The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 12

"What happened to your hand?" Allison asked as she walked with Gwen. Alaric was trailing behind and Gwen was sure she felt his eyes on the back of her neck and other parts of her body. It didn't help that Allison was obviously curious about what was going on between the two of them (not that it was difficult to guess, considering what she had "walked in" on).

"I had a row with a brick," Gwen gave her well-practised answer. "Don't worry, we can still work on things. You just won't be attacking me. This way, I can see how well you do against someone else. A man."

"Won't I get, oh, I don't know, fired or something?" Allison breathed, loud enough so only Gwen could hear. She smirked and nodded at the small park they were approaching. The ground was just as likely to be hard there as outside of Gwen's flat, but it wouldn't cause quite as many nasty abrasions.

"Alaric?" Gwen turned to him. He raised his eyebrows expectantly. "Will Allison get fired if she beats the crap out of you?"

"Probably not," Alaric said. "As long as you don't tell anyone about it," he added with a sneaky grin. Allison whipped her head around and gaped at her boss. She hadn't even known that he had a sense of humour, let alone was willing to use it with Gwen. Of course, she hadn't seen a spark between him and Gwen, either, so perhaps she shouldn't have been surprised.

Gwen and Allison went over to their usual spot, a piece of ground that was relatively flat with no trees, rocks or people to get in the way. "So, remind me," Gwen said, stepping into a fighting stance and holding her hands up. Allison mirrored her. "What did we do the day before yesterday?"

The two started moving around, shuffle stepping as though they were fencing but not anything quite so fancy. After a few moments of this, Allison tentatively shot a hand out to try and touch Gwen's shoulder. The former soldier blocked it easily and responded with a lightning fast counterstrike which Allison nearly blocked, Gwen's cast brushing against the smaller woman's shoulder. "Um, choke holds," Allison said, striking again. This time, Gwen simply slid her shoulders off-line, leaving her opponent's hand grasping at thin air.

It took Alaric a few minutes of watching this to realise that they were playing tag, trying to touch the other person's shoulders while not getting caught in return. There was another two minutes of this before Gwen called it quits. "Right. Right. We'll work on choke holds from behind, then. For now, just do some shadow fighting. I have to let Alaric know what we'll be doing."

Allison did as she was told, looking like she knew exactly what she was doing. To someone who had no idea how to fight apart from swinging and hoping that he hit something, she looked pretty skilled. He was curious to see what Gwen was like. She walked over to where he was watching and stretched her arms.

"I hope you don't expect me to do that," he said, pointing to where Allison was throwing punches at the air, dodging and dancing about.

"No, but I do want you to be able to at least use a proper fighting stance," Gwen said. "So, stand straight and lean your weight forwards until one leg flies out to catch you from falling." Alaric did so, feeling rather silly in doing so. His left leg jumped forwards and he looked at Gwen, who nodded. "Good. Now do what I do."

She watched him as he tried to copy her movements, settling into a fighter's crouch and holding his hands as she directed him to. After two minutes of this, Gwen burst out laughing. Allison stopped her shadow fighting and turned to look at Gwen. She was standing with one hand across her belly, her head thrown backwards in mirth. Alaric was looking at her with a mixture of annoyance and tolerance.

"Now you understand why I don't play the student," Alaric grumbled, straightening.

"No, no. You were... um, close," Gwen said. Alaric scowled. She chuckled again and stepped next to him. "Do what I do," she murmured, slipping into a crouch. He obliged, copying her movements. "Good," Gwen said, turning so that she was standing in front of him, her stance mirroring his. She brought up her hands as though she meant to fight and he did the same, protecting his face and still keeping her in sight. Gwen nodded. She took one quick step forwards, her left foot leading, her right foot following, forcing Alaric to retreat in the opposite manner.

"See," Gwen said, "it's not so bad."

"Somehow, I don't think I'm quite cut out for this fighting thing," Alaric grumbled, though he looked pleased at Gwen's praise. The two straightened and Gwen turned to her student who had been watching with a sort of smirk.

"What?" Gwen asked. Allison shook her head. "Alright, fine. So, here's how this is going to work..." She showed Allison the bar-arm choke, bringing her arm across the other woman's throat and holding her in place. They reversed roles and she explained how to get out of it, going over the technique multiple times until Allison could do it nearly perfectly with Gwen, going at a slow speed to keep from hurting Gwen's hand. While she was teaching, she was completely focused on her task, unaware of how much Alaric was staring. The only time she seemed to become more self-aware was when her injured hand got in the way. Even then, she only let her frustration flicker across her features for a moment before adjusting and moving on.

Alaric was so engrossed with watching her—it didn't hurt that she was wearing very flattering clothing, which stretched tighter as she moved—that he didn't hear her cal him the first time. "Alaric!" she said again, sounding slightly annoyed. He jerked to attention and gave her a sheepish look. "I need you to attack me."

"Huh?" he said.

"I need you to attack me. Just to show Allison what this looks like before you attack her. All you have to do is put me in a bar-arm choke. Your forearm across my neck," Gwen said. He looked at her skeptically. "If you don't want to, then you're welcome to leave. Otherwise, make yourself useful."

It was a rule he applied to his kitchens, so he didn't argue with Gwen's order. He stepped up behind her and, feeling extremely awkward while doing so, put his forearm around her neck, his other hand resting on her shoulder. He stood as far back from her as he could, certain that if he stood any closer, he would be unable to do any fighting at all. He would be far too distracted for that. "Alright, now what?" he asked.

Gwen sighed, "You're going to have to act as though you actually want to attack me, or this is going to be a pointless exercise."

"I don't want to hurt you," Alaric said, which was partly true. He didn't want to hurt her. He just didn't want to stand too close, either. For as much his pride as her honour.

"Fine, fine, let me out. If you're not going to do this properly, I'm going to have to convince you," Gwen said. Alaric released her and waited to see what she would do. Hit him and demand that he fight her? He didn't think that was going to convince him of anything. Instead, even as he tried to watch and keep his eyes on her, she darted around behind him and put him in the choke hold she had been demonstrating that morning. He stumbled backwards, the pressure of her forearm tight across his neck, her other hand controlling his shoulder as much as guiding him where she wanted him to go. He panicked, struggling blindly and scrabbling at her arm. Gwen did something to his feet and suddenly the pressure around his neck was gone, only to be replaced with the sensation of falling. He hit the ground a moment later.

Gwen didn't waste any time, straddling his stomach and keeping him in place no matter how much he struggled. Her expression was grim, her lips curled as if a fighting dog, her eyes blazing. Alaric froze, unable to do anything and terrified by the look on her face. An instant later and she was calm, leaning forwards to press her lips gently against his. "You won't hurt me," she murmured, kissing him deeper. "I promise."

"I hate to interrupt," Allison said, sounding as though she had swallowed a few laughs. "But if we could continue? I have to be somewhere in an hour and I still have to shower."

"Very well," Gwen said, standing as quickly as she had knelt, her hand held out to Alaric. He took it and pulled himself to his feet, still dazed from the attack as much as the kiss. He would have happily stayed on the ground if it meant Gwen pressing herself against him, kissing him. "Now will you attack me properly? I won't hurt you."

"Yeah, right. I'm going to show up to work all bruised and I will have to tell everyone that I got beat up by a girl," Alaric growled playfully, this time putting his arm around Gwen's throat as if he meant it. At least, he tried. Somehow, he didn't think that his heart was really in it. He let out a grunt as Gwen's elbow nudged his stomach, probably lightly for her but still enough to make him breathe sharply. She pulled his arm down in a quick jerk, stepped under it and pinned it behind his back so that his shoulder would be wrenched if he moved too far one way or another.

He spluttered uncomfortably for a few moments, a feeling of vulnerability creeping up on him. He hated feeling vulnerable. It was why he had walked away from his father, determined to make his own way and be as strong as he could be on his own. He snarled at the feeling, his temper rising to burn it out. He would never be vulnerable again, not to anyone, especially not his father.

Alaric hadn't even realised that he had been released from the hold as he rounded on his attacker. He let the adrenaline and anger course through him and he lunged for Gwen, seeing her only as a threat, nothing more. He lunged, uncoordinated and unskilled, which was enough for Gwen to realise what he was doing and step aside.

She didn't even bother to fight back as he turned again, doing his best to hit her. She simply held up her hands, open and calm, a gentle message for him to stop. She hid her alarm behind a carefully schooled expression, one that she hadn't used since fighting off furious teenage boys in a country overrun by insurgents. She let him approach her, obviously furious about something and obviously not seeing her but something else. She was prepared for when he swung at her, blocking his blow easily. He kept attacking, she kept blocking. Until he hesitated.

"Alaric," Gwen said, her voice breaking slightly as she said his name. She silently cursed herself for getting emotional over such a thing, but it hurt to see him that way. Something had triggered this—she didn't know what but she had a guess—and as easily as it had been triggered, it was gone. Almost like one of her attacks, she thought in the quietest recesses of her mind. Except with her attacks, the ones that lasted hours, she actually caused damage, to herself and to the others that had tried to stop her. Unbidden, an image of the room where she had stayed for a few months after the attack in Afghanistan came to her mind. She shuddered.

Alaric saw the shudder and assumed that it was his fault. He retreated, "Shit. Gwen, I'm sorry. I didn't think that... Shit." He backed up into a tree and used it to balance himself, unable to control the sudden shaking that came on him. Gwen took a deep breath and turned to the wide-eyed and terrified Allison.

"We'll finish this another time," Gwen said softly. The blonde woman nodded and fled, moving as quickly as she could without seeming like she was running from the scene. Then, ever so carefully, Gwen approached the base of the tree where Alaric now sat, his head buried in his hands. She sat next to him and he stiffened.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I've never... I get angry, sometimes, but it's mostly in the kitchens and it's never so...I don't know what came over-"

"Who was it that hit you?" Gwen asked quietly. Alaric raised his head and looked at her with furrowed brows, his hands tangled in his hair. He was obviously distressed and Gwen didn't want to push him. She took another deep breath and tried to remember what her own psychologists had said. "You weren't attacking me," she began. "You wouldn't attack me. You were attacking whoever it was that... made you feel weak, that made you feel as though you were trapped and couldn't defend yourself. You were attacking the person who made you feel-"

"Vulnerable," Alaric cut in, his voice like ice. He turned his gaze away from Gwen and looked at the grass instead, feeling that was much safer. "Yeah. You're right."

"So, who was it?" Gwen pressed, leaning her shoulder against his. He responded by unfurling his arms and putting one around her shoulders, pulling her close as if she would leave him for what he had done. "Who was it you were attacking? I—I shouldn't push you. It's not my place," Gwen said, thinking of her own secrets she didn't want revealed.

"You'll find out soon enough anyways. My father," Alaric said softly. "He was the one who hit me, who, well, abused me. It was only once physically, but unless I did what he said, then the emotional abuse started."

"You're very frank about it," Gwen said after a minute's pause. "More than I would be. Am."

"It's because I've come to realise something," Alaric said, leaning back agains the tree.

"What's that?" Gwen asked. She looked up at Alaric, tempted to brush the strands of black hair out of his eyes.

"He's a right proper bastard, that's what," Alaric said. Gwen blinked in surprise then started chuckling. She stopped as soon as she realised what she was doing but Alaric turned to grin at her and she started laughing again. It didn't take long for Alaric to join her. They laughed for a few minutes, the fight completely forgotten, tempers soothed and ruffled feathers smoothed back into place. Things were just as they should be.

"Alright. You win. That's a pretty decent reason for being frank," Gwen said. She stretched and Alaric loosened his hold on her, letting her stand. "Come on, we should get back. I have to at least change into something a bit more work appropriate and I'm sure you have to do the same."

"Right," Alaric said. "Work." He rose and followed Gwen from the park, catching up to her and slipping his hand into hers. "Sorry about attacking you like that. I didn't know that I would, well, react so poorly."

"It's nothing I haven't seen before," Gwen shrugged. "Some people just have memories blur together when they fight. They don't remember who they're fighting, just the reason that makes them fight. For some it's revenge, others protection, still others do it just because they're good at it. Doesn't matter."

"Some of your friends were like that?" Alaric asked. The question was innocent; he hadn't wanted to pry into Gwen's past, especially since she was so closed off about it. He didn't care about that. He was shocked, then, when she actually answered.

"I knew a soldier," Gwen said softly. "Damon. He was sort of you're rough-and-tumble, go-get-em type. Fiery. He was a damn good soldier, but when he got into hand-to-hand combat, he was nigh uncontrollable. He was back in his youth, fighting to stay alive against his step-father and step-brother. They would have killed him if he hadn't fought. Eventually, it got so bad that he was put in a sharp-shooting squadron, an advance force. He had a gun, not his fists. I don't know which was more deadly."

"Was he one of the ones you lost?" Alaric asked before he could stop himself. He cursed out loud as Gwen stiffened, stopping in her tracks. He froze as well, unable to think of anything to say that would make what he had done better.

"It's not important," Gwen said, her voice like ice. She started walking again and Alaric hurried to catch up. They said nothing, the conversation between them over and done with. It didn't take long before Gwen's flat came into view. She dug her key out of a pocket and trudged up to the door. Alaric hesitated, wondering if he should follow her or drive back to his own flat. If he followed her, she might yell at him. But if he went back to his flat, it would be acknowledging that something was now standing between them. He didn't think he could stand having another barrier between the two of them. He had only just gotten her to lower hers.

She didn't argue as he came up to her flat, just as she didn't argue when he immediately went to her kitchen while she went to change. He ran his fingers lightly over the pots and pans, wondering how much of Walter Smythe's money was spent on these things. As far as he was concerned, it was high time that the philanthropist put his money towards something useful, like cooking. Not that what he did wasn't useful, just far from practical. Alaric considered cooking her something, but she had already made them breakfast and in another hour, he would need to be at The Wooden Rose for classes.

"Hey," Gwen said, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. "I didn't mean to snap at you."

"It's fine," Alaric said. He smiled appreciatively at the clothing Gwen was wearing, only because she didn't seem to understand just how much he was enjoying it. She wore tight trousers that showed off every curve and muscle and a blue blouse that rode up and showed a slim patch of skin whenever Gwen moved. "It's not like I haven't done worse."

"Yeah. But if we're going to do, well, this," Gwen said, "then we're going to have to stop biting each other's heads off every time one of us does something even remotely bothersome."

"Alright, we'll work on it," Alaric said. Gwen nodded, satisfied, and slipped into the kitchen to reach for the tea kettle. She was stopped when Alaric cornered her, putting his hands on her hips. He lowered his head and kissed her hungrily before moving to her jaw, her neck, the collarbone which showed through the neck of her shirt. "Gwen," Alaric said, groaning in pleasure as her hands started slipping up and down his shoulders.

"Yeah?" she breathed, her breath hitching as Alaric nipped at the corner of her jaw.

"Go on a date with me?" he said. "Our next day off. Or sooner, if I can get Jack to switch the schedules around.

"Alright," Gwen answered. She gave a slight moan as Alaric's hand slid under her shirt, dancing along the tops of her trousers. She responded in kind, slipping her hands under his shirt as if she couldn't get enough flesh. He helped, pausing long enough to tear away the offending piece of fabric before kissing her again and letting his hands start on her buttons. "Alaric," Gwen whispered between his assault on her mouth and shoulder.

"Hmm?" he managed, wondering what could be so damn important.

"We don't have enough time for this," she said a minute later, her touch gentle on his shoulder.

"Sure we do. We have an hour before we have to be at work. And The Rose is only across the street. Awfully convenient, wouldn't you say?" Alaric managed to get out in between pressing kisses to Gwen's neck and jaw.

"We have half-an-hour," Gwen corrected him, gasping as he pressed in closer, touching her breast which was barely covered by her now exposed bra. "And you have to get dressed. I don't have any men's clothes in my flat for you to borrow."

"I'll use one of the spare uniforms at the restaurant," Alaric said, cupping Gwen's jaw in his hands so she wouldn't be able to interrupt again. She let him do that for a bit before speaking again, this time in little more than a whisper blurred by pleasure.

"There are spare uniforms at the restaurant?" she asked. Alaric murmured assent and Gwen purred in submission. "Alright, then," she said. Alaric growled his pleasure and attacked. It was neither slow nor gentle. He felt as though he had been wanting this for a very long time and he wasn't going to have her tear this away. A thought occurred to him and he paused, making Gwen groan in annoyance.

"You do want this, don't you?" Alaric asked. Gwen looked at him in complete surprise. Her chest was moving up and down in a most alluring manner as she caught her breath. Her hair was no longer held back in a military-style bun. She had her hands on the waistband of his sweats and her eyes were direct and piercing.

"Yes," she snapped. "Now stop struggling and hold still." Alaric ignored the last statement in favour of the first, stepping forwards to completely trap Gwen against him. She growled and sat up on the countertop, hooking her legs behind his back. He started, feeling her pressed against him like that. They came together again, all scrambling hands and desperate kisses. Somewhere in the process of things, Gwen lost her bra and Alaric his pants. He struggled with her own trousers and Gwen broke contact long enough to slip them off her legs, shapely and muscular, before pulling Alaric back towards her.

They moved together as one being, their hips rocking in tandem. Gwen came first, her breath hitching and halting altogether for a moment before she began to take deep breaths again. Alaric came as Gwen's second orgasm was peaking. They both stiffened and relaxed, content to lean against each other for support, staying close. Gwen was the first to break the silence.

"Damn," she said, throwing her head back and shaking out the last of her bun. Alaric smiled and ran his fingers through her hair. "I needed that," Gwen said, returning the favour and trying to smooth some of the strands of black hair that had fallen into his eyes.

"We'll have to do it again sometime," Alaric said. Gwen nodded, smirking. Finally, when the clock told them they had no more time, the pulled apart to pick up discarded clothes, opting for a quick rinsing of their hair and faces before leaving for work.

It was the day when all of the staff came in to discuss new menu options and taste various dishes to approve or improve. The students had never before been allowed to participate in the event, always given the morning off. But, as the classes were near ending, they had finally gained the right to be present. Which meant that when Alaric and Gwen walked in together, the whispering started immediately, instead of waiting until the restaurant actually opened. Jack was the first—apart from Allison—to figure out what was going on. He looked at Alaric with raised eyebrows and half-expected to be given snark. Instead, his head-chef just returned the look and, in case anyone was wondering about the extent of the relationship, slung his arm around Gwen's shoulder.

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