Palladian (palladian23) wrote in superwebnovel,

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Chapter 50: Salutations

Author's Notes/Warnings: Arrivals, unexpected meetings, warnings, first clashes...

Hey, everyone! We have some arriving this time, and lots of new faces. I should also mention that I'm getting everything together for the third e-book for this series, Super: Exile. I'm only waiting for the cover art to arrive, and I'm hoping it should be available for sale by early December. It will include up through chapter 57, so if you want to get a jump on what I'm going to be publishing here, getting the e-book will be the way to do it! I'll post more details as they become available, and thanks, as always, for your support!

Big thanks to editor-in-chief, gwoman for helping me to improve this story way beyond where it started.

Back to Chapter 49

Lex still didn't feel she'd fully woken up by the time they made it to the station and onto the train early the next morning. After only a few minutes of travel, her heavy eyelids felt impossible to keep open even as she tried to look at the city and then the suburbs rolling by. Much later, judging by the angle of the sun, Lex opened her eyes again, straightening up from where she'd leaned on Rolf's shoulder, and stared out the window just past him. She saw a number of grazing cows as they sped past, and then a thick forest began to whiz by.

“How long did I sleep?” she asked Rolf, her voice sounding scratchy and unused.

He smiled at her but didn't quite meet her eyes. “A few hours, I think. We should reach our stop in a half-hour or so.”

She nodded in response, then scrubbed at her face with a hand. “I think I'm going to get some tea. Do you want anything?”

Rolf shook his head, then turned to gaze out at the scenery. He remained looking out the window when she got back several minutes later, and Lex sat next to him. She put her tea down and reached out for his hand, saying in a low voice, “You know, I’m here with you this time.”

He turned towards her for a moment and smiled, but she found it a small, tight version of his normal one. Rolf didn’t let go of her hand, however, until they reached Ingolstadt, and Lex spent the remainder of the time on the train remembering the sinking feeling of going to visit her parents, as she’d done only a few times since she’d left home.

Lex felt somewhat silly with her big bags as she followed Rolf off the train, but he seemed to have cheered up to see her carrying them and gave her a real grin as she stumbled coming onto the platform. She couldn’t help but grin back as she refused his offer of help, resettled her bags, and followed him through the station.

“So, where are we headed from here?” she asked.

“I’ve rented a car to take us to the house,” Rolf said as he slowed so Lex could hear him. “I think the rental desk should be near here somewhere.”

Lex followed him, looking down often so that she didn’t lose her footing, and almost bumped into him a few minutes later as he stopped unexpectedly.

“Rolf!” she heard an unfamiliar voice exclaim. “We were hoping we’d find you here.”

She'd understood the quick words in German thanks to intensive practice for the past several months, both on her own and with Rolf. Looking up, Lex glanced beyond Rolf’s shoulder to see two people standing in front of him. As the busy crowd passed them by, Lex took a moment to study the pair. The man seemed to be in his mid-twenties, taller than both she and Rolf, and slim in a way that looked as if he hadn’t finished filling out yet. He had curly chestnut hair, a short beard, and a happy, relieved smile as he reached his hand forward to shake Rolf’s. His companion had a polished look: sleekly pulled-back black hair and blue eyes brought out by the makeup she’d chosen. Her coat looked well-tailored and to be made of red wool, the open front not hiding the gold necklace with a faceted ruby pendant the size of Lex's thumbnail. The woman hung back a step from her male companion, first looking at Rolf and then starting as she glanced over at Lex.

Distracted from her thoughts, Lex turned as she heard Rolf say, also in German, “Let me introduce my fiancée. Lex, this is my brother Theo.”

She looked up at the man in front of them with a smile, bringing her hand forward to shake his, but she stopped in place as Theo drew up in surprise as he studied her face, then smiled as he stared into her eyes. “This really is her, isn’t it, brother?” he asked, but with a tone so low Lex wondered if he'd meant her to hear.

Frowning in confusion, Lex had begun to turn to Rolf to ask what was going on when Theo caught her attention as he took her hand in his. “I’m sorry to be so rude,” he said as he bowed, then touched the back of her fingers to his lips. “Welcome to Bavaria, and I’m looking forward to welcoming you to the Kaiser home. Mina,” he said as he released Lex’s hand and moved back a half-step, “this is the woman we’ve been hearing so much about.”

Mina moved forward and shook hands with a charming smile, but Lex had an uncomfortable realization that Mina seemed to be staring at her eyes, as well. She smiled at the other woman after their hands separated and then stepped back to Rolf’s side, trying to catch his attention in a sidelong glance but unable to due to him glaring at his brother. Theo appeared to be embarrassed about something and looked away.

“It’s good to see you again, Theo,” Rolf finally said, his voice betraying nothing of the annoyance Lex had seen moments earlier. “I wasn’t expecting to see anyone until we got to the house, however.”

Theo’s dark eyes flashed as he glanced over at Rolf again. “Well, aside from wanting to be the first to meet the woman who captured your heart,” Theo began, glancing over at Lex with a smile, “we needed to talk to you about some things…outside the house.”

Rolf shot his brother a different look, full of concern, with all earlier irritation gone. “All right. Do you want to get some lunch somewhere and we can talk?”

Theo nodded and fell into step with Rolf while Lex followed with Mina at her side. Lex had dressed for cold weather in a mid-thigh—length quilted navy jacket, and knowing she'd be meeting Rolf's family, she'd also chosen black slacks, boots, and a warm sweater in a flattering teal color, but she felt under dressed walking next to Theo's wife. Getting uncomfortable with the sidelong looks the woman kept giving her, Lex decided to break the silence. “So, what is it that you do?” she asked, turning to look at her companion as they walked.

Unfortunately, at that moment Lex heard Theo speaking to Rolf in an undertone, so she split her attention between listening to their conversation and Mina's response. “I work as IT support for a business here in town. We started with just a few people, but now we're one of the leading office supply businesses in the area. We're a small shop; I work for the head of the department...”

As she listened to Mina, Lex also half-heard something that Theo had said, that their father, “saw her and freaked out,” to which Rolf ducked his head and replied with something that Lex couldn't hear. She smiled at Mina, thinking she had generally understood the last part of her sentence, about her perhaps being promoted, but that she might need to hire a subordinate. “That's a lot of responsibility! Is Theo's job as demanding as yours?”

Mina tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “Well, he's one of the vice-presidents for Human Resources in the Kaiser family business, so I guess he's pretty busy himself,” she replied, but paused as she noted the surprise on Lex's face.

Lex hadn't been able to hear the quiet remarks between Rolf and Theo before they entered a nearby doorway, but her surprise might have prevented her from registering anything had she heard. Mina, smiling in a way that didn't meet her eyes as she observed Lex's surprise, commented, “I guess Rolf never mentioned it. Not that he would; I know he doesn't spend a lot of time here.”

A shadow seemed to cast itself over Mina's expression as the corner of her mouth started to droop, but she tried to smile again as she held the door open for Lex. “I think you'll like this place,” Mina said as they stepped inside. As they entered the main dining room, Lex saw Rolf and Theo being led to a table, so she and Mina followed. Mina half-turned to Lex as they walked to ask, “What is it that you do?”

Lex raised an eyebrow, realizing that there may have been a lot that Rolf hadn't bothered to tell his family about her, as well as the other way around. “I work for the Special Forces along with Rolf.”

This time Mina paused, her face registering her surprise, and then she smiled as if it all made sense somehow. “That must be interesting work. I'm guessing that's how you two met?”

Smiling in response, Lex replied, “Well, sort of.” She felt happy she was spared from elaborating since they'd arrived at the table. Theo pulled Mina's chair out as Lex sat next to Rolf, giving him a questioning look. He returned it with an intense look and a short nod. “Theo, could you repeat what you told me just now? I want Lex to hear as well.” Rolf paused as Theo shot him a strange glance while sitting in his chair. “Except for the...weird stuff; I'll tell her about that later.”

“All right,” Theo answered, looking thoughtful for a moment as if choosing his words with care. “When our father found out about you, Lex, he got...very upset, and I'm worried he's planning something bad for you and Rolf.”

Lex's head automatically turned to look at Rolf, and he returned her intense look with one of his own. “The thing I didn't get around to asking,” Rolf said, turning back to look at Theo, “was if you had any idea about what he has in mind.”

They all paused to order, but when the waiter had gone and Theo found both Lex and Rolf staring at him, he ducked his head and scratched the back of his neck. “I tried to find out, really I did, but Karl and Dad just have too many opportunities to talk alone. You may not know it, but Dad is grooming Karl to become the next President of Kaiser Metals, so they're even together at work a lot.”

He looked so unhappy that Lex dropped her eyes, not wanting to make him feel any worse than he already did, but she raised her gaze again as she heard Rolf's voice. “The only thing I want to know,” Rolf said, “is do you think he's planning to try to kill either of us? Because if he is, I think we could be excused for not wanting to come to our own deaths.”

Theo looked up again with a horrified expression on his face. “No! No, I don't think it's anything like that, but...I'm just not sure what it is. Karl caught me trying to eavesdrop on them one night. He punched me so hard in the stomach that it still hurt the following week.”

Rolf sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face. “Thanks for sticking your neck out for us; I appreciate what you did. Can we count on your support if either of them try anything that severe?”

Theo nodded his head, looking serious. “Of course. I won't stand there and watch anyone get killed, and I won't participate in it, either.” He hesitated for a moment after that, then continued in a slow voice. “If it's anything less that than...well, I won't act against you, but I might have to be more subtle about what I do.”

Lex noted out of the corner of her eye that Mina shot Theo a look then, and when Lex turned her head to get more detail, she saw the mix of frustration and anger in Mina's expression. She didn't have time to think about it, however, her thoughts cut short as she heard Rolf say, “I understand. You're in a difficult position, and I appreciate whatever you can do.”

“I'll stand by you, too,” Lex heard Mina's voice ring out and turned to look at her in surprise.

Theo gave her an uncomfortable and embarrassed sideways glance and said, “Mina, you know we can’t act openly against them—”

“No, Theo, I’m tired of this,” Mina replied, her voice containing a harder edge than it had before. “I don’t want to live under their thumbs anymore.”

“But they’ve provided so much for the whole family…” Theo trailed off, his head bowed as if he knew what her response would be.

“Yes! Yes they have, and they hang it over our heads every second of the day! I’ve told you, we don’t have to live like that, we can move here—” Mina broke off suddenly, looking at Rolf and Lex in dismay, and reached out for Theo’s hand. He didn’t look up but grasped her hand, holding on until his knuckles turned white.

“I’m really sorry,” Mina continued after a moment. “I love Theo and I’m happy we’re together, but living with your family has been hard for me. Your father and brother want to lord their position over all of us all the time and it makes me so angry. I’m furious with the way they treat you and Theo,” she finished, turning to her husband, who finally raised his head.

Smiling sadly, he reached his free hand out to touch her chin. “My beautiful Mina,” he said, and this time Mina dropped her gaze.

Lex felt tears begin to spring to her eyes, but she blinked furiously to keep them back. She looked over at Rolf, who'd bowed his head as well, his hands gripping the edge of the table so hard that parts of his fingers had turned white as well. After a few moments he sighed and looked back up, smiling even though Lex recognized the fire in his eyes.

“I’m sorry things have been so difficult for the both of you,” he said with a note of heaviness in his voice, “and I hope that changes in the near future.” He gazed at Theo, and then at Mina, his eyes warm and compassionate. “I’m hoping that hasn’t been everything that’s been happening, however. What else have the two of you been up to?”

Theo and Mina both seemed relieved at the change in topic and began talking about their jobs, their friends, and their last vacation. They’d gone skiing in Switzerland and had a wonderful time, promising to show the pictures when everyone got back to the Kaiser house. As the conversation got onto more complicated topics, Lex nudged Rolf anytime she needed a quick translation, but overall she felt pretty good about her language skills.

Just the mention of the place seemed to bring a chill over the table again, but Lex knew they had to go anyway, since they'd finished eating and Rolf had managed to pay the bill after having argued with Theo over the privilege for a while. As they stood and began putting their coats back on, Rolf leaned in close to Theo and Mina and said, “If we need to go somewhere to talk while we’re back at home, let me know. I have some ideas where we can go to remain unheard.”

Theo and Mina both nodded and Lex followed Rolf as he turned to go, but Theo’s arm on his brother's made Rolf turn back. Lex couldn’t help but smile as Theo pulled Rolf into a bear hug. “It’s so good to have you home, brother,” he said, moving back to arm’s length after a few moments and smiling at Rolf.

Rolf seemed somewhat embarrassed but immediately replied. “It’s good to see you, too.” Lex never let him know that he still wore a grin as they left the restaurant.

“So,” Lex asked after they'd gotten into the car they'd rented and set out on their way, “what did you mean about the 'weird stuff' when you talked to Theo earlier?”

She found herself intensely curious about that, wondering if it had anything to do with the odd looks she'd gotten upon first meeting her future in-laws.

Rolf didn't take his eyes from the road as he negotiated a sharp turn, and Lex noted that they seemed to be moving gradually upwards as they traveled northwest of Ingolstadt. “I know you're wondering about that, and you have every right to be,” he answered after several seconds of quiet, still looking at the road. “There's something that I'd like to show you once we get there, however, and it will explain everything. Can you wait to get some answers until we reach the house?”

The curiosity burning in Lex's mind seemed only to grow after hearing that, but she nodded to herself, figuring that sounded fair. “All right, but don't forget. If you do, I'll definitely remind you,” she said with a smile that she knew Rolf saw as he gave her a quick sidelong glance. “So, do you have any idea what to expect after talking to Theo today?”

Rolf shook his head. “My father has always seemed to dislike me for some reason. Although grandmother never spoke of it, they sent me to live with her for some reason in particular, and we lived far away from the rest of the family. It's like he's always wanted me away from everyone else, except for special events, like he's afraid that whatever it is that he doesn't like about me will spread to the rest of the family.”

He had a closed, angry look on his face when Lex gazed over at him, and her heart seemed to flop with dismay. She reached out to put her hand on his knee, and she smiled at him. “I think the family would be very lucky if they had more people like you in it. I think Theo and Mina seem to feel the same way.”

Rolf ducked his head then, and although Lex had never seen him blush before, she couldn't help but think that his cheeks looked darker than normal. He looked back up at the road a moment later, and Lex felt warmed by the tiny smile on his lips. “Well,” he said, “I just want to make sure to warn you of what my father and older brother seem to think my position is in the family. I know that Theo seems to have ruled out the idea of their attempting to kill us, but some of that may be wishful thinking. I know you, however, and between the both of us, I know we can get out of that place before anything happens if need be. That's one of the reasons that I rented this. The local trains stop near the village, but Kaiser House is a few kilometers outside the village anyway, so I thought we should be able to drive if we need to go at a moment's notice.”

Lex nodded, feeling chilled again but somehow strong nonetheless. “Don't worry,” she said. “We've gone up against people with much worse abilities than this and we've come out fine. There's no reason we won't this time.”

She left her hand on his knee as if to remind him that she sat right there beside him as the car climbed higher along the road they took. Lex tried to keep the sense of doom she used to feel upon going to her parent's house at bay, instead watching the scenery change from open fields and farms to thickly wooded hills with small patches of snow showing through the trunks in areas where the sun couldn't reach. The forest she saw seemed old and close, the sunlight only penetrating the shadows in force along the road. They passed a few small towns with, shops lining the main streets and houses in the lanes beyond, and people walking in and out of the shops bundled up against the chill. She found herself paying closer attention as they reached a larger village, the shops along the street more varied and the houses bigger than those in the previous towns. Rolf turned to look out the driver's side window, pointing to a building dominating the near distance, its multiple smoke stacks puffing out grey smoke above the surrounding trees.

“Welcome to Kaiserstadt,” he said, his lips twisting in a wry smile. “Over there is my family's business, the Kaiser Metalworks.”

Lex straightened up to look at the buildings in the distance as they rolled by. “It looks huge! How big is the company?”

He shrugged. “As you can guess, I'm kept pretty much away from any details, but from what I can tell from public information, the business continues to grow every year. I understand they're a multi-million euro company these days. It grew from a small business many years ago to a larger one under the boost from making machine parts for army vehicles in World War I, and it's kept getting bigger ever since.”

Nodding, Lex continued to watch as the company buildings slipped by. “I'm assuming the business is part of the estate that went to the oldest son?”

Rolf frowned as he nodded in reply. “Yes, and as you can imagine, Aunt Brigitte is still pissed about that. She does work at the company still, as president of Human Resources, and from what I understand, even though she makes my little brother's life hell, it sounds like she has a good grasp of business, probably even better than my father, so I can see why she's angry about that.”

Lex fell silent for a moment as she watched the last of the village streets roll by the window. “About how much farther?” she asked, trying to ignore the familiar writhing nervousness in her stomach of nearing home.

“Not far now,” Rolf replied, turning off the main road onto a gravel-lined road that Lex hadn't spotted until he'd taken it.

The trees they drove by seemed even more immense than those she'd spotted in the forests they'd passed earlier, and for a moment she forgot her nervous forebodings as she leaned towards the car window to crane her neck to see the tops of those immense firs. She couldn't help but smile as she turned back towards Rolf. “It's beautiful,” she said, feeling spellbound.

She felt glad to see his answering smile, less pronounced than Lex knew hers looked. “The Kaiser family owns the forest for a long way in most directions. While we're here I'll show you around; I'm sure at least part of the time there shouldn't be anything planned for us.”

“Do you think I could see where you grew up?” she asked in a low voice, not sure she should be asking, but she'd been unable to hold the question back.

To her relief, Rolf gave her a real smile in reply. “I'd like that. It's been a long time since I've been back there. Let's try to do that.”

Lex felt surprised at just how long they'd been driving through uninterrupted forest when it began to thin out. She gasped as the forest suddenly changed to a lawn, her eyes focused on the building that loomed up in front of them. Built of grey stone, it towered over them, at least several stories high of living space and topped by towers on either side of the two wings that flanked an even taller tower in the middle of the structure. The stone seemed weathered but appeared to be well maintained, and the slate roof of both wings appeared to have not a shingle out of place. She guessed that the towers had been roofed in copper since they appeared green in the light of day.

Lex felt her mouth hanging open but couldn't stop looking at the opulence in front of her long enough to close it. The gears in her mind had begun to add up the pieces as well, and after a moment the sprawling company she'd seen on the way here and the castle before them now (any other word didn't seem to give justice to the building, Lex thought) caused doubt to leak into her mind. “You didn't mention that it was...well, a castle,” she said, and due to the yawning worry in her stomach at dating another rich guy, she could hear how small her voice sounded.

Rolf didn't say anything as he followed the drive around to the side of the far wing of the building and finally parked the car at the end of what looked like a ten-car garage. He sighed and turned to look at Lex, his eyes sad. “It didn't occur to me to warn you, sorry. I don't think about it much since I've never spent much time here. If it makes any difference, none of this is mine or will ever be mine.”

Blushing now, Lex ducked her head. “It should be yours as much as it is anyone else's in your family,” she replied fiercely, grabbing his hand and squeezing it.

Although his smile still looked sad, Rolf squeezed back. “Come on, let's get our stuff and go inside. I think we've postponed this as much as we can at this point.”

Lex nodded and followed his lead as Rolf collected his luggage from the trunk and walked for the front door. On their walk there Lex had ample opportunity to look at the extensive lawns in front of the castle, including flowerbeds and decorative shrubs. Everything seemed dead currently except for the firs, which stood not far away on all sides. A few massive trees had been allowed to grow on the front lawn, which eventually tapered back to forest, but the transition seemed less gradual in the back. The castle itself dwarfed the two of them as they approached it, and Lex felt her stomach flopping around like a dead fish. Finally they arrived at the large front door, and Lex stood beside Rolf as he rang the bell, encouraging herself to take deep breaths as they both waited for someone to arrive. She looked at Rolf out of the corner of her eye and noted that he appeared pale and drawn with an expression that wouldn't have seemed out of place waiting to attend his own execution. Dropping her bags on the step, Lex reached over to take Rolf's hand and smiled at him. Rolf tried to smile then, she could see, but seemed too agitated to manage it. The hand that he clasped around hers held strong, however, and Lex could feel herself still smiling as the door in front of them opened.

A man in a black suit with a short jacket, a starched white shirt with a high collar, and a black bow tie answered the door and loomed over them. His hair looked to be mostly white and the lines on his face spoke of the displeasure with which he'd received other guests over the years. Now he looked over at Rolf with an expression of surprise and some contempt.

“Ah, Master Rolf. You've come home,” the man said in crisp German, his voice sounding sarcastic as he said the word “master” and not at all welcoming. His eyes flared and he took a step back as he looked at Lex's short blood-red hair and unusually colored eyes. “And I assume this is your young lady.”

Rolf just stared at the man with a flat look in his eyes as Lex responded. “Yes, you can call me Lex.”

“Miss Lex, my name is Hans and I am a servant in this household,” he said with a bow. “Please come this way and I'll show the two of you to your rooms.”

He held the front door open so that they could enter and then closed the door behind them. They walked into a two-story entry hall that opened into a cavernous living room to the left and an equally large dining room to the right. They followed Hans forward into the house, however, which opened out to accommodate a grand staircase that spiraled inwards and went up several floors, flanked by an intricately carved heavy banister running the length of the stairs. Lex looked up as they reached the stairs and saw a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling far away and more light coming from several windows that punctuated the way up the stairs.

Lex walked with Rolf as they proceeded up to the next level and turned left as they got off the staircase. The hallway they entered had doors on either side in regularly spaced intervals. She stopped at the first one on the right as Hans opened it with a flourish.

“Miss Lex, this is your room. You should find everything you need inside, but you can ring for one of the servants if anything is missing,” Hans gestured to a bell-pull by a delicate-looking writing desk with legs carved with leaves and flowers.

Lex glanced quickly around at the furnished suite and the queen-sized bed and attached bathroom, then dropped her bags and nodded, following the other two as they went out of the room. Hans gave her a frown, but Lex just smiled at him. “I just want to see where Rolf is staying, since I don't know anyone else here,” she explained.

He started to say something, but Rolf turned to the man and silenced him with a glance. “Hans, I'm assuming that my parents have put me in the same room? If that's the case, you don't need to show me there.”

Hans nodded to confirm Rolf's assumption, then gave a bow in which he barely bent at the waist as he retreated back down the hall and took the stairs down. Rolf looked over at Lex then, his eyebrow raised. She gave him a wicked smile in return as she turned back to grab her bags from the room she'd been shown. “Don't split up the party,” she said in English as she took her place at his side again.

Rolf seemed to be trying to keep himself from laughing. “All right, if that's what you want,” he replied in English as well, his tone dubious.

“If you're worried it'll start some sort of trouble, I can stay in this room,” Lex said, doubt creeping into her tone as she moved back towards the door.

He looked at her with surprise then and shook his head. “No, I really don't think my parents will care that much one way or the other. I mean, they've always been ones for appearances, but none of the rest of the family even live on this floor: they all have rooms on the level above this one. It's just that...well, you'll see in a minute,” he concluded, falling silent as they walked the rest of the way down the hall.

When they'd reached the last door on the left, Rolf opened it and stood there for a moment, then stepped aside to let Lex see inside. “As you can see, it's not as nice as the room they had Hans show you to.”

Lex blinked at the room beyond, taking in the modest double bed pushed to the right wall, the bookshelf along the left wall, and the small dresser at the foot of the bed. That left just enough room for a narrow walkway through to a tiny bathroom beyond. The overall effect seemed cozy rather than cramped, but Lex figured this room had to be at least a third smaller or maybe even half the size of the one she'd been shown earlier. As she took in a deep breath, she could smell the mustiness of disuse in the air.

She could feel her eyebrows threatening to launch off her head by the time she turned to look at Rolf. “Boy, they really pull out all the stops for you here, don't they?” She snorted with anger, then asked in a gentler tone, “So, this is where you've stayed anytime you've been here with them?”

Rolf shrugged, looking embarrassed, and Lex felt a bolt of anger so strong at that point that she felt like she could have ripped both of his parents' heads off had they been standing in front of her. “Yeah, although the way they seem to feel about me, I guess I should be glad they haven't tried to put me in a doghouse yet.”

Lex felt her anger carry her over the threshold and she went inside, opening the closet door just past the bookshelf and putting her bags on the floor. She had another wicked smile by the time she turned back to Rolf. “Let's go into the other room and grab anything we need here that may have been overlooked,” she suggested. The thrill that ran through her as she saw his genuine smile made Lex's heart thump madly, and she grabbed his hand as she bolted out the door.

Once they'd remade the bed in the smooth linens they'd pilfered from the other room, piled the down comforter on the bed, replaced the old pillows that had been in Rolf's room with the new ones they'd acquired, and changed the threadbare towels that had been in the bathroom with new, plush ones, Lex sat back on the bed, smiling as the comforter plumped up around her.

“Not too bad, eh?” she said with a grin, looking over at Rolf who'd taken a seat beside her.

He reached out for her hand, and the way he brought his head up to look into her eyes made Lex's heart do even stranger things than before. She leaned over then and put a hand to his cheek before she kissed him, sweetly and tenderly at first, but as it continued, Lex couldn't hold back the feeling of her hunger for him. She felt a shudder run down her spine as she pressed closer to him, and the moan in the back of her throat seemed to bring a growl from his. As she moved her hand on his face to his back to hold him closer, Lex heard the door open behind them. Rolf pulled back from her then, and she could see the mixed look of anger and consternation in his eyes as he spotted whoever had interrupted them.

A loud voice boomed out, saying in a sneering tone in clipped German, “Well, so you're finally here!”

Lex found her mood racing to anger as she turned to face the man at the door and found herself responding in German herself, surprised that the words came to her so quickly due to the anger she felt. “Didn't anyone teach you how to knock?”

The person standing in the doorway took up much of it with his height and broad shoulders. He'd dressed in cream-colored, casual trousers and a black turtleneck sweater, and his brown curly hair had been cut to curl slightly around his collar. He had one hand on his hip, as if accusing them, and the sneer she'd heard in his voice also showed on his face until Lex turned to face him. The man paled then and stepped slightly back from the door frame, his body language suddenly showing uncertainty. That only lasted for a moment until he shook himself and then stepped through the doorway, struggling to put a disdainful look on his face.

“So, this is your bitch, Rolf? She's just as low class a piece of ass as I'd expect you to choose.”

Rolf leapt off the bed and glared at him, a growl in his throat again. “Don't you talk about her like that, you—”

Lex's restraining hand on his upper arm stopped Rolf's speech, and he looked back at her as she shook her head. “Don't worry, I can respond on my own,” she said to him in a low tone. When she turned back to the other man, she continued, “You must be Karl. I see that Rolf's description of you did you justice.” She paused then to look him up and down, then rolled her eyes. “At any rate, you're correct. I'm a peasant from a line of peasants, a fact I'm most proud of. I am also a bitch, and I'd advise you not to forget it, you lousy bastard, because the minute you do, you'll find yourself with a slit throat.”

She glared at him then, and knew by the icy chill at her side that Rolf's stare backed her up. Karl appeared uncertain then, hovering in the doorway as if trying to decide whether to take a step out into the hall.

“Did you come to tell us something, or did you just want to show up and insult your invited guests?” Lex asked, trying for a note of boredom in her voice. “Can't you see we're kind of busy here?”

Karl sneered at them again, but it seemed to fall flat as he kept glancing from Rolf to Lex in a nervous way. “Yes. You got here so late that mother and father couldn't keep waiting for you. They'd promised to attend a dinner party at the Schmidts' and they had to go. They shouldn't be back until late tonight.”

Rolf turned to Lex and added, “The Schmidts live about an hour's drive away. I guess that makes sense.”

“So, my wife and I will be entertaining you at dinner this evening,” Karl continued, giving Lex and Rolf a mean smile.

“I'm really looking forward to it,” Lex said with fake excitement, turning to Rolf and trying not to laugh. “Aren't you, honey?”

Rolf gave her a quick look and turned away, visibly biting his lip. Lex could see his back shaking as he tried to hold back the laughter.

“Anything else you wanted to say?” Lex asked after a few moments of silence, looking back over at Karl, who appeared confused.

“No. Dinner will be served at 7:30. Don't be late,” he said, putting his nose in the air as he stepped into the hallway, turning his back to them.

“We certainly won't,” Lex said in a sugary tone as Rolf moved forward to close the door. “Bye! Thanks!”

With the door shut again, the two of them looked at each other before collapsing onto the bed, Lex giggling behind her hand as Rolf laughed into a nearby pillow. By the time they could stop, Lex lay gasping for breath and looked over to see Rolf in a similar state. After she could speak again, Lex turned to him.

“If we break the bed in here, do you think they'll bring us another one?” she asked, this time in English, trying hard for an innocent tone.

Rolf gave her a look full of mischief and amusement. “There's really only one way to find out,” he answered in English, in a low voice that made a shiver run down Lex's spine.

“You locked the door this time, didn't you?” she asked as she sank back into the down comforter, taking Rolf with her.

“Of course,” he murmured in her ear, sealing the sentiment with a kiss.

The afternoon sun had disappeared before Lex and Rolf got up to shower and dress for dinner. Rolf wore black jeans and a thick, green, cable-knit sweater while Lex chose grey slacks and a blue sweater with short black boots. She surveyed herself in the mirror for a moment, looking at Rolf where he stood over her shoulder.

“Ready for more excitement?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

Lex laughed as she turned to follow him out into the hall, walking close behind him as they made their way to the dining room. When they arrived on the main floor, she noticed that they went through a sitting room on the left side of the house and through an open door in the back of the room. Passing through brought them to a large room decorated with plush red carpet and cream wallpaper striped with crimson, and populated by a dining table in the center that looked as if it could easily seat thirty. Someone had set one end of the table with delicate china, the rims of the plates and cups edged in gold, and a complicated looking silver setting at each place. Theo and Mina sat there, looking nervous but otherwise much like they'd been earlier. They both smiled and seemed to relax as they spotted Lex and Rolf, Theo standing up to shake his brother's hand again.

“Rolf, why haven't you introduced your fiancée to me yet?” an annoyed woman’s voice called out German.

Lex shot a glance at Rolf, who flicked his eyes back to meet hers. She followed his gaze back out across the table to look at a redhead sitting across it in a low-cut black dress. Her hair had been swept up in some kind of complicated knot, and she wore a gold necklace studded with diamonds along with matching earrings. The hair on Lex's neck stood on end as she looked the woman over, and she returned Lex's glance with an imperially bored look.

“My name is Lex,” she said, in German as well, trying to keep her tone regulated and even and to prevent her instant dislike from seeping in.

“Oh!” the woman exclaimed, looking at Lex for a moment with an incredulous expression, as if she'd heard a houseplant speak, then turned back to Rolf. “What an odd name.”

Gritting her teeth and trying not enumerate the snappy comebacks she could think of in response, Lex replied, “It's actually a nickname for my real name, Alexandra.”

“Well,” the woman said, talking to Rolf again, “I think Alexandra should sit here, next to me.”

Lex gave Rolf a sideways glance, to which he shrugged. Knowing that probably meant that there should be no real danger and she should make up her own mind as to what she wanted to do, Lex finally shrugged as well and moved to the opposite side of the table. The woman beamed as if she'd won something and continued to ignore Lex as she sat to her left-hand side. As she sat, it registered in Lex's mind for the first time that the woman sat to Karl's right hand, from where he'd seated himself at the head of the table.

“So you're Sandra,” she muttered to herself with a smile. Can't imagine two people more well-suited to one another, Lex thought.

Sandra ignored her and took a drink of wine from a cut crystal glass. Lex looked at her plate with a dejected frown, seeing a large cut of meat and some sort of gravy that seemed to have invaded the rest of the contents. She hadn't eaten meat since way before her body event, and since then she'd been too afraid to try any since she felt sure it would make her sick. Trying to ignore the beefy smell as she pushed her plate away, Lex smiled as she noticed a basket of rolls and reached for one to bring it to her bread plate. As she began cutting it in two in order to make it easier to eat, she looked up when she realized Karl had begun to speak.

“So, I hear you've been wasting your time playing superhero,” he said.

Lex could feel her temper heating up again. “Hey,” she began at the same time Rolf started speaking. She stopped not because of Rolf, but because she felt something hard and sharp, like a high heel, beginning to come down on the top of her foot. With her quick reflexes, Lex twisted and rolled her foot out of danger, but she could feel she'd probably gotten a long, angry welt regardless. She turned to look at Sandra with a murderous glare, but the other woman continued eating and ignoring Lex.

By the time Lex had tuned back in to the conversation, she heard Rolf finishing saying something about their work and its benefit to society. She smiled over at him as she met his eyes, but then Karl's voice caused them to break the connection.

“I also hear that's where you met this one,” he continued, looking over at Lex with a sneer. “I think you should probably try to find a less trashy place to work, if that's the case.”

Lex's mouth opened to reply, her anger bumping up another notch, when she saw Sandra begin to move in her peripheral vision. Instead of speaking, Lex moved her foot out of the way at the same time she clamped a strong hand onto Sandra's thigh.

“Listen, bitch,” Lex said, speaking in English due to her agitation, “if you ever try to step on me again, you'll find that high heel so far up your ass that you won't be able to shit for a week. Is that clear?”

She rolled her eyes as she realized that her message hadn't gotten through clearly, due to the confusion on Sandra's face, but that thanks to her actions and tone at least some of the meaning seemed to have made it across regardless. Switching to German again, Lex continued, “As much fun as it's been sitting over here, I think I'm going to move to sit next to Rolf.”

She grabbed her bread plate, her knife, and her water glass to move. When she got around to the other side of the table, she realized that her words must have carried farther than she'd intended because all three of the people on that side seemed to be struggling to keep their composure, Mina going as far as hiding her grin behind her napkin. Lex sighed as she put the items down, but as she straightened again, she noticed a man standing near a doorway not far from the head of the table, dressed in a short black jacket and starched shirt, glancing watchfully over the table.

Taking a chance, she went over to him. “Excuse me, but could you talk to someone in the kitchen? I can't eat meat or milk or eggs. Is there any way I could get something else?”

The man looked at her in surprise, but answered right away, “I'm sure we can do better than that, Miss. I'll be back shortly.”

Lex smiled at him and then slipped into her seat next to Rolf. She took his hand under the tablecloth and smiled at the rest of the people around the table. Sandra looked as if she'd swallowed a mouse and Karl glared at Lex, but everyone on Lex's side of the table gave her sidelong looks of encouragement, except for Rolf, who smiled back at her with a fond expression.

“Since we've had so much fun getting to know each other so far,” Lex said, giving a wicked smile, “I'd like to propose a game. The only rule is based on an old saying from where I'm from: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. How about it?”

Rolf just continued to smile, while Theo nodded eagerly and Mina said, “That sounds like fun. So where are you from, anyway?”

“Not far south of Washington, DC. I'm sure you could tell at least some of that by the way I speak. I don't know what it is that tips people off, but everyone seems able to guess that I came from America,” Lex replied, grinning.

Karl snorted and scowled at Lex. “Of course we knew you were an ignorant—”

“Karl, we're playing a game here!” Lex interrupted, trying to look stern. “Or are you not up to the challenge?”

His eyes widened in surprise and anger, but as her words sunk in, he began to look sullen. “I'm up to any challenge you can give.”

“Great!” Lex replied, smiling again. She turned to Mina then and asked, “So, Mina, where are you from?”

During Mina's stories about her family in Austria, the servant Lex had spoken to brought her a plate filled with fresh-cut veggies, a sandwich made with what looked like potato patties on black bread, and a serving of applesauce. When Lex thanked him profusely, the man just bowed and took his post back by the door to the kitchen, but Lex thought she could see the barest of smiles on his face.

Although neither Sandra nor Karl seemed to want to join the game other than a few barbed comments that didn't stray too far into negativity, the rest of the dinner party stayed up late telling stories and asking each other questions.

“Rolf,” Lex said to him as they climbed the stairs to their room after the other four had said goodnight, “I'm sorry I lost my temper so much today. I wanted to try to get along with everyone, but I just couldn't let all of that go. Is this what it's normally like visiting here?”

He sighed then. “Unfortunately, yes. I know I didn't go into any of that when we talked yesterday, mostly because it's not so openly bad with my father around. He's worse about some things, but at least he's not so childish and insulting. It is an armed camp here at times, though, and I apologize if I didn't explain that clearly enough.”

Lex shook her head. “No, you did give me the impression that unpleasant things might be possible from the time we arrived here, so I felt prepared to some degree. Just so that I'm ready for your parents tomorrow, though, is there anything in particular that I should look out for?”

“My father is more likely to take any displeasure he feels out on me,” Rolf explained. “I don't think he's going to go after you, at least at first. If he thinks you're some kind of threat he may choose to act against you, but he'd do it directly.”

They arrived at their room then, and Lex waited until Rolf had closed the door behind them before asking, “Why do you think he might see me as a threat? It should be obvious that I didn't come here to cause anyone any problems.” She paused for a moment, looking at the floor as something began to occur to her. Raising her head, she looked Rolf directly in the eye. “Wait, is this about whatever your brothers and sister-in-law seemed to be weirded out about when they first saw me?”

Rolf looked away then, as if caught, and sighed. “I've got something to show you,” he said, moving to sit on his bed and then reaching under it on the far side.

Forward to Chapter 51
Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!

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Tags: abuse survivors, adventure, music, online novels, science fiction, serialized novels, superhero, suspense, transformation, women
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