The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 11

"Gwen!" Alaric said, shaking her. She resisted, even in sleep and she was strong. Alaric shook her harder and got an elbow to the centre of his chest as a reward. Coughing, he retreated and stared at Gwen. Luckily, her need to fight had woken her from whatever dream she had been having. She stared at Alaric in confusion, a definite expression of fear around her eyes.

"Alaric?" she asked tentatively, balling her left fist in the covers, starting to tremble slightly. After having her hand broken, her night ruined by an annoying prick and being set on fire, it was a dream that was her undoing? What was it in her mind that was so terrible?

"It was just a dream," he said, moving closer to her again, wondering if she would even accept him trying to comfort her. But his movements set her off and she closed the gap, burying her head in his shoulder. Alaric wrapped his arms around her and let his stay there, trembling, until she calmed down. Even when she stopped shaking, she didn't move, glad for the comfort.

"How did I get here?" Gwen asked finally, smoothing her hand over the sheets. "I remember sitting on your couch."

"You fell asleep, I figured you'd be more comfortable on the bed, so I moved you and took the couch," Alaric said. "Sorry if it was an intrusion or anything."

"No," Gwen shook her head. "It's fine. I just... I don't often sleep in a bed. The couch or floor keeps me from having..."

"Dreams," Alaric prompted. He tightened his arms around her, sad for the fact that she had to sacrifice her own comfort for the sake of a decent night's sleep. "I understand."

"Not dreams," Gwen murmured, almost too softly to hear. She turned and pressed her nose to the point where Alaric's neck met his shoulder. "Memories." Alaric stiffened slightly and Gwen attempted to pull away. He forced himself to relax and ran his fingers through her hair, keeping one arm wrapped securely around her shoulders.

"Gwen, I'm sorry," Alaric said, kissing the crown of her head. "I'm sorry that you have to go through this."

"It was my fault," Gwen said, bitterness plain in her voice. She curled her fingers into Alaric's shirt and started shaking agin. Only after she started breathing raggedly did Alaric realise that she wasn't afraid or angry, she was crying. "I'm the one who caused it, so it's only right that I pay for what happened."

"It wasn't your fault," Alaric growled, annoyed at her for thinking such a thing. Gwen laughed sardonically, the sound of her sniffing ruining the effect.

"How do you know? You don't know what happened and you couldn't possibly know that. Unless you did get Major Dalton to tell you what happened," Gwen said, growling even as her tears wet Alaric's shirt. She tried to pull away again but he held fast. She might have been strong, but Alaric was in the position of advantage here.

"No, I don't know what happened. But I know that something so terrible would never be your fault. You are the most careful and gracious person I've met in a long time. So it can't be your fault."

Gwen snorted in derision and sidled away from Alaric, this time slipping from his grasp before he could stop her. She leaned against the head-board and wrapped her arms around her knees, pulling them into her chest. "That's because I've learned from my mistakes," she said, propping her chin on her knees.

Alaric slid over the bed to sit next to Gwen, though he sat with his legs stretched out and his hands folded in his lap. "I wish I knew what was so terrible that you can't forgive yourself."

"Not now," Gwen said, leaning to rest on Alaric's shoulder. Obligingly, he put his arm around her shoulders and started rubbing circles on her arm. "Sometime, maybe. Just not now."

"Alright," Alaric said. "I won't push you." He thought he should say something else, like maybe you're not alone or I'm here for you but the words got caught on his tongue. Instead he sat there in silence, just glad for the proximity of Gwen. They sat like that for a while, neither speaking, neither moving, neither falling asleep. Alaric took a deep breath as the silence got too oppressive. "My mum called."

"What, earlier today?" Gwen asked quietly, unwrapping her knees and stretching out until she was reclined on the pillow. Alaric joined her, keeping his arm around her shoulder, though her head was resting on his arm and her hand was resting on his chest. He thought he could feel the heat of her flesh through his shirt and he wanted to act. It seemed to be an inappropriate time, though. Especially after he had introduced the topic of his mum.

"No, after you went to sleep. She wants me to show up at my dad's retirement party," Alaric said.

"I thought that your dad had kicked you out of the house," Gwen replied. Alaric was quiet for a moment. "Sorry. Just, you told me at breakfast that you had left and didn't get along with him."

"Don't get alone with him is a bit of an understatement. But I was coerced into going to this stupid party. He'll be there with all his crowing lawyer friends and the socialites that I never liked. Mum's sort of depending on me to show up." Alaric knew that agreeing was the only way to dismiss his mother and get to Gwen, but he wished he hadn't. The choice between a party and Gwen was an easy one. It didn't mean that agreeing to attend didn't niggle.

"Any chance you can get a desperate plea from Jack that you be at The Rose during the party?" Gwen asked. Alaric shook his head. "That sucks. What about developing a serious illness?"

"In the next three weeks? I don't think so," Alaric grumbled. "No, I have told Mum that I would show up and so I will. Where I will proceed to get drunk for the entire weekend and do my best to stay away from my dad until the last possible moment."

"The entire weekend? This is lasting for more than a day?" Gwen asked. She bit her lip. The Wooden Rose would suffer without their chef for two days and she wasn't sure that she would like doing without for that long. Especially not since they had started whatever it was that they had started. She enjoyed kissing him, teasing him.

"They live near the southern coast and I wouldn't be able to get down there and back in a day, not if I were expected to spend time at this party," Alaric said. "Trust me, every way that I look at it, it sucks. Except I get to bring a friend."

"Jack will be thrilled," Gwen said, fighting a smile. "A weekend with you drunk and him being pounced on by socialite women decades older than he is."

"Jack won't go," Alaric said. "He made that mistake at my dad's seventieth birthday party four years ago. He has vowed never to go near my parents ever again. Something about the fact that he walked away with a ruined suit and something very close to a black eye. Oh, and a lizard."

"Your father hit Jack?" Gwen exclaimed in astonishment.

"No, a cousin who decided that a friend of mine must be just as idiotic as I am." Alaric chuckled at the memory, though there was obvious pain there as well. "But Jack won't come with me. Actually, I was wondering if you wanted to come."

"I certainly hit back," Gwen mused. "And usually harder."

"Exactly. Besides, people would be less inclined to mess with a woman, I would be avoiding the daughters of these terrifying people that keep hanging around—probably hoping for money, but they'll settle for an affair with a world class chef—and you wouldn't even have to put up with men treating you like Eliza Doolittle." Alaric paused in rubbing Gwen's shoulder to shirt and look at her. "Say you'll come?"

Gwen propped herself up on her elbows. "You're serious!" she said, looking at him incredulously. She flopped back onto the pillows. "I thought you were joking."

"When it comes to my parents," Alaric said in a voice which was meant to be serious but was riddled with mocking laughter and sarcasm, "I never joke. Yes, of course I'm serious. There's no way that I'm going to do this alone and I want you to come with me."

"So you're trying to make me suffer on your account?" Gwen asked, swallowing a yawn. "What did I do to you?"

"No! That's not what I mean," Alaric said. He grumbled under his breath and sighed. "I need your help, alright? I want you to come because I can't—literally can't—do this alone. And, if I have to go into battle, I'd like to have you as my backup. I just messed that phrase up, didn't I?"

"It wasn't too bad," Gwen said, sounding sleepy. "And I appreciate the offer. I'd like to help you, I really would."

"I'm sensing a 'however' coming," Alaric said. Gwen stretched slightly, yawning. She shook her head as much as was possible without lifting it off the pillow.

"I'm desperately trying to think of a bad side to this. The fear that I'll end up like Jack is the only one I can come up with. And we both know that I'm tougher than he is by a long shot," Gwen said. Alaric snorted good-naturedly and flinched when Gwen thumped his chest. "I hit a brick, thank you very much. So, no, there's not a 'however'. I'll go."

"Really?" Alaric asked. Gwen murmured assent. "Thanks. I was expecting this to be much harder."

"You have so little faith in your skills of persuasion?" Gwen asked. She fished around until she managed to grab the covers that had been tossed aside and pulled them up around her, settling in.

"You haven't met my parents," Alaric said. "Now go to sleep, alright? I'll go sleep on the-"

"No," Gwen said, pulling her voice from sleepiness to alarm. If she hadn't been pinned by the covers and Alaric's arm—warm, comforting, very nice to sleep on—she would have sat up straight. "Don't go. I don't want to...remember again."

"Hey, I won't let that happen," Alaric said. He kissed Gwen's head and she replied with a faint smile and by relaxing into the bed. It didn't take long before she was asleep again, soundly and deeply asleep. Alaric lay for much longer, simply enjoying the fact that he held Gwen in his arms. It seemed as though he had been waiting for this for a time longer than he had even known her. How many women had he gone through trying to find the one that fit? He didn't necessarily want to marry her right away, but the fact that he could enjoy just being there with her and have no thoughts about what was going to go wrong next was, well, nice.

Somewhere around three, Alaric managed to drift off as well. And, he smiled to himself closing his eyes, neither he nor Gwen had to be in to The Rose until nearly noon. It would be nice to wake up to her in his arms. He knew nothing more than that until morning.

There came a crashing sound, a suppressed curse and a dull thud. Alaric sat up, blinking off the sleep and noting that it was still fairly dark. He automatically looked to the place next to him and frowned; where was Gwen? Had she gotten up to get something to eat? What time was it, anyways?

He glanced at the clock and scowled: 5:30. He never got up that early, not even when he had been working the morning shift at a restaurant during his teenage years. Even when Allison had called, worried about Gwen, she'd had the decency to wait until it was light before waking him up. But this? Groaning, Alaric lay back down and rolled over, trying to ignore the obvious sounds of life that were coming from the kitchen.

He lay there for fifteen minutes before giving up on the concept of sleep and rolling out of bed. Alaric shivered, unused to dealing with the cool morning air that filtered in from the windows. He trudged to the bathroom, took one look at himself in the mirror and wanted to bang his head against it. His dark hair was sticking up at odd angles and he desperately needed a shave. His eyes were bleary and he was fairly certain that the shadows there had nothing to do with staying up late but rather with getting up early.

Alaric sighed, splashed cold water on his face, growled into his towel as he dried off and sledged his way into the kitchen where Gwen was, looking far too awake for that dreadful hour. Her hair had been neatly done in a tight bun and he was pretty sure he smelled his soap on her skin. She had taken a shower? "What time did you get up?" he muttered, his voice rough.

"About five," Gwen answered. At least she had the decency not to sound cheerful and chipper. Alaric might have clocked her for that. "I didn't mean to wake you," she said, an apology hidden in her voice. Alaric was tempted to snap at her, give her snark, but he simply sighed, blinked a few times and slid his arms around Gwen's waist.

"It's alright," Alaric said. "As long as you're cooking. Coffee?"

"In the pot," Gwen said, leaning back into his embrace. It pleased Alaric to know that what had happened the night before wasn't some sort of fluke. He wanted to try and kiss her but figured that it was a bit too early for that. Gwen might have been awake and showered, but he wasn't. No need to start the morning off with bad breath and a scratchy face.

"I'm going to grab a shower," Alaric murmured, resting his chin on Gwen's shoulder. "Will this be done in a few minutes? Should I wait?"

"No, go ahead. It'll take another ten minutes before everything is sorted. Besides, I don't want you falling asleep in the middle of my breakfast. Go on," Gwen nudged him away and Alaric obeyed, showering and changing into a pair of jeans and a plain shirt and shaving before he returned to Gwen. When he did, he was flabbergasted.

She had set the table. As in full cutlery, actual plates instead of the paper ones he kept for his usual breakfast, glasses and a pitcher of orange juice (he hadn't even known he had a pitcher), full breakfast set out on platters with shiny serving tools and everything. He usually just scarfed a bowl of granola or had some toast and beans. This was, well, fantastic. "You sure go to a lot of effort for breakfast."

"Only when I'm trying to butter people up," Gwen said frankly. She sat and without ceremony began to serve herself eggs, toast, sausage, beans, everything. Alaric joined her, glad that his waking up early hadn't been for naught. He would't complain too much to a breakfast like this one.

"Are you trying to butter me up? Why?" Alaric asked. "I figure I'm the one who needs to get into your good favour, considering what I asked of you last night."

"Ah, yes, the family," Gwen said. "I suppose I could have just taken that as payment for what I'm going to ask you, but a good breakfast never hurt. Besides, I'm hungry and I'm going to need energy for later."

"So what is it you need from me?" Alaric asked, smiling at the taste of coffee on his tongue. It was dark and sharp and just how he liked it. And it had the added benefit of waking him up in the morning. "Telling Graham off? Though I don't see how that could possibly merit such a breakfast. Or perhaps putting James in his rightful place. He is still being a jerk, right? Not that I can really get rid of him, considering he is a decent cook and has been attending to my instructions as best as someone like him can."

"Nothing quite so complicated," Gwen assured him. "No, I need a lift back to my flat."

"What, now?" Alaric asked. To his relief, Gwen shook her head.

"No, in about half-an-hour or so. I have my self-defence lessons this morning and I don't think I have enough cash for a cab. Oh, and I left my bus pass back at my flat when I went out last night. I guess when you're invited to a gala, you don't think you'll need an alternate means of transportation," Gwen said. She looked at Alaric sheepishly and he was tempted to laugh. But she had gone to all the effort and she seemed serious enough about the matter.

"Alright," Alaric said. "Sure. Though I don't see that a lift to your flat is worth this breakfast."

"Ah, well. It's early and you were nice enough to let me stay last night and, well, I was hungry," Gwen said. Alaric nodded in understanding, smirking as he did so.

"This wasn't made strictly for my benefit, was it?" Gwen shook her head. "Though, even if I weren't terribly big on breakfast, I would probably have still made some. You know, as a thanks for letting me stay over and so forth."

Alaric didn't know what to say to that, so he just shrugged, piercing a piece of sausage with his fork. They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes before he spoke, "So, do you want to go on a date with me?"

Gwen was half-way through a sip of coffee and spluttered, coughing. She recovered a few moments later but looked at Alaric as though he had tried to kill her. He blanched. Maybe he had gotten the wrong impression last night? But she hadn't been drunk and she had initiated it. So what was the problem? Maybe it was the fact that he was asking at six in the morning.

"Sorry," Alaric apologised. "I didn't want to make you, er, choke."

"It wasn't that," Gwen said. "It was more a sudden and glaring realisation that everyone at The Rose will be fully aware that we are, well, something. I thought that practically living on top of a bunch of men with the ability to squash most people like flies and also a very healthy sex drive-" Alaric was the one to splutter at Gwen's words, but she continued, ignoring him, "would be bad enough. But the kitchen team gossips like no one I've ever met before."

"Ah, yes, sorry," Alaric said, shrugging. "I mean, we could try to keep it quiet, if you'd prefer."

"I don't think that's going to work very well," Gwen said. "Jack has been keeping a very close eye on you for a while now and I'm certain that Bob and Sarah are determined to imitate your every move."

"So you noticed," Alaric said drily. He was used to people looking up to him for cooking and acknowledging his relative fame in the cooking world, but being copied like some sort of idol was disconcerting. "I've been biding my time until classes end, but I honestly can't wait until these things are done. Normally I have such a good time with this, but this year... It's been stressful."

"Sorry," Gwen said. "I'm sure this isn't helping."

"What? No. Actually, this is helping a lot. I thought that if I had to wait until these classes were done before, ah, expressing my interest, that I might go crazy. Or I'd actually have to listen to Jack and start taking up boxing," Alaric said. Gwen raised her eyebrows.

"Boxing," she stated flatly. "I don't mean to question your masculinity or anything, but you don't seem to be the boxing type. Trust me, I've been around a few of those."

"No. I don't see much point in beating the stuffing out of another guy who has done nothing to you. Or a bag. Punching bags are even worse," Alaric said, "they can't fight back."

"They're called heavy bags," Gwen said. "And they only work so well. It's hard to train seriously with them unless you're certain your opponent will never hit back, let alone move around. That's why sparring and getting actual combat time is so critical."

"It sounds dangerous," Alaric said. He looked at Gwen's broken hand and turned his attention to his food. He knew that she had been through some horrible stuff, but the thought of her actively seeking out a fight just so she could practise, no matter if her opponent was looking for practise, too, was sobering.

Gwen got a far-off look in her eye and blinked, her fork and knife held as if forgotten. "It is," she said, her voice somewhere between vacant and forceful. "But I'd rather deal with the danger than ever feel victimised because I couldn't defend myself. It's amazing what knowing you can hold your own will do for a person."

"Like Allison?" Alaric asked. Gwen nodded. They both remembered that night, the one where Gwen had stepped in and Alaric had realised for the first time that she wasn't some worthless charity case, trying to make her way in a world where she didn't belong. "She seems to be doing well."

"You should see her at our sessions," Gwen said with a smirk. She raised her eyebrows and lifted her glass of orange juice to her lips. "She fights like a wild cat."

"I don't suppose you'd let me sit in?" He asked because he was curious; just because he didn't care for boxing or whatever didn't mean that self-defence wasn't something useful. Besides, it would be nice to see Gwen in a setting outside of cooking and lounging about after ruined evenings. Doing something she knew better than most.

"Sure, but you'd have to put up with being made useful," Gwen said. "I could use an attacker."

"What?" Alaric asked, the way that Gwen asked making him not so certain that he wanted to know or participate any more. "What is an attacker?"

"Exactly what it sounds like. You'll be attacking, I'll be defending. Don't worry, you won't get hurt. At least, nothing that will last more than a few minutes," Gwen said. She straightened in her chair and Alaric got the sinking feeling that this was not going to end well for him.

"Uh, alright," he said. "We should probably leave soon?"

"Yeah, sure. Hey, relax. Just think of this as my payment for going with you to meet and endure your family."

"I knew that would be coming back to bite me sooner or later," Alaric grumbled. He pushed back from the table and rose, moving to find containers in which to store the left over breakfast. He did that while Gwen cleaned the dishes and then, after changing into some work-out pants because Gwen smirked when he asked if jeans were alright, got in the car. The drive to Gwen's flat was uneventful, though it was interesting to see how long he could go without flicking his eyes over to admire how well she wore his spare clothing. The bit of flesh that showed due to the loose pants didn't hurt, either.

Gwen hopped out of the car as soon as he parked and ran up to her flat to change. She emerged minutes later wearing something much more form-fitting and far more distracting for Alaric. He swallowed. "Alright, so, we just wait for Allison?"

Gwen nodded. She looked around and stepped forwards in one fluid, completely confident motion. "I forgot to kiss you good morning," she breathed before wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her lips to his. Alaric groaned and leaned back against his car, mindful only of the fact that she was letting his hands wander wherever they wanted. And they wanted.

"Well, good morning." Alaric stiffened at the new voice, but if he expected Gwen to leap back like some sort of guilty teenager, he was disappointed. Because she stayed there, her body pressed very nicely against his, her eyes lidded in pleasure. She simply turned her head and smiled at Allison.

"Good morning to you, too," she said. "Right, shall we go?"

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