She wasn't expecting him. Arthur Lionel wasn't one for crowds or cameras or spectacles, and besides, it's not like Lex doesn't know her own way home. But she'd hoped that maybe...
She shakes Temple's hand, nods, and slips out the train door without a word.
It isn't totally empty, but she wishes that it was. She's never met any of these people in her life. Whether they're here for someone else or if they're here just because the temptation of emotional voyeurism is too great to resist, she wishes they'd go. For a moment, Lex can't stop her mind from drifting back to District Five, to Denali and the full riot she'd received in greeting there. The pang of jealousy it brings exacerbates the lonely aching that's camped out beneath her ribs.
She grits her teeth against the twinge, tilting her chin up and wiping her face on her battle jacket. Salt and dirt and dried blood stings in her eyes, in her wounds, but Lex Lionel didn't go through hell and back to let strangers catch her with tears on her cheeks. Then she slings the keepsake over one shoulder, sunglass lens badges and metal eyelets clicking together as she starts the long hobble home.
They come face to face as soon as she turns the corner.
Mustache overgrown into a full beard and new lines worried into his brow, Arthur Lionel looks much older than the man who shook her hand and told her to come back in one piece those long weeks ago.
She doesn't need a mirror to know that she looks worse for wear. She must look older, too.
Then he reaches out and ruffles her hair, and all of a sudden she's eight or nine again.
And because she's eight or nine again the next thing she does is throw her arms around him, pulling her father in for a big hug.
There's a Burl-sized hole in the screen that she supposes she'll have to repair. The calico cat pays about as much mind to rules as Lex does, which is to say that even though there's nothing of interest in the Lionel's house, being disallowed entry is enough to pique her interest.
Her bed is still unmade, the pinwheel quilt kicked to the ground, threadbare topsheet in a tangled pile from the last night's stress dreams. (Had she drowned again?)
Her pillow is covered in black and orange fur that wasn't there before.
Surprise — you're on my mind again. Is that weird? I think about you a lot. My leg buckles and I think of you. I see more than two crows in the same place and I think of you. I grab a steak knife to cut my dinner and I think of you. Nothing in particular happens and I think of you anyway.
Maybe it isn't that weird. I'm not use to having a murderer — maybe I am supposed to think about you all the time.
Sometimes I think I'd forget the whole Hunger Games if it weren't for you.
Burl feigns indifference for a moment before deigning to hop into Lex's lap, presenting her head for pets and purring in anticipation. I'm waiting, human servant. You've been shirking your duties for too long and I won't stand for it. Lex obligingly scratches the feral cat's face with both hands, running a gentle finger over the new tears on the calico's left ear.
"Looks like you had some adventures of your own, huh Burl?" she asks, voice lilting into that tone reserved for cats and baby birds and the table saw. "Yeah, I bet you did. Was it that gang of raccoons again? Yeah? You showed some raccoons who's boss? Kicked their asses?"
Guess you're not the only one to think that me coming back is some Capitol trick. Maybe you were on to something — Arthur's not fully convinced I'm not some sort of "doppelganger spy" or at least outfitted with some kind of transmitting device to send audio back to the peacekeepers. I'll admit that second one doesn't sound totally implausible, but it really doesn't sound worth the effort to me. Why not just bug the house?
Anyway, he's not really talking to me right now — not that he ever said much in the first place. He's been passing me notes instead and burning them after. Obviously. Wouldn't want a paper trail of him asking me to pick up an extra lot of sixteen-penny nails for the new porch. It's a bit of a nuisance right now but he'll give it up sooner or later. I'm waiting until he's had some whiskey then I'll tell him about your scale for promises and how I'm thinking about adopting it, and if that doesn't get him grumbling then there's no hope for me.
Nothing in the woodshop is where she left it. It makes sense; she was gone a month, plenty of time for restless hands to make work of every tool, every jig, every inch of space. Plenty of time for new layers of sawdust and shavings to blanket the space, to get swept up, and to snow down again. Plenty of time for works-in-progress to be finished and moved out and for new projects to spring up in their place. Even if the snapshot stored in her memory doesn't quite line up with reality, the shop is still every bit the home she wasn't sure she'd ever come back to.
Shutting her eyes for a moment, Lex takes a deep breath and savors the smells. Fresh cut planks, tung oil and beeswax, the subtle burn of metal that says the table saw ran this morning. She turns on the dust collection and the whole shop roars to life, a hovercraft-engine, mine-implosion, Lex-snoring cacophony drowning out every other sound. It's peaceful. She could stand there forever, breathing and still and alive in the hum of the shop machinery like one of Denali's definitely-made-up yoga poses. Indecisive carpenter into rough-sawn plank into jointer-planer combo.
She should've just stayed put.
cuts a set of mitres off by a single degree four times in a row until the board are so short the entire frame needs to be resized
ends up with box joints so badly misaligned no amount of sanding could hope to fix them
very nearly loses a thumb making crosscuts
mistakes cedar for mahogany and spends fifteen minutes sitting on the step outside, hacking up a lung waiting for the dust to settle
ruins several board feet of figured cherry simply getting the dimensions backwards when ripping everything down to size
The day ends with a a flustered chisel putting a gouge in the face of one board too deep to sand out. That's fine. She can thickness the whole project down another quarter inch if she needs to. Cut down to size, her stock's too small to go back through the planer on its own, but that's what outriggers are for.
At least in theory. But the glue holding those scrapwood braces to her stock doesn't get enough curing time — can't you ever be patient, Lexandriy? — and doesn't hold. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" The board is pulled up into the planer and wholly devoured, and Lex hits the deck to duck the shrapnel.
An hour and a half later, Arthur finds her still picking chips and splinters out of the hungry machine and the dust collector both. He doesn't say a word. It doesn't matter. Lex has lived with her father long enough that she reads each variant of his reticent frowns better than any time he bothers to speak. This one tries to conceal the way it wonders if the Lex that came back might not be the same one that left. She hears it loud and clear anyway.
Mackenzie says you called again. I know I should call you back, and one of these days I will. I can't right now. I hope you don't think it's because I don't want to talk to you or that I don't like you or anything like that. I do.
But I've got some stuff I need to sort out first. Being back in Seven is weird and complicated enough on its own, and sometimes I find myself thinking it would be easier to move on with my life if I just put the whole 80th behind me. Close the book on it. You know? Put it in a box, bury it, never look at it again?
No need to tell me I'm being stupid. I know I am. I know it doesn't work like that. I know I'll never forget any of it — you least of all — and it's not even that I want to. I just don't want to spend the rest of my life focused on this one thing that happened to me.
And besides, I don't think anything I'd say on the phone with you would decrease my chances of getting reaped next year. Which, you know, I'd rather avoid if possible. I think I'm already in hot water over the yard traps.
I'll give you a call when I'm ready. Soon, I hope. I miss you.
How long are you going to keep ignoring me for, anyway? Because it's been... it's been awhile. I know you hate talking. Especially when it's weird. But why won't you talk to me?
Do you... does it not matter?
If you're not gonna say anything, fine. I'll tell you it all anyway. Every last detail. That way you can't be weird about it. I know you're at least a little curious, and I know you're never gonna ask anyway, so... here it is, I guess:
I lost that lottery, I went to the Capitol, I killed two other kids, and then I died.
Is that the part you can't ask about? Dying? Or is it the rest of it? It's got to be dying. Right? Everything else... kill or be killed — like you've never been in that position before. Have you? I killed Minx Alhstrom and it was clearer and easier than anything else I've ever done in my life. Same with Quest Hertz. It was me or it was them. I'd kill them all over again if I had to and it wouldn't be any harder. I know them better now and I'd do it again and it would be nothing.
Is that what it is? Does it bother you knowing I'd do that?
...no, of course it doesn't. Then what? Is it because I died? Because I came back? Look — one piece. Just like I said I would. I'm hard to kill — you should know about as well as anyone.
Remember that winter I drowned in the river? And I'm still kicking.
You know, after that... you still talked to me. Back then. It wasn't... ugh, it wasn't weird like this. So what's different now?
I went to the Capitol? It's big and it's loud and it's not that exciting. Are you still on that conspiracy theory? They stuck trackers in our arms when we were going into the arena. Right here, where Denali's knife... it came up close to the surface, so last month I pulled it out with pliers and smashed it with a hammer. Do you want to see it?
It's not because I got reaped, is it? Bad luck. And I know I might have bad luck again next year. But I'm ready for it — or I'm getting there. You've seen how good my aim's gotten — even with that one bent-up saw blade, I usually hit right where I'm throwing. Not to mention I've put a lot more thought into building traps — I've got that little notebook half-filled with plans already. So even if I do go back, I'm not gonna...
It wasn't bad, you know. Dying. Not the way I did it. I'm not going to do it again, not for a long time, but I don't regret it, either. I'm not sorry. I'm not sorry about any of it.
Hope the victory tour wasn't too painful for you. Sounds like things were sort of tense.
Things weren't so bad here, at least they weren't at first. Annie and I had a good talk and a couple beers in the woodshop. I gave her this bottle opener you can use with one hand. (I made it out of some scrap olivewood that we got our hands on for a different project.) It was pretty calm up until about two or three beers in, which is when I guess the peacekeeper who was escorting her thought it would be a good idea to wander into our yard. Spoiler alert: it was not a good idea to wander into our yard.
See, I meant it when I told you I was gonna work on building traps and stuff. I have been. I've been working on it pretty much every other day since I got back to Seven, even. So you know what our yard is full of? It definitely isn't dandelions, I can tell you that much.
Anyway, so this bastard's outside, halfway between the workshop and the house, howling like he's been speared through the calf (because he's been speared through the calf). Annie and I get there first, and because I'm a apparently a dumbass, I grab the crowbar and pry him loose from my spikejaw trap. He starts screaming about illegal fortifications and maiming a peacekeeper and whatever other bullshit. There's a lot I don't really remember past that.
I do remember Arthur coming out of the house, and I remember putting my crowbar down (like a dumbass), and I remember getting stuck in handcuffs. I tried to talk my way out of it — and I swear I tried not to be such a shithead — but I should know by now that opening my mouth only ever makes things worse. Especially when it's peacekeepers. But it's not like my odds were gonna get any better if I let him drag me off to fuck knows where, so I had to at least try, right? Then I saw Arthur digging in his pocket and it was like... right before you killed Maxwell, it was like I knew exactly what was going to happen before it did, so when you finished him off for real it was like I'd already seen it before. It was just like that. He always keeps a multi-tool on him — all his pants have a frayed pocket on that side from decades of clipping it there — and he keeps the knife's blade sharp.
I skinned my knees on the drive trying to get free on my own. I wasn't going to let Arthur get executed — or worse, avoxed — over what seemed like such a small thing, but I didn't have a whole lot of options left and everything I tried just made the whole situation worse. Even took a page out of your book and tried to bite him once. He was out of my reach by then which is probably for the best.
What did work was whatever Annie said to him. Would've been nice to not need to ask her if she was gonna let him drag me off to die like that, but she snapped into gear and however she did it, she talked him down. It's a blur after that. Kinda like how I still don't remember most of the morning we killed Quest, even watching the footage.
There was a lot of gravel in my shoes when I took them off later, but everything's okay now. Hope things are good with you, too.
(shoutouts to geebs and ryan for their enthusiasm for cassius getting caught in a trap and keeping lex from getting arrested on the spot, respectively)
In the late afternoon, in the middle of the night, she catches her mind lost in intricate hypotheticals. Anything in front of her — the shadow of her bureau in the gray predawn, the sugar-coating of autumn frost dusting the shed piles of maple leaves, the marked out mortise on the cherrywood beneath her chisel — falls out of focus while she contemplates about other timelines, about parallel universe, about other Lexes.
She wonders about the Lex that was reaped a year too early. If she'd've stood where Ike Tate had and still died with the same artery slashed, or if she'd have steered clear of Mackenzie's posse altogether. If she'd've been shredded in the shadow of that Hydra with the other tributes that had gone it alone. If she'd've looked at Zion Lyons howling hysterically for "Denali! Denali!" and seen nothing more than an easy target.
She wonders about the Lex that was reaped a year later. If she'd have fought tooth and nail to the end. If she'd have gone home with a crown after all of it, or if she'd have gone home from the reaping on the ill-considered selflessness of a stranger.
She wonders about the Lex who drowned in her own blood on the pavement, her throat crushed between feral, desperate jaws.
She wonders about the Lex with better aim, with no meddling heart. About the Lex who stared down Shy and Bette and Annie at the foot of the landship, and about the Lex who threw her hatchets at different company. If she'd have split Angel's skull the way Denali buried a knife in Shy's eye, or if she'd have buried the point of her sword in his throat instead. If she'd have quietly burned to death in the mud while Temple and Carmen swung axes and spears and spiked maces at one another over the right to go home breathing. If she'd have been the one doing the swinging. If it would have been enough. If it mattered when it wasn't.
She wonders about the Lex that was never reaped. If she's better off. If she's worse off. If she's fundamentally the same. If she should be hoping for one outcome above another for her fictional counterpart. If she's wondering about the Lex who went to the Capitol, who died, who lived again, who's wondering about her.
She wonders if she should stop thinking and just go back to sleep.
I guess I'll definitely be seeing you there since there's that feast and all that they're getting the tributes together for. That's going to be a hot mess for sure. The feast will, I mean, not seeing you. Or maybe both. Who knows? Last time we were together we were — what was the phrase Caesar used? — careening through the arena on a pile of rickety garbage? (Have you seen any of the reruns? It's pretty wild to watch them, even though the commentary is dumb and I swear I remember some things differently.)
Arthur and I are trying to figure out what we're going to hawk at the festival — Ripred knows we've got enough small things lying around to fill a booth or two. Especially since (spoiler alert!) the things are tiny. Which, you know, makes sense when you factor in the truly stupid decision to stick a bunch of conifers and all that lumber for the booth structures on a train instead of just holding the damn festival here. I'm sure I'll be less grumpy about it when I'm there — it's just because we have to head to Eight early to do some assembly work, and that will probably mean missing the first snow here, which is my favorite.
(Plus, it's not like I'd mind the chance to show you around District Seven.)
Hope you have a good Hallow's Eve — and see you so soon!