The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 22

Gwen focused on the steady drum of water on her back and held her knees close to her chest. She was in the shower, letting the warm water wash away any last traces of alcohol and clear her mind. Mostly, thought, she was in the shower because it was far easier to ignore Alaric's pleading from behind the locked bathroom door than otherwise. His voice still carried through the door and Gwen squeezed her eyes shut and hunched her shoulders, focusing on the beat of the water.

"I don't pity you, Gwen," Alaric insisted, his head pressed against the door. "All I wanted was to understand what sort of pain was in your past and I do, now. It wasn't your fault! You couldn't have known there would be a cat and there was nothing you could have done that would have changed things. Damon was the one who stepped out of line. Not you. You had nothing to do with it! It wasn't your fault."

Gwen wished that he would stop repeating that. It was the same thing that Dr. Rawlins had told her over and over and over again while she sat in his office, sitting on a chair that was plush and uncomfortable. He had insisted that what had happened wasn't her fault. Damon was the one who stepped out of the cleared space. He had set off the IED that alerted the insurgents to their presence. He was the one who killed her squad. None of that explained away the fact that Gwen was still alive and if it hadn't been for her getting tripped up by a cat, a stupid cat, then everything would have been fine. They would have cleared the building and... and she would still be in the Army, risking her life every day instead of here, in a manse owned by her boyfriend's parents.

"You have to come out of there eventually," Alaric said, pulling Gwen out of her thoughts. She turned the heat up on the water. "And when you do, maybe you'll understand that I'm not going anywhere." Gwen said nothing. She heard a thud from the door and assumed that Alaric had hit the wood. "Fine," he snarled, anger growing. "Fine, if you want to believe that it was your fault because you couldn't figure out how to move a cat without making noise that would alert the people trying to kill you to your presence, then go ahead. You made a mistake, Gwen. That doesn't make you worse than everyone else, it just makes you human. And you know what? You built yourself up again, created a new life for yourself. But if you want to dwell on the one thing you can't change, so be it. When you realise that you can't live in the past anymore, let me know. Until then, I'll be outside."

Alaric rose from leaning against the door and stalked out of the room, ignoring the array of food that he had set up for Gwen and himself. Unlike Gwen, he didn't have the privilege of washing away the affects of the alcohol and he was still drunk—or mostly drunk. Having your girlfriend accuse you of disappointing her in exactly the way she imagined you would, even though there was nothing you could have done, tended to brush away some of the buzz. He wasn't likely to drink anything else for the remainder of the evening, though. Some things needed to be dealt with sober.

His father was not one of those things.

"Ah, so now you emerge," Nathaniel said, standing at the foot of the staircase, the knot of his tie loosened ever so slightly and the first button of his shirt undone. That was enough to signify that the party was over. Alaric was not sorry to have missed it, though now he would have to find some other excuse for keeping out of the room he shared with Gwen.

"I'm going for a walk," Alaric said flatly.

"Not until you've answered for your actions," Nathaniel replied, his lip curling into a sneer. "I had people who were wondering where you were, who had seen you and were waiting for a chance to talk with you. And you go and vanish without so much as a 'by your leave.' That was extremely rude of you, boy."

Alaric curled his fingers into fists and did his best to breathe deeply. He was already angry from dealing with Gwen and he really wasn't in the mood to argue with his father. That invariably made things worse and he didn't have time for worse. "Right, well, sorry," Alaric spat. "I was trying to help Gwen through something."

"Using your little girlfriend as an excuse to shirk your social duty is weak, Alaric. It borders on pathetic," Nathaniel said, his voice dripping with contempt. Alaric narrowed his eyes; Gwen was being a pain in his ass at the moment, but at least he could understand why. His father was being a pain in his ass for no good reason other than he could.

"Gwen has had a few issued she needed help with," Alaric said. "Whereas I have no social duty, at least not with your friends. I doubt very much they cared enough to ask after me or even recognised me. I'm tired of you pushing me around because you think I owe you some great debt for being my father. That's not such a boon, Dad. You are controlling and domineering and just plain spiteful. So what if I didn't become a solicitor? I have done extremely well for myself without your help. Shove off."

"You dare," Nathaniel said, his voice low and threatening, his eyes glittering with malice. "After all that I've do-"

"You haven't done anything," Alaric cut in, "except hurt me and Mum. If I have to choose between you and your so-called social duties or even any familial ties and the girl I love, I choose her. Every. Time. I'm going for a walk. Gwen and I will be gone tomorrow." Alaric shouldered his way past his father and stalked out the door, ignoring the furious shouts that followed him. When he was halfway down the drive, he let out the roar of frustration that he didn't know he had been holding in.

Alaric was fed up with dealing with his family issues. He had been slapped around—physically and emotionally—one too many times and he was done. No more would he return to the house in Bedfordshire and pretend that he was part of that family. He had no obligations to them like he had to Gwen. He had been so busy trying to help her this weekend that he had hardly bothered to pay attention to his family problems. It was difficult to wallow in self-pity with her around. She was what mattered to him, now, and it had taken seeing her in pain to understand that. He—Alaric froze, one foot poised above the edge of the footpath as he realised the implications of what he said.

He loved Gwen. He was in love with Gwen.

The words had just come out when yelling at his father and he hadn't even realised how true they were. It was surprising that he hadn't realised it before. After all the time he had spent with her, during their lessons or just talking or on a date or anything, he knew that he cared about her. But he hadn't known the extent of his feelings until then. He was in love with Gwen. And that made it all the more difficult to see her in pain.

"Alright," Alaric said, easing backwards until he was leaning against the wall next to the footpath. "You're in love with her. What are you going to do about it?" The obvious choice was to rush back to the house and demand that Gwen let him in so that he could profess his feelings for her and thereby force her to accept what had happened. He wasn't sure he would be in love with the woman who hadn't gone through that and she would just have to understand that. But he wasn't sure that going back there just then was a good idea. She was hurting from his—unknowingly given—pity. He might just make things worse if he went back there.

Alaric hesitated, looking at the road before him without seeing it. He loved her. That didn't make him all-knowing or wise. He had no idea what was the right thing to do. He sank down onto the edge of the footpath and cradled his head in his hands. Just a moment ago, he had been thinking about how much better she was than dealing with his familial issues and now this? It was slightly overwhelming. More than slightly. It changed everything. It was as if something in his mind had just shifted into place and suddenly the things that had seemed to matter didn't and those that he had tried to ignore took on the greatest importance.

For so long, Alaric had tried to understand what it was in Gwen's past that had made her the way she was. He wanted to understand what it was that haunted her and made her retreat behind her wall of steel just to face the world. Now he did and with it came the knowledge that he didn't care if it was her fault or not, he loved her in spite of it. It was sudden and jarring and put everything into perspective. Alaric straightened and stood, pulling his fingers through his hair. Everything might have clicked into place for him, but Gwen was still back at the house, looking through a haze of her past. He had to make her see.

He turned back towards the house, taking the drive at a run. Alaric went through the front door without fear of seeing his father or mother. His father would be nursing his wounds in his study and his mother was undoubtedly busy with the tearing down of the party. He took the stairs two at a time and burst through the door to his room just as Gwen was emerging from the bathroom, one of his dressing gowns wrapped around her with a loose knot, her hair hanging in wet strings around her face.

She froze when she saw him, looking for signs of pity in his face, her shoulders hunched as she searched. That act of uncertainty made Alaric all the more sure that what he was doing was good. "Gwen," he said, holding out his arms ever so slightly.

"I'm a fool," she answered, going to him. The words weren't meant as an apology to him but as a chastisement to herself for her past mistakes. It was her fault that her squad was gone and she was a fool for thinking otherwise. That didn't mean she couldn't accept the comfort Alaric was offering.

"No," he said, kissing the top of her head and wrapping his arms tightly around her waist. "You're just human."

"That doesn't change things," Gwen answered. "I'm still to blame."

Alaric hesitated, instinct telling him to convince her otherwise. He took a deep breath and curbed the desire to make things easier for her. He loved her because she was strong and able to fight her own way. When she was hurting and curled in on herself in frightened weakness, he couldn't just make things better. She had told him as much in not so uncertain terms many times. He had to stand by her and lend a hand when she stood. He shook his head. One realisation about the nature of his feelings was making him a sentimental idiot. He couldn't start over-thinking things now. "Maybe," he said at last. "I wasn't there, so I don't know. But even if you were to blame, there's nothing you can do to change what happened." Then he smiled slightly, the look profound and real, the words to sooth her wounds coming to the forefront of his mind as if called. "You have to keep living, Gwen, if only because they can't."

She stiffened but did not pull away. "I don't think it's quite that simple," she said, her voice somewhere between a growl and whisper. Alaric shrugged and tilted her head so he could look her in the eye.

"I think it is," he said. "So, what's it going to be? Are you going to wallow away in this room because you can't face the fact that you're still alive or are you going to embrace the life you have and come back to London with me? Live for them, Gwen. Live the lives that they no longer have. Whether or not it's your fault is something the we may never be able to figure out. It doesn't mean you give up."

Gwen stood there, searching Alaric's eyes for the answers to her own questions. Finally, she sighed and pressed her nose into his shoulder. "I guess it doesn't," she said. Part of her wanted to rebel and fight, to yell at him that he didn't understand what she had been through, didn't understand that there was no way to fix death. People were dead because of her and there was nothing she could do to amend that; therefore, she needed to pay for her mistakes, her crimes. The other part of her, the part that had pulled her out of the streets and accepted Walter's offer and created a new life for herself, that part told her that Alaric was right. Just because Damon, Captain Samson, Walker, Bone-head and Johnnie were gone didn't mean she had to stop trying to live as though she'd died that day, too. That was the part that spoke.

"Glad you figured it out," Alaric said. He saw the pain in Gwen's eyes and knew that things were far from over. But it was a start and for figuring out the rest, he would be standing right beside her. For now, though, it was enough. "Now, how about we finish off that food and go to bed. I would say we could drive back tonight, but I'm still drunk and I do't think you're in any mood to drive."

"First thing in the morning?" Gwen asked, pulling away to sit on the bed and pick up her discarded plate. She retreated into the calmer, less serious conversation thankfully. Her heart felt as though it had been laid bare. She needed time to heal and to consider things before figuring out what to do next. She crossed her legs and the dressing gown slid up far enough to be considered indecent. Alaric grinned slyly.

"Well," he said, joining her on the bed and taking the plate carefully out of her hand. "Maybe not first thing." She laughed. It wasn't loud or boisterous or even completely joyful, but it was a start. That was what mattered.

Morning came and, despite Alaric's protests, Gwen dragged him out of bed so they could leave just after seven. They did not run into Nathaniel or Carol, for which Alaric was thankful. He considered going to find his mother to say goodbye and thought better of it. He loved her, but he had been manipulated too many times. He wrote a note instead: Gwen and I are off to London. You can stop by any time. Alaric. Then, he and Gwen were away, back to London, back to The Wooden Rose, back home.

"Do you think Jack managed to survive the weekend without us?" Gwen teased as they spotted the city on the horizon. Her voice wasn't as happy or relaxed as it had been on the drive out, but that was to be expected. Neither of them were what they had been and they certainly weren't relaxed, but they had seen the depths of their souls. They were still recovering. Alaric tensed ever so slightly, scenarios of what tragedies might have befallen his restaurant during his absence.

"If one pan in my kitchens is out of place, I'm going to wring someone's neck," Alaric said.

"I wouldn't worry too much," Gwen said. "Jaime has been working for you for nearly three years. I'm sure that he'd have sorted things out while we were gone. If there were any problems, that is."

"Every time I go away for more than one night, things get completely out of order and I spend ages trying to put it back together again," Alaric grumbled. "Last time, they mislaid a whole order of duck breasts. A whole order! I can understand a few, but a whole order is just beyond me."

"Alright," Gwen said, "I'll make you a deal. If they've lost an order of duck breasts, salmon fillets or even the entire collection of black truffles, I'll replace them from my own salary."

"Now that you've said that, nothing is going to happen," Alaric said. "So you had better be lucky."

"I will be," Gwen replied, completely assured. She smiled as Alaric muttered something under his breath and they made it into the city. It was barely lunch time when Alaric pulled into the parking lot across from The Rose. He helped Gwen carry her bag up to her flat and reluctantly went down to the car and drove to his own. Only the knowledge that he was wearing a slightly-wrinkled suit and wanted to make something in his own kitchen could persuade him. Otherwise, he would have happily joined Gwen in the shower.

He made a panini and ate it while staring out the window to his flat, wondering just how difficult it would be to get out of the deed. Melissa had made it incredibly complicated because there was some sort of price benefit she could claimed he would get. Maybe she would want to buy it off of him, as she had been the one to covet it in the first place. Of course, that would depend on whether or not Gwen wanted him to move in with her. He loved her and figured he could put up with just about anything if it meant he got to be with her all the time, but did she feel the same way? He supposed that he should start looking for a ring and thinking about asking her if she loved him. That would solidify things for the both of them. First things first, though, he had to figure out a way to tell her. Oh, and there was the fact that he was introducing a new dish at The Rose.

Alaric smiled. Two things he couldn't live without—Gwen and cooking—and here he was with both of them. "To hell with it," he said to the last corner of his panini. Throwing the sandwich in his mouth, Alaric chewed even as he raced down to his car and drove to Gwen's flat. The building seemed to have taken on a glow since he last saw it and even though he knew that he was looking at it through the haze of his hopes, it was nice. Alaric leaned on the buzzer.

The door clicked open and he raced up the stairs, making it to Gwen's flat before she could get her door fully open. Her eyes were wide and slightly worried, "Is something wrong? Did your flat get burgled? Did Jack lose an order of duck? Damn it, Alaric, tell me!"

"I love you," Alaric said, pushing past her and into the flat. He had intended for the statement to be slightly more romantic, a bit softer and perhaps followed with a kiss, not growled out as though he had just been woken up.

"Oh," Gwen said, closing the door behind him. "Ah."

"Is that a problem?" Alaric asked, fear that she would reject him putting a bite to this tone.

"No," Gwen answered, moving into the kitchen and leaning against the counter. She tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ears and folded her arms. "It just makes things easier. Because I love you, too."

Alaric blinked, startled for only a moment before the realisation of what she had said struck him. He couldn't help himself; he grinned and kissed her. Hard.

He didn't notice that there was a new picture on the fridge, one with six people smiling as if they hadn't a care in the world.

The End.

Thank you all so much for reading! This story started out as nothing more than a lark needed to lift my mood and became something so much more. I appreciate all of your comments and feedback and I hope you've enjoyed this story.

Until next time, then.

~S

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