"Ma'?" Joe stuck his head through the door to the main house, trying to convey his message and keep an eye on the fidgeting bird next to him. Admittedly, the blue chocobo was young, but he was definitely going to have to work on getting her to calm down. He'd have taken Teioh, but after two weeks at the Golden Saucer he wanted to give the black bird a rest. "Ma', I'm taking Ria into town. We're running low on greens and I wanted to see if I could find some new racing tack for Teioh. His old stuff is starting to get - Ria, stop that!" he gave a sharp tug on the bird's reins as she tried to reach something in his mother's herb garden. She squawked in protest, but withdrew her head obediently. "-a bit worn. Is there anything you need?"
A voice answered from the vicinity of the kitchen. "Could you pick up some fish for dinner? I was going to make soup, but I don't think the stock is going to be ready. Also some lemon, some dill, oh! And stop by the pool and get your little sister!"
Joe groaned and rubbed his temples. "Again? Shiva, who's she got her heart set on this time?"
"Some high muckity-muck from Shinra." There was a snort and his mother emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. She was an average height with a good, full figure eight build, a wealth of curly black hair, and just now a scowl that would send a bandersnatch packing. "Not one of the pretty faced soldiers this time, apparently, oh no! This time they brought an 'intellectual' with them. An 'older' man. Some smarty pants scientist who has all of the girls fawning over him because he's so much 'deeper' than the local boys."
Rolling his eyes, Joe snorted. "If the local girls would show an interest in something other than pretty faces and rippling muscles, they'd find out some of the local boys aren't so shallow as they think. Ria!" The bird was trying for her tidbit again. "Of course, they'd also discover that a good number of them have had their brains washed out while they were surfing."
Leaning against the doorframe, his mother snapped her towel in agitation. "Well I'm about to get her drunk and in bed with one of the local boys, deep or not, just to get her married off! And I never thought I'd see the day I'd say that about my own daughter!"
"Wouldn't work. Knowing the local boys, they'd just try to ditch out on her, and most of their parents would let them." Swinging himself into the saddle, Joe touched the brim of his hat in salute. "I'll bring her home though. If I can't, we'll send Rosa in after her. After all, she's the oldest, she should be able to knock some sense into her."
His mother grimaced. "Good luck."
With a brief nod, he turned Ria's beak to town. She promptly tried to throw him.
"So I'll bring these out to the ranch in the next couple of days for a final viewing." The owner of the tack shop nodded slipping the two saddles and three bridles that Joe was contemplating back onto their racks.
"I'll see you then." Joe nodded back, touching the brim of his hat before he turned and headed back into the Costa del Sol sun. As he headed toward the pool, he randomly noted that he was pretty much the only person out and about who was wearing more than a swim suit. He lowered his head, trying to shield both his eyes and contemptuous sneer from the world.
He loved Costa del Sol. It was his home town, his family had lived there for generations, but there were days he well and truly wished it wouldn't look quite like the resort town it was. The constant stream of tourists walking back and forth in their skimpy clothing, perfecting their tans, and hauling around surfboards belied the amount of time and hard work that the locals put into keeping the town running. The groceries and tack shops, the convenience store and fish markets, they all seemed to fade into the background, non-existent because the tourists had deemed them uninteresting. He almost expected to come home from one of his extended trips to the Golden Saucer some day and find them gone, replaced by souvenir shops. Of course, the Golden Saucer was just as bad when it came to lazy tourists, but it had been created for pleasure, not for people making a livelihood.
Admittedly, he hadn't minded so much when he was younger, but then he also hadn't been so aware of it. Recently though he'd begun to notice the devil-may-care mentality getting worse. Even more alarming was the fact it was spreading to some of the locals. Instead of picking up the family trade or even dreaming of moving out and making a living elsewhere, a good number of his peers were staying at home, spending their days lounging on the beach or showing the pretty tourist women how to surf. They made no money, served no purpose, and he'd heard several of the local shop owners make threatening sounds about disownment. Even then he still probably wouldn't have minded if it weren't for his little sister.
Rosa was the oldest of the family. She was thirty two, married to a local fisher, expecting her first child, and about as level headed as one could ask for. Since she had no stomach for boats (quite literally), she helped bring in some extra gil on the side by acting as a non-emergency medic. Mostly she wound up curing tourists with heat stroke or jelly stings.
Rebecca was twenty, two years younger than Joe. She was more excitable than Rosa, but she was also quick on the ball and had her heart set on becoming a jockey. No one doubted that she'd make it. As it was, he was almost dreading running against her. She was as sharp as a crystal blade and could tell a good bird from a bad one blindfolded.
The two of them were everything the family ever could have asked for. Then there was Sara. When she had been younger, she'd been much like Rosa. She liked chocobos well enough, but rather than taking up the family trade, she'd planned on moving to Midgar and working for Shinra INC as some sort of technician. Joe had never really understood all of it, but he'd supported her with the same fervor as the rest of the family.
Then she had discovered boys and the pool and it had all gone downhill from there. Gone were the days of finding her with her nose buried in a book on mako reactors and materia production. Now if you could get her to talk about something other than the most recent in a line of cute boys from out of town she was eyeing, it was worth writing the papers.
Walking down the shaded steps the pool, Joe tried to picture this 'intellectual' his mother had spoken about. He'd be young, undoubtedly, although at least twenty five to warrant the distinction of 'older', probably some up and coming materia expert who had figured out how to make Leviathan wash your dishes. He'd probably have neat, short, slicked back hair, glasses, and maybe a silly little mustache. Of course, if Joe stopped and thought about it, this might not be such a bad thing. Perhaps hanging out with a man like that would remind her that there was something to life outside of boys and getting a good tan. If that were the case, said intellectual might find himself in the middle of a shotgun wedding. Anything to get Sara doing something again!
Just past the edge of the shade, in the sunny stretch between dark and water, there was a veritable mob of women all gathered around one lounge chair. He couldn't see Sara, but Joe was ready to bet the entire ranch that she was there, and not just because he couldn't see her anywhere else. He stalked out into the sun, coming up around the left side of the group, trying to predict her protests in advance and prepare good, logical ways to cut them off that wouldn't devolve into a screaming match in the middle of the pool. Now, he'd never lost his temper with her before, but he'd come close enough that every time he feared that this might be the day.
She was seated right next to the pool, one shapely little leg hanging over the rim and dipping her toes in the water. Her hair was, unlike their mother's, completely straight with bangs she'd curled under. Sometime in his last absence, she'd bleached a bit of it, putting a streak of pink through the natural black. It matched her bikini. She was looking up with adoring eyes at the occupant of the chair who Joe completely ignored.
He stopped two feet away, his weight resting on his left leg, the right tapping against the floor. He crossed his arms across his chest and waited. She didn't notice him. None of the other women did either. After nearly a full minute, he gave up. "Sara." His tone was loud enough she couldn't miss hearing it, short enough to let him know he was serious, but soft enough not to sound like a dictator. "Ma' says it's time to go home."
That got everyone's attention.
Eyes wide in surprise, showing off the little ring of gold around the pupils, Sara turned, then frowned. "Oh, it's you. Go away." She then turned her attention away from him. The other girls (and women. They ranged from Sara's age to his mother's) gave him smug, condescending looks.
"Wha...go away?" All of Joe's muscles tensed. She had never spoken to him like that, never spoken to any of the family members like that, and while independence was encouraged in his family, this was beyond the pale.
"That's what I said." She retorted. "Go away."
Firmly telling himself that he wasn't going to scream, grab her, or shove her into the water, Joe took a step forward. "I don't think so, Sara. Ma' sent me to get you, that means you come home. Now. Not when you feel like it, now."
"I can do what I want!" She turned again, half rising, one hand clenching into a fist. "I'm old enough to live on my own, that means I'm old enough to come and go as I please!"
"Oh really!" Joe stored that little bit of information away to tell his parents. He'd hoped for some peace and quiet during his stay at home, but it looked like that wasn't going to happen. "Well then, why don't we just see how you do living on your own, since you're old enough!"
"Don't you dare threaten me!" She was screaming now. She stood completely, both hands balled at her sides, clearly ready to fight. However, before she could say anything further, she was interrupted by a voice from the lounge chair.
"Do you mind? You're blocking my sun."
For the first time, Joe turned and took note of the man his sister had been fawning over. His stomach gave a rather uncomfortable lurch.
The man on the chair was not young or any of the other things that Joe had imagined. In fact, the only thing he'd gotten right was the glasses. Despite the fact his hair, which was long and falling off the side of the chair in a pony tail that looked like it hadn't been brushed in a couple of days, was still dark, the lines around his face suggested he was at least in his late fifties. The lab coat that he was still wearing despite his apparent attempts at a tan was wrinkled and stained in spots with what looked uncomfortably like blood that had been washed several times. Nothing about him suggested to Joe that he should fall down and worship this man; everything suggested he should run.
"Oh." Suddenly meek, Sara blushed and stepped out of the man's way. "I'm so sorry, Hojo."
Joe stepped up directly behind her and hissed, "That's the man you've been fawning over?" He dodged the elbow she sent backward at him.
The man on the chair apparently ignored her, closing his eyes again and giving a little stretch. "It's noisy all of a sudden. It's irritating."
Giving Joe another glare, Sara apologized again, "Don't worry. My brother was just leaving, weren't you Joe?"
"The hell I was!"
"Tell me something," The man, Hojo, asked without opening his eyes, "who do you think you are, barging in and interrupting our relaxation? What gives you the right to make such a disruption?"
Joe's eyes narrowed. "I think I'm the heir to one of the oldest families of chococbo breeders in the region, one of the best racers the Golden Saucer has ever seen, and I think this is my little sister who needs to remember that once upon a time she had a brain, back before people like you leeched it out." That last earned him an outraged snarl from Sara. He ignored her. "Now let me ask you this, who do you think you are, acting like the sun exists solely for the purpose of your tan? What gives you the right to say that your relaxation is more important than my following my instructions and bringing my sister home?"
"Yeah, because you'll do everything Ma' tells you, you big baby!" Sara hissed. "I'm surprised you don't still need her help getting dressed!"
Joe continued to ignore her, paying only attention to the man in the lab coat.
"Who am I?" The man laughed. "I am Hojo, the highest placed biologist in Shinra INC. So, you breed chocobos, hmmm? Improving bloodlines through breeding...how old fashioned. I wonder what I could do with a chocobo..." Hojo opened one eye to look at Joe and smiled a sly smile. "Perhaps I'll buy one of your chocobos and find out."
Something about the other man's tone made Joe feel like he'd swallowed an ice materia. Suddenly Sara wasn't important. The anger he'd felt seeped out, replaced by horror. Around him, the women giggled to each other. "I wish he'd experiment on me," "I bet he could make you tan faster," "Such an intelligent man...you can almost feel the brain waves rolling off of him!" The way Hojo's expression shifted with the whispers, the smug, almost daring superiority made his skin crawl. He wanted to vomit, to cleanse his system of everything he'd eaten for the past week. "We'd never sell one of our birds to someone like you. Come on Sara. We're leaving." Without waiting for her response, he turned to leave.
"You mean you're leaving. I've told you, I don't ca..." Sara's sarcastic ranting was cut off as Joe spun in a perfect circle, his hand shooting out to catch her shoulder with his palm, shoving her backwards into the pool.
"I'm leaving." He amended, heading for the stairs. Despite the splashing and spluttering behind him, he knew she'd hear. "You can come, or you can find your own place to sleep tonight. We'll see what Ma' and Dad think of this." Ignoring the curses she hurled after him, he continued up and out of the building, back into the sun.
The light still seemed cold. He shivered, closed his eyes for a minute, and tried to banish the images Hojo's words had called to mind. He didn't know how the other man would 'improve' a chocobo, but he was fairly certain that it went beyond strength and stamina and colouring. What was worse, he was somehow seized with the certainty that the scientist would be as happy to 'improve' Sara as he would be to improve Teioh.
Shoving those thoughts to the back of his mind, he turned to where he'd left Ria tied in the shade of one of the buildings. There were a couple of tourists standing near her, one snapping pictures, the other holding out some sort of vegetation that looked suspiciously like sea grass. The chocobo was dancing up and down, warking away, stretching her neck for the treat.
The resultant shriek of outrage could be heard in Midgar.
"Why do you have to be such an asshole?" Sara grumbled, shivering as the wind swept over her still damp skin and hair. She'd emerged from the pool just as her brother finished reading the tourists their rights, although whether from fear and the realization she couldn't survive on her own or because Hojo had complained about her cursing interrupting his sun bath was anyone's guess.
Joe wasn't in the mood to exchange pleasantries. The fact that his shirt was now soaked through from her pressing up against it didn't help. "Why do you have to spend all of your time chasing anything with a dick while the rest of us actually make a living? You think Ma' and Dad are going to put up with this forever?"
"Ma' and Dad won't have to!" She unwound one arm from his waist and slapped him on the shoulder. He was tempted to dislodge her for it. "I'm going to get married and I'll have a husband to take care of me! I won't have to work!"
"What happened to being Shinra INC.'s top technical technician..."
"...whatever! I've never understood it and you know I never understood it!" he shot back. "That's not the point! The point is that it was an actual goal that involved doing something with your life other than sitting around and perfecting your tan while you rot!"
"Rosa is married!"
"Rosa is also a healer and a good housewife! You're neither!" He heard her take a breath for another outraged retort, but he cut her off. "And Rosa has taste! What in the name of Odin's six legged steed were you doing fawning, no, groveling at the feet of that!"
The outrage she'd shown at his disregard of her was nothing compared to the horrified indignation that comment got him. "Hojo's an eminent scientist! He's a genius! He's so different from all of the fluff headed boys around here, I don't know how to describe it! He's famous!"
"Funny thing I haven't heard about him then."
"You're just jealous!" She huffed, cowering down behind his back. "You're jealous because he doesn't like boys and will therefore never be interested in you!"
Joe snorted. "I promised Ma' and Dad that I'd get married and have kids one day. I'm not going to do that with some Shinra scientist that's old enough to be my father, if not my grand father." The wind made his eyes tear slightly. He was used to it, but in the distorted scenery at the edge of his vision, he could see Hojo's smile. "Besides, I don't like the man's tone. I doubt he cares about anyone or anything outside of his job, especially silly little girls."
"I'll show you! You leave for Golden Saucer in a week! I'm sure Hojo will still be here after you've gone. I'll make him care for me!"
"Fine. You do that." If Hojo hadn't left Costa del Sol in a week, Joe silently vowed he'd have the man run over by a herd of chocobos.
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