That night at dinner, she ate alone.
Now that she'd spent a day cutting trees herself, the wooden table in the dining hall no longer horrified her. The grain of the wood felt reassuringly solid, and tracing its whorls with her eyes was easier than thinking.
For the first time, Tally noticed the sameness of the food. Bread again, stew again. A couple of days ago, Shay had explained that the plump meat in the stew was rabbit. Not soy-based, like the dehydrated meat in her SpagBol, but real animals from the overcrowded pen on the edge of the Smoke. The thought of rabbits being killed, skinned, and cooked suited her mood. Like the rest of her day, this meal tasted brutal and serious.
Shay hadn't talked to her after lunch, and Tally had no idea what to say to Croy, so she'd worked the rest of the day in silence. Dr. Cable's pendant seemed to grow heavier and heavier, wound around her neck as tightly as the vines, brush, and roots grasping the railroad tracks. It felt as if everyone in the Smoke could see what the necklace really was: a symbol of her treachery.
Tally wondered if she could ever stay there now. Croy suspected what she was, and it seemed like it would be only a matter of time before everyone else knew. All day long a terrible thought had kept crossing her mind: Maybe the Smoke was where she really belonged, but she'd lost her chance by going there as a spy.
And now Tally had come between David and Shay. Without even trying, she'd shafted her best friend.
Like walking poison, she killed everything.
She thought of the orchids spreading across the plains below, choking the life out of other plants, out of the soil itself, selfish and unstoppable. Tally Youngblood was a weed. And, unlike the orchids, she wasn't even a pretty one.
Just as she finished eating, David sat down across from her. "Hey."
"Hi." She managed to smile. Despite everything, it was a relief to see him. Eating alone had reminded her of the days after her birthday, trapped as an ugly when everyone knew she should be pretty. Today was the first time she'd felt like an ugly since coming to the Smoke.
David reached across and took her hand. "Tally, I'm sorry."
He turned her palm up to reveal her freshly blistered fingers.
"I noticed you didn't wear the gloves. Not after you had lunch with Shay. It wasn't hard to guess why."
"Oh, yeah. It's not that I didn't like them. I just couldn't."
"Sure, I know. This is all my fault." He looked around the crowded hall. "Can we get out of here? I've got something to tell you."
Tally nodded, feeling the cold pendant against her neck and remembering her promise to Shay. "Yeah.
I've got something to tell you, too."
They walked through the Smoke, past cook fires being extinguished with shovelfuls of dirt; windows coming alight with candles and electric bulbs; and a handful of young uglies pursuing an escaped chicken.
They climbed the ridge from which Tally had first looked down on the settlement, and David led her along it to a cool, flat outcrop of stone where a view opened up between the trees. As always, Tally noticed how graceful David was, how he seemed to know every step of the path intimately. Not even pretties, whose bodies were perfectly balanced, designed for elegance in every kind of clothing, moved with such effortless control.
Tally deliberately turned her eyes away from him. In the valley below, the orchids glowed with pale malevolence in the moonlight, a frozen sea against the dark shore of the forest.
David started talking first. "Did you know you're the first runaway to come here all alone?"
He nodded, still staring down at the white expanse of flowers. "Most of the time, I bring them in."
Tally remembered Shay, the last night they'd seen each other in the city, saying that the mysterious David would take her to the Smoke. Back then Tally had hardly believed there was such a person. Now, sitting next to her, David seemed very real. He took the world more seriously than any other ugly she'd ever met - more seriously, in fact, than middle pretties like her parents. In a funny way, his eyes held the same intensity that the cruel pretties' had, though without their coldness.
"My mother used to in the old days," he said. "But now she's too old."
Tally swallowed. They always explained in school about how uglies who didn't have the operations eventually became infirm. "Oh, I'm so sorry. How old is she, anyway?"
He laughed. "She's plenty fit, but uglies have an easier time trusting someone like me, someone their own age."
"Oh, of course." Tally remembered her reaction to the Boss that first day. Only a couple of weeks later she was much more used to all the different kinds of faces that age created.
"Sometimes, a few uglies will make it on their own, following coded directions like you did. But it's always been three or four in a group. No one's ever come all alone."
"You must think I'm an idiot."
"Not at all." He took her hand. "I think it was really brave."
She shrugged. "It wasn't that bad a trip, really."
"It's not the traveling that takes courage, Tally. I've done much longer trips on my own. It's leaving home." He traced a line on her sore hand with a finger. "I can't imagine having to walk away from the Smoke, away from everything I've ever known, realizing I'd probably never come back."
Tally swallowed. It hadn't been easy. Of course, she hadn't really had a choice.
"But you left your city, the only place you'd ever lived, all alone," David continued. "You hadn't even met a Smokey, someone to convince you firsthand that it was a real place. You did it all on trust, because your friend asked you. I guess that's why I feel I can trust you."
Tally looked out at the weeds, feeling worse with every word David said. If he only knew the real reason she was there.
"When Shay first told me you were coming, I was really angry at her."
"Because I might have given the Smoke away?"
"Partly. And partly because it's really dangerous for a city-bred sixteen-year-old to cross hundreds of miles alone. But mostly I thought it was a wasted risk, because you probably wouldn't even make it out of your dorm window."
He looked up at her, squeezing her hand softly. "I was amazed when I saw you running down that hill."
Tally smiled. "I was a pretty sorry sight that day."
"You were so scratched up, your hair and clothes all singed from that fire, but you had the biggest smile on your face." David's face seemed to glow in the soft moonlight.
Tally closed her eyes and shook her head. Great. She was going to get an award for bravery when she should really be kicked out of the Smoke for treachery.
"You don't look quite so happy now, though," he said softly.
"Not everyone thinks it's great that I came here."
He laughed. "Yeah, Croy told me about his big revelation."
"He did?" She opened her eyes.
"Don't listen to him. From the moment you got here, he was suspicious about your coming alone. He thought you must have had help along the way. City help. But I told him he was crazy."
He shrugged. "When you and Shay saw each other, you were so happy. I could tell that you'd really missed her."
"Yeah. I was worried about her."
"Of course you were. And you were brave enough to come looking yourself, even if it meant walking away from everything you'd ever known, alone. You didn't really come because you wanted to live in the Smoke, did you?"
"Um...what do you mean?"
"You came to see if Shay was all right."
Tally looked into David's eyes. Even if he was completely wrong about her, it felt good to bask in his words. Up until now, the whole day had been tainted by suspicion and doubt, but David's face shone with admiration for what she had done. A feeling spread through her, a warmth that pushed away the cold wind cutting across the ridge.
Then Tally trembled inside, realizing what the feeling was. It was that same warmth she'd felt talking to Peris after his operation, or when teachers looked at her with approval. It was not a feeling she'd ever gotten from an ugly before. Without large, perfectly shaped eyes, their faces couldn't make you feel that way. But the moonlight and the setting, or maybe just the words he was saying, had somehow turned David into a pretty. Just for a moment.
But the magic was all based on lies. She didn't deserve the look in David's eyes.
She turned to face the ocean of weeds again. "I bet Shay wishes she'd never told me about the Smoke."
"Maybe right now. Maybe for a while," David said. "But not forever."
"But you and she..."
"She and I." He sighed. "Shay changes her mind pretty quickly, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"The first time she wanted to come to the Smoke was back in spring. When Croy and the others came."
"She told me. She chickened out, right?"
David nodded. "I always figured she would. She just wanted to run away because her friends were. If she stayed in the city, she'd be left all alone."
Tally thought of her friendless days after Peris's operation. "Yeah. I know that feeling."
"But she never showed up that night. Which happens. I was really surprised to see her in the ruins a few weeks ago, suddenly convinced she wanted to leave the city forever. And she was already talking about bringing a friend, even though she hadn't said a word to you yet." He shook his head. "I almost told her to just forget about it, to stay in the city and become pretty."
She took a deep breath. Everything would have been so much easier if David had done exactly that.
Tally would be pretty right now, high up in a party tower with Peris and Shay and a bunch of new friends at this very moment. But the image in her mind didn't give Tally the thrill it usually did; it just fell flat, like a song she'd heard too many times.
David squeezed her hand. "I'm glad I didn't."
Something made Tally say, "Me too." The words amazed her, because somehow they felt true. She looked at David closely, and the feeling was still there. She could see that his forehead was too high, that a small scar cut a white stroke through his eyebrow. And his smile was pretty crooked, really. But it was as if something had changed inside Tally's head, something that had turned his face pretty to her. The warmth of his body cut the autumn chill, and she moved closer.
"Shay's tried hard to make up for chickening out that first time, and for giving you directions when she promised me she wouldn't," he said. "Now she's decided the Smoke is the greatest place in the world.
And that I'm the best person in the world for bringing her here."
"She really likes you, David."
"And I really like her. But she's just not..."
"Not serious. Not you."
Tally turned away, her head swimming. She knew she had to keep her promise now, or she never would. Her fingers went to the pendant. "David..."
"Yeah, I noticed that necklace. After your smile, it was the second thing I noticed about you."
"You know someone gave it to me."
"That's what I figured."
"And I...I told them about the Smoke."
He nodded. "I figured that, too."
"You're not mad at me?"
He shrugged. "You never promised me anything. I hadn't even met you."
"But you still..." David was gazing into her eyes, his face glowing again. Tally looked away, trying to drown her uncanny pretty feelings in the sea of white weeds.
David sighed softly. "You left a lot of things behind when you came here - your parents, your city, your whole life. And you are starting to like the Smoke, I can tell. You get what we're doing here in a way that most runaways don't."
"I like the way it feels here. But I might not...stay."
He smiled. "I know. Listen, I'm not rushing you. Maybe whoever gave you that heart is coming, maybe not. Maybe you'll go back to them. But in the meantime, could you do something for me?"
"Sure. I mean, what?"
He stood, offering her his hand. "I'd like you to meet my parents."