"What? That's crazy. We don't know how that will - "
"We don't know anything, Zane."
The pounding stopped, and Tally shushed his reply. Specials weren't just strong and fast, they had the sharp hearing of predators.
Suddenly, a bright light sparked through the gap in the door, throwing wildly jittering shadows into the shack, leaving tracers on Tally's vision. The cutting tool hissed as it burned into the chain, and the smell of molten metal reached her nostrils. The Specials would be inside in seconds.
"Together," she whispered, handing one of the pills to Zane. With a deep breath she placed the other on her tongue. Bitterness exploded through her mouth, like biting into a seed inside a grape. She swallowed the pill, which trailed an acid taste down her throat.
"Please," she pleaded softly. "Do this with me."
He sighed and took the pill, grimacing at the taste. He stared at her, shaking his head. "That may have been very stupid, Tally."
She tried to smile. "At least we were stupid together." Leaning forward, she grasped the back of his neck and kissed him. David hadn't come to rescue her. He was either dead or he must not care what happened to her. He was ugly, and Zane was beautiful, and bubbly, and he was here. "We need each other now," she said.
They were still kissing when the Specials burst in.
and kisses are a better fate than wisdom
- e. e. cummings, "since feeling is first"
Overnight, the first freeze of winter had come. The trees shone like glass, bare branches alight with icicles. Glittering black fingers stretched across the window, cutting the sky into sharp little pieces.
Tally pressed one hand against the pane, letting the chill leak through the glass and into her palm.
The bracing cold made the afternoon light sharper, as brittle as she imagined the icicles outside to be. It focused the part of her mind that still wanted to sink back into pretty dreams.
When she finally pulled her hand away from the window, a fuzzy outline showed its imprint on the glass, then slowly faded.
"Blurry Tally is no more," she said, then grinned, placing her icy palm against Zane's cheek.
"What the...," he muttered, stirring just enough to nudge her hand away.
"Wake up, pretty-head."
His eyes opened a slit. "Make it dark," he told his interface cuff.
The room obeyed, opaquing the window.
Tally frowned. "Another headache?" Zane still sometimes got crippling migraines that could put him out for hours, but they weren't as bad as the first weeks after he'd taken the pill.
"No," he murmured. "Sleepy."
She reached for the manual controls, setting the window back to transparent. "Then it's time to get up. We'll be late for ice skating."
He squinted at her through one eye. "Ice skating is bogus."
"Sleeping's bogus. Get up and be bubbly."
"Bubbly is bogus."
Tally raised one eyebrow, which didn't hurt anymore. She'd been a good pretty and had her forehead all fixed, though she'd memorialized the scar with a flash tattoo: black Celtic swirls just above her eye that spun in time with her heartbeat. For good measure, she'd gotten eye surge exactly like Shay's, backward-running clocks and everything.
"Bubbly is not bogus, lazy-face." Tally placed her hand against the window again to recharge its iciness. Her interface cuff sparkled in the sun like the frozen trees below, and for the millionth time she searched for any seam in its metal surface. But the cuff seemed to have been forged from one piece of steel, perfectly fitted to the oval of her wrist. She pulled at it softly, feeling the slightest give; she was growing skinnier every day. "Coffee, please," she said sweetly to the cuff.
Brewing smells began to percolate into the room, and Zane stirred again. When her hand had grown sufficiently cold, Tally placed it on his bare chest. He flinched but didn't fight back, just squeezed two fistfuls of sheet and took a shuddering breath. His eyes opened, their gold irises shining like the cold winter sun. "Now that was bubbly."
"I thought bubbly was bogus."
He smiled and shrugged drowsily.
Tally smiled back. Zane was extra beautiful when he first woke up. The edges of sleep softened his intense stare, leaving his severe features almost vulnerable-looking, like a lost and hungry boy. Tally never mentioned this fact, of course, or Zane would probably have gotten surge to fix it.
She made her way to the coffeemaker, stepping over the piles of unrecycled clothes and dirty dishes that occupied every square centimeter of floor. As always, Zane's room was a wreck. His closet lay half-open, too overflowing to shut properly. It was an easy room to hide things in.
Sipping her coffee, Tally told the hole in the wall to make their usual skating ensembles: heavy plastic jackets lined with fake rabbit fur; knee-padded pants for bad falls; black scarves; and, most important, thick gloves that reached halfway to their elbows. While the hole was spitting out clothes, she took Zane his coffee, which finally dragged him to consciousness.
Zane and Tally skipped breakfast - a meal they hadn't eaten for the last month - and layered up in the elevator down to the front door of Pulcher Mansion, speaking fluent pretty along the way.
"Did you see the frost, Zane-la? So icy-making."
"Winter is totally bubbly."
"Totally. Summer is just too ... I don't know. Warming or something."
They smiled pleasantly at the door minder and went out into the cold, pausing for a moment on the mansion's front steps. Tally handed Zane her coffee mug and pulled her gloves up inside her sleeves, covering the interface cuff on her left arm with two layers. Then she wrapped that arm with the black scarf to seal the cuff tightly She took both coffees from Zane, watching steam curl up from the trembling black pools while he did the same with his own gloves.
When he was done, Tally spoke, not too loudly. "I thought we were supposed to act normal today."
"I am acting normal."
"Come on. 'Bubbly is bogus'?"
"What? Too much?"
She shook her head, giggled, and pulled him toward the floating rink.
It had been one month since they'd taken the pills, and Tally and Zane weren't brain-dead yet.
The first few hours, though, had been totally bogus. The Specials had searched them and Valentino 317
madly, putting everything they found in little plastic bags. They'd barked a million questions in their grating Special voices, trying to find out why a pair of new pretties would climb the transmission tower. Tally tried to tell them they'd just wanted privacy, but no explanation satisfied the Specials.
Finally, some wardens showed up with the abandoned interface rings, medspray for Tally's palms, and muffins. Tally ate her long-delayed breakfast like a hungry dog until all her bubbliness went away, then smiled prettily and asked to be taken to surge for the previous night's scar. After another really boring hour or so, the Specials let the wardens take her to the hospital with Zane in tow.
That was mostly it, except for the interface cuffs. The doctors slipped Tally's on during her eyebrow surge, and Zane awoke the next morning to find himself wearing one. They worked just like interface rings, except they could send voice-pings from anywhere, like a handphone. That meant the cuffs heard you talking even when you went outside and, unlike rings, they didn't come off. They were manacles with an invisible chain, and no tool Tally and Zane had yet tried could cut them open.
Unexpectedly, the cuffs also became the fashion item of the season. Once the other Crims saw them, it was all Zane could do to keep everyone from requisitioning their own. He got the hole in the wall to make a bunch of nonworking copies and passed them out. Over the next few weeks, word spread that the cuffs were some new marker of criminality, signifying that you had scaled the transmission tower on top of Valentino Mansion; it turned out that hundreds of new pretties had witnessed Tally's and Zane's climb, pinging one another to run to windows and check out the show. Within a few weeks, only the most fashion-missing went around without some kind of metal cuff locked onto their wrists, and minders had to be installed to keep new pretties off the tower.
People were starting to point out Tally and Zane when they were in public, and there were more Crim wannabees every day. It was like everybody wanted to be bubbly.
Tally was nervous about the breakthrough, but she and Zane didn't say much on the way to the skating rink. Although their cuffs couldn't hear anything while wrapped up in the heavy winter gear, silence was a habit that had begun to follow them everywhere. Tally had grown used to communicating in other ways: winks and rolled eyes and silently mouthed words. Living in an unspoken conspiracy filled every gesture with significance, charged every shared touch with unspoken meaning.
Inside the glass elevator that carried them up to the floating sheet of ice, looking down on the great bowl of Nefertiti Stadium, Zane took Tally's hand. His eyes flashed, as they did before a sudden, unexpected trick, like a snowball ambush from the roof of Pulcher Mansion. His playful glance was perfectly timed to settle Tally's nerves a little. It wouldn't do for the other Crims to see her anxious, after all.
Most of them were already there, trading in boots for ice skates, finding bungee jackets in the right size. A few newly voted-in Crims were warming up, looking wobbly ankled on the floating ice, the sound of their skates like a library minder telling you to shush.
Shay glided over to gather Tally in a hug, coming to a halt mostly by bumping into her. "Hey, Skinny-wa."
"Hey, Squint-la," Tally retorted, giggling. Ugly nicknames were back in fashion, but Shay and Tally had switched their old names now that Tally was losing weight. Going food-missing sucked, but sooner or later she hoped to be thin enough to slip the cuff from her wrist.
She saw that Shay had wrapped a black scarf around her forearm in solidarity. Shay also sported a version of Tally's flash tattoo, a nest of snakes coiling around one brow and down her cheek.
A lot of the Crims had new facial tattoos with heart-rate triggers - you could see at a glance how bubbly they were. Self-heated coffee mugs sent clouds of steam into the air above the pack of Crims, and everyone's tattoos were spinning.
A chorus of hellos rose up as Tally and Zane were spotted, excitement rising in the pack. Peris glided over with a bungee jacket and Tally's usual skates in hand.
"Thanks, Nose," Tally said, kicking her boots off and sitting down on the ice. Here at the rink, hoverskates weren't allowed; real metal blades glittered in the wintry light like daggers. Tally drew her laces up tight. "Got your flask?" she asked Peris.
He pulled it out. "Double vodka."
"Very thawing." Tally and Zane had stopped drinking alcohol, which turned out to make you more pretty-minded than bubbly, but strong spirits had other uses here on the ice.
She held out her gloved hands, and Peris pulled her up, her momentum sending the two of them into a slippery little waltz. Giggling, they steadied themselves against each other.
"Don't forget your jacket, Skinny," he said.
She took it from him and tied the straps. "That would be bogus, wouldn't it?"
Peris nodded nervously.
"Any word from our friends across the river?" she asked, her voice dropping to just above a whisper.
"Not a ping. They're still totally missing."
Tally frowned. Cray's visit was a month ago now, and the New Smokies hadn't shown themselves since. The silence was ominous, unless this was another of their annoying tests. Either way, she was itching to go looking, once she got this stupid cuff off. "How's Fausto going on tricking that hoverboard?"
Peris only shrugged, looking distractedly at the other Crims, who were invading the rink, laughing and screaming, slashing through the little Zambonies that skittered about polishing the ice.