A funny thing happened the other day when I decided, on a whim, to look up The Time Traveler’s Wife fanfiction. It’s one of my favorite books, and while there are several years to wait until Audrey Niffenegger writes the sequel, I figured I would bide my time by revisiting Clare and Henry in their out-of-order time-spanning romance.
Except, at least half of the fanfics tagged with “The Time Traveler’s Wife” on Archive of Our Own aren’t from the world of TTTW. They just use the book’s structure to retell the love stories of Kirk/Spock, Sherlock/John, Dean/Castiel, and more.
Scrolling through the results page, you see the following synopses:
Dean Winchester first meets the angel Castiel when he’s six years old and Cas has been here for eleven years. Cas meets Dean for the first time when Dean is twenty and Cas has been here for three years. Strange, impossible, but true, and all because angels are not meant to exist in this world, and when they try to, they get unstuck in time in ways that are as unpredictable as they are uncontrollable.
James T. Kirk first meets Leonard McCoy when he is six years old.
It’s hard to keep track of all these different Sherlocks at different ages. It seems like just last week he was convincing a seven year old Sherlock to smile because it was his birthday and then fighting the awkwardness of him asking if John was married in the future.
Probably because it was just last week for him. Fucking time travel.
For those who haven’t read TTTW, here’s a rundown: Henry has a rare genetic disorder that causes him to unexpectedly travel through time, while Clare experiences time normally. Clare first meets Henry when she is 6 years old and he, a grown man, shows up in her backyard; he doesn’t meet her until he’s 28 and she’s 20. The mental gymnastics get even trickier after that, as Henry travels to their past and future, sometimes impacting their relationship with his actions, sometimes with his absence.
Henry is the Traveler, and Clare is the One Who Waits. While the dynamic is at first very romantic during her adolescence, once they’re actually together in adulthood it becomes at turns tedious, turbulent, and emotionally exhausting. Henry’s traveling is a constant compromise for Clare, who must struggle to move forward with her life for however long he’s gone—or deal with the awkwardness and frustration of alternate, older versions of him who know details about their future they won’t divulge. After so much time spent trying to find each other, they never have enough time together in the present.
It’s a wonderfully unique way to tell a love story, playing into the concept of free will (Henry accidentally tells Clare they’re married in the future) and the notion of falling in love with multiple versions of the same person. However, I don’t think I’ve seen another book whose structure has been adopted for stories in so many other fandoms. Not to mention so many slashfics!
The broken clock is a comfort (it helps me sleep tonight) is a one-shot set in the rebooted Star Trek movies timeline, in which James T. Kirk falls for time traveler Leonard McCoy. While much of the story follows the threads of TTTW, recasting it with two men immediately alters the tone of Kirk and McCoy’s relationship and reinterprets several of the book’s plot points. When the older McCoy appears to young Jim over the course of his childhood, he’s something of a mentor figure. Jim even lends him some of his dead father’s clothing for his many visits. The boy also gives McCoy the nickname “Bones,” for his propensity to appear naked (“when I travel, I can’t take anything with me, just my bones”) each time.
In TTTW, even with the age difference, Henry is always the only person for Clare. Consider their conversation in which she pesters him about whether he’s married in the future. She wants so badly to be his future wife. In this Star Trek fic, Jim and McCoy have the same strained conversation where the boy asks about his older friend’s wife in the future. But because clearly Jim isn’t Bones’ wife, the conversation takes on other dimensions. Of course, McCoy knows that he and Jim end up together when they’re both adults. Try as he might to keep that information from the younger man, he accidentally kisses Jim when he is 18, forcing Jim to question his sexuality at a young age.
The fic also incorporates Spock, Uhura, and the rest of the Star Trek characters in believable ways. Anyway, after the 2009 reboot introduced alternate timelines, time travel doesn’t seem that out of place, now does it?
Unstuck in Time, a Supernatural fanfic, borrows some of the effects of time travel from TTTW, if not the actual Chrono-Displacement context. Here, Castiel is the Traveler, an unfortunate side effect of trying to exist in the human world. In many ways, this story is an AU or alternate universe, because clearly Castiel isn’t resurrecting Dean from Hell as was the case on the TV series.
Yet even by taking this other path, the outcome reflects much of the series’ plots, including Cas becoming slowly humanized the more time he spends on Earth, through various times, and with Dean—not to mention all that free will talk again. Plus, it’s kind of great to see their first meeting, where Cas reveals himself as an angel to 6-year-old Dean shortly after his mother’s death but long before the boy will begin hunting demons.
Borrowing this framework establishes a fairly consistent meet-cute for the various couples. If you were to read several of these in a row, you could probably guess the outcome pretty quickly. However, something interesting and unique to each story is the authors’ choice of which character is the one who travels, and which character is the one who waits.
There are three different TTTW-style fanfics for Sherlock—two in which John is the Traveler, but one in which Sherlock is. This surprised me, as I would have assumed that fanfic authors would make Sherlock the mysterious Time Traveler. Instead, the next two stories humble Mr. Holmes somewhat.
One fanfiction author penned The Illusion of Free Will because they wanted to answer the question “What would Sherlock be like if he met and was influenced by John from a young age?” Does Sherlock learn his skills of deduction from an older John? Does their friendship make Sherlock a little less prickly before they actually meet as adults? (Probably not.) This fic is also a treat in that it weaves John’s Traveling with various points in the present series, including “The Reichenbach Falls.”
In The Traveller, John’s ability to Travel isn’t from Chrono-Displacement, but instead is an aftereffect of getting shot in Afghanistan. The portions in the present subvert the usual Sherlock/John relationship, in that Sherlock is the one waiting for John to reappear—trying to distract himself with cases and the violin and all manner of violent experiments, but wishing that his best friend were there to share in his triumph. Also, don’t read the ending unless you’ve got a hanky handy.
But then you’ve got The Man Out of Time, which presents time travel much like Sherlock’s deductive skills: a special talent he has that John will never quite grasp, though he gets it better than anyone else will. In that way, the fic more closely follows the usual Johnlock interactions.
Even superheroes can time travel! Including superheroes who have sort-of-already time traveled. In See You Somewhen, part 1 of the “Gay ’30s Time Traveling” series, a pre-serum Steve Rogers seems to be afflicted with Chrono-Displacement Disorder. The first part is rather short, but we already know plenty: Young Steve keeps dropping out of time at The Cold Place, “a barren, silent expanse of ice” where, he suspects, he someday dies. The summary makes this Tony/Steve fic a pretty compelling love story:
Not many people meet their life-partner at the age of 8. Probably even fewer people meet their life-partner 40 years before he’s even born. Steve Rogers does both, though.
It makes perfect sense that Steve is the one slipping through time, as it gives us a new way to examine his character pre-Captain America and see what kind of hero emerges through time travel instead of Super-Soldier Serum. If the author had made Tony Stark the Traveler, we probably would have gotten much the same man.
As AU fanfics go, using this disjointed story structure is a clever way to reimagine beloved couples. These TTTW mashups embody the best parts of fanfiction: dropping familiar characters into a new context and seeing which personality traits and choices hold constant; dramatic irony; and exploring multiple versions of the same character. While the structure changes the actual details of their first meeting, it poses very universal dilemmas to each pairing, and challenges the characters to face their own displacement in time, mortality, and free will (or lack thereof).
Of course, there are also actual TTTW fanfics, including this lovely piece that it turns out was written by one of my favorite fanfiction authors. It’s about Henry and Clare’s Chrono-Displaced daughter Alba slipping and jumping through time as a child to adult, and it matches Niffenegger’s style wonderfully. Consider it a primer before the sequel.
Natalie Zutter writes plays about superheroes and sex robots, articles about celebrity conspiracy theories, and Tumblr rants about fandom. You can find her commenting on pop culture and giggling over Internet memes on Twitter.