Page 13 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

"We can."

"After this, the New Smokies have to know the cure works. They'll send us more pills, and we can change everything. "


He pulled away and nodded, then leaned closer to kiss her ear softly and murmur, "And if they don't notice this, we'll just have to go out looking for them."

PARTY CRASH

That night was all about champagne. Although they'd sworn off drinking, Tally and Zane felt as if they had to toast the Crims' survival of the Great Collapse of Nefertiti Stadium.

They had all practiced for tonight, every reaction rehearsed, so there was no mention of spirits poured onto the ice, no gloating about a plan that had worked perfectly - just the excited chatter of new pretties recovering from a bubbly and unexpected departure from the norm.

Everyone told and retold the story of their own fall -  the shudder of cracking ice, the dazzling interior of the fireworks display, the yank of bungee jackets, and, after it was all over, alarmed calls from crumbly parents who had seen the whole thing replayed again and again on every channel. Most of the Crims had been interviewed for the feeds, telling their stories with expressions of innocent surprise. The newsfeed story was spreading and mutating: calls for resignations from the city architecture board, a total rescheduling of the soccer play-offs, and the closure of the floating rink forever (a bogus side effect that Tally hadn't anticipated).

But it didn't take long for the feeds to get repetitious -  even your own face on a wallscreen was boring after you'd seen it fifty times - so Zane led them outside to build a bonfire in Denzel Park.

The Crims stayed bubbly, their flash tattoos spinning in the firelight as they retold their stories.

They all were speaking fluent pretty in case anyone was listening, but Tally heard more than vapid nonsense in their words. It was like the way she and Zane spoke to each other, always aware of the cuffs but loading their pretty-talk with meaning. The silent conspiracy that they had shared was growing beyond the two of them. As Tally stared into the flames, listening to the Crims around her, she began to believe that the bubbly-making excitement of the breakthrough really would stick. Maybe people could think their way out of being pretty-minded, no pills required.

"Better drink that champagne, Skinny" Zane said, his fingers drifting along the back of her neck to interrupt her thoughts. "I hear that alcohol evaporates totally quickly."

"Evaporates? That's terrible." Tally made a serious face, and held her champagne up to the firelight. The news was giving hourly updates on the breakthrough investigation. A bunch of engineers were trying to figure out how twenty centimeters of lifter-supported ice could have buckled under the weight of a few dozen people. Blame had been assigned to shock waves from the fireworks show, heat from the stadium lights, even sympathetic vibrations from skaters moving in tandem like marching soldiers. But none of the experts had guessed that the real reason for the breakthrough had evaporated into thin air.

She raised her glass, clinking it against Zane's. He drained his glass, then took hers, splashing some champagne into his. "Thanks, Skinny," he said.

"For what?"

"For sharing."

She gave him a pretty smile. He meant the pills they'd split, of course, not the champagne.

"Anytime. I'm glad there was enough for two."

"Bubbly luck how it worked out."

She nodded. The cure hadn't been perfect, but considering they'd each only had half a dose, the test had been a success. The cure had affected Zane almost instantly, shattering his pretty-mindedness in a few days. Tally's pill had worked more slowly, and she still woke up fuzzy most mornings, needing Zane to remind her to think bubbly thoughts. The good part was, she never got Zane's awful headaches.

"It's better shared, I think," Tally said, clinking his glass again. She remembered the warning in the letter from herself, and shivered despite the fire. Maybe two pills was actually too much, and if Tally had taken both she would have been brain-dead by now.

Zane pulled her closer. "Like I said...thanks." He kissed her, his lips warm in the cold night air, eyes flickering with bonfire reflections, and held his mouth to hers for a long time. Between the oxygen-missing kiss and the champagne, Tally felt herself getting pretty-minded, the edges of the firelit party turning fuzzy. Which maybe wasn't always a bad thing...

Zane finally let her go and turned toward the bonfire, nuzzling her ear to whisper, "We have to get these things off."

"Shhh." Even with winter coats and gloves covering their cuffs, Tally felt a little too famous at the moment to make plans out loud. The Crims had already thrown rocks to drive away one hovercamera covering the party for some follow-up story on the rink collapse.

"It's driving me crazy, Tally."

"Don't worry. We'll figure it out." Just stop talking, she pleaded silently.

Zane kicked a fallen branch into the bonfire. As it burst into flame, he let out a pained sound.

"Zane?"

He shook his head, fingers at his temples. Tally swallowed. Another headache. Sometimes they ended after a few seconds, sometimes they lasted for hours.

"No. I'm okay." He sucked in a deep breath.

"You know, you could go to a doctor," she whispered.

"Forget that! They'll know I'm cured."

She pulled him closer to the crackle of the fire and pressed her lips to his ear. "I told you about Maddy and Az, David's parents? They were doctors - surgeons - and for a long time even they didn't know about the brain lesions. They just thought most people were stupid. A regular doctor won't think there's anything wrong with fixing you."

Zane shook his head furiously and turned to whisper in her ear. "It won't stop with a regular doctor, Tally. New pretties don't get sick."

She looked around the fire at the glowing faces. The Crims wound up at the hospital often enough, but only for injuries, not illness. The operation boosted your immune system, strengthened your organs, fixed your teeth forever. An unhealthy new pretty was such a rarity, there would probably be a ton of tests. And if Zane's headaches persisted, the test results would be passed on to experts.

"They're keeping an eye on us already," he whispered. "We can't afford anyone poking around inside my head." He flinched again, pain contorting his features.

"We should go home," she said softly.

"You stay. I can make it to Pulcher okay."

She groaned and pulled him away from the fire. "Come on."

He let her lead him into the darkness, circling around the other Crims. Shay called out to them, but Tally waved her away, saying, "Too much champagne." Shay smiled sympathetically and turned back to the fire.

They trudged home, the bare ground glistening with frost in the moonlight, the cold wind sharp after the lulling heat of the fire. The night was beautiful, but Tally could only wonder about what was happening inside Zane's head. Was it just a minor side effect of the cure? Or a sign of something gone terribly wrong?

"Don't worry, Zane," she said, just above a whisper. "We'll figure this out. Or we'll get out of here and get help from the Smokies. This is Maddy's cure - she'll know what's going on."

He didn't answer, just stumbled up the hill beside her.

When Pulcher Mansion came into view, Zane pulled her to a halt. "Go back to the party. I can make it home okay from here." His voice was too loud.

She looked around, but they were alone - no pretties or hovercams in sight. "I'm worried about you," she whispered.

He lowered his voice. "It's silly to worry, Skinny. It's just a headache. Same thing as always.

Probably because I was pretty longer than you." He forced a smile. "It's just taking me longer to get used to having a brain again."

"Come on. Let's get you in bed."

"No, you go back. I don't want them to know about...this."

"I won't say anything," Tally whispered. They had told no one about the cure, not until they absolutely trusted that the other Crims were bubbly enough to keep their mouths shut. "I'll just say you drank too much."

"Fine, but go back to the party," he said firmly. "You have to keep them bubbly. Make sure they don't get drunk and start saying stupid things."

Tally looked back at the fire, just visible through the trees below. With enough champagne, someone might start bragging. She looked back at Zane. "You'll be okay?"

He nodded. "Better already."

She took a breath of the cold air. He didn't look any better. "Zane ..."

"Listen, I'll be fine. And no matter what happens, I'm glad we took the pills."

Tally took a deep breath to steady herself. "What do you mean, 'no matter what happens?"

"I don't mean tonight. Just whenever. You know."

Tally looked into his gold-flecked eyes, and saw in them the pain he was silently carrying.

Whatever was happening to Zane, staying bubbly wasn't worth losing him. She shook her head. "No, I don't know."

He sighed. "I guess that was a stupid way to put it. I'm fine."

"I'm worried about you."

"Just go back to the party."

Tally sighed softly. There was no point in arguing. She held up one arm, indicating the scarf wrapped around her wrist. "Okay. But if you feel worse, ping me."

He smiled bitterly. "At least those things are good for something."

She kissed him softly, then watched him trudge up to the door of the mansion and inside.

On the lonely trip back down to the party, the air seemed to grow colder. Tally almost wished she could be pretty-minded again, just for one night, instead of having to keep watch on the Crims. From the very first kiss, being with Zane had made things complicated.

She sighed. Maybe that was the way it always worked.

Zane would never go to a doctor, Tally knew. If his headaches turned into something worse, could she make him go? Of course, Zane was right: Any doctor who could fix his problem could probably figure out what had caused it, and that was someone who could make Zane pretty-minded again.

If only Croy hadn't disappeared. Tally wondered how long it would take for the New Smokies to get in touch with them now. After the breakthrough, they had to realize the cure had worked. Even if wherever they were hiding didn't have newsfeeds, every ugly in the world would be chattering about the rink collapse, talking about Tally Youngblood looking innocent on their wallscreens.

Of course, she and Zane still had to escape the city. Tally had no idea how to get the cuffs off.

As they grew thinner, it seemed like the rings of steel were closer to coming off, but how long was it going to take? Tally didn't much like being in a race between her own starvation and Zane's brain melting.

And when they escaped, she didn't want to go without the other Crims. Peris and Shay, at least.

The Crims were so bubbly tonight, they'd probably all jump on hoverboards and head out if she said the word. But how bubbly would they be tomorrow?

Suddenly, Tally felt exhausted. There were too many things to juggle. Too many worries all falling on her alone. All she'd wanted was to become a Crim, to feel safe inside a clique of friends, and now she'd found herself in charge of a rebellion.

"Your friend have too much champagne?"

Tally froze. The words had come out of the darkness, cutting her ears like fingernails scraping metal.

"Hello?"

A figure emerged from the shadows in a hooded winter coat, moving with total silence through the fallen leaves. The woman stood in a shaft of moonlight, ten centimeters taller than Tally, taller even than Zane. She had to be a Special.

Tally forced herself to relax, trying to conquer her nerves and make her face melt into the soft expression of a brand-new pretty. "Shay? Is that you being all scary-making?" she said angrily The figure took another step forward into the light of a walkway torch. "No, Tally. It's me." The woman pulled off her hood.

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