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Chapter 55: Homeward
Storm
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes/Warnings: Goodbyes, old stories, travel, new plans, soft touches

Hey, everyone, I just read and accepted the new User Agreement for LJ, and I think it means that I'm going to have to be moving. My plan at this point is to finish posting through the end of Book 3 here (two more chapters after this), and then determine what I want to do next. Look to this community for more information about where I'll be next.

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


Back to Chapter 54

It was mid-morning by the time they made their departure from the Kaiser house. They'd had a quiet breakfast with Giselle, Theo, and Mina that morning, so they'd been able to talk for a while in semi-private. Lex had mentioned to Mina and Theo about the guest room at the house she shared with her friends and said that anytime the two of them wanted to visit Brussels that they had a place to stay. She'd also been happy to hear Rolf talking to Giselle towards the end of the meal.

“Was dinner last night your idea, mother?” he’d asked in a quiet voice.

Giselle had blushed and Lex had glanced over to see Theo smiling and nodding. “Well, I did tell your father that I thought it would be a good idea to have everyone out,” Giselle had murmured after a few moments, glancing at Rolf out of the corner of her eye.

He had reached over to clasp her hand as it laid on the table. “I thought so. Thanks for setting it up; I was happy to have the chance to introduce Lex to everyone.”

Her blush had intensified as she’d linked their fingers together. “It was no trouble. I was glad to do it.”

Lex hadn't said anything to Rolf about it as they'd packed their things, just smiled as she’d brushed her hand across his arm, noticing that he'd already been smiling. As they’d made to go, Lex and Rolf had walked down the hall, trying to stay quiet while hugging some of their more tired cousins who'd made sure to appear, even still in dressing gowns, to say goodbye and that they looked forward to the wedding. Lex had no idea how word had spread about their departure time, but it had seemed everyone had heard, even Sandra. Lex had spotted the woman farther up the stairs as she and Rolf had gone to descend to the main floor. Lex had waved to Sandra, but she'd just shot a cold look in Lex's direction as she’d turned away.

It had taken them awhile to hug their way to the front door, and Lex had found it hard to say goodbye to a number of people, Theo and Mina in particular. “Come visit us soon,” she’d murmured as she and Mina had hugged.

“We'll make a point of it,” Mina had replied as they had both moved back from the embrace, and Lex had found herself matching the other woman's bright smile.

Lex had still been smiling at everyone as she’d hugged Giselle near the front door. “Thanks for everything, especially for making me feel so welcome,” Lex had said in a soft voice as they’d embraced. She had noticed, upon standing tall again, that Richard and Karl had not appeared. “I'm sorry we couldn't get along with everyone while we were here,” Lex had added, shrugging.

“Don't be sorry about it, Lex. Neither you nor Rolf did anything wrong,” she had said, leaning forward to hug her son, holding him tight for a few seconds.

“Thanks for everything, Mom,” Rolf had said as they had separated from the hug.

Giselle had blinked then and looked down. “You'd better get going, you two, or no one else here will let you leave.”

They had waved as they’d gone out the front door, and Lex had smiled to hear a chorus of goodbyes following them out of the house. She had reached over to grab Rolf's hand, since he'd shouldered his own bag and carried one of her duffel bags. “I think maybe we'd better consider somewhere other than the backyard to get married in,” Lex had said, glancing at Rolf.

His gentle smile had given her one of her own. “I think you may be right.”

It was early afternoon by the time Lex and Rolf got back to Ingolstadt, returned the car to the rental place, and began walking to Claus and Lucy's. Lex smiled at the clear and sunny day, although the wind turned it cold on and off, so she felt even happier when they walked a few blocks out of the center of town and reached a residential neighborhood with lots of trees. The sun still shone through the naked branches, but they countered much of the wind, so Lex found she could enjoy the walk more. They turned off the main road through the neighborhood onto a succession of side roads until they reached a street with taller trees and houses that seemed just about the right size for a couple to live in. Stepping across shadows caused by the tree branches overhead, Lex stopped behind Rolf when they stood in front of a house made of wood beams cutting through stone walls, capped with a metal roof. Someone had painted the beams and the roof a deep green and planted neat rows of bushes in front of the privacy fence that lined up with the front corners of the house.

Rolf slipped his hand into Lex’s as they walked to the front door on a neat path of paving stones that made their way through the lawn to the front door. He looked over at her before knocking, and Lex noted as she glanced forward that the door had been painted the same green as the wood beams. She smiled at Rolf then, excited that they'd arrived, before she felt her smile widen when Claus opened the door.

“Ah, children,” he said in English, opening the door wide as he stood aside and gestured inside the house. “Please, come in.”

He led them down a hallway, past what looked like a small office on the left and a closed door on the right, into a large room at the end of the house. The first thing Lex noticed was that the wall along the back seemed to be mostly windows, letting in a flood of afternoon light. She gazed across the backyard and noted a central lawn that had been sectioned along the left and right sides into more formal gardens with tiny walkways and different areas for what looked like herbs and flowers. What captured her attention more than anything else, however, was the way the privacy fence ended and the yard opened into what looked like parkland beyond.

She turned back towards Rolf and Claus after a long moment of studying the view and smiled to see them watching her. “Can I offer you anything to drink? Coffee or tea perhaps?” Claus asked.

When they both agreed to tea, Claus settled them at a dining table to the left of the open area, and Lex sat in a carved wooden chair facing the room they'd entered and took some time to study the rest of her surroundings. The table she and Rolf sat at could comfortably seat eight and had been covered with a heavy, cream-colored tablecloth. As she looked over Rolf's shoulder at the space beyond, she saw an L-shaped couch where you could either sit and admire the outside view or sit on the other side of the L in order to watch the large, flat-screen television mounted on the wall or the fireplace underneath it. Claus had stepped into the kitchen to boil water, behind the counter that divided that space from the rest of the open area. Lex smiled as she reached out to hold Rolf's hand across the table.

Claus returned shortly with a teapot in a tea cozy and placed it in the center of the table, then took a seat next to Rolf a minute later as he passed cups to all of them, leaving a sugar bowl and a small pitcher of milk near the teapot. “So,” Claus finally said, looking over at Lex with a raised eyebrow, “I imagine you want to know all of my stories about Rolf as a young man.”

Lex smiled then and chuckled in response. “Well, if there are any you want to share, I wouldn't mind hearing them, but I'm not going to pressure you or anything.”

He gave her a considering look for a few moments, then nodded. “There is one story in particular I'd like to tell,” he began, looking at Rolf then. “I've always meant to tell you this story, Rolf, but the time never seemed right before now. This story begins when you were born.”

Rolf tightened his grip on Lex's hand, and she could feel that something in the air had changed, perhaps becoming more solid.

“I know you've asked me about that time before, Rolf,” Claus continued, still looking steadily at his nephew. “I know I put you off before, and for that I apologize. But the truth of it is this. I remember that day very well. I was at the Kaiser house and just about twenty four at the time. Lucy and I hadn't met yet, but I had begun working for the family firm.

“You decided to come in the evening, and the whole family had gathered to welcome you. I remember well my first sight of you. You'd been crying, as if you knew something was wrong, and then you changed for the first time. As always, your fur came in dark as night, and your golden eyes shone with promise even then, but the sight caused your father to fly into a rage. It would be a disgrace to have a black wolf in the family and would never do, he said, and as his rage grew, he began to talk about...reviving ancient traditions that never should have been.”

The color drained from Rolf's face as Claus spoke, and Lex's squeezed his hand. “What is it?” she asked Rolf, wondering what had upset him as well as what Claus had meant.

Rolf shook his head as if to clear it, then looked at Lex. “I think the traditions Uncle Claus is speaking of are the same as in some ancient cultures where they...discarded babies that they found undesirable or deformed in some way.”

Lex clenched the hand in her lap into a fist as she heard that, feeling as if the last piece of the puzzle had fallen into place in her mind. She looked up at Claus then, as if to confirm what she suspected, to find him shaking his head with a frown.

“Rolf is correct. Everyone in the family was horrified, and everyone spoke out against it except for your Aunt Brigitte. I know you've seen the way they dislike each other these days, but then they barely spoke, and I think she thought of it as being less of her brother's family more than anything else.”

Rolf stared at nothing in the middle distance now, nodding at Claus' words. His uncle sighed before he continued. “As I said, everyone spoke out against the idea, but your grandmother actually did something about it. She marched up to where he'd put you on the table in the middle of all of us and scooped you up into her arms. 'I claim this child,' she said, and everyone stared at her.”

Lex and Rolf both watched Claus now as he poured some tea, then sipped at it. “'To think I spent my time raising you, for you to act like this towards your own son,' she said to Richard, and her eyes looked like fire. 'You will do nothing to this boy, not if any of you like living in this big house or running my company,' and she glared around the table at each and every one of us then, the challenge in her eyes as plain as if she'd given us all a written notice. 'I'll suffer you continuing to live here and managing the family's business affairs, but if any of you try to bring harm to him, I will change my will and find suitable heirs among your cousins.'”

Claus poured some tea for Lex and Rolf then, Lex realizing for the first time that she'd forgotten about pouring herself any in favor of his story. As they prepared their tea, he continued. “I believed her, of course, and anyone who didn't was a fool not to. Especially after what she said next...” He trailed off, seeming to be lost in his thoughts temporarily. “She turned to Richard and said, 'Mark my words, boy. When this child grows up, he will be the man you should have become. He will surpass any of your other sons, including any that you are yet to have. Also, he and the woman he will choose for a mate will defeat you utterly, and any others that you see fit to set against them. The hope of the family for the future, and the one the children will look up to will be this child, not you, Richard.' She held you up then, Rolf, dark and silent as the night as you looked out at all of us. You had this uncanny expression in your golden eyes, too, as if you'd understood everything she'd said. And then she left with you. I never saw her alive again.”

Lex felt her head droop, thinking about Claus missing his mother, but then she noticed his faint smile. “I remember hearing about it, the day you'd come back. I was one of the group who went to fetch her body from the little cabin the two of you lived in. Somehow, just looking at it, I knew she'd been more at home there than she'd ever been in the house we all lived in.” He looked straight at Rolf then, saying, “I could tell when we met that you were her son. My mother was a strong force in the family, but all of us as children had been so affected by our father's presence that we bent towards him. Once he passed on, Richard and Brigitte were at each other's throats all the time, so the rest of us just tiptoed around that, not wanting to get involved. But you were so kind and polite and so very strong and unafraid, just like my mother.”

They all sipped their tea in silence for a few minutes after that until Lex's curiosity grew again and she had to ask, “So, when did you and Lucy really become interested in Rolf?”

He laughed then, saying, “Oh, Lucy took a liking to him right away, the way he spoke in such a straightforward manner, but when we talked about it, we both thought it was best for him to be sent away to school, so we only stepped in during the holidays when they insisted that he visit.”

Claus continued telling stories of Rolf as a young man, while Rolf added some of his own stories about his early memories of Lucy and Claus. At some point, they moved back to the kitchen where Claus began making dinner, assisted by Lex, but the stories continued. After Claus had sent Rolf off to the local bakery to get some bread to go with the soup they were making, he leaned in closer to Lex as he continued speaking. “I remember the first holiday Rolf stayed here very well. He had a break of about a month, and after he'd spent a week at the Kaiser house, we visited, and Lucy and I could tell that things weren't going well. So, we suggested that he stay with us for the remainder of the holidays because we usually visit the big house when any event over the holidays is going on. We both felt so surprised when Richard agreed, but I guess maybe we shouldn't have been.”

He finished stirring the soup and put the top back on the pot, then looked back at Lex. “He was so polite and quiet when he came here, we weren't sure what to do with him. He'd get up early in the morning and make his bed, get himself breakfast if we weren't up, wash his own dishes, pick up after himself, and everything else you'd never expect a child to do. He would only wear his school uniforms, with the little shirt and tie. At first we just thought that he'd become used to it, but later, when Lucy pressed him, we found out that was all he had to wear.”

Claus shook his head, remembering. “You should have seen Lucy that day. She brought him around to all of the shops in town practically, bought him t-shirts and jeans, underwear and socks, and even a new pair of sneakers. He looked overwhelmed when they got back home, but he must have liked what they picked out, because the next day he came downstairs wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt like any other boy.”

Lex felt a goofy smile spreading over her face, coming out to meet the wistful smile on Claus'. His expression changed a moment later, however, when he heard Lucy come in the front door.

“Something smells delicious in here!” they both heard.

Claus and Lex stood grinning at one another by the time Lucy appeared in the kitchen, hugging them both in turn, with a pause for a kiss for Claus.

As Claus mentioned that Rolf had gone to the bakery, they all heard the door opening again, so moments later Lex smiled to see more hugs and kisses, and all of them crowded into the kitchen talking at once. The four of them took turns tending to dinner after that or creating little appetizers to tide them over until the soup finished cooking over the course of an hour.

The whole evening had been the most fun Lex had had since she and Rolf had left home, and by far the most comfortable. She found herself reminded of a smaller version of dinner at her own home due to the obvious care everyone in the house had for one another, the liveliness, and the fun they all had. Claus seemed a completely different person than he had at the Kaiser house, and he laughed when Lex mentioned it.

“Oh, I'm lucky that I met Lucy when I went to England, otherwise I don't think I would have ever convinced her to marry me,” he said, smiling at his wife. Lucy looked at him with a raised eyebrow as he continued, telling the story of how they'd met when he'd spent a semester as an exchange student in England and got introduced to some of the wolf shapeshifting families there.

“I think she felt disappointed when she came here to visit several years later and saw how I acted around the family,” he said, a shadow crossing his face.

She reached across the table to take his hand. “Not at all,” she replied, her voice steady and warm. “I could see how it was the minute I got here. I just wanted us to be able to be who we are and not have to live under his thumb.” She looked at Lex and Rolf for a moment, shaking her head. “You should have seen how Richard reacted. You'd have thought we'd proposed tearing down their castle and putting up something with ultra-modern construction in its place.”

“It seems to have worked out well, regardless,” Lex said, glancing at the house around them and then back at Claus and Lucy.

Lucy nodded, smiling at Claus. “It just took some doing to make it all happen.”

“I think Theo and Mina would like to do the same,” Rolf said, looking over at Lucy.

She nodded as the two of them and Claus started making up strategies to help while Lex listened with a smile.

Much later, after Lex had gone back for another sliver of the apple pie that Rolf had brought back along with the bread, she found Lucy standing next to her at the kitchen counter. Claus and Rolf still sat at the dining room table, deep in conversation about something.

“You know,” Lucy said in a quiet voice, “I wanted to let you know that we consider you family now, Lex. That means that we want you to feel free to visit if you want to, when you want to, with or without Rolf. Also, it means that you can call on us in times of trouble. That goes for Rolf, too, but he already knows that. I'm going to rely on you to speak up as well, because I know he's not always good about asking for help when he needs it, all right?”

“Of course,” Lex replied, feeling shaken as she wondered how she'd been able to garner Lucy's trust, but unable to keep a gentle smile from her face as she considered the woman's words. “The same goes for us. I don't know how much Rolf told you about our home, but we have a guest room and it's always open for friends and family.”

Lucy smiled then and hugged Lex again. “Thanks for making Rolf so happy,” she said. “Do you want any more tea to go along with the pie?”

They'd tried to get to bed at a decent hour that night since their train the next day left early, but it had been hard to break off the conversation, Lex feeling as if she were talking to friends that she'd known forever even though they had just met that week. Much later than planned, she and Rolf made their way up the stairs that ran behind the kitchen area and walked down the open hallway that overlooked the kitchen, dining, and living rooms below to one of the two bedrooms on the top floor, the one whose entrance stood opposite the stairs.

They two of them didn't say much as they got ready for bed, but Lex had noticed some old clothes in the closet—some shirts in a size a young man might wear—and smiled to herself.

“Thanks for bringing me here,” she said once Rolf had turned the light off and they lay in the double bed, twined together. “Lucy and Claus are some fine people.”

She didn't even have to lift her head to see him smile, even through the darkness in the room.

They woke up at five thirty the next day to catch their train, and Lex felt surprised and touched that both Claus and Lucy had got up with them to take them to the station, and that they'd not only made breakfast but that Lucy slipped Lex a small bundle on the way out the door.

“I know the food on the trains might not be something you can eat,” she explained, “so I didn't want to send you off without anything for the way home.”

Both Lex and Rolf seemed to linger when hugging Claus and Lucy once they reached the train station, and Lex tried not to cry as they waved goodbye. “Come back anytime, you two,” Lucy said, and Lex noticed the she, too, seemed to be blinking more than normal as she turned away.

She and Rolf remained quiet for much of the long train ride north, but at one point, as they rode alongside a river with cliffs overlooking it, Lex looked up to realize she and Rolf were alone in the train car. Lex had become involved in reading a book she'd brought while Rolf had napped, but she put it down for a moment as he woke up. She smiled at him as he stretched, and brought out the food in case he felt hungry.

He ignored it, however, and just looked over at Lex. “I didn't think anyone else noticed anything I did,” he said, shaking his head. “So many of the people in my immediate family tried to ignore me that I assumed no one else paid attention to me, either.”

Lex nodded, thinking of the younger relatives she'd met who all seemed to look up to Rolf. “I know what you mean. I felt invisible when I was younger, too, for more or less the same reasons, but I found out much later that people always see what you do, even if you don't notice them at the time. Lucky for you that you did so many things to be proud of while you grew up.”

He looked over at her then, and Lex took his hand when she saw the conflicting emotions in his eyes. He leaned his shoulder against hers for a few moments, his head inclining towards her, and then, since she could see he looked tired again, she moved to one end of the bench and encouraged him to lay out on it, putting his head in her lap. She smiled as he seemed to fall asleep again after a few minutes, and watched the scenery roll by for a moment out the window before taking up her book again. Lex didn't notice her fingers twining themselves into his hair after a while, gently stroking.

They arrived back in Cologne around five in the afternoon, and due to the differences in train schedules during the week and weekend, Lex and Rolf managed to find a train back to Brussels an hour later. While Rolf went to get tickets, Lex called home and reached Casey.

“I just wanted to let you know that we should be home today,” she told her friend. “I know when we left we didn't know if it would be tonight or tomorrow, so I thought I should warn you.”

“We were starting to wonder if the two of you would be coming home at all,” Casey replied, and Lex thought she could hear some hurt in that joking tone.

She sighed, then replied, “I'm sorry we didn't call over the past few days. A lot of crazy stuff happened, but I'll tell you all about it tomorrow morning. I'll even help cook some breakfast if you want.”

“You've got yourself a deal. What's the train you're coming in on?”

“It's the six o'clock out of Cologne. No need for anyone to come and get us, because I'm sure all of you guys are busy on Saturday night. We'll find our own way home,” Lex said, watching Rolf approach out of the corner of her eye, carrying two cups of what looked like hot tea.

“All right,” Casey said. “I'll let everyone who's home know.”

Rolf handed her a steaming cup and asked as she hung up her phone, “So, how is everyone?”

Lex put the cup under her nose and breathed in the heady scent of multiple spices. “I didn't ask, but if anyone was having any trouble, Casey would have said. I just let her know that we'd be arriving this evening.”

Nodding, Rolf took a sip of his own tea. “It'll be good to get back home.”

The few hours of the next train ride seemed to crawl by for Lex, and even the paperback she'd brought didn't seem to occupy her any longer. Rolf had picked up a new one when he'd gone to get tea at the station and seemed more engaged with his, so he switched places with Lex since he'd been sitting by the window. Lex watched the lights of towns and cities fly by with the motion of the train and tried not to check her watch every few minutes to figure out how long it would be until they arrived in Brussels.

She felt a great sense of relief when she heard their station called, and she and Rolf grabbed their luggage and made their way towards the exit. As they walked off the train, Lex saw a child hurrying in their direction out of the corner of her eye, and looked straight at him only to recognize Ron.

As she smiled, Ron turned around and called out, “They're here, they're here!”

Lex looked up to see a knot of people farther down the platform and couldn't help her big smile as a result. She looked over at Rolf, who returned her glance with a smile. “I told her they didn't have to come out here and get us,” Lex explained to Rolf.

He shook his head. “Apparently, Casey didn't listen to that.”

They walked towards the large group, led along by Ron, who glanced back at them several times as he did so. Lex felt her smile widen as she saw that Casey and Lou had both come, as well as Lily and Mr. Chen, and Riss had turned up too, accompanied by an ever-present laptop. She turned it towards the two of them as they approached, and Lex knew by Riss' small smile that Art had wanted to come along as well.

After a flurry of hugs, Casey explained, “Well, Kate had already gone out. She and some of the other girls from work had decided on doing some clubbing this week, but I left her a message to let her know you two had come back. Victor and Derek had already planned something special just for the two of them this evening, so they send their best along as well.”

Lex couldn't help her wide smile as she looked everyone over. “I hope nothing too exciting happened while we were away?”

As they left the train station, Casey and Lou filled Lex and Rolf in on the details of some of the more interesting things that had happened at work the previous week.

“It didn't get too busy, but we did set a trap to catch a burglar. She'd been stealing from some of the richest people in town and the most exclusive shops. The police had worked on the case for months before they thought to get us involved, too. When we caught her, or should I say Jan caught her, we found out that she was a hacker who knew how to get around most electronic safeguards, and she also had years of gymnastics and the ability to change her skin tone to blend in with her surroundings. Since she liked to hit places at night, that's probably why she was able to stay a step ahead of the police for so long.”

Lou drove them home as Rolf and Lex asked questions about the case, and then the conversation changed. “You know,” Casey said from the back of the van, “we thought we'd wait to have this week's house meeting until tomorrow, in hopes that you'd be home. Everyone thought you two might want to start planning the arrangements for your wedding.”

Lex looked back at Casey to see her peeking over the top of the last row of bench seats, smiling. “We started talking about it on the way home, so maybe we can all discuss it tomorrow,” Lex replied, looking over at Rolf.

Rolf shrugged, then nodded. “That should be fine,” he added.

After a lull in the conversation as Lou negotiated a busy intersection, Lex watched as Ron whispered something into Lily's ear. “Why don't you ask them yourself?” Lily said in a murmur as she met her son’s eye, but Ron shook his head.

She sighed after a moment and turned to Rolf and Lex. “Ron was wondering how your visit went,” she said, giving her son a sideways glance. He seemed to have gotten over his momentary shyness then, craning to look over the seat in front of Lex and Rolf and trying to hear what they might say.

“Well, it was interesting,” Lex replied with a short laugh, glancing over at Rolf, who shook his head and smiled. “Everything didn't go as well as we could have hoped, but we're both back in one piece. Oh, but I am going to need you to keep an eye on something over the next week or so, Lily.”

As Lex spoke, the other conversations in the vehicle trailed off, and when she'd finished her final statement, the silence seemed absolute, save for the traffic outside. “I think you'll have to start at the beginning,” Lily said, her voice sounding more professional than before. “And I'd like to see you first thing, as soon as we get home.”

“Really, it's nothing that bad,” Lex said, but stopped once she saw Lily's serious face. “That’s fine. As for the trip, well it seemed fine when we first got there...”

She and Rolf related the general story of the first couple of days but hadn't gotten to the trial by the time they'd arrived at home. True to her word, Lily insisted on examining Lex as soon as they got in. They left Casey making hot chocolate in the kitchen for most of the rest of the crew, and trooped upstairs to Lily's room.

Lily closed the door behind the two of them and turned to look at Lex. “So what is it that you're concerned about?”

Lex smiled, trying to gauge Lily's mood. “I have some pretty spectacular bruises on my chest and arms, but what the doctor there told me is that he wanted someone to keep an eye on my hands and feet over the next week or so. He said that he was pretty certain it was just frostnip but that I should check in with my usual doctor when I got home, so here I am.”

“All right. Please take your shirt off so that I can check on those bruises, and take your shoes and socks off as well.” Lex just caught Lily's raised eyebrow before the woman turned to face the door.

Stripping off her shirt and laying it on the bed she'd sat down on, Lex took off her shoes and socks as she said, “You can turn around now, Lily.”

As her friend turned to face her, Lex noticed that Lily seemed to be in her professional mode, and the doctor looked at the bruises on Lex's shoulder and arm with concern, manipulating the flesh around them to make certain that no damage other than the bruising had been done. After a few minutes, Lily said in quiet, thoughtful tone, “All right, Lex, please let me see your hands.”

Lex held them up and Lily examined them closely, looking at the redness that Lex had noticed showing up over the past day or so. The tingling she'd felt at first seemed to have changed to sporadic itching that Lex tried to ignore, hoping that it was a good sign and that it meant they'd begun to heal. Lily said nothing as she looked at first one hand and then the other, putting each one in Lex's lap once she'd finished. She backed up then and picked up Lex's left foot.

“How long were you outside?” she asked, her voice low and serious.

It took a few moments for Lex to consider the question. “Somewhere around twelve hours, I guess,” she replied after a few moments. “I'm not sure of the exact amount of time.”

“What did you wear when you were out there?” Lily continued, putting Lex's left foot down and picking up the right one.

“I had on gloves and boots, and thermal socks under the boots, but they didn't seem to be as warm as the cold-weather jumpsuit,” Lex concluded.

Lily put Lex's foot down with care, then glanced at her nose and ears, then nodded. “It looks like those are fine. I guess you covered your head and face?”

Lex just nodded, watching as Lily gave her hands and feet one more careful look. “All right, you can get dressed again,” she said after a moment, turning to face the door as Lex put her shirt back on. “Whoever looked at you out there was right: it looks like you did get some frostnip on your fingers and toes. I'd like to keep an eye on it every couple of days for the rest of the week, but I'm pretty sure it should heal itself. Let me know right away if you develop any big blisters or black spots or anything too out of the ordinary.”

“Thanks, Lily,” Lex said as she put her socks and shoes back on and stood up.

Lily gave Lex a penetrating stare as the doctor opened her bedroom door. “So what the hell happened there that you had to be outside for twelve hours?”

“Don't worry, I'll get to the rest of the story,” Lex said with a chuckle as they both headed downstairs. “For now, I'll say that the Kaiser family isn't one that you can just simply marry into.”

The group greeted them with happy exclamations, and Casey with cups of cocoa, as Lex and Lily came back into the kitchen, and Lex and Rolf picked up their story where they'd left off. As she got nearer to the trial, Lex asked Rolf, “Is it OK to talk about what happened, or not?”

Rolf shrugged. “No one swore you to secrecy, did they?”

Lex lifted an eyebrow as she considered. “That's a good point; no one did.”

“I don't see why you can't say whatever you feel like, in that case. I don't think anyone here is going to go around spreading rumors, anyway,” Rolf concluded, giving Lex a slight smile.

“All right, everyone, I'm going to have to ask you to keep this under your hats, but as I said to Lily earlier, the Kaiser family isn't one that you can just marry into,” Lex began, settling back into her seat as she warmed to her story.

With all of the questions and comments about what had happened, Lex and Rolf didn't make it back to their bedroom until well after midnight. Rolf got quiet as they prepared for sleep, and Lex waited until they'd cuddled together under the covers before she sleepily asked, “So, what have you been thinking about?”

She felt rather than saw him shrug in the darkened room. “Just wondering about what to tell everyone at the meeting tomorrow.”

Lex waited for a moment before responding, rubbing her cheek into his hair as she slid an arm around Rolf's waist from behind him. “This is kind of sudden, so I don't think we need to be definite at the meeting tomorrow, just tell everyone what we're thinking about. I know we'd been talking about something small, just us and some people from work, but what if we added your family into that? At least the people you wanted to invite?”

Rolf laughed dryly then. “If we invite any of them, we pretty much have to invite most of them, which would be another hundred people approximately.”

Nodding, Lex replied, “OK, so we're potentially talking about a wedding for 150 people.”

“Just at a rough estimate, we're probably talking around 30,000 Euros,” he said, turning onto his back so that he could look at Lex. “And we're not talking about a church wedding, either.”

Lex smiled then, looking into Rolf's eyes. “Good, because I don't want one and I was hoping you wouldn't either.” When Rolf shook his head, Lex continued. “So, we'll tell them that we haven't made any decisions yet, but that the guest list might end up being as high as 150 people. I think I could probably take that much out of what I've put into our investments over the years, but if you'd like to save for a while, I wouldn't mind a late spring wedding.”

“How about May?” Rolf asked, a slow smile starting up on his face. “And don't think you have to pay for this on your own. I have some set aside, too.”

“Sounds perfect,” Lex replied, turning so that she lay with her head on Rolf's shoulder and her arm across his chest.

The next day during the house meeting, as she and Rolf sat together on one of the couches in the living room, the one that had originally come from Rolf's apartment, they got ready to go over what they'd discussed the previous evening. The first order of business had been Riss' usual report on the group’s finances, so they listened to her presentation about how their investments were faring. As she wrapped up the report, however, she added something new.

“I wanted to mention something that we all decided at last week's meeting, after the two of you had left. Since we all knew where you'd headed and why, we figured the discussion of your wedding would happen soon. We didn't know your plans, but when all of us talked about what we'd like to do for the two of you, we decided that since you don't need household goods and we already own a house, something else was in order. So, from now until the time of your ceremony, everyone in the household can designate a portion of their savings or money from their salary that they'd like to put towards your celebration.”

Lex looked over at Rolf, smiling, and saw him grin back at her. “That's wonderful, everyone; thanks so much,” Lex said in a soft tone.

Before she could continue, however, Casey shifted and cleared her throat, and Lex looked over at the other woman. She spotted Lou nodding at Casey before she began to speak. “Lex, Rolf, there's one more thing before you share your plans with us.” Pausing, Casey looked at Lou, who reached out to put her hand in his. “This is something Lou and I have been talking about for a while, but the timing never seemed right. Now, though...” Casey sighed and then started speaking fast, looking down at the floor. “Well, the thing is that Lou and I have decided to get married, too, so we thought maybe you wouldn't mind if we did it along with the two of you.”

As her gaze swept the room, Lex saw everyone's surprise, but she couldn't help jumping to her feet with an exclamation and crossing the room to hug her friend. Casey laughed as she did, and Lex realized as she pulled back that Rolf had followed her and now stood shaking hands with Lou. Lex glanced at Rolf as the two men drew apart, to try to see if she could determine what he thought of the idea, before she reached in to hug Lou as well. After that, Rolf grabbed her hand to draw her back to where they'd been sitting, in order to allow everyone else to come forward to offer their congratulations.

“What do you think?” she asked in a near whisper, still looking at Rolf.

“It's about time,” he replied in a low voice, turning to grin at her. “They're welcome to join us, as far as I'm concerned. It seems you like the idea as well.”

She didn't bother to answer in words as she pressed the side of her face to his shoulder and cuddled close to him, a big smile on her face. They waited until the rest of the room had settled down, and then Lex turned to look at Rolf, inviting him to speak. “Lex and I are fine with the idea,” he said, smiling in Lou and Casey's direction. “We're still trying to figure out the guest list, but if we invite my family, the number of people could get as high as 150.”

Rolf went on to describe what else he and Lex had settled on, and as he did the rest of the group chimed in with questions or suggestions. After about an hour or so they'd settled on a mid-May date with a guest list number to be determined and a venue to be located. Lex felt surprised when Riss asked for volunteers to help in making the arrangements, but she just shrugged as she saw Lex's expression.

“Since we're all going to be involved and there are so many of us, it only makes sense that we divide up the tasks. You four can volunteer for some things, but you'll have your hands full between now and then anyway, since you're the ones getting married.”

Lex looked over at Rolf, then over at Casey and Lou and smiled. She'd begun to worry about putting all of the elements needed for the ceremony together, but now she felt confident that they could all work it out.

Following the meeting, as Lex and Rolf unpacked their bags from their trip, Lex paused as she pulled her gloves and boots out. She'd packed them in plastic since they remained sticky with sap from her adventure in the woods, and Lex studied them for a moment, then tied the bootlaces together. After throwing the gloves around her neck and hanging her boots on her shoulder, Lex laid her duffel bag on the floor as Rolf glanced at her, a question in his expression.

“I'll finish unpacking in a few minutes,” Lex said, giving him a grin. “I'm going to see if Victor has any advice about how to clean these and if he can make me some insulated ones.”

Making her way up to the attic laboratory, Lex came through the door but stopped short. The silver skeleton that sat on the frame had become more complete, but something else had caught her attention. Victor had covered one arm in skin, and muscles continued out from under the skin and latched themselves to various parts of the shoulder. The reason it had caught Lex's eye, however, was that the arm had reached out to touch an orange that lay on the lab bench, and as the rest of the skeleton moved in response to that reach, Lex spotted the wires that ran under the skin of the arm to disappear underneath the skull.

She couldn't help but gasp as she watched the movement, causing Riss, who'd been standing with her back turned to the door, to turn in her direction. At the same time, one of the fingers that had been grasping the orange poked through the rind. Lex winced as she heard a noise of frustration coming from the speakers of the laptop sitting a foot away from the skeleton. As she turned to look at the laptop, she heard Art's familiar voice coming from the speakers, sounding more subdued than usual. “Hello, Lex.”

“Hi, Art! You've been moving along so fast!” Lex said, watching as Victor stepped forward with a cloth and wiped at the finger that had poked into the orange.

“I'm sorry, Victor,” Art said, his voice sounding low and apologetic. To Lex he replied, “Riss and Victor have been working hard. We're testing the latest batch of muscles and skin now.”

“Don't try so hard, Art,” Victor said. “Just monitor the pressure sensors and gauge how much pressure you use when you grab the objects around you, and then from that figure out how much force you need to manipulate things. It won't always be like this, but the sensors should be able to help you until you get used to moving around in a body.”

Art's laptop screen produced a jumbled mess of skewed angular geometrical shapes in red and orange before it gradually changed to cool green ovals after several seconds. “All right,” Art said as he reached out again for the orange.

“So, how's it been going?” Lex asked Riss. Victor seemed focused on Art's arm movements to the exclusion of all else, but Riss was giving Lex at least half her attention.

Riss shrugged, still watching Art move his new body around. “It's going more slowly than Art would like, I think,” she replied in quiet tones. “In the world of information, things can move fast. Here in the physical world, things take time. Although he's learning a lot faster than kids learn to move around, it seems slow for him.”

Riss took a small step forward as Art's movements stopped. He'd been surprised by brushing past a loose part of the orange rind and further lifting it up with his finger. Lex heard a sigh come over Art's speakers as he skimmed the surface of the orange this time, trying to push the peel back into place. As she watched, however, Lex saw the shapes on Art's screen change to swoops and peaks in a deep purple that shaded to red, the shapes forming in rapid explosions. Very slowly, Art reached his arm out in Riss' direction, hampered by the fact that he couldn't turn the rest of his body since no more of his musculature had been built yet.

Victor's head snapped in Riss' direction, and he said in a raised voice, “Riss, step back. Don't get too close.”

As he said that, however, the movement in Art's arm turned into a lurch. He reached it out to its full extension in her direction, his hand open. “Please,” came over the speakers, Art's voice so strained it sounded almost unrecognizable.

“Riss, step back,” Victor said, his voice still raised in alarm. “The muscles we gave to him are much stronger than a normal human's. He could hurt you without meaning to.”

“But he won't, will you, Art?” Riss said in a quiet, powerful voice as she stepped forward again. “I know we've talked about this before, Art, so you probably remember that if you do to me what you did to the orange, it would hurt me a lot. My body would be able to repair the damage at some point if it wasn't too extensive, but it might not work or look the same ever again. I know you don't want that.”

Art's hand shrank back. “No, Riss, I would never want that, but I'm worried I may make a mistake.”

“Then hold your hand out and don't move it. I'll touch your hand the way it feels comfortable for me. Take note of how it feels, and the pressure I use. I'll step away afterwards and then you can try it.” Riss stared straight at Art's laptop screen, which generated tiny red loops and agitated vertical lines that ran almost the length of his monitor. Finally, the patterns calmed down to purple zig-zag lines, and Lex watched as Art's arm reached out again, not far from Riss.

“All right, Riss,” he said in low tones. Lex could almost swear that she heard the fascination in his voice and saw Art's arm quivering in anticipation, but instead of thinking about it she became distracted by watching Riss step forward.

As she reached Art's outstretched hand, Riss put her jaw into his hand. They could hear a small gasp from Art's laptop as their skin touched. Like a cat, Riss rubbed her jawline along the side of Art's hand, then rested her cheek in his palm for a second. A moment later, she straightened with a quiet smile. “Do you think you have the hang of it?”

Art replied, his voice sounding muffled. “Yes, I think so, but–”

“I trust you, Art,” Riss said as she stepped back. “If you're worried, just be even more careful than you think you need to be. I know you can do it.”

The room fell silent and Lex knew she must have been holding her breath as she watched Art's hand move forwards, clearly trembling now. His movement slowed to a crawl just before he touched her, and Lex watched as his index finger reached Riss' jawline and gave it a tentative touch. Riss leaned into his gesture, closing her eyes, and Art's hand moved to cup her cheek, then dropped away. A small sound not unlike a sigh made its way out of the speakers, and Riss moved to wrap her hand around Art's.

“Now remember,” she said, turning the orange over, “when you're trying this again, just pretend it's me you're touching. Some things are a lot more delicate and you'll need to handle them with care. Maybe you can talk to Casey or Lou about that; they're even stronger than your body should end up being, so I think they've had to get used to it over the years.”

“All right. Thank you, Riss,” Art replied, his tone more subdued. “Victor, I have a question for you,” he continued, the patterns on the laptop becoming elongated indigo ovals.

“What is it?” Victor responded, looking relieved that everything had gone well.

“When Riss and I touched for the first time, I felt some kind of surge,” Art said, sounding to Lex's mind as if he was still trying to piece it together.

Victor chuckled in response. “Good, that means I've calibrated you correctly.” When Riss shot a raised eyebrow at Victor, he returned it, then spoke again. “Art, that's the way it feels when you touch your lover. There's a lot of good things about having a body, and I didn't want you to miss out on any of that.”

The flowing lines and circular shapes now on Art's screen alternated between a deep green and a bright blue. “Thanks, Victor,” he replied, and Lex watched as Art's hand reached out for the orange again.

She turned to Victor a moment later, coming around the lab bench to hold her boots and gloves out in his direction. “I have to thank you for saving my life,” she said with a grin.

Victor tore his attention away from Art and looked at the equipment with a raised eyebrow. “I didn't know you still had this stuff.”

“You were kind enough to remake these for me in Arizona, once we left the DC area,” Lex reminded him. “I hoped I could ask you to help me clean these off and to make some new ones for me.”

Taking the boots from her, Victor grabbed a magnifying glass from a nearby drawer and studied the bottom of the boots. “Looks like wood,” he muttered.

“Yes, I had to go through a lot of trees to keep safe that night,” she replied, knowing Victor had probably heard the outline of the story by now, even though he and Derek had been out the night they’d gotten home.

He nodded, then dropped the boots and gloves into a nearby trash can. “Forget these, they're trash now.”

“Hey!” Lex said, looking after them with a frown. “Can I get some more? And could you also make me an insulated pair of boots and gloves too?”

Victor nodded in reply. “Sure. I did have a couple of ideas about improving this design, so I'll try them out on the ones I make for you. Give me at least a week to finish them.”

He scratched something down on a nearby pad of paper and went back to observing Art's movements. Lex put a hand on Riss' shoulder, giving her friend a smile before leaving the lab to go back downstairs and finish her unpacking.

Forward to Chapter 56
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Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!



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