Entirely blameable on the splendid fic by Luc Court, Artifice, this is less of a Rin/Nooj as I intended, and more of a Rin+Nooj with a healthy amount of 'I wonder what kind of crack Rin is on'.

Because seriously, Rin is sinister. You don't think so? It takes a special kind of mind to realize the market potential in setting up a chain of convenience shops along a route that untold numbers of summoners tread on, heading towards inevitable death. Just something to think about. Luc might've said it best:

' Rin's ability to smile, and smile, and then turn to Yuna and outright state that he's willing to cover up any number of things if it achieves his goals -- and then gives her free chocobo rides and merrily trots off. It takes guts to tell that to a High Summoner and waltz away. And yet he's so very blase about it. He is very sinister, and he gets involved in everything (he even has Gippal's sphere), and I think it's fun to track down where he's been.'

ANYWAY, enough quoting conversations on LJ. Here be fic. 'Ware ye, all who enter.

by Mana Angel

For someone who's invested so much money into a franchise so widespread that even the most isolated hermit knows what Sphere Break is, Rin appears to be appallingly bad at his own game.

Nooj knows this because he himself has been made painfully aware, on many, many, many occasions, at just how much he happens to be less-than-competent at it himself. It doesn't help that Gippal's noisy about victory, crowing loudly enough to startle off any Chocobos within earshot every time he breaks three spheres at a time, which is a distressingly frequent occurrence.

There are times, Nooj thinks, when Gippal is a good friend, but there are also times when Nooj feels an irresistible urge to jam the elbow of his machina arm into the Al Bhed's teeth and shut him up. Just for a little while. Then again, knowing Gippal, he'd probably spring back up in a heartbeat, babbling in fascination and thanking Nooj for the opportunity to get a full set of metal teeth ("Gold or silver, d'you think? Would it clash with my hair?").

Less-than-fond memories aside, Nooj knows he's on the bottom end of the great Sphere Breaker foodchain, and the fact that Rin is losing to him is more than a little disconcerting. It makes him suspicious, even. Almost without thinking, he flips a coin over, grimacing as all it manages to do is take two other spheres out of commission. He'll probably lose this round. Almost definitely.

Rin watches him, the exact expression on his face indecipherable, from the other side of the table, but Nooj doesn't squirm, as he suspects the Al Bhed intends for him to do. Instead, he stares at the coins fiercely. It might be a trick of the heat, but he almost swears they bend under his gaze.

"Take your time," Rin says, congenial as ever, and Nooj's gaze flickers up in a gesture that speaks volumes, as all his gestures do.

The Al Bhed cheerfully ignores it.

Five moves later, and it is Nooj's win again; that brings the score to five, zero, with Nooj, oddly enough, on the winning side. He frowns as he considers this, and politely but firmly shakes off the well-meaning attempts of one of Rin's scantily-dressed aides to feed him grapes; no, he is not hungry, yes, he's capable of feeding himself if he wants, yes, just leave the plate there, and why don't you go back into the lovely shade?

She's only too happy to comply.

Gippal once asked Nooj how he managed never to break a sweat, not even in the middle of the Bikanel Desert, when people who'd lived there all their lives still got a bit, well, moist whenever the sun crawled up to noontime. At the time, Nooj had shrugged and called it willpower.

Now, he can feel the dampness his palms leave against the linings of his gloves as he reaches forward for the glass of water sweating condensed water from its sides in fingerlike trickles, and as he swallows, he thinks that perhaps it was not so much willpower as a complete lack of fear. He hadn't been afraid of the heat. He hadn't been afraid of dying.

Rin's stare, however, unsettles him, as does the carefully calculated half-smile that slashes white against the tan of his skin. It's not that he feels as if he's being scrutinized, exactly. The Al Bhed's eyes are strangely unfocused, though his face is turned towards his direction; it's like he's looking through him, not at him. It's very uncomfortable. As a general rule, Nooj isn't used to being on the receiving end of uncomfortable looks, but he makes his face remain impassive, and the ice in the glass clacks together when he sets it back down.

The noice seems to jerk Rin out of whatever waking doze he's slipped into, and Nooj watches the Al Bhed's eyes, green swirls on black, drop to the glass before tracing up the hand still holding it, to the arm... until at last, he meets his gaze squarely. Rin's lips twitch.

"Would you like to play another round?" he asks, diplomatically. Nooj glares at him, but it's halfhearted, because it really is too hot to be perched on a shadeless rooftop playing Sphere Break with a man who seems to be cheerfully determined to lose every round you play with him, much less be properly angry at him.

"What I'd like," Nooj says instead, leaning forward so that his elbows rest on his knees, "Is to know why you invited me here." A better question, his infuriatingly pragmatic conscience offers, would be why he accepted in the first place. It's not racial bias speaking when Nooj says nothing good comes from Rin, but he's often misquoted on that anyway.

It's more accurate to say that nothing good comes from Rin without a price.

Rin steeples his fingers innocently and blinks at Nooj mildly, and even as his tongue begins to weave some complicated and no doubt very well thought-out excuse that doesn't really answer the question, the Youth League's leader lets his mind retreat as some buried realization stirs in his subconscious.

There isn't any possible way for a merchant to lose in a game involving numbers -- not unless he was doing it on purpose in the first place.