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the better part of every beating heart

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i. the chain i forged

 

“Merry Christmas Eve!”

The tourist group in front of her, teenage girls in Uggs and big winter scarves, stops suddenly, fishing their cellphones out of their pockets and turning their cameras on. Beca clenches her hand into a fist as she pitches quickly to the left, trying to avoid stepping on the back of their shoes. One of her earbuds comes out, swinging away from her.

“Merry Christmas!” the Santa they stopped in front of calls again. He rings the bell in his hand, looking at the tourist group Beca is stuck in.

“Oh my god ,” one of the girls says. “How is he not freezing his-”

Beca cranes her neck, trying to see around them and get a better look. The Santa is wearing a red hat, the white cotton ball bouncing against his dark beard. She rolls her eyes when she sees his bare chest. This is the fifth ‘naked Santa’ she’s seen this weekend. She’s over it by now.

The group of teenage girls doesn’t move, too busy snapping pictures on their phone to notice she’s trying to push around them. She gives up being polite after a minute and drops her shoulder, shoving her way through them. She can hear one of them gasp but she ignores it, picking up her earbud and putting it back in her ear. Her Spotify daily mix has been tossing out random songs today but she hasn’t been paying much attention to it. She’s listening to it mostly to block out the caroling and cowbells filling the streets.

“It’s just Christmas,” she mutters over one of her mixes. It’s just not coming together the right way. Maybe Stevie can look it over , she thinks. He’s got a few years of experience on her and even if they’re constantly in some kind of friendly rivalry, he’s got a good ear and, sometimes, even better advice.

She stops at a light, tapping her foot impatiently as she waits for it to change. People start to swell around her and she closes her eyes for a minute, imagining a giant bubble around herself, keeping them away. Someone steps on her shoe and she opens her eyes, her back teeth grinding against each other. Another person elbows her and her hand drops from the strap of her messenger bag. She turns to glare at them but they’re turned away, talking to someone next to them.

“Merry Christmas!” another Santa calls.

Beca rolls her eyes. This time of year, there’s a Santa on every corner. Some of them with white beards and round stomachs, some of them with chiseled jaws and even more chiseled abs. There’s been a few Mrs. Clauses, too, standing in front of Salvation Army tins, waving cowbells that ring loud enough Beca can feel them inside her head, bouncing off her skull. She turns her music up just as her phone beeps.

She opens to the home screen and taps on her messages. Stevie or Theo, but she’d put money down on Theo. She snorts when she sees that it’s an unread message from Theo that she sighs at before she opens it. 

Meeting in 10. Where are you?

The light changes and she pushes through the swarming crowd to get to the front of it. People with shopping bags trap her in the middle of it, the sharp corners poking through her heavy coat. She has a love-hate relationship with the city. She loves to hate it.

Her phone beeps again. She knows it’s just Theo, so she doesn’t open it, putting it back in her pocket instead. She’s just a few blocks from her office. He can wait. Her meeting can wait, too. ‘Tis the season , she thinks. She’ll just tell them she needed to get some last-minute Christmas shopping done. That’ll buy her a little bit of forgiveness.

She needs more time to think, honestly. More time to sit with her mixes without being in that booth, staring at the controls and coming up with nothing. She doesn’t want Theo’s advice but she thinks she maybe needs Stevie’s. Maybe Chinese food in exchange for telling her what she’s missing in this one melody she can’t put down. Whatever he wants in return for his time, she’ll find a way to get it to him. This mix needs to be finished. The kid she’s working with, baby-faced and optimistic, is looking forward to dropping his album early in the New Year. She promised him she’d get it done; she eats, sleeps, and breathes her sound booth anyway. What’s one more deadline in a long list of deadlines?

She veers off the sidewalk and into a Starbucks. The line is shorter than she thought it would be. Christmas in New York brings people in by the thousands and they fill the city until it swells. Her favorite Starbucks, just outside of her building, becomes a war zone. This one, on her way to her office, is usually a little quieter. She pulls an earbud out and gets in line, scanning the crowd.

It’s mostly tourists, from what she can tell. People who live in the city carry themselves differently. They don’t care. They talk in flat voices and barely look at the Christmas decorations. She can pick the tourists out easily, all of them looking around the coffee shop and pointing at the big poinsettias and the garland hanging from the ceiling. They’re wrapped in twinkling white lights that Beca looks at for a moment before she turns away. She orders an Americano and waits for it impatiently, tapping her foot to a song that comes over the Starbucks speakers. She almost asks the barista if he can tell her the name of it.

The air is colder when she steps outside. She didn’t realize how warm the Starbucks had been. She pulls her shoulders in and curls her hands around her screaming hot cup, sucking in its heat as she goes down three blocks and over one.

“Hey, Ms. Mitchell,” the doorman calls.

She smiles. “Hey, Robbie.”

“Nearly Christmas.” He pulls open the door for her, stepping out of the way. “Doing anything for the holidays?”

She thinks about it for a minute. Most people would say yes. Most people are going home or having family come over. Most people are celebrating , she thinks. 

But Beca Mitchell has never been most people . It’s what she’s been told her whole life. And while most people are happy, trimming trees and stuffing stockings and baking cookies to leave out for Santa, Beca just wants Christmas to be over and done with so she can get back to her life.

“Just me and some work,” she tells him.

He frowns. “That doesn’t sound like Christmas to me.”

She gives him a thin smile. “The world doesn’t stop just because it’s Christmas.”

His frown deepens. “Well, if I don’t see you before you leave for the day, try and have a good day tomorrow. Don’t work too hard.” He closes the door gently behind her, turning back to the street.

She calls the elevator, bobbing her head to another song playing faintly through her earbuds, and steps on when the doors ding open in front of her. Her phone rings in her pocket and she fishes it out, mouth already twisted in a frown at the thought of Theo calling to remind her of some meeting she’s sure was scheduled last minute. But Beca looks down at the ID on the screen and breathes in deeply, letting the air fill her lungs. 

It’s Chloe. Again.

Her finger hovers over the end call button for a minute. But she can’t press it. The elevator opens on her floor and she can see Theo watching her from his office, feeling his eyes on her as she taps her foot and she thinks about letting the call go to voicemail.

She’s avoiding Chloe. She’s avoiding all the Bellas, if she’s being honest. She has been since the USO Tour, almost two years ago. She doesn’t respond to Fat Amy’s sexually provocative texts or Flo’s updates on her juice empire. She doesn’t comment on Jessica or Ashley’s Instagram posts. She doesn’t jump in on Stacie’s massive group messages or answer Cynthia Rose about any of the underground poker rings she’s running. 

They’re all off doing their own things these days. Flo’s juice franchise, Jessica and Ashley’s pop-up boutique. She knows Amy is cycling through investments, funding knock-off VR systems, and still trying to launch her one-woman show. Chloe is still in veterinary school. Aubrey opened up a second lodge and moved to Skaneateles, in upstate New York, only 4 hours away from the city. Stacie is raising Bella, who is, like, three now, Beca thinks. Cynthia Rose is engaged and living in North Carolina, her Christmas Card says. Lily is working out in LA as a voice actor. Emily lives near her and Beca hears from her sometimes when she has a song she wants to collaborate on. Beca usually pushes it off, but Emily is like an annoying little sister who won’t stop bugging her. 

Things aren’t the same anymore. She has her life and they have theirs. 

Chloe has Chicago.

She thinks about the picture she saw on Facebook, the one time she went on it last month. It was late and she couldn’t sleep and the mix she was working on kept stalling, none of the sounds fitting right. It was harmless, to scroll through the lives of people she barely knows - kids who friended her in college when Chloe was in charge of her social media presence, a few friends from middle school who probably only keep her as a friend because she’s famous, a handful of people she knows through her dad and her mom.

But then that picture came up, the one of Chloe and Chicago with their faces pressed together so they could fit in the frame. She could see Chicago’s arm wrapped around Chloe’s shoulders, holding her tight into his side. She was sure a piece of paper wouldn’t have even fit between them.

Beca had looked at it for a long time. She hadn’t seen Chloe’s face in a while, declining FaceTime calls, ignoring Instagram completely even when Chloe tagged her in something. It felt easier that way. Cleaner. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me , she used to say when she played hide and seek with her dad. So if she didn’t look at Chloe, Chloe wouldn’t look at her and everyone could be happy that way.

Beca could be happy that way.

I’m busy , is how she rationalizes it. I’m busy producing and living my life . And she looks in the mirror some mornings and reminds herself that this is the life she wanted. Big shot music producer. And she might be in New York instead of LA, but she’s got the right job and the right title and this is the way her life was always supposed to go. Freshman year of college, this is the thing she wanted more than anything. And now she has it. It’s hers.

Well, it was theirs, once. It belonged to her and the Bellas. But they gave it to her. They told her to go out and take it. So she did. She worked up the courage and she went on that stage and she took everything DJ Khaled was offering her. And she was ready that night. She was going to get that record label and she was going to get the girl. She was finally going to get Chloe.

But Chicago got there first. He took the one thing Beca wanted more than any record deal. More than any shot at producing her own music. More than wanting to get out of her small town and into the LA music scene. And it left Beca under that spotlight, feeling more out of place than she had ever felt before.

So Beca did what she needed to do. Put her head down and buried it in the music. Moved out of the shoebox apartment she shared with Chloe and Amy and into something bigger. Something where the kitchen didn’t double as a bedroom and she didn’t have to share a bed with someone who cuddled without permission or elbowed her in the ribs or pressed their cold toes against her legs. She went to work, cutting tracks until the sun came up, running on energy drinks and cold coffee. 

And Chloe kept calling. Kept sending texts in the morning and trying to FaceTime her before bed. She called on weekends and left Beca long voicemails about the weather and how her classes were going and the people she was meeting. 

Beca did what she did best - what she always did best - and turned into the music, letting her phone ring and not calling back, opening texts and leaving them on read. She threw herself headfirst into work and buried herself there. The music was easy. It was familiar.

It wasn’t Chloe, but it was the next best thing.

The phone in her hand keeps ringing. She takes a deep breath. She can just let this one go to voicemail too, just like the other ones. But she’s let all three of Chloe’s calls today go to voicemail and there’s only so many times she can not pick up the phone. Theo gestures to her impatiently but she turns away from him, forcing a smile and feeling her face stretch uncomfortably. 

“Hey,” she says in a voice that doesn’t sound like her own. It must not, because Chloe frowns for a second. “What’s up?”

“Hey, did you get my calls?”

She could lie and say she didn’t, but there’s a look in Chloe’s eyes that says she’ll call Beca out on it. And Beca doesn’t want to deal with that right now.

“Yeah. I’ve been busy, sorry. End of the year push, you know?”

Chloe just looks at her for a minute before she waves a hand. “It’s fine. Listen, what time are you getting here?”

Beca frowns, pulling away from the screen a little. “Getting where?”

“You forgot,” Chloe says, voice dropping.

Ah , Beca remembers. Aubrey’s annual Bella Christmas Reunion. She saw the notification in the group message a month ago. Everyone RSVP’d to it, except her. She thought she’d just leave it alone and forget about it. She was going to work anyway. She did last Christmas. No need to change her plans.

“I told you she just forgot,” Chloe calls over her shoulder to someone behind her. She smiles widely at the camera now. “I told Aubrey you just forgot.”

Beca bits down on her bottom lip. She can see Aubrey dip into the background and then out again and she shudders. Aubrey doesn’t reach out to her. Not like the rest of the Bellas. It’s like Aubrey is the only one who gets it and gives her the space. That, Beca reasons, or she really doesn’t like you after all

“It’s not too far of a drive, right?” Chloe keeps going. “If you leave in, like, the next hour, you’ll get here just around the same time as everyone else. Oh, hey! Even Emily is coming.”

Emily , Beca thinks with a wince. Emily, who left her a few song ideas in her inbox that Beca hasn’t gotten back to yet. Emily, the only Bella Beca talks to on a semi-regular basis after she set Emily up with a producer in LA.

“So?” Chloe asks.

Beca blinks and tips her head to the side. “So what?”

“So when are you leaving?” Chloe repeats patiently. She’s still smiling. “I can’t wait to see you. I feel like it’s been ages .”

“Oh,” Beca says. “I can’t.”

Chloe’s smile starts to dim.

“I’ve got to work,” Beca continues. “End of the year push. I said that, right?”

“But it’s Christmas,” Chloe says slowly.

“Right.” Beca nods. “But I’ve got work.” She can feel a hot rush of impatience burn through her. She doesn’t want to have this conversation. She doesn’t want to be on this phone call. Shouldn’t have picked up the phone , she says to herself angrily. “Actually, I’ve got to-”

“Beca,” Chloe says. “It’s Christmas .”

“I’ve got to work ,” Beca says, that impatience slipping through. 

Chloe is shaking her head. “Not on Christmas. We have traditions, Beca. Hot chocolate and A Christmas Story . I bet we can even get Aubrey to watch Die Hard if you want.”

“No!” Aubrey shouts from somewhere behind Chloe.

Chloe winks at her. “Come on. Leave now so you get here before everyone else. I want to spend as much time with you as possible.”

How much time do you spend with Chicago? Beca thinks suddenly. The thought leaves a sour taste in her mouth and she shakes her head to clear it. “No, Chloe,” she says, hoping her voice doesn’t waver. “I’ve got too much to do.”

Chloe’s smile drops completely. “Beca-”

“I don’t want to do it, okay?” she says, her voice too loud. She looks around quickly, catching Theo’s eyes, and then back at her phone. “I don’t want to spend another Christmas doing the same thing, okay? I’m just… I’m over it.”

“You’re over it,” Chloe says slowly.

“Yes, Chloe.” Beca runs a hand through her hair. “I’m tired of Christmas. I’m tired of pretending to be ‘in the spirit’,” she says, making a face. “And I’m tired of-”

“Of spending Christmas with me,” Chloe finishes.

Beca hesitates for a second. Tired of wasting time when I could be working , is what she was going to say. But Chloe takes her second-long hesitation as a yes and pulls back a little, mouth turned down into the frown that Beca hates. It’s not just a frown. It’s disappointment. And Beca hates when Chloe is disappointed in her.

But she thinks of Chloe and Chicago and all the work she has to do and all the time she’d waste driving to upstate New York to spend Christmas Eve with people she hasn’t really spoken to in over two years and she straightens her shoulders, tipping her chin into the ear. Chloe’s frown deepens.

“Listen,” she says quietly. She knows Theo is edging closer. “It’s not you, it’s-”

“If you’re going to say ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ right now,” Chloe warns.

Beca sighs. “I’m sorry. I don’t have time to do this, okay? I’ve got an album to finish. I get that it’s Christmas, but it’s not exactly ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ around here, okay?”

“Fine, Beca,” Chloe says wearily. “Whatever you need.”

Beca needs to be off this call. She looks at Chloe for just another second before she ends it, taking a deep breath as she closes her eyes tight enough to see nothing but black behind her eyelids. 

“Beca,” Theo says.

Beca whirls around. “What?” she snaps.

He takes a small step back but he’s still looking at her, shaking his head. “Stevie…”

Beca sighs heavily. “Stevie. What does he want now? He doesn’t like the way the track sounds? Well, you can tell him that I’m the producer and-”

“No, Beca,” Theo says over her. “TMZ is going to break the story any minute.”

She frowns. “What story?”

Theo looks at her for a long moment before he opens his mouth. “Stevie died, Beca. A drug overdose, they’re saying.”

Beca feels her body deflate into her chair. “Overdose?”

He nods. “Heroin. That’s what Bobby said.”

“He’s dead.”

“He’s dead.” Theo runs a hand through his hair. “God, what is the label going to say?” He starts pacing back and forth. “He was clean, everyone said it. He wouldn’t have kept his job after the last time if he wasn’t.” He shakes his head. 

“Stevie,” Beca says again. She blinks a few times, trying to clear her head. “Our Stevie.”

Theo keeps pacing, shaking his head like he’s talking to himself. She watches him, staring at him until he goes blurry and her eyes start to ache. She can’t blink or look away.

“It’ll be you,” he says, pulling her out of her own head. He’s completely still now. She finally blinks. “They won’t say so until the morning, of course, but it’ll be you.”

“What’ll be me?”

Theo frowns. “You’ll take over for him. You’re the next in line, anyway.”

Beca stares at him. “I’ll take over for Stevie. Who just died .”

He nods. “They’d be foolish not to give it to you. You’re just as talented. Just as hardworking. Stevie was a perfectionist, just like you are. I swear some nights, the two of you lived here like ghosts.”

She remembers those nights, when the studios were dark and the only living thing in the whole place beside her was Stevie in his own booth, polishing mixes until they shined. She would finish her work for the night and sneak into his booth, watching as he worked in high notes and low basslines. A wizard , she called him once. He could turn anything she threw at him into something like a masterpiece.

Theo snaps her back to attention. “Go home, yeah? Think about what projects he was working on. You know them, right? I mean, the two of you worked together all the time, didn’t you?” He nods to himself again. “So, take the rest of the night off. Take tomorrow off, too. It’s Christmas. Shit. Shit .” He turns on his heel, starting towards his office.

Beca can’t do anything but watch him go, her mind still spinning. Stevie, who was just in her booth yesterday, poking fun at her while she tried to find the perfect bass line for a track. Stevie, who worked all through the night in the booth next to hers, texting her his big ideas. Stevie’s dead

 

*

 

She pulls her messenger bag back on, moving through the motions like she’s underwater. Her earbuds go back in, the song she was listening to, the imperfect one, still playing on a loop. She puts a notebook into her bag, filled with scribbles and ideas. Stevie’s ideas , she thinks. She moves through the office without much thought, one foot in front of the other. Down the elevator, past Robbie who says something she doesn’t hear, into the subway and onto a car. She doesn’t feel it moving under her but she gets off at her stop on autopilot, out onto the sidewalk and down one block, then one block over. Her doorman waves but she doesn’t think she waves back.

She’s in front of her apartment door before she knows it, sliding her keys into the lock and turning the knob. She fumbles along the wall for the light switch as she pulls her messenger bag over her head, dropping it under the small table where her mail piles up. She finally finds the light, flipping the switch and blinking as the room brightens.

Stevie is standing in her apartment.

Beca stares at him for a long minute, blinking a few times before she shakes her head, trying to clear her eyes. She closes them tightly and opens them slowly.

Stevie is still standing there, his hands in his pockets, looking around her apartment.

“I don’t know what I expected, but this is not it,” he says, nodding towards the couch and the TV setup. 

Beca wets her lips. “ Theo told me… You’re…”

“Dead,” Stevie finishes. He smiles crookedly. “Yeah, I am.”

“Fuck,” Beca breathes out. “I need sleep.” She moves across the living room to the open kitchen, opening the refrigerator. He’s still standing there when she opens the beer can she picked out. “Or am I dead too?”

He laughs softly. “You’re not dead, Beca.”

She exhales a thin stream of air. “Then I am having some really, really trippy dream right now.”

He crosses the room and stops in front of her, staring into her eyes. “Listen to me. There’s not much time, okay?”

“Time for what?”

He moves away again. “You know, you’re a lot like me. Driven, hardworking. Some people might say it’s a curse, but I called it a blessing. There’s not a lot of people like us, Beca. We work until the song is perfect. Until every note hits exactly where it’s supposed to. It’s what makes us so great.” He pauses for a second. “But that’s not what life should be about.”

She snorts, making a face when she can feel the burn of her beer in her nose. “ You , telling me that music isn’t what life is about.”

“Not the music,” he corrects her. “The work.”

“I’m having a fever dream,” she says to herself. “I’m honestly going crazy.” She picks her phone out of her pocket and opens her messages, going to the ones with Theo’s unread text. 

“You’re not,” Stevie says patiently. “But listen,” he says again. “There’s not much time.”

“Time for what?

“We’re a lot alike, Beca. We work until that’s all we have. That’s all I had, you know. Nothing but the work. I got up and went to work and stayed there until I was too tired to get home. I’d sleep in the booth, get up a few hours later, change my shirt, and get back to it.” He shakes his head. “There was no one to go home to. No one to call. Just work, work, work. And when one thing got done, I just moved onto the next thing. Just like you.”

“Not like me,” Beca says quickly.

He lifts his brow skeptically. “Really? When’s the last time you visited your friends? When’s the last time you talked to, uh, what’s her name? Kelly? Carly?”

“Chloe,” Beca says quietly.

Stevie snaps his fingers. “Chloe, yeah. When’s the last time you talked to her, huh? You couldn’t shut up about her at one point.” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Or your dad? When’s the last time you talked to someone who didn’t work with you?”

Beca opens her mouth. “I-”

“You’re just like me,” he continues over her. “And I’m here to warn you.”

Beca scoffs. “Warn me about what?”

He shakes his head slowly. “How the rest of your life is going to go. How it’s already going. We’re the same person, but you don’t have to keep being that person, Beca. You just need to see it for yourself.”

Beca takes in a deep breath, closing her eyes. “See what ?” she asks as she opens them.

“What you’re missing. What you’re going to miss,” he says. He’s getting impatient, the way he always does when she’s not listening to him about some spin he thinks she should put into a song. “You need to see it or you’re never going to know.”

She decides to play along for a minute, nodding. “Of course. How can I know if I don’t see it.”

He glares at her. “You’re going to be visited by three ghosts,” he starts. He holds up a hand when she starts to open her mouth. “Three spirits, if you want to call them that. The first, when the clock strikes one. Another when the clock strikes two. And the last…” He shudders slightly. “The last when the clock strikes three.”

Her phone goes off in her hand, the screen lighting up with Theo’s picture. She jumps a little at the sound, her breath catching in her throat. She shakes her head at herself. Her finger hovers over the call button but she looks up to say something to Stevie, the words dying in her throat.

Her apartment is empty.

“You’re dreaming,” she tells herself. She hits the end button. He can go to voicemail and leave a message. She tosses the phone onto the couch and runs a hand through her hair. “Stevie,” she snorts.

She takes another sip of her beer and puts it down, going back to get her bag by the door. She picks the mail up off the floor, flipping through it to add the bills to the pile on the table. There’s a thick cream envelope with her name and address handwritten on the front of it, a return address she doesn’t recognize in the corner. She slides her thumb under a bubble in the flap, pulling it open.

A Christmas card slides out, Jesse’s grinning face right in the middle of it. He’s sitting in a leaf pile with his arm around a woman she vaguely recognizes and a little girl in a white dress sitting in his lap. She knew through Emily who knew through Chloe that he got married to the girl he dated after her. She just didn’t realize he had a baby. 

You’re so obsessed with Chloe and the Bellas and your music , was one of the last things he had said to her. When you should be a little more obsessed with us.

Chloe had bought her ice cream and put on Beyonce’s Lemonade album, telling her that Jesse wasn’t worth her time or the tears that she never ended up crying.

She puts the card into the bills pile, burying it under a letter from her cellphone company. She scans her apartment, looking for Stevie, and then laughs bitterly at herself.

“Dreaming,” she says again. She turns on the television in her living room, the one that covers too much of the wall. It makes her uncomfortable to watch it sometimes, remembering back to her apartment with Chloe, squished together in front of her computer, watching TV shows on one of the too-many streaming services they split. Now she has all of them, all under her name and her credit card, without the funny profile avatars Chloe used to pick.

A Christmas Carol is playing. Beca laughs a little. That’s why Stevie’s ‘warning’ had sounded so familiar. Her dad used to read her A Christmas Carol every year. Chloe made her watch The Muppets Christmas Carol at least once during the winter; more if she could convince Beca with pizza or Chinese or a backrub. Beca had to admit that Kermit playing Bob Cratchit was kind of funny. She turns off the television and sighs at her reflection in the black screen.

She pulls her laptop out of her bag and sets it up on the small island in the middle of her kitchen space, opening her mixing software and settling onto a stool. She drains the rest of her beer as she pulls up the mix she’s working on. She presses play and shakes her head as the bassline kicks in.

“This is just a dream. A hallucination,.” she tells herself. “You’re stressed and it’s Christmas and this is the first time you’ve seen Chloe in months. You’re just stressed.” She restarts the song she’s listening to, unsatisfied with it only 30 seconds in and shakes her head again. “No way am I’m Scrooge.”

 

 

ii. the light i give

Beca wakes with a gasp, her phone alarm ringing loudly on her nightstand. She sits up for a minute, chest heaving as she looks at her phone. She didn’t turn on the alarm. And definitely not for… She checks the time.

“One in the morning?”

She lays back down, pressing a hand against her sweaty forehead. She makes a face and wipes her hand on her bedspread, staring at the ceiling.

“Good to know some things never change,” a voice says from the corner of the room. “You live like this?”

Beca shoots up from bed, scrambling back against the headboard as she pulls the covers up against her chest. “What the-” She squints a little in the low light coming her phone screen. “ Jesse?”

Jesse smiles that same sheepish smile she remembers from years ago and gives a little wave, stepping closer to the edge of the bed. “Hey, Be-caw.”

Beca shakes her head slowly. “No. You’re not here. This is… This is not real.”

“If this wasn’t real, would I be able to do this?” Before Beca can answer, Jesse reaches forward and pinches Beca’s bare shoulder. Beca yelps, smacking his hand away. Jesse only smiles a little wider. “See? Totally real.” He walks slowly around her bed, stepping over laundry and piles of notebooks she swears she’s going to pick up.

“No,” Beca argues, even as she rubs at the small red spot appearing on her shoulder. “Because you’re… wherever you are, away from here.”

Jesse sits at the end of the bed. He looks almost the same as the last time she saw him, but he’s smiling now and his eyes are a little brighter. She scoots further away from him, reaching for the lamp on her bedside table and turning it on. His smile only grows.

“You’re not real.”

Jesse tips his head to one side. “Do you want me to pinch you again?”

“Dude, no.” Beca pulls at the covers, but they’re stuck under his weight and don’t move. She huffs, hair moving around her face before it settles back, some of it getting in her mouth. She spits them out and glares when he smiles at her. “How are you here?”

“Oh, I’m a ghost.”

Beca chokes on air. “A ghost?”

That infuriating smile widens. “Did you really think I was going to show up in your apartment on Christmas Eve, in person? Awh, Bec.”

Beca scowls and picks up a pillow, throwing it in his direction. It bounces off of him and he watches it fall to the floor before he looks back at her with a shrug. “This is stupid,” she says loudly. “A ghost. Really?” Her eyes widen. “Are you dead?”

Jesse looks at her for a moment before he laughs, the sound breaking the tension Beca could feel building around her. “Dead? No. No, I’m at home, hiding presents under the tree before my kid wakes up. I have a kid now. Did you get my card?”

“Yeah,” Beca says weakly.

“I’m more of an… apparition, I guess? A memory, maybe?” Jesse seems to think about it for a minute. “I’m not really sure. But I know I’m alive and well. It’s more of a spirit thing. I’m your ferryman!”

Beca’s eyes widen. “Am I dead?”

Jesse laughs. “Of course not. That comes later.” He gets up and looks around the room, winking at her when he spots a pair of sweatpants on the floor. Before she can protest, he pulls hard on the edge of her blanket, ripping it off her legs. He tosses her the sweatpants and turns pointedly, covering his eyes with one hand. “Not that I don’t know what you’ve got going on, but I’m a happily married man.”

Beca scowls at him as she pulls on the sweats. “I still can’t believe that, for the record.”

He peeks out from behind his fingers, dropping his hand when Beca flips him off. “I know, right? Especially since I was convinced you and I were gonna make aca-babies.”

“Jesse,” Beca says softly.

“I know,” he rushes on. “We weren’t meant to be. And I’m going to show you why.” He grabs her, his hand tight around her bicep and pulls.

She stumbles a little, feeling the world spin around her. It’s moving too quickly, flashes of color she can’t really pin down. It goes black suddenly and she feels like she’s floating.

When her feet hit the floor, she’s not in her bedroom anymore.

“What the hell,” she breathes. Her head is spinning and there’s spots in her eyes, but she knows she’s not in her bedroom. She’s not even in her apartment. She’s in… “The Bellas house?”

Jesse sighs, smiling. “I have so many fond memories of this place.” He points at a planter Aubrey, visiting for the weekend, insisted she buy - for color, Beca. “I threw up in that. Don’t tell Aubrey.”

“Trust me,” Beca mumbles. “I wasn’t planning on it.” She turns in a circle in her old bedroom, everything feeling familiar and foreign all at once.

“This place was a good idea, Beca.” Jesse throws an arm over her shoulders. “A really good idea.”

“It was Chloe’s,” Beca says absently. She looks around her old bedroom. Still dirty clothes everywhere.

“I guess you’ve always lived like this, huh?” Jesse asks. “I never realized. Claire, that’s my wife, is really tidy. She wasn’t impressed with me when we first moved in together.” Jesse picks up a book off the floor, flipping through it. Beca recognizes one of them from the psych class she took when she was a sophomore.

“Is this a dream?” Her eyes widen. “Did someone slip something into my beer?”

Jesse smiles again and Beca feels the same rush of irritation she felt in school, when he was being a smartass. “I told you. I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past. That guy was supposed to tell you about us, I think. Did he not tell you?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Come on, everyone is downstairs.” He grabs Beca’s arm again and tugs.

They’re in the living room suddenly. Beca gasps for air, her stomach turning over as she grips Jesse’s hand. He smiles brightly at her.

“Married, remember,” he reminds her. He carefully peels her fingers off his hand. “Anyway, we have things to look at! People to see. Man, I haven’t seen the Bellas in forever. I should call Amy. She always liked me, right?”

Beca opens her mouth to say something, but stops, taking in the room around her. It’s decorated for Christmas, white, twinkling lights hanging all around the ceiling and across the doorways. There’s garland draped along the doorframes. Small, plastic snowflakes taped to the ceiling catch the white lights and sparkle. A big tree in the corner of the room is barely visible under the strung popcorn garland and ornaments Beca somewhat recognizes.

“It’s Christmas,” she says.

“Of course,” Jesse stares at her, studying her face. “Ghost of Christmas Past. Get it?”

Beca can hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” playing on the phone plugged into the speaker next to the TV. She recognizes Chloe’s iPod instantly. No one else has a hot pink case you could see from space. She wonders, absently, if Chloe still has the same case; if she even has her iPod still.

“No,” she hears as someone comes closer. “ Mean Girls is a Christmas movie.” 

“It has a Christmas scene ,” someone else corrects.

Stacie and Jessica come into the living room, each of them holding bowls of chips. Stacie is in a unicorn onesie, the hood with it’s horn pulled up over her head. Jessica’s green and red slippers match the elf pajama set she’s wearing.

Beca throws herself back behind Jesse, holding her breath as she pulls them into the dark front hall. Jesse laughs softly and pulls out of her grasp. “Dude,” Beca hisses. She glances at the living room. “They’re going to see us.”

Jesse laughs again. “Okay, let’s try again. Ghost of Christmas Past.” He smiles widely, his face starting to drop when she doesn’t say anything. “Beca, I know you’re smarter than this. You helped me study for, like, every final we had.”

Beca straightens up slowly. “So, they can’t see us.” Jesse opens his mouth and Beca rushes on. “Because we’re ghosts. I got it.” She runs a hand through her hair. “I’m definitely drugged. This is definitely a dream.”

“If this was a dream, could I do this?”

Beca shrieks when Jesse pinches her arm. She rubs at the spot as she peers into the living room again. Stacie and Jessica are still talking, filling up one corner of the couch. Ashley carries two coffee mugs into the room, handing one to Jessica as she sits down next to her. Cynthia Rose comes in after her, a bright red robe tied at the waist and a Santa hat on her head. 

“Tell her,” Stacie says, pointing at Jessica. “Tell her that Mean Girls is a Christmas movie.”

Cynthia Rose frowns. “It’s definitely not.”

Jessica smiles widely. “See?”

Die Hard , though-”

“No,” Stacie, Jessica, and Ashley all say at the same time. Cynthia Rose pouts.

“No one ever lets her watch Die Hard ,” Beca says to Jesse.

“No one ever lets me watch Die Hard .” Cynthia Rose pushes Stacie’s hand away when Stacie tries to tug on her Santa hat. “It’s the single greatest Christmas movie ever.”

“No,” Amy says loudly, sitting on the arm of the couch and rolling over, landing in Ashley’s lap. Ashley winces but Amy doesn’t move. “ Noel is the best Christmas movie ever.”

Stacie makes a face. “Which one?”

The front door opens and Beca stumbles back against the stairs, her back colliding hard with the banister. She winces as Chloe comes into the house, shrinking away when Chloe swings the shopping bags in her hands around. Beca watches her drift into the living room and looks back at the open door, her breath catching in her throat when she comes face to face with herself.

She wonders if she always looked this young. You were young , she reminds herself. She watches herself struggle with an armful of bags, nearly swamped by them.

“Becs,” she hears Chloe call.

Beca watches herself stop, a small smile coming over her face at the sound of Chloe’s voice. It drops completely when Chloe pops back into the hallway, grinning and rolling her eyes.

“I told you I could carry them.”

Her younger self shrugs a shoulder, going for indifference. “I have them.”

Chloe laughs, light and bright in the dim hall, and grabs for them, lifting them out of Beca’s hands. “Sure, Bec. You’ve totes got them.”

“I do,” younger Beca insists. She hoists the small bags in her hands up into the air. 

Chloe laughs again and leans forward, pressing a haphazard kiss to younger Beca’s cheek. Beca watches herself still, eyes widening before Chloe pulls back and they slide back into something cooler. Chloe rolls her eyes affectionately and skips back into the living room with her bags. Younger Beca follows, dragging her feet as she makes her way through everyone else starting to crowd in, all of them in their pajamas. “Here Comes Santa Claus” comes on over the speakers and Chloe shimmies her shoulders to the beat.

“Why’re we here?” Beca asks Jesse.

Jesse shrugs a shoulder. “You tell me. You pulled us here.”

“I’m asking you ,” Beca says.

Jesse shrugs again. “To learn a lesson, maybe?” He claps his hands together and flaps them at Beca with a big smile on his face. “Now, shoo. Go find yourself.”

Beca stumbles as Jesse pushes her out of the dim hall and into the bright living room. Her younger self is at the speaker, thumbing through Chloe’s iPod. The song changes from “Here Comes Santa Claus” to “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”. Younger Beca grimaces.

“I love this song!” Chloe yells, popping her head in from the kitchen. “Hey, come help me with this,” she calls to Beca.

Beca watches her younger self drop the iPod quickly, ducking around Ashley putting a drooping strand of plastic snowflakes back up on the ceiling. Beca follows, going around everyone. She pauses for just a moment. They really can’t see me , she thinks. She reaches out, her fingers just dusting the hem of Ashley’s shoulder. But she drops her hand before she can really touch her, holding it tight to her body. She sidesteps Lily slipping around the end of the couch, barely missing her. Lily looks back and stares at Beca for a second. Or maybe through Beca. She isn’t really sure.

“Don’t be such a Grinch,” she hears Chloe saying.

She remembers this. She remembers going last-minute Christmas shopping with Chloe. She remembers the drive to the mall and how Chloe made her listen to nothing but Britney Spears the whole way. She remembers being dragged around from store to store, carrying Chloe’s bags and pretending to hate it.

Her stomach tightens and her breath catches. She remembers Chloe pulling her into a changing room and making her give Chloe advice on the outfits she picked out for her parent’s annual New Years Dinner.

“Come with me,” Chloe had told her as Beca zipped up the shimmering gold dress she picked out. She looked at Beca through the mirror. “They’d love you.”

Beca snorted. “I’m not good with parents.”

Chloe had turned, trapping Beca’s arms between their bodies. “My parents are, like, super easy.”

“So, that’s where you get it from,” Beca had managed to squeak.

Chloe’s mouth had dropped open but her eyes sparkled as she pinched Beca’s side. “Rude. Now.” She turned and pulled her hair over her shoulder. “Unzip me. I want to see the red one.”

Beca feels her heart start to hammer in her chest again as she thinks about that moment. She knew she was attracted to Chloe. Anyone with eyes would be attracted to Chloe Beale. It was hard not to be. And Beca was not hard when it came to Chloe. No, she was easy. She jumped when Chloe said jump. She asked how high.

It was always like that, Beca will admit to herself when she’s a few drinks in and a few sad songs deep. From the moment Chloe stepped into her shower and made her promise to try out for some dumb acapella group, Beca knew Chloe was going to have some strange hold over her. Maybe it was the eyes or the smile. Maybe it was because when Beca was standing there, Chloe just pushed her forward, building her confidence. Even naked and embarrassed.

Beca can see it on her own face. She remembers thinking that lately, it’d been more. Beca didn’t know what to call it. The hold was stronger now. The pull was more. Chloe was in her every waking thought, and some of her dreams, actually. She kind of snuck her way into Beca’s life and hadn’t gone away. If anything , Beca remembers thinking, she’s grown roots . It didn’t seem like she was going anywhere anytime soon. And the idea that she might have makes Beca sick to her stomach.

Jesse , Beca thinks now.. She thought about it then, too. She had Jesse, too. Jesse was kind and caring and liked to bring movies over to show her. He liked to share parts of himself with her. She liked that about him. Jesse was patient with her, not pushing when she backed off. 

Chloe wasn’t like that. Chloe pushed her. From that first moment, Chloe kept pushing her. Out of her dorm room, out of her shell, out of her quiet existence. Chloe pulled, too. She dragged Beca out into the spotlight and Beca didn’t go kicking and screaming. She went holding Chloe’s hand, trying to understand the feeling in her stomach and the pressure in her chest whenever Chloe squeezes her hand back.

“Here,” Chloe says, opening one of the cabinets. She takes down two mugs, putting them down in front of Beca. “Cocoa.”

Younger Beca moves without being asked, getting the hot chocolate packets from the cabinet near the coffee maker. She touches the top of the kettle on the stove and pulls her hand back with a wince. It’s still hot. She touches the handle gingerly and then picks it up, filling the mugs up until the water turns a muddy brown. She can hear Chloe in the utensil drawer, pulling out spoons. Younger Beca takes them without needing to look up, stirring the powder into the water.

“Marshmallows.” Chloe tosses her the marshmallows laying out on the counter. “Make sure you fill it-”

“All the way up,” Beca finishes as she unrolls the bag. She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I remember.”

“Awh, Becs.” Chloe presses her hand to her chest. “You do love me.”

Her younger self spills the marshmallows, dropping them out of the bag to the ground. She looks at Chloe, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Oops?”

Chloe sighs, but she’s still smiling. “You have, like, butterfingers today.” She grabs younger Beca’s hands, turning them up so her palms rest in Chloe’s hands. Chloe hums something that sounds suspiciously like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and inspects her hands carefully. “I don’t see anything wrong with them.”

“Dude,” younger Beca mumbles, pulling her hands back. “I just have, like, the dropsies, or whatever.”

Chloe’s eyes brighten. “The dropsies.”

“Don’t repeat that,” Beca warns, pointing a finger at Chloe.

“The dropsies ,” Chloe says again. She’s grinning widely now.

“Chloe…”

Chloe dances away from Beca’s outstretched hand, moving around the island. “That’s so cute .”

Younger Beca rounds the island after her. “Don’t, Chloe.” She coughs to cover the pleading in her voice. “Chloe,” she says politely, coming to a stop. “Please, for the love of Santa Clause, do not repeat that word to anyone.”

Chloe smiles, all teeth. “What word?”

“Chloe.”

“Beca.” Chloe moves away when Beca takes a step towards her. “The people need to know. In fact,” she starts, leaning over the island towards the open doorway, her mouth forming around words Beca doesn’t want to hear.

Younger Beca lunges forward the last few feet, her body colliding with Chloe’s as she slaps her hand down over Chloe’s open mouth. She’s laughing and she can feel Chloe’s own laugh against her hand. The stool Beca soared over tips out from between their bodies, clattering to the floor. It sends Beca further into Chloe, her body burning where it presses against Chloe’s. She inhales sharply, feeling Chloe exhale.

“White Christmas” drifts in from the living room, wrapping around Beca as she watches herself go completely still against Chloe.

Younger Beca drops her hand from Chloe’s mouth slowly, her fingertips brushing over Chloe’s shoulder as it falls. It bumps against Chloe’s hand. For a second, Beca watches her younger self tangle her fingers in Chloe’s before their hands drift apart again. Chloe’s smile fades into something softer. She lifts her other hand to Beca’s cheek, resting there for a moment. 

“You know why you’re here,” Jesse says next to her. “Don’t you.”

Beca turns to him. “Is that why I’m here? To see this? Because I remember it pretty clearly.”

“Then maybe you just need a reminder.” Jesse shrugs. “I’m just the messenger.” He smiles patiently. “Listen, there’s a reason you’re in this Christmas moment. Because you need to remember what it felt like to be here.”

“Here,” Beca repeats. “I don’t-”

“You know why you’re here,” Jesse says again, a hint of frustration in his voice. “You know what you did in this moment.”

“Dude-”

Jesse’s smile is sadder now. “This is where you fell in love with her.”

“In love-” Beca stumbles over the words, her heart catching in her throat. “No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.” Jesse nods at Younger Beca, still standing still with Chloe’s hand against her cheek.

“I’m with you,” she reminds him. “This Christmas. I’m with you. You got me that Blackstreet album on vinyl this year.”

Jesse reaches down, his hand picking up hers, and he holds it between his own. “Beca, if you think about- if you let yourself think about it, you’ll see it. You’ll know. This is the moment. This is the start of it. You’re falling for her. And you didn’t even know it then.”

Beca shakes her head as he talks. “No, it’s not. I’m not-” She lowers her voice. “I’m not in love with her.” Beca turns back to her younger self. She watches younger Beca swallow, her throat bobbing as her eyes drift to Chloe’s mouth. She sees herself sway a little, moving in.

“Here,” Chloe says so quietly that Beca nearly misses it. She tucks some of Beca’s hair behind her ear, fingertips lingering on Beca’s jawline.

“Bloe!” Amy yells from the living room.

Younger Beca blinks slowly, eyes moving to Chloe’s mouth one more time before she inches back. Her hand brushes Chloe’s and Chloe’s fingers move against hers for a moment before Chloe smiles widely and takes a bigger step back. 

“Coming!” she shouts without turning her head. She touches her finger to younger Beca’s nose, smiling. “Save you a seat.”

“That’s it?”

Beca turns to look at Jesse. “What do you mean?”

Jesse makes a face at her. “That was a movie moment. I mean, come on. The slow glance over the cups of steaming cocoa? The Christmas movie playing in the background. If I could score this, there’d be a piano and some strings and-”

“I’m with you ,” Beca points out again. “Or, was? I’m still fuzzy on this timeline thing.”

Jesse smiles. “And we had our movie moment. I still think about you whenever I watch The Breakfast Club . But just because you were having those moments with me, doesn’t change the way you felt about her.” He pauses, ducking his head to catch her eye. “It doesn’t change the way you still feel.”

Beca feels her cheeks start to burn, but Stacie pokes her head around the door and catches sight of younger Beca standing at the island, lost in her own thoughts.

“Hey, Captain. We’re waiting for you.” Beca looks at Stacie looking expectantly at younger Beca, waiting for her. Stacie’s smile starts to fade away, confusion taking its place. “Beca?” she asks.

Younger Beca blinks a few times. “Right. Sorry.” She moves like she’s shaking herself off, putting on a smile. “What’re we watching?”

Stacie makes a face. “ The Santa Clause 3 . Which, I didn’t vote for, by the way.”

The younger Beca shudders. “We couldn’t pick the one that didn’t have Martin Short in it?”

Stacie shrugs a shoulder and tips her head into the living room. “Come on. Maybe you can convince Chloe to change it.”

“Don’t ask,” Chloe warns as the younger Beca sits down on the couch, fitting herself into the small space that Chloe left her. “We can watch what you want next.”

Younger Beca gapes at her for a minute before she presses her lips into a thin line. “And if I want to watch nothing?”

Chloe barely even blinks at her, ignoring her as she pulls a blanket off the back of the couch and drapes it across her lap and Beca’s legs.

Beca watches herself from the doorway. She remembers these nights. A Bellas Christmas Tradition , Aubrey had told her. They didn’t do it the year before, too fractured for optimal bonding , Aubrey said. But she made Chloe make Beca promise they would uphold the tradition that year. So Beca had found herself stuck in a pile of girls, a bad Christmas movie on, hot cocoa burning her tongue, and Chloe’s hand on her knee the whole night.

“You did this a lot,” Jesse says beside her. Beca feels herself smile without thinking about it. “Movie nights. You were always canceling on me for them.”

“Jesse,” Beca starts, regret flooding her.

“No, no,” Jesse says over her. “That’s not why I said it. I understand. Well,” he smiles sheepishly. “I understood now. Then, I was… less than happy about it. But I think we made the right choices, looking back on it. I’m where I want to be now. And you’re-” He stops. He looks back at the living room. “It wasn’t just for her, though. It was for them.”

“Yeah,” Beca breathes. “It was all of them.”

She watches Lily sit on the floor, reaching up and pulling each of Stacie’s legs over her shoulders, hooking her hands around her ankles. Cynthia Rose shimmies down in her seat, resting her head on Stacie’s shoulder. Jessica turns her body into Ashley’s, pulling the blanket they’re sharing tighter up around them. Amy stretches out on one of the couches, taking the whole thing up. Flo pulls a blanket up over her head, covering the Santa hat she’s wearing. Chloe looks at younger Beca for a minute before she smiles and shifts a little closer. 

They spent four years together. Four years of shared bathrooms and taking turns loading the dishwasher. Four years of house parties and Saturday morning cleanups. Four years of movie nights, squishing as many of them onto the couch as they could. Four years of being stuck together and enjoying every minute of it. 

Something aches in her chest. She misses this. She misses them.

But it was easier , she tells herself. It was easier to go back to the job

“It wasn’t easier.”

Beca jumps, eyes wide as she looks at Alice. “Can you read my mind?”

Jesse laughs. “No, you’re talking out loud.” He throws an arm over her shoulder, pulling her into his side. “Come on. There’s one more thing you have to see.”

Before she can stop him, she’s flying again, colors rushing past her and bright spots on the horizon. When she settles, she’s standing on a stage, watching herself surrounded by the Bellas, all of them screaming George Michael over each other, their faces wet with tears, shining in the lights. She turns to Jesse, confused.

“Here?” She looks back at the stage. “But it’s not Christmastime.”

“But it’s important.” He pulls her into the wings. She passes Theo but he hardly gives her a second glance. She remembers that she’s invisible to him and lets Jesse continue to pull her backstage, around a stone column to a quieter place. “Remember this?”

Her voice over the speakers starts to fade out and the applause of the crowd takes over. She knows she’s on stage right now. She knows what comes next. “No,” she lies.

He can see right through her. “I never told you how great you were up there. I watched the YouTube video. I-” He stops as Chicago steps out of the shadows, looking around the empty space. “That’s him?”

A flash of irritation rushes through Beca at the sight of him. “That’s him,” she says through gritted teeth. “He’s so… bland, right?”

“So bland.” Jesse holds up his hands when she turns to glare at him. “What? He is. I look better than him, right?”

Beca’s irritation with Chicago fades into an affection for Jesse. “Of course,” she says kindly. She knows they didn’t end on the best of terms. She knows they said some things to each other and she knows that she didn’t give him half as much of herself as he gave her. But she misses this Jesse; her friend Jesse. She tells herself she’s going to call him before the New Year, even if she doesn’t believe herself completely.

Jesse leans in close, whispering in her ear. “You know what happens next.”

He’s not asking her. She swallows hard against the lump building in her throat as she manages, “Yeah, I do.”

Chloe comes brushing by her, their arms almost touching as she zeroes in on Chicago. Beca wants to reach out and stop her but Chloe keeps walking until she’s toe to toe with him. She watches Chloe grab Chicago and pull him and when they kiss, Beca feels the air catch in her lungs.

That feeling comes flooding back. The one that she pushed off for so long, afraid to name what it was. It kept Chloe at arm’s length for so long. She kept Chloe at arm’s length. But now she’s standing here, watching herself watch Chloe kiss Chicago, and she’s watching the chance to tell Chloe the truth fade as quickly as Chicago wraps his arms around Chloe’s waist and pulls her in tightly. 

Every moment between her and Chloe rushes forward, almost knocking her backwards. Chloe crashing her shower, aca-initation night, that moment on stage where their eyes met, moving into the house, studying in Chloe’s bed, pressed forehead to forehead in a tent in the middle of the woods, winning on the World’s stage with their hands intertwined, moving into their apartment, macaroni and cheese nights, waking up in bed with Chloe curved to her back, squished together watching The Voice on her laptop, sharing a hotel bed despite having their own, staring at Chloe in the audience as she sang her freedom song - all of it comes crashing down on her in a single breath.

“I had everything, you know,” she says, her voice sounding hollow. “Khaled’s deal, a whole career in front of me.”

Jesse is quiet for a long moment. “But you didn’t have her.”

Beca wets her lips. “No. I- I was too late.”

“Say it, Beca,” he prompts quietly.

Beca reaches down, finding his hand. He squeezes hers back. “I love her and I was too late.”

Saying it doesn’t take any weight off her chest. It pushes harder and only Jesse’s hand keeps her standing. She tries to breathe in but her lungs feel like they’re closing too quickly. She forces herself to stop and takes a deep, measured breath that pulls her back into the moment. 

“So you did what Beca does,” Jesse continues beside her. “You ran as fast and as far away as you could get.”

Beca gives him a thin smile. “Don’t pretend like you know me, Swanson.”

He doesn’t take the bait. “What did you get out of it?”

“Nothing,” she whispers. 

“Nothing,” he echoes. “But it’s not her that you ran from. You ran from them too.” He nods his head towards the other wing of the stage where the Bellas are jumping and shouting over each other. “You thought if you shut them out, it would be easier to shut out Chloe too. But you did what Beca does,” he says again. “And you underestimated how much that would, you know, hurt you.”

Something deep within her pangs at the thought of them, so far away from her no matter how close to the city they live. “It felt easier,” she admits. “If I was losing her, I couldn’t keep the rest of them. It felt cleaner that way.” She takes a shuddering breath in.

Chicago puts Chloe back on her feet, pulling away from her with a large smile. Next to Beca, her younger self makes a noise in the back of her throat and darts around the pillar out of sight. She knows what she does next: celebrate with the Bellas like it’s the last time she’ll see them - because for some of them, it is. She knows Chloe comes back a few minutes after her, smiling sheepishly and clutching Chicago’s hand. She knows she spends the rest of the night on the edge of Chloe’s orbit, avoiding her with deft smiles and quick thinking.

“Come on,” Jesse says quietly in her ear.

Beca startles a little at his words. “What?”

He squeezes her hand a little. “Time’s up.”

She blinks a few times, trying to get her head caught up. “Time is what?”

But he tugs on her hand and she’s moving again, too quickly to see what’s around her as it spins. Beca’s world goes black and when she can see again, she’s in her bedroom in her apartment, standing at the foot of her bed in her t-shirt and her sweatpants. There’s no more Christmas music, no Tim Allen on the TV. There’s not a single Christmas decoration littering her bedroom. She looks around, shaking her head slowly.

“No way,” she exhales, even as the image of Jesse stays burning in her mind. “There’s just no way.”

She runs a hand through her hair and takes a deep breath in. The comforter is still pooled at the end of the bed. She picks it up slowly, turning it side to side like it’s going to combust in her hands. It doesn’t, so she slips back into bed, pulling it up to her chin as she wiggles underneath it.

“This is all a bad dream,” she tells the ceiling. “I didn’t- That’s all it is. A bad dream. Definitely not real. I’m just going to go back to sleep and in the morning I’m going to wake up and this is all just going to be one weird, weird dream.” She pauses. “And I’m talking to the ceiling.”

She turns over, pulling her legs into her chest. Her knee burns like someone’s hand has just been on it. Beca shakes the feeling off and takes a deep breath, closing her eyes as she counts to ten in her head.

A bad dream , she thinks as she falls asleep again.



 

iii. i see a vacant seat

Her phone goes off again, pulling her out of a dream where she’s standing in the shadows, watching Chloe go up to Chicago and kiss him. Except this time, instead of standing there, hoping her eyes burn a hole through the side of Chicago’s face, she walks over and pulls Chloe away. She kisses Chloe instead.

She’s angry when her phone wakes her up. 

Beca slaps her hand down blindly on the phone, hoping to hit the STOP button under the alarm. The sound goes off and she sighs, sinking back into her pillows.

“Beca,” she hears through the speaker.

She sits up again. Her phone is open, a call on the screen from an unknown number. She picks it up slowly, holding it to her ear.

“Becaaaa.”

“Who is this?” she whispers.

“Beca!”

Beca jumps, her phone flying from her hand as Amy pops up at the foot of her bed. She screams and it echoes off the walls.

Amy sighs. “No need to be so dramatic.” She looks around the room. “Hmm. You live like this?”

You lived like this,” Beca says over her beating heart. “I spent 5 years cleaning up after you.” She shimmies back into her headboard when Amy throws herself down on the bed. “Dude, watch it.”

Amy ignores her. “Do you know I don’t get paid for this? They make me into a ghost and I don’t even get compensated for my time. With money or sexual favors. ”

“A ghost,” Beca breathes. She closes her eyes. “Of course you’re a ghost.”

Amy slaps a hand down on the bed. Beca opens her eyes. “Listen, shortstack, we’ve got-”

“Things to do,” Beca finishes. She narrows her eyes at Amy, taking her in. “You’re not going to, like, stab me with anything, are you?”

“Beca. Would I ever -”

Beca rolls her eyes, cutting Amy off. “You did, once. More than once! Like…” she starts counting on her fingers. “Four times! You stabbed me four times.”

Amy waves her off. “Let cyclones be cyclones, ammirite?” She stands up, jerking her head impatiently when Beca doesn’t follow her. “Come on already. We’ve got people to do and places to be.”

Beca grabs her sweatshirt this time, pulling it over her head and seeing nothing but darkness for a minute. When she comes out the other side, Amy is at her dresser, picking up a picture frame. Beca knows which one it is. Theo tracked it down for her. Someone took it that night on the USO stage, all of the Bellas crowded around Beca. He had it framed for her as a gift, presenting it to her on her first day in the studio. 

She used to have it out on her desk but it got too hard to look at it each day. So she brought it home and put it on her dresser, avoiding it every morning when she gets dressed for work.

“I looked hot,” Amy says, finally putting it down. She winks. “It’s a good thing Bumper wasn’t there.”

Beca gags a little. They’re still together, she thinks. Or knows, from all of the text messages Amy sends her that she’s pretty sure are really for Bumper. Though, knowing Amy, there’s a good chance they’re probably not.

Amy sighs heavily and puts the picture down, gesturing for Beca to come closer. “Don’t worry. These hands are only for Bumper and Little-”

“Dude,” Beca hisses. She pulls her hair out from under the collar of her sweatshirt, noting for a minute that it’s an old one. Maybe hers, maybe Chloe’s. At some point, flannels and sweatshirts just moved between them easily. The only time she accidentally put on a pair of Chloe’s sweatpants, Chloe and Amy had laughed until Amy cried and tried to take pictures of her.

“Come on, come on.” Amy grabs at Beca’s hand impatiently. “The night is young, little Beca. And we’re going to make the most of it.” She pulls Beca in tight, shimmying when Beca’s face gets close to hers. 

Beca leans back. “Is this really necessary?”

Amy winks again. “You get it for free.”

Beca opens her mouth but before she can get the words out, there’s a large sucking sound and all of the air goes out of the room. There’s colors again, spinning around her like strobe lights. Amy’s hair is in her face and in her mouth. She thinks she can hear Amy yelling something but just as quickly as the air is gone, it’s back again. Her ears pop. She tries to stay upright.

“Phew,” Amy says, letting go of Beca.

Beca winces and rubs at her arms where Amy was holding tight. “Don’t you guys come with, like, a countdown clock or something?” She looks down at her feet, her toes wiggling in the snow. “We’re outside.”

Amy pokes her between the eyes. “Come on. We’re not there yet.”

Beca looks up and around. The house they’re standing in front of is big, white with black shutters and candles in the windows. There’s a big green wreath with a red bow on the front door. Cars fill the driveway, parked bumper to bumper. She can see a Barden decal on one of the back windows.

“Where are we?” she asks as she follows Amy through the cars. 

“Aubrey’s,” Amy throws back over her shoulder. She stops suddenly and Beca pulls up so she doesn’t bump into her. “Right, right. You haven’t been here, have you?” She answers her own question with a snap. “No.” She spins back around and moves forward again.

They go past a car with a booster seat in the back, another with a UC Davis sticker. Beca pauses in front of that one. It’s Chloe’s. It has to be Chloe’s. Beca looks up at the house again. Chloe is in there. Amy keeps walking and Beca stays where she is, looking between Chloe’s car and the house. Chloe’s car. The house. Chloe’s car. The-

“Beca!”

Beca jumps, her feet sliding on a small patch of ice she’s standing on. Her arms flail and she feels her slipping. Her hands catch on the side-view mirror of Chloe’s car and she holds tight, finding her balance. 

Amy doesn’t even blink. “Honestly, Beca. I’m freezing my best parts off out here.” She pops her chest out.

“Right,” Beca breathes. “Right. Let’s- let’s go.”

When they reach the front door, Amy jabs a finger into the doorbell and grins at Beca over her shoulder. She can hear Christmas music playing, something she’s sure she knows the words to if she was trying to sing along. Aubrey had them do a Christmas album one year, a gift to the alumni board or something. It’s where Beca got her idea on the Snoop Dogg track. Aubrey loved that, when she found out.

The door opens, a gust of warm air blowing out of it. Stacie frowns, head tipped to one side as she looks at them.

“Stacie, I-”

“There’s no one here!” Stacie yells over her shoulder into the house.

“Ghosts,” Beca says wearily.

“Ghosts.” Amy grins widely and grabs Beca’s arm as Stacie turns and starts to close the door. They slip inside after her, the door closing with a hard thud behind them.

Beca stands in front of the door, looking around at the Christmas lights and decorations strung up around her. There’s more big red bows and deep green garlands everywhere. White lights twinkle along the ceiling and the door frames. It looks like the Rockefeller Center at night, like when the soft lights glow in the dark and over the sidewalks. Beca can’t remember the last time she went down there to look at the tree. 

Chloe , she reminds herself. The last time was the last Christmas she spent with Chloe. Back when they still shared the full-sized bed and the rolling rack of clothes. Chloe had gotten home from work and pulled her out onto the crowded streets. They walked around for hours, Chloe’s arm wrapped tightly around Beca’s, heads pressed together as they walked through parks and around tourists. I love Christmastime , Chloe had said that night, flopping back onto their bed, eyes heavy with exhaustion.

“Who was it?” Aubrey asks as she walks into the living room. Beca watches her balance a tray of something that looks like it screams Aubrey . She looks like she hasn’t changed a single bit, the space between her eyes still pinched in frustration as she pointedly picks up a cup and puts a napkin under it. 

Stacie shrugs and picks up that cup, taking a sip from it. “There was no one there.”

Aubrey sighs. “Those McAllen kids two doors down think they invented ‘ding-dong-ditch’.” She holds out a piece of toast with some kind of relish on it. “Try this.”

Stacie opens her mouth and bites down on the appetizer, eyes widening for a second before she chews. “Great,” she says, voice strangled.

Aubrey narrows her eyes but the song changes and she brightens at the sound of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” coming on. Stacie picks up the napkin her drink was on and spits the food in her mouth out, curling the napkin into her fist when Aubrey turns back around. 

“Remind me not to have one of those when I get here,” Amy whispers in her ear.

Beca doesn’t turn away from Aubrey, still standing next to Stacie, swaying to the song. Stacie ducks her head a little, a soft smile on her face as she glances at Aubrey before looking away again. Beca opens her mouth, a question poised on the tip of her tongue, but there’s a loud bang from the kitchen that sends Aubrey running. Beca follows her, coughing as black smoke billows out of the stove.

“Lily!” Aubrey shouts.

Lily pops out from underneath the smoke. Beca can see her mouth a sorry that’s swallowed up by the sound of the fire alarm going off above them. Aubrey scowls and grabs a hand towel, white with poinsettias stitched onto it, waving it up at the ceiling.

Beca covers her ears as it rings. It makes her think of the winter where Amy decided she was going to gift the Bellas with her cooking skills. She nearly burned down the house, and the smell of smoke lasted for weeks. The whole row of houses watched from the windows as Amy tried to flirt with the firefighters who showed up to put their oven out. Beca had huddled in the trunk of Stacie’s hatchback, arms pulled tight around herself to ward off the cold. She remembers Chloe sitting next to her, their knees and shoulders pressed together as Chloe made Beca promise not to kill Amy.

“It’s not worth it,” Chloe had said soothingly. She had Beca’s hands in her own, thumbs making broad strokes over Beca’s cold skin. “Besides, you wouldn’t survive a night in prison. Big Bertha would eat you for breakfast.”

Lesbi-honest ,” Amy had started.

Beca and Chloe had looked up with twin glares. “Shut up, Amy,” they said together.

“Lily,” Aubrey sighs as the alarm stops going off. Stacie, Ashley, and Jessica crowd the doorway as Aubrey stands with her hands on her hips, looking disapprovingly at Lily.

That’s what always got Beca. The disappointment. It reminds her of her dad standing in her dorm room freshman year when she was supposed to be in Philosophy 101 instead of hiding out in bed. He didn’t understand why not being a Bella anymore meant she also couldn’t go to class. She didn’t understand it either, she admitted to herself after he left. 

Aubrey does disappointment well. She always has. It’s why Beca stopped taking her phone calls.

She called a lot when Beca started blowing people off. If Chloe called, Beca could count on a call from Aubrey before the end of the night. She used to leave messages - first concerned, then angry, then disappointed. She had a way with words Beca was sure she inherited from her father. It always left Beca feeling even worse than she already felt.

“What happened?” someone asks, pushing through Stacie to get into the kitchen.

Chloe .

Beca inhales a lungful of acrid smoke, coughing it back out as she chokes on it. No one hears her and she pounds on her chest to clear it. Her eyes water as she focuses in on Chloe, red hair bright against her cream sweater and her blue eyes wide as she takes in the smoke and Aubrey’s face.

“That was the beets for the cucumber and roasted beets pistachio salad,” Aubrey says wearily. “Now what am I going to serve as the first course?”

“I could DoorDash?” Stacie offers. She winces when Aubrey turns to glare at her. “If it was absolutely necessary, I mean.”

Cynthia Rose pokes her head around the corner. “I saw a Joe Pizza on my way in.”

“Guys, come on,” Chloe says, moving to Aubrey’s side.

“Oh, I want pineapple,” Jessica or Ashley says from the doorway.

“We’re not getting Joe Pizza!” Aubrey says over everyone talking about pizza toppings. She takes a deep, controlled breath as Chloe rubs her back. The pot on the stove boils over, something white bubbling up on the stovetop as it starts to burn. Stacie lunges forward, turning off the burner and looks warily at Aubrey as she takes another breath before she says, “ Maybe we can order Joe Pizza.”

Everyone starts talking at once, agreeing with and vetoing toppings. It makes Beca’s mouth twitch in a smile. Pizza night with everyone took forever, and they just ended up ordering the same four or five pizzas just to give everyone something they wanted. She hears the same arguments, no anchovies and yes pepperoni; half pineapple and a veggie-only pizza. Stacie launches into a passionate argument with Cynthia Rose about the value of sausage with banana peppers. Jessica and Ashley agree on half mushrooms, half onions, full pineapple. 

Chloe stands in the middle of it all, hand rubbing at Aubrey’s back in small circles. 

Beca can almost feel Chloe’s hand on her own skin, her fingernails scratching out letters. She used to like to spell her name, looping O’s and a crooked L. It used to bring Beca back to Earth, center her and give her something to focus on. She can remember nights in New York when she’d come home fuming about hacks calling themselves artists. She would be working until the next morning, remixing their songs, and Chloe would sit up next to her reading Veterinary Practice News and rubbing her back with one hand. 

It sends shivers down Beca’s spine.

“And a roasted red pepper with mushrooms, onions, and chicken,” Chloe adds over the dull roar of everyone deciding what to get.

Aubrey frowns. “We’re not getting that.”

“We are. That’s Beca’s-” Chloe stops herself, frowning slightly. 

Aubrey sighs, barely audible over everyone else. Beca can see it in the way her shoulders fall. She’s used to seeing it - first during their time with Bellas when Beca dared to step outside the box, and then through a computer screen when Chloe would tell her that Beca wasn’t taking the multivitamin she’d recommended. 

“She’s not coming, Chloe.”

Chloe’s frown deepens. “She might.”

Beca steps closer, the urge to touch Chloe overwhelming. She stopped giving into it after a while, always within arm’s reach. It used to be Chloe reaching out, Chloe taking that next step. But by the time they graduated and moved into their shoebox apartment, Beca was already touching Chloe before Chloe could touch her. Beca would roll her eyes when Chloe teased her about, cheeks burning when Chloe turned away.

It was always like that, though. Chloe pulled and pushed and after a while, Beca met her halfway.

She knows Aubrey is right, though. She’s not coming. She’s in her bed in New York, maybe - maybe she’s here, floating in space and time and if someone were to break into her apartment right now, they’d find it empty. Either way, she’s not going to get in the car and drive to upstate New York to surprise Chloe for Christmas. She made that decision a long time ago, when she decided that protecting herself was more important than making Chloe Beale happy.

It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, no matter what Chloe thinks.

“The death of Bloe,” someone says in her ear.

She jumps when she turns and finds Amy too close. “Dude, wear a bell.”

Amy grins. “Last year, for Anzac Day, Bumper came up and I wore only bells to celebrate-”

Beca slaps her hands over her ears. “La la la la.”

Amy pulls her hands off her ears. “Grow up, Little Beca.”

A flash of irritation rushes through her. “I am grown up. It’s like I’m the only one who grew up.” She looks around the room at everyone, still shouting over each other as Stacie taps their order into her phone. “Everyone is stuck in college. We have to move on.”

“And you think we haven’t?”

“No!” Beca sweeps her hand out in front of her. “We’re still here, still arguing over pizza toppings. Still doing the same shit, year after year.” She exhales noisily. “I moved on, dude. It’s time everyone else did, too.”

Amy looks at her for a moment, uncharacteristically quiet. “People are moving on, Beca. But that doesn’t mean we need to grow apart from each other. I thought you knew that.”

Some of the fight leaves Beca. “I know,” she admits.

“Then why did you push us away? Now you’re big and famous and you’re too good for us?”

“What? No . It just... “ Beca takes a deep breath, letting it fill her lungs. “I had to pick.”

Amy continues to study her. “Who says?”

Beca throws her hand up into the air. “Something had to give, Amy.”

“Like what?” Amy presses. She grabs at Beca’s shoulder when Beca turns away. “You’re not getting out of this easily, Rebecca.”

“That’s not-”

Amy shushes her. “What happened to the Beca that called us her family? What happened to the Beca that stood on that stage and sang that love song to us?” She shakes Beca a little, her face pinched. “What happened to that Beca?”

“That Beca had to watch Chloe walk off and kiss Chicago!” Beca takes a shuddering breath and wrenches herself out of Amy’s grip. 

She takes a few steps back. The space feels too small. Even if the girls can’t see her, she feels like they’re too close and they’re going to spot her any second. She turns and moves back into the living room, taking a deep breath. It smells like peppermint in here, the scent almost overwhelming. She breathes it in anyway, letting it pull her back to their last Christmas together, when Chloe had spilled a whole bottle of essential oils on their comforter and Beca was sick to her stomach for weeks. That smell doesn’t wash out easily.

“Whoomp, there it is,” Amy says softly from behind her.

Beca sighs heavily and runs a hand through her hair. “ That Beca had just gotten the deal of a lifetime. And she had to walk off that stage and watch Chloe kiss Chicago .” She scowls. “What kind of name is Chicago?”

“I think his name is Peter?” Amy offers. She waves Beca off when Beca turns to glare at her. “Right. Not important. What is important is that you weren’t the first thing on Chloe’s mind and you got butthurt about it.”

“I didn’t get butthurt about-”

Amy waves her off again and Beca scowls. “So what? So she kissed Chicago.”

Beca opens her mouth and closes it again. She thinks about that night, high off the thrill of being on stage, surrounded by the people she called her family. She was running on adrenaline, fingertips buzzing and her heart pounding in her chest. She was going to do it. She had nothing to lose. The whole world was hers in that moment; she had a career and she had her family and she was going to have Chloe. She took a deep breath and she walked off that stage to find Chloe and tell Chloe and as she rounded the corner, she found Chloe pulling Chicago in and kissing him.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Theo had said. 

And Beca had swallowed back the feeling of defeat building in her throat, pushing it back into her chest where it tightened into a knot. She had glanced at Theo, unable to pull her eyes away from Chloe being dipped, still kissing Chicago, and she had said, “so, you work for me now” like the world wasn’t crumbling in on her.

“She was supposed to kiss me ,” she finally admits.

Amy presses a hand to her cheek. Beca makes a face. Her hand is clammy and a little sticky against her skin. But Amy moves closer, trapping Beca’s face between both of her hands. “Beca, if you had just-”

Chloe slips past them, moving through the living room and up the stairs. Beca pulls away from Amy, eyes following Chloe until she disappears into the second floor. Aubrey follows a few steps behind her, worry on her face as she takes the steps up. Beca moves away from Amy, following them silently.

Aubrey’s house is nice. It’s all deep mahogany wood fixtures and plush carpeting on the stairs. Her walls are cream-colored and the picture frames on them are hung perfectly straight. She stops in front of one. It’s the same one she has at home face down on her dresser, all of them on the USO Tour with their arms around each other.

“Chloe, what is it?” she hears Aubrey ask.

She follows the sound of Aubrey’s voice to a room at the end of the hallway. It has to be Aubrey’s bedroom. It looks like her. The dark green comforter and the ten pillows on the bed. Chloe is sitting cross-legged on the end of it, holding one of the pillows in her lap.

Aubrey sits down next to her, her hand fluttering above Chloe’s for a moment before she clasps her hands together tightly. “You can tell me, you know.”

Chloe looks at Aubrey for a minute. “Even if it’s about Beca?”

Aubrey’s face hardly twitches, but her eyes harden for just a moment. Beca understands. She’s not mad about it. She knows Aubrey is mad at her. And she deserves it, honestly. Ghosting everyone the way she did, she understands why Aubrey is mad. She worked so hard to put them back together, to keep them together, and Beca threw it all away.

And for what? Beca asks herself. For lonely days and lonelier nights?

“You can tell me,” Aubrey repeats.

Chloe sighs and leans in, her head against Aubrey’s shoulder. “I thought she would come,” she admits.

“I hoped she would.” Aubrey nods when Chloe sits up and looks at her. “For you. I hoped she would for you.”

Chloe rests her head back on Aubrey’s shoulder. “I don’t understand what happened.”

“It’s Beca, Chloe.” Aubrey reaches out and takes Chloe’s hand. “I think she always kept us at arm’s length.”

“You don’t mean that,” Chloe says quietly.

Aubrey sighs. “No, I don’t. I just… I’m angry, that she’s done this. I’m angry she threw us away so quickly.”

Chloe squeezes Aubrey’s hand. “I just thought things would be different. With me, I mean. I thought things…”

“Things what?” Aubrey asks Chloe goes quiet

“Things…” Chloe trails off, picking at the decorative pillow on her lap. “I thought things were… headed somewhere.”

Aubrey looks at her carefully. “Headed where?” she asks slowly.

Chloe looks up at her, shoulders pulled back. “There were moments. I know, I know,” she says over Aubrey opening her mouth. “I know you think I was always blind when it came to her.”

“You were,” Aubrey cuts in quickly. “You still are.”

“There’s something about her, Bree. There’s always been something about her. Something…”

Beca feels herself holding her breath, leaning forward with each word coming out of Chloe’s mouth. She thought there were moments, too. She prayed there were moments. She used to lie in bed with Chloe’s breath hot on her neck and Chloe’s hand tangled in the front of her shirt and she’d think, is this it? Is this the rest of my life? And she hoped it would be.

She thinks of nights pressed to Chloe’s side, days where they walked around New York pressed together to avoid the swinging bags of tourists. She thinks about the time they stopped in front of Central Park and watched someone propose and how Chloe’s hand had tightened around her own and Chloe had looked at her so long that Beca held her breath and her heart started to pound in her chest.

Something what? Beca wonders.

“Something what?” Aubrey prompts. 

Chloe takes a deep breath. “I thought we were on the same page. I thought she liked me and I liked her and I was just waiting, you know? She’s like a newborn kitten, so scared of everything around her.”

“I’m not a kitten ,” Beca sputters.

Amy shushes her.

“But I thought, with me, she’d finally figure it out. I hoped she would.” Chloe picks at the pillow again, twisting the tassel between her fingers. “But she didn’t. Almost five years and I was still waiting for her.”

“Beca,” Aubrey starts carefully. “Has always been a little emotionally… constipated.”

“But not with me,” Chloe insists. “With me, she was different.”

Aubrey strokes her thumb across the back of Chloe’s hand. “I know she was.”

Chloe sighs. “I think that’s why it didn’t work with Chicago. I was always waiting for her to show up. He said the same thing,” she admits.

Beca turns to Amy with wide eyes. “She isn’t dating Chicago?”

Amy shrugs. “Of course she isn’t.”

“What do you mean of course she isn’t ?”

Amy reaches out and flicks her in the ear. Beca winces, covering her ear with her hand to take the sting out. “They broke up, like, a year ago.” She shrugs again. “No one saw them lasting, anyway.”

Beca blinks at Amy owlishly, trying to process Chloe’s words. She’s not dating Chicago , she thinks over and over again. “I don’t-” she starts. “I don’t understand. They broke up?”

Amy narrows her eyes, studying her. “Is the music doing something to your hearing?”

Beca shakes her head slowly. “I don’t understand,” she repeats.

All this time. All this time, she’s thought Chloe was dating Chicago. But the picture , she thinks. The one she saw of them pressed together with huge smiles on their faces.

“Come on, Beca,” Amy says impatiently. It’s not a tone she used often with Beca. “Chloe Beale is friends with all of her exes.”

“Can you read minds?” she asks cautiously.

Amy just rolls her eyes back.

“Of course not,” Beca says to herself. “Because you’re talking out loud. Because you can do that. Because you’re a ghost visiting people on Christmas Eve.”

Amy pats her gently on the head. “You’re learning.”

Beca swats her hand away and leans out of her reach.

Chloe sits up suddenly, standing and throwing the pillow back onto the bed. “I can’t spend my whole life waiting for her to realize she’s in love with me.”

Beca’s breath catches in her throat.

She is. She’s in love with Chloe. 

She’s known it since forever, really. Since the moment they met, maybe. Since Chloe crashed her shower with a smile on and nothing else. Or maybe when Chloe smiled at her across the stage during her audition. Or maybe any moment that stretched between them that first year.

But she had kissed Jesse, hadn’t she? She had thrown herself into the safety of Jesse’s easy smile. She was the one who jumped off that stage and into his arms instead of spinning into Chloe’s. It was easier to explain it away that first year. It was harder every year after that, though. And Jesse knew that, she thinks. Jesse might have always known, even if Beca didn’t want to pretend it existed. 

I’m never going to be first, Jesse had told her. 

She wasn’t sure if he meant to her career, to the Bellas, or to Chloe.

Looking back on it now, she can guess which one he was talking about.

“You love her?” Aubrey asks quietly.

“Of course I love her.”

Aubrey shakes her head. “I mean, you’re in love with her?”

Chloe’s shoulders slump. “Of course I’m in love with her.”

“Whoomp-” Amy starts, stopping when Beca turns to glare at her. Amy holds up her hands, shrugging her shoulders.

Chloe is in love with her. Chloe is in love with her.

“I’m in love with you too,” she breathes.

Chloe takes a few steps away from the bed, her arm swinging through Beca’s body. Something weird ripples through her and Beca frowns at the sensation. Her heart starts to sink. She’s not really here. Chloe can’t hear her. She’s in bed in the city, hours away from Aubrey’s house and Chloe. She’s asleep in her bed and Chloe is in Aubrey’s house giving up on her.

“No, Chloe,” Beca starts.

“But it’s a waste of time, right?” Chloe continues over her. “I mean, it’s been six years, almost seven? And I’m still waiting for her to wake up and realize I’m right here.” She throws her head back and sighs. “This is stupid. It’s Christmas. She isn’t coming. So we’re going to go downstairs and have a good time, right?”

“Right,” Aubrey echoes. She stands up and arranges the pillow back at the head of the bed. She opens her mouth to say something but closes it again, giving Chloe a tight smile.

“At least I have a New Year’s Resolution this year,” Chloe says wearily.

Aubrey brightens a little bit. “I could make you an action plan.”

Chloe smiles affectionately, wrapping both hands around Aubrey’s arm and pulling her in to press a soft kiss to Aubrey’s cheek. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She runs her hand down Aubrey’s arm and laces their hands together, pulling her out of the bedroom and into the hallway, headed down the stairs.

Beca wanders down the stairs blindly after Chloe, still thinking of her saying Of course I’m in love with her as she drifts through the house. The front door bangs open, startling her, and she presses herself to the banister.

“What’s up pitches!” Amy shouts from the entryway. She’s wearing a hot pink, skin tight dress that barely covers anything, and when she throws her hands up into the air, it covers even less. 

“I look like a snack,” Amy says in her ear.

Beca barely hears her, eyes following Chloe as she moves through the living room and back into the kitchen. She starts to go after her, needing to be next to her, when Amy grabs her by the back of the sweatshirt. She jerks backward and stumbles into Amy.

“We’ve got to go.”

Beca is already shaking her head. “No, I want to stay.”

Amy points to a large, ornate clock on the wall. “Our time is up. Can’t have two of me in one place, can we?” Her eyes sparkle. “On the other hand, having two of me would be double the fun, wouldn’t it?” She shakes her shoulders suggestively.

“No, Amy, I have to-”

But Amy tightens her grip on the back of Beca’s sweatshirt and pulls harder. Beca stumbles back again but Amy isn’t behind her anymore and she falls. She braces herself to hit the ground but the ground never comes. She falls and falls and falls in what feels like endless darkness until something bright flashes in her eyes. Her back hits something soft, cushioning her fall. When she blinks the light out of her eyes, she can see the walls of her bedroom and that picture face down on the dresser.

“No, no, no,” she says, rolling onto her stomach. She pushes off the bed and scrambles for her phone still on the floor where she dropped it. She’s punching in Chloe’s number, finger hovering the call button when she pauses.

She sinks back down onto her bed. It’s almost three in the morning. She can’t call Chloe now. It’s the middle of the night. And what would she even say? How could she explain this?

Beca lays flat on her back, her phone clenched tightly in one hand. She stares at the ceiling, picturing Chloe standing in front of her, close enough to touch.

Of course I’m in love with her echoes in her head.

She falls asleep with it on repeat.

 

 

 

iv. slowly, gravely, silently 

When her phone wakes her up this time, Beca doesn’t swing out of bed in a panic. She opens her eyes slowly, blinking her way into consciousness, and turns over slowly, reaching for the phone that slipped out of her hand calmly. She turns the alarm off and sighs, sitting up carefully. 

“Yes,” Beca says wearily, visions still blurry. “I live like this.”

She hears nothing back. She forces her eyes open, shapes coming into focus. The figure at the end of the bed sharpens and Beca sighs. “Of course it’s you.”

Aubrey stands there, arms crossed over her chest and face blank.

Beca stands up, stretching her arms high above her head and listening to her shoulders pop. Aubrey stays quiet, watching her. It makes Beca want to squirm. It’s been a while since she’s been under Aubrey’s scrutiny. Years, really. They got over themselves pretty easily once they started working together and not against each other.

For Chloe , Bece remembers saying one night.

Aubrey had stared at her for a long minute before giving Beca a small smile and nodding. For Chloe , she echoed.

Aubrey doesn’t say anything now, but she looks like she did Beca’s freshman year, thinly veiled annoyance in her eyes.

“Why would it be anyone else?” she continues as she wanders around her room, picking up dirty-or-clean clothes and tossing them all into the hamper by her dresser. She stops there and holds the framed picture in her hands, looking at it for a moment.

Of course I’m in love with her .

Chloe’s words ring in her ears like a song on repeat, the melody exactly what Beca has spent her whole life chasing. It sounds better than anything she’s ever heard before, than anything she’s ever mixed herself. She plays it over and over and still can’t get enough of it.

“She loves me, you know,” Beca says. She puts the picture down gently and turns, resting back against the dresser. Aubrey is still in the same spot, still facing her with her arms crossed, looking down her nose at Beca. “She said so. She told me. I mean.” Beca frowns. “She told you , I guess. Or it’s not you? She didn’t tell me , really. She said it and I heard her…” Beca shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. She said it. She loves me.”

Aubrey just continues to stare at her. Beca shifts uncomfortably under her eyes.

“You’re the third ghost,” Beca finally realizes. She’s read this story. She knows the Ghost of Christmas Future doesn’t talk. It’s all doom and gloom and silence. She breathes a small sigh of relief. Something tells her she doesn’t really want to listen to whatever Aubrey has to say right now. 

“I’m ready when you are,” she says when Aubrey doesn’t move. “Show me the future, or whatever.” The joke falls flat; no hint of anything different on Aubrey’s face. “Or, you know. Not.Whatever.”

Aubrey finally moves, crossing the distance between them faster than Beca can blink. She grabs Beca’s arm and pulls hard and then Beca is falling through the air, through total darkness. It feels like it’s suffocating her, pulling her further and further into it until the air goes out of her lungs. She feels her eyes rolling back into her head and just as she thinks she’s about to pass out, the light bursts in front of her, surrounding her white.

“What the fuck , dude?” Beca pants. She’s on all fours, stomach twisted into a knot. She tries to take a deep breath in and sits back on her feet, pushing her hair out of her face. “Some kind of warning would have been great, you know.” She takes another deep breath before she pushes up onto her knee, rising to her feet. Her heart pounds hard in her chest.

The white light starts to fade out and Beca can make out shapes she thinks she recognizes - cars, shrubs, a mailbox. She blinks a few times and they come more into focus. There’s a UC Davis bumper sticker on one of the cars, an American flag on another. The mailbox is bright white with a red flag, garland weaving up the post with lights blinking softly. She looks up at the house, craning her neck back to take it in. It looks like something out of a magazine, all white siding and big windows between black shutters. The porch wraps around the front of the house, the bench-swing at the end of it blowing in the stiff, cold breeze.

Beca shivers a little and pulls her sweatshirt down over her hands.

“Where are we?” she asks.

Aubrey is already moving away from her, walking briskly towards the front of the house. She stops at the end of the driveway where it meets the front walk and glares at Beca impatiently.

“Nice to know some things never change,” Beca mutters to herself as she follows Aubrey around the two cars in the driveway and towards the steps.

Aubrey starts to move again, across the walk and up the stairs until she’s almost flush with the front door. Beca tries to keep up, the hem of her sweatpants catching under her bare feet. She exhales noisily and watches the puff of hot air billow in front of her as it comes out of her mouth. She bounces on the tips of her toes, feeling the wet, snowy sidewalk start to seep in through her sweats.

Just as she gets to the door, Aubrey disappears through it. Beca stares with wide eyes at the large lion knocker on the wooden door, hidden by a white and gold wreath, wondering how Aubrey went through it when a hand reaches back out, grabs her by the collar, and tugs.

She stumbles to a stop in the front entryway, warm wood floors under her feet.

“What the fuck ,” she breathes. She presses her hand to her chest. Her heart is pounding even harder now. “You can’t just pull me through a door .”

Aubrey only looks back to glare at her. 

“I want to watch The Grinch next,” a small voice says from a nearby room.

Beca frowns. Aubrey lifts an arm and points towards an opening. There’s a plush gray couch just beyond the door frame, sitting in front of a big Christmas tree. A TV clicks on, Christmas music playing softly before it’s switched off as the channel changes. Aubrey points impatiently again and Beca sighs, crossing the front hall and stepping into the living room.

A little girl sits on the floor with a clicker in her hand, aiming it at the television. The channels flicker as the kid moves through them, blurring colors that remind Beca of spinning through whatever she spun through with Amy. Beca blinks hard against the reminder and tries to focus on the little girl, stabbing the up arrow on the remote impatiently.

“If you could wait a minute,” a voice says from behind her.

Beca freezes. She knows that voice. That voice lives in the back of her mind. That voice is the same one that said Of course I love her . Beca turns with a smile as Chloe steps through the door from the entryway.

She looks older here. Not too much, but enough for Beca to notice. There’s something more mature about the look in her eyes. Something super senior-Chloe didn’t have. Something even New York-Chloe was missing. It looks good on her. It looks right.

“Chloe,” Beca breathes. She takes a step forward. “I have so much to tell you. First of all, I-”

Chloe walks through her. It sends a ripple down Beca’s spine, a sudden chill that leaves Beca feeling nauseous. She bends at the waist, her hand pressed to her chest as the air leaves her lungs.

“What the-” she starts softly.

“You know you’re going to miss it if you keep moving so fast,” Chloe says. 

Beca turns back to watch her take the clicker from the little girl, pausing to brush some of the long, dark hair behind the little girl’s ear. Beca pants heavily, straightening up, feeling her chest push back against the hand still there.

She looks at Aubrey with wide eyes, but Aubrey is watching Chloe.

The little girl pushes out her bottom lip. “But I want to watch The Grinch .”

Chloe smiles and flips the channel a few more times before it lands on an image of Cindy Lou wrapped in wrapping paper. “There. See? Patience, grasshopper.”

“I’m not a grasshopper,” the little girl says even as she picks up a grasshopper stuffed animal Beca didn’t notice earlier. She holds it tight to her chest. “This is a grasshopper.”

“You’re very right,” Chloe says seriously. Her smile breaks when the little girl looks away from her back to the television. “Just a few minutes, okay? Your aunt is coming over soon and we’ll do presents.”

The little girl brightens up. “Auntie Aubrey is coming?”

Chloe smiles just as widely. “Of course she is. What’s a Christmas without Auntie Aubrey?”

“Why is that not surprising?” Beca asks Aubrey.

Aubrey doesn’t bother answering her, following Chloe through the living room and back into the entryway. Beca trails behind her, looking around as they move through the house. It’s decorated exactly how she always imagined Chloe’s house would be decorated. Bright paint on the walls, tons of pictures in mismatched. Beca stops to look at them all. There’s some she recognizes from their apartment in New York, pictures from Chloe’s childhood - ones with her parents and her brothers, one of Chloe’s childhood dogs. There’s a few from Barden, too, of the Bellas - Worlds, their graduation picture outside of their house, their first ICCA win. She has the same picture Beca has, the group of them on the stage at the USO, arms around each other and wide smiles on their faces.

She hears the sound of Ace of Base and follows it through the hall into a kitchen at the back of the house. It’s big, almost as big as their entire apartment in New York. Beca could fit at least three beds in here, one for each of them. Something ripples through her at the thought of not sharing a bed with Chloe in New York. Something about it doesn’t feel right.

“I saw the sign,” Chloe sings under her breath.

This song still haunts her. Chloe used to play it on Sunday mornings in the Bella house, singing into wooden spoons and dancing around the kitchen in some brightly colored pajama set Beca swore could not look as good on anyone else. She used to play it in their apartment when she wanted Beca to get out of bed and go explore the city. She used to play it just because she liked the way Beca would groan and roll her eyes and eventually give in after one chorus. 

Beca studies Chloe, working at a cutting board chopping an onion. She must have finally learned how to cook. It makes Beca smile softly; Chloe could never cook. When it was her night to come up with something to eat, she always ordered out for them. She gave up after Beca had threatened to kick her out if she burned one more pot of mac and cheese.

She looks older, but she looks good . Settled, maybe. Happy, definitely. She smiles to herself as she chops, humming along as the song changes to one Beca doesn’t recognize. Chloe does, though, and she shakes her hips side to side.

It makes Beca think of nights out with Chloe, standing at the bar waiting for drinks. When a song came on that Chloe knew or liked the sound of, she would shimmy, bumping Beca with her hip with a big smile. Beca would roll her eyes but let Chloe drag her out onto the floor, standing awkwardly on the dance floor while Chloe moves in circles around her.

“How many years has it been?” Beca hears herself asking.

Aubrey looks at her but doesn’t say anything.

“Right,” Beca mutters to herself. “Ghost of Christmas Future.” She pauses, turning back to Chloe. “Not too long, though,” she finally decides.

The back door opens with a blustery breeze and Chloe turns at the sudden chill, eyes brightening when she sees Aubrey coming through the door with a stack of wrapped gifts in her hands. Beca looks between the Aubrey in the doorway and the silent Aubrey next to her. The one next to her looks unbothered seeing herself in large earmuffs, nose tinted pink from the cold.

“You’re early!”

Aubrey at the door smiles widely. “Beat the traffic, just like I planned.”

Chloe rushes forward, taking a few of the gifts from her. “You told me you wouldn’t be here until tonight. She’s going to be so excited.” She puts down the gifts and gestures for Aubrey’s coat. “She’s been counting down the days until you get here.”

“Of course she has,” Aubrey says with a smile. “I’m her favorite aunt.”

Chloe laughs. “I’ll try not to take offense to that.” Her forehead furrows as she looks at Aubrey with a seriousness that always surprised Beca. “I think this is the year, Aubrey.”

Aubrey is shaking her head before Chloe can finish speaking. “No, Chloe.”

Yes, Chloe,” Chloe says over her. “It’s been ten years. When are you finally going to-”

Aubrey presses her hand tighter to Chloe’s mouth, looking anxiously at an open door Beca is sure leads to the living room. “Lower your voice.” She searches Chloe’s face until Chloe nods and then she lets go, taking a deep breath and rolling her shoulders back. “It’s not a good time.”

Chloe picks up her knife again, slowly finishing the onion half-chopped on the board. “Soon, there won’t be any time. I know,” she says when Aubrey starts to speak. Chloe holds her knife out, pointing it at Aubrey. “But Bella is getting older. And she’ll understand.”

Aubrey opens her mouth but there’s a small shout from the doorway and then a small streak of dark hair rockets past Beca and collides with Aubrey, almost knocking her over.

“That’s Bella ,” Beca breathes, looking back at the silent, imposing Aubrey. “It can’t be . Bella was… she was just a baby .”

“You’re so big!” the Aubrey hugging the little girl says. She holds Bella by the shoulders, studying her. “When did you shoot up?”

Bella giggles. “You just saw me!”

Aubrey holds Bella’s face in her hands, smiling. ““Two months ago. Somehow you look like a whole new person.”

Bella ignores Aubrey, leaning in to press her forehead to Aubrey’s stomach, her arms tight around her waist. Aubrey’s smile softens and she presses her hand to the back of Bella’s head, holding her close. Chloe looks at Aubrey pointedly, but Aubrey looks away from her, eyes locked on Bella.

Beca shakes her head as she stares at Bella. “No, dude, I’m not kidding. She was, like, this big,” she says, holding her hands out. “It’s been ten years ? I’m over 30 ?” She shudders at the thought. “I’m not comfortable with that.”

“Okay,” Aubrey says after a minute. She finally meets Chloe’s eyes. “When is everyone else getting here?”

Chloe looks at the clock on the stove. “A few hours, at least. Amy’s flight was supposed to be coming in around now, but who knows how long it’ll take for her to get here. Since, you know,” she says, looking down at Bella quickly, “B-U-M-P-E-R is in town.” Aubrey makes a face. “Jessica and Ashely were going to stop at Jessica’s mom’s first. Stacie just had to work for a few hours. Flo texted me a little while ago that she and Raul were running a little bit behind. Lily texted me something in a language I don’t know, but I’m sure she’s on her way.”

“Auntie Emily is going to bring baby Ben with her,” Bella interrupts. “She said I can hold him this time.”

“Of course you can,” Aubrey says smoothly. “You’re a very responsible little girl.”

Bella beams.

“Cynthia Rose and her wife will be here a little later,” Chloe continues. “Her brother-in-law is being deployed soon so they’re trying to pack in as much as they can.”

“And me,” Beca says, looking at Chloe expectantly.

Aubrey smiles. “I feel like it’s been so long since we’ve seen everyone.”

“And me,” Beca repeats.

Chloe rolls her eyes. “Two months. It’s been two months.” She meets Bella’s eyes and winks. “But we missed you too, Aubrey.”

Beca looks at the silent Aubrey. “What about me?”

Bella pulls away from Aubrey but stays close, playing with the hem of Aubrey’s dark green sweater. “Are you going to your special place this year?” she asks Chloe.

Chloe’s hands pause. Not for long, but just enough for Beca to notice and pay attention to. Chloe smiles, though, and gestures for Bella to come closer to her. When she’s close enough, Chloe picks her up with a soft grunt and puts her down on a cleared spot on the counter. She smiles softly at Bella, brushing some of her hair back again, fingers lingering on Bella’s sheek.

“Not this year, grasshopper,” Chloe says, glancing quickly at Aubrey. Beca looks too, but she can’t read the expression on Aubrey’s face.

Bella frowns. “Why not? I thought you go every year. It’s why you miss the lights.”

Chloe’s smile tightens a little bit. “I’ll tell you a secret, okay?” She waits until Bella nods. “Sometimes, a special place can move. It goes from somewhere you have to visit, to here.” She presses a hand to Bella’s chest, right over her heart. “And then you don’t need to go anymore. Because you carry that special place with you wherever you go.”

Bella’s frown deepens. “Like how the movies is a special place? And I can watch movies at home?”

Chloe seems to think about it for a minute. “Kind of,” she finally allows. “And I know you don’t like to hear this, but you’ll understand it more when you’re a little older.”

Beca frowns. “A special place?” She looks at Aubrey. “What the hell is a ‘special place’?”

Bella narrows her eyes, searching Chloe’s face before she finally shrugs and slides forward, dropping off the counter when Chloe steps back to give her room. She hugs Aubrey around the middle again quickly and then darts out of the room. The sound of the television gets louder and Chloe purses her lips, looking between Aubrey and the other room.

Aubrey is quiet for a minute, moving some of the small clear containers packed with different chopped vegetables around on the counter. She doesn’t look at Chloe, tidying them instead. Chloe finally sighs and reaches out, pulling her hands away.

“What?” she asks.

“You’re not going?” Aubrey asks, barely waiting for Chloe to finish asking.

Chloe picks up the knife again, finishing the last little bit of the onion. “No,” she finally says.

Aubrey waits until she’s done scooping the onion into its own container. “Why not?”

Chloe sighs again. “Does it matter?”

“No,” Aubrey says quickly. She bites on her bottom lip. “It’s just that you haven’t missed a year yet and-”

The back door opens again with a louder bang than before, startling Beca. She presses her hand to her chest, trying to calm her heart pounding in her chest. “Does anyone know how to open a door gently here?” she mutters before she focuses on the shape coming into the kitchen.

Chicago grins widely, clapping his hands together to clear some of the snow on his gloves. “I thought I saw your car in the driveway.”

Aubrey smiles at him. “And I was wondering where you were.”

This guy? ” Beca practically spits. She turns and takes a few steps towards the Aubrey in the corner, still not speaking. “What’s this guy doing here? She broke up with this guy.”

Chicago spreads his arms open. “Here I am. Needed to get a few more decorations out of the garage. But man, is it cold out there.” He looks at the counter, picking a cut pepper out of the small container. “You’re early.”

“Just to see if Chloe needed any help,” Aubrey says, smacking his fingers when Chicago goes to grab another pepper.

He grins. “Oh, Chloe needs all the help she can get in the kitchen.”

“Uh, Chloe is right here,” Chloe interrupts. She pushes out her bottom lip. “And I’d like to remind you that I’ve been doing Christmas dinner for almost five years now, and I’ve only burned one turkey in that entire time.”

Aubrey’s eyes sparkle with a laugh. “So we’re not including the holidays in between?”

Chloe’s cheeks flush.

“Like the Fourth of July?” Chicago asks. “I still can’t have beer can chicken without thinking about that chicken popping into the air like a firework and exploding all over that Bumper guy?”

Aubrey snorts. “That was pretty memorable.”

Chloe’s cheeks turn a deeper red. “That was one time,” she says weakly.

Chicago’s grin widens, and he leans in as he skirts around the island in the kitchen, pressing a fleeting kiss to Chloe’s forehead. “We still love you.” He slips out of the kitchen and into the front hall, his feet heavy on the stairs as he goes up them.

Beca watches him go, confusion and anger simmering under the surface. “Wait,” she says, shaking her head and holding up a hand as she tries to catch up to what’s going on. “She’s with him ? That doesn’t make any sense. They broke up. Chloe said so. And-and she loves me . But he’s here?”

Aubrey stares at her silently. Beca curls her hands into fists, trying to resist the urge to go over and shake the silent Aubrey until she says something. She swallows down that feeling instead, taking a deep breath and trying to calm her racing thoughts.

“This just doesn’t make any sense,” she says out loud. “I saw Chloe. I heard her. They broke up. He told her she was always waiting on me. She said she was always waiting on me.”

She thinks about standing in Aubrey’s bedroom, looking at Chloe and Aubrey on the bed, Chloe admitting what Beca has been hoping was true for almost five years now; that Chloe loves her. Her throat feels closed as she tries to breathe in deep, like she can’t get the air down. She tries to remember what Amy had told her: Chloe and Chicago broke up; Chloe admitted she was always waiting on Beca; Chloe said she loved her.

“Maybe they’re roommates,” Beca reasons. “Chloe Beale is friends with all her exes.” She nods to herself. “That makes sense, right? That makes sense?” she asks Aubrey. She doesn’t wait for an answer. She nods again. “Definite sense.” Her eyes widen. “Wait, am I dead ? Does Scrooge die at the end of the story?” She closes her eyes and tries to remember back to her dad reading her this story, tucked under big blankets with Christmas lights on the ceiling. “No,” she breathes. “No, Tiny Tim dies. Okay. Okay.”

Chloe lifts her hand to put the knife in the sink and there’s a quick flash where a ring on her left hand catches the glow of the light in the ceiling. Beca feels her chest tighten as Chloe’s hand settles flat against the counter and the ring comes into focus. It’s a big diamond, bigger than Beca thought Chloe would want to wear, heavier, the silver sharp against Chloe’s pale skin.

“Oh,” Beca breathes out.

Aubrey catches Chloe’s hand, holding it between her own hand. She looks critically at the ring before she lifts her head and meets Chloe’s eyes with a small smile. “Chloe.”

“Aubrey,” Chloe warns.

Beca knows that tone. Beca knows it means to leave something alone. She’s heard it enough. When Chloe told her she wouldn’t get the nodes surgery.  Chloe failed to graduate a second time and Beca asked her why; when she failed a third time. She heard it when she pushed Chloe to tell her why winning Worlds was so important. She’s heard it when Chloe didn’t want to talk about a date or a job interview or why she didn’t want to get out of bed. And Beca backed off. Beca made cups of tea with honey and bought ice cream behind Aubrey’s back. Beca buried Chloe in blankets and let Chloe have Real Housewives marathons. Beca pulled Chloe out onto the streets and pretended to be a tourist to make Chloe laugh. Beca backed off and let Chloe avoid the question because Beca liked to see Chloe smile.

Aubrey doesn’t back off. “You’ve gone every year for the last… four years?”

“Four years,” Chloe confirms quietly. “This is… this is the fifth anniversary.” She looks away from Aubrey and takes in a deep breath that shakes her shoulders. “I just don’t think I can do it, this year.”

“Okay,” Aubrey says softly. Her mouth opens and closes and opens again before she speaks.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Chloe says, her voice strangled. Beca can see her eyes start to water, how Chloe blinks hard to clear them. “I think it’s time, you know.” She straightens the ring on her finger. “I think I’m ready.”

“Are you sure?” Aubrey shakes her head when Chloe’s eyes snap around to her. “I’m just checking.”

Chloe huffs loudly. “I wish people would make up their minds. When I say I’m not ready, everyone is pushing me to be. And when I finally say I’m ready, they’re telling me I’m not.”

“Sweetie,” Aubrey starts.

“You, Stacie, Chicago,” Chloe continues, pulling her hand out of Aubrey’s and waving it around.. “Who gets to decide when I’m ready? You or me?”

Aubrey catches Chloe’s hand again, pulling it down. “You. Of course, you. I’m just checking.”

Chloe deflates a little. “I know. I’m sorry. I just… What’s the point, anymore? What am I waiting for?”

Beca finds herself stepping forward, for me on the tip of her tongue. But she remembers that Chloe can’t see her and definitely can’t hear her. She swallows hard instead, her fingernails cutting into her palm. She looks back at Aubrey.

“She’s going to marry him,” she says faintly. “They’re going to get married and I’m going to be… alone for the rest of my life. Is that what you’re showing me? That she’s happy with someone else?”

“I’m happy,” Chloe goes on. She smiles, head tipped to one side. “Chicago makes me really happy. He loves me, you know? And I love him. I do,” she says when Aubrey goes to open her mouth. “He’s so good to me. He’s good for me.”

Aubrey nods. “I know he is.”

Chloe’s smile tightens a little. “I know you didn’t think that Beca was.”

“That’s not what I said,” Aubrey argues faintly. She shakes her head when Chloe rolls her eyes. “It’s not,” she insists. “But I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’m Beca’s biggest fan. After what she did to you, to us … She broke your heart, Chloe, but she broke ours too.”

Beca’s own chest aches. Here they are, years later and she’s still not around. Years later and she’s still missing out on Chloe and Aubrey and the rest of the Bellas. She’s not even expected at Christmas. She wonders if she’d even be welcome. But something about the hard line of Aubrey’s mouth tells her she wouldn’t be.

You did it, kid , she hears in Stevie’s voice. You pushed them away .

So she’s somewhere, alone on Christmas. Probably at the office, in a soundbooth with the lights on and the rest of the world locked out; probably neck-deep in work that she’s convinced herself can’t wait another minute. She wonders if Theo is there, trying to convince her to get out of the office and enjoy Christmas. She wonders if her dad has tried to call her to wish her a Merry Christmas or to try and coax her to come over. She can’t remember the last time she saw her dad face-to-face. Maybe before getting the DJ Khaled deal?

She wanted to push everyone away, keep them at arm’s length, and she did it. She got what she wanted - the Bellas, out of reach; Chloe, as far away as she could push her. She had to choose, she told Amy. And she picked work. It seems like she kept picking work.

“I know,” Chloe says. She sighs. “I know you miss her too. I don’t have a monopoly on that.”

Aubrey’s smile is muted. “It was a different kind of relationship. We loved her in different ways.”

Loved cuts through Beca like a knife, her breath catching in her throat.

Chloe gives a soft, wet laugh. “I just wished she loved us back.”

“I did,” Beca says, moving closer now. “I do, Chloe. I love you. I love you, too, Aubrey. I love you all. I-”

“I think she did,” Aubrey says over her. “In her own way.”

Chloe closes her eyes and takes a deep breath in. “I told myself today is going to be a good day.”

“It is,” Aubrey agrees. She pats Chloe’s hand and drops it back on the counter. “We have so much to do. Get the turkey in the oven, talk about your wedding plans.” She winks when Chloe rolls her eyes. “I’ve been waiting actual years to talk about this. I have so many ideas.”

Chloe laughs again, the sound clearer. “Of course you do.”

“No,” Beca says loudly. “She can’t marry him.” She looks back at Aubrey in the corner. “She can’t marry Chicago . What’re they going to say? ‘Do you, Chloe, take this man who calls himself after a city’ - and not a great one, by the way - ‘to be your lawfully wedded husband’? No.” She turns to Chloe, shaking her head. “Where am I?” she asks, eyes still on Chloe. “What am I doing that’s better than this?”

She feels a cold hand grab her arm and then she’s gone from Chloe’s kitchen, surrounded in darkness that cuts to her soul. When she opens her eyes, she’s surrounded in fog that pools around her ankles and winds up her legs. It starts to dissipate, clearing away as things come into focus.

A headstone sits in front of her.

“What is…” Beca turns in a circle. Headstones stretch up out of the grass in front of her and behind her, surrounding her on all sides. “Where are we?”

Aubrey points a finger at a figure weaving its way through the stones and statues. Beca frowns and looks back down at the headstones in front of her. 

Leigh Arnold , it reads. She breathes a sigh of relief. 

Aubrey points again at the figure and Beca starts to drift towards it, careful not to bump into any headstones as she goes. She can feel Aubrey following her, something cold coming off her and washing over Beca’s skin.

The figure stops ahead of her and Beca slows down, feeling her chest start to tighten as she gets closer.

“Hey,” it says softly.

“No,” Beca breathes out.

Chloe settles in front of one of the headstones, blocking it from Beca’s view. “I know it’s been a few years,” she starts. Beca watches her shoulders rise and fall. “I had to come, though. I couldn’t let ten years…” She takes a deep breath. “I couldn’t let ten years come and go and not see you.”

“No, no,” Beca continues to exhale. She moves around Chloe, trying to see the front of the headstone.

“Beca,” Chloe says at the same time as Beca reads Beca Mitchell on the smooth stone.

Beca stumbles back a step, falling through a headstone behind her. She gasps, rolling away from it and trying to steady herself. 

“God, Beca.” Chloe reaches out and touches the lettering on the headstone. “How did ten years go by so quickly? I feel like we were just in college yesterday, you know? Ruling the stage, making music one mouth at a time.”

Beca shakes her head again and again, looking plaintively at Aubrey. “I’m not dead.”

“Things were easier then, weren’t they? All we did was sing and go to class and spend all our time together. I wanted that feeling to stretch forever,” Chloe admits. “But you knew that, didn’t you? I think everyone knew. So we grew up. But if I knew growing up meant growing apart…” She takes a deep breath. “Well, I wish we never did it.”

 “Chloe, I’m not dead,” Beca tries to say over her. She turns back to Aubrey. “Tell her I’m not dead.”

“When my phone rang…” Chloe trails off and Beca watches as she wipes under her eye. “When my phone rang and your name came up on the screen, I thought - finally . Finally, she’s calling me. Finally, she’s coming home. But when it was just Theo and he told me… When he told me what happened, I just…” Chloe takes an abrupt step back and Beca moves too, stumbling back over her feet. “I think the thing that hurts the most, Bec, is how alone you must have been.”

Beca storms forward now, hands reaching out for Chloe’s shoulders. She goes through Chloe, then through her headstone, feeling something cold settle in her bones. She falls to the ground, feeling the wet grass soak through the knees of her sweatpants.

“I didn’t think it was real, you know,” Chloe admits. “The people could die of a broken heart. When Theo told me they did an autopsy, and that’s what it was, I didn’t… I didn’t know it could happen. I didn’t know it would happen to you .” She swallows loud enough for Beca to hear her over the slight breeze. “They said the stress of working and the isolation and the bad habits… It’s called takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Did you know that?” She brushes her fingers against the cold granite. “We had a dog, once, who died of it after his owner passed suddenly.”

Beca pushes up to her feet. “A broken heart?” She looks at Aubrey. “I died of a broken heart? How do you… That doesn’t make sense. I didn’t have- I didn’t have a broken heart.” She opens her mouth and snaps it shut again as a memory floods her mind. “Wait, I’m Tiny Tim?”

“Your dad told me, at the funeral, how you hadn’t spoken in years. I didn’t know, Beca, that when you pushed us away, you pushed everyone away.” Chloe sighs. “Maybe if we tried harder. Maybe if we kept calling you, you would have eventually picked up. But you didn’t. And maybe Audrey was right. We did all we could, we reached out and you never reached back.”

“Never?” Beca asks Aubrey in a small voice. “I- I never talked to them again? Not once?”

Aubrey stands as still as a statue and Beca feels a rising anger in her veins. 

“I used to think I could have shown up at your place, convince you to talk to me. I just…” Chloe exhales noisily. “I never understood why you did that, Beca. We were best friends. We were… We could have been so much more. But you threw it away.”

“No I didn’t,” Beca says over her. “I mean, I wasn’t going to. I don’t want to.”

“I can’t even remember the last thing I said to you. Do you know that? I know the last time we talked, Christmas Eve. I know I wanted you to come to Aubrey’s, like old times, just to spend Christmas with us. I try and I try and I can’t remember.” Chloe sounds annoyed now. “I wrack my brain and I can’t think of anything. When’s the last time I told you I lo-”

Beca swallows heavily past the lump in her throat. “I love you too, Chloe.”

Chloe reaches out to touch the inlaid lettering. Beca reads them over her shoulder. 

“Christmas Eve.” Beca closes her eyes and breathes in the sharp, cold air. “Of course it was Christmas Eve."

“Ten years,” Chloe says quietly. “But I feel like I lost you a long time before that. Maybe… maybe I never had you.”

Beca tries to reach for Chloe, pulling her arms back around herself when she remembers she can’t touch her. “You did, though. You do . I’m right here, Chloe. I’m right here .” She looks up at Aubrey with wide eyes. “How do I tell her I’m here? Tell me how to make her know I’m here.”

Chloe sighs softly, taking a step away from the headstone. Beca moves towards her. “I don’t know if I’ll come back. It’s… it’s hard, Beca. For me, for the girls. I think Amy will visit. She always pretends she doesn’t, but I know she does.” Her lips twitch in a smile. “New Yorkers for life, right?”

“No one?” Beca asks Aubrey, her voice small. “No one comes? Not-not Aubrey? Or Stacie? Emily?” She shakes her head. “No, they can’t leave me alone. They can’t just leave me here. I didn’t-” She stops herself. “I didn’t mean to leave them.”

But it’s a lie. She did mean it. She meant to push them until they stopped trying. And she did, she guesses. She pushed them away because she didn’t want to do the work. She didn’t want to put in the time to get over Chloe and Chicago and she lost it all because she was too afraid to face her own feelings. 

And she died alone. 

On Christmas Eve.

“I wish you were here, Bec,” Chloe continues quietly.

But she’s not here. God , she thinks. I’m not here .

Chloe breathes in deeply, her chest rising and falling under the peacoat she’s wearing. “I wish you knew. That I loved you. That all of us loved you. Maybe then…” She shakes her head softly. “Goodbye, Beca Mitchell.”

“No,” Beca says quickly. Chloe turns and starts to walk away. “No,” Beca says again. She starts to follow Chloe, walking through headstones to get in front of her. “Don’t leave me here. Don’t leave me alone.”

Chloe walks right through her.

Beca feels her chest tighten until her eyes burn and she turns, meeting Aubrey’s eyes. “This can’t be how it ends. It can’t .” She grabs for Aubrey’s shoulders, relief shooting through her when she feels Aubrey’s solid weight under her hands. “Bring me back. Bring me back, right now. I want to go back.” She looks back at Chloe, drifting through the headstones to a dark car parked on the small road nearby. “I want to go back, now .” She lets out a single sob, feeling a second one catch in her throat. “ Please .”

Aubrey stares down at her with cool eyes before she curls one hand around Beca’s wrist, pulling it off her shoulder. Beca feels another sob welling in her chest but Aubrey tugs and then Beca is surrounded in complete darkness. She feels like she’s falling and she gives into it. When she lands on something firm, but giving, she stares up and tries to catch her breath.

“Oh my god,” she pants. She feels her heart hammering under her hand. “Oh my god.”

She squeezes her eyes closed and sees Chloe behind her eyelids, standing in the cold cemetery in front of the headstone with Beca’s name on it. She sees Chloe in the kitchen of her house, that silver, sparkling ring on her finger. She sees Chloe sitting in Aubrey’s bedroom with tears in her eyes. She sees the Bellas in Aubrey’s house, smiling and laughing and happy without her. She sees the Bellas on the USO stage, arms around each other and the lights in their eyes. She sees Chloe kissing Chicago. She sees the Bellas on their living room couch, Chloe’s hand on her leg. She sees Chloe 

She rolls over in her bed, presses her face into her pillow, and cries.

 

 

 

v. how to keep christmas well

Her phone alarm goes off and Beca groans, blinking heavy eyes against the sunlight creeping in through the blinds on her windows. Her cheeks feel sticky with dried tears. She runs a hand down over her face, wiping away a thin line of drool coming from her mouth. The phone keeps going off. Beca reaches for it blindly, finally finding it under her pillow, and silences it.

She rolls onto her back and stares at the ceiling.

She’s alive .

Beca sits up slowly, wincing against the heavy pounding in her head. “ The fuck ,” she breathes out. She resists the urge to fall back against the pillows, weighed down with an exhaustion she hasn’t felt in so long. The last time she cried herself to sleep, she was ten and her dad was finally moving out for good. She’s only ever told one person that story.

Chloe .

She’s out of bed quickly now, tripping on the ends of her sweatpants as she tries to move across the room. She stumbles into her dresser, the hard point of it catching her in the hip. She hisses out as she picks up the frame facedown on the top of the dresser, holding it in her hands.

She breathes a sigh of relief.

There they are, all squished into one frame with smiles on their faces. Her family.

Her phone beeps and she grabs for it, opening the message that pops up on the screen. It’s the group chat, the one she hardly opens anymore. She opens it now, scrolling through the messages she’s missed until she gets to the most recent one - a picture of Amy in matching red bra and underwear, making a snow angel on a lawn that Beca instantly recognizes as Aubrey’s. ‘ MERRY PITCHMAS,’ Amy added to the picture.

Beca laughs. She laughs and she laughs and then she cries, big heavy sobs that wrack her body. She drops to the end of the bed, holding her phone tightly in one hand and the picture in another. Her body folds in on itself as she cries, the knees of her sweatpants, somewhat smudged with dirt, wet with tears.

Her phone beeps again and she straightens up, taking a deep breath. It’s Theo this time, a quick ‘Merry Christmas’ text with a picture of the booth, a Santa hat on top of the soundboard. ‘See you soon’ comes through next, a coffee emoji at the end of it. 

“Not today,” she says to her empty room. If she squints she can still see the shape of that headstone in the corner, but when she blinks it turns back into her laundry basket. “No, not today. Today, I’m going home.”

She pulls off her sweatpants and finds a pair of jeans on the floor that doesn’t seem like they would smell too bad. The sleeves of her sweatshirt fall down over her hands still, but she doesn’t change out of it. It’s Chloe’s, she knows that now, and something about taking it off makes Chloe feel like she’s too far away. So she keeps it on, sweeping her hair up into a messy bun and pulling on the first pair of sneakers she can find.

Beca pauses at the door to her apartment, hand on the knob. “Is this stupid?” she asks out loud. No one answers her. “It’s not stupid. It’s overdue. I should have done this a long time ago.” She pauses. “And now I’m talking to myself.”

It takes her a few minutes to find her barely-used car in the garage attached to her building. She holds her breath as she turns the key in the ignition, hoping it turns on and breathing out a sigh of relief when the engine kicks in and hums. The brakes grind a little when she puts pressure on them but her gas tank is full. It takes her a minute to find Aubrey’s address in the group chat but she drops her phone in the cup holder, the maps app turned on and the highway stretching out ahead of her.

She could call. It’s not too early in the morning that Chloe wouldn’t be up, especially on Christmas. But she can’t say this over the phone. She has to see Chloe. She has to see the Bellas. Everything is different now. There’s so much she needs to say. So much she needs to do. And she needs to see them face-to-face to do it.

There’s nothing good on the radio. No song catches her attention. Nothing has caught her attention in a long time, if she’s honest. Every song has sounded the same. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t come up with the sound for her client. She’s been chasing “Freedom” for a while, chasing that hook and the swell in her chest that came with being up on that stage. The songs that came after it don’t have that punch. They don’t have that meaning.

She thinks about Jesse and that Christmas with the Bellas. She hemmed and hawed her way through those nights, claiming she was too busy or too bored to spend a whole night on the couch suffocating under whatever Bella was sitting on top of her. Something hot burns on her knee as she thinks about Chloe’s hand, always right there, grounding her. There were nights where she fell asleep with Chloe draped across her, Chloe’s hair in her mouth and Chloe’s arm curled around her stomach. There were mornings where she would wake up with Chloe’s mouth against her skin and Beca’s heart pounding wildly in her chest.

She thinks of that night of the concert, seeing Chloe pull Chicago in and kiss him hard. 

She thinks about Aubrey’s house and the Christmas Eve she missed. Everyone had seemed so happy to be together, not missing her. But then she thinks about Chloe going up those stairs and into Aubrey’s bedroom. She thinks about the way Chloe said, Of course I love her like it was something Beca should have already known.

She thinks about standing in Chloe’s home, looking at all the pictures on the walls and not seeing herself in many of them; of standing in her kitchen and listening to Chloe talk about how she just can’t see Beca anymore. She thinks about how there was no more of her to see. She thinks about that headstone in a sea of headstones, Chloe’s fingers tracing the fading letters on the granite face.

She pushes a little harder down on the gas pedal.

Aubrey’s looks different in the day than it does at night, lit up by the candles in the windows. The cars still fill the driveway and there’s a large snow angel shape in the front lawn. Beca pauses at Chloe’s car. She had sent Beca a picture of it when she bought it, getting someone to take a picture of her on it like one of the car models they saw at the car show years ago. Beca smiles at the thought now, taking a breath and walking purposefully towards the door.

She hesitates. She pauses with her fist hovering over the wood, eyes closing for a moment.

What is she going to say to them? What is she going to say to Chloe ? Does ‘sorry’ cover it? Does she need to tell them that she was afraid she would have to choose and she made the wrong decision? Is she going to have to beg them to forgive her? She’d do it, she thinks. She’d get down on her knees, probably. It’s the least she can do. She’d even let Aubrey go up one side of her and down the other, if that’s what it took. 

It’s the very least she deserves.

Idiot ,” she hisses at herself as she starts back down the steps, hesitating at the bottom of them. “Dude, you had four hours to come up with something to say and you have nothing?”

“Beca?”

Beca turns, her breath catching in her throat as she takes in Chloe. She’s standing in the doorway at the top of the stairs in an old Barden sweatshirt with a BM on the pocket, confusion on her face as she stares back at Beca.

“Hey, Chlo,” Beca breathes.

Something flickers across Chloe’s face, but before she can say anything, Emily pops up behind Chloe’s shoulder, eyes widening as she takes Beca in.

“Beca!” Emily shoulders Chloe out of the way as she hurries down the stairs, grabbing Beca by the arm and pulling her back up. “Oh my god, you’re here !” she says excitedly as she pulls Beca past Chloe, their arms brushing as Emily takes her over the threshold into the house.

Beca stumbles to a stop in front of Emily, tilting dangerously to one side as Emily hangs heavily on her arm. “It’s Beca!”

Jessica and Ashley look at each other before smiling widely. Cynthia Rose arches an eyebrow at her. Lily mouths a silent hi . Flo claps her hands together excitedly. Stacie looks up with wide eyes, Aubrey sitting above her with her knees pressed to Stacie’s shoulder. Beca withers a little under Aubrey’s cool stare, pulling her sweatshirt sleeves down over her hands as she forces something like a smile, waving one hand a little.

“Uh, hi,” she says sheepishly.

Everyone starts talking at once, voices overlapping as they talk to her, drowning out A Christmas Carol playing on the television on the other side of the room. Only Aubrey stays quiet, still staring at her as Stacie jumps up from the floor and Flo comes crashing towards her. She’s swallowed up in Stacie’s and Flo’s arms, feeling the weight of Jessica and Ashley piling on. Emily’s still got a solid grip on her arm.

“Guys,” she tries, her voice sounding muffled to her own ears. “Guys!” she shouts again.

It seems to do the trick. Someone startles and then they all shrug off her, leaving her still pressed to Emily’s side. She pushes some of the loose strands of her hair back, trying to steady her breathing.

“What’re you doing here?” Aubrey’s voice cuts through the room. It’s as cold as her stare. 

“Merry Christmas,” she says weakly.

Aubrey’s eyes flash. “That’s all you have to say?”

“Aubrey,” Chloe says gently.

Beca feels that old instinct kick in, the one that says she should pick a fight if that’s what Aubrey wants. But Beca-at-18 isn’t the same Beca who won the ICCAs with Aubrey. This is the Beca who stayed up in Aubrey’s cabin at the Lodge of Fallen Leave for a whole night trying to put their sound back together; the Beca who had daily FaceTime chats with Aubrey while Chloe burned toast in the background; the Beca who sat with Aubrey on the USO tour and held her hand when she talked about her father missing another concert. This Beca is the one who built a whole relationship with Aubrey outside of the most important thing they have in common - Chloe.

So she straightens up and gently pulls her arm from Emily’s and puts on a smile that feels braver than she feels. “No,” she admits. “That’s not all I have to say.”

“Beca,” Chloe tries from behind her.

She shakes her head. “I know this is hard to believe, but… I’ve been a bit of an asshole.”

Emily snorts, sobering when no one else laughs. “Sorry. Sorry, you were saying.”

Beca gives her a waning smile. “I… I know I haven’t been around lately. That I’ve been… missing things.”

The room is quieting around her, all of them looking up at her expectantly. She swallows against the lump in her throat and twists the end of her sweatshirt around her fingers.

“I know sorry doesn’t cut it. I know it’s not enough.” She takes a deep breath. “We’re a family. We’ve always been a family. Despite my best efforts,” she tries to joke. Only Jessica gives her a small smile back. Beca hangs onto it like a lifeline. “But I got scared.”

No one says anything and Beca exhales nervously, fighting the desire to fold into her sweatshirt and crawl back into the cold morning. But she needs to do this.

“I got scared that things were changing and I wasn’t going to be a part of them anymore.” She shrugs a little. “I thought if I just… moved on, it wouldn’t hurt when things here just kept going. I was…” She turns back to look at Chloe. “I thought things were moving on and it hurt too much to watch them happen. So I… So I pushed you guys away.” She turns back to the rest of them, meeting Aubrey’s eyes briefly. “I didn’t know what else to do. I felt like I was going to lose something and I just…”

“You wanted us to lose,” Aubrey finishes. A little of the edge is gone in her eyes. “You wanted us to be the ones who lost you.”

 “I’ve always been a little... emotionally constipated,” Beca says, shrugging her shoulders. Something crosses Aubrey’s face, but it’s gone in a flash. “I thought it was the only way to protect myself. But I still… I still ended up losing after all.” She looks at each of their faces, trying to remember if they’ve changed from the last time she saw them. “Because I lost you guys.”

Everyone stays silent for another moment before Emily shifts next to her, wrapping her arms around Beca’s and pulling her into her side. She rests her head against Beca’s and Beca soaks in the warmth of her. She’s missed so much of Emily’s life at this point - a whole year and a half of college. Emily will be graduating soon and Beca might have gone out on missing things. She looks at Flo and Stacie and at Cynthia Rose. She gives Jessica and Ashley a small smile. She meets Aubrey’s eyes and holds her gaze until she feels like she might crawl out of her skin.

She can feel Chloe at her back, eyes burning into her. 

“I know I have a lot to make up for,” she continues. “I know sorry will never be enough for you guys. And if you don’t want to hear it, then… I deserve that. I can’t tell you I didn’t know what I was doing, because I did. I knew exactly what to do. And, well. It worked.”

Aubrey continues to stare at her with guarded eyes, searching her face as if she’s looking for something. Beca stares back, hoping that if it’s honesty Aubrey is looking for, she finds it. She’s not sure if she does, but Aubrey’s eyes move past Beca, over her shoulder. To Chloe, probably. Beca can feel her still, a steady pulse in her veins reminding her that Chloe is there. Chloe is close enough to touch. She tries to focus on the rest of them.

“I am so, so sorry,” she exhales, looking at each of them again. “But…” Beca gives in and takes a deep breath as she turns, pulling away from Emily as she twists her fingers nervously in front of her as she meets Chloe’s eyes. “But most of all, I need to say sorry to you.”

Chloe smiles humorlessly. “Beca, it’s-”

“It’s not fine. I-” She takes another deep breath. “Listen, can we go outside or something?”

Chloe looks at Aubrey for a minute before she gives Beca the smallest nod, slipping into the front hall and outside, pulling the sleeves of Beca’s sweatshirt down over her hands. Beca closes the door softly after them, already hearing the shuffle of feet as the rest of the Bellas press themselves against the window. Chloe looks expectantly at Beca.

“I’m sorry,” she starts. Beca takes a deep breath. “It’s kind of your fault.”

Chloe’s mouth opens in surprise before it sets into a thin line, eyes narrowing with an anger Beca knows she doesn’t see often.

“No, dude,” Beca rushes on. She winces a little. “I mean, no , Chloe. That’s-that’s not how I wanted to say it. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”

Chloe crosses her arms over her chest and doesn’t say anything.

Beca takes a small step forward, breathing a sigh of relief when Chloe doesn’t move away. “You were my best friend, you know? You are,” she says when Chloe starts to open her mouth. “You have been, since the beginning. Don’t tell Amy. She thinks it’s her,” she jokes. Chloe doesn’t laugh. “But, uh, you’re it. And that’s kind of the problem. You’re it, Chloe.”

Chloe stares at her for another minute before she sighs, dropping her arms. “I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, Beca.”

Beca gives her a strained smile. “The minute I met you, when you stormed my shower like I stole it from you, you’ve just…” She exhales loudly, frustrated. She should have rehearsed this in the car, what she was going to say to Chloe; how she was going to tell her everything. “There was something special about you. Something I wanted to know more about. It’s why I showed up at that audition. I mean, it wasn’t for Aubrey’s charming personality.”

“But,” Beca says, pushing on. “You hooked me. I thought I wasn’t going to make friends with anyone. That was the plan, you know that. But you shoved your way into my life and you kind of forced me to be your friend. And then suddenly I had eight other friends. And it was the best. Dude, you’re the best.” She smiles tightly. “I’m not saying all of this really well, am I?”

Chloe studies her for a moment. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to say.”

Beca sighs and throws her hands up. “Neither am I. I just know that- Okay.” She inhales deeply, letting the air fill her lungs and her mind clear. “Jesse was important to me.”

Chloe softens for a second. “I know that.”

“But he was never the most important thing to me. And he knew that,” she says, thinking of him standing in front of her telling her it was okay. Beca takes another step closer. “He always came second. Third, really. To the Bellas. And… and to you.” She watches Chloe’s face carefully. “I know I took advantage of our time together. I know it took me forever to get here. But when I thought I lost my chance, I just couldn’t handle it. So, I, like, tucked my tail and ran away, or whatever the people say.”

“Your chance to what?” Chloe asks in a whisper.

Beca swallows hard against the words in her throat. “The chance to tell you I’m in love with you.”

She thinks she hears something hit the window, a small ping , but Beca doesn’t look away from Chloe’s face, trying to memorize every inch of it. Chloe could tell her it’s too late. Chloe could tell her she missed her chance. Chloe could tell her to leave and that would be the end of it. 

It would be the end of Beca. 

Chloe opens her mouth to say something, eyes wide, before she closes it again.

“I thought you picked Chicago. Peter . Whatever his name is. After the USO tour, I saw you kiss him and I just…” Beca sighs, shrugging her shoulders. “I knew I couldn’t pretend anymore. And I pushed you away so I wouldn’t have to. I thought it would be easier.” She lets out a single bark of laughter. “It was actually worse. Like, a whole lot worse. Do you know how difficult it was to ignore your calls?”

“Probably as difficult as it was to go to your voicemail,” Chloe finally says.

Beca winces a little. “It was hell. It is hell. Every day that goes by, or whatever. And it’s Christmas. And…” She rubs a hand over her face. “You would not believe the night I’ve had. It just put things into perspective for me. It made me realize all these things I’m missing out on. And I saw where it could go and I just…” She inhales shakily, the memory of that headstone looming in her mind. “I couldn’t keep going on pretending like it wasn’t true. So I drove here and I… Well, I said it.”

She takes another breath, steadier than before. “So, now you know. I’m sorry it took so long. You’re just… you’re hard to get over, Chloe Beale.”

Chloe inhales slowly, her whole chest rising and falling as she breathes in. She looks at Beca and Beca gives her a small, nervous smile. “You’re an idiot.”

Beca’s smile fades. “What?”

“You’re an idiot,” Chloe repeats. “I’ve spent years trying to get over you and all of the sudden, when it’s your turn, you just give up?”

Beca frowns. “I-”

“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you to say something?” Chloe takes a step closer, her arms at her sides. “I thought I was going crazy. I thought, just give her a little bit of time and she’ll come around. But you had Jesse and then you didn’t have Jesse and we were living in an apartment together that was the size of Audrey’s closet and I thought, now’s the time. But you didn’t say anything.”

“Dude, neither did you,” Beca says defensively, crossing her arms over her chest.

“And instead of saying something,” Chloe continues over her. “We just played house. Did you know everyone I worked with thought we were dating? And they didn’t believe me when I said we weren’t?”

Beca can understand why they thought so. She’d stop by all the time, bringing Chloe coffee or lunch or just to play her a song Beca wanted some notes on. When the other techs visited their apartment once, they had to notice the single bed in the living room. Beca tagged along to every night out at the bar; Chloe always got affectionate when she drank. They were always Beca-and-Chloe. 

“And the whole time, I wanted it to be true.” Chloe sighs, frustrated, and runs her hands through her hair. “So, yeah. You’re an idiot, Beca Mitchell. Because I’ve been waiting for you to say something for years.”

“You kissed Chicago,” Beca reminds her.

Chloe throws her hands up in the air. “One time. I kissed him one time, years after waiting for you.” She sighs again, resigned this time. “It didn’t last anyway. He knew I wasn’t into it. He knew I was into you.”

Something bright blossoms in Beca’s chest, spreading warm through her veins. “I’m into you too.”

Chloe’s eyes start to water. “You pushed me away.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing.” Beca swallows hard. “I thought I could just throw myself into my work and that could be enough. But it wasn’t enough, because you weren’t there.” She looks back over her shoulder. “None of you were there. I wasn’t there. And it sucked, dude.” She turns back to Chloe. “You don’t know what it feels like, to wake up in a world where you’re not there and everyone you love is just moving on with things.”

She takes another step closer to Chloe. “But I get it, now. I get that I can’t push you guys away. I get that the work and the music don’t mean anything without you guys. It’s not the same. I don’t love it.” She swallows hard. “I love you.”

Chloe laughs wetly, pressing a hand to her chest. “You’re an idiot, Beca Mitchell.”

Beca gives a lopsided smile and thinks movie moment . “Could I be your idiot?”

She doesn’t wait. She crosses the two steps between them, curling her hands around Chloe’s elbows and pulling her close the way she’s been imagining for years. Chloe comes easily, sinking into Beca’s hold as Beca pushes up onto her toes, kissing Chloe.

It’s not fireworks. It’s not a sudden explosion in her chest. It feels like the fire that night at the Lodge, warm flames licking at her fingertips and spreading through her hands and up her arms into the center of her. Chloe kisses her softly, like they’re both so fragile. Beca pushes into it, kissing Chloe a little harder, worried that if she doesn’t, she’ll wake up from a second nightmare.

“Whoomp! There it is!”

Beca startles, fingers tightening on Chloe’s waist. Amy barrels past them to the front door, yanking it open as she thrusts her hips back and forth. Chloe laughs softly in Beca’s ear as she drops her forehead to Beca’s collarbone.

“You love me,” she says, quiet enough that Beca is the only one who hears her over Amy catcalling from the doorway and everyone cheering in the living room.

Beca presses her lips to Chloe’s temple. “Of course I love you.”

Chloe lifts her head, meeting Beca’s eyes, searching them for a minute before she nods slightly. “I love you too.”

Beca smiles widely. “I had a feeling.”

“Move it, pitches,” Amy says impatiently from the door. She shoulders Emily out of the way as Beca and Chloe follow her into the house. “I gave Bumper the Santa special but his bathroom doesn’t have those fancy soaps Aubrey has.” She winks at Aubrey. “Where’s your extra toilet paper?”

“Amy,” Aubrey sighs. Amy ignores her, hustling up the stairs. 

They stop in the front hall and Chloe leans in again, kissing her slowly until Beca can see the Christmas lights strung up behind her starting to spin. She pulls back and tries to catch her breath, her hand splayed out against Chloe’s back. 

“Merry Christmas, Chlo,” she whispers.

Chloe lifts a hand, pressing her palm to Beca’s cheek. She smiles softly. “Merry Christmas, Bec.”

Flo calls Stacie’s name, handing her a present. Jessica and Ashley curl into their spots on the couch, hot chocolates in their hands. Aubrey watches affectionately as Stacie opens the present, squealing at the sparkling cheetah-printed handbag. Lily sneaks around the side of the Christmas tree, hanging a piece of bacon over the branch. Cynthia Rose patiently picks up Stacie’s trash, packing it away in a bag at her feet. Emily settles in the opposite corner of the couch, pulling her feet up under her as she looks around the room. She meets Beca’s eyes and smiles warmly.

Merry Christmas, Tiny Tim, ” she hears on the television as the credits start to roll.

Beca smiles and leans into Chloe.

A Merry Christmas indeed.