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Cocktails and Cheese

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Cocktails & Cheese

Cullen and Alistair - A Modern Day AU

Chapter 19

Bad Day Part 3

Cullen was able to ignore the ringing at first. He was lost in his head; battling the demons from his past alongside the inner demons currently plaguing his heart. Taking it all out on the heavy bag. His control was slipping.

As the ringing persisted, it slowly pulled him from his inner struggle.

Where is that sound coming from?

Wrapping his arms around the bag to stop it from swaying, Cullen began to search for the source of the chime. Scanning the room cautiously, his eyes eventually landed on Alistair, standing by a chime on the wall, watching him intently.

He’d forgotten that he wasn’t alone.

Once their eyes connected, Alistair moved gracefully to the center of the sparring mat and stood in what Cullen would call, parade rest; but Alistair probably had another word for it. He usually did. He didn’t appear angry. In truth, he looked calm and relaxed--even sympathetic in the kindness gracing his face.

He couldn’t look away from Alistair’s quiet intensity, even as his brain rebelled.

I don’t deserve his kindness, or his sympathy.

With a small smile, Alistair slowly raised one a hand with his palm facing up, he curled his fingers up a couple of times, then he pointed to the X on the mat directly across from where he was standing.

Things started to click into place. They were dressed the same, in matching pairs of martial arts pants. Alistair was standing at the ready in the center of his dojo, inviting Cullen to join him.

He’s waiting to spar. No… I... can’t!

They’d worked out together on several occasions over the last couple of months. And though they playfully wrestled and messed around, Cullen always refused to seriously spar with him. He’d been training from such a young age, he didn’t think it fair to take advantage of Alistair’s good nature that way; Grey Warden or not.

His mind told him that as a Warden, Alistair was more than capable of handling himself. They were some of the best Warriors on Thedas and needed to be to match the preternatural foes they faced. He’d personally witnessed Alistair’s speed and agility as well as been on the receiving end of his incredible strength. Cullen’s heart, however, wouldn’t let him completely let go around Alistair, so he always held back. Whether it was his ego over his own considerable abilities or his fear of losing control and hurting the man he loved, Cullen refused to pit himself--hand-to-hand--against Alistair.

Now, here he was, being beckoned to the mat. Alistair didn’t realize how out of control he felt right now. He couldn’t fight him; not here, not now. He wasn’t sure what kind of expression he held on his face, but he was pretty certain that Alistair understood his head shake as a refusal.

Alistair’s face softened a little more, “Join me. Cullen, please.”

“Alistair, no. I couldn’t, you--”

“I am perfectly capable of handling myself.” Alistair sounded slightly amused.

“But... you haven’t warmed up yet.” Cullen tried to find an excuse to refuse him.

Groaning audibly, Alistair began his warm up routine.

Cullen was familiar with the basics, having worked out with Alistair several times now. Jumping in place, some kicks and punches, maneuvering up and back down the salmon ladder like it was an extension of him. His body was poetry in motion; quick, agile, flexible, strong, and moved fluidly from one action to the next. He was mesmerizing to watch, beautiful.

Alistair was going above and beyond for this warm up though. Cullen wasn’t sure if he was showing off, or just trying to prove that he was capable of handling himself. Between the kicks and punches, Alistair was throwing in elaborate aerials, flips, and handsprings; landing each one perfectly, every movement; graceful. He made it look effortless, easy.  

Cullen stood stunned by the acrobatics and skill that Alistair was demonstrating.

When he came back to the center of the ring, he bounced a couple more times before landing solid, his serious gaze locked firmly on Cullen. “I'm warmed up now. Come… here.”

It was an order this time and Cullen knew it.

He took a step forward hesitantly, “I dont have the control that I should right now, Alistair. I really don’t want to--hurt you.” He finished in a whisper.

Alistair smiled gently, “If I let you go at the bag anymore, we’ll have to add it to the list of things to be replaced and fixed.” He ticked off a few items on his fingers, “The makiwara board, the mirror, the wall. None of those things can fight back, Cullen. You need a moving target.”

Looking down at his feet, Cullen stayed just out of range; shame and self-hatred washing over him.

Seeing Cullen’s face fall, Alistair tried another tactic, “If you’d prefer not to fight me hand-to-hand, then choose your weapon. You need this and you know it. You need a solid target that’s going to hit back, you need a challenge. Let me help keep your mind focused while your body burns off the rest.”

Nodding reluctantly, Cullen approached the weapons rack. The board had been unsatisfying, his breathing exercises left him too much time for his mind to wander, and chasing the bag was only spiraling him farther out of control.

What he wanted, was to physically assault the man they’d arrested earlier in the day. His face was the target he was craving, but that sadistic asshole was currently behind bars and if he had his way, that’s where he would stay.

His instincts took him to the wooden swords first, he’d been training with swords since he was old enough to hold one. It was a natural extension of his body. He couldn’t do that to Alistair though. At the last moment, he reached for the wooden staves instead.

Alistair stopped him, “You were heading for the bokken--the wooden swords--if that is your weapon of choice, grab it; I’m in.”

Cullen hesitated.

Alistair chuckled, “Do you think I have them here because they’re pretty? If the sword is your weapon, pass me one. I’ve never pitted myself against a Templar, sword-to-sword before. You might teach me something new.”

He knew it was a bad idea, but at the moment, it was better than talking about what was bothering him. Grabbing the two swords, Cullen tossed one to Alistair who snached it deftly out of the air.

Alistair was cool and relaxed.

Cullen was terrified of hurting him.

They squared off on the mat and saluted.

Cullen began to circle. Alistair matched him step for step; a direct mirror to his footwork. Seeing an opening, he dipped in for a basic strike--a test--which Alistair parried effortlessly.

“Really?” Alistair rolled his eyes, “Don’t insult me. I’m not made of glass, Cullen. Stop holding back.”

Circling again, Cullen saw another opening and upped his game; which Alistair deftly dodged.

“You do remember the part about me being a ‘Warden’ right? If that’s all you’re going to throw at me, I might as well tie one hand behind my back and blindfold myself.”

Shaking off Alistair’s taunting, Cullen went back in for another attack, then another--each one more complex than the last. Alistair evaded, parried, and countered them all with practiced ease.

“C’mon, I know you have more in you than this. You were a Templar, for Maker’s sake. Show me what you’ve got!”

Cullen noticed that up until now, Alistair had been purely on the defensive. Always deflecting and dodging--never attacking.

He wants more? Let’s see if I can get him to reciprocate in kind.

Feigning to the right, Cullen switched directions and spun to the left, trying to sweep Alistair’s legs out from under him. Alistair, leapt over his attack then pressed his own, forcing Cullen to block, then counter.

“That’s more like it.” Alistair quipped.

They were fairly evenly matched. Where Cullen was pure strength and practiced precision, Alistair was adaptable, nimble, and quick. They fought for roughly half an hour. For a time, Alistair believed that Cullen was finally powering through the worst of it and ready to move past. He was focused and surefooted; on the offensive as much as he was successfully defending. But then, he started making stupid mistakes: he missed an easy block, forgot to put his guard up, overcompensated his steps--throwing himself off balance.

This isn’t working. Cullen’s checking out again.

Knowing they needed to regroup before they hurt each other, Alistair lunged forward and caught Cullen’s sword at the crossguard--twisting it out of his grip. Spinning away from his opponent, he faced off again, this time with both bokken at the ready.

Cullen looked down at his empty hands in surprise, then back at Alistair, present once again.

“Welcome back.” Alistair said with affection. “Are you ready to put the toys away and talk to me? Or do you need another go?” He held one of the swords out for Cullen to take.

Palms up in supplication, Cullen refused the sword. “My mind is not where it should be for me to be in the ring with you right now.”

“Well, that much is obvious.” Alistair teased lightly, but his smile was filled with gentle understanding. “You’re distracted. It’s making your movements sloppy and predictable. I should never have been able to disarm you so effortlessly. So, either you’re going easy on me out of pity for my poor, pathetic Warden training, or you’re too wrapped up in what’s going on in your own head to focus. I’m betting it’s the latter.”

“I’ve had a really bad week.” Cullen bemoaned as he watched Alistair wipe down the swords and put them away.

“I get that. So how do we get you past it?”

“I wish I knew,” came the defeated reply.

Alistair grabbed two bottles of water then walked with Cullen over to the sofa. As they settled into their usual spots, he asked, “Will you please tell me what happened?”

Cullen drained half his water in one gulp while shaking his head.

“Listen to reason, love. You’re too sleep deprived to work through this physically and not hurt yourself.” Alistair brushed his fingertips lightly over Cullen’s recently healed knuckles. “Your only other option is to talk to someone. If you’re not comfortable talking to me, at least call Dorian, or I can bring Lana up here. But this, right here--is not healthy.”

Cullen hung his head in shame, “I can’t put Lana through this, she only caught a glimpse and it brought her to tears. She doesn’t deserve that.”

“And you don’t deserve to have to deal with this alone. You have people that love you, Cullen. I love you. Please let one of us help you.”

“This is— it’s just too much, Alistair. There’s layer upon layer of shit running through my head and I don’t want to burden any of you with it.”

“Too much to even warrant a call to Dorian? From what I understand, he’s seen you through worse.”

“I don’t think it’s enough to need Dorian… but perhaps--it is too much for me to handle alone.” Cullen admitted reluctantly.

Alistair laid his hand gently on Cullen’s shoulder, rubbing small circles with his thumb, “I’m here. I’ll always be here, my love. It’s time to face what’s got you so torn up inside.”

Signing heavily, Cullen closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I have been facing it. With every blink, I relive what happened. I can’t seem to turn it off.” His tone was heavy with anguish as he continued, “The pain from today keeps reminding me of something horrific that happened right before I transferred to Denerim, which keeps bringing me back to what happened today. It’s a never ending cycle.”

Alistair shook his head. “That sounds more like dwelling on it than facing it. Can you tell me what happened?”

Cullen shook his head, “I can’t tell you the details. And I’m not quite ready to discuss the issues that led up to me leaving the order either.”

“We both have stuff that we’ve yet to share, there will be time for that later. When you’re ready. But, please tell me that you’ve already discussed the stuff from your past with Dorian at least--that it’s not just sitting there festering?”

Nodding solemnly, Cullen added, “I have. And until today, I’d come to terms with it.”

“Then we don’t need to discuss it now. Talk to me about today. What’s got you so worked up?”

“Alistair, you know there are parts of my job that are classified. I’m not permitted to speak of it.”

“Is this about the little girl who went missing on Monday?”

Cullen’s head shot up in surprise, eyes narrowing.

“Oh come on. People talk to me everyday and it’s all over the news. It didn’t take much to piece together the urgency of your new case with that particular story.”

“How much was in the news?”

“No specifics, just generalities. But I know enough to realize that’s some pretty heavy shit you’ve probably got swimming around in that handsome head of yours.”

Cullen leaned back into the sofa and stared at the ceiling contemplating how much to tell. Or if he should confirm any of it at all.

“If you get it out, you can move on from it. Tell me what happened?”

“I… can’t.”

How do you admit something like this? What will Alistair think of me when I do?

“Can’t? Or won’t?” he asked pointedly. “I don’t need details, you don't need to break confidentiality or anything, but you do need to talk about it so you can let it go. Tell me what has you so torn up, or I’m calling Dorian.”

Knowing that he didn't have a better option at his disposal, Cullen confessed, “She’s...dead.” He finally breathed out with a whimper. “She was the same age as Jasper and now--she’s gone.

Laying a hand on Cullen’s knee, Alistair tried to keep him talking, “This isn’t your first case gone sour. What happened with this one that has you so torn up? Was it just because of her age?”

Cullen continued, as if Alistair hadn’t spoken. “I found her body today.” His voice held a new edge to it: frustration, resignation, the remnants of his anger--all bound together under tightly controlled despair. 

“She hadn’t been there long.” His words caught in his throat as he remembered her innocent face. “I wasn’t quick enough. I’m not… good enough. She died, Alistair--because I failed.” Cullen whispered the last word, crumpling forward, he covered his face with his hands and began to cry.

Alistair was instantly on his knees in front of Cullen, wrapping him in his arms. “Sweetheart, you didn’t cause her death,” he said intently, “You are good enough. This is just one instance. More often than not, your cases have happy endings. This isn’t the norm. It may not feel like it now, but it will be ok. You will be ok.” 

Cullen shook his head in disbelief, but didn’t pull away. Leaning into him instead, he sought comfort in Alistair’s embrace.

He still blamed himself for her death. He blamed himself for so many deaths. Yet here was Alistair, trying to comfort him and encourage him through it all; trying to convince him that everything was going to turn out all right.

How can I look him in the eye after this?

Cullen wanted to scream, rant, throw, and break things. But he was tired, so very tired. He knew that he couldn’t change the past, but he also knew he needed to mourn her loss and move on. But how could he do both?

Am I allowed to?

Alistair caressed Cullen’s cheek with his hand and touched their foreheads together, “My love, please don’t blame yourself for this. You can’t be everywhere at once. You have a tough job, one that very few people could handle. And you are damn good at it. You get a lot of shit thrown at you and you always do the best that you can. I know that there is nothing I can say that will take away the hurt you are feeling; but Cullen, you don’t have to face anything alone anymore. Whatever you need, I am here. Whether it’s someone to trade blows with, someone to listen to you vent, or someone to hold you and tell you that everything will be ok. I’ve got you, I’m not going anywhere.”

Cullen finally opened his red puffy eyes and looked into Alistair’s. Pulling him to his chest, he clung to him like a lifeline--his anchor to the here and now. As they held one another, Cullen accepted that he couldn’t win them all. He cried for that little girl who would never again grace her parents with her presence. He admitted to the world and himself that he wasn’t perfect. He mourned all of his failures and mistakes. He let the tears fall and allowed them to cleanse away his doubts and fears.

Finally allowing acceptance, love, and hope to take root within him once again, he accepted Alistair’s words:

I will be ok.

I’m not alone this time.

I am enough.

I did the best I could.

As Cullen’s sobs began to ebb, Alistair pulled back only far enough to be able to kiss his lips. Sweet, tender, chaste. Wiping away his tears, Alistair smiled softly at Cullen, his face full of understanding and support.

With a quavering voice, Cullen asked, “What did I ever do without you?”

“You probably destroyed your fair share of makiwara, mirrors, and punching bags.” Alistair teased, trying to lighten the mood.

“Bookcases actually.” He looked away, embarrassed.

“What, really?”

Cullen shifted uncomfortably, not proud of that fact.

Alistair tried to smooth things over, “Hey, y’know--it doesn’t matter. All of that can be replaced. Bookcases or punching boards, they are just objects. Things. You are… so much more to me than that. Anytime you need to burn off steam, vent your frustrations, or need someone to be with, I’ll be here to help.”

Cullen looked away, letting one last tear fall down his cheek, but managed to look back at Alistair with a small, thankful sigh. “That will take some getting used to.” He grinned shyly. “I am not complaining, though.”

Running his hands soothingly across Cullen’s broad shoulders, Alistair asked, “How are you feeling?”

Cullen groaned, “Like I’ve had the crap beat out of me!”

Chuckling warmly, Alistair offered, “I bet you do, you’ve had quite the week.”

“You know, you’d make a very good therapist.” Cullen winked.

Alistair countered, “Or a bartender?”

“Or a bartender.” Cullen agreed. “My bartender.” He reached up and adoringly touched Alistair’s cheek before hugging him once again.

“Always.” Alistair confirmed, “C’mon let’s get cleaned up and I’ll tuck you into bed. You look like you could sleep for a week.”

“I feel like I haven’t slept in a week. In truth, I think the last full night’s sleep I had was Sunday with you. I’ve taken tomorrow off to recover; they know how to find me, should they need me.”

“Let’s hope they don’t--so you can sleep the day away and let me spoil you.” Alistair said affectionately.

“You are truly a gift from the Maker. Thank you.”

Alistair blushed brushing his lips softly against Cullen’s, “Come on, my love. Let’s get showered so I can tuck you into bed.”

Cullen nodded feebly. He was exhausted: physically, mentally, and emotionally. A shower and a good night's sleep might be what he needed to feel like himself again.

Alistair took his time caring for his internally battered love: he massaged his muscles under the steaming hot water, trying help him relax. He washed him gently, keeping his caresses reassuring and comforting. Once they were both clean and dried, Alistair then led an exhausted Cullen to their bed.

Tucking him in gently, Alistair climbed in next to him and kissed him softly on the forehead, “I need to head back downstairs soon. There are still several hours left before we close tonight and I know the girls will want to know you’re ok.”

Cullen nuzzled closer, “And here I was hoping to drift off in your arms.”

“Well that, I can certainly accommodate. I just didn’t want you to worry if you woke up and I wasn’t here.” Alistair made himself comfortable on the bed, wrapping his arms around Cullen. “And I will definitely be back, so don’t hog all the covers while I’m gone.”

“I’m sure you could wrestle them away from me again without much effort.”

Alistair chuckled, then kissed Cullen on the temple, “You going to be all right?”

“I will now. Thank you… for everything.”

Gazing into Cullen’s drooping eyes, Alistair said, “Anytime. I mean that. I love you; you know that right? There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”

Cullen tightened his grip around Alistair’s waist. “I love you too.”

Alistair held Cullen close to his heart, caressing his shoulders and kissing his brow as he drifted off to sleep. He prayed that Cullen’s mind and soul would be lighter come morning.

He held onto Cullen for twenty minutes past when his breathing evened out in sleep. Convinced that he’d done all that he could, Alistair extricated himself from his lover’s grasp, dressed once again in his uniform, then slipped silently out of the room to head back downstairs to work.

Safe Summary:

Cullen admits that a little girl died on his watch and says some pretty negative things about himself and how it’s all his fault.

Alistair’s not having it (but most of that is after the double lines)