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Chapter 52: Ancient
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes/Warnings: Forbidden territory, standing up to the parents, part 1, dinner with some surprising allies and some known enemies, and a homecoming.

Hey, All! Just wanted to remind everyone that my third e-book for this series, Super: Exile, is available for sale! The link for Amazon is here, and you can find links to other e-retailers in the section for Book 3 in on the Introduction page. Please note that if you want to get a jump on this story, the e-book includes up through chapter 57. :D

As always, a million thanks to my editor-in-chief, gwoman for helping me improve this story.

Back to Chapter 51

By the time Lex, Rolf, and Pete had made their way into the dining room, she saw Richard seated at the head of the table, with Giselle sitting at his right side and Brigitte and Frank sitting at his left. Claus sat next to Giselle and Lucy had taken his other side. Smiling at Lex, Pete led her to a chair to the right of where he planned to sit next to Lucy. As one, Rolf and Pete pulled her chair out, Rolf taking the one on Lex's opposite side.

Lex looked across the table as she sat, noting that Karl had seated himself next to Frank, with Sandra at his other side. She saw two more place settings on the opposite side of the table, but Lex noted out of the corner of her eye Mina murmuring something into Theo’s ear as she and Theo paused on their side of the table. He finally shrugged, went to have a word with a servant who'd been standing nearby, and smiled over at Rolf as he sat next to his brother, his wife at his other side. The servant unobtrusively moved the place settings over to where Theo and Mina sat.

Able to feel the storm brewing as a result, Lex's eyes flicked over to the head and the other side of the table. Frank seemed to be studying his plate, but Brigitte appeared interested in the goings on, glancing at all of the people around the table in turn. Karl looked furious while Sandra appeared angry and humiliated. Lex expected Richard to be in a rage, but she felt surprised to see that although he'd pulled his brow down and his face looked stormy, he said nothing, seeming torn about what to do.

As she looked in Lucy's direction, however, Lex forgot most of the dynamic she'd seen across the table because she noticed the color of Lucy's dress for the first time. When they'd first met, Lex had only briefly noticed the black velvet jacket the woman wore, but now she was struck by the pale green silk dress Lucy had chosen. Lex smiled as she realized the shade didn't look far from that of her own eyes.

“Lucy,” she said, catching the other woman's attention. “You know, I should have told you earlier what a lovely dress you're wearing.”

The return smile Lucy gave Lex looked stunning. “Thank you! Isn't the color lovely?”

Lex couldn't help but laugh, trying to keep the sound low. A moment later, Lex turned as she heard Rolf's voice at her side. “Aunt Lucy, tell us how things are going in the cutthroat world of stock trading.”

Lucy smiled then, showing all of her teeth. “Well, I've been able to make a number of good deals recently,” she replied, then began to talk about some trades she'd made for clients. As she spoke, dinner arrived and Lex smiled gratefully at the servant who put a plate in front of her with roasted red and sweet potatoes with tempeh and fresh rosemary, one of the simple recipes she'd described to the cook. She breathed in the savory smell as she smiled while listening to Lucy's adventures.

As one of the servants put a warm plate of food in front of Lucy, she wrapped the story up and smiled again, looking over at Pete. “How about you?” she asked. “The last time we talked about it, you had some disturbing stories about that one student of yours.”

Pete looked worried as he finished chewing his first bite. “Well, I had to send Greger, the one I was telling you about, to the principal's office last week for cursing at another student in class, but it seems he's calmed down since then.”

While Lucy and Pete had been speaking, Lex had noticed some unrest on the opposite side of the table as Karl murmured something to Sandra, appearing annoyed. After Pete finished speaking, Karl appeared to explode. “This is the most unimportant, boring talk I've ever—”

“Silence, would you?!” Brigitte thundered, the volume of her voice overriding Karl's. “I think the conversation is some of the most interesting I've heard around this table. Since we usually spend family dinners talking about the company, I find it refreshing to hear what everyone else has been doing with their time. I hear more than enough about the company, considering I spend most of my waking hours on company business during the week, don't you think?”

Her fierce glare at Karl challenged him to disagree, obviously something that he didn't feel up to doing, judging by the way he looked away, scowling at the tablecloth. “Please continue, little brother,” Brigitte said, looking at Pete. “I don't usually get a chance to hear how things are going with you at school.”

Pete raised an eyebrow as he glanced across the table at his sister. “All right,” he said with a nod. “One of the things I'm teaching this semester in literature is Gilgamesh, and it seems like a number of the students are having trouble with it.”

He paused to take a drink, and Lex leaned over in his direction. “I don't mean to interrupt, but I didn't realize you taught, and I was wondering what school and what grades you teach?” she asked.

Smiling over at her, Pete continued. “Not at all. I'm the literature and composition teacher at the local private high school, Kaiserstadt Academy. I actually hold some classes for all different grades, although the majority of my classes are for the tenth and eleventh graders.”

“What classes are you teaching this year?” Rolf asked. “I don't think I heard yet.”

“Well, I've got Composition I and II, Literature of the Ancient World, Comparative Modern Literature, Business Writing, and Creative Writing. I did have a free period last year, but everyone's taken on more since one of our teachers retired at the end of last school year and they're still arguing about whether to replace her or not. Despite the busy schedule, it's been going well so far except for Gilgamesh. Before we move on to Beowulf, I'm thinking about assigning an interim project for the students to do some research on living conditions in earlier times, because some of them seem to be having difficulty getting their minds out of the modern era and into the reality of the world back then.”

He smiled as he finished, then looked over at Mina. “I don't want to bore everyone with too many details about school, though. How is everything IT at Holtzmann's?”

Mina grinned in response. “Apparently the office supply business is alive and well; I had to spend a few days last week getting some new hires set up with computers. For most of the rest of the week, I tried to track down some problems a number of people had reported, only to find out that most of them had installed unauthorized programs on their computers that were interfering with their standard configuration, and one in particular seemed to have introduced some kind of virus. Fortunately, with the safeguards we've put in place, it had been isolated to that computer, but I had to wipe and rebuild the entire machine to get rid of it.” She shook her head. “Anyway, nothing else too exciting to report, just things like making sure the budget for next year is approved and beginning to transition, since my boss is slated to retire early next year.”

Lucy leaned over to look at Mina. “Really? So, does that mean that you might be getting a promotion?”

“I'll have to wait and see,” Mina said, smiling with a shrug. “No official word yet, but I'm hopeful.”

Lex watched as Mina began eating again, then took advantage of the pause to catch Claus' eye. “I didn't have a chance to ask you earlier,” Lex said. “What is it that you do?”

It must have been the right question. Lex felt glad to see the first smile she could remember on his face. “I'm the floor supervisor at Kaiser Metalworks. I'm responsible for planning and directing the work on the floor, for scheduling personnel, and for the safety of people working in the metal shop.”

Smiling in response, Lex had opened her mouth to ask more about his work when she heard another voice break in. “We haven't finished hearing yet from the people who don't work at the family business,” Brigitte said as Lex turned to look at her. “There's still two of you on that side of the table who haven't weighed in yet. Rolf, how are things in the Special Forces?”

By the time she'd finished speaking, Brigitte had turned to look right at Richard with a smirk, watching as his expression turned to a glare. Lex shifted her attention to Rolf, sitting beside her, and saw him raise an eyebrow at the exchange between his aunt and father. “It's been a busy year,” he replied, voice calm and even. “We've done a lot of crime-prevention work as well as intervening in some crimes that were already going on, but there's one thing that really stood out this year.”

“The bank robbers,” Lucy said as she leaned over to look at Rolf, a proud smile on her face.

“Exactly,” Rolf replied, smiling in return. “I should probably let Lex talk about that, though, since she led the team.”

“You deserve just as much credit as I do,” Lex replied, looking over at Rolf. “You and Tamara both—”

“You work with him?” Lex and Rolf both glanced over to see the voice that interrupted and saw Karl looking at them, an expression on his face as if he'd been cheated. “I thought she was some kind of singer or something.”

“Oh, are you a fan?” Lex asked, not able to stop herself from smiling. “I can sign your CDs for you, if you like.”

“No, I'm not!” Karl looked to be a moment from leaping out of his chair, his anger seeming palpable.

“Well, then,” Lex replied, struggling to school her face into a neutral expression. “I am a singer and keyboard player, but that's more like a side job. My main work is with Rolf in the Special Forces.”

“So I guess that's where the two of you found out you were alike,” Brigitte said, her voice certain.

Lex turned her head slightly to look at Rolf, sure her confusion showed in her eyes. He shot a look back at her that she couldn't interpret, but after a moment she realized what Brigitte must have been talking about. “Oh,” Lex said after a pause. “That's not...that's not actually the case. I can't transform like all of you can. I have other things that I can do.”

The silence that fell around the table seemed profound, and Lex took the quiet moment to scan the company. Brigitte appeared surprised but intrigued, her husband simply stared at Lex, while Karl appeared stunned and furious and Sandra sneered in her direction. On her own side of the table, Lex noted Mina looking at her with wide-eyed surprise and worry, while Theo gave Rolf a hard look as if he wondered what his brother was thinking. Rolf didn't seem to notice, however, and Lex met his eyes for a moment, noting his quiet smile and expression of approval. She glanced to her left to see Pete gazing at her with open worry, while Lucy focused on the other side of the table, looking as if she might leap over it at any provocation. Past Lucy, Claus shot her a worried look, then glanced in Richard's direction and away. Next to Richard, Giselle sat uncomfortably, staring down at the tablecloth, her expression pained.

“You know this is forbidden!” Richard's voice shouted out, breaking the silence as he pounded a fist into the table, upsetting a couple of wineglasses.

“Father,” Rolf said, and his voice seemed to swell in volume as he stood.

Lex began to move to stand beside him but stopped as a hand grabbed hers. She shot a look at Pete, who sat shaking his head. She took that as a cue to stay out of Rolf's fight and remained sitting but realized she'd probably started to look as prepared to step in as Lucy.

“The only reason I came here was because you summoned me and I'd promised a long time ago to show up if the family called. The only reason Lex is here is that she wanted to accompany me. Knowing where I stand in this family, I didn't come here expecting approval or your blessing.” He paused for a moment and Lex felt a shiver run down her spine because she couldn't remember Rolf ever giving off such an aura of threat before. “Although you should probably give it anyway, Father. Lex and I will be getting married. We're of age, we've decided, we're going to do it, and you have no power to stop us.”

Lex could almost taste the tension in the air then and felt all of her own muscles ready to launch her over the table if she needed to move, regardless of Pete's death grip on her hand. As she watched, however, the air of hostility seemed to seep away, even though Richard squared his shoulders to stand even taller and angrily swept his hand across the table, sending his plate and the remains of his meal flying. Still glaring at Rolf, Richard murmured something that sounded disturbingly like “We'll see,” before he turned to give Karl a quick nod, then stalked out of the room. Sandra and Karl followed him, Karl looking over to glower in Lex and Rolf's direction.

After a brief pause, Giselle lifted her head and gave a glance down her side of the table, her head still bowed. “I'm sorry,” she murmured just before she got up, stepped over the remains of Richard's broken plate and scattered dinner, and followed her husband out of the room.

Lex felt her heart go out in sympathy, knowing what it meant to be caught in such a difficult situation. Once she turned to focus on Rolf, however, a different feeling swelled in her heart, and the awkward silence that prevailed, broken only by the small sounds of one of the servants cleaning plate shards and food from the carpet, seemed to fade away for her. “Do you think it would be too silly if I said 'My hero?’” she asked in English, blushing since she knew her grin must look completely goofy.

“Not at all,” Rolf surprised her by saying, then bent to kiss her.

She became so wrapped up in the promise and the heat of it that she only began to realize her surroundings again once her eyes fluttered open. Lex smiled as she did, and then said in German this time, “Would it be terrible of me to mention that your uncle is holding my hand under the tablecloth?”

Rolf reacted in an instant. “Uncle Pete,” he growled, his voice much lower than normal.

Pete let go of Lex in a hurry and put both hands up in the air with a guileless look on his face. “Hey, I'm not trying to steal your fiancée away, Rolf; not after that display.”

He grinned at his uncle in return as he sat back down at the table, but Rolf kept an eye on Pete even still.

“I'm sure it's my fault, anyway,” Lex added, looking between the two of them. “Pete prevented me from leaping up to stand with you while you had your showdown with your dad, so it's probably just as well. Not that I wouldn't want to stand with you, but you had it handled.”

She and Rolf looked around at the group who remained assembled then, and Lex felt suddenly shy.

Rolf looked serious for a moment, then said, “I know I'm still hungry, but if anyone else wants to leave, I'll understand.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Lucy replied, her hand on her husband's arm. “We're staying.”

“No sense in letting perfectly good food go to waste,” Pete added. “Not to mention the good company.”

Lex had noticed the tension that seemed to be in Theo's every limb as he watched his brother and father argue, and also that only now did it seem to start to dissipate. He shrugged then, as if trying to shake off his worry, and said, “I'm not done yet, either, and it looks like Mina's still eating, too. I'm thinking that maybe we could consolidate, though, considering that there are fewer people at the table...”

He trailed off as he called a servant over, and minutes later a couple of people had cleared Karl and Sandra's places from the table and moved Theo and Mina's places over. Brigitte looked over at him with a raised eyebrow, which Theo met with a straightforward look. “I hope you don't mind, Aunt Brigitte, but I thought I'd take advantage. This is the farthest up the table I've ever gotten to sit.”

She looked at him a moment longer, then began to laugh. “If I'd known you were such a rebel, Theo, I'd have been much easier on you all these years.”

Theo shook his head in response. “No need. You're hard on me when you're frustrated that I don't know things, but then you teach me. It's much better than being hard on me because of my birth order. There's nothing I can do to change that.”

Another silence followed, which Brigitte broke after a few seconds. “Well, it's certainly better than having to sit next to that dolt Karl and his idiot wife.”

Lucy laughed from across the table, startling Brigitte and Theo. “Why, Brigitte, I've never heard you being so plainspoken before.”

Brigitte gave her a hard look that softened after a moment. “Well,” she said after a pause, “I think all of the times I usually see you, my annoying younger brother is around as well.”

Claus flashed Brigitte a look of distress, but Pete just smiled. “Hey, I'm not that annoying, am I?”

“I didn't mean you, brat,” Brigitte replied, and Lex felt surprised to see the affectionate smile on the woman's face, since she'd previously seemed so aloof.

As she glanced around the table, most everyone had an expression of some surprise—perhaps that Brigitte spoke so casually—but Theo didn't seem to be able to contain his amazement and burst into laughter. Brigitte looked over at him, the expression on her face an attempt at severity, but Lex could see the woman struggling to keep back a smile as well. “What?” Brigitte said, leaning over to give Theo a mock glare. “You know, you're just as much of a brat as he is.”

“Uh, yes, you're absolutely right. Sorry, Aunt Brigitte.” Theo let out a cough into his napkin then, his face red as he tried to stop laughing.

“Say, Frank,” Lucy jumped in after a glance over at Theo that left her grinning, “I think you're the only person we haven't heard from today. How are things in the surgery?”

Brigitte's husband looked up from his plate with a glance of surprise but smiled at Lucy's question. “It's been busy over the past few days, actually. We've gotten a number of influenza cases now that the weather has begun to get colder, but fortunately none of them got too sick before we reached them.”

As Frank paused, Lucy turned to Lex. “I doubt anyone mentioned this to you before, but Frank is a doctor who works in a practice here in Kaiserstadt.”

Lex smiled at Frank in encouragement and he continued talking about things at his practice, after which the conversation around the table touched on the family company, with Claus taking the lead and discussing how busy things had been on the factory floor, and Brigitte and Theo adding more corporate-level information.

Once everyone seemed to be finished eating, Brigitte called one of the servants near and asked, “Hans, what do we have for dessert?”

“There's a torte, madam, but...” he trailed off, looking at Richard's empty seat.

Brigitte laughed in response. “Please bring it out, and if he complains, you can blame me. Find out if people want coffee or tea or anything to go with it as well.”

Once the dinner plates had been cleared away and everyone had a piece of delicious looking torte and any of various drinks, Brigitte stood. “Everyone, I'd like to start dessert the way I think dinner should have begun. Please raise your glasses, and although I know everyone doesn't have alcohol right now, I'd like to propose a toast to Lex and Rolf, to welcome her to the family.”

Around the table, everyone raised teacups, liquor glasses, and coffee cups, calling out “To Lex!”

Lex found herself with a big smile and a blush, looking at the tablecloth in her embarrassment at being the center of attention. A voice made her look up, however, and she found her eyes meeting Brigitte's. “Young lady, I'd like to give you some advice, especially since I know Rolf can't. Be prepared for some mayhem and dirty tricks this coming Tuesday night. I have a feeling, after what happened at dinner, that my brother and his oldest son have something bad in mind for you. And since I have a reputation to uphold, I don't want to be made to look foolish for welcoming someone to the family who turns around and gets herself killed a couple days later.”

Obviously attempting a lighthearted tone, it fell flat as Lex saw the intensity of truth in the other woman's gaze. A shiver ran through her and it felt like someone had dropped a lead brick into her stomach, but at least she'd had her worst fears confirmed. “Don't worry,” Lex said with more confidence than she had at the moment. “I've had a number of attempts on my life so far, and I've managed to make it through all of them.”

“Good. It sounds like my reputation is safe with you, then,” Brigitte replied, and Lex thought as she watched that the woman seemed more relaxed after their exchange. “At any rate, since you've learned probably more about our family tonight than you may ever have wanted to know, I feel it's only fair to ask you about yours.”

Lex sighed, relieved that the moment she'd expected had come. “Well, Jane Mansfield is my legal name, but the name I was born with is Alexandra McKilliam,” she began, then gave a short version of her family story, enumerating her family members and her experience with them.

Everyone remained quiet for a few moments after she finished, some not looking at her, but others like Lucy and Mina studying her with grave eyes. “I see,” Brigitte finally replied. “So, are any of these...charming people going to be attending the wedding?”

“No, actually,” Lex said, shaking her head. “I believe they all think I'm dead.” After a few seconds of deafening silence, Lex scratched the back of her head and looked around the table quickly before continuing with another sigh. “That's actually tied into why I'm going by a new name now. Since everyone's finishing their dessert, I'll just summarize. My friends and I joined an agency in America that purported to be something like the Special Forces here. In actuality, they served as the entry point for a laboratory that does dangerous human experimentation without the consent of the subjects—actions that are against the law in most of the world and would normally be in the States as well. In order to escape them, my friends and I had to stage our own deaths and flee under assumed names, and, on the run, we eventually ended up here. If you want any more detail about what they did, it's all becoming part of the public record. I don't know if any of you follow the news closely, but my friends and I are some of the key witnesses for the ICC suit against the American company MSI.”

Lex chanced a quick glance around the table and saw a number of people staring at their dessert plates. Lucy returned her look, however, expression thunderstruck. “That was you,” she said as if coming to a realization. “I remember reading about that in the news and seeing pictures of this striking young woman who they said would be testifying at the trial, someone in the Special Forces in Belgium. I remember thinking about asking Rolf about it, wondering if it was someone he knew.” She stopped speaking for a moment, the very edges of her lips curling up. “I guess the answer to that question is yes.”

Brigitte laughed then, the sound both merry and carrying a warning. “It looks like Richard and his son have chosen to take on an opponent who's more than a match for them,” she said, nodding decisively. “Good. I'm looking forward to Tuesday, now. But I'm afraid I'm going to have to call it a night. You young people might be able to stay up all night and be fine working the next day, but I need my rest. Good night, everyone.”

As she swept out of the room with Frank by her side, Lucy, Pete, and Claus all looked at one another. “Damn it, she's right,” Lucy muttered, looking at her watch. “I hadn't realized it had gotten so late. Lex, walk with me to the door,” she said, standing and holding out a hand.

Lex stood, looking at Rolf and Pete, and found Lucy laughing as she turned. “Don't worry, these guys will be fine walking by themselves.”

Lucy's hand had enclosed hers as they left the dining room, Lex found. “After everything you've been through, to come here and be faced with more,” Lucy murmured, glancing over at Lex with a sharp look. “It's just not right. Anyway, just know that I'm going to do my best to be sure you're safe here.”

“I don't want anyone to get hurt on my behalf,” Lex replied, giving Lucy a worried look.

Laughing quietly, Lucy said, “I don't intend to, but I won't stand around watching while other people commit crimes, either. Look, just focus on taking care of yourself on Tuesday. We'll take care of the rest.” She looked subtly back in Rolf and Pete's direction as she finished speaking, making her meaning clearer.

Lex met Lucy's gaze and nodded. Once Lucy saw that, she turned to grab Rolf's arm, bringing him up to walk with her and Lex instead of just behind them. “The two of you are going to come to our house on Friday, all right? We've got the relatives' dinner on Thursday night, so you can ride back with Claus and I that night, or you can come over on Friday during the day if you've got anything you need to settle beforehand. I want you two to have somewhere to stay here, at least for one day, where you don't have all of this hanging over your head. All right?”

She looked from Rolf to Lex and back again, watching the two of them nod. Rolf slipped an arm over his aunt's shoulders. “All right, we will. Probably we'll come by on Friday during the day, if that works for you?”

“Good,” Lucy replied with a smile, hugging him tightly. She turned quickly then to give Lex a hug just as tight. “I'm looking forward to having the two of you over. Take care of yourselves in the meantime.”

Rolf shook Claus' hand as he went to follow his wife, but as Claus held a hand out to Lex, she saw a resigned sadness in his eye that told her she should hug him instead. He looked surprised, then embarrassed, but he had the ghost of a smile on his face as she pulled away. “Thank you for inviting us over,” Lex said, giving a tentative smile of her own.

She turned to find Rolf and Pete shaking hands, then hugging. Pete stopped in front of her and put both hands on her shoulders saying, “And Lex, you know if this guy doesn't treat you like the gem you are, that sometimes older men are much more preferable—”

“Pete,” Rolf growled, “I think you'd better get going now before you start to feel unwell.”

“Bye!” he replied with a laugh, but not before he pressed a kiss to Lex's cheek.

Lex couldn't help but chuckle in response as she saw the annoyed look mixed with humor on Rolf's face as he closed the front door. “He's quite a character,” she said with a smirk.

“That's for sure,” Rolf grumbled, but Lex could see a smile starting to break through, so she reached over to take his hand.

They stepped away from the door to find Theo and Mina in the living room again, both with tiny glasses of some after-dinner liqueur, and went in to join them.

“You know, she's very impressed with you,” Theo said, a thread of excitement in his voice. “I've never seen her take so much interest in anyone at first meeting.”

Lex shook her head. “She didn't seem all that interested, really. Aren't those the kind of questions anyone would ask of someone wanting to marry into their family?”

“Oh, no,” Mina replied, shaking her own head. “I remember when I came here for the first time. People barely spoke to me, as if I wasn't even here. I don't think Brigitte or Richard said anything to me at all.”

Giving her a glance with eyebrow raised, Lex shook her head in wonder, frowning. “I think they couldn't care less since Mina came here to marry me,” Theo said, self-deprecation in his voice. “After all, I'm just the baby of the family, not the oldest male.” The tone had edged over to bitterness now, which Lex couldn't fault him for. “Anyway, enough with the boring stuff. How did you figure out about the family?”

Shrugging, Lex said, “There are a number of people in the Special Forces who inherit their skills through their bloodline. When Rolf talked about his family, it seemed to make sense to me that all of you can transform like he does.”

Theo nodded, giving Mina an excited glance, which she returned, looking about as interested as he did. “So, what are your special skills?”

Lex laughed, looking at the both of them in turn. “Oh, come on, you've got to let a girl have some mystery,” she replied, giving them a sly smile. “At any rate, I have a feeling you'll see what I can do soon. I want to leave it a surprise until then.”

“Fair enough,” Theo replied with a nod.

“All right, you two,” Rolf cut in, lacing his fingers through Lex's, “I know you've both got work tomorrow, and we've got things to do as well, so we're going to wish you both good night.”

She glanced up at Rolf, wondering what he had in mind for the next day, but she waited to ask him until they'd reached the landing for the wing that housed his room. “I was thinking we could go out to the cottage tomorrow. Would you like to?”

Squeezing his fingers tighter, Lex nodded, feeling excitement swelling in her chest at the idea. She still felt it the next morning as they set out, both in layers against the chill of the day despite the bright sunlight. Once they got into the trees, their feet crunched against the small layers of snow left or the mix of dry needles and leaves they walked over. Rolf remained quiet at first as they traveled in a direction northwest from the main house, but after they'd gone what Lex estimated to be a mile or so, he began pointing out places where he and his grandmother had gathered medicinal herbs or plant foods.

While walking and eating a few beech nuts (after Rolf cautioned Lex not to eat too many, since he told her he could well remember them making him sick as a kid), Rolf really began to talk.

“She taught me from as early as I can remember where all of the herbs grew around here, and I can even remember making yearly trips to other parts of the country to gather different types of medicinal herbs that she wanted that didn't grow here. We'd bring them home and dry them, or boil them up into mixtures so that we were always ready for bad-weather colds or infections. I can only remember having to go to a doctor once while she took care of me, when I fell and broke my little finger because it got twisted up in something. It's still a bit crooked today, actually,” he said, taking his hand out of his glove and spreading out all his fingers so that she could see.

Lex nodded as he showed her, recognizing the slight bump in his left pinkie now for what it was. “Did it hurt?”

He nodded. “Yes, but I wasn't afraid since she was there,” he said, his gaze watching his own feet move across the pine needles. As they'd gotten deeper into the forest Lex had noticed fewer and fewer deciduous trees, and their footsteps now seemed muffled as they continued, the terrain made springy by the layers of shed pine needles underfoot. “She was always there when I was a kid, and it seemed she could even find me whenever she needed to when I went exploring on my own. I didn't feel like she spied on me or anything, just that I could rely on her if I needed her at any time.”

Lex looked over at him and nodded in response, trying to think what that would feel like, to have someone that interested in you as a child that you always felt safe. Following Rolf through the hushed pine forest while still turning that thought over in her mind, Lex blinked as they entered a clearing several meters in diameter. She could see patches of weedy grasses, now brown, as well as several randomly spaced trees that looked to be no more than a few years old at the oldest. Towards the back of the clearing stood a small cottage made of wooden boards with a metal roof, the paint on both of which seemed in the process of peeling off.

She followed Rolf to the front door and watched as he unlatched it, then followed him inside. The interior was lit by sunlight, which fell in patches through the small, now streaked windows. Everything Lex saw had a layer of dust on it, but she got a feeling of coziness and comfort even now as she surveyed the large room. A wood-burning stove held a place of honor in the center of the room, and a large bookcase on the left looked as if it had once been full, although now only a few scattered books remained, covered with dust. She caught the smell of mildew as she took a step closer to look at the book's spines. When she straightened and looked to the right, Lex noted a sleeping alcove with a curtain partially pulled across what looked like a single bed, and at the top a ladder next to it, another dusty mattress behind a protective rail. As she peered through a half-open door in the back of the house, Lex saw a large metal tub and a basin on a shelf, probably both once used for bathing. She looked back at Rolf then to find him still standing near the front door, looking around as if lost in memories.

Lex edged her way over to him and slipped her hand into his. He squeezed hers before he started to speak. “I guess my grandfather used to use this as a hunting retreat years ago. I just...it amazes me that she came out here with me. I didn't learn until years later that she owned everything, all of it, until the day she died. She lived out here in the woods with just a hand pump for water when she owned the entire business, the castle, everything the family had. I found out the summer I turned eighteen, when they summoned me here and I went with my father to see a solicitor in town. They gave me a stack of paperwork to fill out, then had a doctor examine me, and checked my fingerprints against the ones they took when I was born. After reading some of what they wanted me to sign, I realized that my grandmother had kept everything in trust until I turned of age and that my father needed to prove that I lived in order to inherit.”

She met his eyes then, knowing her concern was showing. He swallowed once before continuing. “I still don't know why she did that, but she would never have done it without a very good reason.” He paused, looking at the floor as if remembering, but continued after a few seconds. “At any rate, I also found out that she'd put money aside for me to go to college wherever I liked, and I spent the next years in England, only coming to my parents' house for the winter holidays when they summoned me here.”

Lex waited, still holding his hand. Finally, Rolf spoke again, his voice soft. “She gave everything up for me, and I didn't even know it. I didn't ever show her the gratitude I should have, and I didn't know how good I had it until she was gone.”

Moving to put her arm around him, Lex replied, “You were a kid at the time. How could you be expected to have known? Didn't you live here for pretty much your whole childhood until she passed on?”

She continued after Rolf nodded. “Whatever happened must have been something that took place when you were even younger than that. If your grandmother had wanted you to know about it, I think she would have told you, from everything you've said about her.”

He nodded again after a moment. “Did she seem unhappy here? Do you think she missed being at the big house?” Lex asked him.

After a few long seconds, Rolf replied, “From what I remember, she seemed happy most of the time. Sometimes she had dreams that worried her, but that seemed to be due to what she'd seen, which probably would have happened anywhere.”

“Was she originally a member of the Kaiser family, or did she marry in?” Lex asked, more and more curious about the woman who raised Rolf.

“My grandfather was a Kaiser. She came from an obscure family in the north of Germany, one that died out over the years, aside from her. When she taught me about collecting herbs or the farming that we did in the plot in front of the cottage here, she would often speak of how her mother and father taught her what she knew about those things. She didn't talk much about my grandfather at all, but she did mention that their marriage had been arranged. It didn't seem that it was a happy one.”

After thinking for a while, Lex spoke up again, breaking the silence that had fallen. “From everything you've told me about her, I think your grandmother sounds like the kind of person who'd do what seemed most important to her, and taking care of you was her choice. It also sounds like she preferred living here with you in some ways as well. Maybe it was the kind of life she felt comfortable with, and from what you've told me, the two of you had fun, too.”

“I guess that's true,” Rolf agreed, his voice rough in his throat.

“I was thinking, though,” Lex continued, “You didn’t really get time to acknowledge her passing, given what happened afterwards. I know it might sound kind of weird, but did she have a favorite food?”

“Freshly baked bread with homemade jam was always one of her favorites,” Rolf replied after some thought.

“Maybe we could do this, then, even though I'm pretty sure the timing isn't right. I understand people in some Asian cultures have a tradition of bringing food and flowers to their loved one's graves on the anniversaries of their deaths and spending some time with them to let them know how they're doing. How about once we get back we see if we can find some fresh bread, jam, and some flowers, and then we visit your grandmother's grave, have some sandwiches, and catch up with her?”

Lex held her breath for a moment, hoping her suggestion didn't sound too weird, but let it out in a relieved sigh when Rolf turned to her with a quiet smile. “That sounds like a good idea. Let's head back.”

Awhile later, as they sat in front of a grave in a small plot not far from the main house, eating bread and jam and admiring the flowers they'd brought, Lex looked over as Rolf spoke. “I'm going to have to get that changed.”

He pointed to the engraving on the stone, and even Lex's basic German reading skills could pick out that it had been made out as ‘Greta Kaiser, Beloved Wife and Mother.’ Lex looked at Rolf. “What are you going to change?”

“I'm going to have someone come here and add 'Beloved Grandmother and Honored Teacher.'”

Rolf continued to look at the headstone as Lex nodded beside him, his expression grim. “Tomorrow is going to be hard.”

She looked at the stone then as well. Strangely enough, his matter-of-fact pronouncement had only caused a sense of calm readiness to settle in her stomach. “It won't be that bad. We have the two of us, and I think I'm ready for anything the rest of your family might throw at me.”

“Whatever happens, Lex, I will do my best to stand by your side the whole time. You come first for me.”

“As you do with me,” she said, leaning in for a kiss.

Forward to Chapter 53
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