“So you say the high-security labs are so reinforced, they would survive missile strikes?” Ryan asked Nora as the group walked through the hospital’s hallway, guided by the Dynamis nurse. The Panda hummed a song to himself, while Wardrobe carried flowers and chocolates in her arms.
“Yes, the tinted glass windows outside are just for show,” the Architect explained. “Separate energy generators keep the whole floor running without any external help needed, and the alarm system can detect any intruder. And there is only one way in, through the elevator and then a blast door.”
“No emergency exit?” Ryan asked, realizing his options to infiltrate the lab unnoticed had greatly narrowed. “Not to criticize you, but it sounds like an oversight to me. What if there’s a nuclear detonation inside?”
“Bite me, Mr. Manada wanted the place to be ‘secure, not safe,’” Nora replied with a smile. “I suppose they experiment with dangerous creatures and they don’t want to take any chance of them escaping. I mean, have you seen what they use at the Colosseum Maximus?”
“I just love the new Cyber-Tyranno design!” Wardrobe commented. “Especially the holographic goggles, very classy.”
“Oh, about that, people asked the Panda to participate in the new tournament’s opening match!” Ryan’s disciple showed off his chest with pride. “Panda vs Velociraptors, the ultimate showdown!”
“If you ask me, it’s a colossal waste of resources.” Nora rolled her eyes. “The money would be better spent on hospitals than dinosaurs. They cost a fortune to make, let alone feed.”
“Frankly, I’m torn,” Ryan admitted. “I understand where you come from, but dinosaurs have a special mass appeal. Though if someone were to blow up the whole building because they’re too lazy to use the stairs, would the labs remain intact?”
“Well, yes, they would.” Nora looked at Ryan strangely. “Why would terrorists be too lazy to use the stairs?”
“It’s purely hypothetical,” Ryan lied through his teeth. “But that’s good to know!”
Eventually, the nurse led them to a white hospital room; or as Ryan called it, Felix’s litter.
The young hero looked far better than a few days ago, when Acid Rain had stabbed him through the gut. Besides the fact he needed to stay in bed with bandages around his chest, Atom Cat looked almost perfectly healthy. Though he had been forced to trade his hideous suit and mask for white hospital clothes, which Ryan considered an improvement.
No wonder Livia fell for a face like that, Ryan thought, as he observed Felix’s adorable visage. However, he soon remembered what Fortuna had said, about how her mother used her power for esthetic surgery. Did Venus do the same with her son? Now that Ryan thought of it, Atom Cat’s facial features seemed a bit too perfect.
Poor kitten. Even his face wasn’t his own.
“Guys,” Felix said, unsurprised by Nora’s presence. Wardrobe probably introduced them to one another in the past.
“Felix, I’m so glad you’re okay!” Wardrobe immediately all but dumped the chocolates and flowers on the patient’s lap, much to his shock. “Did they treat you well?”
“Of course,” the Dynamis nurse said with an amused smile, before closing the door behind them, “I will leave you alone, but please don’t make too much noise. The other patients need rest.”
The Panda scratched the back of his head, a bit confused. “I thought you shared a room with… the glass guy...”
“Translucent,” Ryan said. “Or Semi-Transparent for friends.”
“The Shroud,” Felix replied. “He was transferred to intensive care after some shrapnel hit his vital organs. His injuries were so severe, they had to put him in an artificial coma.”
This bothered Ryan. Though Matty Boy had killed him a few times, the time-traveler had grown to appreciate the vigilante. The transparent hero had provided a lot of help across the loops, and without his assistance, Big Fat Adam might have gotten his hands on the Bahamut by now.
“Will he survive?” Wardrobe asked, her expression deflating. Atom Cat shook his head, unable to answer. “It is my fault… I should have thought of a better persona.”
“You couldn’t know, Yuki,” Nora reassured her. “It was in the heat of battle. No one will blame you for losing your cool.”
“You saved my life with your nurse cosplay,” Felix pointed out.
The fashion designer didn’t look convinced. “Yes, but… I’ve done some research, and there are a few personas I could have used to save you both. Though I wish White Mages were public domain…”
“It was your first time in that situation, right?” Ryan asked Wardrobe, who nodded slowly. “Nobody can blame you for not being perfect on your first try. Believe me, I know. Practice makes perfect.”
His words were meant to encourage Wardrobe, but they worsened her mood further. “I don’t want to practice watching people die,” she said, holding her arms as if to protect herself. The Architect put a comforting hand on her girlfriend’s shoulder, trying to reassure Wardrobe.
“So, um, Felix, when will you be out?” the Panda attempted to change the subject.
“Tomorrow, but I won’t stay with Il Migliore,” Felix said, before dropping the bomb. “I’m joining the Carnival.”
“What?” The news was enough to draw Wardrobe out of her depressed mood. “No way, Quicksave the Pandas only had one successful outing and you’re all leaving? That’s like breaking the band after a hit song!”
“W-we can form a duo, Yuki,” said the Panda, trying to salvage the brand. “Yin and Yang!”
“If you change your hero name to Circus Lion, I’ll disown you,” Ryan warned Atom Cat. Felix ignored the courier’s jab, and seemed quite uncomfortable in his presence. Something had changed.
“Is this about the costume?” Wardrobe asked Felix with a frown. “Because Enrique won’t let you join the pro-league unless you change your outfit?”
“Wearing what I want is just a bonus,” Felix said with a smirk. “Sorry, but I feel more in line with the Carnival’s values than Il Migliore’s. Too much red tape gets in the way of doing what’s right.”
Ryan couldn’t say he was surprised, but he wondered how Lightning Dad would react. Mob Zeus could barely be talked out of murdering his godson for joining Dynamis; joining Sunshine’s team might very well push the aging psychopath over the edge. Come to think of it, both Lucky Girl and Livia had been strangely silent lately, neither sending messages.
A storm was brewing in the background. Ryan could feel it in his bones.
“I feel so sad about this,” Wardrobe lamented. “We could have done wonders, the four of us…”
“We can still team-up from time to time,” Ryan argued. “A crossover event every month, until our fans get sick of it!”
“Yes, but it’s not the same,” the fashion designer replied. “I really liked hanging out with all of you.”
“You could always form your own group,” Nora suggested. “I think Enrique would be open to the idea.”
“I’ll pass,” Ryan replied. “I don’t think I will stay in New Rome for long.”
“Really?” This time, Felix finally paid attention to him. “Where will you go?”
“Where life will carry me.”
In truth, Ryan had no idea what would happen after he achieved his Perfect Run for New Rome. In the best case scenario, he might stay with Len and the children, but the time-traveler would likely go back to the road. Staying in one place made him restless, and he couldn’t live without seeking new adventures to tackle.
The courier didn’t feel at home anywhere.
“Sifu, are you leaving me alone?” Even though he was in human form, the Panda’s expression remained very bearlike.
“Your training is now complete, young disciple,” Ryan said, trying to sound wise. “From now on, Life will be your teacher.”
“I… I understand…” The poor manbear struggled not to cry. “I understand.”
“I know you have a lone cowboy energy about you,” Wardrobe said with a frown. “But… I dunno, that sounds like a very lonely existence, Ryan. You’re sure you don’t want to stay? Even if Dynamis doesn’t want you anymore, I sure do!”
Ryan looked at this pure, sweet creature too good for this broken Earth. “BFF?”
“BFF!” she replied with a warm smile.
“Unfortunately, you might have to discuss Yuki’s better qualities later,” Nora said as she checked the time. “You will be late for the meeting.”
“You have something planned?” Ryan asked the others, uninformed.
“Wyvern wants every Il Migliore member to join a big meeting,” Wardrobe said with a sad face. “Sorry, Ryan, it’s members only… I really argued for you to be present, but the new CEO said no. But we’ll tell you how it went!”
It didn’t take long for Ryan to put the pieces together, but he kept his thoughts to himself. “Well, I’ll change the Kitten’s litter alone then.”
“Oh, we could meet tomorrow at my place!” The Panda suggested. “It’s small, but it’s comfy!”
“Sure, that would be great,” Nora said with a smile as she turned to face Ryan. “Perhaps you could introduce me to that underwater specialist you told me about?”
Ryan chuckled. “I’m not sure if she will agree to leave the Commie-Cave, but I’ll try to convince her.”
“Ooh, maybe I will get the Karl Marx costume out of storage then!” On these words, Wardrobe apologized to Felix for the short visit, and then left alongside her girlfriend and the Panda. Ryan was left alone with the young superhero.
“Dynamis and the Carnival are planning to attack the Augusti, aren’t they?” Ryan asked Felix once the rest of the group had left. “A meeting that involves all heroes in their employ barely two days after the Rust Town raid. Alphonse Manada and Hargraves want to strike the iron while it’s still hot.”
“Do you want to know?” Felix asked, his tone suddenly caged and wary. “Or is it Livia asking through you?”
“Truthfully, Kitten, I will find out soon anyway,” Ryan replied with a shrug. “I’m just trying to make conversation. Also, I thought you didn’t want family visits, but I’ve seen Narcinia leaving this place.”
“I made an exception for Narcinia. She deserved to know the truth.” Well, that explained her reaction. “I told her everything. How Augustus murdered her parents, and arranged her adoption so he could use her powers to make drugs. It makes me sick just to speak of it. He’s even worse than I thought.”
“I assume she didn’t believe you?” Ryan slouched on the nearest chair, a leg over the armrest. “She has no memories of her birth parents?”
“No,” Felix replied with an angry scowl. “Bacchus probably shattered her mind when she was young. He can do that with his power. Psychically torture people to madness, or gaslight them into believing false things.”
Ryan mentally noted that tidbit of information, to use when he would blow up the Bliss Factory later. “Well, if you truly join the Carnival, you will have the opportunity to contribute to the family feud.”
“I know about Livia.” Felix glared at Ryan. “Blackthorn told me you met with her and Fortuna.”
Well, that explained the sudden distance between them. “If I told you it was part of a master plan to get your sister off my back, would you believe me?”
“I know how she is, but Livia?” Felix crossed his arms. “First my sister, now my ex? You had to fuck the whole family?”
“Are your parents in an open marriage?” Ryan asked innocently.
Atom Cat didn’t find him funny. “Are you in bed with them? The Augusti?”
“Figuratively or literally?” Technically, he did sleep with Jasmine, but that was one loop ago. “Because the answer is no for both. I swear I haven’t touched your sister, though her power doesn’t make it easy. She’s not as bad as I thought, however...”
“Just… stop talking about my sister…” Felix closed his eyes for a second, as if he banished a dirty image in his own mind. “Livia is too careful to approach someone outside the hierarchy. Even with Fortuna around. And that’s not all. You knew that Fortuna was my sister and that I dated Livia, information only available among the Augusti and a few people at Dynamis. Blackthorn swears you never talked about me before.”
Ryan guessed where this was going. “You think I got this information from the Augusti, Kitten?”
“Where else?” Felix replied sarcastically. “I just don’t get you, Ryan.”
“Would I have helped Translucent and Sunshine if I worked with Augustus?” Ryan asked a simple question, glancing at the chocolates Wardrobe had left to Felix. He had the feeling they would go uneaten. “I can’t help it if everyone wants a piece of me.”
“So you’re not a friend of Augustus, but you’re not his enemy either?” Felix sneered, his former friendliness gone. “So, you’re just a mercenary at heart? You organized the Meta-Gang’s downfall because someone paid you to?”
“What? No, I’m not paid for what I do, though I wish I were.” Good grief, if Ryan had been paid for every loop he spent in New Rome, he would be even richer. “Truth is, Kitten, I destroyed Hannifat Lecter’s group because they threatened friends of mine. I’m just trying to make sure the people I care about get to live another day. No more, no less.”
“That’s Livia’s excuse. Protect her family, no matter what.”
“She still loves you, you know?” While Ryan respected Felix’s decision to cut ties with his family, he sympathized too much with Livia’s situation not to at least try to help them make up.
“I don’t.” Atom Kitten looked away. “I never did. Not like that.”
Ryan frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Our parents pushed us into our relationship,” Felix admitted. “They were best friends back when their organization was just a branch of the Camorra. Our match was decided back when we were children. I… I still care about her, don’t get me wrong, but as a friend. I don’t love her. I never was the Prince Charming she wanted me to be.”
“She told me about your secret hideout.” Ryan tried to sound neutral, but he couldn’t hold back an undercurrent of reproach in his voice. “How you went there to hide from your families. You were misleading her back then?”
“I… I wasn’t lying, not really. I tried to make it work, but…” Atom Kitten shook his head. “You can’t force yourself to love someone, man.”
Ryan felt some sympathy for Felix, but he pitied Livia most of all. Longing for something that was never there.
Most of all though, the courier couldn’t shake the feeling this situation echoed his own. He saw the parallels with his relationship with Len painted all over the walls, though at least he and Shortie might end up on speaking terms. Livia and Felix’s situation just reeked of a tragedy waiting to happen.
“You’re close to her,” Felix said. “Livia. She told you about the hideout. About me. That’s how you knew. You’re not Augustus’ friend, you’re Livia’s.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. We threatened to kill each other more than once.”
“Still, Blackthorn told me you were pretty friendly to each other.” Felix examined Ryan closely, his face undecipherable. “What is she to you?”
“I…” Ryan cleared his throat, trying to organize his thoughts. “She… she reminds me of someone else. Someone I tried to free from a monster, and I failed. I just don’t want Livia to end the same way.”
Atom Cat remained silent for an agonizing minute, before speaking his mind, “You won’t save her from her father, Ryan.”
The courier flinched.
“I tried too,” Felix said. “But you can’t. His hold over her is too strong. The only way is to destroy Augustus, and even if you can, she will hate you for it.”
Just like Len and Bloodstream.
“Isn’t that what you’re trying to do?” Ryan asked. “Dynamis and the Carnival plan to attack Augustus, and Lightning Butt won’t take you siding with them well. Your parents can’t shield you forever.”
“I don’t care,” Felix replied, raising his shoulder in an attempt to look stronger than he was. “I made peace with the possibility.”
“With Sunshine’s help, the Manada might have the firepower to take down the Augusti,” Ryan conceded. “But the real problem remains. Mob Zeus himself.”
“Dynamis has a weapon. Something that might put him out of commission.”
“The Gravity Gun Alphonse mentioned earlier? His own father didn’t believe in it.”
“We can’t live in fear of him forever, Ryan,” Felix replied gruffly. “Someone has to take a stand, even if they must pay the price. Or else, things will never change. Bliss will continue to flow, and people will keep dying.”
Ryan prepared to argue with him further, when his phone rang. He quickly brought it out of his pocket and checked the sender. “It’s Livia,” he said.
Felix responded with a scoff. “Don’t answer. I won’t take the phone.”
“Okay boomer,” Ryan replied before taking the call anyway. “Yes, Princess?”
“Ryan.” Her tone was frantic, almost panicked. “Is Felix with you?”
“Yes, but he won’t speak with you—”
“You need to run,” she interrupted him, “you need to take him and run. You need to get out of New Rome right now.”
“Wait, wait, out of New Rome?” Ryan frowned, straightening in his chair. “Princess, I have a life, I can’t drop everything to-”
“If you don’t, Dad will have him killed!”
Ryan froze in place, looking at the oblivious Atom Kitten. “Because he joined the Carnival?”
“And what he told Narcinia,” Livia continued, her voice breaking. Though he couldn’t hear her side of the conversation, Felix clearly seemed to understand the gist of it. “I’m… I’m trying to prevent it, but the possibilities get worse every minute. I… I can’t see a way out, but I can’t see you either. I need your help.”
“Should I bring him to Dynamis?”
“No. My father is marshaling his forces for war with the Manada. Felix won’t be safe anywhere in New Rome, do you understand?”
Ryan’s worst fears were realized. Either Lightning Butt had learned of Sunshine’s alliance with Dynamis or of their incoming attack, and gotten off his throne. The Living Sun and Augustus would soon settle their rivalry, one way or another.
Ryan looked at Felix and considered his options. Technically, besides Lab Sixty-Six, nothing kept him in New Rome anymore in this run. Shortie wanted to abandon the surface altogether, and the Carnival would probably make the Bliss Factory their first target.
However… if the city descended into war, Ryan couldn’t afford to miss it. Len might get embroiled in it, if he trusted Enrique’s words, and too many people he wanted to protect were in danger. He needed to gather more information.
“Who is after him?” the courier asked. “Why can’t he survive in any possibility?”
Livia hesitated, but in the end, she wanted to protect Felix more than she wished to hide her family’s secrets.
“Aunt Pluto,” she finally admitted. “Aunt Pluto will go after him.”
Cruella. They sent Cruella.
“If she gets to him, it’s over Ryan. She already marked him.” And Ryan too, beforehand. “If she gets close enough, he will die with no way out. He has to leave the city.”
“How does Pluto’s power work?” The mere mention of her name caused a silent Felix to tense up.
“She… she can mark people with a curse, and the closer she moves to them, the closer they become to death. Ryan, you must leave now. She will be on her way anytime soon.”
Ryan observed Atom Cat, who seemed… almost resigned. Like a condemned man hearing a death sentence.
He didn’t think he would survive this.
Now, Ryan could leave him to his death. Pluto might be one of the few people capable of killing him permanently, and he was making real progress with breaking his own curse. Len was on the verge of unlocking the brain-transfer, and they could sit out this war. Livia would be mad, but Ryan could reasonably escape any punishment if he played his cards well.
But that would mean callously leaving a teammate to die for his personal gain.
And even if there might be no punishment… Ryan wasn’t that kind of person.
“You were on my list too,” the courier finally told Felix, remembering his discussion with Livia earlier during this loop. “She had claimed you first, so I didn’t say your name.”
Atom Cat blinked in confusion. “What?”
“The list of people I wished to protect.” Well, that left only one option then… “Kitten, pack your things, we’re going to Monaco.”
“Monaco?” Felix asked, horrified.
“I’m kidding,” Ryan said, his phone still in hand. “About the Monaco part. Pack your things, we’re leaving.”
“I’m not running away, not even from Pluto,” Atom Kitten insisted. “I won’t hide—”
“Let me tell you something,” the time-traveler put away the phone, looking straight into Felix’s eyes. “Death is painful. It is painful, and lonely, and you have no idea how much. And not just for you, but for everyone who cared about you. If you want to die a martyr? Fine, it’s your choice. But do you imagine how your sisters will feel? How will your friends?”
“How do you think Fortuna will feel once Pluto brings her your head?”
This time, Ryan’s blunt question silenced the young hero. Unlike the courier, Felix had people who would mourn his death; people who would remember. And it seemed he had finally realized it.
“We’re leaving,” Ryan told Livia, Felix climbing out of the bed to change his clothes. “How long do we have?”
“I’ll try to give you as much as possible, but… not much.” She let out a long sigh. “Thanks, Ryan. I… I will remember this. You aren’t helping an ingrate, I swear.”
“You won’t remember, but thanks anyway.” Ryan hung up, and called another number. “Shortie? Shortie?!”
“Yes?” she answered. Thankfully, she had set up a communication channel for such emergencies. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes, a big one. Could you reroute one of your bathyspheres to send a human-sized cat to say, France?”
“What’s, what’s happening?” She immediately started to panic. “Riri, are they hunting you?”
“No, not yet.” Though Ryan had the intuition he would be on Augustus’ kill list very soon. “It’s for a friend in need.”
“I… I can do it.”
“Okay, we’ll meet outside the city.” If the transfer happened within New Rome’s confines and they learned of the bathysphere, then Vulcan would either track Felix down or inform Augustus about Len’s hideout. While the weapon Genius wasn’t very loyal to her boss, she had no reason to help Ryan this time around. “Be wary, Vulcan might be set on our case soon. From the designs I gave you, how long will it take you to recreate the armor?”
“Riri, we can’t, it’s too early to test… I’m not even sure...”
“We won’t have much time,” Ryan replied. “The whole cardboard castle will crumble soon.”
The storm Enrique had forewarned was about to hit New Rome. And Ryan wanted Len to remember him when it subsided.
“I… I’ll do what I can,” she said. “Take care, Riri. I’m coming.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said as he hung up. By now, Atom Cat had switched from his hospital clothes to his usual costume, and even put the mask on.
“Why France?” Felix asked, a dart bandolier around his chest.
“Many people there owe me a favor, and I’ll cash in.” Ryan’s first thought had been to send Atom Cat to Len’s base, but the risk of Augustus attacking the Commie-Cave was too great. The courier couldn’t endanger Shortie nor the children. “I hope you like Camus though.”
“Whom?” What an uncultured bore! “Do we take your car?”
The—damn it, and this mess had to happen the one day he left his Plymouth Fury with Len!
“No,” Ryan said, realizing he would need to cross a line today. “We’ll take the Pandamobile.”
He had the feeling this day was about to get worse.