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The Soulmark games

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Chapter One

Peeta

 

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I’ll admit it, I’ve spent more than a fair amount of time daydreaming about meeting my soulmate. Its actual happening would be a rarity, what with the strict separation of people within each of the twelve districts, but I’ve always been one to get my hopes up. I’m not sure where I got my enthusiasm; my Mother’s about as motherly as barbed wire, and my Father isn’t one to share his emotions. According to my usually-gloomy brothers, the trait is entirely my own.

Maybe it’s bad to spend so much time pondering the highly unlikely occasion of actually meeting my soulmate. The one who shares the special mark that colors my wrist, completely different than every other person’s.

According to statistics, I have little to no chance of ever meeting her. And even if I did, President Snow’s new law requiring everyone who bears a soul mark to keep them hidden would make it impossible. My Father thinks that the law is meant to keep people separated; he says that love is too strong a motive to keep people from rebelling, and Snow is threatened by that.

It’s completely unfair, of course, but this is Panem. Fair isn’t exactly part of the equation.

In an ideal world, the citizens of Panem would be free to roam anywhere they pleased. They wouldn’t need to wear clothing that covered their wrists from the eyes of those whose marks were identical. President Snow wouldn’t hold a position of power.

In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as the Hunger Games.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that our world is not ideal; the reality of our life struck when I was only three or four. Now, at sixteen, I’ve accepted it. I know that there’s no point in rebellion, even a silent one.

I don’t mean that I agree with the way things are, just that I understand that it is how things are. So I’ve planned my life accordingly.

One thing I have not accepted is that my soulmate won’t be a part of it.

My train of thought ends abruptly and a wave of panic takes its place. This is how it goes all morning; I make myself forget, and then the thought pushes itself back into my head: Today is Reaping Day.

And I could be next.

True, my family is fairly wealthy compared to many in twelve, so I’ve never needed to take tesserae. But the games are never fair, and while the odds have been in my favor up until now, they might not remain that way.

I focus on slowing my quickly accelerating heart rate in hopes of pushing the fear from my mind. Unfortunately, it tends to stick around once I let it back in.

“You should eat something,” Father says quietly from the other side of the room.

I nearly forgot that I wasn’t alone, having been secluded in my thoughts. It happens a lot, I guess.

“I’m not sure I can,” I admit.

Father looks up from the ball of dough he’s kneading, his eyebrows knit together and his mouth set in a grim line. “Peeta, you won’t be reaped. Not today. Not ever.” He says it with such assurance, such finality in his tone that I don’t argue. For a moment I wonder if he was talking to me at all, and not himself.

I put up a hand and the lines of tension disappear from Father’s forehead. He lifts a roll from the counter beside him and tosses it to me, and I catch it in one hand. “Thanks.”

The bell rings out as a customer enters, and I turn to meet him. I recognize him immediately; Gale Hawthorne. He’s two grades above me, I think, in my older brother Ficelle’s year. He’s tall and lean, with dark hair and deep-set gray eyes like those of nearly everyone who lives at the Seam.

I haven’t actually spoken to Gale- at least, not really. I’m not sure that quibbles over bread prices count.

Gale raises a squirrel by the tail, and my eyes immediately land on the puncture in its side made by the arrow. It brings a memory to mind, one that isn’t so much different than the current moment. There were only two large distinctions between the two events. One, the squirrel being held up had been shot straight through the eye. And two, the animal hung from a different hand.

I don’t know why my thoughts lead back to Katniss Everdeen. I know almost nothing about her; just that her Father died in a mine accident five years ago, she’s my age, she’s quiet, and she’s an amazing shot. Cut amazing, Katniss could hit a moving target straight through the middle from two hundred yards away. Blindfolded.

Gale coughs a deep, throaty cough, like the kind someone does when they’re waiting for you to say or do something but are too polite to tell you.

I laugh embarrassedly. “Sorry, just zoned out a bit.”

Gale’s face softens. “I know. A lot to think about today, huh?”

I grimace. I’d nearly forgotten.

“How are you doing today, Mr. Hawthorne?” Father calls pleasantly from behind the counter. Gale gives me a polite smile before walking past me to speak with Father. In all truthfulness, I’m relieved. It’s hard to look at someone who’s far more likely to be chosen at the Reaping than I am without feeling guilty.  

I hurry from the room and nearly slam into my mother as she rounds the corner, an armful of ingredients in her arms. One thing I’ve learned about her over the past sixteen years is that, unlikely practically every other adult in twelve, she doesn’t sympathize even on Reaping Day.

“Get control of yourself,” she snaps, and the load she carries keeps her from slapping me on the back of the head.

“Sorry,” I mumble, before stumbling gracefully to mine and my brothers’ room to get changed into fresh clothing.

After all, it’s good to look your best when you’re heading straight toward your possible death sentence.