The sunbaked town was deathly still and quiet as the sun climbed in the sky; there was a worn, almost abandoned feeling to the dust-choked road and the bleached buildings. Rakka was struck with the strange, though not truly unpleasant, feeling that there was only she and Reki in all of the world. Some strangeness in the atmosphere nagged at the corner of the young girl's mind, until she finally placed it: there were no sounds of birds or insects in the air. Thinking about it a little, however, Rakka couldn't blame them. The hat, what Reki had called a sombrero, she found herself appreciating immensely, but she still could feel the sun like the caress of a devil on the skin of her arms and the bare tops of her feet. Her throat swiftly dried in the parched air, and it felt as though every step increased the collection of dust and sand in her sandals, abrading her feet. She didn't want to be a bother to Reki, though, who had already helped her so much, so Rakka didn't speak of her discomforts.
The solitude came to a swift end as they walked deeper into town. Silhouetted in the distance was a group of darkly tanned men with lined, careworn faces and clothing stained yellowish from years of sweat. They all gathered in activity around a damaged building, only half somewhat intact, while the rest stood a charred, brittle skeleton. One group worked at tearing down what remained and salvaging what there was to salvage as the other worked at clearing the debris, and another yet worked with lumber and supplies in preparation for the pending rebuilding. They worked industriously, though quietly; none of them seemed particularly happy in their work, but neither did they seems especially discontent. They were, however, all fully prepared to get the job done. She and Reki got a few curious glances from the laborers, and one of them appeared to know Reki and waved at her with a smile on his thin lips. She waved casually back. Rakka could tell that they didn't know what to make of her, but she wasn't sure what to make of them either, so she supposed they were even. Those men weren't the only people Rakka encountered on the way to Reki's work, either. There were also wives with floppy, wide-brimmed hats similar to her own, though a little prettier; some had flowers adorning them, or brightly colored ribbons. They stood in yards and on porches, hanging washing and tending gardens--Rakka could scarcely trust her eyes when she saw green in this land--and checking plants drying in the sun, suspended from cords. Many of them greeted Reki with kindly regard, and were usually offered a casual nod of acknowledgment from Rakka's stoic friend. There was undisguised curiosity in their eyes as well, but they, like the men, all seemed content to let the mystery pass by them.
"They know that nothing remains a secret long, around here." Reki said suddenly, answering Rakka's unspoken question.
Rakka couldn't have said how far they went. The town only occasionally seemed to have any organization to it, quite often happy enough to send the roads winding any which way. Reki didn't feel the need to stick to even those meandering paths all the time, either, taking them across vacant lots and business properties whenever it suited her path. They came slowly to the end, and Rakka thought with some misgiving that she probably couldn't find her way back by now if her life depended on it, and that worry only served to highlight the fact that she was still in a strange, unfamiliar situation; at least she felt secure in the new friend she'd made. The building that Reki led her towards also seemed to set her at ease, somehow. It was a low building with thick walls and a dry, weathered door the same color as the earth.
The inside was dark and surprisingly cool. Rakka removed her hat, and held it shyly before her as they entered. It seemed like a large house at first glance, but the first doorway to the right, which Reki took her through, opened into an expansive room with three tables arranged throughout, with chairs going to each of them. They were plain furnishings, fairly modern and made of tarnished aluminum that was almost, but not quite, covered by the pristine white cloths draped over them. The furniture looked oddly out of place on the wooden floor, with morning sunlight streaming through hand-made windows. A single covered light provided a soft glow overhead There were a couple of men sitting at one table, bent over breakfast and speaking to one another in quiet tones between bite, in that language that Rakka still could hardly piece out words from, much less follow. There was also a young woman with a toddler of perhaps three years on her knee, also with a small plate of fare before her, though her careworn, unsmiling face was a worrisome sight to the gentle-hearted Rakka.
Across the room from this was a long counter separating the diners from a wall of shelving, packed with jars and bottles and packages of any number of goods. Rakka recognized the roman alphabet, and was versed enough in it to hazard a few pronunciations of the worded labels. She didn't know what the words meant, though, and was afraid to make herself seem foolish with a poor replication of the native language, so she kept that information to herself.
"Abuela?" Reki called out, ignored by the handful of occupants, but for the wizened figure that slowly raised from behind the counter.
"Reki," she greeted her with a warm familiarity, her voice surprisingly deep and musical coming from a deeply lined face patterned with wrinkles. Her little, dark eyes squinted almost shut as she looked out into the gloom, though what Rakka could see of them sparkled with life and contentment. Reki's own face broke out in a wide smile. Though this must have been a person she saw every day, Rakka noticed more of a hop in Reki's step as she walked around the counter. Rakka followed hesitantly, and saw the abuela's eyes finally pick up on her, and one eyebrow raise curiously. She spoke to Rakka, with a curious, though courteous, tilt to her head, but Rakka could only spread her hands before her helplessly, looking to Reki. The older girl jumped in and started conversing, and the old woman's eyes soon shown with understanding. She also noticed that Reki was speaking very confidently, with none of the hesitation she'd displayed earlier. Perhaps she'd just warmed up to the story she had made up, Rakka wondered? The woman turned her attention back in her direction, though, so Rakka had no time to spare for speculation. A rough, leathery hand reached for her and she drew back almost unconsciously, feeling a split-second of irrational fear from this woman, but all that happened was the hand settled down upon her head and ruffled her hair.
"Pobrecita," she crooned softly, and Rakka felt comforted, an almost childlike security overtaking her with the soft, motherly voice. Then the woman looked over her, and began clucking disapprovingly. Frowning, she fingered the knee-length, cream-colored smock that Rakka wore, and snorted disdainfully at the simple sandals adorning her feet. Sighing, she walked back behind the counter again, curtly gesturing for Rakka to follow. She darted her eyes to Reki, seeking reassurance, and was encouraged with a nod and a smile. Hesitantly, then, Rakka followed her. She led through a door behind the counter, and into a bright kitchen. Inside there was another old woman, though where the first abuela had a small build and weathered features, this one was exceedingly well-fleshed, and her face was not so wrinkled as to give the impression of her age, so much as her iron-gray hair and the slower, wise expression on her face. She had been slowly scrubbing away at a pan in a sink of hot, soapy water, looking bored, but their entrance earned them a very curious expression indeed. A smile bubbled up in her wide, round cheeks when she saw Reki, and it flickered, but staid in place, when she turned her eyes to Rakka. The first woman offered a short explanation, and the other nodded, slightly rounded folds under her cheek forming every time her chin dipped towards her chest. Rakka didn't know what to make of the appraising expression the dish washing woman gave her, eyes twinkling thoughtfully and eyebrow arched high, but she was quickly led beyond the kitchen and into yet another room.
"Don't worry about that," Reki seemed to sense her apprehension. "Abuela Morales is a nosy bird, but she's kind, and you'll never want for food around her--if you don't mind earning it, one way or another."
"They seem to like you, Reki," Rakka noted. "I hope I'm not making you look bad, if our story is that I'm a troubled relative. I don't want them to think you come from a troubled family."
"Ah, no worries, Rakka. Actually, I told them the truth." Reki's eyes darted forward. "But we can talk more about that later, it's time for you to go shopping."
"Shopping? But I don't have any--" Before Rakka could protest that she had no way to pay for anything, she was funneled through the door into a room that couldn't accurately be described as "professional," or even as a store, really. It looked like the huge closet of a woman with far too many clothes, little hanging racks on wheels sitting at angles with no apparent order all around the room, and little piles of ribbons and socks and hats scattered around the corners. From Reki's words, though, Rakka figured that this must have been a kind of shop, though a certifiably informal one. The woman--
"Reki," Rakka spoke up suddenly. "What should I call her?"
"Her? She's abuela Estrada. Do you need to ask her something?"
"No, I just wanted to know how to call her. Names are important, don't you think? So it's abuela Estrada...?" Rakka tried a few times to wrap her tongue around the unfamiliar name. "Abuela... Estrada. Grandmother Estrada. Got it." Rakka saw Estrada waving to her from the corner of her eye, and hurried over. Without pausing for useless words, leathery hands walked down the line of a few racks and pulled out clothes on the way, stopping here to pull out some long, ruffled skirts, and there for a couple of shirts and blouses, and finally to a pile of delicates--that they had to spend an embarrassingly long time at, in Rakka's opinion, because they weren't divided into sections by size--where they eventually found a few in her size. She considered several times of trying to convey her lack of money, but the language barrier proved too daunting to tackle for the shy girl. She was pointed to a door after all the clothing had been passed into her arms, and inside Rakka found a small room with a standing mirror and a small, rickety wooden chair. She took that to mean that she was to change, which she was did enthusiastically. Her garment felt far too heavy for this heat, and was by now a little sweaty, so it was with relish that she peeled it off and selected a skirt and blouse at random to wear. She still felt guilty about not being able to pay, though, so she didn't stop to admire herself, and just ran back out of the room to Reki and Estrada.
She found them talking animatedly, especially Reki, with her waving her hands around in the air and looking outright angry. Rakka guessed that it wasn't Estrada she were angry with, though, because the wizened old woman was nodding slowly, and tapping a finger thoughtfully on her chin. Rakka walked slowly up to them, and the motion must have caught Reki's eyes. The older girl froze in the middle of her excited tale and fixed her eyes on Rakka.
"W-what?" Rakka stammered, pausing in mid-step with Reki's intense gaze. "Did I put it on backwards...?" Rakka sure didn't think that there would be buttons in the back of any shirt, no matter what the culture was like, but she probably shouldn't assume these kinds of thing.
"No, that's not it," Reki shook her head quickly. "It's just, that, um, you look good." Reki averted her eyes and berated herself. The girl didn't look any damned different now! She forced her eyes back and saw an embarrassed, but happy expression on the girl's face. She stood with her hands folded shyly behind her back, and Reki felt her heart give a little lurch again. She wore a demure blouse the color of sun-faded lavender, and an ankle-length skirt of pure white fell over her slender hips and stopped just short of the tops of her toes.
"You think so?" Rakka asked, a pink tinge coloring her cheeks and throat. Reki thought she looked even more beautiful then, and was glad for the darkness of the room, that perhaps they might not see the flush that crept up her own face.
"Yeah. But, uh, anyway." She coughed loudly. "That is, I was just talking with Abuela about your living arrangements, and she says not to worry about el casero, este bien."
Reki blinked. "Oh, I mean, don't worry about him, it's all good, you'll be able to stay."
"Eh?" Rakka cocked her head and furrowed her brows. "But he said he didn't want me there. He's the landlord, isn't he? I can't just stay there if I can't pay!"
"The abuelas stay there, too. Er, they used to more often, but they almost sleep more here in the store than they do over there now. The walk is getting longer for their old bones, they tell me, but they still pay him the rent to keep their stuff there, and because they feel sorry for the fellow. I suppose I can see where they're coming from, can you imagine owning an inn in this town?" Reki shook her head, chuckling. "So don't worry about imposing. If somebody else comes along that wants the room, he can kick you out then, but that's just not going to happen."
Rakka thought about it, frowning. "Okay, but I'm still going to try and get a job so I can pay him!"
"That was part of the understanding, yes," Reki smiled warmly. "You just have 'good person' oozing out of you, Rakka. I knew you'd say that." Rakka flushed at the praise. "Ah, and there's more. They're willing to give you the clothing for now, but in return for those, and for the intervention with el casero, you're to come with me in the mornings to help them work. You get to wash the morning dishes--mostly pots and pans--help organize any new merchandise that comes in, and help tend Abuela Torrez's spice and herb garden. You'll have lunch here, and then start on Spanish lessons until it's time to go home. Learn well, because you're only doing that for a week before they want you to go out looking for another job."
"Got it." Rakka nodded firmly after making sure to remember everything. She turned her eyes to Estrada, who regarded her with level, steady dark eyes. Not knowing how to express her gratitude through language, she cupped the old woman's hand warmly in her own and bowed deeply, smiling for all she was worth. Deep dimples making her face look pretty, almost younger, Grandmother Estrada smiled back, and ruffled Rakka's hair again with her free hand. Reki laughed, and lay her own hand atop theirs.
"If you keep this enthusiasm, they might be sorry to see you go. Lesson one, by the way: gracias. That's thanks. Give it a shot?"
"Um... guu-ra-sya-su?" Rakka said hesitantly, looking unsure at Grandmother Estrada. The woman laughed, too, and her beautifully musical voice, a rich and resonant sound that Rakka could hardly believe was made in her frail body, surprised Rakka again.
"Este bueno, pobrecita." She said warmly. Rakka smiled hesitantly, and couldn't help but break eye contact with the woman and seek out Reki's face. Estrada gently withdrew her hand, and Reki nodded her thanks at the old woman. Rakka felt her hand closed in Reki's warm grasp, and she was pulled in the direction of the door, to the back of the clothing room.
"She says that's good, Rakka. You'll pick it up quick enough, I think; I don't know that I'm all that great a shake at languages, and I did okay when I was learning."
"When you were learning?" Rakka echoed, a questioning lilt giving Reki pause. They stopped, and Reki spun around.
"Well, yeah. I'm not a native speaker either, I had to learn. You'll do fine, but I can't teach any more right now. I have to get to work."
"Work? Oh, what is your job?" Rakka asked curiously. Immediately after, she was struck with another curiosity, but she forgot it when a shrill squeal broke through the air, followed by a chorus of raucous, high-pitched laughter. Reki sighed.
"Aren't they energetic today?" She looked at Rakka with soft eyes that betrayed the truth of her exasperated exhalation. "As it happens, this place is a store, a restaurant, and..." They reached the end of the hallway, and Reki flung open the door. Rakka saw the source of all the commotion in a bubbling, bouncing room full of young children, none of which could have been much older than five, and all of whom stopped dead silent when Reki came in the room, shouting out a few brusque phrases. "And a daycare," she finished what she had been saying, after she had their attention. "I look after the children that working parents need taken care of."
"Reki!" One little girl shouted, and ran up, pouting, She flung herself on Reki's leg and buried a teary face into the hem of her jacket. She said something, but Rakka wasn't sure if she could have understood the muffled burst of words, even if she knew the language. Reki knelt down slowly and peeled the girl off of her, smiling the most gently and happily that Rakka had seen her, and touched her nose to the young child's. The little girl giggled and flinched, and Reki crooned a question at her.
"Si, si, uno momento," Reki answered kindly, before turning to Rakka. "I don't mean to keep you here if you'd rather explore or anything, Rakka. I think I'll have my hands full here for a little while, and it's not really all that interesting to watch somebody babysit, so feel free to--"
"No, not at all!" Rakka shook her head firmly side to side. "I--that is, you look happy here, Reki. I'm a little surprised, I would never have thought that you took care of kids for your job, you're so..."
"Tall, dark, and scary?" Reki suggested wryly, winking up at her. Rakka ducked her eyes, embarrassed at having been seen through so readily, but she nodded an affirmation.
"Something like that," she admitted. "But I like it, the way that you can be so cool-looking, but still be so kind to me, and all of these children. I'd like to stay here and see this Reki some more, if you wouldn't mind."
Reki blinked as Rakka smiled prettily. "Ah, r-really?" She felt a little heat in her cheeks, and coughed shortly, turning it into a chuckle. She arched an eyebrow at Rakka. "You..."
Whatever it was that Rakka was, the young girl never got to hear, because the children chose right then to decide that they were quite unpleased with being neglected by Reki in favor of this undeserving newcomer, and kicked up an immediate fuss. The young girl who had been so teary-eyed before now had her face scrunched up angrily, free of tears, and was jumping up and down for Reki's attention. When she saw that she had regained it, the young one spoke in that deadly serious, focused way that only little children could. Reki might not have improved the situation by laughing then, a full and genuine sound that brought an immediate smile to Rakka's own face, but laugh she did, long and hard enough to have her doubling over and gasping for breath, to the little girl's obvious consternation.
"Th-this little one, she wants to know who the strange pretty lady is, and why we're talking in a secret language, and demands that we speak properly from now on so they know we aren't telling secrets."
Rakka looked into the girl's face. Little cheeks were puffed out and she was glaring at Rakka with all the animosity that her young heart could muster. She was actually a cute little girl, Rakka saw, now that her face wasn't mottled from crying. She had an olive complexion that adults would be envious of, and hair that wasn't the deep, almost blue lustrousness of Reki's, but had it's own deepness of brown that was far warmer. Her glaring eyes were huge and dark as her hair, almost seeming too large for her face, with a small, pert little nose and lips like a tiny pink bow. Rakka found herself smiling, and the little girl stomped her foot angrily when she saw her target wasn't expressing fear like she well-ought to be. Rakka tried to think of how to fix the situation.
"Um, I'm sorry!" She tried automatically. The little girl sniffed and turned her head away, and Rakka realized that talking even more in the "secret language" probably wasn't endearing her.
"Don't worry about it, Rakka," Reki said, smiling in resignation. "Why don't you just stay there for a minute while I get the little ones situated, and I'll explain things to them so that they don't dislike you. They're all good kids, really, the selfish little things." Reki picked the pouting little girl up and sat her down on her forearm, and started talking firmly, though still kindly, to all the rest of them. They sat down in a small semi-circle around Reki, who promptly plopped down cross-legged in the middle of them, arranging the little girl on her lap. She looked just absolutely thrilled to have a special seat with Reki this morning, Rakka noticed. The kids really loved her. She also noticed, warmth blossoming in her heart at the sight, that Reki looked absolutely radiant as she sat and spoke to all of them, smiling and laughing unabashedly as she met each and every one of their eyes in turn. Rakka could see only too obviously that Reki loved them dearly as well.