We reach the end of the pier, and I clamp my mouth shut to keep my loud breaths in. We slow down so our footsteps aren’t as loud, and I look for the blinking light again. Now that I’m on the ground, it’s bigger and easier to see. I point, and Christina nods, leading the way toward it.
Then I hear a chorus of yells, so loud they make me jump. I hear puffs of air as paintballs go flying and splats as they find their targets. Our team has charged, the other team runs to meet us, and the flag is almost unguarded. Uriah takes aim and shoots the last guard in the thigh. The guard, a short girl with purple hair, throws her gun to the ground in a tantrum.
I sprint to catch up to Christina. The flag hangs from a tree branch, high above my head. I reach for it, and so does Christina.
“Come on, Tris,” she says. “You’re already the hero of the day. And you know you can’t reach it anyway.”
She gives me a patronizing look, the way people sometimes look at children when they act too adult, and snatches the flag from the branch. Without looking at me, she turns and gives a whoop of victory. Uriah’s voice joins hers and then I hear a chorus of yells in the distance.
Uriah claps my shoulder, and I try to forget about the look Christina gave me. Maybe she’s right; I’ve already proved myself today. I do not want to be greedy; I do not want to be like Eric, terrified of other people’s strength.
The shouts of triumph become infectious, and I lift my voice to join in, running toward my teammates. Christina holds the flag up high, and everyone clusters around her, grabbing her arm to lift the flag even higher. I can’t reach her, so I stand off to the side, grinning.
A hand touches my shoulder.
“Well done,” Four says quietly.
“I can’t believe I missed it!” Will says again, shaking his head. Wind coming through the doorway of the train car blows his hair in every direction.
“You were performing the very important job of staying out of our way,” says Christina, beaming.
Al groans. “Why did I have to be on the other team?”
“Because life’s not fair, Albert. And the world is conspiring against you,” says Will. “Hey, can I see the flag again?”
Peter, Molly, and Drew sit across from the members in the corner. Their chests and backs are splattered with blue and pink paint, and they look dejected. They speak quietly, sneaking looks at the rest of us, especially Christina. That is the benefit of not holding the flag right now—I am no one’s target. Or at least, no more than usual.
“So you climbed the Ferris wheel, huh,” says Uriah. He stumbles across the car and sits next to me. Marlene, the girl with the flirty smile, follows him.
“Yes,” I say.
“Pretty smart of you. Like…Erudite smart,” Marlene says. “I’m Marlene.”
“Tris,” I say. At home, being compared to an Erudite would be an insult, but she says it like a compliment.
“Yeah, I know who you are,” she says. “The first jumper tends to stick in your head.”
It has been years since I jumped off a building in my Abnegation uniform; it has been decades.
Uriah takes one of the paintballs from his gun and squeezes it between his thumb and index finger. The train lurches to the left, and Uriah falls against me, his fingers pinching the paintball until a stream of pink, foul-smelling paint sprays on my face.
Marlene collapses in giggles. I wipe some of the paint from my face, slowly, and then smear it on his cheek. The scent of fish oil wafts through the train car.
“Ew!” He squeezes the ball at me again, but the opening is at the wrong angle, and the paint sprays into his mouth instead. He coughs and makes exaggerated gagging sounds.
I wipe my face with my sleeve, laughing so hard my stomach hurts.
If my entire life is like this, loud laughter and bold action and the kind of exhaustion you feel after a hard but satisfying day, I will be content. As Uriah scrapes his tongue with his fingertips, I realize that all I have to do is get through initiation, and that life will be mine.
THE NEXT MORNING, when I trudge into the training room, yawning, a large target stands at one end of the room, and next to the door is a table with knives strewn across it. Target practice again. At least it won’t hurt.
Eric stands in the middle of the room, his posture so rigid it looks like someone replaced his spine with a metal rod. The sight of him makes me feel like all the air in the room is heavier, bearing down on me. At least when he was slouched against a wall, I could pretend he wasn’t here. Today I can’t pretend.
“Tomorrow will be the last day of stage one,” Eric says. “You will resume fighting then. Today, you’ll be learning how to aim. Everyone pick up three knives.” His voice is deeper than usual. “And pay attention while Four demonstrates the correct technique for throwing them.”
At first no one moves.
We scramble for daggers. They aren’t as heavy as guns, but they still feel strange in my hands, like I am not allowed to hold them.
“He’s in a bad mood today,” mumbles Christina.
“Is he ever in a good mood?” I murmur back.
But I know what she means. Judging by the poisonous look Eric gives Four when he isn’t paying attention, last night’s loss must have bothered Eric more than he let on. Winning capture the flag is a matter of pride, and pride is important to the Dauntless. More important than reason or sense.
I watch Four’s arm as he throws a knife. The next time he throws, I watch his stance. He hits the target each time, exhaling as he releases the knife.
Eric orders, “Line up!”
Haste, I think, will not help. My mother told me that when I was learning how to knit. I have to think of this as a mental exercise, not a physical exercise. So I spend the first few minutes practicing without a knife, finding the right stance, learning the right arm motion.
Eric paces too quickly behind us.
“I think the Stiff’s taken too many hits to the head!” remarks Peter, a few people down. “Hey, Stiff! Remember what a knife is?”
Ignoring him, I practice the throw again with a knife in hand but don’t release it. I shut out Eric’s pacing, and Peter’s jeering, and the nagging feeling that Four is staring at me, and throw the knife. It spins end over end, slamming into the board. The blade doesn’t stick, but I’m the first person to hit the target.
I smirk as Peter misses again. I can’t help myself.
“Hey, Peter,” I say. “Remember what a target is?”
Next to me, Christina snorts, and her next knife hits the target.
A half hour later, Al is the only initiate who hasn’t hit the target yet. His knives clatter to the floor, or bounce off the wall. While the rest of us approach the board to collect our weapons, he hunts the floor for his.
The next time he tries and misses, Eric marches toward him and demands, “How slow are you, Candor? Do you need glasses? Should I move the target closer to you?”
Al’s face turns red. He throws another knife, and this one sails a few feet to the right of the target. It spins and hits the wall.
“What was that, initiate?” says Eric quietly, leaning closer to Al.
I bite my lip. This isn’t good.
“It—it slipped,” says Al.
“Well, I think you should go get it,” Eric says. He scans the other initiates’ faces—everyone has stopped throwing again—and says, “Did I tell you to stop?”
Knives start to hit the board. We have all seen Eric angry before, but this is different. The look in his eyes is almost rabid.
“Go get it?” Al’s eyes are wide. “But everyone’s still throwing.”
“And I don’t want to get hit.”
“I think you can trust your fellow initiates to aim better than you.” Eric smiles a little, but his eyes stay cruel. “Go get your knife.”
Al doesn’t usually object to anything the Dauntless tell us to do. I don’t think he’s afraid to; he just knows that objecting is useless. This time Al sets his wide jaw. He’s reached the limits of his compliance.
“No,” he says.
“Why not?” Eric’s beady eyes fix on Al’s face. “Are you afraid?”
“Of getting stabbed by an airborne knife?” says Al. “Yes, I am!”
Honesty is his mistake. Not his refusal, which Eric might have accepted.
“Everyone stop!” Eric shouts.
The knives stop, and so does all conversation. I hold my small dagger tightly.
“Clear out of the ring.” Eric looks at Al. “All except you.”
I drop the dagger and it hits the dusty floor with a thud. I follow the other initiates to the edge of the room, and they inch in front of me, eager to see what makes my stomach turn: Al, facing Eric’s wrath.
“Stand in front of the target,” says Eric.
Al’s big hands shake. He walks back to the target.
“Hey, Four.” Eric looks over his shoulder. “Give me a hand here, huh?”
Four scratches one of his eyebrows with a knife point and approaches Eric. He has dark circles under his eyes and a tense set to his mouth—he’s as tired as we are.
“You’re going to stand there as he throws those knives,” Eric says to Al, “until you learn not to flinch.”
“Is this really necessary?” says Four. He sounds bored, but he doesn’t look bored. His face and body are tense, alert.
I squeeze my hands into fists. No matter how casual Four sounds, the question is a challenge. And Four doesn’t often challenge Eric directly.
At first Eric stares at Four in silence. Four stares back. Seconds pass and my fingernails bite my palms.
“I have the authority here, remember?” Eric says, so quietly I can barely hear him. “Here, and everywhere else.”
Color rushes into Four’s face, though his expression does not change. His grip on the knives tightens and his knuckles turn white as he turns to face Al.
I look from Al’s wide, dark eyes to his shaking hands to the determined set of Four’s jaw. Anger bubbles in my chest, and bursts from my mouth: “Stop it.”
Four turns the knife in his hand, his fingers moving painstakingly over the metal edge. He gives me such a hard look that I feel like he’s turning me to stone. I know why. I am stupid for speaking up while Eric is here; I am stupid for speaking up at all.
“Any idiot can stand in front of a target,” I say. “It doesn’t prove anything except that you’re bullying us. Which, as I recall, is a sign of cowardice.”
“Then it should be easy for you,” Eric says. “If you’re willing to take his place.”
The last thing I want to do is stand in front of that target, but I can’t back down now. I didn’t leave myself the option. I weave through the crowd of initiates, and someone shoves my shoulder.
“There goes your pretty face,” hisses Peter. “Oh, wait. You don’t have one.”
I recover my balance and walk toward Al. He nods at me. I try to smile encouragingly, but I can’t manage it. I stand in front of the board, and my head doesn’t even reach the center of the target, but it doesn’t matter. I look at Four’s knives: one in his right hand, two in his left hand.
My throat is dry. I try to swallow, and then look at Four. He is never sloppy. He won’t hit me. I’ll be fine.
I tip my chin up. I will not flinch. If I flinch, I prove to Eric that this is not as easy as I said it was; I prove that I’m a coward.
“If you flinch,” Four says, slowly, carefully, “Al takes your place. Understand?”
Four’s eyes are still on mine when he lifts his hand, pulls his elbow back, and throws the knife. It is just a flash in the air, and then I hear a thud. The knife is buried in the board, half a foot away from my cheek. I close my eyes. Thank God.
“You about done, Stiff?” asks Four.
I remember Al’s wide eyes and his quiet sobs at night and shake my head. “No.”
“Eyes open, then.” He taps the spot between his eyebrows.
I stare at him, pressing my hands to my sides so no one can see them shake. He passes a knife from his left hand to his right hand, and I see nothing but his eyes as the second knife hits the target above my head. This one is closer than the last one—I feel it hovering over my skull.
“Come on, Stiff,” he says. “Let someone else stand there and take it.”
Why is he trying to goad me into giving up? Does he want me to fail?
“Shut up, Four!”
I hold my breath as he turns the last knife in his hand. I see a glint in his eyes as he pulls his arm back and lets the knife fly. It comes straight at me, spinning, blade over handle. My body goes rigid. This time, when it hits the board, my ear stings, and blood tickles my skin. I touch my ear. He nicked it.
And judging by the look he gives me, he did it on purpose.
“I would love to stay and see if the rest of you are as daring as she is,” says Eric, his voice smooth, “but I think that’s enough for today.”
He squeezes my shoulder. His fingers feel dry and cold, and the look he gives me claims me, like he’s taking ownership of what I did. I don’t return Eric’s smile. What I did had nothing to do with him.
“I should keep my eye on you,” he adds.
Fear prickles inside me, in my chest and in my head and in my hands. I feel like the word “DIVERGENT” is branded on my forehead, and if he looks at me long enough, he’ll be able to read it. But he just lifts his hand from my shoulder and keeps walking.
Four and I stay behind. I wait until the room is empty and the door is shut before looking at him again. He walks toward me.
“Is your—” he begins.
“You did that on purpose!” I shout.
“Yes, I did,” he says quietly. “And you should thank me for helping you.”