She knows Beca hates seeing her cry, so she holds it together just long enough to hear the garage door snap shut. Then she’s bawling into Aubrey’s shoulder. Aubrey’s crying too. She can feel it in the shuddering breaths puffing against her temple. “Bree, I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too. I’m so glad you could make it. I couldn’t do this without you.”
She sniffles, pulling back enough to see Aubrey’s face. She wipes at Aubrey’s tears with her thumbs. “Of course I made it. I’d rather die than miss your wedding.”
Aubrey laughs. It’s a wider, more open laugh than Chloe remembers from college. Jesse really is good for her friend. “That’s exactly what you would have done if you missed it.” She playfully wraps her fingers around Chloe’s throat and shakes her.
Chloe chuckles, grabbing Aubrey’s wrists. “Are the other girls here already?”
Aubrey’s hands fall to her shoulders. “All except Lilly and Flo. They apparently went on a trip together and won’t be back in the country until next week.”
It feels like college all over again as Aubrey crosses the room and settles daintily onto the foot of Chloe’s bed. The years between them have disappeared, just like the miles. Her ribs ache, like there’s too much behind them. It’s a feeling she knows well. From the nights spent watching her parents through the slats on the stairs as they danced in the living room, when they thought everyone was asleep. From the Bellas first practice where they really nailed their routine and they’d stood in a circle, smiling like lunatics. From the day she’d stood in the doorway of her and Beca’s apartment for the first time after signing the lease, the hem of Beca’s jacket clutched between her fingers, because that was all the touch Beca had allowed back then. It’s her favorite ache in the whole world.
“God, this place is like a time capsule,” Aubrey says. She twists, glancing over the desk and all of Beca’s equipment. “Except for this.”
She wanders over, running her finger along the cord of Beca’s headphones. “Yeah, well you missed the time when Mamma turned this place into her exercise gym.”
Aubrey’s laugh echoing around the room feels a little like home. “So. Beca.”
“I know we’ve covered this many times, but are you sure you want to do this, Chloe?” Her hands are folded in her lap, her back rigid as ever. But she’s chewing on her lip in a very un-Aubrey-like way. “Look, you know I know more than anyone else about what happened with Tom back then--”
Chloe drops into her desk chair, spinning it around once. “I know. But I think it will be easier this way. You know how he is.”
Aubrey hums noncommittally. She really does know more than anyone else. “I don’t know if this will work. Maybe if you’d brought a guy--”
“It will work.” There’s not a lot that Chloe hates, but the way she feels when she thinks about Tom? That dark, twisty feeling in her stomach? Yeah, she hates that. “Enough about me. Is your father coming to the wedding? Last time we talked, you weren’t sure.”
There’s a moment where Chloe thinks Aubrey might tell her the truth. Her shoulders drop a little and her mouth opens, but before whatever she’s going to say can slip out, she snaps her mouth closed again. The General’s Daughter pops right back into place and Aubrey smiles. “Of course. He’s finishing up some things in Spain right now, then he’s headed right over.”
Instead of calling her out, Chloe just smiles back. “Will he be giving you away?”
“Ah, yes!” Her thumbs press together until the tips turn white. “He promised. Besides, who else would do it?”
Chloe shrugs. “Cynthia Rose?”
They laugh and Aubrey’s posture slumps a little. The relaxed, easy Aubrey from long college weekends where they’d needed to get away from school. “Is this where Stacie would make a Daddy joke?”
“Probably. Do you want to go ask her?”
“You know, I do think I saw her outside when we were headed up.”
Chloe laughs and moves from the chair, curling up on the bed and pressing into Aubrey’s side. “We can ask her later. For now, let’s catch up. You never finished telling me how Jesse proposed.”
“Oh, lord. Well, after he found his shirt--”
By the time Aubrey’s finished recounting the proposal and Chloe has ranted about school, it’s nearly dinner time.
“We better go. Mamma Beale will send the dogs for us if not.” Aubrey climbs off the bed, where they’d ended up propped against the headboard in a “cuddle puddle” as Chloe called it. “I should probably find my fiance, as well, before your girlfriend steals him.”
Chloe laughs. “I honestly don’t think Beca would know what to do with him if she got him. I’ve never seen her so much as blink at someone unless she had to.” She leads the way downstairs and out into the yard. The sun’s lower, sitting on the horizon and casting everything in a deep orange. Aubrey’s arm links through hers.
The backyard’s been filled with picnic tables, set up end to end. More of her family’s arrived and she gets stopped every few feet to say hello to cousins and “cousins” (which are really just old friends of the family or long-time neighbors). But then there’s a rousing cheer from the back porch and the Bellas come pouring down it, a tidal wave of somehow harmonizing screams.
“Chloe!” Emily screeches, reaching her first on her long legs and crashing into both Chloe and Aubrey. More bodies slam into the hug until they’re all tilting and stumbling to stay on their feet, laughs she hasn’t heard in a while echoing in her ears and in her chest. She grips every hand or shoulder she finds--and boob, once, but she isn’t sure whose it is and nobody complains. (So probably Stacie.)
“Ginger root, I can’t tell ya how good it is to squish you again,” Fat Amy says, her thick Australian accent pressed into Chloe’s hair.
Cynthia Rose’s hoarse chuckle is in her other ear. “New York treatin’ you good? Anybody we need to kill?”
Blinking through the tears, Chloe finds Ashley and Jessica’s faces, placing a hand on each. “No, no. No killing. You’d have to beat Beca to it anyways.”
“Speaking of,” Aubrey says, looking around. “Where is she?”
“Who’s Beca?” Fat Amy glances around, like she expects to find someone wearing a sign that says, “I’m Beca.”
“Oh, yeah. I just call her ‘Ginger’s mate’ or ‘Shortstack’ in my head.”
Mamma Beale appears in their Bella circle like magic, an arm around Cynthia Rose. “Beca rode into town with Jesse and Uncle Lew. Someone forgot to pick up more drinks at the store earlier.”
“In my defense,” Fat Amy says, hands up. “I thought about grabbing them, but then I thought about grabbing snack cakes. And here we are.”
Chloe pulls her phone from her back pocket and sure enough, there's a text from Beca. "Running into town with Snitchson and your crazy uncle. My will is with my lawyer." She laughs, sending a string of hearts back and looking up. Through a gap in the bodies surrounding her, Chloe catches sight of broad shoulders and dark hair bending over one of the picnic tables. His face turns just enough that she can see his playful grin, just as full of mischief as it had been since their first year of college. She looks away quickly.
Aubrey notices, because she always does, and she grips Chloe’s hand tightly, grinning. “Let’s get some seats before more of the clan shows up or something.”
“Excuse you, this is all I invited,” Mamma huffs. “My Chloe is home and everyone wanted to see her.” She cups Chloe’s cheeks, smiling so widely her eyes nearly disappear. “My Chloe.”
Mamma hugs her and the Bellas pile on for another group hug. God, she’s missed these.
The Bellas have dispersed and Mamma has snatched Aubrey for something inside. Chloe’s listening to her cousin Terry talk about his graduation party when someone taps her on the shoulder. She turns around, smiling, already leaning in for a hug.
But she pulls back a full step when she finds Tom grinning down at her, holding a red Solo cup against his chest. “Tom.”
“Hey, Chloe.” If he noticed her backing away, he doesn’t comment, but he does fill that space back up, stepping forward. “It’s been too long.”
She hums, forcing herself to smile. Someone calls Terry’s name and he excuses himself, leaving Chloe standing under the big red maple her father’s grandparents had planted when they were kids. She suddenly wishes she hadn’t strayed so far from the main group.
“I’ve missed you.” His voice is low, like he’s sharing a secret. Like they’re eighteen again and sneaking into each other’s dorms.
“You too,” she says, because she should. “Where’s Barb?”
He turns, looking around, and she takes another step away, back toward the tables. They’re not really far away, but far enough that the conversation feels private. And that makes her stomach twist painfully.
Tom turns back, blinking when she’s not where he left her and swinging a bit more around until he finds her. “Talking to your aunt by the food.”
“That’s nice. I should go say hi. I haven’t seen her since college.” She steps around him, fully intending to do just that, despite how much she dislikes Barb.
His hand closes around her arm and there’s a moment where she feels like it’s senior year again and he’s saying she’s being irrational as she tries to storm from his dorm after another of their fights. She tenses, turning back so fast that her curls fly out around her. “Tom--”
A truck horn blares and Tom jumps, letting her go as Uncle Lew’s truck comes sliding to a halt right beside the tree. People around them cheer as Uncle Lew waves from the driver’s seat.
But it’s the bed of the truck that Chloe’s looking at.
Because Jesse’s seated against the tailgate, his long arms wrapped over it and Beca is perched up on the big diamond-plated toolbox along the back window, her hair windswept, her cheeks red. And the truck’s barely stopped moving before she places a hand on the side and hops right out, heavy boots kicking up dust as she jogs over. It’s such a weird thing to see Beca doing--hopping out of trucks, jogging--that Chloe doesn’t realize right away that Beca’s headed for her.
Not until she’s there and plowing into Chloe hard enough to stagger her back a few feet, her hands on Chloe’s hips keeping them upright. Her laugh is low and Chloe almost misses it. But then it’s pressed against her lips and she doesn’t think she’s ever liked Beca’s laugh more.
It’s a weird thing to know about her best friend--that Beca kisses with slightly parted lips, that she breathes in through her nose as she changes the angle just a bit, that when Chloe gasps, she accepts it easily, swallowing the sound. That the muscles in her shoulders jump a little when Chloe presses back. Thumbs press into her hips and she can feel one of Beca’s fingers curl into a belt loop, tugging softly.
Despite being a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, Chloe never thought those kisses in books were real. The ones where the character forgets there are other people around, where their entire body feels like it’s been set on fire and filled with warm water all at once.
But Beca’s lips slide soft across her own and all Chloe can focus on is running her hands up into Beca’s hair, her thumb drifting over the rapidly beating pulse in her neck. That soft hum in the back of Beca’s throat when Chloe’s nails drag across the base of her skull.
And maybe she should be surprised, shocked even. That Beca’s kissing her at all, that Beca initiated it. But Beca tastes like the caramel candies she likes to stash all over their apartment and it doesn’t feel surprising. It feels like home.