Chapter 16

Loren’s Apartment, 7:37 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd​, 2022.

Loren did not even bother getting out of bed to clean up the shattered glass; instead, he just rolled over and went straight back to sleep; he’d get to it eventually.

He’d had the ability to stop time, and he still failed to get anything meaningful done—and he had still died.

Again.

It hadn’t even been the blood loss either, although, for all he knew, he would have died from it any way—that hole had gone entirely through his shoulder after all. He’d been full of panic and adrenaline at the time, but now, more calm and able to think about the situation more with a clear head—he shouldn’t have removed the arrow at all.

He touched his shoulder and found only smooth, unmarred skin, instead of the gaping, bloody hole that had been there before. Hindsight was a funny thing—he should have brought the arrow with him into the time stop and let it runs its course while Tag couldn’t move—but that was with the knowledge of what her power actually was; being dragged through a flimsy divider wall would have hurt, sure, but probably a lot less than his stupid solution.

The information leak at the Hero HQ had obviously gotten wind of the situation during the breakout attempt and had set off the explosion early.

The explosion had washed straight up out of the stairwell before swallowing the room. It had come from below—therefore, the explosive device was located beneath the building—he had assumed that was the case due to the sewer, but it was nice to have some additional confirmation.

Wraith had been near the basement of the building, so unless he planned his own death or could survive the explosion, it was just additional proof that it wasn’t him. Likewise, Tag and Fracture had both been caught in the blast as well, so they were off the potential list.

Whoever this hero called Secluded was, though—coincidentally had a power that allowed them to escape from the explosion potentially unscathed if ‘dragging them in’ was anything to go by. Loren hadn’t seen either Serpentine or Emma since the lightning attack that had destroyed half the room.

That was pretty much all he had accomplished, though, other than learning that the hero Dovetail was apparently fine with murdering villains whenever he felt like it—if Serpentine had been telling the truth anyway.

He was going about this all wrong, obviously, but there wasn’t exactly an instruction manual that came with his power—all he knew was that unlimited tries meant nothing if you wasted every single one of them.

The key to any task was to break it into smaller pieces—so that was what he was going to do. He couldn’t bring himself to go straight back into Wraith’s delicate clutches, so he’d be trying something else this reset.

Every time he had involved himself in this mystery surrounding the explosions, he had died—even the first time, when he hadn’t even known about them, he had been a victim of the blast. He needed to survive the explosions and see what happened next; see if anyone stepped up to claim ownership of the crime.

That meant all he needed to do, was stay away from the Hero’s Podium and the Hero’s HQ for a couple of days—his apartment was outside of the blast radius, and while it had shaken a bit, and his windows had all shattered, he had been left mostly unharmed.

Since he wasn’t spamming the homunculus everywhere and drawing attention to himself, Crescent should have no reason to think he was the one responsible for the explosion so she wouldn’t come near the building and get caught up in that mess again. Wraith likewise wouldn’t have any reason to come after him, as he should be completely untethered to the situation.

So, sit back, relax for a couple of days and see what happened—Loren just had to accept the fact that millions of people were going to die, just so that he could get a peek at the aftermath.

He needed a distraction.

He could pretty much go about his normal life relatively at ease, at least until Thursday. As long as he didn’t interfere or tell anyone about the explosives, everything should go the same way as that first time.

Hopefully.



He arrived just in time to see Dovetail dash through the shattered remains of a glass window as he stepped into the Bust a Bean. Chloe was once again hovering near the door, trying to get an eye on the fight.

“That’s the second fight today!” Chloe said, annoyed. “Who was it this time?”

“Dovetail,” Loren said easily, “Serpentine as well, I think. Who was fighting earlier?”

“Vapid and Hoister,” Chloe smirked.

Loren grinned at the familiar words, stepping past her towards the counter.

“That must have been over in a flash—I’m Loren,” Loren said, smiling, giving her a quick once over, “If I can guess your name, think you can buy me a coffee?”

“Oh no, it’s a fan.” Chloe said, amused, “You clearly recognized me; that’s a sucker’s bet. How about you buy me one instead?”

“A fan?” Loren teased. “That’s stretching it.”

“Ouch,” Chloe said laughed.

Somehow, Loren ended up buying her a drink anyway.

“Tournaments tomorrow, huh?” Loren asked sometime later. “What do you think of your chances?”

“I’m going to win it all, obviously,” Chloe said snootily, before grinning. “Do you play?”

“For fun, doubt I’d be on your level, honestly,” Loren said, smiling, before taking a sip. “What are you going to do with your prize money after you ‘win it all?’”

Chloe smirked.

“There’s a bunch of things I want to buy, so many!” Chloe sipped at her drink for a moment, thinking. “Can’t tell you any of them, though! Totally a secret. What’s you’re in-game, maybe I’ll deign to play with a lowly scrub like you sometime.”

“Wow, really selling me that idea—my account name is just Loren,” Loren offered, “I reset it like a week ago, so don’t expect any account history.”

That gave her pause for a moment.

“Reset a week ago, huh? Are you in the tournament?” Chloe said suspiciously, eyes narrowing. “I feel like you’re trying to play me somehow.”

Loren had no intention of participating in the tournament again; the city exploding in two days had destroyed any interests he had in the prize money.

“I was participating in it originally, but I’m dropping out now,” Loren admitted, “I’ve got a lot of stuff I need to attend to first; it kind of came out of nowhere, honestly.”

“Yet here you are, drinking coffee and chatting up a beautiful woman without a care in the world.” Chloe said curiously, “Seems real busy to me.”

“Super humble of you, Chloe.” Loren laughed, shaking his head. “I had some time to myself for the first time in a while, though I’d drop by and allow you the pleasure of my company, you know?—you’re welcome, by the way.”

“Thanks! So generous,” Chloe smirked, studying him for a moment. “Well, Loren, if I don’t get to kick your ass in the tournament tomorrow, how about giving me your number?”

Loren smiled but paused as one of the baristas stepped past them, carrying a tray, and he snatched the falling mug out of the air before it could shatter on the floor—thankfully, empty of anything because that would have sucked horribly.

“Oh my god,” The employee said, “I’m so sorry!”

The flustered woman took the mug back carefully, red-faced.

“It’s all good, no harm done,” Loren said reassuringly as she hurried away.

He couldn’t help but marvel at the ease at which this new power allowed him to do things—he wasn’t even really sure what it was, but it just made physical things easier, and fast-moving objects in his vision, like the mug falling suddenly, seemed to slow down at times.

Before he left his apartment, he had messed around with his tennis ball for a bit, bouncing it off walls. Whatever the power was, it allowed him to ricochet it off multiple walls that ended with the ball returning straight to him with basically zero effort—like it came naturally to him. There was also a well of energy near his feet as well, which had lifted him off the ground when he flexed it.

“Nice reflexes,” Chloe said, eyes narrowed.

Well, that wasn’t good; she was looking plenty suspicious right now.

“Thanks,” Loren said easily. “I made them myself.”

Chloe snorted as Loren slid his phone over the table towards her, the contact screen open, and she snatched it up before rapidly tapping away at the screen. After almost thirty seconds, she returned the phone to him, and a quick check of his phone showed that she had sent a message to a number that was obviously her own.



Loren spent the entire day in the city, walking around and just burning everything into his mind as best he could. He doubted that there was anything out on the street that would be able to turn the whole situation around, but you never know.

By the time he returned to his apartment building, it was already dark, and his mind was mush—he needed to sleep and recharge, too much time spent worrying and thinking in circles with no clear solution.

“Loren?” Emma’s voice said hesitantly.

Loren stopped and turned towards the car park—Emma was slumped against the half wall that was surrounding it, three bulging duffle bags scattered around her. There was enough light falling around her from the streetlamp for him to see that her makeup had run down her cheeks—obviously, she’d been crying.

“Hey,” Loren said quietly, “What are you doing out here, neighbor?”

His tired mind was focusing on the next mystery already; how did she know his name? He needed to put this one to rest.

“Got kicked out,” Emma said tiredly. “Peter is a fucking asshole.”

What had changed the outcome there? Since he hadn’t told her about Mark, and they wouldn’t have had any way to connect Mark Turner with Emma Young to contact her about him, she wouldn’t be aware that he was even dead yet.

Was she angrier and less wiped out during the argument with Peter this time—or was it something different?

“He hit you with the rent scam again?” Loren said simply, “I thought I heard him try it once before. Are you going to get the police involved?”

Emma just shook her head, staring up at him.

“He does it every other week,” Emma muttered. “I pay in cash too, and the fucker never gives me any receipts. It’s always, ‘I don’t have time for that shit, get a job, and you’ll figure out that people actually work for a living!’”

Loren sighed at the pretty accurate rendition of their Landlord.

“Need a place to crash tonight?” Loren offered. “You can use my couch.”

She hadn’t murdered him the last time, and he had a pretty good grasp on her personality by now—might have to hide his wallet, though.

“Please?” Emma said gratefully. “I haven’t really got another place lined up—no one is answering the phone.”

A flash of guilt over the likelihood that Mark was one of those people that weren’t picking up.

“Yeah, what’s your name anyway?” Loren said easily, holding out a hand. “Then you can tell me how you know mine since we’ve never spoken before; you’re not some crazy stalker, are you?”

Emma took his hand but ducked his gaze, instead, picking up her bags—Loren almost scoffed as she pretended to struggle with the weight. He’d seen her jump between buildings and crack concrete as if a few bags weighed enough to slow her down. Loren snagged two of them from her and shouldered them before heading towards the building.

“My name is Emma Young.” Emma huffed. “and I’m not a stalker, Loren.”

“Uh-huh,” Loren teased, “Next thing you know, I’m waking up handcuffed to a bed, and you’re cutting off pieces for your scrapbook.”

“Gross!” Emma laughed, the first sign of levity since he’d seen her. “Scrapbooks are lame anyway; I prefer shelves lined with glass jars.”

“Yikes,” Loren said, laughing.

They made it back to his apartment without issue, and he dumped the two bags on the floor with a sigh of relief.

“Heavy as fuck,” Loren complained, slumping against the kitchen counter. “What are you carrying around in these anyway, bricks?”

Emma placed her own load down and rolled her shoulder.

“Glass jars, obviously.” Emma said, smiling, “Come on, then—help me find those cuffs?”

Emma started laughing at his horrified look.

“Hell no,” Loren squawked before shaking his head at her. “You hungry? Thirsty? Coffee, water? Blood?”

Negative on the hungry, affirmative on the thirsty; Three negatives on the others.

“Can I have tea, please?” Emma said sheepishly, “I’ve had more than enough caffeine today.”

“There is caffeine in tea too, dummy,” Loren smirked as he set about making it.

“I know that!” Emma said, pouting, “But it has less.”

“So you ducked my question earlier,” Loren said more seriously, “How do you know my name?”

Emma remained silent for a few long moments before slowly making her way over to the counter and sitting at one of the stools there. Loren waited patiently and poured the hot water into her mug before sliding it in front of her.

“Thanks,” Emma mumbled, ducking down to sip at it. “We’ve met before; I don’t know why you don’t remember.”

Loren stilled, running that sentence over in his head. Did Emma remember the loops as well?

“When did we meet?” Loren said carefully.

He turned back to her and, leaning against the opposite bench, holding his own mug, waiting.

“Three years ago,” Emma said quietly, looking at him through her hair. “At the train station, in central. You don’t believe me.”

Loren remembered no such thing. It wasn’t familiar in the slightest—not only that, but he hadn’t been to that particular station in—had to have been a decade at this point.

“I don’t remember it, honestly,” Loren said, frowning. “Did we talk? Or are you actually a stalker?”

Emma huffed again.

“I’m not a stalker, Loren.” Emma insisted. “We did talk—but your hair was white.”

“Old man white? Or what are we talking here?” Loren said strangely, leaning forward to study her face.

“No, you looked the same as now but with white hair—dyed, I guess?” Emma said quickly, slowly growing red-faced under his continued intense scrutiny.

Loren leaned further forward, squinting at her face.

“What? What are you looking at?!” Emma demanded, embarrassed. “Loren!”

“Are you on drugs, lady?” Loren said incredulous, “You’ve totally made this up—crazy-ass stalker backstory, I’m going to die in my sleep.”

“It really happened!” Emma insisted, flushed. “I’m not making it up.”

Loren leaned back, smiling, and shrugged.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Emma,” Loren admitted, “I honestly don’t remember it, and I’ve never dyed my hair—sorry.”

Emma just ducked her head and busied herself with her tea once more, embarrassed at taking the bait.

“Do you mind if I have a shower?” Emma asked, hopefully.

Loren just waved her onwards with a nod.



“—Piston, and Stalk, both deceased, were found within a hundred meters of the scene of the battle,” The reporter said, frowning, “Dovetail, a beloved protector of Setalite City and one of the renowned members of Hero HQ, was found in the same area, also deceased.”

Loren watched the news report with a frown; last time, there had been a live stream of the Wrightway building blaze, so he hadn’t seen this at the time.

“The culprit was seen by multiple witnesses downtown and has been revealed as the leader of ‘The Crew,’ Serpentine.” The man said seriously, “He is still at large and considered extremely dangerous; if you do encounter the villain, please keep your distance and let professionals handle it. The final member of ‘The Crew,’ Isometric, was not present at the scene of the battle, and her whereabouts remain unknown.”

“So many things are happening this week,” Loren said, frowning, as Emma toweled dried her hair. “It seems like the world just up and decided that it was time to toss as much shit at the city as it possibly could and see what happened.”

Emma stepped forward, now level with the couch, and studied him.

“I know what happened in Arrot city was messed up—but what else happened here?” Emma said curiously, “Dovetail and The Crew is just one thing really.”

Loren opened his mouth and then closed it—right, she didn’t know about any of the shit that was going to go down.

“Doesn’t matter,” Loren sighed, “Forget I mentioned it.”



“So my couch is pretty cool and all, but what’s your plan for the longer term?” Loren said idly.

His mind was mostly focused on watching the two swordsman dash about the battlefield on the screen—he’d seen the fight a thousand times before, but the animation remained inspiring. Emma seemed to be more lost in the suspended moments where the blades cut through the air than he was.

“Um,” Emma said nervously, pulling herself out of the spectacle. “I should be able to get the bond together for another apartment in a couple of days at most—I’ll just need to do a bit more work than usual this week..”

A bit more work than usual, huh? Loren thought distractedly. A very—diplomatic way of referring to the act of breaking into someone’s business and stealing their money.

“My humble apartment is at your disposal until you get that sorted out,” Loren affirmed, “Just don’t break anything, yeah?”

“I won’t break anything—promise,” Emma said nervously, before swallowing. “Loren… I know you don’t really know me. I’m like a complete stranger, and I sound crazy, I know. You didn’t have to help me, but you’re letting me stay here anyway—thank you.”

Loren just nodded; she was blowing it out of proportion; it was just a couch.

“No worries, champ,” Loren said easily, glancing at her.

Her face twisted into a rictus of horror for a second at the nickname before she managed to pull her features back into a strained smile, laughing awkwardly.

Loren did his absolute best no to let his amusement at her reaction appear on his face—Besides he was too busy thinking about what she had told him earlier. White hair, same age, but three years ago—he would have said it was someone else entirely, but apparently, even their names had been the same.

Did some villain somehow yoink his body for the day? Force him to do something before wiping his memory, maybe?

It wasn’t a very pleasant thought, but given that Emma knowing his name was apparently the only blowback he had even gotten from that mystery—it couldn’t have been too bad, right?