Page 36 of Pretties (Uglies 2)

Tally remembered how her "cure" always seemed to come and go. She'd had to work to stay bubbly, more like the other Crims than Zane.

"He's right, Tally," Maddy said. "Somehow, you cured yourself. "


COLD WATER

Tally stayed at Zane's bedside. He was awake and talking now, and it was easier to be here than dealing with everything that she and David still had to work out. The others left them alone.

"Did you know what was happening to you?"

Zane took a moment before answering. His speech was full of long silences now, almost like Andrew's epic pauses. "I knew that everything was getting harder. Sometimes I had to concentrate just to walk. But I hadn't felt so alive since I'd turned pretty; it was worth it, being bubbly with you. I figured once we found the New Smoke, they could help me."

"They are helping. Maddy said that she put in some new ..." Tally swallowed.

"Brain tissue?" he supplied, and smiled. "Sure, blank neurons fresh out of the oven. Just got to fill them up now."

"We will. We'll do bubbly-making things," Tally said, but the promise felt strange in her mouth - "we" meant she and Zane, as if David didn't exist.

"If there's enough left of me to be bubbly," he said tiredly. "It's not like all my memories are gone.

It was mostly my cognition centers that were affected, and some motor skills."

"Cognition? You mean like thinking?" Tally said.

"Yeah, and motor skills, like walking." He shrugged. "But the brain's built to take damage, Tally.

It's wired so that everything is stored everywhere, sort of. When a part of it gets damaged, things don't get lost, just fuzzier. Like a hangover." He laughed. "A really bad one. On top of which, I'm sore from lying in bed all day. And it feels like I've got a toothache from all this Smokey food. It's just phantom pains from brain damage, Maddy says." He rubbed one cheek with a scowl.

She took his hand. "I can't believe you're so brave about this. It's incredible."

"You should talk, Tally." He struggled to sit up, his movements shaky and infirm. "You managed to cure yourself without getting your brain chewed up. That's what I'd call incredible."

Tally looked down at their clasped hands. She didn't feel very incredible. She felt smelly and dirty, and horrible that she hadn't had the guts to take both pills, which would have prevented all of this from happening. She didn't even have the guts to talk to Zane about David, or vice versa. Which was just pathetic.

"Is it strange, seeing him?" he asked.

She looked at Zane, and he chuckled at her surprise. "Come on, Tally. It's not like I'm reading your mind. I had plenty of warning about this. You told me about the guy the first time we kissed, remember?"

"Oh, yeah." So Zane had been expecting this all along. Tally should have foreseen it herself.

Maybe she simply hadn't wanted to face the obvious. "Yeah, it is strange seeing him. I definitely didn't expect to find him waiting for me in the ruins. Just me and him alone."

Zane nodded. "It was interesting, waiting for you. His mother said you wouldn't come at all. That you must have chickened out, because you hadn't really been cured. Like you were just playing along with me, imitating my bubbliness."

Tally rolled her eyes. "She doesn't much like me."

"You don't say?" He grinned. "But David and me figured you'd show up sooner or later. We figured that - "

Tally groaned. "So are you guys like friends now?"

Zane took one of his excruciatingly long pauses. "I guess so. He asked me a lot about you when we first got here. I think he wanted to know how being pretty has changed you."

"Really?"

"Really. He was the one who met us when we arrived in the ruins. Him and Croy, camping out and watching for flares. It turns out that those two left the magazines for the city uglies to find, so they'd know the ruins were being visited again." Zane's voice had gotten dreamy, as if he was falling asleep. "At least I finally got to see him again, after chickening out all those months ago." He turned to her. "David really missed you, you know."

"I ruined his life," Tally said softly.

"You didn't do anything on purpose; David understands that now. I told him how when you'd planned to betray the Smoke, it was because the Specials threatened to keep you ugly for life."

"You told him that?" Tally let out a slow breath. "Thanks. I never really had a chance to explain why I'd come to the Smoke, how they'd forced me. Maddy made me leave the same night I confessed everything."

"Yeah. David wasn't happy with her about that. He wanted to talk to you again."

"Oh," she said. There was so much that she and David hadn't gotten straight between them. Of course, the thought of Zane and him discussing her history in great detail didn't exactly thrill Tally, but at least David knew the whole story now. She sighed. "Thanks for telling me all this. It must be weird."

"A little. But you shouldn't feel so bad. About what happened back then."

"Why not? I destroyed the Smoke, and David's father died because of me."

"Tally, everyone in the city is manipulated. The purpose of everything we're taught is to make us afraid of change. I've been trying to explain it to David, how from the day we're born, the whole place is a machine for keeping us under control."

She shook her head. "That doesn't make it right to betray your friends."

"Yeah, well, I did, long before you even met Shay. When it comes to the Smoke, I'm just as much at fault as you."

She looked at him in disbelief. "You? How?"

"Did I ever tell you how I met Dr. Cable?"

Tally looked at him, realizing that this was one conversation they'd never had a chance to finish.

"No. You didn't."

"After the night that Shay and I chickened out, most of my friends were gone away to the Smoke. The dorm minders knew I was the leader, so they asked me where everyone had run off to. I played tough, and didn't say a word. So Special Circumstances came for me." His voice grew softer, as if the cuff were still around his wrist. "They took me to that headquarters of theirs out in the factory belt, same as you. I tried to be strong, but they threatened me. Said they'd make me into one of them."

"One of them? A Special?" Tally swallowed.

"Yeah. After that, being a pretty-head didn't seem so bad anymore. So I told them everything I knew. I told them that Shay had planned to run away, but also chickened out, and that's why they knew about her. And that's probably why they started watching ..." His voice trailed off.

Tally blinked. "Watching me, when she and I became friends."

He nodded tiredly. "So, you see? I started the whole thing, by not leaving when I was supposed to. I'll never judge you for what happened to the Smoke, Tally. It was my fault as much as yours."

She took his hand, shaking her head. He couldn't accept blame, not after everything he'd gone through. "Zane, no. It can't be your fault. That was a long time ago." She sighed. "Maybe neither of us is to blame."

They were silent for a while, Tally's own words echoing in her head. With Zane lying here in front of her, his mind half-missing, what was the point of wallowing in old guilt - his, or hers, or anyone's?

Maybe the bad blood between her and Maddy was as meaningless as the feud between Andrew's village and the outsiders. If they were all going to live together here in the New Smoke, they would have to let the past go.

Of course, things were still complicated.

Tally took a slow breath, then said, "So what do you think of David?"

Zane looked at the arched ceiling dreamily. "He's very intense. Really serious. Not as bubbly as us. You know?"

Tally smiled, and squeezed his hand. "Yeah, I do."

"And kind of ... ugly."

She nodded, remembering how back in the Smoke, David had always looked at her as if she was pretty. And at times, looking at him had felt the same as looking into a pretty's face. Maybe when she'd had the real cure, those feelings would come back. Or maybe they were really gone for good, not because of any operation, but just because time had passed, and because of what she'd had with Zane.

When Zane had finally fallen asleep, Tally decided to take a bath. Fausto told her how to get to a spring on the far side of the mountain, choked with icicles at this time of year, but deep enough to submerge your whole body. "Just take a heated jacket," he said. "Or you'll freeze to death before you make it back."

Tally figured death was better than being this filthy, and she needed more than a rubdown with a wet cloth to feel clean again. She also wanted to be alone for a while, and maybe the shock from some freezing water would help her get up the nerve to talk to David.

Hoverboarding down the mountain in the crisp, late afternoon air, Tally was amazed at how clear and bright everything looked. She still found it hard to believe that she hadn't really taken the cure; she felt as bubbly as ever. Maddy had muttered something about a "placebo effect," as if believing you were cured would be enough to fix your brain. But Tally knew it was more than that.

Zane had changed her. From their very first kiss, even before he'd had the cure himself, being with him had made her bubbly. Tally wondered if she even needed the cure now, or if she could stay this way forever on her own. The thought of swallowing the same pill that had eaten away Zane's brain didn't thrill her, even with the anti-nanos as a chaser. Maybe she could skip it altogether, and rely on Zane's magic. They could help each other now, rewiring his brain at the same time Tally fought becoming pretty-minded.

They had come this far together, after all. Even before the pills, they had changed each other.

Of course, David had changed Tally too. Back in the Smoke, he'd been the one who'd convinced her to stay in the wild, even to stay ugly, giving up her future in the city Her reality had been transformed by those two weeks in the Smoke, starting...when? That first time David and she had kissed.

"How lucky is that?" Tally muttered to herself. "Sleeping Beauty with two princes."

What was she supposed to do? Choose between David and Zane? Especially now that all three of them were living together here at Fort Smokey? Somehow it didn't seem fair that she found herself in this position. Tally had barely remembered David when she'd met Zane - but she hadn't wanted to have her memories erased, after all.

"Thanks again, Dr. Cable," she said.

The water looked really cold.

Tally had easily kicked through the layer of ice on top, and was now staring down with dread into the gurgling spring. Maybe smelling bad wasn't the worst thing in the world. Spring would come in only three or four months, after all...

She shivered, turning the heat up in her borrowed jacket, then sighed and started to take off her clothes. This little bath would be very bubbly-making, at least.

Tally smeared a soap packet onto herself before jumping in, rubbing some into her hair, guessing she would last about ten seconds in the half-frozen spring. She knew she'd have to jump - no dangling of the foot or lowering herself in slowly. Only the laws of gravity would keep her going once her naked flesh hit cold water.

Tally took a breath, held it... and leaped into the spring.

The icy water crushed her like a vice, forcing the breath from her lungs, locking every muscle tight. She hugged herself with her arms, rolling into a ball in the shallow pool, but the cold seemed to cut through her flesh and straight into her bones.

Tally fought to take a breath, but managed only shallow little gasps of air, her entire body shaking as if it would break apart. With a titanic act of will she dunked her head in, erasing all sound, the rasp of her breath and gurgle of the spring replaced by the rumble of roiling water. She rubbed furiously at her hair with trembling hands.

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