Some days he goes by John, or James, or sometimes Jack. Some days he doesn’t have a name anymore. No, it’s not terribly original, but there’s some comfort in knowing that all of him share something beyond the strings of fate that tie them together. What he shares with the man who’s eyeing him from across the laundromat though, John doesn’t dare contemplate.
His sanity is hanging on by a thread, his fingers twitching on the gun. It would be so easy - the Bomber won’t be the first person he’s killed, but he might be the last. And yet.
“Do you want to re-live this again and again?” The Bomber grins at him manically. He’s insane, John thinks. Too much jump damage, too much time spent alone.
“Or just once,” John replies. “Who knows how time moves.”
The gun is getting heavy in his hand, and he curses his indecisiveness. Never deviate from the mission, he thinks, even if this last one suddenly seems immeasurably more important than any other.
“You don’t want me to do this? You have ten days. Convince me,” the Bomber continues. “Tell me there’s something more important than saving those people.”
“I don’t need to convince you,” John says. “I could just kill you.”
“And risk becoming me?”
I won’t, John thinks, but something about his mirror’s earlier words has sown a seed of doubt. He’s always been able to manipulate himself, but never been able to lie.
Apparently the Bomber has the same thought because he gestures at the gun and says, “They’ll kill you if you don’t shoot me.”
Paradoxically, that’s what makes John drop the gun.
“There’s nobody here,” he says. “You’re seeing things. Psychosis is one of the effects of-”
“Oh, spare me,” the Bomber says. “I’m pretty sure I know this better than you.”
Privately, John agrees. “What are you doing here?”
“I own this place.” He makes an expansive gesture, including the yellowing wallpaper, slowly rocking laundry machines and blind window. “My little kingdom.”
“You sleep here?” John is vaguely disgusted. He shouldn’t be; he’s been to and lived in enough rough places, but knowing this is where he might end up brings a sour taste to his mouth.
“In the office,” the Bomber says. He walks off, expecting or knowing that John will follow.
Behind the aisle of machines and cleaning supplies is a small room with a narrow bed, another blind window, a handful of shelves, and a worktable. John’s eyes are immediately drawn to the bomb that’s resting on top of it.
He makes an aborted step towards it, but the Bomber puts a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“You haven’t proven anything yet,” he says. “So you’re not gonna tinker with this.”
“You’re insane,” John says. “How am I supposed to find anything to prove to you?”
“That’s up to you,” his mirror says. “And you know what? I honestly don’t remember how you’re gonna solve this. Isn’t that exciting?”
Instead of looking for clues in his mirror’s undoubtedly damaged mind, he goes back to see Jane. He watches her carefully from a distance, stepping out of her line of sight when she turns to gaze around. She’s clad in a dark green coat and John suddenly remembers the rough texture of it as if he were wearing it himself. And then, pressed against the wall, hidden by a bus shelter, he remembers her skin, the way she moved against him, clutching tightly at his shoulders as if he were going to disappear, as if she could crawl inside him.
He’s breathless, gasping, blind to the world. He can almost smell her, the one bottle of perfume she’d bought to fit in with her etiquette class, the shampoo that softened her hair until it brushed against his cheek like silk. For a moment, he’s back in her little one-bedroom apartment, buried between her thighs, her soft moans wrapping them in a cocoon.
Something wet splashes against his thigh, tearing him out of his reminiscence. A passing truck is tearing down the street, a fountain of slush rising and falling in its wake. The memory is gone, and with it Jane, leaving behind nothing but the winter wind and a piercing feeling of regret.
When John comes in, the Bomber is sitting in a rickety plastic chair, fiddling with a roll of tape. John makes his way over to him, lost in thought.
“What if we stop this,” John says quietly, and the Bomber turns to stare at him.
“Go on,” he says.
John stares back. “What if we break the cycle.” There’s still wet slush clinging to his pants, and he can see Jane’s face superimposed over that of the other man. The contrast is striking, almost so vast that John wonders how they could ever be the same person, but then Jane was just as mad, just as determined sometimes.
The Bomber has put away the tape to contemplate John’s offer.
“They’re not going to let us do it easily,” he says. “We - you are a valuable commodity. Need to be protected. Why do you think Robertson was watching Jane? Making exceptions for us?”
“You’re delusional,” John says. “Robertson is the best friend I’ve ever -”
He doesn’t get to finish the sentence; The Bomber is out of his chair and in his face in seconds, grabbing John’s arms. John stiffens reflexively; it’s been years since he’s been this close to himself and he’d nearly forgotten the effect, the ineffable sense of comfort and intimacy that followed the proximity.
He takes a few steadying breaths and notes that the effect is even greater on the other man. He’s been alone for too long, John thinks. He’s gone insane with Jump Displacement and loneliness. The Bomber is breathing hard, and John reaches out a steadying hand out of what he doesn’t quite want to call pity. Slowly, the crushing grip on his arms loosens and the Bomber lowers his head until his hair is brushing against John’s temples.
“I am the best friend you’ve ever had,” he says, his voice a mixture of rage and desperation. “I am the best - the only lover you’ve ever had. Stop lying to yourself. You’re bad at it.”
“Right,” John says, shaken. He steps back, leaving his mirror standing hunched over and lost. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He doesn’t look back when he leaves. He doesn’t think he could.
It’s when he’s tossing and turning in bed that night that he realizes he was wrong. His missions were not equally important. This is the most important one, and the hardest one. He can still feel the ghost of his mirror’s hands on him, clinging tightly as if John were his lifeline.
He uses the next few days, safely ensconced in his apartment, to transfer the loose collection of what-ifs and could-bes in his head onto the living room wall. The collection of sheets and notes fixed with tape and clothing pins to lengths of twine grows on the wall like a fungus.
Prevent the meeting, one note says, taped between maid and pregnancy. He stares at it, envisioning the outcome - Jane will stay single, maybe meet another man. She will have her child with another man and become another kind of John, while everyone dies lonely and unfulfilled, devoid of purpose.
He crosses it out.
He also crosses out prevent the theft (John will grow up raising a child that looks more and more like him with every day that passes) and don’t go back in time (none of them will see Jane again, and the Fizzle Bomber will still exist), and by the third day he’s dug so far into his own time stream he can barely stand to look at himself in the mirror.
He escapes into the past.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” a voice says from behind him.
And there he is, dressed smartly in a black suit, carrying the violin case. The Unmarried Mother looks younger than the last time he saw him, something John recognises as the effect of finally having a purpose after years of drifting through life. There’s a small splatter of blood on his right shoe, the only visible sign of a less than ordinary life.
“I’m just passing by,” John says. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
“Did your tape tell you that?” He says, and John doesn’t tell him that there are no more tapes, that he can speak to himself face to face now.
“Something like that,” he says instead. “Tough case?” He gestures at the shoe.
“Damn,” the Mother says. He takes out a handkerchief and hands the case to John - “here, hold this for a minute” - and John is suddenly overcome with the possibilities. Maybe something is meant to happen.
It’s preposterous. The Mother’s field kit will be checked as soon as he returns. John would gain a day at most, a day in which the Agency would hunt him down. The fact that they haven’t yet, despite his usage of his own field kit, just means they’re still giving him time to fix his own mistakes.
And yet his hands start to sweat on the handle. It’s only a few seconds until he hands the case back, but in those seconds a myriad of options passes through his head; all the ways in which John will never ruin his own life, all the places and times he could go, and, in one instance, the mad thought of taking the Bomber with him.
Then it’s over and the Mother gently takes the case out of John’s grasp. His eyes are wary.
“Should I ask?” he says, and John looks away.
“Best not to,” he replies. He nods once, in parting, and hurries away from the temptation.
“Alright,” he says as he enters the Bomber’s laundromat. He’s filled with resolve. “Let’s say we do want to break the chain.”
His mirror is wrists-deep inside a washing machine, twiddling with screws. He grins at him and gestures to go on.
“It’s impossible,” John continues. “Anything we do to interfere will lead to her - us - never being born. That’s why they call it a paradox. If we break the chain, everything will be destroyed.”
“We will never have existed,” John enunciates to drive the point home.
“How do you know?” the Bomber says. “You’ve never actually tried to change things.”
“Because we can’t possibly account for all the effects,” John says, “and the few variations I did go through so far - let’s just say they’re worse than what happens inside the paradox.”
“It doesn’t matter how much you worry about this,” the Bomber says. “You can’t predict the future with wild theories and silly string.”
“So we don’t know,” John says.
“We don’t know,” the Bomber repeats. “And is that better or worse than knowing?”
John thinks of his tapes, the sound of his own voice guiding him through life. Never a moment that wasn’t predestined.
“I don’t know,” he says, defeated. The Bomber laughs quietly.
“What happened to your field kit?” John asks when the Bomber carefully screws the cover panels back on.
He waves his hand vaguely. “Completely broke down one day,” he replies. “I have no idea why. These days it’s a twelve-pound paperweight.”
He refuses to talk about it further, and John is starting to suspect he might not even know where it is anymore.
When the Bomber is done, he turns the machine on and they both lean against the table, watching the drum rotate hypnotically.
“You’ve got to make a commitment to yourself,” he says, and John doesn’t look at him.
He leans back, not quite touching the other man, but almost. He knows it’s ridiculous, he knows it’s childish, but where before his life had been interwoven with his past, there now yawns a deep chasm. This other one, this man he was sent to kill, is the closest thing he has left of himself and he will take his comfort where he can. After all, his mirror is the only one he’s got left now.
Jane and he - they were almost too intimate, too close, too familiar with each other, and it’s the same thing with the Fizzle Bomber. As much as John wants to pretend that they’re not the same person, well, he’s always been unable to lie to himself.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” he says.
“I want to see her again.”
It’s the first thing the Bomber says when John walks in. He looks distraught - more so than usual, pacing up and down the narrow aisle.
“No,” John says immediately, and then, “Fuck no. You’re already sick, two more jumps could kill you.”
“Wouldn’t that solve all your problems?” he says. “Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to happen - you don’t know that it isn’t.”
John thinks of Jane, innocent and lively, back in 1963. He can’t think of anything worse for either of them than a meeting.
“It’s the uncertainty,” the Bomber says. “You’re used to always knowing what comes next. And now you’re afraid. Ah,” he says, when John throws him a look, “remember, I’ve been there. I am you. Well, not exactly.”
“This is new for both of us,” John says. It’s strange how comforting the thought is, that he’s not alone stepping into the unknown. “And you’re not seeing her.”
“Why do you get to make all the decisions, hm?” the Bomber asks.
“Because you’re letting me,” John says. He hesitates, but continues: “And you’re gonna keep letting me, because you want to see how this ends just as much as I do.”
The Bomber nods slowly.
The next time John walks in, the other man is soldering wires to a timer.
“What the fuck,” he says. “I thought we’d said you weren’t going to do this.”
The Bomber waves at him with the soldering iron, leaving a thin trail of smoke hanging in the air.
“No, no, that’s what you said. Until I see some results, this thing is gonna blow.”
It’s enough to make John stride over and rip the device from his hand. Eight years, he thinks, eight fucking years of this mission, and this is not who I am -
The other man is just as quick as John though, grabbing his wrist and twisting it until the pieces fall from John’s hand.
“You want results?” John gasps through the pain. “Alright. We go forward - as far as we can. Let things play out once, while we’re far away.”
“Just you and me?” his mirror says breathlessly. His grip loosens though, until John could free himself. He doesn’t. The desperation and yearning in the other man’s eyes is all too familiar. “You think that’s gonna be enough?”
“It’ll have to be.” He meets his mirror’s eyes steadily, unflinching.
And just like that, it’s decided.
That night, when he’s lying in his bed, he wonders if he’s gone crazy. He’s fought himself and fucked himself and almost killed himself and in two days, he’s going to betray the only family he’s ever known that wasn’t made up of versions of himself.
The morning before their final excursion through time, John tears his haphazard collection of notes off the wall. His few belongings go into a single case, his typewriter back to the store.
“You’ve packed,” the Bomber says when he enters the laundromat that afternoon. He looks delighted. He jumps off the chair and takes John’s suitcase, touching his chest distractedly as if to inspect him.
“You haven’t,” John counters, and watches the Bomber set his suitcase next to the bomb.
“There’s nothing I need to take with me.” He shrugs.
“Nothing?” John is taken aback. He thinks of the contents of his case: a few photographs, books, the first tape he left for himself, the story of the Unmarried Mother -
“I’ve already lived eight days more than I thought I would,” the Bomber says. “And you’ll be there.”
It’s a strange thought, even after the weeks they’ve spent arguing and planning: that his mirror should take this much comfort from his presence.
“We have to disable the tracker,” the Bomber says, already moving on. “That way they’ll be notified of course, but we can throw them a bone. A small explosion, leave a similar object on the scene-”
“Your kit,” John interrupts, then does a double-take. “Hang on, explosion? You want to plant a bomb?”
“Just a small one,” the Bomber says, and at John’s look, “Fine, come on, we use an empty building.”
John nods reluctantly. “Leave your kit there. Maybe a few of my things.”
“And I’ll be glad to be rid of it,” the other man replies.
“My kit-” John starts.
“It’ll stop working,” he says. “Once we’re past zero point. No going back.”
There’s a brief silence while John contemplates living day to day, never looping back into his own time stream. But then, he won’t be alone.
“We should go over the plan,” he says finally, and that’s what they spend their last afternoon in 1975 doing; in the little room the Bomber owns they work side by side, comparing blueprints and checking dates.
When the sun sets, John stretches. “Go to bed,” he tells the Bomber. “I’ll stay out on the floor.”
“You’re not going to get any sleep,” the Bomber says. “And tomorrow may be the most important day in our life.”
“I’ve slept in worse places,” John counters, mirroring his thoughts from when he’d first stepped into the laundromat.
“Jeez,” the Bomber says. “Just go to bed.” Then he turns to strip, leaving John to decide.
He turns away out of a strange sense of privacy. Behind him, he can hear the mattress groan, and he fiddles with the blueprints. This decision suddenly seems even more momentous than the choice to break the cycle. Unbidden, the memory of Jane smiling comes to his mind, her hair fanned out on the pillow, and then he’s even younger and it’s the man who’s just started calling himself John he sees, fitting impossibly well against him.
“Well?” the Bomber says, and John sighs.
Slowly, he takes off his vest and shirt, untucks his undershirt from his pants. When he turns, the other man is watching him unapologetically.
John rolls his eyes and takes the rest of his clothes off hurriedly, carelessly. He leaves them lying on a heap on the floor and crosses the room to shove the other man aside to make space in the bed.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says.
“Oh, maybe, but I definitely know what you’re thinking.” The Bomber grins, his cold feet tangling with John’s. “She was sweet.” And, before John can reply, he continues, “You were sweet, too.”
John silently groans into the pillow and vaguely shoves at the Bomber with his hand. It lands on a shoulder, and he’s too tired to move it, so that’s how he falls asleep: pressed against himself, a few feet from the machine that will take them both towards an uncertain future.
He wakes up to see the snow piling against the window, leaving a few rays of the sun to shine on his mirror’s face. His eyes are open.
“Do you think that maybe we’re always meant to end up this way?” he asks softly.
John takes long seconds to study him, suspended in this moment they’ve stolen for themselves. There are shadows under his mirror’s eyes, and small scars that he won’t find on his own face. Evidence of the passage of time, he thinks, and of the ruthless war they’ve waged against time.
“I think we’re past the point of destiny,” he says.
The other man smiles. “And maybe this is exactly the way it’s supposed to happen,” he says wryly. “Only we’ve been doing it wrong all this time.”
His eyes drop to John’s mouth, and John holds his breath. The Bomber’s beard scratches against his skin and he has morning breath, but his lips are soft and he moves in a way that is achingly familiar.
We’ve never learned to do this with other people, John thinks, blindly reaching out to bury his fingers in the other man’s hair. It may be a new body he’s in but he still knows how to touch his mirror to make him groan and bury his head in John’s neck, his body curling towards John’s. He thrusts forward, hot and hard against John’s stomach and John moans helplessly.
“Come on, come on,” he murmurs, slipping a hand between them to stroke his mirror’s cock, the motions half-remembered, half-guessed. His own cock is rubbing against a thigh, and the desperation turns his strokes quicker until his mirror shudders against him, muttering fuck, fuck, yes.
John is still vaguely moving his hips, trying to get a bit of friction, when the Bomber untangles himself and moves down John’s body. He takes off John’s briefs unceremoniously, pushing at John’s thighs.
“Spread them,” he says, and John sucks in a breath and complies. The other man settles between his legs, shoving the thin blanket to the floor, and bends his head to lick at John’s cock.
There’s no time to take in the surreality of the moment, not when his mirror is sucking him with a little bit of the knowledge he’s retained over the decades and a lot of determination. John closes his eyes and tries to stop himself from thrusting into his mirror’s throat, lost in the pleasure. He’s brought back to reality by a slap against his buttocks.
“Don’t you dare think of her,” his mirror says hoarsely. John doesn’t even deny it; instead, he pushes himself up on his elbows to watch his cock disappear between his mirror’s lips.
He doesn’t last long, not when it’s been so long since he’s been touched, and his mirror is rubbing his fingertips over the insides of John’s thighs and swallowing him down. He comes with a groan, his arms giving out, collapsing onto the mattress.
Distantly, he wonders if this is part of what he’s committed himself to, if he’ll spend the rest of his life entangled with himself.
There’s been a perceptible shift in the way they move around each other when they pack up and leave. It’s almost as if he’s finally convinced that they’re doing the right thing, that even though this may not be the path he’s meant to take, it’s the one he wants to take.
They move together smoothly, without hesitation, their hands brushing occasionally. When the other man finally sets up the bomb at the empty bus depot they’ve chosen, John kisses him impulsively, hands resting on his field kit and his suitcase.
“Hey,” the Bomber says when they part, “don’t distract me, this is delicate work.”
“Of course.” John smiles, and that’s when he glimpses three figures approaching them.
Robertson is in the lead, unarmed. Behind him, two agents - Miller, John thinks, but he can’t remember the other one’s name - are leveling their guns at them.
“Don’t do this,” Robertson says, and John is struck by how old he looks. How long has it been for Robertson since they last saw each other?
“It’s the right thing,” he argues, and behind him he can hear the Bomber click the timer case shut.
“You’re not going to prevent anything,” Robertson says, and John can see the agents that followed him inching closer. “He will still terrorize the country. Jane will still lose her child.”
“Maybe,” John says, “but there won’t be a bomb in New York.”
“There will be others,” Robertson says. He reaches out towards John. “You’re not going to escape the cycle this way.”
“No, no,” the Bomber interrupts. “It’s the only way I can.”
There’s a grimace on Robertson’s face, and John is suddenly reminded that this is the only time he’s seen two versions of him in the same place.
“If there’s no bomb in New York,” John says slowly, watching Robertson’s face, “I won’t have to spend half my life hunting myself.” His fingers hover over the keypad of the field kit.
“You’ll still be caught in the explosion in 1970,” Robertson says. “You’ll lose your face.”
John can’t help it, he flinches. It’s the memory of the pain that gives him pause; but more than that, it’s the separation he feels between who he is and who he used to be.
“I don’t know,” the Bomber says at his back, while John is still wrestling his memories, “I’m kind of fond of it these days.”
Silence follows his words, and John can see in Robertson’s eyes that he knows he’s lost. He grabs the field kit with his free hand and the Bomber’s arms come to circle his waist.
“Look at that,” his mirror says as John keys in their destination. “An event that is literally unprecedented. A novel experience for both of us.”
Robertson shakes his head, says, “Fire,” but they’re gone already, swallowed up by the time stream, the darkness surrounding them.
They land in a windowless room filled with crates that stack up to the ceiling. A few stand solely against the walls. To John’s left, there’s a door. While the Bomber is walking over to inspect the crates, John cautiously opens the door but goes no further. Instead, he checks his watch. It’s ten forty-eight on March fourteenth, 2034.
“Damn.” He frowns. “We still have sixteen minutes to zero.”
“Maybe you should have let me do it,” the other man says, but John can tell he’s already distracted by the possibilities ahead of them. “Should we leave?”
“No,” John replies. “We wait.” He hops onto one of the crates at the far end of the room and settles in, his gun trained on the door.
The minutes pass slowly, and John has to force himself to focus on the door instead of what lies beyond it. There’s no way they’re prepared for this, he thinks, but then again, they should both be dead. Whatever awaits them will be something entirely new. From the corner of his eye, he can see the Bomber going through an open crate, shaking out fabric and humming quietly.
When the hands on his clock finally inch past the full hour mark, he jumps off the crate and picks up his suitcase.
“Is it time?” his mirror asks, and John nods. They step out, leaving the field kit behind.