors who had stumbled across their settlement in the past. They all proved to be assets in their own regard, and Chloe had witnessed several times how well people were taking to Jesse and Amy in their new respective roles when she'd been out and about around the community during the day. She knew that Beca was much more hesitant about opening up to new people, which was understandable, but Chloe was mostly just relieved that she seemed to be healing well (despite her stubbornness about joining the night watch rotation).

Chloe tried to be respectful and let all of them adjust and acclimate at their own pace. Jesse and Amy seemed eager to ingratiate themselves to the rest of the survivors, often claiming seats around the communal tent when big meals were held and regaling people with stories or lively conversation. The girls had all taken a liking to them, and it wasn't unusual to see Jessica and Ashley tugging Jesse along to help them with something or Stacie quizzing Amy with a myriad of questions like she was a puzzle to be riddled out. Chloe noted with amusement that Emily still seemed to view Beca with something akin to hero reverence, and she would often see the younger girl bounding in the door to find Beca or hanging on her every word when Beca did deign to speak. She was grateful to the girls for doing their part in making the new additions feel welcomed, but she was more heartened to see that they seemed to genuinely like them, rather than doing it out of some sense of obligation. Aubrey was still slow to come around--indeed, she rarely had anything to do with the newcomers except in occasional group settings--but she'd at least returned to a polite civility around the house and the community at large. Chloe knew better than to assume that meant all was forgotten or forgiven, but she would cross that bridge when she came to it. Her own time with Beca, at least in a one on one setting, had been more limited since that first nighttime walk. Chloe's responsibilities kept her busy during the day while Beca was resting, and Beca was gone during the night on watch, not to mention the fact that Beca seemed to avoid any occasion where the community all gathered together. Still, she'd had a few stolen moments with her, and she always made sure to smile and wave if she ever spotted her around the settlement while she was busy with something else.

Dinner was the typical casual, hearty affair as always, with people catching up after finishing up their tasks for the day or before heading off to their watch posts for the night. Chloe found herself wedged between Stacie and Flo at one of the picnic tables set up beneath the tent, but she didn't mind the occasional jostling of shoulders and elbows as they all ate and laughed. In fact, the closeness was comforting, in a way. The singing started from one of the tables behind her, low at first but quickly gaining in volume and enthusiasm. There was no mistaking that distinctive voice, and she twisted around in her seat with a smile to spot Amy wrapping an arm around Jesse's shoulders. She sang right at Jesse, who was laughing and trying to wave her off as she pulled him in against her with a shake, but it was clear that he was fighting a losing battle with Amy's persistence and his own desire to give in to the music. As soon as Jesse joined in, Emily was quick to follow. She suspected that Emily would've happily jumped in with anyone in the community who started singing, if she was being honest. It wasn't long before the singing was in full swing, with added musical accompaniment as several community members scrambled to retrieve their own instruments and join the slightly chaotic but impressive musical fray. Someone also brought out the alcohol at some point--a rare occurrence, but then again, it wasn't often that they got such a lively serenade. Either way, Chloe wasn't complaining when she found a bottle of beer pressed into her hands.

Chloe laughed at the pointed dig of Stacie's elbow in her side when people started slipping away from their tables to strike up some dancing, and she gave Stacie's shoulder a nudge in return. Flo had already disappeared from her other side, and it was no surprise when the petite girl popped up on the open space beneath the tent that constituted the makeshift dance floor, already looping her arm through someone's to pull them into a silly dance.

When Cynthia Rose stood suddenly from her spot across from Chloe at the picnic table but headed in the opposite direction of the impromptu dancing, Chloe turned in her seat to follow her friend's path through the tent. The sight that greeted her was Cynthia Rose approaching Beca at the entrance of the tent, who already had a beer in hand. Chloe didn't know if Beca had even seen her, but Chloe smiled and lifted one hand in a boisterous wave nonetheless.

Across the tent, Cynthia Rose reached Beca's side with a slow, easy smile. Her own bottle of beer was already halfway gone, contributing somewhat to her amiable demeanor. "Hey there, Mitchell. You decide to join the party?"

*

Beca kinda hoped to be a fly on the wall, but she knew she’d be spotted eventually, and she supposed she was grateful it was someone chill like Cynthia Rose to approach her first. “Does it count as joining if I’m standing here watching all the crazy instead of participating?” She took a few moments to take in the scene in front of her, how happy and lively most of them seemed--especially Jesse and Amy, with Emily looking delighted. She found Chloe and that unmistakable red hair and beaming smile. Beca gave a more hesitant wave back, keeping her eyes on Chloe as she answered back Cynthia Rose. “So this is what you guys consider a party, huh?” Beca managed a wry grin and took a few hearty swigs from that stupidly high proof beer, pulling a face to betray the badass she claimed to be as the sour aftertaste overwhelmed her tastebuds. “Ugh, this shit is disgusting.”

*

Cynthia Rose gave a low chuckle at Beca's question about participation, shaking her head before lifting her bottle for another sip. "Are you kidding? For you, that's practically ecstatic," Cynthia Rose ribbed teasingly. The music washed over them during that short lull, exuberant and lively as the whole tent full of people seemed to be getting in on the festivities to some extent. A smirk tugged at Cynthia Rose's mouth and she lifted her bottle in a small salute at Chloe when she spotted the other women exchange a wave. "Yeah, more or less. It doesn't happen too often, but your pal Amy really doesn't take no for an answer. Seemed easier to break out the beer than try to stop her from singing." She gave a hum of acknowledgment that seeped into another quiet laugh. "Yeah, but at least it does the trick," she pointed out, taking another sip and immediately pulling a face similar to Beca's. "Hey, you hungry? I know everyone else is acting a fool, but there's plenty of food if you wanna grab something."

*

“Yeah, yeah.” She shot a softer glare at Cynthia Rose, shaking her head with an exasperated sigh as she crossed her arms over her chest and tipped the beer back for another mouthful. “Smart move. There’s no changing her mind when she puts it to something like singing, especially when she’s got Jesse on board and a captive audience.” Her chest gave a sharp pang. She’d really miss those singing nerds, but she knew she had to follow through with her plan to leave them behind, and soon. Nodding at her comment about the beer doing the trick, Beca vowed to stick to one; she planned to take it easy on the beer anyway, as drinking would only prove deadly if, god forbid, they were attacked. Not that she had to worry about that as much inside the settlement, but she knew there was always a chance. (Yeah, yeah, what a morbid thought, whatever.) “I’m good for now, thanks. I’ll grab something in a little,” Beca watched with amusement lifting her brow as Emily hopped off the stage to dance and two others jumped up to join the singing duo. Her gaze tracked Jesse for a few seconds, and then found Chloe in the crowd, and back to Jesse on the table… she couldn’t seem to stop watching both of them, and she wasn’t really sure why. “So you gonna get up there and take a turn or what?”

*

Cynthia Rose smothered a chuckle against the lip of her beer bottle. "I know that's the damn truth. It was all over as soon as she really got going and roped Jesse in with her." An amused smile played at the corners of her mouth as she watched the commotion before them, a rare show of riotous enjoyment and catharsis. They didn't normally indulge like this, but sometimes it was vital to find some enjoyment beyond just surviving day to day. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding among all of them that these occasional moments of relaxed restraint made all the difference in keeping up morale and not getting completely worn down by the realities that faced them. Several encouraging whoops arose from the crowd when Emily disappeared into the dancing crowd and two new people joined in with the performing, and Cynthia Rose gave a wry shake of her head at the antics. "Ah, sure, maybe in a bit. I've gotta let the rest of these guys feel good about themselves first before I knock it outta the park." Her grin was toothy and shameless when she cast a sidelong look at Beca. She craned her head to catch sight of her table again through the shifting of bodies around the tent before she turned back to Beca. "You're welcome to come grab a seat with us. Unless you wanna do your whole broody, lurking around the edges of the tent thing." The teasing was lighthearted and well-meaning, because Cynthia Rose had genuinely taken a liking to Beca during their overnight watches together, but she couldn't resist.

*

Her brow shot up when Cynthia Rose shared her strategy, and she tipped her beer bottle at her in salute. “Cool. I’m looking forward to watching you put those two weirdos in their place.” At the offer of sitting, Beca grinned back but shook her head. “Thanks, but I’ll stick around the outskirts for a while. Maybe join you guys a little later.” Beca gave Cynthia Rose an appreciative clap on the back before she returned to her friends, and Beca spent the next half hour in broody, lurking mode, as Cynthia Rose had put it. She worked her way over to the food and ate a bean and rice burrito halfway through her beer, and then she finished the bottle, marveling at how Amy and Jesse kept switching up the musical genres and the rest of the settlement jumped right in singing and dancing along no problem. Country, broadway, hip hop, 90s pop--nothing was off limits, apparently, and folks rotated up on the tables to sing with the pair of them in no particular order, the ‘band’ doing their best to keep up. Jesse and Amy hadn’t noticed her on the outskirts of the crowd yet, and she preferred it that way, her expression twinkling with amusement as they swapped out empty beers for full ones twice. Uh oh.

*

Cynthia Rose, being as laid back and inclined to go with the flow as she was, offered no protest when Beca opted to hang back for a little while longer. Instead, she merely offered a small salute with her beer before weaving her way back towards the picnic table she'd abandoned earlier.

Chloe and Stacie still lingered at their table with Jessica, laughing and cheering Jesse and Amy on, along with whoever decided to jump into the ring with their musical escapades. Chloe fired an inquisitive look at Cynthia Rose when she returned to the table by herself, but a pointed look and a nod from Cynthia Rose cause Chloe to turn and look over her shoulder. She managed to catch a glimpse of Beca lingering at the edges of the tent before the shifting crowd blocked her from view again, but she turned back to Cynthia Rose with an understanding look. This impromptu celebration was a lot to take in, so if Beca needed to ease her way into it, then that was totally cool too.

Chloe nursed her beer for a while, content to laugh along and enjoy the ever-changing musical antics of Jesse and Amy and anyone else they enlisted to help them. It was only when Stacie insistently tugged at her arm that she set her empty bottle aside and bounced over to the tables that had been taken over for the energetic performances. Stacie clambered up onto a table first, all long limbs and effortless grace, before turning to grab Chloe's hand and tug her up after her. Without missing a beat, they jumped into one of the 90s pop numbers that Jesse and Amy were currently belting out, dancing around on the tables and living it up for the moment. After such long stretches of restraint and stress that came from daily life, it felt amazing to let loose and just sing as raucously as they wanted to. She'd definitely have to thank Amy later for kick starting this whole shindig.

When the two lead entertainers eventually shifted towards a classic hip hop song, Chloe beckoned Cynthia Rose over to take her place. Right before she hopped down off of the table, she caught sight of a familiar petite brunette lingering at the edges of the crowd and a smile brightened her face. Cynthia Rose clapped her on the shoulder before hopping up on the table to show them all up, as she'd promised, and Chloe fired a quick smile at her over her shoulder.

Ducking her head a bit, she started to weave through the crowd towards the place she'd last spotted Beca. She got held up a few times when people caught her to make a remark or two about her silly performance, but she finally broke free of the crowd. A quick swivel of her head brought Beca into view, and a smile tugged at her lips as she approached her. "Hey there, stranger."

*

Beca wasn’t surprised Chloe could sing, but she couldn’t help but roll her eyes at her choice of song. Still, she looked to be having a blast up there, carefree and genuinely happy along with Stacie and Amy and Jesse, and she hoped she’d remember them just that way--singing together, supporting each other, with smiles so big and bright that Beca was sure if she ever attempted one that wide she’d pull muscles in her cheeks. When Chloe (still smiling of course) approached after, she couldn’t resist teasing her about the predictable song choice. “Hey, Nurse Chloe,” she said, kinda wishing she had another beer so she had something to do with her hands. “Not to be a dick, but if you’re trying to ditch the sorority girl stereotype, 90s pop was probably not the way to go…” She bit her lip for a moment, her eyes flickering up to the makeshift stage for half a beat before returning to Chloe. “I did warn you this would happen.”

*

It was only once Chloe broke free of the crowd that she realized how much cooler it was outside of the press of dancing bodies. Her cheeks were flushed faintly pink from the exertion of singing and dancing around on the table, but her eyes were bright and her smile was genuine as she reached Beca's side. Beca's opening quip did little to quell her smile, even when she rolled her eyes in response. "If loving 90s pop is wrong, I don't wanna be right," she insisted with all of the seriousness that statement deserved. (Spoiler alert: it was a lot, if you asked Chloe Beale.) Her nose wrinkled with a laugh as she turned to see Jesse and Amy hyping up Cynthia Rose and cheering her on through her current rendition. "We were forewarned, but resistance was futile." The smile on her face probably illustrated exactly how okay she was with this impulsive musical takeover. She turned back to Beca with a scrutinizing look, eyes sweeping over her as if sizing her up. "So, what can we expect from your serenade?" She was proud of herself, because aside from a faint twitch at the corners of her mouth, her face remained impressively neutral and full of feigned inquisitiveness as she looked at Beca, eyebrows raised and eyes wide with curiosity. She figured hell would freeze over before Beca would ever be caught up there on a table singing and dancing, but that was precisely the fun of teasing her about it.

*

“You’re so weird,” Beca reminded Chloe after her declaration of love for 90s pop music. She couldn’t suppress the damn impulse to grin back at her, trying to force her lips in a pursed line but unable to hold it effectively. Ugh, these people. At her question, though, Beca gave a throaty huff. “Yeah, not gonna happen. I don’t sing.” Not anymore. “Plenty of people eager to get their asses up on that table, though. You should take my spot, sing another bubblegum jam up your alley. If you’re not out of breath from all that wild dancing, that is.” She leveled a look at her before snagging one more beer from a dude passing by with a trayful, popping the cap off and taking another swig.

*

“And yet you still talk to me, so clearly you're a glutton for punishment," she insisted airily, her look much too deliberately innocent to be convincing. Beca smiled back at her though, so really, she felt completely justified in her weirdness. She wasn't even remotely surprised when Beca immediately shot down the prospect of taking a turn in the spotlight. "Fine, deprive all of us of a Beca Mitchell rendition." She snorted a laugh and rolled her eyes at Beca, but she did have a point. There was no shortage of people waiting to take their turn belting it out from a table."My stamina will be fine, but thanks for the concern, Special Agent Mitchell," she shared in a faux conspiratorial tone, eyelid dropping into a quick wink before she turned to grab another beer for herself too before the guy disappeared into the crowd. She twisted the cap off of her beer and took a thoughtful sip, casting her gaze around the tent. "Maybe I'll bust out another...what was it, bubblegum jam?"

*

“Yeah, obviously.” She nodded up toward Jesse and Amy, as if talking to Chloe wasn’t proof enough that she was some sort of masochist. “I think you’ll survive without one,” Beca insisted, her lips twitching into another smirk as she brought the beer bottle to her lips in a weak attempt to smother it. That wink sent warmth shooting through her body in a weird way, and okay, maybe that second beer wasn’t the best idea, but she committed already and she knew it was a punishable offense to waste things these days. “Mhm, you should. Bubblegum’s definitely your thing.” She eyed Chloe for a moment as Cynthia Rose slayed with the lead vocals up on that table, making good on her word and knocking it out of the park. “Where’d you learn how to dance like that anyway?” It wasn’t that Beca had been intentionally staring before, but it was sort of mesmerizing, the way Chloe got her body to move like that. Stacie and the rest of the girls danced that way too--all swaying hips and tangled limbs. It was… something different, that’s for damn sure.

*

"I dunno, my chances look dire," she lamented grimly, clutching one hand over her heart. Even though it was scarcely there before Beca concealed it with a sip of her drink, the sight of her smirk filled Chloe with warmth from the inside out in a way that had nothing to do with the alcohol and dancing. It was a pretty compelling smirk, she had to admit. "Bubblegum? Sorority girl? You really know how to sweet talk a person." Her own grin was quickly hidden behind the bottle that lifted to her lips, but teasing amusement still glimmered in her eyes. "What, like that?" The question was puffed out on a laugh, her free hand lazily pointing over to where Stacie was still dancing in much the same fashion as when Chloe had left her. Stacie did always love an audience, and there weren't many opportunities for that these days. No surprise she was making the most of it. "I dunno, I just have fun with it. You just feel the music and go with it, y'know? I did choir back in school, so I guess I got more comfortable with movement then, but that's a completely different style. It's always more fun with people you like though. It's just about...letting loose and enjoying the moment." She chanced a look over at Beca, eyes crinkling at the corners with a smile. "Not much for dancing, huh?" She couldn't see Beca being much of a proponent of dancing anyway, but these days, there was really no telling how different some people might have been before the outbreak.

*

“Who says I'm trying to sweet talk you? You talk sweet enough for the both of us, Bubblegum Barbie.” Okay, now she was really asking for it. Chloe didn't seem to mind the teasing. If anything, she maybe kinda liked it, judging by the smiles and retorts she drew in return. She followed Chloe's nod to Stacie still grinding on some guy with their other friends nearby, all smiling and laughing and dancing with each other. “I've never, um…” Beca wrinkled her nose. “My hips don't move like that,” she said decisively, even though she'd never actually tried.

*

"It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it," she declared with dramatic solemnity. "And Bubblegum Barbie? You've got a collection of those, huh?" Chloe did happen to like it, since Beca's teasing seemed felt like getting glimpses of insight about the girl each time they had a chance to talk. She didn't really have anyone in the community who carried themselves with the same air and interacted with her the way that Beca did, and the newfound banter was something she enjoyed. Another quick glance confirmed that Stacie's moves were a little more salacious than anything Chloe would've indulged in at the communal meal tent, of all places, but everyone seemed to be having a good time regardless. Even though Beca tapered off on that remark and changed tack, it wasn't difficult to discern what she meant. "You've never danced like that?" There was no judgment in her tone, only gentle curiosity. Her lips did curve upwards at the firm tone that followed it. "Do you know that, or are you just guessing?"

*

Beca leveled Chloe with another deadpanned look. “Yeah, but not to play with. I used to use Barbies for BB target practice.” Barbies and whatever else she could find, but it was sort of a point of pride to knock Barbie in its little plastic skull. (That was a dark admission, wasn’t it? Oops.) Beca’s sarcastic barbs had become a level of armor; most new people got one slung at them and Beca didn’t have to worry about talking with them again (case in point: Aubrey). Chloe was different from day one, and that was the real reason she called her a weirdo. “Nope. I can promise you I’ve never danced like that.” She stole another swig of warm beer. “It’s an educated guess. Not all of us used to go to parties and concerts and…. other… dancing places.” Dancing places? Good one, Beca.

*

Beca's confession almost startled a laugh from her mid-sip (very graceful), and it took a beat to compose herself before she flashed an amused look at Beca with a raised brow. "Okay, I was talking about nicknames, but you paint quite a mental picture there." Was it weird that she had no trouble picturing a younger Beca marching over with a BB gun to exact revenge on a lineup of Barbies for their incessant girly perkiness? Probably. But it definitely fit right in with the image she'd been piecing together of Beca with every tidbit of information that she learned. Perhaps it could be attributed to her desire to get to know people, but every little kernel of information that she learned just made her eager for more in order to build a better sense of Beca (even if her childhood self did firmly protest the ruining of perfectly good Barbies). The smile that brightened her face when Beca grumbled her way through talking about dancing was utterly delighted. "Dancing places? Very specific, Beca." Her gaze traveled back over to the singing and dancing commotion, and she hitched a thumb over towards the crowd of bodies in an indicative gesture. "You wanna...?" Her lips barely managed to press into a thin line to hide a smile, because she honestly had trouble picturing Beca ever taking her up on that offer. But hey, she had to at least ask, right?

*

Chloe didn’t even flinch when Beca mentioned shooting dolls. It was weird, right? She knew she was weird, but Chloe… was just weird, okay? That’s the only thing that made sense. Chloe was a weirdo who didn’t shy away from Beca and even had the audacity to suggest she might wanna dance. “You realize you’re probably asking me to break your toes, right?” Beca took another slow pull from her beer bottle, keeping her eyes on Chloe the whole time, and wondering why she didn’t flatout decline her ridiculous invitation. Maybe it was the potency of that beer, or maybe because she knew she was leaving everyone soon, and that clock ticked incessantly in the background of that offer.

*

Chloe would be lying if she said she didn't have roughly a thousand questions about Beca's history of what her life had been like not only before she arrived the settlement, but even longer ago than that. History was a touchy subject for almost everyone these days though, and Beca seemed especially fiercely protective of playing her cards close to her chest. So for the time being, Chloe let that line of thinking drop in favor of rolling her eyes at Beca's question. "You're not gonna break my toes," she scoffed, although the upward tick of the corners of her mouth gave away her amusement. For the most part, she was just surprised and tentatively excited that Beca hadn't outright shut down the idea as soon as she'd proposed it. "Trust me, guys are usually way worse dancers anyway. So if none of them have broken my toes yet, you're not gonna either," she reasoned, dropping her voice lower as if she was sharing some actual secret. What? Beca was petite and way less likely to cause dance-related injuries than bigger guys, it just made sense!

*

Beca looked back over Chloe’s shoulder, surveying the scene once more. Most people were drunk or looked drunk, and more people were dancing than not. Everyone looked some degree of ridiculous--but that’s what dancing was, right? As if reading her mind, Chloe assured her that the dudes were worse than girls. They definitely looked worse off than the girls. She watched people in small groups or paired off, the way arms draped lazily over shoulders or wrapped tightly around waists. And then she pictured Chloe close like that, holding her while they moved together to the pulse of the music. The thought made her breath catch and her ears burn beneath her hair, and tendrils of weighty guilt wrapped around her heart like vines. She wasn’t sure why--probably something to do with the fact that she should dance with Jesse, if anyone, or the fact that actively participating in something that might be fun seemed shitty because of the terrible thing she’d done, too. Her grin turned tighter and apologetic. “Sorry, I--I don’t think I--” She winced and cleared her throat, nodding back to Chloe’s friends. “You go. Don’t let me hold up all your fun, okay?”

*

It wasn't until she stopped to survey the whole crowd when she made the dancing offer to Beca that she realized exactly how gone some people seemed to be. Clearly the chance to let loose and relax a bit had been sorely needed by most of the community. Just as she expected, she caught a few glimpses of the rest of the girls right in the middle of the fray. Cynthia Rose had cycled out of singing on the table and was now dancing with Stacie, who seemed to be relishing every bit of attention from anyone who circled into her orbit. Emily was bouncing around with Ashley and Flo with an exuberance that was more enthusiasm than actual rhythm, but the smile on her face was so wide that Chloe had to smile along at the sight. Some people definitely seemed to be taking the chance to dance a little closer with their significant others though, and her nose scrunched with amusement at the people who had paired off throughout the night. Beca's voice pulled her gaze back over to the woman at her side, and it wasn't difficult to see that her smile had become more forced and apologetic. She wasn't sure if the prospect of putting herself out there and dancing was that daunting for Beca or if there was some other unforeseen reason that her guard had suddenly come back up, but in that moment, Chloe felt compelled to offer whatever support she could. "Nah, I'm good. I wanna finish my drink anyway." She gave a lazy swirl of the bottle in her hand before lifting it to her lips again. See? Totally valid reason. "Besides, someone should keep a good head on their shoulders tonight," she remarked with a hint of a laugh. That was probably a little counterproductive when she was working on her second beer, but even though the chances of anything happening were slim, she stood by her reasoning.

*

Beca took note of a few people dancing with beer bottles in hand, but if Chloe wanted to take a break and stay for a little while longer, she wasn’t gonna protest, even if she didn’t understand why. “Not a bad idea. This shit’s kinda lethal and some of your friends are going pretty hard… we may have to drag ‘em back to the house. Good thing I can’t pop a stitch anymore.” She knew she probably shouldn’t be having two, but it seemed to help relax her a little. Or at least make her feel a little more brave, which she needed. Seriously. Drop her into a horde of clickers over a dance party situation any day. Beca took another couple swigs of her drink, her eyes flickering back and forth from Chloe to her friends, who looked like they were having the time of their lives. “Why do you like me?” She blurted the question before she really thought about it, but she didn’t take it back. “It’s kinda weird that you do, I mean. I’m kind of an asshole.”

*

Chloe huffed a quick laugh against the lip of the bottle before she took another sip. "Oh yeah, definitely gonna be rolling a few people into bed tonight." She couldn't fault them for taking the chance to have fun though, so she would gladly take on the responsibility of making sure the other girls made it back to the house later. Chloe once again found herself caught off guard by Beca's sudden question that seemed to be completely contradictory to the whole atmosphere around them, but she quickly recovered despite the curious look she leveled at Beca. Beca seemed to be making a habit of blurting things out when they were together. "Well, you're definitely blunt, for one thing. I like that," she pointed out with a ghost of a smirk, her voice tinged warmly with laughter. Her expression grew more sincere and thoughtful after a moment's pause. "I think you're interesting. And I like talking to you. And no matter how much you try to downplay it, I'm always going to appreciate what you did for Emily." Her shoulders jerked in a shrug as her fingers fidgeted idly with the beer bottle in her hands. "I dunno, I just have a good feeling about you." Chloe had always been someone who trusted her instincts and her gut feelings about things, even when some people who scoff at her for such a thing--it was something Aubrey disliked more often than not, trusting her feelings rather than the logical rationale that Aubrey favored. It didn't mean that Chloe blindly followed every feeling she had without stopping to consider the actual reality of situations, no matter how much some people might assume that. But no matter what, Chloe stilled trusted those instincts to steer her in the right direction.

*

Chloe’s laughs tightened Beca’s chest more than her smiles, and she shoved her free hand into her pocket, eyeing Jesse and wondering why he never made her feel… like that. Maybe her whole fucking brain was off-kilter, still reeling from the night that changed everything, and her body’s responses were just super out of whack. For the past six months she’d been nothing but numb and a shell of herself before showing up here, and Chloe seemed to have whatever magical power it took to make her feel again. Made her want to wake up in the mornings again, just to see her smile at her across the room like she always did. She made her want to be useful, to contribute to society again. But that… that was fucking terrifying, because she barely knew this girl. It felt like Chloe fucking inserted some sort of worm that crawled into her heart before stitching her back up that night and while that was a fucked up hypothesis it was one of the only things that seemed to make any sense. And it would only be a matter of time before she was disappointing Chloe, too. Taking in a shaky breath, Beca turned to face the redhead, licking her lips as she tried to produce some moisture there. “Listen, you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t have a good feeling about me. I’m not…” She shook her head, leaning closer and pinning her with unguarded eyes full of pain and remorse. “I’m not a good person, Chloe. Trust me.” She was planning to leave the two people who’d stuck with her through everything the past couple years, and she knew she’d break Jesse’s heart. How could that possibly make her a good person?

The music died down as another song faded out, and that’s when Jesse finally spotted her, calling from the table. “Beca!”

Beca managed to quickly morph her reactionary grimace into a very forced grin and she offered a shy wave up to Jesse.

“Beeeecaaaaa!” Jesse sang her two-syllable name in a riff of six notes. “Becaw!” He waved at her. “It’s your turn, Becs! C’mon up here and sing for us.”

Beca sucked in a sharp breath, shaking her head as she felt several dozen pairs of eyes on her. Her least favorite thing. “I’m good, Jess. You keep it up though. You’re doing great.”

Undeterred (and clearly deep in his cups, by the way he nearly stumbled climbing down from the table), the crowd parted to clear a path as he danced his way over to Beca. “Pleeeease, Bec.”

*

Despite Beca's seeming reticence towards emotion and opening up to people, Chloe hoped that the sincerity of her answer was apparent as she spoke to Beca. The sentiment behind her words rang as true as anything she could've possibly said, because those were all things that had been unavoidable to her since Beca's arrival. She'd found herself always seeking Beca out when she had the chance, and she craved learning everything she could about Beca through the details that the other woman deigned to share with her. She often found herself wondering what Beca might say or how she might react to certain situations as she went about her day, and her eyes seemed to gravitate to Beca whenever they were in the same area. Just as she'd told Beca she had a good feeling about her, she'd trusted herself to follow wherever that instinct might happen to take her. At least that's what she told herself, because Beca seemed to have other plans. Just as she had been the night of their walk, Chloe was momentarily struck silent by the depth and strength of the emotions that swirled in Beca's eyes when she looked at her. Beca's words struck at her like a knife slipping between her ribs, striking home with the potency of the feeling behind them, even as she seemed unable to tear her gaze away from the pain that was reflected at her in Beca's eyes.

She had scarcely opened her mouth to reply, hoping desperately that whatever words she needed would magically appear as she did so, when Jesse spotted them and called to Beca from across the assembled crowd. Her shoulders hunched at the sudden call across the tent as her features twisted in a fleeting wince, stomach lurching with anxiety at the way that he'd interrupted such a fraught moment and brought her awareness of everything around them crashing back in.

The set of her shoulders only tensed further when Jesse kept calling to Beca from his spot on the table, seemingly unwilling to accept her attempts at deflecting attention from herself. The growing focus it was drawing from quite a few of the gathered community members wasn't helping, and she could practically feel the tension radiating from Beca when more eyes turned on them.

She managed to force a smile back onto her face right before Jesse reached them, although it was tight and brittle at the edges. He seemed too drunk to take notice. Besides, he seemed wholly focused on Beca anyway.

"Jesse, you were really killin' it up there. I think everyone's been loving the mini concert," she managed with a cheery enough tone, hoping to interject and perhaps divert his attention from pestering Beca for a song.

*

Jesse held his hand up for a high five from Chloe before turning his attention back to Beca, reaching out to place his hands on her shoulders. “Becs, please? What’s the point of having a gift if you don’t share it with people once in a while?”

“I told you I don’t wanna sing anymore,” Beca said, staring up at him with a frown.

“But we used to… it’s been so long since we…” Jesse stepped closer and cupped Beca’s cheeks, flashing a lethal dose of those puppy eyes and a matching pout. “Just one song? For me?”

Beca flushed, both from the added attention from those around her and Jesse’s affectionate... face-holding… whatever that move was. “I’m sorry, Jess. I really--”

“If you won’t do it for me, do it for Sara?”

That name spoken aloud instantly drained the color from Beca’s face, and her jaw fell slack as she blinked up at Jesse as though he’d slapped her across the face. “Don’t--” she croaked, her voice cracking with bubbling emotion even on the single syllable.

“She loved listening to you sing, Bec.”

Tears prickled hard and fast in Beca’s eyes and she shoved at Jesse’s chest, sending him tripping backwards and falling to the ground. “Fuck off, Jesse,” she spat, turning on her heel and bolting out of the communal area in more of an unsteady walk-run, her side still too sore to sprint like she wanted to.

Amy had climbed down from the table, having witnessed the second half of that interaction. “Not the best idea you’ve ever had,” she muttered to Jesse, helping him back to his feet. Not wanting to make things worse, she motioned for Ashley and Jessica to take the ‘stage’ and the band to strike up the next song, most of the crowd returning to their singing and dancing fun.

“I gotta go talk to her--” Jesse started, swaying on his feet.

“In the morning,” Amy insisted, holding him tight around the middle so he couldn’t leave. “Let’s get you some water and we’ll do some more singing, yeah? We both know it’s not smart to chase after the little dingo when she’s angry.”

“But I messed up,” Jesse mumbled, raking a hand through his hair. “I didn’t mean to upset her. I thought it’d help, getting her singing again.”

“I know,” Amy said. “It’ll be all right. She’ll forgive you. She always does.”

*

She smiled and returned Jesse's high five with the burgeoning hope that her distraction had worked, but Jesse clearly wasn't so easily deterred when he had his mind set on something. Beca's discomfort with the attention was clear, although Chloe's curiosity was ignited when Jesse seemed so adamant about Beca having some gift for music. When he stepped in closer and cupped Beca's face in his hands, Chloe suddenly felt very out of place and found herself very interested in staring down at the beer bottle in her hands rather than the scene playing out right next to her.

The effect was instantaneous when Jesse mentioned the name Sara, as if invoking it in the hopes of convincing Beca. Chloe had no basis for what the significance of the name might be, but it was clear from the shell shocked, distraught look on Beca's face and the warning rasp of her voice that Jesse was quickly crossing some unspoken line.

Chloe wasn't nearly as tipsy or outright drunk as many of the people around them, but even she was caught off guard by the sudden shove from Beca that sent Jesse sprawling. She was sure that Jesse's inebriated state contributed to his unsteadiness in toppling over with Beca's shove, but there was no denying that there had been a real, raw impulse from Beca that was sparked by the mention of the name Sara and Jesse trying to implore her with it.

"Beca--" Her head whipped around to follow the movement when Beca darted from the tent, but uncertainty stilled her feet and froze any other words in her throat, since Beca seemed to be out of earshot anyway. Chloe didn't even understand what was going on, much less if any attempts at following Beca to check on her would be received or rejected.

It startled her when Amy suddenly appeared at her side and helped Jesse to his feet, but she recovered enough to fire a reassuring smile at several of the onlookers nearby. Between that and the music kicking back up towards the center of the tent, most of them seemed appeased and let the entertainment capture their attention once more.

The harried exchange between Jesse and Amy reinforced some of the uncertainties she'd felt about following after Beca, and she was surprised but grateful that Amy actually seemed to be the cooler head in this scenario who was telling Jesse to give her some time. He probably wasn't in any state to be trying to make amends anyway.

"Um, guys? Sara--?" Her confusion was palpable, but the knot of anxiety and concern coiled tighter in the pit of her stomach. She immediately felt out of place for speaking up in the midst of their moment and a group dynamic she couldn't possibly hope to understand. They'd all known each other so long and had so much history between them that she couldn't begin to parse out. "If it's not any of my business, I get it..."

Her eyes flickered back to the entrance of the tent where Beca had disappeared. "Do you think she'll be okay?"

*

Jesse hurried to brush off the seat of his pants, casting Chloe an apologetic grin. “Sara’s... Beca’s little sister. Well, little--she was fourteen and a few inches taller than Beca.”

Amy gave a solemn nod, rarely serious in tone. “She died this past winter, while Jesse and I were out on a supply run. Sara was gathering sticks for a fire. She walked off a little too far from camp--ran right into a pack of clickers. Beca got there too late. She killed them all but Sara’d already been bitten.”

“She blames herself,” Jesse said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Didn’t talk to either of us for a whole month after. It’s been… a hard year since. I thought… I don’t know, I thought she was maybe turning some sort of corner, since we got here. She’s been… kinda different? Maybe that’s just me being too hopeful.” He sighed, looking to Chloe again. “She likes you. I can tell. So whatever it is you’re doing… thanks.”

“She’ll be all right,” Amy said, reaching out to squeeze Chloe’s shoulder. “She’s a tough bitch, that Beca Mitchell. She just needs some space when she's upset. She doesn't do the whole... emotional thing in front of other people. You probably sorted that much out on your own though.”

*

Chloe wasn't even sure if she really thought Amy and Jesse might answer her question. After all, Beca herself had been quite tight-lipped about her past, and she couldn't be sure how much they'd be comfortable revealing by proxy. She quickly had her answer though, and her throat tightened with emotion as Beca's two friends detailed the whole story of Beca's terrible loss to her.

It explained so much about the guilt and pain that seemed to wrack Beca--the very real, visceral pain that she'd seen reflected at her in Beca's eyes several times--and she felt an empathetic pang of hurt clench inside of her chest. Everyone had experienced some degree of loss, but to lose her little sister and carry the guilt of it around within herself...Chloe couldn't begin to fathom the kind of toll that must take on Beca. It went a long way towards explaining Beca's demeanor while she'd been at the settlement, and Chloe found herself reflecting on the conversations they'd shared before that now seemed colored by that new awareness. And Sara had only been fourteen--she couldn't even bear the thought of losing Emily like that, and Emily wasn't even related to her by blood and had only become part of her life after the outbreak.

"That's so awful. I had no idea..." The words rasped out on an emotional chord, and she had to clear her throat and give a vague shake of her head to try to work her way through that fog of sympathetic pain that gripped her on Beca's behalf. She managed to force a tight smile onto her features at Jesse's words, head bobbing in an acknowledging nod. "Of course. I didn't know, but--I just want to help, if I can."

She was grateful for the reassuring squeeze to her shoulder that Amy gave her, and the look she turned on Amy reflected that gratitude. Nonetheless, she couldn't help the way her eyes kept straying to the entrance of the tent and the darkness of night that had fallen outside of the warm glow inside the communal tent. "So, going to check on her...probably not the best idea?" Her lips pursed and her teeth worried at the inside of her cheek, because she'd never been good at disengaging or keeping her distance when people around her were hurting.

*

Amy hesitated, clearly conflicted. Her eyes darted back toward the entrance as Chloe's had, noting how Beca had gone right toward the darker, quieter area of the settlement as opposed to heading left toward the house and the settlement gates. “You can go if you want to, ginger. Can't promise she won't tell you to go away or give you much by way of conversation, but it'd probably be good if one of us had eyes on her and I think she's probably most angry with me and Jesse right now.”

Beca did her best to jog away from everyone, deciding against going back to the house. Part of her wanted so desperately to gather her weapons and hop on her bike and drive off for good, but she knew she couldn't be that stupid, since she wasn't fully healed. Besides, pissed off as she was at Jesse right now, she wasn't sure she could carry even more guilt by leaving on bad terms. So instead, she found herself in the water purification part of the settlement, slumping against the side of the stone well. She let herself cry once she was sure she was alone, pent up tears streaking silently down her cheeks. A few sniffles echoed into the dark night, and she tried focusing on the glowing fireflies blinking nearby to help her calm.

*

Amy's words were all the encouragement Chloe needed before she was turning on her heel and quickly discarding her empty bottle. Nobody even noticed her exit save for Amy and Jesse, wrapped up as they all were in the joviality of song and dance. But there was no way Chloe would be able to enjoy the rest of the festivities and act like everything was normal, not after what she had just learned and knowing that Beca was somewhere in the settlement, upset and alone.

She hooked a quick right once she ducked out of the tent, heading towards the quieter part of the settlement. As the tent receded behind her, the warm glow of lights and the sounds of music and laughter slowly faded away before dropping off into the quiet, natural sounds of nighttime. The sound of her own footsteps seemed loud in the silence that pressed in around her, while her ears strained to hear any noises outside of the ordinary.

It was only once the water purification area loomed out of the darkness, jet black silhouettes that stood out against the inky blanket of the night around her, that she finally had a stroke of luck in her search. A few sniffles caught her attention, and her footsteps slowed for a moment as she worked to pinpoint their exact location. She was spurred back into motion when the sounds drew her closer to the well, and the small figure of Beca curled up against the stone fixture swam into focus out of the dark. Her footsteps slowed as she approached, hoping to give Beca plenty of warning of her presence. When she reached the well, she carefully lowered herself to the ground next to Beca until her back pressed against the stones of the well.

"Hey." Her voice was soft and low in the quiet around them, and her careful gaze swept over Beca at her side. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I won't ask any questions. I just wanted to check on you."

*

After years of living a nomadic lifestyle, oftentimes having to rough it outdoors overnight, Beca’s hearing had fine-tuned to pick up on approaching life forms--or, in some cases, undead forms. The instant she caught the ruffling sounds of footfalls nearby, she reached up to wipe her damp cheeks clean with the back of her sleeve. Her jaw clenched, hands wrapping tighter around her now empty beer bottle, as she waited for the onslaught of Jesse’s apologies.

Chloe’s voice wasn’t expected. Or maybe… she should’ve seen it coming, might have if she hadn’t been so lost in her thoughts. That acidity that pooled in her throat when Jesse mentioned Sara welled up on her tongue, ready to fire a barb, but she forced it back instead, swallowing hard. She couldn’t bear to look over at Chloe, so she kept her gaze down, plucking a dandelion from the grass and twirling it between her fingers. When she spoke, her voice was barely there, as if she didn’t trust herself to talk without getting emotional again. “They told you, huh?” They must have.

*

Chloe's moves were slow and tentative as she settled next to Beca, not wanting to crowd her or push too much when she was already dealing with emotional turmoil. Aside from a slight brush of their shoulders as she shifted back to rest against the stone well, she left a whisper of space between them, in case physical contact would only heighten Beca's discomfort and upset at the whole situation. It wasn't altogether surprising when Beca didn't meet her eyes, but it sent a renewed surge of sympathy and an ache of pain rushing through her when she saw the evidence of tear tracks on Beca's face and the sadness that was written on the lines of her face up close like this. "They did," she confirmed after a beat, teeth worrying at her bottom lip. "But please don't be upset with them or anything, I asked." She didn't know if there had been any kind of past agreement or understanding between the three of them about talking about Sara, but she didn't want to cause a rift between any of them due to her own curiosity.

*

Beca sat frozen while Chloe settled in closer to her, inhaling sharply through her nose at the brush of shoulders. She passed it off as a sniffle, though, and she could feel Chloe’s eyes on her profile. The sadness and sympathy in her stare. She didn’t have to see it to know it was there. It made Beca’s insides churn. “It’s whatever. I’m surprised they didn’t slip and blow it before now. ‘Specially Amy.” She twirled the yellow weed between her fingers. “Jesse’s alright? I didn’t mean to--I mean, I did mean to--but I didn’t think he’d fall over.” She took in a deep, shaky breath. “He keeps waiting for me to get back to normal. I know he doesn’t mean it, but he only looks at me with that--that pitying face, like I’m a goddamn wounded fawn or I’m half a second away from a fucking breakdown.”

*

She huffed out an exhale of breath when Beca was surprised that one of her friends hadn't revealed this news before now, not quite a laugh but something of an acknowledgement. This whole ordeal was reinforcing exactly how much she still didn't know about Beca, no matter how much her gut instinct made her feel drawn to her. That changed nothing about the impulse she felt to offer whatever support she could to Beca now. "Jesse's fine. He wanted to come apologize, but Amy convinced him to give you a little space for now." Even if Jesse himself wasn't here, it only seemed right to let Beca know that his remorse had been immediate after she'd run off. Her expression softened with understanding as Beca shared why Jesse's pity seemed to get under her skin so much. "I don't think any of us are going to be normal again. Or at least...not the people we were before." Her fingers plucked absentmindedly at a frayed string from a hole in the knee of her jeans. "Losing someone like that...it always stays with us. It becomes part of who we are. But it doesn't mean you're not normal, or--whatever counts as normal these days. It just means you've survived it. And you don't have to do anything about it to please anyone else." She didn't mean anything against Jesse with that observation, it was just how she viewed this changed world of theirs. Everyone had to grieve in their own way and their own time.

*

One of those tightly wound coils of tension relaxed the slightest bit upon hearing Jesse was physically fine after she’d shoved him over. Of course he wanted to come and apologize, he never held a grudge. That was, somehow, part of the problem--why wouldn’t he stop liking her? Why wouldn’t he stop trying to fix her? She treated him like shit. At least, she thought she did. At the very least, she was selfish, cold more often than not, and almost unbearable to be around. It made absolutely no sense, why he cared for her so much. Part of her wished he’d come to his senses, since that’d make her feel less shitty for not being enough for him. Chloe’s words rang honest and Beca hung on every word. She half expected some sort of ‘everything happens for a reason’ bullshit, but Chloe’s viewpoints didn’t make her want to bolt. They also didn’t try to make her feel better, or worse, offer sympathetic platitudes. “I was never really normal,” Beca admitted in a low tone. “I just…” She puffed out a frustrated breath of air, raking her hand through her hair and shaking her head, not knowing how much to say aloud. She kept fucking up. Her words continued in a hoarse rasp, emotion shaking her tone as she forced the words out. “I promised my mom I’d keep my dad alive before she died. Then I promised my dad I’d keep Sara alive before he died. Then--” She grimaced, exhaling with a shudder as she closed her eyes tight, tilting her head back against the stony wall of the well, fighting another round of tears. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be saying all this shit. Not to you. I don’t--I don’t lose my shit, not this bad.”

*

Chloe was glad, at least, that Beca seemed to take her assurance about Jesse at face value. She didn't exactly know what the deal was with them, since they didn't really talk about that--them, Beca and Jesse, whatever they were--but she knew there was a lot of history between them and she wanted to help smooth over anything that she could. Even though Beca still hadn't met her eyes, she could sense that Beca was listening to her nonetheless, actively listening as opposed to letting her prattle on without any real regard for what she was saying. "Who defines what normal is anyway? It was always a moving target before. And now...what use is 'normal' at all? None of this is normal." They were all scarred people in a broken, abnormal world, just doing their best with every day that they were given. And none of those days were promised to them. They were, in essence, living on borrowed time from minute to minute. That's how it felt sometimes, at least. She felt a lump of emotion rise in her throat and felt the burning sting of tears in her eyes when Beca shared that admission, the words carried on a shaky rasp. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. It wasn't fair. She was young, and it isn't fair. None of this is." She didn't want to offer empty platitudes or reassurances that it would hurt less someday or that she understood exactly how the loss of Sara felt. Because it wasn't fair, and she felt that ache all the way to the marrow of her bones. "But I think you're strong for making it this far, after everything."

*

Beca knew Chloe was right. Normal wasn't really a thing anymore, and before, it didn't make much sense either. Beca was grateful Chloe offered her sympathy while she'd shut her eyes because she wasn't prepared for the rush of grief pooling in her sinuses. Fresh tears pricked behind her closed lids and Beca reached up to grind the heels of her palms into her eyes, making sure the moisture was mostly gone before blinking her eyes open. “I'm not as strong as I seem. Amy and Jesse haven't given me much of a choice,” she muttered. After taking a deep breath, she finally summoned the courage to look at Chloe. “You, though…” Beca huffed, shaking her head in slow disbelief as she marveled at the empathy in those brighter blue eyes. “It shouldn't be possible to have so much heart and soul and spirit left, after everything… but you do, somehow. And it's fucking weird because it doesn't make any sense but it's also really… really amazing. You're amazing, Chloe.” God, she hadn't imagined her rambled words would come out quite like that, and a flush rose hard and fast in her cheeks but she didn't try to take it back. It was true. She'd never met anyone like Chloe, not before the world turned upside down and not after.

*

It was clear that emotion had risen in Beca after the first mention of Sara earlier and now that they were talking about it, but Chloe lapsed into silence and gave her a moment to compose herself or whatever she needed for the time being. "I think it's admirable that you've been able to protect them, even--even when you've been hurting. It's obvious they both care about you a lot. And I think...all of us have had to find strength in different ways." Sometimes being strong just meant getting out of bed to face a new day, when they couldn't manage more than that. And Beca had been doing that and protecting her friends for months on end now, all while she felt such an acute loss. When Beca finally turned to meet her eyes, she was once again struck to her core by the depths she saw there. Her eyes blinked wide for a moment when Beca suddenly turned the focus around on her, not having expected the shift in the slightest. Color rose on her cheeks, and she could feel the way her skin warmed with a more pronounced flush against the chillier night air. "Oh, that's--amazing really isn't the word for it," she insisted, her gaze dropping briefly to the ground beneath them as her finger plucked idly at the blades of grass. "I think...I think a lot of people need that. Now, more than ever. So if that's what I can do for them..." Her shoulders hitched with a jerky, sheepish shrug before her eyes lifted to meet Beca's gaze again. She hadn't expected such open admiration from Beca, but there was no denying the warmth that unfurled beneath her rib cage to hear that sentiment despite her slightly embarrassed deflection.

*

“I really don't deserve them,” Beca whispered earnestly, because it was true. Amy and Jesse, like Chloe, were good people. They saw the good in every person and situation, persevered no matter what. She scrunched her nose in apology when Chloe got all flustered, but she wasn't going to say she was sorry for giving her opinion. “You can play it off like it's easy or comes naturally to people living in this fucking hellscape all you want, but I couldn't manage to drum up a fraction of that unfiltered goodness you've got in your pinky if there was a gun to my head, so… it's pretty amazing.”

*

"Well, they obviously see something in you that's worth sticking with," she insisted, sincere but firm. And she meant that far beyond Beca's survival skills or the practical aspects that had helped keep them alive, because she felt that same pull towards Beca that helped her understand why Jesse and Amy would hold such loyalty to her and would have traveled with her for so long. Although she mentally tried to will away the warmth that she could still feel down her neck and across her face, there was a ghost of an upturn at the corners of her mouth. "Thanks, Beca. It's not always easy and maybe I'm never gonna like, be as good with a gun as you or Aubrey or things like that, but...if something like that helps people? Then it's what I need to do, y'know?" The world needed any goodness that it could find these days.

*

“They're weirdos, too, so… guess weirdos are drawn to me for some reason. Probably to balance out my coolness.” It was a week attempt at lightening the mood, and Beca's lips twitched into a slight smirk. “Yeah, totes. And don't forget to give yourself credit for Frankensteining people back together. That's some badass cred you've earned for yourself.” Beca plucked another dandelion from the tall grass, twirling it between her thumb and forefinger. “And if you wanna get better with guns, I can help with that.”

*

"Yeah, that leather jacket is a lot to balance out. About three weirdos worth of cool, apparently." Her expression relaxed into a more direct smile when Beca initiated the attempt at levity. Although she knew that pain must still lurk beneath the surface for Beca, she was willing to follow her lead if she wanted to move away from that for now. She rolled her eyes when Beca teased her with that particular slang, but she had to admit that it was funny just to hear that completely uncharacteristic word roll off of Beca's tongue. "Totes. Well you know, I picked medicine for all the glamor. The badass cred was just an unexpected bonus." She watched with a soft smile as Beca spun the dandelion between her fingers, eyes brightening appreciatively at the offer. "Really? I'd like that. I'm still gonna hold you to that shotgun lesson when you're feeling up to it."

*

“You and your thing with my jacket. Guess I better never lose it so I keep the whole cool factor,” Beca teased, amusement pulling at the corners of her lips and adding a spark of something other than sadness in her eyes. “Does it make it more or less badass to know I took it off some chick who tried to kill me?” She’d been proud when she managed to kill the bitch with her bare hands so she didn’t get any blood on the jacket. Small victories, she supposed. “You picked medicine for the glamor of what, like, blood? So you really are a vampire. Got it.” Beca felt her chest loosen when Chloe’s smiles returned. A sad Chloe was too much to bear. “Yeah, we’ll do it. Tomorrow, if you’ve got time. I wanna show Emily a few things, too.”

*

“What? It's a good jacket. But I can always pick something else, what would you prefer? Your bike? Your shades? Your scowl?" Her smile came easier now that some genuine amusement seemed to have returned to Beca's expression, and her shoulder brushed against Beca's again when she leaned in slightly with that teasing remark. Perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising, given what she had garnered about Beca's past, but there was a beat of widened eyes at Beca's question. "Are you kidding? I think that has to be more badass. I mean--kinda terrifying, but still more badass." Her head tipped back against the stone well with a laugh when Beca once again called back to her vampire theory. "You caught me. I just can't hide my bloodsucking ways, can I?" Her teeth caught at her bottom lip for a brief flash before her head bobbed in a nod. "Tomorrow it is, then. Emily will have a field day with that."

*

As Chloe listed off the ‘cool’ aspects of her limited stock of accessories, she couldn’t help but scoff at the addition of her scowl. When their shoulders brushed again, Beca flushed but didn’t hesitate to whack Chloe’s outer thigh with the back of her hand (not nearly hard enough to hurt). “Wow, seriously? I know we can’t all be sunshine and rainbows but don’t be hating on my scowl. I fucking earned that, okay?” Chloe’s laugh combined with her teasing worked their magic on loosening those strangling coils of pain, wedging something else inside her chest, between the full stock of despair and defiance that had been lodged there for so long--something Beca couldn’t name or begin to understand, but whatever it was, it made her feel more alive than she’d felt in a very long time. Beca wrinkled her nose and reached up to dramatically slide her hands up to cover the sides of her neck as a protective shield. “Jesus, Dracula. Don’t get any ideas. I’ve lost enough blood since I’ve been here, and you don’t wanna undo the hard work you did.” Her gaze flickered to Chloe’s mouth for a fraction of a second as teeth hooked her bottom lip, but she snapped her attention back to her eyes and nodded. “Cool. Tomorrow.”

*

She couldn't help but laugh when Beca seemed scandalized by the list she rattled off, jokingly jerking away from the swat to her leg even though it didn't hurt it in the slightest. "I'm not hating! You've like, perfected it. I'm jealous, I can't scowl worth anything." To prove her point, she furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes in a glare, even going to far as to bare her teeth in a slight snarl--all of which proved to be spectacularly nonthreatening. Sure, it was exaggerated for comedic effect, but she was still self aware enough to understand that intimidation wasn't exactly in her wheelhouse. There was a gleam of genuine warmth in her eyes and her smile when Beca eased her way back into joking with her, bolstered by the fact that Beca's mood seemed to have rebounded for the time being. She knew that didn't make the hurt disappear altogether, but if she could help even a little bit in that moment, then she was glad to do it. Her laugh felt loud in the quiet that pressed in around them, but there was no hope of hiding it when Beca ridiculously guarded her neck from Chloe's accused vampire habits. "But Beca, I vant to suck your blooood," she intoned with dramatic menace, adopting her best (worst) over-the-top Dracula accent. Her brow furrowed for a beat when Beca's gaze seemed to drop lower, but it smoothed away into a smile when dark blue-grey eyes rose to meet hers again. "Tomorrow. It'll be totes awesome."

*

An inelegant snort passed Beca’s lips when Chloe tried her hand at glaring. “Um, yikes. Yeah, Nurse Chloe… stick to rainbows and smiles, definitely suits you more than doom and gloom. I’ve got that shit covered for both of us anyway.” Beca found it amusing how Chloe appeared to be her polar opposite in so many ways. Maybe that was one of the reasons why she found her so interesting, because she was so different. It finally startled a low chuckle at the absolutely ridiculous vampire impression, and she reached up to cover her mouth, stifling it as best as she could. “You’re probably the biggest nerd I’ve ever met,” she said, pushing to her feet slowly and favoring her not as sore side. When she was sure she had firm footing, she reached out to offer Chloe a hand up. “Pity party’s over, you should go back and get some more dancing in.” She could still hear music filtering from a distance, though it was pretty faint out by the well.

*

As soon as Beca's composure cracked in the face of her attempted scowl, her own expression rebounded back into a grin. "I'm not gonna be psyching anyone out with my glare anytime soon. I think it's all up to you and your scowl." Although she was continually surprised by how much Beca had relaxed into an easy give and take of teasing with her, laughter was still rare from Beca. So when her vampire act earned a chuckle from Beca, her smile widened exponentially in response. "Really? I'll have to pass on the bad news to Jesse and Amy that I beat them for the title." She eagerly reached up and took Beca's offered hand, her other hand bracing against the ground beneath her to give herself some leverage when she pushed herself to her feet with Beca's help. Beca's hand was warm in hers and she could feel the evidence of hard work and the trials of daily life against her skin (they all had plenty of those these days, it seemed), but she only allowed herself a moment of that awareness before she released Beca's hand with a hint of a smile. Spurred on by Beca's remark, her eyes swept over the landscape back in the direction of the communal meal tent. Although the lights were dim from this distance, soft strains of music reached her ears and it was clear the party was still in swing. "Are you gonna head back up there? Or are you gonna call it a night?”

*

Beca couldn’t help but take note of how soft Chloe’s hand felt in comparison to hers or even Jesse’s. Beca’s callouses had roughened over the years, mostly from so much time crafting shivs and arrows and climbing trees when necessary. When Chloe released her hand, she felt equal parts relieved and disappointed and confused, but she had a feeling unpacking that would only make her feel shittier, so she shoved the thought away as quickly as it came. “I’m gonna go crash on the couch before Amy gets back and calls dibs and I’m stuck on the floor.” She didn’t have her injury excuse anymore. She also didn’t feel like curling up with Jesse and listening to him apologize for a half hour. (God, she was such a dick.) “You heading back to the party? Pretty sure Tommy boy’s dreaming of a dance with you.” Beca’s teasing remark slipped out before she realized she probably shouldn’t have mentioned the dude she caught making eyes at Chloe that one time.

*

When the residual warmth of Beca's hand seemed to linger on her skin, she shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans to offer a distraction and to quell her impulse to fidget. Chloe had never been very good with excess energy, and she didn't want to examine the reason behind that simple gesture sparking that restless feeling within her. A quiet chuckle was puffed out into the night air when Beca revealed her couch-claiming strategy. "Always gotta outsmart Amy for the couch. Y'know, we could probably find some extra mattresses somewhere if you want, or we can add it to the list of stuff to keep an eye out for the next time a group makes a run outside the settlement." As soon as Tom's name was mentioned, especially in the teasing tone that Beca's voice carried, she scoffed and rolled her eyes. "You're such a jerk," she mumbled, but there was a twitch at the corners of her mouth when she cast a sidelong look at Beca. "Besides, I already told you nothing's happened with me and Tom." That definitely didn't seem to derail Beca's amusement in teasing her about it though.

*

“Nah, don’t go to the trouble. It’s cool. I wasn’t really complaining about sleeping on the floor if I have to.” It wasn’t like she’d be around much longer, either. But that wasn’t something she was ready to share yet. “Look, I told you I’m not nice. You’re the one who makes the conscious decision to put yourself into this position by being near me, so.” She shrugged. Yep, that was definitely all Chloe’s fault and not hers at all for being an asshole. Whatever, she stood by it. “Yeah not yet.” She eyed her for a moment, squinting as she took in Chloe’s profile, super grateful to keep the topic of conversation away from her. “What’s wrong with him, then? He’s got that, like--All-American football player stupid handsome doucheface that most girls swoon over, doesn’t he? And he’s obviously got it bad for you.” Beca wasn’t sure how she knew that for sure, but she was pretty confident in her assertion. Just vibes, you know?

*

“Well...just let me know if you change your mind. We've been able to scrounge up some before when we've needed to." She figured Beca had her own reasons for declining the offer, or maybe it was another aspect of Beca not wanting to ask for more than they'd already provided. "Like you said, I'm a glutton for punishment. Guess I just can't help myself." The whisper of a smile on her lips and her continued presence by Beca's side effectively undercut her words though, especially since she'd hung around Beca whenever she'd had the chance since her arrival at the settlement. When Beca persisted about Tom, Chloe leveled a mildly bemused look at her. "What's the deal with Tom? You seem more fixated on that whole thing than me," she pointed out, but her tone lilted upward with laughter. "Also, 'doucheface'? Is that really your way of making your case here?”

*

Beca considered that for a moment--that Chloe, for some weird reason, couldn’t stay away. “Huh. Well, I guess that makes sense. Figured there must be a masochist underneath all that sunshine you’ve got going on.” When Chloe called her out for bringing up Tom again, Beca only shrugged. “There’s no deal with Tom. I dunno. Saw him in there again tonight and he just… seemed really into you. I mean, duh, who wouldn’t be,” she said, huffing the prelude to a chuckle before stopping herself. “Guess I was just curious about you. Him. His--whatever, if that was something you were into, or--” She bit her lip, whispering a swear when she realized she was rambling. “I’m gonna shut up now.”

*

“Yep, that's it. You caught me. Rampant masochism, right here." She chuckled and shook her head, waving her hand in a vague gesture to encompass the entirety of...well, herself. "It's the dark side of sunshine," she intoned with dramatic grimness. It became more and more difficult to hide her smile as Beca stumbled into a bit of a ramble about Tom, and she lifted one hand to cover her mouth and try to conceal a giggle as a cough. "Who would't be, huh?" she teased, her smile on full display by now with no hope of disguising it. It was kind of hilarious that Beca had taken notice of that much, even though Beca hadn't ever exchanged a single word with Tom before, as far as Chloe knew. "Y'know, Beca, you could always just ask me stuff like that instead of pointing out Tom's...doucheface." Yep, she wasn't ready to let that particular descriptor go just yet.

*

“Knew it,” Beca mumbled, because why else would anyone as upbeat and kind as Chloe hang around someone like her? When Chloe called her out for her little compliment slip-up, her ears burned beneath her hair and she rolled her eyes. “Shut up. You know you’re--whatever.” That made sense, right? And when Chloe pointed out that there was definitely a more direct line of questioning that would likely lead to less verbal fumbles or roundabout ways of insulting people she’d never met, she shrugged once more. “Where’s the fun in that, though?”

*

Although her smile only grew when Beca seemed flustered that Chloe had pointed out the accidental compliment, she cleared her throat and tried to marshal her expression into a more neutral look. She couldn't torture Beca too much by teasing her about her verbal foibles, right? Although teasing Beca did help deflect from the way she felt her own face heat once again beneath the compliment, so...she was counting that as a bonus. "I'm whatever? Oh stop, you're making me blush." Was she purposely misunderstanding Beca's remark for her own amusement? Possibly. "I dunno, I'm kinda having fun with this though." Her gaze dropped briefly as the heel of her boot dug against the grass beneath her feet. "To answer your question though, there's nothing wrong with Tom.”

*

Beca had already explained to Chloe that she wasn’t a very gifted conversationalist, but she was so relieved to have strayed so far from where this particular conversation began that she didn’t mind tripping over her words as much as she normally would. When Chloe pressed with the teasing, though, Beca leaned over and gave Chloe’s shoulder an innocent shove. “Now who’s being a jerk?” She shot Chloe a heatless glare. “Aside from his doucheface, you mean.” Beca waited a beat before tacking on the real question. “So why don’t you like him?”

*

She laughed sharply when Beca shoved her in retaliation, rocking with the momentum of the push before she rebounded right back into place. "Wow, so you can dish it out but you can't take it? I see how it is." She tsked in faux disapproval for good measure. "He doesn't have a doucheface, come on." Even though she knew Beca was (probably) joking, she still felt compelled to defend Tom. It wasn't a bad face! "I don't like, not like him as a person," she began with a shrug. "There's just always been...other stuff to focus on, you know? I mean, he's nice and he's cute and he's helpful around here, but...it hasn't exactly been top priority.”

*

“Dude, I’m totally taking it right now, what are you talking about?” Right, like shoving Chloe was definitely taking it. Yep. Completely. “It’s kind of a doucheface, but whatever. And you guys get some downtime here, don’t you? I know you’re busy with keeping this place up and running but doing everything in shifts…” She shrugged. “I dunno, just seemed like you’d have at least some time to yourself for… stuff like that, if you wanted. I overheard Stacie the other day talking about…” Her face warmed at the memory of what she’d heard. “Uh, I mean, I guess that’s one of her top priorities.”

*

“Oh yeah, like a real champ," she countered with her best approximation of a sarcastic drawl to match the roll of her eyes. (Beca still did it way better, but oh well. She tried.) "What, exactly, classifies a doucheface then?" She arched an eyebrow and pinned Beca with a look that was partway between curiosity and amusement. Maybe Beca just really hated that whole All-American, athletic vibe. She snorted an inelegant laugh when flustered Beca made a sudden reappearance at the mention of Stacie's extracurricular activities. "Ah, so you got subjected to Stacie's...colorful storytelling?" They'd all gotten quite an earful of language from her before at different times--it had actually become a mad scramble to cover Emily's ears a few times, which was maybe a little ridiculous, shielding her from sex talk when they'd lived through the breakdown of society, but whatever. "Stacie's fine with just jumping into something like that. I dunno, I guess...I guess I'd be worried that it might be awkward? Like, it's not a casual thing where you never see the other person again. We live in the same pretty small place."

*

Beca thought on Chloe’s question for a moment before realizing she had no answer. “I can’t really explain it. It’s… like a special kind of radar, but for douchefaces, I guess. I caught a vibe.” Instinct was pretty vital to her survival, so she liked to think she could read when guys, especially, had ulterior motives. (Beca also wasn’t a big fan of jock dudes in general, but she could thank the hellscape that was middle school for that.) A nervous puff of air that might have passed for a chuckle escaped and she nodded, wrinkling her nose. “She’s… not shy at all about sharing that stuff, is she?” Beca considered Chloe’s point. “Yeah, that makes sense. Can’t exactly ghost someone inside a settlement.”

*

She listened patiently to Beca's criteria for determining when a guy had a doucheface, but all the while, a grin was growing across her face. "Wait, so you think I'm the type who'd be into douchefaces? Wow, thanks, Beca. Big vote of confidence there." She didn't even try to muster a joking glare, because there was no convincing venom in her voice to begin with. Another laugh issued from her lips as she shook her head. "Oh, you have no idea. Stacie has...very few boundaries, if any. I'm pretty sure she'd taken being stuck in a settlement as a challenge to get inventive." The things she'd heard...and Stacie definitely had the brains to get creative. "See? So yeah, I worry it would make things...complicated." She cast a tight-lipped smile at Beca. "I guess you don't have to worry about that though, right? So is the whole cute and nerdy thing what you go for?" It was the most direct question she'd asked about Beca and Jesse and whatever their relationship was, but they were on the subject, so it just made sense. Right?

*

Beca held up both hands innocently, still twirling one of the dandelions she’d plucked from the earth. “Hey, I’m just theorizing based on evidence here. You clearly have shitty taste in people you find interesting,” she said, motioning grandly at herself. “I’m kinda glad I have no idea, because I have at least a little bit of an idea, and… yeah, no thanks. I mean--good for her, if she makes it work, but… I’ll pass on the details.” Beca gave an overdramatic shudder.

When Chloe turned the tables once more, she dared a glance back in time to catch that smile, and she exhaled with a couple raspy notes of a chuckle. “Um, I never really thought about it, but I guess I do.” Jesse definitely fit the bill, but she couldn’t put her finger on if his cute and nerdy demeanor was what drew her to like him in more than a friendly way. She ducked her head as they walked, pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “For the record, it’s not easier. Having a… thing, out there.” She nodded toward the settlement gates.

*

This time, it was Chloe's turn to lightly swat Beca's arm when she disparaged her taste in the people she found interesting. "Wait, so are you calling yourself a doucheface too? Because I can totally see the whole All-American jock thing..." she said with a smirk, lifting her pointer finger to indicate the entirety of Beca's being while her eyes gave her a quick once-over. She was sure Beca was being self-deprecating in a different way, but she couldn't pass up the opportunity when it was right there in front of her. "Well...good luck with that. You'd better keep your guard up, because a Stacie story can strike when you least expect it. And trust me, she can get descriptive." Seriously, it had even been enough to make Chloe blush several times (Aubrey had seemed on the verge of a meltdown or an aneurysm).

Her chin bobbed in a nod of consideration when Beca confirmed her speculation. "That's--Jesse's cool. He seems really sweet." And he did! He'd been nothing but helpful since they arrived, and despite his faux pas earlier that night, he seemed to genuinely have good intentions. Her hands tucked into her pockets again as they strolled, and her head tipped back slightly to take in the stars that dotted the inky expanse of sky above them. Her chin snapped back down at Beca's remark though, eyes widening a bit. "Oh no, that's isn't--I didn't mean to imply that it was. I can't imagine what it's like to be out there all the time. But--you guys have obviously made it work?”

*

When Chloe turned it back around on her, Beca gasped with her mouth falling agape. “I did not call myself a doucheface. That’s--totally different,” she insisted. It still kinda blew Beca’s mind that Chloe didn’t hesitate to joke and tease her, and even turn her own words against her. Seriously, what was up with this chick? Her face scrunched once more at the mention of Stacie. “Thanks for the heads up, though. I’ll make sure to bolt if Stacie starts storytelling.”

Beca bit her lower lip in deep thought when Chloe commented on Jesse and their situation. “Yeah, he’s sweet and all--he’s pretty, um--what you see is what you get with Jesse, y’know? He wears his heart on his sleeve.” Sometimes too much. “No, I know you didn’t mean anything by it--I was just saying, it’s different but not easier or harder, I guess. We’ve been--I mean, I met him two years ago, and we kinda fell into things soon after, but lately it’s been… ever since…” She didn’t want to go back to that place where they talked about Sara, so hopefully Chloe would catch on. “It’s been kind of a rough few months, we haven’t really--I don’t even know if we’re still…” She winced. Complete a fucking sentence, Beca. “I guess it’s kinda complicated.”

*

"I mean...you kinda did though. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me," she assured her, leaning in slightly as she dropped her voice to a secretive stage whisper. As if they weren't the only weirdos walking around out here alone at night instead of enjoying the party back at the communal tent. One hand lifted to snap off a quick salute when Beca thanked her for the warning about Stacie. "No problem, anytime. Probably a good plan though. There are still a few people around here that I can't look in the eye ever since..." She gave an exaggeratedly dramatic shudder at the recollection. In all honesty, she was completely fine with Stacie's escapades and was glad that her friend had found a system that worked for her, but it was still fun to joke around about it with Beca.

It was clear she had struck a chord with her observation about Jesse and their relationship, since Beca immediately started rambling a little brokenly instead of the relative ease with which they'd been joking before. "Hey, I get it," she assured her in a low tone, lifting one hand in a light touch against Beca's elbow as a physical reassurance. "You don't have to explain anything to me. Getting by with…everything now is different, so of course relationships can be complicated. Whether they're romantic or friendly or whatever, we're all dealing with a lot more than we were before. So don't worry, I get it." She couldn't imagine what life must be like outside of the relative safety of the settlement for that long, not to mention the complete disarray and pain that must have come from losing Sara. So even if she didn't have firsthand experience with it, she understood how complicated wouldn't even begin to cover the state of things.

*

Beca narrowed her eyes at Chloe. “Is it too late to take back those nice things I said before? ‘Cause I’d like to print a retraction. Verbally.” She forced a few deep breaths when it was Chloe’s turn to talk. “No, it’s okay. I... I’m not used to talking about this stuff. Amy’s not exactly…” Beca shrugged, letting that hang. “It seems stupid, anyway, worrying about guys and relationships and feelings bullshit, doesn’t it? I always kinda thought it was pointless with everything going on.” Part of her selfishly wished Jesse would find some girl in the settlement and fall hard and fast in love with her, forget about her altogether. Maybe that was kinda fucked up, but it would serve to both ease her guilt about leaving him and prove her point that he was only with her because he was low on options on the run.

The touch to her elbow brought her back, and as they neared the quiet house, Beca slowed to a stop. “Thanks, Nurse Chloe.” She wanted to expound on that, to explain how much it meant to her that someone besides Jesse or Amy cared enough to seek her out when she was upset (even if she didn’t necessarily want the company, at least at first). But she’d always been crappy with words, so she offered a soft, tired grin as she reached up to thread the dandelion through Chloe’s hair, just over her ear. “Goodnight.” Without waiting for a response, Beca slipped by her and let herself into the house, tucking into the living room to claim that couch.

*

"No take backs. Sorry, those are the rules," she sighed, shrugging like the matter was completely out of her hands. And edge of understanding shadowed her smile, and she looked over at Beca to give a small nod. "Yeah, I get that. I'm--I mean, I'm glad that people like Stacie have found things that work for them. And I'm not saying I've sworn off the idea of anything like that, of course. But...it is kinda crazy when you put it into perspective, isn't it?" Chloe was a dogged optimist who wanted to trust that good things like that could still happen in this new, broken world of theirs. She'd seen it happen a few times and sincerely wished those people well. In fact, it bolstered her hope for the world around them. But it had seemed easier to pour her attention and care into the girls she called family now, not wanting to neglect anything they might need.

Her pace slowed and then stilled to match Beca's, and her gaze once again alighted on Beca's face when she turned to her. "Anytime, Special Agent Mitchell." The weariness in Beca's smile was evident, but so too was the softness, and that was what struck Chloe more than anything. Even more surprising was the careful touch of Beca's hand in her hair, eyes wide and searching on Beca's face as she laced the dandelion into her hair. "Goodnight." The response came a beat too late as Beca slipped past her and disappeared into the darkened house. She watched the front door that had closed behind Beca for a long moment before she pulled herself from that contemplative reverie and lifted a soft hand to touch the dandelion that was threaded in her hair. The tread of her boots was quiet on the porch steps, and her smile stayed with her all the way back to the communal tent where the music was still in full swing.

Chapter Text

Beca pretended to be asleep when Jesse and Amy drunkenly barreled into the living room, shushing each other louder than their “quiet” tiptoes so as to not wake Beca. Again, she felt like a dick--but she didn’t feel like having a conversation with a drunk Jesse, much less at all, and she never really knew how to console him when he got emotional on her. She woke shortly before sunrise and she wasn’t surprised when Jesse woke soon after, asking if they could go for a walk. They talked. Well--Jesse talked, and talked, and talked, and Beca nodded and chimed in when Jesse’s sad face became too much to bear. By the time they reached the porch again, they hugged and Beca reassured him she didn’t hate him for what felt like the 500th time.

She was grateful for others up and about in the house, and after a communal breakfast, Beca offered target practice support for anyone who wanted help. The warmth of the Georgia summer had Beca leave her leather jacket draped across the couch, but she made sure to shove her sunglasses on her face after strapping all her weapons to her body. Jesse helped carry the extra ammo across the settlement to the annexed wooded area still within their boundaries that had been designated for target practice. Beca knew not all of the girls were following (some had other duties to attend to), but she had more than she expected traveling in a small pack behind her.

Luckily, they found the spot empty, and Beca noted the different sized targets painted (and repainted several times over), empty cans (some propped on horizontal logs and others dangling from trees). “Huh,” Beca said, her brow shooting up when she spotted the bow propped against a tree. She picked it up and tested the give on the bowstring. She hadn’t expected they’d be set up like this. “Not a bad setup you’ve got here. Let’s get started with showing you how to work your way around your new best friend.” Beca pulled her spare shotgun dangling from her hip and offered it out to Chloe. “It’s cool. Safety’s on.”

*

It was easier to return to the party, knowing that Beca was feeling at least somewhat better after the unexpected tension with Jesse. Of course, Jesse and Amy were some of the first people to approach her once she returned, but after plenty of reassurances that Beca was okay and she'd turned in for the night, the two of them had seemed appeased and returned to the festivities with everyone else. With that taken care of, Chloe mostly stuck close to the girls that she could find in the fray of singing and dancing people, although Tom did approach her at one point (she could practically picture Beca's smirk at that, but whatever). By the time the impromptu party was finally winding down, Chloe did her best to wrangle the girls together and usher them back to the house, with plenty of whispered reminders along the way to stay quiet and not disturb the people who were already asleep in the house. It was only once everyone was safely returned to their rooms for the night that Chloe gratefully collapsed on her own mattress, but it only took minutes after her head hit the pillow for sleep to claim her.

When the first rays of sunlight through the window stirred her into consciousness the next morning, Chloe decided to get a jump on the day. She made her first rounds to start rousing the girls who were still stubbornly burrowed beneath their blankets, with some of them undoubtedly regretting their levels of indulgence the night before. The girls slowly filtered towards the living room of the house one or two at a time, but most of them were up and about by the time Beca and Jesse slipped back through the front door. The impulse to satisfy her curiosity by observing the two of them was strong, but she distracted herself by ushering the mildly grumbling girls out the door to breakfast. Food seemed to revive most of them much better, and she was pleased by the number of them that made the trek across the settlement to the designated shooting range at Beca's prompting.

The girls filtered around the area as Beca scoped out the situation, clearly awaiting instructions for whatever her teaching style might be. Aubrey had been diligent about training them back during the initial outbreak before they'd all made it to the settlement, when handling a gun had been a much more pressing requirement of daily life. She had even coached them through several sessions at this shooting range after they'd gotten settled with the Barden community, but different responsibilities around the settlement had made it a much less frequent occurrence the longer they'd been there. Still, it was always good to keep their skills fresh or to learn new techniques, so having a fresh perspective from Beca could only be a positive, if you asked Chloe. There was a only a beat of hesitation when Beca offered her the shotgun before she reached to accept the weapon from her. "What, the spare doesn't get a cool name like Fiona?" She mustered a hint of a smile, but she kept the barrel of the gun pointed at the ground away from anyone in the vicinity (Aubrey had scolded them plenty of times about that). Just as she'd confided to Beca, she was less comfortable with a shotgun than with other weapons, but she wanted to set a good, positive example for the other girls who wanted to learn as well.

*

Beca reached up to lower her aviators on the bridge of her nose so she could make sure Chloe saw the glare she leveled on her for calling out her Fiona. “The spare’s yours now, so if you’d like to name her, be my guest.” Her lips twitched into a smirk before she stood up straighter and cleared her throat. “I’m donating our spare shotgun to you guys because it’s basically the best weapon to use against clickers. Rifles are better for long-range, non-moving targets. Shotguns are designed for closer-range combat, for targets that move. Clickers, though they’re tough to put down, don’t move as quickly as non-infected, making the shotgun your best shot at taking them out. Now, I know you guys know your way around a rifle, so I’m not gonna bore you with the basics of gun operation.” Beca lifted Fiona to her small crowd. “This is a pump-action, twelve-gauge shotgun, very similar to the one Chloe’s holding. It’s got a pistol grip here--” Beca held up the butt of the gun so they could see the trigger. “--meaning that it fires the same way as your handguns fire. Only between each shot, you need to pump the barrel, like this.” Beca held up the gun and gripped the barrel, jerking it with enough force to demonstrate as it made a clicking noise. “Shells--” She pulled two red shotgun shells from her pocket. “--slide right in here, clicking into place with a spring so they won’t fall out. This makes reloading super fast.” She demonstrated loading the shells inside, pumping the gun once more. “Now the live ammo’s in the chamber and now we’re ready to shoot.”

She looked around to make sure the girls didn’t have much confusion on their faces. Some looked a little hesitant, but not scared, which was good. “Don’t worry. I can walk each of you through this individually, no problem. Now, positioning is very important with your shotgun. Dominant on the pistol grip, support hand on the foregrip up here on the barrel. Make sure the stock’s tucked into your shoulder, like this.” Beca kept the tip of the gun pointing away from anyone, keeping her body and the gun parallel to the girls so they could see her hand and gun placement. “From here, you aim down the barrel… and you fire, pumping between each shot.” Beca demonstrated by firing three shots in succession--hitting a bullseye about 50 yards away, then the bullseye on the 75 yard target, before aiming higher and hitting the center hanging can; the bullet echoed with a sharp ping and the can flew back and forth and jerking the branch as it bobbed back into place. “And that’s the basics.” Beca clicked Fiona’s safety back on and let her gun hang at her hip. “You ready, Chlo?” The nickname rolled off her tongue before she even thought about it, and she offered Chloe two red shotgun shells. “Load ‘er up and let me check your positioning.”

*

In response to Beca's glare, Chloe looked thoroughly unfazed and flashed a quick wink and grin back at her. "Aye aye, captain. I'll try to do Fiona justice with a name to match." When Beca pitched her voice a little louder to address the whole group, she marshaled her smile into a more neutral expression and provided her full attention to Beca's instructional spiel instead. It quickly became clear that although Beca could be hesitant or standoffish towards people, she obviously knew her stuff when it came to guns. And from everything Chloe had learned so far, she had the experience against both clickers and scavs to back it up. Beca moved with much more ease addressing the girls when she was detailing the threats that a shotgun was efficient in handling and the mechanics of the gun itself. She made sure to be as attentive as possible, trying to commit all of the details that Beca shared to memory so they would be useful in the future. She had to admit, despite her relative inexperience with shotguns in comparison to other types of guns, it seemed a lot less daunting under Beca's tutelage and thanks to the straightforward way she walked them through each step of handling the shotgun.

She took a quick glance around at the other girls who were assembled, offering an encouraging smile to them. Her head snapped back around to Beca when she started walking them through the proper positioning and placement with a shotgun. When Beca lifted the gun to demonstrate her positioning, her gaze was scrutinizing as she studied the lines of Beca's body and the way she handled the shotgun, filing all of it away to hopefully help her own shotgun handling in the future. The resounding blasts from the shotgun were loud in the relative seclusion of the wooded annex, and she gave an impressed raise of her brow when each shot found its mark with seemingly effortless ease. She heard a low, appreciative whistle from one of the girls behind her (she was inclined to agree with that assessment). With Beca's demonstration out of the way, she was a little surprised when Beca immediately turned to her to take the next turn. She did a small double take of pleased surprise when Beca used that nickname so casually, but she didn't comment on it. She wasn't sure Beca had even noticed it herself. One hand lifted to take the shotgun shells that Beca offered her, carefully sliding them into place until she felt the springs engage like Beca had mentioned. After pumping the barrel like Beca had demonstrated, she tucked the stock of the shotgun against her shoulder as instructed, lifting the gun to aim and using the 50-yard target as her sight line down the barrel. Rather than firing, she held that position and spared a quick glance over at Beca. "Like this?"

*

“Good,” Beca said with a firm nod when Chloe loaded the gun with ease. Her eyes roamed over Chloe from head to toe--to study her form, of course. Stance was super important, even in the midst of battle. Without planted feet you hardly stood a chance at hitting anything. She approached from the side, gently reaching up to rest her hand at the small of Chloe’s back and reaching in with her other to slightly shift the angle of Chloe’s elbow, which should hopefully make her feel like she had a bit more control of the barrel. “Don’t forget to breathe through your shooting,” Beca murmured, her voice low as she was definitely in Chloe’s personal space and pretty damn close to her ear, but she was trying to get a good idea of that gun placement. Yep. She definitely caught Stacie’s face in her periphery, which brightened with something akin to mischief, like she knew some sort of secret Beca didn’t. Whatever it was, Beca cleared her throat and stepped back, keeping her tone quiet. “Fire on your exhale.”

*

She felt a note of pride when her stance didn't seem to be hopelessly askew, even though she mentally reminded herself that there was a lot more to it than just getting her positioning relatively correct. She felt Beca step in close to her, but even with that awareness, there was still a faint catch to her breathing and her muscles jumped slightly beneath Beca's hand at the unexpected touch. The irony wasn't lost on her that the next thing Beca instructed her on was her breathing. In fact, she hadn't expected Beca's voice so close to her ear, and something she couldn't quite name coiled in the pit of her stomach as her fingers tightened against the foregrip of the shotgun. When Beca took a step back and she couldn't feel her presence so close to her, she forced a deep breath in through her nose. Narrowing her focus to the painted target that lined up down the length of the shotgun barrel, she breathed out a slow exhale and squeezed the trigger as she did so. The shot rang through the air once again, and the bullet clipped the edge of the 50-yard target she'd been aiming for. Not perfect by any means, but nobody would've been able to tell that by the smile on Chloe's face as she clicked the safety on and lowered the gun. "Hey, that didn't completely suck!"

*

Beca squinted at the target as she noted the spot where Chloe’s shot hit. She couldn’t help but bite her lip to fight the urge to smile to match Chloe’s, which was for some reason contagious and adorable as she got excited about almost completely missing the target. “So... basically you grazed the clicker’s shoulder, it staggered back a few paces but it’s still coming at you--more pissed off now. Fire again.” She glanced to the box of shells Jesse had set down. “Finish the round. We’ve got enough ammo. Emily?”

Emily jumped excitedly and hurried over to Beca’s side at the target a few yards away from Chloe’s. “Is it my turn?”

“Yep. Meet Fiona,” Beca said, offering Emily her favorite gun.

Emily gasped, taking the gun with reverence. “Ooooh, hello Fiona… Beca, is this the gun you used to save me?”

Beca’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Yeah, one of ‘em.”

Beaming, Emily… hugged Beca’s shotgun to her chest. “Thank you, Fiona.”

Beca couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief because seriously, was this girl for real? “Okay, kid. Careful where you point that thing. Here you go, load it up and let me watch.” She crouched to pick up two shells and offer them to Emily. Just as she had with Chloe’s tutorial, Beca watched Emily load the gun and helped her shooting stance, muttering something about Emily being a baby giraffe as she had to work a bit harder to correct her positioning than she had to with Chloe.

*

As soon as Beca tempered her excitement with a much more realistic assessment of what had just happened, she rolled her eyes skyward and gave a dramatic scoff. "That's what the practice is for, you delightful ray of sunshine." Her lips quirked with a hint of a smile that gave her away in the split second before Beca turned to work with Emily next. She pumped the barrel of the shotgun and lifted it to brace against her shoulder again, taking her time to line up her shots. She fired off two more shots, pausing to pump the shotgun between them, before lowering the gun and clicking the safety on yet again. Her grouping on the remainder of the round was tighter--no bullseyes like Beca's, but definitely more solid hits than her first one.

She glanced over her shoulder to watch Beca and Emily for a moment. It was clear that Emily's form needed a bit of work, but Beca was patient and encouraging in guiding her into a more effective stance. All the while, it was obvious that Emily was practically giddy with the excitement of working with Beca. Yep, definitely some hero worship there. A whisper of a smile skated across her face before she forced herself to pull her gaze away from them.

While Beca worked with Emily on her positioning, she turned back to the other girls who were clustered behind them. "Who's up next?"

"Oh what the hell, I'll give it a go," Cynthia Rose piped up, strolling forward to take the offered shotgun from Chloe. With her chill, collected demeanor, she wasn't surprised that Cynthia Rose would be one of the first ones to step up to take on a new challenge. Over Cynthia Rose's shoulder, she caught sight of Stacie smirking at her. Okay, she had no clue what that was about, but she chalked it up to another of Stacie's quirks before she turned away.

She knew that each of them wanted Beca's input on their positioning and handling of the shotgun, so they turned to watch Emily take her turn with a target before Beca moved on to help the next person.

*

“Yep, that's all me.” Beca pinned Chloe with another glare, forcing her facial muscles into an expression even gloomier than usual for show. “Better. Much better,” she called over to Chloe after taking her next shots.

Emily took a bit more time, but Beca remained patient and tried desperately not to think of the eerie similarities between Emily and Sara as she worked with her. It took three shots before Emily grazed the corner of the target, squealing with excitement when she did so. “Not bad, kid. Keep it up. Hey, Jess, would you…?”

Jesse stepped in to continue coaching Emily through her next round of shots while Beca moved back to the other gun to help Cynthia Rose. He wasn't much of a guns guy, but Beca made him train up enough where he'd mastered the technique, and of course he was a gentler teacher than she could ever hope or care to be.

Beca liked Cynthia Rose. She was definitely the most chill girl in the house and she found herself angling to sit near her at mealtimes, knowing and appreciating she wouldn't force her into conversation. Beca wasn't surprised when Cynthia Rose picked up on the shotgun quickly, and when she stepped back and handed the gun back to Beca, she turned and held the weapon out to Stacie as an offering. “Wanna give it a try?”

*

Even though it took Emily more time to familiarize herself with the weapon and work her way towards the target with each shot, Chloe still felt a proud smile stretching across her face as she watched. Between Emily's genuine enthusiasm and Beca's patience in coaching her, it was the kind of image that stuck with Chloe.

Chloe stepped back a bit when Beca returned to their group in order to give Cynthia Rose plenty of space to work with the shotgun and get tips from Beca. Cynthia Rose was one of their most reliable options for watch shifts and occasional supply runs, so it was no surprise that she picked up on the weapon with relative ease. And while Cynthia Rose wasn't one to gloat, Chloe definitely caught the hint of pride in her smile when she finished her round and returned to the group, which sparked a smile from Chloe as well.

Stacie brushed past Chloe with another smirk that was hooded in its intent. She would never understand how Stacie managed to make the most innocuous tasks seem sultry, but as she sauntered over to take the shotgun from Beca, Chloe had to concede that she'd once again done it. Just as all of them had done before, Stacie loaded the shotgun before lifting to tuck the stock against her shoulder.

She spared a look at Beca over her shoulder, lips curving with a smirk. "You gonna help me with my positioning, Beca?"

"Stacie!"

"Christ, Stace, keep it in your pants." Cynthia Rose's exasperated groan spoke volumes about how commonplace that kind of innuendo was from Stacie. Chloe was just silently glad that Emily was still distracted by working with Jesse at her own target and didn't seem to be paying them any mind.

Thoroughly unbothered by their reprimands, Stacie merely shrugged before turning back to face the target and line up her shot so Beca could check her stance.

*

Beca’s jaw fell slack for a fraction of a second before she slammed it shut, damn near breaking her teeth in the process. She cleared her throat and was super glad for the aviators blocking a large portion of her blush, crossing her arms over her chest as she offered a curt nod. Though she’d had the torturous experience of overhearing Stacie regale the house with tales of her dalliances around the settlement, Beca had a feeling Stacie was just fucking with her and not actually flirting. That helped her brush it off, for the most part, as she waited for Stacie to find her stance. “Your legs need to be a little farther apa--oh fuck you, dude, you set me up for that.” Beca shoved Stacie’s shoulder as Stacie burst into a cackle. “You know what you’re doing. Line up and fire the damn gun.” Still slightly flustered, Beca returned her attention to Emily, if only so she could turn her back to Stacie to regulate the color in her cheeks (back to zero, pretty much).

“You okay, Bec?” Jesse had seemingly been too preoccupied with helping Emily to notice Stacie’s teasing. “She’s really coming along.”

Emily beamed with pride. “I hit the target with my last two!”

“I’m good, yeah. Thanks for helping with this. And that’s awesome, kid. Way to go. Should we give someone else a turn with Fiona?”

*

Chloe and Cynthia Rose shared collective groans and rolls of their eyes at Stacie's antics. None of it was new for them, but that didn't mean she had to bring it to the shooting range too! Especially since Chloe could see the tinge of red that colored Beca's face, at least from what she could see despite Beca's sunglasses and the angle she was standing. To her credit, Beca didn't rise to the bait--

At least until Stacie purposely skewed her stance and set Beca up for that unintentional innuendo.

"Stacie, don't traumatize the new people!" Chloe wasn't sure she quite hit the mark of scolding--it sounded slightly flustered even to her own ears--but it's not like it would faze Stacie anyway. In fact, her only response was to release the hand on the foregrip of the barrel so she could flip the bird at them over her shoulder.

Stacie more than had the capabilities to offset her more salacious antics though, as evidenced by the way she snapped into focus when Beca chided her to take her shots. Chloe hadn't been exaggerating when she'd called Stacie scary smart before, and that showed when she could practically see the analytical side of Stacie's brain take over as she lined up and took her round of shots. Seriously, thank god Stacie was on their side.

Her attention was pulled to the side when she heard Emily's excited exclamation about how her shooting was coming along. It might've been a rough start, but Emily was nothing if not dedicated and enthusiastic. And her glee over some marked improvement was contagious. "Good job, Em!"

Before Emily could respond to Beca or anyone else could take her up on the offer to take a turn, a sound broke the peaceful seclusion of the area that wasn't a gunshot.

It probably had roughly the same effect though.

"What the hell, ladies?"

Chloe caught varying degrees of surprise or trepidation on several of the girls' faces as she spun to face the new arrival. Aubrey. Of course. Aubrey struck an imposing figure with her hands on her hips and a look that was sharp enough to kill. Out of her periphery, she saw Emily's fumbling panic for a moment before she shoved the gun into Jesse's hands, as if she could absolve herself of Aubrey's anger by not being caught red-handed with the shotgun.

"Bree, Beca and Jesse were just being nice enough to help out with some target practice. Beca's giving her spare shotgun to us, isn't that super nice? And since a lot of us aren't--very comfortable with a shotgun, she was giving us some lessons." Chloe knew she was rambling, but she couldn't help herself. Maybe if she threw enough optimistic points out there, it would lessen the glower on Aubrey's face (no luck there so far). "And--we only let the girls who have the day off tag along. So it's not like...we're not leaving anyone hanging around the settlement."

*

Trying desperately to maintain her tough girl exterior despite the uncomfortable sexual innuendo, Beca shot Stacie a deadpan look. “I’m fine, Chloe. It’d take more than that to traumatize me.” She raised a warning finger at Stacie when the tall girl’s face once again lit up like fucking Christmas. “Not that that’s a challenge, Stacie, for fuck’s sake.” With an exasperated sigh, Beca snatched the shotgun from Stacie just in time for that piercing bitch voice to tear through the trees. She watched as the girls reacted as though they’d just been scolded by an authoritarian parent.

Jesse accepted the gun back from a terrified looking Emily, and even he hung his head as though he’d done something to be ashamed of.

Beca pursed her lips and slowly removed her sunglasses, the heat of her glare sharp on Aubrey. No fear. “So… I’m confused, what’s the actual problem here? Are you pissed they didn’t ask your permission, or are you pissed they’re taking lessons from me and not you?”

*

Chloe could already tell that her attempts at defusing the situation before it really turned into anything had amounted to a whole lot of nothing. Nada. Zilch. Aubrey's glare didn't slacken even an inch, and if anything, her jaw tightened even more when Beca was almost flippant and methodical in the speed at which she removed her sunglasses to glare right back at her. Great, just what Aubrey loved, someone exactly as stubborn as her.

She could already sense the tension that had permeated throughout the group as they watched the showdown between Beca and Aubrey. Emily looked like she was on the verge of trying to hide behind Jesse, despite practically being as tall as him, and even Stacie and Cynthia Rose had a decidedly uneasy look to them as they watched the two women stare each other down.

Aubrey bristled at Beca's question, her lips curling in a sneer (no doubt she saw the challenge to her authority as insubordinate). "There's a system for how we do things around here, Beca. You don't get to just waltz in here with your motorcycle and bad attitude and stomp all over it."

"Aubrey, they're just trying to help. We--I know you're busy, so--I didn't see what the harm was in letting her help out?" Chloe's tone was placating as she stepped forward, slightly edging her way into the gap of space between Aubrey and Beca in the hopes of drawing Aubrey's focus instead.

"God, Chloe, stop being so naive," Aubrey scoffed, and Chloe's expression flinched towards a momentary wince at the venom in her tone. "We don't even know these people. They don't even belong here."

That was enough to stir Chloe's own annoyance and her jaw tightened as she met Aubrey's gaze. "That's not fair, Aubrey. They're been pulling their weight just as much as anyone since they got here. We were all new here at some point, it's not fair to single them out."

Aubrey's eyes flashed with heat in a way that made it expressly clear that she disagreed with Chloe's point of view on the situation.

*

Beca’s brow shot up almost to her hairline when Aubrey called out her bike and her attitude. She waited patiently, however, for Chloe to speak before she jumped in again, rage bubbling low in her belly at the clear dictatorship by fear going on here. Especially when she caught the reactions of Stacie and Cynthia Rose and Emily shifting to hide behind Jesse. “Look, I get that I’m not the most pleasant person to be around, but if anything you’re the one with the shitty fucking attitude between us. I get that I’ve been sidelined and useless with my injury but I’m patched up now and I’m trying to make up for lost time by helping out the best way I know how.” She motioned toward the targets and her shotgun.

Jesse, like Chloe, tended to be more of a peacekeeper in confrontational scenarios, and he gently stepped toward Beca. “Aubrey, hey, we didn’t realize we were bothering you so much. We can talk to some people, maybe find another living room floor to crash on--it’s really no problem.”

Beca rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to kiss this girl’s ass, Jesse. We’re not doing anything wrong.” She switched the safety onto the shotgun and lifted it up to rest on her shoulder. “Who’s next? Flo? Ashley?” She figured ignoring Aubrey and continuing on with the shotgun lessons--especially when most of the other girls seemed to be fearful of Aubrey--probably wasn’t going to work, but it was worth a shot.

*

Chloe's teeth worried sharply at her bottom lip when Beca turned things around on Aubrey and called her out for her attitude. She could already feel this whole encounter rapidly spiraling out of her control, and anxiety coiled sourly in her stomach as she watched the two stubborn women square off, neither willing to relent. She did shoot Jesse a grateful look when he tried to intervene as well, since he clearly wanted to smooth things over and keep the peace just as much as she did. She felt a pang of sympathy for him--since Aubrey had largely avoided the three newcomers, he probably felt rather blindsided by this sudden animosity, but she was grateful to him for recovering enough to try to step in.

Both Flo and Ashley looked stricken by being called out with the offer, their eyes flickering back and forth between Aubrey and Beca. It was obvious that nobody wanted to be the first to tread into the middle of the tension that crackled between the two women who showed no signs of backing down.

"I'll go," Chloe piped up, stepping over to Beca. Aubrey didn't know that she'd already taken a turn, and Chloe hoped that by stepping up, it would bolster the girls' confidence and reassure them that it was okay they'd come out here to take lessons with Beca in the first place. She already seemed to be doing a spectacular job of pissing off her best friend lately, so she might as well take one more strike on that record if it meant taking the heat off the other girls.

"No." Aubrey's voice was firm as she brushed past Chloe's shoulder until she was practically toe-to-toe with Beca. "I'll go next." She held one hand out with her palm facing upward, the gesture carrying a clear challenge as she stared down at Beca without flinching.

*

Beca couldn’t help but admire Chloe in that moment, stepping up to take the heat away from the other girls as Beca had witnessed before. It wasn’t right, though, that Aubrey kept shitting on them with her withering glares and guilt-tripping manipulation tactics. She knew that she was new around the settlement, but it wasn’t difficult to sort out pack dynamics--and Aubrey was definitely the alpha bitch, clearly here to piss on her territory before Beca sunk her claws in deeper than she had. “Be my guest,” Beca said coolly, handing over the spare shotgun along with two red shells. She stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest, watching to see if Aubrey actually knew what she was doing or not. She remembered Chloe telling her Aubrey was the one who taught them to shoot, but that didn’t mean she was any good.

*

If it was possible, Aubrey's look turned even colder when Beca maintained her composure as she handed over the shotgun and shells. She looked like she might be on the verge of saying something more, but instead, she turned on her heel and marched the short distance to line up in front of the targets. Aubrey's movements were sharp and precise as she loaded the shotgun and pumped the barrel--methodical, just as she was in everything she did--before facing the targets and squaring her stance. Despite the force of her anger towards Beca, her demeanor was cool and composed as she lifted the gun to tuck the stock against her shoulder and sight the first target down the barrel of the gun.

Time in the settlement had done nothing to tarnish the skills that had been instilled in Aubrey from a young age. She took aim with much the same ease that Beca had earlier, aiming first for the 50-yard target before moving on to the 75-yard target and the can that hung from the center line from a tree--each shot struck home with precision. She clicked the safety on and took a moment to study her handiwork before she turned to Beca, pushing the shotgun back into her hands with a little more force than was necessary.

"You might think you're hot shit, Beca," she said in a low, poisonous tone to match the iciness of her stare. "But you're nothing special around here."

"Aubrey, out of line." The words issued from Chloe's lips almost before she thought about it. "None of us are doing anything wrong here. These are skills we need, so what's the harm in letting her help?"

"Chloe, what's your deal with these people?" The gaze that Aubrey turned on Chloe was steely and bewildered, as if she couldn't understand why Chloe seemed to like them and chose to associate with them.

Chloe floundered for a moment beneath the question, feeling her face heat when Aubrey didn't look away (yep, definitely blaming that on the scrutiny). She was spared from having to cobble together an answer when Cynthia Rose broke her silence behind her. "C'mon, Aubrey, they're cool with us. We all like them, and Beca was being a really big help with the lesson."

There were a few murmurs of assent from the other girls, perhaps feeling a little more emboldened once Chloe and Cynthia Rose had both spoken up.

*

Okay, so maybe Beca was a little impressed with Aubrey’s accuracy on the targets, that ping from the bullet ricocheting off the can ringing just as loud and clear as it had when Beca had shot it not long ago. She didn’t let it show, though, as she kept her eyes on the blonde with a passive expression. A low, dry chuckle escaped when Aubrey shoved the gun back into her hands, and Beca gently handed it over to Chloe. It was their shotgun, now, after all.

“Hey--that’s not cool,” Jesse said, feeling the need to speak up for Beca (even though she didn’t need his help). “Beca saved Emily, remember? That’s why we’re all here.”

“It’s fine, Jess,” Beca said, waving him off as she stepped closer to Aubrey, closing the distance between them. Toe-to-toe, she simply stared up at the blonde for a long moment before sighing. “Let’s just settle this right now. Name your weapon, your challenge. Pistols, rifles--clearly we both know our way around a shotgun. Archery, knife-throwing, hand-to-hand… whatever you’re most comfortable with. If you beat me, I’m gone. I’ll leave tonight and you’ll never have to see me and my motorcycle again.”

“Beca--” Jesse started, cutting himself off. He knew Beca well enough to know that she’d probably win whatever Aubrey tossed at her--they had too much real life experience and he knew how good Beca was, after all. Still, the thought of them leaving so soon… he’d hoped they could hang around for another couple weeks at least.

“Well?” Beca ignored Jesse, quirking a brow at her opponent.

*

The glare that Aubrey shot Jesse when he tried to intervene was withering. Even though Chloe knew that Aubrey was just as relieved that Emily had made it back home as she was, she'd obviously had issues with Beca and her crew hanging around after the fact. But it was also clear that she had a bigger issue with Beca than with either Jesse or Amy, and Chloe could only assume that Aubrey's feathers had been ruffled since Beca seemed to be another stubborn personality and the girls had taken to all of the newcomers pretty quickly. Aubrey had never handled change well and she was wary of unfamiliar people, so this situation had put her on her guard in the worst possible ways.

Everyone else in the area was instantly on edge when Beca proposed that challenge without so much as flinching beneath Aubrey's glare. Chloe was peripherally aware of Ashley and Flo exchanging uneasy looks, but she couldn't tear her own eyes away from Beca and Aubrey standing right in each other's faces.

"Guys, come on--this is--don't do this. This is ridiculous," Chloe pleaded with them, stepping in closer as she tried to reason with them. She reached up to place a careful hand on Aubrey's arm, but Aubrey shook her off without breaking her gaze away from Beca's.

"Rifles." The single word from Aubrey was clipped and brisk. Chloe knew rifles were Aubrey's strong suit--although her father had trained her with firearms since she was young, she enjoyed the analytical aspect of a long-range weapon best. (She'd confided that in Chloe once. Aubrey always felt safer admitting things like that than deeply personal details.)

"Are you serious? Are you guys seriously gonna do this?" A note of annoyance worked its way into Chloe's tone to mingle with her disbelief, and she looked back at the clustered group of girls and Jesse for any support.

"Come on, there's no need for this," Stacie chimed in, arms crossed tightly over her chest. "This has gotten completely blown out of proportion."

"Aubrey! Beca, c'mon. You guys..." Emily's voice was plaintive, and Stacie pulled the younger girl in against her side and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

*

Narrow-focused on each other, Beca and Aubrey ignored the others’ pleas to stop. Beca nodded once. “Rifles it is. Thirty minutes a piece--hunting? Most meat wins. Might as well use this super friendly competition to benefit the community, you know. To apologize for overstaying our welcome.” She shot Aubrey one more glare before stepping back and motioning for Aubrey to lead the way out of the settlement and to the woods nearby where the hunters roved for game.

After a short, tense walk out of the settlement gates, the group stood at the forest’s edge. Aubrey chose to go first, and armed with an empty burlap sack and her rifle, she headed into the woods alone. She disappeared from view and the girls and Jesse could only hear the echoes of rifle gunshots--about fifteen shots total. Thirty minutes after she’d left, breathing heavily but with a pleased grin plastered on her face, Aubrey dropped her burlap sack at Beca’s feet. “Two rabbits, three squirrels, one baby skunk. Must be at least forty pounds. Good luck beating that, punky twerp.” She placed her hands on her hips and nodded to the girls. “That’s how it’s done, ladies.”

Unfazed, Beca shrugged, offering her handguns and shotgun to Jesse for safe keeping. (She didn’t want Aubrey to think she cheated by using a different weapon, too.) “Cool. My turn,” she said, heading into the forest without a burlap bag. She pulled Annie, her rifle named for Annie Lennox, from around her body and walked briskly through the woods, using her tracking tricks she’d been utilizing for years. Unlike with Aubrey’s outing, those waiting at the edge of the woods would only hear a single rifle shot from Beca about eight minutes into her hunt.

It took twenty minutes for Beca to drag her prize the distance she’d traveled, but right when the 30 minutes was up, Beca trudged hard on her boots into view, gripping up a 140 pound buck by its majestic antlers. The white-tailed deer weighed more than Beca herself, and it only seemed to grow heavier the longer Beca dragged that thing. The look on Aubrey’s face made it worth it, though, as Beca--sweaty as fuck and panting heavily, finally released the kill at Aubrey’s feet and brushed off her hands. The buck sported a bullet hole through its skull--an instant kill shot, meaning the community could use the entire body to cook up and not have to waste any meat cutting around a bullet track. (Beca could’ve sworn she heard Stacie say ‘That’s so fucking hot’ but she didn’t spare her a glance, not wanting to rub salt in Aubrey’s wounds, not that she didn’t deserve it.)

Not one for gloating anyway, Beca placed her hands on her hips and wiped the sweat from her brow. “Gonna hit the showers. See you guys later.” Leaving the buck behind, Beca dragged her exhausted body back into the settlement to the showering area, stripping down quickly and groaning with relief when the rush of fresh water sprayed over her dirty skin. She knew to use the shampoo and soap sparingly, and she did, taking her time to wash thoroughly. Only there did she let that prideful smirk pull at her lips.

*

With each passing moment that Beca and Aubrey disregarded everyone else as they agreed upon the terms of their competition, Chloe felt her frustration with the entire situation simmer more beneath the surface. She knew both of them were stubborn to a fault, but this was ridiculous. Were either of them really going to concede anything in the way they felt towards each other, regardless of the outcome of this stupid pissing contest of theirs? Of course not. She knew that no matter which way this turned out, someone was probably going to storm off upset. Not to mention Beca had vowed to leave entirely if she lost. Seriously, who did that?

Nonetheless, Chloe found herself traipsing across the settlement and out the gates to trek to the forest's edge with the rest of the group. Although the other girls were initially uneasy during the confrontation between Aubrey and Beca, curiosity began to take hold once Aubrey retrieved her rifle and a burlap bag and disappeared into the woods. That speculation only stirred more with each subsequent shot that rang out through the forest and reached their ears. After a while, the girls were openly musing about what kind of game Aubrey might bring back with her. By the time thirty minutes had elapsed and Aubrey came striding out of the woods with her rifle and a much more heavily loaded burlap sack, the girls all looked duly impressed when Aubrey detailed the haul of game she'd brought back.

Without any solid knowledge of Beca's hunting skills other than stories from Jesse and Amy, it was difficult for the girls not to subconsciously already start tallying the impromptu competition as a win for Aubrey. After all, they were all well-acquainted with Aubrey's skills, and she'd impressed with what she'd brought back for her turn.

All of that went out the window the instant that Beca emerged from the trees and underbrush with a freakin' buck in tow (quite literally, since the animal was larger than she was). Despite her own simmering annoyance with the entire situation, Chloe had to admit that it was a hell of an impressive kill, not to mention how much it would benefit the community (both hauls of game would, she mentally amended). In fact, she heard Cynthia Rose breathe out a quiet 'holy shit' at her side, while the other girls mostly gaped at the deer that had been deposited at Aubrey's feet.

Aubrey, for her part, looked like she might be on the verge of bursting a blood vessel. Whatever was bubbling up from the depths of her anger, it went unheeded when Beca excused herself and marched off back towards the settlement and the showering area instead. It was only a few beats after Beca's exit that Aubrey stormed off without a word to anyone, clearly incensed beyond the point of wanting to talk to the rest of them. Their group dispersed quickly after that. Stacie hurried after Aubrey to check on her, without any protests from Chloe--she was probably the last person Aubrey wanted to deal with right now anyway. Cynthia Rose peeled off to find some men in the settlement to help move the buck and field dress it to be used for food later. Jesse and the rest of the girls trickled away in their own different directions, with Emily jogging along behind Flo with her slightly clumsy gait.

Once Chloe was left to her own thoughts, her irritation finally boiled over. It was still a ridiculous competition that they'd both gotten wrapped up in, and while the food would be appreciated by the settlement, it did nothing to actually settle the animosity between the two women. If anything, Aubrey would probably resent Beca even more after she was done tending to her wounded pride.

Muscles in her jaw jumping, Chloe made a beeline for the showering area after Beca. Was it the most prudent move? Probably not. But Chloe had never been the best at impulse control and she could be single-minded to a fault when a thought really got stuck in her brain. So it was with that general...lack of thinking things through that she barged into the shower area in search of one half of the antagonistic duo. "Beca, I know you don't know Aubrey, but you can't just do that kinda thing."

*

Chloe had chosen an inconvenient time to start talking, as Beca's head was tipped back beneath the shower head with the sound of rushing water completely covering any outside noises, shampoo suds rinsing from her long hair and down her tattooed and scarred body. The only thing she wore was a necklace--a bronze talisman charm she never, ever took off. She hadn't noticed anyone slipping into her curtained off shower area until she blinked her eyes open a few seconds after, giving Chloe a full view of… well, everything.

“What the--dude, get out!” Beca's skin, already pink from the water, flushed red as she scrambled to cover herself; the quickest way to do that was to turn around, offering Chloe a chance to catch a glimpse of her intricate pink lotus tattoo on her shoulder blade. And her ass. (Oh my god, this can't be happening.) “Seriously? What--why--” Words failed and she looked back over her shoulder to make sure Chloe had followed her command. Who barges in on someone's shower??

*

In the realm of plans Chloe had come up with before, this one ranked pretty low in both the 'well thought out' and 'bright idea' categories. It was too late to consider that as she barged into the shower area and yanked aside the curtain where she heard running water, because instinct and emotion had already carried her that far and she didn't intend on turning back then. Chloe had never exactly been the best at knowing when to temper her emotions into a more reasonable approach (see: her current predicament of barging in on Beca mid-shower).

By the time Beca blinked her eyes open beneath the spray of water, Chloe had already gotten an eyeful of...well, everything. Except--okay, not everything, because when Beca gave a rather panicked yelp and spun away from her, Chloe's eyes immediately latched onto a vivid tattoo on her shoulder that stood out colorfully against her skin before dropping lower down her back and--

Whoa. Focus, Chloe.

(Kudos to Beca though, she just had to make that mental note. What? She had eyes, okay?)

Clearing her throat, she crossed her arms over her chest. (See? She could focus!) For the record though, she was very diligent about meeting Beca's eyes then. "Aubrey," she persisted, as if that explained everything. In Chloe's mind, it kind of did. "I know she's--a lot to handle sometimes, and she was totally out of line there. But taking the bait and butting heads with her isn't gonna help!"

*

Oh my god, she’s not leaving. Beca cast Chloe a confused glare, sputtering when she brought up Aubrey and her big concern. “Jesus fuck, I didn’t take her bait--she took mine--” At least, that’s how Beca saw it. She shielded her arm across her chest and turned to the side because, somehow… that seemed less revealing? (Beca tried, she had no idea--she was completely taken aback with this shower barging tactic, and it made her want to end this conversation as quickly as possible.) “--she’s totally emotionally abusive to you guys and you--you don’t deserve that--someone had to put her in her place--” Not that it was her job to do so, but she saw an opportunity and took it. “What did you want me to do? Roll over and play dead? Grovel and apologize and beg her to let me and my motorcycle and my bad attitude stay? Fuck that.”

*

She heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes when Beca immediately protested the point. She did direct her gaze upwards to the ceiling for a beat when Beca awkwardly shuffled to the side though. (See? Self awareness!) That all ended with a scoff as her gaze once again fell to meet Beca's, features twisting with a frown of irritation at Beca's rebuttal. "She's not--Aubrey's not emotionally abusive, she's--we've all had a hard time of it, and she's just trying to make sure we all stay safe." Okay, that didn't exactly track with her outburst over Beca giving them shooting lessons, but whatever. Aubrey was just a difficult personality to understand sometimes, okay? Chloe knew that she had good intentions towards the girls where it counted. "Of course not, but--but Aubrey's not the end all, be all around here. She's not in charge of the whole community, she like...she doesn't have any power to kick you out or anything, okay? So you don't have to--to prove anything to her or anyone else here."

*

Beca scoffed. “Chloe, half of your house is fucking terrified of her when she’s angry. Emily hid behind Jesse. It doesn’t matter if she means well--her methods are not okay.” And that was saying something coming from Beca Mitchell, whose methods were sometimes questionable, but she never manipulated anyone or played on fear tactics to get her way. She only did that to keep people away. (And wow, look how much that was working!) Beca shook her head. “Look, I’m sorry I caused you more stress by standing up to her, but it doesn’t matter anyway, okay? None of it matters. I’m still leaving. So I’ll be out of your hair and you guys can get back to the way things were without me cramping your style or whatever.” She hadn’t meant to let that slip, but standing there naked clearly made Beca a little more loose-lipped.

*

She bristled under Beca's remarks, shoulders hunched as her lips pursed with a frown. Some of that insight struck a chord within her that hit a little too close to home, but Aubrey was still her best friend and the stresses of survival had frayed her nerves at the edges. "Emily--doesn't like confrontation in general," she halfway mumbled with a trace of indignation. It wasn't exactly the strongest defense. "Aubrey's kept us alive this far, okay? I don't--you don't have to understand, but she looked after us and got us this far." Beca's revelation pulverized that line of thinking as effectively as a train completely derailing from the tracks, her eyes growing wide with confusion and a flash of something close to hurt. "...what?" The single word was soft, almost lost beneath the spray of running water. Her brow furrowed as she gave a vague shake of her head, trying to make sense of what she'd heard. "What do you mean you're still leaving?”

*

With a sigh, Beca leveled her gaze on Chloe. “That’s great that she kept you alive. I’m not downplaying any of the helpful shit she’s done. But that doesn’t mean she’s entitled to treat you guys like garbage because she can’t fucking handle her power-trippy bullshit.” Beca grimaced at Chloe’s reaction to her slip, and her voice softened. “I’m not leaving because of Aubrey, okay? I’m--I never planned to stay. Could you--” She wrinkled her nose. “Could you give me, like--two fucking minutes so I can finish my shower, please? Then we can talk about this?” She half-expected Chloe to reject her plea and demand more answers, and Beca steeled herself for a more prolonged conversation without a stitch of clothing.

*

Although she dimly registered Beca's insistence about Aubrey and her treatment of the rest of the girls, all of that felt like background noise for the time being when her focus had narrowed down to Beca's confession about leaving. Somehow it stung more to hear that it had always been her plan to leave even before the showdown with Aubrey--especially since Jesse and Amy had seemed so pleased to be in the settlement, and even Beca herself had seemed to be settling in. She thought they'd all been integrating well and feeling more accepted by the community (barring the Aubrey incident, obviously). "I--yeah, sure." That was all she offered in a faint voice before she turned on her heel and hurried out of the showering area just as quickly as she'd arrived. She emerged blinking into the early afternoon sunlight that beamed down on the settlement, and while she was aware of people bustling to and fro with their tasks for the day, she didn't engage with any of them as she shuffled a small distance away. She reached a tree that was nestled near the showering area, slumping down to sit at the base of the tree with her back resting against the trunk to wait.

*

Relief passed over Beca as Chloe agreed to give her a little space to finish her shower, and her chest loosened once she slipped out. She noticed the change in Chloe’s tone, though, and she couldn’t help but feel bad about it. So much for her plan to not get attached to anyone in the settlement. It took another five minutes before Beca pulled on a clean pair of frayed denim shorts and a v-neck t-shirt, her hair still damp though she’d wrung out most of the water, then she padded barefoot from the showers clutching a bag full of her dirty clothes and her tall boots in her hand. She quickly found Chloe sitting against a shady tree. Setting her stuff on the grass nearby, she carefully approached and slid down to sit beside Chloe, not having the courage to face her head on. “I need you to do me a favor, and it’s really important,” she started, biting her lip as she pulled her knees to her chest, hugging them tight. Her eyes scanned the passersby to make sure they weren’t being approached by anyone, and she made sure to keep her voice low. “Please don’t tell Jesse and Amy. They can’t know I’m going or they’ll try to make me stay. Or worse--follow me back out there.” She had a feeling when she spilled the beans to Chloe she was leaving that Chloe would assume that meant Jesse and Amy were leaving, too. So she gave her time to process that.

*

Movement from the showering area caught her attention out of the corner of her eye, and her gaze lifted to see Beca approaching her. Barefoot and with damp hair, Beca looked so casual strolling through the settlement--so much like she fit in there--that it sent another hollow pang through her chest. She remained silent as Beca set her stuff aside and slid down the trunk of the tree to sit beside her, and the pose felt almost reminiscent of finding Beca at the stone well the night before. They were out in the bright light of day, with plenty of people bustling around now though, so it was understandable when Beca's voice carried low and soft across to her. Curiosity blossomed when Beca mentioned a favor, her mind already churning out possibilities--all of that derailed the instant that Beca made that imploring plea about Jesse and Amy. Recognition was only a beat in following, and her head snapped around to level a disbelieving look at Beca. "What?" She felt like she was asking that way too much recently. "They don't even--they have no idea you've been planning this the whole time? Beca, you can't just leave without saying anything to them..." Even though she'd only known them for a little over a week, she'd witnessed enough to know that they would both be devastated if Beca disappeared without a word of it to them. That begged the larger question on her mind though, and her gaze dropped uncertainly to the ground between them. "Why are you leaving?”

*

Chloe repeating what she already knew only made Beca feel worse, but she knew she had to deal with the consequences of her actions. “I have to,” she said, answering both questions with three words. She knew that explanation wouldn’t fly, though--not if she wanted Chloe to keep her secret. “We had too many close calls out there. I can’t keep them both alive forever. And they’re happy here. I’ve never seen them so damn happy.” She closed her eyes for a moment, remembering the two of them singing and dancing up on that table. “They belong here. They’re safer here. Sticking with me--it’ll only hurt them, and I can’t keep doing that. I need them to stay. It’s for the best.” She rested her chin atop her knees, a frown pulling at the corners of her mouth. “My dad gave me a mission and I need to see it through.” That was the main reason she had to leave, but there were others. Some she wasn’t really ready to admit to herself, much less to Chloe.

*

I have to. The answer left a dissatisfied pit of confusion and uncertainty in the pit of her stomach, no matter how adamant Beca seemed. She could understand Beca's logic behind wanting to protect Jesse and Amy, because they did genuinely seem happy here...but she'd noticed all of those details under the assumption that Beca was part of that and was finding her own place in the settlement. Maybe that had been her own foolishness for assuming. "Shouldn't they get that choice? I mean--they've come this far with you. They care about you. What if they try to follow you when they figure out what's happened?" It was the first she'd heard of some mysterious mission that had been bestowed upon Beca by her father, and notes of curiosity stirred to intermingle with her confusion and the stinging ache of what Beca was telling her. "...oh. You never mentioned before...about a mission, I mean. I didn't know." It felt selfish, but every instinct in her body told her to plead with Beca and make the case for why she should stay. But how could she do that, when some task she didn't know anything about had been entrusted to Beca? It was one of the rare occurrences when Beca had shared a glimpse into life before Chloe had known her, and she couldn't help but wonder what mission could be so important in this broken world of theirs that it would be put on the shoulders of someone as young as Beca. "Can we--is there anything we can do to help?”

*

“You know what happens to everyone who cares about me, Chloe? They fucking die.” The instant she said that in her biting tone, she grimaced, casting Chloe an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. I--it’s not… not true, though,” she mumbled, raking a hand through her damp hair at the dumb double negative, but whatever. “They can’t follow me if they don’t know where I’m going, which is why I’m gonna slip out after they’re asleep and have about six hours of a jump on them before they realize I’m gone. It’s shitty, I know, but it’s for the best. I’d rather they hate me forever than be dead.” She took a deep, steadying breath through her nose and exhaled through her mouth. “I know I never mentioned it, because--it was something I got off-course from, and now… I need to get back on track with it. I know that’s cryptic as shit but the less you know about it, the better off you are. Trust me.” It was basically a suicide mission, Beca knew that. But she still had to try. A faint grin pulled at her lips when Chloe offered to help. “You’ve done more than enough, Nurse Chloe. I don’t deserve any of the kindness you’ve shown me since I got here, but I appreciate it. More than I can say, I really… really do.” She met Chloe’s eyes, hoping sincerity shined through.

*

She flinched at the sharpness of Beca's words, and even when it ebbed away beneath the sheepish apology from Beca, there was still an echo of a sympathetic sting to know that Beca felt that way. "People don't die because they care about you, Bec." The nickname rolled off her tongue almost without a conscious thought about it, but then again, Beca had done the same before. She wanted to argue the point, to insist that Jesse and Amy might try to follow her even if she gave herself a head start--Jesse especially might be prone to a dogged, devoted attempt like that, she suspected--but it felt like adding unnecessary guilt to Beca's decision if she really had no choice in the matter. She listened with quiet patience as Beca only offered vague details about whatever mission was taking her away from them, her chin dipping shallowly in a nod of acknowledgment. "Don't tell me you're gonna go off and do something dangerous," she murmured quietly. She knew almost everything about their world was dangerous now, but she could only hope it wouldn't put her in the path of more hazards and perils. She shifted enough until their shoulders and arms brushed together, her eyes searching as she traced the lines of Beca's profile. She fell silent for a moment when Beca looked up to meet her eyes, words dying on her tongue when she saw the genuine earnestness that glimmered back at her. It was only after a long beat that she cleared her throat and found her voice again. "I really wish you didn't have to go. But I, um--I know that's selfish." She thought she'd like to be selfish, just that once. "So...I know if it's something you really need to do, I don't really have any place telling you not to. But--be careful, okay? And you're always welcome back here...y'know, after."

*

Chloe’s words had Beca biting back a snarky reply because that had been her track record so far, but the softness in Chloe’s tone along with the use of her nickname had Beca’s heart skipping a beat instead, twisting with guilt. “I can promise I’ll try to avoid danger as much as possible.” It was the distance that put her at risk and she knew it--she wasn’t going to actively seek out trouble, but the odds were definitely on the side of trouble finding her on several occasions throughout her journey. Hearing that Chloe wanted her to stay was almost enough to make Beca change her mind, but then she’d be the selfish one. Beca leaned into the warm pressure of Chloe’s arm and shoulder, much as her brain told her to move the other way. She nodded a promise to be careful, and cracked a smirk. “I guess when I come back you should probably teach me how to dance. That’s gotta be a life skill I’ll need at some point, right?” She was going for levity, but her chest tightened knowing she’d never make it back there.

*

Know what she did about Beca's plan to leave the settlement, Chloe found that she could scarcely go a few minutes without the news weighing on her mind. It was difficult to watch Amy teasingly ribbing Beca with jokes or see Jesse smiling his wide, happy-go-lucky smile at Beca when she knew that Beca would be gone in a matter of hours and they'd know nothing about it until it was already too late. Even though she kept telling herself it was for the best (Beca's reasoning made a certain, calculated kind of sense, as much as she hated to admit it), she couldn't entirely ease the knot of anxious worry that rested heavily in her stomach like a stone.

As was so often the case when her emotions threatened to completely entangle her, she threw herself into a task with almost single-minded focus. If Beca was leaving on some cryptic but important mission, then she would need supplies. And Chloe just so happened to be well-connected enough that she had access to those supplies. (She eased the pang of guilt in her gut over taking supplies from the community by telling herself that Beca would need them more if she was traveling alone out there.)

The only bright side of Aubrey still giving her the cold shoulder was that it meant there was one less pair of eyes on her that could potentially catch her when she was gathering whatever supplies she could throughout the day. She was careful not to take too much--never a huge quantity at one time, and never too much of one singular item--but over the course of a day and a half, she managed to scrounge together a decent supply of rations for the road. It wasn't much, but she could console herself with the fact that Beca always had her hunting skills to fall back on, so long as there was game to be found wherever she traveled. Besides, she couldn't in good conscience send her off complete empty-handed.

By the time night fell the next day, Chloe was restless with anxious energy. It settled beneath her skin and rattled along her nerve endings, making her feel jittery and aimless. She thought she covered it up well enough at dinner, making sure to laugh along with the jokes and conversation around her, but she made her excuses about wanting to call it an early night while everyone else was still finishing up. She slipped back to the house and pretended to turn in for the night, and time seemed to crawl past at a lackadaisical pace as she listened to the creaking of the house and the footfalls and muffled voices of the girls as they eventually filtered into the house and went to their respective rooms for the night.

Darkness had fallen and the house had long since fallen silent by the time she slipped out of bed and pulled her boots and jacket back on. She pulled the knapsack she'd managed to salvage from where she'd stashed it beneath a blanket between her mattress and the wall--she'd carefully packed the supplies she'd gathered into it earlier in the day. On impulse, she shoved one of her hoodies into the bag along with the supplies she'd gathered before she could give herself a chance to second guess it. Besides, Beca would have a lot more use for it out on the road than Chloe would when she could sleep inside her house at night.

Closing the knapsack and slinging one of the straps over her shoulder, she eased her bedroom door open and slipped out of her room into the hallway. She took extra care to avoid the floorboards she knew had a tendency to creak, easing her way quietly and meticulously through the house. There was a moment's pause as she passed the living room, and she stopped to listen to Amy's faint snores and the quiet rhythm of Jesse's breathing with a lump in her throat before she forced herself to move on.

She took the same care in easing the front door open just wide enough to slip through before pulling it shut behind her. Beca's motorcycle was still parked in front of the house next to the beat-up Corolla, and she slipped down the front steps and crossed the yard. Beca's silhouette became more easily discernible as she drew closer to the bike and her eyes adjusted to the dark. She wasn't quite sure what to say the break the stillness of the night in this situation, so after a moment's hesitation, she settled on a quiet, "Hey."

*

After confessing her plan to Chloe beneath the tree the day before, Beca worked hard to blend in and keep her head down. It wasn’t that easy considering the people in the settlement caught wind of Beca’s massive buck kill, and the communal dinner that night had people walking by thank her personally or clap her on the back or offer trinkets and tokens in gratitude (which she politely turned down). She was used to being quiet so that didn’t stir up any suspicion, but throughout mealtimes, she found herself extremely present in her thoughts, taking in small details of everyone and trying desperately to commit them to memory.

Jesse had been more affectionate with her since her hunting game proved she was all healed up. She didn’t shove him off when he wrapped his arm around her at dinner, or held her hand as they walked back from dinner, or when he kissed her slowly before she “fell asleep” that night. God, she was going to fucking crush him by leaving, but she had to remind herself that it was for the best. (Aside from the fact that it would keep him safer, leaving him here--there was also the small problem of Beca closing her eyes during that kiss and wishing it was someone else’s lips on hers instead. But there was no point in unpacking that. Not when she was leaving her behind, too.)

She lay on the couch with her eyes closed, waiting until she heard the telltale evenness to Jesse and Amy’s breathing patterns to indicate they were asleep. She waited an extra half hour to make sure they slipped into a deep sleep before quietly sitting up and lacing up her tall boots. After sliding on her leather jacket and hooking her weapons back onto her belt and across her body, she grabbed her bag and lingered in the entryway to the living room. She considered leaving a note, but she was never really good with words, and there wasn’t much to say other than ‘I’m sorry’ anyway. Hopefully they’d understand. Hopefully they wouldn’t hate her forever. Beca watched Jesse and Amy sleep for another five minutes before the guilt wrenched hard enough that she had to tear her eyes away, slipping into the entryway. She tilted her head up the stairs and for a flash of an instant, considered going up to say goodbye to Chloe, but she wasn’t very good at goodbyes, so she slipped quietly through the front door instead.

The August night breezed cool as she approached her motorcycle, taking a few minutes to tie off her satchel and secure it to the side of her bike along with her machete and rifle--both would only weigh heavily on her back during a long drive, and she was planning on cruising through the night, nonstop until sunrise. She reached for her helmet when a familiar voice stopped her halfway, and she turned on her heel to find Chloe approaching. Beca managed a tight grin. “Hey, Nurse Chloe.” She wasn’t sure what else to say. ‘I’ll miss you’ sounded weird, and ‘See ya later.’ wasn’t enough.

*

Even though she knew Beca was leaving, the sight of her standing beside her motorcycle with her hands reaching for her helmet and her gear safely stashed away on the bike caused Chloe's heart to seize in her chest before tripping back into a painful rhythm. Regardless, she thought she adequately kept her cool as she closed the gap between them. "Special Agent Mitchell," she returned, managing a smile. It didn't quite reach her eyes. "Hey, I guess that's even more fitting now...y'know, going on a top secret mission and all." It was a poor attempt at levity, but it was the best she had at the moment when she felt like a weight was pressing down on her shoulders.

Her eyes were heavy on Beca's face in the dark for a moment, like she wanted to say more but wasn't sure exactly how to start or how to express it. After a beat, she cleared her throat and ducked her head with an almost shy smile. She felt like she regained at least a little of her equilibrium when she wasn't looking directly into Beca's eyes. A thought occurred to her, and a fleeting expression of what could almost be classified as relief flashed across her face when it provided her with words--maybe not the words she wanted, but words nonetheless. "Oh I, uh--I got you this stuff." She slipped the knapsack off her shoulder and held it out to Beca in offering. "I thought it might help. Out there.”

*

It still blew Beca’s mind how Chloe had so many different smiles. She had to admit she wasn’t a big fan of this one--especially knowing she caused its dimness. Her comment about her top secret mission pulled a hoarse chuckle that rang a bit hollow, but it was as close to a laugh as she could manage, considering the circumstances. Her breath caught on an inhale when the intensity of Chloe’s bright, captivating eyes locked on hers, and Beca wondered in that moment if Chloe could read her jumbled thoughts.

She gave a shaky exhale, grateful for Chloe breaking that connected gaze because Beca wasn’t sure she could trust herself to not say or do anything idiotic. She blinked, her brow knitting in confusion as she took the knapsack. “You got me… this stuff?” She peered inside and reached in, and even in the darkness, got the sense of Chloe’s offering. “Hey, that’s--so sweet, but I can’t accept all this stuff. It’s yours--you guys need it. I really--” She rummaged through until she felt fabric, pulling out what she instantly recognized as the sleeve of Chloe’s sweatshirt. “Chloe…” The name fell out with emotion cracking its first syllable and she forced a hard swallow, staring up with unguarded longing at the girl who somehow managed to make her completely lose all sense of chill--now more than ever.

*

The sheer enormity of the emotion she felt as she stood there looking at Beca rattled her. She hadn't even known her for two full weeks, yet the prospect of her riding through those gates and possibly never coming back felt like a visceral ache. She was torn between a connection she couldn't explain and a whole maelstrom of questions about Beca that only increased with every interaction. She'd sworn to herself that she'd try not to make this any harder than it had to be, because she didn't want to add any stress to Beca when she was already feeling pulled away by some duty she felt to her father and what she'd been entrusted with. But even when she managed to pull her gaze away from Beca's, that vow felt infinitely more difficult.

She'd expected the resistance from Beca, and she gestured with one hand in an attempt to wave away those protests. "We'll be fine. You--you'll need stuff while you're on the road." Feeling suddenly self-conscious, she felt her skin flush with heat and color when Beca kept rummaging through the bag, because she would inevitably find the hoodie. "Oh--it's fine, you don't have to--" Too late, because the sleeve of the sweatshirt had been unearthed from the rest of the items in the bag, and there was no mistaking what it was. Her shoulders jerked with a shrug as she mustered another smile. It was soft and a little shaky, but more sincere than the first one. "It could get chilly out there. You might need it." Her smile fell away the instant that Beca's voice cracked on her name and she felt suddenly rooted to the spot when Beca looked at her with undisguised emotion in her eyes and written across the lines and angles of her face. Feeling suddenly stricken by what she saw in Beca's eyes (and knowing it was reflected back in hers), she cleared her throat and her tongue darted out to wet her lips when her mouth felt suddenly dry. Her feet had shifted forward almost of their own accord, until the toes of her boots could practically bump against Beca's boots. "Just, um--" She swallowed thickly when the words seemed to stick in her throat, and one hand lifted to run her fingers across the lapel of Beca's leather jacket. "Just keep it, okay?"

*

There was a reason Beca Mitchell avoided feelings at all cost, aside from the fact that she’d lost so many people she loved. She simply didn’t know how to handle strong emotion, and she’d always bottled her strongest feelings until they either fizzled out or inevitably exploded; usually, those eruptions manifested in anger outburst or, more recently, grief-related sadness. This, though. This… Beca had never experienced these deep pangings in her chest, her body vibrating from head to toe with the intensity of emotion she felt for this weird, smiley girl she’d only met two weeks ago. “You make me--feel things. Things I’ve never--things nobody’s ever--”

Chloe’s gesture meant more to Beca than she could’ve possibly put into words. Beca knew more than anyone how much material items provided comfort through the harder days, especially soft, personal belongings--like hoodies. Beca clutched the sleeve, appreciating its softness, knowing she was parting with something incredibly valuable. She wanted to ask why, but she swallowed the question the instant Chloe insisted and skimmed her fingers over her jacket. Beca's steely irises, swirling with both sorrow and yearning, once again found unspoken answers in Chloe’s expression, more certain than ever in that moment that the hurricane of emotions swirling through her body mirrored something similar in Chloe’s. Anchored in place by some sort of magnetic force stronger than she’d ever been drawn to anyone, her gaze flickered down, distracted by Chloe’s tongue sweeping out to wet her lips and holy shit, her heartbeat thundered even harder in her ears. Now or never. She reached up to brace her free hand against Chloe’s cheek, sweeping the pad of her thumb against Chloe’s cheekbone as she drew closer, her eyes fluttering shut as she caught Chloe’s lips in a slow and tender kiss.

*

Chloe Beale and emotional displays seemed to be practically synonymous. She had always been the kid who wore her heart on her sleeve growing up, the adolescent who felt crushed by even the most inconsequential heartbreak--the young woman who had never been able to harden herself quite enough to suit this new world of theirs. Aubrey had cautioned her against it countless times, because emotions and optimism and trust could be dangerous commodities to entrust to other people now. Those things could all be so easily betrayed. She hadn't felt that fear with Beca though, even from the start.

Maybe that's what had inspired the gesture in the first place. She didn't trust herself not to ask Beca to stay if she let herself dwell on the thought, so instead, she could offer something to take with her in Chloe's absence. It was a small sacrifice to make if she could console herself with the thought of Beca slipping that sweatshirt on occasionally and thinking of her as a result. With Beca's eyes locked on hers, it felt like a frisson of electricity swept through her body, simultaneously alighting every nerve and rooting her to the spot. Time seemed to slow to a crawl when Beca leaned in towards her and she felt hyper aware of every detail--the dark sweep of Beca's eyelashes against her pale skin when her eyes fluttered closed, the sharp lines of her cheekbones, the curve of her lips. It was only in the final whisper of distance between them that she drew in a shuddering breath of anticipation and let her eyes flutter shut as well. Her fingers that had brushed across Beca's lapel immediately curled against the material of the leather jacket in an almost desperate clutch at the first brush of Beca's lips against hers. She completely turned herself over to the moment, wanting to remember every precious detail of it, from the stirring roughness of Beca's hand that completely belied the gentleness with which she cupped Chloe's cheek, to the pliant softness of her lips against Chloe's. Her head ducked minutely to meet Beca's more solidly in the kiss and her lips moved softly and almost tentatively against Beca's, a tentativeness borne not of uncertainty but fear of breaking the moment and ending it too soon.

*

As soon as Beca felt Chloe kissing her back, she damn near melted into a pile of mush on the pavement. Never had a kiss sparked such desire, such hope, such life in Beca's veins, that flood of warmth and wonder spreading to every cell in her body. She committed every second of that kiss to memory, knowing she'd need to call back to it during lonely nights on her travels--to remind her what was at stake and what she was fighting for.

Much as she wished she could kiss Chloe forever, Beca reluctantly drew back, her breath hitching as she kept her eyes closed for a few extra seconds. She released Chloe's cheek only to reach behind her own neck with both hands, unfastening the bronze talisman wax seal necklace her mother had gifted her on her tenth birthday, just before she died. She’d always worn it underneath her clothing and never took it off--until now, and she took Chloe's hand, placing the necklace in her palm before closing her fingers snugly around it. “Take care of yourself, Nurse Chloe,” Beca managed with a shaky rasp, forcing a watery smirk before forcing herself away from Chloe and to her motorcycle. With still trembling hands, Beca hooked Chloe's knapsack to the side of her Triumph and mounted it for the first time since she'd arrived, picking up her helmet and shoving it on her head. Beca dared one last glance back at Chloe, her heart wrenching harder than ever. A few years slipped down her cheeks and she closed the visor of her helmet over her eyes, revving the muffled engine once before taking off through the gates.

*

Despite their short time together, that kiss felt like the culmination of something she'd couldn't possibly hope to encapsulate with words. For that brief, suspended moment in time, she didn't have to worry about the world around them or Beca's imminent departure or any of the realities of life that tried to crowd in on them. There was only her and Beca and every brush of lips and trace of contact that left her mind reeling and ignited the most vibrant desire and spark of vitality that she could recall feeling.

She still felt frozen in place for a moment after Beca pulled away, because she could still feel Beca lingering so close to her and she didn't want to open her eyes and face the realities ahead of them. Her eyes finally blinked open when she felt the air stir around her when Beca shifted, and she watched with intermingled sadness and curiosity as Beca reached up to take off her necklace. Her fingers curled tightly around the necklace at Beca's prompting, the metal still warm from Beca's skin, as if she wanted to shield that warmth and somehow hold onto it in Beca's absence. "Stay safe, Beca." She could hear the tears in her own voice, but there was no use in pretending otherwise, not when her breathing hitched and her bottom lip trembled against the threatening tears when Beca stepped away from her and mounted her bike. She stood frozen in place when Beca looked over at her one final time, her gaze locked on that last glimpse of blue-grey eyes until Beca lowered the visor of her helmet and revved the engine of the motorcycle. Her arms reached up to curl her jacket tighter around herself as Beca's bike rolled down the main path of the settlement before disappearing through the gates, the pit in her stomach growing with each passing second that carried her further away. It was only once Beca's motorcycle had disappeared from sight and the rumble of the engine faded and gave way once more to the rustle and chirp of crickets that Chloe moved again. She unfurled her fingers that had been protectively clasped around the necklace that Beca has pressed into her palm, her other hand moving to delicately lift the chain until she could study the pendant that hung from it. She hadn't had a chance to take much notice of the necklace before, but as she studied the wise owl that was etched into the necklace, warmth blossomed in her chest that Beca had entrusted it to her. It was a warmth that was colored with a keen edge of sadness though, and she had to press her lips into a thin line and clench her jaw to steady herself as she carefully lifted the necklace and clasped it behind her neck.

Casting one more look towards the gates--she couldn't be sure what she was looking for anyway--she slipped back the short distance to the house and lowered herself onto one of the porch steps. She couldn't quite bring herself to go back into the house and return to her room just yet. Sunrise was a long while off and everyone around her slept peacefully, so she allowed herself that moment to curl up and lean against the railing of the porch as she stared into the darkness of the night around her. She had time, after all.

*

Stacie wasn’t eavesdropping. She wasn’t. Not on purpose, anyway. But the bedroom she shared with Cynthia Rose happened to be toward the front of the house, and she happened to be sitting up reading by candlelight with the window open when voices out front caught her attention. She watched the transactions--a knapsack, a kiss, a necklace--and Beca riding off with what looked like all of her stuff packed. It was easy for someone analytical like Stacie Conrad to piece the situation together… especially with what she’d already hypothesized. Spotting Chloe on the porch, she quietly made her way down the stairs and opened the door, closing it slowly behind her before lowering herself to sit next to her friend and surgical partner. “Never thought I’d say this, but I’m gonna miss that grumpy little shrimp.” She wrapped her arm around Chloe’s middle and gave what she hoped was a reassuring squeeze. “Hey. I’ve got you, Red. I’m here.” She knew Chloe well enough to know she probably needed a good hug or a good cry, if not both.

*

She gave a startled flinch when she heard the click of the front door opening behind her (in the still of the night, even that small noise sounded so loud), and her head snapped around to look over her shoulder and see who was awake at this time of night. Some of the tension in her shoulders loosened when she spotted Stacie quietly padding her way across the well-trod porch to sit beside her, but something about the sight of another person made the reality of the situation come flooding back in to crash over her consciousness. "Yeah." It was more of a brittle exhale than an actual word, but her throat felt dry and achy and the pressure of tears behind her eyes only grew more pronounced when Stacie acknowledged Beca's departure out loud. The warm weight of Stacie's arm around her waist and her soothing words of support were all it took for the floodgates to finally burst open. She half-turned in to the embrace and tucked her face against Stacie's shoulder right as the first sob escaped her lips. Words were lost to her as she curled into the comfort of Stacie's presence, her body wracked with sobs as she gave herself over to the confusion and anguish that had been building ever since Beca had revealed her plan to leave. Her tears encapsulated all of the thoughts and emotions that plagued her--missing Beca already, the torment of what if, the worry that ate away at her with the knowledge that Beca was out there all alone against any threat that crossed her path.

By the time her tears finally slowed and she carefully disengaged from the embrace, she felt exhausted and spent and she knew that she must look like an absolute mess. She couldn't really muster any energy to care about that though. "Sorry," she mumbled with an apologetic wince when she realized her tears had soaked into Stacie's shirt. She could only hope that her crying hadn't woken Amy and Jesse since the living room was the closest to the front door. Jesse. Guilt immediately pooled and roiled in the pit of her stomach, sour and sickly as the full weight of what she'd done settled on her shoulders and threatened to drag her down. "Fuck." She buried her face in her hands, elbows resting against her knees and fingers pressing against her eyelids so tightly that she saw stars behind her eyelids. When she finally lifted her head again, her expression was contorted with worry and sadness and guilt that were all too tightly coiled together to separate and process individually. "What have I done?”

*

When Chloe curled into her, Stacie shifted toward the embrace and her other arm wrapped tightly around Chloe’s shoulders, squeezing tight. She sat patiently, rocking Chloe in a soothing motion with her cheek pressed against that vibrant red hair. When her cries finally subsided and she pulled back, Stacie offered a sad, sympathetic smile. “Hey, you don’t need to apologize for anything,” she said, firm but soft all at once. That single swear spoke to the seriousness of the situation for Chloe--crying wasn’t uncommon, but swearing, for her, meant serious business. She kept her hand on Chloe’s back, rubbing small circles. “Um, kissed the girl you’ve had the hots for for a couple weeks?” Stacie managed to rein in that told-ya-so smirk, instead schooling her expression into an easy grin. “Technically, she made the first move, right? And if she’s not coming back…” Stacie lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug. “You’ve done nothing wrong. You have nothing to beat yourself up about, babes.”

*

In those long moments where she was at the mercy of her emotions, Stacie was more of a comfort to her than the other girl could possibly know. Having someone there with her to support her through that tidal wave onslaught of emotions helped tether her and bring her back to at least some level of weary composure. When Stacie reassured her not to apologize, she mustered a sliver of a watery smile and lifted a hand to rub at her eyes, wiping away the remnants of tears that had tracked down her cheeks. The huff of laughter that escaped her was instinctive but largely humorless, and it melted away into an awkward wince when she glanced over at Stacie. "Was it that obvious?" Her voice felt small even in such close proximity, as if she didn't want to acknowledge that the signs had been there for other people to pick up on all along. She and Beca hadn't even acknowledged it between the two of them before tonight.

Her face crumpled back into a look of weary sadness and shame, because a technicality wasn't enough to absolve the guilt that was so fresh. The reminder that Beca might not ever come back didn't help the tightness in her throat or the hollow ache in her chest either. She gave a small shake of her head, her gaze dropping as her fingers twisted anxiously in her lap. "Jesse...he's going to be so devastated by all of this already. And--and I know what their situation is. I mean...not the specifics, she never like, defined it exactly for me. But then I still went and did that," she murmured, blinking back fresh tears that threatened. "What was I thinking?”

*

Stacie managed a quiet chuckle, playing with the ends of Chloe’s hair while she stroked her back. “To me, yeah. But I have, like… crazy hot-people-vibin’-on-each-other radar, so I’m pretty positive your secret’s safe with me.” She tossed Chloe a wink before glancing back out into the street in front of them, her face screwed up in concentration, eyes narrowed with her lips pursed as though she were examining a complex wound and trying to work out the best plan of attack on how to go about treating it. After a long stretch of silence, Stacie looked back at Chloe and met her eyes again. “Listen to me. You’re not responsible for Jesse’s feelings. Whatever was going on with them… Beca left him. She literally just… she left,” She winced. “Sorry. I know it’s fresh. But that doesn’t scream committed relationship to me, you know? And it wasn’t like they were very… intimate when they were together here. I’d know. I pick up on that stuff. She was way more in tune with you than him. Which isn’t your fault. It’s chemical, you know?” She took a deep breath and exhaled with a melodic sigh. “You were thinking about how much you care about Beca and it was probably your only chance to ever kiss her. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You shouldn’t, either, Chlo. You’re a good person with a huge heart. You deserve to have moments like that.”

*

She noticeably relaxed beneath the soothing patterns that Stacie's hand traced across her back. "What, is that what we're calling your shameless perving now?" The teasing humor in her voice was weak, but she mustered a hint of a smile and managed to make the joke in the first place, so at least it was a start. "Thanks, Stace," she offered with pure sincerity. There was no need for anyone else to know what had happened, right? What was the point of causing added, unnecessary turmoil when Beca had left anyway? No, better to carefully shelter that moment away in memory for herself, rather than causing any undue hurt among their group. Especially when Beca had left Jesse and Amy behind so they could be happy here with a place in the community.

She didn't mind the silence that lapsed between them. It felt more tolerable with someone beside her, almost peaceful as they both stared off at the dark silhouettes of the settlement around them. When she felt Stacie shift beside her, blue eyes flickered back over to her. Despite knowing Stacie had good intentions, she shrank inwards on herself a bit at the sharp reminder of Beca's departure. "I guess you're right..." The admittance was begrudging, and if she was being honest with herself, it didn't entirely negate the guilt she felt when she thought about Jesse and the terrible news that awaited him when he woke up. She'd always taken notice of how devoted Jesse seemed to Beca, but she had to admit that Stacie was right and Beca hadn't seemed to reciprocate to the same degree. She released a slow, shaky breath, her gaze once more dropping as one hand reached for the necklace that now hung around her neck and her thumb traced across the design on the pendant. "Thank you. I mean--like you said, she's gone now. Doesn't really matter in the long run. But...it was nice to have the moment." Sadness touched the corners of her smile, but a small smile did pull at the corners of her mouth nonetheless when she thought back on the kiss.

*

“It matters. Your feelings matter, they always do.” Stacie leaned in and placed a sloppy kiss to Chloe’s cheek before drawing away, taking her hand and tugging Chloe up with her. “C’mon, babes. Let’s get some rest. I’ll spoon you to sleep if you ask nicely.” She would’ve offered to leave Chloe out there alone, but considering Beca had just left… she didn’t think Chloe would want anyone else taking note of Chloe noticing Beca leaving at night. Especially their newer guests. So she carefully and quietly ushered Chloe back inside the house and up the stairs, mentally preparing for being her silent buoy over the next however-long until she got over Beca and her departure.

Chapter Text

Beca took off west on I-24, left alone with nothing but her thoughts as she rode through the night, constantly vigilant of massive potholes and other obstacles borne of several years without any road maintenance. She stopped just outside Nashville at daybreak when the majority of scavs and clickers tended to rest, hiding her bike and supplies in a thick brush and curling up between two large trees to catch a few hours of sleep. Without any travel companions, Beca knew she needed to be more careful about where she took resting breaks, as she knew she was completely vulnerable when she was asleep with nobody watching over her and her belongings. She didn’t hesitate to pull Chloe’s sweatshirt from her bag, hugging it to her chest while dreams took her. She didn’t sleep as well as she had in the safety net of the settlement, but that was to be expected; she’d readjust to catching sleep where she could again soon enough.

After a full day’s worth of travel, Beca made it to St. Louis and had a brief encounter with an older couple who’d warded up their home like Fort Knox with a sign out front that read ring bell for trades. She knew it was risky, but Beca managed to strike a deal with the surprisingly kind folks and offered some ammo and batteries for gasoline, fresh vegetables and some cooked turkey; she didn’t want to risk hunting and starting a fire if she could help it, and she wanted to save her emergency stock of food. It was on that break, when she was perched under a tree refueling her body and her bike, that she turned on her radio, fiddling with the knobs until fuzzy feedback simmered and she caught someone else’s conversation--and what she heard had her scrambling to her feet. Holy shit.

Without hesitation, Beca jumped back on her bike and turned around, heading back east and hoping she wasn’t too fucking late. The entire day, she rode repeating the same mantra to herself. I fucked up. I left too soon. I should’ve stayed. Beating herself up was easier than the coil of worry that wound tighter and tighter inside as she passed back through Nashville. When she was in range, it was three days after she’d left, and she pulled her walkie from her bag, hoping and praying Jesse hadn’t turned his off.

Jesse! Jesse, come in. Jesse, are you there?

No response.

Jesse, Amy--please--I know you’re pissed at me right now, I get it. But there’s a fucking ARMY of scavs plotting an attack on the settlement--they’re hitting hard tonight--please tell me you can hear me.

Fuck. What if she was too late? Not wanting to waste any more time, she hooked the walkie onto her belt and tore back down the highway. She was still an hour out, and she did all she could to cut that time down.

Jesse didn’t hear Beca’s plea--but Emily did. The walkie startled her out of her book and she happened to be sitting near Jesse’s bag in the living room while he was on shift that night, and she immediately bolted with the walkie upstairs to Aubrey, completely panic-stricken. “Aubrey! Beca--she says there’s an army of scavs coming and they’re gonna attack us!”

*

The last few days had been...tense. The realization of Beca's departure had been swift in coming once everyone in the house began to stir. The truth soon became clear when all of Beca's belongings and weapons were gone, as well as her motorcycle, without any word from the woman herself. Even Jesse, who had tried desperately to cling to some quickly dwindling shreds of hope, didn't seem to believe his own speculation that maybe she'd ventured out on a hunting trip or a supply run and would return later. They knew she wouldn't have disappeared like that without leaving a message if it was something as innocuous as that. Maybe it was what he needed to tell himself in order to cope, so all of the girls gave him space and didn't contend with him on the point.

Chloe knew that they were understandably devastated by Beca's abandonment. She carried the stinging ache of loss and longing around herself all day, so she couldn't imagine what it must feel like after the sheer amount of time they'd spent as Beca's companions. Jesse mostly kept to himself, and everyone seemed to respect his unspoken wishes and gave him space as he went through the motions of his day. Chloe suspected that Amy was dealing with her own sadness, but the Australian was more difficult to pin down on her emotional state. Chloe got the distinct feeling that Amy didn't like displaying her open sadness for people to see, it just wasn't exactly her style.

Of course, most of that was observations that she'd garnered for herself, because Chloe tried to carry on with life as usual. She threw herself into tasks around the settlement to fill her days, both to keep herself busy and keep her mind off of Beca, but also because the distance hopefully gave her a buffer that kept anyone else from picking up on her own emotional weariness. If anyone thought she was avoiding them, she hoped they'd chalk it up to her feeling down about the loss of a new friend. After all, it had been no secret that Chloe had latched on to Beca with a certain friendly fondness during Beca's time at the settlement. She only hoped that no one thought anything of it beyond that.

In fact, she volunteered for cleanup duty after dinner that night in order to give herself a task to stay busy. With any luck, it would take long enough that most of the girls would have headed back to the house and their own respective rooms by then and she would be spared from having to put on a happy face in a large group.

Across the settlement, Aubrey was startled from her thoughts when Emily burst into her room with that panicked exclamation. Confusion was brushed aside as she snapped into focus almost immediately, and she was pushing herself up from the edge of her bed and spanning the few short strides across the room to take the walkie from Emily's shaking hand almost before Emily could finish spitting out the message. Her first thought was to ask Emily if Beca had given any further clarification about that message (she wasn't about to be derailed by the notion of Beca radioing in to them after her abrupt disappearance, she didn't have time for that kind of distraction right now), but it was clear from Emily's wide, darting eyes and the anxious trembling of her tall frame that she wasn't in any kind of state to withstand the scrutiny of vital questions.

Instead, she raised the walkie to her mouth. "Beca? This is Aubrey. What are you talking about, an army of scavs? Our night watch hasn't spotted anything in days. I need any details you have."

*

Beca had connected her earbuds to her walkie, pinned in place beneath her helmet, so when minutes passed and Aubrey, of all people, radioed back to her, Beca’s bike came to a screeching halt and she fumbled for the radio again.

Aubrey. Band of scavs. I caught a private radio transmission about it. They’ve been planning for days--coming at you tonight. Dozens, maybe hundreds--I heard--something about firebombs over the barrier--accessing the old sewers--Fucking do something, okay? Take shelter--be prepared for a fight--” She knew she was rambling, wanting to relay as much information as possible so Aubrey could alert everyone in the settlement and they could maybe evacuate or hunker down or do whatever they needed to do to brace for impact. Meanwhile, she kept a listen for Aubrey through her earbud as she revved her bike and shot off down the highway again, pushing that accelerator faster and faster.

*

Aubrey's heart sank with every subsequent word that crackled through the walkie, each detail that Beca provided sharpening and deepening her dread. Dozens? Maybe hundreds? A thousand questions instantly flared into life and crowded for attention in her mind, but they were all inconsequential details for the time being. She pushed those thoughts aside in favor of narrowing her focus down to the most immediate needs.

She used one hand to pull her boots back on, while the other hand still gripped the walkie as she spoke in brisk, clipped tones. "I'm going to go raise the alarm and alert everyone right now. We'll secure the perimeter as much as we can and cut off their sewer access if we're able." She didn't even want to think about the icy tendril of fear that snaked down her spine at the mention of fucking firebombs over the barrier. "We'll shelter the people who can't fight and get the vehicles ready to go if we have to fall back." As much as she was relaying information to Beca, talking through her checklist out loud also helped to hone and sharpen her attention down to those most vital necessities.

She tossed the walkie onto the bed long enough to slip her pistol, her revolver, and her knife into their respective holsters before slinging her rifle over her shoulder. "Emily--" The younger girl seemed to snap out of her panicked stupor at the sharpness of Aubrey's voice. "Get outside and start alerting everyone you can. I'm going to the barrier to raise the alarm there." She grabbed the walkie and started for the door, but a thought stopped her and she turned back to Emily. "And then find one of the girls and stay with them."

Emily was hot on Aubrey's heels as they raced down the hallway to the stairs, Aubrey lifting the walkie again as they bolted down to the ground level. "We're heading outside now." She knew that Beca must not be too far from the settlement for the walkie to be in range and working, which didn't exactly fit with how much ground Beca could have covered in the time she'd been gone. "Beca, are you nearby?"

*

Beca desperately hoped her heads up would help them hold their ground; she knew from overhearing the scavs’ planning that they were setting up for a sneak attack, so hopefully fucking over their element of surprise would have them realizing they were up against prepared fighters and send them falling back quickly. As she sped back east on her bike, she couldn't stop picturing what it might look like if she didn't arrive in time--buildings on fire, bodies littered across the grounds, the scavs looting everything the people of Barden had worked so hard to acquire and maintain. Good people who didn't fucking deserve this.

Thank god Aubrey took her seriously for once. “I'm 30 miles out. I'll take out as many as I can from the outside. Try not to clip me with your rifle on purpose.” It really wasn't the time for a joke, but Beca's jokes were never really well times or in good taste. She sobered a few seconds later, her tone firm. “Aubrey, you can do this. You're scarier than all those scav motherfuckers. They won't know what hit 'em.” Beca didn't like Aubrey, but she wanted her words heard as encouragement.

Just as Beca feared, she approached the settlement after the attack had begun. The blaring alarm echoed through the night sky and thick, black smoke billowed up into the air. “Fuck.” Beca took a wide lap around the outer perimeter of the settlement, picking off as many as she could with her revolver from her bike. She caught several trying to scale the walls, others on the ground firing back at the resistance.

When she wheelied into the settlement, she headed for the house first, but a familiar face fighting in the streets pulled her attention. She parked with a screeching halt and tore off her helmet, unsheathing her machete for a melee fight and jumping into the fray of scavs and civilians using whatever weapons they had to defend their sanctuary. “Jesse, your blindside!” Her voice had shocked him out of his fistfight and Beca swore as she pulled a knife from her belt and flung it true, the blade sinking into the scav’s neck, and he fell at Jesse's feet.

“Bec, you came back?” He blinked at her as though she were a mirage, his eyes full of hurt and disbelief. “But--”

“Yeah, let's talk about that after we kill more of these fuckers.” Gritting her teeth, Beca wound up and sliced her machete at a scav, effectively chopping off his leg before she finished him off, blood spraying in every direction.

“Oh, right.” Jesse seemed to fight harder then, as though he had a renewed sense of purpose.

“Where's Amy?” Beca called in the middle of a violent tango with two scavs.

“I think she's at the house!” He cried back, picking up an abandoned baseball bat and whacking another asshole unconscious.

*

As much as they'd always hoped a day like this would never come, they'd prepared for this. They'd run drills and made contingency plans and done everything in their power to ensure that their settlement would be safe from outside threats, whether they were scavs or clickers. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

For that reason, Aubrey hurried out of the house with an even greater aura of purpose in her stride. As soon as they hit the front porch, the two women branched off. Emily darted away to start spreading the news and help coordinate the effort to help the more elderly or those unable to fight to get to a fortified house for shelter, while Aubrey broke into a run to get to the perimeter that surrounded the settlement. She took the stairs up to the watch post deck two at a time, and to their credit, Jesse and the man standing watch with him there didn't hesitate for an instant when she rushed to explain the situation to them.

As quickly as she could rally the night watch together, the alarm was sounded and everyone on guard duty that night fanned out around the perimeter of the barrier to keep watch for the scavs and report in when first contact was made. It didn't take long. Even as reinforcements were grabbing guns and knives and every manner of weapon available to them and hurrying to join the tide of resistance that surrounded the community, the scavs launched their attack. It they were at all cowed by having their element of surprise ruined, it didn't take them long to recover and surge forward in their vicious assault nonetheless.

Emily found Chloe amid the mounting chaos as everyone scrambled to organize their resistance effort. It took a few tries for the younger girl to articulate the threat through her breathless panic, but it all became clear when Chloe finally had a real threat to place with the blaring alarm. Grabbing the sleeve of Emily's jacket, Chloe pulled the girl along with her as they ran through the community. While they worked together to usher the most vulnerable civilians to shelter, she spotted Stacie sprinting past with a bag of medical supplies slung across her back. Similarly, Cynthia Rose dashed down the main street towards the barrier to join the defense of their home. All around her, she caught glimpses of the girls scrambling to and fro in order to do their part to aid in defending the settlement against the attack.

Nothing they did could prevent the gates from falling. It took several tries, but the gates eventually gave way beneath the force of a massive, heavily modified truck with a horrible, rending screech of metal. As soon as the gates buckled and the barrier was compromised, scavs spilled in behind the truck that tore down the main street of the settlement.

As civilians and guards alike rushed to engage the scavs in defense of their home, all chaos broke loose throughout the settlement. While the scavs were mostly localized near the mouth of the gates they'd breached at first, people deeper in the community scrambled with more frantic worry to complete their tasks and do everything they could to hopefully turn the tide. Thanks to several scavs storming one of the decks where guards were trying to pick them off from the high ground, flames soon crackled in the night air and smoke billowed into the sky when they set fire to the defensive position to drive the guards out.

Cynthia Rose soon found herself in the fray, fighting back with fueled anger at the people who'd invaded their safe haven. Although her ribs ached from the kick one scav had managed to catch her with earlier, she shows no signs of slowing as she smashed the butt of her rifle into the face of one scav she'd knocked to the ground. The blow knocked him unconscious, and in that split second of respite, she caught an unexpected voice calling to Jesse in the midst of the battle.

"I saw her heading for the vehicles after that!" Cynthia Rose raised her voice to be heard as she ran to join them. When one of the scavs fighting with Beca gave her just enough of a line of sight where Beca wasn't in the way, she dropped him with a shot from her pistol. "Aubrey headed for the perimeter earlier. I haven't seen the others in a while."

*

Beca had been caught up in dozens of intense scuffles over the years, but none had compared to the sheer magnitude of this fight. No, battle. This definitely classified as a full out battle for the Barden Settlement territory, and Beca's never thought she'd wind up involved in something so huge. She stayed away from larger populations for a reason, but here she was, in full out ass kicking mode, expertly switching from weapon to weapon, often dual-wielding for maximum effectiveness.

Cynthia Rose was a fucking badass and Beca wasn't surprised to find her giving these scavs the beatdown they deserved, but her words settled into Beca's veins as frost. Just because she hadn't seen the girls didn't mean they were hurt or worse, right? It probably meant they were hiding.

“I'm gonna go find ‘em,” Beca called back, fighting her way through scav after scav, face screwed up in concentration. It was difficult to see in the dark, what with the mass of people crowding and fighting in the streets and small fires blazing to set off smoke all around. Most faces were covered in ash or dirt or blood or a sweaty combination, but she desperately tried to catch a glimpse of red hair.

*

"Go. We'll hold 'em off here." Cynthia Rose's face was twisted into a rictus of grim determination and anger. When Beca disappeared into the chaotic brawl of weapons and limbs, Cynthia Rose shifted closer to Jesse and redoubled her efforts in fighting back the encroaching scavs. She worked in conjunction with him, keeping an eye on his blind spots and trusting him to do the same in return as they worked in concert to protect the settlement if at all possible.

Further into the settlement, Chloe and Emily had managed to herd all of the more vulnerable civilians that they'd been able to find into a house that functioned as a shelter. It didn't seem like the largest concentration of scavs had reached their area yet, but more were streaming in by the minute as Chloe peeked out of the window from her spot tucked low against the wall near the window frame.

The air was thick with worry and the frantic whispers that slipped among the clusters of civilians hiding in the shelter. Chloe kept watch at the window, carefully peeking out behind the curtains and trying to make sure that no scavs focused their efforts on the shelter. That all changed when she saw the flash of a familiar face locked in contention with a scav outside. She only caught a glimpse of Flo right outside the house, but that was all it took. She couldn't sit by and do nothing when her family was in danger.

She turned to Emily with urgent fire in her eyes, tightly gripping Emily's upper arm. "Stay here. Watch them." She gave a jerk of her chin to indicate the petrified civilians who huddled further inside the shelter. With little more than that, she gave Emily's arm one more squeeze before she barreled through the front door into the fray.

Flo was trying to dance out of the reach of a scav who towered over her, but Chloe could tell that her dexterous advantage wasn't going to last long again the scav that loomed large before her despite her attempts to put distance between them. Chloe scrambled for a moment before she spotted a heavy metal pipe that had fallen beside the still body of a civilian. Ignoring the churning wave of sickness that threatened at the sight, she grabbed up the metal pipe and bolted the short distance to Flo and her attacker. With his attention focused on Flo, the scav didn't see Chloe coming when she wound up and brought the pipe whipping around against his head with a sickening crack.

He crumpled instantly beneath the blow, but a scav who had witnessed his comrade fall rushed at them. Chloe didn't have a chance to recover from her swing and try to evade the new attacker before he barreled into her with a crushing tackle. Her world spun end over end when the force of the hit sent them both tumbling to the ground in a graceless fray of flying limbs. She was dimly aware of Flo yelling somewhere close to her, but she struggled to draw in the breath that had been knocked from her and to bring the world back into focus as she struggled to gather her bearings and disentangle herself from the scav when their momentum left them sprawled across grass and pavement.

*

A flash of disappointment crossed Jesse’s eyes when Beca left him with Cynthia Rose, and Beca put that in the back of her mind. Jesse could hold his own, and the girls weren’t as used to live combat; that justified her leaving and fighting her way deeper into the settlement.

She fired off a few shots with her 9mm pistol at the backs of two scavs rushing toward one of the barricaded houses, and they slumped at the foot of the door, adding to the barricade instead of barging through. She advanced forward, catching a glimpse of Stacie on her knees in the grass, frantically working to stem someone’s bleeding; by the spurts of blood shooting from the man’s thigh, Beca knew she was dealing with a sliced artery.

Through her work, she looked up and spotted Beca, doing a double-take as she rushed up.

“Shit, Stacie. Can I help?”

Stacie shook her head. “I’ve got cover,” she said, a Stacie smirk pulling on her lips in the middle of a freakin’ battle. “She’s that way. White house with green shutters.”

Beca’s mouth fell open and her beat of confusion turned into a firm, appreciative nod, and she took off in the direction Stacie indicated. Of course Beca wanted to find Amy, but she’d be lying if she didn’t say she needed eyes on Chloe first to make sure she was okay. And then she mentally berated herself--this was why people died, letting emotions drive actions over logic. Shaking the thought, she fought her way toward the house in the distance, taking out a scav and then not hesitating to pick his recurve bow from his dead body, along with his small quiver of arrows. (The only gift in this situation was the weapons graveyard falling at her feet, and Beca could utilize basically anything she picked up.) She tested the string with a pluck of her index finger as she ducked around another scuffle, pushing ahead.

Her breath caught when she finally spotted Chloe in the distance, rushing out of that house and swinging something that looked like a pipe or a bat into a scav’s skull to protect Flo. Beca closed the gap between them but not quickly enough--she swore under her breath when another scav collided into both girls, sending Chloe crashing to the ground. Panic twisted Beca’s gut; she wouldn’t reach them in time to physically pull the guy off her, and when he raised a knife high in the air, Beca didn’t think before she reacted. She pulled an arrow from the quiver now dangling at her hip, and in one swift motion, nocking it into the bowstring before drawing it to her cheek then firing the shot with precision, the arrow piercing the scav’s temple and knocking him to the side and off of Chloe and Flo.

Relief flooded Beca as she temporarily took out immediate threats to that area, rushing over to Chloe and crouching beside her, taking her arm and looking her over. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

*

The world was a confusing blur of motion and color and grunts of pain as the three of them struggled to gather their bearings and gain the upper hand against their opposition. While she was struggling to push his arm off of her neck, she barely had an instant to see the glint of a blade in his other hand before his head jerked sharply to the side. It was a sensation she couldn't quite explain, feeling all of the tension drain from his body in the split second before he slumped onto the grass beside them. It was only then that she was able to see the shaft of an arrow that was buried in his temple, and she fought down a wave of nausea at the sight.

A hand suddenly grasping at her arm startled her attention away from the scav's body, and she tensed in preparation to jerk away for a moment before she turned to see who the hand belonged to. When Beca swam into focus in her field of vision, there was a split second where she was convinced that she must be hallucinating. Surely she'd hit her head during the scuffle with the scav and that had brought on the image that hovered above her. "What--" Her brow furrowed and she blinked several times, but Beca still remained there in her field of vision, real and very present. Relief flooded through her in a confusing, disorienting counterpoint to the anxiety and terror that had gripped her since the alarm had first blared through the night. "You're here. You came back."

Her hand was a little unsteady as she pushed herself into a sitting position and her head swam for a moment with the motion, but she squeezed her eyes shut tightly for a split second before she blinked them open again to meet Beca's gaze and give a faint nod. "I'm fine. I'm okay."

"Flo! Chloe!" Chloe looked up in time to see Emily burst through the front door of the house. The girl had undoubtedly been watching the whole fight from the window--her stomach sank at the thought, but what was done was done. While Chloe pushed herself to her feet, Emily almost bowled Flo over with the force of the panicked embrace she wrapped her up in when she reached her.

"I told you to stay inside." Emily shot her a look of consternation over Flo's shoulder, but Chloe gave a brisk shake of her head. There was really no point in dwelling on that now. They had vastly bigger concerns to deal with.

She turned back to look at Beca, and she realized that Beca must have come from the front of the settlement where the attack seemed to have been the most concentrated. It sent a renewed surge of worry and anxiety coursing through her veins when it reminded her that she hadn't seen so many of the girls since all of this chaos broke out. "What does it look like up there?"

*

Beca braced her hand on Chloe’s back while she sat up, checking her eyes to make sure they didn’t shine with evidence of a head injury. “Got as far as St. Louis and turned back. I caught the plans for this attack--radioed it in to Aubrey when I got close enough--” She shut herself up and shook her head; this wasn’t the time to explain details. There hadn’t been enough time to fortify the boundary completely, but she’d hoped her heads up made at least a little bit of a difference. She was still too late to prevent it completely. “Guess I couldn’t stay away.” She couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t come back to fight alongside the only people she cared about as they battled for their lives.

Tendrils of worry unfurled a bit when Chloe managed to push herself up to her feet, then again when Emily burst out of the house seemingly unharmed. Beca turned her attention back to the fighting clusters of people, raising her bow and nocking another arrow. “It’s--thicker crowds fighting,” Beca said, drawing and firing another arrow into the spine of a scav. She loosed two more arrows after that, both striking true to eliminate two more before she slung the weapon over her shoulder. “I think we’ve got the upperhand. They’ll retreat soon if we keep up the pressure.” She turned around. “Emily, Flo. Duck.” Beca unsheathed her revolver to fire at the approaching scav, the bullet striking him in the face. “Cynthia Rose is with Jesse, Stacie’s patching up people on the ground. Aubrey’s probably still up there with her rifle.” Beca jerked her head toward the top of the barricade where several worked to defend from above.

*

Confusion furrowed Chloe's brow and then realization quickly smoothed it away. When Emily grabbed her earlier and warned her about the impending attack before the alarm sounded, she hadn't mentioned anything about Beca. That wasn't altogether surprising, considering how flustered the younger girl had been and how time had been of the essence in banding together to mount a defense against the scavs. A flutter of appreciation stirred in her chest, but she quickly pushed it aside for the time being. "I'm glad you're here. We--we can use all the help we can get," she murmured with unguarded sincerity, reaching out to give Beca's arm a quick squeeze. Matters were much too urgent to dwell on that for the moment though, but there was no denying that it was a relief to have Beca there on their side.

Her look sharpened with firm resolve as Beca recounted the conditions towards the front of the settlement, although she did flinch slightly with each shot Beca took with such practiced ease. Although she knew it was critically necessary for this situation, she wasn't sure she'd ever get used to that. Beca's words brought the first burgeoning tendrils of hope she'd felt since the attack started though. Her head whipped around towards Emily and Flo at Beca's command, and the two girls ducked instinctively, just in time for Beca to take out the approaching scav. Seriously, thank god Beca was here with them. "Okay," she acknowledged with a brisk nod. "I can go with you. Help wherever I can." She turned back to Emily and Flo, noting that they both had weapons in their possession, so they weren't without defenses. "Flo, can you stay here with Emily and help look out for the people in there?" She knew the civilians in the house didn't stand a chance in a fight, and she didn't want to have to abandon that shelter unless they absolutely had to. Flo nodded in agreement and stooped to grab the metal pipe Chloe had used and a handgun that one of the scavs had dropped. She handed the pipe over to Emily before ushering her back towards the house. Content that they would bar themselves inside the shelter again, she turned back to Beca. "Is that okay?" She wanted to help, but she was also receptive to any input from Beca, who had much more experience with combat than she did.

*

Part of Beca wanted to insist Chloe hole up with Flo and Emily in the shelter, but there wasn’t a guarantee she’d be safer in there; at least with Chloe close by, she could better protect her. She scanned the mosh pit of brawling bodies--most fighting with fists or blunt or sharp objects (Beca surmised they hadn’t trained up on reloading quick enough to stay safe during battle, or they ran out of ammo altogether.). She initially planned on diving back into the thick of the fight, but with Chloe at her side, she quickly devised a plan B. “Yeah, stay close to me. We’re gonna stay on the perimeter of the heavy fighting, pick ‘em off one by one. Keep yourself as low as possible.” With her revolver still drawn, she nodded toward Chloe to follow as she crouched, ducking behind large objects that had been stationary before the fight or blown into place from impact--cars, barrels, crates. Beca was a crack shot with moving targets, so she felt comfortable firing at two people engaged in combat, even though it was riskier to fire her gun into a crowd where there was still a chance at a rogue bullet finding an unintended target. Desperate times. They moved into position behind a sedan that had its windows blown out, and Beca gritted her teeth in concentration as she sprung up enough to take out two scavs on the other side of the car. “Keep an eye on our six, Chlo,” she called back as her eyes focused on the thick of the crowd, firing off a few more deadly shots. She retreated back behind the car, her back pressed against the tire to reload before repeating the action, dropping three more scavs with her sharpshooting.

*

Chloe felt a note of relief when Beca agreed with her plan. Without any practical experience for a situation of this scale, she was largely trying to react to this whole situation with as much levelheaded practicality and foresight as she could. Despite the terror surrounding them, that prospect seemed somewhat less daunting with Beca by her side now. There was another fleeting moment of relief when Beca revealed her plan, because she was ready to jump in to help the defense of the community, but she felt much better about the prospect of being able to pick off scavs from the outskirts of the fighting rather than being in the thick of it. It was clear that the fighting had encroached further into the settlement even in the span of time since Chloe had rushed out to help Flo and Beca had appeared to save them. She pulled her pistol from the holster on her hip and gave Beca a nod of confirmation. "Okay, I'm right behind you." She ducked and hurried along behind Beca as quickly as she could to get out of the open and behind cover, making sure to be diligent about staying low as Beca had instructed. When they ducked behind the sedan, she crouched with her shoulder against the battered exterior of the vehicle and her pistol drawn and ready. "Got it," she called back, shifting so her back was against the sedan. While Beca focused her fire into the heaviest tangle of the fighting, Chloe's eyes swept across the area behind them to spot any approaching threats. Most of the fighting was concentrated in the other direction, but she spotted several scavs trying to sneak around the perimeter to sneak up on any guards and civilians they could catch off guard. She didn't have the same skill level with a gun as Beca, but she still lifted her pistol and took careful aim before squeezing off three shots. One missed, but one shot caught a scav in the shoulder and the other dropped a scav with a hit squarely to his chest. With all of the chaos surrounding them, it was difficult to get an idea of what the state of the attack might be at other points throughout the settlement. She could only hope that their defenses were holding and that Beca had been right in her assessment that they had the upper hand and the scavs might abandon the attack if the tide decisively turned against them.

*

Beca didn’t realize it at the time, but her tip to Aubrey sowed discord among the scav pack leaders who’d coordinated the massive scale attack. They discovered the settlement had been tipped off when their sewer access had been blocked off, and some argued for regrouping and calling off the attack and others pressed forward without as much confidence, which proved detrimental to their efforts. It didn’t mean they hadn’t met some measure of success, because they had--they’d managed to dismantle the fortress and loot some of the houses. The fighting carried on for nearly two hours before those still standing decided to retreat, grabbing what they could on their way out. The rest of the night, the civilians of Barden tended to their wounded and rounded up the bodies of those lost, paying respects and mourning in their own ways.

By the time dawn broke, the full picture of the damage done became clear. Blood stained the sidewalks and grass, and shrapnel and other pieces of wreckage lay strewn about. Exploded cars were still smoking. Some of the survivors had already left, fearful of a follow-up wave of enemies. Others planned to stay and salvage what they could of the fortifications, though most agreed that was a foolish plan, as their protective structures had been all but decimated in the attack.

When the fighting ended, Beca felt… lost. She’d left already, she shouldn’t have been back there. She didn’t regret returning to fight, but she didn’t belong with them anymore, even though it had only been a few days since she’d ridden through the gates without a plan to return. (Not that she ever fully felt she belonged... but she had as much as she’d belonged anywhere.) She tried to give the girls and Jesse space, helping others around the settlement to give them space to mourn Jessica, Ashley, and Lilly, and space to plan their next move. She gathered abandoned weapons and ammo from the dead and repacked her motorcycle, walking it over to the front of the house where she’d stayed for two weeks. She set down the kickstand stood by her bike, trying not to think about the last time she stood in that exact spot and kissed Chloe goodbye. She watched the girls and Jesse gathering their belongings and packing up both Jesse’s car and a truck in the garage.

It was Emily who staggered out to her, distraught and sniffling, and pulled Beca into a hug, not aware that Beca wasn’t really a huggy person (at least, that was the image she’d hoped to exude). She also didn’t seem to harbor any ill feelings about Beca leaving without word. She came back--that was the important thing, right? “Beca, are you coming with us?”

Beca hugged the taller girl, patting her back. They’d all lost three of their own, and her heart hurt for all of them. “Where are you guys heading?” She had a suggestion--but she wasn’t sure they’d be traveling in that direction, or if they’d want a suggestion from her at all.

Even Emily seemed confused by the question. The Barden Settlement had been her home for two and a half years. “Um, we… I don’t know. We’re… leaving. We have to leave.” She pulled back from the hug and looked to the other girls working nearby, packing up the cars. “Where’re we going, guys?”

Jesse trudged down the porch looking exhausted. Beca’s return and her initial betrayal seemed to finally catch up with him and he barely spared her a glance before reorganizing the bags shoved into his trunk.

*

Although a wave of collective relief swept through the community when the scavs finally called off their attack and withdrew, it was a cold and fleeting comfort. Disarray reigned around the devastated settlement as everyone tried to rally together in order to assess the damage and take what measures they could to stabilize things for the time being. Chloe tracked down Stacie, and they worked in concert throughout the remainder of the night to patch up the civilians they were able to find and help, recruiting several of the girls to help provide extra pairs of hands in their efforts.

Daylight brought with it the cold, stark reality of what was left in the aftermath of the attack. Although several members of the community had been able to concentrate an effort to put out the fires that had been set by the scavs, the smoldering ruins of what remained of the structures were too badly damaged to have any hope of repair. The gates had been twisted and mangled beyond any hope of usefulness, so several guards were left at the vulnerable entrance to keep watch for a potential second wave of attackers. There was always the possibility that the deafening noise of the attack could have drawn the attention of any clickers in the area too, so fears and anxieties were high until sunlight began to creep over the horizon.

Even when no renewed assault ever materialized, the swath of devastation that spread before them was more daunting than anyone could articulate. The losses of both life and structures were so immense that they seemed insurmountable. It seemed like people almost didn't know where to begin when faced with decimation of that enormity, but thankfully, there were a few civilians who spearheaded efforts to salvage what they were able to.

Despite the efforts to help the wounded all around them, it was the discovery of Jessica, Ashley, and Lilly among the dead that crippled the rest of the girls. Chloe's legs almost buckled beneath the combined weight of her own grief and a sobbing Emily who clung to her neck. Flo and Stacie sat glass-eyed and disbelieving at a distance, Stacie's usually steady hands quaking too much to be of any use. Cynthia Rose was stony-faced as she stormed away to throw herself forcefully into the salvaging efforts, heedless of the swelling bruise around one of her eyes and the limp in her step when she favored one leg. Aubrey staggered up the porch steps of their house and disappeared for several long minutes.

Unfortunately, urgency left no time for grief in the immediate moment. As some people departed as quickly as they were able and others worked to sift through the wreckage, it became clear that the only thing left to do was strike out and hope for the best somewhere else. The girls moved numbly around the settlement and their house, gathering up what belongings and supplies they could. They'd been fortunate that their personal possessions, scant though they were, had been mostly spared in the attack. Bags were packed into Jesse's car and the truck, with as many resources that remained being loaded in as well. It was with an almost silent understanding that they all worked, moving around each other with glassy eyes and downturned faces.

Amid their packing efforts, the girls all stopped and turned to face Emily and Beca when Emily voiced her question. Most of the girls looked lost and confused by the question--they'd thrown themselves into the immediate moment and salvaging what they could, but had no real plan ahead of them. Several of the girls looked like they couldn't muster the energy to care much either way. In a rare show of just how much the attack had taken its toll on her, even Aubrey seemed at a loss in the face of Emily's question.

"I..." Her voice rasped out and then trailed off, and she swallowed hard before she could try again. "I don't know, Em."

At her side, Chloe reached out to touch Aubrey's forearm and hopefully convey some comfort through the gesture. "It's okay. We'll figure something out." She wanted to believe that herself at the moment, she really did. Easier said than done.

*

A strange wave of relief passed through Beca, who figured she’d have to argue her case, but she was glad to provide some sort of direction for the girls who’d already endured so much loss. “There’s another settlement I passed two days ago--just outside Nashville. That’s probably your best bet as far as semi-permanent shelter. It’s a day’s ride west.” Beca bit her lip, her eyes flickering among each of the girls. “I’ll lead the way, if you want. Help with… negotiations, getting you settled, if you’re comfortable there. I know it won’t be the same…” She winced, wishing her words would convey some ounce of comfort, but she’d always been shitty with words.

“Then what? Are you leaving us again?” Amy’s challenge held no heat, only tired curiosity as she placed her hands on her hips, eyeing Beca.

Beca took a deep breath. “I have to,” she muttered. “Look, I’m sorry I--”

“We don’t wanna hear your empty apologies, Beca,” Jesse shot back, closing the trunk with more force than necessary. “We’ll follow you to the other settlement, if nobody has a better idea. Let’s get on the road before other people beat us there.” He held the car door open and waved for some of the girls to pile in, motioning for Cynthia Rose to take the wheel of the truck and fill up with the other half.

Beca’s throat tightened but she nodded curtly, moving to mount her bike and wait until everyone else settled into the cars before her bike roared to life.

*

When Beca offered the suggestion of a nearby settlement, a current seemed to pass through the girls that was--well, it wasn't quite relief, because emotions were still too raw and fresh for that, but something close to it. Even a glimmer of a possibility of stability in the aftermath of their devastation seemed like an oasis in the desert at the moment. Emily look at Beca with eyes that were brimming with gratitude, and Chloe felt her heart ache painfully once again at the loss the younger girl had been forced to endure that night.

Everyone seemed to be in agreement, but that was swiftly overtaken by the awkward tension that settled over the group as soon as Amy called Beca out. Despite herself, Chloe found her own gaze was riveted on Beca with tentative curiosity and something akin to longing, but she forced her gaze away as soon as Beca's answer confirmed what she'd already suspected.

Several of the girls bristled at the chilliness of Jesse's voice when he dismissed Beca's apology, clearly uncertain and not knowing what to do in the face of the clear hurt and betrayal that radiated from him. Chloe's throat felt tight with emotion once again when she found her eyes flickering between Jesse and Beca, but she quickly forced her feet into motion towards the truck. She couldn't bring herself to be squeezed into a car with Jesse at the moment, not when fresh guilt churned in the pit of her stomach to join the other raw, painful emotions that already stirred within her. None of the others seemed to know what to say, and they didn't want to intrude on a matter that they didn't entirely understand.

"Right." Some degree of measured certainty had returned to Aubrey's voice, likely because she felt bolstered to have a plan to act on. She always dealt with things better when she had a clear goal to work towards. "Let's load up. The sooner we hit the road, the better."

They all heard the unspoken message. There was nothing left for them here.

Chloe clambered into the truck with Cynthia Rose, and it didn't take long for the girls to distribute themselves between the two vehicles. Both engines rumbled into life and the vehicles eased out onto the main street behind Beca's motorcycle to follow her.

*******

Beca considered offering for one of the girls to ride with her, but they’d probably be more comfortable in the truck, even if they looked a little squished. “West on 24. Keep an eye out for big potholes. We have a jack and a spare to change a tire but it’s a pain in the ass.” Shoving her aviators on her face and her helmet on her head, Beca kicked her motorcycle into gear and led the way through the damaged gates and back toward the highway.

They rode for six hours with the sun rising at their backs, and Beca kept her speed at a slower pace so Jesse and Cynthia Rose could keep up without pressure. With the adrenaline of the night’s events wearing off, some of the passengers started falling asleep on the journey. Beca hated admitting when she needed anything, but with her body flooded with panic for the entire day’s journey yesterday while high-tailing her ass back to the settlement and fighting for hours after, exhaustion caught up with her and she was fucking bone-weary.

Shortly after noon, with the sun at peak position in the sky, Beca signaled for Jesse and Cynthia Rose to follow her off the next exit, where she decelerated and found a side road that led to what looked like an old heavily wooded park. The thick trees provided comfort and natural cover, and she rolled to a stop and groaned as she cut her engine and dismounted. She grimaced as she pulled her helmet off, hooking it over the side of her bike and shrugging off her weapons and leather jacket, draping them over her seat as she waited for her companions to emerge from their vehicles. “I need an hour,” she rasped, her voice thick with sleep as she pulled her shades from her face and rested them in her helmet. She needed several hours of rest, but she wasn’t about to waste that much time. “We’ll fuel up and get back on the road at 13:30.” Too tired to chat, she found a nearby shady tree and curled up beneath it, passing out quickly.

Cynthia Rose saluted Beca and turned to the rest of the girls. “Man I’m tired, too, but we should eat something.” She pulled the satchel with their stash of sustenance, offering some oat bars around.

*

The ride was a largely silent one. As soon as Cynthia Rose called a confirmation to Beca through the open window of the truck, a blanket of silence fell over them and seemed to settle in every nook and crevice of the vehicle. Chloe's eyes lingered on the mangled gates of the settlement for as long as she was able to as they rode through them for the last time and pulled away into whatever lay ahead of them. Her throat felt raw and scratchy and the stinging pressure of tears built behind her eyes once again, but she fought it down with a hard swallow and a sniffle (if her eyes were particularly red-rimmed and bloodshot, she decided to blame it on the smoke they'd been around all night).

The specters of Jessica, Ashley, and Lilly seemed to linger in the truck with them. There was the painful, unspoken awareness that they all fit into two vehicles because there were three less of them to account for now. Nobody quite seemed to have the words yet for what had happened, and none of them wanted to be the first to break the fragile silence that pressed in around them. Chloe had suddenly never missed the low, comforting crackling of a radio playing in the background more in her life.

As adrenaline ebbed and left exhaustion in its wake, the monotonous rumble of the road beneath their tires lulled several of the girls to sleep. Emily slumped with her head against Chloe's shoulder--she was worried that her neck would hurt later from the angle, but she didn't have the heart to wake the younger girl. She would probably need the sleep for whatever was ahead of them. She could tell the aftermath of everything was catching up to Cynthia Rose too, because while her face was set with determination, Chloe could see the weariness that crept into the lines of her face and the slow blinks that indicated how much the chaotic, sleepless night was affecting her.

A faint note of relief seemed to thread its way through the truck when they pulled off on an exit and followed Beca to a heavily wooded area. Chloe gently shook Emily awake as they pulled into a fairly concealed area and cut the engine, helping the bleary-eyed girl out of the truck and getting her settled on a fairly clear patch of grass. As they all spilled out of the vehicles and stretched out stiff muscles, their focus pulled to Beca when she spoke up and informed them of the plan.

Chloe's eyes followed Beca to the tree where she curled up, but her attention snapped back when Cynthia Rose began distributing oat bars to everyone. "Thanks." Her voice was soft and she couldn't muster a hint of a smile, but she thought Cynthia Rose understood anyway. She made sure all of the girls were getting settled and working on their own food before she started eating hers. Although she knew it was important to eat and keep her energy up, she had no appetite to speak of and it felt like she was just going through the motions.

Emily still looked like she could fall over at any moment, so Chloe placed a light hand on her shoulder. "Get some more sleep. We'll wake you up when it's time to go." Chloe had barely gotten the words out before Emily was already curling up on the ground beside her and slipping into sleep once again.

She turned her attention on Cynthia Rose next. While most of the girls had started settling in for a power nap, Cynthia Rose rested with her back against a tree as she picked at her own food. "Hey, you should get some rest if you're gonna keep driving. I'll keep watch," Chloe called across to her in a low tone.

When Cynthia Rose's eyes flicked up to meet hers, the depths of emotion in her dark eyes once again caught Chloe off guard. She understood it though--she felt the same maelstrom so viscerally within herself--but before she could say anything more, Cynthia Rose bobbed her head in a nod and slumped down further against the tree to rest while she could.

*

Jesse walked closer to Beca and stared down at her curled up form for a long moment, his arms crossed over his chest while he watched her sleep. After a few minutes, he returned to the group. “She needs at least four hours before she gets back on that bike. Everyone settle in for some sleep.” He glanced over at Chloe. “You should get some rest, too. I'll stay up a while longer. Amy's gonna drive the next leg.”

Amy, who'd slept for nearly the whole ride, flashed Jesse a thumbs up while unwrapping her oat bar. “So because we're heading north and west… does this mean we're abandoning our plan to hijack the Disney cruise ship and sail across the Atlantic?”

“That was never our plan,” Jesse said with a tired roll of his eyes, flopping down to the grass next to Aubrey. He offered her a gentle touch on her shoulder, noting she'd been uncharacteristically quiet for a while. “You holding up okay?”

*

Chloe's gaze rested heavily on Jesse's back as he watched Beca, her heart constricting with guilt once again as she tried to discern what he could possibly be thinking as he looked at her. His words when he finally turned back to the group gave no indication of his state of mind though, offering a practical assessment instead. "You sure?" Even as she asked, a glance over at Amy illustrated that the Australian looked better rested than most of them did. For that reason, she felt less hesitant about slipping her jacket off and rolling it up as a makeshift pillow before she settled on the grass. Her eyes traced the canopy of trees above them, but it wasn't long before the peaceful stillness of the trees and the bone-deep exhaustion from the night before finally caught up with her and she slipped into sleep.

Aubrey didn't seemed cognizant of the quick exchange between Amy and Jesse, or perhaps she just couldn't muster the energy to contribute. It was only when Jesse sprawled next to her on the grass and addressed her directly that she gave several rapid blinks and turned to look at him. Her eyes studied him for a long moment before she gave a shallow nod. "I'll be okay," she finally spoke up, her voice a little distant. "It's just--always difficult, you know?" She seemed to consider him for another moment before her shoulders rose and fell with a jerky shrug. "You three were out there in it a lot longer than we were though, so I guess you know that better than anyone."

*

Jesse, ever the optimist and one for encouragement, kept his eyes firmly on Aubrey’s. “You’re all gonna be okay. We’ll make sure you get there, and then you can pick up where you left off.”

“You should get some sleep too, big guy,” Amy called over to Jesse. She settled her shotgun in her lap. “Don’t worry, I’ll wake you if there’s any sign of trouble.” Or if the midget tried to sneak off on them again, but she didn’t think she would. Not yet, at least. Still, Amy kept an eye on Beca as she slept a few trees away from the rest of the group.

Beca stirred four and a half hours later, the grass cool beneath her cheek as she blinked awake. “Shit,” she grumbled, blinking up at the sky through the trees and noting the sun’s position; she knew she’d slept longer than an hour, but her body fucking needed it whether she wanted to admit it or not. They’d need to find shelter for all of them tonight, but they’d have to cross that bridge when they came to it. Almost everyone else lay sprawled out on the grass asleep, and Beca locked eyes with Amy and motioned to a nearby creek. She peeled off her boots and socks and rolled up her jeans to her knees before she padded down to the water with her pistol still on her hip, just in case, and waded into the cool stream. Bending carefully with sore ribs, she splashed water over her face and arms, enjoying a few minutes of solitude.

*

There was a mild, humorless scoff when Jesse reassured her. While she appreciated his optimism and his attempts to comfort her, there was no picking up where they left off. It was never as simple as that anymore. Still, he was only trying to help and she couldn't begrudge him that. "Thanks, Jesse. For--everything, I suppose."

In a direct contrast to the night before, the day stretched into late afternoon in an uneventful fashion. Exhaustion had clearly taken its toll, because most of the girls slept through several hours without so much as stirring. Some of the girls slowly started to rouse not too long after Beca slipped away to the creek, all of them coming back to awareness and rubbing sleep from their eyes with varying degrees of wakefulness. Chloe's bleary eyes swept over the group, only for her focus to sharpen back into awareness when Beca was the only one missing from the group. When she tried to keep a calm demeanor as her gaze bounced around the area, she caught Amy's eyes, who nodded her head towards a creek not too far in the distance.

Tension eased from Chloe's figure and she slowly pushed herself to her feet despite the aching protests of what felt like her entire body. She shuffled back to the truck and retrieved a large bottle of water from their bag of rations. She started working her way through the group and offering water to the girls who had woken up already. Emily's cheek was red where she'd slept against the sleeve of her jacket and her hair was disheveled, but she mustered a hint of a grateful smile when Chloe handed her the water and smoothed her hand over the younger girl's hair.

While the girls passed around the water and stretched out sore muscles, Chloe slipped away towards the creek that Amy had indicated. When Beca came into view, she slowed her footsteps as she approached. She paused for a moment, casting her gaze over the creek and the surrounding trees before she cleared her throat lightly. "Hey, you okay?"

*

Beca waded further into the water, stopping when it rushed up to her knees. She took her time to scrub off the dirt and grime and dried blood from her exposed skin, focusing mostly on scrubbing her face with her fingers, not particularly caring that the water sprayed her jeans and black t-shirt. She hadn’t expected anyone to come for her. She knew most of them had conflicting feelings about being around her now, after everything, and she didn’t blame them, so she planned on keeping her distance.

Chloe’s voice took her by surprise, and she whirled around to offer a tight nod. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice only loud enough to carry over the running water. “Are you doing okay?” It was an intense night even for Beca, who’d survived brutal shootouts and scav and clicker attacks before, but none on that massive scale. Many of the girls would likely be extremely shellshocked by the whole night, and it was a hell of a lot to process. Before she could help herself, Beca took a few careful wading steps closer to the shore where Chloe stood. “I’m sorry, Chloe. I’m sorry about Ashley and Lilly and Jessica, and I’m sorry you had to leave.”

*

Her features twisted with an apologetic wince when Beca spun at the sound of her voice. She should have expected it when she voiced her own concern, but her shoulders hunched slightly when the same question was returned to her. "I'm--I'll be okay," she said when she managed to find her voice. What other choice did any of them really have? Even when they'd been on the road before finding the Barden settlement, they'd never experienced anything of that magnitude or viciousness. But no matter how much grief or trauma weighed upon all of them, adaptation and survival were the only options. Of course, as with so many things, that was easier said than done. But the girls would need someone to lean on now more than ever, and she was trying to steel herself to be that for them. "Thanks, Beca." It was all she could really muster in the face of Beca's apologies. There was nothing any of them could do to change anything or soften their losses, but she appreciated the sincerity of Beca's apologies anyway. "And thank you for...for coming back. We could've lost--it could've been a lot worse if you hadn't warned us and come back to help." She couldn't even begin to fathom the possibilities of how much more they could've lost if the scavs had been able to successfully execute their surprise attack. None of them might have been standing here now in that case.

*

Beca wrinkled her nose. “Kind of a loaded question these days, huh? Nobody’s really okay anymore. Just… varying degrees of shitty.” She shrugged right back. Chloe’s thank you made Beca duck her head, and she tried to use her preoccupation with washing her hands again in the water as a distraction. “I shouldn’t have left,” she admitted, her voice a bit quieter. She knew if she hadn’t left, she wouldn’t have caught onto the radio signal that allowed her to give the settlers of Barden a head’s up about the attack, so she couldn’t completely regret it. It was absolutely worth feeling the disappointment and anger from Jesse and Amy and some of the girls considering the alternative would’ve likely meant more dead bodies. “And when I found out I couldn’t just let them…” She trailed off, daring another glance up at Chloe, her eyes once more full of emotion she didn’t know how to verbalize.

*

There was so much truth behind Beca's words that Chloe almost didn't know what to do with them being spoken out into the ether and breathed into reality. Her head ducked with a soft huff of laughter that carried no real humor in it. "Some days more than others, I guess." While Beca seemed keenly focused on scrubbing her hands clean in the water, Chloe lowered herself to sit with her back against the truck of a tree near the water's edge. Beca's soft confession, almost lost beneath the babbling stream of the creek, pulled her eyes back upwards. "You were doing what you thought you needed to," she reasoned with a sympathetic evenness to her voice. Beca couldn't have possibly known that something like this would happen when she made her plans to leave, and it was only because of her departure that she'd been able to warn them at all. The intensity of Beca's gaze made her feel like she was pinned against the rough bark of the tree at her back, but her own eyes held her gaze without flinching. "I know, Bec. You really did save a lot of us, you know. I'm glad you came back." That, at least, she could be sure of even in the face of so much uncertainty.

*

“Yeah, true.” She managed a tired flicker of a grin in response to Chloe’s infectious laugh, hollow and soft as it was. That eye contact continued to paralyze her there in the water, but she refused to drop her gaze again. Chloe’s confession that she was glad she returned was something Beca didn’t realize she so desperately needed to hear. “You saved me, too,” Beca admitted. “And not just ‘cause you were a pretty excellent cover for my ass in the thick of the fighting out there, but… because I had a reason to come back. I shouldn’t have--” Beca swallowed the lump in her throat. “Going at it alone, I thought it was better for everyone, but it wasn’t--it wasn’t smart.” She knew she made a mistake from the first night, when she had to fall asleep hidden, knowing nobody was there to keep watch. And clearly she was wrong in thinking everyone else was safer in the settlement. Beca was so shitty at admitting when she needed help, and that was as best as she could do without flat out saying she fucked up and was too stubborn for her own good.

*

Being able to sit there in the quiet of the woods and watch Beca served as a bit of a balm on the horrors of the previous night. It was a reminder that there were still good people who she cared about so deeply, and their grief was a shared grief that meant they could lean on each other. Besides, she wasn't sure she would've been able to forgive herself if Beca had rushed back to help them and had gotten hurt or even killed in the attempt. The earnest sincerity and the regret that both swirled within Beca's confession stirred a fresh wave of emotion within her, and her eyes were soft as she watched Beca from her spot at the water's edge. It shot a sympathetic pang through her to hear the uncertainty in Beca's voice, but at the same time, the first cautious tendrils of something akin to hope unfurled in her chest. "Does that mean--are you thinking of staying with us?" She was almost afraid to voice the question aloud for fear of what the answer might be, but the part of her that desperately wanted to know easily overpowered the more hesitant voice at the back of her mind.

*

“I'm honestly not sure what that means. I don't want to leave you guys again, even though I'm pretty confident you're in the minority with people who actually want me around.” But that was to be expected, and Beca accepted the consequences of her actions. “I still need to work out how to get to where I need to go. So I guess… I just need to come up with a better plan. Take some more time to figure it all out.” Beca took advantage of the cool water, dipping her head back and scrubbing her scalp with her fingertips. She didn't have shampoo, but she'd figure that out later. A fresh water rinse felt really good.

*

The answer wasn't exactly the best case scenario she'd been hoping for, but it wasn't until that moment that she realized how desperately she'd needed to hear that Beca didn't want to leave. Even though Chloe knew she'd felt bound by obligation to leave before, there was still a comfort in hearing Beca verbalize that. "C'mon, the girls still like you. And I do want you around." There was unguarded truth in her eyes when she offered that insistence. While Beca worked to rinse out her hair in the creek, Chloe tugged off her boots and socks and rolled up the legs of her jeans until she could scoot forward enough to dip her feet in the water. "We could always help, y'know. I mean, with planning or--or information or...whatever else you might need." Another dull ache resounded beneath her rib cage at the thought of Beca leaving again, but if she had to, then Chloe at least wanted her to be as prepared as possible.

*

“Eh… you might be too confident in your opinion. Some of them still like me a little. But I'm cool with that. I understand why they're not okay with me being around, or hesitant to trust me or whatever after I left. I don't blame them. Maybe the rest will come around eventually.” Figuring out how to apologize to Jesse would be its own challenge, and she knew she needed to talk with him sooner rather than later. Hopefully tonight, after they found decent shelter. Her heart swelled with affection for Chloe as she offered to help, and Beca grinned wider in return. “Let's focus on getting you guys safe and settled in somewhere before we start worrying about me.” Beca leaned over and twisted her long brown locks in both fists, wringing out the excess dampness as she waded closer to Chloe. “It's a little too cold and shocking at first but it grows on you.” She blinked. “Kinda like me, I guess.”

*

"I think more of them than you think will understand. It's not like you stabbed them in the back or anything, so--they'll be okay." She knew some of the girls had been stung by Beca's sudden disappearance without a word to any of them about it, but it hadn't been a malicious betrayal aimed at hurting them or anything like that. Jesse and Amy might be a different story (especially Jesse), but she figured it wasn't exactly her business how they went about settling any possible discord between them. As much as she wanted to prevent any conflict, they'd all known each other for so much longer and she suspected it would only be intrusive if she tried to help smooth things over. When Beca smiled at her, she found the corners of her lips twitching upwards in return. "But worrying's one of my specialties." Chloe would always be the type to fret about the people she cared for, but she appreciated that Beca was so dedicated to getting them somewhere safe. Her eyes followed the motion when Beca wrung water from her hair, the gesture somehow so endearing in its simplicity in this place that felt almost like a secluded bubble. She gave a quiet, contemplative hum of agreement when Beca described the water, lazily kicking her feet through the chilly water. She leaned her weight against one arm braced against the grass beneath her, tilting her head as she watched Beca thoughtfully as she drew closer. "Must be why I like it."

*

Chloe’s calm insistence that the girls weren’t all pissed at her soothed like a cooling balm, and she nodded in appreciation. She wanted to press on the fact that Chloe didn’t need to worry about her, that she could take care of herself, but that wouldn’t likely make Chloe worry about her any less. Besides, a small part of her soared inside to have someone else who cared enough to worry for her. It had been a really long time since anyone other than Jesse or Amy cared about her, and those two were up in the air right now anyway. “Weirdo,” Beca shot back fondly, her cheeks glowing to betray any sense of chill she'd hoped to maintain. “Did Stacie check you out to make sure you don't have a head injury or something?” Teasing was so much easier than facing the terrifying truth--that she had to somehow, eventually, deal with her feelings for Chloe now that she was back, which meant she had to clarify her… whatever it was her situation was with Jesse. But she had no idea how to go about that without hurting him more. With her hair and skin a fair bit cleaner than before, Beca returned to the water’s edge and sat on the grass beside Chloe, stretching her legs out in front of her to dry.

*

Her eyes narrowed in a mild look of challenge, because she knew that Beca probably wanted to dispute the point about Chloe worrying about her. But it was an inherent component of who Chloe was, and she was always going to feel some measure of concern. That impulse was even more heightened in the wake of the attack that had endangered them all. No protest was forthcoming though, and her expression relaxed back into a more neutral look. A smile tugged at her lips as she watched the color that infused Beca's face thanks to her remark, despite Beca's best attempt at downplaying it, and it surprised her how genuine it felt even in the midst of the loss they'd all endured. "You already knew that about me," she pointed out. Beca's pointedly teasing question earned a scoff and a roll of her eyes. "No head injury, I stand by what I said." Other than sore ribs from the crushing tackle that scav caught her in and a general bone-deep weariness from the fight and the subsequent salvaging, she'd been very fortunate to escape without serious injuries. But she knew Beca was teasing anyway, likely in an attempt to deflect. Her eyes followed Beca as she trekked out of the creek and settled next to her on the grass. Beca looked more refreshed after her wade into the creek, and it made Chloe realize that she probably still looked like hell in comparison. "Feel better?"

*

It loosened the built-up tension in her shoulders when she was able to pull a lively reaction from Chloe with her teasing. A sad, solemn Chloe was too much to bear. Beca considered the question and her body’s state after her little dip in the water. “Slightly less shitty,” she decided aloud, absentmindedly running her fingers through the grass beside her. “We’ll ride again soon, ‘til sundown. We’ve gotta find shelter ‘til morning. Shouldn’t be too hard since there’s a ridiculous amount of completely abandoned neighborhoods and buildings and stuff, so we’ll find something.” She bit her lip and sighed, plucking a long blade of grass and wrapping it around the tip of her index finger so tightly she cut off the circulation. “Then I gotta figure out how to… fix things with Jesse. Somehow.”

*

At Beca's assessment, she gave a sharp exhale that could almost count as a laugh, or at least as close to one as she could muster at the moment. "Well, it's an improvement at least," she admitted with a shrug. She suspected they would all be working towards that incremental progress in the coming days and weeks. She lapsed into thoughtful silence as Beca gave a brief overview of the plan for the rest of the day, her thumb rubbing idly back and forth across a grass stain that darkened the knee of her jeans. "Okay. We can split up watch tonight however we need to and make sure the people who are driving get plenty of rest." She knew they were largely relying on the combined experience of Beca, Jesse, and Amy, since it had been so long since the rest of them had lived outside of the shelter of the settlement, but there were still ways that they could all contribute and she was determined to help in that regard. Her expression fell with a pang of sympathy at the mention of Jesse and the current tension that existed between them. Slowly, she reached over and gave Beca's upper arm a gentle squeeze. "For what it's worth, I hope he'll listen and give you a chance to explain. Jesse...he's a good guy, I think it all just caught him off guard. So hopefully he'll come around with some time."

*

A soft snort escaped Beca at Chloe’s observation. “Always looking on the bright side even after a large-scale attack, huh?” She dared a side-glance over at Chloe, the hint of a smirk twisting on the corners of her mouth. “If you were an egg, you’d be sunny-side up, you know.” She nodded at the suggestion about keeping watch, and she had a feeling they could split up watch posts pretty easily among the large group, depending on the type of shelter they found. Beca gave a soft hum of agreement when Chloe offered her opinion on Jesse. “I think he will, too. Fits his track record. Not that he’s ever been this pissed at me before, but… yeah.” She was so tired of hurting him, though. She felt like she’d been hurting him indirectly ever since they lost Sara, not bouncing back quick enough; even if he’d never said as much, she could read him like a damn book. Jesse with his soft eyes and puppy pout. Endearing and frustrating all at once. She shook herself out of that trail of thought, flashing an apologetic grin to Chloe next. “Thanks, Chloe.” She hesitated, watching those bright blue eyes for another few seconds and opening her mouth as if she wanted to say more, but slamming her mouth closed instead and casting her eyes back out toward the creek. She wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to say, but the gist of it felt selfish, especially now.

*

Chloe's mouth twisted into a sheepish half-smile as she shrugged. "People need something to look forward to so they can keep going sometimes. If things will feel less shitty with time, it makes the days in between...more manageable, maybe." Beca's quip earned her a bump from Chloe's shoulder and a roll of her eyes. "And you'd be what? A tough, hard-boiled egg?" Her spirits were a little heartened when Beca seemed to agree with her assessment of Jesse. "He'll come around. I think it just--all of it caught him off guard, so he's just having to wrap his head around everything." It was clear that Jesse was both hurt and angry about Beca's disappearance and Chloe could genuinely sympathize with him for that, but she also understood Beca's necessity in leaving since she'd been privy to Beca's plan ahead of time. All she could do was trust in Jesse's kindhearted nature and hope that he would understand with time, but it was between Jesse and Beca to work out in the end. "No need to thank me," she insisted with a faint shrug. The fleeting look in Beca's face before she quickly looked back out to the landscape in front of them didn't escape her notice though, and her brow furrowed with equal confusion and curiosity. She gave Beca's shoulder a light nudge with her own to draw her attention back to Chloe. "Hey, what's up?"

*

Beca’s head cocked to the side. “What’s there to look forward to?” She scrunched up her nose in an unspoken apology. “I’m not trying to be a cynical asshole, but it’s hard to remember why we’re trying so damn hard to stay alive sometimes.” Most notably this past year, after Beca no longer had her sister to protect. She couldn’t fully bite back her mischievous grin when Chloe nudged her after her egg analogy and her awkward fumble into silence. “Yeah, obviously hard-boiled, probably with a reinforced shell. I mean, I’m completely fucking scrambled eggs when I’m with you, but with everyone else--” When her words caught up with her (still sleep-deprived) brain, Beca sucked in a sharp breath as sudden heat rushed and radiated from her skin, burning up her ears and cheeks. She managed a low, self-deprecating chuckle, not daring to meet Chloe’s eyes even after she’d nudged her. “Shit, sorry. That was--not how I wanted that to come out--”

*

There was a downward tug at the corners of Chloe's mouth and a wrinkle in her brow at Beca's straightforward question. "I know it's not always easy to see...but there are still things I care about in this world. And I guess I'm just not ready to let go of those." Her tone was matter-of-fact, even as her shoulders hunched slightly. "That doesn't mean it's the easiest thing to deal with or that things will ever be the way they used to be, but--I still care." Her mood was buoyed when she actually provoked a grin from Beca with her continuation of the egg comparison. It was immediately clear Beca had said more than she intended to--or at least not in the way she wanted to--both from her sudden fumble into silence before her stammered apology and the undeniable red tinge that spread across her skin. "Scrambled eggs with me? I've gotta say, that's a new one for me." She leaned forward slightly in an attempt to catch Beca's eyes when the other girl didn't look at her. "Hey, why would you apologize?" Her tone was kept light and even and the traces of a smile on her face were genuine, all in a bid to reassure Beca. "I happen to love a good egg analogy." Her weight leaning against her arm closest to Beca brought her a little closer into the space near Beca, and there was unguarded curiosity in her eyes as she watched her. "How did you want it to come out?"

 

*

“And that’s why you’re sunny-side up,” Beca mumbled after Chloe’s elaboration, nudging her back with her shoulder. In a desperate attempt to regain some composure, Beca puffed out a quick breath of air and cleared her throat, daring to look back over at Chloe. She stalled for another few beats, contemplating playing it off as jumbled words due to her severe exhaustion, but her almost-leaving-for-good plus the attack last night reminded her that some things shouldn’t be buried. Not in the unstable world they lived in, at least. Thank goodness Chloe didn’t laugh at her--she wasn’t sure she could handle another dose of mortification without bolting (Probably back to the creek to attempt to drown herself. What? She’s not dramatic at all.)

“Because,” she started, making sure to keep her eyes on Chloe’s face. “The timing’s shitty for talking about--stuff like this. We clearly have, um… much more important things to focus on for a while, and I don’t wanna--I don’t wanna screw up more and do something that’s gonna twist the knife for Jesse.” Beca hated games, and she didn’t want to leave Chloe in some sort of limbo state, thinking she’d only kissed her because she was leaving. (Maybe, on some deeper level, Beca needed reassurance that Chloe didn’t only kiss her back because she was leaving and she was too polite to shove her away.) But she wasn’t good at this, either--this whole talking about feelings thing. She’d rather face ten clickers with low ammo. There was something about Chloe, though… something she couldn’t quite understand that made Beca need to be honest with her. Honest and open. That rawness fucking hurt, but she pushed on anyway. “But I thought it was important that you knew that I--that I meant what I did, before I left. That it wasn’t just… some throw-away… whatever. I don’t know how I wanted it to come out. Much smoother than a fucking egg analogy.” She pulled a wicked grimace upon reflection. So stupid.

*

Although there was another soft laugh when Beca once again teased her about her sunny-side up status, she quickly schooled her features into a more serious look when Beca exhaled sharply and finally met her eyes. If Beca was willing to be open with her, then Chloe wanted to devote the full measure of seriousness and attention that it deserved. She knew discussions like this weren't easy for Beca, so she hoped to offer some measure of reassurance by watching her with quiet intensity and illustrating that she was completely open to whatever Beca wanted to share with her. (If she was being honest with herself, a very large part of Chloe also wanted to hear Beca's thoughts on whatever this was, because while she didn't regret anything about the kiss they'd shared when Beca left, it hadn't exactly resolved anything when they'd both thought at the time that Beca might be gone for good.)

As she listened, she felt the same fluttering of intermingling nerves and hope in her stomach that she'd felt right before Beca had kissed her before riding away on her motorcycle. "Trust me, I don't wanna do anything that's going to hurt Jesse either. And I'm completely with you--the most important thing right now is making sure that everyone gets somewhere safe." She wanted to stress that, because despite Beca's past teasing about her optimistic streak, she also wanted to reinforce that she was level headed about all of this. She wasn't just blindly fumbling through without a very real understanding of what faced their whole group now that they'd left the Barden settlement behind. But at the same time, she wanted to be completely candid with Beca after she'd been willing to open up to her first, especially when it didn't come easily to Beca. "I meant it, too." There was a quick beat before she reached over to cover one of Beca's hands with her own. "I know there's a lot of other stuff going on right now, but I meant it and I wouldn't change it. I like you, Beca. I feel comfortable around you. And whatever that means with everything else going on--I just wanted you to know that."

*

After she’d basically spilled her guts to Chloe face-to-face, Beca was pretty sure she forgot how to breathe. She stayed perfectly still, eyes roving over every micro-expression she noticed on Chloe as she spoke. Relief washed over her when she agreed there were more important priorities--safety first, of course, and then not making things worse for Jesse because of Beca’s feelings. It almost didn’t register when Chloe shared her views on the subject so calmly and matter-of-fact. Beca felt her lips part in surprise as her jaw fell slightly slack, blinking slowly at Chloe to make sure she was seeing and hearing what she actually said and not just what she’d wished she’d said. I like you, Beca. The words rang through Beca’s ears like music, and she flipped her hand over beneath Chloe’s to lace their fingers. Her expression softened, the nerves suddenly gone and replaced with undisguised fondness--the closest to happiness she’s felt in a long time. Reeling it in though (she still had a reputation to uphold, even if Chloe had cracked that eggshell already), Beca finally took a deep breath and offered a tight-lipped smile. “That’s… eggsellent news.” She couldn’t help it, okay? “So you don’t just barge in on anyone in the shower, huh? I was special even then?” She couldn’t help teasing her again, either.

*

Likewise, Chloe's gaze was riveted on Beca's face as she unveiled her own feelings on the entire situation, from the grander scale of the well-being of the group to whatever it was that existed between the two of them. Even though Beca had already confessed as much with her admission that she'd meant the kiss they shared, she wanted to commit every flicker and nuance of reaction from Beca to memory. That was especially true when Beca's mouth actually fell open a bit when she seemed to register what Chloe was sharing with her, and the corners of her eyes crinkled with a hint of a smile. That smile only widened when Beca laced their fingers together, and the look on Beca's face was the most serene and adoring that she'd ever seen it. (She wanted to remember every single, minute detail about that look, even as she felt a fluttering beneath her ribcage in response to it.) For that reason, open curiosity shone on her face when Beca opened her mouth to respond...only to be met with an egg pun.

"Oh my god, and you call me weird," she groaned, but there were traces of laughter in her voice. Her eyes rolled skyward and her shoulder once again jostled Beca's, but she never strayed very far with the gesture and she settled back in close to Beca. "Shut up, I was so annoyed with both of you that day." Her look turned borderline mischievous as she gave a pointed sweep of her gaze up and down Beca's figure. "Well done though, Special Agent Mitchell." She even winked for good measure, because two could play that game.

*

It didn’t take long for Beca’s inner gremlins to prickle at her insides with guilt, reminding her how she didn’t deserve to feel that level of happiness. Beca forced them back, focusing instead on Chloe’s smile, the crinkle beside her eyes, and the way her hand felt interlocked with hers (warm, soft, a perfect fit… Beca wanted to smack herself at the thought because god, what was wrong with her?). “Hey, I never said I wasn’t weird. You’re definitely weirder, but I happen to like puns, so.” She shrugged, playing it off with her too-cool-for-school attitude… that was immediately wrecking balled by the intense combination of that look Chloe pinned on her along with the accompanying wink and exaggerated drag of her gaze down her body. Beca instantly flushed and rolled her eyes. “Oh my god,” she choked along with a self-conscious snicker. “You weren’t supposed to remember what you saw…” Maybe it was a defense mechanism, but Beca had put it into her mind that Chloe was so frustrated with her that she hadn’t paid attention to anything below her neck. Totally made sense, right?

While the rest of the party took their time waking up, eating and drinking what they could stomach, and refueling the vehicles, Aubrey went off in search for Chloe, who’d been gone for longer than expected. Amy pointed her in the right direction, and with her rifle slung over her shoulder, she followed the trail that led down to the creek. She spotted Chloe with Beca by the water’s edge, pausing a while away to watch their body language for a moment because it was a little weird how closely they sat talking. She couldn’t hear any words over the sound of the babbling stream, but she could’ve sworn she saw smiles and--were they holding hands? She took a few more steps toward the pair to get a better look, because surely her eyes were playing tricks on her, when Beca spotted her in her periphery and sat up with a jolt.

Aubrey cleared her throat. “Chloe, Beca. We’re almost ready to go.” Her gaze shifted between them.

Beca didn’t mean to wrench her hand from Chloe’s so sharply, but the sudden figure behind them had her hand flying to grip the butt of her revolver. She instantly relaxed when she spotted Aubrey, exhaling in a relieved swear. “Okay, yeah. And dude, don’t sneak up next time.”

Aubrey didn’t look very pleased being called dude, but she managed a tight nod in Beca’s direction. She settled her extended questioning gaze at Chloe as they approached, but ultimately decided to turn and lead the way back to their resting spot.

*

It struck her how strange it was to be sitting beside a secluded creek and enjoying a peaceful, largely happy moment, considering all that they'd gone through only hours before. Her heart constricted with an almost guilty pang that she could muster smiles and even laughs, but Beca's presence was a calming balm that she chose to focus on. "I dunno why you get to be like, the ultimate judge of weirdness. I think you're biased. I would not have figured you for a pun person though, interesting." Her eyes narrowed with amusement as she studied Beca, assessing her and filing that tidbit away in her memory. Beca could roll her eyes all she wanted, but Chloe's grin held a mischievous, pleased edge to it at the flush of color that betrayed Beca's exasperated act. "Oh don't worry, it's locked right up here," she teased with a purse of her lips, lifting her free hand to tap her index finger against her temple. "I'm a great multitasker."

Chloe hadn't heard Aubrey's approach, so the sudden jerk of Beca's hand to release hers and Aubrey's voice over the sound of the creek startled her sharply upright in her sitting position. The way her head snapped around to spot Aubrey didn't exactly help how guilty she looked, but she firmly reminded herself that they hadn't been doing anything wrong. Still, it had been a difficult enough day or two, she didn't want to stir up any unnecessary turmoil because of grudges that existed within the group. "Coming, Bree!" See? Totally cheery and not suspicious.

She pushed herself to her feet right behind Beca and hurried back up the path towards their resting site. Her stomach churned with unease at the clear question in Aubrey's gaze when their eyes met, but she scarcely had time to offer a reassuring smile before Aubrey turned away from them to walk back to the rest of the group.

The rest of the group was already milling around by the time they walked back up to the site, and anything they'd pulled out of the vehicles to eat, drink, and refuel had been neatly packed away in the vehicles once again. Despite the fact that nothing bad had happened since arriving at this wooded spot, Chloe noted faint looks of relief from a few of the girls when they walked back into view. She had a sinking feeling they would all have those worries and concerns very close to the surface for a while.

"Hey, where'd you guys disappear off to?" Emily piped up, looking up from where she sat on the grass as she retied the laces of her boots. (Chloe pointedly ignored the knowing look she could practically feel burning into her from Stacie's gaze.)

"There's a creek just over there. It's really nice. Peaceful."

"'Bout time something today was peaceful," Cynthia Rose pointed out. "Everyone ready to hit the road?"

There were murmurs of assent from the group as they all pushed themselves up from their resting spots to head towards the two waiting vehicles. Cynthia Rose made a broad, sweeping gesture toward Beca's bike. "Lead the way, fearless short stack."

Chapter Text

“Dibs on the master bedroom,” Amy called as she emerged from the driver's seat of Jesse's Corolla. The seven hour drive was a bit livelier than the first leg earlier, with Amy leading some sing-alongs and telling stories to the lucky passengers in their car. She was mostly trying to keep herself awake, though, and she yawned on reflex as she stared up at the two story house she'd parked in front of after following Beca.

The house sat off the main roads, quiet and dark in one of the thousands of abandoned neighborhoods across the country, a strange combination of eerie and peaceful. Beca set her helmet atop her bike and led the way inside, too tired to roll her eyes at Amy’s claim. “You're sharing it with at least two people. Looks like we've got…” she pulled a flashlight from her bag and headed upstairs, peeking into doors to assess the situation. Natural moonlight provided more visibility through pulled back curtains, and she tried not to think of the family who'd left and what probably happened to them. “Three bedrooms, an office with a small futon, and a bigger couch downstairs. Let's do… three hour watch rotations, two people per shift. One guards the front, one in the back.” She continued her self guided tour. “Not surprised it's already been looted, but it seems like there were some clothes and stuff left behind. Take what you need, nothing more.” That had been Beca's rule of thumb in her stealing for survival lifestyle.

*

There were various relieved groans and murmurs among the group as the rumble of engines died off and they started to pile out of the two vehicles. The rest of the day had been a long haul, but it had been made more manageable by Amy's antics and the rest they'd all been able to get around midday. As vital as that pit stop had been, the girls were all grateful to see a house looming up out of the darkness before them, glad to be somewhere that would hopefully feel a little more secure for the night.

While Beca disappeared into the house to investigate, the girls fished out flashlights of their own and started pulling things from the vehicles that they would need overnight. They all trudged into the house and lingered a bit restlessly in the large, open entryway for Beca to return. As Beca called out the setup of the house and their sleeping options, the girls murmured throughout their little cluster.

"I don't mind taking the first watch on one side," Stacie volunteered. "And I can take the couch downstairs, so hopefully it won't be disruptive when we change rotations and I go to bed."

"Yeah, me too. And I can take the futon in the office when my watch is over." That offer came from Jesse, and no one seemed keen to dispute it. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that he might want the space to himself after everything that was going on, so they let his offer stand.

"Okay, ladies, if you wanna look through the stuff that was left behind, go ahead. There's no guarantee if we'll have to clear out in a hurry later," Aubrey spoke up, sounding more like herself with her brisk tone. Perhaps that was a pessimistic outlook, but they had no way of knowing if any threats would stumble upon this house overnight.

There were vague mumbles of agreement from the girls as they started to disperse through the house, splitting up accordingly to look through the clothing that had been left behind and to start distributing themselves around the house to figure out the sleeping arrangements that Beca had mentioned.

*

“If anyone finds a pair of boots around size seven please let me know,” Flo said quickly before they broke off into individual rooms.

“Chloe, Stacie--make sure you check the bathrooms for any medical supplies we can take, too,” Beca called out to their resident field medics. While everyone else moved about the house to claim bedrooms and clothing, Beca headed to the kitchen and began rummaging through drawers and cabinets. She managed to recover a few small boxes of matches, a roll of duct tape, a can opener, and a few other random items that might be useful for survival or trade. As Stacie claimed the living room couch, Beca dropped her bag onto the adjacent loveseat, her shorter stature having no problem in curling up on the smaller sofa.

Beca knew she should take advantage of not having first shift and try to get a few hours of shut-eye, but when the house fell quiet, she decided against it. Taking advantage of knowing Jesse was alone somewhere quiet, she wrapped the knitted blanket around her shoulders and headed outside to where Jesse took up his guard post, lingering in the door frame for a few seconds. “Hey,” she started. “Can we talk? Or... if you don't feel like talking, maybe I can talk and you can listen for a change?” The joke was dumb but she'd already committed.

*

Just as Beca instructed, Chloe and Stacie made sure to scour the bathrooms throughout the house for any salvageable medical supplies. (Boots were a no-go, much to Flo's chagrin, but they did manage to scrounge up a few medical items that had been forgotten at the back of medicine cabinets or dropped in someone's haste to leave.) The girls made short but thorough work of exploring the house for any useful additions to their stash of supplies, because it was evident that they all wanted to get to sleep as quickly as they could.

It didn't take too long before the reverberations of footsteps and murmuring voices slowed and then quieted throughout the house. The girls all piled into the shared rooms and fell asleep without too much trouble, perhaps comforted by the close proximity of each other after such harrowing events. While they dozed, Stacie took up her spot outside on the back deck overlooking the overgrown yard. It had probably once been a nice, pleasant yard that perfectly suited whatever family lived here before, but it had long since grown unruly because of time and lack of care. Meanwhile, at the front of the house, Jesse settled on the top porch step and leaned his shoulder against the railing as he looked out over the dark driveway.

His shoulders tensed when Beca's voice sounded behind him, and although his head jerked instinctively towards the sound, he caught himself before he fully turned to look at her. He was quiet for an extended moment before he finally broke the silence that fell after her joke. "You can say whatever you want." His words were low and his eyes were downcast, but he didn't move to leave or disengage for the time being. It was really the most he could muster for the moment. And maybe somewhere deep beneath the hurt and the anger, he was curious to see what she had to say.

*

A dash of relief peppered the palpable tension between Beca and Jesse as she moved to sit on the step next to him, making sure to leave him plenty of personal space as she leaned against the opposite railing. She knew Jesse almost as well as she knew herself--at least she thought she did, and knowing what a kind and forgiving person he was made this a little easier.

“I fucked up, Jess,” she admitted right off the bat, smoothing her hands over her knees as she watched his profile. “I’m gonna apologize and mean it, but I also know that what I did… leaving like that… it could be unforgivable, and I know I need to accept the consequences of my choices. So, I need you to know that I--I truly am sorry. And you deserve an explanation.” She swallowed hard. “I never saw you so damn happy and alive as I did that night when you and Amy were singing and dancing on those tables. It was almost like… that place, it brought out so much happiness in the both of you, and it made me realize what a fucking… downer I’d been. And not only had I been shitty company, dragging you down with me ever since…” She let that hang. He knew what she meant. “But I convinced myself you guys were safer there, too. In the settlement. And I knew if I told you I was leaving, you would’ve tried to come with me, and I can’t… I can’t be responsible for anyone else dying. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I know I did. I know sorry can’t totally fix things, but I’m hoping… I’m hoping it’s a start to… I dunno, building a bridge, or something. If you want to, when you’re ready.”

*

His gaze finally strayed over to her when she shuffled closer across the porch and settled against the other railing on the step. It was little more than a sidelong look, but it was the most he'd been able to bring himself to do without a resurgence of stinging pain that seized beneath his ribs.

The lines of his face were tight and pinched as he listened to Beca unravel her explanation and apology alike--he'd always worn his heart on his sleeve too much for stoicism to be any real option for him. "You've just--you've gotta stop acting like you know what's best for all of us and making decisions without even giving us a chance to know." He turned to look at her more directly then and a furrow was etched deeply in his brow as he watched her with unguarded frustration and hurt. "The settlement was nice, yeah. It was nice to have a consistent roof over our heads and actually sing and let loose like that and not have to watch our backs all the time. But we care about you, Beca. You don't get to just--decide we're better off and dump us off there without a word about it." He knew Beca, he knew how deeply she'd been hurting since Sara's death, but he couldn't reconcile the thought that she was tired of being a downer for them and struck out on her own as a result. "The three of us, we all stuck together, it was supposed to mean something. We were--" His voice was strangled right before it cut off sharply, words lodged somewhere in his throat, and his eyes were glassy beneath the thin moonlight from above as he turned to watch the dark silhouettes of the landscape in front of him. "All that time, and you--you were fine with leaving us behind, weren't you?" He couldn't bring himself to say 'leaving me,' but it seemed to hang unspoken in the air between them nonetheless.

*

She’d braced herself for his puppy dog eyes, but it didn’t help the gut punch of seeing all of that hurt she’d caused plain as day on his face. “I didn’t just dump you off there. I wasn’t trying to get rid of you because I didn’t want to be with you guys. I made a decision to follow through on a task my dad gave me--” One she’d gotten off course from after Sara’s death, and one she didn’t really focus on before that because she wasn’t super confident her dad’s vaccines would actually work until it did. “--and telling you I was going to Colorado would’ve basically been the same as me inviting you on a suicide mission. I didn’t ditch you to wander around on my own without a plan. But the plan was--it was crazy, but I had--have to--try to get there, somehow.” She swallowed the lump in her throat, tears pricking her eyes. “You guys were all I had left. I thought you were better off hating me than being dead. But I realized… on that first night when I left, when I had to sleep alone without cover--I made a mistake.” She had to own that, though it knifed at her pride. She needed people whether she wanted to admit that to herself or not. “You’re right, though. I should’ve given you that choice.” She took in a deep, shaky breath. “You’re my best friend, Jesse.”

*

"Yeah, you made a decision without talking to us about it first," he groused, the worry and frustration of her departure seeping into his voice. "Maybe you were trying to be noble or--whatever you had in mind, but you've gotta stop thinking you have to just take all of that on yourself. Yeah, maybe it'd be a suicide mission. Lots of shit is these days," he pointed out, his hand snapping out to indicate the world around them with a broad gesture. "But haven't we--we've stuck with you this long, didn't we at least deserve the choice? I mean...did you really think we could be completely happy there at the settlement, no matter how much we liked it there, knowing you were out there alone or maybe even dead?" So much of his anger and pain over her abandonment had stemmed from the sheer, visceral fear and worry that grasped him every time he thought about her out there by herself, having to face every threat without support, and the knowledge that she'd made that decision for them out of some misguided attempt to protect them. There was a huff of laughter, sharp and humorless, when Beca admitted she'd made a mistake. "Well...welcome to the club. We need people, Beca. We might not have much left, but we've got that." It felt like a victory when Beca admitted she should have given them the choice, even if it did feel rather hollow. "You're my best friend, too." There was a hesitant pause before he spoke again, as if he didn't want to breathe his next words into existence. As if by stubbornly swallowing them back, he could somehow deny them the truth that they carried. "But that's it, isn't it?" Beca's disappearance had been enough to illustrate that to him, but maybe he needed to hear it out loud for himself.

*

The attack on the settlement only bolstered Jesse’s argument because it truly wasn’t safe anywhere. Not that she was in a position to contest it anyway. She’d already admitted she was wrong. If Jesse had to restate it over a few times, well… she could handle that, and she supposed she deserved it. “I guess I wasn’t thinking it through all the way. I was being selfish.” She gave a soft snort when he welcomed her to the club of reliance. “Yeah, I’m learning that the hard way,” she grumbled, reaching up to rub at the back of her neck. Until very recently, Beca wasn’t sure about the nature of her feelings for Jesse. She chalked her lack of enthusiasm (compared to his) as Jesse being the feelings person between the two of them, but it became a hell of a lot more clear over the past couple of weeks--she loved Jesse, but not in the way he wanted her to love him. She knew deep down that she wouldn’t have such strong feelings for Chloe if she loved Jesse in a non-platonic way. Beca bit her lip for a moment, her gaze sweeping over his face as her heart twisted with sadness. “That’s not enough?” Maybe it was cowardly to answer a question with another question, but friendship meant just as much to Beca as anything romantic in nature. Maybe they were different forces, but they were just as powerful in their own way.

*

Some of the tension in the set of his frame drained away when she said her choice had been selfish, replaced by a deep weariness brought on by more than the events of the past day or so. "Thank you...for saying that, y'know. And maybe I sound like a broken record, but I'm not saying this to like--browbeat you or guilt trip you or anything. I'm just saying it so you'll know. Amy and I wanna keep you safe just as much as you want to protect us." There was an unguarded plea in his eyes, because while he'd grown close to the girls at the settlement over the past two weeks, there were only two people in the world he could count as family anymore. And he'd had to reconcile himself with the fact that the number could be cut in half if the attack hadn't brought Beca back to them. "There's not a lot we have left to hold onto anymore, Beca. So if I can't look out for the people I care about...none of the rest of that stuff matters much at all." He thought maybe she felt that same way about them, even if she hadn't expressed it in the best way by his estimation. His heart sank and his face fell to match it when she turned that question on him. "I didn't--that's not what I meant. I think I've just been...trying to hold onto something that doesn't really work. Telling myself maybe it could work." Jesse was hopeful by nature, but he wasn't oblivious. When he looked at her again, there was still sadness in the depths of his eyes, but there was awareness too. Willful ignorance wasn't a path that Jesse wanted to go down. "That doesn't change you being my best friend."

*

“Thanks for listening to me.” He could've given her the cold shoulder for longer, but he didn't. That didn't surprise her, but she was still grateful. “And I came to that same realization while I was booking it back to the settlement to try to protect you guys.” And then... God, there it was. Beca swore she wouldn't twist the knife but how could she avoid it with such a direct question? She couldn't lie to him. “I'm sorry, Jess,” Beca croaked, her voice breaking as she hung her head. “It’s not you. I--you're the best fucking person I know, but I don't think it's the same for me. I wish it was.” She did, truly, to spare him the heartbreak, to uncomplicate things with Chloe. It would be so much easier on everyone involved. Sniffling, Beca wiped away the tears that fell. “How can I… make this easier on you? Do you want me to keep giving you some space for a while?”

*

Her thanks prompted a solemn nod of acknowledgement, because while it wasn't a fun conversation, it was a necessary one for both of them. It was heartening to hear that Beca had begun to accept feeling that way about the people around her, even if the catalyst for it had been difficult for all of them. "Hey, don't apologize, come on. You can't help how you feel, you know? It is what it is," he said, trying to inject some reassurance into his voice, especially when her head drooped. That was still a visual that twisted at his heart, no matter what emotions he was working through himself. A thread of gratitude worked its way through his expression when she tried to offer suggestions. "Yeah, maybe just...a little space. I mean, you don't have to completely avoid me, just--give me some time to get over everything?" Too much space wasn't exactly possible anyway, considering their current arrangements, but he told himself that some time would heal things over. Especially considering he did still have her friendship, which was the entire foundation for everything in the first place. "It'll be okay. I'm tougher than I look, Becs." His smile was small and tinged at the edges with sadness, but it was still a smile, and he hoped that counted for something.

*

Beca nodded tightly in response, flashing a watery grin. Jesse was truly too good for this world. “I know you are,” Beca insisted. “You kicked ass last night. Don’t think I wasn’t impressed.” He’d held his own against scavs in that crowd and she was super proud of him. “I should try to sleep. Feel free to wake me for next shift.” She pushed to her feet and clapped Jesse on the shoulder before trudging back inside, feeling lighter than she had all day. Really, though--with twelve hours on the bike and two emotionally taxing conversations, Beca didn’t even bother pulling her boots off before crashing on that living room loveseat.

*

*

*

Daylight broke over a thankfully peaceful scene at the abandoned house. All had been quiet throughout the night, and Flo and Chloe had been on the final rotation of the night watch as the others in the house began to stir. The morning was a relatively quiet affair, with the group making quick work of a light breakfast and passing around more water in a drowsy haze. With a night of uneventful rest behind them, they loaded up in the vehicles and struck out on the road once more behind the lead of Beca's motorcycle.

It was several more hours on the road before they saw signs any signs of life--potholes from disrepair and a few instances of felled branches slowed their progress as they had to take care to avoid obstacles and not damage any of the vehicles. With Beca at the helm of their traveling party, they eventually pulled off the main road and followed her until they reached the settlement she'd been guiding them to ever since they'd fled from the Barden settlement. The atmosphere was tense from the moment they pulled up outside of the barrier that had been erected around the settlement. They couldn't tell much about the settlement from outside its walls, but the barrier that surrounded it was pockmarked with signs of struggle and guarded by several people carrying a variety of guns with practiced ease.

The guards had taken notice of them and followed their progress with cautious eyes all the way up to the short distance they parked away from the gates. Aubrey was one of the first to slide out of one of the vehicles and approach them, and several of the guards lifted their guns and trained them on her and the vehicles behind her as one guard approached her. The other girls, right in the midst of piling out of the car and truck, slowed and watched the scene that was unfolding as soon as weapons were raised.

"I'm gonna need all of you to keep moving." The guard's voice was rough and no-nonsense, and the scrutinizing look he trained on everyone in their group in turn was filled with wary disdain.

"Sir, we're from a settlement closer to Atlanta. We had some trouble there and we've been traveling and we're just--" Aubrey's voice was level and placating to counteract his own harsher tone, but it seemed to have no effect on the man, who merely leveled her with an unimpressed glare.

"Maybe you didn't hear me the first time. Keep moving." There was more open vitriol in his voice that time, and all of the girls could see the way the lines of Aubrey's shoulders tightened with tension. As they all watched the guards who were scrutinizing them in return, it became clear that there was an undercurrent of wariness and mistrust that went deeper than some random strangers pulling up to their makeshift home. They started to piece together an idea of what was going on--from the bullet holes that scored the barrier around the settlement to the open hostility that radiated from the guards who kept their guns trained readily on their group, it became clear that the Barden settlement was not the only one who had endured recent hardship. While they had all been desperately hoping for some kind of safe haven at this settlement, it was rapidly becoming obvious that there was no shelter to be found here. This settlement had circled the proverbial wagons, and it was understandable that they weren't immediately receptive to complete strangers showing up at their front door. Disappointing, but understandable.

"If you'll just hear me out, we're only looking to--" Aubrey's persistence was only met by the lead guard's hand straying to rest on the pistol that was holstered on his hip. Behind her, all of the girls tensed warily. Stacie pushed Emily to stand behind her, and Chloe chanced a step forward towards Aubrey.

"Bree, come on," she urged in a low voice. "Let's go. They're not gonna let us in."

The guard sneered at Aubrey. "You should listen to your friend. Seems like she's got the message better than you."

Chloe took three more quick steps forward and grasped Aubrey's upper arm, pulling her away and back towards the car. Aubrey's jaw was tight as she strode back to the car, ushering the girls back towards their respective vehicles. "Let's go. We'll find somewhere else for the night and figure something out."

It wasn't much of a plan, but it was the best they had for now. With sinking hearts, the group loaded back into the two vehicles before they reversed and pulled away from the settlement. As they headed back towards the main road, palpable unease permeated both vehicles. That settlement had been their only plan, the one bright spot they'd been looking towards since losing their home.

They drove largely in silence for a short time before they pulled off onto an exit, driving far enough back until they found an area to stop for the night. It was a largely wooded area, but they found a clearing large enough to accommodate their vehicles and leave room for them to make camp for the night. The mood was somber as the girls moved around the area, clearing out any debris to make space to sleep for the night and pulling out rations so they could refuel.

*

Jesse woke Beca for second watch shift, and she sat on the front porch steps scanning the area for any potential threats as she’d been just about every night for the past few years. Her body had long since grown used to catching a few hours of sleep here and there as opposed to sleeping through the night. She woke Cynthia Rose to take over her watch and slept for another five hours, grateful for no disturbances throughout the night. In the daylight, Beca took another lap through the abandoned house, checking cabinets and drawers and beneath mattresses, scouring for items they might need. After fueling her body with the prepared breakfast, she led the rest of the way to the nearest settlement.

Beca’s intense conversations with both Chloe and Jesse weighed heavily on her mind throughout the journey; she replayed the dialogue over and over again, her emotions waffling between flying high with strange, elusive hope and yearning and dipping low into valleys of guilt and self-doubt. Her spirits buoyed with Jesse’s optimism and the belief that he was better off finding someone who loved him the way he deserved to be loved. The fact that he insisted she was still his best friend wasn’t surprising, but it reminded her how she made the right choice to be honest with her feelings. It would be awkward for a little while, she assumed, but hopefully they could fall into being friends comfortably.

When they approached the settlement hours later, Beca scanned the area and immediately set herself on high alert. The settlement, even before entering, emitted a vibe that wasn’t friendly or welcoming. She wasn’t much of a negotiator, so she hung back and watched as Aubrey and Chloe and Jesse led the attempt at seeking temporary, if not permanent shelter. Beca scanned each guard with her own hand on the grip of her revolver, ready to draw and fire if tensions rose to that level. She didn’t trust herself to open her mouth, but she gritted her teeth and glared daggers at the bastards who cast them back out without a chance.

She grumbled under her breath as they drove away, and by the time Jesse led them to an appropriate campsite, her frustrations still rose high. “I’m gonna go hunt, blow off some steam, maybe get us some protein for dinner.” Before sunset, Beca set out through the woods alone with her rifle drawn. The act of intense hunting focus plus the long walk to burn some energy (her legs were stiff as fuck from all of that motorcycle riding) did help most of that pent-up rage pass, but the sense of injustice lingered uncomfortably in her gut. Her travelmates were good people who deserved shelter. They worked hard and didn’t cause trouble. And she wasn’t sure how much longer she could help keep them out of danger.

Beca returned from her hour-long hunt dragging another buck with her, this one about 40 pounds smaller than the one she’d slain in her “friendly” competition with Aubrey. Her arms throbbed with soreness as she dropped the kill near where they’d get a campfire going, stretching her arms up over her head with a grimace. “Should be more than enough meat for all of us,” Beca said with an exhausted sigh, flopping down onto the grass.

Cynthia Rose let out a low whistle, as impressed with Beca’s kill as she’d been before. “I’ll prep the meat. Someone get the fire going.” She pulled the butcher knife from her pouch of cooking tools and got to work.

*

Frustrations and despondency ran high within the group, so it came as no particular surprise to anyone when Beca stalked off into the woods to hunt for something for dinner. If they'd had the same skills, several of them probably would have relished the same opportunity to stretch their legs and find some catharsis for their irritation. As it was, they instead went about setting up the clearing for the night ahead of them.

Someone had managed to scrounge up two tents from the settlement's stores of supplies before their departure--they had belonged to one of the community's civilians once upon a time, a remnant of their time on the road before reaching Barden, but they'd been packed away when houses and more stable structures had been available. They weren't in pristine shape and it would be a tight fit for those who weren't taking a turn on watch for the night, but at least it was cover and that seemed better than nothing. In the time it took for Beca to venture out on her hunting trip, they managed to get the tents erected in the clearing. They also gathered plenty of fallen branches that could be used to build a fire and made sure it was sufficiently dried out.

A note of relief worked its way through the group when the sounds of Beca rustling through the woods coalesced into the sight of her dragging a buck along with her. Her successful hunt meant they could save some of their rations and make them last longer, and the protein promised to be especially filling.

"Oh my gosh, Beca, thank you!" Emily seemed buoyed by the promise of food--that exuberance quickly waned when Cynthia Rose moved to prep the meat and she turned away from that scene, but her gratitude remained nonetheless.

At Cynthia Rose's instruction, Flo retrieved one of the boxes of matches they'd managed to salvage from the house the night before. Together with Stacie, she retrieved a few handfuls of dry leaves before moving over to the cleared out spot where they'd arranged some of the firewood and blocked it off with a circle of rocks. She tucked the leaves into the very heart of the firewood before striking a match. She carefully set light to the leaves, and both Flo and Stacie sat huddled around the fire to monitor it and make sure the wood caught alight.

Glancing over to Beca sprawled on the grass, Chloe retrieved a water bottle from their rations and crossed the clearing to reach her. She knelt down near where Beca sat and offered out the water. "Thanks for doing that. How are you feeling?"

*

Beca appreciated the light breeze rolling through the clearing, and she watched from her spot on the grass as Flo and Stacie worked to start a fire while Cynthia Rose butchered the kill. They’d pitched tents in her absence, too. She was so used to doing the bulk of the work with Jesse and Amy that she took a moment to appreciate having more help. She didn’t realize how parched she was until Chloe offered her water, and she flashed a weak grin as she took the bottle, helping herself to a few swigs but not overdoing it. They’d find more fresh water in the morning, but until then, she didn’t want to drink too much of it. “Yeah, no problem. Thanks for the water, Nurse Chloe. I’m okay, I guess. What about you?” She wondered how the other girls were fairing, too; on her motorcycle, she hadn’t had the chance to catch the vibe of the mood in the vehicles. Judging by the efficiency of how they’d set up the campsite, it seemed like everyone else channeled their frustrations into productivity like she had with hunting.

*

Once Beca accepted the water, she lowered herself to sit on the grass beside her. Stretching her legs out in front of her to enjoy not being cooped up in the car like she had for most of the day, she leaned back against her arms as she watched the slow bustle of activity around the camp. While the girls worked on getting the fire coaxed into a larger blaze and Cynthia Rose prepped the meat, the other girls seemed to have wound down into a calmer state now that most of the setup had been done. "Well yeah, hydration is key. Nurse's orders," she pointed out with a whisper of a smile, sparing a quick glance over at Beca before she turned back to face the clearing that was filled with their party. She was quiet for a moment after Beca's question, instead listening to the chatter of Stacie and Flo debating their campfire techniques and Emily bounding over to Aubrey to see if there was any work left to be done. "I'm okay. I'll be okay." There was a distinction there, but she didn't want to dwell on it. "Everyone's--y'know, it was a letdown." Her shoulders hitched with a shrug and a sigh. "I think we were all just excited to have a plan after...everything. So we've just gotta readjust and figure something out."

*

“Mmm… I'm not the best at following orders, even from nurses. Can't argue about hydration though.” She nodded along with Chloe's assessment, because it was a huge letdown. “Yeah. Bastards,” Beca muttered, helping herself to one more mouthful of water before screwing the cap back on and setting it in the grass beside her. “It's bullshit but it's for the best. Didn't get good vibes there anyway. And we gotta be careful… there’re lots of fuckers out there who wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of a group of younger girls, so. We’re probably better off in the long run.” Beca looked over at Chloe with cool confidence in her eyes. “You guys are gonna be okay. We'll figure it out. I'll make sure to get you guys somewhere you'll be safe more permanently.”

*

"I dunno why I would've expected anything else from your stubborn self," she remarked, turning to narrow her eyes at Beca without any real heat behind the gesture. There was a huff of wry laughter when Beca insulted the settlement that had turned them away, even if she privately agreed that the guys had been complete jerks. "I kind of get it, I guess. They were looking out for their own," she reasoned, even though she sounded like she was trying to convince herself as well. A wrinkle of concern furrowed her brow when Beca elaborated on why it might have been a blessing in disguise that they'd been turned away at the gate. Although it turned her stomach to consider possibilities like that, she knew it was a very real danger among some groups. "Yeah, I didn't like the vibe there. I mean--it was obvious they were on edge, but it still didn't have a good feel to it." The surety in Beca's eyes struck Chloe with a surge of reassurance, and she found herself trusting in the assurance behind her words. "Thank you, Beca. You guys--we really would've been lost without your help. It really means a lot to me, and I know everyone else appreciates it too." She took note of how Beca had said she'd get them somewhere safe, and she had to wonder again if Beca had resolved herself to leaving again once they were settled somewhere. She didn't ask about it though--it hardly seemed like the right time to bring it up when everyone else was still around.

*

A hoarse chuckle passed Beca’s lips. “Good. At least you’ve got realistic expectations.” Her eyes flickered over to watch the rest of the team work on coaxing the fire as she shrugged off Beca’s thanks. “Hey, it’s whatever. Kinda nice to have a break from butchering my own kills to be honest.” Cynthia Rose clearly looked like she knew her way around kitchen knives, and Beca appreciated that a hell of a lot. “Good to know you guys can do more than just sing and dance,” she teased, though she’d obviously seen them all working hard in the settlement on various tasks. Her eyes tracked Jesse and Aubrey pulling blankets out of the car to toss into each tent, and Beca lowered her voice. “We talked last night. Me and Jesse. We’re okay,” she said. “We’re gonna be okay, I mean. He said he needs a little time but he’s not--he doesn’t hate me or whatever.”

*

"As if I've got much choice anymore," Chloe pointed out with a whisper of a wry smile. There was a vague shake of her head out of amusement, because she wasn't particularly surprised when Beca downplayed her thanks. Beca was very reliable in that regard. Her jaw fell slack with a scandalized gasp at Beca's teasing comment, one hand lifting to give Beca's shoulder a light push. "Excuse you! First of all, you're welcome to have been graced by our terrific singing and dancing. Second of all, don't be a jerk, Special Agent Mitchell." She knew Beca wasn't really belittling their contributions, and she felt the teasing banter ease some of the tension that had built up over the course of the day. Even in the midst of the heartbreaks and letdowns of the last few days, her expression brightened when Beca confided in her about her talk with Jesse. "Really? That's so great, Beca. I'm really glad for you both. I mean--I'm glad that he's going to be okay with time, y'know." She paused for a moment to watch Jesse and Aubrey, appreciating once again how truly nice he was and how much she hoped he would bounce back from all of this. She had faith that he would, judging from everything she'd observed of him. Her smile softened when she turned back to Beca. "And I--I'm really glad that talk went well for you too."

*

Beca pinned Chloe with a look. “Please. You can choose not to sit near me or talk to me, you know. You can stay far away, kinda like Aubrey does. I’m sure she’s got a Beca Mitchell Survival Guide already drafted, so. Ask her for tips.” It was kind of amusing to Beca how Aubrey seemed to make sure keep as much space between them as possible, as though she had some sort of ‘Must stay at least 20 yards away from Beca at all times’ rule, which… Beca found kind of funny, honestly. She probably should’ve been offended, but she genuinely didn’t care what Aubrey thought of her. When Chloe softened at her news about Jesse, Beca pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tight. “Mhm, totes.” She was grateful he wanted to stay friends and it felt like a huge weight off her shoulders that he no longer had this expectation of her for more, but she didn’t need to go into that with Chloe.

*

Rather than concede beneath the look that Beca pinned her with, Chloe merely rolled her eyes instead. "That's it, you're gonna get the silent treatment. I'm stone cold." She made an exaggerated show of leaning her weight back against her arms braced against the grass and tipping her head back to study the interlocking canopy of trees above them. It wasn't entirely silent, since the rest of the group was still moving around the campsite and talking among themselves, but even then it was only a few beats before her chin tucked down once again so she could look over at Beca. "And Aubrey doesn't have a guide. Even she would have to admit that you've been a big help." Sure, Aubrey would probably only admit something like that under threat of death, but that was more of a testament to her stubborn nature than anything else. Blue eyes narrowed once again when Beca tossed some of her typical slang back at her, but a telltale quirk lingered at the corners of her mouth even when she pressed her lips into a thin line to conceal it. "Totes. See, we'll turn you into an honorary sorority girl yet."

*

Watching with a raised brow and amusement dancing in her eyes, Beca’s lips curled into a smirk as Chloe broke her vow of silence. “Pretty sure silent treatments are supposed to be silent, Nurse Chloe,” Beca couldn’t help but tease after she spoke again. “She did a pretty okay job talking to those assholes. I would’ve lost my cool and shot ‘em in the face, so.” That was as much of a compliment as Beca wanted to pay Aubrey… not that Beca would say it to her face. She snorted and rolled her eyes after the return totes. “Dope. I can’t wait to have naked pillow fights and braid each other’s hair and gossip about cute boys.” That was what sororities did, right?

Cynthia Rose called out to them. “Hey, Beca! I need a sous chef… Come gimme a hand with this!”

Beca pushed herself back to her boots, casting one glance back down at Chloe. “See ya later, Sunshine.” She should’ve offered to help Cynthia Rose butcher the buck in the first place, but she’d been too tired from dragging it back. They worked well together, and Amy pulled the camping cooking gear from Jesse’s trunk and set it up over the fire.

Two hours later found everyone with pleasantly full stomachs, and after the night of decent rest at the abandoned house, despite being turned away from the settlement earlier that day, conversation was livelier among the group than it had been since the attack a few nights ago. Amy, as usual, entertained with dramatic stories, with Jesse chiming in every so often to correct her misremembrances. They stayed awake chattering around the campfire, soothed by its warmth as the cool night breeze swirled gently around them. It was only after everyone realized Emily had fallen asleep curled up on Flo’s lap that they decided to hit the tents to sleep. First, though, they settled on a night watch order, with Beca volunteering to go first and Aubrey second, the rest of them each committing to an hour of watch over the small campsite.

Beca settled onto one of the thick logs they’d used as a makeshift seat by the fire as the girls and Jesse piled into the tents. She didn’t think they’d all fit, honestly, but they managed. By the time her quiet surveillance hour was up, Beca heard rhythmic snoozing noises harmonizing from each tent as she ducked into the tent she’d watched Aubrey enter earlier. She crouched with her small flashlight, careful not to step on any limbs as she finally found the bitchy blonde toward the back of the tent. “Psst, Posen,” she whispered, tapping her shoulder. Aubrey winced at the lowly lit flashlight and grumbled, pushing herself up to crawl around Beca, turning only to shove her blanket at her on her way out to take up her post. Beca dropped to her knees with her flashlight still in hand, noting a sleeping Stacie to her left and…. Red hair to her right.

A sudden shock of nerves twisted in Beca’s gut but she turned off her flashlight and settled down atop the sleeping bag anyway, knowing there was no other spot for her and she didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. She could sleep next to Chloe. No problem. Clearing her throat softly, Beca unbunched the blanket Aubrey unceremoniously passed to her and covered her lower half, folding her hands over her stomach and blinking up at the inside ceiling of the tent. She willed her breathing to even out so she could get some sleep, but soon, the claustrophobia got to her and she tossed and turned every few minutes, trying to relax and get comfortable. Was it even possible for Beca to unwind enough to sleep with all of those bodies crammed way too close for comfort?

*

With Cynthia Rose's interruption, Chloe merely offered a grin as Beca pushed herself to her feet and strode over to help with the dinner preparation. While they set to work on preparing the meal with practiced familiarity with the camping cooking gear, Chloe pushed herself back up and went to help make sure that everything was arranged in the tents for the night. Considering their resources weren't exactly lavish or bountiful, it didn't take very much time at all.

Dinner itself was a welcome reprieve from the events of the day. The stresses of their predicament melted away for the time being as they all laughed along at Amy's retelling of their more outrageous adventures (clearly exaggerated, but they could all gladly suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment that was a welcome mood boost), and having a healthy supply of meat from Beca's hunting kill that was shared liberally around their haphazard circle of makeshift seats helped even more. It really was amazing how much a full stomach could make a difference. And while they all knew that they could never fully let their guard down, the circle of camaraderie around the glow of the campfire was warm and amiable.

Although Emily was the first one to lose her battle with fatigue, that awareness around the campfire seemed to help exhaustion settle in for all of them. Once the watch order had been decided, everyone gratefully piled into the tents for the night. Chloe tugged Aubrey over to join her on her end of the tent, which garnered no resistance from her best friend--the tents were going to be a tight fit anyway, so it only made sense to hunker down beside Chloe since the ginger had long since desensitized her to close proximity like that thanks to her propensity for affectionate gestures. There was little chatter as everyone claimed their spots and settled in for the night. It seemed everyone was ready for another chance to get a good night's sleep after a day spent on the road. Although Chloe was quickly losing her own battle with her heavy eyelids, she was grateful to feel the tension melt away from Aubrey's figure where their arms pressed together shortly before Chloe drifted into unconsciousness. Aubrey needed the rest, she was sure.

The restless turning of a body beside her woke her some indeterminate amount of time later. It felt like only minutes since she had first closed her eyes when she was jostled back into reluctant wakefulness. Thinking Aubrey must have gotten restless during her bid to fall asleep, Chloe tugged her blanket back up over her shoulders and tried to reclaim the sleep that had fled from her. It was only when another toss of the body next to her jolted her once again that she breathed out a sleepy yawn. "Bree, go to sleep," she mumbled into the warm fabric of her blanket.

Her conscience got the best of her though, and she rolled over to face the person next to her. If Aubrey couldn't sleep, maybe there was something weighing on her mind. It wouldn't be the first time the blonde had let her anxieties keep her awake at night. It was only as she woke more fully that she realized the body stretched out beside her was too short to be Aubrey. Sure enough, as she rubbed at her eyes and squinted into the darkness of the tent, she was finally able to make out the vague shapes of the person next to her. Beca. She'd been asleep longer than she'd thought, then.

Noting Beca's restlessness, Chloe cleared her throat and tucked her chin against the blanket that was bunched up around her shoulders. The smile that stretched across her face was sleepy but teasing, even though Beca probably wouldn't catch it in the dimness of their surroundings. "So do you wanna jump right into the naked pillow fight, or did you wanna ease in with some hair braiding first?" It was only fair, after Beca's teasing about sororities earlier.

*

A wince pulled at Beca's face as Chloe spoke to her, immediate guilt pouring through her body because she clearly woke her up. It took half a beat of silence (save for the light snores of their comrades around them) for Beca to realize Chloe thought she was someone else. “If you're gonna call me a cheese, at least call me a better one,” she mumbled. Brie, psh. Look, it was much easier to awkwardly joke about cheese than face reality here, okay? Especially when Chloe seemed to register whom she was actually talking to. She emitted a quiet huff, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re such a nerd,” Beca whispered back. “Go back to sleep.”

*

A low chuckle was muffled into her blanket, voice still hoarse from sleep. And she called Chloe a nerd. "Don't be a cheese snob, s'rude." It was a halfhearted rebuttal at best, she had to admit. Now that she'd realized it was Beca beside her rather than Aubrey, thoughts finally started to filter more coherently through the receding haze of sleep in her brain. She could feel the rustle of Beca next to her as she crossed her arms, lips pursing to conceal another chuckle at the huff that carried through the air around them. "Kinda what I was trying to do before someone decided to practice their acrobatics," she pointed out, but her tone carried warm teasing despite the rasp at the edges of her voice. "You okay?"

*

“No, no. Brie is a snobby cheese. I'm definitely blue cheese. Or sharp cheddar.” Beca grimaced in the darkness. First eggs, now cheese. Seriously, why did Chloe give her a massive case of word vomit? And why did that sleepy rasp make her heart skip a beat? Dammit, Chloe. “Yeah. Good. Fine. Sorry I woke you.” Willing her body to relax, she let her arms fall back to her sides, feeling the brush of… whatever it was on her knuckles. Chloe's arm, maybe? Something under a blanket. Still, Beca shivered. Because it was chilly, yep.

*

Beneath the curtain of darkness, she shot a strangely endeared look of amusement at Beca. "You're kind of a weirdo." The words were mumbled with a trace of fond laughter into the space between them. Maybe she would lament the loss of sleep later, but she couldn't quite muster the energy to care right now. "Yeah, the acrobatics routine really made it seem that way," she pointed out, voice lilting upwards in a knowing fashion. The brush of Beca's hand was unexpected in the dark when her knuckles landed against Chloe's hand that had slipped from beneath her blanket during her shifting to face Beca. Maybe she should've spared a thought to whether it was even a good idea or not, but she turned her hand enough to give Beca's hand a soft squeeze. "Not used to camping with this many people, huh?"

*

As the seconds passed, Beca's eyes adjusted to the darkness, the faint glow of moonlight filtering in through the small mesh windows at the sides of the tent. Beca carefully shifted to face Chloe, catching the shadows to make out the slope of her nose and outline of her jaw. “You're the weirdo,” she muttered back. It hadn't been Beca's intention to hold Chloe's hand, but she certainly couldn't complain about the results. At least it was too dark for Chloe to catch the blush rising in her cheeks. Beca's thumb skimmed over Chloe's knuckles almost absentmindedly. “Pretty sure we're super fucking over max capacity in here. Fire hazard. Definitely.”

*

The sound of the quiet breathing of the other girls in the tent was rhythmic and even, and Chloe’s own gaze was curious and soft under the faint moonlight as Beca rolled to face her. "You might've mentioned that before," she retorted with a quiet puff of laughter on her exhale. When Beca didn't immediately pull away, she carefully and loosely laced her fingers with Beca's, giving her plenty of time to disengage if she wanted. She could only hope not though, because the whisper-soft trace of Beca's thumb across her knuckles was really nice. At Beca's complaint, her eyes widened dramatically beneath the glow of moonlight and her lips parted with a gasp, so soft it was more gesture than sound. "Oh no, do you think the fire marshal will bust us? Wouldn't want to ruin this super fun party."

*

Beca wasn’t aware of the sensitivity of the skin running along the sides of her fingers until Chloe’s locked with hers. Her lip caught between her teeth for a moment as she watched Chloe’s features animate with a dramatic, near-silent gasp. “You’ve got a weird idea about what constitutes a super fun party.” She dared a glance over her shoulder to take another look at Stacie sleeping on her back, one arm cast over her eyes, before turning back to Chloe. “Stacie doesn’t get handsy in her sleep, does she?” With the tales she’d heard of the taller girl’s conquests and adventures at the settlement, she didn’t think that was a stretch of an assumption to sleep next to her with caution.

*

Beca's hand was warm in hers and her eyes were dark and deep when there was only the soft glow of moonlight to illuminate her. Chloe found herself studying the way each line and angle of her face was different in the moonlight--some lines thrown into sharp relief by moonlight, others softened in shadow. "I think all parties are kinda weird these days." At the question about Stacie's sleeping habits, her expression twisted with a sympathetic wince. "Ummm," she hummed, the uncertain word drawn out over a few syllables. "No promises there. Usually she just gropes her own boobs in her sleep, but sometimes she goes rogue." Chloe had learned that lesson all too well before, so it was only fair to give Beca a warning now. The whole thing struck her as rather ridiculous, but her teeth caught at her bottom lip in a poor attempt to hide a smile since Beca seemed genuinely concerned about the prospect.

*

Beca was never really a fan of parties before the zombie apocalypse, but she didn’t need to let Chloe know she was even weirder than she thought. She had a cool reputation to uphold, even if, for some crazy reason, Chloe seemed to see right past that. “Jesus, dude,” Beca grumbled, shifting a few more inches away from Stacie on instinct… which landed her pretty damn close to Chloe. The proximity made Beca squirm, but not in the same way the thought of Stacie going rogue twisted up her stomach. This--being super close to Chloe, where if she leaned forward a few more inches their noses would touch--it felt okay. Good, even. And since the shock of the tight sleeping quarters wore off, Beca finally realized this was the most “alone” they’d been since the night she left. “Is this okay?” she asked in a hushed tone once she finally found her voice again.

*

She tucked her face against her blanket to smother the giggle that escaped at Beca's indignant horror upon finding out about Stacie's...unusual unconscious activities. Her laughter died the instant that Beca shifted away from Stacie, which by proxy, brought her closer to Chloe. Right inside of her personal bubble, in fact. Not that Chloe had ever been very shy about personal boundaries (she was an affectionate person by nature, okay!), but try telling that to the heat that flared across her skin. At least Beca couldn't see the color that tinged her cheeks to match. (She was pretty sure. She was choosing to tell herself that.) It took a split second too long for Beca's question to permeate her brain--focus, Beale--so then she cleared her throat and bobbed her head in a quick nod of confirmation. "Of course. Yeah. Completely okay." She was thankful that speaking in a whisper kept her voice was sounding completely strange. Considering they were surrounded by other girls in the tent (even if those girls did happen to be sleeping right now), it seemed safer to aim for a teasing edge to her voice when she whispered again. "So I guess I'm less scary than Stacie, is that it?"

*

Beca was chilly on watch, the summer night air cooler than they’d been used to, significantly so since they’d been traveling northwest for a couple of days. She’d removed her leather jacket before she entered the tent, folding it beneath her head as a makeshift pillow, but otherwise remained clothed (it was never worth trying to scramble to put your boots on if you had to leave in a hurry, she learned that one the hard way). Despite that, she swore she could feel the warmth radiating from Chloe, even through the blanket that covered her own lower half. At least now she could see Chloe’s eyes twinkling at her so close. “You’re scary in a different way,” Beca rasped, her voice barely there--not that it had to travel far, considering. She knew it was probably super wrong for her body to be screaming for things when others slept nearby, but there weren’t many opportunities for any private time traveling with so many people, especially since she wasn’t a PDA person and she needed to be sensitive to not make things harder on Jesse (who, thankfully, slept in the other tent). They should be taking advantage of the sleeping opportunity too, but holy shit, that same magnetic pull that existed between them before tugged Beca closer. She dared to shift the slightest bit, her nose just barely grazing Chloe’s, lips a hair’s breadth apart. “Is this okay?” she asked again, obvious in her intent but at least she asked first, this time.

*

Chloe’s grip on her blanket loosened when Beca scooted closer--the warmth that reached her from Beca's proximity was more effective than a blanket anyway. Or at least a lot more appealing. The rasp of Beca's voice elicited a shiver that trailed down her spine and sparked warmth that spread through her. But it was more than the hoarse edge to her voice--it was the confession that it carried and the weight of it that settled in Chloe's chest. "You're kinda scary too." But not in the way that Beca probably thought. Not in the way where she wielded guns as naturally as breathing or could take down men twice her size and drag hunting kills back to camp. No, she was scary in the way that Chloe felt drawn to her no matter how brief their time together had been, and how she wanted to resist that pull less and less each time. In fact, when Beca voiced her question again with such clear intent, Chloe didn't feel like trying to stifle that instinctive reaction at all. Her ears strained to pick up any signs of waking from the other girls, but only soft breathing reached her ears, so she acted on impulse rather than rationale when she shifted forward to banish more of the scarce distance between them. Rather than a verbal response, one hand lifted to curl beneath Beca's chin, her thumb brushing across the ridge of Beca's chin as she ducked her head to press her lips to Beca's in a slow, questioning kiss.

*

Beca’s breath caught in a hitch when Chloe’s soft fingers found her chin, and when she finally felt those magnificent lips brush against hers again, Beca exhaled shakily through her nose, closing her eyes and savoring the sensations sparking throughout her body. She never thought she’d have this chance again, and now she was determined to not waste it, to stay present and remember how fucking amazing--how alive she felt, kissing Chloe. Beca kissed back, equally slow and intentional in her movements, lips pliant and responsive. God, and she could truly enjoy this now because this time it wasn’t tinged with guilt or sadness and she kind of never wanted to stop, which was probably a problem.

*

From the very first brush of their lips together, Chloe melted into the contact with a contentment that swept through her. A thrill shot through her as soon as Beca responded and kissed her back, and spurred on by that encouragement, the hand at Beca's chin traced along the line of her jaw and slipped into her hair to rest at the back of her neck. As much as their first kiss had summoned a whole flurry of emotions within her, this one was somehow even more amazing without the pressing sadness of Beca leaving threatening to rush in as soon as the kiss was through. She wanted to sink into that kiss over and over again, heedless of anything around them like the drowsing girls or the crowded space or the need for air. It was a rare moment that they were able to steal for themselves, and nobody could claim that Chloe didn't seize that opportunity, fully giving herself over to the magnetic draw that had taken root from the very start.

*

Beca instantly decided kissing Chloe was a thousand percent worth the loss of precious minutes of sleep, and Stacie and all of the other snoozing sorority girls around them launched to the most distant recesses of her brain because the only thing that mattered was drawing out this moment for as long as possible. Chloe’s fingers slipping into her hair sent another radiating tingle down her spine, cementing the fact that Chloe didn’t want it to end too soon, either. The rapidly rising heat between them also proved to Beca that she absolutely made the right choice in being honest with Jesse, because he’d never made her feel so much. Not in years of being together. And if Chloe could make Beca feel that incredible from two kisses and only a few weeks of knowing each other, Beca couldn’t wait to explore uncharted waters. She broke the liplock when the need for oxygen became too much, nibbling playfully at Chloe’s lower lip as she pulled a few deep breaths into her lungs and kissing her with even more hunger, her tongue sweeping past the seam of Chloe’s lips in search of her own. Her free hand tugged her blanket behind her and lifted Chloe’s so she could slip beneath, wrapping her arm around her middle and pulling her flush against her. She only hoped it wasn’t too much, but every cell in her body pleaded for more and more.

*

Chloe couldn't bring herself to muster even a single iota of care that they were surrounded by several other girls in the tent right in the middle of this moment. With each experimental brush of Beca's lips against hers as they took their time in learning one another, those outside details seemed completely inconsequential anyway. She'd had to watch Beca drive away once before, so it was like her entire being engaged in her efforts to keep Beca close, because kissing her in that moment felt more important than anything else she could think of. She had been honest when she'd told Beca back at the settlement that she'd focused her priorities on the girls and other tasks rather than anyone who showed an interest in her there, but the truth was that nobody had ignited that almost urgent desire within her that she felt now with Beca. She felt like every nerve ending in her body had been set to a low, thrumming simmer beneath her skin. A shuddering breath tripped out of her lips as she struggled to fight back the whimper that immediately swelled in response to the nip of teeth against her lip. A grateful gasp hitched her breath when Beca wasted little time in kissing her again, more deeply this time, both because of her desire to keep kissing Beca and because the contact muffled the sound. Breaking the kiss didn't even cross her mind when she felt Beca fumbling with the blankets between them, so her fingers tightened in Beca's hair while her other hand scrabbled blindly to help tug her blanket over both of them when Beca slid closer. A faint whimper was smothered between their lips at the decisiveness behind Beca's gesture in pulling her closer, but it only took a second for her brain to recover as she hooked her leg over Beca's leg. It already seemed like there wasn't possibly any space left between them, yet she couldn't fight back that impulse to try to get closer.

*

Every little deviation in Chloe’s regular breathing--every gasp, every muffled whimper--in combination with how eagerly she responded to their deepening of that kiss, further reduced Beca to a trembling mess of want. Their movements felt natural and harmonious, as though they’d been learning each other’s bodies and rehearsing for years. There wasn’t awkward fumbling like there’d been for Beca before, and it only fueled Beca’s confidence as the heat continued ratcheting up both inside and between them. When Chloe’s leg slipped over Beca’s, she hummed quietly into the kiss, low and encouraging. Her fingers slipped beneath the hem of Chloe’s shirt, callous tips dragging with a slight tremor across the expanse of soft skin at the small of her back and suddenly, all she ever wanted to do with her hands was map Chloe’s skin until she had it memorized by both sight and touch.

*

It went far beyond being just the amount of time since Chloe had indulged in something like this with anyone--she knew it was specifically Beca that was able to elicit this kind of buzzing, building want within her. There was something intoxicating about being able to evoke such an enthusiastic response from someone as normally stoic and guarded as Beca, and it bolstered her own confidence that Beca was as eager and heavily invested as she was. The low reverberation of Beca's hum between their joined lips urged her on, her own gasp caught somewhere low in her throat as their tongues dueled with growing hunger. Her free hand grasped at the shoulder of Beca's shirt, fingers curling tightly in the fabric as if that grip could keep Beca as close as she needed her. Her back muscles jumped beneath the press of Beca's hands, the almost rough brush of calloused fingertips igniting heat low in the pit of her stomach. The restless need to touch stirred within, and her hand released Beca's shirt only to take her time in mapping her fingers down the length of Beca's torso and over the rise and fall of her ribs and waist until her hand could splay across the curve of her hip, fingers tracing across the sliver of skin that was exposed where Beca's shirt had ridden up.

*

Beca toured eager fingertips up the length of Chloe’s spine, mapping the subtle bump of vertebrae that contracted beneath her touch, and she sucked in a sharp breath through her nostrils when Chloe gripped up her shirt. There was no sign of this letting up anytime soon, and Beca was relieved; maybe in another world she’d be more cautious, insist they take their time getting to know each other a bit more so they could gradually grow together in their exploration of intimacy, but that flew out of her head the instant she thought it because that wasn’t the world they lived in. Tomorrow sure as fuck wasn’t promised. (She would totally understand if Chloe stopped her, and she’d absolutely respect that.) Chloe seemed to be operating under the same principle, though, and when she felt Chloe’s hand mapping her body in return, a soft, guttural groan echoed into their kiss, reverberating with encouragement. With Chloe’s leg already braced over her own, Beca took advantage of the positioning to gently wedge her thigh higher between Chloe’s legs; at the same time, her nails dragged back down Chloe’s spine en route to palm Chloe’s ass, urging her body to rock forward against that solid quadricep, strong from years of hunting, training, fighting, and (unintentional) hiking.

*

It wasn't at all where Chloe envisioned the night going, but there wasn't a single shred of her being that wanted to stop. This wasn't the sort of thing she'd really imagined herself indulging in here either, but maybe all of the things they'd endured over the past few days ignited that simmering sense of urgency within her, and she wanted to be a little selfish for once and seize something that she wanted so badly. Especially when Beca's lips were pliant and soft against hers and her touch was electrifying and every shift of movement against each other seemed to cause the heat between them to ratchet even higher. Her hand slipped its way beneath the hem of Beca's shirt in search of the skin it concealed, impatient to touch every inch of Beca that was available to her. Curious fingertips explored their way across the heated skin beneath her touch and lingered over each scar or mark she encountered, as if tracing each of them with care could put together all of the puzzle pieces that comprised Beca. Beca's thigh pressing more firmly between her legs caught her breath in her chest in a sharp hitch that tapered into an encouraging groan muffled in their kiss, and while she hadn't needed any more incentive than that, the simultaneous rake of nails down her spine startled an arch of her back that shifted her against Beca's thigh. She rocked against Beca's thigh to match the insistent intention of Beca's movement, and her nails dragged across the ridges of Beca's rib cage before sliding up to cup and knead one of Beca's breasts over the fabric of her bra.

*

Through the cloudy haze of stormy arousal, Beca didn’t forget those hands igniting small fires on her body along their path were those same practiced hands that saved her life by stitching up her side, which served to make her heart soar with affection even now. When Chloe followed her urging and rolled her hips to grind over Beca’s thigh, a fresh wave of want coursed through her veins. She held her breath as she felt Chloe’s hand travel upward to cover her full breast with only a thin layer between bare skin contact; Beca’s nipples peaked quickly, straining and puckering into the delicious friction of that cotton fabric against Chloe’s massaging grasp. Beca hadn’t engaged in any sort of intimacy in a long time (not that it had ever been this intoxicating with Jesse), but between the undeniable chemistry that sizzled with Chloe plus the few days of built-up tension, Beca was able to set aside her usual guilt and overthinking and enjoy the fuck out of this, too. She hadn’t ever realized her breasts were that sensitive, and she was forced to break the kiss, ducking her head to inhale in a sharp wheeze that luckily, muffled by Chloe’s neck, mingled with others’ snores around them. “Holy fuck, Nurse Chloe,” Beca murmured in a thick whisper against Chloe’s ear, running her tongue over its shell before taking her earlobe between her teeth to nibble teasingly. She squeezed Chloe’s ass and kissed her way back down Chloe’s neck, tongue swirling over her thundering pulsepoint before she took the patch of skin between her lips and applied suction.

*

Much like the rapport they'd been able to establish so far, it felt natural and instinctive when her hips rocked against Beca's leg and they found an easy rhythm together that fanned the flames of desire within her even higher. A groan was issued in a low reverberation against Beca's lips when Chloe felt her nipple stiffen beneath her touch and impatience led her to push Beca's bra up out of the way until she had more direct access, thumb circling her nipple before she rolled the hardened peak with her thumb and forefinger. It was rushed and urgent and more than a little charged, since it had been a while since she'd been intimate with anyone, but somehow that almost frantic need only made it hotter in the moment. Not to mention the fact that Beca's responsiveness to her touch and as they moved against one another left her aching with need and want.

Beca's muffled whisper against her ear after she broke the kiss sparked a quiet, breathless laugh from her, fingers tightening in Beca's hair and nails scratching lightly across the back of her neck--she definitely agreed with the sentiment, and Beca's use of that nickname stirred warm affection even in the middle of their current situation. Laughter died in her throat the instant that Beca's teeth found her earlobe through, cutting off sharply into a strangled whimper that she barely managed to stifle with a sharp catch of her own teeth against her bottom lip. She barely forced back a whimper when Beca's lips mapped a path down her neck, but as soon as Beca sucked at that sensitive spot on her neck, her hips gave a more pronounced jerk against Beca's thigh and the first note of a groan escaped before her teeth bit down sharply on her lip again and she forced the exhale out on a low, soft hiss. The fingers threaded in Beca's hair gave a light, encouraging tug as Beca worked her lips against her neck, and she shifted until she could press her thigh higher between Beca's legs and give a more insistent, deliberate roll of her hips.

*

Shit,” Beca breathed, hot and strained against the soft skin of Chloe’s throat when she slipped beneath her bra and pawed her bare breasts with more desperation. It was the same desperation that drove Beca to return the favor, that hand on her ass sliding up Chloe’s abdomen to explore in return, palm first covering the cup of Chloe’s bra while her thumb swept over the bare skin that strained over the top; she wasted little time before her fingers dipped into that bra cup to appreciate the full weight and softness in her hands, thumb circling its sensitive peak with her forefinger, testing and pinching with low pressure. She’d never touched another breast before, never kissed another girl, and the newness of it charged each movement as she boldly explored uncharted waters, wanting somehow to experience as much as she could as quickly as possible because her thumping body continued begging for more and more. Who knew when they’d get this opportunity again? If?

Their hips worked together, rocking needy in what felt like perfect rhythm, but it quickly became clear to Beca that thighs weren’t enough to satiate that bubbling volcano of arousal. Beca’s free hand ran knuckles down Chloe’s abdomen, dipping over her navel until it found the waistband of her her jeans. She gripped the hard fabric and popped the button, hesitating with her thumb and index finger on the zipper. Beca pulled back to rest her forehead against Chloe’s, searching her eyes in the darkness. Her foggy brain couldn’t find the words to ask if taking that next step was okay, but she hesitated long enough for Chloe to stop her if that was a line she didn’t want crossed yet.

*

Chloe hadn't anticipated it, but the strangled want in Beca's voice shot a jolt of amplified heat all the way through her. She knew that discretion was important in keeping quiet enough not to wake any of the girls around them, but there was a very raw, visceral part of her that wanted to hear Beca pant more of those breathless curses and encouragements against her skin. Another sharp inhale was sucked in through gritted teeth when Beca palmed her breast through the thin fabric of her bra, and her nipple stiffened and peaked quickly in response to the much-needed attention. She ducked her head and buried it against Beca's neck, the only thing that hid the high, needy whimper at the back of her throat when Beca's fingers dipped beneath her bra for more direct contact. The touch was exploratory but eager, and her back arched needily into the attention that Beca's touch lavished against her breasts. Several shallow, rough breaths were panted against Beca's neck before her lips latched against Beca's skin, dragging a slow path down the column of Beca's throat before she worked at her pulsepoint with light nips of teeth and darts of her tongue against heated skin.

Her breath seized in her chest and her head lifted when she felt the pressure of Beca's hand working the button free on her jeans before the press of Beca's forehead to hers pulled her gaze to Beca's with magnetic intensity. No words were forthcoming, even as her eyes searched Beca's for a searing fraction of a second; instead, the hand that was threaded in Beca's hair worked free until it could skim down the length of their bodies between them. Her fingers curled around Beca's wrist for a moment, pressing against the rapid fire pulsepoint until she could feel the rhythm of it as acutely as the thundering of her own heartbeat in her chest. Then, her hand moved to cover Beca's hand that grasped the zipper of her jeans, urging Beca's hand to guide the zipper down in equal parts unspoken confirmation and encouragement.

*

The combination of Chloe’s hand lavishing attention on her breast and those hoarse pants Beca could both hear and feel against her neck damn near made Beca slip up and emit the full-fledged moan trapped in her throat, desperate to escape. Instead, she remembered her surroundings and bit the inside of her cheek so hard she was sure she’d taste blood. Chloe’s teeth and tongue-heavy kisses against her neck and throat further fueled that raging inferno, and she sucked in a sharp breath when Chloe took hold of her wrist. For a split second, she thought Chloe was about to lace their fingers or politely tug Beca’s hand away from her zipper and Beca’s eyes winced in the briefest flash of apology; half a beat later, Beca realized the opposite was happening, and those eyes sparkled with undisguised want as she tugged that zipper the rest of the way down.

Her heart tripped even harder as dexterous fingers slid beneath both denim and cotton; the instant she parted Chloe’s folds and slickness coated her fingers, Beca leaned forward to kiss Chloe hard in a mostly successful attempt to muffle her broken cry. Holy shit. It took another second for Beca’s brain to recalibrate, her middle finger retreating upward to catch on that hooded bundle of nerves, and she made sure to be mindful to not apply too much pressure there straight off. Instead, she worked callous fingers in slow circles around the area, paying quiet worship of Chloe and taking cues from her body’s reactions.

*

Chloe suddenly found herself wishing that they had all the time in the world, rather than this urgent, forcibly quiet encounter--although she desperately wanted and needed the pleasure they were eliciting in one another, she felt like she would've given almost anything to have the time to study and learn Beca's body the way she truly wanted to. Every reaction and barely-stifled sound from Beca stirred that inner heat higher and higher until it felt like an inferno blazed along every vein and nerve ending within her in an unchecked maelstrom. Although she noticed the brief flash of apology that twisted Beca's features, comprehension was quick to follow and a whisper of a smile shadowed her features when she saw that realization dawn in Beca's eyes, only to be replaced by unguarded desire. Her guiding hand released Beca's hand but twisted tightly in the fabric of Beca's shirt, and her eyes fluttered shut as she released a slow, shaky breath that was weighted with anticipation as soon as Beca's hand dipped beneath the cotton fabric of her underwear.

Thank god for Beca's foresight in catching her lips in another kiss, because a fractured gasp seized her lungs the instant that Beca's fingers slicked through her folds. A full-fledged shudder racked her body at the first brush of Beca's finger against her clit, a broken sound halfway between a groan and a cry dislodging from her throat only to thankfully be muffled against Beca's mouth. She pulled back only enough to nibble at Beca's bottom lip for a moment before pressing forward again in a kiss when Beca set a torturously slow rhythm with her fingers, hips rocking against her fingers more deliberately, needy and seeking when the pace of her hand stoked the rapidly mounting fire inside of her.

*

Beca’s slow pace wasn’t to intentionally tease, but she wanted to make sure she did this right. She wanted their first time (Only time? Seriously, who knew how many opportunities they’d get like this?) to be as memorable as possible, she desperately needed Chloe to feel as incredible as she ever had, and she briefly wondered if Chloe could tell she was new at this. Having the same anatomy helped, and Beca paid close attention to Chloe’s reactions for setting pacing and pressure. It was hot as fuck when Chloe arched back against her hand, even hotter when Beca remembered she was doing this to her, eliciting such amazingly hot reactions. She only wished they were somewhere alone, somewhere Chloe could release all of those muffled noises that were music to Beca’s ears. Beca’s breathing remained raspy and labored, and she let out a guttural groan into that hungry kiss as she increased the speed of her strokes in response to those bucking hips. Soon after, she slid her hand deeper into Chloe’s underwear and curled two fingers up inside of her, a full-body shiver wracking Beca’s body at the sensation of Chloe’s inner walls clenching around her fingers. She set another slow thrusting pace, crooking her fingertips against the textured patch deep inside while the heel of her palm ground against her clit.

*

Part of Chloe wanted to savor this and wring every ounce of pleasure from the encounter than they possibly could with whatever time they had, but another part of her had desperation clawing up from inside of her when she felt like she might combust from the inside out thanks to the slow, purposeful circles of Beca's fingers. Her breathing quickly became too labored to maintain the kiss, ragged breaths puffing out against Beca's lips for a moment before she ducked her head to nip teeth lightly along the curve of Beca's jaw and down her neck. Her jaw fell slack when Beca's hand shifted once again and she pressed and curled two fingers inside of her, hips bucking spasmodically at the perfect sensation of being filled. "Shit, Bec." The words were little more than a muffled, breathless whine, pressed into the hollow of Beca's throat. Another shudder worked its way down her spine when Beca found a slow, insistent pace, back arching and hips rolling to meet each stroke of her fingers. Thanks to the steady pressure of Beca's fingers working the powerful stirrings of pleasure within her higher and higher and the fact that she hadn't been intimate with anyone in quite a while, it felt like she was barreling towards the utmost peak almost startlingly quickly. Maybe she would've been sheepish about it another time or under different circumstances, but as it was, her fingers grasped at Beca's shirt with desperation while her other hand tweaked and rolled Beca's nipple with renewed vigor and purpose, while she pressed a path of open-mouthed kisses across the span of Beca's neck.

*

Beca had never experienced this as the giver before, but coaxing those reactions from Chloe let her know she was definitely on the right track. The breathy swear that spilled from the ever-sweet Chloe’s lips shot straight through to her core, and Beca’s own muscles clenched with desire while Chloe’s inner walls tightened around her fingers, making Beca work harder--by thrusting harder--to reach that same depth with each motion. She was certainly up for the challenge, though, arm muscles working overtime to drive Chloe past the point of no return. Chloe didn’t make it easy for Beca to focus on the task at hand, her mouth on her neck and hands on her body proving a mighty fucking distraction, sending a fresh wave of sparks cranking her own arousal even higher than before. Even still, Beca bit down on her lower lip hard and doubled down on her efforts, swallowing every groan and plea and curse fighting to escape.

*

A startled gasp shuddered through Chloe when Beca redoubled her efforts and thrust harder against her, each stroke reaching that place deep within exactly where she needed her and electrifying every nerve ending when Beca's palm ground against her clit. Her leg hooked over Beca's clenched as the pressured coil inside of her drew taut with each rock of their bodies against one another, her breath reduced to little more than ragged pants that washed over Beca's skin. It only took a few more minutes before that steady, unrelenting rhythm stirred and built the pleasure within her until, with a needy canting of her hips against Beca's hand, the pressure within her snapped and flooded her body with white-hot bliss through every cell of her being. She grasped tightly at Beca when the initial wave of pleasure crested and crashed over her, nails scraping across heated skin as she muffled a broken, keening cry that tumbled into a litany of gasps and breathless whispers into the curve of Beca's neck. She shuddered against Beca's body as her hips rolled and bucked through those mounting waves before they finally subsided, stilling against Beca. She worked to even her rapid breathing in the quiet of the tent, and her eyes were dark and wide as she lifted her head to search Beca's face before she leaned in to brush a kiss against her lips.

*

Nothing in the universe could’ve prepared Beca for the experience of Chloe coming undone in her arms--how her ragged breathing puffed hot and ragged against Beca’s goosebumpy skin, how her hips surged forward to chase the pleasure and release, the piercing scrape of nails that nearly sent Beca flying without direct contact, the way her inner walls almost squeezed Beca’s thrusting fingers so tightly she thought they might pop off until the band snapped and she felt the rush of wet spasms fluttering around them. She made sure to keep up with her ministrations, guiding Chloe through her climax until the storm passed. When it had, Beca stared at Chloe with a mixture of arousal, shock, and awe swirling in her hooded, thick-pupiled stare. She carefully removed her hand and settled it back at Chloe’s hip, kissing her back with reverent care and tenderness. Her other hand slid up to cup her face, thumb stroking over Chloe’s cheekbone as she willed her own heart to stop beating so fucking hard and her body to cool off before she caught fire.

*

As Beca slowly and patiently worked her down from that release, there was a very real part of her that wished they could just exist inside of this moment for good. After all they'd endured before, being able to slip into this quiet, intimate moment and simply exist with Beca and the connection that had strengthened between them sounded more ideal than she could possibly describe. Even as she tried to calm her breathing, the thundering of her heartbeat sounded loud to her own ears, even though she knew there wasn't any rational danger of it giving them away. The unguarded, raw feeling that shone back at her in the depths of Beca's eyes when their gazes locked caused her breath to catch in her throat once again, and she licked her lips and cleared her throat in a bid to banish the rasp that lingered at the back of her throat from struggling to stay quiet.

A shiver worked its way through her when Beca withdrew her hand, but she didn't let it detract any from the slow admiration and affection she poured into the kiss they shared. As the twitches and tremors of her own muscles calmed, the urge to touch and explore made an even stronger resurgence than before. Her hands slipped beneath Beca's shirt and around to the small of her back, fingers tracing exploratory paths along the faint bumps of Beca's spine and up across the sharp curves of her shoulders blades before a drag of nails followed the same path back downward. She slipped her hands back around and slid them in the scant space between their bodies, fingers fluttering feather-light across the planes of Beca's stomach before settling at the button and zipper of her jeans. She broke the kiss only so she could make eye contact with Beca again, her eyes soft and searching. "Is this okay?"

*

Beca couldn’t remember the last time she felt so light, so cared for, so safe with someone else. Chloe barged into her space bubble and she could feel again--after so many months of numbness and despair, her chest jolted with emotions again as though she’d been zapped with a defibrillator. Ever since their first kiss, she noticed colors again, appreciating the peaceful earthy tones of the forest earlier, the brilliance of Chloe’s bright blue eyes. Chloe not only somehow made her feel human emotions again, but at a heightened level than even before.

But as Chloe kissed her and ran her hands over Beca’s body, Chloe's fingers skimmed over the ridges of the secret scar over her shoulder blade and Beca's chest instantly pounded with anxiety; she suddenly felt like she was drowning in her warring emotions--the vines of unbridled happiness and deep passion she felt for Chloe radiated throughout her entire body, but reality caught up with her. Those self-imposed shackles wrenched heavy and squeezed around her heart, guilt seizing that joy and sabotaging. “I--” she choked, her voice still thick with want as she desperately tried quelling that pulsating ache between her legs, because even through the foggy, passion-fueled mist still swirling in her brain she remembered she didn’t deserve this. Trembling hands followed Chloe’s and she laced their fingers, swallowing the lump of pathetic explanation, her eyes downcast. “We should get some sleep,” she managed in a broken croak, too cowardly to meet Chloe’s gaze.

*

The question had been meant entirely as a reassurance, a tender search for confirmation when Chloe wanted to do her part in reciprocating the same bliss that Beca had brought to her as best she could. She knew that Beca could be slower to lower her defenses about certain things (or maybe lots of things), so she wanted the answer to be entirely contingent upon Beca's comfort level. It was obvious that something had shifted between them, or perhaps within Beca herself, the instant that she spoke up in the hushed space between them, even when her voice cut off after only a raspy word.

Her heartbeat leapt right back into its rapid fire rhythm when she thought maybe she had overstepped a boundary somehow or otherwise done something to cause Beca to withdraw from her question. The shaking press of Beca's hand against hers and the warmth of their fingers interlocking was a brief balm for her worry, and she gave Beca's hands a soft squeeze. She might have felt stung at the attempted disengagement in another scenario, but it was painfully clear to her that something weighed heavily on Beca. An almost palpable heaviness and despair had settled over her that hadn't been there only an instant before, and she couldn't help but wonder what had caused the sudden shift, even as her own heart wrenched with sympathetic pain for Beca. "Bec..." Her voice was soft, softer than even the necessity for quiet called for, and she ducked her head to try to catch Beca's gaze. "Hey, Beca, c'mon. What's wrong?"

*

Shit, Beca wished she was smoother. She wished she could've passed her sudden freak out off as exhaustion or nerves, but Chloe seemed to read her better than she read herself. Daring a look back up at her, Beca’s eyes swam with panicked tears. “Fuck, I'm--I’m sorry, I can't…” She forced a shaky breath as her grip tightened on Chloe's hand. “It's not you, I swear--you're fucking amazing, Chloe, but I'm--” A frustrated grimace pulled on her expression when she couldn't find the words. She did, however, resist the sudden desperate urge to flee, tucking her face in Chloe's neck instead as she tried to pull her shit together. It was easier to collect herself without Chloe's mesmerizing eyes staring at her with such deep concern. “I'm sorry.” She realized that wasn't the explanation Chloe needed, and it took another few seconds before she was able to try. “I shouldn't--I shouldn't feel… that. It's too… too good. It's too good. You're too damn good.” Jesus, that made no fucking sense, did it?

*

It startled the breath from Chloe when Beca finally lifted her head and she was met with the watery gleam of tears in her eyes, the glint of moisture that turned Beca's eyes glassy catching beneath the moonlight that filtered through the mesh windows of the tent. Such raw, visceral emotion was unexpected and Chloe felt like her mind was momentarily reeling as she tried to reconcile the sudden, jarring shift in the mood between them. It seemed clear that something deeper than this immediate situation was troubling Beca though, so she pushed her own confusion aside in favor of trying to offer whatever comfort Beca needed. Her heart clenched with sympathy when faced with the sheer immensity of whatever tortured Beca so much that it could draw this kind of response from her without warning. When Beca buried her face against her neck, she didn't waste a moment in wrapping an arm around her shoulders to draw Beca in tightly against her, while her other hand rubbed light circles against Beca's back. "Shh, hey, don't apologize. It's okay." Her brow furrowed at Beca's faltering explanation, but since Beca's face was pressed into her neck, she hoped her confusion wasn't obvious. "Why is it too good? You're allowed to have good things, Beca. I think we're all--I think a lot of us are just trying to find some goodness out there," she confided, her voice pitched low and soft near Beca's ear. She knew that Beca didn't owe her any answers or explanations, but she hoped to understand.

*

Beca wanted to tell Chloe everything. She wanted to tell her she felt responsible for not keeping her family alive, and that spike of regret surged at the worst times (clearly… for fuck’s sake.). She wanted to tell her she still felt guilty about Jesse because she’s the one who hurt him, so he’s the one who should be experiencing this sort of passion-fueled happiness thing, not her. She wanted to tell her she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, knowing the potential vaccine flowed through her veins, and she was fucking terrified of failing. “It doesn’t… feel like I should let myself have that--because of everything that happened,” she confessed in a bare whisper, the soothing circles over her back helping Beca calm, the icy panic melting away slowly. “I know it’s stupid, I know--I know it doesn’t make sense. I’m kind of fucked up, if you haven’t noticed.” She managed a self-deprecating huff against Chloe’s neck that could almost count as a stifled chuckle.

*

Silence stretched between them as Chloe waited for Beca's response, but it was a patient silence, one completely lacking in judgment or expectation. She knew that Beca carried around a lot of scars and loss from long before she'd known her, and maybe she wasn't ready to share everything about that yet. She just wanted Beca to know that Chloe was there if she ever did want to. Beca's voice was quiet even when she was pressed so closely to Chloe, and her chin tucked against the top of Beca's head with a faint echo of a nod of understanding. "We don't have to miss out on good things just because bad things happened before," she returned in a voice that was equally soft. In fact, Chloe found herself grasping onto the good moments that came along to counteract the bad they'd all endured. "It's not stupid. And it's okay to be kind of messed up. I think all of us are to a degree." In Chloe's mind, it wasn't anything to be ashamed of. It was a testament of their survival; they'd all endured terrible things, but they'd emerged from the fire alive, even if they weren't without their own personal scars.

*

It shouldn’t have surprised Beca that sunny-side-up Chloe would prove a solid, warm presence in the face of an unexpected emotional meltdown, but that only made Beca’s heart soar with even more affection for her. Chloe’s soothing words didn’t completely rid Beca of that ball-and-chain of guilt, but they did provide some relief, her chest loosening enough where she could draw a deep breath again. “I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear someone say that,” she muttered, summoning the courage to lift her head and meet Chloe’s eyes again. “I’m sorry I freaked out, I’ve never… I mean, I have, but it’s never been that… intense before, for me.” Her cheeks flushed again and she reached up with a still shaking hand to trace her fingertips along Chloe’s jawline. “You really do scare me a little,” Beca called back from earlier that night, managed a watery grin and blinking back tears before they fell. “Like, that was so good it was sort of terrifying.” Her ears warmed at the confession but she held her gaze. “I’ll try not to kill the mood again next time. I promise.”

*

Chloe's own breathing seemed to grow easier when she felt Beca draw in a deep breath, her hand on Beca's back rising and falling with the motion. Even though she hadn't known the reasons behind Beca's initial swell of emotion and panic, she was immensely relieved that Beca had been receptive to her attempts to reassure her and that it seemed to have helped to some degree. "It's okay. Sometimes we need other people to remind us of the things we have trouble remembering," she assured her, the lines of her face softening with a smile when Beca lifted her head so their gazes could lock once again. "I'm serious, you don't have to apologize. And--me too." Her heart swelled with affection for the sheepish flush that darkened Beca's skin in the moonlight and the tender brush of her hand along her jaw. "It's okay for things to be scary sometimes. You scare me a little too," she confessed softly, lifting one hand to brush Beca's hair back away from her face and trace light fingertips across her hairline. It was scary that someone had managed to sweep into her life so unexpectedly and upend everything she thought she knew in such a short time, but that wasn't enough to make her shy away from it. "Next time, hm?" Her smile was wide and unguarded in the dim light of the moonlight that filtered into the tent, spurred on by the warmth that blossomed in her chest.

*

It continued to completely baffle Beca how someone as beautiful as Chloe--outside, duh, she was gorgeous--but she was more in awe of her internal beauty, at her kindness and patience and calm acceptance and gentle spirit and optimism and… god, it seemed crazy how Beca barely knew Chloe but she felt like she could pen a list a mile long of why Chloe Beale was the most incredible girl she'd ever met. And that was before she crawled into that tent. When Chloe confirmed it had been the same for her, and that Beca scared her a little, too, a warm rush of affection flooded Beca’s core. As scary as this was, wading into uncharted waters with such intense feeling and connection, at least she was comforted by the fact that she wasn’t alone. That smile only further served to melt away that anxiety, and Beca nodded, softly clearing her throat. “Yeah, I mean… if we get another chance at this.” Beca paused for a beat, managing a bashful sort of grin. “And if you still want to.” Beca couldn’t forget that she had a shit ton of baggage and not-so-great personality traits that could scare Chloe off at anytime, but she already had her pity party for the evening and forced those gloomy thoughts back to her subconscious.

*

Beca was like a riveting puzzle--everything she learned, as well as the things she didn't know, made her want to learn all that she could about her. She wanted to peel back each and every layer until she could understand Beca as well as she yearned to, but more than that, she hoped that Beca might grow to trust her with those things, if they were lucky enough to have the time and chance to do so. As strong a connection as she already felt to Beca, it seemed that each fascinating new facet of her that she learned served to deepen the affection she felt towards her. The almost shy grin that pulled at Beca's lips easily counted as one of the most adorable things that Chloe had seen, and her answering smile was soft and pleased as a result. "I'd like that, yeah." Her nose scrunched with amusement as she leaned in to share a conspiratorial whisper, only a breath away from her nose nuzzling against Beca's. "Maybe next time we'll have a little more luck than finding ourselves in a crowded tent." She didn't know how likely that actually was, but hey, a girl could always hope. Finding stable shelter was their immediate, primary concern, but she had to admit that she wasn't opposed to an opportunity like that in the future either if the chance arose.

*

Beca’s grin turned impish when Chloe leaned in, and she huffed a soft chuckle, leaning in to press a gentle peck against her lips. “I wouldn't complain if we found ourselves with actual walls around us in the near future.” Camping was a necessity for tonight, but Beca planned to lead the pack to another abandoned neighborhood or some sort of sturdier structure soon, if possible. The key to survival, as she’d learned over the years, had a lot to do with not getting too comfortable in one spot, to keep moving and always stay alert. Even in a settlement, apparently. “Hey, you really should get some sleep. Someone’s still gonna wake you for watch duty at some point.”

*

She smiled against Beca's mouth when she leaned in for a brief peck, warmth suffusing her entire body. "Walls...a girl can dream," she mused in a whisper, even giving an exaggeratedly dreamy sigh at the thought. Although she might joke, she knew that finding somewhere sturdier and more defensible was vital to them as they moved forward. Even though the settlement had fallen, she knew that she would feel safer with actual walls and structures around them where they could have a chance of staying safer or guarding themselves against any dangers. Beca's reminder of watch duty pulled a noise from her throat that was halfway between a groan and a whine, letting her head fall to press her face against Beca's shoulder with a sigh. "Don't remind me," she mumbled against the soft, worn fabric of Beca's shirt. Dramatic? Maybe a bit, but oh well. Nonetheless, she followed Beca's guidance and reached for the blanket that had gotten seriously disheveled in the midst of everything, tugging it back up over her shoulders. She peeked one eye open at Beca with a gentle grin. "Good night, Beca."

*

Chapter Text

After four days of surviving in the woods, Beca led Jesse, Amy, and the sorority girls further west through rural Missouri. She’d hoped to spot signs--physical, labeled signs or radio signals or any indication another settlement stood nearby. The sooner she could get these girls somewhere more stable and safer, the better, because Beca wasn’t confident enough in her abilities to be able to keep all of them alive without additional protections for much longer.

After another full day of driving, Beca spotted a graffiti-caked sign for the town of Weston, which read (Population: 1100). A small town didn’t likely survive long, and Beca hoped they could find maybe a farmhouse or abandoned church to crash in overnight, so she pulled off the highway and led the two cars, slowly and cautiously, through what looked like a looted ghost town. Beca pulled her helmet off as her bike crawled down Main Street, with its different colored brick buildings with striped or solid awnings lining both sides of the road that opened to a town square. Beca spotted a church, an old style movie theater, a bookstore, tailor, bank, laundromat… yep, super typical small town. Most of the windows had been broken but the sidewalks looked relatively uncluttered, as though this town was picked clean toward the start of the outbreak and had been lying dormant since.

“This looks like an old movie set!” Jesse called from the window of his car.

Emily rolled down the window behind him, charmed by it all. “Beca, look! Can we stay there!?” She pointed beyond the tiny village to what looked like a southern gothic style mansion on a nearby hill.

Squinting toward the sunset, Beca wrinkled her nose, eyeing the massive property skeptically. “I was hoping for something more… inconspicuous…”

“Aw, c’mon, short stack,” Cynthia Rose called from the other car. “Let’s at least check it out. We deserve a little luxury after camping so long.”

Beca snorted. “You realize that place is gonna be, like--almost definitely haunted, right?” She realized she was fighting a losing battle when Jesse’s face lit up and muttered something about a horror movie. Of course he’d be into it. What a fucking nerd. “Ugh, fine, if it checks out then you nerds will have to work out the watch shifts ‘cause we’ll need more people on each. But if it’s too sketchy we’re finding something smaller.” She heard some of the girls (and Jesse) hooting and clapping in both cars and she grumbled under her breath as she took off toward the creepy manor. She parked her bike in front of the rusted wrought iron gates and wrenched the gate’s door open with an almost comical squeaky groan. Beca snorted and shot the girls and Jesse a look before heaving a heavy sigh and approaching the front doors to investigate the situation.

*

Everyone knew that morale was wearing thin over the course of several days in the woods. After the initial hope and subsequent dejection when they'd been turned away from the settlement, an uneasy malaise had set in over the group at times. It was easy to ignore when they were staying busy with tasks like gathering firewood and patrolling the surrounding area, but doubts crept in during quiet moments or at night as they all tried to fall asleep. They didn't have a plan, and that seemed to especially unsettle the girls who had grown so accustomed to the routines of daily life at the Barden settlement.

A collective sense of relief seemed to sweep through the group when they finally packed up camp and hit the road again. Even if they didn't have a set destination in mind, it at least felt like they were being productive when they were on the road and searching for signs of shelter. Cramped legs and restless bodies made the atmosphere in the cars a little stir crazy after another full day of driving, but the general mood perked up when they passed what once were the town limits for a small town that proclaimed itself Weston.

The town must have been quaint once, even idyllic, but time and disrepair and looting had left it a deserted shell of its former self. It was easy to picture what it must have looked like once though, and the girls all strained to peek through the windows as they examined the abandoned storefronts that lined the main street of the town. It settled in with a surreal sense of awareness how long it had been since most of them had set foot in an abandoned town--they were all used to the constant hum of activity through the streets of their former settlement, so only those who ventured out on supply runs had seen how many places had turned into ghost towns in the wake of the outbreak.

Emily's cry pulled everyone's attention to the mansion on the hill that cut an impressive silhouette against the landscape, and a buzz of excited anticipation filled both vehicles at the prospect of staying there. They followed Jesse and Emily's lead and rolled down the remaining windows of the vehicles, thankful for the fresh air and excitedly pointing out features of the town and the rapidly approaching mansion as they followed Beca. The two vehicles pulled in behind her motorcycle, and all of the girls jostled to get a good look at the mansion that loomed before them.

"Ladies!" Aubrey's voice cut through the air and over the baseline of chatter from the girls as they all spilled out of the two vehicles. "I know it's exciting, but do not let your guard down until we've swept this entire place. We don't know anything about this town or what might've been left behind here." She knew that a property this large could be rife with hidden threats, both because of how attention-catching it was, and because there was such a vast amount of space where dangers could be lurking. Even if they didn't have to worry about scavs or lingering people who might be making the mansion their holdout position, there was always the chance of clickers lurking somewhere within the mansion. She'd heard stories of families holing up in their homes instead of facing the prospect of leaving behind everything they knew, only for the infection to reach them and leave them trapped in their homes as the horrifying remnants of what they had once been.

"Buddy up with one or two others and let's see what all we've got here. Stick together and call out anything you find. And remember: keep your guard up and watch your back," the blonde instructed authoritatively, and it had a noticeable impact on the girls. Everyone double checked handguns or knives in their holsters, before pairing off in smaller groups to prepare to search the house. The whole group fell in behind Beca as she approached the front doors. Although Beca had swept through the other abandoned house they'd stayed at overnight, this place was large and sprawling enough that it would take all of them to thoroughly check out the mansion.

A familiar note of anticipation threaded its way through the group as the front doors were pulled open, peering into the house and studying what they could make out within the entryway that was lit by sunlight filtering through dusty windows and the open front doors. Despite their buzz of excitement, the girls managed to stay quiet for the most part as they fanned out to explore the ground floor of the house first, only speaking up when they saw noteworthy things throughout the house.

After a thorough examination of the ground floor, most of the girls reconvened in the main entrance of the house, with a few stragglers catching up as they started their way up the large staircase that dominated part of the foyer of the house. The staircase was sturdy and well-built, unaffected by the passage of time, unlike some of the places they'd encountered that had fallen into disrepair thanks to looting and the elements. This place had clearly been looted of most of its valuable resources, but whoever the scavengers were, they hadn't trashed the mansion in the process. That was more than some places could say, and the general lack of chaotic disarray in the house only heightened the undercurrent of anticipation that ran through the group of girls as they spread out to check the second floor.

*

Annoying as Beca found Aubrey 90% of the time, she was grateful for her take-charge attitude during tasks like this. It would’ve taken ages for Beca to investigate the mansion on her own. She kept her hand on the butt of her pistol as she peeked around corners, on high alert now that there were several of them following and she couldn’t exactly sneak around considering the noise of several pairs of footsteps and hushed whispers that weren’t as quiet as they thought, especially with the air of excitement about the space.

Beca couldn’t deny the house was impressive. She kept Emily close, and the younger girl almost had a heart attack during her squeal-heavy freakout as they found the library on the ground floor. Many books lay damaged from what looked like water that had gotten in around the windows or during a flood, but most remained stacked on shelves or desks or tables beside ornate wingback chairs. Beca wasn’t surprised they didn’t touch the books--what value did they have in their current climate, save for fueling fires? Beca assured Emily she’d have time to explore the library later, but first they needed to make sure the house proved safe enough for their temporary shelter.

Once they reconvened on the ground floor and ascended to the second floor, Beca heard tons of “ooohs” and “aaahs” as everyone inspected the intricate detail of the architecture (even the railings appeared to have been handcarved and polished), the well-crafted furniture, the gorgeous stained-glass windows on the upper floors that hadn’t been boarded up or blown out by the elements or, Beca guessed, bricks or gunshots before someone worked the front door open. Beautifully painted portraits and landscapes, too massive in scale to be looted with thick, bronze frames, hung about the hallways and bedrooms, with several fireplaces scattered throughout.

“Dibs on this bedroom!” Amy called from what Beca could only assume counted as the master.

Beca followed her voice, rolling her eyes. “Seriously? We should make sure we can lock this place down first, test all the locks and the fence around the grounds and look for weak points in the structures--”

“Hey, it’ll be okay. I’ll scout the grounds with you,” Jesse piped up with a gentle hand on Beca’s shoulder, trying to reassure her. Clearly he was still super enamored with this place.

“I’m gonna sleep like a baby in this bed,” Amy declared, bouncing down on the mattress before shooting back up to walk a lap around the perimeter. “There are so many bedrooms, we can each have our own. Well, if you don’t mind sharing with a ghost or two because this place is definitely haunted… but hopefully they’re chill and friendly.”

“I would rather not find out,” Flo said, muttering a prayer and crossing herself from the doorframe.

Emily gasped and took Chloe’s arm, leaning in to whisper with a quiver in her voice. “Is it really haunted??”

*

Despite Aubrey cautioning them against getting too worked up before they finished sweeping the house for danger, it became clear that the girls' excitement was growing more palpable with each passing second as they traversed the different, spacious rooms of the mansion. Everything in this mansion radiated the former ornate trappings of more luxury than any of them had ever known in their daily lives before the outbreak. Even though the mansion was clearly only a shadow of its former glory, it was easy to see how it must have been opulent in every sense of the word--although cobwebs lurked in the corners and dust coated much of everything in sight, the elaborate architecture and the various decorations all spoke to what must have been a truly grand place once upon a time.

Perhaps the most exciting thing was that, as they worked their way deeper into the house and eventually ascended to the upper floor, more and more bedrooms were revealed. Their house at the old settlement couldn't even compare to the scale of this place, and after days of being crowded in vehicles and tents, the prospect of everyone having space and a bedroom of their own was genuine cause for excitement.

As the remaining area of the mansion that needed to be explored quickly dwindled, it became harder to rein the girls into some semblance of order. Several of them broke away from the group a few at a time, clearly hoping to stake their claim on certain rooms before anyone else beat them to it. Chloe huffed a laugh and shook her head at their antics, but she couldn't fault them for being enthusiastic about the prospect of their own rooms, for however long this place was a reality for them. Besides, she would just keep forging on and help Beca and the remaining group finish up checking the house.

As was Amy's specialty, they were quickly derailed by her detour into the master bedroom to claim it for her own. Chloe lingered in the doorway as she listened to the quick back-and-forth between Amy, Beca, and Jesse, and as she looked around, she had to admit that Amy had definitely picked the most grandiose room out of every single one they'd seen.

She only tuned back in when Amy mentioned ghosts and the sudden, panicked clutching of Emily's hand on her arm pulled her focus to her. "Of course not, Em," she assured her without missing a beat, complete with an easy smile. "Don't worry, this place isn't haunted."

"Sure, whatever you want to tell yourself, Red." Amy's scoff carried plenty of skepticism that Chloe would dismiss her claims about ghosts.

"Stop freaking Emily out, guys! Ghosts aren't even real."

"Oh, just like zombies aren't real?" Amy leveled a smug, knowing look at them that did nothing to diminish Chloe's exasperation or Emily's anxiety.

"That isn't--it's not--" Chloe lapsed into silence with a huff, narrowing her eyes at Amy in a look of reproval (it had about as much effect as she expected, which is to say, none at all). Instead, she very deliberately turned away from Amy to face Emily instead, rubbing her hands up and down the younger girl's upper arms and smiling reassuringly. "There's nothing to worry about, Em. This place isn't haunted."

She wasn't sure that Emily was entirely convinced by her reassurance, judging by the hesitant look on her face. Great. Thanks, Amy.

*

Beca knew the girls had mostly adjusted to Amy’s way of being, and some definitely took longer to get used to her than others (hell, Beca was still getting used to Amy in some ways). She was quick to jump to Emily (and Chloe’s) defense, turning from the window she’d been inspecting and rolling her eyes. “The infected aren’t actually zombies. Zombies are technically corpses that are brought back to life by some sort of magic. Clickers didn’t die and come back to life. A mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus fucked with their occipital lobe in their brains--turned people into semi-conscious, cannibalistic creatures, but they’re not--it’s scientific. It’s a disease. It’s not supernatural like ghosts. Completely different.” Beca’s deeper knowledge of the pandemic that plagued their nation may have been more detailed than any of them were expecting; she hadn’t exactly shared that information with anyone before, but she was really only hoping to reassure Emily about the ghosts. Realizing this, when some of the onlookers blinked owlishly at her as though she’d suddenly started talking fluent Chinese or something, Beca waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever, guys. Let’s just--keep looking around.”

Amy held up both hands. “All right then, Professor Grumpybutt. No need to get your panties in a twist. I was only saying that not all ghosts are bad, y’know? Haven’t you ever seen Casper? Some are probably really lonely and could use a friend or--whoa!” Amy leaned against an open expanse of wall, the intricate floral wallpaper hiding the cutout door that swung backward, taking Amy with her. “I’m fine!” she called after the thump sounded from her hitting the ground, her feet still sticking out into the room.

Beca rushed over. “Holy shit dude, are you sure you’re okay?” She pulled a flashlight from her belt while offering Amy a hand up.

Stacie peered around Beca (which was easy to do with their height difference) and gasped when she spotted Beca’s flashlight shining on a spiral staircase leading down. “Ooooh, a secret passageway! How sexy and mysterious!”

“And dangerous,” Beca added, moving closer and shining her light downward. “These stairs could be a couple hundred years old, judging by the state of this house, and who knows how long since anyone’s--”

“Awesome!” Amy didn’t heed Beca’s warning, barreling ahead and climbing down.

Groaning, Beca followed her, assuming many of the others would want to explore, too. “Serious question. How are you still alive?”

“Because the world would be a much sadder place without me around,” Amy answered, casting Beca a smile over her shoulder. When they finally reached the bottom, they found themselves crowded in a small hallway with a single door at the end.

“I got it,” Beca said, handing off her flashlight to a beaming Jesse, who bounced like a kid in a candy shop. “Gimme some light while I work,” she requested, dropping to her knees and pulling a pin from her hair to pick the lock. “And get away from me with your horror movie boner, you fucking nerd. You do realize most people die in those movies when they explore creepy houses, right? Especially secret rooms and shit…”

He laughed. “C’mon, Beca! It’s so cool!

*

Although Chloe opened her mouth to defend Emily further or perhaps to exasperatedly admonish Amy, there was no need: Beca beat her to the bunch with a, quite frankly, much more detailed explanation than she ever would have expected. Even Stacie looked impressed at Chloe's side, which was saying something, since she liked to consider herself the mad scientist of the group (Chloe was pretty sure she was joking when she'd called herself that before, but she could never be too sure with Stacie). Beca brushed past the moment before any of them could remark on it, although Amy seemed determined to make her point about ghosts, whether of the friendly variety or not--

Right up until she fell through the wall.

Chloe gasped at the sudden shock of Amy's startled cry and the way the blonde disappeared from view without warning, and Emily jumped with the shock of it and grasped at Chloe's arm again.

Relief rushed through them when Amy immediately reassured everyone she was okay, and then everyone was scrambling over to Amy's side to peer into the space where the wall had swung open. Several of them exchanged bewildered looks of confusion and intrigue at the sight of the staircase that spiraled down into darkness below.

There was never time for hesitation when Amy was around though, and they all clambered right after her as soon as she took the first plunge into the unknown. The solitary door that greeted them at the bottom was fairly nondescript, but the mystery of what might lie just beyond it sparked vibrant curiosity within the group.

As soon as Beca managed to pick the lock, Jesse was right at her side and wasted no time in swinging the door open. The rest of the group crowded in close behind him, eager to see what awaited them.

There was a moment of silence that permeated the whole group as they took in the sight of the room before them. It really did feel like something out of a movie--although personally, Chloe hoped for a cool spy movie rather than a horror movie, because she didn't feel like having a starring role in her grisly demise in the depths of some secret parlor, thank you very much. The room that spread out before them, although no less impressive than the rest of the house, was clearly more fortified. The room stretched out beyond the beam of the flashlight in Jesse's hand, seemingly much more vast than any of them might have initially thought. It looked as though it had once functioned as a parlor for the home, perhaps a secret that was hidden away to all but those privileged few who were privy to the knowledge of its existence, but there had clearly been some alterations made to it. What had once been an ornate, well-kept secret had seemingly been converted into some sort of safe haven, perhaps a bunker meant to help them weather the worst of the outbreak, back when they all thought the infection would be fleeting and they could ride out the storm.

The flashlight caught the gleam of blades and guns alike that sat tucked away right beside stashes of bottles of various colors, shapes, and sizes. It looked as though the previous residents must have dragged their cache of weapons down here for protection, presumably so they would have as much defense as possible whenever they took shelter in the bunker. It was chillier than the rest of the house, but it wasn't some dark, dank cellar hidden away secretly beneath the mansion. No, it had clearly been built for durability and sustainability, and the amenities within it seemed to have survived without harm or discovery since the original owners left. There was no telling how long ago this bunker had been built, just as with the rest of the mansion, but it had clearly transitioned perfectly to its function as a secret bunker and storage area after the outbreak (well, not perfectly, since the people it would presumably be protecting were nowhere to be found, but that didn't seem to be a failing of the bunker itself).

The air that stirred around them carried a stale feeling to it, as if it had been locked away far longer than they could realize. It seemed that nothing had disturbed this place for quite some time, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Chloe's hand curled into a fist at her side, and she reached out to give a sharp rap of her knuckles against the door of the secret room. Her breath caught anxiously in her chest as she waited, but no ominous, telltale clicking issued from within the darker depths of the room in answer. If there had been clickers trapped away in there--perhaps the previous owners who had hidden away without realizing they'd been infected, left to their terrible fate in the place they'd intended to be their safe haven--it would have been easier to catch their attention and deal with them there at the choke point of the door into the room. There didn't seem to be any unseen company lurking within though, so the group began creeping slowly into the room.

The first few steps into the parlor seemed to break the spell that had settled over them, and Emily and Jesse both hurried to take stock of the bounty that awaited them inside. Chloe and Stacie both unclipped their flashlights from their belts and clicked them on, adding to the illumination that bounced around the room.

"Oh em gee, this place is crazy!" Emily's breath was filled with wonder as she perused one of the countertops made of dark, polished wood, fingers stirring the dust that had settled over a collection of knives and other blades.

"It's like a secret spy lair or something!" Jesse's enthusiasm was equally palpable, and he had ventured further into the room to explore. "Guys, you've gotta come see this stuff. They must've been hoarding stuff down here to outlast the outbreak or something."

"You guys, there's like--a metric fuckton of booze and guns over here." Stacie's voice was awed as she picked up a dark amber bottle to study it beneath the beam of her flashlight, fingers wiping at the dust that coated the label. "We might've hit the jackpot down here."

*

Flo made her way over to a door at the other end of the room, opening it slowly before she realized it was a closet. She shined her light on the shelves, her jaw falling slack. “There are dozens of cases of canned of food in here, bottled water…” She gasped. “Shampoo and conditioner and bars of soap!” A collective cheer rang through the safe room after Flo’s announcement.

Cynthia Rose let out a low whistle, picking up one of the bottles by Stacie and blowing a sharp puff of air to clear the dust from the label. “Oh hell to the yes, we are definitely poppin’ bottles later and celebrating this baller-ass find.”

Beca stood to the side of the door, sweeping her flashlight along the room as everyone else searched, until she spotted a picture frame propped up on the bartop. She picked it up and frowned down at the family of six, wondering why they didn’t seem to make it to their safe haven after spending so much time preparing. Or maybe they had and something happened… maybe she missed clues upstairs as to what happened.

Emily pulled a box from beneath the coffee table and pumped her fist in the air after removing the lid. “Candles! So many! And matches, too! That’ll be really helpful tonight, right? It won’t be as spooky!”

“Definitely, kid. Good find.” Beca found Chloe in the relative darkness, ghosting her hand over the small of her back. Nobody was paying much attention, and they’d barely been able to steal more than a few private longing glances since their intense night in that shared tent. “You okay?” she asked in a low voice, eyes tracking her to make sure. Beca wasn’t 100% sold on this mansion thing, but everyone was so excited about it, she was determined to make it work.

*

To hear the girls' reactions when Flo revealed she'd found not only food and water, but also amenities like shampoo and soap, anyone would've thought they struck pure gold. And considering the scarcity of resources these days, those things were largely valued more than gold. They might have ventured here initially for shelter and a place to stay, but their excitement had quickly hit a new peak with this treasure trove they'd discovered in the bunker. After what they'd endured recently, this felt like a huge win for their morale and their prospects.

Stacie tucked her head over Cynthia Rose's shoulder, examining the bottle that she'd picked up. "Ooh, this is the mother lode. There's some good shit down here." There were appreciative noises of agreement from several of the girls as they explored everything the bunker had to offer.

While Flo and Amy started a quick catalog of the different kinds of canned food that were stored away in the closet, Jesse examined some of the weapons that had been stacked along the wooden countertops that lined the sides of the room. It was a boon that they'd be able to resupply their stock of weapons, and there was enough variety here that they'd be able to cover most, if not all, of their bases.

Although she couldn't pick out the details from a distance, Chloe's smile dimmed when she noticed the picture frame that Beca picked up. A pang of melancholy threaded through the excitement that had overtaken her at the prospect of the supplies they'd stumbled upon. Still, she forced the smile back into place when Emily expressed her glee over finding candles. If that helped the younger girl feel safer about the allegedly haunted house (again, thanks, Amy), then it was a valuable find.

With everyone buzzing around the room, Beca's appearance at her side and the feather light brush of her hand across her back startled her slightly, a shiver working its way down her spine at the contact. "I'm fine," she assured her in an equally soft undertone, hitching a smile into place. It slipped at the corners though, and she gave a nod of her head to indicate everything in the room. "This was all supposed to be somebody else's. They thought they were prepared." Her lips twisted thoughtfully, teeth worrying at her bottom lip for a silent moment before her shoulders jerked in a shrug. "Just makes you wonder what happened to them." Drawing in a deep breath, she shook her head to dispel those thoughts and turned to Beca with a soft smile. "How are you feeling?"

*

Had everyone not been so thrilled by this place, Beca would’ve protested louder. Not that their excitement was her ultimate deciding factor--it was more about the fact that they had nowhere else to go, really, and the town seemed so remote she genuinely thought they’d be fine for at least a week, and also, morale had been down. She made a mental checklist of things to do to improve security in this wild manor after they explored the secret bunker.

Beca hadn’t known Chloe for long, that much was true. But she’d gotten to know so many versions of her smiles, and there was definitely a solemn edge to the one Chloe responded with. “Hey, maybe they got out. Took their private jet over to Europe or Australia or something before it was too late, and this was just a worst case scenario set-up. These people would have a private jet, don't you think? They look the type.” Beca didn't believe her own theory, of course--she was definitely a realist at heart, if not a completely grouchy pessimist most of the time, but she found herself wanting to brighten Chloe's light whenever it dimmed, no matter what she actually thought to be true. “I’m fine. I’ll be better once I get a better idea of the layout here.” First off, she needed to know all of the potential exits in case they needed to make a quick one.

She pitched her voice louder after another minute. “Let's go, nerds. I need to lap the grounds before it gets too dark.”

“Grab that candle box, Em,” Cynthia Rose directed as she tucked a few liquor bottles under her arms and grabbed one of the pistols.

Jesse, Flo, and Amy carried up some of the food and toiletries, while Stacie and Aubrey took some of the weapons and ammo.

When they reached the secret door at the top of the stairs, Beca peered outside again. “I’m gonna go scope out the perimeter, if you guys wanna settle in and make some food.”

“I’ll watch the front,” Jesse volunteered.

“I’ll search for more secret rooms,” Amy said. “First dibs on whatever I find though.”

*

Although Chloe was certain that neither of them believed the scenario that Beca laid out, she truly appreciated Beca trying all the same. She knew the chances of anything that picturesque happening in the midst of the outbreak were astronomically low, even if it was a nice thought to entertain. Certainly better than the reality that surrounded them, at least. "Oh yeah, they'd totally have a private jet. Maybe they're lounging on a beach somewhere right now." She knew the thought of anything as leisurely as sunbathing was practically an impossibility now, but she managed to inject some lightness into her voice and muster a grateful smile when she looked over at Beca. Under the shield of darkness in the room, she reached over to give Beca's hand a brief but gentle squeeze. "We'll scope it all out, don't worry. We all want to watch our backs." She appreciated Beca's diligence to making a plan and knowing all of their surroundings, but she also wanted to emphasize that the girls were willing to pull their own weight in keeping this place safe. They were all more than willing to do that for a sense of security.

Chloe gathered an armful of food and bottled water as well, and she fell in behind Emily to make sure she made it up the spiral staircase without incident while toting the candle box in the dim lighting around them.

As everyone took up tasks to secure the mansion for the night, Chloe herded several of the girls towards the kitchen. "C'mon, ladies, we'll get something whipped up so we can all eat once they're finished."

While the others dispersed to scope out the grounds and search for any more secrets hidden away in the mansion, Chloe wrangled several of their group to help with food preparations. They pulled some rations from their preexisting stores to complement the food they'd found in the bunker, and using one of the fireplaces in the house (there was a fireplace in the kitchen, how loaded must these people have been?), they were able to whip up some beans and rice that would be simple but filling for the evening. They also pulled out some dried fruit that they'd salvaged from the Barden settlement, because it wouldn't last as long as canned goods and they might as well enjoy it while they had it.

Another point in their favor was that whoever looted the house before hadn't been interested in things like bowls and utensils for the most part. After all, what real function did they serve in a crisis survival scenario? Besides, this mansion only seemed to have the fanciest sorts of tableware, which would've been bulky and inconvenient to try to pack up and travel with. So with that stroke of luck, Chloe and Emily pulled down enough bowls and utensils for everyone from the cabinets and used one of the bottles of water to rinse them clean from dust in the kitchen sink.

The smell of food began drawing people back towards the kitchen as they finished their own tasks, and as the girls filtered in, Chloe let them go ahead and fix their dishes and grab some water before settling around the massive dining table that sat in the adjoining dining room. There was plenty to go around for the people who hadn't returned yet, so she shooed Emily away and told the younger girl to go ahead and fix her own food and start eating.

*

Confident the rest of them had the house locked down for now, Beca took off with her weapons. First she explored around the house, testing for weak points in the wrought iron gates, seeking out backdoors and sidedoors and windows whose boardings needed reinforcement. She inspected what seemed to be an overgrown garden that looked like a hedge maze, with beautiful flowers blooming despite the decay all around them. She spotted an empty swimming pool with ornate tile lining its perimeter, and a well on the property with what appeared to be some sort of intricate filtration system.

Beca slipped off the grounds to explore the adjacent woods beyond the property grounds, thick with oak trees whose green leaves tinged with the subtle hint of yellow, a warning of impending autumn. She spotted smaller game but decided she’d hunt tomorrow instead, knowing they had dinner handled for tonight. Her stomach growled as if on cue, and she returned to the house once everyone bustled around the kitchen and settled in the dining room with their food portions. She peeled her strapped rifle and machete from her body and set them aside, leaning the longer weapons against the dining room wall as people stopped chatting to get her assessment of the area. “We’ve got a couple windows we’ll need to reinforce, along with a portion of the gate that’s been busted through and seems like a weak point for someone to climb, but we should be good to handle that tomorrow if we’ve got people on watch tonight. Good news is there’s a well with some sort of filtration system--you’ve been doing the well thing longer than I have so you guys should check it out to see if we can get it working. There’s a freshwater creek running through the woods about a half mile out, so we can wash up there tonight before it gets too dark, if you want. I spotted some game but I’ll go hunting tomorrow.”

Jesse brightened. “So…. we can stay here?”

Beca snorted, rolling her eyes. “As if I actually had a choice. But yeah. If we patch those problems, seems like we can stay here for a week, maybe two, depending on how things go.”

Cheers rang through the dining room as Emily ran over to offer Beca a bowl. "Go get some food and sit with us!"

*

Excitement over discovering the mansion had easily carried through the process of exploring and cooking, so there was a renewed air of joviality to the various conversations that flared up around the dining table as the girls settled in with their food. Being able to cook a meal inside, with the added promise of sleeping in their own separate rooms for the night, seemed to have worked wonders for the group's flagging morale. Nonetheless, none of them had forgotten the necessity of caution, so there was an expectant air that permeated the room when Beca appeared in the doorway, waiting to hear her outlook on the mansion and its surrounding grounds.

Despite her starting off with some repairs they'd need to make, things sounded more and more promising as she spoke, and Chloe caught smiles starting to brighten the faces of several of the girls gathered around the table. Once Beca actually confirmed they could stay there for a while, Chloe laughed and shook her head at the cheers that erupted from the whole group. In fact, they all immediately launched into boisterous chatter about the aspects they were most excited about.

"Stacie, Flo, and I can take a look at the well tomorrow," Cynthia Rose promised, lifting her spoon in a quick salute. That would be a promising prospect if they could get it working and build up their water stores before they inevitably hit the road again. Fresh water was always a vital commodity.

"And I don't mind helping with the windows and gate," Aubrey supplied. She craned her head until she could spot Chloe where she still stood near the kitchen counter. "Chlo, you in?"

"Sure thing, Bree."

"And a creek! God, I can't wait to use shampoo," Stacie practically groaned (nobody was quite sure how she made it sound borderline obscene), which earned her a playful shove from Flo at her side.

Chloe had just gathered up her own bowl of food and bottled water when Emily scrambled over to Beca, and she gave a snort of fond amusement at the girl's overflowing enthusiasm. Her gaze locked on Beca over Emily's shoulder and she flashed a smile. "Thanks for checking that out."

Chloe slipped an arm around Emily's shoulders and guided her back to the table, sliding into the seat beside her. Chatter swelled once around around the table, and spirits seemed high after their good news for the day. There was still work to be done, but the overall atmosphere felt much lighter than it had over the past few days.

*

A faint flush colored Beca’s cheeks at Stacie’s provocative moan, and she rolled her eyes en route to the kitchen. Despite the salaciousness of her tone, Beca also looked forward to properly washing her hair and body and clothes before dark; wipedowns with the washrags they carried never seemed to make her feel truly clean. “Yeah, no problem,” Beca muttered in reply, tossing a tight-lipped grin back at Chloe before she scooped herself a serving of rice and beans and treated herself to a handful of dried fruit. She dropped down into an available chair and inspected the silverware, the fork of course weighty and fancy from tip to handle. “Any luck with the secret room search, Ames?”

Amy shrugged. “Not yet, but I won’t give up. There’s bound to be more secret passageways and hidden chambers and awesome stuff here. I’ll give it another go in the morning. Or maybe later tonight, after we bust open those bottles.”

Cynthia Rose hooted in support and Stacie gave an excited little wiggle in her chair.

“I am just looking forward to sleeping in a bed again,” Flo said, a dreamy air to her tone.

“Oooh, I can’t wait to pick a book from the library before bed! With a candle I can read at night!” Emily beamed. “Can you even imagine living with a library in your house?? This is so crazy awesome.”

“I’ll go with you,” Beca offered.

“Oh, you don’t have to, Beca! I’m not scared anymore!”

Beca grinned. “Maybe I want to pick a book to read too,” she tossed back with a shrug.

Emily blushed and chuckled. “Oh! Well in that case, totes!”

“I bet one of those books unlocks another secret room…” Amy muttered, squinting deep in thought.

“Hey, don’t go tearing apart that library more than it already is,” Beca warned, pointing her fork at Amy.

*

Everyone listened with amusement as Amy detailed her search for hidden rooms and secret passages within the mansion. Although she hadn't had any more luck yet, Chloe wouldn't be surprised if there were more secrets lurking somewhere within the mansion's walls. After all, wasn't a mansion this opulent just ripe for a few more mysteries? Or maybe that was wishful thinking, since the search felt almost like a treasure hunt and was a nice reprieve from the bleaker realities around them. Besides, if there were more hidden rooms that potentially contained even more caches of resources, it was worth taking a thorough look.

"Drunk definitely seems like prime time for searching," Chloe piped up teasingly, flashing a grin before she lifted her bottle of water for a sip.

The girls' cheers were too enthusiastic to make her think there was any possibility that they wouldn't be cracking open their newfound booze supply tonight though. She caught Aubrey give a fondly exasperated shake of her head from the corner of her eye.

She watched Emily and Beca's exchange about the library with warm affection. Even though Emily hadn't mentioned it very much, it was clear that Beca had taken notice of Emily's tendency to tote around any book she could get her hands on. Considering Beca's seeming soft spot for Emily, it wasn't surprising that she would have picked up on it.

"Em, maybe you can pick some of your favorites and bring them with us whenever we end up leaving," Chloe encouraged with a smile. She knew they had to travel light and didn't have an excess of free space, but she couldn't see the harm in letting Emily bring a select few books along with her. If anything, it would help keep her spirits up.

Emily's face lit up with a beaming smile, and honestly, that was the absolute best reaction she ever could've received. "Really?"

"Yeah, of course. I'm sure we can fit a few in one of the bags somewhere."

"That would be amazing! And I promise not to pick too many! I'm gonna have to start narrowing it down..." The thought seemed to be mused more to herself than them, and for a split second, Chloe was concerned that Emily might actually bounce out of her seat. She settled enough to pick her fork back up and go back to her meal though, so that was reassuring.

"Y'know, they might have some books or manuals in there too that could help with the well or other stuff around here," Stacie pondered, lazily gesturing through the air with her fork.

"Good idea. If we clear out some of the ones that got damaged, we could probably get a better idea of what we're working with." Cynthia Rose nodded thoughtfully, clearly mulling over the work ahead of them when the next day rolled around. If they were lucky, the previous owners might have the library organized in some particular system that they could figure out, rather than everything being in a random assortment.

*

“We’re not wasting our medical supplies on you if you fall down any steps ‘cause your ass is drunk,” Beca said, shooting Amy a hard look. She softened when Chloe told Emily she could bring some books along with them whenever they left, the interaction simultaneously warming her heart and jolting it with sadness because Sara used to get excited over little things like that, too. She wondered if that involuntary zap of despair would ever go away, when small things reminded her of Sara. She wondered if she had the choice, if she’d actually want them to go away. Painful as those moments were, she started to grow fearful she’d forget things. It scared Beca how much she’d already forgotten about her mom and some things about her dad, and without Sara, she didn’t have anyone else around to remind her anymore.

Cynthia Rose’s suggestion pulled Beca from that dark train of thought and helped her refocus on the present. They definitely had a full day of work planned for tomorrow, but they deserved a night of rest (along with a bit of ridiculousness for those who were eager to let loose--looking at you, Amy and Stacie and Cynthia Rose). The long day of travel after almost a week of camping wore on all them, and the simple task of sitting around a table indoors seemed to lighten the weight on their shoulders. Truly, a sturdy shelter was enough to lessen anxiety after being forced to sleep in tents.

The girls and Jesse chattered on as they finished eating and cleared their dishes, then they took two shifts to head to the creek to shower before dark, toting their newly discovered hair cleansers and bars of soap. Beca had the unfortunate experience of taking Stacie along with her group; she hadn’t been prepared for the girl to completely strip down before wading into the shallow creek, and she gasped a scandalized dude! before turning her back on her and muttering a few swears under her breath. Seriously, if she could thoroughly wash herself with clothes on (they were washing clothes anyway!) Stacie should’ve had no problem, but maybe she shouldn’t have expected any different.

They returned with wet hair and clean bodies and clothes (some on, some draped over their arms to set out somewhere to dry), and they headed to their individual bedrooms. It took some coordination, but they were able to find a decent amount of wearable clothing from the last inhabitants of the manor. Most found the room Flo claimed most helpful, as it seemed to belong to a teenage girl of small to average size. She had a full drawer of t-shirts and pajama pants--clothes that seemed to belong to a normal teenager, not one from the early 1900s to match the vibe of the house. (Beca was suddenly interested in finding information about the mansion’s history, leading up to the last family who lived there… maybe she’d find some in the library tomorrow.)

In the smaller, unclaimed room next to the one Beca picked--a moderate-sized room compared to the others with a queen-sized four poster and a large bay window--she found a closet full of clothes for what must have been a prepubescent boy (the one in the photo, Beca recalled), and she peeled a grey and blue cotton baseball-cut shirt from a hanger that fit a bit snug around her chest but otherwise fit her just fine. One of the kid’s drawers was full of boxers (seemingly clean, as they were folded neatly and Beca sniffed the material before trying them on), and Beca chose a soft maroon pair that barely hit her mid-thigh. She felt self-conscious with her legs exposed, but her undergarments were all drying in the nonfunctional bathroom adjacent to the room she’d claimed and the girls cleared out the full-length pajama bottoms options. Whatever, it wasn’t like she pulled a Stacie or anything.

Speaking of the devil, when Beca padded barefoot toward the living room where the girls clearly already started their party, Stacie stretched languidly across the couch with her head on Flo’s lap and her legs resting over Aubrey’s. “I am soooo happy to be clean again, you guys.” She took a fistful of her hair and brought it to her nose, inhaling deeply and sighing with delight.

“Clean of body, not of mind and spirit,” Flo added, earning her a smirk and a shrug from Stacie.

Beca considered not attending the little get together, but she wanted to be on the ground floor anyway in case something happened, especially while the others were drinking. Hoping to slip into the group unnoticed, she curled up on a wingback chair and leaned heavily against one of the arms.

“There you are, short stack!” Cynthia Rose, whose smile pulled so wide Beca could tell she’d already had a glass or two of whatever was in those bottles, motioned to the coffee table, where she’d set out the bottles they’d pilfered from the secret stash. “Vodka, rum, or whiskey?”

She shrugged. “I’m not getting drunk, so might as well not waste it on me.”

“C’mon, Becs. Live a little.” Jesse reached up from his spot on the floor to poke her foot and she, in turn, jabbed her toe into his cheek. He laughed. “We’re not overdoing it, we’re still gonna take shifts. We already split it up so half of us will cover tonight and the other half will cover tomorrow, so you’ve got the night off anyway.”

She eyed him skeptically, and it was only when Amy coughed and it sounded suspiciously like the don’tbelame, Beca rolled her eyes. “Fine. Whiskey.”

“That’s the spirit!” Stacie called out. “Get it? Spirit!”

Cynthia Rose chuckled and poured two fingers of whiskey into a glass, passing it to Beca. “This is some really good shit. Enjoy it.”

Beca sniffed the booze before taking a sip. It burned all the way down and warmed her from the inside out. Maybe this wasn’t the worst idea, after all.

*

Despite the work that awaited them the next day to make this place a sustainable temporary shelter, they all seemed so rejuvenated by the discovery of the mansion and the chance to relax and share one another's company that they were ready to tackle each of the tasks that were ahead of them. Although the conversation around the dining table lingered for a while, they all hurried to gather their dishes and clear away everything from dinner when the sky outside of the windows started to darken. None of them wanted to miss their opportunity to take a trip down to the creek.

When Chloe's group made the trek down to the creek, it was with a noticeable spring in their step with their newfound hair products and soap in tow. Although they were on a bit of a time crunch with the encroaching darkness of dusk, none of them could dim the joviality they felt as they all made thorough work of lathering soap across their skin and working shampoo into their hair as they happily chattered away. At one point, Chloe found herself giggling along when a joking challenge between Flo and Cynthia Rose ended with Flo cartwheeling her way across part of the shallow creek--Emily tried to copy her with less successful results.

They returned to the mansion in high spirits, seemingly refreshed not only in body but in spirit as well. Flo's room provided the most helpful bounty, and Chloe claimed a pair of soft, well-worn pajama pants and a t-shirt for herself. After a quick change into the comfy pajamas, many of the girls sounded akin to a stampede of animals as they bounded their way back downstairs, enthusiasm overriding discretion. That was hardly surprising, considering their anticipation to crack open some of the drinks they'd found and truly enjoy the evening of relaxation they had before the work began anew tomorrow.

Another bonus of the extravagant mansion was the fact that there was no lack of plush furniture to accommodate them in the living room. They spent a few minutes dragging chairs and other pieces across the room to arrange them in a closer setting, before breaking into the bottles of booze they'd discovered earlier. Chloe claimed a drink of her own before settling on a loveseat with Emily, letting the younger girl tuck her feet beneath Chloe's legs and wriggle down until she was curled into the corner of her end of the loveseat.

Her focus was pulled over when Cynthia Rose called out Beca's presence, and she smiled to herself at the sight of her in pajamas--it was a far cry from the typical look she presented. She joined everyone in laughing when the girls finally pestered Beca into drinking with them. If you asked her, everyone deserved a chance to unwind a bit this evening. They were probably all in dire need of it.

"Guuuys, my hair smells like coconut." Emily giggled through the sentiment that she shared, although there was a slight drawl to her words and she blinked slowly at the people assembled around the room. Although she knew Emily wanted to be part of the fun, she wouldn't be surprised if the youngest of their group dozed off before too long after the travel and excitement of the day.

"Right? I can't believe we're hanging out here--completely clean, I really can't say that enough--with a shitload of booze in a crazy ass mansion," Stacie sighed rapturously. "This beats camping any day."

"There's nothing wrong with camping," Aubrey spoke up, apparently feeling the need to defend their time spent in the woods. It had been a necessity, after all, and very likely would be a reality for them again before too long. Still, even her look softened with a hint of a smile at one corner of her mouth. "But I guess we should enjoy this while we can."

"You guess?! Aubrey, your factory settings got messed up somewhere, you need to check your enthusiasm meter." Stacie's tone was jokingly scandalized, and she wiggled her legs in Aubrey's lap until Aubrey lightly swatted her shin in admonishment.

Chloe rolled her eyes in amusement and lifted her drink to her lips. "Stace, just because some of us don't sound practically orgasmic at the thought of shampoo, that doesn't make us less enthusiastic," she chirped in a deceptively light, teasing voice. It earned her a dramatic brandishing of Stacie's middle finger in return.

 

*

When Cynthia Rose and Stacie spoke of a party earlier, Beca anticipated more music and table dancing. This--lounging around a spacious living room with clean and cozy bodies strewn about plush (some slightly faded from exposure to sunlight) furniture--definitely made Beca less nervous. It was quiet, save for the occasional chirps and giggles and belly laughs drawn from teasing and bantering among the group. Beca remained mostly an observer curled up in that arm chair in soft clothes sipping at her whiskey, amused by how they were able to rile each other up and laugh it off, continually appreciative of how they’d grown to accept (and even celebrate) Jesse and Amy’s now permanent presence. Hers too, she supposed, though she’d always hung on the fringes during group gatherings. At least she had her feet in the water. That was something.

Chloe’s use of the word ‘orgasmic’ stirred up sudden tent-related memories that brought a fresh flush to her cheeks, and Beca was grateful nobody really seemed to be paying attention to her.

Stacie continued on after flipping Chloe the bird. “Whatever, I need to moan about something. God, I miss men.”

“We’ve got one right here if you want to corrupt him a bit,” Amy said, motioning to Jesse. “He’s a bit scrawny but pretty strong. He picked me up once. He’s also a people-pleaser, so you know what that means…”

Jesse practically choked on his vodka, his cheeks flaming pink. “Whoa, Amy, can you not try to sell me like a used car--”

“What? You’re a free agent, yeah?” Amy glanced up at Beca as if seeking confirmation. “I’m just trying to be a good friend here.”

Awkwardness churned in Beca’s gut and she mumbled incomprehensible swears into her glass, avoiding everyone’s eyes.

Jesse recovered for the most part, clearing his throat. “Uh, I mean--technically, yeah, but--” The words died in his throat when he spotted Stacie staring at him as if sizing him up like a literal piece of meat.

Stacie shifted rolling onto her side and grinning with lazy amusement dancing in her eyes. “But what? You like ‘em shrimpy and grumpy, huh? Maybe you should expand your palate...”

*

A relaxed, lowkey hangout seemed to be exactly what they all needed. Although many of them had been eager to break into the newfound collection of booze, there was no weighty expectation to make it a wild, high energy affair. The warm camaraderie that flowed between the group served to make even the vast size of the mansion seem intimate when they were all curled up together in the living room, sharing jokes and laughter as if they didn't have to worry about the world outside, even if only for a little while. They were able to exist purely and solely within this moment, without the concerns of tomorrow pressing down upon them. For tonight, there was only laughter and cozy fellowship and the warm haze of alcohol.

It took a conscious effort not to let her gaze flicker over to Beca even as she teased Stacie about her over-the-top reaction to shampoo, but luckily for her, that impulse was stifled by Stacie's lament.

Giggles filtered throughout the group as Amy did a phenomenal job of throwing Jesse to the proverbial wolves. (Although, all things considered, he might come out of a showdown with wolves more unscathed than tangling with Stacie. There would probably be an equal amount of teeth involved either way.) Jesse's discomfort and Beca's awkwardness were both palpable, but if Amy sensed it, she didn't let that slow her down for even a moment.

The situation was only compounded by Stacie jumping in as well, and all of the girls recognized the almost predatory edge to her smile as she sized Jesse up.

"Stacie, please don't corrupt anyone or leave them in traction," Aubrey chided with a mightily impressive roll of her eyes, giving Stacie's ankle a squeeze.

"Where's the fun in that? It's high risk, high reward." Stacie shrugged and gestured around the room, as if seeking support from anyone else on the matter.

"She will break him. I have seen it happen to many men," Flo intoned solemnly, crossing herself once again before taking a hearty swallow of her rum. Rather than appearing scandalized, Stacie looked almost unnervingly pleased with herself. She rolled back over enough to blow Flo an exaggerated kiss, which earned her a quick flick on the nose from Flo.

"Seriously, we need Jesse around. Keep it in your pants, Conrad." Cynthia Rose's voice carried a note of wry amusement that belied her confidence that Stacie would even remotely listen to them. She rarely did when it came to her conquests. Chloe suspected that Stacie was mostly just toying with Jesse for her own amusement, especially since Amy had spurred it on, but that didn't stop Stacie from fully capitalizing on it for entertainment.

*

“I can’t wait ‘til I have a boyfriend someday,” Emily piped in with an exaggerated, dreamy sigh from behind her newly acquired book. She wiggled her toes beneath Chloe’s leg with enthusiasm.

Beca’s brow shot up and she snorted over at Emily. “Seriously, kid, maybe you should cut back on the teen romance novels. Boys are more trouble than they’re worth,” Beca muttered, smirking into her glass when Jesse turned to her with a scoff, bracing his hand over his heart in deep, mock offense. “What? It’s true.”

“Damn, Becs. That’s just cold.” He laughed though, pinching her ankle and rolling away before she could kick him. (She tried, but the whiskey settled into her bones and slowed up her movements the slightest bit.)

“You know boyfriends and release friends are different, Em, right?” Stacie cackled as Flo firmly clamped her hand over Stacie’s mouth.

“Do not further corrupt Emily.” Flo shot her an admonishing look, though she was grateful Stacie at least had the presence of mind to not use the term ‘fuck buddy’.

Cynthia Rose nodded in agreement. “Yeah, she’s just a kid!” She took another hearty gulp from her glass and pointed over at Stacie. “And if all of us can deal with forced celibacy, so can you.”

“I dunno about that,” Stacie said lazily with a regal brandish of her hand toward her nether regions. “He’s a hunter.”

Beca snorted. “You call it a dude?”

“Ladies,” Aubrey cut them off with her authoritative tone. “And gentleman. Sorry, Jesse. I think it’s probably time for a topic change.”

“I think it’s time I go to bed and leave you nerds to your weird conversation.” Beca mumbled that mostly to herself, draining the last bit of whiskey from her glass and handing it off to Cynthia Rose. With a sloppy salute to the group as she stood, she headed back toward the stairs patting Emily on the head on her way out.

*

Although Chloe's heart squeezed with a pang of melancholy when Emily speculated about a future boyfriend so dreamily, she looked over at Emily with an achingly soft smile and let her hand fall to rest on Emily's knee, giving it a light squeeze. Any hey, stranger things had happened, she'd witnessed it for herself.

Even when Beca scoffed at the ideas that Emily's books were putting in her head--complete with Jesse's mock indignation--Chloe rolled her eyes and shared a reassuring, conspiratorial smile with Emily. "Hey, you never know, right?" She could feel Aubrey's gaze on her from across the room, no doubt giving her a mildly disapproving look for encouraging Emily's naive hopes, but she couldn't bring herself to shoot down the notion right now.

She was spared from having to address that though, because Stacie's (unsurprisingly inappropriate) question derailed all of them. Chloe groaned an exasperated "Stacie!" and buried her face in her free hand at the same time that Flo covered Stacie's mouth and chastised her.

She was eternally grateful for the fact that she wasn't mid-sip of her drink when Cynthia Rose bemoaned their forced celibacy, because the phrase immediately conjured images of her shared moment in the tent with Beca, and she was sure she would've choked and made a spluttering mess of herself otherwise.

As usual, however, Stacie could be counted on to provide a reliable distraction, even if it wasn't intentional. Despite Beca's question about 'the hunter,' all of the other girls just nodded with various degrees of resignation or amusement. They knew it all too well.

Her eyes followed Beca as she finished her drink and excused herself for the night, her voice piping up to join the chorus of "good night!" and "night, Beca!" that followed her out of the room. When Beca had disappeared through the doorway towards the stairs, she forced her gaze back down and lifted her glass to take a sip of vodka.

Beca's departure had at least derailed Stacie's momentum, so conversation turned to more normal, innocent topics after that. Stories were shared, good-natured ribbing was exchanged between almost everyone, and they even spent a little time musing about the work arrangements for the following day.

It was a little while later when Chloe glanced over at Emily, noticing her lack of contribution to the conversation, and saw the younger girl nodding off. Her chin dipped to rest against the open pages of her book for a few seconds before her head jerked back upwards, blinking blearily for a moment before the slow downfall of heavy eyelids began all over again.

"Okay, guys, looks like Em's fading on us. I'm gonna get her to bed and then call it a night myself," Chloe declared, setting her empty glass aside. "Sleep well, everyone." She pushed herself to her feet and turned to pull Emily up to stand as well, slipping an arm around the drowsy girl's waist. Emily offered up a halfhearted protest that she wasn't even tired, but her head drooped against Chloe's shoulder and she offered no resistance as Chloe led her out of the room and towards the staircase.

It didn't take very long to help Emily upstairs and into the bedroom she'd claimed as her own earlier. She pulled back the blankets and helped Emily into bed, tucking the blankets back up under her chin as Emily nuzzled against the fluffy pillow beneath her. "Night, Em," she whispered, although she wasn't even sure that the words registered with the younger girl. She set Emily's book on the bedside table before retrieving a candle and a box of matches that she'd noticed on her way in, leaving them on the nightstand as well, in case Emily woke in the middle of the night and needed them.

She slipped out of the room and quietly pulled the bedroom door shut behind her. Soft footsteps were carrying her back to her own room when she paused outside of the door of Beca's room. She stood there in the middle of the hallway for a moment, teeth worrying at her lip. She couldn't even be sure that Beca was still awake, but...

Before she could second guess herself, she stepped closer and lifted a hand to issue a light knock against the door. Firm enough to be heard, but hopefully not loud enough to stir Beca if she was already asleep.

Chapter Text

Beca didn’t make a big show of selecting a few books from the library when she and Emily took a quick peek around the shelves after washing up; she carried them right to her room and set them on the dresser while she got changed. She’d almost forgotten about them until she returned to that room, moonlight peeking through curtains and stained glass to shine enough natural light into the room that she spotted the stack. Beca hadn’t slept on an actual bed in months, so she sat on the edge for a moment to test its softness. Luckily, it wasn’t too soft, as her body had grown used to a certain firmness beneath her, whether she slept on the grass or a floor or a lumpy couch somewhere. She didn’t act as excited about the mansion as Jesse and the girls (and for good reason, she had learned things that seemed too good to be true usually were), but she appreciated the privacy and the bed. And the clothes, even though they weren’t really her style--she hadn’t slept in actual soft pajamas in a long time, either. But with people on watch, locked doors and a locked gate (even with needed repairs), they were fortified enough that god forbid there was a threat, Beca would have a few minutes to dress and prepare. That afforded her peace of mind she didn’t normally have.

Settling beneath the blankets after lighting the candle beside her bed, Beca opened one of the books and read by candlelight. She got a chapter and a half in before hearing the knock, her heart instantly thudding harder because she knew who she wanted it to be, but she also knew not to get her hopes up. She set the book back on the nightstand, pulling the blankets back and padding barefoot over hardwood floors and sun-faded area rugs until she reached the door, opening it to reveal Chloe standing on the other side. Her lips twisted into a slight smirk and she kept her voice low, though she didn’t hear any other footsteps in the hallway or coming up the stairs. “I think you’ve got the wrong room, Nurse Chloe. Aren’t you a few doors down?”

*

The walls and heavy wooden doors of the mansion were thick enough that Chloe couldn't tell with absolute certainty if noises were issuing from the other side of Beca's door--she thought she heard some faint stirrings from within the room, but she couldn't be sure. Even though the rest of the group had seemed content to hang out for a while longer downstairs, she still found herself glancing over her shoulder back down the hallway as she waited. The quiet click of the door swinging open snapped her focus back over, and an immediate smile tugged at the corners of her lips when she found Beca standing in the doorway. She leaned her shoulder against the door frame as she regarded Beca with a smile, offering a nonchalant shrug when Beca called her out for being at the wrong room. "Wow, you sure know how to greet a gal who maybe just wanted to say good night," she teased in return, her voice pitched low to match Beca's. Their close proximity didn't call for anything more than that anyway. Now that she was standing here without any of the other girls around, her heart thudded with the remembrance of how they'd mentioned the possibility of a 'next time' after their shared encounter in the tent, but she didn't want to be presumptuous. Maybe Beca really did want to turn in for the night and not be disturbed by anyone, that was a completely feasible possibility.

*

Maybe, huh?” Perhaps it was the two shots of whiskey Beca sipped from the glass downstairs, or maybe it was the feeling of finally having some actual privacy after going without for so damn long,, but a wave of boldness flashed through Beca and she reached out to pluck at the material of Chloe’s t-shirt, tugging her forward as her eyes glinted with mischief and desire. “‘Cause I’ve been hoping you wanted to… stop by… to say goodnight, too. Like…” She leaned in, lowering her voice so much it could almost be considered a conspiratorial whisper. “I wanted to say goodnight to you all day.”

*

A thrill of anticipation shot straight through Chloe, although it was impossible to tell if it was sparked more by the gleam in Beca's eyes or the decisive tug of her t-shirt until she stepped in closer so they could both shuffle back over the threshold into Beca's room. A smile, bright and wide but edged with mischief, flashed across her features as Beca confided that admission to her, much more composed in contrast to the fluttering that stirred in the pit of her stomach. "You know, that really doesn't make sense," she pointed out with teasing laughter warming her voice. Not that it stopped her eager progress into the room for even a second. In fact, once she stepped inside, she made a big show of looking all around the room, as if truly seeing it for the first time. "Oh hey, look. Walls." Her lips twisted with a smirk, the observation an obvious callback to the whispered conversation they'd shared in the tent about possibly finding some privacy for themselves. And thank god, because this mansion offered that in spades.

*

Beca narrowed her eyes in a heated glare, knowing it wouldn’t affect Chloe whatsoever. “We’re not all wordsmiths,” she countered, not really caring that she didn’t make sense. Chloe got the point, didn’t she? The smile flashing back at her only served to crank up that boldness, because it reassured Beca that Chloe also wanted more than just saying goodnight. Her calling attention to the walls around them with that maddening, accompanying smirk made Beca’s own smirk pull tighter and wider. “Mhm, all four of ‘em.” While Chloe took a visual tour of Beca’s room, Beca reached behind her to close that door and twist the lock until it clicked. Before she lost her nerve, she backed Chloe against the nearest wall, just beside the door, fingers tightening their grip on the material of her shirt as she raised up on tiptoe to capture Chloe’s lips in a bruising kiss.

*

"That's why I let you get away with being eye candy instead," Chloe admitted with a dramatic sigh, although the sparkle of amused mischief in her eyes lingered. She knew exactly what Beca meant anyway, and it stirred her own anticipation into a giddy whirl to know that Beca had been hoping to see her tonight just as much as she had. "Four? We're just spoiled for options." She purposely injected an edge of awed wonder into her voice with that quip, although her relief at the privacy of a separate room was very real. And then Beca reached past her to twist the lock--seriously, had she mentioned how much she loved locks? They were amazing. Apparently Beca was much more eager to actually put one of those walls to use than just to point them out, so there was a brief but pleased flash of surprise across her face when Beca took the initiative to walk her back the short gap until her back pressed against the wall. That flash of surprise didn't hinder her from ducking her head to eagerly meet Beca in the kiss, arms immediately lifting to wrap around Beca's waist and pull her in flush against her. She didn't waste any time at all in slipping her hands beneath the fabric of Beca's shirt, fingertips tracing the dip at the small of her back before lifting higher, greedily mapping across the warm skin beneath her touch.

*

Beca knew Chloe was a weirdo--told her so on several occasions, in fact--but she didn’t think she was actually crazy until she called her eye candy. “Mm… no, no. You’re the beauty and brains… I’m the brawn and the…uh, broody... badass?” Look, Chloe couldn’t expect Beca to think clearly in this scenario, especially when Chloe pulled her closer and slid soft hands beneath that baseball style t-shirt triggering goosebumps to prickle along her forearms. She settled her own hands over Chloe’s shoulders, squeezing to keep herself in check before one hand slipped into the hair at the base of Chloe’s neck, fingers tangling through gorgeous ginger locks as her fingernails scraped at the back of her scalp in a light massage. She deepened the kiss with a quiet moan, her tongue greedily slipping past the seam of Chloe’s lips to duel with her own. There was a frantic edge to Beca’s movements fueled by anticipation and sheer desire flooding her system, that passion-induced emotion bottled for so damn long now, arousal she hadn’t let herself fully acknowledge or address last time.

*

"Hmm...nope. I stand by it," Chloe insisted between punctured kisses, emphasizing her words with a pop of the 'p' before she let a grin stretch across her features. A tingle worked its way down her spine when Beca's fingers slipped into her hair, and the scratch of nails against her scalp pulled an encouraging moan from low in her throat that was muffled into the kiss. Her palms pressed tighter against Beca's back when Beca's tongue darted out to tangle with her own, once again surprised but appreciative of how instinctively they seemed to find that perfect rhythm and counterpoint with each other. Each touch carried a heavy note of impatient eagerness, an imploring pull to touch and explore every inch of Beca that she was able to, since she hadn't been able to reciprocate in the tent when Beca had turned down the offer at the time. They didn't have any of those same concerns about waking up the girls who had slept next to them or staying so quiet this time, and heady anticipation thumped along in rhythm with her heartbeat. When her hands had traversed the length of Beca's back, taking the time to run her fingers delicately across the faint notches of Beca's spine, she offset it by sliding her hands back down the span of Beca's back with a light drag of nails. She slipped one leg between Beca's legs and pressed upward, while her hands slid down to palm Beca's ass and pull her in tightly against her in the same motion.

*

Beca wasn’t sure if she and Chloe naturally possessed an insane level of chemistry or if Chloe was simply that good because damn, that girl could kiss, and Beca was sure she could solely kiss Chloe for hours on end and not get bored. It was quickly apparent, though, that just kissing wasn’t in the cards again, and Chloe met her beat for beat as they got themselves seemingly swept up in a lust-fueled vortex that gained strength as time passed. That echoing moan from Chloe, muffled by their liplock but not nearly as restrained as they’d been last time (again, thank fuck for walls), seared through Beca and shot straight to her already pulsing core. When Chloe’s nails raked down her spine, they set off every nerve ending concentrated toward her spinal cord and her whole body pitched forward. Thank god Beca had killer reflexes; the hand on Chloe’s shoulder managed to smack flat against the wall beside Chloe’s head to help steady herself. “Shit,” she breathed at the feeling of Chloe’s leg slipping between hers, and Beca ground hard against Chloe’s strong thigh, probably would have involuntarily even without her urging (though she definitely would not complain about Chloe’s hand on her ass). Needing more oxygen, those fingers entwined in Chloe’s hair curled and gave a sharp tug to urge Chloe’s head back as she trailed her mouth down the side of her neck, working a column of hot kisses comprised of nipping teeth, swirling, soothing tongue, and rhythmic suction.

*

It was truly addictive to know that they had the entire night to themselves and that they could fully devote themselves to learning one another and indulging in the passions and needs that drove them both in that moment. The tent had been a welcome moment of relief and connection, but Chloe selfishly wanted as much time as she could steal with Beca now to finish what Beca had started in the tent before. Although she would have been happy with any way they chose to spend their time together, desire quickly flared to life and scorched along her nerve endings when it became clear what their shared intentions were. She gave a fleeting startle when Beca's body bucked forward against hers, but Beca's bracing hand caught her and Chloe's grip on her was secure as well, so any surprise was quickly swept away by a smirk that quirked her lips and was lost in the kiss. After the forced quiet of their previous encounter, the breathless curse that spilled from Beca's lips was like music to her ears and made her crave more. Her teeth nipped against Beca's lip to conceal her shuddering whimper when Beca enthusiastically ground against her thigh. She could feel the heat of Beca's skin radiating through the thin clothing that separated them, and it was both intoxicating and enough to make her itch to touch more and more of her. Her breath caught in her throat at the sudden, sharp tug at her hair and the resulting sting that melted away into pleasure, before the air was swept from her lungs on a high, needy moan. Beca's lips seemed to leave a trail of fire in their wake and a soft groan tumbled from her lips at the dizzying combination of lips, teeth, and tongue against heated, sensitive skin. Her fingers flexed in their grip against Beca's ass and she gave a sharp roll of her hips, before one hand skated up the length of Beca's torso and between their bodies so she could palm the weight of one of Beca's breasts, giving in to the desire to touch and explore that had stirred ever since the first moment she'd noticed the way the shirt fit snugly across Beca's chest down in the living room earlier.

*

Another shuddering rumble reverberated against Chloe’s neck at the feeling of Chloe’s hand on her breast. Even through the soft t-shirt material, the firm touch felt so damn good without a bra, nipples puckered sharply visible through the gray cotton. Her legs quaked and nearly gave out as another rush of heat pooled at her center, urging her to shamelessly grind to chase more pressure. She would’ve been embarrassed if she wasn’t so far gone already, and she may have added just enough suction to the side of Chloe’s neck to leave a mark behind, but she didn’t notice or particularly care at the moment. A sudden stampede of footfalls accompanied by not-so-quiet chatter on the other side of the door made Beca realize that moaning and groaning against that particular wall probably wasn’t the best idea, particularly as their comrades were making their way up the stairs to presumably find their way into their respective rooms. “We should--” she managed, clearing her throat as she carefully rocked back onto her heels. The room tilted on its axis before righting itself, but Beca knew that was definitely from the blood rushing hard from her brain southbound and not from the liquor. “Bed?”

*

A breathy moan filtered into the air when Beca's nipple peaked and pebbled beneath her touch, because the reaction she was able to draw from the other woman was easily the most intoxicating thing she'd ever experienced. Seriously, booze had nothing on this. Although Beca's shirt hindered the full contact she craved, her hand cupped the warm fullness of Beca's breast, thumb circling the sensitive peak as her fingers gave a slow knead. A sharper cry rent the air around them, startled from her by the simultaneous sensations of Beca grinding against her leg and the sharp pleasure-pain sting from the suction of Beca's lips against her throat, and a shudder wracked her as her hips rolled against Beca's in response. The sudden commotion of people in the hallway outside the door shocked her back into startling clarity about their surroundings, but it was only a split second later that she tucked her face against Beca's neck as her shoulders trembled with silent giggles. Beca definitely had a point though, and a fresh throb of arousal through her like a bolt spurred her back into motion despite the brief interruption. "Yes. Absolutely." There was a whisper of a rasp at the edges of her voice as she grabbed Beca's wrist and coaxed her along with her, crossing the room to the very inviting bed. After Beca's initiative in pushing her against the wall only moments before, Chloe returned the favor as her hands grasped Beca's hips so she could guide her to the edge of the mattress. Her hands shifted to Beca's shoulders to urge her down onto the bed, and Chloe followed suit without a moment's hesitation, crawling onto the edge of the bed until she could straddle Beca's hips. From that new vantage point, one hand curled beneath Beca's chin to tilt her head back as Chloe ducked her head to catch her lips in another bruising kiss.

*

The thin, singular layer of clothing separating her from Chloe’s hands and that muscular thigh simultaneously made Beca wish they weren’t there but also provided unexpected friction and hitched up the anticipation factor. Without the clothes, it might’ve been too much too fast, and though Beca could very much be a dive into the deep end without much of a plan kind of girl, she was sort of hoping to avoid the panic attack this time. Running with that theme, she was almost a little grateful for the voices echoing from the other side of the wall, breaking concentration and sending Chloe tucking into her in such an adorable fashion that Beca’s heart swelled with mushy affection; she wrapped both of her arms around Chloe’s shoulders to keep her close, muffling her own breathy chuckle against Chloe’s hair as she pressed a few kisses to the crown of her head. There was definitely no complaining when Chloe spurred into action, taking her wrist and tugging her toward that unnecessarily large bed, and when she urged her down onto it, Beca scooted back enough to give Chloe more space to join her. To--crawl on top of her, holy shit. A brief look of aroused shock crossed Beca’s features upon realization she was being straddled and she surged upward to meet Chloe in another round of breathtaking kisses. This time, her hands found Chloe’s hips and slipped beneath her shirt, roving over her back and trailing fingertips down the ridges of her spine all while their mouths dueled in perfect harmony.

*

Even after being caught off guard by the sudden appearance of footsteps and chattering voices in the hallway and finding it inexplicably funny, she almost hadn't expected the warm affection with which Beca reciprocated, and the answering smile that she pressed into Beca's skin was wide as a result. Chloe wasn't one to be distracted in this situation though--especially not after the restraint that had been necessary last time--so there was no attempt to hide the enthusiasm radiating off of her when Beca followed her urging to the bed without any hesitation. The clouded, shocked look on Beca's face was more than enough validation when it seemed to click into place in her mind what was happening, so there was a flash of a razor sharp, mischievous grin in the split second before she met Beca in the kiss. It always amazed her how Beca's touch could be so soft in juxtaposition to the calluses that roughened her hands, and the contrast was absolute perfection when her hands slipped under Chloe's shirt and she took her time in mapping the expanse of her spine with her fingertips. One hand settled on Beca's shoulder, the fabric of her shirt twisting urgently in her grasping fingers, while her other hand skimmed along the back of Beca's neck and tightened in a grip in her hair. She took full advantage of the leverage that straddling Beca provided her, the hand on Beca's shoulder bracing and the muscles of her thighs flexing as she moved her hips in a languid roll as she ground down against Beca's lap, finding a slow pace that matched the give-and-take rhythm of their kiss as they moved against each other.

*

Chloe’s sudden grip on her shirt and her hair pulled another needy groan from Beca, that first full body roll on her lap making her shudder, and Beca briefly wondered if she could die from being so turned on. (It sure as fuck wouldn’t be a bad way to go considering the more likely, grim alternatives, honestly.) Beca broke the kiss with a desperate inhale, nipping at Chloe’s lower lip as she fought to catch her breath. Meanwhile, her hands slid from the soft skin of Chloe’s back around to Chloe’s front, fingers splaying over the sides of her ribcage while the pads of her thumbs teasingly grazed the underside swells of Chloe’s breasts. Her eyelids fluttered open to half-mast to reveal pupils blown wide with arousal, that single candle still alight on the nightstand plus the moonlight filtering in through stained glass enough to catch the glow of Chloe’s mesmerizing red hair and sparkling blue eyes. And Chloe thought she was the eye candy? Beca had to call bullshit on that. Her scrambled eggs brain searched for words to tell her that exact thing, but all she could muster was a breathless, reverent “so fucking beautiful” before capturing her lips in yet another hungry kiss.

*

The faintly stinging nip of teeth against her lip was punctuated by a sharp groan from Chloe, and an arousal-dazed smile stretched across her face as she followed Beca's movement when she pulled back, not catching her in another kiss but instead nuzzling their noses together as they both worked to draw breath into oxygen-starved lungs. A ticklish shiver traced down her spine when Beca's hands slipped around her back and across her ribs, every inch of skin feeling hyper sensitive, but none of it compared to the anticipatory shudder that rolled through her when Beca's thumbs brushed across the swell of her breasts below where she ached to be touched. A playful remark about being a tease was right on the tip of her tongue, but when Beca blinked dark, half-lidded eyes up at her, those words died on her lips. When Beca all but whispered such awed words, her breath was stolen from her lungs in a way that had nothing to do with the touches they'd shared and everything to do with the look on Beca's face and the words breathed into the air between them. Beca's lips were on hers again in another searing kiss before she could even think of responding, so she poured every bit of desire and aching care into the kiss instead. She reluctantly released her grip on Beca's shoulder and her hair, but it seemed like a worthy cause, since she let her hands slip down Beca's sides and grasp the bottom of her shirt, tugging the shirt up her torso to just beneath her breasts as she pulled back to look at Beca with an unspoken question in her eyes. After the emotions that had swelled within Beca and drawn their encounter to a close last time, she wanted to offer that chance for complete clarity before she made a move like that.

*

Each time they brought their lips crashing back together their kisses burned hotter and more passionate than the last. Before Beca could slide her hands up any higher, Chloe’s knuckles brushed her sides and tugged her shirt upward. A rush of cool air hit her bared stomach and a quick jolt of nerves prickled up Beca’s spine. Chloe must have somehow sensed that pulse of anxiety and she broke the kiss, and when Beca opened her eyes and saw the questioning care in Chloe’s gaze, a warm, fond smirk twisted on her lips. Removing her hands from beneath Chloe’s shirt, Beca held her arms up so Chloe could continue peeling that t-shirt up over her head and leaving her naked from the waist up. Beca knew Chloe had seen her already, a glimpse of almost all of her body in the shower and at least her lower torso for an extended period of time--she’d stitched up the now jagged pinkish-red bullet scar at her side, after all. But due to Beca’s wet hair covering part of her upper torso in the shower that day, she may have not noticed the five inch clawmark gouge running diagonally from just below her shoulder toward the center of her chest, its lowest scratch skimming over the top of her breast. Several less eye-catching, smaller scars littered her body, too, and Beca took in a slow breath as she leaned back a bit and granted nonverbal permission for Chloe to look and touch. Her lower lip caught between her teeth as she continued to track Chloe’s gaze, her hands settling on the tops of Chloe’s thighs with her thumbs lazily rubbing small circles over the inseams of those pajama pants.

*

Despite the tentative concern that stemmed from wanting to make sure that Beca was completely comfortable, the smirk that curved Beca's lips loosened that knot of concern in her chest. When Beca pulled back and followed that unspoken prompting to meet her eyes, Chloe's gaze remained locked on Beca's for a long moment before she ever moved to pull Beca's shirt the rest of the way over her head, hoping to convey as much reverent care and affection as she was able to through the connection that ran between their connected gazes. She pulled in a sharp breath once Beca's shirt was pulled off and tossed aside, not because of the scars that were revealed, but because of the intoxicating view of pale skin and curves and muscles that were unveiled and the inherent trust that the gesture carried. Even when Beca leaned back and granted her unspoken permission to explore, she first lifted a hand to cup Beca's jaw, her thumb running softly across Beca's chin just below her lower lip.

Although she'd seen Beca that day in the shower, appreciating the sight before her hadn't exactly been her top priority at that time. She more than made up for it now, taking her time in letting her eyes wander over all of Beca that was exposed to her gaze, although the steady circles of Beca's thumbs against her skin through the fabric of her pajamas pants threatened to divide her focus. Her hands lifted to follow a moment later, taking care to map her way across Beca's skin--the pronounced jut of her collarbone, the scar that spanned across part of her chest, the swells of her breasts, the ridges of her ribs down towards her navel until they brushed across the waistband of Beca's boxers. Wanting to illustrate that same level of trust and offer some reciprocity, her hands withdrew from Beca's skin so she could grasp the bottom of her own t-shirt and tug it upwards over her head, dropping it over the edge of the bed. There were a few, faint knicks and scars that dotted her skin--some from adolescence before the outbreak, but most earned during their time on the road before Barden--but none that rivaled Beca's, although she hoped the gesture carried the same nonverbal understanding.

*

Beca wondered if Chloe could hear her heart thundering louder than ever in her chest, pulse pounding in Beca's ears as she swallowed thickly. The calm, worshipful look on Chloe's face helped Beca remain relaxed, and she held her breath as Chloe's softer hands toured her bare upper half. She did a pretty damn good job maintaining her chill, she had to admit… right up until Chloe returned the favor and tugged her shirt over her head without warning. “Holy shit,” Beca murmured before she could stop herself, the words heavy on her exhale when she remembered to breathe. Her heart soared when she spotted the talisman necklace she'd given Chloe as a remembrance token, a small grin pulling tight as her eyes glistened with appreciation, reaching up to run her finger along one side of the chain. She made sure to keep her eyes on Chloe's for a prolonged moment as Chloe had with her, though Beca's visual tour was shorter. Patience was never one of her virtues. Leaning forward, she locked her eyes back on Chloe's as she pressed a feather light kiss just below the necklace, against Chloe's sternum. That boldness returning, she trailed her kisses over the top swell of her left breast and then down, gingerly running the flat of her tongue over its peak. The hand fingering the necklace chain repositioned to palm over Chloe's other breast, curling her fingers and offering a slow, experimental knead, all while watching Chloe's expression. She was new at this, after all. She only hoped that wasn't painfully obvious.

*

Chloe’s lips thinned into a pressed line to fight back a laugh that bubbled up when Beca breathed out that shocked curse, although her own eyes were half-mast with pupils blown wide with arousal as she steadily watched Beca. She'd grown so accustomed to wearing the talisman necklace that Beca had given her that it sent a faint note of surprise through her when another small, telltale smile pulled at Beca's lips and she reached up to touch the chain--in truth, earlier at the creek was the first time she'd taken it off since Beca had given it to her, and she'd grown so used to it resting against her skin beneath her shirt that it was like second nature. While Beca's gaze was steady on hers and her fingers ran over the necklace chain, Chloe reached up to cup Beca's cheek and brush her thumb across the curve of her cheekbone with a tender smile. When Beca leaned in closer without ever breaking eye contact, her teeth bit down against the inside of her cheek and she inhaled sharply, although it did nothing to quell the surge of eager anticipation that flooded through her. She already felt like she was pinned in place by the almost hypnotic effect of Beca's eyes on her, so the first brush of lips against her sternum felt agonizingly but breathtaking slow and deliberate as her stomach jumped and fluttered with the sensation.

Each brush of Beca's lips across the swell of her breast caused aching need to coil within her, so when Beca finally flicked the flat of her tongue across her nipple, the effect was instantaneous--the sensitive peak pebbled and stiffened beneath her tongue as her back arched imploringly into the contact. She didn't realize her breath had seized in her chest until she forced it out on a shaky exhale, and her hands lifted to grasp at Beca's shoulders for support. The addition of Beca's hand palming her other breast before giving an exploratory knead was a tumult of sensation, and she trembled against Beca as another rush of heat pooled at her center. Her gaze broke from Beca's for the first time only because her eyes fluttered shut for a moment as she worked to gather the rapidly fraying edges of her control, but she could still feel Beca's eyes burning into her. She forced her eyes open to meet Beca's again right as a full-throated moan tumbled from her lips, and one hand mapped the line of Beca's shoulder and up the back of her neck, fingers clenching in Beca's hair and nails scraping against her scalp in urging encouragement.

*

This whole thing felt a billion times hotter and more intense than Beca was used to, likely due to a combination of Chloe being Chloe and whatever magnetic force pulled them together, plus the eye contact. It was almost unnerving, being pinned with the depths of Chloe’s wanton gaze and Beca couldn’t look away, completely transfixed. The unfiltered moan elicited from Chloe rang in her ears on a loop that swirled and fanned the raging flames within her even higher. She swirled her tongue around that peaked nipple, grazing with teeth and soothing with tongue before wrapping her lips around it to repeat the gesture. Her other hand grew more bold, thumb and forefinger working to stimulate supple flesh with different methodical pressure and massage patterns. Her free hand splayed across Chloe’s lower back for added support as she eventually kissed her way across her chest to swap her hand and mouth’s positioning to pay equal attention to each breast, wanting to be thorough and also draw out some more of those intoxicating sounds.

*

A cascade of soft whimpers and gasps tumbled from Chloe’s lips as Beca lavished painstakingly thorough attention on her sensitive breasts, thankfully not stifled now that they had privacy to themselves, since she wasn't sure she would've been able to scrabble together enough control to mute them anyway. Holding Beca's steady gaze with her own stoked the flames of need within her even higher, and each moment of eye contact and brush of Beca's tongue or tweak of her fingers sent spiraling darts of arousal tingling through her and pooling into liquid heat at her center. The first scrape of Beca's teeth forcibly pulled a broken, shuddering gasp from her that trailed into a keening whimper, fingers clenching urgently in Beca's hair as she repeated the action and kept up that exquisite torment without any reprieve. She squirmed in Beca's lap, almost desperate in her bid to seek some friction to alleviate the throbbing ache between her legs.

It would've been all too easy to completely surrender herself to the all-encompassing storm of pleasure and sensation that Beca managed to stir within her, but she didn't want to give in to that too quickly--especially since she hadn't gotten the chance to touch Beca in return in the tent. It took every rapidly deteriorating shred of composure that she was able to muster, but her hands slipped to Beca's shoulders to gently push her back. It was at least marginally easier to think without Beca's lips and hands serving as the best possible distraction, but there was a moment before she found her voice when all she could do was level a dark, openly desirous look at Beca as she wanted nothing more than to pull her close again. After a beat, she returned to her senses and shakily maneuvered herself off of Beca's lap, sliding past her to settle further back on the bed instead of perching close to the edge. Her hand found Beca's wrist, fingers curling and brushing across the pulse beneath her fingertips as she gave an imploring tug for Beca to join her.

*

Beca had no idea how fucking arousing playing with another pair of breasts could be until she was actually doing it. Somehow, it almost felt like stimulating Chloe served to stimulate herself, too; each whimper and gasp emitted from Chloe shot straight between Beca’s legs and she willed herself to ignore it, to focus on Chloe once again because pulling those sounds and nonverbal reactions from her felt so damn incredible. Maybe even addicting. She could’ve laved attention on Chloe’s body for hours at a time, and when Chloe pulled back, Beca blinked up at her in confusion because she didn’t realize how much time had passed. Beca’s expression quickly softened though, following that guiding push and bracing herself on her elbows as Chloe climbed off her lap. She nearly pouted at the loss, but that searing look Chloe leveled on Beca washed through her like a storm after a week in the desert, sending every cell in her body shivering with desire. When her hand curled around her wrist, Beca didn’t hesitate before shifting backwards toward the pillows and rolling on her side to face her. She cradled Chloe’s cheek in her hand, skimming her lower lip with her callous thumb and flashing her a serene smile with wide, imploring eyes locked on. There was so much Beca wanted to say, but she wasn’t sure how, and she definitely didn’t want to fuck up the moment like she did last time.

*

Even in their short time together, it never ceased to amaze her how vividly a mere look from Beca could affect her. This was no exception, because when Beca lifted her eyes to meet her waiting gaze when Chloe pulled back from her, the profound depth of emotion and desire in her eyes was enough to render Chloe momentarily dizzy with the force of it. And that wasn't even counting the sheer storm of desire that Beca had stoked from a low simmer to an inferno with each purposeful, exploring touch, so it was no surprise that tremors ran through her and turned her limbs unsteady when she finally found the motivation to move. Of course, that sense of loss was assuaged as soon as Beca followed her prompting without question and curled up against the pillows to face her, and her hand slipped from Beca's wrist to the curve of her waist. Undisguised tenderness lined her face at the gentle trace of Beca's thumb across her lip, and she shifted closer and used the hand at Beca's waist to pull her in tightly until their bodies were pressed flush together. She leaned in and brushed a kiss against Beca's cheek before moving to nibble at her earlobe with a light scrape of teeth. She worked her way across the curve of Beca's jawline and down her neck with open-mouthed kisses, pausing occasionally to pepper nips and nibbles of teeth against flushed skin. Her tongue flicked across the hollow of Beca's throat before her lips latched onto Beca's pulsepoint, teeth raking across the rapid flutter of her pulse before the flat of her tongue ran over it to soothe any sting.

*

Beca found it completely unnerving, terrifying, and overwhelming how quickly she’d grown to not only feel affection for Chloe, but to trust her. God, she trusted Chloe with her entire being, and she’d stopped trusting anyone new she met after Jesse and Amy, and she hadn’t really met anyone she trusted before them, either. It was that trust that allowed Beca to let her guard down, to stare at Chloe with such unfiltered emotion--even if Beca herself didn’t fully understand those complex, layered feelings, she let Chloe see them. She let Chloe in. The warm press of their bare chests flush against each other sent another ripple of heat through each layer of skin, and when Chloe started in on touring her mouth over her body, Beca closed her eyes to savor every single sensation. She sucked in a sharp breath when Chloe nibbled at her earlobe, holding her breath until the scrape of teeth against her sensitive neck urged an exhale that came out as a rumbling, uninhibited moan. Her hand threaded through Chloe’s hair fisting a handful of locks at the back of her head as she encouraged her to keep going.

*

Even in the midst of an intimate moment like this--or perhaps especially in an intimate moment like this--Chloe was struck breathless by the fact that Beca trusted her in such a vulnerable situation. Not only had Beca talked to her when her emotions had overwhelmed her in the tent, but she was just as engaged and enthusiastic as Chloe was now that they had a second chance with more time and privacy to themselves. She felt like she could practically taste the potency of Beca's moan when it reverberated beneath her hungry lips, and it ignited a fresh wave of arousal that rippled through her and shot straight to her center. The tightening sting of fingers in her hair prompted a groan that was smothered against Beca's skin and she followed the silent encouragement, pressing a kiss against the dip of Beca's clavicle. Her lips mapped a path down Beca's sternum and then back up across the swell of her right breast, taking her time to learn every inch of skin that she brushed with her lips. It was only once she had committed all of that to memory that she ran the flat of her tongue over the stiffened peak of her breast, following with a light skim of teeth and another, slower swipe of her tongue in succession. The hand at Beca's waist slipped down to palm the curve of her ass while she slipped her thigh between Beca's legs and pressed upwards, silently urging Beca to rock against her toned quadricep that tensed and flexed with the motion.

*

Payback was, most certainly, a bitch. Now that the tables were turned, Beca submitted herself to Chloe's mercy as she took her sweet time learning her body more intimately. Not that Beca was complaining in the slightest because holy fuck, Chloe's lips and tongue felt like the smoothest silk gliding over her overheated skin, and those sporadic nips of teeth pulled sharp hisses that exhaled as shuddering whimpers. She was sure she'd never been more aroused, her back arching toward Chloe's mouth, chasing more pressure. And when Chloe's leg slipped between hers, Beca hitched her leg up over Chloe's hip. That first press of toned thigh against the throbbing heat between Beca's legs triggered a broken cry to cut through the relative, consistent almost-quiet of the room (the steady bassline of heavy breathing and occasional moans and groans accounted for a low, constant hum of simmering energy), her body involuntarily rocking into the pressure in an instant, harmonious give and take rhythm. The firm pressure confirmed she'd already soaked through those boxers, a sudden rush of heat blazing her cheeks and chest upon realization.

*

Chloe was certain that she could've lost herself for ages simply exploring Beca's body and seeing what sounds and reactions she could draw with each touch, because every single nuance of response from Beca was dangerously addictive. Encouraging moans were muffled against Beca's skin with increasing frequency as Beca arched against her mouth and hooked her leg over her hip, each touch fueled by mounting need. A shudder rippled through her at the cry from Beca that rent the air around them, her hips bucking instinctively and pressing her thigh up between Beca's legs in a firm roll in response to the potent wave of arousal that flooded through her. When Beca rocked against her thigh, Chloe's realization came right on the heels of Beca's, and she was sure that her pajamas pants must've been in a similar state. With a final broad stroke of her tongue across Beca's nipple, she lifted her head and reluctantly shifted just enough to disentangle their legs for a moment. She first reached down and hooked her thumbs in the waistband of her own pajama pants, wiggling enough to work that last barrier of clothing down over her hips and legs until she could kick them away off the end of the bed. "Now we're even," she teased with a light bubble of laughter in her voice, lifting her gaze so she could flash a wink at Beca. It had been inevitable anyway, considering the course they were on, but she couldn't pass up on the chance to jokingly tease Beca with that reference to the shower incident. Leaning in to drop a quick peck against Beca's lips, she then curled her fingers at the waistband of Beca's boxers with a questioning look.

*

Beca was unable to catch the whimper before it escaped at the loss of that pressure between her legs, but when she blinked her eyes back open to half-mast to watch Chloe peeling the pajama bottoms down her legs and kicking them to the floor, her mouth falling open with another guttural groan as she shamelessly swept her hungry gaze down the length of Chloe’s body. That teasing comment coaxed a hoarse chuckle from Beca through that hazy cloud of electric arousal. “You want me to look… s’totally different,” she mumbled, but she definitely wasn’t complaining. As Chloe’s fingers slipped beneath that elastic waistband, Beca swallowed hard and nodded, reaching down to help shove the fabric down her legs and kick them over the edge.

“You should probably know,” Beca stammered, her nerves prickling in on the edges of that boldness and setting a low-level quake through her body. Beca pushed forward, though, keeping her honest eyes trained on Chloe’s face. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve--since anyone’s--” Not that she was experienced by any stretch of the definition in the first place, but she couldn’t even bring herself to get herself off or even try to since Sara died and things with Jesse were never exactly hot and heavy, though he tried. She wasn’t capable of verbalizing all of that though, so she hoped Chloe would infer the truth from her babbling half-sentences. “--and I’ve never--with a girl, before you, so--” A fresh flush crept into her cheeks and she shrugged, figuring it was better to be open with it in case something else happened--she screwed something up or something. (Good things didn’t really happen to Beca, okay? She had to put some safeguards in place to try to prepare for any disappointment that might crop up.)

*

She would've been lying if she said that witnessing Beca's reaction to her stripping away that final layer of clothing and leaving herself completely open to Beca's gaze wasn't entirely intoxicating. Chloe might have been fairly confident about her figure, but it paled in comparison to the flush of heated desire that rolled over her when she could feel the weight of Beca's heavy gaze as it dragged over her. There was a ghost of a smile that curled at the corners of her mouth even as she jokingly rolled her eyes at Beca. "Whatever, Bec. You're right though, I do want you to look," she confided, her grin twisting towards a smirk as she leaned in to share that murmur as if there was anyone else who might've overheard it. Her fingers stilled until she received that nod from Beca, but then she was eager in shoving those boxers down her legs until they were out of the way. Despite her joke only a moment before, she lapsed into silence as her searing gaze dragged down the length of Beca's body and then back up again in a slow course.

Even though she had gotten quite an eyeful before in the shower, appreciating the sight hadn't been her top priority at the time, so she made the most of it now that she had the opportunity. In fact, it was only the faint tremor in Beca's halting voice that pulled her gaze back upwards, her eyes immediately softening with concern when she noted the new note of anxiety that threaded through Beca's words. She listened to Beca with sympathetic patience, reaching between them to take one of Beca's hands in her own and lace their fingers together, thumb running back and forth across Beca's knuckles. "Hey, it's okay. I mean--it's been a while for me too." There was no hesitation in the admission, shoulders hitching in a small shrug as a whisper of a smile flitted across her face. She knew the situation was different, considering Jesse and all, but she hoped to be sympathetic with her shared admission. "We have plenty of time to figure it out. There's no pressure. So if there's anything you're--not sure about, or you wanna stop or slow down or anything like that, we can do that."

*

Beca had a fairly scientific, realist-based mind, but she could’ve sworn in that moment Chloe’s eyes charged with laser beams and their concentrated heat roved over every inch of exposed skin, pale and scarred but strong. Her body told a story of survival, of sacrifice. So did Chloe’s, though it was also objectively gorgeous in its own right. Chloe’s softening eyes, along with her lacing of their fingers and a soothing thumb skimming over her knuckles, worked their magic to quell the anxious beast fighting for attention. Those empathetic words hammered the nail on its coffin, and Beca took a deep, shuddering breath, reaching up to anchor her fingers along Chloe’s jaw. “Thank you,” she murmured, leaning in for a tender kiss. When she pulled back, she tugged at Chloe’s lower lip with her teeth as she rasped her reply. “But I don’t wanna stop,” she assured her after releasing that slightly swollen lip. “And I don’t wanna slow down, either.” Nuzzling their noses together, Beca’s next confession came in a husky whisper, her thumb gently swiping over that lip. “I want you, Chloe.” She wanted her so badly she could barely think straight. She wanted her more than she’s ever wanted anyone or anything. She wanted her before she even met her, and that didn’t even make any fucking sense, but it was still true.

*

Beca had already confided in her quite a bit by now, but Chloe found that she still wanted to understand the entirety of the story that was written across her skin. She studied scars and tattoos alike in the midst of her appreciative eyes roving across Beca's body, all of it solidifying into the larger truth of what made Beca herself. She felt some of the tension ease from Beca's hand where their fingers laced, but she kept up the soft, steady rubbing of her thumb across the back of her hand. Her eyes crinkled at the corners with a soft smile when Beca's fingers landed steady and strong against her jaw, and she fell willingly into the pull of blue-grey eyes when Beca offered such sincere thanks. Although the kiss was tender, it stirred her arousal back into an insistent simmer when Beca's teeth caught at her lip and she then assured her that she didn't want to change the path they were headed down.

"Neither do I," she confided, pupils blowing wide once again and her gaze dropping down to Beca's mouth when Beca's thumb skimmed across her kiss-swollen lip. "You've got me." She thought maybe she'd never meant anything more, and it wasn't just the immediacy of this moment; she'd felt that sudden, inexplicable pull to Beca from the beginning, even before she'd understood it herself and Beca had seemed bewildered by her attention. "And I want you, too." There was a flash of a soft smile as she nuzzled her nose against Beca's before she closed the gap between them to catch Beca's lips in a bruising kiss, while one hand mapped the contours of Beca's body down her torso and across the angle of her hip, lingering for a moment at the juncture of her upper thigh before swiping her fingers through slick folds.

*

Chloe’s confirmation that they were yet again on the same page somehow simultaneously provided a soothing balm on the lingering strands of worry tickling her insides and also set off a series of firecrackers down her spine. Beca kissed back with equal fervor, fingers sliding back into her hair. The first brush of Chloe’s fingers against her lower lips triggered a strangled cry that reverberated into their kiss, Beca’s body rolling into the touch, much more direct and satiating than the pressure of Chloe’s thigh had been earlier. Her throbbing clit pulsed in rhythm with her pounding heartbeat, Chloe’s touch rousing and soothing a beyond desperate, achy need that Beca forced dormant for entirely too long. She broke the kiss with a gasp, cradling Chloe’s face once again as she kept their foreheads pressed together, craving that closeness even if deep kissing wasn’t possible anymore. The brush of lips every so often between sharp pulls of oxygen served to strengthen that grounding contact, even more so when Beca forced her eyes to flutter open as best as she could, their intense connection reminding Beca she was safe and that this was okay. More than okay, god, it was fucking amazing.

*

The first stroke of her fingers through Beca's folds and the evidence of her arousal that slicked her fingers tore a similar groan from her throat that mingled with Beca's cry in their kiss, a fresh throb of arousal pooling between her legs as liquid heat when she felt slick, heated flesh beneath her touch. The first few strokes of her fingers were slow and searching, working in time and rhythm with the way Beca's body moved against hers, and she shifted her hand enough to work slow, tight circles against Beca's clit. She sucked in a needy lungful of air when Beca broke the kiss, the breath escaping on a slow, shaky exhale that was a contrast to the steadiness of her gaze as she watched Beca. The intimacy of the moment exceeded even the sum of their actions, bolstered and heightened by the genuine connection that tethered them to one another--the way shuddering breaths puffed into the whisper of shared space between them, the ripple of affection and want that rolled through her when blue-grey eyes blinked open to meet hers, the way Beca was completely open and trusting of her in that moment. Chloe had always been an emotionally driven person, so every little nuance that ran between them only stirred the flames of her own desire even higher. Her free hand skimmed down the outside of Beca's thigh and hooked behind her knee to coaxingly hitch her leg over Chloe's hip again. With that changed angle, her fingers swiped through Beca's folds once more before she shallowly pressed a finger into her, pausing for a moment before she added a second finger and curled more deeply into her.

*

Beca was pretty damn sure she'd never let herself feel so fucking much in one moment, and trying to process everything at once overloaded her brain, which already struggled to keep up with her body and heart treading water in a vast, stormy ocean of emotion. Chloe was suddenly everything--her buoy she clung to for life, the sliver of sunlight peeking through the storm clouds thundering overhead, her new reason for staying afloat. That realization both thrilled and terrified her, of course, because now there was one more person she couldn't bear to lose. Shaking that thought, Beca willed away the gremlins trying to sabotage this moment, and she focused instead on the sparks of undiluted pleasure zapping through her body. “Holy fuck, Chloe,” Beca choked on a rasp, her jaw falling slack as she let Chloe guide her deeper into that state of bliss. She followed the encouragement and hooked her leg back over Chloe's hip, drawing in a wheezing gasp when fingers pressed inside. A slew of babbling swears spilled from Beca's lips as her hips countered each slow thrust. It felt as if she grabbed into a live wire with both hands, unable to release as the electric current cranked higher and higher.

*

The intensity and suddenness of the feelings that Beca was able to evoke in her, seemingly without any stipulations beyond simply being herself, might have frightened her, but Chloe had always been a person who was led by her emotions and trusted in gut instinct to steer her right more often than not. So while it felt like the force of the magnetic pull she felt towards Beca might bowl her over with the sheer enormity of it sometimes, she didn't want to shy away from any of it. Quite the opposite, in fact--she wanted to live in every moment with such immersion that the memories would be seared into her mind for good. Happy memories and the people attached to them were all any of them really had to hold onto at this point, after all. This moment was no exception, because there wasn't a single, infinitesimal part of this that she didn't want to remember for the rest of whatever life she had ahead of her, from the sharp angle of Beca's jaw when it fell slack to the heady rasp that carried that urgent cry to the flush of color that crawled across her skin when her hips worked against Chloe's hand. She broke eye contact only so she lean in, breath ghosting across Beca's ear for a moment before she gave a light nibble of teeth against her earlobe and dragged slow, open-mouthed kisses across the line of Beca's jaw. "You're amazing." The words were pressed reverently against her skin, just below the underside of her jaw against her neck. "Beautiful," she added with a contented hum that reverberated against Beca's neck. She paired the words with a crook of her fingers, curling enough to brush that spongy patch deep inside and shifting her hand so that her palm brushed against her clit with each thrust.

*

Beca could only puff out a breathy half-note of a chuckle, because Chloe was definitely the most amazing, most beautiful person she’d ever met. Magical, too--the way she played her body like a flawless symphony, expertly building her up toward that crescendo. She knew she was close, unaware of how much time had passed since they’d started this… time stood still in that room. “More,” Beca croaked, realizing after it passed her lips that it wasn’t a very descriptive request, only that those impossibly tight coils were moments away from snapping and she needed to get there. “Harder? F-faster, or--” God, she didn’t know. She just knew she loomed toward a precipice, and she was ready to fly the fuck over it. “Please, Chlo.”

*

Chloe was convinced that she would've done anything Beca asked of her in that moment, anything to satiate that rasping plea in Beca's voice and the seeking cant of her hips. Her brain very nearly stuttered out of rhythm at the way that her inner walls clenched around her fingers, jaw falling slack as she panted a few breaths against the hollow of Beca's throat before recovering with a nip of teeth and a drag of her tongue across the patch of skin. Wanting nothing more than to satisfy any need that Beca had in that moment, her free hand slipped to curl at the back of Beca's thigh for support. With that added leverage, she curled a third finger into her, redoubling her pace with a rougher edge to it and crooking her fingers deeply to brush against Beca's inner walls with every stroke as her wet heat clenched around her digits. "Becs, you feel amazing--so damn good," she rasped against Beca's throat, the words hoarse and coaxing. She dragged a trail of kisses across the span of Beca's shoulder and back towards her neck, pausing with a sharper, more deliberate rake of teeth that was followed by suction against the patch of skin--possibly enough to leave a mark, but hopefully a place that would be easily covered by clothing anyway, since discretion was the furthest thing from her mind at the moment.

*

Beca’s hand anchored behind Chloe’s neck as her whole body continued to vibrate with overstimulation, breaking out in a sheen of sweat as she struggled to keep her eyes open, though she was fighting a losing battle as they kept rolling behind fluttering lids. She’d forgotten what it felt like to be touched like this, and she was damn sure it had never been this intense before, and desperate as she was for it to last, her body needed that sweet release more than anything. At her plea for more, she hadn’t expected a third finger, and when her walls stretched with more of Chloe, Beca gasped so loudly it was as if she’d been drowning and crested for air just before she passed out. The blissful sting against her neck pulled an actual growl from Beca’s throat as it drove her over the cliff full speed. “Oh, fuck, Chloe, I’m--” she held her breath and her skin flushed bright red as that band finally snapped, a hoarse cry ripping from Beca’s vocal cords as she clung to Chloe, spasming in her arms as she rode the waves of bliss all the way to shore. She only released her death grip after a full minute, still shivering as aftershocks coursed through her. “Holy shit,” she breathed, wiping the tears that had escaped from the corners of her eyes and dripped across her temples and into her hair. “Holy shit.”

*

Even though the look was lost against Beca's warm skin, Chloe's expression was one of pure awe when she could feel Beca rapidly approaching that brink from the reactions of her body and the fluttering of her inner walls around Chloe's fingers. She wanted to revel in that feeling of complete abandon and trust that radiated from Beca, but more than anything, she wanted to do everything in her power to draw Beca to that precipice and bring her to the highest peaks of pleasure that she was able to. Thank god for privacy and hopefully thick walls in a place this lavish, because Chloe couldn't have brought herself to try to stifle any of those sounds from Beca even if she wanted to, which she absolutely didn't--especially not the rumble of a growl and the cry that followed in quick succession when Beca tumbled over the cliff's edge, both reactions rippling through Chloe with heady anticipation and need. Beca's grasping arms around her pressed them flush against one another, and Chloe slowed the pace and kept a steady rhythm with her fingers as she urged her through those rhythmic waves of release and then the tremors that followed.

When Beca's hips stilled against her, she gingerly withdrew her hand and pressed a kiss to the juncture of Beca's neck and shoulder. Her nose nuzzled against the new, faintly pink mark that stood out against Beca's skin and she muffled a huff of a chuckle against her shoulder when Beca repeated that breathless curse a second time. "Yeah, you might've mentioned that," she teased, lifting her head so she could level an exceedingly fond grin at Beca. Her gaze landed on the lingering hint of tear tracks that ran down Beca's skin and disappeared into her hair after Beca had wiped most of them away, and while she knew they were good tears, she leaned in with painstaking care and pressed a kiss against each of Beca's temples before pulling back to smile at her. "That was so worth waiting since the tent."

*

“Holy shit,” Beca repeated a third time for good measure, her lips twisting into a smirk. “That was… jesus, dude.” A chuckle escaped and she emitted a shuddering sigh, every muscle in her body more relaxed than they’d been in a long time. Possibly ever. “Definitely worth the wait. You’re fucking incredible. Thank you.” Nuzzling their noses together, Beca brushed her lips against Chloe’s before rolling Chloe onto her back and following on top of her. When she was sure her arms stopped trembling enough to fully function, she braced her weight on her elbow and kissed Chloe with more heat, more than eager to return the favor. Her hand found Chloe’s side and splayed over her ribcage while her mouth trailed down her body, worshipfully planting a trail of hot, open-mouthed kisses across her jawline and down her neck and across her collarbone, over the tops of her breasts until they landed on a sensitive nipple. She swirled her tongue around its peak, teasing and stimulating just as she had before, only there was a greater sense of urgency now.

*

The way that Beca's lips curled with that familiar smirk sent a shock of affectionate heat rolling through her, and she smiled in return at the way Beca's body fit against hers as she came down from her release. "'Thank you'? How proper of you," she teased, laughter seeping into the edges of her voice. There were no complaints when Beca leaned in for a kiss though--that seemed like a much better idea anyway. Although she'd been happy to push her own arousal to the background for the time being in favor of wholly focusing on Beca's pleasure, her own need flared back into prominence in the forefront with an aching throb of anticipation when Beca rolled her onto her back without hesitation. The visual of Beca looming over her and the warm weight of her body against Chloe's was disarming enough to cause her to pull in a hitching gasp before the breath froze in her lungs, her pupils growing wide and dark once again as she watched Beca.

The kiss Beca caught her in was markedly more searing than the last one and she met her eagerly with equal fervor. A faint whine of loss caught in her throat when Beca pulled back from the kiss, but it quickly soothed away when Beca refocused her attention across her jaw and neck. The path that Beca's lips mapped across her clavicle and the tops of her breasts was exquisite torture and she squirmed beneath the warm press of Beca's body, hips arching to seek some friction to satiate the throb of need that coursed through her. As soon as Beca's lips found the sensitive peak of her breast, her hands snapped up with the need to touch and encourage, one hand lacing tightly into Beca's hair at the nape of her neck and the other curling urgently at Beca's side. "Oh--shit," she breathed out on a strangled gasp, her back arching sharply off the bed against the swirl of Beca's tongue.

*

Look, Beca wasn't the most polite individual. So when she extended a thank you, she truly felt gratitude… and she had. She also hoped to return the favor with as much enthusiasm as Chloe dedicated to bringing her over those cliffs of ecstasy. Beca lavished attention over Chloe's breasts, suckling and nipping and soothing away stings. Not wanting to tease too much (Chloe had been all too kind in that respect), Beca slid the hand from Chloe's ribcage down between their lower bodies, fingers gliding through folds she'd been literally aching to explore again ever since the tent. After a minute or so of circling her clit, curiosity got the better of Beca and she raised her head to blink at Chloe, her voice still raspy and thick with arousal. “Hey, can I…?” Cheeks flushed, Beca kept her stormy eyes locked on Chloe's as the brought the hand from between Chloe's legs to her mouth, slowly wrapping her lips around the tip of her index finger glistening with Chloe's essence. She hummed a moan of delight, pleasantly intoxicated by the taste of her.

*

Chloe was happy to be completely at the mercy of Beca's skilled mouth as she bestowed very thorough attention to her breasts, teeth catching against her bottom lip as she arched beneath Beca's mouth but doing little to stifle the breathless gasps and whimpers that spilled forth. After the time she'd spent focusing on Beca, her own arousal pulsed through her with an aching, potent throb and every single touch from Beca stirred that into a more powerful tempest within her. Although her stomach muscles tensed with anticipation when Beca's hand skimmed between their bodies and down the length of her torso, it did nothing to temper the strangled cry and the sharp buck of her hips at the first brush of Beca's fingers against her lower lips. She was reduced to a trembling mess beneath Beca's touch as she worked circles of pressure against that sensitive bundle of nerves, so it took a moment to register Beca's words when she spoke. She knew that Beca had asked her a question--she objectively knew that some answer was expected from her in return--but that was easier said than done, because her brain had completely short circuited with a haywire storm of arousal that arced through her as she watched Beca's lips wrap around her glistening finger, her own mouth agape. Finally, her head jerked in a rapid, almost frantic nod, although she had to clear her throat before she could summon her voice to match it. "Absolutely--yes. Anything you want." She was convinced that wasn't even an exaggeration at this point.

*

Chloe’s verbal and bodily reactions drew Beca in like the purest, most desired drug, potently intoxicating and highly addictive. She craved more and more of Chloe as moment passed, her own arousal stirring rapidly back to life despite her incredibly intense climax minutes ago. A wicked smirk twisted on her lips at Chloe’s near-frantic nod, a sharp thrill shooting through her even though she’d never done this before. Going on instinct seemed to be her best bet, as that served her well so far, so she trailed more open-mouthed kisses down Chloe’s tight abdomen in a zig-zag pattern, slithering her body lower down the bed as she did so. When she finally found herself hovering over Chloe’s sex, Beca didn’t bother stifling her groan. Moistening her lips, Beca leaned in and gave one tentative lick--a slow, deliberate drag with the tip of her tongue upward through Chloe’s folds, her eyes flickering back up Chloe’s body to watch her face. The view was definitely the most arousing sight she’d ever encountered, and she repeated the action again with more pressure the next time, her tongue swirling circles around that swollen nerve-packed button, just as her fingers had before.

*

The twist of Beca's lips into a smirk at Chloe's overeager reply practically bordered on devilish, and that dark, hooded look of anticipation seemed to spark along the pathways of every nerve ending in her body in a direct channel that fueled an almost visceral ache of arousal between her legs. As Beca's lips left a trail of fire across her skin in their wake as she worked her way down Chloe's torso, it took every ounce of composure she had left not to impatiently buck her hips up against her, trying to temper that needy throb of arousal with a thread of patience because all of Beca's ministrations were so worth it. One hand reached down to thread through Beca's hair as she worked her way down Chloe's body, while her other hand grasped at the blankets beneath her for a point of contact to steady herself. It felt suddenly vulnerable to have Beca settled between her legs and admiring her so openly, but rather than shrinking away from it, the feeling was somehow overwhelming in the intoxicating effect it had on her. Any of that sudden self-consciousness evaporated the instant that Beca's tongue was on her, wiped away in a white-hot spasm of sensation that wracked through her body. After so much buildup, the slow, purposeful stroke of Beca's tongue pulled a sharp, keening cry from her and her head pressed back against the pillow, fingers curling tightly against the rumpled sheets in her grasp. "Oh--god. Please, Beca." The plea rasped out on a hitching breath, each circle of Beca's tongue feeling like a live wire of connection and sensation that was quickly building her towards a crescendo that she so desperately sought.

*

At that rasping plea, Beca got down to business. She carefully repositioned one of Chloe's legs over her shoulder, allowing her more room to explore. Her hand gripped that outer thigh to anchor herself as she laved her tongue through Chloe's lower lips and incrementally added speed and pressure to her tongue’s rhythmic passes around her clit, bumping against and over that magic nerve bundle time after time. Beca’s eyes, once again dark and stormy with reignited arousal, kept flickering up Chloe's body to watch her facial expressions for cues. The fisting hand in Beca's hair sent shockwaves of pleasure coursing up and down her spine, making Beca groan against her. Testing different methods to find out new and hot ways to bring Chloe pleasure, Beca eventually wrapped her lips around her swollen clit, tongue still swirling as she added a careful amount of suction.

*

If Chloe thought she was skating the edge of that blissfully torturous precipice before, it was all swept away when Beca redoubled her focus and her attention. She complied without hesitation when Beca guided one of her legs over her shoulder, the change in angle sending a cascade of blissful sensation throughout her entire body with each swipe and swirl of Beca's tongue. Although their shared moment in the tent had been a reprieve and a release altogether, it had still been a hurried, quieted affair--so after so long without an encounter this intimate and prolonged and eagerly exploratory, she felt like she was reduced to little more than a trembling mess who was completely at the mercy of Beca's tongue that worked against her. The buildup had been intense and prolonged enough that by the time Beca's tongue was working against her clit with skillful pressure, it didn't take long to have her rushing towards the brink in a towering tumult of arousal and anticipation. The burn of Beca's gaze on her only added to the simmering build of desire, heat tingling through her with every sweep of Beca's gaze and pooling between her legs. The hum of Beca's groan against her elicited a buck of her hips and a high, broken cry. When Beca's lips wrapped around her clit, there was no holding back the mounting tide any longer.

Even with the rapid rise and fall of her chest, it felt like she couldn't draw in enough oxygen to sate the burn in her lungs and her voice broke on a breathless gasp and a cry, fingers flexing urgently in Beca's hair. "Beca, oh god, I--" Words were lost to her as Beca's skilled mouth drove her right to the precipice and she was cast over at a breakneck pace, every muscle arching and drawing tense for one long, sustained moment as her release crashed over her like a tidal wave. Those waves of rhythmic bliss radiated through every cell of her body as all consciousness was swept away save for that suspended moment that narrowed down to her just and Beca, and her hips worked against Beca's mouth in quaking jerks as those waves crashed over her before finally winding down. Unfocused, hazy eyes blinked up at the ceiling as her head pressed back against the pillow and the racing of her own heart sounded thunderous to her ears, and it was only as she came back to that awareness that she remembered to loosen her fingers in Beca's hair. She wasn't purposely trying to mimic Beca from earlier--the teasing quip portion of her brain was still very much rebooting in the aftermath of that--but she only managed two words on a shaky, panting exhale. "Holy shit."

*

Ever since their first one on one conversation in the settlement, whenever she had some time without anything directly demanding her attention, Beca found her thoughts drifting to Chloe. First they were innocent thoughts… mostly curious about the weirdo who smiled too much and knew how to stitch up a bullet wound. Their tryst in the tent cranked those daydreams up several notches in the inappropriate column but Beca couldn't help it. Her body craved a repeat, reminded her constantly of how Chloe's lips moved on hers, how her soft hands roved beneath her shirt, how her hips canted and pleased without words, how those slick inner walls tightened and pulsed and spasmed around her fingers. Using her mouth to pleasure Chloe this time had been a gamble fueled by several fantasies that plagued her over the past few days, and what Beca lacked in experience, she more than made up for with enthusiasm, letting Chloe's reactions guide her. As soon as Beca recognized that band of ecstasy snap to provide Chloe with the release she so definitely deserved, Beca groaned around her clit and continued her ministrations to guide her through those waves of bliss. A swell of pride bloomed in her chest when Chloe released her hair and uttered that same reverent swear, and Beca lifted her head with a soft chuckle to press a few kisses against the inside of her toned thigh still hitched over her shoulder. “That,” Beca panted, a trademark Mitchell smirk spreading on her glistening lips. “Was fucking awesome.”

*

Their sneaky, stolen moment in the tent had sparked the embers of curiosity about what might happen if they had more privacy to themselves--not to mention stirring more than a few inappropriate musings and hypothetical scenarios into life that rose to the forefront of her brain at the most inopportune times--but this tryst had more than exceeded any thoughts she'd entertained when she had a few moments to herself. (She had a sneaking suspicion that, rather than quenching the curious desire that their first encounter had ignited, it was only going to fuel those thoughts even more now.) Her thigh muscles jumped lightly beneath the ghosting pressure of Beca's lips against her inner thigh, and the lingering affection pulled a smile from her even as she carefully lowered her leg from Beca's shoulder. A flurry of desire stirred anew when she noticed the way Beca's lips glistened with the evidence of her arousal when she lifted her head to speak, and she blinked rapidly a few times and cleared her throat to dispel the way that image burned into her mind. "You're pretty awesome," she fired back with a grin. Considering how loose and sated her body felt as she gave a languid stretch atop the rumpled sheets and blankets, that was a huge understatement. With the hand that had been threaded through Beca's hair, she traced her fingertips softly across Beca's hairline, and she gave a small jerk of her chin paired with a soft smile. "C'mere, Bec.”

*

“Mmm...mhm.” Damn, her body felt so relaxed, limbs heavy and definitely ready for sleep, even when her tongue darted out to lick her lips and the last taste of Chloe made her insides thump, begging for another round. Beca’s eyes fluttered closed when Chloe’s fingertips outlined her hairline, and she leaned into the touch, a quiet rumbly purr escaping on her exhale. Her eyes popped open again at the gentle command paired with the nickname she’d only ever let a handful of people use. She dropped a kiss against Chloe’s hipbone before shifting her weight back onto her knees, climbing back up Chloe’s body and moving to settle beside her. The candle still alight on the bedside table set off the deep red color in Chloe’s beautiful hair, setting it off in a mesmerizing type of glow. She searched for words but couldn’t find any, instead letting her peaceful, affectionate gaze lock on Chloe’s beautiful face. Beca found Chloe’s hand and laced their fingers between them.

*

Her eyes were riveted on Beca's face when the other woman's eyes fluttered shut and she practically purred at the gentle trace of her fingertips--the flickering light from the candle cast ever-changing light and shadow across the angles of Beca's face and the effect was almost hypnotic. The effect was no less potent when blue-grey eyes suddenly opened again, but her eyes strayed to follow the lines of Beca's body and the way her muscles shifted in the candlelight as she climbed back up the bed until she was level with Chloe. She shifted more onto her side to face Beca, and a tender smile curved her lips and crinkled the corners of her eyes as she watched her. Her eyes flickered down at the first brush and tangle of Beca's fingers with her own, but her gaze returned to Beca's after the merest beat and she held on just as securely. She used their interlocked fingers to draw Beca's hand up and drop a kiss against her knuckles. "Y'know, I'm really glad I showed up to the wrong room." Although her lips tugged upward with a quick huff of laughter when she referenced Beca's earlier teasing when Chloe knocked on her door, her voice was tender and her tone was sincere. In fact, it was probably incredibly cheesy, but it didn't feel like the wrong room at all.

*

A hoarse chuckle echoed around them, though Beca’s lids fell too heavy to manage an affectionate eye-roll. “Cheesy weirdo,” she murmured, unable to bite back the mirroring grin. “M’gonna need to do that again, though. Soon, ‘kay?” Her voice carried thick with sleepiness and she snuggled closer. (She’d deny being a snuggler with her last breath, by the way.) “G’night, Chlo.” For the first time in what felt like maybe since she was a kid, Beca fell asleep with a peaceful grin ghosting on her kiss-swollen lips.

*

Chapter Text

Chloe vaguely recalled rolling over to blow out the flickering candle with a quick puff of air, but after that, she'd given in to the tantalizing lure of sleep, thanks in no small part to the sated exhaustion that settled in her limbs and tugged at her eyelids. She slept a deep, dreamless sleep, perhaps due to the heightened sense of security that the mansion provided, as opposed to a campground in the forest. (She suspected being curled up next to Beca played a big part in it too.)

By the time she stirred, the sky outside of the window had begun to fade from inky blackness into the palette of blues that foretold the very early morning, dark like a bruise against the sky. Recollection returned to her in slow, hazy increments as she softly stirred into consciousness and tried to brush the cobwebs of sleep from her mind. A faint, bleary smile shadowed her features when she realized that Beca must have curled into her while they were asleep, because the other woman's back pressed snugly against her front and Chloe's arm was slung low across her waist. Beca was warm and sleep-heavy against her and her breathing was even and deep, so Chloe knew she hadn't begun to wake just yet.

Chloe couldn't remember the last time she'd woken up and felt so genuinely peaceful, like the feeling reached all the way down to the marrow of her bones and infused her entire body with loose relaxation. While it was beyond nice to sleep in a cozy bed in a more secure place, she knew the feeling really had everything to do with the woman in her arms and the night they'd shared together.

She figured she should sneak out and make it back to her own room before too long in case anyone came looking for either of them, but as she strained her ears, all seemed to be quiet and still throughout the house at this early hour. Maybe it wasn't the most prudent decision she'd ever made, but she gave herself some leeway in enjoying this soft, sleepy morning before she worried about sneaking out of Beca's room. Beca's hair was sleep-tousled and spread across the pillow between them, and when Chloe felt her chest warm with a burgeoning swell of affection, she leaned in to nuzzle her nose against the line of Beca's shoulder before brushing a kiss there.

The kiss landed near the tattoo that spanned across a good portion of Beca's shoulder, and Chloe blinked some of the sleepy haze from her eyes as she appreciated the ink that colored Beca's skin. Although she'd caught glimpses of Beca's various tattoos several times, this was the first time she'd really had a chance to study them up close with earnest interest.

Her eyes appreciatively traced along each line and swirl and flourish of the tattoo that decorated Beca's shoulder, but it wasn't long before curiosity and a genuine undercurrent of affection compelled her to more direct action. One hand slipped between them, fingertips dancing first across the faint ridges of each vertebrae along Beca's spine and tracing the sharp curve of her shoulder blade before finally reaching the colorful tattoo that occupied Beca's shoulder.

Her brow furrowed as her fingers mapped Beca's shoulder in the low, soft light of morning. She hadn't been expecting it, but rather than feeling smooth skin beneath her touch, she realized that the tattoo covered yet another scar on Beca's body. Between what she could see from the dim light that filtered into the room and what she could feel beneath her fingertips, she couldn't entirely discern what it was at first--thanks to her previous experience patching up people, she could tell that she wasn't tracing the contours of a knife or gunshot wound. It was with a swirling, sinking mixture of confusion and dread and disbelief that she realized they were the ridges of teeth. The wound had long since healed over, but it was still undeniable.

Beca had a bite mark.

Her fingers withdrew from the ink and scar tissue beneath her touch, curling against her palm in a loose fist. Confusion seized her muscles, and for a prolonged moment, she didn't have even the faintest idea of what to do. Did she wake Beca and question her about it? Did she try to slip away and mull over this new discovery before she broached the subject? That already seemed unlikely to work. Chloe had always had a pitiful poker face.

*

Beca hadn’t slept peacefully since before everything changed, when clickers forced her and Sara to leave their family’s cabin--the sanctuary they called home for most of Beca’s childhood. The anxiety of the pressure to keep Sara alive had Beca sleep deprived more often than not, and she grew used to staying awake all night and catching naps during the daytime, where it would be easier for Sara to keep watch over wherever they’d call temporary shelter. Even then, Beca’s nerves woke her before she completed each REM cycle. Finding Jesse had been a godsend, if not because she (reluctantly, eventually, despite herself) accepted and even enjoyed his company, because his presence offered her enough peace of mind to sleep somewhat better than before, though she never had more than a few hours at a time. Always on guard. If she could literally sleep with one eye open, she would have.

After Sara, though Beca lost the will to live, sleep eluded her even more. She stayed up most nights in a semi-lucid, trance-like state, grief alternating between wracking her body with silent sobs or pulling her into a numb haze of despair. They’d camped a lot, back then; Beca never minded camping, but guilt and sadness weighed over her as a heavy, wet blanket, she was stuck in a semi-conscious hell for most of her designated “sleeping” time. She didn’t remember much about that first month after, only waking up one day, marveling at still being alive, with both Jesse and Amy sticking with her.

Last night’s events not only qualified as the most memorable night of her relatively short life so far, but the emotional and physical exertion resulting in that full-body climax flooded her body and mind with those magical chemicals that relaxed her enough to sink into a deep, restful slumber, undisturbed for at least seven hours. Her body, used to shorter sleeping spurts with waking moments, drifted naturally toward consciousness at the brush of lips over her shoulder, and then another near her scapula. The calm, steadying presence of Chloe’s warm body pressed up against hers kept her breathing in its sleep-like, constant rhythm.

Chloe’s fingers traced the ridges of her bite mark next, making Beca’s eyes closed tighter and her heart rate picked up, chest tightening when those fingers withdrew. Chloe was smart enough to evaluate the evidence directly in front of her even without her wound care knowledge, and Beca’s breath hitched as she lowered her own arm to rest along Chloe’s draped across her middle, silently asking her to say.

When she spoke, her voice carried quietly on a sleepy rasp. “I can explain.”

*

Realization might have been first, but it was quickly overtaken by bewilderment and shock that warred for dominance at the forefront of her mind. Chloe might have been optimistic, but she wasn't stupid. She knew a bite when she saw one (and felt one), and now this scar was only inches from her face as her gaze burned into it. It was the fact that it had become a scar at all that was so absolutely baffling to her.

None of it made sense. The wound wasn't even recent enough to be freshly healed over; it had clearly long since turned to scar tissue that marred her skin, hidden behind the intricacies of the tattoo. If Beca had really been bitten--and there was really no denying that she had--then she should've long since succumbed to the infection that overtook anyone who suffered a bite or exposure. She'd been with them vastly longer than the exposure period ever took in taking hold of a person, and Jesse and Amy had been with her long before then.

But Beca had never displayed any signs of anything resembling an infection. She was smart and competent and constantly on her guard, and she had only ever tried to help them. She might have been prickly or even occasionally confrontational with Aubrey, but she didn't exhibit any of the manic aggression that set in with people who became infected.

And yet, the bite mark sat in full view of her gaze, as if taunting her with the confusing reality of its very existence.

In the midst of her confusion, she hadn't realized that Beca had awoken. She startled slightly when Beca's arm settled over hers, but she didn't flinch away or withdraw from the touch. Something about Beca's voice breaking the silence between them seemed to jar something loose in her brain, because all of the gears in her mind that had ground to a frozen halt upon feeling the scar on her shoulder started to tumble erratically back into motion. More than anything, she found that she desperately wanted answers, anything to make sense of the reality that was staring her in the face but was completely incongruous with everything she'd learned about this new world of theirs.

"I don't--you've got a bite, Beca. How is it healed over? Everyone turns." Her brow furrowed and the confusion in her voice was undisguised as she pushed her weight up onto her elbow so she could look down at Beca more directly.

*

She felt Chloe shift beside her, felt her eyes locked onto her profile, and Beca rotated onto her back to blink blearily up at Chloe as she summoned her courage to talk about it. Her voice carried so low they might as well have been whispering back in the tent, but Beca never talked about this aloud before.“The clicker who bit Sara bit me, too,” Beca said, readjusting the sheets up over her chest and trying to will the emotion out of her voice so she could relay the information clearly, because Chloe deserved an explanation. “He bit me first, actually. I--it was too dark to risk shooting at them with Sara so close, and it happened so fast, but I put myself in front of Sara in time to take the blow and--my scratch in the front, that’s from the same clicker--he grabbed me from behind and bit my shoulder. I told Sara to run, but she--” Beca’s throat tightened and the familiar sting of hot tears prickled in her eyes, so she closed them. “She didn't listen. She tried to get him off me, picked up a stick and swung at him--he grabbed her so fast I couldn’t--” She cut herself off, forcing a deep inhale through her nose and a slow exhale through her mouth.

It was then that she opened her eyes again and realized she should’ve started telling the story from a much earlier point, and with her brain swirling with long-buried information, she restarted, hoping Chloe would follow. “My dad. He’s--he was--a microbiologist. He discovered the fungus in his lab months before it became… what it became. He got obsessed with the research but everyone in the research community, they thought--they thought he was only so deep into it because he was pouring his grief into it from when my mom died, and they didn’t believe him. They didn’t see it because they didn’t want to see it, and they wouldn’t listen.”

Beca paused to collect herself again. “Dad locked down our cabin, reinforced it for safety, taught us… everything we needed to know about survival, ‘cause he saw this whole thing coming, even if nobody else believed him--even after it was too late to stop it, he didn’t give up. He kept up with his research in his own little lab and when the clickers came, he injected me and Sara with one of two potential vaccines he'd created. He didn't know if either of them would work, but…” Beca let that hang with a slight shrug of her shoulders because obviously hers had. She bit her lower lip, pausing to give Chloe time to process all of that, certain she'd have questions to field.

*

Even though the evidence of Beca's story was right there before her eyes, she still had to swallow hard against a lump of emotion that tightened her throat as Beca softly shared the details of how she'd been bitten and lost her sister all in one fell swoop. No matter how shell shocked she had been by the discovery of Beca's bite mark, it did nothing to lessen the way that the prickle of tears stung at her eyes as she listened to Beca recount the whole terrible tale and watched Beca's face with careful gentleness and sympathetic sorrow. She couldn't imagine how it must have felt not only to lose her younger sister--because she knew Beca must carry misguided shame and guilt for it, even though there was likely nothing she could've done in that situation--but then to also carry the weight that her own vaccine had spared her the same fate, as the hours and days ticked by and Beca didn't turn. "I'm so sorry, Beca." Her voice was just as soft, pitched low and meant only for the woman who lay so close to her now. Her gaze flickered down to trace the scratch scar that stood out against Beca's fair skin (its origin was no longer a mystery now, thanks to Beca's story), before watery blue eyes lifted back to Beca's face with concerned steadiness.

As Beca entrusted her with the whole story of her father's past in discovering the fungus and trying to combat it, she was stung by a strange, distant sense of betrayal that permeated her disbelief. Not by Beca, but by the knowledge that someone out there had known that this was a viable threat to the world and their way of life, but everyone he had reached out to had dismissed all of his fears and warnings. What might life look like if he'd been taken seriously? If he'd been given resources and more people to help him, rather than having his ideas scorned?

The very notion of an actual, successful vaccine was mind-boggling enough in its own right. She'd heard talk--they all had--of the military and the scientific community working to find either a vaccine or a cure once the outbreak truly struck and the infection was undeniable, but all of that had seemingly been for naught and had fallen to the wayside with each day that passed without any successful news, hope turning to little more than rumors. So to think that a vaccine had actually been discovered in some remote cabin by a single man--a vaccine that had been tested and proven successful by an honest-to-god bite--flooded her system with so many confused, conflicted emotions that she couldn't even begin to parse them out. She was suddenly grateful that they were still in bed, because she wasn't sure that her legs would've supported her beneath the onslaught of that emotional tumult if she'd been standing.

"But yours did." Even though it was unnecessary and the unspoken sentiment already hung in the air between them, she finished Beca's sentence with a sad, knowing look. She blinked a few times, her look growing faraway and contemplative as she tried to absorb the enormity of all of that information. "That's--I can't believe it. I can't believe there was really a vaccine out there." Her eyes stung with the threat of tears as all of the implications of what that meant crashed over her. How many people would still be here with them if they'd had access to something like that? Would they have been able to turn the tide and rebuild their lives? "Was there any more of it? Did your dad leave anything behind?" She knew it was vastly unlikely--in all likelihood, Beca would've had it with her if there was any left over--but she had to ask nonetheless. A thought occurred to her, and her brow furrowed as she refocused her gaze on Beca. "Is that why you had to leave before?"

*

Beca figured Chloe might fill in the blanks for the parts she’d skimmed over. The hours after they’d been bitten were worse than the actual attack. She lay awake that night curled up with Sara under a tree, her own bite wound throbbing but she let it bleed, knowing it’d likely take its course. Her pistol remained in her hand for hours with the safety off as she waited with Sara for their infections to manifest, her sister’s head in her lap while she sang in low, soothing tones to her, watching her slowly slip away as the fungus took over. It was only a couple hours before she hugged Sara tight and put a single bullet through her brain to end it. In the deepest recesses of her shock-addled brain, she understood she wasn’t changing as Sara had, her skin remained its normal pale tone cool in temperature and she didn’t experience the same symptoms--salivating and panting heavily as her blood pressure increased, yellowed eyes, babbling speech. Yet she fully considered ending it for herself, too. Planned on it, after a little while, because what was the point of anything anymore?

Jesse and Amy found her then, with Sara gone in her lap and Beca still holding her loaded ticket to freedom from the hellscape that had become their lives. They crouched on either side of her, helped Sara off her lap, took Beca’s guns away. She allowed them to help without protest for the first time, and they never spoke of that night since. Beca is pretty sure they don’t even think she remembers the direct aftermath, but she does. And she knows what probably would’ve happened if they hadn’t been there. That particular memory filled Beca with a deep, burning shame on top of the guilt, but she knew she had to face it eventually, and she couldn’t deny Chloe answers.

She watched Chloe carefully, the changing emotions shifting her facial muscles accordingly as she took time to process everything Beca shared. “I doubt it. The house got ransacked when they broke in. But--the thing is, if I can get to the university in Colorado where my dad said they were still doing research on it--if it’s even still operational, I mean, there’s no way of knowing, right?--they can figure it out from my blood. Replicate my dad’s work and manufacture more.” She nodded slowly, carefully pushing herself to sit up and push her hand through her sleep-tousled hair. “Yeah, that’s where I was going. Am going. I gotta try, right? What’s the point of being alive if I can’t… I dunno, do something about this? Maybe it’s not too late to save some other people even if I couldn’t save mine...” Beca hadn’t meant for that to come out so dramatic, but whatever.

*

There was still much that Chloe didn't know. She didn't know if the initial attack by clickers had killed Sara--the very thought caused her heart to give a painful, aching clench in her chest--or if, god forbid, Beca had been forced to end things for her when the infection began to take its course. They were all details of a truly tragic story, and she didn't dare ask, not if it meant causing more unnecessary pain for Beca by forcing her to relive it in even greater detail. They'd all lost people they cared about since the outbreak began, but she couldn't even fathom the sheer, raw pain that must come from losing a little sister in such terrible circumstances. Her own family was a lingering, aching question mark that loomed large in her mind, but at least she didn't have the same kind of dreadful images in her head that Beca had been forced to endure from Sara's death.

She knew that Jesse and Amy had spoken with careful, concerned sympathy when they first confided in her that Beca's sister had died, and so much of what she'd witnessed from Beca suddenly made more sense with that new knowledge. A loss like that colored so much of what a person did and how they survived in this world, and it was clear now that Beca's scars were an outer manifestation of the even deeper scars that she carried inside. Chloe was once again struck by a fresh wave of admiration, because Beca had been able to carry on and she was standing here now, even if things had probably felt insurmountable after Sara's death. Chloe wasn't sure she would've been able to do the same.

Even though it was the answer she'd been expecting, she released her breath on a soft, low sigh when Beca admitted that the cabin had been ransacked and any hope of the vaccine being there was slim to none. There was a clear gleam of curious interest in her eyes when Beca mentioned a university where they'd still been doing work on manufacturing a vaccine to combat the infection. Despite the rumors that sometimes filtered their way to different settlements, Chloe had never heard that there was a facility all the way in Colorado that was possibly still operational and trying to find a vaccine. "Really? I--I had no idea. There were rumors, y'know, but never anything about Colorado. So...you think there's a chance they're still there?" It felt strange to have a real glimmer of hope about something, rather than optimism that just helped get them through the day--but genuine hope that there were still people out there working to make things better. Not to mention the fact that there was actually a working cure and Beca was living proof of that, so if they could synthesize a cure from her blood...the very thought was so staggering that Chloe felt momentarily lightheaded from it. A sliver of fear and worry crept its way in though, snaking insidious tendrils around her heart when she realized the other implications of Beca's plans. It meant she had to try to make her way all the way to Colorado, all with the hope that the facility would still be operational. Beca was right though, it might be their best chance to make a difference. How could they really turn their back on a chance like that, although the dangers and fears of it all seemed beyond daunting? "You don't have to go by yourself, you know." She pushed herself to sit up as well, her gaze steady on Beca's face as she studied her.

*

Beca learned long ago not to take anyone at their word. Rumors of still thriving areas of the countries had always turned out to be unfounded when Beca sought them out, seeking refuge with Sara. People would say anything to survive--including making shit up to distract or tempt someone into a shitty trade deal. “I don’t know for sure if it’s still up and running--it was over two years ago now, but I’ve still gotta try to get there, just in case it is.” The mission gave Beca a new focus and purpose, and though she wasn’t idealistic in the slightest and knew it was more than likely Colorado crumpled into as much of a wasteland as the rest of the country had over the years, she had to at least try.

When Chloe reminded her she didn’t have to go at it alone, Beca reached out beneath the blanket to settle her hand on Chloe’s knee. “I know, and I know I came to terms with that and everything but it’s still basically a suicide mission. And I can’t take all of you guys out west with me, there’s no way that many people would make it there alive.” She took a moment to take in Chloe’s expression up close now that she was sitting up, thumb skimming soothingly over the skin over her kneecap. “Jesse and Amy don’t know about the bite. I don’t want any of them to know, okay? If they knew--they’d do something really fucking stupid if they thought I was more important than them for the greater good or some shit like that…” She wrinkled her nose.

*

Now more than ever, there were no guarantees in this world. Just as none of them were promised another day, there was no promise that the facility would still be completely intact if Beca made it there, much less that researchers would still be there continuing their work. But what other choice did they have? "I get it. And, y'know--there's always a chance. We never heard as much from further to the west, so...maybe it's still going and news just didn't make it this far." There was just as much of a possibility that news hadn't reached them because there was no news, that the research lab at the university had been as thoroughly decimated as so much else had been--but she didn't want to dwell on that grim thought.

Through the whole deluge of information that she was working to process, Beca's hand on her knee settled some of the loud tumult in her head. Although Beca's outlook was bleak, Chloe had to contend with the knowledge that she was probably right nonetheless. "But more people means more eyes to look out for each other." Okay, so apparently she could try anyway. Maybe it would've been a more compelling argument if the girls were as adept at survival skills as Beca, but as it was...well, not the most convincing notion. A note of surprise flickered across her face and in the depths of her eyes when Beca revealed that Jesse and Amy didn't know about her bite. Chloe didn't think she'd be the first and only one to know, especially after Beca had traveled with her other companions for so much longer and they'd been with her through Sara's death. Her lips thinned into a pressed, straight line when Beca expressed her concerns that someone might prioritize her safety over theirs in order to protect the vaccine, unable to muster a protest. It felt hollow and disingenuous to argue that point when Chloe herself knew that she would probably do something like that, and she knew that it likely showed on her face too. "Okay. I won't say anything to anyone." There was reluctance in her voice, but Chloe was someone who kept her word. Besides, it wasn't really hers to tell.

*

“Yeah, there’s always a chance. And it’s not like I’ve got somewhere else I need to be, you know? So I gotta try.” A sad smile tugged on Beca’s lips and she nodded. “It also means more targets for enemies, more people to look out for, more resources you need to find, fewer places to hide.” Chloe knew all that, of course, but Beca couldn’t blame her for wanting to keep everyone together since they’ve been living together for so long. “Hey, we’ve got some time to figure it out. A week here at least, then we’ll come up with a gameplan that works for everyone.” When Chloe confirmed she wouldn’t tell anyone about her bite and why she lived through it, Beca laced their fingers and offered a grateful squeeze. “Thanks, Chloe. I really appreciate it. I wouldn’t ask you to keep something from them if I didn’t think it was important.”

*

Despite the small voice at the back of her mind that cautioned her to be more careful, Chloe found that she wanted to trust to hope that the researchers might still be there, toiling away in search of a vaccine. It was the first burgeoning of hope that she'd felt for something larger than day-to-day survival in a long time, and she didn't want to immediately quash that. "Of course. If it's--I mean, it's a chance at all, so it makes sense to take it." Her mouth twisted downward when Beca countered her point with several of her own. She wanted to point out that it also meant safety in numbers and more chances for people to rest and stay alert if they had more people available for watch shifts, but they seemed like paltry rebuttals and she knew they weren't likely to make a difference anyway. "I guess so..." Her gaze lowered as she picked absently at the blanket that covered her leg, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. "Yeah, I know. And maybe--everyone might have some ideas about what to do after we've all had some time here to rest and think things over." Besides, she couldn't really speak for any of the other girls. Maybe they wouldn't want to go anyway. Beca's hand on hers stilled her fingers against the blanket, and she met her with a squeeze in return when Beca interlocked their fingers. "I know. And I know it would be--a lot to deal with, if everyone knew."

*

“We’ll figure it out,” Beca blurted with a rare, insistent firmness in her tone, but a downtrodden Chloe tugged at her heartstrings so damn much that Beca found herself trying to find flickers of positivity in their bleak world. “Hey, this was… pretty damn great. Having, um--walls and stuff. With you.” She kinda wished they could somehow find some more alone time, and maybe she could try and stealthily slip into Chloe’s room tonight, but that was probably wishful thinking with so many other people around, even if they did each have their own room. Beca definitely didn’t take privacy for granted, and she only wanted Chloe to know how much she enjoyed her company. Regardless of whether or not they found another opportunity to steal away together, Beca knew she’d cherish that memory for the rest of her inevitably short life.

*

Even if Chloe felt like she couldn't quite muster the full force of her typical sunny disposition, a hint of a smile brightened her face at Beca's insistence. It meant the world to her that Beca would even try to reassure her like that anyway, even if things might not go their way. "Yeah, we will." It finally pulled her gaze upwards when Beca spoke again, a softer, more genuine smile curving her lips at the sentiment that Beca expressed. "It was really great. Best walls and stuff ever," she returned, but any teasing that was imbued in her echoing of Beca's words was almost overtaken by the warm affection in her voice. Chloe had never expected to find that kind of connection with someone under these circumstances, especially not someone like Beca who played her card so much closer to her chest, but she was endlessly grateful that they'd found some time and space alone to themselves. The mansion was a godsend in that regard, and while she didn't know what the rest of their time here would hold for them, she was hopeful. "Thank you. For--everything, I guess." For last night, for the connection they'd shared, but for so much more than she could express in that moment. She shifted closer until she could rest her head against Beca's shoulder, her chest rising and falling with a quiet sigh. "I guess we should get up soon before anyone comes looking for us." Even as she said it, her voice was reluctant, but she knew they only had a certain window of time before people started rising for the day.

*

Here, in a private room alone with Chloe, after the vulnerable, intense night they shared together, Beca let herself continue to feel. Her lips curled upward into a shy grin when Chloe gently teased her awkward way with words, and she narrowed bright grey eyes in a heatless glare. That look melted away as soon as Chloe thanked her. “You totally don't have to thank me for any of that. Especially the--uh, last night stuff.” Her cheeks pinked with the memories. “My pleasure. Literally. Anytime.” When Chloe's head slumped against her shoulder and she suggested they get on with their undoubtedly busy day to reinforce the barriers to the mansion among other duties, Beca heaved a heavy sigh while pressing a lingering kiss to the crown of Chloe's skull, inhaling the smell of the shampoo mixed with Chloe's natural, sweet scent. “We should, yeah. Think I'll go for a hunt in the woods behind the house, see if I can find any decent game this morning.” They had loads of work to do all day, and protein of some sort would keep their energy up.

*

Shyness was usually the last thing she expected from Beca, so her own smile grew tender and warm at the sight of that smile from her, no matter how much Beca pretended to glare at her. "Mine too. Anytime," she shared in a teasing stage whisper, bumping her shoulder against Beca's. It was absolutely too adorable when Beca's skin tinged pink just at the mention of last night's tryst, although Chloe felt a current of heat course through her for an entirely different reason at the recollection. Her lips pressed into a tight line to conceal a smile when she felt Beca heave a similar sigh to her own, but a flutter of warmth stirred in her stomach the instant that she felt Beca drop a kiss against her head. Nonetheless, she reluctantly lifted her head again when Beca agreed that they should get a jump on the day.

Her lips curling with a devilish smirk, there was no other advanced warning before she pushed Beca back onto the pillows and rolled onto her in one fluid motion. The move brought them into very close proximity when her body pressed flush against Beca's in a familiar recollection from the night before that worked a pleasurable tingle down her spine, and she looked for all the world like the cat who ate the canary as she grinned in the split second before she leaned in to catch Beca's lips in a kiss. She didn't linger very long, but the kiss was still laced with potent feeling before she pulled away and winked down at Beca. "One for the road. Have fun hunting." Her voice was practically lilting as she rolled off of Beca to the edge of the bed, pushing herself to stand. It all transpired relatively quickly, and she flashed a grin at Beca over her shoulder before she turned to gather up her shirt and pajama pants from the night before.

*

A soft squeak of surprise escaped Beca when Chloe launched herself on top of her, pressing her into the pillows. She reached up to cradle Chloe’s face with both hands and hummed into that kiss, which sparked yet another round of fireworks exploding down her spine. It was over all too quickly, and Beca blinked with confusion and disappointment, charged arousal once again thumping through her body. (Seriously, did Chloe have that much power over her? Jesus.) Beca shamelessly watched as a naked Chloe rolled away from her and stood to collect her clothes. Slower to move, Beca followed suit, choosing her cleaned regular outfit of ripped jeans and her black t-shirt, shoving her feet into socks and her tall boots before slinging her hunting rifle over her shoulder. She waited a couple minutes after Chloe slipped out before taking the back staircase leading toward the rear entrance of the manor, setting out for her hunt.

Meanwhile, Stacie had risen before anyone, not having gotten much sleep last night what with her two and a half hours of watch duty plus Emily bursting into her room for help. She yawned into the crook of her arm as she sorted through the cleaned dishes from last night, wanting to make sure everything was in order so they could have breakfast together before setting off to handle their individual tasks to better fortify the mansion.

*

Warmth curled in the pit of Chloe’s stomach when Beca recovered from her surprise and instantly reciprocated that kiss, even if it had to be woefully brief. She hadn't heard any stirring out in the hallway beyond Beca's room yet, but she knew they might be pressing their luck with any further delays. Her laughter buoyed her spirits and carried her through as she hastily pulled her shirt and pajamas pants back on (laughter was easier to focus on than desire when they really had no time at the moment, after all, and that squeak from Beca was sure to earn some teasing in the future if it ever came up again). While Beca was dressing and preparing for the day, Chloe cracked the door enough to check in the hallway and then slipped out of the room with a departing wink and a jaunty two-finger salute. She made hasty work of creeping quietly down the hallway to the room she had claimed as her own, although it had very much gone unused the night before. Nobody had to know that though.

It didn't take long to change into jeans and a t-shirt of her own, hopping around the room with dubious grace as she tugged on socks and pulled her hair into a messy bun. The last step was shoving her feet into her well-worn boots before she flounced back out of her room and down the stairs. The house was still quiet and undisturbed in the early morning haze as she reached the ground floor--perhaps eerily so, if not for the knowledge that her closest friends filled the other rooms of the house.

Her trek carried her into the kitchen, and mild surprise etched across her features when Stacie was already there sorting through dishes. "Morning, Stace." Her tone was chipper and breezy as she unfroze from her spot in the doorway and strolled further into the kitchen, stretching her arms languidly over her head as she fought back a yawn. "You're up early. I thought you'd sleep in a bit more after you were on watch last night."

*

“Morning, hot stuff,” Stacie called back, and while it wasn’t an uncommon nickname to fling Chloe’s way, this time it was paired with a suspicious look. (Especially since Red looked waaay too damn happy, okay? Stacie appreciated the shampoo and full meal and actual bed with privacy as much as anyone else, but she wasn’t practically glowing.) She continued wiping down the plates one by one, stacking each methodically. “Mmm… y’know, I’d hoped to sleep in, but I had something of a restless night. When I was walking up the stairs Emily popped out of her room completely spooked, said she could hear ghosts moaning in the walls. So, ya know--I didn’t want the kid to be totally afraid, though I’d check under her bed and in the closet and assure her they were monster-free. But when I went to investigate… you’ll never believe it, Chlo--there were ghosts moaning in the wall.” She dropped her jaw in a faux expression of shock. “I wonder if Beca heard the ghosts, too--that was Beca’s room, wasn’t it?”

*

As Chloe flitted her way across the kitchen, she didn't catch the suspicious look from Stacie, so she thought nothing of the nickname. She busied herself with grabbing a few more bottled waters and setting them on the countertop as she listened to Stacie, her attention half-drifting until the full implication of Stacie's story crashed into her and she froze for a conspicuous moment. By the time she recovered, she could feel heat crawling up her face and neck, and she cleared her throat when she realized she'd probably been a beat too slow in responding. "Really? That's--so weird. But you know, sometimes old houses like this, they make the weirdest noises--the house settling and all. It can really mess with your head...I'll bet Emily just got spooked." The entire time she spoke, Chloe was very focused on searching through the food rations they'd uncovered in search of something to start fixing for breakfast, purposely never lifting her gaze to look at Stacie. There were only so many times she could convincingly look at the same canned goods over and over though, so she eventually dared a glance over at Stacie. She knew exactly where Stacie's question was leading, and in response, she contorted her features in the best show of thoughtful consideration she could muster. The nonchalant shrug she offered after a deliberate beat was also totes convincing. "I dunno, maybe? I didn't--pay much attention to which rooms everyone claimed last night." It wasn't exactly an Oscar-worthy performance--Chloe had never been an especially convincing liar. Not to mention the fact that her face lit up bright red like a glowing neon sign, but she quickly spun back around to needlessly organize some of the canned goods again in an attempt to conceal that.

*

Stacie kept her eyes on Chloe’s profile, noting the extreme focus on the food rations and those canned goods and the coloring of her skin as she rambled some lame-ass deflection. At least Stacie had the good sense to keep her voice low, even though they hadn’t heard any footsteps and it was pretty obvious they were alone for now. “Oh come on, Red. That’s how you wanna play it? I’m gonna have to work for the dirty deets after you and the grumpy shrimp kept me up all hot and bothered?” Okay, so the wolfish grin paired with a wink she shot back at Chloe was a little much, but Stacie Conrad couldn’t really help it when it came to living vicariously through other people getting laid because she certainly wasn’t--which, you know, just wasn’t fair.

*

Chloe hadn't really been able to convince herself that Stacie would accept her answer at face value, but some small, distant part of her had hoped maybe she would. No such luck, apparently. Her nose scrunched with distaste at Stacie's words, and she snagged up the cloth Stacie had been using to wipe down the dishes and tossed it at her face. "Ew, Stacie, were you listening?" Of course, realization was a split second too late in coming as she basically confirmed Stacie's suspicions with that question. Dammit. Even though no one else seemed to have stirred yet in the house, she anxiously peered past Stacie's shoulder towards the entrance of the kitchen. When no sounds or signs of the rest of their group were forthcoming, she leaned in and pitched her voice low in her imploring plea. "You can't say anything, Stace. Please."

*

Stacie cackled when Chloe all but confessed, grabbing the thrown dish cloth from her face before it fell to the floor. “Um, duh? Who wouldn’t? That shit was totally hot.” She spun so her back was pressed against the counter, gripping the edge with both hands and tossing her head back. “Oh, god, Beca, pleeease,” she whined in her very best Chloe voice before dissolving into another fit of giggles and bracing herself for another whack with a towel or maybe even a can this time--she’d gladly accept that punishment, but this opportunity was too good to turn down. “Oh relax, babe. My lips are sealed.” With an all-too-pleased grin plastered on her face now that she knew for sure with confirmation, she continued her work wiping down the dishes. “It’s always the quiet ones, huh? I didn’t take Annie Oakley for a tiger in the sack but damn.” She shot Chloe a side glance. “Or were you just that desperate and the performance was average? Because I could totes see that, too.”

*

Although she narrowed her eyes at Stacie in a totally unconvincing glare, she felt heat creep up her body that had very little to do with her embarrassed blush from a moment before. It had been hot (dammit, traitorous body, chill out!). "Oh my god, you're such a creeper." None of them were even surprised by now, Stacie and her perving were practically legendary. Then again, most of them hadn't had many opportunities for private trysts like that, so being overheard by Stacie was a new kind of teasing from the other girl. The blush on her cheeks flared back into vivid, prominent life when Stacie moaned and whined her way through an all-too-enthusiastic impression of Chloe the night before. She was suddenly very sorry that she'd thrown the dish cloth at Stacie, because she wanted to snap her with the cloth in retaliation. "Stacie, oh my god, shut up," she hissed, anxious eyes flickering back over to the entryway that led out of the kitchen and back towards the living room and staircase. Although she trusted Stacie to keep her word and the secret, the last thing she needed was for anyone who overhear that and jump to conclusions (not that their conclusions would necessarily be incorrect, but whatever). Stacie's fishing expedition for salacious details only earned her a roll of Chloe's eyes. "Don't be shameless just because you're not currently getting any," she retorted breezily, arching a pointed eyebrow and flashing a smirk at Stacie.

*

Most of the girls were too easy to rile up, though Chloe had always been a pretty good sport. “Shameless is my middle name, Beale,” Stacie reminded Chloe, leaning over for a slight hip check. “My hellibacy situation’s getting pretty dire though, it’s true. I’d probably fuck a clicker if he had no teeth.” She mirrored that smirk right back, lowering her voice even more because she definitely wasn’t kidding about wanting a play-by-play (not that she thought she’d actually get that much out of Chloe, but it was worth a try). “Soooo? Was it as good as it sounded through drywall? Are you guys gonna get down and dirty again? Will I need to make my room switch with Emily permanent so I get some more decent deejaying material?”

*

Although she was accustomed to Stacie being shameless the majority of the time, she felt strangely protective of the night she'd spent with Beca. Maybe that was borne from a desire to keep it secret so they didn't hurt anyone like Jesse (she knew they were over, but it still might sting to know that Beca had been with Chloe so soon after that), or maybe it was because she didn't even remotely know what exactly it was between them. At least not in any sort of concrete, defined way. Her nose wrinkled and her expression twisted with disgust at Stacie's remark about a clicker, a horrified sound catching at the back of her throat. "Eugh, Stacie, that's so gross." Even though Stacie was obviously joking, that mental image was not appreciated. She rolled her eyes when Stacie persisted in her search for details about their tryst, although the beginnings of a smile peeked at the corners of her mouth when her lips twitched in an attempt to hide it. "It was good. Like--really good. Great. Awesome." She was grinning more fully then, because it was admittedly nice to actually be able to talk about it with one of her friends, even if Stacie was salacious. And sure enough, Stacie's last question earned a sharp nudge from Chloe's elbow and a roll of her eyes. "Well it's definitely not gonna happen in there again now that I know you're listening!"

*

“Aw c'mon, don't be a spoilsport! Gotta get my kicks somehow.” She chuckled. “Hey, real talk, Red.” Stacie reached out to take Chloe's upper arm, still grinning. “I'm jealous as hell, but I'm legit happy for you.” She gave her friend an encouraging squeeze before returning to her task. “You should probably tone down the chipperness about eighty notches if you don't want anyone else to know as soon as they see you though.” Stacie had no problem keeping Chloe's secret, but she couldn't stop others from picking up on Chloe's freshly fucked vibe. Not that the others had a sixth sense for that like Stacie had, but they'd be able to tell something was up, and Chloe wasn't the best liar. She blinked when another curious thought hit her. “Does this mean the grumpy shrimp is gonna be less grumpy now that she's gonna be getting boned on the reg, too?”

*

"Sorry, Stace, you're gonna have to get your kicks somewhere else." Actually, maybe it was a bad idea to give Stacie that kind of motivation, but...there was really no dissuading her anyway. A slight brow furrow of confusion appeared at Stacie's sudden change in tack, but a sunny smile blossomed as soon as she realized the sentiment that Stacie was sharing with her. "Thanks, Stacie. That means a lot." And it did, especially since she couldn't talk about it openly in front of the group, but it was encouraging to know she had Stacie on her side. Her teeth caught at her bottom lip and her nose scrunched with a sheepish look when Stacie called out her peppiness though. If it seemed excessive even for Chloe, then she probably did need to tone it down. "That obvious, huh?" Even though the others weren't as fixated on that particular subject as Stacie, she didn't want to practically be walking around with a glowing, blinking sign over her head that gave it away. "Stacie! I don't even know what's going on with us, so stop saying it's gonna be happening on the reg." (A gal could hope though, right?) Still, it seemed better to clarify that to Stacie now, considering Beca and Chloe hadn't exactly discussed...whatever this was, beyond saying they'd both enjoyed it. "And maybe she'd be less grumpy if you stopped calling her the grumpy shrimp."

*

“Slim pickings, Chlo. Slim pickings. And I don’t call her that to her face.” Loud enough behind her back, but whatever. It was always affectionate--Stacie had always been a nicknamer. If she didn’t give you a nickname, that meant you weren’t good people. And despite Beca’s chronic grumpiness, she was still good people. Especially if she somehow made one of her closest friends that freakin’ happy, jeez. “I’m just gonna remain hopeful that whenever we leave here, we find a settlement full of hot, virile men. And I will do whomever it takes to secure us spots this time.” It would be quite a sacrifice for sure.

Bare feet padded into the massive mansion kitchen carrying Emily, with her pajama pants flooding above her ankles and her messy bun askew. “G’morning,” she mumbled, wiping the sleep from her eyes. “Can I help?”

“You sleep better after we swapped rooms, Em?” Stacie looked the girl over. “You look pretty well rested…”

Emily nodded. “Mhm. No ghosts in that room. Thanks, Stacie.”

“Anytime, kid.” She cast a secret side-glance at Stacie. “Anytime.”

*

Her stomach churned with newfound anxiety when Stacie mentioned the prospect of them leaving the mansion sometime in the future. Although that had always been the plan from the start, she felt tendrils of guilt creep up her spine now that she knew Beca's secret and knew that at least part of their group would splinter whenever they managed to find a new, more permanent shelter and Beca would leave to pick up her mission once again. She could always count of Stacie to distract her with some inappropriate comment though, and she didn't disappoint now as Chloe grimaced at her remark. "Don't you mean whatever it takes?" She didn't. Chloe knew she didn't. But it was still worth a shot.

The subject was quickly dropped as soon as Emily shuffled into the room though. Chloe didn't want her overhearing about "hot, virile men" or what Stacie planned to do to them, especially after they'd dodged a bullet when Emily hadn't realized what she overheard the night before. "Morning, Em," she replied in greeting, reaching over with warm affection to smooth away a flyaway strand of hair that had escaped from Emily's bun.

She reined in the playful glare she wanted to shoot Stacie when she brought up the sounds Emily had overheard the night before. "Yeah, Stacie mentioned that. There's nothing to worry about, Em. I'm sure it won't happen again," she reassured with a smile.

Not wanting to dwell on that, she gave Emily's arm a quick squeeze. "C'mon, we'll get started on breakfast. I'm sure people will start getting up soon." Without waiting for an answer, she turned back to sort through their food options to find something for breakfast. For real this time, rather than just trying to avoid Stacie's interrogation.

*

The next few days saw the crew taking advantage of every ounce of daylight in an attempt to repair years’ worth of man-made and elemental damage to the structures protecting the mansion. Beca had to admit to herself that she sorely underestimated the sorority girls’ carpentry skills as well as their overall resourcefulness. Everyone pitched in, and aside from a few verbal sparring matches when Beca and Aubrey disagreed on how to go about something, they accomplished their task--lower windows had been reboarded, the gate surrounding the property had been patched, the locks on the doors repaired and reinforced. Cynthia Rose and Stacie managed to work out the filtering system hook-up for the well, so they were able to pump filtered water directly onto the property. Beca’s hunts proved bountiful and they prepared full meals with wild boar and turkey.

Nighttimes found the girls and Jesse well-fed, washed off, relaxing in their borrowed pajamas, and drinking and laughing together (and busting on each other, as per usual). Some boozed harder than others with the stash they’d found in the private bunker that first day, and they rotated watch shifts to make sure everyone got enough sleep. And unbeknownst to the rest of the group, Beca slipped into Chloe’s room each night and they wore each other out in the best way. Beca thought the more she experienced that intense sexual connection with Chloe, the more satiated she’d feel during the day, but that wasn’t the case. As days passed, she found herself craving Chloe more and more, and not solely for the physical release (always intense and somewhat frantic, which only made it hotter, in Beca’s opinion); weirdly enough for Beca, she also yearned for that quiet, private intimate time after, when they lay together with limbs entangled, sweaty and spent, or when they both woke in the mornings to sleepily talk and cuddle, where Beca let herself be vulnerable and cared for and and all the things she’d spent so long running from. Chloe made Beca feel lighter than she had in as long as she could remember, and she found herself loosening up around the other girls, too, initiating conversations and checking in on them more and participating in their group discussions (usually with a sarcastic barb or cynical comment here and there, but still--progress!).

On the sixth day, while most of the girls washed up after dinner and prepared for another night of relaxing and bonding, Beca decided to run a small exploratory mission with an hour or so until sunset. She knew it was maybe risky, singling out Chloe out of all of them, but she approached her anyway, unable to pass up the potential opportunity. “Hey. I’m gonna take a walk down to the village, see if I can salvage anything left behind in the shops and stuff. Wanna come with?”

*

The mansion proved to need a lot of hard work, but it was heartening to see the different reinforcements shape up with each passing day. It had already proved to be a huge boon for them in terms of shelter, and Chloe could tell that the girls felt more confident about their fortifications with each project that was seen through to completion. Their first night in the mansion had been dominated by their excitement and looking forward to sleeping in individual rooms and enjoying the creature comforts provided by the more lavish accommodations, but after they indulged in that initial fun with the booze they'd found that first night, they all buckled down and put in the work necessary to make the mansion more sustainable during their stay. None of the girls shied away from the work ahead of them, and by now, they all worked together like a well-oiled machine. Beca, Jesse, and Amy seemed to be integrated into that work dynamic fairly seamlessly, and with direction and oversight from both Beca and Aubrey--as well as the expertise of several people in different areas--they had started to see real progress.

Of course, the group were big proponents of the old 'work hard, play hard' adage. Their definition of 'play' might have been a little different these days, as dictated by their circumstances and the fact that they were all pretty wiped out by the end of each day, but it didn't stop them from unwinding with booze and warm camaraderie. And Chloe hadn't even been sure if they'd be able to steal more time and privacy for themselves (especially after both Emily and Stacie overheard them, although obviously only Stacie understood what she'd heard), but as soon as Beca slipped into her room in return the second night, they fell into an easy pattern. They didn't have to worry about Stacie being suspicious or listening in anymore since Beca picked up the habit of creeping down the hall to her room instead, and Chloe seized the chance without even a second thought.

Maybe she should have felt weirder about sneaking around from the rest of the group, but it was difficult to muster that reticence when each brush and encounter with Beca seemed to fuel the fire (if she was being entirely honest, she stopped even trying to question herself the second that Beca slipped into her room at night). There was no time or energy left for that kind of introspection when she seemed to be addicted to learning each and every reaction she could draw from Beca until they eventually collapsed spent against one another. And while the sex itself could be frantic and urgent at times (definitely no complaints there), it wasn't like they got what they needed from each other and then went their separate ways. Although Beca had already surprised her with the things she'd confided in her, she still spent every moment curled up in bed with her talking or listening with rapt attention. It was a side of Beca that most of the world didn't get to see, those quiet, sheltered moments where her voice was softer and the lines and angles of her face smoothed away into a more peaceful expression. Despite the dangers of the world, Chloe couldn't help thinking that it was the most content she'd felt in longer than she could really recall.

Chloe had just finished carrying the last stack of dishes into the kitchen to the girls who were washing up when Beca approached her. Most of the girls were busy chattering among themselves as they cleaned up from dinner, but Chloe didn't spare a glance to see if any of them had taken notice of Beca asking her specifically to accompany her. "Yeah, of course. I'd love a chance to stretch my legs." See? Totally plausible reason. Never mind the fact that they'd all been working for the better part of the day and she'd done plenty of physical activity, whatever. She grabbed her hoodie off of the back of the couch where she'd tossed it earlier and tugged it on as she headed for the door. Although they'd been enjoying the lingering summer warmth during the day, she didn't want to run the risk of getting chilly if the sun started to set while they were out. "Do we need anything before we head out? Want me to grab a backpack in case we find anything worthwhile?"

*

“Nah, I got it.” Beca patted the empty messenger bag she’d strapped around her body, ignoring the knowing, lingering looks from Stacie and Cynthia Rose as they headed toward the front door. Beca grabbed her shotgun she’d leaned against the wall there for easy pickup and strapped it across her chest in the other direction, the double barrel pointing downward along her back. Anticipating no problems as they’d had a relatively quiet almost-week in Weston, she left her rifle by the door for extra protection for the rest of them and opened the door for Chloe. The almost autumnal chill in the air didn’t bother Beca, but she’d left her leather jacket draped over the seat of her bike in the garage where they’d parked their vehicles. There hadn’t been a need to wear it since they arrived, with most of their outdoor time happening during the day. She cranked the mechanism they’d assembled to unlock the gate, holding it open for Chloe and watching it click back into place. Stacie’s ingenuity was seriously impressive.

As they set off down the long driveway and toward the main road that wound down toward the deserted town, Beca cast Chloe a side-glance with an accompanying grin. She wasn’t sure what to say since she wasn’t used to getting any sort of alone time while the sun was up, which she knew was stupid to think but it felt different, somehow, now that they were… whatever they were.

*

Chloe’s handgun was still holstered at her hip and a knife was tucked into the leg strap sheath around her thigh from where she'd worn them while they'd all been working outside earlier--the week had been quiet and peaceful, but that didn't negate the ingrained instinct to have a weapon at hand if something happened--so when Beca reassured her that they didn't need another bag, she immediately headed for the door. As they trekked out onto the porch, she drew in a deep, cleansing breath of fresh air and let a hint of a smile dance across her face. Although it had been hard, gratifying work to repair and fortify the mansion, she knew they'd all benefited from a quiet week without any threats or the underlying tension that came from traveling on the road and always being vigilant. She wasn't looking forward to the approach of colder weather, but for now, she was enjoying the breeze and diminished heat of the day that tempered how oppressive the summer heat had been at times. She flashed Beca a grateful smile when she held the gate open for her, taking a moment to survey the sprawling driveway that segued into the road further down. She hadn't revisited the town since their initial drive through it on their way to the mansion, so she was curious to see if there was anything worth salvaging.

The chance to spend some time with Beca definitely didn't hurt either. She felt Beca's eyes on her, so she turned her head to meet her with a smile of her own. She walked close enough to Beca that their arms and the backs of their hands occasionally brushed, and after the first few times, she gently reached over to loosely tangle their fingers together. "This okay? Your badass rep isn't in any danger if no one's around to see it," she teased warmly with another sidelong smile. The weather was lovely, the road before them had a quiet tranquility to it, and Beca was at her side; she couldn't think of a nicer way to while away the last of the sunlight for the day.

*

It was pretty obscene how Chloe somehow made Beca feel like a nervous middle schooler again, as though she were crushing hard on the popular girl she didn’t think she had a shot in hell with ever. But at least she was pretty sure at this point that her feelings were reciprocated. The side-effects of those feelings themselves--the fluttering butterflies in her stomach, the electricity at the barest brushes of skin, the urge to smile so damn much in her presence--they were so polar opposite of everything else she’d been feeling before she met Chloe, it was as if her brain and body didn’t really know how to process it all. (It was a decent, totally valid excuse as to why she was so damn awkward, in Beca’s mind.) In fact, when Chloe’s hand brushed hers a couple times, she’d been working up the courage to hold her hand when Chloe initiated first. Beca’s grin twisted into one of her smirks and she shrugged. “Even if they did see it--I could just claim you’re suddenly contagious.”

*

Maybe it should have felt stranger to be feeling like this with Beca in the midst of the daily realities they faced and everything that worked against all of them now. But when it was just the two of them and she was able to simply bask in Beca's company, none of that other stuff seemed to be able to encroach on the time they shared and the bubble of private connection that Chloe was happy to let surround them. Besides, Chloe was a big supporter of the idea that they all deserved to find things that could make each day seem more bearable to get through, things that brought them moments of happiness and light that helped beat back the darkness when it sometimes all seemed like too much. The girls very much occupied that place for her (as well as Jesse and Amy more recently), but she was quickly learning that Beca did too, although in her own, different way. When Beca didn't pull away, she laced their fingers together more securely, palm pressing warmly against Beca's. She should've known something like it was coming when Beca's smile shifted into a telltale smirk, but she still laughed brightly at her remark. "Suddenly contagious? That's your strategy here? Interesting choice, I guess."

*

Beca grew instantly paranoid that her palms were sweaty, but the heat there only spread from the pressing together of their skin. She squeezed back, silently confirming that she very much wanted to hold Chloe’s hand, too. No matter how much of a jerk she seemed otherwise. That bright laugh was quickly becoming one of Beca’s favorite sounds (second only another type of sound she’d managed to wring from Chloe each night). “Yeah, I mean… you did bite me a few times.” Okay, so maybe that joke took things a step too far, both as a clicker reference and callback to the beyond amazing feeling of Chloe’s teeth grazing and nibbling over her bare flesh over the past few nights, the memory sending a sudden wave of heat flaring across her skin.

*

Even something as a simple as a squeeze of her fingers from Beca was enough to draw a smile from her, blue eyes sliding over to study her profile. It startled another laugh from her when Beca so blatantly referenced the way they'd spent their stolen nights lately, even as she felt heat spread through her in a slow roll. "Hey, I don't remember hearing you complain about it at the time." Quite the opposite, in fact (Chloe would know, she'd most definitely committed every moan and plea to memory). "So, what, I'm a different kind of contagious that suddenly makes you more okay with PDA?" She thought with fond amusement that it probably would take some strange infection for Beca to be into something like that. When a breeze stirred, she drew another deep breath in and released it on a contented sigh. Aside from the lack of traffic filling the streets, she could almost have pretended that they were on a peaceful, casual stroll, rather than making a salvage run in an abandoned town. "It's weird...some days, some moments almost feel normal."

*

It was easier for Beca to blame infectious diseases on her weirdness and awkwardness than her general personality, so she ran with that reasoning and decided to stick to it, even though she knew Chloe saw right through her. “Nope, never complaining. Definitely not. Wouldn’t dream of it. No way.” One hundred percent okay with the biting, in case that wasn’t clear. “I guess I wouldn’t care that much about… I dunno, someone seeing this--” She raised their joined hands for a moment as they walked. “--if it didn’t feel a little too soon for Jesse, y’know? But I’m not, like… embarrassed or anything. Just, uh--more private with this sorta stuff?” She had her reasons, but she hoped Chloe didn’t think she was a total dick or anything. She wasn’t exactly super experienced, either, and figured she’d likely fuck it all up sooner rather than later. She bit down on her lower lip to shut herself up for a moment so Chloe could keep talking, an excuse to cast another side-glance her way. Really, any excuse to look at Chloe seemed like a good one. “So… walking around holding someone’s hand in a creepy deserted town is normal for you?” She smirked again to show she was mostly joking, though she was curious about what she meant and gave her hand another little squeeze, hoping she’d elaborate.

*

Chloe knew she was in real trouble, because even Beca's mini ramble was adorable to her. "Good, I was hoping you wouldn't." A quick sidelong wink accompanied her teasing comment. "Yeah, of course, I know. I wouldn't ever want to do anything to throw it in Jesse's face or make him uncomfortable. I'm just messing with you, Bec. Private is totes cool with me." Even though they hadn't discussed exactly what was going on between them, Chloe also didn't want to be insensitive by parading it around in front of the rest of the group either, especially when a few of them like Stacie had already lamented their forced celibacy. Granted, Stacie already knew about their little secret, but Chloe didn't think it was prudent to make it known to the entire group right now. She already knew her observation probably sounded strange, so naturally, Beca couldn't pass up a chance to tease her about it. "Shut up, smart aleck," she said with a soft snort of laughter and a roll of her eyes. She didn't take any of it to heart though, obviously, so the squeeze from Beca's hand was enough to spur her swirling thoughts out into the open. "I just mean--y'know, other than there not being any cars driving by on the road, it could almost just be a nice evening walk. Just holding a cute girl's hand and strolling, I dig that." She knew that probably sounded more than a little ridiculous, so the eye roll that followed was self-deprecating and aimed at herself this time, although she cast a crooked little smile over at Beca.

*

Chloe’s winks never failed to send a pleasant shiver up Beca’s spine and she reached across her body to grip Chloe’s forearm for a moment, flashing an appreciative grin when she reassured her they were on the same page yet again. “Smart aleck? You cut me deep.” Beca secretly thought it was adorable that Chloe didn’t really curse. It also made it even hotter when she let one slip in Beca’s presence, especially remembering how she’d elicited those hard-earned swears for her ears only. The memory sparked another fuse that crackled inside, but she shoved it aside because they actually had a mission to accomplish this time. “Yeah? So you dig me, huh?” Beca couldn’t resist teasing right back, shooting another look her way. “That’s pretty dope.” Okay, so maybe Chloe was talking about the situational factors at play here rather than her, but whatever. She couldn’t exactly think straight when Chloe pinned smiles like that on her without warning.

*

Beca's hand on her arm, no matter how brief, elicited another smile from her, partly because it still astounded her how much Beca had relaxed in her presence since they'd first met. "I knew it would. I hope that really makes you think about what you've done." Chloe had never been particularly prone to cursing, but she'd also found herself purposely tempering the impulse at times for Emily's sake (not that it probably did much good, considering some of the girls could curse a streak that would put a sailor to shame). Beca definitely had a particular talent for coaxing those curses from her, among plenty of other sounds. Now probably wasn't the best time to dwell on that though, despite the uncooperative ripple of pleasurable remembrance that crept its way through her. She barely managed to bite back the smile that wanted to appear the instant that Beca looked at her and posed that question. "I mean, you're alright. Pretty cool. Whatever." Her tone was breezy and almost nonchalant, but her cheeks dimpled with a grin and she bumped Beca's shoulder with her own as they walked. A quick flash of amusement painted its way across her features as she lightly turned the teasing back on Beca. "So...pretty dope?"

*

“Yeah, totes. I’m really quaking in my boots, Chlo.” Beca wondered if maybe she caught a head injury she wasn’t aware of since she never thought she’d find someone as soft and sweet and sunnily dispositioned as Chloe adorable, but there she was. Completely weak for the ginger girl with no shot at recovery. “Alright, pretty cool… yeah, that’s accurate enough, I’ll accept that.” The teasing look shot back at her made Beca chuckle, shrugging. People totally still said dope, okay? “Mhm… the dopest.” She tugged Chloe toward one of the first shops she spotted, peering inside through the busted glass window before pulling open the door. Shards crunched under her boots as she scanned what was once a clothing store, the few items left over scattered about the shelves and on the floor in disarray. Beca released Chloe’s hand once she caught sight of-- “Oh hell yeah.” She took a few strides toward a shelf and plucked a gray and red snapback, shoving it onto her head slightly askew. “This is also dope. And now it’s mine.” Beca rarely claimed found items for herself unless necessary, and the hat maybe wasn’t super necessary because she had the sunglasses still, but whatever.

*

"I knew you would be. Don't underestimate my intimidation factor." The fact that someone like Beca would indulge her weird nerdiness was kind of amazing, and she made sure to never take those moments for granted. It went without saying that she understood that it was a rare concession from Beca, if she had her guess. "Gotta keep you humble, Becs," she pointed out in a sing song tone. If anything, she was just having to suppress her own natural enthusiasm that could be kind of...intense. In reality, she had very little (if any) chill where Beca was concerned. "Hmm...dopest. Sounds good to me." She followed Beca's prompting without a moment's hesitation (no surprise there), and the sun was still high enough in the sky to cast light into the interior of the shop through the busted storefront window. She was only a step behind Beca as they ventured into the abandoned shop, and her gaze was searching and curious as it swept over the disheveled interior of the store and the shelves and racks that had been left a scattered mess in the wake of whoever had scavenged here. Beca's voice and the sudden absence of her hand in Chloe's pulled her focus over, and a smile blossomed when she looked over to find Beca enthusiastically tugging a snapback onto her head. "Very cute." She seemed to catch herself, leaning in with a smile to amend herself. "I mean--dope. So, were you actually a Cardinals fan back in the day, or are you just feeling the hat?" She grinned and reached up to give the brim of the hat a playful tug.

*

“Humble is my middle name, Chlo.” The back-and-forth nicknames seemed to be a thing now, and Beca rolled her eyes, pretending to be exasperated but really finding it amusing. (Seriously, why was everything Chloe said and did adorable? This was quickly becoming a problem and she damn well knew it, but she definitely didn’t want it to stop.) Beca snorted. “That’s right, it’s not cute it’s badass.” Seriously, in what world was a snapback hat cute? In Chloe’s weird, too sunshiny world, apparently. After Chloe tugged the brim, Beca reached up to spin the hat around backwards. “I’m definitely feeling the hat. I never gave a single shit about football.” (Or baseball either, clearly…)

“C’mon, let’s see what we can find before we need to whip out the flashlights.” Much as Beca definitely wanted to steal a kiss or two, she resisted for the responsible reason of wanting to conserve flashlight battery. Plus, they’d have more time to themselves behind closed doors soon enough. She scanned the shelves and found a few pairs of socks left behind, along with a scarf and set of mittens, shoving them into her crossbody bag to bring back for the others. Rounding a corner, she spotted a pair of shoes left behind, crouching to examine them. “Hey, didn’t Flo say she needed boots?” Beca held up a pair of black logger boots. “Size seven… might work for her, right?”

*

"Beca Humble Mitchell, I had no idea," Chloe mused with exaggerated thoughtfulness, her index finger pointedly tapping against her lips as she gave a hum of contemplation. Beca's reaction and insistence were to be expected when she agreed with Chloe's correction, and her lips pressed into a thin line to hide a smile. "My bad, I really meant badass all along. Just got tongue-tied, obviously." (Beca could insist whatever she liked about her reputation and how the hat suited it, but Chloe thought she was rocking the snapback look regardless. Especially when she turned it around backwards.) She snorted a poorly contained laugh when Beca misidentified the Cardinals as a football team. "Really? It doesn't show at all," she pointed out, although the laughter that lurked at the edges of her voice probably gave her away.

At Beca's prompting, Chloe sidestepped as much of the broken glass as she could as she crept further into the depths of the store. She snagged a misshapen ball of fabric that had been shoved to the back of a shelf, which turned out to be a beanie with a pair of gloves rolled up inside of it. Okay, so maybe it wasn't as adorable as Beca's snapback, but at least it would help keep someone warm in the impending colder weather. She followed Beca's voice around the corner, stepping close to tuck the beanie and gloves into Beca's messenger bag before she examined the boots Beca had discovered. "Definitely, Flo will love it. We lucked out with those." Clothes could be made to work for different sizes, but shoes were obviously trickier. Further into the store, several racks had been upended and knocked over, probably in someone's haste to raid the store and then get out quickly. She crouched next to them, carefully lifting some of the jumbled metal racks to search the few items of clothing that had been pinned beneath it during whatever chaos had swept through this store.

*

“Yeah, that’s it.” Humble was definitely better than the real thing at least. (Almost anything was.) “So what’s your middle name, then?” Beca shoved the boots for Flo into her bag and peered at Chloe across the store. “Is it Chloe Sunshine Smiles Beale?” Though she was clearly joking, she genuinely did want to know. She found herself wanting to learn as much about Chloe as she possibly could. Beca shot an empty glare across the store when she laughed about the football thing, figuring she’d gotten it wrong, but whatever. Sports were dumb. The hat, though… the hat was totally a keeper. “Find anything good over there?” Most of the store had obviously been picked clean, but at least they’d found a few items that could work to supplement what they already had. Beca moved behind the counter and searched the drawers, taking a few random items that might prove useful at some point--a couple sharpies, a handful of paperclips, half a roll of masking tape, some rubber bands. They were losing sunlight quicker than Beca hoped, so she rummaged through the rest of the drawers faster. “We might have to come back tomorrow to check out the other shops… good to know there’s some decent salvage here and it’s not totally bone dry.”

*

Chloe had started to meander her way back through the store when Beca asked about her middle name, and she turned with an exaggeratedly surprised look and a hand over her heart. "How did you know? Wow, you're really good at this." She went back to picking her way through the remainders of the store, but she paused to throw a quick smile over her shoulder at Beca. "You made me sound like a Care Bear, by the way. But it's Allison." Curiosity got the best of her, and she cast a wondering glance over at Beca while they worked their respective way around the store. "What about yours?" Considering how much of an enigma Beca could be at times, she tried to imagine what middle name might suit her. She did catch the glare that she earned for the football thing though, which only brightened her own smile in return. She managed to extract a few articles of clothing from the small pile that had been trapped beneath the toppled mess of racks, and she scooped them up in her arms to return to Beca. "I got a t-shirt and a plaid shirt, a pair of jeans--these might fit Jesse, actually." She held each item up in succession as she listed them, before Beca's observation drew her attention back towards the busted storefront window. The sun was starting to dip behind the buildings on the other side of the street, and she knew it wouldn't be too long before dusk fell over them. "Do you think we should go ahead and call it a night and head back?" Even though they'd had peace and quiet for almost a whole week, she'd long ago developed the impulse to feel more on edge whenever nighttime fell.

*

“I mean you’re basically a Care Bear in human form, soooo… wasn’t much of a stretch.” She tossed a wink back at Chloe, though it was definitely way less effective than Chloe’s mastered winks. Allison. “Chloe Allison Beale,” Beca considered the full name after testing it out, nodding in approval. (Not like Chloe asked for her approval, but whatever.) “Yeah, that fits.” She couldn’t explain it, it just felt right. When she turned the tables and asked Beca her middle name, Beca shook her head. “Sorry Chlo, that one’s locked in the maximum security vault. I’ll answer pretty much anything else you wanna know though.” She did feel a little bad, but the middle name thing… so terrible. As Chloe listed off all the garments she’d found around the shop, Beca held open the bag. “Cool, yeah, we did pretty okay for one night. Let’s head back.” They could’ve rummaged around the other shops with flashlights, but Beca knew when not to push it, and staying out after dark without much protection wasn’t worth the risk.

*

"Just what every girl dreams of hearing," Chloe said with a dreamy sigh, clasping her hands in front of her chest and fluttering her eyelashes in the most ridiculously over-the-top way. Yep, definitely helping her case there. She found herself studying Beca's features as she processed Chloe's middle name, seemingly rolling the name around in her head before she tried it out for herself. "Glad to know you approve." Her soft laughter quickly cut off into a scandalized scoff when Beca declined the question in return. "No fair! Come on, maximum security vault? You know that just makes me more curious...rude." Her grumbling wasn't even in the realm of convincing, especially when she stepped close to tuck those new articles of clothing into Beca's bag and flashed a grin at Beca in that close proximity. It was only the impending nightfall that kept her from getting distracted when she was standing that close to Beca. Although she considered Beca to be much more capable than her out here in the open like this and with her survival skills, she wasn't surprised that even Beca was ready to head back before the sun completely set. You could never tell what might be lurking just beyond the beam of your flashlight in the dark. She headed back towards the front of the shop, and in trying to sidestep some of the larger shards of glass and debris that littered the floor, she bumped into an old mannequin near the door, the fabric yellowed with age and long since stripped bare of whatever garments it had once displayed. It went clattering against some of the shelves before hitting the floor, and every muscle in Chloe's body seized with instinctive fear at the noises that sounded deafening in the otherwise quiet shop. She scarcely dared to breathe for a long, frozen moment, ears straining for any noises that emanated from beyond the shop where they stood.

"Jeez, that thing's creepy." She finally spoke after a tense moment, casting an uneasy look at the mannequin as she stepped through the door that had been left standing open behind them when they'd first arrived--

Only to stop dead in her tracks when a resonant, unmistakable clicking rattled the air somewhere further down the street. Adrenaline flooded through her system, her heart instantly hammering a frantic staccato that pounded in her ears. Her head whipped around instinctively towards the sound, although it echoed oddly and bounced between the buildings along the eerily deserted main street of the town. The clicking grew louder, and it was only a beat later that a clicker skittered around the corner of a building further down the sidewalk in a jerky, frantic run. Chloe's hand snapped upward instinctively to cover her mouth and muffle the gasp that hitched in her throat, while her other hand grasped the front of Beca's shirt as she ducked back into the doorway of the shop, blue eyes wide and petrified at the sudden appearance of the clicker. God, what if there were more of them? Please let there only be one, please let there only be one...her hand strayed past her gun at her hip to reach for the knife at her thigh instead, in case there were more and the sound of a gunshot would attract them. She slowly dared a peek around the doorway, her eyes immediately trained on the clicker that had wandered off the sidewalk and partway into the street, its grotesquely mutated head twisting and rotating around as it searched for the source of the sound.

*

“Look, I can’t totally kill my mysterious vibe. Gotta keep you guessing somehow.” Beca had a strong feeling that Chloe would needle her middle name out of her eventually--sooner rather than later, mainly because Beca was already a total goner and didn’t really want to deny Chloe much of anything, even her super embarrassing middle name.

She’d only zipped up her bag and flung it over her shoulder when the cacophonous crash echoed within the shop and through the empty town and zapped Beca on instant high alert. Her hand flew to the grip of her shotgun and she moved closer to Chloe, light on her feet despite the glass shards crunching under her trusty tall boots. Beca knew it could take a few moments for clickers to hone in on a sound and react. “Shhh..” Beca took Chloe’s arm gently when she spoke again, and then--

That telltale clicker groan set her teeth on edge and Beca swore under her breath, knowing it was already potentially summoning its pack through echolocation. Heart pounding as adrenaline flooded her system, too, she closed her eyes and listened hard for a moment, having trained herself to attempt to determine enemy proximity by sound, almost the way clickers did. It didn’t always work, but sometimes it did help. She opened her eyes to find Chloe peering through the shop door and Beca leaned forward, doing the same beside her. Beca knew she couldn’t wait this out--she had to act, to try to take this one out before it had the chance to call others (if there were others… if it hadn’t already…). She reached up to uncurl Chloe’s fingers from her shirt. “Stay here,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”

Eyes trained on the fungal-infected creature with its hideous cranial blossoms gnarled and covering most of its face, Beca took three slow, cautious steps out onto the sidewalk. She studied the clicker’s movements for a moment, and then she glanced both directions to make sure it was the only one. (It seemed to be, thank goodness.) Knowing gunshots would only raise alarms, Beca reached up to pull her machete from its sheath across her back. With a focused puff of air, she inhaled sharply through her nose and took a few strides forward; as always, when she got too close but not quite close enough, the clicker heard her footsteps and reacted, lunging blindly at Beca. In one fluid motion, she dodged the attack by arching her body backward and rocking back on her heels before using that momentum to dive forward, swinging her blade down hard and true to successfully decapitate the clicker. Its body collapsed in a heap beside her in the middle of the street, the infected skull rolling a few feet toward the shop where Beca had left Chloe.

“C’mon, Chlo,” Beca called, waving for her. “Let’s get back and--”

Two gunshots rang in the distance and Beca’s veins flooded with ice. “Fuck. Run!” Beca waited for Chloe before they took off toward the mansion, hoping like hell they’d get there in time to help their comrades fend off the attackers.

*

Even with the time they'd spent on the road, relearning what it meant to be out in the open and to prepare for any inevitability, rather than being sheltered behind settlement walls, Chloe still found herself instinctively looking to Beca in those agonizing moments right after the crash. It was the awful reality of fear, where the moment seemed to stretch and distort strangely, with time somehow passing both too quickly and at an unbearable crawl. Beca's hand on her arm and the hushed 'shh' brought her back to herself somewhat, and she forced a deep breath in before releasing it on a long, quiet exhale.

There was something about that rattling click that cut straight to the marrow of her bones. Beyond the learned fear of the horrors that followed that clicking, there was something about the timbre and unnatural menace of it that struck some instinctive fear inside of her. Her eyes never strayed from Beca's face, even when Beca's eyes slipped closed and she seemed to be listening to assess the threat as best she could, concentration etched across her brow. She looked away only when the clicking grew closer and she shuffled forward on quiet feet to catch a glimpse of the clicker, and she was aware of Beca slipping into the doorway in her periphery. When her eyes once again flashed over to Beca and the other woman loosened Chloe's grip on her shirt, her lips pressed into a thin line as she gave a rapid nod.

Even though she knew Beca was much more experienced in dealing with clickers and she trusted her to handle the situation, an instinctive fear seized her as she watched Beca creep out of the doorway and onto the sidewalk, inching closer to the infected creature with practiced calm. When the clicker seemed to sense Beca when she got close enough and made a mad lunge for her, a terrified cry froze in her throat but thankfully didn't split the air--Beca handled it with cool composure anyway, anticipating the clicker's attack and using its momentum against it as she cleanly severed its head with her machete. Her expression twisted in a rictus of disgust when the severed head rolled a few paces towards her--she found herself watching it with muted horror, although there were no discernible facial features left to stare back at her. No matter how many times she saw them, she never got used to the twisted, macabre fungal growths that had once been human features. Beca's voice jarred her back into action and she tore her gaze away from the head and up towards Beca, edging out of the shop to join her in the street.

She was certain that her heart stopped in her chest for a painful, agonizing moment when gunshots broke the renewed stillness of the air. Oh god, everyone back at the mansion. Her feet were moving the instant that Beca's voice called to her, blood pumping in her veins and feet pounding against the pavement as she sprinted to Beca and fell into step next to her as they made a mad dash back towards the mansion.

The mansion was blessedly a relatively short distance down the road, covered much quicker in their frantic haste this time than in their leisurely stroll before on their way into town. Her heart froze with dread as they reached the outskirts of the property and she saw several clickers manically trying to force their way through the gate that had been repaired only that week. Through the chaotic tableau that was the uncoordinated but determined attacks of the clickers, Chloe saw Aubrey and Cynthia Rose taking aim from the yard, and the chaos of several of the group running behind them in the background to get into position.

She pulled up short for a moment, trying to assess the best point of attack or what the best approach might be. Reaching for her knife at her thigh, her attention honed in on the clickers closest to them at the gate--if the group inside the gate had them distracted with plenty of noise, maybe they could dart in and take some of the clickers out while they were unaware.

*

That clattering click haunted Beca’s dreams since she first heard it, and once she saw the clickers for the first time and paired the hair-raising, triggering sound with its mangle-faced source, the combined sound and visual haunted Beca’s daydreams, too. Especially after they killed her father. More so after they killed her sister and sunk their sharp teeth into her own shoulder blade. She thought she’d eventually get used to them, but it only got worse. Killing the clickers didn’t do much to subdue the intrusive thoughts, either.

She’d grown used to running with more gear on her than what she currently had strapped across her body and on her belt, and after sheathing her bloody blade, Beca dashed with Chloe back up the road to the mansion. Her mind reeled with options, methodically trying to anticipate the clickers’ plan of attack by knowing their typical swarming formations. When they neared the fence, she watched as Aubrey and Cynthia Rose lay suppressing fire on the horde of hungry, mutated creatures, some of which fought to climb over each other and scale the reinforced boundary. She quickly processed calculations, reviewing odds and assessing risks and hastily moving the pieces around the chessboard of her brain.

Beca turned back to Chloe in time to see her reaching for her blade. “No,” Beca whispered, taking Chloe’s wrist and shaking her head. “If you’re close enough to stab them, they’re close enough to bite you. It’s not worth the risk. Trust me.” Forcing a deep breath and releasing on a shaky yet focused exhale, Beca slid her hand back into Chloe’s. “I’m gonna give you a boost back up over the fence, okay? You and Emily and whoever else isn’t fighting gather as much of our shit as you can and pack up the truck and the car--I’m gonna try to draw some of them away with Fiona.” Her trusty shotgun would hopefully buy them enough time to make a quick getaway; luckily they’d mostly prepared for this inevitable situation, with individual go-packs readied by the door and other must-haves easily snaggable.

*

It was worse than she feared when they drew closer and it was revealed that a swarm of clickers had found their hideout and were currently worked into an unmistakable frenzy. The clickers were doing what they were created to do, rampaging unerringly in the pursuit of more victims to spread their infection, and the rest of their group that had been left at the mansion were doing their utmost best to hold off the sudden onslaught. Aubrey and Cynthia Rose's marksmanship was as steady and reliable as ever, trying to thin out the clickers that swarmed the gate and picking off the ones who tried to scramble over the others to reach the top of the fence.

It was only Beca's hand on her wrist that stopped her from rushing to join the chaotic melee to help their friends. Confused eyes blinked back over in Beca's direction, but there was an underlying trust there that Beca would know what was best to do. It made sense though; they might have the element of surprise to pick off the first few, but there was no telling how quickly the unpredictable creatures could turn on them when they were within range. Although a thrill of worry and fear shot through her when Beca said she'd try to create a diversion with Fiona, her plan made sense and there was no time for arguing anyway. The reinforcements had held so far, but none of them had anticipated a swarm like this might show up to catch them off guard. With Beca's hand in hers, she tugged her closer to the portion of the fence nearby that was uninhabited by any clickers as they all crowded and lashed their bodies against the barrier further down near the gate. "Be safe," she implored in a hurried whisper, allowing herself one brief but significant look at Beca before she gave her hand a fierce, firm squeeze and let go.

With Beca's help giving her a boost, she was able to leverage herself the rest of the way up to vault her legs over the top of the fence, landing on the other side in a crouch. She quickly bounced back upright and took off towards the front gate where most of the group was gathered.

"Jesse! Stacie!" The heads of the two respective fighters snapped over to her when her voice reached them above the cacophony. "Get the cars and pull them around!" Thankfully, in the heat of the moment, neither of them questioned that directive. Without a moment's pause, they both broke way and sprinted towards the side of the mansion where the vehicles had been parked mostly out of sight, just in case someone had wandered along and been tempted by the sight of functional transportation.

"Everyone else, we've gotta grab our stuff! Let's go!" Her voice carried over the fray, and one by one, each of the remaining members of their group peeled away from the chaos at the front gate to do as she instructed. Aubrey and Cynthia Rose remained behind to hold the line while everyone else hurried to gather the go-packs and supplies they'd had ready to go, for a worst case scenario. And this definitely qualified as a worst case scenario. They'd all gotten used to living out of their bags and packs, so they grabbed up go-packs as soon as they ducked inside the door. Chloe lingered at the top of the porch, directing everyone back towards the driveway where Jesse and Stacie would pull the vehicles around. Several of the girls were able to grab up most of the go-packs themselves, so the rest scrambled to grab the food and supplies that they'd packed up as efficiently as possible.

*

Beca squeezed Chloe’s hand back with equal force, and when their eyes locked and she saw such raw, pleading emotion in those brighter blues, she knew her own shined back with just as much feeling. In the mere seconds that passed in that moment, her heart thudded with dread upon realization that she’d passed the point of no return regarding the ray of sunshine that was Chloe Allison Beale, and losing her would inevitably be another eventual devastation.

After boosting Chloe up over the fence, she found a brief moment of solace in the fact that the clickers hadn’t yet succeeded in busting through their reinforced fence so everyone else was safe for now, if Aubrey and Cynthia Rose could continue holding the line while she got to work picking them off from behind. Beca heard Chloe calling orders to the others, a strange sense of calm settling over her for an instant as she stared down the dozen or so ravenous infected in front of her and raised Fiona with both hands, flicking off the safety and pumping the barrel. She maneuvered away from the fence to sneak up behind them, taking aim with Fiona and firing four consecutive shots. The clickers screeched, three of them falling lifeless while Beca hurried to reload.

“That’s right, fuckers. Come get me,” Beca called, lifting her gun as half of them scrambled away from the fence and rushed after her. She took out two with headshots before they got too close, and Beca turned and ran back toward the town, hoping even more would follow to buy her comrades even more time.

Beyond the mansion fence…

“Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god--” Emily panicked on repeat, frantically bolting around the mansion--the one they’d worked so hard to fix up so they could stay there longer, it wasn’t fair!!--and gathering their things. “Chloe!” She cried when she hurried down the stairs for the fourth time with bags flung over both shoulders, her baseball cap askew. “I got everything up there! Are you okay?? Where’s Beca??” She flinched with every gunshot that rang out and echoed back into the massive house, gathering more bags and helping to load up the vehicles as instructed.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Rose swore under her breath as her gun jammed. “Shit. Someone toss me another rifle! And we need some more damn ammo, too!”

“Here, use Beca’s,” Amy called, handing her the rifle Beca had left behind. Cynthia Rose pumped the spare shotgun and continued picking them off as best as she could from the steps.

“I’ll get more ammo!” Flo cried, running to the side of the house on the wraparound porch where she knew a box of rifle bullets sat for when they took watch duty at night. Only when she rounded the house, a shriek carried around the corner as she found herself face-to-face with a clicker who’d somehow found a weak spot in their reinforced fence.

*

No matter how much Chloe’s thoughts wanted to stay with Beca and the desperate, fervent wish that she would stay safe, their current scramble for defense demanded everyone's fully attention. Chaos reigned as the shrieking, ravenous clicking of the infected creatures, gunshots, and frantic shouts filled the early dusk air. She heard the distinctive crack of Beca's shotgun blasts join the cacophony of Aubrey and Cynthia Rose's rifles, but she couldn't spare more than a background recognition of it at the moment.

The rumble of engines filled the air to add to the deafening uproar, and Stacie and Jesse peeled around the corner of the house in their respective vehicles. There was a squeal of tires as they rumbled up through the yard and onto the driveway, jerking to a stop and leaping out to help the girls haul supplies into the trunks of the automobiles. The girls who had made the first dash into the house were already loaded down with bags and packs, and while there was an undeniable edge of anxious panic to their movements, they worked with practiced efficiency to fit everything into the vehicles in preparation for a hasty getaway.

Chloe was in the doorway of the mansion grabbing up a crate loaded with bottled water when Emily's high, jittery litany of words reached her. She hoisted the box with a small grunt of exertion and spun to meet the younger girl when Emily approached her. "I'm fine. Beca's helping Aubrey and Cynthia Rose deal with the clickers. C'mon, we've got to get the last of this stuff to the car!" Better not to mention that Beca was still on the other side of the fence with the clickers, at least not for now--the youngest member of their group already looked rattled enough and there was the chance that it might make Emily's nerves fall to shambles, and they couldn't afford for anyone to fall apart right now. They all needed to be as focused and efficient as possible in getting the hell out of there.

When Emily scrambled to unload her haul of bags in the car and then hurried back to grab more, Chloe heaved her own armload of supplies into the trunk behind her. She heard the rapid fire call of Cynthia Rose and Amy as they dealt with the weapon problems, and while she trusted the capability of her comrades, a sliver of fear worked its cold fingers beneath her ribs and around her heart. If their weapons didn't hold out, they were in real trouble.

Halfway back up the porch steps to grab another load of supplies, Chloe's blood turned to ice in her veins when Flo's terrified shriek rang out above the rest of the turmoil around them. Stacie was only a step behind her, and they both instantly broke into a sprint down the length of the wraparound porch and around the corner, hands flying to the handguns that were securely holstered at their hips. By the time they rounded the corner, Flo and the clicker had tumbled to the wooden planks of the porch and were flailing wildly in their struggle.

Chloe lifted her handgun but hesitated when the wild, unpredictable scramble of bodies made it impossible to get a clear shot without risking hitting Flo instead--she saw Stacie do the same out of her periphery and knew that Stacie had instantly recognized the same problem. Flo managed to work her arms between her body and the body of the clicker and give a hard shove, and it was all the clearance that they needed. Chloe and Stacie both squeezed off several shots, two striking the clicker in its chest and shoulder before one found its mark in the clicker's cranium.

The clicker slumped immediately, and it was only a quick shove from Flo and a roll in the opposite direction that kept it from toppling over onto her as dead weight. Chloe and Stacie scrambled to Flo, each grabbing one of her arms to hoist her to her feet.

"Oh my god--"

"Shit, Flo, are you okay?" Stacie's voice shook, but her eyes were already sweeping over Flo's body in an analytical fashion.

"I--that--I am fine." All of the color had drained from Flo's face as the reality of what had just happened set in, and she hastily tugged her plaid shirt back into place as she stepped out of their grasp. She offered no further insight, and as she hurried past them at a shaky, rushed pace, the sound of continued yells and gunshots from the front of the house spurred them back into action once again.

Jesse was halfway down the length of the porch when they rounded the corner, and his shoulders slumped with a brief but powerful wave of relief. "Oh, thank god." He waved frantically, urging them on back towards the front of the house. "Come on, everything's loaded up! We've gotta get the hell outta here."

By the time they reached the driveway, some of the girls had piled into the vehicles. Jesse leapt into the driver's seat of the car, while Stacie hurried around the back of the truck to reach the cab. "Aubrey! Cynthia Rose! Get over here, we've gotta go!"

*

Everyone piled into the car and the truck just as the clickers broke through the gate. Aubrey elected to sit in the backseat of Jesse’s corolla, and for good reason--she wrenched open the sunroof and repositioned her rifle to shoot at the clickers scrambling in a mad dash toward them. She squinted through the rifle’s sight, picking off two more with clean headshots.

“Aubrey, what are you doing??” Jesse called up to her.

“Clearing a path. Shut up and drive!”

Jesse followed Aubrey’s order and shifted into gear, accelerating enough to drive over the deformed, fallen clicker bodies that crunched beneath the tires, sending the other people in the car bouncing from the turbulence. Aubrey managed to keep her proper, practiced form, firing off her last loaded round at the other clickers that followed the sounds with screeching cries mingled with those clicking noises. Jesse led Stacie and the other girls in the truck away from the mansion, winding down the path carefully without much light to guide them toward the town they’d driven through when they first arrived. “Hey, does anyone see--”

“There!” Aubrey pointed to a figure a few blocks away, fighting in a backwards snapback with her machete drawn and more clickers drawing in.

Beca had long since dropped the bag with the extra salvage she’d picked up on their brief mission in town only an hour earlier, and her shotgun had only recently run out of shells. She found herself surrounded by clickers, fighting with intense focus and skill as she sliced off head after head, wondering why the fuck they kept coming. (She knew it was the noises from the mansion--the gunshots and other clicker calls summoning other clicker packs from the otherwise desolate area.) Still, her arms grew tired and she wasn’t sure how much fight she had left in her.

“How close can you get?” Aubrey yelled down to Jesse.

“Pretty close. Hang on--”

“Wait, look!”

With a screeching turn, Amy zoomed toward Beca and the clickers riding Beca’s motorcycle. She crashed into a small group of them, and the rest staggered back long enough for Beca to take Amy’s hand and swing her leg over the bike behind her.

“Go, go, go!” Beca cried, swiping her machete to kill another clicker who’d leapt toward them.

With a quick twist of the handlebar, Amy revved the engine and took off, following Beca’s instructions as they raced out of Weston and back toward the highway. They led the other two vehicles back west on I-70 as full moonlight poured down over them.

*

The shriek and groan of metal as the gate gave way was terrible, all too reminiscent for those who had been gathered at the front gates of the Barden settlement the night it fell. There was no rhyme or reason to clickers the same way there was with scavs, so they spilled through the gate with relentless, screeching intent--there was no strategy to them, only the mindless, endless impulse that drove them.

While Aubrey picked off clickers from her vantage point through the sunroof, Cynthia Rose took up guard in the front passenger's seat with a pistol drawn in her lap, prepared to deal with any clickers that were able to close the distance and get to their car. In the backseat, Chloe braced her hand against Aubrey's leg to help steady her as they rocked and jostled their way over the fallen bodies of the clickers, while craning her head around to watch the truck's progress behind them. Some small measure of relief worked its way through her when the truck cleared the gate behind them.

With the rest of the group safely secured in the two vehicles, her thoughts turned to Beca. She hadn't spotted the other woman during their initial flight from the mansion through the gates back towards town, and she pressed close to her window as her eyes swept through the encroaching darkness for any sign of her.

It was Aubrey's call that pulled Chloe’s attention forward through the windshield, immediately locking in on the sight of Beca engaged in a vicious fight with a group of clickers that had caught up with her. A fresh flood of fear thrummed beneath her skin as the vehicles raced towards Beca, desperate to get to her before the clickers could overwhelm her.

The last thing any of them expected was for Amy to zoom in on Beca's motorcycle and stage the brazen rescue herself.

Nonetheless, a collective wave of relief swept through them when Beca was safely on the back of the motorcycle with Amy and speeding away from the fray of clickers.

A shell shocked quietude fell over the vehicles as it seemed to settle in that the fight was, hopefully, over.

The ride out of town and onto the desolate interstate was largely a silent one. As adrenaline from the harrowing fight and their escape drained from them, shock and a bone-deep weariness were left in its wake. Flo was tucked against the door of the truck, curled in on herself as tightly as she could manage in the confined space and with her arms tucked in protectively against her chest. Emily trembled faintly in the seat between Stacie and Flo, silent tears streaming down her face as she occasionally tried to wipe them away.

In the car, Jesse's grip was tight on the steering wheel and his face was grim as he followed the path that the motorcycle led them on. Cynthia Rose's normally calm presence was unsettled, her gaze glazed and faraway as she stared out the window. Aubrey and Chloe huddled together in the backseat, with Chloe's head resting against Aubrey's shoulder. Aubrey's chin tucked against the top of Chloe's head and her hand found Chloe's in her lap, tangling their fingers together so tightly that there was a twinge of pain along with it (Chloe didn't complain though, the tether of connection helped bring her back to herself).

Time lapsed in a slow drag as the short line of vehicles trudged its way along the interstate, putting distance between themselves and the mayhem that had befallen them. Nobody in the car was quite sure how long they'd been driving when a sudden crackle of static startled all of them from their individual reveries. It was coming from the walkie--they'd maintained one in each vehicle, for ease of communication on the road--and Cynthia Rose fumbled to retrieve it from the glove box.

"--ly shit, guys, we need to stop. Like, ASAP." It was Stacie's voice, and the edge in her voice was clear even through the slight pop and hiss of static over the line. They caught a panicked, indiscernible crackle of Emily's voice in the background right before the connection ended, meaning Stacie must have released the button on her end.

The anxious tension in the car was immediate and palpable when silence fell after that message. Stacie wasn't someone who was prone to hyperbole in times of actual crisis, so if she said there was a need for it, then they all believed her.

*

Beca wished she was driving. Not that she didn't trust Amy--she trusted her with her life, her bike, her weapons. Maybe not with her secrets, but Beca wished she had the road to focus on other than her thoughts. She mentally berated herself for not sticking to her guns with her gut feeling when they arrived. They shouldn't have attempted to stay in the mansion as long as they had. She knew better, and she let the excitement of everyone else and wanting to make them happy cloud her judgment. She selfishly let her incredible nights with Chloe--reveling in the rare accommodation of four walls and a large bed--skew her instinct that the luxury proved too much. They were lucky to get out alive, Beca knew that, but the guilt still flooded because they shouldn't have experienced such a harrowing close call to begin with. That was on her.

Adrenaline flooded away from her body as she clung to Amy, the visor of her helmet eventually falling forward to rest on Amy's shoulder as Beca grew wearier during the journey across Missouri. She nearly nodded off twice, finding the rumble of the bike’s engine soothing, but she caught herself before she fell asleep. They didn't need added drama of Beca pitching over the side of the speeding two-wheeler.

The call from Cynthia Rose out the passenger window as Jesse pulled up beside them wrenched Beca awake. She squeezed Amy's shoulder and signaled for her to pull over, and they did on the side of the road. Beca hoped it was someone needing a bathroom break, but the look on Jesse's face indicated something was very wrong.

Beca tugged her helmet off and approached the car. “What's up?”

*

They were all quick in responding to Stacie's call. As soon as Jesse pulled up alongside the motorcycle to signal them and the motorcycle decelerated and veered towards the side of the road, Jesse slowed the car until he could get back over and pull to a stop behind Beca and Amy. The truck rumbled up behind the car only a moment later.

Fueled by worry and fear, everyone in the car immediately spilled out of the vehicle. It couldn't be more clickers--they wouldn't have been able to keep up with their vehicles, and they would have been able to spot them if they were being pursued. Uneasy looks were exchanged as they all waited to see what had rattled Stacie so badly.

"Stacie radioed us. Said we needed to pull over," Jesse intoned in response to Beca, his voice low and concerned.

Emily's tears were no longer silent. The girl bolted from the driver's side of the truck as soon as Stacie cut the engine and slid out first, hurrying to their gathered group on shaky legs. She all but collapsed on Chloe and Aubrey as tears overtook her, her face buried against Aubrey's shoulder. Chloe could feel Emily's fingers grasping desperately at the back of her shirt, and her arms immediately encircled the younger girl's waist to stabilize her.

The severity of Emily's reaction sparked worried uncertainty on the faces of the travelers, and Stacie's expression was unusually grim as she crossed to them. It was only a short distance, but her shoulders slouched until it looked like the entire world pressed down upon her. Chloe saw Stacie's fist tremble slightly at her side, clenched so tightly that her knuckles were bone-white.

Flo was slow in rounding the truck to face the rest of the group, but as soon as she did, Stacie's concerned call for them to stop suddenly made sense. The sleeve of Flo's shirt was tugged up to her elbow and a bloody wound stood out starkly against her skin.

A wound that was marred by the distinctive, unmistakable gouges of teeth.

"The one on the porch...it got me." Flo's voice was thick with unshed tears, and she could scarcely bring herself to look up at any of her companions to see the shock that was written so plainly across their faces.

A disquieted shock crashed into Chloe with the force of a freight train, and she could hear the deafening rush of blood in her ears as her heart seemed to miss a beat before tumbling into a pounding, erratic rhythm. She felt Aubrey tremble beside her, even through Emily's continued sobs.

"No. No no no. That's--it's not..." Cynthia Rose's normally calm voice was strangled, and she bent double as if she'd run a great distance and was suddenly struggling to even draw breath.

*

Headlights beaming from the car illuminated the area enough that they didn’t need flashlights to see the unmistakable teeth marks in Flo’s flesh. As the all-too-familiar chilling rush of dread flooded Beca’s veins, and she stood by solemnly as scanned everyone’s reactions. She stood closest to Cynthia Rose, and without hesitation, she reached out to take her shoulder and give her a grounding squeeze as her mind rushed to once again try to work out a plan for the group. It wasn’t clear what time it was, how long they’d been driving, and exactly what time Flo had been bitten.

What was clear was that none of them were in any state to be driving. Beca knew the girls well enough to know that they needed direction. They were out of their depths more than ever, and with one glance at a stricken Aubrey clinging back to Emily, Beca knew she had to be that person for them once again. She had to get them through this, somehow, knowing Flo wouldn’t make it past dawn.

“Jesse, Amy.” Beca’s voice remained calm yet authoritative. She looked to her long-time travel companions and nodded with shining determination in her eyes. “Let’s set up camp.”

Amy saluted Beca. “Where, Captain?”

Beca didn’t have the energy to address the ridiculous title, and she glanced around quickly, knowing it wasn’t smart to stay too close to the road. “By the trees there,” Beca said, nodding toward the thick of forest set back away from the road.

“I’ll get a fire going,” Jesse declared, moving to the trunk of the car with Amy to pull out some materials.

As Jesse and Amy got to work, Beca moved closer to Flo and gently took her hand.

“Beca,” Flo croaked, blinking up to her, lifting the bite wound so Beca could get a better look. “How long--how long until--”

Beca swallowed the lump in her throat, immediately flashing back to Sara’s bite and the horrific tightening in her chest cavity that felt like thorny vines wrapping around her heart and squeezing. She forced her attention back on Flo’s condition, noting the yellowing of her scleras, the clamminess of her skin. “Hours,” Beca rasped, her voice barely there. “Two, maybe three until your mind’s too far gone to--”

“Hours,” Flo repeated, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Well.” She reached up to wipe at her cheeks, a trembling, forced and hollowed laugh pressured into the cooler night air. “It is a longer life than I ever expected to live, at least.”

*

For a long, agonizing moment, Emily's soft sobs were the only sounds that reverberated down their quiet, lonely stretch of road. There was no denying the reality of what was right in front of them, and yet no one seemed sure how to break through that jagged, splintered layer of shock and disbelief that had settled over all of them.

Although none of them could find the words for it, there was an undercurrent of thankfulness when Beca found the composure to once again take charge and offer them guidance at a moment when they felt most adrift. But there would be time for gratitude later. For now, there was only room for grief--grief that swelled and pushed out every other emotion, expanding until it felt like their ribs might crack with the force of it as they tried to draw in rattling breaths. It was strange...Flo stood there before them, but they already felt the grief of loss with crippling, bone-splintering, wracking intensity. How did they mourn someone who was still standing in front of their very eyes?

When Jesse and Amy broke off from the group to set up camp and Beca stepped in close to Flo, it seemed to break the spell that had fallen over all of them and ensnared them with vines of shock that left them rooted to the spot. The girls circled in around Beca and Flo, perhaps hoping to offer some comfort with their presence, or even to close ranks and cling tightly to each other as if that could keep the reality of everything from crushing down upon them.

There were no protests when Beca gave Flo the verdict of a few hours. They all knew better than that, the painful, inescapable truth burrowed into their hearts and minds with time and exposure. At the beginning of the outbreak, there had always been that desperate hope when someone had been bitten--maybe some people carried a natural immunity to the infection, maybe they wouldn't turn, maybe maybe maybe. Every single hope had been dashed on the proverbial rocks with every loss.

No, they knew what was coming. But none of them knew how to deal with it, not when it was one of their own.

Although the losses of Jessica, Ashley, and Lilly had been crippling in their pain, it hadn't been something they'd witnessed firsthand. The losses had been tallied after the battle ended, with nothing to do but accept the unmistakable reality before them and learn to live with it. Now, they had to look Flo in the eye and know that every minute was numbered for her.

"We'll stay with you." Stacie's voice was watery and so very close to cracking, and she stepped in close to pull Flo into a fierce, desperate hug. Flo carefully held her injured arm away from Stacie, but she clung back just as tightly with her other arm and buried her face against Stacie's shoulder. "We can stay with you until--"

Stacie's voice cracked and finally broke before she could finish that thought. Emily scarcely managed to muffle a renewed sob behind her hands, although tears still streamed freely down her face.

"Whatever we can do to--whatever we can do until then." Aubrey's face was ashen and she seemed trapped somewhere between grief and being utterly at a loss. There was no solution here. There was no plan that she could make or measures she could enact. There was only the stark, inevitable truth and the helplessness that came with it.

Flo shook her head fiercely against Stacie's shoulder before she pulled away, wiping sharply at the tears on her cheeks. "No. No, I should...I should--take care of things myself. Now, before..."

"You shouldn't have to be alone. We can--" Chloe found her voice then, although it was thin and barely there.

"No, this is for the best. I do not want to--" Flo couldn't finish the thought, but she didn't have to. They all knew what she was thinking: if her own fate was already set, she didn't want to risk turning on any of them if she waited too long.

*

“You won’t be alone, girl,” Cynthia Rose insisted, fierce and firm despite the tears leaking down both cheeks. “We’ve got your back. Always.”

When the rest of the girls stepped in to support Flo as well as each other in their thick cloud of hovering devastation to mourn Flo’s imminent death along with her, Beca slipped back to the trunk of Jesse’s car. She rummaged around until she found the little satchel she’d tied off in the front pocket of her own bag, returning to the group with a somber expression on her face. “Here, Flo,” Beca said quietly, holding out her hand and unfurling her fingers to reveal a handful of berries. “This’ll help with the pain and anxiety.” It was the same lie she’d told Sara so she’d slip away peacefully in her sleep, and unlike last time, her voice didn’t waver because it was the best way to go, considering the grim circumstance that left them few options and none with a happy ending. The alternative--taking Flo away from the group to use more lethal means--Beca didn’t want that, and neither did the rest of them.

The buckthorn berries, so deep in plum color they almost looked black, remained bunched in Beca’s palm in a lethal, toxic dose, but Flo didn’t need to know that. She had a feeling the more perceptive members of the group might have an idea of what she’d decided on her own--especially Stacie or Chloe with their medical training, though as they currently stood blanketed with grief they may have not picked up on it, either.

Flo muttered a “Gracias, Beca” as she took the buckthorn berries and popped them into her mouth, chewing and swallowing without hesitation.

“We should go settle down by the fire. Jesse set up the area. We’ll make sure you’re comfortable, Flo.” Beca gently ushered Flo and Cynthia Rose away from the road and their vehicles and over to the low fire Jesse had sparked moments ago. It reminded Beca of when they were camping, sitting around unwinding from the stress of their daily routines, laughing and telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. They’d done the same in the mansion only with booze and without the fire.

This time, when everyone gathered around, there weren’t any smiles and there was no laughter, but that centering, stabilizing tether of camaraderie and genuine care bound them together, keeping them afloat. Beca didn’t recognize it until now as what it was. Found family. The girls and Jesse stretched out, all of them touching someone in some way--a head resting on a shoulder, linked hands or fingers, a few stretched out on others’ laps, making sure that point of contact remained laced. Some cried silently, others kept nervous eyes on Flo as the berries made her sleepier by the minute until she repositioned with her head in Stacie’s lap. Nobody seemed to know what to say. This--guiding someone through their own final moments, was uncharted waters for almost everyone.

Emily somehow untangled her limbs from Aubrey and Chloe and found Beca on the grass, her arms wrapped around Beca’s arm with her head resting heavily on her shoulder.

Beca squeezed Emily’s knee. She didn’t expect the younger girl to speak to her through the sniffles and and whimpers and shallow breathing.

“We should sing for her,” Emily whispered. “She loves music. We all do. We used to… sing together in the house sometimes.”

Beca blinked slowly before licking her lips and glancing around, a lump forming hard and fast in her throat. She’d sung to Sara in her final moments, and she remembered feeling Sara relaxing in her lap, letting the music wash over her as the life left her body. Hearing music, Beca hoped, helped make that transition a peaceful one. Music was better than a cacophony of soft cries puncturing the silence of deep sorrow.

Summoning every ounce of composure she had left, Beca cleared her throat and looked around the fire once more before settling her eyes on Flo. And then, in a low, melodic tone, Beca began to sing a hauntingly beautiful ballad.

”I got my ticket for the long way round,
Two bottle o’whiskey for the way,
And I sure would like some sweet company,
And I’m leavin’ tomorrow whaddya say…

When I’m gone, when I’m gone,
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone,
You’re gonna miss me by my hair,
You’re gonna miss me everywhere, oh
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”

*

In that moment, Cynthia Rose spoke for all of them. None of them were willing to leave Flo to a solitary death--none of them could imagine doing anything so callous to any of the people who had become their family.

If there was any comfort to be found in that moment, it was found there in the huddled closeness of women who had endured so much together. Embroiled as they were in their own grief, none of them noticed Beca slip away until she returned and spoke to Flo again. When she uncurled her fingers to reveal several berries resting in her palm, Chloe stiffened beneath Aubrey's arm around her shoulders when realization struck her like a bolt of lightning. Chloe felt Stacie's gaze slide over to her, burning into her with the awareness that they both knew what those berries were. It took a long moment before Chloe could lift her eyes to meet Stacie's, but a look of sorrowful understanding passed between them. It was a lie, but a merciful one. It was the most any of them could offer Flo in that regard.

It was too late to say anything anyway, because Flo had already accepted the berries and swallowed them. Chloe wasn't sure she would have spoken up even if she'd had time. Judging from the look on Stacie's face, she shared that same sentiment. If they could offer her a peaceful passing, then she deserved it. The alternatives were all so unbearably worse. None of them would wish that upon their worst enemy, much less their family, forged in loss and adversity and kinship.

At a loss, the girls all drifted behind Beca as she led them to the small campsite. The mood was subdued as they all settled around the fire--even the forest around them seemed muted as it stood as a silent sentinel to the loss that was happening in its midst. The silhouettes were the same as they arranged themselves around the crackling light and heat of the flames, a tableau reminiscent of so many nights spent in much the same way, but their family would soon number one less.

Aubrey was once again a steadfast solace for Chloe as she rested her head against her shoulder and leaned her weight heavily against Aubrey's side; she wasn't sure if Aubrey's back was ramrod straight as she sat because she was trying to offer some measure of resolve to the group or to keep herself from falling apart. These days, maybe it could be both. Cynthia Rose's head was warm and heavy in her lap, but her gaze was faraway as she stared into the flickering flames, as if she could somehow retreat somewhere that the pain couldn't follow.

They were all surprised by Emily's request, but as soon as she verbalized it, it felt right. If they could offer nothing else, then they could offer a final song.

Beca's voice was beautiful, even if they were hearing it for the first time on raw, achingly bittersweet terms. The song was soft, but it curled around each of them, wrapping them in a blanket of secure familiarity and bittersweet warmth as it drifted upward into the canopy of trees. It was an aching comfort, one meant to soothe while still acknowledging the painful loss of someone they held so dear.

Slowly, tentatively, the girls all began to join her song in quiet undertones. They all deeply loved music and were familiar with it, but more than that, they were compelled to weave this truly heartfelt moment into the fabric of song to serve as a farewell. They followed Beca's lead on the words, but strains of harmony wove their way through and around the melody until the song was full and whole.

All the while, the blinking of Flo's eyes seemed to grow slower even as she struggled to keep them open, and Chloe understood what was coming. Stacie seemed to sense the same, her fingers carding gently through Flo's hair and brushing it back away from her face. Flo lifted one hand to grasp Stacie's free hand and tangle their fingers together, a needed point of connection while she slipped away. Even as she succumbed to the effects of the berries, she looked at each person in their circle in turn, taking a moment to study them and make certain that they were the last thing she remembered from this life.

"...You're gonna miss me when I'm gone."

Those last words seemed to linger in the air for a long moment, resonant and haunting.

By the end of the song, Flo's eyes had closed and she had grown still, with her head still pillowed in Stacie's lap. Her fingers had grown slack in Stacie's grasp. Stacie surreptitiously slipped her hand from where it tangled in Flo's hair down to her neck, checking for where a pulse would be if one remained. The truth was etched in every line of Stacie's face. She allowed herself one shuddering, tremulous breath, as if reconciling herself with the truth.

Then she spoke what they all seemed to know already.

"She's gone."

*

Chapter Text

That sorrowful night stretched and dragged on and on. After a group of them took turns digging Flo a shallow grave, they buried her body with tears falling and trickling into the freshly unearthed and replanted dirt as they worked, passing off the shovels to each other in turns. Exhausted both physically and emotionally, some of them crashed in or around the tents Amy and Jesse had pitched earlier, some crying themselves to sleep, others whispering helplessly to each other throughout the night. They took turns consoling Emily, who eventually passed out into a fitful sleep.

At sunrise, Beca set off through the woods with the intention of hunting, but she couldn’t really stomach any food due to the emotional turmoil still churning in her gut--both from the loss of her new friend Flo and the sharp flashbacks that had plagued her during her restless sleep. Instead of seeking game, she gathered a bushel of colorful wildflowers and trekked back to camp, stopping by the elevated patch of dirt and placing the flowers all around. Maybe it was stupid, but it felt like a nice gesture. It wasn’t like there was much more she could do, anyway.

She returned to camp to find Jesse distributing water bottles and Amy handing out the protein bars they’d baked a couple days ago at the mansion and bagged up for future use. She unsnapped her Cardinals hat she’d kept around her front belt loop and resnapped it, pulling it atop her head forwards. It was still early, but her eyes--raw from crying and not much sleep--stung from the sunlight, and the hat’s visor provided some relief.

“What’s the plan?” Jesse intoned softly as he handed Beca some water.

“No idea,” Beca said, lifting her sore shoulders as she glanced around. Half the girls were still in the tents, the others huddled together barely nibbling their breakfasts and sipping on their drinks.

“We could try for another settlement. They need the stability right now.”

Beca wrinkled her nose. “I dunno. I think if we get turned away again it could make things worse for them.” Their spirits were already crushed, she didn’t want them to get depleted. “Maybe we’ll stick around a few days, wait ‘til people are in a better headspace then decide together, y’know?” In the back of her brain, Beca committed to traveling west no matter what, but that wasn’t a battle she had the energy to fight if someone randomly wanted to switching things up and go another direction.

*

The night was haunting. It was like the sudden nightmare of events had stolen their voices as well as Flo from them. Only quiet sobs and the occasional muted murmurs stirred the air around them as several members of the group worked to ensure that Flo was buried properly. Although they were surrounded by those closest to them in sharing their loss, they were all unmoored and adrift in a sea of their own grief. Many of the girls sought solace in one another, even if sleep was elusive in reaching them--there was that instinctive desire to curl together, to let their minds drift with fingers tangled in shirts and hoodies to keep one another close.

Chloe couldn't bring herself to do that. After making sure that Emily was huddled with some of the girls, she took up the first watch of the night. Soft whispers or shuddering breaths reached her occasionally, but otherwise she was alone with her roiling thoughts and the sounds of the forest that pressed in around her. Keeping the vigil over the camp brought her no peace and her eyes burned with exhaustion and the aftermath of tears, but she hadn't really expected anything else.

When her shift was over and she shook Aubrey awake in one of the tents to take over (Aubrey hadn't really been asleep, but neither of them had the heart to point that out), she curled up in the spot that Aubrey had vacated and pretended to sleep. If nothing else, it kept anyone else from noticing the void of guilt in her chest that she felt like was crumbling in around the edges and threatening to consume her. Everyone was so entangled in their own grief that she probably needn't have worried. None of them were acting exactly themselves today anyway.

Signs of life slowly crept through the camp after sunrise. Many of them seemed to abandon the pretense of sleep, at least. A listless anxiety stirred Chloe from her own spot in the tent, although she did little more than quietly slip out to claim a spot near where their fire had burned the night before and accept a protein bar from Amy as she made her rounds.

She'd gotten Flo killed, and yet she was allowed to sit here and quietly eat breakfast with other people, all while they were none the wiser. She couldn't see any fairness in that.

She hadn't realized that Beca had slipped away from camp while she'd been lying sleeplessly in the tent until she saw Beca return and speak to Jesse. Aubrey seemed to have taken notice of it, too. A dull twinge of dread twisted her stomach as she watched Aubrey's approach, hoping against hope that their morning wouldn't contain any disagreements to add to the overall downtrodden pain that permeated the campsite.

"I've been thinking--I don't know if you had anything in mind, but I'm not sure anyone's in much of a state to be traveling today," she interjected when she reached Beca and Jesse. Her voice was pitched lowly, meant only for them. She couldn't be sure that they'd been discussing their next steps, but judging from the way they'd been talking among themselves, it seemed like a safe conclusion to reach. Social tact didn't seem to be much of a concern with inserting herself into their discussion anyway. Grief and loss had always unsettled Aubrey in that way. There were no plans to make or steps to take. There was only the slow, grueling slog through every moment of sorrow until it receded enough to become bearable. She seized any chance to channel her focus somewhere else, anywhere else, to keep that pain at bay for now. "If we stay, I'd like to survey the area more thoroughly. We obviously had--other things on our minds last night and the watch was enough for us during the night, but I'd like to have a better idea of what we're dealing with."

*

Despite the exhaustion and emotions and heightened state of connection among all of them after a night like last night, Beca still felt her spine snap more rigid when Aubrey approached, putting her reflexively on the defensive. Fortunately, she had the wherewithal to check herself, reminding herself that Aubrey was human, too. Aubrey was grieving and shaken like the rest of them, and Beca breathed a sigh of relief when Aubrey’s suggestion aligned with her gut feelings about the state of the girls and plans for their immediate future.

“Yeah, I was just saying to Jesse we should probably rest here for today and figure out next steps as a group when we’re in a better…” She pressed her lips together and wrinkled her nose, shrugging. “When we’re not so exhausted and stuff. I’ll go with you, see if we can scout a better campsite in the area. Being this close to the road… it’s not the smartest move.” She hoped they could find some sort of fortifiable temporary shelter with walls--an abandoned house or cabin or barn or something nearby, which would be much more easily defensible than a couple tents if god forbid the need arose once more.

*

If there was anything that would temporarily cool the antagonistic tensions between Aubrey and Beca, it seemed to be the loss of one of their own. The loss was too fresh and the night had been too exhausting to muster any real energy to butt heads over even the smallest detail. For that reason, although Aubrey spoke with some modicum of her typical authoritativeness, there was a weariness that crept in at the edges of her expression and tempered the combativeness that usually flared when she was in close quarters with Beca.

Her chin jerked with a stiff nod when Beca revealed that she'd been thinking largely the same thing, although there was a frisson of relief that she wouldn't admit to out loud. "Agreed, we're too out in the open here, and we could get boxed in if anyone comes along." With their backs to the forest and the road running past them on one side, she felt too exposed if anyone crossed their path with ill intentions. "If we can find somewhere to conceal the vehicles but still be able to get them moving in a hurry if we need to, I'll feel a lot better about sticking around here." She always wanted to exercise the utmost caution, especially when they were camping, but she knew that the girls were in even less of a state to deal with an adversity that came their way at the moment. "I'm ready to move out whenever you are." If she was being honest, she was itching for some physical outlet to channel her focus into at the moment, anything to distract her mind from their current situation.

*

Beca’s gaze flickered toward Chloe where she sat by the fire spot along with some of the others. She felt like a dick for not checking in on her directly, but Chloe been understandably stuck to Aubrey’s side until now and she hadn’t gotten the chance. Hopefully later she’d get the opportunity. With another visual sweep over the current area, she nodded back to Aubrey before addressing Jesse once more.

“I’ve got a radio, Jess, if something comes up.” It clipped to her left back pocket, and she kept her revolver and shotgun strapped to her, just in case.

Jesse flashed Beca a thumb’s up. “We’ll be fine here. I’ll make sure everyone hydrates and gets some food down.”

With that settled, Beca took a swig from her water bottle and looked back to Aubrey. “I explored a little back there this morning. Nothing really useful. Maybe we should cross the road, set off that way?” She nodded across the highway to yet another thicket of trees. Maybe they’d get luckier there, find some sort of shelter maybe near some sort of natural water source, if they were extra lucky. They deserved a break after last night, but she wasn’t going to get her hopes up.

Part of Beca wanted to suggest another person come along with them as a buffer of sorts; she’d never been alone with Aubrey for obvious reasons, but they seemed to be the only two functioning enough for an exploratory hike aside from Jesse, and Beca wanted him to watch over the rest of them. No, she could suck it up and spend time with Aubrey. If they were silent the whole time… that’d be fine, too. She wasn’t expecting Aubrey to be particularly chatty, but Beca made sure not to speak unless spoken to, not really having the energy to so much as breathe in a way Aubrey didn’t like for fear of facing a wrath she had no desire to deal with.

*

With Beca's agreement secured, Aubrey held up a quick hand to indicate that she'd be right back. Her pistol already rested at her hip, but she turned and jogged back over to the loosely formed circle of girls who'd shuffled out of the tents so far, stooping to retrieve her rifle where she'd left it near Chloe earlier. Even as she tugged the strap of the rifle over her shoulder, she spared a concerned glance at her best friend, who was turning her protein bar over in her hands rather than eating it.

"Beca and I are going to go scout the area. Help Jesse keep an eye on things?" Chloe looked up at her to offer a nod of agreement, and she lifted her protein bar to nibble at the corner of it when she seemed to notice Aubrey's scrutiny. "And maybe make sure Emily drinks some water and get some food on her stomach once she wakes up." The youngest member of their group had certainly cried enough the night before to dehydrate herself. It was understandable that she was slow to rise though, considering how long it had taken her to drift into a fitful rest during the latest hours of the night.

"Of course, Bree. Be safe out there, both of you. Do you have everything you need--?"

"Of course, we're good to go, don't worry. We'll be back before too long." After a beat of hesitation, she reached out to squeeze Chloe's shoulder and offer a tight, thin smile. Chloe mustered a small smile in return, although it didn't reach her eyes.

With her rifle back in her possession, she hurried back over to Beca, immediately snapping back into focus as Beca suggested a plan of action. Her gaze strayed to the trees that crowded together across the road from where they were all gathered. Whatever issues they had with each other, she acknowledged Beca's hunting and exploratory skills, so she took her at her word about trekking into the surrounding area that morning. "Alright, let's go. Hopefully we'll have some luck and run across something useful." She wasn't sure that she exactly trusted to hope at the moment, but part of leadership was projecting confidence when it was needed most.

She trekked to the edge of the road, casting her gaze first to her right and then to her left. Just as had been the case since their abrupt stop the night before, there were no signs of anyone else in sight down the stretch of road that they currently inhabited. Hopefully their luck would hold in that regard too. Although she wanted to find a more secure and secluded spot to camp, she certainly wouldn't object if no one (or nothing) happened to cross through in their vicinity at all. Although she would've been content with silence, she felt compelled to point out her appreciation, no matter how much they'd been at odds before. "Thanks for scouting around earlier. I know a lot of us aren't thinking very clearly right now, but--I'll feel better once I know we're a little more secure."

*

Last night’s autumnal chill lingered in the air even as the sun rose higher overhead, a sure sign of the turning seasons. Beca reminded herself she’d need to start being more mindful of avoiding crunchy leaves during her next hunt as quite a few had fallen to the forest’s floor. Aubrey’s spoken gratitude was unexpected though certainly not unappreciated, and Beca spun her hat around backwards so she could look up at Aubrey beside her without that flat visor in the way. She cleared her throat and shrugged. “You don’t need to thank me. I actually thought I’d pick up some game but realized I couldn’t stomach it, so.” No use killing creatures if it would go to waste, and she figured she’d try again later for dinner. Or maybe Aubrey wanted to hunt, since she was perfectly capable and probably wanted the distraction, too. “Yeah, me too.” She wasn’t sure what else she could say. Telling Aubrey she was sorry for her loss felt empty and trite.

*

Trekking out into the woods with fewer distractions...it wasn't a balm, exactly, but it felt like a small respite from the pain that awaited them back at the camp. When she could devote herself to a task with her wholly undivided attention, then she could push the sorrow and loss away to be dealt with later. Of course, the problem with that was that those raw feelings were always waiting, demanding to be felt when there were no more distractions to be found. It wasn't entirely surprising when Beca tried to downplay her thanks, but her lips pursed with quiet contemplation when Beca mentioned hunting. "I understand. This morning hasn't...well, we'll figure something out. I'll go if you don't feel up to it." Shelter, security, and food were more important than their contention, and she certainly couldn't begrudge Beca for not being able to stomach the thought of hunting after the events of the previous night. If pressed later, she would blame the exhaustion and loss for weakening her guard, but when she dared a look over at Beca, her face was lined with weary recognition. "I know things--I know last night was very difficult for everyone. And it will be for a while. But...things could have gone a lot worse without you, Jesse, and Amy there. I appreciate the help." Maybe she and Beca would never get along or see eye-to-eye, but Beca had been a crucial part in keeping her family as safe as possible, and Aubrey Posen was someone who acknowledged things like that.

*

“Yeah, sounds good. We can see which of us is in better shape later,” Beca muttered with another slight raise of her shoulders. She didn’t expect Aubrey to look back at her and continue on with a reluctant explanation of her appreciation, and Beca awkwardly puffed out two notes of a decompressing chuckle. “Hey, Jesse and Amy had to deal with me for years… it’s about time they spread their grim wealth onto others.” Okay, so self-deprecation was Beca’s go-to defense mechanism, but whatever. She pushed herself to keep talking because she knew it wasn’t easy for someone as stubborn as Aubrey to admit she needed help. (They definitely had more in common than she’d ever admit.) “It’s good for them, y’know? To have other people to be around, to help with things.” She shoved her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket, keeping her eyes trained on the ground in front of them as they walked side by side. “And I guess it’s been good for me, too. You guys--you’ve been good for us. For me. So I guess--thanks for not kicking my ass to the curb all the times I deserved it.”

*

"Of course," she agreed shortly, sounding all-business about the prospect. She wasn't sure she would have the stomach for it either, but at some point, they would have to address the issue of food one way or another. Despite herself, her lips quirked in the briefest of flashes at Beca's wry observation about Jesse and Amy putting up with her. Although Aubrey would never admit to any similarities between them, Beca likewise seemed to struggle with emotional or appreciative expression to an extent. "I can understand that. I think it's benefited the girls to have some new faces around too." Although the girls would always view one another as family, they'd happily integrated the newcomers, and Aubrey could admit that they were stronger for having their added expertise on their side. "You do have a special knack for being annoying." Her tone was dry, but surprisingly lacking in the usual clipped annoyance she expressed towards Beca. "But you do know your stuff. And the girls seem to like all of you, I think you've been good for--"

Her words cut off sharply and her eyes narrowed as something caught her eye through the thicket of trees that pressed in around them. "Hey, over there." She changed course to approach the structure, and as she drew closer, some of the trees cleared and details materialized into sharper focus until she could discern a cabin among the trees. It had the look of a structure that had been abandoned for some time, and the simple, unassuming architecture and dark wood of the cabin blended in somewhat amidst the trees and some of the leaves that had begun to change with the approach of fall. Nonetheless, there was no telling from the outside if the cabin was still inhabited or had been claimed by other travelers already, or even if some clickers might have stumbled upon it or still been trapped there when previous owners might have turned. She pulled up short of the cabin, leaving a decent enough distance that anyone or anything within probably wouldn't have heard their approach. With practiced care, she drew her pistol from the holster at her side before sparing a glance at Beca. "This might be our best bet. Let's check it out."

*

Aubrey’s spotting of something that pulled their attention couldn’t have come at a better time. Compliment-fest was quickly veering into Awkwardville, and Beca had a comeback on the tip of her tongue that Aubrey might not have taken as a compliment (something like ’Yeah, must be really annoying to feel inferior for once.’) so she was glad for the excuse to keep that one to herself. She followed Aubrey’s eyes to the structure that blended in so well to the surrounding trees she might’ve missed it had she been moving any faster. Falling into step beside Aubrey as she changed direction and moved toward it, Beca’s own hand clutched the pommel of her revolver. “Let’s move around to the back and see if we can scope out the inside better from there,” she muttered, casting Aubrey a single acknowledging nod to follow before moving light on her feet toward the rear of the cabin.

Beca drew her gun from its holster but kept it low, moving around to the side of the house and peering around the corner to the back. She was momentarily taken aback by the natural beauty of the lake nearby, peaceful and seemingly undisturbed. She tiptoed up the back porch, noting a particularly groany step on her way up. Peeking through the windows first, she quickly deduced the structure had been abandoned for some time. A coffee mug sat tipped over atop the picnic bench type table in the middle of the kitchen, some of the cabinets ajar either from changes of air pressure or hinges that loosened over time. She tried the backdoor and it remained locked, but the windows remained intact, which told Beca that nobody had yet stumbled upon this cabin.

She crouched by the backdoor and pulled her swiss army knife from her pocket, working open the lock with practiced finesse. When the door swung open, she stepped inside and looked around, listening for any signs of life. “We’re clear,” she said, glancing around the space. The cabin was small but designed for more than two people, at least. The kitchen opened up into a living room around a fireplace, an old couch strewn with moth-nibbled blankets and some pillows. Two bedrooms sat on either side, one with two twin beds and the other containing bunk beds. A loft area hung over the living room, and Beca climbed the ladder up to the partially exposed loft that held a bed that could sleep two and a small writing desk, a few books piled on a low bookcase, and a closet full of old clothes they could sift through later.

Beca backed herself down the ladder and slid her gun back into its holster. “Well the good news is there's no obvious master bedroom Amy can call dibs on. We should be able to sleep comfortably here for a couple of days, at least. It’s well-hidden and with the lake out back, we can get ourselves cleaned up and stuff, too.”

*

Her heart gave a hopeful, anticipatory thud as they neared the cabin; she'd barely spotted the structure herself, so if they could clear and secure the building, then it would be a much safer hideout than a campsite on the side of the road. There was no sense in getting ahead of herself though, so she nodded in confirmation when Beca mentioned slipping around the back of the cabin to scope things out. She was grateful that fall hadn't quite descended upon them yet, because it made their edging creep around the outskirts of the cabin easier without as many dead leaves fallen beneath their feet.

Aubrey was likewise surprised by the lake that sprawled into view as they drew around the back of the house, but it was another boost to their fortunes as well. In fact, after the terrible night they'd all endured, she almost allowed herself to feel hopeful about the prospect (almost, but there was no time for that just yet). While Beca carefully maneuvered her way up onto the back porch, Aubrey kept an eye on their backs in case anyone was around who might have noticed their approach, before following Beca up to the backdoor and being careful to avoid the squeaky step she'd noticed on Beca's ascent. She peered through the dusty windows as Beca worked on the backdoor, noting the mild disarray in the kitchen--it was a disorderliness that spoke to a hasty exit though, rather than anyone scavenging their way through the cabin. A point in their favor, then. Maybe things were looking up, at least for the time being.

Once Beca picked the lock and the door swung open to grant them entrance, Aubrey slipped into the abandoned residence behind her. The air in the cabin was rather stale and musty from having been closed up for so long, but there was no smell of decay or death in the air. She didn't detect any traces of mildew or rot either, which meant the cabin was still structurally sound despite its abandonment and it had withstood the elements well. The cabin was small enough that there were few hiding spots, but that didn't mean she was willing to let her guard down just yet. While Beca ascended the ladder to inspect the loft, Aubrey made quick but thorough work of clearing the two bedrooms set off to the sides of the living room, checking under beds and rifling through the small closets in the rooms. The cabin clearly hadn't seen any human habitation in quite some time, which bolstered Aubrey's hopes that nobody knew about this remote cabin set back in the woods.

She met Beca back in the living room, holstering her pistol as she went. "Agreed. I think this is our best bet for at least a few days--definitely better than where we're at right now. And it's small enough that we can make sure it's thoroughly covered during shifts." That had been one glaring issue with the mansion, because even with their reinforcements, there had been such a vast amount of property to cover when they were on watch. "We should get back and help the others pack up so we can move over here. The sooner the better." Aubrey wasn't a particularly superstitious person, but even she didn't want to voice aloud that she grew more uneasy with each minute that the rest of their group stayed in such an exposed campsite.

*

Beca cracked two of the windows to let the place air out a bit, grateful for the break they’d caught by stumbling upon it. “Yeah, definitely. I’ll radio ahead to Jesse, let him know we’re on our way and to start packing things up.”

They made it back to camp quicker than it took them to get to their new temporary shelter, purposeful in their strides as they were both eager to get back and settled in and officially claim the property as theirs. After receiving Beca’s call, Jesse headed up the repacking efforts by the side of the road, and they were able to find partial cover for their vehicles close enough to the cabin where it wouldn’t be too difficult to find them quickly if god forbid they needed to make another quick getaway. They each carried bags from the cars through the woods, and though most of them had been completely awed about the mansion, Beca sensed an air of relief among the group that this cabin was more secluded, smaller, and would be much easier to defend if need be.

Sluggish in their movements, they followed Aubrey inside, mindlessly claiming beds by tossing their bags on open mattresses. Aubrey guided Chloe into the bedroom with the two twin beds, while Cynthia Rose, Emily, and Stacie scaled the ladder to the loft. Amy headed into the other bedroom and called dibs on the top bunk, leaving the bottom bunk for Beca as Jesse so chivalrously claimed the couch.

Beca hung back and sorted through what was left of their guns and ammunition on the porch, making mental tallies of what needed to be fixed or replaced. Cynthia Rose’s rifle jammed and needed repair, but they were pretty well-stocked on handgun bullets. As she’d expected, they’d used quite a bit of their rifle bullets and shotgun shells fending off the clickers the night before, so they’d need to use them sparingly, especially during hunts; the thought spurred Beca into action, and she stayed outside, fetching thick and long enough branches and snagging the spool of sewing thread from her pack to craft two fishing poles. She’d made them once before and figured fishing in the lake was worth a shot. If she got lucky, she’d reel in something to cook for dinner. If not, it was a good enough distraction anyway, and Beca always felt calmer crafting things with her hands.

*

It seemed that they were catching their first bit of luck since their frantic flight from the mansion, and Aubrey wasn't going to hesitate to seize it. Aubrey was especially grateful for their expediency in making it back to camp, as well as finding the camp largely packed up by Jesse and the girls by the time they arrived.

The return trip to the cabin was somewhat slower going, not only because they were carrying all of their gear, but because Aubrey was meticulous about making sure that everyone in the group paid attention to their trail so they could make it back to the road if needed. If something bad happened, she didn't want to become separated or suffer any more losses because someone's sense of direction had been confused in the moment. She was thankful when the cabin finally came into view once again and remained undisturbed since their brief exploration earlier.

Chloe was still more subdued than usual--granted, they all were, but Aubrey found it especially unsettling from her best friend--so Aubrey didn't hesitate to pull her into the bedroom they could share together. Aside from that, Aubrey was much more hands-off than usual as the girls settled into their respective spaces. She knew they were all struggling through the day, so she wasn't going to ask anything more of them today. They'd found shelter, and that was consolation enough for her. She could pick up any slack that was needed until everyone was feeling more themselves and getting back on their feet. It was the way that Aubrey knew how to cope.

The formerly abandoned cabin was filled with the sounds of everyone getting settled in for their stay at the cabin. It was a quieter affair than it normally would have been with their group, but that was to be expected. Although the newfound shelter was a welcome relief, the quiet despair that permeated the cabin was almost stifling and it settled under Chloe's skin with a restless itch. When Aubrey left the room to go explore the cabinets in the kitchen, Chloe slipped out the backdoor in search of some air. Caught up in her own thoughts, she almost walked right past Beca before she realized she was there. She blinked owlishly several times as she seemed to process the sight of Beca sitting there and cobbling together what appeared to be fishing poles. "Oh--sorry. I didn't realize anybody else was out here." A small, immediate grimace crossed her features at her own instinctive words--seriously, apologizing just for walking outside when someone else was there?--but oh well, what was done was done.

*

Once they settled in, many of the girls attempted sleep since rest the night before had been fitful at best. Like Aubrey, Beca saw no need in bothering any of the others; she of all people knew grief was an incredibly private process, and though she liked Flo, she very much felt out of her element in trying to provide comfort… especially when that wasn’t her strength in the first place. Instead, she was glad to sit out in the fresh air with a self-directed project on her hands, knowing time would be the most soothing balm for that sort of wound anyway.

She’d been fiddling with carving a hook out of a piece of wood and her pocket knife, facial muscles screwed up in concentration with her tongue peeking out the side of her mouth when Chloe’s voice startled her. Beca immediately softened. “Hey. It’s cool. You wanna… sit with me? Or take a walk? I was gonna go check out the lake, or--” She blinked. “If you wanna be outside by yourself that’s totally okay, too. I can go somewhere else.” Concern etched in her brow when she spotted how weary and out of it Chloe seemed, though she understood. Or, at least… she thought she did.

*

Chloe could understand why so many of the girls tried to seek out any kind of rest, because she suspected some of them had slept as little as she had. Emily especially had been drained and going through the motions during the hike to the cabin, so she hoped Stacie and Cynthia Rose would be able to coax the younger girl to sleep. Chloe knew that her own exhaustion would inevitably catch up with her at some point, but sleep would have proved elusive if she'd tried now. There were still too many tangled thoughts vying for attention in her mind and too much jittery restlessness for her to settle down on the twin bed she'd claimed.

Her stomach clenched with something undefinable when Beca's look immediately gentled upon looking up at her. She'd come out here to...well, she didn't entirely know what she'd been looking for, other than fresh air, but that seemed maudlin to admit. Instead, after a moment's pause where her fingers drummed against her legs, she moved to sit next to Beca on the porch. "So...you make fishing poles too?" The look of concern on Beca's face hadn't escaped her notice, so a change of tack in the conversation seemed called for instead of dwelling on that. "A woman of many hidden talents.”

*

Beca was the queen of diverting conversational attention, though she hadn’t experienced Chloe doing it until now. Not one to press, she considered Chloe’s question and wrinkled her nose, a quiet chuckle escaping when she made that extra observation. “It’s a pretty shitty fishing pole--or it will be, if I can get the hook on right. I mean, I definitely wouldn’t tack fishing pole crafting onto a resume or anything. But I figured--why not try since there’s a lake, you know? I have no idea if there are any fish anymore… or if they’re around this time of year or whatever, but if it’ll save bullets…” She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and we can get fancy and have sushi for dinner.”

*

A note of relief worked its way through her and loosened a fraction of the tension in her shoulders when Beca didn't press the issue. Despite Beca's deflection, it was still a markedly better fishing pole than Chloe would have been able to fashion, and she could see the appeal of having a project to work on with her hands at the moment. "Well luckily for us, I don't think fish care very much about if fishing poles are pretty or not. As long as it holds up." She had no idea what their ammunition stores looked like in the aftermath of their escape from the mansion, but she couldn't imagine it was very good. So if fishing could help their prospects in any way, it was a good use of their time. "Bad news, I think I left my bamboo mat for sushi rolling in my other backpack."

*

“Yeah, it’s definitely not gonna win any beauty contests, but we’ll see if the line holds.” Beca gave the tip of the fishing pole a yank, the top of the stick bending just enough that it seemed like it might work. She glanced over, quirking a brow at Chloe. “Bamboo mat? That’s a thing? Damn. Good thing I was joking or you would’ve just crushed my dreams.” Her lips quirked into the hint of a smirk. “You wanna go test it out with me? There’s a little dock down there...” She half expected Chloe to politely decline, which would’ve been cool--she could test it later. But she thought giving Chloe something to do might be helpful, too, so the offer stood.

*

She watched Beca test the line with mild curiosity, if only because her fishing experience was practically nonexistent and she didn't exactly know what to look for anyway. The arch of Beca's brow earned a fleeting quirk at the corner of her mouth before her lips firmed back into a line as she offered a shrug. "Yep, it's a thing. Sorry to ruin all of your illusions about sushi rolls." At Beca's question, her teeth worried at the inside of her cheek as she turned to regard the lake that sat tranquil and undisturbed before them. Maybe some activity would do her some good. "Sure, let's try it out." She pushed herself to her feet and brushed her hands on the front of her jeans, one step of the back porch creaking beneath her weight as she shuffled down from the porch into the yard. It was a short walk across the yard to the lake, with the dock readily in view as they approached. It was nothing fancy, little more than a straight dock that extended out over the water, and the planks of wood were somewhat bleached with age, but it was sturdy beneath their feet. She stopped on the dock to glance over at Beca, nose scrunching with thought. "So...are we supposed to have bait or something?"

*

“So I guess I should admit I never actually had sushi before, but I’m okay with fish and who doesn’t like rice, right? So I figure… why wouldn’t I like it?” She didn’t actually process the fact that seaweed paper bound both elements together, but without a bamboo mat, it didn’t matter anyway. Beca grinned more fully when Chloe agreed to go with her, and she grabbed her satchel and slung it over her shoulder in the off chance they caught anything. “Cool, just--one sec.” She hurried into the house and snagged that abandoned coffee mug from the table, casting a quick wave at Jesse and Aubrey lounging on the couch talking in hushed tones before she slipped back outside. When Chloe turned back, she’d find Beca crouching in the dirt near the base of the short dock. “On it, let’s see….” She turned over some rocks, still damp with morning dew until… “Aha! Hey there, squirmy little suckers.” She plucked the three earthworms she found and popped them into the mug, carrying them over to Chloe and handing off one of the fishing poles. “Hold this please,” she said, lip caught between her teeth as she fished out one of the worms and threaded it around the carved hook so it’d stay. “Ever been fishing?” Beca held the other crafted fishing pole between her thighs while she worked to bait her own line.

*

"Well, I think we might be out of luck on running across a sushi bar out here." Just another item on the seemingly endless list of things they'd lost since the outbreak. Not that sushi was particularly crucial in the grand scheme of things. Even though she couldn't quite hitch a smile of her own into place just yet, it warmed something inside of her chest when Beca's grin grew. She was glad that Beca had the foresight to think about the issue of bait, and the sight of Beca crouching as she overturned rocks so diligently while Chloe watched from the dock was weirdly endearing...right up until Beca actually uncovered some earthworms. It was probably ridiculous to be grossed out by worms when they lived in a world where they dealt with fungal-infected creatures, but her expression still contorted with mild distaste when Beca retrieved the worms and stored them in the mug. "Gross," she muttered with morbid fixation as she watched Beca wind the first worm onto the hook, although she held the extra fishing pole as requested. "Maybe once or twice, with my--" Her voice cut off when the word lodged painfully in her throat. Cool, great, thinking about her family didn't exactly help the emotional rawness of the past day or so. "With my dad. I guess I would've been really little though, too young to really remember anything about it. I'm guessing yes for you, since you actually look like you know what you're doing."

*

“Don't worry, you won't actually need to touch one. I'm a gentleman like that,” Beca muttered as she baited her line, tossing Chloe a wink. “Gross, I guess? Circle of life and all… I'll spare you the song.” She caught Chloe's stammer and a sharp twinge of guilt pierced her gut. “Shit. Sorry.” Maybe a question like that wasn't sensitive. She cleared her throat. “Glad I'm still on my fake it 'til I make it game. I'm not super experienced but there's not much to it, really. Lots of waiting, and patience was never really my thing, but there's not much else to do anyway, so…” Beca motioned to the end of the dock. “Wanna sit?”

*

"How chivalrous of you," she managed on a soft huff of laughter, although her nose scrunched with amusement when Beca turned the tables and winked at her this time. "You sure? I really think the song would complete the experience." Although the first and only time she'd heard Beca's singing voice was the night before when they'd all shared a song as a final farewell to Flo, so maybe music wasn't the happiest topic for now. Guilt bloomed anew in her chest when Beca apologized, and her lips pressed into a tight, brief smile. "It's okay. There's nothing wrong with asking." Her look softened as Beca admitted to not being very experienced with fishing herself; from the sound of it, they might not have much luck in their fishing endeavor. But it was worth a shot, and Beca was right, there wasn't exactly much else to do around here anyway. With a nod, she set the fishing pole down on the dock and settled into a cross-legged seating position at the edge of the dock where she could look out over the water. Taking the pole in hand once again, she carefully pulled it back over over her head and flicked the pole forward so the hook and worm could plop into the water in front of them. It wasn't the prettiest cast in the world, thanks to both her inexperience and the quickly crafted fishing poles they were working with, but hopefully it would be enough to draw the attention of any fish that might be in the lake.

*

“Amy and Jesse would never forgive me if I sang a Disney song without them. They’d probably come out and push me in the lake.” She wouldn’t put it past them, even in their subdued states. Once Chloe got settled, Beca dropped down beside her and let her legs dangle over the side of the dock; two inches of space remained between the soles of her boots and the water. She carefully drew the pole to the side away from Chloe before casting her line out into the calm body of water, too. She didn’t think they’d catch anything, but Beca found herself always grateful for one-on-one time with Chloe, no matter the circumstance. And when the conversation lulled into peaceful silence for a moment, Beca gathered her courage. “Hey. So. I know I’m not--the best at this sorta thing, and I know you’ve obviously got Aubrey and the other girls, but--if you need anything…” She cast a side-glance at Chloe, a tight, encouraging yet somewhat apologetic sort of grin pulling at her features. “Anything. I’m here.” There. That got the point across without completely sounding ridiculous, right?

*

"Well, we did say we're all going to use the lake anyway...you could just get a headstart on everyone else." The antics of Jesse and Amy were at least a slight balm to the ache they'd all been feeling, even if it didn't completely assuage the pang of guilt for feeling any sort of lightness so soon after Flo's death. No matter her current emotional state, there was a certain calming quality to the way Beca settled next to her on the dock and took great care in casting her own line out in front of them. It was so straightforward and uncomplicated that it settled something within Chloe, not completely smoothing away the jagged edges of loss but blunting them somewhat. Her stomach clenched anxiously at the direction Beca's words were taking, even as the gesture itself seemed especially sweet coming from Beca, who wasn't normally the type to do such a thing; she just wasn't sure how much she could divulge of the thoughts that tangled and swirled in her head. After a moment, she cleared her throat and turned her head to meet Beca's gaze more directly. "Thanks, Beca," she returned, her voice soft but genuine. "I should--I've been meaning to--thank you, for giving her those berries. It was more than any of us could have done for her." It was yet again something of a deflection, but she did sincerely mean her expression of gratitude.

*

Beca’s brow rose at the mention of the berries and she replied with a solemn nod. “Yeah, that’s--you don’t have to thank me for that. I found ‘em in a bush by the mansion and thought it’d be a good idea to keep them just in case…” Well, the worst happened, so she was glad she did. “It was better than last time,” she muttered, redirecting her suddenly numb gaze back out to the lake as a chill ran up her spine. She quickly shook it off, though, not letting herself sink back into that darkness. Not now. “Anyway, she wasn’t in any pain, if that’s any comfort to you.” She wrinkled her nose and stole another look at Chloe. “Not that you don’t know that already, Nurse Chloe.” Surely she’d be familiar with the basic properties of poisonous berries. She didn’t want to press, but the look in Chloe’s eye unsettled Beca and concern swirled in her blue-grey irises. “Did you manage any sleep last night?”

*

Her look was unerringly earnest and insistent as she looked over at Beca, even as Beca tried to downplay her thanks. "I do though. I couldn't--I don't know what any of us would have done if we'd had to...well, you know the alternatives." They all did, all too well, even if they didn't like to talk about it aloud if they could help it. Beca's words weren't lost on her, nor was the sudden turn to look away from Chloe. Slowly, she released one hand from the fishing pole and leaned over to gently rest her hand against Beca's forearm for a moment. "I'm sorry." If she felt this devastated over Flo, she could only imagine how Beca had felt to lost her younger sister, how she must still feel, and her heart gave a sympathetic ache when she let herself linger on that thought. "Thanks, that--it helps." Although she did know that, it had been difficult to struggle through the mire of grief that clung to her and threatened to drag her down long enough to actually acknowledge that. It couldn't come close to touching the guilt that cloaked her like a heavy, cloying fog, but it helped the raw, razor's edge of hurt to let herself realize that Flo hadn't felt any pain during her final moments. As soon as Beca posed that question, it was her turn to look outward to face the lake instead. "I'm sure I managed to doze for a while." She forced her lips into a tight, compressed smile and the words came easier when she wasn't looking Beca in the eye, even if the dark circles under her own eyes said otherwise.

*

Beca looked back at Chloe and gave a firm nod. “You would've done what you had to do if I wasn't there. You guys are stronger than you think you are.” She swallowed the lump in her throat but appreciated the light touch. “You don't have to be sorry. It is what it is and I can't change it, even though I replay that night over and over on a fucking loop all the damn time.” She didn't like to let on how that night still haunted her, not wanting to expose more of her weak spots or let anyone think she was unstable, even Chloe. When she looked back to the lake, Beca couldn't help but study her profile. “Hey, what's on your mind? I know it's a lot right now but…” Beca somehow simultaneously couldn't quite put her finger on this version of Chloe while recognizing the aura of guilt subconsciously, pulling Beca into a familiar cloud. “I mean… you don't have to talk about it, it's just… you're a million miles away.” Beca wasn't one to press. She truly wasn't. But Chloe had helped Beca so much with comfort and healing over the past few weeks and though Beca wasn't nearly as good with words as Chloe, she was desperate to return the favor, if at all possible. And something told Beca this was bigger than standard grief. Maybe because Chloe didn't seem closer to Flo than she'd been to the girls who died in the settlement attack, but she definitely could've been wrong on her assessment there.

*

Chloe knew Beca meant that solely as an assertion of their strength and ability to carry on even under the burden of loss, but something like uncertain anxiousness roiled in the pit of her stomach as she considered it. It wasn't easy, even now as a hypothetical, to think about what they might have had to do if Beca hadn't had the berries. As always, it felt easier to offer comfort to Beca than to confront her own feelings head-on. "I am sorry though. I'm sorry that you lost her and that she had to go through that, and I'm sorry that something like that stays with you the way it does." She didn't think Beca was weak or unpredictable because of it, not by a long shot. If anything, she admired the fact that she'd survived the loss herself, no matter how low she might have felt in her darkest moments. Of course, she wasn't allowed to evade her own feelings for very long when Beca plied her with those concerns again.

She knew that she'd been acting off ever since the attack and the loss of Flo, and sleep deprivation hadn't made it any better, but the girls were all so wrapped up in their own emotions that they thankfully hadn't noticed yet. She shouldn't have been surprised that Beca took note of it though, since she'd seemed to like Flo but had a bit more distance from the situation than the girls who had coexisted with Flo every single days for several years now. Maybe it was the sleeplessness, or the crushing press of guilt that felt like it might splinter her ribs, or the genuine concern written across Beca's face that made her feel like she might unravel and come undone underneath the weight of it all. Whatever the reason, it made the words that had been lodged in her chest and choking her since last night finally dislodge. "I got her killed." Each word felt like a jagged barb, scraping her throat raw as they forced their way free, and she couldn't bring herself to look over at Beca now that the words hung in the air between them.

*

Chloe's words had always served as a balm of sorts, even in Beca's darkest moments of confession. She jerked her head in an appreciative nod, mumbling a thank you through tightened vocal cords but didn't speak on it further. She'd meant to check on Chloe, not bring up her own lingering issues that felt like she kept ripping scabs open over and over again. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting--maybe that they’d sit in peaceful silence, buoying each other’s spirits with presence and calm. She certainly wasn’t anticipating the words that fell from Chloe’s lips next. “What?” The question rang reflexive because she wasn’t sure she heard Chloe correctly at first, though the four words echoed in her skull as a sure pulse. “Chloe....” Beca wracked her brain, trying to remember what happened back at the mansion but quickly realized she hadn’t been with the rest of the girls when Flo had been bitten. She wasn’t yet going to assure her it wasn’t her fault (no matter what happened, it absolutely wasn’t--she’s not the clicker, after all), not until she had all of the information, because otherwise it would sound like an empty platitude. “What makes you think that?” Her tone remained soft and low as her eyes remained glued to Chloe’s profile.

*

Chloe almost couldn't believe that she'd actually given voice to the painful shame that had been plaguing her until the words were out in the open between them. She'd intended to contain all of it inside, curling in on herself to shelter everyone else from the truth of it--and if she was being honest, she didn't want to think of how the girls might look at her if they knew. She wasn't altogether surprised that Beca was taken aback by her confession or that she hadn't put the pieces together to realize the same truth that Chloe had, although Beca was the only other person who'd been around to witness what happened in town. One thing that she appreciated about Beca was that she didn't immediately rush to placate her with hollow sentiments that weren't backed up by any sort of evidence.

Even in the midst of her own storm of guilt, she recognized that Beca was trying to understand the situation, rather than soothing her without a second thought to the actual motivations behind her feelings in the first place. Nonetheless, she couldn't contain the sharp, humorless huff of laughter that escaped her as her eyes darted over to Beca for a quick glance, before her gaze dropped to the weathered dock beneath them. "I'm the one who knocked that stuff over in the shop--I made all that noise. I set it all off with the clickers." Everything had fallen apart right after she'd caused the big uproar of noise, so how could she not see the correlation there? "And then Stacie and I...I didn't get to her in time when that clicker attacked her." The clicker that wouldn't have even been there in the first place if Chloe hadn't set them all into a frenzy, but that went without saying.

*

Beca listened hard, processing not only Chloe’s words but the microexpressions on her face along with her body language. She sat still, breathing low and easy, and after Chloe elaborated on that feeling and answered Beca’s question, she waited a few beats to truly process it. Confusion knitted her brow; she’d forgotten Chloe knocked into the mannequin in the shop they’d been salvaging through. But when the memory clicked in her brain, she shook her head hard. “Chloe, no.” Her voice carried firm, unwavering in its tone. “Clickers have heightened hearing but they’re not fast. They don’t move quickly, and the one we saw seconds after that crashing sound may have been attracted to the noise but it was already nearby. If anything, you put us on high alert so we didn’t run into the clicker on our own.”

She understood Chloe may not have been operating under logic in her understandably grief-addled thought processing, but if Beca could do that for her, hopefully she’d be able to provide her with some peace of mind. “Chlo, look at me. You didn’t do this. If the noise in the shop was actually that loud, it would’ve drawn clickers away from the mansion and into the village. And just because you didn’t get there in time to help her doesn’t mean it’s your fault. You need to believe me on that one.” It was something she’d been repeating to herself several times per day ever since, and she couldn’t help it--her eyes welled with tears, though they still shined with fierce honesty. The last thing she wanted was for Chloe to be burdened with that same prickling guilt. “It’s not your fault you didn’t get there in time, you hear me? It’s not. It’s the clicker’s fault this happened, not yours. Not even a little bit.”

*

Although there was very little that could work its way through the haze of pain and guilt that clouded over Chloe in an oppressive aura, Beca's presence next to her was quiet and calming. She might have been verbalizing those thoughts for the first time, but the same endless cycle of thought had been churning relentlessly in her mind throughout the night and well into today. She'd been expecting some protest from Beca over the conclusion she'd reached, but even then, she was still taken aback by the firmness of Beca's tone. "But--listen, I helped stir up any that were in town. And if there were more than that one, then--I just made it worse for everyone when we were trying to get away."

Despite that counterpoint of her own, the logic behind Beca's insistence wormed its way through the stubbornly rooted guilt that had seized her, even as those tumultuous emotions seemed to recoil from anything that threatened their hold on her. Beca's voice managed to startle her from that same cyclical storm of thought that threatened to stir all over again, so at Beca's prompting, hesitant blue eyes turned to meet hers. The tears that greeted her in Beca's eyes struck her just as much if not more than her compelling words, and she felt her throat tighten painfully as tears sprung into her own eyes. "I should've been more careful, Bec. I should've--there has to be more that I could've done." She hated clickers, or hated what they caused and the things they did, but when it came down to it, they didn't have any control. They were just following whatever commands their fungal-controlled brains were given, forever on a mindless hunt for more. Chloe was the one who had failed one of her sisters, her family.

*

She only shook her head harder when Chloe protested, though she did listen. “You didn’t stir them more than they were already stirred. We’d worked all day, some of us outside, that’s probably what drew them out, but they had to have been in the area already. We heard gunshots from the manor less than a minute after I killed that clicker in the street.” She didn’t want to repeat herself, but maybe Chloe needed to hear it again. “If the noise in the shop was that loud, they would’ve come after us in the town.”

When Chloe finally turned to her, Beca didn’t hesitate to lock their gazes, hoping her sincerity shone through to match the conviction in her voice. “I know it’s hard--feels impossible, even--but you can’t think like that, Chlo. You’ll should’ve, could’ve, would’ve yourself to death. We were in a battle with clickers. It was a sneak attack--little to no warning. Everyone acts on instinct in those situations and does their best and there are always things we could’ve done better or differently, but you’re not responsible for Flo or anyone else. It’s… extremely difficult to keep large groups of people together and healthy for as long as you have. Especially now, without semi-permanent shelter. Most groups would’ve seen far more damage after an attack like that. Even with the reinforcements… you can only hold them off for so long. Even with all the training and preparation. It’s shitty and it’s fucking depressing and not fair, but that’s just how it is. It’s nobody’s fault.” She reached up to cup Chloe’s face before stopping herself a centimeter before making contact, wrinkling her nose apologetically. “Shit, sorry. Worm fingers.” A hoarse, raspy note of decompressing hint of laughter echoed in the air between them. “But--please, Chloe, don’t do this. Don’t blame yourself. I promise there’s no reason for it.”

*

No matter how much her guilt and loss demanded to be felt and heard, she had to admit that Beca's rationale made sense. Certainly more sense than the awful correlations her mind had drawn in the immediate aftermath of such terrible news and the subsequent death of Flo, when the pain had been so fresh and disorienting, but Beca did have the benefit of more experience with clickers and their habits and she was able to dissect that through a more objective lens. "I guess you're right." Her voice was quiet but not skeptical or argumentative, even as she lifted one hand to swipe angrily at the tears that stung her eyes. Through it all, the steadiness of Beca's gaze was a stabilizing point of focus that helped her center herself. It really was uncanny how quickly Beca had become one of the people in her life who quell even her most emotional moments and help her reorient herself when it felt like she was drowning and couldn't find her way to the surface. Even though Beca had opened up to her quite a bit during their time together, even she was surprised by the lengths Beca went to in sharing all of her thoughts that helped Chloe find some peace with the situation.

"You're a lot better at that stuff than I am." Her shoulders hitched with the sharply exhaled breath of a laugh that accompanied it, even though her voice carried a hoarse edge to it and her laugh was watery. Her nose scrunched when Beca recoiled her hand just as quickly as she'd lifted it. "Gross," she returned in an echo of their earlier conversation, although there was no real distaste behind it now. "Thanks, Beca." It would probably take time to break herself of the habit of letting herself think the worst and falling into that mindset of blaming herself, but the logic that Beca had presented helped. It gave her a clearer point of focus when she could break the scariest, most heartbreaking moments down into rational points that made more sense, even in the aftermath. Chloe was an emotionally driven person, and sometimes that meant getting lost below the surface of the rising tide when something as terrible as this happened. It felt like Beca had offered her a lifeline in the midst of all of that.

*
*

“Psh, give yourself some credit. Just ‘cause I’ll touch the worms and you won’t doesn’t mean I’m better at fishing,” Beca countered softly with an exhausted grin. She knew Chloe meant that Beca was better at recovering after a tragic event like that, but that was only the case because she’d lived it time and time again. Chloe’s emotions may exist closer to the surface than Beca’s, but Beca’s ran deep and full and overwhelmed her sometimes, mostly because she’d so rarely let them out to display or wrestle with.

Those suppressed emotions threatened to derail Beca on several occasions over the years, especially during her darkest times, but her logical center thankfully remained wedged in Beca’s skin like a jagged, submerged splinter; she’d tried digging it out in so many ways, but it always stubbornly remained, and it pulled Beca back to center when she felt her emotions causing her to drift out into that stormy sea of doubt and guilt and despair. Logic, she hoped, she could pass onto Chloe. Though her fingers had touched worms, she gripped her fishing pole and shifted closer to Chloe, still wanting some sort of contact. Her outer thigh pressed into Chloe’s knee and she let her head rest against Chloe’s shoulder, eyes cast back out to the lake. “I’ll remind you it’s not your fault again when you need to hear it,” she mumbled, knowing that guilt waxed and waned over time. “And maybe you can remind me when I need it, too.”

*

"I'm not touching the worms, so you can keep the title," she scoffed with a wrinkle of her nose, sounding more like herself for possibly the first time that day. Maybe that had been Beca's aim all along. She knew that neither of them had really been talking about fishing anyway, but there was an undercurrent of understanding that ran between them so they didn't have to verbalize that. She'd been honest that Beca was better at handling things than she was, because Beca possessed a much more level headed ability to break down situations like that attack and understand how it had all come about in logical steps, whereas Chloe had allowed her grief to lead her to the worst case scenario and she'd clung to it until Beca had talked her through it. She'd seen glimpses of Beca's pain when she'd allowed her to see past her defenses, so she knew it didn't stem from a lack of emotion; Beca was a survivor, but she felt things just as keenly as anyone else. Beca was like the embodiment of still waters running deep.

Even though they'd already been sharing a close proximity, relief washed through her when Beca shifted closer to her. For someone like Chloe who thrived on physical contact, the warmth of Beca's leg against hers and the reassuring weight of her head against Chloe's shoulder worked wonders on settling her. "Thank you, Becs." A furrow of concern and understanding knitted her brow even though she couldn't see Beca's face from their current position, but her cheek brushed against the top of Beca's head when she nodded. "Of course, anything you need. Anytime. I'm here for you." One hand strayed from her fishing pole again so she could rest it against Beca's knee that was closest to her, fingertips brushing across the curve of her knee and the worn denim of her jeans. The lake wasn't exactly hopping with fish anyway, she could manage the fishing pole with one hand and it was a more than acceptable trade-off to have another point of contact with Beca.

*

The first day in the secluded cabin remained mostly quiet. Sleep found most of them at some point for longer periods of time, bodies crashing and demanding rest after the stress and strain of the attack and emotional aftermath. Between sleeping episodes, they huddled together in smaller groups for light conversation consisting of mostly emotional check-ins throughout the day, and some found solace in small projects. Cynthia Rose and Stacie worked out the water filtration situation. Aubrey set off for a stress-relieving pre-sunset hunt, promising to use her rifle bullets sparingly; she returned with a few rabbits they’d cooked over a fire. After Beca’s first attempt at fishing proved unsuccessful, she spent more time crafting stronger rods that could cast farther from the dock. Jesse patched a broken window to give himself something to do. Aubrey chopped firewood and stored it neatly on the dryer, covered portion of the back porch.

The second day wasn’t much different than the first, but with the sun warming the lake more than the previous day, they took advantage and used the shampoo and soap they’d pilfered from the mansion to clean themselves, scrubbing the grime and dried sweat built up over time. The refreshing water may not have washed away the sadness over the still-sharp loss of Flo, but along with the extra day of relaxation and rest, it served to make them feel a bit more human again. Sparks of their regular banter returned, though laughs tinged with hints of sadness and guilt as they didn’t forget the fresh loss.

Beca’s plans to test out her new and improved fishing poles before dinner were dashed as pelting rain fell steady and cold, unrelenting even throughout sunset. Cynthia Rose ignited a fire in the fireplace, which helped warm the otherwise chilly, drafty cabin. The crew huddled together in the living room, clean and tired with full stomachs, most in their pajamas already. Beca shuffled out of her shared bedroom with Amy to find half of them already gathered. She pulled the sweatshirt Chloe had gifted her over her head--her first time wearing it in front of anyone else, but her leather jacket simply wasn’t nearly as comfortable--and she wedged herself into the corner of the couch, tucking her legs beneath her.

“We should figure out our next steps,” Jesse said, glancing around to the group with his eyes landing on Beca. He raked a hand through his too-long hair. (Beca hadn’t cut it in a while… not that she was any good at it, but they’d been preoccupied and he was overdue.)

Beca nodded but kept quiet, wanting to hear everyone else’s thoughts before she jumped in.

“We should probably try for another settlement,” Jesse continued. “That’s the safest option, if we can secure a spot somewhere.”

“Or we can stay here a while. It’s much easier to watch over this place than the mansion,” Cynthia Rose offered with a shrug, cozying up to Stacie beneath the blanket draped over both of their laps. “Warms up pretty good, too, which’ll be clutch when it gets even colder.”

“Someone’s bound to find us eventually,” Stacie lamented with a sigh. “I’m with Jesse. I think a settlement’s better for all of us, if we can find one that’ll let us all stay.”

*

The quiet respite was welcomed by all. Time and space were the only things that could heal some wounds, and while the loss of Flo was still fresh on their minds, a chance to recuperate at least started them on the path towards making peace with it. Chloe even joined many of the girls in lapsing into a deep sleep later in the day, unable to resist the heavy weight of sleep anymore thanks to her exhaustion and some measure of absolution that she'd managed to find in her talk with Beca. While the rest of the group busied themselves with various activities, either to fortify the cabin or to bolster their supplies during their stay here, Chloe enlisted Emily's help. Together, they meticulously combed the area around the cabin, foraging any berries and nuts that they could find that hadn't been picked over by animals already or succumbed to the first hints of fall in the air. They were knowledgeable enough to know what was safe to eat, and it would supplement the meat that Aubrey had managed to bring back from her hunt. They never strayed too far from the cabin either, and Chloe suspected that being out in the sun and having a task to work on helped Emily as much as anything could at that point.

Being able to use the shampoo and soap in the lake was different than the jubilant joy they'd felt upon first cleansing themselves in the creek near the mansion. That had been full of laughter and exuberant enjoyment. The lake was a more subdued affair, but as they scrubbed themselves clean of dirt and grime, it seemed to return some measure of tranquility to them. It was a quiet restoration, one they all desperately needed. The jokes might have been lighter and the laughter softer, but they were there, and that had to count for something.

Chloe was concerned briefly that the unrelenting rain might snuff out the small burgeoning of recovery they felt beneath the dreary atmosphere and damp chill, but she needn't have worried. The group seemed content to take it as an excuse to bundle up in sweatpants or pajamas and huddle in close to one another. They'd spread out more during their nights in the mansion, luxuriating in the space and booze it afforded them. Now, however, they all seemed happy to share blankets and tuck in against one another in the much smaller living room around the fireplace. Chloe sat cross-legged near the fire and let Emily stretch out across the floor and rest her head in her lap, while Chloe absentmindedly braided a length of Emily's hair before gently working it loose with her fingers and starting all over again. She glanced upward when the soft shuffle of footsteps announced Beca's entrance, and her eyes softened upon seeing Beca wearing her sweatshirt.

That observation was quickly pushed aside by Jesse's suggestion. They'd all known the discussion had to some sooner or later, even if they hadn't been keen on thinking about details and plans while they recuperated.

"This place is fairly defensible and secluded, but I'm not sure that it's sustainable in the long term," Aubrey pointed out, unafraid of offering her viewpoint. "This place might stay warm in the winter, but there are other factors to think about besides heating this place when the cold weather hits. We're low on rifle ammo, we'll only be able to hunt so often. And the rest of our food stores can only last so long, especially when, as far as we know, we're not close to anywhere we can go scavenge."

"Anywhere we go, it's not gonna be the same..." Emily's voice was soft, almost lost in the blanket she'd pulled up beneath her chin as she curled up close to Chloe on the floor.

"I'm sorry, but this is about practicality. I know we all miss Barden, it was special to us. And we've all...dealt with a lot since we had to leave there," Aubrey conceded, but there was no softening of the clear resolve on her face. "But this is about keeping all of us safe. And I'm not sure we can do that here."

"But we saw how it went last time we tried to go to a new settlement," Cynthia Rose countered with a knowing look. "I know every settlement is different, but think about it. It's gonna be winter before too long, and we all know that's when resources are stretched the tightest for everyone. Is anywhere gonna want to take on the burden of more people to feed and take care of on such short notice? Especially strangers they don't know."

Chloe kept quiet as she listened to the rest of the group throw their thoughts in for consideration. It was unsurprising that everyone had their own opinion on how they should proceed from here, even if planning had been derailed for a little while in favor of licking their wounds and mourning the death of Flo. She was curious to hear where everyone fell on the issue, although she was hesitant to share her own thoughts. That was largely because she wasn't sure that Beca would share her plan to keep moving west, if that was still ultimately her goal, and Chloe didn't want to mislead any of the girls on the issue.

*

“Aubrey’s right,” Beca muttered, earning her a shocked sort of look from most people gathered. It did still pain Beca to admit when she agreed with Aubrey, but this was important enough to set aside her pride. Plus, she hadn’t forgotten they’d come to an understanding of sorts during their scouting for the cabin. “This place isn’t sustainable for long-term. Besides, it’s never a good idea to stay somewhere longer than a few weeks at a time. Getting too comfortable is dangerous.” They’d proven that at the mansion, but Beca definitely didn’t need to point out that particular example.

Jesse nodded in solemn agreement. “You guys all have skills to offer a settlement that would make it worth them sharing their safer space and some resources. You’re not just gonna be there mooching off whatever they’ve got. You’ll pull your weight and then some. That counts for something.”

“Well I’m still willing to do whomever it takes to secure our spots,” Stacie reminded everyone, her head resting heavy on Aubrey’s shoulder.

“We might have to split up to make it work,” Jesse added with a heavy sigh. “Settlements would be much more likely to take a smaller group.” He braced himself for the backlash from that suggestion.

*

The surprise among the group was palpable when Beca spoke up in support of Aubrey. Despite their shock, there was no denying that Beca's endorsement of Aubrey's stance carried a lot of weight. Although their leadership styles might have been vastly different, there was no question that the girls had grown to respect both of them and look to them for advice and guidance in moments like this. "Exactly," Aubrey agreed, quickly moving past whatever surprise she might have felt. "We can't afford to get complacent here. I know it's difficult to think about moving on again right now, but we have to be sensible and realistic about this."

Jesse's added input helped put the situation into even more perspective. They didn't doubt their ability to contribute to a new settlement, they'd done plenty of that back at Barden and they hadn't been afraid to pull their weight while they were on the road. But there was still an understandable wariness that lurked among them after the vitriol with which they'd been turned away at the last settlement they'd sought out.

A jolt of instantaneous, unsettled disbelief rippled through the room when Jesse suggested splitting up. There was a stretched moment of silence, where some of the girls seemed to be working through what he'd just uttered aloud and some seemed to think that surely they must have hallucinated such a thing.

"What?" That sharp, clipped statement of disbelief came from Cynthia Rose, who turned to look at Jesse more directly. After being one of the ones advocating for staying at the cabin, it was clear that she was even more resistant now that Jesse's terms apparently included splitting up their group.

"We are a small group," Emily protested reflexively. The unspoken now resonated between all of them without having to be verbalized. They might have lost four of their own, but they were still a sizable group in terms of the numbers you typically saw coexisting cooperatively these days.

"We're really not, Em," Aubrey interjected, and it was only now in addressing Emily that she softened somewhat. "Most groups our size don't stick together out on the road. We'd be a lot for a settlement to take in without any kind of warning." Although she was speaking from a place of cool logic, it was clear that she didn't like the idea any more than the rest of them did.

They were a family, and the thought of breaking that up sent a frisson of anxious panic through all of them. Even when they'd grown to trust and like people back at the Barden settlement, it had always been their core group that stuck together through it all. They trusted each other, they protected each other, and they'd all been through practically everything together. The idea seemed especially rankling when they'd just lost Flo, so soon after losing Jessica, Ashley, and Lilly. How could they break their family up even more, when they'd already forcibly had some people ripped away from them by circumstances outside of their control?

*

“But maybe not,” Amy piped in, noticing the palpable tension settling over the group of them and rushing to try to diffuse some of it. “Maybe we’ll charm the pants off them and be able to stay together.”

“Yeah, sorry, I was only trying to be realistic,” Jesse offered, running his fingers through his hair again. “Maybe, if we have to split up into two settlements, we can be close enough where one of us can earn the other group’s spot after a short time. Splitting up for a little to ensure safety doesn’t mean splitting up forever.”

Beca listened intently, twisting her fingers together in the front pocket of Chloe’s hoodie. She knew they’d only need to find space for 7, not 8. Or maybe fewer once she shared her own plan. She thought she’d put it off, but springing the news on them last minute seemed super unhelpful, particularly when panic set in about potentially having to split. Especially since she had a strong feeling Jesse and Amy wouldn’t hesitate to insist on traveling with her. If she could quell that fear even now, it would be worth it (and she never forgot how leaving without word was definitely a mistake--one she wouldn’t make twice). She gently cleared her throat. “You won’t need a spot for me,” Beca said, catching her lip between her teeth while everyone looked at her. “I’ll do everything I can to help you guys get to a new settlement, I promise--but I can’t join you there. I’ve got something I need to do and I need to keep moving west no matter what.”

“You’re leaving again?” Jesse’s tone rang tighter, his eyes flashing with that same betrayal that met Beca when she’d returned before, once the dust settled after the Barden attack.

“I have to,” she said, pulling her knees up to her chest and hugging them tight. “It’s, um--it’s kind of a family thing, and I made a promise to my dad and it’s complicated but I need to do this. I don’t want to leave you guys. I really don’t.”

“Then don’t,” Jesse said. “We’re your family now, and we need to stick together. Even if we’re forced into two separate groups for a while, it’s not forever.”

Those words simultaneously tightened and released tension in Beca’s chest. “Jess, please.”

“No, Bec. C’mon. A promise to your dad isn’t more important than staying together.”

Amy braced her hand on his shoulder. “Lay off her, Jesse.”

“No, it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit that she wants to leave us in the dust again.” He kept his narrowed eyes on Beca, searching for more answers she wasn’t sure she was ready to give.

“I get it,” Beca snapped back. “I get that it’s bullshit and it doesn’t feel fair. You can come with me if you really want to, but it’s gonna be way more dangerous than a settlement and I’d really rather not have your blood on my hands, too.”

Silence followed, and Beca waited for the inevitable questions she wasn’t sure she was ready to answer, but she’d already cracked the door open enough for the rest of the truth to filter through the gap.

*

On some logical level, some of them could appreciate that Jesse was trying to be practical about his suggestion. Even the ones in favor of seeking out a new settlement had their doubts about how welcomed they would be, so his train of thought made a certain amount of sense. But they weren't particularly keen on thinking as logically as possible at the moment, not when it meant dissecting the possibility of being split apart in the hopes that maybe they could come back together at some later point.

"But there's no guarantee that--"

Stacie's voice immediately faltered, rattled into silence when Beca spoke up to drop that bombshell on them. Everyone else similarly dropped into instantaneous silence, all eyes turning upon Beca with varying degrees of confusion, shock, and disbelief. Chloe was the only one who looked at her with empathetic understanding rather than surprise, the only one who wasn't blindsided by the revelation that Beca would be leaving again. That didn't quell the pang of fearful concern in her heart to hear it spoken aloud or to think about what it meant for Beca.

The reactive backlash from Jesse was probably to be expected. They all recognized that same betrayed hurt that they'd witnessed from him when Beca had left without warning before. Of course, it was different now, when he could direct the immediacy of his reaction at Beca, rather than all of them witnessing him stew in his emotions in her absence.

The girls remained quiet as Beca, Jesse, and Amy went back and forth in that charged exchange. Just as the others had been respectful of their shared bond in letting them grieve on their own terms, they now gave them that same kind of space to hash out this issue, considering the three of them had been together long before joining the rest of the group. Even so, it was clearly written across the faces of many of the girls that, underneath their surprise, none of them wanted to part from Beca either. Jesse was right, she was part of their family now too.

It was only when silence fell again that any of the gals stirred.

"She's telling the truth. It's not ideal, but--it's something she needs to do." Chloe's voice finally spoke up to join the fray of back and forth among the group. Emily's head tipped back in her lap to pin her with wide eyes, and she could feel the eyes of the others on her in a similar fashion. Aubrey's gaze burned into her with a particular intensity, but Chloe had anticipated as much. She knew they all had every right to feel stung or hurt by the fact that she'd had this information and hadn't shared it, but in her mind, it hadn't been her news to divulge. It was the task that Beca had taken upon herself, and if Chloe could offer some support of that now, then that's what she would do.

"You knew?" Maybe she should have anticipated that Jesse's voice would be the first to fill the silence after her words, but even so, it was difficult not to flinch beneath the open hurt in his eyes when he looked between the two of them. When no answer was forthcoming from Chloe, he turned back to Beca. "She knew?"

"Guys, let's all be reasonable here and talk this out," Stacie interjected, hands held up in front of her in placation when she leaned forward from her seat to look at all of them in turn.

"Stacie's right." Aubrey's voice was brisk and business-like. "It's ultimately Beca's decision if she stays or goes. And she's right--if she's going to be on the road rather than a settlement, it's going to be more dangerous for anyone who wants to go with her." It was clear from her tone that she didn't care for the idea of any of the girls throwing themselves into that line of danger.

"Beca..." Emily lifted her head from Chloe's lap, pushing herself into a sitting position to look at her more directly. "What do you...what's so important that you can't stay with us?" Everyone knew that Emily had taken a particular fondness towards Beca, so the hesitation and uncertainty in her voice and written openly across her face were clear for all to see.

*

Amy’s brow furrowed as her stare cut between Jesse, Beca, and Chloe, muttering to herself as she tried working out what was going on.

Beca’s eyes popped wide when Chloe’s voice broke the silence to support her, and though her heart swelled with appreciation, she felt Jesse’s piercing stare grow stonier as he let that information sink in.

“Don’t snap at Chloe. It’s me you’re pissed at,” Beca said with a calm, low tone, wanting to take any sort of heat she could away from Chloe, who’d come to her defense and didn’t deserve any direct or residual vitriol from Jesse or anyone else. She noticed the other girls looking at Chloe with some measure of shock or betrayal. “All of you. I made Chloe swear not to say anything, this is all on me.”

The support from Aubrey was appreciated and Beca acknowledged that with a small, jerky nod, but there was definitely a warning undercurrent to that declaration and she didn’t blame her. Beca wasn’t expecting anyone but Jesse and Amy to volunteer to make the suicidal journey with her to Colorado, but now, she wasn’t even sure she’d have them. (Which stung harder than she thought it would, but ultimately accepted; she was honest when she said she didn’t want their blood on her hands, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could help keep them alive.)

It was Emily’s question, full of genuine care and worry with wide, curious eyes that reminded her all too much of Sara, that tugged at Beca’s heartstrings.

“Because,” she started, daring a glance over at Chloe. The simple act of looking at her settled something within her and she drew in a deep breath through her nose, exhaling through her mouth. “Because before my dad died, he injected me and my little sister with two versions of a vaccine he’d created to protect against the fungus. When we were attacked--nine months ago, now--” She summoned her courage and shifted her eyes back to Jesse, now welling with tears she furiously attempted to blink back. “We were both bitten that night, not just Sara. Sara started turning and I…” Her shoulders rose and fell in a jerky motion. “I didn’t.”

Jesse’s jaw fell slack and he slumped back against the couch, shaking his head in disbelief. That furious hurt only amplified in both his gaze and his tone. “Why didn’t you tell us, Beca? You could’ve died. You could’ve turned.”

“Because I fucking wished I had.” Beca’s voice carried in an unsteady rasp as she angrily reached up to wipe the traitorous tears spilling down her cheeks. “You weren’t supposed to find me. You were supposed to leave me there with her.”

“Yeah, sorry, no chance of that,” Amy said, keeping her cool as she normally did while Beca fought her own demons in front of a large crowd, pulling the neck of Chloe’s sweatshirt up over her face in an attempt to get her shit back together in private. Amy kept on. “You’re our girl, yeah? You’re a certified badass. You’re Beca effin’ Mitchell! You’re awesome and we care about you. We couldn’t let you go through that alone.” Amy’s hand tightened on Beca’s shoulder in support, and the Aussie managed a watery smile. She’d liked that little dingo Sara effin’ Mitchell, too.

“That doesn’t change the fact that you told Chloe before you told us,” Jesse pointed out in a low grumble, still stuck on that fact.

Beca rolled her eyes and shook her head. She’d deal with Jesse and his jealousy issues later (unless, of course, he pushed the point even further in the large group conversation… but hopefully he had more sense than that). “Anyway,” she said, reemerging from Chloe’s hoodie and trying harder to compose herself as she looked back to Emily and the rest of them. “Dad told me about a research lab in Denver working on finding a cure, and I have no idea if they’re still there but I gotta try to get there ‘cause clearly I’ve got the damn vaccine in my blood.”

*

As soon as Jesse glowered between her and Beca, a fuller realization clicked into place. A sickly knot of dread tightened in the pit of her stomach as she was forced to think about exactly how she'd found out about Beca's bite and the vaccine she carried in her blood, if anyone else in the group pressed the issue.

Thankfully, no one did, and she felt the tension loosen in cautious increments as the conversation continued around her.

She knew her defense of Beca hadn't been expected, but while it had been a knee jerk impulse to stick up for her, she didn't regret it. Emotions had understandably been fragile and raw after Beca's first departure without a warning to anyone, so she wanted to stick up for the fact that Beca had a reason for wanting to set off yet again.

"Don't be pissed at Beca either," she interjected with an imploring look around at the group. Beca might be willing to take all of the heat from everyone, but Chloe couldn't just sit by and accept that. "She had her reasons for keeping it to herself at first. I know how that sounds. Trust me, I get it, but she's just trying to do her best."

When Beca glanced over at her after Emily's question, her shoulders tightened and she sat up a little straighter with dawning anticipation at the look in Beca's eyes. Was she actually going to tell them? While Chloe knew the girls would understand with time, she'd begrudgingly accepted Beca's reasoning before that she didn't want anyone prioritizing her over themselves because of the vaccine in her bloodstream.

When Beca shared the truth about the vaccine, the expressions of everyone in the group were how Chloe imagined her face must have looked when she'd first learned the news. When Jesse's hurt frustration flared again and Amy tried to interject and keep the peace, silence settled thickly over the rest of them. With the death of Flo still so fresh on their minds, they could all understand how terrifying that night must have been, and what it must have meant for Beca to deal with that reckoning on her own.

Stacie's analytical brain was clearly one of the first in working through the shock that blanketed the group at the revelation. "You're telling us there's an actual, working vaccine?" That was more than any of them had dared to hope for ages now, so Chloe understood how flummoxed they all were.

"You serious? That's--shit, I don't think any of us were even thinking of that anymore," Cynthia Rose mused, releasing her breath on a low, disbelieving hiss as she rubbed a hand across the back of her neck.

Most of the group was clearly still staggered by what they had just learned, and Chloe didn't blame them for that. She'd been completely dumbfounded herself, and she'd had the opportunity to have this whole conversation with Beca one-on-one in a much quieter atmosphere.

"Do you really think they could still be there?" There was none of Aubrey's typical skepticism or clipped disdain in her voice then. She was clearly as affected by the news as the rest of the group. Aubrey might be harsh at times, but there was no denying that they'd all longed to hear real, promising news of a vaccine for years now. Unsurprisingly, Aubrey was one of them who was the most scared to trust to hope at the idea of such a possibility.

"Denver's a hell of a haul," Cynthia Rose murmured halfway to herself, seemingly realizing exactly how daunting the prospect of making that trek would be.

"But it's worth a shot, isn't it?" Chloe countered earnestly. It was certainly more hope than any of them had felt for ages, and although she'd had longer to acclimate to the news than they had, she suspected they would come around to see the logic of that with time. "It seems like the best shot anyone's had in a long time at this point."

*

After doing her best to diffuse Jesse’s simmering anger over something that really wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things, Amy squinted back at Chloe when she bounced back for another round of sticking up for Beca. How odd. She’d always been observant, but she kept her questions to herself for the time being, listening as everyone else silently or verbally processed the new information presented to them. “Living proof right here, apparently,” Amy said, motioning to Beca as an answer to Stacie’s question.

“Couldn’t possibly know for sure, but I need to find out.” Beca replied to Aubrey as she curled up tighter in the corner of the couch, her eyes averting to the fire while reactions continued bubbling out of shock. “Yeah, it is,” she mumbled in agreement when Cynthia Rose remarked on the seemingly impossible distance she’d have to travel. She allowed herself to look back at Chloe, her shaky spirits once again propped up by her support. “It’s a shot I’ve gotta take. I don’t want you guys worrying about me, though. I’ll figure it out.”

“And now you’ll only need spots for six, see? It’ll all work out great,” Amy declared with a too-wide smile, a weak attempt to raise the dreary mood permeating the air in the small cabin.

“Five,” Jesse grumbled, temporarily taking on Beca’s usual curmudgeonly persona. He may be hurt and frustrated, but he wouldn’t let Beca and Amy go off without him.

Beca snapped her attention back to Amy and Jesse. “Guys, seriously. It shouldn’t be a snap decision this time. Take some time to think about it at least, okay?” She exhaled with a heavy sigh, reaching up to run her fingers through her hair as she looked back to the rest of the group. “I’m not leaving tomorrow or anything. We’ll figure out the settlement thing first, explore those options for the rest of you. Maybe we’ll intercept some signals on the walkies like I did before--might be worth burning through a battery to get some potential leads.”

*

Although Stacie's question had largely been fueled by their shared disbelief, there was no disputing that Amy's response carried incontrovertible fact. Nobody survived months after a bite without turning, so if Beca was still sitting here before them as a completely unaffected person with no signs of infection, then clearly her father had discovered something with his vaccine.

"Well, we all know that rumors of labs and facilities around here have proven to be a bust. So if there's anywhere that's still standing...Denver's as good a shot as anything," Aubrey agreed, her look growing contemplative as her thoughts turned inward. The reports they'd heard had been vastly limited by the people who were able to make it to Barden in the past and the geographical restrictions that made travel more difficult with so much danger out on the road, so they'd never heard news from that far west. Hope was difficult to muster, but maybe something outside of their limited scope had fared better.

It came as no surprise to anyone when Amy and Jesse immediately jumped on the bandwagon of accompanying Beca on her mission, no matter how incensed Jesse had been by her revelation. Nobody really thought for even a second that her companions would abandon her now, despite how much Beca cautioned them about the dangers of the journey.

"Of course we're gonna worry about you. Like Jesse said, you're family now too," Cynthia Rose insisted, immediately shooting down that attempt from Beca to downplay what she had ahead of her.

"I don't mind taking one of the walkies and trekking out a bit even while we're here to see if we can pick up a signal from somewhere." It was Aubrey who volunteered, largely because staying busy helped keep her mind off of things and she didn't want any of the girls to risk venturing out too far away from their group.

"I'll go with you, if you want," Chloe offered, piping up once again from her spot on the floor near Emily. Her gaze slid over to Beca in a fleeting glance before flickering back over to Aubrey.

"That'll give us some time to maybe build up some supplies and all. We won't have to worry about that as much if we find a self-sustaining settlement, so you'll need all the help you can get out on the road," Stacie mused, fingers drumming against the tops of her legs as she seemed to mull that over. It was clear from her demeanor that she accepted Beca's decision, so rather than trying to talk her out of it (because they all understood the gravity and importance of it), she was determined to provide whatever help they could.

In fact, even though it went against their every instinct about splitting up their group, most of the girls seemed to have accepted Beca's decision fairly readily. None of them could offer a compelling argument against her reason for leaving, not when it had the potential to mean so much for everyone. They knew they all would have done the same if they were in her position.

*

Beca’s shoulders relaxed as a blanket of acceptance seemed to settle everyone else and they didn’t fight her on her plan to eventually separate. Despite not feeling completely ready to divulge the truth about what had happened, she knew any excuse she would’ve come up with would’ve been way less convincing than the truth, so she didn’t regret her decision to share it with them and was grateful that they seemed to understand. Her lips pulled into a tight, appreciative grin at Cynthia Rose’s insistence that they were family, and it only fueled Beca’s desire to get to Denver where she could hopefully make a difference for everyone.

“I can help with that, too,” Jesse offered to Aubrey after Chloe, the frustrated edge waning from his voice as he picked at the fabric from the blanket across his lap.

Beca wanted to protest Stacie’s offer since she and Jesse and Amy had done just fine on their own before, but it was a really nice gesture and she didn’t want to upset anyone further, so she nodded her thanks.

“So we’ve got a plan, yeah? At least, the start of one…” Amy flashed a thumbs up to the group. “Why don’t you guys settle in for some sleep? I’ll take first watch tonight.”

Jesse nodded. “I’ll sit on watch with you.” He wanted to discuss their own next steps without Beca around, and now seemed like a good time.

“M’not that sleepy,” Emily mumbled, her yawn betraying her wish to stay up late as she snuggled into Chloe’s lap. The weight of the conversation would hit her more fully tomorrow--she was still too out of it from the stress of the past 24 hours, but she hoped she could talk Beca and Amy and Jesse into staying with them.

Cynthia Rose offered a chuckle. “C’mon, Em. That bed up there looked pretty damn comfy to me.”

*

Although none of them were particularly fond of the idea of Beca leaving them again, especially since Jesse and Amy would be joining her and their family would once again dwindle in number, they all seemed to be making amends with the loosely constructed plan they had in place for now. They'd been focused on survival for so long now, so if there was something that Beca could do that promised even a chance for something better in the future, they knew they couldn't fight her on it. It was more than anyone else had been able to do since so much of civilization had fallen, and it was a chance that needed to be taken.

"Thanks, Jesse," Aubrey offered with a short nod, both because of his offer to help and because the combative edge to his demeanor had ebbed away.

Nobody protested Amy and Jesse's offer to take the first watch as the evening began to wind to a close. Both the dreary, steady patter of rain outside and the heavy news that had been imparted to them, in addition to the weariness of loss they were still dealing with, ensured that they were all ready to turn in for the night.

Chloe chuckled under her breath when Emily offered an unconvincing protest to the idea of going to bed, especially when a soft rake of her fingers through Emily's hair seemed to make it even more difficult for the younger girl to keep her eyes open. "C'mon, Em. We're all turning in for the night, Cynthia Rose and I will help you up there."

There was another faintly indecipherable mumble from Emily, but Chloe dropped a quick kiss against the crown of her head and Emily allowed them both to coax her to her feet. With Emily sleepily shuffling her way across the living room, Cynthia Rose and Chloe guided her over to the ladder that led up to the loft. Cynthia Rose seemed to have matters well in hand, so Chloe turned back to find Aubrey and Stacie exchanging a quick conversation under their breath.

Chloe’s eyes flickered over to Beca again and lingered for a moment this time, but in the slight gloom that crept into the cabin beyond the circle of light and warmth that the fire provided, she thought it probably went unnoticed.

Jesse and Amy were already moving to take up positions for their watch while everyone else slowly dispersed from the living room, so she crossed the short distance back to the living room. "Bree? Are you calling it a night?"

*

Part of Beca hoped Amy and Jesse would talk some sense into each other and decide not to accompany her further west. The other (selfish and needy) part hoped they’d stick with her. Hopefully Amy would at least talk to Jesse about how he’d reacted about the bite, make him realize it wasn’t a big deal she didn’t tell them sooner. Or maybe she’d have to apologize to him again.

Once they took up post out on the front porch, Beca cast a furtive glance at Chloe and her heart thudded when she unexpectedly caught her gaze, holding it for a prolonged moment. Knowing Amy would stay outside for a couple hours at least, Beca dared motion to what Amy had claimed as their bedroom with a slight jerk of her head in that direction. They had more to talk about, after all, now that she made it clear to everyone they’d be parting ways in the near future. Beca pushed up from the couch and shuffled into that bedroom, leaving the door cracked as she lit one of the tealight candles she’d taken from the mansion and settled herself on the bottom bunk, stretching out along the smaller mattress.

Aubrey said goodnight to Stacie before the taller girl climbed the ladder to the loft before she turned back to Chloe and nodded. “I think I’ll try to set up some small game traps around the woods in the morning if the rain stops.” There wasn’t a high probability they’d catch much, but if they were trying to conserve ammunition, they had to get creative. “Are you staying up?” She knew Chloe slept quite a bit during the day, but she didn’t want her to mess up her sleep schedule too badly.

*

She hadn't expected to catch Beca's eye, but her stomach still gave the familiar, telltale swoop when stormy eyes met hers across the room. She was glad for it anyway, since she caught the subtle nod that Beca made towards her shared room with Amy. While Aubrey was preoccupied with Stacie, Chloe's chin jerked in a faint, responding nod of confirmation before Beca disappeared into her room.

She turned in time to catch Stacie disappearing up the ladder into the loft to join Cynthia Rose and Emily, but then her attention settled back on Aubrey. "Good idea. I'll try to forage some more tomorrow too. I think Emily and I covered the area right around the cabin pretty well, but..." Her shoulders jolted with a graceless shrug. She didn't know that they'd find very much, considering the turning of the seasons that was almost upon them, but it was worth a try. They needed to be as smart as possible about conserving the resources they still had, while strengthening their reserves if at all possible with things they scavenged or hunted around here. "I'll be there in just a bit. You should get some sleep though, I'm sure you'll want to get an early start on those traps."

"Don't stay up too late." Aubrey was silent as she watched her for a beat afterward, as if she wanted to say more, before she merely nodded instead and disappeared into their shared room. The door softly clicked shut behind her.

Chapter Text

"Don't stay up too late." Aubrey was silent as she watched her for a beat afterward, as if she wanted to say more, before she merely nodded instead and disappeared into their shared room. The door softly clicked shut behind her.

Chloe took a moment to look around the now emptied living room, her shoulders rising and falling with a long, soft sigh. She only allowed herself that moment of decompression before she quietly padded over to Beca's room. She pushed the door open a little further and leaned against the door frame, reaching up to softly rap her knuckles against the door. Her fingers twisted in the front of her sweatshirt as she watched Beca where she was stretched out across the bottom bunk. "Hey. How are you feeling?"

*

Beca wasn’t sure how long it would take Chloe to slip away--maybe Aubrey would stay up longer, or maybe Chloe would wait until her roommate fell asleep. Not that they couldn’t talk behind closed doors… maybe Beca was being too paranoid, but after Jesse’s little stunt, she didn’t want to rock the boat more than she had. (Not that she had to be super sensitive to his feelings, especially when he was being a jerk, but… ugh, Jesse. Guilt trip master extraordinaire.)

She scrambled to sit up at the soft knock, waving Chloe inside as her legs swung around to dangle off the side of the bed. “That was gonna be my line,” she said, pitching her voice low just in case it carried. She patted the spot next to her, in case Chloe needed an invitation. It was hard to believe it had only been 24 hours since the clickers attacked them. Beca had been so preoccupied with everyone else, she’d hardly taken any time to check in on her own state of being. Really, though--her confession to the group rattled her just as much as the clicker ambush, and she was still feeling the aftereffects of being emotional in front of everyone. “I’m okay, I guess. What about you?”

*

Chloe suspected that Emily was already out like a light, and Cynthia Rose and Stacie would probably be joining her in rapid succession if they hadn't already. Aubrey might have her concerns about Chloe's sleeping patterns, but Chloe was pretty sure she had a good window of time before Aubrey might get suspicious if Chloe didn't join her, if she didn't doze off herself before then. It was really only Amy and Jesse who would be awake and alert, but after Jesse's reaction before, she didn't want to bring any undue drama down upon the group. Besides, there was nothing to set suspicions on edge, at least from an outside perspective. Friends could totally talk in their rooms, right? Nothing to see there at all.

After the tension of the group discussion before, her face softened and her shoulders relaxed upon seeing Beca sit up on the bed to greet her. "Guess I beat you to the punch," she offered with a hint of a smile in return. She turned slightly to push the door shut behind her with a careful click before she joined Beca on the bed, curling one leg beneath her as she settled beside Beca on the mattress. There had been a lot of information unveiled during their group talk, and practically all of it had rested on Beca's shoulders and laid bare a lot of her most painful secrets, so Chloe was understandably concerned. Especially since Jesse had given her a particularly hard time about the news. "I'm fine, I just wanted to make sure you were okay. After everything--I know it was a lot."

*

It didn’t really make much sense to Beca how something as simple as Chloe’s proximity could work to calm nerves and discomfort, but as soon as the redhead sat next to her, she felt the anxiety from that vulnerable conversation ebbing away. “Yeah, I mean--I guess it’s good it’s out there, y’know?” She raked a hand through her hair and blinked over at her. “Do you think that was the right call? Telling everyone the truth, I mean. Not that I wanted to lie, but…” She sighed as her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. Lying was okay to protect people, in Beca’s opinion, but she wasn’t very convincing at it anyway.

*

The quiet closeness with Beca was a welcome respite after high emotions had flared out in the living room; the rain outside the cabin provided a soft, steady background noise that made her feel even more like they were sheltered away in a little bubble of privacy for at least a little while. That could be hard to come by in the relatively small cabin. "I think it was good. I mean...I know it wasn't easy, but I think it helped everyone understand. Y'know, why you have to do this." She reached across the minuscule gap between them to give Beca's hand a soft squeeze. "I'm sorry that...things got tense for a while."

*

The solidarity Chloe showed her helped buoy her spirits about everything that happened in the living room, and the contact worked to ground her in that moment. Beca laced their fingers and squeezed back, casting Chloe a soft grin as she shook her head. “Hey, nothing for you to apologize for. I really appreciate… what you said and stuff. Backing me up. That was… you didn’t have to do that, but thank you.” Sure, Jesse was a jerk about it, but he’d get over it soon enough. In the quiet of the cabin, in that small room with the rain pelting in a soothing, steady rhythm overhead and the announcement that she’d once again be parting from the group in the near future, it almost felt like she’d inadvertently set a timer that ticked on in the back of her brain. And who knew how many more moments of actual privacy they’d get between now and then?

Maybe that pressure was what urged Beca to speak up again. “I’ll come back for you,” she said, her voice quiet yet unwavering as she forced her eyes on Chloe’s. “If you want me to, I mean. After I make it to Denver and give them the blood sample or whatever. I’ll come back.”

*

Beca's hand in hers had become a familiar, stabilizing sensation, and her fingers curled more securely through Beca's when she could feel the warmth and roughness of calluses against her skin. "Of course, you don't have to thank me. You deserved backup, you have your reasons for what you're doing, so I wanted to help." Her soft smile was wiped away in favor of open surprise when Beca suddenly interjected those words in the small space between them, and the surety in her eyes struck Chloe like a physical blow as that connection ran between their locked gazes. Although she'd known a talk would likely be inevitable ever since she found out that Beca still intended on making her way to Denver, she hadn't been sure what form that talk might actually take.

The fact that Beca had also been thinking about it--that she wanted to come back for Chloe--sent a rush of affectionate warmth so visceral and potent through her that she felt almost lightheaded with it. A sudden flurry of nerves mounted in her stomach and sent her pulse tripping a little faster, and she had to force her gaze down to the worn bedspread beneath them before she could find her voice. "So...I've been thinking about that," she confessed in a quiet murmur. Now that the words were flowing again, she lifted her head to squarely meet Beca's gaze. "What if I went with you? Because--hear me out, it'd still be a small group, and you never know when medical skills might come in handy, and I don't feel right holing up in some settlement when something is this important." The words came out in a hurried rush, imbued with certainty despite their rushed nature, because she thought maybe Beca would shoot down the idea and she wanted to get her thoughts out there first.

*

When Chloe’s gaze fell from hers and landed on the comforter, Beca’s chest tightened and she could’ve kicked herself then and there because clearly she’d overstepped. She assumed too much. She shouldn’t have said something so… so big, and she braced herself for the inevitable rejection. But Chloe’s reply wasn’t some sort of polite letdown… it was the complete opposite of what she’d expected, and Beca’s jaw fell slack as those words sunk in. “Chloe…” she started, the name falling from her lips radiating with surprise and hesitation and awe because holy shit, she was volunteering to go with her. “Hey, my duct taping bullet wound method hasn’t failed me yet…” Her attempt at levity fell a bit flat, the anxious chuckle escaping rough around the edges as her hold on Chloe’s hand tightened.

A dozen legitimate reasons as to why Chloe absolutely should not go with her sprung to mind instantly--she was part of a group already who’d miss her desperately, she didn’t have the training or experience she should’ve had to handle such a long journey, she shouldn’t put her own life at risk, among other examples that mingled with the entirely selfish bubbles of joy simmering in her stomach because Chloe wanted to go with her. They might not have to part. But she couldn’t muster an exuberant nod, much less an instant yes. It would be Chloe’s decision to make, but she knew Chloe would respect her opinion if she voiced it and take it into consideration. Encouraging her to make the journey with her felt self-serving, especially as a snap reaction, but dismissing her seemed inconsiderate. So instead of speaking any of those premature, jumbled pros and cons, she voiced her greatest fear.

“What if I can’t protect you?”

*

Chloe was halfway expecting the open shock that etched itself across Beca's face when she proposed that idea. They hadn't even discussed the remote possibility of it or even talked in any real detail about Beca's plan beyond the fact that she still intended to leave, so she wasn't surprised that Beca hadn't been expecting that from her. But the thought had been turning over in her mind ever since Beca confided that she still planned on seeing out the task her father had given her, and Beca's offer had given her the opening she needed to voice her own idea. She wasn't surprised by the hesitance, but the knot of anxious anticipation in her stomach tightened when her name tumbled from Beca's lips with such mingled emotions. Part of her expected Beca to shut the idea down from the very start out of some protective instinct, especially since she'd cautioned both Jesse and Amy about giving their decision careful consideration first, especially when they'd traveled on the road with her much longer than Chloe had.

When that refusal wasn't immediately forthcoming and her hand tightened in their interlocked grip, a small starburst of hopeful expectation bloomed amid the nervous uncertainty. Perhaps she should've anticipated the words that came next, but the fear that she knew must lurk behind them twisted in her gut like a knife. "Hey, it's not your job to protect me," she murmured with quiet insistence, squeezing Beca's hand and steadily holding her gaze. "You don't have to put that on yourself. I'm an adult too, if I make that decision, then it's on me." That was one of the fears that Beca had voiced about Jesse and Amy joining her, and she knew that Beca had that tendency to take it upon herself to feel responsible for the safety of everyone else in the group. But Chloe also wanted her to understand that she couldn't solely place the weight of responsibility on her own shoulders, especially when they were all making their own decisions with the risks in mind.

*

“But… that’s what I do, Chloe.” A knot formed hard and fast in Beca’s throat and she swallowed it down. “I mean--that’s what I try to do.” Obviously she’d failed already, but it was still her mission. Well, her other mission. Chloe’s spoken words made Beca’s face flash with confusion and she simply stared back while she processed their weight, letting their meaning roll around in her head before starting to sink in. Nobody had ever freed her from that burden--imposed on her first by her parents and then by herself.

While Chloe’s words didn’t take away the protective instinct that had grown and developed and shaped her personality through those developmental teenage years, they served as an important reminder that Beca desperately needed. She made mistakes, but that didn’t mean she was better off on her own. She needed a team, but she wasn’t responsible for that team’s survival. Beca licked her lips to provide some moisture there. She reached up with her free hand and brushed the backs of her fingers across Chloe’s cheek before curling her grip lightly in the collar of her hoodie. “Don’t decide right now, okay? I want you to think more about it and I need you to be two hundred percent sure, if that’s what you wanna do. And I promise I’ll understand if you decide to stay.”

*

"I know it is, Bec." Her chin dipped in a nod, although her eyes didn't waver from Beca's face. "And you work so hard at it. We all see that, trust me. But that's not your burden to carry all on your own." She wondered with dawning realization if Beca herself realized that, or if it was an instinct that had become so ingrained in her that it happened as naturally as breathing. When Beca lapsed into an introspective silence, she used their joined hands to lift Beca's, first brushing a kiss across her knuckles before turning her hand over to press a kiss to the pulsepoint in her wrist. Her eyes steadily watched Beca's face all the while, hoping to give her time to work through her own thoughts while still offering a comforting presence if she needed it. She let their interlocked hands fall back to the comforter beneath them when Beca brushed gentle fingers across her cheek, and she leaned in with a soft smile at the corners of her lips.

"I will," she vowed, steady and solemn. "You think about it too, okay? Like we said earlier, we've got time. We've got other things to take care of before then anyway." She knew that Beca's words were sincere, that she genuinely wouldn't resent Chloe or hold any ill will towards her if she decided to stay behind with the girls, and that spoke to the inherent goodness that Chloe saw in her, even when Beca didn't want to see it in herself. And Chloe was determined to find a safe space for the girls in the meantime, no matter what her own decision ended up being, but she couldn't suppress the lurking feeling that the certainty she'd felt when she posed that question to Beca wasn't going to go away.

*

God, Beca was so fucking weak under that bright-eyed stare, and Beca believed Chloe’s words more than she ever believed anything, her eyes shining back sparkling with deep appreciation and genuine care. It wasn’t easy to focus on much of anything with Chloe being so damn sweet and surely she felt Beca’s pulse pick up, fluttering harder against the soft brush of lips against her sensitive skin. Her head jerked into a nod at Chloe’s request, knowing it was likely the only damn thing she’d think about and wrestle with in her mind until it was time to part. Luckily, they had the settlement search to pull their attention first--finding a safe space for the rest of them, whether Chloe wound up joining her or not. “Just when Aubrey was starting to not hate me...” she murmured with a ghost of a grin in the space between them, closing that gap to press a few soft kisses along Chloe’s jawline because she really couldn’t resist.

*

Chloe did feel the fluttering uptick of Beca's pulse beneath her lips, and even that faint sensation was enough to tug at her heartstrings, because the woman in front of her who could be so open and affectionate with her was also the woman who took so much responsibility upon herself where their entire group was concerned. She was just grateful to have planted the seed of the idea in Beca's mind and to know that they'd both be giving it serious thought. The rest of it, they could figure out when they got there. "Aubrey's an adult too, she can deal with me making my own decisions. That's not on you either." That was easier said than done, because Aubrey would be the hardest hurdle if she decided to go with Beca (and she'd likely hold it against Beca, no matter what Chloe said), but ultimately, it was still Chloe's choice. Her head tipped to the side automatically when Beca leaned in and her lips found Chloe's jaw, immediately falling into that easy, instinctive flow of the moment with her as she gave a soft hum low in her throat. "Okay, trouble..." she teased with a lilt, exhaling on a soft huff of laughter that was a little more breathless than a moment before.

*

Part of Beca wondered how Jesse would react upon hearing the news Chloe might go with them. He didn’t seem to dislike Chloe (seriously, who in the world ever could?), but there was obvious jealous there even though he didn’t know all the facts. Maybe he was just more in tune with Beca’s unconscious Chloe-related behaviors than she was, which was entirely possible, because sometimes she didn’t realize she was staring across the room or forgot she pulled out Chloe’s sweatshirt to use as a pillow but would ultimately snuggle during a nap. Chloe was right about Aubrey too, of course, but she still braced herself to face her wrath. She’d tossed that assumption out there as a joke, but there would be very real firebombs tossed between them if and when Chloe’s plan came to light.

“S’my middle name,” she whispered upon hearing that nickname, hot and steady against Chloe’s neck before reluctantly pulling away and flashing a sheepish grin up at her. “Sorry,” she rasped on a pressured, uneasy chuckle. “Guess I just…” What, can’t control herself around her? Basically, yeah. She trailed off with an impish shrug of her shoulders and bit her lip as she inhaled through her nose, running her hand through her own hair (and not used to it being down and so damn clean). Upon reflection, she wasn’t sure where the surge of arousal came from. She’d barely slept the night before and they’d had an emotional as fuck 24 hours. (Or maybe that was exactly what did it--her body asking for some sort of release after everything.) Still, though--not cool assuming Chloe would be into it, considering how difficult her 24 hours had been, too.

*

Considering their entire group had dealt with enough turmoil lately--tonight included--Chloe wanted to make sure that she thought through every possibility about accompanying Beca and how to break it to the girls, if it came to that. After everything they'd dealt with, she wanted to minimize the emotional upheaval they had to deal with as much as possible. Then again, she also knew that there would be a certain point at which the topic couldn't be avoided any longer, if she decided to leave; she could only plan and ponder for so long before it had to become action. She only hoped she handled it as best she could whenever that time came, not only with Aubrey and the very real chance of her anger, but with all of the other girls as well. "If that was your middle name, you wouldn't be so secretive about it," she retorted teasingly, although there was a distinctive and telltale catch to her voice before Beca pulled away. "Oh hush, you never have to apologize for that," she returned with a teasing roll of her eyes and purse of her lips that poorly masked a smile.

Chloe was sure that she had a point and she'd been well on her way to illustrating it, but then her eyes followed the motion when Beca's teeth caught at her lip and her brain momentarily derailed in a spectacular fashion. Right. Focused, that was her. "I just wanted to lock the door if that's where it was going." Seriously, there had already been enough upheaval and surprises tonight, the last thing they needed was someone walking in on them in any degree of a compromising situation. She was pretty sure that everyone was occupied for now, but there was no guarantee that Amy wouldn't come back to their shared room for something or that Aubrey wouldn't come looking for her if she was still awake.

*

Maybe if Beca would stop assuming she fucked up every other minute she wouldn’t feel like a fucking ping pong ball with the highs and lows. Seriously, what was up with her constantly bracing herself for letdowns and rejections? (It had something to do with Jesse, most likely--but she definitely didn’t want to unpack that right now.) Chloe’s words took an extra beat to process through the clouded haze of her tired, emotionally exhausted brain. “O-oh,” she croaked, another decompressing chuckle escaping. She cleared her throat. “Yeah. Good call, Nurse Chloe.” And that was why she was the brains, adding another tick in the column of reasons why she ought to encourage her to come to Denver. Beca excelled at thinking under extreme pressure, but she sucked at cognitive processing when she was emotionally compromised in any way. Getting caught in the act would really suck, no matter who happened to barge in on them, and that was definitely a conversation she didn’t think she could muster the energy to handle anytime soon.

*

Chloe watched the succession of emotions and realization play across Beca's face when Chloe reassured her, and not for the first time, she found herself wondering how much rest Beca had really been getting while trying to keep things afloat while the girls were processing their loss. Giving Beca's hand a final squeeze, she finally unlaced their fingers and rose from her spot on the bed to quietly slip across the small room and flip the lock on the door. Amy and Jesse still had plenty of time left on their watch shift, but once again, better safe than sorry. She crossed back to the bunk beds, and rather than sinking back onto the bed, she bent at the waist to gently cup Beca's face and tip her head back until she could catch her lips in a slow, thorough kiss. As she settled back on the bed next to Beca, one hand slipped down to run the soft fabric of her hoodie between her fingers as a smile softened her face. She was biased, but she was endlessly fond of the sight of Beca wearing her hoodie. As her eyes traced across the angles of Beca's face for signs of weariness or emotional fatigue, her brow creased with concern. "You are okay, right?" Whatever they might have said only moments before, she just wanted to look out for Beca and make sure she had what she needed, whatever that happened to be. Beca had already done that for the rest of them so many times, she wanted to be able to return the sentiment in any way she could.

*

When Chloe locked the door and returned to her, Beca's stomach fluttered with that same anticipation she'd grown to associate with the beautiful and inexplicable connection that only seemed to grow each day between them, both emotionally and physically. And when the two were combined in whatever form of intimacy they expressed with each other, it truly brought Beca to an uncharted plane of existence where she felt alive and fulfilled and free. Beca closed her eyes when Chloe leaned down to kiss her, a shiver tingling up her spine that had nothing to do with the chill in the room. Hands found the pocket of Chloe's hoodie in return and Beca shifted closer once she sat, her eyes popping open to find Chloe's searching her face. The question brought a tired grin to Beca's lips and she considered for a moment--actually thought about her answer, because she didn't give Chloe the brush off ‘I'm fine’ that everyone else got. “I'm okay, yeah,” she insisted, lifting one have to cup her cheek. “Are you sure you're okay? We don't have to do--stuff--if you'd rather just talk or lie down or whatever.” Maybe Beca was being a little ridiculous, but she was so not used to feeling this level of want for someone and she wanted to make sure Chloe didn't think she was using her in any way.

*

Chloe couldn't pretend that the last few days didn't haunt her and wouldn't continue to do so for a while, but with the emotional turmoil and exhaustion that plagued them all, she craved some escape and release from everything that pressed down upon them with such heaviness. Beca made her feel safe and wanted, and maybe now more than ever, she found solace in the connection that had grown and strengthened between them, no matter what form it took. Even in the dim, flickering light of the candle in the room, Beca's eyes were entrancing when she was that close, and Chloe's gaze finally locked with hers when Beca seemed to be seriously considering her question. It was so like Beca to turn the question back on Chloe in her concern, and the candlelight caught the flicker of a smile at the corners of her mouth. "Hey, it's okay. I'm okay. I'll be okay. This--helps." Maybe that didn't make sense. She hoped it would. But finding connection and comfort in their bond offered a reprieve for a little while and helped settle some of the anxiety that threaten to rise up at times--because Beca was solid and comforting and present, and that helped her more than Beca might even realize. Her fingers curled tighter around the fabric of Beca's hoodie and she pulled Beca closer at the same time that she leaned in herself, eyes slipping shut and nose brushing against Beca's for a moment before she caught her lips in a deep, searching kiss.

*

Beca nodded fervently when Chloe put her jumbled feelings into such simple words. It did help--like a balloon tethered to a pole during a wild thunderstorm, their connection was that stable beam. It seemed selfish in a way, seeking out comfort and pleasure and release during such stressful, difficult times, but it also felt like she needed all of that even more desperately because of everything going on. Beca's eyes fluttered shut the instant before Chloe's lips captured hers and she surrendered into it, all but melting into the liplock with a low, throaty moan. The hand on Chloe's cheek slipped into her hair, her opposite arm wrapping around Chloe's middle in an attempt to get even closer when she decided to keep twisting until Chloe's back found the mattress and Beca shifted on top of her. All the while that kiss only deepened further, burning with rising passion and intensity and where she'd been chilly only moments earlier, Beca began growing warmer in Chloe's sweatshirt.

*

She hadn't even realized exactly how badly she needed the reassurance of their connection until that moment, but as soon as Beca met her in the kiss with an eagerness to match hers, the frantic jumble of thoughts in her head was silenced by the muffled moan from Beca that reverberated in the kiss. She quickly realized Beca's intentions when she curled in closer against her and she rolled easily with the motion, her hands falling to grasp at Beca's hips and pull her in tightly when she settled atop her. The heat that radiated between them grew with each passing second, and her hands greedily slipped from Beca's waist underneath the bottom of her sweatshirt, fingertips brushing across the dip of her hips before palming upwards to splay across her ribs. When oxygen became a pressing issue, she broke away with a shuddering inhale, but immediately refocused her attention on Beca's jaw. Her lips pressed greedy kisses across the sharp curve of her jaw and down her neck, her teeth finding purchase on the fluttering pulsepoint in Beca's neck. The pressure was a little sharper than she intended when it was fueled by the needy edge that settled beneath her skin, but it was immediately followed by her tongue smoothing across the faintly pink mark her teeth had left on her pale skin.

*

Even after only a few minutes of dueling tongues, roving hands, and repositioning, it became clear to Beca this was different than their clandestine meet-ups in the mansion. Each movement tinged with a sharper edge of intense craving, fueled by the stress and strain and emotion that bottled up and now begged for release. Chloe’s hands mapping over her stomach and rib cage somehow scalded her scarred skin, already overheated beneath the thick cotton hoodie and t-shirt beneath. Beca’s planted elbow supporting much of her weight nearly gave out when practiced lips suckled her neck as grazing teeth coaxed a rumbling growl that hung in the air between them, her body vibrating with needy energy. Without teasing or preamble, Beca’s strong, callused hand slipped beneath Chloe’s shirts and palmed her bare breast, kneading in a firm massage as her thumb and forefinger plucked and rolled its peak; its supple softness sparked another wave of arousal throughout her body.

*

The warm pressure of Beca against her was a welcome fixation, driving all other thoughts from Chloe’s mind as they were carried away on the swell of arousal that swept through her. The air around them felt charged and a shudder of pleased desire danced its way up her spine when it became clear that Beca willingly met her beat for beat in the give and take between them that was compounded by the emotions that demanded an outlet. Their stolen nights together had given her an intimate familiarity with Beca's body and the reactions she could coax from her, but she greedily soaked up every single response like it was the very first time, from the way the muscles of Beca's stomach jumped beneath her fingertips to the low rumble that issued from her throat beneath the ministrations of Chloe's mouth.

Focused as she was on nipping and suckling her way across the span of Beca's neck, the scorching heat of Beca's hand skimming up her abdomen and cupping her breast caught her by surprise and pulled a sharp hiss from her. It was a sharp jolt of sensation that nudged the arousal thrumming through her veins increasingly higher, and her back bowed sharply up into the contact under the onslaught of the kneading of Beca's hand and the deft tweaking of her sensitive nipple between her fingers. One hand slipped from beneath Beca's sweatshirt to skim up her body and fist in her hair, giving a coaxing tug to tilt her head back. She pressed a kiss and a nip of teeth against the underside of Beca's jaw that was almost sloppy in its haste, before continuing her path to flick her tongue against the hollow beneath Beca's ear and catch her earlobe with a nibble of teeth.

*

The frantic, desperate nature of their movements surged everything to a pressured boiling point. Feeling Chloe's body reacting to her touch had always stirred Beca's insides, but the notable difference in need ratcheted that up a thousandfold. The rough tug of her hair shot a fresh jolt of arousal pooling between Beca's legs and just like that, she was soaked. Paired with the continued ministrations from Chloe's eager mouth, Beca gritted her teeth and exhaled in a shuddering moan. In the mansion, she would've worked slower, would've taken advantage of the opportunity to teased to work Chloe up in an easy, burning build and appreciate every single aspect of their time together, but she couldn't seem to stop herself from rushing to meet those desperate beats raging faster and louder like the storm thrashing outside. Using that elbow for leverage, Beca's hand left Chloe's breast and slid down beneath the waistband of her pajama bottoms, wasting no time in parting hot, delicate folds with her middle finger and stroking with rhythmic purpose. "Shit," Beca husked, her voice deeper than before. "You feel so fucking good."

*

There was a deep, instinctive part of Chloe that was relieved that they didn't have to put any of this to words; they both sensed the sharper, more desperate edge that shadowed each of their movements and their urgency, and they adjusted to meet each other with a fervor to match it. It went beyond them simply being fueled by haste and the awareness that they were working on borrowed time in Beca's shared room--there was a deeper, more frantic undercurrent to the need that drove them together this time in a thunderous collision, and Chloe couldn't say if it was sparked by emotional turmoil or exhaustion or some combination of so many factors, but she wasn't questioning it regardless. Instead, she willingly and gladly surrendered herself to the scorching heat that built between them with each passing moment.

The moan from Beca that rumbled close to her ear as her lips worked against the smooth column of Beca's throat shot heat straight through her as her entire body throbbed with desire, and she squirmed beneath Beca in search of more friction. A low grumble of protest hummed against Beca's skin when the warmth of her hand disappeared from her breast, but she barely had a moment to process the loss before Beca's hand slipped beneath the elastic of her pajama bottoms. Her breath caught in her chest in anticipation in the split second before Beca's finger stroked against slick, heated skin before it tumbled into a shaky groan, her breath puffing out hot and ragged against Beca's neck. "Beca." Her name was turned into a reverent plea when it tumbled from her lips on the crest of a moan, her hips canting up against Beca's hand in a desperate bid for more pressure where she needed it most.

*

Chloe's diligent and thorough care (albeit rough and sloppy--which Beca liked a lot, by the way) on her neck nearly threatened to derail Beca several times, but her desire to pleasure the incredible woman beneath her helped her keep focus. Beca also had no idea where this frantic intensity came from, but she definitely wasn't complaining when it became clear Chloe was right there with her. Their time together at the mansion served to eliminate any self-consciousness she'd felt at the beginning and that confidence hadn't been more evident until now, with Beca once again baring her soul through her unheistant ministrations in that raw and hungry state.

And once Chloe moaned her name, she thought she'd died in ecstasy right then because holy fuck, that was the hottest thing she'd ever heard. When hips canted in a silent plea for more, Beca used her knee to part Chloe's legs wider so she could settle between them. Two fingers sunk deep inside Chloe's heat and Beca positioned her pelvic bone to brace against that wrist so she could use her whole body as leverage while she withdrew her fingers almost all the way and rocked her hips forward again, re-entering Chloe in a slow press. Beca dropped her head to the crook of Chloe's neck, lips and teeth roughly working the exposed skin there while her hips and fingers fell into a slow, deep rhythm that sped up quicker than she'd planned, once again giving into that rolling tide of desperation.

*

Beca seemed to have an innate talent for completely unraveling Chloe and leaving her a needy, wanton mess beneath her skilled touch. That comfort and ability to evoke the most potent reactions from each other had only grown with each passing counter as their familiarity developed, and their confidence grew right alongside it. There was always an inherent, unshakable trust that ran below the surface of their trysts, and that was a large reason why there was no hesitation now when Beca both matched her in that unspoken, flaring intensity and reciprocated it with a brazen confidence that sent jolts of arousal coursing down Chloe's spine.

Beca's touch stole the breath from her lungs until there was no real coordination to the kisses that were scattered across the tantalizing expanse of her neck, little more than errant nips of teeth and brushes of lips between ragged breaths. When Beca responded to her wordless plea, she followed her prompted without the slightest resistance, her breath hitching higher in a shuddering gasp when Beca settled between her legs. The first press of Beca's fingers into her stole what little air remained in her lungs, fingers tightening in Beca's hair and nails scraping against her scalp when the weight of Beca's body rocked in a perfect motion to accentuate the press of her fingers. When Beca's fingers withdrew, only to sink back into her in a deliciously, torturously slow press, her jaw fell slack as her hips rolled up against Beca's in a counterthrust.

She already felt completely at the mercy of the skillful strokes of Beca's fingers and the arcs of pure fire and electricity that shot through her body in response, the heat that crawled along her skin ratcheting even higher thanks to the hasty, unrelenting pace that they'd immediately fallen into. Her teeth caught sharply at her bottom lip to soften the volume of the whimper that escaped when Beca's mouth found her neck with kisses and scrapes of teeth that stoked the flames within her even higher, and when Beca set a faster rhythm that left Chloe trembling beneath her, the hand beneath Beca's sweatshirt palmed at the heated skin between her shoulder blades before dragging her nails down the length of Beca's spine.

*

These moments with Chloe always served to peel back that protective numbness layer she'd cultivated as a defensive shield over the years, which involuntarily thickened and strengthened during more emotional, trying times. That barrier proved weak around Chloe even without the physical contact, speaking to the deep, innate trust and level of safety they felt with each other. Beca's toned muscles worked efficiently to drive questing fingers into Chloe over and over, crooking deep within as Beca felt those slick inner walls tightening with each passing moment. The unexpected rake of fingernails down her back earned a breathy “Fuck, Chloe,” hot and raspy against her ear. Part of her wished she'd had more patience to remove at least a layer of clothing, and she could feel her t-shirt clinging to her overheated skin beneath that sweatshirt but she didn't really care. She didn't want to stop for anything. Eventually, her thumb repositioned to glide over Chloe's clit in time with her erratic thrusts.

*

As much as Chloe needed a physical outlet and release like this after the turmoil of their travels, she craved it all the more because it was Beca with her and that transcended simply the physical attraction that sparked between them. The hot, husky rasp of Beca's voice against her ear sent spiraling shockwaves down her spine, and a louder, shuddering whimper slipped past her lips despite the tight sting of her teeth against her bottom lip. The rhythmic roll of Beca's body against hers and the deep, curling press of fingers brushing against her inner walls with each stroke built her towards that precipice at a pace that was both swift and overwhelming as it loomed over her in its intensity, arousal pooling between her legs and jolts of electricity sparking throughout her body as Beca moved against her with deft, skilled purpose. A strangled cry tore from her lips when Beca's thumb brushed her clit, starbursts of light exploding behind her tightly clenched eyelids with every thrust that sent unfettered need and desire ricocheting through her body and coiling tightly at her center.

It didn't take long for the looming precipice to rush to meet her with disarming rapidity as she neared it and then went flying over it with complete abandon, her head tipping back against the bed and mouth falling open with a rasping, breathless cry as complete and total release gripped every muscle in her body as bliss flooded through her. Her inner walls fluttered and clenched tightly around Beca's questing fingers as each wave of pleasure crashed over her before the preceding one could even subside, her hips canting and back bowing off of the bed to meet each thrust until that release slowly gave way to aftershocks. Her body sagged back against the mattress as her muscles trembled with the tremors that followed, her fingers in Beca's hair gentling into a light scratch against the nape of her neck. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes as she blinked up at the top bunk above them and worked to calm her breathing from the slowly receding intensity of her release. "Holy shit," she finally breathed on a shaky chuckle, the hand wound in Beca's hair giving a soft tug to urge her up into a kiss.

*

Beca had never done drugs, but she was pretty damn certain she was addicted to Chloe Beale. Whenever they weren’t together like this she was wishing they were. And when they were together like this, it was the highest high she could ever imagine experiencing. Part of her was vaguely aware that Chloe’s noises could potentially be heard by Aubrey on the other side of the wall or maybe even anyone out in the living room area, but she didn’t have it in her to give an iota of a fuck in that moment. Hopefully the pelting raindrops and rolling thunder proved enough of a cover because Beca wanted nothing more than to hear every unrestrained noise she coaxed from Chloe, whose walls tightened and squeezed Beca’s fingers with such force she had to double her efforts to keep up her pace.

And then came the release. Beca guided Chloe through her hard-hitting climax, easing up only after she was sure she’d ridden out every wave of bliss coursing through her. The hand cramp was so fucking worth it, and when she withdrew and met Chloe in that kiss, she captured her lips with as much tenderness as she could muster. Beca pulled back to get a good look at Chloe’s expression, her brow knitting with concern once the candlelight flickered so Beca spotted glistening moisture in her eyes. “Hey,” she started, her voice carrying in a hoarse rasp. “You okay? Was that--too much?” As she waited for her response, Beca peppered soft kisses over Chloe’s face--the tip of her nose, the corner of her mouth, her cheek and her forehead, and finally to her temple where she caught one of the tears before it fell.

*

Discretion was the absolute furthest thing from her mind when she was completely embroiled in the throes of unrestrained pleasure; in fact, even if the fleeting thought had crossed her mind, it probably would've been a futile effort to even attempt to stifle the sounds that tumbled from her lips when Beca worked her up to that cliff's edge and over it. The soaring peaks of bliss finally calmed and ebbed away, and with them, the tension and turmoil of the past few days were wholly swept away and replaced by a pure, satiated contentment. The aching tenderness of the kiss that Beca shared with her only served to heighten that warm, secure bubble that surrounded them, and her free hand lifted to gently cup Beca's cheek, fingertips running a light path across the curve of her cheekbone. Confusion twisted her features at the sudden look of concern from Beca before she realized the source of it, and a soft laugh was carried out on her exhale.

"No no, I'm good. That--it was good. It was perfect." And it was, because as she gave a slow blink and regarded Beca with a half-lidded, trusting gaze, she felt more at ease than she'd been in quite a while. Beca's genuine concern only served to suffuse her with more warmth that settled lightly in her chest. As her limbs stopped feeling completely like jelly and she could trust their stability again, she hooked one leg around the back of Beca's legs and an arm around her shoulders and rolled, the momentum of the move carrying her over until Beca's back pressed into the mattress and Chloe's weight was settled atop her. In the confines of the bottom bunk, it wasn't the most graceful move to pull that off without knocking her head against the bunk above them, but she managed. "That was way smoother in my head," she admitted, pressing a smile into the warm curve between Beca's jaw and neck.

*

Chloe’s soft laugh made the worry lines creased in Beca’s brow to instantly smooth and she grinned down at her in return. She’d almost slipped and countered with a ‘you’re perfect’ but come on, even Beca couldn’t muster a reply that fucking cheesy. Extreme arousal still clouding her mind, it took Beca half a beat to process Chloe started moving, and she twisted to assist, following her lead until their positions switched. “S’all good, you’re the smoothest chick I’ve ever met,” she mumbled with a raspy snicker, arms wrapped tightly and protectively around Chloe’s shoulders when she felt that smile pressed into skin. The weight of Chloe’s body resting atop hers made Beca’s brain short circuit for a moment, and she always appreciated the thrilling sensation of their shared body heat between them… but she suddenly remembered she was already overheated and she released her tight hug. “Hey, push up for one second? If I don’t get this sweatshirt off I’m gonna die.” Not to be too dramatic or anything…

*

Her laughter softened into a tenderly fond smile when Beca grinned right back at her, eyes bright and lively in the scarce breath of space between them. The amusement was heavily tempered by a resurgence of arousal when Beca willingly rolled with her motion and she found the other woman pressed beneath her, her brain going momentarily haywire when she shifted her weight against Beca and let her eyes roam hungrily across Beca's face. Beca's teasing remark pulled her back to herself, and her shoulders shook with a scoff of laughter that puffed out against Beca's neck. "There's so much competition out here, after all," she quipped right back. (Never mind that Stacie would probably be affronted and protest that teasing remark, but oh well.) She immediately moved to comply with Beca's request, because there was no denying that the heat between them was made almost stifling by the layers of clothes between them. She pushed her weight up onto one elbow and shifted slightly to the side, so she could help tug the sweatshirt up and over Beca's head to drop it over the edge of the bed. The motion rucked Beca's t-shirt slightly up her torso, and as she shifted back to settle more fully against Beca again, one hand landed against Beca's abdomen and traced across the skin beneath her fingertips. Amusement danced in her eyes as she smiled down at Beca, despite the way her pupils were blown wide with want as she watched her. "Better? Think you'll pull through and avoid heatstroke now?"

*

Pride swelled in Beca’s chest almost as much as it had during Chloe’s earth-shattering orgasm a few moments ago because she made her laugh, too. Laughing, in these conditions, seemed just as elusive as orgasms, even when you traveled with someone like Amy. Especially after the last couple days and seeing Chloe so down--a long way off from her usually more upbeat personality. The laugh only made Beca grin harder, but when she caught the renewed glint in Chloe’s eyes that Beca associated with her being very turned on, the grin faltered as she licked her lips in anticipation. Grateful Chloe complied, Beca pawed at her sweatshirt and groaned when the cooler air hit the exposed skin of her arms, her upper chest through that v-neck t-shirt, and her abdomen when it inevitably hiked up from the sweatshirt removal.

A huff of a chuckle escaped and she could’ve sworn she felt Chloe’s handprint burning into her skin when she touched her. “Prob’ly not, but I’m good with it if you cause my heatstroke and not your damn sweatshirt.” A trademark smirk pulled at the corners of Beca’s mouth as equally wide pupils met those staring back at her, Beca’s fingertips reaching up to brace against Chloe’s jaw. There were words swirling in Beca’s brain--words she wasn’t sure she had the ability to speak, especially under these conditions with her body thumping beneath Chloe’s. Instead of attempting to formulate those thoughts, she lifted her head to playfully take Chloe’s lower lip between her teeth, nibbling gently before popping in release.

*

Although there would still be turmoil and sadness to deal with in the foreseeable future, none of that seemed capable of piercing the secure haven they'd constructed for themselves for the time being in this room. She was finding more and more things to be grateful to Beca for with each passing day, and being able to steal moments like this where some of that oppressive weight lifted and gave way to lightness evoked some of the most potent gratitude that stirred in her chest. Her eyes tracked the motion when Beca licked her lips, and the last vestiges of laughter died on her own lips when desire stirred anew after that moment of levity. A gleam of affectionate amusement danced in her eyes, because Beca's reaction about the sweatshirt was mildly silly but endearing in its dramatics all the same, especially when paired with that remark.

"Can't believe I've called you a badass before, you're so cheesy." It was hard to maintain her teasing grin in the face of that smirk that did a hell of a job of short circuiting her brain momentarily, but there was no hope of salvaging that facade at all when Beca raised up to bridge that small gap and nibble at her bottom lip. Even that mild sting of teeth was enough to pull a groan from low in her throat, but the tail end of the noise was cut off into a muffled hum when she leaned in to catch Beca's lips in a more bruising, insistent kiss. After the magnitude of her own orgasm, a restless impatience to touch and explore in return set in. Her other hand shifted to press firmly against Beca's ribs to mirror her other hand on the opposite side, eager to map across the expanse of heated skin that was revealed where Beca's shirt had haphazardly ridden up. Greedy fingertips slipped beneath her shirt and brushed across the underside swells of Beca's breasts before moving to palm them more fully, kneading her breasts with a slow, insistent pressure and tweaking the stiffened peaks between her thumbs and forefingers.

*

The indignant scoff that passed Beca’s lips muffled and morphed into a guttural groan that reverberated into that well-timed kiss. Best believe Beca would circle back to that rude comment later, Chloe Allison Beale. But she was totally fine delaying that battle in favor of sweeping her tongue along Chloe’s in their intoxicating give and take, always somehow perfectly balanced and always hot as hell, no matter which one of them initiated or seemed lead in that moment. Chloe’s hands continued to blaze up along her abdomen in a scorching trail, and she couldn’t hold back the pathetic whimper that squeaked out into the air on a broken, high-pitched note between them as that firm pinching shot straight between her legs, fanning the flames within her hotter and higher. Her back arched up involuntarily into practiced palms and one of Beca’s hands slipped to grip up the collar of Chloe’s hoodie, fisting the thick fabric tight for an anchor of sorts.

*

There was no hope of restraining it, her lips curved with a smirk briefly when the groan from Beca hummed into their kiss, although any lingering amusement was quickly abandoned in favor of the sweep of tongues and lips moving against one another in instinctive harmony. She never needed any added incentive where Beca was involved, but the whimper that resonated in the air around them and the hand that fisted in her hoodie spurred on her single-minded focus on Beca, pulling an encouraging groan from her lips that was muffled against Beca's neck and paired with a nip of teeth. Dropping a quick kiss against Beca's collarbone that peeked out from the v-neck of her shirt, she slipped further down her body and reluctantly ceased her attention on Beca's breasts so she could grasp the bottom of her shirt and push it up further out of the way. Her hands settled against Beca's ribs again, the heated skin beneath her palms a steady center of focus. She ducked her head and peppered a trail of feather-light kisses up Beca's abdomen and against the underside swell of one of her breasts before turning her attention more directly to the task at hand, running the flat of her tongue across the pebbled peak of her nipple and following it with the lightest graze of teeth. Fingertips skated a path down Beca's torso and beneath the waistband of her pajama bottoms, and she groaned against Beca's skin at the wet heat that greeted her as she dipped her fingers through her folds.

*

Every kiss and touch from Chloe radiated with passionate warmth, stoking Beca's arousal higher with each passing moment. Those displays of affection were also infused with an undercurrent of that total, genuine care that Chloe always carried with her and transferred to everything she did. Beca understood and appreciated how special it was to have earned Chloe's affection on such a deep level, and it continued to blow her mind how quickly and effortlessly this woman could disarm her, break down those carefully constructed walls, and rent out what was suddenly feeling like a permanent space in her heart. Thanks to her talented hands, Beca's breasts weighed heavy with arousal, her chest flushed and nipples puckered and peaked. Attention from Chloe's tongue and teeth had Beca inhaling on a sharp gasp, exhaling with a shuddering breath paired with an uneven “Holy shit.” Toned abdominal muscles involuntarily danced beneath Chloe's trailing fingertips and Beca tried to brace herself for contact where she needed it most, but even with the heads up, she failed to bite back the strangled cry that tore through her throat at the same time a crash of thunder rolled through the cabin. Hips quested into the touch in a silent plea for more while Beca forced her eyes open, heavy lids half-shielding blown pupils as she watched Chloe expertly play her body like an instrument.

*

There were plenty of nights back at the mansion where they'd taken their time and stolen hours learning one another and reciprocally building each other up to the highest peaks of pleasure. Tonight, despite the softening she'd felt when Beca was once again caring and attentive with her, there was still a simmering fire that fueled her actions. Each sound and needy reaction from Beca rekindled the urgency she'd felt before to touch and be touched in return, and while she felt a renewed throb of arousal when Beca was so responsive to her touch, she now wholly devoted herself to returning the same release that Beca had given to her. A smirk was hidden against Beca's skin when that cry reached her ears, and she gave another nip of teeth that was paired with a stroke of her tongue across her stiffened nipple to alleviate any sting. After Beca had been so diligent and attentive in bringing her to orgasm without teasing it out for a long time, Chloe wanted to the return the sentiment, especially when Beca's hips bucked up against her hand and normally stormy eyes that had grown dark with desire blinked open to lock with her gaze. Her fingers gave a few light, exploratory strokes through her folds, shifting the angle enough to find Beca's clit with her thumb and work slow, deliberate circles around the sensitive bundle of nerves. After a few prolonged moments, she retracted her hand from Beca's pajama bottoms and let her other hand skate down to join it in giving a small, experimental tug at the waistband that telegraphed an unspoken question as she met Beca's gaze with unwavering eyes and a curiously arched brow. "Is this okay?" After Beca had been so attentive and understanding before, she wanted to return the same courtesy.

*

Beca had been so focused on Chloe earlier, she’d almost forgotten how badly her body needed release, too. Now that Chloe lavished attention on her in return, that pulsating desire ratcheted up higher than maybe ever. She pulled another sharp, hissing inhale into her lungs upon feeling that sting, wondering how and why a bit of pain seemed to magnify every sensation. Beca exhaled on a moan this time, hips canting up into the pressure. Her eyes popped wider when Chloe stopped and she bit down on her lower lip to stop herself from cursing at the loss, but that follow-up question processed half a beat later and her head bobbed in a jerky, almost frantic nod. She released Chloe’s hoodie and assisted, lifting her lower half to help shove the all but ruined pajama bottoms down her legs. She realized in that moment how damn impatient she’d been before, not bothering with undressing Chloe at all, but she didn’t seem to mind. Her eyes, cloudy with lust and maybe something close to adoration, locked onto Chloe and a shiver ran through her as she awaited her next move.

*

Although her body hummed with reciprocal desire with each response from Beca that was maddeningly addictive in the best way, she was grateful for her earlier release so she could fully devote her focus to Beca now. She had no intention of teasing Beca beyond the bounds of restraint, because so much of this encounter seemed to be fueled by an intense, very direct desire to bring one another to that utmost peak with deliberate care. Although the tethers of her composure threatened to fly apart at the seams with the wanton angling of Beca's hips against her hand and the moan that filled the air around them, she marshaled her focus and steady eyes watched Beca for her response.

That nod was all the answer she needed, and as soon as she had that confirmation and Beca's hips lifted off the bed, she tugged the pajama bottoms down her legs and didn't spare a single glance away from Beca as she tossed them over the side of the bed. The heavy intensity of Beca's eyes on her pinned her to the spot for the briefest of moments before she remembered herself and jolted back into motion, although her gaze remained linked with Beca's the whole time. Dropping a kiss against Beca's hipbone, she shifted further down her body to settle between her legs. Her hand curled at the back of Beca's knee to maneuver her leg over Chloe's shoulder before she lowered her head, teeth nipping against the pale, smooth skin of Beca's thigh with enough sting to leave a patchwork of pink marks that stood out starkly against her skin in her wake. She didn't linger for long when Beca sought reprieve though, lowering her head to part Beca's folds with a firm, insistent swipe of her tongue and humming against slick heat at the arousal that flooded her senses, while her eyes flickered up the length of Beca's body to gauge her reaction.

*

A swoop of anxious energy whirred through Beca's stomach at the sight of Chloe settled between her legs like that, and her legs trembled with anticipatory need with each teeth-led kiss trailed up her thigh, leaving Beca a quaking mess of want. She'd propped herself up on her elbows in a half reclining position, lip caught between her teeth as she watched Chloe work her up. When her tongue finally hit home, Beca drew in an audible breath on a gasping note as though creating after nearly drowning. She reached down her body for the hooded collar or Chloe's sweatshirt again but wound up clutching a fistful of ginger locks instead. Beca’s head fell back and her eyes closed as she fought for some semblance of composure. Her exhale came on a choked whimper. “Holy fuck, baby, please.” The words floated between them on a pleading rasp, with Beca not even registering the natural term of endearment slipping past her lips.

*

The visual of Beca partially propped up and watching her down the length of her body with dark, expectant eyes was easily one of the hottest things she'd ever witnessed, and an irrepressible smirk curved against the inside of Beca's thigh in response. She could feel the twitch and tremble of Beca's muscles beneath the hand that curled around her leg and her lips against her thigh. When her tongue curled through Beca's folds with a firm purpose, the response was instantaneous and addictively gratifying. The rasped term of endearment stoked a resurgence of simmering fire low in the pit of her stomach--between that and the delicious sting of fingers urgently twisted in her hair, she couldn't have muster any more measured restraint if she tried. Her tongue stroked through wet, heated folds again with more direct pressure before her lips wrapped around her swollen bundle of nerves with a languid flick of her tongue, an appreciative groan ghosting against Beca's skin in a low hum in response. Hoping to build upon the plaintive plea from Beca, she shifted until she could swipe two fingers through her folds before sinking into her in a slow press, her tongue swirling against her clit in time with the curl of her fingers.

*

“Oh--my fucking--god. Chloe.” Beca appreciated the lack of teasing more than she could say because she thought she'd burst otherwise. The onslaught of that methodical tongue thrashing in combination with surging, crooking fingers stretching her in the most delicious way left Beca a quivering mess of want on that bed. She struggled to keep herself propped up, to keep her eyes on Chloe working so damn diligently between her legs, but the sensations wracking her body as a result proved too powerful and she slumped onto her back, panting in shallow breaths as she tried to hold out, to prolong the pleasure. But there was no stopping the surge that flooded as a goddamn tsunami. Fingers around Chloe's hair tightened into a fist to hold her against her (not as though Chloe was going anywhere, but it was on instinct) and her back arched up off the mattress as her mouth fell wide open, a silent scream bright on her expression. She remained suspended seemingly midair in that moment before she collapsed, spasms twitching her sated muscles as she rode out that orgasm and welcomed the sparks of aftershocks rolling through her. Tears flooded her eyes much like Chloe's had earlier. “Seriously, dude?” She whispered, releasing her tight grip on Chloe as she cupped her cheek with a shaky hand instead. “Damn. That was… damn.”

*

Considering the intensity of the rapid buildup between them and the mutual quest for some reprieve to help ground them, she wasn't surprised when it didn't take much longer for Beca's body to respond to her ministrations by escalating her quickly towards release. She knew the way Beca's inner walls began to flutter around her fingers was an impending sign that she was close, and her free hand shifted upward to grasp at Beca's hip so she could adjust and move in harmonious concert with Beca when her hips worked against Chloe's mouth and hand. They'd learned each other's bodies well enough by now that she sensed the cresting peak of release as it held Beca in its grip and swept through her like a maelstrom, and she kept the questing curl of her fingers and the swirling pressure of her tongue steady to help coax Beca that last bit over the edge.

She rocked with the motion to accommodate the change when Beca's back bowed up off of the bed in a sharp curve, redoubling the firm direction of her tongue and fingers when Beca sank back against the mattress at the mercy of the orgasm that thundered through her, an answering groan buzzing from low in her throat at the sting of Beca's fingers clenching in her hair. It was only once Beca slowed and stilled against her, save for the lingering tremors of her muscles, that Chloe likewise drew to a stop and gingerly retracted her fingers.

When Beca's hand slipped from her hair to her cheek instead, she turned her head slightly to press a kiss against Beca's thigh. She carefully lowered Beca's leg from her shoulder and crawled her way back up the bed until she was level with her, rolling onto her side to face Beca and propping her head up on her hand. "'Dude'? And here I thought it was 'baby.'" Her eyes were bright with amusement as she offered that teasing observation, clearly unperturbed by either moniker.

*

As she fought to lower her heart rate and her breathing returned to almost normal, a hoarse laugh husked out into the air above them, uneven and unfamiliar because Beca didn’t laugh. Ordinarily she’d feel guilty about it, especially considering the circumstances, but she wanted to stay in their little bubble of… whatever it was when they were together--something nebulous and unnamed but god, it was good. A fresh flush brightened her cheeks and chest as Chloe called her out and she didn’t hesitate roll onto her side and lean over, bracing her hand on Chloe’s cheek before capturing her lips in a slow, sensual kiss. She shuddered when she tasted herself on Chloe’s mouth, pulling back to nuzzle their noses together.

“You,” she started, her eyes more blue than gray as they toured Chloe’s face, taking her time as she cleared her throat and searched for more words. “You make me happy.” It had been so fucking long since she’d felt joy in any aspect, and she didn’t want to get sappy or anything but she wanted Chloe to know in case she didn’t get another chance to tell her so.

*

That laugh from Beca, so rare and treasured, warmed her from the inside out in a way that had nothing to do with their vigorous encounter and she found herself beaming in return. The color that suffused Beca's fair skin was an intoxicating sight, and her eyes swept over the pink tinge of color appreciatively in the breath of time before Beca rolled closer to her and met her in a kiss. Her eyes stayed shut for a moment even when Beca pulled back, her breath shuddering out of her on a soft laugh when she felt the affectionate brush of Beca's nose against hers. Blue eyes blinked open the instant that Beca's soft voice carried between them, her gaze brimming with undisguised affection as she waited for Beca to finish her thought.

She almost made a teasing quip about how it was biased to share sentiments like that in the immediate aftermath of an orgasm, but she didn't want to puncture this aura of safety and trust that they were ensconced in. Besides, she knew that it went so much deeper than that. She knew that some people sought out others purely for a physical relief to counter the stresses of their reality, and while she certainly didn't begrudge them for anything that helped them, there was no doubt for her that whatever she shared with Beca couldn't be parsed down to something that inconsequential and impersonal. She genuinely enjoyed spending time with Beca and slowly peeling back the layers of guarded defense to learn more about her, even when they weren't stealing intimate moments together.

"You make me happy too. Really happy." Her eyes danced around Beca's face as she studied the familiar features that she'd grown so achingly fond of, wanting to commit the moment to memory as vividly as possible. Her free hand lifted to brush a strand of Beca's hair away from her face and tuck it behind her ear, fingers curling lightly against the shell of Beca's ear as she smiled softly at her. "I'm really glad I met you." Sometimes it was overwhelming and unsettling to think about how easily they might have never crossed paths, especially given the current state of their world.

*

The pessimistic side of Beca (which, let’s be real, was her primary state of being) knew this was probably a huge set-up for epic heartbreak, if not another bout of unbearable grief when they inevitably parted in whatever way that would eventually happen. Tendrils of dread snaked around her heart like prickly vines but she willed them to recede, wanting and needing to make the most out of their stolen alone time. A rare, soft grin spread on Beca’s lips and the pad of her thumb brushed over Chloe’s cheekbone. “Yeah, me too.” Another round of cracking lightning followed closely by booming thunder rang through the cabin and Beca slipped her arm around Chloe’s middle. “So I’m thinking, maybe…” The hint of a smirk pulled at the edges of her grin. “What if you go back in the other room and start fake sneezing? Tell Aubrey you’re suddenly allergic to her and you’ve gotta stay in here with me.” It was a brilliant plan, if you asked Beca, who was suddenly pathetically desperate to not have to sleep without Chloe’s arms wrapped around her. (That damn mansion spoiled the crap out of her, ugh.)

*

Beca was the absolute last thing that Chloe had ever expected; she never could have prepared herself for the whirlwind that swept into her life the instant that Emily rode back into Barden on the motorcycle of a wounded but stubbornly resolute stranger. But now, she had trouble picturing each day without Beca being part of it in some capacity. That much was dangerous, she knew, especially when none of them were guaranteed anything, not even time (maybe especially not time), but Chloe had always clung to the idea that they had to find whatever happiness they could these days. It was only with the rumble of thunder that her awareness returned to anything outside of their little shared bubble, but she barely spared a glance towards the window as Beca's arm snaked around her waist.

One hand palmed down the length of Beca's side before slipping around to her back, fingers tracing lazy patterns across the small of her back. Her lips pursed in a poor, unconvincing bid to hide her own smile at the plan that Beca suggested, because the smirk and the silliness of the suggestion were both way more endearing than they had any right to be. She could understand the motivation too, since she found herself wanting nothing more than to be able to curl around Beca and drift off to sleep with the steady patter of rain and rolling thunder to lull them into drowsiness. "Sure, sounds plausible. Spontaneous friend allergies are pretty serious," she humored, traces of laughter slipping into the scant whisper of space between them. "What's your plan for Amy though?"

*

Beca grinned. “If anyone could sell spontaneous friend allergy as an actual illness it'd totes be you, Nurse Chloe.” She hummed in deep thought, squinting as she considered her options. Eventually, Beca shrugged as best as she could from her side. “We could say we fell asleep talking. It'd probably seem legit if I put my pajama pants back on.” Finding her bare assed would probably raise a few questions. “Not that I wanna hide… this, but…” Beca trailed off with a scrunched nose. It didn't feel like the right time to tell people. Not with Flo's loss still so fresh and Jesse still pissed at her. “Pretty sure we could get away with it for one night though, don't you think? If it's dark in here she might not even notice you’re here after her watch…”

Beca left the warmth of the bed only to pull those pajama bottoms back on and unlock the door so Amy wouldn’t find it fishy to return from watch to a locked door. She blew out the candle before crawling back into the bottom bunk, pulling the blankets up over them and heaving a contented sigh. After an intense physical release and several emotional conversations, with the rain pelting in a soothing, steady rhythm, it didn’t take long at all for Beca to fall asleep curled up with Chloe.

She slept harder than she had in a while--harder than she had at the mansion, where her instinctive guard remained up at all times (and rightfully so, but there was no point on dwelling on that decision). A smaller, sturdy shelter with two people on watch made much more sense safety-wise, even if they were a little crammed. Nobody woke her for watch duty, which likely meant someone either stayed awake and extended their duty or they voted to put Beca on shift tomorrow night. Either way, she was grateful to wake up after a solid eight hours of uninterrupted, peaceful slumber.

Even though she selfishly got to sleep with Chloe all night, Beca had a more difficult time than she would’ve liked wrenching herself from the warm cocoon, but the greyness outside and the sound of the rain let Beca know it was morning and she had to check things out and make sure everyone was okay. Stifling a yawn, she trudged barefoot from the bedroom and spotted Jesse sitting up on the couch, reading a book. Beca noticed the bags under his eyes and reached up to hastily braid her hair over her shoulder. “Did you sleep at all?” She kept her voice low on purpose, hearing the chorus of snores from the attic above where Cynthia Rose, Emily, and Stacie slept on.

Jesse ignored Beca, setting his jaw and flipping to the next page with far more force than necessary.

Beca rubbed at her eyes before crossing her arms over her chest. “Seriously? You’re still pissed that I told Chloe about the bite first? Jesse, c’mon…”

Silence.

Silence from Jesse wasn’t common--that was definitely more Beca’s game. She wasn’t sure whether or not to needle him some more to get him talking or leave him alone, and she watched him for a moment before moving over to the low fire, reaching for the poker to prod it back to life. It was still pretty cold in the cabin, after all. Damn rain.

*

With the rain still pelting a relentless rhythm against the roof of the cabin, curling up with Beca beneath the blankets seemed like the perfect remedy for the fatigue that swiftly set in. Despite the chill that crept into the room since it lacked the warmth provided by the fireplace in the living room, none of that seemed to reach them when they were tangled in both each other and the blankets around them. It was an ideal little cocoon of warmth, and Chloe's fingers lazily tangled in Beca's shirt and her chin tucked against her shoulder to keep her close before she surrendered to the weariness that weighed down on her.

Chloe was pretty sure she didn't even move throughout the night until she felt Beca stir against her the next morning, if the foggy warmth and slight soreness of a deep, heavy sleep that greeted her were any indication. A soft groan spilled from her lips and she gave a languid, luxurious stretch as she came to wakefulness in creeping degrees of awareness. She was aware of Beca slipping from the room, and she finally pushed herself into a sitting position and rubbed at her eyes to clear the haze of sleep from them. A quick glance out the window showed her that the rain that had lulled them to sleep the night before still persisted and now cast a dreary pall over everything. She debated the best course of action to take, but ultimately, she couldn't exactly hide out in Beca and Amy's room all day. Besides, they'd come up with a simple but seemingly effective explanation for her presence there, so there was nothing to worry about. Pulling the sleeves of her sweatshirt down over her hands and wrapping her arms around herself for warmth, she shuffled out of the room to greet the day.

As she quietly padded into the living room, she was met with a frostiness that had nothing to do with the morning chill seeping into the cabin and everything to do with the look on Jesse's face as he resolutely refused to look at Beca. She felt a pang of worry and guilt, because she couldn't help thinking that maybe Jesse wouldn't be so upset with Beca right now if Chloe hadn't blurted out her knowledge about Beca's bite. She hadn't meant to cause more friction between the two of them, but that seemed to be a precarious line to walk recently.

Her presence probably wasn't going to help that situation anyway, so she slipped across the room to her bedroom instead.

Aubrey met her at the door of the room.

"Hey, Bree."

She received no warm greeting in return. In fact, if it was possible, Aubrey's look darkened as the blonde crossed her arms over her chest and stared her down without moving from the doorway.

"Do you have anything you want to say to me?" Her voice was pitched low, but it carried something in it that immediately set Chloe on edge.

"Uh...good morning?" She tried gamely for a smile, but no answering smile was forthcoming from Aubrey. Even as she tried, she felt the first flutters of panic stir in her chest.

"'Good morning'? You must really think we're stupid, Chloe," Aubrey hissed, and Chloe's blood ran cold in her veins. "Did you think I just wouldn't notice that you never came back to our room?"

"I didn't--it wasn't a big deal. I went in there to check on Beca, and we just fell asleep while we were talking." Despite the fact that they'd discussed their excuse the night before, it sounded thin and unconvincing now even to her own ears when she heard the tremor in her voice.

"Really? Because you two have a really strange way of talking then."

Chloe felt her face flame with embarrassment and guilt under the full force of Aubrey's disapproving glare. Without Aubrey having outright accused them of anything yet, she already felt pinned to the spot by the force of Aubrey's anger and indignation at what she perceived to be the truth.

"I--I don't know what you're talking about, Aubrey."

"Don't play dumb, Chloe." Her jaw was tight and her eyes narrowed at Chloe. "Or at least don't insult the rest of us by thinking we're stupid."

*

Aubrey’s cold greeting, low as it was, carried into the mostly quiet living room and ratcheted up the chill already lingering in the air, pulling Beca’s immediate attention. Her stomach twisted when she all but accused Chloe of--well, what she actually did, but--seriously it wasn’t her business, was it? She knew Chloe could handle Aubrey on her own, even if Beca watched her shrink away from her at the settlement. (Jesus, that felt like a lifetime ago.) When she kept at her, Beca couldn’t help but snap back. “Whoa, Aubrey. Chill the fuck out.” Beca’s eyes narrowed and she pointed at her with the fire poker, raised and wielded like her machete with its tip glowing orange from stoking the flames in the hearth. As soon as she realized that, she shoved it back in between two logs.

“You gonna try to lie about it, too?” Jesse muttered, keeping his eyes fixed on the book in his lap but Beca noticed he hadn’t turned or even scanned the page in front of him in well over a minute. At least he was talking now, she supposed. Not that she was thrilled by the subject matter this time.

Beca sighed, crossing her arms over her chest--a tell she was going into defensive mode, but she didn’t realize it just then. “Lie about what, dude?”

Jesse snorted, shaking his head. “Guess you conveniently forgot that I know what it sounds like when you’re moaning.”

Beca couldn’t stop the grimace that pulled on her expression, cheeks pinkening as she cleared her throat and fought to maintain some chill. “Seriously, Jess?” Okay, but what was she supposed to say?

*

She flinched slightly when Beca's voice sounded from behind her, and a grimace twisted her features, if only because Aubrey's eyes blazed with something akin to vindication as soon as Beca spoke up in her defense. It shouldn't have been surprising that Aubrey's lambasting had carried to the rest of the room--despite her low tone, she hadn't exactly been trying to handle the situation with discretion--but the knot of guilt and sickly worry twisted even tighter in her stomach as soon as she realized Beca and Jesse had both overhead.

Her stomach sank when Jesse's mumbled words struck home like a physical blow, because it was immensely clear that Aubrey wasn't the only one who had suspicions. Well...she supposed they couldn't really be called suspicions, considering the veracity behind the accusations. But that didn't stop the lump of dread that tightened her throat when she realized how quickly this situation was spiraling away from them. This wasn't at all how she'd wanted anyone to find out, but it was clear from both Aubrey and Jesse's wildly different but equally stung reactions that their secrecy had backfired spectacularly.

"Guys, come on. Please." There was a pleading note in Chloe's voice, even as she could feel the heat that radiated from her skin in a guilty flush of color. Nonetheless, it was a plea for some level of rationale in handling this, if nothing else so they could explain themselves.

"Please? Oh, drop the wounded puppy look, Chloe." Aubrey's tone was more scathing now, and Chloe's fingers twisted tighter in the sleeves of her sweatshirt. Although Jesse still refused to look at them, she saw the tight set of his jaw and the white-knuckled grip that one hand had on the book in his lap. "You two are the ones who were sneaking around and lying about this."

Panic clawed its way up Chloe's throat, because while Aubrey and Jesse only seemed to know about this one occurrence for certain, the words still struck uncomfortably close to home. And neither of them were stupid or oblivious, it wasn't difficult to put more connections together if they gave it some thought.

"I'm sorry. We didn't mean to lie about anything, I just--it didn't seem like the time to say anything," Chloe admitted in a small voice. And it truly hadn't seemed like good timing, because the loss of Flo was still so fresh and hanging over all of them, and she hadn't wanted to hurt Jesse, and...there were dozens of reasons she could chase in circles in her mind, if she let herself.

"Oh, so it's okay to go behind everyone's backs, just not to talk about it?" Aubrey's scoff conveyed exactly how preposterous she found that.

*

Maybe it had been naive to think the rolling thunderstorm would be enough to drown out the noises they’d wrung from each other even behind closed doors, but clearly they couldn’t deny it any longer. And though she very much wanted to address Jesse and his childish jealousy, her focus landed squarely on Aubrey, who despite their (temporary) truce had roared back to optimum bitch mode. It was one thing for the blonde to come at her, but to verbally tear into Chloe… that wasn’t okay, and it made Beca’s insides boil.

“You don’t need to apologize for anything, Chlo. We didn’t do anything wrong here.” Other than maybe not try hard enough to keep their voices down, but lesson learned there. “I know privacy’s really fucking hard to come by these days but it doesn’t mean we’re not entitled to some. We weren’t keeping it a secret because we didn’t want you guys to know ever, but it’s still pretty new for us and we wanted time to figure it out for ourselves before we told you guys, okay? Chloe doesn’t have to tell you everything, and it’s not right that you’re making her feel guilty over finding something that makes her happy.” It made sense to Beca, at least. She took a deep breath and her eyes finally landed on Jesse. “And I wanted to give you some more time to…”

Jesse looked up from his book to frown at her. “To what, get over you? That’s not gonna happen, but thanks for crushing whatever hope I had that we’d get back together.” The empty husk of a chuckle that passed twisted Beca’s heartstrings even more.

When she spoke again, her voice carried softer, more carefully. “That’s not fair, Jesse. That’s not fucking fair at all. I don’t owe you--”

I was the one who was there for you when Sara died, not Chloe. I was the one--”

“And I fucking appreciate that--more than I can ever fucking say! And that’s why you’re my best friend!”

Jesse ran his hand over his face. “Great. So I’m friend zoned. That’s awesome.”

The rustling from upstairs pulled Beca’s attention and she realized the snoring stopped. She peered up to see Cynthia Rose, Stacie, and Emily leaning over the loft railing, watching with varying degrees of pained or intrigued looks written on their faces.

*

Chloe was well-acquainted with Aubrey's sharpness and how it was sometimes directed at their group. She knew that Aubrey had always had good intentions in trying to keep them safe, but sometimes that spilled over when stress ate away at her composure, turning her words and demeanor caustic. Chloe had often tried to act as a buffer for Aubrey when that happened, but it felt especially stinging now when it was directed at her for her own secrecy. She caught a glint of betrayal in the depths of Aubrey's eyes, and a fresh pang of guilt twisted in her gut to think about how Aubrey must feel stung by finding out about the sneaking around and feeling like Chloe hadn't confided in her about this.

Her shoulders tensed when Beca spoke up in her defense once again, not because she didn't deeply appreciate Beca's willingness to stick up for her, but because she worried about tempers boiling over even more. Especially where Beca and Aubrey were concerned. "She's right, Bree." Aubrey's face hardened, although whether it was because Chloe sided with Beca or because she used the familiar nickname in such a tense moment, Chloe couldn't be sure. "It wasn't--we weren't trying to keep anyone in the dark. We would've told you when the time was right, we just wanted to figure things out first. And we didn't want to--we were trying to be mindful of everything else that was going on." She looked at Aubrey more directly then, her eyes pleading for her best friend to understand. "I know there's so much else we're dealing with, but it--she does make me happy." She didn't dare risk a glance at Jesse when she said that, because while she wanted to preserve his feelings, she also wanted to be forthright now that the truth was coming out.

When Jesse finally looked up at Beca and shot down her attempt at an explanation, Chloe's shoulders hunched and she wrapped her arms around herself. The anxious shiver that worked its way down her spine had nothing to do with the chill that crept into the cabin despite the fire's best efforts. If she was being honest with herself, Jesse voiced some of the same uncertainties she'd wrestled with herself. There was so much history between Beca and Jesse, and she hadn't wanted to stomp all over it with whatever they were doing. But she also knew that it wasn't fair for Beca to feel like she owed Jesse anything beyond their friendship or for him to harbor unrealistic hopes.

She hadn't realized how much their voices had risen until Beca turned towards the loft and the movement pulled her focus upward as well. Her heart sank upon seeing the faces of the rest of their companions peering over the railing...apparently they were getting this out in the open for everyone right now.

Aubrey seemed undeterred by the new onlookers to their unexpected drama. "You should've been honest with us. The group deserves to know wh