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“SINCE THERE ARE an odd number of you, one of you won’t be fighting today,” says Four, stepping away from the board in the training room. He gives me a look. The space next to my name is blank.

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The knot in my stomach unravels. A reprieve.

“This isn’t good,” says Christina, nudging me with her elbow. Her elbow prods one of my sore muscles—I have more sore muscles than not-sore muscles, this morning—and I wince.

“Ow. ”

“Sorry,” she says. “But look. I’m up against the Tank. ”

Christina and I sat together at breakfast, and earlier she shielded me from the rest of the dormitory as I changed. I haven’t had a friend like her before. Susan was better friends with Caleb than with me, and Robert only went where Susan went.

I guess I haven’t really had a friend, period. It’s impossible to have real friendship when no one feels like they can accept help or even talk about themselves. That won’t happen here. I already know more about Christina than I ever knew about Susan, and it’s only been two days.

“The Tank?” I find Christina’s name on the board. Written next to it is “Molly. ”

“Yeah, Peter’s slightly more feminine-looking minion,” she says, nodding toward the cluster of people on the other side of the room. Molly is tall like Christina, but that’s where the similarities end. She has broad shoulders, bronze skin, and a bulbous nose.

“Those three”—Christina points at Peter, Drew, and Molly in turn—“have been inseparable since they crawled out of the womb, practically. I hate them. ”

Will and Al stand across from each other in the arena. They put their hands up by their faces to protect themselves, as Four taught us, and shuffle in a circle around each other. Al is half a foot taller than Will, and twice as broad. As I stare at him, I realize that even his facial features are big—big nose, big lips, big eyes. This fight won’t last long.

I glance at Peter and his friends. Drew is shorter than both Peter and Molly, but he’s built like a boulder, and his shoulders are always hunched. His hair is orange-red, the color of an old carrot.

“What’s wrong with them?” I say.

“Peter is pure evil. When we were kids, he would pick fights with people from other factions and then, when an adult came to break it up, he’d cry and make up some story about how the other kid started it. And of course, they believed him, because we were Candor and we couldn’t lie. Ha ha. ”

Christina wrinkles her nose and adds, “Drew is just his sidekick. I doubt he has an independent thought in his brain. And Molly…she’s the kind of person who fries ants with a magnifying glass just to watch them flail around. ”

In the arena, Al punches Will hard in the jaw. I wince. Across the room, Eric smirks at Al, and turns one of the rings in his eyebrow.

Will stumbles to the side, one hand pressed to his face, and blocks Al’s next punch with his free hand. Judging by his grimace, blocking the punch is as painful as a blow would have been. Al is slow, but powerful.

Peter, Drew, and Molly cast furtive looks in our direction and then pull their heads together, whispering.

“I think they know we’re talking about them,” I say.

“So? They already know I hate them. ”

“They do? How?”

Christina fakes a smile at them and waves. I look down, my cheeks warm. I shouldn’t be gossiping anyway. Gossiping is self-indulgent.

Will hooks a foot around one of Al’s legs and yanks back, knocking Al to the ground. Al scrambles to his feet.

“Because I’ve told them,” she says, through the gritted teeth of her smile. Her teeth are straight on top and crooked on the bottom. She looks at me. “We try to be pretty honest about our feelings in Candor. Plenty of people have told me that they don’t like me. And plenty of people haven’t. Who cares?”

“We just…weren’t supposed to hurt people,” I say.

“I like to think I’m helping them by hating them,” she says. “I’m reminding them that they aren’t God’s gift to humankind. ”

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I laugh a little at that and focus on the arena again. Will and Al face each other for a few more seconds, more hesitant than they were before. Will flicks his pale hair from his eyes. They glance at Four like they’re waiting for him to call the fight off, but he stands with his arms folded, giving no response. A few feet away from him, Eric checks his watch.

After a few seconds of circling, Eric shouts, “Do you think this is a leisure activity? Should we break for nap-time? Fight each other!”

“But…” Al straightens, letting his hands down, and says, “Is it scored or something? When does the fight end?”

“It ends when one of you is unable to continue,” says Eric.

“According to Dauntless rules,” Four says, “one of you could also concede. ”

Eric narrows his eyes at Four. “According to the old rules,” he says. “In the new rules, no one concedes. ”

“A brave man acknowledges the strength of others,” Four replies.

“A brave man never surrenders. ”

Four and Eric stare at each other for a few seconds. I feel like I am looking at two different kinds of Dauntless—the honorable kind, and the ruthless kind. But even I know that in this room, it’s Eric, the youngest leader of the Dauntless, who has the authority.

Beads of sweat dot Al’s forehead; he wipes them with the back of his hand.

“This is ridiculous,” Al says, shaking his head. “What’s the point of beating him up? We’re in the same faction!”

“Oh, you think it’s going to be that easy?” Will asks, grinning. “Go on. Try to hit me, slowpoke. ”

Will puts his hands up again. I see determination in Will’s eyes that wasn’t there before. Does he really believe he can win? One hard shot to the head and Al will knock him out cold.

That is, if he can actually hit Will. Al tries a punch, and Will ducks, the back of his neck shining with sweat. He dodges another punch, slipping around Al and kicking him hard in the back. Al lurches forward and turns.

When I was younger, I read a book about grizzly bears. There was a picture of one standing on its hind legs with its paws outstretched, roaring. That is how Al looks now. He charges at Will, grabbing his arm so he can’t slip away, and punches him hard in the jaw.

I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery. They roll back into his head, and all the tension falls from his body. He slips from Al’s grasp, dead weight, and crumples to the floor. Cold rushes down my back and fills my chest.

Al’s eyes widen, and he crouches next to Will, tapping his cheek with one hand. The room falls silent as we wait for Will to respond. For a few seconds, he doesn’t, just lies on the ground with an arm bent beneath him. Then he blinks, clearly dazed.

“Get him up,” Eric says. He stares with greedy eyes at Will’s fallen body, like the sight is a meal and he hasn’t eaten in weeks. The curl of his lip is cruel.

Four turns to the chalkboard and circles Al’s name. Victory.

“Next up—Molly and Christina!” shouts Eric. Al pulls Will’s arm across his shoulders and drags him out of the arena.

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Christina cracks her knuckles. I would wish her luck, but I don’t know what good that would do. Christina isn’t weak, but she’s much narrower than Molly. Hopefully her height will help her.

Across the room, Four supports Will from the waist and leads him out. Al stands for a moment by the door, watching them go.

Four leaving makes me nervous. Leaving us with Eric is like hiring a babysitter who spends his time sharpening knives.

Christina tucks her hair behind her ears. It is chin-length, black, and pinned back with silver clips. She cracks another knuckle. She looks nervous, and no wonder—who wouldn’t be nervous after watching Will collapse like a rag doll?

If conflict in Dauntless ends with only one person standing, I am unsure of what this part of initiation will do to me. Will I be Al, standing over a man’s body, knowing I’m the one who put him on the ground, or will I be Will, lying in a helpless heap? And is it selfish of me to crave victory, or is it brave? I wipe my sweaty palms on my pants.

I snap to attention when Christina kicks Molly in the side. Molly gasps and grits her teeth like she’s about to growl through them. A lock of stringy black hair falls across her face, but she doesn’t brush it away.

Al stands next to me, but I’m too focused on the new fight to look at him, or congratulate him on winning, assuming that’s what he wants. I am not sure.

Molly smirks at Christina, and without warning, dives, hands outstretched, at Christina’s midsection. She hits her hard, knocking her down, and pins her to the ground. Christina thrashes, but Molly is heavy and doesn’t budge.

She punches, and Christina moves her head out of the way, but Molly just punches again, and again, until her fist hits Christina’s jaw, her nose, her mouth. Without thinking, I grab Al’s arm and squeeze it as tightly as I can. I just need something to hold on to. Blood runs down the side of Christina’s face and splatters on the ground next to her cheek. This is the first time I have ever prayed for someone to fall unconscious.

But she doesn’t. Christina screams and drags one of her arms free. She punches Molly in the ear, knocking her off-balance, and wriggles free. She comes to her knees, holding her face with one hand. The blood streaming from her nose is thick and dark and covers her fingers in seconds. She screams again and crawls away from Molly. I can tell by the heaving of her shoulders that she’s sobbing, but I can barely hear her over the throbbing in my ears.

Please go unconscious.

Molly kicks Christina’s side, sending her sprawling on her back. Al frees his hand and pulls me tight to his side. I clench my teeth to keep from crying out. I had no sympathy for Al the first night, but I am not cruel yet; the sight of Christina clutching her rib cage makes me want to stand between her and Molly.

“Stop!” wails Christina as Molly pulls her foot back to kick again. She holds out a hand. “Stop! I’m…” She coughs. “I’m done. ”

Molly smiles, and I sigh with relief. Al sighs too, his rib cage lifting and falling against my shoulder.

Eric walks toward the center of the arena, his movements slow, and stands over Christina with his arms folded. He says quietly, “I’m sorry, what did you say? You’re done?”

Christina pushes herself to her knees. When she takes her hand from the ground, it leaves a red handprint behind. She pinches her nose to stop the bleeding and nods.

“Get up,” he says. If he had yelled, I might not have felt like everything inside my stomach was about to come out of it. If he had yelled, I would have known that the yelling was the worst he planned to do. But his voice is quiet and his words precise. He grabs Christina’s arm, yanks her to her feet, and drags her out the door.

“Follow me,” he says to the rest of us.

And we do.

I feel the roar of the river in my chest.

We stand near the railing. The Pit is almost empty; it is the middle of the afternoon, though it feels like it’s been night for days.

If there were people around, I doubt any of them would help Christina. We are with Eric, for one thing, and for another, the Dauntless have different rules—rules that brutality does not violate.

Eric shoves Christina against the railing.

“Climb over it,” he says.

“What?” She says it like she expects him to relent, but her wide eyes and ashen face suggest otherwise. Eric will not back down.

“Climb over the railing,” says Eric again, pronouncing each word slowly. “If you can hang over the chasm for five minutes, I will forget your cowardice. If you can’t, I will not allow you to continue initiation. ”

The railing is narrow and made of metal. The spray from the river coats it, making it slippery and cold. Even if Christina is brave enough to hang from the railing for five minutes, she may not be able to hold on. Either she decides to be factionless, or she risks death.

When I close my eyes, I imagine her falling onto the jagged rocks below and shudder.

“Fine,” she says, her voice shaking.

She is tall enough to swing her leg over the railing. Her foot shakes. She puts her toe on the ledge as she lifts her other leg over. Facing us, she wipes her hands on her pants and holds on to the railing so hard her knuckles turn white. Then she takes one foot off the ledge. And the other. I see her face between the bars of the barrier, determined, her lips pressed together.

Next to me, Al sets his watch.

For the first minute and a half, Christina is fine. Her hands stay firm around the railing and her arms don’t shake. I start to think she might make it and show Eric how foolish he was to doubt her.

But then the river hits the wall, and white water sprays against Christina’s back. Her face strikes the barrier, and she cries out. Her hands slip so she’s just holding on by her fingertips. She tries to get a better grip, but now her hands are wet.

If I help her, Eric would make my fate the same as hers. Will I let her fall to her death, or will I resign myself to being factionless? What’s worse: to be idle while someone dies, or to be exiled and empty-handed?

My parents would have no problem answering that question.

But I am not my parents.

As far as I know, Christina hasn’t cried since we got here, but now her face crumples and she lets out a sob that is louder than the river. Another wave hits the wall and the spray coats her body. One of the droplets hits my cheek. Her hands slip again, and this time, one of them falls from the railing, so she’s hanging by four fingertips.

“Come on, Christina,” says Al, his low voice surprisingly loud. She looks at him. He claps. “Come on, grab it again. You can do it. Grab it. ”

Would I even be strong enough to hold on to her? Would it be worth my effort to try to help her if I know I’m too weak to do any good?

I know what those questions are: excuses. Human reason can excuse any evil; that is why it’s so important that we don’t rely on it. My father’s words.

Christina swings her arm, fumbling for the railing. No one else cheers her on, but Al brings his big hands together and shouts, his eyes holding hers. I wish I could; I wish I could move, but I just stare at her and wonder how long I have been this disgustingly selfish.

I stare at Al’s watch. Four minutes have passed. He elbows me hard in the shoulder.

“Come on,” I say. My voice is a whisper. I clear my throat. “One minute left,” I say, louder this time. Christina’s other hand finds the railing again. Her arms shake so hard I wonder if the earth is quaking beneath me, jiggling my vision, and I just didn’t notice.

“Come on, Christina,” Al and I say, and as our voices join, I believe I might be strong enough to help her.

I will help her. If she slips again, I will.

Another wave of water splashes against Christina’s back, and she shrieks as both her hands slip off the railing. A scream launches from my mouth. It sounds like it belongs to someone else.

But she doesn’t fall. She grabs the bars of the barrier. Her fingers slide down the metal until I can’t see her head anymore; they are all I see.

Al’s watch reads 5:00.

“Five minutes are up,” he says, almost spitting the words at Eric.

Eric checks his own watch. Taking his time, tilting his wrist, all while my stomach twists and I can’t breathe. When I blink, I see Rita’s sister on the pavement below the train tracks, limbs bent at strange angles; I see Rita screaming and sobbing; I see myself turning away.

“Fine,” Eric says. “You can come up, Christina. ”

Al walks toward the railing.

“No,” Eric says. “She has to do it on her own. ”

“No, she doesn’t,” Al growls. “She did what you said. She’s not a coward. She did what you said. ”

Eric doesn’t respond. Al reaches over the railing, and he’s so tall that he can reach Christina’s wrist. She grabs his forearm. Al pulls her up, his face red with frustration, and I run forward to help. I’m too short to do much good, as I suspected, but I grip Christina under the shoulder once she’s high enough, and Al and I haul her over the barrier. She drops to the ground, her face still blood-smeared from the fight, her back soaking wet, her body quivering.

I kneel next to her. Her eyes lift to mine, then shift to Al, and we all catch our breath together.

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