By the time they get back to the house, there are nearly a dozen cars parked up in the grass and lining the road. People are milling about on the lawn and the porch. Chloe sits forward as she recognizes some of them. Neighbors and family friends. Cousins. The old bagger from the grocery store that always insists on walking people to their cars even though his left leg gives him trouble. “Oh my god.”
“What the hell?” Beca parks at the front of the driveway, as close to the porch steps as she can get. She twists around, staring at all the cars and people. “Who called in the cavalry?”
“Mamma,” Chloe says at the same time as Stacie and Emily.
Sure enough, the front door opens and Mamma bustles out, holding a stack of what Chloe thinks are pictures. She starts handing them out to the people in the yard, talking rapidly.
“Let’s go.” Chloe hops out and hurries over.
Mamma spots her and holds up the stack. They are pictures. Of Aubrey. “Tell me I printed all of these for nothing, please.”
Shaking her head, Chloe pulls her into a quick hug. She doesn’t let herself sink into it like usual, because she knows she won’t be able to stop. And there isn’t time for that right now.
Mamma seems to know it too, because she roughly claps a hand on Chloe’s shoulder, jolting her. Rough shoulder smacks are Aunt Dana’s thing. “Alright. Go get some pants on. We’ll be searching the woods and everything. Get the girls cleaned up a bit. I’ll get everyone out here wrangled. Hey.” She catches Chloe’s eyes and lifts her eyebrows. “We’ve done this before. You know what to do. We’ll find her.”
It’s different this time. When Mickey had pulled his disappearing acts, she’d never known if she really wanted to find him. It tore at her, to think that of her own brother. But this is Aubrey and she wants her back so badly it hurts. It’s barely been any time at all, but it’s too long without knowing Aubrey is safe and sound. Mickey had walked into his dangers of his own free will. Aubrey hadn’t and she knows that. Unlike Mickey, wherever she is, Aubrey wants them to find her.
So she nods and spins on her heel, heading through the house toward the garage. Beca falls into step beside her easily and they dodge through the living room. Everyone is there: Uncle Lew and Seth, Fillin and Gabriela Swanson, some of the Trebles, Aunt Dana and Gran.
And when Stacie opens the door to her room to grab clothes, there’s Cynthia Rose, dropping a duffel bag on the second bed.
“CR!” Chloe gasps, rushing to hug her. “You’re here!”
“Of course,” she grunts, patting Chloe’s back. “I left as soon as you texted me this morning.”
“Thank you.” Chloe squeezes her tighter, then backs off.
“Any news?” Cynthia Rose crosses her arms, glancing back and forth between them all.
Stacie sighs. “They haven’t even established she’s actually missing yet. But we’re not waiting for them to figure out what we already know.”
Cynthia Rose nods sharply. “Got it. Who’s running this gig?”
“Mamma will have planned groups and places to search already, I'm sure,” Chloe says, not mentioning that they have a a map of this town and the two closest ones in a drawer in Mamma’s desk, search grids drawn on them years ago.
“You guys go all in, huh?” Cynthia Rose laughs.
“Budge up, Aca-bitches.” Fat Amy pushes into the room, almost upending poor Beca, and yanks Chloe into a tight hug, nearly smothering her with her chest. “I’m here, Gingey. Don’t worry now. I’ve already reached out to my contacts with the Australian mafia. We’re gonna find Captain Posen before you can say, ‘No, please don’t stick that up my bum’, yeah?”
“Why would we have to say that?” Emily whispers somewhere behind her.
Amy pats Chloe’s head before releasing her. Which is good, because breathing was becoming a problem.
Beca, who had caught herself on the dresser, straightens up. “What is the Australian mafia doing in Georgia?”
Amy hums for a long moment, then shrugs, speaking quickly out the side of her mouth. “Looking for their former a capella group leader? Maybe?”
Before Beca can do more than gape at Amy, Ashley and Jessica appear in the doorway.
“Sorry we’re late,” Ashley says, dropping her bag. “Traffic.”
“Which Ashley completely disregarded to drive down the shoulder of the highway.” Jessica pulls Chloe into a hug.
Ashley joins in. “Hey, if I’m going to abuse my volunteer firefighter lights and sirens for anything, it’ll be this.”
And Chloe really doesn’t want to cry right now, because just like hugging Mamma, she might not be able to stop. But they’re here. Almost all of them. With nothing more than a few worried texts and phone calls, they’ve showed up. So she buries her face in Jessica’s neck and squeezes her eyes shut, sniffling. Fat Amy’s arms sling around them and she’s being bumped back and forth as the other girls all join in.
A hand slides around her side to rest lightly on her stomach and she knows it’s Beca. She drops her own hand to it.
After a moment, Amy clears her throat. “As much as Cynthia Rose loves all these lezzie vibes, we should get going.”
Chloe keeps her head ducked as the group hug breaks up. She feels less like she’s about to float away at any second. Beca’s hand lingers on her hip a moment longer. She wipes hastily at the tears and nods. “We’ll be back in a few minutes. Meet you all out front?”
Emily heads off for her own room and Beca leads Chloe out the back door, nearly breaking into a jog as she gets closer to the garage. She’s unlocked the door and is halfway up the steps by the time Chloe closes it behind them. Private, “don’t look at me, thanks”, Beca already has her shirt off by the time she reaches the top of the stairs. Chloe catches just a glimpse of equalizer bars and lotuses before Beca’s moving for the bathroom. The shower turns on almost immediately.
Chloe hurries after her, remembering briefly that she had planned to bring Beca back here the second they could get a moment alone. To kiss her. To tell her there’s more between them than a shared apartment and a mutual love of music. To ask if maybe Beca thinks they’re worth trying too.
She contemplates telling her right now anyways. Because Aubrey is missing and Mickey is back and everything feels wrong, but Beca has always felt right. And the world has been upside down since she left the garage this morning. She just needs a minute like the one this morning, when she’d laid for who knows how long, tracing Beca’s tattoos and listening to her breathe. Where it had been nothing but them and she hadn’t been scared to reach out. It seems like so long ago now.
The bathroom door opens and Beca steps out, hair dripping down the back of her still unbuttoned flannel as she hurries out, barely glancing at Chloe. Who, she suddenly realizes, hasn’t moved from the top of the stairs yet. She’s just standing there, staring at the strip of exposed skin down Beca’s front as Beca shoves her hands in the pockets of her jeans to straighten them out. So she shakes herself mentally and moves for the dresser.
But somehow, halfway there, she gets derailed and instead it’s Beca that her hands land on, slipping into the open front of her shirt to grasp her bare waist and press her back against the wall.
Beca grunts, eyes flying up from the floor where they’d been fixed and she opens her mouth to speak. But whatever she was going to say is lost in the insistent press of Chloe’s lips. Somewhere deep in her throat, Beca hums and her hands are suddenly in Chloe’s hair, pulling an answering groan from her.
To her surprise, Beca takes full advantage of that and her tongue slips past Chloe’s lips with an ease that she would think was practiced if they’d ever done this before. Her hands move to Beca’s back and find it arched off the wall, pressing them closer together and she gasps as Beca’s teeth catch her bottom lip just hard enough to sting. She feels the sharp nip all the way to her stomach and it shoves her forward until her hands are pinned between Beca and the wall. Beca breathes sharp into her, fingers twitching in her hair.
And Beca sighs a sigh that sounds like stained glass reflected in syrup and oversized sweaters and “Kiss for luck?”. Chloe thinks maybe that’s what she can play this off as. A kiss for luck before they go out searching. But when Beca breaks away and drops her head back, eyes closed and lips twisted into a crooked smile, Chloe knows there’s no playing this off. She just kissed Beca. For no reason other than to do so. She knows it. Beca knows it. God, it’s hard not to do it again.
Beca’s eyes are still closed and she inhales through her nose slowly. Chloe counts to seven and then Beca exhales, opening her eyes.
For a moment, they just look at each other. And Chloe thinks suddenly of a late night four months after they had moved in together. They’d been laying on the floor at Chloe’s insistence, feet up on the windowsill in the living room, looking up at the stars outside. Beca, with a bowl of raviolis balanced on her stomach, had been dozing off and on as Chloe chattered about work and school. Then Chloe had turned to her and asked something she’d been worrying about. “Are you happy we moved in together?”
Beca had blinked a few times, her sleepy, hooded eyes opening fully. And Chloe had waited for the smirk and the sarcastic jab that Chloe would take to mean, “I’m so happy, but I’m too cool to just say that.” But instead, Beca had smiled and just said, “Yes.” Then lifted her fork, a ravioli speared on the end, and promptly dropped it on her own face. Chloe had laughed for hours.
She’s smiling the same way now as she had then. “Hiya.”
Chloe presses her lips together, sinking her teeth into the bottom one right where Beca had. And she glances down, finding Beca’s shirt wide open, her black bra a stark contrast to the pale skin of her torso. “Hi,” she says to Beca’s collarbone, pulling her hands around to smooth them over Beca’s abs. The muscles beneath her fingers clench for half a moment.
“Are you okay?” Beca's voice is soft, the words ghosting over Chloe's cheekbone.
“Better now,” Chloe whispers, looking up.
“I think we should, uh.” Beca rolls her eyes and scoffs, at herself, probably. Chloe feels the movement under her palms. “Uh. Talk. Later.”
Beca’s still smiling. And Chloe would love to talk. To do more than talk. But Beca’s right. Later. Aubrey needs them.
She feels more grounded as she steps back, making sure to leave her hands on Beca as long as possible. “Later,” she repeats, nodding. “I need to change. I’ll meet you at the house.”
Beca nods and starts buttoning her shirt, starting on the wrong button. Chloe doesn’t correct her, just watches her push off the wall and put on her boots before hopping down the stairs.
She moves to the railing to watch her go. Beca stops at the door, glaring down at her buttons and her quiet, “Son of a bitch” echoes back up the stairs. Chloe bites her lip to keep from making a noise. Even now, Beca makes her laugh.
Chloe’s just buttoning her pants when her phone buzzes. She grabs it from the dresser top and unlocks it, hoping against all hope that it’s Jesse saying Aubrey’s showed up. That she had just walked into one of her own crazy net traps at the lodge and nobody had known she was there, but they found her. Or she’d gone for a walk and gotten lost. Anything.
But it’s two texts. The first from Tom. “Hey, we’re coming to help. Don’t worry, Chlo. We’ll find her.” Instinctively, she goes to text him that she doesn’t need him there. With everything going on, dealing with him is the last thing she wants to add to her list. But then she thinks of Aubrey sitting at the piano in the rehearsal room, talking about her first date with Jesse with carefully controlled enthusiasm. Trying to be nonchalant, even though her face kept bursting into a smile so wide it had hurt Chloe’s cheeks.
So she texts him back, “Thank you. Just talk to Mamma when you get here.”
The second text is from a number she doesn’t recognize. She’s just about to click on it when the door opens down below and Mickey steps in.
She locks her phone and puts in in her back pocket. “Mickey.”
“Chloe.” He’s wearing a jacket now, even though it’s warmed up significantly outside from this morning. The sleeves are tugged over his hands, the tips of his fingers holding them down. “I, um. I was coming to see if there was...anything I could do, I guess?” He swings his arms around, fists connecting behind his back, then swinging back to do the same in the front. “I mean, like, I’m gonna go out with everyone. To look and stuff. But if there’s anything...else. I don’t know.” He frowns down at the Cobra, like he’s just realizing it’s there.
She watches his swinging arms. “No.” He looks up. “Thank you,” she adds. “Helping look is enough.”
He nods, nose scrunching for a moment. “Okay. Just, if there is. Anything, I mean. Lemme know, Sissy.”
Sissy. It was his first word. They were born less than a year apart and, by all accounts, he’d adored her the moment they brought her home. He used to tell everyone he met that he was a big brother, even when he was in high school and his cool friends were around, he’d call her “Sissy” and punch anyone who made fun of him for it. And he’d been her Bubba. Her first word.
She hasn’t heard that name in so long that she almost doesn’t realize what he even said. He’s still looking at her, fists bumping softly behind him, in front, behind. She clears her throat. “Thanks, Mickey. I will.”
His fists miss the next time he brings them forward and he swings them up to wrap around himself instead. He nods and smiles quickly, slipping back out the door.
Her phone buzzes again. It’s Tom. “Of course, Chlo. Anything for you.”
She ignores that, scrolling to the unknown number. One message. “BFL”. Nothing else. She almost drops the phone. Because she knows immediately what those letters are. They were carved over the doorway of the Bella house back in college. Aubrey had gotten them emblazoned on sweaters for all of them one year. They were penned across the front of all of Chloe’s binders and notebooks.
Bellas For Life.
It’s Aubrey. And the relief nearly buckles her knees and she grasps the railing to stay standing, staring at the text. It’s a thought she hasn’t let herself have, that Aubrey might not be… But, no. Aubrey’s alive. She knows it.