Her fingers came away sticky, and more dark blotches dripped into her palm as she stared at it dumbfounded.
She finally felt the pain, her head throbbing in time with her heartbeat. The collision with Peris's knee must have opened up her forehead. Her fingers traced a line of blood that dripped around her brow and down one cheek, as hot as tears.
Tally sat down on the grass, suddenly shaking all over.
Fireworks lit the sky again, turning the blood on her hand bright red, each drop a little mirror reflecting the explosion overhead. There were hovercars in the sky now, lots of them.
Tally felt something slipping away as she bled, something she'd wanted to keep hold of...
Looking up, she saw Peris, chuckling as he climbed the hill.
"Now that was not a bubbly move, Tally-wa. I almost wound up in the river!" He mimed drowning, grasping at water and slipping under.
She found herself giggling at his performance, her weird shakiness turning bubbly now that Peris was here. "What's the matter? Can't you swim?"
He laughed and sank to the grass beside her, fighting with the straps of the bungee jacket. "I'm not dressed for it." He rubbed one shoulder. "Also ... ow on the clinginess."
Tally tried to remember why jumping off the tower had seemed like such a good idea, but the sight of her own blood had left her brain-missing, and she just wanted to sleep. Everything was harsh and shiny. "Sorry."
"Just warn me next time." Fireworks exploded overhead, and Peris squinted at her, his face beautifully puzzled. "What's with the blood?"
"Oh, yeah. Your knee whacked into me when you bounced. Isn't it bogus?"
"Not very pretty-making." He reached out and squeezed her arm softly. "Don't worry, Tally. I'll ping a warden car. There's tons out tonight."
But one was already coming. It passed silently overhead, running lights casting a red tinge on the grass around them. A spotlight picked them out. Tally sighed, letting the uncomfortable shininess of everything slip away. She realized now why it had been such a bogus day. She'd been trying way too hard, worrying about how the Crims would vote and what to wear, more serious than bubbly. No wonder the party-crashers had driven her over the edge.
She giggled. Literally over the edge.
But everything was okay now. With the uglies and cruel pretties gone and Peris here to take care of her, a restful feeling settled over Tally. Funny how that kick to the head had left her brain-missing for a moment, actually talking to those uglies like they mattered.
The hovercar landed nearby, and two wardens jumped out and headed over, one with a first-aid kit in hand. Maybe while they were fixing her head, Tally thought, she could get some eye surge like Shay's. Not exactly the same, which would be bogus, but sort of matching.
She looked up into the wardens' middle-pretty faces, calm and wise and knowing what to do.
The look of concern on their faces made the blood all over her face feel less shaming.
They gently led her to the car and sprayed new skin onto the wound, giving her a pill to stop the swelling. When she asked about bruises, they laughed and said the operation took care of that. No more bruises ever.
Because it was a head wound, they gave Tally a neural exam, waving a glowing red pointer back and forth while they tracked her eyemouse. The test seemed pretty retarded, but the wardens said it proved she didn't have a concussion or brain damage. Peris told a story about when he'd walked into a glass door at Lillian Russell Mansion and had to stay awake or die, and they all laughed.
Then the wardens asked a few questions about the tricking uglies who'd come across the river that night and caused all the trouble. "Did you know any of them?"
Tally sighed, not really wanting to get into it. It was totally shaming to be the cause of the uglies'
party-crashing. But it was middle pretties asking, and you couldn't blow them off. They always knew what they were doing, and it would be bogus to tell a lie straight to their calm, authoritative faces.
"Yeah. I kind of remembered one of them. Croy."
"He was from the Smoke, wasn't he, Tally?"
She nodded, feeling stupid wearing the Smokey sweater with dirt and blood all over it. It was all Valentino Mansion's fault for switching the dress code: There was nothing more bogus than still being in a costume after you'd left a party.
"Do you know what he wanted, Tally? Why he was here?"
She looked at Peris for help. He was hanging on every word, his luminous eyes bugging wide. It made her feel important.
She shrugged. "Just ugly tricks, that's all. Showing off in front of his friends, probably." Which sounded bogus. Croy didn't live in Uglyville, after all. He was a Smokey from out in the wild between cities. The two with him might have been city kids just tricking, but Croy had definitely had a plan.
But the wardens only smiled and nodded, believing her. "Don't worry, it won't happen again.
We'll be keeping an eye on you to make sure it doesn't."
She smiled back at them, and they took her home.
When Tally made it to her room, there was a ping from Peris, who'd gone back to the party.
"Guess what?" he yelled. Crowd sounds and music bled in around the words, making Tally wish she'd gone back to the bash, even with sprayed-on skin all over her forehead.
She frowned and flopped onto her bed as the message continued: "When I got back, the Crims had already voted! They thought it was totally bubbly that real-life Specials were at the party, and our dive off the tower got six hundred milli-Helens from Zane! You are so Crim! See you tomorrow. Oh yeah, and don't get that scar erased until everyone's seen it. Best friends forever!"
As the message ended, Tally felt the bed spin a little. She closed her eyes and let out a long, slow sigh of relief. Finally, she was a full-fledged Crim. Everything she'd ever wanted had come to her at last.
She was beautiful, and she lived in New Pretty Town with Peris and Shay and tons of new friends. All the disasters and terrors of the last year - running away to the Smoke, living there in pre-Rusty squalor, traveling back to the city through the wilds - somehow all of it had worked out.
It was so wonderful, and Tally was so exhausted, that belief took a while to settle over her. She replayed Peris's message a few times, then pulled off the smelly Smokey sweater with shaking hands and threw it into the corner. Tomorrow, she would make the hole in the wall recycle it.
Tally lay back and stared at the ceiling for a while. A ping from Shay came, but she ignored it, setting her interface ring to sleep time. With everything so perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile, as if the slightest interruption could imperil her pretty future. The bed beneath her, Komachi Mansion, and even the city around her - all of it felt as tenuous as a soap bubble, shivering and empty.
It was probably just the knock to her head causing the weird missingness that underlay her joy.
She only needed a good night's sleep - and hopefully no hangover tomorrow - and everything would feel solid again, as perfect as it really was.
Tally fell asleep a few minutes later, happy to be a Crim at last.
But her dreams were totally bogus.
So, there was this beautiful princess.
She was locked in a high tower, one with stone walls and cold, empty rooms that couldn't talk.
There was no elevator or even fire stairs, so Tally wondered how the princess had gotten up there.
But there she was, at the top. No bungee jacket and fast asleep.
The tower was guarded by a dragon. It had jeweled eyes and hungry, cruel features, and moved with a brutal suddenness that made Tally's stomach churn. Even dreaming, she recognized exactly what the dragon was. It was a cruel pretty, an agent of Special Circumstances, or maybe a bunch of them all rolled up into one gray and silk-scaled serpent.
And you couldn't have this dream without a prince.
He made it past the dragon, not so much slaying as creeping, finding chinks in the ancient stone wall to slip his fingers into, because it was old and crumbling. He climbed the tower's daunting height easily, sparing only an amused look down at the dragon, which had been distracted by a host of playful rats scurrying through its claws.
The prince made it in through the high stone window and swept the princess into a kiss, which woke her up, and that was the whole story. Getting back down and past the dragon didn't turn out to be an issue, because this was a dream and not a movie or even a fairy tale, and it was all over with one big kiss, a classic happy ending.
Except for one thing.
The prince was totally ugly.
Tally woke up with a throbbing head.
Catching her reflection in the mirror wall, she remembered that the headache wasn't just a hangover. And discovered that getting kicked in the head was not pretty-making. As the wardens last night had warned might happen, the sprayed-on skin above her eye had turned an angry red. She'd have to go to a surge office to get the scar completely erased.
But Tally decided not to fix it yet. Like Peris had said, it did look really criminal. She smiled, remembering her new status. The scar was perfect.
There was a mountain of pings from other Crims, drunken congratulations and reports of more wild behavior as the party had gone on (though nothing as bubbly as her dive off the tower with Peris).
Tally listened to the messages with eyes closed, sinking into the crowd noises in the background, loving how connected she was to the others even though she'd come home early. That's what being voted into a clique meant: knowing you had friends whatever you did.
Zane had left three messages in all, the last one asking if Tally wanted to have breakfast this morning. He didn't sound as drunk as the rest of them, so maybe he was already awake.
When she pinged him, he answered. "How are you?"
"Face-missing," she said. "Did Peris tell you how my head got bonked?"
"Yeah. You were actually bleeding?"
"Whoa." Zane's voice was breathy in her ear, his usual cool overwhelmed. "Nice dive, though.
Glad you didn't...you know, die."
Tally smiled. "Thanks."
"So, did you read the weirdness about the party?"
There'd been a news-ping among Tally's messages, but she hadn't felt up to reading. "What weirdness?"
"Someone hacked the mail yesterday and sent out that new invitation, the one that changed the dress code to costumes. Everyone on the Valentino Bash Committee thought it was someone else who'd done it, so they all just went along. But nobody knows who actually wrote it. Dizzying, huh?"
Tally blinked, the room suddenly out of focus. Dizzying was right. The world seemed to turn around her, as if she were inside the stomach of something big and out of control. Only uglies did stuff like hack mail. And she could only think of one person who would want the Valentino party turned into a costume bash: Croy with his cruel-pretty mask and weird offers.
Which meant it all had to do with Tally Youngblood.
"That is deeply bogus, Zane."
"Totally. You hungry?"
She nodded, feeling her head begin to throb again. Out the window, the Garbo Mansion party towers rose up, tall and spindly. Tally stared at them, as if fixing her gaze could make the world less spinning. She had to be overreacting; everything wasn't about her, after all. It could have just been pointlessly tricking uglies, or someone on the Valentino Bash Committee going brain-missing.
But even if it had been simply a mistake, Croy had to have been ready with that costume. In the Rusty Ruins and wilderness where Smokies hid, there weren't any holes in the wall; you had to make your own things, which took time and effort. And Croy hadn't chosen just any costume...Tally remembered the cold, jeweled eyes and felt faint.
Maybe food would fix her.
"Yeah, deeply hungry. Let's have breakfast."
They met in Denzel Park, a pleasure garden that snaked from the center of New Pretty Town down to Valentino Mansion. The mansion itself was hidden by trees, but the transmission tower on top was visible, the old-fashioned Valentino flag whipping in the cold wind. In the garden, the damage from the night before was mostly cleared up, except for a few blackened patches left by the Bashers' bonfires.