"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.Chapter 23There's one thing I've never expected I will think of myself - that I'm a wimp.But today I'm obviously proven wrong.It all starts pretty relaxed - we've been to the tattoo studio twice before to see the artists' works firsthand and talk about our designs. While Bella has been fussing over hers together with Mandy, the owner's daughter who Bella instantly connected with, I've decided to pretty much wing it. Carlos, the owner himself, is an acclaimed free hand artist, and I trust him to get the dragon on the canvas of my left upper arm right.It's weird how downright giddy I feel, but for obvious reasons I can't be as exuberant about it as Bella is - at breakfast she's been pretty much unable to concentrate on anything else, and when we meet up at the tattoo studio after work she seems a step away from squealing with delight. I still wonder if part of it is due to Jazz not hanging around, as he chooses to go running instead of eating with us.As she and Mandy have the design all planned and already drawn up, the stencil is quickly transferred to Bella's right shoulder over her shoulder blade, and after a last check that everything is where it belongs, Mandy sets to work. Bella barely winces as she remains hunched over her chair, looking serene and nearly relaxed except for the constant chatter going on between her and the woman wielding the tattoo gun. She has decided to get a heavily shaded Calla lily, no extra colors added, but the outline alone promises to yield a stunning, elegant flower to soon bloom on her back.Meanwhile Carlos is busy sketching the dragon on my arm, and we don't really talk that much - then again I get the impression he's equally amused about Bella and his daughter giggling and laughing away like old friends, and I don't feel like breaking his concentration. It's fascinating to watch him draw a few lines that seem only like a natural emphasis of my muscles at first, then keep building up on them until I have a red penciled fierce predator curled around itself all over the outside of my arm, from the shoulder down to nearly my elbow."About what you had in mind?" Carlos asks, and I nod."Even better. Let's do this."When he starts mixing the colors I'm still somewhat calm, but from the moment he turns on the tattoo gun, I feel my cool slipping away. And damn, that stuff is uncomfortable.At first I try telling myself that the feeling will pass - after all it's quite ridiculous that I of all people should have problems with a little pain - but it doesn't. In fact it only gets worse when he moves up from the fleshier part of my arm to the bones at the shoulder, and I feel myself break out in cold ysweat all over. For half an hour that goes mostly unnoticed, until Bella asks Mandy to take a break because she has to use the restroom - and when she returns and looks over to us to check the progress, she gives a strangled guffaw that doesn't sit well at all with my ego."Everything alright with you?" she asks, her voice unable to hide the laughter she tries to hold back, and at her words Mandy of course turns to us, too. Her critical gaze rakes me, then she shrugs."Maybe you should take a break. Eat and drink something, you'll feel better in a few minutes."Carlos stops after finishing the next line, then glances at my face."Dude, you really are pale.""I'm fine," I hiss between clenched teeth, then give up when I realize just how ridiculous I'm acting. Bella bats her lashes at me as she sits down again, then ignores my glare when she resumes their chat with, "You know, normally he's not such a wuss."Oh girl, you've got it comin'!Carlos is nice enough to pretend he needs to call another client when I'm done jugging down a can of coke so I get a little more respite. When we resume our session I'm still not exactly enjoying myself but the discomfort is more tolerable; seeing the tattoo slowly come to life on my arm is helping a lot, too, and I can't help thinking that it would still be worth it even if it hurt ten times as much.With the head start they've had from Bella's tattoo being completely planned already when we got here, and the whole piece being smaller than my dragon, it's no surprise Mandy is done long before her father. After giving Bella a short respite Carlos and Mandy switch places to include the parts Bella and I have agreed on before - a stylized black dragon soon circles the stem of her lily, while my half-finished dragon clutches a lily in the talons of his left front leg. Each of us will now bear a part of the other with us, wherever we go, come what may.Once Carlos takes over again, Mandy and Bella leave the room, the tattoo artist murmuring something about showing her the rest of the studio. There are no other customers left as it's very close to closing time already, and to me at least it seems as if Mandy is aching for a smoke.Finally on our own Carlos clears his throat, then chuckles softly."It's usually the slight girls who are the toughest. Don't let her get to you, you're handling this well. Just last week I've had to stop after twenty minutes because a guy couldn't handle it anymore. Not a problem, we all have our good and bad days."I try to take that with the humor the situation deserves, but my ego is still bruised."Sure. But it's a little embarrassing."He gives a noncommittal grunt before he sets to switching colors one last time, adding green highlights to the blue scaled beast."Guess that depends. You one of the guys who can't handle his girl being better at anything than him?""Oh, I know she's better than me in pretty much everything.""But?""I'm not used to being the squeamish one."Carlos seems to weigh my words as he cleans up some of the residual ink.The tissue halts for a moment at the faint scar close to my elbow, right next to the lily."Single-tail?"His question surprises me, but a glance at his knowing look he's giving me makes me shake my head, laughing."No, bullwhip.""Ah," he wisely surmises, then gets back to working on the scales. I wonder if I should say more, and part of me feels the need to clarify that I'm more comfortable with being the one on the other end of the whip, but then I figure I might as well let him believe that Bella beats me up on a daily basis.Eventually we're done, too, and I take my time admiring the piece of art now covering my arm. The animal looks ready to jump right off my skin, sinewy and strong, while at the same time he is ready to protect his precious flower. I just love it, and when Bella and Mandy rejoin us, I'm nearly as jumpy as she's been all day to show it to her. So much so that it takes me a full minute to realize that she's a little white in the face herself, but I figure that is most likely from her tatt hurting more now that it's done than it did in the process of creation.