“I mean it takes a lot for two guys who know each other that closely and who're both not entirely gay to share a girl, and fuck each other. Sex complicates things, usually, but it worked, somehow. Or at least I thought it did. Now I just wish that I'd never let him talk me into having even one threesome with you.”

Bella cocks her head and her expression becomes unreadable, but she motions me to go on, so I don't dwell on that point.

“Don't get me wrong, I know that what we did hurt you a lot. And I'm glad that you managed to get over it. But you weren't the only one who was hurt that day.”

My voice becomes weirdly thick, but I force myself to go on and keep eye contact with her.

“I told you what nearly killed me was the pain in your eyes. It did. Seeing what I'd done to you was the worst thing that I ever felt, and I put all my efforts into taking that pain away again, any way I could think of. It was a problem that had a resolution, and we did resolve those issues, and I agree, in a twisted way the whole fuck up brought us closer together.

“But that aside, he hurt me, too. He abused my weakness, he violated my trust, of all the people in the world he was one of those who really knew me, and he used that knowledge to get to me. I could barely deal with that already, but then you had your talk with him, and the things you told me he said about me -”

I have to stop there to swallow, and for a moment I just want to curl into a ball and let go, but I can't, so I go on.

“I've come to terms with who I am and what I want a long time ago. I don't always like it, but I accept it. I know you love me not in spite of all that, but because of the man I am. And from all the people I call friends, Jazz is the one who knows all the gritty details, and who has known them longer than anyone else. I always thought he accepted me for who I am – with his usual jerk attitude, but you know how he is, he's only serious when it's bad, and that's never been the case. I mean I know he doesn't agree with everything, I know he's very uncomfortable about some of the things he knows I did, but I never thought that he only played that whole acceptance thing and in fact thinks I'm barely a step away from some kind of abusive monster.”

By the end of my speech my voice is only a hoarse whisper, and the look of compassion on Bella's face nearly makes me come undone. If we hadn't been fighting before, I would likely be a sobbing heap in her lap, but all the things we've spewed at each other tonight keep me moderately together.

“I don't think he really meant all that. It was just his last attempt to drive us apart.”

“But it makes sense!” I cry, my anger back in full force. “Back when the whole deal with Chelsea went down he barely said a thing, only called us a bunch of weirdos once, but ever since we hooked up he hasn't shut up about how rough I'm with you, that I'm pushing you too much, that he can't watch me do all that to you. He thinks you're some kind of fragile flower that can't speak up for herself and that what I do is borderline abusive! Why do you think we didn't do anything even remotely kinky in the last two threesomes? And don't tell me he's just not into it because I know he likes it rough, I've had plenty of opportunity to see him in action, and until it was about you, he's never had any objections to throw a girl onto the bed and fuck her within an inch of her life!”

I have no idea why that bothers me so much as it plays into my hands, after all it was one of Bella's reasons to be happy the whole group thing was over because she felt that the dynamics were off. Her face is back to that unreadable mask, but I figure that's mostly because she simply doesn't like it when I talk about what we were up to before her, which I understand. I normally try not to mention it, but she deserves to know the truth.

She still hasn't said a thing, so I sigh and go on, trying to somehow put a conclusion to my rant.

“Maybe you're right, maybe I need to deal with this shit. I think I just need time to get over it, forget what went down and learn to ignore the rest. Don't tell me that's unhealthy, or denial, because I'm not denying anything here. I trusted him, he abused my gullibility. That he made me feel so helpless in all this like only Tanya before him doesn't help, but what's done is done. I have no intention of forgiving him, because in my eyes he doesn't deserve forgiveness, and he didn't do anything to indicate he even cares whether I forgive him or not. But don't expect me to be happy when you keep putting your need to fraternize with him over me. I will never tell you not to talk to him, or meet with him, but I think it would be the best thing if I simply stay away from him.”

Bella isn't happy with what I've told her, but she finally nods.

“I understand that. It's just so sad. I mean you were so close. If I hadn't come over that Sunday afternoon you'd likely still be-” I lean forward and quickly shush her up with a finger over her lips.

“Don't say that. You know that I'll always choose your over anyone else. I love you, and you're my life. If I could I would undo all the things I've done to hurt you, but I will always be grateful that I ended up with you. And I'll never let you go, so you better don't grow tired of me any time soon.” She smiles at that, but it's a weak gesture and clearly doesn't come from her heart.

“I don't intend to. Ever. Come back to bed with me now?” I hesitate for a moment, but when I see the sadness in her eyes increase I nod and gather my things up.

“Sure.”

Bella takes my free hand in hers and leads me back upstairs, where we cuddle together until she falls asleep a few minutes later. I wait until she's out cold before I extract my arm from under her head and leave the bedroom as silently as possible.

I have no idea how much time passes while I stand in front of the windows downstairs and stare at nothing. The sun comes up and shines through the few clouds that still remain from last night's rain showers, and everything looks clean and fresh and new. I wish I could feel the same about myself, watching the city wake up and greet the new day is weirdly depressing me.

I finally slump back into my bed where exhaustion overwhelms me, but while I can try to ignore my nagging brain while I'm awake, my dreams are full of things I wish I didn't have to remember.

Chapter 11

I have to wake up a lot sooner than I want to, which is no surprise as I only got into bed again five hours ago. Bella is moderately chipper this morning but trying not to be too obnoxious about it. I guess she feels like our talk last night has been some kind of important break through or something.

Maybe she's right, I can't say.

What I am is raw. I'm still feeling vulnerable, exposed, and that makes me edgy. I know it's stupid because Bella is the one person in my life I know I can trust with almost everything, and she's more than just accepting, but that doesn't change that I don't want to be weak.

The air between us is a little tense as if we're both stepping lightly around each other, trying to make sure not to unsettle the balance. There are several things I want to ask her, like what she thinks about my decision to try to simply avoid Jasper, but I'm not sure if now is the time for further discussions. I know the question will upset her, and I think she needs a little time to think things over and come to her own conclusions. I'm not delusional, I know she will try to hold on to this friendship, for whatever reason, but maybe we can find a common ground we can both live with.

Things definitely pick up over breakfast outside on the terrace, fresh air and sunshine chasing away the cobwebs that cloud my mind. Once we're done eating Bella's delicious pancakes she simply crawls onto my lap and we spend the next half hour kissing, then making sweet love right there on the new garden chair without bothering to undress fully. I lose myself in the sweet caresses and passionate kisses, needy for her – her taste, her scent, the warmth of her skin – rather than my own satisfaction. It doesn't feel like make-up sex, more as if she's comforting me further, knowing exactly what I need right now.

I love her, and she clearly loves me, but somehow this leaves me sad rather than happy. Not that she loves me, of course, but the fact that I should be more worthy of that love while I'm so obviously not.

I have to leave for work a short while later, and I'm nearly glad I can occupy my mind with something other than what happened yesterday.

Several hours later I'm trying to digest the health hazard that is our canteen food. No one I know and want to talk to is on break right then so I get my phone out instead of undergoing the tedium that is fraternizing with the enemy. I've never been that good with making new friends, that whole child prodigy and studying rather than doing sports thing doing its own to kill my social skills. I stare at my contact list – normally I would call Bella, but my call log is full to the brim with her name and I don't want to seem clingier than I actually am. Second place has always been either Alice or Jazz, but in the light of recent events I'm not keen on talking to either of them. So I call the next one in line – Rose.

She picks up on the second ring, and the first thing I hear is her shouting, rather loudly, at Emmett to please kill the sound of the playstation. My ears are still ringing when she finally acknowledges me.

"Hey, E, whatcha up to?"

"Hi Rose. Up until you were trying to deafen me I was taking a break from work, but now I might as well drag my sorry carcass over to the next otolaryngologist."

Her answer is her signature throaty laugh, followed by a sound that I presume stems from her biting into a gherkin.

"Oh, you think your slinging of fancy medical words impresses me? Bite me. You call on a Saturday evening and you better be prepared to hear some background noise! Be happy you didn't call while we were getting it on, with my whale ass that's a tremendous undertaking by now and produces all kinds of squeaks and pants." She stops, and the laughter returns to her voice. "Too much information?"

"Rose, I'm a doctor, you have to try a lot harder to weird me out."

"Okay, well then it will doubtlessly interest you that of late I'm always farting when Em is fucking me hard from behind, because quite frankly I can't really draw my knees up to my girnormous boobs anymore and -"

I try to just blank out the following recount while I chase a few errant peas across my plate.

"Doubtlessly this is very crucial information that you couldn't have lived without obtaining another day. Right, E?"

"You know me so well, it's daunting."

Again she laughs, and more gherkin munching ensues.

"So why are you really calling?"

"What makes you think this isn't just a social call? After all it's been a while since we talked."

"Sure, E, delude yourself. But one of these days it's gonna creep up on you and I'm sure I don't want to be around when all your shit comes back to haunt you. If it isn't already doing that, which I presume it is, in turn being the reason for your call. Am I about right?"

I hesitate, and that seems to be enough of an answer for her.

"Fuck, Edward, just spill it. You know that of all the people around I'm the one least prone to judge you for whatever you feel keeps dragging on your soul."I want to protest but swallow those words before they can escape my mouth. She's right, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. My recent talk with Beth told me plainly that she'll sooner or later drag everything out of me, and while non-judgmental in so many things, Beth wouldn't understand why I can't talk about some things. To her, I'm just creating my own problems. Maybe I am. A little late I realize that Rose is, once again, the voice of wisdom. Probably a good thing she and Emmett hooked up so they can sass each other to death, between all the aforementioned noise production."I know."My simple admission seems to stun her into silence, and seconds tick by before I hear her resume munching."Awesome that you haven't lost all of your sense along the way. So what's bothering you?"I sigh, then I tell her what happened yesterday - trying at first to keep it all in the chronological order and without the inevitable subjective comments, but of course I fail. I somehow manage to keep my voice down and not curse Jazz six ways to Sunday, but I can tell that some of my more acerbic expressions cause a few highly amused snorts from Rose."Ah, I see," she surmises when I'm done, while I hear the fridge open and close in the background. "Guess that's not something you can fuck out of your system, feeling betrayed by your girl when all she's attempting to do is making it right for everyone around."I try to keep my mouth shut, but of course I can't."She shouldn't try to please everyone. Just me."I know I'm calling righteous anger down on myself with statements like that, but Rose only laughs at me."Yeah, you know, if you can talk her into going for the 24/7 thing so you can forbid her to ever talk to Jazz again you'd be rid of the whole problem.Wouldn't that be the easy way out?""Because she'd tell me to fuck off and never come near her again? I guess."Her mirth grates a little, but I know that Rose only means well."Good to see you at least know sometimes when you're acting like a total ass. But to be serious again, can you deal with the whole situation? Deal with Bella hanging out with Jazz while you're not there to make sure she doesn't do anything you don't want her to do?"The idea is ridiculous to me, but her words nevertheless succeed in planting the smallest seed of doubt and suspicion."I know she wouldn't do anything like that. Even if she might slam it in my face when we're fighting, I don't think there's anyone who she'd be less interested in having an affair with than him.""So it's really just that you feel like she should see reason and cut her ties with him because you don't want to see his lying, manipulative ass anymore? Sheesh, Edward, grow a pair! Might as well buy Bella another strap-on because I think you just got the anatomy for it!"The mention of my girl and her new toy have the opposite effect on me than Rose probably intended, but I know what she meant by that."Is it too much to ask that she at least sees what she, and almost everyone else, is doing to me?"I know I sound whiny when I say that, but the damage is done. Rose is quiet for a few moments as if she is debating with herself what to tell me, and when she talks again she's no longer taunting me."I think she really didn't see it. You know how Bella wants to live in her perfect world where you can be the love of her life and Jazz her best friend.Don't hold it against her that she'd rather be a little ignorant than tear herself apart because she can't do miracles. But now you opened her eyes and I'm sure she will consider her actions better from now on. She loves you, and I'm sure she really meant it that she'd always choose you over him. Isn't that enough for you?"Thinking about her words, I come to the usual conclusion that Rose should have gone into psychology rather than photography, but then she'd probably drive half of her clients to commit suicide with her insensitivity."Do you think it should be? That easy, just be happy and forget about what happened?""Not forget, E, forgive. Her, not him, I mean. Let her be something more than the clingly, dependent eye candy on your arm. You love her for the person she is, well, Jazz formed her like no one else. If you cut his influence off, will you still want the Bella that's left behind? You can't separate them without her hurting, can you say for yourself that you don't care? That you'd rather have her hurting but with you as the only man in her life, or you swallowing some of your pride so she can be happy with you the only man in her bed?"Rose's tone tells me already that she knows that she has won. Keeping Bella from harm is the one argument that will beat everything else. And it's only then that I really see what Bella meant last night. She loves me enough to do what Rose just asked me to do - put her own happiness behind that of the person she cherishes above everything else - and I know I can't ask of her to do that. As much as everything in me is screaming to have Bella all to myself and completely removed from the influence of that bastard, I know I would put myself at the same step as him in doing so. It would be a manipulative move, aimed to alleviate my own insecurities while ignoring what she really wants. And I'd rather kill myself than do that.Again."You still there?" Rose asks, her voice now soft. I nod, then sigh when I realize she can't see it."Sure.""I guess your silence means my words have struck a chord.""Or ten," I agree. She chuckles, but it's a sad sound."Guess that's what you needed? And the reason why you kept me from keeping myself well fed?""Like you ever stopped eating those gherkins!"Now she's laughing again, but when she goes on her voice is still full of compassion."I can only say so much before it gets cheesy, but I think you need to get your priorities straight. Letting her see the big picture in all its gritty details was the first step. Now the ball's in her court, she has to make up her mind.If you keep pushing her you'll always wonder if her decision was really her own. Do you want to live for the rest of your life wondering if what you perceive as happiness is only a compromise she made because you're more important to her than her own happiness is? I know, it's a stalemate, either way you're going to have to bite the bullet, but you know you got yourself into this situation when you got a little more gropey than you should have."I hate it that of all the people, the woman I least want to fuck is the one who sees right through my shit. Or maybe that's the reason she has that uncanny knack."Thanks, Rose, I think I needed to hear that."Another snort."Sure you did, sugar. And you know, if you ever feel like wanting to know my real opinion, you have but to ask."She's told me that very thing several times since the shit hit the fan, and I have to admit, today I'm more tempted than ever to take her up on her offer. While judgmental as hell, Rose has been oddly objective about the whole mess, helping me sort through the repercussions, but until now I've never asked her what she really thinks about the problem that started all this."Do you think I need to hear that, too?"Rose hesitates, and the following sigh doesn't really sound very reassuring."Let me be frank, Edward, as things are right now I don't think either of you would accept my opinion, so for the sake of our friendship, no. But if you're curious, I'm happy to impart more wisdom on you."My beeper goes off and answers the question for me."As much as I'm tempted, I need to go. As always, thanks.""You're welcome! After all your sex life is more entertaining than any sitcom I've watched in the last ten years!"I laugh and am about to shut my phone off, but hesitate."You still there?"