Héctor peeks into the shop, brightening as he spots Óscar and Felipe seated at a workbench, and trots in with a wave as both brothers call out greetings.
“Hello, Héctor.” Óscar waves back as he sets his work aside; beside him Felipe does the same, nodding.
“We were wondering when you’d be by again.”
“Well,” Héctor replies, grinning, “you can stop wondering. Can I come in?”
“A bit past the point of asking now,” Óscar says, “but yes, of course you can.”
“Imelda isn’t here, though,” Felipe adds. Héctor nods, plopping carelessly onto the bench opposite them.
“I know - I ran into her at the market.” He sets the basket he’d been carrying on the table and taps it lightly for emphasis; it’s Imelda’s, filled with household odds and ends and a few paper-bagged goods. “I brought this back for her while she runs a few more errands - I’m actually here to see you two.”
“Oh?” Óscar has been sorting through the basket, retrieving a bag of clementines before settling back down. “Just for us?”
“Ah, come on Óscar,” Héctor replies, uncertainty creeping into his voice and posture folding even as he smiles; Óscar startles slightly at hearing his name, looking thoughtfully at Héctor as he continues. “I know it’s been… awhile, but… well….”
“But it’s a bit different now?” Felipe offers. He grabs one of the clementines and tosses it to Héctor, who catches it deftly.
“Yes, so I - thank you, Felipe - I don’t know, it’d be… nice to catch up, don’t you think?” He shrugs. “Maybe not just for you - for me too.”
The twins look at each other a moment, brows raised, and then turn back to Héctor with a sharp, curious stare.
“Hey - how are you still doing that?” Óscar asks. Héctor blinks at him, smile dropping into a faint baffled frown.
“You can still….” Óscar shrugs, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. “We’re different, now. And it’s been such a long time....”
Héctor stares at him a long moment, leaning back in response to the lean forward and chuckling nervously.
“Ay, Óscar - what are you talking about?”
“What he means is,” Felipe cuts in, “how do you know I’m not Óscar?”
“Because… you’re not?” Héctor looks back and forth between them, bewildered. “You’re Felipe, he’s--you know, I thought you two liked that I could do that!”
“We do, we do!” Óscar holds up his hands, tone dropping apologetically. “There’s never been all that many people who even try. We’re curious, that’s all.”
“Especially since… well, it’s like he said.” Felipe shrugs; he and Óscar are both still watching Héctor curiously. “A long time, and we… don’t exactly look like we did when we last really talked.”
“Oh.” Héctor relaxes a bit, thinking it over. “You know, I never really… it’s just sort of… he’s him and you’re you, so - hey, no, I’ve got it! Your markings.” He raises his hands, grinning as he touches index fingers to his own cheekbones. “First glance, they look the same - but actually, they’re mirrored! Like those alebrijes.” He waves a hand, and Felipe and Óscar follow the gesture to a pair of ram-horned coatis dozing on a nearby shelf. “Those are yours, aren’t they?”
“They are,” Óscar agrees. “Terrible nuisances that they are.” There’s no mistaking the affection in his tone or Felipe’s grin, and Héctor laughs as he studies the alebrijes.
“Are they? I wonder how that could have happened?”
“One of life’s great mysteries,” Felipe says. “What about yours - the dog, right?”
“Eh… actually, no.” Héctor shrugs, tone and posture going closed. “That one… Dante is Miguel’s, I think. Went back to him as far as I can tell.” He hesitates a beat before continuing. “Mine was... well... my guide, he didn’t stick around all the time once I settled, they’re not always joined at the hip, you know, but he... disappeared altogether. A while before the holiday. I think it was… you know, a symptom. Maybe.”
“Oh,” Óscar says faintly; for all that he no longer has lungs, he sounds as if the wind’s been knocked out of him. “I… I see.”
There’s a long pause, all three of them fidgeting uncomfortably - Héctor tapping a vague rhythm on the bench, Óscar fussing with his glasses, Felipe winding his fingers together, and none of them quite looking at the other two.
“Héctor,” Felipe begins, an odd soft hesitance in his voice, “you know… we….”
He falters, looking to Óscar for help and finds none; the twins hold each other’s gazes a moment, each silently asking the other how to proceed.
“We’re glad you’re here, Héctor,” Óscar says at last. “Both, you know, still here in general….”
“...and here with us,” Felipe finishes. Héctor studies them both a moment and then nods.
“Yeah. Me too.” He smiles, shrugging. “I missed you, you know?”
They both nod, and silence falls again as Felipe and Óscar take a seat on either side of Héctor, shoulder to shoulder - none of them tense, precisely, but all of them restless and uncertain.
“So, ah,” Héctor says after a moment, gesturing toward the coatis again, “what do you call them?”
“Mine is Pablo,” Óscar says, relief clear in his tone and expression, “and Felipe’s is called Paolo.” The alebrijes sit up on their haunches at hearing their names, one after the other, and Héctor grins and nods as he commits the bright mirror-image markings to memory.
“We were going to call them Felipe and Óscar,” Felipe adds, “but Imelda didn’t think it was funny.”
“Made us change it, the spoilsport.”
“You know,” Héctor says slowly, once he’s given that a moment to sink in, “I’m sure you understand that I am trying very hard not to argue with Imelda right now - but I don’t mind telling you that she was absolutely in the wrong .”
“Ha!” Felipe claps Héctor’s shoulder, beaming. “We always did say you were smart!”
“Now,” Óscar says, “you just have to tell Imelda we were right.”
“What? Right after Felipe called me smart?” Héctor shook his head. “That’s a set-up. You’re trying to set me up.”
“And you’re trying to put us on,” Óscar retorts. “It can’t have been the markings tipping you off - if you’re even telling the truth about that! You can’t have gotten a good look before you knew who was who.”
“He never gave us a straight answer in the old days either. Do you remember when you used to tell us I’m taller than Óscar?” Felipe asks. He waits for Héctor’s affirmative grin, and he can’t help grinning back. “Did you know that every time - every time! - we spent half the day measuring to see if you were right?”
“Imelda caught us in the act at least twice,” Óscar adds.
“I think she thought we were a little bit stupid.”
“What, you two?” Héctor is still grinning, eyes bright as he looks between them. “Well, don’t leave me hanging - what did you learn?”
“That you , Héctor, are a liar.”
“He is not taller.”
“You’re very convincing, though.” Felipe laughs, shaking his head. “We’d always second guess ourselves….”
“...and try again….”
“And before we knew it the day was over.”
“Honestly,” Óscar says, “I almost think at some point you kept it up so we’d leave you and Imelda alone for awhile.”
Héctor gives him a wounded look, hand pressed to his sternum.
“Such slander! I would never !”
“You would!” Felipe and Óscar chorus. They’re both laughing, and so is Héctor when he replies.
“Oh, fine - maybe I would! But can you really blame me? You were terrible nuisances, you know.”
“It was for a good cause,” Óscar says, forcing his tone to something like primness, and Héctor laughs again.
“You mean your own amusement?”
“Partly,” Felipe admits. “But you thought it was sort of funny too, didn’t you?”
“Ehh.” Héctor raises one hand, waving it in a ‘so-so’ gesture. “A little, sure. Otherwise I would’ve let Imelda kill you.”
“Oh come on, Héctor, we were only two innocent youths,” Felipe says, all injured dignity - an expression he further exaggerates at Héctor’s ungracious snort.
“No. No, no, no, and also: no. Born terrors, the both of you.”
“You don’t mean that.” Óscar grins, shaking his head. “And even if you do, you’re no better.”
“I am not.” Héctor nods agreeably as he looks over at the coatis again; they’ve spotted a parrotlet alebrije with a long streaming tail preening on the ceiling fan, and are steadily creeping toward it. “Do you remember when we absolutely did not accidentally let Señora Alvarez’s pigeons loose?”
“I do not,” Óscar says, “because we would never do such a thing.”
“Ah.” Héctor nods. “My mistake. Well, then do you remember when....?”
It takes no time at all for the three of them to fall into truly comfortable camaraderie, each old memory swiftly followed by another as they talk over and tease and correct each other and occasionally just fall into bouts of laughter together, tossing clementines to the coatis to distract them from the parrotlet and other potential mischief.
“I should go,” Héctor says at last, levering himself up from the bench and stretching long limbs. “But… later?”
“Later,” Felipe agrees.
“Soon,” Óscar adds. “Héctor grins and nods as he heads to the door.
Halfway out he pauses, turning to look at the twins.
“By the way... Felipe actually is a little bit taller - just a little bit! - but Pablo is bigger than Paolo.”
Héctor slides out the door without another word, bells jingling as it closes behind him, and Felipe and Óscar share a long, silent look before turning to study their alebrijes.
“We’re not actually going to measure them, are we?” Felipe asks. Óscar shakes his head decisively as he turns back to his work.
“No, no. Of course not.”
They work in silence for a minute or so, diligently avoiding giving the coatis another glance, before Felipe sighs and gets to his feet.
“I’ll get the tape measure.”
“Pablo isn’t bigger,” Óscar announces triumphantly the next time they catch Héctor coming into the shop. Héctor, already halfway to Imelda’s office, freezes a moment and then slowly turns to face the twins as Felipe speaks up.
“He’s right - Paolo is bigger.”
“Ah.” Héctor blinks once and then nods, straight-faced. “You’re sure about that?”
“We know how to measure things, Héctor,” Felipe says, throwing all the dignity he has into the statement.
“After all,” Óscar says, “we’ve had all this time learning to be very precise. Can’t have Imelda thinking we’re wasting material.”
“Or Victoria for that matter.”
“¿A poco?” Héctor is still trying to fight off a smile, with little success. “Hm. That’s a pretty good point, I guess.” He tips his head to one side, grin widening. “Anything else to share?”
“Well… you actually are right about the markings,” Óscar admits.
“We never noticed,” Felipe adds. “Imelda had, though.”
“It was the height measuring all over again, honestly.” Óscar draws his mouth tight, pitching his voice high and narrowing his eyes. “ I know you two are horribly clever, how do you manage to be such idiots ?”
Héctor stares at him for a full five seconds and then explodes with laughter, hand over his mouth to stifle it as he peeks furtively toward Imelda’s office door; the twins exchange a glance, and Felipe grins and then mimics the scowl, standing tall with hands on his hips.
“ Wipe that ridiculous smile from your face, you clown ! This is all your doing !”
“Stop, stop!” Héctor wheezes out. “That’s too good and she’s going to find a way to kill all three of us!”
“Oh be sensible, Héctor .” Óscar folds his arms and tips his head forward just so. “ You know very well we-- ”
“W hat are you three doing?”
They all jump at Imelda’s voice, turning to see her peering out of the office with her head tipped forward the same way Óscar’s had been, and they’re all choking on laughter as they respond.
“Nothing, Imelda!” they recite in unison, Héctor’s singsong pitch blending with the twins as naturally as if they’d never been apart. Imelda blinks, giving the three of them a long, thoughtful look before grumbling under her breath and ducking back into the office. Héctor looks at the closed door a moment and then turns his attention back to Óscar and Felipe, voice dropping to an exaggerated whisper.
“Keep playing it cool - but I think we have her fooled.”
Felipe snorts at that; Óscar can’t help but laugh when his brother does, and once it spreads to Héctor the three end up leaning on each other for support as they struggle to keep it muffled enough to avoid Imelda’s renewed attention.
“We need to talk to him,” Óscar sighs. He sets the boot he’s been working on without progress for the past few hours aside as Felipe looks up, blinking uncertainly.
“Haven’t we been?”
Óscar grimaces, shaking his head.
“You know that’s not what I meant. It’s been… you know, the longer we sit on it….”
“The worse it’ll be,” Felipe finishes. He frowns, setting his own work aside. “Do you think he’ll be here today?”
“He’s been here every day since Imelda invited him in. No reason he’ll miss today.”
“Right. So we just need to wait.”
They both pick their work back up, but concentration evades them and in the end it’s a relief when the door jingles and Héctor enters, waving a greeting in passing and humming an unfamiliar tune as he makes straight for Imelda’s office; the twins exchange a look before Óscar calls to him.
“Just a minute, Héctor.”
“We’d like a word,” Felipe adds.
Héctor stops, turning back with a grin that only falters slightly when he sees their expressions.
“Eh… something wrong…?”
“Not… well, not exactly.” Felipe shrugs. “It’s just… you know, lately, it’s been like it used to be, hasn’t it?”
“Even though it was such a long time ago,” Óscar says quietly.
Héctor’s grin fades entirely, shoulders slumping as he glances away from them.
“Oh. That. Y-yes, I….” He gives a small, half-hearted shrug, reaching up to rub nervously at the back of his head. “I… listen, I’m sorry. I know that I… I shouldn’t have….”
He trails off, fidgeting miserably, looking as if he might well cave in on himself, and Felipe and Óscar exchange a swift dismayed look before setting their work aside again and getting to their feet.
“Héctor, that… isn’t what we mean,” Felipe says, a plea in his tone that has Héctor looking back at him with a tense, pained frown.
“I mean, obviously we would have preferred you stay,” Óscar adds. Héctor looks away again and Felipe nudges his twin sharply with an elbow. “Ow! I mean… we’re not concerned about that. You tried to come back, but we… didn’t really try to question anything, did we….”
“Or look for you after we died, not after Imelda said she’d already, ah, sent you away.”
Héctor blinks, looking at them again.
“What? I… no… that’s not… it was never your problem to solve, if anything the responsibility was….” He pauses, frowning; the twins are the ones fidgeting now, and Héctor shakes his head slightly. “You’re really… how long have you two been worrying about this?”
“Ever since we really let ourselves think about it,” Felipe admits.
“Hm.” Héctor nods slowly. “Long enough then. So! Listen. You remember what I said, when I left?”
“You said, support Imelda,” Óscar says quietly. “You said, ‘she doesn’t need looking after, but she does need that’.”
“Yes - and I know you did. So that’s all the responsibility to me, I think.” Héctor sighs, tone thoughtful. “I’m… not saying I don’t regret all that time, don’t misunderstand. But I don’t actually blame you, or Imelda, you know? So - I’m not going to worry about it. And you two? Felipe, Óscar… I don’t want that worry on you either. So no dwelling on it. Do that for me?”
They study him a moment before glancing at each other again; when they look back at Héctor it’s with small but genuine smiles.
“We can try, Héctor,” Óscar says. “And… we really do mean it when we say we’re glad you’re back, you know?”
“And - you know, not just for us. Imelda… she’s singing again, lately.” Felipe spreads his hands in a sort of half-shrug. “Of course, no one’s dared point it out just yet, but she is.”
“I’ve heard her.” Héctor is smiling again too, voice soft. “Of course, she always acts like I’m harassing her into it - but then, she doesn’t tell me to stop either.”
“At this point,” Óscar says, “I don’t think she will.”
“Hey, you know,” Héctor says after a moment, “I was meaning to say something too… I mean, I guess maybe this is… kind of an awkward moment for it, but… you know….” He pauses, giving them a small smile. “I mean, of course you know - I’ve never thought of the two of you as being just Imelda’s brothers. That is to say - not mis cuñados, but mis hermanos.”
He shuffles his hat in his hands, fingers gently crinkling the straw as they blink at him.
“Héctor,” Óscar says after a moment, very gently, “surely you know that goes without saying?”
“And surely you know,” Felipe adds, “it was always the same for us?”
“It’s one reason we feel like… well….”
Héctor holds a hand up to stop Óscar, shaking his head.
“Hey - like I said. No dwelling. No point in all that, you know?” He gives them a wan smile, shrugging. “I mean - I can’t tell you what to do, but… I’ve spent enough time thinking about what I should have done different. I’m going to worry about what I’m going to do now . Little bit more useful, don’t you think?”
The twins glance at each other; when they look back at Héctor they’re echoing his faint smile as they each lay a hand on his shoulder, one to each side.
“You might actually be on to something there,” Felipe says.
“We always did think you were a smart one, hermano,” Óscar adds. Héctor’s smile brightens as he lays his hands on the twins’ shoulders, nodding.
“Thank you,” he says softly. They remain like that a long, quiet moment before Héctor pulls free, replacing his hat as he heads toward Imelda’s closed door.
“By the way, if you think I’m so smart you should stop questioning my measuring skills.”
He’s in the office before they can reply; Felipe and Óscar look at each other thoughtfully, each gauging the other’s height.
“Absolutely not,” Óscar says at last. “We are not going down that path again. We know better.”
“Yes,” Felipe agrees, chuckling fondly as they head back to the workshop. “He never does give up though, does he?”
“Oh, you know - I think that’s probably a good thing. Come on, let’s get that order finished before Imelda asks again.”
“Do you think,” Héctor asks Imelda just before leaving, “that they’ll ever realize it’s Óscar who’s a hair taller, and I’ve been messing with them since we were fourteen years old?”
Imelda snorts, snatching his hat to swat him with it.
“You are a child , Héctor.”
“Maybe - but you think it’s funny too.” He grins at her as he takes his hat back; Imelda sighs and grumbles and doesn’t disagree, and Héctor’s grin widens as her quiet huff of laughter follows him out.
Héctor is honestly sort of proud this joke has survived over a century. He was sure they'd have figured it out by now.
Óscar and Felipe attempting to name their alebrijes after each other is a reference to Never Satisfied, in which a set of twins actually did that with their familiars. Please give it a read!
Chapter 2: Mending
Sometimes you need a little help and encouragement to start piecing things back together.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Héctor looks both more and less ragged than usual, and at first Rosita can’t quite put her finger on why that is.
He’s coming from Imelda’s office; the twins had directed him there when he came in a few hours ago, and Rosita has been hearing singing for a good portion of the day. Mainly Héctor himself, but she could swear she’s been hearing Imelda too, and it’s a fresh shock every time. Rosita is too curious (nosey, her brother and half the rest of the family would say) to let this lie, and so when Héctor emerges she’s standing only a few feet away.
(She’s glad it’s him and only him; asking Héctor about it is worlds less daunting than asking Imelda.)
“Oh, hello, Héctor,” she says, as if she just happened to be standing there rather than lying in wait; Héctor, preoccupied, jumps at the greeting, blinking wide eyes at her before smiling.
“Ah - Rosita!” He’s warm and cheerful with a current of hopeful nervousness just under it; she’s seen that a few times, an impression that he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop and hoping against desperate hope it never will. She presses forward in hopes of distracting him from such thoughts.
“I heard you two singing!” she says brightly. Héctor looks a touch guilty at this announcement, shoulders tucking in, and Rosita pats his arm lightly to reassure him as she continues. “It was - well I’m not used to it of course, but it sounded very interesting, and I have to ask - what was it?”
“Oh, it’s - well, there was a new thing, and also a song from… a long time ago. You’ve probably heard... a version of it.” He frowns, glancing aside, and then smiles. “But originally it was - well, it’s a fun story, but… eh, maybe we’ll tell you later.”
He reaches up, fidgeting with something at his shoulder as he glances toward the office door, and Rosita finally realizes what’s different: he’s removed that trailing sleeve, and seems to have tucked the loose threads under what’s left of the seam. A good effort all things considered, but a few threads have worked themselves free and Héctor is plucking fretfully at them; Rosita sighs as she sees more stitches beginning to work free, and she shakes her head as she steps close.
“Don’t do that.” She pulls his hand from the threads as she scolds, tugging him down so she could better look at the problem; Héctor leans down obediently, giving her an uncertain smile. “You’re going to end up unraveling the whole thing, and then what?”
He mulls that over, a touch of mischief flitting across his features as he answers.
“Well, it would solve the ‘loose thread’ problem, wouldn’t it?”
Rosita giggles at that, nodding as she looks up at him.
“Well, that’s true! But what do you call a solution that’s actually it’s own problem?”
“An unforeseen complication.”
“Very nice,” Rosita says, grinning. “But now we’ve foreseen it, so we’d better do something about it.” She leads him off into the living room, looking around a moment before giving a short, trilling whistle. “Panchita! Where’s the sewing kit? I want… a purple, on the blue side.”
An answering chirp rings from somewhere overhead; a moment later Rosita’s parrotlet alebrije drops down from one of the higher shelves with needle and thread clutched in her strong little claws, and Rosita holds her hand out so the bird can drop the requested supplies into her palm.
“Thank you. Sit down, Héctor.”
He drops into a chair with an abrupt strings-cut motion, hands on his knees as he blinks at her. Rosita recognizes the expression; after all, she’d seen it on her sister-in-law time and time again when Imelda started fussing over some matter or another and Coco was trying to decide whether she was in trouble. It’s striking, really; she pauses to study him, looking for more familiarity, and they’re both only distracted when the parrotlet perches on the brim of his hat. Panchita leans to peer at him upside down, and he laughs at the bird’s questioning chirp.
“Not much like Pepita,” he remarks. He holds up a hand, and Panchita obligingly hops down onto his fingers, her long mot-mot tail trailing down his hat to sweep over his face before settling.
“Oh my goodness no! Can you imagine if we all had something like that prowling around?” Rosita giggles, shaking her head. “Pepita is lovely of course, but what a disaster! Anyway. Panchita is suited to me, and Pepita to Mamá Imelda. Neither pair is much like the other, but we all manage.”
“So I see.” He’s reaching up with his free hand to gently scratch at the nape of Panchita’s neck; the alebrije trills and stretches, eyes closing contentedly, and Rosita watches a moment before lightly prodding Héctor’s humerus.
He immediately freezes, unmoving even when Panchita nips at his fingers for more scratches. Rosita pauses, trying to decide if he’s teasing her by exaggeration or just afraid of putting a foot too far wrong, and ultimately settles for prodding him again.
“Not like that, you silly thing! Panchita, why don’t you sit on his shoulder instead? No, the other one.”
Héctor relaxes with a nervous chuckle and a quick, apologetic grin, and once Panchita settles Rosita leans in to carefully stitch the broken seam and secure the loose threads.
“There - that should do it.” She peers at her handiwork a moment; for all its flaws, the jacket isn’t in immediate danger of coming further apart than it already has. Rosita nods to herself, satisfied, and smiles as she clucks chidingly at Héctor. “You really have no idea how to look after yourself, do you?”
“I do so!” He turns to look at her, affronted. “I can… you know, sew buttons, and… hem, and… you know, all of those things.”
“Well,” Rosita says, hands on hips, “why on earth don’t you?”
“I just… I don’t know , I….”
He trails off, spine curving in on itself, and Rosita frowns as she really takes in how tired he looks just now, how frail. In the light of day the years of neglect are terribly clear - she can see taping holding one tibia and one ulna together (and the broken tibia looks especially bad, leaving her to wonder apprehensively what could have damaged such a strong bone so deeply). Something in his posture suggest further damage mostly hidden under his jacket. Smaller fractures web over his bones here and there, giving him the brittle look of a window cracked but not fully broken, and even the markings swooping across his face look a bit dull to her eyes - but for all that, it’s that deep tiredness that’s most striking.
“Could it be,” Rosita asks, pitching her voice to something gentler, “you’ve just fallen out of the habit of looking after yourself?”
He looks away, embarrassed, shoulders slumping further.
“I… guess I just… you know.” He shrugs, posture folding even more. “After… a while… it started seeming like a lot of effort. And awhile after that, the effort didn’t seem like… there was a point.”
“But now it’s worth making the effort?” Rosita asks carefully, watching his face.
“Yes.” He gives her a small, tired smile. “But you’re right, Rosita. It’s not a habit anymore, so… I’m not doing a great job, I guess.”
Rosita considers that a moment and then steps back, looking him over critically, and Héctor sits up a bit straighter as he stares apprehensively back at her. He’s quite a bit taller than she initially took him for; if he’d stop folding in on himself, straighten out his back and hold his head up, he might be something near Óscar and Felipe’s height - and he’ll probably look bigger still when he’s seized with those bursts of energy she’s seen when he’s with the twins, with Miguel, even with Imelda when his confidence is high.
She should pay closer to that energy - it seems more natural than this cracked-mirror weariness, more what he should be, and she’d like to see more of it.
Aside from that, well - who is she to judge if he needs a little help putting himself back together in more material ways? She taps her chin, already planning. The repaired seam is a start, and the jacket could probably be salvaged with a few patches until they find something else he likes. The bandanna seems fine too, though a few extras never go amiss. The pants… a lost cause, she decides, though there’s some mending that can be done until they get him something better. The hat is trickier: she’s learned that men can be funny about their hats, however old and worn they might be. Even so, surely one with… well… fewer holes would suit him better?
“Well,” she says at last, “no one can blame you for needing a little help getting back into the habit.” She smiles, clasping her hands. “There’s merit enough in trying, isn’t there? Now - give me a day or so to gather a few things, and we’ll see what we can do, all right? Some of this we can probably fix with patching, you know? Although, for instance, that hat…”
She reaches for it as she speaks; Héctor immediately leans back, looking alarmed.
“I like my hat!” He seizes the brim in both hands, tugging the ragged straw weave tight over his skull in what can only be a long-habitual nervous gesture, and leans back further when she doesn’t immediately desist; Rosita steps back, frowning slightly, and sighs.
Funny about the hat. Of course.
“It’s… nice,” Rosita says, striving for diplomacy and coming out utterly unconvincing. “But… well, you know… we could find you one like that, couldn’t we?”
“Yes, but….” He still hasn’t let go of the brim, but now he’s rubbing his fingers gently over the straw. “I don’t know, it’s… someone gave it to me, but… he’s not here anymore, so….” A sigh, and he finally lets go of the hat, posture drooping again. “I mean I know it will… fall apart eventually, but….”
“Ah.” Rosita can’t really keep up the argument after that, and she nods slowly. “That’s… all right, then, Héctor. A truce on the hat. But we’re going to fix the rest of this up!” She reaches out to lay a hand on his shoulder, resting over the fresh stitching. “Don’t you worry about anything falling apart, Héctor. We’ll take care of it.”
He looks up at her, blinking; after a moment Panchita sidesteps along his shoulder to start preening at his hair, and he laughs softly as he reaches up to scratch the bird’s neck again.
“All right - I believe you. Both of you.”
He actually does know how to sew.
Héctor’s clothes are no more mended than before when he returns, but once he’s looked over the patches Rosita presents (he chooses a yellow floral print; it makes her laugh, and his quick grin tells her that’s exactly what he intended) he insists on stitching it on himself. It takes a few false starts, but he waves off her attempts to intervene and within a few minutes settles into a proper rhythm. Once he’s finished it’s very nearly as neat as she could make it, and Rosita nods approvingly as she hands the jacket back to him.
“You know, I’m actually starting to believe you’ve done this before!”
“Imelda taught me,” he says proudly, shrugging back into the jacket; it’s still threadbare, wearing dangerously thin in places, but at least there are no more actual holes. “I’d never thought about it before, but… you know, after Coco was born, there was… well, there was suddenly a lot more to do. I couldn’t actually help with everything, but what I could? I tried to learn.”
“Oh?” Rosita smiles fondly, remembering her own weeks of instruction under Imelda’s stern, watchful eye. “Well - Mamá Imelda is a very good teacher.”
“She had to be. I tried to surprise her before I actually learned anything.” He grimaced. “It was… well, it could’ve gone better.”
Rosita giggles, shaking her head.
“Oh dear... well, at least you’re not the type who stops trying after a little setback.” She picks up the patches again, spreading them out. “Well, that makes things less awkward as far as fixing those pants - I can trust you to patch them up yourself without sewing your hand to them.”
He holds up his hands, bones clicking.
“How do you think I would manage that ?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve learned that you should never underestimate people.”
He laughs at that, and Rosita grins back at him. It could be her imagination, a bit of wishful thinking, but his markings seem just a bit brighter and clearer today, his bearing more energetic; it’s not quite the bursts of energy she’s seen now and again, but it’s closer, and she likes to think this effort is helping as much as the frequent visits and warm welcomes he’s been getting of late.
“That’s fair,” he says, nodding. “I’m sure I could manage something at least that stupid. All right, I’ll see what I can do about patching tonight.”
“Good. Take all the patches and surprise me with what you decide! Temporary until we actually get something a little more… lasting for you, but you might as well have fun. Now.” She holds a hand out. “The hat.”
Héctor blinks and straightens up, pulling the hat tight.
“Ah, no, didn’t we already discuss this?” His tone wavers between teasing and wheedling as he bobs up on tiptoe to avoid her reach. “I’m not budging on this - be reasonable , Rosita!”
“I’m going to give it back !” She walks around him with quick, pattering steps, tugging at the back of his jacket as she reaches up. He laughs at the attempt, straining further up on his toes, and just like that it’s a game: he spins out of her grasp, dancing nimbly away with that burst of playful energy she’s been looking for, and soon enough she’s laughing too as she pursues.
“Oh, no - that’s how it starts! ‘Of course I’m not going to throw it out’! And then there’s suddenly a new one and it’s….” He pauses a moment, then shrugs. “...well, it’s generally perfectly fine actually, but there’s a principle to uphold here!” He dodges Rosita and an end table, only clipping the latter slightly, and calls out to Julio as he sees him coming in from the kitchen. “ You agree with me, right?”
Julio stares at them a moment, wide-eyed, before he - wise man that he is - turns around and walks back into the kitchen. Héctor and Rosita both chuckle at that, and Héctor waves a hand toward where Julio had been standing.
“You see? He agrees far too much to come to his sister’s aid!”
“Oh? How do you know he doesn’t agree with me too much to come and save Papá Héctor?”
She hadn’t been planning to call him that, but it comes as naturally as daylight. He gapes at her, freezing in place; Rosita stares back a moment and then steels herself, lunging to snatch the hat with a triumphant shout. Probably cheating, but - well, the name had been sincere, and it was for a good cause, so that was fine, wasn’t it?
“Ay, Rositita - that’s - that’s not fair play, you know?” he complains as he reaches for the hat; Rosita hesitates, second guessing herself, and he nearly manages to retrieve it before she realizes he’s smiling and sweeps it behind her back.
“Well! Neither are those stork legs of yours, you great gangling monstrosity! Why can’t you be a reasonable size, like Julio?”
“ I’m a monstrosity? You are a savage and merciless woman.” He’s trying to get around her, though only half-heartedly; she only has to turn slightly to keep him at bay, and she does so deftly as she giggles at the admonition.
“And how could I call myself a Rivera if I wasn’t a ‘merciless woman’?”
“Ah. Well.” He taps his chin, humming under his breath, and shrugs. “You know, actually, I don’t have an argument for that.”
“It’s our charm,” she tells him; he nods at that, smiling, and Rosita shifts her grip on the hat. “Now. Don’t you worry, Papá Héctor.” Having called him that once already, it feels even more natural to continue, and Rosita returns his smile as she reaches up to pat his cheek. “I’ll take care of this. I know men can be a bit funny about hats - do you know, when Julio was a boy he spent a solid hour chasing his in a pond? And there was a great big snapping turtle there too!”
“That sounds like a story worth telling when he’s brave enough to come out of the kitchen,” Héctor says. He lays a hand on her shoulder, resting lightly a moment before withdrawing with a gentle parting pat. “All right - you win this one. But don’t think I’m not keeping score!”
“Oh, do keep me updated!” she retorts, and they’re both grinning as she sees him out.
“Well?” Rosita asks anxiously. “Can you fix it?”
As soon as Héctor had left she’d hurried off to the markets; a few questions had led her to a stall selling woven straw wares, and the weaver himself - a round-faced skeleton with markings the same soft yellows and browns as his wares swirling around his cheeks and chin - is examining Héctor’s hat with a skeptical eye.
“No - at least, not easily.” Rosita slumps with disappointment at this verdict, but she smiles weakly as he continues talking. “These holes in the crown, see? It’s technically possible to weave fresh straw in, but… well, it’s awkward to do, and really more trouble than it’s worth.” He waves a hand toward his wares. “But one of these would do well enough, wouldn’t they?”
“Thank you but no - it has to be this hat.” She shakes her head, shrugging. “It’s important to him. A… memory, you know?”
“Ah.” The weaver nods, handling the hat a bit more gently as he examines it again. “Well, señora… the brim, I’ll do for you. A minute’s work, really. The crown… as I said, reweaving would be awkward at best. But it’s not the only way to fix it.”
With no other customers waiting, he starts repairs on the brim immediately; Rosita watches, leaning forward attentively as he describes how to patch the holes in the crown as unobtrusively as possible. The repairs he can do really are just a moment’s work, and once he’s handed the hat back to her they spend a few moments poring over the materials she’ll need.
“And how much for the repair, señor?” she asks, once they’re both satisfied with the hue and weave of the straw mat she’ll be sacrificing for this. He waves her off, smiling.
“Just the mat. It wasn’t a moment. Just bring him here if he decides he wants a new one after all.”
“Of course!” Rosita beams, hugging the mat to her chest, and scurries back to the shop.
Those last repairs to the hat’s crown can’t be started right away - she still has work to do filling orders and straightening the books so Imelda can go over the week’s totals - and it’s nightfall by the time she gets all of that settled. Still, it leaves plenty of time to work on the hat. She doesn’t need to sleep, after all; a bit of rest goes a long way, especially for one well-remembered, and a long night won’t leave her fuzzy-headed and irritable the way it once had.
She wonders how well-rested Héctor is feeling tonight. He does seem better the more time he spends here, welcomed and well-regarded and with Coco and their little Miguelito no doubt talking about him as no one has in decades. She hopes this little bit of mending will help too as she clips the straw mat and dabs clear lacquer onto ragged edges to keep them from fraying and lines up the weave for the most even match possible before beginning her tiny meticulous whip stitches. The smaller the stitch, the stronger the seam; the stronger the seam, the longer the repairs will last; and maybe - just maybe - having this well-worn old hat to hold onto, having the worry over it falling apart relieved, will help soothe any worries he has over anything else falling apart.
The weaver was right: once she’s finished, the hat looks whole again, the patching only truly noticeable if she bothers to look for it. Rosita smiles as she picks a bit of clipped thread from the straw, and the hat is set neatly aside to wait for its owner.
Héctor arrives late in the afternoon the next day, and for a moment Rosita thinks he’s gotten new pants somewhere rather than mending the old. Instead of the sharp contrast of the yellow patch he placed on the jacket, the patching on the pants is well matched in tone and only slightly off in pattern, and the hemming is neat and even.
She’s pleasantly surprised - she’d though it a lost cause. But then… Héctor himself has probably been labeled ‘lost cause’ by more than one person; a silly comparison, maybe, but it’s hard not to make the parallel.
“ Effort ,” he announces proudly when she points out the careful mending. “After all - Imelda did teach me. No point in halfway, right?”
“You have me there,” Rosita agrees, laughing. “And now, Papá Héctor - I have a little bit of effort to show myself.” She scurries to retrieve the hat from where she’s stowed it on a shelf near the back of the room, sweeping it from its place with a flourish. “I did promise, didn’t I?”
She holds it out to him and he takes it gently, turning it over in his hands to rub careful fingers over fresh weave and tiny stitches, his smile going soft as he looks up at her again.
“Rosita, this is… amazing.” He looks at the hat again, smoothing a hand carefully over the crown, and Rosita nods.
“Good… it isn’t much, but, you know - you don’t have to worry about it falling apart, see?”
“I see.” He hesitates only briefly before stepping forward to pull her into a hug, and Rosita leans into it to hold tight a moment. “Thank you, Rositita.”
“You’re very welcome, Papá Héctor.” She raises a hand, shaking a finger at him. “Now if you need help fixing anything else, you let me know before you sew your hand to something, all right?”
“All right, Rosita, I will.” He laughs, nodding. “And thank you, again.”
His arm is still taped, and she’s sure his leg must be too - but he’s standing up straighter, and a few of those small spider-webbing cracks have begun to heal in a shade lighter than the surrounding bone, and there’s cheerful energy in his smile and movement as he settles his hat on his head.
It’s a start - more than a start - and Rosita couldn’t be more pleased.
Sometimes starting to take care of yourself again is hard!! But Rosita is here for him.
Chapter 3: Little Bird
Héctor is a bit new to this 'grandfather' thing... but he'll give it a shot the best way he knows how.
Victoria turns toward the voice calling her name. She’s already on the edges of the crowd - a favored position even among those she knows well - but backs further to peer across it, sighing as she finally catches sight of Héctor perched on a railing and teetering precariously as he waves.
“Get down from there!” she calls back, already leaning toward exasperation as she makes her way toward him. Héctor laughs but obligingly hops down as he answers.
“Aw, you’re worried about me?”
She doesn’t reply to that, rolling her eyes as she moves along the edges of the crowd. Héctor watches her approach, dividing attention between her and the plaza below, and once she’s a few feet away he steps close with a smile and a softer tone.
“I’m glad to see you - I was surprised you weren’t at home today!” His tone is bright as he speaks to her; Victoria isn’t sure what to make of his clear enthusiasm, given how little she’s spoken to him compared to Rosita or the twins. Not that he ever fails to greet her when they do encounter each other, but Victoria has still been deciding what to make of him. Until she can, she hasn’t been especially eager to strike up a conversation.
Perhaps that’s a mistake. It might be easier to make a decision if she does talk with him, and he plainly wants to talk with her; she appreciates the willingness to give her space, but she can’t stay on the edges of the situation forever.
“What brings you out here?” he asks. “Household shopping, that’s usually on Tuesdays, isn’t it?”
Victoria nods, unsurprised that he’s learned the household schedule; he’s been visiting every day, after all, and it doesn’t take much to pick up on Imelda’s carefully structured routines.
“Yes, but I needed something for my bird - you’ve seen her, the caracara?”
“Oh!” he says, nodding. “That great big one, usually sits in the yellow pine?”
“That’s the one. Ignacia.”
“I thought she might be yours.” Héctor studies her a moment. “A bird suits you.”
Victoria nods slowly at that, tone thoughtful as she replies.
“I suppose? I never gave it much consideration, but… Tía Rosita and I used to keep birds, parrotlets.” It’s a clear, warming memory: Rosita bustling around a small flock of chirping (never whistling) birds, cooing over their attempts to mimic the sounds of the shop and gently transferring them to Victoria or Elena’s fingers whenever they asked. “Or rather she did, and gave one to me when I was a little girl - also Ignacia. I had her for several years. Not as… exciting… as some of the other pets in the family, but even so.”
Héctor considers that a moment, watching Victoria as he mulls this information over.
“Victoria, I don’t know how to tell you this,” he says at last, giving her a grave look; she furrows her brow at the unexpected seriousness, her hands fluttering to her chest as he speaks. “But that bird? Is not a parrotlet.”
Victoria stares at him, at a loss in the face of such a blandly delivered bit of absurdity, and for a long moment they only look at each other in silence.
“That was a joke,” he says at last, still completely serious. No - not completely, she realizes: he’s not smiling, but there’s something in the set of his face that tells her he’s struggling against laughter. Victoria straightens her back, crossing her arms and leveling a stern glare at him before she can think too much on the familiarity in the expression.
“I am aware,” she says coolly. Héctor finally gives in to laughter, shaking his head as he watches her.
“Good, I was starting to worry! But it stands to reason you’d have a bird.” He grins, and Victoria stares back in her best imitation of Imelda’s stern, unamused glares. “Flitting at the edge of the crowd like a bird yourself - a little pájarita.”
“Pájarita?” she repeats, flatly disbelieving; Héctor only smiles, something a bit questioning in the expression - trying to gauge if she actually dislikes it, she realizes. She also realizes she isn’t quite sure.
Looking at it honestly, she is much too old to be given silly nicknames - and yet….
“If you want to hear from a little bird, try Tía Rosita,” she ventures at last, careful to keep her voice lukewarm. “She’ll tell you everything you want to hear and more.”
Héctor blinks at her, brows raising. Then he laughs as he snaps his fingers and points at her, delight in every inch of him.
“Ah ha! She jokes!”
“It wasn’t a very good one,” Victoria says slowly, looking away. “I’m not a joking sort.”
“Untrue. You can’t say you’re not a joking sort three seconds after joking - you’ve got to give it time to fade before you can be convincing. Besides, jokes are all in the delivery.” He pauses, waiting for her to look at him again, and grins when she does. “...pequeña pájarita.”
Victoria fights off a laugh, managing to contain it to the tiniest puff of air through her nose, and tips her chin down to stare at him over her glasses.
“Have you always been this obnoxious? Or are you making up for lost time?”
“Eh, probably somewhere between.” He watches her a moment, soft-eyed, and then laughs again - a gentler, almost indulgent chuckle. “You’re so like Imelda.”
Victoria sniffs, looking away again.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
She isn’t sure how to respond to that, so she doesn’t, instead walking to the railing to see what Héctor had been looking at before he’d spotted her. There’s a band below - music, of course it was music, and it was only her long-held habit of shutting it out and ignoring it that had prevented her noticing it before. Now that she has noticed she’s a bit dismayed to find herself as captivated as he had been; she can’t deny its pull even so, and she’s leaning forward to look as Héctor comes to her side.
“You like this style?”
Victoria hesitates; even now admitting to enjoying the melodies drifting over the streets feels like a failure, a lapse of self-control. But the guitar layering into the other instruments brings to mind the joy in her grandmother’s face only a few weeks before, and it’s hard to keep a smile at bay as she listens.
“I do,” she says at last, hesitantly; beside her Héctor nods and she turns to face him. “Do you?”
“Yes,” he says immediately. “But, you know - any type of music is worth listening to at least once.” He shrugs as he leans back on the railing, arms draped comfortably and ankles crossed. “Even if something doesn’t appeal to you personally, someone loves it, connects with people through it. So that makes it worthwhile, don’t you think?”
“Mm.” Victoria can’t bring herself to fully mimic his absurdly relaxed demeanor, but she does lean against the rail beside him, forearms crossed in a not-quite-prim posture. “To be honest, I always thought music was cursed. Not in general. But for us.” Héctor looks at her, tilting his head in an invitation to continue, and she sighs. “It was always something. Mamá used to go out and dance when Abuelita wasn’t paying attention. It finally caught up: she fell, quite badly, and hurt herself. Once, Papá distracted himself humming while he was working, and he broke his finger. Something always went wrong, somehow. A curse.”
“I see.” Héctor nods slowly. “And… what do you think now?”
“I think….” She folds her hands, staring at them as she organizes her thoughts. “I think there was a curse - but it wasn’t your fault. I think that de la Cruz laid it when he… betrayed you, stole… everything . Bitterness helped it sink its roots in. And then the longer it went, the deeper it rooted. Until Miguel lifted it when he brought you and your music back where it belongs.” Victoria shrugs slightly. “At least, that’s what I think. My sister is wiser about curses than I am, but with luck it will be quite some time before we can consult her.”
“Elena,” Héctor says. Victoria nods, and she can see him filing that information away: Elena The Curse Expert. She’s seen him grow sharply attentive whenever any family member is mentioned, really, and she wonders what he’s heard and decided about her. “I think that’s a pretty good analysis of the situation, personally,” he adds, "but it’ll be interesting to hear what she thinks too - in quite some time, as you say.”
“Yes.” She allows silence to fall, absently tapping her fingers to the music and noticing Héctor tapping along in nearly the same motion until he turns to her.
“Say, Victoria - do you want to learn?”
She blinks, still caught up in thoughts of curses and music and her sister, and shakes her head once to clear it.
“Yes. To sing, or play?” He pushes off from the railing and whirls to face her, bowing slightly, one hand holding his hat behind his back and the other extended to her. “Or even… to dance?” Victoria hesitates, and he smiles, voice taking on a mildly wheedling tone. “I won’t let you fall. I promise.”
“I… don’t know,” she murmurs, and Héctor’s smile only widens.
“Well - I do. You’d be a great dancer! I could tell your grandmother would be a great singer, and I can tell with you too.”
Victoria tilts her head, raising a brow.
“ You taught her how to sing?”
“Taught her? Nah, of course not, she knew perfectly well - but who do you think convinced her to sing in the market square when we were kids?”
“Convinced her to what ?”
He laughs at her shock, nodding.
“Yes, almost every time we met there for awhile.” His tone shifts, going wistful. “And for awhile, almost every time we went together.”
Victoria is silent again, marveling at how easy it is to envision it: Imelda’s voice and Héctor’s guitar, soaring over the bustle of a busy late afternoon just as they had over the Sunrise Spectacular crowd. Strange how recently that would have been unthinkable; even now it’s a surreal notion, and she needs a moment to really absorb such an idea.
“It’s all right if you don’t want to, you know,” Héctor says after a moment. “Dance, or… any of that.”
“It had better be,” she replies, peering at him over her glasses again, “considering how long I’ve managed without.”
“Ah.” He grimaces, looking away as he rubs at the back of his neck. “Y-yes. Quite a… long time.” He falters, shoulders stooping a bit, and Victoria sighs softly.
“Oh, stop that pouting.” She stands at her tallest as he looks back at her, blinking. “I haven’t actually made a decision yet. But as it is, it’s getting late - and I still haven’t gotten what I came for.”
“Hm?” He straightens up a bit, the guilty look dropping from his face as he tips his hat back to peer at the sun. “I guess it is getting late, isn’t it... I’ll see you tomorrow, then, all right?”
“I’m sure you will,” Victoria says evenly. “Goodbye, then.”
“Nos vemos!” He waves as he heads off down the street; Victoria watches him go, contemplative, before deciding there’s something she has to know.
“Héctor! How did you convince her to sing in the market square?”
“I gave her some apples!” he calls back, a laugh in his voice as he waves again. Victoria blinks as she watches him weave through the crowd, considering that; she’s never known her grandmother to be particularly fond of apples.
Then again, she never knew her to be fond of music either.
She’s going to need the rest of that story eventually; as it is, when she returns home it’s with a basket of apples that she sets on Imelda’s desk before hurrying away from her grandmother’s puzzled stare.
When Héctor leaves the shop after his daily visit a week later Victoria sets her needlework aside and gets up to follow him, ignoring questioning glances from her father and aunt. Óscar and Felipe are sitting near the door with their heads together in the way that always makes Imelda purse her lips suspiciously, and they both look up as Victoria pauses in the entryway.
“Did you see which way he went?” she asks, and her great uncles exchange grins before looking at her again.
“Headed north,” Óscar says, “toward the main thoroughfares.”
“Have fun, Victoria,” Felipe adds. She rolls her eyes in response but doesn’t contradict him as she hurries out.
Héctor is easy to spot - tall enough that she can see his straw hat over the heads of most of the people roaming the streets, and his purple jacket now sports an absurd yellow patch peeking over the edge of the battered guitar he’s always carrying, details that make him stand out even more. She hurries after him, calling out as she reaches to catch his wrist.
He turns to her, blinking, and immediately breaks into a wide, cheerful grin as he recognizes her.
“Victoria! I thought you were tied up with that order… you’re free today after all, pájarita?”
She gives him a flat look but doesn’t otherwise respond to the nickname this time, holding silence as she tries to decide how to phrase her request. Héctor’s expression shifts under her stare, cheerfulness slipping toward uncertainty, and she frowns as she studies him.
It’s odd, really looking at him - long face, pointed chin, absurdly prominent cheekbones even as skeletons go, all of it more familiar than she’s let herself realize thus far. Victoria has always thought she looked like her grandmother, and still does, but...
“I’ve made my decision,” she says before she can follow that train of thought too far. “You are going to teach me to dance.”
The blunt statement gets a chuckle out of him, his uncertain look giving way to amusement and relief.
“Well, sure I am! That’s my job, isn’t it?”
There’s an almost painful hope in his voice at the question; Victoria nods gravely, and he smiles as he leads her from the street to a more secluded area. It’s above the same plaza they’d been looking out over days ago, and just as before there’s a slight crowd surrounding a small band. Héctor listens a moment, head bobbing to the tune as he addresses her.
“Ah - I know this one. It’s an easy starting point.”
“Good.” Now that she’s committed to the idea, Victoria’s confidence is slipping, her tone more apprehensive than she’d like. “I… don’t know the first thing about where to begin, so….”
“Hm.” Héctor glances at the musicians and then at her; the softening expression tells her he’s picked up on her nerves, and while the enthusiasm hasn’t left his voice it’s gentler when he speaks again. “Well… naturally, that’s the point of learning.” He tucks his hands behind his back and tilts his head a touch, smiling as she mimics the motion. “But let’s start with this - what do you know how to do?”
“Make shoes.” She shrugs as Héctor nods, wondering where he could possibly be going with this.
“Yes, of course - and do you enjoy it, pájarita?”
That silly endearment again. Victoria draws her mouth tight, but nods in answer.
“Good! We’re on the way then!” He claps twice, stepping forward, and before Victoria can ask what on earth he’s talking about he’s seized her hands and drawn her a bit away from the railing. “I don’t know much about shoes. But there’s a rhythm to hammering things together, yes?”
“I suppose.” She sniffs, shifting her grip on his hands. “If a bit crudely put.”
“Sorry. What’s the right term?”
“It depends. Hammering will do for now,” she says, only a bit grudgingly. “So what is the point of this?”
He smiles, swinging her hands, matching movement to the metre of the music.
“That it’s a steady rhythm, so you know that part. And you know stitching as well?”
“Good! Now, like this.” He tugs gently, pulling her along with him, steps suited to the music. “Find the rhythm. Count if you need to - ¡uno, dos, tres! - like that.”
She follows him, frowning as she watches their feet. And it is easy: fitting her steps to the rhythm of the band below comes as naturally as fitting herself to the rhythm of a roomful of busy relatives, and despite herself she’s starting to smile as Héctor speaks up again.
“Yes! Just like that! Now - let the music be the needle, and you be the thread! Let it pull you along! Steady and even, and then once you have your base you can get a little more decorative!”
“That’s not exactly how it works,” she grumbles half-heartedly. Still, it helps, and even once Héctor releases her hands she has little trouble following him through an easy pattern.
“Looks like it is how it works here, though, doesn’t it?” There’s approving laughter in his voice as he takes a half-step back, raising a hand to make a spinning gesture; Victoria obliges cautiously, and smiles again at the way her skirt spirals around her with the movement. “Just a bit more flair in the turn there.” He spins again himself to demonstrate, grinning at her as he comes out of it. “Loosen up! Don’t be afraid, I won’t let you fall.”
“I’m not. And I know you won’t.” It’s true, she realizes; even after releasing her hands he hasn’t strayed out of reach, and when she attempts the spin again she can see him half-reaching in case she should lose her balance.
“Good! Now, move your head like this and you won’t get dizzy.”
As before, he demonstrates - and keeps demonstrating, a beat ahead of the music so that her movements fit into the melody when she follows his spry steps and teasing, coaxing voice. Always ready to lead her back into the rhythm if she lost it, always ready to steady her if she falters, and she can’t remember why she was ever nervous over the idea as she breaks away from him to execute a series of flamboyant spins on her own.
“How was that?” she asks as she finishes. Héctor laughs, delighted, and claps as he comes close again.
“Perfect! You’re a natural!”
There’s warmth and pride glowing in his face and voice, and she blinks at him in a sort of wonder. On an intellectual level, Victoria knows that this man is her grandfather - but now, seeing his expression and hearing his tone, it truly strikes her that this man is her grandfather .
“And how do you feel? Are you having fun?”
Victoria is quiet a moment - thinking of curses and admonitions and her grandmother’s stern stare, thinking of her grandmother’s triumphant laugh after La Llorona and fingers tapping in tandem and how curiously light she feels now, in this moment.
“Yes,” she says at last, furtive but fervent; in some small way it still feels like confessing a sin, but that lingering apprehension is fading fast in the face of how the music and the movement make her feel . Even so, it’s a lot to take in - and she does still have work to finish, and can well imagine what Imelda would say to her putting off work to dance. So she looks away, back toward toward home, and sighs. “But… I should return to the shop.”
His expression flickers briefly before lighting up again, his voice bright as he replies.
“All right then - I’ll see you later?”
“Yes - I’d like to learn more. So I’ll look for you later….”
She looks at him a long moment, studying his strangely familiar features and warm, hopeful expression.
“...Abuelito,” she finishes firmly. Héctor stares at her a moment, looking as if he might burst into tears or simply burst with joy when he smiles at her, and Victoria can’t help smiling back as he replies.
“I’ll look forward to it!”
It’s another few days before Victoria has the free time to seek out more lessons, and while she chats with Héctor often enough in that span - his bubbling enthusiasm butting gently against her staid reserve - the gap leaves her restless. She catches herself tapping along to Rosita’s humming more often than not. She catches herself humming and tapping along to that too, and while she’s certainly not distracted she can certainly see how someone with less discipline might be.
Still, rushes rarely last long - and at last she’s able to follow Héctor as he leaves, falling into step beside him as they reach the street.
“I’m free today,” she tells him. “If you are.”
“For you? Of course!” He grins at her, sweeping a hand toward the source of the music. “Come on - let’s actually go down to where they are today.”
She follows without protest, watching him bound down the stairs to the plaza below like an overexcited dog and allowing him to take her hand as she comes off the last few steps herself.
“Ready for another lesson, bailarina?” he asks as he releases her. Victoria blinks at the new nickname, frowning slightly; she can’t argue it, precisely, but it feels a bit jarring compared to that silly bird name he’s been calling her. Less personal, perhaps.
“What happened to ‘pájarita’?” she asks at last, and she’s rather proud of how neutral it sounds. Still, just as she expected Héctor isn’t fooled: he snaps his fingers and points at her, grinning.
“Ah ha! She likes it!”
She shrugs, folding her hands placidly.
“It’s not the worst thing I’ve been called, really.”
Victoria expects him to laugh, to show the same delight at her attempt at joking he has before - so she’s startled when he turns to face her, drawing up to his full height, consternation clear on his angular face.
“What? What does that--who’s been calling you names?” He sounds utterly scandalized, his tone wavering somewhere between baffled and horrified as he gingerly places his hands on her shoulders. “Has someone been calling you mean names, Victoria?”
Victoria stares up at him, wide-eyed. The concern on his face is familiar, sparking memories of coming home in tears she tried so hard to hide as she went to her work station, of her mother’s immediate what’s the matter, mija ? and her grandmother marching out to Have A Word With Their Mothers. Héctor looks somewhere between the two, and she suspects he might actually go looking if she told him someone had been mistreating her.
The absurdity of a woman her age being treated like a bullied schoolgirl finally breaks through her astonishment, and Victoria starts laughing as she shakes her head. Héctor blinks and backs up a half-step, worry starting to give way to bewilderment, and she shakes her head again.
“Not for quite a long time, no.” She clears her throat and stifles her laughter, peering at him over her glasses. “Do you really think I wouldn’t deal with it myself, if it happened now?”
“Well, er - no, I think… you probably would deal with it pretty good,” he says, tone uncertain as he gives her a small smile. “After all, you’re….”
“...so like Imelda?” Victoria finishes.
“I was going to say ‘extremely capable’.” His smile widens as he shrugs. “But yes - that too.”
“Well. I did learn it somewhere,” she says, mirroring his shrug. Héctor makes an amused, wordless sound of agreement, and they both turn their attention to the day’s music, both moving in time to the band. The same movement, Victoria realizes, down to the way his fingers and hers tap along with the flow of the music and twitch lightly as if they can direct its course.
Imelda isn’t the only one she’s like, and the thought fills her with unexpected warmth as she turns to him.
“Hm?” Even after days of hearing it he still looks at her with the same undisguised joy as the first time she’d said it, and she finds herself smiling as she leans on the railing beside him.
“You’re right. I do like ‘pájarita’.”
Héctor blinks, watching her a moment before reaching out to wrap an arm around her shoulders and pull her tight against his side for just a moment.
“Good. That’s good - I’ll keep that in mind, mija.”
There’s a faint quaver in his voice - absurdly emotional, Héctor - and Victoria shakes her head slightly as she answers.
“Don’t press your luck. One childish name is enough.”
He isn’t fooled for a moment; the waver in his voice gives way to laughter when he responds.
She harrumphs, but leans against him just for a moment before pulling away, following the rhythm of the music. This time, there’s no apprehension or guilt - only Victoria’s quiet, delighted realization that in this moment she wants nothing more than to dance.