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"Tell me about it," I replied. "Apparently there's something about me that pisses off every teacher in this school."

To my surprise, Call shook his head. "I don't think that's it."

Dimly in the distance, I heard the clanging bell that signaled class changes. I knew I should hurry back for Byron's class, but I wanted to hear what Call had to say.

"What do you mean?"

"Look at it from their point of view, Sophie. Your dad is head of the Council. Everybody at Hecate is bending over backward to not show favoritism to you. So maybe they're going a little overboard in the opposite direction, you know?"

I just nodded. Why wasn't I surprised to find out that yet another thing was my dad's fault?

"You okay?" Call asked, his head tilted a little.

"Yeah," I answered way too brightly. I sounded like a cheerleader on a Kool-Aid high. "Yeah," I repeated, much more normally this time. "I gotta go. Don't wanna be late!"

I rushed past him, nearly colliding with one of his shoulders.

God, the guy's built like a freaking oak tree, I thought as I picked up my pace.

In the end, I was still late for Byron's class. Which meant that not only did I get yelled at--in iambic pentameter no less--but I also had to write a five-page essay on my "chronic and egregious tardiness."

"I think I need to find a homework spell," I whispered to Jenna as I slid into my seat.

She just gave a halfhearted shrug and went back to drawing faces in her notebook.

Faces, I couldn't help but notice, that looked a lot like Holly and Chaston.


llater that night I worked on Ms. East's essay while Archer catalogued; I'd already written Byron's in my last class of the day, Classifications of Shapeshifters. Our teacher, Mr. Ferguson, was in love with the sound of his own voice, so he rarely paid attention to what we were doing at our desks. Jenna and I used to pass notes the whole time, but these days she usually spent the period doodling in her notebook and trying to shrink inside herself.

Archer and I had gotten to the point where we both barely catalogued more than ten things during our hour in the cellar. The Vandy hadn't said anything, which only confirmed my suspicion that the real point of cellar duty was being trapped down there for an hour three nights a week. After all, doing the work was pointless since everything we catalogued was in a different place the next time we arrived. We spent most of our time talking.

Since Jenna had started swimming in the deep end of the pity pool, Archer was pretty much the only friend I had. Elodie and Anna had completely given up on my joining their coven, and from what I'd heard, they were looking for white witches now, a sure sign that I had fallen below contempt with them. I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter, but the truth was, life at Hecate had gotten pretty lonely.

"Do you think the teachers are hard on me because of my dad?" I asked Archer, looking up from the textbook spread across my lap.

"Probably." He hoisted himself onto an empty shelf. "Prodigium have pretty big egos. Not all of them are your dad's biggest fan, and Casnoff wouldn't want the other parents to think you're getting special treatment just because your dad is practically their king."

He raised an eyebrow. "Which makes you Crown Princess."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh yeah. Just let me polish my tiara and I'm set."

"Oh, come on, Mercer. I think you'd make a good queen. You've definitely got the snotty part down."

"I am not snotty!" I nearly yelped.

He leaned back on his elbows, a wicked smile on his face. "Please.

The first day I met you, you practically had a layer of permafrost covering you."

"Only because you were a jerk," I retorted. "You told me I sucked at being a witch."

"You did suck," he said with a laugh.

And then, in what was becoming a running joke, we said in unison,

"Bad dog!" and smiled at each other.

"You're just not used to meeting women who don't fall all over your ass like you're in a boy band or something," I said when our laughter had subsided a little.

I'd turned back to my essay, so I had to look up when I realized he hadn't answered me.

He was looking at me with a small smile, a strange glint in his eye.

"So why didn't you?"

"Excuse me?"

"Well, according to you, women are always falling over me. So why didn't you? Not your type?"

I took a deep breath and hoped he didn't notice. Weird little moments like this one were getting too common with Archer and me. Maybe it was all the time we spent together alone in the cellar, or how familiar we'd gotten with each other's bodies while kicking the crap out of each other in Defense, but I was beginning to notice a subtle shift in our relationship. I wasn't delusional enough to believe that he actually liked me or anything, but flirting had definitely entered the picture. It left me feeling strange and totally unsure of myself in moments like these.

"Nope," I finally said, striving for a light tone. "I've always had a thing for the nerdy type. Arrogant pretty boys don't really ring my bell."

"So you think I'm pretty?"

"Shut up."

I needed to change the subject. "What about your family?" I asked.

He looked up, startled. "What?"

"Your family. Do they like my dad?"

He looked away quickly and gave a half shrug, but I could see something was wrong. "My family pretty much stays out of politics," he said. Then he held up his list. "Have you seen Vampire Fang: D. Frocelli?"

I shook my head.

As I turned back to my essay I wondered what the heck I'd said to freak Archer out so much. It occurred to me that in the past six weeks we'd been working together, Archer hadn't talked much about his family. It had never really bothered me before, but of course now that I knew he didn't want to talk about it, I was consumed by curiosity.

I wondered if Jenna would know anything about Archer's past, but then I quickly tossed the idea. Jenna was barely speaking to anyone and was clearly going through some major crap. The last thing she needed was me pestering her about my crush.

By the time the Vandy came for us, I'd already finished most of my essay, and I decided I would do the rest of it in the morning before class.

I walked back to my room, but as I did, I passed Elodie's open door and heard Anna's soft, lilting voice say, "Well, I'd be suspicious if it were my boyfriend."

I paused just outside the door and heard Elodie answer, "I would be if she weren't such a freak. Trust me, if Archer had to be stuck in the basement with any girl at this school, I'm positively thrilled it's Sophie Mercer. Archer wouldn't look at her twice."

It's funny. I knew that Archer wasn't interested in me, but actually hearing another person say it really, really sucked.

"She does have big boobs," Anna mused.

Elodie just snorted at that. "Please, Anna. Big boobs are not enough to compensate for being short and plain. And that hair!" Even though I couldn't see her, I imagined Elodie gave a shudder at that. I, meanwhile, was starting to feel vaguely nauseated. I knew I should walk away, but I couldn't stop listening. I wonder why it is that we always want to hear people talk about us, even if it's horrible stuff. And, you know, it's not like Elodie was saying anything I didn't know. I was short and plain and I did have crazy hair. I'd said these things about myself lots of times. So why were hot tears stinging my eyes?

"Yeah, but Archer is weird," Anna said. "Remember how mean he was to you first year? Like, didn't he call you a shallow bimbo, or something? Or dumb--"

"That's in the past now, Anna," Elodie said tightly, and I had to suppress a laugh. So Archer had apparently once been sensible. What had changed? Did Elodie actually have some depth to her, like he'd said? 'Cause I sure wasn't hearing anything deeper than a bedpan.

"Anyway, even if Archer was insane enough to have a thing for Sophie, after the All Hallow's Eve Ball, he won't even think about looking at another girl."


"I've decided to give myself to him."

Oh, gross. Who says stuff like that? Why didn't she just say "delicate flower" or "carnal treasure" or something equally stupid?

But Anna, of course, squealed. "Omigod, that is so romantic!"

Elodie giggled, which was a weird sound coming from her. Girls like Elodie should cackle. "I know, right?"

I'd definitely heard enough, so I tiptoed away and softly opened the door to my room.

Jenna was, as usual, curled up on her bed, one of her hot-pink throws pulled over her. She was doing this a lot now, pretending to be asleep so that I wouldn't talk to her. Normally I just gave her what she wanted and didn't attempt a conversation. But tonight I sat on the edge of her bed hard enough to bounce her a little. "Guess what I just overheard?" I singsonged.

She pulled down one corner of the blanket, and one eye blinked owlishly at me. "What?"

I repeated the conversation between Anna and Elodie, finishing up with, "Can you believe that? 'Give myself to him'? Ugh. What's wrong with just saying sex, you know?"

I was rewarded with a tiny smile. "That is pretty stupid," Jenna said.

"Totally stupid," I agreed.

"Did they say anything about Chaston?"

Surprised, I said, "Uh . . . no. Not that I heard, at least. But you heard what Mrs. Casnoff said at dinner a few nights ago. Chaston's fine and resting in the Riviera or some other glamorous place with her parents. She'll be back next year."

"I just can't believe they're gossiping about boys when one of their coven is dead, and another one nearly died just three weeks ago."

"Yeah, well, they're shallow jerks. Not exactly news, that."


I stripped out of my clothes and pulled on a Hecate-issue blue tank top and a pair of pajama pants my mom had sent me last week. They were white cotton covered with tiny blue witches riding brooms. I think they were her way of saying she was sorry for the fight; I was sorry too, and had called her to tell her so. It felt nice to be on good terms with her again.

"Wow, I really bruised your shoulders," Jenna said, sitting up.

I glanced down. "Oh . . . right. No big deal. They don't even hurt."

They did still hurt a little.

Jenna's eyes were bright, and I think she was trying not to cry. "I'm still really sorry about that, Soph. I was just so freaked out and hurt, and . . .

and sometimes I lose control."

Icy fear ran down my spine, but I tried to ignore it. Jenna was my friend. Yes, she'd vamped out on me, but she'd snapped out of it immediately.

But you're her friend. Chaston definitely wasn't. And who knows about Holly?

Nope. Not going there.

Instead I said with mock confusion, "Lose control of what? Your bladder? Because you might want to get that checked out. I'm so not loaning you any sheets."

"You're such a freak." She giggled.

"Takes one to know one!"

For the next couple of hours, we chatted and attempted to study for Magical Evolution. By lights out, Jenna seemed almost like her old self again.

"Night, Jenna," I said when the lights finally blinked off.