"It's not how many times you've been knocked down
It's how many times you get back up
Courage is when you're afraid
Courage is when it all seems gray
Courage is when you've lost your way
But you find your strength anyway."
– "Courage Is", The Strange Familiar
Max's office is small, dark and dingy. A solid wood dining table that's been sawed in half serves as his desk. A lantern roughly the size of my fist hangs above a metal folding chair, lighting the entire space with ease. I press back against the rough wall, as close to the door as possible, and let my muscles go slack in an attempt to appear nonchalant. There are five of us crammed into the room, and the closeness makes the back of my neck prickle. I doubt Max just by himself fits very comfortably on an everyday basis.
Eric sidles up next to me, and I stiffen, shooting him a glance out of the corner of my eye.
"Maybe we should change your name to One, now," he sneers, his eyes catching the light and glinting. "What do you say, Stiff?"
Gritting my teeth, I push myself from the wall and take a step forward, getting as close as I can to Max's desk. He only means to get a rise out of me, but he also succeeds in reminding me why I'm there, standing in this miniscule room: I am number one. Out of all the initiates, Dauntless-born and transfer, I am ranked the first.
Number-one ranked Dauntless initiates do not cower in the back of the room because of some stupid fear. I clench my hands into fists, willing my palms to stop sweating and my breath to stay even, and turn to glare at Eric, who has stepped up next to me, smirking.
"Sounds good to me," I say. "As long as you're okay with people calling you Two."
To my satisfaction, the smug look on his face melts instantly, replaced by a glower.
Lauren, on my other side, elbows me. "Ever heard the term, 'hole in the wall'?"
We both snort at the irony, and I glace around, thankful that she's able to help diffuse some of my tension. As a Candor transfer, her perceptive skills are impressively honed. I catch her eye as Max edges into the room, and she winks at me. I guess she hasn't completely given up her notions of wanting to be with me.
"You all know why you're here," Max says gruffly. He's never been one for beating around the bush. "So let's get started. Four?"
My pulse quickens and jumps to my throat. I clench and unclench my fists again, trying to inconspicuously wipe off some of the sweat that has rapidly accumulated there in the last three seconds. All beginnings of ease I had felt from Lauren's ribbing are abruptly gone, replaced my an angry swarm of butterflies.
This is the part I am not looking forward to. Everyone expects me to step up and take my position as a leader—the position that is rightfully mine. Everyone expects me to assimilate into the circle of faction leaders, to take on projects and committees. To face my father in the council meetings. To prove my strength as a member of the Dauntless.
I square my shoulders and meet Max's eyes straight on. I feel the words gathering in the back of my throat, bubbling up—I choose to be a Leader.
And, for a split second, I almost do.
But then I swallow, and try my best to hide the disappointment. The disappointment I feel in myself, and in my father and in my broken excuse for a family. My gaze wavers only slightly.
"I would like to be placed in the control rooms."
I hear Eric's snicker, and the back of my neck burns with embarrassment. I can't even look at Lauren, though I feel her eyes searching my face, probing, reading me like an open book. She doesn't know about my father, doesn't even know my real name, but she's smart enough to figure it out. Someday.
If Max is at all surprised, he doesn't show it. He nods once, and leans over to scribble something on a sheet of paper. He hands me a small slip.
"This is your access code to the control center. You will be expected to report at six o'clock tomorrow morning for orientation and training. You are dismissed."
I fold the slip of paper and try to steady my fingers as I slide it into my pocket.
One thing my father taught me was to always have a way out. I had talked myself into believing that being in the control rooms would be that way out. But now, it just feels like hiding, another closet to squeeze into.
When Max calls my name and holds out his hand to shake mine, I can hardly look him in the eye.
Four of us make our way up to the tattoo parlor later that night. Zeke calls it a "celebration". I hang back while the other three saunter their way up to Tori and Bud's, shoving each other lightly and bantering back and forth. Lauren glances back at me too many times to count, but I ignore her. I'm not interested in a relationship, I've told her that. But it doesn't seem to faze her, or keep her from trying.
There are only three chairs in the parlor, and I volunteer to go last. I wander around the room, searching the walls halfheartedly to find something that stands out to me. It takes a while for Zeke, Shauna and Lauren to finish, and by the time they're done, their celebratory moods have been somewhat subdued by tiredness.
"Go on down," I say, nodding in the general direction of the dorms. "I'll be down later."
Zeke and Lauren offer to stay with me, but it doesn't take a lot of prodding to get them to go on ahead. Bud leaves with them, and then it's just me and Tori.
I pull off my shirt while she cleans up one of the tables and gets her gun ready. I'm no stranger to ink; my entire back is covered in it, one faction's symbol blending into the other in an intricate maze of societal paradox that spans from my shoulder blades to my hip bones, Dauntless flames spreading to encompass my right ribcage. Tori said it was the largest and most complex that she'd ever done. That time, though, I'd had a motive for the ink.
Tori returns with a fresh needle and a pair of powdery white latex gloves. Wordlessly, I pass her the slip of paper that holds the access codes to the control center. I've kept it, folded in fourths, in the palm of my hand for the last two hours, and it's now damp with sweat. Tori's dark eyes roam over the numbers, and she looks up at me, her face carefully blank.
"Well?" she prompts.
I just shrug. "I don't really care."
I let my eyes fall close, and I feel her stare burning into the other sides of my eyelids. A few moments pass before she starts moving.
Her cold, gloved fingers tilt my chin up and to the right, exposing the left side of my neck. I feel the swab of antiseptic, hear the click of an ink bottle into place, and then the buzzing tip of a needle touches my skin, just below my hairline.
When she's finished, I cross the room to the mirror that hangs on the wall. I don't think I'll ever get over my discomfort with seeing my reflection, but I clench my jaw and face it. Tori peers from over my shoulder, waiting for my response. At first I don't see it, but then, as I turn my head just the slightest bit to my right, the tip of a tail appears under my left ear. I turn farther, and the winding body of a serpent begins to take form, mouth open and teeth sunken into my spinal column, tail wrapped around my earlobe. Too many things flash through my mind. The serpentine body of a belt straightening taut as it makes contact with my shoulder, my arm, my chest. My father's hissing voice, This is for your own good. The slimy, slithering form of my dead brother as he slides from between my hemorrhaging mother's legs.
I turn to face Tori, eyes burning with the effort it takes to hold in tears. She very carefully begins disassembling her gun, laying the pieces out on a white rag.
"You're going to get that son of a bitch, Tobias," she says softly, without looking at me. "You're going to get him. I promise you."
The offer comes six months after my formal initiation. I'm on the night crew, halfway dozing at my station, feet propped up on the desk, when Max barges in. I don't even have time to stand up before the words are out of his mouth—We need a new trainer for the initiates. You up for it?
I blink up at him through my grogginess, one huge hulking piece of muscle outlined by the bright lights flooding in from the corridor. The Dauntless in me speaks up without hesitation.