Everything is Teotl

Everything is Teotl

Saturday, August 24th, 2024

Something set her teotl off.

A trembling drag of fire across the forearm. A sluggish welling of blood running down the arm, pooling into cold droplets that plink to some unseen target below. Drip, drip, drip… A fading out and sudden snapping in around the edges, like a head jerking up and eyes flying open after nearly drifting off into a nap.

It was always a strange, half-sensation. Dull, as if overlapping rather than actually happening. But it was no less alarming.

Alvaro: danger.

He was doing it again. Pushing steadily onward towards his limits and intending to push past them, despite how impossible he knew it would be. Giving more of himself than he had to give, and continuing to give it. It reminded Sofia of some of the stories that Dad had told her—the flaying of flesh and dripping of blood to usher forth new life, to grow sustaining crops for the small, starving people of the Fifth World.

If anyone could do it and step forth from his skin and spend the entire rest of existence without it, it would be Alvaro. And he’d do it with that warm, broad, sweet, handsome smile on his face, too.

But… well… he was trying to cure a plague and a blight and trying to spring forth crops from nothing. And it wasn’t for the entire Fifth World or anything, either. Not that the people of Bakersfield didn’t need or deserve it, but… well…

Okay, she was worried. And it might be selfish of her, but she liked his skin. She had to say something… even though they’d agreed to keep apart while Derrick sorted himself out.

“Excuse me,” Sofia mumbled, placing her utensils on her plate and pushing away from the table. “I’m going to Regency Hall.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Galen, looking up at Sofia.

Sofia offered Galen a reassuring smile. “Oh, just… Alvaro’s probably gonna pass out due to blood loss if I don’t do something about it.”

“Oh, okay,” Galen said, curiosity sated.

Lisa nodded a little. “Good luck.”

Carmen’s eyes flicked briefly over Sofia. Then a smile spread across her face and she leaned on one elbow, pointing a fork conversationally at her.

“Sofia, gorda… it’s just blood loss,” Carmen said. “Don’t be so worried! It’s nothing new to any of us ladies. He’ll be fine.”

“Says the one who hasn’t had a period in, what, seven, eight months?” Moe retorted.

Carmen leveled Moe with a flat look. “Hey. If you think this,” she motioned over herself, “is a better alternative, I invite you to give it a try.”

“Please don’t,” Lisa said. “Or at least wait. I think we’ve met our quota of two at a given time.”

“Could be three,” Moe pointed out, a mischievous grin spreading like fire. She narrowed her eyes, as if scrutinizing Lisa. “Hard to tell at this point.”

Carmen brought a diplomatic hand to her mouth. After composing herself, she reached across the table for a serving bowl of food. “You’re such a little shit.”

Galen brightened. “Twins!?”

“That means twice the crying and pooping, Galen,” Ruben pointed out around a mouthful of food.

Lisa serenely continued eating her food. “So I take it you’ll wait, then.”

“Forever, if I have to,” Moe confirmed. “Sure, I know that seems like a nigh-unreasonably interminable amount of time, but…” she placed a hand over her heart, “it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” She put her other hand over Lisa’s. “For you.” She sent a honeyed look to Carmen. “And you, mi querida bruja.”

“’Interminable,’ means really, really long, right?” Galen asked.

Sofia appreciated Carmen trying to put her at ease, but… she took the opportunity to slip out.

Though the sky was still orange, the sun had dipped behind the buildings. In another hour or so it would be dark and the air would start to cool. That would be about how long it’d take Sofia to get to Regency Hall, if she walked.

The line of fire still burned dully on Sofia’s arm. If she concentrated on it, she could almost feel dizziness whirling about her head. But Alvaro knew better than anyone else how to keep in good health. He could last another hour, right?

It would only take a little a little tapping of teotl, a little pushing aside of the World, and she could be there right now. After all, she wouldn’t have been able to feel it if he weren’t in some kind of danger.

That was the long and short of it, really. He was endangering himself. Even if he was just toeing the line a little, he’d still crossed it.

It was like moving through a small, craggy passage in a mountain just big enough to get through sideways—sliding in and either pushing or wiggling to get through. But it was only an instant before Sofia’s next step pressed into soft, springy earth.

For as far as she could see, there were bright, healthy-looking greens and yellows and reds and browns. Piled up on the pavement nearby was a massive collection of uprooted dead plants, many crusted in strange, multi-colored sick, left out to be disposed of. Alvaro was nearby, in the midst of this growth, kneeling and silently uprooting vegetables, sluggishly shaking and brushing the dirt off them and piling them in a basket. There were others around him—few and far between—doing the same.

Sofia approached and stooped, gently placing her hands on Alvaro’s shoulders.

“Hey,” she said, quietly.

He turned, then, upon seeing her, smiled. His skin looked grayish, and his heavy eyelids appeared almost bruised, accenting the yellow tinge that was beginning to creep in. Lines of blood spiderwebbed his left arm, languidly welling from the fresh cut that drew across older wounds. More blood stained the cuff haphazardly rolled to his elbow. His right arm was swathed entirely in bandages, which was spotted through with old blood. Clearly he wasn’t taking the time to bind up his wounds anymore. But his smile was as bright as ever, and his messy hair was flipped over his eyes in that way it did as if everything were normal. He smelled of dirt, of copper, of roses.

“Hey,” he replied. In spite of how faded his voice sounded, all the warmth in that one word spread from him to her. “What are you… I mean, not that it’s not… ?”

Sofia pushed his hair to the side a little. “Remember that Bat Signal thing I told you about a while ago?”

After a moment’s pause, he nodded.

“You just set it off.”

His shoulders sagged a little, and then another small, wan smile spread across his lips. It was a little wry. “Good to know.” He paused, uprooting another potato. “I’m… well, no, I’m not okay. But I’ll be okay. I’ve been through worse.”

Sofia gently took the potato from his hands, brushed off the dirt, briefly inspected it, and placed it in his basket. “That’s not exactly comforting, Alvaro.”

“I’m… sorry,” he said. Regardless, he reached for another potato.

“You know what would be comforting, though,” began Sofia, reaching out to take his hands in hers to forestall him, “is if you agreed to take a break.”

He slowed to a stop, letting his hands be at rest. “This is my break,” he said. “While it’s still quiet.”

“I mean an actual break. The kind that maybe involves a nap.”

He took a deep breath, in and out. “I can’t, Sofia.” His tone was matter-of-fact. He slipped his hands from hers and continued his work. “I’m the only one standing in the way of these… dual epidemics right now. If I rest, everyone might suffer for it.”

“And if you don’t rest, you’re going to drop.” Sofia moved around to directly face Alvaro, kneeling in the path of his progress. “You won’t be able to stand in the way of anything then. And no one will be able to help you.” Sofia paused. “Except maybe Susan, but she’s already being spread thin.”

Alvaro didn’t move. Instead, his eyes dropped. “That… did occur to me, yes.” He sluggishly brought a hand up to his hair and drew his trembling fingers through it once before letting it fall to the ground. “I’ve been pacing myself pretty poorly. I must admit, this… these strange epidemics… caught me by surprise. But I’ve gotten better about it. And now I know… what limits I’m reaching… and I can work from now on to avoid all that.”

That wasn’t at all convincing.

Sofia was beginning to understand the appeal of Abuela’s friend la chancla. “Alvaro.” Her tone was firm, flat, and what she hoped was forbidding. “I will drag you kicking and screaming to your quarters if I have to.”

His eyes closed and his face scrunched as if he were in pain. He reached for Sofia’s hands, found them, squeezed, and then opened his eyes. “Sofia, I… I need you to… just… not do that right now.”

Written on his face was pleading so genuine that she nearly relented. He knew it was in her power to do just that, and he was begging her not to. Instead she contemplated the dirt for a moment or two, searching for the words that would make him reconsider.

“Alvaro…” She paused. “If you’re the only one standing between this community and disaster, then it’s your job to take better care of yourself.” She looked at him again. “It’s not like you’re holding back some kind of flood or army or something that’ll smash down all at once if you aren’t there to stop it. We’re talking about a disease and a blight. These are things that take time, even as quick as these ones are. But you said it yourself: you know better now. So you need to take the opportunity now, while it’s quiet, to rest, before it gets any worse. You’ll be at your best, better equipped to deal with it, and you’ll have more of yourself to give, then.” She gave him a return squeeze. “Just wash up and get some sleep. That’s all I’m asking you do to.”

There was a long silence. The tension in his face tightened this way and that, as he wrestled with himself.

Finally, Alvaro sighed deeply and offered Sofia a helpless smile. “If I lie down, will you please make sure that I get up again?”

An answering grin spread over Sofia. “Well, duh, lazybones.”

She hopped up and offered a hand to Alvaro, who took it. Together they made their way back to the hall, past all the people, past all the theaters. Sofia had to tug Alvaro beyond the makeshift sign that read “Sick Bay: enter only with permission,” but soon enough they made it to the Templar quarters, to the communal shower.

After making him promise that he’d stay put, Sofia emerged and grabbed some fresh bandages along with a fresh sponge, a wine bottle filled with herbal disinfectant (very different from the stuff Susan had made, when they’d been living outside), and a small tub, informing relevant parties that Alvaro would be out of commission for a little while along the way. She returned to find the ground around him scattered with unwound, stained bandages. His right arm was mostly free, little spots of fresh blood beading from his scabs. It was strange to see his tattoo marred by dozens of cuts, looking as if he’d cut straight into the muscle itself. They all looked healthy, at least—not the barest sign of pus or infection, at least not at a surface glance. He looked over at her as she came by and set the tub down underneath the showerhead. She turned it on, then made her way over to his bench nearby.

“Thanks,” he said, carefully, painfully unwinding the last bandage around his arm.

Without a word Sofia stooped to collect the bandages, wadding them up into a ball. Alvaro brought his hands to the buttons on his shirt. His trembling fingers fumbled with button after button, slowly baring his bandaged chest.

Suddenly, a feeling like fire spread throughout Sofia, setting her heart pounding in her ears and spurring her into motion.

She found herself stooped before him, her hands slipping under his before they could reach the next button. Quickly they popped open, one after the other. She was on the last when Alvaro placed his hands over hers, quelling their motions entirely.

“Sofia.” She looked up at him. He offered her a small but firm smile. “I can do it.”

“I know… I just…” She paused, staring at their hands. Dirt stained his fingers, overlapping hers of marble and flesh, which were still poised to continue. The fire still burned, sending an itching to move again. Why was she doing this all of the sudden? Why did it ache to not do it? “You take care of pretty much everyone who needs it, Alvaro.” She looked up at him. “I get to take care of you.” Oh. She had to look away, to avert some of the unexpected intensity of that statement. “Y’know, kinda part of the whole… ‘girlfriend’ package.”

They’d never actually used those terms—boyfriend and girlfriend—in relation to one another. Everyone else had, though, and they hadn’t stopped them. And really, that’s what they were, despite the whole thing with Derrick. Still, it seemed strange to use it herself. But in a good way. New. Significant.

She looked up at him, trying to keep the light humor of her last statement. “So are you gonna shut up and let me or what?” Wow, that came out a lot more vehement than she’d intended. She didn’t actually want him to shut up, but he would catch her meaning. Hopefully. She smiled a little, just in case.

He looked away, considering. His hands slackened some, and then dropped a couple moments later as he looked back to Sofia.

“Mande,” he replied, another small smile growing on his face.

Sofia’s heart skipped a beat. He’d broken out the Spanish. He really meant it.

She stifled her smile and unbuttoned the last button. Then, carefully helping him shrug out of his shirt, she slowly began to undo the bandages. Long cuts were nicked all over his torso, some revealing the tender pink of healing flesh, some revealing fresh, dark gashes that looked like they must sting. Wordlessly Sofia continued to bare wound after wound to the air, very careful about peeling cloth from flesh. He simply stood there, waiting, concentrating on his breathing.

“You know,” Sofia said, “you’re a lot less fidgety than Angie.”

“Well… to be fair, I think I could only aspire to be as fidgety as Angela,” Alvaro responded. “But I’ll try, if you want me to.” He smiled a little, wanly.

“No, I’m okay.” She paused. “Bit late for that now anyway.” She dangled the end of the bandage in front of Alvaro before wadding it up.

He let out a small breath and sat there for a moment, still and quiet.

“Any cuts on your legs or feet?” Sofia asked, serious again.

“No.”

With that, Sofia pulled the tub away and began the mix the herbal concoction into the water—one part to three, she remembered. Too much and it stung like crazy. After mixing it with the sponge, she gently took Alvaro’s right arm and began treating it. He continued concentrating on his breathing.

“You doing okay so far?” Sofia asked.

Alvaro nodded. “It’s actually a little relaxing. You know, despite how much it stings.” He let out a little laugh. “It almost feels… sinful. To sit here and be… well, kind of pampered, while…” His words dropped off, but he might as well have spoken them anyway.

Gods! Did he just— was he really— gods, what a—a doofus! The burn of fire focused and sharpened.

Sofia sighed, dipped her sponge, and swiped it almost wrathfully over a particularly nasty-looking cut. “Who’d you save with this one?” she asked.

Alvaro looked, then considered for a moment. “Greg’s oldest. Sage.”

“And this one?”

“Pablo.”

“This one?”

“Gabriel. Err… Espinoza, that is. Wisner was the cut across my fourth rib, on the right side.”

Sofia paused in her ministrations and looked up pointedly at Alvaro, pressing her lips in a flat line. At his stunned look of realization, however, she couldn’t help but smile a little, breaking her sternness.

Alvaro laughed a little again. “Well, when you put it that way…” He let his laughter settle before continuing. “It’s just… difficult. To allow myself to get comfortable with this. Pretty silly, I know.”

“Yep,” Sofia agreed primly.

He turned his gaze to the ground and smiled a bit. Then, a couple breaths later, his smile faded. “You know… I’ve had to watch the Ox… Kurt… be bathed by his… by the women… he’s… claimed. I talked him out of doing it in the future, but… it’s an image that’s stuck with me.” Alvaro paused. “I’m sorry I basically called you my property last week.”

“I forgive you.” Sofia kept slathering him in disinfectant. “You’re not worried that’s what this is, are you?” If he was, that might very well be worth a shoe-brandishing.

Alvaro shook his head, smiling a little. “No, this is… very different. You’re treating me, not bathing me. In any case, you’re here because you want to be.” He paused again, rubbing the back of his neck with his free arm. “Besides, were our roles reversed, I’d do the same.” He let his hand drop. “It’s amazing what a big difference all those little things make. But I don’t think Kurt would see it that way. I’m trying to find out how I can get him to understand. Because otherwise I might have to take some more… drastic measures to get things to change over there.”

He was trying to help Kurt, even though he was practically passing out, even though Kurt’s stupid, unyielding demands were only spreading him thinner. And Kurt would probably never, ever realize just how generous Alvaro was being. He really was an ox.

“Would these drastic measures involve me punching him in the face?” Sofia joked. Well, she was kind of joking, anyway…

Alvaro turned his eyes to the floor. “I’m trying to move past the whole ‘might makes right’ thing.”

“You won’t make an exception for poetic justice?” Sofia asked, trying to catch his gaze with her semi-hopeful look.

He finally looked at her directly, weariness hanging heavily around his bruised eyes. “Peace is more what I’m going for.” He smiled a little, briefly, wanly, trying to shore himself up. “You know, ‘love thy neighbor’ and all that. It’s cheesy, but…” He took a deep breath, shakily exhaling his smile away. His shoulders dropped. “Sofia, I’m… just so tired of all the… all the violence and suffering and death. So tired that even the jokes about it are starting to hurt. There’s been so much of it, and it’s awful every single time… I mean, look at Andrew, Bobby-G… good Lord, look at Jill! I don’t…” He planted his elbows on his knees, pressing his temples between his palms. “I just don’t understand how anyone can do that. It hurts the people doing it, too—Derrick is still…” He ran his hands through his hair and let them drop. “But they do… and I just can’t figure it out…” He paused, taking a couple breaths. “I mean… I know there are reasons for… for all of this. I know that kind of adversity can make us stronger, but…” He tilted his face up to the ceiling. “surely it isn’t the only way?”

An ache tightened like a vise around Sofia’s chest, squeezing the heat hotter. She set aside her sponge and wrapped Alvaro in a tight hug. After a moment, his arms slipped around her, tight as they could manage. They sat and breathed together for a while, the herbal smell seeping into Sofia’s clothes.

Finally Alvaro broke the silence.

“Sorry for… for angsting. I’d thought… I’d thought I was ready to let go and move forward from… from what happened to them.” He sighed deeply and pulled away. “I guess I’m not yet.”

Sofia searched the lines of pain and disappointment and weariness on his face through a furrowed brow. He was still wounding himself for others. Except in this case it wouldn’t even help. “Alvaro…” The fire intensified further, pushing forth at a steady, driving pace, like magma oozing through the channels of a quiet volcano. “You’re being— This is the third time— Gah, you’re such a doofus sometimes and I just—”

Dammit, the whole talking thing wasn’t being… cooperative! And la chancla… might just end up being some other kind of wound. It was kinda violent, after all. But she couldn’t just… sit by and… and… watch him… do this to himself!

Well… well fine!

She seized his face and kissed him, hard.

That felt a lot better.

When she finally pulled away, a half-blanked, half-confused expression began to overcome him. He blinked dumbly a couple times. Good, maybe she would have a moment get her words together.

“No more Ox.” Okay. Off to a good start. “No more… people suffering.” Less good, but she still got her point across. “Right now, none of those things are here. You and me, we’re here.” All right, that wasn’t quite so clear. “I’m going to finish disinfecting you, you’re going to rinse off, I’m going to bandage you up, and then we’re going to make sure you get to sleep, aprobado?” Good. Strong finish, with Spanish because she really meant it.

Alvaro nodded. “Mande.” His voice was faint, far away almost. Still a little stunned.

With that, Sofia proceeded. Once she’d slathered every cut and sponged the soil off his hands for good measure, she helped him up and assisted him in carefully navigating through his vertigo to the showerhead. While he showered, one hand pressed flat against the wall for support, she emptied out the contents of the tub and returned it along with the wine bottle and disposed of the discarded, bloody cloth. While he toweled off, she got ready to greet him with fresh bandages. While he dressed, she paced around a bit, flipped open his impeccably made bed (well, mattress) and fluffed his pillow, then returned to retrieve him.

As he laid down, he paused and closed his eyes tightly, his hand tightening on hers.

“Sorry, dizzy,” he explained. “It’ll pass in a minute.”

“Here.” Sofia moved the pillow, took off her shoes, and sat at the head of the bed, tucking her feet underneath her, and released his hand to slowly draw his still-damp head onto her lap. “Better?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

For a few moments he simply laid there, breathing, as Sofia absentmindedly brushed his hair back from his face. The repetitive motion helped her slowly cool the urgency that came with being proactively helpful, the burn of needing to do something, anything. She’d done what she could—Alvaro was clean, bandaged, and well on his way to sleep.

Well, except the light was still on.

Slowly, taking care to not disturb him too much, Sofia shifted to blow out the lamp. The darkness closed over them all at once, somehow making the room smaller, cozier, more private.

After she settled back into place, he took a deep breath in to speak.

“We’re here,” he murmured, his voice seeming to stretch across the silence. “I’m… glad.”

Sofia smiled. “Me too.”

One breath… two breaths… three breaths… four… breaths…

“How long are we here?” he asked.

“As long as we need to be.”

“You sure you don’t have… other responsibilities?” He paused. “I’ll be okay on my own.”

“Nope. I’m on girlfriend duty right now.” Again, that word. Sofia could say it over and over again.

His head shifted a little and his eyes opened, regarding her. “But Derrick—” He cut himself off, looking away, briefly. “… isn’t here right now.” Sofia could’ve kissed him again, but that wouldn’t help his dizziness any. He looked again at Sofia. “That position doesn’t look like it’ll be comfortable for too much longer.”

“I’m fine,” Sofia assured him.

He shifted further, turning onto his side. “You plan on staying, right?”

What was he doing? “… Yeah.”

“Then come here.”

He lifted the blanket. Sofia hesitated. The mattress was kinda small… she didn’t want to push him off the bed or risk elbowing or kneeing him or make his wounds worse…

“No, really, I’m okay, you don’t have to—”

“I know.” He paused, thoughtfully looking to one side. “If you think I deserve some rest… well, you deserve some too.”

Sofia waved her hand dismissively. “It’s okay, I slept a few weeks ago.”

Alvaro hesitated. “I’m sorry, did I… am I making you uncomfortable?” He lowered the blanket a little. “I don’t mean anything by it. Y—you don’t have to.”

Sofia shook her head. “I’m just worried about making you uncomfortable.” She hesitated, uncertain. “I mean, you’re all… wounded and stuff and I kinda… move around in my sleep.”

A thoughtful silence stretched between them.

Finally, Alvaro spoke, quietly. “Lena’s nightmares were pretty bad when she was littler. For a while the only way she could get to sleep is if she could crawl into bed with me.” He paused. “She kicked a lot, and she’s got pretty sharp little toes.” He shrugged a shoulder, offering a small smile. “I survived.”

Okay, that was super adorable. A grin broke out, almost unbidden. “Okay.”

She scooted out from under him and then slid under the covers. After a couple moments of adjustment and negotiation they settled into place facing each other, her left arm tucked underneath him and his right arm wrapped around her shoulders, their heads resting against one another, legs pressed together. The feeling of the rise and fall of each breath, the slow drumming of each heartbeat.

It wasn’t crowded. It was cozy. It was right. It was… teotl.


This was his teotl.

Knife, parting flesh, throwing up a spray of ruby droplets.

Shadow rising, closing, crushing out life with each stifled breath.

Teeth, sinking into muscle and tearing, coating the tongue and throat in the taste of copper.

The endless fire of his wounds; the ceaseless burn of the sun’s light at his back; the bubbling and steaming away of his blood.

Alejandro.

No…

You are pathetic.

I…

You are not worthy.

HATE

I can make you worthy.

YOU

The press of cool, wet cloth; the clean taste of tribute; the serenity that quelled the pounding heart and the dark whispers. That was her teotl. Together all three washed away the soot, the ash, the… filth.

I love you to the end of the world and back, mijo.

But it would return. Soot, ash, and filth would be part of him forever. This was his teotl.

I’ll only stain you, Mamá, blacken you. I am not worthy.

That’s not up to you.

“Mijo, Sofia’s back!”

Sofia, whatever happens, remember that I love you to the end of the world and back.

Had it been 330 of 13 climbs and 13 descents already? Was another year reaching its close?

Still alive, is she?

Go

Why does she bother visiting?

AWAY

After all that you did to her.

Tears, burning trails from his eyes. Steaming away as they dripped past his jaguar’s maw.

When he stepped before her, his face was dry.

“Hey Dad!”

The radiant smile; the warmth of her hug; the constancy of her strength. This was her teotl.

Her hair smelled of olives, of earth, of herbs, of sap, of blood, of roses…

… of musk.

Alejandro pulled back, regarding her. A dark spot, in her heart.

NO

“You are unclean.”

“Alejo!” Mamá cried.

Who dared stain his daughter, mark her with his filth?

You and your delusions. No one is pure, Ichtaca.

SHE IS

A puzzled furrowing of her brow, a fading of her smile. It shifted her scars like shadows.

“Who did this to you?”

“Alejandro Miguel Xaxalpa—”

Why, you did! Sins of the father… scar the daughter. HAHAHAHAHA

“Dad—”

“NO!”

Tlilocelotlpilli reached for her darkness.

It sat there like a coal, fueling a fire in the midst of more steady, solid heat like lava. A fire burning brighter and hotter than anything. Its smoke smelled of sap and of roses and of musk.

No. It wasn’t truly filth. She wasn’t really stained. It was meant to cloud her with soot. It didn’t.

She was pure.

But she hadn’t put it there.

He reached into the fire and pulled it out.

I love Alvaro

It burned.

The coal smelled faintly of soul-staining filth, of smoke and the crushing, consuming passions of things hidden from the night’s fire. Of sharp, pungent brimstone and of palm wine and of regret. But the carving in it was Sofia’s. And the fire had been hers as well, still burning clean despite the coal.

She was pure.

He crushed it between his own blackened fingers. The fire died. The lava cooled.

Tlilocelotlpilli closed his eyes, then opened them. Black powder drifted from his scorched fingers. He brushed it off, letting it fall to the ground, forgotten.

“What was that?” Sofia asked, brow furrowed.

“A coal of darkness, placed in your heart to inflame your passions.” He paused. “Who is Alvaro?”

“Alejandro, you’re growling,” warned Mamá.

“I’m not growling!” he snapped. He took a sharp, stabilizing breath through his nose. “I’m asking.”

Mamá threw up her hands and rolled her eyes.

He turned his gaze again to Sofia. “Who. Is. Alvaro?” he growled.

She stared at him for a moment or two, her expression like stone.

“My boyfriend,” she stated.

“So it is he I smell on you. Why?”

No one is pure, Ichtaca.

SHUT UP

There was that fire again, burning his Sofie’s face.

Look at that shame.

“Alejo!” cried Mamá, stepping between him and Sofia. “That’s none of your damn business!”

Tlilocelotlpilli snapped a look to her. “It was his name carved on the coal,” he hissed. “I’ll cut his throat and bleed him dry for planting it there!”

A marble hand closed over Mamá’s shoulder. Mamá bit off her reply and turned. Sofia nodded and stepped past her. Her gaze burned into Tlilocelotlpilli.

“He didn’t plant it there, Dad,” said Sofia.

Such naiveté.

“Who did, then?”

Her gaze didn’t falter. “I don’t know. But it wasn’t him.”

The constancy of her strength; the completeness of her conviction; the firmness of her trust. This was her teotl.

No, it wasn’t this… Alvaro’s sap- and rose-musk on the coal. It had been entirely different. Perhaps she was right.

So what?

… so what…

“He’ll only stain you, Sofia, blacken you,” Tlilocelotlpilli said. “He is not worthy.”

Yes, he’ll just plant something else in her. If he hasn’t already.

“That’s not up to you,” Sofia stated, firmly.

A smile flickered at the edges of Mamá’s lips.

I love you to the end of the world and back, Daddy.

A knife twisted in the center of Alejo’s chest.

I love Alvaro

His mouth twisted in time with the knife. The coal had not been hers, but the carving had. A silent eternity passed.

I’ll only stain you, Mamá, blacken you. I am not worthy.

Tlilocelotlpilli turned away and padded towards the Great Coatl’s corpse, the jaguar shielding his eyes and shadow swallowing his feet.

“He should be bled dry,” he murmured.

Ah, I see it, Ichtaca! A glimmer of potential.

“C’mon, girlie,” Mamá said, quietly. “He’s not having a good day. Let’s get you home.”

Tears, burning furrows down his cheeks. One plopped on his foot.

You might slip sometimes, but, well… There’s one part of you he won’t ever be able to take.

His hand burned.

“Sofia.” Alejandro turned, head down, the jaguar shielding his eyes. He couldn’t face that gaze, lest he be burned further. “I love you to the end of the world and back.”

Silence.

He turned away, to resume his duties.

Footsteps. A marble and flesh arm, wrapping around him. A cheek, pressed against his shoulders.

“Love you too, Dad.”

The warmth of her hug; the constancy of her strength; the firmness of her trust. This was her teotl.

He was not worthy.

But maybe… he could make himself worthy. That would be, after all, very teotl.

“Give the others my regards. Please.”


Tuesday, August 27th 2024

Sofia awoke to the pleasant, faded, clean scents of herbs and roses. For a few breaths she remained still, letting the odors of rot and blood and char out with each exhale. Awareness slowly spread from her like a growing warmth: a light weight on her chest, one across her stomach, one pressed in the loop of her left arm. Her right arm, hanging off the mattress and resting against the floor.

We’re here.

For another few breaths she let herself be suspended in the silence, the teotl. Slowly, Sofia opened her eyes to the sight of dim gray highlights of a head of hair in the dark. More warmth spread, gently pushing her smile wider.

I’m glad.

Then fingers twitched, pins and needles prickled. Her entire left arm was asleep.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite so comfortable after all.

What time was it anyway?

Dimly she remembered the faint pressing of a couple whispery thoughts, like the gentle prodding of a cool nose.

You alive? Dovile’s gruff, businesslike not-words, couching the nature of concern of her question. And then, Just checking. Sleep well.

It had happened again, after talking with Dad.

Better question, then: What day was it?

Alvaro took a deep breath in as she shifted, sleepily helping her disentangle herself. Then he sat up and rubbed a hand over his head.

“Good… mmm… morning?”

Sofia grimaced a little. “I… think… so? Maybe?”

However long it had been, she sincerely hoped no one at home was terribly worried. Dovile would’ve told them she was all right, right?

He paused, holding his hands in place on either side of his head. Then he took a deep breath in and out.

“I feel better,” he said, letting his hands drop. He turned to Sofia and smiled. “Thanks.” His eyes looked over her briefly, smile fading into thoughtfulness. Then he leaned in and gave her a light kiss.

This time it was Sofia’s turn to feel a little lightheaded.

“Your face is fuzzy,” she said after they parted.

Oh boy. Her doofusness was coming out again. And she’d done so well at avoiding it last night!

Sofia froze.

She’d done too well at avoiding it last night. She’d been really forward. It was for good reasons, but… she didn’t even ask if it was okay to take off his shirt, she’d just… gone for it. And that kiss she’d given him, outta nowhere… ! For goodness’ sake, they’d… well, they’d known each other for two years, but… but they’d only been officially dating for six weeks!

Her face grew hot.

Dad had said that someone had… messed with her. That had to be the reason. Had this person messed with Alvaro too? No, he seemed normal. Definitely not forward, like she had been. No… inflaming of passions, like Dad had put it. But that didn’t necessarily mean he was in the clear. Carmen or Sanura or Aida should… check him anyway, just to be safe. And everyone else had to be alerted too. So that was that, then she had go back, to call a meeting, to figure out what to—

Alvaro rubbed his fingers against his jaw. “Yeah, it is a little overgrown.” He laughed a little. “Sorry. I didn’t realize.”

Oh no, she didn’t want him to think—!

“No, it’s okay!” Sofia quickly reassured. “I meant something more along the lines of ‘Sure, anytime.’ It… just… came out… ‘Your face is fuzzy.’” She paused, looking away, her face growing even hotter. “I… just… I’m just…” A big doofus? “A big doofus.”

“Well… you’re in good company,” said Alvaro. “Apparently I am too.”

Sofia rubbed the back of her neck, working up to another apology. Except, when she saw him, he was grinning. This sparked her own smile, pushing away some of the heat from her cheeks.

Well, it was true. And he didn’t seem to mind that she’d been so forward. So maybe it was just a little bit okay.

Still, there was the whole matter of being messed with. That was pretty serious.

She opened her mouth to tell Alvaro, but paused. This would only be another thing piled on his shoulders, another concern to bear. Sure, he felt better now, but how much longer would that last with thoughts about a possible enemy in their midst? What if he told Derrick? What if Derrick was being messed with? That would certainly explain a lot.

Okay, she was a doofus, but not that big of a doofus. It would be stupid not to tell him. But not aloud, just in case whoever it was might be listening in.

She gently pushed forth with her thoughts, intertwined with teotl.

Alvaro, do you know someone who could check to see if you’ve been… messed with?

Alvaro furrowed his brow.

Yes, Lena seems to have a knack for that sort of thing.

Sofia nodded and pushed another thought forward.

I have reason to believe that someone’s been doing just that.

Should she explain how? No… that would require a lot more explaining than just a few thoughts. ‘When I dream I visit my Dad who’s currently a god who’s not your God who’s dragging the sun across the sky and fighting monsters along the way,’ wouldn’t really cut it. When there was time and a safe place maybe…

Alvaro’s brow lifted. We should… try to act as if we don’t know, then, until we can find out who’s responsible.

Sofia almost nodded. She stopped herself just in time, though, and found another thing to talk about.

“Okay!” she chirped, taking his hands in hers and rising. “You asked me to make sure you get up again. So… up, lazybones! You’ve got a job to do!” Oooh, that sounded kinda forced.

He tilted his head, properly chastened and trying not to grin. “Mande, mande.” He stood.

They paused a moment, hands suspended between them. She’d have to let go sooner or later because there were important things to do, but…

“I’ll be coming back to check on you later today.” She didn’t have to act for that one.

Wait… maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea. “Unless… I mean… Derrick…”

Silence, then, “When he’s ready, I’ll be there.” A pause. “In the meantime, I don’t see why you can’t be here.” She looked up from their hands to see his warm, broad, sweet, handsome smile. He wasn’t acting either. “I’ve been falling behind on my boyfriend duty, after all.”

Gods, what a perfect doofus.

They emerged from the Templar quarters into the quiet of pre-dawn. Then, with a parting squeeze of their hands, they headed off to their duties.

The sun rose as Sofia made her way home. Dad had made it through another night. The air was still cool, though, and would be a for a couple more hours yet. There was someone messing with people, and maybe she should’ve been a bit more bothered by it but… well, they had a way to deal with it for now. And the feeling of Alvaro’s fuzzy face and the warmth of his hand lingered on her skin.

Everything was good. Everything was right. Everything was… teotl.

Everything is Teotl

God-Touched Nut_Meg