Fandom: The Time Tunnel
Summary: Does the next day come simply because it does or does it come only because we let go of the day before?
Genre: angst, hurt/comfort, friendship
Characters: Doug, Tony, Ann
Warnings: dark themes, pre and post-series
"There is a shipwreck between your ribs and it took eighteen years for me to understand how to understand your kind of drowning." - Shinji Moon, What It Took To Understand
This is how your story begins: you enter the world much like any other child, small and fragile and blinking in the sudden harsh light. Unlike most, you never cry in your first moments of life, as if you were born knowing that tears can change nothing.
You're unplanned and largely unwanted, and you feel this perhaps from the very start, the indifference of parents who quickly hand off to servants and return to their lives as if their part in your existence has ended.
You grow into sorrow like you do clothing, one size greater after the last until it's comfortable, too much a part of you to cast off. This is life, and you accept it.
This is how you understand family: a birthday, third, fifth, it doesn't matter, and your parents had promised again to come home from their vacation early and hadn't again.
The servants are good to you, of course, letting you open the gifts your parents shipped, stay up as late as you want, and eat too much cake, but you don't enjoy it, any of it, and you curl up in bed, a small ball with skinny arms hugging yourself, and can't quite hide the sniffles when your nanny Florence comes in.
"Come here, Dougie." She opens her arms and you crawl onto her lap, too old to be held, too heartbroken to care. "You're not alone, little one." She whispers soothingly, humming a lullaby around the words, and your fingers catch and twist in her sleeve, pale skin on dark, clinging until your breathing evens out and you drift off.
It's the last birthday you believe your parents might come, and the last you cry yourself to sleep, and you suppose that means you're growing up.
This is how you become truly alone: at ten, when your parents decide you're too old for a nanny, and she's gone the same day, with a tear-filled goodbye and a slump of her shoulders as she walks away. The glass is cold against your curled fists, but you don't beat on it or scream after her to return, because you understand, even then, that loss is final and permanent, no matter how it happens.
Five years later, and in the middle of class at the boarding school you've spent every day including holidays at, the news arrives that you're legally, since you were in every other way before, an orphan.
You're left financially secure, able to continue your education to the fullest and want for nothing money can buy. You climb grades quickly and excel at all your classes, devoting the time other boys spend playing to hours bent over textbooks and equations. You tell yourself you're better off alone, and eventually you think you even believe it yourself.
This is how you find friendship, years past your childhood and without looking for it, and he's the opposite of you in so many ways, nothing alike, truly.
He arrives at Tic Toc after you, standoffish and quiet, and the other scientists think he's merely egocentric and rude, but you know better. You bond over common intellect and scientific theories, shared lunches and something you can't put a name to, some random, inexplicable thread that ties orphans and lost souls together. He's brilliant, to the point you should be envious, equally skilled at sciences and languages, history and maths, and the project means more to him than anyone.
You read his file, and you think you understand because the loss of someone you loved and never having their love at all are more alike than others might think, a bitter poison that fills your throat. It makes him desperate, reckless, and you sense that long before he enters the Tunnel, the feeling you have when you see someone doomed, not dead yet but lost, and you know the feeling all too well.
That, you see, is the beginning of how you fall.
This is how you make a choice: during an afternoon with a newspaper in your hand and Ann's eyes watching you, filled with all the things she won't say. She doesn't ask you not to go, because she understands that you have to, but the hope in her face is rimmed with black like a telegram bringing news of someone's death.
You might make it, you think, because you're still young and optimistic - you'll laugh about that later, in the bitter, hollow way of the broken - and you don't really say a proper goodbye, your mind so focused on saving Tony that you can't think beyond the moment. Or maybe you know, somewhere deep inside, that you're probably never going back, never seeing her again, and years from now, you won't be able to remember what she looked like or the color of her eyes, only that you loved her and if you'd had any sense at all you would have stayed.
Strange, what you forget, and all you remember.
This is how you learn to survive: running from one place to the next, thrown forward and backwards in time, never sure of the next moment, following Tony and trying to keep you both alive.
They must have a name for Tony's kind, you think, a walking dead man, or something like that. The recklessness, the ever-present target on his back, the way he throws himself at each and every danger. Tony Newman is, and has been for some time, living on borrowed time. Which is why you watch him,like some sort of guardian angel without wings, because if you can't protect him, can't save him, you're not going to let him die alone.
Tony is the only constant, the only thing you can count on. Times and places change, leaving you out of balance and lost, landing like a drowning man in the sea with only the green in front of you to cling to, seeking and following that color from century to century.
You don't notice it's fading.
This is how you view fate: it happens, and you're powerless to change it, to alter a single detail. You give up quickly, learn to look away from the endless human suffering, even as Tony tries, struggling to save people who were never meant to live. Misery finds you, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, and you swallow your horror and choke back the bile that climbs your throat even as you drown in it.
Once, Tony huddles next to a cot in the darkest days of the Black Plague, a woman cradled against him, gently stroking hair that could have been golden if it wasn't matted and caked with filth, and you can only recoil, hands knotted into fists.
"Do you believe in God?" He asks you, so quietly you almost miss the words. He's still so devout, even after all this time, never more than two steps from the altar boy he'd been as a child. You're never sure if you envy or pity him for his faith, that strange mixture of wistful innocence and unimaginable trust.
"I don't know." You say finally, and it's the truth. God is distant and incomprehensible, invisible and unable to be found, and you've spent little time searching.
"I can't remember the Rosary." He says faintly, and for some reason, that, with everything you've seen, is the saddest.
This is how you leave a mark in history: in a bloody handprint on a cave wall as you stumble, other hand going to the arrow wound in your side. You see it there, firelight flickering across it as Tony holds down on the hole between your ribs, and you wonder if someday people will find it, the only memory of you left.
You recover slowly, passing the days with a finger in the dust tracing words not yet invented, details as yet unknown, jumbles of scientific formulas and memories of your childhood, frail bits and broken things that were once your life.
Just outside the mouth of the cave you stand, arms spread and hands outstretched, beneath a flock of passenger pigeons so thick they blot out the sky, until the air is nothing but the flapping of wings and their calls. You're somehow strangely small and insignificant, meaningless, as if in an instant you could be wiped away, as extinct as the creatures around you.
That night, you dream of guns and nets, hunters and prey, and both of you long dead.
This is how you comprehend fear, with Nazis all around and he three steps behind you. You bend over, gasping for breath and turn to see the look on his face, the faintest tremor of his mouth, something you'd never notice if you didn't know him better than you know yourself.
You reach, heart doubling, and he coughs, faintly, followed by a choking wheeze as a dribble of blood flows down his chin, as your arms reach and catch him, grabbing handfuls of his sweater as he goes limp against you.
That's how they find you, both hands spread across the gaping hole, fighting to hold back the crimson that seeps through every crack of your fingers, and the taste of bitter acid in your throat every time he draws in air, the stuttering rise and collapse of his chest accompanied by a wet, gurgling sound. He's the one who can't breathe but you're gasping yourself, screaming at partisans with no medical skills to help as you cradle him like a child against you, mentally bargaining you have nothing and pleading just let him live and rationalizing he's made it through worse.
Later, face down, asleep, against his cot, jerking awake to glance at the rise and fall of his chest beneath the layers of bandages, you wish you knew his prayers, had his faith, anything to staunch the fear. But there's nothing.
This is what grief feels like, a hollowness in the center of your chest that stubbornly refuses to be filled, a wound that slowly fills you with blood until air is unable to come and you are left with no memory of anything before the drowning.
He stirs weakly, the persistent fever long faded into a sapping of strength and color, leaving him like dust blown by the wind, frail and faded. He's been ill for longer than you can remember, but you can't measure time anymore, not when your mind wanders and loses all sense of space and time. You no longer bother to ask where you are, and it no longer matters.
"It would be kindest to cut his throat." The man says, accent thick, telling you kindness is the last thing in his mind. He's a burden to them, taking a pointless cut of rations, faint murmurs and groans alerting the enemy to their position. You crouch in front of him like a feral thing, half animal with your clothes dirty and torn, hair long and tangled. You could hiss at him, threaten. But you don't think through the words that escape.
"He's all I have." It comes out as half plea and half resignation, the gasps of the condemned.
He never answers, hasn't time to move. You feel the Tunnel, an ancient, weary thing, and you don't reach so much as fall across Tony, hand twisted in his sweater, coarse against your cracked skin.
You cannot understand grief. You can only feel it.
No story ends. It bleeds into the next and goes on. But, if you had to choose, this is how your story would close.
You open your eyes to the artificial light of a hospital, to white sheets and an actual bed beneath you, and you think you're dreaming, because you've pictured it so many times before. Ann is there, and she looks a little older, but still so beautiful she takes your breath away. Your hand reaches, instinct overriding logic, feeling for the back against yours, a hand that never holds any warmth since the fever burned away, but there's nothing there.
"Tony." It comes out like a prayer but she answers it as a question.
You're up before she can hold you down, half running down the halls as she shouts for help, but you've run so long and in far worse condition, and you've found his room long before they catch up with you. In the harsh light of the room, cleaned and wrapped in blankets, he looks even more fragile than he had, as if a breath could blow him away. Scars and scrapes mark all exposed skin, and his body trails wires and tubes, needles and fluid. His eyes are closed, eyelids grey and bruised. You sink into the chair, clutching his arm like a lifeline. You don't say anything, only sit like a statue. The doctors come and try to put you back to bed but eventually give up and move a bed into the room so you'll lie down. You ignore it, hand twisted into the sheet. It feels cold, nothing like the warmth of his sweater, and you think absently that the white is too stark, giving his skin a grey tinge like a dead fish. It makes you sick.
The room is suffocating, the once familiar now monstrous. The world seems far too large after the narrowness of the past or the oddities of the future, and your breath catches with every rasp in his throat.
You should want something, you know. All the time you've spent dreaming of the things you'll have once you get home: familiar food, clean clothes, a hot shower, a warm bed. They seem unimportant and foreign now, luxuries you can't bear to indulge in as if the illusion will shatter. And the other things, words whispered to Ann, visits to a distant cousin you haven't seen in decades, going to see your parents graves and make your peace, all the things you thought you'd rush to do as if running out of time. Now you can't make yourself move. You've lost the ability to live, you realize, and only retained the knowledge of how to survive.
So you stay with what you know, sleeping in a hard-backed chair, picking absently at the food they bring you. You cling to Tony's arm, that will you've poured night after night when you finally gave into sleep, trying to tether him to life in your absence.
If you can choose an ending, this is what you pick: you open your eyes to another day, to the real world and not a dream, to Ann curled up on the bed the Doctors brought in, and a blanket draped around you, and sunlight pouring like gold through the windows, splashing across the bed and your hands.
He's still, the rasping gone, face smooth without the lines of pain, and your hand trembles, reaching for the pulse at his throat, and you realize you were never good at happy endings, and there was never any guarantee for both of you to come home, and he was too weak, too ill, and you should have done better, should have tried harder, and.. He twitches, in the same instant you feel the steady flutter of his pulse beneath your fingers, the warmth of living skin.
And if you were writing your story, you would end it here, the final page of the last chapter, as you feel your muscles relax, bones sag beneath the sudden release of weight borne too long, and finally, at the moment when Tony stirs, blinks, and opens his eyes.