The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 16

Alaric was going crazy. Not literally, but he was fed up with getting next to no sleep. Tonight, he would be sleeping at his own flat in his own bed. It had nothing to do with the sex. He could deal with things if it were just sex. But even when they managed to drop off to sleep, Gwen would be thrashing about half-an-hour later or just awake. In three days, she hadn't started screaming like she had at his flat, but he knew it was just a matter of time. And her being sleepless meant that he got no sleep as well. He wasn't trained as a soldier. He wasn't meant to be working on four hours of sleep or less.

Just thinking about it made him feel guilty, but he couldn't stand it. He hadn't believed Major Dalton when the man said that Gwen was more volatile than before and even the knowledge that something—the death of her squad—had happened to remove a piece of her couldn't have prepared him for what reality was like. Alaric had believed that getting her to open up to him would be the worst of his problems. After all, she seemed perfectly normal? How bad could her "PTSD" be? Some days he doubted that she had it. Then came the nights.

Whatever she squashed down during the day reared its ugly head at night. And there was nothing that Alaric could do that would stop it. Now, with three nights of very little sleep under his belt, he wasn't sure he would ever be able to. He just needed peace.

Hopefully, after what he had planned for today, Gwen would be too happy to worry about why he wanted to sleep at his flat. Without her.

Alaric ran his hands through his hair to get it under control before he turned his attention to the kitchen. Gwen was off either doing something with Allison or going on a run. He couldn't remember which event was for that day. Part of the reason why he needed a decent night's sleep. It didn't matter; he had left shortly after she did, going to The Wooden Rose to get everything prepared. Considering how advanced his students were, they didn't do much in the way of lessons. Not that they would ever stop learning—no one, in Alaric's opinion, could ever stop learning about how to cook. He was just running out of things to actively teach them. Today would be different. If he was right, it would take most of the day to get what he wanted sorted out and then he had to deal with the actual restaurant. So, despite the fact that it was barely eight in the morning, he was busy.

"When you said you were getting here early," Jack grumbled as he walked through the door with a large cup of coffee in his hand and a look that said he was feeling as tired as Alaric felt, "you weren't kidding."

"This is going to take long enough," Alaric said. "I don't want to have to think about getting everything prepped when people get here."

"Are you sure this is the way that you want to do things?" Jack asked. "I mean, putting out an ad in the Times would have been easy enough. A 'competition' between your students seems a bit extreme."

"It's an 'audition,'" Alaric corrected, "and this is the only way that I know how to convince Gwen that she's the one who should be getting this job and I wasn't just trying to be nice and help her out. Besides, if these people were good enough to get into my classes, they're probably the only people I'd consider hiring anyways."

"Right. So, even if this doesn't turn out the way you want and you end up having to concede the matter to James, your least favourite of your students for all he's a good cook, then you'll be satisfied?" Jack asked. Alaric glared at his friend from where he was pulling out fresh fish and seafood and setting it in a large cooler in the centre of the room.

"I'd beat him into shape if that were to happen, but it won't because Gwen's going to win, so there's no point in worrying about it," Alaric said. "That's that."

"Right. And asking me to call in Walter to be judge had nothing to do with the fact that you want to stack things in Gwen's favour," Jack said. He leaned against a counter and watched Alaric set out more ingredients and thereby limiting what his students had to work with. Only what was set out would be fair game. Everything else was up to the creativity of the chef.

"He's an unbiased judge when it comes to food. He's also the least snobby person about food that I've ever met, so he won't judge based on silly things," Alaric said. "Like the quality of beer used to braise a lamb flank or—"

"Or question the quality of someone's dish who hasn't been cooking nearly as long as the others," Jack finished. Alaric scowled and pointed rudely to the freezer.

"Go get some meat," he snarled. "And stop making this more difficult than it needs to be. I'm tired, I'm irritated and if you don't start helping, I'm going to move very quickly into the 'pissed' category."

"We wouldn't want that, now would we?" Jack said. Alaric replied with some very choice phrases which made Jack grin in response. The manager ducked into the freezer to go do what he had been told.

Gwen ran. She wasn't sure if she was running towards something or away from it, but she ran like her life depended on it. The thought crossed her mind that she had been running for a very long time, long before the incident and long prior to joining the Army. She should have been used to it—the mindset, not the act—but something in her rebelled. She wanted to stop and take in the world around her, to live without worrying about who was looking for her or what secrets she needed to keep. She kept running.

Being with Alaric was nice, she mused, settling into her fourth mile. She didn't feel as though she had to watch her step quite as much, though there were moments. Like this morning, when she got up and he simply looked at her and turned over, going back to sleep. It was her restlessness, she knew. It was getting to him. Her inability to sleep and, more importantly, to sleep with him, content to have his arms wrapped around her and feeling safe. She hadn't felt safe for a very long time. Hence, she considered, the running.

If she didn't get a proper night's sleep, she knew that she would drive Alaric crazy. Only, he wouldn't admit it to her because that would be admitting failure. Instead, he would take it out on his kitchen staff and others around her. But not her; he treated Gwen delicately, carefully, as if he were worried that something in her might break (or was already broken? She wondered about that, sometimes). That didn't mean that the two of them didn't argue, just that he did it with more care than usual. Gwen could tell, despite his care, that his nerves were wearing thin.

They needed a night off from each other. Alaric needed sleep and Gwen? Well, she needed to figure out how to get him to stop mincing his words and minding his step around her. Maybe Allison would be up for a night on the town. Gwen would ask about it, see if they could schedule it for their next day off. They could go see a show, have dinner somewhere nice. Maybe go to a club. She considered the pulsing music and pressing bodies and shivered, her heart suddenly racing and not from the running. Clubbing would be out.

Gwen slowed as she reached Hyde Park, her stride changing to a walk as she found herself among the well-groomed gardens and nicely paved footpaths. Even though it was early, there were still people meandering about, pushing prams or talking with other people. Gwen couldn't help but watch them, completely oblivious to the world around them apart from a casual glance or brushing a bug away. A few were enjoying the sunlight.

Did they know? Did they know ho w much people payed to grant them their freedom? To let them walk around with a take-away cup in their hand, chattering away on their phones and determined that the world revolved around them? She wondered if she had ever ben that content, able to let the world keep moving while she lived. She doubted it. Even as a girl, she had seen things pulling the strings and shaping the world in subtle—or not so subtle—ways. She had gone to fight for the chance to preserve the ways she believed in and look where it landed her.

Constantly running and unable to sleep for longer than a couple hours at a time without seeing images of horror. At least she had Alaric. He belonged to the category of oblivious, but Gwen wouldn't want it any other way.

"Hey, watch it," a man snapped at her as she barely avoided barreling straight into him. She had been dancing to avoid the mother and her pram walking the other way and the man had appeared from around a corner, moving quickly and talking on his phone. He held his now-empty coffee cup with the air of someone who was on his last straw. The coffee had, luckily enough, not spilled on him, though Gwen had been splattered a bit. Most of it was on the ground and, from the way that the man was now glaring at Gwen, she figured that he considered it her fault.

"I'm sorry," Gwen said. "I'll get you-"

"Don't you have any respect for other people?" he seethed, straightening to his full height and staring Gwen down. She scoffed mentally; no one was able to stare her down and win. Except perhaps Major Dalton, but that was another story. "Why don't you look where you're going?"

"I've already apologised," Gwen said. "I can buy you another coffee, but I don't really think it was my fault.""Wasn't your fault?" the man growled, the sound grating and furious and not anywhere near as effective as Alaric's growls. "Get your head out of your ass, lady. You ran into me."

Gwen was truly annoyed at this point. She took a deep breath to keep from snapping and held up her hands defensively, trying to show him she meant no harm. He took one look at her broken hand and flicked his eyes back to her face, somehow even more angry with her movements. "Look, I'm sorry. I was trying to avoid the pram. It was an accident and I'll get you another coffee," she said. She was inches away from biting his head off.

"I don't want a coffee from you," the man sneered. He straightened his suit jacket and half-turned. "It's people like you that make our country slip into degradation."

Gwen should have let it go. She knew that. She had refused to be annoyed by his comments about her anatomy, refused to be infuriated by his insinuations that she was an idiot. But that was taking things too far. With a shift of her weight, the lowering of her hands and a straightening of her posture, Gwen no longer looked defensive. She looked downright threatening. "People like me?" she asked, her voice low and dangerous. "And what sort of people would that be? Because from where I'm standing, people like me are the only thing standing between you and a whole heck of a lot of chaos. Are you willing to go strap on 50 kilos of gear and tramp through the desert to fight people who are more than eager to blow you up? How about killing boys barely old enough to drive a car, let alone fight in a war, just because they're pointing guns at your head? And then giving up everything you ever loved because people cut corners and didn't get the right information? Then how about living on the streets because no one knows what to do with you? People like me causing things to go downhill. I don't think so."

She didn't wait around to find out what the man had to say to her tirade. Gwen simply turned on her heel and walked away, her stride eating up ground so as to make sure that no one, especially not people like him, could follow her and attack her. She was tired of being put down because she hadn't been born into a world where things were handed to her. She worked and she fought for everything in life, including her beliefs. Nothing was going to change that. It didn't mean she couldn't be angry at the people who thought otherwise.

After a good distance, when Gwen figured that the man couldn't see her or wouldn't be watching for her, Gwen started her run up again. She had originally thought to stop somewhere in that part of town and get a decent breakfast, but her anger fuelled her body and she simply ran all the way back to her flat. It was only when she opened the door and narrowly avoided the urge to slam it shut that Gwen realised her legs were trembling.

What was she now that she wasn't a soldier? All that man had seen was a woman out for a run who probably didn't care about endurance as she did her figure. She could have been anyone. She wasn't distinguishable and she wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Not that she had joined the military for the purpose of being special or recognised as a hero. She just wanted to have some sense of worth and that had been taken from her. She was a chef, now, Gwen reminded herself. But she didn't even know if she had that. After the classes at The Rose drew to a close—they were nearly there already—she would have to search for a job. And she had refused Alaric's help, so the likelihood of her getting a decent one were, well, slim.

Gwen looked at the clock on her oven. It was nearly eleven and she still had to take a shower and make herself generally presentable before heading over to the restaurant. She stripped and stepped under the hot water, letting it run over her still-trembling muscles while she considered things. She liked being at The Rose. She enjoyed her relationship with Alaric. She didn't mourn her old life every second of every day. That should have been enough, but it wasn't. Because every time she closed her eyes, the ghosts of her past—Damon in particular—were staring over her shoulder, reminding her of her inadequacies and failures. She would never be good enough; she couldn't help but make mistakes and they were the sort that couldn't be fixed.

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Townsend," Gwen snarled at her reflection, the bathroom steamy around her. She glared at her image and then, in an act of defiance, turned her back on it. She might never be good enough, but that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy what she was capable of. And at that moment, it meant going over to The Rose, kissing Alaric until he turned blue and then cooking up a hell of a storm. It would have to be enough.

She arrived just after James, which meant that her impression of the kitchens was slightly marred by his own exclamations of awe. Alaric said something about going in early to get a few things sorted out, but this was just... wow. There were ingredients set out in organised categories: meats, fish, fruits, veg, spices, liquids, etc. The workstations were set up with the same tools instead of the widely different things that different tasks required on an average evening. It looked, to Gwen's eye, like one of the cooking competition shows on the tele.

"Alaric," Gwen said, spotting him standing in a corner with a look of pride on his face. He grinned at her and raised his eyebrows. She didn't bother asking what was going on since he wouldn't explain until everyone was present. Instead, she reached up, cupped his jaw in her hands and pressed her lips to his. "Hi," she said.

"Hello to you, too," he answered, promptly wrapping his arms around her waist and kissing her again. "Should I ask what got you in a mood for such a public display of affection?"

"I ran into an idiot in the park and he got me soundly pissed," Gwen said. "I just thought I should put my anger into something more productive."

"I won't complain," Alaric said, kissing her again for good measure. He nipped at her lips and she nearly melted into him, her troubles forgotten for the moment. Alaric pulled away and released his hold on her waist, pulling her out of the corner and into the centre of things. Not everyone was there, yet, so he waited, putting his arm around her shoulders instead. "What happened to make you so angry? Is there some idiot I need to beat up or do I just need to call you a lawyer?"

"Ha," Gwen said, digging her elbow lightly into his gut. "I didn't hit him. I was sorely tempted, but I didn't. He just got mad at me for trying to avoid a pram and accidentally spilling his coffee in the process. He yelled, I defended then walked away."

"Good girl," Alaric said. Sarah was the last in the door and, after a quick look around to make sure that everyone was present, Alaric disentangled his arm from around Gwen's shoulder and took up a position at the centre of the group. He looked at each of them, taking his time and making everyone shift uncomfortably. That look, the calculating and assessing one, was never a good sign. "Alright, everyone," Alaric said with a smirk. "What do you see?"

"An interesting set up," Thomas said, breaking some of the tension in the room. Alaric pointed at him.

"Smart ass," he said. "But he is partly right. From now until exactly one hour before opening, everything that you see in this kitchen is all that you'll be able to use. The freezer and store rooms are off-limits. You can't go searching for more tools, different ingredients, anything. The reason for that is that I want you to show me what you can do. Lauren, as you all know, left a hole in my kitchen staff and one of you is going to get the opportunity to fill it. Since I can't just pick based on my own whims and have to actually satisfy my manager and the people that eat here, we're going to have a friendly competition."

"You must be joking," Allison said. Alaric fixed her in a severe stare so that she shifted uncomfortably and folded her arms defensively. "It's true, though. You want us to compete, like those television shows, for a job?"

"Basically, yes," Alaric said. "Though I could do this just because I'm still your teacher and you still have to do what I say for another week. If you don't want the job, just say so now and you can be left out of the competition."

"I already have a job lined up," Bob said after a moment's hesitation.

"I do, too," Jennifer said. "Bellton is promoting me."

"I've gotten a nice offer from a place a couple miles from here," Robert chimed in. "Though I wouldn't mind watching."

"Anyone else?" Alaric asked, looking around at the remaining people. They all shook their heads, the air of competition already having them inching away from their competitors. "Alright, then. Here's how this works. You have an hour to put together each course. Appetizer, main course, dessert course. There will be three judges to determine whose dish was the best of the round. The person with the most wins gets the position. In the interest of good-will, though, you won't know the results until the very end."

"Who are the judges?" James asked, eyeing a workstation.

"Walter Smythe, Jack and," Alaric hesitated for a moment, looking displeased, "Graham Ruskin. I will, of course, be tasting everything but I'm not actually allowed to judge. So, any questions?"

"Are there any specifications we need to worry about for the meals?" Sarah asked, ever practical.

"Your only limitation is sticking to the ingredients presented here," Alaric said. "And if you run out? Figure it out. Right, if that's everything, then get to work. You have exactly one hour from now."

Gwen did as she was told, staking out a workstation and picking up ingredients as quickly as she could, trying to get food before her peers did. She managed to grab nearly everything she needed and was in the middle of chopping some peppers before she stopped to think about what was going on.

A competition? For a job? It was absurd. And she knew exactly why Alaric was doing it. Of course she wanted to work at The Wooden Rose. It would be marvellous. But she wouldn't take a hand-out from Alaric, not without proving herself. This was his idea of a compromise. She didn't have to prove herself to him for the job, but to other people. She had to fight for the position. She could do that. She excelled at fighting, earning, her way in the world. Then, with a facetious smile on her lips, Gwen hoped that Alaric was prepared to deal with the fact that James might win instead of her.

She redoubled her efforts, mind already turning to different combinations, recipes, techniques. James would not be allowed to win.

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