Chapter 1: Grayson Gilbert
Grayson Gilbert was thirteen-years-old the day his father left work early to take him out to dinner. Not once in Grayson’s life had Dr. Johnathan Gilbert III ever left his practice early; birthdays, Christmases, anniversaries were all less important than Johnathan’s work, and his father made no apologies for that. He often lectured Grayson on the importance of his work, on the demands placed upon a small-town doctor; Grayson knew his father was trying to impress upon him the difficulty of the profession Grayson wanted to pursue, but most of the time Grayson would have preferred to have a dad who came to his Little League games.
The only events Johnathan never missed were those held at Founders’ Hall. His father took his role as a Founder very seriously; the walls in their house were lined with framed photos of their ancestors, the bookshelves full of old, musty tomes written by the first Johnathan Gilbert. Before Grayson could even read, he had been able to list his ancestors and the roles they played in founding Mystic Falls; as the only one left to carry on the Gilbert name, it was important he know his history.
Grayson prayed every day for a sibling. It was hard to be the only Gilbert, to have the weight of expectation crushing him every moment of every day. He was never allowed to mess up, never allowed to relax. No matter what he did, he had to be perfect, and if he was not perfect, he had to practice until he was. It made it so very difficult to enjoy anything when everything was a test.
Grayson felt like the oldest thirteen-year-old in existence.
And so, when Johnathan came home at four in the afternoon that Tuesday, Grayson was seated at the kitchen table working on his math homework, his mother toiling in the garden. He barely had time to put down his pencil before his father suggested they go for burgers at the newly opened Mystic Falls Grill.
It made Grayson feel unbearably important as they sat in the booth, his father’s attention fixated solely on him. Even when people stopped at their table, Johnathan sent them on their way, and Grayson practically preened with every question his father asked, with every genuine expression of interest. Usually it was his mother who asked the questions, who offered bits of advice and remembered details of his life; Mary Gilbert was the heart of their family, and Grayson loved her with everything he had.
After dinner, as they climbed into Johnathan’s car, Grayson was confused as his father drove past their road and continued towards the edge of town. When the cemetery came into view, Grayson assumed they were going to visit his grandparents’ graves; Johnathan insisted on laying flowers there every week, and, while Grayson had no memory of them, he liked how his father did that, the way he wouldn’t let his grandparents be forgotten.
Grayson was terrified of being forgotten.
They bounced down the unpaved road, past the clean, marble headstones towards Old Fell’s Church. Grayson had only been there once before, the summer he was ten; he, Richard Lockwood, and Bradley Fell were ramping their bikes in the woods when Rich dared he and Brad to go inside the old church. He had just barely crossed the threshold when the worst feeling filled his body; Rich and Brad both laughed at him as he ran away but there was something wrong about that church.
“We’re not going inside, are we?” Grayson asked, trying to keep the fear from his voice.
Johnathan always said fear was for the weak; when Grayson had confessed to being scared of heights, Johnathan had made him climb the tree in their backyard until he was 20 feet off the ground before he would allow him to come back down, face wet with tears and snot.
Johnathan shook his head, turning off the ignition. “No, I just thought this would be a good place to talk.”
“Talk about what?”
“Do you know remember what happened at the Battle of Willow Creek?”
Grayson nodded, reciting what he had learned last Founders’ Day. “During the Civil War, thirty civilians were killed when the troops fired on the church.”
Johnathan gave a small smile. “Yes, that is what our history books say. But what if I told you they weren’t civilians? What if I told you the people in the church that day weren’t people at all?”
“Then what were they?”
Grayson sat stock still for a moment, trying to determine if his usually somber father was making a joke. When Johnathan’s face gave no indication of amusement, he asked, “Are you serious?”
And then Johnathan Gilbert began to speak far more than Grayson had ever heard. He talked about vampires and an herb called vervain; he discussed inventions the first Johnathan Gilbert created to weed out vampires and showed Grayson the ring he always wore on his right hand which protected him from supernatural death. And then he withdrew the pocket watch he always carried and handed it to Grayson.
“This is an heirloom, passed down from father to oldest son since 1864. If used correctly, it allows the holder to detect vampires. You’re old enough to carry it now.”
Grayson turned the gold watch over and over in his hands, his brain spinning wildly.
“I’m telling you this because it’s important to understand what your role will be in this town. It has always fallen to the Gilberts to guide the Founders’ Council, to guide this town. The responsibility you bear to Mystic Falls is greater than any other you will ever have in your life.” Turning the engine back on, he declared, “You’ll come with me to the meeting this week to see what I mean.”
When they got home, Grayson went straight to his room, clutching the pocket watch so tightly it dug into his palm.
Grayson had been coming to Founders’ Hall since he was a baby. His baptismal reception had been held there; he had celebrated holidays with the other Founders’ children in the grand room; he used to hunt Easter eggs on the grounds. One day, when he was old enough, he was going to attend the parties, the dances, and celebrations held in the evenings.
But today he was going to a meeting of the town vampire hunters, and it was taking everything inside of him not to vomit all over the marble floor.
Mayor Lockwood, Sheriff Forbes, and Reverend Fell were already in the conference room with their spouses; Brad, Rich, and Liz Forbes were all seated quietly against the wall, wearing stunned expressions which matched the way Grayson felt inside. Johnathan told him to take a seat, gesturing to the empty chair beside Liz, and Grayson obediently sat, trying to keep his nervousness under wraps.
“How fucking cool is this?” Brad whispered as he stretched across Liz, oblivious to the look of irritation across the blonde girl’s face.
“Awesome,” Grayson lied, swallowing back the lump forming in his throat.
Grayson nearly leapt out of his skin when his mother entered the room, apologizing gracefully as she took a seat beside Mrs. Lockwood; the idea of his mother – a woman who never raised her voice and despised disorder – sitting on the Monster Council was almost too much to take.
“Breathe,” Liz ordered under her breath, her lips barely moving so as not to be noticed by her father, who had started addressing the group.
Grayson’s gaze flicked towards her in confusion. “Huh?”
“You look like you’re going to pass out. Breathe,” she reiterated.
Rich and Brad did not look like they were going to pass out; Grayson had never felt more like a baby.
After almost an hour of discussing a series of animal attacks on the edge of town, Mayor Lockwood excused them, telling them to wait downstairs while they finished business. They filed out of the room, silently descending the stairs, before Grayson’s best friends exploded in excitement.
“We’re going to hunt monsters!” Brad exclaimed, pulling an umbrella out of the stand near the door, brandishing it as a sword. “I’m totally going to kill more vampires than you two!”
“Fuck you,” Rich spat, grabbing his own umbrella, thrusting it crudely towards Brad. “The only way you’re going to kill a vampire is if it chokes on your blood.”
Grayson didn’t say anything, mutely watching as his friends nearly maimed each other with umbrellas. He noticed Liz moving into the other room, and he followed, eager to escape the overzealous declarations of the excellence of their birthrights.
Of all of the Founders’ kids, Grayson knew the least about Liz. There were three Forbes girls: Liz and her younger twin sisters, Lilah and Laura. It was commonly accepted by everyone in Mystic Falls that the Forbes girls were the prettiest in town, but, since Mrs. Forbes died of cancer the year before, Liz had consciously gone out of her way to disguise her beauty. She cut off all her long, blonde hair until it was as short as a boy’s, hid her burgeoning curves beneath shapeless solid colored t-shirts, and never wore makeup the way the other girls did. Kelly Donovan had started calling her “Lezzie Forbes” earlier in the year, and it was a nickname that stuck; Grayson couldn’t remember the last time he had heard someone actually call her by her real name.
They had four classes together at Mystic Falls Middle School; she sat in front of him in every one of those classes, alphabetically bound to each other for their tenure in Mystic Falls, but it never occurred to Grayson to speak to her without a purpose. Everyone knew Liz wasn’t friendly; she didn’t hang out at her locker between classes, never socialized with any of the Founders’, and the only time she ever actually spoke to anyone was when her grade depended upon it. Liz Forbes would not have been Grayson’s first choice for a confidante.
And yet he sat beside her on the couch in the sitting area and could not help but ask, “Do you think this is cool?”
Liz scoffed. “Are you kidding? I keep hoping it’s a really big joke.”
Grayson smiled, his entire body relaxing into the cushions. “I know, right?”
“It’s like a curse,” Liz declared, nose wrinkling as they watched Brad and Rich circle each other, parrying and thrusting wildly. “Just because we’re the oldest, we have to spend the rest of our lives on vampire look-out? Why would anybody want that for their kids?”
He nodded, grateful to Liz for voicing everything he was thinking but felt too treasonous to say aloud.
“All I know is,” Liz continued definitively, “I’ll never bring my kid to one of these meetings.”
It was at that moment Grayson decided Liz Forbes was going to be his friend.
Liz’s house was nothing like his.
Grayson’s house thrived on order; he had never been allowed to have toys in the living room, his mother cleaned the entire house every day, and his father believed too many possessions only complicated life. Meal times were set in stone, the television was rarely on, and there was always a schedule.
The Forbes household was loud. Laura was always singing along to the radio and Lilah spent most afternoons alternately chattering away on the phone or watching television; backpacks and coats were tossed haphazardly no matter how many times Liz prompted her sisters to pick them up, and everyone seemed to operate on their own schedule completely independent from everyone else’s.
“It wasn’t always like this,” Liz confided one afternoon as they hid in the basement, the sounds of her sisters’ echoing above them. “Before my mom died, we were…normal.”
“You’re normal,” Grayson assured her, taking a swig from his Coke.
“We go to anti-vampire meetings, Gray. On what planet is that remotely normal?”
He laughed, shrugging in half-hearted agreement. “Rich asked his dad if he could take karate lessons in case he has to fight a vampire.”
“Rich gets his ass kicked by his little brothers on a daily basis; he’d be better off joining cross-country so he can outrun one.”
“Geez, Liz, can you say something nice about anyone?”
Grayson had meant it as a joke but it became clear as Liz’s face fell she did not take it as such. He opened his mouth to immediately apologize, hating the way pain folded her face, when she murmured, “I say nice stuff about you all the time.”
She pushed off her father’s workbench, anger and embarrassment flooding her face. “I should get upstairs. They’ll wreck the place if I’m not there.”
“Wait! Lizzie!” he called up the stairs, the pounding of her sneakers on the stairs echoing in the basement.
Sheriff Forbes was standing at the top of the basement stairs, a frown on his lined face. Liz stood behind him, lower lip quivering, and Grayson knew how the situation must look.
He hoped Sheriff Forbes wouldn’t shoot him.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” was all the Sheriff said.
Liz didn’t speak to him for the next week. When he mentioned the silence to Rich, his friend rolled his eyes.
“Man, who cares? Lezzie Forbes is a freak, and the only reason she even comes to the meetings is because they don’t have a boy.”
“Don’t call her that,” Grayson ordered sharply, shocked by the fierceness in his own voice.
Rich raised his eyebrows, holding up his hands in resignation. “Whoa, dude, relax. I’m just saying, don’t get all worked up over nothing.”
“She’s not nothing.”
“What, are you in love with her?”
Grayson didn’t want to tell him how he considered Liz to be his best friend, how she was the only person he had to discuss how insane their lives had become.
Rich could never understand that.
Liz climbed the tree outside his window on a Friday night, tapping on the glass with a stick. Grayson was stunned when he got out of bed and saw the Sheriff’s daughter dangling on a limb, motioning for him to open the window.
“What the hell are you doing?” he hissed, glancing at the neon glow of his alarm clock. “It’s almost midnight!”
“I want to show you something. Get your coat.”
They navigated their bikes through the paths in the woods, flying across Wickery Bridge, past the Salvatore Boardinghouse and the cemetery before reaching the falls. Grayson parked his bike beside hers, nearly tripping over exposed roots and weeds in an effort to keep up with Liz.
“Liz, what – “
The clearing overlooking the falls was brilliantly lit by the full moon, the cascading water a thousand different shades as it splashed against the rocks. Grayson had never seen the falls at night before, and he couldn’t remember ever seeing anything more beautiful.
“Before she died,” Liz explained softly, “my mom brought me out here. She made me promise I’d take care of my dad and my sisters. Nothing ever hurt as bad as when she died, and I don’t ever want to feel that way again.”
Grayson stayed silent, unsure if he was supposed to say something.
“I don’t make friends and I don’t say nice things about people because then I’ll like them. And then I’ll love them. And then…if they go away…it’s going to hurt, and I don’t want to be hurt.”
“But then you don’t feel anything at all,” Grayson observed.
Liz nodded minutely. “I like being your friend, Gray.”
“I like you being my friend.”
The hope on Liz’s face nearly broke Grayson’s heart. “Really.”
“And you won’t leave?”
Grayson nodded before bending down, sifting through the dirt until he found a broken shard of a beer bottle. Carefully nicking his palm, he took Liz’s hand in his own, drawing a line of blood across her skin. With the precision of a future doctor, Grayson matched the wounds, his blood mingling with Liz’s.
“I promise I’ll never leave you if you promise to never leave me.”
Liz sniffled, a single tear rolling down her cheek. “Deal.”
In that moment, Grayson knew unequivocally that Liz Forbes would be his best friend until the day he died.
Chapter 2: Miranda Sommers-Gilbert
Miranda never wanted to move to Mystic Falls, but, as her father was so fond of reiterating, the decision was not up to her.
Miranda had been stretched across the couch doing homework and idly watching Jenna scoot around the living room floor the day her parents announced they were leaving Atlanta to move to Nowhere, Virginia. She was going to turn seventeen in a few days, and, on the advice of her best friend Mindy, was strategizing how she was going to get the boy she liked to come to her birthday party. This was her only concern when she sat down at the dinner table that Tuesday, tying Jenna’s bib around her neck while her mother set the food on the table.
When her father announced he had found a new job which would require relocating, Miranda initially thought it was a joke. Both sides of their family had lived in Atlanta since the Civil War, and, as her mother often joked, the only she was ever leaving the great state of Georgia was in a body bag. But Miranda also knew money had been tight since the factory her father owned had closed, so tight it had spurred her mother to go back to work as a nurse, leaving Miranda to spend afternoons watching Jenna, the little sister her parents euphemistically described as a “surprise.”
And, while Miranda was certainly glad her father had been able to find a new full-time job, the idea of leaving Atlanta made her want to scream.
As a rule, Miranda was not a selfish person, but she could not help but burst into tears at his announcement, prompting her father to scoff as he always did at outbursts of emotion. Her mother attempted to soothe her, but it was fruitless, especially once her father declared they would be moving the week after school left out.
And so, four days after Miranda finished her junior year, she hugged all of her friends, promises to call ringing in her ears, before sliding in the backseat of the station wagon and leaving Georgia behind.
She didn’t stop crying until they were outside Charlotte.
The moment Miranda saw the “Mystic Falls Welcomes You!” sign, she knew she was not in Kansas anymore.
There were no bustling streets, no busy sidewalks, no traffic horns blowing or people shouting; it was strangely quiet even though it was mid-afternoon, and she did not see one movie theater or clothing store as they drove through the town square. As her mother navigated the car through the streets, Miranda caught a glimpse at Mystic Falls High School; it was twice the size of her old, private school, which she had loved so desperately.
“Isn’t this quaint?” Diane Sommers piped up from the front seat, glancing over her shoulder at Miranda and Jenna, who was babbling in her car seat.
“It’s like The Waltons,” Miranda replied.
“I know!” her mother agreed, excitement in her voice.
Miranda had not meant it as a compliment.
Russell Sommers was already in the front yard of their new house, Miranda’s uncles helping him unload the truck, and Miranda resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose. She knew her family was not as rich as they once were, but this house was significantly smaller than the one they had left in Atlanta. There was no sprawling lawn, no wraparound porch, no large windows for the sunlight to pour through in the afternoon. Like the rest of the houses on the block, it was square with a chipped paint job, weathered by the harsh Virginia winters; there were wooden steps leading up to the front door, which, to Miranda’s eyes, leaned slightly to the left. The front yard was minimal, and, from what Miranda could tell from her vantage point, the chain link fence which enclosed the backyard seemed useless as it was nothing more than a patch of grass.
Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
Her opinion must have been written all over face because her mother, balancing Jenna on her hip, murmured, “I know it isn’t what we’re used to, Randi, but we’ll fix it up.”
It wasn’t until that moment Miranda realized her mother was as disappointed in this turn of events as she was.
Taking Jenna, who was reaching her chubby arms towards her, Miranda smiled falsely. “We could plant flowers in the front.”
When Diane grinned, Miranda could not help but recognize it as the same smile she gave the neighbors after the business had went under. “And we’ll paint, of course. This could be a nice house. I always thought the old house was too big anyway.”
Miranda’s grandfather had built the house they had lived in; Diane once confided to Miranda it was her favorite place in the world.
“A lot of your father’s new co-workers live in this neighborhood,” Diane continued, brushing her hands against her pants. “There are a lot of kids your age here.”
She nodded encouragingly, trying not to flinch as she saw the screen door her father was holding come loose in his hand.
They had been in Mystic Falls for three days before Miranda saw any of the kids her mother had sworn lived in the neighborhood.
Diane had sent Miranda outside with Jenna so she could properly clean the floors, and, while Miranda was quickly growing tired of playing Jenna’s keeper, her mother appeared to have aged ten years since their arrival. Every moment it seemed like there was something new wrong with the house, and, since her father had started work at the mill two days earlier, it fell to Diane to take care of everything. Miranda considered her mother to be the toughest woman she knew, able to turn any cloud into a silver lining, but she could see how quickly she was getting worn down by everything.
As Jenna was batting at dandelions, giggling as the white puffs flew into the air, Miranda noticed a girl her age across the street, setting up a towel on the lawn wearing nothing but the tiniest red, white, and blue bikini Miranda had ever seen in her life. Her dark hair was pulled up into a ponytail, and Miranda watched as she slathered herself in baby oil before lying down, clearly intent on getting a tan.
Diane Sommers always said a lady never tanned, but something told Miranda this girl cared very little about what other people thought of her.
Miranda watched the girl out of the corner of her eye, bobbing her head along with the radio she was blasting, and she caught sight of the name on the rusted mailbox next to their driveway: Donovan.
After nearly an hour of baking herself in the midday sun, the Donovan girl got to her feet, shaking out her towel before rubbing at the excess oil still on her skin. When she caught sight of Miranda, she froze momentarily before slipping on her flip-flops and crossing the street, still wearing nothing but her bikini.
“So you’re the new neighbor,” the girl said by way of greeting.
Miranda nodded dumbly. She was not a shy person by nature, but she felt slightly nervous in this girl’s presence. “That’s me.”
“I’m Kelly Donovan. I unfortunately live over there.”
Miranda couldn’t help but smirk. “Miranda Sommers. That’s my sister Jenna.”
Kelly glanced at Jenna briefly before declaring, “I’m so fucking glad you aren’t another mouth breathing loser like the guy who lived here before you. He was so creepy; I caught him peeping in my window, like, three times. It was so fucked up.”
Miranda tried not to draw back in surprise at Kelly’s language while simultaneously hoping her mother could not hear her through the open windows. “I’m just glad to see someone else.”
“Yeah, things have been kind of dead lately. There are a couple of guys who live up the block, but they’re total assholes. And Carol, who lives next door to you, isn’t too bad but she’s doing summer school because she flunked algebra again.” Tugging her hair loose, she added, “You know, there’s a party tonight out at the falls. If you want to come, I can introduce you to some people.”
Miranda nodded instantly. “Yeah, that’d be great.”
“Great! I’ll come get you around eight; my dad’s letting me take the car.” Eyes quickly glancing over Miranda’s outfit, she added, “Wear something cooler, okay?”
Miranda blushed as she took in her khaki shorts and yellow peasant top. “Okay.”
It wasn’t until after Kelly disappeared into her house it occurred to Miranda to wonder what the falls were.
Miranda had never had to make friends before, and, as she was quickly learning, it was harder than she thought.
In Atlanta, all of her friends were the children of her parents’ friends; they had all been together since pre-school and, within the confines of their privileged existence, Miranda was extremely popular. She could state objectively and without arrogance she was the prettiest of her Atlanta friends, and, when coupled with her family’s pedigree, it gave her a certain cache in her social circle. People had always wanted to be her friend, and, as she stood on the edges of the crowd gathered at the old cemetery, Miranda realized she didn't have the foggiest idea on how to go about making a new friend.
Kelly had explained Mystic Falls was “cliquey” before launching into a rant about a group of people she called “the Founders.” After parking the car beside an old church, Kelly removed a fifth of whiskey from the glove compartment, taking a swig before offering it to Miranda, who sipped and struggled not to wince. And then, after vaguely introducing her to a handful of people, Kelly disappeared into the crowd, leaving Miranda to awkwardly stand clutching her beer.
She wandered around for a bit, taking in the crumbling headstones with the same few families’ names on them, and followed a trail in the woods to the falls in question, but, as Miranda returned to the party, she was struck with such a longing for home it nearly choked her.
The sudden weight against her body sent Miranda to the ground, her beer spilling all over the top Kelly had given her to wear, and she winced as her hip landed on a rock. She looked up and saw a guy her age, shock on his face, his hand extended.
“Shit! I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you!”
Miranda accepted the hand up, brushing the dirt off her favorite pair of jeans as she tugged the wet material of her top away from her skin. The guy who had plowed her over was about her height with dark hair and eyes; though slightly built, Miranda knew from the bruises which would surely cover her body he was solid muscle.
“It’s okay,” she assured him, flinching at the rawness of her palms.
“Nah, I ruined your shirt and spilled your beer. Total party foul.” Smiling charmingly, he added, “I don’t know you.”
“I just moved here from Atlanta. I’m Miranda.”
He grinned. “I’m Rich; my family’s been here from the very beginning. And as one of this town’s favorite sons, I feel it is my duty to get you another drink and welcome you to Mystic Falls properly.” When she said nothing, he leaned closer, his voice dropping conspiratorially. “Come on, Miranda. What do you got to lose?”
Miranda couldn’t help but smile at the familiar tone. “One drink.”
Rich swung an arm around her shoulders. “Who are you here with?”
An eyebrow arched in surprise. “Kelly? You’re friends with Kelly?”
Miranda nodded, bristling at the slight disbelief in his voice. “She’s my neighbor.”
Sensing he must have made a mistake, he explained, “You don’t have that look about you. But no worries. I’ll introduce you to everyone who matters.”
It wasn’t until later, as Kelly was mocking Rich’s obvious crush on her, Miranda realized Rich did not consider Kelly to be a person who mattered.
The day Rich pulled up in front of her house, Miranda was with Jenna in her plastic kiddie pool.
A heat wave had hit Mystic Falls with a vengeance and, due to their recent money issues, going to the community pool was not in the cards. When Miranda had complained to her parents about the heat and not being able to join Kelly and Carol at the pool, her father pointed to the blue plastic pool Jenna recently received as a birthday present and told her she was welcome to it at any time. Miranda had swore she would never lower herself to doing it, but, when the mercury hit 95, she found herself sitting with Jenna in the water, playfully splashing her back.
As she and Jenna played in the pool, Diane sat on the rickety front steps, occasionally engaging her daughter in conversation, and Miranda teasingly invited her to join them. It was in the middle of their banter Rich pulled up to the curb in his convertible, and Miranda immediately wanted to die.
From her discussions with Kelly and Carol, Miranda knew Rich was, in fact, Richard Lockwood, the eldest son of the Mayor and, by Kelly’s account, the most stuck-up of all the Founders. He lived in a mansion on the other side of town, was captain of the baseball team, and, if Kelly was to be believed, had slept with half of their class. Carol, who was far kinder when it came to Rich, explained he wasn’t half-bad if you got him alone, but there was no use in hoping to date him because he only dated girls of a certain social standing.
Miranda didn’t need either of her new friends to explain that; even her limited understanding of Mystic Falls allowed her to accept that the boy whose family owned the mill did not date girls whose fathers worked there.
As Miranda clamored out of the pool, cinching her towel firmly around her waist, she noticed the way her mother’s eyes lit up as Rich crossed their small yard. Diane was struggling with their new working-class status, especially now that they knew her father’s paychecks weren’t going to cover all of the bills and she’d have to work again. Starting on Monday, she was going to be the new nurse at Dr. Gilbert’s office, and Miranda knew from overhearing a tearful telephone conversation Diane did not want to leave Jenna with a babysitter during the day.
Miranda could already imagine the conversations her mother would have with her aunts, detailing how the Mayor’s son wanted to date her, and Miranda wanted to buckle under the pressure.
As Diane hustled to fetch Rich a glass of sweet tea, the perfect Southern hostess, Miranda could not help but notice Carol, currently stepping off the summer school bus, her face telegraphing her heartbreak.
Being Richard Lockwood’s girlfriend was like being a celebrity; even if you had no idea who someone was, they already knew you and were gossiping before you had even walked past. Miranda felt eyes on her constantly, and, while she would have reveled in it in Atlanta, in Mystic Falls, it felt positively claustrophobic.
Rich introduced her to everyone, always proudly declaring she was his girlfriend, his arm wrapped proprietarily around her waist; Miranda knew it should make her happy but sometimes it felt as if she was a trophy or – even worse – an oddity. As Kelly explained, Rich had never dated a girl whose family didn’t have money; those girls were the ones he slept with, promised to date, and then eventually blew off before moving on to the “acceptable” girls.
Carol had been one of those girls; she wouldn’t even look at Miranda anymore.
But Miranda couldn’t help but admit she liked the parties at the Lockwood mansion and the introductions to new people; she worried this made her a bad person, that she was using Rich, but her mother insisted it was simply a benefit of dating someone new, someone who was such an integral part in Mystic Falls.
Miranda suspected her mother was already planning her wedding to Rich.
It wasn’t that Miranda didn’t like Rich. When they were alone, Rich was surprisingly thoughtful and shockingly artistic, admitting to wanting to leave Virginia to go away to art school and leave the entire Lockwood legacy behind; he always brought something for Jenna when he came over to the house, never acted as if the Sommers house could fit inside the foyer at his own, and he even helped her father fix the front steps. By all accounts, Rich was a terrific boyfriend.
That is, until he got around his friends.
Miranda didn’t like Brad Fell or any of the other guys from the baseball team; the girls in Rich’s social circle were fairly hit or miss, but more than a few of them had made backhanded comments about her father’s job or Miranda’s lack of money. When he was with them, Rich became someone Miranda didn’t recognize: cocky, egotistical, and sometimes disturbingly mean to others. It made her wonder who the real Rich was and if one day he was going to become the one she hated when he was with her.
“Just enjoy the ride,” Kelly advised one afternoon as they sat in a booth at the Grill after back-to-school shopping.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Kelly rolled her eyes. “Rich has a short attention span, and, while I love you, you’re just his new toy. When he gets bored…”
Miranda sighed, stirring her soda with her straw. “What, he breaks up with me and everyone disappears?”
“Everyone except me,” she acknowledged, popping a curly fry into her mouth. “You’re stuck with me forever.”
Miranda laughed. Kelly Donovan was like none of her other friends, in Atlanta or Mystic Falls, but there was something refreshing about Kelly’s refusal to kiss anyone’s ass, to be forced into acting like someone she wasn’t. Miranda knew her parents were hoping her friendship with Kelly would dissipate when school started, but Miranda couldn’t help but adore her in all her foul-mouthed, bad reputation-ed glory.
She noticed him out of the corner of her eye, entering the Grill with Liz Forbes. He was easily the tallest guy in the restaurant, long-limbed and gangly, his light brown hair falling into his eyes as he playfully jostled Liz. His features were not classically handsome, his nose was too big for his face, and she could see the bright sunburn on his cheeks from across the room, but his smile was easily the greatest thing Miranda had ever seen.
Kelly glanced around. “Who?”
“The guy with Liz Forbes. Is that her boyfriend?”
Kelly snorted. “Please! Like Lezzie Forbes would ever have a boyfriend. That’s Grayson.”
“Grayson Gilbert, Doc Gilbert’s kid.”
“I’ve never seen him before.”
Kelly shrugged. “Gray’s some kind of genius; he takes college classes in the summers or something. He’s a good guy.”
“High praise coming from you,” Miranda teased.
“Hey, I can be nice too. And Gray has never been anything but cool to me, even when his friends are total pricks.” Studying Miranda, whose eyes were following his movements through the restaurant, she laughed. “Look at you, with the Founders lust.”
Kelly laughed. “No judgment, Rand. Personally I’d rather you date Gray than Rich anyway, so Carol will quit bitching all the time. But you’ll never get to Gray.”
“Why not?” she asked before stopping herself.
“Because you’d have to go through Lezzie, and she keeps him on lockdown. Besides, Gray isn’t really interested in girls, if you know what I mean.”
“Just rumors,” Kelly admitted after a beat, “but Cadence Fell tried to hook up with him at a party once and he totally shot her down.”
“Maybe he just didn’t like her.”
Kelly rolled her eyes. “No guy doesn’t like when a girl starts doing what Cadence was doing.” Tossing down a few rumpled bills, she declared, “Okay, we need to hit the shoe store next.”
Miranda dutifully followed her out of the Grill, catching one last glimpse of Grayson and Liz at the pool table.
* * *
Miranda officially met Grayson two days later at Rich’s End of Summer party.
She was in the middle of a conversation with two girls who were trying to entice her to try out for cheerleading when Rich hooked an arm around her shoulders and wheeled around. Before Miranda could even protest, she was face-to-face with Liz and Grayson, Liz looking as if she wanted to strangle someone, Grayson smiling in amusement.
“Miranda, my love, I want you to meet my very best friend in the whole world, the guy who has saved my ass on more than one occasion: the incredible Grayson Gilbert. Gray, this is Miranda, the love of my life.”
Grayson smiled endearingly at her, and Miranda felt her stomach flip as he offered his hand to shake, as if they were meeting somewhere other than the Lockwoods’ backyard. “Nice to meet you. You’re Mrs. Sommers’s daughter, right?”
Miranda nodded. “That’s me.”
“Yeah, she told me you’d be going to school with us. This is my friend Liz.”
“We’ve met,” Liz bit out shortly, startling Miranda. Their introduction had been limited earlier in the summer, but Miranda had suspected even then Liz did not like her very much; Rich had told her not to worry about it because Liz didn’t like anyone.
Miranda watched the way Liz’s eyes followed Grayson as he and Rich went to get drinks; she suspected Kelly was all wrong about Liz.
Not that Miranda cared.
No, she was not interested in Grayson Gilbert at all.
They had almost all of their classes together.
For five out of the eight periods every day, Miranda sat across the room from Grayson, listening to him answer questions or start discussions, and she was envious at how effortlessly intelligent he was. She was a good student but she had to work terribly hard for her grades, even harder since her father now said they didn’t have the money to send her to college. Whenever she’d speak up in class, she was always waiting for someone to laugh, to correct her or accuse her of not belonging in the honors courses.
Rich told her she was being ridiculous, that she was the smartest girl he knew, but, given the caliber of girls he knew, this didn’t really inspire much confidence in Miranda.
Halfway through the semester, as she was starting her walk home, Miranda heard someone calling her name. Turning around, she was surprised to see Grayson coming towards her, an affable smile on his face.
“You walk fast,” he joked with a mock gasp as he sidled up to her, his backpack hanging heavily over his shoulders.
“I have to pick up my sister from the babysitter.”
“Do you want a ride? I have a car.”
“You don’t have to – “
“No, it’s cool. Plus I’m going to be asking you for a favor, so it’ll make me feel less like a jerk for doing it.”
Miranda smiled at his wheedling expression as she followed him to his car, blushing slightly as he opened the passenger’s side door for her. Unlike Rich’s car, which was flashy and always smelled faintly of marijuana, Grayson’s car was clearly a hand-me-down from his parents, complete with a booster seat in the back.
“It’s my brother John’s,” he explained when he saw Miranda’s eyes flick towards it. “He’s almost five.”
“My sister’s two.”
“Jenna,” he filled in with a nod. Blushing slightly, he admitted, “I help out at my dad’s office, and I talk to your mom a lot. She’s always telling stories about you and Jenna.”
This time Miranda blushed. “Wow, that’s really embarrassing.”
“No, it’s cute,” Grayson insisted. “She really loves you guys.”
Miranda nodded, fiddling with the hem of her shirt, before asking, “So you needed a favor?”
“Yeah, with the Macbeth paper.”
“You need help in class?”
Grayson raised his eyebrows in mock offense. “What’s that supposed to be mean?”
“Well, aren’t you a genius?”
As they stopped at a red light, Grayson looked at her, his eyes softening. Miranda felt the air shift, and she knew something was happening, building, and she should look away.
“Not about anything that’s important,” he replied sadly before continuing on through the streets of Mystic Falls.
“You’re totally in love with him,” Kelly teased one afternoon after Grayson had dropped her off after a study session.
“We’re just friends, Kell.”
The lie tasted bitter on her tongue.
If Liz didn’t like Miranda before she started hanging out Grayson, she absolutely despised her afterward.
Miranda never quite knew what to make of Liz Forbes. While perpetually rude and all-together unfriendly, Grayson insisted Liz was the nicest, sweetest person he knew; Miranda listened to countless tales of Liz’s awesomeness from Grayson, and the genuine affection in his voice told Miranda he loved her dearly. But Miranda could not reconcile the person Grayson described and the unpleasant girl from gym class who refused to even return a greeting.
The first time Liz spoke to Miranda, she had just changed back into her street clothes, securing the lock on her gym locker and turning around to find Liz standing there, sour expression firmly in place. Miranda could not help but jump, startled by her sudden appearance, and then immediately blushed when Liz’s scowl deepened.
“You scared me.”
“Yeah, I’m super sneaky by just walking up to you,” Liz deadpanned, folding her arms across her chest.
Miranda could not help but squirm. “Do you need something?”
“I just want you to know that what you’re doing is really shitty.”
“What I’m doing?”
Liz huffed in irritation, disbelief written on her face. “Don’t pull the innocent thing with me, okay? I’m not a guy who can’t see past long legs and big boobs.”
Miranda bristled, swallowing back the sharp words she desperately wanted to fling at Grayson’s friend. “Look, Liz – “
“Grayson is my best friend,” she interrupted fiercely, “and he’s a good guy who believes the best about people. And while I think he’s a total tool, Grayson loves Rich like a brother. So what you’re doing to them is incredibly fucked up.”
“What do you mean? I’m not doing – “
“I know you like Gray,” Liz snapped. “Anyone with half of a brain knows it. And I also know Rich really likes you. So when this blows up and Rich figures out you’re into Gray, it’s going to ruin everything.”
“Liz – “
“Everything, Miranda. Do you understand?”
Miranda nodded, shame filling her chest as Liz walked away.
She refused Grayson’s offer of a ride home, crying all the way.
Everything started to fall apart at the Founders’ Kick-Off Party.
Miranda stood on the patio with Rich, Grayson, Liz, Brad, and the rest of the people their age, talking about nothing in particular, grateful to escape the mind-numbing boredom of the party inside. As Dr. Gilbert rang the Founders’ bell, Miranda listened as Brad was telling a story about a fight he had gotten into with one of her neighbors earlier in the week.
She wasn’t paying much attention until she heard Rich’s brother Mark ask him if he was worried he was going to get in trouble.
“Nah, he’s just mill trash.”
It was funny how two words could make the world shudder to a stop.
Miranda felt heat starting to flood her face, anger and embarrassment raging inside her, made even more acute by the slow slide of eyes in her direction, some of the girls hiding their smirks behind the rims of their glasses. She waited for Rich to defend her, to tell Brad to apologize, but instead he laughed, continuing on with the conversation as if nothing of consequence had happened.
The bathroom door was not even fully closed before Miranda started to cry. It was just like Kelly had warned her; at the end of the day, they were always going to be mill trash to them.
The knock on the door was soft, and Miranda quickly attempted to right her running eye makeup, calling out a request for an extra minute. As she opened the door, she found Grayson standing there, an understanding smile on his face, and it made her cry all over again.
Grayson enfolded her in his arms, squeezing her tightly, and murmured, “You know you’re worth ten of us, right?”
“Sure,” she sniffled against the front of his shirt, burrowing deeper into his embrace.
“Rich is just drunk. If he was sober, he would’ve knocked Brad out for saying that.”
Miranda wasn’t sure if it was his comforting of her or his defense of Rich which cut her deeper.
“I really hope you win,” Kelly confided as she helped Miranda remove the bobby pins from her hair, sending her dark hair cascading over her shoulders in curls.
Miranda smiled into the vanity mirror, carefully applying a layer of gloss to her lips. Her red gown hung behind them, the beading even more beautiful in the light, and Miranda could not help but feel like a princess as she saw it. She knew her parents had spent far more money than they should’ve on the dress, but her mother was so happy at the idea she could be Miss Mystic Falls, Miranda suspected she would’ve mortgaged the house to make it happen.
“I’m the only non-Founder on the court.”
“Yeah, but you’re also the only one whose face isn’t a prime example of what 125 years of inbreeding gets you.”
Miranda exploded into laughter, ignoring the pointed glares from Cadence Fell. “I don’t stand a shot, and you know it.”
“Oh, please,” Kelly said with a roll of her eyes, removing the dress from its hanging place. “You’re practically engaged to Rich Lockwood. It’s a sure thing.”
“You’ll still remember me when you’re ruling this town with an iron fist, right?” she teased, helping Miranda cautiously step into the dress before drawing up the zipper.
“You can be my lady-in-waiting,” Miranda promised, playing along.
“When have I ever waited for anything?” Kelly countered with a mischievous grin. Adjusting Miranda’s hair, she declared, “You’re fabulous. Now I’m going to go try to get us some champagne for the after party and you go win one for all the little people.”
Miranda loved Kelly so much in that moment, it nearly choked her.
As the contestants lined up atop the staircase, Miranda stretched to look for Rich; she knew he had been drinking earlier with the other escorts, and she was desperately afraid he was going to be toasted when her name was called. He had promised he would be the most perfect escort he could be, and Miranda had been stunned at how attentive he had been during the dance lessons. But now, as she watched the other girls called down, she did not see Rich anywhere.
“Miranda Sommers,” Mayor Lockwood intoned, signaling Miranda should begin her descent down the stairs, “escorted by Richard Lockwood.”
The only person waiting at the bottom of the stairs was Mayor Lockwood, and Miranda could already hear the whispers starting, could already picture her mother’s horrified face.
She paused at the bottom of the stairs, unsure what she was supposed to do now, tears already starting to swell, when Grayson suddenly came forward, taking her hand and leading her towards the yard.
“Where’s Rich?” she hissed, hearing the hurt in her own voice.
“I don’t know,” Grayson admitted as they stepped out into the sun, “but don’t worry; I did this last year with Liz’s sister. I won’t embarrass you.”
As she and Grayson circled each other, hands just shy of touching, a smile playing at his lips, Miranda knew she was in love with Grayson Gilbert.
Grayson did not ask her out until the last night of freshman orientation at UVA.
When Miranda was offered the scholarship to UVA, she accepted it only because she knew it was going to be her only option; her dream of going to Emory was gone now, the tuition far too high for the Sommers family to afford, and so she swore to herself she was going to enjoy her college experience. Kelly had already promised to visit every weekend, and Miranda knew a few of their classmates would be joining her, including Grayson who received a full scholarship to the pre-med program.
On the first night before classes, Miranda was walking back to her dorm when she spotted Grayson coming in the opposite direction, flanked by boys she didn’t know, and he stopped, a wide grin on his face.
“Hey, stranger,” he greeted. “Where you headed?”
As they chitchatted for a few minutes, Grayson glanced at his friends, impatiently waiting for him, before blurting out, “Do you want to go a party with me next weekend?”
Miranda could not help the Cheshire cat grin which spread across her face. “Yeah, I’d love that.”
When she called Kelly to tell her the news, her best friend yelled, “Finally!”
They had been dating six years when Grayson took her to the Gilbert family lake house for a weekend and showed her what was in the closet.
Miranda stood there, taking in the sight of all of those weapons, the stack of journals, and listened as Grayson outlined everything about his family’s legacy, about the legacy of Mystic Falls. At first she waited, hoping this was a joke, and then she saw just how serious Grayson’s face was, how his hands trembled as he offered her one of his ancestor’s journals.
“You really believe this,” she stated as if testing the words, uncertain how the very logical man she loved could possibly think that vampires were real.
“I know it sounds crazy – “
“Because it is crazy,” Miranda cut in, thrusting the journal back at him. “You’re telling me Mystic Falls was overrun by vampires, and the Founders all work together to kill them! You don’t see how I’d think that’s crazy?!”
“I needed you to know though! It’s important you understand what I have to do.”
“Have to do? What are you talking about?”
Grayson ran his fingers through his hair, gesturing to their surroundings. “Now that my dad’s gone, it’s my responsibility, Rand. I have to take his place on the Council; I have to do what every Gilbert has done for the past 130 years.”
“You have to fight vampires?”
“I have to protect the town!” Tears welling in his eyes, he gritted out, “I swore to my dad I would carry on the tradition, and I can’t go back on that, not now.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked, her insides twisting painfully.
“Because I want to be with you forever,” Grayson confessed without a moment’s hesitation, “and I don’t want to have to ever keep secrets from you.”
Miranda sighed, walking out of the bedroom and beginning to pace the length of the living room. Grayson followed, standing uneasily near the island in the kitchen, anxiety written all over his face.
“I don’t believe in vampires,” Miranda finally said, pushing her hair back from her face.
“I don’t really either,” Grayson admitted, “but this is still what I have to do.” Swallowing hard, he continued, “I understand if you don’t want a life with this in it – “
“I want a life with you in it,” she interrupted. “I’ve wanted that since we were seventeen, but…You can’t just tell me vampires are real and your family moonlights as vampire hunters and expect me to just shake it off.”
Grayson nodded. “I know you’ll need time. I just needed to tell you.”
Miranda stayed on the couch that night, too scared to go to sleep.
Since first getting together, Miranda could count on one hand how many times she and Grayson had been separated. She always slept better knowing Grayson was beside her, always felt a sweet sense of calm steal over her body when she knew he was nearby, and it felt as if the world was tilting off of its axis the longer Miranda deliberately avoided him.
Since graduating UVA two years earlier, Miranda had taught fifth grade at Mystic Falls Elementary, spending her days with eleven-year-olds and her evenings on the phone with Grayson. Some nights she would drive to Charlottesville to stay at Grayson's tiny apartment while every other weekend he would drive down, twisting all 6'3” of his body beside hers in the twin bed which still remained in her bedroom in her parents' house. However, since Grayson's bombshell at the lake house, Miranda had no idea what to say to him, how to act normally after being told of something so epically twisted.
“Did something happen between you and Grayson?” Diane asked one evening as Miranda dried the dishes she was handed, mechanically swiping the cloth as her father watched a baseball game and Jenna worked on the puzzle Grayson had bought her for her last birthday.
Miranda opened her mouth to assure her mother everything was fine, but the tears beat out her words. As she began to cry, her shoulders bouncing with the effort it took to hold back the screams of frustration which wanted to work their way out, Diane quickly enfolded her in the tightest of hugs, shushing her softly.
“Oh, sweetie. Whatever it is, we can fix it.”
Miranda had no idea how this could ever be fixed.
“You're breaking his heart. You know that, right?”
Miranda started at the voice, spinning around to face Liz Forbes, currently standing in the doorway of her classroom, her arms folded tightly across her chest. She tried to remember the last time she had spoken to Liz without another person present, the last time she had even seen Liz without Grayson facilitating any interaction, and Miranda realized the last time she and Liz had a conversation was back in high school when she had all but called Miranda a slut.
Judging by the pinched expression on her face, Miranda had a feeling this conversation was going to have a similar feel.
“This is none of your business,” Miranda state firmly, turning her attention back to the bulletin board she was decorating.
“Well, it became my business when Grayson showed up at my apartment, drunk out of his mind, and sobbing because you hate him now.”
Miranda's heart twisted at the description; the only time she had ever seen Grayson cry was at his father's funeral, having told her long ago his father hated any signs of weakness.
Liz scoffed at her silence. “I told him you'd react like this, that he shouldn't tell you.”
Her anger so acute, Miranda spun back around, growling, “Don't act like I'm the crazy one! What the hell was I supposed to do, ask him to pass me a stake?!”
Liz stepped inside the room, slamming the door shut. Her entire body was tense in anticipation of a fight, and Miranda could admit she was slightly frightened of what Liz was about to unleash upon her; she had no doubt Liz had been bottling grievances for seven years and was about to air each and every one of them.
“Do you have any idea what it took for him to tell you that, to show you what was in the closet?” Liz hissed, her voice conspicuously lowered so as not to attract attention from any other nearby teachers. “He's been wrestling with it for years and the only reason he told you was because he didn't want you to marry him without knowing the truth!”
“And I'm supposed to just wave my hands and tell him it's okay? This is not okay! And the fact that you think it's okay - “
“I think it's okay because it's all I know! It's all Gray knows! This isn't some choice we made; we were born into it!”
“And you can choose to leave it, but he's not making that choice! He wants me to tell him it's okay he believes in vampires and I'm supposed to just act like this is what I want for my life too.”
Liz shook her head, her blonde bob bouncing around her chin. “You think it's that easy, but it isn't, not for us! You'll never understand what it is like to be a Founder in this town!”
“I am so sick and tired of hearing about the fucking Founders! I am not marrying this town!”
“If you marry Grayson, you marry this town! You still don't get it, Miranda: as long as you're in Mystic Falls, as long as you're with Grayson, you are this town.”
“And you believe in all of this, that there are vampires and you guys are Mystic Falls's last line of defense?”
Liz rolled her eyes. “No, but I also don't plan on ever living in this town again, so it doesn't matter what I think.” Meeting Miranda's gaze, she continued, “Grayson loves this town and he loves you, and the worst thing you could do is make him choose.”
“Why do you even care?” Miranda asked, stunned by the level of combativeness in her own tone. “You've hated me from day one.”
“I don't like you,” Liz admitted freely, “but I love Grayson, and he can't imagine his life without you.” Fire in her eyes, Liz added, “And if you're smart, you won't want to imagine your life with him.”
“Liz - “
“I think he can do better than you,” Liz stated bluntly. “And if you don't want to be with him, every other single girl in town will. So don't fuck this up.”
Liz Forbes was the only person Miranda knew who could give you a helping hand while simultaneously punching you in the face.
Two weeks later, Grayson came home from class to find Miranda sitting on the futon in his living room.
“I don’t want our kids to ever know about this,” Miranda began as Grayson set down his bag. “I understand you promised your dad you’d carry on the tradition, but I need you to promise me our kids will never know about the Gilberts.”
Grayson nodded slowly, a careful smile on his face. “I can promise you that.”
“And I’m never going to buy into all of this.”
Miranda rose, slipping her arms around his neck, pulling him down so she could brush her lips across his. “I love you more than anything in this world.”
“Even though I’m crazy?” Grayson teased.
“Even though you’re crazy,” Miranda confirmed.
They married two years later, one week after Grayson graduated medical school. As everyone pressed their lips against her cheek and offered their best wishes, Miranda noticed Kelly in her maid of honor's dress staring at her speculatively from the corner.
“What?” she finally asked as she sidled up to her best friend.
“You're finally one of them, Randi.” Tossing back her drink, Kelly added, “God help you.”
Miranda knew she meant it as a joke.
As she watched Grayson, Rich, Brad, and Liz congregating near the edge of the dance floor, all Miranda could think about was how much it didn't feel like one.
Chapter 3: Richard Lockwood
The only reason he slept with Carol Harper the night of Grayson and Miranda's reception was because he was so goddamn angry and lonely, the idea of going home alone to his apartment in Richmond was enough to make him want to jump off his balcony.
See, the fucked up thing was, no one thought he was angry because he and Miranda broke up eight years ago, and, sure, it had mostly been his fault. But Grayson was his best friend, and he had told Gray just how much he had loved Miranda, and then, the second they were out of Mystic Falls, Gray made his move.
It was a dick move, and, although he agreed to be Gray's best man because that's what you do when you've been friends with someone since in the womb, Rich also knew he was never going to forgive him for doing what he did.
Carol wore the same pale pink dress as Kelly Donovan and Miranda's little sister, but it fit her oddly; Kelly looked a hell of a lot hotter but, despite what everyone around town said, it could get kind of tricky getting Kelly Donovan into bed. Rich had never had the pleasure because Kelly had told him on more than one occasion exactly what she thought of him, and he found it highly unlikely that was going to change because of a half-dozen whiskey sours and any kind of wedding lust.
Carol, on the other hand, had wanted to be with him ever since those six weeks during sophomore year when he had used her as an easy hook-up. His mother warned him and his brothers about girls like Carol Harper; “gold digger” and “social climber” were words Cecilia Lockwood tossed out whenever any of them brought home a girl she didn't think was worthy of the Lockwood name.
Cecilia Lockwood loved Miranda Sommers; Rich had been treated to countless speeches in the past eight years about how stupid he had been to “let a good girl like Miranda go.”
Carol smiled warmly as he sidled up to her, slinging the same bullshit that had made him so popular at Virginia Tech. He kept ordering her more Amaretto Sours and, when he suggested they get out of there, she had practically tripped all over herself to climb into the passenger’s seat of his convertible.
They went to her shitty studio on the edge of town, both of them too drunk to even consider driving into Richmond, and Rich couldn't help but wrinkle his nose at the sight of the one room which was smaller than any single room in his apartment. As Carol drunkenly kicked off her heels and offered him wine which came from a box, Rich resisted the urge to compare her to Miranda.
Jesus Christ, was he pathetic.
He pushed her back onto her scarred, secondhand kitchen table and fucked her there, hard and discourteous. Rich waited for her to say stop, to call him a bastard and kick him out, but she didn't, which almost made it worse. She was just so goddamn needy and desperate for his attention, and in that moment, he didn't really care because he was going back to Richmond in the morning, leaving this armpit of a town in his rearview mirror.
Carol left him messages on his answering machine for weeks after the reception, but he erased them without listening. Brad came up for a weekend and laughed at the sound of Carol's attempts at telephonic seduction.
“She's totally going to Fatal Attraction your ass,” Brad laughed as he pulled another beer out of the cooler between their chairs on the balcony.
“Shut the fuck up,” he ordered good-naturedly. “She'll get the hint.”
“Carol Harper? Are you fucking kidding? She'd wait until the next Ice Age if she thought she'd get to end up Mrs. Richard Lockwood.”
“That'll be a cold day in hell. My mother would kill us both before she'd ever let me walk her down the aisle.”
“You know now that Mark's engaged, she's going to be on your ass again.”
Rich rolled his eyes. The oldest of his younger brothers had announced his engagement a few days earlier, and, after she had nearly gone into full convulsions at the idea of hosting a wedding at the mansion, his mother had called and started to drop hints about how it was really time for him to start living a “real” life instead of “playing bachelor in the city.”
Sometimes he wondered if 26 was too old to put yourself up for adoption.
They bullshitted back and forth for a few hours before Brad headed back to Mystic Falls and Rich passed out. He had to go into DC in the morning for a meeting, and Grayson had been leaving his messages to get together ever since he and Miranda got back from Hawaii. As he drifted off to sleep, Rich wondered if maybe another move wasn't in the cards.
Anything to get as far away from Mystic Falls as possible.
He woke up to the insistent ringing of his phone. Without opening his eyes, Rich fumbled for the receiver before grunting, “What?!”
“Get your ass to this house right now.”
Rich was wide awake at the sound of his father's voice. Benjamin Lockwood did not speak on the phone; he had people who made calls for him, who issued his pronouncements while he attended to more pressing business. Rich had never spoken to his father on the phone, and he had only heard this level of anger in his father's voice once before in his life, the night his father had literally beaten him black and blue for crashing his mother's Mercedes.
“Dad, what - “
The dial tone told him just how serious his father was. Without even considering the ramifications on his career, Rich dialed the office and told them he would be going to DC today due to a family emergency. Within thirty minutes, he was on the interstate headed towards Mystic Falls.
When he entered the mansion, the first thing he noticed was just how silent it was. It was August, and all of his brothers were at home; usually the moment he crossed the threshold, Mark was there to discuss what was going on in law school or Jake would want to talk baseball or Mason would jump on his back and want to wrestle. This time there was only eerie silence and a sinking sense of dread growing in the pit of his stomach.
Rich tried to remind himself that he was a grown man, an adult who did not need to come running just because his father snapped his fingers, but, even at 26, Rich could admit he was still scared of his father.
The moment he entered the living room and caught sight of Carol on the couch, her hands folded in her lap, wearing a dress which was obviously not her own, Rich felt an acute rage overcome his body. He was opening his mouth to curse at her when he noticed his mother had been crying, one of her scalloped, monogrammed handkerchiefs clutched in her grip, and his father was glaring at him as if he was going to rend him limb from limb.
“What's going on?”
“Carol is pregnant,” Cecilia Lockwood stated, the tremble in her voice cutting into Rich's heart.
His head snapped to face his one-night stand, and, even as she demurely murmured, “I tried to tell you,” Rich could see the subtle signs of victory in her eyes. Cecilia had warned all of her sons about the dangers of getting girls pregnant, and Rich was usually fastidious about using a rubber, especially with girls like Carol Harper.
Damn the Gilberts and paying for that open bar.
“How do I even know it's mine?”
Rich didn't think this was a ridiculous question; he didn't really know Carol that well, but he knew enough about her and the company she kept to know she had a reputation comparable to Kelly's. And if Rich had come to his parents instead of Carol with this claim, he had no doubt it would have been the first question out of his mother's mouth.
Instead, he barely had time to see his father's hand flying at his face before Benjamin Lockwood's backhand sent his head snapping to one side. Rich tasted the blood in the corner of his mouth, and he wondered how old he would be before his father stopped thinking it was okay to hit him.
“Do you have no decency at all?” Benjamin growled, shaking him by the sleeve of his shirt.
“Dad - “
“Here is what is going to happen,” Benjamin continued, thinly controlled anger in his voice. “You and Carol are going to announce your engagement at the dinner party your mother and I are throwing tomorrow. Then, in about a month, you're going to elope. You'll move into one of our rental properties until you can find a proper house, and you'll come to work managing the mill.”
“I don't want - “
“I don't care what you want!” Benjamin roared, prompting both Cecilia and Carol to jump. “This is what is happening and this is what you will do!”
By the time he and Carol left the mansion, a ring which had once belonged to some Lockwood ancestor resided on her ring finger, sparkling in the summer sun.
It was the shiniest shackle Richard had ever seen.
When their engagement was announced during his parents' dinner party, Richard could read the shock on Grayson and Brad's faces. Since his father's orders the night before, Rich had not been able to bring himself to tell his best friends what was going on; Mark had shown up in his room last night and offered his condolences, but Rich hadn't wanted his little brother's pity.
Carol beamed as she accepted everyone's congratulations and Rich hated her so much, more than he has ever hated anyone in his life. Perhaps it was his own paranoia kicking in, but he just knew she had done this on purpose, that she had probably been plotting this since they were seventeen, just waiting for her chance.
He smiled because that was what he had been trained to do; the very first lesson any Founder was taught was how to feign interest and enjoyment at functions they had little desire to be at. As Mark's fiance squealed over Carol's ring and Grayson attempted to cut off a visibly intoxicated Brad, Rich spotted Miranda near the terrace. He excused himself from Reverend Fell and Mrs. Gilbert, grabbing a flute of champagne off of a passing tray, and following Miranda into the night.
She wore a navy dress with silk flowers around the neckline, a matching flower tucked into the tumble of dark curls he used to love to run his fingers through. Miranda was without a doubt the most beautiful woman Rich had ever known and certainly had ever dated, and that beauty had only grown since they were teenagers. She taught fifth grade at Mystic Falls Elementary while Grayson interned at Mystic Falls General, and he knew from Mason how much all of the students loved her.
He really does try not to be bitter about how everything worked out, but it had never felt more unfair than it does today.
“Congratulations,” Miranda offered softly as she sips from her own champagne, keeping her gaze focused on the pond in the distance, the fountains spraying prettily in the moonlight.
Rich scoffed because he couldn't imagine feigning excitement over this blackmail marriage, not with Miranda. She had always been the only person he had ever really been able to talk to openly, even more so than Brad or Grayson, and, even after she had started to date Gray, they maintained a fairly close friendship.
He always hoped she would leave Grayson, come back to him, but he didn't say that because it would've killed two friendships in one stroke.
“I know this isn't what you wanted,” Miranda began.
“This is what she wanted,” Rich growled, tasting the bile in his own voice.
“You weren't exactly an innocent victim here,” she pointed out, her voice even and practical. “You did sleep with her.”
“Because I was drunk and depressed, not because I wanted her to be my wife!”
Miranda sighed, finally turning to face him. “What do you want me to say here, Rich? Carol is my friend, and you did get her pregnant.”
“I want you to tell me the truth.”
“About whether or not she planned this.”
He expected Miranda to deny it immediately because, even if it was true, Miranda was fiercely loyal to her friends, especially Kelly and Carol. Instead she pressed her lips together until they had almost disappeared and sighed heavily through her nose. And then, and only then, did she finally speak.
“She never told me of any kind of plan to sabotage birth control or anything, but...”
“But desperate people do desperate things.”
“And what does she have to be desperate about?”
This time Miranda scoffed. “What, you think Carol dreamed that one day she'd get to tend bar at the Grill? That she'd have to give over half her check to her mom just so she'd still have a roof over her head? That she'd have to work two jobs just so she can help put her sister through school?”
“She does all that?”
“Do you know anythingabout the woman you're marrying?”
“I know she doesn't have any reservations about getting bent over a table.”
Miranda's face folded in distaste, and Rich instantly knew he had gone too far. He wanted to apologize for offending her but she was already moving, sneering her disgust at the callous way she referred to Carol and ordering him to sober up.
He didn't see Miranda again until after the elopement, after Carol Harper had officially become Carol Lockwood, and even then she'd barely glance in his direction.
Rich was getting ready for work one morning when he heard Carol start to scream, “No! No, please God, no!”
He ran down the stairs of their townhouse to find Carol hunched over the sink in the kitchen, a rapidly swelling bloodstain spreading across the cotton on her nightgown and streaking the tile. Carol was moaning in pain as she slid to the floor, her hands resting on the bulge which in four months was to be their child, and Rich swallowed back the urge to vomit. Instinct more than anything else led him to grab the telephone, but it was not 911 he dialed; instead he called Grayson, babbling incoherently as he tried to explain what was going on. Grayson told him to bring Carol to the emergency room, and he was never more grateful to see his best friend than he was as they entered the hospital.
Rich wasn't sure how long he was pacing the waiting room when Grayson finally emerged from the exam room, a somber look upon his usually jovial face. He listened as Grayson explained what had happened in the simplest of terms, but all Rich was really able to glean was that there was no more baby, that Carol was going to stay over night, and that they would be able to try again in six months.
He called his mother and then Carol's mother; both women came to the hospital, both dabbing at their eyes, and it was the first time Richard could ever remember Cecilia Lockwood and Jane Harper interacting without looking completely awkward. Miranda and Kelly show up a few hours later, Miranda still dressed in her work clothes, Kelly looking as if she was coming off a week-long bender. Both of them hugged him, which caught him off-guard; the last time Kelly Donovan had hugged him, it was only to get him close enough to knee him in the balls.
“I'm sorry,” Miranda sighed against his neck.
Richard wasn't sure he was, but he knew he couldn't say that out loud.
Later, when he finally entered Carol's room, he found his usually put-together wife sobbing, her face pale and swollen from tears, her hair a tangled mess. If there was one thing Richard could say about Carol, it was that she was always immaculately put-together, always presented herself as if she was going to be competing in a beauty pageant; to see her so out of sorts was disconcerting to him.
“Are you going to divorce me now?” Carol whimpered as he approached her bedside.
Rich froze, genuinely stunned. “What?”
“You only married me because I was pregnant,” she reminded him, her lower lip quivering, “and I couldn't even give you a healthy baby.” Breaking down into sobs, she pitifully added, “But I really wanted this baby, and I'll be a really good wife, I promise.”
He moved to the side of her bed, perching on the side. Drawing her into his arms, he stroked her hair and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Of course I'm not going to divorce you. You're my wife, Carol. Everything's going to be okay.”
Rich wasn't even sure he liked his wife, but he did know he might be the only person she had.
Two more miscarriages followed the first, and with every pregnancy which did not come to fruition, Rich started to feel like Carol was becoming an entirely different person. It was strange, watching the evolution of his wife, but soon she had gotten so good at imitating his own mother, Rich couldn't help but wonder if she was attending special Lockwood tutoring sessions with her mother-in-law.
Suddenly Carol was spending massive amounts of money on new clothing, new hairstyles, jewelry; whereas she had once proudly flounced around town in outfits and hairstyles straight out of music videos, Carol now wore the kind of tailored skirts and sweater sets common to the country club set. She organized bake sales and fundraisers and co-chaired events with his mother, and it was almost as if she had completely erased people's memories of her as Carol Harper, daughter of the alcoholic who ran off and left his family, the girl who had desperately wanted to be Miss Mystic Falls and couldn't scare up a nomination, the girl who tricked Richard Lockwood into marrying her.
They had just moved into a house of their own on the edge of town, and Carol insisted on throwing a housewarming party.
“Small, intimate dinner,” Carol corrected when he complained about yet another party. “Just a few of our friends having dinner and a little wine.”
He had learned long ago arguing could be pointless once Carol dug her heels in, so he simply nodded. As she began to list the people she wanted to invite, Rich noticed she had conspicuously forgot one person.
“What about Kelly?”
Since their wedding, Rich had come to appreciate Kelly and her blunt style of delivery. It was always refreshing whenever everyone was over, discussing their careers and how the stock market was doing, to have Kelly swagger over and begin to tell ridiculously outrageous stories about her latest hook-ups. He hadn't seen her in months, not since she had given birth to Victoria and stopped going out on the town, and he knew from his last conversation with Grayson that Kelly was struggling with single parenthood.
Carol wrinkled her nose before minutely shaking her head. “I don't think that's a good idea.”
“Why not? I'm sure she could find a babysitter for the night.”
Carol sighed before folding her hands atop the list she was making; Rich instantly recognized it as one of his mother's mannerisms. “I don't think we should socialize with Kelly anymore.”
He blinked in surprise. “What are you talking about? You've been friends with Kelly since diapers.”
“And how Kelly conducts her life isn't the way we conduct ours. We have a reputation to uphold; the Lockwood name is older than this town and it means something. Someday you're going to be mayor of Mystic Falls, and when that happens, we can't be associated with people like Kelly Donovan.” She scoffed. “Honestly, Richard.”
It was one of her newest habits: calling him by his full name, referencing his supposed future as mayor. He knew it was what his parents wanted; the Lockwoods had been running Mystic Falls for over a century, and, as the oldest son, it was his duty to fill. The problem was, he didn't want it. He had never wanted it.
Back in high school when he was with Miranda, they had gone out to the falls to fool around. Afterward, they had talked about their futures, what they wanted outside the boundaries of Mystic County. She was the only person he had ever told about his aspiration to become an illustrator. He used to draw characters in the pages of her notebooks, little designs on the palms of her hands; Miranda encouraged him to apply to art school, and, while he had never quite gathered enough courage to do it, he had minored in art while at school. It was why he had loved his job at the ad agency in Richmond, why he despised his job pushing paper at the mill.
He had tried to outrun the Lockwood legacy, and here he was anyway, married to the kind of woman he had never wanted to marry, facing down his parents' dreams for him with little hope of escape.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad being mayor.
When Carol announced she was pregnant again, Richard did not bother getting his hopes up. There were already three babies-that-never-were in the past three years, and Rich was fairly certain there would not be any babies in their lives.
He thought he should probably be more upset about it, but the truth was, his own father was such a shit show, Rich wasn't sure he wanted to be a father. Between his impatience and his temper, he was fairly certain he would just end up fucking up his kids.
Grayson and Miranda had been trying for a baby for years now, but the doctor told them it would be highly unlikely they'd be able to conceive naturally. He and Grayson had talked about it a few nights before Carol's announcement, about how it felt to be almost thirty and living the lives of their fathers.
“I wish now we hadn't bought that great, big house,” Grayson divulged as they drank themselves towards oblivion. “I catch her in the spare rooms sometimes, just imagining what they'd be like if we had kids. I feel like I'm failing her or something.”
“You could adopt.”
He nodded. “We're talking about it. I think it upsets her a little, to see Kelly with one kid and another on the way, two kids she didn't even really want to have, while we can't even get a positive test.”
“It makes Carol jealous,” Rich stated with authority, remembering how angry Carol had become when she had heard that Kelly was pregnant again. “But, then again, everything does.”
Grayson studied him for a moment before asking, “Are you happy, Rich?”
He shrugged before finishing the last of his beer. “Does it really matter?”
Like with the last three pregnancies, Rich waited for everything to go south. And when it didn't, when Carol reached the third trimester for the first time, Rich had to face the reality that he was going to be a father whether he liked it or not.
Tyler Richard Lockwood entered the world at the crack of dawn that December, and Rich had no idea what to do as he stared down at his son. He stared at the newborn in his arms, his face screwed up tightly as he cried, and Rich had never felt more inadequate than he did in that moment.
Grayson and Miranda arrived first, Grayson clapping him hard on the back as Miranda cradled Tyler against her chest, tears in her big, brown eyes. Brad and his wife came and even Liz, whom he hadn't seen since her wedding and was only in town for Christmas, waddled in, hugely pregnant with her own child. It strangely touched him, the only people in the world who knew what it was like to struggle under the weight of being a Founder there to support him.
When his parents arrived, they insisted on taking a picture, and all of them gathered around Carol and baby Tyler. As the camera flashed, Rich wondered if this was the beginning or the end of who they used to be.
Six months later, as he got ready for work and watched as Carol less-than-successfully attempted to spoon food into Tyler's mouth, the phone began to ring. Rich picked it up on the fourth ring, grunting out a greeting as he attempted to tie his tie while the phone was wedged between his ear and shoulder.
“We adopted a baby,” Grayson announced, his voice practically crackling with excitement. “You and Carol have to come see her.”
The baby was a girl they had named Elena. As Carol fawned over the little girl, pressing kisses to her pink cheeks and showing Miranda the frilly dresses she had managed to procure between eight this morning and five this afternoon, Rich couldn't help but notice his wife had never reacted to their own child this way.
Two of the babies-that-never-were had been girls; Rich knew she wanted daughters more than sons.
He saw how obviously happy Grayson and Miranda were, and he couldn't help but feel an overwhelming swell of jealousy envelope him. As his friends gazed lovingly at their daughter, brushing kisses against the other's lips, Rich knew this was what love was supposed to look like, what happiness was supposed to feel like.
He and Carol would never have this.
The night his father died, Rich didn't know what to do. For the majority of his life, Rich had hated Benjamin Lockwood; his father was demeaning, at times brutal, and very quick to judge. But as much as Rich hated him, he also didn't know how life would work without him. Benjamin set the tone for his life; he was the one who laid down the rules, who set the boundaries, who dictated what would and would not be happening. To live in a world without his father was to fly blind, and, as much as he always said that was what he wanted, it also terrified him.
Tyler was with the nanny and Carol had stayed behind with his mother to help with arrangements, but Rich had to get out of there. Mark and Jake were both there trying to do their best to help their mother, and he had no idea where Mason had gone to, but Rich knew another moment in his childhood home would send him up the walls.
He wasn't sure why he ended up on Miranda's doorstep. Even as he rang the bell, he knew he should be with his wife and family, that he shouldn't be bothering Miranda, especially on a night he knew Grayson worked the night shift at the hospital.
The look of pure pity on her face as she opened the door snapped something inside him, and before Rich was even aware of what he was doing, he had enfolded her into a hug, clinging desperately to her body as if it was his lifeline.
“I'm so sorry, Rich,” she murmured against his ear, stroking his back comfortingly. “I'm so sorry.”
She smelled like formula and the perfume she always wore; he hadn't seen her much over the past year, what with being placed on bed rest during her pregnancy and then just the every day work of caring for a toddler and an infant. Carol had made several pointed comments about Miranda “slacking off” in her Founders' duties, and it had taken Rich everything he had not to snap back that it was much harder to find time to be frivolous when you were raising your own children instead of farming it out.
Someday he will stop comparing them, but his emotions were too close to the surface right now to be silently charitable.
Miranda insisted he sit down while she fixed him a cup of coffee; it wasn't until he sipped it and found the familiar taste of Bailey's dancing across his tongue that Rich smiled for the first time in days.
“I figured Folger's wasn't going to cut it,” she explained with a half-smile, moving the basket of folded laundry from the couch so she could sit beside him.
They sat in silence for several minutes, and it was the first time since receiving the call that his father had a stroke five days ago that Rich could remember there being quiet. The moment the hospital called, his life had become about contacting his brothers, consulting with neurologists, and then making arrangements at the funeral home. Carol was not a silent person by nature, and he hated how she was even viewing this as an opportunity to showcase the Lockwood name.
“He forced me to marry Carol.”
Miranda started at his words; he hadn't planned on saying them but now that he had, Rich felt like the flood gates were open and everything began to pour out: how desperately he wanted out of his marriage, how he had cheated on Carol multiple times in the past six years, how he was so sorry for how he had treated her when they dated back in high school and how he wished he could have made it right before she married Grayson. By the time he was finished, Rich felt as if he had purged himself of every feeling he ever had, and, from the expression on Miranda's face, he knew he had gone too far.
Miranda got to her feet, anxiously running her fingers through her long, curly hair. “You should go now.”
“Randi - “
“Don't!” she ordered, holding up her hand, her voice sharper than he has ever heard it. “I love Grayson, Rich, and that will never change. We have children together, we have a life together, and how dare you come into our house and say these things to me?!”
“Miranda - “
“And your father didn't make you do anything!” she continued, beautiful face pinched in frustration. “You did what you always did: you were too goddamn scared to ever stand up for yourself, to stand up for what you believed! You want to know why things never worked out between us? Because when the chips are down and things get hard, your first concern will always be you!”
People didn't talk to him like that; it was a side effect of being the mayor's son. But he was no longer the mayor's son because the mayor was dead, and he was now just another unhappy man in his thirties trapped in a bad marriage and trying to draw Miranda down into his quagmire of a life.
Rich got to his feet, opening his mouth to offer a pitiful apology, but Elena was suddenly at the top of the stairs crying for Miranda, and Rich knew his place was not in the Gilbert household.
Rich wasn't sure where his place was; that had always been the problem.
At the reading of his father's will, all Rich could think about is how much he wished he had been last, like Mason. Mason was seventeen now, far more rebellious than any of them had ever been, built like a brick shit house, and completely disinterested in anything having to do with school or his future. His father had repeatedly threatened to send Mason to military school, but his mother would never allow her baby to be sent away; Rich was beyond envious of the total lack of expectation placed on Mason as a result.
Today his youngest brother was slouched at the end of the table, his tie askew, completely uninterested as the lawyer outlined the terms of his trust. Rich was barely able to follow the complicated legalese, and the parceling out of his father's life disconcerted him greatly. When they were finished hearing what had been left to each of them (bulk of the estate to Cecilia, trust funds for all of the children and grandchildren, ownership stakes in the businesses), Rich was getting to his feet when the lawyer stilled him with a hand on his forearm.
“Richard, if you could stay behind for a moment.”
He dutifully sat, confused. A moment later his father's attorney returned with a thick envelope; Richard instantly saw his father's bold script across the front, clearly addressing the letter to him.
“Your father left explicit instructions that, in the event of his death, you were to receive this letter.”
“What is it?”
The attorney shrugged. “I don't know. But Benjamin was very clear: it was for your eyes only.”
Rich tucked the letter into the inner pocket of his suit coat, nodding in thanks before joining Carol in the lobby. As she rattled off the list of things awaiting them, he forgot about the letter until later that night when he was gathering up the clothes which needed to be taken to the dry cleaner's.
He slipped his finger under the flap, removing the folded, handwritten pages. At first he was only skimming the words, his brain too rattled by the events of the past week to truly focus, until he came to the line which stopped him cold: It is time I tell you of the curse put upon the Lockwood line, the curse which has fallen upon you and, by extension, Tyler.
Rich read in horrified fascination about the curse of the Lockwoods, about what kind of monster he could become if he ever “activated” the curse by killing someone. His father wrote of how his temper would become overwhelming when the moon was full, how he would need to keep a close eye on his brothers (especially Mason, Richard; his control is already so frayed) and his own children.
The last few paragraphs described something called a moonstone, some relic of great importance he had hidden beneath the floor boards of his office.
It is imperative that no one, especially a vampire, ever knows that we hold this. The moment anyone knows of the moonstone's location, is the moment the lives of everyone you love become endangered.
When he was finished reading, Rich threw the papers into the fireplace, watching as the words went up in smoke, never to be read by anyone else.
“They're going to have a special election to appoint a new mayor,” Carol reported a few days later as she flipped through her date book. “Lawrence Fell is considering putting his name in.”
“I'm going to run,” Rich stated decisively, trying not to smirk when Carol's head snapped up in surprise.
“Are you serious?”
Rich nodded. “This town always runs best with a Lockwood at the helm.”
He won the election easily, and his mother insisted that he, Carol, and Tyler move into the mansion. At a party celebrating his victory, he found himself out on the terrace again, Miranda standing near the railing.
“I never thought you wanted this,” Miranda observed after they had exchanged pleasantries and congratulations.
“Being an adult isn't about always getting what you want.”
Miranda smiled sadly. “No but...It's also not about chasing things you don't want either.”
Rich drained the rest of his scotch, placing the sifter on a nearby tray. “No offense, Miranda, but I really don't think you have any idea what is I want anymore.”
He didn't either, but he knew he should want what he did have: beautiful wife, healthy son, and now a career as the most powerful man in Mystic Falls.
Richard glanced up into the night sky, studying the swollen moon for a moment before turning on his heel and heading back inside, hiding from the beams which could force him to become a monster.
He was Mayor Richard Lockwood now.
It was time he started acting like it.
Chapter 4: John Gilbert
The first time John saw Isobel Flemming, she was standing in the middle of her aunt's driveway drawing a hopscotch board with a piece of sidewalk chalk. She wore a pair of neon green shorts and an oversized top, her dark hair tied up in a messy ponytail.
She was ten; he was twelve.
Every summer for the month of July, Isobel came down from Grove Hill to spend time with her aunt. As she explained that first time, her aunt Veronika was the only living relative of her mother, who had died when Isobel was just a baby. Her father and stepmother allowed her to spend Julys with Veronika as long as her grades were good for the year.
John liked Isobel immediately. Most of the girls he was friends with were not the adventurous types, and Isobel was up for anything. She was, without a doubt, the most fearless person John had ever met in his life, and he knew whenever he was spending time with Isobel, he was guaranteed to have a good time. That first summer, he and Isobel held a séance in old Fell's Church, climbed the highest tree on the Lockwood property, and built a rollerblade ramp so steep that, when Logan tried to jump it, he ended up breaking his arm.
For four summers in a row, Isobel arrived on the first of July and left on the first of August, usually leaving behind a trail of mischief. None of his friends seemed to enjoy Isobel as much as he did, but John didn't really care; things got boring fast in Mystic Falls, and Isobel Flemming was a nice break-up of the routine.
The year he was sixteen, Isobel did not come for the summer, and, while disappointed, John didn't think about it too much. By that time, he was spending most of his days riding around with Zach and Jake, trying to convince Marissa Fell that it wouldn't be slutty for her to give him a hand job, and sneaking in after curfew without his mother catching him and invoking the memory of his dead father. It was easy for Isobel's absence to slip his mind.
A year later, he was washing his new car, elbow deep in a bucket of soapy water, when a voice from behind him quipped, “Well, in case the whole college thing doesn't work out, you'll have a skill to fall back on.”
John turned around, prepared to snap back at whoever was making fun of him, and froze. Standing before him was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in his life. She reminded him of a china doll with her alabaster skin, black hair, and blue eyes, and he had this insane urge to touch her lips, which were painted a bright red. Her long legs were displayed in a pair of cut-offs, the frayed edges of which she was tugging at with her black painted nail; a red tank top displayed her curves, and John felt himself blush as she smiled.
“Oh, come on, John. Don't tell me you don't remember me. You'll break my heart.”
“Isobel?” he asked after a moment, the shock in his voice sounding sharp even to his own ears.
She giggled. “Hey, John.”
He wasn't usually a hugger, but he found himself moving forward, wrapping his wet arms around her body and holding her close. She twisted away as she shook off soap suds, but John followed, pulling her back in.
“Does this mean you missed me?” she asked with a playful smile.
John shrugged. “Kind of boring without you.”
Isobel leaned forward, running her fingertips across the freshly washed doors of his car. “Then how do you feel about an adventure?”
John was fairly certain he would have followed Isobel Flemming into Hell at that very moment.
Suddenly all of his friends were very interested in Isobel.
“She's fucking hot,” Jake succinctly put it one night as he, Zach, and John drank in the old cemetery.
“Man - “
“Are you going to hit that? Because if you aren't - “
John felt rage, quick and sharp, fill his chest at the idea of Jake touching Isobel. “You didn't even like her two years ago.”
“I also didn't know what my dick was for two years ago,” Jake retorted, earning a disgusted chuckle from Zach. “Things change, man.”
“Yeah, well, I thought you were hanging out with Andie Star.”
“Andie Star?” Zach echoed. “She's fourteen.”
“What?” Jake snapped defensively. “She's in high school now.”
“Yeah, and a month ago she was in middle school,” Zach pointed out. “You're going to college in September.”
“So? She's cool as shit.”
“Yeah, she always lets him hold her hand when they're watching Full House,” John teased, successfully dodging the fist Jake swung at him.
Zach laughed. “I really hope you enjoy prison, Jake.”
As the conversation quickly devolved into “dropping the soap” jokes, John was grateful that the topic of Isobel was forgotten.
Isobel kissed him first. He wasn't sure why that was important, but later in his life, whenever he tried to pinpoint how things began, it was always with that moment.
His mother was at some Ladies' Luncheon, and John invited Isobel over to watch a movie. They were sitting on the couch, John laughing at what Wayne and Garth were doing, when Isobel suddenly turned his face towards her. The laughter died in his throat, and all he could do was stare at this girl, this wildly unpredictable girl, who smiled enigmatically before pressing her mouth to his.
Her mouth tasted like lipstick and Coca-Cola, and John moaned when her tongue swept playfully against his for a moment. And then, as quickly as it started, Isobel pulled away, brushing her thumb against the corner of his mouth to collect the candy apple red lipstick which had smeared onto his skin.
“You're adorable,” she declared before returning to her side of the couch, kicking her feet up into his lap as she daintily drew another swallow of Coke through her straw.
John hoped she couldn't tell he was hard as hell in his jeans.
Mary Gilbert did not like Isobel. His mother, who wouldn't say shit if she had a mouth full of it, was always very judicious in the words she used to describe Isobel, but John could read between the lines. Suddenly she was practically begging him to invite Marissa Fell over for dinner or to ask Susannah Bennett to the cotillion held at the Lockwood mansion mid-month. John wasn't certain why his mother was now so interested in his personal life but he guessed it had everything to do with the raven-haired, crimson-mouthed beauty she had found sunbathing on her back porch in nothing but a tiny bikini the day before.
“So who's this girl you've been seeing?” Grayson asked that Sunday when he and Miranda came over for dinner. He and Grayson stood in the backyard at the grill, Grayson turning the steaks while John idly played with the bottles of seasoning.
“I'm not seeing her,” he instantly corrected. “It's just Isobel from across the street. You know, Veronika Lange's niece.”
“The little girl you used to play with? The one who comes for the summers?”
John nodded. “Yeah. Mom's just freaked because she was tanning on the porch the other day when she came home. We weren't even doing anything and Jake and Zach were here too.”
Grayson laughed. “She made it sound like you two were having sex on the altar at church.”
John rolled his eyes. “Nah, nothing like that.”
Grayson was quiet for a beat before venturing, “But do you want there to be something?”
The problem with having a genius for an older brother was that he picked up on everything. John didn't really remember their dad that well; he had only been nine when the cancer finally took him, and when he had been coherent, it was mostly to rant and rave about the vampires and protecting the town. It had always fallen to Grayson to do the heavy lifting when it came to taking care of him, Grayson and Miranda. There had even been times when he wished he could have been Grayson and Miranda's kid, he loved them so much.
But it was fucking impossible to keep a secret from them.
And then, because he never lied to Grayson, he told him everything that had transpired in the past week, complete with Isobel's perplexing kiss and then nonchalant attitude about it.
“She's never even brought it up again,” John said in frustration. “And I don't want to bring it up because then I'm going to look like a total fucking loser. I thought girls wanted to talk about this shit.”
Grayson laughed. “Well, obviously she likes you.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because girls don't kiss guys they don't like.”
John rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Okay, no offense, man, but Miranda's the only girl you ever dated. How would you know?”
And before he could say anything else, Grayson was calling Miranda over, and John just wanted to fucking die.
After listening to her husband explain the situation, Miranda was quiet for a moment, pressing her lips together in contemplation before declaring, “She wants you to kiss her now. It's your turn.”
“How the hell do you know that?!” he exclaimed.
Miranda smiled in amusement. “Because that's what girls do.”
“Girls are fucking nuts,” John sighed.
Miranda and Grayson both laughed, and John spent the rest of dinner trying to figure out the best way to kiss Isobel.
For as long as John could remember, his mother had gone to bed at 10:30 every night, which made it insanely easy to sneak in and out of the house when he needed to. That was why, at eleven o'clock that night, he tiptoed downstairs and made his way across the street.
Isobel was sitting on Veronika's swing, reading by the porch light, and she raised an eyebrow in question at his surprise appearance on her lawn.
As he dropped into the seat beside her, Isobel tucked a bookmark into her copy of Salem's Lot and asked, “Can I help you?”
“You kissed me.”
She smirked. “Three days ago.”
Isobel's teasing expression melted into something softer, almost ethereal. “Did you come here to kiss me back?”
John nodded, not trusting his voice.
Scooting closer, she whispered, “Then what are you waiting for?”
As his lips descended upon hers, all John could think about was how he felt like he had been waiting his entire life for Isobel Flemming.
The thing about Isobel was, the Isobel she showed to the rest of the world and the Isobel she was when they were alone were two completely different people.
The Isobel his friends knew, the Isobel his mother disliked and her parents didn't understand, was the one who talked tough, who wore her make-up too dark and her clothing a little too tight, the one who seemed to be constantly challenging the world to test her.
The Isobel he knew, his Isobel, was quieter, softer, sweeter. She explained how she felt like her father never saw her, only her mother, who had been killed in a car accident when Isobel was only two. Her stepmother was a nice woman - ”I mean, she's the only mom I know, and she's never treated me differently or anything” - but she also wanted Isobel to be the kind of perky, preppy girl she had been in high school.
“I thought if I was a cheerleader, if I joined the Key Club, maybe I'd actually turn into one of those girls,” Isobel divulged one afternoon as they lay in the grass in Veronika's backyard, her head resting on John's stomach, “but it just makes me feel so lonely, you know?” And then she scoffed. “No, of course you don't know. You're John Gilbert.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” he asked as he drew his fingers through her hair.
“It means I only spend 30 days a year here and even I know your family is, like, a big deal. The Gilberts are a founding family, right? And all your buddies, they're from founding families too. You seem like you're crazy popular.”
He was; it wasn't a bad assumption. It was just hearing it made him feel embarrassed, like he was doing something wrong. “That doesn't mean I'm not lonely sometimes.”
“Sometimes,” she echoed as if it proved a point.
Hating the tinge of accusation to her words, he asked, “Well, who do you want to be? What do you like?”
“I just want to be...There's got to be more to this world than what we see, what we know. I want to know what's out there.”
“How do you mean?”
“You'll think I'm weird,” she predicted.
“I won't,” he promised instantly.
Sitting up, she turned to face him and asked, “Do you believe in ghosts? In things in this world you can't explain?”
He thought about his father, about the endless rants about vampires, compasses, and the protective ring he wore on his right hand; all he could think about was the Founders' Council and how Grayson spent every Thursday evening with the rest of the prominent town members discussing suspicious deaths in the tri-county area.
Isobel looked at him skeptically. “You're just saying that.”
“No,” he insisted, “I'm not.”
“What do you believe in then?”
Isobel's eyes widened. “You really believe in vampires? Why?”
His father always said you never tell anyone about what the Gilbert family legacy was, but John knew Grayson told Miranda even if she didn't really believe in any of it. John wasn't even sure how much he believed in it himself, but he believed his father believed it, and that was enough to make John ask questions. And it was hard to have to keep that secret, to only be able to talk about it with a handful of guys who never wanted to talk about it.
“Can you keep a secret?”
Isobel nodded eagerly.
And so John told Isobel the biggest secret he had ever been entrusted with, and, when he was finished, Isobel wrapped her arms tightly around him and murmured, “Thank you for trusting me.”
The annual summer cotillion always fell on the third Saturday in July, and it was easily the most boring Founders' event. There was a “coming out” ceremony for girls in town, stupid group dances, and almost no chance for fun. The previous year his mother had forced him to be Danielle Carter's escort, and he had wanted to hang himself with his bow tie every second of that damned dance.
This year, when he asked Isobel if she wanted to go, she looked like a deer in the headlights before saying, “I don't have a dress.”
“So we'll get you one,” he said easily. “You aren't going to make me suffer through this thing alone, are you?”
Isobel was quiet for a beat before mumbling, “Your mom doesn't like me.”
He shrugged. “So? I like you. C'mon, Izzy.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I hate when you call me that.”
John smiled, knowing he had scored a victory.
When he picked her up for the cotillion, he felt his heart stop at the sight of her in a royal blue strapless dress, her dark hair twisted into an updo which accentuated the long line of her neck. Veronika insisted on taking a few pictures before they climbed into John's car, and he considered blowing off the cotillion all together and taking Isobel somewhere he could take that dress off of her.
Not that they had ever gone that far.
Not for lack of trying on his part.
People looked at them as they entered the Lockwood mansion, and John knew it was because Isobel was not one of the familiar faces of Mystic Falls. Isobel held his hand so tightly, John could feel her nails digging into his palm, and he lifted her hand to his mouth, brushing a soft kiss to it.
He turned his head to see Miranda and Grayson coming towards them, Grayson in a tan suit, Miranda in a floral-printed dress which matched the tie Grayson wore. Despite the fact that he had seen them the day before, Miranda hugged him as she always did before turning to Isobel and unleashing what John referred to as her “beauty pageant smile.”
“You must be Isobel. John talks about you all the time.” Offering her hand, she added, “I'm Miranda, his sister-in-law, and this is his brother Grayson.”
“Nice to meet you,” Isobel managed, and John nearly laughed when he saw the light blush filling her cheeks.
“I was just going to get something to drink. Why don't you come with me?” Miranda suggested.
As Isobel headed towards the bar with Miranda, Grayson leaned over and said, “She's a looker.”
John nodded absently. “I've never met anyone like her.”
Grayson studied him for a moment before bursting out laughing. “Oh, you've got it bad.”
John smacked him in the stomach with the back of his hand. Grayson easily evaded before capturing him in a half-hearted headlock for a moment before releasing him. A moment later, his voice more sober, he advised, “Just be careful, John. She's going to go home soon.”
Seventeen days, John silently corrected. He and Isobel had already had extra time together, given that she had come to Mystic Falls in June this year, but they had already discussed how she had to be back in Grove Hill by the second of August for cheerleading camp.
He didn't like to think about Isobel going home, so instead he grinned as she smiled at him from across the room, biting the corner of her lip as she playfully lowered her eyes.
Veronika was gone by the time John brought Isobel home, a note on the refrigerator letting Isobel know the hospital had called and asked if she would be willing to work a night shift on the neonatal unit. John felt a surge of nervous anticipation shoot through his body when Isobel lifted her eyes from the note and asked if he had to be home any time soon.
John was prepared to renounce his home entirely if it meant getting the chance to take that dress off of his girlfriend.
When he assured her it was fine, that he wouldn't get into any trouble for staying out (which was a total fucking lie but he wasn't too concerned given how his mother was physically incapable of grounding him,) Isobel took his hand and lead him up the stairs towards her room.
John didn't generally believe in God, but he started to thank whatever higher power was answering his prayers.
Isobel's room was a disaster area, clothes flung haphazardly on the floor, a leaning tower of paperbacks situated at the foot of her bed. On the dresser was a mess of make-up and jewelry, and John couldn't help but think of Marissa's bedroom, which was always spotless with the bed perfectly made with hospital corners.
They kissed beside the bed for several long minutes, and John shivered as Isobel's hands pushed his suit jacket from his body, the coat falling to lie amongst her own clothing. As she playfully loosened his tie, John's hands found the zipper of her dress beneath her left arm and for a second Isobel froze, uncertainty on her face.
John stilled his hands. “What's wrong?”
“I don't...I've never had sex.”
“That's okay. I haven't either.”
He left out the part where he could not convince Marissa to have sex with him because she swore her mother would be able to tell if she had sex and send her to boarding school.
“But I haven't...” Isobel dropped her chin for a moment before lifting her head to look in his eyes, her blue eyes swimming with an indeterminable emotion. “I've never done anything with a boy before. I'm not...I'm not allowed to date until I'm sixteen.”
His fingers clutching the silky material of her dress, he quipped, “I won't tell if you don't.”
Isobel smiled but it did not reach her eyes. “I just wanted you to know in case I...do something wrong or I'm not very good.”
“Hey.” Resting his forehead against hers, he ordered, “Don't even worry about that. It'll be good because I'm with you.”
She lifted her hand, resting it against his heart. “You make it really easy to fall in love you, you know that, Gilbert?”
When Marissa told him she was in love with him, he broke up with her a week later; hearing Isobel say it so casually just made his heart race a little faster.
The zipper of her dress gave easily, sliding down her body and pooling at her feet. John stared at her in the muted light of the room, dressed in only a strapless bra and matching panties, and he was certain he had never wanted anyone so much in his life.
“Would you - “ He stopped himself, suddenly embarrassed of his request, but Isobel just waited patiently for him to finish, her face expectant. “Would you take your hair down?”
Isobel smiled as she reached back and, with a few tugs of bobby pins, sent her hair cascading down her back. It was just long enough to brush the tops of her breasts, and the contrast of her dark hair against her white skin did something to John he couldn't wholly identify.
He didn't realize he was staring until Isobel shifted uneasily and asked, “Aren't you going to get undressed too?”
Never in his life had John removed his clothing so quickly, tossing away his crisp white shirt and suit pants as if they were on fire. It wasn't until he was down to his boxers that he felt his own stab of embarrassment when Isobel's eyes widened at the bulge aggressively pressing against the front of his underwear.
“You're really beautiful,” he lamely offered as explanation, and Isobel blushed even as she scooted over on the mattress to make room for him.
As John slipped his arms around her, his lips coming to explore Isobel's collarbone and the swell of her breasts, she squeaked out, “We can go slow, right?”
“Of course,” he swore.
If he tried to be anything but slow, this was going to be over before it even began.
She made the sweetest sounds as he unhooked her bra, cupping her breasts and gently rubbing her nipples. Marissa had always been quiet when they fooled around, but Isobel sighed, moaned, and whimpered as he navigated her body. When he slipped his hand into her panties, Isobel pitched her hips upward in surprise, and John couldn't help but grind against her in want.
“John?” she whispered as he drew her underwear down her legs, his eyes slightly captivated by the shadow between her thighs.
“You love me, right?”
Jake always said the surest way to get a girl to sleep with you was to tell her you love her; that had been his advice when John had wanted to get into Marissa's pants so badly. And John, having been horny and an asshole, had taken it, which had not only not gotten him laid but had made their break-up ten times worse. John had sworn then and there to never tell a girl he loved her again until he meant it.
So when he whispered back, “Of course I love you,” he meant it with every fiber of his being and not just because all of the blood in his body was currently rushing downward.
He fit himself between her thighs and groaned at the soft, wet heat pressing against him. Like every guy, he knew how the mechanics of sex worked, but imagining sex and actually having it were two very different things, and suddenly John felt an anxiety he had never known before.
“I know it's going to hurt,” Isobel assured him as she drew her knees up to cradle his body. “My friend Trudy told me. It's okay.”
“I don't want to hurt you,” John sighed against her throat. “Maybe there's something we could do so it won't hurt.”
Isobel slid her hands down his back before coming to rest on his butt, tugging him closer to her. John groaned at the slide of his flesh against hers, and he took himself in hand, carefully aligning himself.
“I'm sorry,” he whispered before pushing inside, moaning loudly at the feel of her tight flesh enveloping him. He only felt a moment's resistance before he slid fully into Isobel's body, but he knew it was enough to hurt her, to bring tears to her blue eyes. As he gritted his teeth and tried to think of anything which would postpone his orgasm, he murmured apologies against her skin, trying very hard to keep still.
When he finally moved, he saw the pain dance across Isobel's features; he tried to slow down, tried varying the depth and speed of his strokes, but he was certain she was not enjoying this nearly as much as he was. Despite his best efforts, it was over in minutes, his entire body stiffening as his pleasure spilled into Isobel, who clutched his shoulders and whispered his name.
Afterward he lay beside Isobel, pressing a kiss to her temple, not knowing what he was supposed to do next. Isobel winced as she sat up and, when he asked where she was going, she said she would be right back, that she was just going to clean up.
When she returned from the bathroom, walking gingerly before slipping back into bed beside him, John tucked her into his side, inhaling the scent of her hair.
“I love you,” he declared.
Isobel smiled against his shoulder. “You're going to remember me forever now.”
He wouldn't know until years later just how true that was.
They tried to talk at least twice a week on the phone, but it always had to be done when her parents weren't home; as she wasn't officially allowed to date for another three months, they would get suspicious, Isobel reasoned, if some boy they didn't know started calling the house. It frustrated John, the sneaking around, the way he couldn't have access to her as much as he wanted; when he voiced this to Zach, his friend rolled his eyes.
“What?” John snapped, defensive.
“I know this is probably brand-new information, but the world doesn't actually revolve around you.” At John's blank look, Zach elaborated, “You always get what you want when you want it, so you think that's the way the world works. And I like Isobel, but she's also two years younger than us.”
“So we'll be going to college next year, and she'll be taking the SATs, looking for a dress to wear to junior prom, getting her driver's license. I just don't see a real future for the two of you.”
John felt himself starting to get angry, but he tried to swallow it back; Zach rarely offered up his opinions like this, and, unlike Jake, he knew his friend wasn't trying to be a dick. And it wasn't as if the same thoughts hadn't crossed his mind in the two months since Isobel returned home. It was just...It was easy to love somebody when they were just across the street, when they were available to you night and day; it was so much harder to remember why you loved someone when you knew almost nothing of their day-to-day life.
“Yeah,” was all he said in reply, reaching for his beer.
When Isobel called him two days later, they were only minutes into the conversation when he blurted out, “I don't think this is going to work.”
Isobel was quiet for a moment before venturing, “Is it something I did?”
“No,” he emphatically assured her. “It's just...Long-distance is hard, you know? And I'm not sure I can do it. It's not that I don't love you - “
“Then don't break-up with me,” Isobel interrupted, and John could hear the tears in her voice. It tugged at his heart, the sound of her pain, and John had never felt like a worse person.
“Iz - “
“I know it's hard right now, but we can do this. I know we can. You just have to believe in us.”
He felt tears building in his own throat, and John swallowed hard, trying desperately to shut himself off from the pain. “Look, I know this isn't what we thought - “
“You said you loved me,” Isobel cried. “You said we were going to be together forever. You said I was the first person you could ever be yourself with, the only person you didn't have to keep secrets from. Or is that just what you said to get me to sleep with you?”
“Isobel, that's not - “
“Go to hell, John.”
He wouldn't hear from her again for six months.
His acceptance letter from Georgetown came that day. It had been waiting on the table when he got home from school, and, when he read it aloud to his mother, she had started to cry and immediately called Grayson to tell him the good news. Before John even knew what was going on, Mary Gilbert had called so many people, an impromptu congratulatory party was being held in his living room. Almost thirty people were crammed into his living room, his mother beaming as she told everyone in earshot how John was going to be the most successful attorney in the state of Virginia.
“You'd think I work at McDonalds, the way she's talking,” Grayson teased, and John couldn't help but feel a swell of pride in his chest at the way his mother was talking about him.
Grayson was always the good one, the perfect one, the one who could do no wrong; John had never heard anyone speak so highly of him in his entire life.
John barely heard the phone when it rang, but Miranda plucked it from the cradle before calling for him, holding the receiver out to him. He expected it to be one of his friends; he had expected anything but what he got.
“John?” a tremulous, watery voice came across the wires.
He heard her cry out sharply before murmuring, “I need help.”
“Help? What's - “
“I ran away, and I'm at the bus station in Mystic Falls. Can you come get me?”
“Ran away? Isobel, what the hell - “
“They were going to make me give her away,” Isobel cut in, crying so hard John could hardly understand her. “I don't want to give her up. She's ours.”
“Who's going to make you do what?” When Isobel didn't answer, he sighed, fidgeting as his mother gestured for him to hang up and come talk to one of her friends. “Look, now isn't a good time - “
“I'm in labor, John, and unless you want me to have our baby in the bus station, I need you to please come get me and take me to the hospital.”
John froze, certain he had misheard. It wasn't until he heard Isobel groan in pain again that it truly sunk in. And then all he wanted to do was vomit. “I'll be there as soon as I can.”
He didn't remember hanging up or slipping out to the back porch; from the time he hung up the phone until Miranda found him seated on the steps, his face buried in his his hands, John was not aware of anything except the repetition of two words in his head: our baby.
“Hey, what are you - “ Miranda broke off as he lifted his face, and John didn't even know he was crying until he saw the expression on his sister-in-law's face. “What's going on?”
It spilled out so fast, John didn't even have time to consider how to phrase it. And then, in a move which shocked him to his core, Miranda grabbed him by the sleeve of his shirt and jerked him to his feet.
“Why are you just sitting? Get your ass in the car.”
“Miranda - “
“I will get Grayson, and we are going to get that poor girl. Honestly, John,” she spat, and he hated it, the disgust in her voice, the disappointment.
He was never sure what Grayson and Miranda told his mother; neither his brother nor his sister-in-law spoke to him as Grayson drove to the bus station. John sat in the backseat of their car, still too stunned to fully comprehend how his life was about to change.
As Grayson pulled up to the curb, John could see Isobel on one of the benches, a duffel next to her feet, her petite frame weighted down by her hugely swollen middle. She was doubled up with pain, sweat covering her face, her hair sticking to her face, and she looked so little like the girl he had last seen eight months earlier. The car wasn't even fully stopped before he jumped out, calling her name.
Isobel began to sob at the sight of him, and John bent down beside her, unsure whether or not he should hug her; he didn't have long to consider when he heard Miranda and Grayson behind him, Miranda brushing hair back from Isobel's face as Grayson greeted her in what John knew was his doctor's voice.
He and Grayson helped her into the backseat, Miranda tossing her duffel into the trunk, and Grayson directed John to sit in the front seat with Miranda as he assessed Isobel. John listened as Isobel recounted the details he would need to treat her: she was thirty-eight-weeks pregnant, her water had broken halfway between Grove Hill and Mystic Falls which is when she had gotten off the bus, and she wasn't sure what she was supposed to do because her parents wouldn't let her take a class.
“It's okay,” Grayson assured her as Miranda drove them towards Grayson's office. “Whether you know it or not, your body knows what it's supposed to do. The rest I can talk you through.”
“I'm scared,” Isobel confessed, tears rolling down her face, and John hated that it was Grayson who was comforting her.
“Why aren't we going to the hospital?” John whispered to Miranda, glancing over his shoulder as Isobel cried out sharply and Grayson worked her through the contraction.
“Hospitals report runaways,” Miranda explained shortly, and John wondered just how much trouble they were all going to be in when Isobel's parents found out what was going on.
Everything was happening so fast, too fast, and John had never felt younger in his life than as he watched Miranda help Isobel into a gown and Grayson put on protective gear.
It took four hours of hard labor before his daughter finally made her appearance. As Isobel cried out as if she was dying and Grayson calmly counted out to ten every time she pushed, John clutched Isobel's right hand as Miranda held her left. He listened as Grayson told Isobel one more big push would bring their child into the world, and then Isobel was rising up, energy John didn't know she had left in her asserting itself as she bore down with everything she had, the grip on his hand enough to make it ache.
Isobel had barely released the breath she had been holding with the last push when John heard the outraged scream of a newborn.
“It's a girl,” Grayson announced with a smile, cutting the umbilical cord with efficiency before wrapping the baby loosely in a cloth, setting the infant on Isobel's chest.
This baby was nothing like the ones John had seen born on television; his daughter was covered in blood and vernix, shrieking indignantly at being ripped from the warmth of her mother's womb, her face a brilliant shade of scarlet, a dark cap of hair covering her tiny skull. She was the tiniest thing John had ever seen in his life, and he couldn't believe she was part of him.
Isobel was crying again as was Miranda, but John didn't cry, not then. The shock of the evening had finally caught up to him, and all he could do was stare as Isobel smiled at the wailing bundle on her breasts. Miranda took the baby to clean it up while Isobel delivered the afterbirth and Grayson stitched her up. John stood awkwardly near the doorway, unsure what his role was now, and he wished someone could tell him what to do, how to act.
“Would you like to hold your daughter, John?”
He looked up to see Miranda standing next to him, the baby now clean and swaddled in a fresh, makeshift blanket, her cries now silenced. John could not remember ever holding a baby before, but he extended his arms anyway because he wasn't sure whether or not he was allowed to be too scared to hold the baby.
She felt lighter than air in his arms and unbearably fragile; John had never been more terrified in his life. And then the baby blinked open her big, dark eyes and seemed to stare him directly in the eye, her bow lips pursed, and the fear was replaced with something else entirely.
This was his daughter.
And he wasn't sure he was ever going to love anyone or anything as much as he loved her in that moment.
Isobel slept for six hours after giving birth to their baby, but John couldn't even fathom the idea of closing his eyes, not when he was so drunk on adrenaline he could barely sit still. Miranda left the office to return with diapers, onesies, bottles, and formula, and John watched as she attended to the baby. Grayson had been relatively silent up until then; it was only once he had the baby in his arms that his brother finally spoke.
“Tell me you didn't know that girl was pregnant,” Grayson said softly, staring down into the sleeping face of his newborn niece. “Tell me you didn't know and leave her to deal with this alone.”
“I didn't,” John swore, fiddling with the edge of a receiving blanket. “I swear to God, Gray, if I had known, I would've done something. You know me.”
“I thought I did,” Grayson said, and John flinched at the overwhelming level of dissatisfaction in his big brother's voice. The only thing worse than disappointing Miranda was letting Grayson down, and John felt like a stupid, silly child.
“Grayson - “
“She's a beautiful baby,” he continued, “and perfectly healthy. Isobel must have taken excellent care of herself.” Grayson finally lifted his eyes, locking gazes with John. “You understand what keeping this baby means, don't you? Georgetown and law school are out now; you're going to be lucky to finish night school. You can't get into your trust fund until you're twenty-five, so you're going to need to get a job, which means the only thing you're qualified for is flipping burgers at minimum wage. You don't have any means of affording health insurance and Isobel's only sixteen, so what are you going to do, go on welfare? And let's not forget that now there's a baby who is going to be completely dependent upon you and Isobel for her well-being.”
The baby began to fuss, and suddenly Miranda was there with a bottle, scooping her out of Grayson's arms and attending to his daughter's needs as if she had always done so. John felt anger and frustration so sharp in his chest that it made him want to break everything in the room.
“You don't think I know that?” John spat. “You don't think that's all that's been on my mind since she called me? I'm not a fucking idiot!”
“You knocked up your under-aged summer fling, so that means you're a fucking idiot!” Grayson shouted back, his face clouding with anger.
John swallowed hard, startled. Grayson didn't get angry. Grayson got quiet, took deep breaths, and then logically discussed whatever it was which was irritating him. Never had John heard Grayon raise his voice and he had especially never spoken to John with such rage vibrating in every syllable.
“I'm sorry,” a new voice piped up, and all three of them turned to see Isobel standing in the doorway clutching the doorjamb, her dark hair hanging limply around her very pale face. “I didn't mean to cause any problems.”
“You didn't,” Miranda quickly assured her, crossing the room even as she threw pointed glares at the brothers Gilbert. “Everyone's just really tired. It's been a long night for all of us. Why don't you come sit down and hold your baby?”
John offered up his seat, helping Isobel sink down into the easy chair which sat in the waiting room, and she hissed through her teeth at the pain of the movement. She flicked her blue eyes up beneath her lashes, and John could see it all there: her fear, her pain, her nervousness.
“She's really beautiful, Iz,” he offered, running his fingers through his hair.
“Of course she is,” Isobel stated in the same matter-of-fact way she always spoke, cradling the baby in her arms, accepting the bottle Miranda offered. “Thank god my genes won out.”
Grayson and Miranda chuckled, but John recognized the familiar facade of toughness as Isobel's first line of defense against vulnerability.
“You should have told me.”
It was forty-eight hours after the baby's birth, and Isobel sat on the guest bed in Grayson's house, their daughter asleep in the cradle Miranda used when she babysat for Kelly Donovan. He had slept downstairs on the couch, listening to the cries of his daughter every few hours, and he thought. His anger at Isobel and his frustration with himself festered in the pit of his stomach and now he could not wrap his words in silk to soften the blows.
“And said what?” Isobel snapped, her voice stronger than steel. “'Hey, John, I know you want nothing to do with me anymore because you'd rather fuck girls who live in the same zip code, but, by the way, I'm pregnant.'” Isobel scoffed. “Yeah, that would have worked.”
“I didn't break up with you because I wanted to sleep with someone else! I haven't even kissed someone since we broke up!” As the baby began to fuss, John dropped his voice. “Where were you running to anyway? Would you have even told me she existed if you hadn't gone into labor on the bus?”
Isobel looked away for a moment, and John knew she had just answered his question. He stalked around the bed to stare down at the baby, who was dressed in a bright pink sleeper, her eyes fluttering as she drifted back towards slumber. Reaching one finger down to stroke the soft skin of her cheek, John asked, “How could you think I wouldn't want her?”
“Because you didn't want me,” Isobel answered, her voice breaking, and, for the first time, John realized just how young she was.
They were never going to be young again, not after this.
“I want you,” he argued as he sank down onto the bed. “I mean...I want to be here for you, for the baby. I don't want you to have to do this all alone.”
“Miranda said,” Isobel began after a beat, wiping at the silent tears rolling down her cheeks, “if I want, I could stay here. She said she and Grayson have the extra room, and that way I could still finish school. And this way we'd be able to take care of Elena.”
“Elena?” he echoed, arching his eyebrow in question.
Isobel nodded. “Elena Grace Flemming.”
“Gilbert,” John corrected, and the corner of Isobel's mouth briefly turned upwards before she nodded in consent.
“It's a pretty name.”
“It was my mom's,” Isobel offered. It occurred to John how much he still didn't know about Isobel, how much he still had to learn.
After a beat, Isobel asked, “Are you really serious about this, about helping me take care of her?” Before John could say anything, she added, “Miranda told me about Georgetown. That's your dream.”
He shrugged indifferently, hoping the forfeiture of his dream and hard work did not appear to trouble him at all, like this wasn't going to kill his mother and fuel the gossip mill for years to come. “Dreams change.”
“Not overnight. If you want to go, then you should. I made the choice to keep Elena, not you.”
“And I made the choice to keep you both, so live with it.”
Isobel looked as if she was going to object further, but John did not want to hear anything else; reaching down, he tugged the Gilbert ring off of his hand and slipped it onto her ring finger. It was comically too large, but John knew it would show her how serious he was; he had explained to her the significance of the ring once and how it was his most prized possession.
Isobel nodded, spinning the ring on her thin finger, and John knew she understood the depth of his promise.
He wasn't sure how to tell his mother about Isobel and Elena, so he decided he was not going to tell her anything until the plan was definite. While Isobel slept, John brought Elena downstairs, turning on the television and lying back on the couch, Elena resting on his chest. John stared at the seven-pound bundle, and he couldn't help but smile at the feel of her singing heartbeat against the steady thumping of his own.
“Hi,” he whispered as Elena blinked sleepily. “I'm your daddy.”
He wasn't sure when he fell asleep, but he awoke to the sound of clicking. As John opened his eyes, he saw Isobel lowering the camera Miranda had used earlier to take pictures of Elena, an inscrutable expression on her face. He carefully sat up, making sure not to jostle Elena awake, and scooted over so Isobel could join them.
As she fitted herself against his body, Elena still resting on his chest, John inhaled the sweet scent of baby powder and Isobel's shampoo.
Maybe this wouldn't be so bad, he thought as he drifted back to sleep.
When John returned the next morning, he instantly knew something was not right.
Grayson was seated at the dining room table, two envelopes before him; Miranda sat beside him while she fed Elena, and John could easily make out how red Miranda's eyes were.
“What's going on?” he asked. And then a terrible thought occurred to him. “Where's Isobel?”
Grayson silently slid the unopened envelope to him, and John picked it up, reading his name written in Isobel's familiar script. Quickly tearing it open, John sank into a chair, his heart beating wildly within his chest.
Want to know a secret? I've been in love with you since I was ten-years-old, since the first day you crossed the street and asked if I wanted to play. I don't remember what it was like to not love you, and it is because I love you so much that I am doing this.
I love Elena. I've loved Elena from the second I knew she was coming, and, when my parents told me I was going to have to give her away, I knew I was going to do whatever it took to make sure I didn't have to do that. But now that she's here, now that I can see her, touch her, hold her against me, I know I'm not ready for her. She deserves the very best of everything, and we can't give her that, John, no matter what we do, no matter how hard we work.
I see how much you love her too. I'll admit it: I'm actually shocked at how much you love her, how much you want her too. The reason I didn't tell you about her in the first place was because I didn't want you to reject our daughter the way you had rejected me, and if I had known you would embrace us both the way you have, it would have saved us both a lot of pain.
And it's because you love her that you're going to throw everything away so you can be with her, and I don't want that. Georgetown and law school, that's your dream, and if you stay in Mystic Falls, you're going to end up resenting us, hating us. I never want you to dislike Elena for even a second, and I know she's going to come to represent everything you gave up if you stay.
I know you probably hate me right now, but this is for the best. You need to go be the guy you were meant to be, and I need to go figure out who the hell I'm supposed to be, and neither of us can do that if we're parents. And while the idea of not being with Elena as she grows up tears me up inside, the idea of Elena having to settle hurts me even worse.
Grayson and Miranda would be amazing parents, John, and you know it. They can give Elena the kind of life we would never be able to, not now, maybe not ever. And while I know I cannot make you do anything, I hope you will do what's best for Elena and go along with this. At least this way you will be able to see Elena grow up, see Elena turn into the wonderful human being I know she will become, and you won't have to lose out on having a life too.
Please don't hate me. I love you and Elena more than you will ever know. And I hope someday you can forgive me for this, that maybe someday we can find our way back to each other.
All of my love forever,
John was crying as he finished reading, and, as he lifted his head, all he could see was Elena cradled so carefully in Miranda's arms.
“Did she tell you what she wants?” John asked hoarsely.
Grayson picked up the other envelope in response.
“We don't expect you to honor it,” Miranda assured him, her own voice rough with emotion. “We could never ask you...”
To their credit, they never do ask.
But Isobel had, so he agreed just as he always did.
He transferred to University of Richmond after his freshman year, too homesick and worried about Elena to stay in DC. He didn't tell anyone until he had already been accepted and signed a lease to share an apartment with Zach. As he announced his plans two weeks before the semester was to start again, he watched as Grayson and Miranda exchanged worried glances.
Later, as Miranda and his mother cleaned up the kitchen and Grayson was called away to the office, John took Elena outside. She was fifteen-months-old now, toddling along on legs which were still slightly unsteady, chattering almost constantly; her dark hair was starting to curl but it was her big, doe eyes which melted John's heart every time.
“Flower,” Elena identified as she plopped onto her butt beside his mother's tea roses, her chubby hands reaching for one.
John caught her hand easily before reaching over and plucking one of the blooms, a move certain to irritate his mother. He held it beneath Elena's nose to smell, and she giggled charmingly before taking the flower from him, touching its petals tentatively before holding it out towards him. John dutifully lowered his nose to smell it as well, and Elena climbed into his lap.
“My flower,” she informed him.
“Your flower,” he agreed, running a hand over her silky hair. Whenever he was actually able to spend time with Elena, he couldn't seem to stop touching her, stop affirming that she was still here. He knew they'd deny it, but Grayson and Miranda didn't often leave him alone with Elena, as if they were afraid he was going to make a break for it with the little girl they loved.
He was chasing Elena around the yard when Grayson returned. At the sight of him, Elena course corrected, barreling towards him and shrieking in excitement, “Daddy!”
John had never truly hated anyone before, but the sight of Grayson tossing his daughter in the air and pressing kisses to her face made something inside of him shrivel.
“You ready to go, lady bug?”
Elena looked over her shoulder, her eyebrows folded in confusion. “Go?”
John shook his head, slowly approaching them, trying to keep him expression neutral. “No, sweetie, I have to stay here.”
“Can you say goodbye to Uncle John?”
Elena leaned forward, her arms extended, and John took her, squeezing her tightly against him. She pressed her open mouth against his cheek as a kiss goodbye, and he brushed his lips against her forehead. “I love you.”
Elena waved to him over Grayson's shoulder as he walked away, and John wondered if this was ever going to get easier.
The card came on his twenty-first birthday, buried between the electric bill and his mother's gardening magazine. His heart stopped at the familiar handwriting on the envelope; he vaguely registered the North Carolina postmark as he wrenched it open.
The card itself was generic, but John was far more interested in the message scribbled beneath the printed birthday wish.
John avoided his friends that night, spending his twenty-first birthday on a six-hour phone conversation with Isobel Flemming, recent freshman at Duke University.
For the rest of his life, he would speak to her at least once a week on the phone, every conversation beginning and ending with an update on their daughter.
Chapter 5: Liz Forbes
It wasn't as if Liz hadn't known she and Jim were having problems. She might not have had the most experience with men, but Liz was, at least, self-aware enough to realize her marriage was not going well. Though she didn't have many female friends and her conversations with her sisters were usually limited to child-rearing only, Liz understood it was not normal for husbands and wives to not have sex for almost a year, for every conversation to end in a fight, for the only times they didn't argue to be whenever Caroline was in the room. No, Liz had known intellectually that she was going to be getting divorced.
What she hadn't known was that the reason she was getting divorced was because Jim was madly in love with a man named Stephen, a man Liz knew as one of Jim's golf friends.
Everything happened so quickly after that. Jim came out, apologizing for hurting her, for committing to her and starting a family with her when he had always known he was not attracted to women; he graciously offered to let her keep the house, the car, and anything else they had acquired during their marriage. The only thing he asked for was equal access to Caroline, but he was adamant he would not try to take custody of their daughter.
After Jim left the house, packing his bags into the back of Jim's car, Liz sat in silence in the living room, waiting for anything in the world to feel real again. She thought of Caroline asleep upstairs, of having to tell her how Jim was moving out, and Liz could feel it, the pressure building in her body.
It was purely instinct to pick up the phone and dial Grayson; it was what she always did when something happened, when she needed guidance, when the world started to shift. When his sleepy voice carried over the wires, Liz glanced at the clock and winced when she saw it was after one in the morning.
“I'm sorry. I shouldn't have - “
“Lizzie? What's wrong?”
She hadn't known she was going to cry until she started to speak, and then everything came rushing out in a hysterical spill, tears streaming down her face. When she was finished, gasping desperately for air, Grayson was quiet for a long beat before saying, “I'm going to kill him.”
“Gray - “
“I'm going to fucking murder him,” he insisted, and Liz could hear Miranda murmuring in the background before Grayson mumbled something in return.
“No, I just...I needed to tell someone. I'm sorry for calling so late - “
“Don't even worry about it. Jesus, Lizzie...What do you need me to do?”
She wanted to ask him to come, to stay with her until everything was okay again, but Liz knew that was not an option. Instead she assured him listening was enough and that she'd call him later to check in.
It didn't occur to her until after she hung up that not once in seven years had Jim asked her what she needed.
If she was really being honest, Liz had always assumed she would never get married. It wasn't that she didn't want to be married, that she wasn't attracted to different guys, but she had come to terms with the fact that she was not the type of girl guys fell in love with. Guys wanted girlfriends like Miranda, who were beautiful or sexy like Kelly Donovan; they wanted girls who could be charming, who knew the right things to say at the right moments, and who were never awkward. Liz knew her characteristics didn't lend themselves towards passionate love affairs and so she had prepared to live a life without a relationship.
She had graduated from Marshall College and worked for a few years with juvenile probation before heading to WVU for law school; she lived in an apartment, went to class, and, twice a month when their busy schedules allowed it, she and Grayson met up. It wasn't the most exciting life, but it was enough for her.
Jim moved into her building during her 2L year. He was an engineering student, polite to a fault, and always smiled at her in the elevator. When he asked her out, Liz had been genuinely stunned; when she brought him home that Thanksgiving, introducing him to her father, sisters, and friends, she could read the surprise on their faces. Jim was attractive, athletic, charismatic, and intelligent; Liz could practically read the disbelief on everyone's faces, unsure why someone like Jim could possibly want to be with her.
She found out she was pregnant at the end of her 2L year; in the middle of finals, Liz realized she had missed her period. Chalking it up to stress, Liz waited another month before taking a test. And when it came back positive, she sobbed in the bathroom of her apartment before telling Jim, who immediately insisted they get married. They eloped without telling a soul, and, when Jim was offered a promotion which would move them to Alexandria, they agreed Liz would take time off of law school and return after the baby was born.
It never happened. Caroline was such a handful, and, with the cost of the house, they simply didn't have the money. Instead Liz got her paralegal certificate and tried not to be bitter that she had traded what she wanted for her life for what she had. And then, of course, she felt incredibly guilty for resenting the life she had built, the kind of life most women were more than happy to live.
For the first few weeks after Jim left, Liz went through the motions, doing what she needed to do to keep life as normal as possible for Caroline who was far too perceptive for Liz's liking. If there was one thing her childhood had prepared Liz for, it was the sublimation of her feelings in order to take care of everyone else, and she fell back into the role easily.
Two months after Jim moved in with Stephen, Liz sat down and began to crunch the numbers. When she realized there was no possible way she would be able to make the mortgage payments and the rest of the household bills without Jim's income, Liz knew what she had to do.
She hadn't been able to bring herself to tell her father what was happening in her marriage; and now, as she recounted the slimmest of details to him, Liz felt her face burning in shame. He sighed heavily, and all Liz could think about were Lilah and Laura with their perfect husbands, well-behaved children, and spotless homes; her own mother had been June Cleaver, and Liz felt as if she was defiling her memory by being such a domestic failure.
“Come home,” Robert Forbes advised in the deep bass Liz had always associated with being in trouble. “This is where you belong anyway.”
Liz had never felt like she belonged in Mystic Falls.
She had never felt like she belonged anywhere.
That had always been the problem.
Caroline refused to speak to her for the entire two-and-a-half hour drive back to Mystic Falls. No matter what Liz said, did, or offered, Caroline glared with her expressive eyes before deliberately lowering her gaze back to the magazine in her hands; when Jim had come over earlier to say goodbye, Caroline had thrown her arms around his neck tightly enough to cut off circulation and begged him to take her with him. When Liz had peeled her off of him, Caroline had screamed how much she hated her and Liz struggled not to cry.
By the time she saw the sign welcoming her to Mystic Falls, Liz felt the familiar wave of distaste overtake her. When she had left for college almost twenty years ago, she had never wanted to return to her hometown on a full-time basis; living in Mystic Falls meant having to fulfill the duty Liz had no intention of ever following through on. She knew that Grayson served on the Council now, filling the space vacated by his father, and, with Rich's ascendance to Mayor, he was now in charge; Brad's participation was largely ceremonial, what with his increasing problem with alcohol, and Liz wondered if soon her father would want her to take his place, to do what she had been groomed to do.
Her father stood in front of Liz's childhood home, stubbing out his cigarette as he rose from the chair on the porch, and Liz gave a half-hearted wave as she said to Caroline, “Look, Papa's waiting for you.”
“Yippee,” Caroline mumbled as she unbuckled herself, climbing out of the car.
Liz took a deep breath, willing herself to swallow back any unkind words; if she wanted to shake Caroline now, she had a feeling adolescence was going to lead to murder.
As Robert showed Caroline where she'd be staying, Liz set her bags down in her former bedroom and resisted the urge to scream. Being thirty-six and living with her father had not been the future Liz had planned for herself out by the falls with Grayson when they were children, and she had never wanted Caroline to grow up in this town with its preoccupation with the past.
Grayson showed up around dinner time, grinning as he got out of the car with Elena. For the first time all day, Caroline perked up, introducing herself to Elena and asking if she could see the Barbie Elena clutched in her hand. As the girls disappeared into Caroline's room so Caroline could show her the impressive collection of Barbie accessories Jim had purchased for her out of guilt, Liz and Grayson sat on the porch swing, each with a beer in their hands.
“So how are you really doing?” Grayson asked as he stretched his long legs out in front of him, pushing the swing.
“Nothing feels real yet. I keep expecting to wake up and I'll find out this was all a really horrible, traumatizing dream.”
He chuckled softly. “And when that doesn't happen?”
“Then I'll throw myself over the falls after I murder Jim and his boyfriend in their bed.”
Grayson's laugh was full-blown this time. “Well, as long as you have a plan.”
Liz sighed before sagging against his side, her head dropping to his shoulder. Grayson immediately wrapped an arm around her shoulders, squeezing her tightly. They sat in silence for several minutes before Liz confessed, “I don't want to start over. I could barely handle Caroline, work, and everything else when I had Jim there. How am I going to do it alone?”
“You're not alone, Liz. You're never alone, not here, not with us.”
Liz tried not to smile. Despite the fact that she hadn't had an actual conversation with Rich or Brad in years, Grayson still referred to them as an “us,” the collective unit they had been raised as, the group whose innocence had been shattered at the age of twelve when the insanity of their birth caught up to them. She wondered if Grayson was even aware of doing it, wanted to correct him, but then she paused; she had shown up for Tyler's birth, had read at Brad's wedding. Like it or not, she was as tied to them as they were to her, and Liz didn't know if that was a blessing or a curse.
“I don't know what I'm going to do with my life now.”
“Then it's a damn good thing your best friend is a genius.”
Sometimes Liz forgot how much she missed Grayson. It was the only silver lining of her return to Mystic Falls; she would never have to miss her best friend again.
There was no such thing as a secret in Mystic Falls, not really. Outside of the bizarre preoccupation with vampires, everything was known by everyone. While smiling to your face, the good citizens of Mystic County would discuss Rich's affairs, Brad's DUIs, Sheri Bennett's drug addiction; once one person knew what had happened, everyone knew and you would have to stand there in all your finery knowing you were the topic of clandestine conversation, the whispered name over the telephone lines.
Liz put on her dress anyway, applied gloss to her lips, and selected a black-and-gold mask.
A fucking masquerade. As if the people of Mystic Falls hadn't perfected wearing masks decades ago.
She suspected it was her own insecurities playing tricks on her, but Liz was almost certain the volume of the room dropped as she entered the Lockwood mansion as she had hundreds of times before, the women whispering as if to confirm that, yes, this was the Forbes girl whose husband left her for another man, the eldest Forbes, the one who hadn't been pretty enough to be Miss Mystic like her sisters, the one who had been so terminally unfriendly.
Immediately Liz was able to determine she was under-dressed compared to her peers. Her black dress was plain and downright conservative next to Miranda's peacock mask and the red dress Carol wore like a second skin. Because her hair was longer than she had worn it since before her mother died, Liz hadn't the slightest idea what to do with it and had left it to hang over her shoulders in natural waves. A quick survey of the room confirmed she was one of the only women who had chosen to wear her hair loose, and Liz hated herself for coming, for allowing her father to convince her she needed to get back out into society.
Liz had spent her entire life trying to avoid Mystic Falls society, and now she remembered why.
She was in the middle of getting a drink when Grayson sidled up beside her. His tie was the same brilliant blue as Miranda's dress, and, as he ordered a scotch, Liz knew something was wrong. Grayson never drank anything harder than the occasional beer or glass of wine; he always said alcohol made people stupid.
“Everyone's talking about me, aren't they?” she asked as the bartender handed her the martini she ordered.
“Fuck them,” Grayson replied, and Liz blinked in surprise at the unnatural slur to his words. Grayson wasn't just drinking; Grayson was drunk.
“Are you okay, Gray?”
He paused as if considering the question before shaking his head, taking a heavy swallow from his glass. Lowering his head, he asked, “Can we get out of here?”
It wasn't the first time he had ever asked her that at a Founders' event; their adolescence was defined by the events they escaped. But it was the first time he had asked since they were adults, since their absences would be noticed.
“You can't leave Miranda,” she gently pointed out. “Why don't we just go for a walk?”
Grayson nodded, grasping her wrist and tugging her towards the French doors which lead to the back of the property. Liz didn't know why he was tugging her along; she could find her way around the grounds with her eyes closed, knew the twists and turns of the acreage better than Rich. But she didn't fight it, not when Grayson was so obviously not himself; instead she let him take her down towards the pond where the fountains sprayed in beautiful patterns.
“Well, I know why I want to escape. Why do you?”
Grayson sighed, shrugging out of his suit jacket and letting it drop to the grass. Liz watched in amusement as he sank down onto it, sloshing his drink in the process. She carefully slipped her feet from her heels, kneeling down beside him in the cool, moist grass.
“Have you ever done something so bad, you don't think you'll ever be able to make it right?”
Liz blinked in surprise before admitting, “I feel like I've done a lot of things that probably weren't that great.”
“No, not something minor. I mean, have you ever done anything that you just know ruined someone, killed their spirit?”
Liz shook her head minutely. “What's going on, Gray?”
“It's my fault,” Grayson admitted, the syllables of his words slurring together. “It's my fault he's like this now.”
“Who's like what now?”
“John. I ruined him.”
Liz frowned in confusion. It had been years since she had seen John, not since Jeremy's christening when she and Rich had stood side-by-side and promised to provide spiritual guidance to the baby in her arms; she knew from conversations with Grayson that John had graduated from Richmond, forgoing law school to work for an insurance company, a career move which Grayson hated. Whenever she thought of John, she pictured the little boy who used to crawl into her lap while she was at the Gilbert house, begging her to read him his favorite book or help him with his homework.
“How did you ruin him?”
Grayson lifted his face, and Liz was startled by the sight of tears on his cheeks. “I was so jealous, Lizzie. Even while I was helping, I was so angry because he got to have her and I didn't. And I knew how much it was hurting him, but I took her anyway.”
Liz felt something brewing in her stomach, bile starting to rise in her throat. Certain she was misinterpreting Grayson's words, she asked, “Took who? What did you do, Grayson?”
“Elena,” was all Grayson answered, more tears slipping down his face.
“Elena? What does Elena - “ Liz stopped, the pieces suddenly coming together. “John is Elena's biological father?”
Grayson nodded miserably. “We wanted a baby so bad, Lizzie, and all of a sudden this girl was there, about to give birth to John's baby, and she left, giving us this letter saying how much she wanted us to have Elena. And John, he didn't want to give her away; I could see it in his eyes, but I kept telling him what a good choice it would be, how much we'd love her.”
“Gray - “
“He hates me now, Liz. Every time he looks at me, it's like he's accusing me of stealing his baby. And I did. I wanted that little girl so badly, I didn't care what it would do to him. All I cared about was Miranda and I finally having a baby of our own, and I sacrificed John for that.”
Wrapping an arm around his shoulders, Liz squeezed him tightly. “Elena is a wonderful little girl, Gray, and that's because of you and Miranda. John was just a kid. He has to see how amazing Elena is, and if he blames you for that, that's his problem, not yours.”
“John wants her back.”
Wiping at his eyes, Grayson explained, “He wanted to take her to the zoo in DC for her birthday, but Miranda said no, that it was too far and she's too young. And this morning John called me, and he was so angry. He just started yelling about how it's bullshit he can't even take his daughter out for her birthday and how the only reason he agreed to the adoption was because we promised he'd be able to be in her life. And then he said he wants to tell Elena, that he's willing to move back here and...and take care of her.”
“Gray - “
“I haven't told Miranda yet,” Grayson continued, his voice trembling. “She was always afraid of this, of him or her coming back to get Elena, and I told her John wouldn't do that. But I don't even know him anymore, Lizzie. It's like he's a stranger with my brother's face.”
Before Liz could say anything, she heard Miranda's voice calling out his name. Grayson lifted his tie, wiping at his cheeks, and Liz carefully got to her feet, waving her hand to show Miranda where they were at; within a minute, Miranda was crossing the yard in her impossibly high heels, concern on her face.
“Is everything okay?” Miranda asked, touching Grayson's face tenderly as she looked questioningly at Liz.
“All the pomp and circumstance, it just brought up memories of his dad,” Liz smoothly lied as Grayson nodded silently in agreement. “We just came to get some air.”
Distrust flitted briefly across Miranda's features before she returned her attention to Grayson. “You want to go home?”
“Yeah, that'd be great.” Trying to feign sobriety as best as he could, Grayson extended an arm and Liz met him halfway, accepting the hug and whispered thanks. “We'll see you later, Lizzie.”
As the Gilberts retreated across the lawn, Liz stared out at the fountains, streams crossing and uncrossing in rhythmic conversion, the water below rippling into the darkness.
They had been back in Mystic Falls for two months when Liz noticed Caroline was signing the wrong name on all of her school papers.
“Sweetie, why aren't you writing your last name on these?”
Caroline looked up from the fingernails she was oh-so-carefully painting atop the newspaper stretched out across the table. “That is my name.”
“No, your last name is Stewart, like Daddy.”
Her daughter sighed as if terribly put out before retorting, “My name is Caroline Forbes Stewart. I just took off the Stewart.”
“Why? Are you mad at your dad?”
This time Caroline rolled her eyes, and Liz resisted the urge to smack her upside the head. “No, I never get mad at Daddy,” she reminded Liz as if she didn't already acutely feel her child's parental preference.
“Then why - “
“Because Miss Stabler said the Forbes' are super important in Mystic Falls, that we're Founders like Elena and Tyler.” Returning her attention to her nails, Caroline concluded, “I want everyone to know I'm important, so I'm Caroline Forbes now.”
Not for the first time, Liz wondered how she could have given birth to a creature so diametrically opposite of everything she was.
“So Elliott Perry retired today,” Robert announced as Liz returned to the living room from tucking in Caroline.
Liz idly nodded, opening the newspaper.
“That means we have an opening for a new deputy,” he continued, his voice now heavy with implication.
“Dad,” Liz began, setting the paper down, bracing for an argument the same way she had back in high school.
“You'll be a shoe-in,” Robert declared, rushing on as if she hadn't spoken at all. “You've got that degree in criminal justice, you worked for probation, you know the boss - “
“I want to finish law school.”
He waved his hands in dismissal. “There are more than enough lawyers in the world, Lizzie. Besides, this is what you were born to do.”
“No, it isn't.”
Liz could tell from the way her father shifted in his chair that she was about to be shouted at like she was a surly adolescent rather than a woman in her mid-thirties, and she suddenly longed for the strained silence of her marriage. “You have a duty to this town, Elizabeth. There has always been a Forbes on the Council - “
“Then call Lilah or Laura and have them do it! Why does it have to be me?!”
“Because they're normal!”
Liz recoiled as if struck, getting to her feet more on instinct to flee pain than any sort of planned response. She opened her mouth but found her vocabulary had left her; instead she walked to the entry way, grabbing her car keys from the bowl and marching out of the house, needing to put as much distance between herself and her father as physically possible.
Before her mother died, Liz used to wonder what was wrong with her, why she wasn't like Lilah and Laura, who were effortlessly friendly, whom everyone wanted to be around; even before the cancer had started to eat at Veronica Forbes's body, Liz had known she wasn't like her sisters. When she had posed such a question to her mother, Veronica assured her she was just like any other little girl, no better or worse.
As Robert's words reverberated in Liz's brain, she wondered if her mother had been lying then to spare the feelings of the daughter she was soon going to leave motherless.
Liz had never much cared for the Grill, but all she wanted right now was alcohol, preferably served by the gallon. As she slid onto a stool, she looked up to find Kelly Donovan standing behind the bar, a rag in one hand, her cleavage perilously close to spilling from her black tank.
She hated Kelly, had hated her since they were in the sixth grade and she had coined the Lezzie nickname which had followed her through graduation. Liz never knew what it was she had done to draw Kelly's ire, but, when Grayson had first expressed interest in Miranda, Liz used her friendship with Kelly as one of the top reasons not to trust her.
You could tell a lot about people by the company they kept.
“Liz,” Kelly purred, a mocking smile twisting across her lips. “I heard you were back in town.”
Yeah, Liz was sure she had heard, probably in unflinching detail from Miranda, who knew every dirty detail from Grayson. “Yep. Can I get whiskey with a beer back? And keep them coming.”
Pouring the drinks in question, Kelly drawled, “It's so terrible when marriages fall apart, especially under such...scandalous circumstances.”
Tossing back her shot, Liz retorted, “Wasn't aware you were an expert on marriage, never being married and all.” As Kelly's face darkened, Liz continued, “Though Matt's father was someone's husband if memory serves.”
Kelly slammed down another shot before switching positions with the other bartender, face turned a nearly florescent shade of crimson. Liz felt a twinge of regret for being so callous, but she didn't have time to focus on Kelly Donovan, not tonight, not when everything was such a fucking mess.
She wasn't sure at what point she became drunk, but she could read people's irritation at her loud, disturbing tirades about Jim and her father. As she threw back drink after drink, Liz ranted and raved in a way she had never done, and Liz wasn't sure she'd ever run out of things to say, so bottled up were her feelings.
When she felt someone place a warm hand on her back, Liz tilted her head to tell off whoever it was to find Grayson's warm, caring eyes staring down at her. To Grayson's right was Rich, who looked surprised at the picture she presented, and Liz instantly knew they had both been at the Council meeting, the one her father had ducked out of because he hated the way Carol talked over everyone.
“Why don't we get you home, Lizzie?” Grayson suggested as Rich pulled out his wallet, setting a stack of bills on the bar.
“No,” Liz protested, “because I don't have a home. I have a single bed in my childhood bedroom because my husband left me and I was too poor to keep my house.”
“Lizzie - “
“And now,” Liz continued, her volume rising, “my husband lives in my house with his boyfriend while I raise his kid!” She grabbed her glass of beer, sloshing the liquid over the rim as she divulged, “I didn't even want to have the baby. I wanted to have an abortion and finish school, but he promised we'd be together forever. And apparently forever meant 'until I realize you're never going to grow a cock, which is what I want to suck!'”
The last thing Liz remembered was Grayson suddenly lifting her from the stool, tossing her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, as Rich apologized to the patrons of the Grill.
“Aunt Lizzie, are you dead?”
Liz groaned awake, her brain screaming in pain as her eyes fluttered open. There, standing beside her bed, was Jeremy, still wearing his pajamas, a toy doctor's bag in his hand.
“No, but I wish I was,” she answered honestly, struggling to a sitting position.
“Want me to fix you? Daddy showed me how.”
Despite her epic hangover, Liz smiled and patted the bed beside her. As her vision focused, she realized she was in the guest room of Grayson's house, and a quick glance at the bedside table told her it was just past seven.
Opening the plastic doctor's bag, Jeremy rooted around before removing a tongue depressor, a fake stethoscope, and a toy screwdriver. “What hurts?”
Jeremy frowned for a moment before asking, “What hurts the most? I'll fix that first.”
Sometimes it amazed Liz how unintentionally profound four-year-olds could be.
Jim showed up on a Friday evening to pick up Caroline, and Liz hated how happy he looked, how Caroline flew into his arms as if he was charging the castle to save her from the dragon, how he smiled patronizingly at her as he asked how she was doing.
She hated him, hated him more than she had ever hated anyone, and the part of her she didn't like to acknowledge hated Caroline for being a part of him.
Maybe it was a good thing Jim was taking Caroline for the four-day weekend.
Grayson showed up a few hours after Caroline left, his hands tucked into his pockets, head tilted in the gesture Liz identified as being the one he used to butter her up for a favor, and she began to shake her head.
“You don't even know what I'm going to ask,” he protested as he climbed the steps, opening the screen door and letting himself in.
“Because I know it's going to be something I don't want to do.”
“Lizzie - “
“I know my dad officially tendered his resignation from the Council,” she interrupted, grabbing a a can of Coke from the refrigerator and passing it to him. “And I also know he told you I was willing to fill the Forbes vacancy.”
“I know you think it's insane - “
“So do you,” Liz pointed out. “You told me you spent all of the last meeting trying to figure out if Carol was wearing a bra.”
“She definitely wasn't,” Grayson stated matter-of-factly, “but that's not the point. The point is, it just doesn't feel the same without you there to make fun of it with me.”
“Gray - “
“Like it or not, you're going to be in Mystic Falls for awhile,” he pointed out in the reasonable voice Liz had always secretly despised, “and, much in the same way we knew how to behave at formal functions by kindergarten, this is what we know.”
“We also know how to hop Reverend Fell's fence to go skinny dipping in his pool, but that doesn't mean we should use it.”
“Well, if you still want to go swimming after we're done talking, maybe.” As soon as her face cracked into a smile, Grayson said, “Thursday nights at eight in Rich's office at Founders Hall. Don't be late.”
When she entered Founders Hall that Thursday, she found the room already full: Grayson, Rich and Carol, Brad and his little brother Logan, Zach Salvatore, a few of her father's friends. Liz took a seat near the wall, the same one she had sat in twenty-four years earlier, and wondered just how much things ever really changed.
She was working a double-shift, the low woman on the totem pole her family had carved, and Liz was doing her best not to nod off out of exhaustion when the call came over the scanner of a traffic accident with possible fatalities.
By the time Liz reached the accident scene, the fire department and paramedics were already there. Four cars were involved, all with varying degrees of damage, but Liz instantly recognized the yellow SUV, the one whose color was so visually abrasive she had teased the owner only two days earlier about it. It was flipped on its roof, that yellow paint now missing from several places, glass everywhere. Liz quickly began counting the people involved in the accident, the ones being loaded into the ambulances, but Liz did not see him anywhere.
She got six steps out of her cruiser when she saw the sheet tossed over someone on the ground, blood staining through, an expressionist painting done in her old friend's life. As she reached the fire fighter standing near the body, she found herself afraid of seeing what was beneath the fabric, terrified to see him as anything less than the cocky asshole she had known her entire life, the man she could hardly have a conversation with but who had punched out Paul Cassidy for calling her a dyke in the tenth grade.
The fireman handed her his wallet, and she flipped it open, the driver's license confirming what she already knew. She stared at the information without feeling, reciting facts she already knew: Bradley Joseph Fell, 394 Vista Drive, born 8/19/62.
Their birthdays were only four days apart; before her mother died, Veronica Forbes and Lillian Fell would throw them joint parties.
Liz could feel the bile rising in her throat, tears filling her eyes so quickly, they blurred her vision. Suddenly it felt as if all of the oxygen had been sucked out of the world, her lungs burning as she quickly tried to draw in as much air as she possibly could. As the world started to tilt, Liz felt her legs give out, sending her tumbling to the pavement, her palms tearing open as they slid across the blacktop.
The last thing Liz saw before the world went dark was Brad's hand peeking out beneath the sheet.
She sat in a pew with Grayson, Miranda, Jenna, Rich, Mason, and Carol, directly seated behind his family. Lillian had not stopped sobbing since getting the news, and Reverend Fell sat stoically beside her as his assistant pastor lead the service. Courtney, Marissa, and Logan sat in a row, all of them holding it together to varying degrees, and Liz wished she knew what to say in these situations. People always assumed that, because her mother had died when she was young, it gave her some kind of insight into death, some ability to communicate in the language of grief.
Much like everything else in life, Liz had no idea how to handle this.
Logan rose to give the eulogy, speaking eloquently about his big brother; he discussed all Brad taught him, how much he would be missed, how happy he had been to marry Savannah, what a great father he was to Tina.
He didn't mention Brad's three stints in rehab, the DUIs, the fact he wasn't legally allowed to be driving that night because of his suspended license, the .352 blood alcohol level which determined him to be legally responsible for the accident.
Death erased all sins.
She, Rich, and Grayson end up near Old Fell's Church, sitting atop the hoods of their cars, trading their favorite Brad stories. Rich drank from a flask, but Liz could not imagine drinking right now, not after what alcohol had turned Brad into; she knew from the look on Grayson's face as he passed that he felt the same.
“I never thought he'd be the first,” Rich said after a stretch of silence, and Liz shivered beneath her coat, the chill of the November air raising gooseflesh on her body.
“Would there have been a better first?” Grayson asked rhetorically, tugging his scarf from under his lapels and draping it around Liz's neck. She played with the edge of the fabric, the scent of Grayson filling her nostrils, and Liz felt tears rise in her throat as she realized everything was different now.
They were all going to be different now.
Rich capped the flask, assuring them he was fine to drive but had to get home. Grayson pulled him into a hug, pounding his back in that way men did, and Liz leaned forward to do the same; as her arms encircled Rich, she tried to remember the last time she had hugged Richard Lockwood, the last time she had even considered it.
“Do you want me to drive you home?” Liz asked as Rich's taillights disappeared.
Grayson shook his head. “Nah, I can't...I'd rather be here right now.”
They sat side-by-side on the hood of her car, the roar of the Falls a comforting lullaby, when Grayson suddenly got to his feet, standing in front of her, his face folded in seriousness. Liz patiently stared up at him, waiting.
“I don't know what I'd do if you died.”
Liz gave him a small smile before holding up her hand, palm extended. “Guess it's a good thing neither of us is allowed to leave the other.”
Grayson matched his palm to hers just as he had twenty-five years earlier; his large hand dwarfed Liz's now, and she twisted her fingers around his, pulling him closer as she got to her feet. Resting a hand on his chest, she assured him, “I'm not going anywhere, Gray. You're stuck with me forever.”
The pressure of his lips against hers stopped Liz's heart; in all of the time she had known Grayson, they had never kissed, never even discussed becoming more than friends. They had always considered each other to be like siblings, and, while Liz had harbored a crush so severe in high school it had nearly choked her, Liz had never expected for it to ever be anything more than a teenager's infatuation.
She certainly hadn't expected Grayson to make the first move on a chilly autumn night following their friend's funeral.
His mouth was warm, a contrast to the cool hand he pressed against her cheek; Liz could not help but lean into the kiss, the hand not entangled with Grayson's sliding up to slip into his soft, brown hair. As the tip of his tongue slid across Liz's bottom lip, commonsense finally returned and she pulled back, her breathing sharp.
They stared at each other for a moment, neither speaking, and then Liz felt the air around them...shift.
The entire world was about to shift.
Liz just didn't know it yet.
Later, when she stood beneath the spray of the shower, the hot water washing away the evidence of her sin, Liz would catalog all the thresholds she had crossed that night: sex with her best friend, sex with her married best friend, sex with her married best friend on the hood of a car.
But while hindsight was twenty-twenty, Liz had never been more blind to right and wrong as she was when she pulled Grayson back down to her mouth, pouring a quarter-century's worth of want into every kiss, caress, and moan.
It was impossible to avoid people in Mystic Falls.
Since their indiscretion at the falls, Liz had made a concerted effort to stay far, far away from Grayson. She didn't know what to say, how to act around him; it bothered her, how the mere idea of his presence was now enough to make her stomach twist with nervousness and shame, but Liz did not want to discuss what happened.
She did not want to hear Grayson tell her it had been a mistake.
But there were not enough double-shifts, child-rearing requirements, or daughterly duties to keep Liz away from the first Council meeting following Brad's death, and so, without a reasonable excuse as to why she could not attend, Liz slipped into the room still in uniform, self-consciously folding her coat in her lap as Grayson's eyes briefly landed upon her.
“I received a call from Grove Hill this morning,” Richard began, “and there's reason to suspect there are vampires in the area.”
Liz could not help but snicker. “Are you serious?” Noticing the way everyone was looking at her with judgment in their eyes, she added, “Vampires haven't been in Mystic Falls since, what, the fifties? Why would they suddenly come back here?”
Rich stretched across the table, handing her a file. “Grove Hill's mayor faxed that to me; they've been trying to keep everything quiet, not wanting to raise a panic. But four bodies have been found drained of blood with puncture wounds on their necks. What would you call that?”
Liz opened the folder and tried to swallow back a gag at the sight of the mangled necks. She vaguely heard Rich explain how Grove Hill was investigating a local who had a history of violence, but all Liz could stare at were the lifeless faces of the teenage boys the vampire had left behind.
“If there are vampires in the area, then we need to figure out how we're going to protect ourselves and our families,” Carol stated, and Liz wondered when Carol Harper had started to sound so much like Cecilia Lockwood.
“My grandfather used to grow vervain in our basement,” Zach Salvatore spoke up, surprising everyone; Liz could not remember ever hearing Zach speak in a meeting before. “There are still heat lamps installed down there. All I'd need is the materials, and I could have us all in vervain within a few weeks.”
After discussing how to move around town funds in order to finance Zach's vervain growing operation and advising Liz to keep an eye out for suspicious assaults in the area, Liz tried to rush out of Founders Hall as quickly as she could. She had just reached her cruiser when she felt someone catch her right wrist; without looking, Liz knew exactly who it was.
“Where's the fire?” Grayson asked, a playful smile on his face. When Liz didn't smile in response, he sighed, “Lizzie,” and Liz hated him so much right then, the affection in his voice, the way he used the nickname no one but he had used in the past twenty years.
“I have to go.”
“C'mon, I haven't seen you in almost three weeks. Let's get a drink or something.”
“Gray, I really need - “
They ended up at his office, facing each other on the couch in the waiting room, coffee brewing in the corner. As Grayson handed her a mug, she noticed the way his hands were shaking, the light line of sweat at his hairline. It made her feel much better to know he was nervous too.
“You've been avoiding me,” Grayson stated after a beat.
Liz didn't deny it; instead she shrugged. “I didn't have anything to say.”
“And I already know what you're going to say, so the conversation isn't necessary.”
Grayson smirked. “You don't know what I'm going to say.”
Setting her mug beside the pile of Highlights and Time next to the couch, she ticked off, “You were going to say you love Miranda and would never want to hurt her. You'll say what happened was a result of our grief, how you don't want this to ruin our friendship, but most of all, you don't want me to hate you for making such a big mistake.” Raising an eyebrow, she asked, “Am I close?”
“How do you know that?”
She offered a one-shoulder shrug. “Because you're my best friend.”
Grayson sighed before informing her, “You got one thing wrong though.”
“I don't think it was a mistake.”
Liz froze, too stunned to even breathe. And then she whispered, “Please don't do this.”
“I do love Miranda,” Grayson continued, “and I don't want to hurt her. And, yeah, if Brad hadn't died, then it probably wouldn't have happened. But it didn't feel like a mistake, Lizzie. It felt...right.” Rubbing a hand over his face, he admitted, “I feel like such an asshole. I love my family, but I keep thinking...what if it wasn't supposed to be this way?”
“Grayson - “
“What if it was always supposed to be me and you, and I just - “
“Stop!” she shouted, getting to her feet. “If it was meant to be me and you, it would've been me and you! But you picked her! You don't get to do this to me, Grayson!”
He got to his feet, confusion on his features as he reached for her. “Liz, please - “
The tears hit her so hard, she didn't have time to fight them off; she felt them, hot and wet, on her cheeks and Liz twisted her face away to hide just how deeply this was hurting her, how badly Grayson was hurting her.
The moment his hand touched her face, Liz knew what was going to happen.
She also knew she was not strong enough to say no.
It was funny how getting the only thing you had ever wanted, the only thing you had convinced yourself would make you happy, could also make you hate yourself.
Four months into her relationship with Grayson, John served his brother with papers demanding custody of Elena.
Liz had just come home from the station when Grayson showed up in the driveway, his eyes wild; she could not remember ever seeing him so disheveled, so obviously scared, and it terrified her to see the usually unflappable Grayson behaving this way.
“I don't understand what they say,” Grayson explained as soon as they were inside the house. “He gave them to me today, just put them on the table and said he was done playing, and I don't...Jesus, Lizzie, I haven't even told Miranda this could be a possibility.” Pacing the length of the kitchen, he continued, “I couldn't take them to our lawyer. No one knows...Can you help me?”
Liz pulled the documents out of the envelope, quickly reading through the legalese she hadn't set eyes on since Caroline was born. After a moment, she explained, “He's contesting the adoption on the grounds it wasn't legal. Since the adoption wasn't legal, he's trying to assert his parental rights and gain sole physical custody.”
“She's almost seven-years-old!” Grayson exploded. “We're her parents! How can he just - “
“Because he's her biological father and he never signed anything.”
“But Isobel told us she wanted us to have her!”
“And she didn't sign papers either,” Liz gently pointed out. “You could petition to have their legal rights terminated, but it's going to still bring everything out. And you falsified her birth certificate.” Sliding the papers back into the envelope, she said, “If you want my totally unofficial, not remotely professional advice, you should just try to work this out with John directly.”
“He wants to take her to Maryland with him.”
“He wants to spend time with her,” Liz reminded him. “Maybe if you and Miranda loosen the reins a little, this will disappear. I mean, he's a single, twenty-four-year-old guy; what would he do with a first-grader?”
Grayson nodded as the logic sank in before admitting, “I don't know what I'm going to do if he takes my daughter.”
Even as Liz assured him it would never happen, she knew if John pressed the issue, things could get very difficult very fast for her best friend.
When Miranda showed up on her doorstep three days later, Liz knew everything had hit the fan.
Though she hated to admit it, Miranda Sommers had always been one of the prettiest women Liz had ever seen; even back in high school when everyone seemed to be stuck in an awkward period, Miranda had been blessed with long legs, perfect skin, and the kind of curves which only appeared on mudflaps. That alone would have been reason enough to hate her, but Liz could never quite bring herself to truly despise Miranda; everything would have been so much easier if she had been able to hate her.
Tonight she did not look like the Miranda Liz had spent so much time envying. In her shapeless sweater and jeans, her hair gathered in a ponytail, and her eyes red and swollen from crying, the woman standing in her doorway seemed unbearably fragile.
“Miranda, what - “
“We need to talk.”
“Do you want to come in?”
Miranda shook her head, wrapping her arms around her torso in a poor imitation of a hug. “I'd prefer to do this somewhere Caroline couldn't hear.”
Liz managed to nod, bile starting to sting her throat.
She sat in the passenger's seat of Miranda's car, waiting. The quiet was overpowering, and Liz winced at the drumming of her heartbeat in her ears.
Finally Miranda said, “John came over tonight to discuss Elena. Grayson told me you know the truth about her, about how we got her.” Off her nod, Miranda continued, “As we were...discussing, I made the argument that we can provide a more stable home for Elena than he could. Do you know what he said?” Not waiting for a reply, Miranda recited, “'How stable can your home be if Grayson is fucking Liz Forbes right under your nose?'”
Liz closed her eyes, bracing herself for what was to come next.
“He already told me John wasn't lying, that you've been having an affair since November. So I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't try to deny it.”
“I won't,” she murmured.
Miranda wiped at the tears which were making their reappearance. “You know, I know you've never liked me, but I thought you'd at least have enough respect for me, for my kids, to not do something like this.”
“Miranda - “
“I used to worry you'd do something like this,” she rushed on, her voice solid even as her tears increased. “I used to be so paranoid you'd convince him to break up with me or that he'd realize he was really in love with you. I think I was happier the day you married Jim than I was on my own wedding day because I thought I was finally safe.”
“From me?” Liz scoffed.
Miranda glared, her voice utterly condescending, as she snapped, “It's really not such a ridiculous fear considering I was right.”
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean - “
“When this gets out – and it will – the whole town is going to know. Our kids could know. I'm going to have to face every person in this town and know that they know my husband cheated on me with the woman whose daughter I was babysitting while it happened.” Blotting at her eyes, she added, “I would've thought that you, of all people, would understand how embarrassing a scandal is.”
“I'm sorry, Miranda. We didn't plan - “
She held up her hands. “I don't need to hear the same lame excuses from you that I heard from him.” Pushing her hair off of her face, Miranda informed her, “I told Grayson it's up to him whether or not he continues this...thing with you. But I needed to be clear on a few things first.”
Liz nodded, giving permission Miranda was not requesting.
“The first is I'd appreciate if you not tell anyone about Elena's parentage. We worked out an agreement with John, but we're still not telling her she's adopted yet, and I don't want her to find out from someone other than us.”
“The second is that Caroline is welcome in our house any time. I don't want what's happening to affect our girls' friendship. Elena really loves Caroline, and I don't want her to be punished because of Grayson's actions.”
“I appreciate that.”
“The last is that you are no longer welcome in my house.” Dark eyes blazing with fire, Miranda outlined, “Whether I stay with Grayson or not, you will not step foot in my house ever again. If we host an event, you can't make it; if we have a birthday party for one of the kids, you have to work; if something happens to a member of my family and you have to deliver the news, you stand on the porch. Are we clear?”
“Good.” Turning in her seat, clutching the steering wheel tightly, Miranda gritted out, “Please get out of my car.”
They would be the last six words Miranda Sommers-Gilbert ever spoke directly to her for the rest of her life.
She wouldn't speak to Grayson outside of a Council meeting for the next two years.
The doctors found the cancer in her father's pancreas six weeks before he died.
There was a smell cancer had, the scent of death and decay clinging to everything; Liz had forgotten many of the details of her mother's slow slide towards death, but that smell had been permanently engraved on her soul. The first time she caught lingering scent of it on her father's clothing post-chemo, she had thrown up everything but her memories.
It had taken Veronica Forbes three years to finally succumb to her disease, but Robert slid downhill at an avalanche's pace. He was in the hospital so much, Liz did not kid herself into believing there would be a miracle turnaround; she just began to brace herself for the inevitable. She called Lilah and Laura, told them they should get to Mystic Falls as soon as they could, but, as usual, they accused her of being an alarmist. They barely remembered their mother, let alone the deterioration, and neither felt the need to pony up the money for plane tickets until all hope was lost.
Liz had never hated her sisters more than when she had been forced to stand at her father's bedside and lie about their imminent arrivals.
He had lost so much weight and muscle in the past few weeks, but his grip was strong as iron as he squeezed her hand, slurring how she was a good girl, his good girl. When the nurse came to give him another shot for the pain, Robert slipped off to sleep.
He never woke up again.
As the doctor entered to declare her father officially dead, Liz stood outside the room, her back against the wall, her breathing labored as she struggled not to hyperventilate, the pain so acute she could not even form a response. She could feel herself starting to shake, and Liz knew she was about to lose it.
When a man in a white doctor's coat stopped in front of her, Liz prepared to hear how her father was in a better place now; instead, as she lifted her eyes from the hallway tile, the first thing Liz saw was the blue embroidery over the left breast pocket which proclaimed the wearer to be Dr. G. Gilbert.
He caught her as she began to collapse, her hands clutching his coat tightly, the life preserver thrown to her in the middle of the storm.
“I'm here, Lizzie,” Grayson sighed against her hair, and she cried even harder because it was not the voice of her lover, of the man who had set her body alight with the softest of touches, who had told her she was beautiful; this was her best friend, and she needed her best friend.
She had always needed her best friend.
When she got to the funeral parlor the next morning to begin the planning of her father's funeral, Liz was stunned to find Rich and Grayson already there, speaking to the funeral director with self-assurance.
They had already buried their fathers; they had come to bury hers too.
When they had finished, after she had chosen the casket, the flowers, the hymns, Liz reached for her wallet only to have the funeral director stop her, assure her it had already been taken care of by her friends.
She immediately shook her head. “It's too much - “
“It's not enough,” Grayson interrupted, his tone definitive.
“Don't worry, Liz. We're good for it,” Rich joked with a kind smile.
When her sisters finally arrived, Liz quoted the price of the funeral and watched as her brothers-in-law wrote checks for their portion.
She cashed the checks, donating the money to the town just as her father would have wanted.
When the special election ended with her being announced as the winner, Liz was certain Rich had done something to rig it; he had given her enough shit during the brief campaign period about her refusal to run, Liz didn't think it was outside the realm of belief he had stacked the deck.
It wasn't until he showed her the ballots, her name written on the majority of them, that Liz realized the people of Mystic Falls wanted her to be their sheriff.
“People don't like change,” Rich proclaimed before the Council meeting that week. “And the people of this town feel safer with a Forbes protecting them.”
Liz held the badge which had hung on her father's chest for forty years, the badge which had been passed down since the town's founding. She ran her fingers over the familiar inscription, over the rounded edges.
“I never wanted to be Sheriff Forbes,” she confessed softly.
Rich held her gaze for a long minute, and she realized she didn't need to tell him that, not the boy who had once declared he'd rather die than ever be Mayor Lockwood.
She put the badge on her chest and tried not to buckle under its weight.
Chapter 6: Jenna Sommers
Jenna was not Miranda.
It was a silly point to stress but it needed to be made almost every day of Jenna’s life. Her parents expected her to be like her perfect older sister, to be a cheerleader, an honor student, and Miss Mystic Falls. Her teachers were almost always disappointed when she’d hand in her homework only to find the writing illegible, the equations miscalculated, and the lab results faulty. And sometimes Jenna thought Miranda expected it, too; sometimes Jenna sat across the table from her sister and she could almost see the confusion on Miranda’s face, wondering silently why Jenna was not following the path she had so clearly blazed for her years earlier.
Jenna loved her sister more than anyone else on the planet, but she was not Miranda.
Her father said she just wanted to be contrary; he called her stubborn more than he called her by name, but Jenna didn’t feel particularly stubborn. She just wanted to figure out who she was outside of Miranda’s shadow, which seemed to have been cast into every corner of Mystic Falls, Virginia. Jenna didn’t want to shake pompoms or wave from a parade float or be president of the Student Council; Jenna didn’t know what she wanted but she knew it wasn’t that.
And it only got worse after Miranda married Grayson.
Jenna adored Grayson. He was funny and kind and never treated her like she was a child, never acted as if she was sixteen years younger than Miranda. Grayson was one of the few people in the world Jenna legitimately respected, and she loved how happy he made Miranda.
But Grayson was a Gilbert and, by marrying her sister, Jenna had suddenly found herself a stranger in a strange land, a non-Founder in Founders’ territory.
For as long as Jenna could remember, Grayson and Miranda had been together; there was literally not a single moment of her life Grayson was not a part of and Jenna liked that, the stability of his presence. But when Grayson proposed, suddenly there were all of these eyes on the Sommers family, all of these brand-new expectations thrust upon them. Founders were like royalty in Mystic Falls, and the Gilberts were the brass ring; even in elementary school, Jenna understood that. Miranda was about to marry Mystic Falls’s favorite son, and Jenna found herself forced into playing a role she never wanted.
The first hint to Jenna that life wasn’t the same anymore was at Miranda’s engagement party. Jenna was eight that year, forced into an itchy lace dress her mother spent too much money on, her unruly hair wrestled into a curly ponytail. She had stood in Founders’ Hall, watching as the adults milled around, when she finally spotted a congregation of children headed towards the backyard. Eager to escape, Jenna followed.
They were all familiar faces: John Gilbert, Jake and Mason Lockwood, Courtney, Marissa, and Logan Fell, Zach Salvatore. But when Jenna crossed the threshold, Courtney and Marissa shot her the most withering of looks and Jenna froze instantly under the older girls’ glares.
“What?” Marissa finally snapped, startling Jenna with her brusqueness.
Jenna waited for someone to stick up for her, for John to rush to her defense because they were going to be family, but he didn’t; instead, she sputtered something nonsensical and hurried back into the Hall, hiding in a high-backed chair until Grayson found her and asked her to dance.
It was just the first of many events which made Jenna want to set fire to the Hall and the grand tradition that went with it.
Her parents didn’t understand her dislike of the Founders. Jenna barely managed not to scoff in their faces as they dismissed her claims of snobbery; they listed Miranda’s numerous friendships with people from the Founding Families and then told Jenna she simply wasn’t trying to make friends, that she needed to be more like Miranda.
Two days later, Jenna dyed her hair raven black, just in time for her first day of high school.
Jenna didn’t have friends. The few she had managed to make in elementary school had abandoned her in middle school; the closest thing Jenna had to an ally was Andie Star, the girl she shared a lab table with in biology who was never outwardly mean. Jenna usually spent lunch alone on the edge of one of the tables in the corner of the lunchroom, hunched over whatever book she was reading that week. It was a lonely existence but it was solely Jenna’s, so she didn’t complain.
Homecoming weekend, Andie invited her to a party she was throwing at her dad’s house. Jenna had never been to a party but she didn’t want to tell Andie that, not when she was extending an invitation no one else ever would have considered making. So she accepted and nearly made her mother weep from joy at the idea she was finally giving up her antisocial ways.
Jenna had never put much effort into her appearance; with a sister like Miranda who looked like she stepped off the cover of a men’s magazine, it always seemed pointless. She knew she was not as beautiful as her sister, and Jenna was compared so often on so many levels she never wanted to add another. But that night she studied her reflection carefully, applying the previously unused makeup her mother had bought her, slipping into the clothes she received for her birthday that Jenna once vowed never to wear.
Her clothing was a little too tight, her eyeliner a little too thick, and her lipstick a little too dark, but Andie squealed in delight when she saw her and declared she looked amazing before pressing a sweating cup of beer into her hand.
When Max Crawford started talking to her, Jenna nearly had a heart attack. Max was two years older than she was, a popular baseball player, and Jenna had been half in love with him since she was eleven. As they stood there, talking and laughing, Jenna began to wonder if Max was going to be her Grayson, if one day she would tell her children how she and their father got together.
He kept refilling her beer and, by the time he suggested they go upstairs to talk somewhere more private, the world was starting to blur around the edges. Jenna blushed as he took her hand, leading her up the stairs, and she was only vaguely aware of the catcalls as they ascended. The moment the door to Andie’s brother’s bedroom closed, Max was kissing her, and Jenna tried to keep up, praying he didn’t notice she had no idea what she was doing.
When he reached for the button of her jeans, Jenna gasped, “I don’t want to have sex.”
Almost immediately he pulled back, irritation and anger on his flushed face. “Then why the fuck did you come up here with me?”
Jenna shrunk back into the pillows at his words, blinking back tears which threatened to sting her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, you’re pretty fucking sorry, all right,” he grunted as he pushed off the mattress, adjusting the bulge in his pants. He didn’t even look at her as he left the room, slamming the door behind him, and Jenna sobbed into her shaking hands. When she was finally able to compose herself, she went into the bathroom, cleaned the running eye makeup from her face, took three deep breaths, and stepped into the hallway.
Max was there with some of his teammates and, when they saw her, they began to clap, shouting compliments and crude suggestions, and Jenna cried all over again as she waited for her father to pick her up.
Max told everyone she gave him the sloppiest, worst blow job he had ever received in his life. By the end of the day that Monday, everyone was calling her Sloppy Sommers.
At first, it was only the jocks, but Jenna didn’t see them except between classes so it didn’t bother her. But then the cheerleaders picked up on it and the drama kids and, by the end of the week, the only person still calling her Jenna was Andie, who looked at her with such pity Jenna wanted to scream. People Jenna had never even met were hissing the nickname as she walked by, and suddenly she was the most infamous freshman at Mystic Falls High, even beating out the guy who got busted snorting lines in the bathroom.
Jenna avoided the bathrooms since finding an eyeliner drawing of her servicing three guys in letter jackets.
They finally broke her two weeks after the party. Jenna was seated at her customary table, midway through One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest when she heard the slurping sound. It was quickly followed by another and then another; soon, everyone who passed her table was gleefully slurping.
Immediately Jenna felt her cheeks brighten in humiliation; she wanted to flee but she knew there was nowhere to go. She tried to focus on the words on the page but they were swimming as unwanted tears started to fill her eyes. Jenna would have rather died than have them see her cry but she could feel it building, the dam threatening to burst.
When someone dropped into the seat beside her, Jenna flinched, expecting the absolute worst, too afraid to look up and see who her latest tormentor was. When the chairs across from her were pulled out and sat in, Jenna braced herself, closing her eyes and praying to be anywhere else.
“You gonna finish that?”
Jenna’s eyes snapped open, jerking to look at the person beside her. Mason Lockwood smiled broadly, his finger still pointing to the half-eaten turkey sandwich on her tray. Quickly she glanced across the table to see Zach Salvatore, Logan Fell, and John, and Jenna was certain she had been dropped into a parallel universe.
Mason snapped his fingers in front of her face before gesturing to the sandwich again.
“No, you can have it,” she quickly answered, trying to subtly wipe at her eyes.
“Thank God! I’m starving,” Mason declared before inhaling the sandwich in two bites.
“You’re always starving,” Logan pointed out with a roll of his eyes. Leaning towards Jenna, he stage-whispered, “He’s like an animal but we keep him around anyway.”
“Fuck you, dude,” Mason laughed before grabbing a chip from Jenna’s tray.
As Mason and Logan bickered back and forth, Zach gestured to her book. “I loved that. Do you read a lot?”
Jenna cautiously nodded, still trying to regain her bearings.
“There’s a library in the boardinghouse; we have about every book ever written. If you ever want to borrow one, you can.”
Jenna had never set foot in the Salvatore boardinghouse before but she had heard stories it was the biggest, prettiest home in Mystic Falls, even nicer than the Lockwood mansion.
“She’ll borrow them all,” John commented, lazily flipping through his notes for calculus.
Before Jenna could respond, she heard the telltale slurping noise and immediately flinched. Quicker than Jenna thought possible, Mason was on his feet, his hands gripping the shirt front of a JV football player who looked as if he was about to wet himself. Mason was the biggest guy on the football team, the only freshman to start Varsity, and even a leper like Jenna had heard the tales of his temper; everyone knew the Lockwoods had no problem beating the shit out of anyone who crossed their paths.
Jenna tried not to smile as he shook her tormentor.
“We got a problem?”
The smaller boy shook his head quickly. “Nah, Mason, no problem.”
Jenna saw the fear in the boy’s eyes as he obediently said, “I’m sorry.”
Mason shook him like a rag doll. “Like you mean it.”
“I’m sorry, Jenna!”
Jenna had only the vaguest idea who this boy was but she had a feeling he would never forget her name. “Okay.”
Mason released him with a shove, snickering as he quickly hurried towards the exit as the lunch bell rang. As Jenna gathered up her things, Mason flung an arm around her shoulders and pulled her in for a half-hug.
“You fuck with one of us, you fuck with all of us,” he murmured. “We’ve got your back, Jay.”
Jenna didn’t know why they came to her rescue that day, but there were not enough words in her vocabulary to express how grateful she was.
Everything changed after that.
It wasn't even like it was a slow, gradual change. No, one day she had gone to school as Sloppy Sommers, social pariah and the butt of jokes, and the next she was having lunch with the most popular guys in school and everyone knew her name.
Her mother could barely contain her joy at her new-found popularity; Jenna wasn't sure she'd ever be able to forgive herself for making Diane Sommers so happy.
“You're kind of hot,” Mason told her one evening as they sat on the tailgate of his brother Jake's truck. His voice was so calm and matter-of-fact, Jenna thought she misheard him or misinterpreted what exactly he was saying.
“You're kind of hot,” he repeated as he finished off his beer. “What, no one's ever told you that before?”
Jenna couldn't help but laugh. “No.”
“Well, you are. You should remember that.”
A few months earlier, it would have made Jenna's heart skip a beat to hear Mason Lockwood, the most popular boy in the freshman class, the boy everyone wanted to kiss, tell her she was hot; but it was hard to feel flattered when you knew someone as well as Jenna had come to know Mason. She loved Mason ferociously for the friendship he had provided her, but there was absolutely no sexual chemistry between them whatsoever.
Not that she told Andie that. She totally let her think they were doing it.
“Thanks for the pep talk, Mase.”
“I'm just saying,” he continued, inclining his head so close she could smell the hops on his breath, “you keep walking around like you're ugly or something. You dye your hair that stupid color, you wear those baggy clothes. But you'd be totally hot if you just - “
“What, dressed like one of your girlfriends?”
“No, if you stopped thinking that, just because your sister's hot, no one's going to think you're hot too.”
Jenna sighed, throwing back the rest of her beer. She didn't want to talk about Miranda, who had been on the front page of The Mystic Times a day earlier for creating a foundation to promote literacy amongst low-income families; she didn't want to even think about Miranda, who had lectured her on breaking curfew a couple of weeks ago like she was a child.
And she definitely didn't want to talk about how hot Mason thought Miranda was.
“Maybe I don't want people to think I'm hot.”
“Bullshit,” he argued without malice. “I was at Andie's party that night Max lied about you, and no one who wears what you were wearing doesn't give a shit if people think they're hot.”
Jenna froze. “You were there?”
Mason nodded. “Jake and Andie used to have a thing. I'm always invited.” Dropping his voice conspiratorially, he added, “Pretty sure your friend is trying to collect them all when it comes to the Lockwoods.”
“So did you believe it, what Max said about me? Do you believe it?”
Mason scoffed, rolling his eyes. “Of course not. Max Crawford is a fucking douche who lies about everything. But even if he wasn't, John said you'd never do anything like that.”
“What? John said that? John Gilbert?”
With a laugh, Mason finished his beer before saying, “Don't sound so surprised. John isn't a bad guy.”
“Yeah, but he isn't a nice guy either. He's always been such an asshole to me, acting like he doesn't know who I am, blowing me off whenever I get dragged to all that Founders' bullshit.”
“Well, all I know is, when Max started talking shit on you, he told all of us to do whatever it took to make it stop. Not that I really needed a reason to kick Max's ass; that was just a bonus.”
Hopping off the tailgate, Jenna grabbed his cup, needing to change the subject. “I'll get another round.”
“Nah, just get it for you. I'm going to go hook-up with Keara Bradley.”
“Awfully cocky,” Jenna teased.
As he walked towards the throng of people gathered around the bonfire, he tossed back, “A guy can be cocky when he's this sexy!”
Jenna laughed as she made her way towards the keg, slipping between the congregating bodies. She didn't know a lot of people at this party; almost everyone was older, friends of Jake's, and she wished Mason hadn't left her. Despite everyone knowing she was now part of Mason's circle of friends, people still weren't eager to talk to her; no one was outrightly rude anymore, but they also weren't falling all over themselves to hang out with her.
It was just a new flavor of loneliness.
“Hey, stranger,” someone to her left said, and Jenna twisted her head to see Logan beside her, a pleasant smile on his face.
“Hey. I didn't know you were going to be here.”
Tucking his hands into his coat pockets, Logan admitted, “I didn't really want to come, but Marissa needs a DD.”
“And just your luck, you happened to be home with a brand-new license,” Jenna completed. “Guess that means you won't be joining me in a beer.”
Logan shook his head. “To be honest, I don't really like the taste. I'm super lame, right? You're embarrassed to be seen with me, I can tell.”
She laughed, her empty cup forgotten. “I suppose I could risk my unbelievable popularity to hang out with your poor, sad, sober self.”
Extending his elbow for her to take, he quipped, “My hero.”
Jenna tried to ignore the flutter of her stomach as he lead her to his car, allowing herself to be amused by his uncanny impressions of his parents, snarky observations of the other party-goers, and surprisingly insightful commentary on Mystic Falls.
The next day, Jenna dyed her hair back to its original copper color.
“You should watch yourself with Logan Fell.”
Jenna looked up from her copy of Misery to see John standing over her, staring grimly down at her from his standing position. She hated when the Sommers and Gilbert families got together for holidays, knowing it was always going to devolve into her mother pretending like she hadn't once been an employee of the late Dr. Gilbert, Mrs. Gilbert pretending like she wasn't bitter about the lack of grandchildren at these events, her father pretending like he wouldn't rather be at home in his recliner watching football, and Miranda pretending like she didn't envy Grayson's ability to suddenly disappear under the guise of medical emergency. Most of the time, as soon as they got to Miranda's house, Jenna would plant herself in a corner with a book and try to keep her head down until the whole damn thing was over.
At no time during any of the dozens of holidays their town families had spent together, had John ever initiated conversation beyond, “Your mom wants you.”
“Logan talks a good game, but you can't trust him,” John elaborated. “You need to be careful.”
“I thought Logan was your friend.”
“No, Logan is a guy I've known all my life who has the same friends I do whose sister I used to date,” John corrected. “That doesn't make us friends.”
“Yeah, well, you should mind your own business,” she sputtered, tucking her bookmark between the pages.
“I'm just trying to be a friend.”
Getting to her feet, Jenna snapped, “I'm not your friend, John. I'm just a girl you've known all your life who has the same friends you do whose sister married your brother.”
John didn't speak to her again for the rest of Christmas break.
Jenna never quite knew how to take Zach. He was never anything but nice to her, but there was something peculiar about him, a cloud which seemed to hang over him no matter what the circumstances.
“His family's cursed,” Mason reported when Jenna voiced her observation.
She laughed. “What?”
“How have you grown up in this town and still don't know anything about it?” he asked as he rolled onto his stomach. They were in her bedroom, the door wide open as her parents insisted upon, and Mason took up almost every inch of available floor space with his frame.
“Well, Founders' secrets don't get told to the poor folk,” she retorted in a mock-Appalachian accent.
With a laugh, Mason explained, “The Salvatores founded the town with the rest of the families back in the day, you know? Giuseppe Salvatore, he was the richest guy in town, had this huge plantation where Watchers' Woods is now. First his wife dies in childbirth, then his sons get killed in the Battle of Willow Creek, and then the poor bastard gets killed when someone broke into his house to rob it. So his brother comes to town to take over the business, and, three days after he moves into the big house, it burns to the ground.”
“I'm serious! These crazy statues are still out in the woods where the driveway used to be; my brother Mark showed me. Anyway, by the time the brother's kids are adults, almost all of Giuseppe's money is gone, so they build the boardinghouse to bring in cash until they get back on their feet.”
“And then they're struck by lightning?”
Mason shoved at her knee. “That's when the animal attacks start. Every few years, bodies show up around the grounds, including two of the Salvatores. So Zach's grandpa, he's the last Salvatore standing back in the fifties, you know? Well, one day his grandpa mysteriously breaks his neck. His grandma decides to get the hell out of town with Zach's dad, who was just a baby, and the boardinghouse sat there empty for years. And then, after his grandma died, Zach's dad inherited the boardinghouse and they came back.”
“Sounds like really bad luck.”
Flipping back onto his back, Mason pronounced, “No one has luck as bad as the Salvatores. Zach's got to know eventually that curse is going to hit him too.”
The next time Jenna sees Zach, she can't help but hug him. He looked at her funny, a confused smile on his lips, but Jenna just smiled back.
“Do you want to come over for dinner on Friday?”
Jenna turned from her locker to see Logan standing behind her, an amiable smile on his face. “What?”
“My parents think, if we're going to be dating, then they need to formally meet you,” Logan explained, playing with a strand of her hair. “So they want you to come over and meet the whole clan.”
“My parents, Brad and Savannah, Courtney, Marissa,” he ticked off, pushing her hair away from her neck in order to press a kiss to the tender skin there.
“We've only been dating a few months.”
“Yeah, but that's an eternity in Fell time.” Flashing her his best charming smile, he reassured her, “It's not going to be a big deal, Jen. Mom will make something of questionable taste, you'll answer a couple of questions, and then we'll go out to the falls. Come on. I want to show you off.”
It was the right thing to say; later, she would wonder if Logan knew that, if he could somehow inherently sense how much she wanted to be wanted, to be shown off. If there was any talent Logan possessed above any other, it was the ability to tell people what they wanted to hear.
Jenna bought a new dress, a soft, filmy green frock that she wore with a white sweater she borrowed from Miranda; she let her mother carefully French braid her hair and apply a soft layer of make-up which made her face glow. As she studied herself in the mirror, Jenna did not think she looked anything like herself.
Her parents dropped her off at the Fells's door, her mother gawking at the sprawling, three-story home. It wasn't as grand as the Lockwood mansion, but it was certainly bigger than the Gilberts's house. Jenna had seen the pictures of her family's old home in Atlanta, and she couldn't imagine how different her life would have been in Atlanta.
Logan answered the door, his face filling with surprise. “Whoa, look at you.”
Jenna self-consciously ran her hands down the length of her skirt, smoothing out any potential wrinkles. “What?”
“You just don't look like you,” he explained, brushing a kiss against her cheek.
Jenna had never been inside Reverend Fell's home, and, when Logan escorted her into the parlor, she was struck by how opulent it was, a far cry from the sermons he gave about the evil of materialism. All of Logan's siblings were already seated, including his brother Brad's hugely pregnant wife, and Mrs. Fell was just coming down the stairs.
“You're early,” Lillian Fell declared, and Jenna felt a hot flush of embarrassment creep up her throat at the subtle chiding in her tone. Twisting her head over her shoulder, she called, “Louis, company is here!”
Jenna didn't really know Logan's siblings that well. Brad, she knew, was around Miranda's age, and everyone in town was aware he had a drinking problem. Jenna knew he had crashed his brand-new Mercedes into a lamp post two weeks after his wedding, and, when Sheriff Forbes showed up, had taken a swing at the old man. Courtney was a few years older than John and Zach, a sophomore at Wake Forest, and, despite being pretty, always looked as if her face was pinched. Jenna knew Marissa the most, and she positively despised her. She was a senior and was always the first to make a sharp comment to someone, to flout her status as a Founder as if it counted for something. During the Max debacle, Marissa had been one of the first to start the slurping, delighting in the way Jenna would flush in embarrassment.
It was the strangest thing, how suddenly a desire for Miranda bloomed in her chest. Jenna had never been alone with any of the Founding families before, and she had always looked to Miranda for how to navigate her way through these situations.
As they sat down at the large table in the dining room, Logan smiling encouragingly as he sank down beside her, Jenna felt an overwhelming stab of panic at the elaborate place setting, complete with multiple pieces of silverware. As two maids began to bring in the food (maids, actual maids in uniforms Jenna thought only existed in movies), Lillian drawled, “So tell us about yourself, Jenna.”
“Um...what would you like to know?”
“Well, we know you're Grayson's sister-in-law, and you're a year behind Logan in school. I remember when I used to take the children to Johnathan's practice, your mother was one of his nurses. What does your father do?”
Drinks too much and reminisces about the days he didn't consider himself a failure. “He - “
“He's a laborer at the mill,” Marissa interrupted, an edge to her voice which made Jenna's cheeks burn.
“He's the foreman,” Jenna corrected, suddenly feeling the need to protect the man who barely acknowledged her most days, so quick to lose himself in six-packs and ESPN. “He practically manages the whole place.”
“Funny, that's what I thought Rich did,” Brad joked, gesturing for the maid to refill his wine glass.
“I meant actually manages, not just sits in an office,” Jenna replied before she could stop herself. There was a heavy beat of silence, and Jenna felt every single member of the Fell family shift with discomfort.
No one in the Fell family had ever done anything but sit in an office.
The rest of the dinner was painfully awkward, the conversation so forced, the looks being exchanged between Logan's parents so pointed, Jenna felt sick to her stomach. And then, when Jenna was convinced it couldn't possibly get worse, Reverend Fell asked, “What are your college plans, Jenna?”
“I'm not really sure yet. I'm only a freshman.”
“That's hardly too early to start to consider your future. Logan already knows he wants to pursue journalism. You have no inclinations?”
“Not really, no.”
“You are going to college?” Lillian inquired, any warmth from earlier in the evening now gone. “I mean, it can be awfully expensive.”
“Mom,” Logan warned, his voice a mixture of embarrassment and anger.
It wasn't long after that Logan lied, saying Jenna had to be home early, and Jenna knew this evening had gone has just as badly as she thought it had. As she mumbled goodbyes to his family, Jenna slid into the passenger's seat of Logan's brand-new car and exhaled.
“So that - “
“Was a fucking disaster?” Jenna suggested, her chest unbearably tight with anger. Tears of humiliation in her eyes, throat tight with rage, she gritted out, “They think I'm white trash.”
“They don't,” Logan immediately objected. “They're just - “
“Snobs,” Jenna completed. “They're fucking snobs, and I'm about one step above dog shit in their eyes.”
“Look, you don't understand what they're like! For them, this whole Founders thing, it's a really big deal. Before this place was Mystic Falls, it was Fell's Church, and they get crazy about the Fell family name bullshit! I don't care about any of it and you know that.”
“Because if you did, you wouldn't be with me?” Jenna finished with a scoff.
Jerking his car onto the side of the road, Logan turned off the engine and snapped, “You know, you keep talking about how everyone in this town is a snob, but you're just as bad. You walk around with that fucking chip on your shoulder, looking down on all of us because we care about our family history, and then you wonder why people don't like you. Well, mystery fucking solved!”
Jenna flung open the door, hurrying down the road, determined to put as much distance between herself and Logan as she could before her tears started to fall. She heard Logan calling her name, telling her to get back into the car, but Jenna ignored him, flipping him off as he pulled up alongside of her. When he pulled away, his taillights disappearing in the distance, Jenna finally allowed herself to cry.
She wasn't sure how long she was walking when a car pulled up beside her with the window down. Jenna pretended she didn't see it before hearing a familiar voice say, “What the hell are you doing, Jen?”
Jenna stopped as she realized who the person was inside the car. “Kelly?”
Kelly Donovan reached across the seat, opening the door. “Get in.”
There were few people in the world Jenna loved more than Kelly Donovan. For as long as Jenna could remember, Kelly had been in her life, a crazier, less judgmental big sister. Whereas Miranda lectured her about getting good grades and listening to their parents, Kelly taught her all the lyrics to every Madonna song ever written and let her borrow cigarettes in exchange for babysitting Vicki and Matt.
“Logan's an asshole and so are his parents,” was all Jenna offered as she wrestled herself free of Miranda's sweater. Shaking out her braid, she added, “I can't wait to get out of this ridiculous, ass backwards town.”
Kelly chuckled. “I'm pretty sure that's the town motto.”
“Why do guys suck so bad?” she asked without expecting an answer, wiping at her face with the back of her hand.
“Sweetie, if I knew that, I wouldn't be a marginally employed, single mother of two.” Reaching over to pat her on the leg, Kelly continued, “But a good lesson to learn is that being realistic is your friend.”
“What do you mean?”
“I love your sister dearly. I mean, I would do anything for Randi and I know she'd do anything for me. But that happily-ever-after she got with Grayson? That's the exception, not the rule.”
“So I should just give up now?”
Kelly laughed. “No, you just need to make sure your eyes are wide open. You can't trust Founders, Jen. They're more fucked up than cult members; when it comes right down to it, they're only loyal to each other.”
“But Mason Lockwood is my best friend.”
As Kelly pulled her car into her driveway, she sighed, “Well, whatever you do, don't fuck him. In my experience, that's when everything goes to hell.”
Jenna wouldn't realize until much later that this was the best advice anyone would ever give her.
She was flattered when Miranda and Grayson asked her to be Elena's godmother; Jenna had been expecting them to ask Kelly or maybe Grayson's friend Liz. Jenna didn't know anything about babies and she wasn't even sure she believed in God, but she still cradled Elena carefully in her arms as Reverend Fell dribbled water over her skull, John standing silently at her side.
The reception at Founders' Hall was ridiculous, especially given that the guest of honor was only two-months-old. Jenna stood in a corner in her pale blue dress, curling her toes in the uncomfortable pumps her mother had forced her to wear, and watched as Miranda floated around the room with Elena in her arms, graciously accepting everyone's congratulations and showing off her new daughter.
It was strange, Jenna thought, how fortuitous Elena's adoption had been; when Miranda had described the circumstances under which she and Grayson had gained custody of Elena, Jenna had thought it was a bad idea to keep things hushed up. When she had voiced this belief to her parents, her mother had looked so angry, Jenna had genuinely believed Diane Sommers might actually slap her across the face.
“This baby is blessing from God,” Diane had declared, “and your sister deserves to be a mother. I don't ever want to hear you say anything like this again, do you understand me, Jenna Rose?”
No one had ever cared what she thought before; Jenna didn't know why she thought they would have cared now.
Mason blew her off shortly after arriving with his parents to work his seduction magic on one of Logan's cousins; while Reverend Fell and his wife had come, Logan had not, and Jenna wasn't sure how she felt about that. She had avoided him the last few weeks of school, pretended not to hear the gossip about why they had broken up, and, since summer started, had spent her days babysitting Vicki and Matt and her evenings hanging out with Mason. Once, when she was feeling particularly lonely, she had called his house but then hung up when he answered, feeling like the loser Marissa Fell always accused her of being.
“You want to get out of here?”
Jenna looked up from her drink, surprised to see John standing in front of her, his face a grim mask. She hated to admit it, but John looked incredibly handsome today; the blue of his eyes was particularly bright, complemented by the cerulean shirt he wore, and, despite herself, Jenna blushed.
“Get out of here where?”
He scoffed, irritated and impatient. “I don't know, anywhere. Does it matter? You want to go or are you enjoying being ignored in the corner?”
A smart girl would have told him to go fuck himself.
Jenna could be extraordinarily stupid sometimes.
As Jenna had so meanly tossed at him at Christmastime, she had never been friends with John; though their lives had been overlapping since Jenna was a child, though their social circles overlapped now, most of what Jenna knew about John Gilbert was gathered secondhand from their families and friends.
John was incredibly smart, having been accepted to Georgetown with a partial academic scholarship; Jenna once overheard Grayson say John was even smarter than he was, which Jenna found hard to believe. She knew he was on the soccer team and won some kind of award earlier in the year for it; he also played lacrosse with Mason, and, from the few matches Jenna had attended, she knew he was one of the fastest guys on the team. Other than Marissa Fell, Jenna couldn't think of any other girls he had seriously dated, but there were always stories about the girl he had fooled around with at parties, girls who wanted to fool around with him.
But mostly what Jenna knew about John Gilbert was that, in the past couple of months, he had changed. Before, even when he was being a cocky jackass, he was always smirking, usually in a good mood; Jenna couldn't pinpoint exactly when the change had occurred but suddenly John wasn't smiling anymore, wasn't busting the other guys' balls, wasn't showing up for the near constant stream of parties this summer. It was like the John Gilbert she had known her entire life had been replaced with some pod person that looked like John, sounded like John, but was definitely not John.
He drove out to the quarry, climbing out of the car, shedding his coat, unbuttoning his top shirt. Jenna followed because she didn't know what else to do, leaving her heels in the car, gingerly stepping across the dirt and pebbles to join him on the edge of the water. She watched as he skipped stones across the water's surface, the pebble jumping seven times before disappearing.
“How'd you learn to do that?”
“We have a lake house. When I was little, Grayson taught me.” John handed her a few pebbles, demonstrating how to flick her wrist. Jenna tried, only managing to make hers hop three times before sinking.
“Are you okay?” Jenna ventured after several minutes of silent stone skipping.
John shook his head, throwing his next stone with enough force to send it halfway across the water.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He shook his head again.
“What do you want?”
“A time machine.” At her confused expression, he chuckled mirthlessly. “I wanted to be alone but I didn't...want to be alone. Does that make sense?”
“Not really but...Why'd you ask me?”
“Because Gray told me once you're the best listener he knows.”
“But you don't want to talk.”
“I like to be prepared just in case.”
The sun rose higher in the sky, the late July humidity oppressive, and, when John began to shed his clothing, Jenna felt her body temperature rise another 20 degrees. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Swimming.” Dumping his clothing onto the hood of his car, clad on his boxers, John waded into the water before diving in, disappearing beneath the surface for a long beat before surfacing. “You going to join me?”
There was a hint of challenge in John's voice, and Jenna found herself wiggling out of her dress before she could really consider the implications of swimming in her underwear. She felt a brief flash of embarrassment as John's eyes obviously tripped over her body before the water covered her to her shoulders.
“Are you excited to leave for Georgetown?” she asked as she swam further out, treading water as John floated on his back, eyes closed tightly shut.
“I don't want to talk about that.”
“Then what do you want to talk about? The weather? Politics? Religion? Meaning of life?”
“Why'd you break up with Logan?”
Jenna froze. “I don't want to talk about that.”
“Then what do you want to talk about?” John teased, and, for just a moment, Jenna saw a flash of the boy he used to be.
As the sun began to set, the sky painted pink, she and John got out of the water. Jenna blushed brightly as she realized her underwear had become translucent from the water, and she quickly folded her arms over her breasts, trying to hurry to reach her dress. She was surprised when John stilled her hand, instead going into the trunk of his car and removing a large t-shirt.
Jenna pulled it over her head, the hem brushing her mid-thigh, and John dug out a blanket, spreading it across the backseat before gathering their clothing and tossing it onto the passenger's seat. Jenna watched in confusion as he turned on the car, cranking the air-conditioning on high before dropping into the backseat, gesturing for her to join him.
They sat in silence, Adam Duritz singing over the sound system, when John suddenly asked, “Do you ever feel like everyone has this idea of who you are but that's not the person you are at all?”
“Only every day of my life.”
Turning his head, his mouth so close his breath misted over her skin, John reached over, fingering a strand of her hair, drying into waves. Jenna held her breath, uncertain of what was about to happen, uncertain what she wanted to happen.
She was suddenly acutely aware of their near-nakedness.
“I should take you home.”
Jenna tried not to show her disappointment as she slipped back into her dress, gathering her hair into a messy ponytail. When John pulled up in front of her house, she waited for him to say something, to acknowledge the exchange back at the quarry, but all he did was grunt, “See ya,” before driving away.
She couldn't sleep that night.
As she replayed the events of the day, after the sudden level of understanding she felt as if she had developed with John, Jenna felt something building inside of her. She didn't want to admit it was desire, that there was something about John's face so close to her own which had stirred something deep inside her.
Desperate to turn off her brain, Jenna grabbed the book on her nightstand, but she couldn't seem to absorb a single word. As the confusion of her day with John dissipated, a tension Jenna had never felt before replaced it. Suddenly it was as if her skin was too tight for her body, which made her squirm in a fruitless attempt at relief. Her breasts felt heavy and sensitive, her nipples achingly stiff, and her underwear were damp in a way they had never been before.
Jenna closed the book, slamming it back onto her night stand and tugging the blankets up to her chin, resolute in her decision to go to sleep and forget John Gilbert. But the brush of blanket and sheet against her skin made her feel raw, and she tossed and turned only to find it made the feeling worse.
She was in the process of reaching for the glass of water on her night stand when her arm brushed across her nipples. The contact made her entire body contract, the pleasure hitting her so hard she lost her breath. Lowering herself back into her pillows, drawing the blankets up to her chin, Jenna carefully used the tips of her fingers to skim her nipples, curious to see if the feeling would be the same.
Jenna slid her hands beneath the bottom of her tank top, cupping her breasts the way she had wanted John to do; she moved her thumbs simultaneously over both nipples, her hips twisting as she inhaled sharply. She increased the pressure, lightly pinching the turgid flesh; her hips bounced against the mattress as Jenna whimpered.
Her hand was halfway down her torso before Jenna realized what she was about to do. Part of her was embarrassed for even considering it; she could only imagine what people would think if they knew Jenna Sommers touched herself while thinking about John Gilbert.
The other part of her was screaming in frustration because she had stopped.
Jenna had never done this before, hadn't even considered it when she was with Logan. The flesh between her legs was hot, wet from the memory of John in his clinging boxer shorts and the fingers plucking her nipple; it felt nothing like it did in the shower, sanitized and harmless.
She sifted through the curls, tentatively exploring; her fingers tripped up and down, gathering the proof of her arousal. When she found the elusive bump of tissue she knew would feel the best, it took everything Jenna had not to cry out. She began to work it with her thumb, every nerve in her body singing as she raced towards something she had never experienced. Knowing it was close, Jenna caught the edge of her pillow between her teeth, pressing down on her clit as she twisted her nipple, moaning her pleasure into memory foam and lavender cotton.
In the aftermath of the explosion, a pleasant lassitude filled her limbs; her hand, sticky with her fluids, rested on her bare stomach. Jenna gulped the air, hair sticking to her sweat soaked face, her internal muscles still fluttering with want.
It would take two more orgasms before she could sleep, the hunger for her own touch satiated, John's name on her lips.
“So what was up with you and Logan today?”
Jenna looked up from the geometry homework which was her ruse for coming to Mason's house after school instead of babysitting Elena. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you've spent the last six months acting like he gave you herpes, and today you were all giggly when he stopped at your locker.”
“Okay, first: Logan could never have given me herpes because we never made it past second base. Second: I wasn't giggly. And third: why are you creeping at my locker?”
“I wasn't creeping; I was trying to see down Emily Slater's shirt,” Mason corrected. “And you said you were never going to fall for Logan's bullshit ever again.”
“What's this about? I thought you and Logan were bros,” Jenna said with a roll of her eyes.
“Look, Logan and I are fine as long as we're talking about the Redskins, whether or not Miss McCarthy would ever sleep with a student, and how to swipe booze from the liquor cabinet without getting busted. What we are not fine about is him dicking you over.”
“He didn't dick me over. We just...It was just a fight that I probably turned into something way bigger than it was.”
Mason scoffed, getting to his feet and shaking his head. “You're fucking kidding, right?”
“What? I'm not supposed to forgive people?”
“Not when they say the shit he said! Not when you spent a fucking month sobbing in your bedroom because you didn't think you were good enough for him! Jesus, Jenna, have a little fucking self-esteem.”
Sitting upright on the bed, she hurled back, “Oh, that's rich! You're lecturing me on having self-esteem and not letting guys jerk me around while you nail anything with a pulse who thinks she's fat when she isn't?”
“Hey, girls know what they're getting into me when they're with me! I don't make them think I'm a good guy when really I'm too much of a fucking pussy to tell my parents to not act like assholes!”
“Fuck you, Mason!” Jenna screamed, haphazardly jamming her books into her bag.
“Oh, fuck you too!”
Jenna had never really planned on getting back together to Logan, but now that she had fought with Mason, damaged their friendship so badly, Jenna felt obligated to call Logan and ask if he'd be interested in getting back together.
When she walked down the hall holding Logan's hand, Mason wouldn't even look at her.
Nine times out of ten, Jenna would have rather set herself on fire than attend an event at Founders' Hall. To be fair, she had only attended a few, usually when Miranda or Grayson was being honored for something, but Jenna knew she wasn't missing much.
And then Logan invited her to the annual Christmas ball.
Since getting back together two months earlier, Logan had made a concerted effort to bring her around his family, even going so far as to stand up to Marissa whenever she made comments. Jenna appreciated the effort, appreciated everything Logan was doing to prove he could be a good boyfriend, but she also knew the Fells were praying for their break-up.
The red dress she wore had once been Miranda's gown for the Miss Mystic pageant, shortened and taken in by Diane Sommers's nimble fingers. With all of her hair gathered up into a French twist, Jenna felt beautiful, especially when Logan's eyes widened at the sight of her. Jenna knew this should be a great night for her.
But then she'd catch sight of Mason, and Jenna would feel the pain of their fight reassert itself.
Since reuniting with Logan, things had been strained to say the very least. Mason had made it abundantly clear to both of them that he did not agree with their relationship and, as a result, Jenna couldn't remember the last time she and Mason had hung out. At first she thought he'd get over it, that he would see she was happy with Logan and call it a day, but Mason didn't; instead he stayed away, avoiding them at parties, becoming mysteriously busy whenever they wanted to make plans.
Finally, out of sheer frustration, she had cornered him in the parking lot after school and snapped, “If you don't want to be my friend anymore, at least have the balls to say it to my face!”
Mason stared at her for a moment, his face utterly calm, before stating, “I just can't be around you right now, Jay.”
It wasn't a rejection, but it sure as hell felt like one; Jenna didn't know why she did the things that she did, but the same day Mason told her that, she had lost her virginity to Logan in the backseat of his car, desperate to forge a connection to replace the one she thought she had broken.
Now, whenever she was with Logan and saw Mason, Jenna felt unbearably stupid. She had never wanted to trade her friendship with Mason for a relationship with Logan, but it was hard to reverse course when she had dug herself in so deep.
So wrapped up in her head over Mason and Logan, Jenna did not realize John was beside her until he handed her a cup of eggnog and drawled, “You look like you could use this.”
Jenna accepted the drink, taking a sip and being pleasantly surprised as the taste of rum danced across her tongue. “Thanks.”
She hadn't seen John since Elena's christening, since that strange, confusing day out at the quarry. Just thinking of that day brought a blush to Jenna's cheeks, which she quickly tried to cover by taking another swallow of the eggnog, hoping to blame it on the rum.
“I hear you're back with Logan.”
Feeling familiar irritation licking at her, Jenna snapped, “If you're going to make some asinine comment - “
“I'm not,” John assured her.
“Then what are you trying to say?”
Smirking he reiterated, “I hear you're back with Logan.”
“Yes, I'm back with Logan,” she confirmed with a sigh. “Why do you care?”
“Who says I care?” Tapping her on the nose with one finger as he walked away, he mocked, “Pretty egotistical, Jen.”
“What was that all about?” Logan asked as he came up behind her, staring in confusion at a departing John.
Trying to shake it off, Jenna shrugged. “Just John being an asshole. You want to dance?”
Jenna was trying to find Grayson for Miranda when instead she found John hiding in a tiny alcove upstairs.
“Have you seen Gray?”
John shook his head before reaching forward, gently catching Jenna's wrist in his hand. She quirked an eyebrow, waiting.
“I have to find Grayson for Miranda.”
“You can't stay for two minutes?” Flashing her his most becoming smile, he wheedled, “C'mon, Jen.”
With a sigh, Jenna stood beside him, leaning back against the wall. “You're a pain in the ass.”
“Probably,” John acknowledged, “but you're the one who stayed.”
He didn't say anything else, the same, heavy silence from the summer settling over them, and Jenna wondered what it said about her relationship that she was more comfortable being quiet with John Gilbert than she was when involved in a conversation with Logan Fell.
The touch of John's fingertips on her shoulder took Jenna's breath, and she opened her mouth, unsure what she was going to say. John's finger slipped beneath the spaghetti strap of her dress, nudging it down over the slope of her shoulder, and then his lips were there, soft and wet against her skin.
As his tongue flicked out, drawing a line towards her neck, Jenna shuddered before whispering, “No. No, John, stop.”
He instantly obeyed, replacing the strap to its former position, his thumb gently caressing the skin. “Sorry,” he said, his voice devoid of any sign of apology.
“I need to find Grayson,” she lamely reminded him, hurrying out into the hallway, afraid to spare a backward glance at him for fear of what she'd do, what she'd allow him to do.
Jenna didn't know what game John was playing, but she was certain she had no idea what the rules were.
Mason showed up on New Year's Eve, his impossibly broad shoulders filling the doorway to her house, his blue eyes sparkling with familiar warmth.
“Want to get lunch?”
Jenna nodded, pulling her coat off the peg beside the door and shouting out a goodbye to her parents.
They never talked about the fight. Jenna tried to bring it up a few times, but Mason always shot her down, insisted it didn't matter because it was in the past.
Jenna knew everything about Mason Lockwood, and first and foremost on that list was he held grudges like it was his job. So his complete absolution of her was not simply kind; it was downright uncharacteristic.
But Jenna never looked a gift horse in the mouth, so she let the subject drop.
“Where are you taking me?” Jenna laughed as she tried not to stumble as Mason drug her by the hand through the woods on the back of his property. The sun hung high in the April sky, a chill still leftover from the rough Virginia winter, and Jenna shivered as she stepped double-time to keep up with Mason's long strides.
“It's a secret,” Mason teased, stopping to help her over a fallen tree.
“You're going to murder me, aren't you? These past two years have all been an elaborate scheme to win my trust, lure me into the woods, and mutilate me, haven't they?”
“You forgot 'rape your corpse.' It's the most important part of my MO.”
“Mase - “
“We're almost there,” he assured her. “And then I have a surprise for you.”
When they reached the staircase which lead down into the earth, Jenna froze, momentarily freaked out. Enclosed spaces had never been her favorite thing, and she saw nothing but darkness. Mason hopped down the first couple of stairs and, when he noticed she was not following, he turned back around, resting his hands on her hips.
“What is this?”
“It's the old slave quarters my parents pretend doesn't exist. I found it a couple of years ago when I was hunting.”
“I don't want to go down there.”
“It's not as bad as it seems.”
Jenna raised an eyebrow and scoffed. “Yeah, I'm sure the slaves were just wild about it.”
“Jay, do you really think I'd take you somewhere if it wasn't okay? You trust me, right?”
She trusted Mason with her life; he knew that.
“Okay, so why are we sitting in slave quarters on a Saturday afternoon?”
Mason grinned, reaching into the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and pulling out something Jenna only vaguely recognized. “Because it's about the only place in Mystic Falls my parents don't have people who will report back to them about what an awful, delinquent child I am. And you are the person I want to do this with.”
“What exactly are we doing?”
Holding up the baggy in his hand, he smirked. “I swiped this from Jake. I figure it'll make that bullshit dinner we have to go to later bearable. You ever smoked before?”
“Just cigarettes,” she answered, watching as he clumsily lit the joint. The strangely sweet scent of the pot tickled her nose, and she could not help but laugh as Mason coughed as he took his first hit.
“You think you can do better?” he asked, voice raw from coughing. “Let's see it, Sommers.”
She coughed too, the rush of smoke different from the cigarettes she and Kelly shared at her kitchen table, but almost immediately Jenna felt the effects, her body pleasantly warming as she relaxed. Passing it back to Mason, he imitated her inhalation, and soon they were passing it back and forth with ease, laughing as they took turns imitating their mothers, siblings, and teachers.
It became a Saturday ritual, smoking up with Mason in the old slave quarters, leaving the expectations and disappointments of their parents on the surface as they sought shelter beneath the ground.
Everything fell apart on Memorial Day.
Zach's father had offered up the boardinghouse for a Founders' barbecue, and, when Jenna showed up, the yard and house was already crawling with people. Having never been inside the house before, Jenna could not help but be fascinated by the grand rooms. She wandered around the downstairs, taking in the mammoth fireplaces and massive library, before venturing up the staircase, slipping away from the crowds.
Unsure which rooms belonged to Zach and his father, Jenna did not want to open any doors. However, when she got to the end of the hall, there was an open door. From the layer of dust on everything, Jenna quickly deduced this room was not lived in and felt comfortable snooping around.
It was full of antiques, a collection of leather-bound journals neatly organized on the bookshelves. A few line drawings were framed around the room, all signed in black ink by someone named Lexi, and an old daguerreotype dated 1847 of a woman with jet black curls and bright eyes smiled demurely from behind a frame on the writing desk.
“That's Stefania Salvatore,” a voice supplies, causing Jenna to gasp, whirling around to find Zach standing in the doorway. “She died giving birth to her second son.”
“Oh,” was all Jenna could think to reply, replacing the picture on the desk.
“You shouldn't be in here. My uncle doesn't like people touching his things.”
“I'm sorry. I was just...I've always wanted to see inside here,” she admitted. “My house could fit in here, like, twenty-seven times.”
Zach simply smiled, waiting until she stepped over the threshold before firmly closing the door behind her. As they walked back towards the staircase, Jenna ventured, “I didn't know you had an uncle. I thought you and your dad were the last Salvatores.”
“I have two uncles. They don't...They're not...It's better when they don't come around.”
Sensing it was a touchy subject, Jenna quickly segued into asking him about college, if he was enjoying UVA, if the engineering program was hard. Zach was in the middle of describing an English course he taken that he thought she'd like when Mason's strong arms draped over her shoulders, causing her to grunt with the added weight.
“Come play football with us, Jay.” Catching himself, he added, “You too, Zach. John is going to need all the help he can get.”
Jenna hated football more than just about anything, but she was willing to bet she had played more games in her life than Zach ever had.
There was a group of about fifteen on the back lawn, including Logan and his sisters. Almost immediately Jenna could tell Logan was well on his way to being drunk, a suspicion which was confirmed as she watched him and Jake Lockwood pass a flask back and forth as teams were picked. She knew Mason was buzzed, having been able to smell the Jack Daniels on his breath, but she wondered if she and Zach were the only sober people in the backyard.
Everything was fine for the first half-hour, the boys a little too competitive, the girls more than a little disinterested. When Jake handed her the ball and told her to run, Jenna did so, trying to dodge the tag, when Mason came out of nowhere, scooping her up into his arms. Jenna laughed and then squealed as Mason pretended to spike her to the ground before setting her back on her feet.
“Cheater!” she accused, slapping him in the chest.
Mason hooked his arm around her neck easily, pulling her in to give her a noogie even as he tossed the ball back to Jake to resume the game.
“You're such a jerk!” she squealed as Mason held tight, leading her around by the neck.
“Hey, think you can stop feeling up my girlfriend?” Logan snapped, startling both Jenna and Mason with the venom in his voice.
Releasing her from his hold, Mason chuckled, clearly trying to play it off. “We're just screwing around, man.”
“Yeah, that's what everyone keeps telling me. Just how often are you screwing her?”
“What?” Jenna gasped. “Logan, Mason and I are just - “
“I'm not talking to you right now!” Logan shouted, the scent of whiskey so strong on his breath, Jenna pulled back to escape it.
“Okay, you need to calm the fuck down,” Mason ordered, steel behind his words, “and not talk to her like that.”
Jenna became acutely aware of the eyes now turning on them as Logan challenged, “Or what? What are you going to do, Mason? I mean, other than fuck my girlfriend!”
“You're drunk,” Mason spat, “and you're acting like a jackass, so walk away and cool off now.”
“Logan, come on,” Zach encouraged. “Let's just play.”
“No, I want to know what the hell is going on here!” Turning his bleary eyed gaze on her, Logan growled, “What, you decide to be like your sister and fuck enough Founders till you found one you liked?”
What happened next unfolded so quickly, Jenna didn't even know who started it. One minute she was standing there in horror, anger and embarrassment warring for top billing in her body, and the next Logan and Mason were rolling around on the ground, both throwing punches with connected with sickening solidity. Someone behind her screamed, and then John, Zach, Jake, and a handful of others were attempting to separate her best friend and boyfriend.
“Stop it!” Jenna shrieked as both boys were pulled to their feet, literally being drug apart. She took a breath, thinking it was over, when Logan managed to squirm out of Zach's grip and charged Mason, who was currently being held by Jake and John, landing a sucker punch so hard to Mason's stomach it somehow invigorated Mason to break the hold, catching Logan solidly across the jaw.
Jenna moved without thinking, desperate to end the fight; she wasn't sure whose fist it was but suddenly her eye felt as if it was exploding, the force of the blow sending her to the ground with enough force, she actually bounced.
Someone was saying her name, but Jenna couldn't focus, not when it felt like her brain was ringing. And then there was more shouting, a deep voice she vaguely recognized as Grayson's roaring, “That's enough!” and almost immediately everything quieted down. Opening her uninjured eye, Jenna squinted up into the sunlight to see Miranda bent beside her, and she was assailed with the strongest memory of her sister, of being in this exact same position after falling out of a tree, the oxygen forced out of her lungs, and Miranda rushing to her side to make sure she was okay.
Jenna didn't even realize she was crying until Miranda carefully wiped away her tears and murmured, “You're okay, sweetie. You're okay.”
“You know, there is a silver lining to this,” John remarked as she sat in the waiting room of Grayson's office waiting for her parents to arrive.
“What's that?” she asked, holding the ice pack Grayson had given to her to her tender face.
“You took a punch from a Lockwood and didn't get knocked out. Not a lot of people can claim that.”
Despite herself, Jenna laughed.
Logan had a broken nose, Mason required two stitches to keep his lower lip intact, but it was Jenna who ended up hurt the worst.
She had a concussion, a bruised cheekbone, an imploded relationship, and a firm order from her parents that she was not to see Mason, who had apparently thrown the first punch, for a month.
Jeremy was christened on a bitterly cold day in January. Jenna wore a navy dress this time with thick tights, her hair gathered in a ponytail; John sat beside her, his arms full of Elena, who had successfully squirmed her way free of all three of her grandparents to reach her uncle. As Richard and Liz renounced Satan in Jeremy's name, Jenna's eyes couldn't help but wander towards John, who was running a soothing hand down Elena's back as she drifted off to sleep on his shoulder, her tiny fist clutching his silk tie.
But it was the expression on John's face which made Jenna's heart melt. As he softly shushed Elena, rocking minutely back and forth, John looked...light, as if the greatest thing he had ever done was soothe his fussy 18-month-old niece.
“You are so whipped,” Jenna whispered, running a finger down the smooth skin of Elena's arm.
“You're just saying that because she loves me more,” John whispered back, a small smile playing at his lips.
As soon as the ceremony was over, Jenna rose, smoothing her skirt, filing out of the pew. She watched as Grayson almost immediately took Elena from John's arms, jostling the girl awake and making her whine, and Jenna did not understand the shadow which passed over John's face or the silent exchange which seemed to occur between the brothers.
It made her feel better to know John and Grayson didn't really get along anymore; it helped alleviate her own guilt for resenting Miranda.
Jenna was barely out of the pew when John grabbed her forearm. She waited, knowing what question was about to pass through his lips.
“Want to get out of here?”
They ended up the Gilbert house, John tossing his coat and tie over the back of the couch, his body language telegraphing how upset he was about something. Jenna followed him into what had once been Dr. Gilbert's office, watched as he pulled a bottle of scotch out of the liquor cabinet there, took a swig from the bottle, and then held it out to her.
As John began to drink from the bottle, Jenna felt an unbearable need to fill the silence. “So when do you go back to school? Mom and Dad have been trying to get me to look at colleges, but I'm not really sure - “
The rest of Jenna's words were swallowed by John's mouth, now pressing powerfully against her own. She stumbled slightly as John walked her backwards, the wall stopping their progress, and Jenna couldn't help but moan as his scotch-soaked tongue slid against her own, his hands cupping her face to hold her in place. Jenna had only ever kissed two boys in her life, and neither had kissed her the way John was. It simultaneously thrilled and terrified her, the edge of desperation to his kisses, the way his hands twisted the hem of her dress, working it up over her hips.
“Wait,” Jenna gasped, whimpering as John drew his teeth lightly over a tendon in her neck, making everything beneath her waist clench in want. “John...”
“I want you,” John murmured against her throat, his lips never ceasing their exploration of her skin. “C'mon, Jen. I just want to make you feel good.”
She had never had sex with her clothes on before, her tights discarded, skirt rucked up over her hips; she had never straddled someone on a leather desk chair, balanced precariously on her knees as she ground her hips down to meet every stroke. And she had never come quite so hard as she did when John grasped her hair, pulled her face down to his, and panted into her mouth, “Fuck, Jen, don't stop.”
It was strange, Jenna found, sleeping with someone you knew without knowing, someone who had never so much as smiled at you in public but was willing to go down on you so you'd be wet enough to ride him in his dead father's chair. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do while John ducked into the bathroom to dispose of the condom, how she was supposed to act when he returned. Jenna picked up her tights off the floor, rolling them into a ball and tucking them into her purse. As she tried to work her hair back into the ponytail John had taken out, Jenna caught sight of her reflection in a decorative mirror in the hallway and flushed brightly in shame at how thoroughly debauched she looked.
“Do you want me to drop you at Miranda's or your house?” John asked as he came out of the bathroom, his face back to the impenetrable mask Jenna was used to seeing.
“Um, mine, I guess.”
She didn't say anything in the car, her legs cold against the leather seats. When the car stopped in front of her house, Jenna waited for John to say something, anything, but instead he leaned across the seat, opening the door for her.
“I'll see you, Jen.”
It would be a year before Jenna saw John Gilbert again.
Jenna didn't particularly want to go to college, but, like with most things, her parents didn't care what she thought, especially when she got her SAT scores back and did far better than anyone had anticipated. Her mother sat her down one day and forced her to pick four schools to apply to, refusing to let her leave the table until she had done so.
“What else are you going to do, Jenna Rose, wait tables?” Diane asked as she pulled plates out of the cupboard to set the table.
“Guess I'll just have to marry rich like Miranda did.”
Slamming the silverware down, Diane snapped, “You could stand to be a little more like your sister! She never spent her afternoons in detention. She never got picked up by the Sheriff for smoking marijuana! She never had to be forced to look at colleges!”
“Yeah, and she hasn't done anything with her perfect self and high-priced education except run bake sales and drink Bloody Marys with the other women who've managed to fuck their way to the right side of the tracks!”
It took a moment for Jenna to connect the sharp sound of flesh hitting flesh and the stinging in her cheek. As the realization that her mother had slapped her sunk in, Jenna felt angry fears of frustration fill her eyes, her entire body vibrating with emotion.
“We do not speak that way in this house, and you will not talk about your sister that way!”
Pushing her chair back, sending it tumbling to the ground, Jenna shouted, “Well, trust me, as soon as I can get out of this house, I will!”
Jenna would later determine that this was the argument which fractured her relationship with her mother so badly, it would never quite recover. But, at seventeen, all Jenna knew was that it was that the suspicion her mother preferred Miranda had not been unfounded.
“You're not actually going to do this college thing, are you?” Mason asked as he and Jenna washed Mark Lockwood's car in the high school parking lot, helping their classmates raise money for the senior trip.
Jenna sighed, aggressively scrubbing a hubcap. “I got three acceptances and one rejection, but Dad says I have to go where they gave me the most aid.”
“University of Maryland, here I come,” she reported flatly.
“Maryland? Why don't you just say 'fuck off' and come with me on the most epic roadtrip ever?”
Jenna laughed. “Um, because I don't have a massive trust fund which allows me to bum around the country indefinitely?”
Mason shrugged, waving his hand as if it was a minor detail. “I've got more than enough money for both of us. Plus, if I don't go to college, I get all the money in my college fund when I turn twenty-two, so it's not like I'm going to run out any time soon.”
“I'm not spending your money.”
“But it's just money.”
“Spoken like a guy with a double trust fund.” Dodging the soapy sponge Mason threw at her, Jenna added, “Besides, my parents are never going to let me just hop into your truck and ride into the sunset.”
“Then I guess it's a good thing you'll be eighteen by then.” Slinging an arm around her shoulders, he encouraged, “Just think about it. I'm doing the roadtrip either way, but it'd be a hell of a lot more fun with you.”
Before Jenna could respond, a familiar voice asked, “Think you can do mine next?”
Jenna and Mason both turned to see Logan standing there, hands tucked into the pockets of his shorts, a self-deprecating smile on his face. When neither said anything, Logan gestured to his car and said, “Just trying to do my part for the Class of '96.”
Mason didn't say anything, walking to the other side of the parking lot, leaving Jenna standing there, awkwardly clutching her sponge. Picking up the bucket of soapy water, she followed Logan to his car, wincing as he said, “I don't know why he's still so angry. I'm the one who got his nose broken.”
“You deserved it,” Jenna reminded him.
Logan sighed. “Look, Jen, I know I fucked everything up - “
“Yeah, you did.” Shaking her head, she pointed to the curb. “People wait over there until we're done.”
“Jenna, I just want a second chance - “
“You had a second chance,” she cut in angrily, “and you used it to call me and my sister whores.”
“I was drunk, and I've changed. I swear to God, I have changed. You know how much I love you.” Stepping closer, he added, “And I've missed you every day we've been apart. I just want a shot at proving - “
“I have to wash cars right now.”
Logan sighed with a nod. “Could I buy you dinner when you're done? Just to talk,” he quickly added. “I mean, we can still be friends, right?”
Jenna wasn't sure why she nodded before pointing him back towards the waiting area. As soon as Logan was out of earshot, Mason sidled up beside her and said, “You were one of those kids that had to touch the stove just to see for yourself that it was hot, weren't you?”
“Back with Logan again.”
Jenna looked up from changing Jeremy's diaper to find John standing over her. Elena's third birthday party was taking place in the backyard, and, in her desperation to escape screaming toddlers, she had volunteered to change Jeremy and put him inside for his nap.
“I'm not in the mood today, John.”
Jenna had seen him twice in the past year, both of which had ended with her feeling like shit after sleeping with him and vowing never to do it again. She had come to dread it, John's haphazard appearances in her life and her seeming inability to make a single, intelligent decision when it came to him.
“Grayson says you're going to Baltimore. What a happy coincidence that's where Logan goes.”
Ignoring him, Jenna scooped Jeremy up, getting to her feet. As she moved to pass him, John caught her elbow, stilling her movement.
“John, I swear to God - “
“You should ask Logan about Monica.”
“Monica? Monica who?” When John said nothing, she snapped, “Look, I think it's really petty you're - “
“Monica is his girlfriend at UVA,” John interrupted.
“I saw him at a party with her two weeks ago. You've been back together, what, six?”
Forgetting the toddle in her arms, Jenna spat, “You're a fucking liar.”
“Ask him,” he challenged.
“I'm not asking him anything. Stay out of my life.”
John held up his hands, taking a step back. “I'm just trying to help before you make the biggest mistake of your life.”
Jenna opened her mouth, prepared to let loose the vilest stream of profanity to have ever passed through her lips, when Elena came tearing into the house, her dark curls flying behind her, squealing, “Uncle John, play with me!”
For the rest of the party, Jenna could hear John's words echoing in her head, taunting her. The moment Elena finally crashed from her sugar coma, she drove over to the Fell house, finding Logan and Brad playing catch on the front lawn. Logan waved, smiling broadly as she got out of her car, and Jenna braced herself, trying to prepare for whatever was about to unfold.
“Hey, baby. I was just telling Brad - “
“Who's Monica?” she cut in. As Logan froze, shock obvious on his face, she instantly knew John had been telling the truth.
Jenna waited for the anger to come, for the rage and desire to scratch open his face, but all that came was an overwhelming rush of sadness and disappointment in herself, in the way she had so obviously misjudged everything in her life.
“Jenna, I swear it's over - “
“With me,” she interrupted, wiping at the tears now rolling down her cheeks. “I don't ever want to see you again. You...You are the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and I hope someday you get what you deserve.”
As she drove away from Logan, she never looked back.
“Is that offer still good?”
Mason stared at her from beneath his mortarboard, a smile on his beautiful face. “If you mean the offer to take a look at the goods, you're out of luck; my mom made sure I was wearing clothes under my gown.”
Rolling her eyes, she clarified, “I meant the roadtrip. Can I still come?”
Surprise registering in his bright blue eyes, Mason nodded immediately. “Fuck yeah! You're really in?”
“I need to get as far away from Mystic Falls as humanly possible. And three months with my best friend won't suck either.”
Slinging an arm around her shoulders, Mason declared, “We are going to tear this country up.”
She didn't tell anyone she was going. After eighteen years of feeling like everything had been a fight, Jenna packed her father's old duffel, wrote a very short note explaining she was going with Mason, and then snuck out of her bedroom window for the last time.
As the sun rose over Mystic Falls, Jenna threw her bag in the bed of Mason's truck, climbed into the cab, and ordered, “Don't stop driving until we reach the end of the world, okay?”
Mason nodded obediently, pulling her across the bench seat, tucking her tightly against his body. As they crossed the border into Kentucky, Jenna exhaled, her entire body relaxing as she put as much space as she could between herself, Logan Fell, and John Gilbert.
Calling her parents to let them know she was okay was only going to lead to fighting; she also knew a phone call to Miranda would have the same outcome. And it was for that reason Jenna called Grayson's office.
“You know how upset your family is, right?” Grayson asked after Jenna reported she and Mason had safely arrived in Southern California.
“I didn't want to piss anyone off. I just needed a break from reality, you know?”
Grayson sighed. “Are you going to be back for school in the fall?”
“Of course,” Jenna swore even though she had no idea if it was true or not. “Look, I just wanted to let you know I'm fine, Mason's fine, and we're having fun.”
“How are you set for money?”
Smiling at his sweetness, Jenna assured him, “We're fine, Gray. Give Elena and Jeremy big kisses for me, okay?”
As she hung up the pay phone, Jenna looked across the boardwalk to see Mason renting two surfboards. He had been talking about learning to surf since somewhere in the Midwest, insisting that she was going to learn too; Jenna had protested until he pointed out how he had bungee-jumped in Texas because she was too chicken to do it alone.
“One more adventure to cross off the list,” Mason said as she came up next to him, accepting her surfboard.
“How long is this list?”
“However long we want it to be.” Grinning broadly, he added, “That's the beauty of freedom, Jay.”
They were camping in Colorado, the rain having trapped them inside the two-man tent Mason had purchased when they stopped at Yellowstone, when Mason, who was reclining back on his elbows opposite her, jostled her ankle and requested, “Tell me a secret.”
Jenna, who was mimicking his position, retorted, “You know all my secrets.”
“Bullshit,” he argued without rancor. “Everyone has a few deep, dark secrets they don't tell people. Hit me with one.”
“I slept with John.”
Mason's eyes bulged. “No way. When?”
She shrugged. “A few different times.”
“You mean other than that I'm a self-destructive mess when it comes to relationships and I only pick guys who will treat me like crap?”
“Do you, like, love him?”
Jenna scoffed, reaching for one of the joints she had rolled earlier in the day. “Are you kidding? I don't even like him ninety percent of the time.” Inhaling deeply, blowing smoke rings she had perfected in the Lockwood slave quarters, Jenna added, “But sometimes I get this glimpse of the person he could be or should be...I don't know. Chalk it up to one of the bad decisions I left in Virginia.” Nudging him with her leg, she asked, “What about you? What's your secret?”
Mason shifted, his face becoming serious. He drug his finger idly down the length of her leg, his thumb stroking the curve of her ankle before he murmured, “The day before my dad had his stroke, I punched him in the face.”
Gesturing for her to pass the joint, Mason explained, “My dad, he was a real bastard. Even when I wasn't getting in trouble, it was constant: you're no son of mine, you're a smear on the Lockwood name, etc, etc. Anyway, when the Sheriff picked us up for smoking under the bleachers, my mom didn't tell him because she knew.”
“That he'd beat the shit out of me. Anyway, about a week later when he ran into the Sheriff at the Founders' Council meeting, Dad found out. I was sitting on the couch when he came in, and he just fucking belted me right across the jaw. And he just kept hitting me, telling me how worthless I was, how he was going to send me away, and I snapped. I got up, and, when he swung again, I caught his hand and punched him, threw all my weight behind it. I thought I broke his jaw, but he just got up, walked away.” Reaching for his beer, he finished, “Next morning, I woke up to Mom screaming for someone to call an ambulance.”
Remembering how badly a single slap from her mother had wounded her, all Jenna could say was, “Jesus, Mase.”
“That town, it warps people, makes them monsters. We're better than that place.”
No one had ever told Jenna she was better than anything, but Mason said it with such absolute certainty she could not help but believe him.
They were sweating one night in a motel outside of the Badlands, both of them stripped down to their underwear, the ancient air-conditioner rattling in the window, a cheesy horror movie on the television, when Jenna suddenly blurted out, “Why have we never slept together?”
Mason laughed, his body shaking the queen-sized bed they were sharing. “Where the fuck did that come from?”
Jenna would have stuttered in embarrassment, but, over the past two months, any barriers which had still existed between them had been effectively erased, including her ability to blush. “I don't know. I was just thinking it's weird that we've never done anything when you pretty much stick it in everything.”
“You know, if this is you trying to get in my pants, your sweet talking is a pretty strange.”
She slapped his abs with the back of her hand. “I don't want in your pants. I'm just...You never thought about it? Even once?”
“Well, maybe a time or two...in the shower...when I'm feeling a little tense...” Mason trailed off, wiggling his eyebrows with innuendo.
Jenna rolled her eyes, reaching for the remote. “You know what? Never mind.”
Later, as Jenna drifted towards sleep, she vaguely heard Mason turn off the television, adjusting his body beside hers. And then, so soft she almost missed it, Mason revealed, “I think about it all the time.”
She turned onto her side to face him, blinking the sleep from her eyes. “Huh?”
Staying flat on his back, Mason said, his voice a little stronger, “You're the love of my life, Jay. I don't doubt that for even a second. When I'm with you, I don't care about anything else in the world but being with you. And I could spend every second of every day with you until the day we die, and I'd be perfectly content.” Clearing his throat, he continued, “But the second we sleep together, the second I even kiss you, it's going to add this whole new dimension for me to fuck up, and I'd rather have you be my best friend for the rest of my life than have you be my girlfriend for a few months.”
Jenna blinked back the tears in her eyes, exhaling shakily. When she trusted her voice, she whispered, “You know I love you like that too, right?”
Mason nodded, reaching for her hand, pulling it against his chest. Jenna could feel the steady rhythm of his heart beneath her palm, a soothing lullaby rocking her towards sleep.
They were in Tennessee, ten hours separating them from Mystic Falls, when Mason suddenly pulled his truck on the shoulder and said, “Don't go.”
“What? Mase - “
“You don't want to go to Maryland, and you sure as fuck don't want to be seeing Logan around campus. College is always going to be there, but...Let's just keep driving. Let's start new lives, be new people, far, far away from Mystic Falls, Virginia.”
When she called her parents from a rest stop to tell them she wasn't coming home, Diane warned, “Do not throw away your future because some boy broke your heart!”
That's what no one would ever understand: it was never about Logan.
It was always about Mason.
After two years of living out of motel rooms and campgrounds, Mason entered their motel room of the week and spread out a map of the United States. Jenna stared at it, waiting for him to point out their next path, when he said, “I'm getting kind of sick of the road. You pick a place and we'll get an apartment or something.”
She picked the Emerald Coast of Florida because it sounded magical, like one of the places in the fairytales she used to read to Elena; Mason picked the house, a fully-furnished two-bedroom rental on the beach. It was nowhere near as grand as the other beach homes, the furniture was all wicker, and it smelled vaguely of the elderly couple who owned it, but Jenna loved it.
Mason spent his days surfing or fishing, his skin permanently tanned from his activities; Jenna read every book the library had to offer and spent afternoons talking to the never-ending stream of tourists. In the evenings, they'd sit on the enclosed porch overlooking the ocean, drink a little too much, smoke until the world got a little hazy; sometimes they'd end up at one of the nightclubs in town, finding people to bring home, burning off the tension they have mutually decided never to attend to with each other. One of her hook-ups had brought coke once; Jenna inhaled the line cleanly off the glass coffee table and proceeded to spend the next three hours a paranoid, jittery mess. Another night one of Mason's girls had Ecstasy, and somehow Jenna had ended up fooling around with Mason's girl while he watched.
They weren't in Mystic Falls anymore; none of the old rules applied.
Neither of them called home that often, Jenna because she did not want to receive another lecture, Mason because he simply had nothing to say. And yet, like clockwork, Miranda called her every Sunday afternoon at three o'clock, ever the dutiful big sister.
“We're having a 40th anniversary party for Mom and Dad,” Miranda reported one Sunday as Jenna idly filled in a crossword puzzle. “It would really mean a lot if you came.”
“Miranda - “
“It's been almost three years since any of us have seen you, Jenna. This has surpassed being rebellious and has now ventured into complete ridiculousness.”
Bristling with anger, Jenna said, “Look, I have to - “
“What are you going to do, just bum around, get high, and live off of Mason's trust fund forever? Don't you have enough pride in yourself to want more? Do you even know what people are saying?”
“I don't care what a bunch of bored housewives say about me,” she snapped, prompting Mason to look up from the football game he was watching. “And, if memory serves, it isn't the Sommers' family fortune which pays for your lifestyle.”
Miranda was quiet for so long, Jenna suspected she had hung up. And then, in the coolly collected voice Jenna recognized from when Miranda worked with children, she stated, “The party is on the 18th of next month at the Grill. If you're willing to be a part of this family, you'll show up and wear something nice.”
She didn't intend to throw the cordless phone, but it was out of her hands before she realized it, breaking apart as it hit the wall. Mason sat in observation before venturing, “I'm guessing Miranda didn't want to talk about the weather.”
Shaking her head, she said, “I don't want to talk about it,” before disappearing into her room, slamming the door behind her.
It was the middle of the night when Jenna stole across the hallway, pushing open Mason's bedroom door the way she had a thousand times before. The light of the full moon spilled in between the slats of the blinds, making Mason's smooth skin glow. He was lying face down in the center of his mattress completely naked, the massive tattoo he had gotten in Nevada a year earlier on full display; it had taken three weeks for it to be completed, and only Jenna could find the letter “J” hidden in the picture, the same way only Mason knew where the “M” was camouflaged in the tattoo on her hip. She trailed her finger up the back of his leg, swinging around the curve of his ass, swirling in a haphazard pattern on the small of his back.
Like a cat, Mason followed her touch before murmuring into his pillow, “It's illegal to sneak into sleeping people's beds and molest them.”
“I'm not molesting you,” she argued in a whisper, tracing the lines of his tattoo. “I haven't touched you anywhere inappropriate.”
“I can roll over if it'll make it easier.”
Jenna smiled, a rush of affection overcoming her, and she leaned over, pressing her face against the warm skin of his back, wrapping herself around his body as best she could. Mason shifted slightly, reaching backwards and tugging at her body until she was half-underneath him. She raised one hand, running her fingertips over his features, and Mason smiled, sad and affectionate.
“You're leaving, aren't you?”
Jenna nodded, tears spilling over onto her cheeks. She began to speak, but her words came out as a sob, and Mason began to shush her, brushing kisses against her forehead, her eyes. Jenna clung to him, her hands gripping his shoulders as tightly as she could manage, her legs winding around his waist; she sobbed into Mason's neck, burrowing her face into his collarbone, and all she could manage was, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.”
“Don't be sorry,” he soothed, sliding his hands beneath her body, turning them so Jenna was in his lap. “I thought I was going to get you for three months, and I got you for three years. You don't owe me anything, Jay; I'm a big boy.”
“I just don't – I don't want you to think – I don't want to disappoint you - “
“Hey,” he cut in, resting his thumb against her lips. “I am the one person you never have to worry about disappointing. It's not like we're never going to see each other again.”
Jenna nodded, wiping at her face. “I just need - “
“You don't owe me an explanation. It's okay.” Pulling her into his arms, his chest sealed tightly against hers, Mason murmured against her hair, “But I'm really going to miss you.”
She had just finished her very last final of her college career, practically bouncing with the knowledge she would have her bachelor's degree in psychology in her hands within two weeks, when Grayson called her. Jenna dug frantically in her bag to find her cell, nearly upending the bag entirely before finally gasping out, “Hello?”
“Jenna, you need to come home.”
“Come home? Gray, I just rocked my neuroscience final and have senior week staring at me, so - “
“There's been an accident.”
No one knew exactly how it happened. The nearest they could figure out, there was a malfunction with the mechanism which kept the trees on the truck. As her father was walking around the flatbed, the buckle broke, sending thousands of pounds of lumber onto his body. His torso had been crushed, broken ribs puncturing his lungs; he was already gone by the time the ambulance arrived.
The days following her father's death were a blur. By the time Jenna made it back to Mystic Falls from Philadelphia, the kitchen of her parents' home was overflowing with food brought over by the neighbors and mill employees. Her mother was practically catatonic, shuffling around as if she did not know what was going on; Miranda slept in her old bedroom, taking care of everything, driving Diane to the funeral home and church to make the arrangements. While Grayson worked, Jenna tried to do her best to keep Elena and Jeremy occupied, to keep herself occupied.
Jenna was holding Jeremy's hand as they walked down the aisle to the front pew. She sat between Jeremy and Miranda, listening as Reverend Fell eulogized her father, listing his accomplishments, discussing the life of Russell Sommers as if they had been old friends. As the Reverend began to talk about how proud her father had been of his daughters, Jenna started to cry.
Her father had not been proud of her; Jenna was certain of this. When she came back from Florida, neither of her parents had spoken to her for the first week; her father hadn't engaged her in a full conversation until after her first semester at Temple. He had never quite forgiven her for running off with Mason, for eschewing any kind of responsibility for three years, for embarrassing the family.
The last time she had seen her father, it had been Easter. She had come out of her bedroom in the yellow sundress she planned on wearing to the Easter egg hunt Elena and Jeremy were taking part in at Founders' Hall when he had frozen stock-still and ordered her to change. Confused, Jenna looked down, trying to figure out what was wrong; it wasn't until he started shouting she realized he did not want any of her tattoos to show.
Miranda's arm wrapped around her shoulders, her own tears mixing with Jenna's, and, for the first time since she was a child, Jenna remembered just how much she loved her sister.
“When are you coming down for a visit?”
Jenna smiled at Mason's idea of a greeting. “I start grad classes in two days.”
“So the whole Masters-Doctorate program kind of, you know, requires me attending it.”
Mason sighed over-dramatically. “But I haven't seen you since your mom's funeral, the waves are fucking perfect right now, and I want you to come play with me.”
“You know, the highway goes both ways. You could come see me.”
He scoffed. “I believe I've made my feelings on the commonwealth of Virginia perfectly clear.”
“Then you're just going to have to wait until my next break.”
“Fine,” Mason groaned as if horribly put out. “I guess I'll just have to sleep with strange women and see if the new guy next door wants to surf.”
“A new guy? What happened to the Alperns?”
“Nursing home. New guy's named Jimmy. Who knows? Maybe he'll be my new best friend.”
When her phone started ringing in the middle of the night, Jenna awoke in a panic, the result of losing both parents in a five year period. The last time her phone had rung at four in the morning, it had been Miranda calling to say their mother was in the ICU with a heart attack.
“What's wrong?” she asked the caller, her voice panicked and rough.
“I need you, Jay. I need you to come.”
“Mason? Mason, what - “
“I'll buy you a ticket,” he interrupted, his voice thick with tears. “Just please...I need you to be here.”
She sent an email to her professors, saying there was a death in the family and she would be gone for a few days before getting to the airport as quickly as she could.
By the time Jenna arrived at their old beach house, it was well after noon, the heat already brutal. When she tried the front door, Jenna found it locked; digging into her bag, she unearthed her keys, the tarnished brass standing out amongst the crisp silver keys of her new life. Immediately Jenna knew something was wrong; while never a particularly neat or organized guy, the living room was absolutely trashed, furniture overturned, the glass coffee table shattered. She shouted Mason's name right away, suddenly terrified something horrible had happened; from the bedroom, she heard a weak response. Dropping her bag, Jenna ran to find Mason spread out nude on his bed, his entire body a mishmash of bruises.
“Oh my god!” she gasped, slipping onto the mattress. Mason hissed through his teeth in pain, and Jenna immediately stopped touching his skin, stopped trying to assess how badly he was injured. “Mase, what - “
“Of course I came. Mason, what happened?!”
His hand crept across the bed until it found her own; entangling their fingers, he murmured, “Doesn't matter. You're here now.”
“Mason - “
“Everything hurts. Can you get me a pill?”
Jenna nodded, obediently crossing to the bathroom, finding a bottle of Vicodin in the medicine cabinet. It wasn't until she was trying to remove the cap Jenna realized how badly her hands her shaking.
As Mason slept the day away in a wave of opiate bliss, Jenna began the task of cleaning the living room. She had just finished sweeping up the glass from the coffee table when someone opened the front door. Jenna turned to see a man and a woman entering, both freezing in surprise at the sight of her.
The man was as tall as Mason but not as broad, his face covered in a rough layer of stubble; the woman was blonde, her expression borderline unfriendly, and Jenna did not recognize either of them.
“Who are you?” the man barked.
Jenna arched an eyebrow, startled by the level of rudeness in his tone. “You walked into my best friend's house. Shouldn't I be asking that question?”
“Sleeping. Look, I'll let him know you came by - “
“We're not going anywhere until we see Mason,” the man interrupted, stepping into Jenna's personal space. Everything in her body screamed to back away; everything in her body just plain screamed. “Now you can either move or I will move you.”
“Brady...” the woman began with warning in her voice.
“Talk to her like that again, and I'll move you,” Mason declared. Jenna spun around to see him standing at the hallway's entrance, a pair of athletic shorts hanging low on his hips, murder in his eyes.
“Mason - “
“Get out of my house, Brady.” When Brady did not move, Mason took a step forward; Jenna swore Mason got bigger as he approached, his upper body seeming to swell even broader. “I'm not telling you again.”
“Brady, let's go,” the woman said, tugging on Brady's arm. As Brady began to back towards the door, his eyes hatefully locked with Mason's, she added, her words directed towards Mason, “We're really just trying to help here. You know where to find us.”
“Bye, Jules,” Mason stated firmly. As soon as the door slammed shut, his arms were around Jenna, squeezing her tightly. “You okay, Jay?”
“Mason, what the fuck is going on?”
Kissing the crown of her head, he dodged, “It's a long, stupid story. I just fucked up, and I needed to see you. Do you hate me?”
“I could never hate you. I'm just confused. Where did all of those bruises come from?”
“I fell in the woods.” Pulling back, he smiled, clearly trying to change the subject. “I've got you for, like, thirty-six more hours, right? Let's make them count.”
“I met a girl.”
They lay in their underwear on Mason's bed, a bottle of tequila between them, passing a joint back and forth. The humidity was overwhelming, nearly choking Jenna with its thickness, and, in true Mason fashion, he had forgotten to call the air-conditioner repairman. She could smell the sea air wafting in through the open windows and screen doors, practically tasting the ocean on her lips, and she had the sudden irrational urge to never return to her tiny efficiency apartment in downtown Richmond.
“You've met a thousand girls.”
Mason chuckled. “Not like this one. Her name's Kathy. She's...God, I don't even know how to describe her.”
“Are you in love with her?”
“Not yet but I think it could get there.”
Finishing off the tequila, Jenna set the bottle on the nightstand, flashing a teasing smile his way. “Are you breaking up with me, Mason Lockwood? Is that what this whole trip has been about?”
Ignoring her question, he elaborated, “I want to give it a go with her, really try for something. I mean, we're thirty-years-old, Jay. I should be doing something with my life the way you are.”
She shrugged. “If you think this Kathy is the one, that she's your happily-ever-after, you should go for it. You deserve to be happy.”
Mason nodded, his face shadowed. “Yeah, I guess.”
Jenna knew without him explicitly stating it that this was going to be the last time they were ever like this, the last time they would ever get to be the people who had balanced on the rim on the Grand Canyon, who had been run out of a town in Alaska for starting a bar fight, who had tripped on peyote in the New Mexican desert; it was time to be grown-ups now, to put away childish things.
Just the idea of it made Jenna's eyes burn with tears.
She woke up to lips on her right hipbone, the tip of a tongue tracing the letter hidden amongst the constellation of stars there; her underwear were rolled down her thighs, one large, masculine handing resting on her flat stomach, and it took Jenna a moment to reconcile the sensation with the sight of top of Mason's dark head. She said his name once – a question, a request, a warning – and Mason's blue eyes flicked upwards to meet her gaze.
“You're mine,” he murmured against her skin, drawing his teeth lightly across the design, making her entire body tremble with want. “No matter what happens, I'm literally a part of you the way you're a part of me. What we have, Jay...That's forever love.”
Jenna nodded, too afraid of the words building in her throat to say anything.
The phone rang at one-thirty in the morning, startling Jenna out of the first decent night's sleep she had in weeks. Grabbing her cell off the nightstand, she growled, “Mason, I swear to God - “
“It's not Mason,” John cut in, his voice strangely subdued.
“John? What are you - “
“There's been an accident, Jen.” His voice clogged with tears, he continued, “Miranda and Grayson didn't make it. You need to get here.”
Jenna had once read that a boy did not become a man until his father died.
It wasn't until she was ten miles outside of Mystic Falls Jenna realized she was going to be more lost without Miranda than she ever was without her parents.
Chapter 7: Isobel Flemming-Saltzman
Once upon a time, Isobel Flemming had thought she would go be a teacher. Her mother – her real mother – had taught literature at Grove Hill Senior High; she had been voted “Teacher of the Year” three times during her tenure there. Isobel inherited all of the first-editions of classics which her mother had loved so desperately; when she was younger, Isobel would trace her mother's handwriting on the inside cover, over the same six words written into every book: This book belongs to Elena Aleksandrova.
Isobel did not remember her mother. She had been two when a semi-truck crossed the center line and hit her mother head-on, killing her instantly. Most of what she knew about Elena Flemming she had learned from her Aunt Veronika; her father never spoke of his first wife, especially after he married Natalie and had two sons with her. It was why she always wanted to go to Mystic Falls to be with Veronika, to hear about the woman Isobel was desperate to know.
When she had first learned she was pregnant, before she had told her father or Natalie, Isobel would lie on her back, one hand resting on her still flat stomach, and she'd spend hours reading her mother's books, painstakingly copying down the fading annotations, struggling to translate them with the English-Bulgarian dictionary she stole from a bookstore in Richmond, trying to divine some sort of maternal advice.
She found it in a battered copy of War and Peace written in the original Russian. The passage was underlined in blue pen, but it was the word written next to it which caught her attention. There, in her mother's perfect scrawl, was Isobel. It had taken her a week to find the same passage in an English edition, but once she read the words, they were permanently engraved on Isobel's soul:
That was the day she decided to keep her baby, and that was the day the entire course of her life changed.
There was no doubt in Isobel's mind that she loved John Gilbert more than she had ever loved anyone; no matter how often her father declared she had no idea what love was, Isobel believed what she shared with John was love, that their baby was conceived in love. And when she made the decision to run away, to stay with her mother's cousins in North Carolina, Isobel did it because she thought John didn't love her in the same way, had only seen her as “willing,” her father's favorite accusation to throw at her as her stomach grew.
She hadn't expected him to hold her hand as she gave birth to Elena. She hadn't expected his family to embrace her so whole-heartedly, to offer her the chance to stay with them and raise her baby. She hadn't expected John to give her his ring, to find him looking at Elena like she was a miracle, to have him pull her into his arms, tangling their limbs on his brother's couch as their daughter slept upon his chest.
And then Isobel woke up to the sound of the front door opening, and there was Miranda, her arms burdened down with bags and bags baby items.
She genuinely liked Miranda. There was something comforting about her presence, about the way she smiled and brushed Isobel's hair away from her eyes. She had a sister Isobel's age; Miranda had mentioned her when Isobel asked why she was being so nice. Isobel had always wished she had a sister, had someone to watch out for her. Her half-brothers were just kids, and she suspected they didn't really like her much.
Isobel stood there in the Gilbert dining room, watching as Miranda pulled out adorable outfit after adorable outfit, cooing over how cute Elena would look in an embroidered sleep sack, when Isobel blurted out, “Why don't you and Grayson have kids?”
Miranda froze, a pained expression crossing her face, before she murmured, hands carefully refolding the clothing, “I have a condition which...The chances of me ever getting pregnant are very low and it's...We just can't.”
Isobel felt a stab of self-consciousness and shame, her eyes flicking towards the perfect newborn she had not even wanted to conceive. “I'm sorry.”
She shook her head, waving a hand away as if it would wash away any unpleasantness. “We're on a waiting list to adopt. If it's meant to be, it'll be.” Reaching across the table, Miranda laid a hand atop Isobel's. “So did you and John decide on a name?”
“Elena,” Miranda echoed. “That's beautiful.”
As Miranda began to wash the bottles she had just purchased, Isobel asked, “Do you think it's selfish to keep her?”
With a sigh, Miranda turned off the water, clearly considering her words carefully. And then she said words Isobel would never forget, words she knew were designed to put her at ease, words which made her heart break and her stomach churn.
“If you were being selfish, Isobel, you wouldn't have even asked me the question.”
Isobel had no knowledge to bestow upon her child; she had no money, no education, no comprehension on how to care for an infant, let alone raise a child. If she stayed in Mystic Falls, raised Elena in Miranda's spare bedroom, she would forever paint Elena with the label of “John Gilbert's bastard,” the baby which derailed the successful life he was supposed to have.
As John woke up, entering the kitchen with a fussy Elena, she watched as Miranda mixed up a bottle of formula, saw the ease with which John's sister-in-law tended to her niece, and Isobel felt tears, hot and sharp, rise in her throat. Her father was right; she wasn't ready for this, couldn't give Elena what she deserved.
But Miranda and Grayson could.
She waited until John went home for the night, until the couple were asleep. As she wrote John's letter, Miranda's letter, Isobel struggled to keep from sobbing aloud, tears clouding her vision so badly at times she had to stop. She kept staring at Elena, at the tiny creature who had twisted and turned beneath her skin for nine months, whose heart had sung beneath her own, and she felt a love so all-encompassing it made her physically ache. This would be the hardest decision she'd ever make, and she wished with everything inside of her that Elena would never know the sort of loneliness or pain Isobel had felt her entire life.
It was why she added the last paragraphs to Miranda's letter, the one which she kept out of John's.
I won't come back for her. I swear to you on everything in this world and the next that Elena will always be your daughter, that I will never be anything to her.
You and Grayson deserve a baby, and Elena deserves real parents, which John and I can never be, not now, maybe not ever.
When she got to North Carolina, she told her cousins that the baby had died, stillborn; they took her to church and prayed for its soul, and, while prayed her daughter had found peace, Isobel prayed for her own salvation, so torn up with the decision she had made, she could barely breathe.
What kind of woman gives away her child?, the leaves seemed to ask every time the wind blew.
What sort of mother doesn't know what her daughter looks like?, the birds seemed to accuse every time they sung.
Your mother must be rolling over in her grave, every sunny day seemed to taunt.
She was losing her mind, barely keeping it together, by the time she got to Duke. As she sat in her first education class, Isobel barely heard a word the professor was saying; every time she thought of teaching now, she thought of her mother, of Miranda, and Isobel knew before she even had the syllabus in her hands, she was going to drop this class, change her major.
And then Alaric Saltzman sat down beside her and changed everything.
He was so normal.
Ric was the youngest of four children, the only son; his parents lived in Boston where his father was an attorney and his mother, a grant writer for a hospital. He had gone to private school, graduating as salutatorian, and had rowed crew all four years of high school. When he told his parents he wanted to be a teacher, he had what was, in his estimation, the first fight he had ever had with them, and they had only agreed to finance his college education if he swore he would get his doctorate so he could become a professor.
Isobel thought of her own parents back in Grove Hill whom she hadn't spoken to in almost three years, who had barely spoken to her for the last nine months she had been in their custody, and realized she was going to need to amend her life history if she ever wanted any kind of relationship with Ric Saltzman.
The new Isobel Flemming was an orphan, both parents having perished in a car accident. Her Aunt Veronika raised her. She dropped out of high school to help pay the bills, earning her GED at sixteen, taking classes at community college while waiting tables at night. There had never been any serious boyfriends, had never been any boyfriends at all, and there were certainly no babies with big, brown eyes.
They weren't lies exactly; they were just bits of “what might have been,” tied together by a desire to be someone she could look in the mirror every day.
John was the only boyfriend Isobel had ever had, the only boy she had ever kissed, certainly the only boy she had ever slept with; everything Isobel knew about boys came in the form of Johnathan Gilbert IV. There had been a time when she had honestly believed the only boy she'd ever have to know was John. Before coming to Duke, she would lie on the cot in the laundry room – the only bedroom she had in her cousins' house – and imagine what life would be like if and when she and John reunited.
Ric was nothing like John.
At first, they danced around each other. Isobel was nervous, unsure of how to even talk to someone her age after two years in near-exile, and Alaric was still technically with his girlfriend from high school who was a freshman at Smith. They would study together, have meals together, and once, when the campus was half underwater from a passing hurricane, Isobel slept in his bed while Ric slept on the floor. Alaric had become her best friend, and, even though she could feel a crush blooming in her chest, Isobel knew if nothing ever came of it, she was still grateful for his presence in her life.
And then Ric came back from fall break without a girlfriend.
She had barely finished processing what he had just told her when Ric gently cupped her face, his mouth brushing against hers whisper soft, asking but not demanding, sampling but not taking.
“I'm sorry,” he breathed against her face, his hands still holding her cheeks, his eyes remaining closed. “I just had to do it once. I had to - “
She was not so polite as she swallowed his words.
Ric thought she was a virgin.
It wasn't as if Isobel didn't know where the assumption came from; while they spent an exorbitant amount of time making out, crammed into their tiny single beds while their roommates were out, kissing until their mouths were swollen and sore, until their lips were numb and tongues tasted of the other, it rarely ventured further than that. When Ric would slide his hands beneath her shirt or beneath the band of her panties, Isobel could feel the desire coiling tight within her core, begging to be let out, demanding satisfaction. And, as she'd pump his length, making him moan and twist in her grip, Isobel would decide she was ready only to change her mind the second her back touched the mattress.
“It's okay if you're scared,” Ric assured her one rainy afternoon as they laid on their sides facing each other in his single bed, both of them naked and beneath his covers. Isobel was still trembling in his arms, feeling the aftershocks of panic at the temporary pressure of his cock against her wetness; she felt horribly embarrassed by her reaction, by the unused condom unfurled in his trash can, unneeded and wasted.
“I'm not - “
“It's okay,” he cut in, stroking her hair away from her face, his expression almost unbearably kind. “We don't have to do this right now, Iz. When you're ready, we'll try again. I'd be happy just holding your hand.”
“But you want this,” she whispered, touching his face softly with her fingertips, afraid he'd dissipate like smoke right out of her grasp.
Ric smiled, a chuckle slipping past his lips. “Well, yeah. I'm a nineteen-year-old guy and you're beautiful. But, Iz...I don't want this until you want this. I never want to make you do something you don't want to do. That's not...That's not what I want for us.”
She hated it, how much she wanted to be with him and how terrified it made her. It made her feel broken, like a shell of the girl who had kissed John first, who had taken him up to her room and inside of her body without a single thought beyond, I love you, I want you, I need you to be a part of me. Every time she had slept with John, twisting her hips to find his rhythm, she had never considered the consequences, never considered anything.
It killed her, how all she could now think when Ric touched her was This was how you lost Elena.
“Don't be sorry.” He kissed her forehead, her temple. “We have all the time in the world.”
It was her inability to sleep with Ric which compelled her to send John the birthday card.
She had been sitting in her dorm, filling in assignment due dates in her planner, when she noticed the date. It had been three years since she had spoken to him, since she had consciously allowed him to come to her mind, but Isobel still found herself in the school store, buying some generic card and scribbling down her number.
She didn't know if she wanted him to call, but she also didn't know if she was ready to have him not want to call.
But when his voice filtered over the telephone line, it still stole her breath the same as it ever had, a sucker punch to the open wound in her heart.
At first their conversation was utterly benign, strangely formal for two people who were anything but; he kept asking her questions about where she had been, what she had done, where she was now. She described North Carolina and rambled about the weather, described the classes she was taking and her interest in the anthropology program. It was the conversation of strangers, and Isobel began to hate the sound of her own voice, so she asked, “How's Georgetown?”
“I transferred after my freshman year to Richmond.”
“What?” It was a body blow, one which lit the fuse of her anger. “Why would you do that?!”
“Why do you care?” he countered spitefully.
“That was your dream! You were supposed to go and stay there and be - “
“It's not so easy for some of us to walk away!”
His words sucked the air from her lungs, making her wither. Isobel felt the tears start to inch their way forward, the screams rising in her throat.
Softer, more pained, John pushed, “Aren't you even going to ask about her? Don't you want to know?”
All she ever wanted was to know, but Isobel could not put that desire into words and risk upending everything.
“She's beautiful,” John continued without her consent, and Isobel heard the tremor in his voice, the suppression of his own pain. “She's so beautiful, sometimes all I do is look at her. She has these big, dark eyes and her hair...curls everywhere. And her laugh...God, Iz, her laugh...It's, like, the greatest sound on earth, especially when you know you're the one who caused it.”
“Stop,” she whispered, drowning in her tears.
He wouldn't. He couldn't. She knew this was her punishment, knew she maybe even deserved it, but she certainly didn't want it.
“They have a little boy now named Jeremy, and she dotes on him; Grayson calls her 'the little mother.' And she loves everything. There's nothing sad or angry or bratty in her body. She's absolutely fucking perfect, Isobel, and you just walked away from her like she wasn't.”
She hung up, gasping for oxygen, sobbing so hard she couldn't catch her breath.
It was the meanest thing anyone had ever said to her.
But Isobel knew, if anyone had earned the right to say something so hateful, it was John.
He called her back a week later, his voice full of regret, an apology on his lips. She wanted to hang up, to curse him, to banish him from the open sore on her heart, but she didn't because it was John, and no one knew her the way John knew her, could ever know her the way John did.
“I don't ever get to talk about her,” John confessed, voice trembling. “I have her picture in my wallet and in every frame in my apartment, but I don't ever...She doesn't ever get to be mine. There's a part of me that fucking hates you for that.”
“You didn't have to do what I asked,” Isobel sniffled in a whisper, keeping her voice low so as not to wake up her roommate. “You could have kept her.”
“No, I...I know it was better this way, I do. I just...She calls me Uncle John, Iz; she crawls into my lap and kisses my cheek and calls me her uncle.”
“At least she calls you something,” Isobel retorted without thinking, her secret desires slipping free of the locked box she kept them in. “She knows you, she loves you. You're someone to her, John.”
“Am I still someone to you?”
Isobel was quiet, caught painfully off-guard. And then she said what was perhaps the most truthful statement she had offered anyone since leaving Virginia three years earlier.
“You're the other half of me, John.”
She couldn't tell him they were two sides of the same ruined coin.
She found out about parapsychology completely by accident. As she waited to speak with her new adviser, Isobel sifted through a handful of brochures when she came across an announcement for an upcoming speaker in the department. Her eyes quickly flicked across the words, about the research the speaker did in parapsychology, specifically in the study of paranormal phenomenon.
She asked her adviser about it, what it meant; he explained how Duke had partnered with a center which conducted paranormal research for years, people who investigated near-death experiences, telekinesis, telepathy, almost any kind of psychological phenomena which was unexplainable.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but they actually do some interesting research. Most people think it's hunting for Bigfoot and vampires, but it is a legitimate science. If you're interested, I could connect you to someone who does research at the center. Several of our students interested in folklore have partnered with professors at the center.“
“I'd like that, thank you.”
As Isobel accepted the slip of paper with the professor's contact information, she couldn't stop thinking about the vampire stories John had told her, the tales handed down through the men of Mystic Falls.
Isobel didn't know if she believed in the supernatural wholly, but she certainly liked the idea of ghosts, of the people who had been lost watching over their loved ones, keeping them safe.
She needed to believe her mother was still with her in some capacity.
“Come home with me for Easter.”
Isobel looked up from her statistics homework, genuinely stunned. “What?”
Ric grinned as he repeated, “Come home with me for Easter.” When she said nothing, he rushed on, “You said you were just going to stay in the dorms, and I hate the idea of you spending the holiday alone. I already talked to my parents, and they can't wait to meet you.”
“You told your parents about me?”
His brow crumpled in confusion, a quizzical smile playing at his lips. “Of course I told my parents about you; you're my girlfriend. You told your aunt about me, right?”
She thought of the last letter she sent Veronika, of her repeated affirmations that she was fine, that she was doing well at school, to please not tell her father where she was. Veronika had all but plead with her to spend the upcoming summer in Mystic Falls, but Isobel couldn't fathom returning there, to seeing John's house across the street and knowing Elena was so close.
She had not told Veronika about Ric; she was afraid of what her aunt would think.
“I just didn't know we were...I mean, that's kind of serious, isn't it, bringing me home to meet your family?”
He laughed, light and free. “Yeah, but we're serious.” Reading the expression on her face, his laughter tapered off. “Do you not want to be serious?”
“No, of course I...” Shifting so she was sitting up, Isobel murmured, “I just don't feel ready for that step yet.”
The irritation which filled his face was so unfamiliar, it took Isobel a moment to recognize it. And then he snapped, “Is there anything you are ready for?”
Isobel flinched, tears starting to well in her eyes, and she knew acutely this was how her relationship with Ric was going to end.
“Ric, please understand - “
“Understand what, Iz? You won't hang out with my friends, you dodged my calls when my sister wanted to take us to dinner, you introduce me as your friend, and now you won't come home with me? If you don't want to be with me, Isobel, just tell me because I deserve better than this.”
He said “better than this”; Isobel heard “better than you.”
“If that's how you feel,” she managed to get out, “then maybe we should just end things now.”
Ric recoiled in surprise before nodding shortly, getting to his feet. “If that's what you want...”
It wasn't what she wanted. It wasn't what she wanted at all.
But, in Isobel's experience, nothing good ever came from wanting.
Isobel was asleep when someone began to knock on her door. Given that campus had pretty much cleared out the day prior, she was expecting a maintenance man on the other side or maybe one of the international students who also stuck around over the holiday. She was certainly not expecting John Gilbert.
He looked older now, which, she realized, was the result of being older. In the past three years, he had lost the last of his baby fat, his features sharper, more angular; his hair had darkened some, no longer the bright blond Isobel remembered, but his eyes...God, his eyes hadn't changed at all, still staring at her with that heartbreaking mixture of affection and awe.
There were ten thousand questions in her brain, all fighting for top billing, but Isobel couldn't seem to make her voice work, couldn't seem to connect the screaming in her brain with the silence in her throat.
But her body didn't need her brain, her hands grasping the front of John's shirt, pulling him powerfully against her, her mouth mauling his.
John dropped his bag, barely managing to close the door with his foot as he lifted her off of her feet, stumbling towards her bed. Isobel tugged his shirt out of his pants, pushing it impatiently over his head, and John moaned as she drug her nails down the front of his chest, leaving faint pink lines in their wake.
“God, I missed you,” John groaned against her throat, stripping off her sleep shorts in one smooth motion.
Isobel didn't say it back because it wasn't true; she didn't miss John. Most days she wished she had never met John, had never fallen in love with him or been so careless as to get pregnant to him. But John was also the only person she felt remotely comfortable with, the only person on earth who knew her, and she missed being known.
The sight of the condom being pulled from his wallet started a roll of nausea in Isobel's stomach, but she didn't make a movement to stop him, to stop this. She needed this, needed to feel John against her, inside of her, needed to be reminded of who she used to be and who she could never be again.
As John entered her, Isobel closed her eyes, breathing in sharply through her clenched teeth, hoping John would take her reaction as a sign of pleasure, a signal of her desire for him and what their bodies were capable of when working together.
John rested his forehead against her shoulder, his hips pumping in a quick, steady rhythm, and Isobel realized she felt nothing at all: no pleasure, no discomfort, just a strange nothingness which permeated every inch of her. Even as she felt the telltale signs of an orgasm building, Isobel could not manage anything more than a cursory moan, so different from the first time John had made her come, his mouth between her splayed thighs, his mother in the other room.
As John cried out his pleasure, Isobel wondered when sex had become so sad.
“I brought you some things,” John said later as they gorged themselves on the pizza he had ordered. John sat at the foot of her bed, unashamedly nude, while Isobel had wrapped herself in her flat sheet, peeling slices of pepperoni off of her pizza.
“What kind of things?”
Isobel froze, her heart threatening to stop. Unbidden, her eyes fell on the bag John had dropped earlier in the day, and she was simultaneously desperate to know and terrified to glimpse what exactly was inside.
“I don't...I don't know...”
John covered her hand with his own. “You don't have to see them if you don't want to.”
Isobel nodded quickly, grateful.
John was fast asleep beside her, the moonlight trickling in through the shade, when Isobel stole across the floor, unzipping John's bag and digging amongst the clothing. She found the photo album at the bottom, the pictures chronologically depicting her daughter's life thus far. Isobel started to cry as she witnessed Elena's growth from the pink-skinned, sleepy eyed baby she remembered to a grinning toddler with a tumble of curls. In almost every photo, her little girl was smiling, her entire face alight with happiness, and it made Isobel's heart warm to know Elena was the well-adjusted child Isobel had wanted her to be; the last clutch of photos depicted Elena's third birthday, a princess-themed affair complete with a child's size Belle costume.
“It's her favorite movie,” John said, startling Isobel. She looked up to see John propped up on his elbow, an inscrutable expression on his handsome face. “She begged Miranda for weeks for a Belle dress. Grayson rented a Beast costume to surprise her with; it scared the shit out of most of the kids, but not Elena; she ran right into his arms and demanded he dance with her.” Meeting her gaze unwaveringly, he stated, “She's fearless, our girl.”
There was respect in John's voice as he said it, an admiration Isobel didn't want to examine too closely; if there was any trait Isobel didn't want her daughter to have, it was fearlessness.
You couldn't protect yourself fully if you weren't smart enough to recognize when the wolf was at the gate.
Isobel was waiting when Ric got back from Boston.
Ric paused at the sight of her, his duffel over his shoulder, before stating, “It's been a really long day, Iz, so - “
“My parents aren't dead,” she blurted out, uncaring of the others in the hallway, uncaring of anything other than getting out what she needed to get out. “I mean, my real mom is, but my dad, my stepmom, my brothers, they live in Grove Hill, Virginia. I ran away when I was sixteen, and I didn't look back. My aunt, the one I told you about, I used to spend the summers with her, but she didn't raise me. I've lived with my mom's cousins the last couple of years, and I didn't tell you this because I didn't want you to think less of me.” Taking a deep breath, Isobel concluded, “I just needed you to know that.”
As she turned to leave, Ric caught her wrist, a kind expression on his face. “Wait.”
She couldn't tell him the whole truth, couldn't tell him about John and Elena and fleeing Virginia in the middle of the night like a criminal. If he ever knew those things, Isobel was certain he would never cup her face gently in his palms, would never kiss her softly or cuddle with her or whisper how beautiful she was ever again; if Alaric Saltzman knew everything about Isobel Flemming, he would never be able to get over it.
But a little truth parceled out here and there, Isobel could live with that.
Ric proposed to her the night before they graduated. His parents had taken the two of them and Veronika to dinner, toasting their accomplishments with champagne, and Isobel felt it, a sense of peace settling over her body. She was happy, due to start grad school in the fall with Ric, and they had just signed a lease on a townhouse near campus. Life was finally good, and Isobel couldn't remember the last time she had been so happy.
After dropping off Veronika at her hotel, they went back to campus, to Ric's nearly empty dorm room, stripped of everything but the sheets on his bed and his outfit for graduation. Isobel reached for the buttons of his shirt, her mouth gently exploring the underside of his jaw, when he pulled back, his hands tucked deeply into his pockets.
“What - “
Her words stuck in her throat as Ric removed a velvet box from his pocket, opening it to reveal an emerald cut diamond on a silver band, sparkling brightly in the muted light.
“I had a speech planned, and I was going to do something big, but then I realized that just isn't us, you know?” Ric babbled, nervousness causing his words to slur together. “What we have, not everyone gets that, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. You're the one, Isobel, and I want - “
“Yes,” she interrupted, wiping hurriedly at her face before pulling the ring from the box, sliding it down her finger. “God, yes.”
They got married six months later, a tiny winter ceremony in Boston that only a handful of friends, Ric's immediate family, and her aunt Veronika attended. She selected the prettiest of their pictures and sent it to her father, tucking it into an envelope with a letter outlining all she had done in the past six years. She didn't write about the baby or include her address; there were questions they would ask Isobel did not want to answer, did not want Ric to know needed to be answered, and it was easier this way.
John had not spoken to her since she told him of her engagement. Isobel knew it shouldn't bother her, but it did. She had grown used to their weekly phone calls, to talking about anything and everything, and Isobel knew it was selfish, needing John's companionship while she built a life with Alaric.
Isobel had never pretended that she wasn't selfish.
She got the call from Mystic Falls General as she was headed out the door. Isobel was considering letting the machine pick it up, but something made her grab the receiver even as she worried she was going to be late for class.
“Is this Isobel Saltzman?” the voice on the other end asked.
“Yes, who is this?”
“Are you the niece of Veronika Lange?”
Isobel felt her heart drop. “Yes.”
It was a stroke, quick and painless. She had been in the middle of her shift, grabbing a cup of coffee between deliveries, when she had suddenly dropped. Isobel was the only family she had left, listed as her next-of-kin and executor of her estate. The idea of returning to Mystic Falls made Isobel's skin crawl, but the idea of not saying goodbye to Veronika was even worse.
Ric began to insist on coming with her, but Isobel was adamant she wanted to go alone. He looked as if he wanted to fight her on it, but he didn't; she loved him even more for that.
“I'll call you every night I'm there,” she promised after he put her suitcase in the trunk. “I just need to do this by myself.”
“I just want to be there for you, Iz.”
“This is the best way you could be here for me,” she insisted, pressing a soft kiss to his lips. “I love you.”
“I love you more.”
It was teasing, a throwaway line, but it cut Isobel to the quick because she highly suspected it was true.
Veronika's house hadn't changed much since Isobel's last summer there. As she unlocked the door, Isobel caught the scent of the vanilla air fresheners Veronika had loved so much, and it brought tears to her eyes. Isobel gasped aloud as she pushed open the door to the room which had once been hers to see Veronika had left it as it had been six years, complete with the pile of worn paperbacks by the bedside and the photo booth strip capturing she and John as two teenagers deeply in love.
It was like finding the fossilized remains of the girl she had been, preserved and intact with no sign anything had ever changed.
She had just returned from the funeral home, more than a little disgusted at the monetizing of grief, when she heard a woman's voice call, “Excuse me? Excuse me?”
Isobel turned, her chest clenching painfully at the sight of John's mother at the end of her driveway. Her blonde hair was cut short now, one of those trendy cuts so popular amongst women of a certain age, and her face was beginning to show the deepening lines of age. But Mary Gilbert was still pretty, still the woman Isobel remembered gazing down on her with such disapproval.
“You're Veronika's niece Isobel, aren't you? You used to date John?”
Isobel nodded tentatively, crossing the street so she would not have to raise her voice. Just stepping onto the curb in front of the Gilbert house made her blood pressure rise, but Isobel felt its pull, like a siren song.
“I'm so sorry for your loss, dear,” she offered, surprising Isobel by wrapping her up into an embrace. “Veronika was such a wonderful woman.”
“Why don't you come inside, dear? I'm making dinner, and there's more than enough for you.”
“I don't want to impose - “
“Nonsense,” Mary cut in, taking her hand. “Besides, it will give us a chance to catch up. It's been such a long time since you've been around.”
Isobel had spent the past five years studying anthropology; she understood human behavior. And she understood Mary Gilbert was trying to be kind by providing her some sense of comfort in the wake of her aunt's death, even if they had never had an actual conversation prior to this. Isobel understood it and usually it would have angered her, the false politeness, the obvious fakery.
But when she had been with John, all she had ever wanted was Mary Gilbert's approval, so Isobel followed her inside.
There were different pictures on the mantle now; the Gilbert family portrait was still there alongside Grayson's wedding picture, but they were now flanked by John in his graduation robes, a professional shot of a little boy Isobel suspected was Jeremy, and Elena's first-grade school picture, the same one Isobel had hidden in one of her mother's books. There was a toy box in the living room, overflowing with a variety of playthings for boys and girls, and the cool, antiseptic feel the house once held was gone now.
It took Isobel a second too long to understand the implications of the elaborately set dining room table; by the time she saw Mary carrying another place setting to the table, Isobel heard the front door open, and she suddenly wished she had never come back to Mystic Falls.
Isobel saw the blood drain from Miranda's face as she turned around, saw the way Grayson froze stock-still. Their little boy was clutching Miranda's hand, rubbing sleepily at his dark eyes, but Elena was wide awake, smiling brightly as she chattered about someone named Caroline. Mary came from the kitchen, smiling charmingly as she accepted a hug from Elena, and said, “You remember Isobel, don't you? She was Veronika's niece.”
There was a heavy beat before Grayson replied, “Of course. We were sorry to hear about her death. She was such a nice woman.”
“Thank you,” Isobel managed, trying to look anywhere but at Elena, so close she could reach out and touch her. “I'm sorry, Mrs. Gilbert, I shouldn't - “
“Nonsense, dear, you should have a home-cooked meal. Have a seat. There's plenty of food, and John will be here soon. I'm sure he'd like to see you.”
Isobel dutifully sank into one of the chairs, trying desperately not to start crying as Elena took the seat across from her. She couldn't help but study her now; her eyes were dark, not like hers or John's, but the long, curly hair Isobel recognized from photos of her own mother. Her skin was olive colored, so different from Isobel's own pale flesh, and it occurred to Isobel how much Elena looked like Miranda.
None of them spoke as Mary laid out the dishes of food, chattering about the goings-on in Mystic Falls; Isobel could feel Miranda's mounting anxiety, Grayson's careful observation of the situation. When the door opened again, Isobel flinched, a movement echoed by Miranda as John came into view. He paused momentarily at the sight of her before grinning widely as Elena leapt to her feet shouting, “Uncle John!”
John hugged Elena tightly, picking her up and shaking her playfully as Elena giggled; his eyes were focused on Isobel, and she simultaneously hated him and envied the vigor with which Elena greeted him.
Isobel tried to focus on dinner, answering the questions Mary asked, trying to smile believably as John glowered at her from across the table. She was trying to figure out when it would be acceptable to leave when Elena announced, “Your ring is really pretty.”
She looked down at her hand, at the set of rings she was still not used to having on her hand. “Thank you.”
“Do you have a husband?”
Isobel didn't know why she suddenly felt so guilty, why she felt the need to apologize. Swallowing it back, she nodded briefly.
“What's his name?”
“Ric,” John answered crisply, grabbing another roll for Jeremy. “Right, Izzy?”
She had always despised being called Izzy; he knew this.
“Oh, I didn't know you two stayed in touch,” Mary chirped.
“We're great friends,” John snapped, the edge to his voice just sharp enough to raise Isobel's hackles.
Mary, oblivious to the tension, asked, “What does your husband do?”
“He's getting his masters in education.”
“How noble,” John drawled.
Offended, she could not help but retort, “Well, we can't all save the world by selling insurance, now can we, John?”
“Did you wear a big dress?” Elena spoke up, helping to dissipate the mounting anger, diverting the attention of her grandmother away from the terse exchange.
Isobel couldn't help but chuckle. “No, I wore a simple dress. But I had a really long veil.”
“I'm going to have a gigantic dress and it's going to have a million sparkles on it.”
“Elena just went to her first wedding,” Grayson volunteered with a smile. “She was a big fan.”
“Do you and your husband have a little girl I can play with?”
The pain blindsided her so rapidly, Isobel had no chance to prepare for it. Her thought processes stopped, her voice died; the tears filled her eyes so quickly, she didn't have time to hide it, to put up the brave face she had perfected over the past six years. She looked down, trying to form a sentence, trying to remember a single word.
“Isobel doesn't have any children,” John volunteered, his voice far gentler than it had been moments earlier.
And then her daughter nodded before telling a story about a kitten.
John showed up on her aunt's doorstep two hours after Isobel excused herself from the world's most tortuous dinner.
“I don't want to talk.”
He nodded. “Good.”
It was like falling back in time, having sex with John Gilbert on her former bed, but it quieted the screaming in her head for a little while.
“How do you handle seeing her all the time?” she asked as the sweat dried on their skin.
“I don't,” was all John offered, idly toying with the silver bands on her left hand. “Does he know about her?”
They have never talked about Ric before; it was the only topic off-limits. “No.”
“Are you going to have children with him?” John asked in a soft voice thick with vulnerability. It was the way he had sounded years earlier, back before everything had gone to hell.
Isobel understood the idea of having a family with Ric was a far greater betrayal to John than simply marrying him. But it was not the reason she answered, “No.”
Any child she had now would be tainted by the emptiness inside of her, the sadness she just couldn't shake. Isobel knew unequivocally that Elena would be the only child she would ever bear.
She may have promised to love Alaric Saltzman until the day she died, but John Gilbert was the man who truly had her until death.
It started after Veronika died. As she cleaned out closets and sorted through the attic, Isobel found a locked trunk buried beneath a stack of old quilts and nursing textbooks. It was incredibly heavy, taking Isobel almost an hour to maneuver it down the stairs, and, when she finally reached the living room, she noticed that her grandmother's name was burnt into the leather.
The lock was so old, three solid hits with a hammer shattered it. As Isobel lifted the lid, the scent of musty old books filled her nose. Dozens of loose photographs, handwritten journals, and bits of fabrics filled the trunk, all of the writing in the Cyrillic alphabet Isobel had only the flimsiest knowledge of; but it was what she found at the very bottom which fascinated her.
It was a heavy tome, centuries old, with only one word across the cover: Petrova.
Isobel put the book back into the trunk, waiting until John came back that evening to help her load it into the trunk of her car, all that remained of the Aleksandrova family.
For the record? Learning Bulgarian was a bitch.
“Should I be concerned about your sudden interest in Eastern Europe?”
Isobel looked up from the pile of books and notes covering the kitchen table, smiling. “That depends. Are you opposed to me being the villain in a Harrison Ford movie?”
“Do you have ways of making me talk?” he asked in a horrible Russian accent, wrapping his arms around her, pressing a teasing kiss to the soft skin behind her ear.
“You are such a dork.”
He reached down, one arm still across her chest, picking up a snapshot of Isobel's mother as a teenager. “She's really beautiful.”
“That's my mom.”
Isobel nodded. “Elena Yekaterina Aleksandrova,” she pronounced, her accent impeccable after months of studying. “Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, emigrated to Baltimore, Maryland, when she was six, first woman in her family to go to college; married Harold Flemming when she was twenty-one; taught literature at Grove Hill High School until she died May 4, 1980.”
Ric was quiet for a long beat before saying, “I think that's the most I've ever heard you say about your family.”
“I don't have a lot of happy memories like you do.”
Squeezing her tightly, Ric rested his chin upon her shoulder. “We'll make sure our kids have nothing but happy memories.”
Isobel stared at her mother's photo and tried not to wince.
She found out she was pregnant two weeks after their fifth anniversary. It took her a few weeks to realize what was happening in her body, so burdened down by research for her dissertation, teaching intro level courses, and her attempts to trace the meaning of the Petrova book she had found in Veronika's attic a few years earlier, the first of what Ric called “her obsessions.”
Just as she had twelve years earlier, Isobel bought a home test at a pharmacy, ducking into a bathroom in a fast-food restaurant to take it. Within two minutes, her pregnancy was confirmed, and Isobel promptly vomited all of the contents of her stomach into the toilet bowl.
Until the past year, any talk of children had been strictly hypothetical; Isobel would listen as Ric discussed his nieces and nephews before segueing into all the things he wanted to teach their future sons and daughters. He wanted a big family, at least three children, and, over the past few months, had started to circle any real estate listing with three-bedrooms and a yard.
Ric hadn't explicitly stated he wanted to start trying to have a baby, but Isobel was able to read between the lines.
She didn't want anymore children; she had known this since Elena was born, since she kissed her daughter's forehead and left her behind. There had been a few moments where Isobel began to consider if maybe she was wrong, if having another child, Ric's child, wouldn't be so bad at all; but Isobel knew herself. Every time she would look at Ric's daughter, she would think of John's daughter, and if someday Elena came to ask Isobel why she hadn't wanted her, Isobel did not want Elena to find out she was the only child Isobel did not raise.
Isobel did not doubt she would disappoint Ric's child as much as she had disappointed John's.
It was much better for everyone if Isobel was not a mother.
It's not a baby. It's not a baby. It's not a baby.
She had been given the option of sedation but refused it, considering it to be a cop-out, a way to avoid what was actually happening. John had always accused her of being a masochist, of needing a tragedy, but that was not what this was; if she was going to rid her body of the one thing Ric so desperately wanted, Isobel thought the least she could do was be present for it.
As she stared up at the ceiling, her feet in the stirrups, the steady noise of the vacuum providing the soundtrack to the greatest sin she would ever commit against her husband, Isobel thought about Elena, who had turned twelve last week. She thought about the box of pictures she kept in the trunk of her car, about the tidbits John told her every week she kept filed away; but mostly she thought about her own mother and how disappointed she would be in the woman Isobel had become.
The tears coincided with the cramping, the brief twinge of pain followed by the doctor announcing it was over. As the nurses began to collect the instruments, the doctor helped her take her feet down from the stirrups; they wheeled her to recovery where she spent one hour silently crying into her pillow, ignoring the woman who came into counsel her. She listened stoically as she was given the post-procedure instructions along with a pamphlet about what was and was not to be expected following her procedure.
Everyone kept calling it “the procedure”; one of the nurses called it the “vacuum aspiration.”
None of them called it what it was: an abortion.
As Isobel put her clothes back on, wincing as she buttoned her jeans, one of the nurses asked, “Do you have someone to drive you home?”
Isobel nodded, slipping her purse over her shoulder. “Yeah.”
As she exited into the waiting room, John got to his feet, a grim expression on his face. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, he murmured, “You okay?”
She was never going to be okay again, but she nodded anyway.
Ric thought she was in San Francisco for a conference; every night she called and lied about the speakers she saw, the people she met. Vanessa, who was actually in San Francisco, sent her frequent email updates as well as a nearly endless stream of text messages. Her assistant drove her nuts most days, but Vanessa was fluent in five languages, had an almost encyclopedic recall of things she had read, and was the only person who wanted to be her assistant; Isobel knew she had a reputation amongst the other grad students, amongst the professors, for having research topics which were “too far afield” of typical folkloric pursuits.
As she described the beauty of Northern California and promised Ric she'd take a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge for him, Isobel sat on the dock of the Gilbert lake house and tried to figure out how she was ever going to face her husband again.
John sank down beside her, handing her a steaming mug of tea. She slipped her phone back into the pocket of her sweater, wrapping her hands around the mug and mumbling a thank you.
“You don't have to go back, you know,” John said after a beat, his voice deceptively detached. “You could stay here.”
“Won't Grayson get suspicious when they come up for vacation and find me on the couch?”
“I'm not joking, Isobel.”
John exhaled sharply, popping to his feet, fury radiating from his body. Isobel watched him stalk briefly back and forth, waiting for what she knew was to come, for what any rational person would have said years earlier.
“You can't keep doing this to me!” he finally exploded, literally throwing his hands up in frustration. “You can't keep expecting me to wait in the wings while you stay with him! It's not fucking fair!”
“I've never asked you to - “
“No, you don't ask; you just expect! You expect me to call you! You expect me to be your Elena information pipeline! You expect me to be there when you want me and to go away when you don't! And you expect me to keep doing it because I'm too goddamn stupid to stop!”
“And you expect me to be the same girl you knew thirteen years ago, and I'm not!”
“Because you made that decision! Things didn't have to be this way, Isobel! You could have stayed! We could have - “
“We were kids, John! We were kids who couldn't have given Elena half of what - “
“Then fucking get over it!” he shouted, startling Isobel with his ferocity. “You blame everything on what happened with Elena, use it to twist yourself so far up in your head you can't even see straight, but you keep claiming it was for the best! Well, then, move on and live your fake, fucking life with your husband! And let me...” Anger draining from his body, sadness and desperation filling his voice, he pleaded, “Just let me go. If you don't want me, let me go.”
Isobel felt hot tears of shame starting to fill her eyes. “John...”
“I can't do this anymore, Iz,” he declared, tears of his own cascading down his cheeks. “I can't keep living half of a life, waiting for you, hoping you're going...hoping you're going to pick me, pick us. I've done everything you asked since I was seventeen-years-old, Iz; you have to do this for me.”
Wiping at her face, she gritted out, “I never wanted to hurt you. God, I love - “
“Don't say it if you're going back to him,” John cut in, jaw quivering.
Isobel sobbed, “John, please don't do this to me. Please don't leave me too.”
“You're the one who's always leaving me, Isobel. And I can't take it anymore,” he cried, voice breaking as he turned on his heel, heading to the house as quickly as possible.
She stayed on the dock until twilight, ignoring the buzzing of the phone in her pocket, unsure what to do, unsure where to go. As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the pain acute in her chest, Isobel wished she could just turn it off.
Isobel awoke on the couch to the sound of loud banging. Blinking sleep from her eyes, she grabbed the fireplace poker and tiptoed upstairs, scared of what might be awaiting her; the last thing she expected was to find John disassembling the closet in the master bedroom, a handful of boards which provided the false back to the closet lying on the floor.
“What the hell are you doing?” she gasped, setting down the poker, the first words she had spoken to him since their early afternoon fight.
John barely glanced at her as he shoved the boards out of the way with his foot. From the unsteady sway of his body, Isobel instantly deduced he was drunk. “I'm getting something for Grayson.”
“It's two in the morning.”
“Well, when big brother calls,” John snapped, stepping into the hidden room. Isobel followed, unable to resist the desire to see what was hidden in the Gilbert family lake house. She instantly blinked in shock at the collection of weapons and pile of yellowing journals.
“What is this?”
“The Gilbert family birthright,” he answered, picking up an old pocketwatch which laid on the table. “It's where we keep our secrets.”
Isobel picked up one of the journals, reading the fading inscription on the inside page which identified it as the journal of Johnathan Gilbert. Judging by the 1864 date, Isobel was willing to bet this Johnathan Gilbert was the first Johnathan Gilbert, John's great-grandfather. As John stumbled back out of the closet, fumbling with the cell phone in his hand, Isobel skimmed the page, the words stopping her cold.
In the grand scheme of wrongs she had committed against John, stealing an old journal was surely not the worst.
I think of the creature which tore out my throat, who killed my friends, and I curse the day Katherine Pierce stepped foot into Mystic Falls for that was the day we were all damned.”
“Have you ever heard those names before?” Isobel asked as Vanessa graded the papers for the intro psych class Isobel was teaching for the summer session.
“Stefan and Damon Salvatore or Katherine Pierce?”
Vanessa paused for a moment, pulling the corner of her lip between her teeth in deep thought, before admitting, “The Salvatores, not really, but Katherine Pierce is definitely familiar.”
“Familiar from where?”
“Remember when you had me cross-referencing suspicious attacks where ex-sanguination was the cause of death? Well, I went back, like, 200 years, and, in Atlanta in 1863, there was an orphan who went by the name of Katherine Pierce who just happened to show up when the deaths started and, when she disappeared, the deaths stopped.”
“And after that?”
Vanessa shrugged. “She just disappeared after Atlanta, no record of her anywhere. But apparently she was in Nowheresville, Virginia, raising hell.”
“Do you think you can do a search for Stefan or Damon Salvatore, see what pops up?”
Vanessa nodded excitedly. “Don't suppose there are illustrations in that mystery journal?”
“Check the Mystic Falls Historical Society. And make this your top priority, okay?”
“Is this for your dissertation?”
“Of course,” Isobel lied.
“Are you okay?” Ric asked as Isobel poured them both a glass of wine as he finished making dinner.
“Sure. Why wouldn't I be?”
He shrugged, a half-smile on his face. “I don't know. You've just seemed a little...off lately.”
“Off?” she echoed. “How so?”
“I don't know. Distant maybe?” With a sigh, he asked, “Do you think I'm crazy now?”
“No.” Coming around the island, Isobel slid her arms around his waist, pressing a kiss against his shoulder. “I guess I've just had a lot on my mind lately. I'm sorry, baby.”
Ric smiled, any unpleasantness forgotten, and Isobel wondered when lying became easier than telling the truth.
“Who's the best assistant ever?” Vanessa trilled as she entered Isobel's office.
“You found something?”
Setting down a folder bulging with papers, she pulled out two photocopies of old pictures. “I give you Stefan and Damon Salvatore. Pretty yummy, huh?”
Isobel picked up the papers, staring at the two young men who had been killed in 1864. “You're sure these are them?”
“Positive. I dug around the archives of the Mystic Falls Historical Society and I spoke to their last remaining relative, who confirmed those were his great-great uncles or whatever. I told him you were writing a dissertation on the Battle of Willow Creek, which is how these two allegedly died. There was tons about the Salvatore family in the archives; I even got a copy of Damon Salvatore's Civil War service record.”
“And Katherine Pierce?”
“Before she was Katherine Pierce, she was Kathleen Kildair, Caitlin McCormick, Katya Belov, and about another thousand aliases all the way back to 1490 when she was known as Katerina Petrova.”
“Petrova? You're sure her name was Petrova?”
She nodded. “All the descriptions I've read of Katherine Pierce coincide with descriptions of the women with the other names. According to what little information is available online, the Petrova family line ended in 1492 when their entire village was wiped out in some kind of massacre.”
Thinking of the ancient book sitting on her desk at home, Isobel absently murmured, “This is great, Vanessa, thank you.”
“Want to know something really strange?” Not waiting for Isobel's response, she said, “The Battle of Willow Creek was supposed to be when soldiers fired on the church with civilians locked inside. The church was burnt to the ground that night, and everyone blamed the Confederate soldiers. But I found this old journal of someone named Thomas Fell and he said, and this is a direct quote, 'What we set fire to in that church was the most depraved of evils, and only fire could cleanse this town.'”
“You think the battle was a cover-up?”
“I think at least five of the people who died in that fire have been referenced in other contexts as vampires.” Smiling proudly, she asked, “Are you impressed?”
“That's what all of this is?” Isobel queried, gesturing to the folder.
“No, that is the sordid murder history of Stefan Salvatore. There's no information available on Damon Salvatore beyond 1864. Stefan, though, pops up randomly over the past 145 years, goes on massive killing sprees, and then disappears again. Last sign of him was in the fifties; he wiped out an entire trailer park in New Mexico, killing 48 people in one night. I think he's the bad brother.”
Flipping through the papers, Isobel pressed, “But nothing on Damon?”
Vanessa shook her head. “As far as I can tell, Damon Salvatore died in 1864.”
“Thanks, Vanessa,” she murmured, pulling out the packet of research.
After a beat, Vanessa ventured, “This isn't for your dissertation, is it? The werewolves, that curse, now these vampires...What's it for?”
Isobel didn't have an answer; at least, not one that wouldn't convince Vanessa she was absolutely insane.
“Why was some grad assistant asking Zach about his family?” John demanded the moment Isobel answered the phone.
“John - “
“What are you playing at here? What are you trying to do?”
“I'm just - “
“How did you even find out about them? No one knows about the Salvatores except - “ He broke off and Isobel knew he had just put two and two together. “You stole a journal from the closet.”
“John - “
“You bitch,” he hissed. “After everything, you fucking used me to find a vampire?”
“It's not like that! I don't know why I took it. I just...I just want to interview one for my dissertation. It's not exactly like I could post an ad in the paper and hope an actual vampire would show up. And the journal...I just wanted to read it. I wasn't using you, John.” Voice softening, she added, “I wouldn't do that.”
John exhaled, clearly still angry but swallowing back any more unkindness. “Your friend can't come back here sniffing around the Salvatores. If the Founders' Council finds out about Zach's family, life will get very uncomfortable for him, and he'll never forgive me.”
“I didn't mean to cause problems for Zach. Vanessa won't come back, I promise.”
“I know she won't come back because I'm going to give you what you want.” Before she could ask what he meant, John continued, “Damon Salvatore is in Charlotte. The Salvatores own a rental house down there, and he called Zach to let him know he'll be occupying it for awhile; god only knows what happened to the renters. Here's the address.”
As Isobel copied it down, she could barely contain the nervous flutter of excitement in her chest.
It was bizarre, seeing the man she had last glimpsed in a Confederate uniform, staring stoically out from a forgotten photo, sitting at a bar, brazenly flirting with a trio of coeds. He was undoubtedly the most attractive man in the bar, and, from his body language, well aware of it. Isobel suddenly felt a flare of insecurity twist through her as she approached, tugging at the hem of her tank top to deepen the amount of cleavage showing.
He didn't look at her as she took the stool next to his, ordering whiskey. As she took a sip, she watched as Damon effortlessly played his fawning admirers, drawing a finger down one's jaw, teasingly tugging the curls of another. It would have seemed pathetic on any other man, but there was something about the way he did it, the explicit promise in his eyes, which made every woman in the bar want to be in these young girls' places.
One of the girls wobbled on her heels, bumping into Damon, sending him back enough to jostle Isobel, whose glass slipped from her hand. As it shattered on the bar, sending liquor, ice, and shards of glass in a variety of directions, Damon finally turned. Isobel saw his eyes narrow as he took in the sight of her, and she waited for him to say something sharp for splashing alcohol down his arm.
Instead he smirked and, as the bartender cleaned the mess, he said, “Give her whatever she wants on me.”
Isobel tried to pretend like she wasn't flattered Damon had sent his fan club away to talk to her, but she couldn't help the wave of pride which swelled in her.
“What's your name, gorgeous?” he asked as the bartender deposited two fresh drinks before them.
“Isobel,” Damon repeated, leaning in so close Isobel could practically taste the bourbon on his breath. “Well, Isobel, you feel like having some fun tonight?”
It was fucked up, crazy logic, but having sex with John while married to Ric never felt like cheating. She loved Ric, loved his kindness and his patience, loved the way he always kissed her shoulder as he drifted off to sleep and the soft smile he'd give her when he told her how much he loved her; but John had her first, satisfied the part of her too ruined to love, and so it didn't feel like a sin to allow her body to twist itself around John's.
What she was doing with Damon, this was wrong.
But Jesus fuck did it feel good.
She had never done anything like this, had never even imagined doing something like this. It was impulsive and careless and everything she had struggled not to be since she was fifteen-years-old, everything, Isobel suspected, Damon was.
Her skirt was gathered around her hips, her underwear shredded and lying on the alley floor; there was a twinge of pain as her bare shoulders rubbed against the brick of the building, each scratch of coinciding with Damon's hips snapping powerfully, each thrust forcing a cry from her lips. Damon laughed against her mouth as his tongue flicked out, swiping across her tongue in a tease.
“Too much for you?” he taunted, delivering a particularly deep thrust, rolling his hips as he bottomed out inside of her.
“I can take whatever you dish out,” Isobel gasped, clutching him tightly with her legs, fingers sliding into his thick, dark hair.
“Oh yeah?” He pulled back enough so that Isobel could see his face. She felt the urge to gasp rise in her throat as his eyes darkened, as veins began to stand out prominently on his face, as fangs replaced his teeth. A monster now had her pinned to a wall with his hands and cock, and Isobel knew the appropriate response was to be afraid.
Isobel had never quite be able to master what was appropriate.
His teeth sinking into her throat sent a burst of pain through her body but it ended as quickly as it started as he suddenly pulled away, groaning and spitting. Isobel managed to get her feet beneath her, stopping her sudden drop to the pavement; as she smoothed her skirt down, Damon rolled upon the dirty ground, groaning and choking.
“I'm sorry for hurting you,” she offered as she bent down beside him, secure with the knowledge Damon could not hurt her in his current condition. “I just needed to make sure you wouldn't hurt me. It's just vervain. It'll wear off in about an hour.”
“Who are you?” he groaned, coughing in pain.
“My name is Isobel like I said. I know what you are, what your brother is, who Katherine was. I just want to ask you some questions about being a vampire. I don't...I don't want to hurt you or anything. I just want to talk.”
Damon glared as he spat again. “I'm going to kill you.”
“Maybe,” Isobel conceded, “but I really do just want to ask you questions.” Digging into her purse, she removed one of her business cards, setting it on the ground beside him. “This is my number. If you want to help me, give me a call. If you want to kill me, you should remember I found you and I could probably very easily find your brother too. Something to think on.”
And then Isobel left the alleyway, her body aching to finish what Damon had started.
Veronika had been deeply interested in genealogy; when Isobel went through the trunk years earlier, she had found dozens and dozens of pages devoted to the Aleksandrova family line, a mishmash of English and Bulgarian, not all of it entirely legible. It had gotten confusing early on from the constant repetition of first names, the way last names changed based upon gender, but Isobel was nothing if not a dedicated student.
Veronika had traced the family line into the eighteenth century, but Isobel took it even further back, trying to find the ancestor which would provide the answer to a question Isobel wasn't even certain of. After almost six years of idle inquiry, Isobel began to voraciously devour everything she could on her lineage.
Irina Nikolova was adopted in 1490, a baby abandoned on the steps of the church, taken in by a family with money. The last recorded entry of Katerina Petrova as a human was 1490, having been disowned by the family that same year. The entire Petrova family was wiped out in 1492.
Except it hadn't, Isobel knew. Irina Nikolova was Katerina Petrova's illegitimate daughter, the bastard child who had split her mother from her family.
Isobel had a feeling she and Katherine would have much to talk about when she found her.
“I could still kill you,” Damon informed her as she entered the hotel room Damon had rented for their meeting.
“You have a death wish?”
Isobel shrugged. “Just doesn't scare me the way it does most people, I suppose.”
He pointed to her left hand. “Your husband know you fuck and interview strange vampires?”
Isobel held up the case to her laptop. “I only plan on interviewing you.”
Damon quirked an eyebrow, his fingers already unfastening the buttons of his shirt. “This is tit for tat, sweetheart. And I do mean tit.” Shedding his shirt, unfastening his belt, he said, “I'll answer your questions but you got to pay for them.”
“Are you blackmailing me into sleeping with you?”
“Well, I'd compel you but you're full of vervain.” Dropping his pants, Damon settled back into an overstuffed chair, legs splayed, one hand wrapping around his dick, stroking it idly. “Take your clothes off. And do it slow; I like a show.”
Dropping her laptop case, Isobel snapped, “I'm not a fucking stripper!”
“I know. Strippers don't talk back.” His beautiful blue eyes glaring at her icily, he enunciated, “Take off your clothes or leave me alone.”
Rolling her eyes, Isobel grabbed the bottom of her sweater, jerking it upwards.
“I said slow,” Damon reiterated, his hand now rising and falling in a steady rhythm.
Isobel dropped the shirt to the ground, slipping out of her shoes. She had never undressed for a man like this before, and she hated the tendril of want unfurling in her stomach, the wetness which was starting deep inside of her. Trying to push it away, to make this clinical, Isobel unbuttoned her jeans, drawing the zipper down as slowly as she could, wiggling her body free of the material. She felt herself blush as Damon licked his lips, his grip on his now erect dick tightening.
“You're fucking hot, you know that?” he asked conversationally, as if he wasn't masturbating to the sight of her. “I'm glad I didn't kill you.”
“Wow, that's the creepiest fucking compliment I've ever received,” she retorted, reaching for the clasp of her bra.
Damon chuckled, shifting deeper into the cushions as his hand sped up. “Stick around. I get worse.”
Isobel stepped out of her underwear. “I'm sure.”
Setting his hands on the arms of the chair, he ordered, “Get over here and get on your knees.”
Obeying, Isobel sank down to the carpet between his splayed knees. Knowing what he wanted, she set her hands on his thighs and said, “For the record? If I didn't need something from you, I'd bite your dick off.”
With a smirk, Damon threaded his fingers through her long hair, drawing her face down to his erection. “My kind of girl.”
“Foreclosed houses? Why?”
“Because it's brilliant,” Damon answered with a wink, looking up from the pattern he was drawing with the tip of his tongue on the hollow of her stomach. “You get to live in the nicest place in town and it's completely untraceable.”
“And that's important, being untraceable?”
“Only if you don't want irritating doctoral candidates knocking down your door.” Grasping her hips, he rolled, pulling Isobel atop his body. She didn't need prompting any longer, knowing exactly what he wanted, what she wanted.
Isobel moaned as she slid down his erection, grinding impatiently as Damon's fingers bit into the flesh of her hips, limiting her movements.
“Damon,” she whined, “knock it off.”
When he reached up, tracing the shape of her face with his fingers, Isobel opened her eyes, confused. There was such sadness in his eyes, a cloudiness Isobel had never seen before, and, even though she told herself she didn't care about Damon, she couldn't help but whisper, “What's wrong?”
“You just remind me of someone,” was all he offered.
She made the decision on a Tuesday morning.
Ric left for work, and Isobel couldn't get back to sleep. She stumbled downstairs, turning on the coffee pot, before walking outside to get the mail. A padded, manila envelope addressed in John's familiar hand was waiting, and Isobel quickly tore it open, hoping for new photos of Elena to be added to her growing collection.
The pictures were of Elena's 14th birthday party, all showing Elena grinning widely in a pretty purple dress, her hair falling over her shoulders in waves. She was all long limbs now, looking even less like Isobel and John than she ever had, and Isobel smiled at the captions John had written on the back of each print, especially the one on the back of a shot of Elena with her arms wrapped around the waist of a tall, broad-shouldered boy. This is the jackass who wants to have sex with our daughter, John's bold hand declared. I may have threatened to castrate him when I found them making out.
It wasn't until she reached the end of the roll that Isobel realized she recognized Elena and not simply because she was her daughter.
Grabbing a shot of Elena grinning over her shoulder at the camera, Isobel ran upstairs, digging through the mess of papers on her desk, trying to find the daguerreotype she knew was there. The moment she put the photos side-by-side, Isobel knew it wasn't simply her imagination.
Her daughter was a perfect copy of Katherine Pierce; if she had not given birth to her, Isobel would have sworn Katherine and Elena were the same person.
“Why do they look alike?” Isobel asked her empty bedroom, sinking down onto the bed.
She did not know the answer, but what Isobel did know was that, whatever the reason, it could not possibly be something which boded well for her daughter.
As she hid her pictures of Elena away in the locked box in her trunk, Isobel found John's ring, the ring he had given her fourteen years earlier as a promise of his fidelity. He had told her once it protected the wearer from supernatural death, a statement she knew to be true from Johnathan Gilbert's journals.
Later that night, she made Ric promise to never take it off, terrified she would hurt him after she was turned, desperate to keep him safe from the monster she was about to become.
Ric deserved better than her, always had, and Isobel hoped he would find it once she was gone.
“You sure this is what you want?” Damon asked as he circled her in the bedroom she shared with Ric. “I mean, you don't get a do-over with this. Once you're damned, you're damned for eternity. You really think you can handle that?”
“You really think I don't know what it's like to be damned?” Isobel countered. “I didn't just wake up today and think it would be cool to be a vampire. I've thought about this and it's what I want.”
Damon shrugged, putting his hands on her shoulders, tilting her head to the side. “It's going to hurt if you don't let me compel you.”
“I want it to hurt.”
Damon paused, studying her closely, before admitting, “I don't really want to hurt you, Isobel.”
“Then make it so I can stop hurting.” Dropping her voice to a barely audible whisper, she whimpered, “I just want to turn it off, Damon. Help me.”
The last thing Isobel saw before she died was Damon's blood-smeared mouth and Ric's horrified face.
Damon had warned her everything would be amplified once she was turned, but, like most things Damon said, Isobel thought he was exaggerating. It wasn't until she was in the throws of her transformation she realized just how unprepared she was for this.
He showed her how to feed, how to cover her tracks, how to disappear; she was stunned by how patient Damon could be when he wanted to and it was strange, the complicated mixture of feelings in her chest which stirred when Damon was around.
Two months after she turned, Isobel knew it was time for her to go her own way, to get far away from North Carolina. One evening, as Damon came out of the shower, Isobel blurted out, “Thank you for helping me.”
Damon shrugged. “It's a bitch to learn the ropes yourself. My motto's always been: if you're gonna make 'em, you better break 'em.”
Scoffing at his ridiculousness, she stated, “I'm serious, Damon. Thank you.”
“Nothing shows your gratitude like a blow job.”
Later, while Damon slept tangled in the sheets, a half-smile on his lips, Isobel slipped out of the house for good.
She would have said goodbye, but why start now?
It wasn't like she imagined it to be. Getting her way was easier, but the pain, the gnawing regrets in the pit of her stomach remained. Damon told her to think carefully before pushing the button, before throwing away your humanity; she had challenged him on it, asking why he was giving her a lecture about signing away your conscience when he had so obviously thrown his away decades earlier.
Damon had thrown back the rest of his drink and declared, “Once you push it, you won't hurt. But after you do enough, hurt enough people, going back, turning it back on...It'll stop being an option.”
Isobel wanted to stop hurting, had only ever wanted to stop hurting, but she didn't want to be a monster.
Four months after she left Damon, Isobel came home to the high-rise condo in Chicago she was squatting in. As she tossed her purse onto a table, she instantly felt someone else in the apartment. Spinning around quickly, Isobel froze in shock as she saw Katherine Pierce pouring herself a glass of wine.
“You really should buy a better class of alcohol,” Katherine drolly informed her, sinking down into one of the wingback chairs. “This cheap shit is barely a step above grape juice.”
“Aren't you – I thought – Damon said you were sealed in a tomb,” Isobel sputtered.
“I could fill a library with the things Damon Salvatore thinks he knows.” Eyes giving her a once over, Katherine continued, “I can see why he turned you. Damon has a definite type, and you are it. I bet he was actually sad when you left him.”
“Why - “
“It's a good thing you went to him,” Katherine cut in, not acknowledging Isobel had even spoken. “Stefan, he never would have turned you. He thinks this life is a curse. Of course, if I couldn't control it, I suppose I would too. You know, it's funny; when I turned them, I always thought Damon would be the one who couldn't keep a handle on it.” She shrugged. “C'est la vie, I suppose.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I thought this is what you wanted. I mean, you are the one who's been poking around my history, asking all kinds of questions about me.” Beautiful face hardening, she snapped, “You've caused a whole mess of problems for me, you know that? There are some very bad people looking for me, and you've almost brought them to my door twice now. That's why I've come to kill you.”
Isobel froze. “Kill me?”
Katherine nodded agreeably. “I'm sure you're a perfectly nice vampire, but I don't like loose ends. And you, Isobel Flemming, you're the kind of loose end that's going to get me killed. Better you than me.”
“You don't have to kill me. I won't ever mention your name again,” she quickly assured her. “I'll forget everything I know, I swear - “
Setting down her wine glass, Katherine interrupted, “I'm sure that's true, but I'm not exactly a trusting person. I'll do it quick, don't worry. I'm not a total monster.”
“Please,” Isobel pleaded, tears in her eyes, “don't do this. I just wanted to meet you, that's all. I just had to know why you look like my daughter.”
Katherine instantly paused. “What do you mean, I look like your daughter?”
“Can I - “ Quickly hurrying over to the bookcase, Isobel removed the photo album which held all of Elena's pictures. Flipping it open, Isobel held it out to the older vampire. “This is my daughter Elena. I just need to know why she looks like you, why she's your - “
“Doppelganger,” Katherine completed, her eyes widening. “She's my doppelganger.” Flicking her gaze up to meet Isobel's, she demanded, “What else do you know about me?”
“I know your family disowned you in 1490, the same year my dozens of times great-grandma was adopted. And I know that when I followed the line down, it lead straight to my mother. I'm...You're my family.”
“The Petrova line didn't die out,” Katherine murmured, surprise in her voice. “That...That might just save your life after all.”
“So why does she look like you?”
“You don't get all my secrets at once, Isobel. You have to earn those.”
They were drunk on the terrace two weeks later when Katherine rolled her head to face Isobel and asked in a sweetly vulnerable voice, “What was her name?”
“My daughter. What did they name her?”
“Irina, Irina Nikolova.”
“Nikolova,” Katherine repeated, her accent suddenly thick with Bulgaria. “She was less than a mile from our farm the entire time. I could have just...just waltzed in and taken her.”
“You never looked for her?”
Katherine shook her head. “Klaus would have killed her too.”
Closing her eyes, Katherine replied, “The boogeyman.”
“You didn't feel bad leaving your daughter behind to become a vampire?” Katherine asked one night as Isobel dug out the research she had on the tomb beneath Fell's Church.
She hesitated for only a moment before admitting, “I didn't...I was sixteen when I had her. I gave her up for adoption.”
Katherine smirked. “Who adopted her?”
“John's brother and his wife. She doesn't know...I didn't want her to know about me. You know what Mystic Falls is like. Growing up as John Gilbert's illegitimate - “
“Gilbert?” she cut in, disbelief in her voice. “You had a child with a Gilbert?”
Katherine laughed, long and free. “Oh, I bet Johnathan Gilbert is backflipping in his grave knowing his precious family line was soiled with Petrova blood.”
“Why do you always do that, talk about our family like it's a curse?”
“Because it is,” Katherine stated matter-of-factly. “Petrovas don't get happy endings, Isobel. Our endings are bloody, miserable, and just plain fucking tragic.”
Disturbed, Isobel murmured fearfully, “What did Klaus do to your family?”
Face turning to stone, centuries of pain reflected in her eyes, Katherine reached for a book. Finally she answered, “They don't have a word for what he did to them.”
“She looks like me because she's a Petrova doppelganger, like I am,” Katherine admitted on her last night in Chicago.
“What does that mean?”
“Once upon a time,” Katherine began sarcastically, her voice dripping with scorn, “there was a girl named Mila Petrova, and she was desperately in love with a man named Elijah. You know who that is?”
“One of the family of original vampires,” Isobel supplied.
Katherine nodded. “Except he wasn't a vampire, not yet. Anyway, he adored Mila, was going to marry her, but his brother Niklaus loved her too. But the Petrovas, they didn't want Mila to marry either of them, so they had a curse placed upon the family, turning them to vampires. And Niklaus, so enraged at what they had done to his family, goes to Mila's father and kills him.” Taking a heavy swallow of her wine, Katherine continued, “But, see, what no one knew until then was that Niklaus wasn't his father's child. He was the result of an affair his mother had, and he had the werewolf gene in him. Knowing how powerful he would be as a Hybrid, the Petrovas swore their vengeance.”
“They sacrificed a werewolf and a vampire, spilling their blood over something called a moonstone. But they needed Petrova blood to seal it, and our dear, sweet ancestors chose Mila. When she knew what they were going to do, Mila went to Elijah, begged him to save her, but it was too late. The only thing Elijah could do was curse the Petrovas in kind by creating the doppelganger, a perfect copy of Mila who would appear when the moonstone curse could be broken and Klaus could become the Hybrid.”
“So Elena - “
“If Klaus ever finds out she exists, he'll come for her, try to kill her too.” Staring up at the night sky, Katherine declared, “If Damon actually succeeds in opening that tomb, every vampire inside will be willing to turn me over to Klaus for revenge. And if Klaus comes to Mystic Falls, it isn't me he's going to find.”
“I'll take care of it,” Isobel promised, fear and anger burning in her chest.
“I know you will.” Reaching over, Katherine placed her hand atop Isobel's, squeezing it lightly. “I think I'm going to miss you.”
It was strange, feeling so comfortable with Katherine, but Isobel had stopped wondering about what was and wasn't strange.
All she knew with absolute certainty was that no one understood what it was like to be her more than Katherine Pierce.
When she showed up on John's doorstep, he stared out at her from the safety of his home, tears shimmering in his eyes.
“Oh, Isobel, what have you done?”
“May I come in?”
“No, you can't - “ Hardening his voice, steeling his resolve, he emphatically declared, “I do not invite vampires into my home.”
“Don't do that,” she requested softly. “Don't act like you don't know me.”
“I'm full of vervain, Isobel.”
“I'm not trying to compel you.” When he did not waver, she added, “I'm here about Elena.”
“If you go near our daughter, I'll kill you myself,” John informed her, a ferocity in his voice so sharp, it made her take a step back. “I swear to God, Isobel, I will end you.”
Unable to stop the tears from coming to her eyes, she growled, “I would never hurt Elena. How could you even think - “
“Because obviously I didn't know you at all, not if you'd do this.”
“Stop talking about me like I'm dead!”
Infinite sadness filling his face, John whispered, “You are dead, Isobel. You're dead, and I'm not. You gave up everything good about you to become this. We have nothing left to talk about because I can't stand the sight of you.”
Tears spilling onto her cheeks, Isobel began to cry, her shoulders bouncing in sorrow. She had always thought John was the one person who would never turn his back on her, who would never deny her; it was all that had sustained her some days, having John as her constant.
“Please don't do this,” Isobel begged through her tears. “John, please, I need you, I need your help - “
“If Elena needs help, then I'll help her. But you...Don't come back here, Isobel. There's nothing left.”
And then John closed the door in her face, tears tracking down his own face.
It wasn't hard, turning everything off. The pain, the regret, the shame, it all just disappeared, swallowed up by the darkness.
Some things though...They never went away.
Her surveillance of Elena was more difficult without John's cooperation. There were no more pictures sent to her, no stories retold; if Isobel wanted to know how her daughter was, she had to go to Mystic Falls herself, observing her from a distance.
It was how she learned Elena was a cheerleader, that she was Homecoming princess, that she was very clearly in love with Matt Donovan, that she was the apple of Grayson's eye; it helped quiet the worry in her brain to see Elena doing so obviously well.
And then Grayson and Miranda died.
She watched the funeral from a distance, saw a bruised and broken Elena leaning heavily upon her boyfriend's shoulder; she felt a fissure of jealousy as John wrapped an arm around the Miranda's sister's shoulders, brushing a tender kiss to her temple.
Later, when everyone was gone, Isobel approached the fresh grave, setting two roses upon the ground, bending down to press her hands to the dirt. The grief she felt was foreign, not because she had turned off her emotions but because it was all twisted up with gratitude, with affection, with envy.
“Thank you for taking such good care of my girl,” she whispered, patting the earth. “I'll take it from here.”
The comet would return to Mystic Falls in three months, meaning Isobel had ninety days to figure out how she was going to keep her daughter safe.
She'd call Katherine tomorrow.
Chapter 8: Epilogue: Sheriff Forbes
She had never thought she'd be the last Founder standing.
Liz stood in the cemetery, watching as Reverend Fell committed Richard to the earth, and she could not stop her eyes from flitting towards the Gilbert family plot, to the headstone she visited once a week. She always felt the need to apologize to Miranda when she went, but Liz was certain she would never get used to not being able to talk to Grayson, to confess everything she felt to her best friend.
Their funeral had been the worst. When the call came in about the accident on Wickery Bridge, Liz didn't know what to expect. But when she got there, three of her deputies immediately stopped her from moving any closer. As she glimpsed Elena being loaded onto a stretcher, her immediate thought was of Caroline, who had told her she was going to a party with Elena that night.
“Where's my daughter?” she had asked, frantic, trying to push her way through. “Where's Caroline?”
“It isn't Caroline,” one of the deputies assured her. “Caroline's fine.”
“Then who...?” Instantly Liz knew whose car was in Willow Creek, whose bodies were going to be pulled from the water. “No...No!”
She couldn't stop screaming, stop fighting; Liz had no idea how long she fought before one of the paramedics sedated her. When she woke up, she was in the Mystic Falls Emergency Room, Carol and Caroline at her bedside, both of their faces streaked with tears, eyes reddened and swollen with emotion.
“Are they...?” she rasped, forcing herself into a sitting position.
“Elena's the only one who made it,” Carol reported hoarsely.
The morning of their funeral, Liz could not stop shaking. She had stood in front of the mirror, her hair soaking wet, her face scrubbed clean of make-up, and she couldn't get her body to cooperate, couldn't do anything other than cry with the knowledge she'd never see Grayson again.
“Mom?” Caroline ventured, stepping inside the bedroom. Liz caught Caroline's reflection in the mirror, marveling at how put-together her daughter appeared. She had never quite gotten over it, how beautiful Caroline was, how wonderful with people; Caroline was nothing like her, and Liz was unbearably grateful for that.
Caroline looked at her for a beat, at the messy picture she presented, and announced, “I thought I'd help you get ready. Does that sound okay?”
Liz let Caroline pick out her dress, blow dry her hair, work enough product into it to make it lie flat and presentable. As Caroline picked out an appropriate shade of lipstick, Liz was suddenly overcome by how much she loved her daughter, how close she had come to losing her, how grateful she was that Caroline had turned down the Gilberts' offer for a ride home.
Catching Caroline's face between her palms, Liz demanded, “You know how much I love you, right, Care?”
Surprise in her eyes, Caroline nodded. “Yeah, Mom.”
“I don't know what I'd do if I lost you.”
Face softening, Caroline whispered, “I'm really sorry about Uncle Grayson. I know how close you guys were.”
It was the last day Caroline ever referred to Grayson as her uncle; it was the last time Elena or Jeremy called her Aunt Lizzie. With Grayson and Miranda's death, everything just seemed to unravel.
Everyone just seemed to unravel.
The past six months had seemed to be the slow-motion destruction of everything Liz knew to be true. First Grayson's death, then the return of the vampires followed quickly by Logan's transformation, and now Richard's death. Liz barely recognized her life, her town anymore.
A few weeks after Richard's funeral, Liz found herself at the Grill ordering a drink. She was reaching for her wallet when a familiar voice told the bartender, “It's on me.”
Twisting to see the person dropping into the stool beside her, Liz greeted, “Hey, Damon.”
He nodded, taking a swig of his bourbon. “Looked like you could use a drinking buddy.”
“Well, all of my drinking buddies have dropped dead recently,” Liz found herself divulging, far more bitterness in her voice than she had been anticipating. She saw Damon's eyes bulge in surprise and she apologized, “Sorry.”
“For what? You're allowed to be pissed all your friends are dead.”
Liz nodded distractedly. “I guess I just...I never thought this was going to be my life.”
“Tell me about it.” With a sigh, Damon raised his glass, gesturing for her to do the same. “To lives of quiet desperation.”
Clinking her glass to his, Liz observed, “Your life hardly seems quiet or desperate.”
Grinning attractively, he quipped, “I can't have layers?” When Liz smiled wanly in reply, he reached over, clapping her on the shoulder. “Not all of your friends are dead, Liz.”
She was embarrassed by how quickly the tears came to her eyes, quickly averting her face. When she was certain she had recovered her composure, she murmured, “Thanks, Damon.”
As she and Damon drank themselves towards oblivion, Liz heard Caroline's voice as she entered the Grill. Turning slowly on her stool, she saw Caroline and Tyler drop into a booth occupied by Elena and Jeremy. As Caroline laughed at something Elena said, as Tyler slugged Jeremy in the shoulder, Liz felt a peculiar warmth fill her heart.
Maybe everything in her world had changed, but some things, some things were eternal.