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The ride to Isabel's dad's place had been more lively than Spender would have guessed it could be.
A cloud of hurt and doubt still buzzed in the back of his head after his argument with Mina, but Isabel was cheerful and chatty once it was just the two of them, and Spender found her mood hard not to match. Isabel peppered him with questions about his adventures as a teenage spectral, offering scathing commentary on his decisions all the while like a miniature version of her grandfather.
Spender smiled through her frank critique of his various fights and foibles as he shared them. He didn't mind playing the punching bag for a bit. He'd certainly earned it. Isabel couldn't have had much chance to express her frustration with the adults in her life, and he was keenly aware of the resentment underneath her admiration now, after last night. The more fallible he was in her eyes, Spender figured, the less unworthy she would feel... of praise, attention, all the things she thought perfection earned him—the spotlight she must feel he stole from her. Better yet, he could offer Isabel those things without a price tag, and start to show her that their lack wasn't her fault.
That, or he could at least take her camping somewhere safe next time around. Spender couldn't help but wonder if he'd be a failure as a parent if he ever had kids, or how the feckless Jean would handle similar responsibilities if he became a teacher like his in-progress Mayview U degree insisted he was nearly qualified to do. The secret, Spender thought, might just be not caring, but he'd never been any good at that.
Isabel's mood slowly sunk back into silence as they drew closer to the winding waterfront walkway that was the Mayview Mini-Mall. When they reached her dad's newly purchased antique shop, she ran ahead inside without a word. Spender followed behind.
"Hey, Izzy doll! Enjoy the great outdoors?"
Ángel Guerra's voice had all his father's bass, but with its rumble and rough edges sanded down until it was a dulcet breeze. Spender thought it sounded like a very forced contrast. He had no doubt they'd sound the same if he was angry.
Ángel was in work clothes, a t-shirt and old khakis speckled with stains that spanned the full spectrum of a painter's palette. He'd nearly finished covering the faded walls with fresh start pink, brush still in hand.
Isabel scrunched up her face. "You smell like paint," she muttered, and started to stomp past him.
Ángel laughed, giving Spender a guilty smile. Spender felt a twinge of resentment at being made complicit with that one simple expression. He wasn't embarrassed by her behavior, but just being there to receive the silent apology closed the circuit on Ángel's interpretation.
"No hug, then," he said to his daughter, before a cheery "Ah, ah, ah!" stopped her halfway up the stairs to his apartment. "I draw the line at a thank you for Richard, Isabel! That's the least he's owed for all the fun you had, right?"
Ángel peered low at Spender over glasses that he wasn't wearing, an affable sort of threat in his expectant smile.
Isabel mumbled a shy "thanks" that was quickly drowned out by her stomping up the stairs.
"Good!" Ángel chimed. An awkward silence slowly set in. "Good, good." He drummed his fingers on his desk. "I should thank you too, Richard. Here—" The paintbrush plopped back in its bucket. "Come in, come in. I trust she was no trouble?"
Spender took a step in from the doorframe. "Never. She's a great kid."
Ángel beamed. "That's good, that's good. She's had it rough of late. With the divorce and then the stitches. Would you like tea?" He'd moved back behind shelves and stacked boxes now. Spender recognized it as a gentle way to lure him deeper in to talk.
"I'm fine. Thank you." He took the other invitation, though, albeit reluctantly, and followed him into the winding, messy aisles. Ángel had an aura of imposing pity about him that made you feel both judged and judgmental at the same time, a recipe for stilted conversation. Spender wasn't fond of time alone with him.
"Actually, sir," Spender said, bracing himself, "there was some trouble. My fault, not hers. We had a close call with a... a spirit in the woods—"
Ángel, who'd leaned down to pick a book up off the floor, slowly reared to his full height. Without the slouch to soften his great silhouette, Ángel had all the looming presence of his father. Black spectral energy softly hissed off his spread shoulders. Spender was grateful for his glasses—the stare piercing him burned like two hot pinprick suns.
"No one hurt?" Ángel asked, his tone frightfully calm.
"No new nightmares for my daughter?"
"I—" Spender had steeled himself for this, but he was unprepared to see the docile Guerra look so fierce. "Isabel didn't see much. I hope not, sir. I'm sorry."
Ángel relaxed, and Spender felt himself conceal the breath he'd held as it escaped.
"...That's the world for a young spectral," Ángel sighed. "Too young. My father doted on her since her birth, kept himself close. That's why she's six and seeing spirits. Blooming red." Spender watched him mold a puff of black vapor into a wafting spiral in his palm. Another sigh. "He did the same for me, you know. And yet I got my mother's color. He always hated that."
Spender wondered how lamenting that he didn't share his daughter's shade was any different. It wasn't like not matching mattered. If he cared about the conflict past that symbol, he could have chosen not to leave.
A knowing smile from Ángel made Spender check his own expression, worried some trace of his distaste had filtered through.
"Forgive me, friend. I'm sure you hear your fill of Guerra family grievances back at my father's house." Ángel idly swept some dust off of the book that he was holding. "I'm glad she has you there, you know, amidst all this. Isabel looks up to you just like an older brother. And little Ed's a bit too Ed to fill that role just yet himself." He smiled.
Spender didn't know what to say. He was still raw from his painful break with Mina, and remembering Isabel's words back on the hawk watch made Ángel's thanks feel hollow and unearned. She didn't need someone like him. She needed her father, or... or something. Spender didn't know. Adrift again himself after a youth searching for friends to be his family, he only wanted her to have some solid ground.
"I, er... was hoping I could ask you a favor, Richard," Ángel said, then chuckled awkwardly. "Another favor, I should say. Don't think I don't know that I'm in your debt already."