23 Cannons: The 69th Annual Hunger Games.

24 tributes are reaped by the Capitol to enter the 69th Hunger Games, marking the end of the sixth decade of Games. And as they all prepare for the fight of their lives, none of them know the true extent of the twists that will face them in the arena. With rebels, liars, and killers thrown into a deadly arena governed by power-mad Gamemaker, who will live to hear every one of the twenty three cannons sound out?


42. Dancing with the Devil

Kylee sat upright in bed. The lighting was harsh, and the room smelled strongly of disinfectant. Her thick dark hair cascaded down past her shoulders. She ran a hand through it. It felt clean. That was to be expected, though: the Capitol couldn't have their victor being dirty, could they?

She laughed. It was a dry sound that caused her to follow through into a cough. Bitterly, Kylee realised that it reminded her of the filthy chain smokers back in 2. But like all other men, she had put those faults aside in order to make some quick cash out of them. However, now was not the time to be thinking about the past. It was behind her now. She was a victor now. She was above all of them. Her status was now as high as you could get before becoming a Capitol citizen, although Kylee would be willing to bet that the victors were treated better than some Capitol citizens.

The sound of a clock ticking reached Kylee's ears next. It was softly sounding out in the background, ever so slightly louder than the hum of the machinery in the white room. Kylee looked down at herself, and saw that she was wearing a hospital gown on top of what appeared to be a cleaner version of the arena outfit. It was only for a moment that she had trouble placing the reason behind it, but then remembered: it was customary for the victors to wake in the same outfit they had left the arena in. The next piece of cloth to touch Kylee's body would be whatever outfit her stylist had designed. Stylists. They now felt so far-removed from Kylee's life, like something that only the tributes dealt with before the Games. But of course nothing had changed: it was back to the same old Capitol treatment.

Kylee sighed as she leaned back. She still felt groggy from waking up, but put it to one side: she had felt a hell of a lot worse before. Instead, Kylee began to think. No doubt whoever the hell was responsible for her would soon know that she was awake, and would come to take her away to prepare her for the victory ceremony. Until then, she figured she had a few more minutes of peace. As she laid there, Kylee replayed the final moments of the arena again in her head: the coin flip, rushing at Dixie before the girl knew what had happened, and then being taken away just before the fire burned everything down. It was the simplest dirty tactic out there, but Dixie had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker. To be honest, Kylee had thought better of the one girl that had escaped her during her time with the Careers. But in the end, Dixie turned out to be as pathetic as everyone else. It was a shame about the coin, though; Kylee would have liked to have kept hold of it as a reminder of the arena. Whatever. It was behind her.

These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of the door opening. Kylee turned her head around to face the door.
"About damn time," she said. "I was beginning to go stir crazy."
"Now, now, Miss Harker, that's no way to speak to a superior, is it?" The voice made Kylee freeze in her bed. Why the hell would he be here? She continued to watch cautiously as the figure of President Coriolanus Snow slipped into her room, closing the door behind him.
"Your Holiness," Kylee said dryly. She quickly pulled off her hospital gown, and climbed out of bed, standing in front of the president, facing him. "Why do I have the honour of being graced with your presence?"
"You know, rudeness is not an admirable quality in a young lady," Snow said. He stared at her with his cold dead snake eyes. Kylee glared back. She did not let any weakness show.
"You know, you're a sexist bastard," Kylee shot back.
"Now now," Snow said. "I simply will not tolerate this abusive behaviour. However, given that you are still in the recovery stages, I will let it slide, just this once."
"Whatever," Kylee said. "What is it you want?"
"Walk with me," Snow said. He turned away from Kylee, and walked towards the door. She followed him out of the room, surprised that she wasn't feeling any discomfort. The only thing that Kylee noticed was that she now found it harder to catch her breath. It was probably a side effect of being in that choking arena for so long.

The two of them kept walking until they reached the end of the hallway. They turned left, and found themselves in a small room.
"So now can you tell me?" Kylee said, folding her arms.
"Of course," Snow said. "To put it bluntly, our late head Gamemaker made a blunder. It is up to you to fix it."
"Late?" Kylee said. "Are you referring to the sour bitchface that was in charge of the private sessions?"
"If you want to put it that way, then yes," Snow said. "Anyway, her foolishness allowed for one Alexis Rays to effectively spread hope to the districts through that ludicrous escape plan of hers. There have been talks of uprisings. Your job is to quell this unrest before any signs of true rebellion show."
"Why do I have to do that?" Kylee said. "I don't give a crap about the other districts. And besides, couldn't you just get a firing squad and kill those you suspect? It'd be a lot easier."
"You see, there's the problem," Snow said. "You are symbolic of the hope created by her plans. You are the survivor. The reminder, if you will."
"I still don't see how this is my problem," Kylee said. "I had nothing to do with their escapades in the arena. If you recall, the only time I ever came near them was when I stepped over their corpses to find Dixie. If anything, why not punish their mentors?"
"That option has already been considered," Snow said. "To kill Elektra Sparke and Maia Kentner so soon after their wins would create political unrest within the Capitol. This system is more fragile than you think, Miss Harker, and we cannot take any risks."
"Okay so you can't kill the mentors," Kylee said, leaning against the wall. "But why do I have to get involved?"
"So long as you are alive, so is the hope generated by Alexis Rays," Snow said. A chill ran through Kylee as he said this.
"Please don't tell me you're going to arrange for an 'accident', are you?" Kylee said, keeping her tone as level as possible.
"Not at all," Snow said. "But you will give the message to the districts that you now belong to the Capitol."
"What?" Kylee said. 
"Let me put this simply," Snow said. "You now belong to me, Miss Harker. You will broadcast the message appropriately without any further complaints."
"And if I don't?" Kylee said.
"It will be a matter of finding someone close to you, then," Snow said. "If this is how you are, then we will have choice but to break you."

Kylee then laughed. It started out as a snicker, but quickly grew into something much louder.
"Oh my god," she said, wiping a tear from her eye. "This is priceless."
"Has something amused you, Miss Harker?" Snow said.
"Yeah," Kylee replied. "You think you can get me to dance to your tune by killing my friends and family. News flash: I have nobody I care about except for myself. And you can't kill off your newest victor, can you?"
"You are a difficult one, aren't you?" Snow said. 
"Come on," Kylee said. "Surely you should have researched all this as soon as there was a chance I would win."
"As you are aware, a situation like this has never occurred before," Snow said. "We had no reason to look into these matters until it was too late."
"Your loss," Kylee said. "You should have really utilised the family interviews better."
"Believe me," Snow said. "Seneca Crane has already thought of this. There will be a definite change in the interviews from next year onwards."
"Whatever," Kylee said. "So the kids I'll be mentoring will have their families under harsher scrutiny. Still not my problem."
"I am aware," Snow said. "However, this may capture your attention: I have received several requests from some rather generous suitors. They wish to see you in private in the coming months, starting with your victory tour." Kylee froze on the spot. She knew these words; she saw behind the euphemisms. After all, spending time with suitors was how she survived back home after losing her god-awful family. Ice seemed to be flowing through her veins as she stared at Snow.
"Wha..." she said. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Do I look like a jester to you, Miss Harker?" Snow said. 
"No," Kylee said firmly. "I am not going to go to bed with some filthy Capitol man for your own purposes. I've been there once, and I'm not going back."
"Really now?" Snow said. "You do not seem to be the type of person that is experienced in this subject."
"Listen to me, old man," Kylee said. "I was a two-bit slum-dwelling whore back in Two. I slept with whoever so long as they gave me large heaps of cash afterwards. It was how I survived. In fact, that's how I got into these Games: I charmed the pants off of the head trainer to secure my slot as a tribute. I think I know what you're implying here."
"I am surprised," Snow said. Even now, his tone carried no emotions. "However, it is always beneficial to learn more about my victors."
"I don't belong to anyone," Kylee spat.
"Oh, my dear Miss Harker," Snow said. "I believe you will find that you do. I will take my leave now to prepare for the ceremony. Remember what I have told you: quell the rebellion. Become an object of the Capitol." Kylee continued to glare at Snow as he walked out of the room. She heard his footsteps for just a little longer, before the sound of a creaking door. Silence.

Kylee waited two more minutes before stepping out of the room, returning to the hallway. An uncomfortable shiver ran down her spine. That had clearly been a threat, but Snow had no leverage over her. And if he thought he could break her by using the fact that she had slept with guys for money against her, then he was slipping into senility sooner than he could have anticipated. However, even though Snow was clearly powerless to control her, Kylee still felt uncomfortable. There was an underlying dangerous air around Snow, and Kylee knew that if she had family, they'd be dead by now. Luckily she was a solo player in the game of life.

As Kylee walked along the hallway towards her recovery room door, the sound of an elevator sliding open reached her ears. She spun around to see the elevator at the end of the hallway opening. Gray and Cascadelle, Kylee's mentors, were the first to step out. They were promptly followed by Kylee's stylist, and 2's escort. The escort, still dressed in purple, rushed up to Kylee, wrapping his arms around her. Kylee resisted the urge to punch him.
"Oh, Kylee dear!" he squealed. "I knew that you would survive! I just knew it!"
"You speak as if there was a chance I would lose," Kylee said sourly to the strange man, who was still crushing her. "I had victory in the bag from the moment I stepped onto that reaping stage."
"It was a pretty damn interesting win, though," Gray said. "Nobody saw you killing the Careers coming."
"Really?" Kylee said. Gray nodded. "But they were pathetic; in no way were they actually serious contenders for victory. Surely even the most idiotic of people could see that."
"That may be," Cascadelle said. "But you made a lot of people lose their bets by pulling off that stunt."
"Like that was the most controversial thing that happened in the arena," Kylee said. "We all saw what happened in that final hour or so of the Games, didn't we?"
"Yes," Gray said. "I suppose."
"It sure fired the districts up," Cascadelle said. "Everyone was burning with anticipation to see the finale play out." Kylee instantly picked up on the subtleties behind Cascadelle's words. The mentors had been told of the consequences of the tributes' actions. There was no other reason for this terror.
"What happened?" Kylee asked, despite the presence of the stylist and escort.
"Luke Rays was found dead in his apartment this morning," Gray said. "Officials think it's a suicide."
"Oh," Kylee said. "I guess he couldn't take seeing his daughter die then." She knew what this really meant. It was a message from Snow to the victors: if this happens again, it will be more than just one dead victor. 
"Probably," Cascadelle said. "But aren't you bothered by any of the tributes being dead?"
"Why would I be?" Kylee said. "For what reason would I get attached to twenty three people I had only known for what, two weeks? Only a fool would harbour sentimentality over another tribute." It was true. How could anyone expect her to give a crap about someone she had only known for the best part of two weeks?
"Anyway," Kylee's stylist suddenly spoke up. "We can all catch up later; we have an interview to get ready for, Kylee!"
"Oh, yeah," Kylee said, stepping over to the stylist, freeing herself from her escort's grip. "Where to?"
"Just down this hallway," the stylist said as she began to walk ahead. Kylee followed, leaving the others behind.

She ended up inside a large room that was oddly reminiscent of the room she had entered in order to be dressed up for a chariot parade that seemed like a lifetime ago. Back when the other tributes were all alive. But, as Kylee kept reminding herself, all of that was in the past. Those people didn't matter any more. It was all about her.

But as Kylee worked her way into a bright red low-cut dress and black heels, she couldn't help but have Snow's words echo in her mind: You now belong to me, Miss Harker. A flash of anger surged through her. She was nobody's possession.

"Twirl for me," the stylist said, snapping Kylee from her thoughts. She realised that she had spaced out for a moment there; probably after-effects from the sedative drugs in recovery. Kylee nodded once, and spun around, hearing the stylist clap. "You look gorgeous!" She then turned Kylee to face a mirror. The newest victor took her appearance in. The dress was oddly similar to her interview outfit, but seemingly more daring; there was definite deliberate cleavage exposure going on. Kylee grimaced. The thought of thousands of Capitol men ogling over her made her feel sick. Because she knew that at least half of those men would try and sleep with her in the coming months. Part of her wanted to tear the dress off and return to the arena outfit, but another part of Kylee was saying screw it; she would go out there and wear it with pride, showing that nothing would beat her. She let none of these emotions show as the stylist led her out of the room, and to the elevator.

As they walked along the hallway, Kylee noticed that the others had gone. It didn't really bother her much, but then the thought of Gray and Cascadelle lying dead in some hotel room hit Kylee, and a mild wave of anxiety washed over her. She would have their blood on her hands. Killing tributes was one thing, sure, but that was because that was what Kylee had to do. Causing deaths that didn't need to happen struck her in the wrong way. And all of this was happening because Kylee was left to pick up the pieces left by Alexis and Dew. She wanted to resurrect the both of them just to kill them again. This was their fault, not hers. Kylee wanted no part of this. All she wanted was the riches that came with being a victor to escape the impoverished lifestyle she had lived prior to the Games. She did not want to be the one person responsible for stopping an uprising. She just wanted to be free of it all.

The elevator door opened, and Kylee stepped inside. She turned around, facing her stylist one last time. The woman smiled. Kylee smiled back. She kept her eyes on her stylist as the elevator rose up, until all Kylee saw was the darkness. Idly, she realised that this was oddly similar to the platform rising up to the arena. But of course this was leading to the interview stage, and not to the Games. Although, Kylee wondered how many victors had suffered painful flashbacks being in here. It didn't matter though; that was their business. But now their lives were in Kylee's hands, and if she screwed up, then there would be a nation-wide culling of the victors. She took a deep breath, and the platform rose up, taking her to the stage.

Kylee blinked a few times as everything came into view. The stage was being assaulted by blinding spotlights. Caesar sat on one of the two seats on the stage. In front of the stage was a massive ocean of Capitol faces Kylee couldn't quite make out. And surrounding the place was a plethora of massive screens, clearly for the recaps.
"And here she is! Our latest victor: Kylee Harker!" Caesar screamed as the crowd erupted into applause at such volumes that Kylee was sure the fires of the arena were quieter. "Come, take a seat!" Kylee closed her eyes for just a moment, before walking towards the host. It was time to put on one last show for the Capitol.
"Why, thank you Caesar!" Kylee exclaimed, the words sounding false on her own tongue. But nevertheless, she still sat on the seat, looking at Caesar. "You know, I feel honoured to be here tonight!"

The interview rolled by seamlessly. Caesar asked questions about Kylee's actions, to which she replied superficially. He cracked a joke. She laughed. And whenever he brought up any of the other tributes, Kylee was quick to change the subject. She could feel Snow's snake eyes watching her closely. She felt like a bird in a cage.

Finally, it was time for the recaps. Kylee leaned back in her seat, and watched idly as they replayed every moment of the Games. The reapings were as boring as ever: Careers volunteered, outliers reaped. She saw herself standing on the stage, so brilliantly manipulating the crowd. It had all paid off in the end.

The chariot parades, training, and interviews flew by uneventfully. The Capitol cheered at the parade, clapped at the scores, and celebrated the interviews. It was kind of odd to think that only one of the kids on screen was still alive. Kylee didn't put much thought into it, though. From her perspective, it was as if she was watching some kind of film she had acted in. It didn't feel like it really happened. She supposed it was a good thing, in the end.

Suddenly, the music in the background became much more intense as the Games began. Kylee watched the events unfold with little commentary. The pointless bloodbath. The tributes setting themselves up on the first day. Kylee did latch onto the subtle conversations had between Alexis and her allies, though. At first glance, it really did seem that escape was the last thing on their minds, but Kylee knew better. The screen then cut to the Careers attacking the alliance of boys, creating the first casualties of the Games. The crowd went wild as Osiris killed that kid from 12. Derek, Kylee remembered. His name was Derek. Things like this would be forgotten in due time. However, Kylee knew she would remember the names of all her fellow competitors, if only due to her exceptional memory.

Day two rolled by, seeing the continuation of the tributes surviving. Equal focus was given to everyone, Kylee noticed, despite everyone now knowing who the victor was. Still, the Capitol sure seemed to love watching the other tributes; they were cheering like no other as Alexis fought off the Muttation. But as Kylee watched, she could only pick up the true meanings behind the girl's words. Alexis had placed the country on the verge of a rebellion, and Kylee was the only one that could put it to rest.

The crowd began to gasp and cheer as the events of the second night transpired, and Kylee took out every Career but Dixie, who barely escaped with her life. Kylee smirked, and watched as it showed on the reaction camera. She had to admire Dixie: the girl had been a true fighter. The feeling Kylee felt for Dixie could be best summed up as affectionate hatred. And Kylee knew that had she not volunteered, Dixie would have won. But really, nobody stood a chance against Kylee. She was simply the best there was.

Day three went by slowly as usual, until it played the downfall of the alliance of girls. Kylee's eyes widened in surprise as she watched it unfold. So that was how Markus did it. She was impressed. The scene cut to Markus standing over the emotionally distraught Erika, and ending her life. Kylee was now very glad that she had joined forces with Markus instead of fighting him. If Kylee had done anything but agree to the alliance, then she would have perished early on.

The fourth day was rather uneventful, save for Dixie joining Alexis' alliance, and Kylee and Markus teaming up. But besides that, it was just the other tributes moving around. However, the change in weather had started, and Kylee realised how much this affected the outcome of the Games.

Day four became day five, and the snow coated the arena. This saw the alliance of outliers in the woods begin to make their way through to the village, and Kaye Nylon's murder of Brinn Redwood. Kylee also watched as she and Markus left the Cornucopia for good, setting off into the woods. The crowd cheered at the death of Brinn, and Kylee was also surprised at just how brutal Kaye actually was.

The sixth day saw the continued movement of Kylee and Markus, and Alexis' alliance continuing to prepare for the escape plan. Every word that Alexis said filled Kylee with a sense of dread: every word that came from Alexis' mouth would have to be dismissed. Every word disproved. Kylee did not let this feeling show on her face, and instead faced the screen, watching Kaye tear apart Emily's alliance effectively, leaving his district partner on the floor. He must have assumed she was dead, but Emily still lived. Not that Emily's survival ever affected Kaye at all for the remainder of his life.

And then, the cameras shifted to the final day: day seven. Kylee felt anxiety rise up as she watched the actions of every tribute with extreme care. Herself, Markus, Kaye, and Emily of course did not elicit any rebellious ideas, but as the day wore on, Alexis' alliance became more and more open with their words until that night. Kylee watched in surprise as Alexis pressed the button on her token, and night became day as the sky cracked. The chunks of the sky rained down, destroying the arena, and taking Emily with it. And every word of rebellion that came from Alexis' mouth was recorded to the districts. How could Kylee take back phrases such as "Capitol bastards"? It was impossible.

She continued to watch with dread as she killed Kaye Nylon, and Markus rushed across the arena, taking out both from 3, and Alexis after a brutal fight. They didn't stand a chance against him. And even though Alexis had died horribly, her ideals still lived on in the minds of the district citizens. There was no way Kylee would be able to entirely undo the damage caused by the girl from 5.

The finale then played on the screen, showing Dixie killing Markus, which Kylee had watched in surprise. She never knew that Dixie had that in her. But it at least meant that Kylee never had to face Markus in battle, to which she was thankful for.

And then came the coin flip. The crowd was going crazy as the slow-motion footage played some dramatic song over the coin flying in the air. They then screamed in joy as Kylee rushed up at Dixie, who was transfixed by the coin, taking her out once and for all. The hovercraft lifted Kylee from the arena, and the final shot was of the fire burning up Dixie's corpse and the coin. The screen faded to black, and the roar of applause sounded out.

"Wasn't that quite the show!" Caesar said. "Let's give it up one last time for Kylee Harker!" The crowd broke into cheering for the umpteenth time as the anthem played. Kylee rose, and watched as President Snow crossed the stage, holding a golden crown. He stopped in front of Kylee, and lifted the crown onto her head. He looked at Kylee for just a moment with his dead eyes. That was enough to suck all the warmth from the room. Kylee felt a barrage of questions rising up. Had she succeeded? Had she failed? Snow gave no indication. Instead, he just began the standard victors' speech.

"I commend Kylee Harker from District Two for achieving the title of the victor of the sixty ninth annual Hunger Games," he announced to the hysterical crowd. "You are saluted for your strength in your victory. Congratulations." It was as if the previous exchange between the two of them had never happened, Kylee realised. She hoped that it was only because it would be unwise to mention any of this in front of the cameras. She hoped that she had been successful. As the crowd erupted into even more applause, Kylee watched Snow sneak off the stage, leaving her there to smile and wave at the cameras.

The applause died down some five minutes later, Caesar taking control of the crowd once more.
"Kylee Harker, everyone!" he said. One more round of cheering and screaming, and it was all over with. "Goodnight, Panem!"

The curtains were pulled across the stage, and Kylee soon met up with Gray and Cascadelle backstage. She felt a spike of relief that they were still okay.
"Glad that's finally over with," Gray said. "Now we go home."
"Yeah," Kylee said. "And I can get out of this dress." But to be honest, Kylee was just as glad to be finally getting out of this place. So long as she was within the Capitol, Snow could easily control her.
"We'll go ahead and clear the crowds," Cascadelle said. She, Gray, and the escort began to walk ahead. "Catch up with us in about five minutes or so."
"All right," Kylee said. She watched as they walked down the hallways, their conversations growing quiet.

Kylee stood there for around five minutes or so, as per instructed. Once this time was up, she began to walk along the hallway, but as soon as she took a step forward, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Kylee let out a scream as she turned around, inhaling the scent of blood. Her face went pale, and she gasped even louder as she saw the figure standing behind her.

"Hello again, my dear Miss Harker."

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