(In the Cocktails & Cheese Universe)
Alistair sat across from Cullen at a small table towards the back of his pub. It was Mother’s day, which meant, Sunday, so he had the day off, leaving Lana to tend the bar while Leliana sang her sweet songs of yesterday up on the stage.
Smiling softly at each other over a plate of cheese and crackers. Alistair lifted his glass and clinked it against Cullen’s.
“To our mother’s! May they be walking safely by the Maker’s side!” He took a sip of his Johnny Walker neat and set his glass back down, spearing a small square of Ferelden cheese with a toothpick.
Lana walked by at that moment and flicked the tip of Alistair’s ear, “You do remember that your Mother was elven don’t you? We honor the Creators, not the Maker… get your theology straight! Oh wait, I’m sorry… bi - you’ve never done anything straight in your life.” She chuckled and dodged as Alistair took a swipe at her.
“Hello… handsome Templar sitting across from me, I can’t disrespect his Maker by offering up prayers to your heathen gods!”
“Ex-Templar,” Cullen reminded him. “And whomever you decide to place your--straight, gay, bi, or otherwise--faith in, it doesn’t affect mine. I’m secure in both my sexuality and my spirituality.”
Alistair grinned wolfishly, “I’m pretty secure inside your sexuality too, it’s one of my favorite places to be! Well… when you’re not inside mine.” He winked suggestively.
“You are terrible!” Cullen chuckled knowing full well, he’d baited Alistair in the first place, “Don’t ever change that dirty little mind of yours.”
A towel flew towards Cullen’s head. He snatched it out of the air and set it on the table, “Don’t spill my drink, Lana! You’ll upset the owner, you know he only gives me the good stuff.”
“Yeah, you know. I think he might have a thing for you, Cullen. He doesn’t let anyone else touch that bottle.”
“Really? Huh, I never would have noticed.” He leaned across the small table and gave Alistair a lingering kiss. “I hope he knows that the feeling is definitely mutual.”
“Y’know, after almost a year, I was starting to suspect.”
“What gave me away?” Cullen whispered against his lips.
“Could be the fact that we live together and I’m the one you reach for in the middle of the night? Or that, before you leave for work, you make sure that my lunch is ready for me in the fridge and my clothes are laid out for me?”
“You know I enjoy my routines.”
“So, I’m just a routine to you?” Alistair said in feigned affront.
“Not just a routine… my favorite routine.”
“Mmm… am I now?” Alistair scooted his chair closer to Cullen’s and kissed him softly on the lips. “I think we have gotten off track.”
“Oh, right.” Picking up his scotch on the rocks, Cullen raised his glass, “To our mother’s! May they not be listening to this conversation as they’d probably both be blushing or shaking their heads at our inappropriate level of candor.”
Alistair echoed the gesture and they both took sips of their drinks as they chuckled.
Cullen sighed wistfully, “Y’know - when she was here, I took for granted all the little things that my mom used to do for me. I sometimes regret not telling her how much she meant to me.”
“You don’t think she knew that you loved her?” asked Alistair.
“She knew. I mean, I told her that I loved her. It’s something my siblings and I have never been shy of. I may suck at keeping in touch, but when we talk or visit, the love is always apparent.”
“So, what is it then?”
“Well, loving someone and appreciating them can be totally different things. I know she loved me and she knew I loved her back. I just wish I’d told her how much I appreciated some of the little things she’d do for us.”
“Oh yeah? Like what? Tell me one of your favorite memories of your mom.”
“Well, ok - but only if you do the same. One for one!”
“Should be easy enough. I only got to see my mother once a year and that stopped before my 16th birthday, but we had some good times during her visits.”
“Well you have Mother Natalie too, you can include her in your ‘mother memories’ as well.”
“Fair enough. So, pick a topic: homework, food, chores, getting into trouble? Where would you like to start?” Alistair grinned at all the options on the table.
“Let’s start with food. I used to love seeing my mother in the kitchen. Holiday meals were legendary… she made this cheesy, potato thing that you would just die for.”
Alistair’s eyebrows shot up. “I don’t suppose Mia knows how to make that dish does she?”
“Actually, I think she does. Remind me to ask her the next time we go visit.”
“Hey Cullen, remind Mia to make that cheesy-potato thing for me the next time we go over for dinner!”
“You’re such a smart ass!”
“And you love me.”
“Maker help me, I really do!” Cullen took a sip of his scotch and began his story, “I remember waking up one morning to the house smelling divine! The air was filled with cinnamon and sweetness that had my mouth watering before I even rolled out of bed.” Cullen smacked his lips, with a faraway look as he remembered.
“I must have been only about six or seven years old. The whole house was quiet, everyone else was still asleep. I tiptoed as quietly as I could down the stairs and into the kitchen. The morning sunlight was just peeking through the window, making my mother’s golden curls glow with their light.” Cullen sighed wistfully and took another sip before continuing.
“She was humming to herself as she smothered icing on the tops of the batch of sweet-rolls she’d just pulled out of the oven. I don’t remember the song, but her voice was warm and made me pause just around the corner so she wouldn’t see me. I didn’t want to interrupt her, I wanted to just listen and watch as she worked. She was so beautiful and no one ever made me feel like she did: happy, safe, loved—all unconditionally.”
“She sounds like home to me.”
“She was. I almost feel guilty for fighting so hard to join the Templar’s. I think I purposely made her life difficult from the time I was eleven until she finally let me go at thirteen. I don’t regret joining, even after all I went through for the order. But every once in a while, I think about that morning and wonder how many days like that I missed by following my dream.”
“I dunno, something tells me, if you hadn’t joined the order, our paths may not have crossed. I’m pretty thankful for the choices you made.”
Cullen smiled and took Alistair’s hand in his, kissing his knuckles. “I’m pretty happy too. Though my story doesn’t end there, you keep distracting me.” He chastised.
“So tell me what happened to that sweet little Cullen hiding in the kitchen as his mother stood in the golden light of morning making breakfast.”
“You know it… Now spill!”
“Well, I thought I’d done a pretty good job of sneaking around that morning. But one thing about my mother… you could never get anything past her.”
Alistair raised his eyebrows at the challenge, but didn’t interrupt.
“As I watched, she distributed the sweet-rolls, one per plate. The one closest to the corner, I dashed in and snagged. Thinking I was being stealthy, I quickly went back behind the corner to sit and eat what I thought I’d gotten away with. The next thing I knew, my mother was sitting on the floor across from me with a knowing smile in her eye, a plate in her own lap. Of course she noticed.
“She winked at me and laughed, ‘I thought somebody stole one of my sweet-rolls. Of course it had to be you.’ She grinned as she used her apron to wipe some frosting off my cheek then we both just sat in silence eating our still warm treats. When we finished the first, she got us each a second. We’d finished half the batch before anyone else woke up. It was simple and quiet, just the two of us. Most of the time with six of us in that house, things were very loud. But that morning, it was just she and I and too many sweet rolls.” Cullen chuckled to himself as he polished off the rest of his drink.
Alistair was quick to pour his refill. At the questioning look from Cullen, he explained, “Only one more. I know you need a clear head should you get called into work. And besides, I’m only having the one… I can always drive you.”
“You know how I feel about you going into the field with me.” Cullen mumbled unhappily.
“And yet, you’ve never tried to stop me when I’m called to serve my own missions. Which, I might remind you, can be infinitely more dangerous.”
“They thankfully occur, far less often too. You know, I would never get between you and your duties. It doesn’t mean I want to drag you into more danger as I cater to mine.” He wanted more than anything for Alistair to understand.
“This will all be moot, if they don’t call you in tonight. Why don’t you let me spoil you for once while I tell you about the time my mother and Duncan introduced me to cheese.”
Knowing he wouldn’t win this one, Cullen nodded his assent as Alistair settled in for his tale.
“So… let’s see. I couldn’t have been more than nine. My mum and Duncan were at the orphanage for my annual birthday visit. They rarely brought me large gifts as I didn’t have a lot of room to store my belongings. Maybe slightly more than you did as a Templar, but not by much. It all had to fit in the footlocker at the end of my bed.”
“Those were barely big enough to hold our basic layers, so yeah, I understand. Small box, no big presents. Continue.”
“Exactly! So anyway, instead of ‘stuff’, she would bring samples of different types of foods she’d pick up in her travels. She was always going to exotic places and occasionally the things we’d try together were frightfully disgusting, but sometimes we’d be pleasantly surprised.” He chuckled at the fond memory.
“This particular visit, she brought a basket of cheeses from around the world. At the time, I hadn’t yet discovered my love of all things dairy, so you can imagine my delight as I discovered the smorgasbord!” Alistair’s eyes lit up with excitement, his voice and hands flying more animatedly as he described the wonders she introduced him to.
“It wasn’t only cheese… There were other things in the basket to go with them! Flavors to enhance or subdue the experience: almonds, jellies, capers, lox, jams, crackers, I don’t even remember all of it. We spent two hours just exploring the combinations. The stinkiest cheeses were Duncan’s favorite, my mom liked the sharp bite of the swiss. And though I tried everything, the one I kept coming back to was the wheel of Ferelden cheese.” He speared a square of said cheese and handed it to Cullen before taking one for himself. Taking a bite, he closed his eyes and rolled the flavor around in his mouth.
Cullen watched with his crooked smile as Alistair moaned through his mouthful. Waiting patiently, he enjoyed watching the near rapture that washed through Alistair’s countenance. “Do I need to leave you alone with your cheese, my love?”
Swallowing the bite, Alistair just smiled with his eyes still closed, “Y’know, I think she knew. Her ability to predict what I would like or want amazed me. Everything in that basket came in small, sample-sized portions, but the Ferelden cheese was a large wheel--as big as my head--there was no way that the three of us would have been able to eat it all. She let me keep the rest. I had to stuff my clothes into my pillowcase so I could store the cheese in my trunk, but it was worth it!”
“Well, you are Ferelden born, it only makes sense that you would prefer our national cheese to all the other fancier cheeses out there.”
Alistair grinned, “Well, yes, that might have been a big clue, but still--I do enjoy other cheeses as well. She couldn’t have known that would ultimately be my favorite, or that I would be so fond of cheese all together. It’s not like we were ever able to spend a lot of time together. We were basically strangers--bound by blood--so how would she know what I would or would not like? But she did. Mother’s instincts, I suppose. She was pretty awesome that way.”
They each stabbed another piece of cheese with their toothpicks then clinked them together (as they had their glasses) and savored their bites in silence. Both smiling at their musings.
Cullen broke the silence with a chuckle, “Ok so… how ‘bout something a little sillier?”
Alistair thought for a moment, then nodded. “Sounds good. I was always getting into mischief when I was younger, I’m sure I can come up with something suitable.”
“What do you mean, when you were younger? You’ve never grown out of your mischievous ways!” Cullen teased as he bumped knees with Alistair under the table.
“Ha-ha, you are so full of wit today. So, Mr. ‘my schedules run on schedules’, regale me with a funny memory about your mother.” The crinkling at the corners of his eyes, showing that he took the jest for what it was.
Cullen laughed at the nickname, knowing it suited some of his more prominent quirks. After taking a quick sip of his drink, he began, “One Mother’s Day, my siblings and I decided that we were going to give our mom her very own spa day. She was always taking care of us, so we vowed to spoil her for a day. No cooking, no cleaning. Not only were we planning to take care of all of her chores and our own, we decided that we would pamper her while we were at it.”
“I’m sure that ended well. The best laid plans, and all that?”
“Well, keep in mind, Mia--as the oldest--was only ten at the time. So most of the work fell to the two of us. Next to none of our regular chores got done, but we did manage to make breakfast and lunch for everyone. We mostly spent the day just trying to ‘take care’ of mom. Mia put curlers in her hair and the special avocado mask on her face, Branson was in charge of bringing her snacks--which consisted mostly of goldfish crackers or dry cereal--Rosalie was still pretty young, but she was able to hand us supplies when she wanted to be helpful, otherwise she would just sit on mom’s lap telling her how pretty she looked.”
“And what was your job?” Alistair knew if Cullen left it out, it must be something good.
Cullen coughed, “I was in charge of massaging her feet and painting her toenails.”
Alistair couldn’t help the burst of laughter, “You were painting toenails?”
“Well, I may have painted most of the tops of her toes, but it was a lovely shade of pink. Why you want to try it sometime? I’m a little rusty, but I think I can manage.” He winked at Alistair enjoying the startled expression on his face.
Alistair actually looked a little uncomfortable, “Something tells me that Lana would enjoy that too much if we did.”
At that declaration, combined giggles erupted from the stage where Leliana was taking a break, sitting on the edge with her wife. “Oh come on Alistair, I have a lovely shade that would enhance those lovely freckles of yours! We haven’t had a proper slumber party in way too long! We are long overdue, no?”
Cullen raised an eyebrow, “Slumber parties huh? You haven’t stopped the fun traditions just because I moved in have you?”
“Well, I uh…” Alistair stuttered. “I wasn’t sure if that was something you’d be interested in.”
Cullen rolled his eyes, “I did used to wear a skirt to work every day, as you so often remind me.”
“That’s right! And you still haven’t let me try it on!”
Always so helpful, Lana giggled, “So that’s settled--Cullen brings the dress, Alistair dances the Remigold in it and we can all do each other’s nails while watching cheesy romantic comedies! What do ya say boss, can we close up early tonight to have pillow fights in the dojo?”
“I’m going to have to cleanse the area again, aren’t I?” It was more statement than question. “You do know that’s my sacred space, don’t you?”
“Well, if you already sweat and bleed on it…” Leliana began.
“Not to mention all those other bodily fluids, you two manage to get on those mats regularly.” Lana interjected with a smug grin causing both Alistair and Cullen to blush.
Leliana continued, “I think it would be ok for us to bring out the blankets for one slumber party a month. We promise to make sure it’s all clean and tidy when we leave!”
Lana chimed in again, “This is so exciting! Does that mean we get to see Cullen’s curls too? Oh!... And will we have themed nights again? It’s been so long; I forget where we left off. Was it lace, satin, or leather we’re supposed to be wearing this time?”
“You guys really have done this a lot if you’ve got it down to a schedule. I’m afraid to say though, I’m fresh out of lace, I can do either satin or leather though.”
Alistair choked on the piece of cheese he’d just put in his mouth. “Maker Cullen, you’re going to be the death of me!” His face was bright red with embarrassment, “I must insist on the satin if those are our only options… I know what leather you’re talking about and that’s… well, that doesn’t cover enough for you to wear it for anyone but me. Even if it is only those two.” He pointed to the girls.
Cullen pulled Alistair to him, kissing him soundly, “You know I love it when you get all possessive of me.”
“You know I hate it when you let them take us off on tangents when we were having a perfectly respectable conversation.” He looked at Cullen then the girls noting the puppy eyes he was getting all around, “Ok fine, Second Sunday Slumber parties are back on the schedule again. Go ahead and close up at ten, it’s not like we do a lot of business on Sundays anyway.” Alistair shook his head at the excited looks on the girls faces, now if you two will excuse us, I was about to hear what happened after Cullen painted his mother’s toenails.”
With one arm around Alistair’s shoulders, Cullen leaned in and kissed him on the temple, “So where was I?”
“Your mom was being subjected to torture by her four kids… where was your dad anyway?”
Cullen started laughing, “Oh that’s the best part! So, our father had to go into work that day. When he got home, there were piles of stuff everywhere: toys, clothes, food, laundry that had previously only needed to be folded, but now could use a run through the wash again. He was shocked, to say the least! And there was mom, sitting in her bathrobe in his recliner, with green goop on her face, eating dry fruity cereal out of a bowl, curlers in her hair, cotton between her toes and paint covering more of her feet than not. I could tell, dad was trying really hard not to laugh, but the look she gave him was priceless! It said, ‘If you say one-word mister, you’re sleeping on the sofa for a week!’ And I swear, dad buttoned it up, announced that he would be ordering dinner in so mom didn’t have to cook and proceeded to start tidying up around us. I have to say, that was one of my favorite Mother’s days ever.”
Cullen shook his head and chuckled as he raised the class to take a sip. Alistair’s eyes followed, still chuckling at the images Cullen drew for him. “Your parents sound amazing, I wish I could have met them.”
“Me too,” Cullen sighed. “They would have liked you.”
Alistair smiled as he pulled Cullen into a tight hug. “Ok, one-for-one--my turn. This one is about Mother Natalie, not my Mum, but considering she raised me, I think it’s still counts.”
“Absolutely.” Cullen encouraged him to continue.
“I was little, maybe four years old and was upset because… well I don’t even remember why. Someone was picking on me about something, I think: my hair color, or my freckles, or the fact that I actually had parents that didn’t want me--even though my mum had just come to visit--it doesn’t really matter why. Anyway, I remember running to the garden and finding Mother Natalie sitting on a bench knitting. She’s almost as predictable as you, y’know.” He winked at Cullen, then continued, “I was so upset that I threw myself at her feet and buried my face in her skirts. She didn’t say anything, just set her knitting aside, ran her fingers through my hair, and hummed softly. By the time I finished crying…”
Cullen interrupted, “Hey, hey, I thought this was supposed to be a silly story. You’re getting me all sad for you over here.”
“Patience! A wise woman once told me, that a little angst helps you appreciate the good times more… so here’s the angst… the humorous is coming, if you’d just let me finish.”
“Yeah, yeah. You were saying?”
“So, when I’d finished drying my tears and snot on her skirt.”
Cullen made a face.
“What do you want from me? I was four! Anyway, when I looked up at her, all she wanted to know, was which kid hurt my feelings, and what sorts of awful things we could do to them to retaliate!”
“Mother Natalie said that?”
“Don’t let her fool you, that woman’s got a mean streak!” Alistair shuttered.
“You seem to surround yourself with really frightening, tiny women.”
“It does seem to be a theme with me, doesn’t it?”
“So did you? Retaliate?”
“Not really. She knew that if they knew I told on them, it would only make their teasing worse and she didn’t want me to have to deal with that. Oh, there would be extra lessons on being kind to one another and if the situation warranted it, she would have absolutely stepped in. Usually though, she’d pull a couple of tarts out of her apron and while we nibbled away on the sweet treats, we would plot different ways to get back at the kid. Each more elaborate and silly than the next.”
“So how is that funny? All I see is you getting bullied and Natalie not doing anything about it.” Cullen was appalled that someone would treat Alistair that way.
“Oh she did, believe me.” Alistair soothed, “She would just find ways to do it, while removing me from the picture. Like making them write extra lines in class for their o’s not being completely sealed, or dishing out extra chores, like kitchen duty or laundry duty for the tiniest infractions. When I say Mother Natalie was vicious, it’s because she has a very long memory and man is she patient! It didn’t matter when you committed the crime, you would always end up paying the price.”
“That’s good at least, so I’m assuming the things you were plotting with her were more far-fetched than the reality?”
“Oh yes! Like I said, the sillier the better. She was never satisfied until I was curled up laughing on the ground. One time we discussed painting up one mean little girl like a clown and making her carry a goat around all day as her kid, because she was a b-a-a-a-a-d girl.” Alistair bleated in a fair imitation of the animal in question, then snorted in laughter.
“Mother Natalie always had the most creative ways to make me feel better. She still does actually. I may not have been able to grow up with my mother by my side, but as surrogates go, having Mother Natalie there was worth its weight in gold.”
“Family isn’t always those we are born to.” Cullen intoned his heartfelt belief.
Alistair looked around the bar, noticing Leliana and Lana nose to nose in a private moment, he smiled taking Cullen’s hand in his own, he said, “Don’t I know it?! I’m the illegitimate son of one of oldest/wealthiest families in Denerim and a legendary elven warrior/mage who’s no longer with us. Yet my life is complete, I have you, Lana, Leliana, Duncan and I wouldn’t trade Mother Natalie for the world either.”
“She’s certainly a keeper. And so are you!” Cullen leaned in and kissed Alistair softly on the lips. Thank you for taking the time today to help me honor my mother, and for sharing some of your own stories with me. Usually, I offer a quick prayer at the chantry for her and spend time in quiet contemplation. This is so much better.”
Alistair smiled. “I agree. Hey y’know - we can always still go to the Chantry. Swing by and grab some flowers for Mother Natalie… or better yet--yarn, she’s always looking for one more project to knit.”
“I’d like that. Out of all of our parents, she’s the only one we can still share today with in person.”
As they retrieved their coats and headed for the door, Lana called out to them, “Hey you two, stay out of trouble, give Natalie my best, and don’t forget about our slumber party tonight!”
They said in unison… “Yes, Mother.”