Mixed Signals (4): Introductions

by Tenshi

i can't change what's come before
build myself some better dreams
and cast off the fear that holds me here

give me strength to find the road that's lost in me
give me time to heal and build myself a dream
give me eyes to see the world surrounding me
give me strength to be only me
-Over the Rhine, "Give Me Strength"

"You're awfully quiet."

Reno started with a muted splash. Xi had turned off the jets in the hot tub and for a long time now they had just been sitting peacefully twined together, Xi's back to Reno's chest, his wet dark hair slicked back over Reno's shoulder.

"Too quiet?" Reno smiled sheepishly, idly twirling one finger in the steaming water, trying not to stare at the line of Xi's profile against the cool marble tile. "Most clients say I don't shut up."

Xi smiled back, without even opening his eyes, as though he knew the look on Reno's face. "You've mentioned before that I'm not most clients."

Reno looked away, to Xi's clothes carefully draped over the rack. He had watched him this time, but still hadn't seen him remove his gun. All the same, Reno knew it was there. "Yeah." He reached up a dripping hand to smooth back his own hair, almost as dark as Xi's when it was wet. "Still, I'm not gonna dump my private life on you." He laced both arms around Xi's chest and nuzzled one surprisingly vulnerable ear. "That's not what you pay me for."

Xi tilted his head away, but he was still smiling. "Indulge me," he said.

Reno took a moment before answering. "This might be my last night."

Xi went suddenly very still in his arms. He opened his eyes, but only looked up at the dim, recessed light fixture above the tub. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said, and the water in the bath seemed to cool by a few degrees before he added, "I hope it's nothing to do with your treatment?"

Reno's arms tightened without his consent. "Are you kidding me? If you were my only client it'd--" Reno stopped talking then. He'd given up on wishful thinking when he was fourteen, and realized none of it would ever bring anyone or anything back. He swallowed. "I have an offer... or maybe just an option. It's nothing solid yet but..." He paused. "It would be above the plate, and it wouldn't be... wouldn't be renting, you know." Xi didn't answer, and Reno hurried to add, "Anyway, It's about time Tony took all his days back instead of some of them, don't you think?"

"I'm flattered by your faith in my prowess, to have two boys on my pay at once," Xi said, his mouth twisting wryly. "But I'm afraid it's misplaced. Mr. Ramirez hasn't been scheduled with me for weeks. Though I'm sure you know it's against your company policy for an employee to have more than one regular client. So I regret to say my status is unofficial. Unless your previous regular feels like relinquishing you."

Reno put his cheek down on Xi's shoulder. There was a dull pressure on his throat like the weight of a small, hard hand, and a yellow needle-pricked bruise that never got the chance to fade on the inside of his elbow. "I'd wind up dead, faster."

Xi reached up a hand to place it, just briefly, against the side of Reno's face. "You must do what is best for you, Reno."

Reno smiled without it reaching his eyes. "I guess, even if I got a job up here, odds of a punk like me hooking up with a guy like you..."

Xi's smile was almost the same as Reno's, if perhaps a little more chagrined. "Very unlikely, I'm afraid."

Reno lowered his eyelids. "Yeah," he said, a little roughly. "Yeah, I thought so." He thought hard about the business card in the pocket of his jeans, wondering if Xi knew anything about the ShinRa, or the Turks. Reno himself only got a vague sense of ominous awe from the words together, and nothing more helpful than half-forgotten rumors. Xi obviously moved in higher circles, he might have some opinion on the matter. And if Xi thought a job with the ShinRa would be a bad move, well then maybe he could have that Raife guy spare a bullet for Bansu, and then Reno would be free to take a full time client, and wouldn't they all just live happily ever after. Reno was laughing long before he had reached the ludicrous conclusion.

"Something funny?" Xi asked, mildly.

Reno shook his head. "Just how stupid life is, sometimes." He ran his fingers over Xi's eyebrows, and Xi must have felt him pause over the smooth, indelibly inked black spot.

"I'll trade you secrets, Mr. Montague," he said.

Reno watched the mark vanish and appear again as his fingertip moved over it, like a waxing and waning moon. "What's it mean?"

"It means I have no father willing to claim me, and in Wutai, it means I cannot inherit any property or a family name. Kin-jaa," he said, and there was distaste even in the alien word. "'Unwanted person'."

Reno looked around the penthouse bathroom, which was bigger twice over than most entire houses in the slums. "I guess you showed them, huh?"

"Showing them was not my intention so much as survival." He reached up and took Reno's hand away, moving it to someplace more interesting. "You do what it takes for you to survive, Reno." His hips shifted under the water, between Reno's thighs, and he used his other hand to turn the jets back on.

Reno was more than persuaded to change the subject.

He told himself later that there was nothing different about that night. Xi was fond of him, but clearly not interested in buying out his contract and taking him in full time. Nobody did that anymore, anyway, it only happened in overblown musicals like Loveless.

The sex was hot, as it always was, but still Reno thought there might have been something different in the way Xi wrapped his hands around Reno's hips, the way he said Reno's name when he came. Both of them lingered in ways they hadn't before, and Reno pressed open-mouthed kisses on the bastard-mark between Xi's brows.

When morning came, and Reno picked up his pay and his pants and his danish from the tray, he looked around the posh suite and realized he was sorry. It wasn't worth letting Bansu bleed Reno's soul out of him to stay, but Reno hadn't really expected regret. His last memory of Xi had been falling asleep on his shoulder the night before.

He didn't suppose he would ever see the man again.

Reno's face closed along with the door, thinking bitterly that he would never understand why everything in his life was always such a goddamn hard trade.

Christmas that year was better than it had been since Reno's father died. It was still modest, but Reno had something indefinable in him that made the weight of the plate over him lighter. He would catch himself sometimes, taking the business card out of his back pocket, turning it over and around and reading it again as though scouring it for some clue he had missed, then putting it away like a thief with a prize too fine to keep, and yet too dear to part with.

Phoenix caught him once, sitting in the stairwell and leaning his head against the banister, smiling to himself over the rectangle of cardstock as the rest of the family shouted and waved bright slips of play paper gil over Jess' Christmas board game.

"You've got something," Phoenix said, and Reno quickly made the card vanish in his sleeve.

"What?" Reno said, guilty. Phoenix didn't answer, just eyeing Reno in a knowing way, until Reno at last relented and said, "It's nothing, Nix. Just... just a possibility, that's all. Probably nothing."

"Hope is still something, Ma says--" Phoenix was called away then; it was his turn and Angelina had just plunked yet another hotel on Silence Street.

Reno slowly took the battered card out again, and ran his thumb over the embossed ShinRa logo. "Hope, huh?" He tucked the card in his back pocket, and went over to pester Angelo, who was engrossed with his secondhand microscope and obviously above something so plebian as Monopoly. "Maybe that's it."

He spent the morning losing more imaginary money than he would ever even have in reality, all to Cassie's surprisingly shrewd business sense, and the afternoon snoring on the couch when he fell asleep reading to Katie from her new big picture book.

He woke up with a start, thinking he had overslept into the next day. His nerves were getting the best of him. He busied himself the rest of the evening with Mrs. Montague's rickety ironing board in the living room, trying to make his clothes look presentable for an interview that he still hadn't told anyone about. It was a tricky process, since for one thing Reno never ironed anything except the one time he had accidentally left his permit and 6000 gil in his jeans and washed them, and for the other thing Phoenix and Diego thought it would be a really fun idea to play tackle-football in the living room with Kellie's stuffed tonberry.

After the fourth time the iron got unplugged, he gave it up. It was Christmas no matter what was going to happen the next day, and better suited for more pleasant activates, like telling Angelo repeatedly that he wasn't volunteering any blood samples for the microscope.

He didn't mention the fact that Phoenix and Diego had stolen his cell phone and hidden it in their sock drawer, nor did he comment when he went back in the kitchen for leftover ham and a can of soda, and saw his mother had unhooked the phone jack from the wall.

Lots of things went unsaid these days, in the Montague household.

Reno put a hand over his back pocket, watched the clock, and tried not to hope that soon, things might change.

When the first train left fourth for the upper plate the next day, at six in the morning, Reno was on it. He had been awake already for hours, pacing restlessly in the small living room and wondering how on earth he was going to explain three years of previous employment as a rentboy. When the room got too small to contain him he went out on the streets, waiting by the station lamppost and chain-smoking until the train employees came back from their holiday break and opened the gate.

It didn't take him long to get to the ShinRa building, as it was in the very middle of the city and any number of bus routes went by it. Reno opted to walk the six blocks from the station, but it was still barely eight when he reached the plaza in front of the skyscraper, only to have the security guard at the door tell him the building was on holiday hours and wouldn't open until ten.

Reno was ready to explode with impatience, but instead followed the guard's directions to a diner across the street, where he drank enough coffee to make him incontinent for the rest of his days, and read a two-day old newspaper over the shoulder of the guy in the adjacent booth. It was nothing to hold his attention, usually, but Reno had nothing else to focus on except for the bland report of a drive-by shooting on Christmas Eve.

Somebody had a shitty holiday, Reno thought. The old man got up and left before Reno had read enough to get names, and Reno stared out the window, and made tiny wobbling towers of plastic creamer cups until the diner clock ticked to ten.

When the ShinRa Company front desk receptionist got behind her desk and powered up her computer for the day, Reno was standing at the counter, waiting.

"May I help you?" She asked, clearly displeased at having her morning tea and email interrupted by something so bothersome as her job.

"I'm here to see someone about an interview?"

She sighed, and clicked her mouse a few times in an irritated sort of way. "Department?"

Reno's mind went blank in spite of the number of times he had read the card. "Department of ah..." He dug around in his pocket, found the now bedraggled business card, and flipped it right way up. "Umumum... Administrative Research."

The receptionist's bored typing stuttered, just a little. She gave Reno a look that clearly indicated her doubt as to what the Turks would want with a redheaded tart in a snakeskin jacket. "Do you have an appointment?"

Reno's stomach was starting to feel like roadkill, and not from the diner's acidic java offerings. "No. I was just told to come up today." He waved the card at her. "By this guy."

She took it between her thumb and forefinger, as though doubting it was genuine, skimmed it, and pushed it back across the counter at him. Then, to Reno's considerable relief, she slapped a laminated visitor's badge and a clipboard with a pen on a shot-bead chain down next to it. "Forty-second floor," she said, as Reno scrawled his name in the first slot for the day, and jabbed an acrylic nail in the direction of the elevator. "Ask for Tseng. His Admin will take care of you."

Reno clipped the visitor's badge on at a rakish angle, and flashed a wink at the receptionist. "Thanks, sweetheart."

He had the satisfaction of watching her go pink in either pleased shock or fury, and then took the steps to the elevator two at a time, whistling.

The clear glass elevator made his insides lurch around a little, and Reno decided maybe putting his nose against the glass and looking straight down was probably not the best way to handle the situation. Instead he watched the flashing green lights until they lit up to the proper floor, and stepped out into a plush office with lots of plants and an almost ecclesiastical hush.

The receptionist looked up when the elevator dinged, and Reno pretended to take a little longer over the directory of names on the far wall while she wiped her red eyes on an already abused tissue. "I'm so sorry," she said, when she had composed herself a little. "May I help you?" she made the question sound very different than the first secretary.

"I hope so," Reno said, in an attempt to get her to smile. He got one, for all that it was wobbly. "I'm here about an interview?"

"Of course," she said, as grateful for distraction as he was someone nice, and dug around in her files. "I think I saw a memo about an applicant from Rude--" she found the scrap of paper she was looking for, and put it aside. "I'm sorry, Mr. Montague, but Tseng will be in the office late. He's attending a funeral this morning. Do you mind to wait?"

"Funeral?" Reno said, and then noticed that the receptionist's wastebasket was stuffed with crumpled tissues and her face was a mask of composure that was fast crumbling. "I can wait," he said.

"I have some forms for you to fill out, and you can do that down in the waiting area." She tapped her pen towards a door down the hall, and passed Reno a stack of applications that looked thicker than the ones he had to fill out for his prostitution permit. "I'll let you know when he can see you."

"Thanks," Reno said, his hand already cramping at the number of empty boxes on the forms, and the receptionist blew her nose again as he turned the corner to the waiting area.

Twelve pages in, Reno was ready to give up. He'd lost track of the confidentiality and corporate policy and conflict of interest forms he had signed just to have an interview, never mind a job. An hour snailed by and the elevator had dinged so much without stopping that Reno had given up on listening to it.

Until he heard the doors open, and it was like someone had touched an electric wire to his nerves. His hands made damp wrinkles in the paperwork, and he was practically out the door of the room before the receptionist had finished coming in to get him.

She took his papers and vanished, materializing again to show Reno into an office that was spacious without being ostentatious, with one broad desk and a high-backed swivel chair. The blinds were closed. The chair had its back to him, and Reno's paperwork sat untouched on the edge of the desk.

"Hold my calls, Elsa."

The receptionist bowed. "Yes, Sir."

The door closed behind her, and Reno was left facing the chair with its shadowy occupant, alone.

"Rude mentioned earlier in the week that he had met someone promising during an altercation in a bar in Wall Market," the man in the chair said, without any preamble. "I assume that was you?"

Reno coughed once, not sure why the man's voice made all the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "Yes."

There was an icy clink, and a hand appeared on the arm of the chair, cradling a tumbler. "Sorry to keep you waiting," he said.

Reno shrugged, even though it was evident this Tseng guy was not looking at him. "Your secretary explained," he said, adding uneasily, "Sorry to hear it. A friend--?"

"An employee." The glass vanished back in the shadow of the chair and when it returned, there was less liquid in it. "And a friend. This is no desk position, I am afraid, and there are certain hazards to consider. Are you prepared for that?"

Reno had a brief flash of the number of times he had risked his life just in the past week, and said, "I'm used to it."

"I see." The glass was empty now. "Take a seat, Mister--" Tseng paused. "I'm afraid Elsa is having a hard morning, she didn't give me your name." He switched the glass to his other hand, picking the top sheet of Reno's application up just as Reno spoke.

"It's Reno. Reno Monta...gue..."

The chair turned around, revealing its occupant, and Reno's voice died away in his throat.

"I'm assuming," Xi said, after a very long silence in which Reno stared at his former client, "that this means we are off for the twenty-ninth."

Reno closed his mouth with a snap. "...Only if I'm hired."

Xi-- or Tseng, Reno corrected himself-- laid the top sheet of Reno's application aside without even sparing it another glance, and rose smoothly up from his chair. "Let's see about getting you a uniform."

"What, that's it?" Reno said, his mind still doing cartwheels in a vain attempt to catch up. "I thought--"

"I trust Rude's judgment implicitly, Reno." Tseng reached into a drawer in one of his cabinets, and removed a small square box. "If he feels you are suitable for the position, I believe him. " Tseng opened the top of the box. "Elsa will see about getting you a suit. This, however, is the true proof of your position." He reached out for Reno's wrist and strapped a gleaming silver watch around it, his hands as impersonal as though they had never touched each other before. "Rude will fill you in on its full functions. Welcome to the Turks, Mr. Montague."

Tseng turned around to go back to his desk, and Reno ran an admiring hand over the deep blue watch face.

"You'll be Rude's new partner," Tseng continued, "since he needs one and seems to like you. I'll tell him you'll meet him tomorrow at eight."

Reno blinked up, surprised. "Wait, don't I have to go through some sort of training, or--"

"I just buried one of my best men today, Reno." Tseng reached up and pulled the blinds, flooding the room with dull, unflattering Midgar winter light. "I'm faced with having to evolve or go extinct, and I choose to evolve. Rude will just have to see to your training as you go." He half turned, and for the first time there was a smile, and the man that Reno had been sleeping with for the past two months. "I know how quickly you catch on to instruction."

Reno felt a hot flush go from the base of his spine to the back of his neck, and he smirked right through it. "So," he said, shifting his hips slightly, "I guess you're not my client anymore."

Tseng's eyes narrowed, but he was still smiling. "No. I'm your boss."

Reno's desktop fantasy deflated with a gasp. "Oh. Right."

Tseng settled back in his chair. "I'm sure you'll work out, Reno." he idly signed the bottoms of Reno's forms, and tucked them into a drawer. "After all, I don't hire just anybody."

When Reno stepped onto the elevator again, it was in a deep blue suit that Elsa had told him was the only dress code required, along with a pair of fingerless gloves like the ones 'Xi' had strapped on in the penthouse only a few days ago. Reno looked at himself reflected in the glass of the elevator, and was pleased with his appearance for about the nine seconds it took him to realize he still looked like a rentboy, only a rentboy playing up to someone's salaryman fetish. "About as badass as a box of baby moogles," he grumbled, to his reflection. "This is not going to work."

Frustrated, he unzipped the jacket, and eyed the result. It was a start.

When the elevator reached the bottom floor, the shirt was untucked and unbuttoned, the tie was long gone, and Reno Montague was almost, but not quite, satisfied. One thing still bugged him: the sleek, dark red fall of his hair. It was one of his best features as a prostitute; he took good care of it and it looked good in or out of its tail, with the two precise strands arranged just so over his eyes. Bansu had been particularly fond of it. Reno pulled the tie out of it and he watched it slide through his gloved fingers, considering.

He hopped the afternoon train to sixth and went straight to the Pavilion in Wall Market to deliver news his manager said would put them under in a week. Reno saw Vic heading upstairs with an abashed, handsome older gentleman in spectacles, and said he doubted it. "Do me a favor, though," he said, feeling vindictive. "Bansu forced me to rent for him out of contract, all the time. With needles. I think that's a banning offense for candathine clients, isn't it?"

He was still grinning when he left, and walked around the corner and upstairs to the tiny salon responsible for the Pavilion girls' elaborate coiffures. He handed the girl several thousand gil up front, and instructed her in no uncertain terms to be brutal. She took his advice to heart and Reno came out later sporting red spikes of a color usually reserved for strip joint signage, with only his bangs and a much reduced ponytail remaining.

The street vendor on the corner, hawking everything from fur coats to materia, was quick to offer an opinion. "Looks good, man."

Reno bent over the display of mirrored sunglasses, trying to catch his reflection. "Not bad, huh?" He picked up a pair of shades to get a better look at the ponytail at the nape of his neck, and found himself remembering the sunglasses worn by one Rudolph Alexander, better known as Rude, his partner to be. "Hey, how much?"

The vendor offered a start price that he clearly expected to be talked out off, but Reno paid him the full amount. It just happened to be the last of his prostitution pay from Bansu.

"Thanks," he said, tipping the sunglasses up on his forehead, to keep his bangs out of the way.

"Thank you, buddy," the vendor said, thumbing through the cash, and Reno's permit fluttered out of it. "Hey, ain't this yours?"

Reno looked at the laminated card the vendor held, thinking about the past two years, looking at the tiny photograph of his own face, his thumbprint. "Nope," he said finally. "That's not me." He tapped two fingers against his sunglasses and, turning his back on Wall Market and the confused vendor, caught the first train back home.


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