I grit my teeth. “Thank you? You almost stabbed my ear, and you spent the entire time taunting me. Why should I thank you?”
“You know, I’m getting a little tired of waiting for you to catch on!”
He glares at me, and even when he glares, his eyes look thoughtful. Their shade of blue is peculiar, so dark it is almost black, with a small patch of lighter blue on the left iris, right next to the corner of his eye.
“Catch on? Catch on to what? That you wanted to prove to Eric how tough you are? That you’re sadistic, just like he is?”
“I am not sadistic.” He doesn’t yell. I wish he would yell. It would scare me less. He leans his face close to mine, which reminds me of lying inches away from the attack dog’s fangs in the aptitude test, and says, “If I wanted to hurt you, don’t you think I would have already?”
He crosses the room and slams the point of a knife so hard into the table that it sticks there, handle toward the ceiling.
“I—” I start to shout, but he’s already gone. I scream, frustrated, and wipe some of the blood from my ear.
TODAY IS THE day before Visiting Day. I think of Visiting Day like I think of the world ending: Nothing after it matters. Everything I do builds up to it. I might see my parents again. I might not. Which is worse? I don’t know.
I try to pull a pant leg over my thigh and it sticks just above my knee. Frowning, I stare at my leg. A bulge of muscle is stopping the fabric. I let the pant leg fall and look over my shoulder at the back of my thigh. Another muscle stands out there.
I step to the side so I stand in front of the mirror. I see muscles that I couldn’t see before in my arms, legs, and stomach. I pinch my side, where a layer of fat used to hint at curves to come. Nothing. Dauntless initiation has stolen whatever softness my body had. Is that good, or bad?
At least I am stronger than I was. I wrap my towel around me again and leave the girls’ bathroom. I hope no one is in the dormitory to see me walking in my towel, but I can’t wear those pants.
When I open the dormitory door, a weight drops into my stomach. Peter, Molly, Drew, and some of the other initiates stand in the back corner, laughing. They look up when I walk in and start snickering. Molly’s snort-laugh is louder than everyone else’s.
I walk to my bunk, trying to pretend like they aren’t there, and fumble in the drawer under my bed for the dress Christina made me get. One hand clamped around the towel and one holding the dress, I stand up, and right behind me is Peter.
I jump back, almost hitting my head on Christina’s bunk. I try to slip past him, but he slams his hand against Christina’s bed frame, blocking my path. I should have known he wouldn’t let me get away that easily.
“Didn’t realize you were so skinny, Stiff.”
“Get away from me.” My voice is somehow steady.
“This isn’t the Hub, you know. No one has to follow a Stiff’s orders here.” His eyes travel down my body, not in the greedy way that a man looks at a woman, but cruelly, scrutinizing every flaw. I hear my heartbeat in my ears as the others inch closer, forming a pack behind Peter.
This will be bad.
I have to get out of here.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a clear path to the door. If I can duck under Peter’s arm and sprint toward it, I might be able to make it.
“Look at her,” says Molly, crossing her arms. She smirks at me. “She’s practically a child.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Drew. “She could be hiding something under that towel. Why don’t we look and see?”
Now. I duck under Peter’s arm and dart toward the door. Something pinches and pulls at my towel as I walk away and then yanks sharply—Peter’s hand, gathering the fabric into his fist. The towel slips from my hand and the air is cold on my naked body, making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
Laughter erupts, and I run as fast as I can toward the door, holding the dress against my body to hide it. I sprint down the hallway and into the bathroom and lean against the door, breathing hard. I close my eyes.
It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.
A sob bursts from my mouth, and I slap my hand over my lips to contain it. It doesn’t matter what they saw. I shake my head like the motion is supposed to make it true.
With shaking hands, I get dressed. The dress is plain black, with a V-neck that shows the tattoos on my collarbone, and goes down to my knees.
Once I’m dressed and the urge to cry is gone, I feel something hot and violent writhing in my stomach. I want to hurt them.
I stare at my eyes in the mirror. I want to, so I will.
I can’t fight in a dress, so I get myself some new clothes from the Pit before I walk to the training room for my last fight. I hope it’s with Peter.
“Hey, where were you this morning?” Christina asks when I walk in. I squint to see the blackboard across the room. The space next to my name is blank—I haven’t gotten an opponent yet.
“I got held up,” I say.
Four stands in front of the board and writes a name next to mine. Please let it be Peter, please, please….
“You okay, Tris? You look a little…,” says Al.
“A little what?”
Four moves away from the board. The name written next to mine is Molly. Not Peter, but good enough.
“On edge,” says Al.
My fight is last on the list, which means I have to wait through three matches before I face her. Edward and Peter fight second to last—good. Edward is the only one who can beat Peter. Christina will fight Al, which means that Al will lose quickly, like he’s been doing all week.
“Go easy on me, okay?” Al asks Christina.
“I make no promises,” she replies.
The first pair—Will and Myra—stand across from each other in the arena. For a second they both shuffle back and forth, one jerking an arm forward and then retracting it, the other kicking and missing. Across the room, Four leans against the wall and yawns.
I stare at the board and try to predict the outcome of each match. It doesn’t take long. Then I bite my fingernails and think about Molly. Christina lost to her, which means she’s good. She has a powerful punch, but she doesn’t move her feet. If she can’t hit me, she can’t hurt me.
As expected, the next fight between Christina and Al is quick and painless. Al falls after a few hard hits to the face and doesn’t get back up, which makes Eric shake his head.
Edward and Peter take longer. Though they are the two best fighters, the disparity between them is noticeable. Edward’s fist slams into Peter’s jaw, and I remember what Will said about him—that he has been studying combat since he was ten. It’s obvious. He is faster and smarter than even Peter.
By the time the three matches are done, my nails are bitten to the beds and I’m hungry for lunch. I walk to the arena without looking at anyone or anything but the center of the room. Some of my anger has faded, but it isn’t hard to call back. All I have to do is think about how cold the air was and how loud the laughter was. Look at her. She’s a child.
Molly stands across from me.
“Was that a birthmark I saw on your left butt cheek?” she says, smirking. “God, you’re pale, Stiff.”
She’ll make the first move. She always does.
Molly starts toward me and throws her weight into a punch. As her body shifts forward, I duck and drive my fist into her stomach, right over her bellybutton. Before she can get her hands on me, I slip past her, my hands up, ready for her next attempt.
She’s not smirking anymore. She runs at me like she’s about to tackle me, and I dart out of the way. I hear Four’s voice in my head, telling me that the most powerful weapon at my disposal is my elbow. I just have to find a way to use it.
I block her next punch with my forearm. The blow stings, but I barely notice it. She grits her teeth and lets out a frustrated groan, more animal-sounding than human. She tries a sloppy kick at my side, which I dodge, and while her balance is off, I rush forward and force my elbow up at her face. She pulls her head back just in time, and my elbow grazes her chin.
She punches me in the ribs and I stumble to the side, recovering my breath. There’s something she’s not protecting, I know it. I want to hit her face, but maybe that’s not a smart move. I watch her for a few seconds. Her hands are too high; they guard her nose and cheeks, leaving her stomach and ribs exposed. Molly and I have the same flaw in combat.
Our eyes meet for just a second.
I aim an uppercut low, below her bellybutton. My fist sinks into her flesh, forcing a heavy breath from her mouth that I feel against my ear. As she gasps, I sweep-kick her legs out from under her, and she falls hard on the ground, sending dust into the air. I pull my foot back and kick as hard as I can at her ribs.
My mother and father would not approve of my kicking someone when she’s down.
I don’t care.
She curls into a ball to protect her side, and I kick again, this time hitting her in the stomach. Like a child. I kick again, this time hitting her in the face. Blood springs from her nose and spreads over her face. Look at her. Another kick hits her in the chest.
I pull my foot back again, but Four’s hands clamp around my arms, and he pulls me away from her with irresistible force. I breathe through gritted teeth, staring at Molly’s blood-covered face, the color deep and rich and beautiful, in a way.
She groans, and I hear a gurgling in her throat, watch blood trickle from her lips.
“You won,” Four mutters. “Stop.”
I wipe the sweat from my forehead. He stares at me. His eyes are too wide; they look alarmed.
“I think you should leave,” he says. “Take a walk.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’m fine now,” I say again, this time for myself.
I wish I could say I felt guilty for what I did.
VISITING DAY. The second I open my eyes, I remember. My heart leaps and then plummets when I see Molly hobble across the dormitory, her nose purple between strips of medical tape. Once I see her leave, I check for Peter and Drew. Neither of them is in the dormitory, so I change quickly. As long as they aren’t here, I don’t care who sees me in my underwear, not anymore.
Everyone else dresses in silence. Not even Christina smiles. We all know that we might go to the Pit floor and search every face and never find one that belongs to us.
I make my bed with the tight corners like my father taught me. As I pinch a stray hair from my pillow, Eric walks in.
“Attention!” he announces, flicking a lock of dark hair from his eyes. “I want to give you some advice about today. If by some miracle your families do come to visit you…” He scans our faces and smirks. “…which I doubt, it is best not to seem too attached. That will make it easier for you, and easier for them. We also take the phrase ‘faction before blood’ very seriously here. Attachment to your family suggests you aren’t entirely pleased with your faction, which would be shameful. Understand?”
I understand. I hear the threat in Eric’s sharp voice. The only part of that speech that Eric meant was the last part: We are Dauntless, and we need to act accordingly.
On my way out of the dormitory, Eric stops me.
“I may have underestimated you, Stiff,” he says. “You did well yesterday.”
I stare up at him. For the first time since I beat Molly, guilt pinches my gut.
If Eric thinks I did something right, I must have done it wrong.
“Thank you,” I say. I slip out of the dormitory.
Once my eyes adjust to the dim hallway light, I see Christina and Will ahead of me, Will laughing, probably at a joke Christina made. I don’t try to catch up. For some reason, I feel like it would be a mistake to interrupt them.
Al is missing. I didn’t see him in the dormitory, and he’s not walking toward the Pit now. Maybe he’s already there.
I run my fingers through my hair and smooth it into a bun. I check my clothes—am I covered up? My pants are tight and my collarbone is showing. They won’t approve.
Who cares if they approve? I set my jaw. This is my faction now. These are the clothes my faction wears. I stop just before the hallway ends.
Clusters of families stand on the Pit floor, most of them Dauntless families with Dauntless initiates. They still look strange to me—a mother with a pierced eyebrow, a father with a tattooed arm, an initiate with purple hair, a wholesome family unit. I spot Drew and Molly standing alone at one end of the room and suppress a smile. At least their families didn’t come.
But Peter’s did. He stands next to a tall man with bushy eyebrows and a short, meek-looking woman with red hair. Neither of his parents looks like him. They both wear black pants and white shirts, typical Candor outfits, and his father speaks so loudly I can almost hear him from where I stand. Do they know what kind of person their son is?
Then again…what kind of person am I?
Across the room, Will stands with a woman in a blue dress. She doesn’t look old enough to be his mother, but she has the same crease between her eyebrows as he does, and the same golden hair. He talked about having a sister once; maybe that’s her.
Next to him, Christina hugs a dark-skinned woman in Candor black and white. Standing behind Christina is a young girl, also a Candor. Her younger sister.
Should I even bother scanning the crowd for my parents? I could turn around and go back to the dormitory.
Then I see her. My mother stands alone near the railing with her hands clasped in front of her. She has never looked more out of place, with her gray slacks and gray jacket buttoned at the throat, her hair in its simple twist and her face placid. I start toward her, tears jumping into my eyes. She came. She came for me.
I walk faster. She sees me, and for a second her expression is blank, like she doesn’t know who I am. Then her eyes light up, and she opens her arms. She smells like soap and laundry detergent.