"Oh Bella I can't believe you're moving so far away," Angela said while hugging me tightly. I was never one for longwinded goodbyes, but for a reason I didn't understand, I was suddenly engulfed with choked up emotion.
"I've already been so far away," I replied with a forced smile.
"You know what I mean, Volterra is like, on the other side of the world."
"I know, but I'll write whenever I can," I promised. Angela and I had been best friends since I first moved to Washington to live with my dad when I was fifteen years old. Through my strenuous years of medical school, Angela was my only friend who didn't give up on our relationship due to my lack of contact. In fact, she was the only friend I had at all. I had thrown myself so deep into studies that I just didn't have time for fun, I didn't even have time to go home for holidays.
I hadn't been back home to Forks in two years, and when I did return after my residency, it was only a week later that I got the invitation to join a prestigious biomedical research group in Italy. It was everything I had been working for, and there was no way I'd pass on it.
I had decided to become a doctor and ultimately go into biomedical research, partly because of my mother. Over the years she had many different jobs in many different towns, but the first place that felt like home to us was when she got a job as an in-home nurse for the Masen's, a family in Arizona. She had a nursing license, but had never worked as a personal live-in nurse until then. She didn't make a ton of money because the family couldn't afford much, but they paid all our living expenses, and all Mom had to do was care for their severely disabled son.
When we first moved there, I absolutely hated it. I was ten years old and because of the condition of the boy, the house was set up more like a hospital than an actual home. I wasn't allowed to play inside and I was constantly being told to keep quiet. But after seeing my mother interact with him, I slowly began realizing that he wasn't just an empty shell. The boy's name was Teddy; he was two years older than me with the mental capability of a three year old, and unable to control any of his physical movements.
They said he had a unique, severe form of Cerebral Palsy, with additional mental disorders. They said he wouldn't live past the age of three, but they were wrong. He lived until he was sixteen years old, and my mother cared for him until his body could no longer support itself.
Teddy's parents moved him to a hospice where he lived his final months, and then he died peacefully surrounded by his family. Over the years I had spent with him, I learned so much about mental and physical illnesses, but more importantly, I learned about who he was on the inside. I learned what made him happy, and what upset him. I learned that regardless of his inability to communicate, he still had feelings and he deserved to be treated like a human being. Despite the pain of losing him, I knew I was a better person for have knowing him.
Although I greatly grieved his passing, Teddy's mother, Liza, was the one who helped me move past it. She told me - 'Behind the prison of his body, there was a real person who I wished I could find a way to set free, and now, he is.'
Liza's words helped me immensely, but my mother loved Teddy like her own son and wasn't able to grasp a handle of her grief. She started drinking to numb the pain, and after a while it got to be too much and she had to go away to get help. That's when I moved to Washington to live with my father, but I never gave up on my dream to try to do whatever I could to contribute to finding cures for the otherwise incurable, so that some day no more families would have to experience the pain that the Masen's, and my mother and I felt from Teddy's loss.
Throughout my training in the medical field, every test I took, and every long night of studying, I thought of my reason for being there. I felt like Teddy was there with me, guiding me and giving me strength to continue. He couldn't be saved, but if there was the smallest chance someone else could, I needed to do all I could to find the way.
"Well kiddo, I hope to get more phone calls than I had since you've been at medical school," my dad said as he came out to say goodbye.
"I know dad, I'll do better now that I have a real job," I said guiltily. Sometimes weeks would go by before I realized I hadn't called home in a while. It wasn't that I didn't care, but I was just so focused and busy that I simply lost track of time. It was no excuse, and I felt horrible about it.
"Well, you better, or I'll just have to connect with some of my Volterrian contacts to keep an eye on you," he said with a wink. My dad, Charlie Swan, was the police chief of our local town, but as a young naïve teen I had actually thought he had the same reach and capabilities as an FBI secret service agent with how connected to everyone and everything he always seemed to be. Of course when I grew up I realized his so called connections were mainly just a way to scare me into behaving while away from home. Since I became an adult, however, his threats had turned into nothing more than a long drawn out joke.
"I'll remember that, dad," I said with a grin.
"And don't let those Italians seduce you, I fully expect you to move back here when you have kids."
I rolled my eyes. "Don't hold your breath for that one," I said jokingly but completely serious. I didn't plan on living in Volterra forever, but I also didn't plan on having children either. I didn't have time to dedicate myself to being a mother, and I highly doubted I ever would.
I hugged my father and my best friend, and then went to the waiting car to head to the airport. I didn't know much about the group I was joining, only that they were privately funded by wealthy sponsors, which was the reason why I was being driven to the airport in a stylish Mercedes. All my expenses were paid, including the apartment I'd be living in. Only the best of the best were allowed to work at the Kolff Research Organization of Biomedical Engineering in Italy, so I was honored to get the chance and I was sure I'd stay there for years to come.
I was flown first class to Italy, where I was picked up in a Porsche by a Goliath of a man named Felix, and brought straight to the facility. He drove us down a long winding dirt road in the middle of nowhere, and then a large gated compound came into view. At the gate, there were two armed guards, which confused me, but I shrugged it off and waited anxiously for the car to stop. The guards nodded to Felix, and then let him pass.
"I'll bring your bags to your apartment," Felix said with his heavy accent after pulling up to a large square shaped building.
"Oh…okay, thanks," I said uncomfortably as I got out of the car. I had no idea where I was supposed to go next, and Felix didn't seem like he was going to help me any further, so I just stood there clueless for a moment and looked around. The stucco building in front of me was painted an unimposing shade of beige, but somehow still seemed colorful with its undetermined possibilities. I had such high hopes for my time there, but my biggest fear of the moment was being a disappointment, not only to the people of the organization, but to myself.
Apart from the building before me, there wasn't anything noteworthy about my current surroundings. Behind me was the gate we came in through, and it was attached to a large chain linked fence with barbed wire on top. There was a lawn on either side of the road, but looking forward again from where I was standing, I couldn't see beyond the shadow of the roof. For a brief moment, I saw the building as a dark ominous cloud looming over me, and I shivered from the thought. Thankfully, just as quickly as the thought came, it dissipated and I was able to regain control of my fears. I absolutely refused to be afraid; it was a wonderful opportunity, and there was nothing to concern myself with other than my own irrational insecurity.
"You must be Doctor Swan," a woman said as she walked out of the building to greet me.
"Yes, hello," I said relieved with a smile as I shook the woman's hand. It still sounded strange to hear the word 'doctor' in front of my name, but it was definitely strange in the best possible way.
"I'm your guide, Gianna Keller; I'm here to show you around," she said welcomingly. "Right this way." I watched as she swiped her ID card to open the door, and then I followed her inside. "You'll be issued a security pass as soon as the tour is over and you've been cleared from you inquisition."
"Inquisition?" I asked surprised. I had thought all of that was already handled, and I was confused as to why they would have more questions for me after I had already arrived there. What if I said something they didn't like? Could I still be rejected and sent home at that point? My nerves spiked.
She turned and smirked at me. "You'll understand soon enough."
A wave of discomfort washed over me, but I tried my best to ignore it. There was something off about the place and the thought of the building being ominous returned, but once again, I convinced myself that I was just being paranoid and fought to keep those negative feelings locked away.
As soon as we walked past the third clearance door, I finally started to feel at ease as Gianna showed me all the labs and work stations. She introduced me to the different doctors and technicians as we passed by, all of which were dressed in professional white lab coats and busy at work, but most still paused to smile a hello to me.
After seeing the labs, and meeting more people than I could remember, I was taken out the back door of the building to what looked like a recreational garden. From that point I could see just how big the compound actually was, with a multitude of beige stucco structures only distinguished by the different numbers on the front of them. As we continued to walk, I was led into another building to meet the figure heads of the company, which I came to understand was business section of the compound.
We came upon a door at the end of a long hallway, where Gianna knocked twice and then opened it slowly. Inside was a conference room with five people sitting around a large oval table, and all were staring at me expectantly.
"I'd like to introduce Doctor Isabella Swan," Gianna said to the room of three men in business suits, and two women with their hair pulled back way too tightly.
A youngish looking man with well groomed blonde hair smiled warmly. "Welcome. We are very pleased to have you join us. You've come with high recommendations from all your professors and the chief of staff where you were a resident."
"Thank you. I'm eager to begin work here," I said nervously.
"Very good. I'm Doctor Carlisle Cullen, this is Doctor Caius Aro, and that is Marcus Keller." The men nodded their greeting, and then Dr. Cullen continued. "Doctor Irina Denali, and Tanya Benson," he introduced the women in the room, who seemed snotty at best.
"Nice to meet all of you," I said politely.
Dr. Aro then stood to walk closer to me, and stared at me intensely as if he was trying to read my thoughts. "We here at Crow are like a family, built on trust, discretion, and classified work that you are not privileged to disclose to anyone outside this family for any reason. Do you understand?"
I nodded. "But, what's Crow?" I asked stupidly, and Gianna snickered.
"K.R.O.," he clarified. "Kolff Research Organization, of course."
"Right," I said feeling the rush of heat to my face as my embarrassment became far too apparent.
How the hell did I ever make it through medical school? – I thought to myself. Kolff was the name of one of the leading doctors of biomedical engineering; at least I knew that much.
"Everything you see and do here belongs to us," Dr. Aro continued. "You will need to sign a confidentiality agreement, and if you choose to leave, you are never allowed to repeat anything anywhere else. Do you understand?"
"Yes," I said too quietly. "Um, yes," I repeated louder. I already knew that since it was privately funded I wouldn't be able to take my work if I decided to leave. Any discoveries or innovations were property of KRO and we'd be accredited as a whole if the findings were ever released to the public. But I wasn't there to seek recognition for my work, so I didn't care about that. The opportunity to learn and work there with the best in the world was all that mattered to me.
I was explained a few other things, and I had to tell them more information about myself, and then I was grateful to be excused to get settled into my on site apartment. The residential area of the compound was just behind the mundane stucco buildings, and I was happy to see that the buildings where people lived weren't as plain as the work buildings. Each separate apartment structure was a different color; they were all organic hues, but still a refreshing change from the beige. I wasn't aware before arriving that the apartments were on the compound, but I guess it was better that way. I wouldn't need a car to get to and from work, and I would start as early and stay as late as I needed.
When I first entered my personal living space, I was pleasantly surprised. It was in no way big, but everything inside was top of the line, from flat screen TVs in the living room and bedroom, to a sleep number bed. The fridge was stocked with all my favorite food, which explained the questionnaire I filled out prior to flying to Italy. The closet was full of white lab coats and blue scrubs, plus three pairs of white tennis shoes in my size. But besides the items I would need for work, I noticed that all of my clothes from my suitcase had been pressed and hung or laid neatly in the drawers of the built in organizer. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about someone going through my personal belongings to put it all away, but there was nothing to be done about it, and there was no sense getting upset.
After looking around a bit more, I became anxious to get started right away, so I changed quickly and then headed back to the main building to figure out where I would be stationed. Gianna had left after showing me where my apartment was, but I was given my clearance tags so I should have been able to get through the doors, but for some reason my card wasn't working.
I swiped it, and swiped it again, but nothing. "Damn it!" I said a little too loudly. Was I seriously being a moron and missing something, or was there a bigger problem?
"Having trouble?" someone said from behind me. I turned around, and the air in my lungs was nearly knocked out of me from the sight of the beautiful man smirking at me. I had never seen someone so physically striking with intensely green eyes that shamed the most perfect emerald, which was a sharp contrast to his copper colored, perfectly kempt hair. He was clean shaven, so there was absolutely nothing obstructing the view of his flawless features, and I found myself completely lost as I took him all in.
I must have looked ridiculous as I stood there gawking at him silently, so I forced myself to close my gapping mouth, and tried not to sound like an idiot when I answered him.
"Uh, yeah, it's not working," I said while swiping my card again to show him what I meant.
He reached for my card and then looked at it for a moment, trying to analyze the problem. "You're new, I assume," he said without looking up at me.
"Yeah, today's my first day," I replied quietly, trying not to get fixated on the way his mouth moved when he spoke.
He nodded while handing the card back to me. "Yeah, these things take twenty four hours to activate."
"Why?" I asked confused.
"I guess they don't expect you to want to get to work the minute you get here," he explained with a smirk.
"What am I supposed to do then?"
He shrugged. "Well, if you're not jet lagged, there's a twenty four hour cafeteria, basketball court, gym, movie theater, bowling alley…"
"All here on the compound?" I asked surprised.
He nodded again with a smile. "Yeah, and they're all free. Didn't this get explained to you; who was your guide?"
"Gianna…something. I don't remember her last name."
"Ah, well that explains it. Gia doesn't have the best work ethic; she's only here because her father, Marcus, insisted." He leaned closer to me and held up his hand as if he was going to tell me a secret. "But don't mention that to her face," he laughed softly.
"Right," I said as I tried to contain my school girl grin. "They really don't want to give the employees much of a reason to leave the compound, do they?"
"Employees? What, didn't they give you the whole 'family' lecture?" he said with a hint of mockery.
"Oh, I got it, but I'm just not there yet," I said lightly.
"Don't hold your breath with that one," he said strangely. "I've been here for years and I still don't get the whole 'family' shit they spew." He paused to contemplate for a moment. "No, that's wrong. There's a few here that I've developed close relationships with, but not everyone like they want you to believe."
"Well, maybe you can give me some helpful hints as to who would be good company here," I said without thinking. What the hell was wrong with me? I wasn't there to flirt.
"I bet you'd get along with Alice Brandon. She's a little hard to take at first, but once you get past her overly vivacious front, she can be a great ear if you ever need someone to talk to."
"That's good to know," I said honestly. I already missed Angela, and although we hadn't spent much time together recently, it was always a relief that she was only a phone call away.
"Ok, well, it was good to meet you, Bella. I should be getting back to work," he said unexpectedly.
"How did you know my name is Bella?" I asked him.
"I looked at your ID, remember," he said with a wink.
"Yeah, but it says Isabella. How did you know I prefer to be called Bella?"
He pressed his lips, and then a strange expression crossed his face. "Well, Bella is short for Isabella."
"But I could have preferred to use my full name, or maybe a different nickname like Izzy or Belle," I rebutted before wondering to myself what the hell I was going on about.
"Well I suppose it was a lucky guess…." he said amused. "I think all the stress of traveling and the inquiries today are making you a little jumpy. Maybe it would be best for you to go rest…"
He seemed like he was going to say something else, but instead he shook his head slightly and then walked away. The whole thing was strange, and a little surreal, but I tried to put it out of my mind. I needed to concentrate on the reason why I was there, and try to forget about the beautiful man whose name I never learned.
I decided to walk the grounds for awhile and try to learn my way around, but the place was huge and I was in a real danger of getting lost. I did, however, find the cafeteria, which was perfect because I was starving and I wasn't sure how to get back to my apartment.
With it being late afternoon, there was no line to get food, so I walked right up and was surprised by the gourmet items available.
"What can I get for you, love?" a large woman with an Irish accent asked from behind the counter.
"Uh…I'll just have some of that," I said, pointing at the closest dish in front of me.
"Ah, Tikka Masala; excellent choice," she said as she scooped me up some.
"Thanks," I said as she handed me the plate. I carried my food to one of the many empty tables, and sat to eat.
"Oh my god, you must be Doctor Swan," a woman with a youthful southern accent said from behind me. I turned to her, smiled and nodded.
"Bella," I told her.
"I'm Jessica Stanley, I work in the cancer research department," she said, and then sat down next to me before pulling her long hair into a low ponytail. As she fixed her hair, I noticed a wavy dark lock of my own coming free from the messy bun I had tied it in during the trip from the airport, but I really didn't care enough to fix it.
"Hi, nice to meet you." I vaguely wondered how she knew my name, but quickly realized the woman was a gossip hound and probably knew all the comings and goings around there.
She started talking about mundane things, and despite her friendliness, I was really hoping that her break would end soon so she'd leave me alone. I didn't want to be rude, but I wasn't in the mood to socialize, especially with someone like Jessica, who seemed far more interested in everyone's personal business rather than focusing on their professional capabilities.
People started filing in slowly as the dinner period neared, and before I knew it, the cafeteria was full of various degrees of medical and scientific personnel.
When I was finished with my food, I got up to leave, but unfortunately Jessica decided to follow me.
"I'll give you a tour," she said, refusing to take no for an answer.
"Oh, I'm sure she only showed you your workspace and apartment. She's like a tourist here, whereas I'm a local. I know all the hot spots."
"Um…ok," I said reluctantly. I didn't have any other plans to use as an excuse to get out of it, so I didn't seem to have much of a choice but to follow.
When she led me around, she not only pointed out where everything was, but she also continued giving me a rundown on all the social aspects as well, and suddenly I felt like I was in high school again. I never had a lot of friends growing up, and I stayed out of the popularity contest which most other's seemed consumed with, so I never expected to find myself in a situation like that once I graduated college. But there I was, absently listening to Jessica tell me who got who pregnant, and why it was a scandal.
As we continued to walk, I noticed a small group of people, dressed in the standard KRO work attire, coming towards us who everyone else seemed to go out of their way to walk around. The group of four didn't swerve for anyone, but they didn't have to either; some people even moved to the side of the walkway and stopped altogether in order to let them pass. They didn't greet anyone, or even look at people as they went, and no one tried to talk to them either. It was all very strange.
When we walked closer to them, Jessica also automatically moved to the side, but I decided to just continue walking straight because if I kept my current path, I should have been able to walk right through them without bumping anyone. Before I could pass through however, Jessica grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side.
"Are you nuts?" she hissed, and the odd group walked past uninterrupted.
"Why, who are they?" I asked her. I didn't want to hear any of her gossip, but we were all colleagues so I didn't understand why the hell everyone was acting like they were of royalty equivalence?
"Those are the Cullens," she said as if that was a thorough enough explanation.
"Cullens? As in Doctor Carlisle Cullen?" I asked to clarify.
"So…they're all related?" I asked confused, and surprised that she wasn't drowning me with information about them without me having to ask.
"No. We just call them the Cullens because they're part of a strange exclusive group run by the doctor. I'm not sure how they were all picked or what exactly they do, but they definitely don't associate with anyone outside the group much."
"And people know better than to get in their way?" I asked condescendingly, still unsure why it was such a big deal that I was going to walk between them.
"The thing is, no one seems to really know what they do, and anytime anyone has ever gotten too close to figuring it out, that person sort of…disappears. Now, that's just hearsay, all I really know is that everyone stays away from them…But don't mention that I told you that to anyone," she said, suddenly becoming anxious.
I looked back towards the direction the Cullens had walked in and could still barely see them before they rounded the corner, and then they were out of sight. It was strange, but I shrugged it off and tried to forget about it.
Jessica continued with the tour, but when we got to the bowling alley, I balked.
"Come on, let's go in; it's the only place on the compound to get a good drink," Jessica encouraged.
"No, I'm not much of a bowler," I told her. "Is there like an ice cream shop, or something?" I semi-joked.
"Oh, come on! As a doctor you must know the importance of letting loose every once in awhile…as a stress relief, and all." Jessica proceeded to drag me inside, and I sighed but didn't put up too much of a fight. I had no plans of staying, but I hoped the less I resisted, the quicker she would let me leave.
Thankfully, she didn't intend on actually bowling; we just sat at the lounge overlooking the alley while she ordered herself a drink.
"They're free," she said with a grin, trying to convince me to order one as well.
"No, I'm actually really tired. It's been a long day, so I think I'm just going to head home for the night."
"No, we just got here," she whined.
"Maybe some other time," I told her with no desire to ever follow through.
But as I was about to get up to leave, suddenly there was a strange vibe in building. "What's going on?" I asked, though Jessica didn't look like she knew…or at least pretended not to.
Abruptly, three bowling lanes were cleared, seemingly mid-game, and in walked the mysterious Cullens.
"People have to just give up their lanes for them?" I asked surprised.
"They don't do this sort of thing often, so it's not like anyone's complaining," Jessica replied.
"So…you don't know anything about them at all?" I asked, unsure as to why I really cared. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous, but at the same time, there was also something very intriguing about the four of them.
"The sandy haired guy is Jasper Smith, and the brawny guy with the killer tan is Emmett McCarty," Jessica informed me in a hushed rush. I vaguely wondered how she knew their names if it was all so secretive, but it really didn't matter to me either way. "The blonde bombshell is Rosalie Hale," Jessica continued, "and the girl with pink streaks in her hair is Alice Brandon."
"Oh, someone said we'd get along," I said quietly, talking to myself more than her.
"That's ridiculous! The Cullens don't talk to anyone but themselves. Who told you that?"
"Him," I said mechanically as the man who had explained my ID card earlier, joined their group.
"You must be confused, that's Edward Cullen. He's even more withdrawn then the rest of them."
"So, he's a member of the Cullen group too? I didn't see him walking with them before."
"Oh yeah, he's like the ringleader."
"What's his real last name?" I asked because she said 'Cullen' instead of something else.
"No, he really is Doctor Cullen's son, and he's a doctor here as well. He just only speaks to whoever he's working with at the moment, and keeps to the others in their group when he's not working."
"That's all so…odd," I said, mostly to myself. "And Doctor Cullen doesn't even look old enough to have an adult son."
"He's older than he looks….There are a lot of oddities around here. I'm convinced there's a secret lab somewhere here on the compound where they test fountain of youth drugs on themselves…or this is really Area 51 and they're all aliens," she joked, though she seemed pretty serious. "I've been here two years and I still have so many unanswered questions. They tell me to just keep to my work and forget about everything else, so that's what I do."
I bit my bottom lip and then looked back at Edward. My heart jumped when he returned my stare, so I immediately looked away again. I was confused and curious, but I had my priorities, and digging into secret sub groups of the company definitely wasn't amongst them.
I was legitimately exhausted after the long hectic day, and I wanted to get an early start on the labs the next morning, so I finally convinced Jessica to let me leave and then I went to my apartment for the rest of the night.
I had never been in such a strange place before, but I was still excited to be there and I spent the next few days trying to get into a work routine. I was in by seven AM, and didn't go back to my apartment until eight PM. I didn't work the entire time, but I worked as much as possible to keep myself busy, and I stayed clear of the social venues that the compound had to offer. I needed to remain focused, and that was exactly what I planned on doing. But even with all the focus in the world, at night when I was alone, I couldn't prevent my mind from undesirably wandering to the mysterious Edward Cullen…