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Maybe he could have prevented it, if he'd only got his tongue wrapped around a lie in time. A stalling phrase, another insult. But at that pivotal moment of his unlife it refused to jump into action for him - done too much screaming, perhaps - and so he said nothing as an off-her-rocker Glory snapped her last stick of self-control and shoved the leg of a wooden side table through his unbeating heart. A feeling of sardonic victory half-formed inside him (because hey, he'd still won the battle, she could hardly find the bit's name in a pile of dust), then there was nothing.

Followed by this… space.

Tempting to call it a room, but it had no edges. Or anything else. A space, then.

A timeless time later, something… rotated, rolled back perhaps, and a man sat before him in an armchair that appeared to be made from broken crockery and lost socks. He held a clipboard, a pencil; his hands were greenish and unnaturally long-fingered. Beyond that, he was impossible to make out from the nothingness. If there was, in fact, any more of him to make out.

"The fuck's going on?" Spike snapped at him; of course his gorram tongue was working just fine now that it was too late to do him any good.

The man leaned forward, removing a pair of green spectacles to peer at him through the purple-lensed ones he wore beneath. "Yes… yes," he said vacantly, then noted something on his board. "I see."

"See what?" Spike growled, squelching his rapidly swelling unease with a front of hostility. Brimming inside him was a panicked howling scream, held waiting for the second he acknowledged what had just happened; he couldn't afford to let it grab hold of him now.

"Excuse me," the man said, holding a hand up for silence as he studied his clipboard. Then he slid the pencil under the clip- and tidily vanished.

"Fuck." He thought he looked around, but it didn't hardly feel like it when every-thing was the same no-thing. Come to think, he was the same nothing. Fuck fuckity fuck.

Then the man was back, only now he held a stack of papers and a rubber stamp. Blue glasses adorned his hawkish face, and his newly purple fingers ended in short curving claws. "William Pratt?" he asked, in a manner that made it clear the asking was merely formalities and protocol to be got through.

"What of it?" he sneered.

"No need for the attitude," the man said mildly, studying his papers. Looking up, he added in a lower voice, "It may serve you to understand that I have the power to unmake you unto the very moment of your conception." There was simple truth in the calm way he stated it; Spike slowly dropped the sneer. The man continued, "Now, I'd like to get this sorted out smoothly, if you would."

"Get what sorted out?" he asked in a reluctant mumble, suspicion piling on top of the unease.

"It seems we've had a glitch in the system somewhere. Pawns are out of order, timestreams are tumbling about. Mr Wells was eaten by his own d'shonarth demon last year; you of course were dusted by Glorificus. These are not the paths that were foreseen for this dimension - it would appear an outside influence has intruded. When a reality is corrupted in such a scandalous manner, it behoves us to attempt to correct things." He touched the bridge of his glasses, and the colour of both them and his fingers shifted.

" You being…?"

"The Horologists, Mr Pratt; those who maintain the correct workings of time. The fates, some would accuse, although incorrectly. You may call me Frank."

"And you're telling me, what, I wasn't supposed to go down to the hellbitch, so you're going to fix it somehow?"

Frank shrugged one shoulder. "Yes, and no. It's all about free will. At some point during the past decade, yours was meddled with; one of your choices was biased. There is a type of power in actions chosen freely, which cannot be found elsewhere. Now that you're here, we're able to offer you the chance to remake one of the decisions that led you here. To pick a different path."

Here where? He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Maybe this nothingness was his hell. The prospect of that was a damn sight more terrifying than fiery pit of demons he would have expected; best play along with Frank for now. "And that'll what, fix your timestreams somehow? What gives you the notion I'll make the right choice?"

"There is no 'right' choice. There is only choosing. Choose freely, and things have ways of running into the correct riverbed. Time is a stream, Mr Pratt, not a maze."

The name made his fangs bleed. He toyed at them with his tongue, both stalling and smothering the urge to snark again. This whole scenario was like waking up in the middle of a game he'd gambled his everything on and yet didn't know how to play. And christ, couldn’t a bloke have a moment for the dying part to sink in first? No bloody respect. Part of him kinda felt like hyperventilating into a paper bag right now, for all the good it wouldn't do.

"Which choice?" he asked eventually. Never ordering that bloody bot would be a nice tidy solution to the most recent catastrophic events. Or, not assuming that Glory was rational enough to keep him undead while he could still talk.

"That is part of the choice. We understand the divergence took place around a month ago, from your point of view, so any moment before that will suffice.” Bugger. “Mr Wells chose to alter his choice of living arrangements during his final year of high school, thus distancing himself from Sunnydale. I would suggest that a similar solution may be most appropriate in your case."

Leave Sunnydale before it was too late. When was 'too late' though? Had to be well before that nightmare of a wet dream. Before he'd gone and fallen for that self-righteous stick-up-her-arse slayer, who was never going to give him the time of day and would probably be all too glad to see the dust of him. Before the sodding chip, that was for sure. That's what had trapped him here, twisted his mind, perverted his instincts, forced him to-

A pointed cough broke through his thoughts. "If we could get going? I don't have all day, and we do have alternative options we can utilise if you are unable to choose."

Shit, this was happening too fast. How the fuck was he supposed to pick the right point of history, one single change that would safely alter his future unlife? "How's it gonna work?" he asked. "I tell you what I want to do different?"

Avoid the Initiative. Slaughter the Initiative. Hold onto the Gem of Amara. Never come looking for it. Take his 'torture Dru until she loves me' plan to fruition. Drop his part of the alliance against Angel. Never make that first sordid truce. Never come here in the first damn place.

"I'll run you backwards until you find the right choice. Once there, you'll step into your historical self and have about thirty seconds in which to choose to act. Once the choice is made and the timeline alters, you'll find yourself roughly back in your correct time, with all changes that have accrued. This timeline will cease to exist, so you'll not be aware of any change."

"So if I flee Sunnyhell, I'll wake up in bed with Dru in Sweden?"

"If that's where the alterations take you."

"And if I pick something that gets me killed between then and now?"

"You'll find yourself wherever you would be right now were it not for this issue."

Not here then. "Okay." He could do this. Be smart, not dusty. Escape when he'd had a chance. He could. "Okay," he repeated, "come on then." Before I have time to question this.

Frank nodded, pleased, and pressed his rubber stamp down firmly onto the top sheet of his papers. His pen flashed in what had to be a signature, he scribbled a note underneath, then he stood and tucked everything inside his coat.

The chair became nothing as he left it, and Spike became… well, himself, he had to figure, looking down at his coat, hands, boots. When he looked up again, Frank was an average-looking middle-aged businessman in a worn but tidy suit. He seemed to be waiting for Spike to pass comment on his appearance; Spike kept his face carefully blank and bored, in the hopes of pissing him off without provable liability.

Frank took out a large pocket watch on a heavy chain and pressed a knob on the side to spring open the lid. Inside there was no clock face, only a thousand tiny stationary gears in a multitude of colours, each one the size of a match head. "You have a moment, a decision in mind?" he asked.

"Yeah-"

"Good." He dipped a finger in the gears and swirled them like paint, setting them spinning in a flurry of fluid rotation.

Time began to fold through the nothing like a movie playing in reverse, scenes swirling past, around (and disconcertingly close to through) them in a maelstrom of movement and sound.

"We're reaching the one month mark," Frank said casually as Spike spun his head in every direction in bewilderment. "Let me know when you want to slow down. We'll overshoot by a few minutes when you've got your moment so that there's plenty of time to step in."

"Okay," he murmured, though none of this day was really. He studied the surrounding whirlpool of moments, catching view of things clearly here and there.

For one long beat he saw himself holding flowers, approaching Revello with his shoulders slumped in grief. God, Joyce. "Hang on," he told Frank quickly, and the swirl of images hung in place for a moment, on an image of himself collecting wild daisies into the bouquet. Could he… Step in a few days earlier and urge her to have an extra checkup? No, they'd not find anything. Take her for coffee at the hospital cafe on the critical day, and hope being there could change the outcome? Futile, desperate wishes; he knew it wouldn't. Would it help the slayer though? To know there was nothing she could have done? Or would it make it worse, to have her mother's last moments be in the company of someone she hated in a place she hated, to have her mother's body wounded and assaulted as doctors tried and failed to save her? Besides, if Joyce's death were not 'correct', she'd have had her own chance to choose a different path. He couldn’t alter this.

He squinted his eyes shut, teeth grinding and cheeks tense with frustration and a stabbing bolt of pain. What the hell was the point of choosing something if he couldn't choose to change this?

Frank lifted his eyebrows in query.

Spike shook his head. "No. Carry on. We're going all the way back."

"You're the boss."

The time-show ebbed and flowed in a kind of pulsing rhythm - or was it ticking? - single scenes hanging in place at real-time for a split-second, days passing between them in less than the blink of an eye. He cringed at a flash of Buffy chained and unconscious in his bedroom, and almost called a halt again. How would Dru have reacted had he turned on her immediately, sided with the slayer? Would she still have left town in a snit that night, or would she have set out to punish? No, his first instinct had been correct; there was only one safe choice to make here. Trying to tweak history to improve his chances with Buffy was bound to explode in his face in some unforeseen way, and he'd be a fool to try.

Decision renewed, he watched himself preen for the she-watcher… triage troll victims at the Bronze… lead Buffy to the suckhouse. The night of the queller demon throbbed strangely somewhere inside of him; her hand in his as she let him pull her to her feet. Then the back porch, his palm touching her shoulder tentatively, wanting to give something, provide something, be something that he'd never considered before her tears had him taking those three steps across the lawn to try and comfort her.

There were nights of smoking under her window, days in bed with Harm. Waking up in terror from the words spoken in a dream; God, I love you so much. It'd hit him then with the irrefutable force of a freight train - he was utterly screwed. Letting Glory stake him was only the delayed epilogue to the surety of his destruction that had been engraved that night.

The summer, Adam, the Initiative, Giles' tub; all passed in a blur of confusion over an invisible Dawn-shaped hole. She really hadn’t been there then. There was no sly little face mirroring her sister’s at the scooby meeting; no thump of her feet upstairs when he shared that cuppa with Joyce. If Glory got her, used her, would their memories fade with her lifeforce? The idea was nauseating in its possibility.

A flash of a golden mane swinging in the sunlight; a series of jabs to the nose. The gem fight. God, that was a glorious day. Top of his game, unbeatable (on paper), yet she'd still handed him his arse on a platter. And - he could admit it in retrospect - himself only glad the dance didn't end there.

Sunnydale vanished into Texas, South America; the drunken aimless wander without Dru. Back to Sunnyhell for a split-second flash of bottle in Red's face - whoops - then off again to Brazil and a snot-drenched Bambi.

Finally Crawford St loomed in one snapshot, and he threw out his hand. "This year."

Frank nodded, and the time-show slowed. The hood of a police car, where they'd traded fair blows as they bickered out their deal - then she'd clocked him a bonus one, a fury-driven punch to the nose born solely of her own frustration and the peculiar understanding that he would both accept it and respect her for it. That was when the leash snapped on.

Himself in that hated wheelchair. Angelus and Dru. The factory. A puppy, a necklace, Mr big-blue-and-ugly. A couple of tons of church organ collapsing; I'd rather be fighting you anyway, and a kick to the face.

Shit-for-brains minions, a club of vampire wannabes. Dru dancing along the docks on a moonless night, her eyes distant as he tried to nudge her safely home. She was beautiful by starlight; nostalgia hit hard.

Prowling the halls of Sunnydale High with brash confidence as he hunted his slayer. Could almost… no. "One night prior," he murmured to Frank.

Frank's fingers moved in the gears, and the throbs of time slowed further. When they reached the Bronze, Spike raised his hand in a waiting gesture, and the moments slowed until he could see each one for the individual decision it was. Melting away into the shadows of the alleyway. Nice work, luv. Slow claps of his hands. Watching her fight. There's some big guy out there trying to bite somebody. Moving closer to watch her dance. "Stop," he told Frank. "We're overshot."

Time froze with Frank's finger. "You sure?" he asked, quirking a sceptical brow at the other Spike.

Spike smirked at the poor bugger, frozen in the moment that his foot lifted from the shadows as Buffy drew him into the edge of her light. One step away in-fucken-deed. "Yeah. There's nothing before this."

"All right." Frank gave him a shrug that said it's your funeral, buddy.

Bloody wanker, who was he to doubt him? Right now that Spike could damn well swivel on his heel, walk straight out of this shithole club and town and never give the little blonde slayer another thought. But Frank hit play, and he watched himself slink forward, events in the right order now as he appraised her on her the dance floor and sent a minion out to die.

"How do I do this?" he asked Frank as they cut to the alleyway.

"Step inside yourself. Literally, just walk up and jump in. That you won't know this you is there, but when you make a decision, he'll make it too. Thirty seconds, then you'll snap back to the present, so don’t stuff around."

Jesus buggering mindfuck. How the fuck did he get himself into this situation he was wholly unqualified to handle correctly? Stop questioning. Gut thinking time.

Taking down the minion, she fought with both a newbie roughness and a sort of prim joy that were long gone in the present, cocksure in a way that she would soon lose to the nightmare of Angel-Angelus-Angel. Christ, if he could prevent that… Don't think about it. Don't. Bloody. Change. The. Plan.

The minion exploded into dust, and with a mental deep breath, he stepped inside himself as himself stepped forward. Fuck, he hoped this insane last-ditch shot in the dark worked. But if it didn't… the ride was worth it.

Seven claps rang out like his seconds ticking down, and she whirled to face him warily.

Nice work, luv.

Who are you?

You'll find out on Saturday.

She tossed her hair, fire rising to his challenge. What happens on Saturday?

I kill you.

He guessed she wasn't the only one blindly cocksure this night.

Three steps to disappear around the corner. Gotta be down to ten seconds now, but he hadn't been able to resist playing that first exchange out again.

As soon as he was out of sight, he slammed the decision down with everything he had. Could you make a decision three years ahead of acting on it? Course you could. Just had to decide it determinedly enough. Don't you dare let that insane, deranged, skanky fashion-victim of an ex-god win again, you hopeless fucker-



*

 

Glory raised the glass of water, then smashed it into the side of his mouth. There was the oddest sense of deja vu to the particular way the pieces sliced into his flesh, as if he'd been in this exact scenario some other time during the past century or so. Probably had, in one bar fight or another; glass-to-face could only go so many ways. He spat out a shard of glass, wondering how much of the blood he could taste was from his tongue and how much was from the finger-shaped hole through his lung; the bitch was hardly making it easy for him to give her what she wanted. Maybe she'd sensed that he never would.

"So start talking," she ordered.

Stubbornness growled up in him, an urge to refuse to say another word and watch her fume impotently. Brains were scrambling anyway with all the screaming nerve endings; silence sounded right attractive an option. She wouldn't finish him off when he still had something she needed. Yes, she would. Insane, remember? Felt like he’d meant to keep that in mind.

He realised his mouth was answering her without him having consciously decided to, as if he'd drifted off during a recital; "Yeah. Okay. The Key." Fuck. What was he saying? For a panicked second, he thought some crazed hellgod magic was about to make him spill Niblet's name, then he remembered his decision just now. That's right. Escape plan. Lie. Get her madder. Position the chains. "Here's the thing," he continued. Twist wrists, feel out the slackest loops. Wouldn't get another shot at this. "It's that guy… on TV… what's his name?"

"On the television?" Eyebrows puzzled, but she was listening eagerly, idiot.

"That show… the prize show… where they guess what stuff costs?" Try and cast a glance behind himself, see where he could be landing…

"The Price Is Right?" one of her grotty minions asked.

"Bob Barker?"

"We will bring you Bob Barker. We will bring the limp and beaten body of Bob-"

"It is not Bob Barker, you scabby morons!" Glory snapped, leaping to her feet. Oh yes, this was looking promising. "The key is new to this world. And Bob Barker is as old as grit. The vampire… is lying to me."

Stupid hellbitch. If those monks could make a fourteen-year-old, surely Bob Barker wasn't out of reach. He chuckled at her, suddenly supremely confident that his slayer was going to be wiping the floor with her entrails before long. "Yeah, but it was fun. And guess what, bitch? I'm not telling you jack." Slide that hand a tad further; it was almost free now. "You're never going to get your sodding key."

Then the words were tumbling out in an eager flood, jabbing ruthlessly at the weaknesses she displayed so openly for him. This felt good; he'd always considered his tongue a nasty weapon, and he'd sharpened it to a razor's edge since having his fangs blunted by that sodding technology.

A kick solid enough to send him flying him clean from the room had him rethinking the wisdom of the plan - but he was free , his hands were free , and with liberty came hope and a surge of rebellious energy. Which lasted just long enough to get him to the ground floor and on his feet to face what was sure to be the end of him, Glory’s minions having matched his speed via the stairs.

A door opened somewhere out of sight to his left; minions' heads whipped to face it. "Slayer!" one of them cried.

He let himself drop, relief washing through him like cold wine. She could handle it from here.