"We have called this meeting to address some concerns that have been brought to the council."
I keep my eyes on the padded shoulder of Ruthe's chair, refusing to meet her eyes. In my periphery, I see the rings in Eric's brow glitter as he swivels his chair back and forth; his face is carefully blank, as is mine.
Lauren has never been one to bite her tongue. She leans forward angrily, jabbing her finger down at the sheet of paper in her hands.
"I don't know what the hell you think you know, but I can tell you right now that this is bullshit."
I sigh, and bring a hand up to pinch the bridge of my nose. "Lor. You're really not helping right now."
She turns on me, her eyes wild. "The hell I'm not! Each and every one of them are batshit crazy, and they need to know it!" She swings around and glares at each of the six council members in turn.
Harrison is the first to speak. His deep voice echos off the walls, comforting and calming. "Lauren, just take a moment to listen to the council, please."
Lauren huffs angrily, but falls back into her chair. Harrison rises to his feet and begins to list off the allegations.
All of them are against me—abandonment of initiates, insubordination, insubordination, and, again, insubordination.
It's the last one, though, that really gets me: inappropriate fraternization with an initiate. I've read over the list at least twenty times in the last five minutes since the meeting started, but that one gets me every time.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself?" Harrison looks at me, his eyes paradoxically polite, yet cold.
I cross my left leg over my right, propping my knee against the ovular table's edge, and meet his gaze.
"I don't know why you even had Lauren come," I say frankly. "Since she's not being reprimanded."
Harrison hesitates, glancing back at Ruthe, Max and David, the three senior leaders. "We wanted to make sure everything was covered equally, with both of you, so that there would be no question of what was expected from the two of you. It was also an attempt to avoid the appearance of discrimination."
"Against me." It's not a question, but he nods once in conformation. I turn to Lauren. "Leave," I say flatly. "There's no point in your being here if all it is is for show."
Her nostrils flare, but she doesn't argue. On her way out, she throws all of them another glare.
"That was quite unnecessary." Ruthe's voice is quiet in the large room.
I shrug. The irony of the whole situation makes me sick. They invited Lauren in an effort to avoid being charged with discrimination, when the acts they were charging me with were clearly born from discriminatory thoughts and opinions. "They're my charges, not hers. It's my business."
Ruthe inclines her head in acquiescence.
I pluck the paper from the table, and don't bother standing to address them as is practice. These people have been begging me to join them for two years. They don't need me groveling in front of them.
"'Abandonment of initiates'," I read off. I glance at Harrison over the top of the paper. "I assume you're referring to the night of the Choosing Ceremony, when Eric told me that it had been approved for him to escort the initiates to their dorms because the council wanted them to know more background information on the faction."
I see David and Ruthe exchange a look. Eric stops swiveling in his chair.
I nod to myself. "I would be correct, then. Let's see..." I scan down the list, and let out a low whistle. "Three charges of insubordination. Well. I certainly won't argue those, if Eric won't argue charges of provocation." Shannon, who has remained silent through the meeting thus far, clears her throat uncomfortably, but I continue on. "But, that's our business, not the council's. I do want to know, however, where the last one comes from. 'Inappropriate fraternization with an initiate'." I turn in my chair to face Eric directly.
"I want to know exactly where you got your proof for this one. I want to see the evidence—see the tape, or hear the voice recording, or read the writing. Because this one doesn't just affect me. You're accusing a new initiate—one who hasn't even been in the Dauntless compound for forty eight hours—of something that, if leaked to the public, could inhibit their entire life and career here."
Harrison, Ruthe, David, Max and Shannon all turn to Eric as well. His face is a splotchy red.
"You ate with her the first night."
I nod my head, agreeing. "Sure. I ate with several initiates their first night, so they wouldn't be lonely, or scared. Which one are you accusing me of fraternizing with?"
His answer is immediate. "Tris. Beatrice Prior."
Her name hangs in the air for a few seconds before I respond. It makes me even more livid to hear him say her name like that, like he's violated her entire being just in five syllables. "Did I do anything inappropriate to her? Touch her, say anything out of line? You tell me, Eric, you were sitting right there, too."
Eric doesn't say anything for a minute.
"Well?" David prompts, eyebrows raised expectantly.
Eric's lips flatten into a straight line, and he shakes his head once.
"Anything else?" I ask.
The redness on his face has begun to darken to an unhealthy shade of peuce. "You didn't partner her with anyone for the first fight."
I don't lift my eyes from his face. "You were there. We had nine initiates. One would've sat out anyway."
"You could've paired her with someone," he shoots back. "That Christina girl could've had a more fair fight. Or, Myra could've fought her instead of Drew."
My vision wavers as a cloud of red bursts in front of my eyes. What a hypocritical bastard, lecturing me on fighting fair.
I grit my teeth and nod, though, since I can't beat his ass into next year. And, since he does have a valid point. "Okay. You're right. It wasn't one of my finest calls." This is the weakest point in my argument. I don't have a logical reason for not partnering Tris up yesterday. None of the other council members comment on it, though, and I breathe a small sigh of relief.
"Anything else?" I repeat.
His eyes dart to the left once, almost imperceptibly: a sign that he's struggling.
"You went to her dorm room. I have that one on camera."
There's an intake of breath as the five other council members sit forward in their seat. Even I have to admit, this low of a blow was unexpected. Judging by the look on Eric's face, it was a spur of the moment accusation, but it's worked. He now has the full attention of everyone in the room, myself included.
He scrambles over to the control station in the corner, and keys up the video footage for the camera outside the initiate dorms. Sure enough, there I am, plainly recognizable from the front, slipping into the initiate dorm. Ruthe hums under her breath.
"Reverse," I say suddenly, remembering. That's where Tris is. She went down to the dining hall to get some.
Eric hesitates for a second too long, and the other five turn to look at him. He knows what else is on the footage, then, and doesn't want to show it.
"Well?" Ruthe echoes. "Reverse it, if he's got something to show us."
"Time estimate?" Eric's voice is biting.
Quickly, I scan back through yesterday afternoon, thinking. "Fifteen thirty-five." I left the infirmary at three thirty. He punches in the time, and the footage pulls up. It rolls, unchanging for a moment, but then at fifteen thirty-six, three figures come into view—Al and Tris, with Christina supported between them. They shoulder the door open and disappear inside. Not two minutes later Tris emerges again, a pillowcase in hand. Another three minutes—during which Tris does not return to the dorm room—and I appear.
Eric shuts off the screen abruptly, and we all turn back around to the table.
"Well, it's obvious that you haven't been sneaking into Tris Prior's dorm room for any inappropriate reason," Ruthe says, eyebrow raised. "And you eating dinner with her is inconsequential. I will admit, it's not like you to pair a girl and a boy together during the first day of fighting—we commented on that while we watched-"
"What's the worst that could happen?"
I'm not sure if she's more surprised by my question, or the fact that I interrupted her. It's quiet for a few seconds as the six council members look from one to another to me.
"Where is it expressly forbidden in our code of conduct?" I say, my voice stronger, as I lean over the table. I feel my pulse pounding in my ears, and I halfway can't believe that the words are coming out of my mouth. I've hardly dared to admit anything to even myself, in the privacy of my own apartment—the conversation I had with Tori was the closest I'd ever gotten to acknowledging that something might eventually develop between Tris and I—and now, here I am, practically asking the council's permission to be romantically involved with one of my initiates. And I haven't even hardly spoken to her.
I look at each of the six in turn, my eyes lingering longest on Eric. "There won't be any favoritism."
Ruthe recovers the quickest. "You know that if there is, you'll join the factionless."
The factionless have never scared me. Feeding them and taking them clothes were two of the very few acceptable Abnegation tasks I'd ever done regularly.
Ruthe leans forward, and there are only a couple of feet between us over the table. "You need to think long and hard about any decision you make involving Tris Prior."
Her voice is low and intense, and a momentary thrill of anxiety shoots through me, widening my eyes. She's not just talking about me being romantically involved with her anymore. There's something else there; the council is watching her. She inclines her head even lower, and then sits back again. I push myself from my chair, eyes hardening again as I look the group over.
"Are we clear?" David probes, steepling his fingers in front of his chest.
I flick the paper with my charges back at them, and it flutters across the tabletop. "Crystal."
It feels completely unnatural writing the four letters of Tris' name up next to Myra's. Myra is the next smallest initiate, the closest one in stature and skill to Tris, but seeing the pairing still makes my stomach clench uneasily. I suck in a deep breath through my teeth and hold it for a moment before I exhale, calling to mind the image of her in the Pit that first night, and her in the arena yesterday morning, firing that glock. She's going to get hurt; she's going to have bruises and welts and cuts and bloody noses and black eyes, but she can do it. What doesn't kill her will only make her stronger.
At least, that's what I tell myself.
I hear Eric enter the room behind me, but I don't acknowledge him. Any attempt at that might only serve to make my current situation worse.
It seems to work until, not ten seconds later, he knocks the nub of chalk out of my hand and proceeds to erase all my pairings with one swipe of his forearm.
It takes all I have to clench my jaw and my fists and not shove him back.
"What the hell are you doing?"
He begins to scribble names; his letters are sharp and jagged, and tilt so far to the right that they're almost illegible. Molly—Edward, Christina—Mrya, Al—Drew.
The sinking feeling comes before he even gets Peter's name all the way down.
Even through my fists, my hands still begin to tremble.
"I asked you a question."
Eric slams the chalk down into the tray, and it cracks into several small pieces.
"I suggest," he says, voice low and clearly enunciated, staring at the chalk, "that you go stand over in the corner, and that you find some way to deal with it."
When he finally does look up at me, his eyes are on fire, and for a moment, I am distracted, wondering how heavy his reprimand was.
"We're going to see just how Dauntless your little pet is."
A cruel sneer pulls the corners of his lips up, and he brushes by me without another word.
As soon as he clears the threshold, I whirl on whatever happens to be behind me. I feel my knuckles split as soon as they make contact with stone wall behind me, and a jolt runs up through my shoulder. A groan slips through my lips, but I pull back and hit again, and again, until both my hand and my shoulder are on fire.
I sink to the ground against the chalkboard, and tip my head back to rest in the tray.
And I just sit.
Tears don't come—they never have, for me—but the pain does, and the exhaustion. In the two years I've been a Dauntless, I've never felt so helpless, so out of control. There was a time where I actually felt like I belonged here.
Now, I don't feel like I could be any farther from home.
I give myself half an hour. I watch the seconds tick out in red fragmented numbers on the face of the digital clock in the hall. When thirty minutes rolls, I pull in a long breath through my nose, begging strength from every last nook and cranny in my body, and push myself up onto my feet. I brush the chalk dust from my hair and shoulder, and wipe the blood from my knuckles with the hem of my shirt. I wonder, idly, if this is why the Dauntless choose to wear black—blood won't show up on it.
I find a scrap of bandage in one of the cabinets in the corner, and wrap it gingerly around my hand, not bothering to stop and think about how sanitary it is, and knowing that I'll probably have to cut it out with a knife later tonight.
The initiates begin to trickle in in groups of twos or threes over the next fifteen minutes. I lean against the board and stare, unseeing, at the back wall. Despite the chatter and the presence of six other people in the room, I can feel it when Tris walks in—like part of me is pulled towards her. But I don't look at her. In my periphery, I see her stop dead in her tracks, and the guilt pools in my stomach and begins eating away. I could've changed the pairings while Eric was gone, but I didn't.
As much as I think about her, I have myself to think about sometimes, too. I've never felt more sickened by my lack of selflessness; I've never felt less Abnegation.
I'm not sure if it's that thought, or the sight of Eric reentering the room that makes me want to vomit. Pulling in one more breath, I straighten up, rolling my shoulders. As if the motion could roll me out of this weird funk my mind is in. Come on, Tobias, I tell myself harshly. Come on, Four. Pull it together.
"Good morning," I call out. It takes only seconds for the talking to die down and for me to have everyone's attention. I see Christina out of the corner of my eye, and I wince sympathetically. She's so swollen and bruised that if I wouldn't have known it was her, I wouldn't have recognized her at all. She'll have to fight again today, too—Will has doctor's orders to sit out for a couple days—but at least Myra will be an easier opponent for her.
"Today will be very much like yesterday," I continue. "As you can see, you've all been paired up again. This morning, we'll have our initial four fights, and then when we come back from lunch, the winners of those fights will go up against each other. Any questions?"
Usually, we spend the first day on initial fights, and the second on ranked fights. But yesterday's incident threw our schedule out of whack.
No one speaks up with questions, so I step back and motion Molly and Edward forward. I try to pay attention—my mind inexplicably keeps wandering over to the opposite corner of the room—but there's not much to pay attention to. It's a short fight; in less than five minutes, Edward has Molly on the ground. She lost with nothing but her slowness.
Peter steps into the ring, and I grit my teeth, steeling myself. Beside me, I feel Eric's gaze and hear his snicker. I'm too worked up to even care, at this point.
"You okay there, Stiff?" Peter goads, smirking. "You look like you're about to cry. I might go easy on you if you cry."
The rage simmers, hot, in the pit of my stomach; I can hear my teeth grinding together. I cross my arms over my chest, in an effort to physically hold myself back. I should've shot the kid yesterday when I had the chance.
Peter drops down into a fighting stance, and my gut drops with him. Tris is still just standing there, arms slack and face white.
"Come on, Stiff," Peter eggs. "Just one little tear. Maybe some begging."
A fierce rush of pride shoots through me when I see her leg come up, but it's quickly drowned by anxiety as I realize that she's too slow, not sharp enough. He grabs her leg and twists, and time seems to stand still as I watch her fall. But no, she's right back on her feet again.
"Stop playing with her," Eric snaps. "I don't have all day."
The mischievous look leaves Peter's eyes, replaced by something cold and hard and cruel, and I feel like I really am going to throw up this time. I see everything in slow-motion, all my senses on hyper alert; Peter's jab seems to take hours to reach her face. Tris lurches to the side, and the movement is almost graceful, elegant, arching. She stumbles to the wall, but not fast enough to evade his foot as it makes contact with the center of her stomach.
The breath leaves my body in the same huff that it does her's; my hand clenches, and beneath my fingers I feel ribs and a hummingbird pulse.
"Get on your feet, Tris," I mutter through gritted teeth. She pushes herself up clumsily, and Peter's hand darts out to fist in her hair. I can't even see his punch through my red-clouded vision, but I hear the crack of her nose breaking. He pushes her back and she falls, bouncing against the concrete floor. And then she's just laying there. Her head moves to follow Peter as he circles her, but it's a slow and sluggish movement. She's so dizzy she can't see. With a gagged cough, she drags herself back to her feet, but Peter's foot collides with her ribs, and she's back down again.
Ribs and stomach and pulse and skin and eyes and breath—my mind is a whirlwind of completely useless and fragmented thoughts. I shake my head to clear it.
"Get on your feet," I say again, each word bitten, measured, enunciated.
And she does, by some miracle. Her arm swings out, completely unexpected, but she's so weak that Peter doesn't even flinch. He smacks her, palm flat against the side of her face.
He is laughing.
White-hot rage shoots through me, and I have to go. I walk blindly towards the door and shove it, the smacking of skin on skin the only thing I can hear.
The cool air of the corridor soothes my flushed face, and the silence eases my mind. I lean my forehead against the rough stone wall and let my eyes fall closed and my breaths even.
Her scream is the single most terrifying sound I've ever heard in my life. It's impossibly high and inhuman, primal, brought forth from unconsciousness.
My bandaged hand hits the door open, and I don't even feel it.
The sight of her, on the ground, bloodied and bruised, makes me feel like I could pass out right along with her. She's clearly down for the count, but Peter's foot is still slamming into her side.
A/N: Phew! What a chapter! This one was beastly. Definitely hard to write, but fun. It's a sucky place to end it, I know, but it was getting to where it was too long for just one chapter, so I had to split it. On the bright side, that means Chapter Five is more done than most are when I start them ;)
I'm terribly sorry about the long wait. School has started up again and kind of taken over my life. But I'm still trudging along, all for you guys :)