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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."

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 – Here Comes the Sun

"Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it's all right"

~ The Beatles

The next night, Beca and Chloe returned to the house with Beca's laptop and a FaceTime date with their girls. They sat in the sunroom at a table with Dahlia between them. Beca set up the computer and turned on the program. Poppy was calling within sixty seconds. The perky redhead was grinning the second she appeared on the screen.

"Hi, Mama! Mom," she said, blowing them both kisses.

"Hey, Poppy," Beca said. "Where are your sisters? This was supposed to be all of you."

"We're here," Bella said from somewhere behind. "Her head is just big." Poppy scowled at her twin and moved back in her desk chair, revealing Vera and Bella sitting behind her on her bed.

"Hi girls," Chloe said with a smile. "This is Dahlia," she said, putting her hand on the little girl's shoulder.

"These are the three weirdos I gave birth to." Beca told her, gesturing toward the computer screen and making the child giggle.

"Thanks, Mama," Bella said sarcastically.

"That's Bella," Beca said. The brunette raised her hand and waived. "Poppy is the one sitting too close to the computer. And last but never least – Vera." The youngest of the three grinned and waved, moving closer to the computer.

"Hey, Dahlia. Welcome to the family."

She smiled shyly and whispered a thank you. They conversed for about half an hour - most of it was Vera and Poppy bombarding Dahlia with questions she tried her best to answers. The discovered her favorite type of ice cream, favorite movie - and that she'd never been to the zoo. Vera seemed incredibly distressed by this last fact. Even at sixteen, the zoo was still one of her favorite places on earth.

Beca and Chloe eventually ended the call and spent another hour with Dahlia, telling her more about the girls and just checking in to make sure she wasn't too overwhelmed.

Three days later, the paperwork went through. Chloe and Beca flew all three girls home for an extended weekend and loaded them into the car on a Friday afternoon. "Be nice," Beca reminded them for the fifth time as they drove toward the group home.

"No, Mama," Bella said sarcastically. "We were planning to haze her. Nothing welcomes you to the family more than degradation and humiliation."

"Keep the sarcasm at a minimum," Chloe warned. "Dahlia's young – and she's frightened. She might not understand that you're kidding."

"It will be fine, Mom and Mama," Poppy promised.

"We're excited to meet her," Vera added. "What did you tell her about us?"

"Just that we screwed up the first three times and though we'd give raising a decent daughter another go," Beca teased.

"Do not encourage them, Beca!" The entire car – except for Chloe – erupted in laughter.

Three turquoise colored suitcases – that Beca and Chloe had purchased and provided - were on the porch when they arrived. Most of the things in there were clothing and other possessions that the two women had been buying for Dahlia since they'd met her. The little girl had at first been distressed and overwhelmed by all of the gifts - mostly things that the older women thought were necessities - so they snuck them in a bit at a time.

Alice and Miss Mary – the woman who ran the home – were sitting on the porch swing with Dahlia. When she heard them, the child looked up in what Beca thought might be a mixture of surprise and hope. Beca and Chloe stepped out first – the girls right behind. The three girls followed Beca and Chloe up the sidewalk and stairs. Beca squatted down and reached for Dahlia and the little girl rushed her, hugging her tightly.

"You came," she said softly.

"Well of course we did," Beca answered softly into her ear. "Silly girl. We told you we would. Someday, you're going to trust that." The words were private, whispered to her - but firm. There was a slight pause. "Are you ready to go?" She asked, louder now. Dahlia nodded. "Well, they probably look a lot taller not being on the computer and all – but these three weirdos wanted to come and welcome you home." Dahlia smiled tentatively over Beca's shoulder at the three older girls. All three were about the same size – just slightly taller than Beca – with petite bone structures. The similarities ended there. Vera had auburn hair pulled into a pony tail and wore jeans, loafers, a t-shirt, and hoodie. Her eyes were brighter than Beca's but calmer than Chloe's.

The twins stood on each side of her. Poppy – like Chloe – favored dresses. The green cap-sleeved dress flared at her waist and made her blue eyes – as bright as her mom's – pop. Her auburn hair was perfectly coiffed and adorned with a matching flowered headband. She had been smiling at Dahlia since they had arrived. Bella looked much like her mother had freshman year of college – complete with too much eyeliner, intricate messy braids that caught up her beautiful brown hair – and opened shirts layered over tanks. Her eyes were identical to Beca's and she had picked up many of the same facial expressions. She was smirking at Dahlia.

"Hey, Dahlia," Poppy said, squatting down beside her mama. "It's so nice to meet you in person. We're really happy you're coming home with us."

"Thank you," Dahlia said softly. She smiled – but made no move to hug Poppy. Bella leaned against Beca's shoulder, peering over it at the small child.

"Hey, kid. You picked a good family. Mom and Mama are pretty cool most of the time. And these two aren't too annoying," she said, nodding her head at each of her sisters. Poppy smacked her lightly and Vera stuck her tongue out, making Dahlia laugh. Vera stood next to Chloe, wrapping her arms around her mom.

"Welcome to the family, Dahlia. It will never be boring," she added with a wink.

"I think we're ready to go," Chloe said with a smile. She picked up one of the suitcases while each of the twins grabbed another. Beca took Dahlia's hand, wrapped her other arm around Vera, and walked toward the car. Chloe was busy trying to fit a booster seat correctly into position behind the passenger's seat. The twins climbed into the far back seat and Vera sat behind the driver's seat.

"Do I have to?" Dahlia asked, staring at the booster seat.

"Yes," Beca said with an apologetic smile. "It's safer, love."

"Plus, you get to see out the front window – which Mama can't even do when she sits in the back seat," Vera said, teasing Beca.

"Kid – you are barely taller than me. Watch it," Beca scolded jokingly. But she was secretly happy; the joke had made Dahlia feel better about being buckled into the booster seat.

The evening was a whirlwind. They gave Dahlia a tour of the house – her eyes grew bigger with each new room they entered. When they reached Beca's studio on the third floor, the brunette stepped inside and pointed at the others to wait at the threshold. She looked at Dahlia, her eyes calm but stern. "This is very important, my love. No one. No one – comes into this room without my express permission. And no one touches these things. It is very expensive, sensitive equipment," she said, sweeping her hand around the room, gesturing at the mixing boards and instruments.

"Don't worry," Vera told her. "It's not you. She doesn't allow anyone in here very often – not even Mom." Once the "never-touch-Beca's-musical-stuff" part of the tour was over, it was much more fun. Chloe, however, had her own rather stern warning to give once they reached the backyard.

"No swimming pool by yourself," she told Dahlia. "Never, ever go in without one of us here – and after asking our permission so someone can watch you." Dahlia nodded, her eyes fixated on the smooth blue water. The pool was surrounded by a smooth stone patio and beautiful gardens. Past it, there were several tiers to the yard. There was a swing set, several big trees with root systems perfect to sit on, and even a little-girl-sized doll house.

Vera took Dahlia on a tour of the actual yard while Beca and Chloe sat on the top level of the deck, watching carefully while interrogating their eldest daughters. "Were you going to tell us that you became Bellas?" Chloe asked, looking at Poppy, then at Bella.

"You've been busy," Bella responded, sitting on the arm of Beca's chair. "It's not a big deal – we'll probably spend the next three years singing backup until we're seniors."

"I seriously doubt that," Beca responded. "We saw your auditions. They were amazing." She smiled warmly at her daughters. "We're very proud of you."

"Eh," Bella said, shrugging her shoulders. "It was fine. When is your new album coming out?" She asked, looking down at Beca.

"No!" Chloe interrupted. "We are not done with you – we only have you for a few days. How are classes going?"

Bella groaned and stood, moving to her own lounge chair where she could curl up in an almost-fetal position. Poppy laughed and sat on the edge of the lounge, facing her parents. "Classes are good – but I'm really glad I didn't take grandpa's Lit class – rumor has it that it's really difficult."

"It kind of really sucks," Bella said.

"You're taking your grandfather's class - I thought he was only teaching upper classmen now?" Beca asked.

"It's an elective," Bella said with a shrug. "I thought it would be a break from the monotony of philosophy and the nightmare of calculus and chemistry."

"And so taking your grandfather's class seemed like the best way to do that?"

Bella shrugged. "I always liked listening to him growing up. I sort of forgot I liked it because it put me to sleep." Beca and Chloe laughed. Beca shook her head.

"I can't believe he's still teaching. The department has been offering him retirement for at least ten years – if not longer."

"It's what he loves, Bec," Chloe reminded her. "And I'm sure he loves seeing Bella in his class."

"It would be especially nice if he would call me by my name instead of yours," Bella added, glaring at Beca.

"Hey!" Beca shot back. "This is your doing, Bells. If you had asked my opinion on classes, I would have told you to stay the heck away from your grandpa. Except when he invites you to dinner - because, although it kills me to admit it, Sheila can really cook."

Their conversation was interrupted as Vera and Dahlia walked back up to them, flush from running around the yard. "Is anyone else ready for dinner?" Chloe asked. She looked at Dahlia. "Do you like pizza, sweetie?"

"Everyone likes pizza," Dahlia assured her kindly.

"Truer words have never been spoken," Beca agreed, clapping her hands as she sat up straight in the lounger. "Vera – set the table please. Poppy, go order and then help Bella make a salad."

"And what are you going to do?" Poppy asked. Beca smiled up at her.

"I plan to sit right here, thank you for asking." She swatted playfully at the teen who jumped out of the way and headed into the house. It left Dahlia alone with Beca and Chloe. Beca patted the place next to her on the chair and Dahlia climbed up, sitting next to her.

"How are you doing?" She asked.

"Good," Dahlia promised.

"I know this is a lot of people and a lot of things to take in all at once – "

"I'm okay," Dahlia promised.

"Good girl," Beca said, leaning down to drop a kiss on her head. The rest of the evening went by quickly and before they knew it, bedtime had been reached.

"What do you do before bed?" Chloe asked as she towel-dried Dahlia's hair.

"I put on my pajamas," Dahlia answered. She was already in her pajamas in this case – she wasn't sure what Chloe was getting at.

"Does anyone ever read to you? Or tuck you in?"

"Miss Mary says goodnight from the doorway," Dahlia said.

Chloe said nothing – she just picked up a comb and began gently combing the girl's hair. Twenty minutes later, it was neat and tied into two braids. Beca might be the queen of the braids, but Chloe could do a few styles pretty well herself. When she and Dahlia exited the bathroom, they found Beca waiting for them, lounging on the brand-new full-sized bed they're purchased for the child. They had encouraged the little girl to pick out her own comforter – and she had chosen one that was white with large, loopy green and blue flowers. When she saw them, Beca pulled back the covers and Dahlia obediently climbed in. Chloe walked over to the outside wall where two built-in book shelves sat between the three windows. She was looking for something specific, so it took her a few moments. She came back with Matilda.

"When Bella, Poppy, and Vera were younger – well – until they were in high school, really – we read to them at bedtime. Would you like to try that?" Chloe asked. Dahlia nodded. She snuggled closer to Beca, making room for Chloe to lay next to her.

Chloe opened the book and held it so that all three could see the words – and occasional pictures. She began reading in a soft, lulling voice. "It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful…" Two chapters later, Dahlia was fighting to keep her eyes open – she wanted to hear more - and Chloe was fantastic at all the voice. Chloe marked their page, closed the book, and set it on the nightstand. "More tomorrow," she promised. She rearranged Dahlia's pillows and tossed a few of the throw-pillows to the end of the bed. Beca handed the little girl the small brown bear she'd found in one of her suitcases. She already had the penguin her three new sisters had given her tucked under her arm. Her eyelashes were fluttering closed. Chloe and Beca each kissed her.

"We are right next door if you need us. You can wake us up for anything, okay?" Dahlia nodded. "Close your eyes," Beca said gently.

Beca began to hum and Chloe turned out the main light, leaving only the glow from the nightlight. Sometimes she joined in, but this night – the redhead chose to listen as her wife sang one of her favorite lullabies. The beautiful sound surprised the little girl at first - it was the first time she was hearing Beca other than the recording she'd heard the first day - but she soon relaxed as Beca sang and lightly rubbed her back.

Fly like a raven, black honey into the nightSoft like the air beneath, a swan in her flightThen return back home to bedAnd bring the dancing starsSleep and dream of a white wolf howlingAnd know that I am near

Shhhh, close your eyes, don't ask why,
Let's dream, together, you and I
Oh, close your eyes, we will fly,
Dreaming, together, you and I

The moon has sailed in a silver gown of stars
That's long, but not forever
Soon her love will rise as mine
And sing to the shadows

Tomorrow we shall rise with the dawn
Kiss the flowers and bloom
But, now, lie still as the wind and listen
For I will come to you with the foot steps of morning

Shhh, close your eyes, don't ask why,
Let's dream, together, you and I
Oh, close your eyes, we can fly
Dreaming, together, you and I
Dream, dream, dream, dream...

"And she's out," Beca whispered triumphantly. She carefully extracted herself from the bed and tiptoed to the door, turning back to look with Chloe.

"It's going to work," she said softly.

"Of course it is, you weirdo," Beca responded, kissing her wife. They closed the door softly and turned to find all three of their older daughters waiting in the hall outside their bedroom.

"You don't sing to us anymore," Poppy said, raising an eyebrow at Beca. The brunette was always in awe of her daughters' expressions; it could occasionally be like looking in the mirror.

"Dude, all three of you go to bed later than I can fathom. You're on your own once your bedtime surpasses mine." She walked into her bedroom and into the closet, coming back with a pair of cotton pajamas – black pants with white polka-dots and a solid black t-shirt. She laid the pieces on her bed while Chloe did the same. The three girls followed them into their room – and both women knew they wanted to say something. Poppy sat at the foot of the bed. Vera sat on the edge closest to Chloe and Bella stood against the fireplace.

It was Poppy who finally spoke. "You guys did a really amazing thing today," she said. "We – um. We just wanted to let you know we thought that. We're pretty lucky to have you guys for parents – and now so is Dahlia."

"We are pretty great," Beca said, shrugging her shoulders and smirking at Chloe. Her wife threw a slipper at her and Beca laughed, plopping down next to Poppy. She put her arms around the girl.

She sobered, all teasing aside. "Thank you guys. You have made our lives incredible. And we really feel like we're the lucky ones," she said, meeting Chloe's eyes. The redhead nodded, wrapping her arms around Vera and reaching for Bella, who obediently went to her and accepted the hug.

Once they were in that night bed, Beca pulled the baby monitor from the night stand and turned it on. They could hear Dahlia's breathing. "Do you think it's weird?" Chloe asked, looking over her shoulder. "She is eight."

"In a new house – incredibly frightened – and very unlikely to actually come to us if she needs something," Beca reminded her. "It's precautionary." The night went smoothly though. Beca woke up twice to use the bathroom and each time snuck next door to peek inside the room – Dahlia was sleeping soundly both times. Chloe chided her when she got back into bed, but it was the first thing the redhead herself did when she woke the next morning.

Saturday was fun. Trying to keep things light and in a getting-to-know-you atmosphere, Beca and Chloe planned a trip to the zoo. The older girls never felt they were too old for it. And to their dismay, Dahlia had never been to a zoo. She held on tightly to Vera's hand and raced around from exhibit to exhibit, listening intently as Poppy or Bella read the information about all of the exotic animals.

They were able to pet the giraffes and at first, Dahlia was completely against the idea. But after Vera was brave enough to do it, she agreed. If Beca and Chloe went with her. Beca lifted her onto her hip so that she could pet the creature. Then Chloe gave her a bit of the food and she giggled as the large animal ate from her hand. Bella capture a few beautiful pictures from that moment.

The twins took their yearly portrait in front of the fossilized ant hill – they had one each year – from the time they were in diapers and Beca thought sticking them into the indents and taking their pictures would be funny. Now, Bella climbed to the top of the tallest of the three hills and posed, holding her hand out to help Poppy balance on the middle one, even in her heeled sandals. Chloe captured the photo and ordered them to stay, arranging Dahlia, Vera, and a begrudged Beca with them. She then stopped a poor passing family and commandeered them to take the picture. She slid in beside Beca and ordered her family to smile. They did – they knew Chloe meant business when it came to pictures.

By the time they had seen all of the exhibits, it was time to go home and start dinner. Poppy was helping her mothers in the kitchen while Bella completed a homework assignment at the dining room table. She was about to close her computer and go – begrudgingly – offer to set the table when she heard a crash from the living room. She jumped, startled. She reached the room before her mothers and Poppy did, so she saw Dahlia's tiny figure rocketing from the room. Vera looked slightly embarrassed, but she was used to being clumsy – and being caught at it. "We're fine," she called, just as Beca, Chloe, and Poppy arrived. The sixteen-year-old crouched down amidst pieces of glass, broken wood, and Beca's Grammy Awards. She picked up the nearest trophy – it was fine.

"Out of there," Beca ordered. "you're going to hurt yourself." She offered her hand to Vera and then looked around. "Where's Dahlia? And how did this happen?"

"It may have been a misguided game of tag," Vera suggested before biting her lip apologetically. Both her mom and mama rolled their eyes – they were used to her energy. "And before I could even ask Dahlia if she was okay, she disappeared."

"Up the stairs," Bella told them, gesturing. Beca pressed a kiss to Vera's temple.

"You're so lucky that I used to do much stupider things. Leave this stuff until we get back." She and Chloe headed up the stairs, expecting to find Dahlia in her room. She was not immediately evident. Chloe was about to turn around and look elsewhere but Beca froze, reaching out to stop her wife. She put up a finger to signal she should wait. In less than thirty seconds, the brunette was heading for the closet and quietly opening the door.

Dahlia was inside, curled into the corner, her face buried in her knees. She didn't look up when she heard the door open. Instead, she tensed completely, hugging her legs harder. Beca carefully lowered herself to the carpet, sitting in front of the little girl. Chloe sat next to her. "Dahlia," Beca said carefully. "Look at me, please." The little girl didn't move. Beca reached out to put a hand on hers and cringed when the child flinched.

She would not come out of the small space, would not look at Beca or Chloe, and continued to cry hysterically. In between, they heard phrases like "I'm sorry" and "please don't send me back." They tried time and again to assure her that they were not angry – but to no avail. Beca tried several times to reach in and grab her to lift her out of closet but each time she got too close, the child shook like a leaf.

"Mama?" Beca looked up to see all three of their older daughter in the doorway. "Maybe we can help?" Poppy suggested. Chloe met Beca's eyes and nodded; it was worth a try. They backed away from the closet and left the room, both looking completely horrified to do so.

Poppy lifted Dahlia from the closet and carried her to the bed. The child let her. She positioned the trembling child in her lap and Vera and Bella sat on either side. "Dahlia, I know you're scared," Poppy said softly. "But I promise you – no one in the house is going to hurt you – ever."

"Mom and Mama don't really get mad about stuff like what happened downstairs," Vera promised. "It was an accident. And really, if they were going to be mad at someone – it would be me – I shouldn't have been chasing you around the house. But they're not mad."

"I was running too," she sniffled.

"Yeah, but you're little. I knew better. But the bottom line is – they're not mad at anyone."

"Did you go to another house where the people got mad a lot?" Bella asked, taking a likely shot in the dark. Dahlia nodded hesitantly. The older brunette crouched down more so their eyes met. "I promise you – Mom and Mama aren't like that. I can count on one hand the number of times they've really yelled at me – and that's in 18 years. And trust me, I've done a lot of stupid shit."

"Like swearing in front of your eight year old sister?" Poppy asked.

"Sorry," Bella said, smirking sheepishly. She looked at Dahlia. "Pretend I said stupid stuff."

Dinner was flat out ruined by the time the three girls were able to coax Dahlia out of her bedroom. Chloe started making packaged soup and grilled cheese sandwiches while Beca went back to the living room to survey the damage. She was brushing glass into a dust pan when the four girls appeared, Dahlia in Bella's arms.

"I'm sorry," Dahlia said, seeing Beca stand from amidst the mess.

"No more of that," Beca told her. "I promise, it's okay. It was an accident. The only thing I care about is that you and Vera weren't hurt."

Eventually, Dahlia settled down and she seemed content by the time Beca and Chloe tucked her into bed that night. Chloe went to talk Poppy and Vera into taking a run with her while Beca slipped into her studio. She sat at her computer and began picking at tracks that were half-finished. She was in the middle of listening to one when she heard a knock on the door.

"Come in!" It was Bella, looking pensive and almost concerned. She entered the room and closed the door before sitting in the other chair and wheeling it a bit away from her mother.

"Mom couldn't talk you into a run?"

"Yeah, right," Bella laughed. Her eyes immediately clouded over and Beca turned her chair completely, facing her.

"What's up with you? You look a little down this evening."

"Why do you think Dahlia's so frightened?"

Beca leaned back in her chair, eyes fixed on the ceiling. How in the world did she answer that question? Why wasn't Chloe here? She thought about hedging the question and admitting – honestly – that she didn't know. But Bella looked like she needed something. Some answer that would put her deepest worries to rest.

"I don't really know," Beca responded, sitting up to meet Bella's gaze. "But I know that she hasn't had a stable home in her entire life – so I'm sure that's scary by itself. To never have someone who you can trust."

"When you were cleaning up the glass in the living room and you stood up when we came into the room – she flinched. She thought you were going to hit her. Does that mean someone hit her before?"

"Love, I'm not a psychologist – I won't pretend to know. I guess it's very possible. But she doesn't need to worry about that anymore and she'll get that. She will."

The three teens were reluctant to leave Monday evening – and Dahlia seemed just as unhappy to see them go. She happily surprised the entire family by hugging all three of them. Beca and Chloe hugged them each firmly, telling them to be good – to be safe – and that they loved them. Beca's favorite to add was advice she had once given Chloe. "Make good choices." She knew they would; they were her girls.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 – Scared of it All

"Well I can't help but be scared of it all sometimes
Says the rain's gonna wash away I believe it"

~ Matchbox 20

The nightmares didn't start until almost a week after she arrived. The other girls were gone by then – back to Barden; Bella and Poppy to the dorms and the younger Vera to live under Benji and Emily's watchful eyes. Beca and Chloe had just climbed into bed – they were still awake, softly discussing their plans for the rest of the week. Chloe, being closer to the nightstand, heard it first. She held up a finger and Beca went silent, listening. Another whimper. Beca lay her head against Chloe's chest as they both stared at the monitor.

"How long do we wait?" Beca asked, her voice pained. She had never been good at allowing her children to self-sooth. She had tried to punch Aubrey once when the blonde had suggested that she was causing irreparable harm by going to her children every time they cried. The twins had been toddlers then. Jesse and Chloe had luckily been there to break it up and calm the feisty and overprotective brunette.

"I don't know," Chloe admitted. They listened to the little girl whimper and sob – it was killing them both. But at the first scream, they were out of bed and rushing to her room. They lay on either side of her, Beca running ringers along her scalp and Chloe rubbing her back, trying to offer her comfort. She was crying – sobbing, really – in her sleep. Eventually, when trying to calm her wasn't working, Beca shook her gently.

"Dahlia, love. Wake up for me. Dahlia." The little girl's eyes flew open and she sat up quickly, smacking her head off Chloe's chin in the process. The redhead let out a yelp and the little girl burst again into tears. "Oh, love," Beca sighed softly. She sat up and pulled Dahlia into her arms, rubbing her head where a knot was already forming. She frowned apologetically at Chloe, who was holding her jaw. "It's okay," Beca said softly. "Take a deep breath for me. And another one – " It took a good ten minutes but she was able to get Dahlia to calm down. Chloe had disappeared for a few moments and came back with a glass of water and an icepack. She held the glass for the child while she drank and laid her back into bed, placing the icepack between her head and the pillow.

"I'm sorry," she said tearfully, eyes on Chloe.

"It's okay," Chloe promised. "It was an accident." Her fingers brushed Dahlia's hair gently. "I'm afraid I hurt your head a lot more than you hurt my chin."

"I'm sorry I woke you up," she added. Beca frowned at her.

"Dahlia – we want to wake up if something is wrong," she reminded her. "It's okay." The next morning, they all slept in – Dahlia snuggled between her mothers. She was awake first but didn't want to move too much and risk waking them. Having an adult - two even - that didn't seem the least bit inconvenienced by her nightmares and fears was completely new. When Beca opened her eyes, she saw that the little girl was staring up at the ceiling.

"Good morning," she said softly, her voice still tired.

"Good morning," Dahlia answered, turning on her side to face Beca.

"Have you been awake a long time?" Dahlia shook her head. She busied her fingers playing with the braid that fell over Beca's shoulder. "Are you hungry?" She nodded. Beca quirked her lips into a smile. "Okay, let's go see what we can find." She pulled the blankets back and climbed out of bed. Dahlia followed her, wincing as she sat up. Once they were in the hallway where they wouldn't disturb Chloe, Beca reached out to touch the child's head – the knot where she had collided with Chloe's jaw was still huge.

"Does your head hurt?" Beca asked her, as they entered the kitchen.

"It's okay," she said evasively.

"Does it hurt?" Beca asked again.

"A little bit."

"Thank you for telling me," Beca responded. "Why don't you sit up at the counter? I'll get you another icepack and some Tylenol." She went to the medicine cabinet and then turned around to look at Dahlia. "Do you swallow Tylenol – or do you want chewable?"

"I can swallow them," Dahlia answered. Beca returned with one pill – the children's dose, and placed it in front of the little girl with a small glass of orange juice. Once Dahlia took it, Beca handed her another icepack wrapped in a clean dishtowel and told her to keep it on the spot. Chloe - as Beca would later see - had quite the bruise - but she had been smart to hide it with a healthy dose of makeup before coming downstairs - she didn't want Dahlia to be upset.

The day was a quiet one and went by quickly. Dahlia was so tired; she spent the afternoon napping on the sofa. When she woke and they had dinner, she seemed more energetic so Chloe took her shopping and to get ice cream. Beca politely passed on the expedition, so she was alone in her studio that evening. Two songs into the work she was doing, her brain refused to concentrate. She picked up her phone and put a video call through to Bella.

The teen answered, but only with voice.

"Hi Bells," she said, leaning back in her chair.

"Hey, Mama."

"How was your day?"

"It was fine," Bella assured her. "How about you and Mom and Dahlia?"

"We hung around here," Bella told her. "It was uneventful. Why did you ignore my video call?"

"Because I'm in pajamas with no makeup and my hair is a mess."

"Kid, I've seen you puking your guts out. You came out of my vagina. I can pretty much handle anything after that."

"Mama!"

"Turn on the video," Beca told her.

"Why can't we just talk?"

"Because I brought you into this world – and I get to see you when I want to. Don't make me get on an airplane." Bella sighed and clicked the button on her phone to turn on the video. She held it up so that Beca could see her – and stuck out her tongue.

"Happy?"

"No," Beca responded. "You look exhausted."

"College is hard. I'm fine. I just can't seem to get enough sleep right now – there have been so many rehearsals – and it's – I'm fine," she repeated, breaking into her own train of thought.

"Where is your sister?" Beca asked, letting the subject drop for a moment.

"She's out with one of the girls from the Bellas - they went to see a movie."

"You didn't want to go?"

"And waste two hours of my life on predictable plots and clichés?"

"I suppose that attitude is my fault." Bella nodded. Beca studied her and frowned at the dark circles under her eyes.

"Bells – is the stress too much?"

"It's stress," Bella answered – which wasn't an answer it all. "It's just stress. I'm fine."

"The more you use the word 'fine,' the less I believe it," Beca told her. "Love, you need to take care of yourself. Have you called to make an appointment at the spa? You should get back into the routine – it was working well for you."

"I haven't had time."

"Send me your schedule – I'll make the appointment." Two days later, Beca called her to inform her that she had done just that. "You have your first appointment with that massage therapist tomorrow at 10."

"I know, mama. You already texted me. Twice."

"If you don't like her, or anything feels wrong – "

"I know the drill," Bella promised.

"Call me after." The next morning, Bella woke far too early and lay in bed, her stomach rolling with nerves. Eventually, she got up and dressed, throwing her textbooks into her bag.

"Where are you headed?" Poppy asked, looking up from her stack of textbooks.

"I have an appointment off campus. I'll be back by lunch."

"What kind of appointment?"

Bella rolled her eyes. "The kind where I learn how to get my nosy sister off my back."

"Come on, Bells. I tell you everything."

She sighed. "Mama thinks I'm getting too stressed out again – so she's making me see a massage therapist."

"Poor baby," Poppy said unsympathetically.

"I'm sure she'd let you go if you asked. You might actually enjoy it. I hear normal people do."

Poppy waived a dismissive hand. "Don't forget to breathe," she called after her. "Breaking in a new roommate would be a bitch." Bella scowled at her sister and left the room.

Bella felt her mouth drying out as she walked the three blocks to the tiny town of Barden. Her appointment was on the third floor of a building on main street – above a florist and a doctor's office. It was a small, cozy spa. When she walked through the door, an older woman sat at the reception desk and smiled at her. "Hello. Welcome. Can I help you?"

"I have an appointment," Bella told her. "At 10?" She couldn't remember what her mother had said the name of the therapist was. If there were several – she had no idea who she was supposed to see.

"Are you Bella?" The teen nodded and the woman smiled.

"Well, I have you write here for an appointment with Amanda. I'll talk you back to one of the treatments rooms. Can I get you a glass of water?"

"Yes, please," Bella agreed. The woman poured her a glass of water and showed her back down two hallways to a small, warm, dimly lit room. There was a counter and cabinets along one wall, a massage table in the middle of the room, and two chairs off to the side with a small table and water element between them.

The woman set Bella's water on the small table and handed her a clipboard. "Go ahead and fill that out – Amanda will be right with you." Once the door closed, Bella sat in one of the chairs and sipped from her water. She took a few breaths before looking down at the paperwork. It was standard documentation – what hurt – how often? How badly? She really didn't have too much to say – her neck and shoulders hurt constantly from the strain of tension headaches. Other than that, she was fine.

But when Chloe had refused to consider putting Bella on anxiety medication when she'd been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and panic disorder when she had been fifteen, Beca had done serious research into alternative treatments. It was the only time any of the girls could remember their parents actively fighting for more than a few minutes. It had lasted weeks. Beca finally began communicating with her wife again once the alternative treatments began to help their daughter.

That was how Bella had ended up guzzling herbal teas and spending two days a week with a massage therapist and one day a week with an acupuncturist. She was actually sort of relieved that Georgia didn't seem to have many of the latter - her mama hadn't brought it up yet. She didn't mind it most of the time – but when the stress was really bad, it could hurt. How were you supposed to relax – so someone could stick needles in you to help you relax – when you knew someone was standing above you with a bunch of needles? It was a circular problem where the question was the answer and visa versa.

She had just finished the paperwork when a knock sounded on the door. "Come in," she called. A young woman – in her late twenties or early thirties – with blonde hair pulled into a shiny ponytail entered the room, smiling.

"Hello, you must be Bella. I'm Amanda."

"Hi."

"What bring you here today?" She asked, sitting in the empty chair. Bella explained what the problem was – and how she had found some relief with massage therapy in California. The woman listened patiently and took the forms that the teen had filled out. She left and Bella carefully, slowly undressed and slipped under the three layers of sheets and blankets, her eyes closed as she faced the ceiling. When Amanda reentered the room, she waived a vial of eucalyptus spearmint below Bella's nose. The girl felt her sinuses opening and she could suddenly breathe better. "I'm going to get started," the woman told her, before ever touching her. "If anything makes you uncomfortable, tell me. I won't be offended. And if the pressure is too much or not enough, let me know that too."

"Okay," Bella whispered. She tensed when the woman's unfamiliar hands began to knead her tight muscles. It took quite a bit of time – it always did – but she eventually relaxed. The touch didn't scare her – it was very purposeful, methodical, and even clinical. It was nothing like real life when people touched your shoulder and bumped into you and grabbed you – all out of nowhere, almost never with clear intent. At some point after the hour mark, her mind began to clear. By the time the two hour session was over, she did feel amazingly better.

She knew her mother paid for extra time for her to rest after the treatments – most places wanted you out the door within five or ten minutes after you were finished. Amanda reminded her to take as much time as she needed – and to feel free to fit in a nap if she was able. Bella curled onto her side, most of her muscles feeling loose for the first time in weeks. She was asleep before she even had time to consider the alternative. When she woke, she carefully sat up and dressed. She made it back to her dorm room and Poppy was gone, so she curled back up into bed and slept for the rest of the day.

With encouragement from her mother and mandatory sessions with the new massage therapist, Bella began to feel better – she was sleeping better, calmer during the day, and in general had a brighter outlook.

The twins had been part of the Bellas for a month when the next real obstacle appeared. Alexis and Camille had announced a party that night – and everyone was expected to attend. Bella had been uncomfortable enough at the hood party. She approached the co-captains at the end of practice.

"Sorry – I can't make it tonight," she told them.

"It's not optional," Camille told her. "Everyone is expected." Bella blanched, looking uncomfortable and desperately wanting to glare at Camille. But no one glared at Camille – it just came back to bite you four times as hard. The tiny brunette had learned that the hard way.

"It's not a bad party," Alexis assured her. "It'll be fun." She watched as Camille left and turned back to Bella. "Just come for a little bit – you don't have to stay long."

"Can I just not come?" Bella suggested.

Alexis laughed and shook her head but looked sympathetic. "Bella – some of the older girls – including Camille – are worried that the new group isn't cohesive enough. They just want to see some bonding take place – this is how they think that is going to be accomplished."

"I hate parties."

"I can tell," Alexis answered. "Seriously – show up for half an hour. Camille will be happy – you don't have to worry about her giving you the evil eye and trying to find creative punishments for the next eight weeks – and," she paused and faked a gasp, "you might actually have fun."

"Shut up," Bella responded, turning on her heel and walking from the practice space. She caught up with Poppy, who was waiting for her outside while talking to Michael – a boy she'd met from the Treble Makers. He seemed nice enough. She stopped in front of her sister. "Are we going to lunch?"

"Yes," Poppy responded. "And don't be rude – say hello to Michael."

"Hi," Bella said to him, dispassionately.

"Hey, Bella. How was Bella's practice?" He looked at her strangely as a though just occurred to him. "Does that freak you out?"

"Not really," she responded, starting toward the cafeteria. Mike ate with them, telling them all about the plans that the Trebles had for regionals.

"Don't you think you should keep that from us?" Bella asked. "We really are your only competition."

"Nah," Mike said with a shrug. "The Trebles haven't won against the Bellas since your mom took over. There's not really any expectation that's going to change for the first time in twenty some years. Camille might be kind of bitch – but she and Alexis know what they're doing."

Bella was able to fit in a few hours of solitude – walking aimlessly around campus, listening to her music, while Poppy went to the gym. Then her sister found her and dragged her back to their dorm room to get ready for the party.

"I really don't feel good," Bella said as she lay on her bed, watching Poppy pull things from the closet.

"You're not getting out of this," Poppy told her. "Camille isn't crazy enough to actually kick you out -- you're too talented for that - and she probably thinks the possibility of Mama and Mom making a deal out of it is too high – but you really do piss her off royally. I'm actually not sure how you do it – but if looks could kill, you would be dead. The only reason you're not is because Alexis likes you."

"She does not."

"Yes, she does." Poppy hopped onto Bella's bed, straddling her sister's waist and looking down at her.

"You're making me extremely uncomfortable."

"Everything makes you extremely uncomfortable," Poppy responded. "Just listen for a second. "You do know that I don't care who you like – right? Boys, girls, horses – I mean, whatever floats your boat. I love you no matter what."

Bella squinted up at her sister and gave her a horrified expression. "You're disgusting. Horses?"

"Have you read about Catherine the Great yet? I mean, even if it was just a bunch of rumors – someone had to do it – or at least attempt it - to make it even be a thing."

"Poppy!" Bella tried to turn away but she couldn't – she was pinned by her sister's weight.

"Bella, are you listening to me?"

"Yes! You don't care if I'm straight, lesbian, or absolutely downright abhorrent. You love me anyway."

"Pretty much," Poppy responded, leaning down to kiss her cheek. "And so do moms. So stop being afraid of – whatever you're afraid of. And loosen up." She slipped off her sister and the bed and went back to getting ready. She threw clothing at Bella – one item after another – until the brunette agreed to get up and change. She washed her face, brushed her teeth, and changed into dark jeans and a long-sleeved red blouse. She covered it with the black jacket she loved and looped one of her scarves around her neck. This one, black with red and navy leaves dancing across the fabric, she believed she had actually stolen from Beca. Some of her scarves were hers – but others ended up in her wardrobe through mysterious means to which she was not an innocent party.

"You've got to stop stealing mama's scarves," Poppy said when she walked back into the room. "She keeps accusing me of it."

"You've done it."

"You do it more. Change your necklace – that one is too long if you want to go with the scarf." Bella wrinkled her nose at her sister but removed the necklace and replaced it with one of her favorites – it was a round piece about the size of a nickel with a red-toned gemstone flower on the front and a guardian angel sculpted on the back. It had been a gift from her Aunt Stacie when she had turned twelve. She set it between her collar bones and walked over to the vanity. Her makeup was much simpler than her sister's, which meant she had fewer things and then usually got lost in the shuffle. She found her cover up, foundation, powder, mascara, lipstick, eyeshadow, and eyeliner.

She took the bottles and brushes and wands over to the mirror behind the closet and set to redoing her makeup. She went for a natural look – the only heavy thing she ever did was eyeliner. Even that, she was assured by Chloe, was much lighter than her mama used to wear it. When her cheeks were slightly rosy, her lips matched, and her eyes looked just a bit bluer than normal, she put it all away.

With deft fingers, she began braiding her hair.

"Do not pull it all up," Poppy warned her. Bella stuck her tongue out at her sister and went back to work. When she was finished, she had a waterfall braid spilling along the right side of her hair. The rest was long and loose, natural curls giving it body. Poppy approved.

"Sometimes I think you'd actually survive without me."

Bella laughed and sat on the bed, picking up her phone. She looked up curiously and watched Poppy finish her makeup. "Isn't that eyeshadow a little much?"

"I'm going for a little much this evening," Poppy responded.

"Then good job with the skirt. Do moms even know you own that?"

"They do not. Let's keep it that way." She wiggled a bit so the skirt danced across her butt and thighs. It was the shortest skirt Bella had ever seen her wear – she knew that her mothers would never approve. She knew she didn't. They walked to the party together, but as soon as they had been given their blue solo cups, Poppy was sucked into the crowd. Bella walked along the fringes, empty cup in her fingers, observing the party from a safe distance. She though it was a safe distance.

She wandered around for twenty minutes - stopping twice to speak with a few of the Bellas. She was far away from the bonfire – almost to the tree line – when a boy appeared in front of her. She had seen him before; he was in one of her classes. Philosophy, she thought. "Hi, Bella," he said, his voice excited and his expression sloppy.

"Hi, Travis," she responded, still moving. He stepped in front of her, blocking her way. She looked up at him, annoyed.

"You're really pretty."

"Thank you for noticing," Bella responded, not the least bit appreciative. "I'll find that much more a complement when you're not completely sloshed." She tried to sidestep him and he followed in the same direction.

"You think you're a lot better than me."

"No, just a lot more sober," Bella responded evenly. She tried to sidestep again, this time almost lunging – but he kept walking toward her. She had to go backwards or let him touch her – and that was not happening. Before she knew it, she was backed up against a tree, his hands on either side of her. "Get away from me," she said through clenched teeth.

"You're really good at playing hard to get."

"This is not playing," Bella told him, bracing herself before bringing her hands up to his chest. She pushed – hard. He didn't budge. "I want you to get away from me – now." He leaned in to – she assumed – kiss her – and she made herself as small as possible, trying to slide to the ground. He caught her by her arms, his right hand then moving along to grope her breast - hard. She could feel his breath on her neck and she started crying, panic erupting in her heart and lungs. "Please – leave me alone – get off of me -"

"Get away from her, you asshole," a familiar voice sounded from behind the wall-sized man. Before she knew what was happening, he was being shoved away from her. He was drunk enough that a forceful shove from the side was enough to move him. He looked annoyed but lumbered away. Bella slumped to the ground, her face buried in her knees. "See if you can find Poppy," the familiar voice ordered. Then Bella felt someone sit down in front of her – someone was touching her shoulder.

"Please don't," she said, her voice getting caught up in her hot tears.

"Sweetie, I just want to get you out of here," the voice said. Bella was suddenly able to put the pieces together. Alexis. She picked up her head slightly to see the co-captain kneeling in the grass in front of her, looking concerned. Her right hand was balanced on Poppy's knee, her left on the younger girl's shoulder. Poppy was just able to lift her eyes enough to meet Alexis' green ones when Camille reappeared. Bella let her head fall again, her face hidden again by her loose curls.

"Some of the girls saw her with Aria and Mike – walking toward the water."

"Stay here and see if you can find her – tell her what happened – only Poppy," she added firmly. "I'm going to take Bella back to her dorm." Alexis must have ordered Camilla away because when she spoke again, she reassured the younger girl that they were alone.

"Come on, sweetie – let's get you up." She stood and – with very little preamble – pulled Bella to her feet.

"I'm fine," Bella said quickly, trying to step away from her.

"I'm sure you are," she said soothingly. But she didn't move. She put her arm around the younger girl and began leading her away from the party. Panic attacks – and this one especially with the extra rush of adrenaline that came with being manhandled by someone twice her size – weakened her considerably, so she really couldn't fight allowing Alexis to help her. "Are you in the freshman dorms? Miller Hall?" Bella nodded. When they arrived at the building, she began pulling away but Alexis kept a firm grip on her arm.

"I'm not leaving you alone until I know you're safe in your room," the older girl told her. She walked with Bella to the dorm room and went with her inside. Bella took almost no time before collapsing in her bed. She was curled up in a fetal position, trying to stop another panic attack from taking hold. The boy had been so close – she could still feel his fingers on her breast. His breath on her neck.

The bed dipped as Alexis sat on the edge behind her. "It's okay," she said softly. "You're safe. No one is going to hurt you." Bella buried her face in one of her pillows and continued trying to breathe – it was a full-focus act at that time.

"Sweetie, do you take something for panic attacks or anxiety?"

Bella shook her head.

"What can I do? What would help?"

"I'm fine," Bella argued – despite the fact that her teeth were chattering together.

"You're extremely convincing about it too," Alexis said dryly. "Do you have any ice? I think ice is supposed to help." Without waiting for an answer, she went to the mini-fridge and opened the tiny freezer. There were two icepacks inside. She wrapped them in a towel she found on Poppy's bed and went back over to the small girl who currently looked like a groundhog was supposed to – rolled up as tightly as she could manage.

Alexis sat on the edge of the bed, trying not to move too suddenly. "Bella, let's get your jacket off, okay?" There was a mumbled response in the negative, but Alex ignored it and practically lifted the girl up to get her jacket off. The scarf too – her cheeks were burning. The older girl put a hand to her forehead and realized she was burning up. Bella grabbed at the scarf.

"I'm not taking it from you," Alexis said calmly. "But you're overheated – I'm going to put it right over here." She wrestled it from the smaller girl's grasp and used both hands to arrange her back on the bed, facing down. "I have ice here – it's going to be cold."

"No shit," Bella mumbled.

"It sounds like someone's coming back down," Alexis mused quietly. She laid the icepacks on Bella's neck and lower back, holding them there until the smaller girl stopped squirming. Within ten minutes, her breathing evened out and Alexis realized she was sleeping. She carefully removed Bella's boots and placed them at the end of the bed. She hung her jacket on the back of the desk chair, coiled the scarf on the vanity table, and pulled the sheet – not the blanket – up to her shoulders.

Alexis was sitting on the desk chair, trying not to fall asleep, when Poppy arrived. She looked harried – but she was pretty late – so it must have taken considerable time for Camille to find her. Or she was drunk. Possibly both. She staggered a bit as she moved toward Bella. "Is she alright?"

"She's fine now. Go to sleep – "

"Tell me – "

"No," Alexis said calmly. "You're drunk – I'm not talking to you until you sleep it off. You're going to wake your sister. Go to sleep." Poppy eventually did, clothing and all. Alexis emptied a garbage can, put in a new liner, and placed it near Poppy's bed, not liking the odds of tomorrow morning for the younger girl. Once the icepacks melted, she removed them from Bella's back and popped them back into the freezer. She returned to look at the brunette and was happy to see that the red flush had left her cheeks.

The older girl poured her a glass of water, placed two Tylenol next to it, and penned a note that she anchored with Bella's cell phone. Bella – I hope you feel better when you wake. I don't want to overwhelm you – so I'm going back to my own room. Poppy is here now. Please call me tomorrow (If you do not call me, I will hunt you down – so just do yourself a favor and call). Alexis

While Poppy was sleeping off her first hangover and Bella was sleeping off a pretty serious anxiety attack, Beca and Chloe were getting Dahlia ready for her first day of school.

Beca and Chloe had decided to keep Dahlia home with them for the first two weeks to help her get acclimated, but they had been planning for school since day one. They had discussed the topic in depth in depth. Taking Dahlia to the school she's attending while at the group home would have meant a lot of driving – but they were willing to do it if that was what she wanted. She confided in both women that she didn't really love her school – and she was willing to try somewhere new.

Beca was on the phone the same day with the headmaster at the private school where all three of her older girls had gone – and where both of the Swanson boys still went. They had to take her in for placement testing just a few days after she'd come home with them. Not wanting to worry her, Beca didn't tell Dahlia about the testing – just that they were going to visit the school.

Dahlia seemed neither excited nor concerned about the new school. She didn't ask any questions, so Beca and Chloe peppered in their own, trying to pique the child's interest. The tour completed, they ended up back in the guidance suite. Mrs. Eagan smiled at Dahlia. "Dahlia – do you think your moms could wait outside while we do some math and reading?"

Dahlia looked hesitantly at Beca and Chloe. "It's alright," Chloe assured her with a bright smile and a nod. "We'll be right outside," she said, pointing to small reception area.

"Just try your best," Beca reassured her, squeezing her hand before letting it go. An hour later, one of the third grade teachers took Dahlia to the playground to meet some of her soon-to-be-classmates while her mothers met with the guidance counselor.

"Dahlia is off the charts on the intelligence tests," Mrs. Eagan told them. "She's incredibly bright – there's no question. It's when we get to the skills tests that problems begin to appear." She showed them several pieces of paper. Beca had no idea how to read them, but Chloe did. "Ideally, she should be testing into the third grade in math, reading, and writing. Right now – she's only at that level in math. Reading and Writing are both at an early first grade level. Comprehension is above par – when someone else is reading."

"What would you suggest?" Chloe asked.

"More testing before any decisions are made," Mrs. Eagan answered. "She may very well have a reading disability – the tests that I've given her only measure level – they really don't pinpoint problems. But we have a reading specialist who comes in once a week – and she can do further testing to see if we're looking at dyslexia, dysgraphia, a simple deficit of skills, or something else entirely." She flipped through a calendar on her desk. "She's in on Thursday – and she has a block of time available if you can bring Dahlia back in at one."

Beca and Chloe exchanged glances. Beca eventually nodded; she knew it would be her – Chloe had to go back to work that day. Dahlia didn't seemed phased by the second round of tests – she was actually a little excited when she left the room, telling Beca about Miss Robin and how nice she was – and how they had played games. The tests all came back indicating that she had no reading or learning disabilities – she was very simply behind. Tutoring would help with that.

On Dahlia's first day of school, they were all a bit nervous. Beca helped her into the school uniform – something that the brunette mother hated and the redheaded mother thought was adorable – and then did a waterfall braid down each side, clasping them in the back with a black and red barrette. When Beca stooped to the floor to help her slip the patent leather Mary Janes on her feet, Dahlia looked her in the eye.

"What if I don't like it?"

"You will," Beca promised. "Just be yourself – and try your best. And give it a little bit of time. If you have any problems – you just tell us and we'll work it out together, got it?" The little girl nodded. Beca smiled brightly at her. "You look pretty awesome," she said, observing that the child did look adorable in the required ensemble. Chloe squealed when they arrived in the kitchen, hugging and kissing Dahlia and telling her how beautiful she looked.

Beca reached for the coffee pot and smiled. Dahlia didn't eat much of her breakfast, but they knew it was due to nerves and didn't push her. The walked Dahlia into the school – walking slightly behind her and NOT holding her hand – because they had been informed rather briskly that third grade was too old for that. Once inside the school, Dahlia took a bit of a step back – it was very busy with the hustle and bustle of kids getting to their homerooms. She recovered quickly and walked to her room, turning back at the room to wave at Beca and Chloe. The waved in return and Beca gave her a wink. The teacher waved at them too – giving them a thumbs up; she had her.

They walked back to the car together. "I hate this," Beca admitted.

"You always get like this at the beginning of the school year," Chloe reminded her. "It's going to be fine." They both climbed into the car, Beca sitting behind the wheel and looking dejectedly at the building they had just left.

"Why can't we homeschool her?"

"Because we're too busy – and that doesn't teach her the social skills she needs."

"I went to school and I didn't develop the social skills I needed."

"You managed until you found me," Chloe informed her. "Now drive, crazy woman. I'm going to be late." Beca put her coffee back down and turned the ignition. She dropped Chloe at her school and then headed to the studio. She was working from the actual label for the first time in several weeks – and she knew she was going to be harassed for it. All in good fun – fun for her coworkers and employees, at least.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 – A Friend in Me

"And as the years go by
Our friendship will never die
You're gonna see it's our destiny
You've got a friend in me"

~ Randy Newman

Bella woke the next morning with a migraine. They didn't always follow panic attacks – but sometimes they were the nice, gut-wrenching surprise at the end of a shitty experience. She whimpered as she moved – it hurt – a lot. Even with her eyes closed, the light from the windows was too much. She pulled the covers over her head and curled up into a ball. Her stomach swam with the movement. She needed her pill – and she needed it immediately. Otherwise, she was as good as useless for the day. She sat up and waited for the vertigo to pass. After that, she scooted to the end of the bed and again waited for the feeling to pass. The next part was the hardest – somehow, she made it to her book bag. She fished the prescription bottle out of the front pocket and dragged herself back to bed.

She had almost made it when her stomach turned. She saw the garbage can in front of Poppy's bed and reached it just in time. Carefully, she crawled back into bed and took one of her pills. Her hands shook as she did it – but she was eventually successful. It took her another hour to fall back asleep, her head spinning and stomach turning.

Poppy was still sleeping at noon when the pounding started on the door. It didn't wake Bella – it did wake the redhead. "What in the hell?" She asked, yanking it open. It was Alexis. "What do you want?" She asked, feeling incredibly non-gracious after the copious amounts of alcohol she'd consumed the night before.

"To see your sister. She was supposed to call me this morning." Poppy did not care. She crawled back into bed, leaving the door open. Alexis sighed and shut it behind her. She realized that Bella was still in bed. Her phone – and the note – had never been touched. The water had been.

She knew this was none of her business – and if she were doing the smart thing, she would walk away. But she was tired of doing the smart thing. She knew something was bringing her back to Bella time and again. Gently, she nudged the sleeping girl. "Bella? Bella – are you okay?" The brunette rolled over and her eyes opened.

"You didn't have to stay," she said softly.

"I didn't. I came back – have you been sleeping all this time? It's been like twelve hours."

"Migraine," Bella said weakly, realizing thankfully that Alexis hadn't been there to witness her vomiting. "This morning."

"I'm sorry. Is it still hurting?"

Bella shook her head. "No – it's gone. I took my medicine for it at like six this morning. And I puked. Poppy's going to be really pleased with that."

"Trust me, she kind of deserves it after what I saw last night," Alexis said.

"Highly possible," Bella responded. "I love my sister – but she can be very dedicated to – "

"Herself?"

"I was going to say Poppy, but they're the same thing, so yeah." Alexis laughed.

"Well, I'm glad you survived with your sense of humor. Can I talk you into lunch?"

"Will you leave me alone if I say no?"

"Probably not."

"Then I'll go. But nothing greasy." She paused. "Actually – no food would be better. And I need to get a shower first."

"You have to eat something. We'll go somewhere with toast," Alexis promised. "And I'll wait outside. One hour and I'm coming back in – "

"I believe you," Bella responded softly. She got up after Alexis left and tested the waters – her vertigo was completely gone, thankfully. She took her robe and shower things down the hall and quickly showered. She froze for a moment when she looked down and realized there were bruises shaped like fingerprints on her breast where that animal had groped her. She turned the water hotter until it hurt and stood there for several minutes, letting it sting and chase away the panic. Rallying her strength and remembering that someone was waiting for her, she finished in the shower. She towel dried her hair and wrapped it around her head in intricate braids. She dressed quickly, throwing on a long-sleeved t-shirt and her favorite scarf. It was actually hers – a gift from her mom. She threw on a burgundy jacket and picked up her purse and cellphone before vacating the room.

Alexis looked over at her when she appeared. "I'm impressed. I don't know many people who can be ready to go in less than thirty minutes."

"No makeup," Bella responded, taking a moment to text Poppy.

Alexis caught herself before she informed Bella that she didn't need it. "There's a café about two blocks from here – does that work for you?"

"I'm not in the market for food other than toast, so whatever works for you is fine with me."

"Alright," Alexis agreed, standing. They began walking together and the older girl realized that Bella hadn't really looked at her. "Camille already turned in the creep who had his hands on you last night," she informed her. Bella looked up, concerned. "You don't have to say anything – Camille did everything. He was still drunk when the campus police picked him up – he's out of school for the drunk and apparently disorderly, so you don't have to decide about pressing charges or anything – unless you want to."

"No," Bella said quickly. "I really don't want to talk about it, actually."

"That's fine," Alexis responded. "Panic attacks. How often do you have them?"

"Seriously? You think I want to talk about that?"

"I think you probably need to." Bella was silent as they finished their walk – and the older girl allowed it. When they sat down, Alexis ordered coffee and Bella ordered herbal tea. The smaller girl was searching the room with her eyes, trying to find something to focus on. "Bella – "

"I'm fine, really," Bella told her. "Seriously – it's not a thing. It's just – I'm fine."

"You do realize that saying it more does not make it true, right? Listen, we have – what – two and a half months until regionals? If not because I really do actually care about you and I do want to help you- can you tell me how this is going to affect the Bellas?"

"It's not."

"No? What are the chances of a panic attack on stage? What about on the bus to or from? In the hotel? Because you are going to be answering a lot more than my questions if what I saw last night happens in front of the group."

"Then maybe I should quit."

"Bella – that is not what – "

"No. I have no intention of being a liability. So if it makes you uncomfortable – if you're afraid I'm going to freeze or freak out on stage or cause the group some kind of distress – then I will quit."

"You are extremely stubborn."

"I've heard that before," Bella answered simply, just as their drinks were delivered. As promised, she ordered toast.

"You're not quitting."

"Fine." They passed the rest of their breakfast in – mostly – amicable silence. Alexis wasn't going to get anywhere trying to pull information forcibly from Bella, so she backed off and tried to talk in the way back about neutral things – classes and music. Bella was agreeable and they conversed the whole way back to campus – even stopped for several minutes in front of Bella's building to finish talking.

"Thank you for breakfast," Bella said, turning to go.

"Bella?" She turned around to look at her.

"You can talk to me – whenever you want."

"Thank you," she said simply, walking away and back into her dorm.

Their youngest daughter in California was almost making new friends – including her teacher, apparently. "Why does Vera live in Georgia?" Dahlia posed this question to Beca over her afternoon snack later that week.

"That's where she goes to school," Beca told her.

"But she's not old enough for college. You have to be 18." She was sure of this – she had double checked the information with her teacher. Beca smiled at her assured voice.

She nodded. "Traditionally, you do. But Vera is very, very smart."

"Really?"

"Seriously," Beca responded, nodded emphatically. "Doesn't always seem like it – does it? She's still a kid – she still has fun. But when it comes down to it, she's so smart. She skipped a grade when she was small – younger than you – but she was still bored. So, last year – we started talking about letting her finish high school early and starting college classes. She wasn't really happy in high school – it was boring for her." Beca didn't mention the bullies – Dahlia didn't need to worry about that. "So, we let her do it – and she wanted to go to Barden – which is in Georgia."

"That's far away," Dahlia informed her. She had asked her teacher earlier that day to point it out on the map and she was stunned how far away the three older girls were.

"It is," Beca responded. "We didn't want her to go so far – but Barden was what she wanted. And she wanted to be near her sisters – so we let her go. But she was a little young to live in the dorms. So for this year, at least, she lives with our friends Benji and Emily and their kids."

"Jake and Emma?"

"Yes, ma'am," Beca answered.

"Are we going to visit them in Georgia?"

"Yes. In October," she told her. "It's homecoming weekend – and somehow I let Chloe talk me into going back every year to perform with our old singing group."

"You're going to sing?"

Beca laughed at her excitement. "Love, I sing to you every night – that's not news."

"But on stage, like in the videos?"

"What videos?" Beca asked suspiciously. Dahlia suddenly realized her slip-up and edged out of her chair, creeping away from the table, her smile growing larger as she realized how badly she was doing at stealthily escaping. Beca stood up quickly, chasing her. "Who showed you videos?" She asked, catching her in the living room and tickling her.

Dahlia was laughing happily but completely unable to speak between squeals as she was tickled. Finally, Beca let up and met her eyes. "Who?" Beca asked.

"Poppy."

"Oh my goodness" Beca exclaimed jokingly. "Which ones? Oh – she didn't show you one with Aunt Aubrey, did she?"

Dahlia shook her heard firmly. "Poppy said I have to draw my own conclusions about Aunt Audrey – and then she would show me the best video." Beca could hear her older daughter saying those exact words.

"Don't ever watch that video," Beca told her. "It is not worth the damage it will do to your soul." Beca's own gag reflex got about ten times worse for hours anytime she caught sight of that video – or thought of the time with Lily. Oh. Dinner was ruined.

Dahlia had been living with them for two weeks when Beca and Chloe invited their closest friends – those who lived in town – to join them for dinner on a Saturday evening. Dahlia knew they were having company, but Beca wasn't quite sure she knew what company meant. She ran around the house – Vera had taught her well in a short amount of time – while Beca and Chloe made dinner and set the table. Finally, they needed her to settle down.

"Dahlia, can you please come and help me?" Beca asked. She was in the dining room. Dahlia appeared before her, looking only a slight bit sick; it was still an improvement. "You're not in trouble," she said, meeting the child's eye. "Sweetie, did my voice sound angry?" Dahlia shook her head. "Then why would you think I might be angry?"

"I don't know," Dahlia admitted softly.

"Okay," Beca responded, leaning down to kiss her temple. "Try to remember, love – we are not here to get mad at you and yell at you. If you do something wrong – we'll talk about it. No yelling." Dahlia nodded. "Okay," the brunette said again, hands on her hips, surveying the scene. "Do you think you can help me set the table? We have to eat in here because we have a few extra people tonight. Do you remember who is coming?"

"Your friends," Dahlia said simply.

"Yep," Beca responded. "Eight people. Aunt Aubrey and Uncle Jesse. And Aunt Stacie. Aunt Cynthia Rose and her wife Mable. Aunt Jessica and Uncle Donald - and their daughter Katie."

"That's all?"

"That's not enough?"

"It is," Dahlia responded, eyes wide. Beca laughed and handed her the napkins, showing her where to put them at each plate. Once the table was set, she called out to Chloe.

"Chlo – we're going upstairs to change. I'll try to make it quick so you can get ready too."

"Thank you!" She called back. Beca took Dahlia's hand and led her up the stairs to her bedroom. She opened the closet.

"What do you want to wear?" This was a difficult question. Dahlia had no idea what it was to have so many clothes – and she had begun shutting down when faced with that question. Chloe's solution was to choose for her. That was not Beca's style. Dahlia looked at her uneasily. "I would go with nice pants or a dress. Which do you like better?"

"A dress."

Okay," Beca said, moving about half of the clothes to the side, leaving the dresses front and center. "You do have a lot of dresses. Can you tell mom likes them?" Dahlia smiled but she still looked worried – there were at least thirty dresses to choose from. "What is your favorite color, again?" Beca asked, rolling her eyes up to the ceiling like she had forgotten and was thinking about it deeply.

"Blue!" Dahlia cried, buying into her teasing.

"Alright, alright. Forgive me. I have four kids now. That's a lot of favorite colors to keep track of." She gave Dahlia another grin before picking through the dresses and laying the blue ones on the bed. That left them with four possibilities. Beca cringed at the last one and snatched it back up. "This one is too dressy," she said. "If you don't mind, love, I'm going to put that one back. And later I'm going to ask your mom what she was thinking." The blue satin and lace dress went back into the closet with Dahlia still giggling.

"Okay," Beca said, motioning to the three dresses. "Which one do you want for today?" Dahlia studied them for a long time and said nothing. She looked back at Beca, who shook her head. "There is no wrong answer, Dahlia. Any of them will be beautiful."

Dahlia looked worried but she eventually pointed at the dress in the middle. It was cobalt color made out of a soft fabric that gathered with a ribbon tie on the side of the waist and then twirled into a fairly full – but casual enough – skirt. Beca smiled and kissed her on the cheek. "Beautiful," she promised. She took the other two dresses and shut them in the closet before the choice could be questioned.

She helped the little girl wash her face and brush her teeth. "Why are we brushing our teeth before we eat?"

"It's just kind of something you do when people come over to visit," Beca answered. Then she helped her into the dress and let her twirl around the room a few times. The older woman laughed and smiled. "Okay, kiddo – accessories." This time, she really didn't have time for Dahlia's decisions. She pulled a black sweater from the closet along with black shoes and white socks with the ridiculously cute little white lace that Chloe loved. Dahlia shrugged into the sweater and followed Beca into her own room.

"You sit here and put those on," Beca said, pointing to the socks and shoes. "I'm going to change and then we'll go downstairs to help mom with dinner."

Beca washed her face, touched up her light makeup, and swept her hair loosely away from her face and up into a clip. She stepped into a casual black dress with a flared skirt. She exchanged her every day diamond studs for a pair of antique looking flowered earrings and a long matching necklace. She left on her normal bracelets and rings and returned to Dahlia, who looked up at her in awe.

"You look pretty."

"Thank you. So do you," Beca told her. She lifted Dahlia into the air and held her close, twirling her around once so their skirts flew and the little girl giggled. Then she caught herself against the bed. "Holy crap. Don't let me do that again. I'm too old for that."

"You're not old."

"You say the best things," Beca told her as they headed down the back staircase to Chloe.

Chloe beamed when she saw them. "Well, if it isn't the two most beautiful girls," she exclaimed, her hands on her hips. Dahlia giggle and Beca gave an exaggerated curtsey. "I don't know how I can compete," she said, leaning down to kiss Dahlia – then standing up again to kiss Beca.

"Please don't let that stop you from trying," Beca said.

"Never," Chloe answered. "Do not let anything burn – there are timers for everything. It's foolproof, Rebecca." She called the last bit as she was hurrying up the stairs.

Beca rolled her eyes and looked down at Dahlia. "It's like she forgets that I cook for her all week." Before any timers went off, Chloe came down, hair loose and wavy, eyes stunningly blue against the turquoise dress she wore. Beca's eyes went wide and Chloe winked. Dahlia was in the living room, coloring.

"I thought you kind of liked this color."

"You know how you look right now," Beca said, whispering in her ear. "And you are evil for doing this to me."

"I'm not the one afraid to have sex with a kid sleeping in the house," Chloe reminded her.

Beca blushed furiously. "Just young kids," she hissed quietly. "Impressionable kids."

"Our girls turned out just fine."

"Yeah – because I started putting them to bed with sound-proof headphones when they were toddlers. You're loud, Chloe."

"You've never complained before." Beca didn't have a chance to answer – the doorbell rang. She took a few deep breaths, checked the mirror to ensure her coloring had gone down, and hurried in to stand with Dahlia. The little girl stood up from her spot at the coffee table, looking nervous. Beca took her hand and gave her a wink before leading her over to the door.

Stacie had arrived, along with Cynthia Rose and Mabel.

"Well, aren't you just the cutest?" Stacie asked, immediately squatting down to Dahlia's level, despite her heels and black and white dress. Beca loved her for it. "Hi, Dahlia."

"This is Aunt Stacie," Beca told her. Dahlia waved nervously.

Stacie smiled gently at her. "That dress looks beautiful on you – is blue your favorite color?" Dahlia nodded. She looked over toward the coffee table. "What were you coloring?" Dahlia started walking toward it and Stacie went with her, carefully reaching for her hand. The little girl took it without question. She and Stacie sat at the coffee table and she began explaining what she was working on. Beca, Chloe, and CR watched in amazement.

"She's the horse whisperer – but for humans. And not just men," CR said.

"Well, we've known that for years," Chloe answered.

"We just didn't know it could be done without sexual favors," Beca added with a whisper. She was completely straight-faced but it made CR and Mable laugh, which caused Stacie to flip them the bird – behind Dahlia's back, all the while staying completely focused on what the child was saying.

"Thanks for coming," Beca said, stepping in to hug each of the women.

"No problem, cap. We're happy to meet the new kid. From the get go, she seems a lot quieter than your other kids. Good choice. You all could use some quieter people at your family gatherings." Beca shot her a glare and nodded toward the kitchen.

"You know where the drinks are – help yourselves." Chloe, ever the hostess, was – as usual – abhorred by Beca's suggestion and chased them down to help them. Before she returned, the doorbell rang again, so the brunette turned from watching her daughter and Stacie to answer it. Jessica was on the other side with Donald, their nine year old daughter Katie with them.

"Hey, guys," Beca said cheerfully. She welcomed them in and hugged Jessica, then Donald. She knelt down a bit to hug Katie. "How are you, sweetie?"

"Good," the little girl smiled, hugging Beca fiercely. They didn't visit as much as they would have all liked – but Katie adored Beca and Chloe.

"What grade are you in now?" Beca asked. "Like – tenth? Eleventh?"

"Fifth!" Katie said, laughing at Beca's estimation.

Beca looked up at Donald and Jessica, smiling – then back at their daughter. "Do you like it?"

The little girl nodded. "I'm learning how to play the piano and the violin now."

"That is awesome," Beca responded. "Can we hear later, after dinner?" Katie nodded, glowing with pride to be asked. "Excellent," the brunette answered. "Sweetie – why don't you go in the kitchen – Aunt Chloe is in there – and ask her for juice – and then when you come back in – I'll introduce you to Dahlia. Okay?" Katie nodded and scampered away. Beca stood again and led the two into the living room. Ten minutes later, Katie and Jessica were also sitting at the coffee table – and now Dahlia and Katie were both coloring. Beca smiled as she walked past Donald to get the door again. This time – she didn't have to invite anyone in. She was simply lucky they didn't use their key.

Jesse practically lifted her off the floor with a hug. "Hey, Becs. It's been too long."

"Dude – you are the one who keeps long hours. I'm lazy – I'm free pretty much whenever."

"Yeah – they definitely award Grammys for laziness now." Beca smiled and hugged him one more time before offering one to Aubrey.

"Hello, Beca. You're looking well. How is everything?"

"It's wonderful. Work is the usual – Chloe is excellent. The girls are making trouble at our alma mater – and we have a new one. It's pretty awesome. Let me introduce you." With the way in which the guests had arrived scattered – and how only Stacie, Jessica, and Katie stayed close for a majority of the evening, Dahlia seemed to do well with the company.

When Chloe announced dinner, the little girl looked up and suddenly realized how many people were in her living room. Beca saw the momentary panic in her eyes and quickly walked over, holding out her hand. Dahlia took it and Beca squeezed her hand gently. Dahlia sat between Beca and Katie, with Stacie directly across from her. The dinner table conversation was heavily leaning towards Disney movies and the best Barbie Dolls – but Dahlia was enjoying herself.

Later that evening, most of the guests had left – all but Stacie, Jessica, Katie, and Donald. Jessica said it was getting late and they had to go soon – but first she pulled something rather large out of a bag Donald had carried in and handed it to Katie. Katie walked over to Dahlia and handed her the gift. "This is for you," she said, ceremoniously. Dahlia looked at Chloe and Beca, who nodded and smiled, telling her she could take it.

"Thank you," Dahlia said, her speech a bit flustered from surprise. She carried it over to where Beca and Chloe sat together and they helped her open it – it was an American Girl Doll with the set of books. Her name was Samantha and she was from the Victorian Era. Dahlia looked stunned; she knew exactly what this was and had never even dreamed of owning one. She looked at her parents for help.

"Go say thank you," Chloe told her, cupping her cheek. Dahlia did, returning to Katie with a stunned expression.

"Thank you – I love her."

Katie nodded; she knew that was inevitable in her nine years of wisdom. "I have one too – but Mommy made me leave her in the car. She said I can bring her in next time we come – then we can play with them together. I have Kit," she added. She gave Dahlia a hug and pretty much burst every heart left in the room.

Beca walked Jessica, Katie and Donald to the door. "You did not need to do that," Beca said as she hugged Jessica good bye.

"I wanted to," Jessica assured her, tears springing to her eyes as she nodded. "She's beautiful, Beca. Thank you. Just. Thank you." They had found out – senior year in college – that Jessica had been adopted when she was four years old. This hit very close to home for her. She left before she could cry completely and Donald swept Katie into his arms to carry her to the car.

"Thanks, BM. Good party."

"See you later, Donald. Bye, Katie!"

"Bye, Aunt Beca!"

Returning to the living room, Beca found Chloe and Stacie sitting on the floor, helping Dahlia unwrap the doll. Once Dahlia had her, she turned to show her to Beca. "She is beautiful," Beca told her. "I can't wait to read her stories." Dahila nodded in agreement.

"Well, this is coming with poor timing. I cannot compete with the nation's best-loved dolls. But, I still brought you something," she said, standing to go to her purse. She returned with a small box that she handed to Dahlia, who looked absolutely flabbergasted. Two presents. In one night. From people she had never met before.

"Thank you," she said sincerely, handing the doll reverently to Beca. Chloe held the box while she unwrapped it. Once opened, she saw that it contained a necklace. Chloe helped her pull it out and Dahlia's eyes lit up – she recognized it immediately. Poppy, Vera, and Bella had all worn one while at home. Bella's was red – Vera's yellow, and Poppy's green. This necklace had different shades of blue gems creating a flower on the front – it was breathtaking to a little girl who had – a few weeks before – owned nothing. She looked up at Stacie, speechless. The older woman simply smiled.

"It's all yours, pretty girl," Stacie told her. She dropped a kiss on Dahlia's dark locks. Chloe flipped the necklace over and showed Dahlia the carving of the guardian angel. Chloe fastened it around the little girl's neck and Dahlia surprised them again by hugging Stacie. The tall brunette knelt down to hug her properly. "Welcome to the family, Dahlia." Ten minutes later, Chloe and Beca left Dahlia on the sofa – on the brink of exhaustion and hugging her new doll, and walked her to the door.

"Thank you, Stacie," Beca told her. "For everything."

"Anytime," Stacie responded. "I was missing having rugrats nearby. Jessica and Donald aren't as sociable as you two are – I don't get to see Katie often."

"You can come over anytime," Chloe told her. Beca looked at her with a question and Stacie waited.

"You gave that necklace to the other girls when they were 12, didn't you?"

Stacie nodded and shrugged. "I know you said she hasn't had it very easy. I figured she could use a guardian angel a little earlier. I'll give her the matching earrings when she's 12," she said, shrugging again, picking up her purse.

"Then what about when she's 16?"

"Who the hells knows, Mitchell. We've got 8 years, give me a break."

"I'll be waiting to see how you figure this out," Beca responded with a straight face.

"I'm sure you will be. Good night, Chloe. Becs." She was almost out the door when Chloe called after her and she turned around.

"Stacie!"

"Yep?"

Chloe looked at her wife, then back at the doctor. Beca knew what was coming and tried to escape. "Stop!" Chloe ordered. "Stacie, when was the last time Beca came to see you?"

"We had lunch a few weeks ago," Stacie said evasively.

"You know what I mean," Chloe responded.

"Dude – I am fine. This is really not fair to ask her – right in front of me. And after a party," Beca complained.

"Because I know you'll lie," Chloe answered. "Not about much – but definitely about this. When was her last physical?" She asked, looking at the taller brunette.

"You know, Chloe, I don't actually memorize my appointments. They're in a computer," she told her. Fine," the redhead said, turning to her wife.

"Beca, how long has it been?"

"Is this really the time?"

"Yes, actually. Because we just adopted a kid – and I'd like you to be around a bit longer. How long has it been?" Beca looked pained. She looked at Stacie, who shook her head; there was nothing she could do to help.

"Months," she said, nodding.

"How many months?"

"24ish?"

"Rebecca Mitchell!"

"Twice in one night – seriously?" Beca responded.

"You know you have the tendency toward high blood pressure – and there are all sorts of other things you're supposed to be watching for. That's why you make an appointment at least once a year."

Beca winced. "Yes, I know my blood pressure runs high. Do you know why my blood pressure runs high? Because you ask me questions that you know I don't want to answer."

"Well," Stacie said putting her hands up in the air. "This is not my business anymore. Thank you for a lovely dinner – I look forward to seeing you both – and Dahlia – soon."

Once Stacie was gone, Beca stood miserably against the far wall, not looking at Chloe.

"You can be very mean sometimes."

"Only because I love you," Chloe responded. She kissed Beca on the cheek. "I'm going to ask that question again in one month – and either your answer changes, or your bedroom does." Beca rolled her eyes and watched Chloe walk away. If she wasn't in her forties, she totally would have stamped her foot.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 – It's Dark Inside

"Don't get too close
It's dark inside
It's where my demons hide
It's where my demons hide."

~ Imagine Dragons

Vera had been – compared to the twins especially – an anomaly from birth. She was quieter than her two sisters – she didn't come as part of a pair, and she was so incredibly observant, even as a baby. Then, as she grew, she kept those qualities – and she became independent, inquisitive, and adventurous. Beca had admitted to Chloe before that she had no idea where Vera had learned to be how she was – and Chloe had responded that she hadn't learned it anywhere; she was Vera and that was that. In truth, her parents had given her the space, freedom, encouragement, and nurturing that it took to embrace those qualities.

So, despite usually being much less dramatic than her sisters, she wasn't always the easiest child to raise. She was a puzzle. And she was mischievous. That was one of the many reasons that Emily was not surprised when the sixteen-year-old snuck as quietly as she could manage into the window of her bedroom in the Applebaum house. But she was a bit of klutz, so it was a surprise to neither of them when she tumbled into the room and landed in a heap on the carpet. She looked up sheepishly at her aunt.

"Hi," she said tentatively.

"Hi," Emily responded, her arms folded across her chest. Vera stood as quickly and gracefully as she could but still was dwarfed by the woman by at least five inches. Emily sat down on the edge of the queen sized bed, waiting for her charge to sit next to her. Vera did, eyes fixed on the floor. "Vera, where were you? You didn't answer your phone – and I thought you were in your room hours ago – when you came back from class."

"The music building," she said honestly.

"Why, exactly, did you sneak out to go somewhere that I would have let you go – if you had asked?"

"What's the fun in that?" Vera asked, biting back a grin. Emily refused to allow herself a chuckle. Her own kids were not yet quite teenagers - this was all pretty new territory for her. And Benji was just amazed at his life in general - he was too flabbergasted at his joy to be of much help when it came to disciplining a child.

"Vera, that is not an answer. And this has to stop. I need to know where you are. Your mothers entrusted you to me – and they're pretty fond of you. I'd be in a whole lot of trouble if I lost you. I wouldn't be too happy myself. It's not safe to wander around without someone know where you are."

"Aunt Em, I'm not wandering into college parties. I was in the music building – in a practice room."

"From now on – you need to tell me where you are going – before you go," Emily informed her. "And you will pick up your phone unless you're in class. Those are the terms - or we will be chatting about this with your moms." Emily met her eye and Vera nodded; Emily wasn't ratting her out just yet. She was giving her another chance. "And just so you remember – classes only for one week. Then you come right back here."

Vera groaned and fell back against the bed.

"I'm sorry, V. But you scared me," Emily told her softly. She blew the teenager a kiss and closed her bedroom door. Vera eventually sat up and went to her desk. As planned, she had arrived with a few minutes to spare before answering a call from one of her moms. It wasn't always both – but she spoke to at least one of them each night. They insisted. She loved them – but she thought it was making her homesick – seeing them every day and not being with them. The video chat icon began ringing as soon as she opened her laptop. She answered, plastering a smile on her face.

"Hi, Mommy."

"Hey, V," Chloe said cheerfully. "How are you today?"

"Good," she answered simply. "Not much different from yesterday. Chemistry lab though, instead of lecture."

"How was that?"

"It was okay," the child admitted. "I knew a lot of it – but there's some new material."

"That's a good thing," Chloe responded. "How is everything else going?" Vera spent the next twenty or so minutes outlining what she had done that day and what she planned for the upcoming day. She then asked about Chloe, Beca, and Dahlia. Chloe promised that they were doing great but that they missed her. They were about to exchange goodnights and "I-love-yous" when Beca appeared.

"Hey, Love," Beca said, leaning over Chloe's shoulder to see Vera.

"Hi, Mama," she responded.

"You look tired," the brunette observed. "Everything good?"

"It is," Vera promised. "I woke up early for Chem lab this morning. I probably should have gone to bed earlier last night. But I was reading and I lost track of time."

"Good book?"

Vera shrugged noncommittally. "It was okay. I just wanted to finish so I could start something else."

Beca nodded. "Aunt Em said you've been back on the piano. How's that going?" She asked, pretending the questions was no big deal. It was. Vera hadn't touched a piano in three years before going to Barden.

The teen shrugged again. "I've just been playing around – nothing big."

"As long as you're enjoying it," the mother said meaningfully. Chloe smiled brightly at her daughter and nodded. She was thrilled; she hadn't known about the piano playing. Beca had only found out herself after receiving the news from Emily. They talked for a few more minutes before telling Vera good night.

"We love you, Vera," Beca said firmly.

"So much," Chloe agreed.

"I love you too," Vera responded. "Have a good night." She was gone a few seconds later and Beca turned to look at her wife. Chloe was sitting at her desk chair. Beca pulled up another, facing her.

"She's not happy," Beca said decidedly.

"She seems fine," Chloe told her, eyes softening. "The only person who isn't happy is you – because you don't want your sixteen year old daughter living across the country." Beca had been the ultimate hold-out for Barden. It had taken a lot of convincing to get her consent on the plan. "I get that, Bec. I'm not thrilled about it – you're supposed to get the whole 18 years – at least. But this is what Vera wants."

The brunette shook her head. "She looks unhappy, Chlo. She's too young to be this far away from home for this long. She hasn't made any friends in classes, she spends evenings and weekends with Emily, Benji, and the kids – and she hasn't considered any other activities. All she's doing is going to classes and going back home." True, they had threatened her with Aubrey's vocal-cord ripping wolves if she went to a college party, but she was still allowed to check out the other activities on campus. She hadn't.

"It's only been a few months," Chloe reminded her. She decided it was best not to mention that Beca was echoing her own father's concerns about her during Freshman year. At least the activities part. "She needs time. And she knows that if she wants to come home, that's always an option." Beca said nothing more – but she still had a bad feeling. Emily had been nothing but bright and positive – as usual – but something was wrong. But Chloe thought Beca was too overprotective, so she kept further opinions to herself.

"Do you want to come on a walk? Dahlia and I are walking to the park." Chloe nodded. She followed Beca down the stairs and slipped into her shoes, smiling at Dahlia as she saw her.

She ruffled the tiny brunette's hair and the three set off down the street. They lived in a gated community with wide streets and a private park. Once they were headed in the right direction, Dahlia wandered in front of them, both eager to get to the park and a bit lost in her own thoughts. She did that a lot – drifting and daydreaming.

"Let's go out on Saturday," Chloe suggested, taking Beca's hand as they walked.

"Where to?"

"Dinner and a show – there's a production of The Book of Mormon downtown – and you pick the restaurant."

"That musical is not appropriate – "

"I know," Chloe cut in before her wife could finish. "Because Dahlia is not going. We need a night out – the two of us."

"Chloe –"

"She's been with us for two months. It's time. I can call Aubrey – ",

"Let's ask Stacie first," Beca said immediately, regretting that she'd done it so quickly. It was a dead giveaway that made Chloe frown. She still wanted her wife and best friend to get along perfectly. They were friends - but they still did not usually see eye to eye on much. Of anything.

"Why?"

"Dahlia is already comfortable with Stacie," she responded, which was completely true. She didn't add that Aubrey – for all her helpfulness – did not know what to do with little girls. She had raised two boys – and was a bit standoffish when it came to the girls. Poppy, Bella, and Vera loved her – but they weren't overly close to her. Instead, they had their closest non-parental relationships with Stacie, Jesse, and Emily.

"That's fine," Chloe responded. "You call Stacie and make reservations at a restaurant you want to go to – Maybe for 5? That should give us plenty of time – maybe even time to slip in a walk before the show." Beca agreed – wanting to spend time with her wife, but lamenting the separation from Dahlia.

They told Dahlia they were going out Saturday afternoon and evening. They told her several times. They assumed she understood what that meant.

Dahlia was thrilled when Stacie showed up that Saturday afternoon. Not only was her presence wonderful, but she also brought a new toy – a large box of Legos. The brunette spread a blanket on the living room floor and spilled the blocks onto it. She and Dahlia sat for over an hour building different structures. At first they followed directions but then they went off on tangents, building a little town around the perimeter of the blanket.

The little girl was so caught up in playing that she didn't realize that Beca and Chloe were not there. They were in their bedroom, getting ready for their date night. Dahlia looked alarmed when they appeared, dressed for a night out. She, like Stacie, was wearing jeans and a sweater. She stood up and walked over to Beca and Chloe, who both looked beautiful.

"Where are you going?" She looked and sounded concerned. Keys dangled from Beca's hand. She squatted down, designer-dress-that-Chloe-had-made-her-wear or not, and met Dahlia's eyes.

"Love – we talked about this last night and again this morning. Mommy and I are going out. We're going to dinner and a show."

"I have to stay here without you?"

Beca looked at Chloe; had they forgotten to mention that part? "That's why Aunt Stacie came over – she wanted to spent the evening with you so we could go out for a bit. We won't be long. When you wake up in the morning, we'll be here."

Dahlia's eyes bulged and then teared. "You're not going to read or sing to me?" If Chloe hadn't been there, Beca would have folded in that instant. And never left the house without that child again. Chloe knelt down next to Dahlia and kissed her.

"Sweetie – Mama and I need to go. But you will be fine here with Aunt Stacie – you'll probably have more fun than we do. And she's a great bedtime story reader – I promise."

"Come on, Sweet Pea," Stacie said, standing just behind her. "Hug your moms and let's go into the kitchen and decide on dinner. I am completely open to ice cream as a food group." Chloe glared up at her and Stacie laughed. "Okay, ice cream for dessert." She leaned closer to the child and stage-whispered "candy for dinner."

"Whatever dude," Beca challenged her old friend. "Just remember – the more sugar you give her – the longer it's going to take you to get her to bed. Tread carefully." Stacie considered that – it had been several years since she'd babysat anyone Dahlia's age – it had probably been when the twins were 10 and Vera was 8.

Beca hugged and kissed the little girl. "It will be fine. Have fun with Aunt Stacie. We'll see you in the morning. Be good." Chloe hugged and kissed her quickly and the pulled Beca out the door before Dahlia could process it. She burst into tears.

"Oh, sweetie," Stacie said softly. She sat on the floor and gathered Dahlia into her arms. "It's okay. I promise you – they will be back before you know it." She got her settled down in under ten minutes and they went into the kitchen to make dinner. After a mom-approved feast of macaroni and cheese with chicken and broccoli, they went back into the living room to play more with the Legos.

It was close to seven when Dahlia seemed to grow tired – probably a mix of waking up early and her emotional outburst that afternoon. "We still have some time before bed," Stacie told her. "Why don't we clean these up and watch a movie?" Dahlia nodded and helped her use the blanket to funnel the blocks back into the bin.

Despite Beca's dislike of movies, her long friendship with Jesse and relationship with Chloe – not to mention raising three little girls – had amazed her a sizable collection of DVDs. Dahlia stood and Stacie kneeled in front of the shelf that held the children's movies. They eventually chose Cinderella – the live-action version – and settled down on the sofa to watch it. Stacie had not seen it in years and had forgotten how sad it was. Dahlia cried. But she said that she loved the movie – it had a happy ending.

Right on schedule, she was in bed and handing her current book to Stacie. The brunette sat against the headboard, her long legs stretched out in front of her, and Dahlia snuggled up against her side. They read two chapters from Esperanza Rising and Stacey turned out the light and held back the covers for the little girl to snuggle under.

"Will you sing a song?" Dahlia asked, before Stacie could leave. The brunette hadn't planned on it. The twins and Vera had never asked her to sing – she sang with the Bellas – but rarely on her own anymore. When had that happened? She shook off the thoughts.

"Your moms are much better at that. Maybe they'll sing you two songs tomorrow?"

"Please?" Stacie swore in her head; she couldn't say no to a kid – especially a kid that had already found a significant place in her heart. She knelt next to the bed.

"Close your eyes." Dahlia did. Stacie hummed for a moment, reaching for a song. She wasn't great with lullabies. No one had ever sung them to her. But she did know the one from the movie they'd just watched. It had been one of the pieces her elementary school music teacher had given them to learn on the piano. She sang softly.

Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green,
When I am king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen.
Who told you so, dilly, dilly, who told you so?
'Twas my own heart, dilly, dilly, that told me so.

Call up your men, dilly, dilly, set them to work,
Some with a rake, dilly, dilly, some with a fork.
Some to make hay, dilly, dilly, some to thresh corn,
While you and I, dilly, dilly, keep ourselves warm.

Lavender's green, dilly, dilly, Lavender's blue,
If you love me, dilly, dilly, I will love you.
Let the birds sing, dilly, dilly, And the lambs play,
We shall be safe, dilly, dilly, Out of harm's way.

I love to dance, dilly, dilly, I love to sing,
When I am queen, dilly, dilly, You'll be my king.
Who told me so, dilly, dilly, Who told me so?
I told myself, dilly, dilly, I told me so.

"Pretty," Dahlia whispered.

"Thank you," Stacie whispered back. "Good night, sweet girl." She kissed the child's forehead and stood, switching on the nightlight as she left the room.

Across the country in Georgia, there was a slight cold war being waged between the twins. Bella and Poppy did not discuss what happened at the party. They primarily avoided one another for the week – each one holding out for the other to say something. They spoke when they needed to, but otherwise kept to themselves. Finally, Poppy had enough. She cornered her sister late on Saturday afternoon.

"I'm sorry about ditching you on Saturday. Are you ever going to forgive me? Because I don't know how much longer I can deal with the silent treatment."

"I'm not mad at you. I'm not giving you the silent treatment. We're talking right now," Bella said, without looking up from her computer.

"Fine," Poppy responded tersely. "As soon as you're done pouting, let me know. Until then – I'm going to stop asking. I'm tired of trying to wheedle your damn issues out of you."

"Sure you are," Bella shot back. Her sister could barely go five minutes without asking her some question or another – her insistence that she wasn't going to ask any more questions about Bella's state of mind was highly unlikely. Bella also considered that she was fairly impressed that Poppy knew the word wheedle – but now was not the time to mention it. She allowed her twin to huff and puff and prepare herself for an evening on the town before leaving.

Bella turned off her computer and walked over to her book shelves. She found an old favorite – A Solitary Blue – and plopped down on her bed to read it. She sat up quickly when her door opened a mere thirty minutes later – it was too soon to be Poppy. She relaxed when she saw who it was.

"What are you doing here, V?"

"I'm bored," the teen admitted. She closed the door and lay next to Bella on the bed. They were both staring at the ceiling.

"Does Aunt Em know where you are?"

"I'm sixteen!"

"Hence my very-valid question."

"No."

"Why not? She would have let you come here."

"No," Vera said morosely. "She wouldn't. I'm grounded."

"Vera!" Bella sat up and looked down at her little sister. "What is going on? Why are you grounded?" Vera explained what she had been doing – but could not explain why she continued doing it. Mostly because she had absolutely no idea.

"They're going to take you back home," Bella told her. "Is that what you want?"

"No," Vera said quickly, then shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know."

"Oh, V," Bella said with a sigh. She reached for her phone and her sister protested.

"Don't call her," Vera said quickly.

"She's going to notice you're gone – if she hasn't already – and then you're screwed. It's better to just fess up before she panics too much." She found Emily's number on her phone and dialed, going to stand in front of the door so that Vera couldn't escape.

"Hi, Aunt Em. Yeah. Yep. She's here." She listened for several seconds. "Yeah, I know. Can I have her for a few hours? I'll bring her home later tonight – is that okay? With me. I promise." When Bella hung up, Emily was calm and Vera looked downright dejected.

"She already knew you were gone, genius. And she was about to call moms – who are on their first date in like two and a half months." Vera didn't respond; she knew she was being stupid – she didn't need Bella to tell her that. "Come on, grab a jacket – you should have had one on already." She picked up her own jacket from the back of her desk chair and Vera chose another from the closet.

To her surprise, they did not head directly for Emily's house. Instead, they went to the student center. Saturday nights was a busy one for the center – different clubs met and there was always a movie playing in the theater and some type of gaming going on – both board games and video games. "What are we doing here?"

"Finding you a social life," Bella told her. "So you stop trying to self-sabotage."

"Do you come here?"

"No," Bella said, a look of distaste evident. "But I don't like people. You do. You might find something you like." They had walked into one of the larger rooms – a Maker Space that the University had funded. Bella pointed. "See, there are geeks over there building a robot. You might find a friend in there."

Vera frowned; she was never good at this. It was one of the reasons she had wanted to leave high school early; she was terrible at socializing. But unlike Bella, she craved interaction with other humans more than once or twice a day. She took after Chloe in that way; but she hadn't gotten much of the social confidence that Poppy had in spades.

Before she had to decide what to do, someone she recognized from the acapella auditions walked up to them. "Hey, Bella," Alexis said. "I am surprised to find you here."

"I'm not here on purpose," Bella responded dryly. "At least not for myself. Alexis, this is Vera, my sister. Vera, this is Alexis – one of the Bellas co-captains."

"Hi, Vera – are you visiting?"

"I go to school here," Vera responded softly.

"She skipped a few grades," Bella said, helpfully filling in the blanks. "We were coming down here to see if there was anything interesting for her to participate in – she likes people far more than I do."

"Well, that'll open up doors for you right there," Alexis teased. "I'm here with the improve group – you're welcome to come watch if that interests you. I can introduce you after we finish the current set."

Vera considered it and then nodded thankfully. She and Bella followed Alexis into one of the smaller rooms that had a stage on one end with a huge box of props next to it – and folding chairs spread around the room. Bella sat, her legs and arms crossed, ready to be unimpressed. But she was laughing along with Vera and Alexis after the current group of college kids began their scene.

Alexis kept her promise and took Vera to the front of the room to introduce her to the other theater geeks, as Bella would now dub them. She remained in the back of the room, playing on her phone until her sister appeared before her. The tiny redhead looked happy – a bit lighter even. She prattled on about the scene as they walked back to Emily's.

"Do you think I could do that – after I'm done being grounded?"

"I think you can do whatever you want, V."

"I'm sort of clumsy."

Bella shrugged. "If you fall onstage, just laugh it off – the audience will think it's part of the show and laugh with you." Vera swatted at her but smiled. They stopped in front of the Applebaum house. The porch light was on.

"Do you want me to come in with you?" Bella asked.

"No," Vera said, shaking her head. "Aunt Emily's not bad. I knew I shouldn't have done it – now I get to listen to all the reasons why. And hope she doesn't call moms." She turned to Bella and surprised her with a hug.

"Thanks, Bella."

"For what?"

The redhead shrugged and smiled before disappearing up the sidewalk. Emily waved to Bella from the doorway and the brunette turned to walk back to her dorm room.

Beca and Chloe were not terribly late that night. They headed home right after the show – but both women felt worlds better having just spent a bit of time together, away from their other responsibilities. They crept in through the kitchen – it was almost midnight. They weren't sure if Stacie was sleeping or not – sometimes she stayed over when babysitting late. But she was in the living room, sipping a cup of tea and watching something on the television. The room was dark but Beca could see her eyes rimmed with red.

Chloe, more preoccupied with getting out of the dress she was in (it had been uncomfortable all night) thanked Stacie in passing and bid her a good night. Beca sat next to her on the sofa, peering at the television screen. Infomercials. In the days of on-demand programming, she didn't even know they still produced these things.

"How'd it go?"

"She was great," Stacie told her. "We played more with the Legos – watched a movie – then I tucked her in, read her a story – and she's been sleeping since. I've checked on her twice."

"When did you fit in cutting an onion in my kitchen?" She teased, referring to her watery eyes that hadn't turned to meet Beca's. Stacie laughed when she caught the smaller brunette's meaning.

"I'm fine," she promised. But the tears bubbled up again. "I'm sorry," she said, setting her cup on the coffee table and trying to brush away the salty evidence.

"What's going on?" Beca asked, now worried.

"It's nothing," Stacie said. "Seriously – Dahlia was amazing. Too amazing. Sometimes it – it just gets to me, you know? I always thought by now I'd be married and I'd have my own kids – and instead I'm married to my job – have no one in my life outside of work who would miss me on a day-to-day basis, and the last person I had sex with was my accountant."

"That's – um." Beca paused. "You should not be sleeping with your accountant – for many reasons -- but we'll get back to that. It's not important right now." She curled her feet under her and muted the television. Stacie eventually couldn't take the silence and turned to meet her eye.

"I know I'm being ridiculous."

"It's not ridiculous," Beca assured her. "Stacie – there are many people who would miss you if you weren't here. I don't know what I'd do without you – I love Chloe, but she's my wife. Sometimes I need a best friend who isn't my wife. And that's you. And our kids – they adore you. They like you better than they like me and Chloe." Stacie laughed – exactly what her longtime friend had been going for.

"Listen – we love having you here as often as you want to be here. But if it's too hard for you to watch Dahlia – I'll understand – "

"No!" Stacie assured her. "No. I'm sorry. I promise, I was fine while she was awake – but then I tucked her in to bed – and she asked me to sing – and it just kind of messed with my head – thinking about the what ifs."

"It's not too late," Beca told her. Stacie shook her head. "Seriously, dude. Never too late. You are gorgeous – in case you haven't looked in the mirror lately." Stacie laughed. "You are kind and generous and loving and smart – and you can talk to anyone about anything and seriously look interested – which, by the way, is a skill I've been hoping to learn from you over the years. It hasn't worked, as you can tell. I mean, sometimes I glaze over when my own kids are talking to me." More laughter shook the taller brunette.

She was smiling by the time their conversation ended, but Beca made a note to check back – Stacie deserved to be happy. "Come on, it's like after midnight or something ridiculous like that." She stood.

"I should get going – "

"No," Beca shook her head firmly. "Get your butt upstairs. Now. And if you argue I'll make you sleep with me and Chloe – and that could be awkward for you." Stacie shook her head and laughed again. She allowed herself to be installed in the guest bedroom and listened to Beca sum up her pep talk one more time. Ending – of course – with an "I love you, you weirdo."

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 – Love Lies Waiting

"Home where my thought's escaping,Home where my music's playing,Home where my love lies waitingSilently for me."

~ Simon & Garfunkle

After the first journey was successful, Beca and Chloe continued leaving Dahlia with Aubrey or Stacie once a week to do something together – even if it was just grocery shopping. Dahlia only took a few times before she understood completely that it meant nothing and they were coming back. Stacie helped with that a great deal.

Sometimes, when they did take her out, they were left wishing they hadn't. With the help of Beca's publicist and agent, they had been able to keep the adoption under wraps. But with a new album set to come out soon, Beca was being watched.

On a Tuesdsay evening, they had taken Dahlia to dinner. As they were preparing to leave, Beca realized that a horde of paparazzi had arrived at the entrance to the place. Normally, she wasn't high on their radar. But with the new album, she had risen again temporarily in celebrity ranks. She stood inside the double doors, her arms wrapped around Dahlia. Chloe looked nervously outside – trying to decide if they should make a run for it or not.

Beca finally made a decision. "They want me," she told Chloe. "I'll go out the front – you check with the manager and see if you can use the back door with Dahlia. I'll bring the car to you." Chloe didn't want to abandon her wife to the horde, but she knew Dahlia wasn't ready for the paparazzi. Beca put on her sunglasses and waited for Chloe and Dahlia to disappear back into the main part of the restaurant before opening the door. She pushed her way through the cameras and voices to reach her car.

Chloe had walked right up the hostess and asked to speak to the manager. When he came out, she explained what had happened as quickly as she could. He was happy to let her out the back door – but by the time they made it, a few photographers had followed Beca. She had pulled up as close as she could to the door – but it still left a few feet of open space.

Chloe knelt in front of her daughter. "Sweetie – you know that what Mama does it important, right? That a lot of people like to listen to her music?" Dahlia nodded. "Well, some people try to make money off of that by taking pictures of Mama and the rest of the family. Right now – there are people out there. When I open the door –we are going to walk to the car – quickly – but don't run – and not say anything to them, okay? Don't listen to a word they say." Dahlia nodded, but she had no idea what she was walking into. Beca had opened the back passenger side door from inside and it was barely sixty seconds between when the restaurant back door opened and Chloe slammed shut the car door. But it was enough for Dahlia to hear the roar of the voices asking questions and the flash of the cameras. She was dazed.

Chloe had climbed into the back with her and quickly buckled her into her booster seat while Beca began driving away carefully. She hated the paparazzi – but hitting one of them with her car would be a real headache.

Dahlia was silent on the way home. "Are you okay, sweetie?" Chloe asked several times. The little girl nodded – but she was extra jumpy for the rest of the week. And it was going to be a difficult end of the week for her. For the first time since she had come to live with Chloe and Beca, the latter had to leave town for almost a week. The next night, after dinner was finished and the dishes were in the washer, Beca and Chloe took Dahlia into the living room to watch a movie. The brunette woman planned to work on her music while her wife and daughter enjoyed (in her opinion) some Disney drivel. First, they needed to talk to her about Beca's trip. It was the first time she would be leaving since Dahlia's arrival. Her other girls were used to her being gone for a week or so at a time on tours or other engagements. Beca tried to make sure she was never gone longer than that – but even those weeks hurt.

"Dahlia, I have to go to New York next week for work," Beca said as they settled onto the sofa. The little girl looked up at her, confusion clear.

"Am I going?"

"Sorry, kid. You're staying here with Mom. She doesn't get to go to New York either," she teased.

"We'll have fun here," Chloe promised. "Maybe a trip to the zoo? Definitely that new Pixar movie – and we can see it without listening to Mama complain about movies." She tried to sound upbeat and chipper but Dahlia's eyes were closed tight and her breathing was heavy. Beca pulled her into her lap and rubbed her back.

"Hey," she said softly. "It's okay. I promise – it won't be long. I'll be back before you know it." But the panic attack was coming – and they could do nothing but watch and try to help her slow her breathing. By the time she was calmed down, she was exhausted and silent. She went to bed early and barely said ten words. Nothing Beca or Chloe could say made her feel any better.

"She hates me," Chloe said, collapsing onto their bed later that night.

"No one hates you," Beca responded, folding a sweater into her suitcase. "Dahlia is just scared. She's never been without either one of us since she moved in – this is new territory."

"Being stuck with me all day," Chloe answered.

"You're being dramatic." She zipped her suitcase closed and crawled onto the bed, putting her arms around Chloe. "Our kids love you so much – Dahlia included. You are incredible." Chloe knew Dahlia didn't hate her – she was being dramatic – but she did not feel that she was connecting with the child on the same level Beca was. And she had no idea what to do about it.

The week without Beca actually went well – the brunette called daily and Chloe was around to keep Dahlia busy after school and on the weekend. They took a trip to the zoo, many to the park, and went to see the movie Chloe had mentioned. Dahlia enjoyed the week; but by the end of the sixth day, she was getting antsy. She kept asking Chloe how many hours until Beca came home – and what if her plane was delayed? And was Chloe sure she was coming home that day? Having had enough, Chloe took her into the living room.

"How about this – while we wait for mama, we'll watch her on TV."

"We can do that?"

"We can," Chloe assured her.

Dahlia snuggled into Chloe's side while the older woman queued up Beca's interview from the night before. The brunette had promised her that there was no vulgarity or anything Dahlia shouldn't hear. "Why was Beca on a talk show?" Dahlia asked.

"It's one of the things she has to do for her job," Chloe told her. "She went to talk to Seth Meyers to get people excited about her new album – it's coming out on Tuesday."

Dahlia nodded, despite Chloe not certain what she understood of that statement. She lay her head back against Chloe's shoulder and settled in to watch. Chloe skipped the beginning part, explaining that the host was just talking to the audience. They forwarded until Chloe caught sight of Beca stepping out from backstage. She rewound a bit and hit play. She was announced – "Ladies and Gentlemen, Grammy-Award-Winner Singer-Songwriting and Producer, Beca Mitchell." They watched Beca walk onto the stage in a beautiful gray dress with a fluttery neckline and sleeves. Her dark hair was pulled up into a soft mound of curls and she smiled brightly as she greeted Seth.

"Does she know him?" Dahlia asked as Beca hugged Seth Meyers and let him kiss her cheek.

"Yes," Chloe assured her. "Beca has known Seth for years – and I've met him and his wife too. We had dinner with them in New York a few years ago."

Beca and Seth made small talk as they both questioned the other about their current condition. The traditional – how are you, how was your flight? Then Seth said something that made Dahlia's ears perk up.

"So, I hear that you expanded your family. Again. Three daughters was not enough?" He teased.

"They are great – we love them – but definitely not enough. We always felt like our family was supposed to be bigger," Beca responded with a smile and a shake of her head.

"So now, you have – "

"Four daughters," Beca responded with joy. "I mean, we were already outnumbered, so it just made sense to keep going. We were really excited to adopt – this was our first time doing that - and Chloe and I just feel incredibly fortunate to be in the position and situation we're in right now – that we were able to do it."

"So," Seth said, counting off on his fingers. "You have Bella and Poppy – who you carried and gave birth to – at the same time?"

"Twins, yes," she responded, rolling her eyes at him. "They are in college at our Alma Mater," Beca continued with a nod.

"And Vera – also biological?"

"Or so they say," Beca teased. "Vera actually tested freakishly well on a bunch of tests that I don't really understand – so she graduated early – and started college with her sisters. She's a little young to be on her own – so she's living with two of our best friends and their kids in Georgia."

"Freakishly well?" Seth teased.

"Yeah, I'm sure I'll hear about using that wording. But really – to me – it seems that way. I don't know where she gets it. I do okay – Chloe is very intelligent – but Vera just sort of knocked it off the charts."

"You just do okay?" Seth laughed.

Beca shrugged. "I manage."

"I think you do better than manage."

She blushed – and Chloe could tell it was real. She hated talking about herself. "Well, thank you. That's very sweet of you to say."

"So tell me about your newest addition."

"Dahlia is eight," Beca responded, smiling happily. "She's amazing," she added. "So excited about life – but sort of quiet about it too. It's really awesome to see her becoming part of our family. I mean, she was for us from day one – but I think it's starting to sink in for her."

"That's really cool."

"It is," Beca agreed with a nod.

"Do we get to see any pictures?"

"No," Beca said with a shake of her head. Seth pouted. "Come on, Dude. She deserves a few more weeks of privacy before the paparazzi starts trying to sell her picture."

"Fair enough, fair enough. So, Beca, what have you been working on?"

"Lately – not too much. A few personal projects. But as I've mentioned – there is a new human being in our lives – so I've just been sort of enjoying that. But a few months ago – I finished my fourth album. It's called "Long Way Round" – and it includes a lot of really great tracks. It's the first time I've really equally loved every song that has gone onto an album."

"I'm really excited for the world to hear it. My wife and I love it – since you sent us an advanced copy. Thank you, for that."

"You're very welcome."

"Tell me about the title of the album," Seth said.

"I told you," Beca responded with a smile. "It's called Long Way Round."

"Can you please give me the names of your first three albums?"

Beca rolled her eyes – she knew the corner he was backing her into. "Oh, come on…"

"Please?"

""The first is called Sweet Company, the second is Prettier with You, the third Prettiest of Views. All four albums are titled after lines in a song that I used to audition for the acapella group at my alma mater where I met my wife, most of my closest friends, and where I went on to win three national and one international championship."

"That's pretty impressive."

"Thanks," Beca responded dryly.

Seth couldn't hide his amusement as he reached below his desk and came back with – a plastic cup. A yellow one. She and Chloe had told him about the cup – in confidence – at a dinner years ago. Beca shook her head but he was laughing, begging. "Come on, please? Sing it for us, Beca."

She sighed and eventually took the cup, turning so that she could use his desk as a surface. She began tapping the table top and cup in a succinct rhythm. Dahlia's eyes grew as she began singing. Chloe smiled at her reaction; it was the same for most people seeing Beca do that for the first time. When she finished, Beca slammed the cup in front of Seth and smirked at him. He stood, along with his audience, to clap.

"That is awesome," he said, laughing happily. "Beca, I'm impressed."

"I'm glad," she said with a return smirk. Once the audience sat back down, Seth turned to her again.

"Your time is almost up – but will you sing something for us from the album?"

Beca looked at him hesitantly – she was being coy. "I don't know, Seth – my time is almost up," she reminded him, offering an overdone frown.

"Please? Pretty please?"

"Alright," Beca finally agreed. She stood, straightened her dress, and walked over to the piano. She settled behind the bench and looked at Seth, who was standing in front of his desk. "I changed my mind."

"Oh?"

"I know I shouldn't do this – but I kind of usually do what I want, so –" She shrugged. Chloe grinned; that was true – Beca did her own thing – and so far, it had worked out well for her. "I don't want to play a song from this album. Even though I love them – I have a new one I love a little more."

"You play whatever you want," Seth agreed. Beca smirked and turned back toward the piano. Someone had placed a microphone on top of it.

"I wrote this just a few weeks ago – so it might be a bit rough. But I starting writing songs for each of my girls as they were growing up. This song is the first I wrote for Dahlia." Dahlia looked up at Chloe, who smiled and nodded confirmation. She gave her a tiny squeeze.

Beca began playing a soft, simple melody and then her voice joined in.

"Like a small boatOn the oceanSending big wavesInto motionLike how a single wordCan make a heart openI might only have one matchBut I can make an explosion

And all those things I didn't sayWrecking balls inside my brainI will scream them loud tonightCan you hear my voice this time

This is my fight songTake back my life songProve I'm alright songMy power's turned onStarting right now - I'll be strongI'll play my fight songAnd I don't really care if nobody else believes'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me

Losing friends and I'm chasing sleepEverybody's worried about meIn too deepSay I'm in too deep - I'm in too deep-And it's been eight yearsI miss my homeBut there's a fire burning in my bonesAnd I still believeYeah I still believe

And all those things I didn't sayWrecking balls inside my brainI will scream them loud tonightCan you hear my voice this time

This is my fight songTake back my life songProve I'm alright songMy power's turned onStarting right now - I'll be strongI'll play my fight songAnd I don't really care if nobody else believes'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me

A lot of fight left in me

Like a small boatOn the oceanSending big wavesInto motionLike how a single wordCan make a heart openI might only have one matchBut I can make an explosion

This is my fight songTake back my life songProve I'm alright songMy power's turned onStarting right now - I'll be strongI'll play my fight songAnd I don't really care if nobody else believes'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me

Now I've still got a lot of fight left in me

Once the Audience's applause died down, he spoke. "That was phenomenal," Seth said, smiling. Beca returned the smile – Chloe could see her eyes glistening. He gestured to the piano and looked at the camera. "Ladies and Gentlemen, Beca Mitchell." Another round of applause sounded – this one causing a standing ovation. The last shot before the commercial break was Beca, offering a beautiful blushing smile.

Chloe looked down at Dahlia, tilting her chin so their eyes could meet. "What did you think?" Tears overcame her and the little girl began sobbing, holding tightly to Chloe as she buried her face in the older woman's side. "Are these happy tears?" Chloe asked, stroking her hair. Dahlia nodded and the ball of tension in the redhead's stomach lessened a bit. The child was spent – sleeping in Chloe's lap two hours later when Beca returned home. Sometimes Chloe still couldn't get over the absolutely beauty of her wife. Her breath hitched as Beca stepped in the door and smiled over at her. Light makeup, hair in loose curls, wearing the jeans, boots, long-sleeved blouse, jacket, and scarf that made her seem both comfortable and put together.

The brunette looked at her watch and then back at Chloe. "What's this? It's not even lunch time. Is she coming down with something?" Beca hurried to Chloe's side and put a hand to Dahlia's forehead.

"We watched your interview. She was just a little overwhelmed," Chloe answered with a calm smile. Beca still looked upset as she observed the dried tear-tracks. "They were happy tears," her wife assured her. "She was just overwhelmed," she repeated.

Beca accepted that and sat next to Chloe, reaching out to gently stroke Dahlia's hair from her face. She leaned close to kiss her wife. "I missed you."

"Missed you too," Chloe responded. "We both did."

They were silent for a few minutes, Beca leaning her head against Chloe's shoulder while Dahlia remained passed-out in her lap. "Will not playing a song from the album hurt sales?" Chloe asked.

"No," Beca responded assuredly. "Pre-sales put it at number two on billboards right now. It might go up after this week of interviews."

When Dahlia woke, she was thrilled to see that Beca was home – she could barely be detached from the woman for the remainder of the day. Beca was exhausted after her trip so they kept it low key – snuggling on the sofa to watch movies and then taking a short walk to the park.

That night, Beca was in bed minutes after Dahlia was tucked in. She smiled tiredly as Chloe crawled in next to her. "I missed you so much," she said, scooting over to curl up into the redhead's side.

"And me you," Chloe returned. She angled her head down, rearranging herself to kiss Beca. The brunette kissed her back, but pulled away when the redhead tried to deepen them.

"Sorry," she said, her cheeks flushed. "I'm really tired. I didn't sleep well on the trip – and some of those interviews were so late – and others so early."

"I understand," Chloe said. Her hand fell to Beca's abdomen and she saw an involuntary flinch. "But Beca – this has been going on for three months. Do we have a problem?" She locked eyes with her wife, waiting for an answer. The brunette squirmed and eventually closed her eyes, letting out a deep sigh.

"I don't know," she admitted. "I'm sorry," she added in a whisper.

"You don't need to be sorry," Chloe responded. "But we need to talk about this." When their relationship had been new – over twenty years prior – Beca had intimacy issues. It had taken her over a year to be able – with the help of therapy and medication – to comfortably make love with Chloe. She had wanted to – her body just hadn't gotten the message. The problem had reemerged in smaller doses after each of her pregnancies – fading after a few weeks. But this was the longest they'd gone without making love since the original problem had surfaced all those years ago.

"Do we have to talk about it now?" Beca asked in a whisper.

"Yes," Chloe responded, not giving in to her wife's clear exhaustion. "When did it start again?"

Beca closed her eyes to gather her thoughts. "I guess after the girls left for Barden. The last time we were together – it hurt," she admitted. "Since then, I panic a little when it comes up."

"You're supposed to tell me that when it happens," Chloe chided her gently. "Not three months later."

"I know," Beca responded. "I thought it would go away – but it's getting worse. I made an appointment with Maggie for next week. Tuesday morning – after Dahlia's in school." The therapist who had gotten them through the issue the last time was, luckily, still practicing.

"It's a good start," Chloe agreed. "Do you want me to come with you?"

"You don't have to – "

"Do you want me there?" She asked firmly, interrupting the objections.

"Yes."

"Then I will be. We'll figure this out together. We have before." Despite knowing what it was going to do to Beca, Chloe pulled her close, spooning from behind. She had her arm around Beca's waste and her hand laying over her heart. "Just breathe," she said softly. "It's okay." And it was. They had been through much worse together – they would get through this.

On the other side of the country, another tiny brunette was having her own problems with anxiety. Bella was incredibly pissed off. No matter what she did –no matter how hard she worked – it was never enough for Camille. She knew that Alexis buffered her from the majority of the senior's wrath, but she simply didn't understand why Camille hated her so much.

Now, after everyone else had finished practice and gone home to do something potentially fun with the remainder of their Saturday, Camille was making Bella run the choreography again. And again. After the fifth time – and knowing she had made no huge mistakes, Bella was finished. "I'm done," she declared, throwing her hands up at Camille. "If you don't like it, kick me out. Otherwise, see you tomorrow."

"We are not finished," Camille told her.

"I am," Bella told her firmly. "Again, if you have a problem with it – I've given you a solution. Either you need me, or you don't. Make a choice – because I am tired of putting up with your crap. I have no idea why you hate me so much – I've never done anything to you!" Camille looked startled – and for good reason. Despite her usually biting personality, Bella had not been standing up for herself in practices. She didn't want to be treated differently because of her legacy status – but it was getting too bad for her to continue to ignore and kowtow to the older girl.

Bella was walking angrily out the door when she ran directly into Alexis – who was coming back in. "Where have you been?" She asked. "Have you been here this whole time?" Alexis had left right after practice to help one of the other girls with a scheduling problem. Bella was supposed to meet her for lunch half an hour before.

Bella said nothing and continued walking – almost sprinting – from the practice space. Alexis followed her. "Bella! Stop!" She caught up quickly – she was taller and had longer legs. Bella rolled her eyes as she turned to look at the girl who had become a friend.

"I really don't want to talk right now. I'm sorry about lunch – Camille kept me to go over the choreography – and she wasn't even going to let me go now – I just walked out. I can't take this anymore. She needs to back off – or I need to quit."

"You were doing fine with the choreography," Alexis said, her brows knit together. Several of the girls were falling behind – Bella was not one of them.

"I thought so," Bella agreed. She rolled her eyes again. "If you can figure her out – gold star for you. Look, I'm sorry – but I really need some time alone."

"I'll call you later tonight?" Alexis suggested. Bella nodded and turned to continue her angry trek back to her dorm room. While she showered, dressed, and crawled into bed for a bit of a crying jag and a nap, Alexis walked back into the practice room to confront her childhood friend.

She and Camille had grown up together – they had been neighbors, their parents had been friends. Although there were two years between them, they had always vowed to go to Barden together – they had fallen in love with the Barden Bellas when they had seen them in elementary school. They both had strict, difficult to please families. Alexis tried to work around it – Camille allowed the stress to make her someone she wasn't.

The older girl was packing her back when Alexis returned. "What are you doing to Bella?" She demanded.

"She was sloppy during practice – so I made her run the choreography again."

"No, she wasn't," Alexis argued. "I was watching too – and she may have made a few small – fixable mistakes – but she had it together a lot more than half the girls. So why pick on her? What do you have against her?"

"I'm tired of hearing about Bella," Camille said. "It's always one thing or another – I'm tired of it. What is so special about her?"

"She's a good person," Alexis responded. "Just like you usually are. Now what is going on, Camille? Because I'm not putting up with this anymore. You either back off that girl – or I will quit."

"You can't quit – your scholarship – "

Alexis shrugged. "I'll chance it. I won't watch you torture her anymore. What is the problem?"

"She showed up – and I lost my best friend. And I'm not okay with that."

"Did you think about telling me that's how you felt – instead of torturing an innocent Freshman?" Camille scoffed at the idea that Bella was innocent.

"She's constantly doing things to get your attention – like anything I have to say would change the fact that you run to her at the drop of a pin."

"Camille, I am still your best friend. I love you. And I know that the things you're saying right now are out of hurt – so I'm going to forgive them – but you need to get it through your head that Bella is not a threat to you – and you need to learn to treat her with decency. Otherwise, you really will lose your best friend." Alexis walked away, leaving the other girl to think over the ultimatum.

Poppy was not surprised to find Bella in bed. "How long did Camille torture you?" She sat on the edge of the bed, peering down at her sister.

"Forty-five minutes."

"Did you finally tell her off?"

"Yes."

"Good for you. Keep that up. She's being a bitch and she's not going to stop until you make her."

"What did I do to make her dislike me this much?"

"I'm thinking she finds you to be her prime competition for Alexis' attention."

"I'm not."

"Keep telling yourself that, Bells." Poppy knew she could get into it with her sister – she could take this opportunity to knock her over the head with the facts of the situation. But Bella wasn't ready for that – sometimes she needed to stay in a shadowy state of denial for a bit, until she was comfortable enough to walk into the light.

The redhead lay next to her sister and filled her in on her day – chattering on quickly and trying to distract the brunette. Eventually, it worked. They got a text from Emily inviting them to dinner and they went together – spending the rest of the evening with their little sister and the Applebaums. It wasn't home, but it was the next best place.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 – I Go Back

"Every time I hear that song
I go back, I go back

We all have a song that somehow stamped our lives
Takes us to another place and time…"

~ Kenny Chesney

It was a big weekend for all of them. It was Dahlia's first trip to Georgia – and the first time she would be meeting her grandparents on both sides. They had video chatted, but it wasn't the same. It was the first formal performance that Bella and Poppy would do with the Bellas. The plane trip was uneventful – despite it being Dahlia's first time on an airplane. The flight was smooth and the little girl kept busy with her iPad.

Once they arrived at the airport, Chloe and Beca loaded Dahlia and their suitcases into a rental car and headed for Barden. Beca's dad and stepmother were sitting on the front porch, waiting for them. The two women stepped out of the car and Beca helped Dahlia out of her booster seat, holding her hand as they walked toward the house. Her father stood, all smiles, and walked toward them.

"Becs, Chloe – it's so good to see you." He hugged them both. Then he looked at Dahlia and smiled. "You must be Dahlia – I'm Beca's dad. I'm your grandpa – you can call me that if you want." Dahlia smiled hesitantly. Sheila walked up behind them and hugged Beca and Chloe in greeting. She smiled and waved at Dahlia.

"It's so nice to meet you, Dahlia. I'm grandma. I think we have eight years of spoiling to make up for. Let's start with cookies – I have a fresh batch in the kitchen." She held out her hand and Dahlia took it after looking to her mothers for affirmation. They both nodded, Beca winking at her before letting go of her hand. The decision to dub Sheila "grandma" had originally been a difficult one for Beca. But it was what she was – end of story. Beca's own mother didn't really show up for anything and had zero interest in knowing her grandchildren. Sheila was present whenever Beca allowed her to be – and those times had increased over the years.

Their other daughters arrived not long after they did – walking down the residential street together. Beca's father's house was only a few blocks from campus. They walked in without knocking and Poppy immediately called out. "Grandpa! Grandma! Mama! Mom! We're here!"

Beca appeared in front of her. "We can hear that," she said with an amused grin. She hugged Bella fiercely, letting her go only to hug Vera and then Poppy. Chloe did the same – and the two women ushered the three girls into the living room. Not giving her room to be shy about it, each of the sisters hugged and kissed Dahlia in greeting, telling her that they'd missed her and were so happy to see her. She blushed at the attention put also seemed pleased.

The conversation moved smoothly. Dahlia was questioned about school and the other girls about classes and the twins in particular about the Bellas. Warren and Sheila Mitchell had been around when Beca had worked with her friends to turn the group into a legend. They had watched it flourish over the years. There were girls who applied to go to school and Barden specifically to audition for the Bellas. There were two full scholarships given out yearly to girls who became Bellas.

Beca was exhausted from travel, so was also a little frustrated when she looked around the dinner table. Bella, Dahlia, and Vera were barely touching their plates. Dahlia and Bella sat on either side of their brunette mother, so she was able to lean in close to each of them. She used her knife to section off a portion of the macaroni and cheese casserole and a piece of the chicken for the smaller girl. She moved them to one side and pointed at them with her utensil. "I need you to eat at least that much," she said softly to Dahlia. The little girl nodded and began eating it, slowly. She didn't try to move things around on her plate anymore – she knew Beca was watching.

The mother didn't say a word to Bella, simply met her eye and looked at her plate. The young woman gave an almost imperceptible nod and began eating with a bit more gusto. By this time, Chloe had noticed and realized that Vera was also lagging behind, most of her meal untouched. She tapped her nail lightly on the edge of the girl's plate and said nothing. It worried both mothers – because it was a sign that Vera – and especially Bella without Emily's oversight – were probably eating poorly in college. Beca even started to study Vera, wondering if she had lost weight.

After dinner, the visiting moved to the back porch. Poppy and Bella, having long ago come to a disgruntled kind of end to their spat from earlier that semester, curled up next to each other on the large wooden swing in Sheila's garden while Vera wandered the paths, looking for odd bugs and other creatures. Dahlia followed her for a bit but grew tired quickly, crawling into Chloe's arms on the screened-in back porch barely an hour after dinner was over. "Let's go get you ready for bed, sweetie," the redhead said.

"It was a long day," Beca agreed. "I'll be up a bit to say goodnight." Chloe nodded and stood.

"Are you girls staying here tonight?" She asked, looking at the twins and Vera. All three nodded, so she went upstairs without saying goodnight to them. After Dahlia was showered and dressed in her pajamas and tucked under the covers in the guest bedroom, Chloe read to her a few chapters of James and the Giant Peach. Beca arrived just in time, perching next to Chloe and signing a soft, quiet rendition of St. Judy's Comet. When they arrived in the living room, Chloe groaned.

Bella and Sheila were setting up a deluxe scrabble board on the living room coffee table. "Aren't we too tired for this?"

"Come on, Mommy," Vera chided. "There are so many of us – there won't be a long game."

Sheila had just walked into the room with several bowls of popcorn balanced on a tray and Warren followed behind with tea, coffee, water, and soda. "You're welcome to be on my team, Chloe," the older woman offered.

"That's alright," Chloe said with a sigh. "I'd prefer to lose with some dignity."

Beca laughed as she walked in, several pillows in hand. She threw them on the floor on the opposite side of the coffee table for the girls to sit on. She and Chloe sat on cushions at either end of the coffee table while Warren and Sheila took the sofa seats and the three girls lined up on the other side. Poppy looked at her mom as she sat down. "We need some rules so the normal people in this room have a chance." Vera bristled at being considered not normal but Bella smirked and Warren and Sheila chuckled.

"Alright," Beca said. "No chemical compounds or names of elements. They're proper names – they're out. No Latin, Greek, Arabic, Sumerian, or any other ancient language. No foreign languages."

"What about foreign words that have become part of the English language?" Bella asked. "Like jubilee or kaput?"

"Those are fine," Beca acknowledged. They spent the next two hours playing the game that, for some of them, was incredibly engaging. For Chloe and Poppy – and sometimes Beca – it felt like an uphill battle. For every 15-25 point word they put down, Bella, Vera, Warren, and Sheila managed to double or triple those points. Once the last letter was on the board, Beca called an end to the game. Bella had impressed with Quixotry but Warren beat them all – and used her Q to do it – with Quizzify.

Within ten minutes, all three girls had helped take the snacks back into the kitchen and had hugged and kissed Warren and Sheila goodnight. "Thanks, Dad," Beca said as she poured out the last of the coffee and rinsed the pot.

"Thank you, Bec." He kissed her temple and sent her away. "Go to bed. Sheila and I can clean up." She did, following Chloe up the stairs. They peaked in on Dahlia, who was still sleeping. Poppy and Vera had snuggled into the full sized bed in the room.

Beca and Chloe kissed them and whispered their goodnights before heading to the other room – Warren's office – where Bella had settled into the pull-out bed that came from the love seat. "Good night, Love," Beca told her. Chloe did the same, leaning down to kiss her.

The two women went to their own bedroom and fell into a dreamless sleep. They were woken again – at two in the morning – by an opening door. Beca's eyes shot open. She expected Dahlia but instead found Vera in the doorway. "Come on, love," she whispered softly. Chloe didn't say anything, simply rolled a bit to make room for Vera between them. The sixteen year old crawled into bed, looking apologetic and shamed. She had a small brown bear hooked under her arm.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I had a bad dream."

"You don't have to be sorry," Beca whispered. She wrapped her arms around Vera and pulled her close. Chloe came in from the other side, absently rubbing her back. Within ten minutes, thunder cracked outside. The wind was wild – a storm was definitely coming in. Dahlia appeared next, her hand firmly in Poppy's.

"She woke up with the thunder," Poppy explained.

"Come on," Chloe said, pulling back the blankets. Dahlia scrambled across the room and under the covers, snuggling against Chloe. Poppy stood awkwardly in the door way.

"Good night," she said, turning away.

"Get back here," Beca ordered. Poppy did – happily. She carefully climbed over Chloe and Dahlia and settled in between her two youngest sisters. It was a king-sized bed, but Beca was sure it wasn't intended to hold this many people. Especially not when a head of dark, loose curls ducked into the doorway. "Come on, Bells. Join the party."

She didn't need to be convinced. She snuggled in between Vera and Poppy and sighed softly as she felt Beca's hand come to rest on her back. The four girls – somehow – fell asleep almost immediately. Chloe did as well. Beca was concentrating too hard on not falling out of bed. Eventually, she was able to push Vera onto her side and gain a bit of room for herself.

She slept pretty soundly despite her position, because she almost jumped out of her skin when her dad tried to wake her the next morning. "Sorry," he said, pulling his hand away from her shoulder. "What happened here?"

"Homesickness and thunderstorms," Beca responded in a tired whisper. "Is there coffee?"

"Always." She untangled herself from Vera and Bella and grabbed a sweater before following her dad to the kitchen. Sheila was waiting there, frying bacon and mixing a batch of French toast.

"Good morning," she said cheerfully.

"Morning," Beca returned, not as enthusiastically. She sat at the table and her father placed a mug of coffee before her, complete with hazelnut creamer. "Thank you."

"Sorry to wake you – the plan was to wake the girls and free them and give you and Chloe time to sleep – but when none of them were in their beds – I got a little worried."

"It's okay," Beca assured him. She looked at the clock. "Chloe and I have to leave for Bellas rehearsals in an hour anyway. Are you sure you'll be okay with Dahlia all day?"

"Of course," Sheila said. "And Vera is staying too?"

Beca nodded. "But she knows you. Dahlia is still a little hesitant. If you need anything – if she gets upset about anything and you can't calm her down – it doesn't happen often – just call my cell. I'll leave it on – Aubrey be damned."

Chloe, Poppy, and Bella appeared next, each pouring themselves a cup of coffee. They thankfully ate Sheila's breakfast and got dressed for a long day. Bella and Poppy had practice in the normal rehearsal space. Chloe and Beca were meeting their generation of Bellas to practice in one of the practice rooms in the concert hall.

"I'm just warning you," Beca told her wife as she pulled on a pair of exercise capris and a short sleeved t-shirt with a hoodie over top, "If Aubrey yells at me for any reason today, I will yell right back."

"Just try to be nice and stay calm," Chloe said. "This is supposed to be for fun. You and Aubrey make it out like there's another trophy to win."

When Beca arrived in the kitchen again, Bella was filling water bottles for mothers, herself, and Poppy. Vera and Dahlia were sitting at the table with Warren and Sheila, eating their breakfast. Beca dropped kisses atop both their heads.

"Okay, Love," Beca said. "Mom and I have to go meet the rest of the Bellas to practice. You're going to stay here with Grandma and Grandpa and Vera – and they'll bring you to the show tonight. If you need anything – you can call my cell – okay?" Dahlia nodded, looking a bit nervous. She barely knew these two adults – and now she was expected to spend all day with them. But she trusted Vera – and she trusted Chloe and Beca. If they were leaving her with these people, they had to be okay. The twins and their mothers left quickly, carrying water bottles and garment bags.

After breakfast, Dahlia was sitting in front of the closet where Beca had unpacked her clothing. There were only half a dozen or so outfits – they weren't staying that long. But she had no idea what to wear. She was almost in tears when Vera found her. "Hey, squirt," she said cheerfully. "what's up? Are you staying in pajamas all day?"

Dahlia shook her head. It clicked for Vera suddenly – she remembered overhearing Beca and Emily talking about Dahlia's problems with decision making. "Why don't you just wear jeans and a t-shirt?" She suggested. "I bet grandpa will buy you a Barden sweatshirt – we're headed over to campus for the homecoming festival. It's pretty casual." Dahlia nodded, relieved that the decision was made for her. She found a pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved blue blouse. She put on a pair of socks and the tiny tennis shoes Chloe had practically squealed over when she'd made the purchase. Warren did better than offer to buy her a University sweatshirt – he already had. He and Sheila were decked out in the school colors and Vera had on her hoodie. Dahlia was overwhelmed – she still was by gifts – but happy to open the bag Sheila handed her that held a tiny quarter-zip fleece in the school colors. Hers was green, like Vera's.

She spent the morning walking around academic walk, holding Vera's hand, and staring in awe at everything going on. Every club on campus had a table. The library had a little booth where they were giving away books. Dahlia was completely taken aback when the woman next to it told her she could choose one to take home. It took her twenty minutes, but she finally walked away with a copy of Ivy and Bean – which Vera was almost positive they didn't have at home. Dahlia thanked the woman and held the book close as they continued their journey.

There was a football game going on – but none of them were particularly interested – and the painted faces frightened Dahlia a bit. So they went to the food area. Sheila tucked the book into her purse, promising to keep it safe so it didn't get dirty; the little girl agreed. Vera and Dahlia waited at a table while Warren and Sheila purchased a plethora of carnival food and brought it back to them. Dahlia was particularly taken with the cheese fries.

They were almost finished with lunch when Beca appeared, sitting next to Vera and stealing a few fries. "I thought you were in rehearsal all day?" Warren said.

"I was. I might have gone off on Aubrey and needed a walk."

Warren chuckled. "What? I can't stand it – I was captain for three years – longer than she was – and every year she takes over." She looked at her daughters, who were still eating nachos and fries and chicken fingers and laughed. "So, all I need to do to get you guys to eat is deep fry everything? Your Mom is not going to like that."

She sighed deeply and stretched as she stood. "I suppose I should go back before some blonde demon we know has a hissy fit."

"Already happened," Stacie chirped, coming up behind them. She knelt down to hug and kiss Vera and Dahlia, "Hello, beautiful girls. How is the festival?"

"Fun," Dahlia said with a bright smile. Stacie grinned back at her and look at Vera who pointed at the little girl and dryly said,

"What she said."

"Well, I can't wait to check it out with you tomorrow – but right now I have to get your mama back to the gym before your mom gets mad at me. Have fun." She kissed them again and ruffled their hair as she stood. Vera swatted her hand away and tried to fix her curls.

"I don't want to go back," Beca whined.

"You do not want your wife coming to find you. Trust me." Beca groaned. She leaned down between her daughters.

"If I die from too much exercise, blame your mom."

"Mama!" Vera chided.

Dahlia giggled at the dramatics. Beca kissed them both on the temple and told them she loved them before following Stacie back down Academic Walk. Sheila looked over at Warren, who seemed a bit teary eyed.

"I did nothing to deserve her," he whispered to his wife.

"Sure you did," she promised. "You're a good man. She was a teenager. It all worked out – and now you have beautiful grandchildren to enjoy. Don't miss a minute of it." She smiled at her and took her hand, kissing it gently.

By the time they were finished eating, Warren said they had enough time for a few more booths – and then they had to go home to get ready for the concert that night. They were at a booth where both girls were attempting desperately to put a ring around a bottle to win a prize – but no amount of grandpa's quarters was making it happen. After five dollars, he suggested they try a different game. Before they could, Chloe's parents found them.

"Warren! Shelia! How nice to see you!" Lydia Beale said happily. Ben smiled and waved to them both. Lydia grabbed and hugged Vera so quickly that it frightened Dahlia, who immediately moved to stand behind Sheila. The older woman understood her distress and put a hand on her shoulder in reassurance. "I'm so glad we found you," Lydia said. "Chloe said you would be here with the two little ones." Vera visibly bristled at being lumped into the "little ones" category but said nothing – her Nana was not really someone to argue with.

"Where is the other one?" Lydia asked, suddenly realizing she'd forgotten to look. Ben saw that the child was frightened and put his hand on his wife's arm, pulling her back a foot or so from where Vera and Sheila, now standing side by side, hid Dahlia.

"Honey, slow down a bit," she said kindly. "And I think they'll introduce us."

"Of course."

Sheila turned around and knelt to the ground, her eyes meeting Dahlia's. "Lydia is your Nana – Chloe's mom. She's a very nice lady – but a little loud. But she's nothing to be afraid of. Trust me." Dahlia did for some reason. She still held strong to Sheila's hand but she took a few steps forward, peeking out from between her grandmother and her sister.

"Well there you are," Lydia said happily. "Aren't you just the prettiest little thing? Isn't she beautiful, Ben?"

"Certainly is," he said. "We're so happy to meet you in person, Dahlia." He winked and she giggled. She had spoken with him several times over video chat with Chloe, just as she had spoken to Lydia and Warren with Beca.

"What is this?" Lydia asked. "You were privy to meeting our granddaughter before me?"

"It was just happenstance," Ben told her. "Stop putting on your airs. Now, it looks like these girls have yet to win a stuffed animal – and it looks like they've wiped out the bank of grandpa." Warren nodded and playfully pulled a pocket out to show it was empty. "But luckily for you ladies, the bank of Papa has just arrived." Dahlia found Ben to be delightful – he was funny and nice but kept his distance – not trying to smother her. Lydia was a bit much to take. They spent another hour with all four grandparents.

"We're going to dinner before the show tonight," Sheila told them as they were about to part. "5:30 at the Grille. Would you like to join us?"

"That would be lovely," Lydia said. "Thank you."

"Grandma," Vera moaned as soon as they were out of earshot.

"I was being polite," Sheila told her.

"Nana's a bit much – I think Dahlia needs a break."

"I'm fine," Dahlia said defensively. She was getting tired of being coddled.

"She's fine," Warren repeated, smiling at both his granddaughters.

Back at their grandparents' house, the two girls got ready. Vera curled Dahlia's hair and set it back with a headband. The helped the girl pick out a dress that was navy blue – she would match the rest of the family in pictures. Vera didn't really like dresses, but she eventually chose a navy one with small white dots and a jacket that might possibly have belonged one of her older sisters.

"Well, won't I be the luckiest guy in the theater?" Warren said when he saw the two girls. "I get to walk in with the three prettiest ladies there." Dahlia giggled and Vera said,

"Thanks, Grandpa."

Two hours later, after a dinner where Lydia dominated the conversation, Dahlia spent most of her time coloring on a tablet that Sheila provided, and Vera played on her phone – they were off to the theater to watch the yearly roundup of alumni talent. It was mostly previous Bellas and Treblemakers, but occasionally one of the other groups formed an alumni or current ensemble to perform.

Warren, in his clout as a faculty member, had procured them wonderful seats. Dahlia sat on a pillow in the third row between her sister and her grandmother, watching in awe as the world of collegiate accapella opened up in front of her. The announcer was an angry-seeming little man who yelled a lot, but most people seemed to find him funny, so Dahlia giggled too.

Backstage, Bella sat awkwardly apart from the current set of Bellas, who were in absolute awe of the people they had grown up with. Much to Bella's dismay, the current Bella performance ensemble had several formats. She was really hoping for the jeans and converses that her mother had performed in for several of her award-wining sets. However, she had to be at least happy that she wasn't stuck in the flight-attendant outfits she had also seen pictures of. Instead, their formal costume was a navy dress made of chiffon with inch-thick straps, a sweetheart neckline, and a flowing, flared skirt that started just below the bust line. It was a pretty dress – but it made Bella feel more like a Disney Princess than she thought was necessary to sing a few songs.

They were allowed to wear their hair however they wanted – she had already curled hers and tamed it with a few bobby pins that held it back from her face. Poppy was still working on her perfectly coifed hair. Bella needed the few minutes of silence anyway, to gather her thoughts. She was performing for the first time with the Bellas. In front of her mothers. Her mothers who loved the group so much that they had named her after them. No pressure.

She looked over as she felt a presence. Alexis was sitting to her left. "How are you doing?"

"Fine," Bella responded.

"No matter when happens on this stage – or any other stage – it's not going to change the way people who truly love you see you."

"I know," Bella responded. She looked sideways at Alexis. "And that was really corny."

"You looked like you needed it," the older girl said with a smile before walking away to check on the rest of the group.

Their first number was with the Treble Makers. Aubrey had been absolutely stunned and dismayed when she had learned about the collaboration, but Camille had told her that it been going on since Emily had started it years ago – it was a Barden tradition now. Then it was Emily's turn to hide. The two groups gathered in the wings and sang a fun. medley to start off the night. They sang We Are Young, Some Nights, and Carry On. Bella – much to the outrage of Poppy – had received a duet in the opening number. She and Jeff, one of the newest Treble Makers, sang the first chorus for Carry On.

If you're lost and alone
Or you're sinking like a stone.
Carry on.
May your past be the sound
Of your feet upon the ground.
Carry on.

Carry on, carry on

The Bellas left the stage to allow the current Treble Makers perform their set – three up-beat songs that summed up what the University knew about their accapella boys – they were fun, they could dance, and they could sing.

The current Bellas were up next with a three song set. The first two songs were in the repertoire – the third was the song Bella had sung for auditions. Camilla had come up to her several weeks before and asked if they could use it. She agreed, telling the other woman that it wasn't her song – she just liked it. It had been strange to sing backup on it, but she had managed – and it worked well with Camille's voice.

They were about to walk on stage when Camille handed her a microphone. "You're lead on Marching On," she said simply.

"What?" Bella spat. "No – you can't do that. There were no auditions for it – and I'm not ready – I haven't practiced."

"It's you – or we're backing up no main vocals. Your choice." She walked away and Bella turned to the curtain, burying her face in it. Alexis saw her distress and hurried over to her. Bella quickly filled her in.

"You'll be fine," Alexis told her. "Just do it. Camille doesn't change her mind once she's made it up."

"Did you know about this?" Alexis growled.

"No," the older girl insisted. "I wouldn't have let her spring that on you."

"Why is she doing this?"

"I don't know – but you'll be fine. Maybe she's trying to be nice? Just pretend it's the audition – you killed that. You'll be fine," she repeated. The other Bellas were on stage in formation and she walked to the back. She began walking up the center aisle that was created as her teammates began the background singing and the choreography. She picked up on the choreography as she made it to the front and paused for a second. There was a sea of people behind her. Somehow, she found Dahlia and Vera, smiling up at her and looking so, so hopeful. She forgot about Camille, she forgot about how angry Poppy was going to be, and she even forgot about those dancing and singing around her. She pulled off the song perfectly. She received a loud ovation as she fell back into the group, ending up in her spot in the middle for the next song. Within minutes, the set was done.

Beca and Chloe were on opposite wings of the stage, preparing to go on for their set. So only Chloe was able to catch Poppy and Bella as they exited the stage. "You were wonderful," she told them both, beaming proudly. Bella felt Poppy's fingernails on her shoulder before they left sight of their mother.

"What was that? Why wouldn't you tell me?"

"Camille literally thrust a microphone at me and told me to sing. I had sixty seconds before we went onstage – I barely had time to get it together myself – I had no time to warn you. It wasn't some plot, Poppy. I don't know why she did it – and trust me – I'm going to find out. But for now, I want to go and watch Moms."

She went into the audience and sat next to her grandfather to watch her mothers' set.

Beca owned the stage. There was absolutely no doubt about it. She was kind enough to share with those she loved – Chloe, Stacie, Amy, Aubrey, Cynthia Rose, Emily and five others who had been Bellas during their time of redemption. But she commanded the attention of the audience. Her mix – a new one that they had learned separately and just put together for the first time that morning – highlighted their best assets – her own strong, melodious alto. Chloe's rich voice that could dip into bass when needed. Lily's beat-boxing. Stacie's beautiful soprano and Cynthia Rose's ability to rap anything. It didn't matter if Aubrey ran practices – Beca ran the show.

After the showcase was over and generations of Barden alum had performed, they were forced to make chit-chat with important University people. Bella wanted to die – or at least pout – but Beca was standing beside her, making her behave. "If I have to deal with this bullshit, then so do you," her mother had told her.

"I have a headache," Bella whined when they were finally alone for a moment. Beca turned her chin and looking into her eyes.

"No you don't. You have to learn to pretend to be nice – even when you don't want to be – at some point – now would be a good starting place. Here comes the dean," she said. "Smile." Bella smiled obediently and Beca did the same.

"Dean Miller, it's so nice to see you."

"Mrs. Mitchell, a pleasure. It seems like just yesterday you were skipping my philosophy lectures."

"Well, I was posing a lot of important philosophical questions that year. It didn't leave a lot of time for class."

"It seems that you've made up for your lack of philosophical knowledge in other ways. Congratulations on your continued success. My wife quite likes your new album – and I don't mind it myself."

"Thank you, sir."

"Your performance this evening was, as usual, a credit to Barden."

"Thank you," Beca said graciously, biting her tongue about the time he had told her that the Bellas were a blight to the University. "Sir, this is one of my daughters, Bella. Bella, have you met Dean Miller yet?"

"No," Bella said politely. She shook his hand when it was offered. "Nice to meet you, sir."

"You did very well this evening, Miss Beale Mitchell. "

"Thank you, sir."

"I'm sure our paths will cross again."

"I doubt it, sir." He looked surprised and Beca was giving her a slight glare. She smiled impishly. "I tend not to get into trouble," she finished. "But maybe I can stop by just to say hello."

"Very good, Miss Beale Mitchell, very good," he said, chuckling as he walked away. Beca elbowed her. Bella laughed and continued to schmooze with her mother at her side. Finally, after her feet felt like they might fall off, the line of well-wishers had dwindled and all that was left was a large room full of Bellas, Treble Makers, and family.

"Is it party time?" Jesse asked, raising his champagne in the air. Then he looked at it and frowned. "We're gonna need something better than this."

"I should go find Aubrey or stop him myself before he does something stupid," Beca told her. She smiled at Bella. "Are you going out? I think Poppy mentioned a party after."

"I think I will," Bella responded.

"Make good choices. I love you."

"Love you too." After Beca left, Bella went backstage to the dressing room and changed out of her performance dress and into a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a flannel that was loose, but not baggy. It was perfect. She pushed her sleeves up to her elbows. She slipped her bracelets onto her wrists, secured the earrings she'd been forced to pull out, and clasped her guardian angel necklace around her throat. She was slipped her feet into her boots when Poppy appeared, clearly having already started drinking. She'd been slipping champagne through the whole reception – standing right next to and excited – and therefore oblivious – Chloe.

"You're drunk already," Bella said when she saw her.

"That's why you have to come," Poppy told her. "It's not safe for me to go alone," she added in an exaggerated stage whisper.

"I don't think it's safe for you to be standing right now," her sister told her. "But against my better judgement – I will come to the party." She made Poppy change into the dress he'd brought for the after party and made her drink a bottle of water before they began walking across campus to the Treble House – the location of the party.

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Chapter Text

A Beautiful Tree – Chapter 8 – The Life You Had Planned

"And I'm sorry this hurts you…

But I'm still your baby, your blood,

Have your eyes, have your smile…

And I know this is not the life you had planned…"

~ Cheyenne Jackson and Scott Alan

There were parties that night – many parties. And two of them were acapella parties. The alumni party was being held in the ballroom of Barden's only on-campus hotel. The current-member party was being held poolside at the Treble House. Bella remembered getting to the party – but the rest was sort of a blur. She had more to drink than usual – but she hadn't been drunk – at least she didn't think so. She remembered walking home with Poppy – and she woke up the next morning in the bed she usually slept in at her grandpa's house. Her head hurt and her mouth felt like she'd been sucking on cotton balls, but otherwise she was fine. She reached for her phone and texted Alexis.

"What happened last night?"

"Nothing bad. I think you actually had fun (gasp). We'll talk when I pick you up for the lunch prep." Bella typed back a snarky remark and groaned – she had forgotten that the Bellas had been conscripted into duty that morning to set up for the alumni lunch. She brushed her teeth, washed her face, and walked down the stairs to check the state of the rest of the household.

Beca was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping her morning coffee and scrolling through news on her phone. Warren was frying bacon while Sheila mixed up a frittata. Chloe was enjoying her coffee in the sunshine in the back yard. Sheila and Warren looked up when a thump sounded from the hallway; Beca did not. "Shake it off, Bells."

The younger brunette slumped into the kitchen, rubbing her head. She glared at her mother. "You suck sometimes."

"It's my job sometimes. You get no sympathy from me." Bella glared again, her expression softening as she looked at her grandfather.

"Grandpa, when did you put in an extra step in the staircase?" She asked dryly.

He laughed. "Apparently about the same time your mother started coming home drunk or hung-over." Beca shook her head at him but said nothing. Bella sat at the table and Beca stood, pouring her a glass of water and procuring two aspirin. Bella took them without comment and lay her head on the table.

"Why do people drink?" She groaned.

"A question as old as time," Warren mused. "You could get a good philosophy paper out of that, I think." Bella didn't have the energy to glare at him. Despite her less than sympathetic demeanor, Beca reached over and ran her fingers through Bella's hair, gently massaging her scalp. The teen's head had finally stopped pounding when the doorbell rang. Beca answered it and let Alexis into the house.

"Good morning, Alexis. What brings you here so bright and early?"

"Hi, Mrs. Mitchell. I came to get Poppy and Bella. It's our job to get ready for the brunch. The trebles did it last year and it was kind of horrible."

"I told you last night – do not call me Mrs. Mitchell."

"Sorry," Alexis said sheepishly. "Beca."

The older woman smiled. "You do know that the Trebles did that on purpose so you would take it back over," she said.

"Probably," Alexis agreed with a shrug. She had followed Beca back into the kitchen and looked down at Bella, who had peeked up at her through a curtain of brown curls. "You don't look ready."

"How much time do I have?"

"Fifteen minutes. Tell Poppy ten."

Bella groaned and shuffled out of the room, running up the stairs to try and wake herself. She woke Poppy with no ceremony, simply pulled the blankets from her and told her she had ten minutes to get ready. Ten minutes later, Bella appeared in the kitchen in a pair of jeans, yellow-gold tank, blue shirt with the sleeves pushed up, and her Bella's scarf around her wrist. Her hair was wet but pulled up neatly into a labyrinth of braids.

Vera and Dahlia were awake by then, sitting at the kitchen table munching on the breakfast Sheila had put before them. "Where are you going?" Dahlia asked curiously.

"To help set up for lunch today," Bella answered. "You're coming later with moms and the grandparents."

"Do you want to come and help now?" Alexis asked. "You're both welcome," she said, looking at Vera. The two younger girls looked at Beca, who shrugged.

"That's fine. But Vera – you make sure both of you stay out of the way – and keep an eye on Dahlia." Dahlia and Vera dropped their forks and ran up the stairs to get dressed and Bella turned to her friend.

"You made their day," she said with a laugh.

Alexis smiled. "Vera is fun to have around – and Dahlia's adorable. They really are welcome." The two younger girls appeared before Poppy, Vera having swept her hair into a messy ponytail. Dahlia's hair was loose and looking a little worse for wear.

"Love, go grab a brush and a hairband and let me fix that for you," Beca told her. "A few bobby pins too!" Dahlia came back with the requested supplies just as Poppy appeared, looking extremely angry and pulling her fingers through her hair.

"Why did no one wake me in time to get ready properly?"

"I don't remember you having a personal maid," Beca responded dryly. Poppy simply scowled in response.

Bella – seeing that she would be stuck helping her twin if she didn't act quickly – took the brush and hair things from her mother. "I'll take care of Dahlia – you take care of that." Bella skillfully braided the little girl's hair into a crown around her head, loosening the braids with the end of a comb so they looked softer and less severe. She looked adorable. Somehow, in the same amount of time, Beca was able to tame Poppy's hair into a fishtail braid that looped into a bun behind her left ear. She looked only slightly less pissed off.

"We should go," Alexis said. Sheila handed Poppy a travel cup of coffee and a muffin before she could complain.

"Thanks, grandma," Poppy said. The five girls were out the door quickly and headed to the University's faculty cafeteria.

A few hours later, the family arrived for the alumni breakfast. Bella and Poppy were done with their required work – and Dahlia and Vera had long before abandoned helping. They were, instead, playing with several balloons that had fallen from their stations at poles throughout the room. Beca and Chloe quickly gathered them up and kept them close; there were too many people there to allow running around.

When they found a table, Dahlia was thrilled to be sitting next to Katie and across from Stacie and Jessica. Chloe wandered off to greet a few old friends and Vera took the opportunity to investigate the crowd. She liked people-watching - and snooping. And this was the perfect atmosphere for both.

People settled down into their seats after about twenty minutes – especially after the Dean of Students stepped onto the makeshift stage. His opening remarks would have to be listened to before they could eat. But the band was still setting up, so they had a bit of time. Beca saw Alexis standing nearby, looking lost.

"Alexis, would you like to sit with us?" Beca asked. The young girl smiled in thanks.

"Thank you. But my parents are here. Somewhere."

"They're welcome too," Beca responded. Alexis turned absolutely green. "Everything okay?" There were two people approaching them – a woman with a perfect cardigan set that looked straight out of the 1950s and a man in annoyingly ironed khakis. Beca wasn't sure why the ironed khakis were annoying - but they really were. Alexis turned to Beca quickly, her eyes wide in fear.

"I'm really sorry. Whatever they say – I'm sorry. I don't agree with them at all." Before Beca could answer her panicked diatribe, the couple had walked up to them. Bella was at her mother's elbow, worried about her friend.

"Hello," the woman said cheerfully. "We're Alexis's parents. I'm Dee Dee – and this is my husband Tom."

"Hi," Beca said brightly. "It's so nice to meet you. I'm Beca Mitchell. This is one of my daughters – Bella. She and her twin Poppy are in the Bellas with Alexis."

"How nice."

"Where do you live?" Beca asked, conversationally. "Was it much trouble to get here?"

"We're from Connecticut," Dee Dee answered. "We're still not sure what prompted Alexis to choose a school in the south when we have perfectly respectable institutions in the north."

"I hear she's doing extremely well at Barden. My dad is the head of the English department – "

"It's English," Tom said. "Anyone could pull that off. But our worry is that it doesn't hold a lot of job prospects."

"When you have a passion, you make it work," Beca said, trying to keep her voice light. She wanted to hit them. Both of them. Hard. Chloe chose that moment to appear at her side, smiling brightly. "Chloe, these are Alexis' parents – Dee Dee and Tom."

"It's nice to meet you," Chloe said brightly, holding out her hand to shake theirs. They looked confused and Beca realized why Alexis was so upset. Not only were her parents jerks in general – they were going to have a problem with her and Chloe.

"Is your child in the Bellas too?" Dee Dee asked.

Chloe looked confused but nodded. "Two are – Bella and Poppy."

"You have the same children?"

"That's usually what happens when you're married," Beca said, her voice and eyes reflecting the awkwardness, picking up Chloe's hand in her own.

"Oh," the other woman said, uncomfortably. "I didn't realize."

"Oh, that's alright. We try to blend in. It's part of the gay agenda." Beca responded, her voice sweet and her tone not hinting at her complete sarcasm. Chloe elbowed her.

"Please forgive her – she thinks she's funny. She's usually wrong."

"Is that still legal down here in the south?" Tom asked.

"In fact, it's legal in all fifty states," Beca told him. "It has been for well over two decades."

"Isn't that nice?" Dee Dee said in a tone that indicated it was not at all nice. She turned to her daughter. "Alexis, I see Mimi Foster over there – I'm going to go and see where she's sitting. Come along."

"I have to finish helping set up," Alexis lied.

"Then hurry," her mother said snappishly. Once her parents were gone, she turned to Beca and Chloe and Bella, her face now ashen gray.

"I'm so sorry – I know they're horrible. I don't think the way they do – I never have. I'm so sorry for their behavior."

"You are not responsible for your parents," Beca told her kindly. "Please don't worry about it – we've heard worse over the years." She saw that Alexis was still devastated.

Chloe tried to help. "Sweetie, we aren't going to judge you on your parents. You are a good person and a good friend to our daughter – that is all that matters to us." Beca nodded in agreement.

Alexis seemed a bit more relieved when she headed back to the front of the cafeteria to pretend she had something to do before returning to her parents. "They were horrible," Bella said softly, her head resting on Beca's shoulder. "Why are people like that?"

"I do not know, my love. I do not know."

"Come on, ladies, let's sit down so we can ignore the Dean for twenty minutes and then eat this delicious looking food," Chloe said cheerfully, trying her best to move beyond the awkward encounter. Luckily for all involved, the conversation had been quiet. Had Cynthia Rose, Amy, - or any number of their friends or family – overheard the conversation, there would have been more trouble. Chloe and Beca had learned in their early years of dating and marriage when to battle – and when to ignore those who used ignorance as an excuse for hatred.

Lunch was nice – but Bella and her mothers were still a bit preoccupied over what they'd heard. Dahlia and Katie were having such fun together that Donald and Jessica offered to take Dahlia with them for the afternoon to the park – and back to her parents' house for dinner.

Beca and Chloe exchanged looks of concern. "That's fine," Beca said. "But if she gets upset – can you call us? She's not usually away from both of us at the same time – except for school - and yesterday with my dad. But Vera was there."

"We'll be fine," Jessica promised. "But if not, we'll bring her right back home." Dahlia hugged Beca and Chloe and happily followed Katie and her parents. Beca and Chloe watched in awe and kept their fingers crossed that it wouldn't end badly.

It didn't. In fact, Chloe had to go and get Dahlia around 8PM – and ended up staying another hour talking to Jessica and Donald while the girls played with their dolls. It was ten in the evening – well past her bedtime – when Beca and Chloe finally got her to sleep.

When they walked back into the living room, Bella was pacing erratically. Alexis hadn't returned one of her texts or phone calls. She was beyond antsy. "I'm sure she's fine," Chloe assured her. She looked at Beca and they exchanged concerned glances. "But if you're worried – there's no harm in checking in on her."

"I'll drive you," Beca said, grabbing her previously discarded sweater and scarf from the coffee table.

"Be nice!" Chloe called after her. She knew her wife would be looking for blood if Alexis's parents had done something to hurt her – emotionally or physically.

"No promises!" Beca answered.

The drive – which only took a few minutes and was mostly that long because the campus was pedestrian only and they had to drive around it – was tense. "Mama, what if they got mad at her because she's friend with me?"

"You didn't do anything wrong – neither did Alexis. Just try to relax. She probably left her phone in another room and forgot about it."

When Bella rang the doorbell, one of the older girls answered the door and invited her in. Beca stepped into the familiar foyer with her. Camille appeared and – despite what Bella feared – looked grateful to see her.

"You should go up and see her," she said simply. Bella didn't need more permission than that – she hurried up the stairs toward the room she knew belonged to the younger co-captain. Camille and Beca stared at one another for several moments. Camille knew that Beca was a legend – and Beca knew (from Poppy, not Bella) that Camille had been targeting her daughter. There was little to say to one another.

"I'm going to sit on the porch," Beca said finally.

"Can I get you anything?" Camille offered. "Coffee? Tea?"

"Tea would be great. Herbal, please."

Ten minutes later, Beca was sitting on the front porch swing, as she had when she had been in charge of the house, and gratefully accepted a cup of tea from Camille. The girl was all sharp edges – but she seemed to be trying to make amends for it. "I'm glad Bella came. Alexis has been a mess since her parents left."

"What happened?" Beca asked, out of concern.

Camille shrugged. "We didn't hear a lot – just that they were yelling. Her dad tried to drag her out of her bedroom – but some of the girls started crying and arguing and he got angry and left. Her mom said some things to her – and they were gone."

Beca shook her head; some people were worthless as parents. She dialed a familiar number and invited an old friend to come and sit on the porch with her. Camille left her alone again, offering more tea if she wanted it. Beca thanked her and waited for her guest.

Bella had found Alexis's door open and many of her belongings strewn around the room. She was usually very neat – so this was bothersome in itself. The girl was huddled on her bed, curled into a ball with her arms around her knees.

The smaller brunette gasped when she saw the bruises darkening on Alexis' arm. "What happened?" She asked, her voice more demanding than she'd intended.

Alexis shrugged. "My dad tried to drag me out of the room. They wanted me to come home with them – they think Barden is full of bad influences. In other words – too liberal for their tastes."

"What did you do?"

"I told them I wasn't leaving Barden. And when they wouldn't take that for an answer, I told them I was gay."

"Okay," Bella said carefully. This had never before been discussed. Bella didn't care either way – but it also wasn't something she thought Alexis was overly open about. She sat on the bed next to her friend. "What did they say?"

"They pretty much told me that don't have a daughter anymore – not to call, not to come home, not to come begging to them when I get myself into trouble. Because apparently, according to my parents, being gay also means that you're a prostitute. My dad – he called me – " She couldn't say the word, her tears were coming too fast and her voice stopped working. And it was a vile, repulsive word that she couldn't repeat. Her own father – who had once loved her. Apparently that was conditional love.

Bella did something he didn't do much – she wrapped her arms around another person. She hugged her friend. "It's going to be okay. Alex – they don't know what they're talking about," Bella said softly. "You're a wonderful person – it doesn't matter who you love. And if they can't understand that, they don't deserve you."

"They're not the best parents – but they're the only ones I have," Alexis said, tears running down her cheeks. Bella typed an SOS to her mama and then pulled Alexis closer, trying to reassure her as best she could. This was one type of problem that she didn't understand well – Beca and Chloe had been supportive of her and her sisters their entire lives. She could announce to them the next day that she wanted to be a clown in the circus and they would somehow support her in that endeavor. If they found out the next day she wanted to start having sex, Chloe would probably give her tips and Beca would make her participate in an awkward discussion about being responsible – and being with someone who respected her and treated her well. This was one of the many reasons Bella was never having sex.

She was surprised a few minutes later when a knock at the door revealed Stacie, not Beca. "Aunt Stacie?" The brunette smiled kindly and stepped into the room. She was wearing a Barden sweatshirt and jeans with her hair in a single braid – she looked much younger than she was.

"Hey, Sweet Pea. Your mama is waiting for you downstairs." Bella looked confused but she let go of Alexis and left the room, closing the door behind her. Stacie had already met the co-captain of the Bellas earlier that weekend.

She sat in the desk chair, not wanting to crowd the girl who was mostly a stranger.

"Alexis, my name is Stacie Conrad. Do you remember me?"

"You're friends with Mrs. Mitchell and Mrs. Beale."

"I am," Stacie said. "Is it okay that I'm here? Beca is downstairs if you'd rather talk to her – but she thought I might be more helpful."

"Why?" Alexis asked, peeking up from her knees for the first time.

"A few reasons," Stacie told her. "The first being that I had something similar happen to me during my senior year at Barden."

"What happened?"

"I was in my senior year of college – I had just gotten accepted into medical school at UCLA. I had spent most of college experimenting – I had boyfriends, I had girlfriends – I wasn't picky. I fell in love with people – not their genders. But my parents came to visit over spring break and they saw me with another girl. It was pretty innocent – just a kiss – but it was enough – they're pretty conservative. They gave me an ultimatum – I could come home and marry some trust-fund kid who had also just finished college – some silver-spoon raised jerk that I knew from years of fundraisers and benefits and summers in the Hamptons. I was to marry this man I didn't love, give him children and become a housewife – and never mention that I liked girls again – or they were finished with me."

"Why can't they understand that it's not a choice? I wish it was easier – it would be easier if I could just be happy with a boyfriend. But I'm not."

Stacie nodded and gave her a sympathetic look. "That's a big part of it – they don't understand. And they're stuck in a time when it was much less accepted."

"What did you do?"

"I told them I loved them – and that I wanted them to be a part of my life – but that I wasn't going to marry a man I didn't love. And I wasn't going to stop dating both men and women – until I found the right person. They left that day – and never tried to contact me again. I tried a few times – but after the first few years of ignored phone calls and cards, you realize that they aren't worth your time."

"How does that ever become okay?"

"I had amazing friends who helped me through it," Stacie told her. "Aubrey – who was the captain of the Bellas when I was a freshman – had already built a company by then and was financially independent. She helped me through medical school and made sure I could pay my bills. I had a full scholarship, but that doesn't usually cover living expenses. Beca and Chloe and Cynthia Rose made sure I never spent a holiday alone. I threw myself into school – I graduated at the top of my class and became a doctor, just like I had always planned. And by that time, things were okay. I had a family. It wasn't the one I was born with – but it was a family."

Alexis nodded but remained silent.

Stacie leaned forward in her chair, clasping her hands together so they'd stop shaking. "One of the best things about being a Bella – it means that you are never alone," she reminded the young girl gently. "I know it's hard to understand right now – but things will get better."

"How?"

"One day at a time. You have to do what's right for you. And hopefully your parents will realize that. If they don't, then it is their huge loss. And you'll find your own family. One that loves you without condition – because that is what you deserve. That is what everyone deserves." Before she left that evening, Stacie gave Alexis her phone number and email – telling her to keep in touch and to not hesitate to call if she needed anything.

Before she left that night, Beca gave Alexis a new phone. "I can't take this," she said softly.

"Yes, you can," Beca told her. "Your number is already transferred to it – along with your personal data."

"How? My parents just left – they just took my phone – I'm sure they haven't cancelled it yet."

"I know some people," Beca said with a small smile.

"Mrs. Mitchell – thank you so much – but I can't take this. I can't afford it – "

"First," Beca said sternly. "For the last time – you will stop calling me Mrs. Mitchell. It's either Beca or nothing. I will answer to nothing else. Second – you will take this phone. You need a phone – and you should have one. It costs almost nothing to add a phone to a family plan – so you don't need to worry about the cost. In fact, if you mention the cost again – I will be angry."

"Thank you," Alexis said, her eyes tearing up again.

"You are very welcome, sweetie. It's going to be okay. It will." Once she left, Camille took over watching her best friend and reassuring her time and again that things would be okay.

Alexis didn't know how it was going to be okay. It started to sink in a few weeks later when she went to the financial aid office to discuss her options – and found that she didn't need any. Her tuition was paid with her Bellas scholarship (she had been one of the recipients the year before), but someone else had covered her room and board. And left a large sum of money on her campus card that allowed her to buy groceries, books, and other necessities.

She had no idea what to do with that information. Finally, she made a phone call.

"Hello?" Beca asked, not sure of the number. She had given it to Alexis – but the girl had not used it yet.

"Mrs. Mitchell?"

"Alexis?"

"Yeah – "

"What did I say about calling me Mrs. Mitchell?"

"Sorry. Beca."

"Hey, kiddo. Is everything alright?"

Alexis froze. How did she ask this question? What if she was wrong? What if she was right? Did it make a difference? "It is," she said. "Um. I was wondering – someone paid off my living expenses. Did you do that? Because you didn't need to do that – I got a job at the bookstore – and it helps a lot. And I can get loans –"

"Alexis, stop," Beca said, interrupting. The teen did, waiting silently. "Sweetie – I didn't pay for any of those things. I would have if you needed me to – but I knew you didn't. Someone clearly wants to help you – let them."

"Do you know who it is?"

"I have my suspicions," Beca told her. "But if that person wanted you to know, then you would. Just be grateful and put it to good use."

"I just don't know what to do," Alexis admitted weakly, her voice cutting off with coming tears. She knew nothing in her day-to-day life had changed – but it still hurt, so much. She was moving through her days in a fog. She had tried to call her parents several times but they never answered – and ignored all of her messages.

Beca bit her lip and paced her studio. "This isn't my place – and please feel free to ignore me on this – but have you thought about talking to someone? There are people who can help. The University counseling center is a good place to start. It's completely confidential."

"I don't know," Alexis admitted.

"You don't have to," Beca assured her. "But it might help. And if it doesn't, you don't have to stick with it." She paused. "Alexis, I know you're hurting right now – but you didn't do anything wrong. And you need to understand that. Do you?"

"Sometimes," she said with a sob.

"That's a start," Beca answered softly. She talked to her a bit longer, making sure the young girl knew she had options - places to reach out for help - if she needed them. Later that day, Stacie was just finishing the chart on her last patient when her phone beeped – Beca wanted to meet her for dinner. She texted back, agreeing to the plan. They chatted about work and the kids and Chloe and the alumni concert throughout dinner. It was over wine that the smaller brunette finally brought up what she had been thinking.

"Did you by chance pay a large sum of money to cover a young girl's living costs at Barden?"

Stacie said nothing, which was all Beca needed to know. "I had to help – I didn't know what else to do. She's alone."

"I'm not saying you shouldn't have done it," Beca assured her. "I just wanted to make sure it was you – otherwise we'd have a creepy stalker to eek out of the shadows."

"No creepy stalker," Stacie assured her. "Just me." The conversation changed again, this time to their holiday plans. October was almost over, meaning that Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years were all just a blink away. Chloe loved to host – which meant that Beca was forced to co-host most of the holidays.

After two bottles of wine were gone, the conversation veered back into personal territory. "Stacie—"

"Yep?"

Beca studied her carefully before choosing her next words. "This may not be my business at all – but we've been friends for over twenty five years." She stopped and looked disgusted. "Oh, God, it's been that long?" She shook her head. "Anyway – back to the point. I think we've reached a place where we can be honest. But if this is none of my business, just stop me and I won't bring it up again."

Stacie waited for the question – she thought she knew what was coming. "Have you considered adopting – or invitro – or anything like that? You would be an amazing mother – and I know you want that – and again, I'm overstepping here – but you should have it."

"Thanks, Bec." She nodded. "I've considered it. Several times. But is that really fair to a kid? I work all the time – I don't even know how to detach myself from my job."

"You will learn when you have a bigger priority," Beca assured her.

"And how is it fair, adopting a child when it's just me. Kids deserve two parents."

"Is it better for a child to sit around in foster care for years – or worse, in group homes – than to be adopted by a single person who would be an amazing parent? Is that really better?"

Stacie didn't answer, she simply stared at the sky and sipped her wine. Beca knew the stony silence was telling her not to push her luck – but she had a lot to drink – so she threw in one more bit of information. "If you every want to do that – or anything like it – I hope that you know we would support you 100%. We've been around the parental block a few times." Stacy again said nothing, but she nodded slightly toward her friend before continuing her gazing.

Chapter Text

A Beautiful Tree – Chapter 9 – I can Face Anything

"Looking back when I was so afraid/

And then you came to me and say to me/

I can face anything."

~ Boyz II Men

"Okay," Beca said with a sigh. She turned to Dahlia, her hands on her hips. "Here's the deal. I tried to make Thanksgiving small – I thought it would be nice – and a little less overwhelming." Before Dahlia could argue that she didn't need to worry about her, Beca shook her head. "It didn't work, my love. They are coming. All of them. So – we need to get ready for that."

Both sets of grandparents, Chloe's brothers and their wives, most of the Bellas and a few of the Treblemakers were coming to LA for thanksgiving. In trying to keep her in the loop so as to avoid as much anxiety as possible, Beca asked Dahlia to help her create a seating chart. For three tables.

"Three tables," she said, looking at Chloe in absolute awe. "Who has three dining room tables?"

"Apparently, we do," Chloe said easily, walking past her wife and into the kitchen. Beca was standing in the living room where two of the offending interloping tables were currently pushed against a wall. Dahlia was watching her carefully, trying to decide if Beca was amazed, angry, or both.

It was two days before Thanksgiving and Chloe had rented dining room tables. Beca didn't even know you could do that – and she told her wife as much. But Chloe was insistent that they were having Thanksgiving at home – not at some restaurant or hall. So, she made Beca help her move their own dining room table into the living room. They moved the living room furniture – some of it, at least, into the dining room. Dahlia watched in contemplation as the living room became a large dining room and the dining room became a very small sitting room.

After the rearranging was done, Chloe still wasn't happy. "Well," Beca said, wiping sweat away from her hairline with the back of her hand. "You'll have to figure that out on your own – because I need to leave in the next hour to pick up the girls. And thanks to you – I need to shower."

Chloe playfully stuck out her tongue at Beca and walked away into the kitchen to call Aubrey. She would know how to fit forty people into the house comfortably for dinner. Beca turned to look at Dahlia, who had been watching her mothers and their redecorating process from the staircase. "Dahlia, do you want to come to the airport to pick up your sisters?"

The little girl nodded, despite the fact that her stomach was hurting. She didn't want to ruin the day – and she wanted to be one of the first to see Bella, Poppy, and Vera come home. She followed Beca upstairs and waited on her mother's bed while the brunette showered and dressed. She came back into the bedroom to do her hair and makeup, so Dahlia could watch in awe as she twirled and tucked her hair with deft fingers into a beautiful, carefree arrangement.

"Alright, love – time to go. Do you need to go to the bathroom first?"

"I'm eight," Dahlia argued, offended by the question. "Not four."

"Okay," Beca said with a raised eyebrow. "But you do know it takes an hour – maybe double that with traffic – to get to the airport, right?"

"I'll go to the bathroom," Dahlia muttered.

"Thought so," Beca answered, smiling. She waited outside Dahlia's bedroom door for the little girl to emerge and began to grown concerned after several minutes. She walked in and knocked lightly on the bathroom door. "You okay, sweetie?"

"Yep. I'm coming."

"Okay. I'll wait in the hall." She walked back to the hall, grabbing Dahlia's iPad on her way – it would keep her busy in case of heavy traffic. The little girl showed herself about two minutes later, looking a bit flushed.

"Are you feeling okay?" Beca asked, placing the back of her hand against the little girl's forehead. She was not really warm – but she looked it.

"Yes," Dahlia answered resolutely. "Are we going?"

"We're going," Beca responded, making a funny voice and face. Dahlia giggled and took her hand for the walk to the car. The car ride was as long as Beca warned her it would be – and about an hour in – Dahlia began to feel sick again.

"Beca?"

"What's up, sweets?" She looked at the little girl in the rearview mirror and could see that she was uncomfortable.

"Are we almost there?" Beca frowned a bit.

"We're stuck in traffic, love. We're still about half an hour away – but it'll be more like 45 minutes if this traffic doesn't ease up. Are you okay?"

"I have to go to the bathroom," Dahlia said softly.

"Do you think you can wait?" Beca asked, not sure where they were going to pull over.

Dahlia shook her head. "Okay, love – the next exit is not far – we'll jump off and find somewhere." Twenty minutes later, they were off the nearest exit and found a rest station. Dahlia flew into the bathroom. When she came out, Beca was leaning against the sinks, arms crossed.

"You're sick," she accused.

"I'm okay. My stomach just feels yucky."

"That's called being sick," Beca told her. "Why didn't you say something?"

"I wanted to come – and I didn't want you to worry."

"You succeeded on the first goal – and failed on the second," the older woman told her. Dahlia washed her hands. "Do you feel any better?" She nodded. "Are you lying to me?" A shake. "What was going on in there?" She asked, nodding to the stalls. Dahlia flushed.

"Diarrhea," she said softly.

"I thought that might be it. Well, we don't have much choice – we'll get back in the car – and if you need me to pull over – you tell me right away – got it?" Dahlia nodded. Beca stopped in the grocery store part of the rest station and bought a bottle of white grape juice, which she handed to Dahlia.

"I don't really like that," she said, frowning.

"I don't really care," Beca said, leaning down to kiss her forehead. "It will help. And you will drink it." Dahlia nodded obediently and climbed back into her booster seat in Beca's car. She made it the rest of the way to the airport – mostly because she slept. Beca figured it was to avoid drinking the grape juice.

When they reached the airport, they sought out the first ladies room they could find. They were on their second ladies room – about five minutes closer to the correct terminal – when the twins and Vera found them.

"Interesting tour of the airport, mama," Bella teased. Beca had texted her that they were in the first bathroom – then texted again when they stopped in the second. It was a family bathroom, so it was a large single – and Beca was standing outside the door where her girls were able to see her right away.

"Dahlia is sick," Beca told her. Bella's face fell.

"Oh yuck."

"Yep," Beca responded. "I'll warn you now – I think it's going to a long ride home." It was. They stopped three times for Dahlia to rush to the bathroom. When they finally reached home, Beca had to carry her into the house – which was not the easiest thing. Despite being very small for her age, she was still a good 40 pounds.

Chloe appeared in the doorway as Beca was tucking Dahlia into bed. "Bella told me what's going on," the redhead said, walking over to stand next to her wife.

"Yeah," Beca said unhappily. "She's been sick since we left the house – but she told me she wasn't – so it was a fun trip. One stop on the way there – two in the airport – and three on the way home."

"Poor baby," Chloe said softly.

"Thank you," Beca responded.

"I meant our daughter," she said.

Beca shrugged. "Yeah – I think it sucked for her too."

"She looks sort of sweaty – do you think she has a temperature?"

Beca walked to their bathroom and returned with the thermometer, resting it in Dahlia's ear until it beeped. She looked at it and frowned, showing it to Chloe. "It's not too bad – but it's not normal either."

"It's probably just a stomach bug. Hopefully she'll sleep it off by tomorrow." The two mothers stayed with her all night while she slept, making her drink white grapefruit juice and pedialite every time she woke. Dahlia was not thrilled with either beverage – but it did seem to help. She stopped running to the bathroom around 2 in the morning and slept through until almost ten the next day.

The next morning, Beca was wiping china plates when Dahlia appeared. "Hey, love. Are you feeling any better?"

"Yes." Beca felt her forehead; it was cool. Her cheeks were no longer flushed.

"Promise?"

"Yes – I promise. Can I have breakfast?"

"Of course you can," the woman answered, ruffling her hair. "Ask Bella to make you a waffle. There's still batter." Dahlia walked into the kitchen and did not, in fact, have to ask Bella anything – she was gifted with a plate holding a chocolate chip waffle as soon as she sat at the table. Vera and Poppy were sitting there too – the first still eating and the second languishing over a cup of coffee and her smart phone. Chloe was nowhere to be seen.

Dahlia wrinkled her nose when Bella set a small glass of white grape juice next to her plate. The older girl laughed. "Sorry, kid. Not my idea. You'll have to take it up with the ladies in charge."

"I wouldn't argue, though," Chloe said, appearing from the pantry, winking at Dahlia. "You'll survive another glass of juice. Unless you want pedialite instead – "

"No!" Dahlia cried, surprising the other three girls at the table. She wasn't usually loud.

"That's what I thought," Chloe responded, not reacting to the volume. Dahlia decided to end her suffering quickly and drank the glass of juice immediately. Bella replaced it with a glass of ice water, which Dahlia drank while eating her waffle. While the older three girls were conscripted into helping prepare for the massive Thanksgiving Feast, Dahlia was relegated to the living room sofa for the day. All day, her fever stayed just below or just above 100 degrees, but she was getting antsy and didn't seem to have any more stomach problems, so Beca and Chloe set her free after dinner.

The next morning was a whirlwind of activity. Beca and Chloe were awake and in the kitchen – much to the brunette's unreserved disbelief – at six in the morning. Once the turkeys were in the ovens, they went back upstairs. Beca tried to convince her wife that it was okay to go back to bed for awhile, but it was too late – Vera and Dahlia had already woken. The next few hours consisted of basting turkeys, curling hair, tying ribbons, doing makeup, cleaning the already clean house, and simply preparing for the huge number of people who would be walking through their door later that day.

Their first guests began arriving around noon. Everyone was ready by then – Dahlia sporting an adorable brown and copper colored dress perfect for the autumn – Vera in green, Bella in black – and Poppy in a deep purple. Beca and Chloe were also dressed in their Thanksgiving finery but were both running around without shoes and with aprons covering their dressed. Beca hoped it was enough to keep hers clean.

Jessica and Donald were the first to arrive, bearing wine, a green bean casserole, and a very excited daughter. Katie and Dahlia headed directly upstairs to play with their dolls. By two that afternoon, the living room and dining room were packed to capacity. The adults mingled, tried to help with dinner, and simply enjoyed the good company.

Upstairs, Katie was a bit miffed that Dahlia didn't want to play anymore – this concept did not compute in her mind. So, she went to find her mother. She tugged on Jessica's skirt until the blonde stopped her conversation and leaned down to scold her. "Katie, you know that's not nice – I was talking – "

"Dahlia doesn't want to play with me—"

"Well, sweetie – "

"She just went to sleep." Jessica looked surprised, then alarmed. Eight year old girls did not fall asleep during large, loud parties while playing with friends.

"What do you mean, Katie? Where did she go to sleep?"

"In her room," the little girl said with a pout. Jessica looked around and spotted Donald.

"Go over there with Daddy for a few minutes – okay? I'm going to go and check on Dahlia. I'm sure she'll want to play later." As soon as Katie was with Donald, Jessica rushed through the crowd of friends and family until she found Beca, talking to Stacie in the doorway to the kitchen.

"Both of you," Jessica said, gesturing to the stairwell. Beca and Stacie followed her quickly up the stairs and into Dahlia's room, where the little girl was lying in her bed – but certainly not sleeping. She was sweating and her skin looked chalky. "Katie said she fell asleep while they were playing – I thought that sounded strange."

"She had a stomach ache, diarrhea, and a low fever two days ago," Beca told Stacie. "But she seemed fine yesterday and this morning. What's going on?" She sat on the edge of the bed, reaching up to smooth a piece of hair behind Dahlia's ear. The little girl's eyes blinked open.

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

"Why are you sorry?"

"I don't want to be sick on Thanksgiving."

"Well, this year is clearly a wash," Beca told her. "But we'll shoot for that goal next year. What hurts, love?" Stacie had sent Jessica to find a thermometer and Chloe. She sat on the other side of the bed and was listening.

"My stomach hurts again. Really badly." Beca nodded sympathetically.

"I'm so sorry, sweetie. What else?"

"I might throw up. And everything is sort of spiny."

"That's the fever," Stacie said as she removed the thermometer from Dahlia's ear. "104. Officially not low-grade." She pulled back the blankets as Chloe entered the room, demanding to know what was going on. "Dahlia, I'm going to lift up your dress, okay? I just need to check out your tummy."

The little girl didn't argue with the childish term "tummy" as she usually would if she were feeling better. She simply nodded. Stacie lifted the hem of her dress and folded it back, revealing a swollen stomach. She palpated a bit before she found the spot she was looking for. She pushed it in quickly and let it go just as quickly – causing Dahlia to yelp. Beca glared and Chloe moved closer to the bed. "Sorry, sweetie," Stacie said as she put her dress back. "I had to check. That is your appendix. And I don't think it's doing so well." She went into the bathroom and dampened a washrag with cold water.

"Close your eyes for me," she said softly. Dahlia did, and she put the cold compress against her forehead. "I'll be right back," she promised. "Don't move too much, okay?"

She pointed to the hallway and Beca and Chloe followed her reluctantly. "Hospital – now. That's her appendix and if she's been sick for three days – it could burst at any time. Who is her pediatrician?"

"Dr. Jo," Beca said. "The same person we used for the other girls."

"Call her – tell her what's going on- and that you're taking her to Children's. I'm going to call Dr. Lynn Anselmo – she's a general pediatric surgeon – she's one of the best – it will be fine. It's fine," she promised, realizing how terrified both women looked. They were stunned and still standing right in front of her. "Beca, go make that call. Chloe – go and find Jesse or Donald or Benji – someone who can carry her to the car. Go!" She said louder, when she realized they weren't moving. She pulled out her own phone and called the pediatric surgical department at Children's. Dr. Anselmo was on call and agreed to meet them at the hospital.

Within ten minutes, Jesse was sliding Dahlia into the car in the back seat, her head resting in Beca's lap. The little girl had passed out by then - and her mothers were thankful for that. Chloe was in the front – Stacie driving. Bella had thought to bring her mothers' purses and handed them to Chloe, along with their cell phones. The drive to the hospital was fast – Stacie was not afraid of a ticket – and she knew how to get to the hospitals quickly. With her credentials, she was allowed to pull into the emergency bay. Before Beca or Chloe knew what was happening, an orderly and a nurse were removing Dahlia from the car and placing her on a gurney.

"What are you doing?" Beca demanded.

"She's safe, ma'am," the closer gentleman said. "You can walk with us – we're taking her to surgical prep. Dr. Anselmo is waiting to examine her." Beca had to jog to keep up with the gurney and Stacie and Chloe – both of whom had longer legs than her. Inside the room, everything looked so sterile. A nurse glared at her and handed her a thin yellow gown, which she hurriedly put on over her burnt orange dress. Chloe had one over her brown dress as well. They stood obediently to the side while Stacie discussed the symptoms with Dr. Anselmo. The woman nodded a few times and did her own examination.

She turned to Chloe and Beca, both of whom felt they were stuck in a really bad lifetime movie. "Mrs. Mitchell, Mrs. Beale?" They both nodded. "I agree with Dr. Conrad's findings – Dahlia does have appendicitis. And her appendix is in danger of bursting. We have to remove it. We can do it through a laparoscopic procedure – as long as we do it quickly before it bursts. It will be minimally invasive and a quick recovery period."

"What are the risks?" Beca asked.

"Anesthesia on small children is always a risk," the doctor said honestly. "But we have the best trained anesthesiologists in the country who work with children every day – they know what they're doing. And I'll have her in and out of surgery in less than forty minutes."

"I guess we don't really have a choice," she said, a wry smile on her lips and tears stinging her eyes. Chloe grabbed her hand and squeezed.

"Can you be in there?" Chloe asked, looking at Stacie.

"Chlo – I'm not a general surgeon. I do obstetric surgery when I need to – but I'm not a surgeon."

"But can you just be there?" Chloe asked again. "I need someone who loves her to be in there. She'll know." Stacie looked at Dr. Anselmo, who nodded. Stacie nodded too.

"But you two need to get out of here. They need to prep Dahlia for surgery and you shouldn't be in this room to start with." Beca and Chloe kissed Dahlia carefully, each whispering how much they loved her into her ear – and then let a nurse push them out of the room and direct them to the correct waiting room. They both felt shaky and uncertain as they walked together into the waiting room that corresponded to the operating room Dahlia was going to be taken into. It was a private room – only for those whose child was being taken into that specific OR. So they were surprised to realize they weren't alone. The room was filled with their family members.

Beca felt more tears fall as her father hugged her. "It's going to be okay," he promised. She pulled back and looked at him – and around the room – in disbelief.

"What are you guys doing here?"

"The plan was to spend Thanksgiving together, right?" Amy asked. "I mean, I may be missing something because it is an American holiday – but that's the general idea." Beca laughed, more tears splashing to her cheeks.

"You guys do not have to spend your thanksgiving in a hospital waiting room. It's going to be fine."

"Yeah it is," Cynthia Rose agreed. "But that doesn't mean we're leaving."

Ben stepped forward and hugged his daughter, then his daughter-in-law. "Somehow, Sheila and Lydia – and a few of your friends – are finishing dinner – and figuring out how to bring it here."

"I have no idea how they're going to make that work," Warren admitted.

Beca looked around the room and saw one of the people missing and smiled. "If anyone can figure out something like that, it would be Emily and Aubrey. They'll make it work." In the next hour, Sheila, Emily, Lydia, both of Chloe's sisters-in-law, Aubrey, Jessica, Ashley, Bella, Poppy, and Vera showed up with armloads of casserole dishes, crockpots, and a variety of other things that managed to keep thanksgiving dinner remarkably tasty despite being transported. They set up the food in the hallway and set out paper plates and napkins for a buffet. Sheila went over to the nurses' station and invited them to take a plate and – although they didn't – they appreciated the offer. Beca and Chloe barely touched their food – but having their friends with them helped the time pass more quickly.

Within three hours of their initial arrival, Stacie and Dr. Anselmo were walking into the waiting room, talking and smiling at one another. "She's fine," Stacie said as soon as she laid eyes on Chloe and Beca. The two women practically collapsed against each other in relief. Dr. Anselmo explained the particulars of the surgery and assured them that Dahlia had done beautifully – and would make a full and quick recovery.

"Can we see her?" Poppy asked. All three girls had been standing behind their mothers since the doctors' arrival.

Dr. Anselmo glanced around the room. "Not all of you," she responded with a chuckle. "But I think moms and sisters and grandparents might be a possibility – only two or three at a time. She'll be very groggy if she's awake at all, so keep the excitement level low."

Beca and Chloe went first, the three girls following to wait in the hall for their turn to see their little sister. Before the night was out, each of the guests was able to at least peek in and see what Dahlia was okay. Bella, Poppy, and Vera went back to the house – under duress – with their grandparents.

Aubrey returned to the hospital with a bag packed for Beca and Chloe. The redhead was in the hallway, pacing slowly. "You doing okay?" Aubrey asked, playing the bag to the side of the closed door. Chloe nodded.

"I'm fine. It turned out fine. It was – terrifying. But it all worked out. I'll just be happy to get out of here."

"How much longer?"

"A day or two," Chloe answered. "It depends on when she wakes up and that kind of thing." Aubrey paced with her for another twenty minutes, trying to engage her in conversation and keep her mind busy. Eventually, Chloe thanked her and sent her home, taking the bag into the hospital room to check on her daughter and wife.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, Beca had her feet on the bed, and her laptop balanced on her legs when Dahlia began to stir. She shut the computer and placed it aside – an action quick enough that Chloe turned from the window and hurried over. They both smiled when Dahlia opened her eyes. "Mama?" She said, seeing Beca first.

"Right here, love."

"Mommy?"

"I'm here too," Chloe promised, eyes watering. She squeezed Dahlia's hand. "How are you feeling, pretty girl?"

"Weird," Dahlia answered. "And spin-y," she said as she closed her eyes again. Chloe pushed the nurse call button but neither woman moved. The nurse came right away and within half an hour, the doctor appeared to check on Dahlia. Stacie - who had just arrived to check on the family - was right behind her and although she stayed out of her way and didn't say a word, she watched like a hawk.

"Everything looks wonderful," Dr. Anselmo said, once she was finished with her exam. Dahlia was sleeping again. "As long as the healing progresses this way and her fever stays down – she should be able to go home tomorrow afternoon."

"Thank you," Chloe said softly, her eyes filled with tears. The doctor asked them if they had any questions and they both shook their heads no. She left, telling them she would be back that afternoon to check on Dahlia again.

As soon as the surgeon left, Stacie turned on her heel to question them. "Why do you both look like that?" Stacie asked, looking back and forth between them.

"She called us mom," Chloe said, tears finally falling from her eyes. She hugged Beca and buried her face in the other woman's shoulder.

"She did," Beca confirmed with a smile.

Stacie grinned. "It was only a matter of time. I'm heading back home - but call me if anything changes or you have any questions about anything."

"Thank you, Stacie," Beca said sincerely. "As usual, you're a lifesaver."

Stacie smiled brightly and blew them kisses before leaving.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 – Fight Like a Girl

"I'll hold my head high/ I'll never let this define
The light in my eyes/ Love myself, give it hell
I'll take on this world/ Yes, I'll stand and be strong
No I'll never give up/ I will conquer with love
And I'll fight like a girl"

~Bomshel

The day after her three oldest girls returned to Barden after the Thanksgiving holiday, Beca glared unhappily as the door opened to an exam room. Stacie met the look with a bright smile. "Hey, Beca."

"You know – I don't think this is necessary," Beca told her without greeting. It had finally happened - she had been able to drag out Chloe's request that she have a physical - but now that homecoming weekend and Thanksgiving were over, the redhead had again begun poking at her wife about it.

"I know you don't," Stacie answered. "I was there when the discussion happened that got you to make an appointment. Seriously, Beca – it's been more than two years since you did any more than get a flu shot. You're not 20 anymore – "

"Shut it," Beca replied.

"Did you take a Klonopin?" Stacie asked, picking up the blood pressure cuff and wrapping it around her friend's arm. Beca nodded. She took a different medication for her anxiety on a daily basis - much to Chloe's chagrin - but she also took Klonopin when something was happening that she knew would trigger her anxiety. Such as a doctor's appointment.

"One or two?"

"Two," Beca responded. For all the good it did - she didn't feel calmer. And she was sure her damned blood pressure wasn't low enough.

"Stop holding your breath," Stacie said, as she measured Beca's blood pressure. She did it three times, all the while asking questions about the kids – trying to get the brunette to forget about the blood pressure cuff. She wrote the numbers down and said nothing as she moved on to Beca's pulse and other vitals. She listened to her heart and lungs looked in her throat and nose. "Have you had your vision checked at all?" She asked, as she felt Beca's thyroid and the lymph nodes behind her ears.

"I don't wear glasses."

"Right now is when vision starts to deteriorate," Stacie told her. "It's better to catch it before it's a big problem – it keeps your eyes stronger in the long run. You should get them checked out."

"Noted," Beca said. "But I'm sure you'll tell Chloe."

Stacie laughed. "How in the hell was I supposed to help you out of that one?"

"You could have lied," Beca offered.

"I can't lie!"

"Why not?"

"It's immoral. Besides, if you die from something completely preventable, then Chloe can sue my ass – and you'd be dead." They stared at one another silently for a moment.

"It still feels like you tattled," Beca responded.

"Sorry about that, cap." She held the paper sheet that would cover Beca's lap once she was in a prone position. "Can you lay back for me?"

Beca groaned like she was in agony, but did. "You're a brat sometimes," Stacie said, seeing that Beca left her bra on under the gown. Beca simply smirked – a look that was wiped off her face as soon as it took Stacie no more than ten seconds to snap her bra open in the back and remove it.

"You should not be so good at that!" Beca told her. Stacie smirked and then returned to the exam. Beca closed her eyes as she poked and prodded her breasts and under arms.

"Do you do a self-breast exam at home?"

"Same answer I gave you last time. I don't like unnecessary touching." The doctor just smiled and shook her head.

Stacie continued the exam – spending more time than Beca thought was normal on a spot under her left arm. Finally, she stopped. Beca opened her eyes and realized that Stacie looked contemplative – not her favorite look for her old friend. She took Beca's right hand and used it to probe the same spot just below her armpit. "Do you feel that?" She felt it – it felt like a small marble – but not as round. Like a chick pea. Beca hated chick peas.

"What is it?"

"Probably nothing," Stacie said quickly. "Have you felt it before?"

"No," Beca said, feeling extremely freaked out. "Does it feel like something to be worried about?"

"It's probably a cyst," Stacie told her. "We can do a really quick aspiration to determine if it is or not." She closed Beca's gown and moved over to the cabinets to pull several things that Beca couldn't see.

"What if it's not?"

"It probably is," Stacie responded shortly. She returned to Beca's side. "Stay still and close your eyes."

"Why?"

"Because I'm going to stick a needle into that lump – and you probably don't want to see it." She was right – Beca did not want to see it. She closed her eyes tightly, her hands fists above her head as she waited for pain. It wasn't terrible – just a pinch and a bit of pressure. She hissed lightly. But the pressure lasted too long.

"Why is it still in there?" Beca asked, not amused.

"I'm trying to draw liquid from it." The pressure was gone then. "All done," Stacie said. She fixed the gown to cover Beca again.

"And?"

"It's not a cyst. It doesn't have anything in it to drain – a cyst would have blood or puss."

"Lovely. What now?"

"Let me finish the exam and we can talk about some other tests we should do – just to rule out any problems." Beca's heart raced – she didn't like the word problems and she didn't like that Stacie was being evasive. She slid to the end of the table when told and the pelvic exam and pap smear were done in mere minutes. Beca tried to breathe – but she felt herself panicking. Stacie tried to calm her several times, reminding her to breathe and promising that it was probably nothing. She tried to distract her again by asking her about work and the kids – but she still kept falling down the slippery slope into a panic attack. When finished, Stacie stood from her stool – kicked it across the room, and removed and disposed of her gloves.

"Bec, go ahead and get dressed – I'll be back in just a few minutes. I'm leaving another Klonopin on the counter – take it."

Beca nodded, her eyes still closed. Once the door closed, she sat up among the lovely paper trappings. She threw them all away, cleaned herself up, and dressed back in the jeans, black shirt, and red jacket she had put on that morning. The black and gray scarf with thin red accents wrapped loosely around her throat. She popped the pill into her mouth, letting it dissolve under her tongue. She had read once that it was supposed to help it work faster – but she found that to be pure crap.

She ran her hands through her hair, holding her head as she sat down in one of the waiting room chairs. She picked up her phone, looking at her last message. From Chloe. "Have a great day! Love you!" What was she supposed to tell Chloe?

She didn't have much time for misery – there was a knock on the door a moment later and Beca answered. "Come in." Stacie was back – this time with a nurse.

"We need to run a few panels," she told Beca. The smaller brunette removed her jacket, rolled up her sleeve, and sat back on the exam table. The nurse was quick and the procedure was barely noticeable, but Beca still felt sick. Once the nurse was gone, she pulled down her sleeve and accepted the jacket Stacie handed back to her. She shrugged into it again. "Let's go talk in my office," Stacie suggested. Beca followed her down two different hallways to her office – a room where she did most of her non-clinical work – research for different patients, consults, medical charts.

Beca sat in one corner of the soft gray sofa and accepted a bottle of water from Stacie as she sat across from her in the other corner. "Just tell me how bad it could be," Beca finally said.

"We don't know anything yet," Stacie reminded her. "It's a lump – in your breast – that's not a cyst. That's all we know for sure. It could still be completely benign. And given your age and family history – it probably is. But we'll check it out anyway. You need to have a sonogram – that will help to determine the size under the surface. Then we'll schedule a biopsy – that will allow the surgeon to go in – laparoscopically – and take cells so we can test them. At that point, they'll take as much of the lump as possible."

"Outpatient?" Beca asked.

Stacie nodded. "But they do put you under general anesthesia, so it'll be an all-day affair."

"Great."

"I know you're scared – I don't blame you. But there's nothing you can do right now but try to stay calm and remember that it's probably nothing. And if it is something, we'll take care of it."

The rest of the day was excruciating. Beca pretended nothing was wrong, the whole while her heart was pounding so hard that she thought she might just keel over from stress. She called the studio to speak with one of the upper management suits about upcoming deadlines. She picked up Dahlia from school and helped the little girl with her homework. She made dinner – she ate with her wife and youngest daughter. She video chatted with Vera and heard all about some biochemical engineering class that she was taking. She video chatted with the twins – Poppy regaled her with stories from her day while Bella threw in occasional barbs from across the room while reading some thick tome of a book. It was a normal afternoon and evening that left the music producer, wife, and mother tired to the bone. She was a terrible liar.

Once Dahlia was sleeping, Beca and Chloe usually split up for another hour or two to do their own things – but on this day, Beca took Chloe's hand and led her into their bedroom and closed the door. Chloe looked interested – her mind went right to sex. Until she saw Beca's face. They sat down together on the love seat – close – but at an angle where they could see the others faces. "Beca, what's wrong?" Chloe asked. "What's going on?"

"It's probably nothing," Beca said, running her tongue through her mouth. It was dry from nerves. She took a deep breath and ran her hands through her hair. "I had my appointment with Stacie today."

"You never tell me – "

"Anything," Beca finished with a sigh. "I know. I'm trying right now." Chloe stopped and nodded, waiting as patiently as she could. "She found a lump under my left arm – in the breast tissue. It's probably nothing. But it's not a cyst – so I have to go through the next steps to make sure it's benign."

To her credit, Chloe did not do any of the things Beca had expected – she did not cry, she did not start asking dozens of questions, and she did not throw herself at her wife. She took a deep breath and smiled bravely, taking Beca's hand in hers and squeezing it gently. "It's going to be fine."

Beca nodded; wanting to believe it. "What's next?" Beca explained what Stacie had told her – and told Chloe that the ultrasound was scheduled for the next day – the biopsy for the end of the week.

"So soon?"

Beca shrugged. "I think Stacie pulled some strings so we wouldn't have to worry for too long."

"I'm coming with you," Chloe informed her.

"Chloe," Beca started to argue –

"I'm not fighting you, Rebecca Anne Mitchell. I am coming – end of story." Beca nodded, knowing when Chloe had reached her breaking point.

That night, neither one of them slept soundly – despite the pill Stacie had given to Beca. She lay, curled against Chloe, worrying about what might be. Chloe held her just a bit tighter than usual. The next day was fairly easy as far as procedure – the ultrasound was a simple, straight-forward test. The woman doing the imaging never spoke – never made a face – she either didn't know what she was looking at – or as Beca suspected – wasn't allowed to divulge anything. She was probably great at poker.

Thursday evening, they received the call from the surgeon's office confirming the procedure for the next morning. Stacie called a few minutes later – as Beca's primary doctor, she had also been informed. "I'll meet you at the hospital tomorrow morning at 5:30," Stacie told them. Beca was holding her phone between them on speaker.

"You don't have to do that, Stacie. I know you have other patients to see – "

"Tomorrow is the day I make rounds at the hospital anyway," Stacie told her. "I'll be there." She asked them if they had any other questions. Chloe had a few that she was able to answer easily – Beca didn't have anything. Once they said goodbye to her, they turned to look at one another. Well, Chloe looked at Beca while the brunette studied the intricate pattern of their bedspread.

"We need to call Aubrey," Beca said regretfully, not looking up. "We need someone to stay with Dahlia – to take her to school and pick her up."

"I already took care of it," Chloe assured her, her hands rising to rub the other woman's shoulders. "But Beca, we need to talk to her. She's going to know something is wrong. If she doesn't already."

Dahlia was in her bedroom, playing with the dollhouse that had been a gift from the Swanson family. She was sitting on the carpet, arranging the dolls inside the various rooms. Beca sat next to her, cross-legged, observing the process. "What are your dolls up to?" She asked.

"The mommy doll is making dinner," she said, indicating the doll standing in the kitchen. "The other mommy doll is working." That doll was in the office looking room – sitting at a desk. Aubrey had gone to the trouble of purchasing two families for the house so that – if Dahlia chose – there would be two mommies. That was – not surprisingly – exactly what the little girl chose.

"What are the little girls doing?"

"Playing in the backyard," she answered, pretend-walking one of the dolls to the back of the doll house and depositing her on the carpet with the other two dolls.

"They all seem busy."

"Uh-huh," Dahlia murmured with a nod. She looked up to see Chloe still standing in the doorway. She looked confused. "Is it bedtime already?"

"No," Chloe said with a shake of her head and her best attempt at a smile.

"We just want to talk to you about something," Beca said. "Can we go sit together for a few minutes?" They took her over to the bed and sat with her.

"Mama and I need to talk to you about something important," Chloe said. Dahlia looked terrified - her eyes darting between Chloe and Beca. Both women could see what she was doing - thinking that she had done something wrong - that somehow, something was her fault.

Beca didn't want to tell her - but she wanted to put her out of her misery as soon as possible. "Love, I have to go to the doctor tomorrow for a test," she finally said. They had already decided to leave out the word "surgery." They could barely say that one to each other.

"What's wrong?"

"Probably nothing," Beca assured her. "But my doctor just wants to make sure. She found something that she wants to check on. So Mommy and I are going to be gone when you wake up tomorrow. Aubrey will be here with you and she'll take you to school - and we'll be home by dinner time at the latest."

"Can I go with you?"

"No," Beca said softly. "Mommy can't even go in the room with me - she's just going to sit in the waiting room. It will be boring for her - and it would be even more boring for you."

"I'll be good," Dahlia offered.

Beca smiled and wrapped her arms around the child. "You are always good - my love. But trust me, you'll be better off staying at home. That's what I need you to do, okay? I need you to stay home and be good for Aunt Aubrey. Can you do that for me?" Dahlia nodded. The three girls in Georgia knew nothing about the procedure – neither mother wanted to worry them about something that might turn out to be nothing.

The entire weekend was a blur for Beca. She was groggy from the drugs and – despite her insistence that she was fine – allowed Chloe to take her directly to bed when they got home on Friday. She was sore on Saturday, but otherwise felt okay. She and Chloe took Dahlia to the park and ran errands. On Sunday the Swansons invited them to dinner and although Beca didn't want to sit in a room while her best friends looked at her with pity, she agreed for Chloe's sake.

On Monday afternoon, they discovered that the biopsy results were in - and it probably wasn't good. Negative results were announced over the phone, so the fact that they'd been asked to come into the office of the oncologist Stacie had found for them was not a good sign. In a feeling of desperation and fear, Beca had actually reached out to Stacie of her own accord and asked her to come - she would understand more of what the strange doctors had to tell them. Stacie agreed immediately, cancelling her appointments for the day and picking up both women at ten in the morning.

"The biopsy results came back in last night," the doctor told them. Her name was Nadia Patil and she was one of the highest recommended oncologists in the state. Beca knew Stacie had pulled major strings to get her to take the case. "Your PCP was right in worrying that the cells had spread. There are cancer cells in your lymph nodes, along with the lump in your breast. There was also a second lump just behind it. Those factors put your cancer at a Stage 3C," the doctor said. "It just means that it's spread beyond the breast - the C means that it's invaded important lymph nodes. The good news is that it is operable and very treatable."

"What kind of operation?" Chloe asked in a voice begetting her fear. Beca leaned against the arm of her chair, tilting her head to watch the doctor. The woman was uncomfortable. Good. Beca was pretty damn uncomfortable herself.

"I would recommend a double modified-radical mastectomy."

"Seriously?" Beca asked, looking between Stacie and the other doctor. Her eyes turned back to Stacie. "Is that really necessary - the tumor was like the size of a marble - and it was removed during the biopsy. How does that translate to losing both my breasts? And what the hell does modified-radical mean?"

"There were two tumors," Stacie reminded her. "And there were cancer cells outside the tumor, Bec," she said softly. She nodded. "It's really not my area of specialty - but I did some research, and I know that you can't tread lightly when breast cancer is presenting at this level." Her hand snaked out to grasp Beca's.

"A modified-radical mastectomy is when the surgeon goes in and takes out not only the breast tissue, but also affect chest tissue and lymph nodes. As Dr. Conrad said, we really do need to be aggressive - we need to begin treatments as soon as possible - which means the surgery needs to be scheduled as soon as possible," Dr. Patil explained.

"We need time," Beca said. "We have four daughters - how are we supposed to explain this to them? What are we going to tell them?" She closed her eyes. "Oh, my god – three of them are biologically mine. Are they at risk for this?"

"Dr. Conrad ran the genetic tests associated with breast cancer – you don't have any of the genes. So your daughters shouldn't have any more risk factors for cancer than any other girls their ages." That, at least, was something for her to worry a little less about. Beca felt that she could breathe again – at least a bit.

It was fortunate Stacie had driven them – because they were both checked out for the next several hours. Chloe's eyes were bloodshot from too much crying. Beca had really zoned out for most of the day, leaving her unable to do much but sit on the sofa or lie in bed. But they had to pull it together - Aubrey was bringing Dahlia home - and then they had to make plans to break the news to all four girls. Stacie had remained with them for a long time but eventually left to give them privacy, reminding them to call her if they had questions or just wanted to talk about concerns.

Aubrey and Jesse both brought Dahlia home, with a new toy and several new books. Beca and Chloe looked at them attentively and hugged her. When Beca hugged her youngest daughter, she also kissed her forehead. "Take them upstairs, love," she suggested. "I'll be up in a little bit and we can start reading one, okay?"

Dahlia agreed with a grin and ran up the stairs. "Careful," Beca called after her. The tiny feet slowed. The brunette stood at the bottom of the stairs until she heard Dahlia's door closed. When she turned back around, she faced the three adults staring at her.

"I guess the results are pretty obvious," Beca said, nodding as she walked back into the living room. She sat in her favorite spot on the sofa - the left hand corner. She curled into it, dragging a pillow into her lap. Chloe sat next to her, eyes filling again with tears. Aubrey, looking very green, sat on the coffee table in front of them and Jesse perched next to her.

"Posen, if you are going to puke, you need to move a bit further away than that," Beca warned her.

"I'm fine," Aubrey promised. "What did the doctor say?"

Chloe shuddered and sobbed. Beca squeezed her hand and looked up at the ceiling for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "It's not great," she said judiciously. "But it's not as bad as it could be. It's breast cancer - like Stacie was worried it might be. It's Stage 3C - which means it's moved into breast tissue beyond the two lumps that were found - and into my lymph nodes." She paused, taking a deep breath. "We're told that the good news is that it's operable - some breast cancer isn't operable at this stage - and none are operable at stage 4."

"Operable?" Jesse asked, his voice husky - he was trying to remain calm for his wife and best friend - but he was finding it difficult. "I thought you had the lumps removed?"

Beca nodded. "Yeah - no more cleavage for me," she said, trying to make it a joke - but failing miserably in the delivery. "Doctor-ordered double mastectomy," she clarified.

"That seems so severe," Aubrey said. "Can you get a second opinion?"

Beca nodded again. "Yeah - we can. But the doctor said it's not a good idea to wait - and she's really well respected in her field. Stacie did some research that backs up what she's told us. I don't want to risk waiting - if it moves into other organs, more lymph nodes, or into the bone, I'm screwed."

"What can we do?" Aubrey asked.

Beca leaned forward, running her hands through her hair and grasping it tightly at the roots before releasing it and smoothing it again. "We don't really know much yet," she said. "We are going to need someone to stay with Dahlia - I'll be in the hospital for a minimum of four days."

They talked briefly about details – the ones they knew at least – but it did little good. Chloe was inconsolable, which meant they couldn't make any actual decisions because they didn't really have her input. Beca gave up trying to deal with Chloe and instead insisted she take a sleeping pill. Once she was out, the brunette made travel plans to Georgia, booking tickets to leave on Thursday and return on Sunday. She took a deep breath and called her dad. He cried – but he recovered quickly, telling her that he would do anything to help. She thanked him and asked him to keep it between him and Sheila until she was able to travel to Georgia herself to tell the girls. He agreed.

It was early Thursday afternoon and the Bellas' house was empty except for the Beale-Mitchell family. Emily had taken the other girls to her house for a cookout (and Alexis had convinced Camille to deem it mandatory) - giving Beca and Chloe privacy. The two women sat on one of the sofas, Dahlia between them. Poppy, Vera, and Bella sat on the other.

The tension had been thick since they'd arrived that morning. Their mothers were not known for impromptu trips across the country – they were usually too busy for that. It was Poppy who finally spoke and broke the silence. "Brunch was really nice," Poppy said. "But I don't think you flew all the way here to buy us a meal."

Beca smiled and shook her head. "No, no we didn't. We needed to talk to you - and wanted to do it in person." She took a deep breath. "Early last week - I had a doctor's appointment and Aunt Stacie found a lump in my left breast. Well, under my arm - but still breast tissue. I went through some precautionary testing." The three teens were a range of emotions - Poppy crestfallen, Bella angry, and Vera offering a look that might have been confusion or denial. Dahlia was trembling - but she was holding back her tears.

"Unfortunately," Beca continued, "we received the final test results on Tuesday - and the cells are cancerous. But it is treatable," she told them firmly. "I don't want you to worry-"

"Mama!" Bella's voice was angry. It made all of them turn to look at her. She stood and crossed the space, kneeling in front of Beca. "You are not allowed to tell us not to worry – that's ridiculous. Stop thinking about everyone else – and take care of yourself. We need you."

Beca breathed in through her nose and turned away as she pinched her eyes closed, mustering all of her faculties not to cry. Chloe was not even trying – she was a mess for the twentieth time since the ordeal had begun. Beca turned back to Bella and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "Thank you, love," she said softly. Bella grabbed onto her and held tightly. "It's going to be okay," Beca told her softly, rubbing her back.

"I know." Chloe and Poppy had broken down completely and Dahlia curled into Beca's side, trying to make herself as small as possible. Vera walked away – disappearing up the stairs and into one of the bathrooms. When she reappeared, her face was splotchy and her eyes were rimmed in red – but no one had seen her cry.

"So what do you do now?" Poppy asked, once they had all stopped crying and gathered again in the living room.

Beca looked at Chloe, who nodded sadly. "Unfortunately, the cancer is at Stage 3C – which means that it's spread beyond the two lumps they found. So I have to have a double mastectomy so the doctor can try to get rid of as many cancer cells as possible."

"What is that?" Dahlia asked quietly. She didn't like the looks that the older girls were giving Beca – it couldn't a good thing. Beca looked at her, studying her expression. She was not old enough for this – but they didn't have much choice.

"It's a surgery – where the doctor takes away my breasts – because they have bad stuff in them."

"Both of them?"

"Yeah," Beca said with a nod, crinkling her nose. "But it's okay – because it will help get rid of the cancer – the bad stuff. And I don't really need them much anymore." Dahlia didn't understand what she meant – but Chloe and the older girls did. Chloe's eyes began to water again as she realized what Beca was referring to; all three of their biological daughters had been breastfed.

"Will it hurt?"

"I will be sleeping the whole time," Beca promised. "I might be sore after – but I'll be okay."

The rest of their trip was bittersweet. They were happy to be together – but the atmosphere was tense. Beca was pretty sure they hadn't made it an hour without at least one of the girls – or Chloe – breaking into tears. Bella tried to be quiet when it happened – tears streamed silently. Vera worked hard at it but wasn't as successful; she usually just left the room or walked away. Chloe and Poppy couldn't help it – they were loud criers. Dahlia simply clung to Beca every chance she had.

On Saturday night, Chloe and Beca went to spend the evening with Emily and Benji. Dahlia and Vera – and Emily's children – were having a pizza and movie night with Warren and Sheila. The mothers told the twins to have fun – to go out – to do something. Poppy tried – she dressed up and went to a party at the Treble House with Aria. Bella found it inconceivable, which was why she was curled up in her bed, staring at the ceiling, when a knock sounded at her door. It opened to reveal Alexis, not at all dressed for the party.

"What are you doing here?" Bella asked, her voice non-committal.

"I came to ask you the same thing," Alexis responded, carefully plopping beside Bella on the bed. She looked up, her green eyes peering. "You know, there are far more interesting things to stare at if you're committed to continuing this despondency thing."

"Please leave me alone," Bella responded tightly.

Alexis paused, seeming to consider it. "No," she said decisively. "What's going on, Bells? I know your moms are in town – Professor Applebaum told me. Is everything okay?"

"Not really," Bella answered, tears finding their way into her voice. Alexis rolled to her side when they came, studying Bella carefully.

"Oh, sweetie. I'm so sorry. Whatever is – "

"I can't talk about it," she said quickly, her eyes closing against the tears and the questions alike.

"That's okay," Alexis assured her. She lay back again, her hand snaking over carefully to take Bella's. "It's okay," she repeated soothingly. She hid her surprise well when Bella's tears erupted into sobs and she rolled over, curling into Alexis. The older girl moved a bit to hold her and whispered whatever assurances she could think of. Mostly, she remained solid and silent, just being there.

When Bella woke the next morning, she was alone. But there was a note on her nightstand, anchored by her cell phone.

Bells, I know you – and I know that waking up with me still here is going to freak you out. So I'm heading back to my own room – but whatever is wrong – you can tell me if you want to. Regardless, I am here if you need me. Always. Alexis. Bella's hands shook as she folded the note and tucked it inside her favorite copy of Anne of Green Gables. She showered and prepared for the day before dragging her twin out of bed. They were meeting their mothers for breakfast before their flight.

Bella sat between Beca and Vera at the table, her fork making intricate designs in the syrup that was trying to smother her French Toast. Beca leaned close to whisper in her ear. "I need you to eat at least half of that," she said softly. It was a remnant of when they had been young – only Poppy had been a good eater. The other two always had to be cajoled with "one more bite" and "please try a little bit more" and "I need you to take one more spoonful."

Bella's stomach recoiled as she used the side of her fork to break off a piece of the sweet breakfast food. She shook her head slightly and set her fork down. As soon as the waiter returned, Bella found herself faced with a small plate of dry toast instead. She broke the bread into pieces, nibbling at it obediently – if only so Beca would stop watching her.

Poppy eventually broke through the banal chitchat after she finished her own omelet.

"We want to come home – when you have your surgery."

"It's not necessary, love," Beca told her.

"Mama – "

"No," Beca answered firmly. "I won't be in the hospital for more than four days – and Aunt Aubrey is already threatening to take care of me when I get home. So don't worry, I'm sure I won't be alone for even five seconds."

"What about after the surgery?" Vera asked.

"I'll have to do a few chemotherapy treatments – but hopefully it will just be for a few weeks. I will be fine." Beca's words sounded so self-assured that she almost convinced herself.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 – Stronger

"Makes me that much stronger
Makes me work a little bit harder
It makes me that much wiser
So thanks for making me a fighter"

~ Christina Aguilera

"We could move in here for a while," Aubrey suggested several days later. The Swansons and Stacie had come over for dinner and – now that Dahlia was in bed – were discussing the coming obstacles. "I could be here in the daytime to help Beca – "

"No," Beca said sternly. "No. No. No. Sorry Bree, but that would kill me faster than the cancer. I love you – but you've gotta go home – often. Now would be good, actually." Chloe didn't hide her amused smile; it was nice to hear Beca bantering again.

"What can we do to help?" Jesse asked.

"We don't really know yet," Beca admitted again.

"If nothing else right now – you should start looking for help around the house. You're not going to have the energy to be cooking and cleaning," Stacie told her. In fact, Stacie had always been amazed that Beca and Chloe didn't employ any help around their house to begin with – other than landscaping. The two of them – with the help of their daughters – kept their home clean – and it was pretty much a mansion.

"I don't really want a stranger here," Beca said, wrinkling her nose.

"Get used to it," Stacie replied unsympathetically – "because you also need to start interviewing nannies." As much as she didn't want to scare her, she needed Beca to understand the reality of what was coming – because she was certain that the brunette was holding herself together with sheer will and oodles of denial.

"No – " Beca said. "We'll be fine – "

"After the first round of chemo starts – you won't be able to drive," Stacie told her bluntly. "Chloe is still going to be working, I assume?" Both women nodded. "So – you at least need someone who is reliable enough to pick Dahlia up from school and bring her home – and you need someone here with her in case you have to go in for a treatment on a day when school is out of session – or if you're not feeling well enough to take care of her."

Beca closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples. She could not imagine being so sick or so tired that she would be unable to take care of her own daughter. But eventually she nodded; it might be better if Dahlia didn't see her as often while she was at her weakest. Chloe squeezed her hand. "Maybe we can find a nanny who is willing to take on light housekeeping duties – and some cooking – that would mean only one extra person around the house." Beca nodded; that would be preferable.

"I can make some phone calls for you," Aubrey offered. "We used an agency when I was still working – I can ask them to send over some resumes and you can choose a few to interview."

"Thank you," Chloe said softly.

The night before the surgery, Beca sat on a video call with her daughters for almost two hours. Every time they were about to say goodnight, they would bring up something new. Finally, Beca called them out on their stalling tactics. "Loves, I have to go. I promise you – I will have mom call you tomorrow after the surgery. I love you so much."

"Love you too, Mama," they all said. They looked tearful. She knew from the background that they were in Vera's bedroom at Emily and Benji's home. At least they were together. She stood from her desk and walked down the stairs to Dahlia's room – Chloe had just finished brushing her hair and was tucking her under the covers. As Beca walked into the room, she saw the small suitcase already packed for a week at Aubrey's. They had chosen seven people to interview for the nanny position – but there wasn't enough time to hire someone and get Dahlia acclimated to them before the surgery.

Chloe and Beca climbed into bed together later that night, despite knowing that they wouldn't sleep. Chloe spooned in behind her wife, wrapping her arm around her waist. Her hand lightly brushed Beca's breast.

"You should probably get in a good grope or two before they're gone," Beca said, falling flat on the joke.

"Beca," Chloe chided. She hated macabre jokes. There was no response – only silence. Until Chloe realized that Beca was shaking – with cries. "Oh, sweetie," she said softly, rolling her over so she could see her. Beca curled into her chest, crying deeply for the first time since the diagnosis had come through. "I'm so sorry." It was all she could think to say. She held Beca until her phone alarm beeped early the next morning. They both showered and tried to hide the fact that they'd spent the night crying.

They didn't wake Dahlia – it was just after four in the morning. Aubrey was already in their kitchen when they entered, pouring herself a cup of coffee. She had already poured a travel mug for Chloe.

"I'll meet you at the hospital after I drop Dahlia off at school," Aubrey promised Chloe. The redhead nodded in thanks. It was a ten hour surgery with both the double mastectomy and the reconstruction that would follow. Jesse entered the kitchen then, having already taken Beca's bags – which had been next to the door – out to Chloe's car.

She smiled weakly when he looked at her. "Don't look at me like that," she told him.

"Like what?"

"Like that," she said simply. "Think of something amusing I did at some point I our lives." His smiled changed - brightened - and she nodded. "That's better," she told him. He hugged her fiercely. Chloe took her hand and led her out to the car, starting the drive to the hospital.

Before she really knew what was happening, Beca found herself sitting on a gurney, her feet freezing in tiny white socks, the rest of her swathed in scrub pants and a hideous white hospital gown with blue specks that tied in the front. Her hair was pulled up into a cap and she was annoyed that the nurse wouldn't allow her to braid it or even put it in a bun herself – it was all shoved up there with no rhyme or reason.

Stacie laughed at her expression when she entered the room. "I wouldn't be laughing if the nurse hadn't just told me about your argument over the braids."

"It's stupid - and unnecessarily messy," Beca told her, fidgeting with her hands. She knew Beca was worried about the surgery – and probably already thinking about the soon-to-be loss of her beautiful mane of chestnut brown hair.

"You're not going to care in five minutes. Are you ready?"

"If I say no, can we undo all of this and make it never happen?"

"I wish," her friend answered honestly. She was not participating in the procedure, but she was allowed to be in the room to observe – and Beca and Chloe had requested it. "The anesthesiologist will be here any minute – so I'm going to send Chloe back in before the nurse comes to give you a sedative." Beca nodded. As soon as Stacie was gone, Chloe appeared, her smile bright as the day they'd met.

Chloe grasped her hands and leaned close, their foreheads touching. "I love you so much – Beca. More than you could ever fathom. And no matter what, we are going to be okay. You are going to go home in a few days – and sometime in the very near future – this is going to be nothing more than a bad dream."

"I'm good with that plan," Beca agreed in a whisper, nodding slightly. Chloe laughed, blinking back tears. "I love you too. Try not to worry too much."

"That ship has sailed," Chloe said, eyes wide as she laughed at the idea. She wiped at the tears that had fallen to her cheeks.

"Try anyway," Beca pleaded. "Let Aubrey distract you – sleep – go for a walk – anything. Don't sit here and worry for ten hours."

"As a wise woman once told my best friend – you are not the boss of me."

Beca smiled. A nurse cleared her throat, having just entered the room. Chloe leaned forward again and their lips met in a chaste but meaningful kiss. "Love you," she whispered one more time, before pulling away. Beca remembered her hands falling away – and then nothing but a nurse appearing beside her, a syringe in hand. They knocked her out quickly – and had her in the operating theater almost as soon as Chloe reached the waiting room.

The redhead was pacing the room, trying to figure out how she was going to keep from climbing the walls all day, when a familiar voice sounded behind her. She turned to see Warren and Sheila Mitchell standing in the doorway. Tears fell as she hurried over to them, throwing her arms around them both.

"You weren't supposed to come," she chided.

"You and Beca are my children – I don't have to listen to you unless I want to," Warren told her. "We didn't want you to be alone." They hadn't arrived earlier because as much as he had wanted to see Beca before the procedure – he hadn't wanted to upset her; she had asked them not to come. But supporting Chloe was important to them, so they had made the flight. Chloe wasn't alone at that day – the waiting room filled as Aubrey and Jesse appeared. More friends had wanted to be there – Cynthia Rose, Jessica, Ashley – they had all wanted to come. If Amy had known about it, she probably would have flown in from Tasmania. But Beca didn't want a fuss – so she'd put her foot down. But between the four who were there, they were able to keep Chloe out of her head for most of the day.

The main surgeon who had been in charge of the procedure – Dr. Adam Brown – appeared in the waiting room around six that evening. Aubrey and Jesse had left earlier in the afternoon to pick up Dahlia from school, but the other three were waiting.

"Mrs. Beale?" Chloe stood but he invited her to sit again. He took a seat across from her.

"These are Beca's parents, Warren and Sheila," she said softly.

The doctor nodded in greeting. "Your wife is doing well," the doctor told her, allowing Chloe to comfortably breathe for the first time in more than ten hours. "The surgery went along with no problem. I was able to remove more of the breast tissue than I thought was going to be possible – which is always good news. The reconstruction went smoothly. Dr. Chen did a fantastic job. I think – once all the dust has settled – Beca will be happy with the end result."

Chloe gave him a stern look and he looked apologetic.

"As happy with it as the situation allows," he amended.

"Thank you," Chloe responded. "When can I see her?"

"She's in recovery now," the doctor responded. "Dr. Conrad insisted on staying with her – and a recovery nurse is there as well. She'll be taken to a regular room within the next hour – and then you'll be able to see her."

When Beca woke, she was sick. Her stomach lurched and her eyes snapped open. Luckily, the recovery nurse had been ready – and had a bucket to her just in time. The stupid cap was gone but someone had fixed her hair into a braid so that it was out of the way. Once the vomiting had stopped, she sipped from the cup that the nurse held for her and swished the water around in her mouth before spitting it out into the bucket. The offending mess was then removed – and Beca felt slightly better. Then the world tilted as the pain settled in. She had absolutely no words to describe it – everything just hurt.

"Oh my God," she said, her breathing becoming heavy.

"Beca?" Stacie was alert then, sitting in front of her, trying to get her attention. "Beca, I need you to calm down. Talk to me –"

"It hurts," Beca was finally able to say, a cry emitting through her lips just after.

Stacie looked at the nurse in concern and confusion; Beca should have been too drugged-up to feel anything. The doctor quickly examined the IV lines and realized that one was clamped shut – the one with the pain medication. If looks could kill – that recovery nurse would have died right then and there. Stacie immediately opened the line – allowing the drugs into Beca's bloodstream. "It's okay, sweetie – it's just going to take a few minutes for the medicine to kick in." Beca didn't question why there had been no medicine before; she was too out of it. Her heart rate and blood pressure were elevated with the pain and Stacie glared again at the nurse, ordering a sedative. Beca was out in under five minutes.

When she woke the second time, she felt nothing. She felt a bit floaty, but there was no pain. But she remembered the pain. Her eyes blinked open and she saw Chloe sitting nearby, watching her. "Hey, Beca," she said softly. "Welcome back." She pulled her chair closer and leaned forward, taking Beca's right hand gently between her own.

"How long was I out?" She asked, her head heavy with exhaustion. He mouth was dry.

"The surgery was finished about twelve hours ago," Chloe told her. "Everything went well." She didn't mention the screw-up with the morphine – which Stacie was still incredibly pissed off about. She picked up a cup of water from the bedside table and held it while Beca sipped from the straw.

Once she was finished, Beca pulled back and nodded. "The girls?"

"They are absolutely fine," Chloe answered, not mentioning that Beca should be worried about herself. "All three of the older girls have class right now – but we can call them when you're feeling a little more up to it. Maybe later today. Dahlia is in school too – I spoke with her this morning before Aubrey took her. She misses you – but she's fine." By the end of that day, at her insistence, Beca was off of the heaviest drugs – onto less brain-fogging pain medication. A physical therapist came to bother her a bit before lunch and showed her a bunch of exercises she was supposed to do so she kept her arms and shoulders from freezing up. Beca did what she was told, but scowled a lot. She cheered considerably when she was able to speak with her daughters that evening – and she actually sounded kind of normal.

Within two days, she was more annoyed – still on drugs – and ready to go home. The nurses had been bothering her since almost the minute she woke to pay attention to what they were doing, changing her bandages and cleaning her ports.

"The drains will be in until your first post-op appointment – which is a week from when you go home," the nurse told her on the third day. "You need to keep them clean and empty them daily."

Beca wrinkled her nose and Chloe could tell she was tuning the woman out. Again. "Mrs. Mitchell – did you hear what I said –"

"Show me," Chloe told the nurse, interrupting. "I'll help when the time comes – Beca's not really focused right now." The fact that she didn't argue with Chloe speaking about her like she wasn't in the room was absolute proof of that fact.

On the fifth day, Jesse helped her into the house and Beca asked him to take her into the living room – which he happily did. She sat on the sofa – she was so tired of being in bed – she needed to stay sitting upright for a while. She felt her frustration fading as she basked in the atmosphere of her own home. Jesse arranged a pillow behind her. Chloe was right behind them, carrying more bags than it seemed like a four night hospital stay should have required. She left them in the foyer and hurried over to her wife. "Are you okay? Don't you want to go lay down for a while?"

"I'm fine," Beca promised. "And no – I want to be right here. I am tired of being in bed – I'll stay here for now."

"Okay," Chloe agreed. She pulled a blanket from the chest between two arm chairs and lay it over Beca, who thanked her. "Do you need anything?"

"Chlo – we just walked in the door. Calm down – I'm fine – I promise." The redhead nodded.

"I'll get you a glass of water."

Once she had left, Beca looked at Jesse with an expression of annoyance. "This is scaring the crap out of her, Bec. Give her a break. Let her coddle you a little."

"A little?" Beca asked.

"Just let her help you. Let us help you."

"I let you help me. You practically carried me in the door," she reminded him, obstinately missing his point. He smiled and shook his head, scuffing his show against her floor.

"You are too much, Beca Mitchell. Too much sometimes."

Before she could respond, Aubrey called out. "We're home!" She yelled, letting them know that she was walking through the door with Dahlia. There was a teacher's in-service day, so the child was off from school. Aubrey and Chloe had talked about keeping her busy while Beca settled in at home - but the brunette had been adamant that she wanted to see Dahlia as soon as possible. The little girl's eyes lit up when she saw Beca. She ran over to her, stopping only when Jesse and Aubrey both yelled at her.

"No, Dahlia!"

"Careful!"

She stopped dead, her lower lip trembling.

"It's okay, love," Beca said, holding out her hands. "They were just worried you were coming in a little too fast. I need to be really careful for a few days, okay? I'm a little sore." Understatement of her life. "So just be gentle."

"Can I hug you?"

"I really wish you would," Beca told her. She held out her arms as much as she could – which still wasn't much – and gingerly hugged her daughter.

"I missed you."

"I missed you so, so much," the woman responded. Dahlia pulled back, looking curiously at Beca's shirt. She was wearing a specially-designed mastectomy camisole with a pouch that held and hid her drains. She wore one of her normal button-down flannels over top. Paired with jeans and her hair done perfectly, she looked pretty normal – if also extremely tired. Dahlia looked perplexed, but she clearly didn't want to say anything in front of Aubrey and Jesse, because she kept looking at them, then back to Beca.

Beca crooked her finger and motioned for Dahlia to come closer. "What's wrong?" She asked softly.

"I thought they were going to take them away," she whispered, eyes glancing again at Beca's chest. The older woman bit back her mirth; she realized now why Dahlia was confused. The reconstruction had left her roughly the same size as she had been before the surgery – so when she was fully clothed, it looked like nothing had changed.

"They did," she whispered back. "But they put in fake ones in their place."

"Why?"

"A lot of reasons - mostly vanity and pride – I'll explain when you're older."

"What are you two whispering about over there?" Chloe asked, walking into the room with a bottle filled with ice water. Dahlia almost knocked her over, running at her and hugging her so hard.

"Hello, pretty girl," Chloe said with a joyful laugh. "I missed you too. I hope you were more careful with mama."

"I was," Dahlia responded, not indicating that it was a direct result of Aubrey and Jesse screaming.

Beca had decided at the hospital that she was not cleaning her drains, that she was not looking at her scars, and that Chloe was also not allowed to do either thing. Therefore, she had to hire a nurse to visit once a day to clean her drains and change her bandages. She wasn't thrilled, but it was – in her mind – better than the alternative. Chloe argued with her, saying that she would help – but Beca insisted that it was her choice – and this was what she wanted. That, and she wasn't ready to admit that she couldn't bring herself to look at – well, any of it.

Beca was home from the hospital for three days when she, Chloe, Aubrey, and Stacie began interviewing Nannies. Beca thought it was overkill for all four to be there – but Aubrey needed her nose in everything and Stacie had some specific needs in mind. Beca was looking for someone to help with Dahlia – Chloe and Stacie were looking for someone to keep an eye on both Dahlia and Beca.

Their lawyer was in the dining room, making all of the candidates sign non-disclosure agreements before meeting with the four women. The world did not need to know that Beca Mitchell was heading into the fight of her life.

They interviewed seven women that day – two were visibly upset when it was revealed that Beca would soon be undergoing chemotherapy and that was why they needed help around the house and with Dahlia. A third woman – girl really – she was eighteen – burst into tears.

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Mitchell. My mom – I'm so sorry." She left crying, stunning them all. The lawyer caught up with her, calmed her down, and discovered that her mother had died from cancer when she was twelve. She was not interested in interviewing for the job. Chloe thought they should perhaps be offering to pay for her next few sessions of therapy.

A fourth woman was too "ridiculously cheerful" for Beca. A fifth was far too interested in her for Chloe's liking. They were left with two women that they all agreed would probably work out well. The first was named Annie and she was a graduate student in developmental psychology. She took classes at night but was looking for a way to help ends meet. She came with several years of babysitting experience and came very highly recommended by her references. Aubrey and Chloe had called them all.

The second woman was named Cassie and she was trained as a home nurse and had gone back to school to become an elementary school teacher. She was in her third year and could also carry her course load in the evenings to free herself to help during the day.

Beca didn't want any stranger in her house – but if it had to be, then she didn't mind either of the two they were considering. "I think Dahlia should have a choice," she said finally. They all looked at her oddly, Aubrey had been in the middle of debating Annie over Cassie. "Invite them back tomorrow after school – one at four or so and one at six or seven. She can meet them and decide who she likes better."

"I'm fine that that – if you think Dahlia will understand," Chloe responded.

"I think she'll catch on," Beca answered with a smile. Dahlia met both women that evening and by the end of the week, Cassie was installed in their household with a list of chores from Chloe. She was staying in the hose, which didn't really amuse Beca, but she was trying to deal with it. The girl woke early enough to help get Dahlia ready for school while Chloe got herself ready for work and fawned over her wife. After driving Dahlia to school, Cassie did household chores – mostly staying out of Beca's way – and the small brunette was thankful for that. She still felt odd that the nanny was there when Dahlia was not – but she knew Chloe and Stacie had conspired to get someone into the house to watch her – and they had succeeded.

"Hey, Mrs. Mitchell – I was just going to make lunch – do you want anything specific?" Cassie asked, head popping into Beca's open studio door. The woman's arms and chest were still to tender for her to do any real mixing – she couldn't reach the right dials and buttons – but she was playing around and doing what she could on her computer. She turned her chair to look at the blonde college student in front of her.

"Cassie, you just started this week. Do not make me fire you. What did I say about calling me Mrs. Mitchell?"

"Sorry," she answered, flushing. "Beca – can I get you anything special for lunch?"

"What were you thinking?"

"A turkey sandwich and some fruit?"

"Works for me," Beca responded. She stood and motioned for Cassie to continue back to the kitchen and she followed. She didn't reach for anything – it hurt too much to do that – but she was able to procure a bottle of water for each of them. The blonde was going to take her lunch to her own room – for some reason that Beca couldn't fathom – but stayed in the kitchen when invited.

"This whole situation is sort of odd for all of us," Beca told her. "This is not an old-fashion British class system. You are not a servant – you do not need to disappear when we're around. While you're living here, you're always welcome to eat with us when you don't have other plans."

Cassie nodded and sat with her at the table. She answered Beca's questions about her classes and schooling. "Tell me about your other daughters – they're coming home from school soon for the holiday, right?"

Beca smiled brightly. "Vera is sixteen. She was really far ahead – so she started college early. She's beautiful – they're all beautiful," Beca corrected herself. "Vera is independent and a little wild – she's curious about everything. I've seen that trait coming out in Dahlia too, as she's grown more comfortable."

"Dahlia is amazing," Cassie agreed. "How long has she been with you?"

"Three and a half months," Beca responded. "Some times it seems like she's always been here - and other times, like we were cheated out of the first egiht years." She paused, considering her words before moving on. "And then there are the twins – they're eighteen – they won't turn nineteen until June. Bella has dark hair – a little darker than mine actually – and she's the quietest of the girls, other than Dahlia. She's very introspective – very creative and thoughtful. She likes to measure all of her options before making a decision. She's an avid reader. She's probably read every book in this house at least twice. And Poppy – Poppy is so much like Chloe. She's active and exuberant. She's sunshine personified when she's happy – which is most of the time. But never get between her on her coffee – and if she's in a bad mood – just run away. Far away." Cassie laughed.

"I'll try to remember that. It sounds like you have your hands full."

"Always," Beca agreed.

"I finished Mrs. Beale's list – so I was going to study and do some homework – but do you need anything this afternoon?"

"No," Beca told her. "But thank you. And stop calling Chloe Mrs. Beale. That's weird too." Cassie smiled and Beca continued. "I'm actually sort of tired – so I'm going to go take a nap. I'm sure that will appease my wife and the good doctor. Which one are you answering to? Or is it both?"

Cassie flushed and Beca laughed. "Oh, sweetie – I'm known Chloe and Stacie since before you were born. I know they're making you keep an eye on me. I'll try to make it painless when I can."

"I'm supposed to text them both – several time a day," Cassie admitted. Beca nodded.

"I guess I would be more pissed off if they didn't care. I'll be upstairs. Thank you for lunch." Beca walked slowly to her bedroom – she really was feeling tired and in a bit of pain. She swallowed her afternoon dose of her pain medication and antibiotics and curled up in bed, sleeping until Cassie brought Dahlia home. The child had clearly been held back for several minutes by the new nanny, because she was bouncing by the time they arrived in Beca's bedroom. Cassie placed a glass of ice water on the little table between the sofa and the loveseat, along with juice for Dahlia and a small bowl of cut-up fruit.

Dahlia hurried over to Beca, bouncing as she waited for her mother to sit up. Beca laughed. "Did you have extra sugar today?"

"Danny's mom brought cupcakes for his birthday," Dahlia told her.

"So that's a yes," the brunette said with a smile. She reached out to hug Dahlia and the little girl cuddled immediately into her arms. It was painful for her to not be able to simply throw herself at Beca as she had done before – and still did with Chloe – but she was extremely careful now that she understood that it could hurt her mother.

"Dahlia, why don't you change out of your uniform before you have your snack with your mom?" Cassie suggested. The little girl looked at Beca pleadingly – she did not want to leave, even for a few minutes – she had just gotten there!

"It's fine, Cassie," Beca responded. "She can change after her snack. Thank you."

"I'll be downstairs if you need anything," the blonde told her. "And you can leave the dishes – I'll come back up to get them."

Beca walked over to the sofa and sat. Dahlia sat next to her, but not too close. After Chloe had described where Beca's surgery had been – under her arms as well as along her entire chest – the little girl had been more careful about curling into her side.

"How was school – other than Danny's mom's cupcakes – which I assume were good?"

Dahlia nodded. "They were very good – but the icing was blue. Everyone had blue lips and teeth until Ms. Lauren sent everyone out to the fountain to rinse."

"That was probably a good plan. Twenty blue-toothed third graders might be intimidating." Beca picked up an apple slice and began munching on it while Dahlia chose a grape.

"Why does Ms. Lauren know you're sick? I didn't tell her." She looked a bit alarmed that Beca might think otherwise.

"I know you didn't, love. Mommy told her. We wanted you to have someone else who knew – in case you needed to talk to someone when you weren't at home. I hope that's okay."

"She keeps looking at me all sad and asks if everything is okay."

"She'll back off after a bit," Beca told her. "She's just trying to be helpful."

"Why does she look so sad? Aren't you all better now – since you had the surgery?"

Oh, shit. Beca stared silently at her daughter; how had they screwed up this explanation? She thought they had been thorough – but clearly they had forgotten to clarify something with Dahlia. Where was Chloe? Why was she stuck explaining this herself? She could barely grasp the gravity of the situation – how was she supposed to explain it to her eight-year-old?

Beca turned, wishing so much that she could just scoop the child up into her arms and make this all go away. "Dahlia – when someone has cancer, there are different steps that the doctors had to go through to treat them. The surgery was the first step to get rid of the biggest part of the cancer. But it's sneaky sometimes, and it hides in other places. So the doctors have to give me a really strong medicine called chemotherapy."

"And that's all? Then it will be all gone?"

"We hope so," Beca told her. "But it's not perfect – so we don't know for sure. But the doctors are going to try their very best to make sure it all goes away." That didn't sound final enough for Dahlia.

"What if the cancer isn't gone?"

"Then we keep fighting it until it is," Beca told her. Dahlia seemed content enough with that answer. She finished her fruit, gave Beca a rather-sticky kiss on the cheek, and went to her room to change out of her school clothes.

The reality of the chemotherapy didn't hit Dahlia until she saw it with her own eyes. The doctor had wanted to stay literally the day after all of Beca's incisions had healed over. Once the risk of infection had ceased, it started. Beca was on a regimen where she would go through four cycles – each cycle having four days of intensive chemotherapy at the beginning – the next two and a half weeks enough time for her body to recover before it all happened again. During the four days when she was receiving treatment, she felt okay – she was able to hide the minor nausea and aches from Dahlia and her wife. The fifth morning – the one after the treatments were over – she woke Chloe at three in the morning with her vomiting.

"I'm sorry," she crocked between active spells, feeling her wife's cool hands against her warm skin. Chloe pulled her hair back in a messy bun, keeping it out of danger.

"Don't apologize, Beca. It's not your fault. You should have woken me up."

"To watch me vomit? That seems rude," Beca said sleepily. Her head was lolling as she held onto the porcelain toilet.

"Sweetie – you're finished. Let's get you back to bed."

Beca shook her head. "No. There's more," she insisted. Ten minutes later, there was. Beca vomited again, several times – and Chloe wondered where in the hell it was all coming from – the tiny brunette had barely been able to eat in the past week. Chloe tried again and Beca insisted – again – that there was more. Giving up, the redhead went into their bedroom and brought back a pillow and blanket. She made her wife lay down on the bathroom floor. They remained there for several more hours, Beca sleeping for snippets of ten, sometimes even twenty minutes between getting sick. She had finally stopped around six in the morning and Chloe helped her back into bed – and called herself off work. There was no way she could teach with the amount of sleep she'd gotten.

She only lay back in bed for another hour before she had to get up to wake Dahlia. The little girl woke smiling, as usual, but seemed a little thrown-off her game. Beca was usually the one who woke her. "Is Mama okay?"

"She's feeling sick to her stomach this morning," Chloe told her honestly. "But she'll be okay."

"Can I say good morning?"

"Once you're ready for school – you can come and say goodbye." Dahlia agreed and Cassie arrived in her room then to help her. The blonde smiled at them both and said good morning.

"I'm staying home today," Chloe told her quietly as soon as Dahlia disappeared into the bathroom to brush her teeth. "So you don't need to worry about Beca for now."

"Okay, Mrs. Beale. Please let me know if you need anything." Chloe nodded and thanked the young girl before going back to her bedroom and looking at Beca. The brunette was still deep asleep when Dahlia appeared, wanting to say good morning and goodbye. Chloe told her that if she was very quiet, she could kiss Beca's cheek, so she did.

When Beca woke later that morning, the nausea had abated but she admitted to Chloe that everything hurt. From the roots of her hair to her toes – everything ached. "Let's get you cleaned up in the shower and then maybe a nice warm bath? That might help?" Beca nodded.

She let Chloe help her out of bed and grimaced when she stood. The walk to the bathroom told them both that Beca wasn't going to be able to support herself in the shower – but Chloe was not shy. She undressed them both and took Beca under the spray, helping her wash herself and her hair. As careful as Chloe tried to be, Beca cried when Chloe lathered her hair – that was how much her scalp hurt. The redhead finished quickly. She dried them both, Beca much more carefully, and ran a bath while doing that and helping her wife brush her teeth. She gathered Beca's hair into a loose bun at the top of her head, not willing to do much more for fear of hurting her.

The brunette held on tightly to Chloe but nodded toward the toilet. Chloe helped her over to it and to get settled. "Are you okay if I go in the bedroom?" Beca nodded and Chloe went into the room to give her some privacy. She returned a few minutes later, her hair combed and pulled up neatly, wearing a soft black robe. Beca had made the few feet to the sink on her own to wash her hands and was standing against it, the towel clutched around her as she waited for Chloe.

Within a minute or two, she was in the tub, soaking in the warm water. "Tell me if the jets are too much," she said, her hand reaching inside to turn them on. The water began bubbling to life almost immediately and Beca seemed to appreciate it. "Is that okay?" Beca nodded, sinking back against the tub as Chloe pulled her shoulders, trying to get her into a relaxing position. "Tell me if this is too much," she said softly, rubbing Beca's shoulders and upper back with lotion, working out the knots when she could.

In twenty minutes, Beca was sleeping and Chloe sighed, sitting back against the wall. Chloe let her sleep until the water grew too cold, then woke her. Beca was dry, in new pajamas, and tucked into bed within minutes. The thing that worried Chloe the most was that she never argued - not with anything that had happened since the night before.

Chloe remained home for the rest of that week – it was the last week before her school's Christmas break anyway, so she didn't feel terrible about it.

Dahlia had barely seen Beca for four days – and it had worn on the child. Luckily, the three older girls returned home from college for the Christmas break on the day after Beca began feeling a bit better. Her aches were minimal and the nausea was gone. A general weakness and exhaustion plagued her, but it wasn't nearly what she'd gone through in the first four days after the treatments. Jesse and Aubrey had taken one of the cars and left it in short term parking the day before – so Bella drove them home. Poppy had not been thrilled – Vera had been texting Beca and Chloe about their argument over who was the better driver during the ride.

Once they arrived home, none of it mattered. They were so relieved to see Beca in person – and to be able to hug her. Dahlia had no intention of moving from her spot directly beside Beca, so the other girls hugged their mother around her. "You look really tired," Bella said softly, sitting on the coffee table in front of her.

"I'm okay," Beca promised. "And I'm so happy to see you girls." In all honesty, although she was better than she had been for the three days immediately after the chemo was finished, she was still wiped out. She had no energy. Listening to music wasn't even appealing to her. But she kept pushing through. She spent most of the days in bed – she really didn't have a choice in that matter – but she tried to keep her spirit up.

This was the first time she'd been sitting up all day. Dinner was lively and happy – the girls were thrilled to be home and relieved that the semester was over. Despite being so happy to see them, Beca could barely keep herself awake during dinner. She kissed them all goodnight and went to bed not long after. Despite the early bedtime worrying them, the older girls said nothing.

Bella was curious that evening when her door opened and she didn't see anyone right away. She was lying on her bed, so someone had to be a certain height to be seen from her position – Dahlia was not that height. Bella sat up against the headboard and removed her headphones, watching the little girl intently as she crept into the room. "What's up, Dahlia?" She was stunned when the little girl began crying and opened her arms immediately – which was exactly what the child wanted. She crawled into Bella's arms and cried herself to sleep. Bella held her, rubbing her back gently, trying to understand what had just happened. She tried to ask several times what was wrong, but the little girl never answers - she just cried.

Poppy saw the scene twenty minutes after Dahlia had fallen asleep and looked questioningly at her twin. Bella made a face at her, trying to indicate that she needed help – and a few minutes later – Chloe walked into the room. Her expression darkened when she saw the tear-tracks on Dahlia's cheeks, her dark head of curls snuggled under Bella's chin.

Chloe sat next to Bella, reaching out to run her nails gently along Dahlia's back. "Sorry, sweetie. I think –." She stopped. There was one reason she had sought out Bella – and they both knew it. "You look so much like Mama," Chloe finally said, admitting what was not a secret.

"I figured as much," Dahlia whispered. "It's really bad, isn't it?"

"It's hard," Chloe admitted. "Your mama is usually so strong – and seeing her knocked out by these drugs – it's painful. But she'll be okay."

Bella nodded. She could hear the tears in Chloe's voice. "I'm so sorry, Mom. I'm so sorry you have to go through this alone."

"I'm not alone," Chloe said, her fingers moving to rake softly through Dahlia's hair. "She's tiny. But you forget – when you haven't had little kids in a while – how much personality and life they fit into such tiny bodies. She makes your mama laugh on days when even I don't think it's possible – she was definitely the ray of sunshine we needed without you girls here."

"You mean Poppy," Bella responded, teasing.

"I mean all of you," Chloe answered firmly, her arms wrapping around Bella, her head falling to rest on top of the shorter girl's. "I'm so thankful for every one of you." Chloe eventually lifted Dahlia out of Bella's arms and carried her to her own bed, leaving the eighteen year old worried about her mother and her sister.

On the morning before Christmas Eve, when she woke, Beca hurried to the bathroom. Her bladder was reacting worse to chemo than it had to her pregnancies; she had to pee all the time. She was just thankful that she could again make it there without any assistance. When she returned to the bed, she noticed a dark shadow on her pillow. It was oddly shaped. She reached out to touch it and was crestfallen to realize it was a huge lock of her hair. Sinking to her knees, she buried her face in the bed and cried. Chloe woke and found her that way.

"Beca? What's wrong?" She slid out of bed and knelt next to the smaller woman. "Bec, what happened? Sweetie, I need you to talk to me." Beca shook her head, tears falling at a faster rate. Chloe rubbed her back and held her, trying to sooth her.

Once her tears had slowed, Beca sat back on the carpet, her knees tired and throbbing from the stress of her position. Chloe moved with her, still holding her. "Can you tell me what happened?" She asked softly. There was no answer – but at this angle, she could see Beca clutching something in her hand. Chloe's hand closed over hers and loosened her grip. Her breath hitched when she realized what it was. "Oh, sweetie. I'm so sorry."

"It's stupid," Beca said, her voice gruff from tears. "I shouldn't be worried about stupid hair – "

"It's not stupid," Chloe assured her. "You're allowed to feel however you do. And you're not allowed to criticize yourself. This is really heavy stuff, Beca. You have to give yourself room to grieve."

"For my hair?"

"For whatever you feel like you're losing," Chloe told her.

Later that morning, while Chloe was out finishing her Christmas shopping, Beca called Aubrey and asked her for a ride. "Why isn't Chloe taking you?" Aubrey asked as they drove downtown.

"I didn't tell her."

"Why not?"

"She would try to talk me out of it," Beca responded. "It's not worth waiting for the inevitable to happen – I just need to do this." Aubrey dropped her off in front of the salon and parked the car. It was a salon that specialized in caring for women with cancer and other illnesses. Stacie had given Beca the information and the brunette had tucked it away.

When they walked in, they were welcomed immediately. "Welcome to Casal's Salon and Spa. How can we help you today?"

Beca looked blank for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. Then she simply began talking. "My doctor suggested I come here – and when I called, the woman said I didn't need an appointment? My hair – you know – started falling out last night."

"No problem, dear, we will take good care of you," the woman said with a bright smile. "Right this way." She led Beca and Aubrey into a private room that was calm and soothing. The lighting was dim, a water fountain gurgled in the corner, and the chairs were the most comfortable things Beca had ever sat in. She sank into one, appreciatively accepting the glass of ice water the woman offered to her.

"I need this chair. Do you think they would notice if we took it?" She asked Aubrey once the woman was gone.

"They might," Aubrey answered, a smirk on her lips. She was thankful that Beca seemed fairly calm. It was not jiving with the report Chloe had given her of the night before. "Beca, I'm sorry about your h—"

"It's just hair," Beca said quickly. "I seriously don't even want to talk about it." She sipped from her water. "How are Andy and Ben?" Aubrey spent the next five minute regaling her with stories of her two teenaged sons, both of whom were heading off to Barden the following year. Their easy conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Come in," Beca called, sitting up in her new favorite chair.

The women who entered was younger than both of them – perhaps in her late twenties. "You're Mrs. Mitchell?" She asked, smiling at her.

Beca nodded and smiled. "Yes, but please call me Beca."

"Thank you, Beca. I'm Ashley. I'm a hair stylist and wig specialist."

"I didn't know they had those," Beca told her honestly. "Nice to meet you." She started to stand to greet her but Ashley shook her head.

"Please, stay where you're comfortable. May I sit?" Beca nodded and the woman pulled a stool from the corner of the room, sitting in front of her. She looked at Aubrey and Beca waved a dismissive hand in that direction.

"That's just Aubrey. She's my ride. They pump you full of drugs and then won't let you drive anymore."

"Forgive her," Aubrey said. "Beca has a hard time taking anything seriously." Beca made a face at her and Ashley laughed.

"Sometimes humor is the best thing," she said kindly. "You wanted a consultation today? Corrine mentioned that you're starting to experience hair loss?"

Beca nodded. "I actually just wanted to chop it all off – is there much to consult about?" Beca asked, looking at her critically.

"There are options, actually," Ashley told her. "More than you would imagine. We can give you a new style that will look more natural while it thins. We can give you a shorter cut – sometimes alleviating weight helps you keep your hair longer. And if you do want to get rid of it all, we can help you find a wig if you want one."

Beca had unwittingly been playing with one of her brown curls while talking to the woman. She stared at the one between her fingers and pursed her lips. She turned to the stylist with a determined expression. "I don't really want to fight the inevitable – there's no chance I'm keeping it through the treatments – so I'd like to just get rid of it today," she said.

Ashley nodded. "We can do that. Were you interested in a wig?"

Beca nodded. "I have an eight-year-old at home that I'd rather not scare on a daily basis." Ashley smiled. She mentioned nothing of her own vanity, but it was there. She loved her hair – she always had. Losing it and replacing it with nothing was beyond question.

"Alright – we can get started as soon as you're ready. Would you like to look at the wigs first?" Beca nodded. Aubrey helped her out of the deep chair and they followed Ashley into a room that was huge – and filled with hair.

"That's a lot of choices," Beca said. She looked at the stylist. "I really just want something that looks as much like my hair as possible." In a perfect world, she would prefer that her daughters not even know she was wearing wig.

"We can do that," Ashley responded. She led Beca and Aubrey to a section where most of the wigs were a deep chestnut brown.

"They looked pretty real," Beca said, running her ringers through one that curled lightly at the ends.

Ashley nodded. "They've come a long way with synthetic wigs." She showed Beca the three that were almost identical to the color of her hair – and the cut that she normally kept in it. She tried on all three – it was a difficult process to get them on with her real hair underneath – and chose the one she felt looked the most natural. Aubrey agreed with her on the choice.

"It's your choice – but you may want more than one if you plan to wear them every day. We recommend they come back to the shop for cleaning every two weeks – that way, you'll have one to switch out when you're getting the other cleaned. We have a service where we'll pick them up for you and deliver them – so be sure to get that information before you leave."

Beca nodded. "Two of that one is fine." Ashley sent someone into the back to find the correct wigs and led Beca and Aubrey back into the salon. A very familiar redhead was waiting for them, standing next to a salon station, arms crossed. Beca turned to glare at Aubrey.

"I'm sorry, Beca. But you shouldn't be doing this without her," Aubrey said.

"Not your call to make," Beca said angrily. She turned to look at Chloe, who appeared both angry and devastated.

"This is my station," Ashley told Beca, pointing to the chair next to where Chloe was standing. "I'll give you a few moments." Beca nodded her thanks. Aubrey kissed Beca's cheek and whispered an apology in her ear before leaving. Her hand brushed Chloe's arm as she passed her best friend.

"I'm sorry," Beca said, before Chloe could speak. "I didn't want you to have to see this."

"Stop trying to protect me," Chloe begged. "Beca, I want to be here for you. I don't care how upset you think it's going to make me – you can't keep things from me." Beca nodded, looking truly apologetic. Her expression cracked and she shook her head as tears began to form in her eyes.

"You know I'm not good at this stuff. Feelings – and sharing them – and all that crap. I just don't know if I can hold it together with you here," she said finally. "I really don't need you to see this." Crying in front of Chloe was a real possibility. Beca had thought she could fight the emotions with Aubrey in tow, but not her wife.

Chloe knew exactly what she was worried about. The many, many things that plagued her mind. Chloe captured Beca's face in her hands. "Beca, you are beautiful – with a full head of hair or without it. I know you're scared – but that's why I'm here. I can be brave for both of us. I'm not leaving."

Beca nodded, accepting a hug from the taller redhead. Five minutes later, Ashley returned and asked them if they were ready to start. Beca nodded. She closed her eyes as Ashley draped a cape over her shoulders. Chloe pulled up a stool and sat close, reaching out to take her hand. Neither woman watched as Beca's thick locks began to fall. Beca felt it though – and it almost crushed her. She held it together until the clippers came out – shearing away the few inches that the scissors must have left. Her sobs made Chloe's eyes shoot open. She stood in front of the chair, both of her hands holding Beca's, trying to calm her. "It's okay," she promised. "It's okay, sweetie. Almost done." She looked at Ashley, who had stopped, and indicated that she should finish.

"Do you want to see it?" Ashley asked gently.

"Not really," Beca responded shakily. Chloe's eyes were already open, so she did see – and it was as devastating as she feared. It was vain, but Beca's hair had always been so beautiful. Granted, she was gorgeous even without it – but it was one of her trademarks – something she took great pride in. And it was gone. Chloe bit her lip, hard, refusing to cry. She had promised to stay strong and intended to do just that.

"That's okay," the stylist told her. She slipped a thin fabric cap onto Beca's head. "This is a skullcap – you want to wear one under your wig. Otherwise, it will get itchy and sweaty. You also need to keep your head covered if you're not wearing the wig – your doctor will tell you that if she hasn't already. Any kind of hat is fine – but around the house, you might want something soft and breathable. We have lots of choices here – and catalogs you can take home to look through." Beca nodded, her eyes still closed. Chloe held her right hand, stroking it gently.

"Let's go into this room over here – and I'll show you how to put the wig on and how to take care of it." Ashley led them to a private room, this one better lit – it was filled with cosmetics and hair accessories.

By the time they left the salon, Beca had practiced putting the wig on – and taking it off again – a dozen times. "It looks very realistic," Chloe told her as they walked to the car. Her arm was looped through Beca's, holding her steady. Though she wouldn't admit it, the brunette was exhausted. She didn't notice the man across the street taking their picture.

Beca took a nap when she got home – she was so tired. But by the time the girls returned from their own day of last-minute shopping, she was awake again. She studied herself in the mirror, touching up her makeup and checking the wig. It looked fake to her – but then again, she knew it was.

She walked down the stairs and into the kitchen to begin dinner. Or, in the most likely case, watch Chloe prepare dinner.

Dahlia was Beca's first trial with the wig – and the little girl had no idea. She looked at Beca oddly. "Did you get a haircut?"

"Something like that," Beca responded.

"It's pretty," she said, smiling brightly.

"Thank you," Beca said, kneeling down in front of her and hugging her close. "You always know just the right thing to say." She pulled back, tickling the child and causing her to laugh. The other girls knew – at least she was certain Bella and Poppy did – but they said nothing, kissing Beca's cheek and hugging her in greeting.

An hour later, dinner was almost ready, and she was watching the news when her world suddenly became front-line gossip.

"Sources confirm that multi-Grammy award winning producer, singer, and songwriter Beca Mitchell is battling cancer," the woman said in her most important television voice. Beca spun around to look at the television. She paused it with the remote control and looked over at Dahlia, who was listening to her iPod while coloring. She walked over to the little girl and patted her hand gently, gaining her attention. Dahlia slipped the headphones to her neck and looked up.

"Hey, Love. Can you do me a favor and take your things upstairs and get cleaned up for dinner? And pick a book for tonight. We finished Mr. Popper's Penguins last night, right?" Dahlia nodded. She put her crayons carefully back into the box and picked them up, along with the small stack of coloring books. Once she was upstairs, Beca hit play on the television.

The news was showing a photo of her and Chloe leaving the salon. "Mrs. Mitchell, along with her wife Chloe Beale, was photographed today leaving an upscale salon and spa in Hollywood that caters to women battling disease. No news yet on what type of cancer – but there have also been sightings – as yet unconfirmed with photographs - of Mrs. Mitchell receiving chemotherapy treatments at UCLA's cancer center."

Beca turned off the television and picked up her phone. She dialed her lawyer and agent collectively, telling them to squash it. Bella and Poppy came running down the stairs, eyes wild – they had seen the news headlines on social media.

"Sorry, Mama," Poppy said, once they realized that she knew.

"It's okay, love," Beca assured her. She shrugged. "Apparently, people like my music, so the rest of the world is allowed to know anything they want about my life." She tried not to be bitter or sarcastic often, but the older girls understood. Bella stayed to help her with dinner while Poppy went in search of Chloe to let her know what had happened.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 - I Won't Fall

Christmas Eve was fairly quiet for them. Chloe had sent out an early warning that they were not having their usual gathering – and most of their friends who traveled to see them were staying out of town. Warren and Sheila arrived on Christmas Eve morning, twelve hours after their gifts had arrived via UPS and been stacked beneath the huge tree in the living room. Dinner that night was going to be a much quieter ordeal than they were used to. They had it planned with just themselves, Sheila and Warren, Stacie, and the Swansons.

Dahlia, who had been walking down the stairs with Beca when the doorbell rang, ran for it. She looked up at Beca, who nodded permission. She peeked out the curtain and then threw the door open, rushing at her grandparents.

"Well, hello," Warren said, laughing happily. He lifted her into his arms. "You must have grown – what? A foot since we saw you in Georgia?"

"No," Dahlia told him, giggling. He set her down and she moved on to Sheila.

"Dad, she's too big for you to be picking up," Beca chided. She had reached the bottom of the stairs and was standing between the hall and the living room.

"I'm not the decrepit old man you make me out to be," Warren teased.

"No," Beca agreed. "You look much better than I do at this moment," she added, quiet enough that Dahlia didn't hear. He crossed the space and hugged her, despite her grumbling about it.

"You look beautiful."

"You are a terrible liar," Beca responded.

"Bec – you look good," he promised. She did look fairly healthy – her color was good and her exhaustion wasn't currently apparent. What he didn't like was that fact that he was pretty sure he could lift her as easily as he had lifted Dahlia a moment before. She was losing weight – and that terrified him. Sheila hugged her next. The grandparents were bombarded by Grandchildren and had much help going to the guestroom and unpacking.

Early that afternoon, Beca peeked into Bella's bedroom and found the brunette working on something on her computer. The younger woman closed it and removed her headphones when she saw her mother. "Hi, Mama," she said, moving over on her bed to make room for Beca.

"Are you sure Alexis is okay this week?" She asked, sitting next to her daughter.

Bella nodded. "Yes. She promised that she was spending the holiday on campus at the Bella House – and that at least Camille was staying too, and possibly some of the other girls. I verified with Camille to make sure she wasn't full of crap."

"You're a good friend," Beca said with a laugh at her choice of wording. "How has she been doing, after what happened with her parents?"

"She's hanging in there," Bella said. "I know she's upset sometimes – but she doesn't say much about it. When I ask, she says she's fine – and I don't want to push. I think she talks to Aunt Stacie a lot – which is good."

"She is an excellent listener," Beca agreed. Later that afternoon, after Stacie arrived, she and Beca sat by the fireplace, discussing the same thing.

Stacie nodded when Beca told her what Bella had said. "I made sure she was spending the holiday with Camille. I was considering insisting she come to California – but I think it's a little too soon for her to admit that her parents are not really a part of her life right now. I think she's planning to spend Christmas ignoring that it's happening."

"Denial. It's nice while it lasts," Beca said. Stacie nodded.

"It sucks when you can't use it anymore."

"Agreed."

"How are you feeling?" Beca fought an eye roll – she was so tired of answering this question. But she knew that Stacie cared, so she reigned in her annoyance.

"I almost feel like myself again – except – you know – bald." Stacie bit back a chuckle and shook her head. "Which, of course, means it's almost time for round two. Which is going to suck. Because on top of pumping more poison into my already-exhausted body – all of the girls are going to be here when the worst of the side effects are happening."

"They'll be okay," Stacie promised her. "Dahlia seems to be doing fine."

"She's a really good little liar," Beca responded. "She's learning from Chloe to put on a fantastic front."

"It's gonna be fine," Stacie answered. Beca nodded and they lapsed into silence until Jesse came over, flopping down on Beca's other side and telling them about his newest blockbuster-worthy soundtrack.

"It's gonna be magic," he told them.

"You always say that, you goon," Beca told him.

"And isn't it always?"

"You do good work," Beca responded with a proud smile. She looked up as she heard a loud thump from the other side of the room. She tried to hold back her laughter. Bella was sitting on the piano bench, poised to play, and Ben Swanson was on the floor, looking up at her in sheer surprise.

"Did your daughter just knock my son – who is twice her size – to the floor?"

"Yeah," Beca responded with a huge grin. "I think she did." A few seconds later, the sounds of Christmas music filled the room – much preferable to whatever macabre tune Ben had been playing. Aubrey went storming over to Bella, clearly ready to yell at her, but whatever the brunette said disarmed her and she walked away, shaking her head. Beca laughed again.

After dinner – which was prepared beautifully by Chloe and Sheila – was over, they exchanged gifts with the Swanson family. Dahlia was still extremely overwhelmed by gifts and seemed to be terribly confused when people picked out things that she loved. Apparently she thought she was more of a closed book. She was not. She spent the rest of the evening hugging her new stuffed animal and staring in marvel at the boxed sets of Little House on the Prairie and Nancy Drew books.

Around nine that evening, Chloe announced that it was time to go for anyone who wanted to attend church. Warren did not go – but Sheila did. Vera usually went with her mom, and Dahlia wasn't given much of a choice. Bella looked between Beca and Chloe. She finally settled her eyes on Beca.

"You should come," she told the brunette.

"You're going?" Beca asked, surprised. She was certain neither twin had attended since their confirmations. Bella nodded. Poppy already had her coat on over her dress. "Don't you think it's hypocritical to start praying now?"

"Absolutely," Bella responded with a nod and pursed lips. "But I think there are a lot worse things to be than hypocritical. And I don't think God will hold it against you."

"Love, I don't believe in God."

"I think you do," Bella responded, shrugging. She had spent a majority of her semester discussing this – faith and how it showed in people's actions – at length – with her theology professor. The woman found her both amusing and delightful and expected Bella to arrive at office hours for tea and conversation at least once a week. Unbeknownst to Beca and Chloe – the teen had been attending church regularly since October.

Beca was slightly taken aback by the comment and looked at her father – he was the only one still sitting. Stacie always went. She said she didn't believe a word of the stuff, but she never missed mass. Warren looked at Sheila. Then his eyes turned to Beca. She stared at him, challenging him to say something. They had stopped going to church when she was twelve years old – the year her mother had left.

"Come on, Becs – Let's go," he said finally. "If the place doesn't burn down when we enter, I hear they have good music." She shook her head at her family.

"You're all unbelievable," she told them. "And if I get bored, I am putting on my headphones."

"Yeah, you go ahead and believe that," Chloe answered, helping her wife into her coat.

It was an Episcopal Church that Chloe had been attending haphazardly for the past twenty some years. She had grown up Catholic but had given that up when she realized that her lifestyle – and what she believed was right and moral – didn't line up with their teachings. But she missed church – and had eventually found her way to the remarkably similar Episcopal Church. They, although having similar teachings, accepted LGBT people – to the point where the even ordained them. Beca had attended exactly six times – when the twins and Vera were christened, received their first communion, and were confirmed.

The ten o'clock was in place of the midnight mass, so it was candle-lit and had the choir, the bells, the musicians – it was a beautiful service. Beca sat between Dahlia and Bella and tried to remember what it was like to believe in something more than yourself and those around you.

That night, Beca and Chloe pulled out all of the gifts with the help of Warren, Sheila, and Stacie. When they arrived to their bed, all four girls were in it. Dahlia was sleeping, curled in a tiny ball between Bella and Vera. Beca smiled and chuckled. "Did you girls wake her up?"

"Calm down," Poppy responded. "We carried her in here. She's been asleep since like five seconds after you put her to bed."

"Just tell me you didn't drop her," Beca said, climbing into bed beside Vera.

"You'll just have to wait until morning to see if she has any brain damage," Bella teased. She laughed when Beca glared. "Kidding, mama. No one was dropped or is in any danger of brain damage." Chloe, who had not been in her pajamas already, emerged from the bathroom in red ones with tiny reindeer on the pants and a larger reindeer on the long-sleeved t-shirt. Beca smiled and hid her laugh in her pillow.

"Shut up," Chloe told her. "I know you love my PJs."

"I love everything about you," she said. "Even your silly PJs."

"Hey!"

"Go to bed," Vera grumbled.

"Hey, V. You're not a little girl anymore. You don't really have to wake up at six in the morning on Christmas."

"Good try, Mama," the girl said. They all wished each other a good night and snuggled deeper under the covers. Vera was the first one awake the next morning.

"Merry Christmas," Beca said, when she opened her eyes and saw Vera looking at her.

"Merry Christmas," Vera whispered.

"What are you doing?"

"Trying not to wake you up at six in the morning."

"What time is it?"

"Six oh five," Vera responded. Beca laughed softly and kissed her daughter's temple. They remained like that for another twenty minutes, snuggled together, until Dahlia woke up. She sat up suddenly, not sure where she was at first. Beca reached out and touched her shoulder, then put her finger to her lips. Dahlia lay back down, curling up again between Bella and Vera. She kicked and woke up Bella on her way back down, though. Beca laughed mirthfully when Bella woke up with a yelp, surprised by the small foot in her gut.

"Mama! Not funny!"

"I didn't do it," Beca told her.

"But you clearly think it's funny," Bella said. Poppy and Chloe were both awake by then.

"We almost made it to six thirty," Chloe called to her wife, who continued laughing. Each of the girls hugged and kissed Bella and Chloe, wishing them Merry Christmas. Once that was done, Beca sent them to wake Stacie and their grandparents. The two women rolled close together – kissing lightly.

"Merry Christmas," Beca whispered.

"Merry Christmas, Beca," Chloe whispered back. She held the brunette in her arms and smiled at her. "This is really all I need."

"Me too," Beca responded. "But if we don't get out of bed – they'll come find us."

Chloe agreed that she wasn't wrong – and they got out of bed. They brushed their teeth and washed their faces – and Beca made sure her wig was still solidly in place – but remained in their pajamas. When they reached the living room, the remainder of the family was there. Stacie was staring bleary-eyed into a cup of coffee.

Sheila handed another cup to Chloe after wishing her a Merry Christmas, and a cup of tea to Beca. Bella and Poppy were attempting to remain cool – they were sitting on the sofa closest to the tree, pretending that they were not very excited about the content of the boxes and bags. Vera and Dahlia had no qualms about showing outward glee – they were practically bouncing from their spots on the floor in front of it. Beca sat on the sofa between Chloe and Stacie and Warren and Sheila took the love seat closest to the tree. With a nod from Beca, the delighted grandfather began handing out gifts.

There were rules. They had to wait until everyone had a gift before they opened one. All of the adults got to see what you had before it was put away again. After receiving a book and a new dress, Dahlia was visibly upset when Warren handed her a third package. Bella leaned closer to Chloe, who nodded slightly – she was watching too. The other girls were in mid-unwrapping stages for their third presents when they realized Dahlia was crying. They froze, looking up at their mothers for help.

"Let's take a breakfast break," Chloe suggested. "I think Grandma made her famous cinnamon pancakes."

"I did indeed," Sheila said, standing and holding out a hand for Vera and Bella, who followed her into the kitchen. Poppy, Warren, and Stacie were close behind. Beca and Chloe plopped down on the floor on either side of Dahlia.

"What's wrong, love?" Beca asked softly, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

"I'm sorry," Dahlia said softly.

"What's going on, sweetie?" Chloe asked, exchanging a look with Beca over the girl's head. She still hadn't looked up from her lap.

"I don't want these," she said between sobs.

"Why not?" Chloe asked gently.

"I asked Santa for something else," she said. "And if he brought this stuff, I won't get it."

"Not necessarily," Beca said, trying to be helpful. "There's a lot of stuff here, love."

"It's not a thing," Dahlia responded crossly. She was sitting rigidly, her spine held stiff, trying not to touch either woman.

"What did you ask for, Dahlia?" Beca asked patiently. Breakfast had been served, but Warren and Stacie had both come back to the doorway to check on them.

"I can't tell you." She cried.

"Yes, you can, love. If it has you this upset, then we need to know." What in the hell could she have asked for? Beca was beginning to panic and Chloe could see it. The redhead pulled the child into her lap, rocking her slightly.

Dahlia sniffled and was silent for a long time, before she whispered something to Chloe. The redhead muffled her own tears in her hand before hugging the eight year old firmly. "Oh, sweetheart," she said, clearly unsure of what to say. Beca's eyes bulged as she made faces at Chloe, wanting to know what their daughter had told her. She rested her forehead against Dahlia's and spoke softly. "Sweetie – Santa can't do everything. And I'm so sorry – but he can't do that."

"Then I don't want any of his other dumb stuff!" The little girl said, surprising them all. She struggled out of Chloe grip and jumped up, hurrying up the stairs. The slam of her door sounded sharply throughout the house. Chloe leaned back to sit properly, her fingers brushing away tears.

"What did she say to you?" Beca asked. Chloe looked up at Warren and Stacie, who got her message and walked away. Chloe slid closer to Beca. "Chloe, what is wrong?"

"She asked Santa Clause to cure your cancer," Chloe said finally, crumbling against her wife as she wrapped her arms around her. Beca held her, biting back her own tears.

"Dear God," Beca said softly. "Of course we have to find the least-selfish eight year old ever." Chloe laughed and it helped calm her tears. "What in the hell are we supposed to do with this?"

"I don't know," Chloe admitted. "We should go talk to her – "

"I will," Beca said. "You go and check on the rest of them. Vera's probably having a heart attack right now – not being able to open the presents." Chloe laughed. She helped Beca off the floor and kissed her.

"If you're not back in ten, I'm coming after you."

Beca slowly climbed the stairs and opened Dahlia's door. Normally they knocked on closed doors, but they had a rule that had begun when the twins were teenagers – when you slam a door, you lose your right – temporarily – to privacy. And if Dahlia was going to slam doors, she was going to learn that quickly. She was curled under the blankets on her bed and didn't move when Beca entered the room. The older woman sat on the edge of the bed and pulled back the covers. Dahlia looked up her, eyes wet and red with tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"It's okay to be upset," Beca told her. "But it is not okay to slam doors and yell at your Mom."

"I know," Dahlia responded. "I was mad."

"I can see that," Beca responded. She paused. "Love – I need you to listen very carefully, okay?" Dahlia nodded. "It is no one's fault that I am sick," she told the little girl. "It just happens sometimes – and it's not fair – and it really sucks. But you can't blame anyone else. Not even Santa Clause," she added with a sad smile.

"I want you to get better," Dahlia said stubbornly.

"I'm working on it," Beca assured her. "Patience, my love. Patience." She opened her arms and Dahlia crawled into them. "You just need to be a little more patient with me, okay? Someday I'm going to kick this thing's butt – but until then – I need you to not worry so much."

"What if something happens to you?"

That was a terrible question for Christmas morning, Beca thought with frustration. She lifted Dahlia's chin so their eyes met. "Love – I wish I could promise you that I will be perfectly fine – but I can't. I'm going to try my best and fight as long as I can. But if something happens to me, you're going to be okay. You will have Mommy, and Bella, and Poppy, and Vera. And Grandma and Grandpa – and Aunt Stacie – and Aunt Aubrey and Uncle Jesse- Nana and Papa. You'll be just fine."

"I want you," Dahlia responded.

"And I will try my best to be here as long as I can be," Beca promised. "But, my love, it is Christmas morning. Can we try to think of all of the best things, please?" Dahlia nodded, wiping her eyes. "Good. Because you have a lot of presents down there – and Mommy and I don't want to have to try and ship them back to the North Pole."

The rest of Christmas day went on without a hitch. Presents were opened, Christmas specials were watched, a delicious dinner was eaten. On the day after Christmas, Warren and Sheila woke early to catch their flight. They had said goodbye to the girls the night before, but Chloe and Beca woke with them, giving them coffee and walking them to the door.

There weren't many times in her life that Beca had welcomed hugs from her father – but this time, she did. She surprised all of them when she broke down in his arms, crying. He held her close, patting her back and offering her reassuring words. Eventually, she pulled away and wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said. "These drugs – they're messing with my hormones."

"Perfectly understandable," Sheila said softly.

"You don't have to apologize," Warren told her. He hugged her again. "You can call me anytime, even if it is just to yell or cry. Beca, if you need us – we'll be on the first flight back here."

She nodded, thanking them both. Chloe hugged them goodbye and they were on their way.

That day, they spent most of their time putting new things away and cleaning up from Christmas. They video chatted with Chloe's parents and siblings, Wishing them a merry Christmas. The next day, Beca's second round of treatments began. Chloe was off from work for the week between Christmas and New Year, so she insisted on taking Beca. The tiny brunette didn't argue. She made sure the other three girls were planning to keep an eye on Dahlia and let Chloe drive her to the treatment center. She groaned when they approached the building – there was a heavy swarm of photographers and even a few reporters crowding around the entrance to the building. Chloe drove directly past the entrance and into a parking lot of another building.

She pulled out her phone and called the nursing desk in the ward where Beca received her treatments. "Hi, Lydia. This is Chloe Beale. Beca Mitchell's wife." She paused. "Yes, I saw. Is there another entrance we can use?" She spent the next several moments listening. "Yes, no. I agree. That will be fine. Yes, 11. Thank you." She hung up and turned to look at Beca, who was wearily studying the crowd of paparazzi and reporters in the rearview mirror.

"Becs – the Chief of Staff is willing to send a nurse to the house with your treatments – at least until this passes." Beca looked panicked. "What's wrong?" Chloe asked patiently. "Isn't that better? You can try to rest while the treatments are happening." Still silence. Chloe sighed. "Beca, talk to me."

"I don't want the girls to see it," she told her honestly. "It's bad enough that they'll see the side effects – I don't want them seeing the treatments." It was no more than a few IV bags full of drugs, but Chloe understood that wasn't the point.

"We'll have the nurse set up in our room – and I'll make sure the girls say out of the way until it's done."

Beca didn't like it – but she knew she didn't have a choice. She wasn't walking into that horde of photographers and reporters. When they arrived home, the heard the television click off immediately. Bella and Vera appeared in front of them. "What happened?" Bella asked. "I thought it took a few hours."

"We never got in," Chloe told her. "Paparazzi." She looked at Bella. "Can you go and make your mama a pot of peppermint tea? We're going upstairs to our room." Bella nodded and disappeared. Beca's eyes almost watered – how did Chloe know that her stomach was already nauseous? Bella and Vera had been watching the entertainment news station – where an anchor had said that the cameras were lying in wait for Beca. Chloe walked Beca up the stairs, but the brunette stood uncertainly in the middle of their bedroom.

"Becs, why don't you lie down while we wait for the nurse?" She suggested.

"I'm fine," Beca responded.

"You're exhausted," Chloe answered testily. "Can you please just lie down?" They were both being stubborn, both looking for a fight. Beca was too tired to offer one – but she wasn't giving up so easily.

"I don't want to," she responded, knowing that the argument put her on par with a five-year-old – and not really caring.

"I don't care," the redhead answered, eyes flaming. "You're ready to fall over – you need more rest – I know that upsets you, but this is what we have to work with right now –"

"Don't you think I know that? If I got into bed every time I was tired – I would have been in bed for the past month!" Yelling had taken everything out of her. She faltered where she stood in the middle of the bedroom floor and Chloe rushed over to her, strong hands moving out to steady her.

"I know you know," Chloe said softly, her forehead touching Beca's. She pulled away and wiped away some of the brunette's tears. "I'm so sorry you have to go through this, sweetie. You don't deserve it – it's horrible – and it just sucks. But I know you – and I know you're not taking care of yourself. And I need you to focus on doing that more. Because I need you here for a long time coming."

Beca reluctantly allowed herself to be tucked into bed and – extra exhausted from the argument – fell asleep. When she woke an hour later, she knew she wasn't alone – but it wasn't Chloe. Chloe's presence had energy behind it – like she was always moving.

Turning her head, she saw that Bella was stretched out next to her, reading a book. Beca blinked the sleep from her eyes and turned to face her daughter. "What are you doing here, love?"

"I snuck in when Mom wasn't looking," she told her, marking her place with her finger and dropping the book down to one hand. "She's trying to keep everyone away. She's too busy to notice that I'm not in my room."

Beca smiled. "What brings you - anything special?"

Bella shrugged. "Though you might want company. And I can read anywhere." She sat up and pushed back a page of her book, marking it before setting it aside. "Do you still want your tea? I put it into a carafe – it's still warm."

"Thank you, love," Beca said softly. "That sounds great." As gracefully as she could with almost no discernible strength left, she tried to sit up against her pillows. She would have smacked her head off of the headboard if Bella hadn't seen what was happening and grabbed her, carefully helping her into the desired position. Bella crawled out of the bed and poured her mother a cup of tea, handing it to her and crawling in next to her on the bed. When she saw that Beca's hands were shaking with fatigue, she said nothing but reached over to balance the cup.

When Chloe arrived with the nurse, Bella was still with Beca, curled into her side and reading aloud from A Thousand Acres. Chloe didn't look happy when she opened the bedroom door. "Bella!"

"I'm leaving, I'm leaving," the teen said. She crawled out of bed with her book and kissed Beca on the cheek before disappearing into the hallway. Chloe closed the door behind her and introduced Beca to the nurse.

"Beca, this is Natalie."

"Hi," Beca said with a tight smile. "Can you set up over by the arm chair?" She asked – "I'd rather be over there."

"Of course," the nurse answered with a smile.

"Chloe?" The redhead rushed to her side. "I need to go to the bathroom before we start. I don't think I can make it on my own."

"That's alright," Chloe told her. "Let me help." She helped Beca out of bed and supported her as they walked over to the bathroom. Once her wife was settled, Chloe stood outside the door to offer her privacy – and returned to help her back up once she called. Within a few minutes, Beca was settled into the armchair that sat in a formation with a sofa, love seat, and bookshelves in the corner of their room. Her feet rested on an ottoman and she was snuggled into her favorite blanket. She asked Chloe for her computer and headphones and once the IV was started, she put them on and closed her eyes, ignoring her wife and the nurse.

The next five days were nightmarish. Beca could barely remember most of it – but she knew it involved a lot of throwing up, being pumped full of drugs, and sleeping. She felt very fortunate that her wife was not squeamish. The four sisters kept each other occupied, trying not to hear their mother vomiting and crying in her bathroom. The best way to do that was to stay in the living room, kitchen, or Poppy's room – the bedroom farthest from the master. So that was what they did, knowing that Beca wouldn't want them to overhear what was going on.

Bella took over making dinner and Vera kept Dahlia with her for most of the day. A few times they ventured out to movies or mini-golf, trying to keep distracted. It didn't work well – they all found it hard to enjoy themselves when they knew what was happening at home – and they felt helpless about it.

On the seventh morning, three days after the final part of the second round was delivered, Beca woke with a clear head. She was still a bit nauseous but only just. It was bearable. She turned her head and saw that Chloe was sleeping beside her, looking absolutely exhausted. Working very carefully, she swung her legs out from the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting to make sure that her head wasn't spinning. When that was accomplished, she stood, holding onto the nightstand. She was about to try to walk to the bathroom when the door creaked open and Poppy stuck her head inside. Beca put her finger to her lips and looked back at Chloe.

Poppy nodded but entered the room, walking over to Beca. "Then let me help you," she whispered.

"I'm fine."

"Sure you are," the redhead answered. She helped Beca to the bathroom and the brunette sat on the edge of the tub.

"I'm fine, love. Go back to whatever you were doing. "

"I was checking to make sure you two were still alive," Poppy told her. "It's almost noon."

Beca's eyes bulged; Chloe had to be extremely tired to be sleeping so late. "Is everything okay?"

Poppy nodded. "Bella made breakfast – She and Vera are reading in the living room. Dahlia is coloring something for you and listening to music. I was just going to start something for lunch. Are you hungry?"

"Not quite yet," Beca admitted with a grimace. "But in a little while, I'll find something."

Poppy looked hesitantly at the door. "Are you sure you're okay by yourself?"

Beca nodded and smiled. "I promise. If I didn't think I was, I'd wake your mama. But I think I can handle this. Go have lunch – we'll be down in a bit." Poppy left and Beca was able to go to the bathroom, brush her teeth, and wash her face – all on her own. She scowled when she realized how much energy that had taken. Every bone in her body wanted to get back into bed.

But she went to her closet instead, grabbing a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved purple top, a greenish jacket, and a coordinating scarf. She was finding that layers made her look less sick. It hid the weight she was losing. She was dressed and in the process of installing her wig when Chloe woke.

The redhead gasped when she saw the time and Beca laughed. "For once in our lives, you out-slept me," she teased.

"They girls – "

"They're fine," Beca told her. "I already saw Poppy. They've been keeping busy without us. Take your time getting ready and we'll go down and have lunch."

"Are you feeling better?" Chloe asked, coming up behind her and hugging her from behind, kissing her cheek.

"I don't think I'm going to spend all day vomiting," Beca assured her. "I'd call that improvement."

"Agreed," Chloe answered tiredly. "I can't believe you went through this alone last time – "

"I didn't. Cassie was here. She didn't hold my hair back or help me shower like you've been doing – but she got me ginger ale and water and whatever else I needed. And it really wasn't this bad," she admitted.

Chloe shook her head. "Beca – I wish there were another way."

"Me too," the brunette answered, grasping her hand. They talked for a bit longer and Beca laughed when she found out that Chloe had been calling Stacie - daily - about her. The brunette had been over four times in four days, trying to assure Chloe that Beca was only suffering from side effects, nothing more serious.

 

Beca sighed several days later as she lay on the sofa, watching the camera crew setting up in her living room. She was flat on her back, several pillows under her knees to alleviate the ache that had developed in her back. But her pain was not what was upsetting her most – it was the television crew. She never wanted this; ever. Her home was her sanctuary and the outside world was not supposed to be able to see inside. This was hers. But when the paparazzi hadn't backed off after her second round of chemo, Seth Meyers had called to see if he could help. He was offering at first to egg their houses for her, but she decided to use his show as an opportunity to shame the paps into submission; if shaming them was even possible.

Chloe fretted around the edges of the room, watching crew moving her furniture and family photos. Beca was ready to go for the interview – her hair and makeup team – usually only reserved for Grammy Award nights and other such events – had already done what they could do with her extra pale features and wig. She was more dressed up than she had been in weeks. She had refused a dress at first, but had eventually allowed herself to be pinned into a black swing skirt and a filmy blue blouse. They were both too big – but her wardrobe person had fixed that with quick stitches and pins. Her diamond pendant sat between her collarbones and its mates sparkled from her ears. She was laying down because the show was live – and it was already way, way after her normal bedtime. It was absurdly beyond her new "I'm undergoing chemotherapy and I'm exhausted" bedtime.

About twenty minutes before the show started, the producer walked over to her and looked down at her apologetically. "Mrs. Mitchell. I'm sorry to bother you – can we get you over in the arm chair? We want to have you ready for when the show starts." He had seen her move already; he knew it was going to take time to get here where he wanted her. She agreed.

"That's fine." She waited for Chloe and allowed the redhead to help her first into a sitting position, and then to move to the burgundy and navy patterned chair. Her head spun a bit as they moved and Chloe stopped.

"You okay?" Beca nodded and they continued. Once she was settled, the team once again flocked to her, touching up her makeup, putting a bit more powder on her face, and fluffing her wig to make sure every strand was in the right place.

Chloe helped her sip from a glass of water and she cleared her throat. The room was quiet for the next twenty minutes or so. The men and women in the room knew Beca; most of them at least. They were part of the normal crew of the late show. They had met her many times over the past twenty years as she had been a guest and performer. It upset them to see her in her weakened state.

The producer explained again that once they started rolling film, she would be able to see Seth on the monitor above the camera. She could talk right to it – it would give the camera men the perfect angle. She nodded in understanding. The four girls, who she had ordered to be in bed when this started, instead appeared next to Chloe across the room. The sofa had been moved to sit against the fireplace to make room for some of the equipment. Bella sat in the corner, Dahlia quickly scampering to curl into her lap. Vera sat next to them and Poppy sat on the far arm of the sofa, her feet resting next to Chloe.

"I see four people who should be in bed," Beca said warningly.

"We're eighteen," Bella told her.

"I am still your mother. Go upstairs."

"Bec," Chloe said softly. She caught her eye and shook her head. "It's okay," she told her. Beca gave up, allowing the girls to stay.

She smiled when the producer pointed at her and – within seconds – she was on national television talking remotely with Seth Meyers.

"Hey, Beca."

"Hey, Seth," she said, giving him a small wave and smiling.

"It's great to see you," he told her. "I'm just sorry it's not in person."

"Hey, Dude – you can always come here," she offered with a shrug and a smile. "Chloe and I gave you and yours an open invitation years ago."

"True enough," he said, smiling widely. "I need to find time to get away from the studio – especially because I hear it's sunnier where you are."

"Yeah," Beca agreed. "California is sort of known for its sunshine. It's been pretty great lately. But, you know – I don't need to tell you about the weather. You can look that up on your phone."

Seth nodded and studied her. "No, that's not the reason we brought you on the show today. We actually invited you because you wanted to share some of your current story with the world."

Beca made a face a bit like a grimace. "I don't really want to," she admitted. "But the paparazzi has really taken it out of my hands."

"I wasn't happy when I heard what happened," Seth told her.

"Not many decent people would be, my friend," she said with a sigh. She took a deep breath and smiled. He nodded and spoke again.

"So, there are a lot of rumors going around that you are going through a very rough time right now – do you care to set the record straight?"

"About six weeks ago…" she said, her voice trailing off as she tried to remember is that was how long. She looked to Chloe for confirmation and the redhead nodded. "Yep – six weeks ago – I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer. I am undergoing treatment for it here in LA. I was going to the UCLA Cancer Center, but I was unable to go there for my last cycle of treatments because there were photographers and reporters surrounding the entry ways into the building."

"Let me first say that my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family right now. If anyone can kick cancer's butt, it would be you, Beca." He smiled. "I'm saying butt instead of the obvious word because I know your family is there."

"Thank you on both counts, Seth."

"And second – shame on the paparazzi for their actions."

Beca nodded. "It's not just me they're harassing – but all of the other people who are going through treatments right now, who have to shove through that crowd. It's not right."

They spoke for several more minutes and Beca gave away very little about her true condition, but chatted with Seth about the day-to-day struggles and made several comments on how other people with loved ones going through similar situations could help. Finally, when they were almost finished, Seth smiled at her cheekily. She knew the look.

"Beca."

"Seth."

"I know you're not feeling your best – and I totally respect if you need to say no. But I really had to waste this opportunity – will you sing for us?"

She smiled. "Sure, Seth. One song."

"Awesome. We're going out for a commercial break – then we're coming back to you." Beca nodded and smiled until the director yelled cut.

"Beca, you said you weren't going to do that," Chloe chided. Beca shrugged and stood from her chair, bracing herself against the arms.

"You can yell at me – or you can help me to the piano." Chloe did the latter, settling her at the baby grand. The crew hurried to put the cameras and microphones in place and the four girls moved amongst them, trying to find the best place to watch from. Before Chloe could step away, Beca grabbed her wrist.

"Sing with me."

"Beca, it's national television."

"So?"

"They want you – not me."

"I want you. That's good enough for me. Please?" Chloe sighed and sank onto the piano bench, leaning close.

"You are impossible sometimes."

"You love it," Beca said with a mischevious smile.

"God help me, I do," Chloe answered with a laugh. "What are we playing."

Beca played the first few bars and Chloe laughed in astonishment. "Beca – no."

"It's an appropriate song. It's about strength – and, well, it's important to us. Come on, Chloe. No one else knows anything about it – "

"Fine," the redhead agreed. The producer told them they had twenty seconds and he began to countdown. Chloe straightened her hair with her fingers and sighed deeply as a crewman placed a microphone in front of them on the piano.

Once Seth appeared again on the screen, Beca smiled and waved.

"I'm happy you came back," he said. "And you're not alone."

"Seth, you remember Chloe." Chloe peeked around Beca to blush furiously, smile, and wave. "I'm making her sing with me."

"Sounds good to me."

Beca began playing the song and Chloe joined, creating a four-handed harmony on the piano. Then they sang.

Beca began,

"You shout it out,But I can't hear a word you sayI'm talking loud, not saying muchI'm criticized but all your bullets ricochetYou shoot me down, but I get up."

Chloe joined her,
"I'm bulletproof, nothing to loseFire away, fire awayRicochet, you take your aimFire away, fire awayYou shoot me down but I won't fallI am titaniumYou shoot me down but I won't fallI am titanium."
Beca elbowed Chloe just before the chorus ended, indicating clearly that the second verse was hers. Chloe sang on her own,

"Cut me downBut it's you who'll have further to fallGhost town and haunted loveRaise your voice, sticks and stones may break my bonesI'm talking loud not saying much."

Beca joined her again and they harmonized through the rest of the song.
"I'm bulletproof, nothing to loseFire away, fire awayRicochet, you take your aimFire away, fire awayYou shoot me down but I won't fallI am titaniumYou shoot me down but I won't fallI am titaniumI am titaniumI am titanium

Stone-heart, machine gun
Firing at the ones who run
Stone heart loves bulletproof glass

You shoot me down but I won't fall
I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won't fall
I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won't fall
I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won't fall
I am titanium
I am titanium."

There was a dramatic pause after they finished and then the audience went a little wild – giving them a standing ovation. Beca smiled and leaned over to hug Chloe and kiss her on the cheek.

"That was – amazing," Seth told them after she turned back to look at him. "Thank you, Beca – Chloe."

"Sure thing, Seth. Have a good night."

"You too, Beca. Take care of yourself." Beca smiled one more time before the cameras cut away and they were finished. She collapsed against Chloe, exhausted. The four girls were still aghast at hearing their mothers sing a duet like that. She might have been delirious with exhaustion, but Beca felt better than she had in weeks.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 – There You'll Be

I'll keep a part

Of you with me

And everywhere I am

There you'll be

~ Faith Hill

Beca and Chloe sat nervously waiting. This consult would tell them if the third round had done its job. If it had, a fourth round would be given as precaution. If it hadn't… well, they were trying not to think about that. Dr. Patil entered after several moments, Stacie close behind. Stacie sat on Beca's other side and refused to make eye contact with either woman. Beca knew that was a bad sign. Dr. Patil sat across from them and did a terrible job hiding her disappointment. She must suck at poker, Beca though ruefully.

"Beca, Chloe, I wish I had better news. The cancer isn't responding to the treatments."

"What do we do?" Beca asked calmly.

"We can try radiation," Dr. Patil said. "We don't like to do it to women who are still of childbearing age – because it can cause – "

"We have four kids," Beca interrupted. "It's not an issue."

Dr. Patil nodded sympathetically. "Well, then – that would be my first suggestion. We can start in three weeks. Once the drugs are out of your system."

"What are the chances of this working?" Chloe asked.

"About 50%," the doctor answered honestly.

"And if it doesn't work?" Beca asked.

"Starting the chemotherapy over again with higher doses – potentially different drugs. We can look into genetic therapy. Possibly a bone marrow transplant and high doses of radiation and chemo. I'm going to call in a few favors and have a few colleagues look at your case – see if they have additional suggestions. I really have never seen cancer turn this aggressive after treatment has begun."

"Lovely," Beca responded bitterly. The next few weeks were tense and painful. Beca was recovering from the last chemo treatment much more slowly that she would have liked. She couldn't make it up and down the stairs on her own. She felt incredibly helpless in her own home, which crushed her a bit more each day. Chloe had been trying to work, but after the news about the last round of chemo, she had taken a leave of absence from her teaching job.

The house was ominously quiet most of the time – with Beca spending most of her time in bed and Chloe tiptoeing around so as not to wake her. Dahlia was wilting, saddened that she was veritably cut off from both of her mothers. Cassie was kind to her and fun to play with – but it wasn't the same.

Two weeks after the last chemo treatment, Beca developed a fever. Chloe called Dr. Patil and Stacie, both of whom ordered them directly to the hospital. Chloe quickly packed a bag for herself and Beca and went into Dahlia's room to do the same. Cassie was a great help – but she had classes in the evenings, so when overnights were a possibility, Dahlia went with Aubey. It had happened a few times already - but this time was proving to be a challenge.

"I don't want to go," Dahlia told Chloe crossly.

"I'm sorry, sweetie. You don't have a choice. I would rather stay here too – but mama needs to go to the hospital so the doctors can help her feel better."

"Can I come with you?" Dahlia asked. "I promise, I'll be good."

Chloe stopped folding clothing into the small suitcase and sat down next to her daughter on the bed. "Sweetheart, it's not about being good. I promise you that. It's just that the hospital is a pretty scary place – and it's not a good place for you to be spending a lot of time. It will be better for you to go with Aunt Aubrey."

"No. I'm not going," Dahlia said defiantly.

"Dahlia Elizabeth Beale Mitchell, you will do exactly what I tell you to do," Chloe said firmly, almost yelling. "Your mama is sick – and I can't handle this right now. Put anything else you want to take with you in your suitcase and bring it downstairs. No more arguing. Do you understand?"

Dahlia nodded, hot tears running down her cheeks. Chloe never yelled at her. This was a devastating blow. She was silent when Jesse appeared to pick her up. Chloe and Beca left moments later to go to the hospital. Beca was admitted, as Stacie and Dr. Patil had said she would be. They started pumping her full of antibiotics almost immediately. It took another four days before she was allowed to leave – and she was more tired than she knew possible. Every one of her joints and muscles ached.

Jesse had brought Dahlia directly home after school, so she was home with Cassie when they arrived. Jesse was still on hand, so he carried Beca to her bed. Chloe walked over to kiss and hug Dahlia. The little girl allowed her to do that – but there was no return hug. "Let's go upstairs so you can see Mama. She missed you so much. We both did – "

"I'm doing my homework," Dahlia said hollowly.

"Dahlia," Chloe said, then stopped herself; she was not going to become angry again. "Sweetie, please come and see Mama – I think she needs to see you right now." Dahlia said nothing but eventually followed Chloe up the stairs and crawled into their bed to hug and kiss Beca and snuggle in beside her for a while. It brightened the older woman's mood considerably to spend time with her daughter, so Chloe was glad that she had pushed.

Four days after their return from the hospital, Beca wiped tears from her eyes as she closed a track and saved it to her computer. She moved to the other computer and opened the lyrics to the next song. She knew them by heart – but she was too emotional now – and she didn't have time to do a lot of multiple takes. She was halfway through singing Circle Song when the door to her studio opened. She glared but didn't move – if the person didn't speak – it was possible that the track wouldn't be ruined. She calmed herself and continued, not wanting the song to sound angry. Her voice remained strong and soft – the prefect combination for the job at hand.

If you see me speak without wordsKnow that I am speaking of the windAnd if you see my words like windKnow that soft tongues cut through stone

And if you see my tongue like stone
Know its wisdom lies in silence
And if you see my wisdom in silence
Then with you I will always be

And if you doubt my true love is true
Just see how you have no chains upon your hands
And if you see you wear no chains
You are free like poor men

And if you see your freedom in being poor
How pleased you'll be with the treasure of your mind
And if you're pleased with the treasure of your mind
Then with you I will always be

So come closer, my love, to me
You are closer than you can ever see
You live in my heart
That's where you'll always be

And if you wonder how it is that I love
Just watch that sunset slip away
And as you watch that sun slip away
Know some things are better left unseen

And if you know that things are unseen
Then night shall carry you in her arms
And if you feel I carry you in my arms
Then with you i will always be
With you I will always be

After she finished, she saved the track and turned to face the intruder. Chloe stood inside the door, her arms crossed and eyes flaming with anger. "You are not doing this," she said, her voice full of venom.

"Chloe – when has it ever been acceptable to open that door when the light is on?" Beca asked, trying to keep her voice calm. She closed her laptop and turned in her chair to face the redhead.

"You are not doing this," she repeated.

"I'm recording. Something I do often. Actually, it's my job. You might have noticed that over the past twenty or so years."

Chloe closed her eyes and shook her head, sliding back against the wall and sinking to the ground. She rubbed her temples and covered her face with her hands. Finally, she looked back at her wife. "I can't just watch while you give up."

"I am not giving up," Beca responded angrily. "I am recording music – something I do often." Repetition seemed to be the key to keeping herself from tears.

"Lullabies, Beca? You've never done that. Even when you traveled – you would sing to them over video chat. Every night."

"If something happens to me – I want to be able to leave something for them that has meaning. Something that they might want for themselves – or for their children. For god's sake, Dahlia is still a baby. I need to know that I'm leaving them something."

"You're not going anywhere!" Chloe cried.

"What if I am?" Beca shouted angrily, eyes burning. "You can't order this away – you can't make this better just by forcing everyone to think positive thoughts! I could die – and I really, really need to know that I've made as much peace with it as I can if that's the way this is going to play out." Chloe simply cried harder. Beca remained where she was, the energy simply not in her to comfort her wife. The didn't speak for a few hours - but it didn't last long.

That evening, Beca developed a fever and it spiked several times, terrifying Chloe. She called Stacie, who immediately came over. She determined that Beca's respiratory infection had recurred and started her on a heavy dose of antibiotic.

Stacie left Beca's bedroom and found Dahlia standing in the hallway, waiting for her. She knelt down, meeting her eye. "What's up, pumpkin?"

"Is Mama okay?"

"She's not doing so great," Stacie answered honestly. "But we're trying our best to make her feel better. Right now, she really needs to sleep – so we need to be very quiet. Okay?" She stood and took Dahlia's hand, leading her back into her bedroom. "I'm really sorry, sweets – but I think you're going back to Aunt Aubrey's tonight. Can you help me pack your bag?"

Dahlia trembled as she showed Stacie where her pajamas and school clothes were. She had the essentials already at Aubrey's – but Stacie helped her pack a few extras – and the things she was never without – her American Girl Doll, her teddy bear, the penguin, a few favorite books, and her iPod. Once she was packed, Stacie walked her down to the kitchen where Chloe was pacing, talking on the phone. When she saw Dahlia, she quickly ended the conversation.

"Hey, sweetie. Aunt Stacie is going to drive you over to Aubrey's, okay?"

"Can't I stay here?" Dahlia asked, her voice breaking as she fought tears. Chloe squatted down in front of her and met her eyes.

"I'm so sorry. I know this is hard. But Mama needs rest right now – and we might have to make another trip to the hospital – so I need you to stay with Aunt Aubrey where I know you're safe and sound, okay?"

Dahlia nodded and tried to hold back her tears, but she couldn't help it. She dissolved into sobs, holding on tightly to Chloe as she cried. It took another twenty minutes for Chloe to calm her and Stacie to get her out the door. The drive to Aubrey's was quick – but silent. Dahlia was sad – and a little angry, the tall brunette thought.

"Can I just stay with you?" Dahlia asked tearfully, staring into the dark as they pulled into the Swanson's driveway.

"Oh, sweetie. I wish you could. But I work all the time – I have to be at work before you go to school – and I don't get home until much later. I would love to have you over – but for now, Aubrey is your best bet. Another night, okay? We'll have a sleepover – junk food and movies. Sound good?" Dahlia nodded miserably.

When Stacie returned to the house, she checked on Beca again and then walked into the living room to find her redheaded counterpart. "Chloe – you need to take it down a notch. Did you seriously erase her lullabies this afternoon?"

"Why is it wrong to want her to stop being so negative?" Chloe demanded. She knew erasing the songs had been childish; but she had been angry and terrified - and it felt good in the moment.

"Because Beca is trying to deal with this the best way she can – and right now, that's by preparing for the worst. It doesn't mean the worst is going to happen – it just means that she finds comfort in making sure that if it does, it happens under at least some of her terms."

"I can't understand that," Chloe spat. "She's giving up – and you're letting her!"

"Chloe, the cancer is at stage 4 levels," Stacie told her. "It's spreading – "

"I don't want to hear this," Chloe said, walking away. Stacie followed her.

"I know you don't – but you need to – because you need to start thinking about what you're doing with your time." She paused and finally said what had been bothering them all for days. "With the time you have left, if it is going to be limited. It's not fair to her that you spend it being angry."

"Not fair?" Chloe cried, rounding on her heel. "You know what's not fair? We have spent twenty-three years together – doing everything we were supposed to do. Loving each other – working hard – raising our family – and this is what we're left with? What I'm left with? A broken family? Four children without their mother? A house that I won't be able to look at, let alone live in? You want me to calm down and make better use of my time? Then tell me how – tell me how to be anything other than fucking furious!"

Stacie didn't have an answer. All she could do was hug her old friend and tell her that she was sorry. There was nothing else to say. It was almost midnight when Beca's fever spiked again and Stacie told Chloe there was no other choice – they were headed back to the hospital.

To Chloe's horror, Beca was admitted to the ICU because of the state of her white blood cells, her fever, and her extremely low blood pressure. She was there for two days – antibiotics being pumped into her blood stream – before the fever broke and she was moved to a normal room.

On day five of that particular hospital stay, Chloe was extremely unhappy to return to her wife's hospital room to find their lawyer there, papers spread out on the table. "Beca – this is nonsense." She knew exactly what was happening – because Beca had been suggesting it for weeks and Chloe had been shutting her down for just as long. She was updating her will.

"No," Beca told her. "This is logical. Chloe – no matter what happens to me – anything could happen to either of us right now – and Dahlia would not be provided for. If God forbid we were both killed – where would she go?"

"Aubrey and Jesse – or Stacie – "

"Not legally she wouldn't," Beca told her. "She would go to my dad and Sheila – who are too old to be asked to raise a little girl. Or, she would go to your parents and the same thing applies. And financially, she's not in our will – she'd have no right to anything."

In the end, after tears and arguments and debates and phone calls, they had rewritten their will. If anything happened to them both, Dahlia would be left in Stacie's care. Aubrey and Jesse were backups if for any reason she couldn't take Dahlia. Vera would be primarily Stacie's responsibility, but she could remain with Emily in Georgia for as long as she chose. Their estate and investments would be divided between all four girls. The house would belong to all four girls with the understanding that it would not be sold – and they would always have a place to live there if they so chose. After the will was signed and notarized – Chloe left the hospital. She needed air and time and space. She walked for blocks, not really paying attention to where she was going.

When she returned, she found that her wife was not in her room. She stopped the first nurse she saw and demanded to know what was going on. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Beale. They moved your wife back to the ICU. Dr. Conrad and Dr. Patil have been trying to call you. Dr. Conrad is down there now – do you know how to get there?" Chloe didn't wait to answer, she turned on her heel and ran.

Stacie was standing in the entry to the ICU. Her arms were crossed as she stared into a nearby window. Chloe hurried over to her. "What happened?" She demanded. "She was sitting up and talking before I left."

"Her blood pressure went too low – she slipped into shock. She's out of it now – she's stable. But she's so weak, Chloe. I honestly don't know what's going to happen."

"What are you saying?"

"You need to get the girls home," Stacie told her. "And call Dr. Mitchell and Sheila – they'll want to come and see her."

"Why?" Chloe said. "This is not how things end, Stacie. This is not happening." She broke away from her longtime friend and stormed into the room where her wife was lying, surrounding by machinery.

In Georgia, Poppy froze as she saw Emily appear in the doorway to the rehearsal hall. Bella, who was speaking with Alexis, did not notice. Poppy hurried over to her aunt. "Is everything okay? What's wrong? What are you doing here?"

Emily bit her lip; she knew that coming to find them at practice was a bad idea – but she also couldn't wait the four hours it would take them to get home. "It's okay – I just need you both to come home with me. Can you grab Bella? I don't want to make a scene by going in there."

Poppy hurried to the front of the room and interrupted her sister and their captain. "Alexis – we need to go."

Bella looked at her oddly.

"We just started," Alexis argued. "We have so much to do – "

"Sorry," Bella responded, seeing the fear in her sister's eyes. "It's a family emergency. You may need to cut us out of this set. I'll text you when we know more." With that, the twins were gone. Emily waited outside for them and directed them to her car. They knew it was urgent if she hadn't just walked across campus. "What's going on?" Bella asked as she slid into the back.

"We're flying out to LA in a few hours," Emily told them. "Do we need to go by the dorm first – or do you have what need at my place?" They had been spending an extraordinary amount of time at Emily and Benji's house. Her teenage-girl laundry had tripled in the past few weeks, so she thought they might have what they needed.

"I don't need anything from my room," Bella agreed.

"Neither do I," Poppy responded. "Why are we going? Is Mama okay?"

"I don't know a lot more than you do," Emily admitted. "Aunt Stacie called and asked me to bring you to LA – your mom was with her at the time. So we're going." The plane ride was excruciating. None of them spoke but they couldn't concentrate on anything – no books, movies, or even music helped to pass the time.

Sheila and Warren had flown in from where he was speaking at a conference in San Fransisco, so the three girls, along with Emily and Benji, were the last to arrive. Lilly was there – Cynthia Rose – Jessica – Ashley - Amy – Donald and several others from their generation of the Treble Makers. Bella saw them all gathered into the waiting room and the air was instantly sucked from her lungs. She grabbed onto the nearest chair and sank to her knees, her lungs and heart taking all of her energy to pump and beat as quickly as possible.

Aubrey saw her and hurried over, trying to pull her up from the floor. Bella batted her away, sinking down further so that she was rolled into a ball, her forehead resting on her knees. Someone pulled Aubrey away and she felt cool hands on her neck and forehead. She could hear crying nearby; Poppy, she thought. But the sound was removed – her ears were too filled by the sound of her heart beating roughly.

"Sweetpea, it's okay. Take a deep breath." Stacie was beside her, taking control. She spoke softly and firmly at the same time – something that had always both comforted and confused Bella. The teen tried to listen to her and tried to make her breathing follow the older woman's commands. After a few minutes, she felt a bit of blessed relief start to sink in as an icepack was placed behind her neck. Stacie helped her move into the waiting room and made her lay down – as best she could – across several chairs.

Beca smiled as best she could, fear evident in her eyes, half an hour later as the Bellas - all of the original members from her Freshman year plus Emily - crowded into her hospital room. "Does this mean I've been given an expiration date?" She joked weakly. She could barely lift her head from the pillows.

"Stop that," Chloe ordered. Her eyes had been bloodshot for two solid weeks. Currently they were dry, but she looked as exhausted as Beca. Her bright eyes were dulled, underlined by deep shadows. She slipped into bed next to Beca and the brunette brought her head to rest on her shoulder. The rest of the Bellas filtered in around them. None of them looked happy, but Stacie, Aubrey, and Emily were taking the brunt of the responsibilities usually carried by the two women.

They looked at one another, no one saying anything until Beca finally did. "Well, this many Bellas in one room - it would be a waste not to sing." Chloe looked at her and shook her head. Beca nodded.

"Not that," Chloe insisted.

"Love, it's my song. It's always been mine."

Before Chloe could argue further, Beca's rich alto began. She didn't tremble - she didn't sound weak. She sounded like Beca.

I've got my ticket for the long way 'round - she looked at Chloe, who shook her head in refusal. Beca squeezed her hand and looked at her again, pleadingly. After a short pause, Chloe with a far more tremulous voice;

Two bottle whiskey for the way - their voices joined together, melding perfectly - Chloe's finally finding its balance.

And I sure would like some sweet company

And I'm leaving tomorrow. What d'you say?

Tears glistening in her eyes, Stacie joined in on the chorus. So did Aubrey, eyes watery but not yet filled. Emily, Amy, Cynthia Rose, Lilly, Jessica, Ashley, and Flo all found their way in during the next few lines.

When I'm gone, when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me by my hair

You're gonna miss me everywhere, oh

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

When I'm gone, when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me by my walk

You're gonna miss me by my talk, oh

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

The Bellas faded out, leaving the second verse for Beca and Chloe to play with. They did, trading lines and coming together for the last.

I've got my ticket for the long way 'round

The one with the prettiest of views

It's got mountains, it's got rivers

It's got sights to give you shivers

But it sure would be prettier with you

In the hallway, outside a door that had been left cracked, the nursing staff, other patients, families, and doctors had stopped to listen. Jesse and Benji sat against the wall, the four girls squeezed between them, all six crying.

When I'm gone, when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me by my walk

You're gonna miss me by my talk, oh

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

When I'm gone, when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me by my hair

You're gonna miss me everywhere, oh

You're sure gonna miss me when I'm gone

It wasn't on purpose really - Chloe just couldn't do it anymore. Her voice caught on her tears as the sobs took over. She could barely get enough air to breathe, let alone sing. She buried her face in Beca's shoulder, her entire body racked with heavy sobs. But Beca finished - her voice holding steady through the end.

When I'm gone, when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

You're gonna miss me by my walk

You're gonna miss me by my talk, oh

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone

Despite Chloe's insistence that they weren't allowed, the Bellas had come to say goodbye. Stacie, Aubrey, and Jesse had called them, letting them know that - if a few very specific and unlikely events did not occur, Beca would not make it much longer. Aubrey carefully pried her best friend away, leading her into the hallway to give the other women time to speak freely with Beca.

They all said whatever it was at the moment that seemed important to share – and kissed and hugged their friend. Once they had all gathered again in the waiting room, Stacie took the four girls in. Chloe refused.

She took Dahlia in first, lifting her into the bed next to Beca and then leaving them alone. Dahlia curled into Beca's arms and looked up at her. "Hi."

"Hey, beautiful girl."

"You don't look very good," Dahlia told her, her big eyes already wet with tears.

"I don't feel very good, my love," Beca admitted. She used her fingers – usually nimble but now thick and clumsy from the drugs – to wipe away the stray tears from Dahlia's eyes. "I know this is really scary – and I'm very sorry for that."

"Mommy said you're going to be okay," Dahlia whispered. Beca bit back her tears and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling for a moment, collecting herself. She had never been so pissed off at Chloe. Her wife was not helping the situation – she was not helping prepare their children for what was very likely going to happen. And that was not excusable, in Beca's mind.

"Mommy wants me to be okay," Beca explained, meeting her eyes again. "And I love her so much for it. I want to be okay too, but sometimes it's not that easy. Sometimes the doctors do everything they possibly can – but it still doesn't help."

"What's going to happen?"

"I wish I knew, love," Beca told her, nodding her head and grimacing as she fought more tears. "But no matter what happens – I need you to remember a few things for me, okay?" Dahlia nodded, but she had already begun to cry. Her shoulders shook as she snuggled into Beca's arms.

"I love you so, so, so much," Beca told her. "You are an amazing little girl – and you can do whatever you want in this life. You are going to do beautiful things – I know it. Just try your best at everything – and don't let anyone tell you that you aren't good enough – because you are, my love."

"It's not fair," Dahlia cried.

"I know."

"I love you, mama."

"I love you too, Dahlia." The little girl was almost asleep in her arms when Stacie returned with Vera. She lifted Dahlia into her arms and left with her. Vera stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, looking back as Stacie closed the door behind her.

Vera's chin trembled as she clenched her teeth, trying not to cry. She knew what it meant – having all of the Bellas here. It wasn't a good sign. After she showed no plans to move, Beca called out to her. "Come here, V." She patted the bed next to her and Vera tentatively moved closer, sitting on the edge of the bed. Once she was that close, she collapsed into her mother, crying as she curled up against her.

"Please don't go," Vera begged. Her daughter begging her was not somethings he could handle well.

Beca sobbed for the first time herself, since entering the ICU. She held Vera close and stroked her hair. "I don't want to, my love. I promise you that." They talked for a long time, Beca telling Vera how proud she was of her – and how much beauty and potential she saw in her every day. "Don't ever forget how to have fun," she told her daughter. "You have so much fun with life – I wish I knew how to do that. Try to help your sisters. They take everything so seriously." Vera laughed and hugged Beca harder.

"I don't want to say goodbye," she said softly.

"You don't have to," Beca assured her. "This – no matter what happens – is not goodbye."

"I love you."

"I love you so much, Vera." She kissed the girl's temple and held her close for another few minutes until a knock sounded on the door. Vera pulled away and kissed Beca's cheek – holding her hands for just a few more seconds before going to the door and letting Poppy in.

"Mom is running around the hospital telling anyone who will listen that you're not going to die," Poppy told her as soon as she sat down. Beca laughed.

"She's stubborn."

"So are you. Don't give up yet, Mama. What does Aunt Amy always say?"

"It's not over until the dingos eat the kangaroo."

"What does that even mean?"

"I don't know," Beca answered with a laugh. "I never have." She reached out and took Poppy's hand. "Do you know how much you look like your mother?"

"I've looked in a few mirrors," Poppy said with a shrug.

"You are an amazing young woman, Poppy. I don't tell you enough how proud I am of you. You are so strong – and so optimistic. Don't let that go away, love."

"I won't," Poppy promised. "Mama, we really can't do this without you."

"Yes," Beca responded. "Yes, you can. You have to be strong – but it will work. You girls are amazing – and your mom is going to need you if – well, you know." Poppy nodded, tears pricking her eyes. She lay down next to Beca, curling up against her.

Bella was the last to appear. Mostly because, after Dahlia came out of the room inconsolable, the oldest brunette decided to disappear. It took more than twenty minutes of searching for Jesse to find her and (very literally) carry her back to her mother's room. He deposited her next to Stacie, who walked her into Beca's room. She still looked and tensed like she was going to make a run for it, so her aunt kept a strong arm around her shoulders, leading her directly over to the bed.

"I don't want to do this," Bella told her mother.

"Neither do I, baby girl. Seriously – I would rather be doing a lot of other stuff. Maybe even watching a movie." Bella laughed, despite herself. "But don't tell Uncle Jesse I said that. I don't even want to give him hope when it comes to movies."

"Mama, stop."

"Pretending to be funny?" Beca asked. "Never," she stated. "Come, sit with me." Bella reluctantly sat next to her mother and eventually curled up next to her, snuggling against her tiny frame as Stacie left them alone.

"This isn't fair," Bella told her.

"Oh, love," Beca said, her hand raising to cup Bella's cheek. "I have failed you if I left you thinking that anything in this life is fair."

"You have never failed me," Bella told her, tears springing forth.

"Thank you," Beca said, "for that very eloquent lie."

"You haven't," Bella insisted.

"I am thankful for that. I have tried really hard. I don't know if you realize this – but I am slacker at heart." Bella laughed through her tears. "No – really – I was always content with half-assing everything – except for music – until I met your mother and became a Bella. But I've never tried so hard at anything as I have trying to do right by you girls."

"I hope we have a lot more time left. I would like grandchildren to spoil, sons or daughters in law to torture – all those things. I want to see who you become – because so far, that has been a beautiful thing. The best validation I've ever had in my life."

"Mama – "

"No," Beca interrupted. "I need you to listen to me. And I mean it – every word – not just the general meaning that you can go and twist in whatever fashion you choose." Bella rolled her eyes. "There's my girl," Beca said softly. "Bella – if something happens to me, you need to work really hard to not push people away. Mommy loves you so much – but she doesn't understand. She doesn't know why you do what you do. I know that closing yourself off seems like a good idea at the time – it feels safer. Things can't hurt you if they can't reach you. But it's a terrible and lonely way to live. It is not what I want for you. And I know this isn't fair – but Dahlia needs you. She's not like your mom, or Vera, or Poppy. Not as much as she is like you and me. And so she's going to need you – because I don't want that kind of life for her either. You both deserve so much better."

Bella walked into the waiting room and sat next to Poppy in the corner, on the floor. Vera appeared in front of them, her hand clutching Dahlia's. The twins pulled apart slightly, making room for Vera. She scooted in between them, her head resting on Poppy's shoulder. Bella patted her lap and Dahlia crawled into it with relief, burying her face against the older girl's neck, her feet curling into Vera's lap.

Their aunts and uncles and grandparents watched them, hearts breaking but not having any idea what to do. Chloe had already disappeared into Beca's room, alone.

"I can't do this without you," Chloe told her. She was crying again - and kneeling next to the bed. She wasn't sure if she was praying, begging, or both.

"Don't be dramatic, babe," Beca said softly. "You need to stay calm. You have four beautiful girls who need you to stay strong - so that's what you're going to do."

"You are not dying," Chloe ordered. Beca's lips quirked up into a smirk. She was amused - were many people ordered not to die? It was one order she would gladly follow if she knew how. Chloe stayed for as long as she was allowed – leaving only when Stacie told her she didn't have a choice. They all stayed that night in the waiting room, Chloe sleeping only for a few minutes, curled up beside her girls.

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 14 – Believe It Anyway

"This world's gone crazy and it's hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway"

~ Martina McBride

The next morning, Stacie stood huddled with several other doctors inside Beca's room for a long time. Against all odds and current medical beliefs, Beca had survived the night. Not only had she survived, her dangerously low white blood cell count had risen - and there was – miraculously - no trace of infection in her lungs. Her blood pressure and heart rate were completely stable. She was resting comfortably for the first time in weeks.

Stacie was the last one in the room. She fixed Beca's blankets and stared up at the ceiling, trying to calm the rising wave of tears. It didn't help. She broke down then - for the first time since Beca's diagnosis. Unable to keep herself upright, she knelt to the ground. She sobbed heavily, her head resting on the bed, her hands folded in the first prayer she'd entertained since she had been a little girl and the bad thing had happened.

"You cry when I don't die?" Beca asked softly. "Weirdo." Stacie sat up, taking deep breaths and swiping at the tears still falling.

"Sorry," she said, trying to stop.

"You're allowed to be human," Beca answered. "I was a little worried you didn't know how to cry," she teased. Stacie laughed through the tears.

"It's not an advisable pass time in my line of work."

"Yeah, seeing all those STDs would be a cry-worthy bummer." Stacie laughed again.

"That was bad," Stacie told her, eyes shining, "You're slipping."

"I've been a little tired."

"I know," Stacie said with a soft voice and a nod, more tears coming without her permission. "Thank you, for not dying."

"I try my best to defy odds whenever possible."

"God, I love that about you." Beca smiled and reached out to grab Stacie's hand. The taller woman moved up to sit on the bed and hugged her. "You have to hold on - we can make this work if you keep fighting."

"I'll try my best," Beca agreed. "Now, clean up before you go out there. If Chloe sees you crying, she's going to think I'm dead."

"Don't be macabre."

When Stacie exited the room, she looked and felt better than she had in weeks. Chloe, Aubrey, Jesse, and Dr. Mitchell were standing in front of the closest waiting room, watching for her. She was sure they had already seen the other doctors leave Beca's room. Although Dr. Patil was her oncologist – the family had very little contact with her because Stacie's heavy involvement had made her the go-between since the beginning. She walked over to them and led them inside. The room was filled with only the Bellas and Beca's family. Chloe saw that Stacie planned to talk to them all at once and looked worriedly in the direction of her children, who were in various states of sleep, cuddled around each other, and Emily.

"It's okay," Stacie assured her. "Good news, for once." Chloe couldn't believe her - there hadn't been good news in weeks. Everyone in the room sat up a bit straighter. The twins and Vera sat up, scooting against the far wall to listen. Only Dahlia remained sleeping in Emily's arms. Stacie sat down in the chair that Benji vacated for her, thanking him softly as he did so. She was so tired.

"Beca's white blood cell count is almost normal," Stacie said. "Her heart rate and blood pressure have stabilized - and there's no sign of infection in her lungs."

"How did that happen? What did you do?" Chloe asked.

"There is no good explanation," Stacie told her. "Beca's body just decided to put up a really good fight."

"What does it mean?" Bella asked.

"It means that we can try the bone-marrow treatment," Stacie told her. "Dr. Patil is pretty confident that she can irradiate the rest of the cancer cells – then we need the bone-marrow transplant to start her immune system to rebuilding. We just need to find a match." The next few hours were a bustle of activity. All of the Bellas were tested, even though a non-familial match was unlikely. Dr. Mitchell, Chloe, and the three older girls were tested. Chloe was hesitant, but Poppy and Bella reminded her that they were 18 - and Vera begged to be allowed.

Beca slept the entire day – comfortably. She didn't wake once in need of pain medication and wasn't disturbed by the line of family and friends in and out her door. She finally woke around dinner time and asked the nurse to help her clean up. With assistance, she washed her face, brushed her teeth, and changed into a new pair of pajamas. She wanted to put her wig on but the nurse told her she looked beautiful just the way she was – and that the wig was too cumbersome for her to worry about until she was feeling much stronger. She settled for exchanging the scarf for a brown hat with crocheted flowers that Dahlia had given her.

Once she was sitting up and supported by the deluge of pillows she'd somehow ended up collecting, she asked the nurse to find her family. The woman didn't have to look far – the three older girls, Chloe, and Stacie were waiting to enter her room. Dahlia was at home with Emily and Benji, who were staying at the Beale Mitchell home.

Stacie sat on the end of the bed and explained what they needed to do. "The cancer cells that are left are hiding in your bone marrow."

"I take it that's very sneaky of them?" Beca asked. Her friend rolled her eyes and Chloe chided her for not taking it seriously. "Okay, okay," Beca said. "I'll pretend to be serious. What does that mean?"

"After consulting with several other doctors, Dr. Patil wants to do a final chemo treatment that would kill the cancer cells – even those in your bone marrow and any that try to escape into your blood stream. But that's going to decimate your body's natural defenses – your immune system. Which, as you know, is already partially compromised. So you'll need a bone marrow transplant after the treatment- it will kick-start your immune system to rebuild."

"Okay," Beca agreed, immediately feeling even more tired just thinking about another chemo treatment. "When do we do that?"

"Normally, we would have to find a donor. But we've already found one. Bella is a perfect match," Stacie told her.

"No," Beca said quickly, shaking her head fast enough to make herself dizzy. "No - I'm not allowing it."

"I'm 18," Bella told her. "It's not your choice. I'm not going to let you die if I can do something to help." She was standing to the side, her arms crossed.

"It's too dangerous. Anything could happen," Beca told her. "The answer is no."

"You don't get to decide that," Poppy said from across the room. "You don't get to decide to leave without trying every possible thing. We need you, Mama. And Bella is healthy - it's not a big deal. We already talked to the doctors - it's more dangerous for you than for her."

Beca looked at Chloe. "Help me here, please?"

Chloe's eyes cast down. "Beca - I love you. But I don't agree with you on this. If Bella is willing - and she's a match, I think we need to try it."

"Girls, please go outside," Beca said firmly, looking at each of her daughters. She might have lost strength and weight, but her glare was still as strong as ever.

"Mama – " They all began to argue.

"Now," Beca ordered. She turned to Chloe and Stacie. "You two stay right here." Once the three teens were outside, Stacie closed the door, cutting them off from the conversation.

"I'm not going to do this," Beca told them. "And I can't believe you two think that I would. It's too much—"

"What if you die?" Chloe asked softly. "We almost lost you last night. The doctors still don't understand why we didn't. Isn't that close enough for you? What if there is no other way to get rid of this cancer?"

"It would suck," Beca admitted. "But Chlo, I can't put our daughter in danger to save my life - "

"If you die - and we don't try this transplant - how do you think Bella is going to feel? She'll spend her life blaming herself. Is that what you want?"

"That's not fair," Beca shot back.

"Neither is you trying to tie our hands because you feel badly about putting Bella at any sort of risk."

"The risk isn't that high," Stacie cut in. "I know you're worried. But really, the biggest risk is Bella going under general anesthesia. And we'll do all of the precautionary tests first to make sure she can handle it. And she won't be under for long – an hour, tops. I'm her doctor too – I wouldn't suggest this if I thought we were putting her in unnecessary danger."

"It's going to hurt," Beca argued. "Don't they have to go in through bone?"

Stacie nodded. "It's going to hurt. And she knows that. And she still wants to do it. You didn't raise a fool, Beca. She understands what she's getting herself into. But she'll recover – quickly. She's eighteen. She has a better immune system than the three of us combined."

A few minutes after Chloe and Stacie emerged, telling them that Beca had agreed to the procedure, Bella slipped into the room. She closed the door behind her and could feel her mother glaring at her, so she was looking anywhere else when she walked in. "I know you're mad," the teen said. "And I'm really sorry. But I'm not going to let you die just so you get your way."

"You're infuriating," Beca said.

"So are you," Bella shot back. She walked over to the bed and sat next to Beca, her eyes filling with tears as the small woman hugged her. She felt so much weaker than she had a few months before - Bella could feel every bone. But it was still her mom - and the hug helped. "I can't lose you," Bella told her softly, glancing over and meeting Beca's eyes for fleeting seconds.

"What if something happens to you?" Beca asked. "How would I forgive myself?"

"Mama, I'll be fine. Seriously - Aunt Stacie has been researching the procedure like a dog with a bone - I've read so much about it. There's not a lot of danger. There's some risk of infection - but we'll be careful. And I'm healthy - I can fight an infection."

They moved quickly – Bella and Chloe met with more doctors and Bella was walked through the procedure more times than she really cared to be. She had to undergo a variety of tests to ensure that she was healthy enough to be put under general anesthesia. Two days later, she woke in a hospital bed.

She was awake but she in a lot of pain, so she kept her eyes closed. She knew as soon as she opened them, she would have to answer questions - and she really didn't want to yet. A slight shift to alleviate pressure from her right side caused her to groan, giving herself away.

"Bells?" Chloe was at her side in seconds. Bella opened her eyes and tried to smile at her Mom. It came out more like a grimace.

"Hi," she said, her voice rough from lack of use.

"Hey," Chloe said, gently pushing a lock of brown hair behind her ear. "How are you feeling?"

"I don't want to alarm you," she said with a straight face. "But I think someone took a drill to my pelvic bone."

"You're insufferable," Chloe teased. "Is this really the time to joke?"

"It's always the time to joke," Bella responded. "I'm fine, Mom."

"You look like you're in pain."

"I'm achy. But it's not that bad," she promised, using her own definition for what was bad and what wasn't. Chloe pushed the nurse call button anyway. A woman appeared less than two minutes later, a bright smile on her face.

"Hello, Bella. I'm Kathy. I'll be your nurse today. Welcome back. How are you feeling?"

"I'm f-"

"She's in pain," Chloe told the nurse, interrupting her daughter.

"My lower back is achy - and my sides. But it's really not that bad."

"On a scale of 1 to 10 - one being barely noticeable and 10 being bad enough that you can't see straight. Where would you put it?"

"6?" Bella suggested. The nurse looked at Chloe.

"What do you think, Mom? 6? Or higher?"

"She's an under-estimator," Chloe responded. "I'd go a little higher."

"Alright," the nurse said with a smile. "The doctor left you pain medication - so I'll bring that in. You let me know in another fifteen minutes if it doesn't kick in." Bella nodded.

Luckily, Beca didn't know that Bella was in pain – and never would. The most difficult part of the whole procedure was that Beca was in isolation for a week following. Her immune system needed time to build itself, so she was not allowed near anyone who might be sick or carrying anything. To minimize contamination, they were allowed to choose two people who were allowed in to see her for one hour, twice each day. Chloe and Jesse were those two people and they had to wear silly yellow gowns, booties, and hair coverings – which made Beca laugh uncontrollably the first time she saw them.

"I'm glad you're amused," Jesse responded, sitting in a chair near her bed. "How are you feeling?"

Beca nodded. "Not like I was the other night. Not like I'm – well, you know…"

"That is good news. Feeling like you're not – you know – is a step in the right direction."

"I miss the girls," she admitted. "And Chloe. It's not the same – only getting to see people twice a day. It sort of sucks actually. But I don't want to waste our time talking about that. How are you? How's the family?"

"I'm good," Jesse said with nod. "My best friend almost died a few days ago – but she's alive. So we're good." Beca smiled. "And, you know, I might have just been offered the job of music director for a new film by Felix Van Groeningen."

"What?" Beca asked, her smile growing. "Jesse, that's awesome!"

"Yeah, I'm pretty excited," he agreed. They spent their hour together talking about the film – Jesse trying out music ideas on Beca and her giving him a hard time about every suggestion. Once Beca was out of isolation, Chloe brought the girls – and dinner from a nearby restaurant. Hospital food was not something any of them enjoyed – and it was hard enough getting most her brood to eat.

Dahlia sat next to Beca, who was fully dressed and sitting up in bed. Bella sat in a chair next to her. Poppy and Vera sat at the end of the bed and Chloe sat in the other chair in the room, on Beca's other side.

"You girls need to get back to school," Beca said, after they had mostly finished their food. All of the girls looked up at her, not sure what to say. Certainly, they knew they were missing classes – but that hardly seemed important after almost losing their mother.

Chloe had been mulling the situation over in her own mind, as had each of the girls. They had only attended a few weeks of the spring semester before they'd been pulled out to go home. Their classes had gone on without them – it was almost time for midterms.

"We can make up some of the classes in the summer," Poppy pointed out. "They'll transfer from UCLA."

"No," Beca responded. "I'm doing better – I'm on the mend – you girls need to get back to your own lives." There had been no sign of cancer cells since the last blast of chemotherapy. It was too soon so say she was in remission, but things looked good. No matter how much they argued, Beca had made up her mind. Two days later, while she was still in the hospital, the three teens had packed up their things and were being driven to the airport by Jesse.

"Your mom's going to be fine," he told the silent group.

"We know," Poppy responded from the passenger seat. "It's just hard, going back. With what almost happened – " Her voice faded away; they didn't really need to talk about it. They had all been there.

Emily had already been back in Georgia for two weeks – she hadn't been able to stay away from her kids or work for more than a few days. Once Beca was in the clear, she had headed home. She was waiting at the Atlanta airport for the three girls and hugged them.

"How was the flight?" She asked, taking one of Vera's carry-on bags and slinging it over her own shoulder.

"Not bad," Poppy answered. "How's Uncle Benji? And Grace and Jake?"

"Good," Emily told them. "At work and school – where do you girls want to go – my house –or the dorms?"

"We'd better go back to the dorm," Bella told her. "I really hope we didn't leave anything that could spoil in the fridge."

"This is the first time you thought about that?" Poppy asked. "We could have had someone check – "

"I was a little preoccupied," Bella shot back. They weren't exactly angry at each other, but they both remained quiet for the duration of the ride. Emily dropped them off at their dorms and she and Vera helped them inside with their bags. The dorm room was fine – if pretty messy. There was nothing spoiling in the fridge – everything smelled fine. Once their bags were deposited, Emily hugged them both tightly and made them promise to come to dinner on Sunday night – if not before then. They agreed – hugged Vera – and watched the two leave.

That Monday, none of them went to class. But Tuesday, bright and early, Bella woke to get ready for her British Literature course. Her professor – who had received word from her academic advisor about what was going on – smiled politely and welcomed her back. Bella quirked her lips up into as much a smile as she could manage and took her seat. She felt sick by that afternoon. Three classes – and she was desperately behind in all of them. The fact that both of her sisters were probably facing the same dilemma did not make her feel better.

Bella and Poppy weren't quite sure if they should head to Bellas' practice or not. They had left with no warning – and neither one of them had spoken much to Camille. Bella had video chatted and texted with Alexis throughout the debacle – but they had never spoken about what was going on in Georgia. So they were hesitant as they walked into the practice hall, both wondering if they might be kicked back out again. Instead, they were stunned to find the other girls smiling brightly and welcoming them back. Camille's smile was not bright – but she politely walked up to both girls and asked how their mother was doing.

"Better," Bella responded. "Thank you. We know that we're behind – you don't have to use us in the set for the semi-finals if you've already – "

"You're not getting out if it that easily," Camille responded. "But I do expect you to take whatever extra time is needed to learn the new songs and routines." That was the end of the conversation. The choreography had been completed with room for them both – so they spent the afternoon trying desperately to keep up. It was much more exciting though, than the despair Bell felt at being behind in classes. This seemed surmountable.

At the end of practice, she was worn out. They hadn't really done much in the past few weeks but sit in waiting rooms or around the house – and she knew she was out of shape. She was drinking the third water bottle of the practice when Alexis walked over and sat down next to her. When Bella finished, she recapped the bottle and dropped it into her bag.

"How are you?"

"A lot better than the alternative would have left me," Bella responded. "She's going to be okay – and that's pretty amazing. It got really scary there for a few days."

"I'm glad she's going to be alright."

"How are you?" Bella asked. "You never say. We spoke a few times – and texted – and you always changed the subject."

Alexis rolled her eyes and smiled. "My problems seem sort of lame compared to what you guys are going through."

"There's not a score sheet," Bella told her. "Seriously – how are you?" Before Alexis could answer – Poppy appeared behind them, her usual wide smile in place.

"I'm heading to dinner with Aria – do you guys want to come with us?"

Alexis and Bella exchanged one glance and had agreed. "No," Bella told her. "We're going off campus to grab something."

"Well, make sure you actually eat something," Poppy responded. "I know Mama is going to start grilling me about it again as soon as she starts feeling a little better."

"I always eat," Bella responded. "Mind your own business." Poppy smiled and left. Bella sighed and sat back in her chair, staring up at the ceiling.

"You lost weight," Alexis told her, not in a voice that accussed – it was merely a bit of information that she was sharing.

"It got kind of scary," Bella reminded her. "It's fine – My appetite is back. Mostly. Where do you want to go?"

"I need to shower first," Alexis told her. "Then maybe the Grille?" Bella nodded.

They split up for the next half an hour or so to shower and change. Bella was finishing pulling her damp hair into braids that circled her head when Alexis appeared at her door. They walked together to the Grille – a sit-down restaurant a few blocks from campus that was a bit nicer than the cafeteria – and certainly offered more privacy. As soon as their food was ordered, Bella picked up the conversation that her friend – she knew – was hoping she had forgotten.

"So, how are you – really?"

"I'm okay," Alexis answered, nodding. She sipped from her glass of water and studied the painting on the wall next to them – it was a copy of some famous water scene. Bella was silent – she was not taking that lame wording as an answer. "It's been kind of hard," she admitted. "I never admitted before – not out loud at least – that I was gay."

"You've never dated anyone?"

"I have – only a few people," Alexis answered. "But people do that in college. I've dated guys and girls. Not many – and none very seriously. But I had never really admitted what I knew I felt – until my parents pushed me. I miss them. I mean, it's not like we got along that well. But it was always nice to know that they were there, you know? I mean, your family has to help if you need it. I feel a little without a mooring – knowing that they aren't a phone call away. At least, not for me."

Bella shook her head. "I'm so sorry. I just can't imagine – "

"Your parents don't seem like they would give up on you for anything," Alexis responded, not at all jealous – just happy for her friend.

"They're pretty amazing," she answered. She paused. "Have you tried calling your parents? I know you said you might."

"I tried a few times – and they didn't call back. Your Aunt Stacie gave me some advice – and pretty much told me that I should stop trying for a while. That I was only upsetting myself. It has been a little easier, since I stopped trying. They can't ignore me if I'm ignoring them."

Bella smiled sympathetically. "Aunt Stacie is pretty smart about stuff like that. She's good with people. I'm glad she's been able to help. She's been so stressed lately with Mama – I hope you were still able to talk to her – "

Alexis wasn't sure how to phrase the fact that she spoke to Stacie almost daily. She could hear the older woman's fatigue – but she called every day at some point. They had missed a few days when Alexis had told her about a busy schedule. They had also missed the days that Beca had been hanging onto life in the ICU. Otherwise, they spoke frequently. Alexis was thankful – because sometimes she felt like she had no one to talk to. The counselor she had found at the university was nice enough, but she was a little too unrealistic for Alexis' taste. She didn't think her parents would respond to a request that they go to group therapy – or on a retreat. And Camille was sympathetic – but she had no idea what her best friend was going through. She still had a safety net in place – she still had parents who loved her unconditionally.

"She still stayed in touch. I told her not to worry about me – but I don't think she listens to other people very often."

"She listens." Bella responded with a smirk. "She just hears what you mean, instead of what you say. She's always been really good at that. Mama too."

They remained together in quiet company for the rest of the evening, finishing several cups of herbal tea as they caught up with one another, discussed the Bellas, and simply reconnected. Bella felt lighter as she walked back to her dorm – not knowing that Alexis was feeling similarly as she returned to the Bella House.

In California, Beca was tired of being in bed. With every tiny bit of energy that returned to her, she grew that much antsier. She grumbled as Chloe walked around her hospital room, straightening things. "Can you please bring my laptop?"

"No," Chloe told her again. "You're not supposed to be working – you're supposed to be resting. And the minute I bring that in – you won't be." Beca huffed and lay back against her pillows.

"I'm bored."

"I'm just glad you're well enough to be bored," Chloe responded. "Read a book – watch television. Listen to music. But you are not making any." Beca glared. Her disposition brightened when the door opened and revealed Dahlia, appearing before them in her school uniform. Cassie waved from the doorway and then left to give them privacy.

Beca smiled brightly and held out her arms. Dahlia dropped her book bag inside the door and crawled up onto the bed, hugging Beca. "Hi, Mama," she said.

"Hi, pretty girl," Beca responded. "How was your day?"

"It was good. Mrs. Oliver taught us…" Dahlia prattled on about her school day for long periods of time, giving Beca something happy to focus on. She then pulled out the book they were reading and held it so that they could take turns reading pages. Chloe joined them for that until it was time for Dahlia to go home and eat dinner.

She was not the best at being separated from Beca – she had been inconsolable even after the older woman had begun to recover. She could not forget that she'd been made to say goodbye to this woman. But with many reassurances, hugs, and promises – Dahlia eventually agreed to leave with Cassie.

Beca ate her dinner and then Chloe sat next to her on the bed, curling up next to her. She would go home that night to be with Dahlia – as she knew she should be. But first, she would hold her wife and revel in the fact that she was still there – something that, for a few days at least, had seemed almost impossible.


Chapter Text

 


Chapter 15 – A Stolen Halo

"Somewhere there's a stolen halo
I use to watch her wear it well
Everything would shine wherever she would go
But looking at her now you'd never tell"

~ Big & Rich

It was only a few days until Beca was going to be cleared to come home – after more than a month in the hospital. Chloe had called in a cleaning company to do a thorough scrubbing of the house but was still wandering around, fixing things that were just fine the way they were. It was six in the morning and she was dusting perfectly dust-free picture frames. She assumed she was the only one awake – she knew she was the only one in the house besides Dahlia, so she was surprised to hear the pipes working from the second floor.

Chloe walked into Dahlia's room to investigate and found the bed empty. Of both the child and her sheets and blankets. She heard water running in the bathroom and followed the sounds. Dahlia was bent over the bathtub, scrubbing at her blankets with a washrag. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry," she said with a sob as she looked up to see Chloe. The redhead's heart broke and she looked at the little girl with a sympathetic expression. The child had wet the bed. Her pajamas were soaked and clung to her and she was shivering. Chloe crossed the small space and hugged her. She turned off the freezing cold water and held Dahlia's hands in her own, trying to warm them.

"Oh, sweetie," she said softly. "It's okay."

"No it's not," she cried. "Babies do that."

"It was an accident," Chloe said firmly. "It can happen to anyone. I promise - It's okay. Let's go to my room and get you cleaned up." Chloe didn't give her an option to argue - with a firm hand on her shoulder, she led Dahlia to the master bath. She ran a warm bath and helped Dahlia out of her soiled pajamas and underwear. Once in the warm water, the little girl stopped shivering - but her tears still came.

Chloe quickly washed her and shampooed her hair. In ten minutes, she was dressed in a fresh set of pajamas, hair braided, and tucked under the covers of Chloe and Beca's bed. She tried to argue.

"You stay right there," Chloe told her firmly. She sat on the edge of the bed and leaned down to kiss Dahlia's forehead. She wasn't warm. "Close your eyes. Try to get a bit more sleep, okay? When I come back - I don't want you to have moved."

Chloe went into Dahlia's room and sighed, her hands on her hips as she surveyed the damage. The mattress was soaked. She really didn't know what to do about that, so she went into the bathroom and dragged the sopping sheets and blankets into a laundry basket to transport to the washer. While she was in the basement, she called her mother.

"Chloe!"

"Hi, Mom."

"It's pretty early there, hun. Is everything okay?"

"Yes. we're fine. How about you and Daddy?"

"Good," her mother promised. "Just came back from our morning walk. What has you calling so early? Is Beca okay?"

"Beca's fine," Chloe promised. "I actually haven't spoken to her yet today. I called because I don't really know what to do – we never had this problem before. Dahlia had an accident last night - or early this morning - I'm not sure. I know I can clean the sheets and blankets, but what do I do about the mattress?"

"Chloe - she's a little old to be having accidents."

"Mom, she's had a scary life - she's just now finding a family - and when she was finally feeling safe one parent lands in the hospital and the other is constantly at the hospital or at work. So she's allowed to be upset - and she's allowed to have an accident. Just tell me what to do with the damned mattress!"

"Chloe!"

She sighed, her fingers raising to pinch the bridge of her nose as she paced. "I'm sorry, mom. I'm just a little stressed."

"I know, hun. I know," she said softly. "You have a few options with the mattress. Is it still wet?"

"Yes."

"Then take a sponge and -" She paused. "Chloe - how much does your wife make in a year?"

"I don't know," Chloe admitted. "A lot. We don't talk about money a lot - why does that matter?"

"Darling, call the store and buy a new mattress. When they bring the new - they'll take the old. Then put a liner under the bedsheets to protect the new mattress until this matter is all settled."

"What about the mattress people? I don't want them to have to take it away like that - "

"Who cares what they think?" Lydia asked. "But if you're really worried about it - or you want to stick with this mattress - soak up as much as you can with sponges. When it is as dry as you can get it, sprinkle it with Borax liberally. Rub the borax into the stain and let it sit - and then vacuum it out again. Be careful with the borax - it's toxic."

"Yeah - I don't think we have any," Chloe responded, knowing that they kept very few chemicals in the house. She thanked her mother and calmed herself down, realizing that she needed to make this work. In her own bedroom, she checked to be sure that Dahlia was sleeping and then went into the hallway to call the closest mattress store. They were happy to deliver - and the person on the phone didn't seem to mind when she mentioned that the old one would be – wet. She found her mother was right; she didn't care at all what the mattress store people thought.

Before lunchtime, a new mattress had arrived and the old one had disappeared. Chloe found a waterproof mattress cover that they'd once purchased when the twins were potty training – they had never needed it. She made Dahlia's bed with fresh, crisp sheets and a clean, warm comforter.

She then went into her room and woke the child, who had fallen back into a deep sleep. The little girl turned away from her, cheeks burning. "Stop that," Chloe chided softly. "It was an accident, sweetie. Can you tell me what happened? Did you have a tummy ache?"

"No," Dahlia answered.

"Were you afraid to get up? Or did it happen while you were sleeping?"

"I was sleeping," the little girl whispered.

"Did you have a nightmare?"

"I think so," she confirmed.

"Can you tell me what happened? Sometimes it helps."

"I can't remember," Dahlia told her softly.

"Okay, sweetheart," Chloe responded, understanding that she didn't want to talk about it anymore. And for now, that was okay. "Are you hungry? You missed breakfast – let's go get you something for lunch." Dahlia obediently followed her mother to the kitchen.

It wasn't that Chloe forgot about the bedwetting incident – it was more like it fell to the back burner with Beca coming home. The brunette – still wearing a wig despite the fact that she'd grown in several inches of her own hair – was thrilled to be back home. Her homecoming was quiet; the three older girls were back in Georgia, as Beca had ordered them to be.

Beca had been home for only two days when she noticed what everyone else already knew; Dahlia had been quieter than usual for weeks. She was eating poorly and sleeping worse. Beca and Chloe were woken nightly by her screams and cries. She had three accidents in Beca's first week home. After the first in that line of accidents, Chloe told her wife that it had happened already. After a week of hoping it would go away on its own, she finally called Aubrey. "Hey – when Dahlia stayed with you – was she having a lot of nightmares?"

"I don't think so," Aubrey answered. "She was in the room right next to ours – so I think we would have heard."

"You would have," Beca assured her. "I don't know what to do – this week has been terrible. She's not getting enough sleep – she's not eating enough – she's barely talking.

"She went through a lot, seeing you as sick as you were," Aubrey reminded her gently. "She wasn't in a particularly stable place to begin with. Just give her time."

Beca had been home for one week and she was going insane – Chloe wouldn't allow her to do anything. Cassie was gone – with a large severance bonus – but a maid service had been employed – they came in three times a week to keep things spotless. But they were not doing laundry – so Beca picked up the basket in her closet and began walking toward the stairs, stopping at Dahlia's room on her way. She went into the little girl's closet to pick up the clothing from her hamper. She was surprised – when she lifted the mound of dresses, jeans, and school uniforms – to discover that all of Dahlia's dolls were in the bottom of the hamper. All of them – from the American Girl Doll she had cherished to the Barbie dolls and little dollhouse dolls. She left them there, but the sight never left her mind for the rest of the day.

She told Chloe about it later that night, while she was doing dishes. Beca, of course, was not allowed to touch a dish – she was simply standing against the counter, telling her wife what she had seen.

"Why were you doing laundry?" Chloe asked.

"That's not the point," Beca told her. "Don't you think that's a little weird?"

"Not really," Chloe told her. "Maybe she was looking for a place to put them – maybe she was pretending it was a place – who knows?"

"Have you seen her play with any of them lately? I don't remember seeing her bring any of them to the hospital."

"Do you think she outgrew them already?"

"No," Beca responded uncomfortably.

One month into her time at home, Beca carried a basket of flowers – a beautiful arrangement of tulips and roses and daisies her father had sent "just because" – to the back deck and set them on the table. Her eyes surveyed the yard and she caught sight of Dahlia sitting behind a tree toward the back of the space. Carefully, Beca made her way down the two other areas of the deck and ended up in the yard. She crossed the space to her daughter with relative ease. Her energy was picking back up, slowly but surely.

She slid to the ground next to the child, leaning down to drop a kiss on the top of her head. She noticed the flinch, however slight. It had been that way for several weeks now – since before she had returned home from her last – and longest – stay at the hospital. "Dahlia, love, you need to talk to me," she said calmly. She was met with silence. She grasped the little girl's chin in her hand and tilted it slightly so their eyes met. "Love, you are scaring me. You have two choices. You can talk to me – or we'll find someone else for you to talk to. But you have to start talking – we need to know what's wrong."

"I'm fine."

"I don't believe you," Beca responded. "Something is wrong. And you don't need to keep it to yourself."

"I can't tell you," she said softly, pulling away.

"You can tell me anything." Dahlia shook her head, not accepting Beca's assurances. "I need you to trust me. I can't help you if you don't tell what's upsetting you."

"You can't help. You can't make it not have happened," Dahlia said suddenly.

"Make what not have happened?" Beca asked softly, after waiting a sufficient length of time to realize that the child wasn't going to continue without prompting.

Dahlia had clearly been holding this in for a long time – her expression was screwed up with anger. "He put his fingers in there and it hurt – and you can't make that not happen – because it already happened." Her logic model, though simple, was flawless.

Beca felt her body seizing with panic. What in the hell was her daughter talking about? It couldn't possibly be what Beca was considering – because that was unthinkable. She took several shaky breaths before speaking.

"Who put fingers where?"

"Inside."

"Inside where?" Beca was fighting the panic – but she was losing. She knew her questions were getting shorter and she was trying to keep them light, not snappy.

"Me." The answer was short, simple, and confirmed all of her worst fears.

"Can you point for me and show me where?" Dahlia hesitated but did, indicating the space between her legs. Beca was going to throw up. Her stomach rolled and she tried to bite it back – that wouldn't help anything. She wrapped her arms around the young girl and dropped a kiss on her head. "Thank you for telling me, love. I am so sorry that happened to you."

It took most of her strength – but she eventually was able to turn Dahlia so she was sitting in her lap, facing her. "I need you to tell me who did that – so we can make sure they never, ever do it again."

"I don't want you to get mad."

"Dahlia, you didn't do anything wrong," Beca said firmly. "I am not going to be angry with you – I promise. Please, tell me."

She paused for several minutes, pondering her options, before finally whispering a name. "Andy."

Beca was certain her heart had fallen to the ground. Her mouth was zapped of all moisture – her stomach rolling again. This was not possible. Not fucking possible. Seeing her expression and seeing the anger radiating from it, Dahlia began to cry. Beca grabbed her just in time – before she had the chance to run away. She hugged the little girl to her. "It's okay," she promised. "I'm not mad. Not at you. It's okay. I'm so sorry, love. So, so sorry."

Dahlia fell asleep in Beca's arms. Beca sat there with her for a long time, not wanting to wake her – but knowing there was no way she could lift her. Eventually, she shook the child awake and pulled her to her feet, leading her back into the house. The child didn't argue when she was tucked directly into bed – the crying – and apparently revealing a secret – had exhausted her.

It was late afternoon when Dahlia was finally settled into bed, and Beca picked up her cell phone to call her wife – who was back at work. Chloe was in her classroom, just cleaning up and packing her bag to end her day.

"Hey, Bec, how are you?"

"Chloe, I need you to come home."

"Why? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Beca lied. "I just need to talk to you about something – it can't wait."

"Okay. I was going to dinner with Bree – but she'll understand. I'll be home in about half an hour. I'll see you then." Chloe hurried home, not at all believing that everything was fine. Beca was not usually dramatic – she did not beg Chloe to come home when it wasn't necessary.

"Where is Dahlia?" Chloe asked, coming home to find Beca waiting for her, sitting at the bottom of the stairs. Her wife stood, nodding up the stairs.

"Sleeping."

"Why?" Chloe asked, alarmed. "Is she sick? Coming down with something?"

"No,' Beca responded. "She cried herself out this afternoon and I gave her a Benedryl before putting her to bed."

"What?" Chloe snapped, angrily. They had never – ever – given their children drugs when they weren't needed. She was pretty sure drugging them to sleep was not something in their wheelhouse of acceptable parenting strategies.

"I didn't know what else to do," Beca admitted. "She was so distressed – and I figured a quick nap wasn't going to give us time to figure this out. Trust me, I'm not proud of it." She ran her hands through her hair – freaking herself out like usual because the sensations were all wrong with her hair as short as it was.

"Figure out what? What in the hell is that important, Beca?"

"Dahlia said that Andy molested her," she said, spitting it out before she could even think. Chloe's purse dropped to the floor with a clatter as her fingers released it unwittingly.

"Excuse me?" She asked, hoping – praying, that she had heard something horrifically wrong. Beca walked up to their bedroom and Chloe followed. The brunette sat on the sofa and explained – in detail – the conversation she'd had with Dahlia that afternoon.

Beca and Chloe paced the room – the brunette the far wall with windows and the redhead in front of their closet and bathroom. "What are we supposed to do?" Beca asked, her hands clasped atop her head.

"What if she's confused?"

"Chloe, it's not really hard to translate. She said he put his fingers inside her – and she pointed between her legs."

"But what if she got it from someone else? Maybe someone else at school is being abused and told her about it?"

"I don't think it works that way," Beca responded. "Dahlia is the one wetting the bed, waking up every night with nightmares, not eating. For fuck's sake – she was trying to tell us – she kept trying to refuse to go to the house with Aubrey and Jesse. But she was fine when they brought her here."

"What if it was someone from her past – from one of the foster homes – and she's just making the connection now?" It had crossed her mind – and Beca wanted to believe that was what it was. Because the alternative was devastating.

Stacie was slightly surprised to see Beca at her front door. They were close friends – and had been for years. But Beca didn't just stop by without warning – it almost never happened. And usually, when she needed Stacie – she called and asked her to come. So this was a bit unusual. The tall brunette had been settling in for the night – she had been curled in front of the television with a glass of wine and a blanket.

"Want one?" She asked Beca, holding up the glass of white wine.

"Do you have anything harder?" Beca asked. Stacie didn't show her surprise – she simply went into the kitchen and pulled a bottle of bourbon from the cabinet and poured a small glass, handing it to Beca. She poured her own and the walked back into the living room.

"Is there a reason for this?" Stacie asked, raising her glass as she sat back on the sofa; Beca sat facing her at the other end. Stacie curled her long legs into the center section of the sofa and pulled a blanket from the back, throwing it over both of them.

Beca knocked back the drink quickly and set the glass aside. Stacie raised her eyebrows and sipped from her own glass. "That's the only one you're getting – I know what medications you're still taking."

Beca closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths; she had no idea how to even start this conversation. But she knew no one else to go to. She and Chloe had no idea how to verify Dahlia's words – and while they didn't want to distrust their daughter, they also didn't want to act on something that could ruin the life of someone else without more information.

"Stacie – do you still do that pro-bono work at the clinic in the city?"

She nodded. "Twice a month. Why?"

"You said you get a lot of unsavory cases. A lot of little girls – "

"It's not a great neighborhood," Stacie agreed. "But that's why they need doctors who are willing to go down there. It's never been a problem for me – no one has ever made me worry for my safety. But some of the children who live in those neighborhoods aren't as lucky." She paused. "Why are we talking about this?"

"A long time ago, I remember you telling me that you were thinking of quitting – after a bunch of little girls came in and you realized that they'd all been molested or raped?"

"That was a few years ago. I have about 12 cases in one month – which was horrific. It's not always that bad – but it's definitely an epidemic in some areas. But it can happen in better neighborhoods too – it's just more likely that when parents are involved in drugs and prostitution, their kids are more likely to be victims of violence. Beca – what is going on?"

"How do you know they're telling the truth?"

Stacie's eyes darkened as she pieced together Beca's questions. Her heard began thudding in her chest. "I'm not answering another question until you tell me where this is coming from –what's going on?"

There was silence for several moments as the smaller brunette gathered her thoughts. Her friend allowed it; she knew as long as she waited, Beca would eventually speak. "Dahlia has been a little off lately," she began. Stacie nodded; she had noticed the child was quieter than usual. And Chloe told her offhandedly about the lack of appetite. "She's not eating – she's having nightmares more nights than not – she wet the bed like ten times in the past month." She sighed, leaning back to stare at the ceiling. The ceiling couldn't stare back – it was easier. "So today, I saw that she was being sort of mopey – so I cornered her and made her talk to me."

There was a long silence again. This time, Stacie prodded. "What did she say, Beca?" The shorter woman sat up and looked at her friend.

"She told me that Andy put his fingers inside of her. Multiple times."

"Did she say what she meant by inside?" She knew it was a long shot – but there were other explanations, maybe.

"I asked, and she pointed between her legs." Stacie's fingers rose to rub at her temples.

"You don't mean Andy – as in Andy Swanson?" Beca nodded morosely. Stacie closed her eyes and shook her head. "You really can't have this kind of stress right now. This is not good."

"I don't think I really have a choice," Beca responded. "She's a mess – what am I supposed to do? Do I take her word for it? What if she's confused? Is it possible that it happened while she was in foster care? And she's just remembering now? Do I tell Aubey and Jesse? Do I call the police? Do I ask her for more information? I don't know what to do," she said finally.

Stacie ran her hands through her hair and then held on tightly to the dark strands, pulling them just a bit to release a bit of tension. "Beca - " Stacie was having a meltdown inside her head – but she knew that would be the opposite of helpful in this situation. Finally, she stood and went to the kitchen. She came back with a small book and her cell phone. She looked through her phone first, sending Beca two contacts.

"Those are child psychologists. I've worked with them both before – I trust them. They can speak with Dahlia and give you an idea if there's any possibility that she's confused. It they both conclude - separately - that she's cognizant and something really happened – then make an appointment with Dr. Greyson. She's a pediatric gynecologist."

"They have those?"

"We live in a disturbing world," Stacie told her. She set aside the items and looked sympathetically at Beca.

"What do you think?" Beca needed to know – she needed to know what the chances were that this was real. She didn't want to not trust her daughter, but at the same time – she needed Dahlia to be wrong. Somehow, she needed the child to be mistaken or confused or even lying.

She shrugged. "The things you mentioned can by symptoms – but they can be symptoms of other things too. It's better not to jump to any conclusions until you visit with the psychologists. They know what to look for – they're trained in how to figure out what happened without leading her."

They talked for another few hours – and Beca kept circling back to the fact that she didn't know what to do. Stacie tried to reassure her – but there was little to say that would make her feel better. Eventually, the taller brunette told her to go home. And although she was terrified of what awaited her that night and in the coming days, Beca did.


Chapter Text

Chapter 16 – The World to Find Out

"I wanna be strong-
I want the world to find out
That you're dreamin' on me,
Me and my beauty"

~ Spring Awakening, "The Dark I Know Well"

Stacie had made phone calls, so when Beca called in the morning to make appointments, both doctors had upcoming openings for her. That next day – a Wednesday – they kept Dahlia home from school and Chloe stayed home from work. The appointment was early, so they didn't have much time to panic. Dahlia knew she wasn't going to school, but that was all.

"Where are we going?" Dahlia asked, using her fork to play with her breakfast.

"Please eat that," Chloe told her, looking at the omelet. "We're going to talk to a nice lady. You'll like her."

"Why are we going?"

"We need to talk about some things," Chloe responded evasively. Beca didn't appreciate not telling their children the whole truth – that had never been their style – but she knew that giving Dahlia too much information was just going to upset her – and probably make them late for the appointment.

They didn't want her to be too surprised – or upset – so Beca began to explain where they were going once they were in the car. "Dahlia, we're going to talk to a woman who is a doctor – but a doctor that helps people with their feelings."

"Mama, I know what a therapist is," Dahlia said sullenly.

"Well okay," Beca said, looking at Chloe with an expression of surprise. "We're going to see one."

"Why?" Dahlia asked, trying her best not to sound whiny; it was not successful.

"Do you remember what we talked about on Monday afternoon? We need to talk more about that. Dr. Adams is going to help." Dahlia said nothing, but slumped down against her booster seat, her eyes fixed on the window. She didn't say another word to her mothers during the drive.

Dr. Adams had a beautiful office that was bright and sunny – and there was clearly an attempt to make children feel welcome. The colors were bright, toys and books were crammed neatly into every corner of the waiting room. There were small chairs and large chairs scattered throughout. But there was no time to check out the waiting room – they were the woman's first appointment of the day, so she was waiting for them.

She smiled bright and introduced herself. "Dahlia, it's so nice to meet you," she said with a smile. "My name is Dr. Adams." Dahlia said nothing, simply stared at her. "I would like to speak with your moms – do you think you'd like to go play with Darcy while I do that?" Another woman – this one younger – probably another psychologist or possibly an intern – smiled at Dahlia from one of the doorways. Beca and Chloe could see that there was a playroom behind her.

Dahlia looked up at Beca and Chloe, who both nodded and smiled. "Go ahead, love," Beca told her. "We'll just be in the next room."

Dahlia followed Darcy into the playroom and Chloe and Beca trailed Dr. Adams into a more traditional therapist's office. There was comfortable seating, a few end tables and lamps, and several throw-pillows. Beca pulled one into her lap as she sat on the edge of the sofa. Chloe sat next to her and the psychologist pulled up a wheeled desk chair.

"You mentioned over the phone that you thought Dahlia was molested?" The woman asked, getting straight to the point.

Beca nodded, her fingers clenching and unclenching in her lap, over the pillow. She explained what Dahlia had told her.

"What made you ask? How had her behavior changed lately?"

Chloe and Beca both filled her in on the bedwetting, the nightmares, and sullen silences, and the lack of appetite. Beca thought about the dolls and added that too. The told her about how Dahlia had spent quite a bit of time staying overnight with the Swanson's during Beca's treatments and hospitalizations.

"She's eight?" They nodded. "It's possible that it's attention seeking behavior – but not extremely likely at that age. I'm going to spend some time with her today – and see if I can make a determination on the reality of the situation." Beca and Chloe waited for almost two hours until the doctor called them back into her office. She had met with Dahlia in the playroom and the little girl was still in there; they could see her through the cracked-open door. She was sitting at a low table, coloring something.

The doctor's expression gave away her thoughts almost immediately. "I don't have a doubt that it happened," the woman said sadly. "Dahlia is very intelligent – and although she's emotional about this incident – she is not confused. She's old enough to remember. And from what she's told me, you've created a space where she feels like she can talk about it – which is good. A lot of children put in mental blocks because they don't feel like they have anywhere to turn."

"What should we do?" Beca asked.

"Let her bring it up," the doctor said. "And when she does – don't be afraid to talk about it. She knows that what he did was wrong – but she doesn't quite understand why. And at her age, that might be okay." She paused. "I know you're going to get multiple opinions – and I respect that. It's always a good idea when dealing with something so serious. Once you've done that, if you would like me to continue on as Dahlia's regular therapist – I would be happy to do so. She's a lovely child."

"Do you think that's necessary?" Chloe asked nervously. "For her to keep going through therapy?"

"At least for a little while –" the doctor said with a nod. "The symptoms you mentioned may go away now that she's not keeping a secret from you. But they may not – it may take time and therapy." Beca and Chloe thanked her and picked up Dahlia from the playroom. She didn't say much, but she also didn't look terribly upset – and for that both mothers were thankful. Two days later, they took her to a second therapist who said almost the exact same thing.

Beca knew they were pushing their luck – but she wanted to be as certain as she could before they acted on this information. So she made a third appointment the following Monday. Dahlia was annoyed.

"I don't want to talk to anyone else," Dahlia whined that morning, her arms folded against her chest and a scowl evident in her expression. "I should have never said anything," she said crossly.

"Dahlia, you definitely should have. You did the right thing," Beca told her. "I'm sorry we keep doing this. I promise, this is the last one." She fixed the child's hair and helped her out of her pajamas and into a small black dress with white polka dots. She let Beca help her pull on the white stockings and then went to the closet to find her favorite pair of black dress shoes. The third appointment was almost identical to the first two – except it ended in Dahlia crying. That left all three of them distraught.

Chloe drove home and Beca sat in the back, holding the little girl. "I'm so sorry, love."

"I don't want to talk about it anymore," Dahlia told her.

"I can't promise that," Beca responded, kissing her temple. "But we can take a break, okay?"

After meeting with the three psychologists – and hearing each one report back with the same thing, Beca called with an extremely heavy heart and made an appointment with Dr. Emma Grayson – the pediatric gynecologist located at Children's hospital. Both mothers were panicked the day before the appointment and Beca knew that was going to affect Dahlia – so she called the one person she knew who could hold it together for this – Stacie. The generous and doting aunt took off a day of work and accompanied them to the appointment. She sat with Dahlia in the waiting room while Chloe and Beca spoke with the doctor. After seeing how tense both mothers were, and knowing that Stacie was with them (and who she was), the doctor suggested that they wait outside during the exam. Chloe was alarmed by the suggestion – but Beca knew it would be easier for Dahlia not to have them hovering. In some ways, they were taking this much worse than she was.

Beca walked back over to Dahlia and Stacie and knelt in front of her daughter. "Dahlia – Dr. Grayson is the doctor you're going to see today. Is it okay if Aunt Stacie takes you in? Mommy and I will be right out here if you need us. But I know you'll be just fine with Aunt Stacie."

"If you'd rather we come with you, that's fine too," Chloe added.

Dahlia looked up at the dark-haired beauty who had her arms wrapped around her; they had been snuggled together reading a book. "Will you stay the whole time?"

"Of course," Stacie agreed. "It won't take long, kiddo." She stood and held out her hand, waiting for Dahlia to take it. They walked over to Dr. Grayson, who was still standing in the doorway. The blonde woman – about the same age as Stacie and Beca – bent down to offer her hand to Dahlia.

"Hello, Miss Dahlia. I'm Dr. Grayson. It's nice to meet you."

"You too," Dahlia said graciously. She didn't mean it – but she was nothing if not a polite child.

"Who do you have with you today?"

"Aunt Stacie."

Dr. Grayson smiled at the little girl and then stood straight again, offering her hand to Stacie. "Dr. Conrad – it's nice to meet you in person. Your reputation precedes you."

"It always has," she chirped. "For better reasons, now though." She winked at Dahlia, who giggled – despite having no idea what she was talking about. Beca rolled her eyes at the other brunette. The doctor took them back to one of the exam rooms. It was painted like a rain forest. Dahlia started having second thoughts, but Stacie had a firm, reassuring grip on her hand.

"Dahlia, can you jump up on the table for me?" The little girl, holding Stacie's hand for leverage, used the colorful plastic step stool to climb up onto the exam table. The doctor closed the door behind her and pulled over her stool.

She asked questions – starting with easy things and conversational things. What did Dahlia like to do outside of school? What was her favorite book? Her favorite movie? Finally, she dove into the topic at hand. "Dahlia, do you know why your moms brought you here today?"

"Because of what Andy did," Dahlia said, her cheeks flushing.

Dr. Grayson nodded. "Yes. Can you tell me what he did?"

Dahlia looked up at Stacie, her young eyes filled with annoyance. "I told Mama I didn't want to talk about this anymore."

Stacie frowned sympathetically. "I know, sweetie. But Dr. Grayson needs to make sure that when Andy touched you – he didn't hurt you permanently."

"Can you just tell me what he did that hurt you?" the doctor asked, trying to change tactics.

"He put his fingers inside – " Dahlia said, turning red. "Where he wasn't supposed to. Inside me. And he pushed them back and forth and it hurt."

"I'm so sorry," the doctor responded. "Can you tell me how many fingers he used?"

"One or two," Dahlia said. "One time it was three. That was bad." Tears were streaming down her cheeks and Stacie wanted very badly to punch something – anything. She took a deep breath and held back her own anger.

Dr. Grayson nodded sympathetically. "I'm so sorry that happened to you. Can I take a look at where he touched – to make sure he didn't hurt you?"

"It did hurt."

"We know it hurt at the time. Dr. Grayson wants to make sure you aren't still hurt, sweet pea," Stacie clarified. "Is that okay?"

"Do I have to?"

"No," Stacie responded firmly. "We can leave whenever you need to. But Dr. Grayson isn't going to hurt you – she just wants to help make sure you feel better as soon as possible."

"Okay," Dahlia finally said, softly.

The doctor stood and smiled gently. "I'm going to go right outside – can you do me a favor and take off your stockings and underwear? And then I'll come back in and I'd do the exam – really fast – and we'll get it over with so you can go home."

Dahlia nodded. Once she was gone, Stacie helped her stand up and she quickly removed the stockings and underwear she wore beneath her dress. When Dr. Grayson came back into the room, she told Dahlia what she was going to do.

"I'm going to have you lay down – and then we'll pull your feet apart so I can see your vagina. I'm going to look – and then I have to put this little device inside so I can see more - and make sure nothing is wrong in there. And then I might have to put my finger inside - just to feel around and make sure there aren't any cuts or anything like that. Is that okay?" Dahlia looked uncertainly at Stacie, who understood exactly what she was thinking. Dr. Grayson sat on her stool and pulled it to the end of the table.

"It might feel a little strange," Stacie told her. "But it shouldn't hurt. If it does, you tell us right away and Dr. Grayson will stop, okay?" Dahlia nodded. She lay back against the table and Stacie moved to her side, standing to face her. She held the little girl's hands in her own and leaned down to kiss her temple. "You are being so brave," she said softly. "It's almost done," she promised.

Dr. Grayson did the exam quickly, warning Dahlia when something would be cold or would feel different. When the exam was over, Dr. Grayson covered her tools with a towel and lifted Dahlia's feet from the tiny stirrups. Stacie helped her sit up.

"Dahlia, you did a great job today," the doctor told her with a kind smile. "Everything looks okay. I know what happened was bad – but the good news is that it didn't leave anything that will hurt you later." Dahlia wasn't sure she understood that statement - but she was happy it was over, so she nodded.

Stacie helped her clean up and step back into her panties and tights. "Why is it okay when the doctor does what he did?" She asked. It was a not a question that surprised the woman.

"When Dr. Grayson put her finger inside you – it was to examine you and make sure you were not hurt. Andy is not a doctor – and he was not trying to help you when he put his fingers there. Does that make sense?" Dahlia nodded.

Stacie knelt down to meet her eyes. "Dahlia, you are being so brave. I know this is really hard – and not fun at all. But you are doing great. It's going to get better," she promised. Dahlia hugged her, her arms wrapped around Stacie's shoulders. When they returned to the waiting room, Beca and Chloe had already conversed with the doctor - who was the fourth person to confirm that Dahlia had been molested. This time they knew there was scaring. It could have indicated a number of things, but Dr. Grayson thought the scars were fresh enough to have been caused in the past few months. Beca and Chloe were more than ready to leave when Stacie and Dahlia appeared.

They didn't wait long to act. Now that they knew it had happened – they were certain Dahlia was not confused – they needed to move forward. Hours of conversations – countless sleepless nights – but they had made their decision. They couldn't let it go. It wasn't fair to Dahlia – and it wasn't fair to any other little girl that Andy might decide someday to violate in the same manner.

That night, Stacie agreed to stay with Dahlia while Chloe and Beca tried to break the news to Aubrey and Jesse. Beca felt her throat closing up as she watched Aubrey pour wine. This was a bad idea. They should be somewhere neutral – somewhere without alcohol. But they were sitting in the Swanson's living room, clutching full glasses of Reisling. Beca set hers aside. Her eyes searched the room for clues – had it happened here? Where had Aubrey been? And Jesse? Had he been in his office working on his soundtracks? Or had he been out of the house completely?

"What's going on?" Aubrey said as she sat next to Jesse. "You both look like you need the hard stuff. I have a bottle of Jack in the freezer, I think."

"That's okay," Chloe said with a shake of her head.

"We have to tell you about something – and it's going to change everything. And we don't want to even believe it's true – but we don't a choice."

"Bec, what is this about?" Jesse looked worried now.

"Dahlia has been having nightmares," Beca started. "And wetting the bed – and not eating – and barely speaking. She doesn't want to be touched – and flinches when sometime tries – even me and Chloe. It's all happened in the few weeks that I've been home from the hospital."

"It started before then," Chloe added. "At least somewhat – ever since Beca went into the hospital. When I was spending most of my time there. She had a few temper tantrums - and some other things that were out of character for her."

"The poor thing," Aubrey said sympathetically.

Beca continued – knowing she needed to spit it out in one thought or she never would. "I finally dragged out of her what was wrong –and she said that someone molested her. She said it was Andy." No one at the table spoke. Ten minutes had gone by before any of them would even look at each other.

"I can't believe you think Andy could do this," Aubrey said finally, her voice shaking. "He's a good boy."

"She has to be mistaken," Jesse said, looking sympathetic. "Bec, Chloe – you don't know what she went through in those foster homes over the years. Now that she's somewhere safe, it's probably all sinking in."

Chloe nodded. "We were thinking along those lines. Because we just didn't think it was possible."

"We took her to four different doctors – three child psychologists and a pediatric gynecologist – each one of them independently stated that it was recent. Within the past few months. And that Dahlia is upset – but not confused. She's old enough to be lucid. None of them believe that she is confusing now with something in her past."

"What do you expect us to do?" Aubrey demanded. "We're sorry that Dahlia has problems – you two are more than generous to take her in – but we are not taking her word for this and accusing our son. Your godson," she said, glaring at Beca, "of this kind of heinous act."

"I don't know what the answer is," Beca admitted quietly. "But we had to say something." Aubrey's eyes burned with anger and Jesse looked sad and broken. Chloe was trying to keep her crying quiet – she was terrible at that.

"Are you calling the police?" Jesse asked quietly. His eyes met Beca's.

She nodded, feeling sick inside. This was her best friend - and her actions - no matter how right - were tearing his world apart. "We don't have a choice," she said, choking on her tears. "It's not fair to Dahlia. And if he did it with her - what about other children? People don't stop once they start that kind of thing."

Jesse nodded, looking horrified and contemplative. Without any more conversation, Aubrey and Jesse followed Chloe and Beca uncomfortably to the front hallway to see them out.

Chloe and Beca were shrugging into their jackets, tears streaming down both their cheeks, when the front door opened. All four adults were faced with one teen – Andy. The almost-18-year-old was coming in from some outing with his friends. "Hey, guys," he said easily. He took in the expressions on everyone's faces and his fell. He looked from Beca's accusing eyes to Jesse's pleading ones.

He looked to the stairs, clearly calculating his ability to run. One more look at his father and he began to back away and then stutter. "I-I-I-I'm s-s-s-orry," he said, eyes falling to the floor. Beca and Chloe froze; was it really that easy? Was he really admitting to it?

"You seriously put your hands on that little girl?" Jesse's voice sound like nothing they had ever heard before. Andy said nothing, his eyes still fixed on the carpet. Jesse flew at his son, hitting him with a strong right hook. He shoved him up against the door. "How could you do that? You coward! A little girl? What the hell is wrong with you?"

Aubrey had crumpled to the ground. Chloe knelt with her, holding her up as best she could. Beca watched Jesse continue to punch his son, vaguely thinking that she should stop him. There was blood - and Jesse didn't look interested in stopping. Ben came in then from the kitchen - he had also just gotten home. He started yelling. "Hey! Hey! What the hell is going on?" He got in between his father and his brother. He was ten months younger than Andy but he was a soccer player – and a fairly strong one at that. He was able to get – and keep – them apart. His eyes raked from Aubrey crying in the middle of the foyer to Beca looking dazed – almost drugged – by the stairs. "What is going on?" He repeated.

"Nothing," Jesse said, "Take your brother upstairs – and make sure he stays in his room. We'll be up soon to talk." Ben looked ready to argue, but his father seemed so defeated that he didn't. Instead, he took Andy by the arm and helped him up the stairs.

"I'm gonna go call our lawyer," Jesse said to Beca. "I – um. I just – I don't even know, Bec. I don't know what's going on. This is insane."

She nodded, her eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Jesse."

"You didn't do this," he answered, drawing himself up straighter. Beca wished it were that simple, but she knew something had just shattered. He went over to his wife and pulled her to her feet. Chloe and Beca left, feeling worse than they had before. But it was done – and there was something to be said for moving forward.

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 17 – On Your Side

"We're gonna push on through, pretty girl
Just like we always do, beautiful girl
I know the world can be cruel, pretty girl
You're gonna make it 'cause you got love on your side-"

~ Sarah McLachlan

Bella sighed with relief as she finished the last paper she needed in order to catch up with her classes. She wasn't sure it was the best work she'd ever completed, but she was relieved to be finally on schedule with the syllabi for her five classes. It had taken weeks of extra homework, make-up tests, and late nights at the library. She had no idea why Poppy didn't seem as busy with school work – but she knew that the trip home earlier that year had made her own semester seem at least three times as stressful as the first had been.

She moved to her bed, pulled on her headphones, and picked up a book. She got in about ten minutes of reading when Poppy burst through the door. It slammed behind her, startling her sister.

"I just got off the phone with Ben," Poppy said, eyes wide. She had run into the room; Poppy didn't usually run anywhere unless she was actively intending to exercise. She was out of breath and her skin was abnormally pale. Bella sat up, removing her headphones and setting aside her book. Her eyes widened a bit as she studied her sister.

"What's wrong?"

Poppy didn't try to ease into it. She sat on her bed and blurted out the words quickly. "Andy hurt Dahlia."

"My God," Bella whispered, falling back against her bed, closing her eyes tightly against the day. The frozen feeling only lasted for seconds. She was up and gone before Poppy could argue. Panic, anger, and other emotions that she didn't even recognize washed over her as she ran from the building. Bella had no idea where she was going – she just walked. Tears running down her cheeks, she stopped twice to throw up behind a few unfortunate bushes. Her stomach settled after that. The evening turned into night and the night grew darker and she realized she was far from her dorm – close to the edge of campus. She was about to turn back when she found herself in front of the Bellas' house. She had no intention of stopping – but Alexis was outside, sitting on the porch, and had caught sight of her. What Bella didn't know was that Poppy had texted Alexis - somehow knowing more than even Bella herself where she would end up.

The taller brunette stood, leaving the blanket that had been covering her on the swing. There was a book sitting next to where she had been. She walked down the stairs and up the sidewalk, ending up a few inches from Bella. "What's wrong?"

"I – " Bella couldn't even admit to herself what was wrong – how could she tell someone she had known for only a few months? "I – I can't talk about it. I don't know what I'm doing here. I'm sorry." She began to turn away when Alexis reached out and stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"Come inside," she said softly. "I'll make you a cup of tea – and then I'll drive you back to your dorm. It's getting late." Alexis, although only a sophomore, radiated command. One glance at the girls in the house cleared the kitchen and living room, giving them privacy. Once she was sitting in the empty kitchen with her hands wrapped around a warm mug of herbal tea, Bella couldn't fight her tears.

They were silent for a long time – the smaller girl's tears the only sound.

Alexis broke into the silence. "I'm sorry, Bells. Can I tell Poppy you're here? She's been texting me for over an hour - she doesn't know where you are - she thought you might have ended up here."

Bella nodded miserably. "That's fine." Alexis sent the text and tucked her phone away, rejoining Bella in silence. Eventually, the crying teen began to speak.

"When I was little – something bad happened. I can't tell you what happened – but it was – it was just – bad. It happened to me – and both my sisters. We thought it was over – but now it happened to Dahlia. She was supposed to be safe," she said, tears springing to her eyes. She looked absolutely crushed when she met Alexis' eyes. "We promised her. When they adopted her, I told her that she was safe there."

"Oh, sweetie. You thought she was. That is not your fault," Alexis told her firmly. "I don't know details – but I can promise you that there is no way that whatever happened – all those years ago – or now – is or was your fault. It's just not possible."

"It is," Bella insisted. "If we had told – someone. Anyone. It wouldn't have happened. She wouldn't have gotten hurt. It was selfish."

"I know I've only known you for a few months," Alexis admitted. "But I've never seen you do a selfish thing. And we're college students; we're supposed to be selfish. So I really doubt that. I'm making an educated guess that you're probably being too hard on yourself."

Bella shook her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. She sat with Alexis for a long time, letting the older girl distract her with odd topics of conversation. Occasionally she would break down again and Alexis would hug her or stoke her hair and offer whatever words of reassurance she could muster. She fell asleep for a bit and woke at six in the morning on the sofa, her head in Alexis' lap. The older girl woke as soon as Bella sat up.

"Sorry," she whispered.

"That's okay," Alexis said, rubbing her eyes. "I actually don't know how I fell asleep in that position." She peered over at Bella.

"Are you feeling any better?" Bella shook her head. Alexis sighed. "What can I do?"

Bella looked at her in surprise. "Nothing. Thank you for listening – and. Well. You know."

Alexis bit back a laugh at Bella's awkward thanks. "Okay – what are you doing today?"

"I have to find Poppy and Vera and talk to them – then, I don't know."

"You only slept for like three hours, so how about coffee first?" Bella nodded and followed Alexis into the kitchen. She was given not only coffee, but also breakfast. And Alexis made her eat it.

"You are not my mother," Bella told her sternly.

"No, but I have her number," Alexis responded. Bella glared and the older girl laughed. "Stop glaring and just eat – we both know you'll probably forget for the rest of the day." It was true – the coming conversations were not going to be easy.

Alexis walked her back toward her dorm. Bella didn't really know how it happened; she had no idea who initiated or who leaned in a little too close. But one minute, she was accepting a hug from Alexis – and the next, they were kissing. Her head lightened and everything buzzed a bit, causing her heart to feel like it was fluttering. She pulled away – but only after she realized that she wasn't breathing properly anymore. "I'm sorry," she said, her fingers raising to rest on her lips. Her eyes were still filled with tears. "I'm so sorry. I can't—" She disappeared into the building before Alexis, who was also a little dazed and surprised, could do anything to stop her.

When Bella crashed into her room, it was empty. Poppy had probably stayed with the Applebaums or with Aria. She was thankful for that. She took a shower – as hot as she could stand it – and tried to clear her head. By the time she had finished, her decision was made. She checked the app on her phone – that was connected to the other family phones – and located both of her sisters. They were in the music building vicinity - which she knew meant that they were in one of the music practice rooms that Vera had practically been living in these days. She didn't knock – she simply barged in.

Bella knew she was a sight – her eyes still rimmed with red and her hair damp from the shower. Her skin was angry and blotchy from the heat of the water. Her harried brain wasn't even positive she had acceptable clothing on for traipsing across campus.

"We have to tell them," Bella said shakily, the moment the door closed behind her. Both redheads stared up at her. Vera was sitting on the piano bench and Poppy on a folding chair facing her. Vera's eyes were bloodshot, her skin pale, and her cheeks tears-stained – she had been crying too.

"What good is that possibly going to do?" Poppy asked, flustered enough that her cheeks were flushed and her hands clammy as they clutched her skirt.

"So, we let an eight year old suffer alone because we're afraid?" Bella shot back. "Our silence has already done this to her."

"She has mom and mama. She'll be fine. We don't need to drag ourselves into this – it will just make it messier."

"Right now – it is Dahlia's word against Andy's. She's eight years old," Bella said sternly. "We can't let her do this alone." Both twins looked at Vera, expecting her to side with them. She shook her head. Finally, she looked at Poppy apologetically.

"Bella's right," She whispered.

Poppy was angry and scared – so she did what was most comfortable – she took control. She told Vera and Bella to meet her at the Applebaum's house at 10 that night and told them that they would call Chloe and Beca then. The other two sisters agreed, knowing that it was useless to try to negotiate with a bossy Poppy.

Beca and Chloe sat beside one another on the bed and accepted the FaceTime from Poppy. To their surprise – all three girls were on the other end. Beca could see from the background that they were in Vera's room at Emily's house.

"What's up, girls?" Chloe asked, thinking they were probably going to ask for something. It was one of the things that bonded them as sisters – asking their parents for things they knew they shouldn't.

Bella looked uncomfortable. She was sitting between the two other girls, not particularly looking at anything. It was Poppy who finally spoke, after glaring sideways at her twin. "Ben called me," Poppy told them. "He told us what happened – "

"He shouldn't have done that," Beca responded. Her hands flew to her hair. It was growing back in and was her normal color – minus the gray for now, which made her very happy – but it was still shorter than she had kept it before the cancer. And she looked taken aback every time her fingers ran through it and finished too quickly. "We were going to tell you when you got home. This is not something you can tell other people – this is private – "

"Mama, we know," Vera said, stopping her. "We didn't even tell Aunt Em. And she's like a hunting dog when it comes to a secret."

Beca wanted to laugh at the description, but she wasn't sure she remembered how to laugh anymore.

"We're really sorry about what happened to Dahlia," Bella said, still not looking at the screen. Her voice was filled with anger. Out of view of the camera, her mothers could tell that Poppy had reached over to grab her hand and squeeze it. The redhead looked away from her twin and back to her mothers.

"Mom, Mama. We should have said something. If we thought he was going to do it again, we would have – but we thought he was more into girls his own age. We thought it was safe now – "

Beca's eyes widened. "Wait. What? Again? What are you saying?" She felt Chloe collapse against her shoulder, tears wetting her pajama top. She already suspected what Beca refused to believe.

Poppy worried her lip between her teeth, saying nothing. Vera stared at her hands – or the keyboard – they didn't know for sure. It was Bella who finally looked into the camera and spoke to her mother.

"Mama, we didn't know it was wrong at the time. Andy always wanted to play these games – and it seemed silly and stupid – we were just kids. We were like 7 or 8 the first time he – you know – went that far."

"Oh my god," Beca moaned, her face falling to her hands. Her world was shattering more than she thought possible. Wasn't it bad enough before? Did they have to suffer this too? When her face emerged from her hands, she blinked away a few tears and hastily wiped away those on her cheeks. She made eye contact with Bella – or what sufficed for it on video chat. "What was too far?"

"You know," Bella said tiredly. "Mama – "

"Just his fingers," Poppy said weakly. Beca's stomach turned at the word "just" – as though that made it okay.

Beca choked on the sobs and nausea she was trying to fight. Chloe was out for the count – still crying morosely. "How many times did it happen?"

"A lot," Poppy said softly – "for about two years. Until he touched Vera. Bella kneed him so hard that one of his testicles – you know - ascended. You knew that happened."

"We knew it had happened," Beca agreed, taking a shaky breath. "He told Aubrey and Jesse it was an accident – riding his bike, I think was the story." The Swanson parents had been worried for weeks at the time – waiting for it to drop again and hoping he wouldn't have permanent damage. She looked at the younger twin. "Good job." Bella shook her head. Tears were now silently sliding down her cheeks. She knocked them away angrily with her fingers.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Chloe asked, her face appearing for the first time since the conversation had begun. She was red and blotchy from crying. She looked so immensely sad that Beca wanted to focus on nothing but her – but they had three daughters dangling on a precipice before them.

"At first, we didn't think anything was wrong," Poppy explained. "Then, it was embarrassing. And later, it was still embarrassing - and we didn't want to cause problems for Aunt Aubrey and Uncle Jesse. And Ben. They didn't do anything wrong."

Beca shook her head. "No, they didn't."

"We know that if we would have said something – nothing would have happened to Dahlia," Bella responded angrily. "We know we screwed up."

"That is not your fault!" Beca exclaimed angrily. "Andy is the only person responsible for what happened." They talked for a long time, Beca prodding gently for more information. Chloe eventually left the room, unable to control her tears. Toward the end of the conversation, they had decided that the girls would come home. They needed to be home – and if they were going to backup Dahlia's accusations, they would need to speak with the police. And Beca needed them home - desperately. She wouldn't have any peace until she could hold each of them in her arms.

"Loves, do me a favor – stay with Aunt Em tonight?" Bella and Poppy nodded. "I'll send tickets for sometime tomorrow. Will you be alright making the trip on your own?"

All three girls nodded. "Okay – email your professors. I'll text you as soon as the tickets are purchased – You can call me if you need to talk – I don't care what time it is." They all exchanged "I Love Yous" and ended the call.

Beca wandered into Dahlia's room and found the little girl already in bed, despite it being a solid hour before her bedtime. She crawled under the covers next to her youngest and propped herself on one elbow so she could look down at her. "How are you doing, love?"

"I wish I hadn't said anything," Dahlia said softly.

"Please don't say that," Beca told her. She took Dahlia's hand and brought it to her lips, kissing it gently. "You saying something was incredibly brave. So, so brave, my love. It was the right thing to do. I know it's really scary right now – but it will work out. I promise."

"Mommy cries all the time since I told."

"She's just upset," Beca said soothingly. "She'll calm down. And you didn't make her upset – what happened to you did." Dahlia didn't see the difference – but saying so would lead to more of Beca trying to convince her that she'd done nothing wrong – so she simply said nothing.

"Mommy said we have to go back to the therapist- and I have to pick one."

"We do have to go back," she acknowledged, brushing hair back from Dahlia's face. "And if you're okay with one of the three we already met – then you can pick. If not, we'll try someone else. It can take time to find the right person."

"I don't want to talk about it anymore," Dahlia informed her.

"I know, love. But you need to. No one can help you if what's upsetting you is a secret. It's not healthy to keep things all inside." She knew it was ironic – and probably hypocritical for her to say such things – but she wanted better for her children than she'd had for herself. She didn't want them keeping people at arm's length just because if felt safer.

They were silent for a long time. Dahlia played with Beca's scarf and necklace and Beca rubbed her back and stroked her hair. After a time, Dahlia spoke again. "Why do people do that?"

"Do what, love?"

"What Andy did? I know its bad – and it hurt. I never hurt him – why did he hurt me?" Beca closed her eyes and leaned forward to press a kiss to Dahlia's forehead. She desperately needed the time to think. It was not the first time in her life that she had wished that parenting came with a pause button. She had no idea what to say.

"Sometimes, people do bad things because it makes them feel good. I think that's what happened with Andy – I think it made him feel good, even though it hurt you."

"I would never hurt someone else to feel good."

"I know. That is because you are a wonderful, kind person. And I wish the world had a lot more people like you." There was another tense pause before Dahlia spoke again.

"Mommy said we have to talk to the police tomorrow morning." Clearly, Dahlia and Chloe had quite the conversation while Beca was showering earlier that evening.

"We do," Beca told her. Her fingers resumed stroking Dahlia's hair and moved to rubbing her scalp, lulling her into a calmer place. "But it's nothing to worry about. All you have to do is tell the truth about what happened – and then we'll come home again. Nothing to worry about."


The next morning, Bella sat alone on Emily's porch, waiting for her sisters to finish packing. Alexis appeared out of nowhere. She sat next to the smaller brunette. "Suitcase?" She asked, looking at the black bag at her feet.

"We have to go home for a few weeks," Bella said hollowly. "Family emergency."

"Will you be back before the end of the semester?"

"I don't know," Bella answered. "You should probably write us out of the ICCA championship." They had won the semi-finals the weekend before.

"We'll see what happens," Alexis told her. "Is your mom okay?"

"Mama's fine," Bella assured her. "Thank you," she added softly. "It's not the cancer –." She paused, and tension hung in the air, the smaller girl waiting to be questioned.

"I'm not going to push," Alexis promised. "But you know you can talk to me, right?" Bella nodded. "Are you okay with what happened the other day? I know it was surprising. It was sort of out of nowhere – and I don't want you to feel uncomfortable. It will never happen again, if you don't want it to."

Bella turned to look at her, expression unreadable. Her voice was calm and hollow as she spoke. "I'm sorry. It's not you. If I could be with someone – if I could handle it – it would be you."

"I have time to wait," Alexis said softly. "I'm not giving up on you, Bella."

"You deserve better than having to wait. Because I can't imagine it won't be a long time. I don't want you to wait."

"It's a good thing I don't need your permission," Alexis said softly. "I'll be here. Good luck at home – and call me if you need anything. Even just to talk." She left before Bella could argue, thank her, or really even process the conversation.

In California, the trip to the police station was charged with tension, but Dahlia did well. She didn't cry – mostly because Beca made Chloe wait in the hallway. An officer led her to an observation room so that she could hear what was being said, but she could sob in peace – and Dahlia was none the wiser. When they arrived home, it was barely ten in the morning. Chloe took Dahlia upstairs to nap while Beca moved quickly through her phone, answering emails.

Beca was extremely surprised to open the door and find Jesse and Aubrey standing at the threshold. It was unnerving simply because they hadn't spoken since their last meeting had ended with Jesse punching his son – and previous to that, the Swansons had come as they pleased – they had a key. She stepped aside. "Come on in," she said. They did and she turned to the stairs. "Chloe! Come down here, please."

She walked into the living room and the two old friends followed. She turned to them. "Can I get you a drink?"

Aubrey shook her head – Jesse didn't respond. They both looked more broken than Beca had ever seen them. She knew how she felt inside – she couldn't imagine their current states of mind and emotion.

"We won't stay long," Aubrey said, her voice cold and detached. Chloe appeared and looked just as surprised as Beca felt; her first instinct was to run to hug Aubrey – but the blonde held her off with a blank look.

"You're always welcome here," Beca said softly. It was true in her heart, but she knew it might never again be in practice.

Aubrey said nothing but pursed her lips.

Jesse cleared his throat. "Ben told us last night about the other girls – apparently he's known about this for years – Poppy told him when they were about 12 - after it had stopped. He beat up Andy at the time – and then let it go."

"Poppy told us Ben wanted to tell you – or us – but the girls wouldn't let him," Beca responded. "It's not Ben's fault. It's not your fault," she said firmly.

"We didn't come to argue about whose fault it is," Jesse told her. "We came to tell you that we're taking Andy to the police station in the morning – we just got a call that there's a warrant for his arrest - he's turning himself in. Our lawyer said we can't be in touch for now – not until after – after the trial, or sentencing, of whatever happens now. I just wanted to say – I'm so sorry. If I had known – "

"You couldn't have," Beca responded. "Please, Jesse. Don't apologize. You didn't do anything."

"When are you going to the police?"

"We just got back," Beca told him. He knew that; otherwise there wouldn't have been a warrant out for Andy.

"Is Dahlia okay?"

"Not really," she answered. "But she will be, eventually. She's upstairs sleeping. It was an overwhelming morning." The Swansons left as quickly as they had come; all four adults were pained by the interaction. Chloe took a stack of papers she was grading into Dahlia's room and sat on the rocking chair working on them as her daughter slept. Beca left for the airport to meet the other girls.

She was at the airport waiting for her daughters, sunglasses and hat in place. They came out of the gate together, Vera and Poppy hanging on to one another. Bella walked beside them but she looked removed; she was struggling the hardest, Beca could see it from a hundred feet away. She received the first hug, despite not wanting one. She groaned when Beca embraced her.

"Mama, please."

They arrived home in time for a late lunch, which Chloe had waiting. It was perfectly silent – not one of them willing to start the conversation that was going to happen. Once Dahlia finished her sandwich, Beca held out her hand. "Let's go upstairs to lay down and read for a bit."

Everyone at the table – including Dahlia – knew that was code for "you're going to take a nap whether you like it or not." When they disappeared, Bella stood up and began collecting plates. Poppy pulled out her cell phone.

"Put it away," Chloe told her. "Bells, leave those for now – sit down, please." The twins did as they were asked. "When your mama gets back – we need to talk. All of us."

"You didn't tell Dahlia that it wasn't just her?" Vera asked. She could tell; the tiny brunette had no idea why they were home. She didn't question it; she seemed a little out of it in general.

Chloe shook her head. "We don't really know yet if that would be helpful or not. We're waiting until we visit this child psychologist that Dr. Jo recommended. Dahlia didn't want to go back to any of the three we've already seen. The appointment is next week – until then, we're only talking about it when she brings it up."

"What does she know?" Poppy asked.

"She knows that we're upset. It's a little hard to hide that," Chloe responded. "And she's been so much quieter than usual – I got a phone call from her teacher. I don't know how much she understands about what he did – she's clammed up about it since we went to the different therapists."

"I'm so sorry," Bella said, her voice strained with unshed tears.

"Isabella – this is not your fault," Chloe said sternly. "I don't want to hear that again." Bella was quiet then – and the other three as well. No one moved while they waited for Beca to return.

Dahlia was not amused at this newly enforced naptime ritual. She was not, however, sleeping well at night, so most days – especially on weekends – Beca or Chloe lulled her to sleep for an hour or two in the afternoon. Beca lay with her on the bed, reading softly from their current book. After a chapter, she put it aside and simply lay next to her daughter, rubbing her back in soft, slow circles.

"I'm not tired," Dahlia told her. "And I already took a nap today."

"I know. But you are still clearly tired," Beca responded. "Close your eyes." Dahlia did – and Beca continued rubbing her back and began humming lullabies. She was sleeping in under five minutes. The brunette returned to the kitchen to find a stony stalemate at the table.

She sat back in her seat and tapped lightly on the table, eyes flickering to Chloe. "We don't really know what to do with all of this," Beca admitted. "It's your choice whether or not we tell the authorities about what happened back then. We can't force that on you." Although that had already indicated that they were planning to report it – she didn't want them to feel pressured. She felt it was the right thing to do – but they needed to each do whatever they could live with.

"But you've already told them about Dahlia?" Vera asked.

"She's too young to make that decision herself – we had to," Chloe responded.

Bella shook her head. "I'm not keeping quiet again – I'm not letting her take all the responsibility for putting him behind bars. She's just a little kid."

"What are you talking about – behind bars? What about Aunt Aubrey and Uncle Jesse?" Poppy asked. "How can we do that to them? He's their son."

"Aubrey and Jesse are horrified at what Andy did," Chloe told them. Bella's eyes clouded over but she said nothing. "They are not going to blame any of you for telling the truth. What Andy did was wrong – and he could be dangerous."

"He is dangerous. He'll do it again," Bella said softly.

"If he's been doing it for ten years – probably," Beca agreed.

"What do we have to do?" Vera asked, quietly. Poppy looked at her, eyes wide.

"Why would we go back into this? It's been years – why drudge up the past?" Poppy asked, eyes wide and voice filled with anger. "It's one thing to tell Mom and Mama so they know Dahlia's not making it up – but tell the police? It's silly." Her mothers knew she was scared – but her twin was pissed.

"Stop being so selfish! But I guess that's just par for the course – let someone else take the brunt of the problem."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"You were always so relieved when he chose me – when he would walk into a room with me," Bella cried, jumping out her chair. She was screaming at Poppy. A ten-year-old accusation rumbling to the surface, filled to the brim with pain and fear that had been festering for that decade.

"Like you ever did anything when he was doing it to me!" Poppy responded. "We were eight fucking years old! What was I supposed to do?"

"Both of you, stop it!" Chloe cried, standing up and pointing firmly at Bella's chair. The brunette sat huffily back down.

In the silence that followed, Beca suddenly realized something that sent her head spinning. Her eyes flew between her daughters and rested on Bella. "Your headaches," she said suddenly. Bella said nothing, just wiped her tears angrily away from her eyes.

"What are you talking about?" Chloe asked.

"You don't remember? What they were little – Bella used to get those terrible headaches – we left parties and dinners early all the time – they would come on so suddenly. She would cry and get so pale – Bella – we had you to neurologists over those!" She remembered being so terrified, still a relatively young mother, her tiny little girl being put through tests in big machines that seemed like they would swallow her whole.

"I didn't know what else to do," Bella said. "I just knew you would take us home if I was sick – so I made myself sick." She was still pretty good at willing herself to look paler and weaker than she felt.

Poppy realized then, with a sinking feeling, that Bella had always – always – been looking out for her. She had faked illness every time Andy had taken Poppy anywhere alone. Poppy had never realized – and had never returned the favor. She lay her head on her hands and sobbed.


 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 18 – A Dull Aching Pain

"I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you decided to show me the same
No sweeping exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind
Wild horses couldn't drag me away-"

~ Rolling Stones

Bella was quiet through dinner. They all were, but she didn't say one word. After the meal, Chloe asked Vera to help Dahlia with her bath and asked Poppy to help clean up the dishes and kitchen. Bella stood and wandered into the living room, about to walk up the stairs to her bedroom when Beca caught up.

"Take a walk with me?"

"Mama – I really don't feel like it," Bella said softly, pleading to be left alone. Her plan for the evening was to curl into bed with her music and a book and avoid any bit of reality that she could. Beca was not going to buy into that plan.

"I know. But I need you to. Come on." The teen said nothing but went to the closet and pulled out her tennis shoes. She slipped them on while Beca put on a pair of flats. She shoved her phone and house key into the pocket of her jeans and they walked out the door together through the neighborhood that was growing dim with the ending of the day.

"Why do you always bother me?" Bella asked, as they walked down the quiet street. Beca wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed her close.

"Because I know what your brain is doing to you right now. Unfortunately for you, you gained most of those voices of doubt and anxiety from me. I know what they sound like." Bella shrugged; she was actually pretty okay with taking after her Mama. She loved Chloe – but sometimes her Mom was just too much. Poppy was the same – and Vera was only occasionally better. If it weren't for Beca, Bella would have spent her entire life feeling overwhelmed. Her heart beat quickly as she waited for her mother to speak.

"The last few days. Hell, the last few months – have been really overwhelming. So, what are you worried about right now?" Beca queried.

"Top 5?" Bella had played this game with her Mama before.

"We'll be ambitious. Whatever comes to mind. We'll stop if we reach 20." Bella sighed. That meant that Beca was not going to leave her alone until she spilled her guts – all of them. This was not an optional conversation - she knew that. She broke away, wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans. Beca allowed her the physical space – she knew this kind of sharing did not come easily or naturally to Bella. 44 years into life, these types of conversations were also still difficult for Beca.

They walked another half block in silence before Bella found the first things she was willing to tackle. "My classes are really hard this semester – and I was struggling to keep B averages – that was before we came home again. I don't know if I can pass."

"Do you want to?"

Bella looked at her, confused. Beca explained. "We can solve this very simply – If it's too much with everything that's going on here – you can take incompletes and take the classes again next semester. Or, we can file for extensions with the school and you can finish the work over the summer."

"Then I wouldn't be eligible for the Bellas."

"And you want to be? For yourself? Not just because Poppy wants you to be involved or you think that Mom and I expect it?"

"I - I love it," she admitted. "It's for me."

"Then we will help you – or help you find tutors – whatever is easier, depending on the subject." She paused, knowing it was the mass of work that was probably weighing on Bella. "When we get home, we'll sit down and work out the due dates and tests dates and put them into the calendar and block the assignments and studying that way – sometimes that helps." Beca pulled her phone from her pocket to make a note to that effect. Bella nodded.

It took another five minutes for Bella to share the next trouble she was considering. "Poppy is dating someone at school."

"I don't believe that our time is to be used to tattle on your sister," Beca teased.

Bella rolled her eyes. "She'll tell you soon enough – it's only been going on for a few weeks. He's a nerd – you'll like him."

"Why does that worry you?"

"I'm not ready for that."

"Does he want to date both of you at the same time? Because I'm not okay with that," Beca teased.

"Mama! If I have to be serious, then so do you!" She was referring to one of the rules they had set in place during Bella's teenage years when everything out of her mouth had been sarcastic, joking, or biting.

"Sorry, Love," Beca responded, pulling her close again and dropping a kiss on top of her brown curls. "Why do you feel like you have to be ready to date? Is Poppy trying to set you up with someone? Are you interested in someone? Or-?" She left room for other options.

"We've always done everything at the same time. And I just – I can't do it this time. I'm worried that I don't want that – ever."

They were coming to the neighborhood park. Beca took her hand and led her toward one of the benches. She sat and pulled Bella into her arms. She kissed the top of her head. "What do you mean, exactly? Can you explain more?"

"I don't know," Bella admitted. "But when I think of letting someone touch me, it freaks me out. I start to get hives just from thinking about it – that's a great new irregularity that started this year - I don't even want some stranger holding my hand, let alone whatever Poppy's letting them do – "

"I think you don't give your sister enough credit – "

"She's learned more from Aunt Stacie than you think," Bella answered. Beca's eyes widened but she calmed herself immediately.

"I want to come back to that," she responded decidedly. "But first – to you. Bells, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. That includes letting boys, girls, whomever – hold your hand, kiss you, or anything else that makes you uncomfortable."

"I can barely let anyone touch me. I'm usually okay with you and Mom - but I jump sometimes when like - Aunt Emily or Grandma hugs me. And I love them. So I'm afraid I'm never going to be comfortable with anything – and unless I force myself, I'm going to end up alone."

Beca clucked her tongue gently and shook her head. "You can't force yourself – trust me, I tried. It only makes things worse. I wish I had all of the answers for you. But what you're talking about isn't going to go away on its own – you need help. Help that unfortunately I don't know how to give you. But I can help you find someone – I'll come out to Georgia when you fly back and we'll find someone you're comfortable talking to."

"You don't have to do that."

"Yes, I do. And I want to," Beca responded. "I know sometimes it feels like you against the world, but it's really not. Your brain wants to isolate you – it seems like you have to have all of the answers on your own – but you have so many people who love you – who will do anything to help you. I know how hard it is – but try to remember that, okay?" Bella nodded before burying her face against her mother's neck and letting herself crumble. Beca held her, rubbed her back, and rocked her gently, not saying a word. Once her tears calmed, she sat up and wiped them away. On the walk back toward their house, Beca was surprised she spoke again. Usually, once she cried, she was done talking. Her voice was gruff from tears, but she was otherwise clear.

"I worry about Dahlia – after what he did. Because I never stopped having nightmares about what he did to me – and I'm afraid she won't either." She took a deep, shuttering breath and spoke before Beca could. "And I feel guilty as hell because – no matter what you say about it not being our fault – if we had said something – anything – then – or even when you brought her home – or when you got sick and we knew she was staying with Aunt Aubrey – we could have stopped it from happening again."

Beca reached for Bella's hands. "I feel guilty because that kid always freaked the shit out of me – and that should have been enough for me to keep my kids away from him – but I didn't. Because I thought it was just me overreacting – and I didn't want to hurt my best friends. So instead, I allowed my kids to get hurt."

"You didn't know, mama."

"And you were eight years old, Isabella. You deserve some slack, okay? If I can't be a villain for not being able to protect my family, then you can't be a villain for trying to protect yourself, got it?"

Bella nodded. Her eyes were filled with tears. "And I worry about losing you. We came so close – and every day is terrifying. Every time the phone rings and it's Aunt Emily or Aunt Stacie – or even Mama – I worry that something's happened to you."

"I know I can't make you any promises," Beca told her. "But love, you can't live like that. I'm doing so much better. I was able to walk the park and back without any assistance. That's progress. And I'm going to do my best to stick around for as long as possible."

Only Chloe saw them when they returned. She caught sight of her daughter's red, puffy eyes and her heart broke; but she knew Beca had it. The brunette had texted her while they were walking - the very simple code "T5." Chloe knew it meant that Bella was overwhelmed and extra anxious – and Beca was trying to help her through it.

She watched them disappear up the stairs and turned back to the bills she was working on, trying to concentrate. Beca shuffled her daughter into her room, shutting the door before any of her sisters came looking. She kept the lights off but turned on the dimmers in the bathroom as she ran a warm bubble bath. Once it was full, she turned on the jets and went to the small dock in the bathroom to find – luckily – that a flashdrive was sticking out of it. She hit play and was thankful that it was the right playlist – it was a grouping of songs that she had built for Bella several years before – each of them still added into it every once in a while– and it was full of things that calmed her.

She went back into the darkened bedroom to find that Bella had curled up in her reading chair, her head resting on her knees. "Come on, Love. In you go. I'll go make you a glass of tea. Do you want anything else?" Bella shook her head. Beca dropped a kiss on top of her curls and then turned her around, taking a moment to braid them into a soft tuft of hair at the top of her head that wouldn't get wet. "Can Mom come back with me?" She felt Bella tense and stoked her back. "It's okay to say no. To either one of us – or to both of us." She knew that if they left her to her own devices for the night, she would be wide-awake and her brain would be racing. But she also didn't want to overwhelm the girl.

"It's okay," Bella assured her softly. "I want Mommy. And you. If you have time – "

"Stop," Beca ordered. "That is not allowed. We always have time for you, my love. I'll be back in a bit. If you need something before then, use the intercom." Bella nodded. They rarely used the intercom, but Beca had already confiscated her phone. "And if you don't mind – I'm going to wait while you get in – be careful – the water is hot." Bella had a slight history of fainting, so she couldn't hold it against her mother for thinking she might now. Beca stood against the doorframe, eyes closed, while Bella disrobed and slipped into the tub.

"I'm okay," she said softly, once she was seated safely in the tub. She felt grounded – she knew she wasn't going to pass out.

"Okay. I'll be back soon." When Beca walked into the kitchen, she found Chloe already making a carafe of passionflower iced tea for Bella. "Thank you," Beca said, stepping up behind her and hugging Chloe. The redhead sank into her embrace.

"I just wish I could do something to help her."

"You do," Beca assured her. She saw the kettle back on the stove, next to a teacup and saucer. There was an herbal blueberry tea out. "Poppy?" Chloe nodded.

"We talked - but I don't think she was listening to half of what I said. Maybe you can check in before you go back to Bella?"

Beca nodded. "Are Vera and Dahlia in bed?"

"They are both waiting for you to tuck them in," Chloe told her with a smile. "Vera's probably being a little more successful – Dahlia may have fallen asleep – she was fighting it even when I was reading to her."

"Okay – I'll check in on all three. I'll meet you in Bella's room in about half an hour? Will you lock up?" Chloe nodded to both. She knew if she was being invited in, Beca had already checked with their daughter. When she had been a child – eight or nine when her stress had really hit a noticeable point beyond what other children felt – Chloe had been devastated that she wanted Beca – needed Beca – when things got too hard. She had learned to deal with it over the years- especially because Beca tried to take the time to explain what helped and did not help – but it was still a relief when she was allowed to be involved.

"Do you want a glass of this?" She asked, removing the diffuser from the pitcher of tea.

"Yep. Thank you. Can you bring up a few icepacks too?"

"I will. I'll see you soon." She kissed Beca and watched as the brunette poured Poppy's tea, turned off the stove, and carried it up the stairs. Poppy's door was open, so Beca knocked on the door frame. The redhead looked up from the book she was reading and smiled.

"Hi, Mama."

"Hey, love. How are you?"

"I'm fine," Poppy answered quickly – too quickly. Beca placed her cup of tea on the nightstand to steep and sat next to her on the bed. "Is Bella okay?"

"She will be," Beca said with a nod. "She's just overwhelmed. We all are, really. It's okay to feel that way. Or not."

"I'm fine," Poppy repeated.

"If you use that word again, you might not like the result," Beca warned. "No one in this house is fine right now."

"I'm trying to be."

"That, I believe." wrapped her arms around the older twin and pulled her close, dropping a kiss on her head. "Did you talk to Mom this evening?"

"Yes," Poppy answered irritably. "It's not my fault - I was eight years old - I can't blame myself - blah, blah, blah -"

Beca pulled back a bit and grasped her chin, tipping it gently so their eyes met. "Poppy Emily - there is no blah, blah, blah. Everything your mother told you is true - this is not your fault. We're done with the blame game. No we have to figure out how to move on from here - but nothing you did - or didn't do - when you were a child caused any of this ugliness. Do you understand me?"

Poppy nodded. Poppy was very obvious when she wanted to talk – and right now, she did not want to talk anymore. She cuddled into Beca's side, hugging her. "Have a good night, mama. I love you." Beca sighed. She was being dismissed.

"I love you too," Beca responded. Her arms wrapped around the teen. "Do you want a song?" Poppy nodded, snuggling further into her embrace. Beca smiled and thought for a moment. She sang Wild Horses from beginning to end, lulling her daughter into a peaceful place. She untangled herself and kissed Poppy's forehead. "Good night, my love," she said softly, tucking her under the covers.

She closed the door behind her and headed across the hall to Vera's room. Her youngest biological child was fighting to wait for her – her eyes bleary with sleep. Beca chuckled softly and sat on the edge of the bed, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. They didn't talk – she simply sang a quick rendition of The Raven and by the last chorus, Vera was asleep. Beca pulled the covers snug, kissed her again, and moved on to Dahlia. Dahlia was already sleeping, so Beca simply kissed her, whispered how much she loved her, and tucked the blanket up further around her.

When she made it to Bella's bedroom, Chloe had set the two glasses of iced tea on the stand in the hallway right outside. Beca took both inside, placing one on the nightstand. She carried the other glass to the bathroom and knocked lightly on the open door.

"Okay in there, Bells?"

"Uh- hmm," he murmured. Beca stepped inside and set the glass of sedative tea on the edge of the tub. "Careful – here's your tea."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome." Beca leaned close enough to stick her hand into the water – it was cooling off. She flipped the timer on the jets. "About ten more minutes – then it will be too cool to stay in there, okay – love?"

"Okay." Beca went to her own bedroom, brushed her hair, removed her makeup, and changed into a pair of pajamas. Chloe joined her and did the same. They walked back to Bella's room together. Beca pulled back the covers and then sat on the edge of the bed, sipping from her own glass of tea. She watched Chloe pace the room, waiting for Bella to appear. When she did, Beca settled herself into bed, holding back the blankets. Bella set her empty glass on the nightstand.

"Climb in, kiddo," Beca said softly. "Lay on your stomach," she suggested. Bella did, facing Beca, her left arm hooking around the stuffed bear that had been with her since Emily had given in to her at age two. Beca covered her with the sheet, keeping the heavy comforter folded back. Chloe sat on Bella's right hand side, her fingers coming to rest at the nape of her daughter's neck.

"Right here, Bells. Can you tell me where it hurts the most?" Bella reached behind her awkwardly to place her fingers over a knot just inside her right shoulder blade. Chloe felt it immediately. "Tell me if it's too much, okay?" Bella murmured but Beca gently tapped her left hand.

"With your words, love."

"Okay," she responded softly. Chloe worked at the knot carefully, but with deep, practiced strokes. She had always been good at back rubs – but she had actually taken classes to learn massage and reflexology when Beca was having her panic attacks for the first time. It had proven useful over the years.

"Bells – can I go under your Pjs?"

"Yes," she answered. Chloe loosened the straps of her camisole and pumped a bit of lotion into her hands, warming it before using it to massage her daughter's muscles. After ten minutes or so, Chloe felt the knot loosen under her touch. Bella slid closer to Beca, letting out a sob that she had no idea she was holding back.

"It's okay," Beca soothed, laying a kiss on her temple. She motioned for Chloe to keep going. The redhead focused on releasing as much tension as possible, massaging knots away in her daughter's neck and upper back. Beca lazily used her fingertips to massage the girl's scalp, humming lullabies on and off. After an hour and a some time had passed, Beca made Chloe stop. Chloe fixed Bella's pajama top and pulled the sheet over her, rubbing her back a few more times.

"Bells, do you want to try an icepack for a bit – while you fall asleep?" Chloe had brought them up in a cooler bag, so they were still about as cold as they had been in the freezer. Bella nodded. Beca placed a hand on her lower back. "Okay – mom's going to put it there now – over your neck and upper back. Try not to tense too much. It'll be cold."

"I know that. It's ice, Mama."

"Don't be a smartass," Beca responded, causing Bella to giggle. Chloe set the heavy, flexible icepack over her back, molding it to her as she pushed down gently but firmly along Bella's spine. Something popped that they all heard – causing Bella to inhale sharply.

"Are you okay?" Chloe asked, terrified.

"Oh my god, Mom." Bella said, clearly in a voice full of relief. "I don't know what that was – but I feel like I can breathe for the first time in weeks."

"Well good," Chloe said. "But it scared the crap out of me – so we won't be doing that again." Bella giggled again.

"I'm glad you're amused, pretty girl." Chloe lay a kiss on her temple and pulled the comforter over her. "Now close your eyes and go to sleep." Bella responded immediately to the first part of the order but Beca could still feel her brain working overtime.

Chloe settled in on Bella's right, curling up on her side. Beca hummed for a few minutes, her fingertips again running gently against her daughter's scalp. After another twenty minutes, the child was still wide awake. Beca picked up her phone from the nightstand and flipped through, looking for a ten minute meditation. She lifted the icepack from Bella's back. The teen whined in disapproval.

"I know it helps. We'll put another one under you – roll over, Bells." The teen did what she was told. "Lift up," Beca ordered softly, helping Chloe place the second icepack below her as the teen held herself off the mattress. "You can relax."

Beca turned on the meditation and Bella groaned when she heard the bells. "Mama – I hate doing this."

"I know," Beca responded soothingly. "But we've been trying to get you to sleep for two hours and I can still practically hear your brain racing – so you're going to try it. Ten minutes – just focus on the voice, love." Bella did, obediently breathing and imagining her limbs growing heavy and all of that crap she'd been trying since she was ten years old. And as usual when her mothers were in the room and she didn't have a choice but to focus, she was out in under five minutes. Beca reached over her and grasped Chloe's hand, squeezing it. Chloe squeezed back.

"Love you," she said softly.

"Love you too, weirdo," Beca answered. They were both sleeping within ten minutes.

When Bella woke the next morning, both of her mothers were gone – but there was a large bottle of water and a note from her mama. Bells, Take your time getting out of bed. Drink the water. All of it. Take a shower and meet me downstairs when you're ready. Mom took the other girls out – just us this morning. Love, Mama. Bella relaxed tremendously when she learned that she didn't have to face anyone else. She took a few deep breaths, wishing she could get back the calm she'd experienced sometime around midnight the night before when Beca was humming in her ear and Chloe was rubbing her back. Closing her eyes, she sat up slowly, gripping the edge of her bed. Her head swam for a minute. She waited until the motion ceased before reaching for the bottle of water. She downed half of it before standing up. She took the rest of it into the bathroom with her and drank it after stepping out of the shower.

She took her time doing her hair and makeup. She dressed in a pair of jeans, her favorite boots, and a long-sleeved plum t-shirt. She dressed it up with a black and purple scarf Poppy had given her for their last birthday. Still feeling a bit shaky, she held on tightly to the bannister as she walked to the kitchen. Beca was there, sipping a cup of coffee and doing something on her laptop. She closed it when she saw Bella. She motioned to the seat next to her, which had a bowl with Greek yogurt and blackberries, along with another glass of the passionflower tea. Her mother had clearly heard her wake up.

Everything was still very quiet, so Beca spoke almost in a whisper. "Good morning," she said, studying Bella's passive expression. It crumpled almost immediately. Bella sat down and leaned against Beca, her face hidden against her mother's shoulder. It took Beca a moment to realize she was crying.

"Oh, sweetheart," she said softly, hugging her close and rubbing her back. "What is this?" She asked calmly. Usually after a night of forced-relaxation she was calm, sometimes even sleepy. This morning, Beca could already tell the she was wound tighter than a spring.

"I don't know," Bella answered morosely between sobs.

"It's okay," Beca assured her, turning in her chair so she could hold her more easily. She tried several times to move Bella to the living room, but each time the crying slowed, it would start again with any kind of shift. Finally, Beca stopped worrying about getting her to stop and just helped her into the living room, laying her on the sofa. After an hour of being unable to calm her, she called Stacie.

"Bring her in," she said. "I was only working half day – so I'm about to go to see my last patient. I'll tell my nurse that you're coming." Beca hung up the phone and dialed Chloe – it went directly to voicemail.

"Hey," she said. "Um. It's not good. Bella has been crying since I said "good morning" to her almost ninety minutes ago. I'm taking her to see Stacie – I don't know what's going on – or what she can do about it – but I need you." She hung up and went to the closet. She pulled on her own jacket and pulled one of Bella's from the hanger. She forced her to sit up and helped her into it.

"Love, we are going to see Aunt Stacie. Can you try to calm down a little for me?" Each of the girls had been given a choice of doctors when they had been twelve – all three had chosen to start seeing Stacie – before they needed her as a gynecologist. So she was the primary care physician for everyone in the house but Chloe and Dahlia.

"I'm sorry," Bella cried between sobs.

"No – I don't want you to feel bad. Don't be sorry. Just try to slow your breathing. That might help." Beca got her into the car and handed her a pillow from the living room couch. Bella held it tightly as she lay on it, placing it between her and the window. By the time they reached Stacie's office, she was a bit calmer – occasionally sobbing and simpering – but not outright crying.

As soon as Beca stopped the car, Bella started coughing. Beca hurried to open her door just in time. Beca was able to step back in time to save her boots. "It's okay," she said soothingly, rubbing Bella's back as she retched. When she was finished, Beca wiped her mouth and helped her step around the puddle, saving those boots too. Bella hid her face against her mother's neck, trying to hold back her sobs as Beca checked in at the registration window. Luckily, a nurse came for them right away. She looked alarmed at Bella's state but said nothing. She led them into the first room and pointed to the scale.

"Can you take off your boots and jump up on there for me?" She asked. Bella held onto Beca as her mother leaned down to remove her boots and led her onto the scale. The thirty seconds that Beca had to let go of her so the nurse could get the right weight was excruciating.

The young woman was harried, clearly thinking that dealing with Bella was beyond her paygrade. She did not attempt to take any more vitals when they reached the exam room. She simply opened the door and said "Dr. Conrad will be with you in just a moment."

Beca led her over to the side of the room where two chairs were pushed together and sat with her, rubbing her back and repeating the same words of comfort that she had been trying for the past two hours. By the time Stacie arrived, Beca had been able to get them both out of their jackets, but that was about it. She checked her phone – still no Chloe.

Stacie knocked and Beca called for her to enter. She set a file on the counter and removed her white coat, hanging it on the back of the door before she closed it. She took a small flashlight from her pocket and knelt to the ground in front of Bella.

"Hey, sweetpea," she said kindly. "I heard you from all the way down the hall. What is going on?" Of course, there was no answer, but Stacie continued, trying to get Bella to make eye contact. "I know one thing – you scared my nurse away. I think she might quit." The child began to cry harder and was trying to apologize amidst the tears. "It's okay, lovey. You'd be doing me a favor. She's sort of a bitch." Somehow, Bella laughed, causing the tears to abate for a moment before coming right back.

"There we go," Stacie said softly. "That's something, at least. So, I know you can hear me, Isabella Rebecca – I need you to listen very carefully." Stacie placed her right hand on her leg and tapped it. It was a firm motion, but not hard. "Can you feel that?" Bella nodded. "Okay, sweetie. I need you to count with me – every time I do that, okay?" Another nod. She took Bella's left hand – her dominant hand – and wrapped it around her own left arm. "I need you to squeeze as hard as you can, okay?" Bella did squeeze – but it had very little force behind it. "Okay," Stacie agreed. "That's a little weak, but we'll go with it. So, we're going to do both things at the same time – okay – you keep squeezing with your left hand – and we'll count together every time I tap the right."

Slowly, Stacie began tapping and counting, occasionally moving her left arm so that Bella would tighten her hold. The teen had no idea yet that she wasn't holding Beca at all. By the time they got to ten, she was counting with Stacie, her voice ragged and weak. The reached sixty before she collapsed. Stacie, having expected it, caught her in both arms. Beca helped her lift her daughter onto the exam table. Stacie leaned against it, looking aghast at her friend.

"What the fuck?" She asked softly.

"If I knew, I wouldn't be here," Beca responded. "And watch your mouth."

"Oh, she's out," Stacie said, nodding to Bella's sleeping form. "And you do know she uses that word, right?" Beca didn't answer. Stacie took a blanket from one of the cabinets and wrapped it around Bella before sitting on her stool, scooting it in front of Beca's seat. Beca took her eyes off Bella and eventually sat, burying her face in her hands.

"What did you do?" Beca asked.

"I just got the panic attack to stop – using both sides of her brain to focus. It calms everything and takes the focus off of the panic. She collapsed because she's exhausted."

"I have never seen anything that bad," Beca said, breathing heavily as she fought her own panic attack. "What was that?"

"That was the worst damn panic attack I've ever seen," Stacie responded. "Including my psych rotation. What happened?" Her voice was calm and even – she knew Beca had her own problems with anxiety. "Start at the beginning. When did it start?"

After Beca explained what had happened the night before and that morning – the taller brunette sat back against the counter, clearly going over her options.

"If she were anyone else's daughter – if I didn't know her like I do – I would have had a team here half an hour ago taking her to the hospital for a 72 hour hold."

"Oh, God. Stacie – "

"But I know that nothing like that has ever happened before, correct?"

"No."

"Okay – then we might not have go that route today. But I think she needs a strong sedative for a few days – we can wean her off a bit at a time – and transfer her on to something she can take daily – Xanax or Paxil or Celexa. Then you need to get both your asses to a psychologist."

Beca closed her eyes. "I have to call Chloe – I can't agree to medication without her."

"I understand," Stacie answered. "But you need to explain to Chloe that you have two options – we can give her a sedative and try to help her down off of it at home and onto an anti-anxiety medication – or you can have her admitted next door at the hospital and they will give her the medication for you. Because Beca – you cannot leave here otherwise. She will hurt herself or someone else. That was an episode. It was scary – and it was dangerous. Do you understand me?" Beca nodded, her lips pursed together.

"Just do it then," she answered. "I'll deal with Chloe later." Stacie nodded and left the room for several minutes. She returned a few moment later with several boxes. She removed a syringe from a drawer, took it from its packaging, and used it to draw in liquid from a bottle she pulled from one of the boxes. She tapped it with her nail and released a tiny bit of the liquid back into the sink. Checking the dosage one last time, she walked over to Bella.

"Can you hold her?" Beca stood where Stacie indicated and held Bella on her side while Stacie pulled down her jeans and cleaned an area of skin just above where her low-rise underwear sat. She grimaced. "Sorry, sweetpea. This is going to hurt later." She gave the injection and then – with a hard, steady grip pressed a piece of cotton against the spot for a moment. When she pulled it away there was only one drop of blood – and the bleeding at the site had already stopped. She fixed Bella's jeans and shirt and laid her back down on the table.

"That – and every one after – is going to hurt," Stacie told Beca. "It's an intramuscular injection – and they hurt. There's really no away around it. It feels like a bruise for a few days after its given."

"How many times do we have to give that to her?" Stacie was writing something. When she finished, she answered.

"Once every six hours – lowering the dose while starting her on an oral anxiety medication. The last injection should be Sunday morning. I'll write everything down – and I'll help you with the next two doses, at least." She was busy writing for a good ten minutes – then she pulled out a separate piece of paper and began to draw a chart on it. Beca, still holding Bella's hand, brushed her thumb back and forth against it while she dialed Chloe.

This time, the redhead picked up. "Bec, where are you? I thought you guys were staying home?"

"Chloe – did you not get my message?"

"No – I have a voicemail from you – but it won't play."

"Okay," Beca said softly. "Listen – she's okay right now – but I had to bring her to Stacie's office. I'll explain more when we get home – we'll be leaving here soon. I think Stacie is coming back with us. Can you get the other kids out of the kitchen?"

"Why?" Chloe demanded.

"Because Bella is knocked out with a sedative – and she won't be waking up anytime soon. They don't need to see that."

"Excuse me?" Chloe asked. They had a pretty firm rule about their kids and decisions about prescription drugs. They discussed it first, always. Stacie heard her hiss and took the phone from Beca.

"Hey, Chloe. Stacie here. Yeah, you need to calm down and not blame Beca. She didn't have a choice – I didn't give her one. For good reason. I'll explain when I see you – in the next half an hour or so." She hung up, making Beca's eyes go wide. You did not hang up on Chloe – but then again, Stacie hadn't been married to her for twenty some years – she clearly didn't know that.


 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 19 – Taking Back Life

"There's a part of me I can't get back
A little girl grew up too fast
All it took was once, I'll never be the same
Now I'm taking back my life today
Nothing left that you can say
Cause you are never gonna take the blame anyway-"

~Demi Lovato

Chloe was livid when Beca arrived home. Stacie - somehow - was perfectly capable of carrying Bella on her own. When both mothers looked at her in confusion and awe, she shrugged. "I can lift like 160 of dead weight when I have to - she's barely more than half that." Beca removed Bella's jacket and shoes and tucked her under the covers. Chloe hovered nearby, looking worriedly at her daughter.

"I can't believe you let Stacie drug her without calling me - "

"She didn't - " Stacie started to argue that she hadn't given Beca a choice, but the small brunette interrupted.

"I let her do it because it was the right thing to do," Beca told Chloe. "I love you - and I know that you want what is best for our kids - but I don't agree with you on this. Bella has been suffering for a long time with anxiety - the herbs and relaxation techniques - they help - and at first they were enough - but right now they aren't. And today was something I hope I never see again," she told Chloe, her voice wavering. "She was in pain - and beside herself. She couldn't calm down - she couldn't stop crying - she was struggling to breathe. It was the right call at the time and I need you to respect that."

Chloe looked at her, expression blank, then moving into the crushed territory. "I never want our children to suffer, but - "

"No buts right now," Beca responded. "No philosophical, ethical, or medical questions about what pharmaceuticals do to our bodies and minds. This is not a debate right now - this is done. Bella needs help - and as far as I'm concerned -whatever Stacie suggests is what we're doing." Stacie was trying to stay as far away from this very volatile conversation as possible. She looked alarmed when her name was raised. Chloe looked at her but her eyes turned back to Beca – and she burst into tears.

Beca was on her feet almost immediately, crossing the space to put her arms around Chloe. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I'm so sorry –"

"Do you think I'm not scared out of my mind?" Chloe asked, between sobs, trying to push her away - but giving up when it was clear she wasn't going anywhere. "I don't know what to do, Beca. I lost the person who was my best friend since the age of five. Someone violated not one – but all of my children. I almost lost you. You and Bella – you keep pushing me away. Vera and Poppy are pretending that everything is fine – and Dahlia will barely look at me – " Beca held her and listened. After a few seconds of silence, she rearranged her grasp and pulled away enough to look Chloe in the eye. They had both being crying – bloodshot eyes were definitely going around.

"Can we go upstairs and talk? I really think we need that."

Chloe nodded, but then looked over at Bella. "Stacie has her," Beca said softly. Chloe crossed the room and sat on the edge of Bella's bed and leaned forward to kiss the child's cheek. She smoothed a few pieces of dark hair behind her ear before turned to look at Stacie, who nodded gently; she would be fine for now. Chloe glanced down again at her daughter before turning and walking back to Beca. She followed her up the stairs and into one of the guest bedrooms. Their bedroom was too close to all of their daughters right now.

Once the door was closed, Beca pulled her over to the bed and they sat together, grasping hands. "I am so sorry if I've been pushing you away," Beca told her softly. "I didn't mean to –"

"I know," Chloe responded with a sniffle.

"You are an amazing mom – and the best wife and best friend in the world."

"I don't feel that way most of the time," Chloe answered. "Just because I'm cheerful doesn't mean I'm always happy – and sometimes I feel like I'm being blown off as flaky and unimportant. And you guys would be just fine without me – "

"Chloe!" Beca didn't yell often – she didn't use angry tones – and this was something new. Chloe's tears continued to slide down her cheeks as Beca lifted her chin and stared at her in shock. Her voice softened. "Please – don't say that – don't think that for a second." She was stunned into silence for a few seconds. "I can't – we can't – do this without you. We have four beautiful girls – because of you. Every bit of sunshine that Poppy and Vera and Dahlia – and even Bella – personify every day – that is you. The kindness they show towards people – the confidence they have. The fact that Bella never backs down from what she wants – despite the fear. You have made all of that possible. You are the rock that makes this family work. And I know that we don't give you enough credit. And I'm sorry that I have failed lately – in giving you support. There's no excuse – "

"Of course there is," Chloe chided. "It's been crazy – you've been trying to take care of everything. You've been distracted – with good reason. But I'm here too, Beca. I can help. They're my daughters too."

"I know that." They talked for several hours that afternoon. Chloe cried more than she had in the past six months – and Beca listened. She eventually explained to her wife what had happened that morning – and how frightening it had been. Chloe admitted that she was terrified - and hurt - and scared -- and feeling incredibly alone.  Beca's heart broke as she realized how much she hadn't been paying attention to her wife lately.  And how much she had been pushing her away.  As much as she had intended to leave that part of her personality in the past, it was a solid part of her that reemerged occasionally.  It wasn't an immediate fix, but talking away that afternoon helped them both tremendously.

Bella was exhausted. But she felt better – she wasn't panicking. She was less than happy with the shots – and spent most of the two days after her panic attack sleeping. But on the third day – Sunday morning – she was finished with the sedative and by lunch time, she was fully awake. After showering and dressing in a pair of jeans and soft sweater, she wandered out of her bedroom for the first time in days.

When she saw Dahlia in the hallway, she almost turned around and headed back to her room; she wasn't sure she was ready to face people. But the little girl's expression brightened considerably when she saw her older sister. "Hi, Bella!"

"Hey, kiddo," she said, smiling lightly. "What are you up to?"

"I came to get my book. Aunt Emily said she'd read to me and Gracie," she said, holding up the book in question. The first in the Harry Potter series.

"Aunt Em is here?"

Dahlia nodded. "She and Uncle Benji and Grace and Jake got here last night."

"Who else is here?" Bella asked, realizing almost immediately that this was a perfect fount of information.

"Aunt Stacie is still here," Dahlia answered. "She keeps staying overnight," she told Bella.  "And Mommy – and Mama. Poppy and Vera went running – but Mama told them to come back by lunch time – so they should be home soon."

Bella nodded. "Where is Mom?"

"On the deck. She's been outside all morning." Bella bit the inside of her cheek.

"Thanks, Dahlia," she said, leaning down to kiss the girl on the cheek. Dahlia wrapped her arms around Bella's neck and kept her close for a moment – their eyes meeting.

"Do you feel better?"

"I do," Bella promised. "Thank you." She kissed Dahlia again and walked with her down into the kitchen. Stacie was there, chopping vegetables for what Bella assumed was going to be a salad. She looked up when they appeared.

"Hello, ladies," she said cheerfully. "Em's waiting for you in the living room, Dahlia." Dahlia hurried off and Bella walked to the refrigerator, pulling out a bottle of water. "How are you feeling?"

"Embarrassed," Bella admitted. "Otherwise fine."

"Nothing to be embarrassed about," Stacie told her.

"I freaked out."

"You had good reason," the tall brunette said easily.  She was leaving dialog fairly open on purpose - if Bella wanted a conversation, she could have one.  If not, there was plenty of time for that. 

"Dahlia said mom is outside?" Stacie nodded and tilted her head toward the back yard. Bella went out onto the deck and found Chloe on the second tier, ensconced in the corner, mostly hidden by the flowers that grew in boxes beside and behind her. She was doing something very unusual for herself – sitting still. There was no computer, no phone, no instrument, no book – nothing that she seemed to be using to occupy her time.

Bella sat next to her and looked at Chloe, who was staring into the yard. "Mom?" Chloe's head turned quickly – she hadn't heard anyone approach. She smiled softly when she saw Bella.

"Hey, sweetie. It's good to see you up and about – how are you feeling?"

"Better," Bella told her. She was quiet for a few moments. "I'm sorry, Mom." Chloe studied her carefully.

"You didn't do anything wrong, Bells."

"I couldn't calm down – and I know you never wanted me to take medication for my panic attacks – and I tried to get control – but I couldn't –"

Chloe stared at her daughter. "Bella, look at me." She waited until the teen did. "Sweetheart, I love you more than anything in this world. I only want what is best for you. You can't always control things – and I know your panic attacks have been getting worse. I wish I could do something – anything – to help. But I am not angry about you taking medication. That is not something you can help right now."

Bella did not looked convinced. She settled back into the wicker chair with soft blue cushions. Chloe spoke, staring again out into the yard. "You were so young, when you started having problems with anxiety. It was terrifying. It was the first time we really couldn't help you. It's not like a fever or the flu – there isn't a cut and dry solution. But you were so young – and so we never really talked to you about it."

"What do you mean?"

"About why I worry so much about the medication. I'm not angry at you – and I never wanted to withhold something that you needed – but I have always been terrified." She took a deep breath. "Growing up, I had three brothers."

"What?" Bella asked sharply, causing Chloe to shake her head and place her finger to her lips, indicating that she should wait.

"My oldest brother – Teddy – he struggled with depression and anxiety. He was more than ten years older than me. I was twelve when he killed himself – two weeks after starting a new medication."

"Mom. I'm so sorry —"

Chloe shook her head, her eyes shining with tears. "It was a long time ago. We don't talk about it much. It upsets Nana and Papa too much."

"Does Mama know?"

Chloe nodded. "You may not remember – but we fought over it when you were younger – the first time your pediatrician suggested taking you to a psychiatrist." Bella remembered – they all did. It was the only serious fight – one that had lasted weeks – that the girls had ever seen their mothers maintain. "And eventually I had to tell your mom – or risk losing her."

"That's the only reason you told her?" Bella was shocked. Beca and Chloe didn't keep things from each other often – or at least they didn't seem to.

"I don't like to talk about it," Chloe responded simply, a sad smile on her lips. "I try to stay positive. And that is not an event in my life that helps me to do that – so I try to tuck it away. Most of the time, it works." She wiped a few stray tears from her eyes and turned to face Bella fully. She took her hand, clasping it firmly.

"I need you to listen to me – very carefully." Bella nodded when she realized a response was being requested. "If you need to take something to help with the panic – then you are old enough to make that decision. But never – not for one second – are you to keep anything from your mama or me. If you're having trouble – I don't care how minor you think it is – or how much you feel like you have to deal with it on your own – you need to come to us. Do you understand me?"

"Mom, I would never –"

"No one ever thinks they would," Chloe responded. "Promise me – if you start to feel that way at all – you'll come to one of us."

"I promise," Bella said gently. She sat with Chloe for a long time – almost an hour passed before Vera came to find them for lunch. Emily, Benji, and their two kids were joining them, as was Stacie. Beca and Chloe had long resolved their argument and chatted softly over their meal as Poppy filled Bella in on the days she'd pretty much slept through.

The night before they went to the police station to allow all four girls to give their statements and answers questions, Beca couldn't sleep. She tossed and turned, unable to placate her mind. Eventually, she crawled from bed and wandered down the hall. Her brain wouldn't stop – she needed to check on her children. She stopped at each bedroom, peeking inside to see a sleeping child. When she reached Bella's room – there was no one in the bed. Beca slipped inside and saw that the bathroom dimmers were on – the light barely more than the glow of a candle.

Her heart broke when she walked in and saw Bella sitting on the edge of the closed toilet lid, her elbows on her knees, her fingers grasping a straight-edged razor. Beca said nothing. She sat on the floor in front of her daughter, her back against the tub. She was close – but not touching.

"I didn't do it," Bella said finally.

"I see that," Beca agreed. "You still think about it a lot?"

"Not always. But lately, yeah. I had my hand around the knife at the dinner table – I almost just pressed down on it to make the cut. But I figured mom would freak. And – you know – everyone else."

"Safe bet. What about now?"

"It doesn't make anything better."

"No," Beca agreed softly.

"But it helps make things quiet sometimes. And I could really use that right now."

Beca swallowed. Wrestling the blade off of Bella was what she wanted to do – but she knew that wouldn't help. They had dealt with this when the girl had been ten years old – and it had to be her choice not to hurt herself. "What else could do that?"

"I don't know anymore."

"Let me help you," Beca suggested. She held out her hand. After a long pause – a pause that felt like it went on for weeks – Bella deposited the blade into Beca's hand. The brunette's heart rose back up into her chest and she felt like she could breathe again. She kneeled up and took Bella into her arms, hugging her fiercely. Chloe found them and Beca silently handed her the blade.

Twenty minutes later, the blade was in the kitchen garbage can and Bella sat at the table with Chloe while Beca made a pot of tea. She took the pot and three cups to the table and sat next to her daughter. They drank it while both mothers asked Bella about a multitude of topics that had nothing to do with the current tragedy in their lives. They learned about the classes the young girl was taking, the songs that the Bellas were practicing, and the books she was reading. It helped calm them all, if only slightly.

The next day – the day of the interviews – was terrible. Beca, Chloe and Bella had barely slept – and from the looks of her heavy makeup, Poppy hadn't fared much better. They ate breakfast in relative silence – only Poppy eating without being goading into it. They drove in two cars – they had no idea if someone was going to be finished earlier than the others – and they didn't want the girls to have to wait there longer than necessary. Stacie arrived and Emily woke in time to drive with them. Since the detectives wanted to speak to each girl separately, Beca and Chloe hadn't wanted the daughters who were waiting to be alone.

Stacie hugged and kissed each girl, whispering words of encouragement. They were only there for a moment or two when the detective Beca and Chloe had already met with asked them to follow her. The girls were each put into a separate room – Beca went with Bella, Chloe with Poppy, Stacie with Dahlia, and Emily with Vera.

"One of us needs to be in there when Dahlia and Vera are interviewed," Beca reminded one of the detectives as they were led into a room.

"Of course, Mrs. Mitchell. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Water?"

"Water would be great for both of us, thanks." With that, the woman left them alone in the room. Neither knew it at the time – but they were saving Bella for last. The detectives gathered statements from Poppy, then Vera, then asked Dahlia a few follow-up questions.

While waiting, Beca and Bella sat together on the side of the table with two chairs. They were alone for over an hour and the silence was finally broken by Bella.

"I can't do this," Bella said, wiping her wet palms against her jeans. Her eyes searched the room, looking for a wastebasket. Her entire breakfast was quickly delivered into it. Beca held her hair and rubbed her back.

When the lawyer and detective came into the room, Beca helped Bella back to her chair. "Bella, this is Detective Miller. And Alane is our lawyer – you might remember her – I think she's been to the house a few times." Bella nodded.

"It's nice to meet you, Bella," the detective told her. She sat across from the teen and the lawyer sat on Bella's other side.

"You are not in any trouble at all," the lawyer reminded her. "This is a voluntary interview – but you should try to answer the detective's questions the best you can." Bella nodded.

"Can you tell me your relationship to Andrew Swanson?"

"He's the son of my moms' best friends – Aubrey and Jesse. We've always been really close – we call them Aunt Aubrey and Uncle Jesse."

"How long have you known him?"

"For as long as I can remember."

"You say that he's the son of your moms' friends. Did you ever consider him a friend of yours?"

"Not really," Bella admitted. "We were always stuck together growing up – when our parents' got together for dinners and parties and picnics and things. But we weren't friends. I mean, I think we were when we were little. But after he started doing – what he did – well, we weren't friends anymore. We definitely aren't now. I don't think I've said ten words to him since we were in our early teens."

The detective nodded. "Can you tell me what he did to you?"

"He touched me – inappropriately – for about two years. I think it started when I was eight."

The woman grimaced. "I'm sorry, Bella. I need to know exactly what he did. Can you please describe what he did to you?" The detective looked apologetic but clearly, she needed more than the word inappropriate.

Bella closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her courage. When she opened them again, she looked at the detective and told her. "He put his fingers inside my vagina – sometimes just to touch, other times to thrust – it was painful when he did that. A few times he tried to put his fingers inside my – rectum – but I would scream and he would stop."

"Did you let him put his fingers in your vagina, then?"

Bella's voice grew right and angry. "I was eight – he called it a game and he was supposed to be my friend – I didn't realize it was bad until later."

"Did you ever initiate the game?"

"No!" She looked at her mother, whose eyes were also burning with anger.

"I'm sorry, Bella. I have to ask. I didn't imagine you would. Even if you had – at that age, you couldn't consent."

Bella seethed, sitting on the edge of her chair, looking between Beca and the door.

"It's okay," Beca said softly. She wrapped her arms around Bella, hiding her face from the detective. She whispered in her ear. "Take your time. Breathe." She tapped Bella's back lightly, counting out breaths with her. When she calmed down, Beca let her pull away and handed her the bottle of water the she'd been given when they first arrived. Bella sipped from it and turned back to the detective, daring her to ask more questions with a simple glare.

"Did Andy ever do more than just touch you? Did he ever use anything other than fingers?"

Bella took a deep breath; this was delving into territory that she had never discussed with her parents; things that her sisters didn't know about. "Toward the end – I guess when we were about ten – almost eleven – he tried to put his penis inside me. I fought him – and he couldn't do it – he couldn't get it up. He stuck it down my throat another time when he could – but I tried to bite him, so he never did it again." Beca was shaking, her hands in fists as she tried to quell the emotions roaring inside her; this was new information.

"Did he ever do those things to your sisters, as far as you are aware?"

"I think he only touched them," Bella responded. "That's all I ever knew about, at least. We never really talked about it."

"Where did these things occur?"

"It depends on where we were," she admitted. "At my house – usually in the dollhouse toward the back of the yard, in one of our rooms, or under the bottom deck. Wherever we were playing. At his house – in his room or the treehouse. He did it when we were in Georgia too, a few times – we used to go there every summer and fall to visit our grandparents and so our parents could go to Alumni weekend at Barden. But it just depended on where we had to play when we were there – it was always different."

"Did you know he was doing this to your sister Poppy?"

"Yes."

"Would he do it at the same time?"

"No," Bella replied. "He would get one of us on our own. He liked me more. He always said Poppy wasn't as much fun to play with."

"Do you know why he said that?"

"No," Bella said stonily.

"Do you have a guess?"

"She talked more," Bella responded. "It annoyed him."

"Did you know that he had done the same thing to your sister Vera?"

"Yes."

"Were you present?"

Bella felt tears sting her eyes and she nodded. "I walked in on them. I told him to stop – he wouldn't. I tried to push him – but he was too strong. So I kneed him in the junk so hard that his right testicle ascended." Beca saw the detective's eyes twinkle with pride when she heard that.

"Did he touch Vera after that?"

"No," Bella said. "Poppy and I – we were ten or eleven by then – he stopped with all of us. The three of us stopped separating when he was around. We never really talked about it – it just happened."

"Do you know if he did the same to any other little girls at the time?"

"No," Bella responded. "Not then. I don't really know. He might have. We weren't always with him."

"Did Benjamin Swanson ever hurt you?"

"No!" Bella said sternly. "No – Ben never touched any of us."

"Did he know about what his brother was doing?"

"Not when it was happening."

"When did he know?"

"At Christmas time – when we were twelve. Ben was 11. Poppy told him what Andy had done. Vera and I were there – but Poppy did all the talking. She likes to talk," she added. "Ben was really upset. We knew by then, obviously, that what had happened was wrong. Ben wanted to tell his parents – and our parents. We said no. Poppy threatened to hate him forever if he said anything. That was a really good threat because Ben was in love with Poppy. He still is."

"So Ben never told?"

"No."

"Did you three ever tell anyone else, to your knowledge?"

"I know I didn't," Bella responded. "I don't believe that Poppy or Vera did either. But I'm not their keepers, so you'll have to ask them." Beca put a hand on Bella's arm, indicating that she was getting a bit snippy.

"Did you know that Andrew had begun to molest your youngest sister, Dahlia?"

"Of course not," Bella said, tears again starting. Beca handed her a tissue and she clutched at it, wiping angrily at the tears.

"Do you believe Ben knew that he had begun to molest Dahlia?"

"No – Ben would have killed him if he'd known." After watching Jesse's reaction to the news, Beca knew her daughter was right. She had no idea how Ben was handling this – but she imagined it was no easier for him than it was for his parents.

"Do you believe your sisters – either Poppy or Vera knew?"

"No," Bella shook her head. "None of us would have done that to Dahlia. If we knew he was still doing it – we would have said something."

"So you assumed he had stopped?"

"We assumed he had moved on to girls his own age," she said through gritted teeth. "We were his age when he did it – we figured 18 year-old-Andy would mess with 18-year-old girls, not our little sister."

"So you knew that he was probably forcing himself on girls, even after he stopped with you."

"Yes," Bella hissed. "Yes." She looked up at the ceiling. "Are we done?" She asked angrily. Had she spent the past seven or eight years worrying about what Andy was doing to his dates and his neighbors and friends? Absolutely. But she had never had the strength to tell anyone – to warn anyone – what he was capable of.

"A few more questions." There was a silence. Bella took several deep breaths and rolled her shoulders, wondering if her Aunt Stacie would give her a sleeping pill for a few days – because there was no way in hell she was going to be able to sleep.

Her head was beginning to pound, but she looked at the detective. "Did any of the adults in your family or his – or any of your parents' adult friends – know this was happening when you were eight? Or now, when Dahlia was the victim?"

"Fuck," she whispered under her breath, trying to stop her rapid breathing. She was tapping her foot against the chair quickly, her fingers wrapped nervously around her scarf. It was almost too warm for a scarf – but she had been breaking out into hives all day and was trying to cover it up. "I really can't answer that."

"I need you to," the detective said apologetically.

"It's okay," Beca told her in a soft, soothing voice. "It doesn't matter who it was Bells, it's not your secret anymore." Her head was spinning as she realized why Bella was so much more involved – why she was having these panic attacks so often. She had another secret – and this was it. Someone they loved – someone other than Andy – had betrayed them.

"I can't," she said tearfully.

"Did your adoptive mother – Chloe Beale – know then?"

"No!"

"Now?"

"No!"

"Your biological mother – Rebecca Mitchell. Did she know then?"

"No," she growled. "Please stop."

"Did she know now?"

"No. Please," she begged.

"Stacey Conrad – then or now?"

"No, and No. Please – I need to leave." Beca grasped her hand, trying to hold her steady.

"It's okay, my love. It's really okay. Whatever happened – it can't happen again. I know that someone you trusted betrayed that – you don't have to keep their secret." Bella shook her head.

"I can't," she cried.

"Did Emily Applebaum know about the molestation – then or now?"

"No. Neither."

"Benjamin Applebaum – then or now?"

"No. Neither."

"Jesse Swanson – then or now?"

"No." She shook her head, tears spilling from her eyes. "Please stop asking."

"Aubrey Swanson – then or now." Bella said nothing. She stared up at the ceiling, biting her bottom lip.

"Bella, I need you to answer. Did Aubrey Swanson know that Andy was molesting you or your sisters when you were small? Or your sister Dahlia now?"

"Yes!" She hissed, causing tears to flood to Beca's eyes. "Are you happy?" It's not good enough that his family is shredded to pieces – and ours is dying inside? You just have to keep pushing! Yes! Aubrey knew!" Beca held back her own tears and wrapped her arms around her daughter.

She looked at her lawyer. "We need a few minutes, please." The detective and lawyer left the room. Beca rocked Bella in her arms, shushing her tears. "It's okay, my love. This is not your fault. You didn't do anything wrong. Shush. It'll be okay. You did the right thing." It took about twenty minutes before Bella stopped shaking. Beca then stood and knocked on the door, letting the detective know they were ready.

"Bella, I'm sorry to keep asking questions – but we need to know what happened so that nothing like this happens again."

"That's a joke."

"Excuse me?"

"Aubrey's not a threat to anyone – and you already had Andy. You just wanted all the dirt."

"Bella, stop," Beca ordered softly. "This is not the detective's fault. She is trying to do her job."

"How do you know that Aubrey Swanson knew about the molestation?"

"She caught Andy doing it – one of the first few times. It was just me – and Andy – in my bedroom. He had his fingers inside me – it was a time that hurt – he was thrusting – and using three fingers. I remember crying. And the door opened. I was relieved – because I didn't want to play anymore. I saw her hair – she had a really pretty pink headband in that day. I remember because I really liked it at the time. But she didn't come in. The door closed again and I remember hearing Aunt Aubrey throwing up in hall bathroom." Her voice was angry and full of sobs ready to break at any moment.

"How did you know it was your Aunt Aubrey vomiting?"

"Everyone knows when she's puking," Bella told the detective calmly. "It's gross – she has a problem. She projective vomits when she's nervous. And it's noisy. So I knew it was her. I told Andy to leave me alone and pulled my underwear and stockings back up. He got mad and left. I was sitting next to my bookshelf, not really doing anything – I didn't know what to do - when Aunt Aubrey came back."

"Why did she come back?"

"She was mad at me."

"Why do you think that?"

"She told me that what I had done was bad – and that good little girls did not let boys touch them under their dresses. She told me that I was very bad and to never do it again – and she left."

"Did you tell your sisters that your aunt knew?"

"No," Bella responded softly.

"Did you tell your moms – either Chloe or Rebecca – that your Aunt Aubrey yelled at you that day?"

"No. I thought I had done something bad – I didn't want them to be mad at me too."

"Is there anything else you want on the record about Andrew Swanson, or this case?"

"No," Bella responded.

"Thank you, Bella, for your candor and your bravery." Bella did not move when the detective reached out to shake her hand – and the woman quickly got the idea and left. Alane – the lawyer – said something softly to her mother and followed out as well.

Bella jumped when she felt something on her back – until she realized it was Beca's hand. "Love, we need to go. Come on. We can talk about this at home."

"I don't want to," she said, dazedly.

Beca didn't respond. She helped Bella into her jacket and led her back out the door and into the small waiting room. Chloe, Emily, Stacie, and all three of her sisters were there. Bella caught sight of Chloe's worried expression and felt suddenly very dizzy. Luckily, Stacie realized what was about to happen. She lunged forward and caught her – Beca helped when she caught up – and lowered her unconscious body to the ground.

"What happened?" Chloe cried.

"I saw her eyes," Stacie responded. "She passed out. I'm sure it's stress related. You just need to get her home and into bed."

The ride home was silent. Bella came to on the ride but had no interest in speaking to anyone. Beca asked Stacie and Emily to take care of the girls while she spoke to Chloe. She took her wife into their bedroom and locked the door. "Beca, you're scaring me."

Beca dragged Chloe to the sofa in the corner of their room and sat with her, pretty much trapping her in the corner. "Chloe – the interview – got really bad. Bella has been keep a lot more secret than we realized. I don't want to tell you this – but you're going to find out sooner or later. Aubrey knew what Andy was doing. Or at least, she knew that he had done it once – to Bella."

"What? No – Aubey wouldn't –

"Aubrey would, and Aubrey did. You did not see our daughter crying, begging, trying desperately to keep a secret for that woman – who was supposed to protect her!"

"What?" Chloe looked horrified and uncomprehending. "What are you talking about? How could Aubey have known? Why? Why wouldn't she stop it?"

"She walked in on Andy molesting Bella. She proceeded to puke – then she came back into the room and told Bella that good little girls did not let boys touch them under their dresses. She told her that she was very bad and she was never to do it again. Then, after that psychological damage was done, I assume she told her son to stop – and she then assumed that he did. The alternative that she imagined it was still going on is too vulgar to believe."

"Beca?" Why?" Why is this happening? What did we do wrong?" Chloe was collapsing now against her wife, her sobs heavy and painful. "Why?" Beca had absolutely no answers. The best she could do was to hold her wife and listen while she cried.

A few hours later, Beca snuck out of the house while Chloe was napping – after crying herself to sleep - and each of the girls was doing the same in her own room. Emily and Stacie were still there – and Benji would be arriving any minute.

Beca knew she looked horrible – she knew she was probably behaving like a raving lunatic. So she wasn't surprised to see Jesse look at her like she had three heads. But he let her in. "Bec – what's going on? I mean – I miss you – I'm happy to see you. But the lawyer said we're not allowed –"

She looked at him sincerely, eyes shining with tears. "Jesse – I am so sorry." She walked to the stairs and let out every bit of anger she'd been holding onto for the weeks since this had started. "Aubrey! Get your ass down here!"

"Beca," Jesse said, trying to put his arms around her, to comfort her. She spun around to look at him.

"Please don't touch me. And I'm sorry that I can't let this go – and I'm sorry that this is the way you're finding out. But it's a hell of a lot better than the way I found out – listening to my daughter cry about it in an interrogation room at the police station."

"What are you talking about?"

"Beca?"

Aubrey was standing at the bottom of the stairs, her eyes rimmed with red from crying. Otherwise, she looked as perfect and well-put together as usual. Beca had been angry – she was still angry – but she broke into sobs when she looked at Aubrey – her friend – someone she had trusted for the better part of her life. Someone she had, without question, trusted with her children.

Beca took a deep, shuttering breath and looked again at Aubrey. She spoke as calmly as she could muster. "I think I might eventually be able to forgive you for knowing that you son was molesting my daughter," she said, nodding. "He is your son – and you were trying to protect him. Of course, there's the part where you were also supposed to be protecting my girls – but after a few years of therapy and maybe a new religion or two, I might be able to forgive – or even just fathom that."

"Beca – you don't understand – " Aubrey tried to interrupt but Beca shook her head and raised a finger, cutting her off.

"But what I will never forgive – or forget. The thing that will surely mean that this is the last time I will ever look at you – is that you made my daughter feel guilty about what was done to her. You told Bella," she sobbed and took another deep breath, wiping angrily at her tears. "You told Bella – my beautiful little girl – that she was bad because Andy had touched her. You made her doubt herself – you made her hate herself. You created a secret that has been tearing a hole inside her for the past ten years. You created a beautiful, kind, remarkable eighteen year old kid who can't even comfortably accept a hug from someone she loves, because it makes her feel dirty. She thought she had done something bad – because you - someone she loved and trusted – someone who was supposed to love and protect her – saw it happening – and blamed her. For that, you can go the fuck to hell."

Aubrey couldn't speak – but it didn't matter – she had nothing to say that Beca wanted to hear. She turned again to look at best friend – "I'm sorry," she whispered, running out the door before he could say a word. She was getting into her car when she heard someone calling her name. Stacey had pulled up behind her, making it impossible for her to move. She got out of her car and walked up to Beca, taking the car keys from her hand.

"Beca, sweetie, you need to come with me right now. Come on – let's go." She put her arms around Beca and physically dragged her to the car. Beca tried to explain but Stacie shushed her. "It's okay. Let's just go home." She eventually stopped fighting and allowed Stacie to guide her into the car.

It was silent for the drive, but Beca spoke once they were in her driveway. Stacie had parked but hadn't moved to get out yet. "Did Chloe tell you?" Her voice was hollow – her throat so closed from stress and held-back tears that it hurt to talk.

"Bella did," Stacie responded. "I know this is really hard to imagine right now – but she is going to be okay again. They all are."

"How?" Beca looked over and realized that Stacie's eyes were as red and raw as everyone else's. How long had she been crying? How long had she been in pain over the pain that she saw in the people she loved?

She shook her head and met Beca's eye again. "Human beings are both remarkably fucked up – and remarkably resilient."

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 – Everyone is Waiting

"Will we burn in heaven
like we do down here
will the change come
while we're waiting
everyone is waiting-"

~ Sarah McLachlan

When they entered the kitchen, Emily and Benji were sitting at the table, their hands intertwined. Their children – a beautiful little boy and little girl – were sleeping somewhere else in the house. Beca hoped that never knew what was happening. She looked at Benji and bit her lip as she met his eye. "Benji – I really appreciate that you're here. But could you check on Jesse? I think he probably needs you. He doesn't deserve - I don't want him - to be alone," she said, sobs coming again. She bit them back. "Please."

"He won't be," Benji agreed, kissing Emily and grasping Beca's hand as he passed, squeezing it gently. Stacie gave him Beca's keys and told him to call a cab and bring her car back. He nodded in agreement. Once he was gone, Stacie sat Beca at the table and put a glass of iced tea in front of her. Beca recognized the passionflower. She sipped at it gingerly – it was the first thing hitting her stomach since the day before. And Stacie knew it. She placed a plate of crackers, cheese, and grapes in front of her friend.

"I can't," Beca said softly, shaking her head.

"Yes, you can," Stacie responded, her hand firm on Beca's shoulder as she sat next to her. "We all can. We have to." She took a grape from the plate and popped it into her own mouth, sighing as she settled into the chair. Beca reached out and took one of the small pieces of fruit, rolling it between her fingers for a solid minute. Eventually, she ate it. It gave her stomach something to realize it was empty and suddenly she was famished. She ate slowly, but enough to make Stacie – and her stomach – happy.

"Is Chloe okay? I shouldn't have left her – "

"You might need to smooth that over for me so I don't lose my license. I may have given her lorazepam without her permission. She's sleeping it off." Stacie sounded slightly remorseful, but only slightly. Beca turned to her, eyes alight with amusement. Her mouth gaped open for a moment before she spoke.

"You stuck a needle in my wife's ass without her permission – and knowing how she feels about pharmaceuticals – and you think I can help you?" Beca shook her head, laughing for the first time in she didn't know when. "Good luck, my friend, good luck."

Stacie rolled her eyes. "She was being extremely difficult – and she was scaring your children." Chloe didn't do hysterical as much as she had in college – but when it did come about, Beca was usually able to talk her back to rational thinking. Beca hadn't been there.

"You go with that argument," Beca told her, still amused. "God speed." Stacey laughed too.

"Well, if I lose my license, at least I can go hungry and homeless knowing that I made you laugh." Beca nodded. She closed her eyes and shook her head. "What about the rest of them?" She asked, gesturing up the stairs.

"Vera and Poppy fell asleep in Dahlia's bed – with Dahlia in it," Emily said. "We didn't want to bother them – we didn't think you'd care." Beca shook her head. It was better that they were together anyway.

"I think Bella is still awake," Stacie told her. "She took an extra dose of Klonopin – against my orders – I promise you – so she's a little more relaxed than usual – but I think she's still awake. Pretty sure she's waiting for you." Beca sighed and took her last sip of tea. She turned to Stacie.

"Thank you for being you - and for being here – and just in general, thank you."

"Anytime," Stacie responded airily. Beca surprised her by hugging her. She hugged her back, patting her gently. Beca moved on to thank Emily and hug her as well, before taking another glass of the tea from the fridge and going upstairs.

She placed the glass on the table between Bella and Poppy's doors before going to Dahlia's room and peeking inside. It was hard to see – but once her eyes adjusted, she saw the youngest girl curled up into Vera's arms, who was curled up in Poppy's. Beca blew them a kiss and closed the door as softly as possible.

Bella was lying in bed, awake. She had headphones on and her phone rested on her stomach. Beca set the glass on the nightstand and lay next to her, picking up the device and looking at the song titles. She was listening to a playlist of lullabies. Bella lazily removed her headphones and questioningly watched Beca.

"I thought your Mom erased these?"

Bella shrugged. "I put a virus that I wrote on your computer years ago – I keep it pretty well updated. All of your music syncs to my computer." She smiled wryly. "So really, instead of looking at this like it's a bad thing – or, you know, illegal thing – you can rest assured that I saved your music." Beca laughed and rolled to her side, smiling at her beautiful daughter.

"You've never sold any of it, right?"

"No. I'm not stupid. I don't want you to lose your job."

"You've never shared it with any friends before release date?"

"Nope," Bella responded.

"Then we never had this conversation – and I want a copy of those songs. Your mom erased them from my files."

"That was pretty cold. I mean – you had cancer and stuff."

"I know. Sometimes she's mean to me. You just don't know because you live all the way in Georgia." Bella laughed. She snuggled into Beca. "She makes me eat vegetables."

"Mama," Bella groaned.

"One day – she actually suggested I go on a run with her."

"Mama, just stop." Beca laughed. She kissed her forehead. "I love you, Mama."

"I love you too, Isabella Rebecca."

"Don't call me that."

"I named you that – I can call you that whenever I want."

"I'm 18, I could so change it."

"Like you could pull off anything else." Bella giggled, a sound her mother relished. Beca stayed with her until she fell asleep, then went back to her own bedroom to get ready for a night that she feared would contain no sleep. Once she was showered and changed into a pair of pajama pants and a gray t-shirt, she climbed into bed with Chloe. She was surprised when she realized her wife was awake. Well, somewhat.

"I'm going to kill Stacie," Chloe said, her voice soft. She was exhausted – for more reasons than just the sedative. Without makeup, she had looked like a raccoon for several months – since Beca had been diagnosed with cancer. If she wasn't almost passed out right now, she would have been cleaning something, cooking something, working, checking on her children, or pacing the house relentlessly.

"She was worried about you. And you needed to relax – you have been so strong for everyone else. But you need to take care of yourself too." Chloe grimaced. Beca kissed her lips gently and pulled her closer. "Stop fighting and go to sleep."

"I don't want to."

"I know – but really, is it worth the struggle? I promise you, my love – none of this craziness is going away in the few hours you sleep. The insanity will all be here waiting for you. I promise – no major life decisions until you wake up." Beca kissed her again and smoothed a red curl from her face. It had tiny threads of silver – not enough to be noticeable unless you were very close up. Beca loved them.

Chloe eventually closed her eyes and drifted off again, aided heavily by the sedative Stacie had given her. Beca sighed softly as she rested with her wife in her arms. She didn't see how she would fall to sleep. The bedroom door cracked open, allowing light to flood in from the hall. Beca sat up and saw a dark head of curls appear. Dahlia had woken. Her eyes were bright with tears and she let out a sob when Beca motioned for her to come over. She did, climbing under the covers between the two women. "Bad dream?" Beca asked softly. Dahlia nodded, burying her face into Beca's neck. "Do you want to talk about it?" She asked, stroking the child's hair gently. Dahlia shook her head and snuggled deeper into her mother's embrace.

"Okay, love. No talking. But I need you to calm down for me – okay? Take a deep breath. In – and out." She talked Dahlia through a breathing exercise that calmed her considerably. Her sobs turned to hiccups and she had stopped trembling. She fell asleep in Beca's arms and, at some point through the night, Chloe rolled over and snuggled with them.

That night, everyone in the Beale Mitchell household eventually slept – including their guests. The Swanson household was not so lucky. After Beca had gone, Jesse had ignored all of Aubrey's attempts to speak to him. She cried – begged – and tried to explain. Finally, he turned on her. "Aubrey, you need to back off. I need time to think. And right now, I can't really look at you." At those words, she finally did leave him alone. She disappeared, still devastated, into one of the spare bedrooms. Jesse packed a bag quickly. He walked across the hall and knocked on Ben's door. The teen opened it. His headphones were on – and he was clearly attempting his very best not to be involved with what was happening in his house. He lowered the headphones to his neck when he saw it was his father.

"Ben, do me a favor and pack a bag – for four of five nights. It might not be that long – but it might be."

"Where are we going?"

"Tonight – a hotel," Jesse responded.

"You're leaving mom?"

Jesse sighed. "Right now, I need some space to figure things out. And I'm not leaving you here. So pack a bag, alright?" Ben nodded. Twenty minutes later, they were in the kitchen and Jesse was gathering a bag of granola bars, apples, water bottles, and other things they could snack on instead of just hotel and vending machine food. Benji arrived as they were preparing to leave.

"Hey, guys," he said, waving awkwardly.

"Hey, Benj," Jesse said, tiredly. He gave his friend a hug – it was good to see him. "What are you doing here?"

"Flew in with the kids last night – Emily has been here for a few days, helping." Jesse's face fell; of course Benji knew. "I thought you might need someone to talk to. Beca, actually – thought you might."

"Now's not the best time," Jesse told him, looking back at Ben. "We're actually just heading out." He nodded to the suitcase by the door.

Benji nodded. "I'll come with you," he offered. "We can grab a drink." Jesse nodded. Benji followed them to a nearby hotel and Jesse checked them into a suite. Ben took one of the rooms and closed the door, shutting himself in with his music and his smart phone. Jesse followed Benji to the hotel bar and they both sat at a booth and ordered a beer.

"I guess you heard everything?" Jesse asked, once the waiter was gone.

Benji shrugged. "I only know what Emily told me. No details. I know that Andy's being accused of some pretty heavy stuff."

"Andy admitted to doing it," Jesse told him. "He hurt all of those girls. Those little girls – who I watched grow up. Who I have always loved like my own. And he hurt them. And now – he's almost eighteen years old. What eighteen year old finds an eight year old attractive? Or did he just do it to be cruel? And where did he get this from? I thought we had done a pretty good job raising our boys. I mean – they've never been in much trouble, have always gotten good grades – I just, I don't get it. I feel like I don't even know who he is. What did we do wrong?"

"Nothing," Benji answered. "Sometimes things are beyond your control."

"Letting him get away with it for ten years – that wasn't beyond Aubrey's control," Jesse said angrily. "How could she do that? How could she cover for him? Knowing that he could be hurting other girls?" Benji wished he had an answer – but he didn't. He stayed with Jesse that night, crashing on the sofa in the suite after listening to his friend talk for a good portion of the early morning hours.

The next morning, Chloe woke after Beca, which was surprising because it was only eight – the brunette was still not a morning person and when no meeting or daughter required it, she didn't wake early. The sun was filtering in through the curtains and it gave Chloe a bit of hope as her eyes fluttered open. She rolled to her side and saw that Dahlia was still in bed too, curled up in a tiny ball. But the little girl was awake, watching her. Bright blue eyes met sea green. "What's up, sweetie?"

"Nothing," Dahlia said softly.

"Have you been awake long?" Dahlia shrugged. Chloe reached out to brush a dark brown curl behind her ear. Her hair needed washed that day – she had been doing it herself and Chloe could tell she was missing some of the shampoo when she rinsed. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine," Dahlia answered.

"Really?" Chloe asked. "You look a little sad to me."

"I just want to stop talking about all of this stuff."

"I know it's hard," Chloe told her. "But you really have been so brave. And someday soon, it's going to be behind us. We just have to hold on a little bit longer." They snuggled together for a few minutes and both looked up when the door opened to reveal Beca, carrying a tray that smelled delicious.

Beca smiled. "How long have you two sleepy-heads been awake?"

"Not long," Chloe said, sitting up against the headboard. "To what do we owe breakfast in bed? And you being up this early voluntarily?" She fluffed pillows behind herself and Dahlia and Beca put the tray over her lap.

"You just deserve it," Beca told her. "And Dahlia was lucky enough to wake up next to you," she added with a wink to the little girl. "Honestly, we should just pay Emily to stay with us and cook all the time – that french toast is amazing."

"I think Emily's PhD would be wasted if she spent all her time cooking French toast for us," Chloe answered with a smile. Beca sat at the end of the bed while Chloe and Dahlia ate, sharing the healthy portions on the tray. When they were finished, Beca clapped her hands. "Okay – both of you, get dressed. We're leaving in half an hour. Dahlia; that hair needs washed – I'll braid it for you or blow dry it before we leave – but make sure to rinse it really well, okay?"

"Where are we going?" Dahlia asked.

"It's a surprise," Beca told her. "Go," she said, shooing her from the bed. Dahlia disappeared to her own room to shower while Beca turned back to Chloe. "It's probably a terrible idea, but Em wants to take the kids to Disney – so I thought we should tag along. It might get everyone's minds off – everything."

"You shouldn't be on your feet all day," Chloe chided.

"I think Disneyland might have a few benches," Beca answered with a smile. "Come on," she said, picking up the tray – "get ready – we're leaving in twenty five now." Chloe prepared herself for the day while Beca took the dishes back to the kitchen and then went to Dahlia to help her select an outfit and do her hair.

They fit the six kids and four adults into two cars – Stacie and Chloe with the twins and Dahlia and Beca and Emily with Vera, Grace, and Jake. Benji begged out of the day, planning instead to stay with Ben and Jesse. They had all grumbled about being surprised, but the younger kids – and Vera – were thrilled when they arrived in the multi-acre parking lot. Bella and Poppy smiled when they saw the look of awe and excitement on Grace, Jake, and Dahlia's faces. None of the three had been to Disneyland before.

Despite their preoccupation, the day actually was a lot of fun. Beca was not up to her usual energy level, so she and Chloe kept a slower pace, the girls circling back to them every time they got off a ride or out of an exhibit. Dahlia held tightly to Bella's hand as they traversed the park. Grace held onto Vera while Jake followed behind with his mother and Stacie keeping watch. He refused to hold any hands – because girls were still yucky at his current stage in life.

Although they were all a little quieter than usual – especially the twins – the excitement of Grace and Jake and even Dahlia was contagious. They had a relatively nice day, especially considering what had come just before it.

The following day, Beca and Chloe woke to a voicemail from the district attorney – Andy had been arrested and had pled guilty to all counts. The girls would not need to testify – unless they chose to do so at his sentencing hearing, which – at his request for expediency – was being held the following week. They gathered their girls into the living room. "We just got off the phone with the district attorney," Chloe told them.

"She's the lawyer who charges people with crimes," Beca explained, not sure if Dahlia knew what they were talking about.

"Andy pled guilty to all of the counts against him," Chloe told them quickly, getting it over with as swiftly as possible. There was silence.

Finally, Poppy spoke. "What does that mean?"

There was always a chance that there would be a trial," Beca told them. "But not anymore. Andy pled guilty – so no one has to testify against him or go to court."

"How long will he be in jail?" Bella asked.

"We don't know yet," Beca responded. "When the DA called, she told us that his sentencing hearing is next Tuesday at 9AM. You girls are allowed to speak to the judge, if you want to – against him or on his behalf," she added.

"And if we don't?" Vera posed.

"Then the judge will use the information he already has to decide Andy's punishment."

"I'm not saying anything," Poppy responded almost immediately. "I've said enough. He's not going to be able to hurt anyone else – that's good enough for me."

"The California code is widely interpreted," Bella responded. She had done her research in the past few days. "The judge could give him probation if he really wants to. And he could, since most of the charges are from when he was really young. Just because he pled guilty doesn't mean he'll be kept away from other little girls. I want to speak."

"It is completely up to you," Beca told them both. "No one is going to hold it against you – either way." Bella and Poppy exchanged glances; they were not going to agree on this one.

Later that afternoon, Chloe rang the familiar doorbell three times. She called Aubrey's phone but it went straight to voicemail. Finally, she used her key to enter. There was no one on the main floor of the house. But that wasn't surprising – Benji had told them that Jesse and Ben were staying at a nearby hotel. Stacie had offered them two of her guest rooms, but Jesse had refused. He was still trying to work things through in his mind.

Chloe headed to the master bedroom but Aubrey was still not there. She went checked the other rooms. Aubrey was in a guest room on the second floor, in bed, staring at the ceiling. Chloe closed the door behind her and the blonde didn't even blink.

Chloe didn't know what she was going to say – she still didn't. She stared at her lifelong friend and froze for a moment. Then, she made a split second decision and her face hardened. "Sit up," she ordered. Aubrey didn't move.

"Aubrey Elizabeth Posen – sit your ass up, right now," Chloe said, her voice sharper and angrier. Aubrey did then, curling her arms around her knees to take up as little space as possible.

"Just leave, Chloe," she said, her voice hollow. "There's nothing I can say that can make this any better. And Beca already yelled at me. I know I'm a horrible person. I've known that for a long time."

"How in the hell could you just let this happen? What Andy did was not your fault – but letting him get away with it? And what you told Bella? How could you?"

"I was scared," Aubrey admitted. "It's not a good excuse. But it's the truth. Jesse and I were going through a rough time. That kind of scandal would have torn us apart – and Andy was such a good boy. I thought if I told him how wrong it was, he would stop."

"And Bella?"

"I snapped," Aubrey admitted. "I wanted it to be her fault – because then it wasn't Andy's fault. It wasn't my fault. I know how wrong it was – I've been ashamed every day since."

"Not enough to do anything about it," Chloe said coldly. "For years, you've watched Bella have panic attacks – you've listened to me cry about feeling so helpless over Vera's food issues and Bella's cutting. How could you just let that happen and not do something?" Chloe sank to her knees, crumpling into tears. Her anger had no roots at that moment. She wasn't angry – she was devastated. She was confused and sick and sad. She feared for her daughters – and still couldn't fathom how it had happened – and how it had remained a secret for so long. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her and she couldn't regain solid footing.

The room vibrated with the tense quiet. The only sound was Chloe's cries. Aubrey's eye were red and raw, but she hadn't cried in hours. She didn't move to comfort Chloe and didn't try to explain herself. Eventually, Chloe calmed herself. She sat back on the carpet. She turned her bright blue eyes – even brighter with tears – to Aubrey.

"How could this happen? How does something like this happen? What did I do wrong? How can the actions of one person cost me my best friend – and wreck my entire family?"

"I don't have any answers that are going to help you," Aubrey answered. "I'm sorry." She curled back into bed, turning her back to Chloe. Chloe sat on the soft carpet in silence for a long time before getting up and leaving. She didn't look back at her best friend – she simply walked to her car, got in, and drove home. She sat in the driveway and fixed her makeup, trying to hide the fact that she'd been crying. Fooling anyone was unlikely; she was a loud and ugly crier.

Beca was in the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of water. She looked immediately concerned. "I was worried. You okay? You don't usually just take off."

"I just needed some time."

"Chloe, you can tell me if you went to see Aubrey. She's been your best friend for almost your entire life – no matter what she did, I don't expect you to give that up if you can find it in yourself to forgive her."

"I can barely look at her," Chloe said, eyes raising to meet Beca's. "I don't see maintaining our friendship as a possibility." She almost choked on unshed tears. Beca handed her the glass of water and rubbed her back as she sipped. Chloe eventually pushed the glass away and sagged against her wife. "How is this ever going to be okay?"

Beca shrugged and smiled sadly, whispering into Chloe's ear. "I have no idea," she admitted. She clasped Chloes hands in her own. "But we're together. And as terrible as it was – the girls are safe now. That means something." They went together to their bedroom and spent the rest of the afternoon curled up in each other's arms. No one bothered them – Emily made dinner and kept an eye on their girls.

Two days later, they were still living in a state of suspended animation. There was nothing to do until the sentencing hearing – but it was almost impossible to live their normal lives. The girls were missing school, Beca hadn't been working much since the beginning of her fight with cancer – and Chloe had finally left her job for good. Although she loved it, she couldn't concentrated and knew that taking another extended leave would be unfair to her students.

Vera hadn't touched the piano for three years before the left for Barden. Beca knew from reports from Emily and the other girls that she had been practicing again – but she hadn't expected to walk down the stairs mid-morning and find the child in the living room at the baby grand. They were surprisingly the only people in the house. Stacie had returned to work and had only called half a dozen times the day before. Emily and her family had left the night before to return to their own lives in Georgia – sans Benji, who was sticking around for a few more days with Jesse. Chloe had taken Dahlia to her appointment with the psychologist and the twins had been sent on a spa day. Bella had been forced – Poppy had been thrilled. Vera had the option but instead chose to stay home with Beca.

The brunette sat down on a teal accent chair not far from the instrument and watched as her third daughter stared at it. "Are you waiting for it to come alive and bite you?" Beca asked. "You know, the tuner was here last month – so I think he would have found any gremlins that were hiding inside."

"Mama," Vera said, rolling her eyes.

Beca smiled softly. "I'm just wondering why you're sitting there and not playing."

"The piano bench is a legitimate seat," Vera responded.

Beca shrugged and nodded. "It's not the most comfortable spot in the house – but I suppose so." She curled her legs under her and settled in, eyes trying to meet Vera's. But the redhead was interested in everything else in the room – including her own hands. She refused to meet her mother's imploring gaze. "Why did you stop playing the piano?" Beca asked her.

It was a question that she had pondered for three years. At the time it had happened, they hadn't wanted to push her. Vera shrugged. "I got busy, I guess." Beca knew that wasn't the whole story, but Vera looked uncomfortable, so she didn't challenge the answer.

"Aunt Em said you've been playing at school?"

Vera nodded. "Sometimes," she agreed. Beca had heard that 'daily' was a more appropriate description.

"I think we have some time before Mom and Dahlia get back – and a few hours before the twins. Do you want to do something? Go for a walk? Do you need anything at the mall?"

"Are you offering to take me shopping?" Vera asked. "Who are you – and what have you done with my mom?"

Beca laughed. "I think I'm just going a little stir-crazy. We've been sort of sticking to the house these last few days – I need to get out. "What do you say?"

"I wouldn't say no to the music story," Vera responded. Beca's eyes lit up. There was no one other than Vera who would dare go into the music store with her. Even Chloe didn't enjoy browsing sheet music and old records and CDs for hours.

"Let's go," Beca said, standing quickly. She grimaced as her head spun and Vera looked worried, quickly making it to her side. Beca shook her head. "I'm fine," she promised. "I just have to remember not to move so quickly. The vertigo is still sticking around."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"Promise," Beca said with a soft smile. She kissed Vera's temple and they parted ways to get ready to leave. Ten minutes later, they were out the door. The sixteen-year-old was reluctantly behind the wheel. She had her learner's permit, but she hadn't spent a ton of time practicing – Emily took her a few times and so did Beca, but Vera didn't really like driving. But the music store was close – and they didn't need to traverse any huge highways. They made it safely.

The music store was independently owned – and it was a bit dusty and very crowded. It reminded Beca a bit of the radio station where she and Jesse had spent a good portion of their college years stacking CDs. She and Vera silently sifted through sheet music – the newest pop songs mixed in with everything from the classics to choir hymns. After two hours or so, Beca had a large enough pile that she knew she should stop – any more and Chloe might be unhappy. They were running out of room in the cabinets that held their music. She found Vera in the back room with the instruments, her own selected stack of music sitting on the top of a baby grand. She was sitting at a beautiful hammered dulcimer, playing it quite proficiently. Beca watched from the doorway. She smiled; the child looked so at peace. She hadn't seen her look that way in a long time.

The owner of the store appeared behind her and smiled. He had acquired the store only the year before; he didn't know Beca. The previous owner had known her well. He nodded at Vera. "Not much interest in that thing, usually."

"It's beautiful," Beca told him. The piece was made of solid cherry wood. The edges and stand were carved in smooth, elegant patterns. Its sound was perfect.

"How long has she played?"

"She never has," she answered simply. "How much is it?"

"That one is pretty pricy," he told her. "It was actually handmade for a customer who ended up not wanting it. It's not the normal beginning instrument. I can get you a price on a simpler one – "

"How much is that one?" Beca asked him, raising her eyebrows. He told her and she nodded. "We'll take it. Does it come with the stool and hammers?"

"Two sets of hammers, dampers, an extra set of strings, the stand, an electronic tuner, and the stool," he told her. She dug through her purse and handed him her credit card and driver's license. He looked at the license and then looked at her. "Mrs. Mitchell, I apologize I didn't recognize you."

"I actually prefer when people don't," she told him with a teasing smile.

"It's an honor to meet you."

"Thank you. We love your store."

He nodded bashfully. "I'm glad. Let me ring up your purchases. The music too?" She nodded and handed him her stack. She took the stack that Vera had left and handed it to him as well. The teen, realizing that she was being watched, had stopped playing.

"Are you ready?" She asked, standing from the instrument. She looked back at it with one quick, longing glance that her mother caught.

"Almost," Beca told her. "Just checking out. Is there anything else you want?" Vera shook her head.

The owner came back with Beca's cards and handed her a clipboard to sign the receipt. She looked it over quickly and did. "Mrs. Mitchell, it might take a few minutes to pack that up," he told her. "The case is included in the price."

"Great," she said with a smile. "And that's fine – we're not in a hurry."

"What is he packing up?" Vera asked, confused.

"The dulcimer," Beca answered, her expression giving away nothing.

Vera's eyes widened. "Mama – no – I don't need it – "

"I know you don't need it," Beca said with a smile. "Actually, that would be a really weird thing for anyone to need. But I want you to have it. So now you do."

"Thank you," Vera said softly, leaning in to hug her mother firmly.

"You are so welcome," Beca responded. An hour later, the tiny brunette watched from the sofa as Vera set up the instrument to demonstrate for Chloe and Dahlia. Chloe's fingers ran over the smooth edges of the detailed carvings.

"This is gorgeous," she said, looking over at Beca. Beca simply nodded, watching Vera beam as she began playing, explaining to Dahlia what she was doing. Chloe crossed the living room to sit next to her wife.

"Usually you just come home with too much sheet music."

"Oh, I did that too," Beca assured her, nodding at the five-inch thick stack of music sitting on the coffee table. "I know I should have talked to you – it was a little expensive – but you didn't see her sitting there playing it – "

"I see now," Chloe told her softly. She snuggled into Beca's side and hugged her close. "I'm glad you bought it." Bella simply smiled when she walked in the door and saw Vera at the dulcimer, still playing around. Dahlia hadn't left her side and was holding one of the hammers, hitting strings when Vera told her to.

"New instrument?" Bella asked, looking at her mothers.

"Spur of the moment decision," Beca told her. "I'm sure Vera will let you play with it – eventually."

Bella laughed. "It's nice to see her playing again," she admitted. "She's been playing at school – but this is the first time I've seen her play anything at home – in a long time."

Poppy walked in from the kitchen then, holding a glass of water. She studied the scene carefully. "So, if Vera gets an expensive dulcimer, can I have an expensive – something?"

"Depends on what it is," Beca told her. "But I take it from your lack of description that you don't actually need anything right now."

Poppy shrugged. "How in the hell did she learn to play that thing?"

"Language," Chloe warned.

Beca shrugged. "I have no idea. I'm pretty sure she never touched one before today. I left her alone in the music store for about an hour – and this is what I found her doing." She was back to playing with both hammers – Dahlia watching in awe. After dinner, Vera reluctantly allowed her sisters to look at and play with the instrument. Poppy got frustrated quickly and moved over to sit at the piano – an instrument she knew like the back of her hand. Bella, though. She was delighted with the sounds and quickly picked up on the chords. She wasn't playing as well as Vera, but she was close.

Chloe had to eventually disperse them around nine that evening to tell them to go to their rooms and get ready for bed. Vera looked worriedly at the instrument. "Nothing is going to hurt it," Beca promised, a laugh in her voice. Vera turned reluctantly from the instrument and started toward the stairs. She stopped midway and turned, running back to hug Beca.

"Thank you," she whispered. She hugged Chloe and repeated the thanks. Both women told her that she was more than welcome. Beca felt there was more to the story – so when they went to tuck her in, she saw on the bed next to Vera.

"Love – I'm going to ask again. And I want you to answer this time. Why did you stop playing the piano a few years ago? You clearly love it." Chloe sat on the edge of the bed, facing them both.

Vera was quiet. She stared at her fingers for a few moments and shrugged. "I don't know. I guess – I just sort of felt like I was supposed to do something important, like being an engineer or a doctor. Dr. Beasley said I was too smart to just be a musician." Beca's blood boiled, but she kept herself outwardly calm. Dr. Beasley had been Vera's favorite teacher – her teacher for physics and chemistry.

"You are not too smart to do anything," Chloe told her. "You are smart enough to do anything you want," she clarified, changing the words around so they meant the right thing. "You love music – and if that's what you want to focus on – then you should. You can't live your life to fit in with what others want you to be."

"You wouldn't mind if I changed my major?" Vera asked.

Beca made a face at her. "Have you met us? You do know that I'm a musician and music producer, right? It's sort of my career. I make music. Why in the world would we have a problem with you choosing to do the same?"

"I'm not as good as you," Vera told her.

Beca laughed. "Love, you are far better than I was at your age." They talked for a long time and both mothers discovered – with very little surprise – that Vera was miserable in her engineering classes. Her relief at finally telling them the truth was palpable.

Walking back to their own bedroom, Beca and Chloe stopped when they heard noise from Dahlia's room – they had put her to bed long before. Chloe pushed the door open. Dahlia was in bed, but two steps into the room confirmed that she wasn't sleeping.

"Sorry," she whispered guiltily.

"What was that?" Chloe asked.

"I dropped something," Dahlia told them. They glanced at one another and moved closer to the bed. Beca immediately found what she had dropped – a very heavy flashlight. She was still clutching in in her hands.

It was from one of the kitchen drawers. "Why is this up here, love?" Beca asked, sitting on the edge of the bed. Dahlia shrugged. Beca leaned forward to stroke her hair and hook the locks gently behind her ear. "There's nothing wrong with wanting a nightlight," she told her softly. "You just had to tell us. We'll find you one tomorrow, okay?"

"It's for babies," she said sadly.

"I would disagree," Chloe told her. "I had one until I married this lady," she said, pointing at Beca. "I like sleeping with a light on – she doesn't."

"I prefer it dark," Beca admitted. "But there's nothing wrong with wanting a light. I promise. We'll work on that tomorrow." She thought they already had several in one of the drawers in the kitchen – but they could have been moved. She also had a sneaking suspicion that one of them had ended up going with Vera to Emily's house.

"Why don't you come stay with us for tonight?" Chloe suggested. They both watched the little girl sag with relief. Chloe held out her arms and let the little girl crawl into them. She carried Dahlia to their bed while Beca followed with her penguin, teddy bear, and book. While Chloe prepared for bed, Beca read to Dahlia, who was wound up again. When she crawled into bed, they traded places. By the time Beca returned, the lights were off. Chloe held Dahlia in her arms. Beca kissed them both on the cheek and slid into bed on Dahlia's other side. "It was supposed to get better when they told. Isn't that what we always tell our kids? Giving up secrets makes you feel better."

"It will," Beca promised. "It just takes time." She snuggled close and sighed contentedly.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21 – Back to You

"Something always brings me back to you.
It never takes too long.
No matter what I say or do
I'll still feel you here 'til the moment I'm gone."

~ Sara Bareilles

Alexis was getting nervous; Bella hadn't responded to a text, call, or email in five days. Stacie had been answering but was very distracted and changed the subject every time Alexis asked about her friend. Finally, after she felt that there was probably a hole in her stomach from the stress and worry, she called Poppy. Camille, tired of seeing her best friend moping and on edge, actually ordered her to call Poppy; but Alexis didn't take orders, so she was ignoring that part of the conversation. She took a deep breath and called. The redhead answered almost immediately.

"Alexis," she said, in a rather stoic and noncommittal greeting.

"Hi Poppy. Are you guys okay? I've been trying to call Bella for days – "

"No one is dead," Poppy told her, interrupting. "Calm down."

"As nice as that is to know, that doesn't make me feel better," Alexis said dryly. If Poppy was going to be snippy, she wasn't going to hold back her own attitude. "Why isn't Bella answering me? Is she upset with me?" Alex didn't know if the kiss had upset Bella more than she'd realized – or if her telling Bella that she wasn't going away freaked her out – or if it had nothing to do with her at all. She was in the dark and it was driving her insane.

"Why would she be upset with you?" Poppy asked suspiciously.

"It's just weird – I know you guys have something major going on, but even when your mom was really sick – she still answered pretty quickly."

"She's going through some stuff," Poppy admitted cryptically.

"Thank you for clearing that up," Alexis answered disdainfully. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Come on, Poppy. Give me something. Can you tell me anything? Can you get her on the phone?"

"I'm pretty sure my moms took her phone away," Poppy told her. "She's been having panic attacks lately – they're trying to cut down on the stress. Apparently technology is stressful."

"Is she okay?"

"She will be." Poppy continued to be less than helpful. If she knew when they were coming back to school, she didn't share. The following week was spring break, so it would be at least another week before they would come back anyway. Alexis' heart thudded painfully in her chest as she thought about the possibility that they wouldn't come back.

Leaving her half-written history paper behind, she walked nervously across campus to the building where Emily's office was located. From her time planning activities for the Bellas, she knew that the tall brunette had open office hours that day – and Alexis paced the empty hall as she waited for the current student to leave. It took about twenty minutes but a freshman exited, laptop and textbook in her arms. The door was slightly ajar and Alexis knocked.

"Come in!" Emily called. She looked up as Alexis entered and closed the door. She sat across from Emily at the small oak table. "Alexis," she said, hiding her surprise fairly well. "How are you?"

"Not that great, actually. I know it's probably not my business – but I wanted to ask you about Bella and Poppy – I haven't been able to get in touch with Bella for almost a week. And Poppy isn't saying anything. And Stacie keeps changing the subject – and I'm worried."

Emily looked sympathetic. "The whole family is going through a lot right now," she told her. "I don't think Bella is purposefully ignoring you – I think her moms took away her phone and laptop."

"That's what Poppy said."

Emily picked up her phone and typed in a message. She set it aside again and looked over at Alexis. "That's all I can do," she told her. "Hopefully something comes of it. I'm sorry I can't tell you more – "

"That's okay," Alexis answered. "I wasn't expecting you to tell me everything – I just want to know that Bella is okay."

"She will be," Emily answered with a sympathetic smile. Alexis didn't like that answer – she had heard it twice now. And the general understanding she took away from that statement was that Bella was not okay at the moment. And that made Alexis feel extremely frustrated and useless because she was in no position to help.

Alexis thanked Emily and left the office and building. She was half way back to the Bella house when her phone rang. She saw who it was and walked over to a nearby bench and sat down before answering it. She sighed gently before speaking.

"Hello?"

"You're worrying," Stacie said, without greeting.

"Wouldn't you be – if you had no idea what was going on?" The older woman didn't answer.

"They're okay," she promised. "If very stressed."

"Are they coming back?" Alexis asked meekly, not wanting to even think about the alternative possibilities. Now that she had Bella – she was pretty sure her heart would shatter from losing her, even as just a friend. Saying she had grown attached to the younger girl was an understatement.

"I don't know for sure," Stacie told her softly. "But I think so. Did you try Poppy? I'm sure she still has her phone." Alexis described her conversation with the redheaded twin and Stacie's eyes narrowed – it didn't sound normal. But she brushed it off and refocused on Alexis "What are you doing over spring break?"

"Research paper on the works of Margaret Atwood," she said dryly. "And apparently, worrying."

"Why don't you come out here?" Stacie suggested. "I'll send you a ticket – "

"You don't have to do that –"

"I'm well aware of what I do and do not have to do, Alexis." Her stern tone stopped the young woman's arguments on that topic. That had argued before over money and the like; Alexis knew she couldn't win.

"I don't want to intrude," she answered.

"You won't be intruding," Stacie promised. "I'll talk to Beca to check – but I'm sure Bella would like to see you. I'll send you a ticket sometime today. I'll pick you up at the airport on Saturday – let me know if you need anything else."

"Thank you," Alexis answered, somewhat relieved.

"I'm sorry I didn't realize how worried you were. I wasn't trying to keep you in the dark – I've just been distracted. We all have." When the ended the conversation, Alexis felt somewhat better. She hurried back to her room and quickly packed before going to her computer and finishing her history paper.

Once Stacie had finished speaking with Alexis, she called Beca.

"Hey," the brunette said. She was standing in her studio, trying to decide if there was anything she could concentrated enough to work on. The current answer was no.

"Hey, Becs. How is everyone?"

"We're okay. Getting a little restless. I think it will be easier to start feeling – not so frozen – once the hearing is over on Tuesday."

"You're probably right," Stacie agreed. "So – I got a message from Emily. Do you still have Bella's phone and computer?"

"Yeah," Beca responded. "I know you think it's draconian – but she does better without them. She's calmer. And she's not complaining. Why do you ask?"

"Because that leaves Alexis on the east coast - climbing the walls, not knowing if her friend is alright. She was desperate enough today to go and find Emily."

"She hasn't tried Poppy?"

"I think your eldest redhead it a little more calculating than you give her credit for," Stacie responded. "I'm not sure why she's messing with Alexis, but I think she is." Beca sighed – Poppy had not been herself, any more than any of them had. She and Bella had been at each other's throats since they had decided on very different courses of action when it came to speaking at the hearing. Poppy was not usually mean-spirited, but Beca hadn't liked her attitude the past few days. "But I didn't call to get Poppy into trouble," she added. "I invited Alexis to California for spring break. Are you okay with that?"

"Of course," Beca answered. "I think Bella will be happy to see her. I'll talk to Poppy. But she is staying with you, right? Because I think – "

"Oh, I know," Stacie responded before Beca could finished. "I'm certain nothing is coming of it – but I haven't seen such a strong of case of unresolved sexual tension since you and Chloe were both pretending to be straight – "

"That's enough Stacie."

The taller woman laughed. "It's okay, Becs. You keep on pretending to be asexual. We'll all keep playing along. And it's fine about the girls – I invited Alexis – I was planning to have her stay with me."

None of her children were in their rooms, so Beca continued down the stairs to see who she could find. When she walked into the living room, she found a surprising scene. Poppy, who had been sitting with her toes on the coffee table, painting them, stood up and stomped across the room. She grabbed one of the dulcimer hammers out of Vera's hand and was about to throw it at the wall when Beca snapped out of her shock and yelled.

"Poppy!" Poppy stopped, her hand dropping immediately to her side and the beautifully carved piece of wood falling softly to the floor. Vera picked it up and held it protectively to her chest, glaring at her sister. "What is going on in here?" Beca demanded, stepping out of the hall and into the room. A slight look of guilt passed through her eyes but was quickly replaced by anger.

"I'm tired of listening to that thing. I asked her to stop – "

"We have like fifteen other rooms in this house," Beca responded. "It didn't occur to you to move to one of them?" Poppy glared and said nothing. "We do not snatch things, throw things, or destroy property in this house." Beca pointed up the staircase. "Go to your room – now." The eighteen-year-old stomped up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door. Luckily, Dahlia and Chloe were out. Bella, though, had been watching from the entry to the kitchen since Beca had first yelled. She grimaced at the slam of the door and gave her mother an apologetic expression before turning back into the kitchen with a small bowl of yogurt in her hand.

Beca closed her eyes and forced herself to take several deep breaths. She was angry and she was very well aware of it. When she opened them again, Vera hadn't moved. Crossing the room, Beca gently extracted the hammers from her fingers and drew her into a hug. "She didn't ask me to stop," Vera told her softly. "She just came over and grabbed it – she looked so angry – "

"She's having a bad day, love," Beca said soothingly. "You didn't do anything wrong." Vera was shaken. No matter how many times Beca told her she was allowed to play, she couldn't anymore – she put the hammers back into their case and moved over to the sofa, picking up her tablet that had been sitting on an end table. Beca tried to talk to her, but she was freezing her out – she was mad at Poppy, a little frightened over the situation – and she wasn't ready to talk about either.

When Beca made it to Poppy's room, the door was locked. "Poppy Alexandra Beale Mitchell," she called sternly. "You have two choices. The one where you don't unlock this door is not going to be pleasant," she warned. Less than a minute later, she heard the lock click and draw out of place. When she entered, Poppy was back on her bed, sitting cross legged and glaring at her computer. Beca closed it and set it on a table by the door. "That's mine for now," she told her calmly. Poppy glared but said nothing. Beca pulled the desk chair over and sat facing her daughter. "Can you explain to me what happened downstairs?"

"No," Poppy responded.

Beca's brows raised. "No – you can't explain? Or no – you're choosing not to?"

"I really don't want to talk to you right now," Poppy responded.

"That's fine," Beca responded. "You can stay right here until you change your mind – and until you decide that you're going to apologize to your sister." She held out her hand. "Phone."

"It's my phone – "

"I believe my name on the bill says differently," Beca responded. "Now, Poppy." The teen held short of slamming the device into her mother's hand, she knew that would earn her the full wrath of both mothers (they were absolutely against any kind of physical displays of anger – slamming doors got the girls into more trouble than swearing ever had) – but the attitude was still at full blast. Beca slipped her tablet off of her nightstand on the way out the door, leaving with all of Poppy's precious technology. The items went into her studio and the door was locked.

When Beca walked back into the living room, Vera was curled up on the sofa, her head in Bella's lap. The older girl was reading a thick book while Vera stared glassily at a program on the television. "What do you ladies want for dinner?" Beca asked, knowing from their demeanors that neither was ready or willing to talk.

"I just ate Yogurt," Bella told her.

"Which is a snack – not a meal," Beca replied. "And dinner is in like two hours – you can eat something again." She looked at Vera. "V, what do you want?" Vera looked thoughtful. Eventually, she looked up at her mother hopefully.

"Can we have chicken puffs?" It was a recipe that they had no more than once or twice a year – it had been one of their favorite dishes that Sheila made – but it was full of butter and cream cheese and Chloe usually balked at having largely unhealthy meals when they weren't eating out. Beca normally agreed with her. But a few times a year, they made an exception.

"I think we can do that," Beca responded with a smile. Vera smiled back, brightly. Beca walked into the kitchen and began pulling out ingredients. She texted Chloe, who sent back a smiley face in response – she was onboard for artery-clogging creamy goodness.

Bella joined Beca after a bit and helped by making a salad and setting the kitchen table. "Aunt Stacie called me a little while ago," Beca told her. "Alexis is worried. Love – we took away your phone to help – not to punish you. If you wanted to call – "

"I didn't know what to say," Bella responded, looking up from her task of folding napkins. "I knew I could have asked for it back," she admitted. She shrugged. "But what am I supposed to say?"

"About what, exactly?" Beca asked, sitting down at the table.

Bella looked around the room, checking the doorways, her eyes flitting from place to place, never finding purchase. Eventually, she sighed and spoke, looking back in the direction of her mother. "Before we left Georgia – she kissed me. I mean – I kissed her too. It wasn't unwanted – it was just scary. And I freak out every time I think about it."

"I understand that," Beca admitted honestly. "Did you have a chance to talk to her about it?"

Bella nodded. "I pretty much told her that I'm not ready for any kind of relationship and I don't know if I ever will be."

"What did she say?"

"That she would wait," Bella said, sitting down with a sigh of exasperation. Beca bit back the smile tugging at the corner of her lips. She leaned over and kissed Bella's temple.

"Love, it sounds like you might have found one of the good ones. If she's willing to wait – as long as she's not pressuring you – then let her wait. Who knows what can happen. Your mom waited for four years while I dated Uncle Jesse and figured things out – and then another year for – " she stopped herself short. "Which is not a conversation for the kitchen. But it's okay sometimes to let someone care about you, even if you're not sure if you're ready to reciprocate."

Bella shook her head and made a face. "It's so creepy thinking of you with Uncle Jesse," she said. Beca laughed.

"It wasn't that creepy," Beca said. "We were just best friends who kissed sometimes." She shrugged. Her relationship with Jesse was nothing she regretted. She loved Chloe more than she ever thought it possible to love another human being – but her time with Jesse had been a time of exploring herself – figuring out who she was – before she was ready for a commitment and dedication as heavy as what she had with Chloe.

Beca allowed Poppy out of her room for dinner and she was sullen, but the rest of the family was able to converse and keep it pretty light. Vera and Dahlia were particularly delighted by dinner – and Bella actually had a second helping.

After dinner, Beca filled Chloe in on Poppy's outburst. "That's not like her," Chloe responded, her expression pained.

"I know," Beca responded. "We need to talk to her – you up for it?"

Chloe nodded reluctantly. She really wasn't ready for any deep conversations at the moment – but she knew Poppy needed them. They found their eldest daughter in her bedroom, sprawled across the bed with a book in her hand. She wasn't reading it at the moment – but her finger was keeping a place marked. She sat up when she saw Beca and Chloe enter the room. Her face did little to hide her annoyance.

"You might want to take that glare down a bit," Beca warned. Poppy said nothing, simply set her book on the nightstand and crossed her arms over her chest. Chloe sat at the end of the bed facing her and Beca pulled up the desk chair.

"Poppy – what happened today with Vera?" Chloe asked softly.

"I don't know," she said, irritably. She sighed. "I was annoyed. It just happened."

"It's not going to happen again," Beca told her. "I know it's been really hard lately – but taking it out on your sister is not acceptable."

Poppy said nothing. "Is this about the hearing?" Chloe asked finally.

"I don't want to talk about it," Poppy said angrily. "Can you just leave me alone?"

Chloe looked at Beca, who was also unsure of how to proceed. "No," Beca said simply. "Because we love you – and we know that this isn't you. And we can't help unless you talk to us."

"There's nothing you can do," Poppy told them. "I'm tired of talking about all this crap. It happened – it's over – there's nothing we can do but try to move on – but how can we do that when we're stuck here doing nothing? I don't want to talk about it anymore – I don't want to think about it anymore – I just want to move on."

Chloe pursed her lips, studying her daughter before speaking again. "Poppy – it's okay to want to move on – it's a good thing. But you can't ignore what's happened. And you can't carry around all this anger." Poppy shut them out then, refusing to continue any type of conversation. They eventually gave up for the evening – telling her they loved her and leaving her to her own thoughts.

That night, Bella knocked on her mother's bedroom door and waited for an answer. Beca opened it, revealing that they were preparing for bed. She already had on a pair of yoga pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Chloe had just exited the shower and was inside the open walk-in closet in her robe.

"Hey, Love. What's up?"

"Can I have my phone back for a few minutes?" Beca nodded and pointed up. Bella followed her into her studio and watched Beca pull it from a locked drawer.

"Just bring it back to me when you're done – or you can slide it under the door if you prefer."

"Mama, you'll step on it."

Beca nodded with an amused smile. "You're probably right. You'd better just bring it right to me." She left Bella alone and the teen looked at the object in her hand. It seemed foreign after almost a week without it. She eventually sighed and powered it on. She dialed it and walked out of her mother's studio, wanting her own private space. She was back in her bedroom by the time Alexis answered, breathlessly. "Hello?"

"Hi, Alex," she said meekly.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm sorry I scared you," Bella responded, not answering the question. "My moms took away my phone – and computer." She paused; it wasn't fair or true to blame them. "They would have let me call – but I didn't know what to say. I'm sorry. It was childish – you didn't do anything wrong. I'm just – overwhelmed."

"You don't have to apologize," Alexis told her. "I'm sorry – for whatever you're going through." She laughed nervously. "I have to admit, I was worried a few times that I'd upset you."

"You didn't," Bella promised. "I'm still not ready – and I still don't expect you to wait. But you didn't do anything wrong. And I'm not upset with you."

"Stacie invited me to stay with her over spring break. Are you okay with that?"

"Absolutely," Bella answered honestly. "It'll be fun. You've never been to California."

"Nope," Alexis answered with a pop in the 'p,' "DeDe and Tom felt that everything that was worth seeing was either on the east coast – northern east coast, preferably – and in Europe."

"How are the jackasses?"

"I haven't heard from them."

"They are insane to be willing to lose you. You didn't do anything wrong," she told her, for the third time. "I'm sorry."

"I know," Alexis responded. "It'll get better. It has to," she said with a laugh that sounded hollow.

"It will be really good to see you. If you need anything in the next couple of days, text or call Vera. I'll send you her number."

"What's up with Poppy? She was – well, she was rude."

"It's just been a bad couple of weeks. It's actually been a really sucky year," she admitted. "But yes, Poppy is being a Bitch. We're not currently talking – that's probably why she was rude to you. Sorry about that."

"Not your fault." They ended the conversation pretty quickly after that and Bella carried the phone to her parents' room, handing it back to Beca and kissing both moms goodnight.

Alexis felt quite a bit of relief when she allowed Stacie to hug her at the airport. Weeks' worth of fear and doubt dissipated. "Welcome to the sunshine state, kidd-o," Stacie told her, slinging an arm around her shoulders and leading her to the baggage claim. Twenty minutes later, they were on the highway headed to the upper crust neighborhood in LA where Stacie lived. She owned a condo in a gated community. The ocean was visible from her second floor balcony. Alexis stared at it after she unpacked the few things she'd brought with her. Stacie smiled and knocked on the frame of the open door. "It's a little different from the Atlantic," she said, when Alexis looked back at her.

"This is amazing," she responded. Stacie smiled and shrugged contentedly.

"I like it. Are you ready?" Alexis nodded; she had showered and changed and blown her hair dry. The airport and plane were clean enough – but she still felt a little gross when she'd landed at LAX. The drive to the Beale Mitchell residence took no more than fifteen minutes.

Stacie didn't knock – she reached for the doorknob and turned it. It opened into a mudroom of sorts – and then she opened the next – which led into the kitchen. Alexis immediately caught sight of Dahlia and Vera at the table, both sitting with books open in front of them. When Stacie ushered her inside, she saw Beca standing at the sink, cleaning strawberries.

"Hey, guys," she said cheerfully. "Welcome, Alexis."

"Hi, Alexis, Hi Aunt Stacie!" Vera called, not moving from her place. "I have to finish this or the dictator says I can't go outside."

"Me too," Dahlia said sadly. But she turned back to the assignment. Stacie looked at Beca, who shrugged.

"Chloe's rules – I just get to be the enforcer. Two weeks without school work – it's about time to start catching up." She walked to the bottom of the stairs and yelled up. "Bella!" Less than two minutes later, Bella appeared in front of them, hugging Stacie and then Alexis.

"How was your flight?"

"I haven't been on a plane for that long in years," Alexis admitted. "It was okay. My ears are still kind of weird."

"When there aren't people in the room who will make fun of you, pinch your nose and blow," Beca told her. "It works."

"But you would make fun of me?"

"Absolutely," Beca responded with a grin. "It looks ridiculous."

"Come on," Bella told her, tugging at her arm. "I'll give you the tour." She led Alexis through the entire house, showing her everything from the brand new dulcimer to the attic where Chloe kept everything carefully labeled and packaged. When they were finished, she led Alexis out to the back deck, stopping to grab them both bottles of water.

Alexis marveled at the beautiful backyard. It was currently blooming with some of Chloe's gardening masterpieces. "This is amazing. You grew up here?" They sat together on two chaise lounges on the second tier of the deck. Huge Peruvian lilies sat in pots and baskets around them.

Bella nodded. "We were lucky. Mom and Mama lived in a smaller place – but bought this when they got pregnant with us."

"Your Mama gave birth to all three of you, right?"

Bella nodded, smiling. "And she never lets us forget it. Mom said she was a bit difficult when she was pregnant." A bit difficult was putting it politely. Chloe had told them stories that made them wonder how Beca had agreed to get pregnant with Vera. But she had. Bella was silent for several minutes before broach the subject she knew she needed to.

"Alexis, I'm really sorry I didn't call – "

"You already apologized. It's okay."

"It's not," Bella responded with a shake of her head. "But it's what I was trying to tell you before we left. As much as I care about you – I don't think this is a good idea. I'm not ready – "

"Bella?"

"Yep?"

"Stop talking for a second." She did and Alexis' eye met her own and held their gaze. "I'm sorry the kiss happened when it did. Not that it happened – but that it happened before you were ready for it. I blame myself for that – " Bella tried to interrupt but was cut off by a shake of the other woman's head. "But I need you to understand that I'm not in any hurry here. There's no need to be. I'm not suffering without a girlfriend – but I would be lost if you stopped being my friend. That's all I'm asking – I need you to keep being my friend. Is that doable?" Bella nodded, tears singing her eyes.

"Well don't cry," Alexis teased. "The whole point of that diatribe was to make you feel better."

"I do," Bella answered honestly. She leaned back against her chair and took a shuttering breath. "It's just been a really long couple of months. And I'm tired – and overwhelmed. But I'll be fine," she promised.

The remainder of the day was fairly calm and Alexis and Stacie stayed for dinner and a cut-throat came of Scrabble. Poppy refused to play, but everyone else participated. Afterwards, Stacie took Alexis home.

"It's not my business what's going on," Alexis told her, as they pulled into the driveway. "Not until Bella wants to tell me – but is there anything I can do?" Stacie smiled softly.

"You're doing it. That was the happiest I've seen Bella in weeks. She needed a friend – and you were here. That's what she needs right now."

Beca returned to their bedroom after saying goodnight to each of the girls. Poppy was still giving her the cold shoulder, but she wasn't going to back down so easily. Chloe was already in bed, reading glasses slipping to the edge of her nose as she concentrated on something on her tablet. Beca slipped in beside her and looked at the screen. It was a book.

"What's that?"

"It's about sexual abuse," Chloe told her, closing the app. "I thought it might be helpful."

"Is it?"

Chloe shrugged. "Mostly, it's confirming everything we already know – the signs that we missed over the years – " her voice broke off and Beca leaned against her taking her hand.

"Hey, what did we talk about? This is not our fault – or the girls'. We couldn't have known."

"The signs were all there – "

"They always are in hindsight," Beca responded.

"I feel like I should have known. Isn't that my job – to know when something is wrong with my children?"

"You're a human being – not a mind reader, not a god." They talked for a bit longer, each continuing to comfort the other – to try to make sense out of anything in their lives at that moment. In the end, no answers were reached – but they were together. And at that moment, it was enough.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 22 – Promise Me

"So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
'Cause oh that gave me such a fright
But I will hold as long as you like
Just promise me we'll be alright."

~ Mumford and Sons

Before leaving Saturday night, Stacie and Alexis had made plans to meet the Beale Mitchell family on Sunday for a day at the beach. Alexis had never been to the Pacific Ocean. Dahlia had not been there very often and had never traveled there with her new family. So she was rather excited, despite finding herself being slathered with sunscreen at eight in the morning. She wiggled and squirmed while Beca worked, making sure everything was covered. Her nose scrunched as the lotion was worked into her cheeks. "Sorry, love. You have skin almost as fair as mine," Beca told her. "And there is no shade on the beach."

"Which beach are we going to?" Dahlia asked.

"Venice. Have you been to that one?"

"I don't think so," she told her. "One of the families that took me home – I know we went to one. But I don't remember what it was called." Her voice was a little adrift. She had gotten sun poisoning on that trip and hadn't really enjoyed it. Her mind focused away from that time as she let Beca put a blue sundress over her bathing suit.

"Well, this is a pretty one. It'll be fun. Do you have everything you want?" Dahlia grabbed the small bag with her book, iPod, and headphones and nodded. When she and Beca appeared in the kitchen, Chloe was going over the items about to be packed into the car. Beach towels, beach blankets, umbrellas, chairs, sand toys, and water toys were waiting to be loaded into the car. Extra sunscreen, sunglasses, hair ties, first aid kit, and her kindle were in her own bag. She and Bella had packed a cooler with water, fruit and sandwiches for lunch and a separate bag with snacks.

"I think that's everything," Chloe said eventually, hands on hips as she surveyed the items. She put Vera and Bella to work loading the cars and asked Dahlia to help them. Beca handed a bottle of sunscreen to her wife and slipped her black cover-up sundress over her head. Chloe made sure she was covered; Beca had done the same for her redheaded wife earlier.

"Where is Poppy?" Beca asked. She tried to stand still as she waited for the sunscreen to dry.

"She's coming," Chloe answered. "She's not happy about it. But I told her she didn't have a choice. I didn't want her sitting her by herself all day."

"Agreed," Beca said with a nod. Double checking that her skin was dry, she put the dress back on over her bathing suit. When Poppy appeared, she had a scowl on her face and said nothing to either of her mothers. She would have walked right past them if Chloe hadn't stopped her.

"Is your suit on under that?" Chloe asked, nodding at the teal sundress Poppy wore.

"Yes."

"Did you put on sunscreen?"

"Yes," she said sharply.

"Watch the tone," Beca replied evenly. "And the attitude. If you don't think you can handle being polite to the rest of the family – then you can stay home."

"Good," Poppy responded. "I don't want to go."

"And I'll stay home to keep you company. And you will be with me. All day," Beca answered.

"Ugh," Poppy groaned. "You suck." She stomped out to the cars and Beca called after her.

"It's my job sometimes!" She shook her head as she turned back to Chloe. She walked closer to kiss her wife and lay her forehead against Chloe's.

"Should we be doing this?" Chloe whispered.

"Yes. If we stayed home every time one person had a bad day – we'd never leave the house again. And we'd kill each other."

"Good point."

Beca pulled away slightly and pecked her on the lips again. "I love you."

"I love you too," Chloe responded, smiling.

They found a spot on the beach that wasn't too crowded and spread their blankets and set up chairs and umbrellas. Stacie and Alexis arrived only a few minutes after them. They settled in – Poppy with a magazine, and Stacie with a book. Beca watched, lying on her side with her head on Chloe's stomach, as Alexis and Bella walked closer to the water and helped Vera and Dahlia with their sand sculpture. After a good hour or so, Beca realized it looked suspiciously like a real castle. The one they used to model Cinderella's Castle – Neuschwanstein, she thought it was called. Leave it to Vera to practice actual architecture on the beach. Stacie, sitting in one of the chairs under an umbrella, slightly behind Beca and Chloe, looked up from her book and then lifted her sunglasses. "Is that a real castle?"

"Of course it is," Beca told her. "It's Vera – what else would it be?"

"Do you think it's to scale?"

"I wouldn't bet against it. The kid's weird."

"You were bound to have at least one odd duckling," Stacie responded. "You lucked out and got several."

"You know, I'm sitting right here," Poppy told them from her seat beside Stacie.

"It's a complement. Normal is boring," Beca informed her. "And go do something – attempt to have fun – leave us alone." Her voice and the waving motions she made with her hand were playful – but Poppy simply rolled her eyes and put her headphones on.

Alexis, Dahlia, and Bella were merely following Vera's instructions. And when they did something wrong or not well enough, she corrected it. Bella wanted to laugh at it, but she was slightly worried that her sister's need for things to be perfect was bordering very closely on compulsion. After being swatted at for making a turret too tall for the third time, Bella was done. She looked at Dahlia. "I'm leaving. Do you want to come? Or stay here?"

"I'll stay," Dahlia answered. She was following Vera's directions a little more closely and was not being chided and swatted at.

"Don't let her be too bossy," Bella said. "Vera – watch her." She stood and brushed the sand from the short black skirt of her bathing suit. She motioned for Alexis to follow.

"I'm eight!" Dahlia complained, not liking the idea that they thought she needed to be 'watched.'

"Yep," Bella responded. "And we've grown pretty partial to you – so stay with Vera."

Alex brushed as much sand from herself as possible and followed Bella back up to the blankets and chairs. "We're going for a walk," the shorter brunette said, to whomever was listening. Beca had her eyes closed but was the only one who answered.

"Don't go too far. And take a hat." Bella rolled her eyes but picked up her hat from the blanket and shoved it down over her braids. It did shade her face and shoulders from too much sun – but she didn't have to like being told to wear it. She and Alexis set off down the beach toward the furthest pier.

They were a few hundred yards away from the family when Alexis spoke. "Your family is amazing."

Bella nodded. "They're pretty great. My sister is being sort of a bitch, but it's nice of you not to mention it."

Alex laughed. "I figured you'd bring it up if you wanted to talk about it. What's her problem?"

Bella shrugged. She knew that Poppy was going through just as much as the rest of them – but she didn't understand the anger her sister was displaying. "She's angry. I don't know – she doesn't get that way very often. And never this bad. But I don't really want to talk about that right now," she admitted. "How are the Bellas? Are you guys ready for Lincoln Center?"

"According to Camille, we suck," Alexis informed her. "But I actually think we're going to do okay. The set is good – and most of the girls are keeping up. We certainly miss you and Poppy – "

"I'm sorry," Bella interrupted.

"I didn't say that to make you feel bad. It's just the way it is. But we're making it work. And when you come back, hopefully we'll have one more trophy." They walked almost a mile to the pier and then back again. When they returned, it was time for lunch. They spent the afternoon reading and took another walk to the pier on their other side. When they returned from the second walk, Neuschwanstein was being threatened by the Pacific Ocean. Vera, their little architectural engineer, hadn't taken into account the rising tides. Beca and Chloe were trying to make her feel better by admiring it immediately – and taking pictures for the sake of posterity.

By the time they left that afternoon, the castle was a large mound of sand that was being dragged away bit by bit. Vera sighed as she watched it. Stacie put her arm around the young girl and swung her around toward the entrance. "Come on, V. Would ice cream make you feel better?"

"No," Vera responded. She paused. "But I guess it doesn't hurt to try." Stacie laughed. They caught up to the others, who were busy packing things back into the car. Beca was trying to de-sand everyone, but she knew her car was going to come up with tiny bits of the stuff for the rest of its life. She eventually threw up her hands in defeat and just told them to get in. They did – Vera and Poppy in the back with Bella and Dahlia in the middle. Stacie and Alexis waved goodbye and pulled out just before them.

They had been home from the beach for merely an hour. The girls had all gone directly to their rooms. Everyone had enjoyed the day – minus possibly Poppy – but they were all exhausted. Bella had said she was taking a nap and after Dahlia showered, Chloe tucked her into bed to do the same. In the kitchen, Beca was opening mail and depositing things into the correct baskets on the counter when she received a message. She gasped as she opened a video message from her publicist. Her heart sank to her stomach as she watched and then read the accompanying message. She ran up the stairs to find Chloe. The redhead was putting clothes away in their closet. She took one look at Beca's expression and was filled with cold dread. "What's wrong?"

"I just got this from my publicist," Beca told her, thrusting the phone at Chloe. Chloe hit play and gasped – it was almost the identical noise her wife had made.

"Oh, my god."

"Yeah." Chloe watched for another few seconds before turning it off and handing it back to Beca. "Do you think she knows that's out there?"

"Only one way to find out," Beca said, turning on her heel. Chloe rushed to follow her to Poppy's room.

"What are you doing – Beca, we should talk about this – " She didn't have time to argue – Beca had already barged into their daughter's room. Poppy jumped in surprise – they were a family who knocked on doors. Her expression was angry.

"Mama!"

"Yeah – no," Beca said quickly. Chloe closed the door quietly behind them. "You don't get to be angry." She opened the message again and handed her phone to Poppy. "Can you explain why I just got this video from my publicist? A video that is currently being displayed on youtube?"

Poppy watched for less than ten seconds. Her eyes went wide and she shut off the phone, throwing it toward the end of the bed. "I didn't make that," she told her mothers. "I didn't know there was a camera," she promised. "I never would have agreed to that." She closed her eyes against the indignity. "I guess it's everywhere?"

"Anna is trying to keep it under wraps – it's not viral yet," Beca said bitingly.

"Beca," Chloe said softly, putting an around her wife. "It clearly wasn't on purpose. We all need to calm down." She stroked Beca's arm soothingly before breaking away and moving to sit across from her daughter on the bed. "Poppy, who is that with you? We can try a cease and desist – I'll call our lawyer – "

Poppy wiped tears away with shaking hands. She shook her head. "I don't know," she said.

"What?" Beca asked, her voice filled with anger and incredulousness. Chloe looked back at her with warning.

"What do you mean?" Chloe prompted.

"I don't remember," she admitted. "I had a lot to drink –" Beca let out a pained groan and began pacing the room, her hands finding the top of her head. Poppy's face fell to her hands as she cried. Chloe stood up and walked over to her wife, stopping her with an angry glare.

She spoke softly enough that Poppy couldn't hear but her voice was full of steel. "You have two choices right now, Rebecca. You calm down – or you leave. I swear – if you say something judgmental about this right now – you'll be sleeping upstairs for a year." Beca sighed and took a few deep breaths. When Chloe reclaimed her spot, Beca sat next to her.

"What do you remember?" Chloe prompted.

"I don't want to talk about this," Poppy snapped.

"Our choices are pretty limited," Beca told her, trying to remain calm. "Unless you want this to go viral – and with your family name – it will – we need to figure out whose ass we need to sue. And we need to do it quickly."

Poppy shrugged. "I don't know."

"How many times have you slept with boys you don't remember?" Beca asked, keeping her voice level.

"Why do you care? It's my life – just because I'm not a prude like y – "

"That's enough," Chloe warned, cutting her off. "Poppy – we are trying to help. We can't do that without information. Do you think if you watch more of the video you'll remember who it is?" Poppy shook her head. She had seen his face and hadn't even recognized him – let alone being able to remember him.

Having almost no more information than she had entered with, Beca left to call their lawyer and her publicist. She was hoping they could hire someone to trace the IP address and figure out who posted the video. She was on the phone for two hours, pacing her studio.

While she was busy with that, Chloe remained with Poppy. The teen looked miserable. "I'm sorry," she said softly.

"I know you are," Chloe responded. "Everyone makes mistakes. It's going to be okay."

"How? I can't go back to Barden if that gets out – how is this going to be okay? How is any of this ever going to be okay again?" She dissolved into sobs, curling up into a ball with her head in Chloe's lap. Chloe tried to comfort her – but she truly had no answer for that question. She held her daughter, stroked her hair, and tried to say something – anything – that might prove helpful. Nothing did.

That night ended late for them both. Chloe finally got Poppy to sleep and Beca fed the other girls dinner, spoke more with the lawyer and publicist, and then tucked in the other girls. She ended up spending time talking with each of them – they were all nervous about Tuesday. She was the second to arrive to their bedroom.

"I know we need to talk about Poppy. And I'm sorry for how I reacted."

"I know you don't understand what she's doing – you never had a phase like that," Chloe said. She was standing in the bathroom, brushing her hair. "I did. It's not a good place to be in – sleeping with strange boys. But at the time, it seems like a good idea. It numbs things – makes them less important. And easier to deal with."

"I don't remember you ever sleeping with random boys."

"The last random boy I slept with was Tom – who I was in the shower with when I heard you singing. After that, I never slept with anyone until I slept with you."  Beca was silent for a moment - she hadn't really comprehended before that Chloe had truly been celibate the entire time she'd known her - until they'd begun dating. 

"So what do we do?" Beca asked. "Did she talk to you at all?"

Chloe nodded. "She's embarrassed. And she regrets doing it – she said she regrets it every time – but in the moment, she does what feels good."

"Has she indicated that she's considering stopping this kind of behavior?"  Beca was trying not to be judgmental - but this was killing her.  Her little girl - in that position.  And she had seen it.  It was far too much for her to accept.

"I think this was probably a wake-up call," Chloe told her. "But it's something else we can pile on to the stack of things she gets to talk to a therapist about when she gets back to Georgia." They both few quiet and Chloe picked up her toothbrush and started brushing.

"Speaking of --  how would you feel about moving to Georgia for a few years?" Beca asked, staring at her wife in the mirror. The redhead spit, rinsed, and looked up at her in surprise.

"Beca – "

"I know I'm supposed to let them go – but I can't. I can't live every day wondering if one daughter is hurting herself – if one of these days she's going to cut too deep and go too far. If the other daughter is being promiscuous just to feel something. If the third is eating enough. After everything that happened in the past few months – we need to be together. Not a continent apart. I've been thinking about it a lot – and I thought I was overreacting – but after tonight, I don't think I am."

"Okay."

"Okay?"

"Did you want a longer argument?"

"No."

"Then take my answer for what it is," Chloe responded. They spoke for hours after that, making plans, making decisions, and making sure they were on the same page.

On Monday, that hadn't set any plans – and Beca was beginning to think that had been a mistake. Stacie brought Alexis over and the brunette kept a very jumpy Bella company. All four of the girls were jumpy that day – to the point where Alexis stopped pretending not to know that something was wrong. She and Bella sat in the backyard, under the large tree. "What in the world is going on with you guys? I know it's not my business – but I'm worried."

Bella shrugged. "I really can't talk about it right now – but it's bad. I promise, someday I'll tell you. But for right now – just know that it's bad."

"What can I do?"

"Distract me."

Alexis laughed and went into a very vivid description of the last few sessions with the Bellas. Camille had been extra-difficult to work with now that they were down two girls. She filled Bella in on some of the antics that had gone down at the Bella house – and a few pranks that the Trebles had attempted to pull on them. The Bellas had retaliated three fold. A cease-fire had been called until after the finals at Lincoln Center.

When they went back into the house, they found Dahlia and Vera in the living room. The former was lying in front of the television and the latter was sitting at her Dulcimer, playing nothing. Bella looked at them both and realized that they were as antsy as she was. "Do you guys want to go out?" Bella asked. "Mini-golf and ice cream?" Both jumped up, excited at the prospect. Bella laughed and told them to get ready. She sought out her mothers – who gave her permission – as she knew they would. She asked Alexis to wait in her room and knocked on Poppy's door. When she received no answer, she opened it. Her twin was lying on her carpet, staring at the ceiling.

Bella entered the room and stood over her. "Can we please call a truce? At least for a few hours? We're all really nervous and jumpy – we need to get out. I just offered to take Vera and Dahlia for mini golf and ice cream. Come with us."

Poppy said nothing. She closed her eyes. Bella sighed. "Just remember – I'm the one trying," she said, before leaving the room. The four girls went out and had a nice time – and were able to forget their worries for at least a few hours.

Later that evening, after Stacie and Alexis had left, Beca and Chloe gathered the family into the living room. "No matter what happens tomorrow," Beca said calmly. "Things have changed."

"We all have to start moving on," Chloe told them. "We know it's not going to be easy - but we need to talk about what that's going to look like."

Beca nodded and looked at Chloe, then at the three older girls. "Now, I can't ask you not to go back to college – because your mom said I wasn't allowed." Chloe elbowed her, earning a smile from Bella and Vera. "But we have agree that it's too far away. At least right now."

Poppy and Bella both looked poised to argue, but Beca shook her head. "You can still go back to Barden – if that's what you want. But Mom, Dahlia, and I are moving back to Georgia. At least for a few years."

"What?" Poppy asked, her expression alarmed. Vera looked hopeful – Bella confused. Dahlia snuggled closer to Beca's side.

"We're not following you back because you have to live with us – or check in with us every day," Chloe responded, knowing that was exactly what Poppy feared. "We're just not comfortable living two thousand miles away."

"You do actually have to live with us," Beca said, looking down and addressing Dahlia. She tapped the child's nose and gained a giggle.

"What about the house here?" Vera asked. "And where will you live out there?"

"We'll pay someone to check on it every few weeks," Beca told her. "And the security will still be on. We won't move the furniture – at least not most of it. We'll either rent something furnished in Georgia or buy what we need. We'll look for a house. Probably in grandpa's neighborhood." She looked at Chloe with wide eyes.

"I never thought I'd say that," she admitted.

"What about your jobs?" Bella questioned.

"I can mostly work from anywhere," Beca told her. "If I need to collaborate – I can travel to LA – or the artist can travel to Atlanta. It's a major hub for most airlines – it shouldn't be too much of an inconvenience to anyone. And mom – "

"I have been on leave, but I officially left my job a few weeks ago," she told them. "It wasn't fair to my students or the school – me missing so much time. And after what happened with your mama – and now this – I need to be home more. I'll feel better being home more."

"You're going to drive me crazy; that's what's going to happen," Beca told her, smiling cheekily. Chloe swatted at her playfully and Beca leaned away from her.

Poppy was not amused. "How can you guys just drop everything? What if we don't want you in Georgia?"

"Poppy," Bella said, her tone a warning.

"No. I lived in this house for 18 years and listened to all of your rules and did everything I was supposed to do – this was supposed to be my time away. And now you're following us to Georgie?"

"First of all," Beca responded. "I'm pretty sure we lived in Georgia first." She looked at Chloe, as if to confirm and nodded. "Yep – we were there first. Second, we are not doing this to make you stay with us. You can live in the dorms – or the Bella house – and feel free to pretend we're not even there. We'll even video chat with you if it will make you feel better."

"This is not funny!" Poppy cried. She stormed out of the room, slamming her door. Beca cringed at the sound and looked at her wife.

"I'll go," Chloe told her. Beca nodded and watched her leave. She was faced with three daughters who still wanted answers. Vera's head was churning.

"What about me?" She asked Beca.

Beca smiled. "What about you, love?"

"Where am I going to live?"

Beca and Chloe had made that decision – and so many others – the night before. "V, we told you that you could move into the dorms next school year. Or try out for the Bellas and stay at the Bella house. If that's still what you want to do, you can. If you'd rather live with us, we'd be happy to have you." Vera nodded.  The rest of the night was full of conversation.  Every few minutes - one of the girls would come up with a new question and seek out Beca or Chloe to answer.  Poppy never left her room that night and refused to speak to anyone but Chloe. 

 

The next morning began early for all of them.  Bella woke feeling nauseous.  She, Vera, Bella, and Chloe got ready in the dim morning and made it to the courthouse by eight.   

The hearing was informal. Well, as informal as a hearing could be. Andy had already admitted what he had done – in detail. He had admitted to hurting half a dozen other girls – all had been classmates or friends of his or his brother's. The only thing left to be decided was the sentencing. Bella gulped for air as she walked into the courtroom with her mothers. Vera followed behind clutching Stacie's hand. Poppy had not wanted anything to do with it – so she had stayed home and Dahlia was with Alexis, who had offered to watch her. Far too quickly, it was Bella's turn to speak. She walked to the microphone, her fingers worrying at the hem of her red sweater. The black dress she wore was baggy – she was finally starting to realize herself how much weight she was losing.

"Please state your name for the record," the judge told her.

"Isabella Beale Mitchell," Bella said into the microphone. Her voice echoed in her ears and she shifted back a bit.

"Thank you, Ms. Beale Mitchell. You may speak," he told her.

Bella looked down at the piece of paper clutched in her shaking, sweaty hands. She felt her entire mouth become zapped of moisture. She swallowed, trying to bring some of it back. Eventually, she cleared her throat and began. "Andy Swanson took a lot from me," she said simply. "He molested me when I was a child – and he ruined any chance I had of a positive, healthy first time. What he did made me feel alone, dirty, and ugly. I have to fight against those feelings and thoughts for the rest of my life, thanks to what he did. I know that when he hurt me – he was only a child himself. But that doesn't make it okay. He wasn't a child when he forced himself on my little sister. He is seventeen years old and he took advantage of an eight year old – he hurt her – and didn't care what the repercussions were." She took a deep breath.

"I'm not a vengeful person. If Andy had only hurt me – and not at least nine other girls – if he had never touched another child after he became an adult – I might be standing here asking you for a very different ruling. But he did those things. He has a problem that he clearly can't – or won't – control. It's a compulsion. And if you let him leave jail, he'll do it again. Your honor, I'm not asking you to rule in favor of the maximum sentence because he hurt me. I'm asking you to keep him in prison for as long as possible to protect his future victims." She paused and took a deep breath, trying to decide if there was more to say. There wasn't. She looked up at the judge. "Thank you for your time."

Bella turned around and could barely see thanks to the tears in her eyes. Beca wasn't far away and grabbed her gently, leading her back to her seat. Several others spoke. Aubrey begged for leniency, telling the judge that Andy needed psychological help – help he would not receive in prison. Two of the other girls he had admitting to molesting came forward and spoke. Beca broke Bella's hold on her and shifted her toward Chloe, who gathered the teen in her arms. Bella watched in astonishment as Beca stood to walk up to the microphone. Her mother had never said she was speaking – but here she was, the last person called to speak.

"Please state your name for the record," the judge said.

"Rebecca Mitchell," Beca said, clearly and calmly. She put on a good facade – but Chloe could see her fingers trembling slightly as she unfolded the page with her notes on them.

"Thank you, Mrs. Mitchell. You may speak."

"I don't have much to say," Beca responded. "My daughter did, I feel, a fairly eloquent job summing up the reasons why Andy should be put away for as long as possible." Chloe heard Aubrey's sob from several rows away. "I am Andy Swanson's godmother. I've known him from literally the second he was born. I was the fourth person to hold him – and I stood at the front of a church and promised to protect him. So when I tell you to lock him in jail and throw away the key, I hope you understand that I don't take any of this lightly or with any desire for revenge."

"I was blessed with four daughters. I have spent my life – along with my wife – trying to protect them. Andy violated each one of them and shattered everything in our world. I ask you to give him the maximum penalty so that hopefully no other family has to go through the same because of his actions."

Beca returned to her seat, staring at the floor as she moved through the courtroom. She could not look at Jesse. She could not see the pain in his eyes – because no matter what had happened, this was his family too – and he had done nothing wrong. Benji was sitting with him in the courtroom – he had been flying back and forth to California regularly to stay with his friend. Beca was thankful for that.

She took her seat at the end of the bench and clutched Chloe's hand over Bella's. Vera was on Chloe's other side, holding her other hand and sitting as close as possible without being in her lap. Stacie absently brushed her fingers through Vera's loose red curls, wishing they could all be anywhere else.

The judge called a twenty minute recess and court room came alive. Most people moved toward the door but the Beale Mitchell family remained where they were – waiting. As soon as the recess was over, they stood as the judge entered and sat again, waiting for him to speak. When he did, he looked saddened. He addressed Andy directly.

"Mr. Swanson," the judge said, "you have plead guilty to your charges. It is my heavy burden to sentence you. I take no pleasure in my decision. But you have proven to be a danger to young girls – and study after study – case after case – and the fact that your actions stretch across a decade – leads me to believe that you cannot be rehabilitated. It is, therefore, my ruling that you will serve the maximum sentence. 16 years for each of four counts of lewd acts on a child, in addition to eight years for rape. Your total sentence is 72 years with a possibility of parole after 16."

Aubrey's cries could be heard across the courtroom. Bella and Vera didn't have time to comprehend what had happened – they were whisked out of the courtroom quickly.

"I don't feel better," Bella said later that night, walking toward the park with Beca. The exhausted mother looked at her and waited for her to continue. "I thought I would. I thought I would feel better after I spoke – and after the judge sentenced him to go to jail. But I don't – "

"You would be a very different person, my love, if you took pleasure in someone else's pain. And that's not you. You did the right thing – and eventually I think you'll find relief – but I don't know that you'll ever feel content with what happened today."

"His life is over," she said softly. Beca took her hand and squeezed it.

"Because of what he did," she reminded her daughter. "Not because of you – or any of your sisters." They walked in silence for a bit longer. When they reached the park, they sat next to one another on the swing set.

Beca smiled at her daughter. "So, what's going on with Alexis."

"Mama!"

"What? I'm allowed to ask."

"I don't have to answer you!"

"You don't," Beca agreed. She watched a blush creep into Bella's cheeks. She waited, and eventually Bella did speak.

"She's my friend. That's all – and that's the way it's going to be for now. Anything else. It's too soon."

"If anyone understands that, it's me," Beca told her. "If you ever need to talk – "

"I know," Bella interrupted. "Thank you." Sadness still permeated her and anxiety was always present, but she felt a bit freer that evening as she pushed off from the ground and swung – she hadn't done that for a long time. The breeze through her hair – and her mama's laughs – made the moment happy.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23 – Our Way Home

"When we're miles away
Sun will come
We will find our way home

If you're lost and alone
Or you're sinking like a stone.
Carry on."

~FUN.

The morning after the hearing did not begin well. Despite being fairly calm when she went to bed, Bella woke to a panic attack. That rarely happened to her – but it was terrifying when it did. It was before six in the morning when she woke with a start, her pulse racing and heart pounding. She took a small yellow pill from the bottle and lay in bed for several minutes before realizing that she wasn't going to be able to go back to sleep. She crept into her parents' room and crawled in between them, trying to calm herself with breathing. Nothing worked. Beca woke almost immediately, eyes fluttering open to focus on her daughter.

"What's wrong?" She asked in a soft voice, having to clear her throat almost immediately to chase away the morning frogs.

"Woke up having a panic attack," Bella whispered hollowly. She buried her face against Beca's neck and shoulder, snuggling into her. The older woman pulled an arm around her and dropped a kiss on her head.

"Those are always fun ones," she said sarcastically. Chloe had woken up by then and rolled closer, her hand rubbing gently between her daughter's shoulder blades.

She slipped out of bed and went into the bathroom, returning a few minutes later with a bottle of lotion. She sat on the bed and patted the middle. "Lay down on your front, Bells." The teen did, sighing with a bit of relief when she felt her mother begin to massage away the knots that had pulled tight the muscles in her shoulders and neck.

At some point, she fell asleep again. When she woke three hours later, she found that Beca was sitting up in bed next to her, dressed for the day, her eyes focused on the computer screen in front of her, her ears covered in her favorite headphones. She somehow sensed that Bella was awake because her hand moved to stroke her hair.

"Feeling better?" Beca asked, using her other hand to pull her headphones to her neck. Bella nodded.

"Where's Mom?"

"Making breakfast. Why don't you go get ready and I'll meet you down there? Do you want a cup of tea?" She nodded again and sat up, hugging Beca before leaving to shower and dress. When she arrived in the kitchen, everyone but Poppy was there. Vera sat at the table next to Dahlia, cutting her waffles into perfect squares. Each piece needed to be the same size and have the same amount of syrup and butter before she would eat it. Bella walked into the room and kissed Chloe, who was standing at the counter, making another batch of waffles.

"How are you feeling?" She asked softly.

"Better," Bella answered. "Thank you."

"Do you want waffles with or without chocolate chips?"

"Is that a valid question for some people?" Bella asked. "Because I'm not seeing it. Always chocolate." Chloe smiled and went back to work while Bella sat next to Beca at the seat where her tea had been placed. She sipped at it while she waited for her breakfast.

"Are you doing something with Alexis today?" Beca asked, setting aside the newspaper she had been reading on her tablet. She sipped at her coffee while she looked at Bella and waited for an answer.

The brunette nodded. "I'd like to. We don't have a ton of time until she has to go back – and there's so much she's never seen – she's never been west of the Mississippi."

"You should probably concentrate the stuff in LA," Beca responded with a smirk. Bella rolled her eyes.

"I was planning on it. I was thinking about Runyon Canyon today. Much less crowded than the Walk of Fame."

"Let Aunt Stacie take her to the crowded places," Beca agreed. They were careful when they went into the city and avoided most tourist traps – they were far too crowded for Bella's comfort.

"Take water – and make sure your cell phone is charged," Chloe reminded her, setting the plate of waffles in front of her daughter.

"Will do," Bella promised. Within an hour, she was picking up Alexis at Stacie's house and driving her to the humungous park.

"I don't think we're coming back this semester," Bella told Alexis as they walked through Runyon Canon Park. They were not jogging as many were doing around them, but walking at a leisurely pace. Bella stopped and pointed out the best views of the city and Alexis ogled at them and took occasional pictures.

"Why do you say that?" Alexis asked. "Have your moms mentioned it?"

"Not yet," Bella responded. "They're still trying to scrape Poppy off the ceiling after the moving to Georgia discussion happened." She paused. "But I saw a printout on my mom's desk – all of our schedules. She'd written the corresponding courses for next year that would fulfill the same requirements. So I'm guessing she's planning to have us withdraw – or something."

"What do you want to do?"

"I am so behind," Bella admitted. "I can't imagine I'll be able to finish the semester. But if we withdraw from classes – I'm not sure we'll be allowed to be part of the Bellas next semester."

"You do remember that Professor Applebaum is our faculty adviser, right?" Bella smirked a bit when she realized that Alexis was right – and her Aunt Emily wouldn't make them ineligible to sing if she could help it. And she did have a good excuse for withdrawing from her classes. They spent the next few hours walking on the trails, people watching, and talking about everything from classes to favorite movies to semi-embarrassing life moments. It was a breath of fresh air for Bella – no discussion of Andy or what had transpired anywhere in sight.

After Bella left that morning, Beca told Dahlia and Vera to find something to entertain themselves for several hours and meet her back in the kitchen in ten minutes. "Why?" Vera asked, still playing with her last few bites of her now-stone-cold breakfast.

"Because I said so," Beca told her. "And that's how this mom-kid thing works." Vera rolled her eyes and took her plate to the dishwasher before going to her room to do what she was told. Dahlia didn't comment – simply took the coloring book she had been focused on and started up the stairs herself. Once she was gone, Chloe turned to Beca and looked at her in confusion.

"I thought you had to go into the studio today?"

"I do," she answered. "I'm taking those two with me."

"Why?"

Beca looked up to the ceiling. "So you can deal with Poppy."

Chloe sighed but nodded – she knew she was the better person to try and talk to their eldest daughter. And someone needed to. The video had been taken down after their lawyer had worked some of her voodoo, but there were possibly still copies out there – and Poppy's mood and behavior had not improved since earlier in the week. Chloe cleaned up the kitchen and then went in search of her eldest.

After the forty five minute drive through traffic to get to the studio building, Beca put Vera and Dahlia in her office while she went into her recording studio to work with one of her highest-profile artists. She wasn't taking many new albums, but this artist would only agree to continue with the label if Beca produced.

Dahlia peered curiously around the bland office, walking from shelf to shelf. "It doesn't look like Mama," she finally said.

Vera looked up from her book. "She doesn't spend much time here. She has the studio at home – and when she's here, she's usually in the recording studio, not in her office." Dahlia nodded. She knew she was supposed to sit down and color – or read her book – or listen to her iPod. But she was curious and there hadn't been much time to talk lately. Things had been moving very quickly. "Are you mad that we're moving?"

Vera looked up again, her eyebrows knit closer together by the look of surprise. "Why would I be?"

"Poppy is." The oldest sister had been grumpy and evasive since the announcement had been made – it had escaped no one's attention that she was angry.

"Poppy is a bit of a drama queen, if you haven't noticed. She'll get over it. I'm actually kind of glad you guys are moving – I wanted to go to college – and I'm mostly glad I did – but I was a little homesick this year too. And I love Aunt Em and Uncle Benji – but they're not Mom or Mama." Dahlia nodded, moving to the window to watch the traffic far below. Far, far below. She backed up a bit when she realized how high up they really were.

Vera studied her saddened expression. "None of this is your fault, you know that, right?"

Dahlia shrugged. "If I didn't say anything – none of this would have happened," she said. Vera closed her book.

"You did the right thing, Dahlia." They were both silent then for several minutes until the older girl decided it was time to change the subject. Vera bit her lip and walked to the door, opening it to look into the hallway. It was mostly empty. She looked back at her little sister. "Come on," she said, motioning for her to follow. Dahlia did without asking questions and Vera took her hand and dragged her around several corners and into a cool, dark room. When Vera turned on the light, Dahlia's eyes grew. Vera was smiling brightly; she loved this room. "They store all of the instruments in here," she told Dahlia. "For all of the studios. In case they need them – but most of the time they just sit in here."

They spent the next two hours prowling the sound-proof room. Vera played anything she could get her hands on and showed Dahlia a few things. She was showing the younger girl how to play the violin – on a beautifully crafted Stradivarius – when they heard someone clearing her throat. They both looked up to see Beca, standing across the room with her arms crossed, a very familiar looking blonde behind her.

"Of course you found the most expensive instrument in the room, Vera. Dahlia, do me a favor and be very careful putting that violin back," Beca suggested calmly, her eyes corroborating her amusement with a twinkle. Dahlia was getting better at reading her and realized she wasn't angry – so she didn't drop the violin as she might have six months prior. She handed it carefully back to Vera, who slid it into the appropriate holder. "There are only about 500 of those left in the world," she told Dahlia, who looked at Vera with wide eyes.

Vera shrugged. "The guy made nice Violins. But he wanted them to be played. I figure he'd be happy."

"Yes, well, the next time you handle a million dollar instrument, it's coming out of your inheritance."

"If I read the last bank statement that I saw on your desk correctly, I can risk it," Vera challenged with a smirk.

"Watch it, dude," Beca said, playfully narrowing her eyes at the girl. She stopped teasing and smiled at Dahlia. "Well, I hope you ladies had fun – because it's time to go. We just finished. I brought someone I thought you might want to meet."

Vera's eyebrows arched as she truly looked at the woman standing behind her mother. The extremely famous, ridiculously talented musician who was still packing large venues, even in middle age. "You're – you're Taylor Swift – "

The woman smiled and laughed a bit at Vera's surprise. "It's nice to meet you," she said. "I've been working with your mom for years – but she never brings you guys to the studio – so when I heard you were here, I had to meet you."

"This is Vera," Beca said. "And Dahlia. They are my youngest." Dahlia situated herself so she was partially hidden behind Beca, but she politely shook the woman's hand.

"It's nice to meet you."

"You too," she responded.

"And Vera – I'm very impressed. Your mom said you can pretty much play anything in here," she said, looking around the room. Vera nodded abashedly. They talked to the artist for about ten minutes, but it left both girls slightly dazed.

That night, Beca was getting ready for bed when Bella burst into her room. "Vera and Dahlia got to meet Taylor Swift?" She asked, her voice much louder than usual. Beca grimaced. Chloe looked up from her tablet in curiosity – they hadn't had time to talk about their days – so she was just hearing this for the first time.

"I was wondering how long that would take." She shrugged. "Sorry, love. It was not intentional. I just mentioned to her that they were in the building – and she wanted to meet them. If you'd like, you can come with me the next time I work on her album." Bella just stared. Beca laughed. "What's up with you? You always said she was overrated – "

"That is not the point," Bella responded.

Beca smiled brighter. "Is there one? A point? To this conversation? Because I love you – but I'm tired." Bella rolled her eyes and huffed from the room, leaving her mothers smiling and chuckling in her wake.

Chloe laughed at her retreated figure. "She used to harass Poppy for listening to Taylor Swift – "

"I used to harass you for the same," Beca responded wistfully. "And now I produce her records. Hypocritical, I know."

"I think you gave her some edge," Chloe offered. Beca leaned close and kissed her.

"There are so many reasons I love you." Once all of the girls were tucked into bed, the two mothers snuggled into bed together. They hadn't spoken for most of the day – it had been too busy. Beca tucked a red curl behind Chloe's ear, marveling as usual at the tiny wisps of silver that threaded the vibrant color. "How was Poppy today? She seemed a little less – angry – at dinner."

Chloe nodded. "We talked for a long time. She's worried about us coming to Georgia – she feels like we're not giving her the room to make mistakes. Apparently we're going to be expecting her for dinner every night and doing random searches of her dorm room."

"Did you tell her that sounds really boring – and we don't have time for that?" Beca asked.

"I did. We talked for a long time – I think she's just nervous about going back to school in general. I guess one of the Bellas has already called – someone saw the video. I already called the lawyer," she said before Beca could ask. "And they're looking into it – to make sure it's not posted anymore."

"You can't ever truly take something offline once it's out there."

"No," Chloe agreed. "You can't. And I think part of the problem is that she's embarrassed – and doesn't want to admit it. So, she's snapping at everyone. I told her it needs to stop. She seemed calmer at dinner, so maybe it will get better from here."

"We need to get her – all of them – into therapy," Beca said with a pained sigh. Chloe nodded and reached for her hand. "It's silly to do – now that we're going to Georgia – but it feels like we're wasting time here waiting."

"What are we going to do about the semester?"

"I think we have to ask them," Beca answered. "I know Bella's worried – Poppy hadn't said anything. And I'm assuming Vera is somehow caught up." Chloe smiled in agreement.

"We'll talk about it on Saturday, after Alexis leaves. I think Bella's too distracted right now. What about moving?"

Beca shrugged. "Whenever we can find a place – we can go. I have to talk to management – but I can leave when I want – if they don't like it, they can fire me."

"They won't."

"What about Dahlia? Do you think she's going to be ready for fourth grade in the fall?"

"I do," Chloe said with a nod. "It's going to take work – but we can do a little bit every day – even over the summer. We'll make it work."

"We'll make it all work," Beca agreed. She reached over to turn out the bedside lamp and turned to the other side so that Chloe could spoon in behind her, holding her close.

Two days later, Beca invited Stacie to dinner. It was Alexis' last night in town, so she and Bella were out to dinner and gift shopping for the Bellas, leaving Stacie on her own. As Beca walked into the fancy restaurant that held her favorite dessert in the city – a creamy chocolate tarte with fresh whipped cream – she was a little nervous. She wasn't second guessing the decision she and Chloe had made regarding the move, but she was dealing with all of the decisions that had to come after. A home. Jobs. Schools. Friends. Family. Pretty much all of the big things.

Stacie was already there and had ordered a bottle of the wine they both favored. They were quiet until the food was ordered. "Chloe and I decided to move to Georgia – at least for a few years – until the girls finish at Barden." Beca spit out the information quickly.

Stacie nodded, her expression unchanged. Her fingers lazily traced the base of her wine glass. "Considering the past year – I think that's a good idea. Have you told them yet?"

Beca nodded while she swallowed a gulp of wine. "Poppy is pissed. We are, of course, doing this to ruin her life."

"Obviously," Stacie agreed with an amused smile.

Beca shook her head and bit her lip before continuing. "The others seem okay with it. And I know most people are going to think its overbearing. But we feel like we need to do it. Not to impose on them – just to – I don't know – to be there, I guess."

"It makes perfect sense to me," Stacie told her. "And who cares what other people think?" Her expression changed and became quizzical as she paused and tilted her head, studying Beca.

"You know what's strange?"

"What?"

"I received a call yesterday. From the doctor I shadowed while I was at Barden – she's retiring. She wanted to know if I'd be interested in buying her practice. Somehow she got the impression that I might be looking to relocate back to Barden."

"That is strange," Beca said, a smile bitten back on her lips.

"You're insane, you know that?"

"It's just an option," Beca insisted. "You certainly don't have to come with us – but you, know, if you want to – you have a job."

Stacie laughed. "What about my patients here?"

"You have patients other than my family?"

"I've been trying to get that through your skull for twenty years – yes!" But she was laughing – although it was a brash move on her friend's part, it made her happy that Beca wanted her nearby enough that she went out of her way to research doctors retiring around Barden – and she had even made phone calls.

"Please don't feel pressured or anything," Beca said. "I just had a few hours to kill while I wasn't sleeping one night – so I decided to research the possibilities." Stacie shook her head and simply smiled.

On Saturday morning, Chloe sent Dahlia to her room to play and joined Beca in the living room where she had gathered the other three. Bella and Vera sat patiently waiting on the sofa while Poppy's expression was twisted into a scowl and she tapped her foot impatiently. Chloe sat next to her on the love seat and put a hand on her knee, wordlessly stopping the movement. Beca perched on the coffee table between them and the sofa.

"What are your thoughts on school?" She asked.

Vera looked at Bella, who was studying Poppy's expression. Finally, Bella tore her eyes away from her sister and directed them back her mother before answering. "I can only speak for myself – I went through the syllabi again last night – there's no way I can pass this semester. With less than a month left – I just can't do it – even if the lectures hadn't contained important information." Beca nodded and looked at Vera, who reddened.

"I think I'm okay," she admitted. "I – um. I've been emailing assignments in – and most of my professors excused the absences and sent copies of their lectures. I might get a C in the three dimensional calculus class, but I should be okay in the others."

"To be clear," Bella said, looking pointedly at the sister. "When I say fail, I mean fail. An F – not a C."

"It's okay," Beca responded calmly. "Different people do different things with distraction – some people can't concentrate on work – some throw themselves into it. It's not a big deal either way – we'll take it one step at a time. But I need to know what you want to do so your mom and I can make the necessary phone calls. And Vera, if you want to finish out the semester, we should get you back there this week."

Vera paled and both mothers caught it immediately. "One of us will go with you," Chloe promised. The conversation continued for another hour, details being hashed out – and Poppy admitting that she was in Bella's shoes – she didn't feel that she was going to be able to catch up in any of her classes.

In the end, it was decided that Beca would travel to Georgia with Vera for the end of the semester – three weeks tops. The other girls would stay in California with Chloe, beginning to pack for the move.

Before they could leave for Georgia on Tuesday evening, Beca had gone to the studio on Monday to speak with some of the highest level executives. Of course they didn't want her to move to Atlanta – but they also weren't willing to lose her over location. They knew another record company would sign her in an instant. She packed the few things she kept in her private office – she rarely used it, instead choosing to work from home. She lowered her bag to the floor in the entryway and kicked off her shoes. She was inside for less than a minute when she heard the screaming. Looking up in alarm, she saw Bella, Vera, and Dahlia watching her from the living room entry. Bella's eyes skated towards the stairs and back to Beca. She had her arms around Dahlia, who was looking extremely concerned.

"How long has that been going on?" Beca asked calmly, as Chloe's voice raised and responded to Poppy's.

"Mom's been up there all afternoon," Bella said. "The yelling, though – maybe ten minutes." Beca nodded slightly. She walked over and hugged each of her daughters, even Bella – who looked like she'd rather not. Beca held her for a second, whispering in her ear. "Why don't you take them over to Aunt Stacie's? See if you can't try to relax and help Dahlia calm down." Bella nodded obediently, even though she didn't want to leave her own home. Beca kissed Vera's cheek and squeezed her hand before kneeling down to Dahlia's level.

"Go with your sisters to Aunt Stacie's, okay?"

"I don't want to go," Dahlia answered, her voice on the edge and her eyes wide as saucers.

"I know," Beca answered. "I know. But it's just for a little while."

She kissed them each again and headed up the stairs slowly. She had absolutely no idea what she was going to say or do – she didn't really know why they were screaming or what they were arguing about. She entered the room to find the two redheads standing ground at opposite ends of the room. Chloe was crying but she was also pissed – her skin was red with hives – and that had only happened a few times since Beca had met her. Poppy was crying.

"What is going on in here?" Beca asked, after closing the door behind her.

Poppy and Chloe both turned to look at her.

"Just leave me the fuck alone," Poppy said, turning on her heal and heading toward the bathroom. Beca caught her and stopped her.

"Watch it," she said sternly. "You are not leaving right now. What is going on? I thought we settled this?"

"How is listening to me – then ignoring how I feel and telling me that it's going to happen anyway – settling anything?"

"Poppy, I know things have been crazy – I know that – but we're not going to back away from what we feel we need to do to take care of you girls.

"I'm 18 – almost 19! I don't need taken care of!"

"Maybe not," Beca acquiesced, even though she didn't necessarily believe it. "But maybe your sisters don't feel the same way? Maybe your mom and I need this too? I don't know if you remember what happened this winter – "

"For God's sake – of course I remember!" Poppy cried. "You almost died – and then the thing with Andy – and now the video – and the entire campus is going to think I'm a slut – which apparently I am – so why argue? And now you and mom are going to be there all the time – ready and close so I can be sure to disappoint you often. I just can't do this. I need space."

"We are not disappointed in you," Chloe said, her voice still filled with tears.

Beca closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Love, things are going to settle down," she promised softly. "I know that's hard to believe right now – "

"This is never going to be over!" Poppy cried, trying to run for the bedroom door this time. Beca put out her arms to stop her, pulling her into a strong embrace and Poppy fought with her, violently attempting to tear away from her hold. Beca carefully turned her so that she could grasp the teen to her chest and wrap her arms around her from behind, pining her arms to keep her from flailing. She forced her to the floor and sat with her, holding her tightly as she struggled. Her instincts moved her just in time to avoid Poppy throwing her head back. It connected to Beca's shoulder instead of face – painful, but still a win in the current situation.

"Stop," Beca said calmly. "Poppy – it's okay." Chloe sat next to them. It took about ten minutes, but the teen eventually moved from screaming to crying but was still struggling. Beca continued to hold her and whisper whatever words of comfort she could muster.

Once she had calmed, Chloe spoke again. "I know that coming forward, speaking to the police, speaking to the judge – all of this has been so much. And I know you didn't want most of it to happen the way it did," she sympathized. She stroked Poppy's hair.

"I just want everything to back to the way it was," she said sadly. "I don't want things to change any more than they already have."

"These are good changes," Beca told her softy. "We're not coming to the east coast to check in with you every night and follow you to parties. And I don't know what you were talking about before – you could never be a disappointment to us." Poppy tried to cut in but Beca shook her head. "No – it's not possible. So put that thought away." They spent most of the remainder of the day talking, repeating again and again why Poppy should not be worried about them coming to Georgia. How they intended to leave her whatever autonomy she wanted. By the time the other girls came home, Poppy had calmed considerably. Late that night, she appeared in Beca and Chloe's bedroom to apologize for her behavior lately – and to cry a bit more. But things were on the mend.

On Tuesday morning, Jesse walked quickly up to the door. He knew that any hesitation would send him running away – and he needed to see his best friend. Ringing the doorbell, he prayed that it be Beca on the other side. Of course, he had a one in six chance of that being the case – and of course, it wasn't his oldest friend at the door. It was Bella.

She looked surprised but, to her credit, smiled genuinely at him. "Hi, Uncle Jesse."

"Hey, Bella," he said, trying to decide if there was anything that could be more comfortable than this moment. Well… the moment he'd discovered his son had violated the children of his best friend – but this was a close second. "Is your mom around? Beca?" He clarified. She nodded and stepped aside.

"Come on in," she told him. "She's in her studio – just don't go in if the light's on."

"I know the drill," Jessie told her with a smile. Before he could leave the room, he was surprised when she came barreling at him and hugged him. He stood awkwardly for a moment and then hugged her back.

"I'm sorry, Uncle Jesse."

"Me too, Bells. Me too." She let go as quickly as she'd hugged him and disappeared into the kitchen. Jesse walked up to the second floor, then the third, without finding any other family members. He could hear music from Poppy's room as he walked by. The light for her studio was turned off, but the door was closed, so he hesitated before knocking. The door opened and Chloe peered out at him.

"Hi, Jesse," she said, smiling politely. Beca appeared behind her and smiled broadly.

"Come on in," she told him, as though she were expecting him. Chloe pecked her on the cheek and left, closing the door. Beca sat and motioned for him to do the same. He did, sitting on the edge of the sofa in the corner. She was sitting in the chair she used when she worked.

"I'm sorry to just show up," he told her.

"You can always come here," she told him, truthfully.

"I just wanted to come to tell you again how sorry I am – "

"Dude, this is not your fault. Please stop apologizing."

He shook his head and looked sorrowful. "How would you feel if one of your girls was doing something illegal? You would think – "I should have known that." Well, I should have known something as wrong with Andy – "

Beca interrupted him. "You can't be with your kids 24/7. For your sanity and theirs. And you can't change people. You do your best to teach them right from wrong – but in the end, you just have to hope that they get a small bit of it. And if they don't, there's not much you can do." She shrugged. "I haven't been in Vera's bedroom for three days. For all I know, she's cooking meth in there. And how would I know that while also "respecting" her privacy?" She asked, making finger quotation marks when she said resecting. "I wouldn't."

"You're far too forgiving."

"No," Beca promised. "I'm not." Her eyes darkened. "You heard me in the courtroom. And honestly, I would want to kick the shit out of your wife or Andy if I saw them right now. But you didn't do anything wrong. Ben didn't do anything wrong."

Jesse nodded after several minutes of silence. "I appreciate that. Hopefully someday I'll be able to believe it." He cleared his throat. "I wanted to tell you that Ben and I are moving back to Georgia. We're going to stay with my parents." She nodded, her eyes saddened. She couldn't imagine being in his situation. Her family had been affected greatly – but his family had been destroyed. She still had her family – he lost his wife and a son. "We both need a break, I think. There's no going back to the academy – I already got a phone call from the board of trustees, disinviting Ben to continue his education for senior year."

"The same board that you served on?" Beca asked. "The board we both gave money to?"

Jesse shook his head, knowing where she was going. "I can't fight it, Bec. It's not worth it. We don't want to be here anymore anyway. It was a welcome push that we needed to make a decision."

"We're going too," Beca told him. He was surprised at first, until she began explaining. "With everything that happened – even before this. With the cancer and three of the girls at school in Georgia, we decided to move closer to Barden. At least until they graduate."

"How are they taking that decision?"

Beca shrugged. "Poppy is pissed. Mostly. I think Bella and Vera are actually relieved. The twins are young for their class and Vera is just young for college in general – so this year was really hard, even without the extenuating circumstances."

Jesse smiled lightly. "I'm glad you'll be with them. I know that was hard for you – being so far away."

"I'm a little bit of a control freak sometimes," she admitted. "And I miss them."

"Well, the Bellas didn't make you captain for three years because you were ambivalent. You've always been a little bit of a control freak – in a good way," he added, when Beca started to glare. She softened her gaze.

"Are you going to be okay?"

He bit his lip and nodded.

"I think so. I'm uh – I'm having Aubrey served with divorce papers tomorrow. I think it will be better – once it's official." He stared uncomfortably at his shoes. "So – um. I guess I should go. I just wanted to tell you where we were headed. And, um, I guess we'll see you around then, in the deep south."

Beca smiled and nodded. "Y'all better believe it," she said with a teasingly fake southern accent. Jesse smiled back and leaned down to kiss and hug her before disappearing from the room. She listened until the door closed downstairs and wondered with a painful tug of her heart if she was ever going to truly get her best friend back.

Her hands kneaded her scalp for several minutes, trying to alleviate the coming headache. She packed the few things she needed out of the studio and picked up the bags, walking towards her bedroom. Dahlia was standing by her door, waiting.

"What's up, kiddo?" Beca asked, opening her door and letting Dahlia inside. She set her equipment by the foot of her bed and sat on the edge, waiting for Dahlia to speak.

"What if I don't like it in Georgia?" Dahlia asked, her question whispered like a secret. There it was. Beca knew that something had been bothering her youngest. She should have expected it – but Dahlia complained so rarely that she really hadn't. She patted the bed and Dahlia sat next to her.

"What do you like about it here?" Beca asked calmly. Dahlia thought about it.

"You and Mommy. And Vera and Bella and Poppy. And Aunt Stacie – and my room. My toys. And my books. And the yard. And the piano. And the dulcimer – when Vera plays it," she clarified. Beca smiled.

"Well – most of those things are going to Georgia," Beca reminded her. "You'll get to see me and Mommy as much there as you do here. Maybe more – she's not going to work – at least not at first. And you'll get to see your sisters more. And Aunt Stacie – we'll visit her and she can visit us. And I know you don't know Emily as well, but you'll get to see her much more often – and I think you'll like that. And grandpa and grandma – and Nana and Papa." There was silence for several seconds afterward.

"If I had stayed quiet, would we still have to leave?" Dahlia asked. Beca's eyebrows raised as high as they went and she turned quickly to study the child.

"Dahlia, where did you hear that?" Although she tried, she couldn't hide the anger in her voice. Dahlia froze and shook her head.

"Nowhere."

"Dahlia – please tell me the truth. Did someone say that you should have stayed quiet? Because we've talked about that – you did the right thing, love. And yes, we might still be moving. It's not because of one thing – it's because of a lot of things that came together at the same time." Dahlia seemed to accept that, and Beca made a not to tell Chloe what she had heard.

Fifteen minutes away, Stacie walked slowly up to a familiar door. It had been more than a month since she'd spoken to the other woman – and she wasn't sure how welcome she would be. She hadn't taken a side – not officially. But in failing to reach out before this, she'd made her alliances known. She swallowed and pursed her lips as she rang the doorbell. Aubrey stood on the other side and opened the door wide enough so that Stacie could see her face. She had aged years in a few short weeks.

"I um – I wanted to see how you were doing," Stacie said finally.

"I'm fine," Aubrey told her stubbornly.

"Aubrey – "

"I know what you must think of me – and I really don't need to hear it right now. No matter what you think of what I did, trust me – I've thought worse of myself."

"I don't really know what you're going through," Stacie admitted. "But I'm pretty good at listening," she offered, holding up a bag that Aubrey knew held ice cream. Her eyes gave away her fear of doing it, but she eventually opened the door and allowed Stacie into the darkened house. The tall brunette walked in and directly to the kitchen to find two spoons – there was really no call for bowls in times like these. She opened the French doors the led onto the patio and tried to ignore the layer of dust that had gathered. She held the door for Aubrey. The blonde squinted as she followed onto the back patio. Stacie was guessing this was her first foray into fresh air since the hearing the week before.

They sat next to one another and the brunette handed a small carton of strawberry ice cream to her old friend. The once-proud captain of the Bellas accepted it and dug in slowly with a spoon.

"I don't know what to do," Aubrey said finally, once they'd sat in silence for what felt like a lifetime, but in reality was closer to ten minutes.

Stacie nodded. "It's a terrible situation. To put it lightly. Have you talked to anyone?"

Aubrey scoffed. "I don't need a stranger judging me for what I've done."

"It's kind of their job to help you – not judge you. And trust me, as a doctor – I have seen, heard, and witnessed much worse than a terrified mother keeping a secret to try and protect her son."

"How can you not hate me?"

Stacie shrugged. "It takes a lot of energy to hate someone. And it's kind of judg-y. I try to avoid that. Trust me, I am not a fan of anything you did when it came to this situation. Keeping it a secret – the things you said to Bella. Letting him in the same house as Dahlia. But I don't know what I would have done in your place, so I can't hate you for it." There was a long silence. "Chloe and Beca don't hate you either. Or Jesse. Actually, I don't know anyone who does hate you. Other than possibly you."

Aubrey laughed bitterly. "Well, I'm the only company I have these days – so I guess it sucks to be me."

"You need to do something, Bree. Sitting in a dark, dusty house that your family is not coming back to is not going to help you. Go talk to someone – figure out what to do next." The conversation wasn't a long one – and she wasn't sure that any bridges were mended, but the visit gave her peace of mind - and that was what she needed to make her own decisions.

"I don't want you to go," Dahlia said, watching Beca throw her laptop into her carryon bag. Beca threw the bag over her shoulder and walked over to kiss her daughter.

"I know, love. But it's only going to be for a few weeks – then we'll be back – and then we'll have all the fun of packing and moving."

"Can't I come?"

"No," Beca said calmly. "You need to stay with Mom and work on finishing your lessons – you want to make sure you're ready for fourth grade when we get to Atlanta." Dahlia was not happy with this decision, buts he said nothing, simply disappeared to her room – where Beca's throbbing heart knew she was probably crying. An hour later, after lots of hugs and kisses and a few stray tears, Beca and Vera headed for the airport to fly back to Barden. The brunette knew it was the right decision – Vera couldn't go alone and Beca didn't have enough energy to deal with the other three girls and packing a house – at least not alone.

Vera was hesitant to separate from the rest of the family, but she would be lying if she said she didn't enjoy having a bit of attention for herself.

Chapter Text

Chapter 24 – Home

"Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me."

~Simon & Garfunkle

"It looks strange," Bella said, turning back to look at the living room where she had spent so much time growing up. The furniture was covered and the curtains drawn tight, giving the room an eerie atmosphere. It was the middle of May and they were beginning their move to Georgia.

"We'll be back," Beca told her, coming up beside her and kissing her temple. "Georgia is home - but this will always be home too." She gave her daughter's shoulder a squeeze – "Come on, love. Time to go." Bella picked up the bag at her feet and turned to walk outside to the driveway where the other three girls were already waiting, having loaded their bags into the vehicles.

She watched her walk out the door and then turned back to the living room, her own heart thumping a bit as she looked at the ghost of a room. Chloe walked through from the kitchen, a cooler bag over her shoulder. She stood next to Beca and took her hand, squeezing it. "We'll be fine," she said assuredly. She kissed Beca passionately, startling the shorter woman.

"Kids outside," Beca croaked, after pulling away. "Four of them." Chloe smiled mischievously.

"I wanted to make sure your last – at least for awhile – memory of our most important home was special."

"I think you're trying to kill me," Beca said, final catching her breath. Chloe smiled again and offered a throaty chuckle.

"Let's go home," She said, putting her arm around Beca and leading her into the sunshine outside. Bella was pacing the driveway, unwilling to get into the car until they were ready to leave. Dahlia was sitting at the bottom of the yard, staring at the house. Vera and Poppy were in Chloe's Audi SUV – the air conditioning cranked. Vera was already trying to sleep, her head resting against her pillow against the back passenger window.

Beca stopped in front of Dahlia and offered her hand. The little girl took it, bouncing to her feet. "Are you okay?" Her mother asked softly. Dahlia nodded.

"This was the first place I had a home."

"It won't be the last," Beca responded simply, pulling her close in a hug and kissing her forehead. She sent her off to the car and watched as Chloe stopped in front of Bella, halting her pacing. Her bright blue eyes searched her daughter and noted the anxiety.

"Are you sure you want to drive? I can do it – "

"I'm fine," Bella insisted, shaking her head. No one really wanted Chloe to drive when it could be helped. "Really, it's fine. Like, what – ten hours today? I can do that – "

"At the most," Beca agreed, coming up beside Chloe. "And if you need a break – have Poppy or Vera call and we'll stop. And Poppy can take a turn –"

"That's definitely not going to be necessary," Bella assured them. "We'll be fine, I promise. You'll be able to see us the whole time." Beca kissed her temple and tapped on Poppy's window as she passed, going to her own Lexus. Chloe hugged the younger twin before going to the passenger side of Beca's SUV. She climbed into the passenger seat and smiled back at Dahlia, who had already gotten into her booster seat and was resting against the door with a pillow.

The first day of driving was uneventful – they stopped every two hours or so for bathroom breaks and to stretch their legs. They paused for a leisurely lunch but otherwise made good time. It was just after eight in the evening when they arrived at the El Tovar Hotel in the Grand Canyon National Park. Beca pulled into the valet parking area and Bella pulled in right behind her. They gave the keys to the valet and each grabbed her own overnight bag. After checking in, they took the elevator to their floor and walked down the hall to the adjoining rooms. Beca gave one set of key cards to Poppy and Bella and kept the other set for herself and Chloe.

"Ok," Chloe said cheerfully, clapping her hands. She looked at Beca, then at the girls. Everyone looked so tired. "Roomservice? She suggested finally.

"Yes, please," Poppy answered for all of them. Bella nodded, following her sister to their room. That night, the six gathered in Chloe and Beca's room, snuggled under thick blankets on sofas near a crackling fireplace, to eat the ridiculously overpriced dinner that had been ordered from room service. Dahlia fell asleep tucked into Beca's side. The third time one of the mothers had to stop Bella from nodding off into her food, they sent them all to bed.

It was well before ten when they were all sleeping, but they needed it – especially when they woke again before dawn. "Why are we waking up this early?" Poppy asked, groaning as she tried to roll back over in bed. Vera wasn't having it – she had already pulled he covers away.

"Come on, Poppy – you're the last one we're waiting for. Hurry up!" Bella insisted. Less than ten minutes later, a bleary-eyed Poppy followed her sisters to the private balcony where her mothers were already sitting, sipping coffee and exchanging soft words. Dahlia sat between them on the outdoor sofa they shared, her head falling to rest under Chloe's chin. Vera and Bella pulled chairs up to the other side of the table.

"Why are we awake this early?" Poppy asked, still not amused.

"We discussed this at lunch yesterday. Do you ever listen when we talk?" Beca asked, studying her. Poppy glared but her expression softened as a waitress returned with a cup of coffee for her. She sat next to her twin and began sipping at it. Bella and Vera had their own – and Dahlia received a cup of hot cocoa that was left untouched on the table as she caught a few more minutes of sleep.

No one answered Poppy directly, they simply talked about their plans for the day – they were taking a tour of the Grand Canyon – but they didn't need to be ready for that until later in the morning. Their breakfast arrived as the dark was beginning to fade away. Chloe grinning and she met Beca's twinkling dark blue eyes as the first rays of pink and orange shot through the sky, illuminating the ancient rocks of the canyon, highly visible from their spot. Chloe leaned down and dropped a kiss on Dahlia's head, rubbing her back gently to wake her again.

Poppy didn't ask again about waking up so early – she was too busy watching in awe as the sun rose and blanketed the rocks with shades of pink, orange, and yellow. No one spoke for a long time. Dahlia had been clingy at breakfast, but no one realized she was sick with a fever until they were back in their rooms, getting ready for their tour. Poppy was the first to notice that the little girl was extra quiet – and sweating, despite the chilly beginning to the day.

"Bella," she said, getting her twin's attention. Bella was standing closest to her, packing what she wanted for the day into a messenger bag. She turned to look at Dahlia and saw how pale she was, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"What's wrong, Dahlia?" She asked, sitting next to the child.

"Nothing," Dahlia responded. Bella put the back of her hand to Dahlia's forehead anyway and felt heat.

"You're not a very convincing liar," she told her little sister. "Come on." She walked Dalia over to the door that joined them to their parents' room and knocked. Beca opened it, a hairbrush in her hand.

"Ready?" She asked.

"We are," Bella responded. "But Dahlia is sick," she said passing the little girl to her mother. Chloe appeared beside them and knelt in front of Dahlia, taking in her bright pink cheeks against extra pale skin.

"What doesn't feel good?" She asked, her slim hands blessedly cool against Dahlia's cheek and forehead.

"Everything," she admitted quietly. Tears glistened in her eyes – she really did feel badly. Chloe clucked as she lifted her into her arms and carried her over to the bed. Beca removed her shoes and tucked her under the covers. She stood up next to Chloe.

"You should still take the other girls. It would be silly to make them stay in the hotel room all day," Beca told her wife. "I wasn't going to make in on the Bright Angel Trail anyway." They hadn't told their girls the plan because they knew there would be arguments. Beca was still not up to an eight mile trek, so she was going to part ways with them after the first part of the scenic tour and meeting them at the other end of the trail.

"I don't want to leave you here all day," Chloe argued uncomfortably.

"We'll be fine," Beca promised. "We shouldn't all be cooped up in here all day. Please, take them."

Chloe eventually relented. First, she called the concierge and located a fever reducer and thermometer. Beca refused to use it until they left – she knew Chloe would never leave if she knew the number behind Dahlia's fever. Beca stayed with her – feeding her medicine and lots of fluids. She used her headphones to work on several mixes while Dahlia slept.

"I'm sorry you had to miss the tour," Dahlia said several hours later, once the fever reducer had kicked in and she was awake for more than a few seconds at a time,

"I don't mind," Beca told her. "I'm just sorry you're missing it."

Dahlia shrugged. "It's pretty to look at – but I don't really like heights." Beca laughed deeply, startling the child.

"It took you almost a year to tell us that you're afraid of heights?" Dahlia shrugged. Beca kissed her forehead, appreciating that her fever had lowered. "My love, don't ever change." Whatever Dahlia had lasted just over a day – by the next morning her fever had broken, and by the morning after that, she felt well enough to get going.

By the time they reached Warren and Sheila's house at the end of the week, they were all exhausted beyond what they thought possible. The grandparents walked out to the driveway to meet them and took a few of their bags after hugging each of the girls. "You look so tired," Sheila said sympathetically as she helped Beca with two of the bags from her vehicle.

Beca nodded. "There's a reason most people fly a trip that long," Beca admitted. "By the time we got to Nashville, we were tired of traveling – so we skipped the planned sightseeing and just starting driving the next morning."

"You're not early," Sheila said, confused.

"We stayed an extra day in the Grand Canyon – Dahlia was sick."

"Poor darling." Once inside, they took their bags to the guestrooms and then gathered into the kitchen to eat an almost wordless dinner. They were all in bed before ten.

To make their lives simpler and the arguments fewer and farther between, Chloe and Beca went house shopping alone, leaving the girls with their grandparents. All of the girls whined about it until Beca pointed out that they'd done a perfectly good job of choosing a house the first time. But after following a perky realtor around Barden and it's surrounding neighborhoods for two hours, Beca was ready to live in a hotel for four years. It might have been a possibility – and she was highlighting the perks to Chloe as they drove up to an historic three-floor Georgian built in yellow brick with green shutters. A wide porch wrapped around the entire thing – at least, Beca thought it did – she could see it across the front and going back along both sides. The stairs leading up to the porch came from two sides, meeting in front of the heavy green door.

Beca had said nothing, which Chloe took to be a hopeful sign. She smiled and nodded for the realtor to let them in. The door opened into an entry that held a chandelier and a sweeping staircase. "Who do you think would fall down that first?" Beca asked as soon as she saw it.

"I'm sure you, Vera, and Bella will be fine," Chloe answered with a smile. The realtor looked concerned about the question but shook her head and began to prattle on about the amenities of the house and the history of the property. Beca ignored her and walked into the sunlight room to her right – it was a large, airy living room, complete with a grand piano set between large windows.

Beca pointed to the piano. The realtor smiled. "Sorry about that. The family of the last owners chose not to take it – too expensive to move. The bank is going to sell it – but they haven't gotten around to it yet—"

"It stays," Beca said simply, continuing into the room. There was a fireplace and plenty of room for the entire family – with room to spare for visitors and guests. Behind the living room she found a smaller room that overlooked the backyard – this one lined with gorgeous built-in bookshelves wherever there was a break in the windows. She stood at the window and looked into the backyard; it boasted a huge expanse of space, several groupings of trees, and a beautiful flagstone patio.

On the other side of the entry, she searched for and found Chloe's hand as they walked through the spacious dining room and into the kitchen. It had a large island in the middle with storage. Two convection ovens in the wall, a larger conventional oven and stove next to a deep double sink, and more than enough room for a large kitchen table. A breakfast nook looked out onto the backyard and a door led to the back porch – which had been screened. Beca looked up to see three ceiling fans along the porch; this was the prefect outdoor room for a Georgian summer.

Although the first floor had pretty much sold them both, they walked upstairs to check out the different bedrooms. There were six bedrooms and five baths on the third floor, five on the second floor. The extra space on the second floor made for a massive master bedroom, bath, and walk-in closet. Each room, though, was spacious and well-lit. "What do you think?" Chloe said, standing at the bottom of the circular staircase, watching her wife carefully for information. She had only spoken once inside the house – to tell the woman about keeping the piano.

"What do you think?"

Chloe shook her head and laughed. "No, I asked first, Beca."

"It's prefect," she said softly.

Chloe's eyes sparkled and she grinned. "I thought so too," she agreed. The house was located in a nice neighborhood. Two blocks from Beca's father and about a five minute walk to the Barden campus.

The next day, Dahlia gasped as soon as she saw the house; she still wasn't quite aware of how wealthy Chloe and Beca actually were. Their house in California was also a mansion, huge and homey – but this place was huge and regal looking. Bella smiled. Poppy looked interested, and Vera began immediately telling them about the history of Georgian architecture. They toured the first floor – and Bella was thrilled to realize that there was a library. Vera and Poppy carefully eyed the piano in the living room and were disappointed to realize how out-of-tune it was. Beca promised they would find a tuner quickly. They walked together to the second floor and Beca quickly divvied out the bedrooms, in the same configuration they were at home. Dahlia's room was next to the master, Vera's straight across, Bella next to that, and Poppy toward the far end of the hall.

"I'm still not staying here during the school year," Poppy told her mothers, not impolitely.

"That's fine," Beca said with a smile. "But the room is yours whenever you want it."

"This is complete insanity," Chloe told Beca as they walked through the furniture store later that day. It was a large family-owned store and they had walked in and made the salesman's day. They had already ordered a kitchen table and chairs, a larger dining room table and chairs, four sofas, two love seats, and four arm chairs. Several ottoman, end tables, a sofa table, and coffee table. Beca had to hand the man her credit card and her ID when he began to look weary. He was nice enough, but she could see that he was worried that they were crazy. As soon as he saw her name on the California license and the titanium card he held in his hand, he looked up at her in awe.

He handed them back to her, thanking her. He knew she was trying to reassure him that they weren't crazy people who were going to take up his afternoon and then leave with nothing. The four girls were spread out through the store – Chloe and Beca told them their opinions were not needed on the common room furniture. It would have led to more arguments than necessary – so they had instead been sent to find bedroom suits they liked. Beca could see from the corner of her eye that Vera was climbing on bunk beds. She was standing on the top bunk of a cherry set, looking curiously at the wrought iron set two feet away.

"No, Vera Emily," Beca said sternly. The redhead looked at her guiltily and climbed back down, disappearing from view. She turned back to her wife, who was telling the salesman about the library. They chose a sofa and a few small, comfortable arm chairs and footstools for that room. After that, the inside common rooms were taken care of. They walked to the bedroom suites and the salesman left them alone to search, telling them he would return in a few minutes.

Beca liked their bed at home – she always had. It was strange to think of having another different one. But it was an opportunity for something new. Together, they eventually chose an antiqued white set with delicately carved headboard and posts. The dressers and end tables matched. They found a chest for the end of the bed and then Chloe suggested they do the entire room in shades of white. Another trip to the first section of the store had them choosing soft, antique, and slightly ornate sofa and chairs for their bedroom.

Since they had taken their time, most of the girls had made their choices by the time Beca and Chloe found them. Bella had gone so far as to camp out on the bed she had chosen, a book that had been tucked into her purse lifted above her as she read. "I take it you want this one?" Beca asked, looking at the medium cherry wood and beautiful scrolling metal that made up the early American country style set. It was very Bella, and it was very southern – it was perfect for their new home in Georgia. The salesman found them just as Bella looked up at her mother and nodded.

"We'll take this set," Beca told him "– for the fourth bedroom." He was taking notes for the movers as to where the furniture went. She knew it would be up to them in the end to direct the men, but it was start. Leaning in, she tapped Bella's shoulder to get her attention. "Go choose a sofa and chair, please – and lamps." Bella pointed to the ones already paired with the bedroom set.

"Those are good."

"You take after your mother when it comes to shopping," Chloe told her. "Are you just saying that so you can stop looking?"

"No, I really do like it together," Bella promised. "But yeah, I am a little tired of this. Are we almost done?"

"We're getting there," Bella promised. They found Poppy next, who had – in true Poppy style – found one of the most expensive sets in the store. Bella had already come in far under the budget they had set, so it was doable – but Poppy could choose the most expensive thing in any category with no prices in sight. She had found a dark redwood sleigh bed with beautifully detailed dressers. She pointed out the burgundy sofa and chairs she wanted, along with coordinating lamps.

The salesman wrote furiously, noting numbers and colors. They found Vera and Dahlia wandering together. Beca knew from the red rims around Dahlia's eyes that she hadn't made a decision – and she was feeling very overwhelmed by the prospect of making one. She walked up to her youngest daughter and put an arm around her shoulder, rubbing it gently as Chloe asked Vera what she wanted. The sixteen-year-old chose a simple but regal set of light colored wood and a set of soft blue furniture for the sitting area. They were left with Dahlia. Poppy and Bella had joined them and although Beca knew it wasn't their intent, they were putting more pressure on the young girl.

"Do you see one that you like?" Chloe asked. "You don't have to pick anything here. There are other stores if nothing looks right."

Dahlia sighed deeply but said nothing. Her lower lip was trembling. Bella pointed at something and said "what about this?" They wall followed her to a bedroom set that was white. The wood was solid and the style was a very understated country look. "It would look pretty with blue bedding," she said to Dahlia. The little girl looked at it curiously.

"It would," Vera agreed.

"Do you like it?" Beca asked. "We don't have to decide today," she reminded her. "We can go home and look at catalogs, or –"

"I like it," Dahlia agreed quickly and almost spat the next words. "Can you pick the other stuff?" All three of her sisters laughed at the slight outburst and Beca and Chloe agreed – as long as she liked it, they would pick the other furniture that matched.

When they left the store, they had spent thousands of dollars on furniture. Chloe had taken pictures of everything – because they still needed bedding, curtains, rugs, paintings, shelves, mirrors, pictures frames – pretty much everything.

They remained with Warren and Sheila for another week while the rooms were being painted and the rugs and vents deep cleaned. Bella and Poppy were frequenting the Bella house – Camilla was preparing to name her successor – everyone assumed it would be Alexis. And the older brunette was already nervous and thinking about set lists and choreography. Dahlia worked with Chloe on the lessons she needed to start fourth grade – and Vera was a constant presence in the music building most days.

They had lived in their new house for two weeks when Stacie called Beca on a Wednesday evening. The smaller brunette lifted her phone from her lap and answered it, standing up from the porch swing she had been sharing with Chloe. "Hey, stranger. I thought you forgot about us."

"Nope," Stacie responded. "It's just been busy. Are you guys home?"

"Where else would we be?"

"Just asking. Calm down. So what does your new house look like?"

Beca described it absently. "And what does the doorbell sound like?" "Dude, why are you being weird?" She asked. Just as she did, the doorbell rang. She looked at Chloe and smiled, hanging up her phone and shoving it into her pocket. She motioned for Chloe and the girls – who were all strewn around the porch – to follow her. When she flung open the door, Stacie was there, smiling.

"You hung up on me," she said, teasingly glaring at Beca. "Rude." Beca – and then Chloe – hugged her.

"What are you doing here?" Chloe asked. "When did you get here?" The questions were lost as the four girls hugged Stacie and started telling her about the house and everything that had occurred over the past few weeks. Stacie paid close attention to the each of them and allowed herself to be dragged around the house for a tour. They cooked and ate dinner together and gathered afterward on the porch to play Scrabble.

That night, they shooed the girls to their rooms relatively early for a summer's night. Beca poured wine and Chloe helped her carry the glasses to the back porch. She handed one to Stacie. "Thank you."

"So dude, you are always welcome – but what are you doing here?" Beca asked. Stacie had told the girls only that she had missed them and wanted to visit. Beca and Chloe were calling her out on it – they believe it to be more.

Stacie shrugged. "I spent a month in California without you guys – and pretty much ended up thinking – what the hell am I doing on the west coast without those weirdos? So I called Dr. Edwards. She's still interested in selling her practice – and I was able to sell mine in just a few days."

"Sell?" Beca asked – as in – it's done?"

Stacie nodded.

"We're glad you're here," Chloe said without hesitation. "You can stay with us for as long as you need."

"Thank you," Stacie told her. "I have a few places to check out tomorrow – but I think I made a decision already."

Stacie was still with them the following Monday when Beca and Chloe took Dahlia to the local elementary school to register. Beca had called to make an appointment and woke Dahlia early that morning, helping her with her hair and to change into an adorable sundress that she had picked out – from a store – on her own. Her brunette mother wasn't even sure she herself could do that anymore; stores were overwhelming to say the least. Bella was the only other person awake – other than Chloe, who had several errands to run and was meeting them at the school.

Beca poured herself a cup of coffee as Bella absently poured a bowl of cereal for Dahlia and sat back down in her own seat, studying her phone. "You're up early for no apparent reason," Beca said. Bella looked up at her, frowning.

"Yeah – I got a text from Alexis. Camille wants to meet with me today. Kind of freaks me out – it's summer break – not sure what she could want."

"I thought she graduated," Beca said, grabbing a container of yogurt from the refrigerator and sitting next to Dahlia.

"She did," Bella responded. "But she decided to stay in Atlanta for grad school, so she's living at the Bella house until the end of summer." What she didn't mention – but highly suspected – was that Camille had been accepted to grad schools across the country – some more prestigious than Emory – but she was staying so that Alexis wasn't alone.

Beca pulled into the parking lot with two minutes to spare before their appointment. The school was bright and sunny with two large playgrounds. The red brick building had large windows and beautiful landscaping leading up to the front doors. Beca held Dahlia's hand but let it go when the little girl pulled it away as they reached the building. "Can we wait for Mommy?" Dahlia asked, stepping back away from the door.

"She'll find us inside," Beca said, after briefly glancing at her phone. She knew Dahlia was nervous and just trying to stall. "Our appointment is for right now – I don't want us to be late." Dahlia swallowed and nodded. Beca put her arm around the small girl's shoulders and led her into the building. Once inside the first set of doors, Beca rang a bell and a woman in the office smiled, waved, and buzzed them in.

"Hello," she said cheerfully. "I'm Mrs. Grant – the principal's secretary. You must be Dahlia and Mrs. Mitchell." Beca nodded, reaching out to shake the woman's hand. "Welcome to Barnard Park Elementary. We are so happy to have you." Dahlia blushed and smiled, but said nothing. "Would you like the tour before or after the paperwork?" The woman asked.

"Maybe before," Beca suggested, knowing how nervous Dahlia must be feeling. "But can we wait a few minutes? My wife is in her way – " Her voice died off at the end of her thought as she saw a flicker of something in the woman's eye. "Is that a problem?" She asked, calmly.

"Of course not," the woman answered, her smile returning with a forced effort. The woman didn't say another word as they waited for Chloe and Beca eventually took Dahlia's hand and they walked around the front hall, studying the paintings and artwork that decorated the walls. Chloe arrived with flushed cheeks and a hurried apology. Mrs. Grant led them on the tour, pointing out the different grade level hallways and all of the rooms for specials.

By the time the tour had come to an end, the tension was thick between them. Beca politely thanked Mrs. Grant for the tour and suggested they take the paperwork home to finish. "A lovely idea," the woman said, another fake smile. Chloe took the folder from the woman and followed Beca and Dahlia back to the parking lot.

"Why was she being weird?" Dahlia asked.

"Some people are just weird," Beca responded.

"Do I have to go to school there? I didn't like it," Dahlia told her.

"No, you don't," Beca answered. "We'll keep looking." Chloe listened and gave Beca a confused expression but kept quiet. She hugged Dahlia and apologized for being late. That afternoon, they sat on the back porch and kept an eye on Dahlia as she explored the new backyard. Beca explained to Chloe the woman's attitude change when she'd discovered they were two married women. "She wasn't rude," Beca admitted. "She was just – weird. It felt wrong – and clearly Dahlia felt it too."

"Dahlia felt you freaking out," Chloe told her. "But I'm not going to argue. If you didn't like it – we'll find somewhere else." Beca nodded. The conversation was closed by the time they started making dinner. Beca saw her phone lighting up with the new school's number and answered it, putting it on speaker after turning off the stove and motioning for Chloe to follow her. They walked together up to her studio.

"Hi, Mrs. Mitchell. This is Steve Helmes, principal at Barnard Park Elementary."

"Hello, Mr. Helmes," Beca said, closing the door and sitting next to Chloe on the sofa. "Mr. Helms, you're on speaker. My wife Chloe is in the room."

"Hello," Chloe said.

"Hello, Mrs. Beale. I'm glad to speak with you both. I'm sorry I didn't return from my meeting until after you left this morning. It ran late – and usually tours last a little longer – I wanted to call to introduce myself and apologize for not meeting you this morning."

"That's fine," Beca responded. "We understand busy schedules."

"How did you and Dahlia like the school? Did Mrs. Grant show you the updated technology – and the refurbished library?"

"She did," Chloe answered. "It's a beautiful school," she added, looking helplessly at Beca. She had no idea what to say to the first question.

"It is a beautiful school," Beca agreed. "But we're not sure it's the right school for Dahlia – or for our family."

"I'm very sorry to hear that," the man said regretfully. "Is there anything I can say to change your mind? Or can you tell me what has let you away from Barnard Park?"

"It just didn't feel like the right fit for us – or for Dahlia," Beca said, explaining nothing. "It's a lovely school – but Dahlia is coming off of a really difficult year – we just want to make sure she's as comfortable as possible." Her voice made it very clear that the decision had been made, so Mr. Helms thanked them for their time and told them to call if he could be of any help in the future.

They visited three more schools in the next week and they finally agreed on one that all three of them liked – it was a private school less than ten minutes in driving time from the house. Dahlia's would-be teacher had been in her classroom on the day of their tour, preparing it for the coming year, and was simply lovely. Dahlia had nothing but good things to say when school started at the end of August.

It was the first week of classes – for all of them – when Beca and Chloe got things together enough to get them all into therapy. "I am not going," Poppy said angrily. Chloe ignored her, moving around the kitchen to set out breakfast for the family. Poppy had just arrived and was dressed for a day of classes. Her hair was perfect, her dress as crisp and stylish as usual, but her eyes raged. Chloe placed a quiche on the table and began dishing out small pieces. Beca appeared, poured herself a cup of coffee, and then pulled a bowl of fruit from the refrigerator. As soon as she sat down, Dahlia arrived and sat next to her, picking up her fork and beginning to pick at the food. In less than three minutes after Poppy's declaration, the rest of the family was sitting before her, eating breakfast and blatantly ignoring her indignation.

"You should eat," Beca finally said, looking up at her and pointing to the empty spot with her fork. Poppy scowled but sat down next to Vera and began picking at the slice of quiche.

"Bella's practice tonight," Bella reminded her mothers. She had – much to her own shock and chagrin – been named co-captain with Alexis. She was still reeling from that decision. She had attempted to fight it but, as usual, Camille wasn't interested in listening. "We won't be home until at least nine. I'll text if it's going to be later."

"Thank you," Chloe responded. "How many classes do you have today?"

"Just two," Bella answered. "But I have a paper to work on – so I'm going to the library in between. Easier to focus there."

"I will get my studio soundproofed as soon as possible," Beca said pointedly. This had already been discussed. Bella simply smirked. Beca turned to Vera. "How about you, V?"

"Three classes," she responded simply. "And Professor Eden offered to show me how to use her Marimbas," she said happily.

"Have fun," Beca told her. She looked up from her phone. "Please, be careful. Those are antiques," she informed her daughter.

Bella and Vera left together, walking the few blocks to campus after thanking but refusing Beca's offer for a ride. Beca stood to refill her coffee cup and returned to lightly pluck the end of Dahlia's braid. "Love, we need to go. Almost done?" Dahlia nodded and speared one more grape. "I'll meet you in the front hall – go grab your bag. And your violin – lessons after school today." Dahlia left to do as she was told, dropping her dishes in the sink on her way out. Beca leaned back against the table.

Her steely blue eyes met Poppy's bright blue orbs and she held the gaze. "I know you don't want to do this – but you don't have a choice. You are going – and you will behave for your mother – or so help me, I will make you move back in with us. Do you understand?"

"I don't want – "

"I fully understand what you do not want to do," Beca told her. "It doesn't matter right now. You are going – everyone is going. Trust me, I don't want to go any more than you do. But I am. You will behave."

Poppy said nothing but her lack of a retort left Beca slightly hopeful. She dropped a kiss on Poppy's temple before the teen could jerk away and walked to the end of the table to hug and kiss Chloe. "I'll meet you for lunch?" Beca asked. Chloe nodded.

Half an hour later, Chloe was leading Poppy down the hallway of an innocuous office building. Her daughter was livid but did follow. She was going to see a therapist – for the first time ever. She, unlike Bella, had never needed one before – and she insisted she didn't need one now. Her current episodes of rage told her mothers otherwise. Chloe stopped in front of the office door and looked at her. "You don't have to choose this one – we can look for others. But you do need to give it a chance."

Beca was waiting when Chloe arrived, a coffee cup in front of her and her phone in her hands. She smiled when Chloe sat down across from her. "How'd it go?" She asked, her expression and voice indicating that she wasn't holding high hopes.

"Better than I expected," Chloe said, before the waitress appeared. She ordered a drink and waited for the woman to leave to speak again. "She stayed the whole time – and Dr. Adams never came to get me – so I'm assuming it was alright. She didn't seem as angry when we left – and she didn't fight me when I made another appointment." Beca nodded – it was progress.

Less than a week later, Bella sighed heavily as she unbuckled her seatbelt. "Sigh all you want," Beca told her. "It's not going to change your destination." Bella rolled her eyes and stepped out of the car, pushing the sleeves of her long-sleeved black t-shirt up to her elbows. The black, white, and red plaid that she was wearing already had the sleeves rolled, so it exposed her lower arms with the bevy of coordinating bracelets.

"You don't have to choose this one," Beca told her. "But you do have to be nice. Got it?"

She had been to two different therapists in her life – the most recent stint ending in high school. "I know the drill," Bella responded, following her mother into a house that doubled as a therapist's office. There was a small reception desk just inside the front door. Beca signed her in and they were about to sit down but a door opened down the hall and a woman walked out, smiling widely at them.

"Hello! I'm Dr. Izzo. But please, call me Rachel. You must be Bella," she said, reaching out to offer her hand to the young girl. Bella's hands remained firmly in her pockets. She looked at the therapist uncertainly and then finally met her eyes and shook her head.

"I'm sorry. I can't do that. Nice to meet you."

"Not a problem," Rachel said. "Please, come in." She led them back to a small office set up like a living room. "Please, have a seat. Who did you bring with you today?"

"My mom. She called you," Bella said, helpfully reminding her. She looked sideways at Beca, who shot her a warning glance.

"Yes, she did. It's nice to meet you in person, Mrs. Mitchell – "

"Beca is fine," she responded.

"What brings you ladies here today?"

"Nothing, actually," Bella said uncomfortably. She stood up, looking pleadingly at her mother. "I'm really sorry – this is not going to work – you are way too cheerful. No offense – I'm sure that works for a lot of people. But if I really want to spend time talking to someone who is way too cheerful – I can talk to my twin sister. Or call my mom." The therapist looked at Beca questioningly – as if to say "you don't look that cheerful."

"Not me," Beca said with a quick shake of her head. "Other mom. The more cheerful one." She tapped her foot patiently against the rug and addressed her daughter. "You sure about this, Bells. You really didn't give the woman five minutes."

"I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "It's just not right." Three days into the search, Beca and Bella had visited no less than nine therapists. Only one visit had lasted more than five minutes – and that was mostly because the therapist spoke incredibly slowly. Even Beca wanted to punch that one. On the fourth morning, they had one more appointment. Marissa Garrett. It was another woman with a practice in a residential home. Beca knocked on the glass door and was surprised – when it opened – that two balls of golden fluff game flying at her. The two golden retrievers were dancing around the two women, wagging their tails and begging for attention. Bella sat down directly on the porch and began petting them. They snuggled up to her immediately, tails still wagging. A woman appeared on the porch.

"I am so sorry," she said. "I usually have the big door closed – they can get the glass door open themselves – and they're a little overzealous about visitors."

"I think it's actually okay," Beca responded softly, watching her daughter smile as she played with the dogs. She looked up at the woman. "I'm Beca Mitchell."

"Mrs. Mitchell, I'm Marissa Garrett. It's nice to meet you."

"Beca," she responded. "Thanks for seeing us on short notice."

"You said you've been to a few different therapists."

"She gives them five minutes and then freaks out," Beca whispered. Bella was paying them no attention. It wasn't until Beca cleared her throat that she looked up and realized – sheepishly – that she was being rude.

"Sorry," she said. "I got a little distracted."

"That's okay," Melissa said with a smile. "They're good for that. The one with more red in her fur is Molly – and the one with more yellow is Maggie. Would you like to come in? If you want them to, they'll follow." Bella nodded, walking after the woman and into a normal therapist's office. Well, it was mostly normal. It was in the back of the house, so there was some privacy – but three of the walls were windows that looked out onto a beautiful backyard full of flowers, paths, water elements, and grass. Bella sat on one of the sofas and laughed when Molly joined her, curling up next to her.

Beca looked taken aback but Bella seemed okay, so she sat in a nearby armchair. "Can I get you ladies anything? Tea, coffee, water?"

"Water, please," Bella answered.

"I'll have the same, thank you."

Once the therapist shut her door and sat down, Bella began to look a bit more nervous. She had her legs crossed beneath her and the water bottle clutched between her hands. "Bella, you're old enough that you can choose to have your mom here – or we can ask her to wait outside. It's your choice."

"Either is fine with me," Beca assured her. She had been telling her the same thing for days. She wasn't sure if her presence was making things easier or harder for her daughter.

"You can stay," Bella responded. "She can stay," she repeated to Marissa.

"Okay," the woman answered with a small smile. "Works for me. So – your mom called yesterday and mentioned that it's been sort of a crazy year. Why don't you start by telling me why you think you need to be here?"

Bella's brow creased as she tumbled the question around in her head. "I worry – a lot," she said finally. "It would be nice to stop doing that. I mean – I started taking a pill that helps – but it doesn't make it go away all the time. And – um. I have trouble with people." The therapist gave her room to continue, but she didn't, so the woman prodded.

"What kind of trouble?"

"I don't like when people touch me," Bella told her. "I um – I've never really had an intimate relationship – and the idea of one seriously freaks me out. I mean, I get hives."

"That would suck," Melissa agreed. "You want to work on that?"

"I think so," Bella responded. "There's someone – someone who might be worth trying for." She quickly continued. "And there's been some other stuff too – family stuff. My Mama just fought cancer last year. She's okay now – but it was really scary for awhile."

"That would be."

"And my sisters and I – we had to admit to things that happened a long time ago – that was bad. And it's sort of all still sinking in."

"We can get there," Melissa promised, not pushing. She could see that Bella was sliding into a panic attack. "Do me a favor and close your eyes. Let's just take a minute." Bella did as was asked. "Just take a few deep breaths – let them all the way out. Pay attention to the air as you inhale and exhale. Don't open your eyes until you feel the panic fall back." They sat for ten minutes while Bella simply sat and breathed. Eventually, her eyes cracked open.

"How do you feel?" Melissa asked.

"A little bit better. I don't feel like I'm going to pass out or stop breathing."

"All good things!" The therapist agreed. They spoke for another twenty minutes before anyone paid any mind to Beca. "Can we talk to your mom for a minute?" Bella nodded and the therapist turned to Beca.

"Ultimately, this is Bella's decision – whether to continue with therapy or not."

"I agree," Beca responded.

"What do you hope that she gets out of it?"

"I just want her to be comfortable and happy – whatever that means for her," Beca replied. "I understand the anxiety and the intimacy issues – I've dealt with them myself – and probably not as much as I should have. I'm proud of Bella for wanting to work on this stuff and find a space where she can feel better. Because she deserves to be happy." Bella agreed to make another appointment – and scheduled it herself before they left.

"Very proud of you," Beca said, kissing her temple before rounding the far to climb into the driver's seat. No more words were exchanged about the day.

Vera was avoiding her mothers during that time. She was doing a great – if obvious – job at it. She appeared at the last second for meals and scampered off before anyone else. She spent very little – if any – time in her bedroom. And her phone was regularly left alone, sitting on the kitchen counter where it did them absolutely no good. On Sunday, Chloe and Beca finally split up the house and went looking. Bella, who, along with her sisters, knew exactly what Vera was doing, watched in amusement from the living room as they began their search. Beca found her in the eaves of the attic. She sneezed as she stepped into the sunlit, dusty space. She texted Chloe to tell her where they were and shoved her phone into her pocket. Vera was watching her when she looked up.

"What are you doing up here?" Beca asked, her nose and throat already feeling congested with dust. She looked around. "And why haven't we had this cleaned? This is gross."

"It's pollen," Vera told her. "Not dust – that you can see in the air."

"That doesn't make me feel better," Beca told her. She vaguely remembered the fall being particularly allergen heavy at Barden. She walked closer to the end of the house where Vera was sitting on a box beside a large round window that overlooked the side yard. The older woman had to watch her footing as she crossed to her daughter – the floor boards were not all nailed down. She sat on a box across from Vera and tried to remain nonchalant. "Any reason you're up here on a Sunday afternoon?"

Vera shrugged. "It's quiet up here."

"Last time I checked, your bedroom was pretty quiet." Another shrug.

"I don't want to go talk to a stranger about stuff."

Straight to the point; Vera was usually good for that. "I know you don't," Beca answered.

"Why do I have to? I'm not freaking out like Bella and Poppy. And I'm not a little kid anymore – I can choose for myself –"

"We're not asking you to make it a lifelong habit," Beca told her. "But a lot of scary things happened this year," she reminded her daughter. "We think it would be a good idea if you talk to a therapist – at least for a little bit."

"I don't know if I can do that," Vera responded.

"Just give it a shot – a few weeks. See if it helps. If it doesn't, we'll back off." Chloe joined them and they talked for a good long time until Vera agreed to try. Beca made an appointment for her the next week with Marissa – she knew the girl would be soothed by the dogs. Before the end of the month, all four of them were in therapy – and Beca and Chloe were looking for someone themselves. Beca was pickier than Bella – and Chloe would talk to anyone. It was an interesting situation to figure out.

Toward the middle of September, life had finally settled into a rhythm. Things were finally beginning to calm down – so Beca was exact surprised when Dahlia was being difficult after school on a Tuesday. She wouldn't eat anything – and they needed to leave in ten minutes or be late to her appointment. She had been seeing the same child psychologist since they'd moved into the house at the end of May – and she never complained a bit.

"Please pick something," Beca said, holding the refrigerator door open. She looked over just in time to see Dahlia's lip began to tremble. Beca realized that she was about to cry. "Dahlia, what's wrong, love?" She released her hold on the kitchen appliance and instead reached over to rub her daughter's back.

"I don't want to go!" She said, quite forcefully, pulling away from Beca. Chloe entered the back door then, a basket of flowers on her arm and a wide-brimmed hat on her head. She took it off and set it on the table next to the basket and stood back to listen.

"I know it's not fun," Beca agreed. "But it's to help you – "

"She always reminds me that I'm not really your daughter – and I'm tired of that."

"Excuse me?" Beca asked. She pointed to a kitchen chair and Dahlia sat. Her mothers sat on either side of her. "What do you mean, love?"

"She always wants me to tell her how I feel – compared to Vera and Poppy and Bella. I always tell her that you don't treat me differently – but she keeps bringing it up."

Beca lifted her chin so their eyes met. "Love, we don't treat you differently because you are our real daughter. It doesn't matter who gave birth to you – we love you more than anything in this world – and I'm so sorry that Dr. Chandler keeps bringing this up. That's not right. I'll talk to her." They spoke to Dahlia for another ten or fifteen minutes, making sure she understood what they were saying. Once she had left to go to her room, Beca turned a devious glance to Chloe.

"Want to come?" She asked. Chloe nodded and they both stood. They began walking through the living room.

"But I don't care what she says – no hitting – who's going to bail us out if we both end up in jail? And seriously – that will look bad in the papers."

"No hitting," Beca promised. "But there will be yelling."

"Who are you yelling at?" Bella asked, sitting up on the sofa. She had been lounging on it, reading a book for school.

"Not you," Beca answered. "Keep an eye and ear out for your sisters, please. Mom and I will be back before dinner." She nodded.

"Want me to start something?" Bella offered half-heartedly.

Beca smiled; she could see that her daughter was comfortable – and engrossed in her book.

"No, thank you, love. We'll order in, I think." Beca and Chloe were there for Dahlia's appointment – and politely – or not so politely – told her exactly what she could do with her theory that Dahlia's wasn't truly part of the family. Of all the problems they had encountered in the past year, that was not one of them.

When they returned home, everyone was there for dinner – Jesse and Ben, Stacie, Warren and Sheila, all the girls, Alexis, Emily and Benji, and their two kids. Stacie, Alexis, and Sheila had been kind enough to pull together dinner when Bella explained that the plan was to "order in." Beca and Chloe exchanged glances as they pulled into the driveway and saw the cars.

"What is all this?" Beca asked, walking into the kitchen and seeing the hum and bustle of a busy family. It grew silent, other than a wayward giggle from Poppy, who was trying to help Grace cut cherry tomatoes. The result was a kitchen full of cherry tomatoes on the floor, a giggling little girl, and a giggling teenager. Stacie looked up from her position behind the stove and shrugged.

"I was hungry. I have no idea what all these people are doing here," she said, holding back laughter.

"It's been one year," Vera told them, setting another piece of fiestaware down at the kitchen table. Chloe glanced and tried to figure out what kind of pattern she was making – there was probably a mathematical formula behind hit.

"For what?" Beca asked, glancing at her wife. Chloe shook her head – she had no idea. They were still a few weeks from Dahlia's birthday and a solid month before any holidays began.

"It has been one year since you called us at Aunt Emily's house and told us you were adopting another kid," Bella responded. She held up her phone. "We have text messages to prove it."

"You two always have had the craziest – and the best – ideas," Jesse added.

"We thought at least a nice dinner was in order," Warren responded, handing another glass to Dahlia, who was placing them at the seats as Vera finished her work.

"We didn't actually know that someone was going to be here when we arrived," Emily said, waggling her eyebrows at Dahlia, who blushed. "We brought cake," she added, pointing to a box sitting on the sideboard. Beca and Chloe walked over to it, clasping hands as they read the inscription that was written in thick blue icing.

Welcome to the Family Dahlia

"We may not be the only ones with good ideas," Chloe said, winking at Dahlia. She and Beca both hugged and kissed the little girl before turning to kiss each other, ignoring the whoop they got from Jesse. Well, Chloe ignored it. Beca blushed to the roots of her hair.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25 (Epilogue 1) – I Will Wait For You

Well, I came home
Like a stone
And I fell heavy into your arms
These days of dust
Which we've known
Will blow away with this new sun

But I'll kneel down,
Wait for now
And I'll kneel down,
Know my ground

And I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you

~ Mumford & Sons

Poppy was rooming with Aria again that year, which was about as good as having her own room. Aria spent most of her waking hours with her current boyfriend. She left her side of the room in fairly decent order and was never disruptive, so Poppy called it a win. She wasn't used to, then, walking in to find her room occupied. Her twin sister was sitting on her bed, back against the wall, waiting for her. It wasn't that Bella was never in the Bella house – she was. But she usually remained in the common areas – or very occasionally ventured to Alexis' room. She had been in Poppy's room possibly two times prior to that moment.

"What are you doing here?" Poppy asked, dropping her bag on the floor near her desk. She turned to face Bella, a hand on her hip.

"I miss you, Poppy." Her voice was soft and hesitant, relaying a message she wasn't sure she wanted to share – she knew it could be thrown back to hurt her.

"I'm not living with Moms. I'm happy here."

"That's not what I mean," Bella responded quickly. "I don't care where you live. But we never talk anymore – we're barely ever in the same room together. I miss my sister."

"I'm right here," Poppy said, her tone flat. She turned away to unpack several binders and books from her bag, placing them neatly on her desk.

"You're not!" Bella cried, her voice raising to uncharacteristic levels. She moved to the end of the bed, throwing her hands up at Poppy as she spoke. "You're angry and distant – and I don't want that to be our relationship. Because it sucks. We used to tell each other everything – and now I can't even ask you about your day without you getting mad at me. I know you don't like the choices I made when it came to dealing with Andy – but I did what I thought was right. And it's over. What can I do? Tell me what to do – Poppy – that's going to make this okay again." She sank back against the wall and hugged the pillow that she'd captured up into her arms.

"I'm not angry with you," Poppy said sharply.

"It certainly seems that way!" Bella replied. Poppy walked over to the bedroom door, slamming it shut. Bella looked at her in surprise.

"Do you really want to have this conversation right now?"

"Yes," Bella responded stubbornly.

"Fine. I'm pissed. You and moms and Vera – you never once considered an alternative to making us all spill our guts. You're not the only one who had to sit in a police station and relive that crap. Andy admitted to what happened – there was no reason to drudge up the past."

"It wouldn't have been right," Bella told her. "And I'm not going to have this argument with you again. I'm sorry it hurt you – it hurt all of us. But it was the right thing to do. And the right thing isn't usually the easy thing. So what is it going to take for you to forgive us?"

"I don't know," Poppy answered. She shook her head and turned away from her twin. "I don't know." Bella sat there for another half an hour, waiting to see if her sister would crack. She didn't – she didn't say another word. Gulping back panic and tears and pain, Bella lifted her bag from the floor and left the house, successfully avoiding most of the other Bellas. Unfortunately for her plan to escape unnoticed, someone had told Alexis that she was there – and the taller brunette was waiting on the front porch. Bella, trying to move quickly and never quite having a lot of grace to begin with, tripped over her. Alexis caught her by the arm, standing up and frowning at the look on Bella's face. Bella's bag spilled across the sidewalk.

"What's wrong?" She asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," Bella responded, trying to pull away. Alexis was stronger – she always had been. She kept her grip in the younger girl's arm. It wasn't a tight hold – but it was enough that Bella couldn't easily get away.

"Please," she said softly, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. "I need time to myself." That did it – Alexis released her. She bent over and helped Bella replace the items back into her shoulder bag and then lifted it, handing it to her.

"Do I have permission to go slap your sister?"

"No," Bella said, trying to hide the slight smile that bubbled up. It was nice to have someone wholly on her side once in a while. "Poppy didn't do anything wrong. Not really. I just – I'm tired of not having her around. But there's nothing I can do about it – she doesn't want to talk. Do not go and yell at her," she said sternly.

Alexis lifted her hands in surrender and gave the best "I-would-never" face that she could muster. "Will you at least call me later?"

Bella nodded. "Yeah. Just give me some time." She disappeared down the walk and Alexis knew exactly where she was heading – to the same clearing she liked to hide in every time she needed silence and contemplation. The older girl turned to glare at the house. If she had her way about things, Poppy would have gotten an earful from her a long time ago. She liked Poppy, but the emotional duress she was causing her sister – and herself – was unacceptable. But it was Bella's business to deal with it – or not – so Alexis sighed and trudged back inside to work on the rehearsal schedule for the next month. The twins didn't speak again until Bella picked up Poppy in front of the house the following Saturday morning. Vera and Dahlia were in the back seat, discussing the movie they planned to see that afternoon.

"Hi," Poppy said, trying her best to sound chipped.

"Good morning!" Vera told her.

"Hi," Dahlia chirped.

"Hey," Bella answered. "Is there anywhere you want to go first? Mom wants us to take Dahlia to find a few new dresses – minimum of five," she said, her voice raising so that it was sure to travel to the back.

"I know," Dahlia said grumpily.

"But other than that, nothing until lunch reservations at noon."

"You mean getting Dahlia to pick five dresses isn't going to take three hours?"

"Don't be mean!" Dahlia cried, kicking Poppy's seat.

"Watch it, squirt. I was teasing. Let's find the dresses first. I don't need anything specific. Vera?"

"I want to go to the book store."

"Me too!" Dahlia responded. Bella smiled widely and looked out of the corner of her eye to Poppy, who was groaning and grimacing.

"You're all ridiculously predictable." She was quiet on the rest of the drive to the mall. Vera and Dahlia kept up a conversation – occasionally asking one of the older girls something, but otherwise the twins were quiet. After four stores, they had six dresses for Dahlia – two of which she'd actually chosen herself. They transferred the clothing to the car and peeked into a few others stores before arriving at the book store. Bella stopped them in the entry.

"It's 11:15," she told them sternly. "We have to be at the restaurant in 45 minutes. It's only next door – but we are not going to be late. Everyone needs to be in line for the register by 11:50 – got it?" She looked warningly at Vera, who rolled her eyes and nodded. Vera headed off to the nonfiction section and Poppy headed for the romances. Bella followed Dahlia to the Children's department and sifted through the young adult titles while Dahlia chose several chapter books.

"You don't have to wait for me," Dahlia told her. "You can look at your own books."

"Not happening," Bella told her. "But thanks for the offer." In about ten minutes, Dahlia chose five books – which for her, was a record. She followed Bella back to the literary fiction section and browsed the titles along with her sister. When that got boring, she sat in a nearby chair that Bella could see and began reading one of her selections.

They were walking to the register when Bella realized she was being watched. She looked down at Dahlia and smiled. "Why are you staring?"

"Why are you and Poppy mad at each other?"

Her smile faded. "We're not," Bella said simply.

"You're both sad all the time," she said.

"We're fine, kiddo. Come on, it's almost time to go." Bella took Dahlia's books, her own, and Vera's. The redhead was waiting at the checkout, as requested. Bella paid for the books with her beloved mother-funded credit card and placed it back into her wallet. Poppy had one too – but hers had been confiscated more than once for improper use. Beca did not believe that $500 shoes were necessities – Chloe agreed. The four sisters met outside the store and walked to the restaurant where they were seated almost immediately in a booth that offered a good deal of privacy.

Having Dahlia decide what she wanted to eat – and avoiding tears – was a tricky thing. Somehow, they accomplished it. Vera was best with her – making things sillier and lighter than they were, defusing overwhelming circumstances. Once their food arrived, they were quiet as they ate. The tension was palpable, just as it was every time Poppy and Bella were together without parental intercession. Dahlia had finished about half of her grilled cheese sandwich when she looked at Poppy.

"What are you and Bella mad at each other? Is it my fault?"

"What?" Poppy asked, looking at Dahlia, then Bella. "Where did that come from? No – it's not your fault – that's silly - and we're not mad at one another."

"If you're not mad – how can it not be my fault?"

"We're not mad," Poppy repeated. "End of story. Eat your lunch." The three oldest girls all looked in horror as Dahlia began crying.

"I don't want you to hate each other because of me," she sobbed. "I'm sorry – I never should have said anything. Please don't be mad anymore – " She continued crying, offering more explanations and broken words. Bella tried to calm her but she shrugged her off and ran for the ladies room. Vera followed quickly.

"I'll go."

The twins stared at one another. "This has to stop," Poppy said finally. Bella nodded.

"I don't want to fight."

"Neither do I."

"I'm sorry we pushed you into telling the police."

"I'm sorry I never tried to protect you when we were kids."

"Poppy," Bella said softly. "Is that what this is all about? That's not your fault! We were kids. When I said that, I was angry and overwhelmed. No one blames you."

"I blame myself," she said simply, trying to bite back tears. "But I'm going to try to stop." While the twins held the first meaningful, civil conversation they'd had in months, Vera had followed Dahlia into the ladies room.

Dahlia was sitting on the sofa in the lounge right outside the bathrooms, playing something colorful on her phone. Vera sat next to her and tilted her chin up. She laughed. "Not a tear in sight. You just played them."

Dahlia shrugged. "Do you want them to fight for the rest of our lives?"

"That was pretty devious," Vera told her, grinning.

"Do you disapprove?"

"Not in the least. Good job, D." Dahlia smiled cheerfully and went back to her game. Vera and Dahlia went to the movie as planned, but Bella and Poppy sat in the lounge area outside the movie theater and talked. A year's worth of missed conversations and confidences weren't going to be made up in a few hours, but they were giving it a good head start.

Things at home were hectic that day. A surprise had been planned. Chloe stood in the kitchen, her expression pained as she spoke to Beca. "Are you sure you ordered it?" She posed the question for the fifth time.

"I'm positive," Beca answered, using a spatula to move appetizers from the baking stone to a serving platter.

"Then what is taking her so long?" Chloe's hands landed on her hips indignantly.

"It's Stacie. She probably met someone in the bakery and is flirting."

"Ye of little faith," Stacie said, walking in, her arms filled with a half-sheet cake box. She was wearing a sundress with pink and blue flowers and a pair of sunglasses slung carelessly up into her dark curls. Chloe let out a sigh of relief and hurried over to the brunette, who was setting it on the table. It was a beautiful cake – complete with a variety of flowers in all shades of blue and little blue pearls sprinkled in for good measure. It read "Happy 10th Birthday Dahlia."

"It's perfect," Chloe said, breathing another sigh of relief. Beca rolled her eyes.

"I've been telling you for hours that it would be fine. Why don't you put that on the dining room table? We were going to put the other food in here – easier access to the porch." Stacie nodded and moved it. Chloe hurriedly carried the beautiful blue floral paper plates and matching napkins and forks to set beside the cake. Beca had already set out the food that didn't need to be warm – and the other food was in the ovens cooking or baking.

She hurried to the front door as soon as the bell rang. She smiled widely as she opened it to see her father and Sheila. She hugged them both and welcomed them inside. "You look good, Bec."

"Dad, you saw me yesterday."

"Hey – it's been a tough few years. Every time I see you is another good moment – trust me."

"Thank you for coming."

"Well, of course," Sheila answered, smiling widely. "Does she know?"

Beca shook her head. "I don't think she has any idea." She grimaced. "I hope it's okay – I'm not sure we should have planned to surprise her. Chloe and Poppy talked me into it."

"It's a good surprise, hopefully she'll like it," Sheila answered. "I have a potato casserole. Can I throw it in the oven to stay warm?"

Beca nodded. "Sure – the convection oven on the bottom is on the keep warm setting. There's room in there." Sheila went to the kitchen to do that and Beca walked her father to the back deck where Emily, Alexis, Benji, Ben, CR, Mabel, Donald, and Jessica were finishing up decorations. It was fun but tasteful – blue flowers and balloons strewn about. Dahlia was going to love it. Warren took the gift in his hands over to a long table at the end of the deck and placed it with the other presents.

Dahlia was suspicious when they arrived home. Well, she had been suspicious for a while – ever since the night before when they twins had agreed to go somewhere together without their mothers making them. That never happened. But this was more troubling – cars all around. She craned her neck to look out the window to study the cars. "Who's here?"

"Maybe the neighbors are having a cookout," Bella suggested. She pulled into the driveway and parked behind Beca's SUV. She unbuckled her belt and was out of the car in enough time to help Dahlia from her own belt and booster seat. The child had started to grumble again about the booster seat a few weeks before – but Chloe showed her statistics about car fatalities and she stopped complaining aloud. The sidewalk was hot – even through her sandals. She had decided in the past few months that Georgia summers were worse than California summers.

Bella's stomach was in knots – she was worried about this plan. She felt that Dahlia had enough surprises in her young life – and although this was a good one, it was probably still unnecessary. Poppy and Vera were thrilled to be part of the trickery – Bella was not.

They were halfway up the walk when Dahlia turned around and looked up at them. "Is there a party?" She asked, looking Bella straight in the eye.

"Oh, thank god," Bella said.

"Bella!" Poppy chided.

"Pretend to be surprised," Vera told her. "Moms will be crushed otherwise. Well, Mom will be. Mama's been as nervous about it as Bella. The surprise, not the party. Everyone is happy about the party."

"It's for me?" Dahlia asked, eyes widening.

"Your birthday is in four days," Poppy told her. "Who else would the party be for?" She cocked her head to the side, studying the child. Dahlia shrugged. She didn't know – she simply hadn't expected a party for herself.

"They should have hidden the cars," Dahlia told her sisters, turning around to walk into the house. Bella and Poppy exchanged glances and broke out laughing. Vera was already following the youngest. There was about a ten second delay before a "surprise" rang out. Despite expected it, Dahlia jumped a bit. But she smiled when Beca and Chloe hugged her. Knowing that large crowds were not something she was a huge fan of, most of their family and friends funneled back into the kitchen or onto the deck.

Katie appeared and Dahlia hugged her – they hadn't seen one another since the holiday season. "We came for your party," Katie told her. "We brought a present."

"Thank you."

"My birthday is in March," Katie reminded her, taking her hand and dragging her out to the deck to show her the decorations she had helped with.

Chloe and Beca laughed, watching them go. "She's a sweet kid – but she's got Donald's tact," Beca said, shaking her head.

"Just a little," Chloe agreed. She put her arms around Poppy and Vera and led them out toward the party. "She did not look surprised – did you tell?"

Beca looked over at Bella's smile and her own expression brightened even more. She chuckled and tapped a finger against the teen's collar bone. "Were you a little worried?" She asked, nodding to the bright red blossoms of hives along Bella's chest.

"Don't be smug," Bella told her. "You were just as worried – you just don't get hives."

The party was still in full swing later that evening when Beca dragged Chloe upstairs by her hand. "What is going on?" Chloe asked. Beca didn't answer as she pushed her inside the bedroom – and locked the door behind them. She kissed the redhead deeply, her hands warm against Chloe's skin. Before Chloe could question it, she was pushed against their bed. She looked up at her wife in surprise. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Beca responded, throwing her blouse to the floor and standing to kick off her capris. Chloe's dress followed soon after.

Later, once they were curling up in one another's arms, resting and basking in the simple pleasure of being together, they could again hear the din of the party. Beca giggled as she heard the noise downstairs and hid her face against Chloe's neck.

"For you, this was almost exhibitionism," Chloe teased, brushing a lock of hair behind her reddened ear. "There were humans within a one-mile radius."

"Would you like me to wait next time?" Beca asked.

"No!" She dropped a kiss to Beca's hair line and looked down at her. "Are you okay?" She continued stroking her hair, tucking pieces behind her ear. The brunette nodded, her eyes soft and happy.

"Much better than," she promised. An hour later, they decided that Stacie – who had conspiratorially watched them leave – would no longer be able to keep family and friends from searching them out. Beca sat on the edge of the bed, slowly redressing. She used her fingers to gently brush her curls back into the right places. Chloe exited the bathroom, smiling brightly at her.

"Chloe, I'm sorry."

"For what?" Chloe asked lightly, moving closer to fix a few strands of hair that Beca had missed. Beca looked up at her, through dark eyelashes.

"For making you wait. For being as basket case – a lot of stuff, really." Chloe clucked as she sat next to her wife and took her hand. She gently put her fingers under Beca's chin, moving it so their eyes met.

"I told you twenty three years ago that I would wait for you. That hasn't changed – and it wasn't a one-shot deal. I know this is hard for you – and I know you try – I am not going anywhere."

Beca leaned against her wife, wiping tears away with shaking fingertips. "I don't deserve you."

"Of course you do," Chloe told her, hugging her tightly. "I think we both lucked out on the deal."

Chapter Text

Chapter 26 (Epilogue 2/3) – The Luckiest

And in a wide sea of eyes
I see one pair that I recognize
And I know that I am
I am, I am the luckiest

I love you more than I have
Ever found a way to say to you

The Luckiest – Ben Folds

Beca glared at the medium pink gown hanging against her closet door. The cut was perfect – the whole thing gauzy and flowing, a perfect rosette at the left of the neckline. The skirt was split just enough to say "I may be the mother of the bride, but I am not old, thank you very much." Her arms were folded across the soft cotton of her black robe and her hip jutted out as she studied it. Chloe appeared from the bathroom and laughed, taking in her angry look. It was especially precious considering that her hair was braided and curled to perfection, a dark crown on her head. She wore some of her best jewelry – including a new necklace that looked like a vine of flowers and sported a few diamonds. Her makeup artist had come that morning and had left her looking like a perfect porcelain doll. But porcelain dolls didn't scowl.

"What's up, buttercup?" Chloe teased.

"Why do I have to wear pink?" Beca asked. "Do I look like a person who wears pink?"

"Because you look unfairly gorgeous in it," Chloe told her, moving closer to kiss her cheek. "You pull off that color better than anyone. And it's what your daughter asked you to wear. So put it on, please. And not another scowl." She stroked Beca's jaw before moving across the room. She removed her own robe and took about thirty seconds to step into the yellow gown she was wearing that day. The color was aptly named Paris Daisy to Beca's French Rose. The brunette had not found the color names amusing as her wife and eldest daughter had. She disappeared into the bathroom and when she returned, she stepped into the pink gown and turned to Chloe to be zipped up. She zipped Chloe's dress the last inch or two.

When Chloe turned around, fiery red hair spilling into loose, gentle curls around the crown of her head, Beca had a glint in her eyes. "Do we have time?"

"Absolutely not," Chloe said, kissing her chastely on the lips. "Get your mind out of the gutter, Rebecca."

"Mom!" Poppy cried from her room.

"See?" Chloe asked, hurrying down the hallway. Beca threw her ridiculously pink shoes into the bag that already held a variety of things to help her survive the day – including granola bars, water, makeup, hairpins, hairspray, a sweater, a pashmina, and a few other odds and ends that Chloe had placed inside. Beca slipped her feet into a pair of flat beige sandals that she wore frequently when running around the house or campus. She walked down the hall and stopped at Dahlia's door, smiling as she watched the fifteen-year-old examine herself in the mirror.

Someone had already done Dahlia's hair and makeup and helped her into a beautiful white chiffon gown with lacy cap sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. The bodice was embroidered with pink and the empire waist was accented by a pink sash that tied toward the right and fell into a perfect bow. She frowned as her fingers traced it.

"My thoughts exactly," Beca said, smiling. Dahlia's face lit up when she saw Beca.

"Mama – you look – awesome. Poppy's going to be mad," she said with a giggle. "She wants to be the prettiest one."

"You look beautiful," Beca told her, moving closer to kiss her temple. She pulled away to smile. "And if it'll make Poppy feel better, I'll try to become uglier before we leave the house." Dahlia's giggle was interrupted by a new voice.

"Don't give that brat anything," Bella said, stepping into the room and closing the door. She rolled her eyes and fell against Dahlia's bed, not caring if she was wrinkling her perfect white chiffon gown or mussing her beautifully arranged dark curls.

"Are you being intentionally dramatic?" Beca asked.

"Yes," Bella said with a sigh. "But really – I know this day is supposed to be about her – but can't anyone else have an opinion? Or even a thought?"

"Not according to your mom," Beca said decisively. "Now stand up so I can see you." Bella grumbled but stood, pushing the a-lined skirt of the gown into the appropriate place. She had the pink bow and embroidery identical to Dahlia's – and the color was exactly the same color as Beca's dress. The makeup artist had made her cheeks pinker, making her look even more than Beca like a china doll.

"Is she almost ready?" Beca asked.

"I think so," Bella responded. "But I am not going back in there," she warned. Beca smiled. She dropped a kiss on Dahlia's head and then walked over to do the same as Bella.

"You don't have to go back in there – just get Dahlia and Vera to the car – and call Aunt Stacie and Aunt Em to see where they are. They should be here by now."

"They are," Bella responded. "They're with Mom diverting a crisis. There's an imaginary spot on the dress."

Beca sighed and laughed. "I guess I better go in there before I get called. You guys disappear – and be thankful you're not me."

"Today, we are!" Bella called after her. Beca walked to Poppy's bedroom where her daughter sat at her vanity table in a light yellow robe, watching with an expression of misery as Stacie, Emily, and Chloe studied the white gown spilled across the bed. Vera was just inside the door, trying to stay out of sight. When she saw Beca, she smiled mischievously and took the opportunity to duck out of the room, saying nothing.

Stacie stood up and shook her head, making a few curls bounce against her shoulders. "Sorry, Sweets. I don't see anything." Emily stood too.

"Maybe it was a shadow?" She suggested gently. She and Stacie had not been told what they had to wear that day – but the early summer weather had informed their decisions – and they had both ended up in coordinating pastels – Emily's lilac and Stacie's lavender. Chloe bit her lip as she stood.

"Poppy, try it on again – maybe if you have it on, we'll be able to see the spot." Poppy looked sorrowful but slipped out of her robe and quickly into the dress. Stacie held it closed in the back while Chloe walked around, staring at the skirt in the front. Beca joined her and stared at the area where the offending spot was supposed to be. She looked up at her daughter.

"Love, there's no spot. If you like, I'll put one there," she offered. "Then we can clean it off – just to be safe."

"Mama!" Poppy huffed. Beca shrugged and raised her hands in mock surrender.

"Just trying to help."

Poppy stared down at the white tulle skirt of the gown and bit her lip. "Maybe it was a shadow," she admitted.

"Yay," Stacie said. She began buttoning the dress from the bottom. Emily stepped in beside her and started from the top.

"You look beautiful," Beca told her, tears pricking the corners of her eyes.

"Don't cry," Poppy said quickly, almost sharply. "You'll mess you your makeup for the pictures."

Beca looked at Chloe. "Suddenly, I feel less emotional." Chloe smiled and directed Beca to the door.

"Make sure you grab that bag from the bedroom – and my purse from the dresser. And your own purse – wherever you put it. We'll meet you downstairs."

The photographer was just arriving and took a plethora of pictures at the house – mostly with the four girls and their mothers. They took a few of Stacie and the girls, Stacie and Poppy and then the same with Emily. They were actually running on time, much to Chloe's relief – she had been planning the day for over a year – and running late was not part of her plan.

The four sisters rode in the limo to the church while their mothers and aunts followed behind in their own vehicles. Arriving at the beautiful old stone building, a hurried scurry happened as Jesse and Benji chased Ben into the church so he wouldn't have the opportunity to see Poppy.

It didn't matter terribly- the limo pulled up to the side of the church and Poppy went directly from the limo to the bridal room. Her mothers followed while Dahlia, Vera, and Bella remained in the parking lot, enjoying the beautiful day. Alexis, who had been visiting across the yard with Camille, walked over to her, smiling sweetly. She was decked out for the day as well – swathed in a blue gown that brought out her eyes.

"You look beautiful," she said, taking Bella's hand.

"I look like a freaking China doll," Bella rebutted. Alexis laughed and leaned in to catch her lips in a gently kiss. It had the desired effect – Bella's cheeks reddened more than even the makeup had already accomplished.

"A beautiful one, then," she responded, stepping back a bit to study the dress but still holding the smaller brunette's hand. "I didn't know you were all wearing white."

Bella shrugged. Poppy had originally wanted an entirely white wedding – but then decided to throw in a bit of color. "Why are all these people here?" Bella asked nervously. "The ceremony isn't for at least an hour," she added, looking at her watch. It was a petite little thing that Chloe had dug out of her jewelry box for the occasion. Poppy had not approved of Bella's everyday watches and Bella was not willing to leave the house without one. The white gold and diamond piece was the compromise.

Alex laughed. "Whether you like it or not – this is one of the social events of the year." Bella did not like it. She had spent most of the rehearsal dinner the night before hiding in the Ladies' lounge at the county club. Everyone was in town for this wedding – Amy and Bumper had flown the farthest – coming in from Australia, where they had been living for a solid five years. Cynthia Rose and Mabel, Jessica and Donald, and Katie had all come in from California. People Beca and Chloe had worked with over the years – neighbors, friends, and more acapella people than Bella thought was safe for one gathering.

Bella's breathing quickened as she took in the throngs of people gathered on the steps to the church and across the lawn. She walked away from the scene, circling to the side of the building where gravestones and peach trees were the only company. Alexis followed her, not letting go of her hand.

"It's going to be fine," she promised. "Everyone is focused on Poppy – not you. I know it doesn't feel that way – but no one is here to stare at you. Except for me," she added with a playful smile. Bella nodded, understanding the words but not catching onto the joke. She allowed Alexis to wrap her into a strong embrace and hid her face against the taller woman's neck. Focusing on her breathing and the feeling of Alexis' hand rubbing gentle circles along her back, she eventually calmed down.

Picking up her bag, Alexis fished out a bottle of water and handed it to Bella, who obediently sipped at it. "I can't do this," she said shakily. "Why can't they just do this without me?" She had been begging for that very thing from the onset. It had not met well with Poppy's expectations.

"Your twin sister is getting married," Alexis reminded her gently, rubbing her hand up and down Bella's arm. "She wants you beside her – and you can do this." Her social anxiety had actually gotten worse after she'd graduated and stopped performing with the Bellas – to an extent that scared her girlfriend and mothers.

Alexis pulled her back into her arms and they were silent for several moments. "Did you take anything this morning?" Bella nodded against her shoulder. "Klonopin?" Another nod. "How many – and what time?"

"Two – when I woke up at 8."

"It's been long enough that you can take more if you think you need it."

Bella nodded. Alexis fished the prescription bottle out of her bag and handed two small yellow pills to the woman she loved. It broke her heart – because she didn't want Bella to be dependent upon pills – but it was better than seeing her in a constant state of panic. Swallowing the pills, the smaller brunette lay her head against Alexis again, closing her eyes against the coming onslaught of people and attention.

Upon arrival at the church, Stacie had stepped from Emily's car and clucked her tongue at Jesse as she crossed the parking lot to fix his tie. It was crooked – and wrinkled. She untied it and started again, making it fit perfectly inside the jacket of his gray tux. The tie matched her lavender dress. She knew Ben had told him to do that – and she loved him for it. The day had haunted her for months – she belonged, but she didn't. She was Aunt Stacie, but she wasn't. She was mom, but she wasn't. Ben, the absolute sweetheart that he was – had included her in as much as possible. But the hole left by Aubrey was still gaping open that day, and it could not be replaced by Stacie. Nor did she really want it to be. She missed her friend every day – and despite her happiness, felt a twang of guilt every time she thought about Aubrey while being with Ben or Jesse.

She was lost in thought and didn't realize that the photographer was approaching them, taking pictures. "Smile," he called. They looked at one another for another second. Her hand rested gently on his chest, her rock-of-an-engagement-ring and glistening wedding band glinting in the sun. Jesse tilted his head slightly to kiss her chastely. She was blushing when she turned her head to smile at the photographer.

"How's Ben doing?" She asked, once the man was gone.

"He's fine," Jesse said. "I'm the one sweating bullets. How are the Beale-Mitchell ladies?"

Stacie smiled. "Beca is refusing to do anything but joke."

"Meaning she's trying not to cry," he translated. She nodded.

"The girls look gorgeous, of course. And I'm told Chloe hasn't stopped moving since before dawn."

"Sounds about right," he said with a smile.

"How about Mason?"

"I got him into the tux – I can't promise that it's still completely on him and tucked in. He's with my mom," Jesse added. "Driving her crazy, but looking dashing and adorable."

Inside the church, after Poppy yelled at her the third time, Beca kissed her, told her she loved her, and left the room. She walked outside and found Jesse standing in the middle of the church's garden, watching Mason run alone the stone pathways. "Hey," she said, sidling up to him. They both watched Mason intently. "So. This."

He chuckled. "I told you thirty years ago that we were going to have aca children," he teased, giving her a signature grin.

"You forgot to mention the skipping-a-generation thing."

Jesse shrugged and threw his arm around her shoulders. "I was close."

"And what have you learned in those thirty years, my friend?"

"Ending are not the best part. The journey is the best part." He quirked an eyebrow at her and she raised her eyebrows a bit.

"Well, I learned not to piss off Chloe." He laughed. "And I learned that family can be as much a passion as music."

"We've done good, Becaw," he told her. She allowed him to pull her close for a minute – until she felt his hand reaching for her hair. She spun away quickly.

"Dude! Don't mess with the hair!" She cried. "Do you even know how long it takes women to do their hair?" He shook his head and chuckled, pointing off into the garden. Beca turned her eyes to see Mason picking a fistful of purple flowers. He ran over to them and handed them to Beca, who knelt down to kiss him and hug him, disregarding the dirt he might have clinging to his curious hands. He still smelled like baby – something she sorely missed.

Walking back to the church, flowers in her hand, Beca saw Bella and Alexis on the side of the building, her daughter buried as close as possible to her long-time girlfriend. Beca caught Alexis' eyes and tapped the white gold watch on her wrist. Alexis nodded and moved slightly, whispering something to Bella. Beca continued on her way, knowing that Alexis would get the younger twin where she needed to go – eventually.

Guests were welcomed into the church about half an hour before the ceremony began and were still being seated when the bridal party began lining up in the vestibule. Jesse, Stacie, Benji, and Emily were the last people to enter the church before the bridal party. As Benji and Jesse walked the ladies down the center aisle, the entry doors were closed. Jesse and Stacie walked all the way to the front, sitting to the right with his parents and several of his siblings. Benji and Emily slid into the pew behind them, sitting with Grace and Jake.

A moment or two later, the string quartet began to play "Simple Gifts." Ben and his best friend and best man, Ethan, walked onto the altar with the priest and stood to his left side. The doors at the back of the church opened and Dahlia appeared at the threshold. Greg, another of Ben's friends, stepped in from the side and she took his arm. She walked slowly down the aisle, smiling and clearly imagining she was anywhere else. Vera began her walk with Daniel when Dahlia and Greg were about halfway down. After a quick pep-talk and nudge from Alexis, Bella started her solo journey when Dahlia reached the altar. She stared straight ahead, a completely false smile covering her terror and unease. She was happy for Poppy – she really was. But she shuttered as she felt the eyes from the pews boring into her. She reached the altar without incident and took the spot next to Vera and across from Ethan.

Clearly given a directive from someone in the back, Mason, Stacie and Jesse's four-year-old miracle baby, raced up the aisle towards his big brother, precariously carrying the pillow that – luckily – had the rings sewn to it. Ben caught him with a hearty laugh and set him down on the altar in front of them. They all turned to watch as the music changed to "To a Wild Rose." Poppy stepped into the entry, Beca and Chloe on either side. Beca blushed furiously, but made it down the aisle intact. Poppy never wavered, just smiled at Ben. When they reached the altar, Beca and Chloe each kissed her and then Ben before Jesse stood to walk them to their seats. Beca's first sob hit as soon as she reached the pew. Chloe handed her the hankie she'd placed into the hidden pocket in her gown and simply smiled – her wife was nothing if not predictable. Warren leaned over to hug his daughter.

A silence fell over the church as the music stopped and a pause filled the air before the reverend spoke his first words. "We are gathered here today – " The ceremony was beautiful. Beca was nervous the whole time, but it went off without a hitch. Toward the end of the mass, before they exchanged vows, Beca found herself walking to the altar with Chloe.

She took a deep breath and bowed her head in front of the crucifix before continuing on to the piano. She had no idea how she'd been convinced to do this. She could barely breathe correctly – singing was going to be a challenge. She gathered her skirt beneath her and sat at the grand piano. Chloe did the same. The song had been extremely difficult to choose. Beca had tried to write something, but after dozens of sessions with Emily and nearly eight months of trying, she hadn't created anything that was right. It had been Chloe who had gone into the depths of the first decade of the 21st century to unearth this song. Beca had obediently remixed it for the two of them to sing.

Heart beats fast
Colors and promises
How to be brave?
How can I love when I'm afraid to fall?
But watching you stand alone,
All of my doubt suddenly goes away somehow.

One step closer

I have died every day waiting for you
Darling, don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is
I will be brave
I will not let anything take away
What's standing in front of me
Every breath
Every hour has come to this

One step closer

I have died every day waiting for you
Darling, don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me
I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

One step closer
One step closer

I have died every day waiting for you
Darling don't be afraid I have loved you
For a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me
I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more

For the first time all day, Beca was in her element – and her eyes were dry. She smiled at her wife and then at her daughter, who was trying desperately not to bawl on her wedding day. Once the song was over, they blew kisses to Ben and Poppy and slipped back to their seats. Jesse and Stacie sang the wedding song – as requested by Ben. They had sung it at their own wedding only five years before – and it brought everyone to tears both times.

Beca felt the music was a fair addition – it brought everyone to the same level of messy-crying so there was no judgement. Poppy and Ben exchanged vows, neither hesitating in the words they'd written for the other. "You may now kiss the bride" was met with a sweet, meaningful kiss.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to present for the first time - Benjamin and Poppy Swanson." Ben and Poppy walked down the aisle, smiling brightly. The bridal party followed quickly after, Bella carrying Mason on her hip while Ethan held her arm and carried her flowers.

The next few hours were a whirlwind of pictures, greetings, toasts, and first dances. Once all of the keynote moments were finished – the first dance, the cutting of the cake, the bouquet toss, Bella ran for a place of solitude. It only took Alexis a few minutes to find her huddled in the corner of a linen closet in the hall. Once she found Bella, she pulled a tablecloth from one of the shelves, placed it on the floor, and sat on it beside the smaller woman.

"You did really well," Alexis told her after a few moments of silence.

"I'm hiding in a linen closet," Bella told her sharply.

"You hung in there for a long time – and you didn't even look terrified in the pictures – you did really well," she repeated.

"What is happening to me?" Bella asked in a whisper. "My twin is getting married – and I'm hiding – and drugged up – and I just feel like I'm dying inside. I can't even enjoy it."

"We need to go back to Dr. Haverford," Alexis said gently, referring to the psychiatrist Bella had begun to see when Celexa and Klonopin stopped being enough to get her through the day. "But you need to give yourself credit, Bells. This is a really stressful day for anyone – and with your anxiety – no one would have blamed you if you hadn't made it this long."

They talked for a long time and eventually, Bella knew she had to go back. "I should get out there. I don't want people worrying about me – I don't want to ruin Poppy's day." Alexis stood and offered Bella her hand. The smaller brunette took it and allowed Alexis to help her to her feet. She used her fingers to rearrange a few curls that had been smashed, and then smoothed the skirt of her gown.

"You look unfairly gorgeous," Alexis told her, leaning close to kiss her cheek. She whispered the rest in her ear. "Have I told you that today?"

"A few times," Bella said, a smile creeping into her expression. Alexis pulled away far enough to have access to her lips – and kissed her deeply.

"I love you," she said, when she finally broke the kiss.

"I love you too," Bella responded once she had her breath back. She stood in Alexis' arms, basking in the security, comfort, and adoration for several minutes before mustering up the courage to open the door.

If their absence was noticed, it wasn't mentioned. Bella joined her sisters on the dance floor and eventually was able to calm down enough to genuinely have a good time. Most of their friends and family members were dancers at weddings – so the music and festivities went long into the night.

It was almost midnight when Beca slipped her shoes off of her feet, knowing it would be her undoing, and lifted her sore, aching feet gingerly into Chloe's lap. The redhead looked up from the dance floor and smiled. "You are so spoiled," she said, reaching down to rub her wife's feet.

"I know," Beca purred, sighing heavily as relief washed over her. When she opened her eyes again, she saw Dahlia walking onto the dance floor with Jake Applebaum.

"Isn't she too young for that?" She asked Chloe.

"She's the perfect age for that," Chloe responded. She had been watching Dahlia's friendship with Jake grown over the years. He was barely a year older – and they lived within a ten minute walking distance to one another. They were good friends – and despite Beca's insistence that they were too young, Chloe felt that eventually – they could be more.

The night wound down eventually – Beca and Chloe found themselves in the lounge, sitting on a sofa while Poppy changed out of her wedding gown and into a yellow sundress with loopy white daisies covering it. She and Ben were leaving right away for their Honeymoon – the limo was taking them to the airport that morning.

"Thank you for everything," Poppy said, sitting down in the small space between her mothers. They scooched to make room for her.

"You had a good time?" Chloe asked.

"It was amazing," Poppy responded. She hugged and kissed them both. "I'm going to miss you."

"You're going to Europe for two weeks," Beca reminded her. "Not a lifetime."

"I know – but them I'm moving in with Ben," she said softly. "I want to and everything – it's just going to be different."

"Wherever we are is still your home," Chloe reminded her. "Getting married doesn't change that." Beca agreed with a nod and leaned close to kiss Poppy's temple.

"We are so proud of you." After they had their moments together, all of the wedding guests who remained – mostly close friends and family – said goodbye to Poppy and Ben. The remaining three daughters were held by their mothers – as they all watched the car disappear down the drive.

About six months later, the entire family was once again gathered – this time for Christmas Eve. It was one of Chloe and Beca's large gatherings – everyone was there that year. Cynthia Rose, Mabel, Amy, Bumper, - even Lilly had appeared, which was something that happened once a year if they were lucky. No one knew what she did or where she went, but she was always welcome when she showed up.

The party was in full swing – everyone was talking, laughing, and catching up. Vera, Ben, and a multitude of talented aunts and uncles had been taking turns playing music on the baby grand. About half an hour before she knew her mother was going to serve dinner, Bella walked to the center of the main hall. She carefully walked up the flight of stairs – about halfway. From her position, she could see into the living room, dining room, and kitchen.

"Hi, everyone," she said, her voice nervous and barely carrying. She looked at Alexis, who was smiling at her knowingly from the bottom of the stairs. Poppy was in the entry to the living room, also watching. After Bella failed a second time to get all of their attention, her twin yelled.

"Everyone- listen up!" She called loudly. Bella turned red as all eyes turned on her – her mothers walked in from the kitchen to see what was going on.

"Hi – um – guys – could we have your attention for a second?" Bella asked. "Literally, just a second – or two." She grew warm as eyes flew to her and she regretted immediately being the one to do this. She could feel hives breaking out along her chest. "I know dinner is almost ready – but if you have a few minutes – could you – um. Well, come out back." She turned and walked away, toward the library. Poppy smiled brilliantly and started ushering family and friends into the backyard, where the current class of Bellas was just arriving.

Beca and Chloe followed Bella into the library with Alexis and Stacie close behind. "What's going on?" Beca asked, her eyes nervously narrowed at her daughter.

"I don't really like to make a big fuss," Bella told her, giving her an apologetic grimace. "So when Alexis asked me to marry her – I said yes – but only if the wedding wasn't a really big deal. But we still wanted the family to be here – but telling people seemed really overwhelming. So – well – "

"You're getting married – right now?" Chloe asked.

Bella bit her lip and nodded. Alexis walked up to stand next to her, taking her hand in a reassuring gesture, and looked apologetically at the three women. "I tried to convince her to tell you – but she's stubborn."

"No, we hadn't figured that out yet," Beca replied sarcastically. "Isabella – this is – oh, hell. You're going to kill your mom," she said, looking at Chloe, who looked absolutely distraught.

"I'm sorry." Bella said sincerely. "I really am – I thought about other options a few times – but I just broke out into hives and had panic attacks – and it just wasn't worth it. I mean, getting married is worth it – but the wedding itself, not as much."

Beca was the first one to start laughing, but Stacie soon joined her. They both hugged the girls and congratulated them. "Chlo," Beca said softly. "Chloe, it's okay – "

"I don't have a dress," said finally said, her expression crestfallen. Bella smiled and bit her lip before speaking.

"Mom, you look beautiful. That's a new dress, isn't it?"

"But it's my Christmas dress," Chloe responded, her eyes welling with tears. Beca hugged her. "This keeps happening," she said to her wife. "They're going to keep leaving us."

"Mom, we're not going anywhere," Bella told her. "Alexis still has her job – I'm still working from Atlanta. And Poppy and Ben live two blocks away. No one is leaving."

"Have you spoken to Vera lately?" Beca teased. "The only thing that kid's going to marry anytime soon is her PhD. And Dahlia is still far too young. We're fine. Calm down. It's all good." She convinced Chloe that everything was perfect – they were all dressed up anyway, the house looked gorgeous with its Christmas decorations, and everyone that they loved was present. Chloe nodded eventually, hugging her daughter and Alexis and offering her blessing.

Poppy and Vera had somehow corralled the family into two groups of seating, creating an aisle. The treble alumns, under Ben's guidance, had lit up the yard the day before with white twinkling lights. Jesse and Benji helped Ben and Jake unravel a white runner from the porch steps to the garden trellis that Chloe had been cultivating for years to grow roses. There were no roses at this time of year, but the lights and berries gave it a warm, festive look. Ben had been in charge of making sure the pastor arrived in time – and she had. She was standing off to the side speaking with him. Once Alexis appeared, she walked to the middle of the trellis and stood. It was a signal that clued in anyone who hadn't caught up yet.

"Is someone getting married?" Amy asked. "Why in the hell are we outside? It's cold enough to freeze a dingo out here."

Cynthia Rose elbowed her and shushed her. She looked back to see Stacie standing next to Alexis, just inside the door to the porch.

"It is freezing out here," Alexis told Stacie as she stood with her.

"I think that was part of Bella's plan – to make sure people didn't spend too much time mingling." She winked. Alexis grinned and shook her head in amusement. Camille appeared behind them, holding two bundles of flowers. She held the one with red flowers and handed one of white roses to Alexis.

"What's the plan?" She asked. She, Poppy, and Ben were the only ones beside the couple who had known about these plans before that moment. It had taken the truth to get her to take a break from her job as an all-important lawyer in Atlanta. Alexis nodded down the aisle.

"Pretty simple – you go first." At Alexis' wave, the small quartet – that few people had noticed had been set up - began playing. Camille began walking down the makeshift aisle to the strains of The Waltz of the Flowers. Alexis looked up at Stacie, who smiled. "Would you mind?" She asked, looking toward the end of the aisle.

"I would be honored," Stacie answered. She took Alexis' arm and walked her down the aisle. When they reached the end, she kissed Alexis' cheek and moved to stand next to Jesse. They turned to watch as Dahlia and Vera walked down the aisle together. Poppy came behind them and they all stood off to the side across from Alexis and Camille.

Bella was standing inside the porch, a mother on each side. "Are you sure this is what you want, love?" Beca asked. She knew Bella loved Alexis – but this was so much pressure for the young woman.

"Yes," Bella promised, smiling bravely. "I really don't want people watching me – but I want to marry Alexis. So, we should do this."

Chloe sniffled from the other side. They both hugged Bella close and kissed her before walking with her down the aisle. Beca kissed her cheek, the Alexis', then moved to stand behind her other daughters. Chloe did the same.

The music ended gracefully – naturally – and the pastor spoke. She spoke elegantly but kept it short – she joked about knowing they were all cold. "I've known Bella and Alexis for almost ten years now – and when they told me they wanted a small wedding with very little fuss, I was not surprised. Nor was I worried. For them – for most couples – the wedding is only a symbol that your are beginning the rest of your life – life, not lives – because in this moment, two lives become one. I believe I have a passage here from Victor Hugo that sums things up quite nicely – and describes the love I see – and I know we all see – in these lovely young women."

She flipped a page and began reading. "The future belongs to hearts even more than it does to minds. Love, that is the only thing that can occupy and fill eternity. In the infinite, the inexhaustible is requisite. Love participates of the soul itself. It is of the same nature. Like it, it is the divine spark; like it, it is incorruptible, indivisible, imperishable. It is a point of fire that exists within us, which is immortal and infinite, which nothing can confine, and which nothing can extinguish. We feel it burning even to the very marrow of our bones, and we see it beaming in the very depths of heaven."

Tears swam in many eyes, including Bella's. She held Alexis' hand and tried to keep herself calm – sobbing through her wedding was not what she wanted to do.

The pastor smiled at them. "After much debate – and decisions – and more debate – Bella and Alexis decided to write their own vows." She turned to Bella.

"This is not easy, for me," she admitted. "The speaking in front of all these people part, not the marrying you part," she explained quickly, gaining a small chuckled from the crowd. Alexis simply smiled. "Alexis, I have been trying for years to put into words what you mean to me – and it's always been difficult. So here goes. You terrify me." Beca put a hand over her mouth to cover her laughter. Most of the rest of the crowd did not have that type of composure. "You have terrified me from the moment we met – because you make things so much brighter, louder, livelier. You make me want to spend more time in the world – you make me braver – because with you, I know that I am safe, loved, and treasured. And I don't know what else you can ask for in life. You make me happier than I ever thought possible. I promise to spend the rest of our lives trying to do the same for you."

She cleared her throat and pulled a slip of paper from a hidden pocket in her dress. "I found this quote – from Neil Gaiman's the Sandman. I thought it was appropriate to sum up my feelings – and probably inappropriate to read ay my wedding – but I'm doing it anyway." Another laugh rumbled through the audience. "Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life … You give them a piece of you. They didn't ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you."

"All teasing aside, Alex - you are the love of my life and I can't wait to spend every moment with you – good, bad, and everything in between. I love you."

"I love you too," Alexis whispered, wiping tears from her eyes.

"Mine is not going to be funny," she announced to the crowd, which caused them to laugh anyway. "Seriously, guys – not funny," she repeated, looking out into the crowd.

"Bella – I love you. It is as simple and as complicated as that statement. You make each day better just by being in it. You are funny, kind, compassionate, so ridiculously intelligent while still being humble about it. You are loving, uncompromising, and unfailingly gentle. I didn't realize how much joy I could find in little things like walks in the park, playing the piano, drinking tea, or even watching a silly movie- until I met you. You make everything more meaningful. I promise to spent the rest of my life loving and protecting you." She paused. "I knew you were going to go for something literary – so I found one of my own that does a pretty good job of letting you know how I feel about you and our life together. From the one by Kiera Cass. "My love, you are sunlight falling through trees. You are laughter that breaks through my sadness. You are the breeze on a too-warm day. You are clarity in the midst of confusion. You are not the world, but you are everything that makes the world good. Without you, my life would still exist, but that's all it would manage to do." Thank you, Bella, for being the piece that gives my life – and my heart – stability and meaning. I love you."

They exchanged rings and within twenty minutes of walking down the aisle, the pastor was pronouncing them married. They started down the aisle together and Bella stopped about halfway. "Thanks guys," she said, looking out over her family and friends. "I think dinner's ready now." Laughter followed her back into the house.


I hope you enjoyed these two very different weddings. Please share your thoughts - I have one more epilogue. Are there any questions that you feel still haven't been answered? Speak now or forever hold your peace... Thanks for reading :-)

Chapter Text

Chapter 27 (Epilogue 3/3) – Love Of My Life

"From the moment I first saw you
I knew it right away
I knew that you were the love of my life
Simply the love of my life
You are the love
The great love of my life."

~Carly Simon

They had only been together for a few minutes when Bella realized that meeting with her mother had been a bad idea. Especially since she wanted to keep things quiet for a bit longer. But Beca kept staring at the twenty-eight year old. Every time Bella would look up from her plate, Beca would avert her eyes again and try to make it look like she hadn't been staring.

"Mama, why are you staring?"

"Not sure," Beca responded. "You look different. Are you feeling okay?"

"I'm fine," Bella assured her. "How is Mom? I haven't seen her all week."

"She's good," Beca said with a smile. "She's actually presenting in New York at a conference – something about learning through play. All I know is that she sent me pictures of her – playing. With blocks and boomwackers and things."

"Sounds like mom."

"Yep." They were quiet as they both worked on their salads.

"How is Dahlia? She doesn't talk much at dinner. Not that anyone really gets a word in edgewise lately – with Poppy up in arms about the teacher strike."

"Dahlia is doing well," Beca answered, easily skipping the bait to discuss Poppy's passionate representation of the teachers' union. "She's gotten a little quiet lately. But she does that every once in a while when she's thinking seriously about something. I think she's nervous about school. She's taking so many advanced placement classes this year. Your mom and I tried to talk her out of it – but she's stubborn."

"I don't know where she would have learned that from," Bella teased. Beca glared at her playfully.

"Well – she refuses to talk about college. So I have no idea what she wants to do – or if she wants to stay here or go away for school – every time it comes up, she clams up or walks away."

Bella looked thoughtfully at her mother. "She loves Barden. She practically grew up here – "

Beca nodded in agreement. "I think she thinks it's the safe choice – and she doesn't want to make the safe choice and regret not challenging herself later – "

"If she doesn't talk, and you don't know what she wants, how do you know all this?"

"She talks to Vera," Beca admitted. "And that girl sings like a canary – she always has."

Bella grinned and shook her head. "Yeah, I know. I got in trouble a lot growing up – not because I got caught – but because you weaseled it out of Vera."

"Never leave a witness, kid." Bella smirked. Her expression changed swiftly as she caught a smell coming from a tray that a waitress carried past them. She might have been fine if she had been alone and could steel herself for several silent moments, but that luxury did not exist.

"You okay?" Beca asked, watching her daughter grow extremely pale. Bella couldn't actually answer – she bolted for the ladies room. Kneeling on the cold floor, she relinquished everything she'd been able to eat that day. When she exited the stall, Beca was waiting for her, eyebrow cocked. "How far along are you?" She asked.

"Twelve weeks," Bella told her guiltily, after rinsing her mouth and washing her hands. "I don't want to tell anyone yet – it's too soon."

Beca nodded. "But you do know, I have to tell your mom, right? Because honestly, I've worked pretty hard these past thirty-some years – and I really would prefer she not leave me. And she will if I keep this from her."

"Just – no one else yet, okay? It's still early."

"I understand," Beca told her. "Have you been trying for long?"

Bella shook her head and leaned against the wall. "I thought it would take longer – but it worked on the first try."

"Sounds familiar," Beca responded with a smirk. "So did you. I also thought it would take longer – which is how you ended up being born in Georgia during Aunt Emily's wedding, instead of in LA." Bella smiled – she knew the story.

They walked back out to their table and sat down. Bella sipped at the gingerale and nibbled at the crackers Beca ordered for her. It was a good twenty minutes before her system settled down and she felt steady enough on her feet to walk back out to the car. "Why don't you come over for dinner on Friday," Beca suggested as they prepared to part ways. "Mom will be home by then – and you can tell her yourself –" Bella cringed.

"I don't know," she admitted. "Food has been iffy lately. I feel sick pretty much all the time."

Beca nodded sympathetically; she had been that way for the first part of both of her pregnancies.

"If you're anything like me – it'll stop in a few weeks." Chloe was beyond thrilled when Bella took her aside on Friday evening and told her about the baby. She had to be admonished several times in the following few weeks by both her daughter and her wife – she was bursting with good news that she couldn't share until Bella and Alexis decided to announce the pregnancy. They did – once Bella left the first trimester behind. The months that followed were full of preparation, excitement – and wonderment. And that was just for the soon-to-be-grandmothers.

It was just after two in the morning in the first week of May when the phone rang. Beca – always closer to the nightstand – picked up immediately and answered groggily after looking at the display. "Hello?" She asked, sitting up in bed. "Stace? What's wrong?"

The voice on the other end was tired and full of tears. "I'm at the hospital – I'm so sorry, Bec. Bella lost the baby."

"Shit," Beca said sharply. She nudged Chloe, who had slept through the phone ringing. The redhead was awake quickly, eyes wide as she tried to figure out why she was being woken. "Is she headed home – or?"

"The miscarriage isn't complete. If it doesn't happen naturally by the morning – we'll have to do a D&C. So we're keeping her. She's sedated right now – but I thought you'd want to know right away. Alex tried to call – but she's sort of a mess herself."

"We'll be there as soon as we can," Beca answered. She asked Stacie to text her the room information and got out of bed, walking to the closet to pull on a pair of jeans, a black t-shirt, and a green button down, left open. She methodically wound a scarf around her neck and put on her jewelry as Chloe picked up on what she was doing and got up to dress herself. In ten minutes, they were ready.

"What happened?" Chloe asked, her brain finally awake enough to hazard the ominous question that she feared she already knew the answer to.

Beca shook her head, tears beginning to leak from the corners of her eyes. "Bella lost the baby." They held each other as they broke down. They allowed themselves a few minutes of grief and then pulled themselves together again. Beca poked her head into Vera's room – the youngest music professor at Barden was surprisingly asleep. The brunette set her alarm for 7am – early enough that she would wake with Dahlia. She sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed Vera's back, whispering her name until she woke.

The redhead looked startled, then her eyes went to the clock. Then back to her mother's red-rimmed eyes. "What's wrong?"

"Mom and I have to go to the hospital – Bella was just admitted. She's going to be fine. But I needed you to know where we were going – and I need your help. I need you to wake up in a few hours so Dahlia doesn't wake up alone. You can try to get her to school – but if she's too upset – don't worry about it. I'll text you later when I have more details."

Vera nodded. "Is it the baby?" Beca nodded sadly and squeezed her hand.

"Sorry to wake you, love. I'll talk to you soon. Take care of your sister." With that, she was gone. She and Chloe made record time to the hospital. It was quiet as they walked through the maternity ward. They found Bella's room without needing help. Stacie was sitting on the sofa near the window, her teeth busy almost-chewing the nails on her right hand while the left played with the fringe of the blanket that covered her.

Alexis, her eyes shut tight against cheeks stained with tear tracks, was curled up in a ball, sleeping in the lounge chair next to the bed. Bella was out as well – but both mothers could see signs of tears. Stacie stood when she saw them. She walked into the hallway and they followed her quietly to the nearest waiting room.

"The attending just gave Bella a sedative – and I convinced Alex to take a sleeping pill. They just fell asleep," Stacie told them. "I didn't want to wake them."

"What happened?" Beca asked.

Stacie shook her head. "We'll run tests – but it's likely that we'll never know. Miscarriages rarely have a definitive cause – especially in someone Bella's age." She paused; she knew Beca and Chloe already knew that much.. "Alexis called me just after midnight – she said that Bella was tired and went to bed early – and then woke up around midnight bleeding."

The next morning, the attending doctor did a sonogram and – when she saw that the miscarriage hadn't completed yet – ordered a D&C. Bella didn't wake, but Alexis did. Stacie explained what they knew – and what had to be done. Alexis signed the paperwork, agreeing that it was better to do the procedure without waking Bella. There was nothing else to be done at that point – and waking Bella to get her consent for the procedure would be unnecessary, If not cruel.

Alexis was almost silent that day – saying very little and only when spoken to directly. Stacie, Beca, and Chloe each tried to comfort her – but she was lost in her own mind. She didn't break out of her own headspace until Bella woke that afternoon and realized what had happened. Bella accepted comfort from no one – she had to be sedated almost as soon as she'd woken. She was silent for the following day when she woke – and for several weeks after.

Teaching her classes had apparently become bothersome and she'd missed several publication deadlines, but no one could speak to her. She yelled at Alexis more in four weeks than in the ten years – combined – that they'd known one another. Eventually, every attempt at conversation ended with Alexis crying – or walking away to avoid saying something she'd regret.

Despite her sympathy, Beca had enough. She received a text message every time Alexis called Stacie crying. Chloe had come home crying now twice. And Bella had sharply dismissed Dahlia, who had attempted to stop by after school to visit. Beca had visited prior to that day – but she was content to sit in silence until Bella decided to talk. That changed when Dahlia came home in tears.

Beca's jaw tightened as she listened to Dahlia explain – more forgiving than probably necessary – why she was tearful. Leaving her youngest daughter with her wife, Beca walked the block to the beautiful little house Bella and Alexis had purchased after Bella had received her first publishing deal – three years prior. Using her key, she walked into the house. Alexis, who must have just gotten home from school, looked up as Beca entered. Her eyes were filled with tears as she stood in the kitchen, clearly trying to decide what to make for dinner.

"Why don't you go visit with Chloe? Or Stacie?" Beca suggested. She hugged Alexis before watching the woman leave. Pouring herself a glass of water, Beca sipped at it and walked around the first floor, studying the details of neglect that showed – things that Bella, in her normal state of mind, would never have allowed. Things that Alexis, if not trying to keep things from falling apart completely, would have noticed. Dropping the fall on pollen and dust-covered piano keys, Beca walked up the stairs to her daughter's bedroom. Bella was not inside – she was curled into a chair on the small balcony that looked onto the back of the property.

Beca walked onto the small space and shut the door behind her, sitting in the chair next to her daughter. "What do you want?"

"To be spoken to with a bit more respect than that," Beca responded calmly. Bella's cheeks flushed – but she was clearly angry, not necessarily embarrassed by her behavior.

"This isn't your house," Bella responded. "You can leave if you don't like it."

Beca fought the eyebrow-raised expression that wanted to happen. Instead, she sighed softly. "No, Isabella. You need to stop this."

"Stop what? I'm allowed to be upset!"

"You are," Beca answered. "But chasing everyone away – being unkind – that's not going to do anything. It certainly isn't going to bring the baby back. And it's no way to remember a child – "

"There was no child! I didn't get to have one! She was gone before she was ever here! How can something be gone before it exists? And still hurt so much?"

"She was here," Beca said softly. Her eyes filled with tears. She couldn't stand that her child was in so much pain – and there was nothing she could do to make it go away. "I know it hurts," she added gently.

"No, you don't!" Bella cried, her face contorting with anger.

"Isabella, I know you're in pain – and it's horrible – but you can't let anger win. You're not the only one going through this right now – Alexis is devastated – and you've been nothing but dismissive and unkind to her. That's not fair. It's not how I raised you – and I know it's not how you want to live your life." Bella said nothing. Her jaw was clenched so hard that Beca knew it was causing her pain. "Love, I know how much it hurts – and how overwhelming it is – but you can get through this. You're not the only one who has ever gone through this – there are people who understand. I understand." Bella was quiet as she realized what her mother was saying.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. Beca knew she wasn't apologizing for her own behavior.

"It was a long time ago," Beca told her. "I'm fine. But that's only because your mom is a pain in the ass and doesn't give up on people. If I would have had my way – I would have just sunk to the bottom and never surfaced again. You can't do that to yourself, love. To yourself or Alex."

"When did it happen?" Bella asked, her voice still slightly unguarded for the first time in weeks.

Beca took a deep breath and rearranged her daughter more comfortably in her arms. "A little more than a year after Vera was born. I was seven months along – it was horrific. We had already seen the sonograms and heard the heartbeat – she was perfect. Until she was gone. And I didn't know what to do with that – it was terrifying."

"I can't even look at Alexis." Bella admitted finally.

"Why is that?"

"I know it's not rational – but I feel like it's my fault. It's my body that betrayed us – it was me that lost the baby."

"Love, she doesn't blame you – not one bit. And you're not going to get anywhere blaming yourself."

"I know that logically," she admitted. "But my heart still hurts."

"I know, my love. I know," Beca said, pulling Bella tightly into her arms. It wasn't easy – and there were more setbacks than anyone wanted to see – but Bella recovered step by step. The day Beca showed up to talk wasn't her last bad day – but it was the last time she treated her family in a way that she would later regret. By the end of the summer, she was behaving like herself most of the time and she had fallen back into a rhythm of happiness with Alexis.

In mid-September, Chloe was in the garden, trying to rid her beautiful flowers of a weed infestation that had popped up practically overnight. She knelt on the little kneeler she carried through the garden and tugged at the root system – using her spade to hack at it. When she finally freed it from the ground, she dropped it into her basket and sat back, taking a deep breath.

"Are you mad at someone?" A familiar voice asked. She looked back to see Poppy standing on a paver that was part of the garden's main path.

"Just the weed," Chloe told her. "I like these flowers – and it's trying to strangle them out. But I got it."

"I see that," Poppy responded. She held out her hand and Chloe grabbed it, hauling herself out of the dirt. She stood next to her daughter on the path and brushed loose earth from her jeans. She straightened and walked back toward the house and into the kitchen.

"Do you want something to drink?" Chloe asked, reaching herself for the bottle of sparkling water. She poured herself a glass over ice and then poured a regular glass of water when Poppy asked for it. They walked back out to the back porch together and sat on the swing. "What bring you over here so early?" Chloe asked. "No work today?"

Poppy shook her head and then shrugged. She settled back into the soft cushion of the swing. "Where's Mama?"

"Atlanta," Chloe answered, looking at her daughter suspiciously. "You knew that. We talked about it Sunday night – she took Bella – "

"The doctor's appointment," Poppy answered, nodding. "How many opinions are they going to get? And why isn't Alexis going with her?"

"As many opinions as it takes to convince your sister that nothing is wrong with her," Chloe responded. "And Alexis can't keep missing work." The redhead turned to study her daughter. "What is it?" Poppy raised her eyes brows – and Chloe raised hers right back. "Poppy - say what you came here to say."

"I'm pregnant," Poppy spat out, then looked horrified that she'd said anything. Chloe smiled and leaned over to hug her.

"Congratulations, sweetie."

"What? How can you just say that? This is terrible timing – I mean – "

"There's nothing wrong with this timing," Chloe told her. "No one is going to begrudge you your happiness. Not me or mama – not Bella or Alexis – "

"I can't even think about Bella without wanting to cry," Poppy admitted. "It's not fair. She wanted that baby so badly – and then she lost it. And I wasn't even trying to get pregnant – and I am – and I want a family with Ben – but I don't want to make Bella feel bad. And I feel bad – and that's not a good way to start a baby!"

"You shouldn't feel badly," Chloe promised her. "Things happen when they're supposed to. Bella will have her time. This is yours."

That Sunday, dinner was more subdued than usual. Poppy was weirding everyone out by trying to avoid her twin. Bella seemed oblivious – but almost everyone else noticed the trouble the redhead was going to in order to avoid the other woman. Stacie stood at the kitchen counter, peeling potatoes while Beca cut carrots. "What do you think their problem is?" She asked, watching as Poppy exited the library as Bella entered.

Beca shrugged and blew a lock of hair out of her eye. "I think we're all going a little crazy – I don't think we were supposed to live in Georgia this long."

Stacie laughed. "Tell me about it. I heard Mason say y'all the other day. I think we need a trip to New York or LA – quickly." Beca smiled. They watched as Ben – with a giggling Mason in his arms – raced through the kitchen and out the back door. Jesse followed close behind, swiping a potato as he ran by.

"Hey!" Stacie called after him. "What in the hell – "

"Dad!" Ben cried from the yard. "Did you seriously just hit me with a potato?" Stacie shook her head as she closed the door with her hip and reached up to lock it.

Dahila walked down the stairs and poured herself a glass of water. She stood by the window and watched whatever mayhem was befalling the Swanson boys. "Thank you for not giving me any brothers," she said simply, before disappearing into the library. Beca laughed.

When they sat down to dinner, Poppy no longer had any option but to be in the same room as her sister. Bella looked oddly at her as she forcibly switched seats with Dahlia, putting herself several sweats away from her twin.

"Why in the hell are you being so weird?" Bella finally asked.

"We thought you hadn't noticed," Chloe admitted. "But yeah, Poppy – cut it out."

"I noticed – I just have other things to do than track my crazy sister down all day and figure out why she's avoiding me with the stealth of a cartoon character." She had been working – on and off all day – on a manuscript that was due in for publication that week.

"I was not avoiding you," Poppy said. "I've been busy too."

"With what?" Vera asked, smiling mischievously.

"Shut up," Poppy snapped, after realizing that she didn't have an answer.

"Just tell them –" Ben said. She glared at her husband, who shrugged and simply gave away the news himself. "We're pregnant. I'm hoping she's not going to be this weird the whole time, but Aunt Beca told me not to hold my breath." Beca, Jesse, and Stacie all broke out laughing at Ben's words, and everyone else starting congratulating the couple. Poppy was beside herself at the fuss.

"Stop worrying," Bella said as she hugged her. "And congratulations." They were all sitting back down and had begun eating when Dahlia asked when the baby was due.

"May 27th," Poppy told her.

"Wow. That's only two days before Bella," Dahlia said simply. It took her several minutes to blush as she realized she'd given away a secret that wasn't hers – but her sister and sister-in-law didn't seem to mind. Bella and Alexis said nothing – but smiled - as excitement erupted again from the gathered family members.

By May 21st, Beca and Chloe had been called from their bed three times already episodes of false labor for Poppy. They were a bit skeptical when they headed to the hospital for the fourth time at three that morning. This time was legitimate, Stacie assured them as they arrived in the maternity ward. Jesse arrived after dropping Mason off with his parents. Poppy had been in labor for six hours when Bella, Alexis, Dahlia, and Vera arrived at the hospital the next morning. Bella carried only her own purse – and nine months of pregnancy weight – but the other three brought coffee and breakfast for the waiting grandparents-to-be.

Beca and Chloe took turns saying with their daughter and Jesse stayed close enough to throw Ben back into the room every time Poppy tried to throw him out.

"I don't want to do this anymore," Poppy cried, twelve hours into labor. Beca was with her then – and was actually the less sympathetic of the two mothers.

"Love, I know we always gave you the option to quit things whenever you wanted – but this is not something you can stop halfway through. This is not like violin lessons – you can't just return the instrument to the store and go on your merry way. You have to deliver the baby."

"Why did you do this more than once?" Poppy asked. "This is nuts."

"You'll understand when you have the baby in your arms – it's worth it," Beca promised. She had not gone through much labor herself – delivering twice through cesareans– but the little bit of labor she had gone through had been very scary. Poppy's labor was at least normal – or Stacie said it was.

Beca moved to the corner of the room to sit with Dahlia while Bella came in to talk to Poppy. Ben saw his chance and told his wife he was going to grab coffee. Poppy didn't have a chance to answer before he was gone. Bella sat with her sister for the next hour, trying to distract her by talking about some of her classes.

"I didn't like lit classes when I was in them," Poppy told her finally. "Just because you're some fancy- published author and professor doesn't mean I want to hear about yours," she snapped.

"You don't have to be mean about it," Bella answered. She rolled her eyes at Beca, who was smirking from her spot on the loveseat. She and Dahlia were reading together – keeping their voices low enough not to interrupt the twins. Stacie appeared then – she had been flitting around all day because two of her other patients had gone into labor. Poppy had not been amused.

"How's it going?"

"How do you think?"

"Yeah," Stacie said grimacing. "My nurses said you were being mean." She paused and looked the young woman in the eye. "Stop it." Poppy huffed. Stacie made Dahlia leave the room and she sat at the end of the bed to check Poppy's progress. "Not quite time yet. Sorry, kidd-o."

"Why is this taking so long?"

Stacie smiled. "Would you like to ask the woman down the hall who's been in labor for 65 hours?"

"You seem all nice – but sometimes I think you're evil," Poppy shot back. Stacie simply laughed and patted her knee as she stood and kicked away her stool.

"You'll be fine, sweetpea. It just takes time." Stacie had barely finished speaking when she heard a squeak to her left.

"Well, shit," Bella breathed. Her sister, mother, and aunt all turned to look at her. "I think my water just broke."

"That is not funny," Poppy said.

"Didn't mean it to be," Bella answered, grimacing as pain settled across her lower back. She moved uncomfortably in her chair.

"Have you had any contractions?" Stacie asked.

"I don't know," Bella admitted. "I mean – my back has been going into spasms and hurting all day – but it kind of goes with carrying around all the extra weight. I just figured that was it."

"How long has that been happening?" Stacie asked. She hit the nurse's call button on the bed and squatted down in front of Bella. The brunette shrugged.

"I guess it started around lunch time yesterday – but it wasn't labor – it's just my back –"

"You keep on telling yourself that, sweetie. Come on – let's get you into a bed of your very own," she said, offering Bella her arm. Bella stood and cried in pain before sitting back down again. Stacie felt along her back and she screamed. Poppy paled in concern. Chloe, Alexis, and Ben entered the room behind the nurse. Dahlia, Vera, and Jesse watched from the doorway in concern.

"Everything is fine," Stacie announced to the room at large. "I need a wheelchair," she told the nurse. She turned to look at everyone else who had gathered. "Ben and Chloe – you wait here with Poppy. Alexis and Beca – with me. Everyone else – waiting room." They all looked at her, confused. "Now would be good!" The family scattered and the nurse returned with the wheelchair

"Your womb is a little confused on this one," Stacie told Bella after witnessing two sets of contractions. "It's contracting both ways – the top is contracting down – the bottom contracting up." She showed them with her hands. "You'll never deliver with those types of contractions. We need to get you in for a c-section and get the babies out."

"Are you sure?" Bella asked meekly.

"Sorry, sweet pea. I know it's not – " She was interrupted when Bella bent over her stomach, another contraction hitting. She savagely bit her lip, tears stinging her eyes as she held tightly to Beca, who had slipped into place to hold her. Stacie smelled the coppery scent of blood before anyone else realized it was happening. She picked up the phone and dialed a number, saying a succession of things that only frightened and confused the other women in the room. Three nurses entered the room and Stacie asked Beca and Alexis to wait in the hall. Alexis had no intention of leave but Beca was able to pry her away so that Stacie could do an exam. Another doctor entered the room with a nurse and an ultrasound machine. When Stacie reappeared several minutes later, her lips were pursed together. She was concentrating, not worried, Beca reminded herself as she saw her old friend's expression.

"What is going on?" Alexis asked, nervously shifting from one foot to the other. Her eyes continued to try to look past Stacie, but the door was closed – she couldn't see Bella even if Stacie would move.

"The placenta detatched from the uterine wall," Stacie told her. "It's not that uncommon. It actually happened when Bella and Poppy were born. It should be fine – the bleeding will stop when we get the babies and placenta out – and we might need to do a blood transfusion, but Bella will be as good as new. We were going in for a c-section anyway. We're just going in faster now."

"Your voice changes pitch when you're lying."

"I'm not lying," Stacie promised. "Oversimplifying, maybe. But it's going to be fine. We'll be out in twenty minutes. Go with Beca and ask the volunteer at the reception desk to point you to the maternity OR waiting area – I'll find you as soon as we're done."

"I thought I was able to come in – "

"With a detached placenta, things get a little more complicated – so no one in the OR." Her expressed softened for a moment and she moved forward to hug Alexis and reassure her. "It will be fine," she added softly. "Go with Beca." Beca led the nervous woman away and they found the waiting room, where luckily there was plenty of room for both brunettes to pace. Chloe came as soon as she received Beca's text.

The small woman stopped pacing in front of her wife. "It's fine," she told Chloe. The redhead nodded.

"I know." She stepped forward and gathered Beca into her arms anyway.

"It should only be a few minutes. She'll be fine."

"Yes, she will. Calm down, Becs. It's okay." Chloe rubbed her back in smooth circles, trying to alleviate some of the anxiety that, despite calm words, the other woman was radiating. "Can you believe – we're less than twenty minutes away from being Grandmas? I don't feel old enough for that."

Beca laughed, resting her head against Chloe's shoulder. "Really? I feel really old right this second." Chloe kissed her and pulled back.

"Trust me, you're not." She squeezed Beca's hands and stepped back even more, looking across the room to where Alexis was staring at a painting of a bunch of nursery rhymes that had been amalgamated into the same universe. She jumped slightly when she felt Chloe's hand on her elbow.

"Sorry," Chloe offered.

"It's okay," Alexis said, shaking her head. "I spaced out for a second."

"You're allowed," Chloe said with a soft smile. She didn't have time to really reassure Alexis before a nurse walked and in smiled.

"Beale-Mitchell family?" Beca nodded and Chloe and Alexis moved to stand next to her. "Everyone is doing fine. Dr. Conrad is finishing the surgery – it will take another few minutes – but the babies are here – and completely healthy. She sent me to take you to them."

Alexis looked shocked, her eyes wide. Her system was trying to accept the move from terror to joy – and it was not computing. Chloe took her arm and pretty much pulled her along to follow the nurse. The babies had already been moved to a recovery room where Bella would be within minutes. There was a nurse standing over them, typing information into a tablet. She finished, smiled at them, and excused herself.

The nurse who was leading them motioned them over and smiled. She lifted one perfect little bundle and handed her to Alexis, who was still seeming a little shocked, so Beca helped her hold the baby. "The smaller one was born first," the woman told them. Alexis looked down, her dark blue eyes filling almost immediately with tears.

"Certainly makes it more real, doesn't it?" Beca asked gently. Alexis looked confused and her mother-in-law laughed.

"Oh, love – you've been a little oblivious for the past nine months. But we figured you'd pick it up soon enough." Alexis was happy to be starting a family – but Chloe, Beca, and Stacie had long through that she didn't quite grasp the situation.

"Wow," It was really all Alexis could think to say as she stared down at her daughter.

"Why don't you sit down?" Chloe suggested, guiding her back into the recliner that sat behind the basinet. Beca was already holding the younger twin, studying her absolutely perfect little facial features. Once Alexis was settled and holding the first baby correctly, Beca tried to hand her the second. Her eyes bulged and she shook her head.

"I can't hold them both at the same time," she said, her expression clearly terrified.

"You're cute," Beca said, laughing. "Because you think that's an option." She arranged the babies in Alexis's arms and Chloe procured a pillow from the bed to place in her lap to support them.

"How do I not screw this up?"

Beca and Chloe smiled at each other over her head. "Oh, you will," Beca assured her. "Everyone makes mistakes – but you're not alone – you'll be fine."

Alexis gazed at the babies for several more minutes and then looked up suddenly to the left, at the empty bed. She looked uncomfortably toward the door. "Where is Bella?"

"I'll go check," Beca promised. "I'm sure she's fine." She walked into the hall and found the nurse from earlier waiting outside.

"You said a few more minutes," Beca told her. "Can you give us an update on Bella?"

"Dr. Conrad will be in to see you as soon as she can," the nurse promised. Beca tilted her head and looked sternly at the woman.

"What is going on with my daughter?" The nurse's face fell.

"Ma'am, I was sent out of the OR with the babies – I don't know anything that happened after that. But Dr. Conrad had everything under control. I'm sure everything is fine. Sometimes it takes a little longer – "

"Please go and check with someone and get us an update," Beca told her. The woman bit her lip but disappeared. Several moments later, an older nurse appeared.

"Mrs. Mitchell?" Beca nodded, her arms crossing in front of her chest. Her heart was racing now – something was different. Wrong. Before the woman could speak, Stacie appeared, looking flustered and exhausted. Beca stepped around the nurse.

"Stacie? Where is Bella?"

"She's fine," Stacie promised. "Her blood pressure dropped severely after the babies were born. We called in a cardiologist – but it's back under control. She's having a blood infusion as we speak. That should stabilize her pressures. And there shouldn't be any lasting effects – but we'll do some testing to make sure. She'll be in recovery in the next ten minutes."

"You're sure she's fine?"

"I'm sure," Stacie promised. She looked down at her scrubs. "I need to go change – I'll meet you in the room in a few minutes – Bella will be there." And she was – she was brought into the recovery room in less than ten minutes, around the same time Stacie appeared. She was completely out – but Stacie promised that she was fine.

Bella was in recovery for about twenty minutes when Stacie's phone buzzed she pulled it out of her pocket and simply said "Poppy." Beca and Chloe kissed Bella and kissed and hugged Alexis, promising to be back as soon as they could be. They hurried down the hall, leaving Stacie behind. She smiled at Alexis and sat near her on the edge of the bed. "Are you doing okay?"

"I think so," Alexis answered, still coming across as a bit off.

"Good. They're beautiful babies – and Bella did great. She'll be awake soon." She reached for one of the babies and snuggled her back into the basinet. "Why don't you give yourself a rest?" She asked, reaching for the second baby. "They're tiny – but they get heavy after awhile." She placed the second baby into the bassinette and glanced back to see Alexis looking lost.

"Sweetie, what's wrong? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Alexis said, eventually looking up at her.

"Okay – I'll be back as soon as I can be. But make sure to use the call button if you need anything – and a nurse should be in to check on the babies and Bella in a few minutes." Stacie walked into the hallway, found one of the recovery nurses and asked her to stay in the room until a family member arrived. Then she called Emily, who had arrived to wait out the babies with the rest. She was in the waiting room with Vera and Dahlia and was happy to go and sit with Alexis until Stacie returned.

When she walked into the delivery room, Poppy was not happy. "The nurse said I could push like thirty minutes ago!"

"It was four," Stacie told her sternly. "And what did I say about being nice?"

"I don't feel like being nice – I want this baby to be born now!"

"As much as I don't approve of whining, you're going to get your wish," Stacie told her. She pulled a stool to the end of the bed. A nurse had already helped Poppy into the position to push, so when Stacie lifted the sheet draped over her knees, she saw the head already crowning. She looked at Poppy's chart and at the surrounding machinery. "Okay – Poppy – when the next contraction hits, you're going to sit up and push."

"I can't sit up!"

"Yes you can," Stacie told her. "It's a better position – the baby will be born with fewer pushes. Your mom and Ben will help."

Poppy was crying by the time Stacie placed the baby on her chest. The baby was crying too, so it worked out. Ben stared in absolute awe and disbelief at the wailing infant.

After delivering one more baby, doing all of the required paperwork, and changing into her street clothes, Stacie made her way back to the room where Bella was still being watched for signs of dropping blood pressure. She was sleeping again and Alexis was sitting on the recliner, staring in wonder at the sleeping infants. Stacie didn't intend to sneak up on her but, with Alexis' lack of attention, was able to very easily. She checked on Bella and the babies, and then pulled up a chair next to Alexis.

"Are you okay?" Alexis nodded.

"I didn't really have to do anything hard."

"Watching can be hard," Stacie told her. "It know it was scary for a bit – " Alexis nodded, staring down at the bassinette again. The older woman saw the expression of doubt flicker across her expression again.

"What is it, Alex?"

"What if I suck at this?" Alexis asked guiltily. "I mean – my parents are some of the worst humans I've ever met. What if I don't know how to be a good parent?"

"The good news." Stacie told her with a soft smile, "is that you're not doing it alone. She reached for Alexis' hand. "The better news? 99% of the parents who suck – never question it. It's the good ones who worry. You're going to be just fine. I promise."

Although they both could afford private rooms – and although they probably would have preferred it under any other circumstances, Bella and Poppy shared a room. It made things much simpler for the ever-present family members.

Alexis smiled – one of the first genuine smiles she'd offered since the impromptu-surgery – as Beca, Chloe, Stacie, Jesse, Vera, and Dahlia gathered into the room. With Poppy and Ben sitting on the other bed, it made for a cramped space – but they had been pestered for days about names – and Poppy had wanted them all to be together when they were announced.

Genetics had snuck in another redhead to the family. Although Alexis and Bella had not felt it a strict requirement, they had kept it in mind when looking for a donor and had chosen one where red hair was part of the family tree, if not the actual donor's genetic makeup. As a result - Anastasia Marie – or Ana, as they planned to call her – who was born first of the three cousins, had a full head of soft red hair. She was named after Stacie and Chloe – Chloe's middle name, at least. The second twin was named Jade Rebecca – after the middle names of her two mothers, and her grandmama's first name. Beca had already said that she refused to be called grandmama because it sounded uppity and snobby, but they were all planning to teach the babies anyway, just because they thought her objections were funny.

They all smiled – some through happy tears – as Jade made little cooing noises at the announcement of her name. Poppy and Ben then introduced them to Lily Chloe Swanson – named after a flower like her mother and her youngest aunt, and her grandma.

The next few weeks were a blur for everyone involved. Stacie had threatened more than once to change her phone number. She didn't know who was worse – Bella with her general worrying or Poppy with her sudden bout of hypochondria – projected onto Lily. Alexis wasn't much better – but she knew how to slip questions into conversation with Stacie, instead of flat-out calling and telling her there was a problem (when there wasn't). Beca and Chloe felt like they spent more time at their daughters' homes – and away from one another – than together in their own home.

It took almost a month for things to calm down enough that Chloe and Beca were able to convince the two extremely tired young couples to leave the babies with them for a few hours. Bella and Alexis had finally left, after telling them every detail of the babies' routines. Beca had simply looked her daughter in the eye and reminded her that she'd raised four daughters of her own – she could handle a few hours. Alexis had dragged her wife away before anymore could be said.

They sat on the living room sofa, a large pillow stretch between their two laps and their feet resting on a soft ottoman. "What do you think?" Chloe asked, her head lulling against Beca's as they each looked down at the bundle of three babies between them.

"I think we did good," Beca responded simply, her free hand reaching under the babies to grasp Chloe's. They both watched as Jade yawned and wiggled her tiny nose a bit before falling back to sleep. "And I can't wait to see what trouble these little loves cause for our little loves." Chloe's responding laugh rang through their warm, cozy home as she snuggled closer to the woman she loved.

She smiled brightly as Beca began humming and then started to sing – the same song she'd sung to each of their daughters at one point or another.

"I love Lucy and pumpernickel bread
The Statue Of Liberty and standing ovations
And falling into bed
But get it through your head that,"

She smiled over and Chloe joined her in harmonizing for the chorus:

"You're the love of my life
You are the love of my life
You are the love of my life
You are the love of my life
From the moment I first saw you
The second that you were born
I knew that you were the love of my life
Quite simply the love of my life."

 

Chapter Text

I thought I would let you know that there is a new story in this series.

New Addition - (If I Saw You) In Heaven

Summary: Loving spouse, excellent and fulfilling careers, beautiful home. Beca and Chloe have it all in a fast-paced, toddle-filled life. With three little girls at home and one on the way, one unforeseen incident threatens their balance and recolors their world.

This is a short (three-chapter) story set in the same universe as my other Pitch Perfect stories. It comes after They'll Learn Much More Than I'll Ever Know and before Beautiful Tree.