All The Same
John thought he knew about vampires. But the one thing he didn't understand was that they never really changed.
Isobel came to him, asking about vampires, and like a fool he told her everything that she wanted to know.
Six months later, she came to him again. He recognised the soft knock at the apartment door; it was the one Isobel had used when they were teenagers, sneaking into each other's houses.
She looked exactly the same as the last time they had met, her long hair fanning down over her shoulders, a coy smile on her face.
"Isobel," he said. "I wasn't expecting to see you."
"I know I should have called," she said, "but I was hoping we could go out for coffee? I have so much to tell you."
He would have said 'sure' to anything; he was so pleased to see her. They went to a little coffee shop around the corner, and Isobel smiled when John remembered how she liked her coffee (black). She asked how he had been, and for a minute or two they made small talk.
For a minute or two, he could pretend that she genuinely cared.
She stirred her coffee, tapping the rim of the cup to stop the teaspoon dripping, and that one movement hit him as though he had been scalded.
There had been a time when they used to regularly visit a particular coffee shop, where they would hold hands and gaze into each other's eyes and all those other clichéd teenage rituals. Isobel's eyes were always full of life; she was sharp and teasing and incredibly smart. He remembered it so clearly. Most of all he remembered how happy he had felt.
She was the first girl he had ever loved. He used to think that she loved him back.
But the illusion couldn't be sustained. Isobel never came to see him, he knew that by now. She always had an agenda. He had to ask.
"Did you find him?"
"Yes," said Isobel. "But that's not why I'm here."
"So why are you here?"
"I came to show you this," she replied, and from her handbag she drew out a photograph framed by a cardboard covering and slid it across the table.
John stared at the picture, a frown creasing his brow. It was Elena, but it wasn't Elena. The picture was old, faded, and the girl was dressed as though she came from the nineteenth century.
"Where did you get this?"
"Do you know who she is?"
He hesitated. "No."
"Her name was Katherine. She died over five centuries ago."
John swallowed. That explanation made no sense. Isobel had gone to find Damon Salvatore and returned with a picture of a girl who looked exactly like Elena. None of this made sense.
"At least, that was the first time she died," Isobel went on. "The second time was in your hometown, Mystic Falls, in 1864."
"You mean – she was one of the vampires who burned in the church?"
"She's more than that," said Isobel harshly. "There's a reason she looks like Elena, John. Some very powerful vampires are after her, and if they come to Mystic Falls, they'll find Elena, and you'll never see your daughter again."
He wanted to correct her – our daughter – but the words died in his mouth. His head was spinning. He looked around, conscious that they were in a public place, and stood up, leaving his coffee untouched.
"We need somewhere more private to talk. Would it be okay if we went back to my apartment? You could stay over. If you want."
She gave him a smile. "I'd love to."
Even in the midst of his worry, he felt his heart leap.
That all changed when they returned to his apartment. The corridor was dark – one of the lights had failed – and as he fumbled for his keys, Isobel watched him silently, her eyes glittering. He unlocked the door and held it open for her.
"I can come in?"
He very nearly said yes, but something about the off-handedness of her tone stopped him. John made it a policy never to invite anybody in, just in case. He paused, licked his lips, and then as the silence lengthened and Isobel's smile became strained, realisation dawned.
Instinctively, he took a step back into his apartment. Isobel grabbed his arm, stopping him before he could escape over the threshold to safety. He tried to wrench away, but she was strong, too strong for any normal human. How had he not known? How had he not sensed it?
"Isobel," he whispered.
Her grip was like iron. "If you want to talk, you'd better invite me in."
John swallowed. "No."
"Then you'll have a front row seat when your town burns and the Originals come for Elena."
John invited her in.
He wasn't naive enough to imagine that she told him everything, but she told him enough. She told him about Elena's supernatural heritage. She told him about the curse. She told him about Katherine.
John listened in silence, and by the end of it, all he could say was, "We have to protect her."
Isobel didn't disagree, but she didn't say anything either. Her face betrayed no flicker of emotion.
He hesitated. "You will, won't you? Even if you're... like this."
Her tone was scornful. "Like this? You can say the word, you know."
"If you'd told me this before, I would have helped you. You didn't have to track down Damon by yourself. He did this to you, didn't he?"
She sounded unconcerned, which only made it more of a tragedy. He had led her to this. All her research, her obsession with vampires – he'd never understood what it was really about. He remembered how proud he had been, how pleased to tell her his family history: the Gilberts were special, they had a secret. He hadn't thought to ask about her family. He hadn't thought that she might have a secret too.
But whatever humanity had led her to seek out her heritage, it was gone now. Lost. He couldn't say it, but he thought the word in his head: vampire.
She had become a monster, and it was his fault.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She laughed. "Don't be. He gave me exactly what I wanted."
Just like that, all his assumptions fell away. He could only stare at her.
"Did you think I spent all that time searching for vampires just so I could write a paper?"
"No, I thought – weren't you trying to protect Elena?"
The look she gave him was almost pitying. "No. I wanted this for myself." Her voice dropped as she stood up and leaned over him, a hand trailing down his shoulder. "It's so good, John. You have no idea how good it is."
He sat there frozen, staring up at her. "You can't have wanted this. Didn't I teach you anything? Vampires are monsters."
"That's not very nice."
"It's the truth."
Something in her eyes darkened. Her hand shot out to grab him by the throat – he choked – she lifted him up one-handed so that his feet dangled above the floor and he couldn't breathe – his chest felt tight, bands of pain constricting around his neck and torso–
"Do you really want to know why? I'll tell you. Power. Immortality. Freedom. I can be whoever I want, go wherever I want, do whatever I want. I wanted to get away from my life, and from small-minded people like you."
She dropped him then, and he fell to the floor nearly unconscious. John gasped for breath, seeing no sympathy in her eyes when he looked up at her.
She returned to her seat, crossing her legs, and made no effort to help him. "I'm doing you one last favour, John," she said. "You do whatever it is you need to do to protect Elena. I don't want any loose ends."
He dragged himself up and stumbled back over to the couch, rubbing his neck. "You call your own daughter a loose end?"
"I call everything in my old life a loose end. Including you. I'm just tying things up."
"Your life," he said bitterly. "You're not tying things up. You're throwing them away. Did nothing in your life mean anything to you?"
She bit her lip. "I had a husband. And he was nice, you know, smart, funny, a good guy. He wanted to start a family. So I tried to imagine what that would be like – the next ten years of my life, the rest of my life. Having kids. Staying with one person, paying the bills, being a slave to the children until they grow up..."
They were all things he'd heard her say before, and they had hurt him as much then as they hurt now. "Do you really hate children that much?"
"I don't hate children. I just don't want any. I never did. I don't think you understood that, John. I want to live my life for me, not for anyone else."
"Right," he said. "I see."
She shrugged. "You can think what you want. But when you're turning to dust in your grave, I'll be wandering a far-off continent, sampling a culture that you'll never experience."
"You'll be alone."
"No, I won't." She smiled. "I'm very good company."
"But you won't have a family," he said. "The people you love – or do you really not care about anybody any more?"
"That's the joy of being a vampire, John. We don't care about humans."
He shook his head. "Listen to yourself. This will ruin you."
Isobel stood up, the movement controlled and impassive. Her reply was the last thing she said to him before she disappeared for almost two years, and it would stay with him:
"Then I was already ruined."