Just as Amy is finishing up her story, Mamma comes over with a tray of sweet rolls. She pauses beside them. “Eli will be down in just a minute. Fair warning.”
Chloe covers her mouth until she finishes chewing. “I was wondering where he was. Uncle Lew said he’s been excited all day but then I didn’t see him. Thought he’d forgotten I was coming home.”
Mamma laughs. “No. I just told him if he didn’t finish cleaning his room, he couldn’t go to the lake with you guys tomorrow. Hope you’ve been brushing up on your sign language.” She wanders off, following Uncle Andy’s call for more rolls.
“Sign language?” Beca whispers, sitting up straighter. “You never told me your brother’s deaf.”
Chloe smiles, twisting on the bench to face her better. There’s a bit of ketchup in the corner of Beca’s mouth. She grabs a napkin with one hand and Beca’s chin with the other. “He’s not.” She wipes the smear away, ignoring Beca’s squirming. “He just likes to learn things. Really throws himself into whatever he wants to pick up. And there’s a girl at school that he likes. She’s deaf so he’s been taking classes so he can flirt with her.”
“Oh my god,” Beca squints into the distance. “He sounds like you and Stacie’s love child.”
Stacie snorts, spraying beer across the table.
“Bitch, my hair!” Cynthia Rose growls, arms over her head.
“CHLOEEEE!” Eli’s screech echoes across the yard. He comes sprinting off the back porch, his red hair flopping across his freckled face, his blue eyes wide and shining.
“ELI!” Chloe leaps up, using Beca as an unwilling and protesting springboard. She meets him halfway, snatching him up in her arms. He’s gotten so tall since the last time she was home. His toes bump the top of her shins as she swings him around.
“I’ve been trying to come see you all afternoon!” He wiggles until she drops him and squints for a second. Then he starts signing as he speaks, much faster than she expected. He’s only been taking classes for a month. “I’m glad you’re home. I missed you!”
“I missed you too, buddy.” She squeezes his cheeks, pushing his head back and forth.
He swats her away and twists his hands in more signs she doesn’t understand until he speaks. “Where’s your girlfriend? Uncle Lew said she’s a music producer?” His signs get a little slower toward the end, like he’s not sure he’s doing them correctly.
“Wow, okay. So glad you’re happy to see me, your only sister!”
His eyes widen and he drops the sign language, reaching for her arms. “No, no! No, I am happy to see you!” As if to prove it, he wraps himself around her waist and squeezes as tight as his ten-year-old frame can. “I am, Chlo!”
She laughs, rubbing his back. “I’m kidding. Come on. I’ll introduce you.” Leaning back, she catches his eye. “But, E, listen. She doesn’t really like being touched, so I’m gonna limit you to one hug, okay?”
That makes him pout, but he follows her back to her spot at the tables. Loud as he could be, he’s always been a little shy with new people, so she’s not surprised to feel his hand slip into her own.
Beca’s arguing with Stacie (“Dude, stop touching my plate--”, “I put those potatoes on there for me, not you!”). Chloe stops beside them, pulling Stacie’s ponytail.
Stacie gasps and leans her head back to glance up at Chloe. “Ma’am, your girlfriend is right here.”
Beca is too busy grabbing her potatoes back to notice.
“Beca?” She looks up, a potato chunk held between her teeth. “This is my little brother, Elijah.”
Beca nods, closing her mouth around the potato and sucking it into her cheek. Then, because she’s full of surprises today, Beca salutes. Then she slides her palms together, curls her hands into loose fists with her forefingers up and bumps them against each other, and points to Eli.
And Eli lights up like the Fourth of July sky. His hands are almost shaking as he lifts them and signs something back, too fast for Chloe to register.
Beca chuckles and responds, her long fingers twisting through the air deftly as she finishes chewing her food.
Eli goes silent, verbally and physically, just staring at Beca with a huge grin on his face. Since one of his top teeth started coming in crooked, he rarely smiles that big anymore.
“You speak sign language?” Chloe can feel her own face stretching into a matching smile.
Beca shrugs, her head bobbing to the side in one of her “I didn’t mean to make conversation about myself” ways. “My grandpa was deaf. On Mom’s side.” She lifts her eyebrows and signs something to Eli.
He busts out laughing, his whole body rocking back a step.
And as Beca smirks and translates for Chloe (“I said my grandpa never shut up.”), Chloe realizes she was wrong all those other times she thought she couldn’t love her best friend more.
Chloe spends the rest of the night swinging back and forth between greeting family members, clinging to each of the Bellas like a koala, and wrapping herself in every touch Beca lets her have.
While Chloe is catching up with her cousin, Todd, she leans back and Beca’s there, steady against her shoulder. Moving from one group of family members to another, Chloe slips her fingers through Beca’s and Beca just squeezes gently. When Chloe finds Beca talking to Cynthia Rose, who she seems to really have hit it off with, she wraps herself around Beca’s back and presses a quick kiss to the tip of her ear. And Beca doesn’t even blink. Just settles back against her as she and Cynthia Rose debate which keyboard is better--the Yamaha P115 or the Casio PX860. She loves it when Beca talks music.
So does Eli, it turns out. He’s barely left Beca’s side since they met. He politely lets them talk to every cousin and neighbor that comes by, but the second they’re gone he has rapid-fire questions about sign language, about music, about Beca’s job. And it warms something deep in her chest every time Beca patiently answers his questions or randomly thinks of a fact he’d like when they’re talking about something else. Eli also completely disregards his one hug limit, wrapping his arms around Beca almost every chance he gets. She can't really blame him. Despite Beca's many claims over the years that she doesn't like hugs, she's the most huggable person Chloe knows.
She sees Tom only once more, as he’s heading out. Barb is on his arm and, wow, she really does look different. Chloe had always thought she was pretty, but when Aubrey said she had become a supermodel, it had been a little hard to picture. It’s easy now, with her perfectly coiffed curls and her slender legs. She’s tanner and taller and her dress looks like it costs more than Chloe’s school tuition (which is A LOT). Tom glances her way as he climbs into his truck, grinning.
Chloe looks away, turning her back on him.
And Beca’s there, smirking as she holds out an open bottle of beer. “You know,” she says, stepping closer. “You don’t look drunk enough for a family reunion.”
This is one of the main reasons Beca’s her best friend. She’s always there when it matters. “I am four beers in already. Are you trying to get me drunk?”
Beca shrugs, shaking the bottle. “Drunk er , yeah. Chug, chug, chug,” she chants under her breath, bouncing on her heels. She must have had a few more than Chloe thought.
She grins and grabs the beer, taking a big swig.
“That’s more like it, Beale. Bottoms up!”
Chloe laughs and wraps her finger through Beca’s belt loop, tugging. “You just don’t want to be the only one drunk.”
“I am not drunk.” Beca stretches her arms out to the sides, then tucks one in at a time, touching her nose with a finger. She grins when Chloe giggles. “But I am working on it.”
Chloe tugs her belt loop harder and Beca staggers a step. “I’m liking this side of you today. It’s cute.”
“It is not, you take that back.” Beca bristles, chest puffing out. It completely ruins her argument.
“Nope. You’re adorable.”
“I’m not!” Beca laughs, one eye closing.
“You’re getting even cuter, Becs.”
“Wow, Beale. I’m really sorry.”
“That you’re single now.”
The Beales filter out fairly quickly once the dishes have been taken care of and goodbyes have been said. Chloe knows Beca’s overwhelmed and probably won’t remember a single name she’s learned today. But Beca smiles at every redhead that walks up to shake her hand or pull her into a hug. Chloe thinks she should get her some kind of gift to make up for what she’s sure Beca will later call “trauma”.
Once the last car leaves, Eli is detached from Beca’s hip, and Mamma Beale has retired to her “sweet, sweet dreams”, the Bellas--plus Beca and Jesse--gather in the backyard around the firepit. They settle on logs and sun chairs, on wide, wicker settees dragged from the back porch. Cynthia Rose and Ashley gather blankets from the closet in the garage and hand them out.
Chloe finds herself just a little drunk and tucked into Beca’s side on one of the settees. She adjusts the cushion behind her as Jesse passes them a blanket. “Thank you.” She spreads the blanket over herself and Beca, tucking it up around her shoulders. Beca must be drunker than she says she is, because she doesn’t even pretend to protest as Chloe slides down and rests her head on Beca’s chest.
Her heartbeat is steady beneath Chloe’s ear. She tries to count the beats, closing her eyes.
“So, Chloe. Why didn’t you mention sooner that your roommate was also your bedmate?” Cynthia Rose wiggles her eyebrows, kicking her feet up on the edge of their settee.
“Beca’s shy,” Chloe says, patting Beca’s stomach under the blanket.
“Yeah, I’m shy,” Beca adds amicably.
Stacie, sitting on a sun chair beside them, reaches out and pets Beca’s head. Under her, Beca growls and jerks away from Stacie. Which, coincidentally, pushes her farther into Chloe’s arms. Gift horse, she thinks.
“You know who’s not shy?” Stacie says. “Your cousin, Zack. He was hitting on me all night.”
Aubrey kicks Stacie’s ankle. “Don’t you dare.”
“Hey, he was hitting on me!”
Fat Amy snorts. “That’s usually all it takes, isn’t it?”
Stacie launches into a protest that literally all of the Bellas start shooting down.
Chloe giggles, listening to them throw around examples of all the times Stacie’s “hunter” got them into trouble and snuggling closer to Beca.
Nights in Georgia can get so cold and it’s chilly out, but Beca and their blanket are so warm. The buzz in her system is telling her to get closer to that warmth.
So she does. Before she can question it too much, she slips her hand into Beca’s flannel and pulls up the side of her tank top. When her fingertips brush Beca’s skin, the brunette gives a soft murmur. It’s quiet and lost in Chloe’s hair so nobody else hears. But Chloe takes it as permission and presses harder, drawing nonsensical patterns into Beca’s side. Over the curve of her hip, up to the base of her ribs.
Maybe it’s the alcohol. Maybe it’s the firelight and the laughs echoing in the now dark yard. Maybe it’s their warm little pocket of space under the thick, woolen blanket. Maybe it’s something else her brain doesn’t have the energy to think up right now. But whatever it is, Beca completely melts the second Chloe’s finger swirls over her skin. Her breath hisses out and her arm drops from the back of the settee onto Chloe’s side. Her other hand moves to Chloe’s elbow, just holding gently.
It’s thrilling. Like crossing a finish line. Chloe presses a smile into Beca’s collarbone.
They retire in pairs. Ashley and Jessica first, then Fat Amy and Cynthia Rose, all headed for the guest rooms inside. Beca’s dozed off, her head dropped back over the edge of the settee.
Stacie stands and stretches. “Okay. I’m out. Gimme her.” She wiggles her fingers at Beca. “I’ll put Dad to bed first.”
“‘Dad’?” Beca grunts, one eye popping open. “Did you just call me ‘Dad’?”
“Uh, of course not. I said ‘bad’. ‘Cause you’re a badass, Beca Mitchell.” Stacie catches Chloe’s eyes, widening her own.
“Oh. Okay.” Beca lets Stacie take her arm and pull her up. Chloe hides her smirk in the blanket as Beca tugs her shirt down. She spins around and grins. “Goodnight, Chlo.”
“Night, Bec. I’ll be up in a little bit.”
Beca shoots finger guns at her, one eye closed.
“Oh, god. She’s wasted.” Stacie carefully guides Beca around the firepit and toward the garage. “Come on. Let me take you to bed.”
“Don’t you threaten me, Conrad.”
Their voices fade as they cross the yard, leaving Chloe alone with Aubrey and Jesse.
They’re so cute, Chloe can barely handle them. Aubrey’s always been so uptight, so stiff and poised. Always prepared for her father to walk into the room, her therapist said. But here, bathed orange by the fire, she’s so soft. She’s curled into Jesse’s side, one hand resting on his chest. His arms are wrapped around her, a beer in each hand--one for each of them.
She remembers when she met Jesse, at the auditions for the a cappella groups at Barden. He stepped out on stage and Aubrey went more rigid than she’d ever seen her. By the time he finished singing, Chloe was planning their wedding.
Which, coincidentally, she is now helping with. “Bree, I’m so happy for you guys.”
“Mmm,” Aubrey murmurs, lifting her head from Jesse’s shoulder. “I am too.” Her voice is almost too quiet to hear over the crackling fire and she has eyes only for Jesse. She presses a kiss to his cheek, lingering. His eyes slide closed and that boyish grin of his breaks across his face like the sunrise--blinding and beautiful.
Okay, maybe Chloe’s a little more than a little drunk. She gives them a few quiet moments, wrapping her blanket tighter around her shoulders and pulling out her phone. There’s a couple Snapchats from Stacie.
The first is a video. Beca is sitting on the edge of Chloe’s bed, tugging at one of her boots. “--call yourself ‘Daddy’, Stacie. I really hate it. Like, it freaks me out, dude.” Her boot comes off and Beca grunts, falling back on the bed as the boot flies over her head. Stacie’s laugh echoes from the phone.
There’s another video of Beca in the bathroom. She’s changed into a large t-shirt and some plaid shorts, and she’s brushing her teeth, mumbling around the brush, “Like, I’m sure it works for other people. But I don’t like it.”
A picture of Beca follows, her face pressed into the pillow her arms are wrapped around. Her eyes are closed, her lips slightly parted. Chloe screenshots that one and shoots Stacie a quick thank you.
There’s also a text from Beca that just says, “ Tel Stac to leave me allone pls. Im tired. ”
“Chloe, you know, I think I like Beca.” Aubrey has pulled herself away from Jesse enough to smile over at her. “I didn’t think I would. I mean, she has moments where she seems kind of rude and sarcastic. But that’s mostly around Stacie, so that kind of makes sense.”
Jesse and Chloe both laugh. “In high school, Beca was like your worst nightmare, babe,” Jesse says, stroking her back. “Dark. Moody. Liable to bite.”
“Beca is so nice!” Chloe protests.
“To you,” Jesse says, lifting an eyebrow. “She’s polite to everyone else these days, it seems. She’s nice to you.” He pauses. “And Eli.”
Chloe smiles into her blanket. “I guess I’m just lucky then.” She kicks out her foot, slapping it against Jesse’s knee. “We’re all lucky here. I’m so ready for you guys to get married !” She gasps, sitting up. “What if we moved everything up to tomorrow?”
Aubrey purses her lips, running her fingers through Jesse’s hair. “Main problem with that is Lilly would miss it. Can you imagine?”
Chloe shivers. “No, okay. Let’s not do that. I’m still not completely sure she didn’t kill that guy that cut us in line at the movies freshman year.”
“Yeah, no. We can wait a month.”
Jesse’s whole body tilts a little, tipping into Aubrey. “I’d wait however long it takes.”
Aubrey smiles like she never smiles around anyone else and Chloe has to pull her knees up and curl around this warm, fuzzy feeling in her gut to hold it all in.
The loft is dark when Chloe makes it up there, so she leaves the light off, not wanting to disturb Beca. She slips into the bathroom with her bed clothes, changing into her favorite pink tank top and shorts. She finishes up in the bathroom, plugs her phone in on the bedside table, and slips under the covers.
Her eyes have adjusted to the dark now and she can see Beca is asleep on her side, facing Chloe’s side of the bed. So Chloe rolls over, putting her back to her and settling down. She’s still a little buzzed, just enough to find herself dozing off quickly.
But she’s awake enough to feel Beca’s arm slip around her and pull her in. Once Beca’s warmth spreads across her back and her breath puffs across her neck, Chloe whispers, “They’re so in love, Becs.”
Beca hums into the skin right beneath her ear, making her toes curl. Her hand pats against Chloe’s stomach. “Yeah, yeah. Love you too. Sleep now.”