Home > If You Take My Meaning

If You Take My Meaning
Author: Charlie Jane Anders

They woke up stuck together again, still halfway in a shared dream, as the city blared to life around them. The warm air tasted of yeast, from their bodies, and from the bakery downstairs.


Mouth lay on one side of Sophie, with Alyssa on the other, sprawled on top of a pile of blankets and quilted pads. Alyssa couldn’t get used to sleeping in a bedpile out in the open, after spending half her life in a nook—but Sophie insisted that’s how everybody did things here. Sophie herself hadn’t slept in a bedpile for ages, since she went away to school, but it was how she’d been raised.

“I guess it’s almost time to go,” Sophie whispered, with a reluctance that Alyssa could feel in her own core.

“Yeah,” Alyssa muttered. “Can’t keep putting it off.”

Sophie peeled her tendrils off Mouth and Alyssa carefully, so Alyssa felt as if she was waking up a second time. One moment, Alyssa had a second heart inside her heart, an extra stream of chatter running under the surface of her thoughts. And then it was gone, and Alyssa was just one person again. Like the room got colder, even though the shutters were opening to let in the half-light.

Alyssa let out a low involuntary groan. Her bones creaked, and her right arm had gone half-numb from being slept on.

“You don’t have to,” Sophie whispered. “If you don’t … if you’d rather hold off.”

Alyssa didn’t answer, because she didn’t know what to say.

Mouth laughed. “You know Alyssa. Her mind don’t change.” Mouth’s voice was light, but with a faint growl, like she wished Alyssa would change her mind, and stay.

The tendrils grew out of the flat of Sophie’s ribcage, above her breasts, and they were surrounded by an oval of slightly darker skin, with a reddish tint, like a burn that hadn’t healed all the way (just a few inches upward and to the left, Sophie’s shoulder had an actual burn-scar). Someone might mistake the tendrils for strange ornaments, or a family of separate creatures nesting on Sophie’s flesh, until you saw how they grew out of her, and the way she controlled their motion.

Whenever Alyssa’s bare skin made contact with that part of Sophie’s body, she could experience Sophie’s thoughts, or her memories. Whatever Sophie wanted to lay open to her. But when the three of them slept in this pile, Sophie didn’t share anything in particular. Just dream slices, or half-thoughts. Mouth still couldn’t open herself up to the full communication with Sophie most of the time, but she’d taken to the sleep-sharing.

All three of them had their own brand of terrifying dreams, but they’d gotten better at soothing each other through the worst.

“So that’s it.” Mouth was already pulling on her linen shift and coarse muslin pants, and groping for her poncho. “You’re going up that mountain, and the next time we see you, you’ll … you’ll be like Sophie. The two of you will be able to carry on whole conversations, without once making a sound.”

Mouth looked away, but not before Alyssa caught sight of the anxiety on her face. Alyssa could remember when she used to have to guess at what the fuck Mouth was thinking, but that was a long time ago.

Sophie noticed, too, and she sat up, still in her nightclothes. “You don’t ever have to worry about a thing.” Sophie’s voice was so quiet, Alyssa had to lean closer to hear. “No matter what happens, after all we’ve been through, the three of us are in this together.”

“Yeah,” Alyssa said, punching Mouth’s arm with only a couple knuckles. “No amount of alien grafts are going to mess up our situation.”

“Yeah, I know, I know, it’s just…” Mouth laughed and shook her head, like this was a silly thing to worry about. “It’s just, the two of you will have this whole other language. I’ll be able to listen, but not talk. I wish I could go through that whole transformation, but that’s not me. I need to keep what’s in my head inside my head. I just … I want you both to fulfill your potential. I don’t want to be holding the two of you back.”

Alyssa leaned her head on Mouth’s left shoulder, and Sophie’s head rested on the right. “You speak to us in all the ways that matter,” Sophie said.

“It’s true,” Alyssa said. “You already tell us everything we ever need to know.”

Alyssa had grown up with romances, all about princes, duels, secret meetings, courtships, first kisses, and last trysts. She’d have said that real life could never be half as romantic as all those doomed lovers and secret vows … except now, those stories seemed cheap and flimsy, compared to the love she’d found, here in this tiny room.

For a moment, Alyssa wanted to call the whole thing off. Climb the Old Mother later, maybe just go back to bed. But then she shook it off.

She pulled on her boots.

“It’s time.”

 

* * *

 

Alyssa had handled all kinds of rough terrain in her smuggler days. She’d even gone into the night without any protective gear one time. So she figured the Old Mother would be nothing. But by the time she got halfway up, her hamstrings started to throb and her thighs were spasming. Next to her, Mouth spat out little grunts of exhaustion. Only Sophie seemed to be enjoying pulling herself up from handhold to handhold.

“Shit shit shit. How the fuck did you ever get used to climbing this beast?” Alyssa wheezed.

Sophie just rolled her shoulders. And mumbled, “It wasn’t a choice at first.”

Behind them, Xiosphant had gone dark and still, just a valley of craggy shapes without highlights. Except for one light blaring from the top of the Palace, where the Vice Regent could never bring herself to obey the same shutters-up rule that all of her people lived by. Alyssa didn’t want to risk falling, so she only half-turned for an instant, to see the storm damage, still unrepaired. And the piles of debris, where the fighting between the Vice Regent’s forces and the new Uprising had briefly escalated to heavy cannon fire.

Everyone knew Bianca couldn’t last as Vice Regent, but they had no notion whether she would hold on for a few more sleeps, or half a lifetime. Alyssa tried to avoid mentioning her name, even though her face was impossible to avoid, because Sophie still nursed some complicated regrets, and Mouth still felt guilty for helping to lead Bianca down a thorny path. Alyssa was the only one in their little family with clear-cut feelings about the Vice Regent: pure, invigorating hatred.

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