He found Livia waiting for him at the Deadland motel.
Ryan drove to the meeting spot in his Plymouth Fury, having repaired his car after the Land wrecked it; though he had to drown it with perfume to hide the Junkyard’s stench. The courier himself had switched from his normal clothes to an elegant black jacket with a purple polo shirt underneath, with no bright color to be seen; Darkling would have loved it.
A pity he couldn’t raid Dynamis’ cashmere factory without putting the company on high alert or starting a war with the Augusti. Neither could he use Mechron’s matter replicator without Alchemo jailbreaking the mainframe first.
Of course, Ryan could have always spent money, but a cashmere suit wasn’t bought. It was taken, by either strength or wits.
Livia had put a lot of effort into her appearance too, more than Ryan had ever seen her do. She wore an elegant sleeveless dress and golden bracelets, but also black stockings, red high heels, and golden earrings. She had put a lovely crimson rose in her hair, black linings around her eyes; it contrasted well with her sapphire eyes and the silver hair flowing on her back. Though she couldn’t compare with her best friend Fortuna in the beauty department, Ryan found Livia quite lovely. A true princess.
She hadn’t seen him yet due to the ambient darkness, so he watched her from afar for a short while. Livia waited in the parking lot, with her hands joined. She fidgeted in place, and let out a long, heavy breath as if to calm herself.
She hadn’t seen how the date would end, and it made her nervous.
Ryan drove to her side, ending her silent agony. Livia immediately corrected her expression upon noticing him, smiling warmly at his arrival. “Did you order a pumpkin carriage, princess?” the courier asked, upon stopping in front of her.
“Will your car turn into a vegetable at midnight?” she teased him, while sitting at his side. Her perfume smelled of rose and strawberry. “This only leaves three hours.”
“Livia, I can time travel. I can make three hours last a lifetime.”
“I don’t doubt that,” she said, closing the car’s door behind her. “But I would prefer it if you could bring me home before two in the morning, or my father might get upset.”
“You’ve never had a sleepless night out in town?” Ryan asked, amused, as he drove away through New Rome’s streets. “My, it was about time I came into your life.”
Livia blushed a little, embarrassed. “I wasn’t that sheltered,” she protested. “With my power, I could experience wild moments by proxy, with none of the hangovers, drowsiness, and side-effects that came with it.”
“Watching is not the same as living.”
“No, but I don’t enjoy parties that much,” she admitted. “I prefer simpler moments with just a few friends. The more people surround me, the more my power goes into overdrive. Too many interactions at once.”
“Cancel blocks your visions?” Ryan asked, his date answering with a short nod. “You could always hang out with her then.”
Livia shook her head. “I don’t like Greta. That woman is capable of anything. She could be just as hideously violent as Adam the Ogre, if she had any motivation.” Lightning Butt’s daughter frowned, as they approached the highway where Ryan and Felix once engaged her aunt Pluto in a car chase. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” Ryan replied.
She blinked in surprise. “Away from the city?”
“Well, I figured you probably visited all of New Rome’s restaurants, either directly or with your power. But there is one place I’m sure you’ve never been to before.”
“Within an hour’s drive of New Rome?” Livia asked with skepticism, before grinning wickedly. “I doubt so. Unless… unless, you intend to take me out of the city to ravish me in the wilderness?”
“Did you bring a chastity belt? It has been a while since I unlocked one.”
Livia’s smile turned coy and playful. The young woman wasn’t as innocent as she let it seem. “If my father heard you, he would have you struck down.”
“I have a lightning rod in the car boot. Does your father even know you’re in a car with a dashing courier?” His date’s mischievous smile was an answer in itself. “Would he let you date anyone?”
“Only an Augusti. My father mistrusts anyone outside of our clan. He wouldn’t let Felix anywhere near me again, even if…” Her bashful smile turned sour.
“So you’re disobeying him even as we speak?” Ryan mused, trying to distract her from her bad memories. “You live a dangerous life.”
His date chuckled in response, which Ryan took as a good sign. “Not as much as yours. To be fair, you’re the first who dared to ask me out at all. Most men are simply too frightened to try.” She looked at him warmly. “That’s one of the things I like about you, Ryan. You dare it all.”
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” he replied, a foot on the accelerator. “Is your seatbelt tightly on?”
“Yes, it i—”
She gasped in surprise, as the Plymouth Fury raced on the highway. One hundred kph turned into one hundred and fifty, while Ryan switched the Chronoradio to Mad Max 2’s main theme. They passed by two cars, violating all road safety laws as they went.
“Stop!” Livia pleaded as the speed kept climbing, a hand on his arm. She screamed as they passed by a car so closely that they nearly brushed against it; though she could sense the cars coming, she couldn’t foresee how Ryan would react to them, if he did. “Stop, you madman!”
“Don’t try this at home, kids!” The courier said, using brief bursts of time-stop to avoid colliding with other vehicles.
Livia’s scream of fear transformed into laughter, as the adrenaline pumped through her veins and the Plymouth Fury reached its maximum velocity. Ryan had modified his car to reach over three hundred kph, and at this speed, the world around them turned into a blur. Other cars became spots of color, the highway ahead became a tunnel of light.
If only Ryan could have driven his Plymouth Fury rather than the Pandamobile when Pluto came for his head. Cruella would never have come within an inch of his car.
Once he sensed they were close to their destination, Ryan activated a hidden button. The car hood opened to reveal a Genius device, the tip of a particle accelerator. Tiny light spheres came out of it, stretching reality apart.
“Have you watched Back to the Future?” Ryan grinned at Livia.
She answered with a panicked, exhilarated scream, as particles swallowed the Plymouth Fury. The stars above fell down in a rain of light, reality itself shifting around them.
Space stretched on until it shattered, and the car emerged on the other side.
Ryan hit the brakes and the device deactivated. The Plymouth Fury emerged from a particle cloud to slow down beneath alien skies, on a highway without cars.
Livia let out a heavy breath, as she recovered from the adrenaline rush. Only then did Ryan notice that her left hand held his right tightly; she must have seized it instinctively when they reached maximum speed.
Ryan’s thumb brushed against her warm fingers, and Livia squeezed tighter in return.
“You okay?” The courier asked her. Instead of answering, she broke the hand contact and slapped him behind the head in response. “Ouch!”
“You madman...” Livia let out a nervous laugh, as the tension went down. “That was insane, Ryan.”
“We’ll have to do it again, on the way back.”
“Oh, God.” She smiled, catching her breath. “Did you ever get a driver’s license?”
“Now, don’t ask too much.”
Livia giggled, and glanced outside her window. Her eyes widened upon seeing the world around them.
While they were still on the highway, purple auroras had taken over the night sky above them. The northern lights shone with the brilliance of stars, and within them one could glimpse images of strange places. Seas of mercury, clouds of floating ice, green lightning coursing through black, empty space.
The highway was deserted except for the Plymouth Fury, and seemed to stretch on forever. The land around the road had turned into a red desert, though one could see another highway in the distance. Even the temperature had increased, from chilly to warm and comforting.
“What is this place?” Livia asked as they exited the car, astonished.
“A thin place. A natural space anomaly, if you will.” Ryan moved to the car boot, where he kept the dinner. “I nicknamed it the Midnight Road.”
“I see other people,” Livia said, pointing at two silhouettes on the second highway.
“That’s us.” Ryan raised his hand, and the silhouette on the distant highway imitated him. “Do you see?”
“No.” The Augusti Princess had tears at the edge of her eyes. “No, I can’t see anything.”
She wasn’t talking about her eyes.
In the end, they sat at the highway’s edge, their feet dangling about the desert. Ryan offered Livia a sushi box, and chopsticks to go with it. “Space folds back?” his date asked after wiping away the tears, looking at the other highway in the distance.
“Yep,” Ryan replied, his mouth full of fish. “The highway stretches for thirty kilometers, and then loops back. It’s shorter on the sides.”
“Did you make this place?” Livia asked, tasting a Futomaki with a curious frown. “Or did another Genome build it?”
Ryan shook his head. “It’s a natural phenomenon, though you need Genius tech to access it. The colored dimensions are above our realities, beyond space and time as most humans understand it, but there are other realms sideways too. They follow the same timestream as our own.”
“So this is an alternate universe?”
“I wouldn't say that. It’s… it’s more like a cave inside a mountain, except the mountain is Earth’s reality. A place where space-time folds due to gravitational or electromagnetic anomalies.” Ryan glanced at the purple auroras above their heads. “I think this place is close to the Purple World. Like a border realm between our universe and the big crossroads of all space and time.”
“I cannot observe anything within the colors dimensions, except the Blue one,” Livia guessed. “That is why I can’t detect you either, since you exist in two dimensions at once.”
Ryan nodded, before noticing that his date didn’t seem enthusiastic about finishing her plate. “You don’t like the food?”
“I’m sorry…” She made an embarrassed smile. “I hate it.”
Ryan’s heart skipped a beat. “You hate Japanese food?”
“I don’t like sushi, no.” Livia sheepishly shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
Goddamn it, he knew he should have picked French food! Nobody disliked French food, except the British and the truly wicked.
“But I love the place, and the gesture,” Livia immediately reassured him, when she saw his dejected face. “It more than makes up for the food.”
“I will have to reload now,” Ryan grumbled. “The date is not perfect.”
“No, Ryan, no,” Livia protested, instantly serious. She put a hand on his arm and squeezed it tight. “No, don’t, please. It’s because this moment is genuine that I enjoy it so much.”
“Relax, I was kidding,” Ryan teased her, his index finger brushing against her cheek. She blushed so much that a scarlet streak had formed beneath her eyes. “Though you’ve got a smile to die for.”
Livia exploded into laughter, almost spitting out her food. The sound of her voice warmed Ryan’s old, weary heart. “Does that pick-up line ever work?” she asked with a wide grin on her face.
“More than you think.”
“But not on me,” she said, as he removed his hand. “You will have to do better.”
“You might regret it. I invented lines so powerful, that a few countries made them illegal.”
His date rolled her eyes, and dared to put his boast to the test. “Then prove me wrong.”
Instead of answering with words, Ryan put the sushi plates aside, and grabbed Livia by the waist. His date let out a squeal of surprise as he quickly lifted and put her on his lap. She weighed almost nothing, their feet dangling into the void.
“Ryan!” Livia laughed, so red the courier wondered if she might faint from the embarrassment. “You’re going too far this time!”
“Come on, my lap feels better than the interdimensional highway’s concrete.” He put his arms around Livia and held her tight, her head resting against his shoulder. “Unless Your Majesty would prefer a nobler seat?”
“I ought to have you whipped for your insolence, but I have the feeling you might enjoy it.”
“You would be right, mistress.”
The mafia princess laughed heartily, accepted the Throne of Romano as her seat, and made herself comfortable. Her back rested against the courier’s chest, and he sensed her hastening heartbeat beneath her skin. Though the scarlet streak across Livia’s face had transformed into a light blush, Ryan could tell the situation was new to her. She had only ever dated Felix, who had never been as comfortable with physical contact as the courier was.
“Can you reach these places?” Livia pointed a finger at the alien mirages in the skies, pictures of alien worlds, unlike Earth.
“Some,” Ryan confirmed. “Others I plan to visit one day.”
“Take me with you when you do,” she all but ordered him, sounding like a true queen. “To make up for your bold transgression.”
“And what if I commit crime after crime?” he teased her.
“Maybe I will punish you, or maybe not,” Livia replied coyly, putting her hands on his own. They felt warm and comforting to the touch, like Jasmine’s had been. “How did you even find out about these thin places? Did you stumble into one by accident?”
“I learned of them while researching particle physics in Switzerland.” Ryan shuddered. “Don’t go to Monaco.”
“What is happening in that place?” she asked, curious. “My power will not show me. I heard nobody that goes there come back, but you said you lived a full life there?”
“Shrimps, and caviar,” Ryan replied darkly. Even now both gave him PTSD. “It’s shrimps and caviar, until you can’t take it anymore.”
“That doesn’t explain anything.” Livia frowned, sensing his unease. “Something happened in this place. Something that hurt you deeply.”
Ryan’s first instinct was to deny the truth, but her firm gaze dissuaded him. “I…” the courier trailed off, having lived with this secret like a boulder around his ankle like a ball and chain. He had never told anyone, carrying that cross across time. Nobody would have understood.
But she would.
He could see it in her eyes. Livia had watched whole lifetimes through her power, from what she had told him. She couldn’t comprehend the sheer weight he carried, but she could imagine it.
“I told you I stayed there a full life,” Ryan unburdened himself. “I meant a full life.”
Livia guessed the truth. Her expression shifted into one of horror, as she covered her mouth with a hand. “No.”
Ryan looked away at the otherworldly desert beneath the highway, without uttering a word.
“Is that why you always say you’re immortal?” Livia’s eyes softened in compassion. “Does Len know?”
“No.” Shortie already had enough burdens on her frail shoulders, and ghosts of her own. “You’re the only one.”
“Did you…” The seer bit her lower lips, as if afraid to go on. At that moment, Livia reminded Ryan of Len so much. They shared the same kind heart, beneath all the hardships. “Did you have… a family?”
“I… I never dared to,” he confessed. “If… if my timing was even slightly off during the conception, then a different child would be born from loop to loop. I wouldn’t have survived it. Not mentally.”
“I’m sorry I asked that,” Livia apologized. She turned her head, and her hand touched his chin to make him look up at her. “I’m…”
The seer struggled to find the right words to comfort him, until she did.
“I’ve seen other lives I could have lived with Felix,” Livia confessed, her gaze sad and regretful. “Growing old together, having children. I saw these possibilities, but I couldn’t make them true. I won’t pretend I understand what you went through, because…” She let out a brief sigh. “Because watching is not living.”
“But you know how deep the pain goes.”
“Yes, I do.” Her hand brushed against his cheek. “You don’t have to suffer alone, Ryan. Now… now you don’t have to suffer anymore. I will help you with your burden, I swear.”
“Thanks.” He took her left hand and kissed it gallantly. Now that he had her, Ryan could carry others through time. He could build lasting friendships, maybe even a family. The courier could finally create a future he was happy with. “I will return the favor.”
“You already did,” Livia admitted, sounding as tired as he was. “I’ve had this power for nearly a decade and a half, Ryan. Truthfully, I’ve never gone on without it for so long since I was a child. It’s… it’s refreshing, but scary too.”
“I get it. I feel that way whenever Cancel enters the picture. My power can be a pain, but it’s reassuring.” In the end, Ryan’s Elixir had tried to help. The entity had remained at its human’s side for centuries, sharing his hardships and victories. “I’ve figured the best thing I could offer you… was the unexpected.”
“It was a wonderful gift.” Livia fell silent, gazing at the alien horizon. Something weighed on her mind too.
Ryan guessed what. “You’ve seen your father wage war in the future.”
“Ryan, this is a blissful moment. Let us not ruin it with my sorrows.”
“I thought I already beat you to the gloomy confessions?” he asked, tightening his hold on her waist, his cheek brushing against her neck. “Let’s be honest, we’ll never find better therapists than each other.”
Livia chuckled, though it sounded bittersweet. “Yes, I’ve seen it,” she admitted with a heavy heart. “One night, I dreamt that Felix would barge into my room riding a white stallion, and carry me away from this city. It was a little girl’s foolish dream, but I hoped it would come true one day.”
“Would you settle for a knight in power armor?” Ryan jested. “Lasers are the new swords.”
“Do you know Dynamis has lightsabers?” Livia asked him playfully. “Perhaps you should grab one. A blue one.”
“And you take the red, Queen Crimson?”
“I love the dark side,” his accomplice joked back. “But I prefer you on the side of the angels.”
“Come on, we had the most fun in our Meta run.” Though the end was a lot grimmer than expected.
“Yes, but no matter how much you try to hide it, Ryan, your true self shines through. Your good, gentle self.” Her smile faltered. “What father plans to do… I will stop it, you have my word.”
“I will help.”
“You already did, more than you know. More than you should have.” Livia looked into his eyes. “You don’t have to go further, Ryan.”
“No, I don’t,” he agreed, meeting her gaze with a determined one of his own. “But I want to.”
They locked eyes for minutes afterward, Ryan seeing multiple emotions flash through Livia’s blue eyes. Surprise, compassion, joy, gratitude… and something else. Something deeper, and more intense.
“We should go,” Ryan said. “It’s past midnight.”
“Not yet,” his date replied, staring at the skies. “Let us stay a little longer.”
They sat there in a comfortable silence, watching the auroras.
In the end, Ryan brought Livia back to Mount Augustus. He stopped before the fortified fence circling the hill, right as the clock struck two in the morning. “Right on time, princess,” the courier said, glancing at his fellow Genome. “So, what’s my date review? Ten out of ten, twelve and a half without factoring in the food?”
She didn’t answer. Livia had spent the whole return trip without saying a word, her head resting against the palm of her hand, her eyes gazing beyond the window. Perhaps she regretted that her Blue power now worked again.
Ryan cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed by the silence. “Livia?”
“I need to show you something,” she shook her head, peeking out of the car’s window and at the entrance portal’s camera. After a minute of waiting, the doors opened for them. “If you want to.”
Ryan had a pretty good idea of what awaited him, but he needed to be sure. “You understand that your father will know?”
Livia looked into his eyes, and he understood.
She had made that choice because of her father, knowing the consequences.
It was an act of rebellion.
Ryan drove the Plymouth Fury upward, towards the villa at Mount Augustus’ summit. He glimpsed guards protecting the property, but paid them no mind. Eventually, he parked his car near the house’s entrance, exiting it with Livia.
The Augusti princess led him into the villa through the front door, none of them saying a word. Though it was dark inside, she knew the place like the back of her hand and guided them through whitened corridors. Lightning Butt had devised his home like a true Roman villa, showcasing an obsession with marble deity statues and pillars that bordered on the pathological.
Ryan didn’t pay his surroundings much attention. His eyes remained firmly focused on Livia’s back, as he followed her. He could see shivers along her naked shoulders, her body rife with anxiety and tension.
Eventually, she led him to a room with a large red door. The seer froze for a few seconds, let out a heavy breath, and opened it.
Ryan walked into a bedroom almost as large as his luxury apartments, back when he worked for Il Migliore. Unlike the rest of the villa, it had been decorated in a more modern style. Paintings of cities, of smiling families, and natural wonders covered the walls, next to shelves full of dusty books. A reinforced window provided a direct view onto a beautiful terrace outside, and a king-sized bed lined up against a wall.
Livia wordlessly sat on the mattress after closing the door behind them, and joined her hands together. She didn’t face Ryan, her eyes looking down at the ground. Her face was red, her breathing short, and she seemed terrified of asking him a single question.
Ryan cleared his throat. “Livia…”
“Do you want to kiss me?” she asked meekly while looking up at him, afraid of his reaction.
His lips met her own, and she didn’t say another word for the rest of the night.
Neither of them did.