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Aubrey is the youngest Posen. She’s the youngest in her immediate family. She’s the youngest cousin. She’s the baby of the family. She always has been. 

As the youngest, Aubrey watched. She watched and she learned, and most importantly, she never stepped a toe out of line. Aubrey learned discipline as the youngest, learned to take the scraps after her brothers took the meal, to do the dishes to keep her hands warm since by the time she gets to the shower there was no hot water left. Just because she was the youngest didn't mean she got what she wanted. In fact, it was the opposite. 

As the youngest, Aubrey knew that if her brothers didn’t succeed, she would have to. And they didn’t. Their plans took them away from government, from military, from law, and she can't help but think it was likely on purpose. They started families far away from her, from home, made new homes, and they left her to pick up the pieces. 

***

Aubrey arrives at Barden fresh-faced and with her father’s advice ringing in her ears. He couldn’t make it to drop her off — he had more important things to attend to — but he’d sent her an email detailing her path while in college. 

She takes every word to heart, steels herself for the competitiveness and horror of people who will use her as a jumping off point and leave her behind, but the first person she meets is her roommate, and she’s almost certain that Chloe Beale couldn’t hurt a fly even if she tried. 

Both of Chloe’s parents are there to help her set up her side of the room, since her mom just dropped her off, her only words of wisdom being not to fall victim to the Freshman Fifteen. 

But the Beales, if a little demanding in their own way, seem to care about their daughter, and they reach out to exchange hugs even though they only just met. It’s nice; Aubrey can’t remember the last time she hugged somebody. Chloe comes in next, squeezing her so tight that she almost can’t breathe, but weirdly, it feels good, like Chloe really knows how and wants to love someone. 

***

Aubrey joins a cappella in secret. It’s not part of her father’s plan, but it’s part of hers — it always has been. For the first time, she does something for herself, does something she thinks she could be great at. She’s spent years singing in the church choir back home, even longer humming little tunes to herself as she did her chores. 

It turns out Chloe is auditioning too. Aubrey’s glad to have a friend.

Because that’s what Chloe said they are: friends. She’s never had a friend before, but she thinks she likes it, likes the way Chloe starts to know little details of her life, of the way she moves through a room, of the way she even just breathes. 

It’s only been a month, but Aubrey can’t help but think that Chloe might become the best friend she’s ever had. 

***

Alice is a bitch. 

There’s no other way to say it. She’s on a power trip that oddly reminds Aubrey of her mother, and already, she hates her with a burning passion. Once again, Aubrey is the youngest, born almost a whole year after everybody else, and she feels like it, can feel them watching her in all of her lankiness that she hasn’t quite grown out of yet. 

But Aubrey is good at taking orders. She always has been. 

So she puts her head down, instructs Chloe to do the same simply by leading by example, and they get through that first year together, the only two to survive the vicious Barden Bella code. 

They don’t make it to finals, and Alice has a fit, blaming it on the two new freshmen, rather than her own lack of kindness, the way she destroys people and enjoys it. 

But they make it to the state championship, and so when Aubrey goes home that summer, she tells her parents, and they praise her, tell her they always knew she could be great at whatever she does, and she tucks that away. She tucks it away despite the jab that comes after, where her dad picks and prods and tells her that next year they should make it to the national competition and win, where her mom says that maybe the Bellas need to get a prettier bunch to win over the judges. 

Aubrey only nods, bows her head, basking in the potential of the praise. 

She’s great at something. 

Her parents think so. 

Her dad buys her a pitch pipe. 

Aubrey carries it everywhere she goes. 

***

They don’t make it to nationals again. 

Aubrey’s dad doesn’t come home that summer. 

He’s busy.

***

She’s the laughing stock of the family the year after that. 

Her dad comes home, but he asks her not to. 

She tells him she’s busy, and that she wouldn’t have been able to make it anyway. 

He doesn’t reply. 

***

Beca Mitchell is a royal pain in Aubrey’s ass, but Chloe has taken a liking to her and Aubrey doesn’t have the heart to tell her best friend she has a type between Tom and Beca and the two girls she dated last year. 

Personally, Aubrey has never met somebody so annoying. 

It’s like Beca’s God-given purpose is to be the most infuriating new recruit to ever miserably land in Aubrey’s lap, and she hates it. She’s the oldest now, and she’s in charge. 

Beca is a freshman, and Aubrey is a senior. She calls the shots. She’s going to teach these new Bellas discipline if it’s the last thing she does, is going to teach them how to listen and learn like she was forced to. Part of her twists, knowing three years ago she was broken down and put back together by her own captain, but she ignores the knot in her gut. Maybe Alice was in the right. 

Besides, her dad won’t come to the show unless they make it to nationals, and she wants to see him. She hasn’t seen him in so long. This is her chance to make things right. 

***

It’s failure after failure this year. Between Howie and regionals, Chloe’s nodes and the entire Beca Debacle, Aubrey can’t remember the last time she was able to breathe. 

They don’t even make it past states. That is, until Benji calls someone who calls someone. She could kiss that little weirdo. 

Sans Beca, everybody gets back together in their rehearsal space, and Aubrey wonders if this is what it’s like to get a second chance — she’s rarely been given one of those in her life, not by her mother, not by her father. 

But she has a second chance right now, and she’s going to do this right. 

“I invited Beca,” Chloe says, and that plan shatters. “She makes us better.” 

***

In the end, like most times, Chloe is right. 

Beca has good ideas, even if Aubrey will never admit that to her smug, stupid face, though she is grateful that aforementioned smug, stupid face puts her in charge of choreography with Chloe and Stacie. 

They try to work out moves, except Chloe spends most of the time fawning over Beca, helping her with the set, getting her coffee, draping over her shoulders like a really clingy sloth. 

Aubrey’s just glad that’s not her. She loves Chloe, but she’s dealt with the whole dragging Chloe Beale around while she tries to get work done for the last three years, and she’s happy to hand over the position. 

With Chloe mostly out of the picture, it leaves a lot of room for Aubrey to spend time with Stacie— what, in the beginning, Aubrey believes is too much time. But despite having noticed how pretty she is the first time they met — anyone with eyes can see how pretty Stacie is — she hasn’t spent a lot of time talking with her. 

In the best way, Stacie Conrad is not at all what she expected. Instead, she’s one of the smartest people Aubrey’s ever spoken to. Intelligent and perceptive, many of their conversations pick Aubrey apart in a way that she’s never enjoyed before but does now, pull her in until she’s forgetting about her armor made of insistent aspiration and indifference to criticism. Stacie watches her dance, tells her how she can be better, and for once, Aubrey listens. 

Stacie puts an arm around her, and Aubrey finds it in herself not to recoil. They spend extra time working out the ending, order pizza, and when Stacie puts three slices on her plate, Aubrey eats all three. Stacie is easy to be around, sweet smiles and willing to be a little silly. Complete with a goal to graduate with distinction in naval engineering, her attitude is exactly what Aubrey loves.

They talk about their other dreams, too, how Aubrey wants to go to law school, how she hopes to move to some great city, and Stacie agrees that somewhere like New York would be the kind of place she’d like to end up, until Chloe finally extracts herself from Beca, heading back over with a spring in her step that can only mean she’s smitten and is just remembering to check in on them. 

Aubrey stands back at attention, and Stacie pouts. 

Rolling her eyes, Aubrey grabs her arm playfully and forces her to her feet, too. 

“Did you just touch Stacie?” Chloe asks, gaze flickering between the two women. 

“I touch you all the time,” Aubrey deflects, but makes space for herself. 

Later, Stacie texts her, and Aubrey snorts at herself when she realizes she never changed her contact info from the first rehearsal so she could remember all of their names. 

[Stacie (Pretty Girl with Long Legs), 8:38pm]: had fun with you today!! 

***

They win nationals. 

Aubrey’s dad is a no show. 

She gets too drunk to forget about it. In the back of her head, she wonders if he would be proud of her now before she takes another shot out of Stacie’s hand and throws it back. 

***

To say Aubrey didn’t expect her first years out of college to be spent in the middle of a wilderness camp is an understatement, maybe the understatement of the century.

But she’s always been stellar at discipline and getting results out of unwilling matches, it’s what her father taught her, so she signs up for a job at The Lodge at Fallen Leaves and applies to law school on the side. 

She’s lonely, but she’s good at her job, and there’s nothing really to complain about. She has her own bank account, and her independence, and because she can, she buys herself an old car to fix up: a Jeep in need of a lot of love and a paint job, a passion project for which she’s been sorely in need due to the absence of singing. 

Fixing cars is something she and her dad always did together after her brothers left, and it reminds her of the best parts of home. 

Aubrey misses the Bellas, but she knows and constantly reminds herself that part of her life is over. 

Sometimes, she’ll get a text from Stacie or Chloe and, rarely, Beca, and she’ll want to ask how they’re doing. Instead, she’ll send a generic response like looks great! or miss you too! It never yields a very full conversation, but it’s at least nice to know they’re thinking of her. 

Aubrey can’t remember the last time her dad called. 

(Yes, she can. It was five months ago.) 

Her brothers have never visited. 

(Why would they want to?) 

All over again, she has that feeling that she can’t breathe. 

***

Rushing down the steps of the van, Chloe greets her by squeezing all of the breath out of her, and Aubrey remembers how to take in air again. She holds her close, is surprised but pleased to find Beca joining in on the hug, and wraps an arm around the others that quickly pile on. 

Finally, they separate, and for a moment, just a moment, Aubrey’s able to feel that same spark she felt in the latter half of the year, where her hand wasn’t tight on the rein of responsibility and purpose, especially when Stacie approaches her on her own, that same soft smile present. 

“Hi, Aubrey,” she says quietly, and Aubrey can’t help it when she grins back, pulling Stacie into her own hug.

“Hi,” she replies gently before shoving her away playfully. “Sorry, I have to do my job.” 

Confused, Stacie backs up, looking at her fellow current Bellas just as—

“FALL IN LINE, BELLAS!” 

Beca jumps. Aubrey smirks to herself. 

Yeah, she’s great at her job. 

***

When Aubrey looks at Emily, she sees herself: eager and anticipating and new, except she’s better. 

She’s better, and Aubrey doesn’t mind. Aubrey doesn’t mind that she’s a legacy, that maybe it’s the only reason she got her foot in the door, because Emily deserves to be here. Anybody can see that. And she holds no resentment between her ribs — the world has been kind to her, and Aubrey is glad. 

She wishes the world had been kind to her. 

Sitting around the campfire, Aubrey watches as Beca pulls Emily into her orbit, like she pulled everybody into it three years ago, watches the way Chloe watches the interaction. Aubrey has always been the observant one, but anyone can see just how in love her best friend is. 

But Aubrey doesn’t meddle anymore. It’s Chloe’s life, and she’s not going to tell her to pick up her head when so many years ago she told her to keep it down. Chloe has to and can find her way. Aubrey gets it now. 

She just wishes she could find her path, too. 

***

They win Worlds, and Aubrey’s father texts her. He recently got a phone. It’s their first correspondence. 

[Dad, 10:08pm]: Aubrey, I heard the Barden Bellas won the World Championship. Why didn’t you try for that when you were in college? If any of them are your friends, you should be sure to say congratulations. 

Staring at the message, Aubrey starts to shake, starts to feel sick. Her throat is closing, and God, she’s forgetting to breathe again— 

“Bree?” Stacie murmurs, coming up behind her. “You okay?” 

Aubrey shakes her head. Suddenly, her uniform feels tight, and she undoes the top two buttons, trying to regain her composure. 

“Aubrey,” Stacie says this time, reaching out to grab her shoulders. “It’s okay. You’re okay.” 

She shakes her head again, turning her phone. She’s never shared something like this before — not with anyone except Chloe — but Aubrey feels like she can trust Stacie. She doesn’t know why, but she does. 

“Okay, fuck that,” Stacie snaps angrily, pulling the phone out of Aubrey’s hand and turning off the screen. “You know you were integral to all of this, right? You built this team.” 

Her words are registering, but Aubrey doesn’t know what to say, especially when a sob escapes from the back of her throat. 

“Oh, Aubrey,” Stacie murmurs, pulling her into a hug. Aubrey presses her face into Stacie’s neck. The woman smells like lavender and sweat, and it makes her smile despite herself. “You know you’re amazing just the way you are.” 

“I hate that,” Aubrey manages to say with a wet laugh. 

“She speaks!” Stacie teases, but she doesn’t let go. “But I’m serious. I really mean it.” 

Aubrey nods somewhat rigidly, but weirdly, she believes her. If Stacie thinks she’s — yes, amazing just the way she is, then it must be true. 

“Thank you, Stace,” she breathes softly. 

“Anytime,” Stacie replies with a smile that’s audible, squeezing her around the shoulders again. 

***

They stay in contact more regularly after that. They’ll check in on each other, Aubrey driving up to New York and Stacie driving down to the Lodge from time to time. 

Aubrey likes having more friends like this. It feels good. 

***

“What’s going on with you and Stacie?” Chloe asks one time while she’s moving around the kitchen on videochat, making dinner for her, Beca, and Amy. 

“What do you mean going on?” Aubrey laughs in reply, even if the question makes the hair on the back of her neck stand up. “We’re friends.”

“We’re friends, and I don’t visit you that often.”

“Well maybe you should,” Aubrey teases easily. 

“I resent that.” Her best friend rolls her eyes and frowns playfully, but she remains undeterred. “You should know that I’m not letting this go, though.”

“There’s nothing to hold on to,” she counters. “Stacie’s a friend.”

***

“Happy accidents?” Aubrey manages tightly when Stacie announces she’s pregnant. She doesn’t know why she feels this way, but she’s trying to be happy for her friend. 

Tonight feels like blow after blow; between not singing at the show and this announcement and having to ask her dad for a spot in the tour, Aubrey is ready to head back to the Lodge and not be seen for several days. 

And then, it turns out Stacie can’t even go on the tour because no, you can’t fly when you’re eight months pregnant. 

Aubrey hates this. She hates that she basically came up to New York to sing, see Chloe (and Beca) and Stacie and then leave. She hates that she’d plan to get a drink with Stacie, to figure out exactly what Chloe was getting at when they were on the phone last, and now, that doesn’t seem like a possibility. 

***

They text for most of the trip, each time Aubrey is set to go on, each time something crazy happens. 

Stacie says more than a few times that she misses being with the Bellas — with Aubrey — and each time, Aubrey promises her that she’s missed. 

Because she really is. 

Without Stacie in the role of tension diffuser and the one who always makes sure they have fun, even when Chloe is tense, they’ve once again lost themselves. 

Or maybe Aubrey is just lost without Stacie. Maybe she’s missing her enough for everyone. It’s hard to say. 

***

Even Amy’s dad can visit, and he hasn’t been around in years. 

Aubrey wonders if her dad will visit. 

She hates that she still hopes yes, even after all this time. 

*** 

Okay, maybe Amy’s dad isn’t great. 

But hey, at least they sang a kickass cover of Toxic, right? 

***

Stacie texts her constantly once she hears about what went down with Amy’s dad, and Aubrey tries to think of a way to reply to every single one.

Are you okay?? 

Aubs???

Bree??? 

You have to meet my child you can’t die!! 

I simply won’t allow you to die. I’ll resuscitate all of you and then kill you. I feel like if you tell them that, it’s scarier as a message coming from me through you than me just saying it outright. 

Hellooooooooo?

Oh shit!!! You’re on the TV!!

Oh, Bree. Don’t cry <3

Okay now you’re being annoying

I want to know you’re okay!! 

Respond you aca-freak.

In the end, Aubrey ends up just calling her, trying not to smile too hard.

“It would do you good to turn on your ringer, you know,”  Stacie greets into the phone.

Aubrey laughs, sinking back against the wall at the sound of Stacie’s voice. “Hi, Stacie.” 

“Hi,” she answers softly. “How are you?” 

The question hits Aubrey in the gut. How is she? She got to see her dad briefly, which was nice, and Beca’s finally taking the world by storm like she finally deserved, and despite the near-death experience, overall she’s—

“Good,” she says honestly. “I’ve missed you though.” 

“You’re good?” Stacie laughs. “You know you could have died, right?” 

“Yeah, but I didn’t,” Aubrey says, and she realizes how much she means it. In the past, she may have agonized over every detail, may have even re-lived it to think about what ways she could have helped her friends, but really— ”I didn’t die, Stacie. I’m good. I’m okay.” 

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Stacie tells her, and there’s a confession there that neither of them are ready to face. “And I’m really glad you didn’t die.”

“Me too,” Aubrey laughs, pressing the phone closer to her ear like it might make her fall through the phone and into Stacie’s bedroom in New York City. “You’re not exactly a doctor. I think you trying to resuscitate me to meet your daughter would do more harm than good.”

Stacie gasps around an incredulous laugh. “You bitch!” 

“You love me,” Aubrey says, and it falls out of her mouth before she can really think about it. 

“Yeah, I do love you,” Stacie agrees, and again, there’s that feeling that it means something.

Aubrey shakes it off. “I love you too.”

***

Aubrey’s the first to meet Bella when they get back from the tour. 

She holds her while Stacie takes a nap, telling (appropriate) embarrassing stories to the baby about her mom in college, even if Bella doesn’t understand a word. 

Aubrey rocks her back and forth gently, cradling her as she moves around Stacie’s apartment, trying to get as far away from her friend who fell asleep on the couch mid-Jeopardy episode as she can. 

“You have your mom’s nose,” she says, and she knows it sounds nonsensical to Stacie’s daughter, but it’s true. “And your eyes are the same, too. You’ll get just about anything you want with that pretty green.” 

“Mm, is that so?” Stacie asks, stirring. 

“It is,” Aubrey admits, biting her lip around a smile as she watches the woman stretch out like a cat. “You happen to be very convincing.” 

“Good to know.” 

***

Aubrey keeps commuting to see Bella. She watches her grow. She spoils her. 

“I guess I’m here to see you also,” Aubrey jokes when she comes to visit for Thanksgiving, teasingly flippant towards Stacie as Bella runs into her arms and Aubrey hugs her first before even turning to her mother. 

“You’re so mean,” Stacie grumbles. 

Aubrey pulls her into a group hug. 

Stacie doesn’t seem so mad anymore. 

***

Aubrey’s mother dies on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a day after she settles in with Bella and Stacie for the week.

Thank God Bella is asleep, because the second her eldest brother — Alex, who she hasn’t heard from in more than a month — calls, she crumbles. 

“Aubrey?” Stacie asks when she sees her in the kitchen, hands starting to shake and all of the color draining from her face. She stands up from the couch, catching her before she can fall onto the tile. 

“Stroke,” is what Stacie catches from the voice on the phone, and, “Aubrey? You there?” 

“This is Stacie,” she says, taking the phone. “I’m— Aubrey’s staying with me.”

“Oh,” the man replies. “Hi, Stacie.” 

“Hi,” she greets, trying to keep her voice from sounding flat, knowing who Alex is, knowing he’s been inattentive and far away for most of Aubrey’s life. “Do you need us to go down to Georgia?”

“Us?” he asks. 

“Yes, us,” Stacie tries to keep the fire out of her voice. There’s no way in hell she’s going to allow Aubrey to go back to Georgia without her to face her father and her brothers. “I’ll be bringing my daughter, too.” 

“Well then.” Alex pauses, the air dull, while Aubrey leans against Stacie, trying to breathe through the tears in the back of her throat, grateful that Stacie is keeping him at arms length. “Yes,” he finally decides. “Dad wants her here.”

“Then we’ll be there,” Stacie tells him firmly. “It’s good to finally meet you, Alex.” 

She hangs up at that, not really meaning the last bit. It’s been twelve years. If Aubrey had wanted them to meet, they would have. 

“Thank you,” Aubrey says quietly, still hiding against her neck. 

“Always.” Stacie kisses the side of her head. 

***

They arrive late on Monday, finding their own way from the airport to avoid any unwelcome criticism from Aubrey’s family about flying in at an ungodly hour. 

There’s nobody there to greet them when Aubrey flips her lanyard around for the house key she rarely uses, but she likes it better that way, especially considering that Stacie’s carrying a sleeping three year old on her back. 

Aubrey navigates them through the house without turning any lights on, pushing open the door to the guest room with the ensuite. 

“I’ll take the smaller bed,” she whispers, ready to put her backpack down on the rollaway that one of her brothers clearly brought in when Stacie rolls her eyes and shakes her head. 

“We’re adults. We can share a bed,” Stacie laughs softly. “Bella’s smaller. So she should have the smaller bed. It looks comfy, too.” 

Aubrey pouts, weighing her options before Stacie takes her bag from her and puts it on the left side. 

“I know you don’t like the right, so there,” she says gently. “Now, go take a shower. You smell like plane.”

“So do you,” Aubrey grumbles, but she does as she’s told. 

***

Waking up next to Stacie is the best part of Aubrey’s day. 

It all goes to shit from there. 

Between keeping her brothers from asking Stacie and Bella too many questions to being in charge of meals now that she’s back, Aubrey wouldn’t say it’s an exaggeration for her to say that she feels like her brain is being split in two. On top of that, she gets assigned to go talk to the funeral director about plots and headstones and everything her father can’t bring himself to do.

“I can cook,” Stacie offers, coming up behind her to take a look at her to-do list. 

“Would you?” Aubrey asks softly, overwhelmed. “My dad hasn’t moved, and Alex and Andrew are busy trying to clean out some of her stuff. It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy—”

“Aubrey.” Stacie grabs her shoulders, shaking her gently. “I got it.” 

***

Lying awake that night, Stacie tries not to focus on the way Aubrey’s sniffling beside her. She knows how she gets, that she’s not going to want to talk, but at the same time, she can see out of the corner of her eye the way Aubrey is pressing her face half into the pillow. 

Finally, when she’s sure Bella is asleep, Stacie rolls over silently, looping her arms around the woman and tucking her legs against hers.

“Stace,” Aubrey protests without any conviction, not turning around. “If you hold me like that, it’ll make me cry harder.”

“You have to cry sometime,” Stacie murmurs, squeezing her tighter in a way that reminds Aubrey distinctly of her first day of college, again that feeling of knowing Stacie knows how to really love. “Why not with me?”

Aubrey swallows hard, almost audibly. She reaches down to lace one of her hands with Stacie’s. They both know she would be trembling if she wasn’t being held so firmly. 

“My mom wasn’t always good to me,” she confesses into the quiet. “Nothing like you are with Bella. It was always, Aubrey, have you weighed yourself? Aubrey, that’s too salty. Aubrey, clean up after your brothers. Aubrey, what’s your percent body-fat? Aubrey, have you exercised? She treated me like I was a project, a job. But she also told me that she loved me. She told me a lot.” The last few words sound willfully bitter, like Aubrey doesn’t want to believe them, but also knows just how true they were, and tears start to fall even as she forces herself not to look at the woman holding her. 

“Bree,” Stacie says softly.

“She was awful sometimes, and she stood by while my dad only got worse. But we had fun too, when it was just the two of us. We would spend hours in the kitchen, one of us making something while we just talked. I trusted her. Even when I didn’t want to,” Aubrey admits shyly, almost shamefully, words spilling from her. “But she was old fashioned, and she told me I would eventually grow out of liking girls when I finally told her, and that I shouldn’t hang out with people that wouldn’t amount to anything because they cloud my judgment.” It’s implied that by people, Aubrey’s mother meant the Bellas. “And then she told me to settle because if I didn’t, I would mess up whatever good thing I found. Apparently, that’s what I’m best at.”

“You haven’t messed anything up with me,” Stacie points out, a gentle admittance that what’s between them isn’t strictly what they advertise to the rest of the world, though it’s too scary of a thought to unpack right now. 

“You’re different,” Aubrey answers over her shoulder, quicker and more certain than she’s been since she arrived back at her childhood home. “You’ve always been different.” 

“You’re really charming, you know?” Stacie says, nudging her and trying to lighten some of the air in the room. 

Aubrey laughs wetly, doesn’t say a word for a moment before, “Why am I so sad, Stace?” 

Stacie pauses, looking at the woman in her arms, heart panging violently around in her chest. She looks over at Bella, sound asleep. And then she looks back at Aubrey. Beautiful, brilliant, amazing just the way she is Aubrey, and she tries not to cry herself, tries not to think about all of the days they’ve spent together since college, how easy it’s always felt, how— 

“You can’t control who you love,” she says simply, shakily. “You just can’t.” 

Aubrey finally turns around, hazel eyes rimmed with red flickering over her face. “I wish I could.” 

Stacie brushes some hair out of her face. “Me too.” 

***

The funeral is short. 

Aubrey doesn’t know who organized it that way, but she’s grateful. Despite the love she’ll always have for her mom, in spite of everything, she doesn’t think she can hear another person eulogize her mother. 

Stacie holds her hand the whole time, and Bella cries even though she never met Aubrey’s mom. 

Aubrey pulls Bella into her lap at the reception, chin hooked over her shoulder, tickling her until she manages a giggle. 

Later, Bella stops her, tugging on her hand as they walk back to the car, looking up at her with those soft green eyes, her mother’s eyes, the eyes Aubrey loves so much. 

“I love you, Bree,” she says earnestly. “And I’m sorry about your mommy.” 

Tears clog the back of Aubrey’s throat as she leans down to kiss the top of the little girl’s head. “Thank you, Bella,” she murmurs. “I love you too.” 

***

“Stacie’s nice,” Alex observes one night in the kitchen when Aubrey is baking brownies. She bakes brownies when she needs to do something with her hands, and right now, it’s taking everything in her not to slap him. “Yeah. We’ve been friends since college.” Not that you would know that. 

“Friends?” he asks, raising an eyebrow. 

“Yeah. She’s, like, my best friend, other than Chloe.” Who you don’t know either. 

“Aubrey, can I give you some advice?” he asks carefully, like he knows he might be crossing a line, but also like he’s finally trying to take responsibility for all of the years he was absent. 

No. “Sure.” 

“You love that girl,” he says, some of his southern twang finding its way back into his voice now that he’s back in Georgia; the same thing happens to her. 

“And how would you know that?” Aubrey replies, biting back the snap in her voice as she shoves the brownies into the oven and folds her arms, leaning back against the counter. 

“Because I’ve never seen you look at anyone the way you look at her.”

“You haven’t seen me look at a lot of people,” she shoots back. 

“Yeah, but you’re my sister,” Alex insists. “I know you. Even if I’ve been gone. Which I’m sorry about that, by the way.”

“You’re sorry about that, by the way?” Aubrey laughs humorlessly, something snapping in her at the thoughtlessness with which he apologizes. “You left me here! You know that? You left me alone. I had nobody.” 

“Andrew—”

“Andrew left because you left,” she grits out. “You left me to fend for myself. You never protected me. So don’t tell me how I feel.” 

“I’m being honest right now!” Alex argues back. “I had to get out of here. This place— it was killing me.”

“And you don’t think I wasn’t hurting?” she cries, tears starting to well up. “You think I wasn’t lonely and wondering where my two big brothers went when you went to school in fucking California. Wow, Alexander, I knew you weren’t the smartest out of us, but I didn’t think you were the dumbest either.”

“Wow. Fuck you, Aubrey,” he spits. “I’m just trying to be a good brother.”

“You could have been a good brother fifteen years ago,” she tells him plainly, turning away and letting her hair curtain her face so he can’t see how she’s crying. “Brownies will be ready in ten minutes. I’ll bring you some when they’re ready.” 

“Tell her,” Alex says lowly. “Tell her, or you’ll regret it.”

“Like you know anything about regrets.”

“I know everything about regrets.” His voice remains even before he admits, more shakily, “I really do regret leaving you.” He gives her a sad smile. “You turned out… You turned out awesome.” 

***

Tell her. 

The words echo in Aubrey's head as she heads back into the guest room to give Stacie some brownies. She admires her in the doorway for a moment, hair pulled into a messy bun and glasses resting on the bridge of her nose as she gets some work done on her laptop. 

“Where’s Bella?” she finally asks, putting the plate down on the nightstand on Stacie’s side of the bed. 

“She’s with your dad.” Stacie shrugs.

Aubrey freezes, breath caught in her throat. “What?” 

“Is that a problem?” she asks, concern furrowing in her brow. “Should I not have—”

“I’ll take care of it,” Aubrey says automatically. “I’m sure it’s—” She doesn’t know how to say it. She’s sure it’s fine. Her dad is a fine person. But she doesn’t want what she had for Bella, doesn’t want that crushing expectation, has always longed to protect her from it, even. “You keep working,” she says softly, reaching out to squeeze Stacie’s arm. “I’ll go check on them.” 

“You sure?” 

“Totes.” Aubrey squeezes her eyes shut as Stacie laughs at the slip. “God, I sounded just like Chloe then, didn’t I?”

“Yup.” 

***

As it turns out, Bella and William do seem to be just fine, swinging gently on the hanging bench on the back porch. 

“Hey,” she announces herself as she steps over the threshold of the house. 

“Bree!” Bella exclaims immediately, making grabby hands at her. “Hi!”

“Hi honey.” Aubrey smiles back at her, now addressing both her father and the little girl. “What are you two up to?”

“Bella here was telling me about all of the awesome traditions you three have back home,” William fills her in first, eyebrow raising when he meets her eyes. 

Bella nods emphatically. “Yeah! Like Christmas, and the New Year, and how you and Mommy have lots of fun and celebrate the year together, and spring break when you drive to see me and take me to the movies and buy me snacks and we keep it a secret!” Bella frowns. “Well I guess it isn’t a secret now.”  

“I’m very good at keeping secrets,” Aubrey’s father assures her gently in a way that makes Aubrey ache with both longing and joy at once. It’s a weird feeling, like her heart is tearing in two and being sewn back together in all of the places she’s been hurt. “I didn’t know you and Stacie were so close,” he tacks on, meeting his daughter’s gaze. 

“We’re quite good friends, Dad,” she manages, looking down. 

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” he instructs, and she raises her gaze to attention. 

“Sorry.” 

“No apologizing.” 

Aubrey’s tongue feels too big in her mouth, but she nods, trying not to embarrass herself in front of Bella, who at least seems oblivious. 

“Why don’t you run inside, Munchkin?” she prompts Bella, voice slightly hoarse. “I gave Mommy some brownies. I’m sure you could steal one from her.” 

Bella’s eyes widen at the mention of sweets and she nods quickly, scampering off to find Stacie, though not before hugging Aubrey around the legs quickly. 

“So you’re a co-parent,” William says once Bella is out of earshot. 

“Hardly,” Aubrey corrects him, quickly but gently. “She’s Stacie’s. I’m not— you know— legally anything to her.” 

“Maybe, but she does love you,” her father muses. “And Stacie? Are you two involved? Or just close?”

Aubrey hesitates, the question suddenly feeling loaded after her conversation with Alex yesterday. 

“Come sit with me, Aubrey,” he tells her, patting the seat Bella vacated. 

Surprised, she does as she’s told, joining him. He pushes off on the ground, swinging them back and forth. For a moment, only the squeak of the bench fills the silence. The sun is starting to set, and Aubrey wonders if her dad is thinking of his wife right now, all the nights he spent out here with her in the same seat Aubrey now fills. 

“Do you know when I fell in love with your mother?” he finally begins, and Aubrey’s suspicions are confirmed. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “She always told the story about our first date, but I remember the first day I was back in town, I saw her and it just… happened. She was a check-in attendant at the airport I flew into after my first tour. I didn’t even know I would meet her at that party a few days later.” 

Aubrey knows this story by heart, that William just looked so handsome in his uniform, and Elizabeth had this pretty sundress on, how he’d asked her to dance, and then for a date, and then for another. She knows how they loved each other, but she never knew this part. 

“So… it was love at first sight?” she asks. 

“Sort of,” William admits, never one to be into clichés except, apparently, this one. “More the possibility of it.” 

Without really thinking, Aubrey’s mind races back to the first time she met Stacie, the moment she saw her, when all she could think was just how beautiful she was, that Stacie might be the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen, when she ate three slices of pizza, when she texted that she had fun. They’re little moments, things that might mean nothing to other people. But the combination of it all, it’s everything to her: that feeling of all that perceived nothing turning into something and finally being able to recognize it, however terrified she is of what it means. 

“You know, I never agreed with your mother on one particular thing,” her dad says quietly. “About how you grow out of what you feel.” 

It’s the closest to an apology Aubrey knows she’ll get, and she cherishes it, knows that on this particular subject, she’d always wished her father stepped up for her in the same way she wished her mother did on other things. She understands, now, that all of the times he didn’t reply and didn’t show were meant to save himself from seeing her in pain, from hurting and confusing her more, that he was never embarrassed, he just doesn’t love the way she was taught to by Chloe, by Stacie, by all of the Bellas. Her parents weren’t perfect. Of course they weren’t, but you can’t control who you love.  

“Your mother — and I — we always wanted what was best for you,” William says quietly, like he knows they never achieved that, like he’s aware of the work that needs done to rebuild what’s between them, and it’s clear he’s determined to start now. “But… if you love something, you don’t grow out of it, not really. I never grew out of loving your mom, did I?” 

“You didn’t,” Aubrey agrees, looking over at him and his soft, melancholy smile. 

“You won’t grow out of loving Stacie,” he advises, knowing, somewhere deep, his daughter is the same as him. “I thought if I went away for my second tour, she might move on. But she didn’t. And Stacie isn’t going to move on from you, Aubrey.”

“How do you know for sure she loves me?” she mumbles, doubtful. 

“Because you’re so easy to love, dear,” he says simply, and this, too, is the closest William Posen will ever get to admitting he loves his daughter. 

Earnestly, Aubrey holds on to the words while simultaneously letting out a breath she forgot she was holding, exchanging the two, hoping the adoring look she gives him, the one she’s always given him, lets him know exactly what she wants to say. 

I love you too, Dad. 

***

All three Posen men pile into the car to take Aubrey, Stacie, and Bella back to the airport. They give her firm hugs, and the younger two promise to text and call and keep in touch like they haven’t in years. 

Aubrey wonders if their mother is watching, if she’s at least found peace knowing her children have peace with each other. 

Aubrey wonders if their mother watches as she easily slips her hand into Stacie’s and lets herself be dragged away as her father and brothers wave goodbye, if she can finally see that her daughter is happy. 

Aubrey wonders if wondering about Elizabeth Posen means that she’s able to forgive her. 

She decides yes. 

She decides that though it was for all the wrong reasons, she found closure because she was forced to go home, and that now, she’s finally ready to take the next step in her life, one where she can finally be sure that love isn’t the kind of thing that dies, that when somebody is gone, it only becomes grief. 

I love you, Mom, she thinks, and when Stacie heads off to check one of their suitcases, she swears she hears her mom’s voice reply. 

I love you, Aubrey. Make us proud. 

It doesn’t feel like a demand anymore. It feels like encouragement. 

***

Aubrey makes her life right. She does it for herself.

She owns the Lodge now, so it’s a steady source of income as she looks for jobs in New York City like she always dreamed. It’s a big step, one she’s been too afraid to make, but at this point, commuting back and forth to be able to visit Bella and her friends when she wants and needs is exhausting. 

Beca and Chloe are set to get married later in the year, and the last thing Aubrey needs is Chloe becoming a bride-zilla when she’s still several hundred miles away. She doesn’t think anyone would survive that. 

Stacie, of course, is overjoyed and demands that Aubrey live with her. 

“You only have two beds, Stace,” Aubrey reminds gently. 

“So? We can share.”  

And that’s how, against her better judgment, Aubrey moves in with the Conrads. 

***

It’s easy. Easier than she thought it would be. 

She makes Bella — who’s now a whole four years old — breakfast before pre-school, and Stacie does dinner, and it’s scary how naturally their routine forms. 

On Thursdays, Stacie goes out, so Aubrey works from home so someone can pick up Bella. 

On Fridays, Aubrey drops over to Beca and Chloe’s place — they finally convinced Amy to move out — to have lunch, where she’s met with hugs, demands for pictures of Bella, and prodding that she better get together with Stacie already, to which Aubrey asks they don’t pressure her. 

(But it’s Beca and Chloe. Of course they still do.)

On weekends, they don’t do much. They watch TV or cook together or both. On Saturdays like today, they’ll drop Bella to play with a friend. It’s nothing very exciting usually, except right now—

“STACE, I GOT THE JOB!” Aubrey cries happily when she opens her email, reading carefully over the fine print for the new legal advisor position at one of the record labels Beca recommended to her. 

“You did?!” Stacie rushes out of her room in her jeans and a bra, snagging Aubrey’s Barden hoodie and pulling it on and she moves into the kitchen to read the email beside her, eyes wide with excitement. “Aubrey! This is amazing! You’re amazing!” 

Without thinking, she sweeps Aubrey up into her arms, twirling her. Aubrey giggles, wrapping her arms around Stacie’s neck and her legs around her hips so that she doesn’t accidentally get dropped, and God, she forgot how strong Stacie is. She forgot what it’s like to be pressed against someone like this, much less the woman she’s been in love with for the last God knows how many years. She looks down into soft green eyes, and in her chest, her heart plays hop-scotch to a rhythmic whisper, one that murmurs that they’re finally at the moment they’ve been careening towards for more than a decade. 

“You’re amazing,” Stacie says again, more quietly, one hand holding her under her thighs and the other on the small of her back. 

“Couldn’t have done it without you,” Aubrey counters, breathless with how she’s being looked at, like she matters, like she’s beautiful. 

“Shut up. This is all you,” Stacie fights, trying not to smile, head tipped back so she can look up at her. “You’re so smart, and brilliant, and you deserve this.” 

Aubrey looks down at her, pressing her lips together around a grin. She didn’t realize how close they were until right now; their noses are almost touching. “I love you, Stacie,” she whispers, like it’s a secret and like it isn’t. Because she doesn’t want it to be a secret. Not anymore. 

“I love you, Aubrey,” Stacie replies, and Aubrey swears she sees her eyes flicker down to her lips for more than a few seconds, swears Stacie is holding on to her even tighter, pulling her even closer. 

“I love you more,” Aubrey insists easily, looking down at the woman who’s in her hoodie, who’s holding her like she’s the most fragile and indestructible thing on the planet. She swallows hard, eyes searching Stacie’s face for doubt, for an emotion that betrays that she doesn’t want this moment as much as her. 

“I seriously doubt that,” Stacie disagrees, now brushing their noses together, tongue coming out to wet her lips. 

“Prove it,” Aubrey challenges at a whisper, her heart in her throat when Stacie smiles at that, surging up to finally, finally kiss her. 

When they kiss, Aubrey’s whole world ignites into screaming color. Her thoughts jumble, the space where her mind would normally race reduced to only the fact that Stacie’s lips are soft, that she’s never been kissed like this, by somebody who really knows how they should love her, and it’s everything she thought it would be — and more. It’s all of the years of give and take between them, that missing puzzle piece she’s been searching for and even better, a whisper that she’s always been this whole — Stacie just had to show her. 

She presses her tongue into the kiss, arms tightening around Stacie’s neck and fingers threading through her hair as she kisses back, laughing when Stacie makes a quiet sound in the back of her throat. She finds home in their gentle embrace, the home she’s been wanting for so long, in this New York apartment, the one that helped them fall in love, the one she’s able to finally, officially, call theirs.  

“I love you,” Stacie says into the kiss, says it over and over as her lips move along Aubrey’s jaw and down her neck. 

Aubrey closes her eyes, taking in the moment, enjoying how plainly Stacie says it, like the whole world could know and she wouldn’t care, like Aubrey deserves to know just how much. 

“And I love you,” she repeats, breathless and full of breath all at once. 

Sunlight streams through the window above the kitchen sink, washing the room in perfect gold, and  Aubrey smiles, fingers tangling in Stacie’s hair when hands wander up under her shirt, just to touch, to feel, to know how real this is. 

The world seems to finally right itself on its axis, standing straight up for barely a moment so that when Stacie kisses Aubrey again, she falls into her, presses so close that it’s hard to tell where either of them ends or begins. 

“You’re beautiful,” Stacie mumbles easily, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Aubrey doesn’t know what else to say. Because between the sunset and Stacie, now finally hers, really hers, she can’t help but think that what she has in this moment — plus one little girl who’s two subway stops away — is everything she’s ever wanted, that what’s hers is finally, wholly enough.  

Because with Stacie, she doesn’t forget to breathe.