Bella doesn't even blink, and keeping her cool clearly doesn't sit well with Alice. I know that I should hold my tongue, particularly as Bella seems to be doing fine on her own, but I just can't – too often she has been fighting my battles, and with this still being my home and Alice attacking the people I care about, I just can't sit there and let everything wash over me."Just when did you turn into such a hypocrite?"Alice's head now snaps around so that she's glaring at me full on, but that doesn't faze me."Come on, Edward, shouldn't you of all people be careful to use that word?"Slowly but surely, she's getting on my nerves."You mean because according to the drama you helped drag out last summer I'm a cheater, too? First of all, that's between me and Bella, and last I checked we've resolved that issue a long time ago. And second, wouldn't you say that there's a huge difference between a kiss and going behind someone else's back for weeks before dumping them and making them feel like it was all their fault?""Oh, like it should have come as such a surprise for anyone! What Jazz and I had for the last months was barely more than living in the same house, that's a very long stretch from anything that could resemble a relationship! You can't make me responsible for him being such a blind fool!"I can only guess what Nate must be thinking of all this while he's following our info dump screaming match with a look on his face as if he had swallowed a live toad, but then again the only one seemingly amused by this is Rose. At least my mother hasn't gotten herself a refill yet, and I don't even bother to check how my father is reacting – the displeasure of having to witness how his son is once again openly admitting his frivolous lifestyle is coming off him in waves.Jazz doesn't say anything to Alice's claim but I can see how much the words hurt him, and the implication that I'm no better than her when she doesn't seem to give a shit about the damage she's causing is what finally makes me snap. Coming to my feet I lean across the table, using every inch of my height to be physically imposing, as I try to stare Alice down."You know what, I'm done with hearing your excuses! Go on living in your dream world where you are perfect and everyone else is out to either get you or make your life miserable! But have you ever asked yourself why you can't keep anyone close to you for an extended amount of time? Or am I wrong that the longest you've ever had a relationship with anyone besides Jazz was numbered in weeks? That none of your friends from high school or college or your previous job even send you a birthday message on facebook? Have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, it's not everyone else but you who's so fucked up that people don't want to deal with you any more?"I hear my mother gasp from somewhere to my right but do my best to ignore her, instead turn away from the stone-faced mask Alice's features have turned into to Nate, offering him a wry grin and a snort."Good luck, buddy, trust me when I tell you that you'll be the next in a long, long line who knows better than to want to be anywhere near her. Unless it's your thing to hang out with a delusional, manipulative, frigid bitch who gets off on making everyone around her feel like shit."I don't even get to gloat at her as the moment I fall silent my mother utters a truly scandalized, "Edward!" while my father gets up, nearly toppling over the chair behind him."I will not have this in my house! You will take your accusations back and apologize to Alice, or -""Or what?" I sneer, turning to face him now. "You'll kick me out? You'll disown me? Be my guest, I really don't want to be part of a family that backs liars and cheaters who are doing everything possible to ruin everyone else's life!"The hate and disgust I see in his face is making my physically ill, but before I can say more, Bella is in front of me, pushing me bodily back from the table and keeping herself like a shield between me and pretty much everyone else. The look she sends me is pleading but her voice is still calm, almost neutral when she touches my arm."Come, let's go home."No, "This is enough!" or, "Why do you even bother!", just those four simple words, but they sum up everything that needs to be said. I don't even say good-bye to anyone, just step around her and angle towards the front door, with her at my heels after she thanks my mother for the food – though pointedly not the company – and wishes everyone Happy Thanksgiving. I can't say if Jazz does the same or not, but I've barely shrugged into my jacket when they both join me at the front porch.My anger is draining from me uncharacteristically fast, leaving me feeling hollow inside as I pivot the streets back to our condo. Neither of them speaks a single word on the whole way there but Bella keeps her hand on my thigh, a silent token of support that I appreciate more than I can say.Once home Bella forgoes her usual offer of making coffee, and the three of us sink down on the sofa, misery personified with Bella in the middle of me and Jazz curled around her. My very soul seems to hurt when I realize that he's crying against her shoulder, but there's nothing I feel I can say or do to help, so I leave her to comfort him while I just stare at the ceiling."That went well," Bella finally breaks the silence after Jazz has gone quiet for a while, her tone dry yet full of desolation. At my grunt she turns her head and looks at me, then offers me a small smile. "No one called me a slut for once. You have to admit, that is some sort of improvement."I really don't know what to respond, but I'm not happy when the door bells rings, effectively keeping me from finding a good come-back. I'm not yet done trying to ignore it when it goes off again, followed by a quick knock on the door."Shall I get that?" Bella offers, but I shake my head, extracting myself from her grudgingly.I can feel both her and Jasper's gaze between my shoulder blades as I trudge over to the door, absentmindedly running my hand through my hair that is a hopeless case now that Bella has been running her fingers through it for a long while.I'm not even that surprised when I open the door and find myself confronted with a slight figure, bearing a stack of microwave boxes in her arms."Edward, can we talk?"Chapter 29I feel my whole body tense with apprehension, but force my voice to remain civil as I answer with a question on my own."Why are you here, mom?"She opens her mouth as if to offer one of her cutting, ironic answers, but then closes it again as she thinks better of that."I came here to talk to you, that's all. I also bring this meager offering of food, if that helps make me appear less threatening."I feel like smiling despite the feeling of unease still gripping me, then nod."Sure, do you want to come in?""If you want me to, but why don't we take a walk in the park, like we used to when you were in kindergarten? I even brought some stale bread for the ducks," she adds with a gentle smile.It's obvious that she's trying to pacify me – whether I need to be pacified or not – and before I can answer Bella slips in beside me, one arm slung across my lower back to keep herself anchored there beside me. She greets my mother with a sad but nevertheless nice smile, the gesture getting eerily mirrored, before my mom wordlessly hands the boxes to her."Guess I'll grab my coat then," I say once Bella has walked into the kitchen to store the food in the freezer. Glancing at the clock of the microwave I decide that I might as well walk to the hospital once we're done talking, seeing as I only have another hour until my shift starts.Hugging Bella from behind I kiss her good-bye, then squeeze Jazz's shoulder on my way back to the door. When I join my mother outside I still can't shake the bad feeling off that she's going to scold me for acting like a total jackass any moment now, but when we have to wait for the elevator, she turns to me and frowns."I'm not here because of what you said before you stormed out, we don't even have to breach that subject at all. Living with your father for more than half of my life has made me accustomed to ignoring everything that could be even slightly uncomfortable. I'm here because I think that this talk is long overdue, and with what happened today, well, let's just say I feel the need to tell my son how proud I am of the man he has become."The arriving elevator car keeps me from having to find an answer to that in my stunned state, and we both don't say a word for the short walk over to the park, but it's no longer the uncomfortable silence from before in the hallway. During the day it has become increasingly warmer, thawing the last bits of snow to gray slush. Not many people are outside under the overcast sky, leaving us to have our talk in comfortable privacy."Did you just say that to lull me into complacency, or do you really think that?"She smiles at the question, but I don't have to explain what I mean."No, I really think that you've grown up a lot these past months. Not that you've been acting all that immaturely before, but since you and Bella are together you've changed a little, for the better I believe.""Gee, now you're making me blush.""I highly doubt that anything I could come up with will have that effect on you," she retorts, then angles towards one of the smaller paths leading to the duck pond."I'm sorry for how we've left. Guess that wasn't quite that mature."She snorts as if to say, "You think?", but leaves it at that."As I said, we don't have to talk about that.""Unlike my father I don't shy away from a topic just because it makes me uncomfortable. And I don't have anything to hide."Acknowledging that with a nod, my mother doesn't hesitate long to put that claim to the test."So is it true that you and Bella have welcomed Jazz back, and not just as a friend who stays over on the couch until he finds a new place?""You mean if we've had sex again? Yes."I keep my answer to the point, mostly because I have no idea how much about that she even wants to know, but my reply doesn't seem to surprise her."Before or after resolving your issues?"The near playful lilt to her voice makes me grin, but I try to hide it."For the most part after.""Well, good for you then."I'm still a little wary of how well she's taking that, but she picks up on it before I can ask any further. Stopping at the side of the path she waits for me to join her, then turns to face me, her gentle eyes holding my gaze captive."I've never had any problems with you having an interest in men, with or without Bella involved. As far as I'm concerned, you can sleep and live with whoever you want to. The only thing that counts for me is that you're happy, Edward." She clucks her tongue when I try to speak up, and adds,"Of course it was a little hard for me to process the news when I learned of it last summer, but I've had a lot of time to come to terms with it since then, and I've seen how unhappy you were for so long. It's good to see you more like your usual self again."I don't know if I quite believe her, although I really want to, and my silence seems to speak volumes as she resumes talking quickly."I have to admit, there was a time when I wouldn't have been that surprised if you'd one Sunday turned up on our doorstep and introduced Jazz as your boyfriend.""You thought I was gay?"She shrugs."You should have heard yourself talk about him when you two met in your first week at college. Jazz this, Jazz that, all the things you'd done – it was hard not to take your enthusiasm at finally having a male best friend after spending years tagging after Alice as nothing more than that."I wisely keep my tongue about what I remember never telling her, then I think about what she meant with what she just said. I have to admit, I've never quite been able to pinpoint the moment when my friendship with Jazz has become more than just that, but I know that back then it really has been just that.As if she had read my mind, my mom shrugs."Anyway, I nearly forgot about that when you started talking twice as much about Bella, but in hindsight I think I haven't been all that wrong. Either way, I was glad that you were finding new friends on your own, and I have to admit, after the introverted way you were acting through most of high school I was just glad that you were finally connecting with people more easily.""Introverted, eh? Have you ever dealt with the usual bunch of fifteen year olds? I never knew what to talk with any of them. Plus they didn't like me because I was too smart for them. And then they didn't like me because they all thought that Alice's friends were all over me, while they kept ignoring the other guys of the same grade."She huffs, then gets a certain gleam in her eyes."Which reminds me, did Bella ever see the picture of when Alice and her friends dressed you up as a girl at her sixteenth birthday? You were so adorable! And pretty.""Mom!""Ah, shut up, I'm sure neither Bella nor Jazz will ever dispute your masculinity. But it's good to know that I've found a new thing to blackmail you with, should I need it."I don't comment on that, happy enough when she doesn't mention what else she could be using to force me to act all nice and docile, but instead return to the previous topic."Was it really that obvious? About Bella I mean." A little in afterthought I add, "and Jazz."She shrugs, a light smile playing around the corners of her lips."I guess a mother of a different child wouldn't have noticed that much, but I've spent so many years worrying that you'd never find friends who you'd feel so comfortable with, who could be your intellectual equals and also share your interests and hobbies. Not that you were that much of an outcast, but at ever PTA meeting I saw anew that nearly none of the other parents knew you, and even the teachers didn't seem to have found any connection to you. I was always hoping that things would change in college, and I still stay by my conviction that as long as you're happy with your life, I am, too. Plus, you know that I've always liked Jazz a lot, and not just because of any speculations about what you two might be up to when you're not showing your best behavior under parental supervision."It's a little scary to realize that my own mother has known all that for so long but never said a word, least of all anything to express any concern or displeasure. No wonder she's taking the recent changes in stride.We're both fall silent for a little while, watching as a string of ducks crosses the pond, but as they don't see us offering them any food they just pass us by."You know that if you need someone to talk to, I'm always here for you?Also for topics that you might not want to discuss with your mother.""Thank you, I appreciate that."She nods, then regards me for a long time as if the more or less neutral look on my face would tell her all my secrets."Is there anything you would want to talk about right now?"I shake my head, probably a little too fast, but she doesn't pry. That's one of the things I've always loved about her, that she never pushes, always waits patiently for people to come to her. And it's a tactic that has never failed to work, if I remember all the things I've confessed over the years under that gentle, patient gaze of hers.Chewing on the inside of my cheek I try to find the right words, then just blurt out what keeps racketing inside my head for the past hour."I just don't understand how Alice could do this to us."At first she shows no reaction, but when it becomes apparent that I'm disinclined to go on, she sighs."You know that I don't like to take sides. It's not my place, this is your problem, and you know that I see her like a surrogate daughter most of the time. But I have to admit that today it's hard for me not to be cross with her.""Cross?""Edward, I'm a woman beyond the age where she still has numbers on her birthday cake, of course I'm 'cross', not fucking mad or something like that.I leave the expletives to you, they suit your well versed speech much better than me. But age and emotional distance might lend me a somewhat different point of view here."Sighing, I rub my eyes."I know that she's always hand a penchant for drama, but today, that was simply -" I want to say fucked up, but then change my mind. "It wasn't like the Alice I've known since before I grew a beard. She was mean and calculating, hostile when no one even provoked her, and deliberately hurtful. I kind of get why she's mad at me, and while I think it's a very low blow I see why she'd want to flaunt Nate in front of Jazz, but what I don't understand is why she keeps attacking Bella. Bella never did anything to provoke her, and I'm still amazed that she didn't bite Alice's head off today.""That's because Bella was about the only one who acted moderately mature today. Speaking of which, please tell them both that if they smoke pot on my back porch again I'll ask for a joint for compensation next time."Her words make me snicker, and I accept the jibe with a nod."Will do. I didn't even know Jazz had any.""Or you would have followed them outside?" she ventures a guess, then laughs at my pointed glare. "Oh, come on, I don't believe that you've never smoked any pot before. I've been in college, too, remember? Although that was in the late seventies, we probably smoked a lot of stuff you kids wouldn't touch anymore.""I've been working in the ER long enough now to tell you that's wishful thinking.""Be that as it may, I think you're missing the point about Alice," she resumes our previous conversation thread."Which is?""Now Bella not only has you, but also Jazz, leaving Alice with no one, as you so aptly summed up for her."It's funny how even her neutral words can make me feel like an ass all over again, but I have to admit, I'm still not sorry about what I've said."You know that she kicked him out? And unless you count a very brief spell over the last few weeks, ending the day she and Jazz broke up, Alice has been closing herself off from me. It's not my fault that people around her have been turning their back on her.""I didn't say it was, just that I think that she somehow feels like the three of you are banding together against her, which is why she felt the need to attack who she presumed to be the weakest of the three of you.""How can she think that Bella is weak?" Now I'm really puzzled.My mom shrugs, as she herself seems to have the same problem as I do with understanding the concept."You know that Alice is one of the people who likes to judge a book by its cover. To her, Bella is very likely still the nice, sometimes shy girl she met in college, and the only time she revised that view was when Bella tried to fit into the image Mike had of her. It took me a while to realize that the real Bella is very different from that, and it's mostly her good nature that leaves her seeming vulnerable and impressionable. I have no doubt that if push comes to shove, Bella will be the last to give in of the four of you."