Mixed Signals (1) : Substitutions
the truth is i bleed you
when these frequencies cut me
i'm a slut with a mission
a singular vision
i radio heaven
i get mixed signals
-Over the Rhine, "I Radio Heaven"
"There was a call for you," Angelo said, something accusing about the way he leaned down over the banister, looking at his older brother through thick, taped glasses. "I think it was about work."
"My cell died again." Reno shook the cold off with his coat, and brushed his hands over his forearms. "You didn't tell Ma, did you?"
Angelo shook his head. "She isn't back yet." There was a pause, small, worried. "Are you going out again?"
Reno glanced up at him, and something about the faint mako glow in Reno's eyes made Angelo flinch, just a little. "Well I don't know until I take the call, do I?" He punched the playback button on the phone; the lettering on the plastic button had long since worn off.
Reno, It's Tony. Reno rolled his eyes. Wasn't it always? Listen, I really can't make my regular meeting tonight, can you take my client? He's my best customer, and I can't trust any of the others with him. If you can, don't bother calling back. Just meet him tonight at the Midgar Grand, Sector Four, in the lobby. I've already told him to look for you. He answers to Xi.
Reno scribbled the pertinent info down on the notepad by the phone. Upper client meant extra for train fare, and probably a good tip. Even getting a substitution dock, it was nothing to sneer at all for the sake of a night's sleep.
I gotta go, they're taking her into delivery now. Thanks man, I owe ya!
"Yeah, yeah." Reno tore off the paper, and tucked it in his shirt pocket. "I'm goin' back out, Angelo. Tell Ma I won't be back tonight. Your cold getting better?"
"No." Angelo's hands clenched and unclenched on the battered stair rail. "You don't have go, do you?" His voice was painfully small and his scowl showed how much he hated it. "You're making enough already, right?"
Reno reached up to touch Angelo's nose, easy enough in the tiny, cramped apartment. "You need new glasses, kiddo." He winked, and slung his jacket on. The door let in a gasp of cold air as Reno slammed it behind him, leaving Angelo in his pajamas, on the stairs.
"No I don't," Angelo whispered, but nobody was home to hear him.
"Upper client tonight, Montague?" The rail conductor asked, waving away Reno's ID without looking at it. "Didn't think you had any."
"Hey, I've got surface clearance." Reno passed over a wad of crumpled gil for his fare-- money he hoped to make back in tip before paying for the ticket home. Otherwise it was gonna be tough getting back down the next morning.
"I know, I just thought all your boys were down here." The conductor tapped his fingers against the ticket device on his belt as though it was a musical instrument, and handed Reno the stub.
"I'm filling in for Tony. His girlfriend went into labor tonight." Reno glanced down the track for the train. The warning lights should have been going off to signal its approach, but they hadn't worked in Reno's memory. "Don't tell Bansu if he turns up looking for me."
"Never saw ya," The conductor drawled, as the train howled into the station, snapping Reno's ponytail back in the wake. Reno swung up into the nearest car before it stopped moving, hanging sideways off to let the last trickle of commuters depart.
"That's what I like to hear," he said, and hauled himself into the first seat.
The train ride wasn't long, and going back up to the top of the plate after rush hour, it was almost empty. Reno redid his eyeliner and his ponytail, both without looking, even when the lights went out and the electronic hum of a security check buzzed in his ears.
Sector Four, upper level. Approaching. The train jostled and whined, curving around the tight core of the main plate support, and Reno stood up to lean on one of the poles, watching the slowing landings flickering by. In the dark places between them he caught his own reflection: tight jeans, the long cuffs of his white shirt under his jacket sleeves. Nicer than the clothes his family wore, but Reno didn't really have much choice in that. It was a uniform, and without it, he couldn't get his job done.
Reno caught eyes watching his own in the reflection and he turned to meet the open stare of a young punk hanging off the back of one of the battered seats. He grinned insolently when discovered, his intent obvious in his stare and the slightly lewd gesture he made with the neck of his beer bottle.
Reno's fingers tightened on the pole, cold scored metal biting into his palm. "You got a problem, pal?"
"Yeah." He ran the back of his hand over his mouth, displaying badly done arm tattoos and obscuring his broken teeth. "I gotta problem. You wanna fix it for me, baby?"
"Get a magazine," Reno snorted, distain obvious as he turned back around. "It's all you've got the gil for."
Sector Four. Doors open on the left.
Reno's would-be paramour started up from the seat, his face reddening at the rebuff. "Why you snotty little bitch--"
He got as far as that, bottle raised, before Reno's boot caught him square in the middle, slamming him backwards into the seats. His elbow cracked under the punk's chin, snapping his head back and putting down on the floor with a subdued whimper. Reno made a point of stepping on him on the way out onto the platform, instead of just over him.
It helped for one to have certain sets of side skills, in his line of work.
The lobby of the Midgar Palace Grand was covered in enough gilt to handle several fields of exceptionally large lilies, and Reno's reflection repeated a thousand times in the long lines of parallel mirrors. In clothes that were more than good enough for under the plate, he couldn't help feeling a little scruffy. He winked at a young woman staring at him on her way out. She was wearing enough fur and diamonds to sink an airship, and she did not look quite so scandalized as she might have tried to.
Reno tossed his hair back and strode across the lobby as though it was something he did every day, crossing to the cocktail lounge glittering in the center of the room like an ostentatious floral centerpiece.
"May I help you, sir?" The maitre d's expression was much less pleased than the woman's; it was clear that Reno's gray snakeskin jacket offended his very senses.
"I'm meeting someone," Reno said, and flashed his business card. The maitre d's face went even more sour. One of these days, Reno thought, I'm gonna ask one of these shitheads just what the hell their problem is with buying a good clean fuck.
"I don't doubt it," his antagonist said, trying to expand his shoulders to keep Reno from going any further into the bar area. "But I'm afraid, sir, your services are not required, and you can meet your someone just as well at the curb--"
Reno bristled. "Look, buddy," He hissed, tapping his business card in an ominous fashion on the gleaming black marble counter. "My services are not only required, they were fucking requested. I'm not a curbside bitch offering a free case of clap with every shag. I'm a guild member with a conglomerate, I have client to meet and a rep to uphold and a nice shiny permit from City Hall, and I'm already having a rough night, so if you want a bribe, you're out of luck. I don't grease bellhops. Got it?"
The maitre d' swelled, no doubt prepared to tell Reno that he could grease the door on the way out, and he was interrupted by the clink of a tumbler at the bar and an even, almost bored voice.
"He's meeting me, Gilbert."
The maitre d' blanched under his angry red flush, a color combination that did not suit him in the least. "Of course, sir." He glanced sideways at Reno. "My apologies," he said curtly, inclining his head as though there was a crick in his neck, and bustling off on some urgent errand that he had only just that very moment remembered.
"Thanks," Reno said, stepping down to get a better look at his rescuer-- and client. "I guess I don't look... very... uh."
Reno begin to reconsider whether or not Tony owed him one, wondering if it was in fact the other way around.
His client was tall and dark and tailored, shoulder-length black hair swept into a neat ponytail at the back of his head. Everything about him, from his impeccable suit to the sugar-rimmed glass in one hand and the carelessly perfect folds of the overcoat on his elbow, was as flawless as an airbrushed print magazine ad for André's of Midgar. If the overdone decor of the lobby had not managed to make Reno already feel underdressed, then he certainly did now.
Both his ears were pierced, two small demure gold rings on each side, in graduated sizes. Somehow the exotic touch only served to make him look even more professional. The eyes that summed up Reno were almond-shaped and smooth lidded, black and impassive. Between his eyes was a small black dot that seemed to be tattooed there, too perfectly shaped to be natural.
Wutai, Reno thought. You don't see many of them on top of the plate, unless it was an entire extended family running a take-out restaurant, and even then they usually couldn't afford to live on the surface. The war had not been kind to them, and Midgar was even less so.
"You must be Xi." It was an alias, and both of them knew it. Reno had no doubt that if he heard the man's actual name, he might not only know it, but be sorry he did.
His client nodded. "Mr. Ramirez said he would be sending a substitute."
"Reno," Reno said, and something about the Xi's use of Tony's last name prompted him to add his own, hardly standard practice in the profession. "Reno Montague."
Xi stood up from his barstool, sweeping by Reno without sparing him a second glance. "Very well, Mr. Montague, let's go."
Reno, wondering if all upper clients were this frosty, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and followed him.
His client didn't say another word, though he held the elevator door open for him. Xi swiped a keycard through the slot. Floors lit up and passed without stopping, even though the hotel was surely busy enough to warrant more passengers in the elevator.
Reno tried not to shift his weight, not quite believing he was nervous. At this point, any other client of his would already have both hands down his pants.
The regular rooms passed, and the regular suites, until the topmost button gleamed and the elevator doors dinged open on the penthouse, and Reno for the first time really started to wonder who the hell this guy was.
"Would you like a drink, Mr. Montague?" Xi asked, opening the door to the suite and tossing his coat over the back of the sofa. The plush carpet made no sound under his polished shoes as he strode to the bar, gleaming with crystal barware and bottles of alcohol that were worth more apiece than Reno's usual nightly haul.
"I'm on the clock..." Reno started, watching the deft motions of his client's smooth brown hands as they flicked out a pair of glasses.
"I don't keep a clock, Reno." Xi deposited exactly three cubes of ice in each tumbler. "I'm charged a regular nightly fee, and that includes the refreshments." He topped the glasses off with amber liquor. "Take off your jacket," he said, and spared only the slightest twitch of an eyebrow in Reno's direction. "As I assume you're staying."
Reno hadn't quite expected the strip order yet, but did as he was told. Not comfortable with putting his jacket on top of his client's, he laid it next to the black overcoat, instead.
"Here." Xi placed one of the glasses in Reno's hand, and then did not step away. One warm hand came up against the side of Reno's face, lifting his chin so their eyes met. It was hard to meet that inquisitive stare without blinking. For being from Wutai, Reno thought, the guy was hella tall.
"How long have you been using candathine?"
It was entirely not the question Reno expected, and it startled honesty out of him. "Almost a year, now." It wasn't really a secret, he supposed. The materia-based drug was responsible for the unnatural glare in his green eyes, the dilated pupils. Anyone could see it if they knew what to look for.
Xi took a sip of his drink, but did not release Reno's face or his gaze. This close, he smelled like his amaretto, and cloves. "Cello-tabs, or needles?"
Reno swallowed, but it didn't soften the dry lump in his throat. "Single doses with sterile one-use sharps," he said, almost defensively. "My regular wants me high when he fucks me."
Xi made a derisive sound, as a gourmand presented with an entirely inappropriate choice of wine.
Reno thought about Angelo's glasses, and Katie's seventh birthday next week, and tried not too sound too desperate when he added, "He knows better than to shoot me up with dirty needles." His smile was probably too bitter for when he was on, but the memory of the luminous green syringes made his stomach clench. "He'd have to buy out my contract if he gave me something."
Xi still did not answer, studying Reno's face as though there was something written there only he could see.
Shiva help me, Bansu, Reno thought, fury hot behind his eyes, if you lose me this trick because of your goddamn candy, I'm never fucking blowing you again.
Xi seemed to reach a conclusion that satisfied him. "As long as you never do it here, or bring anything in with you. Is that clear?"
Reno let out his breath. "Don't worry, I hate the shit."
"Then we agree," Xi murmured, and ran his thumb slowly over the curve of Reno's lower lip in the first gesture of interest he had shown so far. Something flickered for the first time in his eyes, and the knot at the bottom of Reno's spine started to uncurl. This was more like it. "You have specialties, I presume?"
For anyone else, Reno would have whipped the laminated price card out of his wallet, but it seemed a cheap, lower-level sort of thing to do here. And for all his cold, sharp edges, Reno found himself liking Tony's classy regular client, and not a little bit jealous of his pretty blond coworker for having him. "Anything you like."
Xi smiled then, just the slightest tightening of his lips, but the effect it had on his face was remarkable. "I'm sure you realize I have high standards," he said, and his hand slid away from Reno's face as he settled down in the leather sofa, tumbler dangling from his fingers. "Shall we see what you can do?"
"You're the boss." Reno took a drink from his glass without tasting a drop of it, and knelt down on the plush carpet between his client's knees. He had a routine, as any of them did: a line or two of dirty-talk, a well executed grope, or in most cases for Reno, just getting shoved face-down in the nearest mattress. Being asked to show what he could do was a novel experience for him. Somehow the usual didn't seem to fit, here.
He slid his palms up his client's thighs, watching Xi's face through lowered lashes. Reno thought there might be more of a glitter in those dark eyes than before, but it was hard to tell.
Chill the hell out and do what you do, Reno told himself, trying not to let Xi unnerve him. Unless he's got two dicks, he's not anything you haven't done before. Reno leaned forward, letting his arms go around Xi's waist, and nuzzled the soft folds of suit fabric between his client's legs. The heat under Reno's mouth was promisingly hard, and Reno pressed his face in more, mouthing the shape of it. Xi was actually interested, and that was more than enough to dispel Reno's doubts. He wasn't the best rentboy in lower sixth because of anything lacking in the confidence department.
Xi sighed softly through his nose, and Reno knew, without being told, that it was time for something a little more intimate. The leather belt unraveled in his fingers as he undid the top button and zipper, his hand sliding into the front of dark silk boxers and easing Xi's heavy, aching cock out.
"Beautiful like the rest of you," Reno said, brushing soft hot skin with his cheek, and his client made a noise that might have been a laugh.
"Flattery is your specialty, Mr. Montague?" He was not breathless, but his voice was not as smooth as it had been at the bar.
"No," Reno said, bending down, tongue flickering out over hot salty skin. "This is."
Xi made a deep sigh of satisfaction, the sofa creaking under their combined weight as Reno pressed him down and swallowed him to the base.
It was lucky for Reno, and something probably not a good idea for a man in his position to admit, but he really liked sucking cock. It took more art, in his opinion, than just lifting up his ass for someone to screw him, and there was a finesse and a challenge in it that he considered the best of his services. He distanced himself from it as he did from most of his duties, the better to focus on the finer points of technique. Xi didn't seem to have any complaints as Reno's mouth curled lovingly over the elegant weight of his sex, pulling back enough to cradle the flushed head. The tip of his tongue stabbed sweetness from the tip, and his client made a sound then that did something it wasn't supposed to, not yet.
Against the tight confines of his jeans, Reno felt his own body hardening in answer.
Not as though Reno never got turned on, doing his job. It was, after all, what he was supposed to do. But it caught him off guard. It also made him a little more hasty in his ministrations than he would normally be, as though to make up for his own ache by making his client come faster.
Xi said something under his breath, but what it was, Reno didn't catch, maybe even something in Wutai. His thighs stiffened under Reno's hands, and Reno, pressing his own aching cock into the hard edge of the sofa, became merciless. Xi's breath caught, only once. His hand was tangled in Reno's hair, his hips lifting slightly off the cushion. Reno felt the spasm run the whole elegant length of Xi's cock, and swallowed.
Other boys might have been done then, but Reno waited, his face pressed into soft silk and softer skin, until his client was sated in his mouth, and sleepy against his tongue.
It was, Reno figured, one of the best parts about the whole thing.
Xi slowly freed his hand from Reno's hair. "...Anyone else would have gone for the drink by now."
Reno let him slide out but lingered, scattering kisses over Xi's flat belly, resting his head against his client's thigh. "I'm not anyone else."
"No." Xi seemed to be considering him for the first time. "That much is clear." He set aside his glass, which he had been holding the whole time, and the ice had long since melted. "Let's move this to a more appropriate location."
Reno was obliged to stand up first, and something about his face or the way his ground his hips against Xi's knee on the way up must have been telling. Even if it wasn't, his jeans weren't designed to leave much to the imagination.
Xi's lips twitched only a little, wryly. "I take it you enjoy your work."
"Not usually," Reno admitted, and his voice was rough. He coughed, and reached for his drink, tossing it back melted ice and all.
His client watched the motion of Reno's throat and then stood and undid the buttons of Reno's shirt with as much ease as any rentboy. He ran warm fingertips over Reno's collarbone, then down over the tense muscles of his belly. "I'm flattered, then," He said, and slid a hand between Reno's legs, over the constricting denim and squeezing the ache there. Reno's eyelids fluttered, and he couldn't quite stop the noise that came out of him. Xi put his smile close to Reno's ear and murmured, "Take them off."
Reno's fingers hurried to obey, undoing buttons and zippers and peeling out of his jeans without meeting Xi's eyes until his clothes were in a discarded pile, and the only thing still on him were his client's hands.
Reno closed his eyes as they moved over him, tracing his shoulder blades and stomach, cupping the cleft between his buttocks, but nowhere Reno wanted it the most. Reno gritted his teeth in mingled need and aggravation; he was too pro to be in a state this bad this soon. But then he hadn't gotten his pro status with clients like this one.
Xi's mouth found his neck, and his client's clothed warm body pressed up against him from behind, and fingers closed on his cock, pumping it gently. "I don't think you'll last long enough for me to fuck you," Xi murmured thoughtfully over Reno's shoulder. His silver cufflinks were cold, trickling below Reno's navel.
Reno had a witty rejoinder for that, but oddly enough the only thing that came out of him was a stuttered moan. It wasn't his fault, he told himself. He was trained for nouveau riche drug-runners and spoiled, impatient rich boys like Bansu. Xi was so far outside that sphere, that Reno felt practically virginal.
His client laughed then, a low sound of breath, and the hand on him squeezed a little more firmly. "I like your honesty," Xi said, and his mouth was on Reno's earlobe, his jaw. Dark hair had escaped Xi's ponytail and slid over Reno's face: the source of the man's spicy, exotic smell. "Come for me," he said, and his other hand cupped the soft vulnerable weight of Reno's balls. "Standing here, just like this."
"Ah--" Reno reached behind him for support but still he felt like he was falling, the finish overtaking him too soon. It was just as well his client had ordered him to, because Reno found himself doing as he was asked, spilling up over his stomach and Xi's coaxing hands, coming as though he wasn't getting paid for it.
When it was over he hung limp and sweaty from Xi's arms, thighs sticky, shuddering for air.
Xi made a small considering sound over Reno's state and drew a handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his suit jacket. "Hm. I suppose now is an ideal time to show you the Jacuzzi."
Reno woke up the next morning alone. It took a moment for the usual disorientation to pass, trying to remember where he was, the face of whomever he had slept with the night before. In this case, it didn't take him long to remember.
He rolled over, blinking at the clock. It was well past checkout time, and with any other client, Reno would long since have been rudely awakened in only enough time to get his clothes back on, collect his tip, and stagger onto the train back to the lower levels. The smell of coffee got him out of bed and back into the main room in the hopes of finding both its source, and his pants. Instead he found breakfast from room service and a plain white envelope propped against the single china cup.
His client's overcoat was gone, and the penthouse was clearly empty. The bank of windows that made up the wall showed a cold, gritty skyline; the ShinRa building was a looming leviathan in the smoggy haze. Reno opened the envelope, and choked on the swallow of coffee he had just taken. What Xi called a tip Reno called a full night's wages, and Reno's copy of the receipt faxed in from the Pavilion did not have the substitute deduction docked from it. Reno had been paid as though he had been Xi's regular, and not a fill-in.
The amount of money Tony blew on his girlfriend suddenly made a lot of sense. He counted the crisp, new gil notes three times, figuring up not only immediate needs like food and rent and bills, but Christmas wasn't far off, either. The thought of that date no longer made a cold, heavy feeling in Reno's stomach. Before his dad had died, the holidays had been, if not decadent, at least comfortable. It was something his youngest sisters could not even remember. Maybe this year wouldn't be so bad, after all.
Reno found his clothes and slipped the envelope in his pocket, taking one last look around the Penthouse. There was nothing to give any clue about the man who had rented the rooms, and Reno supposed that he would never know anything about him: his real name, what he did to earn obvious shitloads of money, and how he got the interesting scars along his ribcage, the ones Reno had glimpsed the night before.
For Reno it was back under the plate, for Bansu and his needles and his brothers and sisters and the microscope in the pawnshop window that Angelo walked a block out of his way to look at on the way home every day. The surface was no place for Reno Montague.
"Probably the easiest money I'll ever make," he said to nobody except the tray of danishes, and picked one up on the way out. "Tony, you lucky bastard."
The phone was ringing shrilly in an empty house when Reno got home, and he heard the answering machine pick up when he was still standing on one foot, trying to get his boot off. It wasn't yet two, his mother would be working at the store and the vast Montague clan were still in school. Even Phoenix and Diego, who had wanted to quit to find work but didn't after Mrs. Montague put her foot down that one of her sons dropping out of school was more than enough. Angelo must have been feeling better enough to go, although it would take more than a head cold to keep that one away from class.
Reno finally got his foot free of the boot, and took enough gil for the week's train fare out of the envelope. The rest he put in the cookie jar on the counter, the ancient ceramic one shaped like a moogle with one long-broken ear.
His mother was no fool not to know how the money got in there with the meager scraps of change left over from her part-time shift at the item shop. What she earned was not near enough keep food on the table and wolves away from the door without what Reno added in. But she never asked where Reno went, and Reno never told her, and it was an uneasy truce in the household.
Sorry to bother you at home again, Tony said, on the voice message. But I want to take the rest of the week off to take care of Cere. I'm booked with Xi three more nights next week... could you take them?
Reno grinned and clicked the top of his ballpoint pen. Could he ever.
And it's a girl, Tony added, pride coming right through the tinny recording. Eight pounds. Call me back and let me know about next week, would you?
Reno picked up the receiver and cradled it under his chin, punching Tony's cell number.
Maybe he'd get a chance to ask about those scars, after all.