There were some points in time you couldn’t mess with. The Fizzle Bomber knew these all too well, oh yes—had filled notebook after notebook in the past trying to figure out what was a stable point in time that you couldn’t change even if you wanted to and what were the points where the continuum was fragile and had to be treated tenderly and preserved for the sake of his own paradoxical existence. He hated his own miserable life sometimes, hated his past, hated the Ouroboros that he knew would swallow him eventually, would even swallow him soon. But he loved Jane and he loved John, that woman and that man he used to be. He had to preserve them and their world, and for that the delicate timeline was very precious.
Jane had never thought much about the timeline, time travel, or any of that stuff. She thought about space and about mathematics, which prepared her to some extent to be John. John thought about timelines a lot. He had a chart up on the wall of all the places he had visited in time, little push pins stuck into a bulletin board. He also filled all those notebooks, trying to record the details of all his meeting with his other selves, imagining all meetings to be of equal importance. The Fizzle Bomber remembered this stage with some embarrassment. He’d once filled far too many pages writing about the circumstances under which some future John had dropped in for a quick handjob. And when he finally got around to being that future John, the handjob was more of an affectionate quickie than a timeline-significant event.
Not all meetings were equally important. Not all events were equally important. Sometimes, just the slightest bit, they shifted. Sometimes Fizzle knew he’d done things slightly different this time around in a confrontation with John than he remembered it originally going. The world hadn’t ended yet, nor had he ceased to exist, nor had his memories changed. Perhaps, as long as he left some things the same (the initial meeting, the fumbled but ever so sweet affair, the baby on the doorstep, the man at the bar) not a lot really mattered. Predestination seemed to be a crapshoot.
(After all, if you really weren’t supposed to change things for the better, how come the time agents succeeded in actually saving lives? How come Fizzle succeeded in actually taking them? Wasn’t that a conundrum?)
In any case, after pondering the matter over for a couple days, Fizzle came to the conclusion that John having a terrible New Year’s Eve on Thursday, December 31, 1964, was utterly unnecessary to the timeline and really should not have happened. And as none of his past selves had really bothered with it (they’d been too busy trying to stop various disasters, including those he had caused himself, and preserving the timeline from other terrible things), he would have to travel back to 1964 to deal with it himself.
(Not that he minded. It had been a long time since he’d bothered practicing any self care.)
December 31, 1964.
John could remember living it as Jane. Or rather, he supposed he had been legally John at the time, but in his head he hadn’t quite adjusted to it. It had been years before he began thinking of himself as a man, began introducing himself as John to strangers with no hesitation. And back then, Jane had only become John about a year ago, and lost her baby, her only comfort, at the same time…
(You never lost your baby, he wanted to tell Jane now, whenever he thought about it. Your baby was you, you grew up with her, you’re with her now. But of course no matter how he rationalized it, and he had rationalized it many times, with the help of older and younger selves, the loss still stung. Jane was supposed to get a baby, to have and to hold and to raise and protect. That was supposed to be the one good thing about the whole messy business. Instead she got…well, she got to exist, John supposed now. Somehow living was not as sweet as loving would have been.)
Jane had spent this New Year’s Eve and the New Year’s Day that followed alone. She had considered going to a bar and getting very drunk. Decided against it because the lack of men leering at her would be somehow depressing, no matter how much she had wanted to murder every man who ever leered at her in the past. So instead she had done some basic editing on a draft of a story she was writing as The Unmarried Mother, a job which she had only just started. She hadn’t gotten much done.
There had been snow on the ground outside. None falling, but some on the ground, a nice crunchy layer of it. A lot of it on the street was thoroughly mixed into sludge by dirt and salt by now, but there were pockets of it still white around the edges, especially the huge mounds the snow plow had left. And from her apartment window, she could see all of it, and hear the spare fireworks going off on the other side of the city. It was a good night to be out having a good time. Back in the day she hated holidays, days when people were supposed to hang out with their significant others or drink booze and relax, back when everyone told her she was too stiff and too masculine, back when she had never been in love but often thought about it—or at least thought about sex. She tried to focus on editing and her thoughts wandered bitterly back to John. She’d thought John wanted to stay with her and be the kind of couple that watched fireworks together. But why would anyone want to do that? She’d only ever been a frigid bitch, after all.
Now, she wasn’t even a frigid bitch. Now, she wasn’t even a she, but not quite a he either. She was an Unmarried Mother with no child, and she had work to do. She stayed up all night trying to edit the story and never quite getting it right, and woke up the next day still sitting at her desk.
Yes, John could remember his first December 31, 1964. It had been miserable.
This December 31, 1964 wasn’t shaping up to be much better.
He was in a different city. Boston this time. It was still pretty damn cold though, and there was still the same snow, though a lot more of it, and the same general sense of excitement in the city, the same sporadic firework sounds.
And it was still, just as he remembered it, the worst New Year’s Eve ever.
He’d only been stopping in December 1964 briefly, or at least that had been the intention. Nothing that important happened this month—or at least nothing that important to Robertson, which meant nothing that important to John either. He’d only been stopping by to talk to a couple people, read a few newspapers, pick up information on a change in the timeline a different agent had created back in October or so. But on December 29 he’d started feeling dizzy and nauseous, and his temperature had slowly risen to ambitious heights. You weren’t supposed to use the time travelling device when you were sick because it put too much stress on your body, so he went back to the apartment that was the company’s Boston base in 1964, brewed himself some tea, and went to bed.
(He forgot to drink the tea, but the thought probably counted, right?)
Bang bang. Another firework. People celebrating. John tried to feel happy about it. He’d gotten a job done and would have plenty of information for Robertson when he got back. And taking a couple days off to recuperate from a fever technically meant he was on vacation, right? Vacation on New Year’s Eve?
Unpaid leave, more likely—he wasn’t sure he would even mention the gap to Robertson—but whatever. He’d take what he could get. He’d been working his bones off for weeks now and…
Working his bones off. Working his skin off, his guts out…he felt like maybe his head would melt away off his body if this kept up much longer. His temperature must have gone higher, no big deal. He tried to lift a hand to his forehead, make sure it was still attached to his head, but it had gotten trapped under his sheets and blanket and comforter, too heavy to brush aside, so he let that go too. Didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. He could sweat it out.
(Was the tea still in the kitchen in the little blue mug? It would be so nice to drink it, feel so good on his throat…Probably cooled by now, but he would hardly mind. Heck, it might be better with ice. But he was too tired to get up, and time was slipping away, just like it always was, just like it had been for years now. The Barkeep, on the tape, had warned him about this. As the years passed, as chronology became more of an enigma, he began to understand what it meant to live life confined in seconds and minutes yet unbound from years and days and months.)
Jane. He should have gone to visit Jane. She would have recognized him—years had passed but no accident yet, no changes to that face which was a slightly more creased replica of her own. She would have been mad at him for his disappearance, for the mess he’d made of her life, but he thought in 1964 she still would have forgiven him. Heck, back then he’d half believed his John would return at any moment, and scold her for losing the baby, and cry over her diminished breasts and hips. He could have gone to her tonight and distracted her from the work of editing that damn romance, and held her in his arms again, her lithe little body more than half male by now, and kissed those lips that in later years would become very familiar with the sensation of kissing a mirror but for now were still unused to having a lover at all. Of course in doing so he probably would have created some paradox to destroy his own existence—Jane was a fragile point and the Barkeep had warned him off. But it was alluring.
Somewhere out there Jane was having the same night as he was. She wasn’t sick but she did have a headache, and the fireworks weren’t helping it. She was missing her lover, missing her baby, trying to work out the holes in a story…what had the story been…he couldn’t remember…and somehow letting them slip again and again, so worried about the deadline, worried about that because it was better than worrying about the other things people worry about on New Year’s: the passing of time, the futility of being, the derailment of a life. Better than thinking about how damn lonely everything was, too…
Only he wasn’t alone, was he? Someone was in the room with him, standing over him. Tall and fuzzy—but then, everything was fuzzy now, in the half shadow of the apartment’s broken light fixture. A cool, callused hand touched his forehead.
“John?” he croaked.
The hand smoothed back his hair. “Given yourself a fever, kid.”
“Yes, it’s John.” The hand moved away, and he lifted his head slightly off the pillow, trying to follow it and not quite managing. “Settle down. I’ll be back in a minute.”
The Fizzle Bomber remembered this night, his second December 31, 1964, as being painful and long and hot and sick. Now, on his third December 31, 1964, he saw he had not been wrong. John had a high fever and was nearly out of sweat—clearly not well hydrated. He found a ready brewed mug of tea in the kitchen and brought it to John, and after helping him to sit up, leaning against the headboard of the bed, helped him also to drink the liquid slowly and carefully until it was all gone. Not a single drop dribbled out of those lips to stain the sheets or John’s white buttoned shirt. Which…at least he wasn’t wearing a suit jacket, but apparently he hadn’t bothered to undress either.
These elements, Fizzle had not remembered about the night. Not surprising. He doubted John would remember much about it either, later on, with this high of a fever and with the way he kept mumbling at Fizzle, only half lucid.
Then again, that lack of lucidity was good in a way. He was calling Fizzle “John”, not “bomber” or “monster” like he might if he recognized how old Fizzle was and therefore realized what he had already done, what he would still do. He wouldn’t be able to hurt Fizzle in this state—poor boy was harmless—but he might get himself worked up, and that was no good. Kids with fevers had to rest. The women in the orphanage had taught Jane that long ago, not that she had ever listened back then either.
“You need to get out of those clothes,” he told John. “Into something comfortable. You got anything comfortable?”
John vaguely shook his head.
Fizzle shook his head too. Well, whatever. “You have to get out of those clothes.” He reached for John’s buttons, pushing down John’s hands when he clumsily tried to undo them himself. His fingers were too weak and shaky. Fizzle would do it better.
He unbuttoned efficiently, unembarrassed by how his fingers brushed against John, both through the shirt and behind it as it began to open up. He did take a moment to examine John’s chest but only when he was finished and was absent mindedly folding the shirt to put it away. The two tell-tale scars of surgery that would never totally fade were fresher on this John than they were on Fizzle, though already more than a decade old. He had smoother skin, less fat, a bit of a tan even. It was a good body, though Fizzle didn’t take more than a moment to admire it before walking off to put the shirt in a drawer. He had always been fond of that body, ever since Jane first uncovered its secrets with her virgin hands. And he rather missed the privilege of wearing that face, though of course that was his own damn fault.
John had already pulled off his own pants by the time Fizzle got back and he hadn’t been wearing any shoes or socks (at least he’d known enough to take those off before retiring), so Fizzle maneuvered him back into bed and tucked him back in. Really he should have clean sheets and blankets, and probably take a shower at some point, but the apartment didn’t have a linen closet and Fizzle wasn’t going to run across town to buy new sheets or launder them. He wasn’t going to leave John alone tonight when they’d both already been alone far too much.
Instead, he went to the kitchen to make some chicken broth from a can he found in a cabinet—the apartment was always stocked with a bare minimum of food so it could function as a base. But he came back every couple minutes to check on John, offer him water, and murmur encouraging words.
He half hoped John would fall asleep, but had a feeling he wouldn’t. He remembered this as a long, torturous night.
Finally the soup was ready. He got a bowl and a spoon and sat down next to John again. “You’ll have to sit up,” he said. “John?”
John was awake but bleary eyed. He slowly allowed Fizzle to prop him up slightly, just his shoulders and head, with a pillow. Fizzle gave his shoulders a light squeeze, trying to tell how lucid he was.
“John,” John murmured. “No…you’re the barkeep…” He squinted hard and then said. “But that still makes you John…”
Fizzle hadn’t been a barkeep for a long time, and definitely was not the version of himself that this John was remembering. But it was close enough, and still infinitely better than, “You’re the bomber.” He nodded and held a spoonful of the soup up to John’s mouth. John sipped it and then frowned.
“I can feed myself.”
“No,” Fizzle disagreed. “You really can’t.”
John didn’t argue any further. He accepted a couple more spoonfuls of soup from Fizzle before saying, “If you’re John, you should be with Jane.”
He said this with absolute certainty. Fizzle knew why. “You’re thinking about the first December 31, 1964.”
“She needs John,” John said.
“She always does,” Fizzle agreed. Putting the spoon away in the bowl, he took John’s chin in one hand and lightly stroked his hair with the other. “But I am with her. And so are you.”
They were so saturated with paradoxes and doppelgangers that John, so feverish he didn’t even totally recognize Fizzle as the bomber, still seemed to get the meaning immediately. Of course they were both Jane and they were both John, so if they were together then Jane and John were together. Which was how things were meant to be.
“Poor Jane,” John muttered. He took Fizzle’s hand with both of his own and lightly stroked it. It was the most affection Fizzle had received in a long time—ever since he started bombing and grew his hair out, all his past selves had grown increasingly wary. The softness, the kindness coming from such a young John, made his throat hurt, just a little. (That, or he was catching John’s fever.)
John said something unintelligible then. Fizzle said, “What?”
“Can I kiss you, Jane?” John said. His voice was still slurred, but his eyes glinted with sincerity.
If Fizzle kissed him, he was almost sure to catch the fever.
Aw, hell. As if he could deny the boy anything.
He kissed John gently on the lips. Fortunately, that seemed to be all John had been thinking of. If they had started really making out like this John probably did with earlier Johns all the time, like Fizzle remembered he used to do all the time, there would be absolutely no chance of Fizzle walking away from this encounter a healthy man. And the exertion probably wouldn’t be good for John in this condition either.
“John,” John muttered, sinking back onto his pillow. “Jane.”
“Don’t leave me.”
The fireworks continued to burst outside as John slowly fell asleep. Fizzle sighed. He really did have to go—he remembered his fever breaking pretty soon the next day and he couldn’t stick around for a John who actually knew what he was doing and probably had multiple guns hidden in this very apartment. The night was over. Still, it was the best December 31, 1964 he’d ever had.
That was something.
When John woke up the next morning, the older John was gone. At least, he assumed it had been an older John. It was all a little blurry but he didn’t remember taking care of himself with a fever before so it was probably further ahead in the timeline. So…he had that to look forward to. Fun. At least he hadn’t vomited on himself.
(He would have assumed it to be a hallucination, honestly, except there was still leftover chicken broth, which he definitely hadn’t made. Or at least, this iteration of himself hadn’t.)
He wished the older John could have stayed. He hadn’t talked to another John in a while, and these days when he did, they were often younger than him. He missed the reassuring nature of an older self. He missed the guidance. But no doubt the other self had business to take care of. Didn’t they always?
He rested up for a few days before heading back to the 1980s. Robertson appreciated the information. He didn’t mention the sickness or the other John. He didn’t have to.
December 31, 1964. He remembered being Jane the first time around. She’d been as bad off as him, and no one had showed up for her. She hadn’t needed chicken broth, he thought, but she had needed a kiss, even just a peck. She’d needed it badly and he’d failed her, and by not travelling back even now, he was continuously failing her. He could never quite save Jane. The barkeep had saved him, in a way, but that was not the same.
Maybe one more trip?
On January 1, 1965, Jane opened the door of her apartment to go on a grocery run. She almost tripped over a bag on the stairs. It had a small paper sign on it that said, “To Jane Doe. Love, a Friend. Happy New Years.” The handwriting was neat, perfectionist cursive. Much like her own.
She dragged the bag inside, half expecting a bomb or a prank. Instead, there were about ten cans of soup and vegetables. None of them were opened.
Anonymous friends. Huh. Probably someone in the apartment building, maybe a girl with a crush—she looked enough like a man by now. And the unopened cans were probably safe since they were sealed. Still, couldn’t risk it. Anonymous gifts were too suspicious.
She carried the bag and the cans out to the dumpster and threw them out. A pity. It had been her favorite brand of chicken noodle, the brand she’d actually been planning on buying at the store today. And it was the only gift she’d gotten for New Year’s—not that New Year’s gifts were exactly traditional.
Still, you couldn’t risk these things. You eat an apparently innocuous can of soup and you end up dying of poison or high on drugs. And she wasn’t the type to attract secret admirers, either.
And so what if she kept the note and pinned it above her desk? So what if looking at it when she was frustrated with editing gave her a slightly warm feeling? That didn’t necessarily mean anything.
It was just that hope was hard to find these days, and love was even harder.