It started in an uptown bar, although sometimes it happened in a nightclub, or a Starbucks, or a bookstore, or this one time in a sex shop. Never the same place twice, and always preceded by the usual call from Reno: "I'm hungry again. I want to see you so bad…" Then he'd text through the location, and Axel would be there exactly six hours later. No matter where he was in the world, Reno was within a six-hour radius the second he answered the phone.
Axel found him sitting at the bar with the mirrors behind the bottles lining the wall, sucking down a German beer and exuding his usual air of sleazy charm and confidence. A row of empty shot glasses sat at his elbow, like he'd been waiting for a while, but when Axel took the stool beside him, and Reno glanced over, Axel couldn't see a hint of inebriation in his eyes or face. He was dressed in the same smooth sort of outfit that Axel had chosen, dark trousers and an expensive shirt under a jacket, and Axel always wondered slightly if anyone would take notice of them because they looked so obvious when you sat them side by side like this, like an exclusive club for redheads, you must be THIS flaming to enter. No one ever seemed to, though, and Reno would know if they did, so Axel didn't let it bother him.
"You scrub up nice," Reno said by way of greeting, pale eyes sliding up and down Axel's lithe frame.
"Keep your herpes to yourself," Axel replied, signalling the bartender and ordering a scotch.
Reno lolled against the bar with a grin. "That's what I get for sharing and caring. It's not a crime."
"No," Axel agreed, "but it's a turn-off." His drink arrived, and they started chatting for a while, Reno swivelling on his stool so that he was facing the room, elbows relaxed against the counter. His gaze swept casually across the room, time and time again like he was scanning for warm company through the long night, winking occasionally at women, at men, at anything with a pulse that happened to look his way. Axel waited patiently, and after twenty minutes Reno deemed it safe enough to pull a napkin across the shining bar, taking a pen out of his pocket and writing something on the corner that looked like a phone number. He folded it and inserted it with two long fingers into the pocket of Axel's jacket, expression lascivious as he did so, so that anyone watching would think they were hooking up. "That's the year and time period," he murmured, draping an arm over Axel's shoulder, a wave of alcoholic breath washing over the man as he sat sipping a second scotch with a clink of ice cubes.
Reno shrugged slightly. "We don't have the exact date. The best we got was a vague area to aim for, and the rest is up to you. The target's name is Roxas Black, one of the researchers for the Cornerstone Theory."
"That was proven twenty years ago," Axel muttered. "Someone wants to get rid of the Theory?"
"Who cares?" Reno was blasé about the purpose. "Maybe the client wants to be the one to prove it, maybe they worked with him or didn't get to work on it at all. What happens next is anyone's guess, but what makesit happen is our territory. And the client was very specific – this Black guy was the one who made the difference, you have to lethim make that difference before you get to him. He has to prove the Theory. After that, he's all yours."
"We can't find out the specific date from here?" Axel asked, shifting under the point of Reno's chin digging into his shoulder. "I mean, the information bureau, for one, medical journals, that sort of thing..."
Reno shook his head, chin grinding into muscle. "Weirdly, there's no mention of Roxas Black except as a minor part of the team," he said. "There's no official discovery date, on top of that – only the date of the announcement to the media, and that probably took place weeks after the research was completed, to conduct tests and shit to make sure they were a hundred percent."
Axel was unimpressed. "So I'm going to have to be there for several weeks?"
"Well, months," Reno corrected, Axel choking on his drink.
"It's a kick in the britches – but what can you do?" Reno was supremely unperturbed. "It's all on the napkin, sweet-cheeks. Don't get agitated, I'm sure it won't take the full amount of time."
Axel downed the rest of his scotch with a grimace. "That's easy for you to say."
Reno grinned brightly. "You know what? It is!" He took hold of Axel's chin in one hand, leaned forward and planted a smacking kiss on his mouth, slipping a large, sealed envelope into his jacket as he did so. "Be a man. Take Black down, or die trying, and I'll see you again when I see you." He dug out some crumpled notes and left them on the bar to cover their drinks, then sauntered across the room towards the bathroom, leaving Axel to skulk out the back exit with a scowl on his face.
The redhead walked several blocks through the cool night air without stopping, the stars spread out up above, traffic passing on his left. He could still taste the flavours of scotch, and of beer, Reno's contribution to his mouth. When he was certain he wasn't being followed, Axel ducked into a tight, dim alleyway and pulled out the envelope, the napkin and his penlight. Slipping a thumbnail under the seal, he opened the envelope, withdrawing its contents underneath the glow of the small light in the darkness, revealing photographs of a blond, some blurry, others crisp. Behind the pictures was personal information, a résumé, schools attended and habits known, anything pertinent about the subject, which turned out to be precious little. Axel frowned as he scanned it all, flipping through the few pages of general details that could have been garnered with a couple of phone calls and a trip to the library. Usually, people consisted of more than this. It was strange, and suspicious. It felt contrived, and he usually had a keen sense for that sort of thing. It was like someone had come along behind this guy and rubbed his path clean. Obviously, the guy knew what he was doing – or had done, back in the day.
Axel placed the napkin foremost and memorised the numbers. 04-06-2033.April to June. How about that – he was going to be stuck twenty years in the past for three fucking months. Blowing out a slow sigh, he packed everything back into the envelope, napkin included, and tucked it away again into his jacket. Hands in pockets, he returned to the street, and hailed a cab back to his hotel.
The next week was spent in preparation. There were documents to be fabricated, records to be orchestrated, fingerprints to be mismatched and retinal scans to be botched. Axel was careful, and thorough, going about his tasks in the professional manner common to all members of the Organisation, the best of the best with the stomachs of iron and the funding of giants. Their services were highly sought, the ability to turn back the clock and eliminate competition wherever it existed, create a new set of events that unfolded without a certain someone involved because that certain someone was dead already. Be they political or business adversaries, troublesome spouses or lovers, even friends – any perceived obstacle could be removed, as long as the price was right. There were limits, for the sake of safety and a slight sense of moral obligation towards not inadvertently ending the planet, and to this end the only allowable hits had to have existed within the client's own timeline. But other than that – every day of the client's life was open season.
He spent one day readying his weaponry, guns and blades packed into a hard silver case that was then locked twice. It took three further days to research the area he was headed for and the current affairs of the era, any possible data that he felt could be of service compiled into one device for quick personal recall. He packed clothes, cash that was dated at least twenty years old, and on the second last day burnt the package that Reno had slipped him in the tub, the envelope twisting and smoking into ash, washed away down the drain. He knew the face he was hunting, the place and month, and the way in which he was assured to gain access to the target; there was nothing left to do but get there.
The final night, he gathered his belongings into one large suitcase. Axel sat it at the corner of the bed and took one last case over to the doorway. It was long, slim and black, cold looking – symbolic of the Organisation he worked for. There was a twin of it in his bag, his return ticket, identical in every way except that that one would go with him, whereas this one would stay.
It required a code to open, Axel entering each digit with care since a single incorrect combination would result in a terrible electrical current that was bound to kill him. It opened to reveal a coil of wires that, from one end to the other, stretched to about nine meters. Studded along the wires intermittently were silver discs, and sitting in a small niche to the side of the case was a tube of a pale blue gel-like substance, super-refined Mako in its rare, uncondensed form, not the sort of thing to get on the skin. He carefully set the case down on the nightstand, looping the wires several times around his shoulders before lifting the whole length out, black and red cables trailing down his arms, thin but heavy. Taking the tube of Mako with him over to the door, Axel began the cautious process of dabbing the blue jelly onto each silver disc along the wires before pressing them onto the doorframe. The Mako made them stick, held them steady, the wires steadily becoming the new frame around the door, the queer scent of intense chemical drifting through the air.
While dormant, the mess of wires bordering the opening looked vaguely ominous but otherwise completely unimpressive. Axel stepped back to survey his work, eyes slowly tracing the lines, lingering on each disc to visually double-check that they were all firmly in position. At the end of the cables sat a small socket, empty and incomplete. The redhead returned to the black case, lifting out the top insert, uncovering the final component necessary for getting to where he needed to be, one last cable. One end plugged into the end of the wires surrounding the doorway, Axel running his hands along its length, smoothing it into a straight line leading to the power socket behind the nightstand. It was the most innocuous part of the operation: he unplugged the clock, the numbers of which had brightened the room during the sparse hours he had slept, and, ensuring that the switch was off, inserted the plug at the end of the cable. He straightened, stepped back, once again inspected his work with a thorough eye and then turned to get his luggage. He dragged it over towards the door, leaving it alone one more time to go back to the power socket, allowing a moment for any final, forgotten elements to spring into his mind, then flicked the switch to the 'on' position.
There was a pause, nothing happening, the man backing away quickly and picking up his suitcase, fingers tight around the handle. Then, without warning, a surge of power erupted from the Mako as it sensed electricity close by, invisible to the naked eye as it shot through the mass of wires but nearly blinding as every single light and appliance connected to the building blazed when it made contact with the wall socket. The hotel became a beacon in the night, a bright point like a burning star, eclipsing all else around it, pulsing with Mako energy. The air hummed and flickered, the lights crackling, Axel's eyes calmly shut and covered with his free arm. A strange heat shimmered from every point of power, the sharp smell of burning wires scenting the air – and then, just as fast as it had exploded into existence, the surge was gone. The Mako, hungry by nature, had reversed the process and now drew an entire hotel's worth of electricity in towards itself, the wires around the door filling to more than they could hold and vibrating impossibly fast at their subatomic level. The building went dark, pitch black, no power left for anything else, the restaurant, the function rooms, the ballroom, the thousands of guest rooms, all extinguished, and now the Mako was fighting with itself around the doorframe.
Each metal disc with each dab of the stuff burned white hot as the separate applications of Mako desired to consume the power all on their own, the frightening level of electricity in the room being dragged between one disc and another, arcs of raw energy splitting the air between them until a grid had formed. Each time the Mako touched electricity, the electricity's power quadrupled and jumped through the wires and was drawn into another disc, another smear of Mako, another multiplication of strength, all of it happening faster than could be comprehended, a maelstrom of blue fire roaring between each silver point, the wires thrashing, whipping about, Axel standing out of reach. His arm lowering, he watched the process between squinted lids, smelling his own hair beginning to burn, feeling his heart start to palpitate, the Mako keeping it all in a controlled frenzy that prevented him from being incinerated but unable to protect him entirely.
Then the moment came, the peak, the crisis point, where it was no longer just Mako dragging at electricity, a furious network of arcs; with no higher point to grasp for, the impossible met and breached, the electricity and Mako reached a matched vibration and collapsed inward to become a rip, a vortex, lightless, the utter black of nightmares. There wasn't a hint of illumination in the room now, but the shape and position of the doorway was branded a bright blue into Axel's retinas and mind, he saw it hovering on the air as though it still twisted its violent dance in front of him. There was no hesitation as he stepped toward it, crossed the distance with suitcase still firmly in hand and moved directly into it. The darkness consumed him, wrapped around every limb, hair and crevice, filling each pore, every orifice and cell, filling his lungs, eyes, ears, cutting him away piece by piece from the hotel until nothing was left but a disembodied mind.
In this empty, non-existent space he had no body – no anything – the beauty of which was that the mind was free to roam, it was driver and something as heavy as cells were mere afterthought passengers, following only if he willed them to exist in the next life.
He had a destination, towards which he didn't turn, since there was nothing to turn within; he didn't wonder where he was, or try to find a direction to follow, because there was nowhere to be, nowhere to go. All he needed was a when.
He wanted his body and luggage back, and like lead armour they clad him. Axel let them drag at him, taking him down into an airless, unsettling free fall, and when he next felt solid ground beneath his newly reconstructed feet, he took a single large step forward, emerging from the darkness into a dimly lit street. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched the black vortex suck emptily at the air as though searching for him, then, running out of the ferocious energy that had brought it into existence, disappear smokily into the night air. Not a wisp was left behind.
He had arrived.
Axel took a moment to orient himself, green eyes sliding slowly around new surroundings. He was standing in a backstreet, dull buildings rising up towards the dark sky, a streetlight at the end of the road bleeding light outward in a watery halo. He was alone, he always sought to emerge in a place that held no immediate human life, and obediently to date he had been left in places like this every single time. Nobody ever saw him arrive out of the thin air, like some sort of magician, just as no one ever saw him go.
There was a drip-drip-drip nearby like it had been raining before he got there, a spring shower in the dead of night. He drew in a breath, filled his chest, tasted the air and found the faint metallic tang that was always left from inhaling Mako fumes. With one last look around, Axel tightened his fingers briefly to make sure his suitcase was still there and in one piece, before cautiously setting off down the road. As always, he found that the world of yesteryear was hardly different from the day he had come from. When you worked within a sixty or seventy year timeline, nothing was ever too radical. The most change happened in the minds of the people, with the exception of a couple of advances in technology and the sciences, and even then it seemed, to Axel's mind, to cement the fact that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. He always felt confident walking around these back alley time zones; he already knew everything that was coming. It made him smug, like the world's greatest secret keeper, all the answers and all locked away.
He made his way towards the busier streets and bought a newspaper from a roadside stand. The date was accurate – it was the last night of March, tomorrow would begin the period for which he had been hired. Standing beneath the bright lights of the stores and the traffic, he riffled through the pages, checking that the current events he had researched and those that were occurring matched up. Satisfied, he folded the paper under one arm and set off at a slower pace, taking time to inhale the twenty-years-younger air, absorb his surroundings, lessen the physical impact a little by giving his body some time to simply saunter along. He headed for the very same hotel that he had just within the hour vacated through a burning trap-door through time and space, and booked into a room that wasn't too far down the corridor from where he'd started.
He smiled a little as he set down his suitcase and got ready for a night of heavy, healing slumber. He would be unconscious for roughly fourteen hours, setting his watch to wake him at the fifteenth if he happened to sleep late, his muscles getting increasingly sore, his eyes stinging, the strain of such an intense form of travel catching inevitably up with him. It was all going well so far, though, and tomorrow would see the commencement of all his plans to ensure that the contract went off without a hitch. Somewhere out there in the city an invisible timer had appeared over the head of a blond researcher, and for every minute longer that Axel spent within this timeline, that was a minute ticking down for the unfortunate Roxas Black.
It was all so unfailingly simple.