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Beautiful Tree

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Bent or Broken; It's a Beautiful Tree

Title Inspired by Beautiful Tree by Rain Perry

Chapter 1 – A Little Bit of My Life

"I'll give a little bit of my life for you/
Now's the time we need to share/
So send a smile, we're on our way back home…"

~ Goo Goo Dolls

They approached the large suburban house together, stepping over a few toys that had been left on the sidewalk. Beca was lagging a bit behind, so her wife was less than surprised when she began panicking. "Isn't this sort of wrong?" She asked, as she slowly followed Chloe up the sidewalk.

"What do you mean?" The redhead asked with a quirk of her eyebrow. She schooled her expression, hiding her amused smile. They'd had dozens of conversations about this – and spent so much time making this decision. She knew it was what her wife wanted; she also knew the other woman was terrified.

"It's like shopping for your own kid. They're not livestock – this feels wrong," she repeated. Chloe stepped into the grass, pulling Beca with her so that other prospective parents could move past them. She took her wife's hands and held them firmly.

"Beca – I know you're nervous. I know that – but please give it a chance. It's not an auction – it's a meet and greet – so the kids can meet us and we can meet them. The child we end up adopting might not even be here today. It's just a first step." Beca tugged on the brown scarf with an orange floral pattern that she wore around her neck. The fingers of her left hand – which she had already pulled away from her wife - worried at the hem of her brown leather jacket and burnt orange blouse. She bit her lip, rolling her eyes up to study the sky and think through her options. Eventually she lowered her gaze and nodded, taking Chloe's hand and continuing their walk to the front door.

Alice Prescott, the social worker they had been meeting with since they had decided to adopt, welcomed them into the house. "I was hoping you would come," she told them happily. "I have someone I want you to meet." There was no other warning than that – they were being dragged through the house to a sunroom. It was large – filled with tables, chairs, and sofas. It was bright and sunny, clearly a favorite room in the group home. Alice led them past several other groups of children and adults to the far corner where a small girl – maybe seven or so – sat by herself, staring out the window. As they got closer, Beca saw that she had earbuds in and was clutching an iPod in her hand. It was an older model – but it was clearly a prized possession. Alice motioned for them to wait a few feet back.

Beca and Chloe studied the child – she had dark brown hair with loose, natural curls. It was a few shades darker than Beca's. She was tiny – and had sea green eyes that were very expressive. She was clearly not impressed when Alice interrupted her.

When Alice stopped in front of her, the little girl looked up but did not take out the earbuds. "Hi, Dahlia," she said. The woman tapped her own ear and the child reluctantly removed the earbuds, carefully rolling them around the player and placing it into her pocket.

"Hi," she said. "I told Miss Mary – I don't want to visit today." Beca wasn't sure if they were supposed to be able to overhear her – but they did. Her voice didn't sound grumpy or rude – but almost apologetic – and definitely nervous.

"I know," Alice said with an understanding smile. "But I was hoping you would meet just two people for me – then I promise I won't bother you for the rest of the day. For me?"

The little girl nodded reluctantly, her eyes falling to study her blue jeans. Alice waved them over. Beca and Chloe sat on the two empty chairs that formed a little conversation space with the chair Dahlia was already occupying. "Dahlia, this is Beca – and this is Chloe."

"Ladies, this is Dahlia. She just turned eight last month." The little girl looked up at them through her eyelashes.

"What were you listening to?" Beca asked, intrigued. She had heard a few bars and recognized it as something odd for an eight year old to be listening to. She saw Alice move away from the corner of her eye.

Dahlia shrugged and studied her hands. He eyes lifted a bit. "A bunch of different stuff."

"Hmmm," Beca said. She pulled her phone from her pocket and scrolled through her music. "Do you have a favorite song?"

"Not really. But I like the Beatles."

"is that so?" Beca asked, smiling. She handed Dahlia her phone, which had up a mix that she'd created with Kelly Clarkson around several Beatles songs – including Good Day Sunshine, which she had heard the little girl listening to. The child accepted the phone but looked guiltily toward the entryway.

"They don't like when I listen to music when people are visiting."

"What if we listen together?" Beca asked coyly.

Dahlia smiled bashfully and nodded gently, hitting the play button. The song began and she was enraptured. Chloe smiled too – it was one of the newer things Beca had shared with her – and she loved it. Her favorite part of the album was that Beca hadn't just mixed and produced it – she had done some of the vocals. When the song was over, Dahlia smiled brightly.

"I've never heard that before. It's really awesome."

"It's pretty new," Beca said. "I can get you a copy – if you'd like." Dahlia nodded and Beca and Chloe both smiled.

"That was Beca singing with Kelly Clarkson," Chloe said. Dahlia's eyes went wide.

"Really?"

Beca smiled and reddened a bit. She shrugged. "Yep. I get to make music for a living – which is a lot of fun. I get to work with really cool people – and occasionally I get to sing too."

"Do you like to sing?" Chloe asked.

Dahlia shook her head, eyes looking slightly alarmed. "No."

"That's okay," Chloe responded. "What do you like to do for fun?"

The little girl shrugged her shoulders. "I listen to music a lot – and I like to draw and color. And watch movies. And go for walks. Miss Mary lets us go for a walk after dinner if our homework is done – sometimes we go to the park."

"That sounds like fun," Chloe said brightly. They spent the better part of two hours conversing with the child. They ate lunch together, prompting her to describe what foods she did and did not like. By the time they left that afternoon, neither could properly speak.

"Does it feel wrong, leaving her there?" Beca asked, sitting back against the driver's seat, not yet moving.

"Yes," Chloe said softly. She placed her hand on Beca's. "But it's not forever – and it's not for long. Let's go home."

After two weeks of supervised visits, Chloe and Beca had made their decision. Actually, they'd made it within twenty minutes of meeting Dahlia, but there was a process to follow, so they did. Two weeks to the day they met her, they were sitting in Alice's office, discussing their desire to adopt the little girl.

"I'm thrilled that you want to take Dahlia. She's such a sweet child. But I do have an obligation to tell you that she has been returned twice."

"Excuse me?" Beca spat angrily. "Can you repeat that – because it really sounded like you said that child was returned like she was a pair of shoes."

Alice nodded and grimaced. "We actually tell new parents that we would rather them return children to us if they're not prepared. It's better than children being neglected or abused because their new parents can't handle it."

"I still can't understand how you return a human being," Beca muttered. Chloe squeezed her arm and smiled kindly at Alice.

"Can you tell us why?"

"Neither of the families said much more than the fact that Dahlia didn't seem happy with them – and she wasn't fitting in. I'm not very worried about that being the case with you two – Dahlia has warmed up to you more than she has anyone else – even me – and I've known her for years."

"So what do we do now?" Beca asked, the toe of her boot tapping rapidly on the carpet.

"We ask Dahlia," Alice said gently. "It's the child's choice – always. Would you like to be in the room? Or no?"

Chloe and Beca exchanged glances. "We would like to be there," Chloe said.

"Okay," Alice agreed. "I'll meet you this evening at the group home – how does 7 sound?"

"Perfect," Chloe agreed.

That night, when they arrived, Alice invited them into the little library that had been created in the house. After several minutes, Dahlia arrived. She looked pleased but surprised to see them - they hadn't told her they were coming that day. "Dahlia, have a seat," Alice said, sitting on one of the sofas across from Chloe and Beca. Dahlia sat on the other end of the sofa, looking a bit pensive now.

"Dahlia, Beca and Chloe would very much like to adopt you. Would you consider that?" Alice asked.

Beca and Chloe watched her eyes cloud over and then her gaze fall to the ground. "No," She said sadly. "No, I'm sorry." She jumped from her seat and disappeared, leaving the three women dumbfounded. At least Chloe and Beca. Alice didn't look as surprised – but she did look disappointed.

Beca shifted uncomfortably in her chair and gave Alice a look of despair. "Is that normal?"

Alice bit her lip before speaking. She nodded. "Unfortunately – as I told you – she's been returned to us twice. She has told us before that she won't consent to being adopted again. I thought she might change her mind – she has bonded with both of you." She started to stand up to chase after Dahlia but Beca stood first.

"May I?" She asked, pointing in the direction Dahlia had disappeared. She hurried down the hall, looking quickly into the various playrooms. Finally an aide pointed out the back door and Beca exited, seeing a lone figure down on one of the swing sets. She allowed her boots to crunch through the dry grass, not wanting to startle the little girl. She succeeded – Dahlia didn't look particularly surprised when Beca took the swing next to her. But she also refused to raise her head – she had it bent toward her lap, silent tears falling against her jeans. Beca wanted nothing more than to seize her and wrap her in her arms until everything was okay – but she remembered being a bit older than Dahlia and feeling rejected and abandoned when her father had left. And that wouldn't have helped her.

"Dahlia – "

"Miss Alice said it's my decision," she said, shuddering after she spit out the tear-filled words. Her breathing was heavy and labored. She wasn't just crying – she was sobbing.

"Love, I'm not here because I'm angry or hurt or because I'm going to try to talk you out of anything," Beca promised. "It is definitely your decision. I just want to understand." She paused – waiting for an argument that never came.

"If you don't want to come live with Chloe and me because you're happy here with your friends and your teachers – then that's okay. We want you to be happy – that's all." She paused before speaking again, quelling her anger before moving on. "If you don't want to come because you're afraid – then I'd like to talk about that. I know life has not been fair to you. I know that two other families have taken you home and brought you back here – and as far as I'm concerned, that makes them incredibly dumb. We do not expect you to be perfect. Neither one of us is perfect – none of our other kids are perfect. Trust me, if we had to be perfect to be a family, Chloe would have gotten rid of me a long time ago." The over-dramatic voice and teasing statement hit their mark – Dahlia laughed.

Beca reached out a hand where the child could see it. "Come sit with me for a minute." Dahlia took her hand and allowed her to walk over to an old oak tree. Beca sat against it and patted the ground next to her. Dahlia joined her. "Can you tell me why you won't think about coming to live with us?" She asked softly.

The answer was coming – Beca could hear that she was starting and stopping. The older woman took her hand again and squeezed it, offering wordless support. "I don't want you to hate me," Dahlia finally spit out between sobs. "They hated me after they took me home."

Beca laughed, surprising the child. She bent her head down and lifted Dahlia's chin so their eyes met – steely blue on sea green. "That is not possible. Whether you decide to come home with us or not – the deal is done. We love you. And you can't undo that." Dahlia's tears overcame her and she crawled into Beca's lap, her face buried against Beca's neck. The older woman held her firmly, whispering that everything was going to be fine – and they loved her so much.

Chloe and Alice watched them from the large porch for about ten minutes before Chloe wound her way through the yard and sat next to Beca. She carefully reached over and began rubbing Dahlia's back before leaning over to drop a kiss on top of her soft brown locks. She leaned against her wife, their foreheads touching.

Once Dahlia's sobbing became hiccups and died down to sniffles, Beca spoke. "Can we go back inside and talk about this?" She asked. "Maybe we can come up with a solution that isn't so scary."

Dahlia nodded hesitantly, her eyes focused on the ground. Beca stood and held out both hands – one for Dahlia and one for Chloe. They both stood with her and walked back to the hose. Dahlia kept hold on Beca's hand and surprised them all by allowing Chloe to take the other.

Once inside the playroom, Chloe found a piece of construction paper and a set of markers. She drew a line down the middle – squiggly, of course. She wrote "reasons I want to go" and "reasons I'm afraid to go" at the top of each side. She showed it to Dahlia, who took a deep breath and said nothing. Alice smiled – she thought it was a perfect idea.

"Dahlia, what is one thing that you think would make you happy about going to live with Beca and Chloe?" She prompted. Chloe handed her the blue marker and she traded it for the green – making all three women smile. She wrote "a home" and "my own room" and "someone to love me" under reasons to go. Beca bit her lip – hard – to keep from crying. Chloe didn't even try – her wide blue eyes were glistening with tears. Dahlia didn't pay much attention to them – she continued her list. "a family," "music," "Beca," and "Chloe" came next. "Not worried about being moved." She put the cap on her marker and looked up at Alice through her eyelashes.

The social worker nodded. "Those are really good reasons to go," she agreed. "Can you write down why you're afraid to go?" Dahlia looked hesitant. Chloe studied her face.

"Why don't we go check out the piano while you finish your list?" She suggested, looking at Beca. Her wife followed and they crossed to the other side of the room. Beca sat beside Chloe at the piano bench and began playing one of the songs she had written her years ago. Dahlia could see them – but they weren't hovering. Three songs later, Alice called to them.

"We're ready," she said. Beca squeezed Chloe's hand and they returned to the table, each sitting back down on one side of Dahlia. Beca's felt her heart crack – again – when she saw the list.

They might bring me back.

I might get into trouble.

I could do bad in school.

They might not want me anymore.

I might be too much trouble.

Beca sighed and looked at Chloe, who nodded. Beca stoked Dahlia's hair gently and hugged her. She put her finger next to the first item on the list. "We did not make this decision lightly, love. We intend to take you home and keep you with us. Always. You'll get sick of us – I promise."

"We are not going to bring you back," Chloe said sincerely. "We want our home to be your home. Forever. You're going to be part of our family."

Beca moved her finger down the list. "I've never met a kid who's never gotten into trouble. Have you, Chloe?"

"Nope," Chloe responded. "I got into trouble when I was a little girl. And I know Beca did," she added with a laugh. "And Vera, Poppy, and Bella – they are awesome girls. But not perfect."

"No one is perfect," Beca told Dahlia. "We don't expect you to be. If you do something that we've asked you not to do – or that you know is wrong – then you will get into trouble. Time out or being grounded. The worst part is that you have to listen to one of us talk your ear off about what you could have done instead – that kind of thing."

"It's very boring and parental," Chloe told her. "But you'll survive." She reached out and pointed at the next item. "Do you like school?" She asked.

Dahlia nodded. "But sometimes it's hard."

"All we ask is that you try your hardest. And if you need help or have a problem, you tell us," Beca responded. "We will help you – not get angry with you." Her eyes started to tear when she pointed at the last two statements. It was Chloe who spoke, seeing that Beca was having a tough time with it.

"Dahlia, it does not matter what happens – what you do, who you are – nothing could make you too much trouble. You are amazing – and we want you – just the way you are. Nothing could make us not want you anymore. Nothing."

The little girl looked between them and then rested her head on her hands on the table – she was clearly exhausted and overwhelmed. Both their hearts ached for her – to feel so alone and unwanted that you couldn't trust anything – even a home you desperately wanted. Beca's left hand absently drew light circles along her back – the same soothing motion that had put all of her girls to sleep. She and Chloe exchanged glances over Dahlia's head. Finally, the brunette leaned down close to speak softly in her ear.

"Love, you do not have to decide today. We can wait until you're ready with an answer. And no matter what you decide – we love you. And it will be okay."

"We do," Chloe added, hugging her from the other side. They went home, not speaking and both feeling incredibly distraught. Luckily, a phone call came in at one in the morning. Beca was still awake, listening to music through her headphones and trying to convince herself that she was tired. She grabbed her phone and ripped the headphones off, answering it.

"Alice?" She said, her voice confused and hopeful at the same time.

Chloe woke after hearing her voice and sat up, trying to ask what was happening. Beca put the phone on speaker.

"I didn't think you'd want me to wait until morning. Dahlia woke Mary up a few minutes ago and told her she decided – and these are her words, not mine – if you still want her, she wants to come and live with you."

"Yes," Beca and Chloe said, in the same instant. Beca laughed with happiness and Chloe dissolved into tears.

"Thank you for calling, Alice," Beca said. "What now?"

"Now, go to bed!" Alice told her, laughing. "I'll start the paperwork. It'll take a few days. But you're welcome to go see Dahlia tomorrow and talk about the details. It would probably help her – she's feeling very insecure about not saying yes right away."

"We'll talk to her tomorrow," Chloe promised. "Thank you, Alice. Good night."

"Good night," Alice responded. When she hung up, Chloe and Beca looked at one another, falling into each other's arms and hugging one another tightly. Chloe angled her chin down to kiss Beca.

"I told you it would work out."

"Dude, you did not!" Beca accused. "You haven't spoken to me all night."

"Well, you haven't spoken to me."

"But that's my thing."

"Do I have a thing?" Chloe asked innocently. Beca grinned and rolled her eyes. "Too many to count, Chloe. Go to sleep, you weirdo." She collapsed against the bed, curling under the covers and dragging her wife with her. They slept soundly that night – beyond happy for their chance at a new chapter.

Across the county, in Georgia, Bella sat curled up into one of the auditorium seats, her legs thrown over the seat to her left, intently reading her cellphone. Most thought she was playing a stupid game or keeping up with facebook; she was actually reading Anna Karenina. They didn't need to know that. Most of the idiots fooling around in the room probably had never heard of it before. She scowled as a girl sat next to her. There was an auditorium full of chairs – why in the hell did she need to sit right next to her? She looked over cautiously, her gray-blue eyes still glaring.

"Is this seat taken?" The blonde asked, not at all phased by Bella's glare.

"Is there a reason you took it?" Bella shot back.

"I'm Aria."

"Good for you."

The other girl laughed, surprising Bella. "Are you mad because I sat here, or because I exist in the first place?"

"I don't even know you," Bella responded. "I couldn't care less about your existence."

"I already told you, I'm Aria Rodgers. Freshman Music Education major. You are?"

Bella glared. "Bella Beale-Mitchell," she responded. The other girls' eyes widened.

"Do they actually make you audition for this, or are you just – like – here to observe?"

"I'm auditioning," Bella responded, calming down slightly. "I'm not going to use my parents' influence to get me in. If I'm good enough that they want me, then I'll join. If not, I'll find something else to do," she said with a shrug. It meant more to her than that - but she wasn't about to divulge that information to a stranger. Before the new and incredibly pushy girl could ask any more questions, Poppy appeared, sitting on Bella's other side, scooting Bella's feet and then replacing them in her lap.

"How was your day?"

"Philosophy sucked. Calculus was a nightmare. But Gothic Lit didn't put me completely to sleep. You?" She silenced her phone and placed it in her pocket, leaning her shoulder against the chair as she tuned in to actually listen to her twin sister.

Poppy laughed at Bella's descriptions and nodded. "My day was fine. Class, homework, I went to the gym for an hour. Called Mom. We should go to Aunt Em's tonight – we need to talk to Vera. They're really moving forward with this thing."

Bella nodded, her expression neutral.

Poppy noticed the blonde sitting on Bella's other side and leaned over to the new girl. "Hi. I'm sorry my sister is rude and didn't introduce us. I'm Poppy." Bella rolled her eyes.

"Aria," the girl said cheerfully. "Nice to meet you."

"You too," Poppy responded. There wasn't much more to say – the auditorium had filled up with about fifty college students – plus two captains from each of the four different acapella groups on campus.

A tall brunette walked to the center of the stage and everyone hushed. "Hi everyone – I'm Alexis. Thanks for coming. Please make sure you fill out the paperwork before you audition – one application form for each group you'd like to be considered for. You have two minutes to show us what you've got. We'll be making our decisions and we'll let you know either way by the end of the day." One of the boys in a maroon sweater scoffed and the girl glared at him. "We will let them know either way," she told him firmly. He rolled his eyes at her. The four sets of team captains moved into the auditorium – taking various sections. The brunette joined another brunette in the fourth row back, center. The second girl was wearing a very familiar scarf in her hair; they were the captains of the Bellas.

"What are you singing?" Poppy whispered. Bella shrugged her shoulders and her sister glared. That made her smirk. Poppy liked to know everything – which was exactly why Bella liked to keep small things from her, just to watch her squirm. It was, in Bella's opinion, a harmless but everlasting form of amusement for her to tap into. Because she had been early, Bella was one of the first people called to the stage.

"Isabella?" Poppy gave her an odd look when her full name was called. No one called her Isabella - not even her mothers. But the tall brunette called her name and then looked down at her paperwork, shuffling through pages. When Bella appeared on the stage, she looked up at her. "Is there a reason you didn't provide your last name?"

"Yep," Bella responded. "Do you want me to sing, or what?" The brunette lifted her hand in a gesture that told the younger girl to begin. Bella walked over to the piano and hit the correct note, letting it resonate through the auditorium. She started out softly for the first second, but quickly her natural talent and years of training kicked in and she belted, her voice strong and clear.

For those days we felt like a mistake,Those times when love's what you hate,Somehow we keep marching on.

For those nights when I couldn't be there,
I've made it harder to know that you know
That somehow we'll keep moving on.

There's so many wars we fought,
There's so many things we're not,
But with what we have,
I promise you that
We're marching on

We're marching on

We're marching on

For all of the plans we've made,
There isn't a flag I'd wave,
Don't care if we bend,
I'd sink us to swim,
We're marching on

Poppy grinned as she watched her sister fall into the music. It was a lot like watching her Mama – Bella changed when she sang. When finished, the tiny brunette stood still in the center of the stage and cocked her head slightly to the side.

"Thanks," she said, nodding at the two Bella captains. She began walking off stage.

"You're Bella Mitchell," the taller girl called after her. Bella turned around and gave a half-nod.

"Beale-Mitchell. But yeah. Nice to meet you." She offered a half smirk and turned, continuing back to her seat. Poppy hugged her, making the darker haired twin groan in displeasure.

"Get off," she said quietly. They sat through another thirty five auditions – some good, some terrible, some in the middle. Then, Poppy was called. Bella would have to yell at her later for being so late; they could have been gone long before this.

"Poppy Beale-Mitchell." Poppy grinned as she flounced her way to the stage, the skirt of her bright blue dress swinging. Bella shook her head and couldn't help but grin in return when she heard the song that her sister had chosen. It was Poppy in every way. She danced across the stage as she sang, not particularly seeming to care if anyone was watching. But that was how the redhead always performed – for herself exclusively.

I wear a demeanor made of bright pretty thingsWhat she wears, what she wears, what she wearsBirds singing on my shoulder in harmony it seemsHow they sing, how they sing, how they sing

Give me nights of solitude, red wine just a glass or two,
Reclined in a hammock on a balmy evening
I'll pretend that it's no thing that's skipping my heart when I think of you
Thinking of me babe I'm crazy over you

Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, something in the water
Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, that makes me love you like –

I've got halos made of summer, rhythms made of spring
What she wears, what she wears, what she wears
I got crowns of words a woven each one a song to sing
Oh I sing, oh I sing, oh I sing

Give me long days in the sun,
Preludes to the nights to come
Previews of the mornings laying in all lazy
Give me something fun to do like a life of loving you
Kiss me quick now baby I'm still crazy over you

Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, something in the water
Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water that makes me love you like I do

They left together at the end of auditions to find that Emily and Vera had been watching from the balcony the whole time. Their aunt admitted immediately to sending video to their mothers as well. Bella simply rolled her eyes; she should have figured.

"Would you girls want to come over for dinner? Benji's grilling."

"Sure," Bella said, looking at Poppy. "We need to FaceTime with moms later anyway. Easier to do at your place than at the dorms - less noise."

"Yes!" Poppy agreed. "But can I meet you there – I forgot something inside – and I want to stop at the dorm and drop off my laptop – I'll be there in like half an hour."

Emily nodded.

"I can walk with you," Bella offered.

"That's alright – I'll catch up." With that, Poppy walked back into the building and Bella shrugged, following her younger sister and Aunt out of the building. It was only a ten minute walk to the house that Emily and Benji lived in on campus. As a full professor, she received lodging in one of the nicest neighborhoods in town – and it also happened to be conveniently located to all of Barden. Vera babbled on about her classes – and threw in a few hints that it wasn't fair that she couldn't audition for the Bellas yet – as they walked.

Poppy had gone back into the building where the group captains were still seated, going through the applications of everyone who auditioned. She walked down the aisle and into the row in front of the two girls who ran the Bellas. The simple act of sitting in front of them and facing backward, caught their attention. They looked up at her, surprised.

"You shouldn't be in here right now," the taller brunette said.

Poppy smiled politely. "I know. I'll leave in just a minute. I promise. What's your name again?"

"Alexis," the girl replied. "This is Camille," she said, nodding to her partner.

"Nice to meet you both." She smiled again. "I'm going to skip the part where I pretend to be the least bit humble – and I'm going to assume that you're going to take both myself and my sister." They both looked taken aback and Poppy shook her head. "Seriously – not trying to be rude. Just practical. I saw the talent pool up there. It didn't go very deep – and I know you need at least four new girls this year. So, Bella and I very likely in. You don't have to answer," she added quickly. "But I need you to listen very carefully."

The co-captains were shocked into silence by her audacity – but they also couldn't argue with her logic. "I know that, as part of tradition, you have hood night tonight. You cannot – under any circumstances – throw a hood over Bella's head and expect to survive it."

Again, they looked aghast.

"This isn't your business – but I will explain, since I know it is not normally my place to tell you what to do. Bella has panic attacks – and if you throw a hood over her head, surprising her – and drag her across campus – she will have one. And I will be very, very angry. So, we'll need to skip that part of the ceremony. Okay?" She smiled and stood. "Thanks for listening. Have a great day!" The two girls watched her leave, still stunned.

Dinner at Emily and Benji's house was a lively affair – they had a little boy who was ten and a little girl who was eight. They absolutely adored Vera – and were pretty fond of the twins as well. The girls ate, enjoying the company but each missing their mothers as they realized that this is what they would be doing right now with their own moms, if they weren't thousands of miles away.

Out of a sense of both duty and responsibility, Bella offered to help with the dishes. Poppy offered because she lied to clean, much to the horror of her twin. When the finished, they went into Vera's room to call their mothers. Beca and Chloe were in the kitchen when they called. Beca answered on her iPad, propping it up on the kitchen counter so they could talk while they cooked.

"Hey, loves," Beca said. "How was your day?"

"Good!" Poppy and Vera said at almost the same time.

"It was fine," Bella answered noncommittally. Poppy said you found our replacement."

"We are not replacing you!" Chloe cried. She looked at Bella, who shook her head and leaned down to the iPad to glare at Bella.

"Stop that – you're going to give your mom a complex. You know we're not replacing any of you. Her name is Dahlia – she's lovely. You'll like her."

"What is she like? How old is she?" Vera asked.

"She loves music – so of course she's enthralled with your mama," Chloe said with a smile. "And she's just really sweet. She's pretty shy – it might take some time for her to get used to us all. She hasn't had the best life," she added, frowning as she cut carrots.

"She'll be fine now," Bella reminded them. "Do we get to meet her – or is this just going to be like a Christmas present – or Thanksgiving surprise?"

"Stop being a smartass," Beca told her.

"She gets it from you," Chloe scoffed. Beca threw her a half smirk and continued.

"We were hoping you ladies would be available to do a video chat with us – and meet her that way tomorrow. And then maybe you can come home for a long weekend? Anyone have any Friday or Monday classes that they really can't miss?" She teased.

"No, I think we're good," Bella responded, each of her sisters looking perfectly happy with the suggestion. They chatted a bit more and then Chloe and Beca kicked them off the chat, telling them to go have fun and do something colleg"y."

"But not too much fun," Beca added. "And Vera – no fun for you until you're eighteen. You're stuck with Em and Benji."

"I know," Vera answered morosely. "Good night, Mama. Good night, mom." After they all said their goodnights and their "I Love Yous," the twins bid farewell to their sister and aunt and uncle before heading back to their dorm. They weren't inside for more than half an hour when a knock sounded.

Poppy answered it and Bella looked up from her desk to see the two captains of the Bellas standing there, smiling.

"Ready for initiation?" Alexis asked. "I assume you'll both be accepting our invitation to join the Bellas?"

Poppy and Bella exchanged glances before the redhead nodded and smiled.

"We wouldn't have it any other way."

"Then come with us," Camille said. They followed the girls back to the Bella house, stopping on the way to pick up three more new recruits. The ceremony was done in front of the fireplace and consisted of a very short oath, the presenting of the traditional scarf, and drinking out of a goblet that Bella feared had more backwash than actual alcohol in it. Then, they were dragged next door to the Treble Maker's house for their first college party. Bella stayed on the fringes, watching the action and trying to pick out the people who might not piss her off too much. Poppy was, as usual, in the center of everything.

"Why did they not do the hood part of hood night?" Bella asked Poppy when they returned to their room at three in the morning. Poppy had a bit to drink, but Bella was still stone-cold sober, as she had been all evening.

"Maybe they decided to stop that tradition. It was stupid anyway."

"What did you do, Poppy?"

"Nothing," she said, innocently shrugging.

"Poppy," she said warningly.

The redhead smiled softly. "I'm sorry – I was just trying to help. I overheard you talking to Mama last night – I know you were considering not auditioning – just because of stupid hood night. I was so proud of you when you auditioned anyway – but I didn't want you to have to go through that. Not if it could be helped. Besides, it's a really stupid, antiquated tradition."

Bella rolled her eyes and smiled. "Thanks, Sis," she said softly, before turning away.

"Anytime, Bells."