A maintenance robot hovered above one circle of ashes, turning the soil over with careful movements of its claws, spraying seeds into the scorched earth.
Zane's suggestion of a picnic had raised Tally's eyebrows (a motion that was totally ouch), but walking down in the fresh air did help clear her head. The pills the wardens had given her muted the pain of her wound, but had no effect on her general fuzziness. The rumor in New Pretty Town was that doctors knew how to fix hangovers, but kept the cure a secret on principle.
Zane arrived on time, breakfast bobbing softly behind him in the cool breeze. As he grew near, his eyes widened at the scar on her forehead. One of his hands reached out, almost as if he wanted to touch it.
"Pretty bogus, huh?" she said.
"Totally criminal-looking," he said, still wide-eyed.
"Not so many milli-Helens, though, is it?"
He looked thoughtful for a moment. "I wouldn't measure it in Helens. I'm not quite sure what I'd use instead, though. Something bubblier."
Tally smiled: Peris had been right about not fixing her face right away. In his fascination with the scar, Zane was extra beautiful, and his expression gave her a tingly feeling - like being at the center of everything, but without the spinning.
Zane's costume surge had worn off; his lips returned to normal pretty fullness. Still, he always looked extreme in daylight. His face was all contrasts, his chin and cheekbones sharp, his forehead high.
His skin was the same olive as everyone's, but in the sun, against his dark hair, it somehow looked pale.
The operation guidelines wouldn't let you have jet-black hair, which the Committee thought was too extreme, but Zane dyed his with calligraphy ink. On top of that, he didn't eat much, keeping his face gaunt, his stare intense. Of all the pretties Tally had met since her operation, he was the only one whose looks really stood out.
Maybe that was why he was the head Crim - you had to be different from everyone else to really be a criminal. His gold eyes flickered as they searched for a spot, coming to rest in the dappled shadow of a broad oak tree.
They sat down on the grass and leaves, and Tally breathed in the scent of dew and earth.
Breakfast settled between them, giving off warmth from the glowing elements that kept the scrambled eggs and hash browns from going cold and slimy.
Tally piled up a heated plate with eggs and cheese and slices of avocado, and shoved half a muffin into her mouth. Looking up at Zane, she saw that he held nothing but a cup of coffee, and she wondered if eating like a greedy pig was a bogus move.
But what did it matter? She was a Crim now, she reminded herself, all voted on and full-fledged.
And Zane had asked her here, after all, wanting to hang out. It was time to stop worrying about being accepted and start enjoying herself. There were worse things than sitting in a perfect park, being closely watched by a beautiful boy.
Tally consumed the rest of the muffin, which was totally steaming inside and marbled with half-melted chocolate, and picked up her fork to attack the eggs. She hoped that the breakfast had some calorie-purgers packed with it. They worked better if you took them right after eating, and she was going to eat a lot. Maybe losing blood made you starving.
"So last night, who was that guy?" Zane asked.
Still chewing, Tally only shrugged, but he waited patiently for her to swallow.
"Just some crashing ugly," she finally said.
"Figured that. Who else would Specials be chasing? I mean, was he someone you knew?"
Tally looked away. It was embarrassing to have your ugly life follow you across the river, at least in person. But Peris had heard her telling the wardens about it last night, so lying to Zane would be bogus. "Yeah, I guess I knew him. From the Smoke. This guy called Croy."
An odd look passed over Zane's face. His gold eyes stared into the distance, searching for something. A moment later, he nodded. "I knew him too."
Tally froze, her fork halfway to her mouth. "You're kidding."
Zane shook his head.
"But I thought you never ran away," Tally said.
"No, I didn't." He pulled up his legs and hugged his knees with one long arm, taking a sip of coffee. "Not any farther than the Rusty Ruins, anyway. But Croy and I were friends back when we were littlies, and we lived in the same ugly dorm."
"That's...funny." Tally finally took the bite of eggs, chewing them slowly The city had a million people in it, and Zane had known Croy. "What are the odds of that?" she said softly.
Zane shook his head again. "Not a coincidence, Tally-wa."
Tally stopped chewing, the eggs tasting funny in her mouth, like everything was going to get all spinning again. The world had gone totally missing on coincidences lately.
"How do you mean?"
Zane leaned forward. "Tally, you know that Shay lived in my dorm, right? Back when we were uglies?"
"Sure," she said. "That's how she hooked up with you guys after coming here." Tally paused a moment, then felt a realization starting to fall slowly into place. Memories from the Smoke always came back at a brain-missing pace, like bubbles rising up through some thick, viscous liquid.
"Out in the Smoke," she said carefully, "Shay introduced me to Croy. They were old friends. So you three all knew one another?"
"Yeah, we did." Zane grimaced, as if something rotten had crawled into his coffee.
Tally looked down at her food unhappily. As Zane continued, it was just like the night before, the whole bogus story of the past summer pushing uncomfortably back into her head.
"There were six of us in my dorm," he said. "We called ourselves Crims back then, too. We did all the usual ugly tricks: sneaking out at night, hacking the dorm minders, coming across the river to spy on new pretties."
Tally nodded, remembering Shay's stories about before the two of them had met. "And going out to the Rusty Rums?"
"Yeah, after some older uglies showed us how." He looked up the hill at the towering center of New Pretty Town. "Being out there makes you realize how big the world is. I mean, twenty million people used to live in that old Rusty city. Compared with that, this place is tiny."
Tally closed her eyes and put her fork onto her plate, her appetite fading. After everything that had happened last night, maybe breakfast with Zane hadn't been such a good idea. Sometimes he seemed to think he was still an ugly, trying to stay bubbly, pushing back against the easy fun of being pretty. That was why he was great at leading the Crims, of course. But one-on-one, he could be dizzy-making.
"Yeah, but the Rusties all died," she said quietly. "There were too many of them, and they were totally stupid."
"I know, I know. They almost destroyed the world," he recited, then sighed. "But sneaking out to the ruins was the most exciting thing I'd ever done."
Zane's eyes flashed as he said this, and Tally remembered her own trips to the ruins, how the empty majesty of the ghost-city had kept every nerve in her body on high alert. The feeling that real danger might be lurking out there, unlike the harmless thrill of a hot-air ascent or a bungee jump.
She shivered, recalling some of that old excitement as she met Zane's stare. "I know what you mean."
"And I knew I'd never go there again after the operation. New pretties don't do anything that tricky. So when I got close to turning sixteen, I started thinking about leaving the city, going into the wilderness. At least for a while."
Tally nodded slowly. She remembered Shay saying the same things back when they'd met, the words that had started her down the path to the Smoke. "And you talked Shay and Croy and the rest of them into coming along?"
"I tried." He laughed. "At first they thought I was crazy, because you can't live in the wild. But then we met this guy out there who - "
"Stop," Tally said. Suddenly her heart was beating fast, like when you took a purger and your metabolism kicked up to burn the calories. She felt a dampness on her face, the breeze suddenly cold.
She felt moisture on her cheeks, but pretty faces didn't sweat...
Tally blinked, her fists clenching until fingernails drove into her palms. The world had changed somehow. Pinpoints of sunlight cut harshly through the leaves overhead as she tried to take deep, slow breaths. She remembered now that the same thing had happened last night, when she'd seen Croy.
"Tally?" Zane said.
She shook her head, not wanting him to say anything. Not about meeting someone in the Rusty Ruins. She found herself speaking quickly to keep him quiet, repeating what Shay had told her. "You heard about the Smoke, right? Where people lived like pre-Rusties and were ugly for life. So you all decided to go there. But when the time came to run, most of you chickened out. Shay told me about that night: She was all packed and everything, but in the end she got too scared to go."
Zane nodded, looking down into his coffee.
"So you bailed too, didn't you?" Tally said. "You were supposed to run away that time?"
"Yeah," he said flatly. "I didn't go, even though the whole thing was my idea. And I became pretty, right on schedule."
Tally looked away, unable to keep herself from remembering that summer. Shay's friends had all run off to the Smoke or turned pretty, leaving her alone in Uglyville. That's when she and Tally had met, becoming best friends. And when Shay's second attempt at running away had succeeded, Tally had been sucked into the whole mess.
She let out a slow breath, telling herself to calm down. Last summer might have been a nightmare, but it was also why she was a Crim now, and not just some boring brand-new pretty trying to get into a lame non-bubbly clique. Maybe it had been worth it all to wind up here, pretty and popular.
She looked at Zane, his beautiful eyes still staring into the dregs of his coffee, and felt herself relax. She smiled. He looked so tragic sitting there, dark eyebrows arched in despair, still regretting that he'd bailed on running away to the Smoke. She reached out to take his hand.
"Hey, it's no big deal. It wasn't that great out there. Mostly it was getting sunburned and bitten by bugs."
His eyes rose to meet hers. "At least you took the chance, Tally. You were brave enough to find out for yourself."
"I didn't have a choice, really. I had to go find Shay." She shivered, pulling her hand away. "I'm just lucky I made it back."
Zane moved closer and reached out, his delicate fingers tracing the sprayed-on skin over her scar, his golden eyes wide. "I'm glad you did."
She smiled, touching the back of his hand. "Me too."
Zane's fingers slid into her hair, and he gently pulled her closer. She closed her eyes, letting his lips press against hers, reaching up to feel the smooth, flawless skin of his cheek.
Tally's heart was beating hard again, her mind racing even as her lips parted. Reality was shifting around her once more, but this time she liked the feeling.
When she'd arrived in New Pretty Town, Peris had warned Tally about sex. Getting too close to other pretties could be overwhelming when you were brand new. It took time to get used to all the gorgeous faces, the perfect bodies, the luminous eyes. When everyone was beautiful, you could wind up falling in love with the first pretty you kissed.
But maybe it was time. She had been here a month, and Zane was special. Not just because he led the Crims and looked different from everyone else, but the way he tried to stay bubbly, to bend the rules. It made him even prettier than the others, somehow.
And of all the unexpected turns in the last twenty-four hours, this was the nicest. Kissing Zane was dizzy-making, but not like she was falling into darkness. His lips were warm and soft and perfect, and she felt safe.
After a long moment, the two pulled a little apart, Tally's eyes still closed. She felt his breath against her, his hand warm and soft on the back of her neck. "David," she whispered.