The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 13

"I'm going to have to lay down some basic rules," Jack said as he cornered Alaric. The Rose was open for the evening and things had been going smoothly, for the most part. There had been some of the usual grumbling as Alaric proved to be just as ruthless in his critique, despite having a relationship with Gwen. "First off, no sex in the storeroom," Jack said. He grinned as Alaric shoved an elbow at his stomach. "I guess I don't have to worry about the free food bit since she works here and all, but keep it moderate, alright?"

"Shut up," Alaric grumbled. Gwen was too busy roasting a haunch of lamb to pay attention to what Alaric was doing, so there was no worry of her overhearing. Even so, Alaric sent a worried glance in her direction. Jack simply laughed and clapped his friend on the back.

"It took you long enough. And I didn't have to insist you go to anger management classes. So, everything works out," Jack said. He dodged a swipe from a metal spatula and went out to the floor. Alaric returned to his own dish and tried to stay annoyed at his friend but couldn't. He was too thrilled with the reality of what had happened. Things were working out and he wasn't even all that worried about attending his father's retirement party in three weeks time because Gwen would be going with him. He saw Bob making a rookie mistake in slicing the green onion and snarled out a warning. Yes, things were going very well.

Gwen, though, was not quite as sure. She was pleased to have a relationship with Alaric—just the thought of it sent tingles of pleasure up her spine—but the looks from the other students were enough to be more than a bit annoying. James was the worst of the lot, glaring at her throughout the day and doing his very best to trip her up as she worked. He had somehow managed to get his workstation next to hers that evening and was continuously getting in her way, reaching across her stove for a different ladle or some ingredient that he "needed." He jabbed at Gwen with his elbows whenever he could and finally, as she struggled to make do with her left hand and James kept getting closer, inhibiting her movement, she snapped.

"If you have a problem," she growled, "just come right out and say it. I don't take well to sabotage."

"Fine," James leered, turning over a filet of salmon before rounding on Gwen. "You think that banging the chef will get you a job here? Will make things easier? Well, you can bet that I'm going to fight this. There has to be some clause in our contract that prohibits sexual relations between students and teachers. Or maybe I should just complain to my lawyers who would be happy to have this fought. You're pathetic, doing this to get what you want. I won't fall for it."

"I'm not doing 'this' to get a better shot at landing a job here," Gwen said flatly. She began basting the lamb with her sauce and watched with a sort of sadistic pleasure as James' salmon began to sizzle a bit too loudly. "I'm dating him because I like him. And no, there are no rules prohibiting it. You can go ahead and shut up, because no matter what you say, I'm not going to stop just because you don't like it. If you weren't so convinced that you were better than the rest of us, maybe you would understand why I'm doing this."

"You insolent little-" James said, narrowing his eyes.

"James, that salmon is burning," Alaric roared from across the kitchen. Sure enough, it was. Alaric's timing couldn't have been any worse, though. All it did was reinforce the impression that Alaric was going to keep looking out for Gwen, giving her special treatment while attacking the others because of it. It never occurred to James that perhaps he was at fault.

Gwen did her best to swallow the sharp retort that was rising in her throat. She had to at least try and keep the peace. This was a new thing for both of them, she reminded herself. They had to work at it, test the boundaries, figure out what was alright and what wasn't. Before that, they had to make it through the evening. As usual, The Rose was busy. Alaric was kept dancing around the kitchen, checking on various dishes and barking orders at his staff. Gwen was busy in her own right, doing her best to keep up with the orders and make sure that she didn't mess up the dishes. Maybe because she was thinking of what would happen after the night was over, but things seemed too busy for her. She felt the evening was too fast and yet too slow. She desperately wanted to catch her breath, but every time she glanced at the clock, only seconds seemed to have passed. It was infuriating.

Finally, finally, the night drew to a close and all that was left was cleaning. Alaric went to talk with Jack about getting more supplies and the regular kitchen staff cleaned their various work stations and left, leaving the students to finish up the general cleaning. Allison and Sarah chatted pleasantly while they tackled the floors and Robert and Thomas begged off to go meet their wives for a late drink. Eventually, even the cleaning seemed to get done and Gwen was more than happy to throw her rag in the dirty bin and grab her jacket.

James shoved past her, his shoulder ramming into hers, making sure that he hit her broken hand against his hip. Gwen curled her lip in discomfort but made no sound, instead just shrugging into her coat. "Have fun with your sleeping around," James hissed. He strode off to the back door with his head held high and a muttered "whore" as he left. Gwen waited until he left before shaking her head.

"Idiot," she murmured, rubbing her shoulder.

"Are you alright?" Alaric asked, stepping up to grab his own jacket. He let his hand brush Gwen's cheek and he frowned, as though he were looking for obvious signs of abuse from James. "Has he been giving you problems? I could-"

"Don't even say it," Gwen warned. She pulled back from Alaric's touch and looked up at him, her gaze firm. "I don't need help in this."

"But I-" Alaric started. Gwen shook her head, setting her jaw.

"This is not your fault," Gwen said. "It's just idiots like him being unable to look past their own egos. And I can handle it."

"If he's causing problems in the kitchen, I should do something about it," Alaric insisted. He held the door open for Gwen and she slipped through, watching him lock up. "It's my job."

"No, it isn't," Gwen said. "This is nothing more than James being an idiot. I can deal with it. I have to deal with it on my own. If you start fighting my battles for me, things will only get worse. Trust me, I can take care of myself."

Alaric looked uncertain, but he slipped his keys into his pocket and followed Gwen across the street to her flat. It would be so easy to take care of James, he knew, but she probably wouldn't thank him for it. She fumbled with her keys as she opened the door and groaned in relief as she finally closed the door behind them. "I don't think that I've ever had such a long night at The Rose before," Gwen said.

Alaric twined his arms around her waist, "That's because you had something to look forward to. She smiled and turned to face him, blinking languidly. Gwen kissed him, biting down gently on his lower lip before pulling back, a mischievous expression on her face.

"That might have had something to do with it," she agreed. Alaric grinned and leaned in to kiss her again when she pulled away. He grumbled in annoyance but let her be as she put her keys away and took off her jacket, hanging it on its hook. He did the same, draping his jacket over hers and then waited so they could get back to what they had been doing. Instead, Gwen pressed the button on her answering machine. Alaric frowned.

"One new message," the machine said in its computerised voice. Another voice started and it took Gwen a moment to recognise it. When she did, she glared at the machine in frustration. "Hey, Gwen, it's me. Er, Graham. I'm calling to apologise for yesterday evening... I didn't mean to upset you, uh, about the whole not being able to manage on your own thing. It... just sort of came out. I mean, you looked great last night and, well, I think I was just trying to come to terms with the fact that, er, a month and a half ago, you were just barely getting settled into things. You were so uncertain and now, well, you're completely different. I'm just screwing this whole thing up. I was going to have some sort of eloquent apology planned, but now I'm just making a mess of things. If you're not really pissed at me, do you think that we could try and do this again? I mean, just meet for lunch or some-" The machine beeped, "End of messages."

Alaric stood there, shifting his weight uncomfortably. Gwen had been more than angry at Graham last night and he didn't think that an apology was going to change a whole lot. Even so, he didn't think that kissing her and taking her to bed was the best course of action just then. "How about I put on the kettle?" he asked. Gwen blinked as though she were just remembering his presence and nodded. When in doubt, Alaric thought with a shake of his head, make tea.

Gwen didn't move for a minute, afraid she'd lose the tenuous control she had over her emotions right then and do something stupid. Like break her other hand. She took three deep breaths and reached for the answering machine again, deleting the message. He didn't know what he was doing? Yeah, and she was a dancing elephant. She heard Alaric moving around in the kitchen and hesitated. She didn't want to talk about what had just happened and if she went in there, talking would be necessary. Maybe not immediately, but it would have to happen. She tore at her shoes instead, picking them up and taking them into her room. The kettle started whistling.

Gwen took another deep breath and shook her head. She was going to have to face it at some point. Her anger wouldn't last and when it was gone, things wouldn't look so grim. Maybe some practical way of dealing with Graham without infuriating herself would present itself. Maybe she could just pretend that it hadn't happened and that she was not being accused of being a slut by her coworkers so that she could get ahead. Maybe she could have a normal life with a normal boyfriend.

She lifted her eyes to one of the pictures of the desert as she undid her hair. A knot of guilt and pain wrapped itself around her stomach. "Normal?" she scoffed. "Yeah, right." Still, she smiled as she walked into the kitchen and saw Alaric standing next to the tea pot. He was in the middle of putting together what looked like a fairly elaborate snack platter—fruit, cheeses, crackers, cakes and some biscuits Gwen had made the other day.

"I didn't know if you were hungry or not," he said, turning to look apologetically at her. "But I was, so I sort of raided your fridge."

"I'm starving," Gwen admitted, stepping forwards to snatch some food off of the plate. "Thanks." They stood there for a minute, eating and sipping at the tea. Gwen knew that Alaric was holding back on asking how she was doing and she was desperately trying to come up with something to say that would relieve the awkward tension in the room. Finally, she could do nothing but lean back against the counter and look over the rim of her mug. "We're pathetic, aren't we?" she asked.

"What?" Alaric said, widening his eyes in astonishment as he talked around a cracker and cheese. "We're not pathetic! Why would you think that?"

"Because we can't think of a single thing to say to each other right now. You don't want to bring Graham up and I don't want to talk about James, so we're stuck standing here and eating food, pretending that absolutely nothing is wrong and somehow making it perfectly okay that we're going to end up having sex in a bit," Gwen said. She sipped furiously at her tea and scowled into the drink. Alaric focused on chewing before he responded.

"I wouldn't say that," he said carefully. "I mean, I would like to have sex with you right now, but I'm alright with talking, too. There's plenty of things we can discuss that are outside the realm of Graham and that idiot I'm meant to be teaching." He took a mouthful of his own tea and met Gwen's gaze, as if daring her to deny his statement.

"Like what?" she asked, picking up another cracker and putting a slice of apple on top of it.

"Like asking questions. Like if you could travel anywhere, where would you go?" Alaric said. Gwen looked at him skeptically. He sighed and reached out to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ears, the gesture more intimate than anything they had previously done (and, she blushed, they had done a fair bit). "Things like that are called getting to know one another. It's typically what people, especially couples, do."

"Smart ass," Gwen said. Alaric nodded and continued to look at her expectantly. "I don't mind the idea of travelling, but every time i've had to do it in the past," she started, "I've been going to train or on tour. Right now, I think I just want to get my life together. I mean, after this whole school thing ends I still have to find a job and figure out how I'm going to live. I don't want to... I can't end up back on the streets."

"I forgot," Alaric said. "It must have been hard."

"The interesting thing about living on the streets is that no matter where you are, you know what to expect. The people around you, the other homeless, they'll look out for you. Only after they've looked after their own skins, mind you, but if there's anything to spare, they'll be sure to help. Everyone else is your enemy." Gwen shrugged as if it were no big deal.

"Was it really that bad?" he said softly. The question sounded stupid, even to his own ears, but he had to know to be able to understand her. She had a decent life and something—he wish he knew what—had destroyed that. She was convinced that it was her fault and had given up everything as a sort of punishment. Gwen knew that he was just trying to make sense of her but the words still stung. How could he, a world-class chef and the son of a wealthy man, understand what sort of hardship it was to live minute by minute, hoping that you would be able to find a place to sleep away from the rain and the cold or that you might be able to scrounge together enough change to afford a full sandwich and a cup of coffee?

She mentally shook herself. It wasn't his fault that he would never be able to empathise with her life. And she wouldn't wish him to. It was hard enough having had gone through it herself; Alaric didn't need to experience it as well. "It's over and done with," Gwen said in answer to the question both had forgotten stood in the air. "Now I can look to the future. Now I have something to look forwards to. I just have to get a job."

"I don't think getting a job will be too much of an issue," Alaric said. Gwen smiled at the compliment. "I'm serious," he protested when it seemed as though she weren't taking it as seriously as she should. "You may not have grown up with cooking, but you are quite talented. You're keeping up with the other students and they've been doing this for years. You've got a natural talent for this, Gwen. You'll be able to make it."

"I hope so. I've heard that getting hired at a decent restaurant is like going to war," Gwen said, doing her best to keep her tone light. "Of course, I've done that, so maybe it won't be so bad."

"You'll be just fine," Alaric assured her. "If you don't believe that, then you'll never get anywhere. Besides, with a kitchen like this, you could probably just open a home catering business and manage just fine."

"Oh, yes, I want to go through all that trouble," Gwen said, drawing one side of her mouth up in a smirk. She shook her head. "I think I'd much rather just get a nice job somewhere. It wouldn't have to be too fancy, nothing that would grant me world-class status, just something decent. O course I'd have to get paid enough to keep this flat.""Ah, yes, there is that," Alaric said. "When I started out, my father was convinced that I would never be able to make enough money to buy a flat. He continuously scolded my mother for slipping me money on the sly so that I would keep afloat. She denied it, of course, and I did just fine. Though I really don't care for the flat I have."

"Why keep it, then?" Gwen asked. She rinsed out her tea cup and stretched, reminding Alaric that it was rather late at night—for normal people, that is. He wanted to start peeling clothes off of Gwen and take her to bed. It would be slower, much more like love-making than the frantic sex they'd had earlier that day. Even as he thought about it, he could feel her touch on his skin and the way that she left burning trails where her fingers had been. He shivered and forced his mind back to the question at hand. Immediately, he scowled.

"Because getting out of the deed is a pain. It was bought at a time when I was dating a lawyer and figured that, should I ever need to get out of the deed, the lawyer would help. You know how that worked out," Alaric said. He put his mug down rather more forcefully than he would have under normal circumstances. Gwen made a sympathetic noise in the back of her throat and stepped forwards to wrap her arms around his waist. It was meant to be comforting but Alaric was beginning to think in a whole different direction.

"Poor thing," Gwen said, her voice laced with sarcasm. Alaric laughed and brought his hands around Gwen's waist to where her shirt met her trousers. Lightly, he brushed his fingers over the patch of skin, smiling with success as Gwen's breath caught.

"Yes, I'm horribly maligned," Alaric said. He kissed Gwen, nipping at her lips. She grinned under his ministrations and pressed him back against the countertop. Before he could react, she had undone the buttons of his shirt and was slipping it back off his shoulders, thinking that she was glad that it wasn't the sort of shirt that slipped over the head. His mouth was far too interesting for that.

"We shall have to fix that," Gwen said as Alaric broke away to deal with her own shirt and trousers. All she got in response was a growl.

This time around, their love-making was just that. It was slow and sensual, with more touching and exploring than desperate need to relieve the pressure that had built up in both their bellies. Everything became blurred together and yet completely distinct, each moment melding into the next seamlessly and yet framing distinct in their minds. Somewhere in the middle of everything, they were coupled and caught in the throes of pleasure. And neither noticed when they slowed to quiet caresses and the simple pleasure of just laying in each other's company.

Gwen glanced at the digital clock on her nightstand, her head propped on Alaric's chest while his hands rubbed circles into her back. 2:27. She should have been asleep, she knew. She had to get up in four hours and get ready to train Allison, but she wasn't tired. Not yet.

"Tell me about your family," Gwen murmured, her voice blurred by her unwillingness to move so that she could speak properly.

"You know about my family," Alaric said. Gwen shook her head minutely, shifting so that her weight rested more independently on the bed.

"Not your immediate family. The people that will be showing up to your father's retirement party," Gwen said. "Do you have any crazy uncles or cousins I should know about?"

"Well, there's Aunt Harriet," Alaric said. Gwen made a noise that told him to continue and he did. "She is my mother's sister, ten years younger. She married young and to a man twice her age with a fortune that was impressive, even given her pedigree. He died about five years after they married and she inherited everything. She then proceeded to travel the world, collecting odd artefacts and behaviours and people. I remember when I was ten, she showed up for an unannounced visit with a Bulgarian street magician on her arm. He was just about the strangest thing I have ever seen, with tattoos and piercings in all places except his hands and above his neckline. He said that if he ever had to appear in court, he needed to present a good image for the judges, so he kept his body art contained. Then he proceeded to pull some cards from his pocket and attempt to teach me how to swindle my schoolmates. He was the one who taught me about alcohol and Aunt Harriet convinced me never to smoke. She let me have a cigarette once, probably just after the magician offered me whisky, and I nearly choked to death. Father was furious."

"She sounds like quite the character," Gwen said, her voice finally taking on a sleepy quality. Alaric nodded. "We didn't have any crazy Aunt Harriets," Gwen said. "Instead, I had a cousin who was maybe three years older than I was. Ricardo. Illegitimate child but part of the family. I thought he was the coolest kid in the world and did my best to get him to pay attention to me. He did, but only as an annoying kid sister. Called me Squirt."

"Squirt," Alaric said. "Didn't he realise that you could beat the daylights out of him?"

"No," Gwen answered. Her voice was beginning to slur with drowsiness and Alaric knew that it wouldn't be long before she dropped off to sleep. "He was bigger than me and he had an earring. I didn't care about being annoying. As long as he was paying attention to me, it was alright. Eventually, he ran off with the daughter of the local garage owner. I was devastated. Of course, I joined the Army the next year, so obviously it didn't have a lasting impact on me."

"Good. If you'd hung out with him much longer, you would have gotten involved with one of his cronies and then where would I be? Probably yelling profanities at my students and mourning the fact that I dated Marcie, the lawyer," Alaric said. Gwen murmured something into his chest which sounded like "you do that anyways." He smiled.

They lay like that for another ten minutes before Alaric got enough nerve to speak. "Gwen?"

"Hmm?" she murmured. She was awake, but only just. Another moment and she would drop off.

"When the school is done, come work for The Wooden Rose. Work in my kitchens. Work for me," Alaric said. She struggled to stir and take stock of what he was saying. Somewhere in her mind, the part that wasn't yet asleep, shock registered, but not enough to wake her fully.

"Alright," Gwen said. She took a deep breath and then, just like that, she was asleep. Two minutes later and Alaric was as well.

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