Chloe Beale is eight years old the year she stops trying to speak out. Which is not to say she stops speaking in general; her report cards never deviate from the comments she received in kindergarten, with phrases like “boisterously imaginative” and “sings beautifully, but perhaps we can work on appropriate timing.” No, Chloe is still as verbose as she’s ever been, a habit that never entirely fades, even into adulthood.
It’s just the part where her peers are speaking up for things that doesn’t quite catch with Chloe. The part where her classmates fight for themselves—and for others—even to degrees that come off more than a little idiotic. The part where everyone around her seems hard-wired to voice their opinions, come hell or high water.
That part just never seems to click with Chloe.
Not since, Kate, anyway.
Kate McDaniel was the first in a long line of girls who did not need anyone’s voice to shout above her own. Chloe would, over time, grow used to girls like this finding their way into her life; Kate, however, took a little time to wrap her head around. Because, at eight years old, the impulse that would eventually dissipate to nothing at all still stood: the impulse to stand up and be heard.
Particularly for her friends.
Especially for Kate.
It was only when—on a Thursday, at lunch recess, after Chloe had just watched a boy a little older than them smack Kate around the butt with a large stick—Kate told her otherwise that it occurred to Chloe that, just maybe, not everyone likes being stood up for.
It was, as she remembers it, a mind-blowing revelation.
She can still feel the pulse of adrenaline, the way it surged and churned through her tiny body as she raced right up to that stupid kid—Doug, she thinks his name might have been, or Mark, or Phil; one of those four-letter douche names that wonderful girls inevitably fall in love with down the line, only to have their pride devastated absolutely. Kate, admittedly, was a few years shy of that momentous life shift, but all the same, there he was: three times Chloe’s size, wielding a sneer and that stick, looking for all the world like the jerkiest version of Goliath ever.
So, okay, maybe leaping onto his back while screaming like Xena wasn’t the best thought-out plan in the history of her brain, but Chloe still stands by it to this day. Especially because, for being such a fifth-grade douchecastle, Doug-or-Mark-or-Phil set her down pretty gently. And then just stood there—laughing uproariously—as she threw all the fury an eight-year-old can muster his way.
When it was over—when she had exhausted her angry vocabulary, expelling such clichés as butthead and pick on someone your own size—and Doug-or-Mark-or-Phil had ambled back to his kickball buddies, Chloe had turned on her heel and beamed triumphantly in Kate’s direction. From her vantage point as an adult, Chloe isn’t really sure why it felt like such a win, but at the time, having a ten-year-old boy shake his head and walk away without so much as a punch to the arm seemed extraordinary. She had stood up for her best friend in a time of genuine need, and she had won.
Or so she had believed for all of twenty-three seconds, until Kate—so frustrated that she had gone nearly blue in the face—spat, “That wasn’t your place, Chloe.”
It was the first time in her life someone had actively scorned her for speaking up—and, when she had tried to protest that she was just trying to help, that earth-shattering first segwayed neatly into a second novelty:
“I didn’t need you, Chloe,” Kate hissed, and stalked away to the abandoned swingset at the back of the playground without another word.
Her name had never sounded so like poison before. Her heart had never felt this heavy.
Chloe couldn’t think of a single knight in shining armor whose efforts went this unappreciated.
Her friendship with Kate, as happens with children, suffered for only a handful of days from this singular outburst; in fact, they remained close all the way through middle school. Still, the event proved harder than it should have been to erase from memory, and Chloe found herself slowly, quietly, easing out of frame whenever an opinion was required of her. It wasn’t hard; it turns out people don’t actually expect that much out of you when you’re pretty and bubbly and inclined toward bursting into song at a moment’s notice. Chloe knew, in the back of her mind, that she should have been insulted—but, honestly? It’s just easier to fade away when the hard questions are asked.
Easier, and so much nicer than being made to feel all of three inches tall for actually caring about something.
No one seemed to notice. No one asked. It became Chloe’s thing, more or less; sit back, smile politely, and let others hash out the dirty laundry topics. Politics? No, thank you. Religion? I’ll just be over here, getting myself another drink. She made a high school career of giggling and draping herself across the lap of anyone who would have her, putting all of her energy into making people feel happy, rather than into standing up for high-stress causes that might well blow up in her face anyway.
When she reached university, skipping her way into Barden with a brand-new futon and an open smile for her roommate—which Aubrey returned without much reservation, after noting the sheaf of sheet music crammed into Chloe’s backpack—it didn’t seem realistic to change the person she had spent four years being. That Chloe, while admittedly not prone to speaking about the election or student-faculty relations on campus, was silly, and boisterous, and had a lot of friends. That Chloe was happy; changing her now into someone who might be decidedly less so just didn’t seem reasonable.
Which is how, almost before she knows it, Chloe reaches the tail end of her junior year:
Quiet, and careful, and sort of overlooked.
It wasn’t exactly how she’d planned it.
Being a Bella probably should have changed all of that; Bella women are notorious for being strong, independent creatures with the voices of Aguilerian angels. Which Alice is—to an angry, violent sort of degree. Which Aubrey is—in an anxious, overwhelmed sort of way. Which Chloe is—
In her own mind, anyway.
The others don’t seem to see her in the same light. It doesn’t take long for Chloe to realize that her status in high school is not at all her status with the Bellas. In high school, she was bright, and bubbly, and people liked that about her, even if they quite obviously couldn’t put their finger on why. In high school, she was a beloved figurehead of sorts, despite her tendency to shy away from tough topics and arguments in general. She thinks it’s very possible that those tendencies actually birthed more friendships than she would have had otherwise; people, she’s realized, love talking about themselves, and love to surround themselves with friends who won’t pick their decision-making skills apart. It’s a support thing.
Which, for whatever reason, seems to be the opposite mode of operation from Alice and the other senior Bellas. From the very first moment she steps into her classy heels and tightens her pristine scarf around her neck, Chloe finds herself being shoved and hounded this way and that for exactly the things her high school friends seemed to love about her. Laura hates the way she smiles politely and lets other people finish their sentences. Jackie loathes her ability to duck gracefully away from any conversation requiring loud voices and tense jaws. And Alice?
Alice just seems to have it out for Chloe in general.
It isn’t that she expects to be handed solos right out the gate; she’s younger, and less experienced, and though her voice is steeped in God-given talent, she understands that other girls have put in the time and the manpower she hasn’t. She hasn’t earned a solo, and that’s fine. She is perfectly content singing background.
The thing is, as the years slide by, Chloe has to wonder: how much does it take to earn something like this? By the time she’s a sophomore, she has worked tirelessly through what feels like endless fundraising events, slaved over bone-breaking choreography, and hand-stitched an array of delicate variations on the Bellas’ classic uniform. By the time she’s a junior, she has run dry-cleaning, baked an astonishing number of cookies, purchased sheet music from three separate states, and replaced the tires on Alice’s car. She is, her team seems to believe, the definition of a Jack of All Trades—
And still, not a single solo.
An uneasily-disgruntled part of her wants to stand up and argue the point, particularly with finals on the horizon and the soon-to-graduate captains squabbling over who most deserves to take point on “I Saw the Sign.” The only problem is, speaking up tends to require the kind of backbone eight-year-old Chloe set carefully on a shelf under the violence of Kate’s glare. Speaking up risks people not liking you. Speaking up risks everything.
And though she understands Alice already can’t stand her—and her egg breath, which just seems unfathomable, given the Altoids she pops religiously throughout the day—and though Aubrey keeps digging an elbow into her side at rehearsal and giving her the go for it, girl eyebrows, Chloe finds herself unable to say a word. She simply smiles as sunnily as she can, and when Aubrey is given the solo at last—and a through-the-teeth reluctant admission into captainhood next year—she throws herself whole-heartedly into her best friend’s arms and squeals like it isn’t breaking her heart a little.
This is fine, she tells herself, with Aubrey’s face buried in her shoulder, Aubrey’s hyperventalations hot through her shirt. This is the way it was meant to be. Aubrey will be a terrific captain. And why would Chloe want that job, anyway?
This is so much better.
Aubrey-as-captain, it turns out, is a shock of a difference from Aubrey-her-best-friend. It’s still Aubrey in there, under all the hairspray and grinding teeth and the click-click-click of her palpable anxiety, but Chloe finds it sort of hard sometimes to believe this is the same young woman she’s had so many cuddle parties with over old episodes of Party of Five. It only serves to strengthen her resolve: not speaking up was the right course of action. If she had fought for this, who knows what state she’d be in—or, honestly, if her friendship with Aubrey would have survived?
Aubrey is the girl who has always known what she wanted. Aubrey is the girl with the classically-overbearing parents, and the staunch Republican home life, and the older sister who sets standards even a 4.0-student with honors in choir, volleyball, and the debate team can’t match. Aubrey is the girl with the luxurious blonde hair, and the straight white smile, and the stunningly incomprehensible belief that she is the least pretty girl in the room.
Aubrey fights for what she wants, and Chloe has no doubt that she would have fought even her best friend. Which is, in its own way, fairly admirable. Chloe wonders if she ever had it in her to be that person.
She doesn’t take long to come to a decision about senior year. No, she isn’t designed to be a leader, per se, but Aubrey—loathe though she may be to admit it—shouldn’t have to handle this whole thing alone. She fights for what she wants, but when she gets it, a certain panic seems to set in—particularly when what she wants is on par with the very thing she publicly humiliated herself at last year.
Chloe figures every superhero needs a sidekick, and that’s exactly what she’ll be for Aubrey. No, she’s never had a solo…or, admittedly, thrown up in front of a crowd of hundreds, but she’s got a ton of experience in just about every other aspect of Bellahood. And, more importantly, she’s got three years of Aubrey experience under her belt, giving her the fullest awareness of what Aubrey needs to feel confident and in control of her life. Things like caramel macchiatos on Monday mornings, and a hand to grab hold of when the copy machine acts up midway through making their fliers, and a copy of The Princess Bride magically appearing in her DVD player after a day spent dodging jeers and mimed vomiting. These are the things Chloe is good at, the things a friend is supposed to do, and she can tell Aubrey appreciates it from the way her smile goes loose and relaxed for the first time in a week.
Being a sidekick isn’t so bad. Not at all, in fact. There’s a lot less pressure, and a lot more room for teasing smiles and long hugs—Chloe things. Happy things. Things she can work with.
It’s the way the year is supposed to go: Aubrey running point, with her drive and her tenacity balanced by Chloe’s soothing words and behind-the-scenes calm. It’s going to get them back to New York, back to the winner’s circle. It’s going to be great.
She just doesn’t plan on Beca Mitchell being a part of it all.
Beca Mitchell doesn’t play nice.
Beca Mitchell doesn’t sit down or shut up. She doesn’t recognize the inherent truth of relationships that Chloe has come to embrace—that people want to hear what they want to hear, not what you feel, that people grow angry and frustrated when you speak your mind too much, that opinions are maybe not all the liberal media cracks them up to be. She doesn’t recognize that there is a stark difference between being confident in who you are and being a shitstarter. Beca Mitchell just doesn’t give a damn.
Aubrey can’t stand her from the start.
For a second there, Chloe honestly doesn’t understand why she doesn’t agree. Beca is everything she cut herself off from being before the sixth grade. Beca is vocal, and careless of other people’s judgments, and bitingly sarcastic. Beca wears what she wants to wear, listens to what she wants to listen to, and has absolutely no problem uttering the word no.
Chloe should find her as aggravating as Aubrey does.
Instead, all she wants to do, when Beca’s shadowed blue eyes meet her own, is smile.
She doesn’t understand Beca, with her knife-blade smiles and her thick makeup and her insistence that she doesn’t sing when she totally does, but that lack of understanding makes her fascinating. Fascinating, and lovely, and someone Chloe is finding herself almost relentlessly fixated on lately. Which is yet another thing she can’t explain, but doesn’t actually care to; it doesn’t matter. Beca is fantastic. Chloe likes fantastic.
Even if Beca does and says all the things Chloe can’t make herself step anywhere near.
“I don’t get you,” Beca tells her one afternoon, her elbows pressing into the chipped cafeteria table. “You’re so weird.”
Chloe knows Beca just well enough after a month of joint Bellahood to know this isn’t the insult it sounds like. She smiles around her straw.
“Yeah, but I’m a cute weird.”
Beca crooks a smile her way, sideways and more honest than Chloe thought she’d ever see four weeks ago. “And with a bangin’ bod.” She shakes her head, picks up a fry, stuffs it thoughtfully into her mouth. “I just mean…you talk, like, all the time.”
Chloe shrugs. “I like words.”
“Yeah, but you never really say anything,” Beca counters with a tilt of her head. Chloe feels her pleasant expression fade half a watt and snags a fry from Beca’s plate to cover the damage.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You just…” Beca blows out a breath and leans back in her chair. “You’re friends with Aubrey, right? Like, actual friends, like you hang out and stuff outside of Bellas rehearsals.”
She already knows the answer to this question. Chloe squirms a little in her chair, uncomfortably curious as to where this might be leading.
“Aubrey’s my best friend,” she replies, as if reading from a script. Beca sets to nodding instantly.
“Exactly. So why is it you never say a word to her that’s actually real?”
Chloe twists her face into an expression that’s meant to be confusion, but probably looks slightly peeved. Beca leans back even further in her chair, hands extended placatingly.
“Dude, hey, I’m not trying to piss you off.”
“I’m not pissed,” Chloe replies tightly. Beca arches a brow.
“Really? Because I’ve never seen you make a face that far from Sesame Street before.”
“I just don’t understand what you mean,” Chloe tells her, struggling to even out her facial expression. She doesn’t find many reasons to scowl, and Beca is almost always a cause for the exact opposite reaction, but it’s been kind of a strenuous week. First, Aubrey offered her a huge solo for their performance at regionals—huge, and made all the huger by Chloe not having sung alone on a stage since her high school rendition of Brigadoon—and then, not three days later, her doctor phoned back to tell her that, yes, the soreness in her throat was cause to worry, and could she please return to his office as soon as was convenient to discuss her nodes?
A rough week, to say the least; the aca-gods are practically throwing lightning bolts her way. So, if she isn’t feeling at her most Big Bird, she’ll have to be excused just this once.
She doesn’t say any of this out loud. It’s too terrible a trainwreck to voice just yet: to get her first solo in four years, only to find her throat misbehaving something awful immediately after! The shock of it is scarring.
“I mean,” Beca says, clearly thinking this out a word at a time, “you just…she kind of treats you…”
“She treats me fine,” Chloe interrupts, eyes blazing. She’s not mad, not really; it’s so hard for her to get mad, especially at someone like Beca, who is so uneasy with friendship, and so obviously trying to say the right thing. Beca is actually being pretty adorable, scruffing a hand through her tangled hair and wincing when one of her clunky silver rings catches. Expression clearing, Chloe stretches across the table to free her.
“She’s fine,” she repeats quietly, her fingertips pressed to the pulse point beneath Beca’s wristband. Beca’s arm goes still, her face pinkening at the contact. She’s plainly not so used to that yet, either. “She’s fine, and we’re fine, and it’s sweet of you to care.”
“I don’t,” Beca mumbles, as if remembering in a rush the persona she works so hard to maintain. Chloe smiles faintly, rubbing her thumb across Beca’s skin.
She expects Beca to drop it from there, and for a while, that’s exactly how it plays out. Beca doesn’t ask about her friendship with Aubrey, or question the realness of anything Chloe says. Beca doesn’t say much about it at all.
The thing is, Beca is still Beca, and Chloe is starting to realize that the Beca-ness of her is hell-bent on driving Aubrey completely crazy.
She doesn’t try at practice, is the first thing that Chloe notices. Beca knows the steps—knows the words, knows the dance moves, knows which oohs and ahhs she’s supposed to accentuate and when—but seems to have made something of a game of pretending otherwise. When Chloe grasps her around the wrists, or lays her palms against her hips, she goes fire-engine red and mumbles something about, I got this; when Aubrey fixes her with her most pointed glare, she smirks and shrugs her shoulders with faux-innocence. And when Aubrey speaks, the habitual chipping away Beca is doing at their captain’s sanity kicks itself into high gear.
“Why?” is her favorite question these days. Aubrey will tell them to pump up the cardio, or to practice runs between classes, or to rent The Sound of Music for inspiration on grace and poise, and Beca will slouch down even further in her folding chair, her skinny jean-clad legs spread wide, and simply ask, “Why?”
At which point Aubrey usually puffs out her cheeks, plants her feet sturdily into the floor, and scowls too hard to respond.
Chloe really doesn’t want to watch her new friend give her best friend an aneurysm. She catches hold of Beca’s arm one day, after she, and Fat Amy, and Stacie all seem to band together to drive Aubrey off the rails.
“You’re making her crazy, you know,” she says calmly, pressing herself against Beca’s side to avoid running into Stacie, who is delightedly groping herself to the beat of Cynthia Rose humming “Womanizer.”
“There’s no making Aubrey crazy,” Beca replies mildly. “She’s already there.”
Chloe giggles, then feels bad about it, because Aubrey can’t help being the way she is. She slaps at Beca’s arm, pleased when Beca grins back. “Be nice. She’s just trying to make winners of you sloppy ladies.”
“And that doesn’t include you?” Beca drawls. Chloe straightens her shoulders, tossing her hair.
“Of course not. I’m a picture of championship.”
Beca snorts out a laugh, and leans agreeably enough into the arm Chloe snakes around her midsection. For being so theoretically hardcore (a character trait Chloe is questioning more and more with each passing day), she is also undeniably tiny, which only makes Chloe want to grandly wrap her up and carry her around in her purse. It doesn’t seem to thrill Beca, exactly, but nor does she shy away with the fervor from their first meetings. Their relationship is, Chloe concedes, a work in progress.
“Anyway, I’m not making her crazy,” Beca goes on as they shuffle their way awkwardly out into the dimming sunset. “I just think someone needs to keep her from going all Corporal Crazypants on us, that’s all.”
“And that someone has to be you?” Chloe nudges Beca’s shoulder with her own. Beca stuffs her hands into her pockets, clumsy as she works around Chloe’s loosely-wound arm at her waist.
Chloe realizes she’s sort of stepped into this one, and immediately wishes she hadn’t. She knows what Beca wants to say—that it shouldn’t be Beca, a freshman with no real investment in the Bellas, keeping Aubrey’s power trip in check. She knows, and she really, really doesn’t want to hear it.
Beca is wonderful, and fascinating, and her hipbone feels strangely nice beneath Chloe’s palm, but this just isn’t her place.
Kate’s voice echoes in her head, dull and aggravated: I didn’t need you, Chloe. Spin. Exit stage left. How could Beca understand something that simple undoing something so big in the pit of who Chloe is?
“She’s doing a great job,” she says, before Beca can muster the words to start an argument. Chloe doesn’t do arguments. Chloe isn’t interested. She unwinds her arm from Beca’s middle and, before she can protest, links their fingers together instead. “Come on. I bought the Gilmore Girls boxset last week. We’re having a marathon.”
Beca makes a noise of half-hearted protest, but Chloe isn’t hearing it. She has vocal nodes, and her best friend is going half-mad, and there is a girl with a beautiful voice and stunning eyes gripping her hand tight. This is not the time to be unknotting ropes she tied off years and years ago. This is the time for sassy Lorelai Gilmore and nestling her head against Beca’s chest until she dozes off.
And if Beca says one more word about this standing up against Aubrey thing, she’s not getting even one peanut butter M&M, so help her God.
“I just want you to think about it,” Aubrey blurts. Her hair is tangled beneath a towel turban, her eyes bloodshot and manic. Chloe watches the stress ball she keeps flicking from one hand to the other, biting her lip and wondering how much help a stress ball really is if the stressed individual spends more time picking away at its foam covering than squeezing it.
“I am thinking about it,” she says when Aubrey pauses to breathe. “I promise.”
And she is—against her will, more or less, but all the same. Aubrey wants her to work out a way to hit those notes, despite her nodes. Aubrey, if that fails, wants her to find someone who can hit those notes. Aubrey wants them to win, and to win, she needs Chloe to come up with something, fast.
Aubrey wants, and Aubrey is going to get, no matter how Chloe feels about the matter.
“It’s crazy,” Beca insists the next day, when Chloe stops by without calling ahead first. She shouldn’t be bringing this to Beca, with her needling expectations as to how Chloe should be handling her status as second-in-command. She shouldn’t be bringing this to anyone, but she’s exhausted, and her mother keeps mailing her pamphlets on vocal cord surgery, and Aubrey is sleeping all of three hours a night, and it’s just hard.
It’s hard, and Beca’s hands are warm and strong as they catch hold of Chloe’s shoulders. “You’re not at your best,” she goes on, eyes zipping to Chloe’s throat. “You can’t expect yourself to—and she can’t expect—I mean, what kind of friend is that, anyway?”
Chloe narrows her eyes; Beca’s small hands falter. She sighs.
“I know she’s your best friend, but Chloe, this is nuts. She can’t expect you to perform this way when you’re not feeling well—“
“I feel fine,” Chloe says briskly, a direct contradiction to the panicked expression she knows she was wearing two minutes ago. Beca wouldn’t have reached for her for any other reason. Beca still isn’t there.
Where Beca is is this place that makes Chloe feel like her head’s not screwed on tight enough, like the person she’s been since the fourth grade is slowly scooting for the door, and like the replacement persona waiting in the wings just might not be strong enough to deal with all of this. She swallows hard, pasting on her brightest smile like Beca isn’t the one person on earth she can’t seem to fool.
“I just want you to be okay,” Beca tells her softly, eyes darting this way and that to avoid contact with Chloe’s own. “I know Aubrey’s great and everything, but she’s going off the deep end with this winning stuff, and if she could just change it up a little bit instead of pressuring you—“
Chloe knows she’s right. She doesn’t want to know it, but it doesn’t seem to matter; if they had different songs, in different keys, with a variation of notes—if they even left room for the other girls to take lead, instead of leaving it all to Aubrey and Chloe—if just a few tiny details could be budged out of place on Aubrey’s Map For Success—
But they can’t. Aubrey won’t listen to anyone, least of all a mouthy, stubborn freshman like Beca, and that’s that. It’s just the way it is. Alice and the others appointed this captainhood for a reason, and they’re just going to have to trust in it.
Even if it takes a little sacrifice here and there.
“You should take the solo,” she tells Beca, as enthusiastically as she’s able. Beca’s forehead creases.
“Yeah? Tell Aubrey that.”
“Okay,” Chloe replies simply, “I will.”
And she does. Because this is not the same as having an opinion, or picking a fight. Because this is what is best for the Bellas as a collective. And, also, because she can’t handle the way Beca stares at her all practice long, her face a mask of frustration and the kind of hope that makes Chloe’s spine go rigid.
Aubrey doesn’t take it well. Beca, predictably, starts another fight. The solo goes to Fat Amy.
Whatever; at least Chloe can stop killing herself over Gloria Estefan.
Regionals go all right; semi-finals, significantly less so. Chloe can’t understand why Aubrey insists on viewing any slight variation on the norm as blowing it, but facts are facts: Beca came reeling out of left field with her La Roux impression, and now they’re dancing on the edge of destruction.
It doesn’t hurt so much, losing out to those powder-blue hoodies and energy-infused dance moves. What does hurt is the way Beca looks at her, eyes big and irritated, mouth clenching into a wisp of a line. Beca looks at her like they haven’t spent the past few months becoming friends, like she hasn’t let her guard down enough for Chloe to realize what vulnerability lies beneath the ear studs and flannel shirts. Beca looks at her like she’s never fallen asleep with her body tucked back into Chloe’s arms, her cheek cushioned on one hand as Chloe’s breath matched her own.
Beca looks at her like her lips didn’t graze the corner of Chloe’s mouth last week, like they didn’t burst into nervous giggles and walk a foot apart until they’d reached her dorm room.
It breaks Chloe’s heart a little to see it, but not half as much as when she opens her mouth—utterly uncertain as to what she’s even going to say to fix something like this—and Beca shakes her off.
That crack about not pretending to be allowed to have a say stings so much more than she wants it to.
She follows Beca to the parking lot, her mind cranking those words over and over again on a loop. Kate’s voice is still in her head, dull and aggravated as ever—I don’t need you, it’s not your place, Chloe—but now, the familiar words are mashed together with Beca’s wounded pride. Beca, who very plainly did need her. Beca, who is in every way the opposite of Kate, though Chloe has never realized this until now.
“I’m sorry!” she blurts at Beca’s back, looking so prim and incorrect in her Bellas blazer. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know what to say!”
Beca freezes, fists bumping against the sides of her skirt. She stares forward for a stretching moment, away from Chloe, letting out a deep groan.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” she blurts, swiveling at last with rosy cheeks and fiery eyes. “You don’t get why I’m mad.”
‘Because I didn’t stand up for you,” Chloe recites, biting at the inside of her cheek when Beca stalks right up into her personal bubble—damn, I’ve broken her for real—and jabs a finger under her nose.
“That isn’t it. That isn’t it at all, god, Chloe. I don’t care that you don’t stand up for me, or for any of those girls. We can take care of ourselves. Big Bad Aubrey isn’t some evil we can’t handle.”
Chloe wants to object that it isn’t fair, that Aubrey isn’t evil at all, but Beca is wearing this dangerous half-smile, like she’s so angry she might burst into hysterical laughter and stalk away forever. She sinks her teeth into her tongue, tasting copper and embarrassment.
“I’m pissed off because you refuse to stand up for you,” Beca snaps. “I’m pissed because you are this amazing, confident, beautiful woman, and you are at least as talented and as respected as Aubrey is, and you refuse to give her even a glimpse of what is in your head. It isn’t fair, Chloe.”
As if fair has anything to do with any of this. As if fair has ever counted for much. If life were fair, Kate would have thrown her arms around her tiny redheaded white knight all those years ago, and Chloe’s father wouldn’t have succumbed to a brutal bout of cancer, and Alice wouldn’t have nicknamed her Egg Breath, and vocal nodes would have struck someone who doesn’t consider music to be her religion, and—
The tears are welling up too fast to be tamed. She sniffs them back, arms wrapped around herself in the chilly night air. Beca gives that huffing eyeroll she always lets out when emotions find their way onto her battleground, and reaches out to pull Chloe in close.
Her hugs are always so awkward and bumbling, but Chloe presses her face against Beca’s neck and inhales the scent of sweat and perfume tangled in her scarf anyway.
“You’re better than this, Chloe,” Beca mumbles into her shoulder. “You’re talented, and sweet, and you deserve better than this. She treats you like a lapdog, and you don’t have to take it. You just need to believe that.”
She tips her head up, stumbling as she tries to rear up in her heels, and moves for a second like she might recreate that clumsy not-kiss from last week. At the last second, she twists her head away, lips tight in that thin, unwavering line.
“Think about it,” is the last thing she says before extricating herself from Chloe’s arms and resuming her solo stomp across the parking lot.
Chloe doesn’t stop thinking about how small she looked, making her way into the shadows, for days.
She doesn’t speak to anyone over Spring Break. Aubrey leaves her forty-three text messages and six emails; Amy sings the entirety of “American Pie” on her voicemail (split into six segments); Cynthia Rose sends her a crisp, official-looking invitation to what looks suspiciously like an underground casino night. Chloe doesn’t respond to any of them. She’s got things to take care of, and having anyone clouding her perspective is just not going to help.
The surgery comes first, because Beca’s voice keeps ringing in her head, telling her over and over that her health is more important than perfecting a heart-stopping rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” Not to mention the way her mom keeps looking at her; at least three times a day, Chloe comes around one corner or another of the house to find baleful green eyes staring at her like her mother is already planning the funeral. Which is ridiculous, of course, but after her father…
She has her father’s eyes. Her father’s hair. His love of song. No wonder her mom can’t seem to wrap her head around the word benign.
She has the surgery done, and when she wakes to an email from Beca—no words, just a couple of attached songs that are very plainly Beca’s mixes—it makes her head hurt even worse than her throat.
For all the people striving to get her attention, Beca is offering complete radio silence. She hasn’t so much as texted, and apart from this email, Chloe was starting to assume she had kicked the Barden dust from her high-tops and moseyed out west instead. Chloe’s chest tightens at the idea, her fingers regularly skimming Beca’s contact page in her phone, but she can’t seem to work up the nerve to reach out.
She feels like such a mess, like everything she’s worked up to for years of her life is some kind of finely-crafted lie. It always made so much sense, to keep quiet, to smile instead of fight, to love instead of argue. It always made so much sense, until Beca strolled into her life and demanded her very favorite question: Why? Why does Chloe see herself in such a bright light, and yet is content to sit in shadows? Why does Chloe know how amazing she is, and still allow Aubrey to strip the equality from their friendship? Why doesn’t Chloe, who loves the Bellas with everything she is, share any of the songs or steps or thoughts in her head?
It was never worth questioning until Beca, with her tiny smiles and her knack for mixing everything up. And now Chloe is on her childhood bed, in her childhood room, staring at the Josie and the Pussycats poster tacked to her lopsided bedroom door and wondering when she accidentally let herself become Val instead of Josie.
She wonders what her father would think of this.
She wonders what her father would think of Beca.
She wonders if Beca is ever coming back.
More than anything, she wonders what’s going to happen when they meet up for the first Bellas rehearsal before they drag themselves all the way to the Lincoln Center.
Something, she thinks with the first stab of determination in far too long, has got to change.
She doesn’t intend to leap into the fray with both guns blazing and her frustrations settled neatly on her sleeve. She doesn’t intend to have this conversation with Aubrey in a public setting at all. The way she has it plotted out in her head, it involves dinner at their apartment, and calm voices, and her hand placed reassuringly on Aubrey’s arm.
It involves pacifism and a gentle nudge in the direction of equal footing.
It does not involve the words Beca was right.
That’s probably her first mistake—the last remaining squawk of protest in the back of her mind is all too aware—but the phrase passes her lips before she can register it, check its bags, make sure it isn’t carrying any explosives strapped beneath its clothing. It’s out in the world, ringing in Aubrey’s ears, and she can’t take it back.
Nor, she is startled to realize, does she want to.
Aubrey is gaping at her like Chloe has just slapped her in the face, and Chloe finds it enormously satisfying in some crazy, guilt-inducing way. She’s never seen Aubrey look this jolted. Then again, she’s never spoken to Aubrey this way in her life.
She meant to address this like an adult, all neat points and casual smiles to lighten the blows, but once Beca was right passes her lips, all bets seem to be off. She finds herself ranting, her voice escalating to pitches she isn’t technically allowed to reach so soon after surgery, even going so far as to swear at Aubrey. And Aubrey stands there, dumbfounded, looking a little like Doug-or-Mark-or-Phil did in that brief moment before he collapsed into laughter.
Except Aubrey hasn’t spent more than the last decade of her life quashing down all impulses toward arguments, so Aubrey doesn’t stay quiet for long. Before she knows it, Chloe isn’t just shouting; she is lunging at Aubrey, scrambling for the pitch pipe, heedless of the fact that she just encouraged her best friend to dispel the contents of her stomach all over their rehearsal space. This whole thing has gone pretty decidedly to hell, and all that’s left of her chilled-out state is a mind-numbing rage.
She isn’t just scrabbling with Aubrey; she’s yanking the hair of Kate, of Alice, even of Beca—of every girl she has ever wanted to speak her mind to, and didn’t. She is shouting herself hoarse, probably doing irreversible damage to her precious vocal cords, because she should have been shouting like this for years. She should have told Kate that it isn’t a bad thing to care about someone, and she should have told Alice that she deserved better than to be treated like an indentured servant, and she should have told Beca that she was right, but that it was Chloe’s problem, and how is it fair to draw someone in like that and just walk away, anyway?
She imagines she can hear Beca’s voice in her head, telling her to calm down. She imagines she can hear the voice she’s been dreaming about for a week, calling her name, asking that famous why question that Beca is so in love with. She imagines—
She realizes in a harried rush that it isn’t her imagination; Beca really is here, in a scarf and a jacket and a bewildered expression that perfectly suits this whole crazy thing. She’s still got a hold on Aubrey, her hair plastered to her forehead, her breath slinking out of her lungs in wild gasps. She probably looks like a crazy person.
Beca stares at her. Chloe, using only the power of her frazzled mind, tries her very best to convey the reality of the situation: I tried. I did what you said. I stood up for myself.
Slowly, inappropriately, Beca smiles.
Aubrey handing artistic control over to Beca is just about the best thing to happen to them all year. Chloe, who has lived the majority of her life in a state of never fight, never argue, never ruffle feathers, finds it a little bit ironic that it took her breaking every rule in her book to get everything running so smoothly, but Beca keeps beaming at her with uninhibited pride, and that makes it feel kind of okay.
Even better, Aubrey hasn’t stalked off to her swingset and left Chloe to feel miserable and worthless. Aubrey’s apologetic hug is just as emphatic as it was the first day they met, and even when Chloe tells her that Beca is working out a way to make sure every voice in the group can be distinctly heard, she doesn’t scowl or pull away. She only nods thoughtfully and swivels back to YouTube, scrolling through a list of songs Chloe has never seen on Aubrey’s meticulously-maintained iPod.
For the first time since the explosion after semi-finals, Chloe has the sense that this is really going to work. She invites Beca to the apartment on Friday, and the three of them don’t emerge again until Monday morning. They stay holed up in their miniscule living room—Beca with her hair a frenetic mess, her headphones around her neck, wearing one of Chloe’s old track hoodies and a pair of jeans that are more hole than denim; Aubrey, pacing from the couch to the coffee maker, her glasses sliding down her nose and her mouth running until nearly three in the morning; Chloe, bundled in sweatpants and a sports bra, sitting on Beca’s lap and half-blocking the screen of her MacBook as she spouts ideas. They must look ridiculous, unshowered, and sincerely incapable of pulling together a winning routine—
But, against all odds, contrary to every bleak thought in Chloe’s head over Spring Break, they do more than pull it together. They give Lilly the chance to shine on beatbox, and Cynthia Rose a killer rap, and Stacie some lines to go full-on sex appeal over. Everyone is heard. Everyone moves in tandem. There are no half-asleep kicks, no hand-hearts; Chloe can’t remember the last time sweat poured down her face this way.
It's worth it. When she gets on that stage and sings her designated lines, and feels the heat of Beca’s proud smile, she swears she can feel Alice twitch from miles away. She swears she can hear her father’s whistle in the crowd, and see Kate’s expression of amazement.
Beca’s hand tangles around hers when their names are announced as this year’s champions. Aubrey shrieks so loudly in her ear that Chloe instinctively spins to catch her, lest she faint right there onstage. All around her, the world is cacophonous.
Beca’s smile stretches to engulf her entire face, her eyes and cheeks illuminated with sheer joy. It seems only natural for Chloe’s arms to encircle her neck, her mouth slanting across that grin until Beca rises on the toes of her Chuck Taylors and digs her nails into the lapels of Chloe’s shirt.
Beca has a voice; it’s what drew Chloe to her from the very beginning, and it’s what kept her invested all year long. Beca has a voice, and a style, and a zinging, powerful desire to stand up for whatever she finds herself loving. Beca has a voice—and, for the longest time, Chloe thought that was the biggest difference between them. Beca spoke up. Chloe remained quiet. End of story.
It’s amazing, how far she’s come from believing in all of that. It’s amazing, that one tiny girl with enormous headphones and the habit of speaking her mind, regardless of consequence, could remind her of what she forced herself to forget almost fifteen years ago.
Beca Mitchell isn’t the only one with a voice.
Chloe Beale, for the first time since she was eight years old, begs to be heard.
So what if it’s taken her all year to figure that out? She’s a champion now. Her best friend hasn’t spoken over her in weeks. And the girl with the headphones and the smart mouth has her hands in Chloe’s hair, her tongue flicking cautiously across Chloe’s bottom lip until she sighs.
So what if it sometimes takes a little time to find your words?