Anino

Fil-Am. Plucky Accountant. Cat Dad. TTRPG Nomad. (He/him)

Hey there, thanks for visiting my page. I am a variety streamer who appears on a number of different weekly shows on Twitch.Tv. Whether it's console, PC,or tabletop gaming, my mission remains unchanged: to encourage everyone to be their most thoughtful selves. My hope is that by doing so, we build diverse, and inclusive communities. You can support my efforts by following me on Twitter @AninoGaming, tuning into my streams, or by making a donation through my Ko-Fi Page.

On this landing page, you'll find highlights of streams from over the past several years as well as flash fiction I wrote to enhance ongoing TTRPG campaigns. If you enjoy my work and are interested in adding another player to your diverse TTRPG streams or podcasts, please feel free to reach out to me via email or Twitter DMs.

Schedule

Date/Time (ET)Show
Thu. 8:30 PMSentinels of the Multiverse
Fri. 8:30 PMCyberpunk Red
Sat. 1:00 PMScion

Video Highlights

Ximenez

Moving On

(takes place prior to Cyberpunk Red S2E9)

-- Last Year --

“You really screwed the pooch this time,” Jaime panted as he sprinted down the alleys. His sister Pyrria was just one step behind. Angry shouting in Korean echoed through the streets, no doubt their pursuers were getting frustrated with all the pedestrian traffic that slowed them down. “Bringing you into the family business might’ve been a mistake.”

“We got the money didn’t we?” she retorted, giving the rucksack a bit of a shake. “And we’re in the clear, they won’t find us here.”

With a hop, a skip, then a mighty leap, Pyrria managed to reach the bottom rung of the fire escape, then swung her bag over her shoulder before deftly climbing the ladder. She was always athletic, but working out with her boyfriend Carl over the past fifteen months added some muscle and tone to her frame, adding even more allure when it shifted her from girl-next-door to femme fatale. Her brother trended along the bad boy side of things, though he grew into it much earlier in life.

“Put your gun away,” Pyrria hissed when Jaime clambored onto the landing. “I promised to keep the shady shit away from his place.”

“How’s that working out?” Jaime smirked, tucking the pistol in the small of his back.

“Not well, clearly. But he loves me and always bails me out of trouble. They won’t think to find us here.”

Pyrria glanced around and quietly slid the window up, then crawled in. She frowned a bit as there was usually a light on somewhere in her boyfriend’s place. Pyrria used her Agent to give her some working light and went to turn on a table lamp as her brother clattered in behind her.

Pyrria’s breath hitched when the lamp illuminated the room. Jaime looked up as his eyes adjusted to the light. The apartment was small, but clean. The furniture was second hand but presentable and the walls were bare. Looking at the nearest wall Jaime saw dabs of fresh paint blended into spots where picture hooks once embedded.

“What’s wr…” Jaime asked in confusion. He paused when he saw a box on the coffee table with various odds and ends packed in a neat, organized fashion. He recognized one item on top, one of Pyrria’s favorite hoodies.

Pyrria stood there, reading a letter with her hand clasped over her mouth.

“I have to go.”

She crumpled the letter and tucked it into her pocket then fetched her agent to call a ride and left through the apartment’s door.

-----

“Man, I’m glad you decided to go with me. I tell you, hopping to a new territory by yourself isn’t easy,” Scott Colton grinned excitedly as he and his friend walked to the terminal. He was a big bear of a man, barrel-chested with wide shoulders and stood about six inches taller than his companion.

“I bet,” Carl replied. Though not as giant as Scott, Carl’s athletic frame was apparent even in his loose-fit clothes and he walked with a smooth, confident gait. He kept his gaze straight ahead, occasionally glancing around at all the other travelers milling about. He and Scotty were dressed shabbily compared to everyone else. They scrounged every last nubuck they could to buy airline tickets at the last minute.

“You’re not having second thoughts now are you? You’re making the right decision for yourself,” Colt saw the whitening on his friend’s knuckles when Carl gripped the shoulder strap of his bag real tight. They arrived just in time as the gate agents had announced they were boarding.

Scott was met with silence until their tickets to Austin were punched.

“No. I’ve been lucky ‘til now, but things would just get worse for me. I don’t want to be another wrestling cautionary tale, getting into trouble. I’d just continue to enable her if I stay.”

Scott chuckled. “You see, that’s the kind of attitude that’ll lead to big things! Well, once you learn how to play backstage politics better.”

Carl wrinkled his nose and began to reply but heard his name called out loudly. Glancing back, he saw Pyrria sprinting towards the gate.

“Carl, baby wait!” Pyrria cried out. She came to a halt when she made eye-contact and saw that it really was the end. Confused tears spilled when Carl gave her a melancholy wave and smile before heading through the gate.

-- Today --

“This is different,” Ximenez muttered to himself, idly twirling linguine with his fork.

“What’s different?” Dr. Frost asked with that typically deep intonation. He leaned in just enough to ensure the table couldn’t hear their side conversation. There wasn’t much risk of that; Nona was miming holding a bowling ball while wiggling her fingers as Rynn, R3no and Trinz shrieked in laughter.

Ximenez hid a faint smile behind a sip of water and gave Trinz a brief glance before replying.

“Nothing.”

Season 3 Prelude


“Thanks for coming on short notice. Side F/X is super hot right now, but we’re short-handed thanks to roster injuries. We need to split the team up because Fiona is needed to help fill out the higher end of the card,” Russo explained briskly. The last thing he wanted was to cause any backstage drama, but Fiona threw down an ultimatum. She wanted to go back to singles competition.

Russo was met with stony silence, and began to twiddle his thumbs nervously.. He feared making eye contact with Ximenez and revealing the real truth. Fiona refused to look in Ximenez’s eyes too, for that matter.

“What am I going to do then?” Ximenez finally asked, his mind whirling with possibilities at a thousand thoughts a minute. This was bad. He was just getting started and already the rug was being pulled out from under him, just like the time Fiona signed with NCW originally. Ximenez had matured since then, and he would not get caught off-guard again.

“Well, we’ll keep you, obviously. You’re still under contract and you’re a great worker,” Russo replied, looking a little relieved that things had not escalated. Fiona’s lips creased when Russo complimented Ximenez but she remained silent, looking away from them both with her arms folded across her chest. That spoke volumes to Ximenez. He knew the injured roster was a convenient excuse. They could easily pull up some folks from Club Underground who were ready for the limelight.

“We don’t have anything right now for you so we’ll just fake you having an injury and try to repackage…”

“No.”

Fiona clawed the arms of her chair and began to rise to her feet but Russo held his hand up to stop her.

“If we’re going to break this team up, we’re going to do it right. Put us in a tag title match at Five Star Melee. We’ll put Punch and Judy over,” Ximenez continued. Fiona eyed him critically but his expression was unreadable. “It’ll give them a big boost.”

Russo followed that idea through its course.“Yeah. Yeah! Ok. That works. No sense letting your work go to waste right? We fake your injury in that match and Fiona will be free to get slotted into the Continental Champion pic...no?”

Ximenez shook his head again.

“Fiona and I should work a short feud,” Ximenez settled back into his chair and stared coolly back at Fiona. He could feel her seethe at the idea and begin to speak up, but she stopped when she saw Ximenez’s expression practically daring her to come up with a better idea.

Sorry, Fee. But I’m not getting left behind again. If I’m going down I’m doing it on my terms, Ximenez thought.

“Now there’s a thought,” Russo replied as he texted Punch and Judy to visit him asap. “What else you got, Ximenez?”

Ximenez told him.

-----

“Hey! What the hell are you doing?” Fiona yelled as Ximenez packed his gym bag. She slapped the Found Familiar tumbler out of his hand and leveled an accusatory finger at him.

Ximenez sighed and straightened up to address Fiona, ignoring the pointing finger. The rest of the folks in the locker room watched in shock at the angry outburst. “What are you talking about?”

“Your booking! I don’t want any of this and now I can’t get Russo to change his mind.”

Ximenez eye-rolled. “You can wait an extra month before your Continental Title run. What’s the rush? You don’t want to team up anymore, that’s fine. But that’s not any reason to throw everyone else in the tag team division under the bus. They worked extra hard to make us look great and help revitalize the division."

“I don’t care about that,” Fiona sneered, causing on-lookers to scowl. Realizing what she just said, she decided this was not the time or place. She turned around and stormed out of the room, yelling over her shoulder. “I should’ve never brought you in.”

Aha. There it is, Ximenez thought. A flicker of disappointment crossed his features before his expression turned blank again and he returned to packing up for the day. Another awkward moment passed before Ximenez heard someone clear their throat.

“Hey CB,” Judy said with an easy smile as she handed him his Found Familiar tumbler. Punch wasn’t too far behind. They were a beefy pair, standing a few inches taller than Ximenez and well muscled.

“Don’t listen to her. You’ve been an awesome addition to the locker room, and we’ll back you up,” Punch said, clapping a mitt-sized hand on Ximenez’s shoulder. “You’ll bounce back from this and get your chance sooner or later.”

Ximenez just nodded and slung his bag over his other shoulder.

“Sooner than you think,” he finally answered before stepping out of the locker room too.


“How would you book it?”

Carlton frowned a bit as his surfboard rocked with the waves. It was a perfect day for the beach; then again the west coast always had good weather for surfing. It was quiet out here but on the shore was a small but raucous crowd hovering around a wrestling ring. Carlton couldn’t make out who the wrestlers were, but he didn’t care. Carlton hated answering this question, so he feigned ignorance. “Book what?”

“You. How would you book Ximenez? How would you pave his way to the Grand Prix world title?”

Carlton laughed.

“C’mon. Thought exercise. How would you do it from obscurity to best in the world?”

Carlton shifted uneasily on the board and let the next wave go.

“He'd start in an indie darling promotion like...I dunno. Club Underground. Cut a scorching promo that blurs the line between kayfabe and reality. Folks connect with that realness and see that his struggle is just like theirs. They buy-in on what he's selling. Then he maybe gets called up to the main roster at NCW, build up even more momentum there.”

“How would you do that?”

“Tell a story. A real, personal story and play it out in a feud. If it connects with the fans, they won’t accept anything less than seeing Ximenez in the main event challenging for the world title.”

“That’s still not Grand Prix.”

“No. But imagine if Grand Prix’s Battle Kingdom Royale is hosted in Night City. And that smart crowd of twent thousand can just feel something special is going to happen. They've been waiting for it for so long. The clock is counting down. 3, 2,1...bzzzt. The titantron flashes and Ximenez comes out. The crowd sees their guy putting on the best and most dramatic Royale match in decades. They're too jaded to believe that Ximenez could win. But what if he did? That would mean two months later he’s in the main event at GPW’s Show of Shows. Champion vs. champion. Night City vs. the Corporation.”

His fellow surfer chuckled. “Now that’s big.”

“You asked,” Carlton replied defensively.

“Because how’re you going to make it happen if you can’t even see it?” Sting replied. It wasn't Crow Sting though. It was Surfer Sting, facepaint and all, straight out of 1989. Carlton did a doubletake when he saw the Icon right there in the ocean with him.

“Uh...what are you doing here?” Carlton looked around again, but Sting was getting ready to catch the next wave and Carlton quickly followed suit. That ended up being their last round of the day.

“You know, there’s one thing standing in your way,” Sting commented idly.

“Yeah yeah. GPW would never let their championship title be disrespected like that.”

“No, someone else.”

“Who?” Carlton asked just before he turned to face Sting, only to discover he disappeared in a flutter of crows.

And when Carlton turned back to continue to the surf shack, a massive boot connected with his chin. Onlookers winced and oooo’d with sympathy as Carlton hit the floor with a thud. Before he could recollect himself, Carlton felt claws sink into his scalp and drag him back up to his feet.

“Me,” whispered Fiona. “You want this feud, you got it. I'll kill your push personally.”

And at that, Fiona drove Carlton through the surf shop’s front window.

“Ximenez tried to dive through the window to escape! What an act of cowardism!” an onlooker proclaimed, pointing accusingly at Ximenez slumped over a window pane. Shattered glass littered inside the surf shack. After several minutes, Ximenez lifted himself off the window pane and slumped onto the ground, sitting back against the base of the shack. Blood streamed down from a dozen cuts and as his vision tinted red, Ximenez was startled out of his daze when Blanco blared over the garden speakers.

-----

Ximenez sat up in his armchair, woken by the loud music filling his apartment space. His eyes focused on the source, a certain diminutive neighbor holding her agent just a few inches away from his face, swaying her hips to the music.

“Christ, Trinz! You couldn’t have come up with a more pleasant way to wake me up?” He glanced over at the clock. Just a little past eight.

“It’s so much less dangerous to wake you up this way. I have a brother you know,” Trinz replied, lowering the volume to a less jarring level. Ximenez sighed a bit, head tilted backwards to rest on the edge of the armchair. When he shook off enough grogginess, he reached a hand out to Trinz.

“A kiss and a gentle nudge would’ve worked,” Ximenez muttered. He cracked a gentle smile though when Trinz took his hand. He pulled her onto his lap and nestled in cozily. They were silent for a minute before Trinz broke it.

“You missed our usual dinner. Were you busy with something?” she asked, glancing at the TV screen, which was just static now.

“Just...had a bad work day,” Ximenez replied, resting his chin on top of her luminescent hair. His stomach growled loud enough for them both to hear.

“Merc is out for the night. Want to come over and have some of Mrs. B’s casserole?”

Ximenez looked up at Trinz and smiled wordlessly before his lips met hers for a brief kiss. He then pulled back with a tranquil face.

“What?” Trinz asked, slightly confused.

“Nothing. Just glad we have this. Casserole sounds great.”

Give & Take

(takes place after Cyberpunk Red S3E2)


"Hey buddy," came a deep voice through his agent.

Carlton had been stretched out on the couch and staring at the ceiling before Russo called. "Agent, please project the video call on the external display."

A screen slid along a track system installed on the ceiling, and came to a stop at a reasonable distance from Carlton's face without forcing him to get up. He felt a bit foolish, having teased Trinz about not needing something like this but that was before getting powerbombed through a car windshield.

"Just wanted to check in and see how you're doing. You took a nasty bump," Russo said, peering closely at the screen on his own end.

"I'm resting. Comfortably and quietly until you called," Carlton replied dryly. "Thanks for getting that medical team to me so quickly by the way."

"Hey, Hayes said that the car was gimmicked and you'd be ok. Sorry. She's been fined for it and I'll make sure that the rest of the feud goes smoothly. But..."

Carlton's eyes narrowed. "But what?"

"Fiona's made a couple of requests for the feud."

"Of course she did. Fine, what does she want?"

"You gotta change your entrance music and ring gear."

"What? Why?! Ooow..." Carlton sat up quickly and paid the price for it when his bruised muscles spasmed from pain.

"Well, she was covering the licensing of the song and said she wasn't going to continue paying the royalties. And NCW doesn't want to pay it. Also, your attire vibes too well with hers. She said that you need to change it up so it's clear you and she aren't a team."

Carlton closed his eyes for a moment, but decided to choose his battles. "Fine."

Russo blinked. "Wow, really? No push back on that?"

"I'm playing the long game. But I get to go over on the live show before our match at the next NCG event, Retribution. It only makes sense because I'm putting her over. I expect her to cooperate with my match-calling. I can turn this into a Match of the Year contender."

Russo looked back skeptically. "It takes two for that. Do you think you can get her to not just phone it in?"

"She'll realize soon enough that she can't do that if she's going to thrive as a heel. I'm going to go. I won't be at the next couple of shows, so I can sell the injury. I will book a few matches in Club Underground to test a few things. Is that cool?"

"Yeah, sure. Just make sure you don't go too crazy." Russo hung up.

"Have a good one too jerk," Carlton muttered before pulling up the usual social media outlets. He snapped a quick selfie of his bandaged chest and typed a call out.

Sore but recovering. This isn't the end; it's just the beginning and new starts need new music! Who out there has a song for me to use as entrance music? Bonus points for violins and straying for the metal/punk norms. #PickMineX

After clicking to send his request out into the universe, he stood up and stretched gingerly. Almost lunch time, he thought. I should check on Trinz and Jefe's car. Not wanting to head down there empty-handed, he made a few grilled cheese sandwiches and plucked a six pack of Jolt from the fridge before heading down to the garage.

Main Eventer

(takes place prior Cyberpunk Red S3E4)


Ximenez’s gear for the Justice Mime wasn’t all that flashy. Justice Mime’s modus operandi was stealth. Soft black shoes, gloves, black fatigues, combat belt, bulletproof vest and the stereotypical mime features: white facepaint, tear drops, a beret, and a striped black & white shirt...it was a reasonable disguise. Still, it was a look that had much more character than his current ring persona’s attire.

Carlton looked in the full length mirror, wholly unimpressed with himself. A wrestling t-shirt, torn, acid-washed jeans, and high-tops was the signature look of a slacker who put the bare amount of effort into his craft. While that brought him to the upper echelons of the wrestling world and built a fanbase, Carlton had to face facts. To get to his eventual goal...main eventing at Grand Prix Wrestling’s Show of Shows, Ximenez needs to look and act like he belongs at the very top.

He still had a few hours before the showdown, so Carlton pulled out an old fashioned steamer trunk from the closet and flipped it open. Inside was a trip down memory lane. Ring gear from his time at the wrestling school and various promotions back east before he settled on Lazy Ximenez. But underneath all of that, were neatly folded garment bags, which he pulled out carefully and laid out on the bed.

From the bags he gingerly unfurled ring gear he thought he’d never end up wearing. Quite simply, Carlton never felt like he could do enough justice to them because the attire was best left for larger than life characters. Carlton never felt like his wrestling and performances could measure up to that.

It’s now or never though.

There was no denim here. The long coats and ring pants were made of lycra, lamé and brocade fabrics that glittered even in the low light. In a word, the outfits were chaotic. Multiple patterns were cleverly laid out to blend with others and somehow worked together thanks to color theory. There were three matching sets overall with distinct themes, but one thing that remained constant was his logo: the torch with the Filipino flag’s sun at its flame. Carlton had a few little things he wanted to add to the attire, but finding a skilled enough craftsperson would have to wait. He tried on the clothes and was surprised to discover that they were a bit large on his frame.

Likely because I haven’t been eating as well the past few years and I’ve lost a bit of muscle, Carlton thought.

Standing at the mirror again, Carlton closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, then looked at his reflection again. And for a flicker of a moment, he saw a Main Eventer staring back at him.

Then it was gone, for now at least. Perhaps the right entrance music would help, but he hadn’t had enough time to see what social media would come up with for him. And even then, the real test would come in Club Underground. If those fans buy in, others would follow.

One Week Only (part 1)

(takes place around Cyberpunk Red S3E6)


If Jim Ross were still alive, he’d call the man in the ring a blue chipper. And certainly, Paradox was your classic American pro wrestler: 6’3, chiseled from granite, and blond rocker hair, Paradox was a rising star in Club Underground. To top it all, he played into a heel pretty well, with a grating arrogance that he backed up with strong technical wrestling. People hated to see him win and Paradox just reveled in it.

“I told you all,” Paradox gloated and strutted around the ring, a purple silk scarf draping off his bare shoulders. He was dressed in matching short trunks and tall boots. The crowd jeered and it just fueled Paradox more. “I told you all that I will not be denied! Frazier, AR Fox, Kinshasa, Ruckus, Younger, Super Shisa...None of them could match up with me. Without a doubt, I am the hottest wrestler in the business! You should all feel privileged to see me here because before you know it I’ll be up at Night City Wrestling, challenging Roman Black for the NCW Title!”

The jeers intensified, and Paradox just smirked. “And my opponents should be honored to face a super athlete like me! In fact, I’m in a generous mood so tonight, I’m announcing the Paradox Open Challenge! That’s right, anyone out there in the back can come right down to the ring and have a dream match with the one and only...Paradox!”

Paradox tossed the microphone aside and paced around the ring, staring down the entrance. Just then, the lights cut out and a violin solo played over the speakers. Stage lights slowly dawned as the solo came to an end. After just a silent second, a full string orchestra came alive with flair as lights down the entrance ramp lit up.

The crowd began to murmur in excitement, clearly getting pumped as the music continued to build and the silhouette breezed onto the stage. As the challenger stepped forward into the light, a name slid letter by letter across the virtual screen behind him…

Ximenez.

-----

“Trinz? Are you around here?” Mrs. B called out as she shuffled into the garage.

Trinz slid out from under Jynx’s car and smiled brightly at her visitor. “Hi Mrs. B! What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to check in on one of Carlton’s shows. He said he was going to be on tonight.”

Trinz looked puzzled, but picked up a remote and led Mrs. B to the makeshift lounge section of the space by the television. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it and the only wrestling show live tonight is Club Underground.”
Trinz clicked a few buttons on the remote and the television blared with the sound of violins. Lights flashed dramatically and sure enough, her boyfriend swaggered his way onto the stage, wearing an outfit that glittered in the lights and would fit right at home with Trinz’s hair.

“I mentioned to Carlton in passing that I knew my way around a sewing machine and he asked if I could make some alterations to his new clothes. I wanted to see how it works out.”

Trinz looked closer and saw that Ximenez had a few extra patches that blended into the chaotic patterns on the lower legs. The right leg had a big wrench on it. The left side had a medical cross, a motorcycle shape, and a rifle. One other thing that was notably different was Ximenez’s bare chest. He usually wrestled in t-shirt and sometimes even a jacket but now his physique was on display.

Gone was the lazy stroll to the ring. Ximenez brought a cool but vibrant energy with him that just fed right into the crowd’s anticipation. The old Ximenez wasn’t trying. This one was poised to take over the world. Small pockets of people began to chant and soon their cries caught fire and the whole crowd began to alternate chants between “HO-LEE SHIT” and “THIS IS AWESOME.”

Mrs. B blinked. “Oh...uhm, does Carlton always get a reception like this?”

It took a moment for Trinz to answer. “Buh..uh. No?” Trinz had attended all of Ximenez’s shows except this one, but it was clear that this crowd was more pumped than even Ximenez’s debut at NCW. “I don’t like, really know too much about wrestling. Merc could probably tell you more but this looks like, real special.”

Trinz stared wide-eyed at the screen, mesmerized by her boyfriend’s outfit. Its presentation and aesthetic complemented Trinz’s own colorful tastes. Still, something did not sit right with her, aside from the fact that Carlton didn’t tell her about this show.

Her eyes flashed with a bit of excitement when she pinpointed it. The music did not quite match the look.

“The look...I can make it better. I can make it 11,” Trinz turned to Mrs. B. “Did Carlton have any other clothes he asked you to tailor?”

“Why yes. At least two more.”

“Will you let me work on them? Without telling Carlton?”

Mrs. B thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt...”


The new Ximenez debut was over; it was just a teaser where Ximenez ran in and delivered a comeuppance to Paradox to build up the real match at Club Underground’s next big show, Grave Consequences.

When Carlton finished packing up his gear, he found Jefe standing in gorilla position, watching the rest of the show. He nodded over to Carlton.

“That was great. Thanks for working with Paradox. He’ll get a good rub from a match with you. You sure about letting him go over by cheating? You’re using that finish with Fiona up in NCW…”

“Yeah. I’m building and banking on my feud after Fiona. You decided whether or not you’ll be Fiona’s manager? It’d be great to give you exposure and put more eyes on Club Underground.”

Jefe nodded. “Yeah, I think it’ll be great. I’ll work with her and keep her in -”

“Hey hey, X. Found you!” The crew and other wrestlers backstage did a double take when the NCW Tag Team Champions
Punch & Judy along with NCW's affable giant, Apollo Langston.

“Hey, we heard you were going to be here for the week. Can we talk?” Apollo asked. “You too, Jefe.”

“What’s up?” Ximenez asked, glancing at Jefe.

“Listen, We heard about what you did for Ice Dragon. That took balls. I thought you talked a big game but it’s pretty clear that you take care of your peeps, and you’ve earned our respect. We also heard about the raw deal you’re getting,” Judy explained.

Her partner Punch continued. “The locker room needs new leadership. We’re good, but if we’re being honest you’re ahead of us on the curve and on the cusp of something big. You don’t have a tag team partner anymore but how about a good ole fashioned stable? With you at the head, we’re betting we can become the next NWO or Evolution.”

Ximenez paused for a moment, eyeing the four. He had to admit, if he was going to build his own promotion, these would be the three he’d start with.

Jefe smacked Ximenez on the back. “This is gold, Carlton. You guys should do it.”

Ximenez nodded. “Alright. But we should debut at Grave Consequences. Jefe, how about instead of Paradox and me, we do a 4v4 tag match?”

“Shit, would you guys really be willing to wrestle down here?”

Apollo nodded. “Yeah. Yeah! We’ll get to build some serious cred with this crowd. We’ll tear the house down.”

“I’ll take it. What are you going to call yourselves?”

Punch picked up a marker and wrote it out on the white board, then circled it for emphasis.

neXus.


(takes place before Cyberpunk Red S3E7)

"I admit you got me real good X," fumed Paradox. The ring lights spotlighted him and his hand-chosen partners for the night. "But tonight's different; you see, this isn't your Club Underground anymore. It's ours. And just like Fiona, we here don't believe in you either. No one does apparently because if they did, you'd have people begging you for a chance to be in Art of War Games! Just bring your ass and whatever nobodies you scraped up from the Forlorn Hope down here so we can show you how it's done in Club Underground!"

The boos rained down on Paradox as he continued his promo, but the anticipation built for this new main event was white hot.

Stables were a dime in professional wrestling, born out of necessity to give folks with stale gimmicks something new. The most enduring stables though, catapult its members to superstardom. Evolution. Degeneration X. NWO. The New Day. The SHIELD. The Four Horsemen.

This foursome was hungry. Any one of them could be a company ace if given the chance. But here in Night City, they had to make an opportunity for themselves. Ximenez looked at Punch, Judy, and Apollo and gave a slight grin. "Let's enjoy the ride. We're probably never going to have as much fun as this."

After fistbumps were exchanged, the producer handed Apollo a microphone and ushered him and Punch and Judy out the curtains. The crowd exploded as the familiar sounds of falling coins and epic guitar riffs signaled the arrival of Punch and Judy. It kicked up another notch when the big man Apollo Langston backed them up and made their way down to the ring.

"WHAT'S UP CLUB UNDERGROUND?! Looks like we've got a couple of haters in the ring!" boomed Apollo. The crowd ate it up immediately, leaving Ximenez to wonder why no one gave him any mic time up on the main roster. "You punks think that everything has to happen right now, but greatness takes time. It starts with a strong core and right people and tonight, it's all come together. Look alive Undergrounders because you're the very first choombas invited to join a bonafide wrestling movement! Are you with us?!"

The Undergrounders roared with approval as Apollo joined Punch & Judy at the end of the ramp and grinned at the crowd. Ximenez's voice echoed soon after.

"Undergrounders, welcome to the neXus!"

Ximenez's music began, but this time, a new video package flashed on the titantron, searing their name into the minds of the audience with an instantly iconic graphic. They immediately began to chant "This is Awesome!"

Ximenez didn't waste any time. As soon as he stepped out of the curtains he shrugged off his entrance coat and sprinted at the ring. His team followed him in and the main event brawl was on.

-----

"C'mon White, put the agent away. Or at least use your chyron. It's X's match!" Trinz said, batting White's shoulder. She was disappointed that she didn't have a chance to activate the lighting on X's attire but it'd keep for the match with Fiona. They were in their usual ringside seats for this match as they were guests of Ximenez. Guests usually sat in the cheaper seats but would get rotated to the special ringside spots when their hosts were in the ring.

"Mm just a second," White replied, pressing a few buttons. He stepped over Trinz and headed out of the arena.

"I don't appreciate my personal time getting interrupted so this better be good Connie," White said curtly as he lit up a cigar.

"Sorry, I know your friend's working his ass off out there but I got a bleeding heart case that I think you might want to hear about," Connie replied, stepping out from the otherside of the pillars.

"Yeah? That doesn't sound like a big take. What's in it for me?" White puffed.

"Not you. But here's a question for you: What would your friend X be willing to do for a legitimate shot at an NCW World Title?"

White paused and texted Trinz that he would not be coming back and to take Ximenez home without him.

"Alright, I'm listening."

Connie clapped his hands together. "Good, I had a feeling you'd see the big picture. Let's go to a private room. There's a guy I want to introduce you to."

An Unconventional Push

(takes place before S3EP7 & GM Rob Mulligan's Cyberpunk Red Session 13)


Carl had that unnerving sensation of falling that jarred him out of his sleep. He glanced at the clock and sighed. He was barely home for three minutes when someone knocked on his door.

“X? You in?” a gruff voice called out, rasping with years of cigar smoking.

It’s White, Carl thought. “Yeah yeah, it’s unlocked come in.”

White accepted the invitation and saw Carlton sprawled out uncomfortably on the couch with an ice pack under his neck. “Bad day at work?”

“Haven’t been sleeping well. I need some massage therapy.”

“I know a gal.”

“I bet you do, but I don’t have time right now. What’s with the white noise generator?

White hefted it before planting it on the coffee table and activating it.

“I’ve got something that may be of interest lined up,” White commented, scribbling a name on a piece of paper and handing it to Carl. “A certain person of interest has been scouring for freelancers to help recover their kid brother. Seems that the kid brother was at the wrong place at the wrong time and abducted by traffickers.”

Carl paused. He recognized the name and sat upright real quick. “Is this legit?”

“As legit as you,” White replied as he lit up a cigar.

“This guy’s pretty well-to-do. I mean, our crew’s pretty good but we’re not pro’s pros. He should be able to afford a better team than us,” Ximenez said. He pulled a secured luggage cart and flipped it open to take out gear and make up for the venture.

“Apparently he burned all his favors and cash just to get a good lead on his brother’s whereabouts. He doesn’t have enough liquid cash to get the right people to handle the situation. And it’s gotta be tonight. He’s got something you would value more than cash though.”

“Where do I need to go?” Carlton asked without hesitation.

“The Badlands,” White responded as he pulled up a holographic map using his agent and pointed out an area a few hours outside of Night City. “A place called the Meat Market. Bandit camp, with a few underground bunkers.”

A flicker of doubt crossed Carl’s visage as he shrugged on a black and white striped shirt and the rest of his light armorjack.

“Our crew can handle this,” White noted when he saw a moment of worry.

“No doubt. But I don’t want to bring everyone in on this.” Carlton closed his eyes, then went to the makeshift vanity and began to put on the signature mime makeup. “The stake’s personal. I need to do this alone.”

White held his hands up. “I don’t like it. But you are an adult who can make his own decisions. At least let me arrange a ride for you.”

“Yeah ok,” Carl replied as he began to apply the black paints.

“I’ll tell them you’re taking on the job, take the burner though. It’s got the map and other relevant information you need.”

The burner agent arced through the air and Carl caught it without even looking. When he finished the makeup, he he used the burner to access the maps and memorize them.

Carl was so deep in concentration, he didn’t hear shuffling around the rest of the apartment behind him until it was too late.

“Huh. The Meat Market, I know where that is. Not exactly a vacay spot,” the unwelcomed guest said aloud as he crunched sloppily into an apple, well within Carl’s personal space.

Carl whirled around and a balisong knife snapped open with a flick of his wrist. Carl recognized the man and growled at the intrusion.

“Fucking hell, Merc! What are you doing in my apartment?”


“When you’ve got a hyperactive sister and a girlfriend who lives with an exotic menagerie, a man needs some space. You know, a quiet room.. So you headin’ to the Meat Market, yeah?”

“Don’t change the subject! How long have you been using my apartment?”

“Uh, well...ever since you started shacking up with my sister. I mean, I sleep like a bear but you two get it on, I get scarce real quick.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Carl sighed. Somehow, he managed not to smudge his “game face” when he buried it into his hands.

“Hey waitaminute, you didn’t bring Gina in here to…”

Mercutio looked around sheepishly. “Look sometimes I just want to bang Gina without an opossum audience you know?”

“No! I don’t know. Please tell me you at least washed the sheets after.”

Mercutio just coughed and Carl fell into his armchair with a grumpy flop. He was about to get comfortable but sudden realization made him pause and he eyed Merc suspiciously.

“Whoa whoa, we didn’t christen this place, chill. It was just a handful of times. Listen man, I’ll make it up to you. I know where the Meat Market is.”

“How?”

“Santino used to have us deliver custom vehicles there.”

“What?! Does Trinz know?”

“Probably not but that’s old history bro. Listen, you’re in a hurry so let me be your wheelman. I promise I won’t get in your way. You’re going to need someone who can get you and your client’s bro out in a jiffy.”

“You listened to the whole conversation and didn’t say anything? How does Trinz even put up with you?” Carl replied, chucking a throw pillow at Merc.

“Whatever man, I put up with her,” Merc batted it away easily. Carl tilted his head in skepticism, and Merc hastily admitted, “Ok fine, even I don’t believe that,” Merc admitted.

“I appreciate the offer Merc, but some folks might say that you can’t be that good of a wheelman if you got caught.”

“Ouch, bro. First off, I was caught for smuggling, not for drivin’. If I was on the road instead of the shop, I’d be like that Road Runner cartoon and leaving dust clouds in my wake,” Merc countered with his hand over his heart. Really, he did not look too offended. “Second, even Trinz would admit that I’m a way better driver than she is. She might even go as far as to say that I’m just as good at drivin’ cars as she is at souping them up. And she’s pretty fuckin’ good.”

“Alright, you can be my wheel man,” Carl said after taking a moment to decide. He pointed archly at Merc. “You better not let me down. And speaking of Trinz, I better tell her where we’re going.”

Carl smoothly rose to his feet and grabbed his gear bag before heading to the door, but Mercutio blocked his way.

“Whoa whoa, cowboy. Uh...cow mime. Mime boy?” Mercutio said, his hands raised up. “You oughta use this time to get your head in the game. You’re out of sorts already in light of shall we say, new truths that came to light. Hashing it out with Trinz to tell her she can’t come will make things worse. So tell you what, bro. You go down the fire escape and wait for me in the alley. I’ll pull up after I grab my keys and tell Trinz what we’re gonna do.”

Carl eyed Mercutio suspiciously.

“Look bro, I can call you my bro now right? You and my sis are real good together. An’ I appreciate how you look out for her. But I’ve known her for way longer. Trust me, wading your way all Batman-like into the Meat Market is gonna take all the skills you got, and then some. You gotta be Batman, bro. So shut down that chyron of yours and get into that Justice Mime Zone.”

Merc shooed Carl towards the fire escape.

Carl donned his armored beret and let Merc nudge him towards the fire escape.

Merc let out a sigh of relief when Carl was gone, then jogged down the stairs to the apartment he shared with Trinz. He found Trinz bopping along to some Shakira as she worked on stringing special LEDs through some fancy robe that probably belonged to Ximenez. She looked up from her work and sat back.

“Oh hey, Merc. You seen X? He should be done with his workout by now.”

“Oh yeah! Hey listen sis,” Merc started. “He’s been so cool with introducing me to some peeps over at NCW, I wanted to do something nice. You know, guy bonding stuff. I’m gonna take him to see the real Night City nightlife.”

“Well ok. That means I can take more time to finish this project,” Trinz replied happily. She stopped and pointed archly at Merc. “You better not get shot again. And my boyfriend better not get shot either. And you don’t tell him that I’m tinkering with his ring gear. I want it to be a surprise.”

Merc held his hands up innocently. “We’re good! I learned my lessons.”

“Sure you did. Fine. Go away for awhile.”

Mercutio turned and mimicked Trinz’s words as the door shut behind him.


Merc and Xim...er Justice Mime rode in silence for the first hour. Well, Justice Mime was silent. Merc drummed on the steering wheel to some music only he could hear. Normally, it wouldn’t bother Justice Mime, but it was rather offbeat and grated on the Mime’s quiet sensibilities, especially when between drum solos, Merc would ask Justice Mime questions.

“Say X, you ever play stickball as a kid? Those were fun times. Man I tell you we used to try to swipe brooms so we had good bats to play. Did they do that back East?” The drumming picked back up again and finally, the Mime lost it.

“Oh my fucking God Merc, if I answer your questions, will your stop the fucking drumming? It’s off-beat and bothersome.”

“Bro, now you’re too tense. I don’t know how you’ll be able to stealth your way around if you’re walking around with a stick up your ass,” Merc laughed, giving Mime’s shoulder a little backhanded slap.

“This is one of the worst ideas ever,” Mime muttered. “No wonder Trinz yells at you all the time.”

“Haha, gotta keep her on her toes, you know. So, I gotta ask how did you two hook up?”

The Mime shrugged. “It wasn’t overnight. You know the first time I met her was at one of the apartment get togethers about a week after I moved in. We didn’t talk much. Some douchebags came around, looking to condemn the building. R3no, White, and Trinz went out to confront them and one of them shot Trinz.”

“No way. She never told me that story.”

“Yeah. Next thing I know, I German Suplexed one of them and while I was mid-bridge, I see Trinz under the van they rolled in on, bleeding from her gunshot wound but giving me a thumbs up.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yeah. After that night, the five of us pretty much started hanging out. There were lots of little connections here and there,” Carl mused a bit, his Justice Mime persona fading a bit. “Partying for the first time at the Forlorn Hope, where she danced on top of the bar. Then at the Blue Dragon Restaurant, we got caught up in this nutty firefight and basically fought our way out from under a sushi bar.”

“Was that when you did that Rogue Panache Found Familiar Coffee vid?” Merc asked.

“That happened right after, yeah. Trinz boosted the car. After we took out IEC and bought the building we spent a lot of time together rehabbing the building and chatted a lot then. She told me about Santino. I told her about Fiona. So I guess we had that in common. When Santino came back, it rankled me a bit ‘cause for awhile it seemed like she was thinking of getting back together with her.”

Merc nodded as he guided the truck onto a faint trail and continued to speed through the desertscape. “She talked about you a lot while I was in jail. She sent me your matches and stuff.”

“Really?” Carl chuckled a bit and adjusted his beret. “I didn’t know that. I hate watching myself on video or reruns. When a bit’s done, I just forget it after and move on to the next thing. Trinz though has always been super supportive though.”

“Like attending all your shows?”

“Not just that,” Carl replied as he looked out the window. “She kept encouraging the Justice Mime thing. It was just an offhand thing I did for that IEC mission and I thought it’d be one and done thing. By the way, don’t think I forgot about the merch cut you owe me.

Then there was that time at Nonna’s café. She came to my defense fast when Nonna basically called me a bum. She’s usually one of the first people to like my social media posts. After I got powerbombed through that windshield? She was the first one there too. Sometimes at shows, I’ll glance out at her spot to see her reactions before I gauge the rest of the audience.”

Merc didn’t respond at first. The silence this time was more amiable. A few more moments later, the junktown’s lights could be spotted in the distance.

“You know, I hated that Santino was sniffin’ around Trinz. He paid well though so it’s not like I could just disappear him.”

“I get it man.”

“You do?” Merc asked, glancing over at Carl. “If I recall, you led a pretty straight life before you arrived in Night City.”

Carl shrugged. “Yeah. But I didn’t have anyone really. No responsibilities or ties, especially of the family kind. Trying to keep a family business running? Shit, Merc. The idea of failing and letting generations of my family down by being responsible for letting the shop go under? I’d never get any sleep with that kind of pressure. Can’t blame you or Trinz for doing everything you could to keep things going.”

“Sometimes though, when I’m alone with my thoughts at night? I wonder what it’d be like to have real close ties like that,” Carl added quietly.

The truck drew closer to the Meat Market’s gate.

“Hey, Justice Mime. You better hide. We’re coming up to the entrance. I’m going to slow down. You use the drop panel to exit under the truck. There’s a good amount of ground clearance. Just hang tight all super-spy like and I’ll park in the camp near a good spot for you to detach from the truck undetected. You get all…”

Merc looked around the cabin for Justice Mime, but only heard the subtle click of the drop panel securing back into place.

“This must be how Commissioner Gordon feels like.”


(takes place after GM Rob Mulligan's Cyberpunk Red Session 13)

It was nearly dawn when Merc’s truck got back to Night City. The reporter Design was the first one in the rescue carpool to get dropped off. Justice Mime held polite conversation with her throughout the ride from the Meat Market, but the last thing he wanted was his business splattered all over News54. Justice Mime made it pretty clear to Design that any involvement by Ximenez, Merc, or his clients were best forgotten. The Justice Mime graffiti splattered across the remains of the Meat Market’s outer barricade was a clear message enough. Still, it didn’t hurt to have a new ally.

“Does my brother know you’re the one who was hired to rescue me?” Steven Borden asked. He was an eleven year old kid who happened to be the current NCW champion’s sibling.

Justice Mime shook his head as he washed the mime paint off. “No, he hired a fixer to handle the job and the fixer sub-contracted me to do it. You’re pretty sharp, kid. Almost no one recognizes me through my facepaint.”

“Roman says that growing up in a three generation wrestling family makes you cynical.”

“Ha! Guess I’m not there yet. Are you going to get into the wrestling business too?”

Steven scrunched his nose. “Nah. My brother’s only a few years older than you but he’s hurting after all these years in the business. I think he wants to retire.”

Ximenez nodded as Merc pulled up to the Borden home. The neighborhood wasn’t corpo luxury, but it was clean, quiet and very private for Night City. Ximenez and Steven hopped out of the car and jogged up the stairs to the apartment building and ducked into an elevator to the top floor. Fortunately, Steven recovered his bag from the Meat Market storage and could get them past the security and into the penthouse he shared with Roman.

Ximenez low-whistled as he looked around at the furnishings. He hadn’t seen digs like this anywhere in Night City; it kind of reminded him of growing up back home. You know, when people actually had stuff.

A heavily tattooed mountain of a man sat in the living room, slumped in a BarcaLounger. The room itself was remarkably free of any wrestling trappings, apart from four different championship belts from three promotions hanging on the wall. All world titles. Roman Black was definitely a blue-chipper who had just the right look for what folks would imagine the Night City Wrestling champion would look like: Certified Bad Ass.

It was also clear though that Roman was not having the best of things as of late. Food cartons and alcohol bottles were strewn about the tables and floors. He was passed out, only wearing a pair of boxers and socks.

“How long were you gone?” Ximenez whispered to Steven.

“About two weeks? I think,” Steven replied quietly before shaking his brother. “Roman, wake up. Roman!”

Roman’s eyes fluttered open, but it took a few blinks to register who he was looking at.

“Holy fuck, you’re home!” Roman reached over and snatched Steven in a bearhug, which Steven returned gratefully. “I never thought I’d see you again!”

They continued to exchange words quietly among themselves. Not wanting to interrupt a family moment, Ximenez wandered silently over to the wall with the belts, glancing over them wistfully. He rarely held or touched a championship belt. The few times he did hold one, he felt hollow.

“Ahem,” Roman coughed.

Ximenez tilted his down and turned it slightly to acknowledge Roman.

“So you’re responsible for breaking Stevie out of the Meat Market, huh?” Roman said, appraising Ximenez with bloodshot eyes. “If you want to pick one up, feel free.”

Ximenez tore his eyes away from them after one last glance. “In my hands, it’s just a belt. In yours, it’s a Title.”

Roman chuckled. “I suppose you’re right. When I reached out for help from someone, hell anyone, the only person to answer it was that cat, White. He told me he didn’t want cash. But he expected a favor to be paid down the line, trusting me to be a man of honor. And true to his word, he delivered. I never would have guessed it’d be you. Most of the folks in our line of work only act tough and talk a big game, but you live the gimmick. 'Fucking. Legit.' And you’re the fucking Justice Mime to boot? Shit.”

Ximenez shrugged. He always felt he was only as good as his last match. “I’d appreciate discretion; it seems a bit odd, but I prefer to keep a low profile.”

“I get it man, I get it. On your own terms. Listen, I won’t forget what you did for me and my brother. I'd hand you a briefcase of cash if I had it, but I'm tapped. Though, perhaps that's alright. You don’t seem motivated by money,” Roman said.

“It’s not the most important thing to me, no.”

“It was for me for awhile, but after Stevie getting snatched, things got brought back into perspective. I've had my time at the top of the world. It's time to start putting over the next generation. I’ve seen your work. And shit, that thing you did for Ice Dragon? You’re on fire right now. I know you’ve got to put Fiona over. That won’t kill your momentum too much but if you want to get even higher on the card you need a real good push.”

Roman plucked the NCW World Title belt from the shelf and put it over his shoulder.

“The biggest favor I can grant you is a shot at this,” Roman replied, tapping his fingers on the main plate. “I need a break from wrestling. I want to spend more time with my kid brother. He’s all I got. And I'm going to guess you have even bigger plans beyond this.”

“One step at a time,” Ximenez said, shaking his head. Roman laughed.

“You’ve got a crew. More importantly, you’ve got ‘it’. I can work with management and the bookers to make it happen. Every person they've asked me to drop the title to over the past year, I've said no. But it’s your time Ximenez,” Roman assured his guest. He extended an arm for a firm handshake.

And Ximenez shook it.

Consequences

(Prelude to Season 4)

One Week Later

“Barely a scar,” noted General Manager Russo as he looked over Ximenez. They were meeting in his office at the NCW headquarters along with the current NCW champion Roman Black, and the head booker Frederick Prince. It was just a week after that disastrous show. Ximenez got a generous week off to recover from his injury, but Russo’s tone on the call suggested that he was not particularly happy.

“Time to bring you up to date,” Russo said flatly. He leaned against the desk as Ximenez sat in an armchair. Freddie and Roman stood flanking Russo. Ximenez felt like he was put on a tribunal. It pretty much was.

“Fiona quit. She wanted her release and it looks like the GPW is going to sign her to a contract. She threatened to sue us for damages after getting hit by your girlfriend’s wrench,” Russo continued. “The rest of management is unhappy, particularly Hayes. They want blood. Unfortunately we can’t punish Fiona so that leaves you.”

Ximenez sat back in his chair, the transparent protective mask sitting on his face.

“We’re not going to fire you, but you’re suspended from the main roster. You’re going to be on “enhancement talent” duty in Club Underground, starting tomorrow. We’re also going to fine you $25,000. Your comp pass privileges are suspended and your girlfriend is banned from backstage and attending shows until that fine is paid off and she writes an apology.”

If it didn’t hurt, Ximenez would’ve snorted. Fat chance of that latter happening.

“Frankly,” Freddie added, “The others want you fired. Your girlfriend interrupting the match and assaulting a wrestler, regardless of the fact that you were legit getting brained, is a no-no. We can’t fire you though because your fandom’s actually grown since then and we’re not about to pull a Daniel Bryan thing.”

“You’ll get your push,” Roman promised. “But we gotta wait until this whole mess blows over.”

Russo scratched the back of his head. “That about covers it. You’re gonna have to bump your ass off to earn your way back to others’ good graces.”

One Month Later

The past three weeks for Ximenez were pure hell. Now usually, enhancement talent only had to take 2 or 3 matches like that a week. Ximenez had a match every single night, sometimes twice a day on top of training wrestlers during the day. Wrestlers describe matches as “getting into three car crashes” every night. That was certainly the case for enhancement talent. Their jobs were to make the popular wrestlers look great by taking a terrible, one-sided beating.

After three weeks, Ximenez lost about 20 pounds. Splotches of blue and purple mottled all over his back and chest and Ximenez was now feeling every single year of his ten year career. The ice tub usually helped him cope with the pain but just a few hours later, it was time to go out and do it all over again. Coping with the physical pain was taking the mental toll. Russo was evasive too about when Ximenez could return to the main roster. They didn’t want to fire him and risk a fan backlash. But creating conditions harsh enough to make him quit wasn’t an uncommon move.

“Ten years,” Carlton muttered aloud. “Ten years, and I’m right back where I started. Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel and head back east.”

Carlton thought it over some more and then with resolve, reached for his agent to dial Roman.

Closure

Art by Carli Idhe

New England winters were hardly conducive for superheroes patrolling the city using only grappling hooks and sheer athleticism. Ice made for treacherous footing and high winds disrupted balance. Nevertheless, Bayani maintained his poise and leaped with calculated ease from rooftop to rooftop all while weaving through deadly volleys of energy bolts with uncanny instinct. Bayani doubted that his fire armor could withstand the full brunt of his mysterious assailant’s attacks and he knew better than to confront an unknown adversary head-on. He pressed a finger to a hidden button on the left side of his visor and called for backup. There was no answer.

Bayani muttered a curse and ducked a sizzling blast of energy aimed directly for his head. He hand-springed from the edge of the roof onto a lamp-post, then dropped down to the conveniently empty streets, twisting mid-fall to dodge the second, third, and fourth bolts. He landed gracefully and dashed for cover in the nearest alley, having decided a change in scenery was in order. The alley was littered with trash and unpleasant smells, but Bayani crouched behind a few trash cans and waited intently for his target to take the bait. His visor adjusted automatically to the low-light conditions.

Moments later, a lithe woman clad in a blue and white suit of body armor and matching helmet glided into the alley cautiously. Bayani scowled in recognition. His assailant was the same metahuman who had been sabotaging his alter-ego’s construction firm and endangering his employees. “Furious” was not enough to describe Bayani’s sentiments. He ignited a nearby garbage can and heaved it recklessly at the saboteur.

“Catch!” Bayani taunted as he manipulated his chi into a fiery shield surrounding his body.

She dismissed the garbage can with derisive blast of energy, causing it to explode into a rain of flaming debris. The swarm of fiery trash distracted her from Bayani’s second projectile, a web grenade. The grenade exploded into a tangled mess of sticky ropes that cocooned the would-be assassin. In a panic, she landed and struggled wildly to break free. That proved to be a tactical error as the webs anchored to pavement, effectively grounding her. Bayani struck soon after.

Bayani’s fiery assault came blindingly-fast from a dizzying variety of angles. Though he used all his strength, Bayani felt like he was punching lead. Apparently, the mystery woman’s energy powers granted a level of invulnerability. Bayani grimaced and paused to catch his breath, then delivered a spinning back fist across his opponent’s helmet out of frustration. The helmet shattered explosively under the impact, revealing classically beautiful features: a soft white complexion, bright blue eyes, and smooth angular jaw line, framed with wavy blonde hair.

“Sabrina?” he whispered in confusion and lowered his guard.

Bayani’s hesitation gave the saboteur the opening she needed. She freed herself from the webs with a massive surge of energy which upended Bayani, sending him skittering head over heels out of the alley and headfirst into a fire hydrant. Bayani groaned an expletive and rose unsteadily, clutching his head in a daze.

Sabrina soared into the air and dove at the defenseless champion with violent speed. She speared Bayani off his feet and drove him into a building wall with devastating force. Despite the fire armor, Bayani’s body crumpled under the brutal collision, face-planting onto the sidewalk asphalt.

Sabrina channeled her energy for the killing blow but the throbbing, nagging pain inside her skull prevented her from building her power up to a significant level. Bayani’s last blow was in fact, a lucky shot, as it disabled memory blocks that prevented Sabrina from accessing the experiences and knowledge that would have compromised her new programming. Seconds passed as a lifetime of memories flooded her mind.
“I…I know you…don’t I?”


Sabrina St. James’ bedroom was rather frilly and pink. Renato Angeles glanced up at the Jem & the Holograms poster then to the New Kids on the Block poster and chuckled a little. Bree looked up from her Vogue magazine and frowned.
“What’s so funny, Mr. Angeles?”

“Nothing at all, Ms. St. James,” he replied. “It’s just that your room is truly, truly outrageous.”

“Excuse you!” she huffed. Ren laughed and ducked under a flying Funshine CareBear aimed for his head.
“Aw, don’t pout,” Ren chided. He picked up both Funshine and the outfit he dropped while dodging the CareBear: Sabrina’s superhero costume. Ren folded the uniform quickly and wandered back to the bed where he tucked Funshine in right next to Sabrina. Sabrina smiled and tugged Ren next to her. Her grip wasn’t as strong as it used to be; the chemotherapy left her weak but Ren didn’t care about that. He joined her on the bed and nestled in, fingers entwined with hers.

“You’d make a good cabana boy,” she teased softly and laid her head back on the pillows.
“Yeah, right. Glimmer and her sidekick the Cabana Boy,” Ren replied, eyes rolling as Sabrina laughed. Sabrina continued to grin and mussed Ren’s hair. Ren didn’t mind; he just burrowed deeper into her arms. She welcomed the attention, but her smile faded.

“My days as super-heroine are behind me, I think. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same after all this.”
“Hey hey, don’t talk like that. You’ll get through this,” Ren hushed her.
“But, I’ve never felt this…defeated and overwhelmed before, you know?” she said as tears welled in her eyes.
Ren sat up and regarded her quietly. He brushed the tear stream down her cheek and then ran his fingers through her wavy blonde locks. Bree smiled a little, feeling the warmth from his hands.

“We’ll get through this together,” he comforted. “Now rest up and I’ll make you something light to eat.”
“Alright, Cabana Boy,” Bree nodded. Her lips curled up with a hint of a smile.
Ren sighed heavily as he made his way out of the room. He returned a few minutes later with chicken noodle soup and tea. Bree’s eyes were closed, looking peaceful.
“Bree?” he called out quietly as he set the tray on her nightstand and caressed her cheek. Bree did not stir.


“What have I done?” Glimmer whispered regretfully as she tied a makeshift bandage made from her costume sleeve tightly around Bayani’s bleeding scalp. “Please wake up, honey…”

Sabrina wrapped her arms around the unconscious Ren and she sobbed quietly. She felt her body betraying her for a second time. The broken memory locks triggered her re-animator’s failsafe device, which caused her nervous system to self-destruct. She began to shudder involuntarily, and shook Bayani from his blackout. He removed his visor ruefully and shook the cobwebs out. His heart was torn out a third time, and Bayani slipped out of Sabrina’s embrace, recoiling in horror.
“Don’t go,” she cried out shakily, clutching herself tight to minimize the convulsions. “I don’t understand what all of this means either, but I don’t have much time left. Please stay with me?”

He hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided he’d hate himself forever if he did not sit back down and wrap his jacket and arms around her shoulders. Cradling her in his arms felt so familiar to him, and opened up many old wounds. It took a few silent moments before he had gathered enough courage to look into her eyes. She waited for him to do so, and smiled warmly when he finally did.
“So, wearing a red and gold uniform. No blue and gold? I suppose this means your codename isn’t Lawin or Cabana Boy,” she remarked coyly. Ren forgot how much life sparkled in her eyes.

“Bayani,” he whispered back. “They assigned me ‘Bayani’.”

“It suits you handsomely,” she smiled, her heart filling with a bit of pride. “How long has it been?”
He just returned a melancholy half- smile.

“I’m sorry, I’ve let you down, haven’t I?” she murmured apologetically as tears began to flow down her cheeks.

“You gave it your best,” Ren said with conviction, fingers reaching up to brush the tears away. “Life goes on. It’s just not the same without you, but I’m alright and I’m getting better. I miss you terribly, Bree.”

“I miss you too,” she whispered back. “Stay strong for me, ok? Mahal kita, sweetheart.”

Ren brushed Sabrina’s hair away from her eyes, which continued to shine brilliantly, and gave her a smile. Their lips met softly in a tearful goodbye before Sabrina returned to her adventure. The fail-safe device completed its function mercilessly and ensured that the secrets behind her brief resurrection remained hidden. Snow fell as Ren reflected quietly, looking for the answers to resolve the maelstrom of emotions overwhelming him. He found none, ultimately deciding that some closure was better than none at all. He kissed Bree’s forehead and held her tight.

“I love you, too.”

Big Country

Art by Mike Lilly & Tom Zuiko

“Fuck, this is why I hate flying,” Bayani cursed.

Air rushed through the shattered windows of the cockpit, causing his hair to whip wildly around his features as he desperately tried to reach the emergency ejection latch. The G-Force from their free fall made breathing a laborious effort, but the scarlet-clad Filipino held on for dear life. The escape from Confederate territory had been troublesome enough but the pilot he coerced brought him straight into Lone Star airspace and summarily into the crosshairs of a trigger happy Texan Sky Marshal. The sky skiff had been severely outgunned, and the Texan Air Patroller’s guns cut through the sky skiff like tissue, scoring an instant kill on his chauffeur.

With seconds to spare, Bayani’s fingers curled around the latch and gave it good tug. The canopy hissed and flew away just a split second before the pilots’ seats catapulted clear of the plummeting craft. Bayani closed his eyes to stem off the ensuing motion-sickness and prayed that the emergency chutes would activate.

Fortunately for him, the chutes shot open and filled with enough air to slow the seats’ freefall from “heart-stopping fatal crash” to “out of control shopping cart”. After two or three minutes, the flying seats of certain doom steadied and gave Bayani the opportunity to open his eyes…just before tree tops and branches of East Texas greeted him with pimp-slaps during his descent.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow…”

The chutes eventually caught hold of enough tree to suspend Bayani and his late pilot about ten feet over the forest floor. The Filipino chuckled as the seat swayed to a halt.

“Worst ride ever,” he muttered and searched for the seat belt release. He found it, just after the chutes tore and dropped him head first onto the ground.

“Ok, now that really hurt.”


Kesara “Sugar” Rush circled lazily around the ejected passengers as they fell into the Texan woods. On the positive side, she had shot down the recalcitrant target. On the negative side, her plane was VTOL, but there wasn't a place she could land safely within a three mile radius in this pine choked woodland. She would have to search for a clearing large enough to set down the multi-million dollar plane.

It irked her; she knew that response to her call that she shot the target down would be met with a lackluster 'meh' and support would come eventually. Part of living in a misogynist and xenophobic society, she supposed. It also meant that she would have to go on her own. It'd mean a formal reprimand and perhaps time in the brig, but what else was she supposed to do, lazy circles around the zone until the target escaped? No freakin' way! She did all the work, she was going to finish her mission.

"They are not setting me up for failure again," she growled into her flight mask and zoomed off for the nearest open location. She'd have to use the tracking skills they trained her in, but it was better than nothing!

Four miles and a near frantic run/leap later, she had finally come to the crash zone. Looking around, she began to sort through the wreckage.

One corpse, and one missing body later, she blew loose locks of hair out of her face irritably. So much for hoping the other body - the only one she saw was definitely not who she was looking for. All intel she had on him pointed to the lack of ability in aeronautical capabilities. That meant he was alive and at the least, not sporting major gaping flesh wounds, from the lack of blood in the area.

This meant she had to use her barely used tracking skills. She began to circle the crash zone in cautious loops, scanning the ground carefully. There! Footprints, taking off in the opposite direction she had landed her plane. Interesting, if she were in his shoes, she woulda headed in the direction of the plane in hopes to take command of it for a faster retreat.

Kes felt so proud of herself, she found her first clue and gained some insight into her quarry. She was on her way! Briskly, she set off to the treeline of the small copse. "C'mout, c'mout wherever you are," she sang softly to herself as she set in.

She was following the paths that were very hard to see, but were definitely there. Occasionally she would leap up into a tree, trying to get a good view of the area around them, but the forest was so thickly choked that she couldn't see too well. For now, she kept to the track in the dirt, scouring it and the side areas for torn up vegetation or soil. So far, all she saw was the occasional faint scuff mark in the path. Was it...really going to be this easy?

Kes was running, and running her little heart out. She had to catch up to the perp, and apprehend him. But being careful, watchful, and fast was catching up to her. She was going to get tired even…

What was that? Kes stopped immediately, hearing the sound of...something else out there. It sounded like another human. Had she caught up to her perp?
Creeping closer, she banked wide, going through the undergrowth, and pushing the branches of some large, low tropical plant out of her way a bit to behold. Trudging along the path was a lone man looking worse for wear in dusty looking form-fitting body armor. She recognized him almost immediately from the various news outlets she pirated from the United States.

"NO. WAY." she said loudly, stepping out from the undergrowth. "No freakin' way. It's you?!"


Bayani whirled with a start and clapped his hands together. Light flashed as his hands parted with a fwoosh! Light gave way to fire, which coalesced into the form of a simple bo. Bayani spun it with a flourish, across his shoulders and over his head into a battle stance.

“Who are you?” he asked calmly. Kes gulped a bit as the light from the fiery staff glinted off Bayani’s visor. Nervousness however, gave way to glee.

“Oh my God!" the excited young girl said, clapping her hands together in delight. The sheer rush of encountering an actual superhero made her voice sound a little higher than it normally did. Despite her eagerness, Kes kept light on her feet. She wasn't so star struck as to give him a target. "You’re Bayani! The sixty-third ranked Operative in the United States! You’re one of the most intriguing and mysterious Meta-Operatives in the news today!"

The Filipino blinked. This was definitely not the sort of ambush he expected but he eyed the pint-sized chica warily. She wore a comfortable-looking flight jacket adorned with a few medals to indicate her rank. Slung low over her hip was a holstered sidearm. Bayani found it odd that the firearm had not been drawn and pointed at him.

“Who are you and what are you doing all the way out here? And what the hell are you talking about?”
“Ok, in order, hang on," she said, drawing out her camera phone. It clicked and whirled as she began to record video. "This is going to be soooo awesome on YouTube. One, I’m Kesara Rush. I’m Border Patrol for the Lone Star Republic. I uh, kinda shot you down. And you’re Bayani, the Fiery Fly Filipino Phenomenon ranked number 63 on MostHeroic.com’s top 75 Operatives list, right behind Thunder-Flight and Sonar Shriek. Oh, and you’re ah, kinda under arrest."

Bayani paused.

“They rank us on the internet?”

“Oh yes! There’s all sorts of arguments on the forums too over who’s the best as well as a bunch of stories about their exploits and stuff!”

“Seriously? Thunder-Fart’s ahead of me? That joker? The dude literally blew himself off a rooftop once and has one of the lamest looking uniforms of all time. Ugh, no accounting for taste,” Bayani muttered in disgust. He stood up straighter and rested the quarterstaff on his shoulders and returned to his journey. “Oh well, be seeing you Kesara.”

Kesara dashed around Bayani and blocked his path up ahead, camera phone still out.

“You’re forgetting about the part where I said you were under arrest.”
Ren flashed a skeptical eyebrow at her.

“You and what army?”

Well..." Kesara said, trying to sound calm, but a wry, eager note entered her voice. "Me 'n the whole Texan one, I suppose. "Look, you were flyin' over restricted airspace. My officers will want to question you."

“As an aside, ‘yer pilot was pretty loopy, and not inna good way. What'd he do, powder an' huff queludes before takin' off?" Kes grinned toothily at the wary hero.
Bayani took a few steps back and settled into a defensive stance, twirling his fiery staff with a bit of flourish.”I don’t see a Texan army around. Just you.”

”They’re gonna get here soon you know," she said, eyeing the twirling stick of fire with a cautious stare. She set her hands in front of her, one hovering near her gun, the other held at midchest. "Look, I really don't wanna fight my favorite superhero, but if I hafta, well, it is my job. Can't y'just come quietly?"

“No way, kid,” Bayani sighed. He was tired and cranky, and definitely not in the mood for this.

“You Yankees can be so stubborn,” Kes replied with a wry drawl as she tucked her mobile phone away. In a flash, she drew her sidearm and trained it on the fiery legend’s chest. Her face showed discomfort but her hold was steady as she clicked the safety off. "Look...ah, Mister Bayani, please don't make me shoot. I hate the thing, really."

“Believe it or not, I hate fighting. If you bring me in, I doubt your superiors are going to be gracious hosts to a RAMPART Operative. I just want to get home. I am not going to attack you but if you make a move to bring me in by force, I will have to defend myself. I'd advise you to please put the gun back in your holster and walk back to your craft, then pretend I wasn't here at all.”
Bayani’s outline lined with small licks of fire, before bursting brilliantly into an inferno. Kesara compressed her lips into a tight, thin line as she watched the intimidating display. She holstered her sidearm slowly and Bayani breathed a sigh of relief before letting his fiery armor flicker away. Kesara saw her moment and drew her firearm again to shoot Bayani while his guard was down.
It would have worked too if she kept her grip on the hand gun. In her haste, the gun slipped out of her hand and at Bayani, who literally bent over backwards to avoid the firearm. It sailed over his head harmlessly. In a flash, his fiery armor ignited and he readied himself for a fight.

“Damn it, is this ever gonna go right?! Sorry, Bayani! But I gotta do my job too!” Kesara said regretfully. She hooked her wrist and stomped her foot. The firearm stopped in mid-air and began to fly back into Kes’s hand, albeit sheepishly.

Bayani batted it out of the air with his quarterstaff and somersaulted into the air. At the height of his acrobatic display, his free hand swept in a wide arc, and a barrage of five knives made out of pure fire dove right at Kesara.

“Ack!” Kesara panicked with her witty repartee. She dodged the first three but the fourth and fifth knives struck her chest and exploded into lung-filling soot and smoke. Kesara began to cough wildly and gathered her legs under her. She jumped much higher than a human should, doing a backflip and landing on a high branch to create space and take cover from Bayani.

"W-wow!" she managed to croak out as she cleared the smoke from her eyes. "Bayani's Blade Barrage! I didn’t know you can throw that from mid-air!"

She glanced around warily once her vision cleared, looking for any sign of her quarry. Before she could react, a sizzling flash separated the branch she stood on from the tree.

“He…hey!” she cried out, kicking at the strong grip that wrapped around her ankle. Bayani tugged Kes down and tried to slam her to the turf, but Kes was resourceful; she used one of her gadgets and tapped into the physics around the area, increasing the gravity around the hero to drive him into the ground.

“What the…” Bayani said as he fell hard to the forest turf. Kes landed on top of his chest with a hefty stomp that took all the air out of Bayani’s lungs before releasing the gravitational manipulation. Kes tried to then escape Bayani’s close quarters but in the ensuing scramble, he tripped her with his staff, causing her to flip clumsily into the ground. Kes saw birdies flying around and fought to clear her head.
Bayani kicked back up to his feet and Kes recovered enough to take a wild swing at his head, determined not to go down without a fight. Bayani had been ready though and he batted her swinging arm aside before jabbing Kes in the forehead with the end of his fiery weapon.

Gack!" she shrieked, and well...fell ungracefully over on her ass. She held both hands in front of her, revealing strange, makeshift gauntlets and pushed out like a hadoken, but with way less form. Suddenly a pulse of energy shot out from her hands, sending out a reverse shot of energy. “Get away!"

Bayani’s eyes widened behind his visor as the unexpected pulse of energy came straight at him. He braced himself for impact, but the wave swept him off his feet and the momentary loss of concentration caused him to lose his staff. He tumbled through the air like a ragdoll but managed to grab a hold of a tree branch and stop his second flight of the day before hurting himself more. He landed gracefully onto his feet and meditated briefly to summon enough energy for his next attack. Kesara had been too busy poking and checking the red welt his prior jab left on her forehead to notice that Bayani had already recovered.

Bayani dashed forward with aggressive speed as fire trailed along his sleek athletic form and erupted into an inferno. The crackling roaring sound brought Kes back to reality. Bayani leaped and twisted into the air, then disappeared in a burst of flame that coalesced into the form of a giant tiger, bounding at Kes with predatory speed.

This time, she shrieked like a little girl and there was absolutely no grace at all. Giant cat + Fire = RUN YOUR BUTT OFF! She scampered into a more heavily wooded area and hunkered behind a tree, wrapping her arms around her head. Tears formed in her eyes as she shut them tight and hoped the fiery tiger of doom did not hurt too much.

"Ok, seriously, that was freakin’ cool!" she called out, half-terrified. “Can we call this a draw?”

The roaring fire cat vanished, and silence re-filled the air. Kes mustered enough courage to peek out with one eye and saw nothing. She held her breath and stood up slowly, then shrieked again when she felt something tap her head a few times. She looked up and saw Bayani suspended directly over her head.

“I like your moxie, kiddo,” he commented before striking down with a two-finger jab into the area where her neck and shoulder met with pinpoint precision.

“I uh…thanks?” was all Kes had to say before she collapsed, completely zonked out.

Intermission

“You own a tower. Why am I storing all this for you?” Boseda Kingston asked as his long-time friend used a giant dolly to move several tall crates out of the freight elevator and into a vault buried deep in Kingston’s own building.

“Because you’re a good neighbor and because this place is far more secure than my own building,” Renato Angeles replied. There was a space in the vault cleared just for him amidst a host of other exotic collections of Items of Importance. Ren could feel twists of magic and legacy crawl across his skin.

“You’re just going to ask for them back…” Boseda began and stopped. Ren's hand paused and rest somberly on the crate, which caused Boseda to change his course. “Alright, I will concede that things have changed dramatically over the past several months.”

Ren continued to set the crates down, arranging them in a half circle before igniting the crates with his bare hand. The crates crackled and burned into ashes in nearly a blink of an eye, revealing the contents within.

Boseda approached Ren from behind and admired the glass cases. Inside them were mannequins, dressed in uniforms that brought back so many memories. One one side were the stylish uniforms of Planet Girl and the cutting edge armored tech built by Celerity, both of whom were dear friends that departed years ago. On the other end of the arc, were the legendary Lawin’s red, white, blue, and gold battlesuit and the crimson uniforms that Ren once wore.

Ren tucked the other crates behind the display cases and left them sealed. Boseda expected his friend to have some regrets, but it seemed that Ren had already come to accept the new status quo and decided that he was not going to be party to it.

Boseda just heaved a sigh, one that carried a little over two centuries worth of weariness.

“Take it from someone who has seen times like this,” Boseda commented idly as Ren turned away from what had been the core of his identity for over fifty years.

“What’s that?” Ren asked.

“Three is a very important number. Everything in life comes in threes,” Boseda answered.

“And?”

“I’m just saying that when you are ready, there’s still a Third Act to go for Bayani.”

Burn the Feeling

“C’mon, Ren. You can do this,” Ren told himself.

He had been kneeling on the dojo floor by himself for close to 18 hours, his fingers steepled, thumbs and index fingers locked together in circles. His knees ache ached. His back ached. His core ached. His patience was worn thin. On the floor in front of him sat a little altar, a bare fluorescent bulb the only offering. For almost twenty days he had been channeling his qi into the bulb, willing it to light up from a spark channeled from deep within. But there was nothing. And his frustration boiled.

He forced himself to choke that frustration down, like an entire bottle of bitter pills. He imagined how his father did this, channeling his intensity of focus and manipulating his internal energy into lightning. Lawin was a physical Prime who mastered the element of Air, a bonafide legend. While Ren had impressive martial arts prowess in his own right, he needed to make one more giant push to start crawling out from under his father’s shadow.

He let out an exasperated breath and unfurled his hands, slamming his palms on the mat in anger.

“Why can’t I fucking do this?!” he bellowed angrily to the empty room. “Dad could do it. I should totally be able to just blank everything else out and focus on this damn spark.”

“Ren, you’re not your father,” Robert Moran said. Ren started; he hadn’t sensed his sensei approach.

Ren turned, annoyed at himself for not noticing his arrival. “How long have you been sitting there?”

“About three hours. I was napping for two though,” he smirked. He had shunned the business suit he usually wore and was instead dressed in a crimson hakama and top. He knelt down in front of Ren, waving his hand dismissively to stop Ren from standing up to bow. Ren shifted from his knees, stretching one leg out in front of him to restore some circulation.

Moran picked up the bulb and altar and set them aside so that there was nothing between him and his student.

“Ren, you’re not your father.”

“Everyone’s keen on reminding me of that fact,” Ren replied bitterly.

“Because you aren’t taking the hint,” he chided. “Just because your father manipulated his qi into lightning doesn’t mean that you can too. There are other forms, you know.”

Ren tilted his head questioningly.

“Your father asked me to look after you for a reason, kid. Even if he were here, he wouldn’t be able to show you how to manipulate your qi because he only understood his way. You have a different existential catalyst.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You never asked.”

Well, ask a stupid question, Ren thought to himself. “Why are you telling me now?”

“Because I can’t afford to wait any longer. Stand up.”

Ren complied, his tendons screaming and muscles trembling as the circulation kicked back in. He let out a slow breath. “Now what?”

Moran stood up and pressed his palms together, fingers pointing up. The old man breathed in slowly, then let it all out and felt his own qi build. Ren followed suit and felt the familiar stir of qi pool within him. Ren focused within him, trying to block everything else out and empty his mind and soul. Ren grimaced a bit, feeling the qi just “sit” there, as usual, unapplied.

“No, Ren. That’s what you’re doing wrong,” Moran said gently. “Don’t let it sit there. Let it burn.”

Confusion settled in on Ren’s face.

“Let it burn,” Moran repeated. “Light your qi with your emotions. You cannot approach this with detachment like your father did. You and I live off passion. Our emotions cannot be buried. We’re never able to completely lock them down, so we have two choices. We carry them like pack-mules or we ride them like waves.”

Ren paused, at first irritated with the old man, then resigned. It was now or never.

Ren unlocked the closet in his mind … the one where he bottled up everything so he could try to spark his qi. The love he shared with Sabrina St. James. The pain from her loss. The joy of creating through art. The anger that carried him through his fighting career. The anxiety about where his path would lead. All of it coalesced into an ember of Conviction that drew his qi inward, then ignited it.

“I can feel it,” Ren whispered hoarsely. The Conviction surged into what felt like a fiery maelstrom in his core.

A flash of light and heat erupted from Ren’s form and washed over Moran. Moran wisely moved out of the line of fire.

“Burn the feeling,” Moran instructed.
Ren lifted his hands and looked at them with surprise. He watched as blue and orange flames danced along his fingers and quickly spread across his outline. Ren’s emotions had become unfettered and they burned with ferocity.

Ren thrusted his hands in front of him and willed his qi out of them. A blast of fiery energy shot from his palms, pulverizing a row of punching bags and blew a hole through the wall. As smoke cleared from the wreckage, curious faces peered into the opening.

Moran glanced at the aftermath with a satisfied expression. As the fire faded, Ren collapsed to his knees, temporarily spent. His body trembled with each breath. Moran remained silent for a moment before reaching down and patting his shoulder.

Ren coughed and looked up at his mentor with tears streaming down his cheeks, Moran knew that look.

“Ride the wave, huh? What if I fall off the board?” Ren whispered.

Moran smiled softly. “You’ll just have to learn to tread fire.”

Inception

7 Years before the Event

“It’s been awhile since I’ve given you a performance review.”

“About five years,” Ren agreed without looking up from his drafting table. He had a deadline and his projects never waited for him, Meta-Operative or no.

Robert Moran arched a white eyebrow. “ Huh. Thought it was longer than that.”

“You did say that after the first hundred years or so time runs together.”

“This is true. You’ll learn all of that some day,” Moran chuckled as he leaned back into the chair comfortably. He grunted appreciatively when he discovered a crystal decanter of Scotch and a glass conveniently within reach. Though it was Ren’s office, only one person sat in that antique leather wing chair and Ren just left Moran’s preferred drink on the accompanying side table out of courtesy. Between that and the rather breathtaking view of the city through the floor to ceiling windows, there was never really reason for Moran to find a place to have a drink elsewhere.

“I’ve got about what? Two hundred years to catch up?” Ren replied, breaking out the French curve with suitable flourish. “I’m fairly certain you’ll out-live us all, sir.”

“Perhaps. May I?” Moran asked, nodding to the Scotch, even though Ren had his back turned.

“Of course,” Ren waved off, before cursing and erasing a number of lines. His brow creased only slightly, a rather mild demonstration of the frustration that Ren actually felt. Moran knew that well enough because reading body language and auras came naturally to Alpha Primes.

“You’re still bothered by that setback with Fu-ts'ang-lung.”

“Pfft, no.”

“You can't lie to me, kid. You typically knock out designs like these in spans of minutes with those fancy computer programs or hell, modelling your damn Fire into what you see. But here you are, bumbling along on paper,” Moran gestured with his tumbler. “Of course I know you just have to work these things out on your own and pushing you isn’t going to help, so allow an old man to share some parting advice.”

“Hasn’t stopped you before.”

Moran poured himself a refill. “I remember when you got your Meta-Operative license and I came up with this brilliant idea to give you the codename Bayani.”

Ren put his pencil down and turned around to give Moran a rather pointed look. Nonplussed, Moran continued after a casual sip of his drink.

“It was brilliant because over the past sixteen years, you threw down and proved to me and everyone else who actually bothered to look that you live up to the name. Your father, rest his soul, would agree. He always believed that someone greater than him would come along and be far more fitting and deserving.”

Ren turned away, fingers brushing over the paper before picking up his pencil to get back to work. He never felt comfortable with praise.

“But that isn’t advice. The reason why that damn dragon really bothers you is because you haven’t figured out how to do more than just dent his plans. That’s because your game is missing an element.”

“That’s not advice, it’s criticism.”

“I’m not done yet. I’ve told you time and time again that I always get the last word. The dragon’s lived centuries and I’ve fought him every turn of my life. You want to topple Fu-ts'ang-lung? Months of planning won’t unravel schemes that’ve been decades in the making. Shift your perspective. Lengthen your timeline.”

“Is that what you did?”

“I knew it was unlikely I would defeat him permanently in my time. So, I played the long game and laid groundwork that could engineer his downfall.”

“Really, and what do you call that plan?”

“Bayani,” Moran replied simply before finishing his drink. “You have to start doing the same. Build your long term plan. Not just for that monster, but to ensure that good work continues when you cannot. And sometimes, all you need to do to start that is what you do now, without your uniform. Offering a helping hand to folks who need it.”

Ren’s pencil scratching stopped and stared at his work for a moment. He saw that the foundation to his design was a disorganized jumble of a mess, but he also saw the lines that he could re-build from.

“Seems like a longshot but I’ll do my best. How about dinner?”

Ren glanced over his shoulder with a relaxed smile, which soon faded into concern when he discovered Robert Moran slack in the seat of his chair, with an expression of satisfaction on his weathered features. He did get the final word, after all.

Looking Glass

“Let me go human or so help me, I will burn you and everyone you hold dear into a crisp!” the shackled pyromaniacal troublemaker seethed, glaring hateful daggers at Bayani as he reported in to the local police dispatch through his commlink. Bayani glanced dispassionately at the fae, who had fallen over from her seated position on the floor and now writhed in tantrum over her defeat.

“And that’s why the cuffs have to stay on, miss, so chill. The authorities will be here soon to take you into custody.”

“Not ‘miss’, fool. I am Massacre Melanie,” she retorted haughtily, pride swelling in her murderous heart over the appellation. She grew calmer when she uttered her name, as it was a reminder or affirmation of who she truly was and comfort to her. She sat up and leaned back against the remnants of a shattered mirror. The handcuffs that bound her wrists across her lower back were constructed from cold iron and disrupted the flow of magical energies through her body. Though Power welled within her, she could not channel it productively, and that kept Bayani safe. For now.

“If you insist,” Bayani replied as he positioned a crate between Melanie and the double-door exits. Short of opening a door into the Space Between, that was the only way out. He sat down on the crate gingerly, aching from Melanie’s attempts at bringing his death by a thousand and four cuts.

“I had you dead to rights,” Melanie stated, words dripping with spite.

Bayani nodded in silent agreement as he fetched a Snickers bar from a hidden pocket. His metabolism ran high with his activity as a superhero. The Fae had an appreciation for human confection and Melanie was no exception. Bayani took notice of the way Melanie eyed the chewy candy bar of goodness and it matched the intensity in her eyes when she rained death on him moments before he cuffed her.

“Want some?”

Her features narrowed into a scowl, but she accepted the piece Bayani offered.

“So, why?” he asked after a few moments, waving the stub of the candy bar in a wide arc to indicate what was left of the abandoned funhouse’s hall of mirrors. “Why do all of this?”

“I’ve seen all the wrongs your kind has wrought,” Melanie seethed. “I experienced it first hand when I was summoned from the In-Between. Now? I am simply sharing all the despair and torture I’ve endured at the hands of my summoner with you and the rest of humankind. It’s only fair.”

“I see,” Bayani frowned as he finished his snack. It was a thoughtful, if perhaps neutral expression, but Melanie took it as an ignorant dismissal of her feelings. The response infuriated Melanie, and she rose to her feet unsteadily to stomp over to Bayani.

“You’ve seen nothing!” she screamed, lashing out with a swift kick. Though he was caught off-guard, Bayani twisted to avoid most of the impact and Melanie only succeeded in knocking Bayani’s visor off. Before Bayani could recover, he glanced up into Melanie’s cruel eyes. Time paused.

Without his visor for protection, meeting Melanie’s gaze sucked Bayani into an Understanding…that connection between two people with a measure of Power where they see each other clear as day. There within, he saw two very different Melanies. The first wore tattered clothes, and had been ravaged by pain and suffering. She cowered timidly behind the second Melanie for protection. The second looked more like the one Bayani had subdued only moments ago. She led the first one through a forest whose trees blazed with a dark and sinister fire. Both Melanies searched continuously for a way out, but they were trapped as vicious monsters charged out of the flaming brush to prey upon them. Massacre Melanie cast violent magic in retaliation, destroying all attackers with ruthless glee. Each death fueled Massacre Melanie’s strength as she continued to rampage with her timid twin in tow, and each death only caused the forest to erupt with more fire.

Sharp pain stabbed at Bayani’s heart, snapping him out of the vision. The tainted flames in the vision were smothering, to say the least. He let out a slow breath and gathered his senses, then turned to regard Melanie thoughtfully. Melanie had seen into Bayani’s psyche as well, judging from the vitriol she hissed in a language unfamiliar to him.

“No…what I saw can’t be true. It’s just more of your kind’s filthy deceptions!”

Melanie cried out in anguish and frustration and body-checked Bayani again. He stood his ground, holding Melanie in place, hoping that she would calm herself down. Melanie’s ponytail had come undone, shielding her eyes from him But he could hear her falling tears drip onto the dusty floor. Bayani glanced from the fallen tears to the fae’s reflection in the mirror behind her. Her hands had begun working their way out of the cuffs.

“They call you Bayani? HA! Another lie. If you were really a hero, you would’ve been there for me when I needed help,” she whispered hoarsely. The whispers turned into mad, raving laughter. “Look at me now, ‘hero.’ Why can’t you save me? WHY CAN’T YOU?”

Iron clattered on the ground and Melanie whipped her freed hands around to cast a spell that would turn Bayani inside out. A prepared Bayani interrupted it by charging his fingers with his own fire and drove them into Melanie’s Chakra point with a sharp and precise Cobra Fang. The attack ignited the mystical energy within Melanie and caused it to surge uncontrollably and sear her nerves. Her mouth opened up to cry out, but she just gurgled a silent scream of agony before slumping into the Filipino’s arms unconscious, but alive. He stroked her hair gently for a moment before lowering her to the ground and securing her with another set of handcuffs.

“If I knew how, I would,” he answered her with a regretful tone.