The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 5

The little place turned out to be little more than a small coffee shop that served breakfast from sun-up to noon. It was charming, with mismatched furniture and quiet, simple music playing in the background. You ordered by flagging down the only waitress in the place, a cheerful, beautiful woman of dark skin with a smile that flashed constantly. She would take the order to the single chef, her grinning jokester of a husband, and then she would bring you whatever it was that you had ordered.

"What'll you have?" Alaric asked, looking around to see what the other clientèle were having, as there were no menus. "I don't think there's anything fancy, but it's nice."

"Just some toast and beans and a fried egg," Gwen said, rubbing her hand over the simple wooden table as if appreciating the craftsmanship.

"You need to eat more than that," Alaric growled. "You just ran from The Rose on no breakfast and I'm pretty sure that you could use a bit more weight on you. Especially after-" he broke off, not wanting to mention that he knew about her previous living situation. "Just get pancakes or something."

"Alright," Gwen said, knowing better to argue with him when he was in such a mood. After all, she had seen him in many moods during the nights in the kitchen and, by now, all of the students lived and worked by the Bennet-o-meter. When they waved down the waitress, Alaric ordered a full breakfast and Gwen ordered, "Pancakes or something, please."

She received a glittering smile from the waitress and a muttered, "Smart ass," from Alaric. They waited in silence until tea was brought and then Alaric forced himself to talk. "You know, I really am sorry that I've been giving you a hard time-"

"I wish you would stop apologising," Gwen said, a hint of frustration in her tone. "I've had to earn my way before. It's nothing new."

"So, what, you think I'm grovelling, trying to get into your good favour or something so you'll give a good report to Walter? I'm apologising because I'm sincerely sorry," Alaric grumbled, feeling his own temper rising. Gwen curled her lip slightly but said nothing, instead looking darkly at her tea.

"So, why did you want to be a chef?" Gwen asked, choosing a safer route instead of getting both Alaric and herself into an argument. She didn't often get angry, but when she did, it wasn't fun. And there was something in the way that Alaric was watching her, as though she were something that could easily be broken and should be placed on a high, unreachable shelf, that was rubbing her the wrong way.

"Honestly? Because my dad wanted me to be a solicitor." Alaric shrugged and watched Gwen carefully, trying to judge her reaction. When she didn't flinch, he continued, "My dad is the latest in a long line of solicitors, some of which were working for very powerful people. It was sort of assumed that I would continue in the family business. I would be successful, rich and have whatever the heck I wanted. Except for a life."

"So you, what, worked in a kitchen during your rebellious teenage years and decided that you would be a chef?" Gwen asked. Her voice was teasing but the intent was sincere. She really wanted to know.

"No. I spent time with my mother while my dad was at work. She was a wizard in the kitchen, taught me all that I knew. I was much closer to her than to my dad and I figured that I would much rather follow in her footsteps than his. Of course, I did work in many kitchens during my 'rebellious teenage years.' You can imagine how thrilled my dad was when I told him I wanted to go to cooking school. He nearly took my head off," Alaric said.

Gwen nodded, a slight smile of understanding flickering over her lips before it disappeared. "Parents tend to do that," she said.

"Well, I did it anyways, paying my own way through school since he certainly wouldn't do it. Then I decided to prove to him that I could be just as successful in working as a chef as a solicitor. I got world-class status and went to show him, but he didn't care. I still deviated and that couldn't be reconciled," Alaric said. He stopped, not wanting to talk about what happened later, about the shouting match and exchanged blows that had occurred, about the horrified look on his mother's face when she got backhanded by his father for getting involved, about how he had been effectively disowned and walked out with burning resentment in his heart. He had only exchanged a few tense phone calls with his father since and that was still a sore spot that he avoided with desperation. Yet he had told Gwen much more than he had told anyone else, including Jack. Perhaps it was the quiet way that she listened or the penetrating stare of hers, or maybe he just knew that she wouldn't pity him because she had dealt with worse.

"The family business is always fun," Gwen said, shaking her head gently. Alaric sipped his tea and raised his eyebrows in a question. She tucked a fly-away strand of hair behind her ears and shrugged. "My dad was a deadbeat. He walked out on my mom, my younger brother and I when I was seven. We moved in with my uncle, my mother's brother, and he raised both me and my brother. I adored him. He ran a used and rare book shop and often went out hunting for rare books, bargaining with people until they gave in. I often went with him to get away from my brother—he was reaching the pesky age—and I didn't learn until later that I was being groomed to take over."

"If you adored him, why give up the job and join the Army?" Alaric asked. There was a slight pause in the conversation as the breakfasts were brought with a smile from the waitress. Gwen didn't answer immediately but poured some syrup on her pancakes and speared one with her fork and knife. She ate a bite and chewed as if it were the most wonderful thing she had tasted. Alaric snorted quietly as he spread his beans over his toast. The food was good, but it wasn't that good.

Actually, now that he thought about it, Gwen ate all of her food like that, savouring each bite and eating all of it. Everything she made and was allowed to eat for lunch or dinner or whatever, even the things that didn't turn out as well, she ate with savour.

"I got stupid," Gwen said, shrugging. "I was sixteen and I started looking for my dad. There's nothing quite like the stubborn curiosity of a teenage girl. It took a whole lot of interviews with his old associates and a lot of phone calls that led nowhere, but I found him. It took a year and a half, but I found him. He was staying at a sort of common living centre for veterans. He was in bad shape—drunk, struggling with life—but he had all these people surrounding him who would have supported him through fire and hell. They had, in fact. I wanted that."

"But your uncle," Alaric said, watching with a new fascination as Gwen nodded and picked up another bite of pancake.

"He wasn't thrilled with me for going to find my dad, but my mother was devastated. It took my brother yelling at me and calling me an insufferable selfish bitch that really drove it home. I accused him and the rest of them of trying to make me something that I wasn't. It wasn't pretty and eventually, we all stormed away with serious breaches in trust. I figured that if I couldn't trust the people I had lived with for years, then who could I trust? I remembered my dad and so I joined the Army."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that," Gwen said. She finished her first pancake before speaking again, this time with a note of sadness in her voice, "I did reconcile with my family after my first tour, but things were never quite the same. I had what my dad had. Friends in the Special Forces that stood by me through hell, who I trusted with more than my life. I had all of that, but no real relationship with my family. I haven't talked with them since-"

"Since?" Alaric asked, not noticing the pain and terror in Gwen's eyes as she broke off, occupied as he was with cutting some of his sausage into manageable pieces. He looked up to see her focusing on her own breakfast.

"It's just been a while," Gwen said, her voice flat and dark, signifying that the conversation was at an end. Alaric nodded in what he supposed was understanding, though he couldn't really understand any of what Gwen was going through. He was about to say something when his phone rang, the sound slicing through the tension and giving both a suitable distraction.

Alaric snarled in annoyance at the device and pulled it out, glowering at the number and excusing himself in a huff. He went outside and talked on the phone for a couple of minutes before returning, tossing the phone roughly to the table and slumping down into his seat. Gwen ate her pancake in silence but had an obvious look of question on her face.

"Your watchdog wants you to check in," he said, curling his lip in distaste.

"My watchdog?" Gwen asked.

"Graham," Alaric explained. Gwen sighed and put her fork and knife onto her plate. For the first time that morning, she looked as though she had run many miles on little sleep.

"He's not my watchdog and he needs to figure that out," Gwen said. "He's called a few times in the past week, just wanting to check in, to chat and see what's going on so that he can tell Walter. He's nice, but it's getting on my nerves a bit."

"You should probably call him. He did put together an effort to nearly tear the city apart this morning," Alaric said. Gwen nodded.

"Can I borrow your phone?" Alaric handed over the device and Gwen fumbled with it for a few moments, obviously unused to the new technology. Eventually, she figured it out and managed to dial Graham's number. She rose and, following Alaric's example, walked out of the restaurant to pace around while she talked to Walter Smythe's office manager.

Alaric did his best to finish his breakfast, but he couldn't focus on the food before him, no matter that it was good. All he could do was watch as Gwen paced back and forth then paused, sat on the bench outside the restaurant, stand again and begin pacing once more. Her conversation ran past ten minutes and Alaric was beginning to wonder what she could possibly be talking about. He watched as a flash of surprise flickered over her features and then growled to himself and resolutely forced himself to think about his meal.

Why did he care so much? It wasn't as though they were friends and she would tell him what was going on. Sure, they had shared their respective stories about their childhood and learned more about each other through that conversation, but that meant nothing. Alaric was certain that he was nothing more to Gwen than a teacher and she shouldn't be more to him than a student. He had been wrong about her cooking and about her character and now that he knew he was wrong, he was suffering for it.

He couldn't help but attribute her skill to her determination and bravery in starting a new life. He noticed the little things that she was wont to do—like eating as though she hadn't eaten for a while—and put such meaning behind it. Alaric gave up on eating when he realised what his problem was. He liked her. He found her intriguing and interesting and there wasn't any doubt in his mind that he found her attractive. But this was different for him. All of his previous girlfriends had been so flat and dull, though they had seemed mysterious at first. They were no amateurs in the art of seduction and it was because of his last girlfriend that he lived where he did.

Gwen was different. She didn't ask of anything from him, though she accepted his help when offered. She didn't try to seduce him; Alaric doubted that she was even interested. She was just... Gwen. An enigma, a fascinating woman with an iron core. She seemed content within herself and yet willing to put effort into changing and—Alaric straightened as Gwen returned, looking annoyed.

"Everything alright?" Alaric asked, pushing the thoughts he had just been having from his mind.

"He's.. I don't know. He just wanted to know where I'd been and whether things were alright. It was all very routine, and I'm sure he's not a bad person, he just, ugh," Gwen said, waving her hands vaguely. She handed Alaric back his phone and didn't make any move when their fingers brushed. Alaric was certain that he had been the only one who felt a shiver. "I don't why I don't like him all that much."

"If it's any consolation, I find him to be an annoying bastard," Alaric said. Gwen looked at Alaric pitifully for a moment, her eyebrows drawn together in a confused, questing expression. Then, she smiled. It was a full smile, open and joyful, with a breathy burst of laughter attached to it. Alaric shook his head, his dark hair falling over his eyes. He brushed it back and realised that he didn't really care why Gwen was so interesting to him. It was enough to accept that she was. So he laughed with her.

Gwen shook her head and covered her mouth before leaning back in her chair and smiling at her plate of food. "I shouldn't laugh," she said behind the smile. "He's not a bad guy."

"Most days," Alaric said. He signalled the waitress for the bill and Gwen took the moment to relax into her chair. She sat in a comfortable silence while Alaric paid and then the two finished off their tea and went out to find Alaric's car.

"Thanks for breakfast," Gwen said. "It was nice."

"I told you pancakes were good," Alaric said. Gwen snorted good-naturedly and climbed gracefully into the passenger seat. Inside the car, the sounds were muffled and the silence that hung between the two was obvious. Gwen didn't seem to mind much but Alaric kept shifting uncomfortably, as though he felt Gwen's silence as oppressive. "I... I don't mean to be a prick, but how did you go from the Army to..." Alaric trailed off, suddenly ashamed of what he was trying to ask.

"To the streets?" Gwen said.

"I didn't find out until this morning. A, ah, friend at the fish-market told me and I won't ask if it makes you uncomfortable," Alaric said. He couldn't bring himself to tell her that Graham had been the one to let the information slip. He tightened his hands on the steering wheel of his car and stared fixedly on the traffic to hide his expression. He needn't have worried. Gwen was leaning one elbow on the window frame and looking out at the city around them, calm, if a bit solemn.

"It's fine. Actually, I figured that Walter or Graham would have told you earlier, but I guess not. It's just that I was so used to the military life-style that holding a normal job didn't really fit. I wasn't used to the real world and so I lost my flat and I didn't really have anywhere else to go. The streets were hard, but it was sort of familiar." Gwen didn't mention why real life seemed wrong. She hadn't been able to cope with the loss and couldn't understand why people were so cavalier about things. The continuous nightmares and flashbacks didn't help. Eventually, she had just snapped.

"But it's not so bad, now?" Alaric asked, turning into the parking lot of The Wooden Rose and driving across the street to the building of flats.

"Actually, this is more like the military than you'd think. Everything has to be just-so and you are one hell of a drill sergeant," Gwen said, trying to bring humour back into the conversation. Alaric simply looked stunned, so she replied with a smile and opened the door. "Thanks for the ride. I'll see you in a few hours."

"Uh, right. Sure," Alaric said. Before he could blurt out a question about taking her on a date, the door was closed and Gwen was jogging up to her door. She looked back once and then she was in the building and gone.

Alaric sighed, his shoulders releasing their tension. He put his head to the steering wheel and growled at himself. This wasn't working. He didn't know what "this" was, but it wasn't working. He knew he should head back to his flat and take a shower to get ready for class later, but he was too distracted and The Rose was so close. Alaric turned the car back on and drove over to the parking lot, choosing to get out and go work on the menu or try out a new recipe or anything other than think over the pleasant feeling that spread through him with the image of Gwen.

Maybe Jack was right; finding a girl could be the solution to his anger management.

–-

It was much easier to put his untoward thoughts about Gwen aside when Alaric was directing his kitchen. He still faltered when he caught sight of her in the corner of his vision, but that was fixed when he snapped at Jaime or one of the other students. Especially James.

James was, by far, the best cook out of all the students but he was cocky and annoying, boasting openly to anyone who got too close. The usual kitchen staff had complained to Alaric more than once and the other students avoided him as best they could. Only Gwen was able to put up with him and that was because she ignored him most of the time. Tonight, he was talking about his skill at one of the local defence studios, as he had overheard Gwen and Allison reviewing some of the concepts Gwen had been teaching.

Almost two weeks after the incident that had driven Allison to tears and the small, blonde woman was proving to be an avid learner when it came to fighting. She had gained confidence in her stride and her skill in the kitchen was improving as well, almost to the point where she rivalled James. The tattooed man hadn't liked the competition and so was doing his best to become top dog once again. It was becoming really annoying.

"Seriously, you should come some time," James said, tossing some brussel sprouts in a roasting pan. He looked over at Gwen, who was sharing the station next to him and smirked. "The owner is a master in all sorts of fighting styles and, since I've been doing so well in Karate, he's moved me on to-"

"James," Gwen said, taking her tongs and flipping the duck breast just as it was turning the perfect golden brown Alaric kept pushing them to get. "Stop, please. I'm teaching Allison self-defence, not looking for a fight."

"You haven't been in the fighting circuit for a while, then? That's alright," James said, doing his best to make it sound as though he were being pitying and understanding. "Everyone gets rusty."

Gwen put the pan back on the stove with a loud clatter, her face flushed, from anger or from the heat of the kitchen, it was hard to tell. Alaric moved in their direction to break up a fight if need be. He surreptitiously watched the pair while standing over Bob's station, making the man sweat in consequence. "Seriously, James, just stop. I get enough of your bragging about cooking. I don't need it anywhere else in my life," she snarled. Gwen drew her eyebrows together enough to make it very, very clear that she was barely holding onto her temper. James was oblivious.

"Fine," the man shrugged and began plating the sprouts. Gwen turned her attention back to the duck breasts and sprinkled some basil over them. "I was just thinking you might be interested. No need to bite my head off."

Gwen clenched her jaw and, exchanging a glance with Robert—who had started watching, just like the other kitchen staff—Alaric hurried over. It was too late. Gwen straightened and looked James straight in the eye, "If you want to challenge me, go ahead. You could use a decent bit of humility knocked into you."

"Whoa," James held up his hands, a smirk dancing over his mouth. "Relax. There's no need to go all super-soldier on me."

Gwen snarled wordlessly, her temper snapped. She pulled the duck off the stove and plated them as quickly as she could, shoving the dishes over to Sarah, who had been preparing the rest of the meal. Then, she stalked in the direction of the storage areas. Alaric frowned and followed. No one was supposed to get angry in his kitchen but him and, when it came to Gwen, he was more worried than he should have been.

"Wait," Jack said, putting a hand on Alaric's shoulder as the head-chef approached the storage area. He was far enough back that Gwen didn't notice him and his friend and manager stopped him from going any further. "Let her cool off a bit. She's going to need it."

"What?" Alaric asked, rubbing the towel at his apron strings over his forehead. He heard a loud thunk and turned, wide-eyed to look at Gwen. She was pacing back and forth, her hands clenched into fists at her side. In the freezer door, a stainless steel sheet that was tough but pliable, there was a dent that looked as though it had come from a fist. Alaric swallowed and turned back to Jack. "What do you mean?"

"Just let her cool off and then have her come out to the floor. There's someone she needs to talk to," Jack said. With another gentle pat on Alaric's shoulder, the manager left. Alaric took a deep breath and looked to his kitchens. Jamie was bantering good-naturedly with Tom over a salmon steak and Jennifer was smiling as she chopped carrots into fine pieces. Things were running smoothly and so he turned behind him, to the storage areas.

"Hey," Alaric said, fingering a bottle of wine as though he had come back to grab an ingredient instead of check up on Gwen.

"Sorry about the freezer," she said, stopping her pacing to lean against the wall.

"It's fine," Alaric said. He paused then, giving up on the wine, went to stand next to her. "Is everything alright?"

"Yeah," Gwen said. "I just figured that I was done having to prove myself to idiots like James when I left the army. Especially when it came to defending myself."

"I thought that you said you were used to having to prove yourself," Alaric said.

"Well, yes, but with jerks like that, it's different. They have no right to demand that I prove myself and they still do, just to get a kick when they figure out that they're better than you. I've met far too many people like that and it's been getting on my nerves for a while," Gwen said. She took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds before letting it out again. "Sorry. I didn't mean to get all annoying on you."

"You're not annoying," Alaric said before he could stop himself. He was thankful that Gwen replied with a sarcastic yet thankful smile rather than anything else. "Feeling better?"

"Yeah," she said. "I'll get back to the kitchens, now."

"Actually, Jack said there's someone out on the floor who wants to talk with you," Alaric said. Gwen raised her eyebrows in question. "Probably Graham or Walter. I wondered how long it would take before one of them showed up to check on you."

"Right," Gwen said. She pressed her lips together and shook her head. It was fairly plain she didn't want to deal with them right now, but it was her duty and so she did. She pushed herself off of the wall and moved through the kitchens, smiling at people who smiled at her and seeming like she belonged there. Alaric couldn't help but follow, completely ignoring the looks he got as he walked through the doors to the floor.

He paused, though, just as the entrance to the kitchens, scanning the crowd of people at The Rose for any sign of Walter or Graham or both. He saw nothing. Gwen approached Jack and exchanged a few words with him before moving across the restaurant to a table in a secluded corner. She made it to about five feet away before freezing, her breath catching in her throat.

"Hello, Lieutenant Townsend," the man said.

"Major Dalton," she breathed.

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