We didn't weaken it, not enough!" Meredith shouted to her friends over Jealousy's shouts. The phantom, if anything, appeared stronger as it crossed the garage in one great leap and backhanded Meredith across the face. Meredith felt a searing pain, saw a bright flash of light, and felt herself slam against the wal . Dazed, she staggered back onto her feet.
The phantom was coming toward her again. More slowly this time, with a smile of anticipation.
The spell must be doing something then, Meredith thought groggily, or it wouldn't care if I finished my part or not.
Meredith gripped her fighting stave. She wasn't going down easily, not if she could prevent it. Alaric had cal ed her a superhero. Superheroes kept fighting, even when the odds were stacked against them.
She sliced out viciously, expertly, with the end of the fighting stave. Al those hours of practice paid off, because the phantom didn't seem to expect the blow, and rather than the stave passing harmlessly through mist, Meredith caught the phantom in its solid form, just above the rose in its chest. The blade at the end opened a deep wound in the phantom's chest, and when Meredith pul ed it back for a second blow, viscous green fluid dripped from the end of her weapon.
As she swung again, Meredith's luck ran out. The phantom reached out toward her, its hand moving so fast that Meredith didn't see it until the phantom was holding the other end of the stave. Sharp as the stave was, poisonous as the coating of al those bits of silver and wood and iron were, the phantom held it lightly and easily, and pulled. Meredith went skidding across the garage floor toward the phantom, fast and helpless, and the phantom reached out lazily with its other hand to catch her, a sneer of contempt and anger on its glassy face. Oh no, Meredith's internal voice babbled, not like this. It can't end like this. Just before it touched Meredith, though, the phantom's face changed, suddenly blossoming into an expression of confusion. It let go of the stave, and Meredith yanked herself back and caught her balance, wobbling furiously, gasping for breath.
The phantom stared past her, Meredith forgotten, at least for the moment. The phantom's glassy teeth were bared, and there was an expression of terrible rage on its greentinted face. As Meredith watched, the muscles in its icysolid arms seemed to strain, then dissolve to swirls of armshaped mist, then solidify again, stil in the same tense stil ness. She can't move, Meredith realized. She turned to look behind her.
Mrs. Flowers stood straight and tal , her blazing blue eyes fixed on the phantom. She held out her hands in front of her, her face set in strong, determined lines. Several strands of her gray hair had escaped from her bun, standing out in al directions as if caught by static electricity. Mrs. Flowers's lips moved soundlessly, and, as the phantom strained to move, Mrs. Flowers strained, too, looking as if she was struggling to support something cripplingly heavy. Their eyes, cool intent blue and glacierclear green, were locked together in silent battle. Mrs. Flowers's eyes were steady, but her arms were shaking violently, and Elena didn't know how much longer the older woman would be able to hang on and keep the phantom under control. Not long, she suspected. The battle with the kitsune had taken a lot out of Mrs. Flowers, and she hadn't recovered ful y yet. She wasn't ready for a new fight. Elena's heart was thumping like crazy, and she couldn't stand to look at the bloody figures of Damon and Stefan on the other side of the garage, because the one thing she knew she couldn't do right now was panic. She needed to be able to think.
"Meredith," Elena said crisply, with such a tone of authority that her friends al turned away from watching the struggle between Mrs. Flowers and the phantom to look at her. "Finish your part of the ceremony."
Meredith looked at Elena blankly for a moment and then snapped into gear. That was one of the many wonderful things about Meredith: She could always be relied upon, no matter what, to pul herself together and get on with the job.
"I have fed the phantom of jealousy," Meredith said, looking down at the floor where her brown candle stil burned, "but now I cast my jealousy away."
Meredith's words rang with truth, and the candle went out. The phantom flinched and grimaced, flexing its fingers angrily. The deep red of the rose in its chest dul ed to a dark pink for a moment before flushing back to crimson. But... it didn't seem like it was defeated; it seemed merely irritated. Its eyes never left Mrs. Flowers's, and its ice-sculpted muscles stil were straining forward. Almost al the candles were out. Only two flames were flickering, from the blue and red candles, only two victims feeding the phantom with their jealousy.
So, with almost al its victims torn away from it, shouldn't the phantom be weaker? Shouldn't it be sick and struggling?
Elena turned to Alaric. "Alaric," she whispered. "What did the book say? Shouldn't the spel be starting to kil the phantom by now?"
Alaric was watching the silent showdown between Mrs. Flowers and the phantom again, his own fists clenched and his body straining as if he could somehow lend Mrs. Flowers his strength, and it took a little time - time we don't have, thought Elena furiously - for him to drag his attention to Elena. When he did and she repeated her question, he turned a more analytical gaze on the phantom, and a new worry dawned in his eyes.
"I'm not entirely sure," he said, "but the book did suggest... the book said something like, 'Every word truly spoken by its victims, each dark emotion wil ingly rejected, wil draw back to them the life the phantom has stolen from their thoughts and deeds. The creature wil crumble with every honest word spoken against it.' It could be just rhetoric, or maybe the person who wrote down the spel had heard about the ritual without seeing it performed, but it sounds..." He hesitated.
"It sounds like the spel ought to be kil ing the phantom by now," said Elena flatly. "It sounds like this isn't working right."
"I don't know what's going wrong," said Alaric unhappily. The world shifted and everything snapped into focus.
"I do," said Elena. "It must be because this is an Original, not an ordinary phantom. We didn't create it with our emotions, so we can't destroy it just by taking them away. I think we're going to need to try something else."
Stefan and Damon were stil locked in combat. They were both bloody and battered. His hurt arm dangling at an unnatural angle, Stefan moved as though something inside him had been damaged, but they were both stil attacking each other viciously, Stefan no less than Damon. Elena reasoned that they must be fighting on their own initiative now. The phantom, absorbed in its battle with Mrs. Flowers, was no longer muttering poisonous
encouragement to them. If Damon and Stefan weren't being seduced by Jealousy's voice, maybe they could be persuaded to listen to someone else. Elena, trying not to catch the phantom's attention, eased her way toward the fighters.
Damon was bleeding from his neck and a long cut on his head, and the skin around both his eyes was bruising up. He was limping, but he was clearly gaining the upper hand. Stefan, circling warily now just out of arm's reach, was not only curled forward to protect whatever was injured inside him but had a long strip of torn skin hanging from his cheek. Damon was grinning savagely at him, moving closer with every shift of his feet. There was an alertness to Damon's eyes that spoke only of the predator within, of his joy in the hunt and in the kil . Damon must have forgotten in the pleasure of the fight who he was battling, Elena told herself. He would never forgive himself, once he was himself again, if he real y seriously hurt Stefan, or even kil ed him. Although, something inside her whispered, part of him has always wanted this.
She shoved the thought aside. Part of Damon might want to hurt Stefan, but the real, whole Damon did not. If there was anything that fighting the phantom had shown her, it was that the dark emotions everyone hid in their depths weren't al of who they real y were. They weren't their true selves.
"Damon," she shouted. "Damon, think! The phantom is influencing you! It's making you fight." She heard her voice rise pleadingly. "Don't let it beat you. Don't let it destroy you."
Damon didn't seem to hear her, though. He stil wore that feral smile, and prowled a little closer to Stefan, edging him farther and farther toward the corner of the garage. Pretty soon Stefan would be trapped, boxed in and unable to run. And, catching a glimpse of the defiant expression on Stefan's poor, battered face, Elena realized with a sinking heart that Stefan wouldn't run, even if Damon gave him the chance. The part of Stefan that hated Damon was in control of him now.
Stefan bared his teeth in a ferocious snarl. Damon pul ed back his fist to deliver a powerful blow, his canines extending in anticipation of drinking his brother's lifeblood. More quickly than she had ever moved before, at least as a human, Elena flung herself between them as Damon's fist swung forward. Eyes squeezed closed, she threw her arms wide to protect Stefan and awaited the impact. Damon was moving so fast by the time she jumped in front of him that momentum was carrying his whole body forward. With his inhuman strength, it was a punch that would break her bones and crush her face.
But Damon stopped in time, as only a vampire could. She could feel the rush of displaced air from the blow, even the brush of his knuckles against her face, but there was no pain.
Gingerly Elena opened her eyes. Damon stood poised, coiled to strike, one arm stil raised. He was breathing hard, and his eyes glittered strangely. Elena returned his gaze. Was there a tiny bit of relief shining in Damon's eyes?
Elena thought so. The question was, was it relief that he had stopped himself before he kil ed her, or that she had stopped him from kil ing Stefan? Surely Damon could have thrown her out of the way by now and attacked Stefan again, if that was what he real y wanted.
Elena took a chance and reached out toward Damon's fist, folding those battered knuckles within her own smal er hand. He didn't resist as she lowered his fist to his side, passively al owing himself to be moved.
"Damon," she said softly. "Damon, you can stop now."
His eyes narrowed and she knew he could hear her, but his mouth was tight and fierce, and he didn't answer. Without letting go of Damon's hand, Elena turned toward Stefan. He was close behind her, his eyes fixed on Damon. He was panting rapidly, and he wiped the back of his hand absently against his mouth, smearing blood across his face. Elena reached out and took his hand, sticky as it was with blood.
Damon's hand tensed in hers, and she glanced at him to see he was staring at her other hand, the one that was holding Stefan's. Stefan saw where Damon was looking, too, and the corners of his swol en mouth drew up in a bitter little smile.
Behind them, the phantom snarled as it fought Mrs. Flowers's power. It sounded louder, fiercer.
"Listen," she said urgently, looking from one brother to the other. "The phantom's not focusing on you now, so you can think for yourselves. But Mrs. Flowers won't be able to hold her for long. So you need to do it; you need to start thinking now, instead of just acting. I need to tel you... um." She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I never told you this, but when Klaus was keeping me prisoner, after Katherine's death, he used to show me... images. Memories, I guess, Katherine's memories. How you both were with her, back when you were human. When you were young and alive and loved her. How much you loved her. I hated it, seeing how real that love was. And I knew that you noticed me at first only because of the love you had for her then. It's always bothered me a little bit, even though I know your love for me now is deeper."
Both brothers were looking at Elena now, and Stefan's lips parted to speak. Elena shook her head briskly and went on. "No, let me finish. It's bothered me a little bit. It hasn't destroyed me, and it hasn't changed what I feel... for either of you. Because I also know that you might have noticed me for Katherine's sake, but that once you got past it, you both saw me, Elena. You don't see Katherine in me anymore."
She had to venture into dangerous territory now, so she proceeded cautiously, trying to lay out her argument with logic and sensitivity. "So, I know that, right? But when the phantom spoke to me, it dredged up that old jealousy and made it burn inside me again. And the other things the phantom said to me are partly true, too. Yes, I'm jealous sometimes of girls with" - she smiled despite herself
- "normal love lives. But in my most centered moments, I know I wouldn't want to be them. What I've got is amazing, even if it's hard." Elena swal owed. "And so I know that what the phantom said to you is partly true. You're jealous of each other. You're angry about things from the past, and you're upset that I love both of you. But I also know that's not all there is. It's not the most important thing, either. Not anymore. Things have changed since the days when jealousy and anger were the only emotions between you. You've worked together, and you've protected each other. You've become brothers again."
She gazed into Damon's eyes, searching for a response.
"Damon, Stefan was devastated when he thought you were dead. You're his brother, and he loves you, and he didn't know what to do with you gone. You're a big part of his life
- past and present. You're the only one who's been there with him throughout his history."
She swung to look at Stefan. "Stefan, Damon didn't hide from you the fact that he was alive because he wanted to make you suffer, or to be free of you, or whatever the phantom was convincing you of. He wanted to be able to come back in a way and at a time that he could show you things were going to be different. That he was capable of changing. And you were the person he wanted to change for. Not me. You. You're his brother and he loves you, and he wanted things to be better between you."
Elena paused for breath, and to gauge what effect, if any, her speech was having on the brothers. At least they weren't currently trying to kil each other. That had to be a good sign. They stared at each other now, their faces unreadable. Damon licked the blood from his lips. Stefan reached up and careful y ran his free hand over the torn skin on his face and chest. Neither one said a word. Was there a connection left between them? Damon was looking at the cuts on Stefan's neck with an almost soft expression in his black eyes.
Elena let go of them and threw up her hands. "Fine," she said. "If you can't forgive each other, then just think about this. The phantom wants you to fight. It wants you to kil each other, to hate each other. Your jealousy is what's feeding it. One thing I know about you - about both of you - is that you've never given your enemies anything they wanted, not even if it would have saved you. Are you going to give in to what this phantom, this manipulative monster, wants? Is it going to control you, or are you going to control you? Does either of you real y want to murder your brother for someone else?"
At the same exact moment, Damon and Stefan blinked. After a few seconds, Stefan cleared his throat awkwardly. "I'm glad you're not dead after al ," he offered. The corner of Damon's mouth twitched. "I'm relieved I didn't manage to kil you today, little brother," he answered. Apparently, that was al they had to say. They held each other's eyes for a beat longer, then turned to Elena.
"So," said Damon, and he was beginning to smile, a wild, reckless smile that Elena recognized. Damon the unstoppable, Damon the antihero, was back. "How do we kil this bitch?"
Mrs. Flowers and the phantom were stil locked in their silent, almost motionless battle. Mrs. Flowers was beginning to lose ground to the phantom, though. The phantom's stance was wider; its arms had spread out. It was gradual y gaining the power to move, and Mrs. Flowers's hands and arms were shaking with strain. Her face was pale, and the lines of age around her mouth seemed deeper.
"We have to hurry," Elena said to Damon and Stefan. They skirted around Mrs. Flowers and the phantom, and joined the others who, white-faced and wary, were watching them approach. In front of them, only two candles stil burned.
"Stefan," Elena said. "Go."
Stefan stared down at the dark blue candle stil burning on the floor of the garage. "I've been jealous of everyone lately, it seems," he said, the shame evident in his tone.
"I've been jealous of Matt, whose life seems so simple and good to me, who I know could have taken Elena out of the shadows and given her the uncomplicated life she deserves. I was jealous of Caleb, who seemed like the kind of golden boy who would be a good match for Elena, so much so that I distrusted him even before I had reason to, because I thought he was after her. And especial y, I was jealous of Damon."
His gaze left the candle and settled on his brother's face. Damon looked back at him with an inscrutable expression.
"I suppose I've always been jealous of him. The phantom was tel ing the truth when she said that. When we were alive, he was older, faster, stronger, more sophisticated than I was. When we died" - Stefan's lips curled up in a bitter smile of remembrance - "things only got worse. And, even more recently, when Damon and I found we could work together, I've resented how close he was to Elena. He has a piece of her that I'm not a part of, and it's hard not to be jealous of that."
Stefan sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "The thing is, though, I love my brother. I do." He looked up at Damon. "I love you. I always have, even when we were at our worst. Even when al we wanted to do was kil each other. Elena's right: We're more than the bad parts of ourselves. I have fed the phantom of jealousy, but now I cast my jealousy away."
The blue candle flickered and went out. Elena was watching the phantom closely, and saw the rose in its torso dul for a moment. The phantom flinched and snarled, then renewed its struggle against Mrs. Flowers's spel . As it gave a powerful twist, the older woman staggered backward.
"Now!" Elena muttered quietly to Damon, looking at him meaningful y and wishing more than ever that she had her powers of telepathy. Distract her, she hoped her eyes said. Damon nodded once, as if to say he understood her message, then cleared his throat theatrical y, drawing every eye to him, and picked up the dark red candle, the last one burning in the line. He dabbed a line of his blood down its length and spent a few seconds posed with his head lowered pensively, his long, dark eyelashes brushing his cheeks. He was milking the moment for every drop of drama.
Once every eye was fixed on him, Elena touched Stefan and indicated for him to help her approach the phantom from either side.
"I have been jealous," Damon intoned, staring down at the flame of the candle he held. He flicked his eyes up quickly at Elena, and she nodded encouragingly.
"I have been jealous," he repeated, frowning. "I have coveted that which my brother has, over and over again."
Elena slipped closer to the phantom, coming up beside it on its right side. She could see that Stefan was inching nearer on its left.
Mrs. Flowers saw them, too. Elena could tel , because the older woman raised her eyebrows fractional y and began to mutter her spel more loudly and fiercely. Damon's voice rose, too, everyone in the room competing for Jealousy's attention, to keep it from noticing Stefan and Elena's machinations.
"I don't need to go into every single detail of my past,"
Damon said, his familiar smirk appearing on his battered face, a smirk that Elena found oddly reassuring. "I think there's been enough of that here today. Suffice it to say there are things I... regret. Things that I would like to be different in the future." He paused dramatical y for a moment, his head thrown back proudly. "And so I admit that I have fed the phantom of jealousy. And now I cast jealousy out."
In the moment that Damon's candle went out - and thank God it had gone out, Elena thought; Damon was apt to cling to his worst impulses - the rose in the phantom's chest dul ed again to a dark pink. Jealousy snarled and wobbled ever so slightly on its feet. At that same instant, Stefan lunged for the cut across the phantom's chest and got his hand inside it, inside the phantom's torso, and grabbed for the rose.
A gout of green, viscous fluid spurted from the wound as Stefan squeezed the rose, and then the phantom screamed, a long, unearthly howl that made al the humans flinch. Bonnie clapped her hands over her ears, and Celia moaned.
For a moment, Elena thought they were going to win that easily - that by attacking the rose at the phantom's heart, Stefan had defeated it. But then the phantom steadied itself and, with a huge flexing of muscle, pul ed suddenly out of Mrs. Flowers's control, and in one smooth motion ripped Stefan away from its side, his hand coming empty out of its chest, and threw him across the garage.
Stefan hit the wal with a muffled thump, slid to the floor, and lay stil . Evidently exhausted by her battle with the phantom, Mrs. Flowers also sagged backward, and Matt rushed to catch her in his arms before she hit the ground. The phantom smiled slowly at Damon, showing its sharp teeth. Its glacier-clear eyes glittered.
"It's time to go, Damon," Jealousy said softly. "You're the strongest one here. The best of al of them, the best of anyone. But they'l always fawn over Stefan, the weakling, the brat, your useless baby brother. No matter what you do, no one wil ever care for you the way these mortals do for him. The way everyone, for hundreds of years, has always cared for Stefan. You should leave them behind. Make them suffer. Why not leave them in danger? They'd do the same to you. Elena and her friends traveled through dimensions, faced slavery, braved the greatest perils, to save Stefan, but they left you lying dead, far from home. They came back here and were happy without you. What loyalty do you owe them?"
Damon, his face in shadow now that al the candles were out, gave a dark, bitter little laugh. His black eyes gleamed in the dimness, fixed on the phantom's clear ones. There was a long silence, and Elena's breath caught in her throat. Damon stepped forward, stil holding his candle. "Don't you remember?" he said, his voice cool. "I cast you out."
And with superhuman quickness, before anyone could even blink, he lit his candle again with a flick of Power and threw it, straight and true, directly into the phantom's face.
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