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Chapter 54: Excitement
Storm
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes/Warnings: Uncomfortable medical examinations, old truths, a large party

Hey, All! Just a reminder that my third e-book for this series, Super: Exile, is available for sale! The Amazon link is here, and you can find links to other e-retailers in the section for Book 3 in on the Introduction page. Also, if you want to get a jump on this story, the e-book includes up through chapter 57, and I'd very much welcome if anyone who's been reading wants to leave a review!

Thanks, as always, to my editor-in-chief, gwoman for helping me make this story better.


Back to Chapter 53

She could hear voices, but they seemed muffled. Lex tried burrowing further down into the covers to drown them out, but still they persisted. After several minutes of waiting for sleep to claim her again, Lex opened her eyes, feeling for a second as if the lids had been stuck together. As she blinked, she found she didn't get a clearer idea of what was going on, since she'd pulled the covers up around her face and only had a palm-sized view of the wall she'd turned towards. Sighing, she moved to turn over but had trouble doing it, realizing after a moment that her hands had been covered in large mittens and her feet encased in what felt like thick slippers.

“Lex, you're awake,” she heard Rolf's voice.

As she pulled the covers down from her face, Lex tried to ease the concern she'd heard in his tone with her expression, smiling to convey that everything would be all right. Pulling an arm out from under the covers, she reached for Rolf with one mittened hand before she caught sight of someone else in the room. She looked up at the man in surprise before recognizing one of Rolf's uncles, though she was unable to recall his name in her sleep-hazed state.

Rolf gave her a smile then, seeming to read her difficulty, and said, “Lex, you probably remember my Uncle Fred. I think we talked at the dinner table about how he's a doctor.”

Oh. “Yes, I remember now,” Lex replied with a nod and a smile.

“He wants to look you over,” Rolf continued after a brief, dubious glance at his uncle. “I didn't want to wake you, but he insisted.”

Fred started speaking at a brisk pace, and Lex thought she heard an edge of nervousness in his voice. “I need to check you for frostbite. I examined you once we got back here, and most everything looked all right: just your hands and feet seemed questionable. We did what we could to warm them up, so I want to have a look at them now that you're awake.”

Lex flexed her hands and feet, and they seemed to work fine, so she looked up at Fred. “All right,” she replied with a note of caution in her tone.

“Rolf, could you give us a few minutes?” he asked.

Rolf looked over at Lex, who raised an eyebrow but nodded in acceptance. As the door closed behind Rolf, Fred said, “All right, Lex, could you please show me your hands?”

Lex sat up in bed then, the covers still over the majority of her body, and reached her hands out to Fred. The man took them in his own hands, then put the left down as he pulled the oversized mitten off the right, making sure not to catch any of her fingers as he did so. “We soaked your hands and feet in water when we got back inside, but I wanted to be sure that they warmed up, so we put on these mittens to make sure you'd stay warm.”

He gave her right hand a close inspection, and then her left one, asking her to move each and then getting out a small pin to check whether she could feel the sensation on various parts of her skin. “How do your hands feel overall?” he asked as he continued to prod her.

Shrugging, Lex considered the question. “All right, I guess. They do seem itchy, though. Maybe I need to put some moisturizer on.”

Fred gave her a serious look, then shook his head. “You can try some lotion, but I don't think that's the problem. Although it doesn't seem to be any worse on your hands, I think you may have gone through the first stage of frostbite, which is why they're itching.”

“Frostbite?” Lex asked, feeling worried for the first time since she'd woken up. “Is everything going to be all right?”

“That's what I'm checking now,” he explained. “In the first stage, there's no lasting damage, but after a few days you may develop patches of skin that become red or white and don't have much sensation. That will pass as your skin repairs itself, but you may end up with permanent sensitivity to temperature extremes. Of course, I'll need to check your feet, as well. It seemed that was the only other area where you had problems.”

He asked her to lie back and take her slippers off, then to close her eyes as he touched the bottoms of her feet with the pin. Lex tried not twitch her feet, since the procedure tickled depending on where Fred touched, but she did notice that her toes seemed more tingly than her hands.

“It seems your toes got more affected than your fingers,” Fred said after a few moments, frowning in concern as Lex looked in his direction. “Perhaps you laced your boots too tight.”

Lex shrugged. “Actually, my boots weren't insulated.”

His eyebrows shot up. “You spent the night outside last night without insulated boots? That's quite a risk.”

“I didn't have much time to think about it, since Rolf couldn't warn me ahead of time,” Lex replied, shooing Fred a dubious glance. “However, if I had, I think I still would have picked the uncertainty of frostbite over being ripped apart by a couple of wolves bent on my destruction.”

He said nothing in response for a moment, just continued looking at her feet, which made Lex guess she hadn't been the only one who'd noticed and identified Karl's behavior. After a few moments, Fred said, “You could look into getting a pair of insulated boots so that you wouldn't run into this issue in the future.”

She smiled in response. “Oh, no, I needed that pair. I could see if the guy who made them for me could make an insulated pair, however.”

“So, I'm guessing that you can't normally run up railings?” Fred glanced at her sidelong with a smile on his face.

“Hey, a girl's got to have some secrets,” Lex replied, her grin growing. “I do think that if I had to plan this over, knowing what I know now, I'd probably get some better thermal socks and some glove liners, though.”

He nodded, leaning over to get her slippers and hand them to her. “A good idea for the future. I'll keep an eye on your fingers and toes for the rest of your stay here. We should be able to tell over the next couple of days how deep the damage is, but so far it seems that it's nothing permanent.”

“All right, thanks,” Lex said as she put the slippers back on.

Fred turned then, but hesitated before he spoke again. “Do you mind if I ask you about something?”

“What's that?” Lex asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Do you mind if I examine your eyes?” he asked after a pause.

Lex drew back. “Why?” she asked, her voice careful. She'd been feeling as if she'd warmed up, even though she wasn't fully under the covers anymore, but now she felt a chill in her blood again.

He looked down for a moment, then back up before answering. “I’ve never seen eyes that shade before,” he murmured in a tone so soft she almost didn't hear.

After a minute to digest what he’d said, her stomach dropped and she felt a vein on the side of her neck start to beat wildly. Lex responded, “If you’re wondering if they were always this color, then you’re right: they weren’t. But, I got away from being treated as an experiment once and won’t be treated like that again.”

She was surprised at how harsh her voice sounded, and Lex felt horrified but also strangely justified as Fred turned his face away. After a silent pause he replied, “I would never treat you like that, Lex. You’re my newest niece, after all.”

His words rang true in her ear, and she almost relaxed but some anger and fear still burned in her chest, and that seemed to answer for her. “So did someone else do that to Rolf when he was a kid?”

Lex felt her stomach clench as she watched Fred's face seem to crumble as he frowned and looked down. “No, you're right, of course. I did that to those two boys, and ever since I've dreaded this day, when I'd have to face their wives-to-be and admit it, which I swore to myself I would do. I was much younger then and so foolishly afraid of Richard that I did what he wanted without question. I would never do such things any longer, although I know that's no consolation. I apologize to you that I've caused this situation, and that you and your husband-to-be will never have children.”

Closing her eyes for a moment, Lex sighed, then opened them again, struggling against the heaviness in her chest she felt for having brought this up, but also relieved that everything was out in the open. “There's no need to apologize to me. I've never wanted kids anyway, so it's a relief to me that it's not an option with Rolf. I think you might want to talk to Rolf, though. I don't know if he ever wanted kids, but I'm sure he must have been afraid when all of that happened.”

After a long pause when they both seemed frozen in place, Lex reached out to put her hand on Fred's arm. He flinched, but she held steady. “All right, then,” she said, her tone sounding serious in her own ears. “You can have a look at my eyes if you're still interested.”

He looked up then, his expression seeming to question what he'd heard, but he also wore a tiny, hopeful grin and nodded, getting an instrument out of his bag. Fred directed Lex to look at a book spine on the bookshelf behind him as he shone a light and began to examine her eyes. She took a deep breath, still feeling shaky as the onslaught of emotions that had run through her began to lessen, and tried not to blink or move her eyes as light blinded her.

“Everything looks good,” Fred said after a long pause, snapping the light off. “Has anything else been bothering you since then?”

Lex listed out the changes she'd experienced following her escape, from the lack of color in her hair to the migraines she now got. Fred listened and said nothing as she spoke, only seeming concerned at the last item.

“Did you ever get an MRI following your recovery?” he asked, a small frown on his face. “It seems like you have the other things you experienced taken care of, but I find your headache changes worrying.”

Shaking her head, Lex explained, “I know my doctor wanted to do a full battery of tests, but we were on the run at the time, so it wasn't possible. Since we've come here, I think we've all just forgotten.”

“If you don't want to have me try to schedule something for the rest of the time you and Rolf are here,” Fred said, giving Lex a serious glance, “please at least promise that you'll talk to your regular doctor when you get back home in order to get one there.”

She nodded as she met his concerned look, and he nodded in response. “All right, good. Now for the last. Did you injure yourself at all, other than partially freezing, in your long run through the woods last night?”

Lex thought about it for a moment as she twitched her arms and legs a bit, trying to bring back her recollections of the previous night. As she rolled her shoulders, she gasped and then stopped. “I remember now; I wrenched my left shoulder when I fell from the roof to the trees. Could you turn around and I'll take my shirt off so that you can have a look?”

Fred turned and then Lex rearranged the covers before stripping off her nightshirt, then turned her back to Fred before saying, “All right, I'm ready.”

He looked at her shoulder for a few long minutes, then tried manipulating it with gentle fingers. It felt less painful than when Lex had carelessly tried moving it, but she found herself breathing heavily once he'd finished manipulating her arm. After looking over her shoulder, he touched the large bruise coming up on her right arm before asking, “Is this shoulder hurt as well or just the left?”

“Just the left,” Lex confirmed. “I got this bruise running into a tree branch.”

After a few more moments, Fred said, “Well, it doesn't look as if you've dislocated the shoulder, which is good because we'd have had to fix that right away. It does look like you gave it a good strain, though, because I notice there's some swelling and bruising. How does it feel to hold it up?”

Lex thought about it for a second and tried it out before replying, “It is a bit sore, but I think I'll be fine.”

“If it hurts too much today, try some ice on it. Let me know if it starts to hurt too much to hold it up, and I'll get a sling for you. It may bother you for at least the next few days, maybe as much as a week.”

She nodded and craned her neck to watch as he turned away. After she'd slipped her nightshirt back on, he turned back with a serious look on his face. “And, as your doctor, I'd like to add that I recommend not swinging from the chandeliers or leaping from tree to tree for at least the next few weeks.”

Breaking into a smile, Lex chuckled. “I'll definitely try to avoid all of that, then.” As she watched him pack his bag back up, Lex found herself growing more and more curious and asked, “Fred? Do you mind if I ask you something? What was the point behind the trial the other night?”

He gave her a glance she found hard to read before he responded. “Technically I'm not supposed to tell you these things until you're one of us, but since you've passed that ordeal I already consider you part of the family.” He sighed before continuing. “It's a traditional trial for all members of the family who marry in. The way Brigitte explained it to me is that it's supposed to be a demonstration of the strength of the pack over the strength of any individual member. I don't think it worked out as intended this time.”

Lex nodded, then watched as he started to walk towards the door. “Hey,” she said just before he reached it, “I just wanted to say I'm sorry that I snapped at you earlier.”

“You don't have anything to apologize for. I understand why you were upset; if I'd gone through what you had, I'd be upset about those sorts of examinations as well.”

He nodded once as he left, closing the door behind him. Lex shrugged then smiled in return before he closed the door, and laid back in bed for a few minutes, pulling the covers up to her chin. Lex considered trying to get back to sleep, but she felt fully awake now and belatedly realized that it looked as if the sun would set soon, so she decided it probably was time to get up, at least for a while.

She got up out of bed and tried not to groan as her stiff muscles attempted to accommodate her, then made her way to the tiny bathroom. As she warmed up the shower and removed her clothes, Lex studied herself in the mirror. Her left shoulder looked swollen and bruised where she'd hit the tree trunk. The bruise on her right arm had colored in with a dark purple as well. She sighed and looked at her fingers and toes, which all appeared much like they ever had but continued to have a tingly feeling near the tips.

She spent awhile in the shower, working around her bad shoulder and making sure having her toes partially frozen hadn't impaired her balance. Once she finished, she stepped out and reached for a towel, smiling as she pulled the curtain back to find Rolf had returned. Her smile faded as she watched the shocked expression on his face.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his eyes full of concern.

Lex nodded as she dried herself off. “Dr. Fred seemed more worried about my fingers and toes than anything else. Don't worry, though, there should be no permanent damage, maybe just some temperature sensitivity. The rest should be fine, too, but I may need to ice down my shoulder later.”

He nodded but gave her an uncertain look. She smiled in return and stood tall as she hung the towel back up, then kissed him on the cheek. “I'm going to be just fine. I am hungry, though. Do you think we could get something to eat?”

The smile he gave her then made her heart speed up. “Of course. Get dressed and we'll see what we can get for you.”

Once she had, the two of them wound down the staircase to end up in the kitchen. While talking to the cook to get some food made, Lex thought she heard someone arriving, and a moment later Mina burst into the kitchen.

“I just got home from work, but I thought I heard your voices,” she said, rushing forward to hug Lex. “How are you? Are you all right?”

She pulled back to inspect Lex, so Lex stood up straight and spread her hands out in front of her to show Mina. “I'm fine,” Lex said, trying to put as much reassurance into her tone as she could. “Why are you all so worried?”

Rolf and Mina exchanged a glance then, which concerned Lex. After a moment, Rolf turned to her and said, “You were so tired when we went back to the house this morning. I had to carry you for most of the last kilometer. I think everyone was worried about you after that.”

Lex sighed, recalling her spotty recollections about that trip. “I don't remember much about walking back to the house,” she admitted, turning to Rolf. “Thanks for bringing me home. I am OK, though: I was just cold for a little too long and got bruised up, but no permanent damage.”

“Oh, I'm so glad,” Mina breathed out with a sigh and pulled out her cell phone. “I'm going to call Theo to let him know. He's probably just upstairs. Do you want to have dinner together?”

Lex laughed at her excited question and nodded. “Sure, that sounds fine. I've been sleeping all day and we just came down here to find out about something to eat, actually.”

“We'll get you something for now then, and we can all eat later,” Mina said, then turned to say a few quick words into her phone. “Theo's coming down,” she continued as she hung up. “He wanted to see you just as much as I did.”

“You had to work today?” Lex asked as all three of them moved to sit at the kitchen table.

Mina waved the question off. “I'd taken the day off, but something came up that they needed help with, so I went in for a few hours in the afternoon. Nothing too bad, but I'm glad I went anyway.”

Theo came through the kitchen doors then with a quick step and smiled to see all of them at the kitchen table. He turned to his wife and kissed her hello, then exclaimed “Lex!” before rushing forward to give her a one-armed hug. “We all felt pretty worried about you this morning.”

“I know,” she said, ducking her head and feeling her cheeks heat up. “Sorry about that.”

“Are you all right?” he said, taking a seat at the table next to Mina.

“I just got banged up and too cold for too long, but nothing permanent. I hope no one else had any injuries,” Lex added, suddenly realizing that she might not have been the only one.

“Wolves can put up with cold a lot better than humans can,” Rolf said, reaching over to take Lex's hand.

“Well,” Theo added, “I did hear that Karl has a big bruise on his nose today, but I don't think anyone else got hurt. I'm not sure how he became injured, either, now that I think about it.”

Lex's eyes widened as Theo looked over at her with raised eyebrows and a smirk, his expression so funny that she felt hard pressed not to laugh. A noise interrupted them a moment later, and Rolf took his cell phone out of his pocket, starting as he looked at the display.

“It's Aunt Lucy,” he said as he moved to answer the phone. “I told her I'd call when you woke up, but I forgot to do it.”

Everyone around the table fell silent as he answered, and after a few words, Rolf raised an eyebrow and smiled, then handed the phone to Lex. “She'd like to talk to you.”

“Hi, Aunt Lucy,” Lex said as she took the phone. “How are you?”

“How are you?” she heard the woman ask in return. “You looked so out of it on the way back to the house that I was worried that you had hypothermia or something.”

“I'm fine, thanks to you and Rolf and everyone else. You were so brave,” Lex added, looking over at Rolf as she said the last bit, watching him smile, then looking away. “That was you attacking Karl along with Rolf, wasn't it?”

“Well, we weren't going to let him attack you like that and get away with it,” Lucy said in return, a fierce tone running through her voice.

“Thank you for taking up for me,” Lex replied, meeting Rolf's eyes again as she spoke. “It really meant a lot to me.”

Lex heard silence for a moment, then something that sounded like a small sigh. “Of course I'd defend you, Lex; I've seen how happy you two are. All right, I've got to go but I'll see you soon. Could you give me back to Rolf for a moment?”

“Sure, Aunt Lucy. See you soon,” she said before she handed the phone back to Rolf, gesturing to him to take it.

The cook had placed some appetizers on the table at that moment, so Lex reached out for some fresh-cut vegetables paired with applesauce as a dip. She glanced over at Rolf still talking to his aunt, before turning as she heard Theo speak.

“Will! What are you doing down here?” he asked, and Lex looked in the direction Theo faced to see the boy she'd met the other day.

He'd dressed in casual clothes this time, but the air of gravity he'd had before hadn't left him. “Hello, Uncle Theo,” he said in a quiet voice. “I wanted to see Aunt Lex. I heard father say many things about her, so I wanted to see if she was all right.”

Theo looked over at Lex along with Will, then replied, “As you can see, Will, your Aunt Lex is fine. Were you worried about her?”

Will looked over at Lex then, tilting his head as he considered the question, and shook his head after a pause. “No, I think she can take care of herself just fine, as Aunt Lucy would say. I just wanted to see her for myself.”

Laughing, Theo lifted Will to his lap. “All right, little man. Did you get anything to eat earlier, or do you want to eat with your Uncle Theo?”

Lex watched Mina smile at the two of them together, and then they all became distracted as the cook brought their main course over to the table. A moment later, just before they'd begun to eat, Sandra appeared in the doorway, almost flinching as she saw Lex.

“Good evening everyone,” she said in a low, quick tone. “Will, it's time to get ready for bed.”

He gave Theo a brief look as if to say he wanted to stay, but Theo pushed his chair out, a regretful expression on his face. “Good night, Will,” he said, leaning over to hug his nephew.

“Good night, Uncle Theo,” Will replied, regarding his uncle with a serious look. “Good night, everyone,” he added, looking at the rest of the party at the table in turn.

Sometime later, Lex found herself half drowsing on one of the couches in the living room, only partially watching a movie on a flat-screen TV that she hadn't noticed during the uncomfortable cocktail party with Rolf's relatives. She'd gone from a sitting position to resting with her head on Rolf's lap while he held an ice pack in place on her shoulder. He looked down a moment later, seeming to catch her looking up at him.

“Ready for bed?” he asked. “I thought maybe we could do some shopping tomorrow, so if you can sleep it might be good.”

“For what?” Lex asked in reply, trying to stifle a yawn.

“There's going to be another big dinner tomorrow,” Rolf said, putting the ice pack on a side table in favor of running his hands through Lex's hair. “So you can meet some of our other relatives. I don't know how many people will be here, but our cousins, aunts, and uncles from neighboring families have all been invited.”

She thought about that the next day as she looked at herself in the mirror, the new dress that Rolf had insisted on buying her also occupying her attention. The heavy, dark green velvet had been fitted through the bodice and sleeves, but the skirt gathered at the waist then flared out as it fell to her ankles. She'd found some short, black velvet gloves to wear in order to cover up the fact that her hands had started to redden, and although the cut of the dress fell to a V-neck in front, she found it also covered the purpling bruise on her left shoulder.

“I told you it would look lovely on you,” Rolf said, appearing in the mirror behind her, tying his bow tie.

She grinned at his reflection. “I'm just kind of jealous that you guys can always wear the same thing and it's perfectly fine.”

He smiled in return and chuckled, finishing up with his tie and leaning over to kiss Lex on the cheek. “Come on, are you ready? Let's head downstairs and see who decided to show up.”

Lex followed him, wondering as she remembered the additional cars that she'd spotted parked near the garage as the two of them had come back from the shops that afternoon. She smiled as he took her hand, and the two of them left their room, walking down the corridor outside that usually remained quiet but seemed much more lively at that moment, the rooms around them spilling light out from underneath their doors with the murmuring buzz of conversation behind them. Before they'd made it to the stairs, Rolf had introduced his Uncle Gus and Aunt Lila who'd come down from farther north. They all shook hands before the two older people made their way to one of the guest rooms along the hall.

When they arrived downstairs, Lex found herself holding onto Rolf's hand more tightly as she saw all of the unfamiliar people and considered that the dozen or so she could see arriving or heading for the living room probably all could shapeshift. He pulled her to the side of the main hallway for a moment, speaking into her ear. “Don't worry,” he murmured. “I'll be right here with you all evening. And, these relatives aren't like my family. In other families, their situation is much different than ours here. Besides, you passed the test already. There won't be anything else you need to prove, so we can just relax.”

“Really?” Lex asked as she realized she'd been waiting for the next shoe to drop.

“Really,” Rolf replied with confidence, stepping out and pulling Lex's back off the wall as she moved with him. “Let's get something to drink and I can start introducing you to everyone. I think that's going to be our biggest task tonight.”

She smiled in reply, her worry beginning to leave due to the look of surety in Rolf's eyes. She smiled at the small group of people coming in through the front door carrying overnight bags, but Lex found herself pausing on the threshold of the large living room with Rolf a moment later. The conversation in the room had dwindled then stopped as everyone looked over at the two of them, and Rolf and Lex exchanged a quick grin before stepping down into the room and going forward to talk to the first knot of people.

Sometime after the first few introductions, Lex didn't even try to remember names, since the number of new people seemed to be too great. Instead, she focused on trying to record their faces in her memory and to join in the conversations as she and Rolf moved from group to group. At one point Lex looked up to find a drink being pressed into her hand, and she glanced over to see Mina and sighed with a smile.

“Theo asked me to bring this to you,” she said, with an apologetic expression. “He figured you might need it, with all of the people you're going to meet tonight.”

Lex looked at Mina gratefully, sipping the tonic water and lime. “How many people are coming tonight?” she asked, looking around the room at the group who'd already gathered.

Mina considered the question for a moment, her dark hair gracefully slipping to one side as she tilted her head. “Well, they would have invited fifty people if they considered the usual group of relatives,” she replied. “But it's rare that everyone can make it, so we'll probably end up with about forty people total, including all of us.”

Lex's eyes widened as she considered having to meet around thirty new people, but she calmed after a moment as she realized she might already be halfway through. She glanced over at Mina again, taking in the other woman's deep blue dress done in a heavy, patterned fabric. It complimented her dark hair and pale skin well, and Mina had accented it with a thick silver necklace, a sapphire drop pendant, and matching earrings. “Forty,” Lex said after another sigh. “All right, I'd better get back to it, then. By the way, that's a lovely color on you.”

Smiling, Mina replied, “You're looking beautiful tonight yourself, Lex. I'll leave you to it. Let us know if you need anything else.”

Rolf and Lex continued to circulate and, after several group changes, stopped to talk with some enthusiastic college-age cousins of Rolf's. He introduced them as Carla, Abby, and Gregor Wagner, explaining, “I spent most of the summer at their family's house near Vienna when I was twelve. I usually just enrolled at the summer program at school, but that year the whole school closed because they'd planned to remodel a number of the buildings, so Aunt Gretchen and Uncle Heinz agreed to take me in.”

He nodded in the direction of an older couple across the room talking to Giselle and a number of other people Lex hadn't yet met. “We were all so excited,” Carla said, leaning forward to touch Lex's forearm. “We never got to see any of the Kaisers unless we came out here. Karl was always so mean, but Rolf was sweet, just like an older brother to us.”

Lex couldn't help but smile at the woman as she grinned back, inclining her head to talk to Lex since she stood about a foot taller. Getting an overall impression of long, willowy limbs as she looked at Rolf's cousin, Lex watched as Carla ran a hand through her short dark curls. “None of us could wait to come out to this and meet you,” she added.

Gregor grinned then, looking over at Abby. “Abby wanted to meet you especially,” he said, the sound of a laugh in his voice as he leaned over to nudge his sister. He'd dressed in a suit much like the one Rolf and his brothers wore; Lex thought the outfit had a much different effect on him due to his dark blonde hair and light blue eyes. He appeared slim and lithe and moved in the suit with the ease of someone who wore formal wear often.

Abby dropped her head and let her long, straight blonde hair hide her face. Lex noted that Abby and Gregor stood about halfway between her own and Carla's heights, and she thought Abby carried the same slim grace in her limbs as her brother. Looking up after a moment, Abby turned a blushing face towards Lex and Rolf as if about to speak, but just dropped her head again.

Laughing, Gregor added, “We weren't the only ones who liked having Rolf around that summer. Our next-door neighbor was a few years older and she seemed to like Rolf quite a bit. Abby wondered if you were anything like her.”

Looking over at Rolf, Lex laughed to see the surprised look on his face. “I'd forgotten all about that,” he said after a moment, glancing over at Lex.

“Can't blame the girl for having taste,” Lex replied, grinning. “Do we look anything alike?”

Abby laughed and shook her head, and Lex felt her grin grow as she spotted the blush on the girl's cheeks. Gregor smiled in return and added, “Actually, she was a blonde and taller than Rolf. I remember him asking me to keep an eye out and let him know when she came by.”

He glanced over at Rolf at that point, and although Rolf shot him a near glare that Lex could easily interpret as a command to stop talking, Gregor continued. “I thought he wanted me to let him know so that he could see her, but to my surprise, every time she came around he disappeared.”

“She was older and seemed to want something I didn't know anything about,” Rolf said, shooting Gregor a dirty look and then glancing at Lex.

Lex took his hand then with a smile. “Twelve is a little young for that sort of thing,” she agreed.

Some more of Rolf's aunts and uncles interrupted the conversation by coming to introduce themselves, and afterwards Rolf and his cousins continued telling stories of the time they'd spent together over the years, stories which were frequently broken into by more introductions.

Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes later, one of the servants announced dinner, and everyone began moving into the dining room. Lex noted that the large dining table had been fully set, and smaller tables had been placed in each corner of the room to accommodate the large number of people who'd arrived. Place cards had been set in front of each plate, and Lex and Rolf found their places at one of the smaller tables in the north corner of the dining room. As the room filled, the two of them noticed that a number of the younger attendees seemed to hover in the north corner, including the Wagner cousins. The older adults had begun finding their seats at the main table, which had been arranged in some sort of hierarchical fashion, but Lex seemed to hear a greater buzz of conversation in the younger set of adults. She frowned, wondering about the topic of discussion, since she and Rolf weren't close enough to hear. She glanced at Rolf with a question in her eyes, but he just shrugged and shook his head in reply.

After a few seconds, the group separated, as if they'd decided on something. To Lex's surprise, and apparently to the surprise of most at the main table, the younger adults grabbed the table in the west corner of the room and moved it to line up with the table Rolf and Lex sat at. Rolf and Lex moved to get up, but Carla came over, waving her arms.

“No, Rolf, Lex,” she said. “Please, don't mind us. We were just talking, and so many people wanted to sit at your table that we decided to move this one over. Just relax; we'll have everything set up in a minute.”

Lex grinned at Rolf and noted his surprised expression. The young men and women worked fast to align the two tables, rearranging the place settings to make everyone fit, and sitting closer together to make up for the missing places that would have been set at the end of each smaller table. Rolf sat at one end of the new long table with Lex at his right hand, while Carla, Gregor and Abby sat to his left. After the tables had been set up, Lex found a young woman with shoulder-length, curly blonde hair and a big smile sitting at her other side. Just beyond the woman sat a man who looked a few years older, muscular with a serious expression and a short haircut. Rolf quickly introduced the others around the table that Lex hadn't met yet, including her neighbors, Leo Hoffman and Hilda Weber.

“So,” Hilda asked in an excited tone, once Rolf had finished the introductions, “we've all heard that both of you are in the Special Forces. Is it true?”

“Yes,” Lex responded with a smile. “We both work out of Brussels.”

Hilda bounced in her chair, then glanced over at Leo. “That must be such an exciting assignment! Leo here is assigned to Wolfsburg. I wonder if they did that as a joke.”

He reached out to smack her shoulder then, but she leaned away almost as he did it as if she'd expected it. “At least I'm in the service,” he replied, fixing her with a raised eyebrow.

Hilda gave a gusty sigh. “He's right, of course. I'm studying law enforcement in school, but I'm hoping I'll be taken on after I graduate. Do you think you could both give me a recommendation?”

“Hilda, don't bother them about that now,” Leo interrupted, but Lex could hear the affection in the man's voice. “They're pretty busy at the moment, I imagine.”

“Oh, that reminds me!” Hilda said, smiling again. “What do they have you doing in Brussels?”

Lex threw a quick glance at Rolf. He raised an eyebrow and gave her hand a squeeze where he held it under the table. “A little bit of everything, really. I appreciate having a job where you can help people day in and day out.”

“There's no need to be so modest,” Leo replied, looking straight at Lex and then at Rolf. “They reported it on every news channel and on all the front pages of the papers for a while, after all.”

Lex looked back at him with surprise, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks as she blushed. Leo chuckled in response and glanced at Rolf, who returned his gaze without revealing anything. It caused a stir around the table, however, and a number of people began speculating what Leo had been referring to. After a minute, Hilda pulled on Leo's sleeve.

“Come on, Leo, just tell us,” she begged, after turning to give Lex a smile somewhere between apology and irrepressible curiosity.

“I'll just tell you what Lex and Rolf are too modest to brag about, since I know it's a matter of public record, but it wouldn't hurt the lot of you to read the papers once in a while. Do any of you remember several months back when there was a gang going around cleaning out bank vaults and no one could catch them for the longest time?”

Lex glanced around the table to see nods of recognition and heard parts of a few stories about the robbers hitting banks near people's hometowns and, in one case, cleaning out a friend's safety deposit box. While the stories swirled around, servants began placing plates of food before everyone. The meal most everyone received had some sort of meat pastry with mashed potatoes and several types of vegetables. Lex found herself served a steaming bowl of stew made of red beans and sweet potatoes over rice, and a small plate of vegetables as well. Baskets of bread placed in the center of the tables completed the meal, and the servants withdrew after a moment.

Once they had, Leo spoke up again. “I heard about it at work the day they captured the robbers. Someone said at the time that it was one of our teams who'd done it, people from the Brussels operation. I followed the news pretty closely that day, but there wasn't much detail about the story then, but after a couple of days it all came out. Rolf and Lex were part of the team who caught those people. What's more, Lex was the one who talked to the press about it all. I remember thinking at the time that she looked really distinctive, with that red hair and those light eyes, but I have to say she looks even more striking in person.”

He smiled at Lex as he finished speaking, then looked over at Rolf with a nod and a grin. Lex felt the blush raging in her cheeks as Rolf returned Leo's look with surprise, then replied, “We thought it was only fair, since Lex figured out most of what was going on. Plus, none of the rest of us wanted the job of talking to the press anyway.”

“That's not true!” Lex replied, looking back at him. “There's no way we would have been able to solve the case unless everyone on the team had worked on it together—”

Lex stopped speaking then, her voice overtaken by a number of others.

“So it is true! How did you do it?” she heard a man at the end of the table ask.

“I remember now!” a woman chimed in from the side of the table Carla sat on. “It was you on the news!”

After the initial few comments, Lex found she couldn't make out what the rest were saying due to the sheer number of speakers.

“All right, all right!” she said after a moment, waving an arm and trying to get everyone's attention. “Calm down and I'll tell you the story,” Lex continued, looking over at Rolf. “At least, as much as I can.”

Rolf shrugged. “Leo's right: it's a matter of public record now, but the trial is coming up, so we can't talk about anything that hasn't already been reported on.”

Lex nodded in return, remembering a discussion she'd had with Captain Shapiro before she'd begun making the rounds on television and talking to newspapers. He'd identified a number of things that he wanted Lex to keep silent on for the moment, judging that they'd probably come up during the trial. She mentally ran through those points prior to speaking again, smiling as she began.

“All right,” she said, looking around the table at the excited, eager faces before her. “It all started when I was in my boss' office one day...”

She summarized what she could of the process she and the team had used to figure the case out, with Rolf adding information she'd forgotten or picking up the story while she ate a few bites. The women and men around the table listened with close attention, sometimes interrupting with questions but otherwise seeming to hang on every word. As Lex began to tell them about the stakeout in the bank and the eventual confrontation, however, they all fell silent and Lex could have sworn that even some of the servants began to hover nearer to the table to listen.

“...fortunately, we settled it that day and everyone came home safely, so I guess that's all you can ask for in the end,” Lex finished, looking at Rolf to see if he wanted to add anything, but his nod and small smile seemed to say that he liked how she'd wrapped up the story.

For a moment, no one said anything, but then Lex heard a small outburst of exclamations and congratulations. “So cool!” Hilda said, Lex able to hear her over the others since the woman sat next to her. “That's exactly the kind of thing I want to do when I'm in the Special Forces!”

“Well, it's not like that most of the time,” Lex replied “Mostly it's going out to investigate false alarms, helping out local law enforcement with common crimes, going on recruiting drives, or taking care of lots of paperwork.”

Hilda shrugged. “That doesn't matter, though, does it? I mean, to get a chance to be involved with something like that at all…it doesn't happen every day, but at least you were in the right place. That's what I want to do,” she concluded with a bright smile.

Lex couldn't help but grin herself. “Oh, you should have your turn, then, once you graduate.”

The comments from rest of the table around them had begun to subside, and a few people nearby seemed to start to listen as Hilda replied with a sigh. “I hope so. I've always wanted to be in the Special Forces. Not like Leo.”

He turned to give Hilda a look that Lex thought seemed to be a warning. She responded by giving him a quiet smile and raising an eyebrow, opting to say nothing more. Her timing seemed to be good anyway, since the servants had begun to bring desserts and coffee to everyone, and the conversation turned to other things as Lex enjoyed a fruit tart while others got served pieces of chocolate raspberry torte. She held Rolf's hand under the table once she'd finished eating.

Everyone seemed to drift back out to the living room afterwards, and Lex and Rolf made a few additional rounds of the room so that Rolf could introduce some of the people they'd missed prior to the meal. After an hour or so, they'd found a comfortable corner and stood comparing notes with Theo and Mina when Leo and Hilda approached them again.

“I just wanted to say how nice it's been to meet you, Lex,” Hilda said, giving a big smile. “I also realized we were so excited to meet you earlier that I forgot to say congratulations! Rolf is a lucky man to have a great catch like you, and the family is lucky as well. We've looked up to Rolf since we were kids, so I can't tell you how excited we were to meet you.”

Lex shot a sideways glance at Rolf as Hilda finished, noting his expression of complete surprise. “So, you looked up to him when you were little?”

Hilda laughed in reply. “Oh, yes, Leo especially! You should have seen him when Rolf was competing to get into the Olympics, always looking in the papers to find the latest scores and trying to find out if any of his competitions would be on television so that he could watch. He studied gymnastics, too. I think he wanted to compete when he got older, but I guess he outgrew it and went on to go into the Special Forces instead. Maybe because Rolf did too—Ow!” she complained, rubbing her shoulder where Leo had smacked her. “See how mean he is to me?”

“Just be quiet for two minutes, would you?” Leo growled, and Lex noticed something that looked suspiciously like a blush creeping over his cheekbones.

Rolf still wore a surprised expression but smiled at the antics of his younger cousins while Theo and Mina looked on with grins of their own. Lex smiled as well but felt it fade as she looked over to the bar to see Giselle filling a glass and looking tired and drawn. She grasped Rolf's forearm for a moment as she raised her nearly empty glass, and he nodded his understanding.

She headed in the direction of the bar, watching as two young men moved up to pour themselves something and Giselle began to drift away. Lex caught up to her after a couple of steps and smiled. “I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to say anything earlier, but thank you for putting on such a lovely meal and inviting everyone out to meet me.”

Giselle looked at Lex in surprise, then ducked her head a moment later. “I'm so glad you liked it, my dear.” After a moment she looked up again, meeting Lex's gaze with an expression of concern. “Are you sure you're feeling all right, though?”

Lex shrugged. “I was more tired than anything, though I got over that pretty quickly. For the rest, it's mostly bruises, nothing permanent.”

Watching as Giselle's eyes flicked to her husband talking to someone in a far corner, Lex looked at the squat tumbler of amber liquid in the woman's hand and guessed it wasn't her own drink. “I didn't mean to keep you or anything, but I did want to thank you,” Lex said, giving in to instinct and hugging Giselle.

The grateful look in the woman's eyes as Lex pulled back made her drop her gaze. “It's our pleasure, Lex, really.”

Lex made her way back in Rolf's direction then, realizing once she neared him that she hadn't actually refreshed her drink, but forgetting the moment she saw Lucy had joined the group. Smiling as she rushed forwards, Lex put the remains of her drink on a table along the way.

“Aunt Lucy,” she said as she leaned in to hug the other woman.

When she straightened afterwards, Lex saw Lucy's eyebrow quirk, maybe noting her change in title, but Lucy made no comment about it. “Wonderful to see you, as always. How are you feeling?”

“I'm just fine. Rolf has been taking great care of me, and Dr. Fred came by to make sure I was all right as well.”

Lucy leaned forward again, murmuring into Lex's ear. “I don't know if you've spotted Karl's lovely makeup job, but it looks like you may have given him a nasty bruise the other night.”

Her eyes wide, Lex leaned back from Lucy, glancing around for any sign of Karl. She'd been trying to avoid him, hoping to escape any unpleasantness during dinner, but she spotted him standing with Sandra in a far corner of the living room and did notice a discolored patch of skin that ran underneath one eye and over his nose. His expression looked sour, and Lex did think that most of the center of his face seemed swollen. She looked back at Lucy with wide eyes, but Lucy just gave her a subtle grin in return. As Lex turned her head a second later, she saw that Claus had arrived with a fresh drink in hand.

“Uncle Claus,” Lex said as she hugged Lucy's husband. “It's so nice to see you both again.”

“We came over here to find out when the two of you want to come by,” Lucy said once Lex stood by Rolf's side again.

Lex looked over at Rolf, trying to determine what he wanted, and spotted the hopeful look in his eye. “I'd like that,” she replied with a smile. “What do you think, Rolf?”

He smiled at Lex in return. “I think we should,” he responded to Lucy's question. “What time will you be home from work tomorrow?”

Claus gave a smile of his own then. “I am off tomorrow, thanks to nepotism. Whenever you'd like to stop by, I'll make it a point to be home.”

After thinking about what they had to do before they could head to Lucy and Claus', and after that home to Brussels, Lex and Rolf agreed to be at their house by early afternoon.

“Don't forget, now,” Lex could hear Lucy say as she hugged Rolf fiercely. “We're really looking forward to your visit.”

Lex and Rolf didn't make it to their bed until late that evening. They'd said hello and good evening to everyone Rolf could think of, and had introduced all of the new relatives to Lex and had had to make their excuses about a dozen times to the younger cousins, all of whom had seemed eager to have a midnight run. After explaining why they'd both had enough of that for the moment, Lex had watched as the whole story passed from person to person during the remainder of the evening.

As they held each other under the layers of covers, Lex shifted to try to get her shoulder more comfortable, smiling as she heard a short howl from somewhere outside. “I had no idea they all looked up to you so much,” Lex said, smiling as she felt Rolf move beside her.

“Neither did I,” he finally replied, a sense of wonder and doubt in his tone. “I'm not sure why.”

Lex thought about it for a moment, then said, “Sometimes the best thing in life you can be is a good example. Who do you think would be more inspiring to a kid: someone who has everything given to him and does the same thing his father and grandfather did, or someone who goes out into the world on his own and makes a life for himself?”

He never answered, but Lex thought later, as sleep started to claim her, that if the smile pressed against her neck was any indication, perhaps she'd come up with a good theory.

Forward to Chapter 55
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Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!



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