Chapter 14: Options

To say Alice's visit had shocked me would have been putting it mildly. Very mildly. My mind raced as it replayed every word, every facial expression that she had made, over and over again. I was dying to call Jacob, but I had no idea what I'd say to him. I knew he'd be upset, no matter what. As far as he was concerned, the Cullens had lost any right to be in my life when they walked out of it the first time. I knew I'd have to tell him, but I thought I'd wait until I was back at school. Maybe by then I'd have something planned out.

Alice was back in my life, and I'm sure the rest of the Cullens would be as well, if I let them. But what about Edward? She made it sound like Edward still loved me, but she hadn't exactly been spending a lot of time with him recently, either. I still couldn't get over the fact that he had left me in the woods that day, that he'd told me he felt nothing for me. That made the most sense to me, not what Alice was saying. The thought that Edward had done it all for my protection, though, sparked a slow burning rage inside of me. What the hell? I kept repeating to myself, Who DOES that to someone that they love? Even if it were true, and Edward did indeed love me, I had serious reservations about whether I would be able to forgive him any time soon. I'd always love him, but that wouldn't mean I could just be with him, that I could forgive and forget.

A little later in the morning, I was so preoccupied as I headed towards the art collection that I apparently reverted to my old, clumsy human self, bouncing off Felix ungracefully before I noticed he had planted himself in my path. I glanced up, reflexively smiling at the hint of humor in his gaze.

"Really? You didn't see me there?" he laughed, as I muttered a quick apology.

"Well, you know, you're kind of a waif ..."

Felix's eyebrows raised, and I squeaked as he suddenly swept me off my feet, throwing me over his shoulder, and began walking down the hall. My attempts to get him to put me down were pretty ineffectual, since I could barely stop laughing enough to protest what was going on, and I knew that my half-hearted pounding on his back wasn't much of a deterrent.

"Where are we going?" I yelped, as my head narrowly missed a stone column for the second time.

"You mean, where am I taking you?"

"Yeah ... that."

"Oh, I don't know. You make a nice accessory - I was thinking I'd just keep you like this today."

"Nooooo," I laughed, "You have to put me down."

"Or else what?"

"Or else ... uh ... crap. I don't have anything to threaten you with!" I gave an overly dramatic sigh, its impact somewhat undercut by the fact that I was basically upside-down. "I guess you win."

"Well, you've acknowledged my superiority; I guess I can let you down." As Felix's face came back into view, I couldn't help but chuckle at his huge smirk. I turned around, and realized that we were in front of Felix's door. I should have recognized where we were going, but I had never been there in reverse before.

"Felix, I have to go to work -" I began.

"Come in for a second. You think the human staff is going to get mad at you? It's not like they can fire you."

I couldn't really argue with his logic, and I knew that I'd probably still be too distracted to do a good job at work right now anyway. I followed him inside, and we took our usual spots on the couch: Felix sprawled across one end, and me tucked into the other corner. Today, though, after I sat down, Felix scooted over until he was almost in my space, throwing one arm over the back of the couch, and turning his whole body so that he faced in my direction. He looked at me seriously.

"Bella, I wanted to talk to you last night, but you took off before I got a chance." Felix paused. "Listen, you did a good job last night, but I could tell there was something wrong. You know you can talk to me about anything, right?"

I was surprised at his candor, and momentarily speechless. Serious conversations were not usually our norm, and I wasn't sure how to respond. I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, unfortunately. "But if I tell you, then Aro will know!"

Felix's gaze hardened, and he leaned in slightly. "What do you mean, exactly?"

"I mean ..." Oh shit. How was I supposed to explain that I knew what Aro's gift was? No one had ever mentioned it to me, other than Alice. "I overheard someone talking about Aro's gift. He touches you and knows what you're thinking, right? So, that means, like, no privacy?"

His expression relaxed infinitesimally. "It's more than that, actually. He can see everything that you've ever thought. But he tends not to read those of us who have been with him a long time. I think seeing that much at once is overwhelming, so he's usually looking for something specific when he does it. He knows that if he uses it on us too much, we might be less inclined to stick around."

"But still ... aren't you bothered by that?" I couldn't imagine living under that kind of control.

"I used to be, but I got over it. We have it pretty good here, and Aro, Caius, and Marcus keep everything running smoothly. I'm paid well, my friends are here, and every now and again, a pretty girl stumbles into my path. I can't complain." His lips twitched into a small smile.

I was suddenly very aware of how close Felix and I were sitting, and the moment that I realized it, I could tell that he knew. I glanced away, nonplussed, and when I looked at Felix again, he had a dangerous glint in his eye. Very slowly, he moved his other arm from where it had been resting on his leg and started lightly tracing a pattern on my knee, which was folded between us. I was motionless, the sensation overpowering. Felix's voice was low, hypnotic. "So, what's wrong, Bella? I mean it, you can tell me. You can trust me. I would never hurt you."

That last sentence is what jarred me back into reality, the confused miasma of my thoughts pulling me under again. Edward had promised that same thing, and look what happened. You're not being fair, some part of my subconscious argued, but I knew that I couldn't do this now, not with Felix. He must have seen the pain flash across my face, because he stopped tracing to squeeze my knee gently. "Bella ... Bella, come back. It's okay."

I stood up abruptly, crossing my arms across my chest. "I ... I have to go," I stammered. If I were human, I would have been blushing furiously. I was stonewalling, and I expected Felix to call me on it, but he just leaned back into the couch, and looked at me thoughtfully. "Okay, but I'm not giving up on you just yet. Fair warning."

"Thanks," I whispered, surprised yet again when he jumped up and pulled me into a tight hug. I froze for a second, both arms pinned to my chest by his sudden move, but then, fraction by fraction, I relaxed. I felt Felix's lips brush the top of my head, then he released me. "Have fun with the humans," he teased, giving me a little push out the door.

I turned back to look at him once I stepped into the hallway. "Felix ...," I trailed off, not sure what I was trying to say.

"I'll see you later, Bella." His smile followed me until I stepped out of sight.

...

I wasn't at work more than an hour before I received a summons from Aro. I was glad for a break from insanity brewing in my head, which had only become more intense with the addition of my conversation with Felix. Turning back to matters at hand, I realized that I should be more nervous about Aro's reaction to my newly discovered immunity. I headed to the tower reception room, hoping for the best ... whatever that might be.

"My dear Isabella," Aro's voice rang out from across the room, "Please join us." I glanced across the room and saw Felix watching my entrance, an blank expression on his face. He smiled slightly and winked when he noticed me watching him. I moved through the usual crowd of vampires until I was standing next to Aro and two other vampires that I had often seen him in discussion with.

"You remember Caius and Marcus, my dear?" Aro inquired politely.

"Um, yes, hello." I nodded slightly in their direction. Felix had been the one to explain the hierarchy within the Volturi, but I had never interacted with the other two vampires in the ruling triumvirate.

"We have heard such an interesting tale from Jane," he continued, "Indeed, we found it very difficult to believe, until we spoke to Felix as well, and he confirmed the story, much to our surprise! You have been holding out on us, Isabella." Aro looked at me reproachfully, an assumed mask of hurt across his features. His tone was still friendly, but with an unmistakable sharp undercurrent.

Careful, careful, Bella. I figured that playing dumb was my best bet, considering it wasn't too far off from the truth. "No, no, Aro, not at all! I had no idea that I was immune to Jane before yesterday. In fact, I'm still not sure what I can do, or what it means."

Aro watched my face closely as I spoke, trying to discern, I assumed, whether I was telling the truth. "So, you say, my dear. Perhaps you have been ignorant. I, on the other hand, knew almost from the moment that you joined our little group that you had quite a formidable power. Your immunity to Jane just cements my original assumption." Aro paused for a moment, then lowered his voice slightly, as if he were telling me a secret. "You see, my special gift is mental. When I touch most people, I can see every thought they have ever had. It's quite ... fascinating. However, when I touch you," - he reached out and took my hand between his own to punctuate his point - "I see nothing. The first experience of meeting you was quite shocking, as I'm sure you can imagine."

I did not have to feign surprise when Aro acknowledged his own failure in reading my thoughts. "I've never been around other vampires with talents like you and Jane," I responded, "There was no way for me to know what I could do." Inwardly, I was still slightly confused, because I had just considered the fact that Alice's talent was also mental, yet she had been able to see me. I'd have to think on it more later.

"Indeed," said Aro, thoughtfully, "You can see how your skill set would make you a valuable member of our group. While we have found no one more powerful than Jane, and she is a most loyal companion, it would be incredibly useful to have someone who could resist such a power, if the occasion ever presented itself." I glanced across the room at Jane, who looked like she was ready to murder me. I guess I've just made my first enemy here. Let's hope it ends with her.

Turning back towards Aro, I nodded, dread settling in my gut.

"So, we would be honored if you would join us, Isabella. You would be well taken care of, and an integral member of our group. Felix, in particular, expressed a great desire that you stay with us," he said with a knowing smile. "This is quite an honor, you know. We are very selective in whom we choose."

I glanced at Caius and Marcus. While Caius was giving me a level stare, Marcus seemed to be focused on something just over my shoulder, an expression of complete disinterest on his face. Aro, meanwhile, was almost vibrating in his intensity as he waited for my response.

I carefully weighed my words before speaking, knowing I would have to handle this very delicately. I tried to channel my most formal self, knowing that I probably just sounded weird and stilted. When in doubt, Bella, kiss ass, my mind offered up helpfully.

"Aro, Caius, Marcus," I acknowleged each in turn, "thank you for this great honor. I have greatly appreciated the hospitality and kindness you have shown to me during my short stay here. I ask your patience, though. I'm a new vampire, would like to see the world. I would ask your indulgence in letting me return to school, and grant me some time to travel before I settle in a single place."

Aro sighed gently, "I was afraid you would say something like that. Caius was quite insistent that you stay, convinced you would see the benefits in remaining here after a time. Marcus was in agreement. I, however, have always felt that the best relationships are those founded on trust, happiness, and free will. I would not imprison you here, but instead would prefer to entice you to stay of your own volition. So, I will grant your request -" Caius grunted in disgust at this statement, "- with the fervent hope that you will, in time, return to us. In any case, know that we will be looking out for you, wherever you might end up. We shall always have a vested interest in your future successes."

I recognized his last statement for the veiled threat that it was, and vowed that I would remain vigilant about exposing those that I loved to the Volturi's attention. Nodding in respect, I said, "Thank you for understanding. I will not forget the honor of your invitation, and I hope to return one day." ... like, in about a thousand years, I finished mentally.

"Indeed," Aro replied, a small smile curling the corners of his mouth, "I know you will not forget us." Turning away from me to conference with Marcus and Caius again, I considered myself summarily dismissed, although Caius's steely eyes followed me as I turned to leave. And not a moment too soon, I thought gratefully. I tried to catch Felix's eye on the way out, but he seemed focused on whatever Aro, Marcus, and Caius were discussing.

After I was back in the hallway, heading back to the art collection, I huffed out the breath that I didn't realize I had been holding. I was somewhat surprised that Aro had let me go. After thinking about it for awhile, I came to a startling conclusion. Without Jane, Aro had very little leverage against me. I had managed to keep him cut off from my thoughts - and therefore knowledge of my friends and family, or anything else he could use against me. At least, for the moment. Maybe he was just unprepared for this situation, but I was not going to dismiss his resourcefulness. For the moment, though, it looked like physical restraint would be the only way he could actually keep me here, and I was too much of an unknown to him for him to want to make me an enemy. I knew it was a fine line that I was walking, between his desire to acquire me, and his knowledge that I could pose a distinct threat. I just hoped I could get out of Volterra before balance was tipped one way or the other.

...

The next day, I got a message from Anna, apologizing that she hadn't come down to visit me in Volterra. With all the insanity over the past few days, I had completely forgotten how much I had been worried that she would spontaneously show up. As much as I would have liked to have seen her, I was secretly relieved that I wouldn't have to guarantee her safety, something I was more concerned about now that Jane seemed to be harboring a grudge against me. Anna expressed an interest in visiting the last weekend before we left for the States, but I told her that I was too swamped with last-minute work to spend much time with her. She acquiesced pretty easily, saying that she'd want all the details of my trip on the flight back home.

That night, I met Felix for usual training session, which was also the first time I was alone with Felix since my meeting with Aro. I had seen him in passing a couple of times over the past day, but whenever I tried to make eye contact, he would look away. The feeling that something was wrong did not sit well with me, so I entered the room with some trepidation. This evening, I was met by a shirtless Felix was sitting cross-legged in the center of the mat, focused on me as I came in. I stopped in the doorway, and he continued gazing at me, expressionless.

"What? Why are you staring at me?" I moved into the room, uncomfortable with the intense attention.

"You turned them down," he said after a beat.

"Turned who - oh," I said, as I realized whom he was referring to, "Well, yeah, I mean, you couldn't just expect me to drop everything and stay?" I paused, gauging his expression, "Could you?"

"I was hoping you would," he said quietly, "I guess that makes me a fool."

His open admission made my chest tighten uncomfortably. "Felix," I said gently, "I have a life back in the States. I know that might not mean a whole lot to you, but it does to me. My family and friends are still living, they still know me. I can't give up what little time I have left with them."

His expression became even more remote. "Is that all? Or is there someone waiting for you as well?"

A week ago, I thought, I would have answered you with an emphatic 'no'. But now ... I wasn't sure how to answer. Alice's visit had thrown everything that I thought was certain up in the air. I remained silent.

"Well, that's answer enough," he said suddenly, standing up and assuming a ready stance, "Come on, let's get to work."

Surprised by his ability to drop the topic so swiftly, I murmured my assent, and walked across the mat to face him. Without warning, he dove for my legs, and choking out a startled cry, I jumped at the last second, barely escaping his grasping arms. I landed ungainfully on his other side.

"What the hell, Felix?" I sputtered out, "I thought we were just doing drills again."

"You have to be prepared for anything, at any time" he returned, spinning as he did so. I yelped as he pulled me to the mat again, turning me so he was on top, the hard planes of his chest pressed against mine, his arms locking me in place. I knew he was holding me in a way where I could have broken free if I really wanted to, but the intensity of his gaze held me motionless. "Bella," he said urgently, his eyes pleading with me, "Stay. Stay with me. Please. What can I do to convince you to stay?"

The anguish underlying Felix's tone did not leave me unaffected; sorrow laced my reply."Felix, believe me, if it were that easy, I would. But I can't." It occurred to me at that moment that in some parallel universe, in another life, I could see myself here with Felix. He was funny and smart, and I didn't doubt his feelings for me. I cared about him, too, I realized. Maybe even enough to stay. To my chagrin, though, in this moment I knew that I still loved Edward more, and would never be truly happy until I saw him again, until I figured out what was going on between the two of us.

"Please ... I just found you," he whispered, lowering his lips to mine. His kiss started gently at first, then became more insistent, more possessive. I was surprised at how warm his lips felt against my own. For the first instant, I froze completely, then with equal shock, started kissing him back. This was the first time I had kissed anyone as a vampire, and the sensations coursing through me were unreal, almost overwhelming. One of his hands slid behind my head, knotting itself in my hair. Without thinking, I raised one hand and gently clasped the side of his face, as he made a guttural noise of satisfaction. For a brief moment, a future with Felix in Italy flashed before my eyes. I felt his other hand start to trace its way sinuously down my side, slowly working underneath the exercise top that I was wearing. I gasped slightly at the unexpected heat that flooded through me, which startled me back into the here and now. I broke off the kiss, using one hand to push Felix back slightly. He tensed as I spoke, "Felix, I can't. I just ... can't. Please don't do this."

"You want me," he objected, "I can feel it."

"Felix," I whispered, desperately searching for anything that would make him give me enough room to clear my head, "there is someone else." Saying it out loud made me realize how much truth was behind that simple statement.

With a noise of anger and frustration, Felix abruptly got up, leaving me breathless on the the ground. Turning from me, he bit out, "Don't think I haven't seen the pain in your eyes when you think I'm not looking. I know someone must've put that there. How you can choose that, choose him over me - someone who cares about you and would never hurt you - I'll never understand." He paused for a moment, turning to give me one last piercing glance. I could see the truth of everything he had just said burning in his eyes, but I still couldn't give him the answer he wanted. "We're done here," he finished, and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

I stayed there on the mat for a little while, stunned, the sound of the slammed door reverberating through my head. I want to go home, I realized, feeling drained and emotionally in over my head. I slowly pushed up to my feet.

This would be a hell of a story for Anna, was my last thought as I made my way back up to my room.