The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 14

Morning came and found Gwen frying eggs, scowling as she tried to figure out what it was that she was missing. Something important, maybe something someone had said or done. Did it have to do with Allison? She didn't know. Or perhaps her doctor had said something about her broken hand. She ground her teeth together as she tried to remember what it was that was bothering her so much, her hands automatically flipping the eggs. She took a deep breath and released it, turning off the heat under the eggs. Maybe Alaric would know.

Right on cue, he stumbled into the kitchen, looking bleary-eyed and much the worse for wear. Gwen could survive on four hours of sleep; it was fairly plain that Alaric couldn't. She opened her mouth to ask him if he knew what it was that was bothering her and he simply held up a hand, trudging to the kettle and getting out the coffee and french press. He had only been in her kitchen a short time and he already knew where the coffee was. Gwen was pleased.

She waited until he was three sips into his coffee before speaking. "So, I've got this feeling like I've forgotten something important... you wouldn't happen to know what it is?" she asked. Alaric shrugged, inching closer to where Gwen was putting together plates of food for breakfast. She rolled her eyes and slid one to him. "Because it's driving me crazy."

"I have no idea," Alaric said, taking the plate to the table where he began to scarf down food. For someone with such a high appreciation of food, he really didn't understand the purpose of breakfast. "Of course, I can't think about anything this early in the morning. I don't understand why you do this," he complained.

"Because I have Allison to train and because I like getting up early. It makes me feel as though I have utilised more of the day, instead of sleeping for a good part of it. Besides, I have time to cook breakfast," Gwen said. Alaric muttered something around a mouthful of toast and beans. Gwen shrugged. "You could have slept in, you know."

"Yeah, well, it's hard to sleep in when you're in the shower. Thoughts like that get me up fairly quickly," Alaric said. Gwen didn't realise what he was saying for a few moments, then she whacked his head gently. Alaric looked up at her with a grin. "Come on, sit down. You did make breakfast, after all. You might as well eat something."

"I just can't get over the feeling that I've missed something," Gwen said, though the dutifully took her place at the table, her fork and knife wavering over the plate. Alaric waited until she actually took a bite of food before replying.

"I'm sure it will come to you. As far as I know, it's just a normal day. I had planned for us to work on some of the new summer dishes before The Rose opens. Everyone else is fairly familiar with them since we've had them before, but you students should get to make them at least once before tonight," Alaric said. "It's weird to think that the summer season, at least food-wise, starts tonight. Soon we'll have to contend with tourists and people who don't know what they want."

"We have to do that anyways," Gwen pointed out, eating properly now that she'd started. "You just like to blame tourists for all your problems with customers."

"They're the most annoying," Alaric said. "But at least we can expect them to be annoying. No, what really gets to me are the amateur reviewers with their blogs. They come in expecting something completely different from what we can give them and then rant about it. Low-key as they are, one bad review from them can put people off of The Rose for a long time."

"So we'll just cook well," Gwen said. "We always do."

"No," Alaric countered, pointing at her with his knife, "we try to cook well. It works most of the time, but not always."

"With you continuously looking over our shoulders, I don't see how we can do otherwise," Gwen said. Alaric blinked, considered his coffee and then looked at Gwen again. After stifling a yawn, he picked up his knife and fork then paused.

"Was that sarcasm?" he asked. Gwen nodded. "It't too early for this sort of thing." He yawned again and Gwen chuckled. She finished off her breakfast and stood, walking over to kiss the top of Alaric's head before putting her plates in the sink and leaving to finish getting ready. By the time she returned, Alaric was on his second cup of coffee and still looking as bleary-eyed as ever.

"I'll be back in a while," Gwen said. "I really think you should get to your flat and pick up a change of clothes or something. So, I'll see you at The Rose, alright?"

"Are you kicking me out?" Alaric teased.

"No, just suggesting you pay attention to personal hygiene," Gwen said. She jumped out of reach of Alaric's poorly aimed blow and grinned, stalking away like a satisfied cat. For the first time in a while, Allison was there before Gwen. The blonde woman stood as though she was expecting something: her arms were folded and she had a perfectly formed "tell me everything" look on her face.

"Alright," Allison said as the two of them walked to the park. "Tell me everything."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Gwen said primly. Allison snorted in derision.

"Okay, fine. I'll play along. I show up yesterday and there you are, snogging Alaric. Like, our boss, Alaric. Alaric Bennet, the world-class chef who is known for his inflamed temper and his cooking skills, not his sociability. But I leave it, because I'm not going to bring it up in front of him," Allison said, waving her hands as she talked. They reached the park and the two women took their customary stances, starting the warm-up. Allison continued to talk. "So then he goes all hay-wire on you and you have to do some serious fancy-fighting to get him to stop. I leave, you show up at the restaurant with his arm slung around your shoulder, looking as though you just had some very satisfying sex—oh! You did, didn't you? You had sex with Alaric Bennet!"

"Shut up," Gwen groaned before Allison could continue her tirade. She stopped the initial warm-up and sighed. "Shadow fighting," Gwen said. Allison raised her eyebrows expectantly but did as she was told. Gwen waited for twenty seconds before replying, "Yes, alright, fine. I'm dating Alaric."

"I knew it," Allison exclaimed, dodging good-naturedly as Gwen turned to aim a weak blow at her head. "I mean, you were getting all those extra lessons from him at first, so it was either going to be that you ended up hating each other or sleeping with each other."

"There was a betting pool, was there?" Gwen growled, suddenly feeling as ornery as Alaric when someone cooked something wrong.

"No," Allison said, hurrying to assure her friend. "Just a couple of the girls speculating whether or not you two would end up together. Lauren was convinced that you were sort of tailor made for one another, but Sarah and-"

"Lauren!" Gwen said, pausing. "How could I have been so stupid?"

"Um, well, since you didn't really know about it, then I suppose it wasn't that difficult to consider," Allison said. Gwen shook her head, giving up on the warm-up. Allison stopped as well, breathing hard despite—or perhaps because of—her conversation.

"No, I meant that it's Lauren's last night, isn't it?" Gwen said. "She's going on maternity leave for an unknowable amount of time."

"Yeah," Allison said, still unsure of what the issue was.

"I knew I was forgetting something important," Gwen said. "It's been bothering me all morning. I still haven't gone to get her a going-away present."

"Oh, right," Allison said. "You can just contribute ten pounds to the pot. We're going in to get her a nice pram and Bob is picking it up today. As the only one with children, we figured he would know what sort of pram is a good one."

"Okay," Gwen said. She stretched a bit and then turned to Allison. "So, since we got interrupted yesterday, shall we work on those choke holds?" The small woman nodded and the two got to work.

Alaric wanted to linger over his meal, waiting until Gwen got back before heading out. He knew, though, that he did need to go get some fresh clothes and then there was the matter of formalising her new position at The Rose. He still couldn't believe she had agreed to such a proposition. He figured that he would have to wheedle and beg her to even listen to his offer let alone accept without any argument. Granted, she had been mostly-asleep at the time. Even so.

He did the dutiful thing and cleaned up the kitchen, making sure to put everything in its place. Then, simply because he was there, he looked around her flat. He told himself that it wasn't prying; Gwen had left him there to finish up as he wished. He wasn't going to go through her drawers or anything, just look. There wasn't much to look at, though. The furniture had been picked out by one of Walter Smythe's people and even after months of living there, Gwen hadn't added her own personal touch. The only things that were even remotely significant were the pictures on the wall. All desert scenes, all slightly blurred or of amateur quality. Possibly Afghanistan? He didn't know. Alaric resolved to buy Gwen some kitschy knick-knack as soon as he could, just to remove the monotony of everything. She was far too bright to live like she did.

He had one last look around the flat to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything and was half-way out the door before he thought that he should leave her a note. Something personal to come back to. Alaric grabbed a piece of paper from the stack by the answering machine and searched around for a pen. "Come on, Gwen," he muttered, sifting through drawers of fiercely organised items to find a pen. "You have everything arranged just so and you couldn't leave a pen out?" Alaric reached for a small drawer in the kitchen that looked as though it might have been put in as an afterthought. If a pen was anywhere, a drawer like that would be the place.

He froze. A photograph, just the one, shiny but worn as though it had been kept in a pocket for a very long time, the edges tattered like they'd been handled frequently, looked up at Alaric. He saw a pen lying right next to the photograph and he knew that he should leave it. Just write the note to Gwen, deal with the details about getting her the job and everything would be fine. But this photograph had people in it. Alaric looked around, checking to make sure that he was the only one there though he knew Gwen would be out for at least another hour, then picked up the picture.

It was set in the desert, with the only scenery being rocks and some sort of hills in the background. The sky was a blazing blue and it could have been the backdrop for a Valentino film from the 20s. Except for the group of people standing in the centre. There were six of them, all men but for Gwen who looked as though she fit right in. They wore combat clothing, their uniforms dirty and obviously well used but still whole. All wore helmets on their heads, covering their hair but leaving their faces more expressive for it. They had guns clipped to the large utility vests they wore, the muzzles pointed down. They were soldiers, equipped for war. But they were still smiling.

Alaric leaned against the counter, staring at the picture in amazement. Gwen had never smiled like that, not even around him. The man on her left, a man of average height but with muscle and power that made it plain you didn't mess with him, had his arm slung around her shoulder and she had her arm around his waist. The man on her right leaned in towards her, his head tilted to touch her helmet. The others all leaned in towards the two in the middle. Gwen and... who was he? Alaric turned the picture over, hoping for names. All that was written was "The Hellcats" in a hand unfamiliar to him. He turned it over again, staring at the people there. Hellcats. They didn't look like Hellcats. They looked like a family, wound together and dependant upon one another and perfectly content with that.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Alaric replaced the picture and took the pen, doing his best to force a cheerful manner as he wrote the note. The picture kept flashing in his mind. Gwen had been so happy. She had been dirty and her face was hollower but she was confident and sure of herself. The Gwen in the picture could have taken on the world and won. His Gwen? She smiled, sure. She seemed to be confident, certainly. But there was a part of her that was in that picture that was missing from her smile, from her gaze. It was plain only when she hesitated over her knife, when she backed down from a fight with James. His Gwen, Alaric realised, was broken.

He glanced at the clock on the wall and grimaced. He had an hour to get to The Rose and start instructing his students on the new menu. And in that time, he still had to go take a shower and somehow convince Jack that hiring Gwen to replace Lauren was a good idea. Alaric winced as he thought this; he should have realised earlier that Jack wasn't going to go for his plan. But it was Alaric's choice, wasn't it? Damn, he thought. He didn't know.

Grumbling, Alaric stalked out to his car and left for his flat, doing his best not to let his temper get in the way of driving (though he might have scared a few pedestrians on the way). Twenty minutes later and he was back at The Wooden Rose, fumbling to get his key into the lock while holding a bag of pastries to bribe Jack. Alaric couldn't bake, despite many experiments to the contrary, and he knew that Jack liked pastries.

"Need some help?" Jack asked, walking up behind his head-chef and friend with a smirk on his face. He took the bag of pastries Alaric thrust at him and watched, amused, as the ornery man opened the door. Jack took out a pan au raisin and nibbled on it, following Alaric inside. "So, how was your night with Gwen?"

Alaric rounded on Jack with a furious look in his eye, "It is none of your business what I do with—damn it, Jack!" His friend was laughing, doing his best not to get crumbs all over his office. He swallowed his bite and smirked.

"You have to admit, you asked for it," Jack said. Alaric growled something unintelligible and rude and reached for the bag. He had eaten well at Gwen's, but suddenly the task before him was looking exhausting. He would need food for it. "What's wrong?" Jack asked, finishing off the pastry.

"Why would you automatically assume that something is wrong just because I snapped at you?" Alaric said around a mouthful of croissant. Jack pulled out the chair from behind his desk and pointed at the one opposite. Alaric sat after Jack did and the two considered each other like dogs testing the boundaries.

"It has nothing to do with you trying to bite my head off," Jack said casually. "You do that all the time. It has everything to do with the fact that you brought pastries and didn't complain when I took one and ate it. That means they were for me and you don't bring me pastries unless something is wrong. So, what's wrong?"

Alaric polished off the croissant and looked at his friend with a guilty expression. Jack had been his boss for years, now, but he had been Alaric's friend for longer. He sometimes forgot how well Jack knew him, just as he sometimes forgot that he couldn't have made it this far without Jack backing him up. He was a good man and Alaric treated him like just another person in his kitchens, that is to say, not well. He supposed that after coming to the realisation that Gwen was broken and that he wanted to help her, he was analysing his interactions with all his friends. He didn't want that haunted look in Gwen's eye to be his fault. He didn't want his shortcomings to hurt other people. Not that such a desire would stop him from snapping at anyone who decided that cooking food properly wasn't necessary, but still.

"It's Gwen," Alaric said. Jack sighed and leaned back in his chair, reaching for another pastry. He looked at Alaric with a masked expression, which meant nothing good.

"You two can't have broken up already," Jack said. "You are both very, well, temperamental, but I wouldn't think that would stop either of you from-"

"We didn't 'break up,'" Alaric muttered, looking at his hands. He explained about the picture as best he could without an actual copy and did his best not to break down in front of Jack. He hadn't realised how hard this was for him until he tried to talk about it. His voice grew quieter and rougher as he talked and eventually gave out altogether.

Jack looked at his friend, desperately trying to come up with something to say that would make Alaric return to his normal, quick-to-anger self. The best he could come up with was, "Gwen will talk about it when she's ready. Don't forget, this is new for her. She's had a hard time, and for all we know, this is just the beginning of her rebuilding her life. She came from the streets, right? After some sort of accident or something. Just give it time, Alaric. I'm sure she doesn't mean to keep things from you."

"I know. She's even said that she'll tell me eventually, she just needs more time. I'm the one who isn't okay with that," Alaric groaned. He put his head in his hands and pulled his fingers through his hair. Leaning back, he remembered why he was there in the first place, pastries in hand. "I wasn't going to talk about this now. I need to talk with you about Lauren's replacement."

"Right. Tonight's her last night. She's a good cook. We'll miss her. I was thinking that you could manage without a replacement for a while, at least until the school is done. Then we can put out an advertisement and see about holding interviews-"

"I want Gwen to do it," Alaric said firmly, lifting his head to meet Jack's gaze. He hoped that the direct approach would mean that Jack wouldn't argue. When he saw how much Alaric wanted this, then things would be sorted out and agreed upon. He was gravely mistaken.

Jack rose out of his chair like it was on fire, his expression livid. He leaned forwards, putting his hands first on the desk then folding them and finally settling with waving them furiously at Alaric. "Are you insane?" he hissed, keeping his volume under control only because he was aware that the students would be arriving soon and that there was only a door and thin walls between them and him. "Do you have any idea what you're doing?!"

"I know that she's perfectly capable of doing it," Alaric said. "She's a natural in the kitchen, Jack. I haven't been giving her lessons for a while and you know she came in here with only the skills to boil pasta and cook a chicken—barely."

"I don't give a shit how talented she is, Alaric. You're dating her. You're the head-chef of this restaurant. A five star restaurant if I may remind you. We can't just go around hiring your girlfriend because she's a decent chef and because you two are fucking about," Jack snarled. Alaric drew his brows together and felt his own anger rising. Jack didn't understand.

"She's not just a decent chef, Jack," Alaric said, his voice rumbling in a manner that Jack knew all too well. He was inches away from exploding. "She's one of the best students I've ever had."

"And this decision has nothing to do with the fact that you two are sleeping together," Jack said in a low voice. Alaric started to deny it and then shook his head and pointed his finger at Jack.

"You know what? Yeah, it does. I like her. I'm sleeping with her. I would love to have my girlfriend working under me. But more than that, Gwen deserves this chance. Sure, she could get a job in another kitchen, but with the Army as the only job on her CV, she wouldn't get very far. A year from now? She'd be working in some corner pub, feeding tourists who don't even know what a proper fish and chips dish is meant to be, let alone actual food. She's a damn good chef, Jack. And she's the only one out of all the people I've ever taught that I would think about offering this to. She's perfect for this job and you know it. You just want to keep her away because I'm dating her. You don't think it will work. You don't think that I can do it." Alaric started to turn for the door, fed up with the doubt that was being thrown his way. He was determined to help Gwen as best he could and if this was the only way that he could, then by Jove, he would do this for her.

"Alaric, sit down," Jack said, his voice radiating authority and offering no option for Alaric to disobey. Jack hated using that voice on Alaric just as much as Alaric hated hearing it. The sound was reminiscent of Alaric's father and had it been anyone other than Jack using it, Alaric would have punched him. He was still considering it, but Jack sat as well and rubbed the heel of his palm into his eyes. Alaric sat and folded his arms expectantly. "I don't think you can't do it. I think that you're trying to do this for the wrong reasons. Yes," Jack held up his hand to stop Alaric from protesting, "I understand that this is a great opportunity for her. I even recognise that she's a good cook. A great one, with some work. The problem is that you want to be some sort of hero to her. You know full well that Gwen is independent and not keen on asking anyone for help. You want her to need your help. You want her to depend on you. She isn't going to like this, Alaric."

"You think that I'm doing this because I want Gwen to act like I'm some sort of saviour?" Alaric asked in disbelief. "I just want to help her!"

"I know," Jack said. "She likes you, obviously, or she wouldn't be dating you. But she hasn't asked for your help, Alaric. If you think this is the only way to give her a chance in life, then by all means, hire her. It is your kitchen, your staff. But you're a bloody fool if you do this."

"I'm hiring her," Alaric said darkly, standing to leave. "And that's the end of it." He turned and stormed out the door, ready to pound into the first thing he saw. His students were already gathered and awaiting his instructions, Gwen sitting with Allison and Bob, smiling and laughing as if everything were perfectly normal and good. His anger fluttered as he looked at her and Alaric, with one last furious look at the door where Jack was standing, gave up on being angry in favour of smiling beneficently at her.

Gwen looked up at Alaric with a raised eyebrow. James was scowling as he watched the interaction between the two, but he made no move to argue. See? Alaric wanted to point out to Jack. Things are just fine. Even James isn't going to make a fuss about Gwen's place here. I don't see why you want to. When he turned to look meaningfully at his friend, though, Jack was gone, the door to his office closed behind him. Alaric sneered and turned his attention back to his students. "Right," he growled, "let's see how well you pick up the summer menu."

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