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Cocktails and Cheese

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Cocktails & Cheese

Cullen and Alistair - A Modern Day AU

Chapter 1

A Chance Meeting


 

Alistair Theirin loved to be around people. He was naturally good with them; making them feel relaxed and comfortable enough to share their deepest regrets and darkest desires with him. It was a gift of his that worked well with his chosen profession.

Tending bar in downtown Denerim allowed for him to be surrounded by all manner of interesting and exciting people. He was happy to be the center of attention and was well liked for his trade, however, he was utterly lonely. He spent his nights listening to other people’s problems and helping them drown their sorrows. He was a cheap therapist that they could come too to make themselves feel better, but it was always about them. For all of their fawning and attention, no one but his best friends; Lana and her wife, Leliana, ever seriously asked about Alistair. As he went through the motions--night after night--same customers, same stories, same ‘interested’ smile plastered on his face, he kept his own hopes and fears safely hidden away behind his enigmatic smile and almost never-ending, charming banter.

Content in his trade, he never felt that he needed anything more. The bar was his home, his refuge, and source of comfort. With trays of food and good conversation, he made it his goal to make his customers feel the same. He firmly believed that a bartender could make the best tasting drink ever, but if their service didn’t make the guest feel special, then the drink itself wouldn’t taste as good.** It was a philosophy that Alistair lived by; and one that seemed to be working quite well for him.

When he opened the business eight years ago, he never imagined that it would be so successful. It was a fantastical idea that came to him one night over drinks with his dearest friends and roommates. The three of them made it work, playing on each of their strengths. They fell into their new roles seamlessly, as if these were the parts they were always meant to play: Alistair tended bar, Lana hired the wait-staff, and Leliana managed the musicians. They all enjoyed their work and were very good at what they did, but even so, there was a longing deep in Alistair’s heart that he couldn’t put his finger on.

~*~

Commander Cullen Rutherford was happiest when he was helping people. A former Templar turned detective, driven by duty, spending most of his time either buried in paperwork or out working in the field. He’s quiet and reserved and though he spent long hours, fighting for the little guy; when he retired for the day, he was always alone in his small-but-functional, apartment. His work was rewarding; his personal life, however, was all about Chinese take-out, going to the gym, and lonely nights drinking by himself, only to wake up in the morning to do it all over again. Reports, investigations, and being on a first name basis with the people at Mr. Chen’s on the corner, were the extent of his life. He knew he needed something more, but as of yet, the Maker hadn’t revealed to him what it was that was missing from his life.

Cullen had been working on a particularly frustrating case that was going nowhere. He was used to working difficult cases, but something about this assignment was leaving him particularly drained. His most recent lead left him aggravated. Instead of getting into his Jeep to head home, he found himself wandering downtown Denerim, trying to clear his head and figure out what rock to look under next. His ambling feet brought him to an unfamiliar street. Curious about the new scenery--and starting to lament skipping dinner--he decided to wander through the rapidly dimming light to see if he could find a place to get a bite to eat.

With hands deep in the pockets of his long overcoat to fend off the early spring chill, he walked through the mist, down the newly discovered street. A non-descript door suddenly opened, letting out sounds of laughter and a warm golden light which illuminated a dwarven couple staggering out into the cool night air. They were tipsy, laughing, and completely oblivious to the fact that they had nearly run into the tall, imposing man walking along the sidewalk.

Arm in arm, the duo stumbled down the street and around the corner. Cullen watched them disappear, then glanced up at the faded sign hung overhead. He chuckled at the tongue in cheek name of the place, but thought it sounded as good a place as any to grab a drink, if not a meal.

Taking a deep breath, he grabbed the handle of the door and opened it wide, letting the sound and warmth wash over him. Walking into unfamiliar bars at night, was not something he would normally do, but after the week that he’d had, Cullen didn’t feel like drinking alone. He wanted to be around people, even if he wasn’t part of their laughter and camaraderie.

Stepping inside, he paused to take in his new surroundings. It wasn’t terribly crowded, but held just over a dozen people in small diverse groups around the room. Two couples were playing pool in the back. An unoccupied dart board was set up on the far wall immediately to the right of the front door. Three tables sat in the middle of the room in front of a stage, two of those tables were occupied.

On the stage stood a lone woman with red hair, cropped at an even length near her ears. Her voice was more beautiful than a nightingale's; soothing and pure. She played a strange sort of guitar… a lute, if he remembered correctly. Though the customers appeared to be enjoying her music, she seemed to be singing for the pure joy of the music itself.

Weaving deftly amongst the tables was a petite, elven waitress who also seemed to be enjoying what she was doing. No taller than five feet in height, with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and wisps framing her bronze face on either side, she smiled as if there were nowhere else in Thedas she would rather be. She wore a flowing, blue cotton dress, a black apron tied around her waist, comfortable shoes, and the most radiant smile as she shimmied from table to table taking and delivering orders.

There was a small group of women standing at the bar along the left wall talking with the bartender. The bar top itself was a deep mahogany, which matched the warm color of the walls. It stretched almost the entire length of the left side of the room, but instead of connecting to the entrance wall, it curved; providing for some more secluded seating, away from everyone else.

The fixtures were all dark patina’d brass, which only enhanced the warm glow of the lights that they held. As a whole, the room felt welcoming and inviting. Not having experienced that feeling in quite some time, Cullen made up his mind to stay; if only for one drink.

He made his way towards the end of the bar closest to the entrance, where it curved to meet the wall. It was a perfect strategic location. His body tucked into the left corner of the room as one entered, he could see everything… and everyone, including the front door. The location suited him very well.

Cullen watched with interest as the barkeep talked and laughed animatedly with his customers. He was fairly tall, slender, and well-muscled; more wiry than bulky though, with red hair that shot from the top of his head in short spikes as if that were all it was capable of doing. His voice carried to him smooth as honey and the three women at the counter seemed completely enamored by the man’s boyish charm. It was his smile, however, that really drew the detective’s attention. He read warmth and caring in its attentiveness with a hint of longing buried deep underneath.

The part of him that loved to understand people, pondered briefly what someone who seemed so happy could be hiding in that sad tinged smile. He also noticed that the women didn’t seem to notice anything amiss as whatever he was hiding, was well concealed beneath his friendly banter. Cullen concluded that whatever it was that the barkeep was longing for, was either so deeply ingrained that he wasn’t aware it was there… or perhaps that he himself… worked too much and really shouldn’t analyze every person that he came across.

Shaking his head, Cullen decided that he was off the clock and would just enjoy this new experience as much as possible. He wasn’t here to read people or to dissect their hidden secrets, no matter how well camouflaged and thusly intriguing they appeared to be. Removing his coat, he draped it over his chair, sat back and relaxed into this new, warm environment. The intriguing man, with the magnetic smile, delivered the drinks to the ladies and turned towards his end of the bar, changing his life forever.

~*~

Alistair just finished ‘suggesting’ to the couple that were all over each other; that they should take their arduous adventures back to their apartment instead of putting on a show for his whole bar to see. Thankfully, they had left without issue. He was fulfilling another order at the bar when the door opened once again.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a rather tall and imposing, lone figure enter and pause as if to take in the whole room, before heading towards the curved end of the bar. It was the side of the room that no one ever really sat in, though it boasted a view of the entire pub. It was dark and secluded, but still accessible. The fact that the man in the long overcoat sat in the spot that he himself would have chosen to gain the best defensible overview of the pub, had his interest peaked. As he finished serving drinks to the ladies at the bar, he turned towards the newest guest and paused at the sight before him.

The stranger had removed his coat and underneath was dressed in a charcoal grey suit with a white button down shirt which was unfastened at the collar. He wore a deep red tie with diagonal gold pinstripes, loosened to match his opened buttons. Even though he was seated, the new arrival was taller than Alistair had initially estimated, maybe even as tall as his own six foot frame, but easily broader in the shoulders. He had curly, wheat-blonde hair, slicked back and almost straightened yet disheveled like he’d been running his fingers through it. There was a scowl that darkened his features, a small scar bisecting his top lip on the right side which was turned down in contemplation. His eyes were scanning the room, taking in everyone and everything surrounding him. He seemed, unsure yet curious.

Interesting.

Realizing that he had stopped dead in his tracks, Alistair reminded himself to relax and continued towards the striking man that had just graced his bar with his presence.

Tonight may be looking up after all.

As Alistair approached, he noticed two things: first, he saw the stranger’s eyes watching him with a hungry intensity, next, he noticed a lightening of said gentleman’s scowl as he drew closer. Wearing his most friendly, welcoming smile--which wasn’t that difficult as he was genuinely intrigued by this new handsome face that had just walked into his world--Alistair leaned into the newcomer at the end of the bar.

“What’s your pleasure?” He said to the intriguing stranger who watched him approach with the most amazing amber colored eyes.

Cullen blinked and stared dumbly at the bartender who had just taken his breath away with a mere smile. He knew that he’d been asked a question, but it was as if he spoke another language. His mind registered the voice; it was like a refreshing rain after a particularly desiccated summer, but he couldn’t place the words. Blinking again through the haze, he cleared his throat and asked, “I’m sorry… you said?”

Alistair leaned in closer, leaning his elbow on the counter. Finding a boldness he’d long forgotten he possessed, he rephrased his question, “A drink? What would you like? I’d give you your usual, but considering this is your first time here--and I am not a mind reader, like little Lana over there,” he indicated the tiny waitress. “You’ll have to help me out a little.” His grin grew with his courage, “Give me time though, and I will have your pleasures memorized and offered up upon your arrival in the future.”

Alistair felt strangely emboldened. There was something about him that drew Alistair in like a moth to a flame. He prayed the feeling might be mutual. He’d have to remember to ask Lana later. If she’d be willing to share that is. She rarely was.

Cullen was completely unprepared for the feelings that were washing over him.

Is this he actually flirting with me?

Shaking his head, he dismissed the thought as unlikely; believing instead that the bartender was just really good at what he did. Finding his smile disarming yet friendly, however, he allowed himself to relax and decided to enjoy the eye-candy before him while having a drink to finish off his night.

He managed to stutter out a simple, “Scotch… or Whiskey on the rocks.” Then added as an afterthought, “Johnny Walker--Black if you’ve got it?”

Cullen watched the bartender smile in understanding and walk off to fill his drink order. He wasn’t paying attention to what was being poured as he was distracted by the particular way that the bartender’s ass moved in those well-fitting jeans.

Pull it together Rutherford, you’re going to creep this guy out if you keep on with your ogling. You don’t even know his name. Do people ask bartenders names? Should I? Would that be weird? Will he even remember me after I leave tonight? One face of many that he sees, I’m sure I’ll be quickly forgotten. Would he even be interested?

As he was having his own inner dialogue, the petite waitress--that the bartender had named ‘Lana’--stopped at his elbow and whispered, “Relax. He’s been waiting for you longer than even he realizes.” And with that cryptic statement, she wandered off again.

Strange.

Alistair turned just as Lana was walking away from their newest guest whose eyes were following her in disbelief.

Uh oh, what’d she just say to him? Maker, please don’t let her be doing that creepy thing she does again!

Finishing his silent plea, he vowed to ask her about what that was all about later. Bringing over the freshly poured drink, he confessed, “I do have Black, but try this instead. I don’t mean to pry into your business, but you look like you could use something… better to take the edge off your day.”

Cullen chuckled but mumbled mostly to himself, “You have no idea.”

Taking a sip, Cullen closed his eyes at the smooth burn as it went down his throat. He let out a low moan without meaning to and heard the bartender chuckle.

“Black is good, but only Blue Reserve goes down that smoothly.” Alistair was talking, but he was etching that indecently arousing sound into his memory.

What I wouldn’t do to be the cause of that moan under more... private surroundings.

Alistair heard Lana giggle which brought him out of his reverie. He tossed a bar towel at her which she deftly snatched out of the air, draped it over her arm, and continued on about her work as if nothing unusual had just happened.

Cullen’s eyes grew wide as he stared into his glass. Fully aware that the cost of the Blue Reserve was usually well above his pay grade.

Alistair reassured him when he caught the look of dismay, “This one’s on the house, friend. Like I said, you look like you could use it. What’s your name?”

Taking another sip, he nodded his head in thanks before swallowing and answering with a small smile, “Cullen. You?”

Alistair beamed down at him and pointed dramatically to the sign above the bar that read, ‘Alistair’s House of Whine and Cheese’. Then he said with a slight bow, “I’m Alistair, welcome to my humble establishment.”

Cullen chuckled at the name, “Wine and cheese? Did I order the wrong drink then?”

Used to this response, Alistair reached beneath the bar and produced a tray containing crackers, pretzels, and at least three different kinds of cheeses. Setting it in front of Cullen and exaggerating the H, he over-enunciated, “Wh...ine and Cheese. A place for people to come in, relax, socialize, and occasionally whine about their problems. I happen to have a gift for gab, or so I’ve been told. Though in all honesty, I spend more time listening than talking myself.” Noticing a tall Qunari approaching the bar, Alistair excused himself. “Ah… duty calls. Take a moment to enjoy; I’ll be right back.” He indicated the drink and tray of food sitting before Cullen, then turned to serve his other guests.

Cullen watched Alistair poured the drinks; paying particular attention to the way his shoulders rolled under the thin cotton of his t-shirt, muscles undulating as he shook one martini after another into their waiting glasses. Cullen picked at his food and hid his face behind another swig of scotch as his mind wandered:

Oh how I’d love to run my hands over those shoulders, wrap him in my arms, hold him tightly against my chest, feeling his body heat mix with my own, inhale the light spiciness of his cologne as I breathe him in while I lean in to kiss that tender spot just under and behind his ear…

“~Breathe~” he heard whispered in a strangely familiar voice at his elbow, bringing him out of his daydream.

Realizing that he had, in fact, been holding his breath, he turned to question the woman as to how she seemed to be so aware of his inner thoughts, but she was already walking away giggling. This seemed to draw Alistair’s attention, who turned and was now smiling brightly at him.

Crap! He caught me staring!

Cullen felt his face flush, so he looked down into his drink and took another sip to try to drown out his embarrassment and pull himself together.

Way to go Rutherford. The first handsome face that’s caught your interest in over a decade and you’re going to scare him away if you’re not careful.

Still, he couldn’t help but steal glances here and there when he was relatively sure that Alistair was otherwise occupied.

Maker’s breath but he is beautiful!

Those honey-brown eyes had already begun to melt the ice covering his heart, leaving behind an ache so profound that Cullen pondered how it could still be beating. For so long now his work had ruled over everything. His duty always came first, but this… maybe it was time to do something for himself. He’d been alone for longer than he cared to remember. But doubt still plagued his soul. Could this handsome man possibly be interested in someone as duty bound and broken as he felt most days? He knew it would take more than just one drink to build up the kind of courage he would need to ask.

Having finished up with his other customers, Alistair was now free to return to his conversation with Cullen. Turning back, he noticed that he seemed to be brooding over his now-empty glass with a myriad of emotions ghosting across his face. His heart almost broke with the pain he saw there. He wanted to fix it for him, ease his troubles and make all that anguish go away. Alistair was pretty sure that he caught him staring at him a little while ago, but now he was staring studiously anywhere but at him.

Did my flirting offend him somehow?

A chair scraped the floor off to his left, pulling him out of his own thoughts. Lana was looking at him and in answer to his worry, she was shaking her head ‘no’. Then she jerked her head in Cullen’s direction which usually meant that it was time to put his ‘bartending’ skills to use. He was here to listen after all. Pouring his guest another drink, he approached the now dour faced man.

Reaching out, Alistair removed the empty glass from Cullen’s grasp, their fingers brushing lightly against each other before he could replace it with a fresh drink. He thought he heard Cullen’s small gasp when their skin touched. Alistair knew exactly how he felt as that single touch sent a shock through his whole body as well.

What in the Makers holy name is happening to me?

Leaning against the bar once again, Alistair asked the questions he’d asked thousands of times before, but this was the first one he’d ever actually cared hearing the answers to. “So… what brings you into my fine establishment on a Tuesday night? New in town?” Looking over at Lana, he saw her shaking her head, ‘no’ again.

Cullen didn’t miss the softening of Alistair’s voice as he spoke, how it changed from the airs he’d seen him weaving with his other customers. Now it was more… personal? He also didn’t miss the jolt as their fingers touched when he brought him another drink. Taking a tentative sip, expecting it to be the Black he’d originally ordered, Cullen was once again surprised to have the smoother, gentler Blue in his glass. Taking a deep breath, Cullen decided then and there that he really didn’t have anything to lose, so he began to open up a little to the man he was inexplicably drawn to.

“Work. My work brought me to this part of town. That’s not uncommon, however, it frequently does.” His voice took on a note of frustration. “Tonight I was wandering, trying to come up with new angles for a case that I’m working on when I realized that I had never explored this particular street before. As I reached your door, a couple of your patrons stumbled out in front of me which caused me to stop and look around. I daresay I came upon your pub quite by accident.”

Thank the Maker!

Finding a little more courage from his second drink, Cullen added quietly before taking another sip, “Now I’m very glad I did.”

Alistair noticed that Lana was now behind the bar taking over for him so he could stay and talk with Cullen.

I will have to find some way to thank her for that later.

She nodded in acknowledgement to his thoughts as he pulled up a stool and poured himself a drink to settle into talking to this gorgeous man before him.

“Case? So, that makes you…” Alistair baited him for an answer.

“A detective, though please don’t hold that against me.” he ventured a crooked smile at Alistair who chuckled.

“So I take it your case isn’t going well?” Alistair was leading the conversation, but the more he got Cullen to talk, the more interesting he was to him. Not just easy on the eyes interesting, but good for the soul interesting as well.

Cullen shook his head, “Not really. A bunch of dead ends and empty leads. I’ll figure it out eventually though, I usually do. Unfortunately, not all of my cases end in a happily ever after.”

Concerned, Alistair asked, “I take it with this one, you’re not expecting one?”

“I can’t go into details, so please don’t ask for them,” Cullen said in gentle warning. “But no, at this point I don’t. It’s a hazard of the job, I’m afraid. Those unfortunate endings usually leave me drinking at home, alone. Now that I’ve found this place though...”

…and you, Maker you’re like a dream come true!

 “perhaps I will have another destination to wh-ine away my sorrows.” Cullen ventured another small smile and a quick wink at the bartender who’d pulled up a chair to sit and chat with him for a while.

Alistair chuckled softly, “Drinking alone is never as satisfying as when you’re with good company. You are welcome here, anytime.” He clinked his own glass against Cullen’s for good measure before taking a sip.

The two men smiled at each other for a moment, lost in each other’s gazes when Cullen cleared his throat and asked tentatively, “So... what about you?”

“Me?” Alistair asked hesitantly.

“You.” Cullen elaborated, “Watching you interact with your customers, you smile and banter, but…if I may say so, you seem a little… I don’t know, sad too. What does a”

...incredibly gorgeous

successful man, who owns his own bar, have to be unhappy about?”

Shit! How much of that actually came out of my mouth? Careful Rutherford!

Alistair was taken aback. First, no one ever asked about him or seemed to care what was going on in his life, with the exception of Lana and Leliana of course. And secondly, this stranger actually seemed genuinely interested.

Taking another sip from his glass, he said with a genuine smile, “And here I thought you were in the area to investigate a different case. Am I being interrogated, Detective?”

“Commander,” Cullen corrected him automatically.

“Pardon?”

“My rank… it’s actually… Commander, but that’s beside the point and you’re deflecting.”

Alistair looked up and saw that Cullen was smirking at him. That was certainly a good look for him. Grinning, he said. “So I am. So I am. I will admit to rarely having anyone ask over my own well-being, not and actually mean it anyway. That might take some time getting used to.”

Cullen murmured into his drink, “I’ve got nothing but time.”

Lana wandered up and observed, “My, my. Two men, both used to asking the questions; neither prepared to give answers… whatever shall you do?” She laughed good naturedly, as she wandered off again.

Cullen watched her leave again and said, “that's… a bit disconcerting, maybe she should be a detective.”

“No, no, no! Baaad Idea.” Alistair actually looked mortified at the thought. “Lana's an empath as well as telepathic. She feels the emotions of those around her. Working in an environment where people have bad things happen all the time would tear her apart from the inside. Trust me… we’ve been there. Well not there exactly, but… similar. Her being a detective would be… very bad.” Lana actually shuddered from her place at the other end of the bar.

Alistair continued. “You get used to her quirks after a while. When you've been together as long as we have, you rarely even notice them anymore. Plus, she’s usually more discrete than this, tonight she seems to be busting my chops more than usual.” He looked over at Lana in contemplation of her odd behavior then stuck his tongue out at her as she waved innocently back at them. Turning back to Cullen, he continued, “Or she see’s something in you that makes her more comfortable to be herself. That’s not a bad option either. Most likely… it’s a little of both.”

“Together? So you’re...” Cullen felt a little crushed that Alistair might already be spoken for.

Alistair quickly jumped in, “No! Nothing like that!” Alistair reassured him. “Maker's breath, Leliana would kill me if I ever so much as made eyes at her wife.” To illustrate the point, he pointed to the musician who had finished her set and had come up next to the waitress behind the bar. Lana was taking the opportunity to show Cullen exactly who it was she belonged with.

Cullen quickly looked away and blushed into his drink. “So... are you… seeing anyone?”

“Nope, nope, just me, my bar and my ridiculous love of cheese… You?” Alistair returned the question, daring to hope.

“No. Just married to my work.” Cullen was looking into Alistair’s eyes as he spoke and watched as they lit up with their own smile.

“Good to know.” Alistair grinned a bit breathlessly. They gazed at each other for several long moments before Alistair cleared his throat and focused back on his drink. Damn those eyes were something else, if he wasn’t careful, they would be the end of him actually having functioning brain cells.

Breaking the silence, Cullen ventured again, realizing that Alistair had never answered his question from earlier, “I’m sorry if my asking over you caused you any discomfort. I may not be psychic like Lana, but I am trained to see what’s just below the surface. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone else listen for once.” He took a drink while watching Alistair watch him, “I am… not unwilling, should you decide you want to talk.”

“Thank you. I will certainly keep that in mind. Though I can’t honestly say that I have anything tangible to be ‘unhappy’ about. How ‘bout I think on it and get back to you.”

“Is that an invitation to return?” Cullen asked hopefully.

“Well… this is a public place.” Alistair grinned at him and winked. “But… yes. I would very much like it if you did.”

Finishing his second drink, Cullen grinned back. “I will certainly do that then.” Looking at his watch, he groaned then grumbled, declaring, “Six o’clock comes way too early, I should probably get going and let you get back to your other customers.”

Cullen reached for his wallet to pay for his drinks, but Alistair wouldn’t allow it. “Nope, none of that. I told you it was on me and I meant it.” Alistair winked at Cullen whose hand had paused before returning his wallet to his inner coat pocket.

“Very well. Then you also have my thanks.” Cullen smiled at him then said, “I hope to see you again, Alistair.”

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Cullen.” Alistair told his new favorite customer as he donned his coat and headed for the door.

Before he stepped outside, Cullen thought he heard Lana say something to Alistair who responded laughingly, “Oh Hush you! Mind your own business!"

Heading back towards where he parked his Jeep, Cullen had a genuine smile on his face for the first time in he couldn’t remember how long. He looked once more over his shoulder at the sign with the giant wheel of cheese on it and a wine glass in its center. He knew for a fact that he would be back. Probably sooner than he should be, but the tug on his heart already told him that he wouldn’t be able to stay away for long.

 

 



Alistairs Sign cleaned up

 

Alistair’s sign painted by my dear friend: Melissa Meader!