A/N: Thanks to everyone who sent me feedback/left a comment. Really means a lot. :) If you sent me an idea of what you'd like to see in this chapter, but don't see it in this chapter, don't worry. I'll get there. ;)
"Being tired from too much sex is not a good enough excuse to get out of cardio, Amy!" Beca brings a towel up towards her damp face and blots it dry. Her shirt is sticking to her and she thinks her heart might be tiredly tripping over itself inside her chest. Fat Amy is bent over at the waist, hands braced against her knees, and she's dragging in one hoarse breath after another as tiny beads of sweat leap from her forehead.
"Seriously, if I can't use that," Stacie tilts the bottle at her lips and takes a drink before finishing her sentence, "then no one can." Amy twists her head to look at her leggy friend and makes a face.
"But I don't usually go for longer than a few hours without breaking to eat and I missed brunch! And it's not exactly fair, comparing the two of us. I get a lot and everything, but you make sex look like a competitive sport." Stacie raises her eyebrows and then, after a few seconds, nods in agreement.
"I would so rock a gold medal." She says with a smirk, one that's jarred out of place when Beca slaps her water bottle down onto a stool.
"Guys." She barks, serious and stern. "This isn't a joke. If we're going to have any hope of beating Das Sound Machine at the Worlds, then we've got to give this our all." Her eyes flit from face to face, taking in expressions that seem to be an equal split of apologetic and varying shades of 'just let me lie down and die'. Yes, she's working them hard. Yes, she feels like she's channelling Aubrey. Yes, that makes her want to throw herself off of Barden's roof, but Aubrey was right about one thing. A cappella was hard work and in order to be the best, worlds best, they had to kick it up a notch or five. Rediscovering their sound was all well and good, but unless they could back that up with a killer set, it didn't mean jack shit. She so desperately wanted to show that German 'roid-head douche and his amazon goddess – oh, jesus christ – partner that they weren't losers. That they were, as Chloe had once described the Bellas, the tits.
They would show them, Beca was determined, and once she set her mind to something she was kind of like a tiny little terrier. Unable to leave it alone to the point of being destructive, also annoying. Whatever, she was captain. It was her job to be annoying. Aubrey had excelled at it.
"Beca, we know." Cynthia Rose's rasps from somewhere behind Stacie. "It's just that we're still all kinda burnt out from the retreat and all this added pressure is only adding extra weight." She's moved into Beca's line of view now and even though Beca knows she's doesn't mean it the way it sounds, it still gets under her skin.
"You don't think I'm feeling the pressure?" She bursts, words spewing out from the middle of a disbelieving smile. "I am busting my ass trying to put together a set list, help Chloe figure out the choreography, and keep my head above water at this stupid internship." She watches Cynthia Rose roll her eyes and deflate a little, but the words keep coming anyway. "I'm sorry if you guys think I'm pushing you too hard, but this is what needs-"
"That isn't what I'm saying." She interrupts, slinging the towel in her hand over a shoulder while making a 'down, girl' gesture with the other. "You're burnt out too. Don't get me wrong, I know exactly what we need to do and I'm not saying we need to ease up-" At the edge of her periphery, Beca sees Amy slowly raising her hand into the air and hears her mutter "I am actually saying that though", but ignores it. "I'm just letting you know that we know. You know?"
"No!" Beca barks, even though she does. She just sort of explodes like steam from a teapot or boiling water from a saucepan. She's pissy and bitchy and tired, and she just wants to-
"She does." Chloe's voice drifts by right beside her ear and makes Beca jump. The hands that grip her upper arms more or less keep her on the ground though. "She totally does." How does Chloe always manage to sound so god damn cheerful? Even when her hair is sticking to her face and she has sweat dripping out of every pore, which is saying something about Beca's workout because she rarely broke a sweat during Aubrey's. "Which is why she's ending the practise. Like, nowish." Beca immediately bristles and jerks away from the hands that feel like they're burning her skin.
"Chloe!" She immediately finds herself caught by them again. This time Chloe turns her around so that they're facing one another and there's a tirade just waiting to tumble from Beca's lips, but it sort of sputters and dies when she sees the way Chloe is looking at her.
There's a small crease marring the usually smooth skin between her eyebrows and her cheeks are flushed and glittering with sweat. She looks concerned, worried even, and it's the kind of expression that makes Beca feel like a jerk. Which, okay, maybe she is sometimes.
"Let it go." She whispers, frown deepening just a bit, and she gives Beca's shoulders a squeeze. "For now. For me. Please?" Beca counts to five before she nods and then shrugs out of Chloe's grip. She strides towards her laptop, grabbing the bottle off the stool on her way, and slams the lid shut. She shoves it back into the bag, which she shoulders before grabbing her duffle, and then leaves without another word.
Having an actual sorority house is awesome. Which, coincidentally, used to be somewhere around fifth on a list of 'ten things Beca Mitchell will probably never say'. That being said though, the bathroom situation at Casa de Bella leaves a lot to be desired. There just isn't enough of it to go around with that many people all living in one house. So, every once in a while, she packs up her stuff and heads into the hallways of Barden in search of a solitary stall where she can wash away the thick layer of 'unimpressive intern with nothing to say' and the general grime of the a cappella world.
Today it's the latter and she turns the water up hotter than it need be in the hopes that she might be able to steam some of the tension out of her body. Her skin just ends up red and blotchy though and it's fogged up the mirrors bolted to the tiled walls so badly that a girl a few sinks over glares at her on her way out. Beca just stares her down and lets the door bang noisily shut behind her.
A miniature black cloud of misery follows her on the walk back to the house and the people milling around seem to sense her dark mood and steer clear. Which works just fine for her because she doesn't have the security of her headphones to ward people off today. Not too far into her second year at Barden, she'd confessed to Chloe that she didn't even have anything playing through them half the time and mostly kept them on to stop people from striking up sad attempts at friendly conversation. The redhead had assured her that Beca's mascara and scowl probably made sure of that already and the headphones weren't necessarily needed. She usually keeps them close anyway, just in case. It's a comfort thing, they steady her in some weird way, and that is something Chloe understands.
"It's a lucky rabbit's foot."
"Dude, it's a foot. It's the actual foot of like, a rabbit cadaver. I'm not touching that."
"It was my dad's. My mom gave to it me after he died."
"Oh. Shit, I'm sorry, Chl-"
"No, it's okay. I just wanted to… we all have our things, okay? Stuff that grounds us, makes us feel safe. It isn't dumb. That's all I wanted to say."
There's music playing somewhere in the house and the beat hits Beca the second she walks through the door. It's Rihanna, which narrows the perpetrator down to either Cynthia Rose or Fat Amy, and she catches sight of Flo doing a handstand in the middle of the living room as she slips by unnoticed and ascends the stairs. She doesn't really want to talk to anyone right now, because even though they know better than to expect an immediate explanation or apology – and she swears that it isn't because she's an asshole, just super awkward – Beca will still feel like she has to give one. All she wants to do is lie face down on her bed and sink into darkness for an hour.
Which would be a totally achievable goal, if there wasn't already a redhead sprawled across it.
The sight of her causes Beca's step to falter and she stalls before she reaches the top step. Chloe's eyes catch hers overtop of the magazine she's holding open in front of her and the gravity in them pulls Beca the rest of the way up.
"Hi." Chloe says, all cheerful smiles and full attention as she drops the magazine down beside her and watches Beca place her laptop bag on the desk opposite the bed. She eyes the other woman warily.
Okay, so maybe they haven't talked about their tentative, would be foray into the world of collegiate experimenters and maybe they should have before now. Or immediately after they'd sort of-kind of agreed to it in the first place. Which Beca was pretty sure they had, though the longer they go without talking about it the more inclined she is to think she dreamt up the whole thing after overdosing on Red Bull during an all-night mixing binge. It wouldn't be the first time.
"Hey…" she draws the greeting out like she's testing the word on her tongue, seeing how each letter feels as it rolls off of it. Cautious, suspicious.
"Are you okay?" Chloe doesn't seem to notice. Beca knows that she does. She moves to the closet and open the door, throwing her duffle somewhere towards the back so she can forget it exists for a while. She avoids looking at Chloe as she walks back across the room to unzip her bag.
"Well, I'm less sweaty, so that's a plus." She takes her computer out and nudges the bag aside to make room for it on the desk, then pretends to be looking for something else just to give herself time to breathe.
"Beca." Chloe's voice brings her eyes up and she hates it, hates it, when Chloe looks at her like this. Full of concern and worry, face drawn in an expression that quietly whispers "I know there's something wrong and I'm right here. You can talk to me." She hates it because it slips right through the cracks it creates in Beca's defences. Defences that she had spent years erecting and fortifying. Building back up whenever something chipped a layer away. Everything had been solid and stable, and then she'd rolled into Barden and been accosted in a shower stall. Dressed in a flight attendant outfit and urged into singing Miley freaking Cyrus songs. Her life is a joke, an actual joke.
She lives with a crocodile-wrestling Tasmanian for christ's sake, Los Angeles would have less weirdos at this point.
"Does this have anything to do with what we talked about?" Now Chloe looks guilty, like she's accidentally insulted Beca in the worst way possible. "Because if it does, then we don't-" Beca cuts her off with a noise that she pushes from somewhere low in her throat and she stands, gesturing pointlessly with one hand.
"No, Chloe, it's not-" her mouth keeps moving as she searches for words, "this doesn't have anything to do with, ugh, I'm not... Okay." She wrings her hands out by her sides and moves around the bed until she can sit down in front of Chloe's outstretched legs. "I'm just…" she runs her fingers through her hair and lets out a humourless laugh, tilting her head towards the ceiling of the room. She can feel Chloe's eyes on her, patient and intent. "I feel like Kermit the Frog." There's a moment of silence and then Chloe laughs. Beca lets her head fall back towards her chest and she twists around to shoot the redhead a glance, looking up at her through her lashes in a half-glare.
"What?" She asks, a little breathless, a lot bemused, and Beca rolls her eyes because of course this is the one time Chloe doesn't know what she means.
"You know, Kermit, the fearless green leader of The Muppets?" Chloe laughs again and Beca feels her lips twitch.
"I know who Kermit is, Bec. I just don't…" she pauses and Beca sees her smile shift towards mischievous. "Is it because you're both short, cute and prone to aggressive outbursts?" The brunette leans over halfway through the question and starts slapping Chloe's leg. She shrieks and pulls them back, crossing them beneath her and resting her elbows on her knees. She cradles her head in her palms and waits for Beca to continue. The captain lifts a hand and scratches at her head, face twisted into a grimace of reluctance.
"It's like, Piggy and Gonzo and all those other weirdos were always looking to him for answers. They depended on him to get them through. To pick up the pieces and make something that would be good enough. Be the best yet. And they all helped, they did everything they could, but at the end of the day it was still all on him, and that's a lot, you know?" She exhales deeply, blowing the breath out from between parted lips and then pursing them. "And he's such a tiny frog. I mean, he's bigger than most, but that's still a lot of weight." She risks another glance at Chloe and finds her frowning. "I'm not blaming you. You know that, right? I'm just saying-"
"That you're stressed out." Chloe interrupts, nodding, and Beca flashes an uncertain smile as she nods back.
"Yeah. I don't think I've ever been this stressed in my life and I know that's a really crappy excuse." She draws a breath in then. "I'm sorry I yelled. At you, at everyone." Chloe shrugs, red hair shimmering as it catches the angle of the light coming in through the window.
"It's not a big deal." And the thing is, Chloe believes that.
"No, it is." And Beca hates herself a little bit, because even though her spats with Aubrey are now more or less a thing lost to a cappella history, sometimes she randomly thinks about the way the former captain treated Chloe during Beca's first year at Barden and ire races through her like fire and lightning. Because Chloe is nice and sweet – so long as you're not essentially disqualifying them from a riff off – and she shouldn't ever be yelled at unless the person doing the yelling wants an angry alt dwarf with ear spikes chomping at their ankles. She's kind of prickly about that, for whatever reason – she doesn't like bullies and honestly it's something that all the Bellas are prickly about – and so to be reduced to something she so loathes just because she's stressed? Beca feels like a jackass. "I'm sorry." She says it more emphatically the second time, face so serious she's afraid she might inadvertently strain an eye muscle. Chloe's smile falters and for a moment Beca can't read her. Has no idea what she might say or do and the uncertainty makes her freeze.
"Thanks." Soft and sincere, like she might cry; Chloe pushes herself off of pillows that don't belong to her and crawls towards Beca. Stormy blue eyes widen involuntarily and she sort of chokes a bit on her suddenly rapidly beating heart, because literally any number of things could be about to happen and Beca is prepared for exactly none of them.
But Chloe just grabs her in a hug, squeezing her tight as she kneels beside her and basically ends up hugging her head. She doesn't seem to mind though and she only pulls back after planting a kiss against Beca's crown. Even then though, she doesn't move away, only around, and she's settling herself between Beca and the wall before the brunette has time to process the movement.
"What are you doing?" She asks, sharp and skittish, but Chloe just laughs. Beca feels her curl her fingers around dark hair and sweep it aside, shifting it to rest across the front of one shoulder. A whisper of a shiver slithers along Beca's spine as warm fingers brush the skin of her neck.
"I," she starts, dramatically, and Beca feels the words drift over her, "am going to give you a backrub. Take away some of that tension."
So, it isn't a totally weird proposition. Chloe offers to give her backrubs all the time, Beca just usually declines. She has been on the receiving end though, once or twice, and she can't lie; Chloe's hands are kind of magical. When it comes to backrubs, because that's the only thing she has experience with and who said anyone was expecting anything more than that right now, because it certainly wasn't her.
"Oh." A refusal is on the tip of Beca's tongue, because she really thinks maybe they should talk a bit more before they get overly touchy, but then Chloe's hands are at her shoulders and her thumbs are rubbing small little circles of magic along the muscles there. "Kay." She squeaks out, giving in as her eyelids flutter and close. She doesn't need to freak out, there's no reason to. This is a perfectly friendly thing to do, even in light of their recent agreement, which they haven't even talked about since anyway.
"I um, I'm glad." Chloe says, voice close to Beca's left ear. "That it wasn't the other thing," Beca's eyes pop open, "freaking you out or something." She's about seventy-five percent sure that Chloe can read minds and this isn't the first time she's considered the percentage.
"What? No. That isn't, of course no- no." She rolls her eyes at herself, then closes them again as she clenches her teeth in frustration and silently prays for the ability to talk sense for like, a second. "We're totally cool, Chlo. Like I said, what are friends for?"
"I know that's what you said," she says it in a way that lets Beca know there's a 'but' coming, "but I don't want things to get weird between us." Her thumbs meet at the base of Beca's neck and then Chloe's moving her hands down, kneading the muscles as she finds them.
"It'll only get weird if we let it." Beca points out, vision darting in and out of focus. "So we won't." That seems to placate the redhead, for the moment at least, and she falls quiet as she works her way towards the middle of Beca's back. "Since you brought it up though," and then Beca's speaking without realising it, "I was kind of wondering." Chloe hums, but the sound is vague and distant, like she's not completely focused on what Beca is saying. Which she isn't, Beca can feel that she isn't. Her fingers probe an area between her shoulder blades and Beca's eyes roll up and towards the back of her skull.
"You have knots, like, everywhere." There's a frown making itself known in Chloe's voice and Beca idly considers the idea that Chloe would probably make a really good nurse. She's kind, caring, has proven herself to be perfectly capable of dealing with bodily fluids on multiple occasions, and she could probably just sing the patients back to full health. "Lie down." She touches Beca's shoulder, urging her to move. "On your stomach." Then pats her back like it's no big deal.
"Oh. Um, okay." And maybe it isn't. Because it's Chloe, the girl who says hi with her hands as easily as she does with her mouth, and they're friends. Really good friends. Isn't that why Chloe came to her with her request in the first place? So Beca should really just take it all in stride when she's ushered into lying face down on her bed and feels Chloe straddle her thighs like they do this every Sunday afternoon.
They do not.
"What were you wondering about?" She asks and Beca opens her mouth to speak just as nimble fingers start working out the tension in her shoulders, their new positioning allowing Chloe to press a little harder than before, and it isn't exactly a dictionary defined word that leave Beca then. No, it's more of a guttural groaning sound and she feels her face burn with embarrassment when Chloe's hands stop and she hears the redhead giggle. An actual giggle. "Wow. I know I'm good, but I didn't think I was this good." This totally isn't fair. This is why regular people don't go to public masseurs, because they inevitably end up making porno noises against their will. She buries her face in her comforter, feeling Chloe shift a little above her and then continue on. She repeats her question and, after a few heartbeats, Beca turns her head until her cheek is pillowed against the bedspread and she can talk unhindered. She runs her tongue over her teeth and blinks.
"Our, you know, agreement." She stares at her hand, the fingers of which are picking invisible lint from the comforter. Chloe mumbles a quiet little "oh", but her hands don't stop moving and something about that emboldens Beca. "I was just wondering about, like, when you want to, sort of, start? Or how?" Her voice goes up an octave at the end, making it sound like she isn't sure that's the question she wants to be asking. Chloe's quiet for a minute.
"I want you to be comfortable." She begins, tentatively. Her thumbs brush against the curve of a ribcage and Beca's suddenly gripped by the urge to laugh.
"This is kind of your thing though, dude. I'm just lending a helping hand." Chloe stills again and Beca can feel the way the redhead is smirking down at her. "Okay, bad choice of wording aside, I stand by it. I mean, I don't even really know what you want from this." Which was a very good point. She'd agreed without knowing the full scope of this thing and even though she knows Chloe would never push her on anything, she still wants in on the game plan. She wants to see the bullet points and what order they go in. "I'm not as good as you are at this stuff. I'm weird and awkward, but I want to be here for you." Her pulse is hammering in her temple as she talks without really thinking about what she's saying. She just knows it's the truth and doesn't question the why. Which she probably should. "I'm just kind of flying blind here, Chlo."
"I'm sorry." Beca doesn't want an apology though, she wants clarification. "I didn't want to push you." She can see a red-haired blur in her periphery and throws a wry smile in that direction.
"I've already said yes. And I know you." She finally flattens her hand against the duvet, forcing it to lie still. "You couldn't push me, not like that, even if you wanted to. You wouldn't." Something in the words seems to strike Chloe, because she retracts her hands and Beca feels her sit back on her haunches. The seconds tick by and she wonders what Chloe's thinking. Why she's thinking it. What she's going to do or say next.
This whole thing is super weird. It was never not going to be weird, Beca knows that. It isn't every day you agree to basically being friends with benefits with your bestie. Not that she thinks it'll go that far. Unless that's what Chloe is aiming for?
All at once, Beca can't breathe.
"Well, what about this." Which is of course the exact moment that Chloe decides to make a move. She lifts herself from Beca and falls to the side, lying with her back towards the wall. She reaches out with one hand and gently touches Beca between her shoulder blades. "Onto your side?" And Beca moves on autopilot. She isn't afraid – she doesn't think she could ever be afraid of Chloe – but there's a nest of snakes in the pit of her stomach balling themselves into a knot and it reminds her a bit of Jesse, and how she felt around him in the beginning.
And she really should be questioning this. Asking herself why.
As soon as she's done as Chloe asks she feels the redhead scoot closer to her, until Beca is certain those are breasts she's feeling against her back and she has no idea what to do with that information.
"Uh." It slips out even though she'd forbade herself from speaking only milliseconds before. Chloe's hand comes to lie tentatively at Beca's hip, curves around the bone, and she thinks she manages to catch her sharp inhale before it's too painfully obvious.
"Is this okay?" Beca tries to focus on her breathing, which her body has suddenly decided is something that she isn't doing fast enough. In, out, slow and even.
"Yeah, it's…" Slow. "This is fine." And even.