"Don't be ridiculous, of course you can stay with us."

Her words tear me out of my stupor, and it's foremost elation that I feell- not about him staying, I'm kind of indifferent about that, but just the fact that her struggle with herself from a few weeks ago seems to be a thing of the past.

She still looks a little hesitant when she glances over to me, though, and I can see that she's starting to regret blurting that invitation out before asking me, yet her words pretty much sum up what I would eventually have come up with myself. And finally my brain kicks into gears again

"Come on in. I'll get the spare blankets from upstairs."

I don't know why I feel like giving them a few minutes of privacy - probably because Jazz looks ready to break down any moment and I don't think he'll appreciate me hanging around for that - but I head upstairs while I grab my phone in passing. I have to admit, my stomach feels a little queasy the longer my mind has to mull over the situation, but just as Bella is quick to overcome any resentments when her friend needs her, I feel like I'm obliged to do the very same. And all things considered, he still is my friend.

Only why it takes me three whole minutes to dial Alice's number is beyond me - she is my friend, and I'm sure that whatever happened between them must have left her a mess - although I get my answer seconds after she picks up.

"Edward? Why are you calling at this ungodly hour, is something wrong?"

Irritation and surprise are warring inside me, and I'm barely able to stop myself from asking her what the fuck is going on. But it's kind of obvious.

No tears in her voice, not even a sniffle, as if there isn't a good reason why I would want to call her dripping all over my living room.

"Ah, nothing, I just remembered I wanted to ask you ..." Ask her what? My mind is blank, so I blurt out the first thing I can think of. "There was a change in shifts at the hospital, I won't be able to make our dinner date this week. Do you mind if we, ah, skip it?"

"Of course not, dufus!" she laughs - actually laughs - then I hear her smack her lips. "I don't know how Bella does it, not getting frustrated with your work hours. But nevermind, it's okay."

"Sure, great," I offer lamely, then finally get my shit back together. I know Alice is the queen of denial sometimes, always was, but I know she won't lie to me outright.

"Everything alright with you?"

"Yeah, why shouldn't it be?"

She even sounds normal, not strained or stressed or close to tears, and that's when I realize that I've been wrong. A moment the betrayal hurts but then my emotional defenses come up, and I force myself not to care. I would have taken her side in this, whatever it is, but if she doesn't want my loyalty, I'm not beyond giving Jasper the benefit of the doubt when I listen to his side of things.

"Don't know, it was just a question. Have a nice evening."

"You too!"

Her chipper tone grates, and even after ending the call I stare down at the phone in my hand until the display winks out. A sound behind me makes me look up, and I find Bella teetering at the door, clearly reluctant to enter the room.

"Alice?"

"Yeah."

Even to me my voice sounds flat, and I can see the resulting worry lines appear on Bella's forehead.

"Are you mad? At me, I mean, for telling Jazz he can stay? But he's looking like shit, and outside it's a nightmare and -"

"I'm not mad at you," I assure her, then fold my arms around her when she steps up to where I'm still sitting on the bed. Burying my face in her stomach I inhale her scent, mixed with the unmistakable note of her arousal and the abundance of lube, while I force myself to calm down.

"It's okay," I finally grunt, then turn my head up so she can see the sincerity on my face. "Of course he can stay, he's our friend, if he needs us he can depend on us. If you're okay with him hanging around, that is."

The flash of relief on her face is priceless, although it disappears after a few moments. When she doesn't say anything else I let go of her, then step up to the closet to get the blankets and pillow stored in the upper compartment.

"Come on, let's find out just what's going on. Because I somehow feel like there's more to this than Jazz and Alice just having a minor disagreement."

Bella shrugs, her face carefully blank, as she follows me out of the room, and after my call with Alice, I can't help feel the same undercurrent of resentment she must be trying so hard to hide.

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.