Prayer and meditation.
Eliza had no doubt Cullen was entirely in earnest when he'd said those words, but for all she tried to prepare herself for prayer and meditation, Eliza was still surprised at just how much prayer and meditation one person could be expected to do. It was always a relief when Cullen called an end to the spiritual training, allowing them to move on to the more practical pursuits. It was always—always a relief when it came time to stretch cramped muscles and move. Eliza Hawke was learning—and it was an unpleasant lesson indeed—she did not enjoy being alone with her thoughts. And though she far preferred it to her spiritual training, the physical training, unsurprisingly, was demanding. Eliza would not have quite called it "grueling," but it was hard work, beyond a shadow of doubt.
Prayer, meditation, and swordplay—the lessons were always structured thus and, gradually, days passed, turning slowly into weeks as Eliza and Cullen worked out a method of communication unlikely to be discovered, and a training schedule unlikely to arouse suspicion—but it was always prayer, meditation, and swordplay. Always.
Varric remained their go-between, though Eliza could not help but feel involving him at all still held an element of risk; there were few in Kirkwall who didn't know the well-connected dwarf, and fewer still who didn't know he nearly always accompanied the Champion of Kirkwall on any number of errands. Still, it was less risky than other methods of communication, and as long as discretion remained their watchword, there seemed little to worry about. And there were plenty of excellent reasons to be discreet.
They continued meeting in that same spot along the Wounded Coast. Not the safest spot, perhaps, but still the safest they had at their disposal. More often than not, Varric accompanied her. There were any number of reasons for this, she knew, and so Eliza never complained.
Prayer. Meditation. Swordplay. Over and over again.
Weeks passed, and after a month of these training sessions, Eliza had gradually come to enjoy the meditation, and even the quietude prayer brought.
Hard work, of course, had its benefits. Her form was improving, and having a sparring partner other than Fenris forced Eliza to work—and think—differently than she would have otherwise. There hadn't yet been talk of "glowy lights," as Varric liked to term them, but Eliza could feel something building with every training session. Something was changing in her—her focus, her will, all of the things that made her a warrior felt sharper these days, more honed. She wondered fleetingly if this particular change had to do with the vast amounts of prayer and meditation the Knight-Captain had worked into their training. Her frustration, her uncertainty, her anger slowly settled within her. Her mind began to feel clearer than it ever had. That in itself was a feat, for things in Kirkwall were growing more muddied by the day.
But that cherished clarity was not to last.
They were in the midst of a particularly brutal session, neither one giving quarter, both pushing the other as hard as they knew how.
The muscles in Eliza's arms bunched and throbbed as she swung, and Cullen raised his lightweight shield in time for Eliza's wooden sword to knock soundly against it, blocking her. She felt the force of it all the way up her arms.
"You know, you're making it rather difficult for me not to ask you to come and train some of the new recruits," he panted, stopping only briefly to swipe a trickle of sweat from his eyes.
She shot him a fierce grin and adjusted her grip on the pommel, her steps light but quick as she searched for an opening, kicking up water as she moved; he had to lower that shield sometime… "Best me and I'll think about it," she replied, giving the sword a little swing as she pivoted, shifting her weight and sending her toes digging down into the cool, wet sand.
"So you can argue that I don't need you to train them up, since I bested you in a match?" he countered, stepping wide and to the right, circling her.
This, too, was an unexpected—and yet not unwelcome—outcome of their training sessions. Conversation, slow and stilted in those early days, came more easily now.
"Ah, uncovering all my tricks, Knight-Captain," Eliza riposted with a wink. Cold water rushed ankle-deep over her bare feet. Eliza turned as Cullen advanced, lowering his shield as he swung his sword at hers. Eliza lifted her own practice weapon and felt the force of wood smacking against wood, shuddering up her arms. "You're sneakier than I gave you credit for." Their weapons locked and she shifted her weight again—quickly—before pushing Cullen back with enough force to make him stumble backwards, kicking up droplets of water and flecks of sea foam.
"I beg your pardon; I am not 'sneaky.'" He recovered from his stumble and grinned at her before choosing another attack route and sliding into the pattern.
"Not sneaky?" Eliza tossed back as she lifted her sword against his and met the attack, a rapid series of light strikes—parries and thrusts—then spun away. "What, then? Crafty? Cunning? Wily? Ooh, devious?"
"Hardly. And do you truly expect me to continue training you by insulting my character so readily… and loquaciously?
She offered a quick mock-curtsey. "I do most humbly beg your pardon, ser, Knight-Captain, ser." But then the curtsey turned into a spin and she swung her sword up and brought it slicing down again.
A snort of laughter as he swung his shield up to meet her sword-strike. "Humble. Do tell me another, Hawke."
"I am quite humble. Tell him, Varric."
But there came no reply from the dwarf. Indeed, the rock he frequently made his seat was vacant, and Bianca was absent.
"Lookout duty," supplied the Knight-Captain, slamming his shield against her sword when she made the mistake of looking over for her friend.
Eliza snorted and blocked the next of Cullen's shield-slams. "Translation: he went in search of a quiet spot to write another chapter of that guard serial that's got Aveline in fits."
"Hard in Hightown?"
That had been nearly enough to make Eliza trip then and there, but she recovered at the last. "What?"
The templar's face was already flushed with exertion, but that didn't quite hide the shade of pink that crept up to his ears. "Er. The men, you see. Read it. Horrible stuff. Really."
She smirked. "I'll let him know he's got a fan."
"I'd really rather you didn't," Cullen replied, somewhat plaintively.
Just then, the opening Eliza been waiting for finally revealed itself and she flashed her teeth in another smile as she lunged forward, angling her way between Cullen's sword and shield, letting her own sword come to rest gently against the side of his neck. Cullen went entirely still and lowered his weapons, breathing hard as he looked down at her.
Still smiling, Eliza panted out, "I win."
He still looked at her, quietly amused. His eyebrow twitched. "So it would seem."
"'So it would seem' isn't quite the same thing as 'I yield,' Cullen."
Suddenly he darted back and turned with speed and grace she'd never expected from one so tall and broad, dropping his shield as he dipped and swung the length of his wooden sword hard against the backs of her legs, knocking them out from under her and sending Eliza backwards, and with a yelp of surprise, into the surf. The water was cold and she yelped again, a higher, shriller sound as it shocked her skin and soaked her clothes. The wet sand gave beneath her as she landed and she could feel the grit of it seeping down the neck of her shirt.
"Cheater!" she cried, struggling to sit up, but as the waves crashed in, more water rolled over her, the undertow strong enough to make such an endeavor more difficult. "Sneaky, crafty, cunning, devious cheater!"
Not bothering to hide his laugh, Cullen shook his head and stood over her, offering a hand up. "You forgot wily."
"I did not." Eliza took the proffered hand and pulled, sending him tumbling forward with a hoarse, surprised shout, landing awkwardly on top of her. "I was saving that one for myself."
"And rightfully so, it would seem," he said, chuckling as he pushed himself onto his elbows and knees. "Maker, but this water's cold."
"Should've thought of that before sending me toppling into it." Eliza was already shaking with laughter. "So, did you enjoy that?"
"The being yanked headlong into the surf?" asked Cullen, still braced upon his elbows, looking down at her. "Not as much as you'd expect, I fear."
With a sharp poke to his ribs—enough to make him yelp—Eliza tilted her chin up and gave him a look. "No. The part where you sent me sprawling back into the surf."
"Oh. Yes, I rather enjoyed that part. Very much, in fact."
"I could tell."
Logically, Eliza knew the moment was soon coming that Cullen would push himself to his feet and help Eliza to hers, and they would continue on with their training. She bit her lip and saw his eyes dart down to her mouth, then back up again.
The moment came. The moment went. Several more moments did the same.
And still neither spoke.
The roar of the ocean settled into the background, a soft, rushing pulse as Eliza leant up, eliminating the few inches between them only long enough to brush her mouth softly, briefly against his. It was barely a kiss at all, for all that her heart was pounding, but the contact, as chaste and fleeting as it was, sent a jolt of something shuddering through her and she sucked in a breath, willing her body not to tremble.
Cullen blinked as he stared down at her, obviously processing what had happened in those last few seconds. His voice was strained. "Hawke…"
"I'm sorry. I…" I what? I couldn't help myself? True as it was, she couldn't say the words. She had no business being with him like this, in this capacity. Things were already complicated enough—Kirkwall, Anders, Maker, her life was complicated enough—there was no point in adding to it. "I… shouldn't have presumed…"
An eternity stretched out between them; Eliza's breaths coming faster and more ragged, until finally Cullen simply shook his head, muttering, "Maker forgive me," before lowering his head and closing his mouth over hers.
The suddenness of it made Eliza gasp as her eyes slid shut, her hands dragging a path up Cullen's arms—her gasp turned into a groan as the muscles in his arms flexed and jumped under her palms—her arms coming to wrap slowly around his neck, pulling him down even as she pulled herself up into the kiss. He sank against her, and their combined weight only made them dip further into the wet sand as the tide came in around them.
The kiss, though urgent, had a strange sort of sweetness to it, as if Cullen were trying so very hard to be gentle—or if he wasn't sure how not to be gentle—and urgency and enthusiasm were grinding away the tenderness. Eliza groaned again, shifting beneath him and fisting one hand in the collar of his shirt, while the other clenched in his hair. This time she felt him groan in return and Eliza's arms tightened around him as she let her lips part, dragging the tip of her tongue experimentally across his lower lip. His resultant inhale was sharp and sudden—almost a gasp—as he pressed into the kiss, returning it in kind. When the warm, hesitant caress of his tongue met first her lips, then her tongue as Cullen grew bolder and the kiss deeper, Eliza arched, fairly crying out into his mouth, fingers clenching, eyes screwed shut, toes curling as she sent up a mad prayer to the Maker that this moment might never end. It didn't matter they were both soaked, both covered in grit and cold salt water; Eliza clung, her arms tight around Cullen's neck, mewling and whimpering the moment his hands found her waist—and they stayed there, a tiny, still-functioning part of her mind noted.
The kiss broke and left them both breathless, both too shocked at their actions to do much else beyond stare at each other in quiet disbelief, flushed and panting.
She found she could summon nothing more than a ragged whisper. "What were we saying?"
Cullen swallowed hard, looking as if he were trying to remember, but having difficulty latching on to one coherent thought. "You… were asking me if I'd enjoyed that."
"Oh. Yes." She licked her lips, the taste of salt water and that kiss mingling upon them. "Well. Did you?"
"The… sending you into the surf or… the… other parts?"
Eliza dared not move, dared not breathe, despite the fact that the urge was building to simply arch her body against his, to press and writhe and lock her legs around his waist, so startling was the heat, the want coursing through her. Instead, she swallowed. "Ah. The… other parts?"
His thumb stroked slow circles against the curve of her waist—enough to make her let out a shuddering sigh, which, from his expression, he hadn't been expecting. "I… liked it well enough that any guilt I might have otherwise felt for deceiving you and sending you tumbling into the water has been well and truly erased."
"I don't recommend doing it again," she replied in an arch murmur.
With a soft huff of laughter, Eliza leant up again, pressing her lips once more to Cullen's in answer.
Varric did not return until they were both upright again and mostly dry. If he noticed anything seemed different between the two, he made no mention of it. Just another training session — prayer, meditation, and swordplay. The sun was high and bright in the sky by the time Eliza returned home. She washed, changed, and checked her correspondence. She accepted work. She spoke with companions and contacts. She did all she would have otherwise done, determined to put the incident out of her mind.
That night, before bed, Eliza meditated.
It didn't help.
What under all the Maker's blue sky had he done?
It was the first time since his initial training session with Hawke that Cullen felt certain the Knight-Commander could turn her all-knowing gaze directly inside his skull and witness every last one of his recent transgressions down to the most minute detail. He knew this was could not possibly be the case, but that did not mitigate the creeping sensation of guilt that made the tips of his ears burn.
His shift passed in agony while he replayed that morning's session over and over again in his memory. Where—where had he gone wrong?
Well, besides the obvious place, of course. Maker, how could he have been such an idiot?
It wasn't that Eliza Hawke was… unattractive. Not in the least. Her grey eyes were a sharp, flinty contrast to rich auburn hair. She was tall and long-limbed, which was as practically useful as it was aesthetically appealing—she wielded her greatsword with unmistakable ease. She was clever, with a dry wit he particularly enjoyed—their attempts at small talk, halting and awkward (Maker, so very awkward) at first, slowly unfurled into engaging, thought-provoking conversation. Hawke was an attractive, capable woman, whose company and conversation Cullen enjoyed. That much was true. But she was also someone he respected, someone who'd come to him requesting his assistance—asking his help—and he'd overstepped his bounds entirely.
How could "enjoying her company" have gone so wrong, so fast?
Clearly this cannot continue, came the firm thought as he stood sentry over the Gallows. He thought it again every time Meredith made her rounds. He thought it yet again with every new recruit and grizzled veteran that saluted him.
I know it, and doubtless Hawke knows it. I would not blame her a whit if she were to call an end to her training.
However, despite Cullen's existing concerns and misgivings, which competed admirably against his new ones, nothing in the Knight-Commander's demeanor indicated that she suspected him of doing anything beyond making trips to the Wounded Coast to meditate by the sea. She still didn't approve of such outings, but since they were taken during what free time he had, she still could not forbid him. Meredith could, however—and Cullen knew it to be true—reduce his off-duty time. She could even, if the whim hit her, arrange his shifts in such a way that "off-duty" occurred in the middle of the blighted night. Still, for now he was only faced with her badly-concealed annoyance and her increasingly pointed remarks—which were growing more and more difficult to pretend to ignore—that the Maker preferred His devotees to meditate and pray in His house.
At least he hadn't been stripped of rank and locked in a cell somewhere; given that small comfort, Cullen had to assume she didn't know what had transpired that morning.
No matter, Cullen decided, as he performed his evening ablutions in his cramped, candlelit quarters, and knelt down to pray before retiring for the night. Whatever did or did not happen today, it will not happen again.
It could not.