“…you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it, if you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it…”
Ted groaned and pulled the covers tighter around him, but the bitter chill of the December morning cut through them, and Beyoncé’s voice was insistent, and he did have a company to run. With a sigh, he threw the covers back and sat up. He didn’t bother to open his eyes, though, which was probably why he stubbed his toe on the bed leg on the way to the bathroom.
“Yowtch! Mother of pearl,” he hissed, opening his eyes and hopping the rest of the way into the bathroom. “Stupid bed. You’re not even real pine! Your mother was balsa!”
He cut off his own invective with a toothbrush and wandered more carefully back into the bedroom, listening as the song wound down and the weather report came on.
“December 24th, Christmas Eve Day, and it’s looking clear and cold all the way through,” the station’s weather jockey chirruped. “High of 34, low 28, with snow moving in overnight – we may just have ourselves a white Christmas, if we’re lucky. Now over to Steve with the traffic…”
Ted returned to the bathroom to spit and turn the shower on. The water was ice cold, and refused to heat up even when Ted let it run for five minutes. A quick call to the super did nothing to improve his day.
“Boiler’s broken,” Jimmy explained, sounding tired. “Should take a couple of hours to get fixed.”
“But I need to shower now,” Ted said, testing the water with a finger and frowning.
He could sense Jimmy shrugging on the other end of the line. “Hey, my father-in-law swears by cold showers. Says they loosen up the lungs.”
“And do you take cold showers?” Ted asked.
Jimmy snorted. “Good one, Mr. Kord. I’ll let you know when the boiler’s back up.”
“Wait, no – !” Ted protested, but the line was already dead.
Ted’s lungs didn’t feel any looser after the world’s fastest, coldest shower, but it certainly woke him up. Still, after the call to Jimmy he was running late. He dressed, popped a button on his favorite shirt by moving too fast, put on a new shirt, grabbed his briefcase, and flew out the door.
By the time he got to work – late – he figured the stubbed toe should have tipped him off to the kind of day he’d be having. The café downstairs was out of his favorite kind of Danish, the doorman had pulled his car out with a mysterious scratch on it, and the traffic was insane. He burst into the office, coffee and newspaper in one hand, Danish, coat, and briefcase in the other, only to be pounced on by his assistant, causing him to dribble coffee onto his tie.
“Thanks for that, Connie.”
Connie, who was a very good assistant, was already dabbing at the spilled coffee with a napkin. “Sorry, Ted, but it’s been a Morning.”
He handed her his coat and briefcase as they headed for his office. “That sounded like it had a capital M on it.”
“It did,” Connie replied. “The lab has called up 23 times since 7:30, asking for you – they say the prototypes keep exploding. The Tokyo office seems to be having a meltdown, although I wasn’t clear whether that was literal or figurative. Plus the Board is up in arms because our stock is down and I had to squeeze a meeting for them into your afternoon schedule.” Ted shot her a betrayed look. “Sorry! They were very insistent.”
“It’s fine.” Ted shucked off his jacket and reached for his lab coat. “They’ve probably gone home in the Tokyo office, but see if you can get Kimiyo on the line, find out what’s happening there, and keep me posted. I’ll be downstairs.” He paused. “Those prototypes are a million dollars each?”
“A million point two,” Connie corrected him.
“Great.” Ted took the clipboard she handed him with the relevant specs. “Capital M indeed.”
The Morning continued until well into the afternoon. Ted couldn’t figure out why the prototypes for his latest invention (a sort of Skeets-lite for people with chronic health conditions, a flying AI capable of monitoring vital statistics, calling emergency hotlines, and administering basic first aid) kept blowing up, but the sting of the burns on his hands and the side of his face was there to remind him that painful explosions were not part of administering first aid. It wasn’t until 2:30 that he managed to catch ten minutes in his office to breathe, look at the business section in the paper, and shovel down a sandwich Connie had ordered for him.
His phone rang while his mouth was still full of grilled chicken and avocado. “Hewwo?”
“Have time to take a call, Ted?” Connie asked. “It’s Booster.”
“I’m a little busy, Con,” Ted pointed out.
“He’s called three times.” Connie managed to sound both apologetic and accusatory – she, like all of the women in Ted’s office, had a soft spot for Booster.
Ted rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine, put him through.”
“Beetle buddy! How’s tricks?”
Ted practically spat out his sandwich. “Booster! Ix-nay on the Eetle-bay, if you don’t mind?”
Booster snorted. “Oh, please, like Connie doesn’t already know. I’m sorry, but ‘Egads! He must have been attacked with a naked ray!’ is not a good explanation for Blue Beetle’s costume being in your desk drawer.”
“Hey, I was thinking on the fly,” Ted grumbled. “Anyway, what do you want?”
“Well, I was going to see if you wanted to have a couple of drinks tonight, since it is Christmas Eve, and you are my best friend, and my family won’t even be born for five hundred years, but if that’s inconveniencing you, fine, I’ll see what G’nort’s up to.”
“Sorry.” Ted rubbed his temples. “Sorry, it’s been a long day. Yes, I would like to get drinks tonight. Like, a hundred of them.”
“Well, okay, but you’re buying.”
“If I’m not bankrupt by sunset,” Ted said. “Listen, I gotta get back to work.”
“Okay. Try not to let your head explode before drinks.”
“I make no promises. Later.”
The day didn’t improve. Ted came out of his meeting with the Board with no very strong conviction that he had reassured them; they were probably looking for a way to replace him already. Usually the knowledge that his name was on the company and that no one else could make the kind of scientific breakthroughs he made reassured him, but not after that disastrous morning in the lab. Anyone could stand there looking confused while inventions blew up in their face, and it wasn’t like he’d never lost control of a company with his name on it before.
The rest of the afternoon was a slew of meetings, all of which were simultaneously crucially important and mind-numbingly boring. Then it was back to his office for endless, pointless paperwork. It didn’t help that half of his staff was gone, already started on their Christmas breaks. Ted certainly didn’t begrudge them a holiday with their families, but it was frustrating constantly coming up against questions only Russ or Tina or Joe could answer, only to have Connie remind him that Russ or Tina or Joe was already gone – especially since it only served to remind Ted that he didn’t really have a family to spend the holiday with himself.
It was after eight by the time Ted waved goodbye to Connie as they got into their cars and headed off in different directions. Back in his apartment, Ted stared into his mostly-empty fridge for a few minutes before reheating some leftover Chinese takeout – the healthy, steamed, boring kind, to add insult to injury. He ate it, changed his shirt, checked to see if the boiler had been fixed (no), and headed out to meet Booster.
“Well, look at it this way,” Booster said once Ted had finished enumerating his woes to him. “Now that you have all the trials and tribulations of being a grownup, you don’t have to keep acting like a jerk to convince yourself you’re mature.”
Ted glared up at Booster over the top of his beer. It was the dead of winter, and Booster, as usual, looked like he’d spent the day at the beach – tanned, relaxed, smile toothpaste-commercial-bright in the darkness of the bar. “Thanks, Booster. That helps.”
“Okay, how about this? Tomorrow’s Christmas,” Booster pointed out. “You did take tomorrow off, right?”
“Well, yeeees,” Ted hedged. “But now I’m thinking I might go into the office anyway. Just a half day!” he added in response to Booster’s disapproving look. “Come on, there’s already not enough time in the day, and now I’m gonna throw a whole one away?”
“But it’s Christmas,” Booster said.
“So? I’m Jewish and you’re an atheist. And it’s not like I expect Santa to come.”
“You’re only half-Jewish,” Booster argued. “Besides, what about the Christmas party? You know how long it took Mary to talk Max into throwing one.”
“That’s not until the afternoon.” Booster’s disapproving expression didn’t change. “Fine. Fine! I won’t go into the office tomorrow. Probably.” Ted took another sip of his beer. “I don’t know why it matters so much to you anyway.”
He was surprised to see Booster look a little hurt. “You’re my best friend,” Booster said. “I don’t want you to be miserable.”
Ted frowned. “I’m not miserable.”
“Okay,” Booster said, in a tone that made it was clear he was humoring Ted. “I gotta hit the head. Be right back.” He stood up, putting a hand against the small of Ted’s back as he did – for balance, for reassurance that he would return, Ted wasn’t sure. But the place where Booster’s hand had rested still felt warm as Ted watched Booster thread his way through the crowd.
“Arrrgh,” Ted said abruptly, leaning forward to thump his head against the bar. “None of that.”
“Not enjoying the beer, hon?”
Ted looked up into a pair of bright green snake heads. Blinking, he looked up further, and found the bartender’s face somewhere above the serpentine tattoos curling around her impressive cleavage.
“It’s fine, but after today I could use something a little stronger,” Ted said. “Like, say, if you had a giant novelty mallet back there you could use to hit me over the head, that might do the trick.”
The bartender laughed, and Ted caught the gleam of a stud through her tongue. “We’re fresh out of mallets tonight, but I can fix you a Double-Beryl Shotgun, on the house. Guaranteed to make all your troubles seem very far away.”
Ted raised an eyebrow. “Double-Beryl Shotgun?”
She pointed to the nametag Ted had somehow missed in all the snakes and cleavage. “Beryl.” Two shot glasses and an unlabeled bottle appeared on the bar. “Double.”
Ted picked one of the shot glasses up. “And the shotgun? If I drink it, does your daddy show up with one?”
She grinned. “If you drink it, someone’s probably gonna get banged.”
Ted choked on the shot.
Booster returned as Ted was mopping the mysterious – and strong – drink from his chin with a cocktail napkin. Beryl winked at him and went to take orders on the other side of the bar.
“You okay there, Teddy?” Booster asked.
Ted shook his head, which was already starting to hum a bit. “Yeah. Here, have a shot.” He slid the other shot glass over to Booster, who grinned and downed it.
“Wowzer.” Booster put the empty glass back on the bar. “What the hell is that?”
“I have no idea. Let’s get another set.”
Three shared Shotguns later, Ted found himself back in his apartment, tossing his keys in the general vicinity of the bowl where he usually kept them and stumbling towards the bedroom. Vaguely he thought he should probably have a glass of water, but it was all he could do to strip down to his underwear and crawl between the covers of his unmade bed.
It seemed to take a long time for his body heat to warm up the bed, and as he waited and shivered he wondered how much warmer it would be if Beryl and her snakes were in there with him. He imagined her hands moving over him, and then somehow it was Booster’s hands he was imagining, and Booster’s eyes the way they’d looked when he and Ted had parted ways, bright above cheeks flushed from the drinks and the cold. Ted was too drunk to stop the train of thought there like he usually did, but it didn’t matter, because as imaginary Booster’s lips met his, the Shotguns caught up with him and Ted fell asleep.
* * *
“…you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it, if you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it…”
Ted groaned and pulled the covers tighter around him, but the bitter chill of the December morning cut through them, and Beyoncé’s voice was insistent, and he did have a company to run. With a sigh, he threw the covers back and sat up. He didn’t bother to open his eyes, though, which was probably why he stubbed his toe on the bed leg on the way to the bathroom.
“Dammit! Again?” He hopped in place for a minute. “I need that toe!”
By the time he had his toothbrush in his mouth, the pain had subsided, and he noted with pleasure that he had no hangover to speak of. Well done, Beryl, he thought, and walked back into the bedroom.
“…oh oh oh,” Beyoncé concluded, and Ted snorted. Sure, the song was catchy, but playing it two days in a row at the same time was probably overkill. The familiar chimes of the weather report followed it.
“December 24th, Christmas Eve Day, and it’s looking clear and cold all the way through.”
Ted frowned. No, it was December 25th. They must have stuck yesterday’s tape in by accident over at the station – probably one too many glasses of eggnog making the rounds. He glanced out the window for the snow the weatherman had promised yesterday, but the ground was still bare. That was fine with him. He was too old to be charmed by snow, and he didn’t need another traffic jam like yesterday’s.
Less fine with him was the fact that there was still no hot water. He called Jimmy again.
“Jimmy, this is getting ridiculous. Don’t you have that boiler fixed yet?”
“You gotta give me time, Mr. Kord!” Jimmy protested. “I’ve only been working on it half an hour!”
“What? What were you doing all of yesterday?” Ted asked.
“The boiler was working fine yesterday,” Jimmy replied.
Ted frowned. “I have a distinct memory of taking a very cold shower yesterday, Jimmy.”
“Hey, my father-in-law swears by cold showers. Says they loosen up the lungs.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know all about your father-in-law,” Ted grumbled. “Listen, just fix it quickly, okay?”
Cold showers weren’t any more charming two mornings in a row. Five minutes later, damp-haired and shivering, Ted reached into his closet, pulling out his favorite shirt before remembering he’d popped the button yesterday.
He started to put it back, then froze. None of the buttons were missing – the shirt looked as perfect as it ever did when it came back from the laundry service. But Ted was sure it had been this shirt. Maybe another blue one? But no, a quick check showed no shirts with missing buttons.
Ted felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. Something was definitely weird today. Then he shook his head, exasperated with himself. He was probably just feeling out of sorts because it was Christmas morning and he was going into work. Only for a half day – he’d promised Booster he’d be at Max’s Christmas party that afternoon, and he would. But there was too much going on at the office to take the whole day off.
He finished dressing, grabbed his briefcase, and headed out. “Did you get that scratch buffed out yet, George?” he asked as the doorman hopped out of his car.
George looked baffled. “What scratch, Mr. Kord?”
Ted furrowed his brow. “George, we had a whole conversation about this yesterday.”
George shook his head. “Not me. I’m off Wednesdays.”
“Yesterday was Thursday.”
“No, sir, today’s Thursday. Christmas Eve Day.”
Ted stared at him. “Are you sure?”
George smiled indulgently. “I think I’d remember if today was Christmas, Mr. Kord.”
“Uh, yes, of course you would.”
“Have a good day, Mr. Kord.”
Ted drove off, completely out of sorts. Was he dreaming? Had he dreamed yesterday? He’d had dreams before where he got up and went to work; maybe this was just a more extreme version of that. At any rate, he wasn’t entirely surprised when he turned the corner and found himself in yesterday’s massive traffic jam. Unless it was today’s traffic jam, or yesterday hadn’t happened, or…
Gah. Music. Music would distract him. He turned the radio on.
“…-gle ladies, all the single ladies, all the…”
He turned the radio off.
“Apricot Danish!” the barista in the café on the ground floor of his office building said when he walked in – just like she’d said yesterday. “Let me just check…”
“You’re out,” Ted said.
“We’re…out. How did you know?”
Ted shook his head. “You know, I honestly couldn’t tell you.”
“Cherry okay?” she asked, just like she’d asked yesterday.
“Fine,” Ted said, and paid for it along with his regular coffee and newspaper. He juggled them all into his arms, nodded at the security guard, and hopped into the elevator.
On the top floor, Connie pounced on him. This time he wasn’t mid-sip, and managed not to spill anything. “Good morning, Ted.”
“Morning, Connie. Let me guess: the prototypes keep blowing up, there’s trouble in Tokyo, and the Board wants to yell at me?”
Connie stared at him. “Yes. How’d you know?”
Ted handed her his coat. “It’s been a Morning.”
“That sounded like it had a capital M.”
He sighed. “It did. I’ll head down to the lab first thing.” He paused. “Hey, Con? What day is it?”
She gave him a look. “Thursday, December 24th. What? Forget to do some Christmas shopping?”
Ted tried to force his face into a normal expression, but it was hard when he was pretty sure his head was about to explode, or melt, or something. “I wish.”
Progress in the lab wasn’t much better than it had been the day before, especially since none of the lab scientists seemed to remember yesterday. Considering that they were the top of the field – Ted had handpicked them all himself – and considering that there were also no digital or paper records of anything they had done yesterday, Ted was more inclined to trust their memories than his own. After all, most superheroes had at least one psychotic break over the course of their careers. If his was coming when he was semi-retired and involved Beyoncé, well, he’d never been typical, even for a superhero.
Early afternoon found him in his office, poking dubiously at a sandwich that was identical to one he’d already eaten. The phone rang.
“Have time to take a call, Ted?” Connie asked. “It’s Booster.”
“Third time he’s called?” Ted asked.
“Okay, you’re spooky today,” Connie said. “Can I put him through?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Beetle buddy! How’s tricks?”
Ted sighed. “Annnd you’re compromising my secret identity again.”
Booster snorted. “Oh, please, like Connie doesn’t already know. I’m sorry, but ‘Egads! He must have been attacked with a naked ray!’ is not a good explanation for Blue Beetle’s costume being in your desk drawer.”
“Stop that,” Ted said sharply.
“Stop…what?” Booster asked, sounding bewildered.
“Stop saying everything you said yesterday!”
“You’re calling to see if I want to go out for drinks,” Ted told him.
“Uh…yeah. Good guess.”
“I’m not guessing! I…look, can we make it dinner?” Ted asked. “I really need to talk to you.”
“Sure. Everything okay?”
“I…I think so? I’m just…” Ted sank back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “I’m having a really weird day.”
“O…kay,” Booster said. “I’ll see you later, then. Try not to let your head explode before dinner.”
“I make no promises,” Ted said, then cringed. “Bye.”
Booster was as good as his word. At six o’ clock he was knocking on the door of Ted’s office, where Ted was hiding after a series of meetings that were not only disastrous and boring, but identical to yesterday’s disastrous and boring meetings.
“Hey, Teddy,” Booster said, pushing his yellow sunglasses up on his head and smiling. “Head still un-exploded?”
Ted stared at Booster. Seeing Booster smiling at him was a comfort; seeing Booster wearing the same sweater he’d had on the day before wasn’t.
Still, this was Booster. Ted could tell him anything, even something that sounded crazy. “I’m not sure.”
“You need burritos,” Booster decided. “Or…fajitas. Something low cholesterol and spicy.”
“So you believe me?” Ted asked, tapping his chest to indicate general heart condition-y things. He stood up, leaving the papers he’d been going over on his desk. He could look at them tomorrow – if there was a tomorrow.
“Let’s just say I’m indulging you,” Booster replied as Ted shrugged into his coat. “If I don’t you’ll be all ‘Blah blah heart condition blah blah I’m mature.’”
“Once again, your impressions are dead-on,” Ted said, rolling his eyes.
Booster spent a couple minutes flirting shamelessly with Connie, who was luckily too smart to do more than giggle and wave him along; then they were on the street, and soon after ensconced in a booth in Ted’s favorite Mexican restaurant.
“Wow, we haven’t been here in forever,” Ted said, nodding thanks at the busboy as he put a basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa down on the table. “I can’t believe you remember it.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t busy these past couple of years wearing ties and ignoring my friends,” Booster said lightly, digging a chip into the salsa.
“So why was your day so weird?” Booster asked, popping the chip into his mouth.
Ted made a face. “I don’t know. It’s like the worst case of déjà vu in recorded history or something. I keep thinking I’ve already done today.”
“Like when you think it’s Friday but it’s really only Thursday?” Booster asked.
“No…well, yes, technically, but more than that. Like, I knew what you were going to say when you called.”
Booster licked salsa off his finger. “Okay, so what am I going to say now?”
“I don’t know, we didn’t have dinner together the first time I did today. We went to the bar.”
“So it’s not the same day,” Booster said.
“No, it is, it just…” Ted blew out his cheeks in frustration. “I don’t know. Maybe I just dreamed I went to work yesterday, and now I’m all…” He waved his hands to signify craziness.
“I think you’re working too hard,” Booster said. “I mean, look at you! You’re staying at the office until after five the day before Christmas. That’s ridiculous.”
“Well, we can’t all marry rich,” Ted said archly, taking a chip.
“Sure,” Booster said, pouting. “Mock a recent divorcé as he nurses his broken heart.”
“Oh, please,” Ted scoffed. “That was the most sham marriage the world has ever seen. Didn’t you tell me Gladys is already remarried? I never thought I’d meet someone with as short an attention span as yours.”
“Sorry, did you say something?” Booster asked.
“Oh, you’re hilarious.”
After dinner, they headed over to the bar they’d gone to the night before. Or hadn’t gone to. Maybe.
“You’re coming to the Christmas party tomorrow, right?” Booster asked. “You know how long it took Mary to talk Max into throwing one.”
“If I have a tomorrow,” Ted said.
“Oh, stop it.” Booster gave Ted a friendly whack in the arm. “You’re just having a weird day. You’ll feel fine tomorrow.”
“I gotta hit the head. Be right back.” Booster stood up, and, just like the yesterday that maybe hadn’t happened, rested his hand on the small of Ted’s back for a minute. Like yesterday, his hand was warm, and left Ted acutely aware of the spot even after he walked away.
Ted stifled a groan. Great. Now both of the weirdnesses in his life – the déjà vu, and the tingly inappropriate feelings for his best friend – were converging. That was what he needed.
“Not enjoying the beer, hon?”
There were Beryl and her snakes, right on cue. “It’s fine,” Ted said. “Thanks.”
“Looks like you’re just about done there,” Beryl said. “Get you another? Or I can fix you up with a Double-Beryl Shotgun, on the house.”
Ted paused. Okay, here was a test. He pointed at her. “Beryl?”
She nodded, and plunked two shot glasses and a familiar bottle on the bar. “Double.”
Ted braced himself. “And the shotgun? If I drink it, does it…does it blow my head off?”
She grinned. “If you drink it, someone’s probably gonna get banged.”
Ted stood up so fast he sent the barstool clattering across the floor, and would have gone with it if he hadn’t grabbed the bar. Beryl stared at him as he fumbled for his wallet and threw way more than enough to cover his and Booster’s drinks and tip on the bar.
“Sorry. I gotta go,” he stammered, shoving his arm into his coat and getting the other side all tangled up in his haste. “Sorry.”
Booster reappeared and Ted grabbed his arm with one hand, Booster’s coat with the other. “We have to leave.”
“What? I haven’t even finished my drink yet!” Booster protested, but he let Ted drag him out of the bar, away from Beryl’s bewildered gaze.
“Grife, it’s freezing out here,” Booster said as they walked out the door and into a blustery wind. “Mind explaining why you just pulled my arm out of its socket? I’ve already lost that one once, you know.”
Ted twisted around in an attempt to straighten out his coat and get it on all the way. “I think the bartender was hitting on me.”
“So why’d you leave?” Booster asked, shrugging into his own coat and untangling Ted’s. “We’re going back in there. If you don’t want her, she can hit on me.”
“She was hitting on me exactly the same way she did yesterday,” Ted said. “Or…if there was a yesterday, or…look, I knew exactly what she was going to say before she said it!”
“Was it sexy?” Booster asked.
“Booster!” Ted threw his arms up in exasperation. “This is serious!” Booster gave him a look. “Okay, yes, it was sexy. But still! This is really freaking me out.”
Booster spent another minute contemplating him. Ted huddled deeper into his coat, and hoped the pink in his cheeks would be attributed to the night air.
“Okay,” Booster said finally. “Dr. Booster prescribes a good night sleep, followed by a Christmas where you actually relax.” Ted started to protest, but Booster held up a hand. “You’re obviously stressed. And if you’re still having weird ESP-y déjà vu tomorrow, hey, it’s not like we don’t know psychics and magicians and stuff. Maybe you got zapped in the lab and got a little clairvoyance, I don’t know. J’onn or someone can check you out.”
Ted took a cleansing breath, then raised an eyebrow. “Psychics and magicians and stuff, huh?”
Booster grinned. “I keep telling the League they should market themselves as that, but no one ever listens to me.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
Booster left Ted in the lobby of Ted’s building with an admonishment to get some sleep. As he rode the elevator to his floor, Ted thought idly that it was nice to have Booster around on a regular basis again. No one else blended bullying concern and a cheerful lack of patience with Ted’s neuroses in quite the same way.
Obediently, Ted undressed, brushed his teeth, and climbed into bed. He lay there staring at the darkened ceiling for a few minutes before getting up and going to his closet. His favorite shirt was still hanging where he’d left it, all its buttons in place.
Ted went into the kitchen, returned with the scissors, and took a breath. Then, calmly, methodically, he cut the shirt into strips.
He returned the scissors to the kitchen and left the shredded shirt on top of his dresser, where he’d be sure to see it the next morning. Then, turning out the light, he climbed back into bed and, quicker than he would have expected, fell asleep.
Ted sat bolt upright.
It could just be a coincidence, right? The song was popular. They probably played it a lot.
Please, let the song just be that popular.
He waited, covers clutched in a death grip, until the song ended and the weather report came on.
“December 24th, Christmas Eve Day, and it’s looking clear and cold all the way through…”
“No,” Ted said, tripping and pulling all the bedclothes with him in his haste to get out of bed. “No no no no no no…”
He came to a halt in front of the dresser, a puddle of sheets around his ankles. There was no shirt there, cut up or otherwise. With great trepidation he turned towards the closet. It took him a minute to work up the courage to turn the knob, but he reminded himself that he was a superhero, and, drawing a deep breath, yanked the closet door open.
There was his favorite shirt. No buttons missing, not cut into pieces, just…there.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Ted screamed.
The shirt didn’t move.
“Okay, you are so not my favorite anymore,” Ted told it, and slammed the door.
Crossing the room, he turned off the radio and picked up his phone, misdialing twice in his hurry. While the phone rang three, four, five times, he checked the water in the shower. Sure enough, it was cold.
“…’Lo?” Booster finally mumbled on the other end of the line.
“Booster, what day is it?” Ted asked.
He could practically hear the gears turning sleepily in Booster’s head. “…Thursday?”
“No!” Ted shouted.
“Yesterday was Thursday,” Ted said. “And the day before. It’s time for Friday, dammit!”
There was a shuffling on the other end; Ted imagined Booster sitting up, the sheets falling down around his waist, his bare torso golden in the morning light…no! Not the time for that kind of thought! “Are you just really impatient for Christmas, Ted?”
“No! It’s not…I’m…aggggh.”
“Put on pants,” Ted ordered. “I’m coming over.”
Once in the car (which did, of course, have a scratch on it that George had never seen before), he skirted the now-familiar traffic jam and took the alternate route to Booster’s place, while leaving a message for Connie saying he’d probably be a little late. She wouldn’t like it, what with the situation at the office, but hell, it wasn’t like anything he did made much different, if every day was the same.
Booster’s apartment was pretty nice, considering he was no longer married to a multi-millionaire; Gladys, who seemed fond of him the way rich old women like her were usually fond of their lapdogs, had given him a generous settlement. The sunglasses and toothpaste ads Booster did over in Japan helped, too. Booster met Ted at the door wearing old frayed jeans and not much else.
“You’re not dressed?”
“You told me to put on pants. I did. You want more than that, don’t call at 7 a.m.” Booster paused and looked Ted over. Ted could imagine what he saw: shirt buttoned crookedly, hair uncombed, and, Ted was pretty sure, a frazzled gleam in his eyes. “Hey. What’s the matter?”
Ted walked past him, sat down on the couch, stood up again, and paced. “Okay. Okay.” He stopped in front of Booster, then started pacing again. “Okay.”
“You said that already.”
“Ok…all right.” Ted stopped, breathed. “You remember that movie Groundhog Day?”
“The one where Bill Murray keeps reliving the same day over and over?”
“Yes.” Ted made himself meet Booster’s eyes. “I think that’s happening to me.”
“Oh.” Booster frowned. “Wait, what?”
The energy suddenly drained out of him, Ted sank back down onto the couch and told Booster about the strangeness of the past two and a half days. When he finished, he was relieved to see that Booster wasn’t looking at him like he about to lunge for the phone to dial the Help, My Best Friend Has Lost His Mind hotline.
“So this has happened twice before?” Booster asked.
“No, the first two times I went to work,” Ted said. “I can change stuff, it’s only the stuff I don’t change that repeats. Like, I can tell you exactly what they’re doing at my office right now, and if we go to the bar tonight I can tell you what the bartender will say.” He rubbed his eyes wearily. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
Booster raised an eyebrow. “Uh, Ted? Remember that time I died but kept walking around, and then you brought me back to life? Or the time I sent us all to Hell? Or our friend, the alien dog? This is hardly the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to either of us.”
Ted made a face. “G’nort is not my friend.” He nudged Booster’s knee with his own. “Thanks.”
Booster nudged him back. “Hey. It’s what I’m here for.” He turned one side of his mouth up in a rueful smile, revealing a dimple. Ted looked away. “So what do we do?”
“What do you mean, what do we do?”
“How do we un-Groundhog you? You know, for a scientist, you’re not very methodical.”
Ted paused. “Huh. I guess I hadn’t thought of that. I was too busy freaking out.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
“Hush, you.” Ted tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I wonder if it’s a time travel thing? You didn’t leave your time machine running, did you?” he asked accusatorily.
Booster slapped his forehead. “Whoops! I’m always doing that and destroying the cosmos. No, Ted, I didn’t leave the time sphere ‘running,’ and even if I did, I doubt it would react by making you repeat a day years after I last touched it.”
“Okay, okay, I was just asking.” Ted went back to tapping his chin. “How about that guy you used to hang out with, the time travel guy?”
“Who, Rip?” Booster asked. Ted nodded. “I haven’t seen him in years. I mean, weird time stuff happens all the time around him, so I guess he could be doing this, but I wouldn’t even know how to contact him to ask him. Besides, why would it be affecting you?”
Ted spread his hands. “I don’t know! I’m trying to think of timey-wimey people here.”
Booster snorted. “I’m not sure I like the idea of being a ‘timey-wimey person.’ Okay, uh, how about Chronos? Didn’t you fight him back in the day?”
Ted clenched his fist. “Chronos! That jerk! I knew he’d be after revenge!”
“I interrupted him eating a sandwich once. He seemed really miffed.”
“Well…” Ted shrugged. “That and I made my secretary stop giving him stolen Kord tech. But he really seemed more upset about the sandwich.”
Booster stood up and held out a hand. “Well, let’s get him, then! The JLA computer ought to tell us where he is.”
Ted let Booster haul him to his feet. “We’re not allowed to use the JLA computer.”
“Psh, extenuating circumstances.” Booster glanced down at his hand, still clasping Ted’s, and let go hastily. “Let me suit up, and we can go.”
Despite threatening to do so on a regular basis, the League had never actually removed Ted and Booster’s genetic signatures from the approved list for the transporter tubes, so beaming up to the Watchtower wasn’t a problem. They did have to argue a bit with J’onn, though.
“Look, you can read my mind,” Ted said when J’onn used his power of Martian skeptical looks on Ted’s story. “I’m not making this up!”
“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” Booster said.
J’onn had a way of making everything he said sound like a long-suffering sigh, without actually sighing. “Yes, Booster?”
“You should read his mind!” Booster said. “And then you can see if anyone’s, like, messing with it and giving him the crazy!”
Ted shot Booster a betrayed look. “You said you didn’t think I was crazy!”
“Not on your own,” Booster assured him. “But how do we know Doctor Destiny or someone hasn’t mind-whammied you?”
Ted made a face. He had a point. “Fine,” he said, turning back to J’onn. “Check for mind whammies. Oh, and actually, while you’re in there, can you see what I did with my spare set of keys?”
J’onn raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry. Please check for mind whammies,” Ted said. Then, in a whisper, “And my keys.”
J’onn reached out both hands in a gesture that was also like a long-suffering sigh without actually being one, and placed his fingers on Ted’s temples. Ted felt the familiar sensation of one of J’onn’s mind-probes: cool, calming, a little somnambulistic. He remembered having a fever as a child and his mother wiping his forehead with a cool, damp compress.
J’onn released him and Ted stumbled, still a bit woozy. Booster caught him.
“I can sense no interference in your mind,” J’onn said. “Nor any mental illness aside from your typical state.” That was J’onn’s idea of a joke.
“And am I lying?” Ted asked.
“Regretfully, no,” J’onn admitted. “Which means that there is something rather out of the ordinary going on here.”
“That’s why we wanted to see where Chronos was these days,” Booster said, still a warm, solid presence at Ted’s back. “We thought maybe he was doing some kind of time-shenanigans.”
“Time-nanigans,” Ted clarified.
J’onn considered them for a moment, then indicated the computer. “Go ahead,” he said. “Please don’t set our homepage to that Rick Astley video again. And…let me know if I can assist in any way.”
Ted bit back a smile. J’onn was still JLI, deep down. “Will do, J’onny Boy.”
“Oh, and you gave your other spare keys to Booster.”
Booster lit up. “Oh, yeah, you totally did! I forgot.”
The JLA computer showed that David Clinton, alias Chronos, was currently incarcerated at Stryker’s Island Prison in Metropolis. Ted frowned at the screen.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve definitely heard of supervillains committing crimes from behind bars before, but it’s usually, like, Lex Luthor or the Ultra-Humanite or someone. Chronos doesn’t strike me as quite bright enough for that.”
“Well, what about the other time guys?” Booster asked, leaning over the back of the computer chair. “You know, like Clock King and Calendar Man and them.”
“Clock King pretty much just memorizes bus schedules,” Ted pointed out, though he went ahead and ran a search on Clock King. “I don’t think he can stick me in a time loop.”
“Oh, and Chronos is an awe-inspiring beacon of temporal power?” Booster asked.
“Hey, he’s got that freeze gun,” Ted pointed out. “It could have…stuck, or something.” Clock King’s profile popped up on the screen. “Okay, here we go. William Tockman, alias Clock King, is currently…huh. In the Suicide Squad, on reserve.”
“So he’s at Belle Reve?” Booster asked.
“Yeah, and good luck getting the Wall to let us in to talk to him,” Ted said. He paused. “Although she did put me in a coma that one time, so maybe she feels like she owes me.”
Booster snorted. “Oh, I’m sorry. You were serious.”
“Well, it can’t hurt to try.” Ted’s fingers flew over the keyboard. “Let’s check out a few other people while we’re up here, and then…”
“Away down south in Dixie?” Booster asked.
“You got it.”
It would have been quicker to beam down to Louisiana directly, but Ted didn’t want to be stuck down south without the Bug and at the mercy of the transporters, which still made Booster a bit queasy. They returned to Gotham and then flew the Bug to Belle Reve, while Ted called a very distressed Connie and explained that he’d be taking the rest of the day off. She sounded a bit like she wanted to strangle him, but the way Ted figured it, if it was still December 24th tomorrow, she wouldn’t remember him ducking out of work, and if it wasn’t, it would be Christmas, and she’d be too busy enjoying the holiday to care. He hoped.
As Ted had expected, Amanda Waller was not enthused about letting them into Belle Reve to talk to one of her Squad members, especially when Ted explained why they were there.
“You’re repeating today over and over again, and you think Clock King might be causing it?” she asked, arms crossed.
“Or he might know what is,” Ted hedged. “I mean, isn’t he an expert on time?”
“Timing,” Waller clarified. “It’s different. And he’s got better things to do than talk to some deranged Bill Murray fanboy. So do I, as a matter of fact.”
“I am not a deranged Bill Murray fanboy!” Ted protested.
“I don’t know,” Booster said. “You have seen all of his movies. Even Garfield.”
“You’re not helping, Booster,” Ted hissed. He turned back to Waller. “Look. This is far from the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in our line of business. I doubt it’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you this week. And the Martian Manhunter checked me out to make sure I’m not lying or crazy. You can call him and check.” He held out his communicator. “I just want to talk to Clock King.”
Waller looked at him for a minute, her gaze unreadable. “Fine,” she said finally. “You get five minutes. And I’ll be expecting a favor in return.” The corner of her mouth twitched. “Maybe some electronics that aren’t on the market yet.”
Huh. So Amanda Waller knew his secret identity. That wasn’t actually much of a surprise. “I’ll see what I can do.”
When the guards brought Tockman in, Ted was hit with a sudden wave of guilt. They’d fought once or twice, but Clock King had been a member of Justice League Antarctica back in the day. He’d been Ted’s ally more often than he’d been Ted’s enemy – hell, the Antarctica branch had guarded Max when he’d been shot! And now Ted was accusing him of…well, he wasn’t even sure.
Tockman gave Ted and Booster puzzled frowns. “Beetle. Booster. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Ted paused, and looked over at Booster, who apparently saw the confusion in Ted’s eyes, because he took the lead. “What do you know about time loops, Clock King?”
“What do you mean, time loops?” Tockman asked. “Time is linear.”
“Well, actually, it – ” Booster began. Everyone stared at him. “Never mind.”
“He means making the same period of time happen over and over again,” Ted said. “Making one person constantly relive a moment, or an hour, or a day. Could you do that?”
“Could I do that?” Tockman said. “I wish. It would make my life a lot easier. Could someone with the right power or technology do that? I don’t see why not. He can fly, after all.” He pointed at Booster.
“Do you know who might have that kind of power?” Ted asked.
Tockman shrugged. “Sounds more like Chronos’s kind of thing. He used to be able to freeze someone temporarily. Maybe he’s advanced.” He leaned forward. “Are these questions hypothetical, or are we going to be having this conversation again in 60 minutes?”
“Never mind about that,” Ted said. “So you don’t know anything about actually fiddling with time?”
Tockman spread his hands. “Time runs my life, not the other way around. Speaking of which, unless I’m very much mistaken, we are out of it. Or will be, in 23 seconds.”
Booster touched his visor and got the slightly cross-eyed expression he wore when he read information off of it. “He’s right. Uh, to a creepily accurate degree. Let’s go before the Wall throws us out.”
Ted stood. “Well, thanks for the information,” he said. “We’ll be in touch if we have any further questions.”
Clock King smiled sardonically. “Drop by any time.”
Ted winced. “And just when I thought we’d make it out without any time puns.”
“Not a chance. And, uh…say hi to Max.”
There was the guilt again. “Yeah. Will do.”
Outside of the prison, Ted reached under his goggles to rub his eyes tiredly. “Well, that was a big fat nothing.”
“At least we know it wasn’t him?” Booster suggested. “So we’ll go see Chronos next, or someone else on the list.”
“You know, you don’t have to do all this with me,” Ted said. “I mean, I appreciate it, but you already came to Louisiana and the freaking moon with me. I’m pretty sure you weren’t planning on spending the day touring prisons.”
Booster shrugged. “Eh, my schedule was pretty free. And you need me. This pretty face?” He pointed to his chin. “It unlocks doors like you wouldn’t believe.”
Ted snorted. “Oh, yeah, I’m sure the Wall let us in because she’s got your Tiger Beat spread up in her office.”
Booster preened. “She’s got Gold Fever, baby.” At Ted’s disbelieving laugh he grinned. “Anyway, yeah, I was pretty much free. I mean, it’s a family time of year, and my family won’t even be born for five centuries. You’re – ” He cut himself off. “Let’s go back to the Bug.”
“I’m…?” Ted prompted, trotting after him. “I’m what?”
Booster looked embarrassed, which was incongruous; the man usually had no shame to speak of. “You’re the closest I’ve got.”
Had Ted felt guilty talking to Clock King? He hadn’t known what guilt was. He couldn’t even look at Booster – Booster, who he’d barely seen for years and then verbally abused for months. Booster, who’d just called him family.
He walked next to Booster for half a block, focusing very carefully on the cracks in the sidewalk under their feet. “You’re the closest I’ve got too,” he admitted.
When he managed to look up, Booster was smiling at him. Ted felt a burst of warmth uncurling in his stomach – and something else, too, something almost like nervousness but not quite.
“Well,” Booster said. “Good to know.”
“GAH,” Ted said, and yanked the pillow over his head.
He hadn’t really expected anything different. They’d eaten lunch in Louisiana, since Ted wasn’t one to pass up authentic Creole cooking when the opportunity presented itself; then they’d flown the Bug up to Metropolis to talk to Chronos. The Stryker’s Island warden had been much more willing to let two superheroes talk to Chronos than Amanda Waller had been, but there wasn’t much to learn.
According to the warden, Chronos was a model prisoner. Every so often one of the guards heard him complaining about the Atom, but in a prison full of metas and supervillains it was rare that someone wasn’t complaining about a superhero. Chronos had never mentioned Ted. (Actually, none of the prisoners had ever mentioned Ted, which was a little insulting.)
For his own part, Chronos had seemed more interested in talking about his niece, who had once been Ted’s receptionist, than anything crime-related. Apparently she was married now and had just had a daughter – Chronos had approximately three hundred identical pictures of the kid to show off. He seemed to bear Ted no ill will for their earlier altercations; the routine of prison was very soothing to him, he explained.
Well, that was great, but it sure didn’t help Ted any.
By the time they got back to Gotham it was too late for Ted to go into the office. They’d grabbed a quick dinner; then, after a now-familiar admonishment to attend Max’s Christmas party in the event of the next day actually being Christmas, Booster headed for home. Feeling strangely melancholy, Ted had done likewise, and zoned out in front of the TV until he’d fallen asleep.
Not that he’d woken up in front of the TV, of course.
The song ended and the weather came on, confirming what Ted already knew. “December 24th, Christmas Eve Day, and it’s looking clear and cold all the way through. High of 34, low 28, with snow moving in overnight…”
Ted mentally reviewed his plan. He hadn’t been able to write down any of the information he’d gotten off of the JLA computer – well, he could have written it down, but it wouldn’t have done much good when the day reset itself – but he had, if he did say so himself, an exceptional memory, and he knew all the people they’d looked up, and where each of them was. Just because Clock King and Chronos hadn’t been responsible for his situation didn’t mean one of the other time guys wasn’t.
He climbed out of bed, headed for the bathroom, and stubbed his toe again. Well, he usually had an exceptional memory.
As he shivered through his ice-cold shower, he tried to warm himself up by planning his day out loud. “Okay, first I’ll go get Booster, and then we’ll...wait.” Booster wouldn’t remember anything that had happened the day before. Ted would have to explain it to him all over again, tell him what had happened with J’onn, and with Clock King, and Chronos. Was it worth it?
On the one hand, it would be nice to have some company while he was flying all over the country looking for villains, and it would definitely be nice to have a time traveler equipped with very powerful blasters, since not all of those villains were in prison.
On the other hand, he’d feel bad dragging Booster around on this stupid quest day after day, even if it was only one day to Booster.
On the other other hand, reaching out to Booster in times of superheroish wackiness was instinct. He hadn’t thought about calling Booster yesterday-that-was-still-today. He’d just done it.
And that was reason enough not to call him now. He’d just about broken the Booster habit before Max had re-formed the team. Six months back with Booster, and he was falling into the same old codependent patterns.
It was possible to be best friends with Booster in a normal, non-obsessive-and-clingy, non-secret-erotic-longings, able-to-have-other-relationships-that-could-actually-go-somewhere kind of way. Ted was sure of it. Calling Booster every time he felt a little discombobulated was not the way to go about finding that balance.
“There. Problem solved,” Ted told himself, and stepped out of the shower.
Well, maybe the Booster problem was solved, but the Groundhog Day problem certainly wasn’t. Ted’s first stop (after calling Connie and telling her he was taking the day off, which got him – well, exactly the same reaction it had gotten him yesterday) was Haven, the mad scientist commune, to see T. O. Morrow. Ted chatted fairly frequently with Will Magnus, since it was such a pleasure to talk to someone who could actually understand everything he had to say about engineering and robotics, and Will had a lot of praise for Morrow, but he’d also spoken at length about Morrow’s outstanding genius. If anyone could build a machine to trap someone in a time loop, Morrow could.
But – “I’m not even allowed to use computers,” Morrow said, spreading his hands. “I can’t send an email, let alone fiddle with time.”
Ted couldn’t help wincing sympathetically, and Morrow chuckled. It wasn’t a nice sound.
“Blue Beetle, huh?” Morrow asked. “You know the Bug is legendary in here? Very impressive piece of work.”
“Uh…thanks,” Ted said. He didn’t like the look in Morrow’s eyes, but he did enjoy getting complimented on the Bug.
“You’ve worked with some future tech, haven’t you?” Morrow asked. “Alien tech, too. Not that anyone understands what you did.” He smiled. “You’ll be in here soon enough. Everyone with your kind of mind winds up here eventually.”
Ted left as quickly as possible.
John Starr, alias Time Commander, was out of jail and working – Booster had groaned when he saw this – as a delivery man for a small business that made handcrafted sundials. Starr had always seemed relatively harmless, if misguided, and so Ted was not expecting to be punched the face when Starr opened the door.
He reacted instinctively, ducking under Starr’s next blow and driving his elbow up into Starr’s solar plexus. As Starr gasped for breath, Ted seized his upper arm, wedged his leg behind Starr’s, and pulled. Starr hit the ground, Ted twisted his arms behind him, and boom, Starr was subdued, less than 10 seconds after the initial punch. Not bad.
It wasn’t until he’d spat out a mouthful of blood that Ted realized Starr was shouting, “I didn’t do anything! Leave me alone! I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Ted tightened his grip. “Yeah? Then why’d you punch me?”
“Every time I see one of you superheroes you’re always putting me in jail,” Starr said. “I don’t want to go back to jail!”
“You go to jail because you commit crimes!” Ted told him. He poked his tongue around in his mouth, trying to find the source of the bleeding. It looked like he’d just cut the inside of his lip on his teeth, which would heal quickly enough.
“I was trying to make the world a better place!” Starr insisted. “You people have no vision.”
“Where’s the hourglass, Starr?” Ted asked. Most of the League’s notes on Starr had been from Buddy Baker, who’d fought him back in the JLE. Apparently Starr had an hourglass that could reverse an individual’s timeline – make them younger, or bring them back to life. Or, Ted figured, set them back a day, repeatedly.
Starr jerked his head towards the kitchenette. “On the table. It’s broken, though. Been broken for years.”
Ted looked over at the table. Sure enough, there was the hourglass. It was the kind with pillars on either side of it, and a bunch of envelopes were tucked between the glass and one of the pillars.
Well. If he was using it to hold his unread mail, he probably hadn’t been using it to break laws or screw with Ted’s personal timeline. Ted eased back a little.
“I’m going to let you up, Starr,” he said. “I just came to talk. But I’ll take you down again if you swing at me.”
“I won’t,” Starr promised. Ted released him and stood up. He kept his body language deliberately casual, but he was ready to move if Starr went for him.
But Starr just stood gingerly and rotated his neck and shoulders a bit. “You’re lucky you didn’t dislocate my shoulder,” he said. Ted just rolled his eyes. He hadn’t even come close. “Okay. What do you want?”
“The hourglass is broken, huh?” Ted asked. “Can I see it?”
Starr shrugged. “Be my guest.”
Ted walked into the kitchenette, keeping an eye on Starr as he did, and pulled the mail out of its resting place. He picked up the hourglass, and with some trepidation, turned it over. Nothing happened.
“It’s been broken for years, you said?”
“Yeah, ever since that idiot Metamorpho slugged me…” Ted frowned and Starr shrugged. “Hey, I don’t have to like him. Anyway, I put it back together, but it doesn’t do anything anymore.”
“You’re sure it doesn’t do anything?” Ted asked, flipping it over again. “It reversed specific timelines, right? Made people younger and stuff?”
“Yes,” Starr said, standing up a little straighter. Ted recognized that pride; he stood that way when explaining his own inventions. Then he remembered Morrow, and pushed the thought away. “It takes people back to before bad things happen. Before aging causes the body to break down and eventually die, because there’s no reason to die if we can just…reverse it.”
Ted stared at him. “You know you’re insane, right?”
“Wouldn’t you like to be ten years younger?” Starr asked him. “To not have to worry about your back, or your knees, or cholesterol, or whatever it is you have to worry about?”
The cholesterol was a lucky guess, but for a split second Ted let himself imagine it – going back to before he’d had any heart attacks, before he had a cardiologist on speed dial, when cheating on his diet just meant a few extra sit-ups the next day. Then he pushed past it. “And how long would it take to completely overpopulate the world that way? People are supposed to die, Starr. Time is supposed to go on.” He examined the hourglass. “This couldn’t have gotten stuck, could it?” he asked. “Reversing one timeline over and over again, making somebody relive the same moment?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Starr said. “It reverses aging, not time in general. If it got stuck it would just keep de-aging the same person or thing.”
Well, there went that lead. “And you’re sure it’s not just sitting here, leaking tachyon particles or something?” Ted asked.
“If it was, I’d be an embryo twenty times over by now,” Starr said.
Ted put the hourglass back on the table. “Do you know of anything that could stick someone in a temporal loop like I was talking about?”
Starr shook his head. “It’d have to be a hell of a lot more powerful than my hourglass to keep resetting the entire world. You’re talking time manipulation on a cosmic level.”
Ted gulped. The last cosmic-level foe he’d faced had been the Overmaster. Tora had died.
Booster had died.
Ted clenched his fists, his hands suddenly clammy inside their gloves. Not this time. If some big cosmic whatsit was after him, fine – but he would die before he let anything touch Booster.
He kind of hoped it wouldn’t come to that, though.
By now Ted was getting used to cold showers.
He spent the morning at Iron Heights, talking first to Abra Kadabra, who mostly cursed the Flash’s name – any Flash – and did his best to perform magic tricks without any equipment. Once Ted got Kadabra to stop trying to guess the number Ted was thinking of, though, Kadabra admitted that his technology – all of which was either sitting in the evidence room at Keystone Police Department headquarters, or on display under tight security at the Flash Museum – didn’t have much to do with time travel, aside from the device that actually sent Kadabra back in time.
Ted crossed Kadabra off his mental list and went to talk to Zoom, who stared at nothing and whispered “Zoomzoomzoom” for ten solid minutes in just about the creepiest way Ted could imagine. He almost wished he was back watching Kadabra pull an invisible rabbit out of a nonexistent hat.
All in all, Ted didn’t envy Wally. It was a relief to leave Iron Heights, but the relief was short-lived, because Arkham was next.
Ted had only been to Arkham twice before – once as the Beetle, and once as Ted Kord when he was helping Waynetech design a new security system – but twice was enough. He’d often thought that if you weren’t insane when you went in, the place itself could drive you mad quickly enough. It was dark in there, even in the early afternoon, and cold, and it always left him with the sensation of water trickling somewhere, leaking through the rock foundation down in the darkness. And everywhere he went, he could hear the screaming.
He wished he had Booster with him.
An orderly led him down the hallway. Ted kept his eyes locked straight ahead, ignoring the inmates as they cajoled and catcalled on either side of him. Finally they reached the correct cell, where Julian Day, alias Calendar Man, sat on a perfectly made cot, staring across his cell.
“He used to have a calendar there,” the orderly murmured to Ted. “They took it away because they thought it was just feeding the obsession.”
It didn’t look like removing the calendar had solved the problem. Ted stepped forward, as close to Day’s line of sight as he could. “Julian Day?”
“What day is it?” Day asked.
“December 24th,” Ted said. He should know.
Day sighed, a hollow sound. “Tomorrow is Christmas,” he said.
Ted cleared his throat. “What if…tomorrow wasn’t Christmas?” he asked. “What if tomorrow was December 24th again?”
Day turned on him with a look of such bottomless horror that Ted recoiled. “No,” Day whispered. “No no nononononononononoNONONONONONO…”
“I think you’d better go,” the orderly said as Day’s protests rose in volume.
“Yeah,” Ted said, staring. “Yeah, I think so.”
By the time he got the Bug back in its hanger and himself back in civvies, it was four in the afternoon. It didn’t seem worth it to go into the office at this point, and if he was being honest with himself, the trip to Arkham had shaken him enough that he wasn’t sure he could concentrate on work anyway.
His cell phone, in the pocket of his jeans, had a message from Booster. He was willing to bet it was identical to the one Booster’d left the day before. “Hey, Tedbutt. Connie says you took the day off, which I’m assuming means you’ve been replaced by your evil twin from the negaverse, the one who isn’t a workaholic. Do you have a goatee? Anyway, call me if you want to get drinks tonight.”
Ted had ignored it last night, as part of his no-Booster-today rule. He ignored it today, too. Drinks would’ve been nice, but it was time to get serious about this.
“Theories of time travel…” he mused, standing in front of his bookcase. “Okay, Einstein, what have you got for me? You too, Hawking.” He loaded up his arms with books and scientific journals, then headed into the kitchen, since he’d skipped lunch. Making a face at the leftover Chinese food he was now eating for the third time, he stuck it in the microwave for a late lunch/early dinner, and sat down at the kitchen table to read. He could solve this, he knew. He just had to be methodical about it.
It took Ted a minute to figure out where he was. He’d been reading Carl Sagan, and then arguing with Carl Sagan, and…oh. He must have fallen asleep while reading. And the universe had plopped him back in bed during the reset, like a parent whose kid had fallen asleep in the car. The universe was such a mom.
A mom who probably wouldn’t have appreciated him calling Carl Sagan a poopyhead in his dream. Whoops.
He was out of time-related villains to interview, but being in Iron Heights had given him an idea. He got out of bed, managed to avoid stubbing his toe, and took his cold shower. Then he checked the time. It was early, but Wally had infants. He’d be up.
Up, and frantic. “’Lo?” Wally asked when he picked up the phone, sounding breathless. Ted resolved never to have kids, if they could make a speedster out of breath.
“Wally? It’s Ted. Listen, I have kind of a weird favor to ask…”
Wally had zipped over for Ted’s explanation. He took a bit more convincing than Booster, but eventually he grudgingly conceded that Ted reliving the same day was no odder than the fact that it had taken him three seconds to run from Keystone to Gotham, and that was while dawdling.
“So you want to use the Cosmic Treadmill to do…what, exactly?” Wally asked.
“Well, first I want to make sure it’s there, and not being tampered with,” Ted said. “And then…I don’t know, it’s your magic exercise equipment, you tell me how to use it to fix this!”
“Hey, Barry built it,” Wally pointed out. “I just run on it.” He stood up. “Okay, let’s go,” he said. He held out his arms.
Ted paused. “Must we?” he asked. “We can take the Bug.”
“Too slow,” Wally said. “I need to get back and take over with the kids. Linda will kill me if she’s late for work again. And I still have some shopping to do for tomorrow.”
“It just always feels so damsel-in-distress-y,” Ted said. At Wally’s look, he sighed. “Fine. Let’s go.” He climbed into Wally’s arms, and they were off.
Being carried at super-speed was always an interesting experience, but Ted didn’t have time to process more than a blur and an enormous sense of wind before they were coming to a halt inside the Flash Museum. He climbed down from Wally in the manliest way he could. Somehow it never seemed quite as embarrassing when Booster carried him.
“Treadmill’s in here,” Wally said, and turned to a closed exhibit room. It was early enough that the museum wasn’t open to the public, but apparently they’d given Wally free run of the place, because he punched a code into the keypad by the door of the exhibit and walked in.
And there, in the center of the room, on a pedestal and surrounded by plaques explaining it, was…a treadmill.
“That’s it?” Ted asked.
Wally closed the door behind them. “What were you expecting?”
Ted shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s cosmic! I thought it’d be sparkly, at least.” He climbed up on the pedestal and looked at the control panel, which was larger than a normal treadmill’s. Instead of the usual fields for speed and incline, there were places to program in date, time, and location. “May I?” he asked.
“Don’t break it,” Wally said, but waved his permission.
Ted popped the top off of the control panel, and – “Ooh,” he said. “Now this is sparkly.” Barry Allen had been an unsung genius, if he could put together something like this. Ted’s fingers itched to take the whole thing apart and see how it worked, but this wasn’t the time, especially with Wally waiting and tapping his foot with impatience. (Well, Ted thought that’s what the blur at the end of Wally’s ankle and the low-level vibration in the floor meant.)
He popped the top of the control panel back on. “Well,” he said, “at least we know it hasn’t been stolen.”
“Not really,” Wally said, hopping up onto the pedestal with him. “It could have been stolen, but returned before we noticed it was gone. Or it hasn’t been stolen yet, but when it is they’ll come back to tamper with stuff now.” Ted’s face fell. “On the other hand, only four people in this time period can even use it. I haven’t, Jay hasn’t, Zoom’s in jail, and Bart…” He made a face. “With his talent for chaos, if he had been messing with the Treadmill, the consequences would be a lot more drastic than you repeating a day.”
“So we can rule out the Treadmill entirely?” Ted asked.
“Well…” Wally hedged. “There’s a lot of future speedsters, and the Flash Museum is going to stand for at least another thousand years. Theoretically, there’s dozens of people who could access and use the Treadmill in that time – my descendents, Barry’s descendents, and God knows who else.” Seeing Ted’s disheartened expression, he clapped him on the back. “Hey, I don’t think they have,” he said cheerfully. “Why on Earth would my great-grandkids come back to screw with you? What possible significance could you have?”
“Aw, come on, Ted. I meant because you’re not a speedster!” Wally protested.
“Hmmph. I liked you better when all you did was chase girls and complain about people calling you Kid Flash,” Ted sniffed. “Okay, so the Treadmill isn’t behind this, but here’s a thought – what if we use the Treadmill to see who is? Like, we’ll go back to yesterday and see if there’s anything hinky in the timestream on the way.”
“That works,” Wally agreed. He stepped onto the Treadmill. “Just…pop a squat on the handlebars or something. If you’re on the belt when I’m running…well, you won’t be for long.”
Ted perched on the handlebars as Wally plugged in the place and time, and then Wally started to run. Maybe it was because he was being carried along with Wally on the Treadmill, but Ted could actually see him moving, rather than just a blur. The Museum disappeared, and suddenly they were in what must have been the timestream. It was indescribable, vast and minute, full of nothing and everything, rushing along at an unfathomable pace and suspended timelessly, unmoving. And…
“It’s awfully…rainbow, isn’t it?” Ted asked.
“Yeah, I know. Weird, right?” Wally said, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Annnnnd…we’re here!”
Ted blinked. They were in his bedroom. Early morning sun was streaming in through the windows, horns were honking on the street below, and, weirdest of all, there he was – himself, Ted, sound asleep and drooling into his pillow.
“Aw,” said Wally. “My four-month-old daughter makes that face when she sleeps.”
“Shut up,” Ted said. “Will he be able to – I mean, will I be able to see us when I wake up?”
Wally shook his head. “I’m vibrating us just enough that you won’t be able to.”
Just then the alarm clock clicked, and then went off. “…just ignore it but they keep saying we laugh just a little too loud, stand just a little too close…”
Ted – the Ted in the bed – groaned, sat up, and staggered out of bed.
“Nice boxers,” Wally whispered. Ted elbowed him.
Past Ted disappeared into the bathroom and shut the door, and Present Ted turned to Wally. “This isn’t right. I wanted to go back to yesterday.”
“This is December 23rd,” Wally said, pointing to the date on the Treadmill’s control panel. “That’s yesterday.”
“Not my yesterday,” Ted pointed out. “Try December 24th.”
Wally plugged in the new date and ran. They zipped through Rainbow Sherbert Land and emerged, once again, in Ted’s bedroom.
Past Ted was mumbling in his sleep. “Znnkn…don’t mess with me, Sagan…wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”
Wally raised an eyebrow.
“I have vivid dreams, okay?” Ted hissed.
Click. “…you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it, if you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it…”
“Man, you listen to the girliest radio station,” Wally whispered.
Past Ted blinked confusedly and sat up. He almost ran his toe into the bed leg, then caught himself, and, smirking a little, went into the bathroom.
“No, this is today!” Ted huffed in frustration.
“I don’t know what you want from me, Ted,” Wally said. “You asked for yesterday, we went there. Uh, then. You asked for today, and here we are.”
Ted pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m trying to get to the days in between, all the times I’ve already lived December 24th. But I guess there’s no way to tell the Treadmill that, huh?”
Wally shrugged. “Not that I know of.”
Then Ted had another idea. “What if you just bring me to tomorrow?” he asked. “Maybe that’ll snap me out of the time loop.”
“Now that makes sense,” Wally said, and programmed in the new date. Zoom they went, back into the timestream.
“Uh, Wally?” Ted asked a few minutes later, when they were still going.
“Yeah?” Wally sounded distracted.
“Shouldn’t we be there by now? It didn’t take nearly this long last time.”
“Yeah,” Wally said. “The Treadmill says we’re here, but it’s not letting us materialize in the normal timeflow. It’s like we’re locked out.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound good.”
“Nope.” Wally punched new numbers into the Treadmill. “I’m going to try and take us back to where we started.”
“We got to get right back to where we started from?” Ted asked.
“Yes,” Wally snorted. “Disco references. That’s helpful.”
Less than a minute later by Ted’s reckoning, although he wasn’t sure time really counted as such while on the Treadmill, they were sitting on the pedestal in the Flash Museum. “Huh,” Wally said. “That was no problem at all. I wonder why it wouldn’t let me go forward?”
Ted had a flash of intuition. “Try it without me,” he said. “See if the Treadmill will take you into the future on your own.”
Wally shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”
Ted climbed down from the handlebars, which were getting kind of uncomfortable anyway, and stepped off of the pedestal. The Treadmill flickered out of sight, and then back, almost instantly.
“Well, I know what Linda’s getting me for Christmas,” Wally said, stepping off of the Treadmill.
“It took you to the future?” Ted asked.
“Yeah, no problem,” Wally said. His eyes flicked towards the clock on the wall and back to Ted.
“Sorry, I know it’s getting late,” Ted said. “Just…could we try one more thing?”
“Sure,” Wally said, and stepped back onto the Treadmill. Ted climbed back up.
“I want to see if it’s just tomorrow that’s locked for me,” Ted said. “See if you can get to the day after Christmas.”
After a couple of minutes whizzing through Rainbow Sherbert Land, it was clear that December 26th wasn’t any more accessible to Ted than December 25th. Neither was a year in the future, or ten years.
“I wonder if it’s the whole future, or just my lifespan?” Ted mused.
“You want to try thirty years?” Wally asked. “Forty?”
Ted shuddered. “No thanks. I don’t particularly want to know when I’m going to die.”
“Well, when do you want to try for?” Wally asked.
Ted paused. “Can we go to 2462? No, 61?” he asked.
“2461,” Wally repeated.
“Gotham,” Ted said. “Corner of 86th and 2nd.”
“That’s…awfully specific,” Wally said. “What are we going to see?”
“That depends on whether we can even access the future,” Ted pointed out, sidestepping the question. Wally didn’t push him, too busy concentrating on vibrating the Treadmill exactly right, or whatever he did to make it go.
When they came to a sudden stop on an urban street corner, Ted knew they’d succeeded. He looked around, knowing Wally was vibrating them out of sight. The skyline was different, the vehicles and fashions and signs all alien to him, but there was something familiar underlying the street, something that told him this was a city he knew, this was a street he’d walked down before.
“Well, apparently you do not live until the 25th century, at least if your theory is correct,” Wally said. “Was there something you wanted to do here? I’m pretty sure Jai’s going to need changing in a couple of minutes.”
“Nah,” Ted said reluctantly. He knew the address, but it was a million to one chance that the timing would be right to –
“ – doing the best I can!” said a familiar voice behind him. He whirled. A man and a woman – no, a boy and a girl, really, since they couldn’t be older than 20 – were coming out of the nearest apartment building, yelling at each other.
“Hey. Is that…?” Wally started to say.
Booster. Looking younger than Ted had ever known him, still with a trace of boyish roundness to his cheeks, his blond hair swept sideways into some kind of awful futuristic hairstyle. The girl beside him had to be Michelle – she was his spitting image. It was a little eerie to see all of Booster’s features on a pretty female face.
Booster had told him about the future, had pointed out the spot where the building he’d grow up in would stand, but Booster’s youth had never seemed real to Ted. Not until now.
“This isn’t just some cold, Mikey!” Michelle was shouting. “Mom is dying. And all you can think about is running off to practice or a game or just to party with the team, while I’m working three jobs!”
“That is my job!” Booster said. His eyes were so big, his features so vulnerable. Ted wanted to give him cookies and tell him everything would be okay, even if it was mostly a lie. “Two more years, Michelle. Two more years and I can go pro, and we won’t ever have to worry about money again.”
“She won’t last that long, Mikey,” Michelle told him. “You heard the doctor. She’s lucky if she has two months.” She made a disgusted noise. “Look, you can keep clinging to this ridiculous dream if you want, but I’m late for work. You’d better get back upstairs. Mom shouldn’t be alone.”
She headed off down the street and soon turned the corner. Booster sat down on the stoop, his head in his hands.
It wasn’t until he felt the hand on his shoulder that Ted realized that he had almost stepped off of the Treadmill – that he would have stepped off, if Wally hadn’t stopped him. “Don’t,” Wally said. “Talking to him will just confuse him, and if you change his past, you’ll probably change ours.”
Ted knew Wally was right. Still… “I wish I could do something,” he said.
Wally just gave him a sympathetic smile. “Time travel sucks,” he said with great profundity, and started up the Treadmill.
Once they were back in their proper time, Ted allowed Wally to carry him back to his apartment; then he thanked Wally profusely and let him return to his diaper-changing duties. It was still not even 7:30.
Ted reviewed his mental list. He didn’t particularly want to ask this next person for a favor, but if he was dealing with some kind of cosmic threat, he needed the most powerful tool in the universe.
And his ring.
Midday found him strolling past Super Buddies headquarters, which would have looked more festive if whoever had decorated hadn’t misspelled “Happy Holidays” in twinkle lights, and into the bar next door. The halls were most definitely decked in there, and Ted was surprised for a minute before he remembered how well-run Warriors had been, when it wasn’t being blown up.
Guy was whistling “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and using his ring to write eggnog specials on the mirror over the bar. He looked up when Ted walked in.
“Oh, brother.” He rolled his eyes. “Listen, Bugface, I already agreed to let Max throw the holiday party and I just provide the booze. It’s not my fault if the bar looks better than your little clubhouse, so he can stop whining about how I’m stealing his thunder.”
“I’m not here for Max,” Ted said, sliding onto a barstool. “I need a favor.”
“Sorry, did I miss the part where we exchanged friendship bracelets?” Guy asked. “Why would I do you a favor? Even though you asked so nice.”
“I need a favor, please,” Ted said. “And didn’t I try to fix Sinestro’s ring back when you first had it? Didn’t I save your butt repeatedly when we were in the League? Didn’t you put me in the hospital once? You owe me.”
Guy tapped his chin. “The way I remember it, I was saving your butt.”
“Memory can be a tricky thing.”
Guy crossed his arms. “Okay, Cockroach, what do you need?”
Ted lifted his eyebrows and lowered his voice. “Well, for one I need you to clam up about the Beetle stuff. I don’t need Big Dick knowing my secret identity.”
Guy snorted. “One, he’s not here, and two, you have a secret identity?”
“Look, just…listen, okay?” As succinctly as possible, Ted filled Guy in on the strangeness of the past few days (or day, as it was). When he finished, Guy was leaning against the back of the bar, arms folded, eyebrows practically disappearing into his hairline.
“Jeez, Bug. Is your favor me carting you off to Bedlam?”
Ted blew out his cheeks in frustration. “Look, J’onn already checked me out, I’m not crazy. Do you want to go up there and have him look at me again? Or we can go to my office, or the bar Booster and I have been going to, and I can tell you everything everyone’s about to say and do.”
Guy waved a dismissive hand. “Okay, okay, untwist your panties. So say you’re not crazy. I’m guessing you didn’t come to me because you need a drink?”
“Well, at this point I kind of do,” Ted said, rubbing his temples, “but no. I was hoping you could scan me with the ring, see if it picks up any…anything. Temporal interference, cosmic interference, magic…I don’t know.”
“And who saved whose butt all those times?” Guy asked, flexing his ring hand idly.
Ted gritted his teeth. “I think the butt-saving was about equal.”
“Since it’s Christmas, and you’ve gone bonkers, I’ll let that slide,” Guy said, and beamed the ring on Ted. For a long moment Ted was awash in green light; then it was done and Guy was looking at him with a slight frown.
“Ring’s not picking up anything,” he said.
“So what’s the face for?” Ted asked.
“Well, it also says you’re not lying and you say J’onn says you’re not crazy,” Guy said slowly. “So if this really is happening, it’s because of something no Green Lantern ring has ever encountered before.”
Ted cleared his throat, which was suddenly dry. “And how long have the Green Lantern rings been around?”
Guy reached below the bar, pulled out a beer, and slid it across to Ted. “You don’t want to know.”
It took Ted a couple days of trying to track down Dr. Fate, but he needn’t have bothered, because Fate couldn’t find the source of the problem. Nor could Zatanna, Hourman, Detective Chimp, or the other dozen heroes Ted spent the next week of Thursdays locating and pleading for help from.
The fact that it was Christmas Eve Day didn’t help the solution, since those heroes who celebrated the holiday and had families had their minds more on eggnog and togetherness than derring-do and temporal crises. Ted felt distinctly awkward when he showed up at the door of a quaint Kansas farmhouse draped in icicle lights and asked the pleasant-but-confused older woman who answered if he could talk to her son.
Superman’s mother, who turned out to be named Martha, wouldn’t hear of Ted standing on the cold porch while he talked to Clark, and bustled him into the kitchen. The scent of home-cooked holiday deliciousness was so thick inside Ted thought he might have actually died, and all the repeated days were a purgatory he had to struggle through to reach this heaven.
“Clark, could you come in here, please?” Martha called into the living room. She sat Ted down at the kitchen table against his protests and apologies, and before he quite realized it he had a slice of apple pie and a glass of milk sitting in front of him.
“You really don’t have to go to any trouble…” Ted tried again.
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” Martha assured him. “I couldn’t decide what kind of pie to make, so I made six. We can’t possibly finish all that.”
“I can!” called a teenage boy’s voice from the living room.
“Aunt Martha! Make Conner stop using his x-ray vision to see what’s inside the presents!” a girl called.
“Uh, it was an accident! I’m still learning to control my x-ray vision!” the boy said quickly.
Martha tsked, but Ted could tell she was hiding a smile. “Would you excuse me, Mr. Kord – ”
“Ted. I’d better go break this up.” Martha hurried out of the kitchen, and Ted, feeling a little in over his head and a lot out of place, stared down at his pie.
“I’d eat it if I were you. Ma’s pies are the best.”
Ted looked up. Clark was leaning against the doorframe, looking far less imposing in a plaid shirt and glasses than he did in the red and blue pajamas.
“Hi, Clark,” Ted said, standing up. “Listen, I’m really sorry to bother you at your folks’ house the day before Christmas, but the Planet said you were out here and I’m in a bit of a bind…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Clark said, pulling out a chair at the table. “I think Lois has been looking for a chance to sneak my present out of her suitcase and under the tree anyway. Please, sit. Eat the pie.” He sat down as well. “What’s up?”
Ted explained. By now he’d gone through this so many times that he had the fastest, most convincing version of the story down by heart. Clark listened patiently, his brow slightly furrowed.
“Well, your heart rate hasn’t changed, so either you’re a very good liar, or this isn’t you and Booster coming up with a very elaborate holiday prank,” Clark said when Ted had finished. “By the way, did you know you have a slight irregularity in your heartbeat…?”
“Ohhhh yeah.” Ted fought back a scowl by finally taking a bite of pie. He instantly forgot why he’d been upset. “Uh muh guh.” He swallowed. “Oh my God, this pie is incredible.”
Clark beamed proudly. “Told you.”
Ted shoveled in an embarrassingly large forkful. “Is your mom looking to adopt?” he asked through a full mouth. “I’m housebroken.”
Clark laughed. “So, uh…what exactly did you need my help on?” he asked. “I mean, I’m happy to help out any way I can, but…I’m not sure exactly what you want me to do in this situation.”
Ted swallowed and put the fork down. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, you’re Superman! You’re supposed to figure out a way to, you know, be super.”
Clark scratched his head. “Well, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I just don’t see how heat vision or punching things really hard is going to fix this particular problem.”
“I don’t know,” Ted said again, gesturing helplessly. “Can’t you just pick me up and, like, fly me through the time barrier or something?”
“Ted, that makes no sense.”
“I know.” Ted sighed. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s just…I’m getting really, really sick of ‘Single Ladies.’”
“Aw, I love that song!” Clark said.
Ted groaned. He needed more pie.
When he left about a half hour later, he did, in fact, have more pie – a slice of pumpkin and a slice of pecan, both of which Martha had all but forced him to take – a couple of incredibly stupid but kind of hilarious jokes from Superboy that he needed to remember to tell Booster, and a popcorn string from Supergirl, who had apparently made about nine miles of them at superspeed.
He also had a pervasive sense of melancholy. If Superman hadn’t been able to help him – Superman, and Dr. Fate, and Green Lantern – who could?
But no – if he was honest with himself, that wasn’t the only reason for his melancholy. He had just spent almost an hour at the home of an alien, a guy whose home planet had only three survivors, one of whom was a dog. And yet the man from halfway across the universe was spending the holidays with a warm and loving extended family, while Ted, who as far as he knew was human…well, the closest he had to family was an estranged father, and a best friend he was avoiding.
And that last bit, he suddenly felt, was profoundly stupid. Weaning himself off of Booster clearly wasn’t working; he still reached for the phone to call him every morning, still mentally stored funny comments to share with him the next time they talked. So he wanted to see his best friend. So he wanted to see his best friend a lot. Wasn’t that why Booster was his best friend?
Besides, he had two pieces of pie.
“This is incredible,” Booster said around a mouthful of pecans, sitting in Ted’s kitchen two hours later. “Where did you get this again?”
“Superman’s mom made it,” Ted told him.
Booster gagged and reached for his drink. “Ack! Poison!”
“Oh, stop it.” Ted kicked him gently under the table. “She’s a really nice lady.”
“Yeah?” Booster said, reaching over to take a bite of Ted’s pumpkin pie. “How’d she raise such a pill then?”
“He’s not a pill. He just doesn’t like you.”
“Oh, so he’s mentally deficient.”
Ted hid a laugh by knocking aside Booster’s fork and stealing a bite of the pecan pie. “Anyway, I’m kind of out of ideas here. I can’t get in touch with Rip or Waverider or any of those guys who really knows time travel.” He’d explained his problem to Booster over dinner, which Booster had brought from their favorite Italian place at Ted’s call.
Booster looked thoughtful. “What if…no, that’s stupid.”
“What?” Ted asked, flaking off a piece of crust.
“Well…what if it really is like Groundhog Day?” Booster asked. “I mean, maybe this isn’t some spell or time travel thing gone hinky. Maybe this is, like, the universe wanting you to learn a lesson.”
Ted raised an eyebrow. “Is that your atheism talking?”
“Look, I don’t know!” Booster said, spreading his hands. “It was just a thought. Maybe there’s something you need to learn, or do, or…I don’t know.”
Ted chewed thoughtfully on a bite of pie. “Something I need to do…that’s it!” he cried, spewing pie crumbs all over the table.
“There must have been some horrible crisis today, something that I needed to stop!” Ted said. He was already on his feet, running for the living room.
Booster followed more slowly, carrying his pie plate and finishing the last few bites as he watched Ted scramble for the remote control. “We’re doing what now?”
“Just you watch. I’m going to turn on the news and we’re going to hear about some horrific catastrophe only I could have prevented. Here we go.” Ted pressed the power button, and on came the news, playing…a human interest story about department store Santas.
“Okay, well maybe this channel hasn’t picked it up yet,” Ted said. He cycled through all the news stations, but none of the stories – a piece of the year’s most popular toy, an interview with some teen starlet, the weather report – seemed to be tragedies only the Blue Beetle could have averted.
“I’m gonna finish your pie, okay?” Booster said as Ted clicked through the news channels again.
“Maybe it’s not local,” Ted said. “Maybe the media doesn’t even know about it yet.” He pulled out his cell phone.
Barbara answered on the second ring. “Hey, Ted.”
“Hey, Barb. Listen, what horrible things have happened today?”
Barbara paused. “Um…what?”
“You know, murders, kidnappings, arson, volcanic eruptions, that sort of thing. The worst of the worst. I know at least some bad stuff had to happen today.”
“Well, yeah, of course bad things happened today, but…why do you…?”
“It’s complicated. Believe me, you don’t want me to get into it,” Ted said. “Just give me the highlights.”
“Ooookay…” He could hear, faintly, the sound of Barbara’s keyboard clicking away. “Let’s see. There was a flood in Java that killed several hundred people…a fire in Benin City killed 67…a preschool shooting in the Netherlands…”
“Great, great,” Ted said. “Well, not great, of course, but…listen, can you do me a huge favor and email me the details of those and a couple of other incidents that occurred today? Before tomorrow?”
“I guess, but Ted, what…?”
“It’s a really long story,” Ted assured her as Booster walked back in. “Listen, I promise if what I’m trying to do here works, I will regale you with all the details tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you’d better,” Barbara said. “Emailing now, Bumblebeeb.”
“Much obliged, Rolling Thunder.” Ted hung up.
“So…what exactly is your plan here?” Booster asked as Ted fired up his computer. “You’re going to stop every crime or tragedy that happened today? Even Superman can’t do that.”
Ted shook his head. “I’m banking on it being a specific tragedy that has to be averted. If I stop that one, I stop the cycle. So I just have to stop everything one by one until I find it.”
“I don’t know,” Booster said. “It seems a little…imprecise. How can you possibly stop every bad thing that occurs on a given day, even with infinite attempts?”
“Aw, come on, Booster.” Ted grinned and cracked his knuckles. “I’m a superhero. How hard can it be?”
Ted spent the next day laying sandbags and carting people away from the Java coastline in the Bug. He didn’t think he’d saved more than 50 lives, though, tops, and so wasn’t surprised when the next morning was still December 24th. He needed to move faster, bring in more troops, he thought, and so he filled Booster in and tried again. They maybe doubled the number of rescues. More heroes, he thought, and called in all the favors he could – the Lanterns, the Supers, the speedsters, the Marvels.
They came without grumbling, because people needed help, and they were superheroes, after all. They couldn’t avert the floodwaters entirely, but the speedsters could lay a vast wall of sandbags, and the Lanterns could hold off the waters with their rings, and the Supers and Marvels and assorted other heroes could rescue people in danger, far more efficiently than Ted and Booster alone. There was no way of knowing if they’d saved everyone, but they had to have saved most of them.
But the next day was still December 24th. It must be the fire, Ted thought, and spent the day in West Africa, where the Bug’s fire hoses and his own flame-retardant suit could be of some help. Sixty-seven, Barbara had said – sixty-seven were to die in this fire, and so he counted every person that he carried out of the flames. He was pulled out of one building by the local fire fighters just before it collapsed, and an oxygen mask was forced on him, but he was still only in the low 30s.
Faster, he told himself when he woke, Thursday again, and his lungs clear. Armed with an oxygen mask from the Bug this time, he headed back to Benin City. He didn’t have to look for the people he’d already saved this time, could go straight to them, and he reached the mid-50s before the buildings started to go down. He could do this.
But for every person he rescued in Benin City, five people drowned in Java.
The next day, which was of course the same day, Ted got smart. He called in his favors, but parceled them out, sending the bulk of the heroes to Java while he took Booster and Mary to Benin City. At the end of the day, Ted, Booster, and Mary’s tally of rescues was 66, and the heroes in Java had done nearly as well as the first time Ted had brought them in.
But it was still December 24th. The preschool, then.
The shooter was some sort of deranged radical whose political views Ted suspected wouldn’t make much sense even if Ted could speak Dutch. He was so much less imposing than the elemental forces Ted had been struggling against over the past week that Ted disarmed him carelessly and didn’t even consider that he might have a second gun until he felt the white-hot pain of a bullet ripping through his arm. He managed to take the second gun from the shooter, but not before the teacher had been fatally wounded, and he remembered very little between the screams of the children and Booster’s worried face in the hospital after Barbara called him in.
The next morning Ted awoke back in America with no pain whatsoever in his arm. He subdued the shooter more carefully this time, but while he would normally have been content to stand around receiving the gratitude of the school and the parents, he was needed in Java.
The next morning was still December 24th, so Ted worked his way through the rest of the incidents Barbara had emailed him, which he had memorized that night because he’d known they’d disappear from his inbox by morning. A car accident in Star City. A bombing in Rio de Janeiro. A bridge collapse in Pakistan. He watched the evening news religiously, combed the international news sites, and every day turned up another murder, another death, another stupid, senseless, tragedy.
And for every life he saved, all of the ones he’d saved on days before were lost.
He was calling in every hero he knew now, every day. They didn’t mind – they didn’t remember ever having been called in before. But there were lives that they would have saved if Ted hadn’t disrupted their schedules that were lost now, so he wasn’t gaining any ground.
He stopped sleeping. It didn’t matter – he could be sitting in the Bug in New Zealand, gazing at a clock set to eastern standard time as it ticked away the seconds of 6:59 a.m, but by 7 a.m. he was always waking up in his bed at home, always to the same song. He wasn’t sure if he was getting the full night’s sleep of the first December 24th or the no-night’s sleep of the latest one, but it certainly felt like no sleep.
The state of his mind must have shown in his face even if the endless cycle of days left no physical trace, because Booster finally pulled him aside after…he didn’t know how many days it had been by now, but it was one of the days where he’d scheduled Booster with him. They were in Hub City. He thought.
“Ted, are you okay?” Booster asked. “You look about thirty seconds from a nervous breakdown. Actually, you look about thirty seconds into a nervous breakdown.”
“I’m fine, I just…” Ted rubbed his face. “I have to move a little faster, is all. Organize us a little better.”
“What exactly are you trying to do here?” Booster asked, not unkindly.
“Just…save…” Ted waved a vague hand.
“Everyone?” Booster asked. “Ted, you can’t save everyone.”
“But I can!” Ted protested. He explained the time loop to Booster – probably not as well as he had in the past, but he was a little frayed at the edges right now. “I’m basically immortal, Booster. For now, at least. If I just figure out exactly how to time it, exactly who to send where and what I need to do myself, I can stop every awful, pointless death that happens today.”
“And what happens if you do?” Booster asked. “What then?”
Ted blinked. He’d forgotten what the point of saving everybody had been, besides…saving everybody. “I…it…”
“Didn’t you say you came up with this whole brilliant plan to break the time loop?” Booster asked. “You would find the one person whose death needed to be prevented, the reason the universe was keeping you here. Have you found them?”
“Obviously not, because it’s still today,” Ted said.
“Do you think maybe that means you aren’t supposed to save these other people?” Booster asked. “That maybe this isn’t the solution?”
Booster was always smartest at the worst times.
“It…I don’t…it’s not about the time loop anymore,” Ted said. “I can’t…even if I knew, okay, that it was, say, Rosemary Sanders of Des Moines, Iowa, who I need to save from choking in,” he glanced at his watch, “fifty-three minutes, because, I don’t know, she’s going to have a daughter who’s going to cure cancer or reverse global warming or whatever…even if I knew the one person who needed to be saved…Booster, I’ve seen their faces.”
He sat down heavily and pulled his cowl off. It didn’t much matter who saw him unmasked, when they’d forget it by tomorrow. “I’ve talked to dozens of people who are slated to die today. Maybe hundreds. I know their names, where they live, where they work. I know who they love, because that’s who they’re calling for when they’re about to die. These aren’t just strangers or statistics anymore.”
“You can’t give them more than a few hours,” Booster pointed out. “Then it starts all over again. You’ll lose your mind this way, and what happens when the cycle breaks and it’s tomorrow and you’re not able to help the people who can be saved?
Ted stared at his hands. “I can’t just forget them, Booster.”
“Maybe you’re not supposed to,” Booster said. “Maybe it’s your job to remember them.”
Ted spent the next day in bed.
Twenty-four hours of lying curled on his side watching the clock and noting a death with each minute that passed hadn’t helped either Ted’s time loop problem or his despair, so the next day he struggled out of bed and went mechanically through his morning routine. Going to work for the first time in God only knew how many days was strange, made stranger by the fact that he felt hollow, drained.
His grief must have been noticeable, because Connie treated him with kid gloves, and the other scientists, down in the lab, kept shooting each other concerned glances. “Uh, you okay, Ted?” one of them finally asked as Ted stood prodding dully at a just-exploded prototype.
“Do you believe in God, Jack?” Ted asked.
Jack blinked. “I…what?”
“God. Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, do you believe in any of it?” Ted scratched at the soot-covered shell of the prototype with his thumbnail, revealing a thin crescent of shining metal.
Jack looked around at the other scientists on the project, who shrugged. “I was raised Methodist, but…I guess I would call myself an agnostic. I believe there’s something bigger than us out there, I just don’t know what it is.” He frowned. “Uh, is that going to affect my Christmas bonus?”
“So what’s the point of all this?” Ted asked, gesturing to the lab. “The purpose of science is to understand the world around us, right? But if there are things that are just unknowable, why do we even bother?”
Jack looked helplessly at the other scientists. “Uh…”
“I mean, you can spend your whole life trying to figure out how stuff works, but the universe doesn’t care,” Ted went on. “It doesn’t care how much you want to help. It doesn’t care who dies. And it’s not that there’s nothing out there. Random chance doesn’t trap you in the same day for eternity. There’s something out there, and it’s big, and it’s arbitrary, and there’s no damn way of figuring out what it wants you to do!”
He picked up the prototype and hurled it across the lab, where it smashed into a computer monitor. His scientists jumped back, alarmed.
“Ted, maybe you should take the rest of the day off?” Madhuri suggested.
Ted barked a laugh. “Yeah. Another day off is exactly what I don’t need.” The others looked baffled, which made sense – as far as they knew, Ted hadn’t taken a day off in months. “What about you, Madhuri? Are you agnostic too?”
She shook her head. “I’m an atheist.”
Ted looked at Sarah. “Uh, Jewish,” she told him.
“Lapsed Catholic, I guess,” Carlos said.
Ted spread his arms. “Well? Anyone have any answers? Because I could really use some right now.”
“You know,” Madhuri said carefully, “even atheists get that there’s more to the universe than we’re going to be able to figure out in my lifetime, or my grandchildren’s lifetimes. The best we can do is figure out the little mysteries, the ones that are solvable. Just because we can’t solve every problem doesn’t mean we can’t help at all.”
Ted frowned, and crossed the lab to extricate the broken prototype from the monitor. He turned it over in his hands as a thought struggled to push its way through the fog of guilt and grief in his mind.
Maybe the universe didn’t need Blue Beetle, superhero, this time. Maybe it needed Ted Kord, scientist.
“Have we tried one of these on full power yet?” he asked, hefting the prototype like he was testing a melon for freshness.
“Are you kidding?” Jack asked. “I mean, uh. Are you kidding, boss? It’ll overload instantly if we do that!”
Ted felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, for the first time in weeks. “Give it a shot anyway,” he said. “This project just got an unlimited budget.”
Over the next few weeks Ted tried every idea he had for the prototypes, even the crazy ones. And why not? Even if he destroyed all the prototypes and blew through the budget in an hour, he’d have a whole new set the next day. With unlimited funds and time to try every possible option, he’d soon isolated the problem and moved several major steps further along on the project. The day he came in and, without saying a word, picked up and completed a prototype in under an hour was priceless just for the looks on his teams’ faces alone.
That done, he moved onto the other projects in the lab. A faster computer processer, a more fuel-efficient jet engine. A new video game system. Solar-powered everything. He couldn’t write down his findings or take an invention from start to finish, but he worked out the kinks in every project his scientists were working on, every vague idea on his own back burner. With no limits to what he could try, he advanced his own scientific knowledge by – well, years. Decades, maybe.
That wasn’t the only thing he learned. Thoroughly sick of leftover Chinese food, he’d stopped at a grocery store one night after work, and didn’t head straight for the prepared foods aisle. Cooking couldn’t be that hard, right? Cavemen had done it, and Ted was a genius.
Okay, so his first attempt at heart-healthy grilled chicken breast and steamed vegetables was inedible. But he had time to get this right, too.
“Nooooooooo,” Ted groaned, squinting against the sunlight.
Cooking was all well and good, but he was bored. He’d exhausted every bit of scientific progress he could make in a day, and still it was December 24th. There was nothing new to do in the lab, no way to save everyone, no one who could help him.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, hands to the ceiling as if it would peel back and the Almighty would lean down to explain his plan. “Bill Murray had to learn to be a good person. I’m already a good person! I’m a superhero!” He paused. “Is it the masturbating? Because I can stop that!”
Ted jerked awake. “Huh. Well, might as well, then,” he said, and slid a hand into his boxers.
“Look, I’m just trying to get in touch with Andie MacDowell’s agent or manager or something. I think I’m supposed to fall in love with her. No, don’t hang up…!”
Booster stopped short when he saw the fat, furry creature sitting on Ted’s desk. “What’s that?”
“Groundhog,” Ted said wearily.
Booster raised an eyebrow. “Why’s it here?”
Ted looked at the groundhog. The groundhog looked at him.
“I thought it might help.”
Maybe it was backwards. Maybe instead of becoming a better person, Ted was supposed to become a worse one.
He supposed every superhero had thought about turning to the other side now and then. He knew how security devices and law enforcement worked as well as any supervillain, plus he’d learned from the mistakes of every criminal he’d ever apprehended. It had taken him weeks to figure out how to save as many people as possible in one day; weeks to make all of his recent scientific breakthroughs. He wondered how long it would take him to become a supervillain.
As it turned out, not long.
Standing in front of the bank in jeans and a nondescript jacket, Ted took out something he’d cobbled together that morning – essentially an advanced radio crammed into a cell phone casing. Looking for all the world like he was texting, he sent a pulse jamming the frequencies of the alarms, with a slight adjustment so that it would loop the past half hour of uninterrupted signal, since just cutting the frequency would in and of itself raise the alarms at GCPD headquarters.
He pulled a ski mask out of one jacket pocket and put it on, pulled a gas mask out of the other pocket and put that on, then strode into the bank and tossed something the size of a marble onto the floor. The minute it hit, colorless gas streamed out of it, and the security guard who’d been approaching him and fumbling for his gun coughed, then fell unconscious to the floor.
With tellers and customers dropping around him, Ted walked through the main room and into the hallways behind it. Usually only the bank’s employees were allowed back here, but as the second-richest man in Gotham, Ted tended to get special treatment. He knew where the vault was.
He also knew how it opened, since he’d designed it.
He could have run the electronic combination lock through a program that would try every possible combination until it found the right one, but he’d programmed a failsafe into the lock that would put the vault in complete lockdown after three incorrect tries at the combination. He could override it, but it was quicker to do this the old-fashioned way.
Well, okay, maybe “old-fashioned” wasn’t the best term for cutting through the door’s weak points with a handheld laser. But it sure was fun.
Having successfully disconnected the lock, Ted swung the vault open, grunting a little at a job that usually took two men. He pulled a collapsible reusable grocery bag out of his back pocket, filled it with cash, and cinched it shut. Then he walked back out of the vault and into the main lobby. He gently moved the unconscious woman at the customer service desk out of the way, rummaged around on her desk until he found a pad of Post-Its, and scribbled something on the top one. He jogged back to stick it to the door of the vault, returned to the lobby, took a deep breath, threw his gas mask and ski cap in the nearby wastebasket, and walked out of the bank with one and a half million dollars slung over his shoulder in a bag with a picture of a dolphin hugging the Earth on it.
No one gave him a second glance as he walked ten blocks, turned into an alley, and used a nondescript-looking button on his nondescript-looking watch to call the Bug, hovering above it, and bring a line down. Stepping onto the handlebar, he signaled the Bug to pull him up.
Once inside, he aimed the Bug towards the Atlantic. It would be best to get clear of Gotham as quickly as possible. If he knew Bruce and Barbara – and he did – they would not be happy to find the Post-It he’d left on the vault door reading “Sorry, Bats.”
They probably also wouldn’t appreciate the sight of him snickering at the security camera as he wrote it.
Ted propped his feet up on the console, put his hands behind his head, and leaned back, looking over at the bag of money on the seat beside him. He’d just robbed a major bank in a major metropolitan area in broad daylight. And he’d done it really well.
“Well. That was oddly unsatisfying.”
Maybe it wasn’t about being a good person, precisely. Maybe it was about making amends.
Ted had kind of an embarrassingly long list of those.
“Guy? It’s Ted. I just wanted to apologize for switching your toothpaste with Preparation H that one time.”
“Hi Bea, it’s Ted. I’m sorry Booster and I ran all those panty raids on your room back in the JLI. And, uh, last week.”
“J’onn, the League backup supply of Chocos is in a warehouse in Guam. Oh, and the missing teleporter is in the pantry. Sorry.”
Long as the list of pranks to apologize for was, though, it was easier than what came next. Pointing the Bug west and drumming his fingers nervously on his thigh, Ted made his next call.
“Melody? It’s Ted. Uh, Ted Kord.” He bit his lip before anything even stupider than that could spill out of his mouth.
“Ted? Oh my God!” Melody said. She sounded surprised, but not necessarily like she wanted to feed some of his more vital organs to crocodiles, which was an improvement over the last time they’d spoken. “Um. How are you?”
“Good!” Ted said a little too brightly. “Uh. I’m good. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Melody said. “I’m great. Yeah.”
“Yeah? Great! That’s…uh, great.” Ted coughed. “I hear you’re working at S.T.A.R. Labs these days?”
“Oh! Yes. I was actually just promoted last week. Senior research advisor.”
“Wow! That’s…that’s great. Congratulations.”
Silence stretched out between them. Ted coughed again, unsure of what to say. He could picture Melody on the other end, twirling the end of her long hair around her finger, a nervous tic he’d always found endearing. He wondered if she still had long hair.
“So were you just calling to shoot the breeze, or…?” Melody finally said.
“Oh! Uh, no. I’m…” Ted considered, and rejected, explaining everything. “I’m sort of working on this…project.”
“Yeah. Kind of a self-improvement thing. I’m calling up everyone who I’ve…wronged, or hurt, or whatever, and apologizing.”
There was a long pause on the other end. “Ted, are you an alcoholic?”
“No! No, I…ha. Um, that is one of the 12 steps, isn’t it? No.” Ted fought back a nervous laugh. “No, this is more of a…personal quest.”
“So, um…I’m sorry,” Ted said. “I was kind of a jerk to you towards the end of our relationship.”
“Kind of?” Melody asked archly. He could picture the tilt of her head at that tone, the jut of her hip.
“Okay. I was a big jerk,” Ted admitted. “I was going through a lot of stuff at the time, with the business, and my dad, and…other stuff, but that was no reason to take it out on you, and I realize that I was pretty much the reason we broke up. So…I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Melody said, sounding touched. “I mean, I got over you a long time ago, but I do appreciate the apology. And it wasn’t entirely your fault. I could have been more understanding about the whole Blue Beetle thing.”
“I…what?” Ted squeaked.
Melody laughed. “How stupid do you think I am, Ted?” she asked. “Okay, I didn’t quite get it then. But when I stopped cutting you out of my pictures and calling you names, it wasn’t really that hard to figure out. Especially since every time I saw you on the news you were with your new best friend, Booster Gold…except when he was with his other new best friend, the Blue Beetle, who looked exactly like you would in blue spandex. Which is pretty nice, actually, studly.”
“Uh…thanks,” Ted said, feeling a little discombobulated. “I…so you’re not mad?”
“Ted. Honey.” Melody sounded amused. “Yes, you were a jerk, but it was over a decade ago. As much as it breaks my mother’s heart that I didn’t marry a millionaire, I’ve managed to move on with my life.”
“…You’re married?” Ted asked.
“Yes. Don’t cry.”
“I’m not going to cry!” Ted said indignantly, before realizing Melody was laughing. “Okay, okay. So what’s his name?”
“Why?” she asked. “You gonna give him the Blue Beetle shakedown?”
“I’m just curious.”
“Fine. His name is Mark.”
“…Is he cuter than me?”
“I’m kidding!” Ted felt himself smiling for the first time since he dialed Melody’s number. “But I know he’s not funnier than me.”
“He doesn’t have quite your sense of humor, no,” Melody drawled. “My God, Ted, I hope you’re not going to be this passive aggressive when you call all the other girls whose hearts you’ve broken since you and I split up.”
Ted’s smile faded. All the other girls? He hadn’t had a serious relationship since Melody. Which, as she’d pointed out, had been over a decade ago. “No. No other broken hearts to speak of.”
“So the rumors are true?” she asked.
“What rumors?” Ted asked, somewhat distracted by the sight of Chicago looming ahead of him.
“About you and Booster Gold.”
Ted steered the Bug towards its old docking bay beneath Lake Michigan. He hadn’t used it in a while, but it should still be serviceable. “Booster? Nah. He’s really good at finding women with as short attention spans as his. Hard to break a heart when your average relationship lasts about six hours.”
Ted got the vague sense that he hadn’t answered Melody’s question properly, but he was too busy piloting the Bug and fretting about this next meeting to sort out where he’d gone wrong. “Listen, Mel, I’ve got a thing I need to take care of here…”
“Yeah, I’ve got to get back to work.”
“But listen…it was good talking to you.” Ted meant it. He and Melody had been friends before they’d been lovers, and he’d missed her.
“You too, Ted. Give me a jingle sometime, okay?”
“Won’t Big Daddy Mark mind another man jingling his wife?” Ted asked.
Ted grinned. “Sorry, sorry. I’ll call you.”
“Good. Merry Christmas, Ted.”
That was unlikely. Still…“Merry Christmas, Melody.”
Ted took the Bug down under the lake and through the old doors that led to his former base of operations. Inside, he changed into street clothes and took the hidden elevator up to the ground floor. He caught a cab across town, and was at his destination far quicker than he would have liked.
The doorman was new, but when Ted gave his name, the doorman waved him through without calling up to the apartment. Ted took the elevator to the penthouse, walked down the hall, wiped sweaty palms on his pants, and knocked. He had a key, but knocking seemed like a better plan.
The door opened.
“Hey, Dad,” Ted said.
Thomas Kord looked at his wayward son, a slight crease between his brows. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
Ted shrugged. “Just thought I’d stop by. It is the day before Christmas, after all, and we haven’t really seen each other in…a while…” His words dried up on his tongue as his father simply looked at him. “Uh. Can I come in?”
“Fine,” Thomas said, and walked back into the apartment. Ted followed, hands in his pockets.
“Want a drink?” Thomas asked. It wasn’t affectionate. Thomas Kord offered everyone who entered his home something to drink, because that was what was done.
“No thanks,” Ted said.
Thomas sat in his usual chair. Ted sat on the couch. They stared at each other.
Ted had gotten nothing from his father but his blue eyes and his petulance. Thomas Kord was serious, precise, and respectable. He wore a crisp Oxford shirt every day and never lost his temper or engaged in tomfoolery. Ted hadn’t been able to think of a thing to say to him since he was ten years old.
To escape the mutual staredown, Ted let his eyes drift upwards, to the portrait hanging above his father’s chair. His mother smiled down at him, serene and demure, her head tilted just so and her features fuzzy enough to make her look pretty.
Ted had always hated that portrait. Anya Kord had never smiled like that unless she was entertaining boring people. She was loudly affectionate, boisterous, unrefined – the opposite of her husband in every way. Ted had never really understood why they loved each other, though that they had loved each other was never in dispute.
Thomas tracked his son’s gaze.
“I miss her,” Ted said. He and his father hadn’t spoken about Anya since her death, when Ted was 14.
“I should hope so,” Thomas said with a faint edge of indignation. He did not say he missed her too. He did not admit weakness.
“Are you…you know. Dating? Anyone?” Ted asked. “Have you seen anyone since Mom…”
“Ted.” Without raising his voice or changing his facial expression, Thomas managed to convey a state of being utterly appalled.
“Sorry! Sorry. I just thought…sorry.” Ted picked at his shirtsleeve.
Ted blew out his cheeks. “Listen, Dad…I came here today because I’ve been…well, I’ve been doing some soul-searching, I guess. And I’m sort of…trying to make things right between myself and…people.” He looked at his feet. “We’ve never really been close, and maybe that’s my fault. But you’re my father, and I haven’t spoken to you in years, and that was wrong of me. And I’m sorry.”
He waited, but Thomas didn’t say anything. Ted pushed on. “So I guess what I wanted to say was that I could come by more often, or call, or whatever. If you wanted me to.”
He chanced a look up. Thomas’s expression hadn’t changed.
“Do what you like,” Thomas said. “You know the address.”
Ted only stayed a few minutes after that.
Dinnertime found him back in Gotham, sharing a booth with Booster at the Mexican restaurant. “So you all done with your apology-o-rama?” Booster asked, shoving a chip loaded with salsa into his mouth. Ted had already explained the time loop (again), and what he had done that day.
“Almost,” Ted said grimly.
“Hey.” Booster kicked him gently under the table. “You still bummed about your dick of a father?”
“No, it’s…” Ted ran his fingers through his hair, messing it up. Talking to his father had been hard, but this was harder. “I wanted to apologize to you.”
Booster stopped, startled, another chip halfway to his mouth.
“I know I was…” Ted waved his hands in the air as if he could snatch the right phrasing out of it. “Hostile. When Max put the team together. And you’ve asked me why and I haven’t really…”
He frowned and looked at the table. “You said we used to be best friends, but that wasn’t really it, was it? Or that wasn’t all of it. I mean, we were best friends, we fought crime together, we worked together. And then…I don’t know what happened, but we sort of…drifted apart. You were dating Lorraine, I started my own company, and then…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I went from spending every waking hour with you to not talking to you for two years.”
“I called at first,” Booster pointed out. “You didn’t call back.”
“I know.” The freedom had been…not exhilarating, exactly, but certainly eye-opening. Ted had forgotten who he was without Booster – how to be Blue and not BlueandGold. The more they were apart, the more he realized how intense their friendship had been. It scared him, especially the part of him that wanted more and knew he could never have it. But he couldn’t say all that.
“I didn’t want to miss you as much as I did,” he hedged. There, that seemed safe enough. “And the longer I waited, the harder it got to call.”
“And then Max re-formed the team…?” Booster prompted.
“You have to admit, you were acting worse than usual when we started,” Ted said. “You never turned off the Abbott and Costello shtick. And I was trying to make people see me as more than that…”
“You were trying to make Barbara Gordon see you as more than that,” Booster said, and there was a sudden edge to his voice.
Ted blinked and looked up at Booster, but Booster was looking determinedly at the chip he was twirling in his fingers. “Well, yes, her too, but we’re not…I don’t…” He frowned. “We’re just friends. It wasn’t about her.”
“Well, so?” Booster leaned back on his side of the booth, picking the chip apart into tiny crumbs. “So I was annoying and you were ashamed of having been friends with me. This is a great apology, Ted.”
“I – no!” Ted said. “No. That didn’t come out right.” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, you were annoying. And it was easier to focus on that than on how crappy I felt for pushing the most important person in the world to me out of my life.”
Booster didn’t say anything for so long that Ted was forced to look up. And then he wished he hadn’t, because Booster’s eyes were so blue, and there was something in them that he couldn’t name but that made him flush nonetheless.
“I’m sorry,” Ted said.
The corner of Booster’s mouth turned up, revealing half a dimple. “It’s okay.”
And it was.
“You know,” Ted said to his ceiling. “I’m sort of Jewish. I should have at least gotten an eight-day cycle here.”
He was out of ideas. He admitted as much to Booster as they sat in the bar that evening. “I’ve tried being a better person, I’ve tried being a worse person, I’ve tried saving the world. I don’t know what else to try.”
Booster shook his head. “I don’t know. If it was me, I’d just do whatever I wanted at this point.”
“You already do that,” Ted pointed out. Booster grinned.
“Aw, heck, Ted, it’s Christmas,” he said. “Maybe you’re just supposed to…feel the holiday spirit, or something.”
“Meaning what?” Ted asked.
Booster put his empty beer bottle on the bar. “Meaning you buy the next round of drinks.”
The first stirrings of an idea popped into Ted’s head. “I can do that.” He looked around at the crowded bar, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted “Next round of drinks on me!”
Someone cheered, and suddenly Ted was surrounded by people clapping him on the back, shaking his hand, and wishing him a merry Christmas. Booster eventually slipped out to go to the bathroom as four extremely drunk lawyers whose names Ted had already forgotten toasted his health.
“That was pretty generous.” Good old Beryl, right on cue. “I hope you’ve got enough to pay off that tab.”
Ted grinned at her. “If I don’t, do I get to wash dishes with you?”
“If you don’t, you get to wash dishes with Pedro,” she told him. “And he’s married.”
“Well, you tell Pedro’s wife not to worry,” Ted said. “I’ve got it covered. And I’ll tip.”
“If it isn’t Mister Moneybags. You just win the lotto?” Beryl asked.
Ted shook his head. “Nah, just trying to feel the Christmas spirit. It’s been a…long day.”
Beryl scrutinized him, tucking a lock of purple hair behind a multiple-pierced ear. “Well, I’ve got something that can help with that.” Out came a familiar bottle. “Double-Beryl Shotgun, on the house.”
He knew this routine. “Beryl?” he asked, pointing at her nametag.
She nodded, and plunked two shot glasses and a familiar bottle on the bar. “Double.”
Ted raised an eyebrow. “And the shotgun? If I drink it, does your daddy show up with one?”
She grinned. “If you drink it, someone’s probably gonna get banged.”
Ted paused. Booster had said he’d do whatever he wanted at this point. Ted wasn’t willing to go that far, but here was a woman wildly different from his usual type, who clearly liked him. Why not see where this led?
He pushed one of the filled shots towards her and held the other one up. “In that case, cheers.”
At closing time, Ted went home with Beryl.
Her apartment was a sixth-floor walkup and she apologized for the mess when they stumbled in, but Ted didn’t notice anything besides Beryl, warm and soft and fascinatingly curvy. The snakes weren’t the only tattoos she had, and tongue rings really added an interesting twist to certain activities, and it had been far too long for him. This was a good idea Booster had had, and then he didn’t want to think about Booster anymore, waving as he left with a smirk on his lips but something altogether different in his eyes, and Ted bent his head and lost himself in Beryl.
On the one hand, Ted would’ve liked to have woken up still in Beryl’s bed – not just because it would have meant that he had broken the cycle, and because she had fantastic breasts, but because he liked lazy mornings in bed with someone, tracing patterns on bare skin beneath the sheets and putting off getting up until the urge for coffee became overpowering.
On the other hand, he still felt pretty good. From the sex, yes, but buying that round in the bar had cheered him considerably, too.
“That’s it!” he said, sitting bolt upright. Sure, he was already a (relatively) good person, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t become a better one. And what greater virtue was there during the holiday season than generosity?
“Ted, where have you bee – ” Connie started when he walked into work an hour late that morning, then stopped. “What is that?”
Ted lowered the cardboard box in his arms so she could see inside. “Kittens! Christmas kittens for everyone!”
Connie blinked at him. “What?”
“And they’re hypoallergenic, too!” Ted said. “Look at those little kitten faces!”
“Aren’t hypoallergenic cats, like, a thousand dollars a pop?” Connie asked as other employees came over to peer into the box and coo.
“It’s only money,” Ted said dismissively. “Come on, everyone, grab a kitten!” He put the box down on the reception desk. “Now, who wants a hug?”
His lab scientists seemed as baffled as Connie when Ted announced that they were dropping all of their projects in favor of the new Uncle Ted’s Free Toys for Sad Children program, and his Board members just stared at him when he complimented their hairpieces and asked after their wives. Still, Ted kept the dogged smile on his face as he arranged for shares in the company to be given to all of his employees, as he stuffed hundred dollar bills into Salvation Army buckets on the street, and as he took Booster to the most expensive French restaurant in the city.
“I don’t care how much you spend tonight, I don’t put out on the first date,” Booster told him, batting his eyes at Ted over the top of the menu.
Ted snorted. “Your virtue is safe, believe me. This is all part of my plan.” He gave Booster the by-now-memorized explanation of the time loop, adding his new generosity idea to the end.
“So you think the universe wants you to be Santa?” Booster asked.
“Ooh, that’s a good idea,” Ted said. “I could probably turn the Bug into a sleigh pretty easily…and maybe build some robo-reindeer…”
“Are you going all mad scientist on me?” Booster asked. “I mean, more so than usual?”
Ted pointed a piece of bread at Booster. “Come on. You have to admit robo-reindeer would be cool.”
“Do they come with a robo-Rudolph?”
Ted tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Hmm, heartwarming versus canonical…”
“I can’t believe you just used the word ‘canonical’ to describe Santa’s reindeer.”
The waiter came, and Ted went to town ordering everything his doctor had strictly forbidden, while Booster made disapproving eyes at him across the table. “Oh, come on, what’s the difference?” Ted asked. “It’s not going to matter tomorrow. Besides, I’m having red wine. That’s heart-healthy, right?”
Booster, after much hemming and hawing, ordered a salad.
“You eating healthy is not going to somehow counterbalance all the garlic butter I’m about to drink. Like, from a cup,” Ted said.
“You know I can’t eat this kind of stuff,” Booster said. “Rich food makes me urpy.”
“You know.” Booster put a hand on his stomach and one over his mouth, and mimed something coming up, though whether it was food or gas Ted couldn’t say. “Urpy.”
Ted’s food was outrageously good, but his enjoyment of it was hampered by the sight of Booster picking at his salad. It did look like a nice salad, but…
Okay, so maybe being generous did not consist of hurling things at people they didn’t want or need. And maybe it didn’t really count if, for one, you were rich, and two, you knew you’d be getting the money back in 24 hours anyway.
Feeling guilty, he let Booster pick the post-dinner outing. He shouldn’t have been surprised when Booster suggested the usual bar – Booster’d been suggesting it in one form or another for the past umpteenth Christmas Eves. Pushing aside trepidation, he agreed.
And sure enough, Beryl was at the bar. Okay, this was weird. It wasn’t quite the same as typical one-night-stand awkwardness – Ted liked her, he’d had a good time, and if it had been a normal night he would have happily called her again.
But to sit there and pretend he’d never met her before when he could feel the ghosts of her fingernails scraping along his back was too bizarre and vaguely awful. He felt like a giant creep, and yet what could her say? “No need to introduce yourself, I already know you – and I do mean know”? “Sorry you don’t remember our passionate lovemaking last night – if it makes you feel better, you were an awesome lay”?
He gave Beryl a tight-lipped smile when she put their beers on the bar. “What’s with you?” Booster asked. “Is the bartender a supervillain? You’re acting like she’s about to start shooting up the place.”
Ted forced himself to relax. “No, it’s nothing. It’s fine.” He hadn’t mentioned his dalliance with Beryl when he’d told Booster about the time loop. Something about the look in Booster’s eyes when he’d left Ted with Beryl the night before made Ted not want to bring it up.
“Okay,” Booster said, in a tone that made it was clear he was humoring Ted. “I gotta hit the head. Be right back.” He stood up, and there was that warm hand on the small of Ted’s back again, and then Booster was gone.
Ted was hit with a sudden wave of panic. This was where Beryl came over and started flirting. He could not handle flirting right now. Throwing his and Booster’s half-finished beers to the mercy of the winds, he hurried after Booster. The bar was packed, and it took Ted a few minutes to get back through the crowd, ducking and weaving as he searched for a familiar mop of blond hair half a foot taller than anyone else.
Suddenly a couple of girls in tiny cocktail dresses moved out of Ted’s way, and there Booster was. Ted hadn’t seen him before because his head was lowered, talking to someone. Ted took a step forward, and then stopped, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
Booster was talking to another guy. That wasn’t the weird part – Booster talked to everyone. But the guy was pressed right up against Booster, his lips brushing Booster’s ear, his finger hooked into the loop of Booster’s jeans.
The guy was hitting on Booster. Blatantly. And judging by the faint, dirty smile on Booster’s face, he didn’t mind.
Words drifted across the space between them and suddenly sharpened into clarity. “…haven’t been by in a while, hero,” the guy was saying.
“Yeah?” Booster said. “Well, maybe you and I could…” His voice trailed off as he looked up and saw Ted gaping stupidly at them. “Ted!”
Ted stared for half a beat longer, then turned on his heel and pushed his way out of the bar, grabbing his coat off the barstool as he went.
“Ted!” Booster ran after him, grabbing his own coat and throwing money on the bar. “Ted, wait!”
Ted kept walking, pulling his coat off as he went, his breath making angry puffs in the cold.
“Ted, hold on, let me talk to you!” Booster said, and grabbed Ted’s arm.
Ted turned. “Who was that?” he demanded.
“Who, Jacob?” Booster asked, as if there could be more than one person Ted was talking about. “He’s just, uh. A guy I know.”
“Are you sleeping with him?” Ted asked.
Booster blinked, flushed. “Not…on a regular basis, no,” he said. “We’ve, uh, you know. A couple of times. But he’s not…we’re not, like. A thing.”
“I can’t believe you,” Ted said, and started walking again.
“Hey!” Booster snapped, and now he sounded mad. “What’s with this homophobic crap all of a sudden?”
Ted stopped short, stunned. “Homo – what? I’m not homophobic!”
“Yeah?” Booster shot. “Well, you’re freaking out over me sleeping with a guy. That sort of thing doesn’t exactly earn you your PFLAG card.”
“I don’t…that’s not why…it’s…” Ted stammered. “You lied to me!”
Booster stared. “What? How?”
“Does ‘We’re not gay’ ring a bell?” Ted asked. “How many years have we been friends, Booster? Huh? And all that time you were just pretending to like women? It was all just a big act?”
“I do like women!” Booster snapped. “I’m not gay. I’m bi. And I never said I wasn’t.”
“You never said you were!” Ted cried. “That’s something major, and you never – ”
“Oh, and when would I have told you?” Booster asked. “All the times that came up? ‘Hey, Ted, help me fight the Royal Flush Gang, and oh, by the way, I swing both ways’? It’s not the sort of thing you just mention.”
Ted was silent, steadfastly refusing to see the logic in Booster’s argument, and Booster went on.
“I wasn’t trying to hide anything from you,” he said, a little quieter now. “I never know how someone in this time period’s going to react. In the future it’s not such a big deal, but here everyone’s all…” He waved his hands. “Dirk blew a gasket when I told him. So I never brought it up when we first met, and then the longer we were friends, the weirder it got that I hadn’t told you. So I just never did.”
“I wouldn’t have cared,” Ted said, a little wounded.
“I know that now,” Booster said. “I didn’t then.”
Ted looked fixedly at the crack in the sidewalk in front of his toes. Booster was making sense. A general attitude of tolerance didn’t always translate to being accepting of gay – or bi, as the case might be – loved ones. Booster had had no way of knowing that Ted wouldn’t freak out like – well, like he had. Ted knew about that sort of fear, and the difficulty of broaching a subject like that, very well.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he said after a long moment.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Booster replied.
“So is Jacob the only guy you’re sleeping with, or…”
“I don’t think that’s your business,” Booster said, and Ted flushed.
He couldn’t quite look at Booster, so he settled for watching the clouds Booster’s breath formed in the night air. He really didn’t want to say this next thing, but unless he wanted to be the biggest hypocrite in the entire universe, he had to.
“…I might be, too.”
Booster sounded confused. “What, sleeping with Jacob?”
“No! I, uh.” Ted shoved his hands in his pockets, coughed. “I’m bisexual.” His voice sounded tiny, flat.
“I’m not sure!” Ted protested. “I mean, okay, yes, I am sure, but I haven’t been with another guy since college, and I’ve never said it out loud or anything, so I just never…think of myself that way.”
He chanced a look at Booster, whose mouth was hanging open. “Wait. So after you just yelled at me for not telling you that I was bi, you’re saying that you are and you’ve just never mentioned it?”
“To anyone!” Ted protested. “It’s been a moot point since I was 21!” He rubbed his temples. “Look, I know it was hypocritical of me to yell, but wouldn’t it have been more hypocritical to not say anything now?”
Booster looked like he wanted to tell Ted exactly where he could shove his moot point, but he turned instead, walked a few steps away, and stood for a moment raking his fingers through his hair. Ted waited, silent, apprehensive.
Finally Booster seemed to deflate. He turned back to Ted. “Well,” he said, and there was something almost sad in his voice, “now we know.”
“Now we know,” Ted echoed.
Booster tried a faint smile. “So what if neither of us mentioned it sooner, right?” he asked. “It’s not like it would’ve have changed anything.”
“…Are you sure?” Ted asked. He didn’t know why he asked it.
“No,” Booster admitted, and then neither of them could think of anything to say.
Ted went through the next day mechanically. He’d done it so often he didn’t need to think about it, and so his mind was free to run obsessively over the previous night.
Booster liked men. Ted liked men. Ted liked Booster. There was no point in denying it anymore, at least not to himself, not when he’d admitted right out loud that he swung both ways. He’d always been attracted to Booster, more attracted than he’d been to any man before, and only the knowledge of Booster’s certain straightness and a fear of ruining their friendship had stopped him from acting on it.
The former was gone. The latter…well, could it really ruin the friendship, if Booster wouldn’t even remember it the next day?
After all, Booster himself was the one who’d said he’d spend the endless days doing whatever he wanted.
By midday Ted was in his office, watching the clock tick over to precisely 2:37. He knew the ring of the phone was coming, but it still made him practically jump out of his skin.
“Have time to take a call, Ted?” Connie asked. “It’s Booster.”
Ted’s hands were sweating. “Yeah. Yeah, put him through.”
He heard the click of the transfer, and then: “Beetle buddy! How’s tricks?”
“H-hey, Booster. What’s up?”
“Not much. I was just calling to see if you wanted to grab drinks tonight.”
Ted’s throat was dry. He took a quick gulp of soda, but it didn’t help. “Uh, sure. Yeah. Let’s do that.”
“Hey, you okay?” Booster asked. Ted could picture the furrow of his brow, the slight down-turn of his mouth, his throat, his shoulders…oh God.
“Yeah,” he said a little too quickly, and then took a breath and tried again. “Yeah. Just a little busy here at work. Listen, uh…why don’t you come over to my place first? We’ll have an eggnog before we go out or something. And, uh…there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“Sure, I like a good nog,” Booster agreed. “I’ll see you in a few. Try not to let your head explode before drinks.”
Ted sighed internally. “I make no promises.”
He ducked out of work early and raced home, stopping to pick up some eggnog – and, out of consideration for Booster’s delicate stomach, soy nog – on the way. His apartment was a mess, as usual – the cleaning lady had been by less than a week ago (well, not counting all the repeated days in between), so most of the surfaces were reasonably disinfected and dust-free, but Ted could take an apartment from zero to cluttered in sixty seconds, and there were books and papers strewn about the living room, dirty clothing in the bedroom, and dishes piled high in the sink. An empty pizza box on the coffee table and underwear in the hall did not equal seduction.
Seduction. Oh God, what the hell was he doing?
By the time he’d straightened up the apartment, taken his second cold shower of the day, scarfed down a quick dinner, and tried on almost every shirt he owned, Booster was there. Giving up on miraculously finding a shirt that made him three inches taller and ten pounds lighter, Ted buttoned the one he had on and let Booster in.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi.” Booster frowned at him. “Why are you making that face?”
“I’m not making a face.”
“You look like you’re going to puke.”
“This is my normal face.”
“Well, your normal face is pukey, then.” Booster scooted past him into the apartment. “Nog me.”
In the kitchen, Ted poured himself a glass – well, a coffee mug, since that was all he had – of eggnog, and a mug of soy nog at Booster’s request, and added a generous amount of rum to each cup. Then he looked at Booster again, gulped, and added a bit more rum to his own cup.
“Mmm. Nogtastic,” Booster said. “Why is nog such a funny word?”
Ted gave him a sickly sort of laugh, and took a sip of eggnog.
“Okay, what’s with you today?” Booster asked. “Is this about that thing you wanted to talk about?”
“Sort of, yeah,” Ted admitted, and launched into the time loop explanation. He relaxed a bit as he told it – this was familiar ground. Also, that eggnog was really strong.
He stopped short of telling Booster about last night’s revelations, though. He wasn’t really sure how to phrase it, other than “And then I saw you with your male booty call, and then I was a big jerk, and now I think we should do it.”
“So being super nice didn’t work,” Booster said once Ted had convinced him of the time loop. “What’s your next plan?”
“Well, I’m sort of out of them,” Ted admitted. “I don’t really know what else to try.”
Booster shook his head. “I don’t know. If it was me, I’d just do whatever I wanted at this point.”
“I had a feeling you were going to say that,” Ted said. “And…I agree. And there’s something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time.” He took a deep breath and put his eggnog down on the table. “I think we should sleep together.”
Booster blinked at him, then looked down at his own cup. “How much rum did you put in this?”
“No, see, I’ve thought this all through!” Ted said. “First, I’m bi and you’re bi, so that all works out.”
“How did you – ” Booster started to say, but Ted held up a hand to forestall him.
“Sex is good cardiovascular exercise, so that’s good for me,” he went on, ticking the points off on his fingers. “I already have condoms, so it’s cheaper than going out and buying beer. Max will be happy because we’ll be trendy, and the rest of the team will be happy because they can all say ‘I knew it,’ and isn’t spreading joy what this season is all about? And I don’t know how you feel about me, and if you’re not interested obviously we won’t do it, but I think you might be because of all those weird tense moments we have sometimes, and you used to get really jealous of me and Ronnie back in the day, and if I’m being honest I’ve wanted in your pants since about day one, and – ”
Booster kissed him.
“Shut up,” Booster said when he was done. He was pretty much in Ted’s lap, and his fingers were tangled in Ted’s hair, and he had tasted like soy nog but that was really okay with Ted.
Ted’s hands had found their way to Booster’s hips somehow. “You know you won’t remember this tomorrow,” he warned.
“I don’t care,” Booster said, and kissed him again.
They stumbled into the bedroom, shedding clothes on the way, kissing and groping feverishly. Onto the bed and then it was nothing but slick skin and heat and shuddering moans. It was hard and fast, but it was good, so good, and even if Ted couldn’t quite shake the sensation that something was missing, it was as close to perfect as he could imagine, and then for a long time thought was impossible.
“We’re doing that again,” Booster said when they’d regained their breath.
“I thought you wanted to go to the bar?” Ted asked innocently, and Booster punched him in the arm, laughing.
They wound up doing it twice more. By the time Ted slung an exhausted arm across Booster’s stomach and pulled the covers up over them, the clock that he could just barely make out across Booster’s profile read 3:27. Less than four hours, then, until Booster disappeared and so too did his memory of this.
Ted pushed the thought away and closed his eyes. It didn’t matter. For now, with Booster breathing steady and deep beside him, he was happy.
Eyes shut, face still half-buried in his pillow, Ted groped blindly across the mattress beside him. Something was wrong.
Booster. Where was Booster? Ted opened his eyes, and at the sight of the alarm clock across the way, remembered the time loop. Booster wouldn’t be here. As far as he was concerned, yesterday had never happened.
Ted sat up, rubbing his face groggily, and stared down at the bed. There wasn’t even a depression in the mattress where Booster had been.
“…pull me into your arms, say I’m the one you own, if you don’t, you’ll be alone…”
“Shut up, Beyoncé,” Ted said, and turned the radio off.
He sank back onto the bed, staring hollow-eyed at the empty space beside him. He’d felt despair before, when he’d been forced to give up on saving everyone; he’d felt hopelessness when he’d been unable to science his way out of the time loop, and again when he’d run out of ideas to break the loop.
This was different. This was more like heartbreak.
He tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. He knew now that Booster was attracted to him; he knew that if he asked Booster again, Booster would sleep with him. That should have been an ego boost, that tall, blond, perfect Booster was interested in him.
But he didn’t just want Booster to sleep with him, he realized. He wanted him there in the morning – not just because Ted liked having someone there in the morning, but because he was Booster. He wanted him there when he was scared, and when he was sad, and when he had something funny to say, and when nothing at all was happening. Ted realized that not a single December 24th had gone by without him instinctively at least starting to turn to Booster, except maybe the first one. And, if he was being honest, not that many days before December 24th, either.
And then, just like that, he knew.
“Oh my God,” Ted said aloud.
Jimmy looked startled when Ted showed up in the boiler room carrying his toolbox (well, the part of it that wouldn’t give away the whole secret identity thing). But Ted was suddenly full to bursting with joy, and had to share it. He would have flung open the windows and sung with the birds, if the birds hadn’t all flown south for the winter, and if Ted’s singing wouldn’t have been bad enough to startle them into flight anyway.
“I figured you could use a hand,” Ted explained, putting down the toolbox and rolling up his sleeves. “I’ve never fixed a boiler before, but let’s see what we can do between the two of us, huh?”
It took a half hour of work and Ted got mildly scalded, but eventually the boiler was chugging along again. Ted and Jimmy shook grimy hands.
“Lucky we got this fixed so early,” Jimmy said. “This way I won’t have everyone in the building calling me about having to take a cold shower.”
“Ah, they’re not so bad,” Ted said. “Loosens up the lungs. Merry Christmas!”
A hot shower was an indescribable luxury. Ted took extra-long, then dried off, got dressed, and called the office.
“Connie? I won’t be coming in today.”
“What? Ted, no, you can’t, this morning’s been a nightmare and I just got in…”
Ted cut her off. “Tell the lab to lower the propulsion in the right jet by .03%, and tell the Board that we’ll have our next project on the market in exactly three weeks, which should pop our stock right back up. The situation in Japan can wait until the new year.”
“I…uh…” Ted pulled his shoes on as Connie stammered. “How did you know?” she finally managed.
“A whooooole lot of experience,” he said, shifting the phone to the other ear so he could put his scarf on. “Hey, Con, did I give you your Christmas bonus yet?”
“Double it. And then go home. You work too hard. Tell everyone else that the office is closing at noon.”
“Um…will do. And thank you!” Connie said. “What’s gotten into you?”
“There’s no possible answer to that that isn’t so corny it’ll make your teeth hurt,” Ted said. “Let’s just blame it on the season. Happy holidays, Connie.”
“Happy holidays, Ted.”
It was still early, so Ted used the League transporters to pop over to the Netherlands, punch out the preschool shooter, toss his guns into the nearest canal, and pop back to Gotham without waiting for thanks. Less than an hour later, he was ringing Booster’s doorbell.
Booster answered in nothing but briefs, and for a minute memories of the previous night made Ted too flustered to speak.
“Ted?” Booster asked, rubbing sand out of his eye. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh. I.” Ted flushed, and stammered, and chickened out. “I brought breakfast,” he said, and indicated the armful of stuff in his hands with his chin.
“Wake me up at eight on Christmas Eve Day, you better have brought me breakfast,” Booster said, and let Ted in.
They sat at the kitchen counter, and Ted slid a cup across to Booster. “Organic smoothie from that weird place you like. It’s got wheat germ and stuff in it – I told them it was for you, and they knew your usual order.”
Booster’s brow furrowed. “That place is way on the other side of town.”
Ted shrugged. “I took the day off work, I had time. Plus they’re right by the good bagel place.” He opened the paper bag he’d brought, pulled out two bagels, and checked under the tin foil. “Pumpernickel with lox is me, so this must be yours. Cinnamon raisin, butter.”
“It’s still warm,” Booster said as he took his bagel.
“I drove fast.”
Booster abruptly put the bagel down. “Okay, what did you do? Because I am not taking the rap for you if some stupid prank of yours backfired again. I don’t care how much breakfast you bribe me with.”
Ted rolled his eyes. “I didn’t do anything. Eat your bagel and I’ll tell you.” He gave Booster the rundown on the time loop, save for the last few days.
“So what’s your next plan?” Booster asked when Ted was finished.
“I don’t have one,” Ted said. “I’m playing it by ear. And today I decided I wanted to spend with you.”
Booster raised a questioning eyebrow at him, his mouth full of bagel.
“It’s Christmas Eve Day,” Ted said. “You’re supposed to spend it with family. So I’m here.”
Booster’s expression was so surprised and touched that Ted had to busy himself with his coffee. “Anyway, eat,” he said. “I figured after this we could fly to New York, go see the big tree and Macy’s. I think there’s some big caroling thing in Metropolis, we could go there too. Unless you want to do something else?”
He chanced a look up at Booster, who was smiling in a bemused sort of way that nonetheless warmed Ted to his toes. “No,” he said. “No, that sounds good.”
They did fly up to New York and looked at the tree, made fun of the less graceful couples skating at Rockefeller Center, pushed through the crowd in front of Macy’s. The displays in the windows were dusted with snow, and Booster pouted a little, since the sidewalks of New York were as dry as the ones in Gotham.
That was easily fixed, though. Ted pulled Booster back into the Bug and flew north until he found an unspoiled stretch of snow, a football field somewhere in Vermont. Booster hadn’t had much snow as a child – it was rare in the future, apparently – and the sight of all that snow to play it sent him practically catatonic with joy. They built half a snowman before getting bored and pelting each other with snowballs, calling a truce when Ted slipped a handful of snow under Booster’s collar at the same time that Booster shoved snow down Ted’s pants. While Ted changed into the spare, dry pair of pants he kept in the Bug, Booster used his flight ring and blasters to draw a crop circle on the field, one that strangely resembled a certain Green Lantern they knew.
“Let the conspiracy theorists explain that,” he said as Ted made cocoa in the Bug’s kitchenette.
Back in Gotham, they stopped at the grocery store so that Ted could get ingredients, much to Booster’s amused befuddlement. He sat at the kitchen table and watched incredulously as Ted cooked.
“Did you know risotto is actually not bad for you at all?” Ted asked, inhaling the aroma of a simmering pot and adding a sprig of thyme. “It’s just starch that makes it so creamy. No butter or cheese or anything.”
Booster shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re cooking. No, scratch that, I can’t believe you’re cooking and it smells good. Are you really the evil Ted from the Negaverse, and my usual corndog-eating Ted is locked up in a closet somewhere?”
“Yes,” Ted said, gently pushing scallops around a pan. “My evil plan is to feed you until you are slightly sleepy, thus slowing down your reaction time so that you will be unable to stop me when I steal Mount Rushmore. Bwahaha.”
Though he’d watched the whole cooking process, Booster still looked slightly dumbfounded when Ted placed a bowl of risotto in front of him, garnished with perfectly browned scallops and a rosemary stem. “This is amazing, Ted,” he said, as Ted poured out two glasses of wine.
“Don’t say that until you’ve tried it,” Ted warned.
“No, just…everything. The whole process,” Booster said. “You taught yourself this? In the time loop?”
“Well, me and Food Network,” Ted admitted. “Mostly Alton Brown. I’m pretty sure my doctor would forbid me even watching Paula Deen.” He shrugged. “Hey, it’s not that impressive. I mean, Bill Murray learned piano and French and ice sculpture in the movie.”
“Well, maybe you’ll be trapped in the loop for another decade and you’ll have time to learn all that,” Booster said.
“Oh, joy,” Ted deadpanned. He held up his glass. “To the Blue and Gold.”
Booster smiled, and toasted him. “Hear, hear.”
It was one of the best dinners Ted had even eaten, and he barely even tasted the food. Afterwards Booster insisted on washing the dishes while Ted dried, and as they stood and joked in the kitchen with their shirtsleeves rolled up, Booster flicking water at Ted, Ted couldn’t remember a time when he’d been so impossibly, stupidly happy.
It’s a Wonderful Life was on one of the thousand and one channels Ted got. Booster had somehow never seen it, so they sat on the couch to watch it, and if they sat a little too close, well, they always did. And if they slid into each other on the overstuffed couch as the movie went on, well, they always did that too.
“I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that,” George Bailey told Mary, lit up with the promise of youth.
“I know how that feels,” Ted said, head half-tilted onto Booster’s shoulder. “Not precisely the same way, though, I guess.”
“Maybe you need to get one of those awesome stripey sweaters,” Booster suggested, and Ted chuckled.
“What is it you want, Mary?” George asked on the screen. “What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
“Man, this guy really does need to go to college,” Booster said, turning a little so that his breath tickled Ted’s forehead. “His grasp of astronomy is very shaky.”
Ted turned to look at Booster, and for a minute he couldn’t breathe.
“Let’s go on the roof,” he said suddenly, standing up.
“But the movie…” Booster protested as Ted pulled him to his feet.
“TiVo! We can always rewind it,” Ted reminded him, and went into the hall to grab his coat.
He lived in the penthouse, so it was a short walk up the stairs to the roof. Gotham was spread out around and below them, the twinkle of holiday lights on the streets and in the windows making the usual gothic buttresses and gargoyles less foreboding.
“We’re not waiting for Batman, are we?” Booster asked, shoving his ungloved hands into his pockets.
“No,” Ted said. “At least, he’d better not show up, because…” He paused, shuffled his feet, turned his collar up against the December wind. “Booster, there’s something I’ve been trying to say to you all day, and I haven’t quite worked up the nerve.”
“I knew it!” Booster said, pointing triumphantly. “I knew it! You’ve been acting weird all day, with all the food and the quietness and the ‘oh, no, whatever you want to do is fine with me, Booster.’ What is it? You TP’ed the Watchtower and you need me to cover for you? You’ve been messing around with bad science again and we have to stop your evil creation from destroying the world? You really are the evil Ted from the Negaverse?”
“I love you,” Ted said.
“I do. I love you,” Ted said again. “I only realized it this morning and I don’t know why it took me so stupidly long to figure out, but I had to tell you. And I know I haven’t always acted like it, and I’ve been a jerk in the past, but Booster, I swear, I didn’t know until now.”
“You...” Booster paused, blinked, brow furrowed. “And you’ll forget it all over again tomorrow?”
“No, but you will,” Ted said, softly. “But I’ll tell you again tomorrow, if you want me to. I don’t care if the loop goes on forever, I’ll tell you every day for the rest of eternity.” He smiled faintly. “You’re the one, Booster. You’ve always been the one.”
Booster was quiet for a long time, face turned out of the light of the single bulb by the roof access door. Ted waited.
“Tell me tomorrow,” Booster said finally, turning back to Ted. “Tell me tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day – ”
He was cut off by Ted’s kiss, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Mmprgh,” Booster groaned in Ted’s ear. “Too early.”
Ted’s eyes flew open.
The song wasn’t “Single Ladies.” The sounds from the street weren’t the same. And Booster was still in bed with him.
Ted sat up. “Oh my God.” Yes, Booster was there. And their clothing was strewn on the floor, and he could hear the TV they’d left on in the other room, and praise be to the sweet baby Jesus Ted didn’t believe in, the song was still not “Single Ladies.” “Oh my God. It’s Christmas!”
Booster frowned without opening his eyes. “You’re Jewish.”
“…all I want for Christmas is you, baby…all I want for Christmas is you, baby…”
Ted sprang out of bed and threw the curtains back, not particularly caring if one of the Bats was doing an early-morning patrol and caught a glimpse of him in the altogether. A light flurry of snow was falling, lending a hazy brightness to the morning sky. “Ha! Yes!”
The song ended, and the weatherman’s came on. “Meeeeeeeeeeeerrry Christmas!” he crowed. “Seven-oh-three a.m. on December 25th. It’s snowing now, but don’t worry about your Christmas plans, Gothamites, because it’s going to wrap up in a little while and give you a clear road to Christmas dinner. It’s going to start up again late evening, though, so get home early! What have you got for us traffic-wise, Steve?”
Ted clicked the radio off as Booster sat up, blinking confusedly at him. “Why are you so hopped up?” Booster asked.
“It’s Christmas!” Ted clambered onto the bed, kissed him, and sprang off again. “It’s not December 24th! It won’t be December 24th again for a whole year!”
Booster’s confusion suddenly cleared. “Oh! Your time loop?”
“Unlooped, Booster buddy!” Ted said. “I have my life back!” He began pacing, ticking items off on his fingers. “Oh man. I have to get Wally something – maybe something for the kids – and I have to send flowers to Superman’s mom, and I have to call Melody, and I have to set up a flood relief charity, and I have to write down about a thousand things for the lab, and…”
He stopped as his circuit of the room brought him in front of the bed. Booster was sitting up, blankets pooled in his lap, hair rumpled from sleep and a fond smile on his face.
“You’re still here,” Ted said, barely able to believe it.
“I’m still here,” Booster agreed.
Ted climbed back onto the bed and kissed him. Booster had morning breath, and Ted was sure that he did too, but he didn’t care.
“I love you,” Booster said. He’d whispered it before, last night, but it still made Ted’s heart clench in a way that had nothing to do with cardiovascular health.
“I love you, too,” Ted said. “Lots.”
“Uh-oh,” Booster said. “You were supposed to tell me that every day for eternity. How are you going to do that without the time loop?”
Ted laughed, and pulled Booster down onto the mattress with him. His plans for Christmas Day could wait. “We’ll figure something out.”