The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 4

Gwen could hear Allison whimpering softly behind her and she was fully aware that Alaric was watching everything, completely frozen. The two street-walkers advanced, hoping for an easy score, despite the fact that they were now outnumbered. "Stop," Gwen said again, sliding slightly deeper into her fighting stance, just incase things turned violent.

"Why should we do that?" the man with the knife asked with a sneer. His friend held out his hands as if a magician on a stage, only this stage was far more dangerous than they knew.

"Because if you don't, then my friend will call the police, if he hasn't already. Because we have your faces on the security cameras pointing at this very spot and because I have friends in very high places," Gwen said. If that hadn't woken Alaric up and forced him into action, then she didn't know what would—perhaps a full-out brawl would get his attention. Though, if she could avoid fighting, she would.

The two men exchanged glances, deciding whether it was worth the risk. They obviously weren't dealing with an easy target. This one was willing to fight back and could obviously keep her head under pressure. The likelihood of them walking out of this one was growing smaller every second they hesitated. Finally, after exchanging some sort of silent communication, they turned tail and fled.

Gwen held her stance for another thirty seconds then relaxed and turned to Allison. The woman was still staring, wide-eyed, at the spot where the men had been. She was shaking and looked as though she would burst into tears at any moment. Her breaths were ragged and hiccoughing sobs were beginning. "Allison," Gwen said cautiously, holding out her hands in a peaceful gesture, "Allison, it's okay, they're gone. They're gone and they won't come back. It's okay, you're safe."

Allison flicked her eyes to Gwen's, a good sign given the circumstances, and Gwen stepped closer, wrapping her arms around the woman in a protective, comforting hug. Shooting a look at Alaric over Allison's shoulder—she was now crying openly in Gwen's arms, her fingers clutching at Gwen's shirt in desperation—Gwen mouthed "kitchens." He nodded.

"Come on, Allison, we're going inside," Gwen said, turning Allison gently in the direction of the ramp that would lead them back up the loading docks and into the back door. She didn't do anything as her brown hair started to come undone and as her arm began to throb in Allison's grip. All she did was make sure that the terrified woman knew that she was safe, among friends. Alaric ran his fingers through his own dark hair and followed the two inside.

As soon as Allison was given a stool and a glass of amber brandy, she lost her control. The sobs started to become body-shaking shudders of terror and tears streamed openly down her face. Alaric looked at Gwen in deferential desperation, completely at a loss as to what to do. The brown-haired soldier, for her part, simply let Allison cry on her shoulder, eyes staring straight ahead as she patted the blonde woman's hair. Alaric was certain that she was seeing something else entirely, looking at a completely different pain.

"Th-thanks f-for this," Allison spluttered after a good ten minutes. She wiped her eyes with a shaking hand and refused to look up. "I d-don't know wh-wh-what would have happened if y-you didn't c-come."

"You don't need to think about that, now," Gwen said. "You need to focus on the fact that it's over. It won't happen again. You're safe." These words came from her mouth as though she were simply repeating something someone had told her as she tried to make sense of things again. For the first time, Alaric wondered what had happened to cause Gwen to leave the Army. She didn't look as though she had been detrimentally wounded and she didn't display any overt signs of being, well, shell-shocked. But there was a tinge to her relationships with others that reeked of secrets and shadows.

"Are you alright to go home?" Alaric asked after another few minutes silence. It wasn't that he didn't want them here, but he knew Allison couldn't stay there. If she did, she would never leave again, thinking it was her safe refuge. But when the small woman looked at Gwen in horror, like a young child told it must leave its parents, he realised that he could have been a bit more tactful. That came from having no charm or subtlety at all. Jack was right; all this yelling and criticising wasn't helping his ability to talk to people.

"You can come with me," Gwen said. "I just live across the way. I have a spare camp bed and everything."

"Really?" Allison asked quietly, rubbing her eyes once again with the corner of her sleeve. Gwen nodded and rose, putting on her jacket and linking her arm through Allison's. She hesitated a moment.

"Unless we need to..." Gwen looked at Alaric, an unspoken plea in her eyes. He shrugged.

"Go on. We'll keep working tomorrow," he said and picked up Allison's untouched glass of brandy. Gwen nodded and left, just like that. No goodbye, no acknowledgement, just a nod and she was gone. It seemed fitting to her, somehow.

Gwen led Allison to her flat in the building across from the back of the restaurant. She half-supported the still-trembling woman up the stairs and had to fumble for her keys to let the pair into the flat. Allison relaxed visibly once the door was closed and looked around, desperately clinging to her surroundings in an effort to escape her trauma. What she found confused her.

The flat was furnished in very simplistic styles, but everything was wood and obviously of high quality. It was stylish and perfectly organised and clean and did not suit Gwen at all. Just one look made it perfectly clear that this furniture had been bought for the retired Lieutenant by someone else. That did not change the fact that everything was clean to the point of sterilisation. There were no personal touches but for a few framed photographs of desert landscapes on the walls. It was, understandably, militaristic.

"Come on," Gwen said, moving towards the kitchen. "We'll make you a cup of tea." Allison followed along and looked relieved when she saw that the kitchen, at least, was obviously used and well-cared for, though it was as clean as everything else. There were pans hanging from hooks on the wall, tools in ceramic jars along the wall, a spinning rack of spices and a knife block that was top-of-the-line and well used.

Gwen put the kettle on to boil and got out a pot and the appropriate tea leaves. The simple, essential act pushed the last of Allison's tremors away and she sat on a stool, watching her host with the sort of weariness that comes after a great shock. Gwen seemed to calm down as well with the act of making tea. She pulled her hair out of its tight, regulation style, shrugged out of her jacket—which she promptly hung up—and rolled up her sleeves.

"Why didn't you beat them?" Allison asked once Gwen handed her a cup of tea.

"What?" Gwen said, looking surprised. "They went away and aren't going to come back. Isn't that enough?"

"No," Allison answered with surprising vehemence. "No, I wanted them to lie there, hurting, on the ground for what they did."

Gwen didn't answer immediately but stared into the depths of her cup of tea. "I used to think like that, too. Wanting to cause pain for every wrong done to me, two even three fold. But that's not justice, that's revenge. And revenge is what causes wars. Wanting to cause hurt because you were hurt is natural, but it is also wrong. You have to understand this."

"But you would have hurt them if they attacked you?" Allison asked, looking up at Gwen with a pitiful, desperate need in her gaze.

"Yes. That is self-defence, not attacking them simply because I could have. You're going to need to learn this if I'm going to teach you," Gwen said. She drained her cup of tea like it was something much stronger and put the cup delicately in the sink. "Now come on, let's get you to bed."

"You could have hurt them really badly, right? If they'd attacked you?" Allison said, repeating her question and emphasising her need to get revenge in some way, if only in her mind. Gwen kept silent for a moment, thinking that she knew too many soldiers who had been just like Allison. They were often separated so they couldn't cause too much trouble, but there was a lot of that sort of thought in the military. The hardest part was that they were often good men, fiercely loyal and completely dependable.

"Not now, Allison," Gwen said stiffly, remembering her squad mates' faces as they lay on the ground, dead. "You can sleep in my room. I'll sleep on the couch. Don't argue, just do as your told."

"Alright," Allison answered, lowering her head and rubbing the back of her neck. She followed Gwen to the bedroom, which was decorated just as the rest of the flat, only a single picture of the desert showing anything about the woman who lived there. Gwen gave Allison a pair of pyjamas and the necessary toiletries and then went to make up her bed.

She slept easier on the couch than she did in her bed, the stiffness of the cushions remnant of the ground that she had slept on for so long, after her return from Afghanistan and during her time in the desert. The night-terrors that haunted her weren't about the night that had ruined everything, but the time afterwards, when all she could hear was the Major who had rescued her saying, over and over again, "It will be okay." She heard it and, superimposed over the Major's concerned features were those of her commanding officer, looking at her with pain and a single line of blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth.

When Gwen woke, it wasn't because the dreams were so terrible—nothing was as terrible as real life—but because there was a noise. She rose from the couch, grabbing the knife she always kept nearby, and listened. A moment later, she put the knife away and walked to her bedroom where Allison was laying in her bed, the covers wrapped around her form as she sobbed. Gwen sat gently on the edge of the bed and, without prompting, Allison allowed Gwen to hug her. Then, because there was nothing else to say, she murmured, "It will be okay."

She sat with Allison for another hour, quietly murmuring and slowly slipping away when the woman fell back asleep, her hiccoughing subsided. By this time, it was nearing four in the morning and Gwen knew that she would not be able to fall asleep again. She was fully aware of what waited for her if she closed her eyes and the shame of having to hear the Major repeat the words she had just spoken to Allison would tear her apart. She couldn't deal with what happened before that, either. The other combat situations in which Gwen had participated were also clamouring to speak out, tired of being shut up behind That Night.

Gwen disentangled her fingers from her hair when she realised that she was about to do serious damage to it. She looked at the sleeping form of Allison—now deeply breathing, not likely to wake anytime soon—and made up her mind. It was time to start running again. Before joining the Army, Gwen hated running. It was only after being forced to do mile upon mile of the terrible exercise that she began to appreciate the rhythmic movement of her feet, her mind concentrating on not slipping and where to put her foot next. She could think, if she wanted to, but more often than not, it was a way to let her mind go.

She tied her hair back into its regulation style, put on her running clothes and laced up her trainers. Then, without another pause, she was gone. As soon as she hit the pavement outside of her building, she began running. Her feet ate up the ground in an uneven stride, but the familiar sensation returned. She relaxed and let her thoughts go away until she was just Gwen, free and easy.

–-

Alaric groaned as he rolled over in his queen-sized bed to reach the incessantly ringing phone. He hated that thing and only kept it in case someone needed to call him during his day off to let him know that something had gone wrong at The Rose. He did not keep it so that people could call him at six in the morning. Who got up at six in the morning, anyways?

Without bothering to check the number, he answered, his voice gravelly from sleep. "Mmm, 'llo?"

"Alaric?" the person on the other line said, sounding familiar. He squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in his pillow for a moment before lifting it up and putting the phone back to his ear.

"Allison?" he growled through a yawn. "What's going on?" Alaric figured that demanding to know why she was calling wasn't the best plan, especially not after what had happened last night. And he had given all of the students his number in case something came up and they needed to call. He just really didn't want to be a sounding board for a woman who was feeling vulnerable, a big part of why he didn't currently have a girlfriend.

"Um... I don't mean to bother you so early," Allison started. Too late, though Alaric didn't say anything. "But, er, I went over to Gwen's last night, like she said and, uh, when I woke up this morning, she was gone. I looked everywhere, but she didn't leave a note and I don't think she has a cell phone and... it's been an hour."

"Right," Alaric said, his mind finally starting to work despite the late hour. "I think I might know someone who might know where she is. I'll find her."

"Thanks. Sorry for waking you up," Allison said. Alaric replied with a monosyllabic grunt and hung up, flopping over onto his back so that he could sit up properly. He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palms and took a deep breath, grumbling inwardly at the way the cold air ran over his bare skin. He knew that he should call Walter Smythe, should be more worried about the fact that Gwen was not at her flat, but there was something holding him back.

It was as if there were someone whispering quietly in his ear, telling him that as soon as he started to worry about Gwen's well-being and about the fact that she was gone so early in the morning, he would start to care about her. Care for her. Already he had been forced by his conscious to admit to being hard on her. He had already conceded to the fact that she wasn't a terrible cook and that she could even be a decent one. He had begun to think about her as one of his students, as someone he was proud to teach and mentor. What he couldn't do was let things get further than that.

Sighing, Alaric fingered his phone and remembered the promise that he had made Allison. He would find Gwen in an uninvolved manner, but he would find her. Alaric dialled the phone.

Unsurprisingly, Walter wasn't awake at six fifteen in the morning, but his office manager—a man whom Alaric actively disliked—was awake. The moment that Alaric mentioned Gwen was missing, though it had only been an hour, and that one of the other students was worried, Graham became more than business-like and started organising a rather extensive search.

"There are a couple of places she could be, that I know of. One is the street where Mr. Smythe ran into her the first time, but I don't think she'd be there because she had abandoned it by the time we found her at the intersection near the-"

"Whoa, whoa, slow down," Alaric said, running his fingers through his hair and wishing desperately for a cup of tea. "What do you mean she had abandoned it?"

"I mean that she wasn't living there anymore. We found her about twenty minutes away, at an intersection near an overpass. I'll check there. I honestly don't know where else she would go, but you can check the street near the soup kitchen," Graham said. He rattled off an address which Alaric noted, his mind shocked, then the office manager rang off.

Living there? Alaric couldn't wrap his mind around the concept. Gwen was living there? As in on the streets? As in homeless? He knew that Walter liked to do charity work, but he figured that Gwen was just his latest project that he picked up from a veteran's centre or through a friend or something. Not that he had actually picked her up off of the street. Somehow, that made her all the more brave and capable to Alaric.

Gwen wasn't just some deadbeat trying out cooking. Cooking was her only chance in making a new life for herself. She had risked everything—though she might not have had much—to pick herself up off the streets and become something else. She was rebuilding and working her ass off to do it. If that wasn't admirable, Alaric didn't know what was. It made his heckling and yelling seem so petty.

Shivering, Alaric came to his senses and wrote down the address that Graham had given him before it was completely forgotten. He dressed in a pair of jeans and a dark sweatshirt and grabbed his car keys. It was time to go hunting.

The soup kitchen was nearly the whole way across town and Alaric doubted very much that he was going to find Gwen there. Why would she go back to that place when she was rebuilding and recreating her life? If he were her, he would go somewhere different, somewhere new. Before Alaric had even driven a mile in his car, he turned around and headed in a different direction.

The truth was that he didn't know enough about Gwen to try and figure out where she would go. Without the compass of the soup kitchen, he had absolutely no idea where she could be. He only knew that so early in the morning, there were few people awake and that if she had wanted to seek out company at all, she would go to the fish-market down by the docks. Did she want company? He couldn't say, but it was a start.

The fish-market was a beautiful thing, especially for someone who appreciated food and the quality of ingredients. Fish mongers from many places came and set up spots with buckets of ice, buying the best fish as soon as it came off the ship, selling to wholesalers and challenging others for the best fish. Alaric had been there many times to pick out just the right salmon or grab a handful of fresh mussels when he wanted to make a meal for himself or for someone else. He knew that The Wooden Rose had people who came and picked out the ingredients each morning and he wouldn't have been surprised to see them there.

"Bennet!" a haggard voice called, making Alaric look up. Waving at him from his perch on top of a crate was a man who looked ancient enough to be anyone's grandfather but with weathered skin and a twinkling eye that said he knew his strength. He was Alaric's favourite fish monger because he always dealt fairly and he always had good fish.

"Morning, Joe," Alaric said.

"I got some great perch, just in," Joe said, jabbing a finger at a fine looking fish. Alaric was tempted but remembered why he was there.

"Actually, I'm not looking for fish today. I was wondering if you'd seen someone. A woman, a few inches shorter than me, brown hair, looks like she could beat the stuffing out of you if she had the inclination," Alaric said. He described Gwen without thinking and winced at the way his words sounded, no matter how true they were.

"What, you mean Gwen?" Joe said, raising his bushy white eyebrows and jerking a thumb over to the point where the docks dropped into water. Sitting there, her back to the world, staring out over the ocean, was Gwen. Alaric was more than surprised to find her there. He hadn't known if she would seek out people or even head in the direction of the wharfs—it was more than a few miles from The Rose—and there she was. Seeing Alaric's surprise, Joe shrugged, "She's been down here a few times before, tried to get work on one of the fishing boats. Was fair good at it, too, but for the nightmares and flashbacks. She had to stop when she nearly fell overboard after a bad one. A shame, too. She didn't even make two weeks on the job."

"Nightmares," Alaric said. He didn't know Gwen had nightmares. Though he doubted the she would tell him, of all people, if she did. Even so, maybe the nightmares had gone away. Maybe she had gotten everything sorted out. "Thanks, Joe." Alaric jogged over to where Gwen was and before he could convince himself otherwise, sat down next to her.

Gwen jumped slightly as he did so then watched him calmly. "What are you doing here?" she asked, looking confused but not annoyed. She was simply curious as to why he was there; she had no idea that Graham was going to turn the city over looking for her, that Allison was worried about her. Alaric realised that she didn't even consider that people would care about her enough to do something when she went missing. For that, he pitied her.

"Allison called," he said, knowing how easy it would have been to simply say he had been at the market. "I called Graham and the pair of us went out looking for you."

"Oh," Gwen said, looking out at the ocean again. In the early morning light, the slight wisps of hair that had escaped her bun were illuminated like a halo. She shrugged, "I suppose I should have left a note. I went on a run and found myself here."

"You went on a run," Alaric said, frowning. Gwen nodded.

"I used to run all the time, in the Army, in Afghanistan, after the-" she stopped and shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together. Alaric remembered the nightmares Joe had mentioned. Could this unmentioned thing be the cause? He didn't know and didn't care to press. "I was feeling restless, so I started running again. I stopped here to watch the sunrise."

"How early did you get up?" Alaric asked in disbelief. Sunrise was still lateish in the morning, spring having only just barely started, but still. To have run from The Rose to the docks and still have time to watch the sunrise?

"Four, I think," Gwen said simply. "How did you find me here?"

"The fish-market is the only place in the city that I know of that's awake this early in the morning. I figured that if you were looking for company or people or whatever, you might end up here. This was my only idea, though," Alaric said. "That reminds me, I'd better let Graham know that you're okay. He seemed pretty worried."

"He doesn't want to loose Walter's new pet project," Gwen said without malice. She knew what she was to Walter and didn't resent him for it. That was quite the feat. Alaric texted Graham and put his phone in his pocket. He didn't know what else to say to her, didn't know how to have a conversation with her. Gwen was his student and, up until that point, had been on he didn't particularly like. But even the few things that he had learned—that she had been living on the streets, that she was plagued by a fierce streak of independence that left her without friends, that she had a past which she didn't talk about—coloured his view of her. Still, he wasn't sure if that was a good thing.

"Have you had breakfast, yet?" Alaric asked. "I know this great place a couple of blocks from here that opens early for all the fishers. They serve a pretty decent cup of tea, too."

Gwen said nothing for a moment then, in a swift movement that was graceful and capable, rose from her spot on the wall and nodded. "Sounds good."

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