The Luxury of a Private Moment
By Anne Higgins
Tony had been all of seven the first time. All he knew back then was that his father had vanished during the attack, and in the moments when Tony was most honest with himself he knew his need to know what had happened had prompted his interest in time travel. Knowing personal reasons would never impress anyone, he always had talked in general terms about uncovering the mysteries of the past. Most of the time even he believed it. But as he'd held his dying father in his arms, then watched his body and the building shielding it obliterated by a Japanese bomb, he'd known the truth. Pure selfish need, not the threat of a withdrawal of government funding, had sent him into the time tunnel before it was ready. He'd damned himself to an eternity of bouncing from time to time and he would have been content with the trade, but for one thing – he wasn't alone.
He tumbled out of the time stream and hit the ground with a hard jolt. Pain lanced through him as the impact forced the air from his lungs. He struggled for air, then felt a hand on his back. "Easy, Tony," Doug Phillips said, his hand rubbing in slow soothing circles. "It's all right."
Tears stung his eyes. All right? Tony couldn't think of anything less all right. Since he'd left the present he'd lived on nothing but adrenaline and one minor injury after another. Nothing more than Doug had suffered, but they'd been separated during their War of 1812 adventure. The British had held Doug prisoner and had fed him, then let him sleep. Tony had been forced to serve as a guide through terrain he'd never even seen before. He might have laughed at the irony of that if he hadn't been so worried about Doug. As it was he'd almost not made it back in time to save him. Time. He laughed – a harsh sound that turned into a single wrenching sob.
The Time Tunnel project had been about mastering time, yet time had imprisoned them, tortured them with the constant threat of death and the impotency of being unable to change anything. Even something as small as his father's death.
"Tony, it's all right," Doug tried to calm him and pulled him around and up until Tony was all but sitting in his lap.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. If not for exhausted, he'd have sobbed with all the outraged hurt of a wounded child, but his body could manage nothing more than a silent stream of tears. He'd damned this man and yet Doug held him in the protective circle of his arms. "So sorry."
"It's all right."
"No. My stupid fault."
"Mourn your father," he answered, but obviously wasn't oblivious to what Tony was trying to say as he added, "We'll deal with everything else later."
Despite this acknowledgement of Tony's crimes, Doug held him even closer, held him like he was something precious. The kindness robbed Tony of all ability to speak and he lost himself in a flood of grief until not even grief could fight off the need for rest and sleep dragged him into merciful oblivion.
He woke to a stuffed up nose and a pounding headache. Inadequate punishment for his crimes, but it made the scales of justice seem a little more balanced. The sound of a fire crackling penetrated his discomfort and he slowly opened eyes gummy with last night's excess of emotion. The sun looked like it had been up for hours, but he had no reference from before to give him an idea of how long he'd slept. Although the way his back ached suggested several hours. Too much time lying on the bare ground, but his head felt cushioned. He reached up and fingered his pillow. Tweed. Doug's jacket.
Ashamed and unworthy of such a gesture, he sat up, groaning at the effort. For the first time he got a look at where they'd been dumped. Doug had settled them near the edge of a large lake. The foliage suggested North America, but there was nothing to indicate a specific place or time. Great, no way at all to tell what might be coming at them until they were in the middle of it, then there was the problem that the project couldn't move them to another time without a reference to where they were now. And where was Doug?
Slowly he got to his feet, his bones all but creaking. His stomach growled reminding him of how long ago he'd last eaten and suggesting that Doug had gone off in search of food. Certainly nothing spoke of a more dire reason for his being left alone. No sign of trouble and Doug had even set up a makeshift camp or at least as good a one as he could make without any sort of gear.
He probably should go look for food of his own, but stiff and uncomfortable in a turtle neck that he'd worn for too many days, Tony looked at the inviting water with bleary eyes. Yes, the trip from one time to another did somehow clean them up, but his mind said his clothes should be filthy. Right now he had a chance to get the kinks out and clean up in a more traditional manner. Difficult to resist, but with his luck something dire would happen the moment he stepped into the water. Then again his mood was dark enough that he thought perhaps he should stop trying so hard to stay alive. Yes, a bath and another chance for justice to take a shot at him sounded like the perfect solution to his troubles.
He heeled off his boots, then stripped out of his clothes. He washed them as best he could without soap, then spread them out on some rocks to dry. He shivered when he stepped into the water, but it wasn't as cold as it could have been. Must be more than melted snow from the mountains feeding into the lake.
A warm current caressed him when he'd swam a few feet out from the shore. With no better direction to go, he followed it and soon found a hot spring—his mind whispered Yellowstone might be nearby, then pushed the thought aside. He wasn't ready to deal with anything beyond pure existence. He got as close as the heat would allow, then let himself float, enjoying the water and the sun beating down on his naked body.
The steam from the spring came close enough to help clear his sinuses and he felt far less like a snot-nosed child the morning after he'd been sent to bed without his supper. Not the best of metaphors to call up given his mood. Had it been so much to ask of time to spare his father? Dozens of science fictions stories that said yes danced through his mind. A futuristic butterfly flaps its wings in ancient Africa and Hitler wins World War II. Except Tony had learned to his cost that the butterfly's flapping wouldn't have changed anything – it simply became part of the past. Nothing he and Doug could ever do would make a difference. It was all preordained by fate. Maybe he should just start swimming and keep going until he couldn't go any further.
"Tony! Tony, where are you?"
Doug's voice made him flinch. The man sounded frantic, like he'd been calling for a long time, but the water lapping at Tony's ears had kept him from hearing the sound. The reminder that he'd leave Doug alone to face the existence Tony's selfishness had condemned them to banished any thoughts of a final swim.
"I'm here!" he shouted and moved toward the voice. He repeated his shout every few minutes and quickly reached a point where he could see Doug. By the time he got close enough for his feet to touch bottom, Doug was standing on the shore with his hands on his hips scowling at him.
Contrite, but blissfully clean and no longer stiff, Tony walked out of the water. He did not miss the way Doug watched him, almost as if he were drinking in the sight of Tony. Old suspicions and hopes warmed together into certainty beneath that look, and Tony understood why Doug had followed him.
Shyness urged him to drop his own gaze, but in the end it was shame that forced him to look away. Short of changing history, he was about to get something he'd wanted for seven long years, but he did not deserve it.
Doug's arms closed around him and pulled him close. "I should skin you alive for scaring me like that," he whispered into Tony's hair.
Tony hardened and felt an answering hardness pressing against his belly. All he had to do was let this happen, but how could he? "You shouldn't have come after me." He ached to kiss Doug, but he had no right so he rested his head against the man's shoulder and stared at the trees.
"You would have died if I hadn't."
Tony sighed, the deep breath allowing him to drink in Doug's scent. Fresh, not just clean – Doug must have taken his own swim earlier. "You know that's not true. They would have gotten me off Titanic the same way they got both of us off. The difference is that you would have been safe back at the project."
"Yes, and you'd be facing this alone."
"It's what I deserve." He closed his eyes. "I didn't mean to make you chose me." And he hadn't. Of all the guilt resting on his shoulders, he could honestly say he had never expected Doug to follow him. Never thought Doug could really want him.
"No, you didn't," Doug disagreed. "You tried to make the choice for me."
Maybe so, but there never should have been a choice. Despite his position as number two man on the project, Tony had been a late comer to the group of scientists working to crack the puzzle of time. Within an hour of his arrival he'd heard the rumors about Drs. Doug Phillips and Ann MacGregor. Everyone had been certain the two of them would announce their engagement at any moment, but seven years later they were no longer even dating. But Tony knew the cooling of their relationship hadn't been Ann's idea. Tony had quickly fallen in love with Doug so he recognized the emotion in her. She loved Doug every bit as much as he did. The difference was that Doug could openly love Ann, marry her and have children with her. All he could have with Tony was a shameful secret. And maybe that was another reason time travel appealed to him – there were entire eras when two men loving each other had been acceptable. Time travel. The project. "Oh, God," he moaned as a very ugly truth occurred to him. "She's watching us. They're all watching us."
Ann, Jerry, Dr. Swain, Gen. Kirk and a host of support personnel had to constantly monitor any time traveler or risk losing a fix on him. It was something Tony had been working on changing before a senator with budget cuts on his mind had forced him to take a premature trip into the timestream. Embarrassed and ashamed of the pain he must be causing a woman he genuinely liked, Tony tried to pull away.
Doug wouldn't allow it. "It's been over between Ann and I for a long time. She knows that."
She might know it, but she didn't like it and she was a vital part of the project. He tilted his head up and rested his lips against Doug's ear. In the softest possible voice he warned, "They might not help us anymore." It shamed him to think it but military men and a scorned woman everyone liked would not make for the most understanding group of supporters.
"Would you have our lives be nothing more than one running battle after another? There is no one around for miles. It's as if time has granted us a chance to rest. I'm not callous to what our friends feel, but we have to take advantage of moments like this."
They were going to end up stranded in time with no hope and no help. "You shouldn't have followed me."
"I had to follow you. I love you. What I've never been certain of was how you feel about me."
He shivered again, then finally looked up so he could see Doug's eyes. "I love you. I've always loved you."
Doug's embrace tightened. "Then I think it's long passed time we made love."
He'd failed to save his father, had trapped Doug in time with him and every move they made would be like a dagger in a good friend's heart. Tony did not deserve this joy, and Ann did not deserve the pain, but what about Doug? His lips were so near Tony's and there was so much love and hope in his eyes.
Tony couldn't bring himself to stop the kiss and once it started he got lost in it. Grass tickled his back, then Doug's weight pressed down on him. He pulled at Doug's clothes until skin slid against skin. He moaned loudly and arched up against his lover. "More," he begged, all thoughts of punishment and denial banished by Doug's touch.
Spit eased Doug's way and Tony felt the burn of his entry like a newborn babe bursting into the world. He felt light-headed, each thrust sending him soaring higher and higher. Then waves of release bore him back down to earth where they lay together in blissful haze.
Hours later they'd eaten their fill of the food Doug had gathered earlier, then made love again. But when Doug finally drifted off, Tony slipped out of his arms, then pulled on his trousers. After building up the fire he settled down to watch the sunset. He saw the faces of their friends in the sky. Certain they'd located them enough to at watch if not retrieve, he said, "I'm sorry. I should have …" He sighed. "I guess I don't know what I should have done. We love each other and that should be all that matters, but it isn't. Wasn't."
He felt so tired, so damned. "I never wanted to hurt anyone. Never wanted him to follow me into this nightmare. I just … I just wanted to save my father." Tears threatened but he blinked them back. "And … I couldn't stand being so close and unable to touch him." He wasn't the only one who knew that pain. "God, Ann I'm so sorry."
Doug stirred and Tony knew he must be awake. Time. It was all about time. Time was the enemy, the companion, the tormentor, but it had brought them here together so didn't that make it a friend, too? He sighed again. Time was his confessor as well and it was never too late for the truth. "You need to stop trying to retrieve us and focus on arrival/departure control."
He buried his face in his hands, then looked up again when Doug gently took hold of his wrists. He was kneeling in front of Tony with nothing but pure concern in his eyes. Where was the rage Tony so deserved? "I hoped I was wrong, but I stepped into the tunnel knowing there was a good chance that if I was moved from one time to another without returning home first, I couldn't be retrieved at all. That's why they've been able to retrieve and send others from periods we've visited, but not us." It all had to do with time radiation and biophysics. He recited his password so the project personnel could look at his notes on the subject, then returned his focus to Doug. Their friends would either help them or leave them to their fate. It didn't really matter. They were irrevocably out of sink with their own time. "We can never go home again."
He expected anger or outrage instead Doug gave him a sad smile and cupped Tony's face in his hands. "I'd made the same deductions. I followed you anyway." He kissed Tony. "Nothing has happened that I didn't freely and knowingly choose."
That couldn't be true. Could it? "Doug-"
A kiss quieted his protest. "We're together. Nothing else matters." Once again he held Tony as if he were something precious. Then he looked up at the sky and spoke to those who watched them. "Leave us here, send us from one time to another or send us to live some time far enough in the past or the future where we can live openly together. In any case live well and take care of each other. Ann, we already said our goodbyes, but once more, I hope you find the happiness you deserve, and I regret the pain I caused you."
His gaze returned to Tony. "Right now, give us what privacy you can." Love and passion sparkled in his eyes. "I chose this life, this man, and I need some time to prove it to him."
Amazed, Tony allowed himself to be drawn into another kiss, then once more. Between each touch, they murmured soft words of love and devotion until here and now, Tony began to believe in happily-ever-after.
What would really happen next was anyone's guess. They were at the mercy of all of known history and beyond. It was a daunting thought, but Doug's touch soon chased all thoughts from Tony's mind. Well, all but one. Come what may, time would take its course.