“Come on! Let’s show them!”
“What, are you afraid?”
Of course, Héctor was aware he was being baited; Ernesto was terrible at subtlety - sure he was, everything about him was so forward and loud and in-your-face - and even aged six, he could tell.
On the other hand, there is no worse insult for a little boy than the implication he might be afraid of something, and Héctor had no choice but to respond precisely the way Ernesto wanted.
“I’m not afraid!” he protested, and it wasn’t even a lie. He was not afraid of attention - he didn’t even dislike attention - only that he didn’t see the thrill in seeking it out. Also, it kind of sucked that Ernesto got to stand on the crate and sing while he was there to bang on a pot. And probably look very dumb while doing so.
“Then let’s go, come on!” Ernesto huffed, grabbing his sleeve and pulling him along. “Ugh, you’re such a pain, may as well go at it alone!”
Now that was something that really stung, really scared him: Héctor didn’t want to be left behind. “I’m not a pain! I can help!” he protested, his voice breaking up a little, which in turn made him feel even more embarrassed.
It caused Ernesto to pause and turn, letting go of his arm. “No no no-- wait, don’t cry, come on,” he muttered, bending his knees to be at his same eye level, the day Héctor would surpass him in height still far away in time. “I didn’t mean it. I’m not going to really go at it alone. Wouldn’t be Héctor y Ernesto without Héctor, no?”
Ah, that was enough to make Héctor smile, it took so little. Ernesto always insisted on having his name first, regardless of Héctor's opinion that Ernesto y Héctor didn’t sound nearly as good as Héctor y Ernesto; it just didn’t roll off the tongue as well. It was nice hearing him say his way for once. “No,” he agreed. “It wouldn’t.”
“Right. So we’ll do it together, sí? Get us enough pesos to get so many sweets, we’re gonna feel sick and then have more sweets. So, ready?”
In all fairness, it was a sound plan to a six year old. Héctor grinned, already looking forward to stuffing his face. He lifted up his pot and the stick. “Ready!”
Ernesto grinned back, showing off a gap where one of his baby teeth had fallen off and had yet to be replaced by a new one, and ruffled Héctor’s hair before patting his shoulder.
“Then let’s go, hermanito. It’s showtime.”
“Look at that! A full plaza!” Héctor laughed, let the curtain drop again and turned, a dumb smile spreading on his face.
Truth be told the main reason why he’d accepted to go with Ernesto to the festival in San Luz wasn’t about crowds and cheers, or even music - not that he minded either - as much as it was about money. They were going to be well paid, more than they would make in a month playing in the plaza in Santa Cecilia, and it would be enough to get a brand new crib for the coming baby. And toys, and possibly something nice for Imelda, since she was doing most of the work carrying their baby.
It was amazing, how she breezed through it like it was nothing, and now he was there to do his share, so that he could support their little family. Their baby.
The first of many, he hoped.
Taken as he was by the thought, Héctor didn’t even notice how oddly silent Ernesto was despite having just heard there was a full plaza waiting to hear them play.
“Better than we hoped, isn’t i--” he began, only to trail off suddenly, taken aback, when his gaze fell on his best friend.
Ernesto was standing a few steps away from him, guitar in hand, a smile on his face. Except it looked more like a facial rictus than a smile. And his eyes were wide and fixed, his face covered in sweat. And his hands were gripping the guitar much too tight. And also, he was pale as ash.
“... Ernesto?” Héctor called out, walking up to him quickly and putting a hand on his shoulder. He felt so rigid, it was like touching a plank of wood covered in fabric. “What is it, amigo? Are you feeling sick? Ay, it was that chorizo, wasn’t it? I’m going to feel sick too in a minute and--”
Ernesto seemed to recoil and shook his head, stepping back with the least believable laugh Héctor had ever heard. It made him think of the creaking of rusty hinges, all of his natural charm just… gone. “No, no. All good,” Ernesto croaked, causing Héctor to roll his eyes.
“Look, if you’re not feeling well, we don’t have to perform,” he said. It would be a setback, because it would mean not getting paid, but he wasn’t going to force Ernesto to perform if he was feeling sick. It wouldn’t be right, and he was sure Imelda would understand.
Ernesto shook his head. “We must--”
“You sounded like you had a sea urchin stuck in your throat just now. There will be other chances.”
“I’m not feeling ill,” Ernesto lied, still looking a couple of moments away from collapse.
“That’s the worst you’ve ever been at telling a lie. At least let’s get someone else to go first, until you feel a bit better and--”
“Hey, you two,” a voice called out from backstage. “You’re on in five minutes.”
“Wait, can we swap places--” Héctor tried to ask, turning, but the man was already walking off, and he groaned. He turned back to Ernesto, and realized that now he looked like he was one moment away from collapse. He was paler, more rigid, eyes fixed on the curtain and… and…
Wait. Waaaait wait wait wait wait. Wait. That wasn’t sickness, was it?
For a moment, Héctor’s brain sputtered into a complete standstill. Suddenly, everything made sense and nothing did. Because someone having a bad case of stage fright before a big performance - the biggest yet - made perfect sense; Ernesto being that someone did not.
Honestly, ‘Ernesto’ and ‘stage fright’ had no business being in the same sentence at all.
“Huh,” Héctor said, entirely at a loss. Before him, Ernesto made another attempt at a Confident Smile. It was the most painful-looking grimace he’d ever witnessed.
“No need. I’m fine,” Ernesto strained to speak. If his grip on the guitar tightened another fraction, Héctor suspected, he’d soon hear the sound of cracking wood. And that would be bad, because he really didn’t think Ernesto could afford buying a new one.
“Hey now, don’t be nervous.”
“I’m not--” his best friend began, but his voice faded, and he just swallowed, looking down at his guitar. On the other side of the curtain, the current players were ending their performance; an unseen public cheered wildly. It didn’t seem an especially difficult crowd to please, if anything.
And Ernesto was a crowd-pleaser like no other. All would be well… as long as Héctor managed to get him back into working order, of course.
“I’m sure you’ll do great,” he said, trying to sound as confident as possible. Not the easiest thing to claim while looking at someone who looks close to a heart attack, but he’d always been good at bluffing.
Ernesto swallowed, and tried to scoff. “Of course. I always do.”
He… didn’t sound very convincing, but it was a start. “Then no reason for things to be different this time, no?” Héctor pointed out, and finally Ernesto looked back at him in the eye. He was still pale, still wide-eyed, and ah it felt so wrong to see him like that, seeking reassurance. This had never happened before; where had all his confidence gone? He had to swallow before he spoke.
“We never played for so many people.”
“I know. It’s exciting, no? You kept going on about what a good opportunity this was. Por Dios, you wouldn’t shut up about it for a minute the entire ride, what’s gotten into you?” Héctor managed a laugh that sounded almost easy, and put a hand on Ernesto’s shoulder again. “It will be all right. They’re going to love you.”
“What if they-- don’t?” he asked. He sounded scared in a way Héctor couldn’t recall seeing him since childhood. It was somewhat eerie, but he didn’t let it show. At least one of them had to be positive.
“Well, I’m no fortune teller, but I think we can rule out anything too extreme like hanging us to a telegraph pole, so we’ll probably live to perform again,” Héctor tried to joke, smiling. To his utter relief, the corners of Ernesto’s mouth twitched a moment. “Worst that happens, if this crowd has absolutely no taste, we’ll find out how good we are at dodging tomatoes. We had things thrown at us before, no? I mean, that guy last month threw rocks at us, remember?”
The twitch turned into something more similar to a smile. “That had nothing to do with music. It was because he’d found out I’d bedded his wif--”
“So what? Still rocks. What’s some rotten vegetables?” Héctor waved his hand dismissively. That was… probably not the time to express his disapproval for Ernesto’s utter inability to respect the sacred bond of marriage and all that. Not that he hadn’t tried, but each time he’d get a shug and something along the lines of ‘not my marriage, not my problem’.
“And besides, it won’t happen. We’ll go on stage, do our thing, and wow the crowd. That’s what we do, no? Héctor y Ernesto,” he added, giving Ernesto’s arm a light punch. “We’ll show them what good music is all about. Between that and your pretty, pretty face, they’d be crazy not to enjoy the show.”
Ernesto’s lips twitched again in something that was almost a smile. One last cheer beyond the curtain, and other musicians were walking back in, laughing, half-dancing and half-skipping. A man who seemed to be having nowhere as much fun peered over at them.
“Your turn, hombres.”
Héctor glanced at Ernesto, and patted his shoulder with a grin. “Come, amigo. It’s showtime.”
This time, Ernesto smiled - really smiled. He adjusted the strap of his guitar, wiped his forehead, and laughed; all of a sudden, he was himself again. “Hah! All right, let’s show them how it’s done. Where would I be without you?”
“Right now, probably hiding in the backstage,” Héctor replied, and ducked under a half-hearted swipe. They laughed, and he picked up his own guitar before following Ernesto to the stage, before a cheering crowd.
“ER-NES-TO! ER-NES-TO! ER-NES-TO!”
He can hear them calling out his name all the way from his dressing room; hundreds of voices, hundreds of people who paid months in advance to reserve a table for that performance in one of the most exclusive venues in Mexico City, with no greater wish than seeing him perform.
His family is out there, calling out for him, and how can he deny that call? He’ll answer, of course, give them the performance they want and bask in their adoration. In a minute.
As soon as his hair is done.
Ernesto de la Cruz brushes the forelock carefully, brushes his mustache, and flashes a smile at the mirror as he puts on his jacket and smooths down the fabric. Ah, yes - perfect. He’s ready. Only one thing missing, a little ritual of his that is far more important than his hair.
The guitar is leaning against the wall, the skull motif grinning at him. While it is an excellent instrument, Ernesto knows he doesn’t have to keep using it. He could have another made, newer, maybe even better; the best guitar makers in Mexico would die for the privilege. But he never will: this is more than just a guitar, and his to keep.
Ernesto picks it up and pats it fondly before smiling and saying the words he utters before every performance, without fail, letting them echo in the empty room.
“Showtime, old friend.”