Mixed Signals (2): Dreams
for the night sky is an ocean
black distant sea
washing up to my window
all the stray dog night owl junkies
angels who lost their halos
if nothing else i can dream
i can dream
i'll never tell never tell
all i've seen
right in front of me
like the ghost of everything that i could be
in the cool and callous grip of reality
-Over the Rhine, "If Nothing Else"
It was snowing above the plate. Reno had let two trains go by without getting on, lingering in the station to watch it fall. Naturally, in the slums, it never snowed; not with the groaning weight of the plate for a roof. It didn't rain either, and if the sun ever shone on Midgar, the people underneath never saw it.
It was either hot or cold, nothing else, and Reno's good mood wouldn't let him hurry to head back down.
He had spent the morning in an upper fourth cafe, taking advantage of his surface permit, drinking a coffee and looking across the street where a department store was putting up holiday Christmas displays. It was a luxury that he didn't often afford himself, but with Xi's last tip burning in his pocket, he didn't feel too bad for taking it.
His clothes still smelled like cappuccino and Xi's expensive cigarettes, and he was whistling when he finally shook the snow out of his hair and got on the train. Things had certainly been looking up lately for him. He was taking at least half of Tony's nights with Xi, about two a week, and the extra boost to the cookie jar was more than welcome in the Montague household.
And somehow, waking up alone in Xi's penthouse the mornings afterwards, Reno didn't feel quite so used up inside. Sometimes he could even forget he was merchandise.
The train came to a stop at the station in lower fourth and Reno stepped out. It was a Saturday, everyone would be home. Maybe he wouldn't go to bed right away; instead he could stay up with the kids. With the extra days on his shift schedule, it felt like he hadn't seen anybody except his clients for three weeks straight.
"Late for you to be rolling in, isn't it, Reno?"
Reno's thoughts came to an abrupt, derailed stop. Standing in the dim gleam of the streetlight was a slim boy, probably younger than Reno himself was, but with an unnatural light in his eyes that took any hint of innocence from his face.
"Hey," Reno said, trying to keep the trepidation from his voice. "I didn't even know you came out in daylight, Bansu."
Reno's regular client pushed himself up off the lamppost with a noise of disgust. "There isn't any daylight under the plate, Montague."
"Yeah," Reno said, glancing up at the streetlights that were lit even though it wasn't yet noon. "Is that why my electric bill's so goddamn high?"
Bansu examined his nails carefully, his short copper hair covering the candathine light in his eyes. "I might be able to help you out with that, if you're free."
Reno went very still. "It's not Tuesday, Bansu. The Pavilion won't let you hire me unless it's been a week. You know the rules for candy clients--"
"I know what I hear, Reno." Bansu still hadn't looked up, and the unpleasant feeling in Reno's stomach began to spread like cold water down his belly. "And I hear you've got a new regular, some rich bastard up top."
Reno spread his hands, making his voice as bland as possible. "Up top? Oh, naah. That's Tony's guy. I just picked up a few rain dates for him. Cere had her baby, you know, so Tony--"
Bansu could move awfully fast, when he wanted. Anybody but Reno or the other members of Bansu's gang might have dismissed him on youth and size, but Reno knew better. Bansu was heartless even when he wasn't high, and Reno had seen him kill men twice his size for no reason beyond a perceived insult. Bansu's father had money, more than enough to pay off the Pavilion if Reno turned up with his throat slit in an alley.
Reno wasn't Bansu's friend, he was his property. And property could be replaced. "I don't care about Tony," Bansu purred. "I'm just saying, Reno. I hear things. what if you decide you like this surface pissant more than me?" His fingers curled in the lapels of Reno's jacket, his smile like the edge of his favorite knife, the one Reno could see tucked neatly in a sleeve holster at Bansu's wrist. "You'd break my heart, Reno. You know you're the only one worth having."
Reno swallowed. This was way too dicey for his liking, and a prostitute getting knifed at noon right in front of the train station wouldn't even cause a ripple, not in the slums. "I'll make it up to you, baby." He tucked his fingers in Bansu's belt loops, shifting their hips together suggestively. "I promise. Just as soon as the Pavilion'll let me--"
"Screw the Pavilion," Bansu murmured, his eyes hungry on Reno's mouth. "You can take cash like a good boy, can't you? Your manager doesn't need to know, now does he?"
Arguing legality wasn't going to get Reno very far here, not with an addict. "Look, Bansu--"
"I'll double your fee," Bansu whispered. "I know you better than you think, Reno. You like money better than anything, even some upper bastard's cock and your conglomerate's stupid rules."
Reno didn't answer, considering. Bansu wrapped his arms around Reno's neck, so the hard edge of the concealed knife hilt bit down on Reno's shoulder.
"Triple," Bansu offered. "Don't make me beg, Reno."
Somewhere inside of him, Reno apologized for the day he wasn't going to have, the brothers and sisters he was going to disappoint. On the outside, he flashed a smile that couldn't have had a single regret behind it. "Anything you want, Bansu."
It was well after midnight when he got home. He would have been there hours before, as soon as Bansu passed out, empty syringe dangling from his fingers, but Reno had to let the candathine wear off enough for him to stand up. So instead he lay flat on his back in Bansu's bed as the room spun around him, until the memory of luminous green liquid burning down a needle into his skin was enough to make his stomach twist, and he staggered in the bathroom and retched.
Bansu slept through it all, but Reno knew by now not only to get his fee first, but to put it in his pocket before he took his pants off. There was no guarantee he would remember to do it afterwards.
It took him twice as long to get home as it should have, staggering away from assailants real and imagined, forcing one foot in front of the other. All he wanted was to put the fistful of gil away with the rest of his earnings and never think to hard about what it had cost him to earn it.
And then to sleep away the drug until morning.
In the darkness of the cramped living room Reno bashed his knees into a coffee table that had clearly lunged out to trip him, and a lamp fell over with a crash. Reno was still swearing when someone said his name.
"Reno? Man, I thought someone was robbing the place."
Reno jumped as though he really had been a thief, and then flung up his arms in front of his face when the elder of the twins righted the lamp and turned it on. "Goddammit, Phoenix, are you trying to kill me?"
"Sorry," Phoenix whispered, clicking the lamp down to a lower setting. "Don't yell, you'll wake everybody up. Except Diego, he's got the cold finally." He paused, realizing Reno wasn't answering him, and his elder brother's hands were still in front of his face. "Reno? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Reno snapped, and when Phoenix flinched at the volume, Reno added, more quietly, "Sorry. Just not feeling too hot."
Phoenix nodded immediately. "Sit down, I'll get you a drink."
Reno flung himself into one of the rickety kitchen chairs, watching with blurred vision as Phoenix clicked on the stove light and ran tap water in a glass for his brother. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"
"Couldn't sleep, you should hear the sounds Diego's making." He grinned, trying to smooth down hopelessly rumpled cropped red hair. "It's okay. No school tomorrow, or anything."
Reno took the glass and emptied it of its contents, then put his face down on his arms. The linoleum creaked as Phoenix shifted his weight.
"Reno? You sure you're all right?"
Reno considered the question, and found himself laughing, laughing until his shoulders shook and tears came out of his eyes.
Phoenix took a step backwards. "Hey... I'm gonna go get Ma, okay?"
"No!" The chair flew backwards and Reno had his brother by the arm, his green eyes nothing but iris, some terrible, nameless emotion written on his face. "Don't you fucking dare let her see me like this, do you understand? Not ever. If you tell her I'll--" Reno's face twisted.
"I won't," Phoenix whispered. His own eyes, dim by comparison, were huge in his face. "...That hurts."
Reno looked down at his white knuckled hand on his brother's arm as though wondering how it got there, and let go like he was burned. "I'm sorry," he breathed, and put both hands on Phoenix's shoulders, butting his head against his chest. "I'm sorry, Phoenix, I'm sorry--"
Phoenix didn't say anything, righting Reno's chair and getting his brother into it, then leaving him there, face in his hands, while he quietly made two cups of instant coffee. "You should quit, you know," he said, as the battered teapot steamed.
Reno laughed again, but it was an entirely different sound than before. "I don't do this to myself, Phoenix."
"I'm not talking about the drugs," Phoenix thunked a chipped mug down in front of his brother, and straddled a chair beside him. "You should stop letting people fuck you for money."
Reno looked up, blinked hard at his brother to dispel afterimages. "You knew."
"I'm fifteen, Reno, I'm not stupid." Phoenix stared at the surface of his coffee. "None of us are stupid." He looked up at Reno, his eyes somehow as desperate as Reno's had been before. "You don't have to do this, you know? There's gotta be another way--"
"There isn't," Reno said. "Not for me. This was all there was, Phoenix." He added, "It's not always this bad," but couldn't quite meet Phoenix's eyes when he said so. "I'm doing this for you guys."
"We didn't ask you to." Phoenix's fingertips were white on the ceramic mug. "You should quit."
"And we'd be out on the street in two months," Reno snapped. "Is that what you want?"
"I'm old enough to work," Phoenix insisted, coffee sloshing out of the mug onto the table. "If I quit school--"
"No." Reno said, and when Phoenix opened his mouth again, Reno shut him up with a gesture. "No, now you listen. Look at this." Reno dug his hands in his pockets and pulled out the contents, dumping them on the table. Several thousand gil in crumpled bills, foil packets of Black Odin condoms, his train pass, his prostitution permit, half a pack of cigarettes, a mostly empty lighter. His eyeliner bounced and rolled under the table. "This is what it gets you. It's a shitty living and I'm not proud of it but it's something I can do, Phoenix. It's something I can live with and trust me, down here, there's a whole hell of a lot worse. I was never any good at school, you know I only got in fights, even when Dad was still alive. But I'm good at this. And if it keeps any of the rest of you from doing it and bills paid, then goddamn it I will keep doing it, or whatever else it takes, as long as someone's willing to pay me."
Phoenix swallowed, nodding. "I understand."
"You're just better than this, Phoenix." Reno smoothed out a 500 gil note with the side of his hand. "You, Diego, Angelo, Jess, all the girls, you're all better than that. Better than me. You guys still have dreams, right?" Reno stuffed everything but the money back in his pockets. "Don't give them up so easy."
Phoenix rubbed his wrist over his eyes. "You're not fair," he said. "Don't you want anything for yourself?"
"Yeah," Reno grinned. "I want to see every last one of us get out of here." He took a long swallow of his coffee, and scooped up the money to put in the cookie jar.
"You don't have anything left for yourself, do you?" Phoenix whispered.
Reno let the money fall in on top of yesterday's earnings, and ran his hands down the sides of the cookie jar. It wasn't that old, as he recalled. Maybe new when Angelo was little. He remembered it like that, not chipped like it was now, the moogle with its forced smile in spite of broken ears and the faded paint on the pom-pom handle. Reno shook his head. He must still be high, to feel kinship with a cookie jar. "I made all my choices a long time ago, Phoenix." He put his back to the moogle and its belly full of gil. "C'mon, tell me what you want, how you're gonna make this place kiss your ass."
Phoenix smiled, just a little. "Well there was one thing..." He paused, considering. "I think I'd really like to learn to fly. They use a lot of choppers up top, right?"
"Yeah," Reno said, pulling out one of his cigarettes and lighting it. "...Don't tell Ma, okay?"
Phoenix grinned. Some secrets were easier to keep. "You know I won't."
"Go on, about the choppers." Reno took a deep, grateful breath of smoke, glad for a drug he understood.
"There wasn't anything else. Just I think it would be nice, to take off from the plate and never look down." Phoenix looked up, as though he could see the night sky through roof and plate and steel and smog, and looking at him there, Reno believed he could.
Phoenix returned to ground, obviously embarrassed. "I hadn't told anybody except Diego... it seemed kinda stupid--"
"It's not stupid." Reno took a drag off his cigarette. He felt slow and wrung-out, all that was left of the drug in him. "But what is stupid is you being up, still. It's almost four."
Phoenix frowned. "You're not going out again?"
"I'm off tomorrow," Reno said. "But I'll sleep down here on the couch, okay?"
"Okay." Phoenix slid out of the chair, standing beside it uneasily before suddenly colliding into Reno's chest, hugging him hard enough to hurt. "I'd take you with me," he said into Reno's shoulder, fierce and desperate at the same time. "If I ever get out of here, I'll take us all."
"Then it's a deal," Reno said, flicking his cigarette into the sink, wrapping his arms around his brother. "Whoever gets out first takes the others. You try it flying, and I'll keep trying my way, and we'll see who wins."
"Deal," Phoenix said, thickly.
"We're the oldest, you know, we gotta look out for 'em." Reno scruffed his brother's hair and Phoenix pulled away, embarrassed. "Now go get some sleep."
"All right," Phoenix said. "You too."
"Kid, this counter is the only thing keeping me up."
"Goodnight, Reno." Phoenix gave his brother one last look, and then made his way into the dark living room. Reno heard him creaking up the stairs, the floorboards shifting overhead as he went into the bedroom.
"Goodnight, Phoenix-down." He was probably asleep by the time Reno dumped the cold coffee in the sink and washed away the cigarette. He patted the moogle on the head before flinging himself full length on the couch, and closing his eyes. Sleep caught up to him mercifully fast, peaceful and heavy and full of other people's dreams.