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singing like a bird 'bout it now

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PART ONE

 

 



I couldn’t utter my love when it counted
Ah, but I’m singing like a bird ‘bout it now







Beca stands at the front desk of the hotel lobby, her old faithful suitcase by her side. The man across from her smiles politely as he takes her booking information. “First time in Atlanta?” he asks her.

“First time in a long time,” she responds, reaching out to accept her room key. “But, no, definitely not my first.”

She hasn’t been back since she graduated and left her college town behind. Her mind drifts to the days she has ahead of her. The people she’s going to see again, the places she’ll find herself in.

“Beca!”

Her face spreads into a smirk. She turns her head, and there is Chloe Beale. Her hair is shorter these days, eyes full of sunshine, just like always.

She drags her suitcase quickly toward Beca. The sight is a comfort to her—if there’s one thing in her world she could depend on being steady, it’s Chloe. She steps in and Beca feels her heels lifted off the ground. The room spins, and Beca has to lock her arms around Chloe’s neck to brace herself. Chloe’s laughing, she’s happy.

“Chloe,” she protests, but she’s laughing, too.

Chloe relaxes Beca down but doesn’t release her hold. “Can you believe we’re here? Headed back to Barden tomorrow morning?” She steps back to get a good look at Beca. “It feels fake.”

“Legacy being all grown up is definitely fake,” Beca says.

“I know. It seems like just yesterday we were the ones graduating, and now it’s her,” Chloe says. “I’m still not all grown up.”

A lot of things about this feel fake. Chloe standing in front of her, holding her wrists is definitely one of them—they don’t see each other like they used to, not since Beca moved to L.A. and Chloe stayed in New York to finish veterinary school.

It’s not like she ever would have expected Chloe to follow her to the other side of the country, anyway. It just meant less time with each other. Chloe finished her degree a semester ago and works at an animal shelter now, and they fly to each other every other month. It’ll never be the same as the Bella House, though. It’ll never be as good as their crappy New York apartment.

They pull their suitcases into the elevator. Chloe presses the button to her floor. “What room number are you?”

***

It would be their luck that she and Chloe have rooms right next door to each other. Beca puts her clothes away, thinking how weird it is that Chloe is one room away but they’re not together.

There’s a little tap-tap on the door Beca had assumed was a coat closet. She pauses from where she’d been unpacking her clothes and walks over to it, shaking her head with suppressed laughter. Swinging it open, Chloe beams at her in amusement from the other side. “They gave us adjoining rooms,” she remarks.

Her friend’s excitement is so typical, it puts her right at home. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“Since we’re right here…” Chloe peers into her room. “Want to watch a movie with me?”

Leaving the door open, Beca steps back, holding her arm out in presentation mode as she invites Chloe in. “Fine, but nothing mushy.”

Chloe disappears to put on some pajamas while Beca brushes her teeth, and after a couple of minutes, she returns in fuzzy slippers and an oversized t-shirt that almost completely covers the plaid pajama shorts she has on beneath them.

“Do you know if anyone else is staying here?” Beca asks, toothbrush hanging from her cheek.

“Flo and Cynthia Rose, I think?” Chloe pauses. “Maybe Mrs. Junk, I think Emily mentioned we could ride with her to the ceremony.”

Chloe turns out the lights, the light from the TV giving the room an unnatural glow. She shuffles over and kicks her fuzzy boots off. The mattress rises and falls with her movement, and Chloe doesn’t hesitate to scoot in comfortably. No matter how much time they spend apart, they always come together as though no time has passed at all.

Beca fixes the pillow behind her back and eases down onto the bed so that Chloe’s shoulder is against hers. “What are we watching?” Beca asks, passing her the remote.

They scroll aimlessly, pausing occasionally to debate the merits and mushy-ness of each title repeatedly until they can settle on one. Chloe settles entirely into her.

Heat radiates from Chloe’s skin under the blankets. She’s trying her very hardest not to think about how oversized t-shirts are made for having hands slid under them.

She squashes that thought ruthlessly.

Beca knows just the way Chloe breathes right before she falls asleep. It’s the kind of intimate knowledge that comes from sharing a bed for years, a knowledge she sometimes feels she has no right to.

Chloe is drifting asleep so easily, so trustingly in her bed. She breathes in the lemongrass fragrance of her hair. It’s like a drug. Even after she’s sure Chloe is asleep, Beca doesn’t try to move away. Why should she, anyway?

A sleepy whisper drops from Chloe’s lips. “Night, Bec.” She yawns. “Love you.”

A good night text from Chicago lights up the screen on Chloe’s phone where it rests on her chest, already slept through and unanswered.

That’s why.

***

“Beca? Can you help me zip up my dress?”

Beca walks in behind Chloe. They’ve changed in front of each other a hundred times. But something about this is different—being so close to her again last night, how good that felt, it fucks with her head so bad.

There was a time when she could lie to herself about such things. For a long time, it had been quite easy. Her eyes linger on Chloe’s bare shoulders and the plunging strip of skin that follows her spine all the way to her tailbone, and she knows she’s not lying to herself about it now. What a privilege it would be.

Beca’s fingers graze her skin as she softly grasps the zipper, pulling it up inch by painstaking inch. She can sense the way Chloe has stiffened. Her fingers linger on Chloe’s shoulder, but eventually she lets those drop.

“The ceremony starts soon,” Beca says distractedly. She lets her gaze drop, too.

***

Emily is on the front steps of the house in her green cap and gown, taking photos with the other Bellas. Tight bands pull at her chest, and she smiles genuinely at them. She looks so happy—she looks like them when it was their turn. All grown up indeed.

When Emily sees her and Chloe she breaks away from the group and comes barreling down the driveway, throwing herself into Chloe’s arms.

“I’m so glad you guys could make it,” Emily says. “Especially you with your work schedule, Beca, I was worried I’d have to kidnap you. Or make Aubrey use her strict ‘this isn’t optional’ voice.”

“God, don’t even joke about that,” Beca says. She’s laughing, too, because she knows it would have worked.

“Speaking of work schedules, Chloe, Chicago couldn’t get any time off to be here?”

Pausing, Beca chews her bottom lip. Her excitement to see her old friend fades at the mention of him.

***

They find their seats in the stands next to Aubrey, Cynthia Rose, and the Junk family. The other Bellas are around somewhere, no doubt trying to keep Amy away from the tailgate parties. Mrs. Junk clutches her camera tightly in one hand, wiping the makeup under her eyes with the other.

“Are you ready to watch Legacy walk across the stage?” Beca asks, smirking at Chloe.

Chloe grips her hands like a parent, filled with pride, anxiously sending her kid off into the real world. “Of course I’m not ready,” she laughs. “Bec?”

“Yeah?”

“When did we get so old?”

***

After the speeches are made and the diplomas are given, they go back to the Bellas house for the graduation party. It feels right to be there, and they catch up and talk and laugh for hours. Beca’s budding music career makes her something of a local legend, so she fields a lot of questions about it, but she doesn’t mind.

When the drinks have everyone feeling just warm and fuzzy enough, Emily rounds them all up into the living room. “Come on,” she says, ushering them in. “I never get to hear you guys sing anymore.”

Of course they indulge her, and the original championship Bellas give a throwback rendition of one of their old routines, set with I Saw the Sign to please Aubrey. Beca doesn’t miss the appreciative smile she shoots to Beca during the first verse.

“Oh my god, you guys are classic,” Emily says once the song is over, clearly mystified. “Chloe? Do you remember that duet you did with Beca right before you guys left for New York?”

All eyes are on them. “Um, yeah, I do,” Chloe says. She turns to her tentatively. “Bec?”

Of course Beca remembers. A modern cover of It Ain’t Me, Babe, slowed and sweetened. How could she forget? She’s sung hundreds of songs with the Bellas, but that night, right before they left this place behind, that song was theirs. That time was theirs, too. They were each other’s, even if it was just for one song.

She just gives Choe a short nod. They step forward and she pauses, finding the rhythm in her mind.

Beca takes a deep breath and sings:

“Go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed…”

Chloe joins right behind her. The tones of their voices wrap around each other like pieces of twine in a braid. She chances a look at Emily, who is dreamy-eyed. Amy is swaying. She wants to look over at Chloe so badly, so badly, to see Chloe look at her, to see her watch Beca the way Beca has watched her since they arrived.

“I’m not the one you want, babe, I’m not the one you need…”

She tries hard not to impress anyone, to just remember how much she loves the song, how gutwrenchingly perfect it was to sing it with Chloe for the first time. To be so in sync with another person you begin to create together.

“You say you’re lookin’ for someone who’ll pick you up each time you fall...”

“To gather flowers constantly and to come each time you call…”

As the song nears its end, Beca wills Chloe’s bright blue eyes her way. When her gaze doesn’t budge, she looks skyward, her voice overly thick with feeling. It doesn’t matter where she’s looking. From the start, she’s only been singing for her.

“No, no, no it ain’t me, babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for…”

The final notes are sung, and Beca recognizes the silence that follows. It’s the quiet of an audience transported.

Amy is the first to speak. “You two would make the most handsome musical babies.”

Beca glances at Chloe again, but Chloe still won’t meet her eyes. Beca wants to hear everything she’s thinking, to hear her use a word she’s never heard before, to hear her say that it feels good to be singing again, that it’s been too long.

“Not bad for a couple washed-up acapella nerds,” Chloe breathes. She snatches Stacie’s beer and takes a long, long drink.

Later on Beca sits outside under the old oak in the front yard, recalling hazy evenings like this one. She looks at the house where she lived nearly every one of her days for three years. Of all those days, she can’t picture a single one of them without Chloe.

The sound of soft footsteps in the grass catches her attention. Beca glances away from the house, seeing Chloe walk toward her with a knowing smile on her face.

“Enjoying your little escape?”

Beca pauses, caught by the way Chloe looks. Her yellow summer dress falls to the middle of her thigh, and she wears it like it was made for her. It might as well have been, as perfect as she is in it. But it’s her eyes, too, the way they’re intense in an entirely different way at dusk.

“Always,” Beca responds.

Chloe extends a hand in her direction. “Walk with me?”

She allows Chloe to pull her up. Her grip on Beca lingers even once Beca has stood, but only for a moment. So fleeting she could have imagined it.

They walk down the familiar street that used to be home, the quiet rustling of leaves filling the empty space around them.

“Beca?” Chloe asks softly. “What’s something that you want?”

Beca laughs at the way Chloe starts her questions with her name. “Do you really need me to answer that question?”

“Alright, besides your music career. There are other things, you know.”

Beca just shakes her head. It’s not her music career that keeps her up at night. It’s her, it’s always been her. But Beca plays along anyway. Some things are better left dead and buried.

“Some days it doesn’t feel like it.”

“What about when you were a kid?” Chloe says. “All kids want something.”

Beca exhales, and the air shifts between them. They walk a little slower. “It was different. Especially the way my parents were. The back-and-forth, the legal battles. It was just... best not to want anything. If it didn’t fit in a duffel bag it was best to just let it be. Saved me from disappointments, you know?”

Chloe wets her lips, hesitating. “But you want something now, right?”

“Of course I do,” Beca murmurs. “Whether or not I can have them… it’s just not that simple.”

Regret over her words lands instantly as she watches Chloe chew on her lip. The mere sight of it hits Beca like a blow to the chest, the kind that doubles you over even when you see it coming.

“What about you?” Beca says, swallowing. “What does Chloe Beale want?”

There’s a sudden rush of saliva in her mouth as she imagines how Chloe would taste if Beca kissed her at this moment. A deep ache starts between her legs. She opens her mouth to say something again but then closes it. She can’t afford to get nostalgic and forget that they return to their lives tomorrow.

“Do you smell that?” Chloe asks suddenly.

Beca’s eyebrows pinch together in confusion, but after a beat of silence and an overdue breath, it hits her. “I… is that… smoke?”

***

They stand in the street next to the fire engine, red flashing lights illuminating the front yard. Eventually, the fire department clears them to walk into the smoke-injured house. Part of a wall is gone, leaving a gaping spot to view the neighbor’s siding.

A broad-shouldered man with soot on his face looks at where the Bellas stand shoulder to shoulder. “No one is hurt, and the fire was put out before too much damage could be done. You girls are lucky.”

Chloe is relieved, immediately pulling Emily into her arms. The way she holds Emily is so protective, so motherly, as her hands cradle her head against her chest.

“I’m fine, Chloe, I promise,” Emily says.

Reaching out with a trembling hand, Chloe pulls it back and clamps it over her mouth quickly. “The cabinet where we kept all the photo albums. It was always here, right? It’s gone,” she whispers.

Photos dating back to the eighties were kept in that cabinet, passed down to each captain to add to and pass on again. Chloe spent so many hours hunched over her pages in the albums.

“Chloe…” Beca starts, not sure what to do.

“How did this happen?” Chloe demands.

“You’ll have to ask your Australian friend that one,” the fireman mutters.

Chloe’s arms drop down from Emily, stepping back slowly. Everyone’s eyes shift nervously to Amy, who has been far too quiet this whole time. “Amy?”

Hands wringing in front of her, Amy looks to the other Bellas, meeting each of their eyes desperately as she searches for back up. “I—I just,” she stutters. “I learned this really neat trick in Thailand... and I thought everyone would want to see it.”

Chloe’s gaze is frigid. “Spit it out, Amy.”

Emily steps back to stand next to Amy in a show of support. “There were these people in Thailand who twirled fire batons, and she—Amy just thought—”

“Thought it would be a good idea to show everyone a super cool party trick, right? And none of you thought to stop her?” Chloe snaps.

“It’s Amy,” Stacie mumbles. “What were we supposed to do?”

“You were supposed to watch her. Everyone here knows she needs to be watched.” Chloe brings her hands up to her hair. “I can’t believe you. I can’t believe any of you. We’re not—we’re not kids anymore.”

Amy steps forward and reaches out for Chloe, for once in her life looking sorry. The touch pulls Chloe from her thoughts. She flinches and storms out of the house, ignoring everyone’s concerned stares.

***

Beca gets back to their hotel a couple hours later, quietly entering her room. They found other sleeping arrangements for the girls and hung a tarp over the hole in the wall. The door connecting their hotel rooms, open since they arrived, is closed tight. With a light knock on the door, Beca turns the handle.

“Hey,” she says, peeking her head in. “Chlo? Are you—?”

She wants to ask if Chloe is okay, but she knows instantly that Chloe isn’t.

She’s seen all of Chloe’s cries—the stressed tears, the sad ones (thanks, Thelma and Louise), the drunk ones, even the joyful ones. When Chloe meets her eyes, though, it’s altogether different from anything she’s seen before. Beca has never witnessed Chloe grieve, and she thinks that’s what’s happening now. She swears that it’s enough to make her collapse right there.

“Um, sorry,” Chloe says shakily, wiping her eyes.

Beca walks up to the bed where Chloe sits on the edge of the mattress. This set of emotions is completely unfamiliar to Beca. She’s too stunted to ever know how to help when someone cries, although Chloe has never seemed to mind.

Doing the only thing she can think to do, she sits down on the bed next to her and pulls Chloe into her. She can’t even remember the last time she hugged someone who wasn’t Chloe, but she pushes that thought away.

“Hey.” Beca’s voice is soft, as though she’s comforting a child. The sound of it is so foreign, even to herself. Beca murmurs, “I don’t want you to be sorry. You don’t have to be sorry.”

Her body begins to shake with a silent release of tears against Beca, light gasping breaths fanning against her collarbones. “The photo albums,” Chloe whispers. “I can’t—we can’t...”

Beca hates the complete and utter hurt in Chloe’s voice. Something important is gone, and there is nothing any of them can do about it.

All these years at Chloe’s side has made her sure that Chloe is deep-down better than the rest of them. Better than anyone. She’s become largely certain that the world doesn’t deserve her, and it makes seeing her in this much pain feel so wrong. In theory, yes, everyone experiences pain in life. But something about seeing Chloe go through it is just unnatural.

Eyebrows drawn tight in an attempt to fend off her own emotions, she loosens her grip on Chloe a little. She moves on autopilot as she pushes the covers back and slides under them.

Her hands are uncharacteristically sure as they guide Chloe to her. Their bodies fit together, Chloe’s face buried into her chest, their arms locked around each other.

A sigh of relief passes through Chloe’s perfect lips as she slides a leg between Beca’s. That small action is so Chloe—to give her an inch is to give her permission to take a mile. Perhaps that’s why Beca is always so willing to give her an inch. If she’s being completely honest with herself—though she rarely is—it’s how she ended up in a college acapella group in the first place.

Pressing her cheek into Chloe’s hair, Beca can’t help but think about how she would do anything to take away Chloe’s pain. Long after Chloe’s body goes slack against hers in exhausted sleep, it’s the only thing Beca can think of. How she would do anything at all.

***

Beca didn’t go back to her own room the next night. She couldn’t. The tears don’t come again, but there’s a tiredness in Chloe’s eyes that makes Beca need to stay. For every one of Chloe’s emotions, Beca has a convoluted set of her own, each more confusing than the last.

They extend their stay in Atlanta to help the baby Bellas figure out the insurance headaches and help the girls move their things out on a more permanent basis while they wait for the damage to be repaired. At the very least, it doesn’t hurt that with it being summer most of the girls were either graduating or going home to their families anyway.

It’s been a long day of haggling with local contractors and an insurance lady who made it crystal-clear that Amy is never allowed to twirl fire batons in that house again. Beca walks through the connecting door between their rooms and sits on Chloe’s bed. It’s a waste to be paying for both. She’s shared a bed with Chloe every night that they’ve been here, even before The Amy Disaster.

Lying down, Beca looks at Chloe for a long moment. Against her better judgment, she reaches one arm out, letting it graze Chloe’s shoulder before opening it like an invitation. Chloe doesn’t ask questions—she simply rests her body against Beca’s. They manage the darkness wrapped in each other’s arms, guarding against the hurts that inherently come along with personhood.

It’s admittedly easy to want to stay and help coordinate the repairs when they spend the hours of darkness like this. It’s almost like they’re back in New York City, except the bed is so much better and Amy is nowhere to be found (also so much better.)

“I’m sure you want to get back to L.A.,” Chloe murmurs.

“If I wanted to be there, Chlo, I would be,” she responds. The drowsiness almost makes her dangerously truthful.

Her stomach twists itself into knots over all the things she doesn’t say. Like how she’s gone to sleep hating herself for how good it feels to be with her this way, how she’s dreading her flight home because it’ll mean giving her up again.

***

Waking up on their last morning, Beca is coaxed into wakefulness not by the golden rays of sunlight flooding through the bedroom windows, but by the tickle of Chloe’s hair against her skin. She opens her eyes slowly and looks right into Chloe’s. Their bodies are fitted together like puzzle pieces, warm and close and right.

Chloe is memorizing the details of Beca’s face. The slope of her nose, the gentle curve of her brow. Sometimes when Chloe looks at her like that, it all makes sense. In this finite, half-asleep world, it feels as though maybe this is how it was supposed to be all along.

They leave today, though. They leave soon. She doesn’t know when they’ll see each other next. The words are dying on her lips in her sleep-riddled haze, waiting to be said. I know you have Chicago, but you have me, too. I want you so much. I don’t know what to do with all this wanting you.

She can’t bring herself to say it. The words aren’t enough, they have nothing on the sickness in her stomach she has from needing Chloe like this.

Slowly, so slowly, she moves her hand up to Chloe’s mouth until her knuckles brush against Chloe’s lips. Her heart is in her throat as she rotates her wrist to paint over the smooth surface of Chloe’s bottom lip with her thumb.

She won’t be sure for a long time whether it’s bravery or stupidity that makes her lean in, but she does. Perhaps it’s a spectacular show of both. All at once, their lips connect and Beca is kissing her, right there in an eight-year void.

She grasps Chloe’s jaw. She needs to feel that this is real, that she isn’t dreaming this. That Chloe’s lips truly are sliding against her own so messy and sweet. Everything is golden and glowy and Beca is so hers, ‘Property of Chloe Beale’ might as well be stamped on her forehead.

Beca shifts closer as Chloe pulls her tight against her chest. Being held by her now, after so many years spent on the cusp of this almost, feels like an indictment. Every touch a searing question, an unashamed demand. Why, oh God, why didn’t you do this sooner?

She’s caught in such a feeling of wonderment that it’s nearly impossible to breathe. She is until Chloe jerks back, disconnecting herself from Beca quickly.

Confusion hits her like a ton of bricks as Chloe’s fingers come up to her lips, her eyes unfocused and scared.

“Oh, God,” she mutters. “Beca, I’m… I’m engaged.”

Beca stills. If her body could deflate right then and there, it would have. The ink dries. The words stain her skin. They’ll last forever—Beca knows they will.

Her lips are still tingling from the kiss, and Chloe is engaged. Her whole body is moved by Chloe, and Chloe is engaged. None of those should exist together.

Chicago proposed and Chloe said yes—it cuts through her like a knife. After all the talks they’ve had. All the laughs. All the fights. Then one kiss. And now, nothing.

“Beca…”

Beca pushes herself up, standing abruptly. She can’t even look at Chloe right now.

“Beca, please—”

She feels Chloe’s hand wrap around her arm. Without thinking, she snaps, “Chloe, I swear if you don’t let go of me right now I’m going to lose it.”

There’s a moment of hesitation, and then the touch is gone.

“You’re going to marry him?” Beca bites her cheek before glancing down at Chloe’s left hand. “You’re not even wearing a ring.”

Chloe chews the inside of her lip anxiously, tears obviously welling in her eyes. “I know. I told him I didn’t want to announce it until I could tell you in person. He agreed.” She looks at Beca, pain written into the lines of her face. “It’s in my bag.”

“You had the whole weekend to tell me. The whole weekend. Instead of popping it on me in the middle of—” She stops. Beca grabs her sweatshirt and wraps it angrily around her body. They stand there in silence until Beca says, “Well, are you?”

“Am I—?”

“Are you going to marry him?” Beca asks through a tight throat.

“I—” Chloe starts. Her voice cracks. “I don’t know, Beca. It’s what I agreed to. I waited for you. I wanted it to be you, I gave you so much time.” She stops, looking down. “And then one day I didn’t have any more time to give.”

Beca can see the hurt in Chloe’s eyes as plain as day, but it doesn’t change anything. She thinks about broken glass, she thinks about snow melting on abandoned sidewalks and gravel under cold tires.

“No time, huh?” Beca says sharply, wiping her eyes. “Maybe I never said anything, but you never said anything, either, Chloe.”

Chloe’s mouth gapes, and just like that Beca knows a line is crossed. “I said it a thousand different times. You were never listening, Beca.”

“Saying you’d wished you’d fucking experimented more is not the same thing as saying that you—“ Beca squeezes her eyes shut, covering them with her hands. “God, I can’t fucking do this right now.”

Chloe’s hands fly up to her hair in frustration. “That’s the problem, Beca! You can never do this. It’s always easier to walk away from a hard conversation. It’s always easier to turn the other direction or set your phone down or wait until later. You can’t push every conversation off until you feel up to it. You can’t run away every time it gets hard. I know it’s easier for you to put everything on pause until it’s convenient for you, but you just can’t. And I can’t either.”

Beca wishes she could tell Chloe that she’s all wrong. “We’ve hurt each other,” Beca sniffs. “We’re doing it again.”

“Fuck,” Chloe whispers, wiping away the tears on her cheek. “I can’t keep doing this to myself. I just can’t.”

She should say it now before it’s too late. Beca should tell Chloe how she loves her, how she thinks she always has. It’s broken, now, though. It feels broken.

***

Sitting beside the person who just wrecked you definitely isn’t the thing to do. But Beca doesn’t have a choice. Their friends are here, eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant as they get ready to go home.

Beca glances Chloe’s way. Her face is pale, her eyes glued straight ahead. One by one they trickle out as their flight times near until it’s just Chloe and Beca left. Flo goes upstairs, packing her suitcase last minute, leaving Beca alone to be excruciatingly aware of Chloe.

She’ll never forgive her. She’ll never forgive Chloe for the way she laid in her bed, for the way she kissed her so wholly and completely when there was a ring in her bag. No amount of confusion in the world can make an excuse for that.

Most of all, she’ll never forgive Chloe for making Beca love her.

She’s the first to break the silence. “What time is your flight?” Her tone is colder than she meant it to be.

“In a couple of hours,” Chloe responds quietly. “We should probably leave for the airport soon.”

Beca nods. She wants nothing more than to stop doing this—to stop talking without really saying anything. To say every unsaid thing that she’s kept inside because the timing was never right or she was never ready.

But there’s something bigger than her at work. An engagement. A wedding. A marriage.

Before, there wouldn’t be anything that would stop her from driving Chloe to the airport herself so they could spend every possible minute together. So Chloe could wrap her in a hug and say goodbye only when she absolutely had to walk away.

Now rigid words slip through her lips. “I think an Uber is twenty-five dollars.”

***

Beca stands outside under the warm Atlanta sun, Flo hugging her tightly. Their Uber driver is waiting for them. “Text me when you land safely, alright?” Beca says.

Their tight embrace ends and Beca takes a step back. They stand there, and she knows Flo is waiting for Beca to say her goodbyes to Chloe. She knows she owes Chloe that much, too. Or at least she thinks she does. She isn’t sure what you owe the person you love right after she breaks your heart.

But that’s not all Chloe is. She’s been her best friend for a third of her life, too. Her friend, her teammate, her roommate, her best and worst influences depending on the night.

She turns to Chloe, forcing herself to meet her gaze. It’s so much worse than she thought it would be. She’s mad at Chloe—God, she wishes she was mad at Chloe. She’s angry with herself, smothered by the dizzying consequences of realizing she was just too late.

Chloe turns to Flo. “Wait for me in the car? I’ll just be a minute.”

“Sure, Chloe.”

There’s a long silence. They wait until her suitcase is in the trunk, taking each other in. Everything is different now. It’s palpable between them, the knowledge that damage has been done.

“Is this the last time we’re going to see each other?” Chloe whispers. She’s crying by now. She doesn’t know when she started.

“I don’t know,” Beca says. “I think… maybe it should be.”

Chloe presses her lips together and nods quickly, doing everything in her power to suppress the tears that are welling up. Beca hates that Chloe is hurting over this. But wouldn’t it hurt no matter what? To stay friends, knowing what could have been, what maybe even should have been, while Chloe embarks on her marriage with someone else? Nothing about this is fair, but that would be cruel to everyone involved. There isn’t room for three people in this equation anymore—not even Chicago deserves that.

Chloe steps forward and hugs her with a panicked fervor. Beca doesn’t hesitate to wrap her arms around her immediately, burying her face into Chloe’s hair with a raw throat. It’s new, the way her touch hurts her. She breathes in the lemongrass and bites back the words that have been playing on repeat in her head since last night.

Don’t need him, Chloe. Just need me.

She knows exactly how unfair that is, though, so she says nothing. Nothing at all. She lets go with hot sticky tears on her face, conscious of that fact that Flo is right there, watching them fall apart, undoubtedly wondering what the hell is going on.

Sometimes words fail—sometimes things are just broken. So Beca and Chloe don’t speak. They both just nod at each other, holding back their words and their sobs, which wait patiently at the back of their throats for the moment they’re apart.

***

Chloe was the sun, Beca the moon. All these years they’ve been waiting for an eclipse without knowing it. They met in the sky, blocking everything out. But eclipses never last—the sun and the moon are never fated to be together forever. They had their perfect seven minutes, and those seven minutes are up. They’re already drifting apart again.




PART TWO





 

redamancy

red•amancy—the act of loving one who loves you; a love returned in full

 





 

She tells Aubrey everything. The kiss, the engagement. Walking away from each other for the last time. Aubrey takes the news like a champ, of course.

“I think we all saw this coming, Beca. I mean, I hoped it wouldn’t, but… you should see yourself when you’re with her,” she says. “It’s hard to deny.”

Hearing that is worse than anything.

***

It takes another six months for an invitation to come in the mail. Beca stands in her kitchen as she flips through too many envelopes of the typical useless junk, going so fast she passes it the first time.

Her hands freeze as she silently prays she’d imagined Chloe’s name embossed on the thick cream-colored paper. Moving slowly, she slides it out from the pile.

TOGETHER
WITH THEIR FAMILIES
CHLOE BEALE
AND
CHICAGO WALP
INVITE YOU TO THEIR
WEDDING CELEBRATION
JUNE 13
AT 4 O’CLOCK IN THE AFTERNOON
GORGE CREST VINEYARDS
HOOD RIVER, OREGON
RECEPTION TO FOLLOW

Beca doesn’t know what to do with it. Hang it on her fridge? No, no. She isn’t a masochist. She walks over to the trash can with it clutched tightly in her grasp.

Her eyes pause over their names and she can’t help but wonder why this is in her hand at all. If Chloe sincerely expects her to attend, or if the card was simply a gesture that stems from respect for a friendship that once came before anything else.

***

Beca is visiting her dad in Atlanta when she surprises herself. Sitting in the living room with her dad and Sheila, she stares down at the beer she’s been nursing since dinner. It’s unmistakable just how little self-control she has as her mind drifts back to the memory that’s been on her mind since she arrived.

There’d been a weekend her sophomore year of college Beca agreed to spend with her dad and Sheila despite the fact that, at the time, she would have rather jumped off a cliff. It didn’t take much moping around for Chloe to ask why she was being such a grump.

Only seconds after explaining, Chloe piped up with a breezy “Why don’t I just come with you? It could be fun.”

If it had been anyone else, Beca would have brushed off the offer. But it was Chloe. And Chloe… she makes everything better. Even back then, even when Beca refused to let herself accept why. After a few beats of quiet, she’d agreed, and two days later they found themselves at her father’s house in the suburbs.

Beca glances down the hallway to her left, thinking about the way they’d dragged their bags to the bedroom Beca spent the summers of her teen years. They’d laid down together that first night—it hadn’t even been a question that they would share the bed. At the time it was a given, despite the fact that it was the first time. She’ll still never forget how fast her heart beat when Chloe rolled toward her, a sly smile gracing her lips in the blue dark.

Chloe said to her, “We’re going to have fun this weekend.” She squeezed Beca’s hand gently. “Promise.”

Beca had rolled onto her back, looking at the ceiling and analyzing the backflips her stomach was doing. This is normal, she’d told herself at the time. This is normal.

Her dad stands up, bringing her attention back to the here-and-now. “I’m headed to bed, Bec.” He squeezes her knee as he passes by. “See you at breakfast, okay?”

“Good night, Dad,” she responds quietly.

Twisting the half-empty, fully-warm beer in her hands, she almost laughs at herself. Alone in the living room now with Sheila, her eighteen-year-old self would have hated to be in this position with the step-monster. At twenty-six, though, it doesn’t have that effect. Beca learned to accept her strange and broken family for what it is. She even learned to accept Sheila for what she is.

“Can I ask you something?” Beca murmurs.

“Of course.”

“How did you know you and my dad were going to make it?”

Sheila’s features slip into a humored smile. “I thought there was a rule about us talking about your dad like this.”

A rule Beca made in high school, back when she was prone to giving Sheila hell. She smirks. “It’s suspended for the next five minutes.”

Sheila’s eyebrows raise in surprise. She leans back, allowing herself to really think about it.

“How did I know?” Sheila sighs. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know. There are so many reasons it shouldn’t have worked. There always are. But when you love someone... it doesn’t have to be perfect, you know? It just has to be real. And you have to want it, Beca, ‘cause it’ll never work if you don’t.”

Beca just nods. She doesn’t want to be thinking about Chloe. She doesn’t want to wonder if Chloe loves Chicago so real and true. Chloe must love him if she would promise to love him for all her life, but the thought of it is enough to make her sick.

Chloe may love Chicago, but once upon a time she’d loved Beca like that, too. Beca had her even if she lost her.

“Should I be concerned as to why you’re asking me these kinds of questions?” Sheila asks. “I didn’t think you were dating anyone.”

Beca shakes her head. “I’m not. I was just wondering, that’s all.”

Sheila goes to bed, too, and Beca is left there alone with her thoughts. She sits in the darkness beside her warm beer bottle, wanting to believe that she’s capable of finding it and keeping it and wanting it.

***

JUNE 13TH

THE WEDDING

Drinking champagne in the rose garden, Beca’s hand shakes as she tips the glass back. She wipes her sweaty palms on her slate-blue dress.

This place—this vineyard—is disgustingly beautiful. The air smells like lavender and summer days that go on forever. Everything is in bloom, green and sunny and hopeful. Lifting her dress a couple of inches off the ground, she ventures further away from the rest of the guests. It’s almost as if there’s a big sign in front of the altar that says this way lies heartbreak.

A part of her that refuses to be ignored wishes she would have followed her gut instinct and stayed in L.A. It would have been healthier. It might have even been the right thing to do. But Beca hasn’t spoken to Chloe since that last apocalyptic morning, and she can’t bring herself to let that be the last time they ever see each other.

Even if it kills her, Beca knew she would commit this final act of friendship and watch the best thing she’s ever known walk away one last time.

She takes another swig of champagne. Her whole body burns and she’d like to think it’s the drink, but it’s not. The feeling… it's like a nostalgia for something that didn’t happen. In a different life with different worries. Different struggles. Maybe it would have been Beca with Chloe instead. Maybe it could have been them.

Her yearning is the color of a pastel sunset. The problem is that a sunset wasn’t created to be concealed. The paint of it is all over her hands—it smudges everything until it’s all she can see.

Beca doesn’t know how long she walks for, but she ventures deep enough into the greenery that she can’t remember when she last saw another person. She should turn around. The ceremony will begin soon, and Chloe will emerge on her father’s arm to make an iron-clad promise.

A glimpse of ivory lace stops her in her tracks.

Deep in the garden, Chloe stands alone, staring past the rose bushes. Her eyes seem transfixed on the sweeping view of the mountains beyond them that seem to stretch forever.

Frozen in place, Beca doesn’t know what to do. She never anticipated finding herself alone with Chloe, not like this. Not today.

Chloe turns to her, realizing she isn’t alone anymore. Mouth parting in surprise, her face flushes.

Beca allows her eyes to travel the length of Chloe’s body. The sight of her in a wedding gown is so beautiful she can hardly stand it. Her heart is pounding so hard. Is she happy to see Beca? Or was it truly just a courtesy invitation?

She hesitates before she crosses the empty space between them. Chloe watches her the whole time.

“You came.” Chloe breathes the words with equal parts of alarm and relief in her voice. Her eyes glisten with an undercurrent of melancholy as she takes her old friend in.

Beca wonders what her own eyes look like to her. If Chloe can tell that being here is the most painful thing Beca has ever put herself through.

“Of course I came.”

“I wasn’t sure you would,” Chloe says quietly. She clears her throat. “How—how have you been?”

How has she been? Beca reaches out to the thorny bush next to her, fingers grazing the petals. She doesn’t know what’s fair to share. How honest she should be. She’s doing fine, except she can’t sleep. She can’t remember the last time she felt normal.

“I’ve been alright.” Beca drops her hand, meeting Chloe’s gaze again. “Busy with work,” she says, trying to sound genuine.

Nodding, Chloe tries to smile for her, but her smile looks like it’s melting. “That sounds really nice,” she whispers.

A pang of regret shoots through Beca. She longs for the ease they had not so long ago. Beca stills sees the girl who ripped open her shower curtain all those years ago when she looks at Chloe. Her edges are softer, but she’s there, under that white wedding dress.

Chloe finally whispers, “I’ve missed you.”

Beca swallows. “I’ve missed you, too.”

Chloe presses her lips into a paper-thin line, looking back to the rolling hills. She can see that Chloe’s trying to hold herself together. There is nothing in the world that can break Beca faster than that.

“I used to think this would be us one day, you know?” Chloe says softly. “Part of me always thought we’d figure out all of our crap and that this would be us.”

This confession hits Beca like a pile of bricks. They stare at each other across that same eight-year void they found themselves in before, and Beca can only say the one thing she needs to walk away from her forever.

“Are you happy? With him?”

Chloe seems to pull back at the question. Perhaps Beca has no right to ask about that, not anymore. Not about him.

If Beca were a true friend, she would promise Chloe that everything will be okay. That she’ll marry him, that she and Chicago will give one another their lives, and that it’ll be so beautiful.

If Beca were a true friend, she would. But she’s not. She’s never just been Chloe’s friend. From the very start, it has always been more. Even now, Beca hates herself for the way she feels that pull to her. The pull for more. Even on Chloe’s wedding day.

“Chlo?”

“Beca, tell me not to do this,” Chloe says, catching Beca off guard.

“Chloe… what?”

“I just—I thought this was what I wanted, but—oh God, I’m going to be sick.” Chloe wipes under her eyes with trembling hands. “I’ve always thought that maybe we would—” She sucks in a deep breath—“But if I do this, then our maybe is gone forever, and I think I need it more than I realized.”

She stops talking all at once, looking at Beca with panicked desperation.

Beca searches Chloe’s eyes for a sign that she’s wrong, that this isn’t what she thinks it is. Chloe’s are searching hers right back, pleading for her to understand. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Beca says weakly, though it’s a lie.

Chloe looks heartbroken by this response. Her gaze drifts to the hills again, eyebrows pinched together in uncertainty.

Beca knows what Chloe is asking, what she is really asking even without a question. She wants reassurance, and she wants it from Beca. She knows that’s not the only thing Chloe is asking for though—she’s asking for a reason to say no to the life she’s already said yes to.

Two paths stretch before them with one choice to make—to stay or to go. To hold steady or to fight. One answer. One life. One love.

Beca asks herself if she can give Chloe what she wants—not just the reassurance, but the promise of more. Right now, Chicago is extending his hand, and with it an imagined life that could be so simple. As effortless as breathing. One with children and a family, the real kind of family that is nothing at all like what Beca grew up with.

Could Beca give Chloe that, too? A shiver moves through her as she tries to see it. Two little heads with auburn hair bob along in a grassy meadow, all messy hands and carefree grins. She can’t perfectly make out their faces, but she can see Chloe’s. There’s a carefree grin on her face, too, as she swoops down to pick up the smaller of the two and sling her over her shoulder.

This image is nothing like the childhood she knew. Maybe she never knew how to have a family before, but maybe the Bellas showed her how. Perhaps Chloe has been showing her all this time. There’s a pull toward this imagined life—she wants those unending days in the sun.

Chloe turns to the path that leads back to the wedding, looking at it like it’s the hangman’s noose. Beca’s never seen someone look so utterly, completely lost. Those two paths belong to Chloe. She has to decide which ship will carry her. She has to decide where she will go.

“You want me to tell you not to choose him,” Beca croaks.

Hope flickers in Chloe’s eyes. “I—“ she starts. Her mouth closes, tears pooling as she chokes on the thing she wishes to say.

The answer is right there in her pleading eyes. It hits Beca that if she doesn’t say it now, the words she’s bit back for so many years, she won’t ever be able to live with herself again.

“Choose me. Choose me, Chloe.” She doesn’t want another maybe. She can’t bear the thought of never. She wants Chloe. Pushing down the nausea that accompanies this sort of bravery, she forces back every instinct of self-preservation clawing at her. “You love me. Right?”

She nods immediately, tears finally spilling over. They travel down her cheeks to the first real smile Chloe has smiled all day. “I’m so in love with you, Beca. I’ve loved you every day I’ve known you.”

Chloe holds out her hand. Without hesitating, Beca places her own in it. A grin spreads across her face as she realizes they’re about to do something crazy. Something stupid.

“Where will we go?” Beca whispers.

Sliding her feet out of her heels, Chloe leans down to pick them up. “Anywhere. Anywhere but here.”

Beca slides her own heels off, hiking up her dress past her ankles. Chloe watches her pick them up. They hold each other’s gaze for just a moment longer. Then, before they can think about it any longer, they’re running together.

Rows and rows of wildflowers pass them by in a haze. Suddenly they’re laughing like teenagers. The spiky cushion of grass beneath Beca’s bare feet is so wild, the burn in her lungs so untamed. They don’t stop, not even when the vines and rose bushes fade to a manicured lawn.

They reach Beca’s car in the parking lot. Hands still linked, breathing hard with a stupid smile, Beca looks to Chloe. “Are you sure?”

God, she looks so perfect with her ruined hair and grass-stained dress. Beca thinks she’ll die right there if Chloe isn’t, but there isn’t a shadow of a doubt left in her eyes.

“I’m sure of you,” Chloe vows.