THE TRAINING ROOM smells like effort, like sweat and dust and shoes. Every time my fist hits the punching bag it stings my knuckles, which are split open from a week of Dauntless fights.
“So I guess you saw the boards,” Amar says, leaning against the door frame. He crosses his arms. “And realized that you’re up against Eric tomorrow. Or else you would be in the fear landscape room instead of in here.”
“I come in here, too,” I say, and I back away from the bag, shaking out my hands. Sometimes I clench my hands so hard I start to lose feeling in my fingertips.
I almost lost my first fight, against the Amity girl, Mia. I didn’t know how to beat her without hitting her, and I couldn’t hit her—at least, not until she had me in a choke hold and my vision was starting to go black at the edges. My instincts took over, and just one hard elbow to her jaw knocked her down. I still feel guilt curling up inside me when I think about it.
I almost lost the second fight, too, against the bigger Candor boy Sean. I wore him out, crawling to my feet every time he thought I was finished. He didn’t know that pushing through pain is one of my oldest habits, learned young, like chewing on my thumbnail, or holding my fork in my left hand instead of my right. Now my face is patchworked with bruises and cuts, but I proved myself.
Tomorrow my opponent is Eric. Beating him will take more than a clever move, or persistence. It will take skill I don’t have, strength I haven’t earned.
“Yeah, I know.” Amar laughs. “See, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what your deal is, so I’ve been asking around. Turns out you’re in here every morning and in the fear landscape room every night. You never spend any time with the other initiates. You’re always exhausted and you sleep like a corpse.”
A drop of sweat rolls down the back of my ear. I wipe it away with my taped-up fingers, then drag my arm across my forehead.
“Joining a faction is about more than getting through initiation, you know,” Amar says, and he hooks his fingers in the chain that the punching bag dangles from, testing its strength. “For most of the Dauntless, they meet their best friends during initiation, their girlfriends, boyfriends, whatever. Enemies, too. But you seem determined not to have any of those things.”
I’ve seen the other initiates together, getting pierced together and showing up to training with red, studded noses and ears and lips, or building towers out of food scraps at the breakfast table. It never even occurred to me that I could be one of them, or that I should try to be.
I shrug. “I’m used to being alone.”
“Well, I feel like you’re about to snap, and I don’t really want to be there when it happens,” he says. “Come on. A bunch of us are going to play a game tonight. A Dauntless game.”
I pick at the tape covering one of my knuckles. I shouldn’t go out and play games. I should stay here and work, and then sleep, so I’m ready to fight tomorrow.
But that voice, the one that says “should,” now sounds to me like my father’s voice, requiring me to behave, to isolate myself. And I came here because I was ready to stop listening to that voice.
“I’m offering you some Dauntless status for no particular reason other than that I feel bad for you,” he says. “Don’t be stupid and miss this opportunity.”
“Fine,” I say. “What’s the game?”
Amar just smiles.
“The game is Dare.” A Dauntless girl, Lauren, is holding on to the handle on the side of the train car, but she keeps swaying so she almost falls out, then giggling and pulling herself back in, like the train isn’t suspended two stories above the street, like she wouldn’t break her neck if she fell out.
In her free hand is a silver flask. It explains a lot.
She tilts her head. “First person picks someone and dares them to do something. Then that person has a drink, does the dare, and gets a chance to dare someone else to do something. And when everyone has done their dare—or died trying—we get a little drunk and stumble home.”
“How do you win?” one of the Dauntless calls out from the other side of the train car. A boy who sits slouched against Amar like they’re old friends, or brothers.
I’m not the only initiate in the train car. Sitting across from me is Zeke, the first jumper, and a girl with brown hair and bangs cut straight across her forehead, and a pierced lip. The others are older, Dauntless members all. They have a kind of ease with one another, leaning into one another, punching one another’s arms, tousling one another’s hair. It’s camaraderie and friendship and flirtation, and none of it is familiar to me. I try to relax, bending my arms around my knees.
I really am a Stiff.
“You win by not being a little pansycake,” Lauren says. “And, hey, new rule, you also win by not asking dumb questions.
“I’m gonna go first, as the keeper of the alcohol,” she adds. “Amar, I dare you to go into the Erudite library while all the Noses are studying and scream something obscene.”
She screws the cap on the flask and tosses it to him. Everyone cheers as Amar takes the cap off and takes a swallow of whatever liquor is inside.
“Just tell me when we get to the right stop!” he shouts over the cheering.
Zeke waves a hand at me. “Hey, you’re a transfer, right? Four?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Nice first jump.”
I realize, too late, that it might be a sore spot for him—his moment of triumph, stolen by a misstep and loss of balance. But he just laughs.
“Yeah, not my finest moment,” he says.
“Not like anyone else stepped up,” the girl at his side says. “I’m Shauna, by the way. Is it true you only had four fears?”
“Hence the name,” I say.
“Wow.” She nods. She looks impressed, which makes me sit up straighter. “Guess you were born Dauntless.”
I shrug, like what she says might be true, even though I’m sure it’s not. She doesn’t know that I came here to escape the life I was meant for, that I’m fighting so hard to get through initiation so I don’t have to admit that I’m an imposter. Abnegation-born, Abnegation result, in a Dauntless haven.
The corners of her mouth turn down, like she’s sad about something, but I don’t ask what it is.
“How are your fights going?” Zeke asks me.