She is silent for a while, but I can tell from the way her lips keep moving haphazardly that she's trying to find the right words.

"Things between me and him would never have worked out. He should have seen that. Heck, you should have seen that! Friends with benefits who fuck every once in a while when we're both horny and no one else is at hand, sure, but not living together, not being a couple, not trying to build a family and get old together! I kept trying to make him see that but he wouldn't, I did every insane thing I could think of to make him realize that we wouldn't work, but it was as if he had made it the center of his world. He was obsessed with that idea of us, and it killed me every damn day to see him like that.

"For a while I was hoping that Bella would drag him out of it, but for once she didn't act like she had to save him from me. And you, you weren't helping with your moping around and hostility, changing moods so quickly it gave me whiplash when I might have tried to talk to you. I was reaching for the last straw when I tried to find a connection between us again, but I couldn't go on with that, I knew you'd hate me for what I said to Jazz when I broke up with him. Had to, or else he would have found another reason to try to hang on. Do you have any idea how hard it is to repel someone you know loves you and who you, on some level, love back?"

She's crying by then but only glares at me when I start to get up, so I remain sitting and just watch her as she blows her nose and wipes her eyes until she can talk with a shaky voice again.

"I really don't want your sympathy, I did what I did and I won't justify it with any stupid excuses. I got what I deserve, although it was something different than I expected. I got to finally see through all my own bullshit and turn my life around. If getting there cost me my closest friends, I can't change that. I really am so sorry for what I did and what I said, but it's done, and I have to move on. If it helps, I never had any problems with the choices you made, or your sexuality. I want no part of it, I don't understand it, and I guess because of that, aspects of it repel and frighten me. But I know that both you and Jazz are good guys, and if that's your thing, it can't be that bad.

"I'm happy for you if you think things will work out for you both with Bella, and I wish you all the best. Yes, I'm resentful of your happiness, but you've earned it, and I think that, given enough time and effort on my side, I will either make things work with Nate, or find someone else. I won't ask you to forgive me because I won't believe you if you say you do. I'm not that person anymore, and I would love to get to know who you've grown up to be if you want to see who I really am, but if not, I will learn to live with that, too."

I hadn't expected to hear something like that from her ever, and to honor her honesty I don't say anything, but instead answer her previous question, the weight already lifting from my heart.

"I don't think there's anything in the world you could say or do that would make Bella consider you a friend. You ridiculed her twice in front of everyone, you hurt the two people she cares about the most, and to her way of thinking, you've already fucked up your second chance."

Alice takes that in without showing any emotion, then nods for me to go on.

"Jazz – I really don't know," I sigh. "He's hurt, damaged even, but I think he's healing well and finally got the message you were trying to make him see. I don't know if he could try to be friends with you, or would even want to. I know he doesn't hate you. I think he still loves you."

I try to be as honest in my assessment as possible, even if the words pain me. Not just because of the sympathy I always feel for him, but mostly because I think I would have acted the same way. Somehow it rankles that while there's nothing there between them anymore, he still wants her on some level or another. While she tries to remain indifferent, I see the pain in her eyes, and her tone is dejected when she answers.

"Guess that's more than I could have hoped for. And you?"

That answer is much easier to find, if not exactly easy to give.

"I think I'd like to get to know the new Alice. She reminds me of someone I used to know, but kind of lost contact with over the last few years."

She offers me a weak smile, mirroring my own sentiments perfectly.

"Even if your two plus ones, or is that your plus twos? Whatever, even if they probably disapprove of our association?"

"No one tells me who to see and talk to, and that doesn't change whether I live with one person or two. They'll have to get over it. And I know that eventually they will."

I guess the old Alice would have squeed and hugged me now, but the more sober version of her now leaves it at that sad smile.

"Well then, how about we meet for coffee next week again? And if things work out, I might beg you to look after the cat when I'm in London. I can't really leave him alone and I don't know too many people who I would want to give the keys of the apartment to, either. Your mom already offered but it's nearly an hours' drive for her, and Rose can't really go outside with the baby when it's so cold."

"Sure, just tell me and I'll come over."

"Great. Thanks."

And just like that, we run out of things to talk about. A first for us, but without her constant need to put herself in the limelight, we'll probably need a little time to find a slightly different dynamic in our conversations.

Still, things are more or less comfortable when we hug good-bye – a warm, close body contact hug, not the air kisses she used to give – and I leave her with the cat on the couch and let myself out. In the hallway, just after donning my coat, I notice a picture frame face down on the mantle of the wardrobe. It's the only one left in the whole apartment, another weird thing I've noticed as she had pictures everywhere before. Curious, I pick it up and turn it over. It's a picture of the four of us – me, Bella, Alice and Jazz –

from our vacation together in Mexico. Must have been taken on the last day as I'm badly sunburned with freckles all over my nose, Bella is sporting a killer tan, Alice's hair isn't impeccably styled, and Jazz is still looking vaguely hungover.

I don't know why but I feel compelled to stand it up on the wardrobe, leaving it there like that.

Xxx

The talk with Alice has left me drained, but oddly happy at the same time. I keep mulling over what she said on the way back home, trying to come up with a good explanation as to why I didn't catch on to any of this, but I come up blank. I've been too concerned with my own bullshit to deal with hers, and in the end it doesn't matter as she should have been able to do it on her own, or ask for my help outright.

Seeing that picture in the hallway also made me realize that all of us have been through a journey, each in our own way. Not long after the picture was taken, I fell for Tanya, Bella wavered around until she convinced herself that I would never want her, Alice turned away from all of us because she thought – rightly so – that we were a bunch of immature children, and Jazz dragged along a girl named Brenda. In a way we could have spared ourselves all the years of emotional pain, because a mere six months after that picture was taken we got about to where we are now, minus a lot of experience and a few funny anecdotes, but still.

Somehow that makes me sad at all the wasted time we would never get back, but at the same time it solidifies my conviction that we'll make it work.

And by "we" I mean Bella, Jazz and myself. Whether things with Alice work out or not is out of my control, and no longer the festering wound that has been plaguing me for months.

All that mulling over old times leaves me in a surprisingly good mood, at least until I get home and can already hear Bella and Jazz before I even reach the door. They are at it again – fighting, and only fighting, as I've had to find out the hard way. For a moment the temptation is strong to just turn around and come back in an hour when hopefully the worst has blown over. Then I can pick up the pieces and try to mend things with sweet words and not-so-sweet fucking, but I force myself to take those last steps and unlock the door.

I don't see them in the living room, but they are loud enough that their voices reach me as they keep shouting at each other.

"How is it possible that you're such an idiot?" Bella accuses Jazz, then interrupts his fleeting attempt at a response. "I mean, you know how he is!

The guy who needed five years and God knows how many pep talks from you to even 'fess up to me that he wanted to fuck me! You can't really expect him to have changed any in the past months!"

Oh great, they're fighting about me. My curiosity piqued, I remain leaning against the entry door, attempting not to make a sound as I strain my ears trying to pick up every word they utter.

Jazz snorts.

"Trust me, it took more like a week and you slinking around in a tiny, white bikini for him to realize that!"

"Glad you're so insightful when it comes to others but not to yourself!" she screams back. "Don't you see that this is not going to just resolve itself? I can see how much you're hurting, and by proxy that's hurting me, too! He won't change, he won't get his head out of his ass, now even less when he's got your cock shoved up there on a regular basis. You need to talk to him!"

"But I can't!" comes the pained yet angry answer.

"Then I will!"

"No! You can't!"

"Says who? You don't really know me if you think I have a problem telling him that -"

"Please don't then! This is my business, not yours. I'm so fed up with you thinking that you're Little Miss Congeniality! You don't know the solution to every fucking problem in the universe!"

That shuts her up, but only for a moment.

"And maybe I'm fucking sick of watching either you or him moping around! I can't remember the last time when we had a whole weekend without any drama or mood swings that we didn't spend fucking from sunup to sundown, and then some!"

"Yeah, maybe that's because the only way you shut up is when you're sucking on someone's cock!"

"You didn't just say that!"

"Yeah, I did, and I can say it again if you don't shut up -"

"You don't get to tell me to shut up! But maybe listening for once in your life would help? But, oh, no, it's so much easier to just wallow in silence and kill everyone else's joy with your brooding, right? The moment he gets home I'm going to tell him. Deal with it!"

Her declaration is underlined by the click of the bedroom door being closed, then opened a moment later as Jazz follows her, both of them coming down the stairs. I know that any second now they will see me, but before I can make up my mind what to do about that, it is too late.

Bella looks furious, as if her tone and words hadn't been a dead giveaway, and all of that rage comes bearing down on me now when she sees me standing just inside the door. Yet instead of getting right in my face she draws it all in, assuming that fragile calm that I've come to fear, as it means that she's totally pissed beyond reason.

"You're late."

The words are precise and bitten off, accusation making her eyes hard and unbidding."I am?" I ask lamely, not remembering if we have agreed to me being home after work or not."Yes. I called the hospital two hours ago and they told me your shift had ended before noon. And now it's five in the afternoon."I'm about to make up some excuse, then decide to stick to the truth, but then the meaning of her words hit me."You're calling after me? Are you checking up on me or something?"Try as I might, that comes out as an accusation, and I can see the tension in her rising."Do I need to?""I didn't think so, but then again I didn't think you would call my work to find out whether I was hiding something from you or not."She doesn't even look chagrined when she answers."I was calling because I wanted to know when you'd be home, to figure out whether or not I should cook something or order take-out and have you pick it up on the way over. Sorry that I'm annoying you so much by trying to be a good girlfriend and providing food for when you come home, starving, as usual, because there are only six supermarkets and ten restaurants in the next three blocks from here!"Talk about bad timing if there ever was any. My stomach chooses that moment to rumble loudly, and in a bout of insanity I ask, "Well, did you cook?""Fuck you!"As Jazz doesn't join in our 'conversation' I try to defuse it, telling myself that someone has to try to act maturely for once."Well, if you need to know, I went over to Alice's."Bella's eyes narrow upon hearing that."You did what?""We talked. Just because you start foaming at the mouth whenever someone mentions her doesn't mean I have to break off all contact with her."For a moment Bella looks as if I had slapped her, and not in a playroom-friendly kind of way, then she rounds on Jazz, screeching as she points her finger at me."THIS is exactly what I've been talking about! He'd rather hang out and talk to that fucking cunt instead of either of us! And now he'll have his panties in a twist for weeks because he'll go crawling back to her, begging her to like him again because it's oh, so important to him that she still considers him her friend when she's actually disgusted by him. He'll never get the message! He'll never understand that you -""Shut the fuck up," Jazz interrupts her, his voice frighteningly deep and stern. Where screaming hasn't helped, this does, only it just works for him.Instead of getting in his face she rounds on me, then shoves me in the chest, hard, making me stumble out of her way more from surprise than actual force."You're such a fucking asshole!" she shouts at me, then grabs her purse and coat, shoves her shoes on and storms out, slamming the door behind her with a loud bang.Puzzled by her exit I turn back to Jazz, trying to ask him what that was all about, but find him staring at me with something close to malice on his face."You know what, Edward? She's right. You are a fucking asshole."Chapter 33For a moment I don't know what I should feel more – pissed off or hurt –but I find myself mostly confused. It's nothing new for Bella to get in my face like that; I know she deals with her frustration by letting her emotions run rampant, and I prefer that to her brooding and moping around for ages, but this obviously goes beyond any other fight we've had lately. And being left standing in my living room with Jazz, who is seething with anger, while I have absolutely no idea what is going on, is not helping things."What the fuck?"Probably not the most eloquent way to phrase the question, but I don't think anything else will get through to him right now.Jazz keeps staring at me for several seconds, then grunts, and turns away from me, still tense as hell."Nothing. Forget it.""What do you mean, nothing?" I shout, my own ire rising at the way he's trying to shut me down. "Obviously I'm an oblivious asshole that doesn't"get" anything. You could at least do me the courtesy of telling me what I was too dense to "get" this time!"He stops, then looks back at me, flexing his hands as if he is yearning to punch me. Hell, maybe he is. I don't give a shit."Well?" I ask again when he still doesn't say anything."You really don't see it?" he asks, more incredulous than angry for a moment, but the rage is back within moments. "How can you not see it?She saw it weeks ago! Weeks!" Jazz throws his hands up and starts to pace, then stops again, glaring at me. "How can you be so blind?""Maybe because I'm just a stupid fucker?" I supply unhelpfully, but his anger is so contagious that I can't calm myself down. I'm so fed up with all the secrecy, and I know it's only going to get worse if I don't stop this now."But how about for a change you just tell me what the fuck is going on?Instead of whining behind my back that I'm too much of an idiot to get it?"He takes an almost menacing step towards me, then opens his mouth, but at the last second closes it again. My patience snaps and I cross the distance between us, grabbing the front of his t-shirt to yank him towards me so I can sneer into his face from up close."Fucking tell me!""I love you, that's what's going on!"He spits out the words, then shoves me away, hard enough to make me stumble and for him to shake me off. Once the meaning behind what he has just said registers, I'm stunned, and unable to react. I feel like a fish out of water, and my mind kicks into overdrive.He loves me. He loves me? What the -I swallow thickly, then force myself to think; all the while Jazz is staring at me, his shoulders heaving slightly with each shaky breath.Part of me is waiting for me to freak out – what will happen now? How will Bella take it? Can our relationship survive me fucking up again, in exactly the same way as before? But the only thing I actually feel is relief. Because suddenly it all makes sense.From the end of their spat it's obvious that Bella knows, in fact has known for a while – and that also explains her erratic behavior of the last few weeks. She's not one to keep secrets, and it must have been eating her up not to breathe a word to me. The fact that she didn't tell me leads me to only one possible conclusion – not only did she bow to what must have been extensive begging on Jasper's side, but she must be sympathizing deeply with him without being upset herself, or else she would have gotten in my face the second she got a whiff of it.And Jazz's own erratic behavior is clearly related to what just culminated to what must have been one of the hardest things he has ever admitted to anyone in his life. From the way he's still looking at me, with panic and defiance warring in his eyes, it's not hard to guess that he's expecting me to either laugh in his face, tell him to fuck off, or kick him out at any moment now.I should probably tell him that I don't intend to do any of those things.Though brief to me, my silence must have been endless to him, and he looks ready to draw his own conclusions from it."Aren't you at least going to say something to that?" he gripes, his voice strained, his anger not completely gone.I spend a fleeting second trying to come up with something, but nothing comes to mind. I just know how his words make me feel.He hasn't shoved me far enough away that I can't cross the distance between us in two quick steps, but he tries to fight me when I grab his shoulders and pull him close. He seems so fragile as he stares at me, then opens his mouth to keep shouting, but I cut off the escaping sound by mashing my lips against his and pushing my tongue into his mouth.Jazz shudders, then tries to push me away in earnest, but I only let go of his left shoulder so I can grab the back of his neck to keep him from dislodging my lips from his. The muffled grunt he utters in protest already speaks of his defeat, and a moment later I feel his hands on my body.