It was well past the height of summer before Rin drank to excess again.
Operation Mi'ihen had been a rumor that quickly inflated into fact. What had started as an infiltration of the Crusaders' pocketbooks had elevated to a project far more grand than any tradesman's wiles; no one had thought that the Crusaders would actually betray Yevon's teachings in order to combat Sin, but as the season rolled on, and more soldiers began to arm themselves with high-grade rifles, the truth could not be ignored. The Crusaders were escalating the war. They were willing to ignore their own prejudices to do so.
The world was changing.
Because of this, their exile was almost guaranteed. Condemnation for machina use was a fate which the Al Bhed had been expecting; the number of Crusaders who chose to defy Yevon was not. That alone won the loyalty of even the most suspicious digger. Firing ranges were set up, studding the lines of Mushroom Rock, and the crack of powder-shot was the first wakeup call come dawn.
It was a rare union of two forces, those warriors ordained by Yevon and the machina-clan outcast by the same. Such an act was nothing short of miraculous.
From a merchant's view, however, it was a disaster.
Sales were low, since many of the Al Bhed had chosen to donate materials to the Crusaders' efforts. While the popularity of machina was at a high, the verdict of Yevon rippled out to even the smallest village, slamming the label of exile with an indiscriminate hand. Those who wished to win favor with Bevelle refused every hint of Al Bhed technology, barring entire villages from available trades.
Profit margins had suffered. Employment had as well. So long as the Crusaders' march was in effect, many of the Al Bhed had volunteered to assist them, temporarily abandoning their jobs to chase a dream of Sin's defeat. What began as a financial venture had mutated into quite the opposite. In order to retain certain measures of public face, Rin was forced to surrender precious materials to a martyr's cause. Everything was a loss. It was a nightmare of accounting.
To make matters worse, the staff of the Mi'ihen Travel Agency decided to reorganize their vacation time. The mystery was how it all coincided with the Operation which the Crusaders were cobbling together; no one told Rin to his face, but they assumed he saw through their lies, knew why bags were being packed and notes left in the night. The founder was a force of mercantile ruthlessness. None of them could pull one over his eyes.
Aging relatives spontaneously popped into being, requiring the staff to leave immediately under the geas of familial obligations. Mysterious illnesses cropped up. Emergency repairs were concocted. At one point, the founder sat up at the front door and caught three chocobo handlers trying to smuggle their gear in a wheelbarrow; after he explained rather pointedly how there was barely even a skeleton crew left and any further absences would result in no Agency to return to, the desertions stopped.
Sales were ruined. Half the remaining Mi'ihen employees were of the opinion that Rin should choose to expand into blitzball instead, in order to recoup the losses ahead of time. One professional blitz team had heard about the founder's athletic ability, and had been peppering the mail with steady contract offers. Sin could come and go, could be slain for one decade before reappearing for ten. Blitzball, they all agreed, was a glutton's market.
Sports were the heated topic of the day when the Deathseeker returned to Mi'ihen's Travel Agency. He arrived with the announcement of rifle shots.
Most of the workers had already scattered for the daily chores, forced to herd chocobos in limited pastures, doubling up schedules in order to compensate with those who had been lucky enough to desert. Hallon and Cirra - two of the only Al Bhed who were content to remain at Mi'ihen - had finally triumphed in their marriage preparations and were readying themselves to inflict the actual event.
Nooj's repeated efforts to call for help had cracked one of the windows, his sturdy cane thumping against the chunky glass. It rattled the ornamental drapes which had been strung up by Hallon earlier that day, scraping at tattoo-marks painted vivid blue on peach, tribute to Cirra's belly.
When the noise did not stop for several minutes, the Al Bhed workers flooded out. First in curiosity, and then in a swarm, babbling questions in such haste that half of them swapped and out of their native tongue without realizing it.
"What are you doing here?""Ryja oui paah vilgat po Yevon?"
"Why are there dead people in the road?"
"Who - "
Through the storm of voices, Nooj raised his own. "We ran into trouble with - yes - Yevon." The young man's bark skipped across the walls, a carefully harsh sound that smashed through the chatter of the Al Bhed. "We managed to drive them back for a short while, and make it all the way here before we collapsed. I can't carry them in. Can you help - Rin."
Startled by the name, the workers turned as one, following the direction of Nooj's gaze to discover the Agency's founder standing frozen in the doorway.
Finding everyone's attention upon him, Rin made a soft click in his throat.
"I heard noises," he muttered at last. His eyes flicked from the bodies on the Highroad, to the employees, and finally back to Nooj. Detaching himself from the building, the man stepped outside; a motion of one hand and several Al Bhed were scuttling to the task, examining the casualties for bullet wounds and blood loss. "I assume I can expect the trouble was yours?"
"Those 'noises' were them shooting at us," the teenager retorted without missing a beat, acid-mouthed. "If you don't bring us all inside, they'll come back and catch us here."
Curiously enough, Rin did not move immediately to the task, despite the gravity of the situation. Instead, he only glanced at the crumpled, bleeding soldiers once more. "Are these... your Crusader friends?"
"Technically." Straightening his shoulders, Nooj gave a jerky shake of his head. "Yevon excommunicated everyone, but they still had Maesters spying on us. We don't have much time. You'll hide these people from Bevelle's soldiers, won't you?"
"Yho cdnid chybc frah ed ec dekrdahat," the Mi'ihen founder answered eventually, slow, his tone betraying nothing of the old proverb's bile. His hand came up, scrubbed at his face. Taking this as their cue, the Al Bhed began to strip rags from their belts to serve as impromptu rope, practiced wariness in their gestures as they knelt and began to rig up carry-leashes. Death was not foreign to them, but neither were Unsent. There were no summoners near Mi'ihen. The Agency had to fend for itself.
It took six of them three trips to get everyone inside. Rin stood back at the doorway, Nooj leaning across from him; the pair were gargoyle statues faced off for eternity, stone-eyed and waiting while mortals scurried past. The woman was easiest, being physically light. Her recording machina was dumped beside her on a chair, still whining as its shattered lens tried to memorize data, whirring its tinny plea until one Al Bhed reached out and thumbed it off.
The swaddled coat of the tanned Yevonite took more care to handle without its lacings getting every which way, so he was dropped on the floor and shunted to last position for medical treatment.
Rin broke his vigil as the last body was carried through. "That one is an Al Bhed," he remarked aloud, deceptively light. "Speaking of which, I would like to know if you have seen - "
"All dead." Gouging a hole through Rin's oblique musings, Nooj tightened his grip on his cane. "Every last one, and Yevon will be coming down this way in a matter of hours. If you're lucky, it'll be that long," he continued, ignoring the stifled gasp of one of the workers. "When they come here, I'd recommend you claim ignorance of the Operation. They might not connect the corpses of your workers to this establishment."
"Impossible." Automatically contradictory, Rin shook his head. Bland, pragmatic, he challenged the decree. "You cannot tell me that most of my... employees are gone. The fighting addled your sight. You are incorrect."
"I saw them." The roar tore out of Nooj's chest, muted barely enough for speaking volume. "They were lying in pieces across the beach - the ones that weren't completely annihilated. Legs torn off, arms severed, bellies ripped wide open from fiends. I saw all your people, Rin. Death has them now."
In a corner of the room, a woman gasped and dropped a wad of bandages to cover her ears, trying to block out the teenager's words.
Nooj continued to speak. "Sin destroyed them. Yevon sacrificed them as a lesson," he pressed, cynicism bleeding from each word. "Yevon chose it, and everyone died. In Spira, there is no other choice. They were fools to believe otherwise and deserved their fate - "
A hiss, and Rin's lips closed again, hiding teeth that had been bared in warning. "Do not say such things in front of people who have lost their friends to such a choice."
Only gradually did Nooj seem to realize the effect that his news had wrought upon the Agency. One man had turned for the doorway, stumbling raggedly down the hall as he shook his head in denial. The medics who were carefully peeling away bloodied leather did so with trembling hands, their expressions grim and ruthless while they measured the pulse of the unconscious bodies.
"I need to leave." Broken, abrupt, Nooj blinked and shook his head, looking dazed for a moment. His voice melted, returning to its normal sparse diction. "There might still be some Crusaders alive who know me, and I need to speak with them before Yevon gets their hands on them. You must give me passage to Luca, and swiftly. From there, I need to take one of your transport ships to Kilika. We must hurry."
Rin drew back as a cat might recoil, shoulders hunched, physically balking from the direct orders. "No. You are not telling me the entire story - "
"I don't have time." Again, that strained mix of desperation and aggression, Nooj's gaze refusing to fix on Rin's. Instead it skittered like marbles on a floor, cherry-stone hearts zipping around the ankles of those gathered. "I need to go swiftly. You must let me leave now."
The Al Bhed exchanged glances and bandages; the water in the washbasin turned red with Crusader blood.
"You are insane." Rin's voice was faintly astonished. The news sent him pounding towards the door, through the throng of Al Bhed who pressed back against the walls in an effort to keep from being trampled. "Oppil," he snapped out, calling for the worker who had already fled in mourning. "Call a medic to restrain the taydrcaagan for Sin's toxin - "
And then Nooj was on him.
Far more deft than he should have physically been capable, the Deathseeker launched himself into motion. Rin got as far as five steps down the hall before Nooj caught him. Throwing out a metal palm, the teenager slammed the Al Bhed into the beige stucco, squashing him in a blow that caused Rin's lungs to cough out all their oxygen.
There was something intimately wrong about the Deathseeker's joints; the ease with which he pursued Rin, fluid as he had never been before with his crippled leg and half-hearted arm. He moved too quickly to be obeying the limits of his own body. A strangeness blazed in his amber eyes that none of them had ever seen before - and, more importantly, could not decipher.
Years of bargaining lent Rin the poise required to hold his composure. He accepted the manhandling with a businessman's decor, physically submitting even as his face promised death, spiraled pupils gone to razor-slices from the brilliance of his anger. When one of the workers dropped the handful of antiseptic rags and began to stand, Rin gave a short, sharp twist of his head in warning.
"A trick," he growled. Rudimentary, angry, but meeting Nooj's eyes square as a bird might dare the snake. "Something is not right here. You are lying to me."
"Why not? You've been lying to me all along." Triumphant, Nooj levered his flesh arm across Rin's chest, pinning him against an elbow. "Ever since you actually took my challenge and met me on the banks of the Moonflow, I knew that you had more invested than just cheap coin. What I haven't been able to figure out is why." Leaning in, the Deathseeker brushed metal fingers over Rin's mouth, smirking as he pressed at the corner of the other's lips. "Do you think you can save someone, anyone from death?"
Rin, forced to speak with the taste of gun-oil and sweat against his jaw, stood his ground.
"You are not acting like yourself, taydrcaagan." The accusation was bland, passionless. "The fact that you have come back from such a massive battle, compounded upon by your recent attack by Yevon, makes me suspicious. I will have to ask you to stay while your health can be examined. Let go."
"Are you afraid I'm Unsent?" Hot satisfaction flowered on Nooj's face, pulling his eyes low in pleasure. He shifted his weight, bearing the mechanical leg against Rin's hip. Metal ground into Rin's thigh as Nooj leaned in, twisting the artificial knee joint like a lever. "Don't worry, I'm very much alive. Isn't that funny? Alive. Living again. Such a perfect opportunity for it, too. And you're too relieved that I am to do anything about it. You wouldn't risk your... investment by stopping me here. That's what it's all about, isn't it?" Nooj's lips twitched, revealing the points of his teeth as he grinned. "Your pocketbook."
Rin tried to make a reply, and instead found Nooj's thumb in the way, pressing down upon the Al Bhed's tongue. The words came out gagged; a twitch of Rin's shoulders was the sole warning before the founder tried to jerk his head back, only to succeed in striking the wall behind him with a dull bump. Rather than cry out in pain, the man chose to glare instead, disdain simmering off him as viciously as desert heat.
If Nooj was bothered by the hostility, he did not stop. "That's the thing about you, Rin. You won't admit otherwise. Just save yourself the trouble. Agree."
The unpleasant hum of the Deathseeker's voice buzzed, bouncing off the walls. It rang like herald's bells, announcing a reverberation of something just about to surface, inhuman and cruel, emerging like a wet beast from Nooj's throat. His prosthetic fingers flexed like snakes as he forced his touch on the Agency's founder; none of the stiffness of pressurized joints, but with all the deftness of a flesh hand.
Upon seeing this, one mechanic hissed, touching his wrench in superstition as if the metal's presence alone could ward away a fiend.
The gesture caused the workers to stir, uneasy. There was no force on Spira that could animate machina other than electricity - not unless you believed the more superstitious of the Al Bhed at Home, who would claim that particularly dense pyrefly concentrations caused haywire glitches, unexplained phenomena.
Old tales. Nonsense. Childhood stories, and nothing more.
But Nooj's sudden babble made no sense either. Something from the carnage had entered his blood like a disease, rotting him from the inside-out, and now that madness was grinning directly at the Mi'ihen founder.
"Agree, Rin. You don't understand how much better it will be if you do."
"I will nothelp you. Not like this," the Al Bhed retaliated, enunciating slowly around the finger between his teeth, spit leaking down the side of Nooj's palm with each word.
Nooj jostled his hip, forcing Rin to visibly wince as metal bearings ground against tender flesh. "You will do everything," the teenager insisted, a foreign glee brimming his voice. "I... know you better than that. But we're out of time together." Sliding away from the Al Bhed, Nooj took a step back, wiping his hand dry on the side of his leg. "Is there anything you want to say before I go?"
Rin took the time to straighten out his vest, a short tug that betrayed the deeper anger within. He did not look directly at the Deathseeker, but only vowed his response to the ground.
"I believe all we could say to each other would only be lies, taydrcaagan."
Nooj inclined his head in acknowledgment. Then he smiled.
"I look forward to our future engagements, Rin. There are so many plans."
Leaving the wounded to their sleep, the Al Bhed clustered at the Agency's front door as Nooj strode towards the hovers. He hauled himself easily into a passenger seat, yanking up his cane in an afterthought and balancing it over one knee. The driver, unaware of what had transpired inside the building, only nodded to the orders given before cranking up the engines.
The hover machina took off, chugging down the road.
Silence hung over the Agency.
"Rin," one man began, a confused, cog-whined note.
"Be silent." Rubbing his chest with his fingers, a tight circle of pressure that whitened his sunbaked skin, Rin frowned. "Whatever it is you have to say, I do not wish to hear it. The taydrcaagan has decided to embark on his own affairs. We may engage in business relations with him in the future, if the price is right. Otherwise, our relationship is terminated."
A snap of his hand, and Rin was glaring at the summer-scuffed Highroad, blue eyes wild and fierce. The swirl-pupils stood out in sharp focus, slashes of black that spiraled inwards to the privacy of the man's thoughts.
Far in the distance, the chuff of the machina hover faded, and then died, erasing itself even as the dust was slow in settling.
"This is the truth," Rin decided at last. "It can be nothing else."
The next morning, Rin showed up just in time to take his seat of honor during the wedding. He blamed the bloodshot threads in his eyes on alcohol. Hallon and Cirra radiated satisfaction as they repeated their commitment vows; Rin led the applause that thundered on their promises of loyalty beyond life, rising to his feet with his back straight and his wrists stiff. He uncorked bottles of fresh wine for the celebration afterwards, but when they looked for him during the dancing, he was gone.