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Chapter 22

 Chapter 22

While I follow Bella downstairs, my arms laden with the spare blanket, my mind starts dissecting what little information it has received over the last minutes. I'm usually not that slow to catch on but compared to Bella I'm downright sluggish in ridding myself of the level of arousal and frustration that has been clogging my thoughts until now.

Maybe she's just more used to that than I am.

My first reaction at Alice's tone and words has been disbelief - and feeling betrayed that she's lying to me. Now the thought occurs to me that she could be telling the truth, that it is all just a new ploy of Jasper's to seed distrust between Bella and me - but what for? From what I know she's steered clear of him for the last few weeks, that more than anything speaking plainly that she's not on the best of terms with him.

And when I see him hunched over on the couch, his fingers bunching up his wet hair, his eyes red while he's obviously fighting not to break into pieces, I know that this is real and not just a show.

Unlike Bella or me, Jazz is good at telling lies and pretending, but not that good. That I fell for his act once all those months ago has been part of why I've been hating myself so much - if I hadn't been so selfish and lost in my own misery I would have seen right through it. I've known him long enough to see the inevitable signs when I look closely enough, and I don't get a fake feeling from him right now.

Alice is another thing entirely. She's usually on the chipper side but to me she's been sounding way too perky, and too fast to deflect my question. Of course I can't be sure by her voice and words alone, but if I have to take a guess, Jazz is not the one putting on a show. And it hurts inexplicably more that Alice would do this to me now that I've been feeling us reconnect at last.

While I busy myself with dumping the duvet on one of the chairs Bella fires up the coffee maker and hunts down a box of cookies. Inwardly that move is cracking me up - while not a perfect homemaker, Bella does have better manners than I will ever have, and guests normally get food served on platters. The fact that she nearly hits Jazz in the head with the cookies when she throws them in the general direction of the couch speaks of a comfortable familiarity acquired by endless years of knowing each other -

that never fully went away, it seems.

I still wait for Bella to sit down next to Jazz before I take my seat on her other side, farthest away from him but not exactly avoiding him. The fact that it's a conscious decision on my part is telling, but I'm happy the others ignore it. And unless I want to perch on the arm rest it's the only comfortable space on the sofa, anyway.

Jazz dumps sugar seemingly at random into his coffee, then drinks it without adding cream. The liquid must be scalding his tongue but he doesn't seem to notice, and he remains silent, his eyes fixed on the table top, until Bella lets out a soft sigh.

"Wanna tell us what happened?"

He looks up and a multitude of emotions run over his face, too fast for me to really make them out - but the openness of it underlines my guess that he isn't playing any games right now.

"What usually happens, I guess. We had a fight, we both said a lot of things that needed out but that we probably never should have given voice to, and then she told me to pack my things and go, and never come back."

Bella frowns, then indicates his overnight bag and the backpack still sitting by the door.

"And that's all?"

"There weren't really that many things of me in her apartment. Left most of it in the storage space."

Where they went after I kicked him out, but he doesn't say that. Doesn't need to, either.

The realization of how little he had over with her strikes me as strange - it can't be more than a few books and some clothes. I try to remember the last time I've been over at Alice's, but I can't think of many personal belongings of his in sight. And suddenly his phrasing - her apartment -

registers. It doesn't seem as if it has felt like theirs to him for a while to be familiar with the term, casual as his sentence sounds.

Of course I can't really compare our condo here to that as Bella and I have moved in together into the uninhabited space from two separate living units, but even before that there has been the content of three large moving boxes of her stuff at the old house, only a two minutes walk from her studio.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but to me it seems as if Jazz has never made an effort to become a permanent fixture in Alice's home - or that she hasn't let him. Either option is just depressing.

"At least it's not all wet now," Bella tries to lighten the mood, but her words sound so hollow, echoing my own sentiments, that she goes on immediately. "Are you hungry? I can whip something up for you quick."

Jazz shakes his head, then stares at the cookies as if they are a bunch of poisonous snakes.

"I'm not hungry, thanks."

Silence falls, becoming awkward fast, and uncomfortable not long after that. I feel like I have to say something, anything, but what can I say that makes a difference?

"You know you can stay here as long as you need to."

My words seem to amaze him as he actually looks up at me, surprise clear in his eyes.

"Thanks, I really appreciate it, but you don't need to get all lost in your pity for me. It's just for a few days."

The light note of scorn in his voice makes anger rise in me, but before I can get in his face he shakes his head and buries his face in his hands.

"Sorry, I didn't mean it that way, it's just that I can't ... I can't fucking think!"

The sheer helplessness of that outburst dampens my ire again, and I can see that same mixture of sympathy and pain I feel mirrored on Bella's face.

He might not be the most welcome guest in this house, but that doesn't mean we're immune to the despair coming off of him in waves.

Still, on some level I'm not sympathetic with him, I'm even a bit gleeful at all this happening. Feels too much like karma being a vindictive bitch - and for once not kicking my ass but someone else's who might even have deserved it. And it's not like a break-up is the end of the world, something he seems to realize himself, judging by his words.

I might have smirked a little at those thoughts because Bella shoves her elbow into my side where Jazz can't see it, and I try hard not to react. The temptation is there to offer a scathing remark, but I refrain from it, more for her sake than his. Instead I try to steer the conversation into a direction that won't end with either of us biting each other's head off.

"I thought things were okay? I met Alice just a few days ago and she seemed pretty content with how things are."

She also sounded happy and unencumbered just minutes ago on the phone, but I don't add that, nor do I want Bella to know - yet. I'll probably tell her later when it's just the two of us, but she and Alice have never been really close, and I don't want her to lose the last bit of objectivity when she feels she has to throw in her lot with Jasper.

"Well, it was," he replies, but must have realized how insincere he sounds right away as he exhales loudly, leaning back, getting a little more comfortable. Bella in turn snuggles into my side and I pull her closer with my arm around her shoulder, wondering for a moment if our show of comfortably unity is cruel, but Jazz doesn't seem to notice or care.

"It was all okay if you consider the Dictatorship of Alice as something that should shape a relationship between two equals."

I can see Bella biting her lip hard, probably not to blurt out the first thing coming to her mind, so I relieve her of that pressure.

"Got tired of too much Gin, eh?"

Jazz seems surprised that either of us has noticed that - and still remembers - but it's hard to ignore the many instances in which Alice has put her own ideas up for them as a couple.

"Kind of. That and so many other things," he admits. His eyes flit across the room then, taking in everything around us, before they return to Bella and me. He still seems reluctant to look at us while talking, but the tension slowly leaks from his body.

"I know it sounds petty of me, but of late it has felt as if she's deliberately doing everything to show me how much she doesn't care for what I think or like. Really everything. She couldn't even care to pick her stupid clothes off the living room table!"

The clearly offended tone makes me snort even though I'm trying hard not to.

"What, her messiness is a personal offense to you?"

This drags up memories of years of fights over me leaving something lying around, memories that make me smile inside. Jazz has always been somewhat of a neat freak, and we've had real troubles over that. Back in the college dorm room we've shared that got as far as a few fist fights, and when we moved to the house, we've had to divide the space up into clear zones where either I had to pick up after myself immediately, or he was a step away from not being allowed entrance. I've never understood why Bella still finds it so amusing that I as a surgeon can feel comfortable with leaving a trail of junk wherever I go, while keeping the playroom about spotless. But at least she doesn't throw things at me anymore when I drink the orange juice straight from the bottle. Mellowing her down day by day.

I figure Jasper must be thinking long the same lines because he grins for a second, but then the grief swallows that up immediately.

"You have no idea."

"I actually do," Bella chimes in. "Remember, I've had to search my books and notes between her heaps of clothes everywhere for years, too. And I don't think that got any better since college."

He shakes his head.

"Nope. And her designing stuff and all that fabric just make it all a perfect mess. And I can't really say it wasn't organized because she always knew when I touched anything and got in my face immediately. In a way I'm glad she doesn't cook or else it would have been like living in a waste dump."

"She doesn't cook?" Bella echoes lamely, then frowns. "But I know her fridge is well stocked, she's usually dragging me along groceries shopping, griping at every pre-packaged meal I buy."

"Alice only eats non-processed food," Jazz explains, his voice changing from hollow to acerbic again. "And only organic food. And no fat or carbohydrates. Do you have any idea how much I miss noodles? She wouldn't even let me make mac and cheese!"

As if in answer to his own outburst his stomach growls, and Bella allows herself a soft smile.

"I can warm up some left-overs if you want them after all."

He starts to protest that he still isn't hungry, but Bella ignores him, extricating herself from me before she shimmies by Jazz to shorten her way to the fridge.

"I always ask myself, what's more polite, ass or crotch?" he murmurs, then snorts. Bella stops, her fingers wrapped around the handle of the fridge door, and smirks.

"As long as you don't start making soap in my bath tub, I don't give a shit."

"We don't have a bath tub," I chime in, making her laugh.

"Exactly."

Jazz is shaking his head then, clearly still amused, and a hint of the smile remains even when he sobers up.

"But seriously, I feel like I've been living in that flat from the guy from 'Fight Club' for the last months. It's like an alternate version of the Ikea catalogue.

Including those stupid glass stuff."

Getting a blue glass bowl from the cupboard, Bella dumps the contents of the by now hot microwave dish into it and brings it over to Jazz.

"You mean like these wonderful glass dishes with the little imperfections that prove that they were handcrafted by the hard-working indigenous people of where-ever?"

He just groans but accepts the food without another complaint, then starts shoveling down pasta as if he's been starving for weeks. Although technically if that were the case he would already be vomiting, I dryly remark to myself. We both must have been watching him with the same kind of fascination because he suddenly stops and glares at us, before he gives a single guffaw that is probably meant to be a laugh.

"It's good. Great, even. Thanks."

Bella smiles graciously, then, in a nearly idle motion pushes part of a towel sticking out from under a pillow back into hiding.

"Still, can't have been that bad. I mean I know Alice's decorating frenzy, but she's usually getting everything looking good."

"Yeah, but do you really need all these clever things? I mean who really buys a stupid table with a yin-yang symbol on it."

"Me for instance," Bella huffs as she pushes herself into my side again.

"And I still don't see what you have against the congeniality of the Omtyckt place mats, the Husvik lamps, the Pränt box or the Beata Orkide duvet covers."

I can't hold back a loud laugh when I see his horrified expression at her fluently counting off the different items on her fingers.

"Now you're just making that all up."

"Am not," she remarks, turning to me. "Just because you don't speak Ikea doesn't mean I'm just as illiterate."

Jazz and I share a look that can only be described as pained, while Bella goes on.

"But I admit, the Bredgrund shower curtain might have been a little too much even for Alice."

There's nothing either of us feels can be said to that, and Bella drops the topic after a moment, clearly pleased with herself.

"But seriously, neither Ikea Wonderland nor her leaving her stuff strewn all over the apartment can be the reason why you broke up."

"Of course not," Jasper admits, then puts the empty bowl back onto the table. "It's all taken together. She just," he sighs and lets the words drift off, then finally resumes. "It's as if she simply couldn't bear to let me decide anything, even for myself. You have no idea how furious she got when I told her I quit my job last week."

"Wait, you quit your job?" I ask, surprised, at the same time as Bella chimes in, "Didn't you want to wait till after Christmas?"

"You knew about this?" I go on to her when it's obvious that she did. Bella shrugs, and for a moment she looks uncomfortable before defiance makes her straighten her back.

"Yes, I knew that Jazz thought about quitting his job. And you would have, too, if you hadn't been acting like an ass around him all summer long."

The resulting silence is deafening, and even without him in the room I'm not sure if I would have known what to reply. As it is I keep it to glaring at her, although I have to admit that I'm more angry with myself than with her - and she's right, of course, which doesn't really help.

"Actually it's been a very recent development," Jazz tries to diffuse the situation, wise enough not to take sides in the silent argument between me and my girlfriend. "I mean I've been thinking about quitting for months, but they kicked out another thirty people and cut our salaries, and I figured before I earn minimal wages for a shitty job I'm better off trying my luck elsewhere. I've recently met two of my buds from college, and we've been talking about opening our own business together, and that last week was kind of the incentive I needed to throw my lot in with them. And am now in the lucky position that unless we get a few projects soon I'm pretty much completely broke."

Which explains why he has shown up here instead of getting a hotel room -

besides the obvious comfort he must he seeking. Sometimes being able to just talk to someone is worth more than a fat paycheck.

"What exactly do you plan to do with that business?"

He shrugs at my question.

"Pretty much whatever we can get, at the moment. Barry's planning to get us a shot at outsourced project planning, but I'd be happy with a few web design jobs, too."

I hesitate for a moment, but then speak what comes to my mind nevertheless.

"I know Beth is thinking about getting a new software for the online part of her shops, and the hospital homepage is so antiquated that I think we could actually be losing patients because of it. If you want to, I can ask around if they wanna get back for an offer from you."

Both Bella and Jazz seem surprised at my suggestions, and I can't help chuckle at the faces they are making.

"What?"

"Nothing," Bella huffs, then smiles. "I think that's a great idea. Don't you, Jazz?"

"Sure, thanks, that would be great if you could do that."

"You're welcome."

The idea that Jazz of all people could get to manage the part of Beth's website that deals with the non-standard sex shop items is rather amusing, but I keep that to myself. Money is money, and it's not like he doesn't know about it all. And except for me - and by extension, Bella - he never seemed to have a problem with anything kinky. Thinking of that dampens my mood considerably, but before the heavy silence can get worse, Bella again rides to the rescue.

"Anyway, maybe it was for the best that you had that fight? She probably didn't realize she was leaving you no freedom at all, and now that that's out in the open you can work on making it better from now on?"

"I don't really think that there's a chance of us staying together," he admits.

Both Bella and I are waiting for him to elaborate but he doesn't.

"Why?"

He shrugs at Bella's question, then for the first time really looks at us.

"Because I've never heard her say anything with so much hate and loathing in her voice. She wasn't just furious when she kicked me out, she calmed down right around the middle of our argument, and I could tell that she really believed what she was saying. She doesn't want me in her life anymore, not as her partner, nor lover, nor even as a friend. And the really sad thing is, I never saw it coming. Yes, it was clear we'd have to work out the small issues like the stupid food or her messiness, but whatever made her snap is routed way deeper. And nothing can change anything about the fact that I still love her, while she obviously doesn't feel the same for me."

There's nothing either of us can say to that, and Jazz lets his head fall into his hands again. Bella hesitates, but then reaches over and squeezes his shoulder, some of the pain so heavy in his words now on her face.

"It's gonna be okay," she murmurs, but there's not much conviction behind it, and she falls silent when she realizes that herself. We stay like that for another few minutes, but I can tell that Jazz is at the end of whatever strength is still left in him, so I gently nudge Bella to get up.

"I think we all need to catch some sleep, it's late."

Jazz nods, clearly relieved, then glances at his bag.

"Sure."

While he's busy in the downstairs toilet brushing his teeth over the small sink I stealthily extract the towels while Bella sets up the makeshift bed, and we go upstairs after wishing Jazz a good night. I don't think he will be sleeping all that much, and judging from the way Bella keeps tossing and turning next to me it doesn't look any different for either of us.

"Wanna fuck?"

Just as I've intended that makes her go still, and after a few seconds she glances over her shoulder at me.

"Oh, Edward, you're so romantic, please let's elope to Vegas and marry and have ten children in our white picket fence house!"

Grinning, I pull her closer until I'm pretty much keeping her immobilized with my body cocooned around hers while pretending to just cuddle with her.

She laughs and rubs her ass suggestively against my cock, but it seems more like teasing than real need. I even think I can get hard eventually if she keeps that up, but she stops soon, her loud sigh deafening in the silence of the room.

"This whole mess with Jazz and Alice is just too depressing. And I can't believe I'm saying this after how our evening has started, but I really don't want to have sex right now."

I kiss her neck softly in answer, then let my hold around her go slack. She still stays where she is, accepting the warmth and physical comfort I offer.

"They're not gonna resolve this, you know?" she finally speaks out the words we both know to be true.

"No, don't think so."

I feel her nod her own agreement.

"What did she say when you called her earlier?"

"Nothing."

Bella tenses a little.

"Like she won't say anything about their break-up?"

"No, as in nothing has happened. Everything's okay."

Her silence is telling, and I'm sure that if I could see her face I would find a frown knitting up her brows.

"You think he could be lying?"

The answer is easy.

"No."

"Huh," she grunts, and when I nudge her to go on, she finally turns around, searching my face for something. "I would have thought you'd assume he was if Alice told you she knew about nothing."

"I didn't ask her if they split up, just if anything was wrong. And she said no, everything is okay. Maybe it is, in the way of now it is okay?"

It's obvious Bella wants to add a few choice words to that assessment, but she doesn't. The following silence isn't uncomfortable as I just feel so close to her with the way she keeps looking at me, like we're both thinking the same things and don't really need to say it out loud for the other to know.

"Nothing we can really do about it, I guess."

"No," I agree. "Just be the friends they need us to be. And if they don't need us, well, then not."

Thinking that is one thing, but speaking it out loud makes me grow cold inside. It's as if Alice has shut that door between us once again, and the only thing I'm really surprised about is how easily I can accept that. I don't like it, even hate it, but there's nothing I can do about that, either.

"Maybe she just needs time. You know, I don't think Alice ever really had to deal with something that didn't go the way she wanted it to go. She never had to deal with herself and how she reacts in such a situation. Maybe that's all just that outburst that needed to happen for ages and she's shutting everyone out until she can work through it. People sometimes do stupid things in situations like that. Like propose to you or something."

I smile at Bella's last remark, and in return she raises one hand to stroke my cheek softly.

"Yeah, who would ever do something like that?"

"Someone really desperate. And I have to admit, I'm not sure if I wouldn't have acted that much different than her if I hadn't run off and got some time to collect my thoughts and straighten out my priorities before I saw you again. As much as I want to call her a stupid bitch, in a way I can understand her. I just don't get what's been festering so badly that it made her explode like that."

I know I'm a man of many faults, but lying to myself has never been one of them. I guess that's the reason why I don't really understand her sympathy with Alice, but I'm happy to just accept that as a fact and not dwell on it.

"I'm the wrong guy to ask about that. All this hit me as out of the blue as you."

"Except for the part where it was obvious from the cunt she's been acting like whenever it was the four of us out together that this all had to blow up in their faces eventually."

I mull that over in my thoughts, and while I have to admit that I wouldn't have phrased it like that, Bella does have a point.

"Maybe."

"Or he's a way better actor than either of us gives him credit for," Bella jokes, but her eyes hold more doubt than I feel over his motives.

"You think? Because if that's the case we should nominate him for an Academy Award."

Now it's her turn to seem surprised, but she gets over that quickly.

"Maybe I'm just wanting him to be lying. But to me it feels like there's so much more to this than he told us."

"Well, he didn't really tell us anything, except that she kicked him out and things weren't going as well as they should have."

"True," she admits, but the frown remains on her face. Then the set of her jaw turns stubborn, or at least determined, and her eyes remain fixed on mine.

"Something like that can't happen to us, right? You wouldn't just eat something up and let it fester and grow until it's unsolvable?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"Promise me."

I'm a little miffed that she needs that reassurance, but I can see how important it is for her, so I indulge her.

"I promise, I will never keep anything from you that could turn into such a disaster. Even if I know it will hurt you, I will tell you and be completely honest with you, because I know in the end, it will hurt a lot less than when it all comes out later in a fight. And I know you'll do the same."

She nods, still serious, but then a smile spreads on her face.

"Speaking of things that might become a problem ..."

"Yes?"

Her gaze turns downright shrewd.

"If it's getting over fourteen days I'm so gonna safeword my ass out of this hellhole of frustration and fuck myself raw on your cock! Just so you know!"

Her words - and also her forceful sincerity - make me laugh, to the point where she's a step away from being offended.

"I really mean it!"

"I know you do," I reply, then give her the most stern look I can manage, which is probably still more playful than fierce. "I knew all that compliance and meekness couldn't last that long."

Bella huffs but can't hide a hint of chagrin at having gotten caught.

"So what, I'm selfish, I need to come eventually! This whole spiel wouldn't work if I could just go on living in frustration forever!"

"That would just be boring," I admit, then lean down to kiss her roughly.

"Tomorrow evening, seven sharp, I expect you kneeling in the playroom, and you better be asking me to punish you for that little diatribe just now."

She laughs into my mouth, not even in the least bit frightened.

"I'd love to, but you know we can't."

"Says who?"

"Says that card over there on the dresser. Or have you already forgotten our appointment?"

I actually have, with all that drama that our guest has brought with him, but now I know again why I've wanted to make sure that she won't go to bed unsatisfied again tonight.

"Shit, that's tomorrow?"

Bella laughs, then lightly kisses my throat, her lips vibrating with her chuckle.

"Yes, tomorrow. Or are you getting cold feet?"

"Nope, just forgot."

"So, no playroom fun at seven?"

"Doesn't look like it, no."

"Too bad," she retorts, her laugh leaving me guessing if she's really relieved or also disappointed in parts. Then she turns over so that her back is once again pressed against my chest, and before long I can hear her breath even out as she falls asleep.

No playtime, as it seems, because tomorrow my beautiful girlfriend and I are going to get inked.