Felix the Cat didn’t say a word on the way home. Not a single one.
Ryan drove the two of them back to the Optimates Tower in the early evening. Their group and Enrique had decided to leave the gathering separately, to avoid raising suspicion before tomorrow’s operation. Eventually, the courier parked his car in front of the tower’s gates, but Atom Cat made no move to exit it.
“Hey, kitten, I know it must feel terrible,” the courier said. “Believe me, I understand what you’re going through. So, uh, how about we go watch a Star Wars movie with Yuki and Timmy to cheer you up? Think of the memes!”
Felix briefly looked at Ryan, his gaze completely hollow, before he opened the car’s door. The young hero walked towards the Il Migliore tower in awkward silence, head down and hands in his pockets.
Yeah, he wasn’t feeling well and wanted some alone time.
Ryan couldn’t blame him. Learning that Lightning Butt had murdered his adoptive sister’s parents, before turning her into a drug wizard and spitting on her birth mother’s legacy must have been… harsh.
The courier wasn’t sure how to reach out to his friend. At least, not until he was ready to open up.
Ryan watched Felix disappear into the Optimates Tower, before driving away. He still had a few errands planned before tomorrow, including dealing with a constant annoyance. “Shortie?” the courier called out while putting on the Chronoradio. “Shortie?”
“I’m here, Riri,” she answered on the other end of the line.
“We’re getting rid of the Meta tomorrow,” Ryan said, as he drove south of the city. “Il Migliore and the Carnival agreed to attack them together.”
“But something bothers me. I have the feeling the Manada are after you specifically, and not because you want to overthrow the bourgeoisie.”
Len remained silent for a brief moment. “I… I did attack one of their facilities. Though they deserved it.”
“I can’t explain why, but I have the intuition it was about something else.” Alphonse was clearly pissed Enrique had released Len from custody, and Blackthorn still kept the Genius under close surveillance afterward. “They were also under the delusion I was your brother, and I think it factored in their decision to hire me.”
“You think…” Len cleared her throat on the other side of the line. “You think it has something to do with Dad?”
Ryan couldn’t confirm it, but his gut told him so. “Maybe. I get the feeling the company has skeletons in its closet.”
“Of course they do Riri, their wealth is built on blood and suffering,” Shortie replied with anger, before calming herself. “What about the brain-duplicating tech?”
“I have an idea about how we can get it,” Ryan said, his fingers tightening on the driving wheel. He had left the northern neighborhoods for the southern ones, closer to Augusti’s territory. “But it’s risky.”
Len marked a short pause, but seemed determined to help. “I’m listening.”
“We know from the recording that Hector Manada lent the technology to Psypsy for research purposes,” the courier reminded his best friend. “Which means it’s probably in the bunker.”
She quickly guessed his plan. “Which has access to the sea, and will be under siege tomorrow. The Meta will be distracted.”
Len could slip inside the bunker, grab the technology, and leave. Ryan had the intuition Hector’s sons would destroy it should they get their hands on it, if only to remove a threat to their inheritance. “But it will be very dangerous, Shortie.”
“I can... I can take care of myself. I will do it, Riri.” Another pause. “And… after it’s done… after it’s done, you should come.”
“Shortie, are you inviting me to your place?” Ryan teased her.
He could almost see her flustered on the other side of the line. “Y-yes, but not like that. I… I set up a room for you down there. You will be safer with us than at Dynamis. I just don’t trust them.”
Neither did Ryan, but for now, the road to the Perfect Run demanded he take the risk. “I appreciate the offer, Shortie,” he said from the bottom of his heart. “I can tell you’re better. You sound more… confident?”
“I’ve… I’ve been following the treatment,” she admitted. “Reduced the antidepressants. Pace them better. It’s… I don’t feel better, I don’t think so. But I feel less worse.”
“Good. It’s good.” Maybe… maybe he could find a way to help deal with her depression across the loops? If he could carry her consciousness across time, so would the treatment. Hopefully.
“I… I’ll be in touch.” And with these words, Len abruptly cut the communication.
Progress was slow, but it was still progress.
Eventually, Ryan reached his destination, a classy, overwhelmingly fashionable bistro located near New Rome’s strip; from the outside, it looked like a carbon copy of the famous Parisian brasserie The Fouquet’s. A valet offered to park the car, but the courier would never let anyone drive it; his Plymouth Fury was too good for the plebe. It forced him to reach the restaurant’s entrance on foot, where his date awaited him.
“Finally!” Fortuna complained, hands on her waist. She wore the same lavish, scandalous golden dress that she did at Jamie’s party. “You were almost late!”
“But I wasn’t,” Ryan replied, taking the spoiled brat’s hand and kissing it like a true gentleman, much to her surprise. “I could never make a goddess wait.”
Since he needed a distraction and she kept pestering him, Ryan finally agreed to a date with the luckiest woman in the world; though it was only a smokescreen for his devious plan to kill her romantic interest in his person. His goal was to be as unbearably perfect and affectionate as possible, until it became suffocating.
But no plan survived contact with the enemy, and Fortuna had brought a third wheel.
“Ryan.” In contrast to her friend’s outrageous outfit, Livia Augusti wore a modest, sleeveless crimson dress and golden bracelets. While Fortuna breathed glamour, the mafia princess embodied refined nobility. “Good to see you again.”
“Oh, I didn’t expect you,” Ryan said, trying to hide his unease while he glanced at Fortuna. “I thought we were having a date?”
“We are, but you will also make it up to Livy for leaving us stranded the first time we met,” Fortuna replied with haughtiness. “You will spoil the both of us.”
“Of course, a divinity like you only deserves the best,” Ryan lied while offering his arms to both women, “and that’s me.”
Livia smiled in amusement as she took his arm, while Fortuna took a little more time to touch his sleeve. “Oh, it’s cashmere!”
“You like it?” Ryan asked, surprised. “It’s genuine cashmere wool.”
“There is no such a thing as budget cashmere,” Fortuna replied, as if he had said something stupid. “Either it’s perfect, or it isn’t.”
Damn, they actually had one thing in common, taste! Who would have thought?
The trio walked into the restaurant, guided by lackeys through wooden double doors. The deco was in the purest 18th century French style, with flattering candlelight illumination and exquisite decoration. It truly deserved its name of Le Parisien. Ryan had reserved an isolated table near the window, so Fortuna could look down on people outside. He knew she would appreciate the gesture.
He also noticed that each of the tables were separated from the others by walls, to maximize privacy. The guests could speak without worry of being spied on.
“I am glad you finally accepted your place in the universe,” Fortuna told Ryan, as a maître d'hôtel invited them to sit and distributed the menu cards. “You have a lot to make up for.”
“And I truly apologize for it,” Ryan lied through his teeth. “I saw you, Fortuna, but until you talked with your brother, I hadn’t seen you.”
He took Fortuna’s hand into his own by surprise, much to her shock.
“When I saw your passion at trying to reconnect with your brother, I… I was moved to tears.” Through skills honed through countless restarts, Ryan seemed about to cry for a moment. “Your heart of gold, it blinded me!”
“I’m glad you finally noticed,” she replied, utterly flustered. Meanwhile, Livia hid her face behind the menu card, clearly struggling not to laugh.
“Can you forgive me for my atrocious behavior towards you?” Ryan asked with pleading eyes. “Because I can never forgive myself.”
“That depends on this date,” Fortuna replied while regaining her composure. “If it goes well, I will consider it!”
“I understand,” Ryan said, before calling the closest waiter. “Darling, an Assiette de Fois Gras et de Saumon Frais for my beloved.”
Fortuna gasped. “How do you know I love them? Did you ask Felix?”
Yes, he did, but a true gentleman always lied with a smile. “I just wondered what the perfect woman would want, and it clicked.”
“Of course it did!” Fortuna replied with charming modesty, while Livia could no longer resist and let out a laugh. “Livy, what was that for?”
“Sorry,” the princess said with a smile before lowering the menu. “I find you adorable.”
“You are adorable too, Livy.” Fortuna put a hand around Livia’s own in a sisterly way. “I’m glad you agreed to come. You needed it.”
“Thanks,” the princess replied, though her smile turned sadder. “I need a distraction, with all that’s happening lately.”
“Ryan, your mission for the night is to cheer her up,” Fortuna all but ordered the courier.
“I will do my best,” Ryan replied with a smile. “You’re quite close I see.”
“Our parents were very close,” Livia explained. “We were all but raised together.”
“You could say our fathers were partners-in-crime!” Fortuna chuckled at her own joke, but not as loud as Ryan. He immediately felt dirty; it was terrible, even by his standards.
“I have a delightful menu planned for you,” the courier said. “On one side, you have French cuisine, and on the other, everything else.”
“I can only applaud your taste, but I’m surprised you invited us here,” Fortuna said while waiters left to prepare their orders. “I thought you were poor, and the menus here at Le Parisien climb into the thousands of Euros.”
“I am well-off,” Ryan replied.
“How well-off?” his date kept asking with a suspicious frown.
“Millions of euros stashed in various banks,” Livia said, causing Fortuna to gasp. “I’ve tracked down some of his bank accounts at major corporations. I was actually surprised.”
Well, one of the benefits of time-travel was that Ryan knew which ventures would pay off. He even found the long lost Templars’ Treasure, though it took him years and many adventures.
Everyone in Italy used the euro because of its availability, with power blocks from post-war corporations like Dynamis to Augustus himself backing up its value. However, it only really applied to Italy. Some other post-war emerging nations used their own variant of the euro, but with a wildly different exchange rate; and a few warlords had started minting their own coins. Dynamis also spoke of eventually introducing their own coin to replace the euro in the next five years, though Ryan wasn’t sure if they would follow through.
“My, I thought you were a toad, but you are actually a prince!” Fortuna complimented Ryan.
“Only your kiss can reveal my true form,” the courier replied with honeyed words. When in doubt, he would flatter her shamelessly! “If you wish for a coach, you only have to ask.”
“Thank you, but I already have a yacht.”
Ryan realized that this was a silent invitation from Fortuna to ask about her life, and he did.
“My, you must be extremely talented to purchase something like that at your age,” the courier stated, though she probably won it from the lottery or something. “If I were to guess, you have the soul of an artist and the skill of an entrepreneur.”
Much to his surprise, Fortuna seemed quite embarrassed, adjusting her hair with her hand. “I actually sculpt in my spare time.”
“You do?” Ryan asked, genuinely surprised.
“I’m studying applied arts at Juventas University.” That post-war, corporate-sponsored university? Ryan heard of it, though as far as he knew only corporate managers and affiliates could pay the exorbitant tuition fees. “Here is some of my work.”
Fortuna searched in her dress and brought out a gold-plated cell phone, before showing Ryan pictures of her creations. For a second, the courier expected modern, incomprehensible sculptures, but instead her work took inspiration from Renaissance artists. She had crafted multiple lifelike sculptures of angels and mythological figures, with a statue of Livia as the goddess Athena being her masterpiece.
“It’s amazing,” Ryan said, and for once he was entirely genuine.
“It truly is,” Livia said with a nod.
“You like them?” Fortuna fished for compliments, her confidence replaced with anxiousness. Much to Ryan’s surprise, she was quite sensitive about this subject. Enough to make that unbearable narcissist nervous.
“You are really talented,” the courier continued, reassuring her. “I’ve seen a lot of self-proclaimed artists, but you have real talent.”
“Thanks,” the blonde said with an embarrassed smile, a hand in her hair. “I’m considering making it a career.”
“But I thought you already had a job for the Augusti?” Ryan asked with a frown.
“Oh, it’s only temporary,” Fortuna said quickly. “I fill in because my brother can no longer protect Livy, as he should.”
“And I thank you for the attention,” Livia replied, genuinely touched.
“Because you deserve it,” Fortuna replied with kindness. Ryan realized that while her narcissism made her frustrating, she was also completely honest and kind in her own way. “I know your role is… stressful. You need all the help you can get.”
Livia looked down on her plate as the waiter brought them the starters, without saying anything. Fortuna looked at her friend with concern, and Ryan realized that the two were a lot closer than he thought. He had never seen the Lucky Girl behave like that with anyone else.
Come to think of it, Fortuna had dared walk into a Dynamis facility to try and convince her brother to return, but Ryan wondered if it was entirely on behalf of her family. Maybe she actually did it for Livia’s sake?
Huh, the brat wasn’t entirely self-centered. She rose up in his esteem.
“I’m surprised you don’t advertise your sculptures,” Ryan changed the subject, trying to lighten the mood. “I mean, this is the first time I’ve heard about them.”
“Oh, I didn’t tell many people, not even my brother. I know they will be popular.” Though she tried to sound confident, Ryan could tell she wasn’t from the slight hesitation in her voice. “But I don’t want my work to be public yet.”
“Why so?” Ryan asked, but much to his surprise, Fortuna hesitated to say it out loud.
“Her mother can reshape faces thanks to her power,” Livia explained. “Hence the name Venus.”
“I don’t want my work to be compared to her,” Fortuna finally admitted. “I mean, even my face is one of her masterpieces! Felix’s too!”
That explained a few things. Ryan immediately zeroed in on the problem. “You don’t want the only thing that’s really yours to be ‘commodified’ by your family?” he guessed, as they started enjoying the starters. “Otherwise they will say like mother, like daughter?”
“Yes…” Fortuna trailed off. “Yes, that’s exactly that. And that’s the only thing where my power cannot help me. So it is all mine.”
“You don’t love your parents?”
“I love them,” Fortuna said, though her smile turned a bit hesitant. “I love them, and they love me too.”
“A bit too much?” Ryan guessed the problem.
“Yes, they’re smothering!” Her tone switched from vulnerable to angry. “‘Fortuna, you should work harder to take over our branch of the family!’ ‘Fortuna, you need to prove yourself to become the new Diana!’ ‘Look at your sister, she is already an Olympian!’ And it is never enough!”
Livia gave Fortuna a glance of sympathy, and Ryan understood why they were so close. They were both the prisoners of their parents’ expectations.
“Mom wants me to take over her business, but I said no,” Fortuna told her date. “She still thinks I will change my mind.”
“Why don’t you try to present your sculptures anonymously?” Ryan suggested. “I mean, all good artists have a sexy secret alter ego.”
“Oh, maybe, I am certain people will love them…” Lucky Girl didn’t sound so confident when she couldn’t rely on her power.
“Do you have hobbies, Ryan?” Livia asked, trying to steer the conversation somewhere else.
“I mostly adopt lost cats,” the courier joked. And blow stuff up too, but it might kill the mood.
“That reminds me, we’ve found your cat,” Livia declared. “He was snooping around Vulcan’s apartment.”
“Eugène-Henry?” Ryan straightened in his chair.
“Wait, the cat we chased when we first met belongs to you?” Fortuna asked, astonished. “It has to be fate.”
“Vulcan wasn’t happy to have an uninvited guest, but the cat won her over,” Livia said with an amused smirk. “As if he knew her well.”
Ryan could read between the lines.
Before the silence could get any more awkward, Fortuna received a phone call and loudly sighed. “Trouble?” Livia asked, though she didn’t sound worried at all.
“It’s Mom,” Fortuna complained, as the phone kept ringing. She put a hand on Ryan’s arm. “I’m sorry, I have to answer. Can you take care of Livy in my absence?”
“For you?” Ryan smiled. “Anything.”
“You’re adorable,” Fortuna replied, before rising from her chair and leaving for an isolated private booth. Leaving Ryan and Livia alone.
As Augustus’ daughter had planned.
“You wanted us to talk again,” the courier guessed.
“Yes,” the princess replied with a strained smile. “You dated her in the previous loop, didn’t you? Vulcan. That’s why your teleporting cat hangs out with her.”
No point in denying it. “Yeah.”
“Why didn’t you try again?” the princess asked with a frown. “To date her. This time, she dislikes you.”
“Jasmine, my Jasmine, made me promise not to replace her,” Ryan said, his eyes glancing at his champagne glass. “I don’t want to see it that way, but… the person I dated is gone. The current Vulcan is a stranger with her face, and none of the memories.”
Livia’s eyes softened. “I… see. That’s what you said before, about people forgetting you never getting any easier?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “I try not to get too attached to anyone, but I forgot myself last time.”
“Then what about Fortuna? What is she for you?” There was a hint of reproach in her tone.
An ungodly annoyance. “It’s all part of my diabolical plan to make her give up on my person.”
Livia raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “By being the perfect gentleman?”
Well yes! The more Ryan gave Fortuna the cold shoulder, the more she harassed him! Ergo, the opposite should make her stop! “I don’t expect you to understand my brilliant logic.”
“Do not break her heart, Ryan,” Livia warned him, her voice no longer friendly. “Fortuna is my best friend, and while she looks otherwise at first glance, she is a sensible soul inside.”
Ryan was a bit skeptical, but she knew her friend better than he did. “I admit I like her more now that she showed a little kindness.”
“She is under a lot of pressure, more than you know,” Livia said. “The main reason why she joined the Killer Seven is to protect me. So I do not feel alone. I owe her for this. Even if you think there will be no consequences for hurting her feelings due to your power, I guarantee you that I will not forget it.”
Ryan joined his fingers, his face serious. “Why are you here, princess? The real reason.”
She crossed her arms, her gaze turning to steel. “The Carnival, Ryan,” Livia said, her tone venomous. “It’s about the Carnival.”
Here they were. The real reason for her presence. “I suppose this is why you wanted us to meet in a public place, with your unbelievably lucky friend nearby? You thought I would have you assassinated if we met in private?”
“I keep seeing the Carnival in New Rome lately, fighting the Meta-Gang,” Livia said. “It’s them, right? The people who asked you to blow up the Bliss factory. You brought them to the city. I can’t see your actions, but they still make ripples.”
“Yes, it’s the Carnival,” Ryan admitted. No point in hiding it anymore.
“I warned you, I told you I would let you be as long as you didn’t target my family,” Livia reminded him. “And I have. But you are willing to collaborate with the people who murdered my mother.”
“It was an accident, from what I heard.”
“Who told you that, Hargraves?” She grew angrier by the second. “Do you trust him?”
More than your father, princess.
During their first loop together, Felix had told the courier that Augustus once confronted an early incarnation of the Carnival during his rise to power. Shroud, on Ryan’s behalf, had expanded on the story after the meeting with Dynamis. Leo Hargraves had returned to the Costa family’s farm for Narcinia’s birthday, as he had promised, only to find the place in ruins. The Carnival swiftly attacked Augustus, only to be pushed back after suffering terrible losses.
And Augustus’ wife Juno had been caught in the crossfire.
“I cooperate with the Carnival and Dynamis to get rid of the Meta, that is all,” Ryan said. “If anything, I convinced them not to target your family to focus on the fatter problem.”
“I get killed in alternate universes where I snoop around Adam the Ogre’s operations,” Livia admitted. “They’re planning something big, aren’t they? Something so terrible they’re willing to risk angering my father to keep it quiet.”
“Yeah. But if all goes well tomorrow, they won’t be able to pull it off.” Her comment made Ryan wonder if Adam’s decision to fire the Bahamut had truly been as impulsive as he pretended. “Afterward, I will get rid of the Bliss Factory and hopefully you will never hear from me again.”
“You brought the Carnival here, Ryan,” Livia argued. “Everything they do from now on is on your head.”
“They would have come anyway, I just pointed them in the right direction. Namely, Hannifat Lecter’s.” Ryan looked at her in the eyes. “I stand by what I said, princess. Don’t harm my friends, and your people will make it out alive.”
“In this loop, or in the next?” she asked the hard question.
“I can’t say yet,” Ryan admitted. “I will do my best, but I can’t guarantee anything for this one. But I am a man of my word.”
The princess frowned at him, skeptical. “Didn’t you go farther into the future?”
“I’ve lived lifetimes, but mostly in short bursts. Never more than months between two save points.” Ryan looked away. “With one exception, but I don’t want to talk about it. It was so bad, I decided not to do a long loop ever again afterward.”
“So you don’t know how it will end?” Livia shook her head. “That’s the only guarantee I have? Your word things will be alright eventually?”
“You would prefer information?”
“That would be a start,” she admitted.
“I know your father has a brain tumor.” The Augusti princess flinched at his blunt admission, her face turning into a blank mask. “The Manada told me.”
She raised a wall of silence between them.
“Fine, don’t talk about it if you don’t want to. Your silence is an answer in itself. I thought Elixirs cured you of these things, but I assume it’s because he took two of them? Or perhaps he already had it before gaining powers, and now the tumor is as invulnerable as he is?”
No answer, though the tension kept rising.
“You know, Narcinia’s father, her real father, could have cut it out?” Ryan asked. “The Carnival told me Lightning Butt killed him because he could cut anything with a knife. Even an invincible man.”
“Ryan.” Her gaze had turned hollow. “Don’t say any more words.”
“What I mean to say is... I think I understand why you’re not trying to confront your father right now.” A brain tumor could worsen his mood, and an invincible lightning god on a rampage would be a disaster. “I lived through something similar.”
“You don’t know anything,” she replied harshly.
“My adoptive father Bloodstream was a ticking bomb.” Ryan scowled, as he remembered some of the worst moments of his childhood. “He was an Elixir addict, and Len… his daughter, she drank one. Near the end, we were on the run, and I had to be the one searching for supplies because he brought too much attention. Every time I left him alone with Len… I thought I might return to find her dead.”
Livia tensed, but didn’t say anything.
“Look, what I mean to say is… I’m not your enemy, Livia,” Ryan said, as Fortuna returned from her call, oblivious to the situation. “I just don’t know how to prove it to you.”
“Prove what?” Fortuna asked, before noticing Livia’s unease. “Livy? Livy, are you alright?”
“I…” Livia regained her composure and forced herself to smile. “It’s okay, Fortuna.”
“You’re not okay, Livy,“ Lucky Girl said with concern. “I can see it on your face.”
“No, it’s alright,” the princess lied. “I’m just tired… I will call Sparrow to bring me home.”
“You’re sure?” Fortuna asked with a frown.
“Yes, it’s… it’s better that way.” Livia kissed her lucky friend on the cheek, before giving the courier a formal nod. “Thanks, Ryan. I appreciated our talk.”
“It’s alright,” he said, trying to find the right words. “You’re not alone. Don’t forget that.”
“I won’t.” Ryan would have done anything to know what Livia thought, behind that blank face. “I swear.”
She left the restaurant five minutes afterward, leaving the two ‘lovebirds’ alone.
The date was quite alright afterward, though much less amusing than before. Ever the gentleman, Ryan paid for everything and drove Fortuna home.
“Is this your place?” he asked, stopping his Plymouth Fury before a huge, high-end condo complex.
“Yes, it’s one of my apartments.” Fortuna joined her hands together, with no trace of her exuberant pride. “I apologize for what happened with Livy. She’s not having a good time.”
“It’s all Felix’s fault!” Fortuna complained loudly. “He broke her heart, and left her alone to… to play lap dog for a gardener!”
Yeah. Livia’s position clearly isolated her, and she had few friends to whom she could confess her true feelings.
“I am really thankful for your attempt to cheer her up. She truly needed it.“ Fortuna’s face turned thoughtful. “Ryan?”
“Yes?” the courier answered, knowing what would follow.
“I really hesitated,” she said. Somehow, her tone reminded Ryan’s of an executioner’s. “I really hesitated for a moment. But...”
Yes, yes, yes, Ryan thought. Say it won’t work between us, and we’re better as friends!
“But I have decided to forgive you,” Fortuna said with a merciful expression. “I will forgive you for your boorish behavior.”
A short silence followed.
“Oh my, thank you,” Ryan said, outwardly happy and inwardly disappointed. Had his plan worked too well? “I couldn’t have lived without your forgiveness.”
“I know, but you have it. I even enjoyed myself.” Fortuna smiled and joined her hands, without saying anything else. He had the feeling she wanted to ask him something, but wasn’t sure how to say it.
“Well, I guess I will walk you to the door and then leave,” Ryan said, moving to open the car’s door.
It remained locked.
Ryan frowned as he checked on the other doors. None of them opened. The Plymouth Fury also refused to start, even if five different backup systems should prevent that kind of problem.
“So that’s how it is,” Ryan muttered to himself.
“Is there a problem?” Fortuna asked with a smug smile.
“Do you have ten minutes to quickly show me your sculpture collection?” Ryan asked with a charming smile. “I don’t want to bother you.”
“Oh no you do not,” she reassured him, the very picture of false modesty. “You do not bother me at all.”
This time, the car door opened normally.
Damn it, her power was busted!