Chapter Twenty-Seven

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I stare at him for a moment, dumbfounded, and his eyes slide past me to my sister. He looks shocked, too, and for a moment, the three of us just stand there, staring at each other in an awkward triangle. Finally, Miah looks back at me, and he gives me a respectful bow, the same way I've seen him start his battles with the other casters. I bow back, but my stomach is threatening to turn itself inside out and my mind is racing. How can I hurt Jeremiah? I glance back at my sister, and my stomach turns to lead. But how can I not? I can't screw this up.

Miah lifts his hand and mouths a few words, and I stumble backward, like he's just shoved me in the chest, even though he's ten feet away from me. Quickly, I raise my hands, trusting that Christina will counterattack.

A gust of air threatens to knock Miah off his feet, but he crouches down, making himself too small for the wind to affect him. Before I can think, he's casting another spell, and this time, the room is plunged into darkness.

My heart speeds up, and I stand there for a moment, feeling blind, before Christina conjures a burst of purple fire. The blaze ignites the place where Miah had been standing a minute ago, but now he's not there. I glance around franticly as the fire fades, my eyes searching the darkness, and suddenly I feel a grip on my wrist. As the flames die down, I whirl to face Miah, but he doesn't let go of me.

"I don't want to hurt you," he says, his voice barely a whisper. "I can't do that to Shelby."

The fire burns out, and the room is dark again, but now I can make out Miah's features in the inky gloom. He stares at me in the darkness, but he doesn't say anything else, and I can't think of what to say.

"Shel—Christina!" My sister's voice comes from the other side of the room, and I realize that she must have been moving through the darkness, just like Miah. "Where is he?"

I don't want to tell her. I don't want to let her hurt him; he's making this too easy. When I don't speak, he lets go of my hand with a sigh and snaps his fingers. Light floods the room and he takes a step back. "Here," he says, looking right at me. Like he's challenging me to attack.

I blink, my eyes struggling to adjust to the brightness of the room. Before I can think, Christina mutters another spell, and I barely have time to raise a hand and open my mouth before Miah crumples to the ground, his face contorted in pain. Without thinking, I rush to him, but my sister grabs my shoulder and holds me back.

"We won," she says firmly in my ear. "Don't spoil it."

But watching Miah lying on the ground doesn't feel like wining to me.

The lights flicker, and Mr. Stone walks back in, followed by two other members of Henbane. They're all dressed in black, and for a moment, they make me think of vultures, circling their prey, and I pull back in fear. But Christina keeps a tight grip on me, and I can't move.

One of the women kneels down beside Miah and runs her hand over his forehead. "He is truly injured." She nods at me. "Well done."

Mr. Stone snaps his fingers, and Miah's face smooths out as if the pain he'd been feeling never happened. Unsteadily, he gets to his feet, and I watch him closely, terrified that whatever my sister did to him actually caused real harm. But he's standing, and he doesn't look like he's in pain anymore. He just looks tired, but the triumphant look he shoots my sister makes my heart turn over. I know he's said the covens don't matter to him, but I still can't believe he'd sacrifice his chance at Henbane for me. I want to run to him, to tell him how much it means to me, but I'm still wearing Christina's body, and the coven leaders are watching me closely, so I turn my face away from him and try not to show my tangle of emotions.

Mr. Stone nods at me once, and then glances at his two companions. They nod slightly back at him, and he smiles at me. "Nicely done." Then they all three turn and head toward the door. After a moment, Miah follows them, and then Christina falls into step, too. It takes me a little longer to shake off my stupor, but finally, I hurry after them, trying not to think about what Christina and I just did...or what Miah let us do.

***

Christina and I don't talk after the battle; I'm too overwhelmed, and I don't know what's going on in her mind. Once we're out of the room, Miah disappears, swallowed up by the crowd of casters, and I have no idea what's going through his mind, either. I don't have much time to worry about it, though; a few minutes after our duel ended, a couple of loud chimes echo through the convention center, and all the casters file into the lobby, where Madame Sanderson is standing beside the registration desk.

"Thank you for your participation today. Your results can be retrieved from the same place where you picked up your registration materials. We ask that you not open your envelopes until you are home." Her eyes spark as she looks around the room. "To ensure your compliance, all results have been sealed magically. The spell is set to release tonight at eleven." With a wave of her hand, she dismisses us, and everyone shuffles toward the table to pick up our results. There'd probably be a mad stampede if the results weren't spelled, I think to myself, looking at the weary faces of the casters around me. But now that we know we won't know anything for a few hours, everyone is quiet and polite as they line up at the registration table.

Finally, I have Christina's envelope, and I turn to find her. She's standing off to one side of the crowd, alone, looking at her hands. I walk up to her, and when she looks up, I'm surprised to see tears in her eyes.

"What's wrong?"

She shakes her head. "It's nothing."

Her tone warns me to drop it, but I'm tired of secrets and lies. "Tell me," I say, pitching my voice low.

She glances over my shoulder at the room teaming with casters, and then jerks her head to the door. Together, we walk out into the crisp Halloween night, heading for the MAX station to get ourselves home, and Christina's shoulders sag. "It wasn't what I thought," she finally admits. "I don't know if I could have done it alone."

I shake my head. "You would have been fine. You did all the work tonight, anyway."

"But when I hurt Jeremiah—" her voice breaks off, and she shakes her head again. "I don't know. It wasn't what I thought," she repeats, her words soft.

"Yeah," I agree, replaying the whole mess in my head. "But at least it's done."

She nods slightly. "It'll be done once we're back to normal."

But even if we switched bodies right in this moment, I'm not sure I'd know what normal is anymore. 

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