The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 6

Major Dalton was a quiet looking man, with a pair of eyes that were calm and belonged on the features of a favourite uncle, not someone of his standing. Gwen knew, though, that in an instant, those eyes could turn into wells of fury and that his kind, pleasant looks would become wrathful. Sitting there before her, she wished that he would look at her with anger rather than the pity he offered. She couldn't move, completely frozen by the shock of seeing him again. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Gwen was planning escape routes, her training telling her that now would be a rally great time to flee.

"Lieutenant," Major Dalton said, rising and bridging the gap between Gwen and himself. Gwen retreated. "Gwen, hold on," the Major said, holding out his hands to show her that he meant no harm. He took another step forwards and Gwen, adrenaline beginning to run through her so that her vision narrowed and the sounds of the restaurant melted away, stepped backwards again.

"Is everything alright?" The new voice startled Gwen and she turned, bringing her hands up in a defensive posture, sliding into a fighting stance. Alaric put a hand on her shoulder and she shuddered, instinct telling her to pull backwards and reason telling her that he wouldn't hurt her. She listened to her training and pulled away, causing Alaric to blink.

He looked between Gwen and this unknown man and raised his eyebrows, his temper beginning to fray. Gwen needed to be back in the kitchens, not out here, having a conversation with someone that she obviously didn't want to see. Given that, why didn't this man understand that she didn't want to talk to him. He considered repeating his question but didn't, instead settling on an annoyed look.

"I am Major Jonas Dalton," the man said, holding out a hand for Alaric to shake. Hesitantly, and glancing at Gwen to gauge her reaction to this, Alaric shook the proffered appendage. "Lieutenant Townsend—Gwen—and I go way back. I got a call the other day from a Walter Smythe, telling me that Gwen was working at the restaurant. I guess I was the closest thing to a job reference they had. I came here to catch up."

"Catch up," Gwen said, the words sounding disjointed and alien in her mouth. She gaped at the Major as if she couldn't believe that was what he wanted to do. Alaric wanted to step in front of her and take care of this—he wasn't sure if that was because he felt a fierce loyalty to all those who worked in his kitchens (sometimes, even including the incompetent ones) or if it were just his feelings towards Gwen that made him want to protect her. Either way, he forced himself to stand where he was, close enough to Gwen that she could reach out if she needed.

"Yes," Major Dalton answered. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, fixing Gwen in his care-worn gaze. "I don't like it when my people drop off the grid, Gwen. No one's heard from you in over a year. Your family has stopped calling. I was almost sure that you had-" he broke off, choking at the words that threatened to escape.

"Had what?" Gwen asked quietly, daring the Major to say what was on the tip of his tongue.

"It doesn't matter, you're here and doing well," Major Dalton said. Alaric frowned.

"Had what?" Gwen repeated, her gaze narrowing and her voice going hard as steel. For the first time, Alaric noticed that they were creating a scene and that all of the people in the near vicinity were either openly watching the confrontation or were doing their best to be subtle. As much as he wanted to tell the Major that this, whatever this was, could be done elsewhere, he knew that Gwen would flee as soon as she saw an opportunity. Or at least, that's what it looked like she was going to do. But at her words, the way she spat them, as if she were accusing the Major, Alaric wondered if things would go the other way and hoped that Gwen's "fight or flight" response wasn't tuned towards "fight" right now.

The Major kept Gwen's gaze, not backing down from the challenge. It was this that made the words that much more terrible when Alaric heard them. "Had killed yourself."

Gwen made a noise in the back of her throat somewhere between a gasp of surprise and a growl and she curled her lip ever so slightly. She shifted and Alaric acted before he could think about it, desperation driving him to stop the fight that was sure to break out. "Gwen," he said, stepping in front of his student and who knows what else. "Not here, not now."

Gwen straighten, returning her posture to military-perfect instead of fighting-ready. She glared openly at the Major and then ducked her head to Alaric. "I have to get back to the kitchens," she muttered as an excuse, then fled. Alaric stood, watching her departing figure until she disappeared behind the doors of the kitchen. He hoped that she wouldn't take out her anger on the freezer door anymore.

"I'm sorry about that," the Major spoke again. Alaric turned, looking at the man. He wasn't that much taller than Alaric and he wasn't built up like the movies depicted. He was fit, of that there was no doubt, but his power came from the quiet authority he exuded and the confidence that he knew his place and his strength and he knew how to use it. "She's a good person, was one of the best soldiers I ever had the honour of working with. But ever since she lost her squad, she's been volatile."

"Lost her squad," Alaric said, drawing his eyebrows together. "Volatile," he continued, a tone of disbelief in his voice.

"She... she hasn't told you?" the Major said. Alaric felt that saying told me what would be far too obvious, so he just shook his head, suddenly very curious to learn everything that this Major knew about Gwen, the quiet and capable woman who worked in his kitchens. With a sigh, the Major took his seat again, picking up the glass of wine that sat by his plate. He swirled it around and stared into the burgundy liquid. "Ah."

"She's a good cook and seems to have things together, but she's definitely quiet about anything... personal," Alaric said, realising in that instant, just how true his words were. Gwen was able to talk with people easily and she occasionally told stories about her own life, but there was nothing personal in them, nothing that could reveal anything about herself. And that was beginning to be a problem for Alaric.

"I would say that it would be better to wait for her to tell you," Major Dalton said, putting his wine glass down again. "But I know her far too well to believe that will happen before... before it may be too late."

"She doesn't seem suicidal," Alaric said. Major Dalton shook his head and replied with a wan smile, about to respond. A burst of laughter from one of the guests in the restaurant startled Alaric out of his focus on the Major. He had the kitchens to attend to and while they could manage on their own for a bit, there were better places to have this conversation. The fear that Major Dalton would go away before Alaric could find out what he wanted was pulsating behind his temples. He sucked in a breath and, breaking all of his personal rules about interacting with guests, especially when he was working, sat across from the Major.

This man seemed to understand the step that Alaric was taking and, in the same breath, understood the motives behind it. His calm, comforting presence made it seem okay and Alaric leant forwards. "Gwen has changed a lot since the last time I saw her," the Major said. "She has 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. I... would like to talk with you about this, but you have a manager looking for you and I think that there are better places for this conversation," Major Dalton said. He spoke with the authority that made it apparent that his words were not a request while allowing Alaric to breathe a sigh of relief.

The chef stood and nodded to the Major, running his hands through his hair as he tried to come to terms with what had been said. He took another breath for his own sanity and held out a hand to the Major. "It was nice to meet you."

"You as well," the Major said. He slipped a business card into Alaric's hand. "I'll be in London for another three days. You can reach me at this number. If... you want to talk."

Alaric nodded in acknowledgement and answered with a smile that only touched one side of his mouth. He turned towards the kitchens where, as the Major had said, Jack was poking his head out of the door, watching Alaric. "Oh, and chef," Major Dalton said before Alaric had made it three steps. The man turned, raising his eyebrows. "You've done more than you know. For her."

"I don't think it was me," Alaric said and returned to work.

His skin had cooled down in the interlude from the kitchens and he grinned at the rush of heat and noise that came over him. There was the sizzling of meat in pans and one of his sous chefs and students were at the cutting stations, chopping vegetables and focusing on their task with fierce looks and slight smiles. This was where he was meant to be. Amongst the activity and the heat, moving from place to place as he checked on multiple dishes at once, cooking everything with just the right touch, just the right amount of attention. He had people who looked at him with respect and the right amount of—flattering—fear. He belonged here, in the kitchens of The Wooden Rose.

Gwen, on the other hand, did not belong like Alaric did. She fit in well, accomplishing her tasks with precision, even art and she was far past the stage of overcooking or undercooking a dish. She created concoctions out of flavours that suited one another and the extra training that Alaric had been giving her was obviously paying off. But there was a seriousness behind her eyes that made Alaric painfully aware that she wasn't content here, that there was something plaguing her and making her press her lips more tightly together as she cleaned vegetables under a spray of water. She looked as though she were grieving and, worse, as though she were in pain.

Alaric wanted to fix that. He wanted to make her belong in the kitchens because she had talent that could shine if it were nurtured properly. She could be content there, more than content. She could be happy. Yet something held her back.

He shook his head and lunged for an unfulfilled order slip, heading over to his own work station where he began to work. Every now and again he looked up, snapping orders to someone who seemed to be slacking off or was making a glaring error, but mostly he worked in silence, thinking. He thought about why it was that he felt the need to protect and help Gwen, why her pain mattered so much to him. Alaric knew it went beyond the normal student-teacher relationship. He was, like it or not, her friend. He only had a few friends, namely Jack, and the fact that Gwen was one as well shocked him. It wasn't what he had expected, but it was nice.

With this newfound friendship came a sense of duty and loyalty. She was hurting and he was going to help. He hoped that she would come to him on his own, but given what the Major had said and the way that Gwen had pulled away from him, as if he were intruding on something dark and secret, he doubted she would. It was then that the business card seemed to begin burning a hole in his pocket.

He only managed to corner her at the end of the night, when they were about to begin their extra training. Gwen waved to Allison as the blonde woman left and walked to the freezer to grab a few spring berries just as Alaric was walking out. He brushed by her and it was like his entire body was aware of the touch, burning and causing him to want to follow her and demand more. Okay, Alaric thought, swallowing as he hurried into the kitchens to get out a pan, not just friends, then.

Gwen returned a moment later, looking a bit worse for the wear. "Are you okay?" Alaric asked. She looked at him, knowing that the question spanned far more than being tired. She opened her mouth to answer "fine" then paused, shrugged and moved over to the stove.

"It doesn't matter," Gwen said. "I just wasn't expecting to see him here."

"I hate to be that person," Alaric said, watching as Gwen bathed the frozen berries in a cold water bath and put them in the pan, about to take the juices out for a syrup. "But do you want to talk about it?"

Gwen gave Alaric an incredulous look and raised her eyebrows. Then, seeing how out of his element he looked, she started to laugh. It was infectious and eventually, Alaric joined in, though he managed to keep an eye on the berries. "Add the honey liqueur and yeah, I know. But I'm not really all that good with... that sort of thing."

"I'm sure that you're a hit with all those sobbing women out there," Gwen said, tipping the liqueur into the mixture with a flick of her wrist that Alaric was sure he hadn't taught her. She stirred the fruit around and turned up the heat, watching as the berries started to simmer down.

"Yes. I've been certified by the 'sobbing women society' to lend my professional advice," Alaric said. "I would add something else to that syrup, if I were you. Maybe—huh, I wouldn't think that nutmeg would work with that."

"Honey and nutmeg are a great combination. I used to put nutmeg in all the pies I made when I was a kid," Gwen said, shaving a few flakes off of the nutmeg.

"I'm sure you made plenty of pies," Alaric said, reaching around him for a lighter, which he then handed to Gwen. She shot him a look and he shrugged.

"Actually, I made a round total of two pies in my life," Gwen said. "Both were for my brother's birthday, until he decided that it was much cooler to go out with his friends and buy a cake. But they went over pretty well, at the time."

"You should be a baker," Alaric said. He smiled as Gwen flicked the lighter on and held the flame to the bubbling mixture in the pan. The liquid flared, the alcohol catching fire while the sugar merely caramelised, not hot enough to light. A moment later and the fire was out and Gwen stirred her spoon through the liquid once before turning off the heat and moving the pan to a cool burner.

"I don't think I have the patience for baking," Gwen said. "Besides, I think I'm doing pretty well, here. I don't want to go about changing careers and learning something new all over again."

"That, and I think that the French baking masters are a bit more... angry than me," Alaric said, watching as, stirring the syrup occasionally to keep the juices from solidifying, Gwen began to mix the ingredients for crepes. She whipped everything together and heated an iron skillet, putting a great dollop of butter in the middle. She began pouring out the thin pancakes and frowned at the thick, lumpy result.

"I don't get it," she said, putting the bowl of batter back onto the counter. "I did everything right."

"Here," Alaric said, stepping forwards and reaching for a tablespoon. He scraped the pancake that Gwen had made out of the skillet and handed her the spoon. "Now, reheat the pan, spreading the butter out evenly." Gwen did as she was told. Alaric stepped behind her to get to the batter, swallowing as he brushed against her. "Take the spoon and take the batter. Make sure you put it in the pan as quickly as possible. Just one spoonful, that's it. Okay, before it starts to cook, use the back of the spoon and spread the crepe out in circles, gently, gently."

Gwen took the spoon and moved it in a counterclockwise circle, slowly, gently, spreading the batter out until there was only a thin layer covering the skillet. She waited until one side was cooked enough and, with a questing glance at Alaric who nodded, took the skilled and flicked it with her wrist. The crepe slid out of the pan and into the air, falling back down and landing half folded. "So close," Gwen said, hurrying to straighten out the crepe.

"No, that was good," Alaric said. When Gwen looked at him with an astonished look, he nearly flushed and looked away. Normally, he was harsh and abrasive, growling at the simplest mistake until Gwen got it right. That was the point of these evening sessions, after all. It was too late to back down, so Alaric continued, trying to justify what he had said. "When I was learning to make crepes, it took me months of working to get that flip just right. I even know some people who use a spatula, like with normal pancakes. It's... what?"

Gwen averted her gaze, focusing on making another crepe, using the spoon to spread the batter out. "Nothing."

"No, that was definitely a look," Alaric said, growling slightly.

"It's nothing," Gwen insisted. Alaric huffed in response, reaching towards the syrup and stirring it with a ferociously wielded spoon. Gwen shook her head."Alright, there's definitely something going on," Alaric said, slamming the spoon to its rest. "What is it?"

"It's just that you're not normally so, well, nice," Gwen said. "Do you know that everyone, including your kitchen staff, is terrified of you?"

"They're not-""They are. Even James knows not to mess with you, annoying though he is," Gwen said. "But we're used to it. We can judge how well things are going by how angry and vocal you are. The louder and more colourful your curses, the better the night. The darker, more sullen you get, things aren't doing so well. I'm just not used to you being quite so understanding."

"I though we had a great, understanding, conversation over breakfast a couple of weeks ago," Alaric grumbled. Gwen flipped the crepe she was making, failing again to get it to sit properly. This one tore slightly as she fixed it and she frowned.

"Well, yes, but that wasn't while we were cooking. In the kitchens, things are different," Gwen said. "You expect things to be done right. Anyone who doesn't live up to your standards is told."

"You make it sound as though I'm some sort of cruel professor who sends little girls crying to the loo," Alaric frowned. Gwen laughed and turned off the stove, pulling out two pristine plates and putting the crepes on them. She took the syrup and drizzled that over top, spooning the remaining berries into the middle. With a fork, she deftly folded the crepe over itself and handed a plate to Alaric.

"I figure if we get to make dessert, then we should at least get to try it," Gwen said. She smiled endearingly and it was hard to refuse her. Alaric certainly wasn't able. He growled half-heartedly and took his plate to an empty counter, leaning against it and contemplating his dessert with a fork poised in the air. He didn't look particularly happy. "Wait," Gwen said, reaching for the liqueur bottle and the lighter. She drizzled the honey liqueur over the dessert. For a few seconds, the magnificent flames licked at the air before dying out and the crepe had taken on a golden, crisp colour.

"I don't normally condone setting desserts on fire," Alaric said, cutting into the crepe with his fork. "But I think I'll make an exception."

"I always thought it was sort of fun, watching things catch on fire. No one ever seemed to be concerned, not in the kitchens. I thought that was one of the best things about being a chef. I've been waiting to try it out," Gwen said. Alaric nodded and stuffed a bite of crepe in his mouth. He chewed slowly and then gave Gwen a slight dip of his head. She fairly beamed.

"The rate that you're going, these sessions are almost a waste of time," Alaric admitted.

"So you don't want to continue them?" Gwen asked. It was asked innocently enough, but Alaric froze all the same. He knew that it was rather pointless to continue making both of them tired, keeping them up late to work on something that needed no help. But he didn't want to stop.

"I just don't think you need them anymore," he said softly. Gripping his fork and feeling honest, he looked down at his dessert. "But I like spending time with you."

"I do, too, when you're not biting my head off about cutting carrots wrong," Gwen joked. Alaric chuckled weakly, knowing that she didn't quite understand what he meant. He took another bite of his crepe and cast his thoughts about to see if he could figure out something to talk about.

"You've had a long day," he said at last. "What with Major Dalton showing up and putting up with James. Why don't you head home. I'll clean up here."

"What?" Gwen said, stunned. "You're letting me get out of cleaning? Okay, you being nice was different but this is just plain strange. Is everything alright?"

"Fine," Alaric said. "I just think you've earned a break. Go on. I'll take care of this."

Gwen hesitated but Alaric shot her a look and half a snarl and she retreated, knowing better than to look a gift-horse in the mouth. Or at least, knowing to choose her battles. Something was eating Alaric, but she didn't think she could fix it. He needed time. So, scooping her dessert into a take-away box, Gwen threw one last look at Alaric, still sitting and staring at his half-eaten crepe, and left.

As soon as the back door was closed, Alaric sighed and put his fork down. He put his head in his hands and sighed. He couldn't keep tip-toeing around Gwen just because he wasn't sure what would cause her pain. He had to understand what was going on in her mind so that he could figure out how to deal with whatever it was that he was feeling towards her. He would have asked her, but he wanted to avoid that pain-filled look that she was bound to get. He wanted to help her, not cause her pain.

He reached into his pocket and pulled the business card out, staring at it without really seeing what he was holding. The words swam before his eyes and, only when he was able to recall the way that Gwen had stared, frozen in fear at the sight of her old Major, did he pull his phone out and dial the number on the card.

"Hello?" The voice was unmistakeably Major Dalton, for which Alaric was grateful. He didn't want to deal with some office-lackey in a matter such as this.

"Hello, Major. This is Alaric Bennet, er, the chef from The Wooden Rose," Alaric said.

"Of course. What can I do for you?"

"Well, I was thinking I would take you up on your offer. About Gwen, I mean. Is there somewhere you would prefer to meet?"

"Are you free for breakfast? There's a nice little spot near my hotel and I've been told they have a decent cup of tea," the Major said. Alaric agreed, got the details and hung up with little ceremony. Then, tossing his phone onto the counter in disdain, he slumped his shoulders and put his fingers through his hair. The crepe he had eaten was beginning to sit poorly in his stomach.

Gwen stood in the storage room, having come back for her coat. She didn't mean to overhear, but it was hard not to. The kitchens were silent, the floor was silent and there was nothing to stop Alaric's voice from echoing through the building. He wanted to meet Major Dalton. About her. There could be only one reason that her boss—she had wanted to think of him as a friend, especially after tonight but hearing what she had just heard meant there was little chance of that—was meeting with the former leader of her regiment.

Were it anyone but her, the fear would have gnawed at her insides. But in Gwen, her fear turned to resolve and anger and a fire flared up inside of her. Without a noise, she grabbed her coat from the hook by the door and left the restaurant. She made it to her building before her anger grew strong enough to break through. With a roar of rage, Gwen balled her fingers into a fist and drove them into the wall.

The brick fractured, just at the mortaring, and so did her hand. Skin broken and bleeding, Gwen sank to her knees and cradled the injured appendage in her lap, beginning to cry. Her burden, what she had done, was for her to accept and deal with. Not a dark-haired, fiery tongued, friendly—damn it, but he was that—chef.

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