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?


43. Free

"Snow," Kylee said sharply. She reeled back from the president.
"My dear Miss Harker," Snow said. "You look like you've seen a ghost. I am merely here to tell you how your performance was out there." For the first time, Kylee saw the man's face contort into a smile. His large swollen lips curled upwards, highlighting the wrinkles on his face. And then she saw the thin trail of blood begin to drip from the corner of his mouth, like crimson drool. He quickly wiped it away with a handkerchief.
"Fine then," Kylee said, still feeling apprehensive. "How was I?" For some reason, she felt as if she had never been in as much danger before. Every action needed to be perfectly thought out, because Kylee had a feeling that Snow was very apt to put a bullet through her head himself.
"Good," Snow said. Kylee almost breathed a sigh of relief. "But you need to improve."
"What do you mean?" Kylee said. Her entire body was tense as she stared at Snow. Instead of the president of Panem, Kylee saw the Devil standing in front of her.
"You convinced the Capitol," Snow said. "And District Two has also withdrawn any claims. But there are still eleven other districts that are in a state of unrest."
"So Alexis had a greater influence than we previously thought?" Kylee said.
"No," Snow said. "You didn't convince them well enough."

Kylee felt her insides doing flips and somersaults, and she felt as if she was on the verge of falling over and throwing up. She had just failed Snow of all people.
"What does this mean for me?" Kylee said. 
"It means that you now have seven months left to live unless you work miracles on the victory tour," Snow said. "Just being alive allows you to give these people more inspiration than you thought."
"This still has nothing to do with me," Kylee said. "If anything, her royal bitchiness should have known what Alexis was doing."
"Here's the issue, Miss Harker," Snow said. "Aria Dew was perfectly aware of Alexis Rays' plans and did nothing to stop it."
"What?" Kylee exclaimed. 
"In fact," Snow said. "She even went as far as to work the finale of the Games around it. By deliberately sponsoring the alliance the flash light, she provided Alexis with what she assumed was the final component to the escape plan. In reality Alexis' plan was entirely ineffective, and all she did was give the signal for Dew to destroy the arena, allowing for everyone, myself included, to assume for just a moment that somehow a tribute had outsmarted the Capitol."
"And of course I assume that's why you killed her," Kylee said. Snow nodded. "But surely people will notice her absence?"
"The public doesn't care," Snow said. "And the Gamemaker team is at a post-Games celebration right now. As we speak, they are drinking beverages containing powerful mind-altering solutions that will erase Aria Dew from their minds. As far as they're aware, Seneca Crane has always been the head Gamemaker."
"You can do that?" Kylee said. 
"You underestimate the Capitol," Snow replied. 
"Not really if you thought for a moment some stuck-up victor's kid had the power to break your Games," Kylee shot back.
"That was an anomalous error orchestrated by an incompetent Gamemaker," Snow said darkly. "You don't want to get on the wrong side of me, Miss Harker, so I suggest you watch your mouth very carefully." A horrified whimper came from Kylee's lips as Snow glared at her. Every instinct told her to run for it and not look back, but she knew that running would be even worse than staying.
"I understand," she instead said. "I apologise."
"Good," Snow said. "Now, as I was saying, I'm giving you one final chance to fix this issue during the victory tour. If you fail, then you will lose your life."
"How will you cover my death up?" Kylee said.
"It's not unheard of for victors to take their lives in a bout of depression," Snow said.
"Even from a Career?" Kylee said.
"You're not exactly a Career," Snow said.
"And you're not exactly a genius," Kylee said. "You don't think my sudden death will cause unrest within the Capitol? They don't tend to react well to their precious victors dying off."
"My, you are a difficult one," Snow said. "However, you still contain the arrogance of adolescence. You think you know how this all works, but listen: you are still but a child with no real grasp on the larger picture."
"What the hell does that mean?" Kylee asked. She was taken back by Snow's statement.
"Think about it," Snow said. "You don't quell the rebellious thoughts and live. The districts will continue to increase the tensions, until it all spills over into one mass uprising. In order to stop something on that grand a scale, the Capitol will have to create a repeat of the District Thirteen incident, wiping out another district. This will deplete Panem of an invaluable resource, crippling the entire nation. Society will collapse. People will die out. Chaos will reign. All because you refused to follow the orders of the Capitol. If you insist on doing this and we are forced to kill you, then the districts will lose hope, and the worst case scenario is that we have to deal with a few unruly Capitol citizens. Nothing to worry about, really."

Chills kept running throughout Kylee's body the more Snow spoke. Was he really right in all this? Could Kylee cause the complete collapse of Panem? Was that possible?
"Oh my god," was all she found herself able to say.
"So, Miss Harker," Snow said. "Are you still going to refuse to do as I say?" Kylee froze, glaring at Snow. "Either you live under my control and this country stands, or you deny and cause society's collapse. Your choice."
"Uh, I," Kylee began, but faltered. She had no idea what to think any more. All that mattered was saying the right thing. But then as she stared into the snake-eyes of the president, her gaze hardened. "I'll stop your damn rebellion, all right?"
"Excellent," Snow said. "I knew you'd see things the right way after some persuasion."
"But get this straight," Kylee said. She took a bold step towards Snow, nearly faltering in her heels. She still stood strong. "You will not own me. Nobody owns me. And nobody ever will, you got that?"
Snow just laughed. It was a dry laugh, lacking in any emotion. It frightened Kylee to no end. "Oh, Miss Harker," he said. "I see you still have much to understand. No matter what you say now, you will eventually be owned by me. It is an inevitability. But I've kept you talking too long; you have a train to catch, don't you?"
"I guess," Kylee said. She still glared at Snow.
"I'll let you go for now," Snow said. "And I will be expecting you to contain the spark of rebellion throughout the victory tour. Do not let me down." And with that, Snow walked away, leaving Kylee standing in the middle of the hallway. An anger like no other boiled up inside the newest victor. Who was he to dictate what she was going to do? She didn't care that he was the president of Panem; nobody could ever own her. She'd stop the rebellion before it happened, and then she owed him nothing. She would be free.

Kylee turned around, and began to walk along the hallway, down the stairs, and to the station. Cascadelle was standing outside of the train, looking at Kylee.
"Took you long enough," she said as Kylee caught up.
"Sorry," Kylee said. "I was just receiving personal congratulations from President Snow himself."
"Really?" Cascadelle's face had turned dark. "What did he say?"
"Just how I'm a burning sensation in the Capitol and districts alike," Kylee said. "And that he hopes to see this flame carry the spirit of the Capitol during the victory tour. That's all." She looked up at her mentor, and saw the terror in her eyes. Cascadelle knew. Something was very wrong.
"Get in the train," Cascadelle said. "We're going home."

The two of them walked onto the train, and through to the dining cart, where Gray and the escort were sat. Kylee took a seat near the window, still wearing her dress. Cascadelle sat opposite Gray, next to Kylee. A few minutes later, the train took off, leaving the station. As it rushed through the crowded streets of the Capitol, Kylee turned to face her mentors. She closed the curtains, blocking them from view.
"So," Gray said. "Any plans for when you get back home, Kylee?" Kylee swallowed. He had no idea of the danger he was in now. And Kylee didn't intend on getting him involved. She would deal with this herself.
"Oh, you know," Kylee said. "The plan's to chill out in my new mansion for as long as possible. I just want to immerse myself in luxury, you know?" This was all true, but everything that Snow had said was causing Kylee's head to spin. Whispers of uprisings. Rebellion. It was all too much to think of.
"That's right," Gray said. "You came from a poor background, so this'll be like a new world for you."
"Yeah," Kylee said. "I sort of need some time to unwind as well. Being in the arena really screws over your sleep pattern." For some reason, the words that came from Kylee's mouth felt false, like they weren't her true feelings. But they were. She was adamant about it. Closing her eyes for a moment, Kylee leaned against the window. Outside, the sound of the cheering crowd grew quieter. The setting sun streamed through the curtains, casting a golden glow on the three victors and escort. Cascadelle had gone quiet, and was staring at the food in the middle of the table. The escort and Gray were happily eating at the food. Kylee just didn't feel particularly hungry.

She looked across at Cascadelle. Her face had gone pale, and her eyes wide.
"You all right?" Kylee asked. Cascadelle turned to face Kylee.
"Fine," she replied. Her eyes said otherwise. "Just thinking about how great it'll be to go along with you on the victory tour. It was my favourite part of winning, you see." Suddenly this conversation reminded Kylee of everything she saw on the footage of the Games: it was echoing Alexis' conversations far too much. And with good reason: if Kylee spoke about anything relating to her exchange with Snow, then everyone in this train but herself would be killed. It was terrifying to think about, and it was all because Alexis had been dumb enough to think she was capable of taking on the Capitol. The idiot deserved to die, really. After all, she had placed Kylee in the most difficult of situations.
"I haven't thought much of that yet," Kylee said. "I guess I'm still gaining a sense of closure over what happened in the Games, really." One look at Cascadelle showed she understood what Kylee was getting at. 
"I'm actually feeling quite hungry now," Cascadelle said. "How about we talk after dinner, later tonight?" Kylee was about to reply, but Cascadelle took out a pen and wrote down something on Kylee's hand. Kylee looked at it, reading it quickly.

meet me 2night out back of train

Kylee quickly wiped the message off her hand, and nodded at Cascadelle. For some reason, Kylee knew Cascadelle was the only one she could trust with this. She then grabbed a bowl of fruit from the table, and began to eat, letting the others get on with their conversations. In the background, the TV was playing. Kylee left her seat, and walked over to the screen, sitting on the sofa. She continued to eat her fruit as she watched what was on the television: an interview between Caesar Flickerman and the newest head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane.
"So, Seneca," Caesar said. "Is it okay if I call you that?"
"It's fine," Seneca said with a laugh. "We're all friends here, aren't we?"
"Indeed we are!" Caesar said. "Anyway, let's talk Hunger Games. After this year's stunning victory by Kylee Harker, do you think you have it in you to top that?" Kylee immediately noticed that they had completely omitted any references to Dew. It was as Snow said: it was like she never existed.
"Of course I do, Caesar," Seneca said. "I may only be new on the scene but believe me, I'm going to make next year's Games blow these ones out of the park."
"Care to elaborate?" Caesar said.
"Spoilers, Caesar," Seneca said. "You'll all have to wait and see." The sound of an audience laughing reached Kylee's ears as she watched the interview. It seemed that every Games-related interview had a massive audience watching at all times.
"Come on, now!" Caesar said.
"Okay," Seneca said. "But only after the victory tour. And then you'll see why I'm calling it the new era of the Hunger Games."
"Ooh!" Caesar said. "I can hardly wait!"

The interview then descended into more chatting and joking, but Kylee just felt a stab of fear. That line by Seneca Crane was more than a passing remark: he had been told to say that specifically. It was a message from Snow to Kylee: everything is going to change. And all because of what the other tributes had done. Kylee was just the scapegoat in all this. She couldn't help but laugh. Normally, she could manipulate any situation into her favour, allowing her to take control. But this time, Kylee was powerless against Snow. All she could do was dance to his tune. In all her life, Kylee had never felt so hopeless. She just wanted to leave the Capitol and be done with it. But that wasn't going to happen: Snow had turned her into his own personal tool to fix the issues created by Dew and Alexis. In no way could Kylee have seen this coming.

Once the interview had finished, the programming changed to a replay of the 69th Games, showing every event again like Kylee had seen during the victory ceremony. She just curled up on the sofa having finished her fruit, and slowly dozed off to the soundtrack of the Games.

Kylee woke three hours later. She looked up to the screen, and saw the moment where she killed Dixie being played again. Kylee grabbed the remote, and switched the television off, letting silence fall over the train. She stood up and walked across the room to the nearest window. Peering outside, all Kylee saw was darkness. Night had fallen. She suddenly recalled the note from Cascadelle from earlier on. Panic once again teased the edges of Kylee's subconscious. Something bigger was going on here than even she knew. She had a gut feeling that from now on, she would have to take extreme care in her actions.

Kylee walked down the hallway of the train, reaching the last car. She walked through the automatic doorway, stepping out into the night air. Cascadelle was sat on a bench, staring out across the tracks.
"Hey," Kylee said. Cascadelle looked up.
"Take a seat," the older victor responded. Kylee quickly sat down on the bench, next to Cascadelle. "The Capitol won't be able to hear us out here."
"So what is it you wanted to talk to me about?" Kylee asked. She looked up to the sky for just a moment, seeing the stars shine out against the blackness. They were so tiny, but in their massive numbers it was almost enough to overcome the darkness.
"I know why you were late to the train," Cascadelle said.
"What?" Kylee responded.
"Snow wants you to be the one to crush the rebellious thoughts created by Alexis Rays, doesn't he?" Cascadelle replied.
"Yeah," Kylee said. "How did you know?"
"It's not important right now," Cascadelle said. "But listen to me, Kylee: just play along for a little longer, okay? follow the scripts on the victory tour, and don't make a strong impression."
"What are you on about?" Kylee asked.
"The other victors," Cascadelle said. "Some of us have started an underground rebel network against the Capitol."
"You've what?!" Kylee exclaimed.
"We're entirely opposed to the Games," Cascadelle said. "Everything we do is to stop them."
"Alexis tried that, and you can clearly see where she ended up," Kylee said dryly.
"Actually, Alexis was invaluable in her actions," Cascadelle said. "She exposed the true fragility of the Capitol, something we had no idea of until now." Suddenly Snow's words came rushing back to Kylee: This system is more fragile than you think, Miss Harker. 
"Oh yeah," Kylee said. "Snow said something about that to me."
"I knew it," Cascadelle said. "That means that we now know what it takes to bring down the Capitol. It's not as much as we thought."
"Hold up," Kylee said. "Are you thinking of starting an uprising?"
"Yes," Cascadelle said. "But not yet. We need to wait for the time to be right."
"Some girl just made everyone think she destroyed the arena," Kylee said. "What more do you need?"
"A face of the rebellion," Cascadelle said. "We need someone like Alexis to win the Games in the future. Someone who will completely go against the Capitol. Having one of their precious victors, especially one of this 'new era' they keep talking about, will definitely be the decisive weapon against them."
"And why are you telling me all this?" Kylee said. "What if I go and tell my best friend Snow about your little rebel plans?"
"But you won't," Cascadelle said. "You hate that man's guts just as much as the rest of us."

Kylee found herself speechless. Cascadelle was correct. She despised Snow. So in that sense, was Kylee any different from these anti-Capitol rebels?
"I know," Kylee said. "So what's the true purpose for spilling this?"
"You are testament that Alexis' plan partially worked," Cascadelle said. "Through her efforts, the victor was not another Capitol lapdog. You will never let the Capitol control you, Kylee, and that's what makes you so important. You are a living example that the Capitol isn't as all-controlling as everyone thinks it is."
"I get that," Kylee said. "But why do I still have to play along?"
"Because we're not ready yet," Cascadelle said. "We're just entering a new era, Kylee. Once we see how things play out, and establish the weaknesses, we may finally be able to take down the Capitol. Because whether or not the Capitol knows it, we plan for this new era to be the final era."
"So until you see what this new era brings, you'll have to wait it out," Kylee said. "And then what do you do if you find a critical flaw in this new system?"
"We strike back," Cascadelle said. "Hard. And we completely destroy the Capitol once and for all."
"That's all well and good," Kylee said. "But I want no part in this. I only entered these damn Games as a quick way to get rich. I did not enter to become part of some rebellion." She let out a sigh. "I just want to live my life my way, by my rules. Screw everyone else. Why can't I just be left alone?"
"Kylee, I'm sorry," Cascadelle said. "But as a victor, you will never be left alone again."
"What?" Kylee said.
"You will now forever be under the public's eye," Cascadelle said. "You will be watched by the Capitol, and when the time comes, the rebellion. Nobody can afford to leave a victor alone; it's just too dangerous."
"You're kidding me, right?" Kylee said.
"What reason would I have?" Cascadelle replied. "As soon as you step off this train, privacy will be all but an illusion."
"But why?" Kylee said. "Why me?"
"It's all to do with the Games," Cascadelle said. "I don't mean to upset you, Kylee, but we were all planning on having Alexis win. You were just an accident."
"An accident?" Kylee said, trying to mask the crestfallen tone. "Is that all you see me as?"
"Yes," Cascadelle said. "You were just another run-of-the-mill tribute as far as we were concerned; it doesn't help that you portrayed yourself as a ditzy flirty Career throughout your time in the Capitol. How were we to know that you were a lot more complex than we initially thought?"
"Hold up," Kylee said. "You keep saying 'we'. Who else is in on this?"
"Oh, yes," Cascadelle said. "The other victors that are part of this movement." She looked up for a second, thinking, before returning to face Kylee. "This time around, there was one of us from each district. There's Allure Lavish from One, myself, Beetee Latier from Three, Mariner Deepwell from Four, Luke Rays from Five, Sonia Parker from Six, Oak Timberframe from Seven, Weaver Spindle from Eight, Petra Rye from Nine, Daira Cavelle from Ten, Carmen Marula from Eleven, and Haymitch Abernathy from Twelve."

Kylee stared at Cascadelle in disbelief. Was this true? Were the victors all truly part of an underground rebel movement? It didn't seem real.
"That many?" Kylee said, not betraying her surprise.
Cascadelle nodded. "Yes. But even more victors are part of this movement. A true estimate would be around fifty percent of all the current living victors."
"Oh my god," Kylee said. "This is all real. It's actually real. How could I have never been aware of this?"
"This world goes much deeper than you could ever imagine," Cascadelle said. "What you see is but a fraction of the surface. Our group deliberately takes advantage of this, and hides within the deepest depths, planning in the shadows until the time finally comes for us to fight back."
"So why let me know now if only half of the victors are aware?" Kylee asked.
"Because, Kylee," Cascadelle said. "We wish for you to join us."

It was as if all the breath had been sucked out of her. Kylee stared at Cascadelle, unable to form words as her thoughts rocketed around at a thousand miles an hour. She had no idea what to think any more: within the past twenty minutes, Kylee had learned that there was actually a rebellion movement within the victors, and now she was being requested to join. She understood where they were coming from, and she could relate to them with their hatred of the Capitol, but right now, Kylee felt as if she was being forced into it. And then it hit her: it was no different from what the Capitol was doing.

She looked at Cascadelle, who was still patiently waiting for an answer. She knew she couldn't outright refuse, but at the same time, she couldn't let herself be roped into something like this.
"I'll sleep on it," Kylee said. She then staged a yawn. "I'm feeling a bit tired, and just want to mull things over for a while."
"That's fine," Cascadelle said. "Just let me known as soon as you've made up your mind, but be careful about saying it. You'll never know who's listening in."
"I'll be sure to be careful," Kylee said. She stood up from the bench, and walked over to the door. "Good night."

Kylee then turned away from Cascadelle, and walked through the train, stopping outside of her room. Carefully she pushed the door open, and stepped into the room, shutting it behind her. She didn't even look around as she removed her dress and heels, crawling into bed.

She laid there for some time, feeling the rhythmic motion of the train against the tracks. It was oddly soothing, Kylee noted. But as soon as she thought about this, her mind returned to everything that had happened today. There was Snow and his threats, and then there was Cascadelle pressuring her into joining some rebel cause she wanted no part of. She was being forced into making a choice: which side would she comply to? Kylee knew that if she chose the wrong option, then her life would be on the line. A bitter surge of anger rose up. She wasn't even meant to be alive. Everyone was holding out for Alexis to win. Kylee was just the accident. Worthless didn't even come close to how she felt at this moment. She wanted to just be left the hell alone. She had won the Games: what else was there for her to do? Apparently she now had to either destroy or endorse a rebellion. But which choice was the right one?

Kylee let this thought hang in her head for a few moments, before she drifted off to sleep. Her dreams were filled with images of herself standing in front of some district somewhere. One dream showed her thanking the Capitol for the victory, causing a select few rebels to be executed. The other one showed her opposing the Capitol, creating widespread chaos and destruction. It was all about the lesser of two evils, she thought subconsciously. However, a third option then came to Kylee in her sleep. This option would be remembered when she woke up. And it would be the option Kylee would take.

A few hours later, the first rays of sunlight were penetrating the room from behind the curtain, playing as large a part in waking Kylee as did her escort pounding on the door.
"Kylee, dear," he said. "Are you awake yet?"
"Yeah," Kylee said, yawning. "I guess I am now."
"Excellent," he said. "We're almost back in Two, and we can't have our victor sleeping on arrival, can we?"
"We can't," Kylee said, willing for him to leave her alone. "I'll be out in a minute. Just let me get dressed."
"Okay then!" he said. Kylee heard his footsteps moving along the train, growing quieter.

Once he was gone, she pulled herself out of bed, showered, and quickly dressed herself. Her outfit of choice was a white tank top under an open red hoodie with a short black skirt and a pair of running shoes. The outfit was strikingly similar to what she last wore in 2, Kylee realised. But now, she felt like a different person wearing this. Something had changed at some point over the last couple of weeks, but Kylee couldn't pinpoint what it was.

This seemed to be the cue for Kylee's thoughts to return to the ultimatum she was given: join the Capitol, and help in oppressing the districts further, or side with the rebels, and potentially burn this country to the ground. Kylee let out a sigh as she applied her lipstick. This was what her life had become: she had to choose between two opposing parties to determine her own fate. She felt trapped. None of this was what she wanted. But she was now in a position where there was no way out. She had to make her decision.

Kylee walked across her room, and to the door. She opened it and swiftly walked down to the dining cart where her mentors and escort were, eating breakfast.
"Morning, Kylee," Cascadelle said. She smiled warmly. Like last night hadn't happened. Then Kylee remembered how much they were being observed now as they drew closer to District 2. Of course she wouldn't be as stupid as to talk about rebellion. "Sleep well?"
"Fine," Kylee said. "Stayed up a little later than I planned; I was just lost in thoughts about life as a victor."
"Understandable," Cascadelle said. Kylee sat at the table, and began to eat from a muffin. It tasted kind of bland. "So what have you decided to do as a victor?"
"I'd rather say once everything calms down," Kylee said smoothly. She still hadn't made up her mind, and felt her stomach churning the longer she remained undecided for. She felt like a bird with two cages coming at her from either side. One cage would protect Panem, but make her Snow's personal possession, and the other would destroy Panem through the fight for freedom. In the end, both were just as destructive.

The train suddenly began to slow to a stop. Outside, Kylee heard the sound of people cheering. She glanced at the others.
"Looks like we're home," Gray said.
"Oh, isn't this exciting!" the escort cried. He leaped up from his seat. "Gray and I will meet the crowd first. Cascadelle, darling, could you come out with Kylee?"
"My pleasure," Cascadelle said. She looked at Kylee. Kylee knew she was to make her decision before she stepped off the train.

Gray and Cascadelle walked down the hallway, and out of the door of the train. The sound of cheering increased in volume for one moment before the door shut again, muffling it.
"So this is it," Kylee said. "Time to go."
"Indeed," Cascadelle said. They both stood up, and walked along the hallway. But before they reached the door, Cascadelle stopped Kylee.
"What is it?" Kylee asked, but knew entirely what it was.
"Your decision," Cascadelle whispered. "What is it?" Kylee hesitated. Once again she was the bird. The cages were closing in further from her left and right, trapping her. This was it. She had to make the decision, and change her life forever.

She leaned against the wall of the train for a moment, but stood close enough to activate the automatic doors. Immediately Kylee and Cascadelle stood upright, looking out of the train. But as Kylee looked ahead at the crowd, something clicked. The confines of the train were to her left and right, nearly closing her in, but there was one small exit from the train just ahead of her. She could leave the train behind, not going into either cage. It was the third option.
"I've made up my mind," Kylee said to Cascadelle.
"Well?" Cascadelle said.
"I'm not siding with the Capitol," Kylee said. Cascadelle's face lit up. "But I'm not joining your rebel cause either. I'm on my own side. I won't be confined by either of your options. I'm doing what I want." Cascadelle opened her mouth in surprise, but Kylee looked away from her mentor, and stepped out of the train. She was swallowed in a surge of cameras, reporters, and cheering.

And as Kylee stood on the platform, assaulted by the adoring crowd, she smiled. Both Snow and Cascadelle had made one fatal error in their movements. They believed they could handle her like how they were planning on handling Alexis, the intended victor. But that was their mistake. She was no Alexis Rays. She was no rebel. She was no Capitol object. She was not something to be caged like some bird.

She was Kylee Harker. And she was free.

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