See the end for author's notes.
"Have all the songs been written?
Have all your needs been met?
Have all these years been worth it
Or am I…the great regret?"
All worry and confusion left Héctor like a snap of a maraca. Seeing your favorite relative (the one who saved your miserable After Life) will have that effect on a hombre! Drinking in the overwhelmingly relaxing scene of the boy in his bed alive and breathing made Héctor beam back at Miguel's stunned face. He quickly sidled in, shutting the door softly behind him with a creak.
"Miguel!" The skeleton man was so happy he didn't even bother with one of the boy's many nicknames of endearment; he just threw out his lanky arms excitedly. The second the teen saw this, he scrambled out from under his blanket and bolted toward Héctor like someone had lit a match under the little guy.
"What are you doing here?" The kid squeaked, even as he flung into his dead grandpa's arms and hugged him greedily tight. After all, the last time he had seen Héctor, he was inches from Final Death and Miguel never really got solid proof he had helped the man. Sure, the photo was a good indicator, and Mama Coco told them all so many stories, but deep down, Miguel had wondered if it was really enough. When the nights were pitch black because the moon was hiding, it was easy to fear the worst. He often remembered the way Hector looked when he described Final Death to him. How empty and powerful it sounded, how it was impossible to return from. Miguel had feared the worst then. That the relative who had the love of music in his soul like Miguel did was long gone and he'd never ever see him again—
Except Héctor did live. (Well, sort of…) Not only that, he was in the Land of the Living, for some strange and wonderful reason!
"You're alive," Miguel gasped out, still hugging the scarecrow man like a little limpet. It would be unmanly to cry, but the teen had no other way to express his relief over such a realization. Héctor had helped him, had taught him about the music, had even protected him from his would-be killer and let Miguel hate him briefly before the boy found out the truth.
Héctor laughed in return, but it was a light, fond chuckle as he pried the kid from his hip bones. He bent to see the kid better, taking in all his little changes over the year. Miguel had grown a bit! Briefly Héctor wondered if the boy would inherit his towering height, because it seemed to be kicking in now.
"Well, I dunno about alive, ey gordito?" Héctor teased, pointing at his exposed ribcage to remind his little descendant how unAlive he truly was.
"But I'll take it, especially if it means getting to see you again! I've missed you, Miguel." Héctor loved his whole family, adored his baby hija (for she would always be his baby girl, no matter how much older she was than her father) but his time with Miguel had cemented the kid in Héctor's heart right beside dear Coco.
Miguel went red, but found he couldn't hold tight to any teenage mannerisms that wanted him to act tough and stand offish. Besides, it was likely that if he did, Héctor would tease him about that, too. Any lingering embarrassment at Héctor's affections was washed away by the flood of relief at knowing he hadn't failed Mama Coco or Héctor. Or even Imelda.
"But—but how? Papa Héctor, I thought the Dead couldn't—you know, unless it was Dia de los Muertos and…" Miguel fumbled, then quickly glanced at the little calendar by his desk.
"…it's not." For a second, he feared he had lost track of the months!
"Sharp as ever, chapaco. You're four months off." Héctor jabbed playfully again, his smile stretching when the kid shot him a pouty look.
"I dunno how I ended up here." Héctor shrugged lazily. "One minute I was running from your Mamma Imelda for eating the last of her dulce del leche, next, poof! I was near the graves under the moon. Not a Cempasuchilpetal in sight, might I add."
"Weird." Miguel breathed, studying the skeleton man. No clues there, either. Héctor was solid, his bones creaked when he moved and his eyes were bright and lively. If it weren't for the fact Miguel was certain he was awake, he would fear that it was he who was in the Land of Dead again, and not the roles reversed.
"Very weird." Héctor agreed with a hum, but he was wandering Miguel's room now.
Héctor considered his next words, speaking carefully as he admitted, "Uh, not that I have the best memory in the Rivera clan. But that's what I'm pretty sure what happened. I made my way here; I thought I was going to my ofrenda, but I guess not because I…"
He stopped, staring at the kid's desk. It was a normal boy's desk alright, cluttered and messy. Music sheets were stacked with only mild attempt at organization. A plate with half a sandwich was to the other side. The pencils weren't in the cup holder, but there was a knife, a ruler and what looked like half a feather stuffed in the cup. That all wasn't what made Héctor pause in soft surprise. It was the photo behind the glass, a little portrait and a small white candle with two Cempasuchil petals sitting innocently before it. Héctor's human face smiled back at him from behind the glass.
"Miguel…" Héctor breathed. "What's this, ey?" He tried to act casual, but the emotion was making his voice heavy and his eyes shiny. He knew damn well what it was, but part of him wanted to hear Miguel say it. Hell, all of him wanted to hear Miguel say it.
"Oh, well, it's just…a little something…" Miguel trailed off, coughing nervously.
"You keep my picture here?" Héctor asked with an arch of his brow.
"One of them." Miguel corrected quickly, "Mama Coco had this one with your letters, when we found them she…she said I could have it. You still have the ripped photo on the ofrenda next to Mamma Imelda, but…" The kid shrugged, rubbing his shoulder and trying to act casual.
"I was just…worried. I thought one more couldn't hurt. Just in case."
Héctor shot the kid a soft, loving look.
"Hey, thanks, chapaco. No, really. You gotta know how thoughtful this is for me, for the longest time I…"
For the longest time, he was No One. A man without a Family. Without Hope. One spot on the Rivera's ofrenda at all was Héctor's dream for years upon years. Over centuries.
A second one constructed by his own grandson? A bone-warming blessing.
Now, Héctor understood why he was drawn here. Yes, the family ofrenda was wonderful. But this was the one that received the most attention, weather Miguel meant to or not. No wonder Héctor felt stronger lately in the Land of the Dead. Considering how long he lasted on poor Coco's failing memory alone…
"For the longest time it was just me." Héctor finished his sentence gently, going for delicate. The crushing heartbreak and desperation Héctor felt while his family ignored him was something he hoped Miguel would never have to endure. Héctor couldn't protect himself. Not from De La Cruz, not from his own blinding lust for Fame, and not from the Final Death. But he could protect Miguel from that.
"Right." Miguel, unaware of the skeleton's man thoughts, nodded. "And, and sometimes when I can't think of anything to compose, I look at your picture and try to think what you would do…"
"And?" Héctor coaxed when the boy went silent. "What do you think I would do, chapaco?"
"Oh, well. Sometimes I keep writing…but most times I go play with my cousins, or talk to my dad." They both knew what he meant.
'When I get stuck on my music, I go to my family.'
Héctor smiled proudly. The kid had learned the lessons Héctor had tried to learn much too late. It's relieving, as much as it sobering for the skeleton man.
"Anyway, this is a nice little spot you've got here, muchacho. Pretty clean for a kid your age…"
His eyes swept the room again, and this time almost immediately they landed on—
"My Camila!" The skeleton crowed happily, quickly sweeping up the pearl-white guitar that was propped by Miguel's bed.
"Cam—who?" Miguel blinked, walking over to see for himself. His lips curled into a smile as he watched Héctor's fingers deftly strum the guitar's strings, and then immediately make adjustments in her tune. Héctor moved as one puts on clothes, the actions so deep in his mind he didn't need to look at the strings he was subtly tightening.
"My dear Camila," Héctor sighed, the same tone he addressed Imelda in when she allowed him to be flowery and sweet. "Chapaco, you've taken such good care of her! Ah, how she sings!" His bony fingers were flitting the guitar's chords, testing each one.
"I never knew your guitar had a name," Miguel said happily, hopping back onto his bed. Héctor sat beside him, still treating the boy to some music.
"De La Cruz always mocked me for it, but then, for a man to treat people how he did? And he's going to lecture me on naming my guitar?" Héctor snorted sarcastically, but merely rolled his eyes. His features softened as he went on, lost in the memories.
"Your Mama Imelda gave her to me, you know. She even said she liked the name."
"I didn't know that either," Miguel brightened up at hearing the family matriarch's softer side. "So you took Camila with you on your trips?"
"Of course! Y'know, it made me miss my family a little less, knowing I had Camila with me when I was lonely. Musicians sing and write music, but our instruments make the music when we can't, ey Miguel? Camila sings almost as well as your Mamma Imelda." Héctor chuckled, finally slowing his playing.
Miguel simply sat and listened, smile relaxed. He was content to spend the day doing nothing but listen to his grandfather's stories and to have his guitar sing to them.
It was of course, at this moment, a knock came at his door.
"Miguel? You're going to be late for school—is everything alright in there?"
And then, horrifyingly, the knob began to turn…
A disclaimer; I have no idea if ofrendas are allowed in bedrooms. I searched on google for an answer, but only found out how they are constructed. (In truth, Miguel's small ofrenda to Héctor is very unofficial, having just one candle and some marigold petals.) But I needed a reason for Hector to be drawn toward Miguel's room, and it seemed likely that (as long as it's not forbidden!) Miguel would put something small up for Héctor, especially if he's afraid one ofrenda isn't enough.
Also, according to the wiki, Héctor's guitar was "a gift from a wife…" which just hurts that much more. I wonder what Héctor grieved most all those decades alone. Was it losing his dearest possession from his wife or the songbook which held the lyrics he had sent to Coco while he traveled?