Chapter 22

Loren’s Apartment, 12:39 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

Loren jerked awake as his alarm started shouting at him, and the coded phrase he’d been practicing was still on his mind, like an endless loop that made a restful nap impossible; the walls were blank, no longer covered by the endless stream of repetitious phrasing.

“Fuck.” Loren groaned, pushing himself upon his bed.

He’d had dreams like that before, long monotonous ones that stretched into infinity, compelled in his sleep to perform the same actions mindlessly by some mysterious dream reasoning. He always felt awful after having one of them, sometimes weeks at a time, dreading going back to sleep and being trapped in that infinite monotony. The fact that he’d done it to himself this time wasn’t really making him feel any better either—but at least he wasn’t going to be forgetting the stupid phrase any time soon.

Dragging himself out of bed and into his morning routine, only hours later than normal, was a lot easier than he expected. Halfway through his coffee, he jumped as someone started hammering on his door out of nowhere.

His coffee spilled all over the floor, and he almost slipped on it before he managed to steady himself.

Holy shit!” Loren squawked, “Hold the fuck on!”

“Rents due!” Peter’s voice called.

“Thanks, Loren,” Emma said quietly as they watched Peter retreat down the stairs.

“No worries, the guy is really starting to get on my nerves,” Loren said honestly before clapping his hands.

Emma jumped at the sudden noise.

“Now, I’m not allowed out of the building for a week, so take me inside; we must discuss many a thing.” Loren said cheerfully, “Starting with what exactly happened on the train back when I met you for the first time, I want your perspective on it all.”

Emma’s mouth dropped open in shock, and she struggled to find a response.

“You remembered this entire time?!” Emma said, flushing. “Why the hell didn’t you say anything when I said hello when I first moved in!? You just pretended like you didn’t know who I was, you asshole!”

“I knew you were stalking me!” Loren accused, pointing to her door. “Magical NDA, couldn’t tell you a thing. You, me, coffee—Peter murdered my last one, and I’m not entirely awake yet.”

“Fine,” Emma huffed, spinning and holding the door open for him.

Loren entered and headed straight for the kitchen, choosing the same chair like last time. Emma stopped at the doorway to the kitchen, watching him nervously—He raised an eyebrow at her.

“Where should I start?” Emma asked quietly.

“The beginning of the day,” Loren suggested. “Don’t skip a single detail. I need to know everything—it’s super important, and I’ll explain why afterward.”

Loren leaned forward onto his elbows, staring at her intently—Emma rubbed at her face for a moment.

“This is…” Emma mumbled, “Fine. I woke up, showered, and everything else, then I went downstairs—”

Nowhere near enough detail.

“Three years ago—you were twenty-one then… the exact same age I am right now,” Loren interjected, digging. “Where were you living at the time?”

“What is this, an interrogation?” Emma said bemused.

“That’s exactly what this is, missy,” Loren said immediately, not missing a beat. “So behave yourself, or I’ll have to get the cuffs out.”

Emma smirked, shoulders untightening a bit before placing both of their coffee cups down, and perching on the other chair, feet on the seat.

“I hadn’t dropped out of UBTC yet… this is what made me leave, I think.” Emma said confessed, “I had a girl called Melanie as a roommate—Ugh, total bitch, I’d almost forgotten about her.”

UBTC, that was here in Setalite—Upper Bridge Technical College, other side of central. Living in the dorms there, and Melanie was a bitch, all useful information.

“Please continue,” Loren said, sipping at his coffee with a grimace.

“Uh. Went downstairs and caught a ride into central on a bus, I was supposed to go with my roommate, but she was a no show—ugh,” Emma said distractedly, twisting her hair onto a finger. “Must have been almost nine? We—well, I was supposed to pick up an international transfer student—”

“Why were you the one picking this guy up?” Loren said curiously, “Isn’t that a job for a teacher or something?”

“Girl, not a guy. Ms. Andre—that was the professor—already knew this girl, and she wanted to help her fit in a bit easy,” Emma shrugged, “It was a Saturday morning, so it wasn’t like I had anything better to do then go hang out with some girl downtown, make her feel welcome, so I volunteered us to go pick her up.”

“Us, as in you and Melanie?” Loren asked for clarification.

“Yeah, sorry,” Emma said, “So I went down to central at nine-ish?”

“The train station,” Loren said, frowning, studying her face.

“Yeah,” Emma said hesitantly, “So I’m waiting there for this girl—”

“Who was the girl?” Loren interjected.

“Um.” Emma said quietly, watching him, “Mara Melancholia.”

Loren sat back against his chair and watched her for a long moment, mind racing. That was a name that just about everyone in the world knew about.

“You went to pick Mara Melancholia up from a train station,” Loren said quietly, “Are you fucking stupid?”

Emma flushed completely, but this time there was some anger on her face.

“Nobody knew who she was at that point!” Emma said defensively. “She was just a normal college girl!”

The rest of the story practically told itself—he should have pieced it together already from the location and the fact that it was three years ago.

“A normal girl for what, another hour at most?” Loren said quietly before shaking his head. “Fuck—I don’t have anywhere near enough coffee for this kind of thing.”

“I waited at the station until the train got there at nine-thirty,” Emma said, swallowing.

“Which is when Marrow attacked,” Loren said weakly. “Did you get on the train—of course, you did.”

Emma looked a bit confused at his response.

“I was talking to Mara when he appeared,” Emma admitted, “She was really nice, a bit shy, but—I’m serious!”

His picturesque look of skepticism had been enough for a thousand words of doubt.

“Mara was like, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen,” Emma said sadly. “None of that should have happened.”

That made her transformation into the pale… thing she had become all the more heartbreaking.

“We were talking, and then people started screaming and running away from the entrance. Marrow had blocked off all of the entrances to that side of the track, and there wasn’t anywhere else to go.”

Loren couldn’t blame them; nobody wanted to come into contact with Marrow or his constructs; it was a guaranteed death sentence unless you had some kind of resistance to the withering effect—the attack on the central station had been his worst attack by far. It said something that Marrow had been regulated to a footnote as what had kicked off the much bigger problem.

“That’s when I saw you for the first time,” Emma said quietly and sat back in her chair, “We got knocked down by everyone, and then you were suddenly there—you saved us both.”

He felt sick to his stomach—why would he have saved both of them? He was the one responsible for every single death on the train that day and every single death that had followed since.

He thought he knew what was going on now.

At some point in the future, he was going to go back in time and save Mara Melancholia and Emma Young from Marrow. He was going to bring the girl who’s stress-induced awakening had transformed her into one of the most terrifying villains on the planet.

Loren had been the one to create Monstrous, one of the seven members of Epilogue.

“Did you have your powers?” Loren asked quietly after they had fallen into silence. “When it happened?”

Once again, Emma looked confused but continued to answer his questions regardless.

“Exactly a week,” Emma admitted. “I didn’t know how to use them yet.”

Loren rubbed his face for a moment and slapping himself on the cheeks several times—he needed to get his mind working again—this Mara situation had short-circuited him entirely.

“Yeah?” Loren said curiously, “What did you do, get drunk and stick a fork in a wall socket?”

“No!” Emma squeaked, mortified.

Loren smirked.

“Shut up!” Emma groaned, “How do you even know about that?”

Ah. He hadn’t told her anything yet—fuck.

“I’m kind of a time traveler—I go back in time every time I die; it’s pretty weird,” Loren sighed, “I’m starting to wish I’d left this one for another time—I have some stuff to tell you, and you’re going to hate all of it.”

“Are you sure?” Emma said hesitantly, “I’ll promise I’ll try to take whatever it is calmly—surely it can’t be that bad?”

Loren studied her face for a moment.

“Mark has been in a relationship with another woman for—I don’t know actually, more than six months?” Loren said simply, “You’re his side chick.”

Emma stared back without expression before she finally registered exactly what he had said.

What the fuck?!” Emma said furiously.

Loren held her phone up in the air, wrapped in a multitude of invisible hands as Emma tried to pry it loose.

“Loren!” Emma cried, “Give me it back!”

“Can’t do it, captain,” Loren said apologetically, “You’re about to open a can of worms that will end with everybody in the city dying.”

Emma slowed for a moment before renewing her frantic efforts to retrieve it.

“I don’t care—hopefully, Mark is the first to go!” Emma raged, scratching ineffectively at the invisible hands. “Loren!

“There is currently an unknown number of bombs under the city,” Loren said cheerfully, “If you ring Mark, and that brings any attention to this building, we are all doomed—probably.”

Emma tried to throttle the hands a final time before sitting down in a huff.

“This is bullshit.” “Emma said indignantly.

Loren continued his explanation, not releasing the phone.

“The second anybody investigates this place, they are going to find Aston Grey, the man who killed Dovetail this morning—hell Vapid or Mongoose might already be investigating that, unless the fight this morning changed that outcome,” Loren said frowning, “Or you’ll piss Mark off enough to get Mongoose involved regardless, which will force me to get involved, bringing Vapid down on our heads again.”

“I can’t even follow that logic at all,” Emma said angrily, “How does any of that have to do with some bombs? Why do they explode?”

“Because there’s an information leak of some kind in Hero HQ, they report that something funky is going on, and if the bomber-guy gets wind of any attempts to stop his bomber-shit, he sets them off early,” Loren explained patiently. “You got that notification about what happened to Arrot City earlier?”

“Yeah,” Emma mumbled, “That was the same guy?”

“No idea if it’s the same person or not, but what we do know is that he’s an asshole,” Loren offered, “I’m working with Wraith to investigate this before everybody here dies, so you’re going to have to hold off on kicking Mark in the nuts until after Thursday at least.”

Emma looked extremely displeased by this turn of events, and for a moment, gave a suspicious glance to her phone—Loren sighed.

“I’m not going to say anything about that to him,” Emma tried sweetly, switching to persuasion. “It won’t even come up at all—why would it?”

“When Mark denies it, what are you going to say?” Loren said curiously before raising his voice to a high pitch. “Loren told me!”

Emma scrunched her face up at the impression.

“I wouldn’t say that!” Emma said quickly.

“What would you say instead?” Loren said, amused, dangling the phone in front of her face like a lure.

“This is bullshit!” Emma cried indignantly, “I just won’t tell him how I know!”

“That sounds like the least satisfying argument ever,” Loren said honestly, clearing his voice again. “Mark, you cheater! I’m not! Are too! Wheres your proof!? Well, I have some, but I can’t tell you—”

“Stoooop,” Emma groaned, banging her head surprisingly hard on the table. “I don’t sound like that.”

Loren slid forward, and the next time she did it, she hit the palm of his hand instead of the hard tabletop. This was the second time he’d seen her inflict some level of pain on herself in recent memory, seemingly when she was stressed—it wasn’t exactly a healthy method of stress management.

Emma mumbled something incoherent into his hand.

“You shouldn’t hurt yourself when you’re upset,” Loren said simply, “That’s dumb.”

“You’re dumb,” Emma mumbled louder. “How did I not know… I feel like the stupidest girl in the world.”

“You’re a leader in your field for sure, but at least we know where all you’re brain cells have been going,” Loren said lightly. “You must have gone through a lot of kitchen tables to get as far as you have—be proud.”

“It’s not funny,” Emma sniffled.

“Sorry,” Loren winced; the joke failed to lighten the mood. “I’m a dickhead—want me to tell you about how you kicked the other girl’s ass in the last loop?”

“Yes,” Emma nodded against his hand.

Her face was wet now.

“I should probably mention how you knocked Vapid out for a while as well—you were pretty cool,” Loren said honestly.

“I knocked Vapid out,” Emma said, surprised, lifting her face up.

Her makeup was running, and he could see the dark smudges on his palm. He sighed when he saw her eyes; he really sucked at this kind of thing.

“Yeah, knocked Vapid, Mongoose, and me down with a burst of electricity.” Loren smiled, “It was really, really, cool—we were about to lose, too; it was an inspired attack.”

“Liar, you’re saying that to make me feel better.” Emma pouted, dropping her face back onto his hand. “There’s no way that happened.”

“It did happen,” Loren said firmly. “It hurt like a kick in the nuts, too; you had to drain the shock out of me afterward.”

Emma pressed down against this palm for a moment.

“How long did it take for her to catch us?” Emma mumbled.

“Hours—she waited for us to let down our guard and then popped out and smacked you on the back of the head with a stick,” Loren admitted, “I kicked her ass afterward, and then I exploded.”

“Everything you just said needs to be explained. How did you kick Vapid’s ass? What do you mean exploded?” Emma frowned before she raised her head again, “and what the hell was I doing?”

“You were taking a dirt nap,” Loren said wryly, “I had a really cool power that time—but I overused it trying to keep up with you lot, and I think my heart kind of burst.”

Emma looked horrified.

“That—why would you keep using it that long?” Emma said, shocked, “Are you stupid?”

“I wanted to win, and I was pretty angry at the time; I got a decent power this time too.” Loren waved her off, “It’s fine anyway—I’m immortal.”

Emma dropped her face back down onto his hand.

“You said that last time,” Emma said quietly. “You didn’t come back for two years.”

Loren blinked; he didn’t remember having ever said that to her before.

“On the train?” Loren guessed.

“What’s this magical NDA?” Emma muttered instead.

“I made that up,” Loren said easily, “Ow—you bit me!”

Loren quickly pulled his hand back in alarm.

“Liar.” Emma huffed. “Why did you pretend you didn’t know me then?”

“I didn’t know you,” Loren said easily, “I haven’t gone back in time yet to save you—that will happen sometime later, I guess.”

Emma rubbed her hands into her face, making an even bigger mess of her makeup.

“This is all too complicated.” Emma groaned. “How did you know about it at all if it hasn’t happened for you yet?”

“You mentioned it in a previous loop, and I finally got around to asking you about it.” Loren sighed, “At least I know what to avoid doing on the train when that stuff finally happens.”

There was a lull in the conversation where Loren just studied her, so try and figure out if he’d ruined this loop by telling her this—he’d promised her last time that he would, though.

“Hey, Emma?” Loren said quietly, “What happened on the train? How did you survive—because the reports said that there was nobody left.”

Emma hunched in on herself.

“Mara… changed… and then you told me to run,” Emma mumbled, “You walked straight up to her and started talking quietly, I didn’t hear what you were saying, but she stopped for a little while… I left you there…”

Fucking hell—Loren thought he must have been on drugs or something to do something like that; he’d seen the pictures of the train in the aftermath—there hadn’t been a piece of a person larger than a soccer ball.

The authorities had reached the train eventually, but by that time everybody had already been torn to pieces.

“If I told you to run, then I’m sure I had a reason—I’m just glad she didn’t follow you,” Loren mumbled, wondering at his own reasoning. “Guess I was a pretty good distraction. I can even make monsters swoon, huh?”

Emma noised out a muffled laugh.

“Mm. When I left—it was the first time I really used my powers…” Emma sniffed once before rubbing her nose. “I didn’t tell anyone about it, and I told Ms. Andre that I hadn’t even made it onto the platform before Marrow showed up.”

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