"Can I get you anything else, or will that be all?"
Handing Raven back my signed receipt, I smile at her and shake my head.
"No, thanks. Assembling all of this and putting the new equipment through a series of stress tests should keep us busy for a while."
It's still somewhat weird, but without a doubt more relaxing, to just get a nod and my credit card back from her.
"If you change your mind, we have the scented lubes on sale until after the weekend."
"I'll remember that. Thanks," I reply, then grab the last package and carry it to my car, barely managing to close the rear hatch after I add my purchases. When I go back into the shop I see that Beth is finally done talking to the woman she has been holed up with in a corner of the café area for the last half hour. I wait until she has left the shop before I saunter over to my former mentor, hugging her before I take the seat opposite her.
"I take it everything is okay - you spent an extra twenty minutes hanging around here just to talk to me, but you still look relaxed and at ease."
"And by that do you actually mean I look like shit, just as I always do when I'm coming home after an endless shift in hell?"
Her wide grin is answer enough, and I happily accept the extra-strong espresso she hands me. Beth keeps watching me while I drain half of it way too quickly, letting the heat and sugar chase away the grogginess that threatens to overwhelm me.
"You look happy. Even if you look like crap, it's still a happy kind of crap."
I snort, then put down the cup.
"Probably because I am happy. Nothing to complain about."
"Nothing? Seriously? That sounds so boring."
Her jibe makes me laugh.
"Well, if you ask me that way, of course there are some issues. Jazz has been hounding me because I keep forgetting to put the dirty dishes into the dishwasher and tend to forget my things in the dryer. Bella insists that my snoring is driving her crazy, we always run out of milk and no one ever admits to being the one who opened the last bottle. Jazz gets bitchy at times and Bella says we act too immature for our own good. I could go on like that for days, but in the end none of that matters. Things are great."
Beth smiles and inclines her head, although I get the feeling that the milk issue in particular isn't news to her.
"Who would have thought a year ago that things would turn out this way?"
Although her words sound cordial enough, they still make me think, and I can't shake off the feeling that she's fishing for information. Holding her gaze without blinking I finally shrug, taking a sip from my coffee.
"Let's just say that on some level I always hoped it would boil down to this.
Even if I couldn't admit to myself that I wanted Jazz to be more than just my roommate back then."
"I'm sure you weren't the only one not wanting to go down that road at the time," she replies, her words and tone unfamiliarly gentle for her. I raise my eyebrows, silently urging her to elaborate, but she leaves it at a bland smile. Getting stonewalled like that by her of all people is a strange and not entirely comfortable feeling, but I guess I really can't call dibs on her as my sounding board anymore when I tell the other people in my life to go talk to her if they need someone's honest and unprejudiced opinion.
"I take it that everything turned out fine after your last visit here?"
Mentioning our scene with Bella and the others makes me grin again, and I incline my head.
"As Bella very likely already told you, no problems at all, besides Jazz being a little grumpy that we keep underestimating him."
"Yeah, I know. Eventually they grow up and you have to accept that they're not children anymore!"
"Now that's a really disturbing idea."
Beth joins in my laughter.
"And where do you see yourself five years from now?"
Snorting, I narrow my eyes at her.
"Why do I get the feeling this is turning into a job interview now?"
She shrugs, noncommittally.
"Sorry. I watched too many bad TV shows last week on my own. I'm too lazy to disguise my nosiness any other way right now."
"Fair enough," I grunt, then think about the question for a while. "I really don't know. Probably right where I am now, sipping coffee, answering seemingly harmless questions."
"You know I didn't mean it that literally."
"Actually, with you? No. But my answer stays the same. I don't think anything will change that much by then, if we're lucky."
Now she's the one waiting for me to go on, so I do.
"I don't think either of us will get tired of the other two and leave the fold.
Living together might not be easy, but by now we've managed to find our places in our very own little ecosystem, falling back into old patterns or establishing new ones. I also think that with the way things went downhill so fast before, we're all loathe to do anything that might seriously unbalance us without talking about it first. And we always manage to make good decisions together. Bella is still giving me that weird look whenever I mention children so I doubt we'll hear the pitter-patter of little feet running through the house any time before we hit thirty. And considering how unlikely it is that same-sex marriage will be legal everywhere in the country in the next years, I doubt they'll pass a bill allowing us to legalize our relationship as it is."
Beth inclines her head ruefully, her smile wry.
"Yeah, I've come to terms with officially dying an old spinster as far as the law is concerned, but that's no reason to give up hope or stop fighting. But speaking of bringing more quirky, evil bastards into this world, have you still been weirding Jazz out by whining that none of your eventual spawn will have his golden birdie locks?"
I almost choke on my coffee, then push the cup away from me before I can accidentally knock it over.
"Bella really told you that?"
Beth's grin has a definite feline quality to it now.
"Of course she did - holding her sides, tears in her eyes, while managing to look horribly grossed out at the same time."
"Ah, I know. I can be such an ass sometimes, but I can't help it - I love to try and squick them out from time to time. And there's really not much else I can say that will make them both stare at me with that look of utter, horrified disgust. I mean, I know with Jazz being sterile he can't have any kids in the first place, but I doubt that they'd think about having children together even if they were the last two people on Earth. Guess it serves me right that he's already threatened to teach our future offspring every stupid thing he can think of?"
"Naturally, but considering your work schedule, he'll likely also be the one teaching them every useful thing he can think of, too. You should be glad about that. Although PTA meetings are bound to be a blast."
As always, the knowledge that my career will cut deeply into family time saddens me, but she's right. Just as I'm relieved now that Bella has someone to be around when I'm gone for days at a time - even if that still bothers me, and will likely only get worse if we have kids - I know that our family, as it is, will be a warm and nurturing environment for anyone to grow up and live in.
The last part of her remark turns my smile into a grin again, and I snort.
"I already pity the unlucky bitch or bastard who calls Bella's righteous wrath down upon them. When she was out with Rose and her baby last week and someone looked at them in what she thought was a condescending way, she got right in their face. I don't want to think about how much worse it will be when it's her own brood that's under scrutiny. She really doesn't suffer fools gladly anymore."
"Did she ever? I still remember a time when you didn't have the balls to confess your undying love to her because you thought she'd laugh at such a mushy sentiment, particularly when admitted after the mutual destruction of a bottle of tequila."
Although it has only been a year, thinking back to a time when I couldn't just walk up to Bella and kiss her, knowing that she felt the same for me as I did for her, is almost impossible to fathom now.
"She tried. Hard, I think, to live up to the standards she set for herself in her attempt to find her place in the world, only to realize she wanted the exact opposite of them. And did you lace my coffee with something? I sound like I'm reciting bad prose or something."
"Nope, that's all you, my dear. And, as the medical professional of the two of us, you probably know better than I do that it hails from sleep deprivation and you being so full of yourself all the time."
I accept what is by her standards a gentle reprimand in silence. Her next question makes an answer to it unnecessary, anyway.
"Do you still beat yourself up over what you did? Your moment of weakness, probably the closest you'll ever come to 'cheating' in your life?"
She even does air quotes with her fingers. I don't even have to think very long about how to answer that.
"I'll never stop trying to make it up to her, even if she already forgave me a long, long time ago. It helps that she agrees with me that what happened was in a way a catalyst for us to become what we are now, too."
"Yeah, it's always convenient when in hindsight things just miraculously fall into place, and you can forget the months of whining in between."
"I didn't whine that much!" I complain, then feel like bashing my head against the table when her toothy smile tells me I confirmed that yes, I did indeed whine.
"Okay. Yes, so maybe I have a certain penchant for drama queen behavior.
Someone has to be the girl in our happy little family after all," I gripe back in a vain attempt at damage control.
"So true. And you did a good job letting Bella find her backbone while you were losing yours. The lesson in humility certainly served you well, too. You can be an awfully cocky bastard when you want to be."
"Jazz usually says 'insufferable,' in case you were wondering."
Beth snorts, then briefly looks away before her eyes settle on my face again.
"How's he coping with the whole situation? It can't have been easy for him to come back on his knees, begging for forgiveness, when he's even less inclined to show weakness than you are. Bella still isn't convinced that he's honest when he claims he doesn't care about the things you do with and to her. You should know that."
"I know. She keeps nagging me about it. She doesn't realize that, just like he had so many issues accepting that she grew up, she's having the same problem accepting the changes in him. And yes, the fact that I sometimes feel like I'm loving a set of mirror images is weirding me out."
"Aw, come on. You can't hold that against them. I'm not sure they even remember a time when they weren't co-dependent on each other, and hating everyone who tried to keep them apart. Ever wondered just why Jazz seemed so happy when he talked you into jumping into the breach after Bella and that guy she was dating broke up, or why she hates that Alice girl so much? They kept Bella and Jazz apart while you just pulled them closer together again. If you ask me, anything short of loving and wanting to fuck them both would have forced you into a lot of uncomfortable and weird situations for the rest of your life, if you had just stuck with Bella."
I have to admit, I've never quite seen it like that, but as usual Beth is spot on. One might think that after the many wise conversations I've had with her, I should be used to it by now, but she will always remain my sage, no-nonsense mentor, in one way or another.
"Then I'm glad it only took me half a year to get my head out of my ass. It's more fun having something else shoved up there anyway."
"You're such a hopeless romantic! No wonder Bella and Jazz both fell for the amazingly sweet things you say!"
We both laugh at that, until companionable silence settles over us.
"Any chance that the three of you might want to come over for a scene or two any time soon? I can't help but notice that whenever we talk about sex, Bella will sooner or later bring up the fact that she's living in sausage-fest central with a dire lack of tits and cunt."
"You know I'm game for almost anything. You should also know that while Jazz would have no problem coming to a play party, I don't really see him wanting to have to deal with anyone except Bella and me in closer contact.
He's scared of you, even if that doesn't make any sense, and I don't think his confidence could take the extra scrutiny yet."
My remark makes her draw her forehead into a frown.
"You really think he'd be self-conscious just because I was around? He should know that I wouldn't do anything to him or talk him into doing anything that he doesn't want to do."
"I don't think it's that. It's hard to explain, but he seems happy where he is right now. With us, included as an equal, loved and cherished, but without any responsibilities or anyone having any expectations of him. He obviously likes to top in a scene, but he doesn't want to be a Dom, and I don't think that will change much. You know that not all of us get off on having to care for someone else like that."
"Don't even dare to speak another word. Last time I checked, I was the one telling you it was okay to be into power play but that it wasn't necessarily a prerequisite, just like everything else. Different folks, different strokes, right?"
I get an eye roll for that, and I'm disappointed when she doesn't even try to slap me playfully. It's moments like this when I miss what we had years ago. Try as they might sometimes, neither Bella nor Jazz will ever come even close to the way she made me feel when I was kneeling before her.
That is a different part of me and my life, over now, and I wouldn't change what I have for the past, not even for one second.
"Speaking of things that don't concern me but interest me terribly, how is Rose doing with her kid? Last time I called her she sounded incredibly tired, but I guess that's to be expected."
"She's doing okay, I think. Tired, yes. Happy to rant for hours about how everything falls to her and complain about how Emmett manages to shirk his duties at a father in the most heinous ways, yes, but you should see how she smiles whenever he's home and carrying their kid around. They're so sweet it makes my teeth ache."
Beth nods but I can tell she doesn't buy my jibe, although she's too good to rub it in that, contrary to the future mother of my children, I can't wait for the day when Bella tells me she's pregnant. I've never quite understood why.
Maybe it's because part of me resents growing up without ever really knowing my father, despite eating breakfast with him four days a week for years, and I want the chance to do a better job of it. I know a couple of people I'm not related to or in love with who I like better than him. And it's not like the relationship that my father and I have is any worse than what eighty percent of people have with their parents. It's just not what I want with my own children.
"I guess I should go home now. Who knows what Bella and Jazz will come up with if I stay away too long? I wouldn't put it past them to eat all the food or start drinking without me."
"That would really be such a shame."
We hug before I leave. The drive home is uneventful, the usual weekend traffic not yet in full swing. Leaving the boxes in the car for later, I just grab the two bags containing Bella's plants, then walk up the path to the front door.
I don't know why it even surprised me that just in time for our anniversary, my mother suddenly turned up on our doorstep, and taking a look around the living room of our condo proclaimed that it was really getting crowded.
And she just happened to have hung on to a certain house on the other side of town that I made her promise to sell when Bella and I moved to the condo. Apparently, lying to your son is fully acceptable 'when you've always known he would change his mind eventually.' Of course we didn't protest when she offered us to just switch, claiming she could sell the condo a lot easier than a nice house in the suburbs. So it came to be that, somehow, we've ended up exactly where we started a year ago, in at least one sense of the meaning.
Laughter and casually thrown insults greet me when I walk in. I kick off my shoes in the small foyer before I walk on into the kitchen. Every bit of available counter space is full of boxes, most of them half unpacked, and I have to kick two out of the way so I can get into the living room. The achingly familiar room still looks weird as the couch and TV are the the only pieces of furniture in it right now. Bella and Jazz both look up from where they are sprawled on the sofa, too lazy or tired to get up.
"One ficus and one yucca coming up. Where shall I put them?"
Bella gestures towards the glass door leading out onto the lawn.
"Over there. We need to get the other stuff unpacked first before I can find a good place for them."
After depositing the plants where she told me to, I walk up to the couch, first kissing her, then Jazz. Or that was the plan, badly executed when Bella doesn't let go but pulls on my shoulders until I let myself be dragged onto the sofa myself, ending up between them.
"I have no idea why you're looking so tired. You didn't spend the last two days packing and unpacking boxes," Jazz teases me as he leans closer, grinning brightly.
"Yeah, I know. I'm such a slacker. Saving lives doesn't come close to the work of you two upstanding furniture movers. Which reminds me, did you finally decide which of the two back rooms you want to make into our bedroom, and which is going to be the spare?"
Bella snorts and starts laughing, snuggling close to my other side.
"Nope. Jazz keeps insisting that his former room is better because the sun doesn't shine into your eyes at the ass crack of dawn and it also has the larger adjacent bathroom. I keep insisting that I don't want to move into his previous den of iniquity. We're at a stalemate, and because we couldn't decide, the new mattress is right now blocking most of the hallway. Your vote gets to be the deciding one."
"Why me? Just so you can then both be mad at me because you think I've made the wrong choice?"
Their almost identical grins make me laugh, and I let my head fall against the back of the couch just so I don't have to look at either of them.
"I really don't give a fuck. As far as I'm concerned, the only room I'm in charge of decorating is the attic upstairs. The rest is up to you."
"You can't do that! Don't be such a pussy just because you're afraid Jazz will keep bitching like a little girl when you make the right choice."
"And what, dear Bella, is better about Edward's former room than mine? My room has the better fixtures for lights and electronic equipment, and there's even a specially built nook in the back for a small freezer!"
"Which is the reason why I think it's better equipped to be the office, not the bedroom! I so need a door between where I sleep and where you keep your porn collection. Your computer isn't coming into the bedroom, either."
"It's not porn, it's my World of Warcraft collectibles collection!"
Thankfully the sound of the doorbell saves me from having to contribute to that conversation. By the time I return with the pizza boxes, Bella and Jazz have agreed to disagree yet again. Too lazy to go hunting for plates somewhere in the boxes in the kitchen, I just keep the pizza boxes on my lap as I settle down, momentarily feeling like a zookeeper when the other two zero in on the food.
After the pizza is gone and tempers have died down due to imminent food coma, Bella switches on the TV. I soon feel myself drift off as exhaustion finally claims me. I know that soon enough I will have to get up and help the other two unpack, very likely bringing their combined wrath down upon me because I still don't give a shit about where we set up our bedroom, and or whether the books are put on the shelves in the right order.
The only thing I do care about is that I'm living together with the two most wonderful people in the world, who I love more than life itself and who feel the same way about me. I know we still have a lot to work out, and that not every day will be as peaceful and filled with inconsequential squabbles as today. I know I could never choose one of them over the other, and I know they will never force me to.
I keep hearing people tell me that their wife or husband completes them -
for us that means having not one but two people who do that job. While Bella and I have been happy together, I know now just how much was missing from our lives the entire time that Jazz wasn't in them. Just the same, I can't imagine that Jazz and I could live together without Bella.
She's the glue that keeps us together, and the voice of reason when we're both being pig-headed. The fact that the bond between them is far from being romantic, but stronger than anything else I've ever seen, only seems to complete and stabilize our triangle.
But right now, my life is perfect. And come what may, I know the three of us will never stop working to keep it that way.