"Don't you dare overheat that cream," Alaric said harshly, watching as Gwen stirred the cream in a saucepan. She flicked him a glance but said nothing, knowing perfectly well that no matter how friendly he was out of the kitchen, when he was cooking—or supervising cooking—things had to be perfect.
"The cream is fine," Gwen said, watching as a lone bubble of heat popped on the surface of the mixture. She flicked the stove off and moved the saucepan so that she could pour the cream into the egg mixture. Alaric got in the way and snatched the pan from her, muttering under his breath as he did so. Gwen shrugged and rolled her eyes, "You'd think that this was up for some prize, the way you bother."
"If I only put forth my best effort on food that is to be judged, then I am not a proper chef," Alaric said, bending over the mixture as he poured the cream into it. Gwen handed him a whisk and he plucked it from her fingers. He growled even as she laughed quietly and retreated to a safe corner by the refrigerator, watching him work. If it were possible, Alaric was even more temperamental and prone to bursts of anger at home than at The Rose. Gwen supposed it made sense.
"I'm sure it's fine," Gwen said. "It isn't as though you've never made crème brulee before, after all."
"It is one of my specialities," Alaric said, transferring the mixture to a double boiler he had prepped. Gently and precisely, he dipped a spoon into the mixture and began stirring it, like an artisan mixing paints. "If you want to be helpful, you can get the raspberries in there and see about chopping them up and turning them into a syrup."
"Right," Gwen smiled to herself and shook her head. She went into the 'fridge and pulled out raspberries, fresh and looking as though they had been purchased from a farmer's market despite the earliness of the season. "Where did you find raspberries this time of year? Fresh ones, I mean."
"I know a guy," Alaric said, looking at the spoon and nodding to himself. He pulled the mixture off of the stove and into the dishes then slid the dishes into the oven, checking the temperature before turning his attention to Gwen. He was startled for a moment as he saw her slim figure in the green dress, apron wrapped tightly around her waist. She was holding a knife with her left hand and using the flat of the blade to squash the raspberries, getting the juices out. "Are you alright to be doing that?"
"What? Oh, my hand," Gwen said, raising the broken hand as if to examine it. "I don't know. The doctors would probably complain, but it's bandaged and I've had loads worse than this."
"Doesn't it hurt?" Alaric asked, stepping over to grasp the bandaged hand lightly and look at it, as if by examining it he could fix it.
"A little," Gwen admitted, blinking away a twinge of pain as Alaric brushed his fingers over hers, the touch feather-light and careful. "But in a couple of days, I'll hardly notice it but for the cast."
"And will you be alright to cook?" Alaric asked, looking up from studying the injury to meet Gwen's gaze. She smiled and raised her eyebrows, straightening her shoulders as if suddenly faced with her boss rather than her friend.
"Is that all you care about?" Gwen admonished, her sarcasm hiding the hurt. She knew that it was silly to think otherwise, that first and foremost Alaric was her employer and teacher, that he would and should care about her ability to perform her job before he should care about her well-being, emotional or otherwise. She watched, then, astonished as Alaric raised her hand up, his eyes never once leaving hers.
"Not in the slightest," he said, kissing the tips of her fingers. As before, pain flared through Gwen's hand but she ignored it, startled into trying to analyse all the possible implications of Alaric's words. The safest was that he was simply her friend, worried about her and feeling slightly guilty for having caused her to break her hand even indirectly. The most thrilling, the one she only admitted to wanting in the quietest reaches of her mind, slipped swiftly out of friendship and into something much deeper and much more interesting. It was that which caused her skin to tingle at Alaric's touch.
She didn't know whether to smile or look stern and the room seemed to heat as she struggled to decide. Alaric's eyes shifted for a moment then grew wide. "Shit," he cried, leaping forwards and past Gwen to the stove. The edges of Gwen's dress, as close as she had been to the still-burning cooktop, had started to smoulder and caught on fire. She turned and searched for the nearest way of putting out the fire. Alaric was being no help, dancing around as he was, trying to pat out the worst of the flames with a kitchen towel.
Gwen lunged for the sink, hurling herself into it as if she were playing a game of musical chairs. She reached around and turned on the faucet, the hissing which followed indicating that the flames had been put out. Smoke, smelling terribly of burnt silk, filled the air and Gwen's heart finally started to slow. She stared at Alaric who stared back, both at a loss for words. Then, her dress completely wet and ruined by this point, half of the back skirt being lost to the flames, Gwen started to laugh.
"It's not funny," Alaric tried to protest, though he was doing poorly at concealing his own laughter. Gwen snorted at that and tried to pull herself out of the sink. She floundered and failed, too caught up in hysterics to manage such coordination. "Stop laughing," Alaric said, grabbing onto her arms and pulling.
"It's hilarious," Gwen said, yelping as Alaric pulled too hard and she practically flew out of the sink. The pair were thrown off balance, slipped to the floor and stayed there, unable to stop laughing. Gwen was laying on top of Alaric's chest, her legs entangled in his. He had one hand covering his eyes as his face was twisted in mirth. As soon as Gwen stopped for breath, she realised the awkwardness of her position and attempted to roll off of Alaric. Her legs got caught in his and she succeeded in doing nothing more than wasting her breath and moving the pair of them about an inch.
"Here," Alaric said between breathless laughs, his face flushed with more than just lack of breath. He pulled one way, Gwen pulled another and the two managed to disentangle themselves. Gwen let her laughter die as she sat up against one of the counters. Still grinning, she did her best to ignore the way that being pressed against Alaric felt nice. He was her friend, had given her no indication that he wanted more. She would live with that, though once she had accepted the fact that she was interested, her blood wouldn't stop singing for another touch.
"In all my life, even through all the shit with the Army, I have never set myself on fire," Gwen said, brushing her hair out of her eyes. Alaric moved to sit on the floor next to her and looked on in amazement.
"Really? I've done it loads of times, just never in my house. I think it's a prerogative of cooks to catch on fire at least once in their lives. You seemed to know what you were doing, though," Alaric said, still breathing hard enough to give a sort of flush to his skin.
"I've got a good head for emergencies," Gwen replied. She rubbed at the dress and let out a single deep breath, leaning her head backwards against the counter. "I don't suppose you have some clothes I can borrow? I feel a rather awkward draft where there shouldn't be."
This set both of them off again, laughing like a couple of heady teenagers alone for the first time without a parent looking over their shoulders. Alaric finally managed to stand and he helped Gwen stand, using the counter for support. "Come on," he said, "I think I have some sweats and a shirt that might fit you."
He led Gwen to his bedroom, rifling through his closet and trying to find something that wouldn't look terribly indecent on her. Considering that the crème brulee had just gone into the oven and needed another hour after that to cool, he wasn't going to risk any unnecessary temptation. Finally, thrusting a pair of old pyjama pants and a black t-shirt at Gwen, Alaric hurried her into the bathroom, looking pointedly away from the damaged part of the dress. He was on the point of turning around and heading to the kitchen to get working on the raspberry syrup when there came a loud thunk and some thinly disguised cursing.
"Are you alright?" Alaric asked, knocking twice on the bathroom door. Another thud and furious grumbling. "Gwen?"
"I can't get this dumb dress off. The zipper's all messed up with the burned material, especially since it's wet," Gwen said through the door. "I think it fused together."
"Do you want some help?" Alaric asked. Gwen muttered a yes and Alaric opened the door. It wasn't complete chaos, but it was close. Gwen had managed to get the zipper about halfway down her back, but she had knocked over the tissue box and the cup Alaric kept on the counter. The rest of the dress was twisted about so that she could try and reach the zipper and see what she was doing at the same time.
"This dratted thing is just being difficult on purpose," Gwen snarled, unable to work the zipper with both hands and, despite the laughter of a few minutes previous, looking as though she were inches from tears.
"Hold still," Alaric said. Gwen did so and he stepped forwards, swallowing as he noticed that a good chunk of the dress had, indeed, been burned away. It was impressive that Gwen wasn't hurt. What hadn't been burned was wet and, as a result, sticky. He worked with feather-light fingers, brushing against her skin as little as possible and doing his very best to not notice how nice her ass looked through the holes in the dress.
Gwen shivered as he brushed against her skin and didn't move when he yanked at the zipper to get it moving. All she felt was a whisper as he finished unzipping her then she was free, slipping her arms through the sleeves and stepping out of the ruined fabric as it fell to the floor. When she turned to find the clothes Alaric had loaned, she froze.
Alaric was standing there, completely immobile and staring unabashedly as though he couldn't stop. His hand was stone still as he held out the t-shirt and he couldn't seem to draw himself away from taking in every inch of her. She was still wearing underwear, but Gwen didn't think that mattered all that much. He was staring as though he could see through to her soul. She shivered once and the spell was broken.
Alaric reared backwards, "Oh, crap. Sorry! I'm sorry—I didn't mean—It's not that—sorry!"
Gwen took the t-shirt, beyond the point of blushing for her modesty (she had, after all, lived for a considerable amount of time with a bunch of men who had one very distinct thing on their minds). She dressed, Alaric with his back to her still babbling apologies and sounding as though he were going to melt into a puddle of shame if he didn't stop soon.
"Hey, enough, alright?" Gwen said, putting a hand on his shoulder. Alaric stiffened and Gwen had to forcibly turn him around to prove that she was fully dressed and perfectly fine, despite his ogling. "It's not a big deal."
Alaric muttered something which sounded like, "It's a pretty big deal." Not wanting to have to embarrass himself any further, he fled to the kitchen. Gwen found him throwing raspberries into a small saucepan and reaching for the control to turn on the heat. He was moving quickly, his actions jerky and far from the normal graceful that he used when cooking. His shoulders were tense and he was grumbling quietly to himself.
Gwen stopped him before he could turn on the flame, her hand doing nothing more than touching his to make him freeze. She turned him to face her and raised her eyebrows at the stove. "That's what got us into trouble in the first place," she murmured. Alaric looked confused, if a bit distracted by the way that his pyjama pants seemed to slip down her hips, leaving a patch of exposed skin between them and the shirt, by the way that Gwen was advancing slowly, backing him into a corner.
"I, ah, thought that we should make the syrup before the, er, crème brulee was done in the oven. Then we could chill them both and, well, watch the tele or something," Alaric said, trying to distract himself and Gwen—but mostly the way that his heart was pounding, his thoughts screaming at him to take a hold of her right then and there—with cooking. She hadn't been a chef for her whole life and wasn't so easily distracted.
"Alaric?" Gwen said, stopping inches away from him, her eyes slightly lidded and a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth.
"Yeah?" he said.
"Shut up." Gwen stood on her toes, despite the fact that he wasn't that much taller than she was, and kissed him square on the mouth. Maybe it was because he had wanted this for a considerable time and was so used to restraining himself, but Alaric did not move. Gwen pulled slowly back and looked up at him with a wicked smirk. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" she purred, the sound more like a growl than anything but more than enough to send shivers down Alaric's spine.
"No," he breathed, "no it wasn't." Then, he attacked, bringing his hands up to cup Gwen's chin and prevent her from pulling back as he kissed her. It wasn't soft and calm but needy and desperate. Gwen didn't complain, not even when his hands slipped from her face and started roaming, sliding up and down her side, brushing skin and pressing into the small of her back. She reacted with equal pleasure, thinking that it had been a while since she'd wanted to do this or even had the opportunity.
When Alaric switched their places, though, pressing Gwen into the corner and bearing down on her, she let out a cry of shock and pain and pulled back. Immediately, Alaric leaped away, looking at her with horror, "Shit. Gwen, I'm sorry. You started...I couldn't..."
"It wasn't that," Gwen said, her face screwed up as she tried to deal with the pain. "My hand got jammed against the counter." She pressed her lips together in a thin line, her skin ashy and pale. Alaric waved between going to help and staying away where he couldn't hurt her. "Ow."
"I'm so sorry," Alaric said. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Yes," Gwen said, taking a few deep breaths in. "But I think I should perhaps sit down."
"Of course," Alaric said. He gently put his arm around her shoulder, leading her to the couch where Gwen sank into the cushions as if her legs were going to give out. She took a few deep breaths and leaned back, her eyes unfocused. She sat like that for a few minutes until her breathing got under control and then she turned to look at Alaric.
"I don't suppose you have any pain pills?" Gwen asked. Alaric didn't even bother answering, just jogged to the bathroom and pulled out some aspirin, returning with them and a glass of water. Gwen didn't bother with the water, just threw the medicine into her mouth and swallowed, wincing as she did so. "Right," she murmured. "I think you're going to have to finish the crème brulee on your own."
"We don't have to-"
"You're not going to waste a decent dessert are you?" Gwen asked, looking more alarmed at this than the sudden injury of her hand. This alone assured Alaric that she was going to be alright and he laughed in relief.
"No, I suppose not." He turned to the kitchen when Gwen made a sound in her throat. He looked over his shoulder and she was staring at him with a look of annoyance. He frowned—what had he done this time—and she held out her good hand. Alaric took it and was pulled forwards until Gwen could sit up and kiss him soundly. Alaric pulled away a minute later, the oven timer having gone off. "Better?" he asked with the air of a cat before a bowl of cream. Gwen nodded. "Good."
Alaric returned to the kitchen and pulled the crème brulee out of the oven, putting it straight into the fridge. And with a shadow of a smile on his face, he cooked the raspberries with a very mild liqueur, sugar and vanilla to make a syrup. It was a good thing that he had cooked for years, his hands able to create without much direction of his mind, because he was completely preoccupied.
Gwen had kissed him. His thoughts and dreams over the last while had finally come to pass. Jack's worrying had been for naught and now, well, it seemed as though the whole world had opened up to him. He didn't know what it was exactly that Gwen and he shared but it was nice. It was better than nice. His fingers twitched as he stirred the syrup and he wanted to hurry things up and get back to doing whatever it was that she wanted. He knew he was being stupid; you didn't rush cooking. And he had been with other women before. He didn't understand why this was different, felt so different.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, Alaric finished the syrup and put it into the fridge to cool along with the custard. He would give it another twenty minutes before pulling it out and crisping the top with his blow torch. Until then... he went out to the living room, preparing to sneak up on Gwen and make her make those very satisfying noises that she made when he was touching her.
He found her stretched out on the couch, her broken hand resting gently before her, the other pinned beneath her head. She was sound asleep. "Damn," Alaric muttered, watching the even in-an-out of her breath. He grabbed a blanket from another chair and draped it over her, unable to resist moving her hair to rest behind her ear. The crème brulee would be good another time.
Glancing at the clock, he saw that it was barely half past eleven. He would be up for another couple of hours on a normal night and he was far too awake to even consider going to sleep. He couldn't very well turn on the tele because he didn't want to wake Gwen. Then, she might be more comfortable in his bed while he slept on the couch.
"Will you let me move you without waking up?" Alaric asked her. She simply slept on. He decided to risk it and, as if he were lifting a child, picked Gwen up off the couch and carried her to his room, putting him in his bed and tucking the covers around her. She murmured slightly and turned over, stretching as she did so. "This wasn't quite how I was planning on getting you in bed," Alaric said with a dry laugh. He grabbed a spare pillow and went back out to the living room, closing his door behind him. Then it was little more than watching the tele for the next while, trying to distract himself from the figure in the other room. He failed.
Somewhere around two in the morning, as he half-dozed and half-watched the figures flickering on the screen before him, Alaric jerked awake to the sound of a noise. He stared at his bedroom door, fear making his hearing acute. Had Gwen woken? Was she in pain? The sound came again and he cursed, digging around in the cushions of his couch to fine his phone. Who would have the nerve to call him at two in the morning? His mother, that's who.
"Mum, do you have any idea what time it is?" Alaric asked, throwing his arm over his eyes.
"Since when are you not awake at two in the morning?" his mother replied, her tone somewhere between scolding and affectionate. Alaric sighed, deciding if this was going to be one of the good conversations with his mother or one of the bad. It all depended if his father entered into the conversation.
"It's my night off. I can go to bed earlier on my night off," Alaric replied. "The question isn't why I'm up this late, it's why you are. And why you're calling me this late."
"It's about your father," his mother said. Alaric groaned; it was going to be a bad conversation.
"Whatever he wants me to do now, it's not happening. And I don't care what he's doing to make you get in contact with me, it's not happening. Ever," Alaric snarled, now more than fully awake and angry.
"For goodness sake, Alaric, he's not trying to get you to do anything. I'm inviting you to his retirement party," his mother said. "And if you know what's good for you, you'll come. He's retiring in three weeks and you will be there."
"No, I won't," Alaric said. "He doesn't want me there."
"He does, Alaric," his mother pleaded. "He's been asking questions about you, about how your restaurant is going and reading all the stories in the news about it and you. You know your father. He's stubborn as a mule—a trait you inherited—and he won't call. But it would mean a lot of you were to come to this party. Please, Alaric."
"Mum, I'm busy," Alaric said. "I have the school ending about that time and there's no way that I can get time off. And you live half-way across the country, so I'd need at least two days. I'm head-chef. I can't just get time off."
"You just don't want to see your father. Or me, for that matter," she replied, sounding hurt.
"No, Mum, of course I want to see you," Alaric tried to soothe her but from the sounds on the other end of the line, it wasn't working well.
"But you won't come see me if your father is there. Do you really hate him that much?"
"No, Mum. Things just aren't as simple as me showing up and saying 'congratulations on your retirement.' If you remember, he's the one who threw me out of the house. Not the other way around," Alaric said, the memories he tried so hard to forget coming to the forefront of his mind. His father, lip curled in disgust, his mother cowering in a chair as she recovered from getting slapped out of the way for interfering.
"Be the better man," she said. "Three weeks, just say you'll come. You don't have to stay at the house and you only have to see him for a short time. You can even bring a friend, if it's that terrible. Just please come."
"N-" Alaric started, sitting straight up again. This time, the noise was coming from his room. It sounded like cries of pain, quiet and muted but still there.
"Alaric? Are you still there?" his mother asked.
"Yeah, alright, I'll be there. I have to go," Alaric said and hung up, seconds before the screams started. He ran to the door, tripping in his blankets as he did so. He cursed loudly and Gwen screamed again. Alaric fumbled with the door knob for a moment, growling as he did so. He managed it, finally, and threw the door open, expecting to see Gwen sitting there, wide-eyed and afraid. Instead, she was sound asleep, her expression twisted into something beyond terror and beyond pain. She looked as though the world were being ripped out from beneath her and there was nothing she could do.