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Precisely thirty minutes before his shift starts, Cullen is there in line at Elgarasan Cafe. As the only place in town that serves a decent cup of coffee, it is, as always, a madhouse.
The line is almost out the door, filled with agitated workers, exhausted parents, and struggling students all waiting to get their pick-me-up before tackling the day. And yet, despite the chaos and ungodly hour, she is as bright and chipper as always.
Viru is a beacon of sun well before it rises. Those complaining of traffic and running late bark their orders in quick, stressed syllables and yet receive the same warm smile and “have a lovely day!” as all the rest. Patrons with bags under their eyes barely manage to mumble out their drink names, yet she never grows impatient, never rushes them to move along despite the crowd. Most cannot help but perk up well before ever getting their coffee.
Most, but not all.
“This is Ferelden. Use our language or go elsewhere!” An awkward silence falls at the front of the line and Cullen can see a young Dalish man turn red as he ducks his head away from the huffy middle-aged woman behind him, pretending not to hear.
Viru doesn’t follow suit. Her smile freezes in place and she very deliberately addresses the young man in his (their) own language as she takes down his order.
“I DON’T want to hear that language!” the woman behind him shrieks, now red in the face herself. “How dare you encourage him. If he wants to speak our language, fine. But if not, he should leave!”
Viru hands him a receipt, gives him a beaming smile. Then cuts her eyes to the woman. “He is very welcome here and more than welcome to use our language to place his order. If that is going to bother you, then I will ask you to please leave.”
By now, the woman is trembling with rage. “Oh! You think because you run the register you can make the rules? I want to speak to a manager, you little elf-bitch!”
Viru places her palms on the counter, leans forward very deliberately with a too-sweet smile. “Ma’am, I am the owner. And I want you to get out of my shop, now.”
More than owner, Viru glares across the counter like a Queen from her throne. Imperious, unflinching, and absolutely above the lowly peasant daring to bother her.
For a moment, the angry woman falls silent, perhaps too embarrassed, or too intimidated to speak. But then, “You–you think that matters to me? Just because you own this place doesn’t mean you two can speak that way. This is a Ferelden city, I will call the city guard! I’ll tell them how a stupid, knife-eared bitch harassed–!”
The moment that ignorant woman started talking, Cullen had despised her. But now he is beyond livid. “No need. Captain Rutherford, City Guard.” The crowd parts as he steps forward, badge in hand. “I’ve seen and heard far more than enough.”
Uncertainty flashes in Viru’s eyes for the first time and it cuts Cullen deeper than he expects to see such mistrust. But after this episode, and who knows how many other terrible scenes just like it, he cannot blame her.
He turns to her abuser, mouth pressed into a thin line. “Let’s see, I have evidence for several counts of harassment, as well as trespassing as I just heard the shop owner tell you to leave. Both counts could also be considered hate incidents, if not hate crimes.”
He turns, Viru’s lips are parted in surprise. “Did I miss anything?” His voice, hard as steel only seconds before, is gentle.
Her head shakes, the golden curls that frame her face dancing with the movement.
The next hour is a mess, but worthwhile. Cullen apprehends the harasser and two of his officers come pick her up, all the while she continues to shriek and squawk and make quite a spectacular case against herself. Viru continues to run the shop, and ends up with an overflowing tip jar and several encouraging words from her regular customers.
When the police car pulls away, the morning rush has dissipated. For perhaps the first time ever, Cullen is able to walk right up to the counter. She glances up, braided bun messy with loose curls, cream and coffee splotching her apron, a soft smile on her lips. It’s enough to make him lose his train of thought.
“This morning…I’m so sorry about that. No one should have to deal with such foolishness,” he says.
“Nothing for you to be sorry for. Quite the opposite, in fact.” Up close, he can see the freckles dotting the apples of her cheeks.
“I…well.” A hand over his mouth, clearing his throat to hide a blush. “You handled yourself just fine without me. I just couldn’t stand the thought of her doing that to you–to anyone again.”
A fluttering laugh and her ears turn pink. And Cullen might have forgotten to breathe. “Still, thank you.“ She smirks, wide eyes bright with amusement. “Could I get you a coffee sometime?”
Now it is his turn to laugh, the sound a touch nervous. By the Maker, she’s only joking, being kind. That’s all.
The pink in her cheeks blooms again. “Or…or maybe dinner?”
A shy, almost boyish smile pulls at the corners of his lips.“Yes! I mean, that would be… really nice.”