"I had a little bird, his name was Enza. I opened the window, and in flew Enza." - 1918 children's skipping poem
It began with a cough from a tiny germ silently swelling in Doug's chest since the three days they spent in a little French village in 1918.
A cough and nothing more. They landed sometime in the 1800s next, aboard an orphan train, and he looked a little pale and drawn, going to lie down in the back of the car after supper. Tony thought it was a simple cold, a chill he'd caught. He didn't even get a doctor at the next stop when they got off and rented a hotel room.
Two days later Doug was racked with chills, bleeding from the nose and mouth, and delirious with fever. The doctor came and only shook his head. He'd never seen this sort of influenza before. He could offer no hope, no cure.
Tony said nothing, only watched him leave, and then sat for hours beside Doug, bathing his forehead with wet towels as the fever spiked, holding him as he screamed at unseen terrors, and finally rocking him like a child as he coughed blood, crimson across the bedsheets.
Tony prayed at first, whispered pleas for a life. Then he called and begged to the tunnel, for medicine, for a doctor as they'd sent before. Neither answered. Finally he sat in silence, held Doug in his arms, and waited.
And then, fifty years before he could possibly have caught the flu if they'd been anything but time travelers, Doug, who'd cheated death so many times, who'd seemed so healthy and strong and alive just four days before, quickly and quietly died.
"Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight." - Rossiter Worthington Raymond
Two years later
"Where are we?" Jeffrey swipes at the dirt covering his shirt and pants, leaning over to eye the Omni.
"June 9th, 1780. Red light. Date mean anything to you?"
"Yeah." Bogg snaps it closed and tucks it back onto his belt.
"I don't know yet."
They cross the muddy street beneath the steady trickle of rain and enter the nearest tavern, a small building jammed with men and glasses of ale. The man behind the counter waves them toward a table nearest the window with two empty seats.
There's a man already sitting at the table, hand loosely curled around a half empty glass. His eyes are fixed on the amber liquid as if seeing something within the tankard, dark head bowed toward the table. Even from this distance they can see the slump of his shoulders, the sharpness of bone beneath the worn and faded sweater he wears that might have been green once, years ago, before hard living battered the fabric and the man inside it.
Bogg gives a friendly smile and gestures to the nearest chair. "Waiting on a friend?"
The man doesn't look up, but hunches his shoulders at the question. "Doug.." He pauses, tasting the name as if it's been a long time since he said it and it no longer seems the same word. "My friend won't be coming. He's gone."
"Gone?" Jeffrey asks quietly.
His head lifts slightly.
There's a thousand unspoken sentences in that one word, each letter etched with barely suppressed agony. Jeffrey feels a prickle at that back of his spine. This had to be what's wrong...he can feel it.
Bogg lowers himself into the chair, glancing Jeffrey's way with a tilt of his head to the stranger. He nods back, almost imperceptibly, sliding into the next chair.
"They keep on transferring me, though. Here, there." He gives a careless and awkward sweep of his hand. "Never to 1918, though." His knuckles tighten around the glass.
"I died once, too." His voice has turned hoarse, but his eyes are dry. All his tears have been shed across centuries. A hand goes to the left side of his chest, fingering a scar beneath the sweater. "A bullet in the Civil War, stopped my heart. They sent a jolt of electricity through the tunnel and started it up again, good as new." He gives a mirthless laugh. "They even tried that on Doug. Too late. Just too late." He tosses back the remaining liquid and motions to the man for another drink.
Jeffrey opens his mouth to speak but Bogg cuts him off.
"What tunnel, Mr....?"
The stranger's eyes lift, focusing on them for the first time. They're deep black, like spilled ink across a page, and wrapped in veils of agony. The eyes of a man who wears suffering like a burial shroud encasing a living person.
"Tony Newman. Doctor, actually. I was a scientist, once..." His voice trails off as the next drink arrives. He takes a swallow before continuing. "It was all a stupid project...playing with time, with people's lives." His alcohol-dulled eyes drift across them. "Why do you care?"
"We're time travelers." Jeffrey leans forward, elbows on the table. "We correct things when history goes wrong."
Tony gives another laugh, sloppy and devoid of all humor. "Sure." He gets to his feet, weaving a little, before steadying himself enough to down the last of the whisky and start for the door. The tavern keeper watches him go with a sad shake of his head.
"Poor guy." Bogg stares out the window as the man staggers across the street and toward another tavern. "What he said...about a tunnel and playing with time...?"
"He's not right, that one." The man crosses to their table and taps the side of his head. "He's been around six months now, half out of his head. My wife thinks he saw too much in the war, lost a friend."
"And if he's telling the truth?" Bogg asks skeptically. The man starts to respond but not before there's a shout, the sound of horses rearing and a carriage attempting to swerve, followed by a dull thud of something striking the ground. And when they look out the window they see Tony lying still and white on the ground.
He's curled up on the ground, arms wrapped around himself to stop the racking shivers of fever and the waves of pain from the wound in his side, southeast of the old scar that still makes his breath catch when he lands too hard.
It's the Revolutionary War, a cold night in winter, and he's alone in the darkness. Somehow they got separated this time and he doesn't know if Doug even landed in the same time. He'd marched with the Patriot army into battle, hoping to catch a glimpse of his friend but only managing to take a bullet in the side.
He coughs, breath scraping across raw lungs. It's been only four months since the old wound healed and he hadn't gotten all his strength back. Some landings leave him gasping for air, weakened heart fighting to adjust to a sudden jerk in time, doubled over as Doug supports him until he can breathe, half carrying him through jungles and deserts until he's able to walk on his own.
Doug never complains that he's slowing him down, never leaves him alone, almost as if he can sense the fear beneath the mask, the horror that the thought of isolation brings to him. Perhaps he knew it at the beginning, plunging into the tunnel to save him from the sinking Titanic, not just his life but his sanity. To be lost in time is bearable with someone to cling to. To be lost alone is unthinkable.
He's in so much agony that he doesn't sense a presence behind him until a man in a British uniform kneels beside him, pausing to check his pulse before lifting him, touch gentle, into strong arms, carrying him like a child. He gasps as another wave of pain hits him.
"Easy, Tony. I've got you. We have to get through the lines. Just lie still. Don't make a sound. I'll get you back." It's Doug's voice, Doug's eyes staring down at him though the dim light, concern masked by confidence, hiding his worry.
His eyes drift closed, body going limp as Doug starts forward. It doesn't really matter if he makes it or not because he's no longer alone. And the thought of being alone frightens him worse than death on a battlefield, a hundred years and a thousand miles from home.
"Is he dead?" Jeffrey stares at the motionless form as Bogg and two other men work to lift him from beneath the wheels. Bogg presses a hand to the side of the blood-streaked throat and winces at the thready pulse. "Not quite, kid."
A final heave of the wheel and Bogg pulls Tony free. "Check his legs and back before you move him." Jeffrey says quickly and he nods, running his hands down the man's legs before reaching beneath him to feel his spine. "I think the right leg's broken. Maybe a couple ribs. Is there a doctor here?"
The nearest man shakes his head. "The nearest doctor is thirty miles; it would take him hours to come."
"An inn, then?" The man points down the street before stooping to help support the limp form. They carry him into the inn and the nearest unoccupied room, curious children peeking behind the doorpost and around legs to watch.
An older man pulls the tattered remnants of the sweater away from Tony's chest, exposing a jagged white scar running beneath his heart over the jutting ribs in stark testimony to the length of time between square meals. The man shakes his greying head. "Looks as if the lad's been trying to do away with himself for quite some time. Hardly seems worth trying to put him back together."
"He's a human being." Bogg says tightly.
"I've set bones before." A man says from behind him. "I can do a little for him." He bends over the twisted leg, tugging it straight with the crack of bone against bone. Tony doesn't even stir. An older woman, the innkeeper's wife from her efficiency, carries in strips of cloth and wood to bind the leg, and a bowl of water and cloth to wipe the blood off his face.
The man who set the leg looks up. "The rest is up to him and the good Lord."
The innkeeper shakes his head sadly, staring down at Tony's slack and pale features.
"Mostly the Lord, James. That boy's been giving up on life a long time now."
They're somewhere in the midst of the Crimean War, huddled among a hundred other soldiers, backs to each other.
He lifts his head, eyes weary from straining into the darkness and looks up at the blackened sky and the field of stars. A pair, far off, catch his eyes and he turns his focus to them.
Two stars in the midst of space, brushing against each other, very much alone and distanced from the other stars. They're drifting in space, joined to each other, as if searching for the other stars, helping each other to find the way. One is dimmer than the other, as if dependant on the other's light.
He glances over at Doug but his eyes are fixed into the night, searching for enemy soldiers.
Tony looks back up in time to watch as the weaker star shudders once, twitches, and then slowly spirals toward earth. It floats, delicate, silent, before smashing into the ground below, silver shards exploding outward. His breath catches as he looks up at the other star, the strong one. Almost like a prophesy of utter doom, the strong star, shining alone against the sky, blinks once. And then, without reason or warning, as if it cannot exist alone, it quietly fades.
It's evening and everyone has gone back to their own homes, leaving only Jeffrey and Bogg to watch the quiet war in the bed. The faint breathing has turned raspy, fingers twisting in the sheets for a long time before going deathly still.
Bogg checks the pulse again and shakes his head. If possible, it's weaker than before.
Jeffrey looks back at the drawn face against the pillow, the paleness against the olive tone of his skin, the brackets around his mouth and eyes, the visible marks of suffering. "What if Doug was never supposed to die, Bogg? The way he spoke...he sounded like a Voyager."
"He isn't a Voyager, Kid." Bogg reminded quickly.
"A time traveler, then. Bogg, I can feel it in my bones." He flings his hands out, wide, in a motion of pleading. "We have to go back, to 1918, to save him. Please. I - I know what it's like to lose somebody you care about."
Bogg studies the Omni for a long moment before giving a faint nod. "Okay, Kid. We give it a try." He spins the Omni to January 1, 1918, the starting point to the days they'll have to work though, and Jeffrey catches onto his arm.
There's a faint stirring from the man in the bed, almost as if he senses hope just beyond his reach. And then the two strangers vanish as suddenly as they'd arrived, leaving him alone in the room.
They're walking past a quiet sea, sometime in the 1600s, a rare moment of peace away from wars and violence.
"What's on your mind?"
"If something happens to me, will you promise me something?"
He feels a pinch at the back of his neck, a chill not present in the warm, salted air. "Nothing's going to happen to you."
"Promise me you'll find a place and call it home, no matter what. Promise me you won't give up hope."
"We'll both get back home someday." His words are too fast, too forced. It's a phantom hope. Sooner or later they'll grow old, and the project will be forgotten. Eventually there will be no more transfers from place to place. One time it will be the last and they'll have to learn to live there, to exist in a world they've never seen.
Doug turns, his dark eyes lit with a strange something...a forboding. "Promise me."
There's a sudden jolt as the tunnel pulls them forward, to another moment in time, and the words are quickly forgotten, question left unanswered.
They land in 1918.
"One more try, please, Bogg." He's pleading, eyes begging him as he stares at the Omni.
"It's hopeless, Kid. We've tried over a hundred days by now. We have to get back, see if Tony's alive."
"We gotta save Doug." He grabbed Bogg's arm. "If we save Doug it will save Tony. I know it. It's what wrong with time. Bogg, I can feel it."
He heaves a long sigh. "One more try, Kid. Just one. Deal?"
"Deal." He crosses his fingers as they jump forward into another day of 1918.
They're at Pearl Harbor and Doug is searching, eyes staring into the fire and smoke as ships and planes explode. The boy in his arms is sobbing, face pressed into his shirt. Tony, as a small child, years before they ever met.
Even in the round and tiny features he can see the man he calls his best friend. He's saved him as a child but he doesn't know if he's saved his friend, lost somewhere within the bombings.
The boy turns his face into his shirt, hiding the tears. He strokes his back, holding him as much to give comfort to the child as to comfort himself.
It's much later when he's helping Tony out of the bombed building that he sees the tears, so like the ones his younger self wept into his shirt. In that instant Tony looks frail and childlike, much like the lost boy he must have been.
Doug lays a comforting hand on his shoulder and Tony's face lifts, glazed with tears. But he gives a faint smile.
"They're not here, Kid." Bogg says gently. "We can come back, after we check on Tony. If he's better, he can give us the date..." His voice trails off. They both know it's a slim hope that the man is still alive.
Jeffrey scans the hospital in the distance, hoping for a glimpse, anything... A flash of color enters the corner of his eyes and he snaps his head sideways in time to see two figures tumble out of nowhere and land beside the bushes a few yards away.
There's a stranger with dark hair and a rumpled suit, reaching back to help the other up. The second is a younger man, with a green sweater...
"Bogg." His voice squeaks he's so breathless. "Its Tony! And that must be Doug."
Bogg turns, catching sight of the men as they start toward the hospital.
"Quick, Bogg! Before they go in!" Bogg struggles to set it as the travelers walk forward.
Jeffrey leaps forward, grabbing Doug's and Tony's arms as Bogg catches the back of his shirt with his free hand.
"Who...?" Doug doesn't finish the question as they suddenly vanish, leaving 1918, and influenza, behind them.
It took a while before Doug caught on.
He'd learned over the days to mask it well, to hide the gasps of pain, the sudden faltering, explaining weakness away with hunger or lack of sleep. Goodness knows they rarely get enough of either.
But one day they landed too hard, straight into rough, unforgiving land and he curled up in a fetal position and gasped like a fish out of water, hands clutching at rocks for support. And then Doug was there, arms wrapped around him, propping him up, a firm hand on his back to ease the struggle for air.
"Shhh, now. Easy, Tony. I've got you."
He's too embarrassed to say anything when the air finally comes and the pain spasm uncurls his body, leaving him limp and wrung dry. But Doug knows, without him saying. The injury in the Civil War that briefly ended his life and stopped his heart and lungs, followed by the torture on the rack in their next transfer, while he was still not healed from the first injury, has taken a toll on him. He's weak, and getting weaker.
But Doug doesn't question, doesn't walk away from him and abandon him. Instead he lifts Tony's arm around his shoulder and gets them both to their feet. And then he supports him as they walk together toward another strange and hostile place in time.
It's a summer day somewhere in time when they land, striking soft ground and rolling. Jeffrey finds his feet first, then Bogg, followed by Doug scrambling up, swiping a hand across his suit. Tony gets up stiffly, looking pale in the bright sunlight.
The Voyagers sit down in a patch of grass, as the other two make their way to a stand of trees a few feet away.
Tony staggers, and Doug eases him to the ground. "I'm all right. I.."
"Shhh. Rest." His eyes flutter closed and Doug stands stiffly, crossing to the Voyagers and siting down beside them on the grass, expression wondering but fearless.
"Doug Phillips." He extends a strong hand and Bogg shakes it firmly.
"Phineas Bogg. This is Jeffrey Jones. We're..travelers of a sort."
"My friend is Tony Newman." He nods toward the prone figure.
"Is he all right?" Bogg glances at the pinched face under the shadow of the trees.
"Just weak." Doug studies his hands. "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I told you who we are."
"We'd believe you." Jeffrey tosses a smile his way.
"It happened in 1968. September 18th in Arizona." Doug's voice is quiet, deeper than Tony's and more lined with the weight of centuries. "We created a tunnel...a time machine of a sort. They'd spent ten years on the project. It meant everything to Tony. But they hadn't perfected it yet and the senator wasn't content with the results. He gave us until the next morning to produce results or cut the project. It was hopeless, we all knew that. We'd had success sending animals and objects back, but not retrieving, and never a human. But Tony had to prove that it would work with a person, so he ran into the Tunnel. He landed in 1912, on the Titanic, locked in a room right before it sank."
Jeffrey shudders visibly. He still has nightmares of their experience on the ship, of Bogg trapped on board, of a sudden overwhelming rush of loss and terror in the instant the Titanic slipped beneath the water.
Doug looks up with a faint smile. "I couldn't let him be trapped there so I went in, too." He looks over at where Tony rests, back against the tree, eyes closed. "He's not strong." His voice is just above a whisper. "He was wounded in the Civil War, and tortured on the rack. Sapped his strength and tore something inside. He doesn't admit how badly he hurts but I know. Each landing takes something out of him, weakens him more. He needs rest, a steady place to stay until he heals. He'd get well if only he'd give himself time. I keep telling him we need to find a place and stay, but he won't listen. All that matters to him is getting home, even if it kills him." He scrubs a hand across his face. "We're both just too tired."
He gets to his feet and crosses to check on Tony as Jeffrey leans over Bogg's arm.
"Check the Omni, Bogg."
He flips it open, glancing at the flashing light. "Still red, Kid." He snaps the lid closed and Jeffrey jumps to his feet.
"We have to get them home. That's whats wrong! They're not supposed to be in time, they're suppose to be home. Umm..September 18th, 1968, Arizona, quick."
Bogg shakes his head and sets it as they start toward the time travelers, Jeffrey catching Tony's arm in one hand and Bogg's in the other, Bogg catching Doug's as he looks up, a question in his eyes.
And in a sudden burst of light, they're heading home.
From the beginning it was a strange friendship, struck up over lunches eaten while they worked, and hours spent over computers and wires, comparing ideas and concepts for time travel.
Doug was older by at least ten or more years, stoic and taciturn by nature, a man of few words and a stranger to jokes. In all the months they worked together Tony saw him smile exactly once. Emotion was something he kept bottled up inside him, hidden deep inside a shell.
And Tony was young, surprisingly so in his profession, a man quick to jump into action, and even faster to boil his temper. He talked almost constantly, even to himself when Doug wasn't around, speaking to the Tunnel like an old friend. He was a prism of emotions, from laughter to sudden tears.
And while the work was a steady job to Doug, an important contribution to the field of science, another trembling reach of a hand into the unknown, it was life and breath to Tony, a part of him like an arm or a leg.
But they had one thing in common. Neither had a friend in the world.
Doug talked little about his past and what he offered was snatches here and there but Tony could piece it together. A bright and lonely child from an upper-middle class family, with parents who traveled too much and died too young, he'd been on his own a long time. And Tony, with his father killed at Pearl Harbor as a little child and mother dead before that, an orphan passed between extended family until he was old enough to find his own way.
Neither made friends easily, neither had anyone close to them. They didn't allow anyone to get close.
And then without even knowing when, they had each other.
They were co-workers, friends of a sort even before the day Tony entered the tunnel. But the friendship truly began when Doug, quiet, withdrawn Doug, walked into the tunnel and onto the Titanic to save his life. And in a moment of dying, a heartbeat between icy water and a sinking ship, his hand found Doug's and they jumped through time together.
They were more than friends now. They were family, the brother they'd never had. They knew each other's weaknesses, flaws, and accepted them without question. They stubbornly clung to a shared memory of home, a dim hope of returning.
Without that tunnel neither is sure they would have become close friends. But now, no matter what happened, if they came home or stayed in time forever, the friendship would remain.
All they had was each other.
It's piercingly bright as they land on soft sandy grass, Tony and Doug tumbling forward and rolling to their feet.
Tony shakes his head to clear the cobwebs. He had a daydream, almost a nightmare. He looks around at the sand and basement entrance to a large building, and only vaugely notices a man and a boy standing a ways off behind them.
It's the 60s, he knows it, only a little ways from Project Tic Toc.
He turns to Doug, eyes incredulous. "Doug, it's.."
"We finally made it!"
He slams an arm around Tony, crushing him in an exuberant hug, so unlike the older man, forgetting the old wound in his enthusiasm. He notes faintly and with a sense of curiosity that it doesn't seem to hurt as badly. The smile Doug tosses his way is ear to ear as he breaks free and runs forward. He shakes his head with a wry smile. Serious, stoic Doug showing wild abandon - he's seen everything now.
Tony looks ahead, at the dim vision of curved walls and brilliantly colored lights. The Tunnel, waiting for them.
"Aren't you coming?" Doug calls, looking back over his shoulder with a wide smile. He's halfway down the brightly lit tunnel, close enough to make out the hourglass on the floor of home, to reach out his hands and touch the exact spot they first entered that day.
Tony looks back only once, at the man and the boy standing in the patches of sunlight and shadow behind them. Theres something about them that seems somehow familiar...he should know, he should remember...
Or perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's enough to sense a change, that something has been set..right.
The man flips a gold watch open and shows it to the boy. "Green light, kid."
Yes, he decides, it's enough merely to sense that everything has been set right, enough to be alive, to be going home.
He lets out a laugh like he hasn't since he was a small boy, before his father died. It's a laugh of pure joy, of utter happiness. It's a laugh that only two can share, friends who have seen everything together and come through still standing. It's a laugh of a weary wanderer finally coming home.
And then Tony turns and runs into the light.