"So beautiful," Tally said, trying to imagine what it would be like in the wild with Zane, feeling this way every day, free from the mind-numbing restrictions of the city.
Her wrist was throbbing, and she pulled her crash bracelet off to take a look. In the wipeout, the metal cuff underneath had cut into her skin. Tally gave it a tug, but even with her soaking skin, it stopped at its usual spot.
"Still stuck," she said.
Zane took her hand and said softly, "Don't push it, Tally." He covered the cuff with her coat and whispered, "You'll only make your wrist swell up."
She swore, pulling on her hood. The rain beat on the plastic, impatient fingers drumming on her head. "I thought maybe with the water ..."
"Nah. Cold makes metal contract, so they're probably tighter out here."
Tally looked at Zane, raising an eyebrow. "So," she whispered, "do they get bigger when they get hot?"
He was silent for a moment. Then, so softly that she could barely hear him above the rain, he whispered, "If they got really hot? I guess they'd get a little bigger."
He shrugged, the gesture almost invisible under his winter coat, but he was interested now. "How much heat can you stand?"
"You're not talking about a candle, are you?"
Zane shook his head. "Something much hotter than that. Something we could control, so it wouldn't roast our hands off. We'd still get burned, though."
She looked at the bulge in her sleeve and sighed. "Beats breaking your own thumb, I guess."
"Just something I was ..." Her voice trailed off.
Zane's gaze followed hers across the river. On the opposite bank, two figures on hoverboards stood watching them, faceless in their hooded raincoats.
Tally fought to keep her voice down. "Smokies?"
Zane shook his head. "Those are dorm jackets."
"What would city uglies be doing out in this rain?"
He stood up. "Maybe we should ask."
On the Uglyville side of the river, the four of them sheltered together under a tarp covering a paper recycler, hidden from view and out of the rain. The two uglies weren't wearing rings, Tally was glad to see; the four of them wouldn't be recorded by the city interface as having hung out together.
"Is that really you, Tally?" the girl whispered.
"Uh, yeah. Recognize me from the feeds?"
"No! It's me, Sussy. And this is Dex," she said. "Don't you remember us?"
The girl just stared. She was wearing a crude leather strap around her neck, which looked like the sort of thing a Smokey might own - handmade and discolored by age. Where had she gotten it?
"We helped you with that 'New Smoke Lives' thing, remember?" the boy offered. "Back when you were...ugly."
An image came slowly into Tally's mind: huge burning letters lit as a diversion while she and David had broken into Special Circumstances. These were two of the uglies who had organized that trick, and then helped them hide out in the Rusty Ruins, bringing news and supplies from the city, playing more tricks to keep the wardens and Specials busy.
"You really forgot us," Dex said. "So it's true. They do something to your brains."
"Yeah, it's true," Zane said. "But a little softer, please." The rain was as loud as a jet engine on the plastic tarp, making it hard to hear. The two uglies needed reminding to keep their voices down.
Dex's stare dropped to Tally's wrist, covered by a crash bracelet and bound in a scarf, as if he didn't believe the cuff was really under there, listening. "Sorry."
When his eyes crept back up to stare at her face, Dex couldn't hide his amazement at her transformation. Sussy was silent - awestruck and hanging on every word. Under their gaze, Tally felt self-conscious and weirdly powerful. It was obvious the two would do anything she or Zane asked. Back when her brain had been prettified, she'd felt entitled to this sort of awe. But now, with her head clear, it was kind of embarrassing.
But talking to the two uglies was less awkward than it might have been. Tally's unpretty thoughts over the last month had made it easier to look at their imperfect faces. They didn't horrify her as much as her first glance at Croy had. The tiny gap between Sussy's two front teeth seemed more charming than revolting, and even Dex's zits didn't make her skin crawl.
"But the damage wasn't permanent," Zane was saying. "We're starting to get smarter. Which, by the way, is not something you can spread around to everyone, okay?"
The two nodded dumbly, and Tally wondered if hinting about the cure to random uglies was worth the risk. Of course, enlisting Sussy and Dex might be the quickest way to get a message to the New Smoke.
"What's the news from the ruins?" she asked.
Sussy leaned closer, remembering to whisper. "That's why we came down here. As far as we could tell, the New Smokies had all disappeared. Until last night."
"What happened last night?" Tally asked.
"Well, since they went missing, we've been going to the ruins every few nights," Dex said. "To check out the old spots, light sparklers. But we haven't seen anything all month."
Tally and Zane shared a glance. A month ago was about the same time Croy had left the pills for Tally to find. The timing probably wasn't a coincidence.
"But last night we found some stuff in an old hideout," Sussy said. "Burned-out lightsticks and some old magazines."
"Old magazines?" Tally asked.
"Yeah," Sussy said. "From the Rusty era. Those ones that showed how ugly everyone used to be."
"I don't think the New Smokies would have left those lying around," Tally said. "Those are precious. I knew someone who died to save them. So they must be back."
"But they're lying low," Dex said. "Playing it safe."
"Why?" Zane said softly. "And for how long?"
"How would we know?" Dex said. "That's why we came down here today. We were going to sneak over in the rain and find you, Tally. We thought you guys might have a clue."
"After you were all over the news the other day, we figured something was up," Sussy added.
"Like, that stadium thing was a trick, right?"
"Glad you noticed," Tally said. "The New Smokies were supposed to notice too. Apparently, they did."
"We figured you knew something about it," Sussy said. "Especially after we spotted some of your pretty friends out here in Uglyville."
Tally frowned. "Pretties? Out here?"
"Yeah, in Cleopatra Park. I recognized a couple of them from the feeds. I think they were Crims.
That's your clique, right?"
"Yeah, but ..."
Sussy frowned. "You didn't know?"
Tally shook her head. After the last couple of days, she had gotten a few pings from other Crims - mostly complaints about the rain. But no one had said anything about going to Uglyville.
"What were they up to?" Zane asked.
Dex and Sussy looked at each other, unhappy expressions on their faces.
"Um, we're not sure," Sussy said. "They wouldn't talk to us, just chased us off."
Tally let out a slow breath through her teeth. Pretties were allowed on this side of the river - they could go anywhere they wanted in the city - but they never came to Uglyville. Which meant that Cleopatra Park would be a great place for a pretty to find some privacy, especially in the driving rain.
But privacy for what?
"Didn't you tell everyone to lie low for a while?" Zane asked her.
"Yeah, I did." Tally wondered which of the Crims was behind this. And what "this" was.
"Take us there," she said.
Sussy and Dex led them up toward the park, flying slowly in the steady rain. Figuring that someone was monitoring the cuffs' positions, Tally had asked them to take an indirect route. The journey wound through half-familiar sights of her childhood: ugly dorms and schools, sodden parks, and empty soccer fields.
Despite the downpour, there were a few uglies out. One bunch was taking turns skidding down a hil , screaming as they ran to throw themselves onto a mudslide. A few played tag in a dorm courtyard, slipping and falling and winding up just as muddy as the first group. They were all having too much fun to notice the four hoverboarders gliding silently past.
Tally wondered if she'd had that much fun as an ugly. All she could recall from those days was dying to turn pretty, to get across the river and leave all this behind. Floating above the earth, her perfect face hidden by a hood, she felt like some risen spirit, enviously watching the living and trying to remember what it was like to be one of them.
Cleopatra Park, high in the greenbelt on the outer edge of Uglyville, was empty. The walking paths had been transformed into small creeks carrying the rain down toward the swollen river. The wildlife seemed to be in hiding except for a few miserable-looking birds that clung to the branches of the great pines that drooped low under their loads of water.
Sussy and Dex brought them to a clearing marked with slalom flags, and Tally felt a flush of recognition. "This is one of Shay's favorite spots. She taught me to hoverboard here."
"Shay?" Zane said. "But she'd tell us if she was up to some kind of trick, wouldn't she?"
"Um, maybe not," Tally said softly. No pings had come from Shay since the fight. "I've been meaning to tell you, Zane: She's kind of pissed off at me right now."
"Wow," Sussy said. "I thought pretties all liked each other."
"Usually, they do." Tally sighed. "Welcome to the new world."
Zane narrowed his eyes. "I think Tally and I need to talk." He glanced at the two uglies.
It took them a moment to realize what he meant, but then Sussy said, "Oh, sure. We'll be going.
But what if... ?"
"If the New Smokies show up again, send me a ping," Tally said.
"Doesn't the city read your mail?"
"Probably. Don't say anything except that you saw us on the feeds and you want to join the Crims when you turn sixteen. Leave the real message hidden under that recycler, and I'll send someone to pick it up. Got that?"
"Got it," Sussy said with a gap-toothed smile. Tally figured the two would be headed out to the ruins every night now, rain or not, looking for the New Smokies, happy to have a mission.
She gave them a pretty smile. "Thanks for everything."
Tally and Zane sat in silence for a minute after the uglies had left, watching the clearing from a thick stand of trees. The plastic slalom flags drooped miserably in the rain, the wind barely lifting them.
Rainwater gathered in spots, the shallow pools reflecting the gray sky like rippling mirrors. Tally remembered flying between the flags on her hover-board in ugly days, learning to bank and turn. Back when she and Shay were really friends...
It was impossible to guess why Shay would be visiting this spot. Maybe it was nothing but a few Crims practicing their hoverboarding, figuring it was a great way to stay bubbly. No big deal.
As they sat, Tally realized she was out of excuses for not telling Zane everything. It was time to admit what she'd done to the Smoke and how she'd told Shay about the cure, and past time to bring up what Dr. Cable had revealed about Zane. But Tally wasn't looking forward to the conversation, and being soaking wet and cold wasn't helping. Her coat's heating was already turned up to maximum. The bubbliness from hoverboarding had worn off, replaced by Tally's anger at herself for having waited this long. The always-listening cuffs made it too easy to avoid mentioning uncomfortable subjects.
"So what happened between you and Shay?" Zane said. His voice stayed soft, but carried an edge of frustration.