Eric hated numbers.
He threw down his pen then pressed his palms into his eyes. Candor had their budget by the balls since the attempted genocide of Abnegation. No materials without paperwork triple checked by Candor reps could enter Dauntless for the next three years. That meant, aside from food and fabric, things like ore and medical supplies were effectively quarantined until the paper trail checked out.
Despite numerous petitions for appeal, the city council sided with Candor three to one every time. Fucking Jeanine. Fucking Erudite. Fucking bureaucratic bullshit. And fuck Amity for reclusing themselves from having any fucking opinion about anything not related to their damned flowers and peace serum. What good was an armed force who needed to scrape by to be functional?
He violently shoved away from his desk and stalked into the reception area. Kyle didn’t even try to hide his slacking off. Things slowed down in the winter in the Pire. The tall Receptionist managed to lift Eric’s sight laser somehow and was using it to make Millie jump up the walls.
“Where’s Richards today?” Eric asked. He crossed his arms, trying not to laugh at the orange tabby running ripshit riot around the room. He had a reputation to keep after all.
“In the shop. One of the trucks had part of the road collapse under it. Tore the hell out of bottom so it’s all hands on deck until the repair is done,” Kyle answered. He leaned back in his office chair, putting his feet on the desk. “He’s been putting in a lot of late nights and early mornings. Why?”
Eric sighed. He dearly wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose but Kyle would see the tell and call him on it.
“I need to negotiate his services,” Eric answered. Millie wound herself around his legs, leaving orange fur on his dark pants.
That got Kyle’s attention. The tall man folded his hands together, spinning his thumbs, and assessing Eric with a critical eye. Many of the other Leaders forgot Kyle earned his place by being almost supernaturally observant; his skills when it came to reading people were unparalleled by anyone else in the Faction.
It also wasn’t helping that Tris was his boyfriend’s best friend.
No one saw the friendship coming. Eric himself had no idea how it happened; one day Richards showed up to the Pire with lunch then ate it in Tris’ office. Some days she went down to the motor pool.
Eric looked around the office, studiously not meeting Kyle’s gaze.
“Interesting,” Kyle said. He threw his hands up and repeated, “Rich is in the shop. Tell him to bring back my scarf. He keeps forgetting it in his truck and I don’t want it smelling like motor oil.”
Rather than thanking the receptionist, Eric ducked back into his office for his heavy weather jacket and a pair of gloves.
Fuck the cold.
The Dauntless forefathers and foremothers put the shop half a mile from the main compound. Eric passed the shop several times on his way to the armory’s surplus storage but he’d never gone in. It was the territory of the machinists, the mechanics, and the gunsmiths.
While winter chilled the skin of his face, the shop put out enough heat to melt the snow around the building. The repurposed warehouse’s doors were wide open, several drivers hung around outside smoking or crouching down. He saw the grease stains on their skin and their clothing.
“Where can I find Richards?” Eric asked. He unzipped his jacket before stuffing his gloves into a pocket.
One of the smoking mechanics threw a thumb over her shoulder.
“In Hell,” she laughed. “Take the catwalk to the right then down the last set of stairs.”
Eric walked into the shop, immediately noticing they’d dug down into the earth instead of leaving the concrete intact. He went to the right, staying on the makeshift catwalk. Peering down he saw the broken truck on a couple of lifts. Various mechanics attacked the bottom half of the sides, ripping out the rivets to remove the armor.
The sign above the last set of stairs read HELL.
Dauntless, always hilarious Eric thought with a snort.
“I do not fucking care if you were ordered back here!” Richards’ voice screamed. “Get out of my work area! And you tell your supervisor to stop sending me idiots!”
Eric paused in his descent. It was the first time he’d heard Richards raise his voice above a tight, flat tone when angry. The redheaded driver stood with his back to Eric, his black coveralls tied by the arms at his waist. Sweat made his freckled skin shine in orange light. Richards’ normally regulation hair fell wildly above his ears.
Eric thought he recognized the former Initiate; tall and clumsy. Aaron? Al maybe? He admitted to not remembering the names of the ones who managed to pass by the skin of their teeth. Fodder didn’t need a name to follow orders.
While Fodder scrambled back towards the shop’s main area, Eric took an opportunity to look at Hell. A back rolling door had been installed probably around the time the floor was dug out, providing for cross draft for the entire building. An anvil, several sanding machines, and a heap of scrap were scattered around Richards’ area. Two massive work benches stood along the wall, covered in half finished blueprints and ancient manuals.
“Kyle not give you a kiss this morning, Richards?” Eric asked.
The former logistician turned around, contempt clear on his fair face, and he looked Eric up and down with mild surprise.
“I ask for an assistant because these sway bars are not going to forge themselves. I keep getting clumsy morons,” Richards huffed. He ran a hand through his messy hair. “Al the damned idiot nearly knocked over the crucible outside. If it had spilled, we would be a day behind.”
After being demoted from logistics, Richards found his niche in the shop when he wasn’t behind the wheel. Eric heard from the armory staff and pretty much anyone, if you wanted delicate tools or non-regulation knives, you go to Richards.
Eric may have been an ex-Erudite so he supposed it put him on the opposite scale of Al the Idiot.
“I’ll help,” Eric offered. “It’s slow in Leadership.”
Richards eyed him up and down.
“What do you want, Coulter?” Richards asked. He kicked a piece of scrap out of his way.
“A lock pick set,” Eric answered, lacking any bravado, and hoping his honesty convinced the freckled man. “For Pri-Tris.”
Richards tilted his head like Millie when something struck her as either dumb or very confusing. Since Candor started their processes, the prices on Richards’ lock picks went from one hundred points to close to a thousand. Leadership got budgeted for three sets and those sets were given to senior members. Tris mentioned offhandedly one day how she wanted a set; Eric heard the longing in her voice and decided to get her one.
No matter the cost. Even if it meant getting on his knees and begging Richards.
“Why?” Richards asked.
Eric noticed Tris from Day One for her bravery. Of course, it was news that a Stiff jumped first into Dauntless. He half expected her to wash out after the first cut. But Tris surprised him at every turn. He smiled at the memory of her breaking curfew to come to the Pire to speak with Max about Four’s behavior.
She’d been fierce, reiterating how her Trainer didn’t seem to embody the ideals of Dauntless. How he’d been treating her like she was still in Abnegation. Eric only watched and inside his chest, warmth bloomed.
When Max reassigned Number Boy to the wall on a probationary basis, Eric may have put an extra point on the board for Tris. Though if asked, he’d deny it. Attraction only came after she declared leadership, when they stood on roughly equal ground. Tris’ aptitude with tactics rivaled Eric’s own; it made him want to see how well they’d work together at first. A partial lie since he knew he had a competence kink.
And Tris proved her competence over and over many times.
Richards waited for his answer.
“I like her.” Eric admitted. He shrugged off his coat. The heat must’ve been getting to him. “She wants a set. Leadership won’t have the budget till next quarter.”
“One day’s labor,” Richards said finally and held out a hand. “You whine once, Coulter, and the offer is voided. Understood?”
Back at the compound if Richards dared to speak like that to Eric, he’d have to take the driver down a few pegs. Then again, the other man rarely went beyond a “I’m done with everyone” tone most of the time. Here in Richards’ corner of the shop, no one was around to hear.
Taking the proffered hand, Eric shook.
Eric leaned against Richards’ workbench. He had a newfound appreciation for what Richards and the other mechanics did. The driver went to fetch lunch from the mess hall, letting the leader take a breather. Or as much of one before going back to smelting scrap then pouring it into molds.
“You do this a lot?” Eric asked after Richards came back.
The driver plunked down onto the stairs, holding a box out to Eric.
“Only when I want parts made the right way,” Richards replied. He pried the top off his lunch box. “So all the time.”
Eric set into his own lunch, surprised at the fresh orange he found next to a sandwich thick with meat and slices of cheese. Richards’ box contained the same only with a slab of chocolate in it.
“The kitchen Factionless love Kyle,” Richards said. He peeled his orange, taking time to enjoy each slice. “He expedites their requisition paperwork.”
Eric hummed rather than reply. While outside of operation protocol, he couldn’t find a reason to chastise Kyle for it. An army marched on its stomach; an old adage Dauntless carried over from before the war. If the people who made their food were allowed access to the best equipment the Faction could get, the Faction ended up with good, sustaining food.
Come to think of it, Tris’ lunches often looked better than Eric’s own.
“You’re Prior’s favorite person,” Eric said, wincing at the jealously tinging his tone.
Richards stopped breaking the chocolate bar into more manageable pieces to look at the Leader. The analytical look on the redhead’s face reminded Eric of the time Richards spent in the logistics, the department ran flawlessly. Richards dissected everything about Eric in one glance and even worse, he let Eric be aware of it.
“I am going to tell you a story, Coulter. One you will not repeat to anyone,” Richards stated. He held out a piece of chocolate for Eric to take. “Of why I would die for Tris Prior.”
Eric stayed silent, erring on the side of caution. Aside from Kyle and Tris, Richards barely made an effort to tell anyone else personal things.
“Last winter I came down to the motor pool, expecting a normal day of checking over my truck, and there stood Leader Prior. Turns out I had to bring her out to the fence to investigate the rumor of a breach. In the worst storm of the winter too,” Richards laughed dryly. “Fucking my luck, right?”
Eric remembered sending Tris on the assignment. The rest of Leadership were caught up in the trials and she’d been the only one vetted at the time. The reports read overall success but Eric got the feeling he was about to hear what actually happened.
“Most of you Leaders ignore us. We just drive you from Point A to Point B,” Richards shrugged and put the top back on his lunch box. “Not that we particularly care, you see. We’ll train you to drive the trucks, be where we need to when you want us. It’s a job. Tris spent the entire trip asking me questions about myself. Inconsequential things; what was my favorite color? What kind of treats does Millie like?”
Many Dauntless asked Richards how he got demoted upon meeting the driver. Eric shook his head. Of course, Tris wanted to know about the man not the rumor. She liked knowing those details about people, she told him it made her understand them better.
“As the reports tell, there was a breach,” Richards recited. “Team of seven from near the northern part of the lake. I took two down before things got complicated.”
The official report read that Richards killed the whole team.
“We were in the snow beyond the breach, looking for the direction the raiders came from, and to see if they had transpo. Have you heard the sound of a pre-war machine gun?” Richards asked and Eric shook his head. “It had a clicking sound like bullets being chambered in quick succession then the whole world just became shreds and splinters. I found myself with a face full of snow and saw Prior laying where I’d been standing.”
Fear wrapped around Eric’s lungs, making it hard to breathe. A normal Dauntless would’ve followed through and fallen with Richards not sacrificed themselves.
“I thought Tris was dead but saw no blood,” Richards said. All Dauntless Leaders wore the best armored vests in the field. If they got taken out, the soldiers under them collapsed. “She got up and charged the pill box. Serpentining to avoid the bullets, brilliant and stupidly brave.”
Eric felt nausea crest in his stomach, threatening to make him vomit up his lunch.
Richards took out a cigarette and lit it. Kyle hated him smoking; Eric remembered several rants fondly. Out of politeness, Richards offered one to Eric. Hoping it would help with the stress creeping up his throat, Eric took one, and lit it.
Richards closed his eyes and tilted his head, like the events were replaying themselves around him.
“By the time I’d gotten up and followed her, two were dead, two were injured, and one was under her boot heel,” Richards said. He took a drag off the cigarette. “I finished off the injured ones, cleaner that way. Tris got the intel out of the last one. Fucked with his head to get him to talk, she added a few hits in to mix things up. He told her everything then she let him go. He didn’t get far, just enough distance to tell where they’d come from by where he ran to before she threw a knife.”
Eric finished off the cigarette, crushing the remnants under his heel.
Richards opened his eyes, focus zeroed in on Eric.
It remained unsaid between them what Tris was. The term which made Erudite try to eradicate Abnegation. The label to inspire fear within their society in order to put all their problems into a straw-man instead of fixing them. Eric knew if his next words weren’t the right ones, he wouldn’t be leaving alive. It’d be a close fight but they were in Richards’ turf and for how in control the driver held himself, Eric had seen him fight like a demon more than once.
“Dauntless and Erudite,” Eric whispered loudly enough for Richards to get his meaning.
Richards nodded appraisingly.
“We blew the pill box up and doctored the report. I decided then I owed Tris Prior my life,” Richards told him. He stood up, stretched, and walked over to look at a blueprint on the bench next to Eric. The almost too quietly added, “Dauntless, Candor, and Erudite.”
Eric pushed himself off the bench to go back outside to start smelting scrap again.
“Coulter,” Richards’ call stopped him. “She could do worse than you.”
Two days later Eric tumbled on a training mat. Leadership’s private gym held the best equipment. Every member had assigned blocks of time; he and Tris combined theirs for more time. She’d been late the past two blocks, coming in with her snow gear on, and quickly given excuses before changing into her workout kit.
“Forget to look at a clock again, Prior?” Eric teased. He pushed up on his shoulders, feeling his vertebrae pop. “Good thing I needed the extra time to stretch.”
An exasperated huff reached his ears. It wasn’t a lie; the one day helping Richards made him aware of places in his body Eric didn’t know could ache. He flopped back onto the mat before kipping up.
“What are we doing today? Suicide sprints? Improvised weapons? Parkour around the compound?” Tris’ voice came from his right. She stepped on the mat with purpose, letting Eric know where she was out of common courtesy.
“You pick.” Eric offered.
Famous last words.
At the end of their training block Eric regretted his words. Rather than close combat training or physical conditioning, Tris chose the rope course. A network of ropes and pulleys were set up in the gym’s ceiling. It was meant for fighters who relied on agility and speed than for ones like him who used strength and tenacity.
Tris managed to knock him off the course several times. Instead of falling to the floor and breaking his back, the force field a few feet below the rope course caught him. Now they both hung from the ropes after finding comfortable positions to cool down in. Eric pressed his face against one of the thicker mooring ropes and watched Tris use her foot to swing back and forth on a braided section near him.
“I am never letting you pick what we do again,” Eric said. Of course he would, if it made her smile again like she was now.
“Next time we’ll go with parkour,” Tris laughed as she spoke, knowing full well he’d let her pick again. “Outside in the snow and ice.”
Eric snorted. Of all the Leaders, Tris hated the cold the most. He hypothesized it’d been from a childhood spent out in it caring for the Factionless. He’d tagged along when she spent her Leadership sign on bonus points on the best winter gear and boots so well made the wearer could sprint across the slickest of ice.
“I always hated Holiday back in Abnegation,” Tris said. Eric panicked for a minute, wondering if he’d spaced out during part of their conversation. “We had to stay out at all hours handing out dried food and knitted goods. Asking for anything was selfish even if it was for a half hour of rest.”
In the dead of winter, all the Factions celebrated Holiday. A day of food and gifts to be a bright spot in the darkest and coldest part of the year. All the Factions celebrated it in various ways from over the top parties in Dauntless to quiet reflection in Candor. But always Abnegation were out in the streets giving of themselves to the point where the hospitals overflowed with their members suffering from severe frostbite.
“Good thing you’re Dauntless now,” Eric said. He pushed himself off the mooring rope, swaying gently on the rope under his feet. “Meet you at the bottom.”
Tris was still in her perch when Eric came out of the locker room. Rather than bother the younger Leader, he left his gift next to her gear bag. Despite all his bravado and posturing, Eric found he was shy when it came to the intricacies of interpersonal relationships. Granted he treated Tris like a Dauntless would someone they were interested in but he didn’t want the message of his gift misinterpreted.
Yes, he wanted her to feel the way he did but on her own terms. Not because Eric got her an extravagant gift and Tris felt obligated to give him something in return.
Eric hefted his gear bag onto one shoulder then began to walk towards the corridor that went to the Leadership apartments. He tried not to trip over his own laces, having just shoved his feet into his boots after getting dressed.
He stopped and turned around.
Tris trotted up to him, gear bag bouncing off her back, and clutching something in her hands.
“Did you leave this for me?” Tris asked. She held the lock pick set case to her chest. Richards included the handtooled black leather case out of the goodness of his heart. Eric had to negotiate approval of repairs to the motor pool’s heating system for Richards to stamp Leadership marks onto the case. “They’re beautiful. Why?”
Eric’s mouth dried up.
“You said you wanted a set,” Eric managed lamely.
Tris’ eyes went wide.
“Please tell me you didn’t spend a thousand and a half points on this,” Tris gasped. She tried to shove the gift back. “Eric, I can’t accept this.”
He reached over to put his hands on her shoulders but stopped. Tris had rules about being touched. He grabbed her hands instead, trapping the case between them.
“I traded with Richards for them,” Eric explained. “I spent a day in the shop with him, sweating my ass off as payment. You can accept them.”
Then Tris did something odd.
She started laughing. By the time Tris finished, she was clutching his shoulder, doubled over, and wheezing. Eric stood statue-like, wondering how he’d gotten into this situation, or if he was asleep at his desk.
“One-one moment,” Tris told him then slipped the case into her pocket before swinging her gear bag around. She dug around in it and pulled out a bandana wrapped object and handed it to him. “I’ve been late for the past few days because I’ve been at the shop helping Richards in exchange for these.”
Eric unwrapped his gift. It was a roll of black leather half the length of his forearm. He ran his fingers over Leadership marks before unrolling it. Six throwing knives were sheathed in the leather. He knew if he pulled one out, its edge would be razor sharp, and its weight would be perfectly balanced.
“These are perfect,” Eric breathed. He marveled at them. “Happy Holiday, Prior.”
Tris shook her head.
“We’re not going to be stupid about this,” Tris said. She crossed her arms in front of her and waited until he slipped the throwing knives into his gear bag. “Richards, Kyle, and I are going to set up a fire pit on the roof of the motor pool. Kyle convinced the kitchen Factionless to make him a batch of cookies shaped like trees. Richards scored some top shelf booze and I pulled a few favors to get some comfortable chairs dragged up to the roof.”
Eric was smart. He’d like to think he was too fucking smart for his own good.
He cleared his throat.
“What time?” He asked.
“I’ll pick you up at twenty one hundred hours.”