Actions

Work Header

Destiny Redux

Chapter Text

(Some Thursday Evening in April)

Stacie groaned as her phone rang for the third time in two minutes. She paused her application and finally answered. “What?”

Ashley snorted. “Don’t get all pissy with me, Missy. You told me to call until you answered. It’s Thursday night.”

“Shit, already?” Stacie rubbed her eyes. “But I’m right in the middle….”

“I can accidentally send room service to your door every ten minutes,” Ashley interrupted with a sickeningly sweet tone of voice.

Stacie groaned. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Ashley laughed. “Wanna try me?”

“No,” Stacie grumbled. “I have to shower first.”

“Beca is getting antsy. Make it fast. First misdelivery in fifteen minutes,” Ashley nearly sang it before hanging up.

Stacie swore repeatedly under her breath. She’d hear about it from every corner if she didn’t show, and that damn room service interruption would stall her out anyway. She saved the matrix she was fighting with and hurried to the bathroom. Instead of a shower, she dunked her head in the sink and took a sponge bath. Fifteen minutes was not gonna be enough to get really clean. She hurriedly combed out her hair and let it drip dry while she selected her outfit for the night. Black jeans and thigh high boots with a black half tank would show off the work she’d been doing on her abs. She towel-dried her hair before putting on deodorant and make up. Checking her watch, she decided to test Ashley and take the time to really dry and tease her long brown hair.

Sure enough, she heard “room service” just as she turned off the hair dryer. She hurried to the door. “I’m sorry, darlin’, there must be a mistake. I didn’t order a thing.” Stacie smiled sweetly and pressed a ten into the waiter’s hand. “Sorry you made the trip for nothing.” She blew him a kiss as she pressed by him, locking the door on her way. He was still standing there and staring at her as she pressed the lobby button on the elevator. She wiggled her fingers again as the doors closed.

When she arrived at the lobby, she made a bee line for the bar, tossing a wave at the hostess at the concierge desk. Stacie hopped onto a bar stool. “Not nice, Ash. Poor guy may still be gawking. Is he new?”

Ashley nodded with a smirk. “Great way to haze the new kid and get your ass down here at the same time.”

Before Stacie could reply, the KJ walked up. “Shit, Squirt, you had me worried. Thought I was gonna have to start without you.”

“Sorry, Becs.” Stacie winked. “On my game now. Whatcha got planned?”

Beca leaned against the bar. “Rodeo in town this week. I bet we can get some of these cowboys pretty hot and bothered.”

Ashley laughed as she handed over a Guinness for Beca and a glass of Chardonnay for Stacie. “Why do you do that?”

“First off, they tip better. Mostly they wanna show off and see if Squirt here notices. Second, they’ll all sign up in hopes they can impress her with their talent. Which leads us back to point number one.” Beca smirked. “I really should give you a cut.”

Stacie shrugged, “eh, it’s fun. But you didn’t answer. What should I start with?”

“How about Love Me Harder?”

Jessica nearly spit out the sip of her gin and tonic she’d just taken. “That’s the warmup?”

Beca looked over at Jessica. “Too much?”

Ashley laughed and took off her apron. “Nope. Come on Jess. I’ll give the beat.”

Jessica laughed as Ashley pulled her to the stage. Stacie hopped off the bar stool and sauntered over to join them. Beca chuckled as she took her spot by the karaoke machine. “Ok, guys and gals. Let’s get this party started! First up, Ashley, Jessica and Stacie.”

After a polite round of applause and a few catcalls at Stacie and her outfit, Beca began the music. Ashley emphasized the rhythm as played on the back track while Stacie began to sing. Jessica took the backup vocals.

As the song progressed, Stacie made eye contact with several of the cowboys who seemed to be at the bar as a group, or at least without feminine companionship. She ran her left hand down her side, accentuating the curves her clothes had barely left to the imagination. She winked at a young guy, someone who gawked as if this might be his first trip to a big city bar.

Beca chuckled again as the sing came to an end. “Who boo, howdy, those girls surely know how to warm everyone up. Who’s next?”

As several of the men rushed forward to put their names down, Stacie wandered over to the guy she’d seen staring. “What’s wrong, cowboy. Never see a woman before?”

“No ma’am.” He stammered. “I mean, yes ma’am, just, none like you.” He was openly admiring.

“Where you from and what’s your name?” Stacie moved the man’s chair back so she could land on his lap. She played with the hair at the back of his neck and the other guys around him were elbowing each other and laughing.

Blushing, he answered, “Tommy, I’m from Broken Bow.”

“That’s not from around here. We got a Broken Arrow, but not a Broken Bow.” Stacie nearly purred as she replied.

“No ma’am, it’s south and east of here.” Tommy answered with a hard swallow.

“Well, Tommy, I think I’d like to hear more about Broken Bow late Ron if you don’t mind.” Stacie moved her hand up to play with the hair the stuck just out from under his hat. She removed the hat and said quietly, “Don’t you know its impolite to leave your hat in when in the presence of lady?”

Ashley, watching from the bar, almost snorted as a dozen men removed their hats at the same time. Ashley whispered to Jessica, “Stacie is in rare form tonight.”

Jessica laughed and nodded. She looked over at Beca, who was watching the scene with both merriment and concern.

As the crowd of men surrounded Tommy and Stacie, Beca picked up a mic.“Ok, folks, time for Stacie to do us another little number. You ready, girl?”

Stacie stood up, out his hat on her head and sashayed away from the crowd. “See you soon, Tommy.” She made her way through the small room to the stage and picked up a mic. She nodded at Beca as she saw the title come on screen.

I go out walkin' after midnight
Out in the moonlight
Just like we used to do, I'm always walkin'

Jessica and Ashley added back up from the bar, singing the echo.

After midnight, searchin' for you (wa-wa-walking, wa-wa-walking)
I walk for miles along the highway
Well, that's just my way
Of sayin' I love you, I'm always walkin'
After midnight, searchin' for you (wa-wa-walking, wa-wa-walking)

I stop to see a weepin' willow
Cryin' on his pillow
Maybe he's cryin' for me
And as the skies turn gloomy
Night winds whisper to me
I'm lonesome as I can be

I go out walkin' after midnight
Out in the moonlight
Just like we used to do, I'm always walkin'
After midnight, searchin' for you. (https://youtu.be/bsRNCvHXHHU)

 

Stacie winked at Tommy again as she ended the song. Jessica met Stacie at the stage, took the hat and brought it back to Tommy.

“Sorry, Tommy, Stacie needs a break. She’ll be back in a little while.” Jessica apologized and then squeezed out of the crowd of men who were slapping Tommy on the back and encouraging him to speak up bolder for the little lady.

It was almost two hours later that Beca looked around the gathering. The first batch of cowboys had moved on. She didn’t see any of the original group, especially not, Tommy. She walked behind the grand piano at the back of the stage and leaned on it. “All clear kid.”

Stacie rolled up from her position laying on the bench. “I probably turned it on too thick for the poor kid. I wasn’t thinking about his buddies. It got a little scary when they all started crowding around us.”

“My bad, I let it go on too long.” Beca apologized. “Whatcha wanna do next?”

“S & M?” Stacie said without batting an eye.

Beca laughed out loud. “I don’t have enough security to protect you if you start telling these boys to come on.” She shook her head. “Play nice.”

Stacie sighed but also smirked. “Spoil sport.” She sat a few minutes longer and then got a mischievous look on her face. “Why don’t you do right?”

“Squirt!” Beca laughed again and then shook her head. “You aren’t bad, you are just drawn that way?”

Stacie arched an eyebrow before gesturing toward her own body.

“‘Nuff said.” Beca chuckled again. “OK, but ima station Jessica and Ashley by the stage to make sure you get out of here and quick when it’s done.”

“It’s early, Becs!” Stacie pouted.

It was Beca’s turn to arch an eyebrow. “Ashley said you were dragging your feet because you were in the middle of something. She made me promise to cut you out early.”

Stacie blinked. “Oh, yeah.” She blushed and laughed, “I have a project I need to finish for work tomorrow. She’s right, I oughta get back to it.”

“Ok, let me set this up. You get ready.” Beca nodded and went to talk to Ashley and Jessica.

When all four girls were near the stage again, Stacie smiled at Ashley ad Jessica. “Thanks for having my back.”

Ashley winked, “any time. You ready to rev these boys up one more time?”
Beca picked up the mic. “Ok, boys and girls. We got a good one fir Stacie’s swan song tonight.” As the crowd groaned, Beca laughed, “I know, but some people have this weird thing called a job. And Stacie has to get ready for it. Here you go, boys, just for you.”

Stacie laughed and took the mic from Beca. Then she placed t back on the stand and caressed that long piece of metal throughout the song. Ashley and Jessica shook their heads as they watched the men in the audience nearly drool outright.

 

Get out of here and get me some money, too
If you had prepared twenty years ago
You wouldn't be wanderin' now from door to door
Why don't you do right?
Like some other men do

Get out of here and get me some money, too
I fell for your jiving and I took you in
Now all you've got to offer me is a drink of gin
Why don't you do right?
Like some other men do. (https://youtu.be/B8xp-qfP1B0)

As soon as the song was over, Beca spoke over the roar of the crowd on a second mic. “That’s the end of this hour, folks. Better get your drink orders in during intermission. We have some good old-fashioned sing-alongs next. People have asked for American Pie and Bohemian Rhapsody. We’ll break it up with some of these good old boys doing some Blake Shelton and George Jones. Back in ten.”

Beca, Ashley and Jessica spirited Stacie through the kitchen and to the service elevators. Jessica laughed the entire way. “You are so going to get one of us into trouble one of these days.”

Stacie shrugged, “Sorry, not sorry?” Then she laughed, “It was fun.”

“I’ll ask security if we can have someone in the lobby on karaoke nights.” Ashley winced, “never know when one of these out of towers is gonna get handsy.”

Beca nodded, “I get it. We can tone it down.”

“Like hell!” Stacie said. “Singing sexy songs is not an invitation to assault. If I have be the person to teach that lesson, I sure as hell will.”

Jessica out a hand on Stacie’s arm, “We just want to keep it from getting out of hand.”

Stacie huffed, “Ok, but if you all get boring, I’ll find a new place to sing.”

Ashley smirked, “I never said boring. I said we bring in security to keep the boys under control. You were steamy, girl.” She pretended to fan herself.

Beca considered, “maybe just one overtly sexy song? At the beginning of the night. We can still do other stuff that’s fun, just, keep it from devolving into a riot.”

“Oh, all right.” Stacie nodded and gave each girl a peck on the cheek. “Thanks again. Now I gotta get back to work.”

“One of these days, you are gonna tell us what you do,” Beca laughed.

Stacie shrugged again, “Maybe not.” Then she winked and headed into the elevator.

Ashley watched her go, “I swear it’s a sugar daddy.”

Jessica shook her head, “dang if I know.”

Beca stared at Jessica, “Did you really just say dang instead of damn?”

“Yeah,” Jesica laughed. “New manager hates it when girls swear.”

Ashley rolled her eyes, “Wonder how they would feel about other things we do.”

Jessica leaned over and kissed Ashley softly, “They never have to know.”

“Get a room, guys,” Beca snorted, “I gotta get back to work.”

“Mmm,” Ashley teased. “Maybe we will.”

Beca rolled her eyes and headed back to the bar.

 

Across town, later that night, Chloe woke up slowly. It started with a tingling in her fingertips, then it grew to a full roar the enveloped her whole hand. She opened her eyes and saw Tom’s back. She groaned a little, cradling her hand. Clearly it had been under him for some time after they fell asleep. When the tingling subsided, she sighed heavily. Now she needed a bathroom. Chloe crept from the bed and followed the subtle floor lighting that led to the master bath.

When she crept back into the bedroom, she noticed that Tom had turned over again and was leaning on one elbow. “Hey, gorgeous,” he said fondly.

She tucked back into the bed, snuggling in beside him. “I’m sorry I woke you,” she said as she ran a hand through her hair.

He smiled. “It’s okay, I got to watch you come back to bed. Do you know how incredible you look in the moonlight?”

Chloe glanced over her shoulder at the open window, full moon bright in the darkness. There were some perks to a penthouse apartment, she had to admit. In her one-story house she always closed all the curtains tightly by dusk. “You’re sweet,” she purred.

Tom rolled over onto his back and Chloe moved so her head rested on his chest. “Do you really have to leave for almost two months,” she whined.

He chuckled. “I’m still pretty low on the totem pole, Red. The firm has a client who is in trouble in the UK, so I’m apparently the man for the job.” He stroked her hair absently. “I’ll miss you, though.”

Chloe was pensive. “What are we, Tom?”

“Hm?” Tom replied.

“What are we? Are we a couple? Are we a long-term fling? I mean, we go out every now and then,” she started.

“Hey now,” he put his finger under her chin, so she looked up at him. “We promised no strings a long time ago, right?” He considered, “In fact, I remember you insisted on it. Changing your mind, Red?”

Chloe pulled back and sat up to look at him. “No,” she said uncertainly. He watched her, a small smile on his face. “I just, I don’t know. I don’t want to end up alone.”

He smiled more fully, “Chloe Beale, are you asking me to marry you?”

Chloe laughed out loud and slapped his arm, “Hell no!” Her giggles subsided. “But what if I never find anyone to marry?” A shadow moved across her face. “I know I’m not ready to adult yet, but I feel like someday I will be. What if the day comes and I’m alone?”

“Oh, thank God,” Tom teased. He pulled her back to his chest and continued stroking her hair. “I can’t imagine you being alone for long.”

“How long have we gone out together?” She asked softly.

“Oh, I guess four, five years?” He replied.

Chloe simply nodded.

“I’ll tell you what, Red. Make a deal with me. When we hit 30, if we haven’t found the loves of our lives, you’ll marry me. That way neither of us will be lonely forever,” he kissed the top of her head. “What do you say?”

Chloe thought about it, her fingertips tracing patterns on his chest. “Yeah,” she finally answered. “That’s a deal I can live with.”

“Seal it with a kiss?” He asked lightly. “It’s a lawyer thing,” he was grinning.

Chloe leaned up and gave him a long, thorough kiss. “Date night when you’re home?”

“The third Tuesday in June,” he said quietly. “I’ll pick you up at 7:00.” He kissed her again. “Wanna give me another taste of what I’ll be missing until then?”

Chloe giggled and started running kisses along his jaw. “It would be my absolute pleasure,” she breathed.

Chapter Text

(June 1)

Jessica navigated the hill up to Beca’s house. As usual, she crossed her fingers that her old Pontiac would make it all the way to the top. She patted the dashboard and said, “Good girl,” as she pulled into the drive.

Beca stood up, the rocking chair banging her knees as she did. “You made it,” she called out. “You really oughta trade that junker in, Jess. Get something less than a decade old.”

“Says the woman with the 20 year old conversion van and the sweet Toyota her aunt left behind,” Jessica laughed. “How’s the kitchen, Becs?”

“Yeah, ok, so I’m a lucky dog.” Beca walked over and gave Jess a one- armed hug. “Kitchen is all ready. I’ve fed the mother dough and just punched down the loaves. I figure we have plenty of time to do some fun stuff before we bake the bread. Whatcha got in mind?” She walked with Jessica back toward the front door.

“I’ve got some naked cupcakes that I baked last night,” Jessica grinned. “And a batch of snickerdoodle and sugar cookie dough. In the mood for sweets?” Jessica followed Beca into the house.

“Always,” Beca grinned. “What can I get you to drink?” She gestured for Jessica to go ahead toward the kitchen while she headed to the liquor cabinet.

“Hm, I think we should have beer. It’s bread’s cousin, right?” Jessica shrugged.

Beca nodded and swerved, heading instead to the kitchen. “But let’s have cold ones, I think the kitchen is too warm for Guinness.” She pulled two Smithwicks out of the fridge and popped their tops. She reached for a pair of Pilsner glasses she kept in the cabinet by the fridge and poured them out. “How’s Ash? She still mad I took the month off?”

“I think you coming back will save the life of the guy running karaoke. She’s mentioned slipping something into his glass and I’m not certain she was joking.” Jessica replied.

“Yikes,” Beca winced, “that bad?” She sat down and placed both beers on the table. “Did Squirt give up?”

“Nah, Stacie’s used his incompetence as another tool in her arsenal.” Jessica tilted her head, “Come to think of it, she might be one of the things that gets him so rattled.”

Beca smirked, “that would not surprise me. She is a walking, talking distraction to most men I’ve seen. And about half the women.” She shook her head, “I cannot imagine ever being as confident about anything as that woman is about her body.”

Jessica nodded, “She’s one of a kind. So how was the Ren faire? Did you find any maidens in distress who needed the services of a bright young bard such as yourself?”

“Not likely,” Beca laughed, “you’d have thought with all the cosplay going on there’d have been more action, but this year so many were already attached.” She shrugged, “it wouldn’t have worked as soon as I got back to my real life anyway.”

“You never know, Becs,” Jessica encouraged. “The odds of finding an actress at a place where people dress up and pretend to be from a different century seem to be pretty high if you ask me.” She started to pull things from her bag. “Just tell me you didn’t use a corny fake accent this year?”

Beca laughed harder, “god, no. I thought about it, but every time I opened my mouth, I could hear you telling me I was worse than Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. So my good old Okie drawl had to do.” She winked. “What flavor cupcakes?”

Jessica laid them out on the counter. “Vanilla, chocolate, and some chocolate chip just for you. I guess I might have missed your face a little bit last month.”

“Aw,” Beca bumped shoulder with Jessica, “missed you too, Lucky.”

Jessica set out a row of frosting and sprinkles. “You’d better set a timer so we get everything in the oven on time. Sugar cookies first?”

Beca nodded again and reached back for the timer on her counter. “Here you go.” She stood and got the cookie sheets out. “Thanks for coming by. It really is good to see you. House still feels weird sometimes.”

Jessica placed the cookie sheets side by side and opened the silverware drawer. “I know, hon.” She handed Beca a spoon, “I worry about you sometimes, up here by yourself.”

“Thanks,” Beca nodded and used the spoon to measure out the right amount of dough for each cookie. “I’ll be ok. Tabitha comes by every Monday and Thursday morning to check the gardens. I can go out and chatter with her when I get lonesome.” She smiled, “it’s nice she remembers Aunt Jean.” Then she laughed, “she gave me such shit this morning. Since I wasn’t here yesterday, she came by today to tell me that my galavanting around means the rabbits got the strawberries.” Beca shook her head. “Like I have ever successfully stopped a rabbit from doing anything ever.”

Jessica giggled, then grew serious. “All the strawberries, though?” Her voice was forlorn.

Beca patted Jessica’s arm. “Not all. Just one patch. Tabitha is too smart to put all her strawberries in one basket.” Beca laughed at her own joke. “We’ll have plenty soon enough for you and Ash to come up and pick what you like. She says the blackberries are looking good too.”

“Sweet,” Jessica bounced. “Ready?” She gestured toward the cupcake frosting. “We’ve got 10 minutes before the cookies come out.” She handed Beca a frosting cone. “No butts this time?”

“Aw, you take away all the fun.” Beca rolled her eyes and teased. She considered. “A middle finger?”

Jessica laughed out loud. “I guess it’s your kitchen, your rules, Becs. But I’m not posing for Instagram with a butt or middle finger cupcake again.”

Beca giggled, “offend someone you know? And if you’d been careful, those butts looked like hearts…but the middle finger…oh yeah, maybe not.”

“My boss from the bakery reads my feed, ya dork,” Jessica scooped up some frosting and dabbed on Beca’s cheek.

“Oops, I forgot.” Beca blushed. “Ok, I’ll be good. Want ya to keep that gig for as long as you need till we get you discovered.” She wiped the frosting off her cheek and licked her fingers.

“Right,” Jessica arched an eyebrow. “Discovered.” She artfully crafted a pink rose on her cupcake.

Beca frowned, “can happen. Lots of famous musicians from Oklahoma. And the Church is reopening. They’re gonna get lots of acts through here listening for a soaring soprano.”

“Mhm,” Jessica nodded. “You’re the pro, Becs. I gave up on that dream before we left LA. I just sing for fun these days.”

“I’m not willing to give up on you yet.” Beca shook her head as she picked up the green frosting and drew a four leaf clover. “Lucky, remember?”

Jessica grinned and nodded. “Thanks, Beca.” She swallowed hard. “You wanna swap out the cookies in the oven? We have a lot of bread to get through this afternoon if we’re going to feed you for a week.”

Beca nodded and stood to pull the cookies out of the oven. As she put them on the rack to cool, she cut her eyes to look at Jessica again. “Aunt Jean is never wrong, Jess.”

Jessica nodded again, “You’re right. I know.”

“Good. Just keep coming on Friday nights. One of these days, we’re gonna get the right audience and then you and Ash are gonna be made.” Beca continued to pull the cookies off to cool. “I’ll get to say I knew you when.”

Jessica grinned up at Beca, “I’ll always come to sing with you on Fridays because it’s just fun. One of my favorite nights, hanging with my famous friend.”

Beca snorted, “big fish in a little pond.” She put the second batch of cookies in to bake and sat down again. As she picked up the sprinkles she chuckled. “Aunt Jean was right about that too. Told me I had to take a leap, find where I belonged.” She looked at Jessica. “I didn’t realize I already belonged here.” She gestured around at the house.

“I always picture you up here when I think of you,” Jessica shrugged. “You have to let me set you up with somebody, though. You need more company. There’s a nice girl, just started at the bakery. Has triple piercings and looks like she might be hiding some tats,” Jessica bumped Beca’s shoulder. “I could slip her your number.”

“Daytime doll, Jess. Piercings or no, she works during the day.” Beca smiled, “appreciate it, though. Maybe one of these days Dylan will hire a torch singer and we’ll hit it off.”

Jessica sighed, “What’s so bad about daytime dolls, though? I’m a daytime doll.”

Beca continued to decorate cupcakes without looking up. “Daytime dolls need stability. You got that because Ashley mostly works days. She’s only out after 8 one night a week, and that’s karaoke.” Beca glanced up. “I work till 2 am. A daytime doll has to be at work by what, 9? Gets off work at 5. I start at 7. When would we have any time together?” She put the icing down and looked at Jessica steadily. “I can’t teach music, Jess. It’d kill me.” She looked at the cupcakes, “I could bake, I guess. Just do special events like weddings instead.” She smiled and met Jessica’s eyes again. “She’d have to be worth it.”

Jessica nodded, caught the sadness in Beca’s eyes, and decided not to pursue it. “I’m sure she will be, hon.”

Beca hopped up and pulled the next set of cookies out of the oven. “What’s next, Chef?”

Jessica considered. “You’ve got bread rising, right? Check that and see if one of the loaves is ready. I want to make sure it’s all done by the time I go.” She winked, “Night time doll.”

Beca smirked. “Yes, Chef.”

 

Later that night, across town, Chloe leaned in the doorway, looking into Aubrey’s apartment living room. “Aren’t you ready yet?”

Aubrey looked up from her position on the couch, petting the black cat in her lap. Doofus arched her back and hissed at the sudden appearance of another human before darting off to Aubrey’s bedroom. Aubrey looked down at her yoga pants and t-shirt then back up at her friend waiting in the door way. “It’s almost 7. I could cook us up some dinner and we could just stay in.” Aubrey looked hopeful.

Chloe sighed and closed the door. “Are you telling me I shaved my legs for a night in your kitchen?” She asked as she knelt down to slip off her shoes. “I might be a tad overdressed.” Chloe slumped onto the couch beside Aubrey and propped her heels on the living room table.

“Sorry, Elf,” Aubrey sighed. “I’m just not into another night of forced karaoke.” She stood up, “want a glass of something while I cook? I can have dinner ready by 7:30.”

“You may console me with a glass of cold Chardonnay.” Chloe said dramatically, laying her head back on the couch. “It was pretty bad last week, wasn’t it?”

“The worst!” Aubrey replied with an explosive sigh. “What was she thinking?” Aubrey paused at the kitchen door, “I bet we have some of your workout clothes in the spare room if you want to look.” She then turned to the cabinet to get down some wine glasses.

“Oh yeah,” Chloe said with more enthusiasm. “You’re brilliant, Bree. The thought of ditching this bra just made my night 100% better.” Chloe went in search of comfortable clothes. “What’s for dinner?” She called from the spare room.

“How about some tomato basil pasta? I have vegan protein and Parmesan to add in.” Aubrey was already starting the kettle to boil water. “I still can’t believe you laughed when that KJ put the microphone in my face!”

Chloe came into the kitchen wearing a tank top and shorts. “I didn’t mean to, but you should have seen your face, Bree. I half expected you to take a swing at her. It was priceless.” Chloe pulled a bottle of wine from the fridge and poured into the glasses Aubrey had set out. “Pasta sounds lovely, thank you.”

Aubrey glowered. “If I wanted to sing, I would have signed up.” She sighed again. She started chopping cherry tomatoes to sauté in garlic and olive oil. “I don’t know where else to try. It seems all of the good places have disappeared.”

Chloe sighed and leaned against the cabinet, watching Aubrey work. “Yeah. Sometimes it really sucks how small Tulsa is. Maybe we should just move. I’ll bet Las Vegas has karaoke every night.”

“You’d have your pick of divas to dress.” Aubrey chuckled. She tossed a glance Chloe’s way. “Maybe I could get a job in an orchestra.”

Chloe raised an eyebrow at Aubrey, “You could get a job in any orchestra in town, Bree. I don’t know why you waste your talent.”

Aubrey rolled her eyes. “Because the attitudes in this town are bigger than its geography.” She poured the tomatoes into the pan to simmer. She poured the hot water into a pot and turned the fire on underneath to warm the pan up. “Some of the musicians remember when I got here. I’m not a Tulsan, just a TU grad. The amount of shit jobs I would have to do to pay my dues drove me up the wall. I had to accompany some of the worst singers, just because daddy thought his little girl was going to be a star.” She shuddered. “It was almost as bad having to talk to the people about tuning their pianos. Their pitiful looks that the star of the TU piano performance class couldn’t keep a job.” She poured pasta in the pot to boil. “When are we leaving?”

Chloe put a hand on Aubrey’s back, “I’m sorry. People suck.” She leaned on the counter again, sipping her wine. “I’ll bet people suck in Vegas too, though. Just on a bigger scale.”

“They probably do.” Aubrey shrugged. “I was not made to be a musician, Elf. My hide is just not thick enough.” She stirred the pasta then added some textured vegan protein to her sautéed tomatoes. “That still doesn’t answer what we are going to do for entertainment on girl’s night.”

“Hm,” Chloe pondered. “Mamma Mia singalong?”

Aubrey laughed, “that’ll do. This is almost ready. Want to find something to watch while we eat?”

“Sure,” Chloe wandered back to the living room and grabbed the remote. “Damn that smells good. You’re going to make someone very happy someday, Elf.”

“While I appreciate the sentiment, Elf, you have your head so far up your ass your farts whistle.” Aubrey snorted.

Chloe turned around on the couch, indignant, “Excuse me?”

Aubrey didn’t answer. She separated the pasta onto two plates, added the sautéed tomatoes and protein, and tossed the mixture. Then she topped both plates with Parmesan and fresh basil. Finally she brought them out to leave on the coffee table. She met Chloe’s gaze. “You know as well as I do no one is likely to get close enough for me to cook for them. One of two things always happens. Either they get what they want and disappear, or they get tired of waiting with the same result.” She left the room to get napkins and utensils.

Chloe waited patiently for Aubrey to sit back down. “I’m still stuck on the image of my farts whistling,” she mused.

Aubrey rolled her eyes as she handed over a fork, spoon and napkin. “What are we watching?”

“Housewives of Atlanta,” Chloe said cheerfully. She took a bite, “Shit, Aubrey, I’m serious. I might have to marry you just for the meals.”

“There are worse marriages of convenience. But we’d still need two houses. I’ve seen your bathroom. There isn’t room for both of us here or there.” Aubrey teased as she started to eat.

Chloe giggled. “Hygiene is a serious business, Bree. It requires the proper tool set.”

Aubrey snorted again, “it isn’t the hygiene I was speaking of. Have you bought stock in Maybelline?”

“Maybelline is so last century, Bree,” Chloe scoffed as she took another bite. “I only invest in the latest technology. And you have to have the right color palette for the clothes, so being well stocked is important.” She clicked the button to start the show, feeling like she got away with something when Aubrey didn’t immediately object to the program choice.

Aubrey watched as the program began, “oh, shit, Chloe, you weren’t kidding?” She rolled her eyes, “god, the things I suffer just to sing with you.” She took a large swallow of her wine. “You better have meant it about the sing along.”

Chloe grinned and nodded, “Its so easy to yank your chain, Posen.” She swirled the last of the pasta on her plate, then drained her glass. “Want another?” She offered as she stood to take her plate to the kitchen. “See if you can track down the main event,” Chloe winked.

Aubrey nodded and handed over her glass. While she finished off her own plate, she opened the file that held her film purchases and clicked on Mamma Mia. Without starting it, she stood to take her own plate to the kitchen. She rinsed both plates and placed them in the dishwasher along with the items she had cooked with. On her way back, she pulled two pieces of strawberry cheesecake out of the freezer and placed them on plates with a napkin over each one and grabbed two dessert forks. She returned to the living room and put them on the table. “Defrosting needed. Be patient.” She pointed at the hidden goodies.

“And you know exactly how to give me shit right back,” Chloe grinned. “Making me stare at cheesecake I can’t eat yet. Torture.”

“That’s what friends are for,” Aubrey smiled sweetly. “Ready to frighten the neighbors?”

“Hell yeah,” Chloe grinned back.

Aubrey winked and hit play. This beat the hell out of bad karaoke any day.

Chapter Text

Ashley leaned over the sink to apply her eye makeup. “If it wasn’t for karaoke, I’d hate Thursday nights. You just got home and we have to leave soon.” She stopped talking to line her eyes. When she finished she smiled though the mirror at Jessica. “You make it so much easier to keep this job.”

Jessica dabbed at her lipstick. “You know Beca said something like that when we were baking. How we’re both daytime dolls and she’s a night time doll.”

Ashley put her makeup down. “She didn’t get laid the entire month of May, did she?”

Jessica smudged her mascara and smirked at Ashley. “What the hell, Ash?”

“That girl needs to get laid more than a prison full of convicts. I haven’t seen her with anyone on the regular since you got back from L.A.” Ashley snorted. “That does it. I’m buying her sex toys for her next birthday.”

Jessica tried not to laugh, but giggles still broke through behind her hand, “That is not true, Ashley, you take it back.” She caught her breath, “But it has been a month of Sunday’s since she had any good stories to tell.” Jessica finished her face and nodded at the reflection. “Do not put my name on the cards this year,” she admonished Ashley with a grin.

Ashley winked, “she’ll know.” She reached for the lipstick she wore to work. “What the hell does daytime doll mean anyway. Is that like cabbage patch shit?”

“I’m just saying, a person is supposed to think of the gift giver when they use the present,” Jessica winced. “Daytime dolls,” she shifted gears, “Work in the day. Night time dolls work at night. Their scheduled allegedly make it impossible for them to coexist,”

“I’ll send it anonymously,” Ashley corrected herself. As she finished her make up, she considered what Jessica was explaining. “Someone broke her heart again.” She looked at Jess through the mirror for confirmation. “She’s talking Guys and Dolls again.”

“Oh shit,” Jessica nodded. “She said everybody at ren faire was already attached. Poor Beca. She found the wrong somebody again.”

Ashley put her make up away and turned to Jessica. “Fix my tie?” Then she added, “she’s got a broken picker. How the hell can someone as gay as Beca keep falling for the straight chicks?”

Jessica straightened Ashley’s tie and then leaned in for a kiss, “You’re so sexy in this uniform. I say it every time, but it’s always true.”

Ashley wrapped her arms around Jessica’s waist. “I will wear it whenever you want.” She lingered over the kiss. “But we should get going or I’m gonna be late.”

Jessica nodded and cleaned up Ashley’s make up. “I’ll think about taking you out of it all night.”

“Careful, I may have to call in sick.” Ashley dropped her head to smile at Jessica through upturned eyes.

Jessica laughed, “You would deny me a whole night of fantasizing?”

Ashley groaned and broke away from Jessica. “It’s hard to deny you anything, darlin’.” She smiled as she looked back. “I swear, I’d rob a bank for you. Please don’t ask me to.”

Jessica winked and bounced toward the door, “You think I’d let you go to jail alone?” She winked over her shoulder.

Ashley laughed, grabbed her apron and followed Jessica to the car. She knew she’d follow this girl anywhere.

 

A little while later, Jessica was sitting at the end of the bar watching Ashley work when Stacie came through the door. She waved and indicated the stool next to her. “Good evening, Miss Stacie,” she smiled.

Stacie bopped over and popped onto the stool. “Heya, Jess. Have a good week?”

“Not bad. It’s nice to see you early. Ash likes it better when she doesn’t have to drag you down here. And your favorite KJ will be back tonight,” Jessica winked.

“Thank God,” Stacie groaned. “I was running out of ways to entertain myself with what’s his name.”

Ashley walked up with a stemless glass of Chardonnay. “Zachary. And no worries, we’ve asked Beca to pick a different sub next time she needs a vacation.” She rolled her eyes.

Stacie chuckled. “He was such a kid.” She picked up her wine and took a sip.

Jessica nodded toward the entrance where a dark haired man in his mid 20s was watching them. When Stacie turned to look, he seemed to take it as a cue.

“I would send that back,” he nodded toward the wine glass as he sat down next to Stacie.

Stacie beamed, “now, why would I do that?” Her drawl was suddenly much more pronounced.

Ashley raised an eyebrow. She thought Stacie was from Pennsylvania. She glanced at Jessica.

Jessica shrugged at Ashley and sat back to watch the show.

“I’m Adam, by the way,” the man offered his hand. “And your wine will be warm by the third sip. The bartender should know better.”

Ashley ground her teeth.

“I’m Stacie. You from around these here parts, Sugar?” Stacie continued to smile sweetly.

“Kansas City,” Adam replied. “Here on business for the week.” He turned back toward the glass. “Cold wine should be served in stemmed glasses. Otherwise the heat from your hands,” his gaze lingered on Stacie’s fingers, “will warm the wine too quickly.

Jessica started to think about ways to intervene as she noticed Ashley grinding her teeth.

Stacie widened her eyes as in her own mind she reviewed and rejected the fallacious explanation of thermodynamics. “I had no idea.” She turned to Ashley, “Ashley, be a dear and pour this into another glass? I’d hate to think I had to drink quickly.” The eye farthest from Adam winked.

Ashley’s nostrils flared but at the wink she stifled a laugh, “my mistake, Miss Stacie. Allow me to pour you a fresh glass.” Ashley put the full glass behind the bar and did, indeed, pour a fresh one into a stemmed Chardonnay glass. She placed it onto the bar. “On your tab?” She managed to stifle a smirk.

“Oh no,” Adam put his hand on the bar, “Charge it to me.” He dug out his credit card. “And a double scotch, neat,” he grinned at Stacie again. “Are you staying for the karaoke?”

“I wouldn’t miss it, Sugar. Are you planning to sing?” Stacie lifted her glass and smiled as she looked over the rim.

Ashley cut her eyes to Jessica again and accepted the man’s card. After she ran it she asked, “keep it open?”

“Yeah,” Adam said absently as he fumbled to tame his card back without looking away from Stacie. “Just order as many as you like, tonight, Miss…” he trailed off. “Stacie, was it?”

“That’s right, Sugar.” Stacie smiled before she let out a squeal. “Sweetie Pie!” She put the glass down and ran across the floor to where Beca was walking in. She wrapped her arms around Beca. “Save me from an insufferable asshole?”

Beca looked startled, then laughed at the whispered request. “Hey, darlin’ ain’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Beca said loud enough to fill the room before planting a kiss on the bar side of Stacie’s lips. “You been a good girl?”

Adam watched the display, dumbstruck.

Jessica looked from the pair to Adam and then back again and just put her head on the bar, lost in a fit of giggles.

Adam came to his senses, nodded at Ashley, and quietly walked to a booth at the other end of the bar. His brain was spinning.

Beca watched as a man moved from the bar to a table, his shoulders in an obvious state of dejection. “I haven’t even set up and you are already in trouble?”

“Eh.” Stacie shrugged and sat down. “He started to explain why I needed a stemmed glass.”

Beca blinked. “Why the…”

Ashley walked up with said wine glass. “Here you go, Sugar.”

Stacie laughed, “he paid for it, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, but what’s the big deal?” Ashley smirked back. “I got you pegged, Squirt. Your daddy set you up and good.”

Jessica arrived just to hear the end of what Ashley was saying. “What?”

Ashley nodded. “Dr. Conrad’s name pops up when she places an order. It’s gotta be her dad.”

Stacie felt her heart start to pound but then regained her composure when Ashley suggested it was her father. “Can’t fool you.”

Jessica smacked Ashley’s arm, “Rude,” she whispered.

Beca rubbed the back of her neck, “You could give a girl some warning, it isn’t easy getting on my tiptoes that fast.”

Ashley laughed some more. “I’ll let security know we have a stalker. They can make sure he keeps his distance.” She looked back at Beca, “could do worse. It’ll get you…” she broke off as Jessica placed a hand over her mouth.

Jessica shook her head. “Let’s see where the night leads?”

Ashley nodded and moved away, her eyes watering.

Stacie looked over at the man and wiggled her fingers in a wave.

Beca slapped Stacie’s hand down, “haven’t you done enough to the poor man?”

Jessica wiped a tear from her own laughing eyes. “You girls are never ever boring.” She looked at Stacie, “But he’s not going away, hon. Have a plan?”

“Eh,” Stacie shrugged again. “Any suggestions?”

Beca smirked, “I kissed a girl and I liked it?”

Stacie giggled wickedly. “Is that a bonafide offer?”

Beca slapped Stacie’s arm again.

“Lady Marmalade?” Stacie suggested.

Beca nodded. “Call Ash up, let’s do it.” She turned to Stacie, “and you sing to me tonight, got it?”

Stacie slumped, “all night?”

“Until Johnny On The Spot there heads upstairs.” Beca smirked, “consider it payment for jumping me the minute I came in. Make it look like I’m a catch.”

Jessica went to collect Ashley. “We’re gonna open with Lady Marmalade. All four of us. Confuse the target.”

“Confuses me, why not,” Ashley said with a laugh. She took off her apron and left it behind the bar. She walked back to the store room. “Steph! Get out here and cover for me.”

Stephanie poked her head out from the back. “Got it,” she walked out. “You gonna sing?”

Ashley nodded, “add it all up and they’ll equal my tens. Watch Kansas City over there. Pushy with a resident.”

Stephanie nodded, “I don’t give a shit about your tens. I get a show.” She glanced at the booth Ashley mentioned. “On him. Make me proud,” she grinned and shoved Ashley out from behind the bar.

Jessica linked her arm in Ashley’s as they walked on stage. She watched for Beca’s cue, already smiling.

Beca looked at the other three, then grabbed her mic, “Where’s all my soul sisters? Let me hear y’all flow sisters.”

The other three cut in with a tight unison. Jessica took the first verse. Stacie’s eyes started to move toward the audience as they hit the chorus and Beca threw in a soulful little scat to remind her where her eyes should be.

Ashley sang the second verse, matching Jessica’s verse note for note.

They got through the second chorus and Beca pulled the mic from its stand. She rapped the bridge flawlessly, bringing a smattering of applause from the small audience.

The four riffed on one another during the music break, then Jessica soared over everyone as they went into the next verse. When they sang “More, more, more, more,” Stacie dropped a little lower with each word, her microphone stand between her legs and her eyes dutifully on Beca.

“Now he’s back home working 9 to 5,” Stacie belted, this time looking directly at Adam, “but when he goes off to sleep, memories creep,” she turned back to Beca, “More, more more more.” Stacie’s back was on the ground at the end of the phrase and she pulled herself back up using nothing but the mic stand.

Jessica led them into the home stretch, belting the high lines while Ashley scatted a high harmony. Stacie’s line was hardly more than moaning into the microphone. When the music died away the growing crowd went wild.

Stacie smiled at Beca, then followed Ashley and Jessica off the stage. Beca grabbed Jessica’s arm as she passed and whispered in her ear. “Fuck, Lucky, I gotta get laid.”

Jessica’s eyes widened and she stared at Beca for a moment before she remembered to walk again. Back at the table, she hazarded a glance toward the booth where Adam had been. It was empty. She looked around the bar and he was nowhere to be seen. “I guess it worked,” she smiled at Ashley.

“Oh, hey,” Ashley turned to Stephanie. “What happened to KC?”

Stacie turned to look. “Oh, thank god. Now I don’t have to play to Beca any longer.” She winced, “sorry. It’s just like macking on my big sister, you know?”

Stephanie shrugged, “The first time Stacie went down on that microphone he came over and paid his tab. Requests that her drinks be charged to his room, though.”

Stacie grinned. “It’s ok. Let Daddy pay for them.” She winked at Ashley.

“I’ll sort it out,” Ashley laughed at Stacie. She looked over at Beca. “Not a lot of sign ups. Is she gonna be ok?”

Jessica looked over at Beca, who was flipping through empty pages. “Let me see what I can do.” She walked over to Beca. “Hey hon, how about I make it seem a little more audience friendly? Margaritaville?”

Beca looked up gratefully. “I’ll shout the responses.” She queued up the song. “Shit, Lucky, maybe I don’t fit here.” She gestured at the bar. “Maybe I should go back to baking. I’m not good at these games.”

Jessica rubbed Beca’s back. “She’s unique, remember? It should quiet down now.”

Beca nodded. She hoped so.

Chapter Text

Stacie walked into the bar just off the hotel lobby. She dropped onto a stool and laughed as a glass of water and a bar towel appeared before her. “That bad?”

“It’s sticky as hell out there.” Ashley laughed. “I can’t breathe walking to the garage, and you were out there playing hopscotch or something?”

“Not hopscotch.” Stacie laughed as she wiped her face down. “Last night’s rain brought out the worms. I didn’t want to step on any.”

The bartender shook her head. “Isn’t that taking vegetarianism a little too far?”

Stacie shrugged and put her towel down. “You want worm guts all over your shoes?”

“Ha! I should have known.”

“Should have known what, Ashley?” Stacie smirked as she opened the bottle of water.

Ashley continued to shake her head. “A girl who introduces herself as having cuticle care for a hobby is not worried about the life expectancy of an earthworm.”

Stacie finished taking her sip and put the water down. “You say that like cuticle care isn’t important.”

Ashley smiled while she frowned trying to figure out if Stacie was pulling her leg. Stacie winked and sauntered away.

Stacie sighed and sat on the sofa in her sitting room, kicked her feet up on the coffee table and turned on the television. If the air heaviness was any indication, there was probably a storm rolling in. As she looked over the weather map, she realized she’d probably need to head down to the bar again if the rotation continued. “Goddamn it, I just got up here.” She groused out loud. With a groan, she pulled herself back to her feet. She glanced at the map again. She gambled she would have time for a shower. She grabbed a towel and turned on the water before removing her running clothes. Grateful for the housekeepers who kept the room tidy, she squeezed some of the shampoo samples they’d left her to try out. Stacie usually loved being the hotel guinea pig, but today she didn’t have time to really test the sample. She’d ask for another when the storm passed and would promise to give her feedback tomorrow.

By the time she got out of the shower, the tornado sirens were blaring. Swearing under her breath, she hurriedly pulled on sweatpants, a sports bra, and a t-shirt. She slipped her feet into a pair of sandals, grabbed her key, phone and hairbrush and ran out the door. Once she was in the stairwell, she took a moment to brush her hair and pull it into a ponytail with the band she always kept on the brush. Then she started down the stairs, hoping the tornado wasn’t close. After all the sirens covered all the county. It could be miles away, right?

 

Aubrey slowed her jog to a walk as she reached the courthouse plaza. She rubbed the back of her neck with the sweatband on her wrist as she stopped to wait for a traffic light. It had been a long time since the air was this thick and humid. She took a deep breath, fighting the wet air, and wondered if she’d remembered to put fresh batteries in her weather radio. This was perfect storm weather.

As she crossed onto the next block, Aubrey realized that her senses were heightened. She noticed how still everything felt, there wasn’t even the hint of a breeze. The sky in front of her was clear, but when she glanced back toward the west, she saw an ominous dark cloud line. She picked up her pace, anxious to get home and turn on the weather report.

She was only a couple of blocks from her apartment when she heard the tornado sirens. “Shit,” Aubrey muttered under her breath. She looked around for the nearest shelter. The Mayo Hotel was right across the street. At least she’d be in a fancy storm shelter, she thought to herself as she dashed toward the entrance.

As soon as Aubrey entered the lobby a tall man standing near the reception desk waved her over. “I need you to follow this hallway to the door at the end and shelter in the basement, Miss. someone should be there to let you in.”

Aubrey just nodded and followed the short hall to the heavy door. She pushed the door open and was met by a young lady in bartender’s clothes. “This way, ma’am,” the bartender gestured toward a small set of stairs. “Just wait downstairs, we’ll let you know when it’s all clear.”

Aubrey sighed as she descended the stairs. She was glad to see there were only a handful of people waiting out the storm. At least she wouldn’t have to be too social with a bunch of total strangers. She wondered if she should have just tried to get the rest of the way home. Sometimes a siren didn’t mean a tornado was anywhere close to downtown. But she had to admit, it could mean something was headed right toward them. What she wouldn’t give for a radar image right about now.

 

Stacie made it to the lobby, her head pounding with the sound of the sirens. She really hated the ebb and flow of them. She caught sight of Ashley guiding people into the basement. “Hey, Ash, they get a tv for the shelter yet?”

Ashley snorted, “are you kidding?”

“That’s what I was afraid of. See you there soon, right?” Stacie asked as she went through the door.

“Yeah. I think we got all the residents down there. Most everyone is at work, I guess.” Ashley nodded. “We’re waiting for the floor wardens to tell us the upper floors are clear, and we’ll be down.”

Stacie hesitated, “don’t wait too long. I haven’t looked at the map lately, so don’t know if it’s close.”

Ashley winked, “I didn’t know you cared.” Then she nodded, “promise, I have no intention of getting caught out here,” she pointed toward the main lobby and its wide plate glass windows and ornate crystal chandeliers, “if the wind picks up anymore.”

Stacie nodded with a relieved smile. It would be her luck one of her few friends would get injured or killed. She headed down into the shelter and looked around at the small gathering. Most of the people looked bored and irritated. She smirked and grabbed a seat near an interior wall and turned on her phone app to watch the storm coverage.

Aubrey stood near the wall and watched the room. She turned her phone on again and winced at the low battery. She couldn’t believe this happened on the one day she went jogging without a battery backup.

She glanced up as movement caught her eye. Another person had come into the shelter. Aubrey smiled when she saw the dark-haired woman start to watch her phone intently. She quickly joined the newcomer in a seat near the opposite wall. “Watching the radar?”

Stacie looked up, “yeah. You interested?” She held the phone so that it showed them both. “You must not be a native Tulsan.”

Aubrey looked at the radar, watching the storm track. She was relieved to see it was mostly to the north. “I was born in Virginia, but I’m an army brat so I’m kind of from everywhere.” Aubrey answered automatically, concentrating more on the screen than the conversation. She blinked and sat back. “Why do you say that?”

“The natives don’t give a shit.” Stacie pointed at the others in the shelter who were talking about sports or typing on laptops. “They just wait for the sirens to end.”

Aubrey looked around at the group that seemed oblivious to the storm and chuckled. “I’d never noticed. So where are you from?”

“Pennsylvania.” Stacie answered promptly. “I’m Stacie, by the way.”

“Aubrey,” she leaned back and offered a hand. “Nice to meet you, Stacie.”

Stacie smiled, “nice to meet you. Are you a weather nerd, too? Or just counting the minutes to go home?”

“I like to be prepared,” Aubrey shrugged. “What about you? Why aren’t you lingering with the lemmings?” She gestured toward the rest of the room.

“Weather nerd from way back.” Stacie laughed. “One year I was visiting the University of North Dakota. I stood at one end of the building and saw the rains approach. I ran to the other side and watched them leave. I’ve been hooked ever since.” She looked down at the map. “That color change is probably why the sirens are still going off. The hook isn’t pronounced but that change from red to green is pretty abrupt.”

Aubrey nodded, impressed. “You know your stuff. Tell me you’re not a storm chaser.”

Stacie shook her head, “too chicken shit.” She laughed, “wouldn’t even want to be a weather forecaster. Too many variables.”

“I know, right,” Aubrey leaned forward to look at the screen again. “I mean, that poor guy has to deal with the anger that we’re all stuck in a small room for half an hour when we could be home comforting our cats.”

“You have a cat?” Stacie was enamored. Then she realized how close Aubrey was. She cleared her throat nervously. “I’ve never had a pet. I hope it’s ok.”

Aubrey noticed she was almost leaning on Stacie’s shoulder. She sat up quickly. “I’m sure she’s fine. She hides.” Aubrey ducked her head to hide a blush.

“Poor thing.” Stacie murmured. She looked up, “oh, hey, Ash. How long do you think we will be here? Aubrey needs to get home to check on her cat.”

Ashley walked over. When she had entered she had been struck by how friendly Stacie and the blonde seemed to be. “Aubrey? I’m Ashley.” She nodded a greeting. “Policy is 15 minutes after the sirens end. I’ll get a text from the concierge.”

Aubrey looked at her watch and stood up nervously. “It’s okay, I’m sure she’s fine.” Her eyes drifted toward Stacie again. She could still smell the shampoo Stacie used. Aubrey took a deep breath. “So, Stacie, you work here too?” Aubrey gestured awkwardly between Ashley and Stacie.

Ashley shook her head before Stacie could reply. “Regular Thursday night Karaoke headliner. Hey, Stac, should we sing something to pass the time?” She teased.

“Karaoke?” Aubrey asked quickly. “I’ve been looking for a good karaoke spot. Some are just so lame,” she felt like she was rambling and shut her mouth quickly.

Stacie nodded despite her blush at Ashley’s praise. “It’s really good here. The kJ has a huge list of songs.” She broke off and looked at Ashley. “You wanna beat box? You pick the song and I’m game.”

Ashley laughed, “I forgot about your competitive streak.” She held up both hands. “I’m good. This lot is a lousy audience anyway.” She eyed the pair, “I’m gonna check on the others. I’ll let you know when I get that text.”

“Competitive?” Aubrey grinned down at Stacie, charmed.

“Yeah,” Stacie laughed, “see, Beca has a great voice. She’s the kJ. She lets us play around, me, Ashley and Jessica, sort of as a warm up.” Stacie blushed. “I can’t sing like they can, but I have other assets.” She glanced down at her body. “So we can get a little over the top.”

Aubrey blushed again, unsure how to respond, “I’m sure,” she mumbled. “But you sing, right?”

Stacie nodded and shrugged. “I do. Not trained like they are, but I can carry a tune without a basket.” She smiled up at Aubrey. “You sing?”

Aubrey fidgeted with the waistband of her running shorts. “I used to. In college. Now I just sing karaoke with friends,” she realized she was fidgeting and put her hands together. She glanced at Stacie again. “I’ll bet you drive the boys crazy.” Aubrey immediately wished the floor would swallow her. Where had that come from?

“When I try,” Stacie joked. “Hey, come on, sit down. We have a couple of minutes still.” She held up the phone. “Christmas still on the screen. It’s gotta move to here,” she pointed to a different part of the screen, “to be out of area.” She bit her lower lip. “Tell me about your cat?”

Ashley leaned on the far wall and marveled at the difference in Stacie. With Stacie there were two modes, sexpot and ditz. Usually she played one after the other. This was neither. Ashley couldn’t figure it out.

Aubrey smiled and sat down again. “The neighbor’s cat had kittens,” she glanced at Stacie and saw she was listening intently. “She managed to give away all but the black one, the runt of the litter. She told me one day that she was going to take the kitten to the pound. I’m sure you know black cats don’t do well at pounds,” Aubrey’s eyes flashed. “So I took her in. She’s Doofus. I’d never owned a pet before, but now I can’t imagine walking in the door without her there to greet me.”

“Why Doofus?” Stacie followed up after Aubrey finished.

Aubrey laughed. “Because she’s a Doofus. Especially when she was a kitten. She was so tiny that when she tried to take a bath she would fall over.” Aubrey smiled fondly at the memory.

Stacie smiled, “how sweet.” She listened as Aubrey related other stories about the kitten tipping over her water bowl, or dropping food in it, or playing energetically with a twist tie. “She sounds adorable.” Stacie had stopped pretending to look at the phone, her chin on her hand and listening to Aubrey.

Aubrey had grown more enthusiastic with each Doofus story. She wasn’t used to being listened to. Finally she stopped and looked at Stacie quizzically. “You’ve never had a pet?”

“Nope,” Stacie shook her head. “I always wanted one. It just never worked out.” She sat up, suddenly realizing she probably looked like an idiot. She blushed. “Thanks for telling me about her.”

“You should come visit,” Aubrey leaned closer. “I live a couple of blocks from here. She would love some company.”

“I’d like that,” Stacie said softly.

Ashley walked to the door and opened it. “All clear,” she said in a loud voice.

Aubrey’s head snapped up, “Oh,” she said. “I guess it’s safe now.”

Stacie caught her breath and looked up at Ashley at the door. “Oh,” she sounded disappointed, but she managed a smile, “Doofus will be happy to see you.”

“Yeah,” Aubrey said awkwardly as she watched all the people file out. “I guess I should let you get back to your day, huh?” She didn’t move from her seat.

“You gonna come?” Stacie asked rather awkwardly. “To Karaoke, I mean. Sign ups at 6:30.”

Aubrey blinked. “I’ll be here. 6:30.” She looked around at the empty room and Ashley standing at the door pretending not to notice them. “Guess we should go.”

Stacie looked around. “Oh, yeah.” She stood and headed toward the door. “It was nice to meet you, Aubrey.”

Ashley nearly choked. They’d just met? She swallowed a smile. Damn, Stacie moved fast.

Aubrey stood and watched Stacie go. “You too, Stacie.” She caught Ashley’s eye and that made her feet move. “Thursday,” she said softly.

Stacie waited at the door. “See you at 6:30.” As if she had heard.

Chapter Text

Aubrey walked in the door and checked on Doofus. Just in case she ever saw Stacie again, she wanted to be sure she could answer honestly that she’d checked. Doofus meowed silently from her perch behind the hallway door. “I’m sorry, Doof. I got home as soon as it was safe.” She scooped the cat up for a quick cuddle before moving to sit on the sofa. Doofus was not convinced the coast was clear, however, and quickly bolted for her safe place. Aubrey took a deep breath and texted Chloe.

Aubrey: got a minute?
Chloe: yup. You okay? Scary for a minute there
Aubrey: yeah. Took shelter at the Mayo. You ok?
Chloe: yep. All quiet here. The Mayo?
Aubrey: I was on my run. My schedule is all messed up now.

Chloe winced.

Chloe: damn Mother Nature. Sorry doll
Aubrey: thanks. Oh, and I think I found a new karaoke bar.
Chloe: well now that’s interesting. Do tell
Aubrey: the Mayo has one at 6:30 on Thursdays. Oh, shit. I forgot to ask Stacie where.
Chloe: the Mayo? Downtown? I’m thinking old people central.
Chloe: who is Stacie?
Aubrey: girl taking shelter there. Ashley says she’s the headliner at karaoke, but she says she just plays around helping the kJ get started.
Chloe: hang on, now, ace. Who the fuck is Ashley?

Aubrey sighed. This was getting complicated.

Aubrey: Ashley works at the Mayo. She and Stacie go to karaoke on Thursday nights. They ain’t old, Elf
Chloe: okay. I’m just looking around for a little dog so I can ask if we’re still in Kansas anymore.
Aubrey: never mind, Chloe. Tell ya later.

She dropped her phone on the table. How had it been so easy to talk to Stacie when telling her best friend about it was so hard?

Chloe: wait
Chloe: Bree what happened?
Chloe: come on?
Chloe: I neeeeeeeeeeed new karaoke.
Chloe: Breeeeeeeeeee

Aubrey groaned when the phone buzzed twice, then twice again. Then twice again. She finally picked up the phone when she realized Chloe was going to keep text-bombing her.

Aubrey: she was watching the radar. Apparently you natives don’t. My phone was dead. She let me watch with her.
Chloe: i hate to ask …

Aubrey sighed.

Aubrey: what?
Chloe: which she? Ashley? Stacie? Toto?
Aubrey: Stacie. Then Ashley teased her about singing to entertain us all. Stacie dared Ashley to beatbox.
Chloe: okay I like these girls already
Aubrey: Ashley backed down. Stacie said the kJ and Ashley and another girl can really sing. Stacie uses other assets. Oh, god, Chloe.

Aubrey broke off as she blushed, remembering how good Stacie looked in a t-shirt.

Chloe: Bree? You okay over there? I think I know what you mean by assets but I might need some confirmation. We talking tits and ass here?
Aubrey: you are so crass.
Chloe: it’s from a goddamn Broadway musical. A classic. I have no idea what you mean
Aubrey: she has a nice figure.
Chloe: understood. Proceed?

Aubrey held the bridge of her nose.

Aubrey: I’m not sure what else to say. She asked if I would be there. I said I would. But I don’t know where there is.
Chloe: I thought it was at the Mayo.
Aubrey: the Mayo has several bars and restaurants, Chloe
Chloe: right. It’s humongous. We couldn’t poke our heads in at every one in 15 minutes. Or, I don’t know, ask the person standing at the desk whose job it is to answer questions.
Aubrey: I guess. I’d ask Stacie but this brainiac forgot to get her number. I don’t even know her last name
Chloe: she’s cute, huh?

Aubrey hesitated and smiled.

Aubrey: beautiful. And smart. God, she explained how to read that stupid colored map they use during tornado warnings.
Chloe: okay that just makes her fucking useful. Bree, are you smitten?
Aubrey: a - that’s crass again. b- is smitten even a word people use anymore?
Chloe: not crass! And of course people still say that. And the longer you stall the more I think you are
Aubrey: she’s beautiful, and smart. She asked about Doofus. She actually acted like she wanted to know, Chlo.
Chloe: that’s a plus. Want me to come or do you want to scope it on your own first?
Aubrey: I thought you had a date on Thursday?
Chloe: I can rearrange for you. But I’m actually waiting for somebody right now, so let me know soon?
Aubrey: ok, Elf. Call you tonight.
Chloe: I’ll leave my phone on. Mwah!

Back at the Mayo, Stacie paced her room up and down three times, than sat down and dialed Roberta’s number.

“Dr. Muncie’s phone.” A male voice answered.

Stacie rolled her eyes. “Dr. Conrad for Dr. Muncie,” she said in her most no nonsense voice. “Get her on the line.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The man’s voice stammered.

“Oh for…” a second voice sounded irritated. “You are a blooming idiot. Get out. Call your advisor for a new position. You are done here.” Roberta took the phone out of his hand and stalked away to her office. “What’s up Stac?”

“Damn, busted his ass all the way out, Rib?” Stacie sounded amused.

Roberta slammed her door shut and dropped into a chair. “Hit emergency cut off instead of emergency back ups.” She groaned. “We’ve lost an entire week.”

Stacie groaned. “That sucks. Miss you, Rib. When can I come back and help you harass grad students?”

“I’ll let you come back for a day if I need to orient a new group. Other than that, you give me stats showing you sleep, eat, and take care of yourself and I will consider it.” Roberta smiled fondly. “Miss you too, kiddo. So, you weathered the storm ok?”

“More than okay,” Stacie started to blush. “I met someone new.”

Roberta chuckled. “Trust you to find sparks during a rain storm.”

Stacie laughed, “I wasn’t trying. But she wanted to look at the radar image and I had my phone. God, Rib, she’s got the most incredible eyes.”

“Not a local, then?” Roberta teased.

“She’s from Virginia, but grew up army so has been all over. She’s a runner.” Stacie grinned at the memory, “It should be illegal for someone who looks that good to go out in public wearing running clothes.”

Roberta laughed, “down hunter.” She stood up and walked over to get a bottle of water. “Nice recon, though. What else did you learn?”

“Let’s see.” Stacie started to tick items off on her fingers. “She has a cat named Doofus and she lives a few blocks from the hotel. And she smells amazing, even after a run.”

“So, when do you see her again?” Roberta sat back down and put her feet up.

“I invited her to karaoke Thursday. She said she’d come,” Stacie was suddenly worried. “Shit. I didn’t get her number. What if she doesn’t show?”

Roberta opened the water bottle. “Let’s look at what we know. She was in the Mayo shelter? She lives close by with her cat. She was in running clothes. Presumably, she was caught closer to the Mayo than home when the warning sirens began.”

“Right,” Stacie sat at her desk. “I’d Google her if I knew her last name.”

“Tailor your jogs for close by the Mayo at the same time. If she runs a regular route, and you adjust yours for where she is not at certain times, you will probably run into her.” Roberta took a sip of water. “But why do you think she won’t show?”

Stacie shrugged, “I was so certain when we were downstairs. I don’t know. Maybe because I want her to so badly. What if she goes back to normal life and just forgets?”

Roberta snorted, “not many forget you after meeting you, Dr. Conrad.”

“Well,” Stacie smirked, “usually. But she made me forget the act. I was just me. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even flirt. We just talked. Just me might not be as memorable.”

“All the more reason she should be intrigued. Just you is even more memorable than any of the personas you play.” Roberta rebuked gently. “You aren’t a kid anymore, Anastasia. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you are not just to be accepted.”

Stacie hesitated when Roberta used her full name. “You make it sound easy.”

Roberta smiled, “it is, little one. I understand playing stupid when everyone is ten to twelve years older than you are. I even understand setting the hunter loose when the undergrads only see your banging bod. But you are an accomplished professional, now. You hold a doctorate, and several patents that are changing the medical profession. There is no reason to hide your light under a basket anymore.” She sighed, “I do hope for someone to help you to see that you are so much more than just your brain and your body.”

Stacie shrugged, “You’re just biased, Rib. But I think I will haunt the Boiler Room in the afternoons this week, maybe she runs more often.”

Roberta sighed, “I am a scientist, Anastasia. I control for bias.”

“Mhm,” Stacie replied. “Didn’t mean to question your scientific integrity.” She giggled, “Thanks, Rib. I’ll let you know if I ever learn her last name.”

“Deal. Now to see who is next in the waiting list for our lab, and determine how many I need to invite.” Roberta stood up. “Take care, little one.”

“Call me if you need an extra set of hands,” Stacie said quickly. “See you later, Rib. Love ya.”

“Back atcha,” Roberta winked before closing the connection.

 

Later that evening, Ashley dropped her bag and kicked off her shoes as she closed the door to the apartment. “God, I’m glad to be home.”

Jessica looked up from the pan she was stirring. “Hey, beautiful. I’m glad you’re home too.”

Ashley crossed the tiny living room and joined Jessica. She placed a hand on Jessica’s lower back and a kiss on Jessica’s cheek. “What’s cooking, good looking?”

Jessica giggled, “Garlic chicken over angel hair pasta. Hungry?”

“Mmmhm,” Ashley smiled back. “I’m gonna go change. Be right back.” She headed to the bedroom and stripped off her work uniform. After letting her hair down and pulling a tank top and sweats on, she padded back to the kitchen in bare feet. “How was your day?” She reached for a bottle of sparkling water to pour out for the two of them.

“The storm put a crimp in a wedding arrangement but I think we salvaged it. How about you?” Jessica started putting servings onto plates.

Ashley laughed, “I at least had entertainment during the storm.”

Jessica set the plates on the table and sat down across from Ashley, “Did somebody try to sneak out?”

Ashley shook her head. “Squirt was on the make.”

“Ooh, a shelter show!” She giggled. “Something new or her usual routine?”

“New!” Ashley said with a smile. She paused to savor the dinner and closed her eyes. “You are so much better than the Mayo chefs. For all of their fancy shit, I prefer what you cook.” She swallowed. “Right, Squirt. So, this blonde runner needed a place to wait out the alarms. I showed her down to the basement. By the time I made it down, she and Stacie were thick as thieves, bonding over Stacie’s phone. I seriously thought they already knew each other.”

“A girl, huh? Stacie didn’t bat her eyes or wiggle her hips or anything?” Jessica tore off a piece of garlic bread and dipped it in the garlic butter on her plate. “That sounds pretty tame, Ash.”

Ashley shook her head, “anything but tame. Shit, I through maybe lightning was gonna strike.” She smiled and sipped some water. “Maybe our little girl is growing up.”

Jessica tilted her head. “They were just talking? I wish I’d been there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Stacie have real sparks with anyone, but the manufactured ones can get pretty powerful. Do you think the runner chick will come back?”

“I’m pretty sure Stacie invited her to karaoke on Thursday.” Ashley thought about it. “Yeah, I think she’ll come back.” She shook her head again. “I didn’t see the girl who acts dumb, or the sexy vamp. She was just sitting there, they were talking, Aubrey leaned over to look at the phone and I swear I thought they were gonna kiss then and there.” She took another bite of pasta. “Then she said it was nice to meet her and I was left floored. I dunno I’ve ever seen that much chemistry between two people when they first met.” Then her eyes danced, “except when I met you.”

Jessica winked at Ashley and smiled. “Yeah we sparked pretty good, huh? Now I definitely can’t wait for karaoke to see if there’s a repeat performance. I wonder which Stacie will show up.”

Ashley nodded, “it should be interesting.” She thought a moment longer. “I hope Aubrey makes it.”

“Aubrey,” Jessica nodded. “It’s a good name.” She took another bite. “I wonder if Beca would be happy or disappointing to lose Stacie as her scandalous regular.”

“Both.” Ashley laughed. “You know she’d rather we encouraged people to sing than to watch. She’ll miss the way Stacie draws a crowd, but maybe more people will join in if she isn’t causing the vapors.”

Jessica put her fork down and laughed with Ashley. “It might be fun to watch. Just promise me I’ll never be out there again.”

Ashley leaned over and squeezed Jessica’s hand. “Not as long as I breathe.”

Chapter Text

Aubrey paced impatiently across her living room. She opened her phone and sent another text.

Aubrey: we’re late, Chloe. I’m going to leave without you.
Chloe: almost there, hold your horses. Parking.
Aubrey: I’ll come outside. We can walk.

She hit send as she locked her door and headed down the half flight to the lobby. She stepped out onto the stairs that led to the parking lot and stopped.

“Hey, Bree,” Chloe said brightly. “Have you met Brad?” Chloe’s arm was linked in the elbow of a fresh faced man with a shock of brown hair.

Aubrey blinked. After the initial shock wore off, she remembered her manners and extended a hand. “Hello, Brad. I’m Aubrey.” She shot a look to Chloe then returned her gaze to the man. “I hope you like karaoke.”

Brad took Aubrey’s hand politely and nodded. “Chloe says you’re a heck of a singer. I look forward to it.” He gestured toward the sidewalk. “Shall we?”

Aubrey nodded and joined the pair as they began their walk.

 

Meanwhile, at the Boiler Room, Stacie looked at Ashley with a wistful smile. “Guess she isn’t coming. What do you think we should do to start up?”

Ashley wrinkled her nose. “6:30 is early for some people. Maybe she will come later.” She looked at Beca. “Hey, Beca, have any requests to kick us off?”

Beca shook her head. She was fighting with a mic cord. “May have to be without sound, guys. This cord died. I’ll be right back.”

Stacie shrugged, “you can beat box. Wanna do something to warm up those who are here before Beca finishes the set up?”

Jessica perked up. “Yeah, Ash, you haven’t beat boxed in ages. It’ll be fun. Pick a song.”

Ashley smirked, “cheap thrills.”

Stacie laughed, “you are on, but I’m skipping the Sean Paul part. I don’t want to look like I’m making fun of anyone.”

“Fair enough,” Jessica grinned. “Let’s take over Beca’s stage while she’s gone.” She ushered Stacie toward the platform and looked over her shoulder at Ashley.

Ashley shook her head. “I can’t believe I suggested this. I can’t believe you said yes!” She followed Jessica to the stage and started the beat.

Beca came in while they were working the first verse and laughed. She skirted behind them and started replacing cords.

Jessica and Ashley acted out putting on make up as Stacie sang. Stacie, for her part, was playing up the curves her form fitting body suit accentuated.

Half way through, when it became clear they were doing the Sia version, not the Sean Paul remix, a heckler called out. “Don’t tell me we’re getting the white bread woke version.”

Stacie stopped singing for a moment while Jessica and Ashley continued the background music. In the place where the rap would have been, Stacie sweetly replied, “crawl back into hibernation, papa bear. You aren’t done sleeping off the dark ages.”

Once inside the hotel, Brad held a hand out toward the Boiler Room door, inviting the ladies to enter first. Chloe gave him a sweet smile and Aubrey took the lead. She stopped in her tracks so quickly that Chloe bumped into her.

“What the hell, Posen,” Chloe started, then she noticed Aubrey’s eyes were riveted on a tall brunette in a form fitting outfit slinking sexily across the front of the stage. “Wow,” she looked for the stage to Aubrey again. “That’s Stacie?”

Aubrey simply nodded. Her brain had stopped telling her limbs what to do when she saw Stacie on the stage.

“We should find a seat,” Brad said helpfully.

Chloe glanced over her shoulder, then nodded. “Right. Come on, Casanova,” she grinned as she took Aubrey’s elbow and led her to a table.

Stacie saw Aubrey enter, but didn’t miss a beat. She smiled and winked instead, then turned to Jessica to take the scat.

Aubrey sat down next to Chloe, who waited for Brad to pull her chair out for her. “Thanks, doll,” she smiled up at him sweetly. She turned back toward Aubrey, “I thought you were exaggerating. She could work as a model.”

“I don’t exaggerate, Elf.” Aubrey tore her eyes away from the stage and leaned over to whisper in Chloe’s ear, “You brought a date? To karaoke?”

“You we’re gonna be busy. I wanted someone to play with,” Chloe shrugged.

Aubrey sat back and shot Chloe a tiny glare. She glanced at Brad. “Do you sing?”

“Oh, no. I’m just here to watch,” he grinned goofily at Chloe, who blinked her eyes at Aubrey.

Beca stepped up to the front of the stage. “Thanks girls!” She led applause, “aren’t they great? Jessica there,” she pointed at the blonde, “is an award winning acapella artist. No surprise, huh?” She stopped clapping and put the mic into the stand. “Unfortunately, this is karaoke, not open mic. Now that they’ve stalled for me while I fixed a mic, who wants to start? I got everything from Ace of Base to Zappa. Come on up and sign in. We’ll start the show in ten minutes.” She smiled and walked over to the girls, “that was brilliant.”

“Ashley’s idea. Now, if you will excuse me,” Stacie smiled her most winning smile and turned to head toward Aubrey’s table.

Before she could get far, a hand flew out from a nearby table and grabbed her arm. “Come to papa bear, honey.”

Stacie turned to see an older man leering at her as he tugged on her arm. She did a quick calculation of his size and the types of shoes he was wearing. With a deft kick, she planted her stilleto into the instep of his left foot. With a wince she heard the heel crack off, but the trick worked. He howled in pain as he released her arm.

“Shit howdy,” Chloe said softly. “Bree, your girl just took a man down without breaking a sweat.”

Aubrey turned around to see Stacie heading toward her. She knitted her eyebrows when she noticed Stacie was carrying her shoes. As Stacie got closer, Aubrey stood to welcome her. “I caught the end of your song. You guys are tremendous,” she said, wondering if that sounded as lame as she thought it did.

“I saw that,” Chloe gestured toward the man Stacie had stepped on. “Nice work. I’m Chloe, Aubrey’s friend. This is Brad.” She looked at Stacie’s shoes and picked up her purse. “Hang on, I think I have some super glue in here.”

Stacie smiled, “nice to meet you all.” She stepped closer to Aubrey, “I’m glad you could make it.”

Meanwhile, Ashley and a security guard were removing the howling man. Beca and Jessica hopped back onto the stage. “Sorry about that, everyone. I suppose I should add a disclaimer. You can look, but you can’t touch.” She looked at Jessica.

Jessica nodded at Beca, who started the next track. She took the Carrie Underwood part while Beca took Miranda Lambert. “I got a real good feeling something bad’s about to happen,” they sang in unison before taking parts again.

Aubrey swallowed hard and offered Stacie the empty seat at the table. “Me too,” she smiled. The rest of the world disappeared for a moment.

Chloe picked up the broken shoe and started putting it back together. “I’ve worked plenty of fashion shows, you’d be amazed what falls apart and has to be fixed back stage at one of those things.” She looked at Brad, “Would you be a sweetheart and go buy us some drinks. Chardonnay all right, Bree?”

Aubrey nodded, still looking at Stacie. “Would you like a drink?”

“Chardonnay would be delightful,” Stacie broke eye contact with Aubrey just long enough to smile at the man. Then she brought her attention back to Aubrey. “I was afraid you weren’t going to make it.” She slid her phone over. “Number?”

Aubrey grinned and picked up the phone. “Yes,” she said emphatically. “I’ll text myself?”

“Please,” Stacie nodded.

Beca and Jessica finished the song and Ashley returned to the bar. “Papa bear,” did not. Beca leaned over to whisper at Jessica. “Damn, who’s got Squirt’s attention?”

Jessica was watching Stacie and Aubrey as well. “Ashley said they met during the storm the other day. She said they had sparks. What do you think?”

“Are you kidding? We may need a fire extinguisher.” Beca pretended to fan herself as she smirked. Then she noticed the other woman at the table, “shit. Why are the gingers always straight?”

Jessica shifted her gaze to the redhead. “It’s too bad. She’s awfully cute. Sorry, slugger.”

Chloe set Stacie’s shoes on the table. “Give it about half an hour and it’ll be good as new.” She glanced around toward the bar. “Where is he with those drinks?” Her eye was caught by two women who quickly looked away when she caught them watching her. She tilted her head, struck by the contrast of fair skin and long dark hair. Her gaze was interrupted when Brad returned juggling four glasses of wine.

Aubrey slid Stacie’s phone back across the table. “Do you know how many times I regretted not getting your phone number the other day?”

Stacie checked the number and the text before putting the phone away, “I hope as many times I regretted it.” She answered softly. Then she remembered where she was, “thank you,” she tore her eyes from Aubrey’s again. “I was expecting to be barefoot the rest of the night.” She cut a glance at Aubrey but tried to be polite. After thanking Brad she asked Chloe, “you work fashion shows?”

“Thanks, hon,” Chloe accepted her glass and turned back to Stacie. “Just small local stuff. I work for a boutique, do commission work by appointment. We have shows sometimes to introduce new lines.” She glanced at Aubrey. “Did you know Aubrey plays the piano?”

Aubrey blinked and stared at Chloe, then kicked her under the table. Chloe had turned to whisper something with Brad and pretended not to notice.

Meanwhile, Ashley walked up to Beca and overheard Jessica’s statement. “Not again,” Ashley sighed and tossed a quick glance over her shoulder. “At least Squirt is having a good night. Tell ya what, Grumpy, I’ll bring you a Hurricane. At least you can drink red.”

Jessica groaned and smacked Ashley’s arm. “Be nice. Can’t you see how our girl is suffering?” She teased Beca.

Beca rolled her eyes. “This is why I like music. I know what to expect, it never lets me down and I’m in control.” She snorted. “I gotta get the show started. You girls available if it slows?”

Ashley winked. “Just giving ya shit, Beca and yeah just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t ya?”

Stacie had turned her shoulder so she was pretty much ignoring the other couple at the table. “You didn’t mention you were a musician.”

Jessica grabbed Ashley’s elbow and pulled her back toward the bar. “Come on, laugh factory, she giggled.

Aubrey blushed. “I used to be,” she stammered. “In college.”

Chloe caught movement from the corner of her eye and was delighted to see that the dark haired beauty was running karaoke tonight. “I need to go sign up to sing. You girls interested?”

When neither Aubrey nor Stacie noticed the question, Chloe shrugged at Brad and walked over to the sign up sheet. She noticed the KJ was adjusting the sound board just behind the counter. “What’s your favorite?” Chloe asked.

Beca looked up, startled, “don’t know I have a favorite. What’s your range?”

Chloe nodded and ran her finger down the page of song titles. “I’m a mezzo usually, can handle some soprano on a good day.” She glanced up to catch Beca’s eyes. “I just figure you’ve gotta sit through every song, you may as well get to hear something you like.”

“Kind of you,” Beca smiled back, struck by the brightness of the blue eyes. “I’d have guessed soprano. You probably slay Aguilera.”

“She gets a little stratospheric for me. How about Etta James? I’ve heard she inspired Aguilera.” Chloe shrugged.

Beca looked impressed. “You do torch? We don’t get a lot of that on karaoke night.” She reached past Chloe to the book and turned to a different page. “Try one of these.”

Chloe held her breath when Beca’s arm came close. She giggled at her unexpected response. “Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff,” she smiled back at Beca. “Can I do Sunday Kind of Love?”

“I look forward to it,” Beca smiled and nodded.

“I hope I don’t disappoint,” Chloe winked at Beca playfully before turning and heading back to the table.

Beca watched her go, shaking her head. “Goddamn gingers,” she muttered under her breath as she set up the queue and called the next act to the stage. She picked up her phone.

Beca: shit, Lucky, she’s gonna sing Etta James. I swear gingers are gonna be the death of me.
Jessica: You’re such a sucker. Good thing there’s a guy. I always have to bail you out when you hook up with a ginger.

Meanwhile, Stacie sent a text to Ashley.

Stac: two bottles of Chardonnay? All of it on Daddy.
Ashley: you go girl. Any appetizers?
Stac: dunno yet.

Stacie looked up at Aubrey, “any food requests?”

Aubrey looked for a menu. “I don’t know,” she looked at Stacie apologetically. “I’m afraid I’m a vegetarian. I’m not sure what my options are here.” She shrugged, “Sorry I’m difficult.”

Chloe sat down and looked at Brad. She sighed. She’d much rather be chatting up the KJ. Sometimes she wished she could just be evil, but she always defaulted to polite. She put her hand on his arm, “Hungry, doll? I could go for some artichoke dip.”

“Oh, sure,” Brad smiled and put his other hand over hers. “Whatever you like. I think I’ll get some wings.”

Stacie looked over. “Got it. Wings, artichoke dip.” She turned back to Aubrey, “vegetarian cheese or hummus? Oh, hot or mild?” Stacie asked Brad.

“Spicy,” he winked at Chloe, who fought valiantly not to roll her eyes.

Aubrey wasn’t so successful, but she hid her reaction from everyone but Stacie. “They have vegetarian cheese? That’s hard to find in Tulsa. That would be lovely. But you don’t have to buy for all of us. Let me chip in.”

Brad agreed, “Lets split the tab, at least.”

Stacie chuckled, “I’m the regular. I get a discount.” She lied blatantly. “Let me order and we can work out the sharing later.” After she sent the text she whispered to Aubrey. “I’ll let your friends handle theirs, but you are my guest.”

Aubrey felt a flush creep up her neck at Stacie’s whisper. “Okay,” she nodded. “I get to treat next time?”

“I like there is going to be a next time,” Stacie smiled. “I know this sounds like a line, but you have the most beautiful eyes.”

Aubrey blushed and looked down. “Thanks,” she said softly. “Somehow you make it sound authentic.”

“I’m glad you believe me.”

Chapter Text

Stacie leaned back as Ashley arrived with the two bottles of wine. Ashley opened a bottle and looked at Stacie. Stacie inclined her head slightly toward Brad.

“The cork, sir?” Ashley offered it to Brad.

Brad shrugged and glanced at Chloe. “Sure.” He accepted the cork and passed it under his nose. “It’ll do,” he smiled around the table and handed the cork back to Ashley.

Chloe patted his arm. “Thanks, doll.” She shot a look toward Aubrey and scrunched her face.

Aubrey rolled her eyes again.

Stacie smiled and reached a hand under the table to pat Aubrey’s thigh. Her other hand stayed holding her chin up as she watched in merriment.

Ashley cut a glance at Stacie but kept up the charade. She poured a sample and offered the glass to Brad.

Brad’s eyes widened and he shifted in his seat. “There’s more,” he looked nervously around the table. He took the glass and sipped from it. “Nice,” he nodded and handed the glass back to Ashley. Beads of sweat were starting to form on his forehead.

Chloe tilted her head at Aubrey, silently asking if they could put the boy out of his misery. “It looks lovely, Ashley,” she tilted her head at Stacie in turn.

Ashley filled Brad’s glass, poured out for Chloe and placed the bottle in a chiller beside the table. She turned her attention to Stacie.

Stacie smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Brad.” She turned to Ashley, “if the second cork is in comparable shape we can dispense with the ceremony.”

Ashley smirked and began to open the second bottle.

Stacie turned to Aubrey, “do you prefer first or second pour?”

At the same time, another waiter arrived with the food.

Aubrey smiled, “No one has ever asked. Actually I’ve always preferred the second glass.” She put her hand under the table and squeezed Stacie’s fingers, goosebumps running up her back as she felt Stacie’s hand move against the fabric of her dress. She wondered if it would be better or worse if she’d chosen the miniskirt she almost wore tonight.

Chloe watched the fireworks across the table, then let her eyes drift over toward Beca. She could have sworn that she caught Beca staring her way. She blinked and smirked at how carefully the brunette seemed to be studying her half empty beer glass.

Brad interrupted her reverie. “I’ll bet I can eat all six in less than ten minutes,” he gestured toward the plate of wings.

Stacie turned her palm over to lace her fingers with Aubrey’s. “I hear the executive chef is doing his best to source locally and ethically.” She pointed at the gruyere. “That’s my favorite.” She arched an eye when she heard Brad’s boast. She placed a piece of Cyprus grove on a plate and pushed it slightly toward Chloe. “This one is mild.” She glanced at Chloe’s date pointedly.

Chloe smirked and accepted the cheese. She nodded at Brad, who was enthusiastically attacking his third wing. “Don’t hurt yourself, hon,” she said in a dry voice.

Aubrey watched Brad’s nose start to sweat. “Forgive me, Brad, but I’ve forgotten which college you said you’re attending.”

It was Chloe’s turn to kick Aubrey under the table, which caused Aubrey’s smile to widen.

Brad took the opportunity to pause and take a gulp of wine. His eyes widened and he looked at Chloe. She gently pushed the cheese toward him. He bit off a hunk and relaxed in his chair. “No ma’am,” he said in a choked voice. “I’m not in college. Graduated from OSU last year.” He looked at the two remaining wings, then looked around the table. “Will you ladies excuse me for a minute?”

As soon as he was out of earshot Aubrey leaned toward Chloe. “Where ever did you find that fine specimen of manhood?”

Chloe glared at Aubrey, then spooned some artichoke dip onto a chip. “Would you believe Starbucks? They messed up our order at lunch today, he was cute, so I thought karaoke.” She shrugged as she popped the chip into her mouth.

“Yeah,” Aubrey grinned at Stacie, “I definitely would believe.”

Stacie watched the interaction with amusement. “Dude magnet?” She asked Chloe with a smile.

Beca took a deep breath. “Ok, hats and cats. Now for something a little different, we got Chloe, getting ready to slay some Etta James.” She pointed at Chloe and gestured to the mic.

Chloe merely winked at Stacie and shrugged. “Guess it’s my turn.” She walked up and accepted the microphone from Beca with a grin, then turned to the audience. “It’s a slow one, so snuggle up with whoever your snuggle buddy is and just relax.

The orchestration swelled and Chloe pitched her voice so it was low and smooth to match the song.

I want a Sunday kind of love
A love to last past Saturday night

She turned to smile at Beca, who was sitting at the sound board again. She continued to sing most of the lines in Beca’s direction, occasionally remembering to sweep the room with a glance.

I want a love that’s on the square
Can’t seem to find somebody
Someone to care
And I’m on a lonely road that leads to nowhere
I need a Sunday kind of love

Stacie stood up and extended a hand to Aubrey.

Ashley took her apron off and walked over to Jessica, wiggling one finger at her.

Beca moved around to the side to watch the singer and the crowd response. “I’m so screwed,” she muttered.

Aubrey took Stacie’s hand and followed her to the little dance floor in front of the stage. She sighed into Stacie’s arms and began to sway with the music.

Jessica grinned at Ashley and joined her on the dance floor as well. She leaned her head on Ashley’s shoulder and wrapped her arm around Ashley’s waist. “This is nice,” she murmured so Ashley could hear.

Other couples began to find their way to the floor. Soon there were half a dozen gently rocking together as Chloe continued to sing to Beca.

Stacie took the hand she held and tucked it under her chin and wrapped her arm around Aubrey’s waist. “I just knew we would fit.” She whispered.

Ashley kissed the side of Jessica’s head. “Who knew karaoke would turn into this?” She cuddled closer.

Beca’s soft smile remained on her face for the duration of the song. Part of her wished it would never end.

Chloe stood smiling at the couples on the dance floor as she sang the last verse. Her gaze fell on Beca once more as the music died.

Aubrey kept her head tucked against Stacie’s shoulder, not wanting to move even when the music ended. “Where did you come from?” She whispered. “I could dance with you all night.”

“Walk with me?” Stacie murmured as she pulled back, “not for long, just a few minutes.”

Jessica leaned to kiss Ashley’s cheek. “We’ll invite Chloe back, even if she does bring smelly boys with her. I like this.”

Ashley nodded, “I’ll be sure to drop another invite her way.”

Beca bowed her head and let the dancers dissipate before taking over the mic. “And that’s how you do it, hats and cats. We’re gonna take a ten. Come on up and show us your talent.” She gestured at the clipboard and then moved away from the mic. She thought about walking over to talk to Chloe, but then saw her date standing by the table and thought better of it.

Chloe saw Brad waiting for her and smiled carefully. When she got back to the table he leaned in for a kiss. Chloe did a quick sidestep and gave him a look.

“It’s sweet you were too shy to catch my eye while you sang,” he said as he moved to take Chloe’s hand.

She managed to turn so he missed. “Brad, you’re a sweet guy,” she turned to look him in the eye. “But this just isn’t working out. Maybe we should call it a night.”

“But I thought,” he gestured toward the stage.

Chloe just shook her head, “Sorry.”

“Well at least let me walk you to your car,” he offered.

“You misunderstand,” Chloe said as she handed him his jacket. “I’m staying. You’re going. I’ll have all the food and drinks transferred to my tab.”

He began to protest again and Chloe’s eyes flashed. “Don’t make me get Stacie’s shoe.”

He stood for another moment, glaring at Chloe, then put his jacket on and walked out.

Chloe slumped into her chair and poured herself another glass of wine. Why were boys always so damn stupid?

When Stacie had asked Aubrey to follow her, Aubrey wasn’t sure what to expect. All she could do was nod and whisper, “Anywhere.”

Stacie kept her fingers laced with Aubrey’s and headed out toward the concierge desk. She made a left turn and walked up two steps into the grand lobby. She kept walking until she reached a small two person booth off to one side. To their right was the grand staircase. Art Deco chandeliers hung down from the highly decorated ceiling and the tiled floor gave way to a paisley carpet. She invited Aubrey to sit. “I won’t keep you. It’s not polite. But it’s so loud in there.” Her face took on a pink tinge. “I was hoping you meant it, about there being a next time?”

Aubrey took in the beautiful room and noticed how easily Stacie fit into it. “I might be tempted just to stay out here all night where we can talk,” she admitted. “Of course I meant it.” It was Aubrey’s turn to blush lightly.

Stacie smiled. “I admit, if you’d come alone, I would probably spirit you away and talk to you all night.” She shrugged shyly. “I was wondering if I could call you tomorrow, or see you tomorrow night? I don’t want to seem pushy, but,” she bit her lip, “I’ve never met anyone like you.”

Aubrey held her hand out for Stacie to take again. “Please. Call me tomorrow. Can I text you tonight?”

Stacie laced their fingers again. “You can text me any time you want.” She gave in to an impulse and kissed Aubrey’s fingers.

Aubrey’s stomach fluttered. She met Stacie’s eyes when Stacie looked up from her hand. She leaned forward slightly, her breath caught in her throat.

Stacie’s eyes flickered down to look at Aubrey’s lips and she leaned closer. “May I?” Her voice was quiet, masking her nerves.

“Please,” Aubrey nodded. Her heart was hammering in her ears.

Stacie didn’t hesitate any longer. She smiled as she pressed her lips to Aubrey’s. She was tender, careful, well aware this was a first kiss that she hoped would lead to many more. Her second hand lifted to hold Aubrey’s cheek, gently.

Aubrey leaned her head into Stacie’s hand, her own free hand rising to cradle the back of Stacie’s head. “Wow,” she breathed when the first kiss ended. Her eyes twinkled and she leaned forward again, instigating a second kiss.

Stacie smiled against Aubrey’s lips and responded. This time she was much less tentative, nibbling on Aubrey’s upper lip. “Wow is right,” she whispered, tightening her grip on Aubrey’s fingers.

Aubrey saw someone walking their direction and turned her head. She laughed and leaned her forehead against Stacie’s shoulder when she saw Brad stomping out through the lobby.

Stacie stroked Aubrey’s hair and laughed quietly against her head. “We should probably get back, huh?”

“I guess Chloe’s on her own,” Aubrey said reluctantly.

Stacie placed a kiss on Aubrey’s forehead. “You’re texting me tonight, right?”

“I’ll text you while we’re at the table if you want,” Aubrey grinned and stood up.

Stacie followed Aubrey. “How do you do that?” She hurried to reconnect their hands.

Aubrey looked confused. “What did I do?”

“Make me want to forget the rest of the world.” Stacie replied, kissing Aubrey’s fingers again.

Aubrey sighed. “If we turn left we can walk to my apartment. If we go straight we can sit with Chloe.” She blushed. “You have no idea how unusual this is for me. Someone asked me once if I was spontaneous and it took me five minutes to decide how to answer.”

Stacie groaned quietly. “I want your friend to like me. We shouldn’t leave her alone too long.” She tugged Aubrey closer for one more kiss. “I’m not known for saying no.” Stacie laughed while she blushed. “But I think you are worth doing things right.”

Aubrey nodded and sighed. “I suppose,” she leaned against Stacie, then pulled away and led them both back into the Boiler Room.

 

Sometime later, Chloe walked close to Aubrey, both arms wrapped around one of Aubrey’s. “Boys are stupid,” she grumbled.

Aubrey, still thinking of the pair of green eyes she’d had to say goodbye to, blinked as she realized Chloe had spoken. “Oh, sweetie, what could you expect from someone you met at Starbucks over a mixed up order?”

Chloe giggled, “He was cute. And sweet.” She shook her head, “So where do the not stupid ones hang out?”

“Don’t ask me, sweetie. Boys and I don’t get on.” Aubrey chuckled quietly. “Oops, hold on, Elf. We need to wait for the light.”

Chloe stumbled off the curb then back up again. “Thanks.” She looked up at Aubrey. “You’re always nice to me.” She was quiet for a minute. “You don’t need a boy, you don’t like to play. Girls are best for real shit. Boys are for goofing around.”

Aubrey nodded, “I suppose that works.” She guided Chloe off the curb carefully and across the street. When they were safely on the far side, Aubrey continued. “I’m not much for goofing around. My father says you can’t trust a man for anything until after you have his commitment. Soldiers are reliable because they have sworn themselves to protect the constitution.” Aubrey snorted, “I’ve never found a man willing to keep his word with the same conviction.” She shrugged, “or woman either for that matter.” Aubrey realized that sounded harsh. She squeezed Chloe’s hand. “So friends are the best I hope for.”

Chloe nodded. “Friends are the best.” She squeezed Aubrey’s hand back. “You know the difference between a man who wants you and a girl who wants you?” Chloe stopped walking. “A man will put his dick in anyone who will let him. A woman doesn’t.” She shook her head, “You know what I mean. Women like to know somebody first. Have an emotional attachment.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Aubrey laughed. “It does make it a mystery how any hetero relationships last.”

“I know, right?” Chloe giggled. “I guess there are some boys who are manageable. Tom never embarrassed me in public.”

Aubrey nodded. She wasn’t that fond of Chloe’s regular date. But then, she wasn’t the one happy to serial date while her fella serially dated. “That’s an admirable trait.”

Chloe wrapped herself around Aubrey’s arm again. “You know who I’d like to develop an emotional attachment with? Because girls need that before you can jump their bones?”

“Who, sweetie?” Aubrey was thinking about how close she came to inviting Stacie home tonight. Was she emotionally attached? Or was it just pure attraction. She blushed as she realized she wasn’t sure.

“Don’t worry, Stacie is hot as hell but she’s for you. Beca though.” Chloe stopped again. “There’s something going on behind those blue eyes. She’s intense. And gorgeous. And talented. And I would seriously like to know her better.”

Aubrey jerked back to the conversation at Stacie’s name. She felt herself relax as Chloe went on. “She certainly is talented. I didn’t notice her eyes. Are they blue? I thought they were darker.”

“Nnnnope,” Chloe turned to walk backwards as she talked to Aubrey. “I saw them in the lights. The deepest blue. Like secret pools of deep dark water. I’m going to get to know her, Bree.”

Aubrey grabbed onto Chloe before she could stumble. “Ok, Elf. We know she works there every Thursday night. How about we go back next week without the male companion?” She guided Chloe to the steps that led up to the apartment building main door. “Here we go.”

Chloe nodded. “Good plan. I’m sleepy, Bree.”

“I know, sweetie. Stay with me till we get home, ok?” Aubrey held Chloe’s arm with one hand while the other unlocked the door. Holding it with her foot, she helped Chloe inside.

Chapter Text

Stacie laid on her bed looking out the west facing window. “Get a grip, Conrad. Do you really want her to be a one night stand? Or for once in your life, do you think there might be something more than your banging body that attracted someone?” She rolled away from the vast night sky and stared at the clock. She wondered how long it took to walk to Aubrey’s. She lives downtown if she can walk to the Mayo, but there were hundreds of apartments downtown. She sat up. “She’s gonna text, Conrad. Breathe.” She rebuked herself. She curled her knees close to her chest and closed her eyes. She could remember how it felt to feel her fingers intertwined with Aubrey’s. She could remember how strong Aubrey’s thigh felt under her hand. She could remember the taste and feel of Aubrey’s lips. Stacie sighed and opened her eyes, turning her head to look out at the sky again.

Aubrey finally got Chloe settled in the spare room. She got her another glass of water. She got her some Tylenol. God help her, she even sang a little song with her. Finally Aubrey fell into her own bed. She grabbed her phone and texted Stacie.

Aubrey: Have I missed you?

Stacie jumped. She reached for her phone and smiled as she recognized the name.

Stacie: nope. I’m here. How’s Chloe?
Aubrey: Chloe is as high maintenance as ever. But cute. Did I wake you?
Stacie: nope twice. I was just looking out the window.

Aubrey arranged her pillows so she could sit up more. She leaned her head against the headboard and thought back over the evening. Now that she was home it was like she’d been released from a spell. Texting with Stacie brought back echos of the intoxication, but it wasn’t quite as potent as those green eyes. Aubrey sighed. Maybe she was just tired.

Aubrey: nice view?
Stacie: I liked my view earlier better.
Stacie: is that too cheesy?
Stacie: stars are pretty
Aubrey: you’re sweet. It’s nice you have a view of stars. I’m just looking at a ceiling lol
Stacie: just lucky in window positioning.

She wasn’t sure what to text. It felt so impersonal.

Stacie: I had a good time tonight. Thanks for coming.
Aubrey: Me too. It was a lovely evening. I’m glad you invited me.

Aubrey was starting to feel awkward. Why was this so much easier in person?

Stacie: I suck at texting. Is Chloe in the room with you? Would I wake her if I call instead?

Aubrey stood up and closed the bedroom door.

Aubrey: good idea. I’ll wait

Stacie hit the FaceTime button and put her phone on the nightstand. She laid on her tummy while she waited for Aubrey to answer.

Aubrey had just settled in against her pillows when the phone rang. She connected and couldn’t help smiling at those eyes again. “Aubrey Posen,” she said automatically.

“Hi, Aubrey Posen.” Stacie smiled and felt her shoulders relax when she saw Aubrey’s smile.

“You’re right, this is better,” Aubrey nodded. “Wow is that your window behind you?”

Stacie looked over her shoulder. “Yeah, I live kinda far up.” She turned back to the camera. “Sucks during the day because there’s nothing to look at. But nights are nice.” She rested her chin on her hand and said softly, “I think my favorite part of tonight was dancing with you. Thank Chloe for me?”

Aubrey relaxed into her pillows, “Yeah, that was nice.” She tilted her head, “Where do the lobby kisses rank, then?”

Aubrey felt the connection firing up again as soon as she could hear and see Stacie. Was that how it was supposed to work? You needed to be in contact to feel the electricity? She hadn’t really had much time to remember the night with Stacie when Chloe wasn’t chattering. Again, maybe she was just tired.

“Oh, yeah.” Stacie smiled slowly. “Dunno I would have had the courage for that without the dance though.” Stacie felt her stomach flip flop again. This was so different than with anyone else she’d dated or thought of dating.

“Mmm,” Aubrey smiled at both memories. “I’ll have to find a recording of that song. Maybe next time we go out we can dance again.”

“I’d like that.” Stacie nodded. “You never said if I could take you out again tomorrow night. Are you busy?”

Aubrey considered. Usually she liked to wait at least a week between first and second date. Stacie’s eyes were glowing at her expectantly. “How about Saturday night? We could maybe go for a walk at the Tulsa Gardens?”

Stacie nodded, “sure.” She smiled. “I don’t know I’ve been to the gardens at night. Sounds pretty.” She could here her own censors telling her to chill out, to not be pushy. But, god, it was hard.

Aubrey’s smile widened, “They have short trails between beds of roses. You should feel right at home in such a beautiful setting.” Aubrey winced after she said it. So cheesy. She meant it, but she hoped Stacie knew it wasn’t just a line.

Stacie rested her cheek against her hand. “Is it silly I’m sad I won’t see you until Saturday? I already feel like I want to know everything you want to tell me.”

Aubrey melted a little bit. “I don’t think it’s silly at all. But think about how much more there will be to talk about after a day apart. I’d hate for you to get bored with me.”

“I can’t imagine that happening,” Stacie replied softly.

“I’ll call you after my job tomorrow afternoon. Will that make it easier to wait?” Aubrey smiled again.

Stacie nodded, “yeah. I guess I should let you sleep, huh?” She added wistfully.

“Is it that obvious?” Aubrey stifled a yawn. “Chloe can wear me out.”

“You look beautiful.” Stacie responded, “but I was realizing the time, and you said you had to work, so I should respect your time.” She lifted her head. “Good night, Aubrey Posen. Can’t wait to talk to you again.”

Aubrey was caught off guard by Stacie’s consideration. “You look beautiful too,” was all she cold think to say. After a few seconds she added, “Still wish you were the one who walked home with me.”

Stacie let out a quiet groan. “You have no idea how much I regret that choice.” She dropped her head face down on the bed.

Aubrey giggled. “Maybe next week.” She whispered loudly to get Stacie to look up again, “Hey.”

Stacie lifted her head and met Aubrey’s eyes, “yeah?”

“Sweet dreams,” Aubrey said in a soft voice.

“You too. Would you mind if I dream about dancing with you?” Stacie smiled.

“Only if you allow me to do the same,” Aubrey’s eyes twinkled.

“Meet you there?”

“On my way.”

 

Stacie woke up the next morning when her phone buzzed. She smiled as she grabbed it, hoping it was Aubrey. But it was Roberta.

Rib: have you checked the mainframe?

Stacie frowned.

Stacie: no. I checked the other day. My file was there. Why?
Rib: I think your file is corrupted. It won’t work for us and IT can’t get it to work either.

“Shit!” Stacie jumped out of bed, and darted to the office door. She impatiently placed her palm on the lock. “Come on, come on.” The door finally popped open and she slid into her chair. More impatience threatened to make her curse more while the photo ID program identified her. She finally logged in and accessed the main frame. “Fuck!” She exploded as the file failed for her, too.

She went back through her back ups until she found one from her initial process. She opened the file and scanned it. At least it opened. She grabbed her phone.

Stacie: I think I found a back up. Want me to test it first? Or give it to the grad students?
Rib: go ahead and look it over. Make sure it’s your final. Then back it up again before uploading.
Rib: if that asshole killed the mainframe when he killed power, he’s next to die
Stacie: ask IT to contact who else was running that day. I’m pretty pissed, but if it’s only my file that was running, we got off light.
Rib: good idea. How was karaoke?

Stacie took a deep breath. Oh yeah. Karaoke. She smiled at the thought.

Stacie: I have her name and number. We’re going to take a walk through the rose gardens tomorrow.

She hesitated then sent another text.

Stacie: would you check on her?
Rib: that serious already?
Stacie: no. But I’d like it to be.
Rib: ok, Kiddo. Send me what you got and check that file for me.
Stacie: thanks Rib.
Rib: you bet.

Stacie headed out to make coffee. Rib wouldn’t begrudge her that much time before she started.

Up the street, Aubrey’s eyes fluttered open. She saw the alarm would go off in five minutes. She rolled over and turned it off, then leaned in a sitting position against her pillows. She flashed back immediately to talking with Stacie from this very position last night. Aubrey blushed a light pink. She’d been on a video call in her bed. She didn’t have a specific life rule regarding that, but she guessed it was probably not something for the night of the first official date.

She got out of bed slowly and grabbed a towel. A shower would clear her head. She remembered Stacie had been in her own bed as well. And how soft she’d looked in the half light. Aubrey didn’t bother to turn on the hot tap in the shower.

Refreshed, she pulled on her robe and wandered into the kitchen. The smell of coffee brewing seemed like the gentlest way to wake up her friend.

Sure enough, ten minutes later a disheveled Chloe was leaning against the kitchen door jamb. “Coffee?” She whimpered.

Aubrey interrupted the pot and poured Chloe a cup. She restarted the brewing process while she brought a spoon and the creamer over at the same time. “Sit down, Elf. You look like you are going to fall over.” She kept her voice soft.

“I’m fine,” she pushed her hair out of her face and flopped into a chair. “How you feeling, Bree?”

“That’s a loaded question.” Aubrey answered lightly while she stood holding her robe closed tightly across her body and waited for the coffee to finish.

Chloe chuckled, “I would imagine I’d still be muddled if I’d had a beautiful woman’s hand on my upper thigh most of the evening.” She sat back and sipped carefully at the coffee. Chloe made a soft sound of contentment as she swallowed.

Aubrey managed a smile, but again a flag went up. Skin on skin contact, even if it was ‘just’ her thigh was strictly forbidden through the first several dates. She dropped her head so her chin touched her chest. “God, I’m a mess.”

Chloe shook her head. “Okay, just to clarify, one of us in this room has showered and smells like roses. The other one still has a faint scent of wine on her rancid breath and is going to need half an hour to make her hair look halfway decent again. Oh, and I’m not wearing my own clothes right now.”

Aubrey looked over at Chloe and smiled as she noticed the pajamas that hung loosely on Chloe. “But still look cute.” She finally poured her own coffee and stirred two sugars in. “I don’t know what to say, Chlo.” Her voice was quiet.

Chloe smiled. “I’m just saying, define mess. I feel like a pretty decent mess right now myself. And the best attention I got last night was from Bradley the spicy wings guy.”

“If you hadn’t sent him home, I might be talking to someone else over this cup of coffee.” Aubrey sat down, her face flushed. “I almost invited her here, Elf.”

Chloe set her coffee cup on the table and looked up at Aubrey. “Wow,” she breathed. “That’s like, what, three weeks ahead of schedule? At least?” She smiled, “Good for you, Bree. But now I do feel like a clod. Promise you’ll make it right for me soon so I don’t feel guilty I ruined your night?”

“Chloe,” Aubrey was quite serious. “I implied to a woman I barely know, a stranger I’ve seen on exactly two occasions, that we could just sneak out and walk to my place.” She looked at the ceiling. “She actually was the one who reminded me how you would feel had I disappeared.” Aubrey covered her face with her hands.

Chloe stood up and put her arm around Aubrey’s shoulders. “Here’s the thing. She gets points for being considerate, no doubt. But if you had texted me that you’d gone home, or even gotten a room upstairs, I would have high fived someone in the room and poured myself into an Uber. I just want you to be happy, Bree. You are allowed to think of yourself first sometimes.”

Aubrey rested her head against Chloe’s shoulder. “The rules exist for a reason, Chlo.” Even as she said it, Aubrey was questioning herself. But then she said it again more firmly. “For a reason.”

Chloe nodded, “I know, hon. You’ve explained it before. I just can’t live into such a rigid framework.” She shrugged, “I don’t get it.” The redhead took a step back and made a shallow curtesy, “Although my sorry state this AM is not a good argument for my side.”

Aubrey smiled fondly at Chloe. “Starbucks? Really? Not even say the library, or at a symphony?”

“Shit,” Chloe said as she plopped into her chair again. “I need to start trolling the library.” She looked at Aubrey, her face serious, “You go to the symphony alone?”

“I have,” Aubrey confirmed. “Especially when they feature an accomplished pianist.” She sighed and looked down at her coffee. “She wanted to go out again tonight. The rules say a week between dates. I said we could meet tomorrow, take a walk through the Tulsa gardens.”

Chloe nodded, “A tiny acceleration seems safe enough.” She finished her coffee and stood to walk behind Aubrey’s chair. She leaned over and said softly, “Here’s the thing. If she really cares about you she will be happy to stick to the rule book. My only advice is that maybe she should be told there’s a book in the first place.” Chloe hugged Aubrey from behind. “I ought to shower before I steal some more of your clothes so you can drive me home.”

Aubrey watched Chloe wander back down the hall, impressed that she only bumped the wall once.

Chapter Text

After pondering Chloe’s words, Aubrey picked up her phone.

Aubrey: Good morning, sunshine

Stacie felt the phone buzz. She considered ignoring it. It could be Rib. It could be her alert to remember to eat, or shower. But she pushed back from the computer in case it was Aubrey. She smiled when she saw the text.

She picked up her coffee and moved out to the breakfast bar. The program could wait a few minutes.

Biting her lower lip, she pressed FaceTime.

Aubrey chuckled and opened the connection. “Not willing to try the texts today, hm?”

“I told you I suck at texts.” Stacie laughed. Then she added with a rush, “I should’ve asked, you could have been working. I wasn’t thinking, sorry.” Then she took a deep breath. “Good morning, beautiful.”

Aubrey’s eyes danced. She realized she was only wearing her robe and her hand involuntarily moved to hold it closed. “I’m glad you’re up and I didn’t wake you. It looks like you’ve been up a while, did I sleep in?”

“No, issues with a program I worked on. Have to iron out a few bugs.” Stacie smiled. “It’s nice to see you.”

“Am I keeping you from work?” Aubrey’s face grew concerned. “We can talk when it’s more convenient.”

Stacie shook her head. “I am allowed breaks. And you are my favorite reason.” She sipped at her coffee. “Do you drink coffee?”

Aubrey held her mug up so Stacie could see it, “You mean the liquid of life?”

“Oh thank god.” Stacie teased. “Deal breaker, you know.” Then she softened. “I’m feeling sappy I get to have coffee with you.” She rolled her eyes at herself.

Aubrey sat back and smiled, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She softened even more, “I like it.”

Stacie suddenly remembered why she hadn’t followed Aubrey home so they could be doing this after a night of love-making. “How’s Chloe?”

“Oh yeah,” Aubrey glanced up the hall. “In the shower. I’ve seen her worse,” Aubrey shrugged, then leaned toward the camera. “How’s Stacie?”

“Missing you,” Stacie admitted. “And feeling weird, because we just met and yet I miss you already.”

Aubrey tilted her head, “Yeah. Me too.” She sat back, feeling a little nervous all of a sudden. “I need to ask you about something, I hope it’s not too weird.”

Stacie shrugged, “go ahead. I’m probably too much already. It’s ok. I hear that a lot.”

Aubrey shook her head, “Wait, what do you mean?”

Stacie shook her head in return. “You go first.”

“Okay,” Aubrey rubbed her hands on her thighs, even more nervous. “Do you have rules? Like life rules? Like when it’s appropriate to do certain things?”

“I’m not sure,” Stacie considered. “I have alerts to remind me to eat, does that count?” She smiled.

“It actually does,” Aubrey nodded, still tentative. “I have a book,” she blushed fiercely. “It’s stupid, never mind.”

Stacie tilted her head to one side. “Tell me?”

Aubrey tilted her head in a mirror action and bit her lower lip. “Everyone I’ve ever told has made fun,” she said softly. “I don’t want you to think I’m pitiful. I don’t want you to suddenly get really busy and never have time to see the weird girl with all the rules.” It came out in a rush Aubrey hadn’t expected. She just stopped talking.

“Aubrey,” Stacie said her name softly. “If it’s important to you, it matters. What rules have I broken already?” She smiled ruefully. “I’m a bull in a China shop, Aubrey. I come on too strong. I don’t mean to, I just,” she laughed ruefully. “I get too enthusiastic. I hope I didn’t ruin everything.” She ended quietly.

Aubrey shook her head, “you’ve been perfect. I’ve skirted some in my heightened states, but nothing that can’t be salvaged. Chloe just, I mean I just, thought you should know there are rules. It does seem fair to let you know. Like a week between first and second date, no tongue first date,” Aubrey paused and looked sideways into the camera. “No regrets, that one needs revision.”

Stacie smiled, but felt her stomach tighten. “Right.” She managed a smirk, “I did enjoy that, I won’t apologize for it.” She looked down at the counter. “So, can we text until Thursday? I can learn to do better.” She laughed, “or cheat and send audio files you can listen to if you want.”

Aubrey shook her head. “I’ve already accelerated the schedule, we have a date on Saturday. But being apart all day today and tomorrow until we see each other again will serve as the cooling off period to see if we really want a second date.” She looked straight into the camera, “Because I really do. Want a second date.”

“I really do.” Stacie answered slowly. “But I can honor your rules. I don’t want you to stop being you, Aubrey. Even if I don’t know much about you yet, I like you. If the rules make you who you are, than we’ll keep the rules.” She smiled at Aubrey, although her eyes were bright. “I think you are worth it.”

Aubrey took a deep breath. She replayed what Stacie had said in her brain. “You don’t think the rules are stupid?”

Stacie shook her head. “Just because I don’t have them doesn’t make them stupid. They matter to you.” She shrugged again, “that’s good enough for me.” She looked over her shoulder as if to look at a clock. “I probably should get back to work, though.” She looked back at Aubrey. “A week between. See you at karaoke. But maybe you will still call after you get off work, if you want?”

Aubrey was dumbfounded. “You really care about my rules.” It was a statement, not a question. “I work from 4:30 to 6:00 tonight. If you have time before that give me a call? I’d like to negotiate breaking that one little rule.” She shook her head again. “Stacie, you’ve left me flummoxed. Go back to work, I’m keeping you. Just know you will be on my mind.”

“Ok,” Stacie nodded. She was confused, but felt like she was missing data. “I can take another break at, um,” she looked at her watch. “My lunch alert is 2:30 is that ok?”

“I’m setting my own alert right now,” Aubrey nodded. “Thank you,” she said more softly.

Stacie managed a smile. “Talk to you later.” As she closed the connection, she sighed as a tear trickled down her cheek. “I still miss you.” She said to the powered off phone. She left it on the counter with her cold coffee and returned to her office.

Less than an hour later, Aubrey was tapping the steering wheel while she waited for the light to change. The conversation with Stacie did not go as she planned and despite Stacie’s assurances she was terrified she’d done something stupid. She tapped her fingers again.

Chloe sat in the passenger seat, watching Aubrey’s fingers. By the third traffic light she had to ask. “Aubrey, what in the hell is bothering you?”

“I did as you suggested.” Aubrey spoke briskly. “I told Stacie about the rules.” She tossed her head.

“And she didn’t understand?” Chloe was surprised. “I watched her look at you. I can’t believe a set of rules threw her off so severely.”

Aubrey huffed, “they didn’t. She said if they mattered to me then they were important.” She tossed a glance at Chloe. “She wants me to keep them, says they make me who I am.”

Chloe started to say more to defend Aubrey and then stopped. “Wait. Say that again. Then tell me why you’re agitated.”

Aubrey rolled her eyes. “She wants me to keep them. All of them.” She tapped her steering wheel again. “Even to cancelling our walk tomorrow and waiting to see each other until Thursday.” She looked at Chloe at the next light. “Thursday, Chloe!”

Chloe smacked her own face twice. “I’m still drunk. Should have had more coffee. I thought I heard that you were pissed off because someone respected your own fucking rules so much they were willing to follow them to the letter.” Chloe glanced at Aubrey, “I should call in sick.”

“You are not helping.” Aubrey growled as she accelerated again. “Shall I make you walk the rest of the way?”

“No,” Chloe responded quickly. “But I have a feeling you and the model need more conversation,” she grinned.

Aubrey frowned. “The model?”

“Stacie wears clothes better than anyone I’ve seen in Tulsa, with the possible exception of Beca who needs more research. She’s tall, confident, and sexy. The model,” Chloe replied.

Aubrey rolled her eyes again. “What do I say, Elf? I tried to suggest we could still see each other on Saturday. She reiterated we should wait because of my rule.” She threw one hand in the air in exasperation. “How do I say it differently so she hears me?”

Chloe shook her head. “I’m not a rules girl, if you haven’t noticed.” She smirked. “But maybe just say that rule seems a tad outdated, and you want to change it. Or say Saturday isn’t a date, it’s a literal walk in the park, it doesn’t count.” Chloe looked at Aubrey, “I’m mostly just sad you’re going to have to wait three weeks to see her naked.”

Aubrey groaned, “that is not nice, Chloe. I swear, I’m going to make you walk.”

“What? What did I do?” Chloe looked at Aubrey again. “You know that threat gets weaker when I can almost see my driveway from here.”

“Fine.” Aubrey said not another word until she pulled into Chloe’s drive. “I swear, one day, I am going to get to call you out on someone you have feelings for and I’m going to relish it.”

Chloe snorted, “I gave up feelings a long time ago. I’m in it for the thrill now.” She grinned as she opened the car door and stepped out. “Seriously, though, talk to her. If the two of you can’t work this out after she appreciates your boundaries all of my hope is honestly in the crapper.”

Aubrey glared at Chloe. “Talk to you later, Elf. Try not to get drunk without someone to watch your back, ok?”

Chloe saluted and closed the car door. As Aubrey pulled out of the drive she blew a kiss.

Aubrey rolled her eyes and waved before she put the car in drive and headed back toward home. At another stop light, she sent a text.

Aubrey: you know, if I’m worth keeping rules for, maybe you are worth breaking them for.
Aubrey: looking forward to talking at 2:30

Stacie stared at her computer screen. She’d been replaying the conversation in her mind. On the one hand, Aubrey seemed to really want to have a second date. At the same time, this rule book felt a lot like an excuse to let Stacie down softly. No matter how many times she ran through the conversation, she felt like she was no closer to resolution. It was as if her mind was poorly written code. The if/then statements were in constant iteration and she couldn’t find the command line to end the loop. She put her head in her hands. She heard a ping, but whatever had caused it was missing from the desktop by the time she looked up. She reached for her phone to check, but remembered she had left it on the breakfast counter. “Not getting anything done anyway, Conrad.”

She got up and let herself out of the office. It wasn’t even 9:30. She supposed she could make breakfast, or have another cup of coffee while she played some ocean sounds to see if she could break her loop. She filled her cup up with coffee and put it in the microwave to warm then picked up her phone. Her heart beat faster when it was from Aubrey. Stacie sat on the stool and tried to process the message. Finally, she just sent a reply.

Stacie: breakfast break. Call if you have a chance? I have a good 45 minutes.

Aubrey heard the phone buzz and pulled over at the next available spot. She picked up her phone, smiled, and clicked FaceTime.

“Hey,” Stacie smiled as she answered.

“Hey,” Aubrey smiled back. “I thought we had to wait until 2:30.”

Stacie shrugged, “I forgot about breakfast. I try to eat at least twice a day. Sometimes I remember all three.”

Aubrey tilted her head. “Why do you ignore your alerts?”

“I get stuck in my head. Figure I’ll go in a minute and the minute never comes.” Stacie blushed.

“I’m glad you came out for breakfast now. And I get to have breakfast with you,” Aubrey said, hoping it didn’t sound lame.

Stacie picked up her phone and walked to the fridge. “Well, I have yogurt and trail mix. What do you have?” She picked up the packaged meal and put her phone down so it was propped up while she mixed the two packets together.

Aubrey looked around at the houses surrounding her. “I’m actually parked on the side of the road,” she trailed off. “You eat, I’ll keep you company.”

“I hate to eat without you. Are you far from home? I can wait.” Stacie chewed her bottom lip. Why was she feeling so fucking insecure? Just last night she damn near crippled a fella. She sounded pathetic today. She rolled her eyes.

Aubrey glanced around again. “It’ll take me about 15 minutes. That’s too long. Just eat and talk to me? I promise I’ll pretend to talk to you when I eat later.”

Stacie laughed despite her nerves. “You are so damn cute. God.” She picked up her bowl and her phone and moved back to the breakfast bar.

“Wait,” Aubrey dug through her glove box. “Cough drops!” She held up half a package triumphantly.

“Did I mention cute! I meant adorable.” Stacie sighed. “Tell me the truth?”

Aubrey grew serious, “Of course.”

Stacie stirred her yogurt. “Are you just trying to let me down easy?”

“Let you down?” Aubrey was honestly confused.

“Cool off, time to change your mind, time to realize I’m not what you want, but be nice about it, not just ghost me.” Stacie’s voice got quieter.

“Is that what you think I want? I don’t think I even know how to do some of those things.” Aubrey’s mind was racing. “Oh my god, the rule about the week is to give you time to realize you didn’t know what you were getting into with me and run away without hurting my feelings. Is that what this is about? Because I would like to state now and for the record that I would absolutely like to break that rule and see you sooner rather than later.”

Stacie frowned. “Rules come from tests, which prove or disprove hypotheses. You can’t just break them without consequence. There must be new hypotheses. I fail at following my alerts because, although the support for well designed meals is strong, my hyper focused attention on my work is stronger.” She looked at Aubrey. “What is the new hypothesis?”

Aubrey stared at the phone, her mouth slightly open. “Um,” she started, then stopped. “Uh,” she began again. “You are aware you used the plural of hypothesis correctly in a sentence?” she said in a low voice.

“I would hope so.” Stacie continued to frown. “But that doesn’t answer my question. What is the new hypothesis. Or at least, what are the consequences of breaking the rule?”

“I,” Aubrey stared. “Stacie,” she said softly. “I have absolutely no idea where you are right now and I just want to run my hands through your hair and kiss you, but also I want you to explain about consequences and hyper focused attention and hypotheses again. But maybe this time,” she paused, “cite your sources.”

Stacie frowned, “which ones? The high school and college professors who taught me? Or Sir Francis Bacon and the scientific method? You aren’t making sense, Aubrey.” She sniffed with frustration. “Are you making fun of me? I’m really trying to understand, here.”

“Okay, wait,” Aubrey shook her head. “My hypothesis is that everything goes wrong when I break my rules. You and I broke some rules Thursday night, though, without apparent consequence. Except for this miscommunication. So I posit that breaking another rule may not result in a negative consequence, and we cannot prove or disprove until we experiment.”

Stacie tilted her head to one side. She considered. “So the current observation is that there were no apparent consequences. The null hypothesis would therefore be consequences as yet not realized. Breaking a rule would, therefore, show the consequence or lack of one.” She tightened her lips slightly. “But correlation does not prove causation.”

Aubrey whimpered, “maybe we should go to lunch together today.”

Stacie blinked. “At 2:30?” Then she shook her head. “Wait. I’m thinking.” She paused. “Ok, so multiple breaking of one rule to collect data points. The trend would encourage or discourage breaking others. Is that where you are going with this?”

“Yes,” Aubrey replied almost breathlessly. “We need to break a rule or two, Stacie. For science.”

“Then I accept.” Stacie nodded, “where and when? As long as I eat it doesn’t matter when. 2:30 is as late as I can without ruining dinner enough hours before sleep to digest.”

“I have another confession,” Aubrey said in a low voice.

Stacie looked down at the breakfast she had hardly touched and made herself eat a spoonful. “Ok,” she said afterward, nervous about what the confession might be.

“Academic scientific jargon makes me absolutely quiver. It’s embarrassing. And you sprung it on me so quickly, without warning, I wasn’t prepared. And it was even more intoxicating from you.” Aubrey’s flush stood out in sharp relief against her pale skin. “I can’t help it.”

Stacie blinked and then smiled. “You like academic language. Intellect is a turn on?” She had to be sure.

Aubrey moaned softly, “Say null hypothesis one more time and I might embarrass myself.”

“It’s tempting. But I promise to use my power for good,” Stacie giggled. “Lunch?”

“Mhm,” Aubrey smiled. “For science. To test the hypothesis.”

“Name the place,” Stacie leaned forward as her eyes twinkled. “And time.”

“Right now is my favorite time, but it’s a little early for lunch,” Aubrey bit her lower lip.

“Where,” Stacie stood up and moved to put the bowl in the fridge. “I’ll meet you. Downtown? Mods?”

“Why not the Boiler Room? We’re both familiar with it and it’s on my way.” Aubrey started her car.

Stacie inhaled sharply, then exhaled more carefully, “sure. Um, twenty minutes?” She hoped that would allow her a shower and time to look like she was coming in from the parking garage.

“Of course. I’ll grab a table. See you soon.” Aubrey smiled into the camera and put on her seat belt.

Chapter Text

Stacie muttered curses all the way down the elevator to the parking garage. The only saving grace was the ability to order new contacts while she did. It wouldn’t save the fact that she had to meet Aubrey this morning wearing her chunky black glasses. She exited the elevator, waved at the valet guys and walked out into the street. She shook out her still damp hair and again wondered what possessed her to say yes in twenty minutes. She turned the corner toward the front door of the Mayo and started up the small hill. With another smile at another set of valets, she turned into the hotel and headed straight to the Boiler Room.

As she suspected, the bar was dark, but a young lady was waiting to seat people in the restaurant. “Good morning, I’m actually meeting someone here.”

Aubrey circled in the parking garage, grumbling about how full it was. She had to go almost to the top level before she found a spot. Once she parked, she looked at herself in the rear view mirror. Saturday had been pushing things a little. This morning was blowing the rules entirely. Then she remembered Stacie’s voice speaking so matter of factly about the scientific method. In everyday conversation. Aubrey’s curiosity overrode caution. She needed to know more about this girl as soon as possible.

She found the elevators and made it to the lobby. Just before walking into the restaurant she took a deep breath. No matter how sciency Stacie got, Aubrey needed to keep her cool. She swallowed hard, smoothed her skirt, and stepped into the restaurant. When she saw Stacie sitting at a table, her glasses pushed down on her nose while she contemplated a menu, Aubrey’s knees grew weak again.

She slid into the chair opposite Stacie. “Now that’s just not playing fair,” Aubrey smiled.

Stacie looked up and smiled, her shoulders visibly lowering. “I’m glad you made it. I was afraid you’d changed your mind.” Then she realized what Aubrey had said. “Excuse me? What’s not playing fair?”

Aubrey pointed her finger in circles around Stacie’s face. “Those glasses. I can’t think of any way to describe them other than sexy,” she felt a blush begin to creep up her cheeks. “And I have a definite weakness for intellect. You look straight out of a lab.”

“Oh, my god, I tore my last contact lens this morning.” Stacie laughed, “I forgot the alert told me to reorder last week.” She covered her face with her hands. “I may be the quintessential absent minded scientist.” She looked up, “It’s embarrassing.” Her smiled softened as she met Aubrey’s gaze, “It’s really good to see you.”

Aubrey stared at Stacie, “Good morning. It’s good to see you too. I hope I didn’t pull you away from anything too important.”

Stacie shook her head. “The project is in a sort of holding pattern anyway. One of the grad students panicked when the storm alarms went off and shut down the main power to the computer lab. We are having to run diagnostics on all of the equipment and any programs that were running. Until IT says it’s all clear, there’s nothing to upload, even if I were ready.”

A waitress walked up to the table. “Are you ready? Or would you like a few minutes?”

“More coffee would be lovely, but I haven’t decided yet.” Stacie smiled and then looked at Aubrey. “Want some coffee?”

“Oh yes,” Aubrey glanced at the waitress. “Coffee would be divine.”

The waitress nodded and walked away.

Aubrey narrowed her eyes playfully at Stacie, “So it sounds like you actually did just step out of a lab.”

“I guess it does. I was actually in my office, rather than the lab.” Stacie laughed lightly. “But computer labs look more like offices than the glass filled sterility you see in movies.”

“That’s too bad,” Aubrey sighed. “Probably safer for my imagination, though,” she winked across the table. “I guess I need to clarify the rules thing a little, hm?”

Stacie smiled as the waitress brought the coffee. She added two of the creamer pods and stirred. “I am still confused about them. For example, were they devised anecdotally? Or by your own experiences? And if the latter, then why be so quick to abandon them?” She shrugged, looking a little rueful. “Don’t get me wrong. I love we are having breakfast this morning. I just feel like I am missing data.”

“I’m sorry. I will answer your question. I just need a moment to process the fact that you just speak that way. It sort of makes me dizzy,” Aubrey avoided Stacie’s eyes by concentrating on putting sugar in her coffee.

“I’m too much again,” Stacie made it a statement rather than a question. She sighed. “I’m sorry. I usually tell people my passions are cuticle care and the E network. It’s less intimidating for them.” She stared into her coffee cup and smiled ruefully. “People come for the banging bod. They leave when they meet the brain.”

“People are so stupid,” Aubrey shook her head. “No offense to your well proportioned frame, but your brain is your sexiest asset.” Aubrey found Stacie’s eyes again. “That leads to the rules discussion. Yes, they’re largely anecdotal. I’m not very good at intuitively navigating relationships, so I devised a set of guidelines to help me remember what is appropriate, what to expect. I’ve never had a problem keeping them before.”

Stacie was still trying to process what Aubrey had said about her intellect being sexy when she realized Aubrey was explaining the rules. She smiled and replayed the words in her mind. “Appropriate to whom? Are they,” she broke off before saying societal mores in case that was too much. “Are they rules you set up to keep someone else’s expectations satisfied? Or your own?” She sipped her coffee, “I only ask because if they are for your happiness, maybe we should look at how they make you happy.”

“I never thought about that,” Aubrey mused, swirling her spoon in her coffee cup. “I guess they’re based on pop culture and my own sense of human character. For example, no physical intimacy until the third week is designed to make sure both parties are really ready for that. And also to maintain some sense of something to look forward to, something to earn.” Aubrey shrugged and winced, “Does that even begin to make sense?”

“Of course it makes sense,” Stacie smiled, “but does it make you happy? Do you feel like three weeks is enough time for you to be ready, for you to feel safe to take that step?” She shrugged again. “As soon as the evidence is anecdotal or personal, you have to look at the personal result. There is nothing empirical to study.” She rolled her eyes, “Sorry, got all sciency again. Um, do you wanna order something to eat?”

Aubrey nodded, “Sure, food would be good.” She glanced at the menu again. “You can sound sciency, I told you, I like it. Now that I’m ready for it I can manage my excitement. Especially in public,” Aubrey’s eyes focused intently on Stacie. “I make no promises if we are in a private setting.” She chuckled and broke eye contact. “See? I’m ready to take you home with me right now, just as I was last night. Clearly that rule doesn’t make me happy when it comes to how you make me feel.”

Stacie’s smile was matched with pink cheeks. “I will have to consider.” Then a playful smirk took over. “The going home with you is terribly tempting though.” She took a steadying breath as the waitress stopped by. “May I have a Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream and a scrambled egg, please?”

“Oh, that sounds perfect. Make it two,” Aubrey handed her menu to the waitress, who nodded and went to place the order.

“Here’s the thing.” Stacie sighed, “Right now, or last night, or because I like science, you want to break your rules. You say clearly they don’t make you happy. But will you end up second guessing?” She picked up her cup again. “I really like you,” Stacie confessed again. “I don’t want you to do something you might regret, and then I lose any chance with you down the line.”

“That’s logical,” Aubrey pouted. “The problem is I’ve never felt this way. I have nothing to compare it to. No baseline, if you will.”

Stacie’s smile spread, “I know the feeling.” She put her cup back down. “I’m used to, I dunno, a quick rush or something. You know? An attraction, I guess.” She leaned forward. “I don’t have words for how you make me feel. It’s exhilarating, but scary, too.”

Aubrey nodded, “Yes, exactly. I’ve experienced physical attraction, but this has so many layers. Wanting you physically feels like a thin layer of ice above a deep pool full of emotions.” She tilted her head, “Chloe says my rules are an arbitrary construct designed to keep me alone for the rest of my life.”

Stacie pondered. The food arrived quickly, to her surprise, and she smiled as she thanked the waitress. “Intentionally or un?” She finally asked.

“Hm?” Aubrey placed her napkin in her lap. “Intentionally designed to keep me alone?” Aubrey shrugged. “I didn’t plan it that way. But it seems to be effective for driving people away, so I guess un.”

“Then perhaps a new set of rules need devising.” Stacie took a bite of her waffle. “What would be a reasonable compromise? What would be a way for you to feel like you had ample time to process each milestone in a relationship, but not be arbitrary, as Chloe suggests?” Then her manner shifted and she confessed, “If I stay in my head, I can have this conversation. If I don’t…” she laughed and stuffed scrambled eggs into her mouth.

Aubrey swallowed and set her fork down. “It seems to me that one of the reasons the rules exist, to make sure I’m doing the relationship thing correctly, was fallacious reasoning to begin with.” She took another bite, thinking as she chewed. “It seems the rules themselves might be causing me to behave in a manner that is not conducive to maintaining a relationship. What would you do if you discovered your framework was based on a bad premise?”

Stacie nodded, “Check for validity. A test may be reliable, but if it doesn’t give me the results I’m looking for, it isn’t valid. If it’s invalid, then re-examine the hypotheses and see if they are still the desired test. Third, rewrite the framework.” She looked at Aubrey. “I return to the question: were the rules for you or for someone else? What was the initial hypothesis?”

“I think I was trying to fit into the expectations of a polite society,” Aubrey said in a low voice. “I think maybe the rules were designed to make sure my father would always be proud of my decisions.”

Aubrey toyed with her fork, not really hungry anymore. She was battling with so many emotions it was difficult to concentrate, but she wanted to stay in the conversation. She also wanted to cry for some strange reason. And she definitely wanted to kiss and cling to the patient, kind, brilliant woman who was working so carefully to respect Aubrey’s own insecurities.

“Hey, you wanna take a walk or something? We could go back to the lobby and sit in one of those booths again.” Stacie noticed Aubrey had stopped eating.

Aubrey nodded. “Yeah. I can wait until you’ve finished eating, though.”

“It’s okay. I’m not good about food, anyway.” Stacie stood up and crossed to the waitress to have a brief conversation. She signed the running tally the waitress had been keeping and returned to the table. “Come on.” She held a hand out to Aubrey.

Aubrey took Stacie’s hand, which seemed to act as a tether. It was pulling her back to the ground from the emotional heights she’d been experiencing. The soft warmth of Stacie’s hand was at once reassuring and intoxicating. Aubrey wanted to walk hand in hand forever, but she also wanted to turn and pull that hand to her chest and kiss Stacie passionately. “Outside,” she replied in a soft voice. “If that’s okay?”

“Perfect,” Stacie smiled and led Aubrey outside. They walked in silence for a distance of two blocks before Stacie found Chapman Park. “I love this fountain.” She indicated the large round fountain that sprayed water occasionally. “I find it soothing.” Then she pulled Aubrey to a stop. “I’m sorry if I pushed too hard. Please, forgive me?”

Aubrey turned to Stacie and put a hand on Stacie’s cheek. “Honey, you have been nothing but kind. And considerate. And patient. Anyone else would have cut their losses and run away by now, but you’re standing here apologizing.” She dropped her hand and looked away. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess,” she said. “Please forgive me?”

Stacie thought her heart was going to stop beating when Aubrey touched her cheek. She bit her lower lip and placed her own hand on Aubrey’s cheek, gently requesting she look back her way.

Aubrey tried through sheer willpower to hold back the tear that threatened to fall. “Hi,” she managed to whisper when Stacie’s eyes caught her own.

“Taking care of yourself is not being a mess.” Stacie smiled fondly. “Hell, I could take lessons from you.” She softly moved her hand lower so her thumb could caress Aubrey’s jaw. “You are articulate, smart, musically inclined - which implies sensitive to me - as well as beautiful. You are so worth taking care of.”

Aubrey leaned her head into Stacie’s hand. “Maybe we should revise the rule book. Together. I think we’re pretty good at negotiating. And I never want to think about my father when I’m thinking about you,” she laughed softly.

Stacie leaned forward and kissed the side of Aubrey’s head. “I think I’d like that.” She pulled Aubrey in closer to hug her. “I hope I’m not being too forward,” she whispered. “You just seemed like you could use a hug.”

Aubrey wrapped her arms tightly around Stacie. She felt the warmth envelop her, similar to the best of the previous evening, but with a new sense of calm and safety. “I wish you didn’t have to go back to work,” she said softly into Stacie’s shoulder.

Stacie fought with herself about how to answer. “But you work at 4:30, right?” She spoke into Aubrey’s hair.

Aubrey nodded. “Yeah. Presbyterian church on Lewis.”

Stacie tilted her head to one side. “You work for a church?”

Aubrey pulled back from the embrace and laughed, “I’m a piano tuner, I work for all the churches.”

“Oooh,” Stacie’s eyes lit up. She laced her fingers with Aubrey’s and pulled her to a bench near the fountain. “How does tuning work? I’ve always wondered.” She smiled and waited expectantly.

Aubrey giggled. “I’ll tell you, but only if you kiss me. You’ve been talking science all morning and I’ve been a very good girl.”

Stacie smiled and leaned forward. “That would so be my pleasure,” she murmured as her lips found Aubrey’s.

Chapter Text

Stacie sat and stared at the computer screen. She kept thinking about how she’d wasted two opportunities now. Aubrey invited her home last night. She knew that if she’d asked Aubrey today they would have gone home together too.

Stacie put her hand on the computer mouse and had a sense memory of Aubrey’s thigh through thin fabric. This afternoon was going to suck.

Rib: how is the program?
Stacie jumped when her phone buzzed.

Stacie: working it.
Rib: what’s wrong?
Stacie: nothing. Why?
Rib: stuff the grad students can’t do shouldn’t have taken all day. Are you sick?
Stacie: Something came up, I had brunch downstairs. I’m back now.
Stacie: have you started the background check on Aubrey yet ?

Roberta pressed the FaceTime button.

Stacie rolled her eyes and opened the connection. “Hi Rib.”

“Yes I’ve started the background check. The good news is her father has high clearance at the pentagon and she has a good credit rating for her income. Over 750. All that is left is combing social media. Are you telling me you’ve spent all this time with your girl and not getting any work done?” Roberta arched an eyebrow.

Stacie looked away from the screen. “I got most of it done this morning. She needed to talk, Rib. It was important.”

“What’s wrong, Kiddo? If all was well you’d meet my eyes and be gushing. What happened?” Roberta kicked her shoes off and put her feet on her desk.

“It’s relationship stuff,” Stacie warned. “Oh,” her tone lightened, “I forgot, and you’re gonna love this. She thinks intellect is sexy. Like for real. I say something like null hypothesis and she gets a glint in her eye that is deadly.”

Roberta laughed, “damn, wish I knew someone like that.” She studied the face in the phone. “Come on. I know I said I don’t do relationship stuff, but I don’t like you all mentally constipated either. Spill.”

“Now there’s a visual,” Stacie made a face. “Okay. She’s got rules for when certain things are supposed to happen. We’ve apparently broken some, and now she’s blatantly offered to break another. I worry she’ll regret it and I’ll lose her when she does.”

“I see,” Roberta thought for a moment. “Let’s back up. How stringent are the rules, why do they exist and why does she want to break them?”

“That’s our conversation in a nutshell,” Stacie laughed. “She wants to break them because she says she’s never felt like this before. Between you and me, I want to break them because I’m going to have to wait three weeks. Three weeks, Rib.”

Roberta laughed again, “Oh horrors, Stac! You didn’t even know her three weeks ago.”

“Right. Do you understand how much cold water I’m going to have to endure for two more weeks?” Stacie shook her head. “I’m not sure how stringent they are, but they seem important to her. She got emotional when I took them seriously.”

“So, the issue becomes how do we approach this interaction so both of you feel heard and understood, without spontaneously combusting.” Roberta smirked. “Maybe that’s the way to look at it. As a chemical reaction.”

“There are definitely chemicals involved,” Stacie nodded. “When she kissed me I swear I felt flames.”

Roberta chuckled, “Down, Hunter.” She studied Stacie’s face again. “It would be easy to give in to the catalyst of hormones and hope for the best, right?”

“How do you know what I’ve been thinking all afternoon? Add mind reader to your resume,” Stacie nodded.

“Ten years is a decent amount of time to learn someone.” Roberta winked. “Have you ever noticed the differing builds in a sprinter versus a long distance runner?”

Stacie tilted her head, then shook it. “I’m afraid I’ve only really noticed the rock hard thighs on both.”

Roberta laughed again, “Do I have to send you to the showers before we can finish this conversation?”

Stacie sat up straighter, “Nope, I’m with you. Sprinters versus long distance runners.

“Okay,” Roberta put her feet down and leaned forward. “Sprinters tend to be more muscular and long distance runners tend to be leaner. The reason has to do both with their physiology and the required oxygen uptake. When sprinting, they are exerting over a short period of time and need extra access to oxygen that the lungs cannot process. The fast twitch muscles that are well developed in a sprinter provide that oxygen in the muscles where it is needed.”

“Sounds reasonable. What’s the application in my situation?” Stacie’s foot was tapping quickly under her chair.

Roberta smiled, “Fast twitch. React quickly, need quick energy for quick results. No stamina.” She paused for a moment, “Burns bright but doesn’t last.”

“So if I take advantage of the heat between us we might explode and be nothing but shattered afterward,” Stacie replied.

“In a nutshell.” Roberta nodded. “Either of you might get irritable about something you didn’t know about the other, being in such a hurry to get together. On the other hand, emulating a long distance runner, with slow twitch muscles and the time to breath over the long haul, the energy stays constant. There is time to make adjustments.”

“Mmm,” she glanced at Roberta. “I’m not going to tell you why I like the sound of that.” Stacie grinned, “It makes sense, though. Right now I’m definitely hoping for long distance. She’s pretty special.”

Roberta smiled, “Life isn’t a sprint, little one. Take your time. I don’t have a rule so I won’t tell you a day or three weeks or whatever. That’s between the two of you. But find a compromise that works. Don’t burn so brightly that you burn out, got it?”

Stacie nodded, “Thanks, Rib. That security clearance sure would be nice pretty soon.”

“I’m pushing it. Hope to have it by Monday or Tuesday. Can you believe cyber security want days off?” Roberta teased. “Now get me that file. I already have to interview for one grad position. I need to know if I have to find more.”

“On it. No more distractions. Love ya, Rib.”

“Back atcha, kiddo.” Roberta winked and closed the connection.

 

Aubrey woke up on her sofa, a black cat making biscuits in her side. It took her a moment to realize it was a cat, and not a massage given by one green-eyed beauty. She sighed and moved the cat so she could sit up. The morning had been exhausting. Aubrey almost felt like she had a hangover.

She tried to gather her muddled thoughts, but she needed to say some of it out loud to help it make sense. She checked her phone. Seeing it was after 3:30, she clicked on Chloe’s number.

Aubrey: got a minute?

Chloe had just finished changing into sloppy clothes after work. She plopped on her side on the end of the bed and picked up her buzzing phone.

Chloe: of course. How’s things?

Aubrey: FaceTime?

Chloe rolled on her back and opened the app.

“Hi, Elf.” Aubrey smiled, “shit, I’m a mess.”

“Hey, Bree,” Chloe replied and sat up, the usual tease about how Aubrey answers the phone slipping from her mind. “What’s wrong, honey?”

Aubrey took a deep breath. “Maybe I need to stop taking your advice. But you are the one person I trust. So I’m in a catch 22.”

“What happened? I know exactly which poisons don’t leave a trace. Who made you unhappy?” Chloe was on her feet now, pacing at the foot of the bed.

“It’s not that. God, how do I explain?” Aubrey covered her face with one hand. “Chlo, she uses hypotheses correctly in a sentence. Without prompting!”

Chloe stopped and stared into the phone. “Oh, you’re suffering because of what hasn’t happened, not what has,” she stifled a grin. “I hope you were sitting down.”

Aubrey rolled her eyes. “I was still in the car. I’d sent a text suggesting she was worth breaking rules for. She called back, wanted to know the basis of my rules and if they make me happy.”

“I’m glad you talked with her about them, but now she wants you to stick to them?” Chloe thought of several things she could say next, but they were all too steamy for Aubrey’s serious expression.

“If they make me happy.” Aubrey reminded Chloe. “I told her I wasn’t sure.” Aubrey got up to pace. “She did an entire explanation of how to test for validity, and when to rewrite a hypothesis or framework. Oh my god, Chloe. I insisted she meet me for brunch.” Her eyes widened. “I called her to leave work, Elf. I’m a terrible person!”

Chloe leaned out of frame and giggled into her hand. “Aubrey, you’re not a terrible person. And I have seen you two set a room on fire; I truly do admire your restraint. Especially after she used all those sexy science words. I wish I could’ve seen you, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were panting a little bit. She didn’t even know about your kryptonite.”

“I told her.” Aubrey groaned. “Oh, and she tore a contact lens. She wore big, black, chunky glasses.” Aubrey damn near whimpered.

Chloe just shook her head. “Oh Bree. No wonder you were ready to break every rule. You would probably have agreed to break a few laws.” She put her head in her chin and leaned toward the screen, “But tell me. Honestly. If you’d carried her over your shoulder back to your apartment and ravished her repeatedly, how long would it be before you woke up in the middle of the night with a panic attack?”

Aubrey stopped pacing. “Stacie asked that, not in so many words. She asked how long before I would have regrets.” She dropped back onto the couch. “She’s so considerate, and kind. She even asked me to explain about piano tuning. But I look into her eyes and…” Aubrey broke off.

Chloe smirked, “I forget. How long until you’re allowed more than a good night kiss?”

“Heavy making out with clothes on is allowed next week. Skin on skin is supposed to be the week after that. But oh my god, I can still feel her hand on my thigh.” Aubrey groaned again. “She wants to respect my rules. Is it disrespectful if I push it?”

“I dunno, sweetie. I’m probably the last person to ask about restraint,” Chloe shrugged. “But my advice is still the same. Don’t ask me, ask her.”

Aubrey nodded. “Right. She did say we could go to the rose garden tomorrow night. That’s the rule we are breaking, not waiting between dates.” She smiled at the thought. “I’ll have seen her three days in a row, Elf. I don’t remember ever doing that before.”

“That’s a nice smile,” Chloe replied. “I don’t know I’ve seen you light up like this before.”

“Thanks Elf. I just needed to get it out of my head I think. You’re right. If I’m going to rewrite the book, I want her to rewrite it with me.” Aubrey continued to smile.

“Hold the fucking phone!” Chloe jumped up, excited. “Aubrey Posen I have thought of a loophole that you’re gonna love so much you owe me a steak dinner.” She paused, “You don’t have to watch me eat it.” She started walking again. “So if you’re fast tracking the dating, does that fast track everything else? Ostensibly you wouldn’t see her again until the second week, right? How many actual dates are allowed before you can get crazy the way you’d like to?”

Aubrey blinked. “Oh my god, Chloe. If we count dates, not weeks…” she broke off as her heart started to beat faster. “Four dates, Chlo. It would be around the fourth date.” Her voice dropped with the realization.

“Might I suggest a shower?” Chloe was beaming. “And you’re welcome. Love ya, Bree. Go find your happy.”

“Love you, Elf!” Aubrey was nearly exultant. “Talk to you soon, but hopefully not too soon.”

 

Later that evening, Stacie sat drinking a glass of wine on her balcony. She was glad Rib had the file so she could be distracted all weekend. She just wasn’t sure she was going to have a distraction. Brunch had been pretty intense. Had she scared Aubrey off? She looked up at the Tulsa skyline and wished for the stars that would take several more hours to appear.

Aubrey walked into her apartment and dropped her toolkit by the door. She shrugged out of her shoes. Church people were friendly, but they always wanted to stay and watch when she tuned. It was so difficult to make them understand she needed to listen to the piano, not their small talk.

She settled onto the couch and decided it was finally time to devote her full attention on the person who had been on her mind all day. She opened her phone and tapped to open the FaceTime connection with Stacie.

Stacie smiled as the phone buzzed. She stood and moved into the living room, glass in one hand and phone in the other. “Hi,” she sat on the sofa and looked out at the sun still too high for a sunset. “I was hoping I hadn’t scared you off.”

Aubrey scoffed, “How in the world could you scare me off? Oh, and hi.”

“I dunno,” Stacie smiled more broadly; she didn’t really care anymore. “Okay gig?”

Aubrey held the bridge of her nose between her fingers, “Church people are high maintenance.” She smiled at the camera, “But they almost always have beautiful instruments.”

Stacie smirked, “Sounds personal.”

Aubrey blushed and sat forward. “Pianos. They always have really nice pianos.” She grinned at Stacie, “How was your afternoon?”

“Long.” Stacie laughed, “Rib called me out for the long break. It isn’t your fault….I just have a reputation for writing programs fast and I was slow today,” Stacie hurried to explain.

“Oh, I’m sorry I fucked up your job,” Aubrey’s face fell. She’d been trying to decide if she should mention the potential loophole tonight or save it for tomorrow’s date. Now she thought she’d just keep it to herself.

“You didn’t!” Stacie insisted, “well except for the fact that you breathe and I have a hard time getting you out of my mind.” She laughed.

Aubrey couldn’t help smiling. “Me too. Are you laced with some sort of addictive substance?”

Stacie grinned, “Maybe it’s something that is created when our chemistries interact.” She chuckled, “Rib says it sounds like we could spontaneously combust.”

“Rib?” Aubrey searched through previous conversations and couldn’t come up with it. “I don’t disagree, but I don’t remember Rib.”

“Roberta. Haven’t I mentioned her before?” Stacie blushed. “She runs the lab, and… oh this is gonna get complicated.”

Aubrey shook her head, then tilted it. “I’m not sure. But I’m afraid I don’t always remember anything more than your lips on days when you kiss me.”

Stacie smiled back, “I can empathize.”

“I need to know, though, why Roberta believes you and I are combustible. What have you been saying about us?” Aubrey narrowed her eyes playfully.

“Oh, you know, just how much I kick myself every time I don’t go home with you,” Stacie confessed. “She suggested I remember life is not a sprint. It’s hard when you are around.” Her eyes danced.

“Oh,” Aubrey grimaced when her voice leaped an octave. “You know, though, I’ve been thinking about that.”

Stacie put her phone down so she could lay on the sofa and hold her head up with both hands. “Yeah? You mean the rule book and how do we break the rules without making you regret it?”

Aubrey’s laugh was musical. “I have to cite my source, Chloe actually came up with the premise.”

“I may have to up my estimation of the girl who picks guys up at Starbucks. But I reserve that action until you explain the premise,” Stacie teased.

“Here’s the thing. What if we counted dates rather than days,” Aubrey waited expectantly.

Stacie frowned, “Define date. And I thought your rules dealt with weeks, not days.”

“Weeks are made of days, are they not?” Aubrey countered. “Kissing is for the second date. So if we count the storm shelter as the first date, because we didn’t kiss, then karaoke was the second. Brunch today was the third, and I apologize because heavy making out is on the allowed list for that one.”

“Wait,” Stacie laughed. “Back up. First, you had said three weeks before we could sleep together, right? Now you are saying that equates with the fourth date?”

“That’s my proposal,” Aubrey raised her eyebrows at the screen. “We can decide for real tomorrow, okay?” She worried she’d misread, Stacie seemed hesitant.

“It’s so tempting, Aubrey.” Stacie’s voice cracked, “I’m just…what if we give in and then we’re done?” She swallowed, “I don’t know I could be okay with that.”

Aubrey didn’t know what to say. She’d just offered a loophole that she felt was pretty damn clever. She swallowed hard, “You’re right, of course,” she said in a soft voice. “I can’t imagine being done with you. I don’t want to risk it,” she smiled, though it didn’t completely reach her eyes. “Who can trust Chloe loopholes anyway, right?” She’d offered herself, with a good excuse and everything, and Stacie had found a logical escape clause.

Stacie bit her lip. “Have breakfast with me tomorrow?”

“Breakfast?” Aubrey was surprised.

“Here, at the Mayo.” Stacie reiterated.

“Sure,” Aubrey leaned her head toward her shoulder, still a little confused. “What time?”

“9 am?” Stacie smiled. “Then we can count that as our third date. Regardless of kissing, our awkward first meeting was not a date. Thursday was our first date, today was our second. Tomorrow morning would be our third. And if we go home to change for the evening then tomorrow night is our fourth.” Her heart was pounding.

Aubrey merely nodded. “Gnite, Stacie.”

Stacie tapped her messages.

Stacie: I gotta tell her, Rib.
Rib: tell her what?
Stacie: all of it
Rib: ok, kiddo. Don’t be specific about the current project. I think you can trust her with the rest.
Stacie: thanks Rib.
Rib: g’night little one.
Stacie: g’night.

Chapter Text

Ashley fiddled with the bar towel and looked at the clock reading 7 pm over the television again. “I swear, Jess, this last hour is the worst!”

Jessica leaned over to plant a kiss on Ashley’s nose. “I know, hun. But you almost made it.” She wiggled the strap on the bag she had at her feet. “I brought you a salmon blouse to change into, but you gotta wear the tie, please?”

“For you, I’ll wear the tie. But I can leave it undone, right? Just slip it around the collar like a scarf?” Ashley begged.

“That’s a fair compromise.” Jessica winked and then sat back on her stool as a customer came in.

“Can I get you something?” Ashley asked.

Stephanie came around the corner, “Oh, hey, let me.” She said as she picked up a menu. “Table or booth?”

“Booth,” the new customer requested and walked away following the other bartender.

“You trained her well,” Jessica teased.

Ashley groaned, “Not good enough that I can leave before 8:00 when Josh gets here!”

Jessica patted Ashley’s hand in commiseration.

Chloe picked up her phone when it buzzed.

Jeremy: Chloe. My girl dude. Let’s go downtown and sink some shots. I got paaaaid.

Chloe rolled her eyes. Boys. Are. Dumb. She typed as a response, then deleted it.

Chloe: Not tonight. Thanks.
Jeremy: missing a great party!
Chloe: another time. Have fun.

She turned her phone to do not disturb and stared at it for a minute. She didn’t want to stay home. She definitely didn’t want to catch a boy, either. Maybe it was a good night to go back to the Mayo. At least the bartender there was nice.

Chloe slipped on a pair of knee high black boots and picked out a streamlined leather jacket with a biker look. She slipped the jacket on over the forest green camisole and black pencil skirt she’d been wearing all day. She fluffed her hair in the mirror and headed out the door.

When she arrived at the Boiler Room she couldn’t believe her luck. Ashley was behind the bar and Jessica was leaning against it. She walked up. “Ladies,” she settled into a chair. “Thank you for not being boys.”

“Thank you for noticing!” Ashley smirked. “Chloe, right? Chardonnay?”

“Oh, not tonight, thank you,” Chloe replied quickly. “Let’s do vodka and tonic with lime tonight, please.” She set her purse down. “And yep, Chloe is correct.” She pointed at the bartender, “Ashley?” And then the blond on the stool next to her, “Jessica?”

“Not bad, got it on the first try,” Jessica winked.

Ashley smiled. “I’ve had friends for years who didn’t figure it out.” She poured out the drink and slid it across to Chloe. “Keep it open?” She looked around. “No himbo?”

“Hell no,” Chloe replied as she handed over her credit card. “I’m lately of the opinion that boys are stupid.”

Jessica giggled. “All boys?”

“Name one who isn’t just a tad off,” Chloe challenged.

“Ummm,” Jessica looked at Ashley, amused.

“Don’t ask me, I got me a girl.” Ashley chuckled again. “Sorry there’s not much going on down here. Management doesn’t want us to pull from upstairs.” She leaned on the bar and looked at the clock again.

Chloe sipped her drink. “What’s upstairs?”

“The Skylight. It’s live entertainment tonight.” Ashley glanced side-eyed at Jessica.

Jessica giggled. “I think you’d like it. Jazz and covers with a live piano.”

Chloe watched the interaction between the two and couldn’t help thinking there was some inside joke going on. “Maybe I should try it out,” she said. “Reservations required?”

Ashley shook her head. “Reservations not accepted except for residents. We’re planning to go up after I get off work.” She looked at the clock again, “In five minutes. Then I need to change my blouse and we’re off. Wanna come?”

“You don’t mind me crashing your date?” Chloe worried.

“Nah, we go every week. You’re welcome to sit with us, we usually have a pretty good line of sight in front of the stage.” Jessica smiled sweetly at Ashley.

Couples are so weird sometimes, Chloe thought to herself as she watched another charged exchange between the two. “Why not? Go ahead and close my tab, I’ll start a new one upstairs. Thank you, ladies, maybe this night is salvageable after all.”

Ashley took Chloe’s card and ran it. Just then, Josh showed and Ashley had to take an extra few minutes to catch him up. When she finally returned from changing out of her work blouse and switching to heels from her work shoes she paused in front of the bar. “Shall we?”

“Nice look,” Chloe complimented Ashley.

Jessica took Ashley’s hand as they walked toward the elevators. “She wore the tie for me,” she leaned toward Chloe and smiled.

When the elevator doors opened, Ashley took the lead. “Hey Rachel, we brought a friend. Is there room?”

Rachel looked over her glasses at Ashley, Jessica and Chloe. “You know that table has room for four. If you need more, you must call ahead.”

Ashley winked, “Right. Thanks!” She reached back for Jessica’s hand and headed into the bar. She waved at Damon, who was tending. He nodded his head and pointed toward the stage.

The undeniable sounds of Sweet Georgia Brown (https://youtu.be/wMIzCQ4kJl4 ) swung through the air, its rag-time pace almost daring the girls to step in time.

Chloe smirked at the way Ashley gave shit to the clearly stuck up hostess. She looked at Jessica. “I thought there weren’t reservations?”

Jessica nodded, “We like to sit at the performer’s table. Benefits of friendship.” She offered Chloe a seat and watched as Chloe recognized the piano player.

“Is that?” Chloe started to say as she stood, frozen.

Ashley coughed, “Down in front,” as she took her seat.

Chloe blinked and looked around. Blushing, she sank into her seat, her eyes still glued on the petite brunette who was making the piano dance. “She ran karaoke,” Chloe leaned and whispered to Jessica.

“Will wonders never cease,” Jessica replied as she shared a smile with Ashley.

Beca finished the number and glanced at the table. “It looks like my girls finally made it. I wonder if they might back me up on this next little number.” She vamped while Jessica jumped up to the mic, Ashley not far behind. As soon as they were ready, Beca smirked at Chloe.

At last
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song. (https://youtu.be/Cq3Q3_u9wBk)

Jessica nodded at Ashley and added a backup hum that broke into full doo wop as the song allowed. Jessica took the high line, Ashley hung in a third below.

Chloe watched the three interact. It was seamless. She felt like she’d stepped into some strange world where everyone you met was a secret superstar.

Beca led the applause at the end and stood up to hug both girls. “Aren’t they great? Jessica Smith and Ashley Jones, ladies and gentlemen.” She waited for the applause to lull before taking her seat on the bench.

Ashley muttered, “Didn’t even get to whet my whistle first,” as she poured out from the bottle of Shiraz waiting on the table.

“Um, wow,” Chloe said. “You didn’t tell me you were part of the entertainment. I feel like I’ve accidentally picked up a backstage pass. You were amazing.”

Jessica accepted a glass from Ashley. “Beca likes it when we play along sometimes. It’s fun.”

“Beca knows a good thing when she hears it,” Chloe smiled at both girls.

Beca started another vamp. “Last song before I take a break. You know how it is, you think you got stuff figured out and then, well, it’s better to call the whole thing off.” She grinned and began to sing again.

Things have come to a pretty pass
Our romance is growing flat,
For you like this and the other
While I go for this and that…

You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto.
Let's call the whole thing off (https://youtu.be/k5II1bQWm-4)

Chloe was grinning from ear to ear. Beca’s stylings had just the right sarcastic bite. She was so focused on the singer that she forgot she was in a crowded room.

Jessica caught Ashley’s eye and nodded her head toward Chloe, who was clearly caught up in the music.

Damon timed his arrival just as Beca finished the song. While she took her bow he leaned over to quietly ask Chloe, “What can I get you?”

Chloe was snapped back to reality, “Oh. Vodka tonic single, with a lime. Thank you,” she flashed smiling eyes at him.

Damon smiled back. He looked up at Beca as she approached the table, indicating the new girl with a slight head nod and approving wink. “Cheese plate?”

Beca nodded, “Bring three of each, thanks.” She dropped into the chair closest to the stage and reached down to the bag she left under the chair. She absently tucked a pendant back inside her blouse and lifted out a towel she used to wipe her neck and face. “Sorry, the lights are hot. Nice of you to come up!” She said to Chloe.

Chloe took a deep breath, feeling stupid that she was nervous. “I feel stupid I sang that song last night, I didn’t know you were so talented,” she swallowed hard. Maybe the drink would help her find her chill. She wasn’t used to getting flustered.

“You sound awesome tonight,” Jessica piped up. “Thanks for letting us play.”

Beca tossed the towel down. First, she looked at Jessica, “Thanks for finally getting your butts up here.” She grinned, “You know it feels weird on a Friday when you guys don’t come. You’re my good luck charms.”

“My fault, Beca. Well, Josh’s. He was late and Stephanie hasn’t cleared probation yet.” Ashley sighed dramatically.

Beca grinned before she turned toward Chloe and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “You slayed last night. Don’t let anyone say you can’t sing torch.” She leaned back, “Hell, I was trying to decide if I should let you three sing and I’ll just play for ya.”

Chloe giggled, then blushed at how silly it sounded. She looked at Jessica, silently asking for help.

Jessica rubbed Ashley’s arm, “It’s hard breaking in new talent.” She grinned at Chloe. “Maybe later on you could back this one on Sunday Kind of Love, though. It was nice dancing with my girl last night.” Her eyes were full of mischief.

Beca grinned as she took a sip of water. “That’s not a bad idea.” She tilted her head to one side, “But maybe you could come early next week and we could try it out first. I’d hate to make you sing to live music when you are used to tracks.” She arched an eyebrow as she offered the invitation.

Chloe smiled at the out. “Maybe so,” she said. “I haven’t sung in front of crowds that weren’t already drunk in a long time. We’ll see,” she nodded and looked back toward the bar, hoping her drink would arrive soon. She looked back at Beca, “You really don’t need any help, though. You’ve got this crowd in the palm of your hand.”

Before Beca could answer, Damon arrived with an extra bottle of water and Chloe’s drink. Behind him was a waitress carrying a platter of cheese, meat, fruit and nuts. She placed it in the middle of the table. “Thanks,” Beca waited for a name to be offered.

“Adeline,” Damon introduced the new girl, “this is Beca. She plays here Wednesday, and Friday through Sunday. Sometimes, she brings friends,” Damon smirked.

Beca laughed, “Nice to meet you, Adeline. These are Ashley, Jessica and Chloe.”

Adeline bobbed a curtsey and skittered away.

Damon coughed to hide a laugh. “First night jitters.”

Ashley shook her head, “Where are all these new kids coming from?”

Damon shrugged and headed back to the bar.

“Okay that’s the prettiest cheese plate I’ve seen in a while.” Chloe looked at Beca, “It’s to share?”

Jessica reached over for a candied pecan. “You think she can eat all this by herself?”

Chloe was caught by the sparkle in Beca’s blue eyes. “I was right,” she muttered aloud.

“Right about what?” Beca asked as she stood up. “And yeah, please, help yourself.” She grabbed a slice of turkey as she gestured toward the plate.

“Oh. I had an argument with my best friend last night. I swore your eyes were blue,” Chloe smiled at Beca playfully.

Beca grinned, “You win. Although some people think they are black. Makes me more mysterious.” She winked as she finished the turkey. As soon as she sat down, she began a rousing rendition of The Entertainer.

Chloe watched Beca playing to the crowd all evening. She marveled at the quality of Beca’s voice, especially on torch songs. She did think their voices would blend nicely, but she wasn’t going to push it.

Chloe had so many questions. The necklace seemed like an heirloom. Beca sang like she’d been on stage all her life. Her eyes danced when she engaged the audience. Chloe was entranced.

Mostly Chloe wanted to know where Beca had been all her life. Chloe grew up in Tulsa, was heavy into the arts scene, and dated guys who took her to swanky clubs. Why hadn’t she ever seen Beca before?

When Beca finished her last song, she took a stroll around the room. She paused at every table to shake hands.

Ashley leaned over. “Here’s where she makes her money. You might notice there’s no tip jar.”

Chloe watched, intrigued. Sure enough, at almost every table someone, usually an older gentleman, slipped cash into Beca’s hand. She quietly pocketed it as if nothing had happened. “Smooth,” Chloe nodded at Ashley.

Jessica giggled, “One time she got a gold coin, like the ones you read get dropped in the Christmas collections.”

Ashley nodded, “she’s really generous, too. She’ll probably insist on paying for the wine tonight as well as the plate, just because we sang back up a couple of times.”

Chloe laughed at the idea of Beca’s tip echoing a Salvation Army donation. “She’s pretty amazing,” Chloe turned to Jessica and Ashley, her eyes shining.

Jessica looked at Ashley, a little worried. They didn’t really know Chloe, and she’d brought a man to karaoke. She hoped she wasn’t setting Beca up for another fall.

Beca finished the last table and made it back to her friends. “I’m beat.” She said as she dropped into her chair. “Think it’s quiet downstairs?” She asked Ashley.

Ashley nodded, “Nothing was scheduled again tonight. Baseball game might be on tv, that’s about it.” She hesitated, knowing Jessica was worried, but decided one night wouldn’t be a problem. “You wanna join us, Chloe?”

Chloe looked around, nervous she’d be horning in. “If it’s okay I’d actually really like that. I hate to intrude,” she searched Beca’s eyes for a hint.

Beca smirked, “I’m lousy company after a show, but you are welcome to come along.” She pulled at her hair.

Ashley stood, “I’ll get the tab. That’s her first tell.”

Damon waved Ashley off.

Ashley glared at Beca, “Did you pay again?”

Beca shrugged, “Get me a burger downstairs.”

“Don’t think I won’t.” Ashley muttered as she looked around the table, “Shall we?”

Chloe watched the interaction with a smile. These were clearly old friends. She really didn’t want the night to end yet. “They have burgers downstairs? I’m in.”

Jessica walked over to Beca and pretended to haul her up by the elbow. “Come on, Grumpy, let’s get you some food.” She winked at Chloe as they headed toward the elevator.

Chapter Text

Ashley gestured at a table at the back of the restaurant. “You guys settle. Swiss mushroom for Beca, and a Guinness warm. Jess, you want cheesecake? What’ll you have, Chloe?” She waited near the bar as Stephanie nodded and wrote down the preliminary order. Josh leaned against the back counter, arms crossed and watching.

“I’m actually starving,” Chloe admitted. “Do they have bacon cheeseburgers?”

“Now I wish I hadn’t already eaten, that sounds awesome,” Jessica laughed. “I love their bacon cheeseburgers.”

“I’ll give you a bite,” Chloe grinned.

Ashley nodded with a grin as well. “What kind of cheese? Bacon is applewood, if that helps.” She glared at Josh, who was making Stephanie do all of the work. He jumped into action, reaching for a glass to pour the warm Guinness slowly, allowing the head to form properly.

“Oh, I think cheddar is the only way to go,” Chloe replied with a nod.

Beca just dropped into the booth at the indicated table. She put her head back and looked up at the ceiling. Her eyes caught the image of Marilyn Monroe on the wall beside her. “Patron saint of lost causes, Marilyn? You didn’t choose too good either,” she muttered as she wondered at how her life had turned out. The only person who showed up at her gigs was a straight chick who stepped out of a fashion magazine. “Fuck me,” she muttered again.

Jessica kissed Ashley’s cheek. “Cheesecake to share would be lovely. Let’s go see if Beca’s ready for company yet, Chloe. I have to warn you, she can be monosyllabic right after the show is done.”

“She seemed to chat pretty well with the people upstairs,” Chloe said as she followed Jessica.

Jessica nodded, “Sure. That’s part of the job. Our little introvert uses up all of her energy that way.” She gestured for Chloe to slide into the booth beside Beca, then scooted in beside her leaving room for Ashley on the end.

Beca lifted her head with a smile at them both, “Hey.”

Josh followed close behind with the Guinness. “What would you ladies like to drink?” He glanced over his shoulder, “Ashley is showing Stephanie how to ring up for employees. She’ll be right back.”

Beca picked up the beer with a smile, lifted it in a sort of toast and took a sip.

“Irish coffee, if you’ve got coffee on,” Chloe replied. “If not, then an amaretto on ice.”

“Just water, thanks,” Jessica replied. She grinned at Beca, who seemed to be trying to disappear into the wall.

Beca glared at Jessica over the glass she was drinking from.

Josh nodded and asked Chloe, “Leaded or unleaded?”

Chloe considered for a moment, “Let’s go for broke. Jameson’s in decaf, please.”

Ashley showed up with the cheesecake, a shot of Bailey’s and two forks. “Food will be up in a minute. Josh, I need water all around but I ran out of hands.” Ashley winked at Chloe and whispered to Josh, “True Irish coffee but hold the caffeine.”

Josh winked, “Got ya covered. Stephanie will be over with water in a minute.”

Jessica noticed the shot of Bailey’s and rubbed Ashley’s back as Ashley sat next to her. “You do think of everything,” she cooed.

“You like to shoot Bailey’s?” Chloe looked at Ashley and Jessica, confused.

As Josh nodded and walked away, she replied to Chloe, “Nah, it’s the topping for the cheesecake.” She poured a bit over the dessert and pushed it toward Chloe. “Give it a taste.”

Chloe was intrigued. She took a small piece of cheesecake with the Irish cream topping and rolled it around in her mouth, her eyes closed in bliss. “I’ve been eating cheesecake wrong my entire life,” she opened her eyes and smiled at Ashley.

Jessica nodded and slid the plate back so she and Ashley could share. “I fully recommend marrying a bartender,” she grinned at Ashley and offered her a bite of cheesecake.

Stephanie arrived with four water glasses. She placed them around the table before she spoke. “You guys were all so awesome yesterday. I really loved the show.” She grinned. “Maybe someday I’ll have the courage to sing, too.”

“Learn the job well, Steph. I’ll give ya breathers to play just like you give me.” Ashley winked at the girl.

Beca roused herself from her mood long enough to say, “Yeah, the more the merrier.”

Ashley smirked, “Five whole words before a burger, Bec?”

Beca sipped her beer and flipped Ashley off.

Chloe stifled a giggle when Beca so casually flipped Ashley off. She raised an eyebrow at Jessica, who shrugged with a grin toward Beca. “Did I mention?”

Beca gave a smarmy fake smile and returned to sipping her beer.

Stephanie hurried off after she saw Beca flip off Ashley to put a rush on the burgers.

Ashley accepted the bite, the smiled fondly at Jessica, “Marrying a baker isn’t half bad either.”

Jessica took another quick bite, “You only love me for my cookies,” she teased.

“Not true.” Ashley shook her head. “I love you for your cakes, too.”

Beca glowered over her glass again.

Chloe turned toward Beca, eyes dancing. “So I should wait until after you eat to mention how much I enjoyed the performance.” She glanced back at Jessica. “You guys were damn solid back up, too.”

Jessica nodded, “Careful, don’t poke the bear.” She grinned again, “And like I said, it’s just fun to have a chance to sing in public. Beca’s generous to let us play along sometimes.”

Ashley arched an eyebrow when Josh returned with a steaming glass mug. “Recipe.”

“I’m not the trainee,” Josh growled. But as he put the drink down before Chloe, he recited. “Warm the cup. When warm, pour in 1 1/2 ounces of Jameson’s and 1/2 ounce of Kahlua. Add decaf coffee to 3/4 full. Top with real whip cream and shaved chocolate.” He glared at Ashley.

Ashley smiled and nodded, “Thanks for not embarrassing me.”

Josh turned away, muttering, “Can’t say the same.” He paused when Stephanie arrived with the burgers. “Cheddar bacon,” he pointed at Chloe. “Swiss mushroom,” he pointed at Beca.

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “I was there.”

Chloe accepted the mug with a smile. “Nectar of the gods,” she whispered and glanced at Beca again. “Those burgers look incredible too. I thought I’d made it through a hangover day without giving in to my craving,” she laughed. “Gotta break down and have a burger at some point, right? And hair of the dog.” She winked at Jessica and began to pull her burger apart. She set the top bun aside, then pulled off the bacon to eat separately. The catsup was on the other side of Beca. “May I?” She started to reach across for the bottle.

Beca watched in fascination as Chloe dismantled the burger. She had a bemused smile on her face as she handed over the catsup bottle and continued to watch.

Ashley nudged Jessica and looked pointedly at the two.

Chloe poured some catsup on the edge of her plate, then handed the bottle back to Beca. “Thanks, doll.” She proceeded to cut off a bite of burger, then a small bit of bacon, spear both with her fork and dip it in catsup before popping it into her mouth. “Mmm,” she moaned and nodded at Jessica. She gestured toward her mouth with her fork and nodded again. “Mmm.”

Jessica giggled, “I told you the burgers were awesome.”

Chloe’s eyes grew wide and she hurried to swallow the bite. “I totally forgot I was going to give you some.” She pulled a butter dish over, dumped the individually wrapped butters onto the table, then placed a good quarter of the burger on the dish before sliding it back to Jessica.

“It’s too much!” Jessica protested.

“I don’t believe in anything being too much,” Chloe smirked. “It’s always best to have a little more than you can handle, even if it means you can’t finish. Then you know you got enough.”

Beca leaned her head on her fist and continued to watch. She had never met anyone like Chloe, and the way she just plowed on through hell and high water was quite entertaining.

Ashley caught Beca’s eye and pointed at the burger.

Beca shook her head as if to clear it and nodded. She neither added nor subtracted anything; she picked up the burger and took a bite.

Chloe assembled another bite and noticed Beca watching her. She smiled sweetly as she popped the bite into her mouth. After she swallowed she leaned toward Beca conspiratorially. “I can’t wait for that food to hit your system. We might get a complete sentence, right?”

Jessica watched as Chloe teased Beca and waited to see what happened next. She had to admit there seemed to be a connection between the two. Then again, Chloe also seemed to have chemistry with the burger on her plate, so maybe it was just how the redhead was.

Beca hurriedly swallowed. She managed a smirk, “I dunno. Seems I need a songwriter or a script writer to remember how to talk.”

Ashley laughed from her side of the table. “She liiiiiiiiives.”

Chloe’s eyes sparkled, “By my calculations that’s two sentences. Let the party commence.” She grinned at Ashley and leaned slightly toward Jessica, “I think I’ll reserve my adulation for a few more bites, though.”

Jessica raised an eyebrow at Beca and nodded to Chloe. “Just in case.”

Chloe nodded sagely.

Beca smiled at Jessica and flipped her and Ashley off with a double handed salute. Then she picked up her burger for another bite. After she swallowed she muttered, “With friends like you…”

Ashley reached across the table to pat Beca’s arm. “It’s ok, Grumpy, we love you anyway.”

Beca smile turned into a half smirk and she looked up at Marilyn’s picture. “You’d be solid, right, Marilyn?”

Jessica shook her head and looked at Chloe. “Yeah, a few more bites. But the spunk is coming back. Just keep your hands and feet firmly inside the ride until the car comes to a complete stop.”

Chloe tilted her head and knitted her eyebrows, then made a show of carefully moving her knife and fork to the side of the plate opposite Beca. She laughed and pointed at Beca’s plate. “Almost half done, I can wait.”

Beca snorted but had another bite of her burger. Seeing how well Chloe got on with Jessica and Ashley, even at her expense, was fun. Didn’t change the fact that she was crushing on a straight girl, but maybe she could at least have someone to talk to when the couple were being insufferably cute.

“Hey, Bec, were you serious about doing a song with Chloe?” Ashley asked. “No words necessary, just grunt and nod or shake your head.”

Beca swallowed, “Jesus, Jonesy, leave off a little, huh?” She rolled her eyes. “I’m not that bad.”

Ashley smirked, “Got you to talk, though.”

Chloe concentrated on stirring her drink. She looked at Beca more seriously. “If you want I could come in sometime, give you a chance to hear me for real.” She sipped the concoction. “Holy shit, Beca, you have to taste this. If it doesn’t wake you up I don’t know what will.”

Beca chuckled, but accepted the cup. “Decaf waking me up? Doctored decaf?” She arched an eyebrow, but took a sip. With a half smile she nodded her approval. “Not bad for doctored colored water.”

Ashley rolled her eyes. “You just prefer to drink tar.”

Beca shrugged as she handed the cup back. Then she answered Chloe’s question. “I don’t think I need to hear much. I’m more worried that I won’t play at a consistent rhythm and throw you off. It’s been a while since I played as an accompanist.”

Chloe took the mug back from Beca with a smirk. “Ashley, whoever mixed this deserves a raise.”

Ashley snorted. “My recipe, Chloe. I taught him.”

“Compliments,” Chloe raised the glass toward Ashley. She turned back to Beca. “Sure. I mean, you’ve already got a wealth of talent with these two,” she gestured toward Ashley and Jessica. “I’m happy with karaoke.”

Jessica shot Beca a glance. “Yeah, your schedule is pretty full these days, isn’t it?”

Beca nodded. “Yeah, I guess it is.” She ran her hand through her hair, tugging on the end as she reached it. “Just hate giving up the chance to play you know?” She grinned at Jessica. “Not like LA.”

“You played in LA?” Chloe asked Beca. “I’m not surprised. You’re super talented,” she leaned her head on her hand, blue eyes shining at Beca.

Jessica noticed that Beca was staring blankly at Chloe. “She had some good gigs. I knew her when I was at school out there.” She glanced at Ashley, her eyebrow cocked. “Where did you learn to sing, Chloe?”

Chloe shifted her gaze toward Jessica, feeling a little bereft losing the connection with Beca. “Oh,” she played over the question in her mind again now that she was focused, “Music theater at TU. I’ve been a theater nerd since I was 12. Broadway musicals are my guilty pleasure.”

Beca blinked and swallowed the last of her beer. She sighed and looked at the empty glass, wishing for the fortification. Now that she was free from Chloe’s gaze she managed to rejoin the conversation. “Musicals are a great escape.” She smiled encouragingly, “Porter and Gershwin are national treasures.”

Ashley smirked and stood up. “One more beer, Grumpy, then you should get your ass home. You drank water all set, right?”

Beca looked up at Ashley gratefully. “Yeah. Beer gums up the pipes.”

Jessica leaned over to pat Beca’s hand. “Good girl.”

Chloe considered her empty plate and almost empty drink. “I should probably go soon anyway. It’s been a long day.” She smiled at Jessica, “Thanks for inviting me up, it was certainly better than anything I’d expected from this night.”

Chloe turned to Beca again. “Can I ask you a question?”

Beca smiled and nodded, “Sure.”

Chloe pulled her phone from her purse and slid it toward Beca. “Would you mind giving me your number?” She hesitated, suddenly shy. “You know, just in case you have a couple of minutes of free time and want to play around?”

Ashley snorted at the last two words while she brought a fresh Guinness to Beca.

Beca glared at Ashley before she smiled, took the phone and added her number. “Mind if I text myself so I have your number?”

Chloe nodded. “Sure.” She glanced at Ashley, then leaned closer to Beca. “I have to tell you, and I hope I’m not overstepping, but you should know you have the most gorgeous blue eyes I’ve ever seen.”

Jessica looked at Ashley, her head tilted. “Boys are stupid,” she whispered so only Ashley could hear.

Ashley nodded and sat back down. She leaned over to kiss Jessica’s hair to whisper, “Think she’s okay for Grumpy?”

Beca blushed and looked up. She rolled her eyes, “They’re being disgustingly cute again. It gets difficult to eat around them sometimes.” She slid back the phone, swallowed, and picked up her own to save the number. “Your eyes are pretty spectacular,” she added softly.

Jessica giggled at Ashley’s whisper and shrugged. “It might be fun to find out?” She whispered in reply. When she finally sat back in her chair, Jessica sent Beca a text.

Jessica: we have a jar at home labeled Bail for Beca.

Chloe’s eyes flashed at the compliment. “Thanks,” she smiled at Beca as she picked up her phone. “Ladies, it has truly been a pleasure. Maybe I’ll see you Thursday?”

Beca stifled a laugh as she saw the text from Jessica. She slid out of the booth to give Chloe a way out. “Hope so.” She smiled specifically at Chloe.

Ashley nodded, “Can’t wait to see what song you pick next. Maybe we will do something by the Chicks, the three of us.”

Chloe winked at Beca once more and turned to leave. Once she was out the door, Jessica grinned at Beca. “She seems nice.”

Beca slid back into the booth. “Shit, Lucky. You trying to kill me?”

Ashley smirked, “She walked in tonight saying boys were stupid. We thought she’d like to know girls were stupid, too.”

Jessica laughed out loud, “What a way to go, though, right?” She grinned once more at Beca.

All Beca could do was sip her beer and nod.

 

Later, Beca parked on her driveway and walked into the house. She always felt bad when a new person hung out after the show. She shook her head and pulled her phone out of her pocket.

Beca: hope I don’t wake you. Just wanna say I hope I wasn’t a total dick tonight.

Chloe was sitting in bed watching old reruns on her iPad. When Beca texted she grinned and closed all other apps.

Chloe: hey! Not asleep. And you weren’t that bad. Just tired.
Beca: you are too kind. Speaking of, it was sorta awesome you came to the show tonight. How’d you know I was there?
Chloe: I didn’t. Jessica and Ashley surprised me with it. I wasn’t kidding though, you’re kind of amazing.

Beca felt a blush crawl up her neck. She took off her jacket and headed back to the bedroom, changing out of her work clothes on the way. All that was left besides dropping her dirties in the laundry was to take off her lingerie and slip into her pjs.

Beca: sorry, had to get ready for bed. Glad you like the show. I keep tinkering with it. I’ll like it someday.
Chloe: all that’s missing is a fiery redhead.
Beca: in the show or in the bed?
Chloe: I guess that’s up to you.
Beca: in part.

Beca laughed, knowing she was playing with fire.

Beca: I should probably at least ask you out before we negotiate the rest.

Chloe giggled.

Chloe: discretion is the better part of valor
Beca: is that a no?
Chloe: really? I’m complimenting your chivalry. Beca, please invite me out for a date? I need to know if I’ll be singing or moaning.

Beca laughed out loud.

Beca: 4:30 tomorrow? Baxter’s?
Chloe: wild horses couldn’t keep me away. Sleep well, angel.
Beca: g’night bright eyes.

Chapter Text

Aubrey stepped into the Boiler Room at precisely 8:50 Saturday morning. She looked around the restaurant but there was no Stacie. Aubrey checked in with the hostess. “I’m meeting a friend,” she said matter of factly.

The hostess nodded and looked at something on her podium. “Miss Aubrey Posen?” She asked.

“Yes,” Aubrey replied.

“I have a message to send you to the concierge desk,” the hostess gestured toward the lobby.

Aubrey nodded, her brows knitted, “Thank you.” When she checked in at concierge, the man behind the desk handed her a key card and instructed her to take the elevator to 20 West.

Aubrey nodded once more. As she rode the elevator to the 20th floor she worried. In her craziest imagination she wondered if she was being kidnapped. More reasonable lines of thought tended toward Stacie’s plans for the morning. Had she taken out a hotel room? She’d said this would be the third date, but Aubrey wondered if she had changed her mind and created a not so subtle opportunity for them to explore fourth date territory.

Either way, Aubrey intended to chastise Stacie if she’d paid for a room when they could have met at Aubrey’s apartment free of charge. She stepped off the elevator and followed the sign to 20 West. In the middle of a hallway lined with pictures of Tulsa from the 1920s there was a single door. Aubrey looked at the key card in her hand, then used it to open the lock. She felt slightly as if she’d stepped into a spy film as she pushed the door open.

Stacie had been pacing for a good twenty minutes. First, it was while waiting for room service to bring and set up breakfast at the breakfast bar. Then it had been waiting for Aubrey. She would walk from her bedroom door, past the locked office door, past the unsecured front door, past the hallway to the third bedroom and to the foyer that led to the living area. Then she would whirl and walk back.

She had just finished a pass to the breakfast bar and was turning back toward her bedroom when she heard the door click. She froze, subconsciously pulling the hem of her green blouse down over the waistband of her black slacks. In the seconds before Aubrey entered, she also fluffed her hair around her shoulders and hoped Aubrey meant it about glasses, since she still hadn’t received her new contacts. She smiled nervously as Aubrey entered. “Hi, um, I hope you are hungry.”

Aubrey paused just inside the door, allowing it to click closed behind her. She held her breath when she saw Stacie. “How did I already forget how stunning you are?”

Stacie felt her breath catch. She bit her lip and took a step toward Aubrey. “It’s so good to see you.”

Aubrey smiled and moved forward, “It’s good to see you, too.” She was distracted by the expansive room behind Stacie. A kitchen island opened onto a large living area with a wall of windows facing west. “Tell me you didn’t book this room just for breakfast,” Aubrey looked back at Stacie, confused.

Stacie shook her head. “Afraid not,” she blushed and extended a hand to Aubrey. “Come in, let me show you around.”

Aubrey tilted her head, still confused, but accepted the offered hand. “It’s beautiful,” she said softly. “I had no idea there were such massive suites up here.”

“This is one of the few three bedroom suites. If you had turned left, you would have been headed toward my bedroom or office.” Stacie felt her heart hammering as she tried to explain. “Most of the time, there’s just me here, but we chose it so I could entertain prospective clients.”

Aubrey processed that information as she followed Stacie. She came to a halt suddenly, “Wait. You live here?”

Stacie nodded, then blushed. “And I just realized that last sentence made me sound like a prostitute. I promise, I am not a high end call girl.” She laughed awkwardly and invited Aubrey to sit down. The breakfast bar had the same meal from the day before, scrambled eggs and Belgian waffle under cover until they were ready to eat. There was also a carafe of coffee and another of orange juice.

Aubrey blushed for no reason she could think of at the mention of Stacie being a prostitute. She struggled for what to say next. “It’s a little overwhelming,” she finally admitted. “In a good way,” she quickly followed up. “I just don’t understand why you keep it a secret.”

Stacie smiled, “I hope to explain a lot of things. I just wanted somewhere private to do it.” She shrugged, “This was the most private place I could think of.”

Aubrey perched on edge of her chair, looking over the breakfast spread Stacie had prepared. “It smells marvelous. And you remembered what we had yesterday,” Aubrey smiled at Stacie. “I’m awake, right?”

“I promise.” Stacie poured two cups of coffee and added two spoons of sugar to Aubrey’s before passing it over. “2 sugars, right?”

Aubrey nodded, “It’s nice how you notice things like that.”

Stacie smiled, “I notice everything about you.” She tilted her head to one side, “For example, I notice how amazing you look when you wear white.”

Aubrey glanced down at her blouse, “Thank you.” She fidgeted with a button on the blouse. “So tell me, woman of mystery, do we eat first or talk first?”

“Please,” Stacie gestured to the plates. “I would hate for it to get cold. I worry I will ruin your appetite again.”

Aubrey felt her stomach flip and decided it would be best to set any speculation aside so she could get through breakfast. She placed the napkin in her lap and picked up her fork. “I don’t know why, but I think it tastes better when it’s just the two of us,” Aubrey smiled after her first bite.

“I can’t disagree.” Stacie smiled again. She took several bites and then appeared to be considering what to say. Finally she asked, “Would you like to start by asking questions? It may be less boring then me plowing through from beginning to end.”

Aubrey considered as she chewed. “Okay,” she turned to look at Stacie. “Are you actually an international spy?”

Stacie laughed, “No. I am not a spy, nor do I work for any international organization. However, my parents are in the diplomatic corp, if that counts.”

Aubrey chuckled, “I’ve met people from the diplomatic corp at my father’s dinner parties. Definitely not as glamorous as international spies.” She dangled her fork between her fingers, “So what exactly is your line of work, Stacie?”

“I,” Stacie considered how to answer that. She decided to go with the field of study and expand from there. “Nanobiometrics. I work with itty bitty little structures and find ways to use them to keep people healthier.”

Aubrey gaped openly, “You’re a legit scientist.” Her heart raced as she tried to keep her cool.

“PhD in nanobiometrics from MIT.” Stacie confirmed.

“Wow,” Aubrey digested the information. “Wait, though. A PhD?” She tried to fit the timeline with Stacie’s age. “Didn’t you say you’re 23? I was busy failing my second year of law school when I was 23.”

Stacie nodded and put her fork down. “Now comes story time.” She sighed. “My parents sent me to boarding school when I was five. I was already asking too many questions and too interested in mechanical things for them to manage in their line of work.” She smiled ruefully. “I graduated at 13.”

Aubrey watched as Stacie seemed to shrink before her eyes. “That must have been lonely,” she said in a soft voice. “Boarding school is hard enough, but college before you’re a teenager must feel incredibly isolating.”

“Thank you,” Stacie said earnestly. “Most people don’t think of that.” She studied the food on her plate and made herself take another bite of the sweet waffle. After she swallowed, she continued. “MIT made me select a guardian. I got lucky. Rib, Roberta, took me on. I was emancipated at 16, but she remained my guardian for MIT regulations until I was 18.” Stacie looked up at Aubrey. “I held both my bachelors and masters by then.” She smiled softly. “Rib had a heart attack that year.”

Aubrey pushed her plate away and turned her chair toward Stacie, “Oh, sweetie.”

“I changed my dissertation. See, Rib has a skin sensitivity to the adhesive they use on items like the EKG sensors. Her blood pressure would go up from her reaction to the irritation every time they tried to get a reading on her heart.” Stacie looked off into the distance. “I’d heard companies were trying to use light to get heartbeat readings to add to smart watches. I read up on it and I designed an alternating diode system that could estimate the blood volume moving through skin.” She looked at Aubrey, “No adhesive necessary.”

“That’s incredible,” Aubrey breathed. “You’re incredible.” She stared down at her hands. “I just make pianos sound better for churches that wouldn’t approve of my fascination with you. You’re saving lives.”

Stacie shook her head. “Music matters. It’s…” she paused, “Rib loves piano music. It was the one thing we could use during her recovery to calm her down when she would get agitated. She loves classical and light jazz.” Stacie looked at Aubrey, “Science and music are cousins. Both need math to succeed.”

Aubrey nodded. “Have you ever believed in destiny?”

“I don’t know.” Stacie answered honestly. “I know the choices I made when I was 13 had a huge impact on who I am now. I don’t know who I would be had I gone to Rochester or Cal Tech instead. Is that destiny?”

“Maybe so,” Aubrey mused. “I’m still testing a hypothesis. I’ll get back to you on it, hopefully sooner rather than later.” She stepped down from her bar stool. “Right now will you hug me? I’d like to wrap you up and feel that you’re real.”

Stacie smiled and stood up. She opened her arms and tilted her head to one side. “I’m real. I promise.”

Aubrey buried her head in Stacie’s hair and wrapped her arms firmly around her. “Thank you for telling me everything,” she said softly. “It seems like a lot for one person to bear.”

“I’ve spent my life not being what people expect.” Stacie said quietly. “Sometimes, it’s just easier to go with their expectation.” She rested her head against Aubrey, “So I say I’m interested in cuticle care, or the E Network. Or I pretend not to know the thermodynamics of human heat on a wine glass.” She took a deep breath, “I didn’t want to pretend with you.”

Aubrey squeezed Stacie a little tighter, then pulled back to look her in the eye, “I feel honored to be trusted so deeply.”

Stacie winced. “You should know, Roberta is doing a background check. You passed, so far, which is why I can tell you this much. I’m not allowed to talk about my current project until they finish.” She rolled her eyes, “They are worried you are the international spy.”

Aubrey giggled, “That does sound like the government, though. My dad’s security clearance is pretty high, they watch me like a hawk. Background checks are not a problem with me.” She tilted her head, eyes twinkling. “I don’t mean to change the subject, and if there’s more you want to tell me I’m all ears, but don’t think I haven’t noticed your casual use of thermodynamics of human heat in a sentence.”

Stacie laughed and her shoulders relaxed. “What am I going to do with you?”

Aubrey lowered her head and her voice, “I’m kind of aching to find out.”

“It’s only the third date,” Stacie teased. “Is there anything else I can answer, though? Anything I’ve overlooked?”

Aubrey thought about it and shook her head. “No, I think that’s been a pretty comprehensive disclosure. But what would you like to know about me?”

Stacie moved to lean against her stool, but pulled Aubrey along so she was nestled between Stacie’s legs. “Chloe implied you are an accomplished pianist. You mentioned not passing second year law. That surprises me, by the way.” She tilted her head to one side. “Why tune? I mean, it’s fascinating and I may have to get a piano just so I can watch you, but why do it?”

Aubrey gave a small shrug, “Pianos are predictable. When you turn the peg, the string stretches or relaxes. It’s always the same. And when I’m finished the piano is happy and sounds as beautiful as it possibly can.” She glanced up at Stacie, “Most people tend to leave the room when someone is tuning a piano, too, which means I don’t have to deal with chit chat.”

“Are you telling me you are a world class introvert?” Stacie teased. “Why even start law school, then?” She followed up.

“Guilty,” Aubrey nodded. “Law school seemed like a good way to use my talents at debate and my strong skills as a student to do something meaningful in the world. The pressure was too much for me, though. I had a bit of a breakdown and needed to drop out.” She stared at the floor.

Stacie nodded and pressed her head against Aubrey’s. “That sucks. I understand, though.” She laughed quietly. “I go to karaoke on doctor’s orders. I work here at home on doctor’s orders. I put so much pressure on myself that I caused my own collapse. Now, I have a regimented schedule to follow.” She smiled mischievously. “Although I am terrible about following it.”

“Kind of like I’m getting terrible at following my rules?” Aubrey grinned, then grew serious. “You don’t think I’m a failure?”

“Why would I think that?” Stacie frowned. “I think it was Edison who said he had 9,999 ways the light bulb wouldn’t work. People don’t fail, experiments fail. Then you rewrite, recalibrate, redesign and start again. Law school was an experiment that didn’t work. I’m guessing for reasons you don’t have to disclose that a music career had a similar outcome. Piano tuning seems to be successful. That’s better odds than Edison. Or was it Einstein.” She shrugged. “Eh.”

Aubrey’s eyes were shining. “I’m going to kiss you now, Miss - I mean Dr. - Conrad.”

Stacie smiled and tugged at Aubrey to get closer. “I can live with that.” Her voice dropped into a lower register.

Aubrey placed her lips gently against Stacie’s and felt the same thrill she’d felt Thursday. She brought her hands up to hold Stacie’s face. She broke the kiss and leaned back to whisper, “You have a dissertation. Oh my God.”

Stacie giggled, “I do, and four patents.”

Aubrey moaned and ran a thumb across Stacie’s bottom lip. “I might ask you to go into further detail on all of that.”

“I usually make Rib do the talking, but for you,” Stacie nuzzled Aubrey’s neck. “I’ll make an exception.”

“We won’t talk very long, I promise,” Aubrey breathed and began to kiss the side of Stacie’s neck.

 

Some time later, Stacie looked down at the blonde head nestled against her chest. She couldn’t see Aubrey’s face, and despite the exhilaration of the moment, Stacie couldn’t help but worry that Aubrey was having second thoughts already. “Hey, you okay?”

Aubrey shook her head, “I’m actually more than okay.” She placed a kiss where her head had been resting and turned smiling eyes toward Stacie. “You?”

Stacie smiled with relief. “I’m great.” She placed a kiss on Aubrey’s forehead.

Aubrey put her head down again. Her hand lazily traveled in circles on Stacie’s stomach. “We left a mess in your living room,” she half chuckled.

“I can’t find it in myself to care.” Stacie’s breath caught as Aubrey caressed her. “You make it really hard to think.” She laughed breathlessly.

“Mmm,” Aubrey hummed. “If only I had the strength to follow through with the thoughts still racing through my brain.” She leaned back to look at Stacie’s face. “I recover quickly, though. Fair warning. Doc.”

Stacie reached down to kiss Aubrey, “Noted,” she whispered. “While we recover,” she chuckled as she leaned back again, “do we have to talk about burning the shit out of your book?”

Aubrey threw her head back laughing. “Burn it all down,” she grinned. “Maybe we do. It’s caused more strife this week than happiness. Let’s lock it away as a relic of the past me. Maybe you can help me create a new one?”

“You’ve mentioned that before. I’d like to revisit that idea, but first I need a promise.” Stacie looked serious.

Aubrey propped herself on her elbow. “Okay. What do you have in mind?” Stacie’s serious eyes worried Aubrey.

Stacie lifted a hand to caress the side of Aubrey’s face. “When or if this backs up on you, when the habit of your rules raises its ugly head to worry you….talk to me? Don’t try to figure it out on your own?”

“It won’t,” Aubrey said confidently. “I feel happier than I have in a long time. I can’t imagine that turning sour.”

“I’m the queen of resolutions,” Stacie said softly as she lightly traced Aubrey’s cheek and jaw. “Ashley has standing orders to harass me until I come downstairs for karaoke. We’ve tried food services, and a SmartBed. I always revert to bad habits when I get busy, or cranky, or irritable.” She smiled at Aubrey, “you just may be the impetus I need to keep a healthier life, if just so I can spend more time with you.” She took a deep breath, “so if,” she emphasized the word, “you start to feel that old life pulling, just remember I’m here, okay?”

Aubrey moved to kiss the hand caressing her face. “I promise. You promise it won’t freak you out?”

“It won’t freak me out. I may worry about you, or us, but I think if we talk about it, we can work through it. If you get stuck in your head and I get stuck in mine, well,” Stacie winced, “I don’t know if getting stuck in your head is as weird as getting stuck in mine…but we will do better if that doesn’t happen.”

Aubrey ran her hand along Stacie’s temple and down her cheek, “Such a beautiful mind to be stuck in.” She tilted her head, “Maybe I’ll just crawl in there with you.”

Stacie laughed quietly. “It’s a scary place. Full of facts and figures and it’s own version of Scylla and Charybdis.”

“You’re not making it sound any less appealing,” Aubrey purred. She ran a finger from Stacie’s chin down to the valley between her breasts. She watched the finger, then glanced back up at Stacie. “I promise, I’ll talk before I get wrapped in panic. And I should warn you, I’m starting to feel recuperated. Speak science to me, Doc,” she picked up Stacie’s hand and kissed from fingertips all the way to shoulder.

Chapter Text

Stacie put the phone down and smiled at Aubrey. “All set. I got added to the day’s cleaning schedule. But we really should bug out for a couple of hours. I won’t be popular because of my monster apartment, even if they don’t have to clean one room.” She stood up. “So what are you hungry for? Want to walk to Billy on the Square for a veggie burger, head to FrootBowl for your favorite metabolic building blocks mixed into yogurt, or Mods for a veggie crepe?” She tilted her head, “I am pretty sure they use vegetable oil.”

Aubrey sat up, trying to ignore how incredible Stacie looked now that she was up and walking and talking in that body. She shook her head a little to clear it, and looked at where her watch would normally be. “You’ve got me all discombobulated, Doc.” She laughed. “The FrootBowl sounds the healthiest, I’m sure my metabolism is wondering what the heck is going on right now.”

Stacie walked out to the living room and returned with Aubrey’s watch and some of her clothes. “Would you rather try some of my stuff, see if it fits?”

“It seems you might like that, Doc.” Aubrey teased.

“Of course I would,” Stacie’s eyes danced. “I am sort of looking forward to you dressed in one of my shirts, maybe too long and tied up.” Her eyes glazed briefly, “Yep, yep, gonna like that.”

Aubrey chuckled, “You choose it, I’ll wear it.”

A little over half an hour later, Stacie stole a glance at Aubrey and smirked. “Yep, yep, just like I thought,” she whispered as they exited the Mayo and she took Aubrey’s hand.

Aubrey looked down at her tied up shirt and shorts. “I was just feeling sexy because these clothes have only ever been next to your skin,” she said as she squeezed Stacie’s hand.

“You look sexy in everything,” Stacie replied softly and smiled again. “Now that business is handled, meaning the room is being cleaned,” she laughed, “I think it’s my turn to feel discombobulated.” She shrugged, “You leave me speechless, Princess.”

“Glad the feeling is mutual.” Aubrey replied softly, leaning up to kiss Stacie’s cheek before wiping off the lipstick she had left behind. “Princess?”

“Your name means Elf Ruler. I figured if you can have a nickname for me, I get to give you one.” Stacie winked.

Aubrey blinked, “You looked up the origin of my name?”

“Well, yeah. I wanted to know everything about you.” Stacie walked on in silence for a while, “You know I don’t use my title. Well, hardly ever. But I don’t mind you teasing me about it.” She looked over at Aubrey. “Does Princess embarrass you?”

Aubrey thought for a moment, “It never occurred to me I might be bothering you calling you Doc. Mainly because you having a PhD is such a turn on for me, I have a hard time seeing ‘Doc’ in any negative light. But if it ever bothers you let me know and I’ll nix it immediately.”

“Okay. Like I said, it doesn’t bother me. I may have some explaining to do, especially to Ashley,” Stacie admitted, “but I will make it up to her.”

Aubrey squeezed Stacie’s hand again. “It can be our private thing. Just you and me. In public you’re always Stacie.” She kissed Stacie’s cheek. “But I like being your Princess.”

Stacie leaned over to kiss the side of Aubrey’s head. “Thank you. I’ve been thinking, though. Maybe it is time to come clean. I mean, I’m not a kid anymore. The people who will have an issue with my intellect will have the issue because of my gender anyway. Maybe it is time I just be me and let people who don’t like it fuck off.” She looked at Aubrey, “Do you think Chloe will care? I don’t think Beca, Ashley, or Jessica will, though they may give me shit for it. I just have to avoid talking about any current projects, I think.”

Aubrey smirked, “I think Chloe will admire it. I might have to set up a safety zone around you; I can imagine needing to protect you.” Aubrey laughed, “No, I take it back. She wouldn’t make a move as long as she knows you’re mine. So we just have to be clear that it would break my heart if she flirted with you.” Aubrey shook her head, “That girl needs a steady for real.”

“So she swings both ways?” Stacie smiled. “I wasn’t sure. It seemed she was intrigued by Beca, but brought the Starbucks guy.” Then she leaned over to whisper, “No worries, hun. I’m all yours and I got no issues telling anyone all about it.”

Aubrey blushed and leaned toward Stacie, “Oh yeah. But I’ll tell you a secret, she says guys are for playing and girls are for real. So most of her dates for the last few years have been guys. She had a nasty break up with a girl when we graduated from college.” Aubrey put a hand to her mouth, “I feel like I’m gossiping. I don’t mean to be sharing someone’s business like that.”

Stacie squeezed Aubrey’s hand. “I’ll never tell.” She pulled Aubrey close just before she reached for the door and kissed her cheek. “I hope someday she’s as happy as I am today.” Then she pulled the door open for Aubrey to enter first.

Aubrey smiled and walked into the restaurant, turning to take Stacie’s hand again as she walked through the door. “I just don’t want you to think I go around spilling state secrets that way,” she said softly as they walked to the counter to order.

Stacie waited for Aubrey to order before placing her own. Once they had both bowls, Stacie followed Aubrey to a corner table that seemed fairly secluded. After they sat, Stacie reached across the table to take Aubrey’s hand and waited until Aubrey looked at her. “I don’t think Chloe’s sexual preference is a state secret, even to Chloe.”

Aubrey threw her head back laughing, “You know I’m certain you’re right.” She squeezed Stacie’s hand, “I just want you to feel like you can trust me.”

“I do trust you,” Stacie spoke earnestly. “Maybe it’s silly. I know I didn’t feel like I needed a security check.” She shrugged, “You, how do I say this?” Stacie considered then bit her lip, “You strike me as a really bad liar.”

Aubrey tried to look offended and failed. “Well, I haven’t ever, even once, gotten away with trying.”

Stacie nodded sympathetically. “You wear your life on your body. When you are tense, your shoulders give you away. When you are happy, you light up a room.” She smiled fondly, “I think that’s what attracted me to you in the first place. You were totally unaware of how gorgeous you were, then got self conscious about being in running clothes.” Stacie smiled at the memory. “I just had to know more about you.”

Aubrey felt the blush creeping up her cheeks. “I honestly had no idea.”

“Yeah, I know.” Stacie put her free elbow on the table and rested her chin on her fist. “It’s so attractive.”

Aubrey felt the blush deepen. “Then I will make it a point to continue doing the thing I didn’t even know I was doing,” she winked.

Stacie’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “See? Oh my god, you are so cute!”

“You’re gushing,” Aubrey ducked her head. She looked up through her eyelashes, “But I kind of like it.”

“I’m glad,” Stacie did pull back her head and arm. “I will try and tone it down in public.” She glanced around, “Though I don’t really care who knows you are adorable.”

“As long as that’s what you think, it’s all that matters to me.” Aubrey took another bite, “So you’ve told me all about you, I should tell you all about me, if you want to know. I’m just not sure where to start.”

Stacie took a bite as well and considered. “You mentioned you weren’t cut out for Law school. And your bachelor’s is in music? Was it performance? Or education?”

“Performance,” Aubrey nodded. “But I was always considered an out of towner by the locals so making it in Tulsa with music was going to be a battle I just didn’t want to fight. Tuning suits me better, anyway. No nerves, no pressure, just me and the piano working together to make the truest tone possible.”

“It’s awesome you found something you love that you are also good at!” Stacie swirled her yogurt. “I work with a lot of grad students who hate science but think it makes them look smart, or makes their parents happy. It’s harder for them when things don’t work out.”

Aubrey nodded, “Last time I heard from my father he explained I was wasting my talent. Of course, he also thought I was wasting myself pursuing music. I figured out a while ago that there’s really nothing I can do to please him. God knows I spent enough time trying.”

Stacie looked up, “I’m sorry. That sucks.” She sighed, “I think I mentioned my parents didn’t know what to do with my curiosity. They sent me away.” She smiled. “I think I last talked to them at my emancipation hearing.” Then she laughed, “No, a lawyer showed up then, too, explaining they had always done what was best for me.” She shook her head. “I guess they did. I don’t have to deal with them.” She looked into Aubrey’s eyes, “I think it must be harder without such a clean break.”

Aubrey shrugged, “I guess. At the same time, though, if I didn’t contact him I don’t think he’d contact me. I suppose I could have a clean break any time I choose, huh?”

“If it’s what you want.” Stacie nodded. “You are an adult, last I checked.” She smirked.

Aubrey chuckled, “You were pretty thorough, Doc.”

Stacie winked, “I aim to please.”

Aubrey took a deep breath. “What other mysteries of my checkered past would you like to explore?” She smiled and took another bite.

“Hmmm,” Stacie considered. “Was it hard moving around a lot? I mean, I’m guessing your family had to move whenever your dad was reassigned.” She shrugged, “one of the kids at school left mid-semester because his dad moved overseas.” She liked to cite the source of her information.

“I guess you could say I was lucky in that department too. I mean, yeah, my dad lived all over the US and some overseas, but when my mom died he sent me to a boarding school in Georgia. That’s where I really grew up, which is pretty stable considering the circumstances I suppose. Our Lady of the Lake school for girls.”

Stacie swallowed, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” She broke off. “I mean boarding school is something we share, but I didn’t know about your mom.” She covered Aubrey’s free hand with her own.

Aubrey turned her hand over and laced her fingers with Stacie’s. “I was just six,” she looked at their hands. “I only remember snippets of her. Skin cancer.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to open a can of worms, not in public. You wanna get out of here?” Stacie leaned over the table to try and catch Aubrey’s eye.

Aubrey looked into Stacie’s eyes and smiled, “You need to meet Doofus!” She squeezed Stacie’s hand. “Doofus is the best cuddler. She’s gonna love you.”

Stacie nodded. “I’d love to.” She stood up, reluctantly releasing Aubrey’s hand and picked up her mostly empty bowl.

Aubrey collected her own bowl and deposited it in the trash, “They’re so good, but they’re so huge. Probably most of my calories for any given day.” She took Stacie’s elbow and snuggled against her as they left the restaurant.

“There’s been many a day they were my only calories,” Stacie admitted. As they walked, she rubbed her free hand across Aubrey’s knuckles where they were wrapped around Stacie’s elbow. “Seems like maybe that destiny thing you mentioned.” She added softly, “Maybe we get to take care of each other the way we weren’t cared for.”

Aubrey leaned her head against Stacie’s shoulder as they walked, “I would like that.” She pointed at a three story brick building just up the block. “That’s us. Doofus and I have lived there for about five years now I think. I didn’t realize it had been so long.” They reached the short stairs that led to the apartment building door. “Ready?”

Stacie nodded, “Yeah. I gotta see this bundle of fur that keeps you company when I can’t.” She winked.

Aubrey pressed the code in, then held the door open for Stacie. “It’s at the end of the hall,” she led Stacie to the door and unlocked it. Aubrey put her foot across the bottom of the door and eased it open. Sure enough, the little black cat was waiting on the other side. Aubrey leaned in, scooped up the cat, and held her while Stacie entered the apartment. “Want to meet Miss Stacie?” Aubrey moved close so Stacie could pet Doofus.

Stacie’s eyes were focused on the cat even as she shut the door behind her. “Aren’t you just terrifying, mistress of the night?” She giggled as she held her hand for the cat to smell.

“Careful,” Aubrey warned, “she’ll lick you to death.”

Stacie bit her lower lip and hoped for said licking. “No animals allowed at any of my school dorms. Rib is too busy, so we never had one when I lived with her, either.” She kept her voice soft. “Once, a roaming cat found me when I was studying on the common. It crawled into my lap. Stayed for, I dunno, half an hour maybe?” Stacie looked up at Aubrey. “One of the best half hours of my life.”

Aubrey leaned down and released Doofus into the room, “She will sit in laps for hours and hours. She really has kept me company better than most people.” She watched the cat rub against Stacie’s legs. “I think she likes you.”

“You think?” Stacie smiled and looked down at the pet. “I hope so. I like her mom.” She looked back up at Aubrey and grinned.

Aubrey took Stacie’s hand and led her to the couch. She sat down and gently pulled Stacie to sit beside her. “Maybe she’ll find your lap,” Aubrey explained. “I’m sorry I got kind of distant at the restaurant. I wish I’d known my mom better. I wonder what my life would have been like if she’d been around. My father simply sent me away.”

Stacie nodded. “I used to wonder what my life would have looked like if I was a normal kid.” She rubbed Aubrey’s back, “Like, if I wasn’t smart, would my parents have wanted me?”

“I wonder what normal parents are even like. Chloe had a reasonably traditional childhood but she avoids her parents because they make her crazy. Maybe parents are just a general pain in the ass, with different flavors for different kids,” Aubrey mused.

“Maybe so. I figure the problem is lack of a users manual.” Stacie nodded sagely.

“Reasonable,” Aubrey nodded. She pointed to a black shadow creeping toward the couch.

Stacie bit her lower lip again and sat very still. Well, except for the hand still gently rubbing Aubrey’s back.

Aubrey grinned when Doofus jumped onto the couch, walked across Aubrey’s lap, then turned in three circles before lying down and washing her face in Stacie’s lap. Aubrey looked at Stacie, “You’re a natural.”

Stacie beamed. With her free hand she gently scratched behind Doofus’ ears. “She’s so soft!” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

Doofus tipped her head back into Stacie’s hand, asking for more scritches. “Don’t you steal my girl, you little furball,” Aubrey growled.

Stacie leaned over to kiss Aubrey’s cheek. “Not a chance. You turned my head, first.” She rested the side of her head against Aubrey’s, “But thanks for sharing.”

“My two favorite girls,” Aubrey said softly as she stroked Stacie’s hair. She’d never been so content in her own apartment. “It suddenly feels like a home in here.”

Chapter Text

Beca walked into Baxter’s and stopped at the front desk. “Hey, Alyssa, I’m waiting for a friend. Can you set us up in a quiet booth with a bottle of Chardonnay? I’m gonna wait outside for her.”

Alyssa smirked, “A friend?” She looked at Beca and took in the grey slacks, black blouse and matching black blazer. “You sure?”

“Ha, ha. I have a gig at the Mayo tonight. She’s meeting me before so we can talk.” Beca rolled her eyes. “Just be ready, okay?” When Alyssa nodded, Beca headed back outside. She nervously toyed with the chain that held the fire opal, making sure the clasp was in the back.

Chloe pulled into the lot at Baxter’s. She turned left to troll for a parking space and noticed Beca waiting for her outside the restaurant doors. “Dang,” she whispered softly. Beca wore a simple matching slacks and jacket, but they were tailored to fit her small frame perfectly. A car honked and Chloe realized she’d come to a stop. She waved at the driver and pulled into a parking spot.

Chloe took a minute to check her face and hair in the visor. She liked the way the sky blue silk button down reflected her eyes. Satisfied, she took a deep breath and got out of the car. When she turned the corner toward the front of the restaurant she smiled. Beca already held the door open for her.

“Hi,” Beca smiled as she held the door. “I forgot to ask if you have been here before. If not, you might have walked into the drugstore on accident.”

Chloe smiled as she walked through the door. “It’s one of my favorites. My first clue that I think I’m going to like you, Beca.”

Beca followed behind and caught the look on Alyssa’s face when they entered. “I guess you two know each other, then?”

Alyssa smiled broadly. “Hello, Chloe. I didn’t know you two knew each other!” She picked up menus, “Will you need these?”

“Alyssa, hello,” Chloe beamed. “I don’t think I need a menu.” She glanced at Beca. “You?”

Beca shook her head.

Alyssa put the menus back and led them over to a two top booth in the corner. Standing beside it was a cooler with a bottle of Chardonnay resting inside. She gestured for the two to sit and reached to open the bottle.

“No need for ceremony,” Beca laughed, “we’re both regulars. You like first or second pour?” Beca asked Chloe.

Chloe inclined her head at the phrase she’d heard Stacie using with Aubrey at karaoke. “I’m not picky,” Chloe shrugged with a smile. She watched Alyssa pour out, still smiling. “It’s lovely, thank you.”

Alyssa put the bottle back in the cooler. She asked Beca, “Want me to take you or can you tolerate Diana?”

Beca groaned. “Diana will talk all night.” She looked at Alyssa with a pleading pair of eyes.

“Got ya covered, Mitch. Catch my eye when you wanna order.” Alyssa winked and added, “Nice to see you, Chloe,” before she left to arrange tables.

“You too,” Chloe smiled as Alyssa walked away.

“You pull some rank around here, Mitch,” Chloe grinned. “And you pay attention. Most people don’t pick a Chardonnay. Thank you.”

“It’s what you had at karaoke, but not last night. It was a fifty-fifty chance you wouldn’t mind. I have to give my voice a chance to recover, so wine or beer is better at dinner, then I have two hours or so to get un-gunked.” Beca had a slightly pink tint to her cheeks. “And I guess you know this is a hang out after symphony, so if I play with them we come here.”

Chloe watched the color rise in Beca’s cheeks. The pink on the porcelain framed by the deep brown hair. Could this woman get any more beautiful? “It was a hot spot after theater events and concerts too. I am baffled that you and I never ran into each other before this week. I know I would have remembered you.”

Beca tilted her head to one side. “I bolted to LA literally the day after I graduated high school. I got back a little less than a year ago. First gig I picked up was Gershwin with the symphony, then I played ambience light jazz for the SkyLight on off nights. When was the last time you did theater? Maybe I was in LA by then.”

Chloe nodded, “Right. It’s been a couple of years. Fucked up timing is what that is,” she smirked and lifted her glass toward Beca.

Beca touched her glass to Chloe’s. “I dunno, it’s nice to meet you now. I’m a lot less emo.” She laughed at herself.

Chloe changed her mind. This woman could get more beautiful. When she laughed. “Oh yeah, now that I think of it you would definitely not have enjoyed the too cool for school probably drunk in time for my 9am history lecture version of me, either.”

Beca chuckled again. “Well, I thought I had to suffer for my art. Overly dark eyeliner, too many piercings,” she gestured to one ear, “that sort of thing. Then I got to LA and discovered a gazillion other people who wanted to produce mixes like I did.” She shook her head. “Got a job at a bakery, met Jess, she let me accompany her in a jury. That got me lots of work at the colleges doing the same thing.” She shrugged, “Learned I didn’t know what suffering was until I was eating the left over bread I baked but didn’t sell all week long.”

“Damn, that sucks,” Chloe said softly. “I had it so easy. Costume design prof liked my work, set me up with a boutique, I’ve been comfortable for years.” She shrugged. “I never went to New York, but I never lived anywhere near my parents again either.”

“Cool someone stuck up for you.” Beca smiled. “Hey, want to order something?” She looked up and noticed Alyssa strolling casually nearby.

“Oh yeah, we’re on a time limit aren’t we. Appetizers or just dive in for the main course?” Chloe rubbed her hands together gleefully.

Beca considered, “Chips and ranch? Easy and can come out first while we wait.”

“Perfect. A classic.” Chloe smiled across the table. “It’s wrong that they’re so good, you know? They’re literally plain potato chips with ranch dressing on the side.”

“I know, right? But soooooo goooooood.” Beca rocked on her seat. “What else? Wanna put it all in at once. Alyssa will spread out delivery.”

“Right. Cool. I’d like the steak sandwich, Caesar salad on the side. Medium rare.” Chloe rattled off her favorite order.

Alyssa, having heard her name paused and came closer. “Steak sandwich, medium rare, Caesar on the side. And the burger or the tortellini?” She asked Beca.

“Tortellini.” Beca smiled.

“Chicken no onions. Appetizer?” Alyssa smiled at them both and reached to pour more wine while she waited for the answer.

Chloe looked at Beca and nodded.

“Chips and ranch. Thanks.” Beca smiled as Alyssa topped off the glasses. When Alyssa had stepped away again, Beca teased Chloe, “You could have answered, you know?”

“You’re in charge this afternoon. I’m enjoying it.” She winked. “We can split the bill, though. I have caught up with the 21st century enough for that, even on a first date.”

Beca rolled her eyes, “I invited you, remember?” She looked around and put her elbows on the table and folded her hands in front of her. “So, what’s next? 20 questions?”

Chloe grinned and leaned forward, “Yes, absolutely. What would you like to know?” Chloe giggled. “See? I already asked the first one.”

“Ha, not fair!” Beca laughed and shook her head, “Okay, let’s see.” She smirked, “Oklahoma or Show Boat?”

Chloe stroked her chin, “Oklahoma. I never liked the guy they off in that one, and I can do the accent pretty well.” She narrowed her eyes, “Chicago or Chorus Line?”

Beca groaned, “To sing, Chicago. To play, Chorus Line.” She shrugged. “You didn’t specify.” She lifted one hand to tap her lips. “Gershwin or Porter?”

“Oooh, nice one.” Chloe tilted her head from side to side. “I have to say both. Porter is the king of patter, but how can you choose against a song like Summertime?”

“Again, I prefer to sing Porter, but play Gershwin.” Beca nodded her agreement. “Was that my question? If so, I can’t. Choose against Summertime I mean.” She winked.

“Nice,” Chloe tilted her glass toward Beca. “Well played. Ask me anything.”

Beca lifted her own glass and looked over the edge of it as she asked, “What makes you unique?”

“Oh,” Chloe’s eyebrows shot up. “Same game, next level.” She took another sip. “I have a tendency to almost always see the positive in any situation. I’ve never met an optimist who topped me yet.” She paused. “I say we both answer the same question. What makes you unique, Beca?”

“I suck at the original twenty questions and make up my own game.” Beca joked. “We should be thinking of something and asking questions like ‘is it bigger than a breadbox,’ but that is soooooo boring.” She smiled and leaned back as Alyssa dropped off the chips and ranch. Beca picked one up.

Chloe watched Beca, her eyes narrowed slightly. “That’s a lot of conversation that didn’t answer the question.” She smirked.

Beca laughed, “Okay, usually what makes me unique is being able to deflect attention off of me.” She smiled and lifted her ranch covered chip in salute. “You don’t fall for it.”

Chloe grinned and picked up a chip. She blinked innocently at Beca as she swirled the chip in the dip and then caught a drip on her tongue before it could spill on the table. She popped the rest of the chip in her mouth and pointed to her face. “Mad skills,” she grinned.

“So I see.” Beca considered all of the skills being demonstrated and took a slow and steadying breath. “I may have to up my game.” She chewed thoughtfully then smiled, “What was your weirdest dream?”

Chloe started to shake her head. “I don’t know.” She looked up at Beca through her eyelashes. “Nothing too R rated, right?”

“I withdraw the question.” Beca laughed. “I’d like to be able to come back here some day.” She held up both hands in surrender. “How about if there was one person you could have dinner with, living or dead, who would you choose?”

Chloe’s grin was back, “I would’ve been polite. Just had to check.” She steepled her fingers under her chin. “That’s a tough one, though. Maybe Cole Porter’s wife. I’ll bet she has some stories to tell. You?”

Beca nodded, “That’s a good one.” Then she smirked. “I already did.”

“Oh really?” Chloe narrowed her eyes. “Beca Mitchell are you flirting with me?” Chloe’s eyes glowed. She picked up her wine glass and toyed with the stem.

“Whew, I was starting to think I was bad at it,” Beca winked. Before she could say anything more, the food arrived.

“Keeping an eye on the clock for ya, Mitch.” Alyssa mentioned apologetically.

Beca looked up, startled, “Oh, yeah. Thanks.” She sighed as she looked back at Chloe. “Gotta work tonight.”

Alyssa quietly poured out what was left of the wine and took the empty away.

“I forgot,” Chloe deflated a little. “Tomorrow night too?”

Beca remembered why she didn’t date daytime dolls. “Yeah. I work Wednesday through Sunday nights.” She picked up her fork and played with her tortellini. “Dogs or cats?” She asked half-heartedly.

“Neither,” Chloe answered promptly. “Monday?”

Beca looked up, “Monday or?” She waited for the rest of the question.

“No,” Chloe shook her head with a small smile. She placed her hand on the table, palm up. “Will you go out with me Monday night?”

A slow smile crossed Beca’s face. “Yeah.” She placed her hand in Chloe’s. “I’d like that.”

Chloe’s smile widened, “Me too.” She watched Beca’s eyes for a moment, happy to see the smile back in them. Then she sat up and picked up her fork. “Okay, let’s attack this food so you can get to work on time,” she winked across the table.

After the meals were eaten and the plates taken away Chloe looked at Beca. “Question,” she said matter of factly.

Beca looked up, tilting her head slightly away. “Sure.”

“Do we have time to order some tea before you have to leave? Something with lemon and honey might help undo the damage from that lovely bottle of wine,” Chloe asked.

Another slow smile crossed Beca’s features. “I think we just have time.”

Chloe looked around but didn’t see Alyssa. “Do you mind if I go order it from the bar?” She turned back to Beca. “I don’t want you to have to stress about time.”

“That’s fine.” Beca nodded. She figured she could have Alyssa tab the rest out on her way by.

Chloe nodded and went to place the order. “Hey, Chlo,” the bartender greeted her.

“Hi Bridget.” Chloe leaned between two barstools. “Can I get some green tea with honey delivered to that table over there without too much of a wait? We’re on a tight schedule.”

“Mitchell? Of course,” Bridget answered. “You two are fucking adorable, by the way. Giving up the field?”

Chloe shook her head. “I did not ask for commentary. All I want is tea,” she flipped her hair as she turned to walk back to the table.

Alyssa saw Chloe returning and hurried to bring the card back to Beca. “Hope you guys work out.”

Beca smiled, “Just getting to know each other, Alyssa.”

“Yeah,” Alyssa nodded but couldn’t figure out how to warn Beca about the number of people she’d seen Chloe with. She took the signed tab and nodded as Chloe sat down.

“I put a rush on it,” Chloe smiled across the table. “I’m afraid I misled you earlier,” she said in a more serious tone.

Beca tilted her head to one side. “About what?”

“Well, the truth is, I happen to like both dogs and cats,” Chloe’s eyes danced.

Beca laughed in relief. “Whew. I was wondering how anyone could be non-committal about pets.” Her eyes danced. “Thanks for meeting me.”

“Thanks for inviting me,” Chloe smiled as the tea was delivered. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Beca smiled and sighed when she stood up. “Walk you to your car?”

Chloe held out her hand, “That would be nice. Thank you.”

Beca smiled and took the hand, put her shoulders back and nodded at Alyssa and Bridget as they left. She walked quietly beside Chloe until the reached the parking lot. Then she hesitated. “Um, I don’t know which car is yours.”

Chloe smirked, “I wonder if you can guess. Hint, it’s in the second row.”

Beca looked at Chloe, then at the cars. She took a sip of her tea and let go of Chloe’s hand. She walked around a few minutes and then stopped beside a bright blue Mazda Miata. She looked back at Chloe with a smirk.

“Caught,” Chloe giggled. She bounce skipped across to Beca. “Too obvious?”

“It is the perfect accessory.” Beca teased. “Two things. Do you have one in green as an alternate? And which car is mine?”

“I do not,” Chloe narrowed her eyes at Beca. “And I gave you a hint.”

Beca nodded and smiled, “Your hint is my aunt gave it to me.”

“Oh jeez. Okay.” Chloe began walking around the cars in the lot. She paused next to one, shook her head, then next to another. Eventually she was back to the car right next to hers. “Oh my god, it’s this one. How did I miss it before?”

Beca laughed, “What gave it away?”

“Maybe the music equipment in the back seat,” Chloe looked at Beca, blinking innocently.

“Ok, you got me.” Beca opened the car door and put her tea in the cup holder. “I really should get going. If the piano is toast I gotta set that shit up,” she pointed with her thumb toward the back seat.

“Right.” Chloe stepped closer to Beca. “Question?”

Beca smiled, “sure.”

“Have you ever kissed a girl in the parking lot at Baxter’s?” Chloe lowered her head a little and looked up at Beca.

Beca tilted her head as if she were considering. Then she met Chloe’s gaze, “Not that I can recall.”

Chloe nodded. “Want to?”

“Yeah,” Beca whispered and put a hand out to touch Chloe’s waist. She leaned forward.

Chloe put a hand on Beca’s cheek, then waited for Beca’s lips to touch her own.

Beca smiled as their lips first made contact before she leaned in for a firmer kiss.

Chloe’s breath caught as the soft kiss became stronger. Her hand moved from Beca’s cheek to the back of Beca’s head.

Beca teased at Chloe’s lips, licking and nibbling.

A car roared past and she heard some moron scream, “Get a room.”

Without missing a beat, Beca raised her right hand to flip him off, her left had sliding around to hold Chloe closer.

Chloe giggled against Beca’s lips as she melted against her. She gasped, “I feel sorry for all the girls who missed out on that,” she breathed. “One more?”

Beca nodded, pressing her forehead against Chloe’s. “God, I hate to go.”

“Monday,” Chloe said softly as she reluctantly pulled away. “And call me in between?”

“Yeah,” Beca nodded again. “You too?”

“Try and stop me,” Chloe smiled as she opened the car door and ducked inside. A moment later the convertible top was opening and the windows lowering. “Thanks for dinner, Beca Mitchell,” Chloe said from the driver’s seat.

“Thank you, Chloe…hey, what’s your last name?” Beca laughed, feeling like a Carrie Underwood song.

“Beale,” Chloe giggled again. “Chloe Beale. Now go to work!”

Beca gave a deep, Shakespearean bow. “As you wish.”

Chloe grinned widely. “You are so fucking adorable,” she said softly, her eyes laughing. She watched Beca pull out of her parking spot, then followed. Beca turned right and Chloe turned left.

Chapter Text

Chloe pulled into the parking lot around midnight. That’s when the show had ended on Friday. She circled up floor after floor looking for Beca’s blue Toyota. Once she found it, she parked her little convertible horizontally behind it. Chloe grinned that her car was as long as Beca’s was wide.

She turned the radio on to a soft rock station and turned it up a little. Then Chloe grabbed the paper sack from the passenger’s seat and took it with her as she perched on the trunk to wait.

Beca waved at the new bartender. Saturday nights sucked. The girls stayed home to enjoy their one night alone during the week, and Damon had traded nights so he could stay home with his wife. Beca knew intellectually the show was as good, but emotionally it felt so much harder to connect with a bunch of strangers. She stood in the elevator, sorted through her tips and smiled. At least it still paid well. She put the money in the inside pocket of her jacket as the elevator doors opened and she pushed off the back wall to enter the parking garage. She’d taken several steps before she realized something was off. She walked closer, so she could see around the parking structure beams. She smiled as she recognized Chloe. She laughed when she saw her car was blocked in. “What are you doing?” She said as she got closer, still laughing.

Chloe slipped off the trunk and put a finger to her lips. “Shhh,” she whispered and held the bag out toward Beca at arm’s length.

Beca was still watching Chloe when she took the bag. She grinned as she recognized the Sonic bag. She arched an eyebrow and opened it, then laughed again. “Cheeseburger and tater tots? You are my hero!” She pretended her knees were going to buckle, dramatically.

Chloe giggled. “Come on, picnic on the trunk.” She boosted herself up to sit on the car again. “You should maybe put the tots where we can both reach them.”

Beca hopped up next to Chloe. “Jonesin for my tots already?” Beca teased innocently but obediently put them down on the trunk between them. She also put out a ranch and a catsup container, not sure which Chloe preferred. She opened the cheeseburger, mayonnaise and no onions, and smiled. “You really are a life saver.” She sighed contentedly as she took a bite.

Chloe watched Beca eat, a smug smile on her face. “I gambled you probably wouldn’t go downstairs to eat after the show. When I thought of you driving home hungry, I had to intervene.”

Beca leaned over and kissed Chloe’s cheek. “You are right on all counts.” She took another bite before offering to share. As she held over the burger she said, “I may be forever in your debt, milady.”

Chloe waved her off, “Nope, it’s all for you. I want you to be full and energetic for our next adventure.” She winked, “The night is young, Mitch.”

Beca smiled slowly, a habit she’d developed in the short time she had known one Chloe Beale. “Now I am intrigued.” She took another bite of her burger and chased it with a tater tot. “Do tell.”

“You’ll just have to trust me,” Chloe smirked as she ate the next to last tater tot. “One left,” she held the box toward Beca.

Beca picked it up, popped it into her mouth and then ate the last of her burger. She wadded up with wrapping and tossed it with the tater box back into the bag, used a napkin to wipe her mouth and picked up the mint that always accompanied a Sonic meal. She held it out to Chloe with an arched eyebrow.

“You go ahead, cutie. I have some in my purse. That fine meal was all yours.” She grinned, “Well, at least you got a couple of tater tots anyway.” Chloe picked up the bag and hopped off the trunk. She stashed it behind the driver’s seat and watched Beca slide off the trunk. “Will you go for a ride with me?”

“I wouldn’t miss it.” Beca grinned. She had so much more energy than she anticipated just a few minutes ago.

Chloe grinned and buckled into her seat. When Beca joined her, Chloe motioned toward the top. “Mind if I keep it open?”

Beca popped the mint in her mouth. “Nope.” She winked, “I’d like to see the wind muss your hair.”

Chloe looked at Beca and laughed. “You won’t be disappointed.” She put the car into gear and slowly rolled down the parking garage ramps. She made a slow tour of downtown, careful to keep the right speed so the lights were green all the way across. “Riverside is pretty this time of night,” Chloe offered. “Or we could go down Peoria.”

“I’m with you.” Beca shifted so she was turned more toward Chloe than facing straight ahead. “Great view.”

Chloe smirked at Beca and revved the engine. “Riverside.” She drove from downtown into midtown, every now and then distracted by Beca’s hair flying, and the glow she could just make out in those porcelain cheeks. “Want to swing?” She asked as she slowed the car.

Beca arched an eyebrow. “Didn’t bring my licorice stick.” She joked.

Chloe shook her head as she pulled into a parking lot along the river. “Old movie quotes will get you everywhere, beautiful,” Chloe stopped the car and looked at Beca. “You really are beautiful, you know.”

“Have you seen you?” Beca scoffed.

“Nope,” Chloe put a hand out to push Beca’s mussed hair back from her face. “But I’ve been seeing you all evening. I was kind of hoping we could try that kiss again.” She grinned wickedly, “But not until you’ve pushed me in one of these swings.” She was out of the car and heading toward the playground, not even glancing back over her shoulder.

Beca laughed and followed Chloe, not realizing where they were, her eyes having been firmly on the redhead all through the drive. She dutifully waited for Chloe to settle in a swing.

Chloe sat down and leaned back, Beca’s fingers burning where they tapped her back to get the swing moving. She kicked out her feet as it went higher. “You’re good at this,” she laughed.

“Have I mentioned I’m at your service?” Beca said quickly and quietly the next time Chloe was close. She let her fingers linger as long as she could as she pushed Chloe again.

After a couple more pushes, Chloe dragged her feet in the dirt to bring the swing to a stop. She turned around, her knees in the seat, holding the chains in her hands. “Question,” she said quickly.

Beca tilted her head to one side, “sure.”

“Can I take you to my house tonight? No strings, just fun. I don’t do strings, I don’t promise a lifetime, but I think we could really enjoy our evening if we went somewhere more private.” Chloe’s cheeks were flushed from the fresh air, and her eyes were bright. She tilted her head slightly. “It’s okay if you don’t want to, but I had to ask.”

Impulsively, Beca leaned forward and kissed Chloe.

Chloe let go of the swing with one hand and pulled Beca closer. “We should,” she started to say but kissed Beca again.

Beca slipped one arm around Chloe’s waist while she held the swing still with the other. She nibbled on Chloe’s lip. “Yeah?”

“Mhm,” Chloe mumbled. “Definitely.” She trapped Beca’s lower lip lightly with her teeth and grazed it with her tongue. “I’ll drive.”

Beca nodded slightly, “m’kay.” She whispered as she tickled Chloe’s tongue and lip with her own.

Chloe forgot about physics and let go of the swing with her other hand, which caused her to crash into Beca.

Beca lost her grip on the swing chain when Chloe lost her balance and she fell backwards. Landing with a whoosh, she laughed and held onto Chloe, now on top of her. She caught her breath and gasped, “You know how to bowl a girl over.”

Chloe was laughing so hard her eyes were tearing up. “I thought you knocked me off my feet,” she lowered her head to kiss under Beca’s ear. “Did I hurt you?”

“Nah,” Beca chuckled, “I didn’t have far to fall.” After a beat she added, “Ah shit, now you got me making short jokes about my own height. What have you done, woman?”

Chloe giggled and stood up, pulling Beca with her. “Let’s go,” she took off for the car.

Beca blinked as she realized she was already several steps behind. “Gonna have to up my cardio,” she muttered as she ran after Chloe. “Damn, need to pack sneakers, too. Running in heels sucks.”

Chloe was still giggling when Beca got in the car. “I’m just a few blocks from here,” she said as she threw it into reverse. Her hand kept traveling to Beca’s knee between shifting gears. Less than five minutes later they pulled into her driveway. She stopped the car and hit the button to close the top. While she waited for the mechanism to finish, Chloe turned to look at Beca. “Hi,” she whispered softly.

That slow smile crossed Beca’s face again. “Hi.”

Chloe leaned forward, her hand tangling in Beca’s hair. She was close enough for a kiss, but just before their lips met Chloe whispered, “You sure? Give me the word. No pressure but god I want you so badly right now.”

“I have a feeling that even one night with you is gonna be memorable. I’ll take it.” Beca replied with a sparkle in her eye before she pressed her lips to Chloe’s again.

Chloe leaned into the kiss, her lips parting as she tangled her hand further in Beca’s hair. When she leaned back she was breathing faster. “Okay.” She latched the top to the windshield and opened the car door. “If you even touch me before I get that door open the neighbors are gonna call the cops about two crazy people making out on my front lawn,” she winked and skipped quickly to her front door.

Beca smirked as she got out of the car. She snuck up behind Chloe, walking close enough to feel her without ever touching her. Her fingers ghosted beside Chloe’s hands, and across her back. But she never made contact.

Chloe shuddered and took a deep breath. After three tries she finally got the key in the lock and opened the door. She held it open and glared playfully at Beca. “Would you come in,” she said with an edge to her voice.

“It would be my pleasure,” Beca whispered as she walked past and into the foyer. She turned toward Chloe once she was inside, still smirking.

Chloe closed the door and locked it. She checked to make sure the curtains were closed, then she tilted her head toward Beca. Without losing eye contact, Chloe bent to unzip her boot and slide it slowly from her foot. Then she took off the other.

Beca’s smirk morphed into a smile. She moved to lean against the wall, her arms and legs crossed as she watched. “Mmmm,” she said softly. “This might be worth the price of admission all by itself.”

Chloe smiled slowly. “You like to watch?”

“I could watch you all day,” Beca admitted, her eyes betraying a little of the hunger she was feeling.

“How lovely,” Chloe stood back up slowly, her fingertip running along the row of buttons on the front of her shirt. “Because I like to be watched.” She tugged at the shirt with her other hand, slowly untucking it from her black skirt.

Beca nodded and let her eyes roam up and down, taking in the tailored outfit and the way it clung in all the right places. “As you should.”

Chloe chuckled softly, one finger pulling slightly at the top button. She turned and started walking backwards down the hall, eyes still on Beca. She popped one button, then the second, then the third, blue lace beginning to peek through the opening. At the end of the hall she stopped and leaned against the linen cabinet door. “Coming?”

Beca pushed off the wall and followed, “Oh yeah,” she replied, and laughed at the double entendres. “Repeatedly, I hope.”

Chloe slipped into the bedroom before Beca could reach her, laughter echoing behind her. She rushed to the other side of the bed and stopped, her finger in the air to keep Beca from coming too close. “Hold on, I’m not quite done.”

“I’d hope not.” Beca smirked, “I hope I get to help.”

Chloe smiled across the room, “Mhm,” she hummed softly as she hit a button on the nightstand speakers. The room filled with slow, easy jazz music. She turned back to Beca and quickly undid the last shirt buttons. She let the silk shirt slip from her shoulders, then hung it carefully on the back of a nearby chair. “Silk,” she leaned toward Beca and said in a stage whisper.

“Gotta be careful with delicates,” Beca nodded sagely, still watching Chloe closely. She realized music was playing. “May I have this dance?” She extended a hand.

Chloe smiled and crossed to take the hand. “Should we even things up a little bit?” She tugged lightly at Beca’s shirt.

Beca smiled, “If you’d like.” She placed her left hand on the small of Chloe’s back while holding her other hand close to her chest. “Can you reach?”

Chloe felt goosebumps as Beca’s hand rested against her bare back. “Let’s see,” she began to work the buttons free as Beca swayed them both gently to the music. Chloe finished the buttons and glanced up at Beca, one hand poised to push the fabric from Beca’s shoulder.

Beca nodded and shrugged a shoulder. She released Chloe one hand at a time to let the blouse drop free. Then Beca held Chloe close again, nuzzling her neck as they swayed to the music.

Chloe was enveloped by Beca. She could smell her shampoo, the lotion she must have used after she showered, a slight undertone of salty sweet from the way she must have sweated under the stage lights. She moaned softly, her desire beginning to win the battle with her love of games. “Beca,” she whispered roughly as she licked and nibbled at the girl’s shoulder, “Help with my skirt? It zips in the back.”

“At your service,” Beca reminded her as she pulled Chloe close enough for Beca to reach around her and unzip the skirt. Beca kissed Chloe’s shoulder and collar bone as the skirt dropped to the ground.

Chloe pressed herself fully against Beca. “My hero,” she said as she leaned her head back, enjoying Beca’s kisses. “Shall I?” She slid her thumb along the top of Beca’s slacks, stopping when she reached the button.

Beca nodded again, curling her back for easier access without losing contact with Chloe’s neck and collarbone. “I’m with you, remember?” She teased quietly.

Chloe hummed again and undid the button. When the zipper was open, she slowly traveled down Beca’s torso, kissing her lightly along the way as she slid Beca’s pants off. She kissed a slow circle just below Beca’s belly button before giggling. “You’ll have to step out on your own,” Chloe laughed as she stood up again. She stepped back a little so Beca could free herself from the puddle of fabric at her feet.

Beca stepped forward out of her slacks and captured Chloe around the middle again. “I missed you,” she growled as she caressed Chloe’s back with one hand and her side with the other.

“Oh,” Chloe gasped at the unexpected embrace. “I’m right here, hon,” she ran her own hand along Beca’s side and hooked her thumb in Beca’s lacy waistband. “Black against pale skin makes me absolute insane,” she pushed her fingertips lower, dragging the waistband with them. “So sad you won’t have them on for long.” She dropped her head to run kisses along Beca’s collarbone. “Question,” Chloe breathed against Beca’s neck.

Beca turned her head so she could whisper into Chloe’s ear. “Sure,” she said with a smile.

Chloe shuddered. “Will you lay me down on this bed and ravish me? Please?”

“I thought you would never ask,” Beca growled again as she turned them both until Chloe’s knees were against the bed. She pressed forward, placing first one knee and then the other on either side of Chloe and lowering her slowly onto the bed. She started kissing again, at the collar bone, down to the fabric of Chloe’s bra and deftly opened the clasp. With a quick glance at Chloe’s face, she slipped the fabric away and placed kisses on each breast.

Chloe watched, her hands finding Beca’s hair again. She quickly shifted her shoulders to free herself from the bra. “Now you,” she said in a low voice.

Beca crawled forward so she was in reach. “You do it.”

Chloe made a tiny sound as she found the clasp and watched the fabric fall away. “God you are so beautiful,” she whispered as she ran her hand lightly over Beca’s breasts. Chloe reached her arm back toward the nightstand and clicked off the light. “It’s not that I don’t want to see you,” she whispered, “it’s that I won’t want to move to turn it off later. God,” she breathed, “you.” She grabbed Beca’s head and pulled her in for a series of deep kisses, her hands exploring new territory.

Chapter Text

Chloe’s head rested on Beca’s shoulder. She drew aimless lazy patterns along Beca’s collarbone and wondered how she could be this content and this exhausted at the same time. She tapped Beca lightly. “Hey,” she said in a soft voice. “Look.” Chloe pointed to the light beginning to glow behind the bedroom curtains.

Beca grunted. She opened one eye to peer at the light. “Uh-oh.”

Chloe propped herself on an elbow and grinned down at Beca, “Good morning! Why uh-oh?”

“Now you’ll find out if I sparkle or turn to dust.” Beca pulled at Chloe, “Stop wiggling.”

Chloe giggled and tickled Beca’s side. “Does that mean you have to hide in my bedroom until sundown?”

Beca smirked, “I could think of worse things.”

Chloe wiggled up against Beca’s side. “Mhm,” she muttered. “But I might need to rest a little first. You flat wore me out, darlin’.” She turned her face to kiss Beca’s shoulder, then laid her head on it again.

“That was quite amazing.” Beca grinned and kissed the top of Chloe’s head. She then lifted a hand to stroke Chloe’s hair.

“Again and again and again and again,” Chloe sang and then giggled.

Beca chuckled, “Oh my god, you sing in the morning?”

“You don’t?” Chloe was on her elbow again, staring at Beca. “I always wake up with a song in my head.” She laid back down. “Sometimes it’s from an old musical, sometimes it was something on the radio in the car last night, sometimes it was something from my dream. If I don’t have a song I usually default to ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ or something like that.”

Beca looked over at Chloe. “You should be illegal.”

Chloe shrugged, “Is it really morning if we never went to sleep, though?”

“It’s morning whether we slept or not. The question is, are you always this chipper?” Beca covered her face. “I mean, since I haven’t slept, I’m not grumpy about being awake this early….but on a normal day?” She moved her hand and arched an eyebrow. “Before coffee?”

Chloe tilted her head a bit, “I usually sleep first. Then I wake up groggy and I can’t put three words together until I’ve had at least three cups. I think my brain is confused.” She chewed her bottom lip, “I do get really chatty sometimes when I’m tired. I’ve been told.” She turned so her chin was on Beca’s chest and she could see Beca’s face, “I’ve also been told that when I’m tired I get an okie drawl. Do I have a drawl, Becs?”

Beca laughed softly, “Well, you called me darlin’, darlin’.”

“Oh yeah,” Chloe chuckled. “If I had any energy I’d try to find my cowboy hat and give you a show. But you’ll just have to imagine it.”

“Easy enough,” Beca smirked again. “And good to hear about the three cups of coffee. Even if you doctor it, maybe we can stay friends.” She stretched the last word into multiple syllables.

Chloe smacked Beca’s arm playfully and settled her head back down. “We should catch some sleep,” she yawned. “Darlin’.”

Beca nodded and closed her eyes, her left hand returning to stroking Chloe’s hair. “At your service.” She smiled, “Darlin’.”

Just before she nodded off, Chloe hummed and mumbled, “You never even called me by myyy naaaaame.”

“Oh god. Spare me karaoke songs till Thursday!” Beca teased before she realized Chloe was already asleep. She laughed quietly and continued to stroke the red hair until the movement lulled her to sleep.

 

A few hours later Chloe opened her eyes. She was still draped across Beca, who was mumbling in her sleep. Chloe realized the sun was shining brightly against her bedroom window, which was on the west side of the house. Judging by its angle, it must be mid-afternoon by now.

Chloe’s stomach growled menacingly. She glanced quickly to see if it had bothered Beca, but the sleeper didn’t even flinch. What to do, Chloe thought. Should she try to creep out of bed, or would that wake Beca up? She knew Beca had to work tonight, so she wanted to let her rest.

Chloe settled back down to maybe doze a little more, then her eyes flew open again. Mid-afternoon. What time did Beca have to work? Should Chloe wake her? She sighed in consternation.

Beca’s muttering gained volume, “You think too loud.”

“Oh good,” Chloe rolled over to look at Beca. “Since you’re awake I can tell you I’m worried about how late it is. You work tonight? Right?” Chloe realized she hadn’t even looked at a clock. “It’s 2:00,” she confirmed. “Do you have time to sleep a little longer?”

“I have to be back at 7:00 to check the piano and set up equipment if someone dicked with it today.” Beca yawned. “Ideally, I’d go home and change first. But I can wear what I wore last night if you think you have a blouse I can get away with borrowing. Other option is to stop on the way and pick up a new one. No one will notice the slacks. Just the blouse.” She yawned again. “I don’t have an extra in my car this week.”

Chloe relaxed. “Oh good. I was worried.” She started to trace lazy patterns on Beca’s chest. “Your eyes are the deepest fucking blue, did you know that?”

Beca chuckled, “And yours are the brightest. Do we cancel each other out?”

Chloe considered it. “Maybe together we glow, like some Marvel hero.” She turned her head to kiss Beca’s shoulder the same way she had last night. “Might actually be better than coffee.”

“Call ya vers?” Beca teased. “Or are ya saying I’m a goddamn twilight vampire?”

Chloe sat up and moved so her neck was closer to Beca’s face. “I dunno,” she said in a low voice, “do you feel compelled to bite my neck?”

Beca nuzzled Chloe’s neck, then collarbone. “Branding should be reserved for something way more permanent.” She then tickled the same area with her tongue.

Chloe’s breath caught in her throat. She enjoyed Beca’s tongue for a few more seconds, then put her forehead against Beca’s. “I think we’re going to become fast friends,” she grinned, her eyes dancing.

Beca winked.

Chloe kissed Beca’s forehead and then her eyelids and eventually made her way down to Beca’s lips. “I should feed you. And coffee,” she breathed.

“Mmmmm,” Beca nibbled at Chloe’s lower lip, then upper lip. “Better’n coffee you said?” Then she pulled back and grinned. “Almost.”

Chloe whimpered softly. “I said that, didn’t I?” She pouted.

Beca nodded. Then she moved her head to kiss Chloe’s forehead, both eyelids and both cheeks. “You did.”

Chloe sighed happily. “I just had a thought. Maybe better after coffee?”

“Hmmm,” Beca pulled back, tilted her head, tapped her own lips and looked thoughtful. With a sudden nod of her head she replied, “I’m willing to try that.” She grinned again.

Chloe slowly pulled away, wondering if it was a stupid thing to do. Last night she knew she wanted Beca, but now she knew exactly what Beca could make her feel. She hoped she could convince this marvel into an arrangement that would lead to more nights like the last one. “Come on,” Chloe crooked her finger as she went into the hall, then stuck her head back inside the room quickly, “Darlin’.” She was gone down the hall.

Beca felt her breath catch as she watched Chloe move away. She chuckled at the endearment before muttering under her breath. “No strings, Mitchell.” She looked down the hall before she stood up and started to follow. Daytime dolls that play around at night were the worst, she reminded herself. Don’t get attached. She fixed a smile on her face which softened as she remembered the night. “Shit.” She made a pit stop to explain the delay in following and reminded herself again as she washed her hands. “Don’t get attached.” The eyes in the mirror looked skeptical. She took a deep breath, nodded to herself and finished following Chloe. “Sorry,” she said when she reached the kitchen. “Nature called.”

Chloe had tied an apron on to protect herself from the stove and was prepping bacon, eggs, and hash browns. “Coffee should be ready to pour at least one cup,” she gestured toward the pot with her hip as she juggled pans.

Beca paused in the door way and leaned against the jamb. “On second thought… that view may be better than coffee.” Her voice ended on a growl.

Chloe looked at Beca and winked. “Get your coffee, doll, the show will last a good 15 minutes. I just thought you could use some nourishment.” She looked back at the stove. “Because I might not be 100% done with the night yet.”

“Promises, promises,” Beca muttered although she obediently crossed to the pot, suspended the brew and poured a cup. As she started it again, she asked, “You sure you don’t need the first one? You are the one maneuvering around fire and popping bacon grease.”

Chloe giggled, “Too late, this requires all of my attention now unless you like burned food.”

“Heaven forfend.” Beca held up her free hand and settled into a chair where she had a great view. She sipped at the coffee, weaker than she was used to, but tolerable.

Chloe plated the breakfast, fished silverware from a drawer, and even managed to nab a couple of napkins. She placed everything on the table, then made a show of taking the apron off slowly. She smirked as she sat down, “Eat your food.”

Beca stood slowly, moved close enough to whisper in her ear, “How do you take your coffee?” Before she broke away and poured Chloe a cup.

Chloe shuddered and gasped slightly, “Shit,” she whispered. She caught herself, “I mean French vanilla creamer. Top shelf in the fridge.”

“Gotcha covered,” Beca acknowledged and crossed to get the creamer. Grabbing a spoon out of the drawer she’d seen Chloe access for forks, she returned to the table. She placed the coffee, spoon and creamer next to Chloe’s hand. “There ya go, darlin’.” She winked, kissed Chloe’s cheek and finally sat down to her meal.

Chloe watched Beca sit down, food and drink forgotten. She finally realized she was staring and snapped out of the reverie. “Coffee, thank you, Beca,” she grabbed the creamer and doctored her cup. She glanced at Beca, her eyes flashing, “We really should eat, doll.”

Beca nodded and picked up a piece of bacon. “You know, it may be a stereotype, women knowing how to cook. But I find it damn sexy.”

Chloe winked. “I’d say wait until you know what else I can do, but you already have a clue, huh?” She took a bite, her eyes on Beca.

“I’d sure as hell hope so,” Beca grinned. “But think about it. These days, you can buy scrambled eggs in a carton and pre-cooked bacon. Damn near everything is microwaveable, or just needs water.” She smiled admiringly. “Taking time is cool.”

Chloe accepted the compliment. “Thanks. I just don’t like to settle, you know?”

Beca nodded, “good to know.” She ate for a while. “It’s really good. Thank you,” she added sincerely.

Chloe nodded, “it does feel good to get something solid in my stomach,” she confessed. “For the record, I’ve got carte blanche at my boutique just a few minutes from here. Won’t take me 15 to dress you for the night.”

That now familiar slow smile spread across Beca’s face. “I get to be dressed by the hottest ticket in town? My audience may not recognize me.”

“I will,” Chloe’s smile was as slow as Beca’s. “And maybe buy you a little time beforehand?”

“Gotta tip well.” Beca smirked.

Chloe stood up and sauntered toward Beca. She leaned forward slowly and licked Beca’s neck just below her ear. She whispered, “Can I pay in advance?”

Beca rotated away from the table, “This one’s on me,” she growled playfully as she pulled Chloe onto her lap.

Chloe giggled. “I do like this game. Do you know nobody plays games anymore? You are a national treasure, Beca Mitchell.”

“I just follow your lead, milady. At the risk of repeating myself,” Beca nuzzled Chloe’s neck, “I am at your service.”

Chloe sighed into Beca, “Then holy shit, woman, service me in the other room.”

Just before 7:00 Chloe slowly circled up the parking garage levels at the Mayo. She was quiet, feeling a little sad that they both had to go back to reality. When she parked behind Beca’s car she killed the engine and turned in her seat to look at her passenger. “You know how it feels when you finally have to go home after you’ve been at an amusement park all day long?”

Beca had been sitting half facing Chloe the entire drive. She wanted to memorize each moment. “Yeah, or returning to work after the best vacation.”

“Yeah,” Chloe nodded. “Exhausted but exhilarated at the same time.” She carefully tucked a stray lock of hair behind Beca’s ear. “If anybody asks, you’re an E ticket, Miss Mitchell.”

“It’s been a memorable ride, Miss Beale.” Beca lifted Chloe’s hand to her lips. “I knew it would be,” her eyes danced as she placed a feather-light kiss.

“I’m glad you chose the dark blue,” Chloe nodded her head toward the shirt Beca wore. “It’s nice to see some color on the piano player.” She smiled. “You know you’re gonna have to bring the clothes back sometime, though. We can arrange it at the store, or you can deliver them to my house.” Her eyes danced playfully.

Beca felt again that slow smile cross her face. “That almost sounds like an invitation.” Then she added, “We’ll always have karaoke.”

“Mmm, karaoke will be fun,” Chloe’s mind was already racing through the many ways she could tease Beca while all Beca could do was watch. “Thursday feels like a long time away.”

“Anticipation…” Beca crooned softly. Then with a sad smile she sighed. “I should get upstairs. If they held a wedding reception, the piano may not be playable. Assholes spill drinks in the keys.” She growled in irritation. “I’ll have to use the sound system to play recordings. I hate that.” She shook her head. “6 fucking hours of Muzak.”

Chloe nodded. “Well, for the record, you know where I live. If you ever need to work off some tension I can give you an assist,” she leaned forward to kiss Beca’s cheek. “Thank you for a glorious time.”

Beca felt her heart jump. No strings. But maybe a repeat performance. “Thank you.” Beca returned the kiss on the cheek. “You are one of a kind, Chloe Beale.” She whispered in Chloe’s ear.

“Likewise, Beca Mitchell,” Chloe smiled. “Now get out of here before I put this car in gear and steal you again,” the smile turned into a grin.

Beca laughed and opened the car door. She paused by the driver’s side to take one more look. “See you Thursday.” She refused to make it a question.

Chloe was grinning like a fool watching Beca’s antics. She shook her head as she navigated the parking garage levels again and wondered if she could wait until Thursday to pick this game up again.

Beca leaned against the back wall of the elevator car and pulled out her phone.

Beca: she’s a natural redhead.

Jessica was lying on the sofa with Ashley, lazily leafing through her social media and thinking about what to cook for dinner. Beca’s message came through and she raised an eyebrow. She held the iPad up so Ashley could read it.

Ashley laughed after reading it. “Better make sure we have money in the jar,” she teased. Then she added, “But, this is good, right?”

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” Jessica grinned. “She did need to blow off some steam.”

Jessica: we’ve got the bail money ready.

Beca laughed. Just before the doors opened on the roof, she added a text.

Beca: one night. No strings. But “oh what a night.”
Jessica: feel better, Becs?
Beca: for damn sure.

She thought of adding more and reminded herself for the hundredth time. “No strings.” And hit send.

Jessica looked at Ashley, “She says it was a one night stand and she’s happy. You buy that?”

Ashley considered. “Right now? Maybe. Tomorrow?” She hesitated. “Better start making some cookie dough. No idea when this is gonna crash.”

Chapter Text

Stacie: how did you do that?

Aubrey glanced at her phone, then raised an eyebrow.

Aubrey: What did I do?
Stacie: you were only here a couple of hours but oh it feels empty here without you.
Aubrey: oh, that. I thought maybe I was in trouble lol. You’ll have to tell me, because there’s a distinctly palpable lack of Stacie on my couch today too

Stacie smiled.

Stacie: we will have to work out a schedule you know. I will need a regular dose of Doofus as well as having my apartment refilled.

Aubrey’s eyes lit up.

Aubrey: we seem to be good at taking turns. I’m sure we can work something out.
Stacie: I look forward to it. Did you remember to take your card key? Or do I need to arrange for you to pick up another?
Aubrey: I’ve got it. When would you like me to come today?
Stacie: whenever you want. Text when you get here and I will take at least a break.

Aubrey thought about it. She had two appointments today, and she didn’t like the idea of squeezing Stacie in around other things. Mostly she didn’t want a time limit on their visit.

Aubrey: I’d rather wait until your day is done. The princess likes to have all of your attention, don’t you know?

Stacie smiled again. God, this woman was adorable.

Stacie: first, tell me what a good girl I was I didn’t make a blue joke about you coming.
Stacie: then, remember my schedule is variable. Come on by when you finish, and I will arrange what I have to do around you.
Stacie: this girl loves to dance attendance on her princess.
Aubrey: you know I meant that comment both ways. I’ll be there at 5:30, and I look forward to the dance.
Stacie: can’t wait. But I’ll try. Mwah.

Stacie smiled down at her phone. It was going to be a long day.

 

Out in BerryHill, Jessica stepped out of her car at the top of Beca’s hill. She patted the hood. “Good car,” she said encouragingly on her way to the front door. She carried a large bag of ingredients for several different types of breads and cakes. “Anybody home?” She called as she opened the screen door and walked into the house.

Beca walked out from the back of the house, a brush still in her hand. “Hey, Jess! Sorry, I forgot you were coming. It’s Monday, isn’t it?” She blushed.

“Yep,” Jessica grinned. “Last I checked.” she walked through to the kitchen and put her bag down on the counter.

“Always good to see you,” Beca followed and gave Jessica a one-armed hug. “Lemme finish putting myself together. Be right out.” She hurried back to the back to put her brush down and pulling her hair into a ponytail.

Jessica puttered around in the kitchen while she waited, humming an old song under her breath. She wasn’t so much interested in baking as she was in Beca’s emotional well being.

Beca returned to the kitchen, well prepared for a day of baking. “Want some coffee?” She offered as she walked over to pour herself a cup.

“Sure,” Jessica nodded happily as she continued to track down bowls and utensils. “This kitchen must have been designed from the ground up for baking. Every time I come here I’m reminded. It’s ideal.”

“Yeah,” Beca looked around the space as well. “I’m trying to remember who lived here first. Anyway, the first farmhouse wasn’t very efficient. When the berries started being popular, one of my greats decided to sell pies, too. I think that was during the depression. She had her husband build this place. Later the farmhouse came down after a storm. This became the homestead.”

Jessica leaned against the counter and watched Beca talk about her home. “You seem pretty okay,” she finally said.

Beca frowned, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Jessica crossed her arms. “One night, no strings, with a gorgeous redhead. This is not the Beca I’ve come to know.”

“Oh, that.” Beca blushed as she sat down. “Yeah, I know. And really, unexpected.” She shrugged and looked at her friend, “I decided to take what I could get.”

“Opportunistic, now that makes more sense,” Jessica grinned. “What are you gonna do if she shows up at karaoke again?”

Beca smirked, “She promised she would.” She sipped at her coffee, wishing it was a little weaker, just to remind her of Chloe’s blend. “I don’t know.” She chuckled, “I don’t even know what to say.” She looked at the ceiling. “We’d gone to Baxter’s for dinner. It was fun, lighthearted. She dared me to kiss her in the parking lot. That was easy.” She snorted.

Jessica grinned. “But you had to work, right? I thought daytime doll/nighttime doll was in effect here.”

“Totally.” Beca nodded in agreement. “She’d been all disappointed I had to work. Suggested we see each other today, but I didn’t think it would happen. Too much time in between.” She shook her head at the memory. “When I got to my car Saturday night, she had me blocked in. Dared me to take a drive with her.”

“Oh shit,” Jessica shook her head. “You’ve never been able to resist a dare.”

Beca snorted, “Yeah, she seemed to figure that out.” She grinned, “You should be proud of us. We didn’t get caught making out at a public park or her front lawn.”

“Thoughtful of you to keep me from tapping the bail money too soon in the relationship,” Jessica teased. “Oh, I’m sorry, not relationship.”

“Yeah, not a relationship.” Beca sipped at her coffee. “She sort of implied she’d like a round two, but still holding fast to the no strings thing.” She looked at Jessica. “It’ll be hard. She’s gorgeous, and god, she makes me laugh.”

“I’d feel sorry for you, but I somehow don’t believe you’ll suffer from the sacrifice of having to make out with a gorgeous redhead one more time.” Jessica’s smirk faded. “Ash and I will be around when you run out of chances, though. Tell me it’s worth it?”

Beca nodded and smiled sadly. “She’s awesome, Lucky. Even if I only got one night, I won’t forget it.”

“That’s all I need to hear,” Jessica walked over and put her arms around Beca. “You were getting a little uptight. It’s nice to see you relaxed again,” she winked as she let Beca go. “What about tonight?”

“Haven’t heard.” Beca shrugged. “That was before we spent the night together. I’m guessing it’s off.”

Jess nodded sympathetically. “That sucks. So, help me create good foods instead.”

Beca squeezed her friend. “Right. Girls come and go but cookies are forever.”

 

North of downtown Tulsa, Roberta finished reading the report. She kicked her shoes off, put her feet up and punched a button on her phone. Time to call Stacie.

Stacie picked up her phone without looking at it and tapped to close the alert. She went back to the sim she was working on.

Roberta glared at the phone. She turned on her computer and activated the program that monitored Stacie’s work habits. She dialed again.

Stacie grumbled and picked up the phone, punched the screen without a glance, then clicked the sound button to silent.

Roberta laughed. “Two can play that game, little one.” She tapped a key on her computer.

“What the fuck,” Stacie stared at the screen saver that had popped open on her computer. She clicked the mouse and entered her password, but access was denied. She tried again.

“What the fucking fuck?” She muttered as she picked up her phone to call Roberta about the glitch. She noticed two missed calls from Roberta and her eyes widened. “Oops,” she grinned and tapped to connect with Roberta.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Conrad. How are you, this fine day?” Roberta greeted Stacie as she answered the phone.

“Sorry, Rib,” Stacie ducked her head. “I was in the middle of something, didn’t even look at my phone.”

Roberta smiled, “So I gather. Now, since you are on an enforced break anyway and you haven’t stopped since before 8:00 this morning, I suggest you walk this call out to your kitchen and grab something to eat.”

Stacie rolled her eyes. “I was at an important place, Rib. I don’t want to lose it.”

“It’s still there. Behind the screen saver. I’ve even saved it for you,” Roberta replied as she followed through. “This is not convincing me I can return you to the lab, little one.”

“Right,” Stacie said as she stood up and stretched. “Food. Thanks, Rib.” She carried the phone with her to the kitchen. “You didn’t call just to make sure I was eating, did you?”

Roberta waited until she recognized the surroundings as the kitchen. “No, I have other news.”

Stacie set the phone on the counter and rummaged through the fridge. “Yeah?” She asked over her shoulder.

“There was a ping on Ms. Posen’s social media check.”

Stacie froze. She went to the counter and picked up the phone. “Tell me,” she said in a guarded tone.

Roberta shook her head, “it’s okay. We checked it out. It seems your Aubrey rubs certain people the wrong way.” She sighed, “Someone referenced her as an aca-nazi. The word triggered the ping.” Roberta looked at Stacie, “I’m happy to say she passes muster, but you should know you might have trouble from petty sources.”

Stacie released the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. “Thanks,” she smiled. “We can handle the mean girls.” Stacie sank onto a bar stool. “She’s clear to hang out up here, then? It’s all good?”

“Yes. And of course the office remains off limits.” Roberta shrugged. “The office is an extension of this lab so it is secured for cleared personnel only, but yes she can have the run of the rest of the apartment.” Roberta studied Stacie again. “But I already gave that permission, little one. What’s really on your mind?”

“I want a piano. A baby grand,” Stacie glanced at the corner of the living room where she thought it would fit just right.

Roberta blinked. “A baby grand.”

“Yeah,” Stacie nodded. “A stand up wouldn’t match the rest of the apartment.”

“I cannot argue that.” Roberta conceded. “However, I will need to discuss it with The Mayo engineers. We have to be sure the floor can support it, and orchestrate getting it installed. After I find one, of course. Care to tell me why the sudden interest in…” she broke off. “Aubrey has a piano performance degree.”

Stacie shrugged, “I know you can make it work, you’re good at these kinds of things. Pay for it through the trust, find the people who can make it happen, right?”

Roberta chuckled. “I will call Dr. Lanners for an instrument recommendation.” She smiled at Stacie, “you are this serious about her, little one? Already?”

Stacie smiled and shrugged once more, “Is there a length of time I’m supposed to wait before I’m serious? And consider the piano an investment for the apartment. Think of how impressive it will be for fund raisers.”

“You don’t have to sell me or snow me, Anastasia. I am on your side.” Roberta spoke softly, although firmly. “I realize you are an adult and capable of making your own decision. I also care about you and your feelings, strange as that may seem to you.”

“Thanks, Rib. She’s really special. I can totally be myself with her. You know?” Stacie’s eyes grew soft. “We seem imminently compatible.”

Roberta relaxed, “I’m happy for you, little one. Just don’t think you have to cut me out to have her. Please.” Still speaking softly, it was the closest Roberta had ever come to pleading.

“Oh, Rib, I could never cut you out. I love you. You’re my family. Please don’t think I could ever replace you.” Stacie wasn’t used to Roberta being even a little emotional.

“Thank you, little one.” Roberta smiled again. “I know we are an unusual family, but I like to think we are solid. I look forward to adding Aubrey to the mix. Will you arrange for us to meet?”

“I need to do that. I think you’ll like one another.” Stacie watched Roberta for a moment. “You could come play the piano too, if you want.”

Roberta’s smiled broadened. “Oh, dear it has been years. I’m not sure my hands would stretch well enough to do it justice. But I look foreward to hearing your girl play.”

“We’ll get it all arranged,” Stacie grinned. “You guys are going to get along so well. Love ya, Rib.”

“Back atcha, kiddo.” Before Roberta ended the call she leaned forward, “There you go, access reinstated. Tell that girl of yours that I expect her to take good care of you.”

“Thank you!” Stacie picked up a piece of string cheese to take back into the office. “And I’m sure she’ll do her best,” Stacie winked.

“How can you make that sound dirty?” Roberta laughed. “Talk to you soon.” Roberta shook her head and disconnected.

 

Meanwhile, Aubrey sat in a church parking lot and called Mack. She needed to update him on her previous client.

“Keys!” Mack’s voice boomed through the connection as if he didn’t need a microphone. “How the hell are ya?”

Aubrey smiled, “I’m well, Mack. And you?”

Mack chuckled, “great, just great. Kids should know better than to bring their drinks around the practice pianos. I spent three hours cleaning the sticky away.” There was a rustling sound and then a car door closing. “Finally out of that place.”

Aubrey groaned. “People have no respect.” She watched a playground full of kids chasing and pushing each other around and was grateful she wasn’t that age anymore. “I called because All Souls purchased a new piano. That makes it four, total, in the building. I just wanted to warn you since the music director tends to expect us to work on all of his pianos at once.”

Mack echoed the groan. “Right. You only did one?”

“Yep. I have First Baptist this afternoon.” She glanced out the window again, “Hey, Mack, would you mind if I took next week off?”

“I guess not.” Mack was still thinking about how he was going to handle All Souls. “I was thinking I could bring you and Toni in on Thursday afternoon. Make Rick think we aren’t gonna get the work done on time, then make them pay for all three of us at once. What ya think?”

Aubrey chuckled, “I think that’s why you’re the brains of this operation. I’m in. Thanks for the vacation next week.”

Mack was making a note. “Hey, if ya don’t mind my asking, what’s up?”

Aubrey laughed, “I was surprised you hadn’t asked already.” Her cheeks turned a light pink. “I met this girl,” she began and trailed off, not sure how to explain.

“She must be something, Keys lost her voice,” Mack said as if talking to someone else in the car.

“I’d smack you if you were here,” Aubrey threatened. “She’s pretty amazing. I’d like to free up some time to spend with her around her work schedule. You don’t mind?”

“Nah, it’s a slow month. Need ya more closer to August, getting ready for school.” Mack allowed. “When do I get to meet her?”

Aubrey nodded, “I’ll be available. Let me check with her and I’ll set up lunch or something, kay?”

Mack nodded, then remembered they were on the phone. “That’ll work. You know weekends are better for me. The kids are traveling so I’ll be bored.”

“You got it, Mack. I think you’ll like her. She’s a scientist, but she’s also good with her hands.” Aubrey blushed more deeply, “I mean mechanically. With tools. I’m gonna stop talking now.”

Mack laughed loudly, “I like her already, just from getting you flustered. Gotta jet. Some problem at the PAC. Talk to ya soon, Keys. And see you Thursday. I’ll set it up for 1. Should give us plenty of time to make Rick nervous.”

“Bye Mack,” Aubrey smiled and closed the connection.

 

Chloe answered the door in her stocking feet, an earring in one hand. “Harry,” she smiled. “You’re a little early.”

Harry ran a hand through his brown hair. “Sorry. I could drive around the block a few times,” he started to back off of the porch, grinning.

Chloe reached for his arm and pulled him inside. “You’re silly. Sit on the couch and entertain yourself, I’ll be ready in a minute.” She gestured toward the couch, then headed to the back of the house.

This one was adorable, she thought as she finished with her lipstick. He looked probably five years younger than he really was, but then she liked that in a man. He also looked like he knew how to wear a suit, which boded well for his potential level of sophistication. She wanted desperately to go out with a grown up tonight.

She stood back and took inventory. Black velvet dress, a little low cut but not scandalous. Silver necklace, matching earrings, subtle makeup, lips just a little darker than she’d wear in the daytime. When she turned her hips she smiled at how the small slit in the dress opened just enough to reveal a little of her thigh.

Harry stood when Chloe finally came into the living room. He shook his head slightly, “You look incredible,” he smiled and walked around the couch. He offered his arm, “Shall we?”

Chloe smiled broadly and accepted the elbow. “Thanks, doll.” She let him lead her out the door and down the drive, where he opened her door and got her settled into the car. She relaxed her shoulders. This was going well.

He drove toward downtown, making small talk along the way. He mentioned the weather, asked her if she liked sports, talked about how he liked to listen to podcasts rather than music in the car. When he turned down Houston, Chloe got nervous. “Where are we eating?” She asked.

“I thought we’d do Baxter’s,” he smiled at her. “They’ve got the best stuffed mushrooms.”

Chloe’s face fell. “I hate to ask,” she put her hand on his arm, “could we possibly go somewhere else?”

He looked at her, confused, then glanced at the hand on his arm. “Of course,” he answered smoothly. “How about the Daily Grill?”

Chloe relaxed back into her seat. “Wonderful,” she nodded.

Driving home, Chloe had to admit the evening had been delightful. Harry knew how to order wine, he handled the wait staff respectfully, and he always had a tasteful joke or a conversation starter when there was a lull. At the theater he had made sure she was comfortable, gave her the outside seat so she didn’t have to sit next to a stranger, and fought the lobby crowd to bring her a glass of wine at intermission. There was absolutely nothing she could complain about.

But there were no real highlights either. Chloe was actually a little sleepy by the time they pulled into her driveway. When the car stopped she started to unbuckle her seatbelt and automatically went to open the door.

“Nope,” Harry said as he dashed to get out of the car and come around to her door. He held it open and offered his hand to help her out.

Chloe accepted the hand graciously and stood up. She waited for him to close the door, then walked to the porch. Harry walked with her. As she pulled her keys from her purse, he put his hand on her waist. “I had a really good time, Chloe,” he said softly.

She hadn’t expected the hand and had almost ducked away from it. She sighed a little and looked up into his eyes. They were brown, which seemed wrong for some reason. Chloe didn’t know why she’d expected blue. “Harry, it was lovely,” she said.

He smiled and leaned toward her, clearly expecting a kiss. Chloe pressed her lips against his lightly,  then turned to unlock the door. His hand pressed more firmly against her waist, pulling her closer to him. “It was better than that, though, wasn’t it?”

Her eyes flashed in irritation. “Harry,” she began, but was cut off by another, more insistent kiss.

“Are you going to invite me in?” He asked as if it were already decided.

“No.” Chloe stepped out of his arm. “I think you should go.”

He started to argue, and it was her turn to cut him off by putting a hand against his lips. “Stop. Thank you for the dinner and the show,” she said in an even tone. “Good night, Harry.”

He stepped back. “Night, Chloe.”

She ducked into the house and leaned her back against the door. She couldn’t shake the thought of calling Beca, which was almost as irritating as the bland evening with the perfect gentleman. She should be thrilled, he did everything right. She sighed and kicked off her shoes.

Chapter Text

Stacie finished dressing for karaoke. Before she put her shoes on, she walked up behind Aubrey, who was putting her earrings in. She slipped her arms around Aubrey’s waist and rested her chin on Aubrey’s shoulder. “You know, it’s almost worth you getting dressed to be able to snuggle you this way.”

Aubrey leaned into Stacie’s embrace. “There’s another benefit. You get to undress me again later.”

“Careful,” Stacie purred into Aubrey’s ear. “Chloe may have to miss you if you keep reminding me what I’m missing.”

Aubrey turned in Stacie’s arms, “Won’t it be fun reminding you all evening what you get to come home to at the end?” She traced a finger along Stacie’s jaw. “Antici - pation.”

“You dirty bird. You’re not a Rocky Horror Virgin?” Stacie kept her eyes on Aubrey as she turned her head enough to kiss the finger at her jaw.

Aubrey took a deep breath, “We’d better go or I’m never going to hear the end of it. Chloe will kill me if I don’t give her a chance to gush about her most recent date night in person.” She snaked her hand around Stacie’s waist and pulled her closer. “I want to watch you sing, too.” She kissed Stacie, then leaned back and fixed Stacie’s lipstick with a thumb. “Everyone there is gonna wish they were me.”

Stacie wisely chose not to answer, but instead picked up her shoes and headed toward the door. She paused there to slip into her heels. She winked before she asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Aubrey waited for Stacie to close the door behind them, then tucked her arm into Stacie’s elbow. “Let’s knock em dead, doll.”

Beca looked up as Ashley greeted the new arrivals. “Hey, Squirt.” Beca called out as she taped down cords. “Whatcha singing tonight?”

Stacie smiled at Aubrey, “I Feel the Earth Move.” She glanced at Ashley, “You up for it?”

Ashley snorted. “I’ll get security ready.”

Aubrey laughed out loud. She held Stacie’s chair for her at their usual table. “I can’t wait,” she grinned at Stacie as she settled in her seat. “Will Jessica be here, Ashley?”

Ashley looked at her watch. “She should be here in ten. Had to finish a cake. What are you having? Chardonnay?” She looked back and forth between Aubrey and Stacie.

Beca smirked and stood up. She walked over to the table. “First glass on me, Ash. Looks like we got a new couple to celebrate.”

Aubrey smiled at Beca, “Thank you. Are we that obvious?”

“The way her face lights up just looking at you?” Beca winked at Stacie. “Yeah. Pretty clear she’s off the market.” Beca leaned over and gave Stacie a one armed hug then fastened a baleful glare on Aubrey. “I’ll be keeping my eye on you.”

Stacie smacked Beca on the hand. “Play nice.”

Beca pulled away in mock offense. “I’m nice!” But as she walked away, she gestured from her eyes toward Aubrey with a smirk.

Aubrey tilted her head and looked over at Stacie again. “Do I need a bodyguard now?”

Stacie shook her head. “She’s harmless.” Under her breath she added, “I think.”

Ashley came back with two glasses and a bottle. “The second glass is from me and Jess. Don’t worry about Beca. Her bark is much worse than her bite.” She looked up to see who else entered the bar.

Chloe walked into the bar and smiled when she saw Aubrey and Stacie already at their usual table. “One more glass?” She asked Ashley as she took a seat.

Aubrey arched an eyebrow at the redhead. “You’re looking sharp tonight.”

Chloe shrugged and looked down at her black slacks, tailored black jacket, and black crop top that showed just a hint of her stomach above the first button of the jacket. “Something new from the boutique. I thought it would do for karaoke.”

Beca looked up from placing the sign in sheet and smiled. With a tug at her jacket she reached behind the table for a bag and headed back to the table. “Hey, Chloe. Nice to see you.” She leaned over and kissed Chloe’s cheek and left the bag on the table. She glared at Stacie. “Not for you.” Then she chuckled and returned to work.

Stacie looked at Beca, then Chloe, then Aubrey.

Aubrey shrugged at Stacie. “What’s that?” She asked Chloe, who had turned a slight shade of pink.

“Just clothes she borrowed.” Chloe answered offhandedly as opened the top of the bag and inhaled deeply. “Fresh bread,” she breathed with a happy sigh.

Stacie arched an eyebrow. “Ok, when did you guys do it?”

Chloe blinked and turned an even deeper shade of red. “Pardon?”

Aubrey choked back laughter. “Holy shit, Chlo, you did, didn’t you?”

“How, what,” Chloe stammered, looking at Stacie and Aubrey in turn. “Rude,” she finally muttered.

Stacie leaned over and pressed up against Aubrey, “The hunter is never wrong.” She whispered.

Ashley returned with Chloe’s Chardonnay. At the look on each face at the table, she said. “What’d I miss?”

Chloe smiled innocently at Ashley, “Have you ever tasted Beca’s pumpernickel?”

“Is that what they call it these days?” Stacie blinked just as innocently.

Aubrey was laughing so hard she snorted.

Jessica sat down, unnoticed. “What’d I miss?”

“Mom and dad were doin’ it.” Stacie said, then started singing, “Hello twelve…”

Ashley laughed, “Hello thirteen.”

“Hello, Love?” Jessica sang the last line with an arched eyebrow.

Chloe shook her head and looked at Aubrey, “You’ll excuse me for a moment?” She stood up and walked over to the stage.

Beca was turned toward the back wall, sorting wires. “Hey, gorgeous,” Chloe said lightly.

Beca looked up, “Hello, Bright Eyes.” She glanced over Chloe’s shoulder at the group laughing at the table, “What’s cutting them up?”

“Stacie wants to know when you and I ‘did it,’ as she says.” Chloe smirked.

Beca chuckled. “Is it supposed to be a secret?” Beca tugged Chloe closer. “We could give them something else to talk about.”

Chloe grinned, “I like the way you think.” She snaked a hand behind Beca’s back. “Got something in mind?”

“Just you,” Beca replied lightly.

Stacie elbowed Aubrey. “Damn.”

Jessica turned and coughed. “Get it, Beca.”

Chloe leaned in expectantly, “So are you gonna kiss me, or should I kiss you.”

Aubrey snuck her arm around Stacie’s waist and grinned. “You totally called it. We might need a fire hose, though.”

Jessica pretended to fan herself, “Water, Ash. We need water.”

Ashley laughed. “Who? You or them?”

Stacie kissed Aubrey softly. “Good thing you tamed the hunter,” she whispered.

“I might never recover from you naming it the Hunter,” Aubrey winked at Stacie, “but I promise to keep it domesticated.”

Beca winked as she met Chloe’s lips. “I sorta like this kind of hazing.” She whispered as catcalls began from Jess and Ashley.

Chloe smiled into Beca’s lips. “I love your job,” she slowly pulled back, giving Beca another quick peck before stepping away. The redhead turned her back on the table, her eyes on Beca. She slowly unbuttoned her jacket, then pushed one side open with a hand on her hip. She shrugged her shoulders lightly, “Remember, I like to be watched.” She winked at Beca and slipped her jacket closed again as she walked back to the table.

Beca coughed as Chloe opened the jacket. “Don’t I know it,” she muttered as she returned to setting up.

Jessica sipped at her water glass while Ashley suddenly acted busy taking orders.

Chloe sat down again, her cheeks still flushed. “Are we singing tonight?”

Aubrey chuckled, “Let us catch our breath, Chlo.” She grinned wickedly.

Chloe blinked innocently, “I’m breathing just fine.” She glanced back at the stage where Beca was still arranging cords and microphones.

“Mhm,” Aubrey leaned closer to Stacie, pulling Stacie’s hand to her lips. “You said you were going to make the earth move?” She raised an eyebrow playfully at her girl.

Stacie felt her heart jump. She hoped that feeling never went away. “Sweetie, I feel the earth move every time you kiss me.” She nearly purred. Then she winked, stood up and sashayed over to talk to Beca.

Chloe sipped at her wine, watching Aubrey. “Breathing yet, Bree?”

“She’s intoxicating, Chlo,” Aubrey’s eyes were still on Stacie. It was going to be a very long evening, especially knowing their room was an elevator ride away. She remembered why they came down in the first place. “So is Beca the date of the week, then?” She turned to Chloe.

Chloe’s eyes twinkled, “We went to Baxter’s Saturday afternoon.” She nodded. “Then it got a little extracurricular when I picked her up after her show Saturday night. I might have broken a swing at River Parks,” she giggled.

Aubrey laughed. “Destruction of property? You’re getting dangerous, Chlo. I’m assuming things went well, though.”

“So very well,” Chloe leaned forward. “In fact,” she started when Aubrey cut her off.

“Don’t need the details, Elf. So are you guys an item, then?” Aubrey sat back in her chair, eyes wandering toward Stacie again.

Chloe shrugged, “We agreed, no strings. It’s strictly for entertainment purposes. Which reminds me, Harry was Monday night.” Chloe rolled her eyes, “I don’t know how a guy can say and do all the right things, be handsome as the devil, and leave me yawning by 10:00.”

“No swings?” Aubrey looked back at Chloe.

“Not even a decent moment of laughter,” Chloe shook her head.

“Sorry, hon. Maybe tonight will make up for it,” Aubrey commiserated.

Meanwhile, Stacie leaned over the karaoke display case and eyed Beca. “I knew you had a thing for redheads.”

Beca snorted. “Everyone knows I have a thing for redheads.”

“Granted,” Stacie smirked. “I’m just surprised. She doesn’t seem your type.”

“Say what ya wanna say, Squirt. I gotta get this show on the road. What’s your first number?” Beca rolled her eyes.

Stacie watched Beca again, “You aren’t the one and done type.”

Beca shrugged, still taping cords down so she didn’t have to meet Stacie’s gaze. “But she is. As long as she wants to play in my sandbox, I’ll play along.”

“Got it.” Stacie sighed. “Sorry, Grumpy.”

Beca looked up. Squirt and Jessica were probably the only two people she knew who understood her. “Take what you can get, right?”

Stacie nodded, “Yeah. Till you get tired of settling.” Stacie looked over her shoulder at Aubrey.

“Not everyone is as lucky as you are, Squirt. Whatcha singing?”

“I feel the earth move.” Stacie provided the song. “You gonna be okay?”

Beca nodded, “Yeah. Jess already promised another cookie bake when this all goes south. You oughta come along.”

Stacie nodded with an understanding smile. “I will. Just,” she sighed, “I hate to see you get hurt.”

“I’ll be careful,” Beca grinned. “She’s on my turf.”

“Ok, Elvira. You get me set up. I’m gonna go check with Jessica and Ashley to make sure they are ready for this.”

Beca snorted, “No one is ready for this. Poor Aubrey.”

Stacie chuckled as she headed back to the bar.

Jessica met Stacie halfway. “You gonna solo this one or do you want backup? Ashley will be ready in a few seconds.”

“Come and play.” Stacie smiled. “We gotta entertain more than Aubrey, and I got my eyes on no one else.” She tilted her head to one side. “Beca says you have a cookie bake planned for when this goes south.” She sighed, “Why did Chloe have to be a redhead?”

Jessica smirked and nodded toward Beca, “At least she gets her favorite flavor for a while, right?” She patted Stacie’s arm, “It’s nice of you to worry, though. Maybe we won’t have to drag you down here to play with us anymore.”

Stacie blushed, “You guys have been awesome. Maybe I’ll invite you up and we can, I dunno, hang out.” She shrugged, “I’m pretty good at putting on a show, but pretty bad about being real with people. Thanks for being patient with me.”

Jessica grinned, “Okay, enough serious talk. Let’s get some folks highly uncomfortable, whaddya say?”

“On it.” Stacie grinned and moved back to the stage. She looked down at Beca, who nodded. “All right, my name is Stacie Conrad and I’m here to put a little bump in the night.” She winked. “Sing along if you can catch up.”

Ashley rushed up to join Stacie and Jessica. “Are you sure we are ready for this?”

Beca repeated, “No one is ready for this,” as she laughed.

Stacie winked at Ashley as the music began and Stacie started to dance.

Aubrey leaned back in her chair, full attention on Stacie. She was ready for anything, she thought, as she heard the opening notes of the song and watched Stacie smile at Jessica and Ashley.

Chloe settled in to watch the show, smirking at how sexy she knew she could make the song and fully expecting Stacie to do even more. She glanced at Aubrey, who seemed pretty relaxed. This should be fun.

As the song began, Jessica and Ashley took up alternate lines and echos. Ashley already knew the section that was going to cause a riot and was struggling not to laugh as she waited for it.

Stacie was definitely employing hip action to emphasize the rhythm of the song, and it was clear, as she promised, that her eyes never left Aubrey’s.

At the end of the second chorus, Stacie took the wireless mic off the stand and stepped off of the stage, she extended a hand to Aubrey as the instrument break began.

Aubrey’s eyebrows shot up and she accepted the offered hand. She kept her eyes locked on Stacie’s as she stood up slowly.

Chloe noticed that Beca’s eyes were on the couple at the other side of her table. She raised her chin and slipped a hand down her thigh, running her finger along the bottom of her short black skirt and lifting it just a little bit higher. She had been watching Aubrey and Stacie during her own little performance, but cut her eyes to see if Beca had noticed.

Beca flicked her eyes over at a movement by the table. She smirked. Oh yeah, she reminded herself, Chloe likes to be watched. After a wink, she brought her attention back to her friend on the floor.

Stacie danced with Aubrey, never touching but always close enough to feel each other’s body heat. As the instrumental ended, she sang directly to Aubrey.

Ooh, darling, when you're near me
And you tenderly call my name
I know that my emotions
Are something I just can't tame
I just got to have you, baby

Then while Jessica and Ashley carried the song, she kissed Aubrey’s hand and returned to the stage.

Aubrey returned to her seat, grinning, her face a little flushed.

Chloe winked over at Aubrey, then turned her gaze to the stage.

The girls started the chorus again, with Ashley elbowing Jessica. “Here it comes,” she whispered in Jessica’s ear.

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down, a-tumbling down
I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down, a-tumbling down
I just a-lose control
Down to my very soul
I get-a hot and cold
All over, all over, all over, all over

As the girls repeated “all over,” Stacie let her hand highlight various features of her physique, from her breasts to her curves, all the while watching Aubrey.

Beca shook her head and looked around to make sure security was ready if anyone other than Aubrey got handsy.

Aubrey tilted her head and watched Stacie dance, remembering just exactly how those curves had felt under her own hand. She bit her lip, then propped her chin on her hand. Her index finger slowly traced her lower lip as her eyes flashed at her girl.

Chloe clapped her hands, then put her fingers to her lips and whistled.

The song ended and Stacie put the mic back on the stand. “Who’s up next?” She asked innocently.

Beca coughed.

Chapter Text

Aubrey stood up to meet Stacie as she stepped off the stage. She wrapped an arm around Stacie’s waist and pulled her close for a deep kiss. “That was breathtaking, Doc.”

“So are you,” Stacie murmured against Aubrey’s lips.

“I’d say get a room, but you have one,” Ashley teased drolly and she walked by and bumped them both. “Keep it legal, guys. We don’t want to get shut down.” She winked.

Aubrey took Stacie’s hand and led her back to the table. “Last I checked it was perfectly legal to kiss someone in public,” she cut her eyes toward Stacie. “But the room suggestion is tempting.”

Chloe leaned forward when the girls returned to the table. She looked from Jessica to Stacie, “I don’t know how anybody is going to follow that. I swear, you guys should charge admission.”

Stacie laughed and sat down, “I’m content with tearing it up one night a week, no charge.” She looked over at Jessica, “But this girl needs to sing more regularly. You gonna do a solo or duet with Ash, Jess? You really shouldn’t limit yourself to being my back up group.”

Jessica smiled at the compliment, “I’ve got a couple of songs on the list for later. Can’t let you have all the fun.” She looked at Aubrey’s heightened color and the way the two were always in physical contact. “I wonder if you’ll still be here by then,” she raised an eyebrow.

“I look forward to it,” Chloe interjected. She turned to the couple, “You guys should visit the roof on a Friday night, Beca tends to showcase Jessica and Ashley. It’s phenomenal.”

Jessica ducked her head and sipped her drink. “It’s just for fun, you guys. But thanks.”

Aubrey looked at Stacie, “That does sound like fun. We’ll have to schedule it.”

“We will,” Stacie nodded. “I think this one is going to break me of my hermit habits.” She leaned over to kiss Aubrey on the cheek. “I don’t know how I didn’t realize Beca did more than karaoke.” She blushed lightly.

Beca kept one eye on the table and one eye on the queue as she worked her way through the list of performers. At the end of the first hour, she called a break. “Gimme ten, guys. I gotta queue up some more of you. Thanks to everyone who has performed so far. I hope to have some more dynamite entertainment for you before the night is out. Those of you who haven’t signed up, there is still time!” She finally stepped out from behind the console and Ashley met her with a glass of Smithwicks.

“Warm tonight, thought you might like a cold one.”

“You are a goddamn life saver, Ash. Jessica is one lucky girl.” Beca said sincerely as she took a drink.

Aubrey was running her finger absently up and down Stacie’s arm. She leaned to whisper in Stacie’s ear, “How many steps do you think it is from here to the elevators?” Her eyes danced.

Chloe stood up and wandered to the sign up book. She put herself down for early in the next set. She’d been teasing Beca from the table off and on all night, it would be fun to tease her outright now that the bar crowd seemed a little more lubricated.

Beca lifted her glass to Chloe when she saw the woman signing the clipboard.

Ashley stood nearby, looking around to see who else might need a drink. “You okay?” She asked Beca softly.

“Appreciate it, Ash, but you guys gotta stop worrying. I know what I’m doing.” Beca cut her eyes to look at Ashley. “It was fun while it lasted. Now we dance awkwardly until she finds a new fascination.”

“Ok, we’ll play it your way.” Ashley nodded and headed to the table. “Get you guys anything else?”

Stacie looked up from where she’d been studying Aubrey. “I think we are gonna call it early. You guys close up for us?”

Jessica laughed, “We will try. Have fun.”

Ashley winked, “Make good choices.”

Aubrey smiled at Stacie, “I already did, Ashley. Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow night.”

Jessica nodded, “I hope so. I think you’ll like it. It’s a different kind of night than karaoke.”

Chloe stood behind Aubrey’s chair when she came back to the table. “I’m not surprised you’re leaving early, I’m just surprised you lasted this long. I’ll call you, Elf.”

Aubrey kissed Chloe’s cheek. “Talk to you soon, Elf.” She added in a whisper, “Play nice. I like this bar.”

Stacie laced her fingers with Aubrey’s and waved at Beca on her way out.

Beca waved back. She was gonna miss Squirt playing all night, but couldn’t begrudge her time with her girl. “Yeah, not all of us are so lucky.” She reminded herself. “All right, hats and cats, who’s next?”

Chloe settled back in her seat and waited for her turn to sing. “I’m always nice,” she muttered under her breath as she glanced toward the door where Aubrey and Stacie had disappeared.

“Whatcha got lined up?” Jessica asked as she joined Chloe at their table.

“An oldie but a goodie,” Chloe grinned. “Should turn into a sing along if any of these folks are from around here. You Never Even Called Me by My Name.”

Jessica laughed, “Haven’t heard that one in a long time. Should get the whole room rocking.”

Beca laughed quietly as she queued up Chloe’s song. She was torn between wishing Chloe would move on already, and enjoying the hell out of the night’s teasing. She spoke into the antique mic she kept off the stage. “Are you ready? Our chanteuse from last week is going to try a different genre. Here you go, Tulsa. Chloe Beale.”

Chloe took the stage and pulled the microphone from its stand. “Okay, Tulsa Boiler Room, this here song requires audience participation. Don’t disappoint me, ya hear?” She had her Okie accent in full drawl by this point. She turned and winked at Beca to start the music.

Well, it was all
That I could do
to keep from crying'
Sometimes it seemed so useless to remain
But you don't have to call me darlin',

Chloe glanced at Beca, pausing a beat longer than she should before adding the second darlin'.

You never even called me by my name

The alcohol soaked crowd gave it their best, and the room filled with the roar of the drinking song. Chloe was grinning from ear to ear at the applause when she finally finished. She blew Beca a kiss and went to sit with Jessica again.

Jessica was laughing, “Oh my god that was so much fun.” When the noise died down she leaned on the table and looked at Chloe, her eyes more serious. “Beca seemed to enjoy it. I heard a rumor there isn’t anything serious going on.”

Chloe arched an eyebrow at Jessica and shrugged, her face still lit up from the song. “No strings.”

Jessica sat back and nodded, watching Beca turn knobs on the sound board. She hoped Beca understood what that meant, because Jessica really wasn’t sure.

Beca smirked. She figured two could play at that game. She waited until she’d run to the end of the queue. She stood up from behind her console and picked up the mic stand holding her silver antique. “All y’all did an admirable job tonight.” She spoke as she pulled the stand forward. She then put the other mic stands off of the stage.

Jessica glanced at Ashley, who already had her phone out.

“As a reward,” Beca smirked, “I thought I’d do the last song of the night. If you like what you hear, or see, come on up to the Skylight Friday or Saturday nights.” She stepped back behind her console to start the backing track, and tugged at her Levi shirt so one tail was untucked. She ran her hand through her hair, mussing it up just a tad, and added a belt to her jeans. She came back to the mic and looked over the crowd, then down at the floor. The music delay ran out and she began.

I hate to see that evening sun go down
I hate to see that evening sun go down
Cause my baby, he's gone left this town

Feelin' tomorrow like I feel today
If I'm feelin' tomorrow like I feel today
I'll pack my truck and make my get-a-way

Jessica glanced over to see Chloe’s reaction. She wasn’t disappointed.

Chloe had leaned forward a bit in her chair, her eyes riveted on Beca. Her head was tilted slightly to the side and the fingers of her other hand were sliding patterns on the stem of her wine glass.

When Beca put a hand in her hair again, Chloe stopped moving. Her sense memory was in overdrive.

Beca maneuvered around the mic stand, almost dancing, but not quite. Sometimes her hands were on the mic, sometimes in her hair, sometimes over her head.

I love my baby like a school boy loves his pie
Like a Kentucky colonel loves his mint 'n rye
I love my baby till the day I die

When the music ended, she dropped her head and looked up at the audience with a smirk.

Ashley started whistling.

Jessica was on her feet, applauding.

Chloe was stuck to her chair. She had been mesmerized watching Beca’s hands move on the mic stand, then to her hair, then above her head. Chloe’s mind was reeling with memories of Beca’s messy hair against the pillows, her hands in Beca’s hair, Beca crooning soft songs in her ear. She snapped back to the real world when she heard Ashley whistle. Chloe stood up, applauding, wondering how long it would take Beca to pack up her gear.

Beca took a bow, picked up the mic stand and just before turning away and turning it off said, “See y’all next week.”

Chloe smirked at the intentional twang in Beca’s voice. She sat back and sipped at her wine again.

Jessica looked over at Chloe. “I’m glad you came. That song was awesome. Will we see you next week?”

“Wild dogs couldn’t keep me away, Jessica,” Chloe said in a low voice, her eyes still on Beca.

Jessica watched Chloe’s almost predatory stare and shot a worried glance toward Ashley. “All right, then. You have a good week.” She stood up and went to lean on the bar while Ashley started the cleanup process. “I don’t think one night is gonna stay one night,” she said to Ashley and nodded toward Chloe.

Ashley snorted. “Beca definitely pulled out the stops. This girl is on fire!”

Beca chuckled as she remembered Chloe staring at her throughout the song. It was quite satisfying. Proud of herself, she tucked her shirt in and started pulling up the tape holding her cords down, smiling the entire time.

Chloe finished her wine, then wandered over to the stage. She leaned her elbows on the top of a speaker and watched Beca pack up. “That was a hell of a song,” she said.

“Thanks.” Beca stood up and leaned on the piano. “You sure had the crowd going, yourself.”

“It seemed like the right crowd for a good rowdy sing along.” Chloe winked, “Darlin.”

Beca chuckled. “It sure was.” Then she shrugged, “Afraid country isn’t my genre. But I hadn’t advertised the other gig in awhile, so it seemed a good night for it.”

Chloe nodded, “It certainly worked for me.” She moved to lean on the piano right next to Beca. “Your hand in your hair like that is the hottest thing I think I’ve ever seen,” she brushed her shoulder against Beca’s with a slow smile.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Beca smiled back. “I probably should keep packing. Dylan’s waiting.”

“You’ve got a date?” Chloe was surprised. “I kind of thought we were going to play a little bit. That’s why you wanted me to come tonight, right?”

Beca’s eyes widened. “Oh, dude. I thought you were coming anyway because, you know, Aubrey and Squirt.”

Chloe shrugged, trying not to look too disappointed. “Yeah, I probably would have come anyway. It’s whatever.” She leaned close again, “Maybe a kiss for the road, though? Next time I’ll reserve your time more carefully. I’m sure you’ve got them lined up around the block.” She winked.

Beca smiled again. “I think we have wires crossed.” She looked down at Chloe’s lips then back up again. “No strings, right? Just a one off. Cuz, man you got me thinking this isn’t a one and done.”

Chloe looked confused. “No strings, meaning we aren’t exclusive or planning a wedding sometime in the next few years. I never meant there was a time limit.” She tilted her head, “If I knew that was going to be the only time I ever had with you, I might have memorized you better. Damn.”

Beca looked down and pondered, then looked up again. “Sorry,” she shook her head, “I guess I should have texted when I didn’t hear from you on Monday. I just…” she shrugged.

Ashley leaned over the bar to ask Jessica, “What do you think they are talking about? Damn, I wish I could read lips.”

Jessica watched the interaction, “Definitely doesn’t look like I thought it would.”

“Shit!” Chloe exclaimed. “Monday! Fuck. Oh Beca, it totally fell out of my brain we’d had plans for Monday. I mean, after all day Sunday I didn’t have much of a brain left anyway. I’m so sorry. I’m such a flake.” She slumped back against the piano, pouting a little bit.

“Hey, like I said, I shoulda texted.” Beca patted Chloe’s arm. “I thought, I dunno.” She laughed, “I’m not good at this sort of thing. I figured you got me outta your system.” She then blushed, “I’m not sure I can promise not getting attached, Bright Eyes. You are intoxicating,” Beca had to admit.

Chloe nodded, “Right. That makes sense.” Chloe’s desire for Beca was warring with her fear of commitment. She thought about asking for a last kiss, but didn’t trust herself to not try to push too far. Finally she held out her hand. “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that might hurt you, and I can’t promise to be what you’ll need if you get attached. I’ll never forget our amusement park day, Beca Mitchell.”

Beca nodded her head and took the hand, “You will always be my favorite vacation, Chloe Beale.” She hesitated before she finally placed a kiss on the back of Chloe’s hand. “You ever decide you want to slow down, smell the coffee, or the fresh bread,” she looked up into those bright eyes she already knew she would miss, “you know where to find me.”

Chloe nodded. She stood there for a minute and then realized she was the one who needed to walk away. This hadn’t gone at all like she’d expected. She looked at the hand Beca had kissed and gave Beca a small smile before heading back to the table to collect her things. She waved lamely toward Jessica and Ashley on her way out.

Ashley crossed over to Beca. “What the hell was that?”

Beca watched Chloe go. “Partly a misunderstanding and partly different worlds.” She turned to look at Jessica. “She wanted no strings but more than one night. I couldn’t.” She looked down. “It wasn’t daytime or night time. But I can’t be what she wants.”

Jessica was holding Ashley’s hand. She squeezed it more tightly. “That sucks. It’s like you broke up without getting to have all the good stuff first. Not even a good fight,” she tried to draw a smile from Beca.

Beca nodded. “Look, I gotta get packed. Dylan’s sitting in tomorrow night and we haven’t picked songs yet.” She felt dazed. Like Jess said - like she’d just broken up with someone she wasn’t dating.

“Sure. See you tomorrow night, Becs?” Jessica gave Beca a big hug.

“Yeah, I’ll be there.” Beca hugged Jessica for a moment longer than usual. When she let go, she smiled at them both. “Thanks. Have a good night.” She pushed the karaoke console on its cart toward the garage.

Ashley watched her go. “This is so fucked up.”

Jessica nodded, “Thank god you found me and we just went and fell in love.”

Ashley tucked Jessica’s arm into hers. “Yeah. Just, damn. No one is even at fault, just want different things I guess.” She looked at Jessica, “It’s still fucked up. I wanna be mad, but I’m just sad.”

Jessica nodded. “Take me home soon?”

“Yeah, lemme go get Steph to lock up. She can handle the handful still nursing their last drinks.” Ashley kissed Jessica tenderly. “Let’s get outta here.”

Chapter Text

Upstairs, Stacie looked at the phone and frowned, “Ashley sent a video.” She shifted so she and Aubrey could see it and pressed play.

Aubrey rested her head on Stacie’s shoulder and slipped an arm around Stacie’s waist. “This better be good.” She mock-grumbled.

“Oh hush,” Stacie tapped Aubrey’s nose. “Your friend gets to interrupt us at all hours.”

“Can’t argue,” Aubrey allowed. She was interrupted by the music beginning. She looked up at Stacie, startled, when she realized it was Beca putting on the bluesy character.

Stacie shook her head at the unspoken question, then grinned as the song went on. “Damn, I didn’t know Grumpy had it in her.”

Aubrey leaned up to kiss the side of Stacie’s face. “She’s been taking lessons from you, obviously.” At the end of the song, Aubrey chuckled. “Poor Elf.”

Stacie put her phone on the table and scooted back into place beside Aubrey. “Why poor Elf?”

“She’s used to being watched, not watching. This may be a whole new world for one Chloe Beale.” Aubrey smiled.

“Mmmm, maybe she’ll like it.” Stacie replied. “Now, enough about the outside world. Where were we?”

Aubrey draped and arm across Stacie’s middle and nuzzled Stacie’s jaw, “About here, I think.”

Stacie smiled and kissed Aubrey’s cheek, then beside her lip. “Oh, yeah. I think I remember.”

Aubrey giggled, although in the back of her mind she still worried. How did Chloe react? The video didn’t show.

 

Chloe dashed tears from her cheeks as she crashed through the parking garage door and headed to her car. She hit the button to unlock the doors, tossed the bag of bread and clothes into the passenger seat, then dropped into the driver’s seat.

Another tear fell and she angrily wiped it away. Why the hell was she crying? They didn’t break up, they weren’t dating. She asked for no strings, Beca needs strings. It’s simple. No harm no foul. This crying sad shit was the exact reason Chloe avoided relationships.

It was probably the expectations backing up on her. Frustration that she wasn’t naked with Beca playing those teasing games again. Chloe hadn’t realized how much she’d been looking forward to it. She felt a little foolish about the way she’d teased Beca all night, too, when Beca hadn’t expected a second time. “Fuck,” she thought back over the evening. “I was downright evil if I was doing that knowing there was no payoff.”

She stared out the windshield. What now? Going home wasn’t an option, it would just remind her she was alone. She needed a quiet, comfortable place where she could remember who she is and forget what she had wanted all night. “Baxter’s,” she whispered and started the car. The best way to wipe away this crazy feeling would be to recreate the place where it started.

Chloe walked into Baxter’s and smiled at Alyssa. She’d fixed her makeup in the car and erased all traces of her previous upset. There were five or six people at the bar, but the dining room was pretty empty at this late hour.

“Hi Chloe,” Alyssa said with a smile. “Need a table?” She glanced over Chloe’s shoulder. “Waiting for someone?”

“You’re wrong twice,” Chloe winked at the hostess. “I’ll find a place at the bar. Thanks,” she touched Alyssa’s arm as she walked past.

An hour and a half later, Bridget warned everyone at the bar that it was last call. She paused next to Chloe and leaned forward. “Want me to call a cab, hon?”

Chloe scoffed, “Nah, I’m fine.” To prove it she hopped off of her barstool to walk to the bathroom. She had to grab onto the shoulders of the man sitting next to her when she stumbled a little. “Okay,” she glared at Bridget’s smirk. “I’m going to the ladies’ room, then I’ll call a friend.” Chloe patted the man who had saved her fall on the shoulder, “Good catch, man.” She wandered off to the bathrooms.

Bridget nodded and gave the man a smile. She cleared away Chloe’s drink. “Another beer?” She asked the man. “On the house.”

Chloe sat in the bathroom trying to decide what to do. Her first thought was to call Aubrey, but Aubrey wasn’t alone anymore. Anyhow, just last week she’d slept it off at Aubrey’s apartment. She was becoming a damn nuisance. Uber? She hated drunk Uber rides at closing time. She’d probably have to wait forever for someone to be available.

She walked out of the bathroom and leaned against the wall in the hallway. Chloe held her breath and tapped Aubrey’s number.

Stacie groaned, “Told you.” She recognized Chloe’s ring tone.

“Sorry,” Aubrey kissed Stacie tenderly before opening the connection, “You ok, hun?”

“Hi Bree,” Chloe said, trying to sound chipper. “I need help.”

“Where are you?” Aubrey asked softly, “still at the Boiler Room?” She knew Chloe well, her voice was forced. She glanced at Stacie, who was getting out of bed.

Chloe shook her head. “Baxter’s,” she replied. “Can’t drive though. Will you take me home? I need to go home.”

Aubrey noticed Stacie was pulling on a tank top. She smiled. “Yeah, sweetie. Give me fifteen minutes, okay?”

Chloe nodded at the phone and hung up. She went back to the bar and climbed onto her barstool. “Fifteen minutes,” she said to Bridget as she leaned her elbows on the bar and her head on her hands.

Aubrey looked at Stacie, who was now pulling on some shorts. “You don’t have to get up. She’s my friend, I’ll do the getting dressed and going into the world part. You should do the lying naked in bed so I’m even more miserable about leaving part.”

Stacie paused and looked at Aubrey fondly, “You are so cute.” Then she sat down on the bed. “If she’s not here, she needs her car moved. We’ll go get her, I’ll drive her car where you think is best. She can come here, we can go to your place, or I will wait outside while you settle her at her place. But long story short, you aren’t doing this alone anymore. Both of you had better get used to it.” She leaned over and kissed Aubrey, “Now get a wiggle on, you’re driving. I’m not letting her puke in my Mach e.”

Aubrey stood up and wrapped her arms around Stacie. “You are amazing,” she whispered against Stacie’s ear.

Stacie held Aubrey for a moment, then gave her a squeeze. “Come on. You think this has to do with Beca’s song?”

Aubrey nodded and started pulling her clothes on. “Yeah. Am I the only one who thought they were going home together tonight?”

Stacie tilted her head to one side. “I dunno. Beca thought they had a one and done. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding?”

“Hm,” Aubrey thought about it as she grabbed her keys and started toward the door. “Chloe dates a lot, but she’s rarely been into one night stands. She told me once that she likes to revisit the scene of the crime a few times, make sure she didn’t miss anything,” Aubrey rolled her eyes at Stacie.

“Never tried that.” Stacie considered as they waited for the elevator.

Aubrey raised her eyebrows and looked sideways at Stacie, “I’m sorry?”

Stacie leaned over to kiss Aubrey’s hair. “And I never will. No worries, princess.” She chuckled as the entered the elevator. “I got tired of serial dating before I ever met you,” then she whispered, “and now I can’t imagine a night with anyone but you.”

Aubrey wrapped her arms around Stacie and danced her toward the back of the elevator. “Say that again.”

“I can’t imagine a night with anyone but you, princess.” Stacie chuckled as she obeyed. She hugged Aubrey back and nuzzled her nose. “You broke me.” Stacie smiled. “Te quiero” she whispered.

“Hm?” Aubrey tilted her head.

“I think you are amazing,” Stacie amended, saved by the elevator doors opening. “Come on, let’s go save serial dater.”

Aubrey followed Stacie into the garage, her head tilted as her mind played over the phrase again.

Later, Aubrey pulled her car into the parking lot and parked next to Chloe’s car. “You drive a standard?” Aubrey asked Stacie before they got out of the car. “I can take her car if not.”

“Yeah, learned on a maintenance truck when I was 15.” Stacie got out and leaned against Aubrey’s car with her arms crossed. “Go get her. Explain why I’m here and get her keys. Then text me where we are going so I can gps if we get separated at a light.”

“Will do, gorgeous.” Aubrey leaned to give Stacie a quick kiss. “Back soon.”

When Aubrey walked into the bar, Bridget waved. Chloe turned and smiled. “Thanks for the water, Bridg,” she said as she moved more carefully from the barstool this time. “Hiya, Bree.”

“Keys, sweetie.” Aubrey put her hand out. “Stacie’s going to drive your car. Now, would you rather come home with me?”

Chloe shook her head and dug her keys out of her purse. “Just home, kay? I’m so sorry.”

Aubrey accepted the keys and then led Chloe to the private room across from the hostess podium. “Elf, wanna tell me what’s going on? I’m not convinced I should leave you alone just yet.”

Chloe shrugged. “She says she might get attached. So that’s done.” She looked up at Aubrey, “I’m going soft, Elf. It made me cry.”

“Beca?” Aubrey clarified softly.

“Yeah,” Chloe looked away. “Stacie’s outside? She’ll worry.”

Aubrey shook her head. “Stacie’s fine, just worried about you. Come on, let’s get you home.” She started to help Chloe to the door then quickly texted Stacie.

Princess: my place.

Stacie read the text and nodded. She walked forward to get the keys, asking, “Which car, hun?”

Chloe laughed. “Guess,” she looked up at Stacie, then she felt tears threaten again. It was the game she’d played with Beca. “Damn it,” she muttered. “The blue one. I’m sorry I’ve fucked up your night.”

Stacie squeezed Chloe’s arm. “Nothing’s ruined, sweetie. Come on, let’s get you home.” Stacie looked at Aubrey, a puzzled frown on her face.

Chloe shrugged again. “Home is a great idea. Let’s go, Elf. I’m tired already.”

Aubrey nodded and helped Chloe to the car, shrugging slightly at Stacie. She didn’t know what to say.

Aubrey drove up the street and pulled into the lot next to her apartment building, Stacie right behind.

Chloe opened her eyes. “This isn’t home,” she looked at Aubrey. “No. No way. I’ve already messed up your night. Just take me to my house and I will leave you guys alone.”

Stacie had walked up and heard Chloe’s words through the open driver side window. “Get it, Beale. You’re part of the family. Family doesn’t leave you to sleep it off alone. Stay here, have greasy bacon and coffee with us tomorrow and you will be right as rain.”

Aubrey smiled at Stacie gratefully. “She’s right, Elf. You’re family. So stop arguing and get your ass inside so we can all get some sleep.” She nudged Chloe, “I’ll even get Doofus to keep you company.”

“Damn it, Bree, I don’t need a babysitter.” Chloe’s face softened, “I forgot about Doofus, though. Sweet soft Doofus. Doofus always loves me.”

Aubrey looked at Stacie and sighed. She held her hand out for Chloe. “I know. Come on, Chlo. We can talk about it inside.”

Chloe accepted the hand, then followed the couple into the apartment. When they got inside, she dropped onto the sofa and pulled a throw blanket off the back and onto her shoulders.

Stacie caught the black fluff ball as it tried to bolt out the front door. She scooped Doofus up and brought her over to the sofa. Placing Doofus on Chloe’s lap, she knelt down to take Chloe’s shoes.

Chloe picked Doofus up and cuddled the cat against her chest. “Hey Doofus kitty,” she murmured. When her feet were free from the shoes she tucked them underneath her and leaned back against the arm of the sofa. “Bree?” She said more loudly.

“Yeah, Chlo?” Aubrey leaned over the back of the couch.

“Remember when Shannon left?” Chloe’s voice was softer.

“Yeah,” Aubrey replied. “I sure do.”

“Me too,” Chloe sighed as she continued petting Doofus. “Nite, Bree. Nite, Stac.” She closed her eyes unaware another tear had snuck down her cheek.

Stacie followed Aubrey back to the bedroom. “Shannon?”

“Bacon?” Aubrey asked in return.

“I wasn’t thinking.” Stacie apologized. “But she won’t remember, and I’m still lost.”

“Right,” Aubrey smiled as she closed the bedroom door behind them. “Thank you for your help tonight,” Aubrey sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her shoes. When she finished, she looked at Stacie. “Shannon was Chloe’s girlfriend in college. She was head over heels goofy in love with Shannon, and when Shannon moved back to Australia Chloe was shattered.”

Stacie nodded as she kicked off her shoes and stripped back out of her clothes. “So she dates guys.”

Aubrey nodded, tossing her own clothes into the hamper. “So she dates. No strings. Her heart is strictly off limits. She says it’s easier with guys because their brains are mostly in their pants.”

“And Beca?” Stacie laid down and pulled the covers back for Aubrey. “A challenge? Or is she hooked and she doesn’t know it?”

“I dunno,” Aubrey shook her head as she snuggled in next to Stacie. “But she hasn’t mentioned Shannon’s name in about three years.” Aubrey traced patterns on the back of Stacie’s hand. “God, she was a wreck, Doc. I’m not sure I’m ready for another round of heartbroken Chloe.”

Stacie nodded and pulled Aubrey close. “Let’s see what happens. Truth be told I don’t know who to feel worse for.” She stroked Aubrey’s hair. “Why can’t they just, I dunno, take the gift ya know?” She swallowed hard and kissed the top of Aubrey’s head.

Aubrey nodded, “I know.” She was quiet for a few minutes, then asked, “Tell me what you said in the elevator?”

“Te quiero.” Stacie whispered again. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I could have used Te amo.” She kissed the side of Aubrey’s head.

Aubrey’s heart fluttered. “Je t’adore,” she said softly as she turned to look into Stacie’s eyes.

Stacie smiled and a tear of her own tickled the side of her eye. She rested her head against Aubrey’s. “See? A gift. I feel so lucky.” Her voice cracked. “If it wasn’t for that stupid glorious storm alert, I might never have found you.”

“The perfect storm,” Aubrey turned her head to kiss Stacie’s temple. “And so very lucky.” Her voice came out as a whisper, “I love you, Stacie.”

Stacie turned her head to murmur against Aubrey’s lips, “I love you, Aubrey Posen. Don’t you ever forget it.”

“You’ll just have to keep saying it, love,” Aubrey smiled into the kiss.

“Te amo,” Stacie smiled and repeated again.

Chapter Text

Stacie stood next to the door in her shorts, tank, and running shoes. “It’s okay, love.” She had her arms around Aubrey and was kissing the side of Aubrey’s head. “She’s like family. You had to help, and I wasn’t going to let you go at 2am by yourself.” Her whispers were trying to be soothing. “I’ll see you after work, okay?”

Aubrey leaned into Stacie’s kisses and sighed. “I’m really glad you were here. I just wish we were both still there,” she gestured toward the hotel. “You’re too kind.” Aubrey leaned back to look at Stacie, “Just one of the reasons I love you.”

“I’m totally selfish.” Stacie laughed quietly. “She’s important to you. So she’s important to me. It makes me happy when you are happy.” She kissed Aubrey tenderly, “We have all weekend.” Then she smiled softly, “Te amo.”

“Tonight,” Aubrey said softly as she pulled away from Stacie. “We’re staying in, just you and me. Je t’adore.”

Stacie opened the door, stopped Doofus from running out with her foot and blew Aubrey a kiss before slipping out and closing the door behind her.

Aubrey, who had scooped up Doofus so Stacie could leave, carried the cat under her arm as she headed to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

Chloe was sitting with her chin on the back of the couch, watching Aubrey. “Je t’adore? That sounds serious,” she said as she crawled to her feet, her arms stretched above her head.

“Serious enough.” Aubrey tamped down her irritation. “Want coffee?”

“Would probably kill for coffee if I had to,” Chloe sank down into one of the kitchen chairs. “I’m sorry I had to call. I hope I didn’t ruin your night. Thanks for the rescue.”

Aubrey put Doofus down and watched the cat scamper to the bedroom. Aubrey poured the coffee, added creamer and placed it before Chloe. Then she poured her own. “You know the nice thing about a serious relationship, Chloe? You don’t wake up on some one else’s couch two weeks in a row.”

Chloe accepted the cup and the criticism. “Guess I can’t argue with that,” she took a tentative sip of coffee. “Still hot,” she mumbled and put the cup on the table. “Have I apologized yet?”

“You have.” Aubrey sighed. “Want to tell me what happened?”

Chloe shrugged, fingers toying with the mug handle. “Beca and I had a misunderstanding. She thought I wanted a one night stand, I thought it would be more of a friends with benefits thing, you know? Anyway she had a date last night after karaoke.”

Aubrey shook her head, “Back up. You didn’t even tell me that you, what, hooked up? When did that happen?”

“Oh, yeah,” Chloe nodded and tried her coffee again. “Everyone was giving me such a hard time at karaoke, I forgot I haven’t told you yet. It was kind of quick,” she looked another apology at Aubrey.

Aubrey felt her irritation rise again. “Quit stalling, Chloe. Spill.”

“We went to Baxter’s for dinner Saturday afternoon, then I met her for some extra curricular activity when she finished her show. We went to the park, then my house. I had to loan her some clothes before she went to perform Sunday night. It was an incredible lost day, Bree.” Chloe smiled at the memory. “Before we went to the house I asked her if no strings was okay and she said yeah, but we meant two different things. So last night was kind of a surprise.”

“What do you mean by no strings?” Aubrey frowned, feeling puzzled.

Chloe looked across the table, her brow furrowed. “I’m going to have to find a clearer phrase,” she muttered. “I mean no commitment, no exclusive relationship. Just the fun parts.”

Aubrey nodded, “That’s what I thought you meant. But you are upset she had a date last night. So it’s only non-exclusive for you. She was supposed to be waiting.”

“It wasn’t the date, it was that I thought we had arranged to play after. I don’t care if she goes out with other people, I just thought we’d arranged us for last night. She asked if I’d be there like she was really interested,” Chloe petered out.

“You didn’t text or talk since Sunday to, I dunno, double check, confirm the date, something?” Aubrey said incredulously.

Chloe shook her head. “I just assumed,” she started then stopped.

Aubrey waited.

Chloe finally looked up. “Okay, so it was a little arrogant of me to think we had a hook up in the works when we hadn’t actually said we did.” She held her mug in both hands, “I also fucked up because at dinner I said we should do something Monday, but after spending all day Sunday in bed, on the couch, in the kitchen…”

“I don’t need a play by play or color commentary, Chloe.” Aubrey sighed.

“Right. Sorry,” Chloe looked up at Aubrey, a tiny twinkle in her bloodshot eyes, “Anyway, I totally forgot. So we never made those plans for real either.”

Aubrey nodded. “Here’s the thing, Elf.” Aubrey leaned forward. “Last week, dating guys sucked. This week, you just assumed a local celebrity would drop everything to be at your beck and call. Maybe you need to take a break from dating and get your head out of your ass.”

Chloe’s head snapped back. She took a deep breath and met Aubrey’s eyes for a split second, then dropped her eyes back to her coffee cup. “Guys still suck. I was kind of hoping she’d be my relief from the monotony.” She glanced up at Aubrey and back down again, “She’s so damn witty, Aubrey. And she likes to play.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Aubrey sighed. “If you like her, why are you sabotaging anything good before it has a chance to happen? Can’t you just let yourself be happy?”

Chloe looked at Aubrey, her eyes a little wide. “She had a date last night, Bree. I can’t expect her to drop her life for me.” Chloe started to tap the table with her fingertips. “Anyway, I can be happy without being exclusive.” She started to gain steam, “Isn’t that what I offered her? We can have fun, enjoy each other, and nobody has to get hurt.”

Aubrey tilted her head to one side. “Is that what last night was? Nobody getting hurt?” She reached out and touched Chloe’s hand to get her attention. “Take a break, honey. Maybe go to the spa. Get out of Tulsa and decide what you want. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending you’re still in college. Not everyone is going to want to play the field forever.”

Chloe looked into Aubrey’s eyes. “You’re so sure. So confident. There’s not even a flicker of doubt when I see you look at Stacie. How do you do that?”

Aubrey smiled softly. “I don’t know I have an answer.” She thought for a moment, “I first started to fall the day we met. She asked me about Doofus. She listened, Chloe. I mean, really listened.” Aubrey met Chloe’s gaze. “She’s seen my crazy and doesn’t care. How can I not love her?”

“She’s seen your crazy?” Chloe considered, “Do you think I have a crazy?”

Aubrey laughed, “Oh, honey, we all have a crazy. Mine is my book, my rules, my control freak. Stacie is willing to love me through it while we rewrite the rules.” She smiled softly, “Stacie is crazy smart and gets obsessive on her projects. I haven’t had a chance to love her through it. But I am sure as hell going to try.” Then Aubrey’s smile became a smirk. “Your crazy? You love to be watched and you love to tease. Find yourself someone who will adore you and play back. Maybe you will finally find someone whose crazy you won’t mind loving them through.”

Chloe couldn’t help remembering the way Beca had encouraged her to perform, her eyes drinking in every moment. “Shit, Aubrey. Beca likes to watch.” She shook her head, “That can’t count. Loving her through my love of being watched and her love of watching doesn’t even sound like a challenge.” She laughed shakily. “It was so empowering,” she almost whispered. She shook her head to clear it, “A spa week. Detox, deep cleanse.” She smiled at Aubrey, “At the very least it would mean not having to sleep on your couch for a week, right?”

“That could be beneficial to my love life,” Aubrey teased even as alarms went off in her mind. Maybe Stacie was right and Chloe was more hooked than she realized. She said a silent prayer to whatever deity watched over free spirits to keep her friend’s heart safe. “And it’s been over a year, hasn’t it? Since the last time you really pampered yourself?”

Chloe nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll book the appointment immediately. Cancel my clients for the week. Aubrey, I could kiss you.”

Aubrey laughed, “Call me when you get back, Elf. I wanna see how you are doing, okay?”

Chloe had already gone to get her phone from her purse on the coat rack by the door. “Of course I will,” she said over her shoulder. She sat back down, thumbing through the listings on the internet. She put the phone down and looked at Aubrey. “I wish you could come too.”

“Maybe next time,” Aubrey offered. “I took next week off,” she confessed, “but I really want to spend it with Stacie. See what happens when we can spend time together, just the two of us.” Her eyes begged Chloe to understand.

“Oh, of course,” Chloe nodded. “I mean, please enjoy the happy you’ve got. Maybe we can plan a spa week for all three of us.” She looked up at Aubrey. “If you’re gonna be in love and shit then I need to get to know the girl, right?”

Aubrey smiled and nodded. “I’d like that.” She tilted her head to one side. “She said you matter to her just because you matter to me. She’s one of a kind, Elf.”

Chloe shook her head, lost in listings again. She stopped and looked at Aubrey. “She said that?” Chloe glanced toward the door, “She drove my car here last night, didn’t she?”

“Yeah, she did.” Aubrey nodded, “She brought you Doofus, too.” Aubrey fairly glowed. “She called you family, last night. Said family doesn’t let you sleep it off alone.”

Chloe shook her head again, “Okay. I’m going to disappear for a week, but when I come back we’re all going to become fast friends. Deal?” She grinned up at Aubrey, “How hot is it she can drive a standard, too?”

Aubrey blushed, “you have no idea.”

 

Later that evening, Aubrey lit the taper candles on the dining table in Stacie’s apartment. The room service crew had done a fabulous job with the plate settings. Champagne was chilling next to Aubrey’s chair. She checked the clock and was exactly on time. Stacie should be done with work any minute. Just to be sure, she sent a quick text.

Aubrey: dinner’s ready, Doc.

She adjusted her tie, smoothed her suit jacket, and waited beside the table.

Stacie looked down at the text on her wrist. She sent a 😜 emoji as she hurried to save her file. She pushed back her chair, stood up, stretched and walked to the office door. It only took seconds to cross the distance to the living area, where the candles and the sight of Aubrey wearing a tie greeted her. “Oh, my.” She muttered under her breath.

Aubrey smiled, “Hungry, love?” She pulled out Stacie’s chair.

Stacie looked down at the yoga pants and tank she was wearing. “I am distinctly underdressed. Would it ruin the meal to give me five?”

Aubrey giggled and gestured toward the bedroom. “It’ll keep. But you’re gorgeous in anything.”

Stacie hurried up the hall and into the bedroom. A quick wash of her face and an application of her favorite lotion would have to do for clean up. She brushed out her hair so it fell loosely about her shoulders, and then applied a dark lipstick. She’d been lax about the rest of her make up today, and now she was regretting it. But five minutes was five minutes and she’d promised. She hurried to the closet and found a classic little black dress that thankfully had a side zipper. She stepped into it and zipped it up, before again fluffing her hair. She stepped into a pair of black heels and took a deep breath. It was a rush job, but it would have to do. She took off her smart watch; it’s clunky style marred her look. Then she closed her eyes to collect herself, smiling at the flip flops her tummy was doing as she thought of a quiet date night with Aubrey. At last as ready as she could be on short notice, she returned to the dining room.

Aubrey busied herself by adjusting the silverware and turning the chilled bottle so it cooled evenly. When Stacie stepped back into the room she glanced up and forgot to breathe. “Wow,” she said in almost a whisper.

Stacie tried to remember not to bite her lower lip so she didn’t ruin the lipstick she’d just applied. She walked closer to Aubrey, appreciating the suit and tie. “You look gorgeous.” She said as she reached Aubrey’s side.

Aubrey slid her hand along Stacie’s waist, “So do you,” she kissed Stacie’s temple lightly. “Allow me to repeat the question,” she said in a low voice. “Are you hungry?”

“Mmm, I never have the right answer for that.” Stacie teased, “You look delicious?”

Aubrey chuckled, “Let’s have dinner, then we’ll discuss dessert. Fair?”

Stacie wiggled her eyebrows. “Fair.” She winked.

When they were settled at the table, Aubrey poured the champagne. She held up her glass in a toast. “To you, the generous soul who gave up sleep and comfort to help a friend in need. Thank you.”

Stacie blushed. She was not ready for such a compliment. She lifted her glass and touched Aubrey’s glass with it. “To you, the woman who has turned my world upside down. I don’t know how I got through until I met you.”

Aubrey smiled and sipped to seal the toast. She watched Stacie enjoy the parmesan pomodoro between bites of her own. The delicate way Stacie precisely spun the pasta onto her fork, making it look casual as she chattered about some ideas she had for work, had Aubrey entranced. How was she so lucky?

Stacie studied Aubrey for a moment. “Penny for them? I’m sure I must be boring you with theories for which I have no data, yet. Sorry.”

Aubrey shook her head, eyes dancing. “Just thinking about how lucky I am. You are effortlessly brilliant. In every way. I wonder what you see in me.”

“Seriously?” Stacie put her fork down. She looked at Aubrey fondly. “Putting aside your marvelous appearance, I have evidence from reliable sources that you are a talented musician. I looked up your scholarship,” she held up her hand to fend off Aubrey’s protest. “They don’t give it lightly.” Stacie smiled, “You still have to play for me, you know. Also, you are kind. You drop everything to take care of a friend. You care passionately about what happens to people you love.” Then Stacie smiled broadly enough that her eyes crinkled. “And that’s not mentioning your fascination with science for which I thank the science gods daily.”

Aubrey’s smile grew, “I’ll take you to campus tomorrow and track down a piano. Meanwhile, we have dessert to discuss.” She set down her glass and pushed away from the table. Aubrey walked behind Stacie’s chair and ran her hands lightly down Stacie’s arms before whispering against Stacie’s ear. “Is beautiful genius on the menu tonight?”

Stacie felt her body respond and leaned her head back against Aubrey, “Perhaps.” She reached up and tugged on the tie, making it come undone. “Oh, yeah, that’s an improvement.” She smirked as she rested her head against Aubrey’s. “Seeing you undone is a favorite look, you know.”

Aubrey hummed and dropped her head to kiss along Stacie’s neck. “That sounds promising,” she whispered against Stacie’s ear. “Maybe we don’t need a table for the last course?”

“Messy,” Stacie nodded. “Hard, unforgiving.” She turned to kiss Aubrey slowly. “I can think of better arrangements.” Her voice was noticeably huskier.

Aubrey smiled into the kiss, “Lead me on, Doc.”

“Never,” Stacie whispered as she stood and extended a hand, “but I will take you home.”

Chapter Text

Friday night Ashley walked out of the elevator, hand in hand with Jessica. As they turned the corner and neared the bar, Ashley noticed a tall blonde in a gray suit leaning over the piano. “Who the hell is that?”

“I’ve never seen her before,” Jessica watched for a minute. “I’ll bet that’s Dylan,” she looked at Ashley. “They went to high school together.”

Damon looked up from the glasses he was stocking. “Welcome, ladies. The usual?”

“Yeah, Damon. Hey, who’s the new talent?” Ashley nodded with her head toward the stage.

“Friend of Beca’s. Heard her warm up, hell of a sax player.” Damon reached for a bottle of Shiraz and two glasses. “She doesn’t drink, so no extra glass for her. The redhead joining you?”

Jessica shook her head, “Haven’t heard from her. I thought maybe a couple of other friends might show up, but we’ll rearrange if they make it.”

Dylan leaned toward Beca, “I think you’re being discussed.” She nodded toward the three people at the bar who kept looking at the stage.

Beca stood up, “Oh that’s Ashley and Jessica. Hang on, I’ll introduce you.” She waved for her friends to come toward the stage.

As they approached, Beca said, “Ashley, Jessica, this is Dylan. Dylan, these are Ashley and Jessica.”

Dylan smiled, and it was like the entire room lit up. “Which one of you is Ashley and which is Jessica.”

In unison, the girls replied, “I am.”

Beca burst out laughing. “Oh, god, I’d forgotten about that.” She was still laughing as Dylan looked confused. “They had a classmate who never paid attention to which was which, so they always did…” Beca held her side, “that!”

Jessica giggled at Ashley, then held a hand out to Dylan, “I’m really Jessica. It’s good to meet you. Beca has told me you’re super talented. You sitting in tonight?”

“Still talking about me?” Dylan teased Beca. “Yeah, I just got back to town, she’s giving me a shot at a gig or two. So you’re Ashley, then, right?”

Ashley nodded. “Yeah, I play second fiddle to this blonde.” She winked at Jessica.

Damon walked up, “How come nobody told me all the talent and beauty was in Tulsa and surrounding areas. I’d have come out here much sooner.”

Beca snorted, “Like hell you would have. You’d still be in New York if your wife’s family hadn’t dragged you back.”

“Shit, tell a story once,” Damon rolled his eyes and placed the wine bottle, two wine glasses, four water glasses and a carafe of ice water on the table. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“What brings you back to town, Dylan?” Jessica smiled at the blonde.

“My husband was hired in at TU. He’s a music composition professor,” she replied as she poured some water into a glass. “He brings home the big bucks so I can mug around with my horn at night.” She winked at Beca and lifted her glass.

Beca walked out from behind the piano to pour a glass of water. “Yeah, can you imagine? This tall drink of water abandoned me for Chicago and then met an actual honest to god jazz composer to marry. Some girls have all the luck.” She elbowed Dylan and laughed. “Glad you are here, though. Not often I get to show off my friends. Maybe Trini is still around and she can add her kit.”

Dylan smirked. “We could totally be the three ladies of jazz, Becs. Three hot dames? The women of syncopation?” She was laughing as Beca’s eyebrow kept creeping higher. “You ladies play?” She turned back to Ashley and Jessica.

Ashley laughed. “Vocalists. Well, really, she is.” She arched her thumb toward Jessica.

“Don’t let her snow you, Dylan. Ashley has chops. Mezzo with range. Jess is a true soprano. You should hear them together….oh, hey, we should do something with all four of us.” Beca put her glass down and dashed back behind the piano.

“Now we’re in trouble,” Jessica rolled her eyes at Ashley and grinned over at Dylan. “She does like to show off her friends, doesn’t she?”

“Always likes to hide behind the keys, even in school. She likes it when someone else is being watched,” Dylan smirked.

Beca had a flashback to Chloe and blushed. She cleared her throat. “Yeah, well, check out the dude you married. He’s no better.” Then she tinkered with the piano for a moment. Her eyes lit up. “Enough is enough.”

Ashley snorted, “Tired of teasing already, Grumpy? That’s early, even for you.”

“Oh,” Jessica’s eyes lit up. “It’s a song from the ‘70s, Ash. Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer. You think we can pull it off?” She stared at Beca. “Just the four of us?”

Dylan was nodding her head. “I can see it. You pound out the rhythm and I’ll play the progression.” She looked at Jessica. “I can’t wait.”

Ashley blinked. She looked at Jessica for a moment before Jessica sang a part of the chorus. “That sounds like fun!”

Beca nodded. “If you guys know the lyrics you can improvise your parts. Dylan can carry the lead line. Just have fun with it.”

Ashley already had her phone out. “How’s it open?”

Beca started to play lightly, “I give you this intro, then you guys start with the it’s raining part. I don’t care how you split it up.”

Jessica nodded, “Really it’s almost taking turns on the same line.”

Dylan grinned, “You girls are game? I’m impressed.”

“They performed with acapella groups in college. I’m telling ya, chops.” Beca grinned. “You gonna come in when it speeds up, right Dylan?”

“Right,” Dylan nodded. “I’ll lay down some basic chords and riff a bit around what the girls are doing. I can pick up some melody, too. It’ll be fun.”

“I’ll hold the note over the transition,” Jessica said as she scrolled Ashley’s video of the song to the part she was talking about. “I really think we can slay it.”

Dylan glanced at Beca, “You’re the one who’s gonna work up a sweat. You sure?”

“Oh, yeah, this’ll slay the crowd we get on Fridays. Most of them were teens in the 70s and 80s.” Beca grinned. “Now, I think we should hold it for just before a break, or the end of the night. What do you guys think?”

Jessica nodded and grinned. “That’ll give Ash some time to pick up the lyrics.” She took Ashley’s hand. “I can fill in if you get lost.”

“Sweet,” Dylan nodded. She looked at Beca, “I should tune one more time before we hit go, the lights are warmer than I thought they’d be.”

Beca nodded and gave her a note.

Ashley sat down and poured the Shiraz. “This is a step up from singing backup at karaoke,” she muttered while she took a sip.

Jessica picked up her glass and grinned at Ashley. “You’re gonna love it.”

 

At the end of the night, Beca nudged Dylan. “Thanks.” She pointed with her head toward the group of people talking to Ashley and Jessica. “I’ve been trying to get them on the wedding circuit for over a year. Ashley’s local, but Jess is one of those scary Californians, you know.”

“They ought to get more play, they nailed that song. You’ve always been good at finding talent,” she unhooked her sax from its strap. “California, huh? Were you guys a thing? Don’t tell me you dragged her all the way out here.”

Beca shook her head, “Nah, she’s been gone on Ashley since before I met her. Ashley had to come back to help with family shit. Jess followed her.” She picked up her bag, “Come on, let’s get out of here and leave them to their fans.”

Dylan nodded as she closed the sax case and zipped the outer cover. She slung it over her shoulder and moved to follow Beca. “No worries, Becs. I’ve got a separate cash cow. I don’t want to horn in on your steady income.” She paused and waited expectantly.

Beca groaned. “I didn’t miss the bad puns.” She started toward the elevator. “Usually we all head downstairs for a bite. Wanna hang until they get finished? Great burgers.”

“Oh come on, if a horn player can’t make horn jokes then the world isn’t worth living in,” Dylan grinned. “I am always ready for a good burger. Do you sit in with anybody downtown after hours?”

Beca shrugged, “Sometimes. I pick up stuff here and there, at the jazz museum. But you know I play here five nights a week. Twice as light jazz, twice as the headliner and a night of karaoke.” She smiled at the thought of karaoke.

“Right, you’re the steady around here. Must be nice, regular income, regular hours, regular crowds.” Dylan held the elevator door as Beca walked in. “Makes you smile, too.”

“Yeah,” Beca laughed as they entered the elevator. “I didn’t expect to find steady work. It all started with Wednesday nights as a favor to my aunt. Well, as a favor after my aunt died.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry about your loss,” Dylan nodded. “I guess it worked out, though, huh?”

Beca nodded, “Got the house, and a gig here. They needed a KJ and Ashley tends bar in the place. They called me.” She grinned, “It’s the one place I could get both of them to sing regularly. Then we started expanding the group. Girl named Stacie is sex in heels.” Beca laughed. “More times than not we needed to intervene with an overzealous admirer. She’s got a girl now, so she may tone down, but I doubt it.”

Dylan studied Beca. “So no steady girl for you?”

Beca blushed and stepped forward when the elevator doors opened. “Not even a dog.” She led Dylan to the Boiler Room. “Hey, Steph, this is my friend, Dylan. Ash and Jess should be down soon.”

Stephanie nodded, “No worries. Take the usual table. Want anything?” She looked up at the tall blonde who was at least six inches taller than she was without her heels. “Wow, you’re tall!”

Dylan laughed out loud and looked at Beca, “They haven’t gotten any more subtle since I’ve been gone.” She winked at Stephanie. “I’ve been told,” she said in a dry tone. “You’ll get used to it after a while,” she pretended to whisper.

Stephanie blushed, “Sorry. Um, what can I get you?”

Beca laughed, “It’s ok, Stephanie. Would you believe we were the same height in fifth grade? I stopped growing, she didn’t.”

Dylan smirked down at Beca, then smiled at Stephanie, “Gin and tonic, with lime. Make it a rocks pour in a tall glass.”

“You got it,” Stephanie tried to regain her cool.

“You cut free of your apron strings, Steph?” Beca looked around, “I don’t see Josh.”

Stephanie blushed. “Yeah, first late night on my own. Smithwicks or Guinness for you?”

“Let me live it up, give you something fun to do. Bring me a tequila sunrise.” Beca winked.

“On it.” Stephanie grinned and turned to start ringing things up.

Beca led Dylan to their usual table. “I really am enjoying you being around. I’m usually pretty grumpy after a show, at least till I eat.” She again had a flashback to a sonic burger on the trunk of a car.

Dylan watched that little smile cross Beca’s lips again. “Okay, where do you keep going off to?”

Beca jumped and then laughed. “Sorry. Ever have a date that was so spectacular you can’t forget, even if you can’t ever have it again?”

Dylan tilted her head, “I’m not sure I follow. If it was so good, why not have another one? Did she move to Iceland or something when you weren’t looking?”

“Nah.” Beca waited while Stephanie brought over the drinks. “Looking good, kid!” She complimented the look of the tequila sunrise. “I’ll tell Ash you did good.” After Stephanie left, Beca shrugged, “She wants no strings.”

Dylan regarded Beca with narrow eyes, “Let me get this straight. There’s someone in this world who makes you smile like that and you won’t go out with her again because she offers not to tie you down?”

“You make it sound crazy.” Beca laughed. “She works at one of the boutiques. You know that won’t work. We already had an issue with our schedules.” Then she stopped, “But she showed up last week, on a Saturday. Blocked my car and invited me on an adventure.” Her smile was back. “It certainly was.”

Dylan couldn’t help grinning when Beca’s face lit up. “You’re such a daytime doll, Becs.”

“No need to be insulting.” Beca sipped her drink.

Dylan chuckled, “You know the movie better than I do. What’s it Brando says about dolls? There’s always another doll?”

“I am not putting the knock on dolls. It’s just that they are something to have around only when they come in handy…like cough drops.” Beca laughed as she quoted the movie. “Or figuring weight for age, all dolls are the same.”

Dylan nodded. “Do you think he’d have dropped your particular doll?”

Beca shrugged, “Probably not. They’d both be happy with the arrangement.” She looked sharply at Dylan. “You know I suck at this stuff. I’d get hooked. That’d ruin it.”

Dylan shrugged, “You, my sweet friend, are a daytime doll with a night time job. It sounds like your girl is just the opposite.”

Beca opened her mouth to retort. Then she froze. She stared down at her drink. “Shit.”

“Uh oh,” Dylan said with a laugh. “You’re gonna have to watch that movie again, aren’t you?” Her face grew serious, “Try to hang on to happy when it comes around? It so seldom does, Beca.”

“Yeah,” Beca sighed, “I get it.” She met Dylan’s gaze, “But I’d be miserable when she’s off playing with someone else. And she’d be miserable if she didn’t.”

Dylan nodded, “That sucks, dude.” She sipped more of her drink, “Good creative fodder though, right?” She said, hoping to lighten the mood.

Beca was nodding as Ashley and Jessica joined them.

“Tequila sunrise? That’s not your style, Grumpy!” Ashley teased.

“Steph off probation, showing her off for ya.” Beca smiled half heartedly.

Ashley nodded approval. “Let me go get the burgers in. What’ll you have, Dylan?”

“Bacon burgers any good?” Dylan asked.

Jessica nodded. “Chloe liked hers the other night, didn’t she?”

Ashley cut a look at Beca.

“Yeah,” Beca said gamely. “She said they were good.”

Dylan watched the exchange. Now she had a name for the mysterious night time doll with a daytime job. “Sounds perfect,” she smiled at Ashley. “Hey, you guys were amazing tonight. Let me buy you a drink. More Shiraz?”

Jessica nodded, “What do you think, Ash?”

Ashley grinned. “Thanks, I’ll tell Steph. Be right back.”

Beca rallied. “You guys really did slay. Got any good leads for more gigs?”

Dylan sipped her drink, remembering how Beca’s face had lit up and wondering if she might hear Chloe’s name again sometime soon. She watched Jessica bounce in her chair and smiled, “Hey, I’m drumming up contacts in town, give me your numbers and I’ll put in a good word for you as singers.” And if she ended up getting more info on her high school chum, allowing her to maybe give fate a little push, all the better.

Chapter Text

Aubrey stroked Stacie’s hair absently, her mind drifting. “Want some water, love?”

Stacie didn’t answer. She was looking out the window at the sparkling stars in the distance as her head rested on Aubrey’s shoulder. “Do you know how many nights I laid here alone, looking out at those stars and wondered if anyone would ever share this view with me?”

Aubrey turned to watch the night sky, “Too many,” she whispered and kissed the top of Stacie’s head.

“Yeah,” Stacie smiled. “This is just as nice as I’d hoped it would be.” She rubbed her head against Aubrey’s skin. “Maybe better.”

Aubrey caressed Stacie’s cheek. “I had given up on sharing my life,” she said in a quiet voice. She looked at the stars again, thinking of how much had changed in such a short time. “Oh!” Aubrey exclaimed, “I totally forgot to tell you!”

Stacie jumped at Aubrey’s exclamation and rolled to look at her. “Is everything okay?”

Aubrey giggled and shook her head. “It’s fine, love, I just remembered I took all of next week off from work. I’ll be around all day every day.”

A slow smile crossed Stacie’s face. “I guess we should make a plan, then.” She lifted her hand to caress Aubrey’s cheek. “I can’t take all week, just now, but maybe I can reduce the hours. Convince Rib I need to do background processing.” Her shoulders slumped slightly, “It’s not really a lie.”

Aubrey shook her head a little bit and leaned into Stacie’s caress. “No need. I’m looking forward to catering to your every whim all week. I’ll make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ll be here when you take a break. All you have to do is work like you normally would and allow me to spoil you the rest of the time. What do you think?”

“You would do that?” Stacie’s eyes filled with wonder.

“Of course,” Aubrey smiled. “And I look forward to it.” She held her arm out for Stacie to lay her head down on Aubrey’s chest again. “I’m glad you don’t mind. I probably should have talked to you first. It was kind of impulsive.”

Stacie cuddled close. “I don’t mind. I have a couple of questions, though. The first is logistical. I don’t want Doofus to feel ignored. Will we stay at your place and come here for the work day?”

“Hm, that’s a good question. Would you still feel pampered if we had to leave the house every morning?” Aubrey started to worry that maybe she hadn’t thought this all the way through.

“Of course.” Stacie nodded. “I’ll get to hold you or be held all night long. I don’t have to start early if I’m not using the mainframe. We can comfortably shift me to start at 9:00 or 9:30. The last construct failed.” She sighed, “I’m back at square one. That requires research and design, not simulation.” Shaking her head to stop thinking about the project she looked up at Aubrey. “And we get to snuggle Doofus after work.”

Aubrey relaxed, “I can pamper you better at my house, too. I’ve got all the kitchen equipment and ingredients to prep the meals. I was starting to worry I’d messed up.”

“Not a mess up. We can call in lunch, if you like. Someday we will order what you need so you can cook here all that you want.” Stacie sighed, “I’ve only pretended to adult, clearly.” She smiled against Aubrey’s skin, “I have another question though.”

Aubrey began to stroke Stacie’s hair again and smiled, “I’ll try to have an answer.”

Stacie looked up, “Impulsivity is not exactly your calling card. What inspired you?”

Aubrey chuckled, “I was sitting in a parking lot one afternoon between jobs and it crossed my mind that if I didn’t have that second job I’d have been free for your afternoon break. I happened to be on the phone with my boss at that moment, so I just asked for time off. Silly, huh?”

“No,” Stacie shifted so she could kiss Aubrey. “It’s lovely. I’ve already lost time with you when you had to work, or I had to work, or Chloe needed you. I’m looking forward to a few days without the former and hope we won’t hear from the latter too often. I’ll deal with my work as best I can to maximize my time with you.”

“Oh yeah, one more thing I forgot,” Aubrey giggled. “What you did to my brain when you walked out in that little black dress. Chloe’s out of town all week. Off to a spa resort to try and get her shit together.”

“Wait, what?” Stacie pulled back to look at Aubrey. “What do you mean get her shit together?”

“Well, two weeks in a row I had to give her a place to sleep because she was in her cups; that’s not healthy. She seems pretty confused about the Beca thing, too. They sort of broke up except they weren’t really dating?” Aubrey tapered off.

Stacie rolled over and sat up. “Nope, need more.” She opened and closed her hand, encouraging Aubrey to keep talking.

Aubrey giggled, “You are adorable. Okay.” She sat up, “Apparently Chloe really thought they were going to keep seeing each other, but without being exclusive. She says Beca told her she couldn’t do that, she’d get attached. So they seem to have mutually agreed in some crazily mature and intellectual conversation that they would just call it all off.” Aubrey watched Stacie digest the information. “Chloe’s condition last night leads me to believe it meant more to her than she’s letting on. I suggested she give up dating for a bit until she figures it all out.”

Stacie pondered everything Aubrey said. “Okay, so hear me out. What if it’s just that Chloe isn’t used to being turned down?”

Aubrey blinked at Stacie, “I never thought of that.” She mimicked Stacie’s open and closed hand gesture. “Give me more.”

“She picks guys up at Starbucks for fuck’s sake. That’s no different than the guys who throw themselves at me during karaoke, right?” Stacie continued. “I don’t know her history with girls, but you said she thinks pretty low of the fellas. What if all that serial dating gave her a false sense of confidence? She’s not used to hearing no?”

Aubrey tilted her head, “Wait, guys throw themselves at you? I mean, I understand the sentiment, but…”

Stacie leaned forward and kissed Aubrey tenderly, “Before I met you, love. Now focus.”

Aubrey nodded. “Sorry. Go on.”

“I just worry that this time off may not get her head straight. She may come back more determined than ever to have her way.” Stacie winced, “I can’t say I’ve played that game, but I’ve seen it played. I would hate to see Beca or Chloe hurt, you know?”

Aubrey held the bridge of her nose between her thumb and finger. She shook her head. “Why does Chloe have to be so complicated? I saw you, spoke with you, and just knew I wanted to spend all my time with you. Why is that difficult?”

Stacie wrapped her arms around Aubrey. “I guess we were lucky. In a lot of ways, you are my first love.” Stacie blushed. “I’ve never cared for anyone like I care for you. Chloe wasn’t so lucky. You said her first love ran off?”

Aubrey nodded and picked up Stacie’s hand to kiss the back of it. “Yeah. Moved to Australia.” She tilted her head at Stacie, “You know what? Silver lining. At least when she comes back she’ll be sober, right?” Aubrey’s eyes twinkled.

“Yeah. Who knows, maybe she’ll like the solitude, too.” Stacie smiled. “Didn’t mean to open a can of worms. It’s tough. Beca is one of my first friends ever. Chloe is important to you. This sucks.”

Aubrey wrapped her arms around Stacie again. “Here’s hoping they figure it out and live happily ever after. If not, we’ll help them both pick up the pieces and heal. Your friends are my friends, remember?”

Stacie nodded. “Can we put them away for a while?” She pressed her forehead against Aubrey’s. “I like thinking about two glorious days off, then getting to see you on breaks all week.” She smirked. “It’ll be easy to remember to eat when you are waiting for me.”

Aubrey nodded in turn, “I would definitely rather think about you and me and waking up with you all week after going to sleep with you all week.”

“Sounds delightful.” Stacie murmured as she leaned forward for another kiss.

Meanwhile, Beca was tossing and turning. She finally gave up and picked up her phone. She clicked on the message icon to Jessica.

Beca: am I a daytime doll?

Jessica poked Ashley without opening her eyes. “Your phone,” she muttered.

Ashley shook her head so her face was buried in the pillow. “Mnsf”

Jessica replayed the noise Ashley made a few times in her head. Nope. She was about to ask for clarification when the phone buzzed again. “Shit, it’s mine,” she rolled over and grabbed the phone from the nightstand. She read Beca’s text twice.

Jessica: what the honest fuck, Beca?
Beca: I’m sorry but you are the only one I can ask. Dylan said I’m a daytime doll with a nighttime job. Am I?
Jessica: this is your thing? But you said it was when you work. You work at night. Night time doll. Right?
Beca: you never saw guys and dolls?

Ashley rolled over and peered at Jessica, “Waz wrong?” She yawned.

Jessica pushed to sit up against the pillows. “Beca thinks she’s a daytime doll now.”

Jessica: maybe. Probably. Once.

Ashley snorted, “Of course she is. That’s why I laugh every time she does this.”

Jessica stared at Ashley. “Why is this such a thing?” She looked at the phone, “Wait don’t answer that, I’ll ask her.”

Jessica: why is this such a thing?
Beca: sky masterson girls are like cough drops, nice to have around but a doll is a doll is a doll. Maybe it’s not about time. Maybe it’s attitude and I’ve been wrong all this time.
Jessica: is it bad to be a daytime doll? Like cough drops.

Jessica blinked her eyes.

Jessica: Shit is this about Chloe?
Beca: Chloe is sky and I’m fucking….no I’m goddamn sister Sarah. I don’t wanna be sister Sarah.

Jessica read the text to Ashley, thoroughly lost.

Ashley nodded. “Tell her just don’t sing the duet with Adelaide”

“Am I dreaming this weirdness right now?” Jessica muttered.

Jessica: you’re still hella cool, Becs. Day or night.
Beca: shit. I am, I’m goddamn sister Sarah. Can’t play it easy, can’t stay unattached. I don’t even sit in with other musicians. I fucking go home to my stupid empty house. I don’t even have a goddamn dog.

Jessica read this text to Ashley too. “Why does she think this makes sense?”

Ashley shook her head. “Tell her don’t sing the duet with Adelaide and get a cat. She needs a critter that is independent but will keep her company when she’s home.” She looked at Jessica, “Why aren’t you following?”

“Who the fuck is sister Sarah and why does it bother Beca? I’m gonna have to watch the movie again,” Jessica picked her phone back up.

Jessica: Ashley says don’t sing the song with Adelaide and do get a cat.

Beca paused and thought about it.

Beca: right. Don’t wanna change anyone. Right. But a cat?

Ashley stared at Jessica and pointed at the phone.

Jessica: it’s independent and will keep you company when you’re home.
Beca: right. Makes sense. I can be a daytime doll with a nightime schedule with more cool than sister Sarah.
Beca: I can want stability…but not cuz i wanna change people. I can wait till someone wants what I want.
Beca: Dylan found someone who works during the day and lets her do music at night.
Beca: and a cat is a great idea. Housebroken, don’t need walks, cuddles when I’m home.
Beca: thanks Jess, you are a life saver.

Reading over Jessica’s shoulder, Ashley muttered, “I’m literally right here giving you the answers.”

“You want credit or do you want to go back to sleep sometime tonight,” Jessica looked over her shoulder.

“We aren’t sleeping till I educate you about Sister Sarah.” Ashley leaned back and crossed her arms.

Jessica fell forward and buried her head in the comforter. “With friends like these,” she muttered before texting Beca back.

Jessica: sure. I feel like I hardly did a thing. You can sleep now?
Beca: yeah, and thank Ashley, too. You guys are the best.
Jessica: of course. Cookies Monday?
Beca: that’d be awesome. But not till after 3. I’m gonna go to the shelter and find a cat.
Jessica: try not to get a ginger one?
Beca: I’m thinking black. Black cats always need homes, right? We’d be just a couple of strays.
Jessica: perfect. Sleep good, Becs.
Beca: night, Lucky.

 

Across town Chloe couldn’t sleep. She’d tried hot rum, she’d taken NyQuil, she’d listened to her sound machine. But she couldn’t stop thinking about how this time last week she’d spent the evening watching Beca perform. Then the next day. She flipped over and grabbed her phone.

Chloe’s finger hovered over the text icon, but she looked at how late it was. Nobody, not even Beca, was awake right now. Anyway, Beca was off limits. They’d agreed.

She opened the browser. Just for shits and giggles she typed Beca’s name into Google. She hadn’t expected a full page of results. There were thumbnails of Beca singing into the mic at her piano, standing at the old fashioned microphone belting a tune, even one of her sitting in a chair with the mic in hand. They were all video links.

Chloe didn’t even hesitate. She watched one after another, until there was one of Beca’s karaoke performance from Thursday. Chloe felt the same thrill as Beca performed, and then a sinking when she remembered how the night had ended.

She dropped the phone back on the nightstand and rolled over, hugging her pillow. A week away was exactly what she needed.

Chapter Text

Sunday, Beca woke up early. After a day of moping and a passable Saturday night gig where all she thought about was how she’d spent last Saturday night, she’d finally fallen asleep late. She tossed and turned and thought again about the conversations with Dylan and Jessica. She realized she wasn’t going to get any more sleep. She got up and wandered to the coffee pot. As she stood at the sink, looking out the window, she wondered what she could do with her day to kill time until the performance that night.

She thought back to her childhood visiting here with Aunt Jean. Aunt Jean used to have a cat. Beca smiled as she remembered the day she got in trouble for trying to fit through the pet door. Beca paused and looked around. There used to be a pet door. She knew it wasn’t in the front door, or the sliding door to the deck. She pushed off the sink and wandered around the house, still carrying her coffee. She started in the kitchen. No obvious place there. The bedroom didn’t have an exit to the outside. She tried the extra bedroom, but it was just as futile. Frustrated, Beca returned to the kitchen and tried to remember that day she had looked up at her mother when her hips got caught in the small opening.

The laundry room! Beca put her cup down and raced over to the small alcove that served as her laundry room. She didn’t see a door, so was immediately disappointed. But in her mind’s eye it was clear. That door was here! She closed her eyes to picture the memory again. When she opened them, she realized a shelving unit was in the way. It took some time to empty the shelves and move the furniture, but she nearly yelped in triumph when she did. There, with a piece of plywood wedged into it, was the old pet door. Beca went to get her tool chest from the generator room and returned to free the door from its protective cover. After trying a screwdriver and the claw side of a hammer, she finally freed the plywood with a crow bar. The plastic covering the door had deteriorated badly. Beca sat on the floor and removed the flap. Now there was just a hole where the door had been. Beca found an old dish towel, folded it in half and whip-stitched it’s sides together. Then she removed the hinge from the flap and instead attached it to her dish towel. She put the entire makeshift door back in place. For the summer, it would do. She would measure the opening and replace the door come fall.

Feeling pleased with herself, she spent the rest of her morning finding new homes for the shelves and their contents. She finally plopped on the couch to eat something and have more coffee. Should she rearrange the guest room? She could set it up as a pet hotel for when she was working. She would need supplies, not the least of which would include pet food. She needed to get dressed and head to town.

Several hours later, she returned with her supplies. She brought in a condo, a bed, several bags of toys, a mat for the food, and a second one for the litter box. She set up the litter box at one end of the room and the food and water at the other end. She wanted a box to put the bedding in. She’d have to wait for the end table to hide the litter box to be shipped, but all in all Beca was pleased.

She headed back toward the laundry room with a load to start. It would kill some more time before work. She loaded the washer, and then paused. “You are losing it, Mitchell.” She could have sworn she’d heard a quiet meow. She shook her head and added soap to the machine. Just as she reached to turn it on, she heard the sound again.

Beca started looking around the area. There was nothing in the lost sock box, nor under the folding table. She waited and sure enough, the sound came a third time. Now she followed the sound carefully. She finally looked behind the dryer, and tangled in the electrical cords was a tiny black and white cat. “What are you doing?” Beca asked quietly. She hurried to the fuse box and flipped off power to the laundry room. Then she reached behind the dryer to unplug it. The cat meowed again, plaintively. Beca made soothing noises as she worked the cord away from the little animal. “There you go. Now, how about coming out of there?”

Beca waited, unsure if moving the dryer would make things better or worse. The cat turned around, so it’s back was no longer facing Beca. It blinked once, slowly, then meowed again, this time without sound. “Come on.” Beca tapped her fingers lightly on the floor. When that accomplished nothing, she left to grab a small handful of the food she’d just bought. She tossed a piece to the cat and then a few closer to Beca. In minutes, there was a small trail of cat kibble from behind the dryer to the middle of the room. Beca sat cross legged and hoped for the best.

She couldn’t have told you how long she sat there, waiting, but eventually, she saw a pair of eyes, one blue and one gold, looking at her from the corner of the dryer. The cat moved closer, taking bites along the way. Beca started to talk again, “What are you doing here, dude? Did you just go on an adventure and find yourself in my house? Where do you live?”
She didn’t see a collar, and she looked awfully little to be out wandering alone, but she was eating kibble, so maybe she was just small. “Are you tiny for your age, like me?”

In answer, the cat suddenly leaped onto Beca’s shoulder. She turned around so her tail trailed down Beca’s back. Beca wasn’t sure what to do, so she lifted her hand to let her visitor smell her. The cat remained where she was perched on Beca’s shoulder and started to purr.

Beca was entranced. She pulled her phone out of her pocket, and winced as the animal dug claws into Beca’s shoulder. She managed a selfie, and sent it to Dylan.

Beca: looks like I got adopted by a stray. Can you cover tonight?
Dylan: I swear, life is never boring with you around. What the hell is that?
Beca: a cat came in the house and got stuck behind the dryer. Need to see if she’s chipped.
Dylan: ok. I’ll cover. Hope I don’t chase your regulars away.
Beca: tell them I had a family emergency.😻
Dylan: have fun. Talk to you tomorrow.

Beca looked up at the face close to hers. “Just a couple of strays, right? But it’d be my luck someone already claims you.” She sighed and scratched the cat’s ears. “How the hell am I gonna get you to a vet?”

She sent another text with the image, this time to Jessica.

Beca: look what showed up at my place.

Jessica laughed and shook her head. She showed Ashley, who smirked.

Jessica: you could fall into an outhouse and come out smelling like roses.
Beca: nah, I’m not as lucky as you, Lucky. But maybe you are rubbing off.
Jessica: Whatcha gonna do?
Beca: take her to a vet. Make sure she’s healthy and see if she’s chipped. But I don’t know how.
Jessica: Ash and I will go get a carrier. Be there in an hour.
Beca: thanks, Jess.

Jessica looked up at Ashley. “Come on. Gotta help Beca with our new niece.”

Ashley laughed as she reached for her keys.

 

Across town, Stacie looked down and smiled at the message.

Rib: we’re all set but I need you out of your apartment for the week.
Stacie: how did you know Aubrey took the week off?
Rib: I didn’t, but that makes this easier. I guess I don’t need to rent you a room?
Stacie: I doubt it. I’ll ask. But first, tell me why it will take all week?
Rib: Dr. Lanners happened to know of an estate sale. He was familiar with the instrument, says it has seasoned well.
Rib: we take possession on Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday the engineers will check the flooring joists and reinforce if necessary.
Rib: Wednesday, they remove the windows nearest the balcony.
Rib: they will use a crane to install the piano on Thursday and try to reinstall the windows. Friday is clean up.
Stacie: shit, I didn’t realize.
Rib: I know. But Dr. Conrad gets what Dr. Conrad wants.
Stacie: can I bribe you with a meal and getting to meet Aubrey?
Rib: I will consider.
Rib: I will need you to lock down your office computer. Just in case.
Stacie: I’ll go do it now. I need to pack up stuff for the week, anyway.
Stacie: thanks, Rib, we have 8 days for you to choose from.
Rib: I’ll call ya. Go get that computer locked down.
Stacie: you can do it from that app.
Rib: I can lock you out for a lot longer than 8 days, kiddo.
Stacie: just kidding. Sheesh. I’ll text you when I’m done. Love ya.
Rib: back at ya, kiddo.

Stacie looked up from her phone. She waited for Aubrey to look her way.

Aubrey felt Stacie’s eyes on her. “What’s up, Doc?”

“I shouldn’t tell you, just because of that,” Stacie groaned and rolled her eyes.

Aubrey set down her iPad and wiggled her eyebrows at Stacie. “You like my smart ass.”

Stacie sighed and dropped her shoulders. “I do. I love you because you are a smart ass. Among other reasons.” She looked up again. “Think you can spare me for a couple of hours?”

Aubrey’s smile faded. “Sure. Did something come up? Remember we put out fires together these days, right? Even if they do happen at a reasonable hour sometimes.”

“Rib needs me to back up and lock down my computer.” Stacie nibbled her lower lip.

“The grad student strike again?” Aubrey looked concerned.

Stacie shook her head. “Not this time. Apparently, engineering needs to do some work on my wing. They will be inspecting floor joists and replacing windows.” Stacie hoped it was close enough to the truth to be believable. “I need to be out for a week.”

Aubrey looked at Stacie, her jaw dropped. “So you’re off all next week? While I’m off all next week? Dr. Conrad did you finagle something?”

“I promise.” Stacie laughed. “I didn’t believe it when Rib texted me either.” She held up the phone. “I can’t show you cuz we talked about stuff I can’t share. But she said the floors are the first half of the week and the windows the second half.” She smirked. “I can get a hotel room if you would rather have your space.”

Aubrey shook her head quickly, “I’m just shocked, my luck is never this good for this long.”

Stacie moved closer, “Get it, Princess. Your luck is forever changed, if I have anything to say about it.”

Aubrey slid over to lean her head against Stacie’s shoulder, “So if I spare you for a little while this afternoon I get you all to myself for a week?”

“Yeah,” Stacie felt a lump in her throat. “The only other agenda item is a meal to introduce you to Rib. She’s going to call me about when.” She kissed the side of Aubrey’s head. “So, what do you say, Princess? Got room for one more?”

“I’ll clear space for your stuff while you’re gone,” Aubrey’s eyes danced. “And I look forward to meeting Roberta, if only to thank her for excellent timing.”

Stacie squeezed Aubrey and stood up. “I’ll be back soon.” She leaned over to kiss Aubrey. “Sooner I’m gone, sooner I’m back.

 

Aubrey yanked the sheets from her bed and balled them onto the floor. If Stacie was going to be her guest for the week everything needed to be fresh. She put her hands on her hips when Doofus leaned into the middle of the half stripped bed. “Not yet, Doof,” Aubrey collected the furball and dumped her unceremoniously on the floor beside the dirty sheet.

She quickly tugged the fitted sheet from the top two corners but Doofus was quick enough to get tangled when the sheet collapsed in on itself. “Now you’ve done it!” Aubrey picked up the bundle and set it on top of the other sheets. She watched the lumps and bumps move around as Doofus tried to find the exit. After a minute or so Aubrey had mercy on the cat and helped her figure out how to escape. “That’s what you get,” she muttered as Doofus raced out of the room.

Aubrey carried the sheets to the washing machine and got it started. She collected a new set from the linen closet and hurried to make the bed before the cat got curious again. She was just tucking the last corner and smoothing the comforter when Doofus appeared.

Aubrey sighed and gave the cat a scratch. “All yours, munchkin. But you’ll have to share this week. Miss Stacie will be here every single night.” Aubrey smiled at the way Doofus put her head back against Aubrey’s hand. “Yeah, I’m pretty happy about it too.”

Doofus settled on the foot of the bed and Aubrey wandered thoughtfully into the bathroom. She wanted to clear some space for Stacie’s things. As she began to shuffle things around to empty a drawer, Doofus leaped onto the counter. “You’re quite the helper today,” Aubrey said distractedly as she continued to move things around. She jumped when there was a loud crash behind her.

“Doof!” Aubrey squealed. She leaned down to pick up the plastic water cup that had echoed so loudly against the tiles. “I don’t need you here, cat,” Aubrey put the cup back and put Doofus on the floor again. “It’s like you’re jealous already,” Aubrey looked at the cat, who had begun rubbing against the door frame. “I promise to always feed you,” she knelt down to run a hand along Doofus’s back. “But you have to promise to sit on Stacie’s lap as often as possible if I’m not there first. You’ll have to share me all week, Doof, they’ll be renovating her apartment. You’ll be good, right? I’m counting on you for no 3:00 am zoomies, no walking on our faces at sunrise, and no yowling after midnight. Got it?” Aubrey’s hands were on her hips again as Doofus leaped back onto the bathroom counter. “You’re impossible,” she laughed. “Impossible, but still cute. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Aubrey picked up the cat and carried her into the living room. “Why don’t you stay on the couch and let me finish the prep by myself,” she set Doofus down again. “I’ll let you help Stacie unpack, okay?”

Doofus sat down and started washing her back. Aubrey took that as agreement and went to empty some space in the closet and a drawer in the dresser, shaking her head. “Thank god Stacie’s going to be here, I’m talking to the cat like she speaks English.” She stopped walking, “And now I’m talking to myself out loud.” Aubrey closed her eyes and gave her head a little shake before she laughed and went to finish getting the apartment ready.

Chapter Text

Stacie walked Aubrey through the parking garage. “I need to start her. I haven’t driven in a couple of weeks, and it isn’t good for the batteries. Besides, you will love her.”

Aubrey followed, trying to guess what kind of car Stacie would drive. Batteries made Aubrey think electric, but she couldn’t imagine Stacie driving around in a Prius or Volt.

Stacie turned the corner and pressed the fob. The lights flashed on a late model black Ford Mustang Mach e.

Aubrey stopped. “No way,” she said in an awed voice. “You’ve really got one? I’ve been drooling over these for months.” She walked reverently toward the car. “I couldn’t bring myself to buy it considering I rarely drive further than midtown.”

“I don’t drive much either. Mostly to the college or to see Rib. But I always wanted a muscle car.” Stacie laughed at herself. “At least this way I can feel less guilty.”

“No judging,” Aubrey started to touch the hood then glanced up at Stacie for permission. “I tend to deny myself certain extravagances. Maybe I’ll learn how to enjoy some of the finer things hanging around with you.”

Stacie nodded permission and then smiled indulgently, “I certainly hope so.”

Aubrey traced the line of the hood all the way up to the top of the passenger seat. She stopped and tilted her head, “Does it still have decent power?”

“0-60 in 3.5” Stacie moved to lean up against the wall. This was a new side of Aubrey that was a decided turn on. “300-mile range.”

“Nice,” Aubrey grinned at Stacie. “Do we have a chance to get on a highway before we get to Roberta’s house?”

Stacie laughed and checked her watch. “Not really, but I promise a lap around the IDL before we put her away again.” She smirked, “I’ll even let you drive her. But first, we head to Rib’s.”

Aubrey looked at the car, then looked at Stacie, her eyes a little wide. “I couldn’t drive her. But take me to meet your chosen mom and we’ll see what happens later.” She opened the door and slid into the passenger’s seat, taking in all the bells and whistles on the dash. “This car is almost as sexy as you are, my love.”

Stacie slid behind the wheel. “You fit right in, Princess.” She leaned over to kiss Aubrey, “You should always be surrounded by the best.”

Aubrey blushed. “It’s weird, you know. I would totally buy this for you without any reservations. I just couldn’t buy it for me.”

Stacie studied Aubrey as she filed that away. “Shall we, love?” She started the car and pulled out of the space. It didn’t take long to exit the garage and move into traffic.

Aubrey was quiet, beginning to remember where they were going. She so wanted Roberta to like her. This woman was so important to Stacie. She began to work her hands in her lap, and looked out the window.

Stacie reached out with her right hand and placed it over Aubrey’s hands. “I love how close the seats are. I can snuggle you while I drive. Definitely a plus.”

Aubrey smiled and turned to look at Stacie. “Do you think I’ll pass muster?”

“Of course.” Stacie shot a glance Aubrey’s way. “We are all geeks, and she loves the piano. Played when she was young. You’ll get along fine.” She squeezed Aubrey’s hands. “Trust me?”

Aubrey turned her hand over to squeeze back. “Trust you completely. I guess you’re really the only one I need to love me for sure.”

Stacie pulled up in front of Roberta’s house on Reservoir Hill. “I do. And I will. And so will she. Breathe, princess.” Stacie kissed Aubrey’s hand.

Aubrey took a deep breath and smiled. “Let’s go let her look at me.”

“And let you look at her.” Stacie teased. She got out of the car and waited for Aubrey to take her hand before walking up to the door. She knocked once before opening the door. “Anyone home?”

Roberta was on her way with the knock, although she doubted Stacie would wait for her. “Only decrepit old scientists.” She smiled as she reached the pair. She leaned up to hug Stacie and then turned and extended a hand. “You must be Miss Posen.”

Stacie rolled her eyes. “Aubrey, this is Rib. Dr. Roberta Muncy to the grad students. Rib, this is Aubrey.” She beamed.

Aubrey took the hand offered. She was a little surprise at having to look down, most people were taller than she. “Ma’am,” she said politely.

Roberta chuckled. “If you are not a grad student, no need for ma’am. Roberta will do. Come in.” She gestured for the pair to follow her. On the living room coffee table were a pile of photos and knickknacks. In the center was a Build-a-Bear with a white lab coat that said “Doc.”

Stacie froze. “Rib? What’s all this?”

Roberta shrugged, “Now that you have a real place of your own,” her eyes danced at the secret she was keeping for Stacie, “you should liven the place up. Make it your own.”

Aubrey watched the interplay and simply reached for Stacie’s hand. “Doc?” She smiled and gestured toward the bear.

Stacie blinked as if she’d forgotten for a moment that Aubrey was there. “I got sick my first semester in my doctoral program. Rib got Doc to keep me company when she had to be gone.” Stacie looked at Roberta. “Doc has always stayed with you.”

Roberta picked up the bear and brought it to Stacie. “But she is yours. She should have a home with you.” She gestured at the frames. “I have copies of all of the pictures.” Then she smiled at Aubrey, “You won’t begrudge me letting her leave a few toiletries for if she ever stays here again, will you?”

Aubrey smiled and shook her head, “I would hope she’d always have a place with you.” She squeezed Stacie’s hand, “I feel like I’ve fallen into a world of good fortune.” She crouched beside the table and pointed at one of the pictures. She glanced back at Stacie, “You were, what? All of 14 in this one?”

Stacie sat down. “Yeah. My first lab coat with my name on it.” She looked up at Roberta.

“I have extras.” Roberta repeated. She brought her attention to Aubrey. “I thought to redecorate her room so there would be room for both of you. Would you like to show her the reason, little one?”

“Oh, God.” Stacie laughed and looked at Aubrey. “I have starship models hanging from the ceiling and I made my bed resemble sickbay.” She covered her face with her hands. “Do you want to see it?”

Aubrey’s eyes lit up, “Of course I want to see it. I had such a crush on Dr. Crusher, you have no idea.”

Roberta laughed. “Go ahead. I’ll bring out coffee. Aubrey, Stacie tells me you are a vegetarian as well, so I made overnight oats. Is that all right?”

Aubrey smiled at Roberta. “I don’t remember why I was nervous,” she said with a smile. “I’ll be back after I visit sick bay.”

Roberta winked and headed to the kitchen while Stacie took Aubrey down the hall to her bedroom. “I actually designed this when we were still at MIT.” She bit her lip. “I didn’t know she’d brought it all when she came to Tulsa.” Stacie smiled, “It was nice to come home to when I moved here.” She opened the door.

The full size bed was larger than those on the TV show, but Stacie had created a mock up of the over head sensor array. The bedding was metallic blue to match the movie stills that were hanging near the window. Over head were models of the Enterpise, Enterprise C and Enterprise D facing Romulan and Klingon Birds of Prey and a Borg cube. In the far corner hung a model of Deep Space 9.

“You’ve wowed me twice in one afternoon, Doc. This is incredible. You made it?” Aubrey moved to inspect the models more closely. “This took a ton of time and patience.”

“It was something to keep my hands busy while I was thinking.” Stacie sat on the bed. “The sensor array inspired my dissertation.”

“Yeah, I can imagine that.” Aubrey looked at Stacie, dumbfounded, “How many more of my personal fetishes are you going to demonstrate? I just need to know so I can try to manage my heart rate.” She grinned as she moved toward Stacie. “But honestly, we should have something Trekkie at one of the apartments. You are incredible.” Aubrey placed her hand on Stacie’s cheek.

Stacie pressed her cheek into Aubrey’s hand. “Why does it feel like she’s kicking me out? It’s so much worse than when I moved to the dorms.”

Aubrey caressed Stacie’s cheek. “She gets to have her house back now that you’ve grown up. Tell me, when was the last time you slept in this bed? And then tell me when is the next time you planned to invite me to sleep in this bed with you?”

Stacie took in a sharp breath. After a minute, she nodded. “I guess you are right.” She stood up and looked around. “This room or one just like it got me through so much.” She looked at Aubrey. “It’s why she chose my apartment. She said it would feel like I was sleeping in 10-forward.”

Aubrey grinned, “I have to admit, I’m wondering if you could mod this to fit a queen sized mattress.”

Stacie laughed. “For you, love. I will try.” She looked around again and nodded, “Shall we have breakfast?”

Aubrey nodded, smiled, and took Stacie’s hand again. “Everybody makes it sound like it’s the parents who have a hard time with empty nest. I think the kids feel it too.”

“Yeah.” Stacie carefully wiped her eyes. She squeezed Aubrey’s hand. They exited the room and returned to the living room. The photos and knickknacks, including Doc, were sitting in a box on the floor. Now on the coffee table sat a tray with three parfait glasses, two coffee mugs, a carafe of coffee, cream, sugar and spoons. Roberta was stirring her mug as she waited in an overstuffed chair.

Aubrey sat on the sofa, pulling Stacie to sit next to her. “I appreciate the accommodation, Roberta,” she gestured toward the parfaits.

“They weren’t difficult.” Roberta smiled. “Almond milk, rolled oats, strawberries. Just a little something.” She sipped her coffee. “So, you know I’m scientist, and I helped this one reach adulthood. Is there anything else you would like to know about me?”

Aubrey chuckled, “All I could think of from the day I knew about you was that I really wanted you to approve of me. I never want Stacie to feel like she has to choose between us,” Aubrey’s eyes grew serious.

Roberta smiled. “It isn’t up to me. Stacie chose you. That’s all I need to know.” She looked down at her coffee. “I expect you to be good for her, just as I expect her to be good to you. I will be sorely disappointed if either of you let me down.”

Aubrey nodded, “Of course, ma’am,” she looked up, “I mean Roberta.”

Stacie handed Aubrey a cup of coffee with two sugars before rubbing her back. “We won’t let you down, Rib. We talk. We sort things out. We help each other.”

Roberta smiled and nodded, “But Aubrey, you still haven’t told me what you want to know about me. I will not get between you two. Is that all you need to know?”

“I suppose,” Aubrey raised her eyebrows. “I mean, some more conversations about these pictures wouldn’t hurt my feelings.” She glanced over at Stacie. “I missed out on some formative years, you know?”

Stacie rolled her eyes. “I will tell you all about them as you help me figure out where to put them.” She turned to Roberta. “Aren’t you going to ask Aubrey anything about herself?”

Roberta smiled at them both. “No.” Then she smirked. “First of all, I read the full background check.” Then she grew more serious. “And she doesn’t need my approval past what the work requires. She only needs yours.”

Aubrey tilted her head, “I’m sure there were one or two flags, a background check that thorough.” She ducked her head, “I only know because of my dad, they asked me about some social media stuff.”

Stacie continued to rub Aubrey’s back. She glared at Roberta who laughed.

“All right, little one, you win.” Roberta continued to chuckle and turned her full attention to Aubrey. “Stacie is letting me know without words that hazing you the way I haze my grad students will have dire consequences.”

Stacie blushed but straightened her back as if she didn’t care.

“Aubrey, I am sorry about some of the posts that tried to besmirch your name. Beyond jealousy, I can see no just cause in any of your records for such unkindness.” Roberta sipped her coffee again. “As a matter of fact, you seem to have gone above and beyond to make your family proud. I do hope to hear you play some day.” She looked down at her hands, “I had to choose between computer keyboards or piano keyboards. Music was my first love, but science is my passion.”

Aubrey melted a bit, looking at Roberta’s hands. “You do still play some, right?” She looked into Roberta’s eyes. “No one should ever stop entirely,” she wavered, hoping she hadn’t been too forward. “I stopped playing as much, but tuning can be quite satisfying,” she smiled.

“It’s been years,” Roberta answered softly. She looked at Stacie, “Someone suggested I try again, but…” she shook her head. “I don’t think my hands will stretch properly anymore.” She took a deep breath. “But I would love to hear you play.”

Stacie met Roberta’s gaze. “I’m supposed to go out. You are supposed to play. You are just as stubborn as I am.”

Aubrey watched the two spar, somehow falling in love with both of them. “I know what it’s like when people ask you to do something you aren’t maybe comfortable with anymore,” she began, looking an apology at Stacie. She turned back to Roberta, “I’ve got sheet music for pieces that are less taxing. And I can get you into any practice room at TU with a word. If you ever choose to reconsider.”

Roberta studied Aubrey for a moment before she smiled. She looked over at Stacie and nodded her head, “I agree, I am just as stubborn as you are.” Then she looked at Aubrey, “Maybe you will be good for both of us.”

Aubrey looked at Stacie, hoping she hadn’t messed anything up.

Stacie grinned, “Maybe she will be.” She leaned forward to pick up one of the parfait glasses.

Roberta’s eyes twinkled. “Have you seen the picture of Stacie the day she arrived on campus?” Roberta stood and walked toward the box.

“Roberta Lorraine Muncy, don’t you dare!” Stacie warned.

Roberta laughed and picked up a framed photo before walking back to Aubrey with a picture of 13 year old Stacie, dressed in a Starfleet uniform complete with Dr. Crusher’s blue lab coat.

Aubrey’s eyes lit up as she looked from the photo to Stacie. “That height came on early, too, huh?” She winked.

Stacie groaned. “I should have stayed in Cambridge.”

After breakfast, and a few more stories and photos, Roberta finally sighed. “I’m afraid I do need to get back to the lab.” She stood up and crossed over to Stacie, “Stay as long as you want, little one. Lock up when you leave.” She leaned over to give Stacie a one armed hug. Then she turned to Aubrey. “It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we have more opportunities to talk in the future.”

“As do I,” Aubrey held out her hand. “It was a delight meeting you.”

Roberta shook the hand and then picked up the tray to return to the kitchen. She came back through the living room and picked up her keys and her purse. “Talk to you soon, little one.” With a wink, she was out the door.

Stacie watched her go and then slumped against the back of the couch. “That was only slightly mortifying.”

Aubrey laughed, “What, that someone loves you enough to keep memories? My only photo from my father’s house was from my high school graduation, and that one was purchased from the company that took the official pictures.” Aubrey leaned into Stacie. “You’re so lucky.”

Stacie wrapped an arm around Aubrey’s shoulders. “Then I guess we get to start taking millions of pictures of us and of you and make new memories.” She kissed the side of Aubrey’s head. “Told you she would like you.”

Aubrey ducked her head a little, “Yeah, but you didn’t tell me how much I’d like her.”

“I could only hope.” Stacie sighed happily. “She said she wanted to add you to the family.” She looked over at the bear. “I just… it’s weird. She won’t have pets. She hates to get attached, she said. So I sort of always wanted to leave Doc here to, I dunno, keep her company. Is that stupid?”

“Not at all.” Aubrey picked up the bear and looked it over. “Build a Bear?”

Stacie nodded. “Yeah.” She smiled, “She wanted it to look like me, so it’s got dark fur and green eyes.”

Aubrey was charmed. She looked from the bear to Stacie, and her eyes widened. “Drive me to the mall in your fancy machine?”

“Sure.” Stacie stood up, “What’s at the mall?”

Aubrey glanced over her shoulder, already opening the door. “Build a Bear!”

Chapter Text

Stacie laid on her stomach, resting her chin on the back of her hands. "I'm serious. I've never done a load of laundry in my life. We had a housekeeper untiI was 4. I started boarding school then, and the dorm parent collected laundry every Saturday. I was 13 when I graduated. I went to MIT and Rib had me collect my clothes on Saturdays to take them to the launderer. I did that till I moved into the Mayo, where housekeeping does it." She leaned onto her right side. "Cross my heart." She laid back down again. "How do you know how to separate them? By material?"

Aubrey stared at Stacie, still trying to decide if she was being teased. Stacie seemed sincere, though, and the story did pan out. “Did I mention ivory tower?” She smirked. “Okay, I should tell you why they’re sorted so you’ll understand the underlying method, right?”

“Yes, please.” Stacie nodded, “If I understand the method, I have a good chance to recall and replicate, like any good experiment.” She blushed slightly, “I’m really bad at doing just because.”

Aubrey grinned. She was charmed. “Okay. You’re right about material up to a point. Delicates like silk or lace get washed by hand because the machine is too rough, they’d fall apart. They also prefer cooler water.”

Stacie nodded. “That makes sense. I can imagine the damage the agitator would do. It’s designed to simulate wringing, right? That would be murder on fine material.”

“Exactly,” Aubrey looked startled. “You know about how the machine operates, but not how to use it?”

“Yeah,” Stacie laughed. “Ninth and tenth grade, I was twelve. They ran out of curriculum, so I helped the handyman do repairs. I can fix a washer or dryer, replace a garbage disposal,” she paused to remember, “doorknobs, faucet washers, deadbolts or window locks.” She opened her eyes. “Some are repairable, some aren’t. Gotta know when to give up and replace.”

Aubrey shook her head. “I won’t ever have to call for maintenance again.” She laughed. “Okay then, Doc, look at this pile of laundry. Take out the delicates and how would you sort the rest, understanding that it’s going to go through cycles of hot water?”

Stacie looked at the pile, looked at Aubrey to see if she was teasing, and then at the clothes again. Obediently, she removed the delicates. As she stared, she very carefully removed first one article and then another until she had a separate stack of bright colors. “Those would run in hot.” She bit her lip nervously.

Aubrey nodded her approval. “Well done! See it isn’t that hard. Is there anything else that you think ought to be separated for its own good or the good of the other clothes?”

Stacie frowned in concentration. She reached over and started to feel the various materials. She looked up again. “Synthetics shouldn’t shrink. But cotton does. Do cotton blends shrink?”

“Some do,” Aubrey admitted. “I usually run the cottons separately in a lower temperature. Except for towels, I want them scalded to keep them sterilized.” She looked at Stacie. “That’s it, the hard thinking is over. Now it’s sheer drudgery.” Aubrey picked up one of the baskets and lugged it to the machines in the hall.

“I was gonna ask that!” Stacie giggled with delight.

Aubrey grinned again. “Ask what?”

Stacie rolled off the bed and followed. “Why you did any in hot at all. With modern detergents, I would think most items could be washed in cold. There would be less chance of colors running or fading and virtually no chance of puckering in a multi-material garment. I forgot towels need sterilizing.” She was nearly bouncing.

Aubrey laughed again. “I swear you’re having fun with laundry.” She dumped the first load in. “The truth is the agitator does most of the work. It beats the dirt out of the clothes. The detergent just sort of makes it smell nice.” She dumped a cap full in, “It also takes care of some stains for us.” She closed the lid and looked at Stacie. “These were mostly dark, mostly synthetic. You choose the cycle and temperature.”

“I’m guessing you don’t have a synthetic setting?” Stacie teased. She leaned against Aubrey as she studied the settings. “You could probably do cold, like I said, but for sure you don’t want hot. Even darks could run.” She thought longer. “I wish there was a user’s guide so I could determine what temperature they consider the ranges to boundary and what they mean by the word ‘normal’.”

Aubrey couldn’t resist kissing Stacie on the cheek. She whispered conspiratorially, “I do damn near everything on normal.” She leaned forward and spun the dial. “And warm is generally a safe setting, especially if everything has been through the wash before.” She pushed the start button and turned to face Stacie. “Now we have a half hour all to ourselves while we wait. I’ve got the instruction manual in a kitchen drawer if you like.”

“I’d love to look at it, but not now. Maybe when you are busy or something.” Stacie slipped her arms around Aubrey’s waist, “I’m so glad you took this week off.” She grinned, “Let’s see, half an hour, hmmmm, not into quickies….” She winked, “Maybe we should have a snack?”

 

Later, when the first load came out of the dryer, Aubrey watched Stacie pull a shirt from the laundry hamper. She sighed just a little through a grin. If Stacie was going to fold each item so meticulously this was going to take a while. “Need help?” Aubrey asked. Stacie shook her head without looking up from the seam she was carefully following. “I’ll be in the living room,” Aubrey ran a hand across Stacie’s shoulders as she left the room.

Chloe felt limp and useless after her deep body massage. She supposed she was meant to feel relaxed and refreshed. Whatever. The real trouble was that she kept thinking about Beca. She rolled over in her bed and picked up her phone to call Aubrey.

Aubrey had just settled on the sofa and had opened her iPad to read when her phone rang with Chloe’s tone. She frowned but answered. “Aubrey Posen,” she answered habitually but with a puzzled tone of voice.

“Let’s see. Yep, I was calling for Aubrey Posen. How convenient,” Chloe teased. “How’s your week so far, Bree?”

Aubrey rolled her eyes. “I’m have a wonderful week, thank you, despite your snark.” She relented and laughed, “I’ve met Stacie’s guardian and taught Stacie to do laundry. How is your week?”

“Hang on,” Chloe rewound the conversation. “Teaching Stacie to do laundry?”

“Yes,” Aubrey’s laugh bubbled up. “For her it is a fascinating science experiment. Apparently the laundry was always someone else’s responsibility in her life.”

“Damn,” Chloe said appreciatively, “I think I’ve been living the wrong life. How is laundry a science experiment though? Did you manage to pull a Tom Sawyer?”

Aubrey shook her head, still laughing. “No, well, maybe by accident. I was sorting, which led to questions about the reason for sorting. She’s adorable, Elf. She is determining right now the most efficient fold to keep creases where they should be.” She glanced fondly toward the bedroom.

Chloe shook her head, grinning, “You have truly found your soulmate, Bree.” She whumped back against the pillows. “I have a conundrum.”

Aubrey brought her attention back to the phone. “What’s up?”

“I can’t shake Beca from my mind. I’m doing cleanses and massages and meditations and mud baths and the one constant in all of them is something makes me think of her. I expected this trip to clear my head,” Chloe’s tone devolved into a whine. “What am I doing wrong?”

“Maybe you aren’t doing anything wrong.” Aubrey considered. “I am hoping they are pleasant thoughts?”

“Quite,” Chloe replied with a smirk. “But we’ve agreed not to see each other anymore. So they’re not good for anything except making me sad.”

Aubrey opened her mouth and then closed it again. She had to choose her words carefully. “Keeping it PG, what are you learning about yourself, or Beca?”

Chloe thought over her daydreams of the past few days. “We’ve got a lot of inside jokes for the short time we’ve known each other, that’s for sure.”

“Okay, that’s a good thing, right? You couldn’t be friends, though? You are clear of that from the last conversation? Then you could keep the inside jokes.” Aubrey suggested.

“Now that you mention it, that last conversation was a bit nebulous. I don’t guess conversation is really the accurate term for it, even. She said she’d get attached, and I decided that meant we were done.” Chloe gazed at the ceiling, trying to remember details.

Aubrey smiled fondly as she listened. Chloe loved big but reacted bigger. “So back up, tell me what was said, as much as you can recall.”

Chloe chewed her bottom lip, “It’s like tunnel memory, I don’t remember hardly anything before she asked me what I meant about strings, I said we were free to date other people, then she said she was afraid she’d get attached.”

“Then maybe you need to talk to her?” Aubrey suggested gently. “If you like the inside jokes, not just the sex, then maybe you need to renegotiate. Be friends.”

Chloe sighed, “You think she’d want to talk? After I walked away?”

Aubrey considered again her words. “If she doesn’t, then maybe there wasn’t as much there as you remember.”

“Hm,” Chloe replied. “I’ll think about it.” Her cabin phone started to ring. “Shit, I’m supposed to be doing something good for me and I’ve already forgotten what it even was. But I’m late. Tell me how relaxing the spa is again?”

“Oh, sweetie, do what does help you relax. If you get stressed when there, you took on too much. Rest, relax, take a breather and skip the extra activities if you have to. This is to make you feel better, not worse.”

“I’ve booked myself solid, Bree. Signed up for everything,” Chloe grinned impishly.

Aubrey rolled her eyes. “You be you, Elf. Talk to you soon.”

“Love ya!” Chloe said cheerfully as she disconnected.

Aubrey set down her phone and wandered to the bedroom. She leaned against the door jamb with a smile. “How goes it, Doc?”

Stacie was putting a shirt away. “I think the stores have their displays right. The best fold has creases below the waist or in the sleeves. I guess I should have realized they did research.” She grinned as she turned to lean against the dresser and crossed her arms. “Who were you talking to?”

Aubrey walked over and wrapped her arms around Stacie’s waist. “Guess.”

“Chloe?” Stacie laughed, “Despite your assurances we wouldn’t hear from her all week?”

“Winner gets a prize,” Aubrey placed a light kiss on Stacie’s nose. “What can I say, I have an unpredictable friend. At least we don’t need to drive anywhere?”

Stacie laughed again, kissed Aubrey’s cheek and asked, “Drive anywhere?”

Aubrey chuckled, “She’s not stranded and in need of assistance.” She looked around. “You know, I don’t hear the machines running, must be time to change loads. You want to do it or shall I?”

“Oh, god, I’m feeling slow.” Stacie shook her head. “Yes! Thankful we don’t have to go bail her out, or let her sleep here.” She put her fingers through the belt loops on Aubrey’s pants. “What’s the hurry?” She smirked.

Aubrey’s grin widened as she pressed closer to Stacie. “Things will get wrinkled. Messy,” she whispered the last word against Stacie’s ear.

Stacie nearly purred. “Can’t have that, can we?” She nuzzled Aubrey’s hair. “You probably have a rule against it.” She teased back.

“As a matter of fact,” Aubrey mumbled as she kissed along Stacie’s jaw. “But then again, I haven’t introduced you to the fluff cycle yet.”

“That sounds promising.” Stacie slipped one hand around to Aubrey’s lower back.

“Mhm,” Aubrey hummed against Stacie’s throat. “One problem, though.”

Stacie placed kisses along the top of Aubrey’s head as her hand slipped under the back of Aubrey’s shirt. “Can’t imagine.”

“The clothes in the washer,” Aubrey’s eyes danced playfully and she stepped quickly out of Stacie’s arms. “They’ll sour if we don’t move them.” She watched Stacie as she walked a few steps toward the door. “I could be efficient and toss this into the next load, too,” she said in a low voice and began to unbutton her shirt.

Stacie swallowed as Aubrey walked away, her brain short circuiting for just a moment. Then she remembered herself, and the hunter, and how Aubrey loves a competition. With another smirk, she pulled the tank she was wearing over her head and moved quickly to the doorway, “should probably include this one too.” She tossed it over Aubrey’s head and into the hallway in front of her.

Aubrey smiled wickedly and spun on her heel. She let her shirt drop in a heap at her feet and stepped back toward Stacie, “Did I mention we can just run the rinse cycle once more?”

Stacie sauntered closer wearing nothing from the waist up, “See,” she said, dropping her voice low, “I suspected there were more options than you were letting on.”

Aubrey leaned against the wall in the hallway. “There’s always a workaround, isn’t there?” Her eyes flashed as she watched Stacie’s steady approach.

“I’m no MacGuyver,” Stacie admitted as she moved closer. “That said, when you find an immovable object, get a better lever. I’m sure Pythagoras said something like that.” She placed her hand on the wall beside Aubrey’s head. “Or was it Euclid?”

Aubrey’s breath caught in her throat. She looked down and ran her fingertips lightly across Stacie’s stomach. “You’re doing that on purpose,” she grinned.

Stacie smiled and blinked innocently, “Doing what, Princess?” She placed her second hand on Aubrey’s waist and ran her thumb gently on her skin.

Aubrey leaned her head back against the wall and drew in another sharp breath. She slid her palm along Stacie’s side and down her back. She brought her other hand up to lightly trace Stacie’s jaw, her thumb brushing Stacie’s lower lip. “You know exactly what you’re doing,” she smiled.

“Maybe so.” Stacie leaned in and kissed the side of Aubrey’s neck. “Right now I am calculating the hardness ratio of the hallway floor. It is easier to clean hard wood, but carpet would be softer. Then again, we would have to consider tendency to abraid.” She whispered into Aubrey’s ear.

Aubrey shuddered and pulled Stacie tightly against her. She ran a leg up the back of Stacie’s leg. “Mmm,” was all she could manage in reply as she turned her neck for Stacie. “Keep talking that way and leaning against the wall will have to suffice,” she whispered.

Stacie smirked, “Will it?” She murmured. After a moment of hesitation, she hooked one arm under Aubrey’s leg and with the other pulled her flush against Stacie’s torso before lifting Aubrey off the ground and carrying her back the short distance to the bedroom.

Aubrey made a startled sound and then began nibbling against Stacie’s neck. “Bed, then?” She muttered.

Stacie kept moving until she was close to the bed, which thankfully was now empty of clothes. She rolled as she approached so the both ended up in their sides on the bed. “Your wish is my command, Princess.” Then she laughed, “Thank god for gym memberships and a few inches of extra height.”

Aubrey chuckled and ran a fingertip along Stacie’s arm, “I had no idea you could do that. It was kind of amazing.” She looked into Stacie’s eyes, “Brains and brawn.” The words came out in a low whisper. Aubrey gently nudged Stacie so she was lying on her back, then put one knee on either side of her hips. She leaned forward, her hands on either side of Stacie’s head. “You should rest, love. I’ll do some of the heavy lifting for a bit,” Aubrey traced her tongue along Stacie’s lower lip, smiling.

Chapter Text

Chloe sat in the wooden rocking chair on the back deck of her cottage at the Echo Canyon Spa Resort. She’d been there all week, and now that it was Thursday she started thinking about what she was going to do when she got back to life.

She’d done a lot of thinking this week. Thinking about what Beca said last Thursday. Thinking about their stolen weekend together. Thinking about how cute it had been when Beca came back to life while she ate a burger when her show was over.

Chloe also thought about what Aubrey said. Time to stop acting like she was still in college. Let herself be happy. She sipped from the green detox smoothie in her hand and pushed away the thought that this sounded an awful lot like time to grow up.

Aubrey told her to figure out what she wanted. Chloe knew what she wanted; Chloe wanted Beca. Chloe wanted those dark blue eyes to tease her and taunt her and laugh at her and even become deep with emotion the way they had the last time they talked. She just didn’t know exactly what the game rules were to get those eyes back into her life.

Chloe picked up her phone, flipped to Beca’s text number, and typed a sentence. She erased it. She typed another. Erased that one too. Finally she just typed her question as plainly as she could.

Chloe: What does attached mean?

Beca sat at her table, trying to eat her breakfast. “Skye, I don’t care how often you rub my leg, I’m not giving you anything until I’m done.” She chuckled, knowing already that this cat had her wrapped around its tiny claws. She looked down at the white head with the black patch that looked like a beret or a toupee. “And I agree. You look much happier without that stupid cone. Just,” she reached down to tug the t-shirt to cover the length of the cat’s body, “don’t mess up those stitches.” Beca jumped when her phone buzzed. Jess and Ash were already at work and Dylan never used the phone. She always used Snapchat. Beca picked up the phone and she felt her heart jump.

She opened the app and read the question. She stared for a few minutes, not even noticing when Skye crept up onto the table from the other chair and swiped a paw’s worth of scrambled eggs. Beca finally began to type.

Beca: you mean when I said I would get attached? Just want to be sure. Me, not generally.

Chloe laughed out loud. She was smiling as she replied.

Chloe: okay smart ass. I have a dictionary. Yes, please, what did you mean when you said we couldn’t have an arrangement because you’d get attached?

Beca took a deep breath and then realized what Skye had done. “Dammit! Not fair.” She laughed and stood, taking her plate to a counter she hoped Skye couldn’t reach. The cat finished her ill-gotten gains and promptly took a bath.

Beca: sorry, Skye got into my scrambled eggs. Ew.
Chloe: What happened to Dylan?
Chloe: and I have to admit that is a euphemism I’ve never heard before
:-D
Beca: ew again. Dylan, I assume is at her place. Meanwhile, this piece of shit stray I let in my home is shedding all over my breakfast.
Chloe: okay I feel like I’m missing something. Someone is stealing your eggs and shedding all over your breakfast.

Beca laughed and took a picture of the mostly white cat with black patches wearing a dachshund t-shirt and sent it to Chloe.

Beca: Skye.

Chloe laughed out loud again and saved the image.

Chloe: her fashion sense is iffy
Beca: beggars can’t be choosers and she hated the cone. Jess and Ash found this instead.

Chloe smiled at the tiny cat with all that hair poking out in tufts around the shirt.

Chloe: she looks so soft.
Beca: she is.

Beca smiled down at the fluff ball again rubbing against her leg. Then she remembered Chloe had asked a question.

Beca: sorry, you asked a question and the pita distracted me.
Chloe: I was going to mention. Remember I’m the one who knew you were dodging when we played at Baxter’s
Beca: ha. You sure did.
Beca: ok, so you want to know what I mean by attached.
Beca: here’s the thing. You make me laugh. Hard. Like no one else.
Beca: I love sitting across a table from you.
Beca: I love holding you.

She paused and sent the next one even though she really didn’t want to.

Beca: but if I’m getting to hold you, I can’t handle you being in someone else’s arms. I’m a shit that way.

Chloe read through the texts twice. She smiled, thought of those dancing eyes across the table from her, then sighed when she could feel Beca’s arms wrapped protectively around her as they slept after thoroughly exhausting one another. The final text made her sigh audibly.

Chloe: okay. So, you need to be exclusive? No extracurricular dating?
Beca: I can’t ask you to do that. But maybe we could, I dunno, still hang out sometimes? Not just at karaoke?
Chloe: I’d like that. I can change, you know? Aubrey sent me on a retreat this week to get my head together and stop acting like I’m in college.

Beca re-read the texts. Then she took another deep breath to steady her hands.

Beca: I wanna be clear. I think in your job you gotta do events and have someone on your arm.
Beca: god I suck at this.
Beca: it’s the….shit…. I guess if I’m with someone I gotta know at the end of the day or night, I’m the one they come home to.
Beca: I gotta trust that it’s just us in the bed, not the people they’ve been out working with or playing with.
Beca: that’s a string. You didn’t want any. And I don’t want you to change. Not for me. Then someday you’d hate me.
Chloe: Yeah. I could never hate you, but that’s beside the point.
Chloe: I still owe you a Monday date. Meet me Monday at 4:00 at Baxter’s? Maybe it’s time we made a different kind of plan so we can both be happy. It’ll be our own personal war council, neutral territory. What do you think?

Beca felt that slow smile she always felt when talking to Chloe. She nodded.

Beca: I’d like that. I’ll get there early to order the chips and ranch.
Chloe: question.
Beca: sure
Chloe: do you promise to compliment my glowing skin, manicured hands, and all-around healthiness after I’ve spent a week letting them torture me at this spa?

Beca laughed out loud. As she shook her head, she replied.

Beca: making notes. Glowing hands…no wait.
Chloe: smart ass.
Beca: 😘

 

Hours later, Beca crouched down on the floor and was taping her cords down. She looked up at Dylan, sitting on the piano bench behind the equipment. “I still don’t get why you are so down on karaoke. It isn’t like everyone has a stellar singing voice; I get that. But people who love music shouldn’t be relegated to singing in the shower. Why not get drunk with buddies and be silly as shit?”

Dylan shrugged, “It’s just, I don’t know, the schmaltz factor? I can own that I’m a music snob.” She grinned, “But get a few drinks in me and I’ll be out there assaulting songs with the rest of them.”

“I don’t mind, that could be worth filming.” Beca teased. “I’m more worried that I can’t take a vacation, like, ever again. I went to RenFaire this May. The guy I hired to cover was so bad that a lot of my regulars quit coming. I went from 60-75 bucks in tips per hour to less than 50.”

“Yikes,” Dylan’s eyes widened. “How hard can it be to keep people having fun when they’re the ones supplying the talent?”

Beca nodded. “I know, right? He apparently was leering at the women and refusing to let guys sing at all. I hear he even insisted on doing duets with some of the girls.” Beca shuddered. “Damn. I mean, I didn’t know him well, but he was a friend of a friend.” She looked at Dylan again, “So that’s why I hope you can help sometimes. Just let them sing, ya know?”

“Yeah. I’ve got some good earplugs,” Dylan winked. She looked around the room as people were beginning to trickle in. “Speaking of the girls, I look forward to meeting them. You said sex in heels has a girl? That ought to make her safer, right?”

“I dunno.” Beca laughed. “She has her own definition of safe.”

As Beca returned to taping down her cords and checking the connections, “sex in heels” was entering the lobby from the parking garage, her girl on her arm.

Stacie saw the concierge trying to get her attention. “Be right back,” she said as she kissed Aubrey on the cheek. It didn’t take long before Stacie returned with a huge grin on her face.

Aubrey smiled at the sudden bounce in Stacie’s step. She held out her hand and pulled Stacie close, “What’s all that about?”

Stacie wrapped her arms around Aubrey’s waist. “That is about my apartment being ready a day early.” She leaned forward to whisper, “We can go upstairs after karaoke.”

“Oh, I do like the sound of that,” Aubrey kissed Stacie’s cheek. “Your karaoke night performances make it difficult to think of having to walk all the way back to my apartment.” She dropped her voice a little, “How many steps to the elevator, love?”

“I’ve never counted.” Stacie pulled back to look into Aubrey’s eyes, “Don’t you know I float with you around, Princess?”

Aubrey leaned forward to kiss Stacie, still feeling a thrill when she felt Stacie returning the kiss.

“You two ought to get a room,” Jessica teased as she walked through the lobby toward the bar. “Oh wait, you have one.” She giggled.

“Yeah, we do,” Aubrey answered as she ran a finger along Stacie’s cheek.

Stacie chuckled and took Aubrey’s hand as she moved to follow Jessica into the Boiler Room. “I was thinking of doing something terribly romantic to open the set. What do you think, Jess? Too big of a change?”

Jessica considered, “I can’t imagine you doing any kind of song that didn’t come off a little sexy, to be honest. But why not? Confuse the crowd.” Jessica grinned as she walked into the bar and started looking for Ashley.

“Romantic, huh?” Aubrey looked at Stacie as they followed Jessica through the door. “Just don’t forget some time tonight to do something,” her eyes roamed down Stacie’s dress and back up again, “hot.”

Stacie dropped her voice, “Careful, Princess. We may be counting those steps to the elevator sooner, rather than later.” She winked and sashayed away to go talk to Beca.

Ashley looked up as Jessica entered and leaned over the bar for a kiss. “Look who’s behind the equipment.”

Jessica shot a glance toward the stage. “Huh. I wonder what that’s about.” She scanned the room, “No redhead yet. Do you think Beca’s trying to make Chloe jealous?”

Aubrey settled in at their usual table, watching Stacie’s hips sway. She wondered when she’d developed such a one-track mind. Her smile became a smirk as she realized karaoke was her favorite form of extended foreplay.

Ashley shrugged, “Your guess is as good as mine. It should be an interesting night.”

Stacie’s step hitched just a moment when she realized Beca wasn’t alone. “Hey Grumpy, who’s your friend?”

Beca stood up, satisfied she wouldn’t trip over anything. “Hey, Squirt, this is Dylan. Dylan, this is Stacie.”

Stacie extended a hand, “Hi, Dylan. Nice to meet you.” She smiled, “You planning on singing? Or running the board for Beca?”

“Stacie,” Dylan held Stacie’s fingertips and lifted her hand before giving it back. “I’m not much of a singer. Beca’s showing me the ropes, maybe I’ll give her a day off sometime. You sing?”

“Not like she does,” Stacie winked at Beca, “but I can carry a tune and, shall we say, rev up the crowd for the rest.” She leafed through the options and pointed one out to Beca. “That should do it, don’t you think?”

Beca looked down and laughed. “Yep, not safe at all.”

Stacie smiled almost innocently and wandered back to the table to wait for Beca to start.

Aubrey leaned forward and caught Stacie’s hand as she sat down. “Who is Beca’s hot blond?” She asked. “I almost thought she was going to kiss your hand.” Aubrey picked up the same hand and placed it lightly against her lips.

“All Beca said was her name was Dylan.” Stacie shrugged, “She’s definitely confident in all that.” Stacie’s free hand gestured to indicate her own body as a stand in for Dylan’s. “But don’t you be worrying about me. I have eyes for no one but you.” She leaned over and kissed Aubrey sweetly.

Aubrey melted, then leaned back, “It’s never you I worry about.”

Dylan glanced at Beca, “Sex in heels?”

Beca nodded with a chuckle. “And you should definitely move out front to watch her. From here, it’s a show. But out there?” She smirked.

Stacie tossed a glance over her shoulder at Beca. “They aren’t doing it. No sexual tension.” She brought her eyes back to Aubrey, “Remember, the Hunter is never wrong.”

Aubrey smirked, “You should patent that particular radar.”

Dylan raised an eyebrow, “A good show, hm? What’s she singing?”

Beca just smirked and looked around at the gathering crowd. She stepped to the mic. “Shall we get this show on the road? Stacie?”

Stacie nodded and moved to the stage. As Jessica and Ashley also headed that way, she waved them off.

Ashley felt surprised but sat down next to Aubrey and pulled Jessica into the next chair over. “This should be interesting.”

“Uh oh,” Jessica looked at Aubrey. “Any idea?”

Aubrey just shook her head and leaned back in her chair, ready for anything.

Dylan found a seat near the back of the room, her curiosity piqued.

As a guitar riff started to play, Stacie fluffed her hair with her left hand while her right hand gripped the microphone. Her eyes firmly on Aubrey, she pitched her voice into her nose instead of using her normally throaty contralto.

You know just what to say, things that scare me
I should just walk away, but I can't move my feet
The more that I know you, the more that I want to
Something inside me's changed
I was so much younger yesterday

She continued to run her fingers of her left hand through her hair as she sang. Just before she reached the chorus, she trailed her hand across her breasts.

Aubrey’s head tilted back a fraction and her lips parted. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her eyes dancing, hands feeling the places Stacie was touching, tongue remembering the taste Stacie mentioned.

Dylan’s eyes widened and moved from Stacie to Beca and back again. She put her head in her hand and watched in what she hoped was a respectful way.

Jessica just looked at Ashley, “Wow,” she mouthed.

During the dance breaks, one hand caressed Stacie’s side, or hair, or hips, or breasts, while the other slid up and down the mic stand. She finally reached the end of the song and with a smirk closed out.

By the way, right away, you do things to my body
I didn't know that I was starving till I tasted you
You you, yeah till I tasted you
By the way, by the way, you do things to my body
I didn't know that I was starving till I tasted you
I didn't know till I tasted you
The more that I know you, the more that I want to
Something inside me's changed
I was so much younger yesterday

The room was silent for a beat after the music faded. Aubrey didn’t trust her legs, so she applauded from her chair. She shifted it so Stacie could land in her lap the way she had a few weeks ago. After all, there was no Chloe to play referee.

“I’m going to have to up my game,” Jessica leaned over to whisper to Ashley.

“Fucking sex in heels,” Dylan muttered.

Beca had kept her eyes down, trying desperately not to think of a certain redhead. She took a deep breath and tried to decide on a suitable follow up.

“For fuck’s sake.” Ashley stood up and hugged Stacie before the girl landed in Aubrey’s lap. “You are so gonna have vice in here someday,” she laughed. Then she looked at Beca. “Pull up a duet.” She grabbed Jessica’s hand. “Come on. Everyone will be looking for her to encore.”

Stacie laughed at Ashley before spinning away and plopping on Aubrey’s lap. “Hot enough?” She purred.

Jessica followed Ashley to the stage, ready to start whatever Beca could think of to pull up.

Aubrey wrapped an arm around Stacie’s waist and pulled her closer. “Dangerously hot,” she purred in response. Her skin burned everywhere Stacie’s body touched her. “How long, Doc?”

Dylan walked to the bar and ordered a beer. This might accidentally be one of her favorite sub jobs.

Beca chuckled at Ashley, and since she was reminiscing about a lost love, she pulled up an old Air Supply song. It would be just as schmaltzy as Dylan suggested, but she figured Jess and Ash would find a way to show off their chops at the same time.

Ashley tossed Beca a glare as she recognized the opening piano riff. “Really?” She looked at Jessica, who was giggling too hard to do anything but wave weakly at Ashley. Rolling her eyes so hard her head hurt, Ashley began.

Here I am
Playing with those memories again
And just when I thought time had set me free
Those thoughts of you keep taunting me

Thankfully, Jessica took the next bit.

Holding you
A feeling I never outgrew
Though each and every part of me has tried
Only you can fill that space inside
So there's no sense pretending
My heart it's not mending

When the chorus began, Ashley sang the main line while Jessica soared with a high harmony.

Just when I thought I was over you
And just when I thought I could stand on my own
Oh baby, those memories come crashing through
And I just can't
Go on without you

Dylan just shook her head, watching from the bar. “People ought to have to pay for this show,” she said to Stephanie.

“Just wait,” Stephanie smirked. “The frat boys will make you think maybe you should get paid to sit here.”

At the end of the song, Jessica kept repeating “without you,” while Ashley lapped “just when I thought I was over you. Just when I thought I could stand on my own.”

When the music finally faded out, Beca leaped to her feet to lead the applause. She spoke into the antique mic she kept backstage. “Ashley Jones and Jessica Smith.” When the applause finally faded, she added, “And now we will take five to let the rest of you brave people sign up. I am not about to let these girls play again until some of you have taken a turn. So, get up here and fill up this clipboard!”

Stacie giggled as Beca used her, Jessica, and Ashley as incentive to get others to sing. She rested her head against Aubrey’s head, still comfy on her girlfriend’s lap. “We should wait until at least the first hour is over, don’t you think?”

Aubrey ran her hand along Stacie’s back, “I suppose it’s polite. But I’m going to devour you when we get upstairs. I’m suddenly starving.”

Beca chuckled and looked over at Dylan, then shrugged as if to say, “I told you so.”

Dylan fanned herself with her hand in response, then raised her beer toward Beca in a toast.

Chapter Text

It took longer than the first hour to break away from the bar, if only for the teasing they kept getting from Ashley and Jessica about Stacie’s song. During a group rendition of American Pie, Stacie finally spirited Aubrey away. She just couldn’t wait any longer. “Come on.” She said urgently as she hurried out of the bar and toward the elevator.

Aubrey followed happily, anxious to get away from the crowd. She wrapped her arms around Stacie’s waist as they waited for the elevator, “Finally.”

“I know,” Stacie groaned, “I thought Ashley was never going to let us leave.” She looked at Aubrey playfully, “So I did okay, Princess?”

Aubrey leaned forward and nuzzled Stacie’s neck, “I should carry around a little fire extinguisher. Everyone in that bar wishes they were me tonight.”

Stacie smiled into Aubrey’s hair. “All I care about is what you think.” The doors finally opened and they stepped into the elevator. Stacie pressed the button to her floor and leaned against the wall. “I can’t wait to see what you think of the renovation.”

“Oh yeah,” Aubrey smiled. “I totally forgot. Somehow you wiped my mind completely, Doc.” She squeezed Stacie’s side with the arm she had around her waist. “I thought they were just checking the structural soundness and such. Do you think they changed much?”

“They also had to futz with the windows. I hope they didn’t change the view. It would be terrible to lose 10-forward.” Stacie teased.

Aubrey’s smile grew wider, “I’m really looking forward to revisiting Star Trek with you, you know. You’re going to mock up a bed sometime, right?”

Stacie nodded although she also blushed slightly. “I think I can do something in the guest room. Rib might get miffed, we won’t be able to use it for honest to god guests. She will also tell me she doesn’t want to hear why.” Stacie laughed. “I’ll work it out.”

“But not tonight,” Aubrey teased as the elevator doors opened and she tugged Stacie toward the apartment. “Tonight you get to be the whole zoo.”

“Mmmm,” Stacie felt her heart beat faster, not only at that thought, but wondering how Aubrey would feel when she entered the living room. She let Aubrey open the door and then playfully pushed her toward the kitchen. “Get some water? I need the ladies room.”

Aubrey giggled and moved toward the kitchen, pausing to watch Stacie for a moment. She was humming under her breath when she turned the corner from the hallway. She stopped short. “Stac,” she meant to call out but her voice was stuck in her throat. She swallowed and tried again. “Stac?”

Stacie was actually just a few steps behind Aubrey, having turned around so she could watch. She stepped closer and slipped an arm around Aubrey’s waist from behind. “Whatcha think, Princess?”

Aubrey’s eyes were riveted on the baby grand piano in the living room, soft light reflected against it and the lights of the city behind. “There’s a piano,” Aubrey said softly. She turned in Stacie’s arms. “You did this?”

Stacie nodded as she smiled softly. “The message said we should let it rest for a few days, and then have it tuned, but you would know best what it needs.” She tilted her head to one side. “Rib asked the music director at OSU to find one for us. It’s not new,” Stacie admitted, “but he said it’s better to be already broken in.”

Aubrey just nodded. “That’s right,” she said softly. “How?” Aubrey put her hand on Stacie’s cheek. “It’s beautiful.”

“Just like you,” Stacie nuzzled Aubrey’s hair. “Go look.” She released her hold on Aubrey.

Aubrey couldn’t hide her grin as she leaned back and looked at Stacie one more time. She walked toward the instrument and paused to place her hand on the side. She looked back at Stacie, “Tell Rib she did really well.”

Aubrey pulled the bench out and stood between it and the keyboard. She gently flipped the key cover up and ran her hands along the keys. It was broken in, but it wasn’t old enough to have yellowed. She played a chord and smiled as the sound reverberated against the windows and back into the room. “The acoustics, Stac,” she said over her shoulder. “Beautiful.”

Stacie leaned against the counter and watched. She didn’t think there was anything that could make her love Aubrey more, but watching the almost reverent way the musician interacted with her piano proved Stacie wrong. She smiled and continued to watch, for once in her life out of words.

Aubrey placed her hands at the low end of the keys, then ran a quick scale through the entire keyboard. She tested the pedals, smiling again as they were firm but not stiff. She nodded as the harmonics once again bounced through the room. Aubrey looked over at Stacie. “C’mere,” she said softly.

Stacie walked closer, her smile still soft. “It suits you,” she replied quietly as she reached the piano.

Aubrey’s eyes shone, “Almost as much as you do.” She patted the bench beside her. “Come sit with me.”

Stacie swallowed past the lump in her throat. She had no idea giving a gift would touch her so. She sat down next to Aubrey, still watching carefully.

Aubrey leaned so her head was on Stacie’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she said in almost a whisper. She sat up and put her shoulders back, her back straight, assuming the posture she’d been taught so many years ago. She arched her fingers above the keys, then leaned forward slightly as she began the soft, meditative melody of Claire de Lune.

Stacie bit her lower lip. She watched as Aubrey’s hands danced over the keys and beautiful music poured out of the piano. It was magic. She blinked back tears.

When she finished, Aubrey turned to Stacie expectantly. “What do you think, Doc?”

“I think you are beautiful,” Stacie whispered and lifted her hand to Aubrey’s cheek. “You are even more beautiful when you play. You should never have to lock that away.” She blinked and a tear trickled down her cheek. “Thank you.”

Aubrey leaned her face into Stacie’s hand and gently wiped the tear from her cheek. “You’ve given me a safe place to open that lock,” she rubbed her thumb lightly on Stacie’s cheek. “Thank you.”

 

Downstairs, Beca was cleaning up her equipment. She smirked at Dylan. “So, what do you think?”

“I think I’m beginning to understand the appeal of karaoke,” Dylan smirked back as she leaned against the sound board. “The only thing missing was the mystery girl you keep trying to pretend isn’t on your mind.”

Beca glanced up, “Yeah. Well, she’s out of town this week.” She started rolling a cord on her arm. “I thought about what you said, that I’m a daytime doll with a nighttime job.” She sighed. “And she’s a nighttime doll.”

“Yeah?” Dylan moved to help with the cords. “What do you think? Am I right?” She smirked, “Because you know I’m right.”

“You’re right,” Beca laughed. She put the cord away. “It doesn’t help my situation, though.” She smiled ruefully. “I really like her, but she wants no strings.” Beca shook her head. “Remember that sleepover in 6th grade?”

Dylan tilted her head, “I have to admit, it’s been a while. Which sleepover are we talking about?”

Beca smirked and threw a twist tie at Dylan. “The one where we talked about music and the musician’s life. Remember, the older band kids were all hooking up.”

Dylan grinned, “I remember. Not too long before we hooked up.” She wiggled her eyebrows at Beca. “Wasn’t it something about you can play all you like as long as you go home with the right person at the end of the night?”

“Yeah, back when I thought I might always go home to you.” Beca nodded with a fond smile. “I think that’s what really makes me a daytime doll. Sky Masterson didn’t want the same girl every night.” Beca shrugged, “Neither does Chloe. She wouldn’t mind more than a single night, but nothing long term.”

Dylan nodded, “Yeah, I think that’s a good comparison. And don’t think I didn’t hear you just admit to being a daytime doll.” She sat on the chair behind the sound board table. “It’s not exactly jealousy, is it? It’s more like there are secrets reserved only for the two of you. I guess by that definition I’m kind of a daytime doll too. I’m out all night, and I can drool over your karaoke doll, but when it comes to real intimacy it’s still reserved for one guy.”

Beca paused and smiled, then turned and looked at Dylan. “Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it. There’s stuff I just don’t wanna share, I want it to be special. The jokes, the pillow talk, more than just the sex…but still it means there is something just between us.” She nodded. “Maybe I’ll find mine some day, the way you found yours.”

“I hope so,” Dylan smiled fondly at Beca. “What’s the plan with the mystery girl, then? You guys just gonna ignore each other now?”

“Nope, too difficult. Did you see the blonde, Aubrey?” Beca started to explain.

“The lucky ass dog who managed to stay half the night with that smoke bomb on her lap?” Dylan chuckled. “I saw her.”

Beca laughed and looked up at ceiling, then back at Dylan. “God, I’ve missed you. So, yeah, that lucky dog is also Chloe’s best friend. That means Chloe’ll at least be here most Thursday nights, flirting almost as well as Stacie.” She smirked, “Who am I kidding. At least as well, depending on taste.”

Dylan shook her head. “You’re a glutton for punishment, Shortstack. So what are you gonna do?” She paused and considered, “She’s a redhead, isn’t she?”

“Yeah.” Beca shrugged. “Still got a thing for them. You made me swear off blondes.” She winked. “I did hear from her today. It was weird.”

“No judging, it’s fine to have a favorite flavor. And of course I did,” Dylan winked mischievously. “She’s not going away, huh? Maybe she’s got a thing for tiny brunettes who think they’re bad asses.”

Beca threw another twist tie at Dylan. “Hey, I am a bad ass.” She thought back over the text messages. “She wanted me to define attached.” Then Beca laughed, “Did I tell you a stray cat adopted me?”

“Conversation whiplash, Mitchell,” Dylan scolded. “You sent me a pic. She’s adorable.”

“Oh, right.” Beca laughed. “Skye swiped some of my eggs while I was texting with Chloe, that’s why I thought of her.”

Dylan nodded and waited. “Attached?”

Beca winced, “Sorry. Yeah, I told Chloe last week that I thought we were a one and done, because I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t get attached. Today she asked me to define it.” Beca laughed, “You did it better, though. I’ll try to remember what you said when we have lunch on Monday.”

“There you go! Lunch on Monday sounds promising. You’ll have to let me know how it goes.” Dylan’s eyes narrowed, “You say she’s a redhead who comes on as strongly as Stacie? Tell me how your intellectual wisdom has really kept you out of her bed so far. I need a lesson in martyrdom.”

“I didn’t say I kept out of her bed entirely.” Beca laughed. “I had,” she paused to count, “at least fifteen glorious hours I will never forget.”

Dylan put her hand on Beca’s back, “Now I’m thinking you need to give me a lesson in stamina. Want any help getting this stuff in the van?”

Beca nodded, “Yeah, thanks.” She stood up and started collecting the equipment. “Thanks for being here, and listening, too.”

“I missed you, Shortstack,” Dylan smiled.

“Missed you too, String Bean.” Beca teased back.

 

Upstairs, Stacie was still feeling quite pleased with herself. Now that she was snuggled in Aubrey’s arms, her eyes turned toward her 10-Forward type windows and looking at stars above the Tulsa skyline, she couldn’t imagine life being any better. Then there was the cherry on top: Aubrey loved the piano. It was worth keeping the impossible secret all week, just in case something went wrong, to see the way Aubrey reacted. She smiled and sighed happily.

Aubrey gently stroked Stacie’s hair, watching the stars twinkle outside Stacie’s wall of windows. They’d never had the curtains open when she’d stayed over before, so the vista was new to her. She thought about the piano, then said softly, “You and Rib kept that a secret from me for how long?”

Stacie yawned. “Sunday.”

“Wow,” Aubrey replied. “I can’t even keep a Christmas present a secret for a couple of weeks sometimes if it’s a really good one. You two are impressive. Because this was a really good one.”

“It’s what we do.” Stacie teased. She cuddled her head against Aubrey’s chest. “We work for the govment.” She giggled

Aubrey chuckled as she stroked Stacie’s hair. “I’ll have to remember that,” she mused. She thought about teasing Stacie that she’d never know what was going on in that pretty little head, but decided that was a better tease for when they were more awake.

“No one has ever given me anything as,” she struggled for the right word, “extravagant before. Extravagantly personal.”

“You saying it’s extra?” Stacie teased. “You’re special. You deserve extra.” She said through another yawn.

Aubrey grinned, “Yeah, extra.” She tilted her head. Why did she feel like she didn’t really deserve extra? She’d always made do with what was enough. Even when she could have afforded to treat herself to something luxurious she had usually chosen the more Spartan option. It reminded her of Stacie’s car. Stacie didn’t seem to have any problem just getting what she really wanted rather than settling for something more practical, maybe less flashy. “How in the world did they get it into the apartment?”

Stacie opened her eyes to look up at Aubrey. “Helicopter and crane. That’s why the windows were out and the floors inspected.”

“Wow,” Aubrey repeated in a whisper. “Did you mention extra? I’m not sure I deserve that much extra.” She looked out at the stars, her brows a little furrowed. “I mean, it’s incredible. A helicopter.” She was quiet for a moment. “What would you have done if the floor wasn’t sturdy enough?”

“Dunno. Paid to have them reinforced, I guess. If it was unsafe, I’d a bought you a house.” Stacie out her head back down. “It’s just money.”

Aubrey shook her head and gave Stacie a squeeze, “I’ve never known anyone like you, Stacie Conrad. I hope I can live up to your generosity.”

Stacie shrugged, “Eh. It’s sitting in an account earning interest. The interest goes to charity. Why not use it on someone I care about?” She looked up, “You would do it if you had it.”

Aubrey looked into Stacie’s eyes and pondered. “For you, I would.” She thought about how she’d buy Stacie the best of anything and expect her to enjoy it without a second thought. Why shouldn’t she accept this gift the way she’d expect Stacie to accept any gift. “For you, I’d climb to the top of the world and hook that shining moon and bring it down to be your own personal night light if you even hinted that would be something that would make you smile.”

“Not just for me.” Stacie shifted positions and kissed Aubrey. “You are just as generous as I am.” She snuggled close. “You’d give Chloe the world.”

Aubrey tilted her head, “Okay. She can have the world. But you get the universe. And I promise you won’t regret moving heaven and earth to bring in that piano. I’ll play for you every day.”

“Shhhhh,” Stacie put a hand up so she could put a finger on Aubrey’s lips. “Play when you want. I have all I need. I saw your face as you met her. That’s all I wanted.” She put her hand back down again. “No owing, no regrets. Just enjoy.”

“I love you, Doc,” Aubrey whispered against the top of Stacie’s head. She would sincerely work on feeling like she was someone who should be pampered this way. If only to honor Stacie’s assertion that she might be.

“Love you, too, Princess.” Stacie looked up, sleepily. “You still worried?”

“Worried you’re sleepy and I keep talking,” she smiled into Stacie’s eyes. “Sleep, love, and I’ll meet you in your dreams.”

Stacie closed her eyes and rested her head on Aubrey’s chest again. “G’night, Princess.”

Chapter Text

Aubrey gave up. She turned over and picked up her phone to begin scrolling through social media. Her eyes burned, but when she closed them the rest of her felt wide awake. She angled the phone so the light wouldn’t shine toward Stacie.

Stacie didn’t open her eyes, but she felt Aubrey moving restlessly. She rolled so she could put her arm across Aubrey’s middle. “What’s up?” She murmured.

“I’m so sorry,” Aubrey muttered. “I didn’t mean to wake you. You have to work in the morning.”

“Eh.” Stacie shrugged, “Work is overrated. Rather help you.” She opened one eye to peer at Aubrey, “Wassup?”

Aubrey sat up against her pillows, “Nothing.” She shrugged. “Everything is fine, I just can’t seem to fall asleep. I thought maybe a tour of social media would help.”

“I’d tell you all about blue light, but I do the same thing.” Stacie laughed at herself. “A documentary?” She rolled over onto her back and then onto her other side to reach for the remote.

“We can try,” Aubrey agreed and tucked in against Stacie’s side while Stacie began to search titles. “I think sometimes I just forget how to fall asleep. Or maybe it’s the schedule change back to both of us working again.”

Stacie nodded and wrapped an arm around Aubrey. “Schedule changes are the worst. I also think I will keep my schedule when I’m on vacation, but I never do. Then the return to work is hard.” She kissed the side of Aubrey’s head. “Science or history?”

Aubrey smirked, “History if we want to sleep.” She drummed her fingers along Stacie’s arm. “And I’ve never heard you say work is overrated. I don’t believe you.”

“It is. I mean, think about it. I get paid obscene amounts of money to do thought experiments. It’s ridiculous.” Stacie shrugged and started searching for a history documentary. “At least experiential archeologists teach people something.” She gestured at the TV. “But people who do the real work like watch and teach kids, or keep us fed, make shit money.” She snorted. “I get treated well because I value people and tip them well.”

“Hm,” Aubrey said softly. “What I mean is you love what you do. So it’s not something you’d blow off lightly.” She watched the program for a moment. “Anyway, your work saves lives, like Roberta. That seems like real work to me.”

Stacie considered, “I suppose I see your point. But only if the thought experiment works.” She sighed, “Lately they haven’t.”

“No? Hit a snag? I’m sure you’ll figure it out, you’re brilliant,” Aubrey smiled.

“Thank for the vote of confidence.” Stacie smiled. “I don’t think the show is gonna work. What do you think about trying an ocean video?”

Aubrey nodded, “Yeah. I’m too chattery.” She looked up at Stacie, “Do you want to talk about the thought experiment that isn’t working? Can you?”

Stacie started searching again. “I fear I don’t know enough about the substrate.” She sighed and let her arm rub Aubrey’s back. “The system works until I place it on the substrate, then it fails.” She looked down at Aubrey, “Did you know gold isn’t gold colored at the atomic level?”

Aubrey shook her head, “I didn’t. What does it look like?”

“The one I was trying to use is purple. I am beginning to wonder if there aren’t other characteristics than color that change at that size. And if there are multiple colors, with multiple behavioral changes, I may need years to weed them out to the one that will work.”

“Wow,” Aubrey said softly. “Years? I can see why that would feel frustrating. I don’t know anything about anything, but do you have to use gold?”

Stacie shrugged, “Maybe not. Gold is used in nanotechnology because it is traditional to use gold in chips. The immutable quality made it perfect. Now I wonder if it perhaps it isn’t immutable at the nano level.” She laughed, “But this is not going to help us sleep.”

Aubrey laughed, “True.” She settled down to watch the ocean waves. “That’s pretty. Thank you.”

“Let’s hope it works. Rib used to make me watch these. The sound was soothing and I could concentrate on watching for the loop in the movie.” Stacie stroked Aubrey’s hair. “Usually, it distracts my brain, watching for the loop. People who use small movements are harder to catch.”

Aubrey watched the video more carefully. “Are they long loops, usually?”

“Depends,” Stacie yawned and started to run her fingers through Aubrey’s hair. “Often not more than a minute or two.”

Aubrey watched for the loop. Stacie’s fingers in her hair were lulling her eyes closed. She yawned and began to relax. “Love you,” she muttered.

Stacie smiled and settled back against the pillows. She turned the timer on the television to one hour and put the remote down. She continued to stroke Aubrey’s hair and murmured back. “Love you.”

The next morning, Aubrey tucked her homemade salad into an insulated lunch box. She called down the hallway to Stacie, “Are you sure you don’t want me to pack a lunch for you for today?”

Stacie walked toward the front room, still brushing her hair. “The apartment has a full kitchen and a restaurant. I’m sure I will think of something.” She walked up and kissed Aubrey on the cheek. “I just can’t think of food this early.”

“I know,” Aubrey leaned against the counter, watching Stacie’s hair catch the early morning light. “It’s hard when we’ve been sleeping in for a week. We’ll get used to it again. I still feel weird not sending you with something.” She glanced around the kitchen, then stood up, “I know!” Aubrey rummaged through the refrigerator and stood up triumphantly holding a small plastic bottle. “A protein drink. That’s got calories and proteins and vitamins. It’s as close to food as you can get without eating real food.” She held the bottle toward Stacie, “And it’s chocolate.”

“How can I say no?” Stacie laughed and accepted the bottle. “And it’s chocolate.” She repeated. “You are adorable.”

Aubrey grinned and set her own lunch on the table. Doofus jumped up to sniff at the lunch box, then rubbed her face against it. “Don’t get me wrong,” Aubrey said softly, “I love my job. But it’s so hard to know we’ll be on different ends of the city all day.”

Stacie put the bottle and brush down so she could wrap Aubrey in a hug. “I know. I really do.” She sighed. “The worst part is I can afford more time off financially.” She chuckled, “But we will both eventually go crazy or drive each other so. At least, I’m afraid we will.” She squeezed Aubrey, “So I will look forward to seeing you at the other end of the day.”

Aubrey squeezed Stacie back, “We’ll have new stuff to tell each other that happened while we were apart, right?”

“Right.” Stacie released the hug and picked up her brush and protein drink. “I better throw my stuff together. Do we have a plan?”

“I thought I’d come to the hotel after work, maybe have a chance to visit a piano that I can just play for a few minutes.” She glanced playfully at Stacie, “And see you, of course. What do you think about room service and a sunset?”

Stacie tucked the last of her things into the bag she used to run back and forth between their apartments. “Delightful.” She walked closer again so she could scratch behind Doofus’ ears. “And back here to sleep after, Doof. No worries. We won’t let you go hungry.”

Aubrey nodded, “She’s gotten spoiled to sleeping on your chest all night, Doc. I’m afraid you’re stuck.”

“Is that right? Here I thought I was your pillow.” Stacie winked and returned to pick up her bag. “Guess we better get moving.”

“Right,” Aubrey sighed. “You going to walk to the hotel? Want me to drop you off?”

“Isn’t it out of your way?” Stacie hesitated.

“It’s just a few blocks,” Aubrey laughed and held the door open. “Door to door service and just a couple more stolen moments with you before I have to fight the crosstown traffic. Don’t forget your protein drink.”

“I have it right here,” Stacie laughed and lifted the drink in her hand. She walked passed Aubrey, pausing long enough to stop Doofus from running out. Tossing the cat onto the condo near the door, she hurried out to let Aubrey lock up. Then she finally got to tease, “Prettiest door woman ever.”

Aubrey grinned and shut the door, following Stacie, “Best view ever.”

Stacie laughed and sashayed her way down the stairs. “Careful, Princess. I may make you call in yet.”

Aubrey chuckled, “Just storing it all away for later this evening.”

It didn’t take long to arrive in front of the Mayo. One of the valets held the door while Stacie kissed Aubrey goodbye and then got out of the car. She waved and watched Aubrey drive away before finally thanking the valet and entering the building. On her way upstairs, she started planning her day. First things first, she needed another shower and another cup of coffee. Neither had been long enough or jarring enough to make her feel like she was really awake.

She entered her apartment, dropped her bag by the front door and headed into the kitchen. She put the protein drink in the fridge and started a pot of coffee. She returned to her bag, tossed it into her bedroom, found a change of clothes and headed into the shower. The coffee was ready by the time she finished. Once again, she was walking down a hallway, brushing her hair. She wished someone was waiting at the other end, but not this time. Instead, she poured her coffee and leaned on the counter. Her eyes were drawn again to the piano. She smiled as she remembered how pleased Aubrey had been. Then she shook her head. She had to get back to the program.

With a sigh, she took her coffee back to the locked office, used her palm to disengage the lock and stepped into the dark space she’d last visited over a week ago. She locked the door behind her, sat down, engaged the facial recognition software that opened the computer and sipped at her coffee while it loaded. As she’d remembered, the last attempt at a sensor array on a single atom of gold had failed. Something was interfering with the process. She put her cup down and started to dismantle this system. The answer had to be here somewhere.

 

Aubrey finished her job in Owasso and hopped on the highway. She had at least a 45-minute drive to get to Bixby. She sighed as she flipped through commercial after commercial on the radio. Finally, she punched the radio off, hit a button on her steering wheel, and said “Call Mack.”

“Look who’s back among the living!” Mack’s voice boomed over the speaker.

Aubrey grinned and shook her head, “It was only a week! What have I missed?”

Mack snorted. “Talking to me. I woulda thought your girl would have let you up for air at least once in eleven days.”

“Mack,” Aubrey scolded lightly, feeling her cheeks redden. “I guess I did sort of lose track of time. It was a glorious 11 days, though. Want the details?”

“No, no,” Mack laughed loudly. “Save an old man’s imagination. Just tell me you are happy.”

Aubrey giggled, “That’s what I thought. Yes sir, I’m happy. How was your week, though? Really?” Aubrey merged to catch her exit just in time, grateful the highways tended to be clear this time of morning.

Mack grumbled about irritating music directors and children pouring soda pop on piano keys. “You know, the usual.” He closed with an irritated chuckle.

“No respect,” Aubrey commiserated. “I got a surprise the other day, I think you’ll want to see it,” her voice became light again.

“Oh, yeah?” Mack’s mood changed instantly.

“Yeah,” Aubrey smiled. “Stacie had a nicely seasoned gorgeous baby grand installed at her apartment. You should hear the acoustics in there. Just as good as any of the churches around here.”

Mack was quiet for a moment, “Summit Club 31st floor came up on estate recently. Sweet instrument if it’s the one you got. I’d love to see it.”

“It could be. It’s definitely that kind of quality. Summit Club, no less,” Aubrey whistled softly. “You really must, and soon. Look it over for me, check for damages from the move. Maybe we can play a little four hand piece,” she chuckled. “Perhaps in the few minutes you’re not distracted by the instrument you can say hi to Stacie, too,” she teased.

“I’d like that. Anyone who can get you thinking about playing again is okay in my book. You let me know when a good time is. You know I’ll fit you in.” Then Mack teased, “Not that you need my approval for the piano or the girl.”

“Yet it’s strangely comforting to have,” Aubrey smiled softly. “I’ll check with Stacie and let you know. I did miss you, Mack.”

Mack chuckled quietly. “Always love talking to you, Keys. None of the kids live local any more. It’s nice to have another person’s point of view.”

“You know you can call any time,” Aubrey was still smiling. “I’m pulling in at Bixby. Thanks for keeping me company.”

“My pleasure. Be safe, have fun.” Mack closed the connection.

 

Stacie was re-reading for the twentieth time a paper on the properties of gold at atomic sizes when the screen saver popped up. She groaned and reached for her phone to take it off do not disturb. “Yes, Rib.”

“Clock says you’ve been nonstop for almost five hours.” Roberta said pleasantly, “Take a walk, Stacie.”

Stacie grumbled but stood up and headed to the kitchen. Once again, she saw the piano and smiled. “Aubrey loved it.”

Roberta laughed, “I assume you mean the piano. I hope she plans to tune it.”

“She does. She is even talking about having her boss come and check it out.” Stacie smiled at that thought too; she was finally going to meet Mack. She opened the fridge, knowing Rib would ask about food and saw the drink Aubrey had given her. “Having a protein drink, Rib. 15 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and a bunch of minerals and vitamins.”

“It’s better than nothing, but I doubt it’s more than a couple hundred calories. Make sure you do more than coffee the rest of the day, kiddo.” Roberta reprimanded.

Stacie nodded, “I’m having dinner with Aubrey. We haven’t decided where or what, but I promise to eat. Can I go back to work now?”

Roberta laughed. “I’m gonna need to call Aubrey and gang up on you, I can tell.”

“Don’t you dare.” Stacie laughed. “Aubrey needs to get her work done, too. She feels better when she works.”

“You’ll have to tell me about that later. I need to get back to the lab. Remember to take breaks and I won’t have to shut you down.” Roberta said gently.

Stacie sighed, “I know. I just can’t figure out what is making the sensor fail. It’s not the size, it worked fine on its own. It must be interference from the gold. But I can’t see why.”

Roberta softened her tone. “You will find it, Stacie. We have no rush on this job. We are years away from implementation. Take your time.”

“It’s so frustrating.” Stacie admitted.

“You’ll find it,” Roberta repeated. “Talk a walk downstairs or something. I’ll release the computer. But don’t hurry back.”

Stacie sighed again. “Ok. Love ya.”

“Back atcha,” Roberta replied and closed the connection.

Stacie leaned on the counter and looked at the piano. “Yeah, I wish she was here, too.”

Chapter Text

Chloe sat in her car in the Baxter’s parking lot. It was 3:50, but she saw Beca’s car already in the lot. She took a deep breath. She’d decided. Whatever it takes to keep getting to see Beca. She nodded and checked her lipstick in the mirror, trying not to think about how Beca had smudged that same shade leaning against the car only a couple of weeks ago.

Beca sat fidgeting at the table. First she’d pick up her fork, then put it down. She put the napkin in her lap, then refolded it and put it on the table. She smiled nervously as Alyssa brought the chips and ranch along with a cold Smithwicks. “Thanks.”

Alyssa nodded and smiled, wondering what the hell was going on. She’d never seen Beca look so nervous.

Chloe walked into the dark lobby and waited a second for her eyes to adjust. She smiled as she saw Beca at a table along the back wall. “Hey, Alyssa,” Chloe beamed when the hostess came to greet her. “I see my date.” Chloe walked up to Beca’s table and held her arm out for a hug. “It’s really good to see you, Beca. A week and a half feels like forever.”

Beca scooted out of the booth and stood for the hug. She relaxed. Somehow, she’d gotten into her head that Chloe was mad, but she didn’t seem mad. “It’s good to see you, too.” Beca smiled. “I wasn’t sure what drink to order.” She gestured half apologetically at her untouched beer.

Alyssa followed Chloe toward the table. “What can I get you?” She tried not to smirk, realizing now Beca’s problem.

Chloe smiled and sat down, looking from one to the other. “Vodka tonic this afternoon. Tall, rocks pour.” She looked at Beca, “You were so sure last time.”

“Yeah,” Beca ran a hand through her hair. “I’ve been kinda stuck in my head. I,” she laughed ruefully, “I thought you might be mad at me.”

“Mad at you?” Chloe stared at Beca with confusion. “Why in the world would I be mad at you?” Her gaze intensified, “Are you mad at me?”

“Hell, no.” Beca groaned and sat down. “A, I never saw you order a well drink, so I woulda got that wrong. 2, When you walked out it sorta felt like you were saying goodbye.” She winced. “I wasn’t sure you’d ever wanna talk to me again. Then you texted, and I dunno, I guess I’m just all screwed up.” She held up both hands in a half shrug. “Can I just be glad to see you?”

Chloe put her hand on the table, palm up. “Fresh start?” She raised an eyebrow, “To be honest I didn’t think of the well drink until I sat down. It felt a little, I dunno, tense in here. Your original Chardonnay would have been just as nice.”

Beca placed her hand in Chloe’s “Fresh start. Hi, my name’s Beca Mitchell. It’s nice to meet you.” She smiled shyly.

Chloe smiled brightly. “Chloe Beale. Hey Beca, do you like questions?”

Beca laughed and her shoulders relaxed some more. “Funny you should ask. I love questions.”

Alyssa arrived with the drink. “Give you guys some time or can I take an order?”

Beca looked at Chloe for guidance. Last time it had been her invite, this time it was Chloe’s.

Chloe winked at Beca, then at Alyssa, “Let’s go for it. But give us a few minutes before you bring them out? There’s no hurry tonight. Steak sandwich for me, same as always. Medium rare.” She looked back to Beca. “Hungry?”

“Mushroom Swiss burger, well done. No need for fries, just keep the chips coming.” Beca grinned.

Alyssa nodded and winked at Beca as she walked away.

Beca held up her beer. “First question. Favorite restaurant in Tulsa?”

Chloe grinned and raised her own glass, “Are we not here?”

Beca touched her glass to Chloe’s. “Touché. I preferred Crow Creek for sheer volume of food, but since they closed, no one else is a close second.”

“Oh yeah, second sip for the loss of Crow Creek. That bar was a party even on a weeknight. And the god damn burgers,” Chloe sighed. “I guess nothing is forever, huh?”

“Guess not,” Beca kicked herself for causing a shadow to cross Chloe’s face. “Your turn.” She sipped again.

Chloe set her drink down and looked across the table, “Who’s the blonde bombshell that’s been tagging along on your gigs? She plays a mean sax and I know for a fact I’ve never seen her around.”

Beca felt the slow smile that usually crossed her features when she was with Chloe. “How do you know about her?”

Chloe blushed slightly, “It’s the age of the internet, Mitchell. I’m pretty good at Googling. Don’t you know you have a YouTube following?”

“I do?” Beca laughed. “No, I didn’t. I never Google myself. Ew.” She blushed. “To answer your question, her name is Dylan. We’ve known each other since kindergarten. She just moved back from Chicago recently.”

“Well she’s gorgeous and talented,” Chloe began, then stopped. “You were off to meet with Dylan after karaoke, right?”

Beca nodded, “She agreed to sit in with me Friday night. We had to go over charts.”

Chloe nodded, “Must have been something in the water when y’all were growing up. Talent and beauty.” She took a sip, then swirled a chip in the ranch dressing. “I believe it’s your turn?”

“Ha, she got all the height though,” Beca made her own short joke. “Let’s see.” She studied Chloe. “By the way you have a lovely glow about you. Whatever have you been up to?” She smirked.

Chloe tossed a small chip at Beca. “You know damn well and you also promised a compliment,” she smirked.

“Hey!” Beca yelped. “I just gave you one. I said you have a lovely glow.” She grinned, “Shall I include your eyes are bright and your hair is gorgeous?”

“Yes,” Chloe preened. And my nails.” She held her hand out toward Beca, wiggling her fingers.

Beca smiled fondly. “Lovely. All of you.” Then she narrowed her eyes. “But if we started over, I don’t know what you’ve been doing, right?” She blinked innocently afterwards.

Chloe chewed on her lip, “Maybe it’s not starting entirely over. You’re more relaxed, though, and I’ve heard that laugh more than once, so it’s a good start.”

“It is.” Beca nodded. Before she could come up with another question, Alyssa walked by.

“Time for food or another round?” Alyssa asked.

Chloe looked at Beca, “Ready?”

Beca nodded. “Sure.” She looked at her half empty glass. “I could do with another, save you multiple trips.”

Alyssa nodded back and looked at Chloe.

“Same,” Chloe gave Alyssa a winning smile and took a deep sip of her drink.

Alyssa grinned and headed off to put in the order.

Beca tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Do you do spa weeks often?”

Chloe chuckled and shook her head, “More like never. Week before last was kind of rough, I guess.” Her eyes watched as she spun the straw in her drink, “I guess more than just that week. Anyway,” she rallied, “Aubrey thought it would be a good idea to run away and clear my head a bit. Aubrey rarely makes such straightforward recommendations, so I almost always follow them.”

Beca tilted her head to one side. “I hope I didn’t make things worse. I wish,” she smiled, “I wish I was better at this stuff.”

Chloe shrugged, “You, sweet Beca, have always been a perfect gentleman.” She rubbed her hands together as the food and fresh drinks arrived, “Why do other restaurants even bother?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Beca grinned as she eyed the new bowl of chips and the mushroom Swiss cheese burger. “Thanks Alyssa!” She smiled at the waitress who nodded and walked away. “So do you have another question for me?” She picked up the burger and took a bite.

Chloe considered, watching Beca dive straight into her burger. Chloe, on the other hand, had already begun separating out the pieces of her meal so she could reassemble them into the bites she wanted. “Questions. Let’s see. Have you ever been on a spa retreat?”

Beca shook her head while she chewed. “Nope” she managed after she swallowed. “You might have noticed I only do the dress up thing for work,” she laughed and looked down at her tank top, purple plaid and skinny jeans. “Piano ruins my nails, so I can’t even keep them long.” She lifted her right hand to prove the point. Then she smirked, “Among other reasons.”

Chloe returned the smirk, “For which I have been grateful in the not so distant past.” She considered her own fresh manicure, “You may have noticed how beautiful and yet blunt mine are.”

“Appreciated, let me assure you.” Beca winked. “So, what are you doing to your food? I am perplexed.” She pointed at Chloe’s plate. “Are you someone who doesn’t like stuff to touch other stuff?”

Chloe savored that wink for a moment before replying. “It can touch,” she shrugged. “But I like to arrange it so I get every flavor in every bite. It doesn’t usually come that way.” She pointed to the half of the sandwich she hadn’t fixed yet and how the steak had already slid out from under the lettuce and tomato. “I like it the way I like it, I suppose.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Beca hurried to reassure her. “Dylan doesn’t like stuff. She wants her burger and her salad on different plates, thank you very much.” Beca chuckled. “She also likes things the way she likes them.” Beca looked at the ceiling, “Why do I keep finding strong willed women?” She glanced back at Chloe, a teasing smile on her face.

Chloe forgot the tease she’d been preparing. “You and Dylan?” Her eyes danced playfully, “Does she like your piano hands too?”

Beca laughed, “I played clarinet back when we were in jazz band. I didn’t play piano outside of a practice room until I was a sophomore. My band director discovered,” Beca used air quotes, “that I could play and suddenly I had no time of my own until I moved to LA.”

Chloe laughed out loud, “Okay one of my new favorite things is how you don’t answer direct questions.” She grinned, “Are you doing Dylan? I’m not asking because I’m jealous, I’m asking because I think it’s kind of hot if you are. Except do you need a step stool to kiss her properly?”

“No boundaries, huh Beale?” Beca’s eyes twinkled. “No, I’m not doing Dylan. Last time we even thought about kissing she was only five inches taller than me rather than nine.” She tilted her head to one side, “I could ask her husband for permission if you’d like.”

Chloe laughed even harder. “Fair enough.” She smirked, “A girl has to ask, right? And as I remember things it was that rascally left hand I cared about more than the right.”

Beca laughed back. “Oh, I am strikingly left handed in certain areas.”

Chloe’s eyes flashed as she took another bite. “Do tell.”

Beca held up the burger in her left hand. “I hold anything important in my left.” She smirked.

Chloe tilted her head and looked at Beca sideways, “You,” she started, then turned to look at Beca more seriously. “You are all I’ve been able to think about this week.”

Beca swallowed. She wasn’t sure what to say at the sudden change of subject. She licked her lower lip. “I’ve missed you.” She finally managed to say.

Chloe nodded and sat back, playing with her straw again. This was the delicate part. “I’ve been thinking,” she began, watching Beca’s face carefully, “I think I would like some ground rules. End game being I don’t want to stop seeing you.”

Once again, Beca felt that slow smile. “Okay, what sort of ground rules?”

Chloe shifted in her seat, “Here’s the thing, I’ve never had rules. Except the one, no strings. But damn if I’m not sitting here ready to give you that too. You’re in control, Beca. I don’t want to stop seeing you. The rules are up to you.”

Beca blinked and then bit her lower lip. “Okay, um, let me think.” She was quiet while she nibbled on a chip and then took a sip of her beer. “I really suck at talking about this stuff.” She took a deep breath. “I really like you. But now that I know,” she closed her eyes, “now that we’ve been intimate, it’s hard for me to think about someone else holding you. That’s…” she opened her eyes to look at Chloe, “but I can’t ask you to stop. That’s not fair to you.”

Chloe nodded, “Okay. It’s a negotiation, I’m gonna think on that.” She smiled over her drink and then took a long time chewing her last bite of sandwich. “Plenty of people have held you previously, correct?”

“Plenty may be an exaggeration, but I’m no virgin,” Beca laughed.

Chloe smiled, “Don’t I know that’s the truth. Still thinking I owe Dylan a thank you for some unmentionable things.” She looked away, deep in thought. “Okay. If I’m only sleeping with you, but sometimes have another date, how does that fit?”

Beca nodded, “As long as I don’t share my bed with anyone but you, I get you will need to spend time with other dates, for business if nothing else.” She tilted her head to one side. “But you just said you had a rough couple of weeks, so bad that Aubrey suggested you take a retreat. Maybe I was a bright spot just because the rest sucked.” She blushed. “Maybe we should stay this way,” she gestured to the restaurant and table, “while you see if your other options….” She trailed off.

Chloe’s eyes narrowed. “I only get to see you over ranch and chips?”

Beca sighed, “No, but maybe we should hold off on sleeping together until you are sure you don’t want someone else. You were quite happy with that life until two weeks of shit dates, during which I was a bright spot. Not a very high bar, Chlo.” She shrugged.

Chloe tilted her head. “You have no idea, darlin.” She nodded slowly. “Okay, I can deal with that. If I get to verbally spar with you on a regular basis and I also have the fine opportunity to go out with strays and losers then I am willing to give it a shot. I’d rather have public you without private you if it means I get any of you at all.”

“I just want you to be sure.” Beca sighed. “I don’t wanna be Sister Sarah.”

“Sorry,” Chloe glanced up at Beca. “I’m now begging you to please not join a convent.”

Beca shook her head. “Dylan says I’m a daytime doll with a night time job and you’re a nightime doll with a daytime job.” She shrugged, “Guys and Dolls.”

“That is a show I’m familiar with,” Chloe nodded and her eyes focused piercingly on Beca. “Chemistry.”

“Yeah, chemistry.” Beca smiled again, her eyes gazing fondly at Chloe. “But Adelaide and Sarah wanted their guys to change. I don’t want you to change. I want you to be you.” She covered her face, “God I suck at this.”

Chloe softened as she reached to pull Beca’s hands down. “You don’t. I’m not 100% clear on the daytime doll night time doll stuff, but I’m clear on how I get to keep gazing into your darkest of deep blue eyes. We’ll date. We’ll be crazy teenagers and close down the fair and embarrass people at the movies and never take our clothes off until we both agree it’s a good thing to do. What do you think, Beca? Will you go steady with me?”

Beca felt that slow smile, reserved for Chloe, occur for the third time during this meal. “I would love to go steady, Chloe Beale.” She laughed quietly, “You make me smile like no one else.”

Chloe’s heart soared at Beca’s slow smile. Her eyes twinkled, watching the way Beca’s eyes sparkled. “For the record,” she grew serious once more, “parking lot kisses are totally allowed.”

“No argument.” Beca nodded. “Wait,” Beca blinked, “you can’t date other people if we are going steady, right? What else can we call it?”

“I’m not dating …” Chloe trailed off. “Shit. I do have a guy who is expecting a date.” She looked helplessly at Beca. “What can we call it?”

Beca considered, “we promise to go steady…someday? Or sparking. Seven brides for seven brothers.” Beca laughed out loud.

“Someday,” Chloe rolled it around in her brain. “You know I live in a world where tomorrow is another day, like Scarlett?” Her cheeks colored a bit, “And you should also know, because it’s fair, that I have a someday that involves the two of us thoroughly living our amusement park weekend as just life.”

Beca’s laugh died out. She looked steadily in Chloe’s eyes. “I would love to make you as happy as I was that weekend, every day.”

Chloe nodded. “So sparking. We’ll spark until we catch fire,” she raised her glass.

Beca touched her glass to Chloe’s, hoping against hope this wasn’t just a reaction to being away but was real. Beca knew she was already a goner.

“Next date is yours to plan,” Chloe winked across the table. “But I’m serious about that parking lot kiss.”

“Wouldn’t dream of disappointing you.” Beca replied.

Chapter Text

Stacie sighed and slapped her phone quiet again. She didn’t want to hear it was time for this or that. She wanted to know what was interfering with her sensor arrays. She scrubbed her face with both hands, trying to clear her mind, and then placed her hands over her eyes to rest them for a moment. There had to be an answer.

Aubrey slid her card key into the lock and couldn’t help smiling at how she still felt kind of like a spy sneaking into a secret lair. She dropped her purse on the kitchen counter and smiled across the room at the piano. “Hey, Doc,” she called toward the bedroom. “I’m home!”

Aubrey pulled a bottle of water from the fridge and walked to the back of the apartment when there was no answer. “If you’re in the shower I might need to wash your back,” she said loudly as she turned into the bedroom doorway. It was silent too, however. Aubrey pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed Stacie’s number.

Stacie looked at the phone with irritation, and then recognized the song as the tone she assigned to Aubrey. She hurriedly grabbed the phone. “Hey, Princess.”

“There you are,” Aubrey relaxed. “But where? Did you go downstairs for some reason? I know you’re not still working.”

Stacie winced, “I’m just shutting down.” She hurriedly hit save and stood up, walking to the office door. She opened it, trusting the computer to shut down as she slipped into the hallway.

Aubrey stepped into the hallway just in time to catch Stacie as she left the office. “There you are!” Aubrey grinned as she repeated the phrase. She snagged Stacie’s hand and pulled her in for a hello kiss. “Missed you today.”

Stacie melted against Aubrey and snaked a hand behind Aubrey’s neck. “Oh my god I missed you so much,” Stacie laughed. “It’s so good to see you.”

“Yeah,” Aubrey sighed happily. “Did I interrupt something important, though?” She suddenly worried.

“No,” Stacie sounded defeated. “I’m still stuck. Rib says there is no hurry, but I can’t figure out what the trouble is.” She put her head on Aubrey’s shoulder. “I don’t wanna think about it for a little while.”

Aubrey held Stacie close and swayed her back and forth gently, “All you have to think about is me, dinner, and a sunset, love. And what you want me to play for you while we wait for the food.”

Stacie smiled, “But I haven’t even ordered.” She sighed. “Um, what do you want?”

Aubrey chuckled and dropped her hand to take Stacie’s, “Come on, let’s look at the menu. I’m feeling mushrooms for sure. Pasta?”

“Ohhh, yes!” Stacie hurried to the hotel phone. “Alfredo? With broccoli?” She smiled at Aubrey, “They have a special recipe for me. No spices, no extra stuff. Just Parmesan, Alfredo and broccoli. And of course the mushrooms.”

“That sounds perfect,” Aubrey nodded. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” She looked sideways at Stacie, “Well, you know. Not really. But hungry.”

Stacie snorted. “I cannot imagine you ever eating an animal.” She picked up the phone and waited for someone to answer. “Hi Stephanie. Stacie Conrad. Can I have an order of mushrooms and two orders of Alfredo special order? Antonio knows.” Stacie tossed a look at Aubrey and smiled. “No, I’m fine. Just want something tame tonight.” She nodded and listened. “Yes, tell Antonio I am fine. I just miss his special, okay? Yes. Thank you. Oh, yes, Yellowtail please.” Stacie rolled her eyes. “Perfect. Thanks Stephanie. Yes, we plan to be there Thursday. Okay, see you then. Okay. Thanks!” Stacie finally hung up. “Oh my god she is chatty!”

Aubrey had leaned her elbow on the counter and her head on her elbow as she watched Stacie place the call. “She seemed awfully worried about your well being,” she tilted her head. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Stacie walked over and wrapped her arms around Aubrey. “Antonio developed the special order when I was having a lot of headaches. I needed something that didn’t upset my stomach. You’ll see. He really is magical. Full of flavor, but doesn’t feel too rich or too heavy.” She squeezed Aubrey, “I said it’s Parmesan and Alfredo, but I can’t promise. It’s what it tastes like. But whatever he does to the sauce it’s perfect.”

“No headache now, though?” Aubrey leaned back and looked into Stacie’s eyes. “You’d tell me, right? I would love to take care of you.”

Stacie smiled softly. “No headache, I promise. I’m tired,” she admitted, “and frustrated, but no headache.” Stacie leaned forward and kissed Aubrey on the nose. “Now, enough about me. That’s boring. How did your day go?”

Aubrey smiled and shrugged, “School band practice rooms are the underbelly of the musical experience, but the pianos must be in tune so I hold my nose and answer the call.” She grinned. “Let me play your fabulous piano to help me recover. Anything you want to hear?”

“Anything.” Stacie smiled and reluctantly released Aubrey. “I wouldn’t know what anything is called so I couldn’t be specific.” She tangled her fingers with Aubrey’s for a moment, “Just let me enjoy you enjoying the piano?”

“You have to sit with me, muse.” Aubrey pulled Stacie toward the piano bench. “I’ve discovered it’s really fun to feel you beside me.”

Stacie bit her lower lip to keep from beaming. She didn’t want to admit she’d loved sitting beside Aubrey on the bench. She let Aubrey pull her along and sat as she had before, to watch.

Aubrey smiled over at Stacie and played a few random chords just to get comfortable. She leaned close for a quick kiss, then settled with her fingers arched over the keys, addressing the piano for real. Aubrey leaned forward as she began the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. She seemed lost in the music, but she never lost track of the way Stacie responded as she played. The instrument was wonderful, but sharing it with Stacie was divine. When the last chord echoed to silence she relaxed and looked over at her girl, her eyebrows raised as if to ask if it was okay.

Stacie leaned her head over, resting it on Aubrey’s shoulder just as her hand rested on Aubrey’s leg. “That was beautiful.” She sighed.

“You’re beautiful,” Aubrey replied easily. “I’ll thank you every day, you know.”

“And I’ll thank you,” Stacie laughed. “You make it possible to get out of my head. Even for a little while. You remind me there is life outside of the nanosphere.”

A knock at the door broke the spell. “Food!” Aubrey grinned. “Just in time. The sun should start sinking just as we finish eating.” She hopped to her feet to answer the door.

The waiter rolling in the tray looked back and forth between the two women, “Conrad?”

Stacie laughed, “That’s me.” She stepped forward to sign the charge. “But either of us can sign.”

“Antonio said he saved two more servings in the fridge in case you need it tomorrow.” The waiter smiled nervously. “He has the day off.”

“Thank you,” Stacie looked at the waiter’s name tag, “Robbie. I appreciate your service and tell Antonio he is the best.” She walked over to a table and pulled out some cash. “One for you and one for Antonio. Okay?”

Robbie looked down at the fifty. “Yes, ma’am!”

Stacie winked, “Our secret, no taxes.”

“Yes ma’am.” Robbie tucked both bills into different pockets. “I won’t forget.” He touched his head like he was used to tipping a cap and smiled at Aubrey before he left.

Aubrey watched the exchange, charmed. “You are a generous soul, Dr. Conrad. Antonio is really worried, though, making extra for tomorrow. Those headaches must be awful.”

Stacie sighed, “I get migraines. The postdrome can be up to three days.” She shrugged and headed over to the cart. “And I tip well. Do you want to pour out? And at the table or on the sofa? If it was cooler we could use the balcony, but I think it’s too hot.”

Aubrey watched as Stacie brushed off the compliment, and worried a little about the migraines. She stepped closer to Stacie and put her hand on the side of Stacie’s head. “You are generous. And let me know the first time you feel a flicker of pain. Okay?”

“Okay.” Stacie took a deep breath. “It’s been, I dunno, almost a year since the last bad one.” She looked at Aubrey, eyes almost begging, “Can’t we just enjoy the night?”

“Of course,” Aubrey stepped back. “You do the honors,” she gestured toward the kitchen counter. “I’ll pour the wine.” She glanced quickly up at Stacie again and then concentrated on placing the glasses and filling them. “Sorry if I poked too much.”

Stacie put the food trays on the coffee table with a sigh. She walked into the kitchen and put her hand on the bottle until Aubrey stopped moving. Stacie took the bottle out of Aubrey’s hand and put it on the table. “Please.” She waited until Aubrey met her eyes. “You have standing permission to poke.” Stacie took a deep breath. “I over work. I forget to eat. I run myself in circles. I have since Rib got sick. She keeps telling me to slow down.” She held both of Aubrey’s hands. “I’m to take breaks, go out to make friends, remember to rest. And I suck at it.” She looked down. “If I obey, I may be able to avoid those damn migraines forever. But I,” she reached up to cup Aubrey’s cheek. “But you, you remind me. Just being here, I can forget the projects, the puzzles, the pressure to beat another scientist to the patent.” She tilted her head to one side. “Poke away.”

Aubrey’s eyes were serious as she listened, and she turned to kiss Stacie’s hand on her cheek. When she turned her eyes back they were full of mischief. She poked her finger into Stacie’s side playfully. “I’ve never checked to see if you’re ticklish, Doc.” Another quick poke, this time gently into Stacie’s other side.

Stacie laughed as she tried to dance away, but the breakfast bar was in the way. She wriggled and laughed harder. “Stop! Don’t knock the wine over,” she gasped. “Party foul!”

Aubrey was giggling. She pulled Stacie in for a hug and leaned away from the counter in an exaggerated way, “Save the wine!”

Stacie buried her head into Aubrey’s hair, still giggling. “God, I love you.”

Aubrey held Stacie tightly, “I love you so.” She held her for a few long minutes, breathing her in, then dropped her arms. “Are you going to feed me before the sun goes down?”

Stacie pointed at the sofa. “I’ll bring the wine and flatware. Take the lids off and take a whiff. Tell me what you think.”

Aubrey followed instructions and breathed deeply. “I’m beginning to appreciate your Antonio,” she said in a low voice. “Did I mention I’m starving?”

Stacie placed the glasses on the coffee table and handed over a fork and napkin. Then she crossed to the wall and pressed the button that opened the curtains. The wall of windows was exposed so the late evening sun was still glistening on the river. Stacie walked back. “I gotta rig up a remote.” She sat next to Aubrey and picked up her glass. “To Antonio!”

Aubrey raised her glass, “Antonio.” She took a sip, watching Stacie again. “You know what kills me is you can do that. Just rig a remote. Tell me, Doc,” Aubrey leaned toward Stacie, “where are you going to build our sick bay?”

“Didn’t I mention?” Stacie’s eyes danced as she put down her glass and moved a mushroom onto Aubrey’s plate before adding one to her own. “The guest room. In three years, the only time I had a guest was Roberta the last time I had the damn migraine. When we host, people prefer to bring families and have their own rooms.”

Aubrey’s eyes danced. “Do I get to help with the build, or is it supposed to be a surprise?”

Stacie laughed and shook her finger at Aubrey, “What about the other kind of hungry you’ve been moaning about, Princess?”

“Right,” Aubrey’s eyes never left Stacie’s. “I should eat.” She winked and picked up her fork. “Oh this tastes as heavenly as it smells. You are delighting every single one of my senses this evening, my love.”

“I’ll focus on a few more in a little while,” Stacie winked as she lifted her own fork to enjoy the mushroom. She looked out the window. “Just turning pink.” She gestured. “Sorry we didn’t finish in time to cuddle while it went down.”

“This is fine,” Aubrey smiled and glanced at Stacie again. “You know the best part? The sun sets every single day.”

Stacie returned her gaze to Aubrey, “No, the best part is I get to share them with you.”

Aubrey blushed a little and raised her glass again, “To the daily and perpetual sunset.”

Stacie touched her glass to Aubrey’s and sipped at her wine before returning her attention to dinner.

Once they had finished eating, Stacie took the cart out to the hall. “What next, love? Another drink? Or should we consider the walk back to your place?”

Aubrey looked over the back of the couch at Stacie. “Pour out another? Even if the sunset is passed I’d still like to snuggle with you and watch the lights and stars. Doofus will be okay for one night. What do you think?”

Stacie paused in the kitchen long enough to grab the wine from the fridge. “I noticed you have an ingenious gadget that seems to keep her fed and watered. She might miss the snuggles but she might enjoy having the entire bed to herself.” Stacie walked to the sofa and poured the remaining wine into the two glasses.

“True, we may have to fight her for it tomorrow night. But she’s a sucker for your lap, so I’ll bet we can make it work.” Aubrey sipped from her glass and held out her arm across the back of the couch. “Look,” she pointed across the river, “the refineries are shooting flames tonight.”

“It smells awful, but looks majestic. Like they are dragons preparing for a battle.” Stacie curled up next to Aubrey and leaned against her. “Do you like dragons?”

“I escaped into Pern whenever I could growing up,” Aubrey replied wistfully. “Dragons and I go way back. You?”

Stacie nodded and sipped her wine glass. “Me, too. I wasn’t allowed to read Pern in high school, but I devoured it when I was supposed to be sleeping in college.” She tilted her head to one side, “I always wondered if I could make klah. Especially since I can’t own a fire lizard.”

“Oh a fire lizard would be so cool, wouldn’t it?” Aubrey grew quiet. “Klah is cinnamon coffee, from what I understand. I could try to concoct it in the morning if you like,” Aubrey leaned to kiss Stacie’s head. “I’d never thought of making it for real.”

Stacie leaned her head against Aubrey’s shoulder. “So who listened to my dreams and brought you to me?”

Aubrey stroked Stacie’s hair. “If you find them thank them for bringing you to me,” she whispered.

“I will.” Stacie lifted her head and looked into Aubrey’s eyes. “So we have spent most of the night worried about my health. What about you?”

“Me?” Aubrey’s eyebrows shot up. “Insomnia and anxiety are the banes of my existence. You put me to sleep in less than half an hour the other night,” Aubrey shrugged. “The anxiety is the wild card, I never really know when the panic will rear its ugly head.”

A very slow smile spread across Stacie’s face, “But don’t you see? That’s what has me worried.”

“Worried? About what?” Aubrey paused with her hand on Stacie’s hair.

“You fell asleep. I was talking about gold as a substrate, matrices, sensor arrays…and you fell asleep.” Stacie was barely able to contain her laughter.

Aubrey threw her head back and laughed, “You little vixen. Sneaking sexy science talk to me when I’m already mostly asleep.” She moved a hand to wiggle her fingers against Stacie’s ticklish ribs. “I’m not sleepy now, though.”

Stacie wiggled and sloshed her wine. “Party Foul!” She giggled and laughed.

Aubrey leaned to lick the wine from Stacie’s arm. “May be salvageable?” She glanced up at Stacie playfully.

Stacie’s eyes danced. Very slowly and very carefully, she dipped her finger into her wine and then used that finger to trace Aubrey’s jaw. She followed, kissing and lapping the wine along the way. “Maybe,” she murmured when she was close to Aubrey’s ear.

Chapter Text

Chloe settled into bed with a book and a cup of tea. She tried to read, but kept having to reread paragraphs because she’d forget what was happening in the narrative.

She finally set the book down. It wasn’t helping her feel any less fidgety. They’d had a lovely date, they’d made a lovely plan, but they hadn’t made a specific plan. She broke down and texted Beca.

Chloe: You still up, night time doll?
Beca: still up, bright eyes. Have I thanked you for a lovely evening?
Chloe: it was thoroughly my pleasure.

Chloe chewed on her bottom lip. She had told Beca it was her turn to ask. She should be patient.

Chloe: think we should do it again?

Beca put her headphones down. She’d rather talk to Chloe. She picked up her phone and replied as she walked back to the bedroom.

Beca: I was trying to decide if us hanging out tomorrow was too soon. Is two days in a row pushy?
Beca: because I go back to weird hours till next Monday otherwise.

She plopped on the bed and kept her eyes on the phone around changing into a tank and pair of shorts for sleeping.

Chloe: I don’t mind if you don’t mind. Then we’ll see each other for karaoke on Thursday before the drought of the weekend, right?

Beca smiled and leaned back against her pillows.

Beca: yeah. But that’s still shorter than your week at the spa. What’s your schedule tomorrow?

Chloe grinned and her shoulders relaxed. She’d been worried Beca was just being nice when they’d said they’d do the dating thing. Now they were getting to planning specifics she felt like she was on solid ground again.

Chloe: I’m off at 3:30.

Beca nodded to herself.

Beca: I have a couple of thoughts in mind. Sort of depends on if you have other plans to work around?
Chloe: not yet, but then I’ve never been a first come first served kind of girl. You pick a time and I’ll be ready. We’re talking almost a week before your next night off, Becs! That is soooooo long.

Beca laughed quietly and shook her head.

Beca: after Thursday it will be only three days. That’s not so bad.
Beca: do you like the Philbrook? We could wander around there, outside if the weather is ok.
Beca: Then I have an idea for a picnic dinner sort of thing to watch the sunset.
Beca: too cheesy?

Chloe grinned at the romantic plan. Her heart fluttered a bit at the mention of the sunset.

Chloe: not cheesy. I’ll wear comfy shoes. And Thursday hardly counts, all I can do on Thursday is watch you from a distance and try my best to tease you into distraction. Tomorrow we’ll actually get to talk ;-)

Beca: yeah, but you can come sit with me if you want. Dylan has the week off, going to a wedding in Chicago.

Chloe: you mean I’m invited to the inner sanctum?

Chloe started to tease, then realized it meant she’d be able to talk to Beca all evening while Beca worked.

Chloe: I wouldn’t get in the way? For real?

Beca: for real. I sometimes have people there to teach them how to run the equipment in case I need a vacation.
Beca: That’s why Dylan was there last week.
Beca: as long as I have songs queued up and sometimes chatter to drum up more, I’m good.

Chloe: I’ll try to be good o:-)

Beca snorted.

Beca: I may live to regret this ( ;

Chloe: with any luck.
Chloe: what time tomorrow? You picking me up or shall I meet you there?
Beca: um, how about I pick you up at your place, I think I can find it.
Beca: say 4? Wait, let me check.

Chloe watched the phone and sipped her tea.

Beca: shit, philbrook closes at 5. Um, wanna walk around downtown? Or hang out at the Guthrie Green? Or I can wait to pick you up closer to sunset. What do ya think?

Chloe: I think we can find plenty of trouble without the Philbrook. I’ll be ready at 4:00.

Beca: oooh, we could wander around Woodward. I think the rose garden buildings will close too early, but if it’s not too hot, the park will be nice.

Chloe smiled and tilted her head. Damn if Beca wasn’t good at figuring out exactly what she liked. The boys had all been about fancy restaurants. Beca offered trees and birds and soft green grass. And sunset.

Chloe: question.

Beca smiled slowly. With a quiet chuckle she typed back.

Beca: sure

Chloe leaned on one elbow, her hand supporting her head.

Chloe: what does my favorite Tulsa jazz musician do with herself after 11:00 on her night off?

Beca laughed out loud. She knew better than to evade, even on text, she figured Chloe would catch her.

Beca: well, I’m usually mixing.
Chloe: you’re in the kitchen?
Beca: oh! No, I save bread making for mornings. Feed the dough early if I’m going to bake.
Beca: I mean with a mixing board. Um, layering music bits.
Chloe: oh. Wow. So you’re a composer as well as a performer?
Beca: more an arranger. I don’t do anything really original. Just take tracks and layer them, or mash ‘em.
Chloe: I’d love to hear them sometime.
Beca: I’ll put something on a drive for ya. Just don’t expect too much.
Beca: I thought that was what producers did so went to LA to produce.
Beca: found out any rich kid with a laptop could do what I do.
Beca: so now I play jazz for tips.
Chloe: hm. I’ve come to find you short sell yourself when discussing your talent. Let me reserve judgment. Did I interrupt?
Beca: nah, nothing was happening anyway. I’d rather text with you if I’m honest.

Chloe suddenly grinned and leaned back against the pillows, blowing a kiss as she took a selfie. She hit send.

Chloe: you do say the sweetest things.

Beca grinned at the picture. She turned her head to one side, closed one eye and held up her thumb and took a return selfie.

Chloe laughed out loud.

Chloe: how can a bad ass be so fucking adorable?
Beca: takes real talent, let me tell ya. Gotta act like a cinnamon roll and be ready to ankle bite anyone.
Chloe: wait, was that a short joke?
Beca: damnit. Who said that?

Chloe smirked.

Chloe: I dunno but my ankles suddenly feel like they need some attention, cinnamon roll.

Beca laughed out loud again. This woman really did know how to make her laugh.

Beca: duly noted. On the lookout for bare ankles….ooh, are you into that sort of thing?

Beca sent another picture, this time with one eyebrow arched.

Chloe stuck her foot out from under the covers and took a quick picture.

Chloe: maybe someday you’ll find out
Beca: alas, tis a sorry thing, to be a knave so far from the object of one’s affection.

Chloe giggled.

Chloe: ah, sweet knave, have pity on one whose ankle shall go without thy noble nibbling this foul eve
Beca: ‘tis only foul because of the miles between thee and me.
Beca: Else, the eve is glorious for the chance to consider thy fair countenance over magical devices.

Chloe collapsed in a heap of giggles.

Chloe: thou art ridiculous. Yet thy ridicularity intrigueth me no end. Shall I produce further photographic evidence of mirth? Or hast thou imagination enough to suffice when I admit it is not merely my ankle which is bare and wouldst be glad of your attention if only the cruel miles did not separate us at such a late hour.

Beca put her head on the bed and laughed until her eyes watered. Then she picked up her phone again.

Beca: are you suggesting sexting in Elizabethan English? I am swooning.

Meanwhile Chloe had been frantically searching YouTube. Finally she giggled and sent a link to “Brush up your Shakespeare”

Beca clicked on the link and dissolved into giggles.

Beca: I defer to your exceptional wit and alacrity. In other words, you crack my ass up.

Chloe smiled wickedly.

Chloe: what I am gonna do to that ass someday. Milady. But I promise I’ll be good until then. We never set ground rules on sexting though. Hm.

Chloe took a picture of her finger on her bottom lip, pulling it down slightly, her eyes trained up toward the ceiling as if in contemplation.

Beca snorted.

Beca: ow.
Chloe: you okay?
Beca: you made me laugh till I snorted. Ow.
Chloe: Aw. Poor thing. You know strictly speaking Elizabethan sexting is honestly something I have never shared with anyone but you. And I’m pretty confident it won’t come up once in any situation with any other person I’ve ever met.
Beca: I would say it is difficult to work Elizabethan Sexting into a conversation.
Chloe: indubitably
Beca: soooo. 4 pm your house? If the weather sucks, we will just have to wing it.
Chloe: I have a feeling we will always find entertainment, Becs. One more favor?
Beca: sure
Chloe: tell me what song I should listen to so I can go to sleep tonight?
Beca: Janis Ian, lover’s lullaby
Chloe: okeedoke. Til tomorrow then, beautiful.
Beca: g’night Bright Eyes.

 

Beca had slept as long as she could, and as long as Skye would let her, but finally got up to feed the cat, change her water and empty the cat box. “This is not the way I prefer to start my day, cat.” Beca grumbled. She wandered at last into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. She then fidgeted with her mixer, downloaded some stuff onto a drive and stared at the clock, willing it to be afternoon.

It had to be the slowest day of her life. Finally, it was approaching 2:30 and she decided she could at last make up the picnic dinner she had promised. She cubed up some home made bread, sliced up three different kids of cheese, and bagged up a variety of berries out of the garden. Last, she put into travel containers two pieces of the cherry pie Jessica had helped bake yesterday. She put all of it into a rolling cooler, filled the cooler with ice packs and then placed a bottle of Chardonnay on top. She rummaged through the guest room closet until she found the picnic basket her aunt used to use for things like movies at the Philbrook or the fireworks display at the river. She opened it carefully, worried it may have attracted some unwanted residents, but Aunt Jean had been a meticulous housekeeper and the basket was in pristine shape. The wine glasses and plates were clean and sparkly and even the packed silverware still had a shine.

Pleased with herself, Beca did a quick check of the weather. She groaned when she saw a storm was rolling in, but the weather report said the evening would be clear. After putting the cooler and basket in the trunk of the car, she retrieved her Aunt’s golf umbrella and put it in the back seat. Finally, she looked down at Skye. “You be good and don’t tear anything up while I’m gone. See you tonight.” She scratched under Skye’s chin, who accepted the affectionate offering before jumping off the table next to the front door and sauntering off toward the bedrooms. “I swear that cat speaks English,” Beca muttered as she left and locked the door.

Hours later, Chloe leaned against the windshield of Beca’s car, Beca beside her. She replayed the evening in her head. The coffee in the car watching it rain, the picnic at Chandler Park once it finally stopped. It had been slightly improvised, but Beca seemed prepared for anything. She even knew just the right place to park so they could watch the sun set and the city light up below them.

Chloe glanced over at Beca, who was watching the sky change colors over the downtown skyline. It had been romantic, too. She had to admit, it had been a long time since anyone had thought to be romantic. “Home made bread, again,” she said with a smile. “And a cherry pie. Beca, you are ruining me for processed foods.”

Beca, her arms behind her head while she looked at the lights, laughed. “You caught me. That is my secret agenda. Wean you off real imitation processed foods.” She looked over and grinned. “No pesticides on the fruit, either.”

“Of course,” Chloe said in a matter of fact tone. She was quiet for a few minutes. “When I was in college there was a grad student who had a wife and a kid, which seemed so crazy adult to me when I was like 19. He lived on the west side, so my friends and I would come out to Chandler to play tennis and goof off a lot. I never once knew you could see downtown from here.”

“It’s a great view. Aunt Jean would bring me out here sometimes. Just like this. Just to watch the sunset reflect off the buildings.” Beca smiled at the memory. “I haven’t been here since she died.” She glanced at Chloe. “Thanks for coming.”

Chloe looked over at Beca again, “Thanks for bringing me. It’s a special place.” Chloe glanced at Beca’s arms, her hand itching to hold Beca’s. She sighed a little and settled for clasping her own hands over her stomach. “Do you ever regret leaving LA?”

Beca rolled onto her side and propped her head on the windshield. “No.” She laughed, “That was abrupt, huh?” She turned her head to see the lights some more. “It was so bright, you could never see the stars. You know how they call New York the city that never sleeps? LA doesn’t either. Mostly because you probably spent eight hours on the freeways.”

Chloe turned onto her side as well. “A girl who likes a simple life,” she smiled and reached her free hand over toward Beca’s free hand. “I could get used to that.”

Beca laced her fingers with Chloe’s and smiled. “I do. I love music, but I didn’t get to do much in LA. Mostly it was hustling, trying to get an audition, trying to get heard. Aunt Jean got sick, so I came to take care of her. She reminded me I didn’t need a big contract or to be on the radio to have music. I could just,” Beca shrugged, “have it.” She laughed shyly, “Sorta dumb I guess. I had to go half way across the country to figure it out.”

“My career was just sort of handed to me. Even before I was out of school. So I gave up the footlights and stayed in my comfort zone. Maybe I should have been brave and taken my shot when I could,” Chloe lowered her eyes.

“It isn’t too late. Aunt Jean said until the body breaks down, there is always tomorrow. What would you do? If you had the chance?” Beca squeezed Chloe’s hand.

Chloe chuckled, “Nah, I’m too settled here. I do love my job.” She looked back up at Beca, “My dream was kind of tied to someone else, anyhow. We were going to take the world by storm, sing together at Carnegie Hall.” Chloe shrugged, “I kind of lost the dream when I lost her.”

Beca squeezed Chloe’s hand again. “I’m sorry. That sucks.” She sat quietly for awhile before she said, “It isn’t Carnegie Hall, but you can always come sing upstairs if you want. It’s kinda cool being the music director for the hotel. As long as no one complains, I can pretty much do what I want. So far, no complaints.” She grinned. “No reason I can’t show you off like I do Jess and Ash and Dylan.”

Chloe let go of Beca’s hand and stroked her cheek, “Where did you come from and how do you sneak past my defenses so easily?”

Beca laughed and blushed. “I’ve just been here. Playing my music and trying to fit in.” She tilted her head to one side, “I’m sorry people hurt you.” She smiled softly, “My family, except for Jean, were real assholes. I think I would have followed suit if it wasn’t for my aunt, and Jess. She really saved my ass in LA. Kept me from becoming a real dick.”

“You always would have been a softie underneath, though,” Chloe grinned and poked Beca’s side. “Question?”

Beca’s smile slowly spread. “Sure.”

“Would your aunt Jean be scandalized if I kissed you at the park where you used to watch the lights with her?”

Beca put a finger on her chin and tapped it. “I actually think she would enjoy it.” Beca winked, “She loved to scandalize the family.”

Chloe smiled and leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on Beca’s lips. “Thank you for a lovely date, Beca.”

Beca nuzzled Chloe’s nose. “Thank you,” she followed up with a second soft kiss. “You are already one of my favorite people, Chloe Beale.” She added softly, “And don’t you forget it.”

Chapter Text

Chloe paced from one end of the living room to the other. Beca had been so sweet, all night. She even got Chloe home by 10:30 so she could get plenty of sleep for work the next day. She spun on her heel again. Why was she so sad?

When Chloe felt tears threaten she finally gave up and sat on the couch. She knew it was late for Aubrey, but she didn’t know who else to call. She felt like she was losing her mind. Chloe clicked Aubrey’s voice contact and hoped she could make it up to her friend another day.

Aubrey frowned when the phone rang with Chloe’s tone.

“Tell her to Uber over here,” Stacie murmured sleepily.

“Sleep, love, I’ll handle it.” Aubrey slid open the phone. “Hang on, Chloe.” She held the phone away while she kissed Stacie’s forehead and then moved out to the breakfast bar. “Are you okay?” She said into the phone.

“I’m so sorry, Aubrey,” Chloe started to cry softly. “I shouldn’t have called. Go back to sleep.” She forced a smile, hoping it would help her sound chipper, “I’ll call tomorrow.”

“Stacie says to Uber here.” Aubrey spoke briskly. “Come to the Mayo, I can meet you downstairs.”

Chloe was stunned, “Now?”

Aubrey frowned. “Of course, now. You sound upset. Stacie is exhausted, struggling with a project. But she has a spare room. Come here and we can talk.”

“Let’s talk downstairs, I don’t want to keep her awake. And I’m perfectly capable of driving, I’m just sad. And you’re a wonderful friend. I’ll be there in 15 minutes.” Chloe grabbed her keys and headed for the door.

Aubrey sighed and returned to the bedroom. “Chloe is on her way. We’re going to talk downstairs.” She started changing into yoga pants and a long t-shirt over a camisole.

Stacie rolled over, rubbing her eyes. “Is she okay? She can stay here. The guest room is still respectable.” She teased as she yawned.

Aubrey crossed to the bed, placed a hand on Stacie’s cheek and kissed her tenderly. “I love you thought of that.” She smiled fondly. “I’ll ask her again. Sleep, love. I want to keep those headaches at bay.”

Stacie snuggled back under the covers as Aubrey tucked her in. She grabbed Aubrey’s pillow. “Miss you.”

“Shhh, I’ll be back soon. Sleep.” Aubrey stroked Stacie’s hair until she fell back asleep, then grabbed a pair of running shoes and headed for the lobby.

Chloe parked on the street and walked into the hotel lobby, looking for Aubrey. She felt kind of embarrassed now, having dragged Aubrey out of bed. Chloe didn’t even know what was wrong.

Aubrey exited the elevators just as Chloe walked in. She waved, and gestured for Chloe to join her in the Boiler Room.

Chloe ducked her head and followed her friend into the bar. “My treat,” she said lamely.

Aubrey nodded, “Sure is.” She winked at Chloe. “Hey, Stephanie, vodka tonic tall, rocks pour with a lime for me. Need a quiet table.”

Stephanie nodded, “Stacie is okay, right?”

“Yeah, she’s fine. Just cranky, so wanted comfort food. Thanks for asking.” Aubrey was touched the staff was so considerate. She looked at Chloe, “What would you like?”

Chloe nodded, “Same. Exactly the same.” She snagged Aubrey’s hand, “Hug?”

Aubrey nodded again and pulled Chloe into a hug. “Table?” She asked Stephanie again.

Stephanie pointed to the corner Ashley usually took Beca to after shows. “Be right there.”

Chloe squeezed Aubrey tightly before finally letting her go. “You aways know exactly what to do,” Aubrey’s confident way of taking control was a relief. Chloe followed her to the table and sat down.

Aubrey smiled and settled into her chair. She waited until Stephanie brought the drinks and left again before she placed a hand on the table to hold Chloe’s. “What’s up, Elf?”

Chloe stirred her drink and watched the straw, “I think I’m going crazy, Bree. I’m just so sad.”

Aubrey frowned, concerned. “If it helps, I don’t think you are crazy. Your life has been, well, not normal for you for a couple of weeks now. Can you tell me what happened? Something at work?”

Chloe squeezed Aubrey’s hand. “I went on a date with Beca.” She gave a small shrug. “It was a good date. A great date, even. Sweet and romantic, and she brought me home early.” She looked at Aubrey, “I should be happy. Why do I keep crying?”

“I don’t know, sweetie.” Aubrey said softly. She squeezed Chloe’s hand back. “Tell me about the date?”

“It was raining when she picked me up so we grabbed drive through coffee and sat in her car to drink it. After that we went to the park. She’d made a fantastic picnic for us, all homemade stuff. Then we sat on her car and watched the sunset.” Chloe shrugged again, “Like I said, romantic, sweet.”

Aubrey thought for a moment. “It sounds nice. But she took you home? She didn’t stay?”

“It’s our new arrangement,” Chloe nodded. “We’re dating without the bedroom bits. She says she doesn’t want to change me, but she doesn’t want to share me like that. This way at least we get to see each other and spend time together.”

“That sounds…” Aubrey smiled ruefully, “difficult.” She allowed herself a little laugh. “But I admit, I would do it with Stacie if she needed the space.” She sipped her drink. “But you don’t think that’s why you are sad?”

“I’ll admit there were a few times tonight I was frustrated and wanted to test it, but I’m actually kind of okay that we didn’t go any further. She’s turning me into such a sap, Bree. I just want to hold her hand and watch sunsets and talk about our dreams.” Chloe sipped her drink. “It sucks.”

Aubrey tilted her head. She released Chloe’s hand and picked up her drink, stirring it thoughtfully. “Dreams?” She finally asked lightly.

“Mhm,” Chloe slumped back in her seat. “How she chased hers, how mine kind of, I don’t know, dissolved,” she ran a finger along the side of her glass, watching the condensation pool on the napkin underneath. “She said it’s never too late to chase your dreams. She said I should sing with her.”

“Ah,” Aubrey smiled, the light coming on, relieved for once this didn’t boil down to sex or lack of it. “That must feel weird, someone offering to sing with you.”

“I don’t know why it would, you sing with me all the time. She asks her other friends to do it too.” Chloe huffed, “Damn it, Bree, maybe it is the no sex thing. Maybe my system is in mourning or something. If it was sex I wouldn’t be confused.”

Aubrey nodded, “Or, you know, singing with someone you are attracted to, talking about what if’s and could be’s.”

Chloe tilted her head and slowly looked up at Aubrey. “You’re talking about Shannon.”

“Just wondering if you aren’t feeling a,” Aubrey hesitated and searched for a word. “A call-back. A memory of sadness.”

Chloe blinked back fresh tears. “What if she disappears too?” Chloe’s voice was a whisper. “I already know it would hurt so much, Bree.” Chloe picked up a napkin to wipe her eyes. “How did I let her get in? I swore I never would again.”

Aubrey reached over to cover Chloe’s hand. “Sweetie, feelings can be wonderful. Think about how much fun you have had talking to her for the past few weeks. Maybe it’s time to take off the mourning clothes and live again.”

Chloe took a long sip of her drink, then shrugged. “I’ve been living, though. I’ve been party central. Sometimes I go out every night of the week. I throw caution to the wind, I have wonderful adventures. Isn’t that living?”

“No.” Aubrey smiled fondly. “That’s distraction. That’s hiding. That’s acting like everything is fine, when it isn’t and hasn’t been for a long time.” Aubrey took a deep breath. “You haven’t been happy for a long time.”

Chloe stared at Aubrey, “You think so?” Her voice was almost accusatory. “You don’t want me to live, you want me to love.”

Aubrey shrugged, “Without love, you just exist. You love me, and I love you. That’s not scary. But loving someone else, someone to see everyday? I get it, it is scary.” She smiled. “And yeah, it would hurt like hell if I lost Stacie, already. But it’s worth it. The days I’ve had I wouldn’t trade for anything.” She picked up her drink to help her swallow past the sudden lump in her throat at the thought.

Chloe sighed and sipped the last of her drink. “You’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, Bree. I might jump into everything head first, but you face it with your shoulders back, fully aware of the danger. I envy you.”

“My dad always said, if you are going to walk through the minefield of life, you have to be ready to lose both legs.” Aubrey nodded firmly. Then she smiled. “Would you rather wonder what might have been? Or enjoy the time you can have?”

Chloe took another deep breath. “You mean you want me to avoid a life of crushing regret?” She smirked as she remembered something Aubrey had told her years ago. “Yeah. Regret isn’t doing much for me these days.”

Aubrey nodded, “And we went pretty far afield. We started with are you crazy? I don’t think you are.”

Chloe nodded with a shy grin. “No. I do feel better. Still not sure what to do, and still a little scared and sad, but better. I’m sorry I dragged you out of bed. I promise I’ll make it up to you. To both of you.”

Aubrey looked up as Stephanie approached carefully, smiling and pointing at the glasses.

Chloe shook her head, “Go back to your girl. Thank you for talking me through. I really needed it. Love you, Bree.”

Aubrey stood up and then leaned over to hug Chloe. “Sure you don’t want to stay here? We have room.”

“I’ve already interrupted enough. Stacie’s going to make you turn your phone off at night,” Chloe smiled and returned the hug. “I’m gonna tab out and go home.”

“Love ya, Elf.” Aubrey whispered and then stepped away. “Thanks, Stephanie.”

Stephanie blushed and nodded. “I’ll go get your tab, Miss Beale, is that right?”

Chloe nodded and followed Stephanie toward the bar. She grabbed Aubrey’s hand one more time as they headed the same direction. “Sleep well, sweetie.”

Aubrey slipped back into Stacie’s bedroom as quietly as she could. She quickly stripped off her clothes, then gently pulled the sheets back so she could crawl in behind Stacie. She wrapped an arm around Stacie’s waist and leaned her head against the back of Stacie’s shoulder. “All done,” she whispered.

Stacie rolled over onto her back and patted her chest. “Come ‘ere.”

Aubrey smiled and rested her head on Stacie’s chest. “You are the most comfortable person ever,” she sighed contentedly.

“Mmm, now I feel better.” Stacie murmured. “Chloe okay? She here?”

“She’s in love,” Aubrey chuckled. “And she went home.”

Stacie smiled against Aubrey’s hair. “I hope she’s as happy as I am.”

Aubrey turned to kiss Stacie’s chest, “Me too, Doc.”

“Night night, love.” Stacie kissed the top of Aubrey’s head.

“Mmm,” Aubrey replied, already half asleep.

Meanwhile, Chloe sat in her car outside the Mayo, thinking about what Aubrey had said. She recognized the Shannon level sadness, and had to admit maybe Beca had triggered it. Love, though? It was way too early for that. She picked up her phone and tapped to call Beca.

Beca answered, “Hey, Chlo, everything okay?”

“Hey,” Chloe shook her head at the smile that returned as soon as she heard Beca’s voice. “Yeah, everything’s fine. Sorry to call so late.”

“No problem,” Beca folded her legs under her. “You can call anytime. I just can’t answer when I’m on stage.”

Chloe chuckled, “No? You wouldn’t interrupt your show to chat with me on the phone? What if I said you could put it on speaker?” She teased. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, making a stern face. She hadn’t called at this hour to flirt.

“If you wanna watch a show via FaceTime, I’ll set it up.” Beca laughed. “I’ll bribe Jess to hold the phone.” She was smiling that damn smile again. How could this woman make her feel so light?

Chloe laughed. Beca always had an answer for everything. “I need to tell you about my ex girlfriend,” she admitted softly.

Beca stopped grinning and shifted positions so she was leaning back against the headboard. “Okay.” She sounded concerned.

“She’s not a crazy stalker or anything, you don’t have to worry about her coming after you,” Chloe was quick to add when she heard Beca’s worried tone. “It’s just she seems to haunt me and I wanted to warn you,” Chloe started and stopped. “I’m sounding crazy again.”

“You aren’t crazy. Somethings bugging you, though. I’m not worried for me.” Beca shook her head. “I’m sorry, I’m babbling. I’ll let you talk.”

“Tonight you said something that reminded me of her, and it sort of caught me off guard. I guess I just want you to know.” Chloe took a deep breath. “I’m a little scared, Beca. Scared of us. A little.”

Beca nodded then remembered this wasn’t a FaceTime call. “I’m listening.” She kept her voice soft.

“When she left it was sudden and I was kind of shattered for a long time. I’m starting to feel things now, though, things that remind me of her.” Chloe’s voice became smaller, “I can’t ask you not to shatter me, and I’m sorry if it isn’t fair to tell you that you already could. But I want to ask you for a favor?”

“I’ll do the best I can, what do you need?” Beca wasn’t sure she was following, but she was trying to.

Chloe nodded, “If I get scared and start to run away, promise you’ll come find me?”

That slow smile that Chloe always elicited made its way across Beca’s face. “I’ll come looking for you, Bright Eyes.” She took a deep breath. “Want me to come sit with you awhile?”

“Oh my god I do,” Chloe said softly. “It’s not fair to ask. It’s not in the arrangement for you to babysit me all night. I’m supposed to keep it light, right?”

“We never said keep it light. We just said not physical.” Beca reminded her. “I can be there in twenty minutes. Okay?”

Chloe’s heart skipped a beat. She nodded at the phone before she, too, remembered this wasn’t a FaceTime call. “Yeah. See you soon.” She added softly, “Thank you.”

“See you soon.” Beca smiled at the phone. She changed back into her clothes from earlier and tossed a t-shirt and pair of shorts in her bag. She grabbed her contact lens case, hairbrush and toothbrush before putting on her Converse. “Take care of the house, Skye.” She laughed when the cat replied with a meow as Beca locked the door.

Chapter Text

Chloe started the car and put it into gear. She pulled out of the parking spot and headed toward her house, hoping she’d get there first. When she pulled into the driveway Beca’s car was nowhere in sight. She quickly hopped out of the car and ran inside to turn the porch light on. As she dropped onto the couch she saw headlights turn in from her driveway. “Whew,” she breathed as she got up to hold the door open.

Beca smiled when she saw Chloe. She parked and popped out of the car, grabbing her messenger bag on her way. She waved as she reached the door. “You know, I forgot to give you something earlier.”

Chloe tilted her head, already grinning. “What’s that?”

Beca reached into the pocket of her messenger bag. “You said before you wanted to hear some of my mixes.” She held the drive up, “but you can’t listen till I’m not here. Deal?”

Chloe nodded and clapped her hands, then took the drive. “Deal.” She held the door wider, “Come in so Mrs. Johnson can get some sleep.”

Beca chuckled, waved over her shoulder at the neighbor’s window, and followed Chloe inside.

Chloe giggled and grabbed Beca’s hand, pulling her into the house. “You didn’t have to drive over in the middle of the night, really, Beca. I probably woke you up with the call.”

“I wasn’t asleep yet.” Beca shrugged then looked at Chloe, “You don’t look ready to sleep anytime soon.” She indicated Chloe’s street clothes.

Chloe reached to take Beca’s bag from her. “You thought I’d be naked, huh?”

Beca laughed out loud. “Actually, no. But I should have considered that.” She shook her head. “I think I’m broken.”

Chloe swung the bag lightly as she walked back toward the bedroom. “Broken? How? I’m the one who had a breakdown tonight.” She placed the bag on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. “I’ll let you change first.”

Beca decided not to answer unless Chloe pushed. “I can use the bathroom.” Beca grabbed the bag again. “I really need to take out my contacts anyway.” She looked up at Chloe, “No snark about my glasses.”

“I love glasses. Honest. Then meet me in the living room and we’ll settle on the couch. For safety purposes,” she winked. “Then you can make me feel better by explaining how in the world you are the broken one.”

Beca chuckled and nodded. She headed into the bathroom, removed her contact lenses and changed into the tank and shorts. Everything else she shoved back into her bag, except her black rimmed glasses, which she put on so she could see to put her hair up. Satisfied she was at least not an embarrassment to herself or others, she headed barefoot into the living room.

Chloe quickly changed into a matching set of pink satin shorts and a short sleeved button down matching satin shirt. She brushed out her hair and thought for just a heartbeat before using a wipe to scrub off her makeup. Beca had seen her without makeup, she reminded herself.

She settled into the corner of the L shaped sofa and picked up the TV remote. She was flipping through jazz stations when Beca came out. “Any favorites?” She gestured toward the TV then looked back at Beca. Chloe’s heart skipped a beat. “I,” she swallowed, “I like your glasses.”

Beca blushed. “Thanks. I,” she shrugged, “extended wear only last for so long. Don’t wanna fuck up my eyes. More than they are.” She curled up close by but not touching. “I’m not a bossa nova fan. Something where they lay way back on the beat would be nice.”

“Right,” Chloe remembered what she had asked. “Right,” she repeated in a more confident tone. She found a station and turned it on. “Okay?”

“Perfect.” Beca sat facing Chloe, feet crossed under her. She tilted her head to one side. “I’m sorry for whatever I said that hurt you. Please, tell me what it was so I don’t do it again?” She smiled apologetically. “I swear, I don’t want to.”

Chloe smirked. “You won’t believe me.”

Beca shrugged. “Try me?”

“You asked me to sing with you, and you told me it’s never too late to follow my dreams,” Chloe couldn’t keep a small shadow from crossing her eyes, even with Beca sitting right there, obviously worried about how Chloe felt.

“I,” Beca froze. “Wow,” she looked down. “I guess it could sound privileged? Being able to chase a dream? I just never….” She looked up, shaking her head.

“No,” Chloe shifted closer so she could take Beca’s hand and look her directly in the face, “stop. Let me tell you the story, then you’ll understand. It’s pretty simple, really.”

Beca nodded, “okay.”

“Okay,” Chloe settled back and took a deep breath. “I told you this is about my ex, right? My only, if you want the truth. I met Shannon in college, we were sophomores in the music department. We hit it off right away, in a magical chemical crazy kind of all encompassing way.” Chloe looked at Beca, “I’d never even dated a girl before.”

“Got it.” Beca smiled.

Chloe nodded. “Fast forward to senior year and we were still inseparable. Lived together in a little apartment we shared with Aubrey. We had been making plans. Forging dreams as Shannon would have said. We knew that as soon as we graduated we were going to take our two woman act to New York and then travel the States as singing gypsies once we were discovered.” She paused, “Would you like something to drink? I never even offered.”

Beca shook her head. “I’m good.” She tilted her head to one side. “Carnegie Hall?”

“Of course,” Chloe’s eyes sparkled at the memory of the dream. Then the shadow returned. “I gave all I had to her. She owned me, heart and soul. We were forever, because I didn’t know where I stopped and she started.” Chloe wiped a tear away in irritation. “A week before graduation she casually dropped an airplane ticket on the dining room table. One ticket, for her.” Chloe swallowed hard. “She’d gotten a job offer back home, in Australia. She was leaving the next day. Wasn’t even going to walk in her cap and gown for graduation.” Chloe looked at Beca, but her hollow eyes were seeing Shannon standing there in the kitchen again. “It’s been swell, she said, and then she was gone.”

Beca stared as she listened, so many thoughts roiling around her head. What could she say? What should she say? The first thing that came to her mind was ‘that sucks,’ but it felt trite. She squeezed Chloe’s hand. “What a dick.” Beca muttered. Then she followed, “I don’t get it. How could anyone want to leave you behind?”

Chloe shrugged, “It’s okay. But now do you see? Dreams? Singing together?”

“Yeah. And why you don’t want commitments, or promises.” Beca sighed. “You don’t happen to have her address so I can mail a bunch of dog shit her way, do you?”

Chloe giggled and grabbed a box of Kleenex. “You must think I’m nuts. Hi, you’ve known me a few weeks, let me tell you the greatest tragedy of my life.”

Beca shook her head, “No, it’s okay. I get it. I’m here being all I wanna monogamous thing when the only one you ever had was with a dickless chicken shit who pretty much strung you along till they got some bullshit offer they thought was better.” She took a deep breath. “And you’ve only known me a couple of weeks. You can’t be sure I’m not just as bad.” She smirked. “So I guess I’ll just have to hang around till you figure out maybe I’m okay.”

Chloe sat staring at Beca. She didn’t know what to say. She finally put both arms out and opened and closed her hands.

Beca shook her head. “Nuh-uh.” She shifted so her feet were dangling off the couch. “You come here.” She put an arm out and tilted her head. “Let me be a good friend. Okay?”

Chloe tucked into Beca’s side, feeling the warm comfort of Beca’s arm wrapped around her. She relaxed into the embrace, once again enveloped in the scents she had already come to associate with Beca. Her lotion, her shampoo, the soap she used to wash her face. Chloe sighed, then laughed. “You know it wouldn’t be a problem if your witty clever self didn’t happen to be irresistibly sexy too.”

Beca laughed quietly. “I’ll try and tone down the sex appeal. God knows, too many people are beating a path to my door.” She rubbed Chloe’s arm. “People suck. Not all, but enough to make it hard to trust the good ones.” She smiled and sighed, “No promises, cuz you don’t trust them anyway. Just gimme a chance to prove I’m not one of the dicks? Test me as long as you want. I’ll keep trying.”

“That was why I wanted to talk to you earlier. If I get skittish don’t go away? At least for a while? I really would miss you when I came back to my senses,” Chloe finished softly.

“I’m not going anywhere. I got roots here, and you know where I work. I like my job, even if you never join me on stage. I’m about as boring as any jazz musician you will ever meet.” Beca lifted her arm to pet Chloe’s hair. “I’m a bad penny. I always turn up.”

Chloe smiled, “I could become seriously fond of stability.” She reveled in the comfort of Beca’s arms and started to nod off. Chloe’s eyes opened. She gently pulled herself away from Beca and stood, offering a hand. “Come on, you can’t sleep that way. Come to bed. I promise I won’t molest you.”

Beca let Chloe pull her to a standing position. “Here’s the thing, Beale. You can get scared. You can run. I know who your best friend is and I’ll tell her same as I’m telling you. You’re stuck with me. Even if it’s for late night phone calls and trips to the park. I’ll be here.”

Chloe saw the determination in Beca’s eyes and felt her heart swell. “I do believe you mean it, Miss Mitchell.” She caressed Beca’s cheek. “Right now I can’t imagine ever running away from you.” She was suddenly shy. “Question,” she whispered.

Beca smiled again, and nodded, “Sure.”

“Would you prefer the right hand or left hand bedside table for me to clear so you can keep some things here?” Chloe’s eyes danced.

Beca laughed. “I’m a lefty, Beale. For everything but the piano.” She winked.

“Oh, that’s right, now I remember,” Chloe said in a coquettish tone as she took Beca’s left hand and led her to the bedroom.

Beca put her phone down on the left side table, and placed her glasses next to it. She slid into the far side of the bed and held her right arm out. “Come on, Bright Eyes.” She patted her shoulder. “Let’s get you some sleep.”

Chloe ran her hand through her hair and pulled back the covers on her side of the bed. She tried to hide a yawn as she cuddled in close to Beca, her head resting on Beca’s shoulder. “If only I were more awake,” she muttered. “The scene of the crime.”

“Shhhhh,” Beca chuckled and rested her head against the headboard. “Chloe is sleeping.” Then she started singing softly, slowing the rhythm down considerably.

I love the East, I love the West
And North and South, they’re both the best
But I only want go there as a guest
Cause I love being here with you

I love the sea, I love the shore
I love the rocks and what is more
With you there, they'd never be a bore
Cause I love being here with you.
(https://youtu.be/ptsjZIcD-gU)

Chloe closed her eyes, listening to the music rumble in Beca’s chest and in her ears. She smiled as she listened to the lyrics. “Love,” she mumbled as she drifted off to sleep.

Beca smiled as Chloe got heavier against her. She indulged herself with a light kiss to Chloe’s forehead before she closed her eyes and let herself dream.

 

Sometime later, Chloe rolled over and her eyes opened. She was nose to nose with Beca, whose arm was still lying protectively across Chloe’s middle. She held her breath and shifted so her head was tucked under Beca’s chin, then relaxed. She needed to take stock of what had happened in the middle of the night.

First, she had to acknowledge that waking up with Beca wrapped around her was definitely a good thing. Second, she needed to be careful about touching. She sighed. Third, she’d bared her soul to this woman and the woman was still here. Not only here, but in her bed. And she sang her to sleep. Chloe took a deep breath and decided her best course of action was to be as still as possible so this could last as long as possible.

Beca opened one eye. “If you don’t have to go to the bathroom or work, stop wiggling, Weirdo.”

Chloe giggled. “Sorry.” She laid there a few minutes, then sighed. “But now I do have to go to the bathroom.” She sat up and scooted to the edge of the bed, looking back over her shoulder. “Your fault.” Chloe shuffled off to the hallway.

Beca chuckled and stretched. She reached over to check the time on her phone and groaned. “It’s not even 8:00 yet. Get your cute ass back here. I’m still sleepy!”

Chloe giggled as she shuffled back into the room. “My cute ass has returned,” she grinned. “Big spoon or little spoon, cranky butt?”

“Big spoon. And stop making short jokes.” Beca teased as she rolled back onto her right side and held up her left arm.

Chloe snuggled her back up against Beca and smiled as the weight of Beca’s arm draped over her side. She curled her fingers into Beca’s hand. “Shh, Beca’s sleeping,” she said softly, knowing she would probably stay awake the rest of the morning memorizing every minute of this, just in case.

Beca laughed quietly. “Damn right.” She looped her pinky around Chloe’s. “Waking before 9:00 is a capital offense.” She managed to refrain from qualifying the statement. She really wanted to feel more of Chloe, to kiss her and make love to her, but she also knew after the conversation last night she had to be even more resolute. She had to prove she wasn’t leaving. She had to prove Chloe could be her own person and be in a relationship. She had to make sure they would last.

Chapter Text

Mack whistled softly to himself as he shifted from one foot to another in the elevator. He’d never stopped on any floors before. He either tuned The Boiler Room, The Ball Room or The Skylight. As the doors opened and an arrow pointed to west or east wing, he whistled again. After licking his lips, he followed the signs to the only door visible in the west wing. “Damn, Keys, what’d you get yourself into?” He muttered to himself before he knocked. He smoothed down his hair as he waited.

Aubrey opened the door and then opened her arms for a hug. “You found us,” she smiled as she stepped back from the hug. “Fifteen minutes early, just like clockwork. Come in, let me show you my new toy.”

Mack chuckled. “I worried I’d get lost you know. This isn’t exactly my usual digs.” He followed Aubrey toward the living room, his step halting briefly at the wall of windows. “Wow.”

Aubrey looked back at Mack, then followed his eyes. “Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess you kind of start to get used to it. Pretty awesome, huh?” She walked closer to the windows and gestured for Mack to join her. “You can see everything from up here. Look at how the river winds away toward the east.” She smiled, “You should see it at night.”

“I bet.” Mack nodded with appreciation. Then he eyed Aubrey with a smirk. “Double paned and insulated?”

“Well yeah,” she gestured with a thumb toward the piano. “Otherwise I would have thrown a fit on behalf of this gorgeous instrument.” She grinned like a little kid. “You should pop the top, check under the hood. Do you really think it’s the one from the Summit Club?”

Mack rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “She’s the right age. Lemme see,” he continued as he drew nearer. He ran his hands over the curved wood, felt the grain through the varnish and nodded. Then he opened the top and smiled. He propped it open and moved around the front. He opened the keyboard, ran his hands lightly over the keys and then leaned forward as if to tune a string. He looked straight down and then chuckled. “Yep, she’s from the Summit Club.”

“Wow,” Aubrey breathed. “I thought maybe it was a coincidence.” She looked from the instrument to Mack and back again. “I guess Stacie doesn’t do anything halfway, though,” she shook her head. “Speaking of Stacie, she’ll be done working soon. Would you like to have dinner here, or go to one of the restaurants?”

Mack leaned on the piano and laughed. “You don’t wanna know how I know? I thought I trained you better than that.”

Aubrey felt color creep into her cheeks, “You sounded certain, and the idea of it is a little overwhelming.” She came closer to where he was looking under the lid. “But yes, of course, I am curious why you feel confident this is the same instrument.” Her eyes twinkled, “Prove it.”

“Every piano I tune has a story. I remember the story, I remember what it likes. I bet you have to start new every time you see an instrument, like you never saw it before.” Mack chided her. “Look down at the base just to the right of the Bb above middle. See that little divot in the wood?”

Aubrey leaned closer to have a good look. “Mhm,” she muttered. “I hadn’t noticed that.” She glanced over at Mack. “What’s the story?”

Mack sat on the bench. “Apprentice 17 years ago. He was feeling all uppity, didn’t need any help. Thought I was already a doddering old man. Got in a hurry. Dropped the slotted screwdriver. It landed face down, right there. Reminds me every time that the Bb is persnickety.”

Aubrey shook her head and leaned against the piano. “Seventeen years on and you’re still not a doddering old man. Kids can be so disrespectful. I’m going to have to start paying attention and finding stories. And I’ll give this Bb extra love,” she winked at her mentor. “Are you going to listen to it play? The sound bounces off the windows as if we were in a church sanctuary.”

“I’d love to hear ya play, Keys. Remember on this one, check the Bb let off after every tuning.” Mack winked. He moved off the bench. “Gonna show me now?”

Aubrey smiled, “You could do it yourself, you know.”

Mack laughed, “I could. But she’s your baby. Show me what ya got.”

Aubrey slid onto the bench, still smiling. “If you insist.” She ran a couple of quick scales and glanced briefly to see if Mack had a reaction. His face was passive, and she had a flashback to her days standing for music juries at the end of each semester. She turned back to the keys and nodded. She took a deep breath, sat up straight, and closed her eyes, fingers poised above the keys. When she opened her eyes she launched into Chopin’s Opus 10 Number 4, one of her favorite show off pieces.

Aubrey’s fingers flew delicately over the keys, quick chord progressions in both hands followed by runs on the left with intricate patterns on the right. She knew the piece well, but still had to give it all of her focus. The room disappeared and it was only Aubrey and the piano, skating through breathtaking passages and daring one another to go faster, just a little faster. When she pounded the last sustained chord of the piece she realized she was leaning forward intensely. She dropped her hands from the keys and grinned over at Mack without a word.

Stacie lifted her head and turned toward the living room. It was the first time she could hear the piano in her soundproofed office. She blinked at the power and intensity of the piece, amazed at the speed with which the fingers danced over the keys. She clicked save and shut down and left her office. She crept down the hall, unsure if it was Aubrey or her friend who was playing. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw it was Aubrey. She tucked into the kitchen behind the breakfast bar to watch.

Mack’s eyes twinkled, but he kept his face still. Aubrey was as good as he remembered. When she finished and looked triumphantly at him, he allowed a small smile and head nod before he said. “Sustain pedal sticking.” Then he smirked.

Aubrey chuckled. “I should call somebody for that,” she leaned down to wiggle the offending pedal herself. “It’s gonna need a tool,” she said as she sat back up. Something caught her eye. “How long have you been hiding back there, Doc?” Aubrey’s face lit up when she saw Stacie.

Stacie waved her off. “Don’t mind me.”

Mack turned and ducked his head in a sort of bow. “Ma’am, that is one fine instrument. I’m pleased you bought it, and that Keys gets to play it.”

“Keys?” Stacie’s smile grew to a beam.

It was Aubrey’s turn to duck her head, “He’s called me that for ages. Seems allergic to real names.” She walked to the kitchen and reached a hand out to Stacie. “Come meet for real. Stacie, this is Mack. My mentor, my boss, and my friend when he behaves himself. Mack, this is Stacie. My friend, my partner in crime, and my love.”

Stacie extended a hand. “It is a real pleasure to meet you, Mack. Aubrey speaks fondly of you.”

Mack’s neck turned red. “Well, you know someone since they were grasshoppers, you get used to them.” He shook Stacie’s hand. “The pleasure is all mine, Ma’am. Like to see Keys happy.”

Stacie smiled fondly at Aubrey, “We have that in common. Please,” she brought her attention back to Mack. “Call me Stacie.”

“Thank you, Stacie.” Mack shifted his weight and looked at Aubrey. “Let me fix that pedal right quick. Rod probably came loose in the move. Won’t take long.”

Aubrey laughed, “I was teasing. You don’t have to work tonight. Now honest, where would you like to have dinner. I’m sure you need to tell Stacie some stories that will bring me right back down to my usual humble self. Boiler Room? Rooftop? Or room service up here?”

Mack closed one eye and stared at Aubrey with the other. “You been playing that little girl with an unhappy pedal. That’s twice I gotta remind you of the basics, Keys. This gorgeous lady turning your head so much you forgetting the job? Do I gotta bust you back to apprentice?”

Stacie laughed, “Please, Mack, do what you need to do. I’ll call down for food. Carnivore or vegetarian, Mack?”

“Carnivore, but I can fake it so’s Keys doesn’t turn green. She knows what I like.” Mack walked away and pulled a small kit out of his back pocket.

Stacie watched in amusement as he ducked under the keyboard. “Doesn’t let you get away with much.”

“Keeps me on my toes,” Aubrey smiled fondly at the feet sticking out from under the piano.

Hours later Mack stood by the front door of the apartment and smiled at the girls. “Thanks for inviting me up, Keys. Never thought I’d get inside one of these swanky apartments.” He winked at Stacie, “I’m glad I did.”

Stacie impulsively leaned over and hugged Mack. “Thanks for the visit. And thanks for watching out for Aubrey until I could come along to help.”

A grin split Mack’s face, “She’s good people. You’re good people, too. Hope to see you both more often.” He arched an eyebrow and pretended to glare at Aubrey. “Now I know your new haunt, you can’t hide forever.”

It was Aubrey’s turn to give Mack a big hug. “I might hide from everybody else, but you have a knack for tracking me down. I’m sure Stacie won’t mind you dropping in,” she stepped back and grinned at Stacie, then Mack. “Maybe we’ll tag team a little concert sometime soon.”

Stacie nodded vigorously. “That would just be horrible.” She laughed.

Mack laughed back. “Dunno these old hands can keep up with you any more, Keys, but we’ll see.” He winked again and opened the door. “Thanks again.”

Stacie took the door and leaned in it. “She’s right Mack. Any time.”

He smiled, nodded, and headed for the door, whistling under his breath again.

Stacie watched until he turned the corner and then closed the door, watching Aubrey while she did.

“It was a nice visit. Thank you,” Aubrey noticed Stacie watching her. “What’s got those brilliant wheels turning inside your head, gorgeous?”

“Do it again,” Stacie’s eyes danced. She looked at her watch, “Okay, with the lid down so we don’t wake up half the building.” She looked up again, “But do it again?”

Aubrey smiled slowly, “The Chopin?” She moved toward Stacie and put an arm around her waist. “Only if you come over and watch.”

Stacie nodded again, just as vigorously. “I wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.”

Aubrey chuckled and kissed the tip of Stacie’s nose. She took her hand and led her to the piano, then sat on the bench. “You’ll have to watch from the side, I’m afraid I can’t share the bench for this one.”

“I understand. I just want to watch your hands. I still can’t believe they move that fast.” Stacie smiled shyly.

“It’s my fingers that really do the work,” Aubrey winked. She closed her eyes and sat up straight. After a centering breath she leaned slightly forward in anticipation of the first few notes, but stopped a heartbeat before she dove in. She shot a quick playful glance at Stacie, “Ready?”

Stacie’s eyes twinkled and she nodded.

Aubrey let her fingers fly as she raced through the etude again. Once again she was consumed by the piano, the rest of the world lost as she focused on the music. When it was over she felt the same rush of exhilaration she’d felt earlier that evening. She raised her eyebrow at Stacie, “How did I do, Doc?”

Stacie slid onto the bench beside Aubrey and lifted her left hand. “It’s amazing.” She shook her head as she kissed each one of Aubrey’s fingers. “I still can’t believe petty politics keeps you from sharing this gift with the world.” She looked up into Aubrey’s eyes. “It isn’t fair.”

Aubrey blushed and turned her hand to cup Stacie’s cheek. “You’re the only audience I really need.”

“Lucky me.” Stacie closed her eyes and held Aubrey’s hand against her cheek. “You really are amazing.”

Aubrey traced Stacie’s cheek with her thumb. “I’m well trained and I spent my formative years practicing constantly. You know what’s amazing?” She looked into Stacie’s eyes. “You can make my heart race faster than any piece of music.”

Stacie giggled. “That’s pretty fast, Princess. Do I need to get you a heart monitor?” She smiled as she teased. “Thanks for letting me meet Mack. It’s nice to hear a little about you before I knew you.”

Aubrey wrapped her arm around Stacie’s shoulder and laughed, “I guess he’s my Roberta. He’s been the closest thing to a father I’ve ever had, and he’s the one with the stories. Even if they’re not all flattering.” She leaned her head against Stacie’s head. “I’m glad you like him.”

“He’s a doll.” Stacie giggled again. “I swear he is right out of central casting with his gruff manner and heart of gold. I’m glad you pestered him.” She wrapped her arms around Aubrey’s waist. “I’m even more glad you don’t have to haunt the TU music building basement anymore.”

“When I think of the hours I spent on that furniture,” Aubrey shuddered. “You couldn’t pay me to sit in those stuffed chairs in the lounge these days. God only knows what’s hiding in the fabric.” She closed the keyboard lid with her free hand. “It was a safe place, though. Music was always a place I could retreat to when people were less than kind.”

Stacie growled under her breath. “Well, you got me now, Princess. Anyone looks at you sideways and I’m gonna ream them a new hole.”

Aubrey giggled and squeezed Stacie, “Nah, just kiss me and make them jealous that I got the sexiest smartest girl in the room.”

“I can do that,” Stacie whispered softly as she proceeded to follow through. “Although I cannot deny I’m probably the smartest in most rooms, I will argue to the death about being the sexiest.” She murmured quietly. “You have no idea what watching those lightning fast fingers does to me.”

“Yeah?” Aubrey ran her fingertips up Stacie’s side. “Those skills are useful in other ways, too.” She used her other hand to drum out a quick pattern with her fingers on Stacie’s upper thigh, her eyes dancing as she watched Stacie’s face.

Stacie giggled again before lifting a hand to tangle into Aubrey’s hair. “Keep that up, Princess. We won’t make it to the bedroom again, and we will have to deal with pissed off housekeeping.” She kissed Aubrey, nibbling at her lip. “We wouldn’t want that, would we?” Her voice was nearly a growl.

“Hm,” Aubrey hummed against Stacie’s lips. “This bench suddenly feels far too small.” Her hands moved through Stacie’s hair. “I have a strong desire to lay you out across the top of this piano, but I can’t bring myself to risk it. You’d better get me to the bedroom, Doc.”

Chapter Text

Chloe had just finished her shower after work and was choosing her outfit for karaoke. Did she want to be girly or was it a good night for slacks? She didn’t want anything too overtly sexy, but didn’t want to look all buttoned up, either. When her phone rang she grabbed it from the bed without looking. “What should I wear?” She asked, thinking it was probably Aubrey.

“As little as possible,” a familiar male voice responded.

Chloe was startled. “Tom?”

“What’s the deal with you going to a spa the week I got back in town, Red? I thought we had a date.”

“It was never written in stone when and where,” Chloe huffed. “I’ve never been at your beck and call, you know. You have to call me and make a real date and treat me like the respectable girl I am.” Chloe sat on the edge of the bed, her towel wrapped around her.

“Right. Decorum is important,” Tom acquiesced. “Are you busy tomorrow night for the date you promised me months ago?”

Chloe pursed her lips. She’d promised. And it wasn’t a random guy, it was Tom. “Let me check my calendar,” she teased.

“Blow em off, Red. Come dancing with me tomorrow night. Wear that little black dress with the lace and let’s put on a good show. I’ve been thinking about it forever. 7:00?”

Chloe tilted her head and smiled, “Sure. 7:00. I’ll see if I still have that particular dress. No promises. You just make sure there’s a good band.”

Tom grinned, “On it. I’ll tell you all about my trip.”

Chloe nodded, “See you tomorrow, Tom.”

“Tomorrow,” he replied and disconnected.

Chloe sat with the phone in her lap, staring at the closet. Part of her was excited about the date. Tom always promised a good time, and she knew they were a knockout couple when they stepped out together. But part of her kind of wished Tom had just stayed out of town.

She sighed and tapped her phone again. She texted Beca.

Chloe: Hey beautiful. I need to talk. Face to face. Have time around karaoke tonight?

Beca was already driving toward downtown. When she reached a stop light, she checked her phone. With one eye on the signal she typed back.

Beca: can be at your place in 5 will that do?

Chloe hopped off the bed, dropped the towel, and grabbed one of her favorite green dresses.

Chloe: yep that works

Beca looked again at the next light and changed her course. She pulled up to Chloe’s house in her green 2008 dodge conversion van and parked on the street, afraid it was too big for the driveway. Beca hopped out and headed to the front door.

Chloe was still putting in her earrings as she opened the door. She couldn’t help smiling when she felt the new way her tummy flipped at the sight of those laughing blue eyes. “Hey,” she held one arm out for a hug as she finished fiddling with her ear.

Beca slipped into the embrace and squeezed Chloe. “You look great, by the way. Green is a great color on you.” She pulled back and studied Chloe’s eyes. “You okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” Chloe closed the door and gestured for Beca to sit on the couch. “I’m fine, just some old news turned back up and I have to handle it. Are you sure you have time before work?”

Beca nodded, “As long as I have the clipboard out by 6:30 I’m golden, though most people don’t start showing up till 7.:00” Beca sat down and leaned forward. “What’s up?”

Chloe sat so that she was facing Beca. “Tom,” she said simply. “Tom is up. When he went out of town a few months ago I promised him a date when he got back. Now he’s back,” she shrugged a little bit, watching Beca’s face closely.

Beca nodded. She looked down at her hands and then back up at Chloe. “We said it was okay you dated, Chloe.” She smiled softly. “You gotta be free to be you, right?”

“Right,” Chloe nodded. “Here’s the thing. I’ve only slept with one person in the last year and a half. I mean, besides you,” Chloe glanced quickly up at Beca. “Everybody thinks because I’m always going out I’m also falling into beds constantly. That got old a while back. Boys are just getting more stupid.” She trailed off.

Beca’s smile slowly spread. “Yeah, I remember you said that.” She sat back. “I’m not going to judge you for sleeping with anyone, Bright Eyes. You want no strings. I’m giving you as much room as I know how.” She tilted her head to one side. “What are you worried about?”

“I just feel like I need to let you know, I’ve had sort of an arrangement with Tom for a while. We go out once every few months, usually as a plus one for a work event. He dresses well, never misses the gym, and likes the game. Whenever we go out I can feel everyone watching. Even if we’re just having dinner, there are eyes on us. When we walk into rooms together heads turn.” She blushed as she felt her pulse speed up. “It sounds narcissistic, and I know it’s just my hair and my ability to wear clothes because it’s literally what I do for a living. But we get noticed.” Chloe’s eyes were almost predatory when she looked up at Beca.

Beca’s smiled turned to a smirk. “Why not? I know you like being watched.”

“Hm,” Chloe licked her lips and looked away. She took a deep breath. “Anyway, by the end of the evening I’m usually, well,” she looked at Beca and quickly down again, “let’s say the clothes don’t make it all the way into the hallway sometimes.” She blinked and breathed again. “And I felt like you should know that might happen.” Chloe shrugged, “I know we agreed, I know no strings, but I wanted you to know. It seems respectful, I guess.”

Beca nodded again. “I appreciate it.” She stood up and offered a hand. “You gotta be you, right?” She smirked again. “How about I give you a ride to karaoke? It’s not the same, but I bet you can get a few of those guys hot and bothered, just to warm up for your date.”

Chloe accepted the hand and stood close to Beca without dropping it. “I’ll bet people would look at us together, too. You’re hotter than he could ever be, and you really make me laugh.” She leaned forward and placed a light kiss on the corner of Beca’s mouth, then leaned back again and wiped away her lipstick with her thumb.

Beca swallowed hard. “Yeah, well, I have no doubts you draw eyes wherever you go.” She chuckled. “Caught my attention first night. When you were with one of those dumb boys.” She winked. “I hope you have a really good time.” It was hard to say the words, but she managed it. Then she rolled her eyes. “I can’t say it won’t bother me. But that’s my problem, not yours. Okay?”

Chloe nodded and squeezed Beca’s hand. “Tomorrow is a long time away. Let’s enjoy our evening. I get to show up with the rock star,” she grinned and her eyes danced.

Beca laughed, “I’m just the kJ tonight. Nothing special. Just showing other people off.” She bowed and gestured to the door. “Your chariot awaits.”

“You’re still on a stage, right?” Chloe bounced toward the door, still holding Beca’s hand. She turned to lock it behind them, then stopped and stared at the old green van parked on the street. “That’s you, isn’t it?” She turned laughing eyes toward Beca.

Beca nodded with a grin. “Holds all the equipment. You ready to be seen in it?”

Chloe looked like she had to consider it. “You already said I look good in green, didn’t you?”

“Ya do,” Beca nodded as she looked Chloe up and down. “You most certainly do.”

Chloe felt a blush creeping up her cheeks. “My god, Beca, just undress me on the lawn,” she whispered in a playful tone. “Load me into that machine of yours before I try to take you back inside.”

Beca smirked, “Just had to have one last look, Bright Eyes, in case Tom sweeps you off your feet tomorrow. I’ll be good, now.” She walked to the van and opened the passenger side door.

Chloe climbed inside, waving her fingers at the curtains Mrs. Johnson was sitting behind. Maybe tonight would turn out to be a fun one after all.

 

Ashley elbowed Jessica and pointed to the far end of the restaurant. “I’m so confused.”

Jessica followed Ashley’s eyes and saw Chloe helping Beca bring in the karaoke machine. She arched an eyebrow. “You and me both, sister.”

Just then Stacie entered the bar and teased them both. “What are you gawking…” she stopped when she saw the same thing, then looked at Aubrey.

Aubrey followed Stacie’s gaze and laughed. “I told you.”

Jessica looked at Aubrey, “Told her what?”

Aubrey grinned, watching the carefree smile on Chloe’s face and the natural way she seemed to chat with Beca. Clearly she wasn’t gaming with her anymore. “I told Stacie that Chloe’s in love.” She darted a quick glance around the three faces. “Do not breathe a word to her that I said it. She’s still skittish. But it looks like they’ve had a good conversation or two, don’t you think?”

Jessica looked worriedly at Ashley who was still studying the pair.

Stacie tilted her head to one side, “Beca seems comfortable. But the energy is all wrong.” She looked at Aubrey, “I don’t think they’re sleeping together yet.”

Ashley snorted, “You are so damn handy to have around.”

Jessica nodded, “Like gaydar but it’s sexdar.”

“The Hunter is never wrong,” Aubrey winked.

“I just mean,” Stacie laughed at her friends, “Chloe is on the make. She’d love to sleep with Beca again. But Grumpy has a shield up. She is listening, and attending, but her body language is turned away. She’s protecting herself.” Stacie shrugged.

“That sounds suspiciously close to scientific,” Aubrey leaned closer to Stacie. She looked back at the two setting up the stage. “I guess we’ll find out eventually, right?”

Jessica stared at Stacie. “You should hire yourself out, Stac. You really are valuable to have around.

Chloe leaned across the sound board to catch Beca’s attention. “Do you think they don’t realize we can feel them staring like that? Is there something wrong with my dress?” She did a quick turn. “Tell me I didn’t tuck it into my hose or anything?”

Beca snorted, “of course you didn’t. You just catch the eye of everyone, even your friends, when you walk in. I got this. Go give them shit about staring.” She chuckled as she set out the clipboard and headed back to the van for the mic stands.

Chloe smirked, “Maybe they were looking at you.” She winked and hopped off the edge of the stage. Her walk had just the tiniest extra wiggle as she crossed the room. “Hey,” she greeted her friends. “Whatcha talking about?”

Aubrey blushed. “Hey, Chlo. Just talking about how awesome Stacie is.”

Jessica nodded agreement.

Stacie snorted. “Missed you last week. Glad to have you back.”

Ashley nodded, “Yeah, you gonna sing with us this week?”

“I’m sure I’ll find something later,” Chloe smiled. “Beca invited me to sit in with her, I’m going to keep her company between announcements.” She gestured toward the bar, “Speaking of, I think a warm Guinness and cold Chardonnay would set us up perfectly when you’re ready, Ashley.” Chloe shook her head again, “You guys still seem a little weird. But yeah, it’s good to be back. This place has definitely grown on me.”

Ashley quickly started the Guinness, and moved to pour a glass of wine before she topped off the beer.

Stacie shrugged, “We’re always weird.” She leaned over and blew in Aubrey’s ear. “It’s fun getting people revved up.

Aubrey giggled and put her hand up to her ear, “All you have to do is look at me, Doc. But you already knew that.” She ran a quick finger up Stacie’s ribs, aiming for the ticklish spot.

“Ashley,” Jessica said in a serious tone, “You’ll need to keep the fire extinguisher close tonight. I can sense it.”

Ashley laughed and snorted. “Just try to keep it from getting too steamy, girls? At least wait until after the littles are out of the lobby and tucked in their beds, okay?”

Stacie rolled her eyes, “I suppose. But that means we get to bed later.” She kissed the side of Aubrey’s head. “Do you mind, Princess?”

Aubrey leaned to kiss the side of Stacie’s head. “You know how much I like to watch other people watch you, just so they all know I’m walking out with the prize when we go,” she said in a low voice, her eyes on Stacies eyes.

Ashley cleared her throat as she put the wine and the beer on the bar for Chloe. “Princess?”

Stacie blushed. “Oops. Well, it’s a joke that started because she and Chloe,” she pointed at the pair in question, “call each other Elf, and Aubrey’s name means Elf-ruler.”

“Elf-ruler?” It was Chloe’s turn to be surprised. “Are you implying she’s the boss of me?” She glared playfully at Stacie.

Stacie smirked, “If the shoe fits, Chloe.”

Ashley raised her hand, “But hold on, Doc wasn’t an elf, he’s a dwarf.”

Stacie winced. “Oh, that.” She glanced at Aubrey and her neck started turning red. “Um, Dr. Conrad isn’t my father, Ash. I hold a PhD.”

Aubrey kissed Stacie’s cheek proudly, “She’s brilliant, Ashley. Absolutely brilliant.”

Chloe twisted her lips to one side and nodded at Stacie. “That’s fair. I probably deserve it for stealing Aubrey’s time so much lately. But I refuse to ever refer to her as Princess.”

Ashley shook her head, “Hold up. Princess is fake but Doc is real? And you have a PhD? In what? Cuticle care?”

Stacie snorted, “It is important, but no.” Her eyes danced as she looked from Jessica to Ashley, “I have a PhD in nanobiometrics.” She pointed at the smart ring Jessica wore. “I hold that patent.”

Jessica held up her hand and looked around where it had been on the bar. “Which patent?”

“The blinky lights.” Stacie teased. “I improved the original design so it was more accurate at closer range, otherwise the big and clunky watch would still be the norm.” She shrugged, “But I’d rather talk about what we’re singing tonight.”

Jessica twisted the ring on her finger, watching the sensor lights blink. “Oh.”

Aubrey looked worriedly at Stacie, “Sorry I blew your cover. It just slipped out. I mean, you literally blew in my ear,” she gestured vaguely toward the side of her head.

Chloe picked up the drinks. “I can’t wait for the show to start,” she smiled and turned back toward the stage.

Stacie shrugged and looked at the still thunderstruck Ashley. “Bottle of Chardonnay when you get a chance? I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.” She moved to follow Chloe but stopped at the usual table.

Ashley nodded slowly. Then she muttered, “One week. It’s only been one fucking week. We got a princess, a PhD and a redhead in love. Shit! What’s next?”

Jessica shook her head, still looking at her ring. “The patent, Ash.”

Aubrey followed closely behind Stacie, who seemed in rare form tonight. She hurried to hold Stacie’s chair so she could sit down, then leaned to whisper in her ear, “Long, but maybe not too long?”

Stacie winked and nodded as she sat down.

Ashley popped open the bottle of wine. “I swear, next thing you are gonna tell me you are related to the Queen of England.”

“Well, actually,” Jessica began.

“Don’t even start!” Ashley growled before she moved to take the bottle to the table.

Chapter Text

After a tame karaoke night, Beca was packing up and said to Chloe, “What happened when you talked to the girls? None of them played like usual.”

Chloe handed Beca a cord and shrugged. “I think Stacie hadn’t told anyone about her PhD for some reason, and Aubrey kind of let it slip. If I had a PhD I’d probably wear a little badge all the time so everyone would ask me about it.”

Beca froze. She turned to look at Chloe. “Wait, what?”

Chloe blinked back at Beca, “You didn’t know either?”

“No.” Beca shook her head. “Shit, she’s younger than me, and has a goddamn PhD? Is she a genius or something?”

Chloe bit her lip and nodded, “Seems to be. Was in college in her early teens, if I remember right. But apparently that’s privileged information. I’m going to have to kill you now.”

Beca laughed. “That is so fucking unfair! Smart and that body? Shit.” She sat on her heels.

“I know, right?” Chloe shook her head. “But she uses her power for good, Becs. I guess the sexy stuff really is just for fun.” Chloe shrugged, “Aubrey seems to like it.” She looked down where Beca was crouching, “Hey, you’re no slouch yourself, you know. Musical genius just doesn’t come with a degree, and your body can hold up to hers any day of the week.” Chloe paused, looking at a Beca more intently, “Every day of the week.”

Beca looked up and studied Chloe. “I don’t even know what to say to that.” She laughed and returned to packing up. “I get compliments, for my music or sometimes my look. But.” She shook her head. “Anyway, thanks.” She picked up the bag full of mics. “This is the last of it. Ready to go back to your place?”

“Sure,” Chloe smiled and tucked her hand in Beca’s arm. “Have you named this glorious van yet?” She asked as they walked out the back.

“Never did.” Beca shrugged. “She’s game though. Came across the continental divide and everything.” She dropped the last of the equipment in the back and closed the sliding door before walking Chloe to the passenger side and holding that door open. “Have an idea?”

Chloe climbed into the seat, “Let me think.” She waited for Beca, going over names in her head.

Beca walked around and got in the van, started it up and started to make her way out of the garage. She glanced to the side, as if memorizing what it looked like to have Chloe sitting there.

Chloe caught Beca’s intense gaze and held her breath for a moment. She swallowed, then in a light tone said, “Elphaba.”

“That’s perfect,” Beca laughed. “She’s soooo green.”

“Verdigris, even,” Chloe laughed. “I’ll probably call her Elphie if you don’t think she’ll mind?”

Beca shook her head, “I think she’ll like it.” She turned to head toward Riverside. “Got time for an adventure?”

Chloe sat forward and looked at Beca. Her eyes lit up, “I always have time for an adventure.”

“It’s nothing special. I just,” Beca shrugged, “not ready to give up the night.” She turned down Riverside.

“Yeah,” Chloe said in a quieter voice. Then she perked up, “A mysterious Beca adventure. I am intrigued.” Instead of watching out the windshield she turned to watch Beca, admiring the way the dash lights caused her eyes to sparkle and her skin seem to glow softly.

Beca’s eyes stayed on the road until she found the parking lot she had been looking for. With a small smile, she pulled into the same lot they’d come to a couple of weeks ago. “Wanna swing?” She asked lightly.

Chloe swallowed again and felt her heart swell. She nodded. “Yeah,” she said, but it came out softer than she’d intended. “I would love to,” she said more strongly. “Shall I push you this time?”

Beca shook her head. “Nah, there are two swings, right?” She hopped out of the car and moved around to help Chloe down. “Not fair when you are wearing a dress, but I thought we could talk a little more.”

Chloe accepted Beca’s hand and stepped out of the van. “Hang on,” she said as she bent down to take off her heels. “That’s better.” She held her hand out again for Beca. “Lead on, sweetie. I like talking with you.”

Beca closed the door and led the way to the swings. She leaned against the poles the held that set together. “I don’t touch,” she laughed at herself. “But I’ll help you get comfy and I’ll sit on the cement there.” She pointed at the curb surrounding the playground.

Chloe looked from the swing to the cement. “Come on,” she tugged at Beca’s hand. “We can sit together on that bench. It’s every bit as good as a swing. It’s still on the playground.”

“Okay,” Beca laughed as she let Chloe tug her along.

Chloe settled onto the bench, turned a little sideways so she could face Beca. “See? Now we’ll be eye to eye. That’s a good talking position, don’t you think?”

Beca looked down then back up with a shy smile. “Yeah. It’s nice.” She looked down again and took a deep breath. “I realized you’ve been really open about your dating life and other than my junior high girlfriend you don’t know much about mine.”

Chloe nodded. “Oh,” she said softly. “I’ve hung out with you and seen you with my own eyes, I’m sure you’ve got them lining up,” she smiled at Beca.

“I have no idea where you get that idea.” Beca laughed and looked at the sky. “Dylan and I stayed close, mostly because my Aunt helped us both realize we were awesome friends, but too young for anything else. If we still wanted to get together after she went to Chicago and I went to LA then it was meant to be.” Beca shrugged. “I was maid of honor at her wedding.”

Chloe was watching Beca closely, “That sounds kind of nice. Unless you were unhappy to lose her? You seem to get along these days,” Chloe’s brows knitted. “Tell me she didn’t break your heart? She’s so much taller than I am, all I could probably do is kick her shins.”

Beca laughed, “No, we’re good. She fell in love with a composer.” Beca shrugged. “I tried to do the guy thing,” she shook her head, “it always felt like I was kissing my brother.” She shuddered. “So, not a switch hitter.”

Chloe chuckled, “It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, slugger. Nobody knows what to do with a switch hitter. They just get confused or offended.” She glanced sideways at Beca, “Although I have to admit the girls have always done more for me than the boys.” She shook her head, “Sorry, we were talking about your dating life?”

Beca chuckled, “It’s okay. I’m not good at this stuff. The tldr is I have a lousy picker. I always pick the one I can’t have.” She laughed, “And then I get stupid. One time I got drunk and picked a fight. Jess had to literally bail me out. The guy dropped charges, embarrassed a girl my size had knocked him out.” She blushed. “Jess still teases me about her Beca’s bail money jar.” Beca looked at the ground. “So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m not gonna be stupid. You were totally straight about what you wanted. It’s just not what I want.”

“Okay,” Chloe stared at Beca. She looked out across the river peeking through the trees. “That’s fair,” she said softly. She pulled her phone from her bra and started typing.

Beca started to fidget with her hands, unsure what to say now that Chloe was apparently done with the conversation.

Chloe tapped the screen with a flourish and put the phone away. She turned back toward Beca. “I did think I was clear about what I wanted, but now I want to make absolute certain. Tell me what you understand that I want.”

“I’m sorry?” Beca frowned. She didn’t understand.

“What do I want, sweetie?” Chloe’s tone was soft. “I’ve told you about my fears, and I’ve told you about a previous commitment I didn’t feel like I could dodge, but none of that explains what I want.” She leaned so she could see Beca’s eyes. “What do you think I want?”

“I don’t know what you want.” Beca admitted. “I know what you don’t want. You don’t want commitments, you don’t want strings.” She stopped, “Oh wait, you want laughs. That part I’m good with.” She smiled and rolled her eyes. “That’s the one thing I’m good for. A few laughs.”

Chloe shook her head. “See? I wasn’t clear enough. What I want is you, Beca. I don’t care if we’re sitting on a park bench or making out at karaoke. I’m being honest, I’m not changing who I am. Because who I am today is different from who I was a month ago.”

Beca tilted her head to one side. “But you said….” She broke off, “You want me?” Her voice cracked.

Chloe tried not to laugh but a chuckle still managed to escape. She was grinning goofily. “You!” She said in a soft voice. Then she repeated it loudly, “You! All I want in this world is to sit across from Beca Effin Mitchell and hold her hand and look into her eyes and know that she cares as deeply for me as I care for her.” Chloe looked over at Beca again, her eyebrow arched. “Just you.”

That slow smile made its way across Beca’s face. “Wait….does that mean that maybe, just this once, my picker wasn’t wrong?” Her voice kept getting quieter as if she still didn’t believe it.

“Why do I suddenly feel like a piece of fruit?” Chloe was still grinning. She didn’t seem to be able to stop.

Beca laughed out loud. “I am sure I can make a blue comment but that would be distracting not that you aren’t already distracting as hell. But I just wanna… oh shit, I’m rambling, aren’t I?” She bit her lower lip.

Chloe just kept grinning. “I just wanted to be clear,” she said softly, “about what I want.”

Beca studied Chloe and smiled. “Then I guess I oughta be clear too. There isn’t anyone else I’d rather sit across a table from. Or next to in a beat up van, or behind a karaoke machine.”

“Then tell me, how can we have what we want?” Chloe tilted her head and watched Beca. “It’s important to me.”

Beca’s smile faltered. “I don’t know.” She put her head down on the back of Chloe’s hand. “Maybe we should wait and talk about it after your date tomorrow.”

“Oh, that,” Chloe smirked. “I kind of just told Tom that I’ve decided to adult after all and I’m unavailable as of this very moment.”

Beca’s head snapped up. “You… but… you said…” she closed her mouth again and just watched Chloe.

Chloe shrugged. “You’ll still be interested in me if I’m adulting?” She gave Beca another sidelong glance. “I’ll bet we could do some really intense adulting together if we concentrated just right.”

“Define adulting?” Beca teased. “Especially the kind that means you aren’t going out with a guy with whom your clothes just fall off.”

Chloe giggled. “Adulting means no more arrangements. All the strings. All the scary. All the commitment.” She looked at the ground. “I’ve come to realize, Beca, that if I lost you today it would hurt just as deeply as it would hurt if I lost you three, five, ten years from now. But imagine the memories I’ll get in those years?”

Beca slid closer. “I’m not planning on going anywhere, Bright Eyes. I’ll be here as long as you want me to be.” She moved her head around trying to meet Chloe’s eyes.

Chloe glanced away from Beca, then straight into her eyes. “You can’t know that for sure. But you want to be here now, and I can be so happy with having you now I’m willing to risk the later.” She blinked, “If you’ll have me. For now.”

Beca nodded. “Right. You still don’t know me.” She smiled, “But you will. In the meantime, Miss Beale, you gotta clear up one more thing you said.”

Chloe tilted her head, “What’s that?”

“I don’t need a Mitchell clone. None of that losing yourself shit. I happen to think you are awesome as fuck and I want you to be you.” Beca grinned. “Got it?”

Chloe chuckled, “Yeah. I’ve been me by myself for a long time now, Miss Mitchell. I’m pretty clear where I end and you begin. But you can keep an eye on that if it worries you.”

Beca smirked, “Lots of things I plan to keep my eye on.” She pulled back and looked Chloe up and down again, just as she had earlier in the evening. Then she softened. “I’m gonna show you.”

“I thought you were the one who liked to watch,” Chloe smirked.

“Oh, I do like to watch,” Beca lifted Chloe’s hand and kissed the back of it. “Especially you.” She kissed another knuckle. “But I’m gonna learn ya.” She winked. “I’m not the leaving kind.” Then she kissed another knuckle.

Chloe had felt Beca’s gaze up and down her as if it had been Beca’s hands. She felt a small shiver with each knuckle Beca kissed. “I have a couple of questions,” she said in a voice that refused to rise over a whisper.

“Sure,” Beca smiled slowly.

“Will you please kiss me full on the lips right now,” Chloe’s eyes danced, “and then will you please take me home and come to bed with me and hold me all night long until I wake up too early and then hold me as we fall back to sleep together?”

Beca laughed. She leaned forward and pressed her lips against Chloe’s, softly but surely.

A few hours later Chloe opened her eyes to the bright sunlight creeping under the curtains of her room. She felt Beca’s protective arm around her and sighed. She had to get up. As gently as she could, Chloe slid out from under Beca’s arm and tiptoed to the bathroom.

Beca felt Chloe go, but didn’t move. Didn’t even open her eyes. She just…waited.

Chloe crept back into the room. Beca hadn’t moved at all. As carefully as possible, Chloe slipped back under Beca’s arm. She relaxed, she’d gotten in and out without waking Beca up.

Beca smiled slowly before leaning forward to place a kiss on Chloe’s shoulder.

Chloe leaned her head back. “You’re asleep,” she said softly.

“Missed you.” Beca answered, just as softly.

Chloe turned in Beca’s embrace. “You know last night when I said I wanted you to hold me as we fell back to sleep this morning?”

Beca nodded.

Chloe ran a series of soft kisses along Beca’s collarbone. “I might have left out a small detail,” she whispered.

Beca tilted her head to one side, both in a questioning pose and to provide better access.

“Mhm,” Chloe answered as if Beca had asked a question. “Maybe between the bathroom and the sleeping,” she trailed her tongue along Beca’s neck until she nibbled at Beca’s earlobe, “maybe there was something I forgot to mention.”

“Mmmmmm,” Beca answered, her voice a little gravelly. “We’re pretty clear we aren’t gonna be sharing with anyone else anytime soon, I’m thinking.” She nuzzled Chloe’s hair.

“Well I’m not,” Chloe leaned back and looked at Beca, her eyes twinkling. “You?”

Beca pulled back to look Chloe in the eyes. “Are you kidding? Have you seen you?” She kissed Chloe’s nose. “No one else exists.”

Chloe giggled and quickly leaned in to kiss Beca. “You exist,” she whispered against Beca’s lips. “You and me and nobody else.” Chloe leaned back again. “Question.”

“Sure.” Beca replied quietly.

“Will you please make long, slow, passionate, exclusive love to me this morning as if no one else in the world exists except you and me? And when we’re tired and need to rest and fall asleep, when we wake up will you allow me to do the same for you?”

Beca answered as only a wise woman could. She captured Chloe’s lips in a long, slow, passionate and exclusive kiss.

Chapter Text

Aubrey was lying in bed watching the clock. She’d been awake for about an hour, but she hadn’t wanted to move. Stacie’s arm was still heavy across her side, and she wanted Stacie to sleep as long as possible. The numbers changed. 6:31.

Aubrey thought about the previous night. Nothing had been wrong, but the playful sexy edge that was usually part of karaoke was missing. Stacie’s song was tame compared to her usual. They’d still teased one another until they couldn’t wait to get upstairs, but Aubrey was worried she’d messed up more than Stacie was letting on.

Stacie stirred. She shook her head against the pillow, trying to get the image of Ashley laughing at her out of her mind.

Aubrey immediately began to stroke Stacie’s hand. “Shh, it’s early,” she whispered.

Stacie opened her eyes, smiled at Aubrey and sighed. “I’m sorry I woke you.” She started to pull away.

Aubrey closed her hand on Stacie’s, “No worries, come back. I’ve been awake for a while.”

“Are you okay?” Stacie asked, her voice a little gravelly. She allowed Aubrey to tug her close again, moving her head onto Aubrey’s shoulder.

Aubrey nodded, “I owe you an apology.” She leaned her head sideways against Stacie’s. “I’m sorry I gave away your secret. It wasn’t mine to share.”

Stacie smiled and leaned up to kiss Aubrey’s cheek. “It’s okay. That I’m a scientist, that I hold patents, that stuff shouldn’t be a big nasty secret. I’m just supposed to not talk about products until after they reach market.” She put her head down again. “But I got in the habit when people would laugh at me. I don’t know what I’d do if…” she broke off.

Aubrey turned in Stacie’s arms so she could look at her directly. “They were just surprised, love. I can’t imagine them thinking less of you when you’re so much more than they realized. I’m still sorry I opened that can of worms, though. I added a stressor for you when all I really want is for you to be comfortable. I’m clumsy sometimes.” She stroked Stacie’s face, “If they aren’t who I think they are then it will be truly sad, but we’ll find another place to play.”

“I guess you are right.” Stacie’s voice shook. “They were my first friends, you know? I mean, people who asked about me, not giving a shit what I could do for them except draw a crowd or make them laugh. The closest I got to being teased about my age was Beca calling me Squirt.” A tear fell from her eye. “I know, you are here and that should be all that matters, but…” she broke off again.

Aubrey’s heart broke a little, “Oh, love.” She blinked away her own tears that were threatening. “I still have faith they won’t be like that. Look at Chloe, she’s known for a while now and it didn’t change a thing about how she treats you.”

Stacie managed a smile. “That’s true. And if she and Beca hook up, Beca is gonna have to not be a little shit about it.” She looked up at Aubrey. “It’s gonna be okay, like you said.” She put her head down again, “But I wish it wasn’t a week before the next karaoke, just to be sure.”

Aubrey thought for a minute. “Wait, Ashley’s the daytime bartender all week, right?”

Stacie nodded. “Yeah. The only night she works late is karaoke night.”

“We could go downstairs for lunch, test the waters,” Aubrey offered.

“But she’s at work. She can play on Thursday because Stephanie is there to give her ‘breaks.’ She’ll be on good behavior today, even if she wanted to tease me.” Stacie sighed.

“Right,” Aubrey sighed and leaned back against the pillows. “A week does seem like a long time. Too bad there’s not karaoke on Fridays.”

Stacie nodded, then tilted her head and bit her lip. “We could go up to the Skylight.”

Aubrey looked at Stacie, “That’s right, Beca’s show is tonight. Ashley and Jessica always go on Fridays, they said so a couple of weeks ago. What do you say, Doc? Want to go to a show with some friends?”

“I think so.” She sat up to look at Aubrey. “I can call for a reservation. They only reserve for residents. I’ll have to identify as Dr. A. Conrad. And I’ll probably put on the act.” She continued to bite her lip. “I’ll be too nervous otherwise.”

Aubrey nodded, “I don’t mind the act as long as the mask goes away when we’re alone. Sexy Stacie is, well, sexy. And it’s kind of impressive that you can be such an airhead in spite of your intellect.” She paused, “Wait, your first initial is A?”

“Anastasia.” Stacie rolled her eyes, “Yet something else I get teased about.” She looked over at Aubrey. “Should I call for reservations?”

“Anastasia is a regal and elegant name, don’t ever let any jealous person with a pedestrian name make you believe otherwise. Yes, please, take me upstairs tonight?” Aubrey grinned.

Stacie relaxed. She leaned over and kissed Aubrey tenderly. “How can anything go wrong with you by my side?”

 

Chloe grabbed her phone with a growl. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and she was still tangled up in bed with Beca, both of them fast asleep. The damn phone wouldn’t stop buzzing, though, so she had to pick it up.

“Oh,” she said, startled. The screen was full of alerts from Tom. He’d texted several times. When she hadn’t answered he’d gone to the boutique. When she wasn’t there he’d threatened to come to the house. After that there were a series of missed calls. “Shit,” Chloe muttered and sat up in the bed. “Shit. Beca, sweetie, I need to get dressed,” she leaned to speak softly in Beca’s ear, tucking a stray lock of hair behind it gently.

Beca stirred at the movement. “What’s up?” She murmured. “Am I late to work?” She blinked.

Chloe smiled, “No, no. It’s okay. But Tom is coming here. I need to get dressed.” Her phone rang again and there was a knock at the door. “Correction, Tom is here. I’ll be back.” Chloe slipped from the bed and put on her robe. She tried vainly to tame her hair a little bit as she walked down the hall. When the knocking came again she called out, “I’m on my way. Fuck, wake up the neighborhood why don’t you?”

Chloe opened the door and looked up at Tom. “Fuck, wake up the neighborhood why don’t you?” She repeated. “What the hell, Tom?”

Beca took a deep breath. She paused to consider what to do. “First of all, Mitchell. Get dressed.” She put on her bra and jeans from the night before but left the bottom of her black blouse unbuttoned so she could tie it. It made it a little less formal. She used the hairbrush she always kept in her bag and started working the tangles out. One ear was listening carefully to the sound of the voices in the front room.

Tom’s thunderous expression faded a bit when he saw that Chloe was disheveled and had clearly been in bed most of the day. “You really have a headache? When they told me you called in I thought you were faking it.”

“Thanks for that insight into my character,” Chloe snarked as she leaned against the door jamb. “What do you want, Tom?”

“Let me come in. I want you to tell me to my face what you told me on the phone last night,” he ran a hand through his hair. “I won’t stay long, I don’t want to make your headache worse.”

Chloe stared at him and considered. Finally she shrugged and walked away from the open door. She went to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee without looking over her shoulder.

Tom watched her go, then stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “What’s up, Red? Why the sudden cold shoulder? You never mentioned you were seeing anyone seriously. Are you seeing someone?”

Chloe finished prepping the coffee and turned back to look at Tom. “That’s a subject that’s never come up before. What if I am? Are you seeing anyone?”

Tom leaned against the kitchen door frame. “Well, yeah. You know I am. But nothing serious. Nothing to get in the way of our dates.”

“It is so none of my business, Tom.” Chloe collected two coffee cups from a cabinet. “You want some coffee?” She glanced over her shoulder. When he nodded, she grabbed a third mug.

Beca took a deep breath. She heard them move to the kitchen. On the one hand, Chloe seemed rather calm about the whole thing. Would Beca be making matters worse if she walked in? She sat in the bed, still barefoot, and waited. If the voices escalated she was definitely going in.

Chloe poured the coffee and splashed creamer into two of the mugs. She placed one in front of Tom. “I’ll be right back,” she said as she turned to carry the other down the hall.

Tom watched, his mouth slightly open. “You are faking it,” he called after her in an amused tone. “Tell him he can come out here,” Tom called as Chloe disappeared into the bedroom. He wasn’t sure she’d heard him, but he was ready to meet the man that had caused Chloe Beale to give up their steady play dates so abruptly.

Chloe stepped into the bedroom and sighed when she saw Beca fully clothed sitting on the bed. “Men are just a pain in the ass,” she said in a defeated tone as she sat next to Beca. “You being dressed right now is a crime,” she offered the coffee mug.

“It’s fixable.” Beca accepted the coffee. “Want me to come out there? I hate for you to face him alone.” She took a deep drink. “Thanks for remembering no cream.”

Chloe smiled and sipped from her own mug. “You don’t have to if you don’t want. I can get rid of him. He’s all talk and no trousers,” she smirked at Beca. “Otherwise he would have locked me down a long time ago, don’t you think?”

Beca snorted. “No. He’s a man. He thinks he is entitled to whatever he wants when he wants it and no responsibility to him.” Then she smirked, “But I’m not bitter.”

Chloe giggled and leaned over to kiss Beca’s cheek. “It’s up to you, but he’s my albatross. I can cut him loose.” She sighed and stood up. “I should get it over with, though. You don’t have to wear clothes for another couple of hours and that time is slipping away.” She grinned over her shoulder as she walked toward the door.

Beca hesitated, taking the time to sip at the black coffee. Was Chloe embarrassed by her? Is that why she didn’t just say she wanted them to face him together? “God, I suck at this stuff.” She muttered as she took another sip.

Beca: Jess! I need advice!
Jess: feed the dough first, then try the rosemary.
Beca: shut up. I’m at Chloe’s and her…what do I call it…her sometime dude showed up.
Beca: do I go out there and meet him? Or what?
Jess: wait. You stayed at Chloe’s and her boyfriend showed up?
Beca: not a boyfriend. A guy she dated a lot, though. She broke off a date for tonight so we could, you know, be exclusive.
Beca: and he showed up!
Jess: will you keep your temper?
Beca: yeah. But will I embarrass her?
Jess: better to find out now. I’d go out.
Beca: thanks Jess. Keep that jar handy if I fuck this up.
Jess: it’s full.

Beca put her phone in her pocket, picked up her coffee and headed toward the kitchen.

Meanwhile Chloe had settled into the dining room chair opposite Tom. He seemed amused. “What?” Chloe finally asked.

“This thing is serious, huh?” Tom gestured between the bedroom and Chloe. “I mean you look like you’ve been in bed for a day and a half, so I guess it is.” He shook his head a little. “I didn’t see it coming. Why didn’t you say something yesterday?”

Chloe glanced toward the hallway, “I wasn’t sure until yesterday,” she turned her eyes back to Tom. “But yeah, it’s serious.”

Tom nodded, studying his coffee cup. The room was quiet enough they could hear the clock ticking on the kitchen wall.

Beca thought about the lazy time they’d spent in bed, and how good Chloe looked in her robe still disheveled with her bed head. That put a smile on her face and a bit of arrogance in her walk. She turned the corner into the dining room and walked up to Chloe. She kissed the top of Chloe’s head and turned to greet Tom. “Hey. I’m Beca.” She sat down next to Chloe.

Tom’s eyes widened as he looked from Beca to Chloe.

Chloe shook her head, “We can do better than that.” She stood up and leaned over Beca, her finger under Beca’s chin. Chloe smiled softly as she claimed Beca’s lips. After their kiss she winked at Beca, still eye to eye. “Hi, beautiful.”

“Hey, Bright Eyes,” Beca smiled and replied softly.

Chloe put an arm around Beca’s shoulders, leaning a hip against her shoulder. She looked at Tom, head cocked and eyebrow raised.

Tom sat back on his chair. “Shit, Red.” He was conflicted. Seeing Chloe and this hot girl kissing that way was straight out of one of his late night fantasies. His mind slowly registered the fact that this woman was his permanent replacement. She was what Chloe chose for settling down. His face turned red. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Chloe smirked, “Dead serious, Tom. I’m not available tonight. Or any night. You need to find another playmate.”

Tom blinked. “Red, that’s a chick. You’re all serious with another girl? I didn’t know you were like that. What did I do wrong to turn you off boys?”

Chloe rolled her eyes, speechless for once.

Beca chuckled. “Here’s the question for you, dude. When was the last time you asked Chloe anything about her life?” She tilted her head to one side, “Before this week, when was the last time you talked to her at all?”

Tom looked at Beca, then back at Chloe, “That wasn’t how we worked.” He looked at Beca again. “I hope you’re ready to lose clients, Red. The upper crust in Tulsa doesn’t appreciate oddities.”

Chloe squeezed Beca’s shoulder, then stood up straight. “I think you should go, Tom. You got what you asked for, I told you in person. Go live your carefree life and don’t make our last private moment something we’ll both hate to remember.”

She walked over and offered him her hand. “We did have some very good years, didn’t we?”

Tom took the hand and looked into those clear blue eyes. He stood up and brought her hand to his lips. “Yeah,” he said gruffly. He looked over his shoulder at Beca, then shook his head and dropped Chloe’s hand. “It’s just too fucking bad. What a waste.”

Chloe was at the door, holding it open. “Bye, Tom,” she said firmly.

“Yeah,” Tom watched Chloe as he walked out slowly. “See ya around, Red. Good luck with all that,” he gestured back toward the kitchen but Chloe slammed the door before he finished.

Chloe turned toward Beca sheepishly, “Sorry. I had no idea he’d come looking for me.” She stood near the door, suddenly unsure of what to do next.

Beca shrugged. “He’s a guy.” She tilted her head to look at Chloe, “are you really going to lose clients over me?”

Chloe shrugged, “Maybe.” She walked back to the table and leaned to sit against it beside Beca. “But I’ll find new ones. Tom is an idiot. He’s been stuck in his white bread conservative castle so firmly that he has no idea what the real world is like. I mean, between you and me, name one fashion designer who is a straight arrow.”

“True enough. And your sorority girls will think it’s cool.” Beca winked. She leaned back in her chair. “Hungry?”

Chloe smirked, “Oh hell yeah, half of them are experimenting already. I’m going to gain status with you on my arm.” She leaned over to snag a quick kiss. “What kind of fortification would you like, doll? Breakfast or lunch?”

Beca grabbed Chloe around the waist. With a tug, Chloe landed on Beca’s lap. “Mmm, I dunno. Have I mentioned how sexy you are when you tell a guy off?”

Chloe giggled and put her arms around Beca’s neck. “You haven’t. Have I told you how sexy you are when you’re defending me from a backward dolt?”

“I am remiss.” Beca kissed Chloe soundly. “I was sitting back there, all worried you were embarrassed by me, that was why you didn’t just ask me to stand with you. I was wrong.” She rested her forehead against Chloe’s. “Thank you.”

Chloe shook her head slightly against Beca’s, “Oh my god, no. I just didn’t want you to have to deal with him if you didn’t want to. I love that you came out anyway. He was my mess, but it was nice mopping him up together.”

Beca smiled, “yeah. I like that. Together.”

Chapter Text

Beca pulled into the parking garage at the Mayo. She reached over to squeeze Chloe’s hand. “I’m sort of loving the idea of making our debut on a Friday night. I’m so glad you were done with boys that first time,” she teased with a wink.

Chloe squeezed Beca’s hand back. “I’m so glad I’m done with boys in general,” she grinned. “It’s going to be fun watching you sing knowing we’re going home together when it’s all over.”

“Yeah,” Beca leaned forward and kissed Chloe gently, then tidied her lipstick afterward. “We’re gonna have to get you out to the Overlook one of these days. Poor Skye is gonna think I don’t care about her anymore.” She chuckled. “Not that she notices I’m gone as long as I change the cat box and leave her food and water.”

Chloe tilted her head, “You named your house?”

Beca shook her head. “I think it was great grandma that named the house.” She shrugged. “It’s just been called that as long as I remember. You ready?”

“Hm,” Chloe nodded as if everybody’s grandparents named houses. “Yeah. Let’s get this evening started. I want to be seen walking in with the main attraction,” she winked.

Beca chuckled and got out of the car, walking around to open the door for Chloe before she offered her arm. “I’m gonna be walking in with the best looking lady there.”

Chloe accepted Beca’s arm, “We’re going to have to accept that we both get that honor.” While they waited for the elevator Chloe straightened Beca’s electric blue tie that just matched Chloe’s electric blue sheath dress. “Thanks for indulging me,” she grinned as she impulsively wrapped her fingers around the knot and pulled Beca closer.

Beca smiled as she snuck another kiss. “You are going to learn that I am terribly indulgent when it comes to you.” Then she pulled back. “But don’t tell a soul. I have a bad ass rep to protect.”

Chloe smirked and wrapped her hand in Beca’s elbow again. “If someone needs to be flipped off I will surely let you do the honors, Beca Effin Mitchell.”

Beca laughed as the elevator doors opened. She greeted Rachel at the hostess desk. “Hey, Rachel, you are here early.”

Rachel shuffled menus as she looked up. “One of the residents has a reservation. I put them up front next to your table.” She blinked and noticed the matching attire. “You have another guest?”

Beca smiled. “This is Chloe. Dylan won’t be here, just Ashley and Jessica.”

Chloe smiled, “Hi, Rachel.” She looked at Beca’s tie and worried if the matching was too much. Then she remembered how Beca had smiled when she suggested it and decided she didn’t care what anyone else thought. She gave Beca’s elbow a gentle squeeze. Chloe wasn’t used to the butterflies flittering around in her stomach.

“A pleasure to meet you, Chloe.” Rachel looked relieved. “I just wanted to be sure I didn’t have to change tables.”

Beca smiled and reassured her, “I promise I won’t ever bring more than three at a time without warning you.”

Rachel smiled, “Thank you. Have a good show.”

Beca nodded and escorted Chloe inside.

“You’re such a bad ass,” Chloe leaned to stage whisper in Beca’s ear.

Beca snorted and turned to greet Damon. “Hey, Damon, you remember Chloe?”

Damon smiled and looked thoughtful. “Vodka tonic, single, with a lime.”

Chloe nodded, “You’re good. Let’s make it a rocks pour tall tonight?” She glanced at Beca, “It’s sort of a celebration.”

Damon grinned, “Yeah?” He winked. “No worries, got ya covered, performer’s privilege.” He looked over at Beca. “Water or something stronger?”

Beca grinned back, “Water, gotta sing well. I hear there’s a resident coming.”

“Yeah, lived here three years and we never see the name on the list. Dr. Conrad and guest.” Damon nodded.

“Stacie is coming?” Beca’s smile grew.

Damon frowned. “First name starts with an A.”

It was Beca’s turn to frown. “Weird. I guess there can be two Dr. Conrads.” She shrugged. “Anyway, thanks for using my comp for Chloe. I better set up.”

“You got it,” Damon grinned again and started mixing the drink while Beca led Chloe up front.

“What are the odds there are two Dr. Conrads living in suites at the Mayo hotel,” Chloe mused as she walked with Beca. She couldn’t help noticing a few tables were already full. She leaned toward Beca conspiratorially, “I told you people would notice us.” Chloe dropped a wink at an older gentleman who was staring their direction.

Beca chuckled and paused by the table. “Enjoy the looks, Bright Eyes. I’ve got just enough time to test the piano and make sure the loop deck is set up. Be right back.”

Ashley held the elevator door for Jessica as they reached the top floor. “God, I thought today would never end.”

Jessica grabbed Ashley’s hand and looked her up and down. “Even after a long day you still look amazing. Are you going to have enough energy to sing? We can ask Beca for a night off if you like.” She rubbed Ashley’s back when they stopped to talk to Rachel.

Ashley rested her head on Jessica’s shoulder briefly. “If she asks, I’ll sing. Because nothing energizes me more than singing with you.” Then she lifted her head to wink, “Well, almost nothing.”

Jessica giggled at the way Rachel was discreetly looking over her seating chart and not watching the quick snuggle. “The usual table okay tonight?” Jessica asked.

“Yes,” Rachel looked up. “It’s full, though. Beca, her guest, and the two of you.” She turned to Ashley, “We’ve got a resident reserved for the table next to yours, so everybody is on their best behavior tonight. This one has never made a reservation before.”

Ashley smiled and nodded, “We will be good, Rachel, I promise.” She tugged on Jessica’s arm and pulled her toward the bar. “Beca has a guest. Who do you…” she stopped when she saw red hair cascading down a back covered in electric blue. “Chloe?” She grinned at Jessica. “I guess things got worked out.”

Jessica grinned and let Ashley tug her along. She watched Chloe, then noticed Beca’s tie. “Ash,” Jessica stopped walking. “They match.”

Ashley looked at the pair. Beca was walking out from behind the piano and stopped to fiddle with the blue tie that matched Chloe’s dress. Chloe reached up and smoothed the tie. Ashley snorted. “I don’t need Stacie to tell me that relationship is a lot closer than it was last night.”

Jessica felt a blush creeping up her cheeks. “Nope,” she looked over at Ashley. “Do you think we ever looked that stinking cute?” She reached over to straighten the collar of Ashley’s shirt. “Beca’s going to have a hard time keeping focus tonight. I can feel the heat from here. We should have something cold to drink.”

Chloe’s eyes flashed as she played with Beca’s tie. “They’re watching us again,” she murmured, pretending not to notice Ashley and Jessica just yet. “I’m gonna miss you when you’re all the way up there singing to everybody else in the room.”

“I only have eyes for you,” Beca teased and looked up to wave at Jessica and Ashley. “You ready for this?”

Ashley laughed as Jessica adjusted her collar. “We were never that cute.” She waved back at Beca and took Jessica’s hand. As they reached the table she said, “We gotta up our game. Never thought to color coordinate.”

Chloe nodded, “Of course. It’s a celebration, remember?” She put her arm around Beca’s waist and pressed close against her side, waiting for the second couple to join them.

“You two look like you both ate canaries,” Jessica laughed as she reached the table. “How are you, Chloe? Joining us tonight?”

“If you don’t mind,” Chloe replied. “You guys have the best seats in the house for keeping an eye on the talent,” she bumped her hip slightly against Beca’s with a grin.

Beca laughed as she left her arm across Chloe’s shoulder. “Remember to behave, guys. A resident is attending for the first time.”

Ashley nodded, “Yeah, the management really wants to encourage the residents to use the rest of the facilities, so much as I wanna tease you two to distraction, we gotta be good.”

Jessica nodded, “Don’t think you’re off the hook though. We’re just saving it up.”

Chloe glanced at the reserved sign on the table next to theirs, “I’m kind of sad they’ll be right there. I hope it’s not some ancient guy who frowns all the time. The name sounded a little stuffy. I mean, who uses just their first initial?”

Beca shrugged, “I dunno. But I gotta get started. I’m just gonna vamp some instrumental for awhile until the resident shows up. Pisses off the people in the back when we have someone moving up front during a vocal.” She leaned over and kissed Chloe. “See you soon.” She winked and headed behind the piano and started to play a Duke Ellington tune.

Chloe smiled, “Be awesome.” She watched as Beca clicked into performer mode.

Jessica cleared her throat, rolling her eyes a little at Ashley. “Should we sit?”

Chloe’s eyes blinked and she turned to look at the pair who were both smirking at her. “Right,” she ducked her head and pulled out the chair closest to the stage. She turned the chair sideways so she could watch the stage. When she crossed her legs she realized the slit in her skirt happened to open up to just above her knee on the stage side of her chair. She considered changing position, then grinned a little impishly and just tilted her head a little more as she watched the stage.

“I think we’re going to need to entertain ourselves tonight,” Jessica nodded toward Chloe, who was focused completely on Beca.

Ashley snorted.

Just as Beca sat down, Adeline appeared at Ashley’s elbow. She brought over Chloe’s drink and a bottle of Shiraz with two glasses. “Sorry, I’m late. Damon had a long list of things I needed to know for the resident.” She rolled her eyes.

Ashley chuckled, “Sorry, everyone is nervous. Including our performer,” she said loud enough for Chloe to hear. “She’s ten minutes early.”

Chloe smirked across the table, her eyes playful. “If she starts early does she get to finish early?” She winked at Jessica. “Residents really throw y’all for a loop, don’t they?” She turned back to Ashley and picked up her drink.

Jessica patted Ashley’s arm and gave her a sweet smile. “Best behavior, right?”

Aubrey felt every inch the princess Stacie teased her about being in her floor length black satin dress that flared just slightly at the bottom. Subtle sequins caught the light as she moved. Every curve was accentuated, and she’d caught Stacie’s eyes wandering to the low cut neckline more than once. She admired their reflection in the mirrored elevator doors. “I love that we match,” she smiled at Stacie in the mirror.

Stacie smiled as she adjusted the wrap that normally accompanied Aubrey’s dress. It draped perfectly over her bare shoulders and complimented the black sleeveless dress that went sheer mid-thigh. She patted the mass of hair she had wrangle into a bun and then pushed her glasses up on her nose. “Thank you,” she said in a heartfelt whisper. “I know we are on the upper end of the dress code, but I really needed the costume to feel powerful tonight. If I’m going to be ridiculed for my PhD, I want to look the part.”

Aubrey held Stacie’s hand. “You’re always beautiful. And if I had my way you’d always wear those glasses, Doc.” Aubrey used her free hand to touch rim of Stacie’s glasses. “I’ll be there to kick some ass if anybody steps out of line.”

Stacie slipped her hand around Aubrey’s bicep. “My hero,” she murmured as the doors opened. Stacie straightened her back and smiled at the hostess, “Good evening.” She extended her keycard. “Dr. Conrad.”

Rachel blinked and hesitated half a heartbeat before she was all business once more. She swiped the card and handed it back with a smile. This was definitely not the stodgy old man she’d expected. “If you’ll follow me?”

Stacie nodded and smiled as she and Aubrey followed Rachel into the bar.

Beca looked up and checked what she was seeing. That was definitely Aubrey, so it had to be Stacie on her arm, but Stacie looked different than Beca had ever seen her. Struck by the resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, she wound down the A Train and transitioned into Moon River.

Jessica noticed the pair first and nudged Ashley. She motioned toward the table with her head. Chloe caught the movement and looked across at the table as well. She put her chin on her hand and just watched.

Ashley mirrored Jessica and Chloe and smirked as the pair reached the table.

Stacie noticed the smirk, but kept her back straight and her chin lifted. She smiled at Rachel as she took her seat.

Rachel whispered, “What can I have the waitress bring you?”

Stacie leaned over to reply quietly, “Bottle of Nickle and Nickle Chardonnay, please.”

Rachel’s eyes widened as she smiled, nodded and hurried toward the bar.

Aubrey glanced at Stacie when she ordered the pricy wine, then reached for her hand. “I wonder if we’ll taste the difference,” she smiled. “You do make me feel like a princess.”

“You should always have the best.” Stacie smiled, her reserve melting somewhat. “It’s only a California wine, but they bottle from a single vineyard. It makes the flavors more uniform.” She lifted her hand to caress Aubrey’s cheek, forgetting where they were.

Beca smirked as she realized the newcomers were paying absolutely no attention. Moon River morphed into Somewhere over the Rainbow.

Aubrey leaned slightly into the caress. She stopped just short of kissing her, though, as she caught a flash of red hair from the corner of her eye. Aubrey tilted her head to look at the table beside them, then chuckled and waved.

Stacie turned her head when Aubrey looked over her shoulder. Her smile tightened as she remembered why they were there. She barely managed to keep from biting her lower lip.

Ashley wiggled her fingers back at Aubrey before she stood and headed to the back. She wanted someone to push the tables together at the first break.

“Remember how incredible you are,” Aubrey kissed Stacie’s nose and sat back in her chair. “They can’t help but continue to love you.”

Chloe was on her feet. She walked over to stand between Aubrey and Stacie, smiling down at both. “Would you believe the staff has been polishing the silverware and shining their shoes for someone special named Dr. A. Conrad?” She glanced at Stacie. “It was the A that threw us all off,” she chuckled.

Stacie gestured for Chloe to sit down. “Anastasia.” She rolled her eyes.

Ashley came back and pulled an extra chair between the two tables. “They’ll push us together next break.” She tugged Jessica’s chair closer. “Look, I’m telling ya. We need to get our shit together.” She teased Jessica, “They coordinated outfits, too!”

Jessica noticed that Stacie’s shawl matched Aubrey’s dress. “Is there a prom going on?” She looked at Ashley, “Should I have gotten you a corsage?”

Chloe sat in the chair next to Stacie. “Anastasia.” Chloe nodded, impressed. “What a beautiful name. Makes me think of aristocracy.” She looked Stacie up and down quickly, “By the way, that dress is gorgeous,” she said softly. “Doesn’t look local.” Her gaze shifted to Aubrey, “I think we need to make sexy girls wearing glasses a thing, don’t you?”

Aubrey glanced at Jessica and shrugged, “The dress code said semi formal, right?”

Jessica glanced at Ashley, her eyes a little more serious. “It does, doesn’t it? Maybe next week we’ll snazz it up a bit.”

Stacie sat quietly. She still wasn’t certain what was teasing and what was serious. Maybe she had been hasty, but she couldn’t dispel the uneasiness.

Beca chuckled. “Ladies and gents, if you don’t mind, a friend of mine just arrived and I’d like to take five to say hello. I’ll be back with a longer set and maybe some guest stars in a few.” Beca stepped away from the piano and down onto the floor. “Damn, Squirt, you look like a million bucks. Or should I say Dr. Squirt?”

Aubrey bristled and interjected before Stacie could reply, “What is it with all the nicknames. You do realize that word means more than one thing, don’t you?”

Beca tilted her head to one side as Stacie put a hand on Aubrey’s forearm.

Ashley, who had been watching carefully, spoke up. “We don’t mean anything, Aubrey. We’re really impressed with you, Stacie, even if you let me believe you were your dad.” She smiled. “Hell, Beca didn’t go to college and I’m a drop out. That you had the push to finish not only college but all the way to being Dr. Conrad?” She shook her head. “Damn, girl, be proud of it.”

Jessica nodded her agreement. “I get to wear a ring that you hold the patent for. Between you and Beca I’m like two degrees of separation from fame.”

Aubrey felt her shoulders relax a little. She looked at Stacie, a small smile playing on her lips, “Is it rude to say I told you so?”

Stacie felt her own shoulders relax. “I’ve been teased for being a computer chip, not just designing one, for so long. I guess I forgot you guys aren’t like everyone.”

Beca shrugged, “Hell, I didn’t know the nickname bugged. It’s just a thing in jazz circles. Plus, my aunt named Lucky, here.” She pointed at Jessica. “I didn’t mean to raise a blister.”

Chloe gasped, “Oh shit, Beca.” She looked up, “You can’t call her squirt anymore.” Chloe was starting to blush. “I don’t need that visual burned into my brain every time you say it.” Chloe looked at Aubrey, trying not to imagine what she was imagining. “Nope,” she said again.

Beca blushed. “Well, okay then. I think it’s time to start a set.” She hurried to behind the piano.

Wait staff arrived and moved the tables together, and Adeline took a quick additional order as she brought the wine over.

Stacie leaned into Aubrey, “I have a feeling this isn’t over.”

Aubrey breathed a sigh of relief, “I’m just glad we don’t have to find another bar. There are some lovely memories at this one.”

Chapter Text

Ashley leaned over so Aubrey and Stacie could hear her while Beca made the rounds of the rest of the audience. “This is where she got the name Grumpy. After this, she will be out of energy and bitchy as hell. We usually go downstairs to The Boiler Room for a burger to liven her up. You are welcome to come.”

Chloe overheard and nodded, “It took half a beer and most of a burger for her to string a full sentence together after the show when I came the first time. She’s cute when she’s grumpy, but don’t look directly into her eyes or she might bite your head off.”

Aubrey looked at Stacie, “What do you think? Late night cheese plate?”

Stacie looked around at the group of women who treated her better than almost anyone else in her life and she smiled. “Why don’t you all come to my apartment. It’s closer, fewer people and I have a full bar. If necessary, I have an extra room and a fold out couch.” She winked, “In case it gets late early.”

Aubrey grinned, “What a lovely idea. We can all put in an order up here and it will probably arrive as we walk in. You’re brilliant.” She leaned over and kissed Stacie’s cheek.

Chloe watched Aubrey and Stacie and smiled. “I’d love to see your apartment, Stacie. As long as we can feed the bear,” she returned to watching Beca make the rounds. “I’m sure she’d prefer a smaller gathering than we might get downstairs. Not even an extra bartender.”

Jessica smiled, “The famous home of Dr. A. Conrad? Wouldn’t miss it. What do you say, Ash?”

Ashley nodded, “I can put the order in with Adeline’s help.” She grinned as she stood, “And to see your place, Legs? I’d love to.”

Beca walked up. “Legs? I like it.” Then she looked at Aubrey, “Unless you are gonna deck me for that one too?”

“Well at least it’s a little less,” Aubrey glanced at Stacie, “intimate.” She looked up at Beca, “I’m sure I’ll find another reason to deck you, though. Just give me time.”

Chloe took Beca’s hand and pulled her to sit across her lap. She squeezed her waist and smiled, “You were amazing. As always.”

Beca smiled nervously. She looked around the group. “Um, plan?”

Stacie slapped Aubrey’s arm lightly. “Play nice.” She leaned into Aubrey but answered Beca. “Ashley is going to take an order to have delivered to my apartment. Then we can all hang there while you recover. It really was a great show.” Then her eyes twinkled. “Don’t mind Keys, here, she’s just cranky only her boss gave her a nickname.”

Ashley laughed. “Keys? Don’t anyone tell that story till we are downstairs- I wanna hear it. Now, what am I ordering? Swiss mushroom burger for Grumpy. What about you and Keys, Legs?”

Aubrey returned Stacie’s playful smack. “Thanks for that,” she pretended to be irritated but couldn’t keep from grinning for long. “I think you’ll understand in a bit, Ashley. Cheese plate with no meat for me and Stacie?”

“You’ll get to be as grumpy as you want until you get some food in you,” Chloe tickled Beca’s side.

Beca wriggled out of Chloe’s lap, “Hey no fair.” She muttered. Then she looked at Aubrey. “I don’t know you well enough to nickname you, Aubrey. I don’t even know what you do.”

Stacie snickered. “You will. Ashley, don’t forget to order something for you and Lucky - Jess I need that story too. It’s my treat, charge it all to my room.”

Ashley hesitated, “Extra charge for that, Stac.”

Stacie winked, “Daddy can afford it.”

Ashley laughed again and waited for Jess to decide what she wanted before placing the order. “What do you think, Jess? Real food since moneybags is paying?”

Jessica nodded, “I think it’s about time I had one of those bacon cheeseburgers myself.” She nodded at Chloe, who was still grinning impishly at Beca.

Chloe turned to Stacie, “Mind if I get some extra fries?”

Ashley nodded, “No problem, be right back.”

Stacie stood, “You guys wanna start down? Ashley knows the room number.”

“I’ll wait for Ash, you all go ahead. We’ll be right there.” Jessica smiled and went to join Ashley at the bar.

Chloe stood up and put a hand out to Beca, “Truce?”

Aubrey’s arm was wrapped around Stacie’s waist. “You’re totally sure?” She whispered in her ear.

Stacie kissed Aubrey’s cheek. “No pillow talk, no background check.” She nearly purred. “It’s almost a relief.” She led the way to the elevator.

“I guess,” Beca groused but took the offered hand. “Just, not fair. I just got off work!” Her voice was almost whiny.

“Come on, Grumpy, let’s get you away from the crowd.” Stacie said with a quiet laugh as she reached the elevator.

Chloe pulled Beca’s hand so it was against her cheek, “I’m sorry, sweetie.” She batted her eyelids and kissed the hand. “I promise to make it up to you.”

Aubrey felt a shiver down her spine at Stacie’s reply and almost wished they weren’t going to have company after all. She decided to be content with sliding her hand along Stacie’s back until it rested on Stacie’s hip. “I love you,” she said softly just as the elevator doors opened.

Stacie rested her head on Aubrey’s. “Love you, too.” She tangled her fingers with Aubrey’s, led the way inside the elevator and pressed the button.

Beca melted a little, her cranky still present but mollified. “Is okay.” She leaned against the back wall of the elevator. “It was harder than I thought, playing to the room when I’d rather notice your leg peeking at me,” she added softly.

Chloe lowered her head and smiled, “I thought I was pretty tame, all things considered.” She snuck a glance at Beca, “But I did notice you noticed.” She whispered the last sentence against Beca’s ear.

Aubrey watched how cozy Beca and Chloe were and wondered how they’d gone from Chloe’s meltdown about commitment to practically making out in the back of an elevator. She definitely had some questions, but she didn’t want to interrupt Stacie’s night. Aubrey sighed a little and squeezed Stacie’s hand. Maybe in the morning she’d check in with Chloe.

The doors opened and Stacie led the others to the west wing.

Chloe snagged Beca’s hand and gently pulled her from the wall. “Aren’t you a little bit curious?” She asked as they followed Aubrey and Stacie into the hallway. Chloe looked around, “That’s odd,” she said as they walked down the hall. “I’ve never been in a hotel with no doors.”

Aubrey had stopped to allow Stacie to unlock the one door on this wing. She leaned back and looked at Chloe. “Door,” she said as she raised her eyebrows. “You only need one when there’s only one apartment, Chlo.”

“Oh, right,” Chloe glanced at Beca, her own eyebrows up.

Beca whistled low. “Damn, you have like this whole half of the floor?”

Stacie nodded, “it’s a long story, seriously tldr. Nutshell is I work in one room, and sleep in another. The rest, as you will see, is designed to entertain.” She held the door open, pleased they had closed the curtains before they left. That reveal may almost as good as Aubrey seeing the piano.

Aubrey squeezed Stacie’s hand again, somehow feeling as if she were showing off her own home and not just Stacie’s. She waited for Beca to notice the piano.

Chloe led Beca into the apartment and followed the hallway into the great room. “Wow,” she turned back toward Stacie and Aubrey. “If I lived here I’d probably never leave.”

Beca reached the kitchen and her eyes widened. She didn’t even slow down, just kept walking, again whistling low. “Damn, she’s a beauty! What, 20 something years old?” Her eyes were drinking it in.

Stacie was just going to close the door when Ashley put her hand on it. “Food here in fifteen.” She grinned at Stacie, “Don’t even tell me you let Aubrey call you Daddy.”

Stacie laughed out loud. “No. I seriously have a trust fund from my father that covers my expenses if I need it. So, when I splurge, Daddy pays.” She cut a glance at Aubrey, whom she assumed did not hear since Beca was making a beeline to the piano.

Stacie chuckled and headed to the bar, “What can I get you all?”

Aubrey was indeed thoroughly distracted as she hurried to catch up with Beca. “That’s about right,” she slowed and watched Beca admire the instrument. “How can you tell?”

Chloe leaned on the kitchen counter. When the other three walked in laughing, she put her finger to her lips and gestured toward the piano, “Beca’s gonna get a surprise any minute now.” She winked conspiratorially at Stacie.

Beca answered Aubrey almost absently, “They changed the undercoat from brown to black about 20 years ago. I bet she has a sweet sound.” She looked up at Aubrey. “No shit, you got the name Keys cuz you play? You been holding out on me?”

Ashley and Jessica sat at the breakfast bar, “Nice to be served for once. I’ll have vodka on the rocks.”

Aubrey shrugged, barely concealing a grin. “Maybe I had a full ride at TU for piano performance?” She shook her head. “But you play for a living. Go ahead, if you’re not too tired, give her a whirl.”

Chloe couldn’t stop watching as her best friend and her best girl bonded over something they hadn’t even known they had in common. “Vodka tonic?” She asked over her shoulder distractedly.

Beca looked at the instrument with longing and then at Aubrey. “Yeah?” Then she chuckled, “bet you can dust me with Beethoven.”

Stacie started pouring drinks, “What about you, Jessica?” She opened the bar fridge and pulled out a Smithwicks that she cracked and poured for Beca. Then she pulled the stopper on the Chardonnay she and Aubrey hadn’t finished to pour a glass. She walked both of them to the piano, with a pair of coasters under her arm, as she waited for Jess to answer.

Jessica watched Stacie play hostess, then turned to Ashley. “She’s not half bad,” Jessica grinned. “Give me one of those Smithwicks with a water back. This one won’t last too long, she’s had a busy day.” Jessica snuggled Ashley close and winked at her.

Aubrey shrugged again, “Chopin is my favorite. But I’ll bet you could make this baby swing.”

Beca opened the keyboard and studied it before sitting down.

Ashley slipped an arm around Jessica’s waist. “I can get you a job downstairs if you ever get tired of the highlife, Legs.”

Stacie smirked as she put down the glasses, kissed Aubrey on the cheek and then turned around. “Don’t let her fool you, Beca. She can make beautiful music.” She winked at Aubrey and returned to the bar. “I’ll consider it, Ash. Less stress.” Then she looked at Jessica. “And I’m totally serious, I have the room. I can set you up any time you want.”

Jessica nodded, a little speechless at this side of Stacie. Sexy ditz had become polished heiress in one head spinning week. She looked over at Chloe and realized that wasn’t the only head spinning change this week. “Thanks,” she smiled at Stacie. I’ll keep that in mind.”

There was a knock at the door. Aubrey looked up out of habit to see if she should answer. “I think fortification has arrived,” she smiled at Beca. “Eat, then play.”

Stacie smiled and nodded before heading to the door. “Thanks Adeline.” She let the girl pull the cart in and just as she had a few days ago, slipped the waitress a fifty. “I really appreciate you taking such good care of us.”

Adeline looked at the bill and then at Ashley, who smiled, shrugged and nodded her approval. “Thank you, Dr. Conrad.”

“Call me Stacie. Hope to see you around.” She escorted the waitress out and turned back to the food. “Grub’s here!” She grinned and rolled the cart closer to the living room. “Breakfast bar, dining room table or the couch…although we may want to avoid the couch in case anyone wants to sleep there tonight.” She smirked.

Chloe laughed and walked over with a smile, “Let me help. Kitchen bar so we can all sit and talk? It’s cozy but not too formal.” She started peeking under lids, looking for the mushroom Swiss burger.

Jessica nodded, also rising to help. “Yeah, I vote kitchen too.” She saw Ashley start to move and held her finger up. “You will be served tonight, love. Sit right there.”

Aubrey walked over to the piano bench where Beca had just put her hands on the keys. “She’ll be here all night,” Aubrey said in a soft voice. “I can’t believe I didn’t mention I played before now. We really do need to get to know one another, short stack.”

“Laugh it up, Keys.” Beca smirked. “I’m a mean ankle biter.” She already felt more comfortable just knowing Aubrey played, and had such a great instrument. “We need to try a four hand piece.”

Ashley laughed quietly as she settled back in her chair. “A girl could get used to this.” She watched Beca and Aubrey move closer. “So Aubrey plays, too?”

Stacie nodded, “You should hear her.” She turned to Jessica. “So, I’m Legs, Beca is Grumpy or Short Stack? Oh that’s gonna raise a blister.” She winked. “Aubrey is Keys. Ashley is Jonesy. You say there is a story behind Lucky?” She also cut a glance at Chloe, wondering what the rest of them were gonna call her. Elf didn’t feel right.

Jessica ticked them off on her fingers, “Yeah, Becs needs something a little less, I don’t know, caustic? Other musicians just call her Mitch.” She looked around the room, “I guess that just leaves Chloe.” Jessica looked at Beca, who had just settled in at the barstool in front of her mushroom Swiss burger. “Becs, what’s Chloe’s nickname?”

Beca shrugged, “I call her Bright Eyes.”

Stacie snorted, “And Aubrey calls her Elf. I don’t think either work for run of the mill friends. Oh, and you just called her,” she pointed at Beca, “Becs. I guess that works too.” Stacie laughed, “Damn this naming thing is hard.”

Ashley nodded as she dug into her own cheeseburger. “It is. I mean, mine is just a take on my last name.”

Beca lifted a finger, “And the way Jessica pined the entire time you were here and we were in LA. She was totally jonesin for ya.”

Jessica blushed. “When you find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with,” she shrugged and looked fondly at Ashley. “You’re gonna help me eat this burger, right?”

Aubrey watched Chloe for a few minutes, “What about Red?”

Chloe grimaced and almost spit out her French fry. “No. Definitely not,” she glared at Aubrey. “Chlo is just fine for a nickname, don’t you think?” She softened and looked at Beca. “Except you. I expect Bright Eyes from you every time you talk to me.”

Stacie nodded with a laugh. “Chlo it is….for now.” She winked.

Beca saluted, “Yes ma’am.” She smirked and winked as well.

Ashley leaned over and whispered in Jessica’s ear. “That’s all yours sweetie. Stacie bought, remember? But we can take it home and you can share mine if you’d rather.”

Stacie settled down next to Aubrey to share their cheese plate. “But why Lucky?”

Beca swallowed quickly. “Oh, that’s from my aunt. Her granddad, my great-granddad was Chickasaw. Their word for yellow is Lakna. It morphed into Lucky.”

Ashley grinned, “She’s sure been lucky for me.”

“And me,” Beca nodded. “Best person to have on your side.”

Chloe stared at Beca, who seemed nonplussed. “Wait for it,” she smirked over at Stacie.

“Fuck.” Beca put her head on the bar, “Fuck, I have to change that one too. God dammit! That does it,” Beca slammed her hand on the counter. “I’m done. You win.” She pointed each out in turn. “Aubrey, Chloe, Jessica, Ashley… “ she paused and pointed at Stacie, “what’s your real name?”

“Don’t even think about it.” Stacie growled.

Chloe leaned on the bar, knowing full well her dress would practically expose her from cleavage to waist. “Becs,” she said softly. “Can I have a bite of your burger?”

Beca looked over, still frowning. “What?” Then she blinked. “Um, yeah.” She smiled and pushed the plate over. “Sure.”

Ashley was still laughing helplessly against Jessica’s side.

Stacie was too miffed about being called Anastasia by anyone but Rib to talk, but almost admired Chloe’s blatant use of sex to deflect Beca.

Aubrey chose the moment to sneak over to the piano. She flexed her fingers. It had been a very long time since she’d even tried a Joplin piece. Still, it had been one thing that made people smile at her in high school. She took a breath and started to play The Entertainer.

Beca’s head snapped up. She turned to listen. Her smile was admiring.

Ashley stopped laughing and wiped her eyes.

Stacie poured Beca another beer.

Chloe stood up and smiled fondly at Aubrey. Perfect, she thought.

Jessica tapped Ashley, even though she could see Ashley had already noticed Aubrey playing.

Aubrey concentrated on hitting all the right notes. She couldn’t bear to hit something wrong in front of Beca.

Beca stood and walked over to the piano. She leaned, grinning, and watched.

Stacie leaned against the breakfast bar, openly adoring her girl.

Ashley took Jessica’s hand and squeezed it.

Chloe moved around the bar to sit in the chair Beca had vacated.

Aubrey finished the piece and was surprised to see Beca right there smiling at her. She shrugged again.

“You seen the four hand version?” Beca asked softly, her smile never faltering.

Aubrey chuckled, “Sure, the guy who does guitar hero for piano posted it, right?”

Beca nodded. “You want high or low?”

Aubrey grinned, tempted to make another short joke. Instead she scooted to her right and gestured toward the bench with her head. “I’ll go high.”

Beca sat down and nodded. (https://youtu.be/CPCj3W-0wVY)

Aubrey stopped thinking and just enjoyed the camaraderie.

Chloe didn’t think she could feel anything more for the two at the piano, her heart was so full.

As they played, Stacie looked around the room. What was it Rib used to quote from Lilo and Stitch? Oh yeah. “Little and broken, but still good.” Yeah. Still good.

Chapter Text

Stacie still laid with her eyes closed and her arm draped over Aubrey’s hips. “What has you so damn tossy-turny this morning? We didn’t go to sleep till oh dark thirty.” Her voice was barely above a mutter.

Aubrey rolled onto her back and sighed loudly, “You’re asleep.”

“But I’m not. The bed keeps moving.” Stacie rolled onto her side. “Come on love, spill.”

Aubrey rolled again so she was pressed against Stacie. “I don’t know,” she muttered crankily. “Probably Chloe.” She kept her eyes closed.

Stacie stroked Aubrey’s hair. “Okay, let’s start there. Chloe, who showed up in a color coordinated outfit with Beca?” She smiled, “Or Chloe who damn near made out with Beca in the elevator on our way here?”

Aubrey grumbled, “Yes.” She leaned her head slightly toward Stacie’s stroking hand. “She made me go down and talk to her, she was crying, and now she’s in Beca’s lap.”

“Oh, I think I see.” Stacie sighed and combed her fingers through Aubrey’s hair. “She didn’t tell you.”

“I always know first,” Aubrey pouted and turned her head so Stacie could run her fingers through the hair on the other side of her head. “Now I’m like nobody all of a sudden.”

“For the record, Beca was in Chloe’s lap,” Stacie whispered.

Aubrey huffed. “Doesn’t matter,” she groused, “Chloe had some kind of meltdown because she was afraid of commitment. I was left entirely out of anything that would have led to lap sitting.” She leaned forward and pointed to the top of her head, “Scritch here?”

Stacie obediently scritched where requested. “So, call her.”

“Too early,” Aubrey grumbled and settled back down into the cuddle. “Not polite.”

Stacie laughed. “Let’s see, one night we couldn’t go home together. Another, I ended up driving her car to your place. A third you left me alone in the middle of the night to meet her downstairs. Sounds like turn about is fair to me.”

Aubrey lifted her head, “I’m listening.”

“She needs you, you make time, day or night. Time for her to return the favor. You feel hurt. Call her. Tell her you won’t talk until you can see her in the flesh.” Stacie kissed Aubrey’s forehead. “Either it works both ways or it doesn’t work at all.”

Aubrey nodded, then looked up at Stacie. “But I’ll have to go out.”

Stacie nodded. “It’s part of the deal. You and Chloe are a matched set. I only get one of you if I take both.” She smiled. “You’re worth it.” Then she placed another kiss on Aubrey’s forehead. “Just let me know if I need to go tend to Doofus for you or if you are coming back here. I guess that means you are a triptych.”

Aubrey shook her head, “I need more caffeine for that conversation. But I can call Chloe and tell her to get her ass out of bed if that’s what you mean. It’s fair.”

“Agreed. Call her. Talk to her. Make friends again.” Stacie nodded.

Aubrey nodded. “Love you. For the record really really hate to leave you here. In that condition. But I’ll be lousy company if I don’t.” She leaned forward for a kiss. “Thank goodness you’re forever and I can make it up to you in just a little while.” She winked and pressed Chloe’s contact number. When it went to voicemail, she tapped it again.

Chloe groaned, half asleep, and finally gave up to grab her phone. Someone was insistent. She didn’t even open her eyes, “What?”

“BBD’s. I need to talk. How early can you make it?” Aubrey spoke crisply.

Chloe blinked. She looked blearily around the room. Beca appeared passed out beside her, clothes were strewn from at least the doorway to the bed. She ran a hand through her tangled hair. “Half an hour?”

Aubrey checked the time. The restaurant opened at 7:00. “Yes please.” Her voice softened some. “Thank you.”

Beca looked over at Chloe. “Everything okay?” She muttered.

“Sure,” Chloe answered Aubrey and disconnected. She rolled over and wrapped an arm around Beca. “Aubrey needs to talk. Half an hour, BBD’s.”

Beca nodded and sat up, running a hand through her hair. “Did we fuck something up between her and Stacie?”

Chloe pouted when Beca moved away. She leaned on her elbow, “Fuck if I know.” She looked at the clock, “Not even 9:00 am yet. You have a rule, darlin.” Chloe sat up and kissed Beca’s cheek. “Sleep. I’ll be back soon and tell you all about it. I promise.” She stood up and began to pull on a pair of sweatpants and an old faded flannel.

Beca sighed, “Right. I still got a show tonight.” She laid back down. “Harder to sleep without you.”

Chloe smiled fondly at sleepy Beca. She picked up her pillow and gently nudged Beca’s face with it. “Pretend it’s me all wrapped up in you,” she said softly.

Beca smiled and yawned. “Not the same.” But she was already almost asleep.

Chloe was still smiling until she got to her car. She gave it a couple of loud revs, hoping in a passive aggressive way to bother Mrs. Johnson. She worried about Aubrey as she pulled out of the drive and headed toward the restaurant.

 

Stacie picked up her phone as soon as Aubrey left for the bathroom.

Stacie: wake up grumpy
Stacie: we gotta talk
Stacie: or at least text
Beca: shit, can’t a girl sleep?
Stacie: soon. Here’s the thing, your girl and my girl are besties.
Beca: yeah. So?
Stacie: so every time your girl got freaked about you she dragged my girl out of bed to talk.
Beca: oh shit. Sorry, Stac.
Stacie: eh. But today my girl feels cut out
Beca: Chloe didn’t tell her we got together
Stacie: bingo. So we need to keep these girls talking ya know?
Beca: got it. I’ll pay more attention. Chloe told me she gets, I dunno, really focused on relationships.
Beca: I didn’t think that meant forgetting to talk to Aubrey.
Stacie: is ok. This is new I think for all of us. I didn’t think I was getting Chloe as part of a package deal
Beca: yeah. I can see that. So now what?
Stacie: hopefully they work it out.
Beca: can I go back to sleep then?
Stacie: one more thing
Beca: what now?
Stacie: don’t be an idiot. You can call me Squirt.
Beca: are you kidding? After Aubrey and Chloe reacted the way they did?
Stacie: let them. It’s their dirty minds. We remember the joke the day we met.
Beca: yeah. You were six inches taller and three years younger. I needed a squirt gun to get your attention.
Stacie: see? Inside joke they don’t get. Fuck ‘em.
Beca: I’ll do one, you do the other.
Stacie: that’s better!
Beca: I get it. Thanks Squirt. Now can I go back to sleep?
Stacie: yeah. Me too. God, I hope they get this worked out. It’s really putting a crimp in my love life.
Beca: yeah. I could see that becoming a problem here too. I’ll pay attention.
Stacie: thanks, Grumpy.
Beca: thanks Squirt. G’night.
Stacie: g’night.

Aubrey had gotten dressed in a hurry and headed down to the garage. The valet got her car for her in record time. She smiled at the service she received as a guest of one Dr. Conrad. Then she remembered she was still cranky and headed over to BBD’s. She waited on the outdoor patio for Chloe to arrive.

Chloe pulled into the lot behind BBD and sighed. She really wasn’t ready for food yet. Or people. She thought about texting Beca, then remembered how soft and sleepy she’d been when Chloe left. She texted Aubrey instead.

Chloe: I’m here. Where’s you?
Aubrey: patio. No one else out here yet. Coffee on the way.

Chloe nodded. She walked through the back door of the restaurant and waved at the server behind the counter. The server pointed to the front patio. Chloe saw Aubrey sitting alone and put her arm out for a hug as soon as she was close enough. “Hey, sweetie! You okay?”

Aubrey stood and hugged Chloe. “Maybe?” She was a little embarrassed now. Was it really worth dragging Chloe out of bed for? She sat back down and poured sugar into her coffee. She stirred it fretfully.

Chloe sat down, watching Aubrey fidget. She poured creamer into the coffee Aubrey had already ordered for her. “Oh thank God, the liquid of life,” she grinned as she took her first sip. “Now come on, what’s up. You’re going to stir that coffee to death.”

“I’m a little embarrassed.” Aubrey felt the flush creeping up her face. “You know how things seem worse at night.”

Chloe nodded, “Sure. Doesn’t mean they won’t bother you again when it gets dark, though. Let’s agree that anything you lose sleep over is worth talking about, no judging. Okay?” Chloe wrapped both hands around her coffee mug. “You’ve always listened to my stupid dramas, no matter how silly. My turn.”

Aubrey looked down at her coffee and closed her eyes. “You didn’t tell me.”

Chloe blinked and chewed on her lip. “Didn’t tell you?” She finally said, still trying to sort it out. “Maybe I haven’t had enough coffee. I tell you everything.”

“You didn’t tell me you got together with Beca.” Aubrey said softly and quickly took a sip of coffee to distract her from the tears stinging her eyes.

“Shit,” it was Chloe’s turn to blush. “You’re right. I’m a clod.” She fidgeted with the handle of her coffee mug. “It happened really fast, Bree.” Chloe held her hand out across the table. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you out. You should have been the first to know. Well, the third to know anyway.”

Aubrey put her cup down and placed her hand in Chloe’s. “You were almost in tears on Monday. We sat up late in the lobby. Then I hear nothing for three days. You sit with her Thursday night so I didn’t even get to talk to you then. I suppose I should have guessed then, but Stacie said you guys were still dancing around. Then bam, last night you are in color coordinated outfits and practically making out in the elevator.” She squeezed Chloe’s hand. “I’m happy for you, Elf. I really am. Just…” she trailed off.

“Yeah,” Chloe tilted her head and watched Aubrey. “Does it count if I tell you everything this morning? Nobody has the whole story yet, it’ll be an exclusive,” she winked and grinned.

“I suppose.” Aubrey managed a smile. “I’m worried, Elf. The last time you didn’t tell me when big stuff happened…” she looked at the cup again, “it didn’t go well.”

Chloe squeezed Aubrey’s hand and let it go so she could wrap her hands around her coffee cup again. She sat back in her chair. “I think Beca will be different,” she said in a soft voice. “But yeah, I could have texted you any time this week. I get kind of laser focused sometimes.” Chloe drained her mug. “She slept at my place the night I came to see you. That was first. I told her all about Shannon and she held me while I slept.”

Aubrey arched an eyebrow. “Back up.” She also finished her coffee and waited while the waitress refilled. “I’m glad you told her about Shannon. You didn’t do anything more than sleep?”

Chloe shrugged, smiling. “Just slept. We’d made an arrangement, remember?” Chloe blinked a smile at the waitress and doctored her fresh coffee. “It was maybe better than sex would have been that night. I felt, I don’t know, safe.” She glanced at Aubrey, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t even try to flirt. Much.”

“That does sound nice. I know what you mean.” Aubrey’s mind flashed back to times like this morning when Stacie stroked her hair. She picked up the new coffee with both hands. “I just have to say that I’m impressed with her fortitude.”

“Hey, I told you I was being good. You can be impressed with my restraint, too,” Chloe pretended to pout.

Aubrey smiled, “Of course, Elf. You were keeping your word.” Her smile was indulgent.

“That’s better,” Chloe grinned over her coffee mug. “Then Thursday there was Tom,” her grin faded. “He wanted that date I’d promised. I called Beca so I could tell her about it. She came over before karaoke.”

Aubrey frowned, “I thought Tom was out of town.”

“He came back,” Chloe shrugged. “Then things moved super fast. After karaoke, Beca took me to the park and we had a heart to heart. I texted Tom and broke the date. Sitting there with her I realized that I was more afraid of not having her in my life than I was afraid she’d break my heart.” Chloe’s eyes were intense when she looked at Aubrey, “Do you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, Elf,” Aubrey smiled slowly and fondly. “I know what you mean.”

Chloe nodded, “Yeah. So we went back to my house and just slept again that night.” Her eyes were twinkling now.

Aubrey considered, “So that was after Karaoke? Stacie said Beca was still protecting herself.” She chuckled, “That woman could make another fortune off of her skill at reading body language. Anyway, after that, you two talked, you ditched Tom and you went home to sleep?” She eyed Chloe skeptically.

Chloe nodded, smirking. “I told you, I really think Beca is going to be different. I asked her to hold me while we slept again, and that’s exactly what she did,” Chloe’s smirk melted into a soft smile. Then she laughed, “In the morning, however, we definitely did not sleep. Not at first. We didn’t even eat until late afternoon. We might have had a few sips of water. But I don’t really remember much that I can tell you while we’re in public.”

“That’s okay, Elf,” Aubrey laughed and held up one hand. “I don’t need a play by play.” She sipped her coffee. “I guess it did happen fast, all in on Friday and then we all met at the show.” She sighed, “I would have liked a heads up that things were moving that way, that’s all. Last I heard you were still pretty resistant.” She tilted her head to one side. “I’m surprised Tom took it so well. He likes his toys to stay on the shelf until he wants them.”

“Yeah, I totally should have at least bragged to you about the sleepover before Thursday night. Sorry, Bree. It kind of felt like nothing had really changed, though.” Chloe shook her head. “Tom. Yeah. He showed up Friday afternoon, got us out of bed demanding I break our date in person. Beca was awesome, she totally defended my honor. We tossed him out as a team.”

Aubrey felt her admiration for Beca grow. “I’m impressed again, Elf.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, I feel better. I’m sorry I dragged you out at an ungodly hour. I just had to know you were okay, that you weren’t obsessing, you know?”

Chloe nodded, “At least you don’t need to crash on my couch, right?” She sipped at her coffee again, “I do love you, Bree. You’re not being replaced. Promise.”

“Thanks, Chlo.” Aubrey felt her throat tighten up, “I’d miss you.”

“Me too,” Chloe smiled softly. “Hey, are you hungry? I feel like I could eat one of everything on the menu. We can take orders home to mollify our girls after we eat. Whaddya say?”

Aubrey nodded. “Yeah, Stacie would love a Belgian waffle later.” She smiled affectionately over her coffee cup. “Love you, Elf.”

Chloe blew Aubrey a kiss, then got serious about picking food.

Chapter Text

Chloe opened the door as quietly as she could. She was happy to see that Beca wasn’t up and about yet.

She took the to go containers into the kitchen and started laying Beca’s breakfast out on plates. As she worked she hummed and old Frank Sinatra song. She did a little dance step between the counter and fridge as she pulled out creamer for her own coffee. “Then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I love you,” she sang softly.

Beca got up when she heard the door open. She had reached the doorway when she heard Chloe singing. The words weren’t lost on her, but they also terrified her. Three days ago, she didn’t stand a chance with this girl. Now she was singing about love. Beca retreated to the bedroom, went into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. Maybe that was enough to let Chloe know she was awake, and avoid the l-word.

Chloe smiled and put the plates on a tray. “I’m glad you’re up. I brought sustenance,” she called toward the bedroom as she balanced the tray and walked down the hall, oblivious to what she’d been singing.

Beca smiled and greeted Chloe at the bedroom door. “Good morning.” She kissed Chloe carefully on the cheek. “Is Aubrey okay?” Then distracted by the food, she added, “Oh god, that smells good.”

“Aubrey’s fine, just felt out of the loop. You get waffles and eggs and sausage and bacon because you’re such a good girlfriend for just letting me go meet her.” Chloe gestured toward the bed with the tray. “Go sit,” she grinned.

Beca laughed and obeyed, crawling across the bed to the left side and sitting down. “Yes, ma’am.” She winked. She could get used to this.

Meanwhile, at the Mayo, Aubrey swiped her key card and pushed the door open with her hip. She’d stopped at the coffee shop downstairs and picked up some mochas to go with Stacie’s leftover breakfast.

Aubrey whistled softly as she took down plates and arranged the food. When she was finished she nodded, “Okay, that’s two steps away from almost fine.” She grinned as she teased herself and started looking for something that could serve as a tray.

Stacie stirred. She thought she heard the door open, but then it was quiet. She listened for a moment, and was pretty sure she heard Aubrey. Too tired to get up yet, she picked up the phone.

Stacie: please tell me you just walked in and you aren’t a serial killer.

Aubrey giggled loudly as she read Stacie’s text. She quickly picked up the makeshift tray she’d put together and carried it to the bedroom. Once there, she leaned against the door jamb. “Do I look like a serial killer?” She asked, one eyebrow arched.

Stacie peered at the door. “How can I tell? I don’t have my glasses on.” She smiled, “But you sure don’t smell like a serial killer.”

Aubrey walked slowly toward the bed, “What do I smell like?” She asked, then stopped abruptly. “No, wait. What does a serial killer smell like? And how do you know?”

“Everyone knows that a serial killer smells like sweet aftershave or perfume and cheap detergent.” Stacie winked, “You, my dear, are not a serial killer.”

“I will accept that,” Aubrey started inching toward the bed again. “So first question is resubmitted.”

Stacie laughed. “Normally, of peppermint and cinnamon. Today you smell like,” she sniffed and her eyes widened, “mocha and Belgian waffles?”

“We have a winner,” Aubrey said gleefully. “Hungry? I brought you a waffle and some eggs with home fries.” She stood next to the bed, “You might have to share the fries. Oh, and a mocha with extra whipped cream. I got my own so that’s not for sharing.”

“You are my hero.” Stacie sighed, “I shouldn’t be so tired. We didn’t drink much last night; I was busy being nervous and hosting an impromptu party.” She whined, but then smiled as her hands were filled with the cup of mocha. “This is delightful.”

“You’re allowed to be tired when you’re tired,” Aubrey said as she placed the tray across Stacie’s lap. “It was stressful.” She kissed the top of Stacie’s head and stole a fry.

Stacie patted Aubrey’s side of the bed, “Keep me company? And how did talking to Chloe go?”

Aubrey crossed to the other side of the bed and climbed in, sitting close enough to swipe food on occasion. “I think the talk went well. Those two didn’t waste any time, Doc. You were right, by the way. Serious snuggles but no hanky panky before karaoke. We ought to have you licensed or something,” Aubrey grinned.

Stacie shoveled a forkful of eggs into her mouth. When she swallowed she shrugged. “You just have to watch where people put their energy. If they are focused on each other, they are doing it or want to. If one is turned away, or even angled away, something isn’t going well.” She took another bite. “But is she gonna talk to you more?”

“She says she will,” Aubrey shrugged. “She says Beca is different than Shannon, and she isn’t my replacement. I guess we’ll see,” she looked over at Stacie. “Maybe she’s different this time. Honestly the timeline didn’t leave much room for conversation. They were in bed all Friday except for when Tom showed up, then we all went to the show.”

“Tom?” Stacie took a bite of the Belgian waffle. “Oh my god, this is good.”

Aubrey opened her mouth slightly and leaned toward Stacie, whimpering.

Stacie giggled, cut off a bite, made sure it had strawberries and whipped cream, and lifted it carefully, holding her free hand under the fork, to place it in Aubrey’s mouth.

“Mmmmm,” Aubrey leaned back, eyes closed in delight. When she swallowed she beamed at Stacie, “You’re my favorite.”

“Back atcha.” Stacie smiled indulgently. “But who the hell is Tom?”

“Oh yeah,” Aubrey laughed. “Distracted.” She sat up straighter and looked at Stacie sideways, “Tom is, or was, the closest thing to a steady date Chloe’s had in about three years. They liked to dress up and go out on the town, and they’d escort one another to business events. He practices law downtown.”

Stacie’s eyes widened, “And he showed up?”

“He did. It’s like a soap opera, isn’t it?” Aubrey chuckled again, “Apparently when it looked like Beca was going to call the whole thing off with Chloe, Chloe texted Tom and canceled a date. He seems to have needed a visual for that cancellation. She said Beca defended her honor admirably during the fiasco.”

“Glad Grumpy didn’t deck him. She apparently has quite the left hook.” Stacie smirked. She took another bite then looked apologetically at Aubrey. “I hate to waste this, it’s so good, but I’m full.”

Aubrey shook her head and pulled the plate closer, “You didn’t get too far into the waffle, but you did finish the eggs, so protein counts extra. I guess I can sacrifice myself and finish this for you.” Aubrey winked and dug into the waffle. “You’ll probably be ravenous by mid afternoon.”

Stacie smiled and nodded, picking up her coffee. She curled her knees up to watch Aubrey eat. “So, what do we do next, Princess? Check on Doofus? Take a run? Take a nap?”

Aubrey scooped some whipped cream onto her finger, then dabbed it on Stacie’s collarbone. “Oops,” she blinked innocently at Stacie.

Stacie giggled and put her coffee down. She opened the lid, found a little of the remaining whipped cream and touched the finger holding it to Aubrey’s nose. “Hmmm, seems like there may be some cleaning up to do,” her voice was noticeably lower.

Aubrey nodded sagely as she moved to set the tray on the nightstand. “Yep. We’re a mess,” she matched Stacie’s tone as she pulled Stacie’s hand closer and ran her tongue along the side of her finger before sliding it into her mouth to clean the remaining coffee and cream.

Stacie pulled Aubrey’s head closer as she slid down further on the bed. “At least you are my mess.” She kissed the whipped cream off of Aubrey’s nose and nuzzled her.

Aubrey nodded as she slowly smiled, “All yours.” She shifted her head down toward Stacie’s neck. “But what’s this?” Aubrey began to lightly suck on Stacie’s collarbone, then licked it carefully. “Do you know how sweet you taste?” She glanced up at Stacie with twinkling eyes.

 

Back at Chloe’s place, Beca was sipping her coffee and trying to decide what to do about the day. Finally, with a sigh, she looked apologetically at Chloe. “Um, I need to check on Skye.”

“Oh, right,” Chloe was idly running her fingers through Beca’s hair with one hand while she flipped through her iPad with the other. “Poor kitty, probably misses you. I know I would.” She set her iPad down and looked at Beca. “Want company? I left you alone this morning. I can just hang around here missing you if you’d rather go alone.”

Beca nodded, “Here’s the thing. I wanted to have all the time in the world to show you around. But I have to work tonight.” She bit her lower lip, “It isn’t because the house is all that big, it’s just…” she sighed, “it’s what’s left of the homestead. It means a lot to me and I want to take my time.” She dropped her shoulders, “But I have to check on Skye. I think she’s okay, but I have to check.”

Chloe’s face became serious. “Honestly, Becs, if it’s important to you I’ll wait here. I want to see it the way you want me to see it. I’ve got flowers to tend out back. I’ve got a car to wash. I’ll even cook dinner for you so you’re well fortified for work tonight.” She put a finger under Beca’s chin and used her other thumb to rub between Beca’s eyebrows lightly, “I want to see that worry wrinkle go away. That’s what matters most right now.”

“I don’t know.” Beca sighed dramatically, put her coffee down and fell backwards on the bed. “I can’t figure out how to make it work. We can go today, but I have to work at 7:30. We could wait until Monday after you get off work, but you work Tuesday.” She looked up at the ceiling. “This is the hard part. Where our schedules don’t match. I’m terrified it’s gonna get too hard and you will just give up on me.”

“Holy shit,” Chloe giggled and laid down on her side next to Beca. “You seem tense. Would you like a back rub?” She went to smooth Beca’s hair from her forehead.

Beca laughed, “You are such a weirdo.” She sighed and looked at Chloe. “So, what do I do?”

Chloe giggled, “I’m your weirdo.” She leaned on her elbow, thinking. “It’s pretty early, hon. If we leave soon we’ll be there before noon. When do you have to leave to get to work on time?”

Beca considered. “It takes about a half an hour each way. So if we left by 6:45 we wouldn’t have to hurry.” She nibbled her lower lip. “I guess that’s better than nothing.”

“You don’t think you can show me properly in almost seven hours?” Chloe raised her eyebrow.

“You’ll see.” Beca sighed. “Come on,” she stood up and extended a hand. “Let’s go?”

Chloe accepted the hand, but leaned down to kiss the offending forehead wrinkle away. “I’m sure I will adore it. It’s like an heirloom, right?”

Beca shook her head. “It’s, shit, I’m making a big fucking deal and it’s probably just a stupid little house on a hill.” She ran her free hand through her hair.

“Nope,” Chloe shook her head and sat on the bed again. “Tell me what you would have liked for it to be like when there wasn’t a time limit. Before our schedules already caused us to break up in a heart wrenching manner that is somehow tied to your house.”

“Ah, shit.” Beca repeated. She sat down next to Chloe. “Okay, here’s the thing. You know how Okies are Boomers and Sooners? Great-great-grand-dad was a boomer. He had his first homestead down around Kingfisher. Someone fought him over it. He moved north. He just kept moving north. He gave up owning land and got a job picking berries. He married the boss’s daughter, a Creek whose land allotment was the homestead.” Beca looked off into space. “My grandmother married a Choctaw. That’s how Lucky got a Choctaw name. Aunt Jean inherited it from my grand-dad. My dad wanted to live in town, raise his kids to be modern.” Beca looked over at Chloe. “Aunt Jean gave it to me.”

“Wow,” Chloe stared at Beca. “Your house has a more complete pedigree than I do. My family tree gets a little dodgy two generations back,” she laughed. “My god, it must be like walking into you.” She looked at Beca, “I mean, if you could open up a person and walk inside of them, I imagine that’s what it’s like going into your house. No wonder you’re so careful.”

Beca shrugged. “A storm took out the barn and the original house. All that’s left is the baking cottage my grandmother made my grad-dad build so she could sell pies during hard times. Aunt Jean sold most of the land to keep Tulsa from annexing Berryhill. I have the cottage, two outbuildings, and about an acre and a half or two acres on the top of the hill. That’s why it’s called the Overlook.”

Chloe shook her head, “Tell me again that you live in a cottage on a hill in the literal woods?”

“Yeah. I don’t own the hill, just the top. But we keep the trees as best we can to keep the view clean.” Beca bit her lip again. “My family is pushing me to sell it. I’ve been in court ever since my aunt died to keep it.”

“Beca, I’ve never seen it but I’m willing to fight for you to keep it. Like I said, it would be like selling a piece of you. Aubrey has some kick ass lawyers,” Chloe started to pick up her phone.

Beca put her hand on Chloe’s. “Not today. Today, I just want to show you. Next time I get summoned to court, I’ll let you call Aubrey. Fair?” She smiled hopefully. Maybe Chloe really did understand.

“Okay, fair. After all, it’s you, so you get to choose.” She put her phone down and looked into Beca’s eyes. “Seriously. Do you want to wait for the right time to show it to me? I’m willing to wait. I know it will be worth it. Maybe I should take a day off next week.”

Beca held her hands out helplessly. “I can’t decide.”

Chloe dropped her head against Beca’s shoulder. “Do you know what I do when I can’t decide if I should do a thing or not?”

“What do you do?” Beca smiled in spite of herself.

Chloe giggled, “I do the thing!” She hopped to her feet and grabbed Beca’s hand. “Come on, let’s get you dressed. I have a homestead to meet today.”

Beca laughed harder. “Right! Time’s a wastin.”

Chapter Text

Beca was nibbling at her lower lip, occasionally cutting a glance Chloe’s way. Most of the drive was typical Tulsa roads, but as they drew closer to home, the signals were further apart and the roads had more curves. Finally, Beca slowed down. “That’s my mailbox.” She pointed at the simple black box on a post near a narrow road. “And my driveway.” She downshifted and headed up the hill.

Chloe watched the mailbox disappear behind them as Beca navigated a steep gently curving hill. Either side of the road was covered in thick brush and trees. “It feels kind of like we’re out of town all of a sudden.”

“Yeah. It’s a real bitch to get delivery. I usually just meet anyone at the bottom of the hill.” Beca chuckled.

“Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about that. No midnight pizza for you, huh?” Chloe turned to smile at Beca. “What am I saying? You probably make your own crust.”

Beca shrugged and nodded, “With Jessica’s help. She has more patience for specialty breads than I do,” she admitted with a rueful smile. “But I make a mean pumpernickel.”

Chloe brushed her hand across Beca’s gearshift hand, “I’ll bet you do.” She watched the road unfold ahead of them. “It’s a hell of a driveway, hon.”

“Make sure your transmission is solid before you drive up. Poor Jess worries every week her car is gonna die.” Beca winced. “I gotta figure a way to get her a new car.”

“Keep showcasing her, she’s bound to get some gig work,” Chloe answered. “My little car would probably love the challenge.” She leaned her head back and looked up through the window at the tree canopy. “Can you imagine this road in the autumn with the convertible top down?”

Beca looked over quickly. “It’ll be awesome.” She downshifted again as she took the last rise and the Toyota arrived at the hilltop. The land stretched out like a Swiss Alp meadow. A small stone cottage sat in the center. The east side with the front door had a porch on which sat an ancient rocking chair. To the north were a greenhouse and a utility shed. Just to the south of the house sat the van Beca drove on Thursday nights.

Chloe gasped, “It’s straight out of central casting.” She looked over at Beca. “I thought my little house was charming. Wow.”

Beca felt that small smile cross her face. “Like it?” She pulled up next to the van and got out, walking around to open the door for Chloe.

Chloe stepped out of the car and spun around, taking it all in. “You get the sunrise over the downtown skyline and sunsets over the hills. I’ll bet the stars are nice and clear up here too.” She faced Beca again, “I already love it.” She closed one eye and looked furtively from side to side, “But who do you entertain if there aren’t any neighbors?” Chloe teased.

“Yeah, that’ll be a problem for you. Only one who gets to watch is me.” Beca shrugged as she teased back. “Come on inside.” She led Chloe to the front door. She unlocked it and pushed it open. “Front room used to be the dining area for the pie shop.”

Chloe nodded as she appreciated the old porch and imagined sitting in the rocker. In the front room she paused to look around. “I can see it,” she said. “The counter would be here?”

Beca nodded. “Aunt Jean had the fireplace installed when she moved in.” She kept moving. “It only has the one bathroom; Aunt Jean did that, too. It was built before indoor plumbing.”

“Thank heaven for Aunt Jean,” Chloe remarked as she noted the claw foot tub with a shower attachment. “Beca, I have to warn you, I might get in that tub and never get out. You’ll bring me food, right?”

“I dunno,” Beca teased, “crumbs you know, not good for ancient pipes.” She grinned. “This way is the service porch, which used to be a real porch.” Beca laughed, “Grandma had it enclosed. Something Aunt Jean didn’t have to do. Although, plumbing.” She shrugged again.

Chloe nodded, “Have I said wow yet?” She stopped to look out the window. “Every view is gorgeous. And no neighbors means no closed curtains! I’m beginning to warm to the idea.”

Beca chuckled. “That’s a good point.” She looked behind the dryer.

“Is there a secret door behind the laundry machines?” Chloe watched Beca, curious. “I mean, I wouldn’t put it past your Aunt to have a secret wine cellar or something.

“No, sorry.” Beca laughed, “Skye hid here the first time she came in the house. I’m not sure where she is. Lemme go pour food in the dish.” She left the service porch and backtracked to the guest room. It was full of sound equipment and mixing boards. In front of the closet was an empty food dish. Beca opened the closet, pulled out a bag of kibble, and poured some into the bowl. A flash of white and black appeared in an instant.

Chloe stood where she could watch but still be out of the way. “I forgot to tell you,” she said as she leaned against the wall, “I loved that music you gave me. It’s my car soundtrack now. You’re really talented, Beca.”

Beca blushed as she knelt down to pet the cat making circles around her feet. “Thanks. None of it is very original. It’s mostly just mash ups and overlays. But one of these days, I’m gonna make something really special. Maybe use Jess and Ash as the vocalists.” She looked up at Chloe, “Nice dream, huh?”

“Sounds like a possibility more than a dream. I’ll bet you guys could create something fantastic.” Chloe watched the little furball winding around Beca’s feet. “She’s adorable, Becs. So happy to see you, too.” Chloe crouched down and put a hand out, but Skye was only interested in Beca.

Beca scooped the cat up and walked over to Chloe. “Come on, Pita. You gotta meet Chloe, my second favorite girl.” She leaned over quickly, “Really my favorite but don’t tell Skye,” she whispered as she covered Skye’s ears by scratching them.

Chloe giggled and offered her hand for Skye to sniff. After a thorough inspection, the cat licked Chloe’s fingers. Chloe looked up at Beca, charmed. “I can be second favorite,” she whispered at the little purr machine as she scratched under Skye’s chin. “Such unique coloring,” Chloe looked at Beca again. “I’ve never seen a cat with two different colored eyes.”

“I’m not sure she can see out of the blue one. It doesn’t always change with the light like the green one.” Beca smiled at the furball. “Maybe that’s why she came in.”

Chloe smiled softly at the kitten again, then at Beca, “She knew you’d keep her safe. I love your house, Becs. Thanks for sharing it with me today.”

Beca bent down to put Skye close to the food dish, “Thanks for coming. I’m sorry we have to leave before dark. It’s the best time to be here.” Beca slipped past Chloe and into to hallway. “You hungry? I haven’t shown you the kitchen yet.”

Chloe followed Beca, sneaking another glance at the kitten as they walked out of the room. “I’m not hungry yet, but maybe in a little while? I’d love to watch you cook dinner.”

“Sure,” Beca took a quick turn and headed back into the living room. “I guess it was silly to think I needed hours and hours to show you around. But it’s too hot to walk the property, or sit on the deck. It’s best to see the house during the day, but the property at night.” She plopped on the couch. “Wanna watch TV or something?”

“Okay, I give up, where’s the TV?” Chloe sat next to Beca on the couch and looked around the room, confused.

Beca picked up the remote with a smile. “Surprise.” She pressed a button and the painting above the fireplace switched to a channel guide. “This improvement was mine. It was a bitch to get cable out here, so we are stuck with satellite. The good news is I have plenty of room for the dish to rotate to find the signal.” She put her arm on the back of the sofa. “Anything I should look for in particular?”

Chloe tucked in against Beca’s side. “Movie musicals? Kiss me Kate, maybe? I still need to Brush up my Shakespeare.” She kissed Beca’s cheek. “I was right. The house is like a huge Beca hug that wraps around you in every single room.”

Beca searched for the old musical. “I’m so glad you like it,” Beca bit her lower lip. “Like I said, the family wants to sell it. I can’t imagine why anyone but me would want it.” She shrugged. “What are they gonna do, bulldoze the hill for a strip mall?”

“Now they’ve got both of us to deal with. They can fuck off with all that noise, they’ll have to bulldoze me with it,” Chloe’s eyes flashed. “Sometimes I don’t understand the things people do. Why would anyone want to make this haven go away?”

“I don’t know,” Beca replied honestly as her heart swelled listing to Chloe talk. She closed her arm around Chloe and pulled the other girl closer. “I didn’t know I was getting a champion too.” She leaned over and placed a tender kiss.

Chloe smiled against Beca’s lips, “I didn’t know I was gaining access to a private resort.” She leaned back, “What if I stayed here while you work tonight? Maybe I can coax Skye into my lap.” She pushed a strand of hair away from Beca’s face, “And I could be here waiting for you when you get home from work.”

Once again, that slow smile spread across Beca’s face. “I’ve never come home to someone before. That could be pretty cool.”

“Question,” Chloe leaned her head against Beca’s shoulder.

“Sure,” Beca replied softly.

“Do you think we’ll both fit in that bathtub?” Chloe was smiling and playing with Beca’s hand.

Beca chuckled as she tilted her head to one side as if considering. “You know, I think we will.” She pressed the power button and the TV returned to its painting of the pacific ocean. “Wanna find out?” Beca smirked.

Chloe giggled, “I love adventures.”

 

After Beca left for her Saturday night gig, Chloe began to rummage through cabinets in the laundry room. She smiled when she found a big box of taper candles. She’d felt confident Beca would have a stash; power outages were probably a regular occurrence up here during storm season. She picked out a couple dozen of the candles and took them to the kitchen.

Next Chloe looked through the fridge to see what she had to work with. A bag of fresh lemons was in the crisper. Perfect. In the third cabinet she opened she found the big glass pitcher she knew would be somewhere in the old fashioned kitchen. Chloe kept an eye on her phone so she could keep up with Beca’s texts while she juiced the lemons into the pitcher and added sugar. She sliced the last lemon, dropped the slices in the pitcher, and put the pitcher in the fridge.

Chloe turned her attention to the back deck. She found where Beca kept the kindling and laid a nice fire in the fire pit. Then she rearranged the lounge chairs so they were side by side, and checked to make sure there was an aux cord for the speakers that were on the table beside the chairs.

It took a while for Chloe to set up the tapers. She made a path of candles from the front door, through the dining room, and to the deck. Chloe looked around at her handiwork, satisfied. Now all she had to do was wait.

Chloe wandered into Beca’s bedroom and idly flipped through the shirts hanging in the closet. A lightweight plaid button down shirt caught her eye so she tried it on. it was just long enough to still be decent if she didn’t raise her arms too high. She looked around for some shorts since she would be outside. She unbuttoned the top four buttons so that she was still covered, but just barely.

Chloe checked the clock. She had about half an hour before Beca would be home. She rushed through the house, lighting candles, then went outside and coaxed the fire pit to life. She pulled the lemonade and two glasses from the kitchen and placed them on the small table on the deck. Finally she settled in one of the lounge chairs and hooked her iPhone up to the speakers. Soft old standard torch songs filled the night. Chloe adjusted the volume so she could still hear the crackle of the fire and the chirping crickets. She settled back and waited.

Beca pulled up at the Overlook, never happier to be home. It was the first time she could remember going to work and having someone waiting for her when she got home. She got out of the car, then leaned back to retrieve the cheesecake Jessica had insisted she bring home. With the cheesecake in one hand, she loosened the tie Chloe had put on her all those hours ago and smiled as she approached the door. When she pushed it open, she was greeted by a line of tapers. Her smile broadened. She followed the trail of light to the back door. She opened the door and her smile softened. She took in the sights, the smells and the sounds. She leaned in the door jamb, cheesecake still in hand, tie loose around her neck and looked at Chloe. “Aren’t you gorgeous.”

Chloe took a deep breath, seeing Beca standing in the candlelight, tie askew, looking a little tired from a long night. “Hey, beautiful,” she finally managed. “What’s in the box?”

“Jessica made you, made us, a cheesecake.” Beca’s eyes twinkled. “It seems she feels cheated out of celebrating our reuniting.” She pushed off the wall. “I’ll go put it in the kitchen.”

“No, wait. We can have some with the lemonade.” Chloe sat forward in her chair and gestured toward the table. “Would you mind pouring out? Then come over here and let me take those shoes off for you.”

Beca nodded and smiled again. She put the box with the cheesecake on the table and poured two glasses of the lemonade. As she walked to the lounge chairs, she stole a sip. “Oh, man, I may swear off alcohol forever. That’s amazing!”

Chloe grinned, “It isn’t fresh bread, but it’s a recipe I learned from my grandma in Georgia. I can make a mean sweet tea, too.” Chloe gestured for Beca to put one foot, and then the other, on the chair as she eased the tired feet from the low heels. She rubbed each one gently before letting it go. “That’s got to feel better,” she winked up at Beca. “I’ve been enjoying the view,” Chloe looked around at the lights of the city below them. “I can see why you say it’s best up here at night.”

Beca rested her forehead against Chloe’s. “Question.”

Chloe smirked. “Sure.”

“Want some cheesecake?”

Chloe giggled and nodded. “I’ll go get plates. Do you have any Bailey’s?”

“Actually, I do. Top shelf of the fridge, in the back.” Beca kissed Chloe’s nose and slowly moved to stand up.

Chloe found the plates, silverware, and Irish cream. When she came back outside, Beca had opened the cheesecake and was waiting. “I assume it’s already cut, right? I mean, Jessica’s a professional.” She winked at Beca. “Have you ever drizzled Baileys on cheesecake before?”

“A, it’s already cut because second, you bet Jess is a pro. Finally, no, I don’t think I have tried that combo before.” Beca smiled fondly, “I’m gonna learn all sorts of stuff, aren’t I?”

“Mhm,” Chloe hummed and cut her eyes suggestively at Beca. She prepared the plates and handed one over, “See what you think.”

Beca nodded with another smile and moved to sit down first. She leaned back in the lounge chair and slid her fork into the cheesecake. Making sure there was plenty of the liqueur on the sample, she took her first bite. Her eyes popped open. “Oh man!” But it sounded more like, “oh mfff.”

Chloe giggled, “I know, right?” She sat beside Beca and closed her eyes to savor the first bite. “Bless Jessica. For so many reasons.”

Beca nodded again. After she swallowed she admitted, “She’s been a good friend. For a long time. I hope my little showcases help even a little bit in paying back all the ways she’s watched out for me over the years.”

Chloe nodded as she took another bite. “She really does sound good. Are you sure she’s ready to hang up her apron?”

“She’ll never stop baking, any more than I will. We just keep changing the recipes.” Beca winked. “But she’s too good to hide behind an oven forever. I had hoped working as my back up group would get a studio’s attention to hire them as studio singers. That didn’t happen, so I’m pushing it.” Beca smiled. “If we can get them enough gigs that Ashley can stop tending or Jess can stop baking, they’d have so much more time together.” Beca reached over and caressed Chloe’s face with the back of her hand. “It’s important. You know?”

“Yeah, I think I do,” Chloe said in a low voice as she reached up to put her hand over Beca’s. Her eyes flitted down, then up again. “You are still far too buttoned up.” Chloe reached over to pop loose the first two buttons of Beca’s shirt. She ran her fingers over the open throat. “That’s better.”

Beca turned her hand to capture Chloe’s and brought it to her lips. She kissed the palm slowly. Beca smiled appreciatively. “That’s quite a look on you.”

Chloe smiled, her eyes never leaving Beca’s. “You like it?” She shifted slightly to provide a better view.

“Mmmmm,” Beca nodded with approval. She kissed Chloe’s wrist.

Chloe leaned forward, her free hand snaking behind Beca’s neck under the collar of her shirt. “It’s reserved only for you,” she whispered against Beca’s ear.

“Have I mentioned I feel lucky?” Beca responded, her voice low.

Chapter Text

Aubrey woke before Stacie. She snuck out of bed as quietly as she could, slipped on a long shirt, and padded into the kitchen to make coffee. When she sat down at the kitchen island to wait, she opened her iPad. The Google page was all dressed up in red, white, and blue. Aubrey looked quickly at the date and groaned. How had she missed that today was the Fourth of July?

Stacie felt a chill and reached a hand out to help herself pull closer to Aubrey. When her hand found only sheet, she opened her eyes and groggily rolled to a sitting position. She grabbed a plaid button down that was hanging on the back of a chair and pulled it on. She was still rubbing her eyes as she reached the counter and sat down, resting her head on Aubrey’s shoulder. “Missed you,” she said with a yawn.

Aubrey leaned her head against Stacie’s, “Good morning, beautiful. Sorry, I just wasn’t going to go back to sleep so I thought I’d have some coffee and read the news out here so I wouldn’t wake you.”

“Is okay,” Stacie yawned and stood up. “I’m gonna pour out. Anything good? Tired of bad news so don’t share that.” She smirked as she shuffled around to get mugs.

Aubrey shrugged, “Seems to be a national holiday.” She chuckled. “I hadn’t even realized what the date was. See how you distract me?”

Stacie looked up from the cup she was pouring. “Holiday? Shit.” She spilled coffee on the counter and danced out of the way. She put the coffee pot down and reached for a towel. “Careful, the floor is slippery,” she warned as she started cleaning up.

“Oh dear,” Aubrey jumped up and grabbed another towel to help mop up the coffee. “I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s only the Fourth of July.”

“Not upset, just clumsy as shit before coffee.” Stacie blushed. “Need coffee before I pour any. It’s a catch 22.” She dumped the dripping towel in the sink. “Now, where were we?”

“You are sitting right over there,” Aubrey gestured toward the chair, “and I’m pouring you a cup of coffee. Then we can talk about the holiday. Do you have any traditions?”

Stacie blushed again but did as she was told. She propped her head on her hands. “Traditions? Not really. I mean, Boston has a mean fireworks show, but if you can’t hear the music it’s just loud explosions with pretty smoke. It’s safer to watch the Disney fireworks on YouTube.” She sat up suddenly, “Oh, shit, your family is military. I should totally be more respectful.”

Aubrey rolled her eyes as she set Stacie’s cup on the island, the creamer beside it. “If I was on base with my father for the summer it was a grueling day. I had to dress up and sit with him on the reviewing stand for a parade, then there were garden parties, then usually a concert of marches until fireworks. I had to be on my best Posen behavior all day long. I tend to intentionally ignore the date anymore.” She glanced nervously at Stacie, “But if you want to do something special I’d be happy to.”

Stacie stood up and walked around to Aubrey’s side, “I can thinks of lots of fireworks I’d rather set off.” She smiled and teased as she kissed Aubrey’s cheeks. “Who needs smoke and noise?”

Aubrey chuckled and turned her head to capture Stacie’s lips with her own. “By that definition we have our own celebration regularly, don’t we?” Her eyes danced. “You don’t mind if we skip the explosions this year? I mean, the ones outside these four walls.”

“Nope,” Stacie slipped her arms around Aubrey’s waist. “I’d rather look at you any day.” She tilted her head to one side. “We should have coffee. Fortify ourselves for the day, then let me do a little research.” She smirked. “The neighbors may be noisy.” She pointed toward the center of the apartment ceiling, behind the kitchen.

Aubrey followed Stacie’s pointing finger, then looked back down, “They have a party on the roof, don’t they?” She sighed. “Coffee first. Then you can be the queen of research and save me from this day.” Aubrey leaned back against Stacie and sipped at her coffee.

“I will, Princess. You won’t even remember what day it is,” Stacie promised. She kept one arm around Aubrey as she poured creamer in her coffee, stirred, put down the spoon and picked up her coffee with her free hand. “See? I’m doing better already.”

 

At the Overlook, Beca reached to get her phone. She peered blearily at the time, wishing she didn’t have to work tonight. As she blinked, and squinted, she saw the date under the time and grinned. She put her phone down and snuggled up against Chloe.

Chloe wiggled back against Beca, “Now who’s the wiggly one?” She muttered.

Beca chuckled. “Just checking the time.” She kissed behind Chloe’s ear.

Chloe turned her head toward Beca, “Do we need to get up?” She plopped her head back down on the pillow and wiggled against Beca again. “I’m so comfy,” she whined.

“Nope,” Beca answered the question first. She grinned again. “We have plenty of time.” She wrapped an arm around Chloe’s middle. “But I can make coffee or breakfast if you want.”

Chloe moaned, “Now you’ve wiggled and talked so much. It sounds like you’re awake.” She rolled onto her back and looked up at Beca’s grin. “You’re totally awake.” Her eyes narrowed, “And you look like you ate a canary.”

Beca chuckled and shrugged. “I have a little story I can tell ya.”

Chloe propped herself up on her elbow facing Beca, “I like stories. What’s yours?”

“Okay, it’s a little boring but I think you will like the punch line.” Beca moved to sit up and braced her back against the head board. “Once upon a time, there was a jazz musician who got herself mixed up with a management gig. She loved the steady hours, and the steady paycheck. It even gave her the chance to showcase friends and try out new compositions.”

Chloe nodded, “This part sounds relatively familiar. Tell me more.”

“Okay, just try not to fall asleep.” Beca winked. “Anyway, the hardest part of the job was learning to schedule months ahead of time. The event team had reservations up to six months out. So this manager musician had to learn how to book performers six months out.” Beca looked down at Chloe’s hand and started playing with her fingers. “The hardest part was deciding what to do about holidays. Should the manager schedule herself? Keep herself busy? Or schedule someone else so she didn’t have to face all the cute couples celebrating together when she was alone.”

“Oh, now the story is taking a sad turn. Tell me there’s a happy ending,” Chloe sat up and leaned her head on Beca’s shoulder, her fingers twining with Beca’s. “Having to plan ahead and being alone on holidays. Twice the misery.”

Beca smiled and squeezed Chloe’s hand. “Well, the manager decided she would rather stay home. So, by February she had scheduled through July and by June she had scheduled through the new year.”

Chloe tilted her head. “What is today?” She leaned to grab her phone from the night stand. “How did I not know today was the Fourth of July?” She looked at Beca with wide eyes.

“I didn’t either till just a couple of minutes ago.” Beca laughed with delight. “Now, I can probably swing us tickets to the Skylight tonight, but I’m not booked.” She met Chloe’s gaze. “I’m all yours till you go to work tomorrow.”

Chloe smiled slowly, “And I’m all yours until I go to work on Tuesday.” She laughed. “Two days, Becs! We get two days off together!”

Beca held her arms out in an invitation. “Two glorious days off with no responsibilities. How’s that for a totally non-adulting way to celebrate being together?”

Chloe tucked in against Beca. “Glorious,” she sighed contentedly. “Wait,” she looked up at Beca, “it’s a holiday. It’s our very first holiday together. Shouldn’t we do something? Celebrate? I don’t even have any burgers to grill.”

“I’m pretty sure I have some beef in the freezer. I can bake up some buns today so they are fresh.” Beca was thinking out loud. “And I’ll text Lucky to see if she has another day we can bake.” She rubbed Chloe’s arm. “Do we need to make a run to town for supplies? I usually just sit on the lawn and watch the different area fireworks.”

Chloe relaxed, “If we’ve got burgers and beer and a view of the fireworks I can’t think of any reason to put on clothes today.”

Beca laughed. “I have to dress for baking. It’s not hygienic. But I promise you can undress me for the festivities. Fair?”

Chloe giggled and smacked Beca’s arm. “I meant no reason to wear clothes for going into public. I’m not going to grill without at least a shirt on.” She settled in again, “But you can still take it off of me for the festivities.” She smiled, “Two glorious days.”

Beca settled back and cuddled Chloe close. “Two glorious days,” she repeated.

 

The afternoon was waning when Stacie leaned on a wall to look at Aubrey and smirked, “Get dressed.”

Aubrey blinked, “Okay,” she said slowly. “Is this a new game?” She walked over and put her hands on Stacie’s hips, “Usually you want me to get undressed.”

“You got me there.” Stacie wrapped her arms around Aubrey. “Put on a t-shirt, jeans, sneakers. Sloppy shit you would never wear to a holiday event.” She kissed Aubrey’s nose. “I have a surprise for you.”

Aubrey smirked, intrigued. “Anything for you, love.” She pulled away from Stacie and went to dig out her Converse high tops. “Grocery store sloppy or cleaning the garage sloppy?”

Stacie considered. “Grocery store sloppy. Someone might see you on our way.”

“Got it,” Aubrey nodded and found something appropriate. “I do wonder what’s gotten into your beautiful brain, Doc.”

“Just making sure we have a good day.” Stacie slipped her feet into her running shoes. “And we get a good day tomorrow. College is shut down, so I get the day off, too.” She winked at Aubrey.

“I might be warming to this midsummer patriotic mess of a holiday after all,” Aubrey grinned up at Stacie as she tied her shoelaces. “Every free day with you is worth celebrating,” she winked and stood up. “Lead me on, gorgeous.”

Stacie laughed but refrained from joking about the double entendres this time. After locking up, she led Aubrey to the elevator and down to the main floor. She paused at the concierge desk. “Are we set, Georgina?”

The woman at the desk smiled. “Not a cloud in the sky, no rain in the forecast. Arrangements are complete.”

“Thank you. I’ll send my appreciation out on Tuesday.”

Georgina smiled at Aubrey as Stacie led Aubrey toward the stairs that led to the storm shelter.

Aubrey gasped at Stacie as she realized what direction they were walking. “You didn’t.”

Stacie’s eyes danced. “Didn’t what?” She smirked and laced her fingers with Aubrey’s. When she pushed open the door, the room had been decorated. One of the booths from the grand lounge sat in the center of the room. On the wall hung a 77 inch television. While muted, it showed the Mecum auto show. Soft jazz music filled the room. On one side was a small buffet table with chafing dishes keeping some foods warm and chilling trays keeping others cold.

Aubrey stared at the room, then turned wide eyes toward Stacie. “I’ve never seen such a romantic storm shelter in my life. You are simply amazing.” She kissed Stacie’s cheek, then moved toward the side wall where they had first talked. She wiggled her finger for Stacie to join her.

Stacie walked over and sat down on the bench she had made sure no one had moved. She pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Wanna check the weather report with me?”

Aubrey grinned and sat beside her. “Nope. I want to kiss you right here the way I dreamed I’d kissed you for three days after I first saw you.”

“Mmmm,” Stacie pretended to consider. “I like your idea better,” she leaned closer.

Aubrey kissed Stacie slowly and deeply, then leaned back to look into her eyes. “You’re my new favorite Fourth of July tradition, Doc.”

Stacie caressed Aubrey’s cheek. “As long as we are writing a new rule book, why not change holidays while we are at it?”

Aubrey grinned and glanced over her shoulder, “You’ve even got the car auction on TV. Everyone else is doing this holiday so very wrong.” She put her forehead against Stacie’s. “Thank you for finding me and saving me from a lonely existence.”

“I thought you saved me,” Stacie whispered. “This? It’s nothing compared to all I’d love to give you.”

Aubrey sighed happily, “It’s perfect for tonight. Thank you, love. Happy Independence Day.”

 

About half an hour before sunset, Ashley got out of the 1995 Chevy as the valet held the door. She giggled while Jessica got out of the other side. “You guys are pros.” She winked at the valet holding her door.

“This could be so sweet, mija. You just need to let me soup her up for you.” Juan winked.

Ashley chuckled, “I just might, Juan, but you’d have to fix her transmission, not just add hydraulics.”

Jessica took Ashley’s arm and watched Juan grinning as he hopped into the car and drove it away as if it were a brand new Mercedes. “That’s almost always my favorite part,” she giggled and leaned against her girl. “The way the hostess greets you and the bartenders dance attendance upstairs is my other almost favorite. Your big old smile is my absolute favorite, though, big wig.”

Ashley kissed the side of Jessica’s face. “I get two goodies in this job, and tonight is one of them. Let’s go rub elbows with the upper crust.” She led Jessica inside and to the elevators. “Have I mentioned how gorgeous you look?”

Jessica smiled and looked Ashley up and down, “Have I mentioned how sexy you are in that dress?”

“Only wore it so you could take it off,” Ashley whispered with a giggle. “And red is so your color.” She stepped into the elevator and pulled Jessica inside before she pressed the button to the roof.

Jessica waited for the doors to close and leaned back. “Show me the leg. Again.” Her eyes danced wickedly.

Ashley leaned against the mirrored back wall and extended her left leg so the fasteners below her hip were stretched to the limit. The slit separated, exposing her left leg from shoe to upper thigh.

Jessica’s grin matched her eyes, “My dress will take longer than yours to get out of, even if it’s shorter. You could probably just slide right out of that slit.” She winked and turned around so she was standing beside Ashley holding her hand by the time the elevator stopped and the doors opened. “Do you think there’s a camera in here? Did someone just see you flash your leg at me?”

“If I still have a job tomorrow, the answer is no.” Ashley winked. “All we’ve done is amuse the ghost.” She stepped out of the elevator and joined the party goers waiting to enter the bar.

Jessica nodded and cast a quick glance over her shoulder, “I forgot about the ghost.” She took a couple of quick steps to catch up to Ashley. “Looks like a full house.”

Ashley leaned to whisper in Jessica’s ear, “Don’t tell Stacie, but I think it’s just a marketing ploy.” She smirked as they were marked off the list and allowed inside. The tables were all gone and a buffet table lined one wall. The piano was now surrounded by the rest of a jazz combo and the inside lights were already dimming to set the ambiance for the light shows to come. Ashley walked Jessica to the bar and waited for Damon’s attention.

Jessica nodded and looked at the milling crowd. She watched how confidently Ashley moved through the room, just as comfortable among the guests as she was serving them. She leaned to whisper in Ashley’s ear, “Could I get a sexy girl like you to buy me a vodka tonic with lime?”

Ashley nodded and winked. “Sorry you got the short straw, Damon. How about a couple of tall vodka tonics with lime?”

Damon chuckled, “I love this holiday. The wife goes to her folks with the kids, I don’t have to watch them blow their hands off with grand dad and I make enough in tips to cover the hospital bills.” He winked as he poured the drinks. “You ladies clean up well.”

“Why thank you,” Jessica winked back at Damon. “I think it’s worth losing the tips to get to show her off once in a while. Would you believe she refused to wear the tie tonight though?”

Damon laughed, looked at Ashley and then at Jessica. “I think it was a good trade off.” He passed over the drinks, “You girls have fun.”

Ashley grinned at him as she tucked some cash in his tip jar. She held out her arm to Jessica and asked, “Ready to find a good spot?”

“I’ll follow you anywhere, Ash. I love the Fourth.” Jessica had her drink in one hand and Ashley’s arm in the other.

Meanwhile, at the Overlook, Chloe stood up from her lounge chair and collected the empty dinner plates. She managed to hold both empty beer bottles in one hand as she carried it all into the kitchen. When she came back out she had two fresh bottles. “It’ll be dark soon, Becs. Which direction is best for watching fireworks?” She handed Beca one of the bottles and settled into her chair again.

“Take your pick.” Beca pointed to the north east. “There are a bunch over Skiatook lake that direction. Sand springs sometimes has some too.” She pointed due east. “Tulsa has a bunch, some over the river and some at the ball park.” Then she pointed south. “Sapulpa is that way.”

Chloe considered each option, “I’ve always wondered what the River Parks show looked like from a distance. I’ll bet you can see the ballpark from here too. Let’s set up facing east. What do you think?”

Beca nodded. “Hang on.” She put the bottle down and ran inside. She returned with a big fluffy black comforter. “Let’s move away from the buildings. We can see more.” She walked away until she thought she had a good clear view and laid the blanket down.

Chloe picked up Beca’s beer and followed out onto the lawn. “You’re brilliant.” She sat on the blanket facing toward Tulsa. “This is perfect, Becs.”

“Want me to get a cooler with more beer or is this enough?” Beca gestured before sitting down.

“Nah, this is plenty for now,” Chloe scooted over to lean against Beca. “Do you know what I’d be doing tonight if I wasn’t here?”

Beca wrapped an arm around Chloe. “Nope. I know I’d be sitting here, but much less happy.”

“Poor sweetie,” Chloe snuggled closer. “I’d be in a client’s small yet somehow overdone back yard in south Tulsa admiring their koi pond, drinking a wine spritzer, wearing shoes that would be killing my toes about right now. Probably surviving on cheese and bread and grapes.”

“Ugh!” Beca laughed. “That sounds miserable!” She leaned back to look at Chloe. “How do you stand it?”

“It’s better than being alone?” Chloe grimaced, “That sounds awful knowing you were up here alone.”

Beca shrugged. “Sometimes Angela brings her family up. That’s fun. But most of the time, I sit here, watch the fireworks and then go in and watch an old musical.”

“This is so much better,” Chloe turned so she was leaning into Beca’s embrace. “Isn’t this better?”

“So much better.” Beca agreed as she held Chloe and waited for the show to begin. She wouldn’t have believed it a month ago, no less last year. It was so much better.

Chapter Text

Stacie sat at the table and held both of her hands around a cup of coffee. “Okay, so I’m meeting you at your place tonight so we can spend time with Doofus.” She nodded as if making a mental note. “What time?”

“I’ll be home by 4:00,” Aubrey replied as she closed a ziploc baggie that held her afternoon snack. She tucked it into her lunchbox and snapped the box closed. “Come over whenever you finish with work.” She turned and leaned against the counter, “We really need to get you a key.”

“I love you have a lunch box.” Stacie removed one hand from her cup to hold up her chin. “It’s just so adorable.”

Aubrey looked back at the green metal box with the domed lid and chrome latch. “Some designs never needed improvement,” she shrugged. “So what do you think? Give me a ballpark time and I’ll have dinner ready for you.”

Stacie blinked. “Oh, right.” She pulled her phone out, “I’ll set an alert and try to leave here by four. I should be at your place by 4:20.” She fiddled with her phone. “Won’t it be hard to get a key? You already gave one to Chloe, right? Does your key work the front door, too?” She replied absently.

Aubrey sat at the table and looked at Stacie carefully, “I should have made the coffee stronger, hm? What’s got your beautiful mind running away already?”

Stacie looked up abruptly. “Oh, sorry. Saw my alert to run another search for papers on the behavior of gold at an atomic level.” She put her phone down. “There has to be an answer, Aubrey. I’m just so frustrated that I can’t find it.” She sighed. “So I keep looking.” She shrugged. “How many pianos do you play with today?”

“It’s a big day, I’ve got four. That’s why I have to go early and stay late into the afternoon. Tomorrow there are only two, so I’ll get a long lunch in between.” Aubrey fiddled with the tablecloth. “I wish I could be useful on the gold conundrum.”

“No one is useful on the gold conundrum. I have to figure out the box, then think outside of it.” Stacie smiled ruefully. “Sorry I’m a dog with a bone. You must be bored of me by now.” She looked over at the piano. “Is Summit going to be jealous of you playing with those other ladies?”

Aubrey grinned, “Summit?”

Stacie smiled, “We have to name her. Since she came from the Summit Club, I thought it would do until you come up with something better.”

“Oh no, it’s just the right name.” She smiled at Stacie fondly, “Summit and I have an agreement. I can tinker with anybody I need to tinker with as long as I always come home to her.”

“I can appreciate her sentiment.” Stacie stood and walked over to Aubrey. “But I’ve been doing wrong by the Doof, keeping you here.”

Aubrey took Stacie’s hand and used it to haul herself to her feet. “Silly cat. She only wants me for one thing,” she said as she wrapped her arms around Stacie’s neck.

Stacie kissed Aubrey softly. “I think you sell her short. She wants two things.”

Aubrey grinned, “You think so?”

“Yep,” Stacie giggled. “Food and cuddles.”

“Oh yeah,” Aubrey leaned forward for another kiss. “But you’re the one she likes to cuddle with best. She’ll be happy to see you.”

Stacie smiled against Aubrey’s lips, “I’ll be happy to see her, too.” She rested her head against Aubrey’s, “We can make this work right? Two households?”

“We’re pretty resourceful,” Aubrey replied. She started a train of thought that she wasn’t sure Stacie was ready for. Did the Mayo allow pets?

“It just feels overwhelming sometimes.” Stacie sighed and smiled. “I’m sure it’s just my frustration with the project spilling into everyday. I’ll get a handle on it.” She kissed Aubrey on the cheek. “But you should go or you’ll be late. I’ll miss you.”

“Okay,” Aubrey sighed. “Look forward to dinner with you. I’ll send a text at lunch. Miss you already, love.”

Stacie nodded. “I can’t wait.” She reluctantly released her hold on Aubrey. “I guess real life had to intrude sometime.”

“Only for a few hours,” Aubrey smiled as she picked up her lunchbox. She blew Stacie another kiss. “Good luck, Doc.”

“Have fun, Princess.” Stacie smiled and leaned on the breakfast bar to watch Aubrey leave. Stacie pushed off after Aubrey closed the door and walked toward the fridge. Her stomach tightened. Yeah, nothing was going to taste good today. Instead, she refilled her coffee cup, added some creamer and headed to the office. Time to read up on the properties of atomic gold.

 

In Berryhill, Beca opened her eyes when light started to creep in the window. She frowned and then her eyes widened. She turned over and gently stroked Chloe’s cheek while trying to control her racing heartbeat. “Hey, Bright Eyes, don’t you have to work today?” She struggled to keep her voice calm.

Chloe reached a hand up to catch Beca’s hand and pulled it around so it was tucked between her breasts. “Mhm,” she replied.

Beca smiled, but the panicked beating of her heart didn’t slow. “You have a longer commute from here, we have to plan for it.”

Chloe grumbled. “What time is it,” she asked without moving.

Beca turned to look at the clock. “7:30. You need at least a half hour to get to Brookside this time of day. Sometimes 45 minutes with everyone heading toward downtown.” The panic was starting to creep into her voice.

“Shit, Becs,” Chloe rolled over and opened one eye, “I don’t work until noon.”

Beca froze. “What?” Her heart skipped a beat.

“Noon,” Chloe was finally awake enough to catch Beca’s urgency. She opened both eyes and stared at her girl. “I only work 20 hours a week, doll. And I get to pick the hours most of the time. So I schedule appointments in the afternoon.”

Beca fall onto her back, laughing. “Shit, I thought you were gonna be late. I was already panicked I was gonna get you fired.”

It was Chloe’s turn to lean on an elbow and look down at Beca. “You are so damn sweet, Beca. I guess I should have mentioned it, huh?”

“It woulda made for a slower wake up.” Beca was still laughing.

Chloe rubbed at her eye, “Yeah, guess so. If I play big spoon do you think you can find sleep again? Or do I need to wear you out a little?” Chloe traced a finger across Beca’s stomach under the covers.

Beca pulled Chloe closer then abruptly turned over. “Def big spoon.” She looked over her shoulders, her eyes twinkling.

“Oh thank goodness,” Chloe whispered into Beca’s ear as she pressed up behind her. “I am so not ready to be awake yet.”

Beca giggled, tucked Chloe’s hand against her chest and released a heavy sigh. “I’m with ya, Bright Eyes. See you in my dreams.”

“Mmm,” Chloe hummed, eyes already closed.

A few hours later, Jessica pulled up in front of Beca’s house. She noticed the unfamiliar car parked next to the van and groaned.

Jess: don’t tell me I hauled my ass out here for baking day and I’m interrupting a booty call.

Beca opened one eye and grabbed her phone. Then she groaned audibly. “Fuck, Jess is here to bake. I forgot to cancel.”

Chloe rolled over and groaned. “She’s, like, here? Now?” She opened her eyes and pulled up the sheets to her chin. “Okay, I’m covered.” Chloe winked up at Beca.

Beca sighed, “it is a crime. Okay, lemme go figure out how to not piss off my best friend.” She sat up and texted.

Beca: sorry Jess. Just gimme a minute, I lost track of time.

Chloe rubbed Beca’s back. “I’ll make some coffee. It was almost time for the alarm to go off anyhow.” She laughed, “Apologize for me? You’d have been on time if I’d had a normal work schedule.”

Jessica rolled her eyes and laughed.

Jessica: OMG I totally did. Just let me know when everybody’s got clothes on.
Beca: be right there.

Beca pulled on a pair of sweat pants. “You throw me for a loop just breathing, Bright Eyes.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’ll get my shit together.” She stood up and grabbed a tank top and a button down, pulling them both on. “She asked me to let her know when we both have clothes on.” Beca smiled apologetically. “I’ll make coffee and bring it to you.” As she reached the door she shook her head, “We do seem to attract people just showing up.”

“Right?” Chloe giggled. She stood up and walked over to kiss Beca gently. “Good morning, beautiful.” Chloe said softly. “I’ll be out in a sec.”

Beca nodded, returned the kiss then left the bedroom and closed the door. She ran her hands through her hair to sort of tame it on her way to let Jess in. She smiled apologetically. “I really am sorry. She doesn’t work until noon, and I…” she blushed and shrugged. “Gotta get used to the relationship thing.”

Jessica smirked and handed Beca a basket of supplies. “It’s been a long time since I saw you with bed head,” she laughed. “Come on, let’s get some coffee in you. I would say I’ll leave you two alone, but I’m not gonna waste a trip up that hill.”

Chloe pulled on a pair of jeans and the flannel she’d borrowed from Beca Saturday night. She quickly brushed out her hair and pulled it back into a messy bun. She slipped into the bathroom, giving the other two a minute to settle before joining them.

Beca laughed quietly. “Can’t let Ermengarde feel unloved and she needs a rest after all of that work.” She took the basket and led the way to the kitchen. She headed to the coffee pot and placed a hand on the side. “Warm, but not hot. Want me to make fresh? It brewed this morning. I just didn’t get my lazy ass out of bed.”

Jessica shrugged, “Nah, just turn it back on. We can nuke the first cup.” She started to pull containers of dough onto the counter. “Things are going well, I take it?” Jessica gestured from Beca to the back of the house.

Beca blushed, poured out three cups and turned the pot back on. She placed the first cup in the microwave. “Yeah,” she smiled shyly. “She did up the place real nice on Saturday, made lemonade from scratch.” She pulled the first cup out and handed it to Jessica. “It was nice to come home to someone, ya know?” Then she laughed as she felt fur rubbing on her legs and looked down, “Someone besides you, Skye. Nothing personal.”

Jessica beamed at Beca, “It’s good to see that smile again. Sure beats the grump who struck out at the Renn Faire.” She stirred extra cream and sugar in her coffee. “She doesn’t work until noon on a Monday?”

“I don’t!” Chloe smiled as she wandered into the kitchen. “Setting my own schedule is my favorite part of my job.” She gave Jessica a one armed hug, “Good morning, Jess.” Chloe only paused briefly before she walked over and put a hand lightly on the small of Beca’s back. “One of those for me?”

Beca nodded and pulled a cup out of the microwave. “Don’t have any creamer, gotta use the real stuff like Jess has.” She pointed in the appropriate direction. “I’ll fix it next grocery run.”

“How was the cheesecake,” Jessica put her head on her chin and looked at Beca. “I thought maybe some extra carbs would be a good idea. I remember my first week with Ashley,” she wiggled her eyebrows.

Beca rolled her eyes and blushed. “I may uninvite you, Lucky.” She smirked and looked at both of the other girls. “Squirt said to ignore you lot and your dirty minds. So I am.”

Chloe giggled and drained her cup. “You enjoy my dirty mind,” she winked at Jessica as she stood up. “But I’ll suspend it for your nicknames. They’re sweet and they have nice stories behind them.” She walked over and pecked Beca on the cheek. “I just really like to see you blush.”

Beca snorted, “She’s gonna be the death of me.” Beca looked at Jessica. “You know that, right?”

Jessica laughed, “What a way to go?”

Chloe smiled sweetly. “Speaking of going, I’m off.” She looked at Beca, “Text me later?”

Beca nodded and kissed Chloe tenderly. “See you later too.”

Jessica stood. “I forgot something in the car, mind if I walk you out?” She smiled sweetly.

Beca grinned, “Gives me a minute to splash water on my face. I’ll be right back.”

Chloe put a hand on Beca’s cheek, “Miss you already.” She walked over and put her arm in Jessica’s elbow, “Shall we?”

Jessica chuckled and walked toward the door with Chloe. She opened it to let Chloe exit first, then stepped out and closed it behind her. She studied Chloe carefully.

Chloe smiled back at Jessica, “What’s up?”

Jessica smiled. “I like you. I like how you make Beca smile.” She tilted her head to one side, “Just tell me this isn’t a lark? I’m not being disrespectful, I just worry about her.”

“You guys are pretty close,” Chloe nodded and leaned against the porch railing. “Have you ever noticed the little wrinkle Beca gets just above her eyebrows when she’s consternated?”

“I have,” Jessica laughed quietly. “At first I thought it was her resting bitch face, but over time, I realized it was different. She has a thinking face, a resting bitch face and a…consternated is a great word for it.”

Chloe smiled at the distinctions and nodded, “Well it’s my number one priority to chase that consternation wrinkle away any time it shows up. I’m dead serious about it.” Her smile faded a little as her eyes grew serious. “I couldn’t bear to see Beca hurt, Jessica.”

Jessica nodded but just barely. She smiled as well, then nodded more. “Sounds good to me. I can get on that train.” She moved to her car and opened the back door. “I figured you were here, and I left something in the back, just in case I had that chance to talk to you.” She smiled broader. “I hate to lie to Beca.”

Chloe followed Jessica to the car. “Something for me?”

Jessica nodded. She reached into the back passenger side and pulled out a small notebook. Inside the notebook was a loose sheet of paper. She pulled that page out and handed it to Chloe. “Ashley’s number and mine. If you ever need anything, especially help with that one,” Jessica pointed at the house, “call.” Then she pulled out a photo. It was a picture of Jessica, Beca and a petite older woman. “That’s Aunt Jean. Beca won’t have a picture of her in the house yet. Says it hurts too much.” Jessica looked at Chloe.

Chloe felt a lump in her throat. “The legend herself,” she smiled up at Jessica. “She looks just as feisty as Beca. Thank you, Jessica. And thank you for the contact info. Maybe I’ll just call to chat sometime, hm?”

“You are welcome to do that as well.” Jessica leaned and impulsively hugged Chloe. “Have a good day and I’ll try and leave something special for you guys today.”

Chloe returned the hug and stepped back, blinking through sudden tears. “You girls have fun today,” she hoped it sounded light and breezy but was pretty sure it sounded as emotional as she was feeling. Chloe wiped her face with her hand as she opened the car door. After so many years of meaningless dates and only one true friend in her life it was a little overwhelming to be surrounded by people who really seemed to care. She clicked the latches and put the top down on her little convertible. Today was definitely a day for feeling the wind on her face and the sun on her back.

Chapter Text

Stacie sighed as her alarms buzzed. She still wasn’t hungry, but if she stayed on the computer, the traitorous machine would tell Roberta. So she handed off the article she was reading to her iPhone, and put the computer to sleep. She stood up, stretched and wandered out to the balcony. It was warm out, so she knew she couldn’t stay long, but she hoped a little sunshine could lift her mood. She leaned on the railing and listened to the cars pass by. As she feared, she started to feel warm. She sighed again, and returned to the breakfast bar. She opened the fridge and picked up a slice of cheese left from the party Friday night, only to put it back. Not even that looked tempting. Instead, she picked up a cold Frappuccino, sat down at the bar, and opened the file she had been reading. After going over the same paragraph several times, she clicked over to her messages.

Stacie: got a minute?
Rib: you bet, what’s up?
Stacie: I can’t find the breakthrough.
Rib: give yourself a break, little one. We are trying to do something that hasn’t been done.
Stacie: I just feel like I’m looking in the wrong place.
Rib: what do you mean?
Stacie: I explained to Aubrey that gold behaves differently at a small size and she asked why I use gold.
Stacie: it is just traditional. I mean, gold being immutable in larger quantities, it made sense.
Stacie: maybe at a nano level it doesn’t.
Rib: ok, I’m following. A little worried you are talking to Aubrey, but I will get over it.
Stacie: a - she doesn’t really understand but sometimes that helps. And b- I don’t explain why I’m doing the research.
Rib: got it. Sorry. Habit. Ok, so she suggested gold doesn’t have to be the substrate?
Stacie: right. I mean, I don’t know what else we could use. I don’t know anything that is stable in the single atom size.
Rib: maybe we don’t need smaller?
Stacie: then what?
Rib: I don’t know. Let me think.
Rib: We are talking about imbedding into clothing or fabrics. Perhaps the size we already have is small enough.
Stacie: but the sensors aren’t picking up anything but the blood viscosity.
Rib: so we work on sensitivity. Increase sensitivity would be as effective.
Stacie: right. I can work with that. Change the sensitivity to pick up changes in body fluids.
Rib: right. We can go back to smaller sensors to apply other research suggestions later. Let’s change the focus now.
Stacie: that’s a good idea. I’ll need to research the spectrums reflected by the different bodily fluids through skin interference.
Rib: yeah, I don’t envy you that.
Stacie: it’s better than the fifteenth paper on gold at the atomic level.
Stacie: thanks Rib
Rib: any time kiddo. Remember to eat.
Stacie: taking a break right now.
Rib: good on ya. Ttys.

Stacie smiled at the phone then looked at the coffee drink. “You have protein in you, right?” She emptied the bottle and tossed it into the recycling before she went back to her office. “Spectrum analysis,” she muttered with a smile as she deleted her gold study bookmarks. “At least it’s something different.”

 

On Brookside, Chloe leaned against the shop counter, her chin on her hand. What a rotten day for her middle client to cancel. She had an entire hour to kill but she couldn’t go home and she didn’t want to interrupt Jessica and Beca.

“Heavens, girl,” the younger sales clerk, Hannah arched an eyebrow at Chloe. “Go take a lunch break or something, your antsy is making me antsy. Maybe go for a walk?”

Chloe tilted her head without lifting it, “You’re brilliant. I’m going to get some sun therapy.” She stood and stretched. “Back in a bit.” Chloe grabbed her phone and went outside. The early afternoon sun had her digging for her sunglasses immediately.

She strolled past the other boutiques on the block, noting what they had on display and thinking about the new fall lines that would come out soon. At the end of the block she dropped onto a bench. What she wouldn’t give to be back in the woods with Beca rather than here on this hot concrete sidewalk surrounded by honking cars and busy people. She picked up her phone and dialed Aubrey.

“Aubrey Posen,” Aubrey replied as usual.

Chloe’s face lit up. “As I live and breathe,” she teased her friend.

“Someday I’m just going to stop answering the phone, Chloe.” Aubrey huffed. “I’ve got about fifteen minutes. What’s up?”

“Not much, really, just had some free time and my best friend has been missing me lately so I called,” Chloe shrugged. “Speaking of, I got the best friend talk from Jessica before I left Beca’s this morning. I think I passed.”

“Oh, we’ve graduated to sleepovers at Beca’s now?” Aubrey teased.

“You wouldn’t believe her little cottage in the woods,” Chloe sighed happily. “It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t even exist. I’ve been staying there since Saturday night and I plan to go back tonight. Mrs. Johnson is probably bored stiff.”

“Careful, Chlo, that sounds a lot like moving in,” Aubrey laughed. “I know you’re ready to try this monogamy thing, but maybe cohabitation should wait at least a few more weeks?”

“Speak for yourself, Miss Aubrey. When is the last time you slept alone since you met Stacie?” Chloe nodded and smiled sweetly at an older woman who must have overheard.

Aubrey had been thinking about that very subject all day. “You know, Chloe, I’ve been wondering how practical my arrangement with Stacie really is.”

Chloe knitted her brows, “I thought you guys were happy? What happened?”

“No, not like that,” Aubrey quickly replied. “Just, Doofus is at my place, the piano and her job are at her place, one of us is always carrying an overnight bag up or down the street between them. Do you think it’s too early to talk to her about maybe sharing a place?”

“You’re going to ask her if you can move in with her? Because she can’t move in with you, right?” Chloe was surprised that the idea didn’t seem very frightening to her. Normally she’d have counseled strongly against it.

“I’m just thinking it over, not quite ready to do anything about it,” Aubrey said pensively. “You think I should wait?”

Chloe shook her head, “I think you know you two better than I do, and you should do what feels right.”

Aubrey smirked, “That sounds like good advice but it’s not very helpful.”

“You seriously want committed relationship advice from me?” Chloe giggled. “I’m just a rookie.”

“Fair enough,” Aubrey smiled. “I’m going to head in to work. You be good. Thanks for the call.”

“Of course,” Chloe was still smiling. “See you soon, Bree.” When she disconnected she thought about the whole idea of sharing a house. She’d never ask Beca to move, so it would mean giving up her own place. She shook her head. Way too early to even give it any more space in her brain.

Later on, Stacie’s alarm went off again. She sighed and then realized it was the one advising her to go home to Aubrey. She smiled broadly, transferred the papers she had saved to her cloud and shut down. She fairly skipped to the bathroom to check her appearance before grabbing her overnight bag to take to Aubrey’s. She sighed wistfully at the conundrum. She’d really like to share just one space. The piano won’t fit in Aubrey’s house, not to mention Rib would throw a gasket if Stacie tried to live without security. She closed the door to the apartment and headed to the garage elevator. She wasn’t in the mood for a lobby full of people.

Stacie was still contemplating the problem as she walked the few blocks to Aubrey’s. Did Aubrey even want to consider moving in? It was probably way too soon for Aubrey’s rules. They’d blown past the ‘wait three weeks to sleep together’ rule; Stacie had to bide her time and let Aubrey bring up living together. She stepped off the curb and then hopped back as she heard a car lay on a horn and zoom around the corner. “Asshole!” Stacie yelled, “There is a goddamn stop sign!” But she looked more carefully as she crossed the street and reached Aubrey’s building. Her hands were shaking as she rang the bell.

Aubrey smiled and looked at the clock. Stacie time! She skipped down the hall to open the building door and opened her arms. “There’s the girl I’ve missed all day,” she grinned.

Stacie melted against Aubrey and wrapped her arms around Aubrey’s waist. Still shaking slightly, she put her head on Aubrey’s shoulder. “I’ve missed you too.”

Aubrey looked into Stacie’s face, “You okay? I mean, it’s only been a few hours.” She took Stacie’s bag from her and led her back to the apartment.

Stacie followed. As soon as they were in the apartment, she made her way to the couch and dropped onto it. “Asshole didn’t stop at the corner. Scared the snot out of me.” She let her head drop onto the back of the couch. “So glad I don’t have to leave until morning.”

“Shit,” Aubrey said in a soft voice as she sank onto the couch next to Stacie. “Thank you for not getting run over.” She felt a little queasy. “I wish we didn’t have to brave traffic just to see each other.” Aubrey leaned against the back of the couch and put her hand on Stacie’s cheek. Without even considering it she asked, “Does the Mayo allow pets?”

Stacie leaned into the hand and then glanced up. “I don’t know. I can ask.” She bit her lip. “Want me to?”

Aubrey closed her eyes, “That was forward of me. I just, it seems the reason we come here is more for Doofus than anything else. I don’t mean to insinuate that you should invite my cat to live in your apartment.” Aubrey felt she was rambling but she couldn’t stop. She hoped Stacie didn’t feel like she was being pushy.

Stacie felt her heart thump. “I would love for you and the Doof to stay with me.” Instead of her hands, her voice shook slightly. “I miss Doofus, but I miss you playing the piano, too.” She leaned forward to press her forehead to Aubrey’s. “I don’t want to hurry you. We’ve already blown past so many of your rules.”

“We’re rewriting them together, remember?” Aubrey felt her shoulders grow lighter. “Do you know how wonderful it would be not to have to leave you in the morning or watch you go?”

Stacie nodded slowly. “I mean, you have to go to work…but we’d have extra time before you leave. And I loved it the other night when Mack came over. I came out of the office and you were already there, playing Summit.” She laughed shakily. “I’m such a sap.”

Aubrey shook her head, “If you’re a sap I’m even worse. It felt like we were hosting a party at our place the other night rather than at your place. I loved having people over too.” She grinned and tapped Stacie’s nose. “Find out about pets?”

Stacie smiled as she nodded. Without hesitating a heartbeat, she had her phone out. “Hey, Georgina. Stacie Conrad.” She looked down as Doofus jumped in her lap. “Yeah, doing good. I need two pieces of info.” She petted the cat, “Thanks. I need to know the cost of adding a name to my lease, and adding a cat. I’m still the responsible party for both.”

Aubrey bit her lip as she watched Stacie make the call. A rational judgy voice in the back of her head worried they were rushing things, but her heart felt like this step was overdue. She remembered Chloe’s advice and smirked a little. Maybe it was better advice than she’d given her friend credit for. She scratched Doofus and waited for the verdict.

“That’s perfect, Georgina. Yeah, go ahead and set the wheels in motion. Start it on the first. Even if we’re not settled by then, I want it all ready.” Stacie grinned over at Aubrey. “I’ll get you the rest of the info tonight.” She disconnected the call. “A dog we might have had issues with, but the Doof here is easy.” She bit her lip. “You don’t have to go on the lease, but I thought it was a good way to protect your credit. If you agree, I just need you to give Georgina the legal spelling of your name and your social. She will talk to the business office for me.”

Aubrey leaned forward and kissed Stacie slowly and thoroughly. “I love it when you make all the arrangements, Dr. Conrad.”

“Anything for you, Princess.” Stacie whispered against Aubrey’s lips. “Welcome home.”

 

Later that evening at the Overlook, Chloe watched the lights of downtown slowly coming to life as the sky above them gradually turned a deeper purple. She was sharing a lounge chair with Beca, their legs and fingers intertwined. The crackle of the fire and the singing of crickets were the only sounds. “You were right,” she said softly. “This is so much better when you’re here.”

Beca smiled and kissed the side of Chloe’s head. “I used to sit out here with my aunt when I was a kid. We talked about the stars or music, her wishes that didn’t come true. Lately it’s been hard to sit out here. Thinking of all her dreams for me to be famous that I didn’t live up to, you know?”

Chloe leaned her head against Beca’s. “I wonder if there was something else underneath those dreams she told you about,” Chloe mused.

“What do you mean?” Beca tightened her arms slightly to hold Chloe closer.

“I wonder,” Chloe paused and thought about the right words. “It just seems to me that maybe what she wanted most was for you to be happy in what you were doing, no matter the specifics,” Chloe started. “Did you tell her you believed fame and fortune was what you wanted?”

Beca considered. “I thought the only way to produce was to go to one of the big hubs. The Church was closed, so there weren’t any studios closer than Memphis. I thought with my mix of popular and standards I had a better chance to be heard in Los Angeles.” She shrugged. “I was wrong.”

“But you tried. You went out there and did your very best. I’ll bet she was proud of you for that.” Chloe smiled, “I can imagine her at the grocery store telling someone about her niece out in LA doing music.”

Beca smiled slowly. “Yeah, I bet she did. Jessica came home with me one year for the holidays. Aunt Jean pulled out every clipping that ever was made about my music, from parades in middle school to jazz band.” She tilted her head, “But she knew the family wanted to sell. You think she wanted me to go so I could come back? Not exactly English, but you know what I mean?”

“Question,” Chloe said softly.

Beca nodded. “Sure.”

“Do you think she would have left you the house and property if she thought you wouldn’t be living in it?” Chloe squeezed Beca’s fingers.

Beca shook her head, but then hesitated. “Just to piss off the family? Maybe. But I know she hoped I’d keep it and move back some day.” Her smile grew. “She left me a map so I could replant whenever I came back.”

“See? Seems the most important dream she had for you was right here where you’re living it every day.” Chloe smiled, “She knew you pretty well, Becs.”

“Yeah,” Beca nodded, “I guess she did.” She squeezed Chloe lightly. “I like to think she would have liked you. She always admired a free spirit.”

“Free spirit, huh?” Chloe was grinning. “I’ve been called lots of things. Irresponsible, immature, a dreamer, Pollyanna,” she nodded her head with each term, “but free spirit. I like that one.”

Beca smiled indulgently. “You like things the way you like them, convention be damned it seems. You set your schedule, you set when and who you want to see. That’s a free spirit to me.”

“I promise I’ll make you crazy,” Chloe teased. “But I’d love to think Aunt Jean would have at least thought fondly of me.”

Beca nodded, “I’m pretty sure both are true.” She sighed contentedly. “Thanks for being here.”

Chloe squeezed Beca tightly, “Thanks for letting me.”

Chapter Text

Late Tuesday morning Aubrey went to her apartment. She emptied out Doofus’ litter box and cleaned it, then poured the remaining cat food from the dish and wiped it as well. She carried everything to her car.

When Aubrey came back inside, she dug through the front closet until she found the cat carrier. The cat had run to hide as soon as the closet door opened. Doofus knew that was always a trip to the vet and she wanted no part of it.

Aubrey picked up and rattled the jar of Doofus’s favorite treats. The cat couldn’t resist. A trail of treats into the carrier got the job done, and Aubrey smiled as she closed the apartment door behind them.

Doofus yowled the entire few blocks to the Mayo, then got louder when Aubrey picked up the carrier to take it inside. She was grateful they had a garage entrance to the elevator so she wouldn’t have to take the crying cat through the lobby.

As she stepped onto the floor, Doofus was still complaining. Aubrey bit her lip and swiped the key, hoping Stacie’s sound proof door would block the cat’s yowls or the cat would quiet once she set the carrier down. It would spoil the surprise if Stacie heard what was going on. “Here goes nothing,” Aubrey whispered as she entered the apartment.

It was just after 12:30, Stacie should come out any time for lunch. Aubrey hoped she hadn’t mistimed things and missed Stacie entirely. She debated whether she should leave Doofus now and go back to the car for her things or wait until Stacie was out in the living room. She decided to wait, she didn’t want to miss Stacie’s reaction.

An hour later Aubrey had eaten her own lunch and was convinced Stacie had lunched earlier. Crestfallen, she sent a quick text.

Aubrey: I’m sorry I got here too late to catch you for lunch.

Stacie looked down at the text and frowned. Hurriedly, she exited the office. “Aubrey?” She called out.

“Hey,” Aubrey jumped to her feet and smiled. “You have a minute now? I was sure I’d missed your break.”

“Oh, sweetie, I wish you’d told me. I’m terrible about ignoring my lunch alert.” Stacie blushed and moved to wrap Aubrey in a hug.

Aubrey hugged Stacie back and gestured toward the living room. “We wanted to surprise you.”

Stacie looked at Aubrey then toward the living room. “We?”

“Mhm,” Aubrey walked around the sofa and unlatched the door on the carrier. Doofus realized she was getting attention so started howling again. Aubrey looked up to see Stacie’s face.

Stacie dropped onto the floor, “Doof! Baby! Come on out of that thing and snuggle me.”

Aubrey was delighted at Stacie’s smile. “You don’t mind I brought her today?”

Stacie looked up, her face glowing. “I don’t mind at all! Is she here to stay?”

“Yep,” Aubrey grinned. “Have a minute to coax her out of that thing while I go collect her stuff from the car? I’d like to get her all settled before I have to leave in about half an hour.” She bent down to look at the little black puffball that was still crouched warily in the carrier. “I’m afraid I’m number one on her shit list right now.”

“I have the rest of the day.” Stacie grinned. “New research sucks.” Then she bit her lip and asked softly. “Does that mean you are here to stay?”

Aubrey smiled shyly at Stacie and shrugged a little, “How could I leave Doofus to hog all the Stacie snuggles by herself?”

Stacie stood and wrapped her arms around Aubrey. “I always save the best snuggles for you.”

“Mmm,” Aubrey hummed, “I believe you. Shall I stay then? I mean, after work come back here and have dinner with you and watch the sun set and go to bed and make Doofus move so I can hold you while we sleep and then wake up tomorrow and never have to go to another apartment?”

Stacie rested her head against Aubrey’s. “Am I terrible to say yes, please. Stay?”

“Am I terrible I already brought clothes for the week?” She kissed Stacie, then leaned back. “Let me bring everything in, then I’ll make something for you to eat. Tonight we’ll chat about you skipping lunch alerts.” She winked and walked toward the door.

Stacie blushed. “I’ll try to coax the Doof out.” She sat back down on the floor in front of the crate and wiggled her fingers. As soon as Aubrey was gone, she pulled the vibrating phone out of her pocket.

Stacie: yes, Rib, I’m taking a break I just forgot to log off. Aubrey brought Doofus over.
Rib: I am nominating Aubrey for sainthood. But who is Doofus?

Stacie sent an image of the black furball who had snuck close enough to sniff Stacie’s hand.

Rib: cute! So I can trust the two of them to keep you from hyperfixating?
Stacie: I’m working on it, Rib. It’s just, ugh. When I’m frustrated, I’m not hungry.
Rib: you know what Dr. Baxter said. You have to eat right, sleep right and keep calm.

Stacie groaned, which drove Doofus back into the carrier.

Stacie: I’ll change my alerts again. Make them hard to ignore.
Rib: I worry, kiddo.
Stacie: I’m sorry. Worry isn’t good for you.
Rib: stressing isn’t good for you.
Stacie: mind if I background process for a little while?
Rib: nope. If it means you are taking care of yourself, I’ll put off the project. There really is no hurry.
Stacie: too many vendors getting into space. We gotta be first.
Rib: we will be. But not if you have to be hospitalized again. Get it?
Stacie: yes, Rib. Gonna play with the Doof and see if I can get a little perspective.
Rib: are they staying?

Stacie took a deep breath.

Stacie: is that ok?
Rib: of course. I figured they would when you ordered the piano.
Rib: don’t make me put a time lock on that door. Enjoy the new family.
Stacie: yes, ma’am. Love you.
Rib: back atcha. Ttys.
Stacie: ttys.

Stacie put her phone down and returned to coaxing Doofus out.

Aubrey pushed the door open with her hip. She carried in the litter box, packed with all of Doofus’s gear, as well as a large garment bag of her own. “Made it,” she smiled as she entered the living room. “Litter box in the laundry room, food dishes in the kitchen?”

Stacie nodded. “Doof is being stubborn. Should I just wait until she gets hungry? And,” she looked down at her watch. “When’s your next gig?”

“I’ve got 20 minutes before I have to jet,” Aubrey answered as she handed over the treat jar. “She can’t resist these. I’ll get the box and food set up, then I’m serious, I’m going to whip up a quick salad for you.”

“It’s okay, get Doof set up. I can grab something from the fridge, I don’t want to make you late.” Stacie replied before she opened the treat jar and placed one just outside the carrier.

“Mhm,” Aubrey muttered and set to work. Once the cat’s food and water were in place, she began to pull leftover pasta from the fridge. She poured in some chopped nuts, then drizzled a nice Parmesan garlic dressing over the blend. She found some diced tomatoes she’d left in the fridge door over the weekend. She brought the bowl to Stacie with a fork and napkin. “You’ll find me stubborn,” she shrugged and sat to watch the progress with the cat.

Stacie laughed and then she turned slightly pale. “All of this?” She blurted before she shook her head. “I’ll try.” She raised a hand to caress Aubrey’s cheek. “I hate to disappoint the Princess.” But before she could take a bite, Doofus came out at a creeping pace to sniff the treat. Stacie smiled with delight. “Want another, Doof?”

Aubrey’s eyebrows knitted, but she just nodded. “Eat as much or as little as you like, love,” she replied. “I’m gonna head out. Just put the leftovers in the fridge.” She stood up carefully so she wouldn’t spook Doofus. “She’ll be okay if you need to go back to work. Honest. We didn’t mean to hijack your whole afternoon. You seemed pretty busy.”

“Remember yesterday I started over with a new approach? I’m still missing something but I can’t put my finger on it.” Stacie sighed and rubbed the side of her head, “I’ll get it.” She picked up the fork and took a bite. “Promise. Maybe a little background processing is in order and Doofus is the perfect distraction.”

Aubrey smiled and kissed the top of Stacie’s head, “That’s what Doofus does best. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Love you!”

Stacie watched Aubrey go, put another treat a little further from the carrier and made herself take a second bite. It wasn’t terrible. It tasted good, even. It was just a little heavy. She sighed. She hated to disappoint Aubrey. She chewed thoroughly until she could make herself swallow.

After her last job, Aubrey walked back toward her car, and the enormity of what she had done struck her. She had moved Doofus. Sure, she could move the cat back, pissed off as that would make the little furball, but without consultation, she moved the pet two weeks early. She’d shown up and expected Stacie to be available for lunch, with a cat. What was wrong with her? She dialed Chloe.

“Hey cutie, how’s life,” Chloe answered in a chipper voice.

“Oh my god, Chloe. I don’t know what’s wrong with me! I took Doofus to Stacie’s apartment.” Aubrey leaned against her car and covered her face with one hand.

“I’ll call out the national guard right away, crazy Aubrey on the loose making unusually spontaneous decisions. More news as details arise,” Chloe teased.

Aubrey rolled her eyes. “I’m serious, Chlo. Stacie and I talked about moving in together. But we weren’t doing anything right away. At least two to six more weeks. Then today, without asking her, I just showed up for lunch and brought Doofus. That was so inconsiderate!”

“Okay, I’ll acknowledge that’s a bit hasty, but tell me which part of this relationship of yours has happened slowly and carefully?” Chloe replied.

“That’s not helping,” Aubrey growled.

“Okay, different tack. Was Stacie irritated to see the cat?”

Aubrey took a deep breath. “No.” She smiled at the memory of Stacie calling to the cat. “But I didn’t ask.”

“Right. But you were being sweet and romantic in a way you had a good feeling she’d appreciate. And you were right. Trust your intuition, Bree. It’s usually pretty good,” Chloe was smiling at the phone.

“Ok, I did think she would love the visit. But she didn’t come out for lunch, I didn’t warn her I was coming. That’s still…” Aubrey broke off, “I’m over thinking, right?”

“Maybe. At least you’d agreed that it would happen, even if it was gonna be two to six more weeks. You just chose now instead of later. It sounds like something I would do,” Chloe chuckled.

Aubrey managed a smile. “Are you rubbing off on me at last after all these years?”

“It’s about time!” Chloe laughed again. “I’ll bet you have a backup plan, knowing you. You haven’t asked for my key back yet.”

“Well, that’s the two to six weeks part.” Aubrey opened her car door. “Stacie arranged for me to be added to the lease starting the first of August. I still have to call the companies I rented the furniture from, arrange for movers, sort out what is mine versus rented, pack it all up.” She sighed. “Doofus was the easy part.”

“There you go. So she’ll be easy to undo if there’s any problem.” Chloe said matter of factly. “I still don’t think there will be a problem, though. I’d be willing to stake my next paycheck on it.”

Aubrey smiled again. “I hope you are right.” She sighed, “Someone almost hit her on the way to my apartment yesterday.”

“Shit,” Chloe said softly. “See? You’re just following the signals from the universe. You gotta trust yourself, Bree. You usually make excellent choices. I mean, you picked me, right?”

“Damn right, I did, and don’t you forget it.” Aubrey laughed and felt some of the tension leave. “Right, following the signals.” She took another steadying breath. “How about you, Elf? Following the signals?”

Chloe smiled, “I’m doing my best, Elf. Right now the brightest star in the sky keeps drawing me back to her hilltop fairy tale world.” Chloe sighed happily, “She has the night off tonight, so I plan to make the most of it. Is it weird that I haven’t missed going out at all?”

Aubrey smiled broadly. “I’m happy for you, Elf. And no, I don’t think it’s weird. You are spending time with someone you care about. That seems to release a lot of happy chemicals, right? No need for the charge of a crowd? At least for now?”

“Right,” Chloe agreed. “But you know it just crossed my mind that it would be super hot to take her out dancing sometime. Damn, I’ll bet we could own every eye in the place. I wonder if she dances.” Chloe began to trail off, her imagination filling in the gaps of her daydream.

“Okay, Chloe, I will leave you to your fantasy life. I want to get home anyway.” Aubrey hesitated before starting the car. “It’s weird how right that sounds.”

Chloe smiled at the phone, “Go kiss your girl for me, Bree. Let her remind you why you brought Doofus a little early.”

Aubrey nodded. “Talk to you soon, Chlo. Don’t be a stranger.” She started the car and fastened her seat belt. Time to go home.

Chapter Text

Aubrey stood in the hall outside Stacie’s apartment and looked at the key card in her hand. Their apartment now. Her name was going to be on the lease. She felt a rush of excitement. This was definitely the right thing at the right time. She opened the door and walked into the kitchen, but no one was around. She walked around to look and see if Doofus had ever come out of the carrier, and that’s when she saw them.

Stacie was fast asleep on the couch with Doofus curled up on her side, also fast asleep. Aubrey grinned and watched them sleep for a moment. She thought to take her phone out and catch a picture of the pair. “My girls,” she whispered fondly. She sent the pic to Chloe, Ashley, and Jessica.

Aubrey snuck into the bedroom and slipped out of her work clothes into a pair of yoga pants and a long t shirt. She wanted to prep dinner, but she didn’t want to wake Stacie. She finally decided the best course of action would be to go downstairs and order something to bring up. She slipped her feet into some sneakers and managed to make it out of the apartment without either sleeper stirring.

When Aubrey walked into the Boiler Room she was pleased to see that Ashley was behind the bar. She sat on a stool and waved down the bar to the tender.

Ashley walked over, “Oh my god, the cuteness overload. When did Stacie get a cat?” She pulled a wine glass down and waited for Aubrey to give her permission to pour.

Aubrey bit her lip, then decided just to dive in. “That’s my cat, Doofus.” She waited.

“Really?” Ashley’s smile expanded. “You guys shacking up?” She reached for a bottle of Chardonnay. “Gotta celebrate!” She poured a glass for Aubrey and opened a bottle of carbonated water to toast her with.

Aubrey laughed. “I guess you could put it that way,” she raised the glass in a toast. “You would have found out anyhow, my name’s going to be on the tickets soon enough.” She took a sip, “I’m down here to order dinner, though. Didn’t want to call and wake them up.”

Ashley tapped her water bottle to Aubrey’s glass. “Too awesome. Not often I see a couple as happy as me and Jess. May it last a good long time.” She tapped the glass again and took a sip. “What sorta dinner you thinking about? I can place it to go, or I can bring it up later if you’d rather.”

“Thanks Ashley, that means a great deal. I hope so too.” She sipped her wine again. “I’ll take it up, no need for two trips. They’ll probably wake up soon, Stacie hasn’t been much of a napper since I’ve known her.” Aubrey thought about what to order. “She seems off of pasta lately, though. I’m not sure what to order that will tickle her taste buds.”

“It’s been pretty hot. Stacie used to sit here for hours without eating when she got warm jogging. Maybe she needs something cold, like a salad or a charcuterie board.” Ashley leaned on the bar. “The cheeses are all vegetarian.”

“Hm,” Aubrey considered. “That’s an excellent point. She didn’t go much for cheese the other day. I’ll bet a green salad would be ideal. With maybe some cheeses and nuts or eggs?”

Ashley nodded. “Hang on, be right back.” She disappeared into the kitchen.

Aubrey took another drink and watched the classic cars showcased on the auction Ashley had on the bar TV. Of course the heat affected Stacie’s appetite. That made perfect sense. She might also be a little nervous about Aubrey moving in, too. Aubrey decided not to borrow trouble by worrying too much.

Ashley walked back up, followed by a man wearing traditional chef’s attire. “Antonio, this is Aubrey, Stacie’s main squeeze. She’s moving in and needs ideas to tempt Stacie when it’s hot.”

The grizzled man nodded as he wiped his hands on a towel. He extended his right hand when he was sure it was dry. “You take care of Miss Stacie. I take care of you.” He grinned.

Aubrey grinned, “It’s a pleasure to meet the famous Antonio. Stacie raves about you, and from what I’ve sampled she’s right.”

Antonio inclined his head at the compliment. “Miss Stacie, she says she is not Italian. Of course she is.” He shrugged, “Looks just like my topolina.” He winked. “Miss Stacie, she likes the sweet and savory. Hot weather? Light, we make a salad.” He smiled again. “The question is dressing. Then we know what to add.”

“Ah,” Aubrey nodded. “A balsamic?”

“Very good.” Antonio nodded with approval. “Slightly sweet so we add some light roasted almonds, dried cherries, and a sharp cheddar. Candied pecans on the side for Miss Stacie’s sweet tooth.” He wiped his hands again. “Two servings,” he told Ashley for ringing up, “but we will plate family style, yes?”

Aubrey was thoroughly charmed. “You’re simply genius, Antonio. Exactly so, yes. If that doesn’t tempt her to eat I don’t know what would.”

Antonio winked. “Miss Stacie, she’s a bambolina, a little doll. Sweet, but sensitive. I know how to tempt that palate. Ready soon.” He nodded a bow and retreated to the kitchen.

Ashley released a loud laugh, “I think I told you she was our mascot. She’s the favorite resident of almost the entire staff. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about her.”

Aubrey shook her head, “She’d tell you she doesn’t have any family, you know? Yet here you all are watching out for her all along. She’s a lucky girl.”

“We’re the lucky ones. Most of the residents treat the staff like their personal servants. They are demanding and expect us to know without being told what they want.” Ashley shrugged. “Stacie isn’t like that. Every time she calls down, she asks whoever answers if it’s a good time, tells us she can wait, asks about our families.” Ashley smiled, “We’d pretty much do anything for her.”

“I have it on good authority that works both ways,” Aubrey winked. “She was heartbroken when she thought you guys might make fun of her for being a genius. Of course you didn’t, but she was worried about losing you.”

Ashley snorted, “Not too smart for a genius is she?” Then she winked, “Just let us know if any tease raises a blister. We don’t mean to.”

“You guys do just fine,” Aubrey smiled. “Thanks for that. I look forward to being here full time, not just because it means waking up to my girl every morning.”

“Glad you are gonna be around, too.” Then Ashley leaned closer and peered at Aubrey, “Does this mean we might finally hear you sing on a Thursday night?”

Aubrey laughed out loud. “I’m so used to watching,” she hedged. “I guess it’s about time I played too. I’ll think of the right song.”

Before Ashley could reply she got a buzz on her phone. “That’ll be your salad. Just remember, I’m holding ya to it.” She grinned as she headed back to the kitchen.

Aubrey was grinning. How should she make her debut? She’d have to find just the right song.

Ashley returned with a bag held sideways. “It’s a disposable catering plate so you can serve it family style. The pecans are in a small paper canister to keep them from getting soggy. We didn’t bother with plastic ware, but I can get some if you need.”

“Nope we’ve got the real stuff upstairs. You guys really go above and beyond. Thank you.” Aubrey took the bag, “Now to see if anyone’s awake up there,” she winked.

“Bottle of wine to go?” Ashley asked before running the total.

“Oh yeah, give me the one you opened. That’s a great idea. Thanks again, Ashley.” Aubrey nodded. “Brilliant.”

Ashley winked. “No problem.” She tucked the receipt in the bag and handed over the bottle with a stopper in it. “Bring the stopper back Thursday. I have plenty.” Then she tilted her head to one side. “Can I tell Jess about you moving in?”

Aubrey paused, “You’ll tell her no matter what I say, won’t you?”

“If you tell me you wanna surprise her on Thursday, I’ll try to keep it under wraps.” Ashley chuckled, “no promises after that.”

Aubrey winked, “Anything I tell you I consider I’m telling you both, for future reference. I promise I’ll mention if I want it to be a surprise.”

Ashley beamed, “Deal. Have a great night and give Stac a hug for me.”

“You bet. Same to Jess.” Aubrey waved the food bag as she turned to go. Now she’d see how potent Antonio’s magic was.

Aubrey opened the apartment door slowly, hoping the bag didn’t crinkle too much as she passed through and closed the door gently behind her.

Stacie blinked. The sun was way lower than she expected. She started to turn over when she felt the weight on her hip and remembered the coaxing of Doofus. She reached down to rub the cat’s ears and heard her chirp. She smiled.

Aubrey set the bag gently on the kitchen counter and walked around to see if Stacie was still on the couch. “Hey, gorgeous,” she said in a soft voice when she saw Stacie was awake.

“Hi, beautiful.” Stacie stretched as Doofus jumped down. “I showed her where the box is and she’s had a few bites before she pulled me to sleep.” She looked up as she moved her feet to the floor. “Warm cat is hard to ignore.” She waved the bottom of her shirt as if to cool off.

“Oh my god don’t I know it,” Aubrey chuckled. “She’s laid me flat more often than I’d like to admit.” She sat back, watching Stacie wake up. “Antonio made something special for dinner. And Ashley sent wine.”

Stacie smiled fondly, “Antonio did that? What a sweet man. He lost his wife a couple of years ago. His daughter still lives in Italy.” She stood up. “And Ashley is a doll.” She wrapped arms around Aubrey, “How did you place the order? I didn’t hear you.”

“I used the magic elevator so as not to wake you up,” Aubrey stood and kissed the top of Stacie’s head before moving toward the kitchen. “Green salad with so many goodies. I think you’ll like it.”

“You went downstairs to order?” Stacie beamed as she followed Aubrey to the breakfast bar. “You are so sweet!” She sat down and rested her chin on her fist. “Was the rest of your day good?”

“It was,” Aubrey grinned as she split the salad onto plates. “I made two happy pianos and even remembered to call my best friend and keep her updated with the latest you and me news.” Aubrey stopped and looked at Stacie seriously, “I’d never hear the end of it if I moved Doofus without notifying her godmother.”

Stacie watched, smiling at the meal. “Chloe okay with this?” She picked up a toasted almond, “Oh man, these are good! And still warm. I gotta send Antonio a thank you.”

“She’s not even shocked,” Aubrey laughed. “I guess it’s easier on her when we’re in one location, too.” She looked up at Stacie, “No second thoughts? You’ve been alone a long time.”

“I’ve been alone a long time.” Stacie repeated, emphasizing the word long. “Rib is the intermittent interruption.” She laughed. “Rib figured it was just a matter of time before you moved in after I ordered the piano.”

Aubrey chuckled and turned to glance at the instrument. “I’ll admit, Summit gives me an awesome excuse to see you morning noon and night.”

Stacie nodded, “I didn’t even think of how hard it would be for you to know it was here.” She bit her lip and picked up another almond. “I swear it wasn’t a ploy to get you here.”

Aubrey leaned her elbows on the counter and picked up a candied pecan, “Knowing you were here was the only ploy I needed.” She chewed thoughtfully, “I’m glad Roberta approves. I should probably let Mack know soon.”

“I hope he approves, too.” Stacie looked down at the salad. “Oooh, dried cherries?” She picked up her fork and scooped a mouthful that had all of the flavors except the candied pecans. “Mmmmm,” she managed to swallow before adding, “what a great flavor combination!”

Aubrey grinned, “He said you’d like it. Said you’re the spitting image of his… I forget the word. His little mouse? Even if you swear you’re not Italian.”

“Topolina.” Stacie laughed. “I honestly don’t know if my family has Italian roots. I suppose I should look into it. I haven’t talked to my parents since I was 16, and Conrad doesn’t strike me as Italian.”

Aubrey chuckled, “So it’s not your dad.” She took another bite, “It’s really not important. Antonio believes what he believes and you are family.” She looked up at Stacie, “He wasn’t even phased to learn about our relationship.”

“Wait,” Stacie realized what Aubrey was saying. “You actually talked to Antonio? He came out of the kitchen to talk to you?” She beamed. “He rarely does that!”

Aubrey grinned, “Ashley brought him out and introduced us. He wanted to help me figure out how to tempt your palate in this hot weather. I mentioned that the pasta hadn’t been your thing. He’s a real character, Doc.”

Stacie winced, “It wasn’t the pasta. It just felt heavy today, you know?” She poked at her salad. “I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.”

“Oh no, sweetie, I’m fine. I just wanted something for dinner you’d like more, that’s all.” Aubrey tried to find the lighthearted tone they’d had a few minutes ago. “You got Doofus to come out!”

“Yeah,” Stacie looked around to see where the cat had gone. “Several treats and ear rubs, she finally stalked around the house and investigated the food dish, the water dish and the litter box.” Stacie laughed as she remembered, “She shook her paw at the carrier then jumped on top of it to take a bath. I sat on the couch, trying to convince her to crawl in my lap, but she would have none of it. So I put an ocean on the TV and laid down. She jumped onto my hip to finish her bath.” Stacie took another bite of salad, smiling triumphantly, before popping a candied pecan in her mouth.

“You won!” Aubrey beamed. “The Doofus whisperer. I think she missed you.”

Stacie’s smile softened, “I missed her. She helps me get out of my head, just like you do.” Stacie tilted her head to one side, “Have I thanked you lately?”

“Thanked me?” Aubrey tilted her head. “For what, love? Invading your space weeks early and bringing my four legged parasite with me?”

“For being you, for taking a chance on me.” Stacie shrugged, “For grounding me, and giving me a chance to feel instead of just think.”

Aubrey smiled, “All I do is love you. I’m glad all that’s a part of it.” She put her hand out on the counter, palm up.

Stacie slipped her hand into Aubrey’s. “I hope I help you as much as you help me, Coach.” Her eyes danced as she gave Aubrey yet another nick name.

“You make me feel seen, feel heard. You respect my weird ideas about rules and make me able to face the world not caring what they think anymore. All that matters is what you think.” Aubrey stared at their hands, “No one has ever just accepted me for me, no teasing, no joking.”

Stacie squeezed Aubrey’s hand. “All I do is love you.” Her eyes smiled as she quoted Aubrey. “Once again, I am grateful to capricious Oklahoma weather.”

“Amen,” Aubrey lifted her wine glass, then took a sip. “So, Dr. A. Conrad, what would you like to do for your first night of cohabitation?”

“Well, Miss A. Posen, I think we should take our salads and pecans over to the sofa. We can watch the sunset and a documentary while we finish eating.” Stacie stood up and picked up her plate. “I think a quiet night of brainless entertainment, followed by lots of hugs and snuggles is just what the doctor ordered.” She smiled again. “What do you think?”

“I always follow my doctor’s advice,” Aubrey smiled and picked up her plate.

Stacie led the way. “Think you will like it here, Princess?” She asked softly as her nerves resurfaced.

Aubrey followed, “I do. You wouldn’t believe the view.”

Chapter Text

Chloe stacked the last of the dinner dishes into the dishwasher. She turned and looked at Beca, “Would I be boring if I asked to sit on the deck with a fire in the fire pit again? I know we did that last night, but I really enjoyed it.”

Beca shook her head. “It isn’t boring. It’s nice. I’m gonna miss sunset for the next five days. It’ll be nice to store up the memories.” She hesitated, “You wanna start the fire or pour the wine?”

“Yeah, that was on my mind too. I should probably spend some time at my own place someday, too, just so nobody thinks it’s deserted. I’ll miss sunsets with you this week. But you’re the fire starter. I don’t have the patience,” Chloe ran her hand along Beca’s back as she walked to the fridge. “I’ll pour out.”

“You started it fine Saturday night.” Beca scoffed. “But I’ll do the honors.” She headed outside and got started.

Chloe tracked down the wine chiller and put the bottle in so she could carry it and the glasses out in one trip. She set them on the deck table and filled the glasses. “You weren’t here, how do you know it didn’t take me half the night?” She asked as she set Beca’s glass next to the lounge chair and sat to watch Beca build the fire. “Anyway, I like the view.”

Beca smirked as she turned on the heel she balanced her weight on. “I see how you are. I thought you liked to be watched more than watching,” she teased.

“Imagine how distracted I’d be knowing you were watching me crouched over the fire pit, sometimes leaning so my shirt rode up to expose my back, my shorts tight as I struggled to make a flame? I could burn down the house and not even realize it.” Chloe grinned wickedly.

Beca dropped onto the patio and crossed her legs. “Well, I think we have to wait now before I can build a fire…”

Chloe laughed out loud, “What’s wrong, Becs?”

“Absolutely nothing. Just busy with my fantasy life, thank you very much.” Beca put her elbow on her knee and her chin on her elbow. Then she frowned. “I think most of the house would be safe, being built of stone. And the roof is slate.” She looked around, “but probably best not to test it.” She smirked.

Chloe got up from her chair and knelt on the deck behind Beca. She wrapped her arms around Beca’s stomach and rested her head on Beca’s shoulder. “Need any help?”

Beca smiled and leaned into Chloe. “Not anymore. Besides…who needs a fire.” She placed a hand on Chloe’s arm and leaned her head back for a kiss.

Chloe leaned into the kiss, her hands rubbing light circles on Beca’s stomach. “Go sit down and have some wine, hon, I’ll get the fire started. Then maybe we’ll work on this other fire that seems to be smoldering.” Chloe nibbled Beca’s ear. “I promise I’ll bend over. A few times.” She leaned back on her heels and stood to offer Beca a hand.

Beca accepted the hand up, but slid a hand behind Chloe’s back as she did so and stole another kiss. “I dunno, seems warm enough without one.” Then she smiled, “but I have a hard time turning you down for anything. I’ll get this going. Meet you on the lounge chair.” She winked.

“I just like the way the flames dance along the back wall after the sun goes down,” Chloe smiled. “I’ll keep the chair warm for you and keep quiet so I don’t distract you again.”

Beca grinned and returned her attention to the fire pit. Once the wood was stacked to her satisfaction, she collected all of her hair and tied it in a knot behind her head. Then she lit a long match and tucked it into the tinder she’d left in the center of the kindling and logs. She blew lightly on it as the tinder glowed, and then the kindling caught. She added more kindling until the flame was licking at the bigger pieces. She glanced up, “I think we got it. Just gotta keep an eye that it doesn’t go out before the big logs catch for real.”

Chloe beamed, “See, you made it look easy. Come sit with me and watch it from here? Then you can let me know when it’s safe to thoroughly distract you again.” She patted the lounge chair and scooted to the side so Beca would fit.

Beca stood and moved close to Chloe. “Hey there, that spot for me?” She teased as she sat down. “What’s a good looking lady like you doing in a dive like this?”

“Mhm,” Chloe nodded. “Waiting for a good looking lady like yourself to sweep me off my feet, I suppose.” She slipped one arm behind Beca’s head and whispered, “Question.”

Beca leaned closer, their noses almost touching. “Sure,” she answered with a smile.

“Isn’t it nice not to have neighbors?” Chloe ran a hand under Beca’s shirt and up her back as she leaned to kiss the spot just under Beca’s ear. “Right now you’re the only one I want watching me.”

Dylan pulled up to the front of the house. It didn’t look much different than the last time she’d been here, almost ten years ago now. It was strange, realizing Beca’s Aunt wouldn’t answer the door. She gave herself a shake and parked, wondering who owned the three cars. She walked around to the back to pull her sax out of the trunk before she walked up to the front door. She knocked, and ran a hand over the back of the rocker as she waited. When no one answered, she wandered around to the back.

She stopped at the corner of the house as she realized she must be interrupting a cozy little tête-à-tête. “I guess no rehearsal, tonight Short-Stack?” She put the sax case down with a smirk. “And this must be Chloe.”

Chloe’s lips were against Beca’s ear. “I swear I hear voices,” she whispered.

Beca slumped and looked over Chloe’s shoulder. “Oh, hey, Dylan. Was that tonight?”

Dylan chuckled. “Yeah. And you didn’t cancel so you are stuck with me for at least a half an hour after making me haul my ass out here.” She picked up the case and walked closer, “Dylan Porter.” She extended a hand expectantly.

Chloe pulled her arm gently from under Beca and accepted Dylan’s. “Chloe Beale,” she said with a laugh. She looked at Beca, “At least we’re wearing clothes this time, right?”

“Now that’s a story that may be fun to hear.” Dylan smirked again. She moved to the empty lounge chair. “Got a glass for me, Mitch?”

“Yeah, lemme go get a glass and another bottle.” Beca hesitated, looking from Chloe to Dylan.

Dylan laughed, “I won’t bite, Mitch. I just want to meet this girl of yours. And have a drink before I head home. Bring me a crown and seven instead and save the vino for you and your girl.”

Chloe sat up and ran a hand through her hair. She took in Dylan’s sleek black suit and vest with no shirt. “That’s a gorgeous suit, Dylan. Nice cut, looks comfortable. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it around here. Chicago?”

“Very good.” Dylan smiled. “You have a good eye.” She took the jacket off, revealing well toned and tanned arms. “I’m guessing you are not a professional musician? Beca implied you worked more days than nights.”

Beca groaned and hurried off to get Dylan’s drink. They were probably going to be all right, but she couldn’t believe she’d forgotten to cancel. She kicked herself all the way to the liquor cabinet and back again.

Chloe’s eyes traveled appreciatively across Dylan before she could catch herself. “Nah,” she found her wine glass and drained it. “I work in fashion. Consultant sales by appointment. Beca’s the talented one.” Chloe shook her head slightly, feeling a little dizzy after the adrenaline of making out with Beca and the additional jolt of Beca’s incredibly tall, gorgeous, and confident childhood friend just casually interrupting. She took a deep breath and found her bearings again. “Daring without the shirt, but you can definitely pull it off.”

Dylan looked down and then up again. “Thanks. It’s hot under the lights.”

Beca walked out and laughed. “Sorry, Chloe. I should have warned you. Dylan is a deadly weapon. I don’t know how I keep collecting women who are not only drop dead gorgeous, but comfortable in their appearance. Must be jealousy.”

“Oh, please.” Dylan snorted. “Don’t give me the self-effacing bullshit.” Dylan looked at Chloe, “Surely her aw shucks routine doesn’t work on you. Unsure about her musical ability? Since she was twelve. But unsure people want her? Never.”

“Like hell.” Beca laughed before she smirked.

Chloe also smirked and made room on her lap for Beca. “Oh no. She never tried to fool me,” she winked at Dylan. “She knows exactly what she can do to me with her eyes alone,” Chloe watched Beca with a smile. “Tomorrow we’re getting an appointment book, though.”

Dylan snorted again and then took a sip of her drink. “Good idea. Either that or hire her an assistant.” Dylan leaned back and crossed her legs. “Speaking of appointments, when do you want to go over charts for Friday? It seems evenings are out.” She smiled innocently.

Beca sat down on Chloe’s lap with a smile, wrapping her arm around Chloe while she reached for her wine. “Chloe works most afternoons.”

“If you guys want to work I can go find something to do for a while. Just promise I can listen in every now and then. You don’t have to cancel just because of me.” She put her arm on Beca’s leg, “And I’ll still be here when you’re done.”

Dylan shook her head.

Beca did as well. “Alcohol is bad for the reeds. Ever hear lousy jazz? Usually the musicians were drinking. Between the loss of lip sensitivity and the reed getting gummy, the instruments shriek in protest.”

“Besides,” Dylan added, “I’ve already played for a couple of hours tonight. Not sure I’d have good tone anyway.”

“Mind making a chart for Sunday Kind of Love?” Beca asked with a sideways glance to Chloe.

Dylan considered. “I think I have one. I’ll screen cap and send it to ya.”

Chloe smiled slowly at Beca, “What’s in that pretty head of yours?”

“For someone who just told you I’m the talented one, this one stole a karaoke night with that standard.” Beca boasted.

“I can’t wait to hear it, especially if she stole the thunder from the brunette bombshell. Speaking of, what are we gonna do about all these talented voices you have around you? Surely you have an idea, Miss-I-Wanna-Produce.”

Beca groaned. “I’m working on studio time at the Church. I’ll let you know more when I get it nailed down.

“You remembered? I didn’t even know your name when I sang that song. I was trying to catch your eye, though.” Chloe glanced at Dylan. “I knew I was on the right track when she pulled out a second book of songs for me.” She glanced at Beca again, “You said you were worried about accompanying me when Jessica brought it up. Change your mind?”

Beca looked at Dylan, who laughed. “She’s thinking a trad trio no piano for you.”

Chloe arched her eyebrow and nodded, “Oh.” She looked at Beca. “If I didn’t know better I’d worry that you can read each other’s minds.”

Dylan laughed, “We arranged music for years, trying our own set ups all through high school. I still asked her advice when I was in Chicago, and she asked mine when she was in LA. You must have a Clooney type voice. She hates covering those with piano.”

Chloe shrugged, “I’ve never thought about it.” She leaned her head against Beca. “You’re arranging for me, hm? What are you going to do if you’re not playing piano? Watch?” She squeezed the leg her hand was on.

Beca glared at Dylan. “A, I still ask your advice. Second, she has a huge range, she just hasn’t showed me the extent. But you can hear she isn’t reaching, you know?” Then she looked at Chloe. “I’ll either be watching or mixing.”

“She’ll be mixing in public.” Dylan winked and drained her glass. “All right, let me get out of your hair. I’ll send my chart. Text me tomorrow with rehearsal times and dates or we are going to be faking it Friday night.” She stood and put her jacket on. “Give me a hug, Short Stack. Nice to meet you, Chloe.”

Beca got up and walked over, laughing as she glanced at Chloe. “You know she wants a hug to show off her 8 inches plus heels on me. Shit, string bean. You are almost a foot taller.”

Dylan smirked, “I’ll bend down.”

Chloe stood up and tried not to laugh at the way Dylan towered over Beca. She held her hand out to Dylan, “It really is lovely to meet you. Beca always speaks fondly of you. I look forward to hearing some good Beca stories over a glass of wine someday when I’m a little more prepared for it.”

Beca climbed onto the lounge chair. “Like hell I am hugging your belly button or your girls,” she muttered as she hugged Dylan.

Dylan laughed and gave Beca a one-armed hug as she extended her hand to Chloe. “I look forward to it too. Maybe we can double sometime. Conn would love to meet you.”

Beca groaned again, “Oh, god, I am so going to regret this.” Then her eyes lit up, “Wait, I bet I have stories Conn doesn’t know.”

“I doubt it,” Dylan smirked, “but you can try.” She patted Beca on the cheek before picking up her jacket and sax.

Chloe walked over to put her arm around Beca’s waist as they watched Dylan leave. “Okay, Becs, you never mentioned your first love high school flame ex girlfriend was stacked like a brick house and made from swagger mixed with charm.”

Beca shrugged, “You gotta see her to believe her.” She rotated to face Chloe, “Now…where were we?”

Chloe wrapped her arms around Beca’s neck and pulled her closer. “I’m thinking I need to go to the gym. Regularly.”

“I can’t imagine why…” Beca nuzzled Chloe’s ear. “You’re amazing, just the way you are.” She sang quietly.

Chloe melted against Beca, “Chair? My legs just said they might not work anymore if you keep doing that in my ear.”

Beca sat down in the lounge chair Dylan had just vacated and pulled Chloe into her lap, “There’s not a thing that I would change…”

Chapter Text

Chloe shifted in her sleep. It was early Wednesday morning and Beca’s arm was draped over Chloe’s hips. The redhead rolled onto her back, then shifted so she was facing Beca, one leg draped over Beca’s legs. Chloe sighed and relaxed.

“Stop wiggling or go to the bathroom.” Beca muttered. “People are trying to sleep, here.”

“Don’t need to,” Chloe protested in a mumble. She shifted her top leg again, then groaned. “I do. Back soon,” she pushed herself to her feet and shuffled down the hall. When she got back, she tucked herself against Beca once more. This time her leg pushed its way between Beca’s legs and she wrapped her free arm around Beca’s waist. Her head tucked nicely under Beca’s chin.

Beca chuckled, “Put me where you want me, Beale.”

“Mhm,” Chloe smiled softly. “Beca’s asleep, though. Shhhh.”

“Beca’d like to sleep, but she thinks Chloe’s wide awake.” Beca teased back. She rubbed Chloe’s back. “Can you sleep or something rolling around in the pretty head?”

Chloe yawned, “Nothing in particular. I like how we fit together, even in the morning.” She wiggled her leg a little, then grew quiet. “Hey,” she said softly, “I just remembered. Did I tell you Aubrey moved in with Stacie?”

Beca considered. “I don’t think you did. When did that happen?”

“Yesterday,” Chloe replied. “I’ve got an adorable pic of Doofus asleep on Stacie’s hip, but it’s on my phone and I don’t wanna move.”

“Doofus? Is that what you call Aubrey? And you think Squirt is bad?” Beca snorted.

Chloe giggled, “Squirt can be bad if you’ve got the inclination. But no, Doofus is Aubrey’s cat. OMG, Becs, imagine if I ever called Aubrey something like that. She’d turn purple first and I don’t even know what she’d do next.”

Beca laughed, “It’s almost worth it just to find out. But let’s see if I got this straight. Aubrey has a cat named Doofus who sleeps on Stacie, and Aubrey moved in with Stacie, Stacie didn’t move in with Aubrey?”

“Correct, well done,” Chloe shifted so she could lean on her elbow and look at Beca. “Aubrey says it’s easier to move the cat than move the piano. Between you and me she also picks up house cleaning services and room service, not to mention ready access to the karaoke bar and that gorgeous view of downtown. Aubrey totally wins, don’t you think?”

“Sounds like an offer I couldn’t refuse. How are we gonna get that deal?” Beca laughed.

Chloe narrowed her eyes, “All you’re missing are the services, you’ve already got the view. And you don’t have anyone living below you or people partying above.” Chloe paused, “We?”

Beca shrugged, “It seemed rude not to invite you on my flight of fancy. And it’s hard enough to get landscaping here. Pizza doesn’t deliver, so no room service and somehow I think if pizza won’t deliver, no housekeeping service is gonna try that hill.”

Chloe felt her shoulders loosen a little. “Very polite,” she gave Beca a sideways glance, then laid back against her pillow, one hand reaching for Beca’s hand. “If we’re dreaming then of course we’d hire a service that used a helicopter to lower housekeeping in once every other week. Or they’d all ride ATVs.” She giggled. “Can’t you just see the army of housekeepers roaring up the hill, buckets and mops swaying from their holsters on the power quads?”

“Again, that would be worth the price of admission.” Beca laughed. “You are so much better at imagining than I am.” Beca kissed the side of Chloe’s head. “I guess the only thing we got is Skye, but she doesn’t sleep on your hip or mine. She prefers the closet or the space behind the dryer.” Beca paused. “Maybe I need to make her a cave.”

“She seems to make her own caves,” Chloe mused. “But she hasn’t been here long. I’m sure she’ll discover the magic of a warm lap when the weather starts to cool off and she knows you better.”

Beca nodded, “Good point. Plus, I don’t tend to stay in one place very long, unless you are here.” She chuckled. “Maybe she’ll like the warmth of the kitchen during winter baking.”

“Oh, that’ll win her for sure,” Chloe smiled at the domestic scene in her mind’s eye, Beca sitting at the dining room table with Skye curled up on her lap, the smell of warm fresh bread filling the kitchen while the trees out the window were covered with snow. Her smile melted a little when she remembered something else Aubrey had said. “Bree also managed to give me shit about how I’ve been staying up here with you so much. She said that maybe I already had moved in.” Chloe turned to watch Beca’s face.

Beca smiled. “I hadn’t thought about it.”

Chloe shrugged and laid back down, “Me either. I think she’s just giving me a hard time. I suppose this is a little out of my carefree previous character.” She played with Beca’s hand that she was holding. “What she doesn’t understand is that my character has also been to always do the things that maximize pleasure. Being here with you all week has been the simplest most natural choice I could have made.” She glanced back at Beca, “That sounds cheesy, huh?”

“No.” Beca shrugged. “I don’t know why she’d give you shit since she moved in with her girl. I’d think she’d be all happy and shit, not trying to weird you out.” Internally, Beca worried about what would happen if the pleasure was no longer up to snuff.

Chloe leaned up to look at Beca, “She was nervous they were moving too fast, that’s all. I probably poked her first, I tend to do that. Most of the teasing I receive is well deserved.” She sighed and rubbed her thumb over Beca’s consternation wrinkle. “I’m not weirded out. Being here with you has been so easy, Beca. Anyway I don’t consider it moving in until I’ve taken over at least two good closets for my clothes. You don’t have a thing to worry about.” She grinned impishly, “Yet.”

Beca nodded and smiled. “One day at a time, right?”

“Or one hanger at a time,” Chloe smirked and wrapped herself around Beca again. “More sleep or coffee?”

“Coffee.” Beca nodded, “Definitely coffee.” She kissed the top of Chloe’s head and extricated herself slowly. “I picked up creamer while you were gone yesterday.”

Chloe sat up and pushed her hair out of her face. She stepped from the bed and found her favorite of Beca’s flannels and slipped it on. When she walked into the kitchen she saw Beca with her head down, facing the coffee pot. “Does it brew faster if you pray to it?” Chloe smiled and sat on a barstool.

“Absolutely,” Beca straightened. “Kona Koffee expects a daily supplication to brew properly.” She smiled at Chloe and interrupted the brew cycle to pour a cup. She brought it, a spoon and the creamer over to the bar, her smile slowly spreading as she recognized the shirt. “You do make my clothes look better.” Then she returned to the pot to pour out a second cup before pressing power to continue brewing.

“Whatever you do, you do it right,” Chloe savored her first sip after adding creamer. “I had the most lovely, vivid picture in my mind earlier.” She looked at Beca, her eyes shining. “You and Skye sitting at the table, fresh bread in the oven, snow on the trees.” Chloe took another sip. “I hope you’re not bored with me by the time winter rolls around. I can’t wait to see you in your heavy coat. I wonder if you get bright red spots on your pretty white cheeks when there’s a nip in the air.” Chloe’s eyes had gone far away as she pictured it.

Beca turned to watch Chloe as she dreamed and felt her heart soar. Maybe, if Chloe was thinking about winter, they had a chance to be more than just play pals, albeit exclusive play pals. “I can’t wait to show you this place covered in snow,” she replied softly. “Sitting in front of the fireplace, snow falling and covering the trees. It’s almost as breathtaking as you are.” Then she blushed.

Chloe blinked and then smiled at Beca fondly, “Yep, your cheeks totally get red when it’s cold.” Chloe sipped her coffee again, “I want all the seasons of Beca. Autumn with the hilltop covered in colors before everything falls into crunches under our feet. Cold winters cuddled in front of the fire. Spring when I’ll bet there are a gazillion things that spring to life right under our feet.” She tilted her head, “Is that too much?”

Beca shook her head. “Nope. Sounds perfect.” She picked up her coffee to take a sip.

 

Meanwhile, back at the Mayo, Aubrey woke up when something poked her in the side. She glanced down to see Doofus, fully stretched out so that her back legs were against Aubrey’s hips and her front legs were pressed against Aubrey’s shoulder. The cat’s back was pressed firmly into Stacie’s back. It had been one of the back feet that had given Aubrey enough of a shove to wake her up.

“Hey, you little fuzzball,” Aubrey whispered and tickled Doofus’s belly. The cat responded by curling into a ball around Aubrey’s hand and then darting to the foot of the bed.

“Who you calling a fuzzball?” Stacie muttered through a yawn.

Aubrey giggled and wrapped herself closely against Stacie’s back. “I never thought you would allow a cat to come between us,” she chuckled.

Stacie curled her fingers in among Aubrey’s. “I am not responsible for what I cannot see. And I have yet to invent eyes for the back of my head.”

“Hm, promising patent material. Should sell well among new mothers and teachers,” Aubrey grinned into Stacie’s shoulder.

“I’ll add it to the list.” Stacie chuckled. “How much time do we have?”

Aubrey glanced at the clock on Stacie’s bedside table, “It’s 6:00. I’ve only got the one today at 2:00.”

Stacie turned over and burrowed her head close to Aubrey’s shoulder. “Then why in the hell are we awake?” She laughed. “Am I gonna have issues with your cat?”

Aubrey chuckled and wrapped her arms around Stacie, “I’ll shut the bedroom door tonight.” She paused, “And she’s our cat now, right?”

“She’s my cat when she’s an angel. She’s your cat when she’s bad.” Stacie murmured against Aubrey’s skin.

“I see,” Aubrey grinned. “We may have to renegotiate after coffee. Meanwhile I scared her away with a well placed belly rub.”

Stacie nodded and looked up at Aubrey. “You are too awake.” She sighed. “It must be coffee time.”

Aubrey groaned, “I’m so sorry, love. A back foot to the hip is just too much for me to go back to sleep. You stay here, I’ll go read the news in the other room.”

Stacie shook her head and shifted to a sitting position. “Nope, bed isn’t fun without you.” She stretched and reached down to grab a shirt off the floor. “Where do you wanna have coffee? On the balcony, I will need more clothes.” She grinned. “But we have the sofa, the dining table, the breakfast bar, or back in here. The suite is yours, Princess.”

Aubrey sat up, suddenly aware of everything that came with moving into Stacie’s apartment. “It hadn’t even occurred to me,” she said softly, her eyes finding Stacie’s. “Where do you usually have your coffee?”

“Usually, I go straight into work.” Stacie admitted. “That was later when I was coming from your place.” She tilted her head to one side, “You are so good for me. I already know I’m gonna keep a better schedule just because you are here.”

Aubrey shrugged, “I hope I don’t get in the way.”

Stacie groaned. “Why do you do that?”

Aubrey was startled, “Do what?”

“Make a good thing bad.” Stacie pulled the shirt over her head. “I just complimented you. You give me a reason to work less than 20 hours a day. And you turn it into being in the way.”

Aubrey blinked and tilted her head. “Oh,” was all she managed. Her head spun a little. Should she apologize? Would that make it worse? She decided to stay silent and find her own shirt. She couldn’t resist adding something else, it came out before she could stop it. “I’m sorry I woke you early.”

Stacie stood up and walked over to Aubrey. She wrapped her arms around Aubrey’s waist and waited until Aubrey met her gaze. “I don’t know who made you think you need to apologize for breathing, but if I ever find out, I will surgically remove their heart through their nostrils. They aren’t using it anyway.”

Aubrey started laughing out loud. “You wouldn’t, but you would make them feel Iike you really had.” She smiled fondly, “I’ll make sure you’re never in the same room as my father, I don’t want to watch you stand trial.”

Stacie studied Aubrey, “I think you mean you don’t want to watch him stand trial. I will tear that man’s ego into confetti. When I’m done with him, he’ll forget he ever held a rank above private.”

Aubrey glanced down, then back up into Stacie’s eyes, “It’s purely academic, you’ll never see him anyway. And I’d prefer it that way. He doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air you breathe.”

Stacie caressed Aubrey’s chin. “He doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air you breathe.” She gently corrected the pronoun. “You are so much more than that man’s bruised ego that he didn’t have a son. I plan on spending the rest of my life telling you why.”

Aubrey was caught by Stacie’s intense eyes. She took a deep breath. “Does that life begin with coffee? On the sofa? With the windows open so we can feel superior to all the people who have to drive to work at this ungodly hour?”

“If that’s what you want, Princess, that’s what we will do.” Stacie smiled, the fury starting to dissipate. “I’ll go start the coffee and open the windows. Grab the iPads?” She leaned forward and kissed Aubrey tenderly. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me, Aubrey Posen, and don’t you forget it.”

Aubrey nodded. “Back atcha, Doc,” she grinned as she reached for the tablets and stood to follow Stacie into the main room. She knew she was walking on the carpet, but she felt like she was at least a foot off of the ground.

Chapter Text

Chloe walked out of the shop at 3:30 Wednesday afternoon and looked down the street in the direction of her house. She hadn’t been there in almost a week. Beca works late Wednesday, so she was going to be home alone no matter which house. She picked up her phone to text Beca.

Chloe: Hey beautiful! They set me free for the day!
Beca: awesome! It was good then?
Chloe: Yep happy day, made some people look and feel awesome. Whatcha doing?
Beca: just finished the kitchen. Froze leftovers for later that sort of thing. Now I have a little time to choose tonight’s set list before I head over.

After a beat she added.

Beca: what’s on your agenda?

Chloe chewed her bottom lip. She didn’t want Beca to think she’d rather not come out tonight, but she also knew they’d only get about half an hour before Beca had to leave.

Chloe: I was thinking I’d go to my place. Water the plants, putter a bit. What do you think?

Beca hesitated. She realized Chloe hadn’t been home for more than a change of clothes since Friday. She blushed.

Beca: sounds like your place misses you. I think that’s a good idea.
Chloe: Now I’m second guessing. I hate my brain. What are you gonna wear tonight?
Beca: boring orchestra clothes. I’m just the ambience tonight. Why second guess?
Chloe: Because I immediately miss you. And your house. And seeing you just out of the shower with your hair a wet mess. And because I’m a cat. Close the door, I want out. Right?

Beca laughed as she read the text.

Beca: Chloe the Cat. Sounds about right.
Chloe: if you pet me just right I do tend to purr…
Beca: so I’ve noticed. Shit, now I wish I had the night off.

Chloe shook her head and sighed. She wished it too, but she also knew Beca loved her job.

Chloe: come to my house after?

Beca thought about it.

Beca: I don’t finish till after midnight, then have to lock the piano and set the music player. I’ll get to your place after 1. Is that ok?
Chloe: wasn’t a problem the first night ;-)
Beca: the first night wasn’t a work day for you the next day. I’m trying to be respectful here (=

Chloe smiled fondly at her phone. Beca was always a gentleman. She was starting to get used to someone giving a shit about her like that.

Chloe: How about if I promise to take a nap? And thanks for being sweet.
Beca: I can live with that compromise. Want me to call or text when I leave the hotel?
Chloe: just send a text. I’ll have my phone on loud so I’ll catch it no matter what. I’m going to miss you, Becs.

Beca smiled slowly and nodded at the phone.

Beca: gonna miss you too, Bright Eyes. But I’ll be thinking of you with every song I play.

Chloe tilted her head and looked out the window at the trees in the parking lot. On a whim she zoomed in on the dancing leaves and took a video. She sent it with a text.

Chloe: I’ll think of you when the wind blows the leaves around on the trees and reminds me of the music from the Overlook

Beca read the text over several times.

Beca: damn. Chloe, you didn’t tell me you were a poet, too.

Chloe chuckled.

Chloe: I did warn you I’m a dreamer. Same thing, right?
Beca: I guess it is. It’s good. I should prolly go pick that set list and hop in the shower. Eat. You know all that boring adulting shit
Chloe: Yeah. I’ll go see if my house is still there. See you in a few hours, doll.
Beca: see you then. I’ll text spam you when I can. *=

Chloe: Mwah!

Chloe drove toward home, her mind working. Instead of pulling into her neighborhood she made a stop at a few of the shops and picked up some things for the evening. She was smiling when she finally walked in her front door. She set her bags down and looked around the little front room and kitchen. They seemed somehow empty, even though she’d lived there alone for several years. She shook her head and snapped a quick picture of her kitchen table.

Chloe: Your chair says hello

Beca had just gotten out of the shower when she noticed the text. She picked up her phone and took a picture of the rumpled mat in front of the shower.

Beca: bathroom misses you.

Chloe giggled when she got Beca’s text. She kept smiling as she unpacked all the goodies she’d bought and started to work. She picked up the string of fairy lights and took them onto her back patio. It took her a good hour to figure out just how she wanted them and then convince them to stay. She flipped them on and sat in a patio chair to admire how they twinkled. Chloe thought about sending another picture of the lights, then decided some things should be a surprise. She went over to the grill and opened the lid and took a picture of that instead. She sent it with another text.

Chloe: for later

Beca grinned at the text. She coaxed Skye to play with a piece of string so it looked like the white and black cat was waving. Beca took a short video.

Beca: see you soon!

Chloe waved back at the little cat on her phone. She went into the kitchen and started working hamburger into patties. Then she took the lettuce from the fridge and tore it into burger sized pieces, which went into a bowl and back in the fridge. She sliced some potatoes and put them on to boil, then sliced a couple of tomatoes. While the potatoes softened she cooked a package of bacon, made herself a sandwich from it, watched the potatoes while she ate, then whipped up her grandmother’s potato salad. That would do, she thought as she wandered to sit on the porch again.

 

Back at the Mayo, Aubrey swiped her card to let herself into Stacie’s apartment. Their apartment, she remembered again. She’d get used to that.

She stopped short when she noticed a series of framed photos on the hallway walls. She looked closer, then called out toward the living room, “Hey, Doc?”

Stacie scooped Doofus up and carried her toward the hall. “Welcome home, Princess.” She held up a paw, “Wave at Mommy, Doof.”

Aubrey giggled at her girls, then gestured at the wall. “That’s me,” she said, confused. “I remember these of you from Roberta, but where did mine come from?”

Doofus wriggled to be released so Stacie put her down. “Research.” Stacie shrugged. “I want the story behind each and every one.” She smiled.

Aubrey shook her head and stared at Stacie, “You are just a never ending font of surprises.” She looked more closely at the pictures. “Recitals, mostly. I remember the newspapers taking pictures of contest winners too. How?” She turned back to Stacie.

Stacie linked her arm with Aubrey’s. “Full confession, I hired a research team. I gave them your name, age and the name of your boarding school. They scoured the yearbooks and newspaper archives for me.” She walked Aubrey to the one closest to the bedroom. “This one is my favorite. How can you play when you can’t reach the pedals?”

Aubrey felt tears prick her eyes. She put her hand lightly on the frame, “I was five. The piece they chose didn’t require pedals. I played a piece with the local college string quintet.” Her voice grew soft, “My mom was there.”

Stacie swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat. Her next project would be pictures of Aubrey and her mom, or even just her mom. “I bet she was proud of you. That’s young to play with the college kids.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it was the novelty of it. Everyone was excited I could play the notes.” She stared at the picture a few more seconds, then shook her head and moved to another. “Here, this is the one that tells the truth. I’m a junior in college. Look at that smug face. I just knew I was hot shit,” she grinned at Stacie.

“Still are,” Stacie placed a kiss on Aubrey’s cheek.

“Ha!” Aubrey scoffed. “I’d just moved into an apartment off campus with Chloe and her girlfriend. How mature and cosmopolitan was that, living off 11th street with a same sex couple.” She wiggled her eyebrows at Stacie. “These are amazing,” she said in a softer voice. “I had no idea they even existed.”

Stacie squeezed Aubrey’s arm. “There are more. I can show you. I just picked a few to send to a photo restoration company who salvaged the images and made them print worthy. Then they framed them for me. The hardest part was watching Jeremiah hang them. I wanted them to alternate, he wanted to be more artsy. I promised next time you would be here and we could all negotiate.”

Aubrey put her arms around Stacie’s waist, “They’re perfect. You’re amazing.” She hugged her close, laying her head on Stacie’s shoulder. “I feel like you really do want to share this amazing space with me. Thank you so much, Stacie.”

“Of course, I do.” Stacie whispered in Aubrey’s ear. “I want you to feel at home, like you belong.” She kissed the side of Aubrey’s head. “Because I think you do.”

Aubrey melted a little further against Stacie, “Someday I hope to deserve you.”

Stacie tapped Aubrey’s chin. “You deserve so much more. You deserve to be happy, and to have music and time with the people and things you love. You deserve, Aubrey Posen. Just by being you.” Then she sighed, “Everything I do is not to boast, or to show off. I spend money because I have it. I have ideas and no way to implement them, so I hire people to make my dreams real.” She rested her head against Aubrey’s. “I never had the courage to dream for you.”

Aubrey stood holding Stacie, thinking about how much her life had changed since the day that picture was taken after her recital her junior year. She remembered how that swagger had felt. How the world was there for her to step into, hers for the taking. She felt her breast swell that same way, but with something new added to the feeling. Security. Safety.

Aubrey leaned back and looked into Stacie’s eyes. “Want to hear what I played that afternoon?” She grinned.

Stacie smiled and nodded. “I would love to.”

Aubrey led her to the piano, then gestured for Stacie to sit beside her. She opened the keyboard and ran a few warm up scales. “It’s Mozart. The joke about Mozart is his music would be beautiful if there just weren’t so many notes.” Aubrey sat up straight and placed her hands over the keys. She closed her eyes and remembered. Soon her hands were gliding over the keys as she swayed slightly every now and then for emphasis. When she finished she dropped her hands and looked at Stacie, her eyes still holding some of the intensity from the passion of the piece she’d played.

Stacie watched in fascination, as she had every time Aubrey played. She watched as Aubrey’s body tensed, demanding the instrument do as she willed. She watched as the music poured out, and Aubrey’s face lit up with the challenge and the triumph. “You are magnificent,“ she finally whispered, her left hand touching Aubrey’s cheek gently.

Aubrey leaned into Stacie’s hand. “Only for you, my love.”

“The world is missing out.” Stacie said quietly before she smirked, “But I don’t mind being your sole audience for now.” She emphasized the last two words.

“You’re the only audience I need,” Aubrey shrugged. “I’m going to practice, see what else I can pull from the vaults of my brain. I want to see your eyes shine that way as often as humanly possible.” She leaned to place a soft kiss against Stacie’s lips.

 

Several hours later, Beca walked into the garage and pulled out her phone. Her text app was full of the pictures she’d shared during the first couple of hours of her work. Then she’d slowed down, hoping Chloe would keep her word and nap. She smiled at the app before sending.

Beca: on my way, Bright Eyes.

Chloe grinned at the text and pulled the last of the burgers from the grill. She moved the plate to the patio that already held the rest of the food she’d prepped.

Chloe: the door’s unlocked

Beca noted the text at the first signal. She replied with a quick smiley face and continued toward Chloe’s place. When she pulled up, she grabbed the wildflowers she’d picked from the Overlook. They didn’t look too bad, considering they’d been picked over six hours ago and had been left in a car all that time. Beca carefully placed them in a vase she’d picked up on the way to work. She pulled the damp paper towels from around the stems and arranged them before pouring water from her bottle to fill the vase. Feeling ready, she finally got out of the car. She waved toward Mrs. Johnson’s house, giving a thumbs up as she held the flowers, then went to the door. She pushed it open.

Chloe rushed back into the kitchen to grab the beer she’d left in the fridge for herself. Beca’s was already on the table out back, warm like she preferred. She stopped in her tracks. “Aw, Beca,” she changed course and met Beca in the foyer. “Those are gorgeous,” she smiled down at the flowers in Beca’s hand. “Just like you.”

Beca smiled slowly and leaned forward to kiss Chloe’s cheek. “Just trying to keep up with you.”

Chloe accepted the flowers and squeezed Beca’s elbow with her free hand. “These are perfect. Let me grab my beer from the fridge real quick and we can go out back.”

Beca nodded and followed Chloe. “Did you catch a nap?”

“Of course. I promised,” Chloe snagged the six pack and led Beca toward the back door. “I might be stupid about commitment but once I make a promise it’s for keeps, Becs.” She opened the sliding door and motioned for Beca to go out first.

“I never said you were stupid about anything,” Beca protested. “I just wanna…” she broke off and looked around the patio. “You did all this since you got home?”

Chloe grinned and set the beer on the patio table. “Hungry?” She smiled back at Beca. “I’ve got burgers fresh off the grill, baked beans, potato salad. It isn’t quite Sonic tots, but hopefully it will do.”

Beca blinked and looked around. “This is amazing. You are amazing.” She smiled at Chloe, admiration in her face. “You didn’t have to do all this.”

Chloe smelled the flowers Beca had brought, then placed them in the center of the table, fussing with them so they looked just right. “You get hungry after work,” she smiled at Beca.

“I do,” Beca nodded, “but this?” She grabbed Chloe’s hand and pulled her close. “Thank you.”

Chloe slipped into Beca’s arms, her own wrapping around Beca’s neck. “I like to take care of my girl,” she said softly. “You’re my girl, right?” Her eyes were playful.

“I’m so yours,” Beca whispered before stealing a kiss. “And not just because you made me a burger at 1 am, risking a neighborhood feud.” She teased.

Chloe giggled and gestured toward the table, “I guess we should eat the evidence, huh?”

Beca nodded and sat down. “My pleasure.”

Chapter Text

Chloe sat on her back patio watching the clouds scooting across a bright blue summer sky. Beca had gone to the Overlook to get ready for karaoke night and pick up the van, but Chloe could still see her sitting in the chair on the other side of the table, fairy lights twinkling in her eyes as she ate her 1:00 am feast. Chloe picked up her phone and sent a quick text.

Chloe: Hey Bree, have you seen how blue the sky is today?

Aubrey smiled as she read the text. She looked out at the sky above the patio.

Aubrey: why, so it is. What has you so bubbly today?

Chloe shrugged down at her phone with a smile.

Chloe: it’s been a good week. Beca stayed at my house last night, we had a picnic under the lights.
Aubrey: that sounds lovely.

Aubrey smiled some more; it was hard to do something like that for Stacie. She wondered what would be an equivalent.

Aubrey: Stacie tracked down pictures of my recitals. All of them.
Chloe: wow Bree. I was going to ask how sharing an apartment was going, that sounds like an awesome start.
Aubrey: it was quite the surprise. She put some on the wall as you come into the apartment. I think we are doing good.
Aubrey: so you and Beca decided on a change of scenery?
Chloe: we’re taking turns, so you can stop teasing about me moving in with her.
Aubrey: oh, please. If I can’t tease you, who can?

Chloe giggled.

Chloe: fair point. You’re allowed. But it won’t be a good tease since it’s not grounded in reality, right?
Aubrey: since when do teases have to be grounded in reality, Elf?
Chloe: shit, Princess. Okay fine. You doing karaoke tonight? My girl runs the best karaoke show in town, ya know.
Aubrey: Yep, planning on it. Ashley teased me about not singing, so I’m looking for something I can do that will be fun, but not challenge the two sexpots in the room.

Chloe raised her eyebrows.

Chloe: should I say thank you or tell you not to call my girlfriend that?
Aubrey: ha. Between you and Stacie, everyone in the room will be jealous of Beca and me. I’m no fool.
Chloe: Thank you. I’m feeling a country vibe tonight. It’s going to be a fun one. Maybe more party girl than sexpot.
Aubrey: oooh, country could be fun! Thanks for the idea.
Chloe: I’m definitely wearing jeans. Hey, snap a pic of one or two of the photos from Stacie? Especially if there’s a college one? Fond memories for me too
Aubrey: just come up after the show and you can grab the ones you want.
Chloe: we’ll see. Maybe Friday. You guys get frisky at karaoke
Aubrey: point. Ok see ya tonight.

Stacie walked out from the bedroom, putting earrings on. “What’s got your wheels turning, Princess?”

Aubrey stopped drumming her fingers on the back of her phone and looked up at Stacie. “Wow,” she said softly. “I see you every day, but still, just wow.”

“Like it?” Stacie spun around so the white gauze top she had over her camisole spread out like a fan around her, revealing her black jeans.

“Mhm,” Aubrey nodded and bit her lip. “I’m gonna love watching you play tonight.” Her gaze lingered on the tight jeans, then slowly rose until she was looking into Stacie’s eyes. She winked playfully. “That reminds me, I’m trying to pick a song to sing. Chloe’s in rare form, all bouncy and romantic, which means when she says she’s planning a country feel for tonight she’s pretty much going to run the place. I hope Beca’s ready.”

Stacie chuckled and wrapped her arms around Aubrey. “Country theme, huh? I can go with the flow.” She tilted her head to one side. “Who’s cheating who? Who’s being true?” She sang softly.

Aubrey chuckled. “Who don’t even care anymore,” she sang along as she swayed her hips. “Do you dance, Doc?”

Stacie pulled back, “Well, yeah, but why when I can have such a nice show.”

“Oh really?” Aubrey smirked. She flipped her phone to Boot Scoot Boogie and turned up the volume. She did a solo two step around the kitchen island, adding a little extra turn or hip when she felt it. When she got back to Stacie she held out her hand.

Stacie grinned and placed her hand in Aubrey’s, spun as she stood and then spun Aubrey. As they pulled close together, Stacie whispered with a smirk, “Who leads?”

Aubrey caught her breath and grinned at Stacie, “I’ll follow you anywhere.”

Stacie kissed Aubrey, “Funny, I was just going to say that.”

Aubrey kissed Stacie back, “I should go change. I’m sure I’ve got some jeans and a good pair of boots.” She wiggled her fingers at Stacie as she walked backwards a few steps, then turned to go into the bedroom.

Stacie looked at the clock to see just how much time she had to distract Aubrey before they had to leave, then followed with a smirk.

 

Sometime later, Ashley leaned on the bar and watched Stephanie work the few tables that were already full. She looked over at Jessica. “What do you think we ought to sing tonight? Think Stacie will be more willing to play?”

Jessica smiled, “Yeah, I think we freaked her out last week with the whole patent and PhD stuff. Tonight let’s remember this is her playground, you know?”

“Yeah,” Ashley nodded. “It’s so weird though. I mean it doesn’t change anything, she’s still the kid who told me she like the E network and it’s obvious she takes care of her cuticles.” Ashley smirked, “And I’ll be good and stay away from ….whom I kidding. I’m gonna say it….she has to if she wants to keep her girl happy.”

“Nobody asked but you were gonna say it anyway?” Jessica laughed out loud.

Ashley nodded happily.

Stacie entered before Ashley could comment further. “Hey girls, did we miss anything?”

Ashley started to giggle but shook her head.

Beca waved from the front of the bar. “Need the first song, ladies!”

Chloe walked up to the bar, her plaid button down tucked in but unbuttoned to the waist over a dark blue camisole. Her jeans were just slightly faded in the seat and knee, and left little to the imagination. Low heeled round toed brown boots finished the ensemble. “You girls ready to play?” She asked as she leaned against the bar.

Aubrey ran her hand down Stacie’s back and hooked a finger in a belt loop. “How are you three gonna start this rodeo?” She asked.

Stacie smirked at Ashley and Jessica. “Thinking of being a little bit country tonight.”

Ashley snorted. “Beca’s a little more rock and roll.” Then her eyes lit up, “Follow my lead, girls.” She took off her apron and headed up front.

Stacie looked at Aubrey and Jessica and then shrugged before she moved toward their usual table.

Jessica stopped with one foot on the stage and one on the little dance floor in front of the stage and waited to see what Ashley had in mind. Stacie sat with Aubrey, perched on the edge of her seat. Chloe picked a chair at the table and sat back to enjoy what promised to be a good show. Ashley’s eyes were absolutely devilish.

Ashley took the stage after telling Beca the name of the song. She waggled one finger at Jessica to make her wait and then looked again to Beca.

Beca laughed out loud, and started the song. The jump in energy from the quiet ambient music to the first karaoke song was startling. The music rang through the room and into the lobby.

Ashley began.

He pushed me 'round
Now I'm drawin' the line
He lived his life
Now I'm gonna go live mine
I'm sick of wastin' my time
Well now I've been good for way too long
Found my red dress and I'm gonna throw it on
'Bout to get too far gone

Then she winked at Jessca, who jumped up to join in the chorus.

Ashley grinned and pointed at Stacie, who was nearly vibrating with wanting to play along.

Stacie leapt to her feet and took over the mic.

On a mission to make something happen
Feel like Delilah lookin' for Samson
Do a little mattress dancin'
That's right I said mattress dancin'

After the three of them sang the chorus again, Stacie stepped off the stage and offered a hand to Aubrey.

Aubrey grinned and accepted Stacie’s hand, spinning Stacie around once before allowing Stacie to spin her in an echo of their upstairs dance. She tucked in closer and followed Stacie’s confident lead as they two stepped around the floor. Stacie’s cues were easy to pick up as she twirled Aubrey this way and that, bringing her close for a side by side step before spinning her out again, then back in for the traditional face to face. Aubrey’s cheeks were flushed, she hadn’t danced this way since she and Chloe had frequented the country swing bars just after college.

Chloe watched the pair, almost jealous. She glanced over at Beca, her head tilted in a question. “You dance?” She mouthed and arched an eyebrow.

Beca figured she knew what Chloe was asking but had to point and shake her head. “Not like that.” She mouthed back.

Ashley was laughing with delight and whispered to Jessica, “Reminder enough?”

Jessica was grinning ear to ear, watching the couple tear up the floor. “I’d say so,” she winked at Ashley as the instrumental break was about to end.

Ashley and Jessica sang the next verse in unison and the chorus in harmony as Stacie and Aubrey continued to dance.

When it's my turn to march up to old glory
I'm gonna have one hell of a story
That's if he forgives me
Oh, lord please forgive me
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

Need a little bit more of that sweet salvation
They may take me
With my feet draggin'
But I'll fly away on a sin wagon

When the song ended Aubrey fell against Stacie, grinning and breathing hard. “Damn, love. That was incredible. You’re incredible,” she picked her head up to give Stacie a solid kiss.

Beca came to the mic, laughing. “Now, that’s a way to start the show. And damn if we didn’t get a dance demo to boot. Who’s next? Got any cowboys willing to try and top that?” She applauded Jessica and Ashley as well as Stacie and Aubrey.

Ashley took a bow and jumped off the stage, laughing. She waited for Jessica as a crowd started to gather near the clipboard.

Stacie kept her arm around Aubrey’s waist as they returned to their table. As they sat down, she leaned over to say, “You inspire me.”

Chloe laughed and pushed a water glass toward Aubrey, “You impress the hell out of me.” She gave Stacie a look, “I never saw anyone get her to dance that way. You have any more hidden talents to surprise us with?”

Aubrey chuckled as she sipped her water, her eyes on Stacie as she answered Chloe. “That’s the closest you’ll ever get to finding out, Chlo.”

Stacie shook a finger back and forth, “I never kiss and tell.”

Ashley and Jessica headed back to the bar so Ashley could cover while Stephanie made the rounds. “That was fun. Damn, didn’t know Stacie could dance, though.”

Beca settled back with her first page and started queuing up songs, glancing over at Chloe every once in awhile, hoping she was having fun.

Chloe leaned toward Aubrey, “You’re singing tonight, right? Picked a song yet?”

“You’ll find out in a bit, Elf. Let’s give somebody else the stage for a few songs first,” Aubrey laced her fingers with Stacie’s. “We should probably eat, we got kind of side tracked earlier.”

Chloe shook her head at the pair, not willing to ask why they didn’t eat. She caught Beca watching her and blew her a kiss. She missed sitting with Beca, but really wanted to play tonight. She sipped her wine, trailing her finger along the stem just in case Beca looked over again.

Stacie nodded and picked up her phone. She didn’t want to wait for Stephanie to make her way to them, so texted Ashley. She glanced over and Ashley looked up and grinned before disappearing into the kitchen.

Beca smiled at Chloe. It was stupid, missing her when she was just a few feet away. But Beca was working, and even with her friends to help keep it going, she needed to pay attention. If the bar didn’t stay busy, they’d shut the night down. She introduced the next few acts.

Chloe stood up, “Time for me to find some way to keep the party going.” She leaned close to Stacie’s shoulder, “Everything was fine until that guy tried to do Jar of Hearts. Talk about killing a room.” She shook her head and walked over to the sign in book. “Any recommendations?” She winked at Beca.

Beca grinned, “Anything you sing will be awesome. What genre?” She reached for her torch book.

Ashley walked up with a tray on which sat the usual bottle of house Chardonnay, two glasses, a bowl and three plates. “Salad Topolina. Antonio has named it for you, and insists it’s only available served family style.” She put the bowl on the table with salad tongs before placing the plates and handing over three rolls of silverware. “I wasn’t sure if Chloe wanted to try it.”

Stacie beamed. “Thanks Ash. Tell Antonio he is a doll.”

Aubrey grinned at Stacie. “Now you are officially famous, with a salad named after you and everything. You’re gonna get tired of hanging with this mere pedestrian,” she winked.

Chloe made a show of looking down at her boots, then hooking her thumbs in the pockets of her jeans. “I don’t think it’s an Etta James kind of vibe, Becs.” She tilted her head and said more softly, “Even the craziest parties have quiet times. Maybe I’ll pull up a nice Patsy Cline later.”

Beca blushed. “Oh, yeah, huh. Guess I missed the memo.” She flipped the book open, “Got some Kacey Musgraves or Miranda Lambert. Will they do?”

Stacie’s smile faltered before she managed to put it in place again. Was Aubrey just going through the motions? Was everything Stacie did just too much? She took a calming breath and rubbed the side of her head. “Go ahead and have some.” Stacie suggested while she used her free hand to lift her wine. Suddenly, she wasn’t hungry.

Aubrey tilted her head and watched Stacie. “In a bit,” she put her arm around Stacie’s shoulders. “Is it too loud tonight? We did cut a rug pretty energetically. We can go early if you want.” She rubbed Stacie’s shoulder lightly. “It’s already been an amazing night.”

“Oh, Miranda,” Chloe clapped her hands. “Little Red Wagon. You’re gonna love it, Becs,” Chloe couldn’t help leaning across the book to give Beca a little kiss. “Saw you watching me. You know I love it.”

“You know I love watching you,” Beca admitted. “I’ll come out front when you sing,” she promised.

Stacie managed to continue to smile, “No, you promised Ashley and Chloe, right? We can wait.” She leaned into Aubrey’s snuggle, however, afraid she was losing her girl and she had no idea how to stop it.

Aubrey cuddled Stacie, worried about her sudden mood shift. “I should go put a song in,” she finally said softly. “Chloe’s monopolizing the KJ.”

“I can’t wait to hear you sing.” Stacie kissed Aubrey softly. “I don’t know I’ve ever heard you.”

Aubrey returned the kiss just as gently, “It’s time we fixed that.”

Chapter Text

Aubrey walked up behind Chloe. “Does everybody get to kiss the KJ when they pick a song?” She leaned her head on Chloe’s shoulder and winked at Beca.

“Hey now.” Chloe whirled on Aubrey, “If you’re not careful I’ll ask your girl to dance.”

Aubrey laughed, “I’d love to see her shoot you down and also love to watch her dance again. I win either way.”

Stacie stood up and headed to the bar. While Ashley was busy, Stacie leaned over to ask Jessica. “Am I too much? Like just, gotta find a way to tone everything down?” She started to rub the side of her head again.

Beca, meanwhile, just laughed at Aubrey. “Special VIP pass, and yours got intercepted. You finally gonna show me why Bright Eyes here says you were in a group with her?”

Aubrey snapped her fingers, feigning irritation, then laughed. “Ashley called me out, reminded me I hadn’t sung once in all these weeks. I think a good old fashioned Dolly Parton will be a perfect way to break the ice. Do you have Here You Come Again?”

Chloe nodded and smiled at Aubrey. “Excellent choice,” she grinned over at Beca. “How you holding up with all this country shit, darlin? I’m afraid I was in a mood and infected all my friends.”

Jessica looked at Stacie, her brows furrowed. “Too much what? I don’t recall any complaints about you, except that one time we were worried they might actually call the Vice Squad in,” she teased, then her tone changed as she watched Stacie rubbing her head. “No way, Stac. You don’t need to change a thing.”

“I didn’t tell people, you know? About the degree, about the money. Cuz people get weird.” Stacie involuntary looked toward Aubrey. “Think I think I’m too good for them or something.”

Meanwhile Beca was feeling her own fish out of water symptoms. “As long as the customers are happy and the bar is buzzing, it doesn’t matter what we play. But if country becomes the fav, I’ll find a new KJ. It’s just not my scene. I’m sure one of the guys from the country band downstairs can help me out.” Beca smiled and shrugged. “Gotta play what people want.”

Chloe tilted her head at Beca, “Next week I’ll wear satin and sing standards all night long. It’s only fair.” She smiled, “That’s a damn fine party too. With closer dancing.”

Beca smiled. “Let’s just see how the crowd takes it, I guess.” Then she smirked, “but you can wear satin and sing standards to me any time.”

“It’s a date,” Chloe smiled before turning to walk back to the table. Halfway there she glanced over her shoulder to see if Beca was still watching.

Beca smirked and stood she had a good view of Chloe walking away.

Jessica shook her head, watching Stacie’s eyes. She wasn’t sure what to say. “Well I, for one, think I’m lucky to know the real you. Just the way you are.”

Aubrey went to sit back at the table and noticed that Stacie had gone to the bar. She wandered over and put a hand on Stacie’s waist, “Did we forget something, sweetie?”

Stacie stiffened when she realized Aubrey was beside her. She smiled and turned. “Nope, just checking in with Jess. You all set?”

“Yep,” Aubrey smiled over at Jessica. “Why don’t you come sit? I mean, I’d understand wanting to be closer to your girl, too.” She stopped and looked at Stacie, feeling a little tongue tied for some reason. “Want me to move our drinks over here? I should be up in about three songs.”

Jessica grinned, “I’ll be over in a bit. You guys have a great view of the stage.” She glanced at Stacie, “Maybe another song after a while?”

Stacie nodded and smiled her thanks then followed Aubrey back to the table.

Ashley walked up, “that looked weird. What’s up?”

Jessica shrugged, “Stacie seems worried about something. I hope she and Aubrey are okay. She asked me if I thought she was being too much.”

Ashley looked over at the pair. “Anyone squishes that girl is gonna have half the Mayo in their grill. Hope it’s just a misunderstanding.”

Jessica nodded, “They seemed fine a while ago. I’ll go sit with them, see if I can figure anything out.”

Chloe untucked her shirt from her jeans and tied the ends together before she sat down. She made sure she leaned over at just the right angle to show Beca how tight her jeans really were. She held the pose half a second longer than necessary before settling into her chair and sipping her wine. It took every ounce of willpower not to look over at Beca again. Instead she watched Aubrey and Stacie sit back down at the table, “I swear the two of you even walk like you’re one person. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people better suited for one another.”

Beca whistled under her breath as she watched Chloe settle. “Damn, she really is going to be the death of me.”

Stacie took a deep breath and released it. If Chloe thought that, it must be true, right? “You have to try this salad. Aubrey talked Antonio into making it for us.” She smiled at Chloe but leaned closer against Aubrey.

Ashley picked up a glass and washed it, then dried it. She didn’t take her eyes off the couple at the front table. Could she have been wrong about how well they suited each other?

Jessica slipped into the free chair next to Chloe just in time to hear Stacie describe the salad, “That must be the one Ashley was talking about. She said Antonio actually came out of the kitchen to talk to Aubrey.”

Aubrey shrugged, a little embarrassed by the attention. She looked over at Stacie, “Let me plate some for everyone. It really is too good to miss.”

Chloe nodded enthusiastically, “If I can’t share your fries than by all means let me share whatever wonderfulness that is. Are those toasted almonds?”

Stacie nodded, “I think he toasted them himself.” She picked up her glass of wine and made herself sip, not gulp.

Beca looked at the list. Some of the guys were now just putting together large groups for long songs. She rolled her eyes. “I wonder if I might get Aubrey Posen up here to break up some of these large groups. I’ll get back to you boys, but we gotta have a little variety.”

Aubrey glanced up at Beca, then at Stacie. “I guess I’m up. Kiss for luck?”

Stacie smiled and nodded, placing a hand on Aubrey’s cheek as they kissed. She took a shaky breath as they broke apart, still terrified every touch was going to be the last.

Beca waved at Aubrey to get a move on, then looked at Jessica and pointed at the clipboard in a silent plea for help.

Jessica grinned and complied, stepping up to the book and putting down one for herself and one for her and Ashley. When she sat back at the table she nudged Stacie and Chloe, “Beca’s getting kind of desperate for good material. You girls might consider signing up again, just for fun?”

Chloe nodded. “Absolutely. After Aubrey’s song.”

Stacie nodded, “I’ll think of something. Just need a couple of minutes.” She rubbed the side of her head and took another sip of wine.

Aubrey stepped up to the microphone and nodded to Beca. She grinned down at Stacie while she waited through the piano intro.

Here you come again …

She swayed her hips to the beat as she sang through the verses, then got to the part that had made her choose the song.

All you’ve gotta do is smile that smile
And there go all my defenses
Just leave it up to you and in a little while
You’re messing with my mind
And filling up my senses

Here you come again, looking better than a body has a right to
And messing me up so, that all I really know
Is here you come again, and here I go

Stacie watched, unable to look away. Her head started to throb. How could she say she was pedestrian, implying Stacie was too much, too rich, too something, and then go up and sing that song as if to her? She really didn’t understand. But her eyes glowed as she watched, enamored as always with everything Aubrey did, but especially now that she heard that angelic soprano.

Ashley moved closer, clearing away nearby tables. As she looked between the two, she had to think Jess had been wrong. There had to be a misunderstanding.

Beca’s eyes widened and she looked around at Chloe and mouthed, “Wow.”

Chloe nodded back, “Right?”

Jessica listened to Aubrey, then looked over at Ashley. She raised her eyebrows and nodded toward the stage.

Aubrey finished and laughed at the smattering of applause. The only approval she really needed was Stacie’s. She hopped off the stage and sat down next to Stacie, “It was okay?”

Stacie nodded, tears glistening in her eyes, “That was beautiful.” She placed a hand on Aubrey’s cheek again.

Beca jumped to the mic. “Oh come on, you guys can do better than that? I don’t see any of you with the nerve to sing alone.” She led another round of applause for Aubrey before finally calling a group of drunk cowboys to come up and pretend to be Hank Jr.

Chloe leaned across the table so she could be heard over the noise from the stage. “I can’t believe you haven’t sung before tonight. I’m going to sign you up for another one, and me too. I’m afraid country night was a fucked idea,” she smirked. “At least we’ll sound good.” Chloe headed to the sign up sheet.

Aubrey held Stacie’s hand against her cheek. “I’m glad my first song for you was a good one. There will be so many more.” She pulled Stacie’s palm to her lips for a quick kiss.

“I’ll treasure each one.” Stacie tilted her head to one side and studied Aubrey. “You really can do anything.”

Aubrey blushed, “Anything for you, Doc.”

Ashley walked up to Beca, “Anyone I need to cut off yet?”

Beca shook her head. “Not yet, but keep an eye on the dude with the black vest. He’s looking a little sketchy to me.”

Ashley noted the guy, and the way his eyes kept returning to the table where Jessica, Chloe, Aubrey and Stacie sat. “Got him. I’ll check in with security, too.”

Chloe signed herself up for another song and picked one for Aubrey. She caught Beca’s eye and grimaced toward the boys on stage. “Want me to go?”

Beca nodded. “Please?” Her voice was alternating between laughing and begging in that one word.

Chloe giggled and helped lead the applause for the tipsy college kids who hammed up their bows and finally left the stage. She stepped up to the microphone and winked at Beca, then looked out at the room. “You guys ever heard of one Miss Miranda Lambert? Well apparently she’s got a Little Red Wagon.” She grinned as the intro kicked in. Beca had superb timing. She dropped her eyes to the crowd again.

You only love me for my big sunglasses
And my Tony Lomas
And my Dodge Dart classic

She grinned at Beca as she sang the chorus

You can’t ride in my little red wagon
The front seat’s broken and the axle’s draggin
You can’t step to this back yard swagger
You know it ain’t my fault when I’m walking jaws drop
They’re like Ooh, Ah …

Stacie started to grin as Chloe put the entire bar on notice. She glanced at Beca, who had moved out front to lean against the window and watch with her arms crossed. Stacie leaned over to Aubrey. “Likes to be watched, huh?” Stacie wondered if it would bother Aubrey if she played as hard as Chloe was playing tonight.

Aubrey chuckled, “Ever since I’ve known her.” She gestured toward Beca, “Likes to watch?”

“Oh, yeah.” Stacie laughed. “Before you came along, she was my insurance policy against handsy admirers.”

Aubrey leaned back and watched Chloe, her eyes far away. “I’ll bet you had every man in this room on fire,” she smiled wickedly at Stacie, “and half the women.” She could imagine Stacie playing the room, giving eye contact to everyone brave enough to look back at her. Then she’d go out the door on Aubrey’s arm.

Stacie snuggled against Aubrey’s arm. “It was just play.” She watched Chloe and Beca interact. “They seem okay these days.”

“Yeah,” Aubrey enjoyed the snuggle. “Maybe we won’t have any more late night drama, huh?”

Jessica sat back in her chair, her eyes moving from Beca and Chloe to Aubrey and Stacie. Sometimes it just wasn’t fair that her girl had to work karaoke nights.

As if hearing the thought, Ashley returned to the Boiler room and placed a man at the table behind her girl. Then she dropped her apron off and joined Jessica, putting an arm casually behind Jess’s back. “Surveillance,” she whispered and winked.

Jessica perked up and leaned into Ashley’s arm, “How do you do that?”

“Do what?” Ashley asked with a chuckle.

“Show up exactly when I need you most,” Jessica smiled.

Chloe finished the song and winked at the room, enjoying the applause. She wiggled her hips a little when she focused on Beca, then she raised her eyebrows and shrugged as if asking if that was okay.

Beca pushed off the glass and walked over to the mic. “Wasn’t she great? Let’s take 10. You still have time to sign up, but nothing bigger than trios for the rest of the night.” She laughed as groans filled the room. She turned to Chloe. “You should be illegal,” she teased.

Chloe winked and slid her hand down Beca’s arm before lacing her fingers in Beca’s. “Glad you liked it,” she purred. “Come on, let’s get you a drink before you have to wrangle these cats for another set.”

Chapter Text

Chloe squeezed Beca’s free hand as Beca escorted her back to the table. “Next week, jazz night,” she nodded solemnly and kissed Beca’s cheek. Before she sat down she noticed a metal bucket full of ice with half a dozen long neck beer bottles in it. “What the hell is that?” She looked at Aubrey and Stacie, confused.

“Stephanie brought it over,” Aubrey shrugged. “Apparently we have an admirer.” She made a slight gesture with her head toward the table where the man in the black vest was watching them, grinning from ear to ear.

Beca looked up at the man in question then smirked, “All domestic?”

Ashley shrugged, “No accounting for taste.” She glanced at the man she had seated close by who merely nodded at her.

Stacie looked at Ashley, “What’s going on?”

Ashley winked, “That admirer’s been a little focused, we’re just playing it safe.”

Chloe rolled her eyes at Beca before she picked up the bucket and walked it over to the man in question. “Thanks, cowboy, but I think you’ll enjoy these more than we will. Appreciate the compliment, though.” She set the bucket on the table and turned to walk away before the man could reply. She heard his buddies hooting and laughing behind her.

Ashley winced. “Shit, Chloe, did you have to antagonize him?” She put her head in her hand. “Beca, mind getting the attention off of him?”

Beca nodded, “No sweat. Come on, Jess.” Beca grabbed Jessica’s hand and pulled her on stage. “All right, we’re back. Try and keep the catcalls to a minimum lads. We have Jessica Smith here to give you all a little Carrie Underwood.”

Jessica smiled and nodded at Beca. She grinned at the bar patrons and waited for the intro. Her sweet soprano cut through the noise and caught everyone’s attention as she hit the last chorus.

And now he's wrapped around her finger,
She's the center of his whole world.
And his heart belongs to that sweet little beautiful, wonderful, perfect all-American girl.

She nodded at Ashley when she noticed the black vest guy handing out beer from the bucket to the other guys at his table.

“I swear I was going to play all sweet and friendly when I went over there. I don’t know what came over me,” Chloe apologized to Ashley.

Aubrey put her head on Stacie’s shoulder and whispered, “Never a dull moment.”

Beca sighed in relief as everything worked out. She started the next round of singers and walked over to Ashley. “Think we should comp him or something?”

Ashley considered, “I’ll have Steph take the bucket off his tab. We’ll come up with something.”

Stacie found herself laughing quietly. “She has nerves of steel. I will not start a confrontation, even if I’ll finish them.”

Aubrey kissed Stacie’s cheek. “I’m gonna do another song. I’ll go see if Beca can squeeze me in.”

Chloe sipped her wine, her eyes dancing as she watched Beca handle the room. When she caught her eye she shrugged and mouthed, “Sorry?”

Beca grinned at Chloe. “Trouble,” she mouthed back before starting the next song. She looked up at Aubrey, “Whatcha wanna do?”

Stacie smiled as Aubrey moved away. Maybe things weren’t as bad as she feared. She thought about what song she should do, but she wasn’t really feeling the country vibe.

Ashley kissed Jessica’s cheek. “My hero. And my all-American girl.”

Jessica grinned at Ashley, “All yours.”

Aubrey picked a song from the list. It was a little bit of a gender bend, but she loved to do patter. She stepped to the mic and grinned playfully at her girl.

Well I went down to the Grundy County auction
And I saw something I just had to have
My mind told me I should proceed with caution
But my heart said go ahead and make a bid on that

I’m going once, going twice,
Sold to the lady in the second row
She’s an 8, she’s a 9, she’s a 10 I know
Got ruby red lips, dark hair, green eyes,
And I’m about to bid my heart good bye

Stacie frowned when the song began and then laughed as Aubrey began to sing. She tilted her head to one side and blew Aubrey a kiss.

Beca settled back in her chair, watching the crowd get into the songs. It looks like they dodged that bullet for now.

Chloe started clapping to the beat, motioning for Jessica to join in. By the end of the song everybody was into it, clapping along and laughing.

Aubrey’s cheeks were flushed when she hopped back to the table after the song was over.

“You win!” Chloe laughed and raised her glass. “Damn, Aubrey, show us how it’s done.”

Stacie placed a hand on Aubrey’s cheek and kissed her. “You know you already had me, love. You didn’t have to do that.” Then she smiled, “But I’m glad you did.”

Ashley nudged Jess, “Seems okay?”

Jessica shrugged at Ashley, “Guess so.”

Beca was grinning from ear to ear as she stepped up to the mic. “Damn, I didn’t know she could patter like that. We may have to have a rap night just to see how she does. Who’s next?”

Chloe walked up to the stage and looked at Beca, “I think it’s my turn?”

Beca grinned and nodded. “Any time you want, Bright Eyes.”

Chloe smiled and swapped places with Beca. She looked out at the crowd, “I’m not even gonna try to compete with that. How about throwing it way back and taking a midnight stroll with Miss Patsy Cline.

She closed her eyes for a second as the lush violins swelled. She opened her eyes and winked at Beca.

I go out walking after midnight
Out in the starlight
Just like we used to do
I’m always walking after midnight
Searching for you

Stacie leaned against Aubrey and linked their hands together.

Ashley smiled as she listened and took Jessica’s hand. “Glad I found you.” She whispered.

Jessica snuggled Ashley, “I thought I found you.”

Beca stepped out front to lean against the window and watch again.

Aubrey smiled at how nice it was holding her girl. The room had gone from raucous to quiet just like that.

Chloe finished the song and smiled fondly down at Beca. She swept the smile across the room, then stepped from the stage. “As close to torch as I could do for you, doll,” she said to Beca when she met her near the window.

Beca’s smile made her eyes twinkle. “Perfect. Just like you.” She leaned forward and kissed Chloe softly before moving back behind the console to start the next song.

Stacie kissed Aubrey’s cheek and moved to stand up. “Ladies’ room. Be right back.”

Jessica stood to follow, “Me too, I’ll go with you.” She took a few steps to catch up with Stacie. Aubrey watched them go, still a little worried about Stacie. She seemed fine, then she was tense and rubbing her head, then she was just cuddly. Aubrey sipped her wine and pondered.

Chloe wandered back to the table, thoroughly pleased with the night. She picked up her wine glass and noticed Aubrey’s serious face. “Where’d everybody go?”

“Bathroom,” Aubrey looked at a Chloe, setting aside her concerns again. “That was beautiful, Chlo.”

Chloe smiled, “Thanks. I had to do something with a little less twang and a lot more melody for my girl.”

Ashley grinned, “You slayed it.” She looked over her shoulder and the man behind her nodded again. “I’m gonna check on Stephanie.”

As they reached the ladies room, Stacie glanced at Jessica. “Sorry for the drama before. She just, sometimes, I dunno, says stuff that worries me.”

Jessica nodded and turned to lean against the counter. “You’re not worried anymore?” She asked softly. “How’s your head, Stac? It looked like you had a headache. Karaoke can’t be great for that.”

“It’s okay,” Stacie sighed and leaned her hands on the counter. “It comes and goes. And I feel, I dunno, dumb. Like I should be able to work this out, but I can’t. One minute she implies I’m above her, she’s pedestrian, I’m some big hot shot she doesn’t deserve. Then later, she sings about how much she loves me.” Stacie looked up at Jessica. “They seem contradictory.”

Jessica sighed, “I’ve seen her look at you, I believe the love part is real.” She looked over at Stacie, “You know sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve Ashley. She’s too good for me. Not because I’m less than she is, but because she is so good to me in ways no one else has ever been. Does that make sense?”

Stacie looked down at the counter. “Maybe.” She gave herself a shake and turned the water on to wash her face. Then she touched up her make up. She looked back at Jessica. “I think so. I’ve been trying to figure out how to simplify my life, but even in doing that I have to spend money- move the piano again, get a place that’s smaller but keep this one for business. I don’t know how to let it all go without hurting the people who helped me get this far.”

Jessica tilted her head, “Have you talked to Aubrey about it? She just moved in, right?”

Stacie nodded, “I mean, yeah, she moved in this week. I told her I don’t mean to show off, you know? I just,” she looked up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I really hate my life.”

“Oh honey,” Jessica opened her arms to hug Stacie. “Breathe for a minute. Then tell Aubrey how you feel. If she cares for you as much as I believe she does you guys will work it out just fine.” She paused, “And maybe no karaoke on headache nights?”

“Okay, I’ll try,” Stacie nodded her head against Jessica’s shoulder. “And no karaoke on headache nights.” She squeezed Jessica. “Thanks.”

Jessica squeezed back and let go. “It’s late. Maybe you and Aubrey should call it a night?”

Stacie nodded again. “Okay. I had an idea for a song, but it will keep.” She smiled, “Thanks again. I really appreciate you listening.”

Jessica shrugged. “That’s what friends are for, right?”

Aubrey watched the hallway to the bathroom. They’d been gone a long time. She was starting to think maybe she should go check on Stacie.

“Bree, stop worrying,” Chloe said softly as she leaned across the table. “They’ll be back soon. This salad is still incredible,” she popped an almond in her mouth.

Beca looked over at the clipboard. It was getting late and it looked like the crowd was thinning. She started counting down to the last act.

Ashley smiled in relief as the man in the black vest tabbed out and left, smiling at the lighter bill. It turned out to be a quiet night after all.

Stacie headed out to the floor and worked her way back to the table. She glanced again at Jessica, who nodded. “Mind if we head up?”

“Sure, hon,” Aubrey stood up and put her arm around Stacie’s waist. “Let’s tab out and go upstairs.” She looked at Chloe and Jessica, “Say good night to the girls for us?”

Chloe nodded, “Okay.” She noticed a shadow in Aubrey’s eyes but decided to wait until tomorrow to ask. “You were both awesome tonight.”

Jessica put a hand on Stacie’s arm, “See you next week.” She smiled at Aubrey, “And you have to sing every time from now on.”

Aubrey chuckled, “Yes ma’am.” She smiled at Stacie, “Shall we?”

Stacie smiled and nodded, turning to wave good night at Beca. She led the way to the elevators and rested her head against Aubrey’s shoulder. “I’m supposed to take karaoke off if I have a headache. Jessica said so.”

Aubrey leaned her head against Stacie’s. “That’s great advice,” she said softly. “Why didn’t you tell me your head hurt? We could have left earlier. I like to take care of you, Doc.”

“It’s not that bad, comes and goes, you know? No aura.” Stacie sighed. “It went away for a long time, so I thought it was done. Besides, I loved hearing you sing. It was just the bad boy bands that were hard to get through.” She smiled.

Aubrey nodded and led Stacie down the hall to their apartment. She opened the door. “Straight to the bedroom,” she said in a gentle voice. “I’ll be right behind you.” She stopped for some water from the kitchen and pulled an ice pack from the freezer.

Stacie obediently went to the bedroom and sat down. Doofus jumped into her lap. “You make it hard to take off my shoes, Doof.” Stacie chuckled.

Aubrey came in and set everything on the side table. “Come on, troublemaker,” she shooed the cat away and knelt down beside Stacie’s feet. She tapped one foot, slipped the shoe off, then the other foot. She rubbed Stacie’s feet and looked up. “Do you prefer Ibuprofen?”

“I have a spray in the cabinet.” Stacie pointed toward the bathroom. “I should probably use it.” She touched Aubrey’s shoulder before Aubrey could move away. “Antonio should name the salad after you. You helped him come up with it, not me.”

Aubrey shrugged, “It’s yours, though. Little Topolina. We were both inspired by you.” She kissed the top of Stacie’s head and went to find the spray. When she walked back into the room she handed it to Stacie. “I like that it’s a private thing. It’s not like he called it the Conrad,” she smiled and sat next to Stacie on the edge of the bed. “Let’s get you out of those clothes, hon.”

Stacie sighed. She took a couple of deep breaths so she could use the spray, then coughed afterwards. “God, I hate that.” She mumbled. Then she put it down on the bedside table. “It just isn’t fair. People should do nice things for you, too.” She looked up, tears glistening.

“You do nice things for me all the time, love,” Aubrey put a hand on Stacie’s cheek. “Oh sweetie, what’s going on in that beautiful heart of yours?”

Stacie closed her eyes and pressed her face into Aubrey’s hand. “You aren’t pedestrian.” She managed to whisper.

Aubrey nodded slowly, “Ah,” she said in a soft voice. “I guess I’m not. I also guess I tend to deprecate myself on a regular basis, huh? It’s a habit.” She looked into Stacie’s eyes, “If it hurts you, I’ll break it.”

Stacie leaned her forehead against Aubrey’s. “I just love you so much.” She whispered again. “I want you to be happy, with me. Not thinking I’m some, I dunno…” she broke off, unable to say the words.

“You’re you, that’s all I want. You’re Stacie, Doc, Anastasia, Dr. Conrad, and so much more. I love each and every part that is you. You make me happier than I’ve ever been,” Aubrey put her hands on Stacie’s cheeks and held her gently. “I’m not sure how I’ve made you think I’m unhappy, but I’ll do better.”

Stacie didn’t know what to say. She closed her eyes and memorized the feeling of Aubrey’s hands. “Just know I love you?”

“I know, sweetie. I really do. And I love you too,” Aubrey gently pulled Stacie’s gauze button down from her shoulders and tugged her camisole up. “Lift your arms, hon.”

Stacie felt silly. “I can do this,” she grumbled, even as she obeyed.

“Of course you can,” Aubrey soothed. “But allow me tonight?” She set the shirts in a pile on the bed then stood in front of Stacie. “Unbutton?” She gestured toward Stacie’s pants.

Stacie stood up and unbuttoned the jeans. “This isn’t very sexy.”

Aubrey giggled and began to pull Stacie’s pants down over her hips. She gently pushed Stacie back to sitting on the bed so she could pull each leg free one at a time. “It’s not supposed to be,” she smiled fondly at Stacie. “Next time we’ll do the sexy version, I promise.” She added the pants to the pile. “Sleep shirt or satins?”

“Satins. You can unbutton them in the morning.” Stacie smiled. The spray was starting to work and the throbbing was subsiding.

Aubrey chuckled again as she put the dirties away and picked out Stacie’s emerald green satin sleep set. “We shall see, Doc.” She handed the clothes to Stacie, “Your eyes are a little brighter. Maybe you’ll sleep well.”

Stacie pulled the shorts on and then the shirt. She looked down, closing one eye to focus on the buttons. “I always sleep well when you are here.”

Aubrey took that as her cue and started to change for bed as well. “Then I guess you’ll always sleep well,” she smiled over at Stacie. “I brought water and a cold pack for your head if you need it.”

Stacie looked over and nodded, opening the water bottle and taking a sip. “Thank you,” her voice was quiet. “I don’t mean to be a bother.”

“Stop right there, Dr. Conrad.” Aubrey sat next to Stacie again. “I already told you I like taking care of you. It’s a privilege that’s mine alone, and I adore it. Now lie down and get comfy. I’m going to check that Doofus has food and water so she’ll leave us alone all night and then I’ll be right back.”

Stacie nodded and smiled shyly before crawling under the covers. The cold of the pillow felt good, so she picked up the ice bag and put it on her temple. She closed her eyes, but listened intently as her two favorite girls interacted.

Aubrey slipped between the sheets as gently as she could. She clicked the switch to turn off the lights, then turned and draped on hand on Stacie’s hip.

Stacie put the ice pack on the night stand and curled up against Aubrey. “I don’t mean to show off, you know? I just wanna take care of you.” She yawned.

Aubrey nodded and pulled Stacie into her arms. “I’ve never felt you were showing off. I just have to get used to someone willing to go out of their way just to make me smile. I’ll work on it. Now you sleep, though, talking is easier with no headache.”

Stacie nodded and wrapped one arm around Aubrey and rested her head on Aubrey’s shoulder. “Love you,” she yawned even though she was already pretty much asleep.

Aubrey stroked Stacie’s hair lightly. “Love you too,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

Friday morning, Chloe rinsed out her coffee cup and leaned against the counter. “Another cup?” She asked Beca as she pulled her phone from her pocket. “I’m gonna step out on the porch and call Bree. She was weird last night.”

Beca nodded, “Sure, go ahead. I’ll text Dylan and make sure we are all set for tonight.” She paused, “I hope everything is okay.”

“Thanks, sweetie,” Chloe filled Beca’s mug and set it down on the table. She kissed the top of Beca’s head. “Say hi for me. And tell her to wear clothes this time.”

Beca laughed and nodded. “You know where to find me.”

Chloe looked back at Beca for a heartbeat, reliving Beca saying that phrase the night they split up after karaoke. Beca didn’t seem to realize anything was up, so Chloe opened the door to step outside. She tapped Aubrey’s contact number.

Aubrey heard her phone buzz and picked it up. Seeing it was Chloe, she sighed and extricated herself from cuddling with Stacie.

“Where you going?” Stacie murmured.

“Be right back, love. Chloe’s calling.” Aubrey paused for just a heartbeat while Stacie cuddled Aubrey’s pillow. God, she was adorable. Aubrey gave her head a shake and hurried to the hallway. “Aubrey Posen,” she answered but in a very quiet voice.

“Hey, Bree,” Chloe matched Aubrey’s tone unintentionally, then shook her head. “Why are we talking like golf announcers?”

Aubrey closed the door quietly and then spoke in a closer to normal tone. “Stacie is still sleeping.” Aubrey crossed to the kitchen and, grateful for timers, poured a cup of coffee. “I thought you didn’t work until noon?”

“I don’t,” Chloe replied. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Aubrey shook her head. “It’s early, Elf. I haven’t had coffee yet. What’s up?”

“Sorry, Bree.” She looked at the clock, “That’s late for you. Is everything okay? You looked a little strained when you guys left last night. Stacie was pale, too.”

Aubrey poured two spoons of sugar into her coffee and stirred. She sat down and tried to decide how to answer. “I think everything is okay. Stacie was hiding a headache for a lot of the night. She gets nasty ones, I think. She has a script for meds.” Aubrey sipped her coffee. “And somehow I gave her the impression I wasn’t happy.”

“Oh damn, last night was super loud, too,” Chloe winced. “That sucks. Why doesn’t she think you’re happy, though? You seem pretty over the moon to me, and I’ve known you for a long time.”

Aubrey sipped her coffee thoughtfully. “I teased her about the salad. I don’t remember what I said, but I did use the word pedestrian in reference to me. She brought it up when we got here.” She shook her head, “I’m not sure, Elf, but I don’t think we can sort it out until she feels better, you know?”

“Yeah, it sounds a little complicated.” Chloe chewed her lip, “You know whenever you get bad headaches you tend to blow things out of proportion. I remember once you decided I absolutely hated you because I let us run out of sugar and you had to drink black coffee.”

Aubrey felt her back relax as she laughed at the memory. “Right. I’d forgotten. I was so upset.” She laughed a little more. “So, maybe it’s the headache that made things worse. I’ll see if I can sort it out when she feels better.” Aubrey sounded more resolute. “How about you, Elf? Everything good?”

“We’re great over here. I’ve agreed no more theme nights without the express consent of the management.” Chloe giggled, “I apologized very thoroughly.”

“I’m glad. I wasn’t ready for how rowdy some of those boys got.” Aubrey laughed. “I forgot it wasn’t our private playground.”

“It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? Probably because half the staff is in our little club,” Chloe nodded. “I guess I’ll have to remember to share from now on.” She glanced at her watch, “That reminds me, Dylan is sitting in with Beca tonight, should be a good show. Maybe Stacie will feel better by then.”

Aubrey glanced toward the bedroom, “Beca’s show is quieter than karaoke. Wait, the Dylan who was learning to run Karaoke? What does she play?”

“That’s the one.” Chloe confirmed. “She’s apparently a hell of a saxophone player.”

“Sounds loud.” Aubrey chuckled. “Are you going to be there?”

“Yep. I’ll sit with Jessica and Ashley again. I like Fridays.” She paused, “You guys come next week. Stacie probably needs a break from this rowdy bunch. Tell her I hope she feels better?”

Aubrey nodded, “I will. And text if you need extra moral support. I bet we can sit farther back.”

“That’s a deal,” Chloe grinned. “Take care of you, Bree, and if you need to talk or anything, just ring me up. Kay?”

“I will. Love ya, Elf.” Aubrey smiled at the phone. Aubrey snuck back into the bedroom to find Stacie sitting up in the bed. “Hey, sleepyhead, how you feeling?”

“Perishing for coffee.” Stacie mock whined. “How’s Chloe?”

“That’s an excellent sign,” Aubrey smiled. “She’s worried about someone who looked a little pale last night.” Aubrey arched her eyebrow at Stacie.

Stacie rolled her eyes. “Great. Now everyone will be watching pathetic Stacie. God, I’m just a pain in the ass.”

Aubrey sighed and rubbed Stacie’s back, “Allow people to care, sweetie. It’s a comfort I haven’t known most of my life, aside from Chlo.” Aubrey stood and walked to the door. “Coffee will help. I’ll be right back.”

Stacie curled up on her tailbone. It sounded like she disappointed Aubrey. Again. She put her head on her knees while she wrapped her arms around them.

Aubrey brought the coffee in. “No headache today? Your eyes are brighter. Want something solid? I’ve got yogurt and fruit.” Aubrey sat on the edge of the bed and stopped talking. The last thing Stacie needed was a dozen options before she’d even had a cup of coffee yet.

“No headache, I promise.” Stacie replied. She took the coffee and sipped at it, but now her stomach was roiling.

“Okay, that’s a start.” Aubrey jumped when her phone buzzed. “Crap,” she said under her breath. “Mack has a piano to work on at the hotel, he wants me to sit in. He’ll need me in about an hour.” She looked at Stacie, “I’ll just tell him I’m not available.”

Stacie shook her head. “I’m fine, Princess. I didn’t even get an aura. I’m just,” she shrugged, “I’m fine.”

“Right,” Aubrey stared at Stacie. “You had to take the serious meds, though.”

“I did,” Stacie admitted. “I let it go too long.” She looked at the bottle on the side table. “Rib will want to know.”

“Oh,” Aubrey’s eyes widened. “You should give her a call, then?” Aubrey scooted a little closer to Stacie, studying her eyes again.

Stacie met Aubrey’s gaze. Her eyes were sad, but not pained. “I just keep saying or doing the wrong thing.” She picked up her phone and sent a text.

Aubrey shook her head, “You haven’t said or done anything wrong, love. Except maybe not telling me you hurt.” She stood and kissed Stacie’s forehead, feeling a little sad she couldn’t help Stacie feel better. “I’m going to shower. That way you can talk with Roberta when she calls.”

Stacie nodded. When the text response came, she replied. There wasn’t a phone call, she knew there wouldn’t be. Rib would come over and see for herself.

Aubrey came back into the room wearing a towel. She was combing out her hair. “Did you talk to Roberta?”

“She’s on her way. Probably wants to ream me out.” Stacie looked up at Aubrey. “You promised to unbutton me.”

Aubrey tilted her head and smiled fondly, “I sure did.” She walked over and put a finger on the top button of Stacie’s shirt. “I also said it might be a little sexy,” she said playfully. After each button she kissed the opening lightly. When she was done she leaned back up to kiss Stacie’s lips. “I’ll keep you company until Roberta arrives, then I’ll go down and see what Mack wants.”

Stacie smiled and wrapped her arms around Aubrey. “Maybe more sexy times later?” She kissed Aubrey softly. “I miss you.”

Aubrey relaxed into the embrace. “Maybe,” she said softly. “I need to talk to Roberta first. I don’t want to accidentally cause more pain, love.” She kissed Stacie again, “I miss you too.”

Stacie groaned and rested her head against Aubrey. “Okay, I’ll talk to Rib. But damn if ima let you treat me like a fucking invalid.”

“Fair enough,” Aubrey smiled. “You’re not an invalid. But I want to be positive you’re not fragile anymore, either. It takes me three days to recover from a bad headache.”

“Yeah, my postdromes can take that long.” Stacie banged her head against Aubrey’s shoulder. “I should get dressed. Rib will forget I’m a grown up if I’m still in jammies.”

“Well, she’d remember you’re all grown up if she walked in right now,” Aubrey smirked at Stacie’s open shirt. “All grown up.”

Stacie grinned, feeling better just at that lascivious look. “What do I wear, coach?”

Aubrey looked back up at Stacie’s face. “I’ll get you something soft. Sweats, maybe?”

“Okay,” Stacie nodded. She picked up her coffee and finished it. “One more cup before the inquisition?”

Aubrey chuckled as she dug some nice comfy sweats out of a drawer and placed them on the bed. She took Stacie’s empty mug, “She won’t be that bad. She loves you.” Aubrey winked and turned at the door, “Just like I do.”

Stacie nodded and smiled.

About fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at the door.

Aubrey had dressed and was brushing out her hair. She smiled at Stacie. “It’ll be fine,” she muttered softly as she went to answer the door. “Good morning, Roberta, won’t you come in?”

Roberta looked up at Aubrey, searching for an indication as to Stacie’s condition. “Good morning, Aubrey. I trust you are well?” It was a platitude and they both knew it. She continued past Aubrey into the living room. “Good morning, kiddo. How are you feeling?”

“Stupid.” Stacie answered cheerfully. “Big deal over nothing.” She was sitting cross legged on the couch with Doofus in her lap. The cat jumped down and hissed at the new voice.

Aubrey sighed and followed Roberta in, “She slept well and has been in fine fettle this morning. But I thought she was okay all week. I haven’t been the best judge.” Aubrey sighed again. “I have to go to work. Will you two be all right?”

Roberta nodded. “We’ll be fine,” she looked at Stacie then smirked at Aubrey, “Remind me to share her tells.”

“Oh, great.” Stacie rolled her eyes but waggled a finger at Aubrey. “Don’t forget my kiss goodbye.”

Aubrey walked to the sofa and leaned to place a soft kiss on Stacie’s lips, “I intend to know every last detail about you, Doc. Get used to it.” She smiled and nodded at Roberta. “I’ll be back in a bit,” Aubrey closed the door quietly behind her.

Roberta leaned back into the soft sofa cushions. “Want to tell me about it?”

Stacie rolled her eyes and walked into the kitchen. She pulled out two bottles of water and walked back to the sofa. She handed one to Roberta before she opened her own. After a sip, she shrugged. “I dunno.”

Roberta smiled. “You almost convince me.” She tilted her head to one side. Stacie was avoiding her eyes. “How long?”

Stacie cut a glance at Roberta and then away again, allowing Doofus to distract her as the cat sniffed at Roberta’s foot. “She likes you.”

“Anastasia,” Roberta replied gently. “Did the headaches start the day you asked for background processing?” Stacie winced and Roberta knew she was right. “You know how dangerous that is.”

“I never got an aura, Rib.” Stacie protested. “And it wasn’t constant.”

Roberta sighed and moved closer to Stacie, “lack of an aura may be worse, and you are not wearing your smart watch.”

Stacie rolled her eyes again. “It bothers my wrist.”

“Then improve the design.” Roberta teased. When she saw Stacie smile, she continued. “I thought Aubrey was good for you.”

“She is!” Stacie protested again, her gaze now fixed on Roberta. “I get more sleep. I still forget to eat, but that isn’t her fault. It’s mine, I just can’t figure out…” Stacie broke off and looked away.

Roberta rubbed Stacie’s back. “Can’t figure out what, little one? This isn’t about the project, is it?”

Stacie shook her head. “Sometimes she says stuff.”

Roberta arched an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“She thinks she’s in the way, she thinks I’m too good for her, she thinks she’s too pedestrian for me, she hopes she deserves me.” Stacie’s voice petered out.

Roberta sat and considered, still rubbing Stacie’s back. “What do you think it means?”

Stacie shrugged. “I’m too much. I have to tone down, downsize,” she pointed around the apartment, “live more simply. I don’t know. I just want her comfortable and happy.”

“I think she wants you to feel the same.” Ribera replied gently. “If you are really uncomfortable, we can move you both. You can keep a key here to work, and she can come play, but you can live elsewhere.”

“Don’t you see? Even that proves it. I can afford to do that.” Stacie slumped and rested her head on Roberta’s shoulder.

Roberta nodded. “I do see.” She stroked Stacie’s hair and alternately rubbed her back. “Have you asked her what she wants?”

Stacie shook her head. “She says it’s all fine, that she is happy here. Then she says something about us being different again.”

“Maybe it had nothing to do with you, little one.” Roberta still spoke softly. “Maybe it has to do with what she lacked, not what you have.” When Stacie looked up with a frown on her face, Roberta continued, “Maybe she is not used to having a support system. Remember when you came to live with me?” Stacie nodded slowly. “You had been in the boarding school for, what, seven years?” Stacie nodded again. “How did you feel when you first moved in with me?”

“I was afraid I would do something wrong and you would send me away.” Stacie answered. “But I really wanted to stay.”

Roberta nodded. “Do you remember what you said when I gave you Doc?” Stacie paused before shaking her head. “You said I didn’t need to give you anything. You didn’t want to be in the way.”

Stacie’s eyes widened. “Oh my god.”

“Aubrey waited a lot longer than you did to have someone come along to take care of her.” Roberta rubbed Stacie’s back some more. “She has had roommates, but no real family since she was six. She’s as afraid as you were.”

Stacie nodded. “I get it.”

Roberta smiled, “Good. Now for the hard part.”

“There’s more?” Stacie groaned.

“You have to remember she counts on you.” Roberta looked at the top of Stacie’s head and combed some of it around the part with her fingers. “I would be gutted if something happened to you. So would Aubrey.” Roberta swallowed past the lump in her throat. “You get wrapped up, and you think eating and sleeping is in the way of your progress. In here,” Roberta tapped Stacie’s head, “you know you need fuel and rest, but you shout it down. You need to listen. If not for you, and if not for me, then for Aubrey.”

Stacie felt the tears trickle down her cheeks. She wrapped her arms around Roberta. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to…”

Roberta nodded, “I know, little one. This is a deep hurt for you. And I fear Aubrey has a similar one. Feeling the should statement that your birth family should have wanted you and if they didn’t it’s your fault. But it isn’t. They were too small for you. And Aubrey’s was too small for her. So we have to find our families, and be big enough for each other.”

Stacie squeezed Roberta tight, then pulled away. “Stay here.” She ran to the other room and returned quickly, hoping Aubrey would forgive her. “After we left your place, Aubrey made me take her to the mall.” Stacie handed over the Doc bear Roberta had given her.

“I don’t understand.” It was Roberta’s turn to frown.

“She thought, well,” Stacie stopped and pulled a blonde bear out of a bag. It had long blonde hair and a white doctor’s smock. Stacie turned it around and the word Rib was printed on the jacket. “She thought this way, you could stay with us and I could stay with you.”

Roberta blinked back tears. With a smile she said, “Did I say we had to be big enough for each other? It sounds to me like Aubrey may be bigger than both of us.”

Stacie leaned over and hugged Roberta again. “I’ll do better, Rib. For all of us.”

“Just stick around, kiddo. I’m not ready for a world without you yet.” Roberta whispered as she returned the embrace.

Stacie nodded her head against Roberta’s shoulder. “Back atcha.”

Chapter Text

Aubrey walked into the Boiler Room restaurant area and found Mack flat on his back under the baby grand. She crouched down, “Hey, Mack, what seems to be the trouble?”

Mack worked his way back out and sat up. “Not gonna say. Got a call this one sounds funny. Want you to look her over, tell me if there’s a story to her, and what I gotta do to fix her. I’m being the apprentice.” He wiped his hands on his shirt and stood up. “Gotta get your head back in the game.”

“Right,” Aubrey stood back and considered the instrument. “I can do that.” She sat at the keyboard and ran some scales. She fiddled with a particular pair of keys that always seemed to stick on this piano, then leaned to look at the sound board. “It’s the usual culprits, I think,” she looked over at Mack. “These two keys always stick.” She sighed, “Seems pretty simple for calling someone in.”

“No story?” Mack sat on the floor, leaning his back on a leg.

Aubrey shrugged, “I don’t really have one. These two keys seem awfully fond of one another, they like to stick together?” She looked over at Mack, her shoulders drooping a little. “It was a hard night, Stacie had a migraine. I may be a sucky apprentice today.”

Mack leaned forward. “What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure,” Aubrey sank down to sit beside Mack on the floor. “Stacie’s had this headache, but she keeps saying things about making sure I’m happy and wanting me to feel less pedestrian, whatever that means.”

Mack nodded and bent his knees so he had a place to put his hands. “Pedestrian only means walking to me.” He thought for a few minutes. “Here’s the thing. What we do is art. But it’s also blue collar. I get people who look down on me because I ain’t famous. Even when they pay me upper end, I show up like this,” he looked down at his clothes, “and they think I’m a duffer. Then I work my magic and they respect me.” He looked over at Aubrey. “You fit in her world. Why would either of you think you don’t?”

Aubrey looked out the plate glass window at the people in business clothes walking by on the sidewalk. “I’m the one who called myself pedestrian first,” she admitted softly. “Maybe I’ve been fussing over Stacie too much. Maybe I say things like how I don’t deserve her.”

Mack looked down at the floor and nodded. “It’s hard when you break a mold. You find people still in the mold, or you think are still in the mold. You think maybe you were wrong. But people are different. Everyone has to find their piper. You know her world. You went to the high-falutin private schools. You can put on the act, if ya want. Does she ask ya to?”

Aubrey shook her head. “We’ve only really done it once, and she didn’t ask. I just followed her lead. She was nervous and wanted to feel powerful.” She looked at Mack, “She was dynamite, by the way. She really can do both extremes without even trying.”

“Sounds like she made her own mold, too.” Mack looked at Aubrey. “Like these ladies.” He patted the leg of the piano. “They say there’s a mold. But there isn’t. Not really. Only for this,” he patted the curved wood. “All the rest is as individual as people. Take this little lady.” He stood up and pressed the two keys Aubrey said liked to stick together. “I’d bet you anything that if we checked the provenance, this is second hand. Like the one you got. But she started with a family. Maybe the kids didn’t play. Maybe they wanted to play with the parent who could. But these two keys stayed stuck together long enough that I’d have to replace the ivory to break the pattern. Those two keys believe they belong together.”

Aubrey watched Mack as he concentrated on the piano and commented on her life. “Maybe those two keys do belong together,” she said quietly.

“Yeah, they make an interesting sound. Together or separate.” Mack looked up. “Go on back to your girl. I’ll fix this one. We’ll do something another time.”

Aubrey stood up and leaned against the piano. “No. I came to help you, I’m going to help you,” she glared at him. “Can’t leave a piano in distress, right? Come up with me for a glass of water when we’re done? I have a feeling you’ve got this one diagnosed already. I want to talk with you a little longer. Tell me about your kids.”

Mack laughed and looked at her. “Make yourself useful. Grab that screwdriver and fix the rods. I’ll get these two keys to work independently.” He pointed at his tool kit on the piano bench. “The kids? They’re living the good life, got the grandkids in an RV learning about the country stop by stop.” He started the story as he fiddled with the keys.

Aubrey was relieved to have something to do that was practical. By the time they’d finished the piano she felt like her head was screwed on straight again. She smiled at Mack, “Thanks. Work was exactly what I needed. Coming up?”

“You sure your other half is up to a curmudgeon like me paying a visit?” Mack asked as he packed up his tools. “You said she was feeling poorly.”

“She was full of piss and vinegar when I left,” Aubrey grinned. “You two should get along just fine.”

Mack laughed, “All right then. Just, kick me out if she starts to lag. Don’t wanna wear out my welcome.” He put his worn University of Tulsa cap on, picked up his tool kit, and winked. “Lead the way.”

Aubrey smiled and walked Mack to the elevators. When they got to the apartment door she pulled out her card key. “It’s still a little weird that we share the place now. I’m learning to remember that it’s mine too.”

Mack nodded, “I guess I can see that.” He tilted his head, “But you fit as much as the piano does, right? You fit in the concert hall and the rehearsal room. Don’t you?”

Aubrey nodded, “Yeah, I guess I do.” She hugged Mack before opening the door. “Thanks, Mack. You were just the right person for me today. I have to remember to call more often.”

Mack patted her on the back. “Yeah, you do. But you are as bad as my kids about calling.” He laughed. “I thought you promised me something to drink?”

“Right,” Aubrey grinned and gestured for Mack to enter. She followed him inside and into the kitchen. “Oh, hey you two,” she said when she realized Roberta and Stacie were still on the sofa. “Mack, have you met Roberta?”

“I don’t believe I have,” Mack whipped his hat off his head when he saw Roberta. He walked over and held out his hand. “Ma’am.”

Roberta stood up and chuckled. “Only grad students call me ma’am, and only when they are in trouble.” She shook the offered hand, before looking back at Stacie for an instant. “Would you excuse me for a few moments? I’d like a word with Aubrey.”

Stacie sighed and stood up. “Hi, Mack. Come to see Summit? Or would you like something to drink?”

Mack put his hat back on his head. “How about both?” He smiled at Stacie. “I’ll go check on the little lady if you’ll bring me a bottle of water?” He watched Stacie’s eyes, looking for discomfort, but didn’t see any.

Stacie gestured to the piano and then headed over to get a bottle of water. She walked it back to Mack and handed it over while she leaned on the piano. “Aubrey told you I had a headache, huh?” When he looked up, startled, Stacie laughed. “I recognize the look. I’m okay. Just,” she shrugged, “new at this relationship thing.”

Mack studied the keys, “Yep. She gets worried, I’m a good ear.” He ran several quick scales. “This one seems in good nick, though. I’m glad you’re feeling better.” He turned on the bench and looked at Stacie. “Do you play?”

Stacie shook her head. “I love to listen to Aubrey play, though. It’s a whole different use of mathematics than I’m used to.” She grinned.

Mack nodded, curious, “I thought somebody who knew pianos picked this one out.” He fiddled with a short tune while he thought about it.

“We asked the piano performance professor at OSU for a recommendation,” Stacie admitted. “I like to use the experts around me when I can.”

Mack looked up at Stacie, “We?”

Stacie nodded, “Rib, Roberta. She works for OSU. So I asked her, she asked the music department.” Stacie smiled, “She taught me to trust the experts.”

Mack nodded thoughtfully, “She did, did she?”

Stacie nodded, “Yep. Used to play, too. Aubrey promised to get her started again, but there hasn’t been time. Rib had to choose between music and science, she said.”

“Roberta plays?” Mack glanced up at Stacie then back down at the keys. “Aubrey should try harder.”

Stacie finished considering what Mack had said. “It’s my fault. I should invite Rib over on weekends or in the evening. She hasn’t played for as long as I’ve known her, but she said she did when she was little. She didn’t give it up until she chose her graduate degree.”

“No fault that I can see, really. If the lady’s busy, she’s busy.” Mack turned and smiled at Stacie. “You said she works at OSU Tulsa?”

Stacie nodded. “Yes, she runs a lab there. Helps me with nanobiometrics. A fancy term for itty bitty biological measuring toys.” Stacie laughed, “what you do makes so much more sense.”

“Oh yeah, that’s the word Aubrey used when she told me about you.” Mack dissembled as he memorized exactly which department to look up tomorrow.

When Aubrey and Roberta were alone in the bedroom, Roberta took a deep breath. “I did want to speak with you. Would you like to go first?”

“I suppose,” Aubrey swallowed hard. “I didn’t even see it coming, Roberta. What should I watch for?”

Roberta nodded, “Two major tells. She forgets to eat, or she rubs her temple. Usually one at a time.” She looked up at Aubrey, “I’m trying to remind her to take care of herself. She won’t for me.” Roberta laughed ruefully, “Closest thing to a parent, she rebels. She might for you.”

Aubrey sat down hard. “Both. She’s been finicky with food, and I’ve seen her rub her head all week. Damn, I missed it all. I’m so sorry.” She looked at Roberta, her eyes miserable.

Roberta sat beside Aubrey and rubbed her back, much as she consoled Stacie. “You didn’t know. And Stacie is stubborn.” Roberta took a deep breath. “Normally, she gets hooked on our projects; this time she was hooked about you.”

“Me?” Aubrey’s voice caught in her throat, “I gave her a headache?”

Roberta shook her head. “No. Stacie gives herself headaches.” She sighed, “I’m not sure how to explain this.” She considered for a moment, still rubbing Aubrey’s back. “She feels she has to live up to her reputation as a genius. If a puzzle throws her off, she fears she’s lost her touch. She worries it like a dog with a bone. She goes off her feed, and pushes her mind to find the answer.”

“Okay,” Aubrey answered, still worried she’d been the problem. “So if she’s chasing puzzles how was I a puzzle? I thought we’d been talking pretty well. I mean, I surprised her with the cat.” Aubrey broke off and looked at Roberta, “Was it me moving in? I knew I was too hasty,” she wrung her hands in her lap. “I’m so bad at relationships.”

Roberta chuckled. “You two are so alike.” She looked at Aubrey fondly. “You both grew up without family valuing you. You both are talented in your own fields. You both fear you aren’t worthy of love and affection.” She shook her head. “She worries you are offended by her money. You fear she is too good for you.” She smiled sadly. “The difference is Stacie is capable of worrying herself into the hospital. I don’t know you worry yourself so hard.”

“No,” Aubrey had to admit. “I have at least one good friend who keeps me from that level of worrying.” She realized how that sounded, “I don’t mean you don’t care for Stacie in the same way.” Aubrey sighed and stopped talking, worrying anything else she said would just cause more potential misunderstanding.

Roberta patted Aubrey on the back. “I’m the mom figure, remember?” Then she nodded, “Make sure she wears her smart watch. It keeps an eye on her blood pressure.” She took another deep breath. “And she should talk to her doctor. I can have the doctor come here if Stacie won’t go to the office.” She looked down. “A migraine over several days without an aura could be dangerous.”

“Sure,” Aubrey sat up straighter. “Smart watch, of course. I’ll keep an eye on her rubbing her head, too.” Aubrey looked at Roberta, her eyes miserable again. “Dangerous?”

Roberta saw the sadness and tried to encourage Aubrey. “Migraines without auras can be indicative of other issues. So far, all of Stacie’s tests have been negative. We just have to teach the girl to rest, relax, eat right.” She smiled again, “I have full faith that with you to keep her company, she will want to do better.”

Aubrey nodded and looked at her hands twisting in her lap. “I’ll be here more often now. I can help more.” She looked up at Roberta, her head tilted, “I’ve had migraines. Pretty awful ones. No one ever called them dangerous.”

Roberta nodded, “For most people they can be debilitating. For some, they can be precursors to strokes. The blood vessels constrict too much due to the triggering pain.” Roberta patted Aubrey’s hands. “She has tested negatively. But it is why we try to monitor her blood pressure as well. Lack of sleep may cause her blood pressure to spike. Lack of food can do the same.” Roberta smiled and squeezed Aubrey’s hands. “She boasts about how well you help her to sleep.”

Aubrey nodded. “I don’t know what I would do without her, Roberta. I know it sounds strange, I haven’t known her a year yet. But she’s as much a part of me now as my eyes, my ears, my heart. I’ll keep her as safe as I possibly can.” Aubrey watched Roberta’s face, hoping she understood.

Roberta smiled, “I believe you.” She squeezed Aubrey’s hands again. “You both have to give yourselves and each other grace. Face your fears together. It is so much easier than facing them alone.” Roberta sighed as she looked down. “I have to trust you and I have to trust her. I told her, I’m not ready for a world without her.”

Aubrey smiled at Roberta, “You and I are a team now, too. I’ll bet we can be pretty powerful.”

Roberta nodded, “I agree,” she patted Aubrey’s hands yet again. “Now, save my life. Who exactly is Mack?”

Aubrey laughed out loud. “He’s my boss. And my mentor,” she grinned at Roberta. “I’d go so far as to call him my non-biological father. He found me when I was in college, taught me to tune pianos.” She smiled at the memory. “He’s been a source of support and good down to earth advice ever since.

“Ah!” Roberta chuckled, “so the fact I didn’t place him is not entirely my fault. But he seems like a good man; after all, he watches over you.” Roberta winked. “Shall we go and apologize for my terrible manners?”

Aubrey laughed, “Or go and save Stacie from all of his nuggets of wisdom she didn’t ask for?” She stood and gestured for Roberta to lead the way.

Chapter Text

Roberta looked at her watch and stood. “Regretfully, I have to get back to the lab.” She pretended to glare at Stacie, “Some of us have to work.”

Stacie stood as well and handed over the Doc Bear. “Don’t forget,” she smiled as she gave Rib a hug.

Aubrey watched the exchange and looked at Stacie, surprised. She stood to give Roberta a hug as well. “Thank you,” she said in a soft voice.

Mack was on his feet quickly. “Walk you out?” He asked Roberta, his hand twitching to take off his cap again. “You girls stay out of trouble,” he turned and winked at Aubrey.

Roberta held Aubrey a second longer, “Thank you, for everything. I need a blonde piano tuning bear.” She squeezed Aubrey quickly. “Rumor has it, Doc bear is lonesome without her.” She released Aubrey and then smiled at Mack. “I would love for you to tell me some more stories about the pianos you tune.”

Stacie grinned and squeezed Mack’s hand. “You have to come back.” Then she looked at Roberta, “Both of you. It was nice to have company without a fuss.”

“Well, I will fuss if I have to come back because you don’t feel well, kiddo.” Roberta smiled despite the chastising words. “But I would love to come spend time with you both more often. You just let me know when.”

Aubrey turned to give Mack a hug, “Thanks for calling me in to consult. I really appreciate it. We’ll have you up for another visit soon.”

“You just keep your head in the game, Keys,” Mack returned the hug, then offered his arm to Roberta. “Shall we?”

Aubrey stepped over to take Stacie’s hand as they watched the pair. She glanced at Stacie and grinned, thinking how cute Mack and Roberta looked arm in arm.

Roberta turned once more to wave her goodbye, then laughed as Stacie moved quickly to head off Doofus on the cat’s way to the door. “I think you are feeling better.” She smiled, winked and left.

Stacie held up Doofus to look at the cat’s face. “Decide you like Rib better than me? I’m crushed.”

Aubrey walked over to scritch Doofus between her ears. “That was pretty slick, Stacie. Maybe you’re truly on the mend after all.” She smiled at her girl. “Now we’re free for the rest of the day, what sounds like fun that isn’t too vigorous? I still don’t want to jostle you around too much.”

Stacie rolled her eyes. “I’m fine, seriously.” She put the cat down now that the door was closed. She stood back up and put her arms around Aubrey’s waist. “But I owe you several apologies.”

“I owe you a few, too. Shall we sit?” She tilted her head toward the living room. “It sounds like it might be a long conversation.”

“Yeah, maybe so. Want some water?” Stacie offered before moving.

“Sure,” Aubrey was tempted to insist on getting the drinks so Stacie could sit down, but Stacie seemed tired of being coddled. “Bring some of those sliced almonds, too?” She asked as she went to settle on the couch. “I’ll open the curtains, give us something to look at.”

Stacie nodded, grabbed two water bottles, the small bowl of sliced almonds and the leftover candied pecans. She was strangely nervous. She wasn’t used to feeling nervous around Aubrey. She brought the drinks and treats to the sofa and settled them on the coffee table. She sat down with her legs curled under her and opened her bottle for a sip.

Aubrey accepted the water with a smile, then ducked her head and laughed. “Why do I feel like I’m getting ready for an important board meeting or something? I feel like I should change into something less comfortable.”

“I know, right?” Stacie laughed. “It’s just you. I shouldn’t feel so nervous.” She shook her head. “I guess I should start with apologizing for giving Rib the bear without you.” Stacie realized she really wished she had the new bear to hold. Maybe she was more postdromic than she expected.

Aubrey held her hand out between them. “It really is just me. And just me adores you. I promise there’s nothing to be nervous about. I’ll relax if you’ll relax?”

Stacie scooted closer and placed her hand in Aubrey’s. She nodded. “I adore you too, you know.” She swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat.

“Then we’ll be just fine, no matter what we feel we need to apologize for.” She squeezed Stacie’s hand, trying to feel as calm as she could so maybe Stacie would feel calmer too. “The bear was always yours to give, it was something between the two of you. I’d have liked to see her face when she saw it, but you can tell me now. She was touched?”

“Hang on,” Stacie laughed, “you don’t get away with saying it is between us when it isn’t.” She looked at Aubrey fondly. “It was your idea. Yes, she doesn’t have an Aubrey bear, but we will rectify that this Christmas. Just like we may have to make one for Mack to stay here.” She grinned. “We are one big weirdo family, Aubrey Posen, and you are as much a part of it as the rest of us.”

Aubrey had to laugh. She looked at Stacie and replied around the sudden lump in her throat. “I’ve never had much of a family to begin with, you’ll have to help me figure out how it’s done.”

Stacie squeezed the hand she held, “We’re all faking it.” She shrugged, “Rib reminded me how hard it was to accept her generosity when we first met.”

“Right,” Aubrey sighed and looked out the window. “That brings me to my apology. I think I’ve been giving you the wrong impression about your generosity. Mack reminded me I belong in the penthouse suite as much as I belong in the rehearsal hall. I’m sorry I forgot.”

“I’m not sure I understand.” Stacie winced. “I’m sorry.”

Aubrey nodded, then checked Stacie’s eyes. “Is the window too bright?”

Stacie shook her head. “I hate feeling stupid. No pain, just embarrassment.”

“Okay,” Aubrey relaxed. “Let me try to explain better, because you are definitely not stupid,” she smiled at Stacie. “When you brought the piano in, when you found old pictures of me and hung them on the wall, when you look at me like I hung the moon, for some reason I say stupid things about how I don’t deserve all this.” She glanced to see if Stacie was tracking.

“Not just the moon, the stars, too.” Stacie smiled.

Aubrey smiled back, “See? Like that. The most wonderful girl in the world says things like that and I can’t help wondering what I’ve done to deserve this level of happy. I don’t feel worthy. You’re like this gift that just came to me through no explanation but grace. Does that make any sense or am I still rambling?”

Stacie continued to smile, and squeezed Aubrey’s hand again. “That’s why Rib brought up Doc. I was lucky. When I thought my family didn’t want me,” she paused and restated, “when I realized my family didn’t want me, Rib came into my life. I was scared, afraid if I did anything wrong, even get a low score, she would send me away. She,” Stacie shrugged, “she taught me love isn’t earned. People give it freely and I can accept it or not. But I can’t earn it.”

“I’m so sorry about your family,” Aubrey said sadly. “I know how much that hurts. It so isn’t fair. And they have no idea what they missed out on.”

Stacie nodded, “And neither does yours. So, we have to make do with our found,” she smiled, “weird family.” Then her smile faltered. “I don’t always remember.” It was Stacie’s turn to look out the window. “People say mean things out of anger, or jealousy, or fear. Usually it comes down to I’m too much. Too wealthy, too lucky, too sexy, too smart.”

Aubrey watched Stacie’s face and thought about what she said. “They’re wrong.”

Stacie turned her gaze back to Aubrey’s, but didn’t say anything.

Aubrey nodded and held Stacie’s eyes with her own. “You are exactly the right amount of lucky, smart, and sexy. And your money is a result of that. I know you rarely dip into your trust, no matter what you tell anyone else. You are exactly who you are and if you ever tried to be less I’d feel like something was missing. It’s simply impossible for you to be too much, by my measure.”

A slow smile returned to Stacie’s lips. “And you wonder why I think you hung the moon and stars?” She lifted Aubrey’s hand to kiss it. “I have to remember to talk to you when I get hooked. Life would have been so much easier,” she sighed. “For all of us.”

Aubrey’s smile faltered. “I was part of the reason you had a headache?”

Stacie shook her head. “No, it’s all me.” She pressed Aubrey’s hand to her cheek. “If I perceive a problem, I have to solve it. Real or imaginary. I’m a theorist, remember? But this time I didn’t remember to ask for help with implementation. So every simulation failed. And I’d start again. I think myself into headaches.”

Aubrey watched Stacie’s eyes again, “You think talking to me about the problem might help keep you from letting it fly around in your brain and break things? I’ll probably never have the answer you’re looking for. But I’m always happy to listen.” She couldn’t help smirking a little and adding, “Especially if it’s science related.”

Stacie laughed, “Right, see? I forgot all sorts of things.” She hesitated before adding, “You know I’d give this up in a heartbeat if you want me to,” she gestured around the penthouse.

Aubrey looked around, then looked back at Stacie, stunned. “Why in the world would you, love? I mean, I could live anywhere if you keep believing I hung the moon and stars, but this is a pretty comfortable place to land, don’t you think? The three of us fit nicely, and there’s Summit to consider. And just a phone call or elevator ride away are a group of people who adore you. That doesn’t come along every day. Any alternative would have to include a yard with flowers and at least one tiny dog.”

“You really don’t mind? It isn’t too ostentatious?” Stacie bit her lip. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to live on less, but have to spend so much to get there.” She dropped her head and laughed.

Aubrey giggled and lifted Stacie’s head with her finger, “I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t have the best of all things. Tell me who called you ostentatious and I’ll kick their ass. It’s a suite in a hotel, not a palace with gold toilets.”

Stacie shuddered, “Ew, cold.” Then she sighed happily. “God, I love you.”

Aubrey smiled, “I love you too.” She leaned forward and gave Stacie a soft kiss. She leaned back again, her eyes more serious. “Roberta says those headaches can be dangerous.”

Stacie dropped her eyes. “Yeah. Did I mention there were things I forgot?”

“Like what, sweetie?” Aubrey’s voice softened. “Remember, it’s me. I’m on your side. No judging. I just want to know how to keep you safe and here with me as long as humanly possible.”

Stacie put her water bottle down, picked up a candied pecan and put it in her mouth before she moved closer so she could feel Aubrey next to her. “I want to start by saying I don’t think these were migraine clusters. Most of the headaches were short, not acute, more throbbing than sharp. It was only last night that the sharp pain started. That’s why I used the spray.”

Aubrey nodded and slipped her arm around Stacie’s shoulders. “Okay, got it. What else?”

“So the weird was no warning aura.” Stacie rested her head on Aubrey’s shoulder. “Migraine clusters with no aura could be indicative of,” she sighed, “constricted blood flow.”:

“Yeah,” Aubrey squeezed Stacie’s shoulder. “Roberta mentioned the risk of stroke.” She took a deep breath. “But you really believe these weren’t migraine,” she repeated what Stacie had said.

Stacie nodded emphatically. “First of all, they were scattered over weeks, not days or hours. Second, they were not acute.” She started ticking off her fingers. “Until today, I’ve had no postdromic symptoms of fuzzy brain, disorientation or weariness. Today, I’m just tired. I don’t feel fuzzy at all, just tired and emotional.”

“You’ve been having headaches for weeks?” Aubrey’s voice was a little tight.

“Off and on,” Stacie sighed heavily. “I got frustrated with the project, then changed focus, then had to take time off to background process.” She closed her eyes tightly. “Then I got scared.”

“Okay,” Aubrey leaned her head on Stacie’s head. “I need to ask a promise from you, and it might be a hard one so I want you just to promise that you’ll do your very best. Okay?”

Stacie nodded, “I will try.”

“Okay. Here’s the thing. I didn’t realize you had headaches at all. For weeks. I know it’s become a habit for you to hide your pain. I don’t quite understand why, but I know it’s true. All I ask is that you consider me an extension of you. When you hurt, let me know? I promise I won’t punish you by making you go to doctors or whatever you’re worried would happen. Just say something? I can’t be your partner if I don’t have all the information, right?”

Stacie pulled back to look at Aubrey. “Right. Insufficient data leads to false conclusions.” She shook her head, “I couldn’t solve the problem because I had inaccurate or insufficient data, too. I was so scared you were going to give up on me…I biased the experiment. I’m so sorry.” Her eyes filled.

Aubrey shook her head, “No sorry. We’re just learning each other, right love? Now you know. You can’t get rid of me and I want to know every time you even get a twinge of pain so we can work on it. Together. Fair?”

Stacie wiped her eyes and nodded, “Fair. Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Aubrey nodded. “What’s up, Doc?” She turned her head a little and winced at the bad joke that was destined to become commonplace between them.

“Oh my god, that’s terrible,” Stacie laughed, “do I have to talk like Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck?”

Aubrey grinned, “Your choice. But what can I answer you, sweet Stacie?”

It was Stacie’s turn to grow more serious. “I’m not sure how to help you. What can I do so you don’t feel, I dunno, whatever it was.” She sighed, “damn it, okay, maybe a little fuzzy.” She thought for a moment, “What can I do or what should I not do, so you don’t feel bad?”

Aubrey pulled Stacie closer and stroked her hair, “You didn’t do anything in the first place, Doc. This time it was my brain that got in the way. I think the best thing you could do for me is be patient, and maybe point out to me any time I say something stupid like I don’t deserve this. It’s a habit I want to break.”

Stacie cuddled. “I can do that. You deserve the moon and stars you know, I just haven’t figured out how to get them for you.”

“You’re going to have to find something else, I’ve apparently cornered the market on those,” Aubrey laughed. “The piano though, that was a hell of a good start.”

“It was. And we have a pretty good view some nights.” Stacie smiled. “I’ll have to make up sick bay for you,” she teased.

“Oh yeah, Doctor,” Aubrey’s voice dropped. “That might just be a treat for both of us.”

Stacie giggled.

Chapter Text

Aubrey’s mind was running in circles. Stacie’s headaches are dangerous. Mack says to keep her head in the game. Roberta says keep an eye on Stacie. Stacie was afraid Aubrey would leave because of money. Stacie’s headaches are dangerous.

The clock read 2:43 when Aubrey finally opened her eyes. Of course. She turned over and watched Stacie breathe. Stacie’s face was relaxed, worry lines smoothed away. She was even smiling a little bit. Aubrey had to resist the urge to trace Stacie’s forehead, cheeks, chin, and lips with a fingertip.

Stacie stirred. She reached for Aubrey. “Mmmmmm,” she smiled as she opened her eyes and saw Aubrey was watching her. “Hey, beautiful.”

Aubrey smiled. “Hush, you’re asleep.” She picked up Stacie’s arm and put her head on Stacie’s chest. “That’s better,” she snuggled in.

Stacie tightened her arm around Aubrey and began to rub her back. “Whatcha thinking?” She lifted her free hand and stroked Aubrey’s hair.

“Everything,” Aubrey chuckled softly. “There was a lot today. But it’s just circling in my brain. It’s not thinking as much as it’s a highlight reel that never ends.”

“I see.” Stacie nodded. She continued to stroke Aubrey’s hair for a few moments. “You suggested I tell you about stuff like that, get it out of my head so it doesn’t bang around. Would that help you?”

“Maybe,” Aubrey reached under the covers and patted Stacie’s thigh. “Emotional support leg?”

Stacie chuckled and bent her leg. “Just put me where you want me, Posen.”

“Mhm,” Aubrey smiled and tucked her hand into the fold of Stacie’s knee. “That’s better.” She sighed heavily, “My head is just full of things we already resolved. Like how your headaches are dangerous, even though these probably weren’t. And how Roberta said watch for symptoms. And how Mack reminded me I belong in the penthouse and the practice room.” Aubrey shrugged, “What’s there to talk about?”

Stacie nodded and rubbed Aubrey’s back some more. “Seems it’s not resolved. Let’s go backwards. What did Mack say? More data please.” Stacie kissed the top of Aubrey’s head.

Aubrey smiled and nodded, “Yes, Doc. Mack said that we tune pianos, which is technically a blue collar job. But we also work in some of the fanciest rooms and stages, and we belong there as much as the pianos do. We move in both worlds, and we deserve respect in both worlds.” She glanced at Stacie, “I’m paraphrasing.”

Stacie listened with a smile. “I’m following. And a paraphrase will do.” She winked. “So, what bothers you is that you work a blue collar job? Or that you fit in this world, contrary to your self-image? Or something else?”

Aubrey laughed, “I guess that’s the real question. I mean, I’ve gone to exclusive private schools all my life, which certainly wasn’t blue collar.”

“Imposter syndrome? Just waiting for someone to catch you?” Stacie suggested softly.

“Hm,” Aubrey considered. “Before college I was the army brat, general’s daughter, square peg that never really fit in. But it wasn’t a class thing, it was a personality thing. I couldn’t have paid my way into TU, though, and I didn’t want my father involved any more than necessary. So maybe I worried I’d snuck in on sheer luck mixed with a lot of practice. I can see imposter there.” She toyed with the edge of the sheet, “I always feel perfectly at home with Mack, getting my hands dirty fixing something that needs a little help.”

“I was the teenager at a prestigious university, taking double loads while kids my age were playing sports or going on first dates.” Stacie replied. “I had to work three times harder, in my mind, to keep my seat at the table. At least, that’s what my therapist told me.” She lifted her hand to stroke Aubrey’s hair. “You don’t ever have to work my ivory tower, love. 9 times out of ten, I make Rib present so I don’t have to deal with the surprise of my age. It’s why I use only my first initial in my designation. They can assume I’m an old man, like Ashley did.” She chuckled. “I’m waffling. The point is, we don’t have to ever go to any shindig you feel uncomfortable about.”

Aubrey rubbed Stacie’s leg, “I’m good at those, though. I don’t mind. And it would be showing you off, which sounds like something I would thoroughly enjoy.” She sighed, “I think I found the boogeyman, and I think it’s the same guy it always is. I mentioned my father?” She glanced at Stacie again, “He absolutely one hundred percent hates that I tune pianos for a living. He told me once something along the lines of how I don’t deserve nice things if I’m not willing to work for them.” She sighed. “It’s so boring, always finding him at the bottom of the pile.”

Stacie kissed the top of Aubrey’s head again. “I’m so sorry, love. I think the only thing worse than an absent father is a disapproving one.” She held Aubrey for awhile in silence. “You feel at home with Mack, though? So you are working for what you want. You want pianos to sound good; you want to keep music in the world. I think you win.”

Aubrey smiled, “You think so?” She said it softly, like maybe it was true. “You think I belong in the rehearsal hall and the grand auditorium too?”

“Of course,” Stacie chuckled. “When you play, I don’t think, I just feel. I wish I could share that with other people, but I’m so privileged that you share it with me.” Then she smiled, “Not to mention you clean up pretty well.”

Aubrey’s smile turned to a grin, “You really are feeling better, huh?” She worried again, “Yet here I am keeping you awake half the night. I need to be more careful with you, love.”

Stacie reached up to tap Aubrey’s nose. “Tomorrow is Saturday, not even housekeeping will be up here. We can sleep, or not, all day long.” She smirked. “Anything more about what Mack said?”

“Nah, I’m pretty sure when we found my father we found a whole new paradigm for me to think into. That’ll take some background processing, but it shouldn’t keep me awake.” She laid her head on Stacie’s shoulder, “We’ve already talked about your health and how to keep you safer, I do