It was May 8th for the seventeenth time, and Ryan Romano had died happy.
Or he could have, as he woke up in a king-sized bed and in Livia’s arms. Ryan had beat up Ghoul again in his sleep, only to quickly snap out of this nightmare. And a nightmare it had been. The courier usually didn’t care about dying and beginning again, even in his dreams, but now he did.
He didn’t want her to forget him.
Livia was holding him even now, her arms around his neck, her breasts on his chest, a leg over his thigh. Her hair covered her restful face like silver strands. The seer was warm to the touch, and she lightly snored, which Ryan found cute. Still, he might have to sleep with earplugs from now on.
Ryan Romano had been with countless people in his long life, and in his mind, lovemaking said a lot about a person’s character. Len had been hesitant, clumsy, and vulnerable; the Doll, curious and playful; Jasmine had been wild, energetic, and liked weird roleplay.
It had been… right. Just right. Like fitting the right key in a lock. Livia was less experienced than her partner, but she was delicate, attentive, and considerate. And she laughed, sometimes at the most inappropriate time. Ryan couldn’t explain why, but her laughter relaxed him.
For a moment, the courier completely forgot about Psychos, Bloodstream, and the fact he just bedded Lightning Butt’s daughter in his own house. He only cared about the lovely woman in his bed. For an instant, Livia was his world.
He wanted to wake her up, to face her, and hold her hands while they kissed. He wanted to hold her, to become one with her. But the seer slept so soundly, and so blissfully, that Ryan couldn’t bring himself to disturb her rest. In her own dreams, Livia looked happier than the courier had ever seen her.
Ryan was hungry though. The courier had noticed a kitchen on his way to Livia’s bedroom, so he would go prepare the breakfast. He was sure Augustus’ daughter would love to wake up in front of pastries.
Livia wouldn’t let Ryan go though, even in her sleep. When the courier tried to sneak out of the bed, she just held him tighter. He had to freeze time to escape her grip and put a pillow in his place, but a frown appeared on the seer’s face as time resumed.
The sight made Ryan feel… It took him a while to figure out the right word.
Ryan felt loved. Livia wanted him at her side so much, she wouldn’t let him go even in her dreams. Once, the time-traveler would have backed away in fear afterward; fear that he might die, and that this moment would lose its significance. Fear of the pain he would feel, if Livia forgot him.
Now, Ryan wanted to return to her. It took all his willpower, and screaming stomach, not to slip back into the bed.
The bedsheets, no, the whole room reeked of sex, so Ryan opened the windows to let the fresh air in. The morning sun outside blinded him and burnt his skin like a vampire, though he quickly recovered. Only redheads had to fear the morning sun, for they lacked a soul.
Ryan thought of putting on his clothes, but they were… dirty. Instead, the naked courier explored the bedroom and found a white bathrobe with cat motifs. The time-traveler wondered if it had once belonged to Felix, before putting it on alongside the slippers.
Before moving to the door, Ryan took a moment to examine the paintings in the bedroom. Some represented Livia as a child with two people whom he recognized as her parents. Augustus always looked grim in reality, but his painted self smiled warmly; it made Mob Zeus seem less like a bloodthirsty monster, and more like a human being. Most importantly, he hadn’t turned into an ivory statue then, his hair white and his eyes blue like his daughter. As for his wife, she was a carbon copy of Livia, albeit older and stouter.
Other pictures represented cities like New York, with one tower in place of the World Trade Center. A painting of Paris had zeppelins flying in the sky alongside steam-powered devices. It seemed Livia liked to paint about alternate universes in her spare time. Or perhaps she dreamed of happier realities than her own.
In any case, Ryan silently slipped out of the bedroom, and quickly found his way to the kitchen. Unlike the straight antiquity style of the rest of the villa, the architect designed this room to mix the old and the new. High-tech fridges and ovens faced a five-meters long marble counter and ivory statues of Roman Deities. Venus and Mars holding hands, Jupiter triumphant, Diana and Apollo hunting side by side. How could Ryan resist making breakfast in such divine company?
The courier searched the room, and found a silver platter. He put it on the marble counter, and started preparing the breakfast. Livia was quite skinny, which Ryan found unhealthy, so he prepared fried eggs, bacon, coffee, and French croissants.
The courier would make pancakes for her tomorrow.
Ryan raised his eyes to look at the statues while he prepared the breakfast. Maybe it was sleeplessness, but… the statue of Jupiter seemed vaguely familiar.
Ryan blinked, one hand holding a knife and the other a buttered toast. The Jupiter statue was a carbon copy of Augustus, standing still while gazing at the counter.
The courier dropped everything and moved to the side, but the statue’s eyes didn’t follow. Come to think of it, Lightning Butt always kept a shroud of lightning around his face, to intimidate others. This statue had none.
Was Mob Zeus arrogant enough to populate his own villa with statues in his likeness? Or was it something else?
Ryan knew he should take the platter and return to Livia, but he couldn’t suppress his morbid curiosity. The time-traveler moved in front of the statue, and waved his hand before its eyes.
“Oh look outside, it’s a wild Hargraves!” Ryan pointed at the kitchen’s window, and the sunlight outside. “Quick, he’s getting away!”
The statue didn’t react. It didn’t breathe, didn’t blink, didn’t do anything. Damn, Discount Zeus was arrogant enough to build statues of himself and put them in his kitchen.
Ryan poked the ivory construct in the nose, and decided to call it quits.
This time, Augustus woke up.
The ivory statue’s eyes glanced down at Ryan, blinking a few times. It reminded the terrified courier of a grandpa with Alzheimer’s, suddenly remembering his son’s face. Was Lightning Butt sleeping with his eyes open, like a crocodile? Or did his tumor cause him to have a brain seizure?
“Hey, what’s up?!” Ryan asked, trying to lighten up the atmosphere. He better make a good impression, as Lightning Butt wouldn’t take anyone dating his daughter well.
“Who are you?” Augustus asked, his eyes squinting. There was no fear nor surprise in his voice, which Ryan found quite intimidating. The tyrant was so confident in his own power, that catching an intruder in his own home didn’t even phase him.
“I’m Batman,” Ryan replied, trying to sound calm. However, he couldn’t shake the ominous feeling of dread pervading the room.
“Whom?” Lightning Butt observed Ryan’s bathrobe, his eyes flaring with crimson lightning upon recognizing the outfit. “This belongs to my daughter.”
In hindsight, sleeping with Lightning Butt’s daughter beneath his own roof might not have been Ryan’s brightest idea.
“You know what, don’t mind me, I’ll take the doo—” Ryan tried to take a step back, but Augustus swiftly grabbed his shoulder with his right hand. Lightning Butt had invaded his personal space, like Germany with Poland.
“You are not going anywhere,” Lightning Butt said, his tone suddenly a lot more threatening. “Thief.”
Of what, a bathrobe? Ryan would have bore that badge with pride if it had been a cashmere suit, but he wouldn’t go to war for cotton. “Nah, I’m rich.” Rich people didn’t steal, that was known. “I’m a good friend of your daughter, and she invited me for a sleepover.”
“Lies,” Augustus replied, his grip on Ryan’s shoulder tightening. It didn’t hurt yet, but the courier could tell that the murderous mob boss would tear him in half at the slightest provocation. “My daughter would inform me. She knows the rules. I do not know how you bypassed the guards, but you were foolish to come here.”
“It was late, you can check the cameras or ask Livi—”
“You will not get anywhere near my blood,” Augustus interrupted him. “Now, tell the truth before I tear off your limbs.”
Damn it, that paranoid psychopath wouldn’t listen! Ryan looked into the madman’s eyes, and saw that nothing the courier could say would change his mind. One glance, and Lightning Butt had already condemned the courier to death.
Ryan could try running back to Livia to clear this up, but Mob Zeus could move inside his time-stop and zap him with lightning; and if the courier perished now, then Livia would forget that night. She would forget him.
The courier had to delay, and pray for Lightning Butt’s daughter to wake up.
“I will not repeat myself again,” Augustus said, tempting fate. “Where did you find—”
Ryan froze time, and didn’t move. As far as the world was concerned, he had stopped just like everything else.
“—these clothes?” Augustus blinked, glanced around, and let out a sound that could pass for a sigh. He waited several seconds for the effect to end, with a look of resigned acceptance.
“I’m sorry, sir?” Ryan asked when time resumed, feigning confusion. Thankfully, he had an excellent poker face. “What did you say?”
“I said that—” The clock stopped again, and once more Ryan feigned being paralyzed. Augustus let out a snarl of anger and frustration, much to the courier’s deep satisfaction. The mob boss clenched his jaw, even after the flow of time resumed.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Ryan apologized, delighting at the ivory man’s frustration. After watching this selfish prick try to murder Leo Hargraves as the world collapsed around them, it felt quite good. To add insult to injury, the courier looked at Lightning Dad as if he had gone senile. “Do you need medicine, sir?”
Augustus waited a bit longer, half-expecting time to freeze again. Finally, once he thought himself safe, he opened his mouth again. “I said—”
Time froze again.
Instead of sighing or raging, Augustus squinted at Ryan, his expression thoughtful.
“I can see electrons move in your brain. You are not affected by this… this temporal anomaly. You are its source.” Damn, Lightning Butt was brutal but not stupid. “Stop this at once.”
Ryan didn’t break character, even as time resumed. Augustus waited a few more seconds, his face undecipherable, before opening his mouth again.
“As I said—”
And time stopped again!
Augustus’ hand moved from Ryan’s shoulder to his neck and lifted him above the ground.
“You dare to mock me?!” Mob Zeus snarled angrily. The courier kicked and punched the invincible man’s arm in the frozen time, but he didn’t even notice. Unlike when Ryan struck him in the previous loop, Augustus didn’t react with shock at someone being capable of harming him. The time-traveler’s blows couldn’t hurt him.
Damnit, as he had guessed, Ryan needed the Saturn Armor to use his Black superpower. He couldn’t damage Lightning Butt without it!
“You would strike me? Madness.” Augustus sneered as time resumed. “This is your last chance. Where did you find these clothes?”
“In your daughter’s wardrobe!” The courier blurted out.
Lightning Butt noticed the sparkle in Ryan’s eyes, alongside his messy hair. The ivory man’s eyes noticed the breakfast for two, prepared with love, and he finally understood.
The Augusti patriarch didn’t want to admit it though. His fingers tightened around the courier’s neck, squeezing the air out of him. “What did you do?” he snarled, lifting Ryan higher until his head touched the ceiling. “What did you do to my daughter?”
Ryan wanted to say something clever, but Augustus squeezed his throat so tightly that no word came out. Lightning Butt eventually realized the interrogation wouldn’t go anywhere like this, eased his grip enough to let the time traveler breathe, and looked into his captive’s eyes.
“Did you sleep with my daughter?” Augustus asked, his cold fury ten times more threatening than his snarls.
Knowing nothing he said would save him, Ryan answered with the first thing that came to mind.
“YES DADDY, YES!”
Augustus brutally slammed Ryan against the counter.
A normal human would have gone splat from the impact, and the shock made the marble crack. The silver platter almost fell off to the ground, and one of the coffee cups shattered. Ryan saw stars for a moment and landed on the ground, chest first. Lightning Butt released his grip while his victim gasped for air.
“You will die begging,” Augustus said with cold fury, towering over the courier like the specter of death. His whole body cackled with crimson lightning, the microwave and electrical devices in the room malfunctioning. “Like a jew on a cross.”
“And it was…” Ryan coughed, defiant. “Unprotected.”
Lightning Butt gave Ryan the Palpatine electroshock treatment, by zapping him with electricity. It was a low-current blast, not enough to kill the courier; but it hurt. It hurt like hell. A lightning bolt hit Ryan in the chest, his skin burning, the bathrobe releasing smoke.
The courier’s body trembled, the nerves in his body stimulated by the lightning. It felt as if his body had caught fire, his lungs melting.
Her shrieking voice echoed in the kitchen, but Augustus kept zapping Ryan with murder on his mind. If anything, he only increased the voltage, even as a chi—
Time skipped forward, and when it resumed, her arms immediately seized him.
The pain in his chest remained, alongside severe burns, but no lightning coursed through Ryan’s nerves anymore. He had crawled near the statue of Minerva, with Livia kneeling protectively at his side. She wore a black bathrobe of her own, but no slippers; the seer must have rushed into the kitchen the second she woke up.
Lightning Butt dropped the lightning halo surrounding his head, though rage still possessed him. Augustus sternly gazed at Livia. “You used your power on me, daughter?”
“You were electrocuting my boyfriend!” she hissed back.
Though Lightning Butt had shrugged off Ryan’s blow, his daughter’s words made him flinch in surprise. If he still had any doubt about what happened, her revealing dress and the intimate way she held Ryan close dispelled them. The courier could hear Livia’s accelerating heartbeat beneath the cotton.
“You willingly gave yourself to this…” Augustus glared at Ryan with disgust. “This miscreant?”
“Ryan is nothing of that sort,” Livia replied with a frown. “He is a kind and noble man.”
“Conqueror… of Monaco…” Ryan rattled, his muscles still struggling to move. The crimson lightning must have messed up his nervous system, the wrong limbs answering his mental commands.
Augustus completely ignored the courier, refusing to acknowledge his existence. Instead, he studied his daughter with an imperious gaze. Yet Livia refused to back down and locked eyes with her sire.
“How long?” Lightning Butt questioned his daughter.
Livia frowned, biting her lower lips. “A little more than one week.”
That long? Ryan wondered, before realizing that she counted the previous loop. They could consider the Star Studio raid their first date…
“Is this about Felix?” Augustus asked angrily. “Revenge for his abandonment?”
“No,” Livia replied angrily. “I chose Ryan for himself.”
“You chose wrong.” Lightning Butt’s eyes flared with a burst of lightning. “Look at this clown. I have seen his kind countless times. All he wants is your beauty, your money, your power. He is a parasite.”
“You say that about everyone, Dad.”
“Because it is true. Do you think he would be interested in you if you weren’t my daughter?”
“You don’t know him, Dad,” Livia replied, her gaze harshening. “And if you think I wouldn’t have done my research, then you don’t truly know me either.”
Ryan almost opened his mouth, but this time wisely remained silent. One wrong move and Lightning Butt might slay him before Livia could react. The shame and the pain, he could live with. But her forgetting him would hurt far deeper than the lightning.
Augustus’ face twisted into an angry scowl. “Livia, step aside.”
She briefly hesitated, but held her ground. “No, Father.”
“Step aside, daughter.”
“No,” she repeated, the word so sweet to hear. “I won’t let you murder him like Narcinia’s parents.”
Augustus’ eyes widened in surprise, his jaw clenching. “Who told you about that? Felix?”
“Does it matter?”
“Felix,” her father said, reaching his own conclusions. “He will pay for this slander with his tongue.”
“You won’t touch his tongue, or any part of Felix,” Livia declared, grabbing Ryan’s hand. “Nor will you harm my current boyfriend. I’m an adult, I can date whoever I want.”
“I am your father,” Augustus raised his tone, “and you shall obey me.”
“If you touch them, I will leave.”
These words silenced Lightning Butt, making him blink repeatedly. He looked as if he would stumble. The illusion of invincibility was stripped away, and for a brief moment, Ryan could see the lonely, paranoid old man beneath the iron-fisted dictator.
“I will leave,” Livia said, struggling not to cry. “I will go, and I will not return. Bacchus and Mars can have your rotten empire of filth for all I care.”
“Livia.” Augustus’ tone softened a little. For the first time, Ryan heard something other than wrath and cruelty in the titan’s voice. “You are my heir, and my daughter. But you are still a young woman, and naive. Experience comes with age, and it is my duty as your father to protect you from threats you cannot see. Your mother…”
“I can protect myself,” Livia replied firmly. “Even from you.”
Augustus’ fists tightened, to the point that a normal person might have started bleeding. Could the superpowered tyrant cancel his own power? Could he hurt himself?
“I could not protect your mother, but I will protect you. Felix is a shameless traitor, and this little shit…” Lightning Dad glared at the courier, with the same hatred he usually reserved for Leo Hargraves. “This man is turning you against me, your own father.”
“No, Dad,” Livia argued firmly. “You are doing that on your own.”
Augustus turned into an ivory statue, as still as stone.
“Dad, please. I want him.” Livia breathed deeply. “He is kind to me, and he makes me smile.”
Augustus’ silence stretched on for several, agonizing seconds. The air was heavy with an undercurrent of electricity, as if a thunderstorm might explode any moment. The microwave had short-circuited. “You,” Mob Zeus glared at Ryan. “What is your name?”
By now, the courier had recovered enough to form complete sentences. “Ryan ‘Quicksave’ Romano. I’m immortal, but don’t tel—”
“If you disrespect my daughter,” Augustus interrupted him, his voice booming like thunder, “I will kill you.”
“Yes, Lightning Dad.”
Augustus’ eyes narrowed dangerously. He did not like the nickname. “If you break her heart, I will kill you.”
“Yes, Lightning Dad,” Ryan repeated, returning the man’s vicious gaze. By now, he understood that submission would be seen as weakness, but open defiance wouldn’t be tolerated. He had to assert himself, without being too disrespectful.
“If you break up with her, I will kill you.”
“Yes, Lightning Dad.”
“Thank you, Father,” Livia whispered in relief, holding Ryan’s hand.
Augustus stormed out of the room, coldly furious. He didn’t spare a glance to Ryan, and did his best to ignore him. The tyrant punched a wall on his way out, his fist going through stone like paper.
Ryan coughed. “That’s almost exactly how I expected to meet your parents.”
“Are you insane?!” Livia hissed when her father was gone. “Couldn’t you wait for me to wake up before wandering off? He could have killed you!”
“I wanted to prepare your breakfast,” Ryan replied, pointing at the silver platter. The coffee cups were gone, but the pastries had survived.
Livia’s anger immediately turned into a blush, and she gave him a bittersweet smile. “We’ll go to Venus and Narcinia,” she said. “They will cure your wounds in no time.”
“It’s fine. It can wait a little.”
“Ryan, you were struck by lightning.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time. Do you have ointment?” Livia frowned at his question, but nodded. “Good. I will put some on while you return to bed.”
“And then what?”
“And then I will bring you breakfast properly this time.”
“You’re such a gallant fool,” Livia said with a chuckle, before helping him rise back to his feet. “How did you imagine it? Me introducing you to my father?”
“With your daddy pointing a shotgun at my back, and Bacchus officiating the wedding.”
She giggled. “I wouldn’t count on it. Bacchus worships a stranger god than the Catholic Church’s.” Her pale fingers brushed against his wound. The skin hurt, but his heart was soothed. “We will still go to Venus after breakfast. I told you before, Ryan, you don’t have to suffer anymore.”
Ryan put his hands around her waist, while she moved her hands around his neck. “And next breakfast? What will it be?”
Livia smiled, and briefly kissed him on the lips without a word.