Rin vs. Nooj. Because people who really want to die usually do so, or have another reason why they can't. Artifice (n): a clever strategy usually intended to deceive or defraud; a skillfully contrived work; ingenuity.
They brought the boy in on a stretcher one afternoon. The temperatures were already too hot for their own good, sun-buzzing against pale stone walls, trebling the chocobo-stink outside. Warmth turned the air into water, humid enough to swim through and rise gasping for breath. Thinking about moving was exhausting. Actual exertion? Impossible.
Rin, sitting sequestered in his office in the very last room back, heard the handlers trundle their load down the line of rented chambers and into a spare. He didn't care. The addition of another guest was merely a sum of numbers in his books, figures to be tallied together and balanced by the end of the day. They swarmed in neat black lines on the tan sheafs. One was attempting to march all the way off the page.
Muffled murmur of conversation rose and fell through the walls. Mi'ihen's Travel Agency was full of foot traffic. Outside Rin's window, one of the chocobo stablers whistled the most irritating childhood ditty--the same eleven notes over and over again, endlessly trilling the fragmented rhyme.
Sin came down the mountains. Rin's mind automatically matched words to the tune. Then we died again.
Sin came down the mountains.
"Rin." The ripple of spoken Al Bhed slunk through the rattle of knuckles on wood. The door lurched open; Rin didn't look up. "You need to see this. There's a boy asking for machina services. They've just brought him in from Mushroom Rock."
A fly battered itself against the windowpane, performing counterpoint buzz. Rin frowned at the distractions. His nostrils flared; the visitor's shoes were thick with the reek of moist dirt, and quite possibly, chocobo droppings.
Outside, the stabler was still whistling.
Sin came down the mountains.
Rin knuckled his temples until sparks hazed his vision, and the tiny knots of muscle began to weep. Below him, the ledgers waited expectantly. "Tell me why I should be interested."
"He's a Crusader."
- - - - -
A traveler from Guadosalam once said that Al Bhed had been born with swirling pupils, not so that they could see others, but so the world would not be able to see them. The Guado then went on to accuse Rin's irregular eyes as proof that the Al Bhed were granted the gift not to view the truth, but to manipulate it. Take it apart, just like a machina case, and then rework words to fit their needs.
In retrospect as he mulled it over later, Rin suspected that the bias was created by the size of the large chocobo maintenance bill he'd provided to the man, with ninety days to pay back the cost or be in default.
He used his eyes to glare at the newest charity case.
By the look of it, the local Al Bhed had taken money to haul in some scruff of a child off the road. Leather and canvas rested against the wall; the stretcher was paired with a makeshift crutch, one that was little better than two discarded spear-poles lashed together with cloth. A banner had been twisted around the top to provide limited padding. Rust-patches of blood speckled it like a map.
At first glance, Rin pinpointed the boy as a teenager. His hair was long as a temple dancer's. Unlike a performer, the locks were ragged in places, testaments to numerous encounters with fiends. Most Crusaders cut their hair short for exactly that reason, or wound the strands tight, coating them with evergreen sap-balm to keep stray chunks from slipping free. The joke among Mi'ihen's Al Bhed was that fiends could smell a Crusader coming ten leagues in advance, and would know to run away before their nostrils were overwhelmed.
This boy's hair hung well past his waist. Loose.
Arrogance, Rin decided, before moving on to measure the rest.
The boy was sweating from the heat. Despite that, a dirt-streaked linen blanket covered him from the waist down, encompassing lumps of limbs beneath. Rin marked off these details with the same ease as an inspection of faulty cart goods. His practiced eye hunted for sign of a coin purse, then a waist pouch, and finally terminated at a single shirt pocket, much too flat to be anything but empty.
Al Bhed genetics could be mongrel-aggressive. The dominance of eye colors overrode mixed-breed children, bequeathing pale scalps and strong lungs, long muscles and bone. In a room filled with blonde shocks of hair, the boy looked completely out of place.
Also, Rin did not think he had any money on him, which only compounded the observation.
Rin wasted no time. He did not bother to sit.
"You are a Crusader?"
"I was." Dignified despite his injuries, the boy tried to lift his chin with pride. It did not tremble. "I was discharged after my accident. They said my only option was to live crippled, and that they couldn't retain someone who was unfit for combat. When I tried to prove otherwise, they barred me from the camp."
Absorbing this with glassy indifference, Rin folded his arms. "And why are you coming here?"
The opening forays had been performed. No stranger to mercantile discussion, the teenager picked his next words with visible care. "I know the Al Bhed are... good with machina. I've seen you use them before. In Luca, I once met a man who had lost his arm. It had been replaced by a metal one. You Al Bhed did it, didn't you."
The flat accusation earned a discordant murmur from the room.
Rin found his eyes narrowing even as his mind stirred at the promise of a new business opportunity. He ignored the generalized insult. "If this assumption were true," he drawled, "what kind would you require?"
Grim-mirthed, the boy reached down and whipped the blanket aside. The steam of raw tissue thickened the summer air. Instead of two healthy limbs burrowed beneath the covering, there was only piecemeal; one leg remained as a whole comparison to the other, which had been aborted above the knee. Where that second leg should have been, there was only a stump, puckered red and hot with healing. It lay as useless as a fat sausage on the sheets.
Lingering infection painted fiery streaks through the suffering flesh. The wound had been stressed, half the stitches come free when weight had been forced upon the hasty attempts to patch the bleeding. Whoever the field surgeon had been, they had peeled off a layer of skin from the missing joint and sewn it in a jagged cover for an amputation cap. It leaked a steady trail of clear fluid and pus.
Most of the local Al Bhed knew better than to interrupt Rin during business. One of them burst a question anyway, startled out of her silence by the magnitude of the injury. "What's your name?"
By the time the second word left her mouth, Rin was cutting through that inquiry with his own, ignoring both charity and grace. "How old are you?"
The boy matched his eyes first to the handler, and then back to Rin. "Fifteen." Satisfaction at their reaction kept his back stiff. "And my name is Nooj."
"Did your parents allow you to enlist?" Receiving no answer, Rin continued, sharp-tongued at the sight of the amputation. "I ask, because I wish to know how we will be paid for our services. If you do not have a family that is sponsoring you, then you must have another source of income."
Struck silent by the ruthless demand, the boy clenched his jaw tight.
Rin counted out the seconds. He reached ten before he gave a mournful shake of his head, and turned away. "Then I am afraid we cannot do business. Goodbye."
In the rasp of that protest, Rin heard volumes of dignity being choked back. The chorus of Al Bhed attendants stirred. Several of them shot sidelong glances at Rin, gifting him with pair upon pair of labyrinth pupils, all watching.
Rin savored their uncertainty. He estimated Nooj's patience as another man might count out granules of gold-dust before finally bringing his gaze back to bear upon the injured teenager, a slow twist that was made on leisure alone. "This is not generosity, my friend." Pitching his voice reasonable, Rin continued amiably. "I believe in profit. If you do not have any money, then we have no means of helping you, and must bid you goodbye."
Challenge flattened Nooj's eyes into cool slits. "I'll find a way to pay. Only get me able to walk again so that they'll let me back on the front lines. I promise you," the boy swore, his voice dark with absolute confidence, "I'll settle my debts then."
Allowing both brows to arch in polite disbelief, Rin raked lines of skepticism across the fresh wound of pride. "A cripple? Killing fiend bounties? We require much more than the paltry sums for Fangs or Ipiria lizards. It would take you years of hobbling around for us, and the interest rates will increase in the meantime."
"Just get me back out there," Nooj repeated. Buried anger swelled behind his features, but he kept it crushed underneath harsh determination. "Whatever your price is, I will meet it."
Silence engulfed the room. One man shifted his weight in a creak of buckled leather; another woman cleared her throat in a muted cough. Outside the window, Rin could hear the chocobo handler continuing to whistle.
Sin came down the mountains.
He waited for a sign of weakness in the boy's resolve.
Nooj stared back.
Then we died again.
"Very well." Over the surprised staccato of whispers behind him, Rin lifted his voice. "If you become fit enough to rejoin Yevon's Crusaders, then it is possible that they will see the use of our Al Bhed machina. There are numerous business opportunities that can arise from such a partnership. Someone see if there is a specialist salryhel nearby! And bring in my accounts book," the man ordered, gathering his knee beneath him while he took a seat on the bed. The mattress creaked under the doubled weight. Rin felt Nooj's remaining foot nudge against him before the boy slid it away.
Two Al Bhed turned instantly to obey, pushing out the exit while another set began to fold up the stretcher. Tension melted in a rush. Nooj's crutch was knocked over with a clatter before gloved hands scooped it up and thrust it behind a chair; fluxing consonants mixed together as the Al Bhed workers began to disperse, chattering about dinner and the latest blitzball goals.
During the bustle of activity, Nooj sat frozen. Successful defiance had left him subdued, unwilling to move lest the decision be reversed. Stretched in offering on the bed, the oozing leg waited, flesh taunt and curling around the ruined stitches.
Rin ignored the leering amputation-wound as he busied himself with ticking numbers off one hand. "While this is not our primary business, Mi'ihen's Travel Agency will see what we can do for your condition. There are many additions which go along with a purchase such as this," the Al Bhed warned cheerfully. "To begin, I understand that there are body stockings which are customarily used for amputees. You must be careful to keep the stump clean and dry, or else I am told there will be inflammation. Next, there will be the cost of custom fitting."
Accepting the pen and ledger from one of the Al Bhed he had sent on errand, Rin flipped the book to a new page. "You will need to return once a year in order to have your measurements taken while you grow older. When you are twenty, we will outfit you for a final set that you may wear--"
"I won't need them." Nooj's mouth firmed in a smirk. He gave a bird-toss of his head, bitterly confident. The loose strands of his hair slapped the air. "I'll be dead long before then."
Rin's pen paused on its way down the rows of accounts. The Al Bhed's gaze wheeled up, lancing through the flippancy of Nooj's claim.
"You will live," he retorted, cold. Mirroring the former Crusader's own defiance, Rin layered his blue eyes in a spiral-swept glare. "I do not feel like paying for a Summoner to come all the way out here for you alone, and we would have to absorb the expense of cleaning this room from a death. Otherwise, do us the favor of pulling your own body off the road and slicing your throat where no one will be bothered by your pyreflies."
Blocked by Rin's sudden hostility, Nooj tasted the air wordlessly before he tried another tack. "So it's only money that's behind this?"
"No." Pressing down on the paper, the Al Bhed sketched the characters of Nooj's name on a fresh line. "It is because otherwise, you would be the most ghastly Unsent that Spira has ever seen." A flourish sealed the newest entry to its bargained cost. "Of that, you can be sure."