Lightning Butt’s burns ached on Ryan’s chest, as he parked the Plymouth Fury west of New Rome.
Triton’s Resort was a large complex on a small hill, built between the infamous Colosseum Maximus and Little Lilith, the city’s red-light district. Glass domes and tall white spires coexisted with elevated pleasure gardens, tennis courts, and thermal pools, while the wealthiest clients could enjoy an unbeatable view of New Rome’s coast. Like almost all properties owned by the Augusti, it embraced a Roman architectural style. Statues of Venus and Mars— the gods, not the Genomes—made love on a fountain, right next to the parking lot. Clients walked in through different entrances, based on their status; most of the clientele walked through a large yet elegant stone archway, while VIPs used a glass elevator to skip straight to the higher floors.
Ryan had traded his bathrobe for his usual clothes, though he wore no mask or hat for once. Livia sat at his side, wearing a blue skirt dress that left her legs and back exposed. A silver necklace glittered around her neck, and a white rose ribbon kept her hair bound. She looked great, but Ryan thought she could wear anything and still dazzle him.
“I should come over to your place from now on,” she said out of the blue.
No kidding. “I could get used to the shock treatment,” Ryan mused, but it didn’t make her smile. “Or how about we rent something and move in?”
“We should wait a few months to go down that step, yes?” She giggled. “Ryan, if you think you have seen my father angry, then imagine him with empty nest syndrome. It’s better I go home after our dates from now on.”
“What was your dad even doing standing motionless in the kitchen? Asserting his dominance over the pastries?”
Her gaze turned distant. “Dad is… not well. Sometimes he doesn’t move for hours.”
“Because of his tumor?” She nodded sadly. “That’s why he rarely leaves his house anymore, am I right?”
“I… I would rather not talk about this right now. I would rather talk about us.” Livia sheepishly joined her fingers, hesitating a few seconds before asking a question. “What will we be, Ryan?”
“Someone asked me that before,” he replied, thinking of Jasmine with nostalgia. “Back then, I answered a summer fling.”
Livia frowned at him. “I don’t want us to be a summer fling.”
Once, Ryan had been afraid of intimate romantic relationships, and the commitment that came with them. The pain that followed their destruction each time he reset cut deep. But for the first time since he had gained his power, he had a partner that would remember him. Someone with whom he could build a relationship lasting through several loops. It was… exhilarating in its newness. Frightening, even.
He carefully took her hand into his own, and lost himself in her beautiful blue eyes. “Livia, do you want to be my girlfriend, until time tears us apart?”
A pinkish blush spread below her eyes. “You should have asked me that before we slept together, no? You skipped a lot of steps.”
“And now I’m doing things by the book.”
It pleased the princess, he could tell, but her response wasn’t what he had expected. “My answer is no, Ryan.”
The courier opened his mouth in shock. “Come again?”
“I want to be your girlfriend until we decide to break up, if we ever choose to,” Livia declared, her face turning stubborn even though her words were music to Ryan’s ears. “Not until your power resets everything. I want a serious relationship.”
“Livia, you know I will have to reset again? What if I die early, or we can’t transfer your mind back easily?” Ryan cleared his throat. “I want something that lasts too, but… well, there’s always the possibility an unforeseen death ruins it all.”
“People risk dying all the time, and yet they still make plans for the future, Ryan. Our relationship might need more work, logistics-wise, but we will find a way to strengthen it. I am sure of it.”
Ryan could tell that she wouldn’t budge on the matter, so he did it right this time. “Livia Augusti, do you want to be my girlfriend?”
“There, you have it,” she said with a beautiful, heartwarming smile. “Yes I do, Ryan.”
And so, Quicksave was no longer single.
“This changes everything,” Ryan said, breaking the hand contact to search for a notebook and a pen he hid in his coat.
“What is this?” Livia asked, as he opened the notebook.
“My to-do list of objectives before I achieve my Perfect Run. After my last presidential mandate, I thought I should write down all my campaign promises to keep track of them.” Ryan scratched the ‘Fuck the Sun’ line, right between the ‘Kill Psypsy’ and ‘Marry Yuki’ ones. “I’m updating the list to account for my newfound monogamy.”
Curious like a cat, Livia tried to look at the content, but her boyfriend kept the notebook out of reach. “Give it to me, I want to know!”
“No, that’s private!”
“Give it to me, Ryan,” she insisted.
“No!” He felt a chill going down his spine. “No, no don’t you dar—”
Livia skipped time forward, and when Ryan regained consciousness, she had stolen the list and his pen. “So that’s how it feels when I mess with people in frozen time, uh,” he complained. “Are you happy now?”
“A good boyfriend doesn’t keep anything from his partner,” she replied, before frowning at what she read. “‘Marry Jamie and Ki-jung’?”
“I only planned to marry Jamie at first, but since he’s going to propose to Ki-jung soon, I thought bigamy was the only sensible solution.”
It seemed to make sense to her, but then the next item on the list made Livia glare at him. “‘Fuck the Vamp and live through it’? Seriously?”
“I have a revenge to take.”
“She isn’t that good.” Livia was at her cutest when she was jealous.
“How do you know that?” Ryan asked while squinting.
“Because I do,” his girlfriend replied before removing that plan from the list, the way a dictator signed an execution order. In fact, she barred all the ‘Fuck’ and ‘Marry’ goals of the list, except those involving her. A couple’s life was made of sacrifices.
“You truly made a plan for your final loop,” Livia said, as she kept reading. “Though I’m a bit worried by the ‘Kill’ list.”
“Well, at first I only wanted to find Len, but I kept adding new objectives,” Ryan admitted. “It’s not my fault if this city crawls with assholes who need to be put down.”
“Mmm… ‘Bully Luigi,’ ‘Save New Rome,’ ‘Take over the Meta-gang,’ ‘Cure the Psycho condition,’ ‘Blow up the Bliss Factory’…” She frowned. “‘Prevent the Leporimachia?’ Is that even a real word?”
“I’m working on that one.”
Livia waited for him to elaborate, but skipped to the next objective when he didn’t. She grinned ear to ear. “‘Reconcile Wyvern and Vulcan?’ Now, you’re asking for the impossible.”
“It happened once, though it took the city’s destruction for it.” Ryan thought that though he couldn’t date Vulcan due to his promise to Jasmine, he could at least help the Genius turn her life around.
“We can’t let things progress that far,” Livia replied. “I’m kidding, they can reconcile.”
“You’ve seen it happen?”
“All it takes is Wyvern approaching Vulcan and ‘apologizing’ to her former partner. She does so after rethinking her choices, usually after Dynamis collapses.”
“So, we can steal two cashmere suits with one gun?”
She frowned at him, suddenly interested. “Does Dynamis have a red suit in storage?”
“You will look great in it.”
“I think so too.” Livia skimmed through the list, from the ‘Free Len from her father’s shadow’ to ‘Bury my daddy issues,’ before frowning. “‘Find the Alchemist’s base in Antarctica’?”
“I saw it in the Purple World, but I don’t know where exactly,” Ryan said. Truth be told, he had wondered if this vision had been a coincidence. The Violet Ultimate One had left hints to help the courier, so perhaps it wanted the time-traveler to visit this base for some unknown purpose. “Some kind of fortress buried in snow and ice.”
Livia considered the matter thoughtfully. “Now that I think of it…” she whispered to herself. “Could it be Station Orpheon?”
“A story Bacchus told me about the Alchemist,” Livia replied, before dropping a bomb. “He was investigating her before Last Easter, and she twisted him.”
“Her?” The Alchemist was a girl? And here Ryan thought she might have been a lizardman, or a grey martian! “You know a guy who met the Alchemist, and you never told me?”
“I didn’t think it was important?” she replied, a little embarrassed. “Thing is, Ryan, my power cannot look into the Alchemist. I’ve tried before, but I can’t find a world where I have interacted with her… if she’s even a human woman at all.”
“She could have a power similar to mine.”
“Maybe. I’m sorry, I’m blind here. Dad wanted to track her down too, but eventually abandoned that plan after years of fruitless investigation. Bacchus himself wasn’t much help either. All he cares about is Bliss and contacting his ‘God’... whose nature I now understand better, thanks to you.”
“An Ultimate One?” Ryan had reached the same conclusion after his talk with Darkling. Bacchus had called God ‘it’ and thought psychotropics capable of affecting even Genomes could help make contact with it. It didn’t take a Genius to figure it out. “What do you mean by ‘she twisted him’?”
“He wasn’t always…” Livia struggled to find the word.
“Obsessive?” Ryan suggested.
“Deranged, though he hides it well. According to Dad, he used to be well-adjusted before the Alchemist got to him. Afterward, hallucinogens and later Bliss became his life.” His girlfriend shook her head. “Even the tales he says are quite confusing.”
“Will he tell them to me too, if I confess my sins? For my heart is full of wicked deeds.”
“No, I don’t think so, but you could compare notes and find out.” Livia smiled. “I have never been to Antarctica. It must be a beautiful place.”
“Wanna make it our next stop for our winter vacations?”
“Now you think like a true boyfriend.” She flipped the notebook’s page, before blushing upon finding the last objective on the to-do list.
‘Make Livia happy.’
Livia looked at Ryan with a pleased face, adjusting her hair. “What, are you surprised?” the courier asked his girlfriend, his fingers brushing against her red cheek. “You’re part of my Perfect Run too.”
“It’s a good list, Ryan,” she said, before hastily scribbling a new line. “But you forgot one task.”
Ryan frowned, as she gave him back the notebook and the pen with a new objective.
Be happy too.
“I thought it would come naturally,” he said while putting his items back inside his trench coat.
“Ryan, almost all the objectives in the list are about helping other people, but never yourself,” Livia said. “That’s very noble of you, but you have to take your happiness into account too. No more suicides will be a start.”
“What? But a glorious death is half the fun of a loop!” Ryan protested. “Do you realize how many people fail their lives, but make a success of their death?”
“If you reload by dying, then it makes you value your life less. We’ll find a better, painless way for you to turn back time. Also, no more drugs. I’ve seen the stuff you keep in your car, and it has to go.”
“No more drugs,” his girlfriend insisted. “I’m going to clean up your life, whether you want it or not. You will embrace a healthier lifestyle.”
“If you try to make me a vegetarian, I’m dumping you.”
She raised an eyebrow in a way that Ryan found positively obscene. “You are welcome to taste my flesh anytime.”
“I don’t taste,” he answered, breathing on her neck. “I bite.”
She turned scarlet at his insolence. “You have gone too far, Ryan,” Livia said, unable to hide her embarrassment. “I have to punish you.”
“Mistress is welcome to whip me anytime.”
“I had something else in mind.”
Her lips shyly brushed against his own, the contact so brief it might have been a dream. It tasted of strawberry, of her perfume and summer. She quickly pulled back, red as if she had never kissed a boy before.
“You stole my first kiss!” Ryan responded with false shock. “I was saving myself for Felix!”
She exploded into laughter, and Ryan had never heard a more wonderful sound. He put his hand in her hair, and the other on her waist as he pulled her closer.
He let Livia steal his second kiss, and then his third and fourth. Afterward, the burn on his chest ached, and she put a finger on his lips. “We will take a bath together after patching you up,” she said, her forehead against his own. “I have a private spot in the resort. You will love it.”
“Braindead should arrive today,” Ryan pointed out. The plan was to torch the Junkyard and bury the bunker’s open entrance after the Genius arrived, to make it look as if the Meta-Gang had fled the city.
“He will, but in the evening,” Livia said, her voice soft and soothing. “Until then, you are mine.”
He couldn’t tell his lady no.
Ryan offered Livia his arm as they exited the car, his girlfriend squeezed it tight. The mafia princess liked it very much when he played the gentleman. They bypassed the bouncers and took the elevator, Livia resting her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder as they moved up the floors.
After passing by marble corridors, the couple made their way into a mix between a parlor and a doctor’s waiting room. Overstuffed, comfy leather chairs allowed one to rest while watching colorful tapestries and portraits of celebrities new and old. In fact, the staff included copies of Scarlett Johansson, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio, but though they had the actors’ faces, they had none of the natural, easy charm.
A tall man greeted them, an Italian George Clooney with familiar blue eyes and a white beard. “Livia,” he said, wearing a black suit more expensive than most houses. Ryan immediately identified his voice as Mars’, Atom Kitty and Fortuna’s father. “Who is this young, gallant man with you?”
“Luca, this is my boyfriend, Ryan,” Livia paraded the courier. “Ryan, this is Luca Veran, Fortuna’s father.”
“My condolences,” the courier said. “I admire your bravery, to have raised her without going mad.”
“My wife bears the lion’s share of the blame, as far as her education goes.” If Mars was bothered to see his son’s ex-girlfriend with another man, he didn’t show it. In fact, he warmly shook Ryan’s hand as if he were an old friend. “Does Janus know?”
Instead of answering, Ryan lifted his shirt to show the burns beneath, causing Mars to explode into laughter. “That’s what I expected,” he said. “I assume you came to see my wife to remove the scars?”
“Her, and Fortuna, if she’s here,” Livia said.
“No, she said she’s spending time with that mystery boyfriend of hers.” Mars frowned at the couple. “Do you know if he has powers?”
He didn’t sound so friendly anymore. “He can disappear at will,” Ryan said. “Though pigeons are his kryptonite.”
“Oh, good,” Mars said, sounding greatly relieved. “Fortuna seems to be taking this relationship seriously, and I was worried that she might frequent the wrong kind of person.”
Livia answered with a forced smile. “I am not sure if he is the right person for her, but you know Fortuna, she does as she wills.”
“Like her brother,” Mars said with a chuckle. “I wonder how Narcinia managed to turn out so dutiful with such unruly siblings.”
Because you murdered her parents and abducted her as a babe, Ryan thought, Livia’s arm tightening around his own. She had sensed his unease. “When is Narcinia returning from Ischia island?” the princess asked Mars with courtesy. She probably already knew the answer with her power, but pretended not to for the sake of conversation. “It has been a long time since I met her.”
“She will return on the fourteenth, to attend the meeting scheduled on the fifteenth.” Mars glanced at Ryan, frowning upon realizing he knew what they were talking about. “Are you… you know, one of us?”
“I cut horse heads for a living,” the courier said, and to his joy Mars seemed to understand the reference. “They never run fast enough.”
“Will you make me an offer I cannot refuse?” Mars replied with a warm smile. “Perhaps we could invite you two for dinner, when Narcinia returns? She needs new friends closer to her age, and I think she will become fond of you, Ryan.”
“With pleasure,” Livia replied with a smile, though her grip on Ryan’s arm tightened.
Mars took his leave afterward, pretending that he needed to attend to other business. Ryan on the comfy chair, and Livia on his lap. “Is this place bugged?” he whispered into his girlfriend’s ear.
“Yes, but not my suite,” she replied with the same low tone. “Wait a little.”
Andrea Julani-Veran, alias Venus, received them afterward in an immaculate surgery room. She was a beautiful woman in her early forties, and a grown-up version of her daughter Fortuna. Clad in a regal white dress and keeping her golden hair braided, she wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Playboy Magazine’s cover.
Ryan noticed that she didn’t have an operation table, simply a warm bed where the courier laid while the fashion model raised his shirt. Venus touched his chest with her thumb, and the burns vanished as if they had never existed in a green flash of light.
“Done,” Venus said with a professional smile.
“I have a scar on my left butt cheek, can you remove it too?” Ryan asked.
“No, I like it,” Livia said coyly, “I like the noise you make when I pinch it.”
Venus looked between the two of them, and unlike her husband, didn’t hide her displeasure. “Do you have news of Felix?” she asked Livia, emphasizing the name.
“No,” Livia replied dryly, as Ryan put his shirt back on and returned to her side. “He will not come back.”
“Maybe he will,” Venus said, eyeing Ryan warily. He could tell she would have preferred to have her own blood date Augustus’ heir, but she had no second son to offer. “Or if not, we will take him back. When will your father give the order to destroy the Manada clan once and for all?”
“I do not know,” Livia replied evasively, though Ryan knew she meant: never, if I have my way. “But we can discuss that on the fifteenth.”
“Certainly,” Venus replied with a smile Ryan found rather disturbing. “Will you take the lovers’ suite, as usual?”
“Yes, of course,” Livia said, to the older woman’s displeasure. Venus gave them a keycard, and watched them leave the parlor in silence. Ryan could feel her glare on his back, and no doubt she already plotted to have him removed for ‘usurping’ her son’s position. Clearly, she was deadlier than her husband, but the courier had survived far worse.
Livia led him to a VIP suite on the fifth floor of the resort, a tastefully decorated apartment with its own private Jacuzzi bath. The floor and walls were made of wood, but sleek, modern appliances were cleverly hidden in sliding compartments. Stained glass picture windows provided a marvelous view of New Rome’s beaches and the sea beyond, while some of Livia’s paintings adorned the walls.
Though Livia insisted the place was safe, Ryan still took a moment to check the room for traps and bugs, but didn’t find any. The Jacuzzi's waters were warm when he slid naked inside them, his partner joining afterward.
“I have the feeling we will end up glued together,” Ryan said, when she sat between his legs, her back against his chest. She had kept the silver necklace on, which glittered with the sunlight outside. “Is it safe though? Venus might have infected me with a plague or something.”
“That’s not how her power works,” Livia replied while bubbles rose to the water surface. Ryan had to admit it worked wonders to ease his sore muscles, after the beating he took from Augustus. “She is limited to superficial, aesthetic surgery modifications. She can reshape the skin, the eye colors, the hair, but not scramble your organs.”
“But she could transform my lips and nose into a patch of skin, and asphyxiate me.”
“She could,” she admitted, grinning at him. “But only if she maintains physical contact.”
“Good to know.”
“I don’t want to go to that dinner,” Livia admitted, her head resting on Ryan’s shoulder. “I adore Fortuna and Narcinia, don’t get me wrong, but Venus will try to break us up and Mars will make racist remarks towards normies. You’ll see.”
“Why accept the offer then? You don’t need the parents.” Fortuna couldn’t stand her mother in particular, and Narcinia would probably follow suit upon learning the truth of her parentage. “I mean, we could organize a party at Jamie’s place and invite the Veran sisters there.”
“I have to keep up appearances, if I am to inherit the organization and reform it,” Livia replied. “Mars and Venus are my father’s followers, but I fear I pushed him hard enough as it is. A few smiles will buy us peace of mind.”
Ryan looked at her closely, and put his arms around her waist. He could tell she was thankful for the comfort.
“Is this place a brothel, besides a luxury resort?” he asked her.
Ryan had noticed copycats of actors chatting with clients in a way that seemed… dubious.
“This is the epicenter of New Rome’s prostitution business, yes,” Livia said with a saddened frown. “Venus uses her powers to reshape faces and bodies, to cater to all tastes. Some people are willing to pay fortunes to sleep with their favorite actors… or heroes. I heard the Wyvern double is very popular.”
“Does Vulcan visit her often?” Livia chuckled in response, but didn’t answer. “Do you want me to destroy this place, like the Bliss Factory?”
Her fingers brushed against her silver necklace, her face thoughtful. “Would you do it, if I asked?”
“Yes.” He nuzzled her cheek gently. “Livia, I don’t want you to wear a mask, not even at dinner. If this place and the people that run it make you unhappy, I can tear it down and free you from them.”
“Could you do that bloodlessly?” she asked, her gaze distant.
“I can do anything, given time.”
“But not without sacrifices from your part, and as I told you before… I won’t have you martyr yourself for my sake.” Livia played with her hair. “Truth be told, I’m not sure what to do about this place. Evil things happen here, but most of the resort’s activities are legitimate. What am I to do with the employees that work in the resort for an honest living? I don’t want innocent people to lose their livelihood, Ryan.”
“And what blood sacrifices take place behind closed doors?”
“I know Venus and her husband use the place to get clients addicted to Bliss, for a start,” Livia said grimly. “Or produce dirt and blackmail material.”
“I have a cure for Bliss addiction.” Ryan had been considering introducing it to Ki-jung, since she seemed to still struggle with the temptation.
“You do?” Livia asked, her eyes widening.
“Endorphin blockers,” Ryan said with a shrug. It was the solution he had found back when he ended up addicted to the stuff, back in an old loop. “It’s pretty easy to manufacture with the right equipment. You could create a rehab clinic.”
“That’s an interesting idea, but one that my father won’t like one bit,” Livia said with a frown. “But I will keep it in mind. For now, we can focus on Narcinia’s future.”
In the end, much like with Len, it all came down to her father.
No matter the good Livia wanted to do, as long as Augustus lived, her family’s honest activities would only be a smokescreen for Lightning Butt’s insidious, insane goals. Much like how Bloodstream’s embers of humanity had only served to hide the monster he had transformed into.
There would come a time where Ryan would drag Mob Zeus and his so-called Olympians down from their mountain, to make sure they could no longer threaten anyone.
For her sake.