Mixed Signals (5): Partners

by Tenshi

the body
is a book
of matches
a little fire
is required
Ohio Blue Tip Strike Anywhere
strike me
-Over the Rhine, "The Body is a Stairway of Skin"

Reno's first official morning of being a Turk was spent by signing his name roughly eleven billion times, and having the photo taken for his ID card.

"What," he asked, when he got the card back, still warm from the printer, and saw it only had 'Reno' printed on it, "no last name?"

"Turks always go by their first names only," the guy at the laminator said, shrugging as he reloaded the plastic film. "Kinda a tradition, but I think it's cos' Tseng doesn't have a last name."

Reno looked down at his own spiky photo, an image of himself he was still getting used to. "Hey," he said, sliding the card into his wallet, "I'm just glad to know his name at all." He left the Human Resources department without bothering to explain.

The rest of his day was spent getting his ass repeatedly handed to him in the ShinRa company gyms.

It started out innocuously enough, as Elsa informed him when he arrived that his partner was waiting for him in the gym, and his training was starting now. He took the elevator to the 64th floor and found Rude waiting for him outside the locker room, still in his suit and sunglasses and looking like part of the architecture.

"Hi," Reno said, holding out his hand. "I guess we haven't really met yet, partner."

Rude seemed to consider Reno's hand a long moment before taking it for a brief shake. "Thought you might turn up here eventually."

"Yeah," Reno grinned, rocking back on his heels. "I guess I should say thank you."

Rude smiled in a way that only made it halfway up one side of his mouth, and Reno wondered if it was intended to be as intimidating as it looked. "You might want to wait on the thanks," he said, and tilted his head towards the lockers. "You're number 19," he said. "Your ID will get you in the lock. Get changed and meet me on the mats in ten."

Reno tossed off a salute, and ambled into the locker room. In his locker he found clean towels, a pair of sweatpants, and a navy blue t-shirt with the ShinRa logo screenprinted on the front and "SECURITY" across the shoulder blades.

By the time he had changed and gone back out into the gym, Rude was waiting for him. Apparently, Rude's suit jacket didn't do anything to enhance his size. The man was built like a brick wall, and just because he was only wearing loose training pants he somehow managed to look even more threatening than he did in his work clothes and shades.

An ice-blue leviathan curved sinuously over Rude's right shoulder in crisp tattooed ink, digging two dimensional claws into his opposite hip. In the wall of mirrors behind them, Reno could see the lithe dragons' coils slithering down Rude's back. He wondered how far down-- and where-- the rest of the tattoo went. Both his nipples were pierced, and without his sunglasses there was something indefinably appealing about his eyebrows.

Reno spent about three seconds artfully rewording his previously inflexible stance on tough guys not being his type.

"You did pretty good in that bar fight," Rude said, stretching his neck slightly. "You have any training?"

Reno stepped up lightly onto the vinyl mat, nerves jangling in a not-unpleasant way as they usually did before a fight. "Not really," he said. "They give everybody a crash course in self-defense at the Pavilion, but anything else I just picked up by trying to stay alive."

"Let's see how you'd do against me." Rude let his arms hang loose by his sides, not even taking a defensive stance. "Come at me. Assume it's a real situation."

Reno raised both his eyebrows in disbelief. "Riiiight, are we first assuming I'm suicidal?"

Rude's mouth twitched, but he didn't say anything. Reno took a half-step backwards, sizing him up. He was tall, and tall guys sometimes left their legs vulnerable. A quick fake towards the face followed by a drop and sweep seemed like Reno's best option.

Reno took two steps forward and then pressed the advantage of his speed, launching himself up in a distracting feint and then dropping into a low kick to take Rude's ankles out from under him.

...That was the idea, anyway. What happened really was that Reno got maybe as far as the two steps up before he realized that he had never really seen Rude without his sunglasses, and that his eyes were two startlingly different colors. Reno didn't have time to think about it more than that, because something slammed into him with the force of a cross-metro transit line train, the entire training room did a queasy 360-degree turn all the way around him, and he was suddenly flat on his back on the mat trying without much success to get some oxygen back in his lungs.

"Rule number one," Rude said, bending down over him. "Pay attention."

Reno sort of... wheezed. Rude had floored him with about as much effort as Reno would swat a fly, and he hadn't even seen the man move.

Rude reached down and grasped Reno around the forearm, hauling him back up to his feet and smiling with his mismatched blue-green eyes. "You know, technically you have to know fifty different ways to kill a man with your bare hands before you can even be considered as a Turk."

Reno massaged his ribs, which were sore from hitting the mat, but not from Rude's throw. Reno still wasn't sure where Rude had grabbed him, or if he had just stuck his arms and legs in Reno's momentum at the right place to send him flying, like a stick in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. "Holy Shiva Queen of Frost," he gasped, when he had figured out how to get air in and out of his lungs properly again. "Why the hell'd Tseng hire me then?"

"Because you're creative in a combat environment. Because you've got speed and dexterity on your side." Rude shrugged. "And because I recommended you. But you've still got a long way to go." He took a step back, dropping into a ready position and waving Reno towards him with a slight gesture. "Now try it again."

By the time the morning was over, Reno was sure he had had every single part of his anatomy slammed into the mat at least five times, and he had never so much as caught Rude off guard even once. He landed one final time in an undignified heap on the mat, and his limbs flatly refused him when he tried to get up again.

"Not bad," Rude said, dropping down on his haunches next to the pile of goo that had been his partner. "Hit the showers. Shift's over."

Reno gingerly picked himself up off the mats, noticing to his chagrin that Rude hadn't even broken a sweat.

He flung his workout clothes into the laundry basket and wrenched the water on full blast, hoping to steam out the ache in his muscles and wondering how many shades of purple he was going to be the next day. It was too bad that ShinRa had already paid off his contract at the Silk Pavilion, Reno thought, because he was seriously beginning to wonder if they had picked the right man for the job. However, the price of his contract cancellation with the Pavilion was being docked in a percentage from his check, effectively keeping him indentured to the power company until he had worked it off. For better or worse, Reno was stuck with ShinRa Company just as much as they were stuck with him. He put his head under the stream of water, plastering his hair to his forehead and thinking that at least if he had been put in a room with Rude and told to get the man off, he would have had an idea where to start.

He toweled off and squidged back to change, getting the wrong locker at first and wondering why in the name of Ramuh someone would keep a megaphone in his gym locker. By the time he had found his own door and gotten back into his suit, he expected Rude to be long gone. But the other Turk was outside the gym room and waiting for him, shades back on in spite of the sunset happening somewhere beyond the skyline.

"Dinner's on the company, the first week," he said. "You interested?"

"Depends," Reno grinned. "What is it?"

Rude pushed himself up off the doorway, clearly expecting Reno to follow him. "You won't be disappointed," he said.

The restaurant didn't look like much from the outside: a brick storefront and an unassuming swing sign hanging over one fogged window. Rude hesitated a minute outside the door, some sort of weight settling on his inscrutable face.

"Hey," Reno said, "Everything okay?"

Rude didn't answer, staring up at the sign as it waved in the cold night wind, gold letters winking down at them in the dim green mako glow of the upper plate after dark. Finally, like a man faced with a hard task, he opened the door and waved Reno inside.

With that kind of introduction, Reno wasn't sure what to expect. Whatever he was braced for, it certainly wasn't a comfortably dim dining area with plush velvet booths and a vast black piano-- unoccupied-- sitting in pride of place.

The hostess took their overcoats but Rude made his own way to a circular booth in the back of the room, Reno trailing along behind. As they passed the piano he noticed that the lid was down over the keys, and tied with a somber band of black ribbon.

Rude, even with his sunglasses on, seemed to make a point of not looking at it.

"I didn't catch the name of the place," Reno said, sitting down and wincing a little in the process, thanks to Rude's treatment.

"La Vitesse," Rude said. "Also known as the department's alternate offices. After six weeks you get a standing tab, here."

"So it's the hangout, huh?" Reno sat back in the comfortable booth, and nodded approval. "Pretty posh. What were you doing in a dive like the Seven Slots in Wall Market?"

Rude didn't answer, looking over the rims of his glasses at the silent piano. The quiet stretched on until Reno shifted in his seat, and a waitress appeared with dinner even though they'd never been given a menu. Reno stared down at his entree and wondered what, exactly, he was expected to do in his new line of work that would merit him a whole steamed ice lobster.

"Uh," he began.

Rude didn't look up from his profoundly rare porterhouse steak. "Something wrong with it?"

"Besides the fact that it probably cost as much as a weeks rent under the plate, no." Reno shook out his napkin. "I just want to know what the catch is."

Rude arched an eyebrow, chewing thoughtfully. "No such thing as a free lunch, right?" he stabbed another bite, and there might have been a smile, just barely, on his lips. "Call it some unorthodox training."

Reno grinned. "Training me to what? Early overdose of drawn butter? It's not like--" Reno paused, and was distracted enough to miss Rude smiling into his beer. "Hey, she forgot the silverware."

"No she didn't," Rude said. "Dinner this week is on the house. Nobody said anything about making it easy on you."

Reno blinked. "What?"

"You want to eat it, kid, you have to get into it. No mallet, no crackers. Bare hands." Rude savored a particularly good bite of his steak. "And try not to make a mess. This is a nice restaurant."

"Rude, these things have shells like fucking adamantine," Reno said, looking at his dinner with trepidation. "How'm I supposed to--"

"It's not as tough to crack as a human fibula," Rude said. "You have two options. Brute strength, or problem solving. You pick."

Warm delicious steam wafted up from Reno's plate, and his stomach growled. Rude poked his baked potato until it disgorged melting sour cream. Reno eyed the lobster, a nice four pound cold water specimen, mottled carapace bristling with spikes. "Anybody ever tell you guys you have a sick sense of--" He stopped suddenly, green eyes narrowing on something just over Rude's shoulder. "What the fuck is that?"

Rude followed Reno's gaze, but there was nothing out of the ordinary about the rear of the restaurant or the comfortably curvy polished bar. "What?" He turned back around. "There's nothing--"

Reno smirked as he could not manage a full grin, not with a mouthful of what he had to admit was an exceptionally good steak. "...Problem solving," he said.

Rude looked down at the switched plates, and there might, just maybe, have been a gleam of chagrined amusement behind his sunglasses. "Think you're pretty smart?"

"No," Reno said, carving off another bite. "Just smart enough. Besides, nobody could get into one of those things, their shells are an inch thick."

"Hm." Rude picked up the armored crustacean in front of him and, with a delicate motion of his wrist, snapped the thickly-plated body in half as though it was a twig. Or possibly, considering the look he gave Reno, as though it was his new partner's spine. Chunks of shell, heavy as 100 gil coins, clunked onto the plate.

Reno's bite of steak, in his throat, seemed to be much larger than it had been a moment ago. He swallowed hard. "So um, how long have you been a Turk?"

"Long enough to have seen a lot of uneaten lobsters," Rude said, and waved his hand for the waitress to bring him a fork.

Reno woke up the next morning to the absolute definition of pain. He hoped he might be shown a little mercy, but the best he got was a sympathetic look from Elsa as she pointed him in the direction of the workout room, again.

"Looking a little green this morning, partner." Rude arched an eyebrow at Reno as he stepped up onto the mats. "Lobster disagree with you?"

Reno muttered something that could not be considered remotely civil, and it bounced off of Rude as easily as Reno's attempted attacks of the day before.

"We're trying something different today," Rude said, cracking his knuckles in a bored sort of way. I'm gonna come at you, and you're gonna have to handle it."

Reno put his hands on his knees, even his ponytail going limp. "My life insurance doesn't kick in for a month, Rude."

"Sorry," Rude said, without sounding one bit like he meant it. "It's against company policy to go easy on newbies. You ready?"

"No," Reno answered, but forced himself upright, hoping at least to make a respectable smear on the floor. "But I'm never going to be, so you might as well go for it."

Rude took the first step forward, and Reno's vision snapped into tight focus. This was something he was used to, someone twice his size and probably armed barreling down on him. This was every drunk asshole hitting on him on the train, every hourly client who thought it was a real thrill to beat up on their purchase. This was how Reno survived every night in the slums.

Rude's fist came rushing towards him, and Reno simply made a point of not being there when it landed. It was nothing so sophisticated as a martial art, just an intimate knowledge of how to get his body out of the way. He used Rude's forward knee and left shoulder and borrowed his momentum, vaulting up and over him to land behind his partner on the mat. Rude hadn't even touched him, and Reno had to stifle a noise of victory.

"That's more like it."

The rest of the room crowded back into Reno's vision, and he realized Tseng was standing in the doorway, incongruous in his suit next to the bank of treadmills.

"It's a start," Rude admitted, his one pale blue eye flicking in Reno's direction. "He might stay alive a whole minute and a half on the street."

Reno shot Rude an irritated look, wondering why he had even recommended him to Tseng if he though he was so bad, but didn't want to say anything in front of their boss. He hadn't seen Tseng since the day he was hired, and some part of him was obscurely relieved that his former client had chosen to walk in when Reno was actually doing something good, instead of being slammed through the ceiling of the 63rd floor.

"He stayed alive seventeen years already, Rude, I would think that's a start." Tseng's cool gaze flicked briefly over Reno. "...Decided to change your look, Mr. Montague?"

Reno caught his own reflection out of the corner of his eye, cropped flame-red hair like a firework in the middle of the room. "Yeah well," he said, with forced lightness, "I didn't want to look like a slut in a suit."

"Hardly," Tseng said, with profound dryness. "You haven't even met the head of weapons development."

Rude made a sound that was suspiciously like a laugh.

"Don't let me interrupt," Tseng said, turning to leave. "Keep at it, Rude. Try to get him up to surviving five minutes, if you can. We're short-handed."

"That was a pretty slick move," Rude said, and Reno tore his eyes from Tseng's retreating back, his mind wandering somewhere along the lines of a hot tub and the inside of his boss' thigh.

Reno made a dismissive noise. "Ah, it's just a little trick, that's all. Nothing big."

"Good," Rude's half-smile was fast becoming ominously familiar. "I guess it won't be a problem to do it when I'm actually coming at you full speed, then?"

Reno groaned.

"Another day, another dose of skin grafts," Reno said, when the clock had ticked to five. "If I get any more friendly with the floor I'm gonna have to start charging it."

At least Rude had actually worked up a decent sweat this time, and Reno wasn't the only one balling his workout clothes into the shower room hamper. "Must have been a hard living," Rude said, as Reno yanked a clean towel from the rack. "What you were doing."

Reno shot his partner a quick look, but Rude seemed to be preoccupied with the ties on his pants. "Yeah," Reno murmured. "But there's... worse." Reno couldn't at that moment think exactly what was worse, since he had just discovered that Rude's tattooed leviathan tail did in fact wind down past his ass and wrapped twice around his upper thigh.

"There's always worse," Rude answered, stepping into the closest shower stall and the squelch of pipes and roaring water put an end to any further conversation.

"Right," Reno mumbled, to nobody but the hamper, "like trying to figure out how to get laid without money being paid up front."

Reno's subsequent shower was intentionally very cold.


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