It starts in Malta

Watching The Other Clock

Summary: There are two clock towers in Mdina. One is slow. Sometimes five minutes is all you need to change the world.

AN: This didn't really turn out like I'd hoped. Actually, it's pretty much nothing like the plan I had in my head. That said, I hope it's not too bad. Further notes are at the bottom, if you're confused.

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It starts in Malta. In a town called Mdina, the Silent City. Malta is a tiny island nation, isolated in the Mediterranean; Mdina was once its capital. It's a city lost in time, with cathedrals and palaces and cobblestones and high stone walls around narrow roads.

It starts on February the eleventh. It's winter and cold. But that's a blessing. Winter means that it isn't tourist season. Winter means that, even at ten thirty, the town is empty, means that windows are barred to keep warmth in and no nosey eyes peep out to see the truth.

It starts with a man named Andrew St. Harrison. He's young. This is the first time he's been given command. To him, this is an important mission. He's trying very hard not to be nervous. It's not working very well. But there is no reason this should go wrong. He has nine good men. There is only one enemy.

He checks his men. They're ready. He clips the body armor in place and checks his watch. The others do likewise. It's half past ten. Time to go.

He nods. And, hidden in the shadows, they slide like ghosts in past the city walls.

It starts in Malta, on the 11th of February, with a man called Ash. And it nearly ends there too.

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Ash checks his watch compulsively. Timing is everything. They will be here at eleven, he knows, so they must be in place by then. But too soon and they might be seen. Finding a balance is difficult.

Travis claps him on the shoulder as he passes, lightly and quietly. There's no time for speaking, but Ash understands. He chose Travis for a reason. Asked for him specifically. Travis has been around for a long time, the others trust him in a way they don't trust Ash. It might have made him bitter, but he's too thankful for it at the moment.

He glances at the clock towers. There's a sniper up each one. Or should be. He can't see them. That this is part of their skill doesn't reassure him.

He can't see the others either. He doesn't know if they're in place. Doesn't know if they're out there at all. Crouching here, in the dark, waiting, he could be alone in the universe. He shivers and glances up to check the time.

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10.55. Five to eleven. He relaxes, just a fraction. There's plenty of time. The others will be in place before the assassins arrive. He loosens up. This will be okay, he thinks.

Then they're there. Suddenly; like the ninja out of legend. He stares at them for a second, not registering, before the panic erupts. They're too early!

But it doesn't matter. He jumps up, trying to keep focused. That the exits aren't covered doesn't matter. They have to let Yassen escape anyway.

He moves forward as Yassen shoots. The target falls dead, so quickly, so smoothly, it's almost graceful. The other men burst out of their cover. Gun fire rattles down from the snipers in the tower. Glass explodes. Someone yells. Someone screams.

The two shots hit him in the chest like a sledgehammer. He falls, winded, shocked, as the others cover John and force him to the ground. But he jumps back up. The armor is dented, but he is unharmed.

Yassen sees him and for a second he thinks he will be shot again. But he isn't the target.

Later he understands that he should not have stood up. That the billowing, rushing blood, that the slaughter that follows is his fault. But he doesn't see that now. He sees men die. Men that shouldn't have. He sees Travis go down. He sees Yassen escape.

And he reacts. He unclasps the armor. He ignores, or perhaps doesn't hear, cries of his name and follows.

And the bastard waits for him.

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It's eleven. He waits, anxiously, hoping that the others are in place. They've had plenty of time. He tries to stay calm, waiting and watching. He's done this before.

They appear exactly at eleven o'clock. John has always been punctual. He waits, like he was told to, for them to kill Caxero. Then he makes his move.

It goes exactly as planned. Later, after more disappointments, after more failures, he will appreciate just how rare that it. At the moment, he doesn't. He just fires at Yassen, chasing the assassin out of the square as the others cover John. There is gunfire raining down from the clock towers, and glass shattering out of windows. People – somewhere – scream.

Ash is half crouched, a small target, near a wall. It doesn't help him much, when Yassen turns and shoots. It's almost an impossible shot. A handgun, a close target weapon, from across the entire square. But Yassen is good. The bullet slams into Ash's kelvar chest armor, winding him. He slumps against the wall, knocked off balance, but the others know their jobs.

Under a hail of bullets, Yassen flees.

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"Who are you?"

"MI6"

"How did you know we would be here?"

Nothing.

"You should have stayed at home."

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"You alright?" Travis asks, crouching beside him.

Ash shakes off the dizziness, takes a deep breath and stands. "Yeah, I'm fine." It's mostly true. His chest aches like a bitch, but he's not wounded. He unhooks the armor, and takes it off. He looks around. John is in handcuffs, with two men pointing guns at him. Appearances still had to be maintained. Just in case.

John meets his eyes and smiles wryly.

"Any injuries?" Ash asks, looking around. Everyone is present bar the snipers, but it's unlikely they were hit.

Travis smiles and shakes his head. "Just you, boss." Ash starts at the nickname, but smiles back.

"Good," he says, then returns to the task at hand. "Well, we're not finished yet. Let's get going."

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Ash is out of commission for a long time after Malta. At first it is the surgery. For weeks, he literally can't get out of bed. They debrief him in the hospital. He is so drugged up and groggy that he only remembers parts of it, later.

But he has a lot of time to think about his mistakes. And they make sure he knows about them.

Once he's healed, they put him on desk work. It chaffs, but it's not so bad at first. He has lots to catch up on. Reports to write and his inbox has filled itself with all sorts of junk that needs sorting through.

And once that's done, he even helps Smithers testing gadgets. It will only be for a little while, he thinks. Just until the call comes for another mission.

Except it never does.

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Alan Blunt doesn't quite say 'well done' but Ash considers it implied anyway. He knows, from past experience and from stories, that if anything had gone wrong, he would have heard about it. In detail. So the absence of criticism is just as good as congratulations.

Still, he's understandably nervous when he gets called back into Blunts office. Blunt, sitting behind his desk, gives no hint of what the meeting is about.

Until he opens a file on his desk. "We have a situation that will require your skills," Blunt says.

Ash resists the urge to grin.

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John has always been a careful man. He's spent most of his life in the military; careful is a second nature to him now. Only now, he has to be more than careful. He has to be unseen.

Scorpia think he is a captive. They have to keep thinking that. At least until he is safe and gone, with Helen and Alex. The alternative is not worth thinking about.

So he stays cooped up in the safe house, waiting. Sometimes Ian vists. John looks forward to those times even though it's mostly for work.

This is one of those times. "They want to do a trade," Ian says after explaining the situation. John looks at him sickly.

"The whole point was to get me out of there," he replies. He can't go back to Scorpia. To Rothman. To Yassen.

Ian nods and shuffles the papers in his hands. John can tell he doesn't like it either. "They're going to kill him otherwise."

John sighs and slumps in his chair. He runs a hand through his hair. "Can we double cross them?"

"They want to do a handover. You and him, on a bridge. There wont be any chance for it," Ian says, almost gently.

But John doesn't want to let this go. "Snipers," he says, excitement building. This is what he loves to do. Solve problems, outwit the bad guys and save the day. It's been a long time since he's been on the right side of this. "Or even the agents behind me."

Ian nods slowly. "That could work."

"Of course it will," John says, laughter in his eyes. "You could do it even. There's no one else I'd rather have shoot me in the back."

"Not Ash?" Ian asks wryly.

"I'm a little hesitant to grant his fondest wish," John retorts. "He's been waiting to do it since Malta."

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John stands calmly at the foot of the bridge. His hands are cuffed in front of him. The people behind him are armed, some with real guns, some with fake ones. He's wearing a vest and a blood pack. They've got it all planned out.

He's nervous though. He doesn't know the people behind him. Ian isn't here and neither is Ash. He trusts Tulip, but it isn't the same.

"Lets go," Tulip says. He tucks his head down and starts walking. The kid at the other end stares uncomprehendingly and gets shoved in the back. John grits his teeth. This relies on the kid being able to react. It's no good if he gets shot.

John slows his gait. "Get ready to run," he says as they pass, exactly in the middle of the bridge. "There's going to be shooting."

The kids mouth curves into an O of surprise, then sets into a flat line. John breaths out, not quite in relief; it's too early for that. Still, the kid is going to move. The kid is going to be alright.

He counts his steps. He's three quarters of the way across. He knows the bullet is coming, but doesn't brace for it. That would be a dead give away. And any give away would make him dead.

He smirks at the thought and therefore is utterly surprised by the bullet. He doesn't hear the gunfire until after, and by then, he's on the ground. He lands hard. His hands, cuffed together, are no use and get bent underneath him. The fake blood is soaking his coat and even though he's wearing armor, his back is on fire. He lies still and doesn't move.

It takes a lot of will power to stay there. To stay down and still despite the pain, despite the action taking place all around him. He stays there as the gunfire sounds, rattles on and on, and as cars rev up and race away. He stays still and limp as footsteps echo across the bridge. He can't see and doesn't know what's happening. He can only trust that it has all gone to plan.

A strong hand rolls him over. His wrists give a sharp jolt of pain, then become infused with pins and needles. "He's dead," Travis calls out over his shoulder.

Somewhere on the bank, Tulip Jones gives an order. They know Scorpia will have planted cameras, so they continue the act. More people come onto the bridge.

They grab John and bundle him into the car. Then, and only then, does he straighten out and smile.

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The airport is noisy and chaotic. They're early, of course, because check in takes forever. Too much organization has gone into this meeting; they can't afford to miss the plane.

Alex is down with an ear infection. Ian has offered to take care of him while they get their new life sorted out. Helen wants to stay, but she bows to reason. Still, she doesn't want to leave her son.

"It's probably for the best," Ash tries to reassure her. "A nine hour flight with a baby wouldn't be much fun anyway." He tries to smile but all he can manage these days is a painful grimace.

John laughs. "We're still going to have to do it someday." He wraps his arm around his wife. "Come on. We've got to go through check in. I'll never hear the end of it if we don't make it."

She smiles at him and reluctantly hands Alex over to Ian. "And you know…" she began anxiously.

Ian smiles. "I've got all the numbers and all the lists, you gave me. We'll be fine."

"I'm sorry," she says. "I just worry."

"We'll be fine," Ian repeats. "You just worry about keeping that other child under control."

"Hey!" John interrupts indignantly. Helen just laughs.

"Come on, love," she says. "I'll never hear the end of it if we miss our plane."

He fakes a scowl at her. They grab their luggage.

"Here we go, Alex," Ash says softly. "Wave goodbye to mummy and daddy."

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It's not an unusual scene. A family saying goodbye at the airport. It would have been repeated many times over before the day was out.

"Are you sure you're going to be alright?" Helen asks anxiously, jiggling Alex on her hip.

Ian smiled. "We'll be fine, Helen. It'll only be for a couple of days, then you'll have him back safe and sound."

"Oh, I know," she said and handed her son over. "It's just so inconvenient. We really have to be in France." She said it apologetically. That Alex had come down with an ear infection couldn't be helped, but they couldn't wait. They needed this meeting. Needed it because they could no longer be Helen and John Rider.

"Good luck with that," Ash says with a grin. "I hope it goes well." He doesn't specify. They know what he means.

John nods. "So do I," he says wryly, picking up his backpack and slinging it over his shoulders. "Thanks."

Ash, Ian and Alex wave them goodbye as they leave.

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The plane explodes two hours later.

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Okay, so there you go. Hope it was enjoyable (and understandable). Tell me what you think.

So, explanations. The two fonts represent the two different universes. Italics is the canon universe, where Mdina is a disaster and Ash betrays John. Normal font is the alternate universe.