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I think I was dreaming. Dracula was the president of a nation of vampires, and he was rooming under my bed, and there were other vampires in the city, and Hybrid and I were fighting a complete ass-kicker of a bloodsucker, and then I got bit bad and blood got puked into my face and I was bleeding from my throat and there was blood just everywhere. This is a dumb dream. I hate dreams.

I wake up, and there's too much bright light and noise.

"Careful with that pressshure!" Hybrid is shouting, her fangs still out, spit flying everywhere. "Don't crusssh his damn throat!"

"I'm keeping the correct amount of pressure on!" Piledriver yells back. "This is the correct computer-determined amount of pressure! Get yourself under control, alright?"

"Both of you shut up," says Defender. "Focus on the task at hand, or I will murder both of you when this is all over, darlings."

"Phan's awake!" says Squid Kid. "Keep your head down, Phan. Don't move, we got this under control."

"Gonna be harder for Express to do the stitches now," says Piledriver. "You want me to knock him out again?"

"Do not knock him out, you lunatic!" shouts Hybrid. "Like he needssh head trauma on top of everything elsshhe?!"

"I meant a bit of pressure on the carotid to temporarily cut off blood flow to the brain," Laura says. "Painless and not particularly dangerous."

"No, let's get this done right now," says Express. He holds up a surgical needle and some thread. "Sorry, Phan, this is gonna hurt."

Piledriver takes her hand off my neck, and there's an immediate sharp pain in my throat, like someone's jabbed a needle into my neck multiple times at superspeed. It's not fun, but it's not really that bad, compared to getting fanged by a vampire.

Express pulls his hands away and says, "Juice him, Defender."

Defender points her hands at me and squirts a glowing green gel on my neck. It feels cool, almost icy, and it makes my neck feel itchy. As soon as she does that, Squid Kid moves in and starts bandaging me up.

"Shhhquiddie, I can help with that," says Hybrid.

"Not until you sheathe those claws, Hy," Lenore says. "In fact, not even then, because this is a one-person job. Let someone check you out for injuries, girl."

This is one of the really cool things about superheroes. Get enough of us together and you've almost got an EMT team. All of us are certified in basic first aid, and several of us have even more than that. Express, Defender, the Chrome Cobra, Gearbox, Penitente, the Star, Hypothermia, and Jonni Rotten are all certified as paramedics.

Defender looms overhead, and I can see myself reflected in the mirrored surface of her helmet. I can't tell if I look like I'm in good shape or not, but there's a lot of blood on my throat, on my shirt and jacket, and on my mask.

"Phantasmo, dear, how are you doing?" Defender asks. "Let's hear some words, if you feel comfortable speaking."

"I think I'm okay," I rasp. "Could use some water."

"On it!" Hybrid yells and bolts for the back of the pawn shop. She returns after a moment with a small cone cup of water. Squiddie and Defender pull me to a seated position, and I sip some of the water down. Feels really good. Can't believe I'm so thirsty.

"Anyone here know Phan's secret identity?" asks Express. None of them do. "Phan, we need to check you for a concussion. That means taking off the mask. Pick someone here you're willing to give up your secret identity to."

Oh, crap. I don't guess I'm that worried about any of the superheroes in town learning my real name, but it's still something we're conditioned to think of as a really Big Deal. You're giving away some of the control over your life to someone else and maybe expecting them to give their real name up, too, as a quid pro quo thing.

"Ah, okay. I guess -- I already know your name, Express. So I guess it's you."

"Alright," he says. "Everyone give us some space. Wait, anyone got a flashlight?"

"How 'bout this?" says Piledriver. She holds up her pinkie, and the tip pops open, like a little hinged box. A bright light emerges from it. "How's the intensity look? Too bright? Too dim?"

"No, looks okay," says Express. "But I can't really use it without you being right by us, you know?"

"I know that," she says. She squeezes her pinkie with her other hand, gives it a small twist, and it snaps right off. She hands her pinkie to Express and says, "I'll need that back, big man."

"Quinn, you are a stone freak," Express laughs. "I'll have it back in a couple minutes. Everyone keep an eye out -- the cops'll probably be here in less than five, and I wanna have Phan's mask back on by then."

Once everyone's cleared off, he nods at me, and I peel the mask off. Feels weird not to be wearing it. He shines the finger-light into my eyes and says quietly, "What's your name?"

"Cecil Tarin," I answer as quietly as I can.

"I'll take your word for it," he says. "Not gonna dig your wallet out to check. What's my name?"

"Derek Battle."

"What store are we in?"

"Jusko Pawn."

"I think you're probably fine," he says. "Put your mask back on. Secret's safe with me, Phantasmo."

"Thank you, sir," I say as I pull on the mask.

"The police have arrived, dears," announces Defender from the front door.

"Okay, I'll give a statement to the cops," Express says. "I got the basic idea of what went down here."

"Shouldn't Hybrid and Phan be doing that?" Squiddie asks. "Cops'll flip if they don't get to talk to 'em."

"Let 'em flip. They're both victims of a vampire attack, and as far as I'm concerned, they're still recovering. The cops can talk to them in a couple days."

"You want anyone else sticking around?" Piledriver asks while she reattaches her finger.

"Nah, make sure everything's okay at the museum," he says. "Then get back to patrols. Defender, Hybrid, take Phan up on top of the drugstore in the next block. I bet the Cobra'll want to talk to both of 'em."

Less than two minutes later, the three of us land on top of the drugstore, and the Cobra is already up there waiting for us.

"I'd ask how you knew we were going to be up here, darling," says Defender. "But everyone knows you'd just ignore the question anyway."

"Sshho what happened out at the mushheum, Cobra?" Hybrid asks. "No one'ssh told ussh how everything went yet."

"Fangs in first, Hybrid," Defender says. "You've been like that for the last 20 minutes, and it's getting a bit ridiculous."

While Hybrid reluctantly does some pirouettes to get her temper back under control, Cobra says, "Everything went fine actually. We staked three of them, seven of them got away, the rest were captured. Dracula is making sure proper containment is set up at the cop shop. Unfortunately, all the racket alerted the Council of Thaumaturges that something was up, and Kumiko is getting called on the carpet about the whole thing."

"She's not in serious trouble, is she?" asks Hybrid.

"I don't think so," Cobra says. "She's just getting yelled at. I'm more unhappy that we fell for the entire museum attack. Who was the vampire in the pawn shop?"

"How would I know?" says Hybrid. "Bald headed guy. Pointy ears. Looked like a rat, hit like a truck."

"Sounds like Varney," says Cobra. "He's a patriarch, like Dracula, so he's physically stronger. And with the Pearl, he might be even more powerful."

"So what's with the Bloody Pearl being kept in a pawn shop anyway?" Defender asks. "Isn't it the type of thing that should be in some dreary underground temple or some such nonsense?"

Cobra shakes her head. "Kumiko's research said it could be 'possessed but never owned, lest it be by none or by all.' One of those magical bits of bullcrap that's never meant to be interpreted the right way 'til it's too late. But who owns anything in a pawn shop?"

"Well, the pawn shop owner, I expect," says Defender.

"Sure, but I bet the owner has nothing like that in his records. He might've known it was there; he might've never seen it in his life. But no one owned it until Varney showed up to take possession of it."

"What's the next move?" I ask. "It can't be good that he's got the Pearl, right?"

Cobra shrugs. "I'm not sure we have a next move right now. We don't know where Varney is hiding out. We know he can't leave the city with the Pearl, because Kumiko says it's mystically bonded to the city and can't be moved away under any circumstances. We're also pretty sure he doesn't have access to the spell that would turn the city into a vampire haven, because the Council doesn't even have that. So that means we've got a little breathing room on finding it. But the longer he has it, the greater the risk that he'll somehow find the spell he needs."

"So we don't do anything?" asks Hybrid.

"We keep searching," Cobra says. "We hope his vampire minions will rat him out."

"Cobra, Varney bit both of us," says Hybrid nervously. "Are we going to turn into vampires now?"

"No, don't worry, it takes more than just one bite," Cobra says. "Even a patriarch like Varney would have to drain your blood for a week or more. And you'd have to drink some of his blood, too. So you'll both be fine. And vampire bites tend to heal quickly, too. With your healing factor, I bet your bites are sealed up already, right?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Hybrid says.

"And Phan, you should be good by morning, especially with Defender's regenerative gel on the wound."

"I hope so," I say. "Right now, I still feel like a monster tried to chew my blood out of my neck a few minutes back."

"Why don't you take the rest of the night off?" Defender says. "That regenerative gel will work a lot better if you get a decent night's rest."

"I'll warn Dracula not to wake you up when he gets in," says Cobra.

"Oh, wait, I forgot -- he can't stay over today," I say. "I'll be  moving into my mom's house this afternoon. And I'm pretty sure my dad plans to have his girlfriend come over to spend the night tomorrow."

"Ah, great," says Cobra. "Either of you guys want to room with a vampire for a few days?"

"Not after tonight!" Hybrid says, reflexively touching her neck.

"There are some things that are simply too unseemly for a woman of my elite social stature, Cobra dear," says Defender.

"Didn't think so," says the Cobra. "I'll ask around. You gonna be able to get home by yourself, Phan?"

"Yeah, the ghosts'll take care of me," I say. We all say our goodbyes, and I fly for home.

And I really am glad to get the rest of the night off. I'm stressed out and completely exhausted, and I know I need a few extra hours of sleep. Seems like I'm sound asleep as soon as I hit the pillow -- but it's still not a very restful night. It turns out that getting bit by a vampire is the kind of thing that'll give you weird and unpleasant dreams all night.

I wake up feeling pretty rotten and briefly consider having my dad call me in sick. But the prospect of spending the day cooped up sounds worse than going to class. So I get up, check my bandages -- all healed up, just like Cobra said -- choke down a bowl of corn flakes, and head for school.

So here's how the day goes.

Pre-class: Cool stuff: I get to play a fast game of Magic with Bud Mooney and Toby Whitney. I win, and that's pretty good.

Pre-class: Uncool stuff: Bud and Toby both say I look like crap, and they're both pissed that I won so fast. Jared Shaffer and Alex Riley come over to kick our decks over, and I'm really not in the mood to deal with them. I have the ghosts trip both of them, and pretty much everyone laughs. Okay, that part's pretty cool.

First period: Cool stuff: I still don't feel totally 100 percent up to speed, but I think I'm getting better. Being awake longer helps. But I'm not in the mood for any chit-chat, so I tell Percy Morse to leave me alone. Everyone's still doing historical presentations, and I don't pay attention to any of them.

First period: Uncool stuff: For once, nothing particularly bad.

Second Period: Cool Stuff: Math class! Always awesome. I'm feeling tons better, but Mrs. Ferguson says I still look sick. Who cares, I love math class!

Second Period: Uncool Stuff: Nothing uncool. It's math class!

Third Period: Cool Stuff: Autumn Bradshaw is just on fire. Tight jeans. Amazing eyes. I wanna fuck her so damn bad. Could not. Stop. Staring.

Third Period: Uncool Stuff: Nothing uncool today. Autumn Bradshaw never notices me, right? Well, she notices me staring today. Feels like a victory all by itself.

A-Lunch: Seems like all the interesting stuff happens at lunch. And it's nothing but cool today.

So I'm in line with Quinton McDonald and Bud Mooney, and the goth kids actually show up to take cuts in front of us again.

"Jeez, not again," groans Quinton. "I hate sliding even further down the sliding scale of popularity."

"Hey, Skarf, Abe, Helen," I say. "Not today. Hit the back of the line."

"Shut up, nerds," says Skarf.

"Back of the line!" I snarl. This is not a day I really feel like getting screwed with.

And damn if all three of 'em don't back up, look at me like I actually put a scare in 'em, and go slinking away.

"Good grief, Cecil," says someone behind me. "Did you eat your Wheaties this morning?"

It's Lena Gomez again. She's actually looking kinda smokin' today. Got her hair in a ponytail. Shirt's just a little bit too tight. Kinda wanna fuck her, too, I think.

"Heeeey, Lena, what's up?"

She steps back and looks at me like I just said something really weird.

"What," she says, "was that?"

"Just saying what's up," I say. "You wanna do anything sometime?"

"Stop looking at my chest," she says. "And do not talk to me like that again, or I will break your face off."

"Oops, sorry," I say. That was totally awkward. I grab my tray and head for the table where Quinton and Bud are already sitting. I upnod Autumn Bradshaw as I pass her table.

"Dude, what is wrong with you?" Quinton asks as I sit down. "Did you just upnod Autumn Bradshaw while Robert Marquis was sitting right next to her?"

"No kidding, Cecil!" says Bud. "I know you were feeling sick, but I didn't realize you had a death wish."

"You guys are such whining little shitheads," I say. "No wonder everyone treats us like shit."

"The only thing I'm whining about is your apparent desire to commit suicide by letting Robert Marquis beat you to death," says Bud.

"Give me a break," I say. "You guys have no goddamn balls."

"Are you just going to be a total dickhead today?" says Quinton. "Because I can get that from anyone in this stupid school."

"Yeah, man," says Bud. "We're just trying to -- Oh, fuck, Cecil. Run. Run right now. Just run."

Really don't feel like running. Really kinda feel like having the ghosts take care of things.

So an empty chair just somehow slides out from under one of the tables behind us. And the back of the chair just perfectly nails Robert Marquis in the crotch. Nicely done, fellas.

While Robert is bent over the chair gasping and the rest of the cafeteria is enjoying the epic lolz, Quinton grabs my arm and says, "Seriously, make yourself scarce. Maybe he'll be too distracted to follow."

"Get your hands off me, dumbass," I snarl.

"You're going to get us all killed," says Bud. "I don't wanna get beat up just because you've lost your stupid mind."

"I don't fucking care. I'm sick of you guys already. You can both go to hell."

I'm not even hungry anymore. I get up, leave those stupid, whining nerds behind, and go hit the restroom to get washed up before class.

I'm not in there even a minute before Robert, Jared Shaffer, Moses Figueroa, and Barn Broadside walk in there with me.

"You running away again, Sissy Cecil?" Robert says.

"Bust his face, Robert," laughs Jared. "Bust his face good."

"I wanna see him cry," says Barn. "You gonna cry for us, Sissy Cecil?"

"I hear all you guys got really tiny dicks," I say, drying my hands off. "Like three inches, maybe less."

"What?" says Moses, genuinely surprised.

"Dude, you just shut up!" says Barn.

"I'll consider that unofficial confirmation from Barn," I say.

"What?" says Barn. "What did he say?"

"Oh my god," says Jared. "You're gonna completely die."

"Your girlfriend's pretty damn hot, Robert," I say. "Like really amazingly hot."

"Shut up about Autumn," Robert says. "I'm tired of you looking at her. I don't want some skinny Mexican geek even looking at my woman."

"I'm going to make Autumn all mine. A girl like that has needs some tiny-dicked jock can't handle."

"What the hell is going on here?" says Moses.

"You shut up about my Autumn," says Robert, quietly. A little too quietly.

"I'm not gonna shut up about her, Rob," I say. "I'm going to fuck your Autumn's stupid little brains out."

He swings his fist. And I catch it like I wasn't even trying.

Oh, don't act surprised. I deal with actual supervillains once or twice a week. I've fought the Nowhere Men, the Quadrangle, the Warlords, Hell's Cabaret, Cacophony, Devil Wasp, Janus, Big Earl, Splatter, Shakti, and Diamondback. The Chrome Cobra makes me practice fighting all the time. You think I really have to rely on my ghosts to deal with these amateurs?

So Robert swings his fist and gets surprised to find that he can't get it past the palm of my hand. He jerks his hand back, swings it again, and I catch his wrist. Hold him tight so he can't get away.

"What the fuck," he says. "Let me go."

I twist his wrist, and he drops to one knee. It's kinda funny. He can't even believe it just happened. His friends are just sitting there watching like they're waiting for him to turn it around on me.

Instead, I grab his pinkie and bend it backwards 'til we all hear it crack. Robert hitches in a big deep breath and then just manages a long, high gasping noise. Can't even scream.

So nice.

Jared and Moses charge at me. Moses always bothered me the least, so I just kick him in the balls and sling him through one of the stall doors. Jared, however, keeps kicking over my Magic cards. I blow out his knee, crack a rib, break two of his teeth, I fracture his wrist just to listen to him cry. It's hilarious.

And Barn Broadside finally gets off his ass and comes lumbering at me. Big, dumb, stupid, broadside-of-a-barn -- and so very slow.

I hit him with a haymaker across the right side of his face, and he actually gets spun around, like in a cartoon. And there was a mirror right behind him, so I get to enjoy his expression. Like a poleaxed steer. Okay, what I guess a poleaxed steer would look like. Surprised almost as much as hurt. A little crosseyed, but that might be his natural expression.

I hope he's watching me, too, 'cause I actually want him to see this coming. I sock him on the left side of his head, just over his ear, and he squeaks, grabs his ear, and whirls around to face me again. Then I punch the hand he's got over his ear and hear a couple of the small bones in his hand break.

Big fat Barn is big fat scared.

And he's also big fat stupid, 'cause he still comes at me. He's going to try his only real strategy in a fight -- fall on top of his opponent and hold them there 'til someone else can come help. So I grab him by the throat, and I grab him by the crotch.

He squeaks again, like the world's fattest hamster.

I pick him up, right over my head, and he keens like, I dunno, a banshee? It's high-pitched and screamy, that's all I know. I throw him. He hits the paper towel dispenser with a really loud BWANG, and he and the dispenser hit the floor. He gets to his feet -- faster than he's ever moved on the football field -- and runs out the door sobbing.

Okay. That was definitely new. New and good.

Jared is sobbing in the corner, Moses is whispering desperate Hail Marys in the toilet stall, and Robert's cringing underneath one of the sinks. I grab Robert by his leg, pull him out into the open, and pick him up by his collarbone.

"I should kill you, right here and right now," I tell him. "I should paint this whole room red with your insides. It'd be so much fun. More fun than almost anything I can imagine, other than fucking your girlfriend. I should do it right now, just for the sake of all the joy it'd bring me. But I'm going to let you run out of here instead. I'm gonna let you live for another few days or weeks or whatever. 'Cause I kinda like you scared, Robert. I think I'll have almost as much fun with you scared as I would with anything else in the world."

I drop him, and he scrambles out the door.

"Shut up with that praying, Moses," I say. "It's really starting to get on my nerves."

I start for the door. Pause in front of the mirror, fix my hair, give myself a smile.

Sharp white teeth.

I'm done with school for the day.

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