"Here's to new jobs and new futures," Allison said, holding up a small shot glass filled with amber liquid. Gwen tapped her own glass against Allison's and grinned.
"Cheers," she said and the two tossed back the liquor, setting their glasses on the table with a satisfying clink. The hard liquor out of the way, both women turned to their ale and the appetizer set between them. They were at a fairly nice, though not too over-the-top, pub and were drinking in the buzz of energy in the air as well as the liquor. The evening had only just begun and Gwen was determined to get a good buzz going before they went out to the concert that Allison had chosen.
Gwen picked up a piece of the pita bread and spooned a dollop of the crab dip on the bread. "So tell me the name of your restaurant again?"
"Outside the Box," Allison said with a laugh. "It's a terribly artsy sort of name, but it suits the place perfectly. Oh, Gwen, you'll have to come for the grand opening. Bring Alaric or just come on your own, whatever. It's just about everything I ever dreamed."
"What, working in a modern—no, sorry, contemporary—restaurant with youths who have too much style and clients who are too pretentious to know any better? It had better have good food, at the least," Gwen said. Allison rolled her eyes, but both women were smiling.
"Alright, fine, so the actual place is a bit much, but being 'executive chef' as it says on my contract, is exactly what I wanted. I get to pick my own staff, build up my own kitchen. I'm living in a dream, Gwen," Allison said, getting a happy, far away look in her eye. Gwen waved a piece of pita bread in front of her friend's face, startling Allison and getting a laugh out of her.
"I'm happy for you," Gwen said. "And for me. I got the job. Damn it but I got the job."
"Yes, working for the most difficult chef anyone has ever met. I imagine you'll be too busy battling words to get much cooking done. If he doesn't figure out some way to break Jack's rule on the 'no sex in the storeroom,'" Allison smirked. Gwen laughed and shook her head.
"It's unsanitary. And besides, who would want to have sex in there. It's too cold," she said, shivering for emphasis. The two nodded knowingly and started laughing again. Things, as far as Gwen was concerned, were good.
She had gotten the job at The Rose due to her own skill and hard work. She would be working next to Alaric, continuing the relationship that had been built up since her arrival at The Wooden Rose, albeit slightly more intimate. She had even gotten a very agreeable salary, enough to pay rent on her flat and live well within her means. She would no longer have to rely on Walter Smythe, generous though he was, for her living. Gwen had successfully picked herself up, dusted herself off and made something of her life. Now, she was sitting in a pub with Allison, drinking to their futures and looking forward to a night of music and dancing. Things were as great as they could ever be, considering.
There it was again, Gwen thought. That considering. The memory of what had happened, always hanging over her shoulder, reminding her that her life was built on death, especially of those she loved. It would never be a perfect life because there was no way that Gwen could ever reconcile to what had happened. But at least she was learning to live with herself and with the pain. She was managing.
"Great," Allison said drily, startling Gwen out of her thoughts. She looked to where the blonde woman was gesturing and saw a pack of people, mostly men, moving through the doors of the pub, loud and raucous, raising the level of noise in the pub to something nearly unbearable for conversation. The newcomers moved in a pack, talking together and mingling with one another, though they were beginning to spread out. Gwen caught sight of a patch on the sleeve of one man's leather jacket and groaned.
"Let's settle up and get out of here," Gwen said, setting down her glass and sliding out of her chair. Allison didn't argue, though she looked slightly confused.
"It's not that bad," she said, following Gwen to the till and the waitress managing it. "I mean, sure, it's a little loud..."
"No, it's just that I don't really want to hang around these guys," Gwen said, raising her voice slightly as they got closer to the group hanging around the bar.
"Why?" Allison asked. "Who are they?"
Gwen turned to answer and ran into something solid. She turned and found herself looking up into the eyes of a man, well-built and ruggedly handsome with an air about him that said he knew it. She narrowed her eyes slightly as he did a very slow once-over. "Bootnecks," she growled.
The man started in surprise and his arrogant look turned to one of mocking surprise. He laughed and turned to a man standing just behind him, ordering a drink. "Oho, lookie here Matt. We seem to have found a military girl. Not one of the Royal Marines, to be giving us that name." The man Matt turned and appraised Gwen in the same manner, slow, arrogant. She felt her temper rising.
"Well, who do we have the pleasure of addressing?" Matt asked, his voice a dangerous sort of growl. Gwen felt Allison step closer and she knew that they had to get out of there, or Gwen would do something incredibly stupid. "You are most definitely not in military dress," he said, nodding his head at Gwen's tight dress, leather jacket and heels—which were comfortable, despite their dangerous points, "but you talk like one of us."
"None of your business, bootneck. Come on, Allison, we're out of here," Gwen said. "We'll go somewhere a bit classier and see about getting away from Marines on leave." By this point, the tension between the two was palpable and Allison didn't argue. She was still learning on the whole self-defence point and Gwen, while extremely capable, still had a bandage around her broken hand.
"Come on," Matt said as Gwen shoved past him. "You won't even give us a hint? RAF? Or are you an ARAB?"
Gwen stiffened at the last acronym, causing Matt and his friend to break off into mocking whistles. She told herself that it would be safer to leave, to go and find a different restaurant and laugh it off with Allison then go to the concert and forget about it. She was retired. Didn't need to answer to anyone, especially not about her Army background. But when people went around using derogatory terms about her Army, her people, she wasn't keen on walking away.
"Gwen, let it be," Allison said, tugging on her arm. "Come on, just walk away."
"Yeah, walk away, Army Bas-" Matt's friend said, cutting off as Gwen spun around, her eyes blazing and her expression grim.
"That's Special Forces Army Bastard to you," Gwen snarled, glaring up at the man and baring her teeth like a wild dog. She balled her hands into fists and gave a gasp of pain as the broken one twinged. She relaxed it immediately, but her whole hand felt like it was on fire. She had probably messed it up, gotten the bone to shift or crack again. Allison was at her elbow in an instant, guiding Gwen away.
"Leave them be, Gwen. It's not worth it," Allison said. Gwen didn't bother to resist; Allison was strong and determined. She did her best to ignore the loud cat-calls and leers that the Marines sent after them and only ended up with herself angrier and feeling as though she had failed to defend the name of her Army.
Only when they were two streets away from the pub did Allison let go of Gwen's arm. Gwen pulled it in, wrapping it around her and cradling her broken hand in the crook of her elbow. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I... shouldn't have let myself get so riled up, but it's hard to ignore old rivalries."
"Gwen, you didn't even know the guy," Allison said, exasperated. "You can't have a rivalry with someone you didn't know."
"Yeah, you can," Gwen said, hunching her shoulders as she remembered the things she had ben told about the other members of the military. Everything was spoken with respect—always respect those who put their lives on the line for their country—but there was a sneer, a snide comment, masking that respect. When it came down to a fight, the military would fight together. Otherwise, they preferred to be kept separate. "It's just how things are, Allison. Civilians... they think differently. Don't understand."
"Is that what I am to you, Gwen?" Allison asked, putting her hands on her hips. "A civilian?"
Gwen pinched the bridge of her nose and leaned against a building, suddenly feeling tired and worn down. She had been so excited for girl's night, too. "No," she said after a moment. "I'm sorry, really. I've thought that way for so long. I knew it was better to let it go, walk away, but I've been trained to do otherwise. I couldn't help but get riled up."
Allison leaned against the wall beside Gwen, nudging the former soldier with her shoulder. "Hey, it's not the end of the world. And, let's face it. You have a pretty wild temper. We're probably lucky you didn't bash the guy's nose in and get your other hand broken."
"His nose wouldn't have broken my hand," Gwen said with a wry, slightly-guilty grin. "If I had gone straight for his jaw, maybe I would have done some damage. But his nose was far too soft. And if we had been in there any longer, I would have started a fight. Thanks, Allison."
"No problem. That's what friends do," Allison said. "Now what do you say we find somewhere else to get a good meal and a nice drink before we head over to the concert. We still have enough time to find someplace."
"Sounds good," Gwen said. They did just that, settling on a restaurant where the noise level was more than manageable and the staff friendly and discreet. There was no chance that the Marines would come in there. Then, feeling free and loose, Gwen and Allison headed to the concert, dancing to what was meant to be some sort of alternative rock. It was catchy and had a good beat for dancing, so Gwen didn't really care whether or not she liked it. At the end of the night, she went back to her flat and closed the door behind her with a smile. The incident with the Marines had been almost forgotten—though she would have to go to to the doctor to see if she had messed her hand up again—and it had been, on the whole, a good night. She almost wished that Alaric were there to sit with her over a cup of tea and ask how it had been.
That was getting to be a bit too much, Gwen thought and shook her head. She didn't need Alaric to revel in her own happiness. She was perfectly capable of enjoying herself without him and the fact that she came home to an empty flat was a good thing, not lonely. Maybe she should get a dog, she mused, then immediately rejected that idea. She didn't have time to take care of a dog.
"Have a cup of tea and go to bed," Gwen said to herself. Her words rang through the empty flat with a note that she hadn't heard or felt before. She growled and cursed herself. She was not lonely. She had just been on a very nice excursion with her friend and everything in her life was good. She had a job, a decent relationship with someone who needed his space as much as she needed hers (was that wrong, she wondered. After all, he liked being with her and had only started sleeping every other night at his flat because she insisted that if he didn't get a decent night's sleep, he would go crazy) and friends. Things were good. She didn't need to look for more. And yet, there was that note in the back of her mind that was waiting in anticipation for the next day when she would be working side by side with Alaric and sharing his bed by night rather than being alone.
Gwen dumped the majority of her cup of tea down the drain, disgusted with herself. She was usually so far away from being able to make connections with people that she didn't need to worry about keeping her boundaries up. Now that she actually had a connection, a relationship, it was time to start reminding herself where those boundaries were. She feared that if she got any closer to Alaric, she would start telling him those questions that he was delicate enough not to ask. She knew that he wanted to know about her past, about the things that haunted her. He had told her, after all. She also knew that if she were to tell him, the look in his eyes whenever he was with her would be one of two things: pity or horror. She wasn't sure she could handle either and that was the problem.
Gwen tossed and turned for the majority of the night, managing to slip into sleep sometime around two and waking two hours later, shaking, her body coated in sweat, her throat hoarse from calling for the help of her squad or screaming for them to wake up. She leaned against the headboard and pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes, forcing herself to take deep, cleansing breaths. It was over. There was nothing she could do.
"Then why do I still hurt?" Gwen asked herself, tempted to curl up and weep her problems away. She didn't because she had tried to do so in the past and knew that she would only end up feeling worse. So, with the weight of death riding on her shoulders, Gwen climbed out of bed and put on her exercise clothes, lacing up her trainers and heading out. Running didn't seem to be enough, but she didn't know of anywhere else to go. None of the boxing gyms would be open so late and she couldn't bring herself to go to Alaric. As Gwen ran out of her building's car park, she thought about a place that she hadn't seen for six months. Her stride lengthened as her legs grew used to the pace and she went to the darker parts of the city.
An hour later, her shirt sweat through and the sun just barely beginning to rise, Gwen jogged to a stop, her nerves tingling with awareness. She hadn't been back to this place in so long, not since Walter pulled her off the streets, that it was like looking at a house that you had once lived in but sold long ago. Yates and Fair: two streets that had once been little more than a place to sleep, a spot to meet up with other of her ken or to possibly get a meal from one of the food trucks that occasionally acted charitably in the area. Then, she had belonged there, been one of the rulers of that area. People knew of her talents in fighting and her unwillingness to put up with any crap and stayed away or got hurt trying to muscle in. She didn't interfere too much and was respected in her right. Now, she was well-fed and wearing exercise clothes that cost more than these people saw in a month. The bandage on her hand told them that she was on her way to being a victim, if not one already. She may have had that same stormy fierce look about her, but very few would have recognised her as the Gwen that had once lived there.
Despite the early hour, the people that were living there were stirring. Some were still asleep, dead to the world unless someone messed with their belongings. Others wandered over to the litter bins, hoping that there was something there that hadn't been before they went to sleep. A couple were just sitting, rucksacks or dogs laying by their sides, eyes wide and vacant as if they were unable to see the terrible reality into which they hand landed. A few spotted Gwen and one was bold enough to advance.
"What's someone like you doing out here so early?" a grimy and bearded man asked, his shoulders hunched from everything but age. "It's not safe for someone like you. There are unsavoury characters about."
"I can take care of myself," Gwen said softly, recognising the man. "Hello Tiger."
"Wha—how do you... Gwen?" the man asked, straightening slightly as he peered at Gwen from beneath busy and unkempt eyebrows and greasy, wild hair. She gave a half-smile, the corners keeping well away from her eyes as she surveyed him in turn. "Well, I never thought I'd see you again, not after that rich guy pulled you off the streets. What did he promise you? Money, obviously, but what else? Life as his mistress, a gift for one of his family members or business partners, posing as someone else to get a pay-day?"
"No, Tiger," Gwen said. "He offered me a life earning for myself. Living for myself."
Tiger didn't say anything for a minute, just watched Gwen solemnly. Eventually, he nodded and gestured towards the others who were beginning to stir in earnest, especially now that Gwen's presence had been noted. "Come on," he said. "Let's go sit down. You can tell us all that's been going on and we can provide you with company. I'd offer you a cup of tea, but you know how things are."
"Yeah," Gwen answered, following Tiger back to his spot and sitting on the duvet that served as bed and home for him. "I know how things are."
Having spent most of her time while homeless on the corner of Yates and Fair, Gwen was familiar with most of the people that lived there. A few simply nodded their heads in greeting as she passed and her name was whispered. Others gathered themselves closer to Tiger's space and stared at her as if they couldn't believe she was actually present. Gwen greeted every one of them by name and, following their customs, didn't talk until one of them asked a question. Then the floodgates opened.
She told them everything. It wasn't that Gwen trusted these people more than she trusted Alaric or Allison, it was that she knew them just as well as she knew herself. They wouldn't care one way or another whether she had doubts about her life and they wouldn't tell anyone for anything. She didn't mention what had happened before her time on the streets and they didn't ask. It was good to be able to talk to people who understood the challenges that life presented and knew what happened when you failed. There were only two places to go once you had hit bottom as these people had: death or up. So Gwen told them everything pressing on her.
"He's going to want more out of our relationship than I can give him," Gwen said of Alaric. "There are just some things in my past that I can't tell him. He wouldn't understand. No one would understand. The things that I've had to do, the people I've hurt. He thinks that I need to tell him, that we can never be really happy together unless I've told him. So I build up the walls and try to let him know that I care for him, really. I just know that it's not going to be enough."
"Do you know it or fear it?" a grizzled old woman asked, her skin more wrinkle than expression and her hair only grey because the white was too dirty to show through. The others affectionately called her Maman and she had been giving Gwen—and, in fact, most of the community—advice since Gwen first arrived.
Gwen blinked and looked Maman in the eyes, trying to read her own soul in their depths. Finally, she murmured, "I don't know," and Maman nodded her head in wise understanding. Gwen took a deep breath and wrapped her arms around her knees, pulling them close to her chest. "It's just that I thought things were going so well. Then, last night, Allison and I were in a pub and these people walk in. They were Marines, on leave, and I didn't want to deal with them because, you know, military rivalries..."
The others muttered their understanding. A good number of them were former military or connected to it in some way. They knew, even if those rivalries were put aside on the streets. Gwen continued, "So I told Allison that we should go and then we ran into one of them. It was just like being back on tour. All the same attitudes, the same jargon, the same feeling of someone watching you all the time, no matter that you were in camp. For a second, just a split second, I thought that I was back there and I wanted to pound his head in for calling me an ARAB and declaiming my people. I was inches away from it, too. Allison had to pull me out of there. Now, I just don't know, things seem different. Like I was reminded of things that I shouldn't have tried to forget in the first place. I wanted to go to Alaric when the night was over, but not because of this incident, because it had been a good night... I can't let him in. He wouldn't understand." Gwen looked desperately at the people gathered around her. Tiger was silent and even Maman seemed to be at a loss for something to say.
One of the quieter ones, even by the standards of the homeless, spoke up, his skin not quite as wrinkled as some, tanner than others, his eyes still holding the sparkle that told of hope for a different life. "You love him," he said, his fingers tapping out a rhythmic beat on his leg. "And that scares you because you don't think that he'll accept you once he learns what you've done."
"No," Gwen protested, shaking her head fervently. The man stared at her, his fingers tapping away without thought as he looked at her, just as some people rocked gently or muttered conversations under their breath. Gwen looked between him and the eyes of the others, hoping that someone would agree with her denial.
She couldn't love Alaric. Everything was going just fine with their relationship, with the casual nature of things between them. She didn't expect anything out of him and, while she knew that he wanted to know about her past, he didn't expect anything more than that out of her. Love brought a whole new layer of things into the mix and Gwen wasn't prepared to deal with that. She didn't love him.
Gwen tried to convince herself of that as she sat there, but in the end she gave up. The man was right. Every word he had said was right. Very carefully, so as to hide the tears that began building in her eyes and the slight tremble to her chin, Gwen lowered her head to bury it in her knees. She felt Tiger put a hand on her back and rub in comfortingly, a gesture which meant more to her than anything that had been said. These people were on the streets and had created a community to reflect that, but they didn't encourage contact. That was reserved for people with real families and real lives.
Suddenly, everything that had happened to Gwen in the last six months became that much more real and meaningful. She had been offered a new life, a chance to pick herself up from the bottom of all possibilities and build herself up. She had a job, a roof over her head and food in her belly, friends and someone she loved. The past may have shaped her, but it didn't matter anymore. It was left only for her to shut it in a box and put it in the furthest reaches of her mind. Gwen looked up and met the gentle gaze of Maman. She would do just that.