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Never Too Late

Chapter Text

As morning light peeked through the purposefully paper thin crack of pleated European blackout curtains, Beca stirred. She shifted and winced, naked beneath her expensive-as-fuck black silky Porthault sheets. Her body bore marks--bruises and scratches--along with achy muscles, evidence of a night well spent. She reached to her bedside table and flicked the switch that powered the curtains to draw themselves open more fully, allowing more natural light to pour into the elegant bedroom, reflecting off the crystal chandelier that hung over her king-sized four poster.

Beside her, last night’s entertainment stirred, whimpering in protest as she buried her face in Beca’s pillows, ginger curls wildly splayed over the pillowcase.

“Hey,” Beca said, turning to face her. She reached over to savor the sight of the gorgeous escort she’d summoned last night to warm her bed and temporarily trick her heart. Beca allowed herself to trace her fingertips along the length of her spine, savoring the softness of the skin beneath her touch and the toned back muscles arching up into her. Reacting. With her face mashed into the pillow, she almost… almost looked like--

“Hmm?” The redhead yawned and turned to peek at Beca from her pillow, a sated smile pulling on her face. The wrong face. Too many freckles, the bridge of her nose too wide. Eyes more green than blue. “G’morning, Beca.” The voice sounded all wrong. It had been okay--good, even--as raspy, pleading whispers in the pitch darkness with music pulsing through the room to distort the sound.

This chick was better than most of the others. She was good, last night. Convincing.

Mornings after always proved cruel.

“So what happened to your real Chloe?”

Beca bristled, wrenching away from the stranger. “I fucking told you not to use that name again,” she growled, turning her back on her. She tugged open her bedside table drawer with more force than necessary, pulling out the sealed manila envelope she’d prepared in advance, stuffed with several hundred dollar bills. (More than she agreed to pay, but that was gifted due to the heavy pool of guilt than actual generosity.) Beca tossed it onto the bed; it hit the sheet by the woman’s thigh, and Beca swung her legs over the side of her bed, gripping hard at the edge of the mattress with both hands, hanging her head. “You can see yourself out.” She closed her eyes, not wanting to look at the wrong face again. Not wanting to hear the wrong voice speak again.

“I’m sorry, baby.” The nameless woman crawled across the mattress and draped herself over Beca’s back, peppering her bare, tattooed shoulder with soft kisses. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Beca opened her eyes and, out of her periphery, watched the woman’s gorgeous red hair--the reason she’d selected her in the first place--fall in a curtain over her own shoulder. Her heart wrenched as sudden hot rawness prickled and burned her steely eyes. Swallowing back the emotion, blinking back the tears and refusing to let them fall, she reached up with a shaky hand to twirl those achingly familiar red tendrils around her fingers.

“I let her go.” Beca’s admission came in a whisper, colored with shame and despair. It had been fifteen years and Beca couldn’t forget. Couldn’t move on. She had everything she could ever want, otherwise--her own musical empire, an army of Grammys, a family of established and budding artists under her wing, more wealth and prestige than she knew what the fuck to do with--but she’d give them all up, give everything up in a heartbeat if it meant she could travel back through time and right the wrongs she’d made.

“Let me make it up to you,” the woman whispered, her tongue tracing the outer shell of Beca’s ear. “I don’t want to leave you all worked up like this, baby. Please.”

The whispered plea combined with the ginger curls threading through her fingers resparked the fantasy and she took in a shaky breath, considering. “I…”

“C’mon, Becs,” she husked, taking Beca’s earlobe between her teeth. God, she was good. She remembered the nickname. “One more.”

Beca whimpered. She felt the woman’s hand slip over her hip and between her legs, fingertips inching up her inner thigh. With a trembling free hand, Beca reached for the switch and flicked it back, her curtains electronically drawing closed to once again darken the bedroom to mostly shadows.

“Good girl,” the escort purred as Beca relaxed against her, fingers trailing upward to lazily stroke through her folds.

“Fuck,” Beca choked, slamming her eyes shut as a tear slipped free, falling hot and thick down her cheek.

The whisper in her ear was barely there. Perfectly disguised. “What do you want, Becs?”

“More.” Beca’s plea rang desperate, coated with decades of lustful longing as her grip tightened in those almost perfect ginger locks. “More, please. Please, Chlo…”

“Shh, baby. I’ve got you,” she whispered, trailing her kisses up the side of Beca’s neck. “I’m here, Beca.”

Beca gritted her teeth and fought the demons that always swirled and attacked--the grief, the doubt, the burning shame and stabbing regret. Arousal coursed through her at the touch--Chloe’s touch--and she succumbed to the twisted fantasy once more.

Chapter Text

Chloe Walp flitted down the spiral staircase lined with wrought-iron spindles in an only mildly frazzled state, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at her in her new floral sundress, cardigan and wedges, red hair in a gentle curl sweeping just below her shoulders and makeup painted to perfection. Her picturesque suburban home bustled with hired help for the day--caterers, a DJ and emcee, and the folks finishing up their job erecting the massive white party tent in their fenced in backyard.

“You guuuys!” she called in her ever-present sing-song voice. “Thirty-one minutes ‘til it’s paaaarty time!” She swept through the kitchen toward the family room and paused in the entryway, leaning against the white column and taking in the scene. Oliver Walp stretched out on the recliner in his fitted khakis, button-down shirt and skinny tie, new (expensive) high tops and a snapback hat sitting purposefully askew on his head, shaggy red hair sticking out the bottom. He scrolled mindlessly through his phone.

Chloe crossed the space and lifted the flat brim of Ollie’s hat, pressing a kiss to her eldest’s cheek. “Are you super stoked for your big birthday bash or what??”

“Mom, please,” Ollie grumbled, wiping his cheek and readjusting his hat. “Yeah, I guess. Don’t say super stoked though. This isn’t 2009.”

Chloe scoffed. “Well someone could do with toning down the sixteen-year-old attitude for a few hours. Or at least save the Mr. Too-Cool-For-School act for when your friends get here.” Her gaze trailed toward her two middle children huddled together on the adjacent couch and sharing a pair of earbuds as they studied their iPad with extreme focus. Twelve-year-old Emery with darker hair and bright blue eyes, and nine-year-old Nathan with the same coloring, each wearing party clothes selected that morning. “What are you two troublemakers up to?” she asked, taking a seat on the opposite couch beside her gingery five year old, Lily, whose tongue stuck out between her teeth in deep concentration as she diligently colored a page of her superhero coloring book. Chloe dropped a kiss to her youngest’s head and adjusted her unicorn headband.

“We’re watching you, Ma!” Nathan said, twisting the iPad around.

Ever since Emery got her hands on an iPad for her twelfth birthday, she’d been obsessed with looking up acapella videos, already determined to become a Bella. (Chloe didn’t have the heart to tell her she pretty much had an automatic in as a legacy, her enthusiasm and dedication to the musical art was too adorable.)

“They haven’t stopped watching that acapella crap all day. It’s so annoying,” Ollie mumbled.

“You like it too, Oliver!” Emery shot back, taking a throw pillow and tossing it at her big brother.

Chloe blinked, her lips twisting with wry amusement. “We’ll circle back to you calling acapella crap later, Oliver Benjamin. Let’s not argue before we have sixty-five guests set to arrive. Which one are you watching, sweetie?”

“We’re tryna learn the claps,” Nathan explained while his sister tapped the buttons to cast the YouTube video onto their massive flat screen TV.

Chloe sucked in a sharp breath through her nose at the sight of herself, over a decade and a half ago, standing front and center during the Bellas winning Worlds performance in Copenhagen. “Oh, wow…” she breathed, swallowing the lump in her throat as powerful memories flooded her system.

“There’s Aunt Stacie!” Nathan cried, pointing to the screen.

“And Aunt Cynthia Rose! With Aunt Flo!” Little Lily’s eyes lit up, her Spiderman coloring page forgotten.

“Aunt Amy! Aunt Emily!” Nathan kept up. “Where’s Aunt Bree?”

“She doesn’t come on stage ‘til later, remember?” Emery reminded him.

Oliver sighed, reaching for his Beats and shoving them over his ears, cranking his music--his and every other 16-year-old’s favorite R&B artist in the world, Trey-Jay Diggz.

“Who’s clappin’ hands with you, Mama?” Lily asked, leaning into Chloe.

She’d braced herself, knowing the question was bound to come from one of her kids. “That’s Beca,” she said softly, giving her daughter’s arm a soft squeeze.

“So… Aunt Beca?” Nathan asked, his head tilted to the side as his little brow furrowed with confusion.

“No, she’s not--I mean--” Chloe let out a soft, decompressing chuckle. “You don’t have to call her Aunt Beca just because she was a Bella like your other aunties. Beca’s a singer--was a--well, now she’s very famous and helps other singers win Grammys and stuff…”

“Can you teach us the claps??” Nathan popped up from his couch spot and bounced in front of the TV.

“Sure, sweetheart. I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget that choreography…” Chloe smoothed out Lily’s hair and stood while Emery rewound the clip. “Now we’ve got claps, snaps, and pats. How’s your snapping, Nate? Can you--”

A loud thunk echoed from the floor above and Chloe’s heart sank; her face fell for a nanosecond before she immediately recalibrated her features into a calm smile. “We’re gonna have to raincheck on the choreo class, bud.” She took Nathan’s freckle-dusted cheeks in her hands and dropped a kiss to his forehead, glancing up to catch Ollie’s expression, suddenly sullen and dark. He curled up in the chair, mumbling under his breath.

“Did someone say they needed Bellas choreo help?”

“Aunt Bree!” Nathan, Emery, and Lily rushed over to tackle their godmother. Oliver pushed up from the chair slowly but left his headphones on, forcing a weak smile before pulling Aunt Aubrey into a hug.

“Hey there, birthday boy,” she said, grinning up at him and squeezing his shoulder. “I peeked out back. The set-up looks aca-awesome.”

Oliver’s head bobbed in a sullen nod.

Chloe took his hand and tugged him aside. “Baby, it’s gonna be okay,” she reassured him, forcing her best sunny smile as she reached up to cup her son’s cheek.

“He’s not gonna come down,” Ollie grumbled. “Whatever, s’fine.”

“He will,” Chloe insisted. “I’ll go make sure of it, okay? Leave it all to me. You’re gonna have the best birthday no matter what.” With one last reassuring grin, Chloe hurried out of the family room through the kitchen, snagging a large bottle of water and running back up the stairs toward the sound of the noise. She hesitated before knocking twice on the guest room door, urging it open and peeking her head inside. “Chicago?”

No response.

She sighed, slipping inside the room and closing the door behind her, squinting in the relative darkness. “Chicago, wake up.” She crossed the room and tugged the curtains open, illuminating the room with natural sunshine. The empty fifth of vodka lay on the area rug beside the bed--that must’ve been the noise they heard from downstairs.

Chicago groaned, burying his face in the pillow. “Go ‘way, Chlo.”

“I can’t today, honey.” She moved to sit on the side of the bed, stroking her husband’s bare back. Once firm muscles turned soft long ago, and she raked her hand through his thinning, greasy hair. “Today’s Ollie’s sixteenth birthday, remember? And I’m gonna need you to get up for me. Take a shower. If not for me, then for the kids. This is a big day.”

Chicago heaved a heavy sigh, exhaling morning breath reeking of booze. His eyes were bloodshot and baggy beneath, and he desperately needed a shave, too. “Can’t do it today. Tell him I’ll make it up to him. Promise.”

Promise. He’d always promised. He promised he’d go back to rehab. He promised he’d stop drinking. He promised so many things for so long now, that word lost its meaning for Chloe. For Oliver. And soon, the other kids would catch on, too.

Chloe gritted her teeth, smoothing out her dress over her knees. “What if I draw you a bath? Will you wash up there? I could bring your toothbrush to the bed. I brought you a bottle of water--”

“Please,” Chicago grunted. “He won’t notice m’there anyway, with the party and his friends. Tell him I’ll get him a car. Teach him to drive. We’ll do all that together.” He turned his back to Chloe and pulled the blanket back over his head.

Chloe was too tired to argue, but this wasn’t for her--this was for their son’s biggest birthday. So she stayed. She stayed and tried her damndest, and when the doorbell rang twenty minutes later, she finally had to give up.

Descending the stairs, she met Aubrey by the bottom of the staircase.

Her best friend glanced up the stairs, a knowing frown set into her features. “Not a good day?”

Chloe forced a wobbly grin. “It’ll be a good day no matter what. It has to be.”

Steeling herself, Chloe returned to the living room where Stacie, Cynthia Rose, and Amy stood with her kids in the living room, trying to teach (and re-teach, in Amy’s case) the Worlds choreo to Nathan and Emery and Lily, who’d spent most of the time giggling at Aunt Amy’s antics.

Oliver took one look at Chloe from his recliner, his blue eyes shining hopeful at his mom and, in the next beat, his face fell, gaze locking back onto his phone and his music.

Chloe knew Ollie wouldn’t want that sort of attention drawn to him now, not with his aunts in the room and the doorbell ringing with more guests, so she made a mental note to have a long talk with him later--while doing everything in her power to make sure Ollie had the best birthday party ever, with or without his father present.

Ollie’s friends arrived in their semi-formal partywear and the DJ and emcee played top 40s in the dancing tent, while Chloe did her best to mask the disappointment she felt on her son’s behalf, entertaining family and friends and neighbors congregating inside the house and on the back porch. Every so often, Chloe found her son in the thick of his friends, dancing and laughing, though his smile didn’t reach his eyes; he kept looking toward the house, hoping to spot his father, and it broke Chloe’s heart every damn time.

Two hours into the party, all of the RSVP’d guests arrived. So when the doorbell rang once more, confusion crossed Chloe’s features as she bustled back toward her front door with her red sangria in hand. She pulled the door open to find… two black Escalades parked out front.

“Are you Mrs. Walp?” A short, bulky man wearing aviators and an earpiece stood outside, his hands folded in front.

“I--yes?” She blinked. “What’s going on?”

“A special delivery for Mr. Oliver Walp, ma’am. As requested by a--” He pulled the card from his pocket, lifting his glasses to read the name. “Ms. Aubrey Posen.”

“Delivery? But she didn’t mention--” Chloe cut herself off as the unmistakable Trey-Jay Diggz climbed out of the limo in a purple velour sweatsuit, swaggering up to the front step and flashing a gold-toothed smile at her.

“‘Sup, lil mama?” He nodded down at Chloe.

“Oh my god…” Chloe let out a disbelieving puff of laughter, her hand flying to her mouth for a moment to compose herself. She’d just watched this guy earn Album of the Year on the Grammy’s--watched him perform live on SNL--bought his latest album for Ollie at midnight on release day because he couldn’t wait until morning to buy it. “Aubrey didn’t say--she didn’t mention--you’re here to perform?? For my son??”

“Yes, ma’am,” the shorter bodyguard said with a nod. “One set, then we’re off to Miami.”

“Wha--yes, of--of course… Thank you! Thank you so much for coming, oh my god!” Still stunned, she blinked up at the the twenty-something rap-singer, in awe of his star-powered presence. Seriously. He had to be the most in-demand performer in the world right now, and here he was, on her front porch.

“Ma’am? Can we come in?”

“Oh, yes! I’m so sorry, follow me!” Her free hand flailed as she waved them inside--Trey-Jay Diggz and his team of six people (some security, some tech), leading them through the house and out the backdoor.

One of the tech guys handed Trey-Jay a wireless mic, and the platinum-selling grammy winner didn’t hesitate, palming the mic around its head and bringing it up to his lips as he entered the party tent. “Yo DJ--cut the music!” The party DJ obliged, peering around the makeshift stage curtain to find the source of the sound.

A collective shocked gasp echoed in the tent as the teens all blinked wide-eyed at the mega star, and then a wail of shrieks and cries boomed through the tent (and probably the entire neighborhood).

“Where’s Ollie Walp??” Everyone pointed to the birthday boy, and Trey-Jay headed straight for him. “I hear today’s a big damn deal for you, my man!” Trey-Jay found the stunned Oliver standing in the middle of the makeshift dance floor, his face completely drained of color. Beyond stunned. Trey-Jay pulled one of the golden chains off his neck and draped it around Ollie’s before handing him a mic. “Happy birthday. Let’s kick this set off together.”

Trey-Jay launched into one of his more popular rap songs, his own sound guys taking over to blare the backing track as he encouraged Ollie to sing along with him.

Chloe stood by the tent’s opening, tears streaking down her cheeks at the sight of her oldest son looking happier than she’d seen him in years, beaming brighter than the sun as he sang along with his idol.

Aubrey moved to stand beside Chloe, smiling at her godson as she looked on, too.

“I can’t believe you pulled this off. How--”

“I didn’t,” Aubrey confessed, casting Chloe a semi-guilty look. “It wasn’t me. Not really. Not this.”

Chloe slow-blinked. “Bree?”

“She wouldn’t take my calls, so I wrote her a letter and dropped it off with her label’s receptionist. I didn’t think she’d actually give it to her…”

“Bree,” Chloe sniffed and reached up with her knuckle to brush a tear that slipped free. “What did you even--did you tell her about--”

“I didn’t give her any details. I only said your son was a massive Trey-Jay fan and since he’s on her label, asked if she could maybe send us a signed picture that’d make his birthday extra special. I never imagined…”

Chloe’s head jerked upward with an understanding nod and she leaned into Aubrey, letting out a choked sob--a wretched noise somewhere between a strangled laugh and an ugly cry--watching her son, who’d emotionally struggled all year and probably longer than that, now having the absolute time of his life, his dreams coming true on his sixteenth birthday. Not thanks to her, or Chicago, or Aunt Aubrey’s letter.

Thanks to Beca.

Chapter Text

Mashup Records found its home on Broadway in New York City--specifically, the top three floors of the Universal Music Group building. And though its Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Beca Mitchell, owned a multi-million dollar penthouse in the Upper East Side to call home, she spent almost every waking hour at the studio.

She’d poured every ounce of herself into Mashup since its founding ten years ago, and she considered that the driving force behind its success. Dedication. Unfiltered focus. And, of course, her endless passion for creating music.

39-year-old Beca’s gaze drifted to the peaceful trees of Central Park outside the transparent glass wall of the Mashup Records boardroom as she leaned back in her office chair at the head of the table spanning the length of the space. On opposite side of the table sat the heads of each department--handpicked by Beca to drive the label’s day-to-day operations: Artist & Repertoire, Sales, Marketing & Promotion, Brands, Publicity, Product Management, Production, Manufacturing & Distribution, Finance, Business Affairs & Legal, and International.

“--and we have two items left on our agenda. Shall we proceed, Beca?”

Beca’s attention snapped back to Kayla Brookfield, her personal assistant and meeting coordinator--a Barden grad and fellow Bella two years below Emily, who kicked so much ass that she would’ve likely earned the job on her own, without the inside track. She cleared her throat and leaned over the ipad set in front of her, nodding slowly as she glanced at the digital clock in the corner of the device. 5:28. “No, I’ve kept you late enough. Let’s break here. We’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow morning.”

Her staff offered grateful, tired smiles and waited until she pushed up from her chair before they stood, ever respectful of Beca as a boss because she made sure to always be mindful and respectful of their time.

Knowing they had families to go home to, even if she didn’t.

“Awesome work today, everyone. You’re appreciated. Have a good night.” Beca tucked her iPad under her arm, tugging at the lapel of her blazer as Kayla hurried to push and hold open the glass door for her. Beca offered a nod of thanks as she walked by her, low heels clicking on marble flooring en route to the elevator. She waved her magnetic key to summon the lift to one floor above--her private office, the top floor of the building.

With a heavy, decompressing sigh, Beca flopped into her massage chair behind her desk, toeing off her heels and tapping the spacebar of her iMac situated on the corner of her desk, away from the double doors. She opened Kayla’s “demos of the day” email and hit play on the first file, leaning back and clicking the power button on that massage chair.

This was always Beca’s favorite part of the day--demo hour, usually after her last big meeting, where she routinely listened to as-of-yet undiscovered artists’ demo tracks. If she liked them enough, she replied to Kayla to set up a screening meeting… and from there, eventually, she signed a new artist.

She’d passed on the first three and moved to open the next when her phone beeped. The evening receptionist rarely called up to her, so she leaned forward and tapped the receiver.

“Daquan?”

“I’m terribly sorry to bother you, Ms. Mitchell,” Daquan said, muffling the receiver as he picked up his voice. “--I said you better not make a move for that elevator, son, or I’ll call security! I don’t care who you are--even if you were Prince George himself--”

“Daquan…” Beca said more firmly.

“Ms. Mitchell, right. Apologies. There’s a young man who’s been pacing around the lobby here for a couple hours or so, likely wants an autograph or in-person audition. Claims he’s your nephew, but seeing as you haven’t listed any--”

As Daquan carried on, a younger boy’s voice yelled from the background. “Beca! It’s Ollie Walp! Can we talk for a minute??”

Ollie Walp.

Oliver Benjamin Walp.

Chloe’s son.

Daquan shushed him, straining his voice into a more polite timbre over the phone. “I can call security, Ms. Mitchell, if you’d rather--”

Beca’s chest tightened and she shook her head, realizing a beat later that there was no video function. When she found her voice, she tightened her fist so hard her fingernails dug crescent shapes into the meat of her palm. “Is Oliver… alone? Or is there someone, um… is he with anyone?”

“None that I can see, Ms. Mitchell.”

Relief seeped into Beca’s shoulders and she forced herself to take a deep breath. “Okay. You can send him up.”

“Yes, Ms. Mitchell. Right away.”

Beca heard Ollie’s victorious “HA!” before the line cut out. Less than a minute later, the elevator dinged and through her glass office wall, she spotted him stepping out of the elevator.

Chloe’s son.

He must’ve received direction from Daquan because the boy--young man, jesus he was tall--hung an immediate right and headed straight for her office door. Standing in a school uniform--well-pressed khakis and a forest green polo shirt--and an Atlanta Braves snapback sitting artfully askew over shaggy ginger hair, he offered Beca an awkward wave and waited politely to be invited inside.

Beca rarely stood for uninvited guests, but she shot to her bare feet behind her desk before she could think twice about it. Nodding, she motioned for him to enter, not sure if she could find her voice to tell him to do so.

“Oliver,” she greeted, unable to form that surname and speak it into existence from her own mouth. (After all these years.)

“Hey, Beca,” he said, offering a bright grin with familiar sparkling blue eyes that made her heart crack and crumble.

Hey, Beca. Like they knew each other. Like she’d been around or something.

Her brow quirked and she motioned to the two comfortable yet chic wingback chairs facing her desk. “What can I help you with?”

Oliver strode into her office, glancing around with his jaw slightly agape. Her office… was massive, sure. She had an incredible view of Central Park, and her back wall stood lined floor to ceiling with dozens of framed platinum-selling records and several shelves lined with Grammys and other impressive awards.

“Not to be rude,” Beca said, setting her palms flat on her desk and leaning into her forearms, unable to take her eyes off the kid. Chloe’s kid. She tried shaking the thought once more. “--but I’m a very busy woman, and I have important work to do.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.” His apologetic nose-scrunch was his mother’s, too. He hurried over to the chair and sat on the edge of it, smiling at her. “Okay, so I wanted to thank you--y’know, for sending Trey-Jay to my birthday party last weekend. Aunt Aubrey told me she asked you for a signed pic and you made it so he could come instead.”

Beca’s brow shot up. “You came here in person to thank me?”

“Mom said I could write a letter,” he said with a shrug. “A thank you card or send you something, but there’s also this.” He fished into his pocket and held up the gold chain the singer had left around his neck. “I think he forgot to ask for this back, so if you could pass it back to him…?” He extended the chain.

Beca softened the slightest bit. So he was a good kid. Of course he was. Swallowing thickly, Beca shook her head. “No need. If Trey-Jay gave it to you and didn’t ask for it back, I’m sure he wanted you to have it. Consider it another birthday present.”

Ollie blinked. “Really?”

“Sure,” Beca said. Honestly, she didn’t know what the hell her artists did with their money, but if Trey-Jay (real name Trevorius Jason--the stage name was Beca’s suggestion) handed the kid a necklace, it was on him.

“Oh. Well. Thanks!” He reached up and looped the chain around his neck, flushed with excitement as he tucked it into his polo shirt.

“You’re welcome.” His excitement could hardly be contained. Yet another genetic inheritance, it seemed. She found herself grinning despite herself. “Now if you’ll excuse me, kid, I’ve gotta…”

“You look different from the pictures,” he blurted, eyeing Beca in her well-lit office. The sunset poured into her massive window. “Older.”

Beca scoffed, leveling a look at him. “Wow. You’re a real charmer, huh?”

Ollie winced. “Sorry! Sorry, I just--all the pictures I’ve seen, even your stuff from when you were a singer--”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve been more behind the scenes for a while. Not much to google of me looking like this.” A decade, really. Five years of recording and touring and Beca decided she’d rather be back on the other side of the recording booth. She raked her hand through her hair--still long and dark with strands of gray peppered throughout. And maybe she had darker circles under her eyes for not sleeping well lately but… she looked the same! (Didn’t she…?) With a heavy sigh, she shrugged, sitting back down in her chair. “It kinda takes a lot of work to run your own music empire, y’know.”

“Is that why you never come hang out with us like the others?”

“The others?”

“All our aunts. The Bellas.” He eyed her. “You’re in all mom’s old pictures from when they used to sing together and stuff, but you never… I mean, they don’t really talk about you or anything, so… huh.” He let that process. “Guess you are really busy. D’you have a family?”

(Okay, Nosy McPryerson. Must you have your mom’s curious streak, too? Jeez.)

“Sure I do,” Beca said, ignoring the pang of hurt this line of questioning caused for several reasons, motioning to the wall behind her. “Huge family. Massive.”

Ollie frowned. “Those are trophies and stuff.”

“They’re symbols of my family. They’re here, kid. The great people I help establish and maintain their careers. Like your boy Trey-Jay.”

“Oh,” Ollie said, and Beca couldn’t tell if he was confused or unconvinced or both.

Beca glanced at her clock again. “What time are your parents expecting you home?”

“Uh…” Oliver shrugged. “Whenever, I guess. I kinda…” He let out a suddenly nervous puff of laughter, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck. “I told ‘em I went to a friend’s house after school, so…”

Beca’s eyes popped wide.

“...so I should probably go. But anyway, thanks, Beca. I wanted to thank you in person. It was the coolest meeting Trey-Jay. Like--the actual coolest thing ever. Best day of my life.” He offered her a warm smile.

As he stood to leave, Beca cleared her throat. “I’m taking you home.”

Oliver whirled back around. “What?”

“What were you gonna do? Uber? Lyft? Take a cab or the subway or a local train out to the suburbs? No. I see that you’re tall and a boy but that doesn’t mean you can’t get taken advantage of out there, and the sun’s going down and everything…” Before she could second guess herself, Beca snagged her phone and pressed one button. “Daquan, I’m leaving early tonight.”

Ollie grimaced. “You don’t have to--I, uh…” His cheeks flushed. “Are you gonna tell my mom?”

“That you snuck into the city by yourself?” Beca pursed her lips, pinning him with a look. “I’ll think about it.” Because really, it was dangerous alone for a barely sixteen-year-old from the relatively peaceful suburbs. “Come on, follow me.”

Beca slid into her heels and hitched her messenger bag over her shoulder, leading the boy from the office. They took the elevator to the private parking garage, where Beca stepped in front of her black Aston Martin Vanquish Volante. “Get in, kid.”

Oliver gaped yet again. “Holy shit, is that--”

“I said get in. And, uh--you owe me a dollar for cursing, if your swear jar’s still a thing.” Beca slid into her driver’s seat and waited for Oliver to buckle up before hitting the road. She wasn’t sure what else to say to Chloe’s son, so she let her bluetooth pick up her phone’s playlist and after a minute…

Ollie turned to look at her sharply. “Holy shit, is this Trey-Jay’s new stuff??”

“You owe me two dollars,” Beca said, shooting him one more look, but a smirk pulled on her lips. “It’s Trey-Jay’s new stuff, yeah. I’ll cut off your ears if you tell anyone you heard any of it though.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell,” he said, damn near bouncing in his seat as he soaked in every note and lyric.

(God, was he Chloe’s kid or what?)

“Punch in your address for me,” she said, motioning to her navigation screen once they finally started moving with purpose out of the congestion of the city.

They drove in silence listening to music for forty-eight minutes until Beca pulled up in front of the Walp house. She gripped the steering wheel so tight her knuckles whitened, and she refused to look at the actual house in fear of catching a glimpse of her through a window or something.

Or worse, him.

“Okay, kid. This is it, right? Get your teenaged punk-ass out of my car.”

Ollie laughed, reaching into his pocket once again. “Hey, um--before I go…” He pulled out his wallet.

Beca snorted. “I wasn’t serious about the swear jar thing, y’know. I really don’t need your money…”

But Ollie didn’t take out any bills. Instead, he pulled a folded up piece of paper and offered it up to her. “Is this…” He cleared his throat. “This is you, right?”

Beca shifted the car into park and tapped the overhead light, opening the thicker-stock piece of paper, her lungs nearly seizing on the spot. She stared down at the photo of herself, nearly sixteen years ago, cradling a swaddled infant with rosy cheeks and a tuft of ginger hair. “Yeah,” Beca said, swallowing thickly as tears stung her eyes. “Yeah, that’s me. And you. But you probably worked that out, right?” In the photo, she sat in the rocking chair she’d assembled in Chloe’s apartment, in the nursery she helped paint and build and decorate. She remembered that day like it was yesterday--it was one of Oliver’s first days home from the hospital, and Beca was fucking terrified she’d drop him. She glared at Chloe after snapping the picture because she’d been up all night helping take care of him and she obviously looked like a mess.

“Yeah,” Ollie said, grinning. “I found that in a box my mom keeps hidden in her closet with old birthday cards and letters and stuff. Figured you’d wanna see it, so…”

Beca scoffed, shaking her head and chuckling. “What were you doing going through your mom’s stuff--raiding for booze or something? Jeez, kids these days… bolder younger, huh? Drinking’s bad for you, kiddo.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Oliver said, a frown pulling at his lips as he averted his eyes. “I was looking to make sure there wasn’t alcohol in there. Dad likes to hide his stash around the house, thinks we won’t go looking for it, so.” He dropped his head for a beat before picking it back up again.

Beca’s lips fell apart and her brow knitted with concern. She’d meant to crack a joke, not strike a nerve. So Chicago was a drinker, was he? Figured.

But that wasn’t her business, was it? She willed a deep sigh. “Sorry, kid. I didn’t mean…”

“No, I know you didn’t. It’s cool,” Ollie said, grinning at Beca again, though this time it didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Thanks again. For the Trey-Jay surprise, and letting me listen to his new stuff, and the ride home…”

Beca offered the picture back. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell your mom.”

“Thanks, Aunt Beca.” He slid the photograph back into his wallet.

Aunt Beca.

She swallowed hard, furiously blinking those tears back. “You don’t have to do that,” she said, a slight flush rising in her cheeks as she warmly shook her head. “I haven’t been around. I don’t deserve the title. The other Bellas… they’ve earned it.”

Oliver thought on that for a few seconds. “Okay. Just Beca then. Cool meeting you. Well--re-meeting you, I guess.”

As he turned to leave, Beca settled her hand over the gear shift. Her question blurted out before she could stop herself. “Is she happy?”

Ollie paused, blinking at Beca. “What… who?”

“Your mom.” Beca bit her lip for a moment, preoccupied with her steering wheel. “Is she… I mean, she’s happy, right?” It wasn’t fair to ask that question--she’d lost the right a decade and a half ago, and more with each passing year she stayed away. It especially wasn’t fair to ask the question to her teenaged son.

Oliver hesitated, glancing out the window toward his picturesque suburban house. “She cries a lot,” he admitted quietly, reaching up to adjust his hat. “I mean, she’s happy a lot, too. Most of the time, even. But I think my dad’s… I think his drinking shit is taking a toll on her, y’know? She puts on a brave face and I’m pretty sure my brother and sisters don’t notice, but I…” He cut himself off and shot Beca another apologetic look. “I probably shouldn’t be, uh--”

“Yeah. Yeah, totally. I’m sorry I asked, I shouldn’t have.” Beca shook her head and reached over to pat his shoulder. “Try not to go sneaking off into the city by yourself again, okay?”

“Okay.” Oliver stepped out of the car. “Goodnight.”

“And Oliver?”

He turned back. “Yeah?”

Beca grinned. “It was nice re-meeting you again, too.”

Chapter Text

Chicago had bad days, but he also had pretty okay days. Even without treatment, he sometimes found the will and energy to drag himself from the guest room, shower, and help Chloe around the house.

Today was one of those days where things felt almost normal.

He played with the kids in the living room, set the table while Chloe finished cooking, and peered through the curtains when a car rolled up. Over dinner, he asked Ollie about the luxury Aston Martin he climbed out of. Ollie’s eyes didn’t meet his father’s when he pushed peas around his plate and explained Jack’s dad got a new car.

The lack of eye contact was Chloe’s hint that he wasn’t telling the full truth, but she didn’t call him out at the dinner table. (He inherited Chloe’s inability to lie--it was both endearing and concerning, because Ollie rarely had cause to lie. They were always open with each other, even when things got hard.)

After a nice, peaceful family dinner, Emery excused herself to finish homework upstairs. Soon after, Chicago volunteered to help Nathan and Lily wash up for bed and take on bedtime story duty.

Ollie lingered to help Chloe clean up after dinner. He carried the dishes over to the counter beside the sink, where Chloe stood with her sleeves pushed up, setting each dish into the dish rack to dry.

Chloe waited until her son finished clearing the dishes and stood beside her (a whole head taller than her now), plucking a dish towel from the drawer to dry each cleaned dish. “So… that was Jack’s dad’s Aston Martin, Ollie?”

Ollie’s lip caught between his teeth and he nodded. “Yeah. Pretty sweet, right?”

Chloe softened, eyeing her son’s profile with concern knitted in her brow. “Honey, Jack’s dad manages a Best Buy. His mom’s a nurse. While I’m sure they do pretty well for themselves… that’s not Aston Martin money, you know?”

Ollie’s chest puffed out and for a moment, considered pushing the lie. But he glanced over at his mom’s face and hung his head instead. “Yeah, okay. It wasn’t Jack’s. I, uh…” He swallowed hard, blowing out a hard breath of air. “Don’t be mad, okay? I took the train into the city after school today.”

Chloe’s eyes snapped wide. “You what? By yourself? Oliver--”

“I know. I know it was pretty dumb, I won’t do it again. I didn’t wanna worry you, but I wanted to thank her myself, y’know?”

“You wanted… what?”

“Beca Mitchell,” Ollie said. “I went to thank Beca. I met with her.”

The fork slipped from Chloe’s grasp and clattered against the base of the metal sink. “You went to thank Beca? In person? Today? You...”

“Yeah. For the concert on my birthday. I know you said to write letter or a card or something, but…” He shrugged. “I dunno. I guess I kinda wanted to meet her, ‘cause that was a really big deal, y’know?”

Chloe closed her eyes for a moment and swallowed hard. “And… you were able to see her? You found where she works? And you met with her…” She eyed her son, exhaling in a disbelieving chuckle. “She’s a music mogul, Ollie. She runs an empire. People can’t just walk in and meet with someone that powerful without contacts and an appointment.”

“Yeah, I mean. I googled where she works. Pretty easy to find out. Then I just had to kinda wait it out in the lobby and annoy the desk person ‘til he called her and she said she’d see me after I gave her my name. Then she drove me home ‘cause it started getting dark and she insisted.”

Chloe thought her head was seconds from exploding. Beca met with her son. Beca drove him home. Beca… was parked outside of their house for at least a minute.

She’d been closer to Beca in proximity than she had in a decade and a half, and that realization shot fresh vines snaking around her heart, constricting in a tight squeeze.

It took another moment for Chloe to find her voice. “Sweetheart…” Chloe had been scrubbing the same spot on a plate for the past minute, lost in her thoughts.

“What happened, Mom? Beca’s really cool! And it’s not like she’s that far away, you know? She liked me, too. I could tell.”

“Of course she liked you,” Chloe said, softening. “Who wouldn’t like you? You’re an amazing young man. And I’m not even a little bit biased.”

Ollie chuckled, shrugging. He waited a beat before glancing down at his mom. “What happened with you guys?”

There it was. The question that made Chloe reach out and turn off the faucet. She shakily reached for the dish towel to dry her hands. “It’s a little complicated, Olliebear.”

Ollie dried his own hands and fished into his pocket, retrieving his wallet and the picture he’d shown Beca. “I found this in a box in your room a little while ago. I wasn’t snooping! I was doing a booze check for Dad, and…” He held it up to his mom. “She knew me as a baby.”

Chloe took the picture and her stomach flip-flopped as she traced the edge with her index finger. “She did. And she got very famous soon after.”

“Yeah but before that…” Ollie frowned. “I don't get it. I mean she can't be busy every second. And it looks like she was around a lot before she was a famous singer or whatever.”

“She was,” Chloe confirmed. She knew this day would come, and she thought she'd braced herself many times over, though a pit of dread churned in her belly as she took her son's hand and led him toward the kitchen table. “C'mere, sweetie.” She pulled out a chair for him and settled down into the chair beside him, taking a deep, steadying breath. “Beca was my best friend in the whole world. When I found out I was pregnant with you… I was really scared. Excited to meet you, of course… but scared, too, because your dad was an ocean away with the army and didn't know about you yet.”

Oliver's brow shot up at that bit of news, but he remained quiet, encouraging his mom to keep talking.

“I sent letters, emails… trying to get in touch with him so he could know about you, too. And in the meantime, Beca was there with me, back in New York. She came to all my appointments, watched you grow in my belly with each ultrasound. She built your nursery for me as a surprise. During the day, she went off to record her first solo album and work with all these big time music industry people… she was a major investment for them, after all. Everyone wanted her to succeed. Beca's music…” Chloe let out a dreamy, forlorn sigh. “She'd always been incredibly talented. I knew it would only be a matter of time before everyone else knew it, too. And so… her first single dropped the day of your second ultrasound. The song… it exploded. Beca was an instant star. Me and your aunts… we were all so, so proud of her.”

Ollie grinned. “What about Dad?”

Chloe's face fell. “We'd planned on telling you this eventually, honey. Your dad… he didn't respond to any of my letters, or my emails. Throughout my pregnancy, I tried everything… I even had Aunt Aubrey’s father, who was a super high-ranking general in the army, try to find him.” A sadness swirled in Chloe's eyes. “I was about six months along with you when I was told your dad had been captured by enemy forces. He was held prisoner for months. It wasn't… it wasn't looking like the odds were very good for whether or not he'd make it out alive.”

Oliver's jaw dropped slightly before he pressed his lips together and swallowed hard, offering a tight nod. Obviously his dad made it out, but hearing he'd gone through that… it made sense why he never really wanted to talk about his time in the military.

(It also kinda maybe made sense why he was a little messed up sometimes, Ollie thought to himself.)

“Beca postponed her full album release the day I got the news. She promised to be with me, to help me, and she did--she was. And then…” Chloe's lips tugged into a watery smile. “You came a few weeks early. None of us were ready, but we all fell in love with you the instant you were born--me, Nana and Pop, your aunts. Including Beca.” She took a shaky breath. “A week later we'd settled into our apartment with you, and your dad showed up at our door. He fell in love with you the instant Beca placed you into his arms for the first time.”

“So you didn't need Beca anymore after Dad came home,” Ollie muttered, putting the pieces together in his own way, with the information presented to him.

“She wanted to be there for you. For us,” Chloe said, her eyes dropping to her lap. “She got an amazing offer to open for Ariana Grande on her world tour. She wanted to turn it down, to stay with us, but I told her…” When Chloe looked back up to her son, she summoned all the courage she had to swallow back her emotion, though sadness and longing swirled in her eyes. “I told her I'd never forgive her if she didn't go. I had help now that your dad was home, and she… she was going to change the world with her music, touch so many people, make their lives better through song. And she did, didn't she?” Chloe chuckled, sniffling and reaching out to affectionately tug at the brim of her son's hat.

Ollie nodded more slowly this time. “Still doesn't really explain why she never showed up after that.”

“Just because she stopped touring and producing her own music to focus on her label and helping her singers do the same doesn't mean she's any less in demand, less busy. It makes her busier, if anything.” Chloe knew, deep down, why Beca stayed away… but she couldn't even begin explaining that to her teenaged son.

“Yeah, I guess. She seemed pretty damn important with all that security. And you should see her office, Ma! It's dope! I saw all her Grammy trophies, like--with my own eyeballs!”

A wry, relieved smile pulled at the corners of Chloe's mouth, grateful he didn't push the issue. “It's dope, huh?” She handed the picture back. “You keep this, and you can give me a dollar for the swear jar.”

Ollie scoffed. “Aw, c'mon! Damn isn't that bad! And Em and Nate and Lils are upstairs!”

Chloe held out her hand palm-up, quirking a brow. “Fork it over, Oliver Benjamin. Or else we can discuss punishment for you sneaking into the city alone without telling us.”

Blinking, Oliver wrinkled his nose before snagging a dollar bill from his wallet and offering it up. “Okay, yeah. Fair.”

“Now wash up and get to bed, okay? And… if you wanna talk to your dad about… about what I told you, I'm sure he'd be open now that you're older.”

Ollie considered for a moment. “Okay, yeah. I'll think about it.” He leaned in and pressed a kiss to his mom's cheek, lanky arms locking around her shoulders.

Chloe wrapped her arms around her son. “I love you to the moon and back,” she whispered fiercely.

“Love you, too,” Ollie mumbled, pulling back and standing. Before he reached the kitchen archway, he spun around. “For what it's worth…” he shrugged, lips twisting into a lopsided grin. “I think Beca really misses you.”

Chloe's lower lip quaked and she quickly schooled her features into a serene, smoothed out expression. “Thanks, sweetheart. Get some sleep.”

She waited until she no longer heard his footfalls before shakily pushing to her feet, bone-weary and now sluggish with emotion after picking open old scabs that had long since scarred over. She finished washing dishes in silence and trudged upstairs, stopping into each of her children’s bedrooms (the boys shared one, the girls shared the other) to kiss their foreheads and tuck them in.

Chloe returned to her bedroom at the end of the hall to find Chicago sitting up in bed, his reading glasses low on his nose as he flipped the page in his Robert Ludlum book. She grinned at the sight, closing the door behind her. “Feeling better tonight, honey?”

“Much better,” he said, pulling off his glasses and setting them on his bedside table. “I haven’t had a drink in four days, y’know.”

“Four days?” Chloe beamed at him. “I’m so proud of you.” But she knew better than to get her hopes up. He had stretches of good days--weeks, even--before he found the bottle again. The cycle had been restarted so many times she’d lost count. It was on the tip of her tongue to suggest he call the therapist again, to attend a meeting, but she didn’t want to risk starting a fight. She didn’t have the energy.

While she slipped into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth, Chicago praised her cooking, gave her the rundown on his experience putting the kids to bed (Lily requested three stories, two on unicorns and one on Spiderman, while Nathan pleaded to play a few rounds of Mario Kart on his Switch before he fell asleep), and his plans to do some yard work tomorrow.

By the time he finished, Chloe quickly changed into her oversized t-shirt and slipped into bed beside him, curling up. “It sounds like you had a great day,” she said, leaning in to kiss him. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to kiss her husband--she did, of course--but it was partially a test to make sure he tasted of anything without a hint of alcohol. She hated it, but that was what kisses had become for nearly a decade now. Relief sagged at her shoulders when he tasted like toothpaste and nothing else.

“It’s an even better day now,” he assured her, returning the light kiss with a more solid one.

She pulled back and steeled herself. “I told Ollie. About… about why it took you so long to come home,” Chloe said, holding her breath. It wasn’t that she thought Chicago would get angry, but… well, she’d always walked on eggshells, afraid she’d say or do anything that might trigger him back to his poor coping mechanisms.

Chicago remained silent for a few beats before nodding. “I see. Well…” He sighed. “I suppose he’s old enough to know what happened. I’ll have a talk with him tomorrow, okay?”

Chloe’s head jerked upward and bobbed into a nod. “That’d be really good, honey. Thank you.”

“He’s a young man now. I can’t believe our oldest boy’s sixteen.” He waited for Chloe’s hum of agreement before adding, “Let’s make another.”

Chloe froze for a moment before a soft chuckle blurted out. “Oh, sweetie…” She glanced up to find him staring at her with a mischievous sort of smirk. Her brow shot up toward her hairline. “Oh my god. You’re serious…”

“Why not? We make cute babies,” he said, rolling on top of his wife and peppering kisses across her cheek.

Another huff of laughter escaped and she groaned. “Four’s not enough? I don’t… we don’t really have room for five…”

“We’ll make room. We’ll make it work. We always do. You’re amazing.”

Chloe bit her tongue, swallowing back words desperate to fly out: That’s because I have no choice but to make it work. That’s because I do almost everything and I’m tired, honey. I’m so, so damn tired.

But she couldn’t deny he’d been at his best--his happiest and healthiest--when he’d first met Ollie and while she’d been pregnant with Emery and Nathan and Lily. Even after, when the babies were infants… he’d always sobered up and stayed that way. They got a few really, really good years. Incredible years, even. A new baby… it would give him a sense of purpose again.

Chicago’s calloused, large hands tugged her underwear off and he shifted to settle between her thighs, lifting his head to gaze down at her. “Whaddya say, darlin’? Don’t you miss having a sweet little rugrat around here?” His eyes--focused and hopeful and not clouded by haunting trauma and debilitating disease--shined down at her, filled with desire and life.

Chloe reached up and pushed his hair out of his eyes, tracing the shell of his ear as she considered. Eventually, a grin pulled tight on her lips and she nodded. “Okay,” she whispered, cupping his cheek. “We can try.” She felt him moan triumphantly into the kiss as he got down to business.

Her pesky conscience whispered in Chloe’s brain and she slammed her eyes shut, floating away almost instantly as a hauntingly beautiful set of steel blue eyes floated into her consciousness. And suddenly it was Beca’s mouth hot on her neck, kissing and suckling and nipping sensitive flesh, it was Beca’s hand skirting beneath her shirt, kneading her full breast and teasing at her peaked nipple. It was Beca sliding inside of her, filling and stretching her gentle and slow at first, but quickly growing erratic and fast.

Behind closed eyelids, it was Beca making her come undone for the first time in several lonely, loveless months.

Chloe blinked her eyes open after it was over, trembling with shame and the aftershocks of her climax as she peppered chaste kisses along her husband’s jawline.

Chicago pressed a sloppy kiss to her cheek in return, dropping one to her shoulder before carefully moving back to his side of the bed. As always, he turned away from her and rhythmic snores filled the room seconds later.

She waited for her heart rate to settle before she shifted beneath the blankets and turned toward her own bedside table, carefully tugging open its drawer. With one last glance over her shoulder to make sure Chicago remained asleep, she plucked her packet of birth control and popped her daily dose into her mouth, dry swallowing both the pill and her guilt.

For the first time in well over a decade, awoken from a deep hibernation, Chloe’s heart once again ached for Beca as she drifted into a restless slumber.

Chapter Text

After an eventful, satiating evening, Beca stood in front of her vanity in her black tailored Armani suit and Louboutin heels. The morning sunshine poured through the floor to ceiling window and illuminated her expansive, luxurious penthouse bedroom, and Beca leaned in to finish applying her eyeliner.

Last night’s entertainment lay prone on Beca’s charcoal-colored Porthault linens, her gorgeous red hair mussed from being gripped so hard the night before and bare body shifting as she began to stir. “Mmm… g’morning,” she rasped, the voice all wrong.

Beca mentally prepared herself this time, steeling herself against reality. “‘Morning,” she replied curtly, not sparing her a glance. “You’ll find payment in full on the bedside table.”

The escort pushed upward, stretching out her limbs and sighing. She was in no hurry to leave Beca’s bed, it seemed, and she reached over to take the envelope waiting for her. Thumbing through the crisp hundred dollar bills, she cocked her head to the side while recounting. Beca paid more than they’d discussed.

She always did. But even paying more didn’t fully diminish Beca’s guilt and shame.

“Can I ask…” the woman started, and Beca braced herself for the regular line of questioning, which she usually blew off. “...why you’re soliciting my service? Not that I’m complaining--trust me, you’re a million times better than my... usual clientele. And you could have any woman in the world in bed if you wanted.”

“Not any woman,” Beca admitted grudgingly, finally sparing a glance over her shoulder. “And I don’t pay you to fuck me. I pay for your discretion.”

Her brow shot up and she nodded. “I respect that.” She waited a beat before adding, “So who’s Chloe?”

A heavy sigh passed Beca’s lips and irritation swirled in her gut. She didn’t pay them to ask questions, but she understood the natural curiosity. Usually she brushed them off, but this one had been particularly convincing. Tina. Trina? Something like that…

“My best friend,” Beca grudgingly admitted, as though this was some sort of fucked up kind of confessional. Maybe it’d feel better, getting it all out. (She’d always balked at therapy, but this was sort of the same thing, right? Letting it all out to a stranger? She was paying her to keep quiet, so… whatever.) “I waited too long to tell her how I felt, and by the time I realized it, it was kind of too late.”

“Baby,” the escort cooed, stretching onto her stomach toward the foot of the bed and resting her chin in her palm, listening intently. “It’s never too late.”

“It was then,” Beca muttered. “She got knocked up by a guy overseas, and when he didn’t respond to her letters we both kinda thought he was blowing her off. I was recording my first album back then--I’d only just signed with the label, and I was with Chloe through her pregnancy, and even after the baby was born. Oliver. We had… a routine going, even if it wasn’t perfect. Sleep schedules, feedings--I did the cooking and cleaning while Chloe nursed, I got up in the middle of the night to let her rest whenever I could.”

“Mmm… that sounds sweet, you stepping in to help like that.” She watched as Beca continued styling her long hair. “Did you ever tell her how you felt?”

“We kissed. Once,” Beca admitted with a longing sort of sigh, her chest constricting at the memory of it. “I’d just finished changing the baby after a diaper blow-out while Chloe slept. Somehow managed to bathe him myself. I was a mess when she found us--clean but covered in soap suds, my hair and t-shirt soaked from Ollie laughing and splashing in the sink. She walked up to us and just…” She closed her eyes, remembering how soft Chloe’s lips felt against her own, steady and warm and filled with gratitude and something more. More than a gesture of thanks. How she hadn’t tried to kiss Beca’s cheek and missed--it was purposeful. Incredible. It sent tingles straight down Beca’s spine and had her swaying on the spot.

“Anyway,” Beca continued, clearing her throat. “She said we’d talk about it later, after the baby went down for a nap. And wouldn’t you know it… the kid’s father knocked on the door an hour later. He’d been captured overseas for months. Chicago. That’s his name--stupid as hell, right? Anyway, he… wanted to be there more than anything, he said. He missed Chloe, the thought of her got him through the hell he’d endured, and when he saw his son for the first time…” Beca swallowed hard. “I was suddenly the interloper.”

“Oh, sugar,” the escort soothed, frowning. “That breaks my heart.”

Beca huffed a bitter sort of chuckle. “Yeah, tell me about it.” She forced a deep breath. “Anyway, I stayed for another few days while he got to know the kid, but I was scheduled to go on tour to open for Ariana Grande. It was, back then, an opportunity I couldn’t refuse, even though I’d fully planned to walk away from it all. But Chloe…” Beca paused. “She said she’d never forgive me if I didn’t get on that plane, if I missed out on that because of her. She had her baby’s dad to help her, so a few months of me being away would be fine. So I did--I listened to her. I left. I left her.”

“So you traveled the country, becoming a massive pop star…”

“I traveled Europe with Ariana Grande. It was an unbelievable experience. If you asked my label, they’d say that’s what truly launched me into the public eye. My album sales went double platinum after a few weeks on tour. It was… a whirlwind.” She reached for her lipstick and popped the cap, leaning closer to the mirror to apply it. “After the tour, I came back to her. It was a sunny summer day, I remember--it was beautiful outside. I had my driver shoot straight to Chloe’s from the airport, and when he pulled up to the house, I saw them in the front yard. Ollie--he got so damn big,” she said with a longing sort of chuckle, remembering how actually big he’d gotten from when she saw him a week ago in person. “Chloe and Chicago, they were teaching him how to walk on the grass. He held onto Chicago’s thumbs as Chicago walked inch by inch, patiently letting Ollie find his footsteps one at a time, walking toward the proudest looking Chloe I’d ever seen. And when he reached her, Chloe dropped to her knees and kissed Ollie all over, and then--and then she stood and kissed Chicago, too. Their smiles--all three of them--” Beca swallowed hard. “They were so damn happy. Maybe the happiest I’d ever seen her. And that’s when I knew I couldn’t…” She shook her head. “I had my driver keep going. I didn’t belong there anymore. They were a family, you know? The three of them.”

“So you stayed away, huh? That’s a shame.”

“It was for the best,” Beca insisted, and she still believed that. Truly.

“They got married?”

“Mhm. Still married, apparently.”

“Oh, baby. I bet it was hard for you, sitting through that wedding.”

“I… didn’t go.” Beca’s mind instantly flashed back--not to Chloe and Chicago, but to a furious blonde storming backstage and into Beca’s dressing room…

****

It was her first major tour through the US, co-headlining with Harry Styles, who’d just gone solo. She sat in her stylist’s chair, listening to her chatting away while Beca stared into the vanity, wondering what sort of magical makeup she’d used to cover up the dark circles under her eyes before each show.

“What the hell, Beca??” A familiar, venomous tone spat from the dressing room entryway.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Mitchell,” the burly security guard called from behind Aubrey. Clearly he was no match for her former Bellas captain. “Do you want me to escort her from the premises?”

“No,” Beca said, sighing. “It’s fine, Frank. Let her in.” She had a feeling this was coming… but she sort of figured it would be a screaming voicemail, or maybe a scathing email. She glanced back at her hair stylist. “Hey, would you mind…”

“No problem.” The stylist set her brush aside and hurried from the room. With the door closed behind her, they were alone.

Beca stood from her chair, facing Aubrey square on and crossing her arms over her chest in her protective power stance.

Aubrey stormed closer, whipping out the white response card from her pocket. “Declines with regret?? You can’t check the box that says declines with regret on your best friend’s wedding invitation, Beca. I know you think you’re a hot shot rockstar now, with your Billboard-topping albums and your fancy car service and your world tours, but Chloe deserves--”

“I’m in love with her, Aubrey.” It was the first time she spoke those words aloud to anyone, and it effectively shut Aubrey up as though the hard truth slapped the blonde across the face.

After her brain seemed to reboot, Aubrey’s eyes popped wide, her jaw fell slack, and her hand raised to rest over her heart. “Oh… oh, Beca. I…”

“I don’t trust myself to go to her wedding because I’ll probably do something stupid, okay? I can’t watch her marry someone else--and I can’t be there for her anymore, not like that. I can’t be just her best friend, so that’s gotta be on you now. Understand?”

“Beca.” Aubrey held up her hands, trying to reason with her and mentally work out the repercussions of this development at the same time. “If you love her… I mean, does she know? She might--”

Beca shook her head. “No, and you can’t tell her. She might suspect, but it doesn’t matter.”

“It matters,” Aubrey said, that same fierceness shining in her eyes as she stepped closer, resting her hand on Beca’s shoulder. “Beca, it matters. It does. It might matter more than anything else.”

Beca swallowed the painful lump of emotion, inhaling sharply through her nose and blinking back tears threatening to ruin the expertly applied makeup coating her face. “My whole childhood, I resented my dad for leaving my mom for another woman. Birthdays, holidays, random days… a dark cloud hung over all of it because my mom was so angry and upset, even though she always tried to put on a brave face for me. I always knew she was hurting. She didn’t deserve that. I didn’t deserve that. Chloe doesn’t deserve to hurt like that. And after everything Chicago’s been through…” She shook her head, letting out a resigned sigh. “They’re happy. I want them to have that. I don’t want to give Chloe any reason to second guess herself or her family. I want the kid to grow up in a home that’s not broken.”

“Beca…” Tears streamed down Aubrey’s cheeks as she squeezed Beca’s shoulder.

“It’s okay, Aubrey.” Beca sniffled, blinking furiously. She refused to let herself cry, especially here and now, in the face of her friend, and also when she had twenty thousand screaming fans to perform for in twenty minutes. “Let me be that hot shot rockstar who’s too good for her friends now. Paint me that way, it’s easier… and it’s for the best.”

Aubrey opened her mouth as if to argue, but she promptly closed her lips and leaned in, pulling Beca into a bone crushing hug.

*

“So you stayed away… for how long, now?”

“About fifteen years,” Beca confirmed, popping the cap back on her lipstick and picking up her bag. “I gotta get to the office. Stay as long as you want. Let yourself out whenever, I don’t really care.”

Barely sparing her a glance as she strode by, she headed for the front door and twisted the ornate door knob, pulling it open to find--

Chloe Beale.

No--Chloe Walp, pacing so hard in the private lobby outside the elevator she’d likely scuffed the marble flooring of her entryway.

Not that Beca gave a single shit about her floors.

Chloe wore a navy sundress with a yellow cardigan and wicker sandals, her hair styled down around her shoulders--cut and styled shorter than Beca remembered, and maybe Chloe had a few smile crinkles on the sides of her eyes that she didn’t have before, but god…

She was still the most beautiful person Beca had ever seen, and it took Beca a minute to remember to breathe again. Her hand tremored at her side.

Chloe immediately paused her pacing and whirled around to face her, lighting up as bright as she used to. Like the goddamn sun. “Hi,” she said, whisper soft, offering an apologetic wave likely for showing up unannounced.

Beca’s lips fell apart and she simply stared back, blinking as though she were a mirage. After her mind recalibrated, she pulled her phone from her pocket and glanced away from Chloe for a single second while she tapped her assistant’s call button. Lifting her gaze back to Chloe, Beca licked her lips, failing to find her voice when her assistant first picked up after one ring.

“Beca?” No response. “Beca, are you there?”

“Yeah,” Beca said, clearing her throat; she couldn’t tear her eyes from Chloe even if she wanted to. “Kayla. Clear my morning.”

“--but Beca, you have John Legend slated for ten--”

“I don’t care,” Beca said. “Reschedule.”

“But what about--”

“Kayla,” Beca’s voice rang more firm this time. “Clear my morning.” She tapped her phone to end the call and stepped aside, offering a tight-lipped grin and motioning Chloe into her home.

Chapter Text

Chloe had no problem walking in her comfiest wicker wedges, yet she had no idea how she managed putting one foot in front of the other as she followed Beca into her home. Her head was on a constant swivel as she openly gaped at each feature as they passed--a gorgeous ivory baby grand piano stood in the foyer, a coy pond with a dozen fish swimming on either side of her en route to an immaculate kitchen boasting pristine tiled backsplash, upgraded cabinetry, and a center counter island larger than her entire kitchen at home.

“Can I get you a drink?” Beca’s voice--so familiar it made her heart clench--pierced her haze of disbelief.

Chloe grinned. “It’s nine thirty in the morning.”

“Sounds like the perfect time for a mimosa,” Beca decided, her (oh my god were those Louboutins??) heels clicking as she strode to the fridge to pull out a bottle of orange juice and carry it to her stocked bar cart.

“Okay, sure. If you insist,” Chloe said with a soft chuckle, crossing her arms over her chest as she peeked into the adjacent room--a living room featuring a gorgeous floor-to-ceiling window view of the city, a wraparound black leather couch, and a massive stone fireplace. “Wow, this place--it’s really something,” she added, taking in each feature and wondering how many more she missed on visual observation alone.

(It proved far easier to focus on the lavishness of Beca’s multi-million dollar penthouse instead of how ridiculously hot she looked in that power suit.)

“Thanks. I’m not here much with all the working and traveling. Here you go,” Beca said as she offered a champagne flute.

Chloe swore she spotted a tremor in Beca’s hand as she offered her the glass, but she didn’t call attention to it, instead smiling and meeting her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Let’s…” Beca nodded toward the living room and led Chloe to that leather sectional couch, taking a deep, steadying breath as she sat and motioned for Chloe to do the same.

Chloe lowered herself down beside Beca, crossing her legs and shifting her body to angle toward her.

“So.” Beca sipped at her mimosa and watched Chloe, silently urging her to speak first.

Chloe figured that made sense. She was the one who showed up unannounced, after all. She cleared her throat and reached up to tuck a stray ginger lock of hair behind her ear, her stomach flip-flopping along with the fluttering beat of her heart. “So I wanted to thank you in person--”

Beca snorted.

Chloe’s brow raised.

“Sorry, it’s just--” An amused grin pulled on Beca’s lips. “You Walps and your in person thank yous.”

Chloe’s smile spread and she wrinkled her nose. “Well, there’s something more personal about a thank you with eye contact,” Chloe reasoned. “And I didn’t only come to thank you about Trey-Jay and Ollie’s birthday, but for taking the time to make sure he got home safely the other night. I can’t really explain how much I appreciate you doing that.”

“Yeah, of course,” Beca said with an easy shrug. “It wasn’t really a big deal.” She hesitated, sliding her palm over her own knee as a dazed sort of grin tinged with a bit of sadness pulled at her lips. “He’s a cool kid. You really… you did a good job.”

The smile on Chloe’s face bloomed wider. “You don’t see him during his grumpy teenager moments, but yes, he’s… he’s a great kid. I’m incredibly lucky.”

“You raised him. That’s not luck. That’s all you,” Beca insisted, hesitating again before asking, “Do you, um--Ollie mentioned siblings…?”

“Oh! Yes, we’ve got four,” Chloe said, her free hand sliding into her purse to whip out her phone. She turned on her home screen and offered it up to Beca. Her phone displayed a picture from last Christmas. “Emery’s almost thirteen, Nathan’s nine, and Lily’s six and a half.”

Beca’s lips pulled into a fond, tight-lipped smile as she studied the picture of Chloe’s children.

Chicago was notably absent from the photo. Chloe wondered if her reaction would have been any different if he were present.

“They’re beautiful, Chlo,” Beca said, passing back the phone. “And you--I mean, wow. Never would’ve known you popped out four kids,” she added, a teasing smirk playing on her lips.

That damn smirk derailed Chloe’s composure for a moment and a soft flush rose in her cheeks as she offered an easy smile right back. “Yeah, well… I’m still pretty confident about all this.” She winked, catching Beca’s steely gray-blue eyes, and as soon as they locked on, her brain instantly transported back to that Baker Hall shower.

Beca’s body stiffened for a prolonged moment of sustained eye contact, and her exhaling chuckle rang hollow as she lowered her eyes to her champagne flute.

Chloe’s gaze swept over Beca, who fought to compose herself as she took a drink of her mimosa. Beca had aged, there was no doubt about that--the corners of her eyes crinkled when she spoke, the worry crease in her forehead grew more pronounced over the years, and she carried herself differently, with straightened, powerful posture, as though the weight of the world rested on her shoulders.

“It’s good to see you.” Beca’s voice rang quieter with the confession as she bravely met Chloe’s eyes. “I know I… I owe you an explanation for, um...”

“No, you don’t.” Chloe shook her head. “I know why you stayed away.”

Beca frowned. “Aubrey told you?”

“She didn’t have to, Beca.” Chloe’s lip caught between her teeth, manicured nails tapping along the side of her flute.

Beca’s hand settled on her stomach and she seemed to will herself to breathe. Several silent seconds passed before she spoke. “Listen, I--” She cut herself off there, color draining from her face, almost as if she saw a ghost.

Chloe tracked Beca’s suddenly distracted stare, turning around. Her eyes popped wide when she spotted a woman--younger and downright beautiful with similar red hair but longer than hers--sauntering confidently toward them with a dazzling smile.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she announced, reaching over the couch to cup Beca’s cheeks and tilt her head backwards while she leaned over and pressed a burning kiss to Beca’s mouth, upside down.

Chloe’s gaze snapped back to her lap, her chest tightening as her mind flashed back to a Bellas-packed tent and her confession to Beca about wishing she experimented more in college.

“This is, uh--” Beca cleared her throat, motioning between Chloe and her… girlfriend?

“Gina,” the woman supplied, offering a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Chloe.”

“Gina, hi! It’s a pleasure to meet you, too!” Chloe beamed right back, shaking her hand and hoping her smile wasn’t too strained.

“I’ll see you tonight?” Gina asked Beca, twirling a lock of brown hair between her fingers.

Beca bobbed her head in a jerky nod. “Uh-huh, yeah. Yep. Yes. See you later.”

Gina tossed her hair and strode through the kitchen and seconds later, the sound of the door clicked behind her.

Chloe’s brow shot up and she smirked, bringing her flute to her lips. “Wow…”

“Don’t,” Beca said, chuckling as her cheeks flushed hard.

“Um hello, she’s gorgeous.” And Chloe definitely wasn’t jealous. Nope. Not even the tiniest bit.

“It’s not that serious,” Beca insisted with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Really, don’t--it’s not like that.”

“Oh?” Chloe’s brow quirked and she settled deeper into the couch, mischief dancing on her expression. “What’s it like, then?”

“Chloe.” A decompressing puff of laughter escaped Beca and she rolled her eyes. “So how the hell did you even find me here, anyway?”

Chloe shot a heatless glare at Beca. “I see you changing the subject, Mitchell, but we’ll circle back to this later,” she said. “How do you think I got your address, hm?”

“Amy,” Beca said, sighing heavily.

Chloe knew Amy was the only one Beca regularly kept in touch with, and surprisingly, Amy had been pretty tight-lipped about Beca. Chloe didn’t push too hard, admittedly, but she had to get Beca’s address, and Amy reluctantly obliged. (Chloe maybe only told Amy she wanted to send a card, not actually visit.) “I promise I won’t make a habit of dropping by unannounced.”

Beca only shrugged. “I’m kinda glad you did,” she said. “I never thought… I mean, it’s been so long…”

“We still miss you, Beca.” Chloe straightened up and reached out to gently cover Beca’s hand with hers. “It doesn’t matter that it’s been fifteen years. Once a Bella, always a Bella. We’re so proud of you and we miss you.” Chloe wrapped her fingers around Beca’s hand and squeezed, summoning courage to emphasize her truth. “I’m proud of you, and I’ve missed you. So much.”

Emotion clouded Beca’s eyes and she blinked a few times as though restraining tears desperate to fall. “You shouldn’t be proud of me,” she muttered, eyes cast downward. “I really fucked up, staying away.”

“Beca, look at me.” Chloe waited until Beca slowly settled her gaze on hers. “What you’ve accomplished--we’re all in awe of you. Your music inspired a generation. I mean look at all this…” She let out a few notes of laughter, motionining around the opulent penthouse apartment with her half-empty champagne flute. “And Ollie told me about your office wall of Grammy’s and multi-platinum records.”

Beca shook her head, emitting a hoarse chuckle. “This place, it’s…” She paused as if searching for the right word. “--empty, most of the time.”

Chloe searched Beca’s face, trying to read the deeper layers like she used to be able to do without missing a beat. Empty, most of the time.

She’s lonely.

Chloe felt it in her bones. Without waiting longer, she released Beca’s hand and fished into her bag once more to pull out a printed card, offering it up to Beca.

“What’s this?” Beca asked, her brow crawling upward.

“A save-the-date for Stacie’s 40th birthday bash in two months. We’re taking a girls’ weekend in Miami. Not everything’s set yet--we’re still arranging flights and hotel and everything… but she asked me if I’d personally deliver this to you. She wants you there.” She grinned. “We all want you there.”

Beca blinked down at the invitation, swallowing the lump in her throat. “Thanks, Chlo. I’ll--I’ll think about it, okay? My summer schedule’s pretty packed…”

“I know you’re incredibly busy, and it’s okay if you can’t make it. We just… we want you to try, if you can?”

Beca’s lips twitched upward into a returning grin. “Okay. I’ll try.”

“Awes!” Chloe drained the rest of her mimosa. “I don’t want to take any more of your time than I already have…”

Beca opened her mouth to protest, but then remembered she had John Legend waiting in her office. “I--yeah, here. Let me…” She took Chloe’s empty glass and stood.

“What, no maid? No butler?” Chloe teased with a fond grin as she stood, hitching her bag over her shoulder.

“Nah. The maid only comes once a week,” Beca said, lips twitching into a smirk. “And butlers are creepy. I can answer my own damn door.” Beca led Chloe back through the kitchen, where she placed the used stemware beside the sink. She walked Chloe back through the entryway toward the front door.

“Promise me it won’t be another fifteen years before I see you again,” Chloe blurted before she could help herself.

Beca offered a sad smile and nodded. “It won’t be. I promise.”

Chloe didn’t offer any warning before stepping forward and pulling Beca in for a hug, wrapping her arms around Beca’s shoulders and burying her face in the crook of her neck. She inhaled Beca’s scent, her heart wrenching upon the realization that despite so many years having passed, they still fit perfectly together.

Beca waited a few beats, seemingly frozen with shock or discomfort, before her arms slipped around Chloe’s middle and her cheek pressed against the side of her head. She exhaled shakily near Chloe’s ear, and they stood like that for a solid minute before Beca pulled away. “I missed you too,” she rasped, casting her a sad, longing sort of smile before opening the door. “See you around, Chlo.”

Chloe wiped a tear from her cheek before smiling right back. “Yes. Definitely. We’ll totally figure something out. Thanks for the mimosa and--well, for seeing me.” She shrugged. “See you, Beca.” She stepped out of Beca’s fancy apartment and closed the door behind her, taking a moment to lean back against the door, shutting her eyes and trying to compose herself as a tsunami of emotion crashed through her.

A quick replay sped through her mind and Chloe relived the past half hour. Her eyes ticked open in puzzlement when she realized she hadn’t actually told Gina her name and neither did Beca. So how would she know…?

Beca’s voice on the other side of the door, muffled yet still audible, cut through her confusion. “Kayla, tell John I’ll be there in twenty-five, tops. And I need you to look into my weekend of July 10th. Clear my schedule, call the Four Seasons Miami and book a block of suites for eleven guests. And Kayla?” Beca paused. “Book the pilot for my plane as well. Eleven passengers--round trip to Miami from JFK, same weekend.”

Chloe’s jaw dropped as she registered Beca’s words, and she had no idea how she was able to maintain her cool, collected composure as she crossed the marbled lobby.

At least she waited until the elevator doors closed around her to release her excited squeal.

The Bellas would finally, finally be back together.

All of them. For a whole weekend.

Vacationing like celebrities, at that.

Holy shit.

(Chloe tossed a dollar into her mental swear jar. It was totally worth it.)

Chapter Text

Beca’s Boeing 747-8 VIP luxury jet had only ever been utilized to fly Beca and her staff to meetings, conferences, and events all over the world.

Until today.

“Wish me luck,” Beca said to Kayla, stepping out of her town car and smoothing down the front of her black sleeveless blouse. Through designer sunglasses, she took in the sight of the plane sitting outside the hangar, ready for take-off, knowing the ten closest friends she’d ever had already boarded and waited for her to join them for the weekend. “Call me if there are any emergencies.”

“I’ll try my best not to, boss,” Kayla said, grinning up at her when Beca’s brow arched in reply. “This is your first trip for pleasure and not business since I’ve known you! Go have fun and forget about work for a couple days! I’ve totally got this!”

Beca let out a light laugh and nodded. “Thanks. I’ll be back in the office on Monday.”

“I’ll have the hangover remedies ready!”

She lowered her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose to shoot Kayla a heatless glare before turning away from her and striding toward the jet, greeting the pilot with a handshake and ascending the stairs. She willed herself to take a deep, steadying breath before stepping into the cabin.

Beca broke into wide grin at the sight of the Bellas bustling about the spacious cabin with cream-colored leather seating options, some claiming couches and oversized recliner chairs. Cynthia Rose and Jessica stood behind the bar whipping up cocktails, Stacie and Chloe took selfies, Amy and Ashley raided the food pantry, Aubrey and Emily oohed and aahed over the amenities of the plane while Lilly and Flo studied the safety manual tucked into the back of one of the seats. Warmth flooded her as she watched them settling into her plane, an aching fondness rushing over the nerves that had been tingling throughout her system all morning.

“Hey, Posen!” Beca called, pulling her sunglasses off once she had everyone’s attention. Pretending not to notice the shock and awe on their faces, Beca nodded toward Aubrey. “You’re in my seat.”

Beca!” The chorus continued with squeals and shrieks as the girls (women, now--but they’d always be “the girls” to Beca) stampeded toward her to the best of their ability in the aisle.

“Whoa, hey--guys! One at a time,” Beca said, chuckling as she hugged each in turn.

”Beca, this plane is amazing!”

”We’re so happy to see you! We’re so happy you’re here!”

”Oh-em-aca-GEE I’ve missed you so much!! This weekend is gonna be AMAZING!”

”How many times have you renewed your mile high club membership in this thing??”

”Stacie, you can’t just ask that--”

”You’re not gonna charge us a restocking fee for all the booze we’re gonna slam on the flight, are you?”

”Amy! Beca covered our flights and hotel, we can pay for--”

“No, no, it’s cool. Whatever you want, go for it,” Beca assured them.

“Ms. Mitchell,” the pilot called, poking his head out from the cockpit. “Are we ready for take-off?”

Beca nodded firmly. “Everyone’s here, Rick. Thanks.”

He closed the cockpit door and seconds later, his voice boomed through the cabin speakers. “Bellas! Welcome aboard Beca Mitchell Airlines--

Beca rolled her eyes and ushered the girls to find a seat.

While this isn’t your typical flight the same safety rules do, in fact, apply, and we’ll need you to find a seat and fasten seatbelts during take-off and landing.

Beca made her way through the cabin and Aubrey made a move to stand. Beca rested a hand on her shoulder, flashing a tight-lipped grin and shaking her head because she was actually in Beca’s regular seat, but Beca didn’t truly care. “I was kidding. Buckle up.”

Aubrey covered Beca’s hand with her own and shared a grin and a nod right back at her.

We wish a very happy birthday to our guest of honor, Stacie.

The girls cheered and Stacie threw two arms into the air.

And we’re gonna get rollin’ in a few minutes here, so please make yourselves comfortable and enjoy the flight.

As everyone found seating, Cynthia Rose and Jessica passed around passion fruit mimosas in champagne flutes and then found seats of their own, everyone facing the relatively spacious aisle and able to see one another from their spots buckled in.

“I think... it’s time... for a Chloe toast…” Emily said, nudging her with her elbow as the girls erupted into encouraging cheers once more.

“Oh my god, you guys. Okay, okay!” Chloe giggled along with the rest of the girls, raising her flute and glancing around the cabin. “It is so, so amazing to be back with everyone after all these years. I’ve missed you girls more than I can possibly explain, and words cannot describe how excited I am to party it up with all of you in Miami this weekend to celebrate our Stacie’s big 4-0!” She beamed at Stacie before cutting her glance to Beca. “I need to add a major thank you to Beca, because I know I speak for all of us when I say how much we appreciate you making sure we get to Miami in style and live like rockstars for the weekend.”

Beca offered a tight-lipped grin in return, admiring Chloe’s beautiful bright eyes and wide-as-ever smile, tipping her glass right back to them.

“It’s about time I finally got the world class treatment I deserve,” Amy mumbled to Aubrey, kicking her feet up onto the ottoman in front of her.

Chloe laughed. “Here’s to found family together again, here’s to Stacie’s birthday, and here’s to an aca-mazing vacation! Cheers!’

”Cheers!” Glasses clinked as the plane’s wheels lifted from the tarmac, and they were officially off to Miami.

As the flight progressed, the girls chattered animatedly before each of them took a turn sharing life updates. Flo’s juice truck franchise was booming and her twins were starting kindergarten in the fall. Emily had just opened her own private counseling practice focusing on children and adolescent clients. Amy was still working on accruing sponsors for her NJWL--National Jelly Wrestling League--insistent it would be as popular as the NFL when it got going. The birthday girl recently earned a tenure-track faculty position in the biochemistry department at Temple University in Philadelphia, and Bella was about to start her senior year of high school.

When it was Chloe’s turn, she bounced a bit on her seat (as best as she could with the safety belt strapped over her lap), smoothing her hand over her skirt. “Things have been super great the past few months! Chicago’s been in a really, really good place lately.” She avoided Beca’s eyes as she spoke, the rest of the girls smiling with a mixture of happiness and relief in their eyes. “My kids are awesome, they’re still begging for a puppy so maybe we’ll give in at some point after they get settled into their school year. We’ll see!”

Ashley and Jessica shared, and then all eyes landed on Beca.

Beca’s stomach tightened and she shrugged. “I’m not really sure where to start…” She was the only one who hadn’t been in contact with almost all of them for a decade and a half.

Chloe cast her an empathetic grin. “You don’t have to share anything if you’re not comf--”

“We’ve got an idea!” Jessica and Ashley burst out in unison.

Ashley reached into her bag and pulled out a folder, opening it on her lap. “We have some tabloid covers and clippings and we were kinda hoping you could set the record straight for us?”

Jessica nodded eagerly, while the other Bellas chuckled in amusement.

Beca’s eyes popped wide and she huffed a laugh along with them, leaning into the arm of her chair and crossing her legs. “Alright, nerds Hit me.”

Ashley cleared her throat and displayed the first headline. “Beca Mitchell Moving In with Boyfriend Harry Styles After Two Months of Dating--Is a Ring in their Future??”

Beca snorted, shaking her head. “False. That whole thing was a publicity stunt. We had albums releasing a month apart. Harry’s label also tried to keep him in the closet longer than he wanted to be--it was super shitty of them. Anyway, Harry’s a good guy, we’ve only ever been friends.”

“Ha, told you!” Jessica said, nudging Ashley.

“Okay, next…” Ashley pulled out a print out from TMZ. “Grammy Winner Beca Mitchell Spends The Night With Justin Bieber Two Weeks After He Announced His Engagement.”

Beca pulled a face. “Ugh, false. Bieber’s gross. He hit on me at the Billboard after party about a week after he proposed to Hailey Baldwin.”

I knew it!” Vindication seeped into every word of Aubrey’s declaration. “I knew he was a skeeze.”

“What about this one from 2021? Double Platinum Artists Beca Mitchell and Hayley Kiyoko Cozy Up in LA Nightclub.”

Beca didn’t immediately respond, and she cleared her throat, a flush rising in her cheeks. The grin she offered the girls was sheepish, paired with a slight shrug.

Emily burst out first. “Oh my god!”

Stacie gasped. “Did you bang Hayley Kiyoko??”

Everyone looked impressed--even Chloe, who chuckled and downed the rest of her drink. “Wow…”

“That’s enough for now, you guys. I’m over this game,” Beca said with a light chuckle. When Ashley and Jessica deflated some, she tipped her glass to them. “Save the rest for the flight home, maybe you’ll get a few more out of me.”

The rest of the flight passed quickly, with the Bellas moving about the aircraft, chatting with each other and catching up. Beca was grateful to have some 1:1 time with each of them, learning more about what they’d been up to over the years, soaking in stories and pictures on their phones of their houses and kids and pets and significant others. She couldn’t seem to stop her gaze from drifting to Chloe every so often, simultaneously glad to hear her husband got his shit together and made her happy, but selfishly sad and longing over it, too.

Chloe avoided a 1:1 with Beca on the plane as they’d caught up two months ago in her apartment, but Beca hadn’t stopped thinking about her since.

Not that she’d ever really stopped thinking about her at all in the past fifteen years.

When they landed, they split up with their luggage into three town cars that drove them to Miami’s Four Seasons Resort. Beca kept her sunglasses on as she urged the Bellas to stay in the lobby while she spoke with the receptionist. A few guests recognized her and, on her walk back to the girls with room keys in hand, she stopped for a few quick selfies and autographs, hoping she’d keep a low profile--not that she really could anymore, but it was part of the job and she'd long since begrudgingly accepted it.

“Okay, so the 19th floor is basically ours. Six suites--I’ll take one, you guys split the other five.” Beca handed out room keys. “We’ll have a cabana reserved on the beach for some privacy.”

“Oh hell yes,” Stacie said. “Does it come with hot cabana boys?”

Beca snorted and shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll make do regardless, birthday girl.”

Aubrey slipped her arm through Chloe’s to claim her as a roommate for the weekend. “Let’s check out our rooms, change for the beach, and meet back down here in half an hour?”

“Sounds aca-awesome!” Chloe called back, shooting Beca a grateful grin before tugging Aubrey toward the elevators.

A full day of sand, surf, and sun (or shade, as Beca and Cynthia Rose spent most of their time in the cabana and out of direct sunlight) filled the afternoon, and Beca helped herself to a nap before getting all dressed up and meeting everyone at the Four Seasons’ upscale steakhouse for their dinner reservation. Dinner passed in a jovial flash, and with full bellies and a few drinks already loosening up everyone in the group, they boarded an Escalade limousine and headed to the club.

It was nearly eleven when they pulled up to Cameo Night Club, the bass pulsing from the Miami hot spot echoing into the street. A few paparazzi caught sight of Beca and snapped a few pics, but Amy and Stacie hurried to shield her--or soak up the attention because they genuinely wanted to like the hams they were. Beca grinned at their antics anyway. She heard some of the girls gasping with delight when they realized they didn’t need to wait outside for wristbands or anything--another nice perk thanks to Beca’s celebrity status.

Thanks to Kayla’s planning, a woman greeted them at the front door with a wide smile when they stepped out of their ride. “Welcome to Neon Night at Cameo, Bellas!” she called, ushering the group inside past the general admission queue wrapped around the side of the building. The hostess led the Bellas down a flight of stairs to the main bar and dancing area, which was nearly completely dark save for neon glowing clothing and body paint worn by some of the club goers who’d already begun partying; their dimly lit walkway around the dance floor and the elevated DJ platform led them to a roped off VIP lounge area with high-backed, round booths and tables.

“You’re the only group that has access to this area,” the hostess called over the thumping music surrounding them. She motioned to the drink menus on the tables. “A waiter will be specifically assigned to your tables, but help yourselves to the bar as well.” She motioned across the way. After, she provided a few kits of neon body paint. “--if you so desire, use as much as you’d like! It’s nontoxic and will wash out of clothing. The few lights over the dance floor are black lights, so the paint and anything white will glow, too. First round of drinks are on the house.” She waved over two servers carrying trays of blue drinks in martini glasses.

Beca hadn’t admittedly been inside a nightclub in ages, but she was genuinely excited to be here with her friends after the day had gone so well. The hostess explained their bottle service package and other amenities they’d receive as a group of honor (including a birthday cake for Stacie to be delivered at midnight). She plucked a blue martini from the tray and stepped back to sip at the fruity concoction, taking a moment to stand to the side with her arms crossed, grinning as she took in the Bellas voicing their excitement over the club itself and the accommodations--and also realizing that with the darkness in the room and the neon body paint (that Jessica and Ashley were already applying to their faces), she had a chance at maintaining a fair amount of anonymity, especially in the thick of the dance floor. It had been way too long since she could let loose in public and not have to worry about shitty tabloids or social media drama.

After ten minutes or so, Chloe emerged from the thick of swarming Bellas, walking toward Beca in her little black dress hugging her curves in all the right places and now sporting some body paint artfully applied to her exposed skin--a glowing orange handprint gripping around her upper arm and a blooming lily painted onto her cheek. “Your turn, Becs,” Chloe said, holding up the palette she’d snagged from the group.

Beca chuckled, eyeing the paint with a quirked brow. “I guess I can trust you won’t paint a dick on my face like Amy would,” she said, realizing resistance was futile and she brushed her hair back behind her shoulders. “Should I really trust you to do this? How drunk are you right now?”

Chloe laughed. “Only halfway to drunkville! I promise I won’t paint anything inappropriate,” Chloe assured her, dipping her fingertips into the different colors and getting to work tracing patterns around the side of Beca’s face, swirling the slick substance over her eyebrow and onto her forehead and then downward, brushing over half her cheekbone and trailing down the side of her cheek. “Oooh, this is gonna look so great! Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” Chloe tossed Beca a wink that made her insides twist.

“Can I know what it is, or is it a surprise?” Beca asked, curious but fully trusting. With Chloe standing so close and the alcohol coursing through her veins, she had a hard time keeping her eyes off of Chloe’s lips and cleavage. Her free hand twitched toward Chloe’s hip but she restrained herself, letting her arm dangle at her side instead. Thank god Chloe seemed too preoccupied with her painting to notice

“I’ll show you after, but I’m working on a tangled vine sort of thing with a few flowers throughout.” Even in the darkness, Chloe’s bright blue eyes shined with fierce concentration as she painted Beca’s face.

“Dope,” Beca said, her eyes falling to the exposed skin over her chest. “Look at all this untouched real estate. Open canvas? Whatever,” she mumbled, reaching up for the paint palette and dipping her pinkie finger into the yellow, swirling a small sun just beneath Chloe’s right collar bone.

Chloe giggled. “The same rules apply to you, y’know…” But she made no move to stop Beca.

“You know I’d never paint a dick on you,” Beca said, her lips twisting upward into a smirk. “I’d totally paint one on Amy, but never you.” She continued painting, mainly because it was a good excuse to touch Chloe where she’d never be able to in any other context, painting a pink heart and some purple music notes trailing along that same line of mini-doodles beneath her clavicle. “There,” she said. “That’s better.”

“Thanks, Bec.” Chloe softened, slowing her painting as if she wanted to stay this close, too. “Thank you for all of this. It’s amazing.”

Beca shrugged. “You guys need to stop thanking me. It was the least I could do…” She trailed off, not finishing that sentence.

Chloe seemed to hear the unspoken words, her lips pulling into a frown. “Beca, listen to me. You need to stop punishing yourself. Even though we appreciate this weekend so very much, you don’t owe us anything,” she said firmly, lowering her focus to trail her paint-dipped fingers over the side of Beca’s neck.

A shiver shot through Beca’s body and she closed her eyes for a moment, trying to focus on anything aside from how good it felt being touched by Chloe like this.

Her real Chloe.

“Beca?”

Beca blinked her eyes open, wrinkling her nose in apology. “Sorry, what?”

“I said we all forgive you. We all understand. Now you need to forgive yourself.” Chloe painted something on the area over Beca’s clavicle next. “Can you try that? For me, if you won’t do it for yourself?”

Beca swallowed hard, considering before offering Chloe a tight nod.

Chloe’s lips spread into a grin. “Good. Thank you.” She stepped back. “There. You’re a masterpiece--even more than you already were,” Chloe said with a snicker.

An eye-roll from Beca followed because Chloe had somehow grown even cheesier over the years.

Hey, Bhloe!” Amy called to them from the huddle. “Get your flat butts over here! We’re doing shots!”

Chloe crinkled her nose and took Beca’s hand, tugging her back toward the group.

Two signature fruity blue martinis and several shots later, the Bellas were drunk. Most had raced (stumbled?) to the dance floor a few songs back, while Beca lingered in the VIP area with Cynthia Rose and Flo in one of the booths, chatting and people-watching. It was Cynthia Rose who declared they’d stalled long enough, and Stacie would never forgive them if they weren’t dancing out there with everyone else.

Beca laughed as she stood, shaky on her stilettos. She hadn’t realized she’d overdone it but she knew she was in good company, relatively anonymous from the lighting in the club and paint covering half of her face, and so she followed CR and Flo as they wove through several clustered bodies to find the birthday girl.

Stacie was, unsurprisingly, holding court with four strangers. Nearby, Jessica and Ashley danced up on two guys, and the rest of the Bellas moved together in a closely knit bunch, rocking along with the pulsating music. Beca had to admit it was a cool aesthetic, with everyone’s paint glowing under the lights as they moved to the beat.

After a few songs skillfully woven into each other passed, a hand slipped into her own and she felt herself being tugged away from the group. She followed, if only to maintain her precarious balance, only to find herself face to face with a smiling, flushed Chloe.

“What’re you--” Beca started, realizing her voice didn’t carry far thanks to the pounding music.

Chloe grinned and reached up to brush Beca’s hair over her shoulder, leaning in speak directly against her ear. “This one’s ours,” she said, her lips brushing over the shell of Beca’s ear as she spoke.

Beca’s mouth fell open and she closed her eyes for a few seconds to process the words, difficult as it was with the feeling of Chloe’s lips grazing her ear. “I… what?” She blinked open to find Chloe still smiling and pointing upward, as though the ceiling would hold the answers.

Not the ceiling, the speakers.

Titanium.

Beca’s face flushed and she let out a decompressing chuckle, nodding upon realization. Leaning in, she braced her hand on Chloe’s hip to reply against her ear in turn. “What a throwback, huh?” Really, the song was about twenty years old at this point--it had no place being mashed into a Top 40s mix. (Beca would know, okay? She was absolutely an expert on this sort of thing by now.)

And what were the odds of Titanium playing, of all songs the DJ could’ve possibly thrown back to?

Knowing better than to question further and miss the moment (she’d done way too much of that in her life), Beca spoke again. “Guess we gotta dance to it, huh?”

Chloe’s eyes fixated on Beca’s, glassy from the booze and something else sparkling in her eyes--a hint of mischief, maybe. She nodded and reached up to twine her arms around Beca’s neck, keeping her body pressed against Beca’s as they swayed to the familiar beat.

Beca’s own arms wrapped more tightly around Chloe’s middle, her booze-addled brain rationalizing it as helping her balance and definitely not because she so desperately wanted this closeness.

“I don’t really drink anymore,” Chloe confessed in the scant space between them. “Here and there, I mean--but never like this. I stopped when… well.” She winced, smoothing it out into a smile. “So this is really hitting me harder than it should,” she explained with another chuckle.

Beca offered a sympathetic grin, nodding in understanding. Chloe hadn’t directly talked about Chicago’s struggles with alcohol, but Oliver had shared enough, and she’d picked up pieces here and there from the Bellas on the flight. “You’re safe with me,” Beca insisted, not really knowing what else to say. “I mean--I’ve got you, Chlo. I won’t let anything happen to you.” Sure, she was drunk too, but she wasn’t as drunk as Chloe.

Chloe’s smile spread wider. “It’s nice--letting loose like this. S’been a really, really long time.” She let out a sigh, her fingers tracing light patterns on the back of Beca’s neck.

Beca shivered hard as goosebumps prickled up the back of her neck. She instinctively splayed her fingers on Chloe’s lower back, her hand sliding two inches downward toward her perfect ass but again, she stopped herself. “Chlo…”

“God, I’ve missed you so much, Beca,” Chloe husked fervently, licking her lips as her gaze flickered down to Beca’s mouth. “I think about you all the time. I never stopped.”

Every molecule of oxygen flooded out of Beca in a rush and her jaw fell slack, vines constricting around her chest. “I missed you too, Chlo,” Beca rasped back once she found her voice, moistening her lips in anticipation. Suddenly, they weren’t nestled in a thicket of writhing bodies; they were the only ones in the room. Chloe’s confession that she thought about her all this time--it simultaneously made her heart soar and wrench with agony.

Staying away all these years was supposed to help Chloe. Not hurt her.

“I gotta confession to make,” Chloe slurred, a smirk pulling at her lips as she reached up to brace one hand against Beca’s non-painted cheek, keeping firm hold of that laser-focused eye contact. She leaned in again, their foreheads pressed together. “I requested the song.”

Beca’s brain short circuited and her breath hitched. “Chlo…”

“Bec…” Chloe leaned in and pressed a soft, lingering kiss to the corner of Beca’s mouth.

The kiss burned her, searing into her skin and leaving a permanent mark; she was sure the resulting tingles would never go away, just as her kiss hadn’t ever fully faded from fifteen years ago. This one landed so close yet so fucking far, and Beca let out a croaking moan before she could stop herself. “Chlo,” Beca said with a firmer tone, marveling at how her knees hadn’t given out yet. She knew how easy it would be, turning her head a fraction of an inch, truly kissing Chloe the way she’d wanted to for years. Decades, if she were being honest.

But it was all wrong. Chloe was drunk and, to a lesser but still valid extent, so was she.

The last thing she wanted was for Chloe to kiss her and wish it away once she sobered up.

“Hey,” Beca said, summoning every atom of will power and taking half a step back, removing Chloe’s hand at her cheek and turning to press her lips against Chloe’s palm as she stared at her with sad, honest eyes. She laced their fingers and nodded in the direction of the other Bellas. “Let’s get back to the girls. They’ll start to worry about us.” That was mostly a lie, but it was better than the truth: Before we do something you’ll regret.

Chloe’s face fell, dejected for a brief moment before she ratcheted a not wholly genuine smile back on her face, her head bobbing into a nod as she followed Beca back through the crowd.

Beca led Chloe over to Aubrey and communicated wordlessly to her former captain--keep an eye on her tonight--while Chloe shouted “Bree!!” and pulled Aubrey into a hug, her body still dancing to the music.

They danced through midnight, took a break for some birthday cake at the tables before they bopped together through another set of mashups. Beca kept careful distance between her and Chloe the rest of the night and made sure everyone safely boarded the Escalade around 2:00.

Beca waited until she returned to her private suite before she fell face-first onto the bed, curling up and berating herself for letting it get that far. For putting herself in that position in the first place.

For never getting over Chloe Beale like she should have.

****

The next morning, the Bellas slept in. They dressed in comfier clothes and met in a more casual hotel restaurant for brunch at noon. Beca wore denim shorts, a v-neck t-shirt, and a baseball cap, keeping her head down as she walked through the hotel and met up with the girls at their table.

They ordered drinks. Most, like Beca, nursed a cup of coffee. Others chose to sip some water, while Stacie and Amy and Cynthia Rose ordered Bloody Marys.

“We are too old for this,” Flo declared as she popped two aspirin, chasing it with her coffee.

“Speak for yourself, caramel tart. We’re not all as old as we feel,” Amy said.

“Amy, that doesn’t even make sense,” Aubrey replied, casting her an admonishing grin behind her cup of tea.

Stacie smiled, readjusting her sunglasses on top of her head. “I know we’re all feeling it, but I had an amazing night and it’s only Saturday. So make sure you aca-bitches rest up for tonight because I know I’ll be ready for a repeat performance!”

Some laughed, others groaned.

Beca snorted and sipped at her black coffee.

Chloe remained mostly quiet, seated across from Beca, cradling her coffee mug between her delicate hands. She laughed along with the group and shot Beca a look that Beca couldn’t quite decipher.

Did she remember what happened while they were dancing? Did she remember requesting Titanium? Did she regret it?

Chloe’s phone rang and she winced at the volume of the ringtone. “Oh god, I definitely overdid it,” she said with a self-deprecating chuckle, tapping the receiver button on her phone and bringing it to her ear. “Olliebear! Happy Saturday, honey. I miss you guys so much, you have no--” She cut herself off, her expression shifting from serene happiness to stunned shock. “Baby, hold on. Slow down. I--”

The Bellas all stopped their conversations to focus on Chloe, whose color had drained from her face as her hand flew to cover her mouth.

“Oh my god, you what?? And you were all in the car?? All four of you?? Who’s hurt?? What happened??

Without warning, Chloe shoved her chair back and stood, bolting from the restaurant and into the hotel lobby.

Beca didn’t hesitate to rise alongside Aubrey, hurrying after her and leaving the rest of the Bellas in a concerned state of unknowing.

When Aubrey and Beca found Chloe, she was pacing in one of the hotel alcoves, her free hand braced above her diaphragm as she fought to steady her breath, tears streaking down her cheeks.

“--and the police officers, they breathalyzed him?”

Chloe cried harder and Aubrey rushed over to take her hand, solidly reminding Chloe she wasn’t alone in this.

“--Ollie, no. Stop. Please, none of this is your fault, okay? You couldn’t have known for sure--”

She sniffled, nodding through whatever Oliver was saying on the other end. “Okay, yes. Go on and get your X-rays, listen to the doctors and nurses--I know, sweetheart, it’s okay to be scared, but you’re gonna be okay--I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I’m--I’ll find the first flight out of here. I promise. Just hold on and I’ll be there as soon as I can. Call me back if you need to, I’ll keep my phone in my hand until I get there. I’m so proud of you, I love you so much.”

Chloe ended the call and curled in Aubrey, letting herself sob for a full minute before she composed herself and pulled back, glancing between Aubrey and Beca. “I need--I need to get to Mount Sinai--”

“First flight out of here,” Beca said, whipping out her phone and dialing her pilot directly. “We’ll be there in a few hours. I’ve got you, Chlo.”

Chloe dabbed at her eyes and blinked up at Beca, nodding with desperation swirling in her eyes as she took Beca’s forearm, gripping her as though she were her sole buoy in the middle of an ocean during a raging thunderstorm.

Chapter Text

In sharp contrast to the bustling, jovial Bellas reunion on Beca’s plane during yesterday morning’s flight to Miami, Chloe’s flight out proved quiet. Almost too quiet.

She sat back on one of the luxurious cream-colored loveseats with a window view, staring longingly at the clouds with her knee bouncing uncontrollably as minutes passed, wrapped in a blanket of guilt and fear and lost in her thoughts.

I should have known better. Things had been almost too good lately.

What if I’m not being firm enough in making sure he’s getting treatment, even though he fights me on it when he’s feeling good?

What if being so accommodating to make things work with Chicago is hurting the kids more than helping?

I’m not sure how much longer I can live like this, constantly treading on eggshells, wondering which man we’ll wake to each morning--one who’d slain his daily demons, or one consumed by them.

“Chloe?”

Chloe blinked a few times, trying to clear the fog from her overworking mind as she turned her head to find Beca standing beside her. She managed a shaky, tight-lipped grin when she spotted the tray in her hands.

“Sorry, I--um--figured you might want to try and eat a little something? Before we land, I mean.” Beca set the tray onto the table in front of Chloe, which held a bowl of Cheerios with a cup of milk on the side, a banana, and a cup of tea.

The gesture triggered another round of tears to spring up in Chloe’s eyes and she managed a tight, grateful nod. How long had it been since someone had taken care of her? Swallowing down the lump of emotion, Chloe poured the milk over the cereal with a shaky grip. “Thanks, Beca.”

“Is there anything else I can get you?” Beca wrung her hands, her eyes darting around the otherwise empty cabin as though she were trying to figure out the answer for herself.

Chloe puffed out a strained laugh, rubbing at her already red-rimmed eyes. “You mean aside from cutting your own vacation short to keep me company during my emergency flight home?”

Beca only shrugged, settling down in the captain’s chair across from her. “I’d do pretty much anything to avoid getting grilled in another round of Jessica and Ashley’s tabloid clipping truth game,” she said with a small smirk.

Another chuckle passed Chloe’s lips and she cut it short, her hand flying to her mouth as a fresh wave of tears stung her eyes, a few slipping free. As though laughing was illegal now, considering the state of her family.

“They’re gonna be okay, Chlo.” Beca’s firmness in her tone paired with her steady, unflinching gaze made Chloe believe her.

Chloe pulled a napkin from the tray and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “I know they will be. They’re amazing and resilient, and we have an incredible child therapist in Emily’s practice who’ll help them process all of this, I just…” She sniffled, trailing her stare back out the window, focusing on the puffy clouds beneath them. “God. I feel so stupid. I shouldn’t have left them alone with him, but he’d been doing so well and--”

“Hey,” Beca reached out and offered Chloe her hand palm-up. “Stop that. You did what you thought was right at the time. You’re an amazing mom.”

Chloe forced a deep, shaky inhale and reached out to rest her hand in Beca’s, instantly soothed by the gesture. Beca had clearly remembered how much physical contact helped ground her in moments of panic. (Because of course she did.) “I don’t really feel like one, Bec,” she admitted, her resolve cracking in front of Beca, of all people. “This mistake--it could’ve been catastrophic. I know they’re gonna be okay physically, but it could’ve been--they could’ve--”

Beca reached out to cover Chloe’s hand with her own, her thumb skirting over her knuckles. “They didn’t. You can’t focus on that. You didn’t know--”

“I should’ve seen it coming,” Chloe insisted, tears streaking freely down her cheeks. “Oh god, and he’s had a DUI before, but this--with the kids--he could get jail time for this.” Guilt pressed hard on her chest the instant the next thought floated through her mind. He should get jail time for this. She gritted her teeth, shaking her head. “Chicago’s a good guy, Beca. He’s a good dad--a great dad when he’s sober. He’s sick, it’s not his fault, you know? He loves them so much.”

Beca opened her mouth and closed it a moment later as if changing her mind, nodding solemnly instead. She squeezed Chloe’s hand between both of hers. “Your Cheerios are gonna get soggy, Chlo.”

Chloe sniffled and wiped at her cheeks once more, picking up her spoon and forcing down some sustenance so she had as much energy as possible to help her family.

Beca’s driver picked them up from the hangar and drove directly to Mount Sinai Hospital in Brooklyn. Chloe flew out of the car before the driver shifted into park. She was vaguely aware of Beca rushing out behind her as she ran through the automatic doors and to the front desk.

“Walp, please. My kids and husband, they were--they were all in a car accident a few hours ago--”

The woman at the front desk nodded. “Mrs. Walp?”

Her nod was almost frantic. “That’s me, yes.”

The front desk woman’s eyes flickered over Chloe’s shoulder and flashed wider--clearly recognizing Beca despite her baseball cap.

“She’s with me,” Chloe insisted, waving her hand dismissively. “Where are--”

“Right this way, Mrs. Walp,” a nearby nurse called to her.

“Are my kids okay?” Chloe blurted before they even reached the elevator.

The nurse nodded. “Their injuries are treatable, yes. Once we get up there, I’ll review their charts with you.”

“Oh, thank god,” Chloe croaked, sagging with relief. Ollie had assured her they’d be okay over the phone, but she knew that perhaps doctors and nurses wouldn’t tell a minor everything, and simply hearing their positive prognosis from a nurse had her knees buckling.

Beca slipped an arm around her waist in the elevator as soon as she stumbled. “See? It’s all gonna be okay.”

Chloe gripped Beca’s shoulder and nodded, offering a grateful squeeze. She released her once she was confident she could stand on her own, summoning a deep breath when the elevator pinged for the 9th floor.

“This way, please.” The nurse led them down the hall and as soon as they reached the room, Chloe couldn’t help it--she burst into tears. “Hey, guys!” At least they’d grown used to seeing their mother breakdown emotionally--usually over the sad puppy commercials or when one of them offered her a school art project as a gift.

“Mama!” Lily sat up in the nearest hospital bed--one of two in the room. She sported a bandage taped to her forehead but otherwise appeared content with a coloring book open on her lap and some crayons spread on the bed sheet.

“Hey, Mom,” Ollie greeted from the other bed, his left leg elevated and wrapped all the way up. “Told ya we’re all okay. Nice tan,” he added with an exhausted sort of grin.

Nathan and Emery sat together on the visitor chairs, busying themselves with a shared tablet. As soon as Chloe entered the room, they shot up and ran to her with open arms, tablet forgotten.

Chloe crouched and caught both bodies in her arms. “You two are alright?” she asked when she pulled back, glancing between each of their faces. When they nodded, she pressed a kiss to each of their cheeks and eyed the two on the bed. She wasn’t sure which bedridden child to hug first, so she instinctively hurried over to her youngest, carefully wrapping her into her arms.

“Lily suffered a minor concussion,” the nurse explained. “The cut on her head didn’t require stitches, but will need to be cleaned and monitored in case of infection. Oliver’s left femur fractured in the crash, as did his fibula. X-rays showed no bone displacement, so now we’re waiting on the bone doctor to get him wrapped up in a plaster cast. It’s fortunate he won’t require surgery, as long as he stays off that leg for six to eight weeks.” She eyed Oliver. “I mean it. No weight-bearing. We’ll get you fitted for crutches and send you with a wheelchair when you’re discharged.” The nurse returned her attention to Chloe again. “Both Oliver and Lily received Tylenol with Codeine, and the doctor will write up a prescription for both.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.” Chloe nodded along, mentally cataloguing all of those details. She reached across the beds to take Ollie’s hand, offering a squeeze. “Oh, honey. Your soccer season--”

“It’s chill, Mom,” Ollie said with an easy shrug, pasting on a brave smile that Chloe recognized as strained at the edges. “I’ve still got senior year to show off for the scouts.” His gaze drifted toward the door, where Beca leaned against the doorframe with her arms crossed over her chest. “Hey, Aunt Beca.”

Beca’s lips ticked upward in a grin. “Hey, kid.”

As if suddenly noticing her presence, Emery elbowed Nathan and nodded. “That’s Beca from the claps video,” she reminded him, and his smile spread wide.

Chloe turned to the nurse. “Where’s my husband?”

Lily whispered up at Chloe. “Daddy’s in trouble. The police man was mad.”

The nurse nodded toward the hallway. “He’s two rooms down. I can take you to him, if you’d like.”

Chloe hesitated, eyeing the kids.

“We’ll be fine,” Ollie insisted. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“I’ll stay with them,” Beca assured her, finally stepping into the room.

Chloe heaved a heavy sigh. “Thanks, Bec. Okay guys. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Steeling herself, she followed the nurse out of the room and down the hall.

Chicago sat in his own hospital bed, his cheek gashed and arm in a sling. A police officer loomed over him, scrawling notes on a notepad.

“Chicago?” Chloe rushed to his bedside, her heart twisting in her chest.

“Hi, darlin’,” Chicago croaked, blinking up at her with red-rimmed eyes. “I really screwed up this time, baby. I’m--” He swallowed hard. “I’m so sorry. I never meant to--I should’ve--”

Chloe brushed his hair out of his eyes and sniffled, dropping a kiss to his cheek. “Of course you didn’t mean to, but yes. You did screw up, and now…” Her eyes drifted to the police officer, who kindly stepped back to give them a moment. “We’re gonna have to deal with the consequences.”

Tears streaked down Chicago’s cheek and he hung his head. “Are you angry with me, Chlo? ‘Cause you should be. You don’t deserve this. I can’t keep doing this to all of you. I love you and our babies so much.”

As if Chloe hadn’t cried enough today, the waterworks turned back on for her, too. “Of course I am. I’m furious,” she whispered, stroking his hair with her fingers as though the motion soothed her, too. “I’ve tried being patient, but now… something’s gotta give. You need help. Real help.”

“I know I do. I have for a while.” He sighed, glancing at the officer. “I’m gonna be charged with a felony for this, with a hefty fine and--probably some jail time, when sentencing comes along. They said I could go to rehab in the in-between, if I can post bail or whatever. I already called the VA lawyer. He’s gonna stop by here tonight to talk with me about all of this, all the options. But I won’t be home for a while.” He blinked sadly at Chloe.

“We’ll handle it. One step at a time,” Chloe assured him.

“Tell our babies I’m sorry, Chlo.” Chicago sniffled. “Tell ‘em I love ‘em more than anything. Tell ‘em I’ll be away for a while, but I’m gonna get better. I’ll really do it this time. Clean and sober for good. I swear it.”

Chloe’s heart crumpled at Chicago’s words, earnest and yearning and she knew he himself wholly believed every word. That’s what made being upset with him so damn hard--even in the face of this latest catastrophe. He wanted to be better. He wanted to be a great dad all the time, but his struggle was sometimes too much for one man to battle on his own. So she nodded, bringing his uninjured arm to her lips and kissing the back of his hand before backing out of the room.

She stopped into a hall bathroom to rinse off her face and gather her composure, taking a few moments to grip the edges of the sink and stare at herself in the mirror. She looked exhausted--in that moment, she felt every minute of her 43 years--and she remembered she was still hungover and sleep deprived on top of the stress of everything.

But Chloe didn’t have the luxury of time and solitude, so she summoned her courage and gave herself a mental pep talk before striding confidently back into the kids’ room. She blinked in confusion when she only found Ollie and Lily. “Where’s Beca and the others?”

“Raiding the vending machines for snacks,” Ollie said with a grin. “Beca’s idea, not ours.”

“She’s gonna get me a Reese’s Cups!” Lily piped with a smile.

Chloe chuckled, rolling her eyes fondly. “Well, hopefully she brings something back for me, too.”

“Is Daddy okay?” Lily asked, as if suddenly remembering where her mom disappeared to.

“He will be,” Chloe assured her, moving between the hospital beds and taking both of their hands. “He’s gonna be away for a while, but he’ll get better.”

Oliver took in a deep breath and sighed, nodding solemnly. Chloe knew he had loads of questions--probably about the whole legal aspect of this messy situation--but she was grateful he held those until they had time to talk away from his six-year-old sister. “So it’ll be just us at home?”

“For a while, yes. I might ask Nana and Pop to fly out for a week or so, since my number one helper’s gonna need lots of rest,” Chloe said, squeezing Oliver’s hand as she considered. “Or maybe Aunt Aubrey can stay.”

Lily frowned. “Aunt Aubrey makes me eat all of my vegetables.”

Chloe chuckled. “That’s because she wants you to grow up and be strong and healthy, remember?”

“What about Aunt Beca?” Ollie suggested, just as Beca returned with Nathan and Emery.

All three of them cradled bundles of snacks--bags of chips and pretzels, candy bars, cookies, a few cans of soda. Beca handed Lily her pack of Reese’s Cups and chucked a Snickers bar at Ollie, who caught it with one hand. “What about me?”

“No, Ollie,” Chloe cut in, helping Lily unwrap the chocolate and peanut butter treat. “Beca runs a massive music empire, remember? She doesn’t have time to--”

“So doesn’t that mean she’s her own boss? Can set her own hours?” Oliver looked at Beca. “Can you stay with us for a few weeks? I’m gonna be pretty useless around the house, and Mom needs help--”

“I can manage, sweetheart.” Chloe turned to Beca. “Really, it’s okay. We’ve got other--”

“I’ll do it,” Beca said, popping a tab on a can of Coke and offering it to a beaming Emery (who knew she wasn’t supposed to drink soda, but Chloe supposed she could let that slide for today).

Chloe’s eyes popped wide. “Really, Bec. You don’t have to. I’m sure you’ve got a million--”

“I do, but this is more important. I want to help.” She handed Chloe a pack of Skittles--her favorite, of course--and flashed a small smile. “We’ll make it work.”

Chloe’s eyes prickled with new, unshed tears and she shot Beca the most grateful grin she could muster. “Thanks, Beca.” Her stomach flip-flopped as she processed what she committed to--readying the guest room for Beca Mitchell, who volunteered to help her care for her four kids, some injured, through the rest of the summer without their dad around.

Just then, an intrusive vision swam in front of her eyes--not a daydream, but a memory, tinged at the edges by the many alcoholic drinks she’d imbibed the night before--of Beca holding her close on the Miami club dance floor, of almost kissing her, and a sharp rush of heat prickled up her spine.

Maybe this wasn’t the smartest plan, after all.

Chapter Text

The hospital provided dinner for the Walps as doctors continued treating Oliver and Lily until after sunset. While Chloe tended to her kids’ discharge process, Beca arranged for a larger vehicle to pick them up and escort them safely back to their suburban home. Beca and Chloe carefully and collaboratively helped Ollie--who towered over both of them in height, unsteady on his new crutches with his full leg cast--hobble into the house, the other kids following close behind.

It wasn’t until after they settled Ollie onto the couch in the living room with his casted leg propped up on two throw pillows that a sudden shock jolted through Beca as realization struck like lightning.

She was inside Chloe’s home.

She’d offered to stay to help with the kids since Oliver wouldn’t be able to step up into any sort of helper role with his injury, but she hadn’t, admittedly, thought about what that might realistically look like.

While the other kids scrambled upstairs and Chloe crouched by Oliver’s side to speak with him in low tones, framed photographs lining the mantle over the fireplace caught Beca’s attention--family pictures of what appeared to be special memories of birthdays and holiday celebrations, vacations, a few professional looking photoshoots. The largest frame in the middle displayed a beautiful shot of Chloe and Chicago’s wedding; Chloe wore a gorgeous gown and Chicago held her close in his military uniform, beaming smiles on their faces as they locked eyes. The groomsmen and bridesmaids--all of the other Bellas in lavender-colored bridesmaid dresses--lined up behind them, expressions bright and thrilled for the couple of honor.

Barbed vines clenched around Beca’s heart and her lungs seized as she took a quick step away from the fireplace as though the photos physically burned her, the reality of her commitment seeping into her marrow as her mind spun and bile rose in her throat.

What the fuck am I doing here?

“Aunt Beca, you okay?” Ollie asked from the couch, snapping Chloe’s attention onto her, too. They must have noticed how she’d paled even harder under the living room lighting, damn near stumbling away from the pictures she couldn’t bear to look at.

“Me? Yeah, ‘course I am,” Beca said with a hoarse, strained chuckle, nodding back at him. “You’re the one out of commission, not me. Hey, uh--” She whipped her phone from her back pocket. “I’m gonna make a few calls, rearrange some things.”

Chloe rose to her feet and shot Beca a warm grin. “You’ve done more than enough to help us, Beca. Please don’t feel like you need to--”

“No, no. It’s cool. I just--I need a few minutes, I’ll be back soon.” Without waiting for Chloe’s response, Beca swept into the adjacent room--the kitchen, which stood with some dirty dishes in the sink and a placemat full of dried Play-Doh on the table. She dialed Kayla, still hating to bother her assistant after hours even though she more than made up for it in what she paid the girl.

Her voice rang bright on the other line. “Boss! How’s Miami?? Are you having fun??”

“Hi, Kayla. I’m not in Miami anymore. I’m home. Well--” Beca wrinkled her nose. “Not home-home, but--anyway, I need you to rearrange a few things for me as soon as possible, okay?”

“You’re not...Oh, okay! What--sure, of course. Shoot.”

“I need you to clear my schedule for the this coming week--as much as you can reschedule. I’ll participate in our board meetings via teleconference. I’ll be back in the office--probably with limited hours--next Monday. Cancel my regular spa appointment for tomorrow. I’ll also need you to book a bed at The Dunes--No it’s not for me, Kayla! Seriously? It’s for a friend. You can let them think it’s one of our clients, I don’t care, as long as they arrange for the new patient in a few days. No, there’s no need to contact PR--I told you it’s a personal thing. And make sure you give them my personal credit card, not the company account.” She paused as Kayla fired off more questions. “Yes, it’s for my friend’s husband--Because their medical insurance only covers shitty rehabs and this guy needs to get his shit together--Yes, that has to do with why I’m home early--No, you don’t need to do that. If they give you any trouble, tell the intake coordinator he’s a discharged veteran, and it’s a favor for Beca Mitchell. Just text me with confirmation, okay?”

Kid feet scampering around in the upstairs hallway, along with some shrieks and giggles, echoed down the stairs.

Chloe’s call carried throughout the house. “Are you guys washing up for bed up there or goofing around?? I’ll be up in five minutes--those teeth better be clean and your butts better be in your beds! Lily, two bedtime stories tonight!”

“--on second thought, Kayla? Keep my spa appointment. Send my driver to the address I’m texting you at ten tomorrow morning.”

Beca made a few more calls and fired off several emails she needed to take care of before leaving the kitchen. The kids had quieted and she hesitated before ascending the stairs.

Chloe met her at the landing, flashing her a tired smile and waving her along. She carried a blanket under her arm and pushed open a room boasting a queen-sized bed with a floral sheet set and an olive-colored quilt on top. The window remained open, allowing a breeze to rustle through the room, the pleasant coolness of the summer night air hitting Beca from the doorframe. “I know it’s not nearly fancy as what you’re used to…” Chloe offered, wrinkling her nose as she stepped aside and motioned for Beca to enter. “But I promise everything’s clean. I put new sheets on the bed and fresh towels in the bathroom.”

“No, no. This is great,” Beca insisted, dropping her bag atop the dresser. “You didn’t even have to… I mean, thanks.”

“Really, Beca. It’s me who should be thanking you times a million.” Chloe dropped the extra blanket at the foot of the bed and turned to offer a folded faded t-shirt.

Beca’s faded t-shirt--her favorite vintage Strokes t-shirt back from their Brooklyn apartment days. Beca chuckled, unfolding it before hugging it to her chest. “Seriously?”

“I figured you might need something to sleep in ‘til you get some more of your stuff here… and I maybe sorta accidentally-on-purpose stole this from you a really long time ago…” Her grin flashed sheepish and she shrugged. “So I guess you can have it back now.”

“Gee thanks,” Beca said, shaking her head with faux exasperation.

“And Beca…” Chloe bit her lip and stepped closer, keeping her tone soft. “I overheard you on the phone--about The Dunes? That celebrity rehab in the Hamptons? I can’t… we can’t accept--”

Beca shook her head, cutting her off. “Their program really helped a few of my artists, and it’s his best shot at recovery. I know he’s got some, uh… legal stuff to deal with, too… but for now, he needs to be there.”

“That place is thirty grand for a month, Beca. I’ll never be able to pay you back for that,” Chloe said, clearly having done her research. “That’s a half year of college for one of my kids.”

“I know it is. And I wouldn’t set it up and expect payback. Chloe, I’ve never… really been able to spend my money on things that matter to me personally. Please. If you won’t accept it for yourself, at least accept it for your kids. They deserve to have a healthy dad.” Sure, she’d donated millions to charities, started up her own music education programs in NYC public schools, funded several Barden scholarships and had always been known to be generous with her earnings, but she’d never used it to help people close to her… mainly because she’d pushed everyone away.

But not anymore.

Before she knew it, Chloe’s arms flung around her and she buried her face in her neck. “Thank you,” she whispered fiercely. “Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but it’s all I’ve got.”

Beca hugged back, closing her eyes and resting her cheek against Chloe’s hair, almost the same way she had when they danced in the Miami nightclub the night before, though the vibe proved worlds different tonight. Just as intense, but different. “You don’t need to thank me, but you’re welcome.”

Chloe took a deep, steadying breath before pulling back, eyes bright and watery. “Help yourself to anything while you’re here, okay? Food, drinks, anything you need from the linen closet or medicine cabinets. No need to ask.” When Beca grinned in thanks, Chloe backed out of the room. “Goodnight, Beca.”

“Goodnight, Chloe.” Beca waited until Chloe closed the door before moving over to the window, peering out into the dimly lit backyard as intrusive thoughts hit her like a damn freight train. Suddenly she pictured herself at the swingset, pushing a young child on the swing with a pregnant Chloe on the swing beside them. She envisioned herself flipping burgers on the grill with a beer bottle in her hand while Chloe played fetch with their rescue dog. She pictured the yard bustling in and out of a large white tent for their ten year anniversary party, with she and Chloe sharing a thank you toast capped off with a kiss in front of their closest family and friends.

Her heart wrenched hard in her chest and she sharply tugged the curtains closed, mentally berating herself for letting her brain betray as she washed up for bed in Chloe’s--no, the Walp family’s spare bedroom. Quickly changing into her old nightshirt, she crawled into bed and passed out soon after.

Six hours later, the sun rose… and so did Beca.

“Fuck,” she groaned, burying her face into the unfamiliar pillow. She wanted to kick her own spoiled ass for thinking it, but she desperately missed her blackout curtains.

Beca tossed and turned and couldn’t fall back asleep, so with a heavy sigh, she left the faded old t-shirt on and stepped into her artfully torn denim shorts from the flight (she really needed to swing by her place and pick up some more clothes) before tiptoeing down the hall barefoot, raking a hand through her sleep-mussed hair in a futile attempt to tame it.

She heard no rummaging on the other sides of the doors she passed and she almost couldn’t believe she woke before Chloe and four children, but she supposed they endured quite a stressful, taxing ordeal the day before and she couldn’t really blame them for sleeping hard.

As soon as she hit the landing, she peered into the living room to find Oliver asleep on the couch, snoring softly with his blankets askew. She hesitated before padding across the carpet to gently adjust his blankets, brushing his familiar red hair out of his closed eyes. It simultaneously felt like a million years ago and yesterday when his three-week-old infant self fell asleep on her chest.

God, she desperately needed coffee.

Beca remembered Chloe’s insistence that she should make herself at home, and she quietly rummaged through cabinets until she found the bag of ground coffee and a filter for the coffeemaker, which she managed to start brewing. After drumming her fingertips on the countertop, she washed the dishes left from the day before (likely the last meal Chicago made for the kids--or did he? Was that pizza cheese and sauce stuck to the plates?). Regardless, she made herself useful and cleaned, before she decided to make herself even more useful.

Pulling open the fridge, she extracted the carton of eggs, pack of bacon, and cartons of fresh strawberries and blueberries. Ten minutes later, the kitchen returned to a mostly disorganized state as Beca prepared scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes for the Walp clan.

“What are you doing?”

The voice knocked Beca out of her reverie, and she didn’t realize she had flour streaked across her cheek when she turned to find Emery, the--12 (or 13?) year old with her dad’s coloring--standing in the kitchen archway with her arms crossed over her chest. Her pinched expression scarily reminded Beca of Aubrey. “Hey! Hey, Emery, I’m--uh, I woke up early, figured I’d make breakfast for you guys?”

“Mom always makes breakfast,” she said, eyeing Beca cautiously.

“Yeah?” A tighter grin pulled on Beca’s lips. “Well… maybe it’d be good for her to have a break sometimes. What do you think?”

Emery took a few strides forward, as if inspecting Beca’s work so far. “I’m allergic to gluten. The gluten-free pancake batter’s over here,” she said coolly, reaching into a cabinet Beca hadn’t yet explored to set the box of pre-mixed batter on the other side of Beca. “But I can make them myself.”

Beca winced and nodded. It probably would’ve been smarter to check with Chloe to see if her kids had any dietary restrictions or whatever before she attempted cooking for her family. “I didn’t know, but I can whip ‘em up for you if you want?”

“I got it,” Emery said, snagging an egg from the bowl. “You don’t need to stay here, you know. I get that Ollie’s hurt but I can help with the other kids. I don’t need a babysitter, Beca.”

“G’mornin’, Aunt Beca,” Nathan greeted groggily in his white tank top and pajama bottoms that flooded up past his ankles.

Emery shot her younger brother a look. “Don’t call her that. She’s not our aunt.”

“Hey,” Beca said, setting down the spatula and holding up both of her hands in a conciliatory gesture. “You guys can just call me Beca, I’m definitely cool with that. Whatever you want is fine,” she said to Nathan, who stood on tiptoe to check out what was cooking on the stovetop. Beca refocused on the pre-teen. “And I’m not here to get in your way. Really. I’m just trying to help. I don’t need to be your babysitter. We can just be friends, if you want?”

“No thanks,” Emery mumbled, cracking the egg with more force than necessary.

“Mmmmm… bacon!” Oblivious to the tension, Lily shuffled in wearing a Spiderman nightgown.

Setting her attempts at talking with Emery on the back burner for now, Beca immediately crouched in front of the youngest, getting a good look at her eyes and hoping they weren’t glassy. “Hey, Lily! How are you feeling? Do you have a headache or anything?” She knew the concussion was labeled as minor, but there was medicine on the countertop with her name on it just in case.

Lily shook her head. “Can I have some orange juice, please?”

Relief washed over Beca and she grinned. “Nice manners, kid. Your sister could learn a thing or two…”

Emery scoffed, whirling around to blink at Beca before grumbling under her breath as she continued mixing her batter.

“I’ll get the OJ,” Nathan said, pulling open the fridge to pour drinks.

“You guys wanna help set the table, too? We can have everything ready to go for whenever your mom comes downstairs…” Beca turned back to the eggs and flipped the pancakes in the non-gluten-free pan.

“Smells good in here,” a groggy Oliver said from the archway, leaning hard on his crutches. “Didn’t know rich people knew how to cook,” he teased, that same lopsided grin Chloe wore twisting on his mouth.

Beca scoffed and laughed, setting down the spatula and pulling out one of the kitchen chairs. “Here, smart-ass. Sit.” She helped him settle down and set his crutches against the wall nearby.

“Ooooh... you gotta put a dollar in the swear jar, Aunt Beca!” Lily piped, giggling as she pointed to a mason jar on the counter decorated with sparkly star stickers.

“Seriously? I can’t say ass?”

“That’s two dollars now, Aunt Beca,” Nathan said, pouring Lily a cup of juice and helping her up into the chair beside Oliver. “Mom’s gonna be so happy we’re making her breakfast,” he added with a dazed sort of grin on his face. “It’s like it’s Mother’s Day but it’s not!”

Beca quirked a brow. “I’ll keep a running tab for your swear jar. Might turn it into a swear bucket before I leave. And you guys don’t need a once-a-year holiday to do this kind of thing for your mom, you know.” She moved to the sink to wash off the fruit before slicing up the strawberries.

Despite Beca’s newness to the Walp family kitchen, she managed to prepare a full breakfast with the help of Emery making her own pancakes and also handling the toast and Nathan setting the table.

Chloe dashed into the kitchen wearing a summer-light cotton bathrobe tied over her pajama top and shorts, frantically hurrying toward the fridge. “Oh my god, you guys--I’m so sorry, my alarm was still set for Miami and I forgot to--” She cut herself off mid-sentence, blinking at the sight. All four of her kids sat patiently around their kitchen table, which boasted a massive stack of pancakes and two bowls of fruit for toppings, a pan full of scrambled eggs, a bread basket with toast, and a small tray of still-sizzling bacon. Tears stung her eyes and she covered her mouth, a disbelieving sort of laughter bubbling out anyway--as though she was shocked they could function so well without Chicago home, without her being awake on time to handle the cooking. “Well... this looks amazing!” She glanced over at Beca, who casually leaned against the counter cradling a mug of steaming coffee, sipping.

“Figured you might not mind sharing cooking duties for a while,” Beca said with a shrug. “Not that I did it all myself. Everyone helped.”

“And we’re gonna do the clean-up too!” Nathan declared, which pulled a bright laugh from his mother.

Chloe moved around the table, kissing each of her children good morning before settling into her chair. She patted the empty seat beside her, still grinning at Beca. “We can’t start ‘til the chef joins us.”

“That’s Dad’s seat,” Emery said stiffly.

Chloe’s grin fell into a frown and her brow knit with emotion. “Em…”

“Dad’s not here,” Oliver stated, a grim look shifting over his features. “And there’s no other chair at this table, so--”

“No, no. It’s cool, I understand,” Beca said with a dismissive wave, pulling out her phone. “I’m not a big breakfast person, it’s all good. Coffee’s good for me. You guys dig in. I need to make a few calls anyway.” She headed out of the kitchen, whirling around. “Oh, I almost forgot. Chlo--there’s a car coming to pick you up at 10 for a full spa treatment--massage, facial, mani/pedi, plus whatever add-ons you want. My treat.”

Chloe’s jaw fell slack. “Beca… you’ve done so much already…”

“This time it wasn’t me. It was Emery’s idea,” Beca said with a grin, cutting a look to Chloe’s eldest daughter, who froze mid-pancake bite. “She thought--you know, since you were supposed to have a relaxing weekend in Miami anyway, you might as well get a nice relaxing afternoon here. I just made the appointment.” Okay, so that was a lie, but Beca hoped it would start to mend whatever bridge she’d managed to fuck up with Emery Walp.

Plus, it was far easier for Beca to have Chloe believe her daughter was behind such a gesture instead of her.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Chloe said, reaching out to take Emery’s free hand. “Thank you. That’s so thoughtful. It really sounds amazing.” She cast another grin over at Beca. “Thank you for setting it up.”

“No sweat,” Beca said. “Seriously, enjoy the food before it gets cold. And don’t worry about me brewing too much coffee--I’ll drink whatever you don’t.” With that, she made her way upstairs to pretend to make phone calls, knowing she’d have to sack up and rejoin them eventually.

She just needed a minute alone first to remind herself what an idiot she was.

Chapter Text

Chloe knew she should’ve felt guiltier, going along with Beca’s insistence on indulging in a spa day--especially with her kids in such a fragile state. But as her therapist always reminded her, the children fed off her energy, and a more relaxed and happier mommy meant relaxed and happier kids. It was only a few hours, after all, and she had her phone on her the whole time. Plus, she knew they were in good hands with Beca.

She damn near floated back through the front door to her home, much more refreshed thanks to the 90 minute hot stone massage, facial treatment, manicure and pedicure. Hearing voices down the hall, she tossed her bag over the railing and made her way to the living room, treading lightly so as to not disturb the scene. The sight before her made her smile pull so tight she risked pulling a cheek muscle, her throat tightening and tears stinging the back of her eyes.

Emery kicked back in the recliner, seemingly lost in thumb-scrolling through her phone. Ollie lay on the couch with his casted leg propped up, his upper body twisted to watch the rest of them with an amused lopsided grin on his lips.

Beca, Nathan, and Lily sat around the coffee table, each with their own colored plastic cup set upside down in front of them.

“I’m seriously impressed, you guys. You picked it up in no time,” Beca said, beaming proudly at each of Chloe’s younger kids. “Wanna do it again? We’ll go after three.” The other two bobbed their heads in eager nods and held their hands up at the ready, hovering over their cups. “One, two--”

Their mother’s voice interrupted before Beca got to three.

”I got my ticket for the long way ‘round…”

Chloe couldn’t help it--the melody flew out of her with perfect pitch and balanced tone, despite the fact that she hadn’t sung that particular song in well over a decade and a half.

She hadn’t sung anything--really sung, aside from in the shower and along with the car radio--in several years.

Beca whirled around, her eyes shining with swirling emotion as a longing sort of warm grin spread on her lips.

“Mama!” Lily squealed, bouncing from her spot. “You know Aunt Beca’s song??”

“We learned the whole thing!” Nathan held his cup in the air, his chest puffed out with pride.

“They really picked it up freakishly fast,” Beca said with a shrug, looking back to the kids. “Okay guys, you ready for your big performance?”

Chloe dropped a kiss to Emery’s forehead before settling down on the edge of the couch where Ollie made room, mindful of his propped up leg as she watched the show. Her two youngest and Beca, singing the cup song together.

How was it possible that Beca still possessed the ability to make her body suffuse with such undiluted emotion in the most unexpected ways?

"You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone."

As the familiar melodic line drew to a closing of the haunting tune she hadn’t heard in what felt like forever, Beca’s eyes once again found Chloe’s and a wave of sorrow crashed through her body. Her lower lip quivered and she wished so badly she’d realized, the first time she’d heard Beca Mitchell sing those very lines during her Bellas audition two decades ago, how honest to god prophetic they were, because she’d missed Beca so much over the past fifteen years that when she let herself think too hard on it, she nearly suffocated from such deep aching and yearning blooming so sharply in her chest.

And here she was, now in her living room--living under her roof for the time being--singing the same song, this time with two of her children, who now blinked up at her with confusion etched in their brow.

Nathan spoke first, breaking her trance. “Mom? Did you like it, or--”

Chloe blinked. “Oh, you guys--it was so wonderful, you totally stunned me into silence for a second!” She snapped back into mommy mode immediately, reaching out for Lily and tugging her onto her lap. Blinking back tears threatening to escape, she twisted back and took Oliver’s hand. “Let’s order in tonight. What do you think, Ol? Pizza? Chinese?”

Oliver grinned. “Let’s do Chinese.”

A few hours later, the six of them sat around the kitchen table. Chloe insisted Beca sit in her seat and she took Chicago’s, not wanting to cause any sort of discomfort in any of her kids--especially Emery, who appeared to take Chicago’s situation hardest.

Her youngest daughter spoke up over her gluten free egg drop soup. “When’s Daddy coming home?”

“Well,” Chloe said, casting a quick look around the table. Lily set down her spoon to listen. “First he’s going to get discharged from the hospital--sometime soon, they said. And then he’s going to back to a--different hospital, to help him get better.”

“A rehab,” Emery said. “You can just say a rehab, Mom. We know.”

Nathan and Lily bobbed their heads.

Chloe swallowed hard, wrinkling her nose in apologetic fashion. “Okay, sweetheart. A rehab. But this one…” She cut a glance to Beca. “It’s the best one around by far, thanks to Beca. The one where all of the celebrities go for help. Daddy’ll be there for a month or so--”

“And then he’s going to jail, right?”

Emery,” Oliver cut in, frowning. “Really? Can you not?”

“Jail?” Lily’s lip wibbled.

“That’s why all the cops were there…” Nathan mused aloud, looking back to Chloe with worry creased in the corners of his eyes. “How long?”

Chloe grimaced and held up both hands, hoping the gesture would placate Emery and calm the younger two. “Hold on, guys. There’s nothing definite about that part right now. He’ll have a great lawyer from Aunt Aubrey’s firm. Nothing’s set in stone, so it’s not worth worrying about that yet. Let’s take it one step at a time, okay? He’ll receive treatment at the best rehab first, then we’ll see what happens with the legal stuff. No matter what, your daddy loves you. He made a mistake and he’s going to have to deal with whatever consequence he’s given, and we’re going to support him as best as we can. He needs help and he’s going to get it this time,” she said with a firm nod.

A deafening silence fell over the table as everyone started back in on their wonton or egg drop or miso soups.

Desperate to lift the mood, Chloe forced a smile. “So I got a text from Aunt Stacie while I was at the spa earlier,” she said conversationally, picking up the large carton of chicken and broccoli and serving some onto Lily’s and Nathan’s plates on either side of her before scooping a serving onto her own. “She and Bella wanna come up for a visit soon. I’m thinking maybe this weekend?”

Chloe cast a knowing look at her oldest son. Ollie had dropped his gaze into his soup bowl as though suddenly spotting something extremely interesting floating in the broth, his cheeks blazing.

Emery smirked. “I bet Ollie’s girlfriend will make him feel soooo much better...”

Oliver reached out and whacked Emery’s upper arm with the back of his hand. “Shut up,” he grumbled. “She’s not my--”

“You love her,” Emery said with a satisfied shrug, her factual tone brooking no argument.

“Emmy, please. Give Ollie a break…” Chloe pleaded, but Nathan started making kissy faces at his big brother and Lily giggled along.

Beca remained silent through the interaction, though a knowing hint of a smirk quirked at the corners of her mouth. She schooled her expression back to neutral quickly though. “Bella’s what… seventeen now? She’s about a year older than you, right?” Beca squinted, but she’d never been very good at math.

“Yeah,” Oliver replied, that telltale blush remaining in his cheeks. “She’s starting at Barden this fall, so.”

“So Ollie wants to go there too,” Emery cut in. “Except she’s totally out of his league--”

“I said shut up,” Oliver snapped back, stabbing his chopsticks into the lo mein with more force than necessary.

Beca brightened. “You wanna go to Barden, too, huh?”

“They have a good soccer team,” he mumbled.

Emery cackled. “And maybe Bella Conrad will be a Barden soccer cheerleader.”

Emery.” Chloe and Ollie admonished at the same time.

Chloe sighed, casting Beca a ‘siblings, right?’ sort of look, even though she knew Beca grew up as an only child and likely didn’t fully understand the complexities of sibling raillery.

Beca offered a tight grin in reply before busying herself by scooping fried rice onto her plate. “Y’know,” she started, her eyes flickering across the table to Oliver. “It’s cool if you don’t like her, but if you do--or if you happen to realize it later on--” She paused her rice scooping to catch Ollie’s attention. “You need to tell her. Tell her you like her before some other dude swoops in and it’s too late.”

Chloe froze, her heart thundering harder in her chest. She lifted her eyes to Beca’s, sucking in a sharp breath when she realized they’d already been steady on her face. “Beca’s right,” she breathed, unsure how she managed forming actual words. She forced herself to focus back on her son, and without that intense eye contact with Beca, she immediately found the knot loosening in her chest. “That’s one option, but you don’t have to! You’re only sixteen.” Beca may have forgotten that detail while offering up her own advice. “And nobody’s out of your league, by the way. Whatever happens, you’re obviously a catch! Anyone would be so, so lucky to date my baby boy!”

“Mom please,” he said, and Chloe thought if his cheeks grew any redder they’d shine purple. “I appreciate that you guys are trying to help, but I really don’t wanna talk about this anymore.”

“You guys like baseball?” Beca cut in, and Chloe had a feeling both she and Oliver were grateful for her attempt to help veer the conversation in a new direction. They nodded, and she shrugged. “If you want, we can go to the game tomorrow? I--the studio--we have a private box, so it’d be comfortable for Oliver in a wheelchair. Might be nice to get out for a few hours?”

Chloe blinked, grinning at her kids’ excited reactions. “Since when do you like baseball?” she asked Beca, smiling wider as she reached for her glass of water.

“I don’t, really. But I’ve got the box reserved all season to send clients and stuff so we might as well use it. Should be a nice night.” Beca nodded toward Oliver. “Only if you’re feeling up for it, kiddo. We can go another time if your leg still hurts too bad.”

“No, that’s awesome!” The redness finally drained from his cheeks. “The Mets are playing the Yankees, too. Those games are always really intense.”

“Sounds like a fun plan, then.” Chloe relaxed when the kids’ conversation turned to baseball, badgering Beca with questions about the box seats and all the food they’d be able to eat there, and the rest of dinner passed smoothly.

The following day, the evening baseball game proved a hit with the Walp clan. Chloe wore Mets gear along with Nathan and Lily, while Oliver and Emery loyally wore Braves attire to support their dad’s love of his Atlanta-based team even though they weren’t playing that day. The accommodations suited Ollie’s casted leg and all of the kids had a blast both watching the game and indulging in unlimited ballpark treats--popcorn, hot dogs, ice cream, nachos and more. Lily actually conked out for a sixth inning nap, but rallied for the last three and ate a second hot dog.

Throughout the game, Chloe caught a few lingering looks from Beca, which struck through her chest like a laser beam. They were long overdue for a talk--a real heart-to-heart and not just a catch-up chat, after Beca had crashed back into her world like a tornado that somehow simultaneously caused mass destruction and filled the gaping hole in her heart with a calm, soothing balm radiating warmth from her head to her toes.

The car pulled up to the house after 10:30, and Chloe and Beca helped the kids wash up and settle in for bed. Half an hour later, all four had fallen asleep, and Chloe trudged downstairs, exhausted but fulfilled after a fun day with her kids, heading to the kitchen for a glass of water before bed.

“Hey,” Beca said, sitting at the kitchen table with dim lighting. “You need anything?”

“Hey,” Chloe shot back with a smile, still not used to Beca living in her home, albeit temporarily. She hadn’t been used to Beca in her life, so. “I’m good, thanks. Are you okay?”

“Yep,” Beca shot back maybe a little too quickly. She set her phone down and opened her mouth but hesitated, closing it instead.

“We should talk,” Chloe suggested gently, relieved when Beca nodded in agreement. “We should…” She hitched her thumb toward the backdoor. “Outside? Since Ollie’s sleeping?”

Beca pushed to her bare feet and tugged the bottoms of her denim shorts down, smoothing the front of her navy t-shirt as she followed Chloe outside.

Chloe left the door ajar but the screen closed, not wanting to let any summer insects inside but remain able to hear if any of the kids called out for her. Ollie’s soft snores echoed from the living room, and she and Beca moved to the railing of the deck overlooking the Walps’ yard.

The steady night breeze proved a welcomed brisk reprieve from the muggy night air, and the full moon poured over the yard, illuminating enough of their property at the late hour.

Beca rested her forearms over the sanded, painted wood, staring off into the distance.

Chloe stepped up beside her, folding her hands atop the deck railing but angling her body toward Beca. “So are you… still seeing Gina?”

Beca blinked. “Who?”

“That woman who was at your house when I stopped by?” Chloe’s brow quirked.

Color rose hard and fast in Beca’s cheeks and she shook her head. “Oh, no. She’s not--that’s not--” She cleared her throat, wrinkling her nose. “That’s not serious.”

“Oh, alright,” Chloe said, relief washing through her… followed by an immediate pang of guilt. Why should it matter to her, anyway? Despite herself, she blurted out the next question. “Is there… someone else? Or…”

A pained sort of laugh puffed through Beca’s lips--one that made Chloe’s insides twist. Beca kept her eyes cast forward, swallowing the lump in her throat. “There’s never been anyone else, Chloe.”

Chloe let that sink in for a moment. “Never?”

Beca shook her head. “Nobody serious, anyway.”

“Well you’ve been so busy… been working so hard…” Chloe reasoned, trailing off to find Beca looking at her with deep sadness shining in her steely gray irises. Chloe knew better. Chloe knew the reason Beca didn’t commit to someone else wasn’t because she was busy. She knew, much as she wished she didn’t. Maybe she’d always known. Her lips pulled into a frown and Chloe raked a hand through her red locks. “I wish you moved on, Bec. I wish you found happiness.”

A few seconds passed before Beca muttered her reply. “Me too.”

Chloe’s breath hitched and she curled her fingers around the railing ledge. “You have… such a good heart. So much love to give. I don’t understand.” She bit her lip.

“I couldn’t. I tried, okay? I dated some, it didn’t work out. No matter who I was with, they didn’t hold a single fucking candle to you. I couldn’t move on.” Beca winced at the admission, tilting her head upward and mumbling a few barely comprehensible swears up at the sky, composing herself a few beats later. “This isn’t fair. This isn’t fair for me to put on you--especially now, with everything going on.”

“Beca…” Chloe’s voice broke and tears filled her eyes, Beca’s confession once again causing her heart to soar and stall and crack all at once. “I’ve waited fifteen years for us to talk about this. Longer than that, really.” She pulled in a deep, shaky breath, reaching out to settle her hand over Beca’s and hoping the contact would encourage her to keep talking. “Why did you come back? Why now?”

Beca closed her eyes for a moment, as if mentally replaying something behind her closed lids. “You said you’d never forgive me if I didn’t get on that plane,” Beca rasped, finally angling her body to face Chloe in a quarter turn, dark eyes boring into her own. “But I never forgave myself for listening to you. I should’ve picked you over my music. Even when Chicago came back, I should’ve stayed. It would’ve been selfish as hell since he’s Ollie’s father and he’d been through so damn much but I should’ve fought for you. I should’ve--”

“Shhh,” Chloe squeezed Beca’s hand atop the deck railing, the other raising to rest gently against Beca’s cheek. “You had the opportunity of a lifetime--the one that launched your incredible career. If you stayed, you would’ve always wondered what would’ve happened if you hadn’t taken the chance. You could’ve resented me and Ollie for holding you back.”

“That’s not true, Chlo,” Beca insisted, blinking furiously to hold back tears threatening to fall.

“You don’t know if that’s true or not, but it was a possibility--and it was a chance I wasn’t willing to take, being the one to stop you from reaching for the stars,” Chloe assured her, swallowing hard once again. “Your music has always been so special. It would’ve been so ridiculously selfish of me to keep you, even if you wanted to stay. What you’ve accomplished so far… Beca…” Chloe’s lips pulled into a watery grin. “It’s amazing. The music you’ve gifted the world, Bec… it’s changed thousands, probably millions of lives. You’re amazing. And I’m so, so proud of you.”

Tears slipped free from Beca’s eyes and she reached up to cover Chloe’s hand with her own, curling her fingers over Chloe’s and turning her head to press a lingering kiss to Chloe’s palm. “I came back because I missed you so fucking much,” she managed, her voice shaky at the edges but raw with honesty. “And I guess part of me hoped it would give me some closure, since distance didn’t really help. I thought seeing you with your family, making sure you were happy beyond measure… I thought that’d be enough for me to accept how everything turned out, that we made the right choices after all.” She hesitated, sniffling and lowering Chloe’s hand but lacing their fingers on her own this time. “But this--being here--it’s too--it’s too hard. I thought I could stay, I thought I could help. I’ll stay another few days but long-term… I can’t, Chlo. I can’t be here. This your family, not mine--and it fucking hurts too much.”

“I understand,” Chloe assured her, squeezing her hands. “God, I do. I’m so sorry, and I missed you, too. I missed you every day, Bec.” She paused, sliding her hand up to settle atop Beca’s forearm. “But if it helps…. I want you to know that I am happy. Truly. My kids make me happy every single day. It isn’t everything--it’s not you--but it’s enough. I promise it is.” Chloe wouldn’t admit it aloud, but some days it didn’t feel like enough--some days she missed Beca with such force, even after all this time, it pained her like a visceral ache--but she needed to free Beca from that roadblock to her own happiness, especially knowing now that she hung on for so long. When she could’ve been building her own family, much as that thought felt like a punch in Chloe’s gut. Beca deserved that, even if she couldn’t be the one to provide it. She deserved happiness, and Chloe wanted that for her more than she could possibly put into words.

Beca closed her eyes once again, as if committing Chloe’s words to memory this time. “I used to wish things were different. Wishing I sacked up and didn’t blow my shot. But being here, it helped me realize--I can’t wish that anymore, ‘cause if I’d stayed, if we--” She blinked her eyes open. “--those other kids wouldn’t exist if I’d stayed. And I’d never wish away your kids, Chlo. Despite everything, I’m honestly fucking glad things turned out how they did ‘cause those kids--they’re part you and wholly themselves all at once, you know? That makes them the most incredible kids in the world.”

Without thinking twice, Chloe threw her arms around Beca and buried her face in her neck, choking a sob and closing her eyes against the fresh wave of tears leaking free and streaking down her cheeks. She sagged heavier against Beca once she felt Beca’s arms wrap around her tightly in return, and time suspended as she soaked in every element of that embrace--how Beca’s arms felt wrapped around her, how her skin smelled like a mixture of faded sunscreen and that familiar Beca scent she’d always had.

Beca sucked in a deep breath and blew it out hard, resting her cheek against Chloe’s head. “I’m gonna need some more time away again, but I won’t be a stranger anymore, okay? I’ll do anything to help your family. I promise.”

Chloe pulled back once she found her voice, though it carried hoarsely as she sought out Beca’s eyes. “I understand you need more time and space after all this, but please…” Her fingers curled in the fabric of Beca’s t-shirt, gripping tight. “Please don’t leave me for fifteen years again. I can’t handle losing you for that long a second time. Please.

“I won’t,” Beca replied with a sharp nod of her head, as though sealing the agreement with the gesture. She reached up to cradle Chloe’s face, thumbs wiping tears as they fell. “I can’t stay away too long anyway. I’m Aunt Beca now, remember?”

A broken chuckle wrapped in relief barked out of Chloe and she nodded.

Outside their protected bubble of buried confessions and fresh promises, a throat clearing noise carried from behind the screen door.

Chloe and Beca’s gazes both snapped toward the sound.

“Chicago,” Chloe rasped, releasing Beca’s shirt from her grasp as color rose hard and fast in her damp cheeks--which she frantically wiped the rest of the way with the backs of her hands. “How--” She cleared her own throat, glancing at Beca--who took a step back with her hands now shoved into her back pockets and her gaze cast downward--before looking back to her husband. “How long have you been standing there?”

Chicago’s eyes shined with sadness and he reached up to scratch at his scruffy cheek. “Long enough, darlin’.” He kept his voice low to not wake Ollie, but Chloe still heard the emotion wavering in its tone. “There’s an officer out front waiting for me. I was discharged from Mount Sinai and I’m just here to pack a bag so he can transport me to some big fancy rehab.” A sad yet appreciative grin tugged on his lips and his gaze flickered to Beca. “Thanks for that, by the way.”

Beca’s eyes lifted to meet Chicago’s and she offered a quiet nod in acknowledgement.

“I’ll help you pack,” Chloe declared, casting one last lingering look packed with warring emotions at Beca--a mashed-up look of weariness, understanding, regret, appreciation, and love--before joining her husband inside their home.

Chapter Text

Fuck,” Beca growled, gripping a fistful of her Porthault sheets as her most reliable escort strapped her from behind, driving her into her mattress as hard as she could (on Beca’s request, as always). Beca gritted her teeth and slammed her eyes shut in the relative darkness as she felt the telltale tightening of her inner walls, preparing herself to come for what must have been the ninth time that evening. Willing anyone else’s face to flash before her eyes.

Anyone but Chloe.

(She tried. It had been two weeks since she’d left the Walps’ home, and the ginger escort was supposed to help wean her off this fucked up supposed ‘coping mechanism’ she couldn’t cut cold turkey--but every time, with every orgasm, she was Chloe. Chloe kissing her soundly on the mouth, Chloe’s fingers sinking inside of her, Chloe’s nipples peaking and pebbling beneath her tongue, Chloe’s nails digging into her hips. Chloe, Chloe, Chloe…)

It had to stop. Beca fucking knew how badly she needed it to stop.

She just didn’t want to yet.

Orgasm number nine sent Beca face-planting into her pillow, her body singing with pleasure as waves of ecstasy rolled through her… and immediately sagging with remorse as soon as aftershocks radiated from her marrow. Sudden, traitorous tears welled and stung as her heart wrenched again, and she furiously ground the heels of her palms into her eyes before shakily pushing herself back up onto her elbows as she rocked her hips backward, hissing. Too damn sensitive, but... “Another,” she husked, her voice breaking on the second syllable.

The escort remained still, dragging the backs of her knuckles across Beca’s lower back, slightly sticky with sweet sweat.

Beca grunted, shooting a glare over her shoulder at the shadowy figure cloaked in darkness, fulfilling her twisted fantasy. “I said another.”

“Baby,” the escort pleaded, leaning over to pepper a few kisses against Beca’s spine. “We’ve been at it for hours. Let me get you some water.”

Fuck. That voice carried all wrong and Beca grimaced, shaking her head. “No. Don’t care. Need more. One more...”

“Beca.” The escort’s tone rang softer this time, with a hint of pleading threading through her tone.

“You need a break,” Beca realized half a beat later, immediately feeling like a huge asshole; her stomach twisted with guilt. “Fuck, okay. Sorry. Yeah. Let’s… a break.”

The dildo slid out of her and Beca slumped forward yet again to curl up on her side, achy and tired. Fuck. It had been hours, hadn’t it? Her body bore scratches and bruises and bitemarks. Well-deserved punishment for her sins and self-loathing.

The soft body of her guest curled up against hers, spooning her from behind. As though she knew she needed a hug, even though Beca wouldn’t dare ask for it.

“I can’t keep doing this,” Beca rasped, tears slipping free and into her pillow as her arm settled over the one draped across her waist. “I need to let her go.”

The escort brushed Beca’s hair to her front and pressed another kiss to her shoulder. “Your Chloe? You wanna get over her, huh?”

With a hitching inhale, Beca forced her head upward into a jerky nod. “I don’t want to, but I have to.” She sniffled, reaching for the sheet and wiping her cheeks. “M’not sure how,” she added in a quieter tone, grateful for the darkness. She didn’t want anyone seeing her looking like a pathetic mess. Not even the woman she paid to keep quiet.

“Oh, baby,” the escort soothed, hugging her tighter. “Y’know, in my experience, the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.” She paused, a sympathetic grin curving against Beca’s shoulder. “And it’d probably be a good idea for that person to not borrow the name Chloe…”

Beca grumbled under her breath.

“Really though, how does someone of your status go about dating?” She hummed against her skin, deep in thought. “Is there a special Tinder for the wealthy? A reality show like the Bachelorette--they could do a special edition with a famous lady like you. Or… oooh, could you call a Millionaire Matchmaker to set you up with someone?”

A tired groan passed Beca’s lips. “I don’t know. I guess. Not sure I’m ready for dating and shit, honestly.”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t take smaller steps in the meantime,” the other woman replied.

“Yeah? Like what?”

“Well, for starters,” the escort drawled, rolling away from Beca to flick the light switch.

Beca squinted at the sudden sharp brightness attack on her eyeballs, blinking rapidly while her eyes scrambled to adjust to light. “Dude, what the hell--

The escort flashed her a small smile, taking her hand and offering a comforting squeeze. “You could call me Gina.”

Gina. Beca’s lips tugged into a sad sort of grin. “Yeah. Gina. I can do that, Gina.”

Gina beamed at her and ran her thumb over Beca’s knuckles, moving to swing her legs over the edge of the bed.

“No, no. You stay. I got it.” Beca’s muscles screamed as she shifted off the bed, crossing to her closet to fetch her short black silky robe and tie it over her. She padded barefoot in her silent, opulent home, fetching two glasses of water from the kitchen and returning to the bedroom.

Gina accepted her water glass with a grateful grin. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” Beca took a sip of her own water and ran her free hand over her untamable sex hair, surely frizzy at her hairline. She glanced at the clock and frowned. 2:30. “You get some sleep, okay? I’m gonna stay up and work for a while.”

Leaving the escort in her bed, Beca slipped into her quiet home office and turned on the low lamplight, though the wide window provided a gorgeous view of the NYC skyscrapers lit up in the darkness. She tapped her computer mouse to wake the monitor and clicked around for a while until she found herself on Zillow, perusing properties in Colorado. California. London. Maybe she had to get away for a month or so, for her own mental health.

Actually--maybe she ought to find the brochure from the villa in Bora Bora she’d stayed in a few years ago. With that in mind, she pulled open the filing drawer, rummaging through until her fingers snagged the pages of a composition book trapped beneath a small heap of clutter.

Beca tugged the notebook out and set it atop the desk, a fond grin pulling at her lips as her fingertips skimmed the binding. She traced over the bubbly letters scripted in purple glitter pen on the cover.

Beca Effin’ Mitchell’s First Aca-mazing Songbook!

“Oh, Emily,” Beca muttered, steeling herself before flipping through the pages slowly. Her aca-child had gifted her the notebook upon Beca’s graduation and the first page held a heartfelt thank you note for her help producing and recording Flashlight.

The rest of the pages lay covered in Beca’s hasty scrawl. The first batch of songs she’d ever written. Some of them were terrible and would never see the light of day. Others, though--others she eventually took verses or choruses or concepts from and continued to worked on over the years, and threads of these first drafts wound up on her album or on the records of one of her artists who best fit the music.

The music.

It always came back to the music, didn’t it?

That was when it hit her--Beca wouldn’t be able to simply date someone to get over Chloe.

No, she had to write her out. Sing her out. Lyrically remove Chloe from the fabric of her soul as best as she could. It was the only way.

Once realization sparked, Beca shakily reached for a fountain pen and flipped to one of the last few pages--only six in the back held empty sheets.

With the only muse in mind she’d intentionally avoided working into her music for fifteen years, Beca wrote. She wrote phrases and couplets and verses. Choruses and bridges and intros and outros. She poured her grief onto those pages, thick teardrops splotching fresh ink, smearing patches on each page before it dried.

Beca wrote until the sun came up, until her hand cramped. Until her whole heart ripped open and dropped every ounce of itself, squeezed into every letter and word and heartfelt lyric.

Until Chloe existed on those pages, separate from herself for the first time ever.

Chapter Text

After 40 days spent receiving treatment in the best drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility on the east coast, officers transferred Chicago--clean and sober with a 40 day chip he was allowed to hold onto--to a medium security prison in rural New York. During his time spent in rehab, he’d been working with his lawyer, and after pleading guilty to drunk driving with four counts of reckless child endangerment, the judge sentenced him to 22 months along with a $5,000 fine.

It could’ve been much worse, Chloe repeated to herself for what felt like the hundredth time since he’d called and informed her of his sentence. She knew his status as an honorably discharged veteran, his calm nature, and his cooperation during the process helped whittle down the several year average sentence for the same crime. She also wasn’t ignorant enough to not understand the fact that he was a white man helped him there, too.

He wasn’t allowed visitors for his first month, but Chloe drove out the first day the prison warden granted permission. Four hours in the car alone on a cloudy September morning.

(It also happened to be Beca’s birthday.)

(She’d texted Beca to wish her a happy birthday before she left that morning and received a clipped, almost business-like response.)

(It was better than no response, she reasoned, trying desperately to cling to the brighter side--if a brighter side even existed in all of this.)

Sixty-eight days, most of them spent without Chicago or Beca, and Chloe had painted a smile on her face during every single one for her children. She’d continue to do so because…

Well, what other choice did she have?

Thankfully, in the interim, Chloe was rarely alone with the kids because the Bella Aunts were a freakin’ godsend. They took shifts visiting, staying over, and helping to distract the kids with fun summer activities. Aubrey took the five of them on a two week vacation to her family’s lake house in Virginia. Amy accompanied them to a carnival. Stacie took them to the zoo and the aquarium. Lily, Jessica, and Ashley took them bowling. Flo and Emily joined them at the mall for back to school shopping.

Today, though. Today she left the kids home with Aubrey and Stacie for the day and left around eight. At noon, she pulled into the medium security prison parking lot and her grip tightened on her steering wheel when she first spotted the building--tall and light colored brick behind a barbed wire fence, guards manning watchtowers overlooking a yard with a basketball court.

She’d focus on the basketball court, not the armed guards or the barbed wire. Chicago loved basketball.

Chloe took a deep, steadying breath and hitched her bag over her shoulder, smoothing her blouse and cardigan over her jeans. Every step ticked her anxiety higher as she entered through the visitor entrance and approached the front desk, submitting her identification and offering her bag for one of the guards to search.

They led her back outside to a small courtyard bordered by a chain-linked fence with a dozen round picnic-like tables placed throughout.

“Table six, ma’am. Please keep physical contact to a minimum.” The guard motioned to table six, where Chicago sat staring off into the distance, seemingly appreciating the fresh air.

He spotted her and shot to his feet, his smile wide and bright. Donning a tan jumpsuit, he remained shackleless for the visit and for that, Chloe was grateful. (She’d pictured having to speak with him through one of those transparent windows, each of them clutching a phone and conversing in hushed tones.)

Chloe rushed over and threw herself into his arms, choking a sob and clinging tight. (She instantly forgot about the minimal contact rule--honestly, she hadn’t seen her husband in months. Hopefully they’d give her a break.)

“Hey, darlin’,” Chicago greeted, dropping a kiss to the crown of her head and pulling back once a security guard cleared their throat. “Well aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”

“Hi, honey. Oh my god, I’m so sorry--I promised myself I wouldn’t be a mess today,” she rambled, sniffling as she dabbed at her cheeks with a tissue. When Chicago motioned for her to sit, her wobbly legs appreciated the relief as they took seats across from each other on the small benches.

When she wasn’t a watery mess, she got a good look at him. His hair grew longer and he sported a beard, but beyond that--

Chloe brightened. “You look good, sweetheart.”

Chicago chuckled, tugging at his jumpsuit. “Do I? I didn’t think tan was really my color.”

Chloe laughed. “You know what I mean.” His face--he looked healthy. The bags disappeared from beneath his eyes, his brown irises no longer clouded by grief, and his smile radiated genuine warmth.

“Amazing what trading booze for good ol’ water for two months can do for you, isn’t it?” He fished his 60 day chip out of his pocket and held it palm-up. “They’ve got their own AA meetings in here. I’ll get a seventy chip in a couple days.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Chloe reached out and slipped her hand into his. “I’m so proud of you.”

“That place… I really think it changed me,” Chicago insisted. “Well, that and all of this.” He nodded toward the building. “Loads of time to think. Time to plan. They’ve always said going back to the same situation, the same settings… they can trigger relapses. When I get out of here, I won’t let myself go back to how things were.”

More promises. Chloe believed him--she just knew the mountain he’d always been up against. She let his words process though, nodding firmly. She’d always been his rock, and that wouldn’t change. “We’ll move, if that’ll help. Maybe across town so the kids can stay in the same school?”

A sad smile pulled on Chicago’s lips and he reached into his pocket, pulling out five sealed envelopes labeled with names--Oliver, Emery, Nathan, Lily, and Chloe--laying them in front of him. “I know they’re having a hard time with this. I hope my letters help them at least start to understand how sorry I am. You’ll need to help Lily read hers,” he said, sliding them across the table.

Chloe nodded and then reached for her own letter with a furrow in her brow. “You didn’t need to write to me, honey. I’ll visit every month. You know I will.”

Chicago swallowed the lump in his throat, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he reached out and settled his hand on top of Chloe’s and the envelope with her name on it. “That’s not a letter, darlin’. That’s--” He took a deep breath. “They’re divorce papers. I had the lawyer draw them up for us. I’ve signed my part, it’s up to you to sign yours and submit them.”

His words hit Chloe like a freight train and shocked, disbelieving laughter bubbled out of her throat, strained and slightly manic. “I--that’s--what?

“Listen to me, Chlo.” He spoke lower, emotion rattling his voice. “Let me explain.”

Chloe sputtered, her free hand bracing over her heart as she shook her head. “This isn’t--you can’t just decide to get divorced without me, Chicago Walp. That’s not how this works. We’re a partnership. I’m your wife!

As always, Chicago remained steady and calm, though his eyes brimmed with tears. “You’re the love of my life. The best thing that’s ever happened to me. You’ve sacrificed your own wants and needs for our family--for me, especially--over and over again, and I know you, darlin’. You’re a fixer. It’s one of the things I love most about you--your unwavering loyalty. I know you’d never ask for this--you probably haven’t even thought about this, and you’d stick by me no matter what, but the thing is--I don’t deserve you anymore. I haven’t deserved you for a long time.”

“Chicago...” Tears flowed freely down Chloe’s face and she shook her head.

“No, please. Let me finish. I’ve been thinking about how to say this for a long time now.” He ran his thumb over her knuckles. “Look at me. Look at this. I know it’s not forever, but you deserve better. The kids deserve better. I know we stood before our families and friends and promised we’d stick by each other in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part--but that was supposed to be an even split. I’ve been sick for so long, you’ve had to care for me like one of the children for too damn long, and you’d never ask for this.” He motioned to her envelope. “You’d never ask for what you want. For who--you want. And I want you to have that.”

Who.

Chloe’s mind swirled and she blinked at him, her jaw falling slack. “This--is this about Beca?” Even speaking the same aloud to Chicago made Chloe’s gut twist with guilt, knowing her feelings had always lingered there beneath the surface. Even when she spoke those wedding vows. “Is this about that night--that conversation you overheard? Because that--we’re not--we’ve never--she’s--” Chloe scrabbled to string together a coherent sentence that could accurately define her situation with Beca, but she couldn’t. Not without admitting the truth.

Truth that Chicago already seemed to know.

“It’s alright, darlin’.” He heaved a heavy sigh, reaching up to rake his free hand through his hair. “I can’t forget what I saw outside that night--how devastated you looked when Beca said she was leaving. I know I never… knew Beca. Really knew her. Maybe I didn’t want to ‘cause maybe part of me may’ve known there was more than friendship there, or that was the reason she stayed away from you and the other Bellas for so long. But when I look back… she’s been there when I couldn’t be, helping you pick up the pieces. Before I came back to the states when you were pregnant. And now, when I was deep in the bottle, at my lowest low. I can tell how much she cares for you. Pretty sure anyone could tell, with the way she looks at you. She’d give you the moon and stars if she could.”

“So would you,” Chloe protested weakly, hanging her head so tears dripped directly onto her jeans, darkening the denim where they fell. “I’m sorry.” She wasn’t even fully sure what she was apologizing for--her feelings for Beca, not being enough to help him, for him feeling like he had to... cut her loose like this. “I love you, Chicago.” And she did. She truly loved him.

But not the same way she loved Beca.

It had been different from the start, and Chicago was smart enough to understand that, even if Chloe couldn’t find the words to explain.

“I love you, too. And I want to be perfectly clear. We didn’t fail our marriage, honey. I did. I take full responsibility, because you’ve been nothing short of amazing. And I want you to know… I want you to be happy. More than anything. I want you to put yourself before me for once. If that’s with Beca or someone else--I won’t stand in your way. I know our kids, and I know they’ll be fine because they want their mama happy, too.” He paused, reaching up to wipe the tears from his own cheeks. “And I’m gonna take this experience and I’m gonna learn and grow and be a better man--a man deserving of the role of father. We’re gonna be kick-ass co-parents forever, and this new direction--it’s gonna be a fresh start for me, and it’s gonna help both of us get to a better place.”

Part of Chloe--the stubborn fixer part, as he’d called her--wanted to protest. To assure him they’d work out in the end, that maybe they could try marriage counseling or family counseling, that a move could feel like a fresh start for the two of them as a couple, too.

But the other part of her--the part she’d forced to lay dormant for well over fifteen years--it roared to life, sparking hope that bloomed in her chest, igniting a candle she’d long since given up hope would ever catch fire.

For that, Chloe swallowed the emotion still threatening to burst, flipping her hand beneath Chicago’s to lace their fingers and summoning the courage to meet his eyes and accept their fate. His decision. This gift of freedom. An opportunity to pursue the love she’d always dreamed of.

Beca.

“Thank you,” Chloe croaked, bringing Chicago’s hand to her lips to press a kiss to the back of his hand.

“Thank you, Chloe,” he countered. “Thank you for always seeing the man I always could be, not the man I always was.”

Chloe shot back to her feet and he shifted on the bench in time for her to throw her arms around his shoulders, burying her face in his neck and hugging as tightly as she could. “I’ll always be here for you,” she whispered fiercely. “Always.”

“I know you will.”

Chloe vowed to continue visiting Chicago each month before she departed, driving back to the highway to start her long journey home.

As much as she wanted to reroute her GPS to take her directly to Beca, she knew she had to wait a little longer just in case any snags arose in her plan. The last thing she wanted was to make any false promises to Beca, and she needed to tie up loose ends first.

Most notably, she couldn’t--wouldn’t do anything without making sure she had her children’s support, and she’d need to have several hard conversations with them--about the impending divorce and what that would mean for their family, taking time to help them process their letters from their father, and eventually, delicately sharing the truth about Aunt Beca.

Once the kids granted their blessing, once the divorce was finalized, then she’d contact Beca.

She could only hope Beca hadn’t moved on by the time she could take that leap.

The Top 40s radio station faded out from one track and the radio host returned to the air, interrupting Chloe’s swirling thoughts.

“Up next we’ve got a brand new track from Beca Mitchell! That’s right, listeners, you heard me correctly--Beca Mitchell’s back in the studio, working on a spankin’ fresh record. Her new single dropped at noon. This is the world premiere of Never Too Late, exclusively released today on Z100.”

Chloe damn near swerved off the road, gasping as she cranked the volume during the hauntingly beautiful opening chord progression.

Beca’s voice, gripping as ever, provided powerhouse vocals on what unfolded into a stripped-down, heart-wrenching ballad, with lyrics that shot straight through Chloe’s heart.

I picked the scab, cracked bolted doors
Dug up the bones beneath the floor
Thought I’d grown, thought I was stronger
But roots grow deeper, longing longer

A fractured heart never forgets
Awake each night plagued by regrets
Minutes, hours, years it seems
Bright blue eyes still haunt my dreams

But through the heartbreak I’ve endured
Know that you can rest assured…

It’s never too late to turn the page
Never too hard to take the stage
Never too high to make the climb
Never too late to turn back time

‘Cause I’ve been knocked down, dragged and broken
Crawled through glass shards, words unspoken
I’m a fighter, I won’t break
Despite my wrongs and bad mistakes

Hung on too long, zapped by live wire
Outlasted ice storms, raging fire
I’ll live to tell what happens after
Slay my demons, fists and laughter

And know I will look back with love
Keep treading water, head above...

But it’s never too late to turn the page
Never too hard to take the stage
Never too high to make the climb
Never too late to turn back time

It’s never too late
No it’s never too late

Chloe pulled onto the shoulder and shifted her car into park during the first verse, and by the second chorus, she bowed over the steering wheel, her body racking with sobs. It took several minutes for Chloe to catch her breath, wrenching her head back and closing her eyes, wishing her words would will her desperate, croaking plea into existence.

“Don’t give up on me, Bec.”

Chapter Text

Beca arrived at the studio early on that blustery November morning in her deep plum colored suit, her no-nonsense pumps carrying her straight to her office where Kayla had already provided a cup of strong coffee and the pile of important looking letters addressed to either her or the company.

One formal square-shaped envelope caught her attention with its thicker stock paper and more notably, the return address inscribed in gold-colored ink on the back.

The Kennedy Center

Beca’s lips curved into a grimacing grin upon remembering her last trip to the Kennedy Center, where she and the Bellas performed for the Obamas and the 2017 award recipients… and Amy gifted viewers a little extra special viewing during their set.

Carefully removing the letter, she unfolded it and leaned forward on her desk as she noted the Kennedy Center’s rainbow logo on the stationery header before scanning the calligraphy.

Dear Ms. Beca Mitchell,

It is with our most sincere congratulations that we inform you that you have been selected as one of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors Award recipients. As you may know, the Kennedy Center Honors Award is an annual honor given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture, regardless of their citizenship.

Please note the enclosed invitation to this year’s Kennedy Center Ceremony and Gala, which will be held on December 10th, 2034 in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Your nomination to this group of honorees officially makes you the youngest recipient in Kennedy Center Awards history.

We look forward to spending the evening dedicated to honoring you and your work.

Beca sat back in her leather office chair, a dazed sort of grin stuck on her face. A few times in her career, certain moments reminded her that life truly does come full-circle. Like the time she toured with Ariana five years after weaving Ari’s track into a mashup she made during her junior year. Or the time she got to collaborate with Justin Timberlake when, 17 years earlier, she’d attended an NSYNC concert with two of her high school friends.

All of the Grammy awards shows where she’d received golden trophies, performed live, or attended as a presenter, remembering watching the annual show on her TV as a kid and--even in the Bellas house each year with her best friends and giant bowls of popcorn.

The Kennedy Center Honors, well…

Returning to the Kennedy Center Opera House twenty years after the Bellas’ Muffgate scandal would certainly remind her how far she’d come.

Beca knew she was fortunate that she’d reached so many milestones, and she glanced behind her to the wall lined with shelved trophies and framed plaques and double and triple selling platinum records. Music that--now confirmed by the Kennedy Center--impacted American culture with such significance they believed her to be worthy of a lifetime achievement award. At age 40.

Beca set the invitation down and picked up her coffee, cradling the steaming mug with both hands and taking a small sip as another smile curved on her lips.

Chloe was right.

Beca had been so furious with herself, thinking she’d made the wrong choices so long ago. For boarding the plane and leaving Chloe behind because of Chloe’s selfless insistence.

If she’d stayed, none of this would have happened.

And it’s not about the accolades. Seriously, no matter how many trophies or awards she earned, Beca never got used to handling the spotlight in that regard, fumbling humbly through acceptance speeches and heartfelt dedications to those who’d helped her along the way.

No, it was about the people. The fans. Those she’d touched with her music and the music of the artists she’d handpicked and worked tirelessly with to craft their own unique records. Making her indelible mark on their culture through her work. It was about the voices in the thousands of letters she’d received over the years, thanking her for the courage to publicly come out as bisexual, that she and her music had impacted their immediate moods, their difficult choices, and their lifelong goals. Even if Beca’s own personal life had always missed the mark, she had opportunities to experience her 20s and 30s in a way most others only dreamed of.

And she wouldn’t have been able to experience any of it if Chloe hadn’t forced her onto that plane.

A soft knock on the doorframe yanked Beca out of her reverie, and she glanced to her streakless glass wall, a warm grin pulling on her lips as the unmistakable form of Beyonce Knowles-Carter cast her a wave.

“Your nine o’clock is here, Beca,” Kayla announced, stepping aside.

Beca shot to her feet and nodded her thanks, meeting Beyonce halfway. Beyonce towered over Beca in a pencil skirt and blazer, her hair twisted back into an elegant knot. “What’s up, Queen B?”

Beyonce laughed, pulling Beca in for a hug. “Girl, I’ve already told you I retired that title and now it’s yours.”

Beca snorted. “That’s the coolest honor I’ve ever been given, hands down,” she insisted, despite the wall plastered with awards behind her. She motioned to her wingback chair and moved back behind her desk. “Please, have a seat. I’m super stoked we’re moving forward with this.”

“I’m excited, too. I’m thrilled you wanted me to be your co-pilot,” Beyonce said, gracefully sitting and pulling a portfolio out of her bag, crossing her legs and opening to the notepad to rest over her knee.

Of course, B. Who else could I trust to hold up the other half of America’s first ever all-female music festival?” Beca quickly set the rest of her mail aside, plucking a fountain pen and hovering it over a blank notebook page. “So I was thinking we’d sketch out the basics before we present this to our teams--pick a date for a year and a half from now, a list of venue options, brainstorm a group of artists and also solidify the charity of choice. You’re still okay with all proceeds benefiting women veterans and low-income area elementary music programs?”

“Absolutely,” Beyonce said, an exasperated smile pulling on her painted lips. “Blue’s been begging me for a headliner spot ever since she overheard me talking about it.

Beca laughed. “If the indomitable Blue Ivy Carter deigns to sing in our lowly music festival, I guess we have no chance but to--”

Beca’s words trailed off as a flash of running red caught her attention outside of her office.

Familiar red.

Chloe had bolted from the emergency stairwell and hurried across the lobby, knocking frantically on Beca’s door before she seemed to realize it was completely transparent. “Beca! Beca, can I--I just need a minute, I’m so sorry to interrupt--”

On an almost comical delay, two building security guards crossed the lobby behind her, hunched over and wheezing. “Ma’am, step away from the door!”

Beca shot up, offering an apologetic nose-wrinkle to Beyonce. “One sec, B.” She strode quickly to her office door, waving off the guards and pulling the glass door open. “It’s fine, guys. Thanks though. Maybe work on your cardio for the future…”

Chloe winced, hitching her thumb over her shoulder toward the guards. “I’ve always stressed the importance of cardio…” she said before reaching for Beca’s hand. “Bec, I know I should’ve called or texted, but I couldn’t--um--just hear me out, okay?”

Beca eyed Chloe and nodded, tugging Chloe toward her desk and away from the guards who stood outside, dumbfounded and furious that a petite middle-aged woman completely outsmarted (and outran) them.

Chloe.

Chloe, standing in front of her trying to catch her breath with her cheeks flushed, looking more beautiful than ever in her dark-washed jeans, tall boots, and an off-the-shoulder blue sweater that set off her eyes, her bag slung over her shoulder. Chloe, whom she hadn’t seen and had barely spoken with since she’d left her home in July more than four months ago.

“I’m so sorry, Beca. I know you’re busy and when I called on my way to see if you had any appointments available they said you didn’t take appointments from--”

“Chloe,” Beca cut her off, squeezing her hand. “What’s going on? Are you okay? Are the kids okay?”

“Oh, yes!” Chloe grimaced, her head jerking upward and bobbing in a near-frantic nod. “Yes, god, I didn’t mean to worry you or anything--they’re okay. We’re okay. I needed to talk to you because--because, well--” She fumbled in her bag and pulled out a tabloid magazine, pointing to the front cover.

The gossip trash magazine sported a picture of Beca and veteran actor Tom Holland, whom she’d gone on one date with last month and decided he was a super sweet guy but totally not her type. Of course the magazine headline claimed BECA MITCHELL FINDS LOVE. Because of course it did.

“Is this real??” Chloe asked, a frantic edge to her tone. “I know they’re usually not true but I had to make sure, because if it is I absolutely support you and I’m thrilled for you, but if it’s not--”

“Chloe,” Beca said, amusement twisting on her lips and confusion furrowing her brow. “Did you seriously barge in here, slip past security, and interrupt my super important meeting to ask if a bullshit magazine claim was factual?”

Yes!” Chloe burst. “And again I truly am sorry about all of that, but I can’t wait any longer because I’ve waited months and had a million conversations with the kids and my divorce papers came this morning, completely finalized, and now I can finally tell you that I love you, Beca. I’m in love with you. I know the timing--the circumstances--they’ve always been against us, and I know you might have moved on, but I need you to know that I’ve always been in love with you, and--” She blinked, a shifting figure behind her catching her attention. Upon recognition, Chloe’s face drained of all color, her eyes popping wider than ever and she dropped the magazine to grip at Beca’s other forearm before her legs gave out. “Oh my GOD, Beca! That’s BEYONCE!”

Beca’s heart was in her throat. Chloe’s frantic declarations swirled in her brain, constricting her chest and momentarily paralyzing her.

Divorce papers.

I’m in love with you.

She clung to those two phrases, repeating in a mash-up loop through her mind.

She’d made peace with never having Chloe the way she wanted. She had. And now…

Holy shit.

Chloe’s sudden panic over Beyonce’s presence jolted Beca back to herself and she slipped a supportive arm around Chloe as she swayed on the spot, helping to steady her on her boots.

Beyonce shifted in her chair, her amused, endearing grin spreading wider. “Don’t let me interrupt. Please continue.”

Chloe’s brain seemed to reboot and she cast Beyonce a nervous, grateful smile before returning her full attention to Beca. She schooled her features into one of utmost seriousness, taking both of her hands and squeezing.

“Chloe?” Beca croaked, tears swimming in her eyes. “I…”

“Wait, Bec. Let me finish. Please. I’ve thought about what to say to you for so long.” Chloe ran her thumbs over Beca’s knuckles, a gesture that seemed to soothe herself as much as it soothed Beca. “I know I’ve caused you pain--especially the past few months, realizing you still felt something for me after all these years. And I’ll never be able to undo that.”

Beca shook her head. “No, Chlo--that’s not your fault. None of it’s your fault. As much as I’ve missed you--and believe me, it was a whole hell of a lot--I’m grateful you didn’t ask me to stay. I know you wanted me to, and I appreciate...” Beca swallowed the sudden lump in her throat, mind still reeling. “Did--did you say divorce?”

Beyonce carefully and quietly stood. “I’m going to excuse myself to the restroom,” she whispered, casting Beca a private, proud smile before slipping out of her office.

Chloe nodded again. “Chicago--I went to visit him in September, and he filed for divorce. Insisted he wants me to be happy, to--to put myself first for once, he said--and we both know I’d be happier with you. That is, if you’re still…” She scrunched her nose, bright blue eyes pleading and full of hope. “But I know Tom Holland might be a real thing, and I know you might not want to--I know you might not be ready now, or even ever! I just need you to know that I’m gonna wait for you, Bec. If it’s a month or a year or fifteen more, I’ll be there. I won’t let us miss out on our chance again, if we get one. And if you’ve moved on--I promise, I understand. I just need you to know where I am right now in case there’s a possibility you might...”

Beca swore she was dreaming, Chloe’s words echoing in slow motion. She blinked slowly, tightening her grip on Chloe’s hands as though she’d suddenly disappear. “Tom Holland’s not a thing,” she rasped.

“Oh thank god!” Chloe blurted, her shoulders sagging with relief as a throaty chuckle escaped. “And there’s… nobody else?”

Beca shook her head, a smirk twisting on her lips. “Even if there was… Chlo, c’mon.”

Chloe knew. Beca knew she knew it had always been her. Her grin spread as bright as the morning sun. “I know I don’t deserve you,” Chloe whispered, releasing one of Beca’s hands to cup her cheek instead.

“Yes you do,” Beca insisted, surprising herself by not insisting she didn’t deserve Chloe in return. But they’d waited a decade and a half for this. Longer, with the time before spent pining through college and their immediate after years tacked on. “We both deserve this. We deserve our shot.” She closed her eyes for a moment to savor the feeling of Chloe’s soft hand braced against her cheek, leaning into it. When her eyes popped open again, cautious curiosity swirled in her steely gray irises. “What about the kids?”

Chloe took a deep, steadying breath. “We’ve had so many talks about everything. The divorce, mainly--how things will probably be different, even after their dad gets released. And Ollie asked if I’d ever date again. I was honest with him. With all of them.” She flashed a watery smile. “I told them I’d always be honest with them. I told them if I ever dated anyone, I wouldn’t try to hide it. And they were… surprisingly supportive, Bec.” She sniffled. “I’m so proud of them. Even Emery said she wanted me to be happy, that she knows how hard it’s been with their dad and his drinking. I think…I mean, I’m sure it won’t be easy, but I’d love it if we could try?”

A fond, proud smile spread on Beca’s lips; she appreciated Chloe’s kids and how much they cared for and looked out for their mother. “We’ll take things slow, okay? We’ll make sure they have time to process everything, ask questions, get comfortable with the idea of us being together. Baby steps.” The hazy fog cleared from her mind and she laced her fingers with Chloe. “Oh! That reminds me, actually…” Beca scooped up the letter and invitation she’d received that morning. “This thing… it’s next month, and if the kids are cool with it… maybe you could be my date?”

Chloe’s brow quirked and she took the invitation, scanning the letter. She gasped. “Oh my god. Kennedy Center Honors?? Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, Bec! Youngest recipient ever?? This is incredible! You’re incredible!”

A faint, humble flush rose in Beca’s cheeks and she offered a sheepish shrug. “I’d ask Amy to be my plus one, but she’s been banned for life, so--”

Beca couldn’t finish her sentence because Chloe surged forward and kissed her. She slammed her eyes shut and her arms wrapped around Chloe’s middle as Chloe’s flew around her neck, and Beca couldn’t help the victorious groan reverberating into the lip-lock that held so much promise.

Kissing Chloe felt like the first drop of water after crawling around in the Sahara. The single buoy floating in a vast ocean during a raging storm. The first gasping breath cresting for air after a deepwater dive.

Kissing Chloe felt like coming home.

When they broke for oxygen and their eyes fluttered open, Beca wasn’t surprised to find tears streaking down Chloe’s cheeks.

Chloe reached up to gently wipe away the tears that slipped down Beca’s cheeks, too. “I love you, Beca,” Chloe whispered, her voice low yet filled with raw emotion and undiluted promise.

Beca reached up with a shaky hand to tuck a stray ginger lock behind Chloe’s ear, her thumb moving to trace her jawline as she leaned in to rest her forehead against Chloe’s. “I love you, too, Chloe.”

It wouldn’t always be easy--especially as Chloe’s kids adjusted to what would eventually become their new normal. But Beca knew with every fibre of her being that she and Chloe would move mountains to make this work, no matter what. That they’d fight for each other every single day, because against all odds, they finally had their chance.

They may have not had each other for the past fifteen years, but Beca was certain, from this day on, they’d have the rest of their lives to make up for lost time.

Together.

Chapter Text

Five years and six months later…

Bright, springtime sun spread warmth over the entire stadium, where Chloe sat in the front row of the bleachers, tears streaming down her cheeks as they’d been on and off all day.

She was allowed, okay?? Today's an extra special day!

“Mom, you good?” Nathan--gearing up to graduate high school next month--passed another tissue to his mother. “Next time we should just bring a whole box.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Chloe chuckled, blowing her nose. “Not a bad idea.”

The Barden University Class of 2040 banner stretched across the stage standing at midfield, with hundreds of graduates donning forest green robes while sitting in militant rows. The Dean of Students called each student up one by one to cross the stage, while the Dean of Academics handed each graduate their diploma and the university president shook their hands.

“Trebles for life! Trebles for life!”

A cluster of undergraduate Treblemakers, decked out in maroon polo shirts and khakis, sat two rows over in the bleachers, cheering that same old melodic cheer each time one of their own walked across the stage.

Emery--a rising Junior and proud Bella co-captain--rolled her eyes and shot a glare down the bench, with her two year old sister fussing in her lap. “Take her back, Mom. She’s getting too squirmy.”

Chloe leaned in and pressed a kiss to Emery’s cheek, watching her oldest daughter glower. “Still bitter about that last Riff-off, huh? Let it out, honey. You’ll feel better.” She brightened and extended her arms, pulling the almost two-year-old with Beca’s dark chestnut hair and gorgeous blue-gray eyes onto her lap. “Hi, baby girl! Are you ready to cheer for your biggest brother??”

“I see him! He just got up and he’s walking toward the stage! Look, Daddy!” Lily shoved the binoculars into Chicago’s hands.

Chicago beamed, peering through the binoculars. “Good eye, little darlin’! There he is!” He passed the binoculars to his girlfriend of over a year, a woman named Tonya, who sat on his other side.

Chloe braced herself as the Dean of Students started reading off the students with W last names, bouncing her toddler on her lap. “Ready, Ellie-bear?? Here he comes…”

”Oliver Benjamin Walp”

Ollie’s cheering section shot to their feet, pumping fists in the air and screaming at the top of their lungs. When they sat back down, Chloe and Chicago shared a proud smile over the heads of their three kids sitting between them.

Soon enough, all graduates had crossed the stage and the president stepped back to the podium.

“For your parting words of wisdom, please welcome to the stage our 2040 Barden University Commencement Speaker, a proud member of the Barden University class of 2015, eight-time Grammy Award Winner and Kennedy Center Awards Honoree, Beca Mitchell!”

Beca--wearing a customary robe with a doctoral cap she’d been granted as an honorary doctorate recipient for her contributions to the musical arts-stepped up to the podium and onto the low step stool they’d provided for her.

She pulled off her aviators and smirked, leaning into the mic. “Good afternoon, nerds.”

The student body whooped and laughed, along with the rest of the stadium.

Ellie gasped in Chloe’s lap, her wide eyes following the sound to the stage speakers. “Mama... It Mommy!” She pointed at the source of the voice.

“Yes it is, baby! Doesn’t Mommy look aca-mazing in that cap??” Chloe sniffled and chuckled, planting a series of kisses to her newest baby’s cheek, making Ellie giggle as they both looked on, watching Beca address the graduating class with pride.

Beca waited until the clapping died down before continuing. “I guess I should say fellow nerds, because I am, in fact, one of you.”

The students cheered again, and Chloe couldn’t see Ollie from her seat, but she was sure he cheered the loudest of the entire group.

Beca took a breath and began. “So my first day on this campus, I hit up the activities fair. Two crazy Bellas tried recruiting me for their acapella group and I told them I didn’t even sing.” Beca grinned, casting a knowing look toward Chloe in the stands as a low murmur of disbelief rose in among crowd. “One of those crazy Bellas is now my wife, by the way--and keep that in mind because it brings me to my focal point here. I know commencement speakers are supposed to inspire and impress and leave you with encouragement and wisdom I’ve gained over the years. And sure, I could stand here and explain to you all about my career and my company, the importance of drive and dedication and never giving up. I could talk about courage--not being afraid to take risks and reach for the stars, how imperative it is to experience failure and the lessons learned from a journey to find yourself and your path. And sure, those are all important, don’t get me wrong… but that’s not the most important thing, in my opinion.”

Beca paused, scanning the crowd. Chloe wondered what she was thinking--if she was remembering sitting in those seats on the field wearing those same forest green robes, eager to graduate but also anxious to leave for Copenhagen and compete to keep the Bellas alive.

“My wish for every one of you is this: If you haven’t already, find your people. One or two… or a whole group of aca-dorks like I did. I’m talking ride-or-die best friends who see you for the true nerd you are and love you for it, not in spite of it. Those are your people. Trust in them. I almost missed some incredible opportunities because I was too stubborn, too afraid to open up and connect with others. If I didn’t find my people, I would’ve left Barden after my freshman year and who knows where I’d be? Your people will be there for you when your world falls apart and they'll hold you when you cry and help pick up the pieces. Your people will always have your best interests at heart and they'll push you to be your best, even if you need a shove sometimes. Find your people and keep them close, even if life inevitably gets busy and you drift apart for a while… your people will always be your people, no matter what. That's what makes them the most important thing. Not the job, or the hard work and dedication it took to get the job, or the shiny awards you'll collect along the way. It's all about your people--those connections, that's what makes life worth living. That's how smart people measure success. Not in salary or promotions, but in love."

Beca paused once more. “You should all be incredibly proud of yourselves for reaching this academic milestone. Now get out there, find your people, and kick some serious ass in the world! Congratulations, class of 2040!”

The students shot to their feet and threw their caps in the air. Confetti cannons launched from the sidelines and the family and friends in the stands clapped once again.

Beca leaned up from the microphone and blew a kiss to Chloe and Ellie.

Chloe made a show of reaching out and pretending to catch the kiss, unfurling her fingers so Ellie could kiss her Mama's palm--transferring the kiss from her Mommy on the stage.

They'd practiced that three weeks ago, when Mommy made a big speech at the Billboard Music Awards and blew Ellie a kiss from that stage.

And they’d do it again in this summer, when they sat to watch Mommy’s charity performance at a summer music festival.

Chloe and Ellie would always sit front row for Beca, no matter what the occasion, because they loved her with everything they had.

And they’d always, always make sure Beca knew how much they loved her for the rest of their lives.