Story summary:

This is the story of Isobel Flemming's life from the age of thirteen, visiting Mystic Falls during her summer holidays, through to the moment she died burning in the Grove Hills cemetery.

The story follows canon (and tries to explain Isobel's actions in Seasons 1 and 2) and overlaps with Isobel's appearances in the show. The only departures are that Alaric is bisexual (enabling me to fit this story with the rest of my own canon) and because I was so far into the story when it happened, there is no examination of Mikael's appearance in Elena's early life.

I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter summary:

Isobel spent three summers at her Aunt Gen's house in Mystic Falls, falling sweetly in love with John Gilbert and learning what it means to be a woman. The third summer changed everything.

Pairing: Isobel/John.

Warnings: A very awkward teenage deflowering, which means technically underage (John is 17, Isobel is 15).

Inside each person's heart, there is a box. Each box contains a person's most secret self. The old lady sitting quietly at the corner window of a diner, her box might contain a pink tutu, courtesy of the little girl inside of her who danced and spun nearly a lifetime ago. Perhaps the angry teenaged girl sitting across from you on the bus has a gun in her box, a gun she plans to use on her classmates. The man sleeping under the bridge, down there close to the back of the grocery store, in his heart, in his box, there might be the memory of the father and husband he once thought he would be.

Isobel Flemming's box was full of masks. Costumes. Theatrical makeup. And she had no interest in the stage. She wore her costumes to survive in the world. Fitted and kitted out to get through today, or maybe this week, just however long it lasted for.

The costumes never lasted very long, before she would tear them from her body, burn them, dance in the cinders. When they were gone she would tear at her flesh as well, scratch at her face as she screamed at the indifferent universe.

And then she would collapse to the ground, hide to heal, until she dared open the box and find a new mask. Applied pancake makeup, perhaps added some glitter. Dark eyeliner to make her eyes look even more like the chasms she knew they were, or pretty pink lip gloss that could mark her as normal for a little while.

As a little girl, Isobel would try on her mother's dresses, scarves, high heeled shoes. Red lipstick obscenely scrawled across her mouth and too much Chanel no. 5, preening and prancing in front of the full-length mirror, reciting lines from the black and white movies her mother favored. She would insist her father dance with her, her toes balanced precariously on his, while her older sisters watched, perhaps envious.

Perhaps envious. Perhaps then, as now, they knew that a girl who could only walk around in the world wearing the most elaborate of costumes was not to be envied, but pitied.

There had to be a reason why Isobel, alone of her sisters, was shipped off to Mystic Falls to stay with her mother's cousin Genevieve – affectionately, Aunt Gen – for three summers in a row. Genevieve was an exotic creature as well, and Isobel liked to think her mother knew she needed an education on smoking cigarettes from a long filter, mixing Brandy Alexanders by the jugful, in a kitchen where the wallpaper was faded to a soft dream of roses, except where the television sat in front of it. Because the other option – that she was shipped off to Mystic Falls for three summers in a row because her own family needed a break – was too painful to think about.

A lot of things were too painful to think about, Isobel discovered, but most of these things could be dealt with by the judicious application of a soft silk scarf or another spray of perfume, or by sneaking a little taste of the aforementioned Brandy Alexander.

Genevieve was a perfect literary oddity, something out of Dickens. Once tipsy she'd put a record on her player, dance a soft, shuffling dance across the living room floor, glass held aloft so she wouldn't spill it (more out of concern for the potential waste of booze than the cleanliness of the ancient, worn rag rug) and tell a thirteen year old Isobel about her lovers, scattered across the planet like so much dust now.

Isobel didn't know whether any of the stories were true and she didn't care. Isobel had her costumes and Genevieve had her stories, and if some of them sounded a little too much like the plots of certain old movies, then that mattered less than one whit. What mattered was the dancing, and the records, skipping when Genevieve put her foot down a little too hard.

"I'm going to buy you a tape player next Christmas, Aunt Gen," Isobel said one, lying out over the faded green velvet sofa in a silk kimono, cooling herself with a Chinese fan. "So the songs don't skip when you dance."

Genevieve took a long puff on her cigarette, blowing rings into the air. Isobel loved those smoke rings, so pretty and gone so soon, though they left a sore spot in her stomach, a reminder that everything is fleeting.

Genevieve spun on the spot, and the record player skipped again. "If the songs didn't skip, my precious girl, I could never be sure I was even here."

At thirteen Isobel was already all too familiar with the sense of being someone who might not be quite real, and Genevieve's pronouncement made a frightening amount of sense.

Everything Genevieve said, Isobel memorized, hoping for a chance to re-use it at some fabulous imagined point in the future. Every word seemed ripe with wisdom.

One night, while Isobel painted her toenails ten different colors, the television turned right down low, Genevieve made a strange, choked, strangled sound. She was smoking on the couch, drinking cheap white wine from a mug, and reading an old book, and had begun to cry.

Isobel gave her a measured look, hoping that one day she would be a tragedy in faded pink silk pajamas herself, and spoke.

"Are you alright, Aunt Gen?"

Genevieve seemed to become aware, then, that she was not alone, and she dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief. "It's the Bulgarian in me," she sighed. "Bulgarian women are prone to tragedy and heartbreak, and crying over spilled brandy." She shook her head sadly, and Isobel's heart soared.

"Me, too? I mean, I'm a Bulgarian… woman too, right? Even though I wasn't born there?"

Gen nodded sagely. "The tragedy follows us no matter where we go. Maybe even worse, for you, darling Isobel. You were born on a Wednesday. Full of woe." She passed Isobel her mug. "Pour me another one, darling."

As Isobel poured the wine, she grinned. Aunt Gen had the most wonderful life Isobel could imagine, and the thought that her own might be even more tragic was… delicious.

Genevieve was prone to dressing up in costume jewelry and layering two dresses over her lank frame before taking a stroll in town, and Isobel would raid her closet, dressing to the nines before trailing alongside her. She imagined she was the ingénue trotting about after the mad old spinster whose story she would one day turn into a literary masterpiece. In Genevieve's closet, Isobel's favorite item was an old fox stole, partially moth-eaten, smelling of cigarette smoke and Red Door.

One Friday, towards the end of the summer, Isobel wore a red sunhat at a jaunty angle, a little red singlet, two skirts, tied with a scarf at the waist and expertly pinned to look like a ball gown (or her middle-class, childish idea of what a ball gown might look like) along with a pair of oversized white sunglasses and more makeup that her mother would ever have approved of, adding the stole last, and wishing the weather was cooler so it wouldn't prickle her neck so. She and Genevieve walked through town like they owned it, barely deigning to lower their eyes at anyone who walked past them.

In the Mystic Grill, the town hangout, Genevieve behaved as if she was about to consume the finest of French cuisine, laid the serviette in her lap and asked the waiter primly about the specials.

"Uh… we've got spaghetti in red sauce and lamb roast," he said, looking doubtful, eyeing Isobel, who was, she hoped, giving him her best Cruella De Vil sneer.

"Red sauce," Genevieve repeated, derisive. "Delightful. Give us another minute, would you, dear?"

Isobel finally took off the sunglasses, hat and stole, and peered at Genevieve with eyes like saucers. "Let's pretend we're somewhere else," she whispered, conspiratorial, and Genevieve leaned across the table until their foreheads nearly touched.

"I always pretend I'm somewhere else, darling Isobel. It is the only way I can muster the strength each day to not throw myself from Wickery Bridge."

There was something so freeing about the pronouncement that Isobel felt as if the blood in her veins was suddenly thinner, perhaps fizzy and a little cool. If Genevieve could be so blithe about futility of existence then Isobel could too.

"Now. Why don't you go and show the boys of Mystic Falls what they're missing out on? I'll order you the most edible-looking thing on the menu. Trust me." Genevieve had pulled a book from her bag, and Isobel knew she was being encouraged to give her a rest.

Isobel lifted her pink soda float from the table top and went to explore the juke box, hoping to find something Genevieve would approve of – Billie Holiday, perhaps, when she was jostled from behind.

Isobel had very little sense of how old people were. The three boys were older than her, certainly, and much taller – but Isobel was tiny, the shortest girl in her class. So they might have been fifteen or they might have been twenty. One gawped at her – the oldest of the three, or perhaps just the most developed. The tallest by head and shoulders.

"What the hell are you wearing, girly?" he asked, eyeing her ensemble.

Isobel put her hand on her hip and glared at him. "Girly? You grow a little peach fuzz on your chin and you think it makes you a man?"

The other two howled in laughter. "How old are you?" the giant asked.

Isobel rolled her eyes. "A gentleman never asks, and a lady never tells."

"I'm John," one of the others offered. "John Gilbert. And this is James Lockwood and Zach Salvatore."

Sensing an opportunity for one last bite, Isobel coolly eyed the giant. "A Lockwood. I should have guessed."

James rubbed idly at the fluff on his chin, and grinned broadly. "Because we're all so handsome?"

"Because you're all so arrogant," Isobel chided, shaking John's hand, feeling a flutter of excitement she hoped her voice would not betray as he raised her hand to his lips. "I'm Isobel Flemming. I'm here for the summer, staying with my aunt."

John had cool blue eyes, bright blond hair and clear skin; a sharp, intelligent look, and a curl to his lip which suggested he didn't always do what his father told him to do. He was lanky in the way teenaged boys can be, but wore it well; he looked comfortable in his skin.

(Fleetingly, Isobel wondered what that would be like.)

Zach Salvatore looked haunted, and Isobel felt a flare of kinship. He had olive-toned skin, and eyes that were just a little too small and too wide set.

John's eyes hadn't left Isobel's face, and she fought a blush, cursing her porcelain skin. "Who is your aunt?" he asked.

"Genevieve Angelova," Isobel said, relishing the name as it curled off her tongue and wishing for the millionth time that Angelova was her name, too.

She nodded at the booth, where Genevieve was artistically draped over the bench, reading Gone with the Wind for what must have been the ten thousandth time. Surely, no one could fail to see how exotic Genevieve was, with her sparkling necklaces and cherry lipstick, drinking a pink gin in the afternoon sun. Feeling the scrutiny, Genevieve looked up and gave a royal wave, and Isobel waved back, closing her lips over her drinking straw and looking at John from beneath her long eyelashes.

Zach coughed awkwardly and Isobel shook his hand, too. "You have…" he pointed to her bottom lip, where a little ice cream fizz was quivering cheerfully, and Isobel wiped it off with a little finger. "Um." Zach said, looking from John's face to Isobel's. "We were about to play a game of pool. We're still waiting on a friend, so we're down a player. Want to join us for a little while?"

The reality was that Isobel had never played pool in her life, and doubted she was tall enough to manage, but she scrunched her nose and quirked her lip. "I find pool a little vulgar."

Unused to boys in general, and particularly unused to boys who hadn't known her for her entire life, Isobel wasn't sure if the look John Gilbert gave her was amusement or curiosity, but she knew to leave him wanting more – the movies didn't agree on much, but they agreed on that.

So when John shook his head a moment, and Zach raised his eyebrows, Isobel gave all three boys a cool look. "I think it's time for lunch. It was lovely to meet you all, though. Perhaps I'll see you again before I go home."

Isobel turned on her pink sandal and flounced back to the table, just as the waiter put her plate down. A selection of seafood and three sauces in separate little bowls. Quite artistically presented.

Genevieve stuck a fork daintily into her salad, regarding Isobel with open curiosity. "Flirting with founders, dear Isobel? Careful," she said.

Isobel blushed a little. "I wasn't flirting."

"That's what it looked like from here," Genevieve argued, but she didn't look cross.

As Isobel and Genevieve read their books and finished their lunch, Isobel let her eyes drift several times to where the boys played pool, joined now by a fourth, a little younger, closer to Isobel's age. John's lazy insolence, his smirk each time he sunk a ball, made Isobel's lips feel heavy and hot, and made something like desire curl in her belly, and lower. The place on the back of her hand where John had kissed her burned like a brand.

Isobel loved to read, though, and after a time, she'd nearly forgotten he was there. Until he walked right up to the table.

"Mrs. Angelova?" he asked, putting a hand out to shake Genevieve's, and to Isobel's relief, he didn't kiss her Aunt's hand. "I'm Jonathon Gilbert."

"Charmed, I'm sure," Genevieve said, a half-smile playing on her lips.

"There's a party tomorrow night at my friend's uncle's house. The Mayor's house. I wanted to see if it would be alright to take Isobel?"

Genevieve eyed Isobel, who knew hope had cracked her face open.

"You'll pick her up?"

"Yes ma'am," John said.

"And bring her home? No later than midnight, mind."

John smiled easily. "No later than midnight."

Isobel's stomach did somersaults. Her curfew at home was nine on the weekends, and she certainly wasn't allowed out with boys.

"Isobel? Would you like to attend a party at the Mayor's house?" Genevieve cocked her head. As if it was a real question.

Isobel didn't trust herself to say anything, her mouth was so dry, but she nodded. After John took a note of her address, he said his goodbyes and followed his friends out of the restaurant.

As Isobel and Genevieve walked through the streets of Mystic Falls, back into the poorer part of town where Genevieve's little house was, Isobel began to regret saying yes. She eyed the falling-down fences and cars on blocks in the front yard, and wondered what John would think when he saw. Still, he had the address – he would have some idea of what the house would be like. Genevieve walked with her back straight and her eyes partially closed, soaking up the sun.

"I'm not allowed to date," Isobel blurted, and Genevieve draped an indulgent arm over her shoulders.

"Until…?" she asked.

"Mom says until I'm sixteen. Daddy says until I'm thirty."

Genevieve shrugged. "It's not a date. It's a very respectable party. There will be adults there. I'm sure if your parents knew you were going to the Mayor's house, they'd be very impressed."

Isobel's heart sank, until her aunt continued, "Still, let's not test that theory. Now, we have to find something for you to wear."

The following night, dressed in red and white and looking every inch the Southern belle – or so she thought – Isobel fussed and fussed over her hair in the mirror, waiting for the knock on the door.

John was dressed impeccably in an expensive-looking suit, and looked older, more sophisticated than he had the previous day.

He looked at Isobel's dress with an inscrutable expression, and then smiled. "You look lovely," he said, kissing the back of her hand, and presented Genevieve with a large bunch of flowers.

Aunt Gen bowed her head in thanks. "Midnight, Mr. Gilbert," she said.

John's brother Grayson was driving. Grayson had just finished his medical residency and was in the process of setting up his own family practice in town. He'd recently married the prettiest woman Isobel thought she might ever have seen. Miranda.

"That's quite a dress, Isobel," Miranda said. Not unkindly, but perhaps to give Isobel fair warning that she was going to stand out somewhat. "You're going to make a splash."

A valet came to park the car. A valet. Isobel stood outside the Lockwood mansion, gaping, until she felt Miranda's hand on her arm.

"How old are you, sweetheart?" Miranda asked, conspiratorially.

"Thirteen," Isobel confessed, casting her eyes down. Miranda was so beautiful, and had such a kind face, that for a moment Isobel wanted to confess that she was terrified, and let Miranda's dulcet tones talk her around. Miranda nodded.

"Be careful around those boys, Isobel. No more than one glass of champagne, and you be sure to drink it slowly. And if you're uncomfortable and you want to go home, just come and find me. I'll take you right away. Deal?" Miranda smiled widely, before taking her husband's arm and waltzing toward the door.

Isobel decided that when she grew up, she was going to be Miranda Gilbert. Silently she catalogued the items she would need to pull it off. Sophisticated, sleek outfits. Glossy hair, perfectly manicured fingernails. Sensible kitten heels.

In a near-perfect imitation of his older brother, John crooked his elbow, and Isobel decided this was the perfect time to start practicing to be Miranda. She tucked her tiny hand into John's elbow and smiled graciously.

All the women were dressed in sleek black, maybe a little white or navy for the adventurous. Isobel looked like a candy cane. Her knees almost buckled as all around the room, eyes caught and appraised her, faces frowned at John – frowned at Miranda and Grayson, even – and so it was that less than ten minutes after arriving at Mayor Lockwood's posh party, Isobel was mumbling something about finding a bathroom, and praying she wouldn't burst into tears.

After about ten minutes hiding in a stall in a lavish guest bathroom, Isobel heard John's voice. "Isobel? Are you in there?"

Isobel had to bite her lip, but John wasn't going away. "I'll just be a minute, John," she answered, hating the taste of shame in her voice. "Really."

"Come out of there," he insisted.

Isobel sighed and opened the door. Crossed her arms over her ridiculous dress. "I don't fit in here," she said sadly.

"Maybe that's why I like you," John answered, quirking his lip. "Come on. We'll find my friends."

The teenagers of Mystic Falls – everyone with ties to one of the founding families, anyway – were gathered on a balcony out to the side of the mansion, smoking sneaky cigarettes and drinking pilfered whiskey. John handed Isobel a glass of champagne and she giggled as her legs and eyelids began to feel immediately heavier.

Isobel was the youngest of the group by a year but she contented herself with the idea that she was a novelty, the 'different' girl, someone they wouldn't see for the whole of the school year, and just enjoyed the curious looks.

She and John sat on a stone bench, and Isobel sipped slowly at her champagne, sneaking glances at his big blue eyes.

"When do you go home?" he asked at last.

Isobel smiled sadly. "This Wednesday. School starts the week after, so…"

"Here, too," John agreed, and tangled his fingers in Isobel's. A sharp, almost unrecognized flare of desire shot through her.

"Do you…" she couldn't finish.

"Do I what?" John asked, cocking his eyebrows and sipping at his own drink, before placing it on the ground by his feet.

Isobel was grateful the night was dark, because she could feel a blush creeping up her cheeks. "Do you want to kiss me?" she asked.

John gave her a long, considered look, eyes lingering on her lips far longer than he likely intended to let them. He reached his free hand up to sweep Isobel's hair from her eyes. "Yes," he said.

Isobel waited, moistening her lips just slightly. She'd never been kissed before.

"How old are you?" John asked at last.

"Thirteen," Isobel admitted.

John nodded. "Next summer. I'll kiss you next summer," he said.

When her father arrived in Mystic Falls to collect Isobel and drive her home, Isobel cried. When they packed up the car and Genevieve gave her one last hug, Isobel howled.

"Maybe I could stay and live with you," she begged her aunt. "I could go to school here."

"If you lived here all the time, I couldn't look forward to your visit," Genevieve answered, gently cupping Isobel's face in her hands. "I'll talk to you on the phone, soon, and I'll see you next summer."

The next nine months were a living hell, for Isobel, for her parents, for her sisters.

For one thing, puberty happened, and the reluctant buds of breasts Isobel had examined daily for signs of growth for as long as she could remember started to ache all day, every day, making it impossible to sleep, to dress comfortably, to do anything at all. She reminded herself over and over that at least it meant she'd have breasts, soon. It felt as though that was still a million years away.

Her hormones fired every which way, and the smallest argument would become a protracted fight far too often. Isobel raged at her parents, raged at her sisters, cried in her room for hours.

At school, she excelled in those subjects that interested her, and came close to failing everything else. Her parents grounded her, which suited her fine, as she didn't want to waste time with the kids at her school anyway.

At night, when things were quieter, with tears invariably drying on her cheeks, Isobel wrote long letters to John Gilbert. Pages at a time, every little thought she had, every disappointment, every argument with her parents, everything her sisters did to drive her crazy – it all went into the letters.

At the end of each one, she wrote:

All my love,

And then she'd put on some red lipstick and kiss the page.

Isobel had bought a box of expensive envelopes, heavy parchment with a watermark which seemed reassuringly official. Once she'd folded the letter into three and tucked it inside, sealing it closed, she'd put John's name on the front, hold the envelope to her heart a moment, and then put it in a box with all the others.

She didn't know John's address and in a way, it was a relief. It was like a diary, this way, a diary with big blue eyes that had once kissed her on the hand, a diary that had smiled sweetly and promised to kiss her properly next year. Sending the letters would have fucked it all right up. Isobel wanted to seem aloof and interesting, and hundreds of pages of letters about her dull life would not have helped.

It had quickly become one of Isobel's favorite costumes: Mysterious stranger in the red and white dress. She wondered if the kids she'd met in Mystic Falls ever spoke about her in her absence.

Isobel's fourteenth birthday, she begged her mother for a pair of Doc Marten boots, and hugged her fiercely when she acquiesced. Isobel begged her oldest sister to take her to flea markets and Goodwill stores for interesting accessories, begged the middle sister – who was much better at these things – to teach her to use eyeliner. Listened to scratchy tapes of the Cure and wished she lived in New York or Paris.

In March Isobel bought pots and pots of dye and dyed her entire wardrobe black, black being a good color for a mysterious stranger to wear. In reality everything came out streaky, and Isobel's mother had to take her shopping for new things. Isobel refused to even try on anything that wasn't black, with the exception of a few splashes of red, and was gratified when her mother suggested it might be time to start wearing a bra.

That night, as Isobel stood in front of her full length mirror and crossed another day off her calendar she tried to imagine what it would be like when John Gilbert kissed her.

Isobel arrived in Mystic Falls on the seventh of July, nearly three weeks after school finished. Dearly wanted to be in Mystic Falls for the fourth, hoping John might bring her to the Founder's Fourth of July party, but her parents were insisting they do something as a family, and since the fighting had died down, Isobel elected not to make ripples.

Genevieve crushed her in a hug. "Darling Isobel – What are you wearing? All this black? We need to get you into some colors."

"It's my new look, Aunt Gen," Isobel confessed, feeling silly. "You don't like it?"

Genevieve gave her a measured look. "Very dramatic," she declared, and Isobel felt herself preen.

After bidding her father farewell and promising to behave, Isobel followed Genevieve into the kitchen. "Has anyone…" she started. "Has anyone asked about me?"

"Anyone?" Aunt Gen answered, cocking her head. "I assume you mean your young man, Mr. Gilbert?"

"He's not my young man, Aunt Gen," Isobel said, blushing, as she sliced a lemon for iced tea.

"Well, as a matter of fact, I bumped into him at the Grill just a couple of weeks ago. That boy has manners, doesn't he? Reminds me of my Jeffrey…"

"Aunt Gen?"

Genevieve's eyes had become unfocussed, her mind a million miles away, just for a moment, but she snapped back. "I'm sorry, darling. He asked me when you were arriving."

Isobel's heart pounded so furiously in her chest that she felt certain her aunt would be able to hear it. "Did you tell him?"

"Of course I did. I was under the impression you liked him, dearest girl." Genevieve gave Isobel a wicked grin as she shredded mint leaves between her fingers. "I did imply you might be very busy, though."

Aunt Gen might be crazy, and really, she never remembered that Isobel was a young teenaged girl – but she got it, she really did. Isobel smiled.

"Now," her aunt said, putting all the ingredients into a jug, pouring hot water over the top, and pouring herself a large gin, "other than growing boobs, what have you been up to all year?"

It was several days before Isobel heard from John Gilbert, but she carefully kept her makeup immaculate just in case. The night she finally saw him, he knocked on the door, a little after dinner.

Genevieve answered the door, because Isobel had gotten into the habit of draping herself elegantly over a chair whenever there was a knock on the door, sticking her nose in a book, so as not to look too eager. Truth be told, every time there was a knock on the door, her heart beat so hard, and her knees knocked so badly, that she thought if she was standing up, she might fall over.

"Mr. Gilbert," Genevieve said, accepting the flowers he'd brought. "Lovely to see you."

"Mrs. Angelova," John answered. "I was wondering if I could take Isobel out for a drive?"

Isobel rose slowly from her chair, heart thumping, and smiled. John had grown taller, filled out a little, but his eyes and his open, honest face were just as she remembered. He was dressed casually but neatly in a pair of crisp jeans and a button-up shirt, hands slung in his pockets.

"Isobel?" Genevieve asked. "Would you like to go for a drive?"

Isobel smiled her most mysterious smile, cocked her chin, and acquiesced.

Not trusting herself to speak, Isobel folded herself into the passenger seat and looked straight ahead. John started the car and immediately the engine stalled. "I just got my license," he admitted. "I do that just about every time I start the car. When I'm nervous, anyway. It's a miracle I got through the test," he added, smoothly pulling away from the curb.

Isobel had to conceal a smile at the thought that John was nervous with her.

"You look different," he said, eyeing her clothes (and, she hoped, her brand-new boobs).

"Do I?" Isobel answered coolly. "You do, as well. You're taller."

"Thank God for that," he said, grinning. "I've given up catching up with Zach or James, but it's nice to be taller than my mom at last."

"Where are we going?"

"I want to show you something," John answered. "Don't worry. I'll look after you."

He parked the car in a small space by the edge of the forest. Isobel climbed out of the car, looking around. She had never visited this part of the forest. "Where are we?"

John quirked his lip. "The Falls. You've never seen them, right?" He took Isobel's hand and she felt her hand close over his, hoping he couldn't feel her pulse, so like the pulse of a bird, fluttering within.

Isobel followed John down a crooked path, to a series of platforms, with a barbecue area. "Do they have parties here?"

"Constantly," John answered, leading Isobel to a picnic area with benches. She sat down, looking out over the falls, controlling her face, smiling in a way she hoped was mysterious.

"Sometimes, I like to come here and pretend I'm somewhere else," John mused. "The Black Forest in Germany, or maybe somewhere in Australia. Just… somewhere else."

Isobel tossed her long, black hair back. "I always pretend I'm somewhere else. It is the only way I can get through the day without jumping off Wickery Bridge." John grinned, and Isobel smiled softly.

"It's beautiful, here," she added.

"You're beautiful," John said. Isobel laughed. "God, I can't believe I said that," John admitted, rubbing his eyes.

Isobel licked her lips, just slightly, and the next thing she knew, John was holding her face, lowering his lips to hers.

It wasn't quite what Isobel was expecting; John's lips were hard and soft at the same time, opening and closing just slightly over her own, and Isobel couldn't work out what to do with her hands. When she felt John's tongue in her mouth, she nearly leapt out of her skin, let out an embarrassing little moan and opened her mouth a little wider.

To Isobel's surprise, her hands had made their way to John's waist, and she appeared to be trying to draw him closer. When she moaned a second time, she felt John smile against her mouth.

When he started to draw away, Isobel thought for a horrible second that she had done something wrong, but he was barely an inch from her face when he spoke.

"I've been thinking about that all year," he said, and kissed her again, before she could say something stupid.

John took Isobel out a couple of times a week, and visited her at home more frequently.

Sometimes, Genevieve danced in the living room, and John danced with her, and Isobel watched them, delighted. Aunt Gen seemed to intrigue John as much as she intrigued Isobel.

John taught Isobel to play pool – he wasn't the only one who had grown taller in a year – and they kissed, and kissed, and kissed. They didn't do anything else – though Isobel knew John wanted to, and she let him touch her bare breasts, once, and it made her want to do other things too, especially when he lowered his lips to her aching nipple, but while John was sixteen, he was painfully aware that Isobel was only fourteen, so he didn't press any further.

The summer was drawing to a close, and more than once Isobel cried herself to sleep, so horrified at the thought of leaving John behind again.

One night John took Isobel for a hot chocolate at the Mystic Grill, and gave her all his marshmallows. "You never talk about your life at home," he said, feeding her milk froth from his mug, since she'd finished hers already. Isobel decided she liked being a girlfriend, though mysterious stranger was still her main persona.

Isobel shrugged. "Not much to tell."

"Tell me about your family. You know everything about mine."

Mysterious stranger. Mysterious stranger. Isobel took a deep breath – and lied. "I'm an only child. My parents travel a lot, for work, so when school's out, it's easier if I stay with Aunt Gen."

"Is that cool? Being an only child?"

"Grayson's, like, old, John. You're practically an only child." Isobel pushed the marshmallows down into the chocolate with her spoon and giggled as they rose to the surface again.

"What do your parents do?"

Isobel shrugged. Her mother was a teacher and her father an electrician, but that didn't sound very mysterious. "Business. I don't really know. They go all over the world." Truthfully, Isobel doubted her parents had passports.

John reached across the table and took Isobel's hand in his. "It must be lonely."

"I'm pretty independent," Isobel said, shooting her eyebrows in the air, and taking a melted marshmallow from her mug. "It's okay."

Truthfully, mysterious stranger was a persona she was enjoying immensely. She wished she could see into John's mind, see how he imagined her life back home.

"What day of the week were you born?" Isobel asked, suddenly.

John smiled. "Thursday. Why?"

Thursday's child has far to go, Isobel thought, smiling widely.

"Do you want to come to the Mayor's end of Summer party again?" John blurted. Isobel smiled.

"I'd love to, Mr. Gilbert," she said, leaning across the table for a kiss.

"Time for your birthday present," Genevieve said, when Isobel gleefully announced she would be attending the party.

"My birthday was in January, Gen," Isobel said, giggling. "You sent me makeup."

Gen tipped her head to the side. "Wasn't gonna send this to your parents' house, doll," she said, crooking her finger, beckoning Isobel to follow. In Genevieve's wardrobe hung a garment bag, and she presented it to Isobel with a flourish.

It was a dress – a proper dress, a black sheath, something that would fit in at any Founders' event, and it fit like a glove. Twirling in front of the full length mirror to make the hem flip up, Isobel thought she looked terribly grown-up, and she couldn't wait for next weekend.

When John knocked on the door, Isobel answered it, and she thought his eyes might fall right out of his head. He raked his eyes over Isobel's body, drinking in every inch of her, and Isobel smiled – not mysteriously, there was no hope of that, but she hoped she at least wasn't blushing too brightly.

"You look, ah," John started, and then leaned in for a kiss.

Miranda and Grayson came to the door, as well, this time, and Grayson shared pleasantries with Genevieve about the new medical practice, which had been running nearly a year.

Miranda gave Isobel a fierce hug and whispered into her ear. "You look beautiful, Isobel. But remember our deal from last year. Remember you're fourteen, okay?"

Isobel decided she didn't want to be Miranda Gilbert when she grew up, after all, but she smiled and nodded. Genevieve took a few photographs and then it was time to leave.

This time, Isobel's appearance didn't so much as raise an eyebrow amongst the guests, and she felt the strangest sense of loss. She swept a glass of champagne from a passing waiter's tray, and John snatched it back.

"We try to be a bit more subtle than that, Is," he said sternly, and Isobel rolled her eyes, quietly delighted to have seemed so bold. She followed John out to the balcony, where she was greeted by most as an old friend. The boys had become used to seeing Isobel attached to John's hip over the summer.

James Lockwood was bigger than ever, and oddly angry, as if carrying something in his barrel chest that was causing him real pain, and Zach looked even more haunted than Isobel remembered.

The girls, whose names Isobel could never keep straight in her mind, so similar were they all, eyed her with a mixture of scorn and amusement.

"I think I liked last year's dress better," one commented, with a vicious glint in her eye.

Isobel smiled sweetly. "That's so sweet of you to say. Is that the same dress you wore last year? It suits you beautifully. Still."

There was a bit of a kerfuffle at the door, and yet another Lockwood giant joined the group on the balcony. They were easily distinguishable by their huge chests and even more giant egos.

John tensed, and Isobel tangled her fingers in his. "Not your favorite person?"

"That family," John complained. "There are thousands of them. James is alright, but the rest of them? Not a big fan, no."

"What's his name?"

"Spencer," John grumbled.

Isobel sipped slowly at a glass of champagne, and watched everybody else with interest. It was a little like having friends, she thought, but the politics made her head spin. She wondered what it was like at Mystic Falls High School, when the Founding Families had to mix it up with the rest of the world. The thought made her snicker.

Spencer Lockwood made the rounds, shaking hands, slapping arms, until he made his way to John.

"Gilbert! Smug son of a bitch, I hear you fucked Jilly Fell on the Fourth of July! Well played, my man," he said, holding a hand aloft for a high five.

John froze, and Isobel knew instantly it was true.

"Is Jilly here tonight, man?" Spencer asked, unaware that he had just broken Isobel's heart. "Wouldn't mind tappin' that myself."

Isobel got to her feet, unsteady.

"Is…" John started.

Isobel shook her head. "No. Fuck you, John," she said, mustering all the rage her fourteen year old self could muster.

She staggered through the mansion until she found Miranda, grabbed her arm, holding herself up.

"Take me home," she begged, and though she meant 'take me to Aunt Gen's house', a part of her wished she could sleep in her own bed, hug her own mother, cry into her sisters' shoulders.

Mysterious stranger was a thing of the past. Isobel reached into the box of masks and costumes in the box in her heart, reinvented herself, realizing she could do far, far better than mysterious stranger. Girl whose heart has been broken one time too many could work well, too, even if 'one time too many' literally meant once.

Isobel schooled herself daily to be hardcore girl. She didn't fight with her parents, her sisters, just kept her eyes clear and direct, and listened to a lot of punk music, Tilt and Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill. Practiced her hardcore face in the mirror. She convinced herself that 'not afraid of anything' and 'hating John Gilbert' were legitimate emotions.

Bizarrely, she joined the cheerleading squad – loved the discipline and the early mornings. Loved being around girls, loved to push her body to its limits. The football team was well known to be one of the worst in the state, but the cheer squads were excellent and because Isobel was so small and lithe, the senior Varsity squad sometimes borrowed her if they needed someone to throw in the air. Besides, this was high school. There was never such a good time to really mix things up.

Isobel started to notice boys watching her, and not in a casual way, but she swore she wouldn't ever date again.

It was late October, and Isobel had been back in school nearly two months, when Genevieve called. "I have a very sad young man sitting on my couch, eating my cookies," she said, voice stern and soft. "He's demanding your phone number, or failing that, your address, so he can write you a letter."

Isobel considered for a moment.

"Tell him if he wants to write me a letter, you'll address it and post it," she said, after a long beat. "Don't give him my phone number. And Gen?"

"Yes, dear girl?"

"Make him pay for the stamp."

John's letter was pathetic – begging and apologetic in equal measure. She meant nothing. It meant nothing. There's something really special about you. Blah blah blah. Isobel pored over the letter at least three times a day, swearing to herself each time that she'd never do it again.

The letters came about once a month, but Isobel never answered a single one.

Isobel arrived in Mystic Falls on the thirteenth of July, and was pleased when Aunt Gen gaped.

"Darling girl! You look so different," she said, giving Isobel a brief, bone-crushing hug. As Isobel's father drove away, Isobel preened.

"Cheer squad keeps you fit," she explained. "And it's very empowering," she added, flicking her hair over her shoulder.

Gen lifted one bag and Isobel the other, and they deposited both in Isobel's room, and Isobel fought tooth and nail not to ask about John Gilbert.

"All those letters," Gen said in a sing-song voice, as they made their way back to the kitchen. "And you never answered a single one. Very Bulgarian of you, darling Isobel," she said approvingly.

Isobel frowned. "How do you know I never wrote back?"

"Because your Mr. Gilbert corners me every chance he gets to beg for your phone number or to ask me if I think you'll ever forgive him. For whatever it is he did. Incidentally…" Genevieve poured a gin and tonic, as Isobel sliced lemons. "What did he do?"

"Jilly Fell," Isobel grumbled.

Genevieve froze. "Isobel, you're not…"

For a long beat, Genevieve looked almost parental. All theatricality departed from her lean frame and she fumbled the bottle of tonic water. "You're fifteen, Isobel. I think you're too young for, you know."

Isobel cringed. "We're not. You know. We're not."

"I'm trusting you, when I let you go gallivanting all over Mystic Falls with him. You know that, right? If anything happened to you your parents would never forgive me."

Isobel covered her eyes. "Can we not talk about this? Please? Besides it doesn't matter. I'm never gonna speak to him again."

At last, Gen tossed her back over the shoulders and dropped some heart-shaped ice cubes into her drink, the mad spinster persona settling back over her features. "Well, your first heartbreak is over and done with," she declared airily. "How do you feel?"

"Like a woman," Isobel replied, sticking her nose in the air.

They danced in the living room that night, and the next, and Isobel lay out in a hammock during the day to read, careful to keep from burning. Her skin was so pale it would peel terribly if she got burnt. Isobel and Genevieve ate fresh fruit with slivers of cheese for lunch most days and Isobel drank apple juice from a brandy snifter.

Isobel was dozing in the hammock, wearing a tiny sundress and a wide, floppy hat, her book open and forgotten on her chest, when a familiar, masculine voice said "Hi, Isobel."

Isobel lifted the brim of the hat, gave John a cold look and dropped it again. "Hello, John," she answered, praying that the hardcore girl costume could withstand the pang of want John always inspired in her.

John gave a nervous cough. "You look…" he trailed off.

"Let me guess. Different?"

"I was going to say amazing. Strong."

Isobel sat up, climbed out of the hammock (very difficult to do with any degree of grace). "Thank you," she said. "Can you go now? Please?"

"Can we talk first? You never answered my letters."

John really did look pretty miserable. Privately, Isobel was delighted, and debating whether or not she would make up with him, but her face, she knew, would betray nothing. She nodded slightly, in acquiescence, and indicated that John should take a seat on the step. Isobel sat alongside him, very conscious of John's eyes on her legs.

"You know we weren't together when I slept with Jilly, right?" John started.

"You told me you had been looking forward to kissing me for a whole year, John. Were you looking forward to it while you fucked Jilly Fell?"

Isobel felt her heart soar. She didn't think would be able to speak like that, but she had. Externally, she looked cool and collected, while John cringed.

"It was stupid. It was totally, totally stupid."

"Have you been with anyone this year?" Isobel asked.

John shook his head. "No. No one. I swear. I took a girl to cotillion but it wasn't even a real date. I was just a white knight."

It had been all very well to refuse to talk to John when she was back home. All that was needed was to ignore his letters. She could stand her ground knowing there wasn't really another option. Now that he was in front of her, Isobel really couldn't see a good reason to drag it out any longer.

"Okay," she said. "I forgive you."

John smiled, took Isobel's hand. "Can I take you out for dinner?" he asked.

"Let me guess – the Grill?"

John chuckled. "Not much choice, around here." He stood, helped Isobel to her feet.

"You got tall," Isobel said, and it was true; John was close to six feet, now, and looked more like a man that he had the year before. "Did you pass James and Zach?"

"I passed Zach. Lockwoods are mostly really tall, so not much hope there." He took Isobel's hands, brushed his thumbs against her wrists. "I've missed you," he said, and seemed so sweet. He dropped her hands and cupped her face, leaning until their mouths met.

Once again, Isobel felt a stab of desire, her fifteen-year old body, so close to a woman's, now, responding to the closeness of John's body and the feeling of his tongue, so heavy in her mouth. She thought, momentarily, that she might fall, but John laid her head against his chest and held her gently, promising never to hurt her again.

One lazy afternoon at Genevieve's house, late in the summer, while Genevieve was out playing cards with friends, John lay on the couch with Isobel draped over his side as they whispered about the future.

"I go to college in a year," John said sadly. "I wish you could come with me."

Isobel giggled in a way that hardcore girl never really did – but Isobel was wearing the girlfriend persona again, and felt happy and lazy. She'd slip hardcore girl back over her skin when she left Mystic Falls.

"Maybe you could go to college in DC too, in a couple of years, you know?"

Isobel lifted her head to catch John's eyes. "Once you're around those college girls you'll forget all about me," she said airily. John pulled her closer.

"No, I won't. It's you and me, Is. We'll get married in a few years and have babies and build an amazing life for ourselves…"

Something hot and foreign coiled in Isobel's stomach. "You really think so?"

John landed a kiss on the top of her head. "I know so."

It was a beautiful dream, so Isobel decided to play along. "We'll live here, in Mystic Falls."

To her surprise, John tensed. "No. Not here."

Isobel ran her fingers over John's lips, squealing when he took them in his mouth. "Why not?" she asked. "I like it here."

"Being a Gilbert in this town…" John let his eyes drift shut. "It means a sort of responsibility I just don't want."

"What, you don't wanna spend your life throwing founders' day events and running golf fundraisers?"

John smiled. "Something like that." He carded his fingers through Isobel's long dark hair.

Isobel shifted her weight so that she could see John's face. "What?"

John shook his head. "Nothing."

"I know when you're trying to hide something. Tell me. Come on. You're the one who said we're going to get married and have babies. No secrets."

"I really can't talk about this stuff, Is."

"Fine," she said, sitting up straighter, untangling herself from John's legs. "Don't tell me."

"Wait," John said, drawing her back to him. "I want to tell you. I do. But you have to swear you'll never tell a soul, Is. Promise me."

"I promise," Isobel said, solemn, crossing her heart dramatically. "Not another soul."

And then John started to tell the story of the vampires in Mystic Falls. How back in 1864 the town burned thirty or so of them in the old church. How others came through from time to time, and how the founding families kept the secret, mobilized to kill any vampires that came through.

Isobel felt hot and cold, the strangest sensations erupting all over her body, and when John shifted so he could see her face, she was shocked to see him look so worried.

"Isobel, what?" he asked, wiping her tears away.

"Is it true?" she breathed.

John hesitated, and nodded. "It's true. But it's okay, Is. They haven't been here in a long time and -"

Isobel drove her head into John's shoulder. "But it's true, it's definitely true, about the vampires?"

John patted down her hair, drew her into his lap. "It's true. Isobel, why are you crying? You're safe, it's safe. They can't get into your house unless you invite them. Oh, shit, I've upset you. I'm sorry. I grew up with this stuff, I wasn't thinking…"

But tears aside, Isobel was smiling, because if there were vampires in Mystic Falls, then the world was a lot bigger and stranger and more wonderful than she thought.

For the rest of the summer, whenever there was a quiet moment, Isobel would distract John with kisses and whisper "Tell me again about the vampires, John."

A little over a week before Isobel was due to go home, Aunt Gen went to the pictures with friends in a neighboring town. Isobel invited John around, cooked dinner – nothing flash, just spaghetti Bolognese, the only thing she really knew how to cook, and lit candles everywhere. After dinner, she took John by the hand and led him to her bedroom.

"Isobel…" John shook his head. "We don't have to…"

"I want to. I want it to be you and I want it to happen before I go home. Please, John," she said, hands shaking as she undid the buttons on her shirt. She sat next to him on the bed and John watched her as she stripped the shirt off, as she fumbled to unclasp her bra. "We're in love, right? This is the real thing?"

After a pause, John reached out to trace the shape of Isobel's breast with his hand. "Of course it's real. We'll be together forever."

"Then let's start tonight," she said.

Isobel was pretty sure she knew enough about the mechanics of sex, but the execution she was a little unsure about. She and John took their clothes off, she more nervous than he was, and climbed under the covers.

"I don't really know what I'm doing," Isobel admitted, as John kissed her face and breasts, giving a little moan as he put his hand between her legs, twitching violently when he found her clitoris, shocked and slightly shamed when John found her hot and wet.

"Your body knows what to do. God, Is… you're so beautiful," John said, kissing her again. "We can just fool around, you know, we don't have to actually have sex. This is nice."

But Isobel shook her head. "I want to, I really want to." Inexpertly she took his dick in her hand, unsure what to expect. It was thick and hard and oddly alive, twitching in her tiny hand as she stroked it, surprising her.

"If it hurts, or you change your mind, just tell me, okay?"

As John nestled between Isobel's legs, preparing to enter her for the first time, Isobel felt an odd swell of pride. She was about to become a woman.

The next thing she knew, John was inside her, moaning into her hair, and instinct saw Isobel wrap her legs around John's waist, flinching as something tore deep inside her. The odd stretch was strangely reassuring, as if John was staking a claim, and Isobel regretted, suddenly, that she had lied to him, about her family, about her life back home. She promised herself she would come clean. They'd laugh about it, one day, in their big house in the suburbs.

No, they wouldn't.

Isobel knew very little, but she knew she wasn't cut out for a nice, normal life in the suburbs; knew this might well be the last summer she ever saw John Gilbert, no matter what he was saying now.

It hurt, but it felt good, too, and all too soon, it was over. Isobel felt the odd warmth between her legs that meant John had had an orgasm, and wondered if she'd had one too; surely, it was something you should be able to tell?

"Are you okay?" John whispered, softening inside her, and Isobel smiled.


"Did you… did you like it?"

Truthfully, Isobel wasn't sure. "It was beautiful," she said, relaxing against Johns' chest as he pulled out and nestled in alongside her. Idly, she wondered if they should have used birth control, a condom or something, but she was pretty sure you couldn't get pregnant the first time.

After cleaning up and getting dressed, Isobel walked John to the door. "So do you want to come to the Mayor's end of summer party again?" John asked, arms draped loosely around Isobel's waist.

"I'd be delighted, Mr. Gilbert," Isobel answered, pushing herself up to her tiptoes to kiss him.

After the party, John took Isobel aside, finding a dark corner. "I have something for you," he said, removing his ring. It was a big, ugly thing; all he'd ever said about it before was that it was a family heirloom.

Isobel giggled. "It's too big for me."

"Then put it on a necklace and wear it that way. Just promise me you'll always wear it. As long as you have it on you, nothing supernatural can kill you."

"Like a vampire?" Isobel asked, eyes glinting eagerly.

"Like a vampire," John agreed, kissing her softly. "If my father finds out I gave it away I'll never hear the end of it. But I love you, Is. I need to know you're safe. Always."

"I love you too," Isobel said, returning his kiss, and putting the ring into her purse like a secret.

Back home, Isobel learned something new about her masks and costumes – there was no persona that could conceal the fact that she was pregnant and fifteen. After a year of perfectly regular periods, when she missed one, Isobel instantly knew that she was carrying John's child.

She didn't tell him. She thought a thousand times a day about picking up the phone or writing him a letter, but she couldn't do it.

By Christmas Isobel had started to gain weight. This was easy to explain away – she had not gone back to the cheer squad, as terrified as she was of wearing the fitted outfits, or of being dropped and having a miscarriage – and this was the excuse she made to her mother when they shopped for new clothes.

By February, the house was a war zone. Isobel's mother screamed at Aunt Gen on the phone, reminding her they had trusted her with their daughter, and where the hell was Gen when Isobel was spreading her legs for some good-for-nothing boy?

Isobel was dragged to the doctor's office for confirmation, and he counseled them about options.

Options. There were only two. Keep the baby or adopt her out.

In the middle of June, Isobel ran away.

Well, she waddled away. Her tiny frame was racked with constant aches and pains, her feet and legs screamed in three languages, and she was sure she was ready to pop any second. The day after school let out, Isobel's best friend Trudie picked her up as soon as Isobel's parents and sisters left the house and drove her to the bus station in Trudie's mother's car, fretting all the way about who would be in more trouble if they got caught: Isobel for running away, or Trudi for stealing her mother's car and driving it, unlicensed, to help her.

"Call me when she's born, Is, promise me?" she begged, hugging Isobel as tight as she dared.

"I promise," Isobel said. She handed her bag to the luggage attendant, who sneered distastefully at her huge belly, and climbed up onto the bus.

Isobel arrived in Mystic Falls at around eight o'clock that night, exhausted from doing nothing at all but sit for hours on end while the bus visited every single small town in Virginia, or so it seemed. She ignored the judgmental looks of the other passengers and read her book until she was so scared she literally couldn't read the words on the page.

She walked up main street until she found the doctor's office, copying down the emergency out of hours phone number, and found a pay phone. She called her parents first.

"I'm not telling you where I am. There's a doctor here, mom, he'll help. He will."

Her mother made an explosive sound in her throat. "Are you in Mystic Falls?"

"No. I'm never going there again. Look, mom, I gotta go. I got myself into this mess. I'll get myself out of it."

"Isobel, you're sixteen! For God's sake, tell me where you are and we'll drive, right now. You could go into labor any time."

Isobel didn't say that she suspected it had already started. She'd had some pain in the bus, but it wasn't the first time, and she wasn't due for another week. "I'll call you in a couple of days. Don't worry about me, mom. I love you. Even though I'm a horrible daughter. I really love you." Shaking, she hung up the phone against her mother's protests.

When she dialed Grayson and Miranda Gilbert's number, and heard Miranda's soft voice for the first time in nine months, Isobel burst into tears.

"Miranda? It's Isobel. I'm outside the Mystic Grill and I need you to pick me up."

An hour later, Isobel was weeping buckets on the Gilbert family's couch while Grayson tried to take a medical history and Miranda rubbed circles into Isobel's back, eyeing her stomach with some combination of horror and jealousy.

At last the door flew open and John was there. He crouched in front of Isobel and ghosted his hands over her stomach. "Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded.

"I couldn't."

John took Isobel in his arms. "We'll figure this out, Is. It's gonna be okay."

Grayson exploded. "Figure this out? What are you talking about, John? She's sixteen. You're eighteen and going to college in the Fall."

John shrugged, taking Miranda's place on the couch. "So I won't go. I'll get a job."

Isobel shook her head. "No, John. You can't do that."

"She's right. You can't do that, John." Grayson was incensed.

"I know this might be hard for you to believe, Gray, but Isobel and I are in love. We're gonna get married one day. Have a family. So what if it's starting now? Tell them, Is."

Isobel tensed.

"We're kids ourselves, John," she said at last.

John seemed shocked by her pronouncement. "So what? We're in love. We'll make it work."

Isobel shook her head. "No. We won't. I don't want this. Not now. Maybe not ever."

John shifted so that he could look at her face. "Are you serious?"

"I'm sixteen," Isobel begged. "I don't know what I want. I just know I don't want this." Suddenly, she doubled over, moaning loudly. When the contraction passed – and it had to be a contraction, nothing in the world could be that painful but punishment for what she'd done, what she was about to do – Isobel looked up at Grayson, shifted her gaze to Miranda.

"Will you take her?" she begged. "I know you want children. I know you've been having trouble conceiving. You can give her a life. I can't."

Miranda's eyes filled with tears. "It's a girl?"

Isobel nodded. Grayson's eyes were full of hope, and he regarded his brother with something like desperation. "If we take her, you can get your education, and you can still be a part of her life."

"She's my daughter!" John was angry and upset, but still holding Isobel possessively, one hand on her belly. "Isobel… you're upset. You're in pain. You're hormonal. When she's born, you'll see. You won't be able to give her up. And you can't force me to. I won't do it."

Like punctuation, another contraction racked Isobel's body.

Isobel gave birth in the medical centre, at four o'clock the following morning, and then slept in the Gilbert's guest room for twelve straight hours. When she woke up, Miranda was there, with the baby in her arms.

Miranda smiled. "Are you okay?" she asked, softly. "Would you like to hold her?"

Isobel nodded, and Miranda placed the tiny, warm bundle in her arms. "She's so pretty," Isobel sighed.

"Isobel, I need to call your parents. You know that, right?"

Isobel ignored her, running her fingers over the baby's face, over her ear, marveling at the tiny fingers. "Have you named her yet?"

Miranda sighed. "Isobel… Are you sure about this?"

Isobel nodded. "Yes. I want her to have the most amazing life. And I can't give her that," she added, almost as if she was trying to convince herself.

She didn't even hear John when he arrived, just heard his voice from the doorway. "You can't just give away our daughter, Isobel. I want to raise her myself, even if you don't want her." His eyes were red from crying, misery emanated from every pore, and his face wore an expression that was some terrible combination of anger and determination.

"John… look at her. Have you looked at her?"

"I held her for hours," John snapped. "I'm the one who wants her, remember?"

Isobel ignored the gripe. "You know I'm right. You know. You just can't admit it to yourself."

John stormed from the room, and Miranda whispered, "Elena. We're calling her Elena. If that's okay with you."

Isobel didn't see John for fifteen years, and when she did, he was a different man; cold. The boy who had cried at his daughter's birth was long gone. He barely smiled, and then cruelly; his blue eyes flashed with anger. Perhaps it was who John would always have grown to be, but Isobel suspected that watching his brother raise his daughter had turned him from a sweet boy to a bitter, angry man.