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“That’ll be twenty-six gold for two rooms,” the innkeeper says.

Geralt stares at her impassively. Beside him, Ciri yawns. “It was twenty-two last time we passed through here,” he says.

“Yeah, and there’s been a war on since then,” says the woman behind the counter, putting a hand on her plush hip. “Can’t charge the old prices when every third customer is a soldier demanding free board.”

“Just pay her, Geralt. Stop being stingy,” Ciri says, her exhaustion putting a cranky snap on the words.

“I can’t,” he says in low tone that none the less carries to the innkeep. “Not if you want lunch tomorrow.”

“One room, then.” Ciri looks at the older woman. “As long as it has a bed, we’ll make due.”

“Very good, ma’am. Thirteen gold.” The innkeep draws a key from beneath the counter, and Geralt reluctantly hands over the coin.

They climb the stairs in silence, Ciri trailing sluggishly behind him. Geralt estimates that they have a good three hours until dawn. The road from Novigrad had been hard on both of them. They’d ridden for four days solid without stopping, only fueled by what sleep they could snatch in the saddle.

The messenger promised them an extra fifteen gold if they got to the village within five days, and after sleep, they’d make the deadline exactly.

Geralt pushes open the door to their room and is utterly unsurprised to find the candles unlit.

“If you think I’m sleeping on that floor after thirteen gold, you’re out of your head,” he says blandly.

Ciri tilts her head, considering. “But you were more than willing to sleep in the dirt outside?”

“I didn’t have to pay for the dirt outside.” He scuffs his boot in the layer of grime that covers the floor. “This dirt, I payed for.”

Ciri huffs in a way that could be either exasperation or tired laughter and walks over to the small bed, leaving the door cracked for light. It sags pitifully in the middle, and Ciri nudges it with her knee, evidently checking for anything living.

“Lovely,” she says dryly. “But we’ll both fit, so it’ll do.”

Geralt blinks, reconsidering his opinion on the floor. “Both of us?”

She hits him lightly in the chest. “How many times have you slept next to me in the woods?”

Geralt wants to protest that that’s different-- those times were so the pair of them didn’t freeze their ears off in the night. This-- this isn’t necessary.

Whatever of this his face says, Ciri ignores.

He should’ve seen this coming. Really, he should have. They’ve been on the road together for over a year, and he should probably be more surprised that this hasn’t been a necessity before now. And really, he doesn’t know why he’s even concerned by it. By the gods, how many times has has he been forced to sleep next to Dandilion of all people? At least Ciri doesn’t talk in her sleep.

Ciri kicks the door shut with a finality that brooks no argument.

She moves around the room, and Geralt hears her lean her sword against the wall beside the bed. Reflexively, he widens his pupils-- just in time to see her strip her pants down her long legs.

He turns his back hurriedly to fiddle with his sword belt, but her snort says she noticed.

“Man up, and get ready for bed. I’m too tired for your sudden bout of modesty,” she says. “It’s not anything you haven’t seen before.”

It’s true; Geralt knows it is, but somehow this seems different. Now, Ciri is a woman, not a child, not even in his mind. The bed standing forlornly between them makes him shamefully aware of that. He tries to force the thought from his mind.

All he can do is obey. He sits on the edge of the saggy bed to take his boots off before stripping down to his smallclothes. He doesn’t look back at Ciri, listening to her do the same.

When he slides beneath the sheets, the relief of a bed washes all other concerns away. The bed shifts as she settles in beside him.

Almost immediately, the saggy mattress rolls her towards his heavier weight. Geralt lays stiffly on his back, but Ciri laughs tiredly. Apparently deciding to make the most of it, she turns onto her side so her body is pressed against his in a solid line and slings an arm across his broad chest.

Her forehead presses into his shoulder, and her breath puffs against his skin as she says, “‘Night.”

“Goodnight, Cub,” he says, her childhood nickname slipping out in his exhaustion.

Her warmth is a comfort beside him, a luxury he lets himself enjoy, just this once. It’s not the change in their sleeping arrangements that bothers him, he realizes; it’s the change in his perception of her. He doesn’t have time to consider the implications of that before he’s asleep.

***

“I ordered two witchers, not a witcher and his woman,” the alderman of the village sneers.

Irritation spikes through Geralt, but he doesn’t let it show on his face.

Ciri, on the other hand, curls her mouth in a dangerously sweet smile. “You asked for two witchers, and you got two witcher,” she says evenly, tapping the amulet around her neck.

“Everyone knows women aren’t witchers,” the alderman says derisively.

“Well, everyone isn’t always right. We can stand here arguing, or you can tell us about this urgent contract of yours.”

The alderman glances to Geralt, clearly expecting him to take charge.

He doesn’t, instead opting to let Ciri handle the negotiations. She’s beautiful like this, Geralt thinks-- riled up and confident in her own abilities. He knows better than to think she needs his help, preferring to watch a strength that has nothing to do with her sword.

“What’s so urgent that we got to earn ourselves a few extra gold just by riding through the night?” Ciri asks.

“My town is killing itself,” the alderman says plainly. “Townsfolk keep taking their grievances out on each other with sword. Or axe. Or hammer. Or, on one memorable occasion, with silk stockings.”

“Humans killing humans? That's not our problem. So what if this town has a high murder rate?”

The man’s face twists in irritation. “No, no. Don't be foolish. They’re killing each other because something is compelling them.”

“So you expect us to believe that some creature is forcing the good folk of this town to kill one another?” Geralt puts in disbelievingly.

“Not forcing them. Not exactly. Nothing forces their hand,” the alderman says, then sighs. “Rumor has it that if you enter cherry grove about four miles north of here at twilight, you’ll hear the greatest truth being kept from you.”

Ciri’s eyebrows arch in surprise. “And you’re saying the townsfolk are killing each other over these truths?”

“Precisely. A merchant's secret second family. A child secretly not the husband’s. A secret gambling debt. Secrets ,” the alderman spits, “are going to destroy my village.”

Geralt gives a wry smile. “I suppose it’s true what they say. Some truths are better left alone.”

The alderman nods vigorously. “My thoughts exactly.”

“You wish us to kill whatever is revealing these truths,” Ciri clarifies.

“Kill it. Drive it off. Have a tea party with it, for all I care! As long as it quits telling my villagers things they’re better off not knowing, I don’t rightly care.” With that, the mayor turns and sets off towards his house, his bowed legs giving a slight waddle to his quick gait.

Ciri glances at her companion. “A truth monster. That’s a new one.”

Geralt shakes his head slowly. “I doubt it’s a monster. This sounds more like the work of fae or some woodland spirit.”

“Oh joy,” Ciri deadpans.

A smirk tilts Geralt's lips. For all her skill, Ciri has horrible luck with the fair folk. The last fairy they encountered had spelled her to communicate only through song. To make matters worse, they’d encountered Dandelion two days into the contract, and he’d proceeded to follow her making note of every verse. To this day The Ode of the Singing Witcher could be heard in inns across the continent.

“Shall we head to the grove?” she asks. “It’s safer that we have a look around before twilight, I’d say.”

He hums in ascent, and the pair of them turn towards the inn’s stables. They saddle the horses and head north with barely a word exchanged.

The village is set at the foot of several great mountains and sheltered from most severe weather by their peaks. One in particular rises higher than the others, reaching skyward with a snow-capped peak. Despite the mild climate of the vilighes lower plateau, steam rises from natural springs in the ground. Geralt looks at them longingly, thinking how good a hot bath would be after so many weeks on the road with only frigid mountain rivers to wash in.

They lead their horses at a steady trot, both enjoying the view of the ridgeline. A pang of wistfulness hits him as he thinks of Kaer Morhen situated in its mountains so far away. Homesickness, most people would call it. The emotion is new, brought on by the high peaks and Ciri by his side stirring up memories of her childhood.

The quiet is nice, Geralt thinks. He rarely finds such companionable silence in traveling companions. Every now and then, one of them will break the silence with a jest or observation, but for the most part, they simply travel in silence, enjoying the other’s company.

He thinks that’s part of why he loves Ciri so much.

That thought brings him up short. ‘Love’ has never been a word he’s thrown around easily, not even in his own head. If pressed, of course he’d agree that he loves Ciri; she grew up as his ward, is as close to a daughter as he’ll ever have.

The idea of loving her shouldn’t make his hands tighten on the reigns, but it does.

Ciri clears her throat somewhere to his left. “Can I ask you something?”

Geralt remains silent, wary of what she could ask that she hasn’t already over their time traveling together.

“Why don’t you and Yennifer see one another anymore?”

“Not that,” he says sharply.

She spurs her horse until she’s riding even with him. “I have a right to know.”

“How, exactly, do you have a right to my personal life? I don’t ask about the women you take to bed.”

Ciri’s eyebrows raise. “Oh, so we’re talking about that now, are we?”

“No,” Geralt grits out. “And that’s exactly the point.”

“I’d tell you about them, you know. If you bothered asking.”

He takes a deep breath through his nose. “It’s none of my business.”

“Does it bother you that much?”

“Does what bother me?” he barks.

“That I bed women.” She tilts her chin up, turning her head to look at him defiantly.

Geralt reigns Roach to a halt. “Cirilla, let's have one thing clear. I don’t give a good goddamn who you bed. Don’t you ever take my lack of questions as reproach. You never tell me anything about them, so I never ask. End of discussion.”

“It was three women, not an entire parade.” Ciri bites her lip, suddenly looking eight again. “So you really don’t care that I-- that I go with women.”

Geralt lets out an exasperated breath. “As long as they’re good to you, it’s of no consequence to me if you prefer women instead of men.”

“I wouldn’t say instead of ,” she says, “more, in addition to .”

That information give Geralt pause. “What, really? But you’ve never--” He cuts off, reminding himself that it’s none of his business.

“Taken a man?” She finishes. A sly smile curves her lips when his shifts uncomfortably atop his horse, all the confirmation she needs. “I’m not like you. I never took on the mutations.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“My magic is through the elder blood; I was born a sorceress, not made,” she elaborates.

He furrows his brow at her, still not understanding.

She closes her eyes as if in prayer for patience. “I can get pregnant, Geralt. And I daresay that’s rather more than I’d like to deal with at the moment. Besides, I really do seem to prefer women when it comes right down to it. I probably find only one man attractive for every dozen women who catch my eye.”

A weak “oh” is all he manages in response.

Ciri laughs aloud. “You know, I think the real reason you don’t talk about this stuff is because it makes you uncomfortable.”

Geralt chooses not to dignify that with a response.

They ride on in silence for several minutes more before Ciri speaks up.

“I have a right to know because you two raised me,” she says quietly, barely audible over the sound of their horses.

Geralt takes a steadying breath, knowing that this isn’t a subject he can keep avoiding. “Yennifer and I have been hurting each other since long before you were born, and we’d only keep doing it if we stayed together. She saw that long before I did.”

“But isn’t that what love is?” Ciri asks. “Staying together despite the pain, learning how to work through it?”

“When you’ve been alive as long as we have, you have to start questioning if the pain will ever end,” he says slowly. “If you find the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to try something different. I understand that now.”

“But you loved her.”

“Loved, past tense. And I’m sure some part of me still does, but not all broken things are meant to be fixed,” he says, not knowing if he’s referring to his relationship with Yen or himself. After a pause, he continues without looking at Ciri, picking every word carefully. “Yen and I parted for good because I saw the opportunity to trade a love that keeps dashing me to pieces for a love that’s only ever made me stronger. Maybe it’s not the same kind of love, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.”

Ciri’s mouth opens into a small ‘o’ of understanding.

Silence reigns for a long moment before she says, “I feel as though I should stop this horse and hug you.”

Geralt feels himself squint as though in pain.

“Aww, poor little witcher and his emotional overdose.” Ciri laughs a full-throated laugh. “You know, I’ve figured it out-- it’s not that witchers don’t have emotions; it’s that they’re allergic to them.”

He glances at her, a retort ready on his lips, but the view of Ciri framed by the morning sun makes the breath leave him wordlessly. She’s stunning, he realizes. Wisps of silver hair spin around her, and a sheen of sweat highlights every bare inch of her skin, smooth despite her hard travels and marked with the occasional scar.

He’s always known his ward was beautiful, but now-- now something has shifted, changed. Not with her, he understands with dread, but with him.

He desires her.

His eyes squeeze shut, and he tries to force the feeling away. It’s not the first time he’s felt the tug of desire towards Ciri, but it is the first time it’s left him this breathless, this utterly at sea-- like he’s about to fall into a gulf from which he can never re-emerge.

It’s a betrayal to want her in such a way, he knows. It’s wrong, twisted. Gods above, he raised her.

He needs to find a woman, he decides. The town is too small to have a brothel, so he hopes he’s still equal to the task of seducing a woman, rather than letting her come to him as he usually does.

In reality, it’s been awhile since he’s taken a lover, longer than almost any other period during his adulthood when he didn’t have someone to be faithful to. Out of concern for what Ciri would think, he tells himself. But the nagging idea that it was out of some misplaced fidelity to Ciri refuses to leave him.

Ciri reigns up her horse and glances at him. “Geralt? Did you hear me?”

He shakes his head like a dog coming out of water. “What?”

“On foot or horse?” she asks with the air of someone repeating herself. “That must be the grove up ahead.”

“Foot,” he decides, eyeing the copse of trees before them.

Ciri dismounts in one fluid motion, bouncing from the grass with hardly a sound. Geralt averts his eyes and follows her. “Hear that?” she asks.

As soon as she says it, he hears. “Nothing. No birds; no insects.”

Ciri nods once, slowly, and draws her sword.

Ahead, the cherry trees form a perfect circle, conspicuously clear of all but the plushest grass. As soon as they enter the circle, his amulet begins to vibrate, and Ciri’s glance downward indicates hers has done the same.

At the northernmost edge of the circle, the trees arch and curl into an unnaturally round bower. Staring into the heart of it is like looking into the very essence of darkness. Geralt widens his pupils as far as they’ll go, but nothing is discernible within. He automatically takes a cautious step closer, then another.

Ciri’s hand clamps onto his forearm like a vice. She hisses a wordless warning, uncharacteristically wary of the enclosure.

He looks back at her. “You seen anything like this before?” he asks softly.

“Only heard about it,” she whispers. “It looks like a Ducha-- a kind of mountain spirit.”

His brows furrow. “A Ducha is more than your garden-variety spirit. It’s the living embodiment of a mountain, rumored to live at the mountain’s summit. Why would one be scrounging around the foothills?”

Ciri shrugs. “Beats me. Lost, maybe? Or dislocated.”

“Ducha aren’t supposed to be dangerous. They’re shy and reclusive, not murderous.”

“Maybe it doesn’t mean to be,” she suggests. “It’s only telling the villagers what they came to find out.”

“Don’t ascribe innocent intent to anything non-human,” Geralt says, sharper than he’d intended. He softens his voice. “If a Ducha is this this far down the mountain, something’s driven it there. We need to ask the alderman if there’s anything going on on that mountain.”

He looks towards the sun hanging low in the sky. “Come on. Let’s let out of here-- before the Ducha decides to tell us a truth we don’t need to know.”

She glances at him. “Don’t you want to know?”

“No,” he says vehemently, setting off at a brisk pace.

Jogging to keep up, she asks, “You’re telling me you’re not curious? You don’t want to know? Not at all?”

“No. And it shows how young you are that you do.”

“I doubt all the villagers who asked were young,” she points out.

“Then they were fools,” he says as he mounts Roach. “You’re not. Just young.”

They ride back to the village in a silence less pleasant than it was just an hour earlier. Geralt can’t help glancing at her every few minutes. She doesn’t say anything, but from the set of her jaw he knows she feels his gaze.

“What?” she finally asks about a third of the way back to town.

“Nothing.” He winces internally, knowing he’s given himself away with his very lack of answer.

“Okay, well, you and your ‘nothing’ can go have fun. I’m going to ask the alderman about that mountain. You just-- sort yourself out for a while. You’ve been acting strange ever since we got here.”

Geralt says nothing to that, and true to her word, Ciri turns her horse towards the other side of town when they return.

He halts in the street for a minute, pondering his next move. He decides to stick to his earlier plan of finding a woman for the night-- or the afternoon. The village is too small to have a proper tavern, so it looks like the inn bar will be his best bet.

He wonders if he’ll have time before Ciri returns or if he’ll need to find somewhere else to take his partner. The idea of Ciri seeing him seduce a woman still sends an uncomfortable tightness into his his chest. Foolish , he tells himself. She likely doesn’t give two fucks who he beds so long as it doesn’t disrupt her evening.

Back at the inn, he takes a seat at the bar and glances around consideringly. The innkeep gives him a knowing look but says nothing as she pours him a beer.

Predictably, there aren’t many eligible women; most are having dinner with their husbands or kids, while the rest have a forceful air of Do Not Disturb. A woman smiles at him from the far corner, eyes nearly a physical force as they travel over him, but Geralt thinks she just might surpass him in years.

He’s so busy studiously avoiding her gave that he almost doesn’t notice the woman with short-cropped blond hair approaching him. Almost.

“Mind if I sit?” she asks in the accent of lands far to the south.

He waves a hand vaguely at the chair. “Be my guest.”

“So,” she asks, resting her chin on her fist. “Is the young lady you travel with your daughter or your lover?”

“Neither.”

The woman smiles in a way that leaves no doubt what she intends. “Lucky for me. The name’s Myra.”

Geralt takes in her appearance. She’s tall and thin, but well-muscled with broad shoulders-- like she’s spent years wielding a pick or a sword. “Geralt. Pleasure to meet you.”

He lets his eyes slit vertically, wanting there to be no illusions about what he is. A smile breaks over her face.

“A witcher. That makes sense,” Myra says, drawing out the words. “And I expect your companion is as well, though I didn’t know your guild accepted women.”

“Indeed,” he agrees, taken aback by the excitement in her eyes.

They make small talk for a while. He likes her, but his thoughts keep drifting back to Ciri without his permission. Ciri would like Myra, too, he thinks. They’re both strong, hard in a defiant way.

Myra shakes her head slowly and touches him lightly on the nose with her index finger. “I’ve already lost you; I can tell.”

“Sorry,” he says, meaning it. “I have a lot on my mind.”

“And yet you didn’t open with that, telling me you’re at least open to the idea of finding a woman, but it seems your heart has dragged your mind elsewhere.”

“Sharp,” he says, impressed. “Tell me, Myra: What do you do?”

“Sword for hire, at the moment.”

His eyebrows arch. “And do you get much business, being--” He tilts his hand vaguely.

“Being a woman?” she finishes, then laughs. “I do once they hear my name. Myra of Carvock--”

“--Sword of the Southern Star,” he finishes with her. “Yeah, I’ve heard of you. Bit further north than your usual grounds, wouldn’t you say?”

She gives a shrug. “Turns out the Southern Star shines a little less bright as of late. Thought I’d try to find a cause worthy of my time.”

Geralt nods once in understanding. “I see.” He’s heard tell of the King of the Southern Shore, how he’s stopped listening to his advisors as of late, sending ship after ship south never to return, consumed by the search for new lands-- lands he saw in a dream and which all cartographers assure him do not exist.

She tilts her head, smile fading. “Now it's your turn to tell me: Is your mind with your traveling companion?”

He remains silent, and it’s as much confirmation as she could need.

“That is too bad,” she says, sounding sincere. Then, equally sincere: “I’ll listen, if you wish to speak of her.”

“No, but thank you.”

“Perhaps we’ll meet again, Geralt of Rivia,” she says, standing. She leans over to murmur in his ear. “And perhaps I’ll be able to meet you and your companion properly .”

He watches her go, her strong gait free of any hint of feminine sway, and considers banging his head against the counter. If he’s capable of turning down a woman like Myra, his venture is useless. He was a fool to think working off some pent-up lust would fix his feelings for Ciri.

He knows now-- has known, perhaps, for a long time-- that the feelings are more than desire. He wants to get lost in her, to give her everything and beg her to let him stay by her side.

It’s a feeling he’s only felt twice before in all his years, and he misses Triss and Yen. He really does, and he still holds their time together in his heart, but his love for them no longer feels like it’s tearing him apart from the inside. Another feeling has dulled the ache and soothed a wound, finally given it a chance to start healing.

He loves Ciri-- is in love with her.

He loves her, and he shouldn’t. The hurricane of emotions makes him want to find something vicious to hack with his sword, makes him want to ride towards the rising moon and never look back.

But he knows better than to think he can leave Ciri without a word. She’ll follow him to the ends of the world, if only to make sure he’s safe. The fact sends both affection and nausea wrestling in his gut.

So, he settles in for another drink at the bar.

That’s where she finds him two hours later, more drinks in than he can even remember and staring dolefully into his mug.

Concern furrows her brow as she takes the seat Myra had occupied earlier. “You look miserable. I told you to sort yourself out, not drown yourself in beer,” she says.

Geralt only grunts and takes another drink of his beer.

“I spoke to the alderman,” Ciri says. She pries the earthenware mug out of his hand and downs the remainder. Her head tilts back, exposing the long column of her neck. Geralt’s eyes track the bob of her throat before he guiltily averts his gaze. She sets the empty mug down with a clank and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “He says that just before the Ducha appeared, the town started some exploratory digging on the mountain to see if it was worth building a mine.”

“Makes sense,” Geralt says to the counter.

She leans forward eagerly on her elbows. “Plus, he says the digging has stopped since the truths started tearing the town apart.”

He only hums in the affirmative.

“Okay, seriously,” she says, pressing a hand on his shoulder to make him look at her. “You’re starting to worry me.”

Another beer sounds like a spectacular idea, but Geralt decides beer won’t make this any easier-- or any easier to forget. “We need to split up after this mission,” he says, pushing away from the counter. He keeps his back to her, unable to look at her reaction.

“What?” She pushes off of her own stool with the squeal of wood on wood. “Why?”

He doesn’t answer, simply takes the stairs two at a time with Ciri following doggedly behind him. Eyes are on them, people looking up from their suppers, but he can’t bring himself to care.

As soon as they’re through the door to their room, she grabs his arm, spinning him. “Why?!” she spits.

He looks at her then, her eyes sparking with anger and her breathing speeded by fear. His hand moves to cover hers without his permission, wanting to comfort, to soothe. “Because I’m going to ruin this. It’s time we went our separate ways before I have the chance.”

“I don’t understand,” she says, desperation tingeing the words.

“Good.” He sets about unlacing his boots, telling himself that these accursed sleeping arrangements will only last another night. “It’s better that way. This was never supposed to be permanent. You know that.”

Knowing she won’t get anything else out of him tonight, Ciri says nothing, simply sits on her side of the bed to take off her own boots. An icy silence settles over the room, and Geralt reminds himself that it’s for the best. Distance will do them both some good. She’ll have room to spread her wings, and he’ll--he’ll get these damned ideas out of his head, even if it means fucking every willing woman between here and the Southern Shore.

This mutual travel arrangement was never meant to last this long, he reminds himself. They were meant to do one job together, then go their separate ways. But one turned into two which somehow turned into five. Sometimes they would part for individual jobs, but never for more than a week and never without a set meeting point.

He should’ve put an end to it when he felt the first budding attraction, when he started dreaming about her more nights than not. Really, it’s more than time that Geralt draws a line between them.

“You done with the light?” he asks.

Ciri only hums shortly in response. Geralt suppresses a sigh and extinguishes the candle with a sign.

Tonight she keeps her back to him, not even acknowledging his presence when the saggy bed forces them together. The tension sets his teeth on edge, the stony silence so far from the comfortable companionship they’ve grown accustomed to.

He listens to the sound of her breathing until he can’t take it any more. “I know you’re not sleeping,” he says into the dark.

“What does it matter?” she hisses back.

“You’re angry at me.”

She doesn’t say anything to that.

Geralt swallows hard. “I’m sorry.”

“Just-- just be quiet, okay?” Her voice sounds thick, and Geralt closes his eyes against the pain of that. “I know you’re afraid. I may not know of what, but I know you. You only do this sort of stupid thing when you’re frightened.”

“Ciri--” he starts softly.

She cuts him off. “Not now. We’ll talk about it in the morning, alright? Just-- hold me. Just for tonight; like you used to.”

She sounds like a child again, and guilt at his twisted desires threatened to turn his stomach. He breathes through the thorny tangle of emotions, telling himself that one night isn't too much to give. He can give her one night without betraying the storm in his mind.

Rolling onto his side, he loops an arm around her waist. His free hand moves to card through her hair, loose from its usual bun.

It reminds him of a different time, a different place, when both of them were more innocent. He remembers the small girl he used to hold to his chest just like this and thinks how different the curves of this woman are now.

Her scent is still so sweet, even through the tang of sweat, and he can’t help pressing his nose to the nape of her neck.

Ciri sighs happily. The sound is so content that his arm squeezes involuntarily around her. Apparently taking the motion as permission, she snuggles back into him, pressing the curves of her smaller body in a solid line against his.

The warmth and the contact make his pulse jump with the low burn of desire. It isn’t lust, not quite; simply want-- the want to hold her even closer, to show her all the affections he knows, to feel her warmth every night.

It’s a want that he can never have, never give into.

He doesn’t dwell on the thought, letting it wash over him as a fact. Instead, he takes what he’s been offered and holds her close for the night. That much doesn’t feel like a betrayal.

In fact, her body held fast against his feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Chapter Text

Geralt wakes more comfortable than he can remember being in a long time. He feels perfectly warm and utterly unwilling to move. Another body is flush against his, bare chest pressed to a warm back. He automatically nuzzles the neck in front of him, following the inviting scent enveloping the bed.

The body against him shifts, tanging a small foot between his ankles. “Good morning.”

Ciri, he realizes. Ciri is the body pressed so deliciously against his own. Ciri , his ward, his everything. Ciri .

He doesn’t realize he’s said anything aloud until her sleep-thick voice says, “I like my name on your tongue. Especially first thing in the morning. Your voice is so--” He hears her swallow. “--rough.”

She shifts, and he feels every muscle where his hand is splayed across her stomach. Somewhere in the night his hand had worked its way under her under shirt to press against the the bare skin of her abdomen.

He’s hard, he realizes abruptly; hard, and pressed solidly against the curve of Ciri’s plush backside.

Panic tenses his mucels, and he tries to figure out how to put space between them without drawing attention to the problem. Carefully, he shifts his hips back. It doesn’t help. The sad bed simply rolls Ciri towards him once more, and he knows that now she has to have noticed.

She laughs huskily, and hell, he never even knew she could make a sound like that. “Stop worrying about it. It’s fine. Perfectly fine.”

“It’s not,” he says, and he doesn’t know where the words come from.

“It is ,” she insists. “I don’t mind, and if I don’t mind, you shouldn’t either. Go back to sleep. The Ducha won’t be out until twilight. Sleep. Rest.” Ciri covers the hand on her abdomen with her own. “Stay?” she says softly, and Geralt can tell it’s really a question.

He nods against her hair, even though he knows he won’t sleep anymore.

He requires far less sleep than she does-- a fact that caused them no end of trouble when they first took to traveling together. Unaccustomed to a normal human sleep schedule, Geralt had pressed them onward day after day, and Ciri had let him. Exhaustion had slowed her reflexes and weighed down her movements until finally a Griffin had landed a swipe she should've easily been able to evade.

Geralt had dispatched the beast with one final blow before rushing to her side. He’d seen the wound, smelt the blood coloring her shirt before he saw it. The talons had left deep gashes along her left flank. He’d stripped the shirt from her unflinchingly, right there in the middle of the forest.

Back then, her bare breasts had been nothing more than a physical feature, a given, like her ears or the mole on her right calf. She hadn’t moved to cover herself, and he hadn’t spared more than an assesing glance to make sure the Griffin hadn’t caught the side of her left breast with the swipe.

The cuts had been deep, nearly down to the rib in one spot, but the would cause no lasting damage once tended to.

Satisfied, Geralt has taken Ciri by the shoulders and shaken her. “You can’t run yourself down like this. You’ve got to tell me when you need rest. I can’t always know, and you’re body can’t keep up with mine,” he’d nearly yelled, as angry at himself as with her.

Now, he runs fingers unerringly down the scars on her ribs, remembering the incident. Even covered by her undershirt, he knows precisely where they are.

He waits until her breathing deepens, then waits an hour more just to savor the feeling of her body against his. Finally, when he feels he can wait no longer without venturing into forbidden territory, he carefully extricates his legs and pushes up on one elbow.

Ciri isn’t a graceful sleeper, and that fact makes affection swell in him all the more. Her mouth hangs open, and her hair is a disastrous tangle on the pillow between them. Without thought, he bends forward to press a kiss to her hairline.

Her eyes flutter, but she doesn’t wake. Geralt slips carefully from the bed.

He kneels in the center of the room and tries to force the swarm of conflicted thoughts from his mind. In that sense meditation brings more relief than sleep. When he meditates, he can focus his wandering mind, but in sleep he has no such control.

***

Ciri naturally sleeps until past noon, still recovering from the broken sleep of the road. She dresses slowly, as if every languid movement is meant to punish Geralt for his sins.

Mid-winter and the surrounding mountains means twilight begins early in the afternoon, so there’s no point in them lingering at the inn. They eat lunch and ready the horses in a heavy silence. It’s not tense, not quite, but Ciri keeps throwing him considering glances. Geralt thinks he knows what’s coming.

Sure enough, as soon as they’ve put some distance between them and the village, Ciri asks, “So, are we going to talk about last night?”

“Not now,” Geralt says shortly.

Ciri gives a growl of frustration. “If not now, when? Do you really expect me to just let you ride off after the job’s done without another word?”

“I won’t do that,” he promises. He hasn’t decided what he’s going to tell her yet, but he must tell her something. He’d given the matter more thought before she awoke. In all likelihood, the best way to ensure Ciri doesn’t follow him or simply return to his side after giving him some space is to tell her some portion of the unsavory truth, but despite his wish to have Ciri away from him and his accursed desires, Geralt doesn’t want to risk breaking the bond between them.

She makes a noise like she’s not sure if she believes him, but says nothing more.

When they come to the clearing, the sepia haze of twilight has already fallen among the mountain's foothills. Ciri walks purposefully to the center, Geralt at her side.

“Ducha, we wish to speak with you,” she says, voice hardly raised above its normal volume.

For a long moment, he thinks no reply will come. The clearing is still unnaturally silent, as if even the breeze dare not disturb it. The silence seems to thicken and grow until it feels like a physical pressure on his eardrums.

Then, a small shape appeared from within the black nest. At first Geralt thinks it’s an ordinary rabbit, but as the creature hops closer, nose twitching, he knows otherwise.

The Ducha looks like a bunny with fur like fresh snow, soft and white. The insides of its ears, however, are an iridescent green that seem to shimmer as it tilts its head. And the eyes, when they fix on Geralt, are solid blue with no trace of whites or irises. From the corner of his eye, he can see the hair standing up on the back of Ciri’s neck as she meets the unseeing gaze.

“Why do you come here, witchers? I am Sky Grabber, mountain that shadows mountains,” The words fills his ears without a clear point of origin, as if coming from all the cherry trees at once. He can see Ciri’s fist clench in an effort not to reach for her sword.

“We wish you to leave the village alone,” Ciri says, commanding.

The Ducha tilts its head and lilts in a soft, high alto, “I do naught but what they ask; I give them truths which are hidden from them.”

“You’re doing more than that, and you know it,” Ciri says, louder this time.

“Aye. Just as the village know what they do with the building of that mine,” Sky Grabber says. It tilts its head up, sniffing the air. “Numberless winters ago I gave the human-folk leave to build in my foothills. What are foothills to the Sky Grabber, peak of peaks? Now, however, they have forgotten this pact, seek to claim my mountain as their own. And nature, good witchers, suffers the claim of none.”

“What if they agree to give up excavation of the mine? Or move it to a different mountain?”

The blue eyes blink slowly, as if in consideration. “That would be acceptable-- given that no tunnels enter the domain of the Sky Grabber.”

“We have a deal, then?” Geralt asks.

“Not yet. First you must offer me an act of good faith,” Sky Grabber says. “I can only speak that which is true. A Ducha may tell no lies, but the same is not true of humans.”

“We have nothing to offer,” Ciri says.

“Ah, but you do. The pact must be bound with the sting of a truth-- as good as life’s blood in the eyes of magic.”

“The same kind of truth you gave the villagers?” Geralt asks derisively.

The Ducha scratches its ear with one oversized paw. “How do I know you speak in earnest if you are not willing to sacrifice? And what better sacrifice than the most potent truth kept from you?”

“So it’s up to you to pick which truth you revel? That doesn’t sound like a fair bargain. You could just pick what you think will cause the most trouble.”

“Ney. It is the magic of mountains which decides. I am naught but the voice.” Sky Grabber looks between them. “Which of you shall make the trade? Which of you fears truth the least?”

Geralt’s stomach does a sickening twist at the thought of learning such a thing. He’s had over a century to amass any number of truths kept from him-- truths that could have saved lives, razed kingdoms, halted armies, preserved loves. He doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t, but perhaps he needs to.

He’s on the verge of agreeing when Ciri steps forward. “I will,” she says.

“You don’t have to,” Geralt says quietly, hand moving to catch her shoulder, but she shrugs it off.

“And neither do you,” she says.

She takes a step towards the Ducha, then another and another, haltingly. When she draws near, Sky Grabber leans up onto its hind paws, nose extended in invitation. Though Ciri’s face shows her confusion, she puts a finger to its twitching pink nose obediently.

An almost imperceptible ringing fills the clearing then, like distant church bells after a heavy snow. Geralt turns his head but again finds no source.

The Ducha goes back on all fours, eyes closing for a long moment before it begins to speak. “Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, Lady of Time and Space, Lion Cub of Cintra, Princess of Brugge and Duchess of Sodden; you weave in and out of reality like a thread. So many possibilities lie both ahead and behind, but only the life of a witcher do you truly seek. You travel far and you travel wide, always seeking truths others might think it better to hide. Yet one unseen fact still remains hidden from your sight:

“The companion by your side bares more love for you than any other he has known. He gave up much to remain with you, and is willing to give up still more to see you leave his company, even the favor of you whom he loves above all. He would burn his heart to cinders all to see you protected from the truth he most fears--”

Geralt feels the blood drain from his face. “No,” he says weakly, reaching out to empty air.

“--He loves you as more than a ward, more than a daughter. He has grown to love you as lovers love and to desire you as such.”

Geralt feels frozen to the spot, unable to move as Ciri turns wide green eyes on him, mouth parted in shock.

“He wants nothing more than your touch against his skin, yet he shies from every brush for loathing of the spark it brings. Dreams of you awaken lust, but waking brings only shame and despair. He hates his desire for you, would rip his own heart out if it meant not having to feel what he feels, and he would see you gone that it meant you never had to know of it.”

The Ducha finishes speaking, sightless eyes turned on Geralt. He’s shaking, but from fear or rage, it doesn’t matter. He draws his silver sword, lunges for the Ducha before he has time to consider the consequences.

Ciri’s hand intercepts him, twists around his wrist, disarming him deftly before he can reach the creature. The sword falls to the grass with a dull sound, and Geralt pulls back from her like he’s been burned.

Sky Grabber makes a chittering noise Geralt suspects is a laugh before dissolving into wisps of mountain cloud. “Fare well, wishers.”

Geralt considers taking a swing at the silver vapor, but in the end good sense and self-preservation win out. He sheathes his sword and turns back for the path without looking at Ciri. He can’t look, can’t see the emotion written on her face. Some part of him honestly hopes she’ll take a swing at his back so he’ll be spared ever having to look at her again.

Contrary to his expectations, her soft footsteps follow him all the way to the horses. He mounts Roach and steers her just east of the city. There’s nothing he needs from the inn, and this way Ciri can have a night’s rest while he puts some distance between them.

However, to his surprise, she follows him. Geralt breaks the silence, head turned so as to avoid looking at her. “Tell me which direction you’re heading, and I’ll go the opposite.”

“Geralt--” Ciri starts, something soft in her voice. Compassion maybe. Or perhaps pity.

“I mean it,” he interrupts. “You’ll never have to see me again.”

“Do you really think that’s what I want? After all this time, do you really think--” She swallows hard. Desperation tinges her voice-- desperation and something that might be guilt.

“Don’t,” he says sharply. “Don’t you dare feel guilty. This isn’t your doing; it’s me-- something wrong with me , not you.”

Ciri reigns her horse to a stop and climbs down. Before he has a chance to ride off, she clicks her tongue to call Roach to a stop beside her. Geralt watches the back of her ashen head as she strokes Roach’s mane.

She glances towards the village, visible in the distance only by the light of fires against the moonless night. “Walk with me, Geralt. I think it best if we have this discussion away from prying ears,” she says.

Obedient as ever, he complies. She deserves some kind of explanation, even if none he can give excuse what she now knows.

They walk along in silence for some time, Ciri leading her horse by his reins while Roach follows behind. Fires flicker and dart through windows in the distance, like stars on the ground to match those in the sky. The chirping of crickets and babbling of distant streams offer the only sounds apart from their slow steps.

“I’m sorry,” he says at last, breaking the silence.

Ciri looks at him the, brow furrowed. “Is it really so wrong to you? The idea that you-- that we could ever be more than what we are now?”

“How can you even ask that question?” he says dully, eyes trained on the furthest point of the horizon he can find. “For years I’ve called you my daughter. I raised you from a child, carried you on my shoulders, told you bedtime stories. How can you even look at me, knowing what I want?”

“You’re much more than a father to me.”

“You need to stop making excuses for me,” Geralt says, louder than intended. “I never intended for you to know about any of this; I never wanted it to be your problem.”

She takes his arm, pulling him to a stop. She waits until he looks at her to speak. “What if it’s not a problem? What if it’s not just you I’m making excuses for?”

“Ciri, what are you saying?” he asks weakly. An altogether new fear is blooming in his chest, threatening to suffocate him.

“I’m saying that you’re not alone in this,” she says with an affectionate squeeze to his arm. “I’m more than your daughter-- more than your destiny. I’m saying that I want you and that I love you, and nothing could be more natural.”

Geralt pulls away from her grasp. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

Rage flashes in her eyes. “You’ve always been the one person who told me I could make my own choices. Well, I choose this, and you don’t get to tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve wanted you for half my life. I’ve wanted to make love to you since I was old enough to know two people could do such a thing. I used to daydream about sharing my first kiss with you at Kaer Morhen.” She laughs then, desperate and pained.

He looks at her, eyes squinted in confusion and mouth hanging open. “Ciri-- I was your guardian.”

“Yes, you were my guardian, and even back then I knew you were the one I wanted everything with. Does that scare you?”

“You were twelve,” is all he can manage.

“I’m not twelve anymore,” she says in a low voice. She takes a step closer.

“I’m twice your age just in appearance, nevermind how much older I actually am,” he says.

“So what?” she challenges. “That didn’t seem to bother you about the other women you slept with.”

“It’s not the same.”

“How?”

“Because you’re you. You’re more than some quick tumble. No matter how much I liked them, respected them, you-- you’re--” He struggles to find the right words. “You’re special. I don’t want to see you get hurt, and I couldn’t live with being the one to hurt you.”

“Love doesn’t have to hurt all the time,” she says quietly.

“And you’d know?”

“Yes, I would.” Her hand moves closer to the rose tattoo Geralt knows is on her inner thigh. “I’m no child; you’re not the only one to have loved and had your heart broken.”

He’s tired, he realizes-- bone-deep and mind-numbingly tired. He’s tired of yearning for something just out of reach, tired of loving what he can never quite have, tired of his heart being a battleground. He wants so badly to give into this pull between them, but he doesn’t know how.

“What do you want from me?” he asks, desperate. He needs to know, needs her to tell him what to do, how to not fuck this up.

“Is it really so wrong to you, that you want to be everything to me? Father by choice, brother in arms, lover?” Ciri reaches up to cup his cheek. “I want you to figure out if this-- us-- is something you’re willing to take a chance on.”

“If I fuck this up, losing you-- I don’t know if I could take that.”

“In our line of work, we can’t ask ‘what if’. It’ll drive us mad. You taught me that.” She strokes her thumb over his cheek. “Besides, no matter what you do, you can’t lose me-- not for good, at least. I’m your destiny, remember? Won’t get rid of me that easily.”

Geralt covers her hand with his own. He can see that for all her bravado, she’s as nervous as he is. Her breathing is short and rapid, her pupils dilated. Her teeth tug at her lip; it’s a nervous habit he’s seen for over a decade. Carefully, he reaches up to trace the abused skin.

Her lip is soft and damp under his touch, and when she leans into the contact, it’s nearly enough to break him. She leanes further up towards him, eyes hopeful and pleading.

Slowly, oh so slowly, he leans down, telegraphing every movement so she has time to pull away.

She doesn’t.

Her mouth is warm and eager against his when their lips meet. It’s so much like the countless other kisses he’s shared, and yet so very different. He can’t recall the last time a kiss sent his breath speeding, his heart pounding. Her scent fills his nose, earthy and unlike any other. He wishes he could bury himself in the scent of her-- sweat and ylang ylang and dirt and Ciri .

He wants to pull her flush against him, but he doesn’t. He keeps the kiss chaste, closed mouthed and slow. He can feel Ciri’s eagerness for more as her mouth moves against his, but he doesn’t think he can give her that just yet.

When he breaks the kiss, she leans in for another. He stops her with gentle hands on her shoulders. “I can’t,” he says.

“I understand,” she says, but disappointment shadows her eyes. “Give me your sword.”

Geralt hesitates, but reaches for his steel sword.

She shakes her head. “Your other one.”

“What?” he asks, balking at the idea of giving up his silver sword without reason.

“You heard me. I’m going back to the inn, and I’m taking this--” She leans to tap the sword on his back. “--to make sure you come back to me. Take some time to think.”

“About?” he asks hoarsely. Nonetheless, he takes the sword from his back.

“Where you want this to go. We’re staying together; that’s not up for debate. But if you want to pretend this never happened, well, alright. But if you want to see where things take us, we’ll figure it out.” She leans up to kiss him on the cheek, and her scent washes over him once more. “Think about it.”

She mounts her horse and casts one last unreadable look back at him before setting off in the direction of the village. He watches her go, suddenly at a loss for what he’s even supposed to be thinking about. He wants Ciri; Ciri wants him, and they can be together.

But what of their friends? Other people’s opinions about his life have never troubled him, but how could the others who knew Ciri as a child accept such a thing? What of Dandelion and Triss and Zoltan? And god knows Yennifer would cross land and sea to castrate him if she finds out.

He won’t keep Ciri a secret like some cheap whore. Hell, he’s never been one to treat cheap whores like dirty secrets, so why would he treat the woman he loves like one?

An unsettling thought hits him, and he starts walking, no direction in mind. What if Ciri wants them to remain a secret? He doesn’t want that, doesn’t think it wise, but he’d be willing to if it meant he could have her.

And that, that right there is a bad road to wander down. He’d done that with Yen-- allowed for all of her conditions without challenge, even those that didn’t sit right with him, all for the chance to simply be with her. Yes, that simple acceptance had made things easier in the beginning, but those unspoken grievances had eaten at him over time, festered into resentment until it had tainted the love between them.

It hadn’t been Yen’s fault-- not solely at least. It would be so much simpler to push all the blame on her, but that would only leave him open to repeat the same mistake time and time again.

With Triss, those tensions and expectations and secrets had never existed, yet when he was with her, he’d never felt more than content. Satisfied. Fine . He loathed that word. He’d wanted the passion with her so badly, the obsession, that beautiful spiral of falling into another person wholly, but no matter how hard he’d tried, it was never there, never the same. And fuck knows he tried. He tried and tried and tried, and in the end, he’s sure that’s what broke them. He’d loved Triss, but he’d never been able to love her the way she deserved.

Geralt decides that he’ll deal with his friends’ feelings on him and Ciri when it came time.

Him and Ciri.

It seems to be an inevitability in his mind, no matter how hard he tries to find reasons against it. Now that he knows it’s not just him who wants the forbidden fruit but Ciri as well, all of his carefully thought out reasons for leaving have vanished into the night.

Perhaps his reason will return come morning, but for now, he’s never known how to refuse Ciri what she’s set her mind upon something.

Behind him, Roach wickers. She’s followed obediently through all of his aimless wandering. He pats her on the snout affectionately. “Yes, yes. Dinner. You’ll be back at the stables shortly. I swear I’ve never had a horse who thinks of food as much as you.”

Roach snorts and tosses her head as if in offense.

Chapter Text

When Geralt  opens the door to their room, it’s to find Ciri submerged up to her chin in a steaming bath, eyes closed peacefully. He stands just inside the doorway for a long moment, captivated. Her hair isn’t in its usual bun, but instead freely tumbles over her bare shoulders and into the water.

He clears his throat politely.

“Geralt,” Ciri says in surprise. She sits up in the tub as one arm moves to cover her breasts. “I didn’t expect you back so soon.”

“Turns out there wasn’t so much to think about after all,” he says. He strose forward with slow, measured steps until he’s directly in front of the tub. “And the horse wanted food.”

Amusement brings a small smile to her face. She doesn’t say anything, simply waits for  Geralt’s next move. His eyes glide down her body, shamelessly taking in her curves for the first time.

“Beautiful.” The word tumbles from his lips without his permission, like a desperate prayer in time of peril.

A blush rises in Ciri’s cheeks, darker than the flush coloring her neck from the hot bath, and her arm tightens across her chest.

Gently, oh so gently, Geralt leans down to circle her wrist and moves her arm aside to reveal dusky nipples budded against the chill of the room. “There’s no point in covering yourself-- if this is really what you want?”

That last part lilts into a question, and Ciri nods slowly, breathing, “Yes.”

He slowly brushes calloused fingers against the curve of her breast, eyes following the movement with unconcealed amazement. He wants more than the pleasure; he wants this, them-- wants her , and he can have her. He wants to touch every inch of her, explore until her body is no longer a precious mystery to him.

Reluctantly, he steps back and lets out a steadying breath. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your bath.”

Ciri licks her parted lips, like she’s trying to find words. Finally she asks, “Help me wash my hair?”

He nods once, but asks, “You sure? What if I-- mess it up?”

She huffs a small laugh before relaxing back against the tub once more. “I’m not Yennifer; there’s not much to mess up. I daresay I don’t treat mine much better than yours.”

He smiles but says nothing to that. He can’t let himself compare Ciri to Yen, can’t start down that path. His love for Ciri won’t grow by making unfair and unflattering comparisons. Yes, Yen had been high-maintenance, but that had been part of the woman he’d loved and therefore something he’d accepted, even when it had bothered him.

Geralt strips off his outer layers, down to his white undershirt, and rolls up his sleeves. Ciri’s eyes linger on the skin exposed by the V of his neckline as he rolls up his sleeves. He takes a nearby pillow and moves to kneel behind her.

The older witcher combs through the hair that falls over her cheek before tucking it behind her ear. He traces her ear with curious fingers, then leans forward to follow the arch of her hairline with his nose and lips. Her breath speeds, then turns into a muffled gasp as he closes his mouth over the curve of her ear, following it with his tongue before nipping, earning him another, sharper gast.

“Sorry,” he says, pulling back. “Couldn’t resist.”

“It’s fine-- good,” Ciri says. “Surprised, is all.”

She hands him a bar of soap before dunking her head under the water. Each notch of her spine stands out like an invitation to be kissed. Instead, he runs his hand down their line, feeling every one like a mystery of Ciri he gets to unravel.

When she resurfaces, she says nothing, instead giving him a quizzical look.

“What?” he asks.

“Nothing, I just--” She cuts herself off, swallowing hard. “I never expected you to be so affectionate.”

His brow furrows. “What’d you expect-- me to just throw you on the bed and take you without preamble?”

She ducks her head. “No, but I thought, well--”

“That a witcher couldn’t possibly be gentle?” he finishes, nodding slowly.

“That’s not it, and you know it,” Ciri says, slapping  his chest with a wet thwap . “It’s just that I never expected you to be this tactile, alright? I know all the shite about witchers not having feelings is just that-- shite. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some truth to it.”

That hurts, just a little, but Geralt doesn’t interrupt.

“Witchers are taken as young children, raised as warriors with next to no women around. The only kind of affection you get is Vesemir’s tough-love kind, and even as much as he cared, he couldn’t let himself get too attached. Then one day, bam. We’re sent out into the world and expected to understand and express ordinary emotions with next to no actual experience.”

Geralt doesn’t miss the “we’re,” and nods. “So, you expected this to mean I wouldn’t know how to be gentle with a woman?” he asks, nimble fingers moving Ciri’s hair aside to follow the curve of her neck across her shoulder.

Ciri arches into the touch like a cat stretching in the sun. “Young witchers have next to no tools for processing even the most basic of emotions. It’s no damn wonder we get reputations for being emotionless. I’m only even a partial exception because I had you and Yennifer,” she says.

She reaches back to catch his hand, intertwining their fingers. “I knew how gentle and affectionate you could be as a friend and mentor, but I had very little to go on to know how you were with a lover. You could be handsy with Yen, I knew, but anything else...” She trails off.

Geralt leans forward to place a kiss on the side of her head. “I prefered to save the affection for when we were alone-- wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation,” he says, then more seriously, “Sometimes touch is the only way I know how to say any of the things going on in my head. Yen-- she used to just read my mind, and that let me get lazy. I know I don’t know how to talk about emotions.”

“You seem to be doing a fine job of it today,” Ciri says lightly.

“It’s difficult, believe me,” he says, dry. “I’m making the effort because this is important, and I’m not about to repeat past mistakes.”

She turns, catching his lips in a slow, deep kiss, and he can feel her thanks in every slide of her tongue, as good as any words.

He smiles when they break apart. “Suppose we’re a matched set.”

“I suppose so,” she says, sinking back into the water. “Now, let’s finish this up before you end up with a prune for a lover.”

Geralt’s stomach gives an interesting flutter at the word “lover,” but he forces a chuckle and begins lathering her hair with the bar of soap.

“Just like old times,” he says, remembering all the occasions  he’d washed her hair as a kid. She neglected it for so long that she couldn’t get all the tangles out without his help. Finally, when Yen had returned to find Ciri with a mass of knotted hair the size of her fist, she’d stepped in and set up a routine of brushing and maintenance.

Guilt gnaws at him as he realizes that he plans to take that same little girl to bed.

She must feel the way he tenses, because she says, “There’s no shame in it, you know. You can remember the past and still enjoy what we have now.”

He begins running his fingers through her hair, gently taking each tangle he meets. He watches the suds on the back of her hair, considering how to say what he needs to say. At last, he gives up and decides to dive head in.

He clears his throat. “Before this goes any further, I’ve got to-- we need to-- we should come to an agreement about a couple things.”

“Go on.”

With her back to him like this, she’s nearly unreadable, but he can still hear the hint of anxiety in her voice. Maybe it’s cowardly, but he’s abruptly happy he doesn’t have to see her reaction.

“No secrets,” he says. “Whatever this is between us, we don’t keep it a secret. There’s no need to advertise it, but, if someone asks, I won’t deny what you are to me. This-- This is too important to build on lies. And quite frankly, I’m sick of secrets.”

“You make it sound like you expect me to lock you in my bedroom for fear of what the neighbors might think,” she says, a smile in her voice. “But I agree. This isn’t some weekend tryst.”

“And--” Geralt chokes on the words. They’re a struggle, a pain to get out, but he remembers Yennifer, remembers the sadness he’d felt when she’d taken another man behind his back. “If you want to bed someone else, I won’t stop you, but please-- tell me. Don’t hide it, even if there’s nothing to hide. Tell me.”

Ciri is silent for a long minute. “And this openness policy, it applies to you as well?”

“Naturally, but I doubt I’ll be particularly interested in other women when I have you.”

Ciri turns in the tub to give him an incredulous look over her shoulder, suds covering one eyebrow. “And you think I feel otherwise?”

Geralt shifts uncomfortably. “You’re young, Ciri. I don’t want to hold you back if there are other flavors of the world you want to taste.”

She bites her lip, and he realizes abruptly how much younger she looks without the coal around her eyes. “How about this: If there’s a flavor I wish to try, let’s see if there’s a way for us to taste it together. Sound good?”

Geralt blinks, eyebrows arching of their own accord. “Very.”

“And I know you, Geralt; I’ve heard the stories from Dandelion. You like women-- not in the way a lecher does, mind, but in your own heart-too-big-for-your-chest way. If there’s someone you want, tell me; let's see if we can’t manage one of those tastes. Barring that, I want you to tell me about it.”

Ciri leans up on the edge of the tub so she can whisper in his ear, rivulets of water dripping from her hair onto his white shirt. “I want to hear every little detail; how she felt, how she smelled, how the candlelight lit her skin, how you took her-- all while you take me. Can you do that?”

“Alright,” he says, voice rough. He swallows hard, pants suddenly too constrictive. “And you’ll do the same for-- for who you wish to have?”

She hums in the affirmative before dunking her head again to rinse the soap.

This isn’t entirely what he had in mind. He’d imaged terse, stone-faced exchanges; himself sitting miserably by as his lover went off to fuck another man. Really, this sounds much better, though he doubts he’ll be entirely able to quell the jealous beast that stirs in his chest at the thought of Ciri with another man. To his chagrin, the idea of her with a woman doesn’t stir quite the same parts of him.

When she resurfaces, Geralt clears his throat. “Um, just fair honesty here, it’ll probably take time for me to be alright with the idea of you and other men. I can’t-- I can’t guarantee this’ll be all that ideal to start out with.”

“I understand,” Ciri says, sinking back into the tub. “But what I told you earlier wasn’t a lie: I don’t really go for men, even when I’m attracted to them. You’re the exception, not the rule.”

“There are ways of preventing pregnancy-- potions and such,” he forces himself to say.

“That bit was a lie. Well, mostly,” she says, leaning her head against his arm. “The truth is, I’ve never slept with a man because you’re the one I’ve always wanted. And besides, I really do find more women attractive. You’re not the only man I’ve ever been attracted to, but you’re the only one I’ve ever trusted enough to sleep with.”

The words mean more to him than he knows how to say, so instead of saying anything, he simply wraps his arms around her shoulders and rests his chin on the crook of her neck. She blindly reaches a hand back to cup the back of his head, fingers weaving through his hair, and he knows she understands.

“I always--” She breaks off, voice soft and more nervous than before. She swallows hard and tries again. “When I was young, I always wanted to lose my virginity to you.”

Geralt groans, burying his face in her bare shoulder. “You can’t say things like that.”

“Because you like it?” she challenges.

“Because it’s wrong. Ciri, you were barely more than a child. What you’re talking about--”

“You can’t separate the child from the woman like I’m two different people,” she says sharply. “Stop avoiding things that make you uncomfortable to think about. Yes, I wanted you back then; you were the first person I got off thinking about. That shouldn’t scare you, Geralt. You’d never have taken advantage of what I wanted, even if you’d known. That’s why I love you.”

Geralt has no response to that. Instead, he runs his calloused palms over her shoulders, the only way he knows how to say he understands.

Ciri leans her head back so she can look up at him. “I think I’d like to try, one day-- with another man, I mean. But-- I want you there with me. I know men aren’t really a thing for you, but--”

“Anything,” he promises, meaning it. It should scare him, how devoted he is. But then, hasn’t he always been this devoted to her? “Anything you need. You only have to ask.”

Without speaking, she turns to face him, pushing up onto her knees.

“Finished with your bath?” he asks, and his voice comes out breathless.

In answer, she pushes to her feet. Geralt has only a moment to process the newly-revealed skin before her arms are around his neck. His hair clings to her damp skin as he stands, frozen, and the sensation of her bare breasts through the soaked-thin fabric of his shirt is almost too much.

He feels like he should bathe, too, considering Ciri is now fresh and clean. He already feels as though putting his hands on her might sully her, and there’s no point in making the metaphorical fear literal. He remembers the way Yen would always make him bathe after a hunt, said the smell of him put her right out of the mood otherwise. It’s a reasonable enough request, and one he’s always kept in mind for the women too polite to ask.

“I should--” he starts, gesturing vaguely at the tub.

“Don’t,” Ciri says. She presses a hand to his chest, letting it move slowly upwards until her thumb can graze his collarbone with tantalizing strokes. “I like the way you smell.”

He snorts. “Like sweat and dirt?”

“Yes,” she agrees simply. “Like sweat and dirt and adrenalin. You always smell the most like you when you’ve gone a good couple days in need of a bath.”

“Why on earth would any of those be smells you like?”

She smiles, almost sad. “You won’t like the answer.”

“Try me,” he suggests, not unkindly.

“It reminds me of my childhood. It makes me feel at home and protected, and reminds me of a time when your arms around me were all I needed to feel safe.”

Geralt can feel his mouth hanging open stupidly, but there’s really nothing he can do about it as he tries to process Ciri’s words. He tries valiantly to think of something to say to that, but no words come. Thankfully, Ciri spares him by moving forward, nuzzling slowly against the gap above his collarbone.

He hears her breathe deeply. His hand moves to cup the back of her head, fingers threading through the wet hair there. Almost on instinct, his free arm loops around her bare waist, and he keeps her pressed there, close and warm against him. He means for the embrace to be tender, affectionate without the need for more, but the hardness stirring to life within his pants seems at odds with that.

He takes a deep breath to steady himself, ready to disengage, but a scent freezes him stockstill. The scent of arousal, of wetness, of a woman. The scent of Ciri, he realizes.

The rush of lust that hits him is enough to take his breath away.

He squeezes Ciri’s hip, once, then runs his hand up her waist, over her ribs, letting his fingers brush the side of her breast before sweeping down again to the curve of her ass and well-muscled thighs. His hands slowly brush upwards along her spine until his fingers can tighten in her hair, easing her head back until she’s looking up at him with blown green eyes.

“Tell me to stop,” Geralt all but begs, voice rough. He wants to touch her, needs to touch her, and he knows the only way he’ll be able to resist is if she asks him not to. “Please, just say stop.”

Instead of doing any such thing, she leans up to capture his lips. This time, there’s nothing restrained in the kiss. His tongue winds into her mouth almost immediately, pulling a near desperate noise from her. He wonders what sounds she would make if his tongue was sliding between another pair of lips on her.

Then, he decides he’d like to find out.

Geralt breaks the kiss with one final peck to her cheek. She makes a confused noise, but the sound quickly turns to one of suprised understanding as he sinks to his knees before her.

It’s the first good look he’s taken of her, and he’s delighted in what he finds. She’s untrimmed from their time on the road, something that’s always secretly been a preference of his. He buries his nose in the wiry hair, delighting in the scratch of it against his cheek and beard. She smells heavenly, clean yet musky, and he knows she won’t taste sweet-- another unspoken preference.

He darts his tongue out, teasing her bud with small swipes of the tip of his tongue. Above, her breath stutters out in one long sigh. He licks harder, tilting his head so his teeth can graze her, and she staggers slightly from the sensation of it.

He guides her fingers to his hair, shows her how to grasp for balance before nudging her legs further apart with a hand to her thigh. He tilts his head back to lick up into her with full, confident strokes. Her arousal is thick on his tongue and beard, easing his way as he thrusts his tongue as deep as he can, mouth open wide. She tastes like she smells, musky and sharp yet oh so perfect.

Ciri hisses sharply above him, and from the insistent press of her hands against his head, he knows it's a good hiss. She’s not loud, barely utters a sound above a whisper as he works her. Geralt decides that he’ll have to find a way to fix that.

Wet sounds fill the room as he laps at her, obscene and delicious. His thumb works her bud with hard, rithmic circles in time with the motion of his tongue. He can feel the muscles of her inner thighs clenching, begging for release that he’s more than happy to provide. Abruptly, she pulls him back by his hair.

“Not yet,” she says, voice low and rough with arousal.

He rises, one eyebrow arching in question.

She visibly swallows. “I like it better when I-- when I wait until the end,” she admits, fingers tracing the top button of his shirt.

“And what will the end involve, exactly?” he asks, needing to know if she’s considered where this might lead. “What do you want tonight?”

She looks up at him, eyes consumes by bottomless black pupils. “Everything,” she says, no hesitation in the word. Her hand trails down his chest, opening every button in its path, before coming to rest over the bulge in his trousers.

Geralt grones and agrees, “Everything.”

His hand covers hers, pressing harder. He can hear her ragged breathing, loud in the otherwise quiet room. Slowly, while watching her face for any reaction, he unlaces his trousers-- an invitation.

A challenge.

Ciri’s eyes dart down, watching, rapt, as he pulls himself free of the confines. Tentatively, her fingers graze his cock, barely more than a brush before they pull back. She flexes her fingers. “Can I--?” she starts, sounding unsure for the first time.

“Anything you need,” he repeats. He cups her cheek and kisses her neck. “Anything.”

She pushes his waist, and he takes the hint, backing towards the bed. She pulls his trousers down an inch more before he takes over, stepping out of them and sitting on the edge of the sagging bed.

Her hands trace over the muscles of his shoulders, taking his open shirt with them as they go. He puts his hands on her hips, but she steps back, out of his grasp. Fear grips him for a split second before he understands.

He sits, bare before her, and lets her look her fill.

Ciri visibly swallows, then reaches towards him. She carefully traces one of his scars with shaking fingers before circling a nipple, feeling its texture under the pad of her thumb. Geralt twists his fingers in the sheets, determined to let her explore at her own pace.

“It’s different from a woman’s,” she says, more like an observation to herself than one meant for Geralt’s ears. Still, he hums in agreement.

Her hands shake as they move further south, he notes. He wants to tell her she doesn’t have to, wants to tell her they can stop, but he knows her well enough to know Ciri wouldn’t be doing this if she didn’t want to.

She runs her fingers through the white hair at the base of his cock. “I shouldn't be surprised; I should’ve known it would match-- but seeing it finally--” she says, and this time he knows it's to him.

“Yours does, too,” he says, fingers brushing the hair above her folds to illustrate his meaning.

“It’s not the same shade, not quite.” She says the words like she hardly knows they’re escaping her lips. She moves closer, settling between his legs. Her hand circles his cock, stroking once, twice with an inexperienced touch. For a moment, the simple pleasure of seeing Ciri’s hand on his cock, the transgression of it, is almost enough to overwhelm him.

He’s the first man she’s ever been with-- the simple fact spins through his head like a mantra. Some small part of him still feels guilt at seeing Ciri like this, while another, darker part relishes the chance to be such a first for her.

Geralt wraps his hand around hers, showing her how tightly to grip, how he likes to be stroked. His other hand works its way between her legs, the tips of his fingers barely parting her folds. He looks up at her for permission, and when she nods enthusiastically, he lets his legs fall further open and pulls her to stand between his knees.

He works a finger inside her with small, shallow thrusts. She’s tight, though not impossibly so; Geralt knows it’s more than vanity to say that he’s above average in size-- well above average-- and the last thing he wants is to hurt Ciri.

When she arches against his hand with a breathy gasp, he adds a second finger, scissoring them as far as her body will allow, tracing her inner walls even as she clutches his thigh for support. She’s never taken a man, and the near-virgin tightness around his fingers attests to that, even if she’s no maiden. For a moment he lets himself wonder what she’d done with her female lovers, then decides that perhaps it’s more polite to just ask her-- later.

The hand on his cock stutters to a stop with the addition of a third finger, but Geralt doesn’t mind. He likes the sensation of her hand simply resting around him, the warmth and intimacy of it.

He leans forward to catch a peaked nipple between his lips, suckling in a way that keeps the pleasure on the right side of painful, all the while stretching his fingers inside her. Ciri grasps the back of his head, fingers threading through his hair, before removing the band holding it back. She combs her fingers through his hair, not bothered by the occasional tangle, and when he grazes his teeth over her nipple, her grip tightens with a suppressed moan.

Geralt pulls off. “You don’t have to keep quiet.”

“What if somebody hears?” she pants. A flush has spread up her neck, bringing bright life into her pale cheeks.

“Let them,” he says, and he can see by the way her eyes darken that she’s never heard him sound like that-- low and rough and aroused. “We paid for the room, and we cleared out their Ducha; they owe us.”

As if to make his point, he circles his thumb over her clit, earning him another low moan.

“Stop teasing,” Ciri says, frustration and arousal in every syllable.

“This?” He repeats the motion as he thrusts the fingers inside her. “This is nowhere near teasing. This is me getting you ready.”

She rocks her hips against his hand. “I’m ready,” she says.

Geralt hums disbelievingly, and she huffs, rocking one more time before pulling pulling his hand away by the wrist. Briefly, she threads her fingers with his, wet with her arousal, before using the grip as leverage to climb onto the bed astride him.

Her knees bracket his hips, and her damp curls brush the curve of his cock. Geralt can’t help but give a shallow thrust, feeling the skin of her belly against his cock. Steadying himself, he asks, “Like this? You sure?”

She laughs, and there’s something nervous in it. “Not one bit. The only thing I’m sure of is that I want you. This just seems like a good place to start.”

Geralt reaches up to sweep her loose hair back out of her eyes with a palm, studying her face. Nerves have set her lips into a tight line, but her eyes are alight with affection and arousal, and that’s enough for him.

He lifts her hips, repositioning her so he can guide her slowly into his cock. The first wild heat as the head passes her outer ring of muscles makes his fingers dig into her hips. Above him, Ciri gives a sharp moan, the first loud one she’s offered that evening.

He pulls her lower, watching in amazement as his cock disappears inside her. He can feel her stretching around him, every flex and release of her body. When he’s halfway in, he guides her up and then back down in small, shallow thrusts, each one pulling her slightly lower.

The pressure around his cock tightens, and when he looks up, Ciri’s face is scrunched in a squint of pain. Immediately, he stills, hands holding her steady.

“Relax for me,” he instructs, holding her gaze. “I’ve got you. ‘S alright. Just relax.”

After a long moment, he feels some of the tension drain out of her and more of her weight sink into his grip. Like that, he’s able to ease her the rest of the way onto his cock.

Geralt has to take a moment to breath, overwhelmed by the impossible pleasure of her flesh hot around him. Ciri looks back at him, eyes hooded and stray hairs sticking to her forehead. He still can’t believe he gets to see her like this, have her like this. Now, with her weight settled atop his hips and her arms looped around his neck, he can’t remember what was ever supposed to be wrong about this.

She’s Ciri, his destiny, the star that’s guided so much of his life. It feels natural that she should so easily become everything to him-- lover, peer, student, even daughter. The silken pressure of her body around his is is one more step in this eternal entanglement of theirs.

Experimentally, Ciri rolls her hips against his.

Somewhere deep in his chest Geralt feels a low moan build, but he’s helpless to stop it. He guides her in slow circles with hands settled just below her ribcage. He can’t help but watch the way his large hands span her skin, the slide and reveal of flesh where they’re connected.

His hips undulate in controlled waves, lifting her up only to bring her back down. He keeps his movements smooth, reminding himself that her body is too unaccustomed to this for him to take her with any real force.

Still, his breath catches as the pleasure builds with every stroke. One of his hands works its way between them, rubbing her in time with their motion.

“Ciri,” he breathes, like her name is a prayer meant for the ears of no other. “My beautiful Ciri.”

“Yours,” she breathes, and Geralt knows that somehow that single word means more than any declaration of love. Ciri is, above all, her own woman, but she’s also not the kind to say thoughtless words in the throes of passion. He understands what he’s being given.

His arms circle her body, hugging her close, similar to so many times before yet so different as he pulls her down onto his cock.

Geralt tightens his embrace until they’re pressed together in one solid, sweaty line, skin sticking to skin and breath mingling as he loses himself in her. His thrusts are shallow, more of an arithmetic grind than any real rhythm.

He clutches her ass with one large hand, pressing until he can feel the rough grind of their hips. Ciri jolts as pleasure courses through her, and when she presses her hips forward even harder, he knows she understands.

She buries her face in his shoulder, mouth open and warm against his collarbone. “Geralt,” she pants. “Geralt, Geralt, Geralt.” She chants his name like a battle cry, like she gets as much of a thrill out of saying it as Geralt gets from hearing it fall from her lips-- Ciri’s lips-- his Ciri’s lips.

The name loses all shape as he thrusts harder against her until it’s meaningless syllables brought out by the force of each thrust. He tries to remember to be careful, to be gentle, but when has Ciri ever been one for misplaces gentleness or kidd gloves?

Her wordless cries come out as warm breath against his skin, faster and faster, out of time with the grind of her hips.

When she comes, the arms around his neck tighten, and her fingernails add yet more scratches to his mottled back. Geralt holds her through it, feeling the rhythmic aftershocks as he rocks into her, forcing his thrusts to slow.

When her breathing starts to even, she leans back to look at him, one hand brushing her hair back out of her eyes. “Did you--?”

He shakes his head, even as he fights the urge to chase his pleasure. “Doesn’t matter, not if you’re too sore.”

“I’m fine . Come on,” she says, circling her hips.

There’s tightness around her eyes, but he’s too far gone to do anything except take her at her word.

Without ever letting his cock slide free, he rolls them until he’s kneeling between her well muscled thighs. He keeps one hand under her lower back, supporting her as the position brings her hips off the bed. His hair falls like a curtain around them, blocking out the dingy room, the world. In that moment, nothing exists for him except Ciri.

He builds up a steady rhythm he tells himself is more than enough for her first time. Still, when her ankles lock at the small of his back and her neck arches in pleasure, it quickly escalates to a more brutal pace until there’s nothing gentle left. Geralt pounds into her with relentless thrusts, cock sliding almost all the way out before slamming home.

He’s saying something, he realizes. He hopes it’s Ciri’s name, but fears it might be something much more saccharin.

Ciri exhales sharply with each stroke, sounding gutted, like the noises are being knocked out of her. And this time, there’s the slightest edge of pain mixed in with the cries.

His thrusts falter, but Ciri growls through gritted teeth, “Keep going!”

And when she rasps out, “I want to feel you come,” voice deep and full of gravel as it shapes one of his darkest fantasies, he knows he’s finished.

Geralt buries himself to the root and pull her tight against him as he spills inside her.

He’s no fool; he knows he can never get her with child, but there’s still something powerful in the act of leaving part of himself inside of her, marking her, just as she’s marked him for the past two decades.

He stays like that, inside her, hands holding her against him, even as his cock softens.

He watches her, watches the way her breasts heave in time with her slowing breaths, watches her green eyes watching him, alight with that knowing smirk. At last, he carefully slides out of her and eases her back to the bed before rolling to the side.

Ciri shifts to look at him, but a sharp gasp escapes her at the movement.

Guilt floods Geralt and he props himself up on one elbow above her. “Did I hurt you?”

“Of course not,” she says.

“Ciri, I know how you sound when you’re in pain.”

She sighs. “Well, I might not be sitting a horse tomorrow, but I wouldn’t call that ‘hurt’.”

Geralt closes his eyes against the shame of it. He’d let himself get carried away, had gotten lost in the moment and forgotten every boundary he’d set for himself. “I’m sorry,” he breathes.

Ciri thumps her fist against his chest. “If I’d wanted you to stop, I would’ve told you to stop. Yes, at the end it got to be a little much, but I still enjoyed myself.”

“But if I was hurting you--” he starts.

“Do I really have to explain this to you? Really?” She leans up on an elbow so they’re nose to nose. “I liked you being rough with me. I liked feeling you take your own pleasure from my body. I liked it, understand?”

Slowly, Geralt nods, and when she leans in to kiss him, long and slow, that's the end of that.

He shifts them, then, pulling her to lay across his chest. Ciri rests her chin on his sternum, looking up at him with a soft smile and even softer eyes.

Geralt wants to say something, anything to tell Ciri what she means to him, but any words he can think of seem to fall short. Instead, he wraps an arm around her as he cups her cheek in his hand.

When she turns her face to kiss the center of his palm, he knows she understands.

Tonight, the scent of dust and the sagging bed beneath him could be a luxury suit for all the difference it makes to Geralt. With Ciri’s head pillowed on his chest and his seed drying on her thighs, he thinks there's no place he'd rather be.

Tomorrow, they’ll collect their reward. Tomorrow, they’ll set off towards their future and their next contract. Tomorrow, they’ll have to face the consequences of their decision in daylight. But, for tonight-- tonight, they're happy simply holding one another.