The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 21

Gwen and Alaric spent the next hour doing their best to avoid Dr. Rawlins and Major Dalton while still appeasing Carol and staying out of the way. Gwen was highly aware of the fact that Alaric was desperate to ask questions of her, wanting to know what connection she had to the psychiatrist—as if he couldn't guess. But more than that, he wanted to know about The Incident. She wasn't sure she could have that. She might love him, but that didn't mean that she was willing to tell him everything. She knew it was absurd and foolish; she just couldn't bring herself to talk about it. Gwen wasn't sure she was strong enough to see disappointment or pity in Alaric's eyes.

Finally, as she was slipping into her dress and Alaric changed his shirt for a proper dress shirt and tie, he cornered her. "Are you going to tell me what this is about, Gwen?" he asked, zipping up the back of her dress while she held her hair out of the way.

"We've been over this before," Gwen said. "I'm..."

"If you say you're not willing to talk about it, or that it's not a big deal or anything of the sort, then so help me I'm going to slap you," Alaric snarled, grabbing Gwen's shoulders to spin her around. If he expected to see effrontery in her gaze than he was disappointed. All he saw was the typical steel that meant she was building up her walls. "You piss me off last night and demand that I tell you what's going on, even if it really was no big deal, because that's what you do in a relationship and then turn around and hold things back? That's rather hypocritical of you," he hissed.

"Some things," Gwen said, her voice not sharp and furious like Alaric's but piercing as ice, "have no bearing on the present."

"That doesn't mean you don't talk about them!" Alaric threw his hands up and took a step away from her so he could turn in a circle and try and order his thoughts. "And don't you dare say that's what's going on here, because that's crap."

"It's the truth," Gwen said flatly, crossing her arms over her chest and turning towards the window, the simple action revealing just how upset she actually was. "My connection with Dr. Rawlins has nothing to do with my life anymore. It doesn't affect anything I do; it's in the past and there's no point in bringing it up. So take my advice and let it go."

"Bullshit," Alaric said. Gwen turned her head to glare at him and Alaric jabbed his finger at her, repeating, "Bullshit. You want to know why? Because I've spent hours listening to you toss and turn in bed or go without sleep because whatever it is that happened still haunts you and won't let you get a decent night's sleep. You don't talk about what happened because it still hurt you. You won't even consider having a connection with people from your past because it brings up memories of whatever it is that happened to you. Tell me that the screams you do your best to hide have nothing to do with it."

Gwen blinked away a sheen of tears and pressed a hand to the base of her throat, but she said nothing, making Alaric all the more furious and determined to wrench the truth out of her. It was time to do away with secrets, to tear down all those boundaries that they had set up between them. Some of it was his fault, he could acknowledge that now. He had been too focused on her problems to consider that he was being selfish in holding his own back. It had taken being confronted with his ex-girlfriend and watching Gwen do her best to befriend the woman for him to realise that. Now it was Gwen's turn. He cared far too much about Gwen for her to shut him out and pretend that everything was fine, that she was Wonder Woman and could take on anything and everything and she didn't need him fighting for her. Everyone needed someone.

"See, this thing, this relationship," Alaric spat the word, making Gwen realise what a mockery of the word she had made, "goes both ways. My past is here in the form of my ass of a father and yours is here in the form of a psychiatrist. I've told you about my past, but you won't tell me about yours? That hurts, Gwen. It hurts that a stranger knows more about you than I do. But if you don't want to talk about it? Fine. Fine. Just don't come asking after me if you're not willing to talk about you."

With that, he turned and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Gwen jerked at the sound and straightened her spine, clenching her fist and determined to do anything but cry. She was stronger than that. She had been through hell and come out in one piece—sort of—and she could hold herself together after arguing with Alaric. That didn't stop the pain from flaring up, making her want to lie on the bed and curl into a ball until it subsided. Who knew that the heart wrenching reality of watching the person you loved walk away could feel so much like being shot? No, Gwen thought, allowing herself to sit on the edge of the bed, she had been shot before. This was much worse.

He didn't understand. She loved him, absolutely completely and entirely. That was why she couldn't tell him about her past. It would, undoubtedly, change the way that he looked at her and she wasn't sure she could survive that. Having him turn away from her, not because of anger, but because of disappointment would kill her, she was sure.

Gwen swallowed the desperate sound that was rising in her throat. Sooner or later, she would have no choice but to tell Alaric, but she couldn't bring herself to do more than stare disconsolately at the patterns in the rug on the floor. She wasn't sure how long she sat like that, unaware of everything but her own dilemma. Eventually, the sounds of the party outside broke through and Gwen blinked, reality returning its normal shape. She rubbed her collar bone and sighed. She had to make things right with Alaric and she had to go see to his needs. Right now, he was facing his past alone and she had promised to support him. She had made that promise and she wasn't about to abandon one of her comrades in need.

That wasn't the right term, Gwen thought, pressing the heel of her palm to her head. "He's your boyfriend, not a soldier," she told herself. She had to move, had to get out of there before other things started blurring together and she started to relive the event that haunted her nightmares. It was terrifying in the dark, but in the daytime, when she thought she was safe, it was much worse. Gwen forced herself to stand, put on her shoes and strode from the room, focusing on finding Alaric.

Outside, the party was in full swing. Music—soft, comfortable jazz—floated from speakers that had been set up sometime after Gwen's disappearance. People in expensive clothes and shining jewellery stood in groups, glasses of high-quality alcohol in their hands. The men stood with a practised slouch that said they didn't care what others thought because they were among the powerful. The women laughed in charming tones, tossing their hair and watching everybody from the corner of their eyes, waiting for an opportunity to grab up an interesting bit of information or prove their standing by speaking the right word into someone's ear. Most of them, Gwen assumed, were former clients. The lawyers were the group gathered around Nathaniel Bennet, all wearing suits of a similar cut and design, laughing at something. Dr. Rawlins was nowhere to be seen. Alaric was far easier to spot.

He had been cornered by Melissa, standing near a table where drinks and snacks had been set out. A glass of dark amber liquid was in his hand and, from the way that he kept sipping at it, Gwen knew it was soon to be empty. Melissa smiled, attractive and charming and intelligent enough to be underhanded and subtle in her conversation. Gwen didn't dislike the woman—though she thought that Melissa's motives in showing up left something to be desired—but there was no doubt that Alaric was uncomfortable.

She strode up to him and wrapped an arm through his, pushing away the hurt when he stiffened slightly. "I never got to tell you just how much I like your dress," Gwen said to Melissa. Before the woman had a chance to respond, she turned her head to Alaric. "You look like you could use a refill. And I could use a drink. Come on, let's go see what we can find." With a slight tug, Gwen pulled on Alaric's arm and dragged him away from the ex-girlfriend, leaving to go search for a drink.

Alaric remained quiet while he followed Gwen to the make-shift bar at the opposite end of the lawn. He waited while she filled his glass and poured her own and didn't even blink when she drained the glass in one quick jerk. Then, she turned to him, brows drawn together and eyes full of regret. "I'm sorry," she said.

"It's alright," he replied, wrapping an arm around her waist. "I just wish you would tell me these things, Gwen. What happened in your past is so much of who you are. I want to know that."

"And I'll tell you," she said, making him straighten in surprise and anticipation. "Just not right now. I'm not... I don't think I can do that right now. Give me time?"

"As much as you need," Alaric said, kissing the top of her head. Gwen relaxed into his hold and he topped off her glass. "Come on, you've got some catching up to do. I'm on my third drink and I haven't even had a conversation with my father or any of his business partners. I'm planning on getting truly drunk before this thing is over."

"If you want to get me drunk," Gwen said, dutifully taking a long sip of the scotch, "then you're going to have to do quite a bit more than three drinks. I've outdrunk men twice my size."

Alaric laughed and shook his head in disbelief, but let the matter drop. It would be far easier to simply let Gwen win that argument.

Reconciled, both found it easier to avoid certain people with the excuse and company the other provided. Anytime that Alaric's father got too close, Gwen would steer him in the direction of the buffet or, more often, the bar, claiming to need a drink. Alaric provided the same service in regards to Dr. Rawlins and Major Dalton, though it was slightly more difficult to avoid someone who wasn't actually keen on avoiding you.

"Gwen," Major Dalton called out, making Gwen stiffen and toss back the last mouthful of another drink. She was feeling buzzed by this time and imagined that another hour would do to get her quite drunk. She couldn't figure out whether that was a good thing or bad, but that might have had something to do with the amount of alcohol she'd imbibed. The important thing was that Major Dalton was coming her way and having seen her, it would be impossible to slip away.

"Major," she said, not bothering to smile. Alaric remembered the last time that the two had talked, the Major had all but accused Gwen of being suicidal. That was a conversation that hadn't gone particularly well.

"You're looking well," he said, nodding at her. Alaric didn't get the impression he was complimenting her dress.

"She's put on weight and there's a definite energy in her that wasn't there before."

"But," Alaric prompted.

"But I've seen her at her best and she's nowhere close..."

"As are you," Gwen said. "I'm surprised to see you here. I didn't think you enjoyed the company of solicitors." Her tone was short and clipped, though her words weren't as enunciated as usual. Then, she had just finished her fourth scotch.

"I don't particularly, but one of the psychiatrists from the military hospital was asked to come and I was invited to attend," Major Dalton said. Alaric did his best to hide the tick that suddenly developed in his jaw. One of the psychiatrists was asked to come, right. Jonas Dalton knew exactly who the psychiatrist was in relation to Gwen and he likely only wheedled his way into attending the party because it was hosted by Alaric's family. If Walter Smythe hadn't kept the Major appraised of Gwen's and his relationship, then he was a sous chef.

"I hope you enjoy the party," Alaric said, doing his best to smile. "If you'll excuse us, I think-"

"Well I'll be," a new voice said, its smooth tones making chills run up Alaric's spine. Beside him, Gwen stiffened and dug her fingers into his arm, a single tremor made the hand holding her glass shake once before becoming perfectly, unnaturally still. Her expression, though, was completely blank and neutral, betraying nothing of her thoughts. "Lieutenant Gwen Townsend. I didn't think I'd see you again after you were discharged. How are you?"

"Dr. Rawlins," Gwen said, her voice, like her expression, perfectly neutral and even. Alaric found the sound chilling and unnatural. "I did not expect to see you here."

"I was invited by a friend of mine at one of the law firms that represents the hospital. It was a welcome change from the hospital, so I came. And I'm glad I did. I get to see you," he said, blinking at Gwen from behind his square glasses. Alaric wanted to punch him.

"Fortuitous," Gwen said. "If you'll excuse me, I have to go powder my nose." Just like that, she slipped out of Alaric's grasp and walked away, her stride even and unfaltering, her posture straight. Alaric looked at the spot where she had been holding his arm and swallowed a wince. He would have some pretty bruises there tomorrow.

"She's quite the character," Dr. Rawlins said, nodding after Gwen. "I'm glad to see she's adjusting. One of the hardest cases I've ever dealt with in my career. Poor thing."

"I think I'd better find my mother," Alaric said, his voice bordering on extremely rude. He nodded at the Major and walked away, not bothering to even pretend to look for his mother. Instead, he followed Gwen's path to the house and found her standing at the back door, regarding the brick beside the door with a determined expression. Alaric came up behind her, "I'd prefer it if you didn't punch the brick. I don't want to have to take you to hospital and my father would be furious with me for breaking the house."

"I'm still recovering from the last time I did that," Gwen said, holding up her hand. The cast had been taken off, but she was still wearing a brace and was more careful with the appendage than usual. Her voice was still that eerie calm tone and Alaric shifted nervously. "I was thinking about murder, actually."

"Please don't," Alaric said. "How about we steal one of those bottles of wine from the bar and go up to the room. We can skip out on the rest of this stupid party, my father be damned." He half expected her to refuse, to be the strong, unwavering soldier that she became whenever things were threatening. He did not expect her to nod and wipe her eyes with the back of her hand, brushing away glistening tears.

"I feel so stupid," Gwen said around a growl. She let her shoulders slump and didn't protest when Alaric wrapped his arms around her waist.

"There's nothing for you to feel stupid about," he said, kissing her hair. "You had no idea he would be here. It's not your fault."

"I hated that man," Gwen said. "After I was admitted to hospital, I was made to talk with him for hours each day, putting up with group therapy and basically wallowing in my mistakes. It was the worst thing that they could have done for me. When Major Dalton showed up at The Rose, surprised to see me alive, I wasn't shocked. I was inches away from killing myself at that bloody hospital. But I made it out and I started over and now here I am, faced with that man again."

"Hey," Alaric said, turning her around so he could cup her face and look into her eyes, "it's alright. There's nothing to be upset about, Gwen. He has no hold over you and you have nothing to prove to him or Major Dalton. Understand me?" She bit her lip and blinked away more tears, but nodded dutifully. "Good," Alaric growled. "Now come on. I'll steal the wine, you go upstairs and get into your pyjamas."

"Can you get some food, too?" Gwen asked in a small voice. "I don't want to have to come back down."

"Anything you want," Alaric said and gently shoved her away. She only hesitated for a moment before going inside. He watched her retreating form to make sure that she was, in fact, going upstairs then slipped back into the throngs of people. He snatched a wine bottle and some glasses then considered the array of food before him. His mother had been strict in her choice of food for the party; there was nothing more substantial than chicken and prawn kebabs with mango and pineapple. It was all snack food, titbits designed to be eaten at a table or while standing and talking. Grumbling, Alaric went inside to the kitchens and grabbed a loaf of bread, some fruits, cheeses, a few of the pieces of food that had been deemed unfit to be served to guests and whatever desserts he could find in the fridge. He stuffed everything into a bag and went upstairs, not relaxing until he closed the door behind him.

What he found was Gwen laying on the bed, the back of her dress unzipped and her pyjamas laid out. She stared blankly at the wall across from her and only stirred enough to lift her head and look at Alaric as he entered. When he finished setting out the food and pouring the wine, he carried her a glass. She pushed herself up and sighed, taking the glass and drinking deeply. "I'm not being much fun," she murmured.

"That doesn't matter," Alaric said. "Besides, I was as happy to get away from the party as you were."

"I suppose," Gwen said. She took another long sip of the wine and hiccoughed slightly. "Do you know what?"

"No, what?" Alaric asked, laughing at the sound. She nudged him with her shoulder and he laughed harder, covering his mouth as she hiccoughed again.

"I think I'm drunk," Gwen said. Alaric nodded in understanding. With all that had happened to him in the last couple of days, he felt he was perfectly justified in getting drunk. He extended the same courtesy to Gwen. "Well, it's partly your fault."

"I'm not surprised," Alaric said. Gwen raised an eyebrow and settled back on the bed, leaning her head against the headboard and taking a deep breath.

"You shouldn't be," she said. "After all, you dragged me along to this... event. And you introduced me to your parents. You started it, too. The drinking thing. You started it."

"That I did," Alaric said wisely, acknowledging the fact with another sip of wine, which Gwen mirrored. She set down the glass and crawled over to where Alaric had set out the food, picking up some fruit and bread before returning to the bed. "Anything for me?"

"You have to get it yourself," Gwen said primly, the words carefully starting to blur together. Yes, she nodded, biting into the apple, she was drunk. Even as she acknowledged the fact, her anger and disappointment and hurt over the encounter with Dr. Rawlins and Major Dalton melted away to be replaced with a happiness that had everything to do with the fact that Alaric was sitting at her side. The rest of the world fell away when her inhibitions fell and all she cared about was the fact that he shifted closer to her and plucked up the second apple, biting into it.

"I got it myself," Alaric said, his own words running together. Gwen sighed dramatically then laughed, the sound louder than she would normally dare.

"Damon used to do that," Gwen said, nodding at the half-eaten apple and not noticing when Alaric's eyes brightened. "Steal my food. He would a-ttack just as we were sitting down to mess. I could barely get in a sssingle bite before he pilfened—no, that's not right; plefered... damn it, I can do this.. pilfered my food," Gwen said each syllable carefully, more worried about the fact that she was having difficulties speaking than she was about the content of her words.

"I didn't steal it," Alaric said, doing his best to appear calm and collected though his heart was pounding. Gwen was talking to him about her past. She was talking about Damon—one of her squad mates, possibly even the man in the picture—and not hesitating to do so. "I'll pay you back."

"He would do that, too," Gwen said, stuffing a piece of bread into her mouth. "Promissse to pay me back. He did, too. Alwaysss with some sort of contra-band food that we couldn't normally get on baase. He wass going to get me some cho-co-late that night.. if it hadn't been for the ssstuupid cat, I would have gotten it, too."

"Cat?" Alaric asked, unable to believe his luck. She was talking about everything. She was going to tell him what had happened without his prodding or begging. Sure, she was drunk—and he felt mildly guilty about taking advantage of that—but she was coherent. At Alaric's words, she scowled and took another sip of wine, snorting in displeasure.

"We had everything planned out," she said, her words clearer and laced with pain. "The insurgents were holed up in a... a.. bunker-thing and it was our job to clear them out before the rest of the Army could go in. Captain Sssamson in the lead, I was following. Then Walker and Bone-head and Johnnie and D-damon. I got held up 'cause that sstupid idiotic cat got in the way. I c-couldn't yell at it 'cause the insurgents would hear and sshooot us. And Damon got imp-patient and stepped around Johnnie. Stepped on a bloody IED, b-blew himself up. Captain Samson was s-still alive and he was shot at b-by the insurg-g-gents. I couldn't help 'cause I was knocked d-down by the explosion. They were dead, every last one of them and I w-woke up in that bloody hospital with the face of that moronic Major Dalton looking at me. It's all my f-fault, Alaric! I couldn't move and they all died because of it!"

The stutters in Gwen's speech weren't from drunkenness by the end. They were from the fact that she was barely holding herself together. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and she had barely managed to set down the wine glass on the nightstand before wrapping her arms around her waist and bending nearly in two. Alaric was stunned, unable to say anything as Gwen moaned her pain. It wasn't her fault, how could it be? He set down his own drink and put an arm around her shoulder, brushing his hand over her hair. She looked up at him, her eyes full of unshed tears, already starting to turn red from irritation. She met his gaze and sucked in a sharp breath, recoiling from him.

"Gwen!" Alaric said, reaching for her. She pulled back further. "Gwen what is it?" he asked, alarmed.

"That look... that is why I didn't want to tell you," she breathed, her eyes locked on Alaric's.

"What look? Gwen, I don't understand what you're talking about," Alaric said, moving his weight towards her to try and pull her to him, to comfort her and assure her that everything was alright and that it wasn't her fault. He stopped when she moved off the bed, standing in a stance that, even for the uninitiated, was obviously dangerous and furious.

"Pity," she said, her voice cracking.

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