“To be more realistic, though…” Chloe tugs Beca’s belt loop harder and spins, turning them so Beca falls back against the wall with an “oof”.
“Oh, so you’re the aggressor?” Beca’s smirking, already shaking her head. Chloe loves her smile. Loves the way it never really sits straight on her face, how it bares more teeth than it should, how it sometimes turns into her curling her lips in, like she's containing it instead of ending it. Making Beca smile is probably one of her favorite things to do in the world.
“Totes,” Chloe chuckles, leaning in just a bit, not realizing she’s bracing her hands on Beca’s hips until she feels the sharp jut of bone against her palms. And she knows she shouldn’t. Knows that it’s a bad idea until she’s had more time to look at her own feelings. Knows she really wants to. Knows she can’t. So she just stands there, wanting but scared. Because Beca’s friendship means everything to her. And she can’t risk it for anything less than in love.
And she knows all of this, but Chloe can’t remember the last time she felt so looked at. Beca’s gaze is still and so, so dark. Calm.
It shouldn’t surprise her as much as it does that Beca comes to her.
She straightens from the wall, rising to her full height. She sways forward, just an inch, and her fingers brush up the side of Chloe’s neck, careful and tapping, like Chloe’s made of glass and piano keys.
Then her hand is in Chloe’s hair and Beca’s lips are warm and soft against her own. And Chloe thinks about how she’s always wanted to make Beca smile. But then she decides no, this is what she wants to make Beca’s lips do. Press and slide and part.
She reaches out, catching Beca’s shoulders with her hooked wrists, possibly to keep her from running away. Because the ground feels a little unsteady right now and she knows Beca doesn’t do unsteady--she’s the most steady person Chloe knows. So if the earth is moving for Beca too, then she’s definitely a flight risk. But Beca is solid and kisses like they’ve got all night, slow and gentle. So gentle. And Chloe’s had soft kisses before and rough ones, drunken makeouts and chaste pecks, but never this. Beca’s kiss is light, but the rolling in her gut is violent and makes her knees weak, her hands shake.
Maybe that’s why she hangs on so tight when Beca dips her head and leans back, out of the kiss and against the wall. Her hand is still in Chloe’s hair, thumb idly running along the back of her ear. She smiles, not like before. Slower and a little crooked, like she knows something Chloe doesn’t.
Then, quick enough to give her whiplash, she’s smirking instead. “You’re pretty good at that, Beale.”
She knows she’s supposed to say something like, “You were okay” or “That was nothing”, but both are a lie, because it was everything and Beca is a great kisser. And, god, they hadn’t even used tongue. Can she pull it together? In love. Nothing less.
A soft voice somewhere in the back of her head whispers that this doesn’t feel like less.
Beca’s palm presses against Chloe’s hip, warm and distracting, and the thumb resting behind her ear taps once, pulling her attention. “You good?”
Chloe nods, shifting so her hands are resting on Beca’s shoulders, thumbs lying in the groove of her collarbones. The sounds of the Trebles and the Bellas come rushing back, though she isn’t sure when they left. She sucks in a quick breath through her nose and grins. “Well, you just said I was so...” She throws Beca a wink. “Pretty good, actually, I think you said.”
Beca drops her head back and laughs, loud and full. Easy. “I forgot I can’t compliment you. Give an inch, you take a highway.”
“You love it.”
Beca closes one eye and tilts her head a bit, scrunching up her nose. Chloe grabs one side of her shirt collar and gives it a sharp tug, narrowing her eyes in her best fake glare. Beca laughs again.
“Hey, lovebirds. This is a PG-13 party.” Cynthia Rose shoves a drink between them, which Beca lets go of Chloe’s neck to take before it spills down her cleavage. Of which there is quite a bit. Was there that much a minute ago? “As much as I fully support everything happening here, we’re not alone and I don’t think the boys will survive.”
“Oh, no, I’m totally good.” Uni drops an arm around Cynthia Rose, grinning. “Don’t worry about me at all.”
“Dude, shut up,” Beca says, shoving him away, but she’s smiling and the tips of her ears are red. Chloe snatches the drink from Beca’s hand and backs up before she takes another swing at him. Everything in her wants to pull Beca back and kiss her again, kiss her until she’s sure, kiss her until she doesn’t care. It’s like a burning in her chest that’s spreading down her limbs. So she does what she always does when she’s overwhelmed and unsure: she turns to Aubrey.
Aubrey catches her eye across the room, where she’s talking to Donald and Stacie, and Chloe smiles and waves her over. Aubrey excuses herself and pushes her way over, dropping an arm across Chloe’s shoulders.
Jesse appears at her side, happily cheering Beca on as she attempts to pull Uni into a headlock. She has to jump. It’s really adorable. Chloe leans her head on Aubrey’s shoulder, laughing.
“Get him, Becaw!”
“Son of a--bend down or something, dude, what the hell?”
“Oooh, kinky, Little Bit!” Uni ducks away, his curls flying as he laughs and grabs Benji to use as a shield. “Chloe! Leash your chihuahua!”
“Chihuahua?” Beca growls, hitting a little harder than before. Uni yelps and Benji flails for his life, eyes closed and face scrunched up. Chloe takes pity on them both, leaning forward to grab Beca by the belt and tug her away. She wraps her arms around Beca’s waist and, immediately, the fight goes out of her.
Cynthia Rose snorts, lifting her hand and cracking an imaginary whip. Beca glares at her, but just leans back into Chloe, her hands falling to rest on Chloe’s arms.
“So violent,” Aubrey huffs.
“Oh, you’ve got no idea,” Jesse says, grinning. He throws a quick punch in the air.
Beca’s glare swings to him. “Shut it, Snitchson.”
Jesse puckers his lips at her.
Just then, over Beca’s shoulder, Chloe sees Tom sweep into the room, Mrs. Swanson on his arm and talking a mile a minute. He’s wearing a perfectly tailored suit, his hair slicked back, his class ring glinting on his finger. It’s a little much for dinner and it makes him look like the host. Like he owns this magnificent house and belongs here, walking the marble floors and commanding the staff. She tucks her face down into Beca’s neck, breathing in caramel and that Hawaiian laundry detergent Beca insists on keeping the apartment stocked with. Beca doesn’t wear perfume, but she somehow always smells so good. Like stained glass and creaking armchairs and floral throw pillows. Like home.
Beca must see him too, because her thumb slips along the inside of Chloe’s forearm and she turns her head to speak directly into Chloe’s ear. Which she definitely should never do in a crowded room again, Chloe thinks, squeezing her tighter. “Hey, want a distraction?”
Chloe picks her head up and nods, afraid to speak because she knows her voice will shake.
Sighing heavily, Beca turns back to Jesse. “Okay, Jess. Tell them.”
It’s like his birthday has come early. Jesse starts to bounce in place, fists lifted to chest height, like he isn’t sure he can fully celebrate yet. “Really? Becaw?”
“I change my mind in ten seconds--”
“Okay!” Jesse throws his hands up, narrowly missing Uni’s chin with his fist.
“What are we doing?” Stacie slips into the circle, Jessica and Ashley right behind her. Emily joins them a moment later, stepping up next to Benji and throwing him a wide grin. He returns it, practically vibrating until Fat Amy shoves him aside.
“You aca-bitches having a meeting without me?”
Jesse is thrilled. He pushes up his sleeves and Chloe suddenly worries that whatever he’s about to tell everyone is going to get interactive. She pulls Beca closer, resting her chin on her shoulder. Beca’s hands have left hers so she can cross her arms. Chloe can’t really see her face anymore, but she can perfectly picture her eye roll when Jesse starts speaking.
“Okay,” he says, hands out like he’s stopping traffic. “So we were in, what, tenth grade?”
“Right, tenth. And Beca has this fake ID, because she used to sneak into clubs and watch the DJs work.” He pauses. Chloe pictures a young Beca Mitchell (who really looks exactly the same in her mind) sitting in the corner of a club alone, just staring up at the DJ booth. “That’s kind of unrelated, but it’ll be important later. So, one night, we’re all hanging out by the levee. Brooke Lessard had brought us all out there in her dad’s truck and we were just chillin’, nursing our tiny, pitiful bonfire.”
She feels Beca scoff more than she hears it.
Jesse ignores her. “So, this other group of guys show up and they’re trying to make us leave because that was their hangout spot or whatever. And one of them starts getting in my face. There’s yelling and some shoving and somebody must have called the cops, because there’s suddenly blue lights and a cop car is rolling down the levee toward us.” He takes a deep breath, grinning widely at Beca. “But the guy yelling at me won’t back off. Like he doesn’t see the cops or something. And Beca, here!” He points to her, head tilting. “This whole time she’s been sitting in the back of the truck, just ignoring everything. But the guy gets right up on me and shoves me. And suddenly, there’s little bitty Beca, and she just--” He slams his fist into his palm with a resounding smack. Emily jumps. Cynthia Rose gasps happily. “Pops him right in the face. He goes down. Nose broken. And the cops grab her and march her off. So, we all get in trouble. Our parents get called. People are going to the hospital and stuff. But Beca has her fake ID on her.”
Beca’s sigh travels all the way to Chloe’s toes and she just hugs her tighter, completely focused on Jesse’s gesturing hands as he continues. She can picture it all and it’s not helping her urge to kiss the soft skin at the junction of Beca’s neck and shoulder.
“So they throw her in a cop car and take her to jail.”
Beca jolts at that. “It was not jail, dude--”
“But I called her dad when they told me to call my parents.”
“And he picks me up and we head over there for him to get her out. There’s a huge fuss. Beca gets in major trouble for having a fake ID, they don’t want to let her go, paperwork, paperwork, yadda yadda.” Jesse waves his hand over his shoulder. “All that. Then we finally get her out and Beca is super mad at me--”
“Because you’re a snitch--”
“But finally, months later, I got her to forgive me.” He clasps his hands over his heart, batting his eyelashes at her.
Beca shakes her head, her jaw bumping Chloe’s cheek lightly. “I needed you to let me copy your history homework.”
Jesse laughs. “Which I did. And then, I said…” He stops, looking pointedly at Beca. She doesn’t move. He rolls his eyes and says, “I said, ‘Welcome back, my little jailbird. I’m gonna call you Becaw from now on.’ And we were friends again, like nothing had happened.” On that finishing note, he wraps his arms around Aubrey and happily nuzzles her ear.
This time, Beca shifts in her grasp, throwing out an accusatory finger. “I had a curfew until I graduated, you dick!”
“Which you listened to how many times?”
Cynthia Rose laughs, slapping a hand onto Beca’s shoulder. “Oh, girl, you didn’t tell us you did time!”
“Dude, it was like two hours--”
“Shawshank in the house!” Amy bellows, thrusting her arms into the air. “Did you get any tattoos?”
Cynthia Rose wiggles her eyebrows. “Did you get a bitch?”
“Or a hot cop’s phone number at least?” Stacie sounds way too eager, like maybe she thinks Beca still has the alleged number and will share.
Beca doesn’t try to answer any of them, just shaking her head and Chloe can feel her laughing and it makes her smile. She catches Aubrey grinning too and knows she feels it too--that it’s so good to have the Bellas back together. And it feels even better with Beca pressed flush against her, laughing with them all. It feels right. Like maybe Beca’s supposed to be there.
It’s not until Mrs. Swanson actually calls them all into the dining hall to sit down that Chloe even thinks of Tom again. She catches a glimpse of him up ahead and steels herself, taking a quick breath. It’s just dinner.
She nearly gasps as Beca’s fingers slide down her palm, winding with her own. She looks up and Beca’s smirking. “Bet I can eat more than you.”
Chloe laughs. “Yeah, no. I’m not taking that bet. You eat like you’re never going to see food again.”
“I’ll take it,” Cynthia Rose says, bumping shoulders with Beca. “Any excuse to eat way too much of this good ass food we ‘bout to have.”
“Oh, you’re on, dude.” Beca grins, tugging Chloe into the dining room.
They take their places up near the head of the table. Mrs. Swanson sits in pride of place, as she always did when Chloe came over back in college. Mr. Swanson ends up across from Jesse and Aubrey quickly motions Chloe over to the seat next to hers. Beca’s just settling down on her other side when Tom drops into the seat beside Mr. Swanson, directly across from Aubrey.
Stacie, as if by magic, pops up behind him and bats her eyelashes at Donald, who happily moves down a seat for her. She sits daintily, ignoring Tom completely, even though she’s right beside him. Catching Chloe’s eye, she winks, then glances at Beca and nods. Beca nods back, as if in approval. Chloe kind of feels like she’s missing something, but it’s hard to care when Beca’s booted foot is tapping lightly against the side of her leg, then retreating. It’s the most physically playful she’s been since that day she was stung by a bee and Chloe had forced her to take a Benadryl, just in case. She’d bounced around the apartment for a good hour, batting at anything that came near her, then passed out on the rug in front of the TV.
Chloe taps back and Beca gives her a barely heated warning glare.
The staff, all dressed in fine, white button-ups and black slacks, pour in from the side doors, laying out dish after dish down the long table. Somewhere near the end, she hears Fat Amy exclaim, “I forgot heaven was back here in good old Georgia!”
The staff files back out and everyone starts grabbing for food. Beca knocks Cynthia Rose’s arm out of the way to grab the biggest chicken leg from the plate in front of them. Cynthia Rose responds by standing up, placing a hand on Beca’s bent back, and shoving her into the table as she leans over her to skewer a hunk of what Chloe thinks is ham. Beca grunts, nearly dropping her chicken leg.
Chloe covers her mouth to hide her laugh as Cynthia Rose drops back and Beca pops up, glaring. She must not do a very good job, because Beca’s hair flies as she whips around to fix her glare on Chloe instead.
“What’s funny, Beale?”
Chloe just shakes her head, reaching out to fix Beca’s hair in the back. “Nothing, baby.” She didn’t mean for the term of endearment to slip out, but Beca’s ears flush red immediately and Cynthia Rose makes a hacking sound.
Beca spins on her. “Shut up, dude.”
“I’m glad to see you so happy, Chloe.” She’d almost forgotten he was there. He leans back in his seat, running a hand down his tie and smiling at her like freshman year, when he was nothing but a cute guy across the quad. His suit’s so much nicer than the torn t-shirt he’d been wearing that day, when he’d walked over and introduced himself and asked her out in the same breath. It’s a confidence she used to find sexy, but now it looks cheap on him, even if the suit doesn’t. “I’m surprised, though.” Chloe sees Aubrey’s hand clench around the cloth napkin in her lap. “Pleasantly, of course.” He smiles at Beca, blinking like he just realized she’s there. “You seem good together.”
She knows that emphasis he places on “together”. It’s the exact same emphasis he used to place on things like, “Oh, you and Aubrey were just hanging out” or “Right, practice ran late.” And it’s been years, but that familiar guilty tightness in her chest rushes back like no time has passed at all. She bites down on the “I’m sorry” so hard that her teeth literally click together and her jaw aches as she keeps it held there.
He smiles, all dimples and charm. Then suddenly yelps and yanks his hand back from the table.
Stacie, still holding up her fork, winces apologetically. “Sorry. I was aiming for the ham. Did I get you?”
“It's fine,” Tom snaps, rubbing the back of his hand where Chloe can see the clear imprint of four prongs.
“You know, I’m surprised too,” Mrs. Swanson cuts in. “It’s really such a small world, isn’t it? How did you two even meet?”
Stacie locks eyes with Chloe and nods, just a little. They’ve answered this question. It’s a good answer. It’s convincing. But Chloe can’t open her mouth, because she’s still got that apology trapped there.
Beca’s hand slides onto her thigh and it’s soft, but it moves her nearly as much as her half-tackle under the red maple. “Actually, can I tell it this time? You always tell it.”
Chloe nods, nearly choking on apologies and surprise.
Half the table goes quiet as Beca takes a breath and she stops, glancing around. “Okay, not all of you have to listen in.” She shoos them, fingers twisting through the air.
“Fat chance, Shawshank,” Fat Amy says around a bite of what looks like mashed potatoes.
Beca grimaces, her hand fluttering to one of her very red ears for a moment. Then she rolls her eyes and turns back to Mrs. Swanson. “Okay, so. Stacie and I work together and she introduced us--” Stacie opens her mouth, but Beca plows on. “But I actually met Chloe before that. Just once.”
“You did?” It takes a second for Chloe to realize she’s the one that spoke. But Beca’s looking at her now, dark blue eyes flickering back and forth between her own.
“Yeah. It was almost nighttime. You were leaving school, I think, because you had your scrubs on. And, like, I’m not surprised you don’t remember, because it was cold as balls out--uh, sorry, Mrs. S.” Mrs. Swanson just laughs, motioning for her to go on. “Well it was, uh, super cold. And I was wrapped in, like, six scarves just to weigh me down so the wind didn’t carry me away.” There’s some laughter from the Trebles and Bellas. Beca smiles, sitting farther forward. “It was a few days before Stacie introduced us. And you were on the subway.” Her hand, still on Chloe’s thigh, twitches a little and Chloe, unthinking, lays her own hand over it. “You got one of the seats across from me. And I had my headphones on, but I wasn’t actually listening to anything. My phone was dead. I just didn’t want the guy next to me talking to me.” Her nose scrunches up and Chloe has to try very hard not to touch it. “You were on the phone with someone and you mentioned your stop. But then when you hung up, you fell asleep.”
Chloe watches Beca’s earrings swing as she talks, trying to remember. That would have been her first week of school and she had been incredibly exhausted that whole time. It was kind of a blur.
“The lady next to you got off at the next stop and the creep next to me started eyeing the seat, so I--” She shrugs, making a gesture like she's passing a basketball. “I just threw my bag into the seat and then, like, sat on it. Which was super uncomfortable, but. Well, you know me.” She rolls her eyes and returns Chloe’s smile. “And when your stop came, I woke you up.”
Like a camera flash, Chloe sees the scarf-laden stranger that had shaken her awake that night and waved off her quickly babbled thanks, just for a moment. She’d been so tired and hurrying to get off before the doors shut that she hadn’t asked for a name. “That was you?”
Beca shrugs again, lips tilting in a crooked grin. “Yeah. Like I said, I was rocking the Lenny Kravitz circa 2012 look, so.”
“I remember you.” Chloe slides her thumb between Beca’s pinky and ring finger, feeling the faint pulse there. “You were adorable.”
Beca’s gaze narrows and flicks to Mrs. Swanson and back. Her lips press tight together and she rolls her eyes, but Chloe hears it anyways. Shut the fuck up, no, I wasn’t.
“Fillin,” Mrs. Swanson says and the attention of the table shifts. “How did we meet? Tell us.” She leans one elbow on the table and rests her chin on a fist, smiling up at him.
Mr. Swanson throws Beca a playful glare. “Thanks a lot. I’ll never hear the end of this.”
Everyone laughs and Chloe lets her laugh carry her forward to press a soft kiss to Beca’s jaw. Beca’s hand on her thigh squeezes.
Tom doesn’t talk for the rest of dinner.