I rest my hand on my rib cage, remembering the bruises that were, and the fear I felt for my own life. My father had a series of bad nights right after my mother died.
“You sure?” Tori says. “That’s maybe the most painful place possible.”
“Good,” I say, and I sit down in the chair.
The crowd of Dauntless cheer and start passing around another flask, this one bigger than the last, and bronze instead of silver.
“So we have a masochist in the chair tonight. Lovely.” Tori sits on the stool next to me and puts on a pair of rubber gloves. I sit forward, lifting up the hem of my shirt, and she soaks a cotton ball in rubbing alcohol, covering my ribs with it. She’s about to move away when she frowns and pulls at my skin with her fingertip. Rubbing alcohol bites into the still-healing skin of my back, and I wince.
“How did this happen, Four?” she asks.
I look up and notice that Amar is staring at me, frowning.
“He’s an initiate,” Amar says. “They’re all cut and bruised at this point. You should see them all limping around together. It’s sad.”
“I have a giant one on my knee,” volunteers Zeke. “It’s the sickest blue color—”
Zeke rolls up his pant leg to display his bruise to the others, and they all start sharing their own bruises, their own scars: “Got this when they dropped me after the zip line.” “Well, I’ve got a stab wound from your grip slipping during knife-throwing, so I think we’re even.” Tori eyes me for a few seconds, and I’m sure she doesn’t accept Amar’s explanation for the marks on my back, but she doesn’t ask again. Instead, she turns on the needle, filling the air with the sound of buzzing, and Amar tosses me the flask.
The alcohol is still burning my throat when the tattoo needle touches my ribs, and I wince, but somehow I don’t mind the pain.
I relish it.
The next day, when I wake up, everything hurts. Especially my head.
Oh God, my head.
Eric is perched on the edge of the mattress next to mine, tying his shoelaces. The skin around the rings in his lip looks red—he must have pierced it recently. I haven’t been paying attention.
He looks at me. “You look like hell.”
I sit up, and the sudden motion makes my head throb more.
“I hope that when you lose, you don’t use it as an excuse,” he says, sneering a little. “Because I would have beat you anyway.”
He gets up, stretches, and leaves the dormitory. I cradle my head in my hands for a few seconds, then get up to take a shower. I have to stand with half my body under the water and half out, because of the ink on my side. The Dauntless stayed with me for hours, waiting for the tattoo to be finished, and by the time we left, all the flasks were empty. Tori gave me a thumbs-up as I stumbled out of the tattoo parlor, and Zeke slung an arm across my shoulders and said, “I think you’re Dauntless now.”
Last night I found myself relishing the words. Now I wish I could have my old head back, the one that was focused and determined and didn’t feel like tiny men with hammers had taken up residence inside it. I let the cool water spill over me for a few more minutes, then check the clock on the bathroom wall.
Ten minutes to the fight. I’m going to be late. And Eric is right—I’m going to lose.
I push my hand into my forehead as I run toward the training room, my feet halfway out of my shoes. When I burst through the doors, the transfer initiates and some of the Dauntless-born initiates are standing around the edge of the room. Amar is in the center of the arena, checking his watch. He gives me a pointed look.
“Nice of you to join us,” he says. I see in his raised eyebrows that the camaraderie of the night before does not extend to the training room. He points at my shoes. “Tie your shoes, and don’t waste any more of my time.”
Across the arena, Eric cracks each one of his knuckles, carefully, staring at me the whole time. I tie my shoes in a hurry and tuck the ends of the laces under so they don’t get in my way.
As I face Eric I can feel only the pounding of my heart, the throbbing of my head, the burning in my side. Then Amar steps back, and Eric rushes forward, fast, his fist hitting me square in the jaw.
I stumble back, holding my face. All the pain runs together in my mind. I put up my hands to block the next punch. My head throbs and I see his leg move. I try to twist away from the kick, but his foot hits me hard in the ribs. I feel a sensation like an electric shock through the left side of my body.
“This is easier than I thought it would be,” Eric says.
I feel hot with embarrassment, and in the arrogant opening he leaves me, I uppercut him in the stomach.
The flat of his hand smacks into my ear, making it ring, and I lose my balance, my fingers touching the ground to steady me.
“You know,” Eric says quietly, “I think I’ve figured out your real name.”
My eyes are blurry with half a dozen different kinds of pain. I didn’t know it came in so many varieties, like flavors, acid and fire and ache and sting.
He hits me again, this time trying for my face but getting my collarbone instead. He shakes out his hand and says, “Should I tell them? Get everything out in the open?”
He has my name between his teeth, Eaton, a far more threatening weapon than his feet or his elbows or his fists. The Abnegation say, in hushed voices, that the problem with many Erudite is their selfishness, but I think it is their arrogance, the pride they take in knowing things that others do not. In that moment, overwhelmed with fear, I recognize it as Eric’s weakness. He doesn’t believe that I can hurt him as much as he can hurt me. He believes that I am everything he assumed me to be at the outset, humble and selfless and passive.
I feel my pain disappear into rage, and I grab his arm to hold him in place as I swing at him again, and again, and again. I don’t even see where I’m hitting him; I don’t see or feel or hear anything. I am empty, alone, nothing.
Then I finally hear his screams, see him clutching his face with both hands. Blood soaks his chin, runs into his teeth. He tries to wrench away but I am holding on as hard as I can, holding on for dear life.
I kick him hard in the side, so he topples. Over his clutched hands, I meet his eyes.
His eyes are glassy and unfocused. His blood is bright against his skin. It occurs to me that I did that, it was me, and fear creeps back in, a different kind of fear this time. A fear of what I am, what I might be becoming.
My knuckles throb, and I walk out of the arena without being dismissed.
The Dauntless compound is a good place to recover, dark and full of secret, quiet places.
I find a hallway near the Pit and sit against the wall, letting the cold from the stone seep into me. My headache has returned, as well as various aches and pains from the fight, but I barely register any of them. My knuckles are tacky with blood, Eric’s. I try to rub it off but it’s been drying too long. I won the fight, and that means my place in Dauntless is secure for the time being—I should feel satisfied, not afraid. Maybe even happy, to finally belong somewhere, to be among people whose eyes don’t skirt mine at the lunch table. But I know that for every good thing that comes along, there is always a cost. What is the cost of being Dauntless?
“Hey.” I look up and see Shauna knocking on the stone wall like it’s a door. She grins. “This is not quite the victory dance I was expecting.”
“I don’t dance,” I say.
“Yeah, I should have known better.” She sits across from me, her back against the opposite wall. She draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. Our feet are just a few inches apart. I don’t know why I notice that. Well, yes I do—she’s a girl.
I don’t know how to talk to girls. Especially not a Dauntless girl. Something tells me you can never know what to expect from a Dauntless girl.
“Eric’s in the hospital,” she says, and there’s a grin on her face. “They think you broke his nose. You definitely
knocked out one of his teeth.”
I look down. I knocked out someone’s tooth?
“I was wondering if you could help me,” she says, nudging my shoe with her toe.
As I suspected: Dauntless girls are unpredictable. “Help you with what?”
“Fighting. I’m no good at it. I keep getting humiliated in the arena.” She shakes her head. “I have to face off with this girl in two days, her name’s Ashley but she makes everyone call her Ash.” Shauna rolls her eyes. “You know, Dauntless flames, ash, whatever. Anyway, she’s one of the best people in our group, and I’m afraid she’s going to kill me. Like actually kill me.”
“Why do you want my help?” I say, suddenly suspicious. “Because you know I’m a Stiff and we’re supposed to help people?”
“What? No, of course not,” she says. Her eyebrows furrow in confusion. “I want your help because you’re the best in your group, obviously.”
I laugh. “No, I’m not.”
“You and Eric were the only undefeated ones and you just beat him, so yeah, you are. Listen, if you don’t want to help me, all you have to do is—”
“I’ll help,” I say. “I just don’t really know how.”
“We’ll figure it out,” she says. “Tomorrow afternoon? Meet you in the arena?”
I nod. She grins, gets up, and starts to leave. But a few steps away and she turns around, moving backward down the hallway.
“Quit sulking, Four,” she says. “Everyone’s impressed with you. Embrace it.”
I watch her silhouette turn the corner at the end of the hallway. I was so disturbed by the fight that I never thought about what beating Eric meant—that I am now first in my initiate class. I may have chosen Dauntless as a haven, but I’m not just surviving here, I’m excelling.
I stare at Eric’s blood on my knuckles and smile.
The next morning I decide to take a risk. I sit with Zeke and Shauna at breakfast. Shauna mostly just slumps over her food and answers questions in grunts. Zeke yawns into his coffee, but he points out his family to me: his little brother, Uriah, sits at one of the other tables with Lynn, Shauna’s little sister. His mother, Hana—the tamest Dauntless I’ve ever seen, her faction indicated only by the color of her clothing—is still in the breakfast line.