Summary: A simple alteration of time, a different outcome. Doug, returned home after six years in the Tunnel, struggles to readjust to life and all it's done to Tony and him.
Genre: angst, friendship
Characters: Doug, Tony, Ann, Jerry, Gen. Kirk
Pairings: a little bit of Doug/Ann
Stockholm syndrome: noun 1. emotional attachment to a captor formed by a hostage as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate for survival.
"The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked."-Tillie Olsen
Once there's a woman, plain and kind, who takes them in for the night. It's autumn and the leaves have turned, the ground sparse and dying, and they're worn to the breaking point, unable to go a step further.
Doug huddles beside the fire as Tony, curled fully clothed on the divan, lacking the strength to even pull off his dirty shoes, sleeps, dark circles smudged against a wan face that's grown thinner with each month. The woman - Doug never learns her name and he wouldn't remember it anyway - draws a blanket across Tony and extends the other to him, waiting until he wraps himself in it before sitting beside him. He doesn't know why but he tells her who they are and where they came from and when he's finished she doesn't doubt or question, only looks at him for a long moment before speaking.
"You must resent him." She says quietly, Welsh accent soft. "For trapping you in this." Doug's face lifts, flames wandering wearily across it.
"No." It's never occurred to him. "Never." The others, back at Tic Toc, those he resents sometimes as the months and years crawl by, resents their constant failure, the devilish way they manage to strand them in the worst of times and never the best, even for creating the Tunnel in the first place. But mostly for what they've done to both of them, how sick Tony always is, and how every now and then Doug wonders if it wouldn't be better to stand still when the army charges at them, to take a bullet or a spear and end it all. But not Tony. Never him.
"But if you'd known it would be this long...?"
"I'd do it again." He says firmly, and Tony stirs a little, coughing before falling back asleep.
"And if he ever dies?" She isn't cruel, only voicing what he's feared all along, and his chest twists painfully, like the tightening of the rack.
"He won't." His voice is low, almost threatening. "I won't let him."
Later, when they're a thousand years away from Wales, and it's so cold his breath frosts in front of his face and his hands are ice, Doug curls into a ball, his back to Tony's in an attempt to keep each other alive, and he thinks they'll be fine if they only get back.
But then he's been wrong before.
In the end, they're in the Tunnel six years, three months, and nine days. They were never truly sure of the date and it felt like longer.
They spend two months in the hospital, weak and battered, Doug to piece together a leg damaged by countless shattering falls and Tony for a body and heart weakened by a thousand volts driven through it. The leg is set and pinned into place, able to bear his weight but good for little else, and painfully stiff at any change in the weather, but he keeps it, and he's on his feet as soon as he can, hovering around Tony's room as the doctors do their best to keep him out and fail. It's habit overcoming logic, he knows, because these are the best doctors in the world, and yet he can't trust Tony to them, not after all the times he's looked after him, cared for him and cursed the fact that his title of doctor was for science and not medicine.
The body, run down more than truly ill, mends fairly quickly, food and sleep healing more than medicine ever could. As for the heart there's little the doctors can do. They tell Tony to take it easy, to rest often and not do hard work, and he might live to see his grandchildren. It's cruelty, Doug thinks, like throwing him in a cage, because Tony, so vibrant and full of energy, would wither and die without movement and activity. But somehow Tony, always the more resilient, throws himself back into life with the ease of a man who's only been away on vacation, while still managing to follow the doctor's orders. He's bright-eyed and hungry to see the world but careful not to do too much, and Doug finds himself oddly envious at his enthusiasm when all he wants to do is curl up in a corner and wait for things to go back to normal, even as he knows he's forgotten long ago what normal was.
For Doug, time stops, slowing to a nearly unbearable crawl until he thinks he'll go insane from the monotony of living one day after the next, like a foot slowly dragged in front of another. The face in the mirror, once haggard, aged far beyond his years, hollowed with hunger, lack of sleep, and hard living, fills out again but he feels less alive and more damaged than before, as if he's been stripped from the inside out and laid bare in the sun.
He had no control over time in the Tunnel, he tells himself, because they stopped trying to change things after a while because there was no use, and nothing they could change, and life came down to merely surviving, sharing the last bit of food, huddling against the darkness, struggling and fighting across a hundred distant battlefields. It was somehow overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time, for life to become so powerfully simple, a constant rush of adrenaline in his veins driving him on, and he feels disconnected from it, like an addict in withdrawal.
Food no longer tastes the same, he realizes fairly quickly, after centuries of scavenging and living off whatever they were given from wild berries to carefully packaged squares of nutrition in some distant future. He eats when he's hungry, with little thought to what he's eating, and a restaurant menu is suddenly an enigma that throws his world off balance, an incomprehensible luxury. Sleeping is nearly impossible and he wanders most nights, catching naps here and there in a chair or corner. He finds himself clinging to Tony in some way, even if only a phone call, because he's his only link, the only one who shares his memories and his loss, the only one who won't mind when he tries to hold himself together and falls apart.
Ann is sympathetic, as much as she can be, even if her eyes step into shadow when he brings up a memory, a name a thousand years away, a place long destroyed and buried. She tries to make him whole again, and he loves her for it with all in him that's still capable of love, even as he feels her pain when she asks him quietly to stop talking about the Tunnel.
So he stops, letting the words fade away like old pages in a book, pressed into the back of his memory, enclosed and never forgotten. It's the best he can do, but it isn't enough.
In another, parallel world, perhaps, Doug thinks Tony, the bright inquisitive child who grew up much too quickly would have faded out like the stars, reached too high and fallen to earth with burning wings. He's that kind of person, dangerously impulsive, fatally reckless, backed against an arsenal of luck that would make the gamblers they met on that 1800s Mississippi riverboat cut off their right arms to possess. All of it combines into a mercurial blend as unstable as nitroglycerin, and twice as likely to explode.
Doug held him together all that time, carried him off a rack, and kept him safe, and he feels lost without that, like a parent with an empty nest or a military noncom who's lost all his squad. Tony needs him, of course, as a friend, a support, but not for his survival, and he isn't constantly there to ensure Doug's, anymore, because he has a life of his own now - he should, it's only right - and Doug doesn't - won't - lean on him like a crutch anymore.
He goes back to working at Tic Toc; it's all he knows, and it's easier than struggling through job interviews and the 9 to 5 schedule most of the world takes for granted, and he keeps it until they decide to destroy the Tunnel, put it to rest and work on other projects. He erupts, half hysterical, and not even Ann can calm him down. Tony's there, visiting, and he's the only voice Doug responds to, the only one he let's pry his hands off the Tunnel and lead him away, one stiff finger at a time, like stealing a precious object from a corpse.
General Kirk gives him medical leave after that, and quietly, discreetly suggests a hospital to Tony.
"No." Tony's voice is sharp, his hand tight on Doug's slumped shoulder, fingers twisted into his shirt as if pulling him, drowning, out of the river. "I won't do that to him. You don't know what he went through in there."
"But he needs help. He should be happy the Tunnel's going." Jerry shakes his head. "Not clinging to it like a lifeline."
"It's all we had!" Tony's voice rises, eyes flashing sparks like hot coals on a fire. "That Tunnel and each other. He carried me on his back when I was almost dead too many times to count, living for each transfer and the hope it would be somewhere better."
"But the hospital would.."
"He's not going." The words are practically a hiss. "Ever." Tony loops his free arm under Doug's and lifts him to his feet, tugging him with him as he walks out of the complex.
"Tony." Doug's voice sounds strange to his own ears, like a child.
"I know." He says, mouth set in a line as Doug manages to get into his side of the car, not looking back. They never see the inside of Tic Toc again.
In summer, two years since they emerged from the Tunnel, he sits on the beach beside Tony and watches Tony's wife playing with the children on the beach, children like the ones his wife and he should have, laughing and splashing in the water, unburdened and unfettered. The water swirls around them in a spiral, the sunlight glinting on the ocean, and for only an instant it reminds him of a transfer, and his chest clenches.
"I miss it." He says finally, and he doesn't say what. Tony doesn't look at him, eyes fixed on the waves and the children, a hand following an abstract pattern in the sand. But he gives the slightest nod.
"I know." He answers, and he does, because Tony has always known him better than he knows himself, as if he can see inside him and understand what draws him back, like a man pulled to fire or flood, the lure of the raw terror that once drove him. He doesn't say "so do I", though, because he doesn't miss it, never could, and Doug can't explain, even to himself, why he clings to it, why the captor that held him hostage still owns him body and soul.
He's home, and he should be content and even grateful, and he doesn't know why he isn't, or why he aches for something he hated. Tony knows, he thinks, but he doesn't ask him to explain.
He learns what it is eventually. Like a person attached to a kidnapper, he's drawn to the Tunnel and anything that reminds him of it. It was horrible and it was impossibly simple, to have life become one narrow thought, one constant terror of dying, of separation, constant adrenaline like a drug in his veins. He knows what he's become, like an old veteran who can't stop talking of a bloody war fought decades before and best forgotten, but he thinks if Tic Toc hadn't destroyed it he might have gone back to the Tunnel, run down it's corridors and disappeared inside.
It's spring when Tony dies, and he wasn't old, not really, not old enough for the grandchildren promised if there'd ever been any to begin with. The heart that supported his life through all the centuries finally gave out, because a human being is frail skin and bones, muscles, tendons, and blood, and he was never meant to be any more, never strong enough to withstand a thousand volts of time itself, a heart jump-started like a faulty wire. He died better than Doug lives, because somehow, ill as he was, he'd found a life outside of the Tunnel, one Doug never had. The funeral comes the same week as the anniversary of tearing down the Tunnel and he can't help thinking it's fitting somehow, as if a book long opened has finally been closed, leaving him alone.
Ann loved him as long as she could, bearing up through the times when she saw him pacing, staring at his hands as if he could see the blood still staining them from injuries long healed. He was impossible to talk to from the beginning, because no one can live with a ghost between them, a memory constructed of a thousand and more centuries before and beyond them, with a mind that knows what has and will be and can change nothing, like a terrible, powerless god.
He gets in the car and drives, not knowing where he's going until he finds himself at Tic Toc, long changed and moved to another place, the old complex half buried in sand and long empty, and he puts the beginning of it together that day.
It takes him nine years to rebuild the Tunnel, piecing together scraps of memory with the few notes he scribbled when they returned, and when it's finished at last it's as it should have been, able to find an exact spot in time, pinpoint it like a needle on a compass turned due north, smaller but all he needs. He sets the time and place with a grim face, steps inside without looking back, and vanishes in an instant.
In 1967, before a senator will ever visit, there's sabotage at Tic Toc, inexplicable damage done to the Tunnel itself and all other equipment, enough to force the government to abandon the project as too costly. There's nothing to prove a motive, and if anyone sees the old man who destroyed the work of nearly a decade no one suspects him of the crime.
Tony Newman never runs into a Tunnel, never wanders the length of the universe and back again, never sees all the centuries in the blink of an eye, and never feels them driven through his heart, and there's no weakening there, no irreparable injury that steals half his life. He takes a new job, leads a fairly quiet but full life, marries and raises two children alongside Doug's three, and the two families are as close as one even without the Tunnel that drew them into a maelstrom and washed them out with only each other to keep them afloat.
There's still an old man, no one, really, a strange, lost sort of person, all that might have been, all that was. He's forgotten, it seems, because even in the happiest of endings there's always something that cannot be put back together, cannot be repaired, a paradox and a single piece that no longer fits. They were wrong, the time travelers who used to exist, because for all they couldn't change, there was one thing they could, because man writes his own fate in the sand and he can easily reach out and wipe it away.
Once, a very long time ago, it seems, that old man vowed to not let another man die, to save him at all costs. And he did.