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Je prendré en gré ma destresse

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It started well enough, Geralt thought. Yen had him strip and then put him on hands and knees and clamped something unyielding on him that closed around his balls and lodged behind each thigh. He tested the device carefully, feeling how it tugged at his balls and how too much movement or any attempt to stand up straight would cause pain or even perhaps serious injury. And then she closed a hand in his hair and pulled him back on his heels. He had to kneel up just slightly thanks to the device, in a position he thought might have been difficult for a human to maintain. And that was fine, perfect even, because he knew how much Yen liked him on his knees and why she might want to ensure he stayed that way. He wasn’t sure that in her place he would have trusted himself to do it on willpower alone, either.

He expected that she would want — well, he wasn’t actually sure what; he didn’t pretend that his imagination equalled hers in this sphere. But he expected it would mean that she touched him, teased him, maybe tried to drive him from his knees in reaction. He was not prepared for her to sweep away and sit, leaving him kneeling alone, watching her with rapt attention and feeling just the slightest bit bereft from the frustrated anticipation of her touch.

Looking at Yennefer was no hardship, of course. She was beautiful in the way that all sorceresses were, with an eerily inhuman perfection like the warning display of a poisonous frog. But Geralt thought he would have wanted her without it, for it wasn’t the illusion that created the maelstrom in her eyes, the restless devouring hunger that drove him to try desperately to sate it no matter how futile the effort.

No, it was always easy to kneel and watch Yennefer. And that, paradoxically, was what troubled him, because all she could do was gaze back in turn from across the room. And Geralt knew all too well that to look at him was no pleasure, not with his corpse-pale skin and lank white hair, and his body seamed with scars that spoke of killing-wounds impossibly survived. And not when it meant she had to see his weird witcher’s eyes fixed on her.

He felt the growing need to move under her steady gaze, unease so sharp it became a physical ache worse than the small pains of his stretched balls or his knees on the hard floor. Trying to quell the restlessness and offer his body some semblance of movement, he carefully focused on tightening and releasing individual muscles in turn. It offered little real ease, but it was at least a place to direct his mind other than spiralling worry about what enjoyment Yen could possibly be deriving from looking at him. And still Yen just sat and watched, elegant and self-possessed.

It became harder and harder to remain still, a constant doomed struggle against his own persistent disquiet. Soon, too soon, he would have to move or, worse, to beg Yen for mercy. So it was with great relief that he saw her shift in her seat, her posture opening as she spread her legs. She lifted one hand, crooked an imperious finger, and said, “Come here, Geralt, and put your mouth to use.”

It was everything he had been waiting for: a command that at last made sense of the night and of the game they played. Geralt knew well enough that he had a talented mouth and this was a service he could offer gladly. He crawled to Yen as quickly as he could, desperate to provide her with more than an unpleasant prospect.

Crawling hurt terribly. In his haste, Geralt was careless of the bonds Yen had placed on him and so his every move yanked excruciatingly at his balls. He could feel the threat there, the one aimed to drive a human man to slowness and caution, that said he risked true injury if he continued. But he was a witcher, used to great pain, and he knew what damage he did would heal, even when a normal man might not. Fulfilling Yen’s command far outweighed causing himself some temporary harm, so he ignored the sharp pang that came with each surge forward, even as it turned into a more lasting kind of hurt.

Except that when he reached her and made to duck beneath her skirts, he found a hand on his shoulder, checking him. Looking up, he saw Yen’s expression, stoney and furious. She waved sharply and the device fell off, a sudden lack of weight that brought with it some small easing of his pain.

Geralt could not think what he might have done wrong. He had come when she called, obedient, unprotesting, and swifter far than any human could have been; he had not hesitated or balked, or thought to hold his own pain above her satisfaction. Breathing in her scent, he caught fear, sorrow, and worry to go with the anger he could see on her face. In another, he might have called that combination guilt, but that emotion had no place in his understanding of Yennefer.

Geralt realized he had gone soft, the harm done in his haste defying his mental arousal. Although that, too, was withering as Yen glared at him and continued to prevent him from following her own commands. Maybe, his impotence was the reason for her anger? Even he could not imagine she believed him truly uninterested, but perhaps she had had plans she now believed ruined? Perhaps she did not realize how swiftly his ability would return as he healed? He needed to explain, to promise he had not ruined her fun, that he had never intended to deny her. But the words, too many all at once, stuck in his throat as he imagined speaking first, second-guessing her in this mood. Better to let her tell him exactly where and how he had failed. He did not expect her to be sparing in her chastisement.

“Geralt,” said Yennefer, and her voice was terrible and cold, “what have you done?”

“I’m sorry, Lady,” Geralt began. The address should have been “my lady,” of course; even a witcher, untrained in courtesies, knew that. But just then Geralt did not feel he could presume even so far as to lay claim to Yennefer by rote. This game they played was still so new that he scarcely trusted it himself, and it was not he who had just been so thoroughly denied. He was not quite sure Yen would think him worth this new frustration, and he could not blame her. Witchers were not by nature obedient creatures, no matter how much Geralt himself, different even from his fellows, might long to please her.

“I’m sorry,” he began again, conscious he had been silent too long. “I didn’t mean… Fuck. You know how fast I heal.” He would likely have been blushing, were he able. No man could enjoy discussing his own inability to perform this way, nor apologizing for a failing all of his own making. “I’ll be capable as soon as you want me.”

That brought a pinched, frustrated look to Yen’s face. Whatever it was she actually wanted from Geralt, this had not been the apology she looked for. He cast about in his mind for some other error he might have made, some other way he could have disappointed. But everything else had happened on her orders, and even if he fully believed she might still blame him that those things had not turned out exactly as she imagined, he hoped in that case she would tell him outright and not leave him offering only his own best guess at restitution.

“When you were hard again, if I’d ridden you as we both wanted me to, Geralt, how much would it have hurt you?”

And oh, that made sense, that Yen would be concerned the fresh pain would newly imperil his ability to perform. He needed her to know that he was done being selfish. It would never be as it had those first years after Rinde, with her all unknowing, thinking herself in control and unaware of the bond that permitted her only the illusion of it. He had promised as much, to her and to himself, and he still meant to see it through.

“I would have healed enough to manage, I promise.”

That pinch of frustration was still on her face, revealing that she liked that answer no better. But apparently Yen, too, was trying, because she did not immediately lapse into yelling and recriminations. Instead, she breathed through her nose a few times, violently, and there was a wilder than usual look in her purple eyes. Geralt thought he might have preferred her to vent this upon him than to watch her struggle to control it. Yen was not meant for constraining and he was formed to withstand wildness. It troubled him to watch her have such care for him.

He waited, sensing how near the edge she was, and in a mere moment saw her temper crest and snap her tenuous control. Good. Now they could have it out, have it done, and Yen could decide if his contrition was sufficient to merit picking up the pieces afterward. He had realized his fault more swiftly this time. Perhaps the sign that he could learn enough not to repeat the same mistakes would be enough.

“You think I could want you in that kind of pain?” she said, bitter as he had ever heard her. “I see you believe me heedless and destructive still. A wonder you ever agreed to bed me this way when you trust me so little.”

For a long moment, Geralt had no answer. Indeed, he could barely comprehend the problem. He was a witcher, and that meant his pain was valueless, meaningless. Whether he suffered it or not had no bearing on any situation; it justified no action on his part nor demanded any consideration from another. A minor injury such as this, that would heal within the day, would not even have drawn a rebuke for carelessness while training, or been cause for his brothers to pull their blows. Why, then, should Yennefer consider it reason to deny herself? And yet he could not have her thinking she lacked his trust.

“Yen, I knew you wouldn’t hurt me. The power you have… Your kind is more fearsome than any monster, and yet here I am.” There he was indeed, still naked and on his knees before her. Still aching from the device he had suffered her to put on him, the one he could have reached back and broken open with his own bare hands at need. The one he had instead allowed to hobble and hurt him. If Yen could not see what that meant, what he offered, he did not know what more he could do.

Geralt had no notion why Yen did not just look into his mind and divine the answers herself, unless it required control currently beyond her. Still, Look at me, he urged her mentally, where the words came easier. See me here. I trust you to keep me and I trust you to send me on my way again when I must go, ready and able to walk the Path. I trust you to fight me only in ways I can match and return, kind for kind, at need.

He could only hope she understood some of that, whether gleaned from his mind or, unlikely though it might be, read on his face. He could find no way to give any of it voice. But there was one question he thought perhaps he might manage.

“If you didn’t want this, Yen, what did you plan for tonight? Where did I go wrong?”

Yen looked at him with a frown. “You can’t possibly have believed this was only about causing you pain,” she said.

Geralt shook his head, relieved to learn he had understood at least that much. Yen liked precious things, rare things, and he offered his pain to anyone with a handful of orens, easy as a streetcorner whore. Of course something so common could never satisfy her.

She still smelled of doubt, but seemed content to let the matter lie for the moment. “I never changed, Geralt,” she said defiantly. “I still want everything. I want to watch you break yourself apart for me, and to see you lay it all at my feet when you’re done. I want your mind, your skills, your self control, your desires, your fears, all for myself. I want you to split yourself open, everything you keep locked inside spilling out for me to see and toy with at a whim. I want to watch you fight your own instincts as you struggle to give me whatever I ask. You were supposed to give me all that, not half maim yourself to offer nothing more than a cock and a clever tongue.”

That gave Geralt pause. This was far from the first time he had played a game of this sort, but he had never offered his whole being as Yen asked of him. No one had ever asked it; they wanted the thrill of seeing a witcher tamed at their feet or, more and more, of seeing the famed White Wolf brought low. His self had been irrelevant. Trust Yen to be contrary, demanding, and vicious enough to demand something he had not even understood to offer. Though he could see no reason why she might want it, he believed that she spoke true. Lying was beneath her; you gave what she asked or got out of her way.

The trouble was, though he at last understood, he yet had no notion how to offer it. When he had tried to bare himself to her once before, on the mountain, he had been too fearful of his own vulnerability to make a proper job of it. Instead his needs and fears had driven him to crash hard against her own jagged edges, maiming them both as he deliberately mocked her pain, her desire for a legacy. He had believed that the end of any chance that she might ever want more of him than the physical pleasures he could offer, even with Ciri’s presence in her life as his unspoken apology.

And perhaps… perhaps Yen was correct that this betokened a kind of lack of trust in her, though not, as she had thought, because he believed her to desire this game for love of physical cruelty. Geralt had hurt her badly enough with his wish that she might have skinned him alive now had she so desired, without him thinking to offer so much as a word of protest. That she had not taken such retribution, or used any of the other vicious methods he knew she might have employed to punish him, proved that his body was safe in her care. But he had not trusted her to have use for his mind or heart. He had kept close and hidden the pains that still mattered, had all unknowing cheated her of his fear of inadequacy and his anguish at his own mutated monstrosity, offering only the irrelevant physical agony of his body for her pleasure. And now he would have to tell her as much, through a throat so tight he felt as though he had swallowed ground glass. In understanding at last, he knew too that he owed it to her to apologize fully, to make clear exactly where his fault lay, admit the inner suffering he had refused to display before her avid gaze, and to offer penance.

“Yen, I didn’t think — I owe you…” Geralt found to his frustration that the curious verbosity that came to him in Yennefer’s presence had vanished. He was as tongue-tied as ever in his life, filled with words he needed her to hear and that would not come, when usually in her presence he endlessly spoke of things he wished left hidden. The djinn’s cruel joke, perhaps.

Instead, thwarted, he offered explanation and penance in one. “Yen,” he ground out, desperate, “read my mind.”

There was no question that she heard him. Geralt could smell the shock from her. But, unaccountably, she hesitated. He had expected to feel her rifling through his thoughts with abandon, and instead he remained alone in his head.

The consternation loosened his tongue. “Not even with an engraved invitation? You’ve never hesitated before, though you know how much I hate it.”

That stung enough that he could see it, not just smell the emotions she tried to hide. “I thought,” she said sharply, “that I had done quite enough to you today, without adding mental invasion to the mix.”

Yen’s statement only reinforced the need to have her in his mind. At least then one of them would understand the other. He stared at her, waiting. Nothing he said or did now would convince her until she was ready. And eventually, she narrowed her eyes and he felt the familiar, uncomfortable sense of someone else leafing through his thoughts like the pages of a book. He leashed his usual desire to lash out in defense of his privacy. For once, Yen was not an interloper prying where she was not wanted. He had invited her in and now he owed her hospitality.

At last she finished. The feeling of her presence vanished and his mind was a solitary refuge again. It had been, surprisingly, a less unsettling experience than usual. Triss had once told him that humans could not sense her presence at all, and so sorceresses forgot or never knew that witchers’ magic resistance alerted them to such trespasses. Not that Geralt had ever found it much mattered once one of them realized that he knew and objected. They wanted information, and so they took steps to find it out and his own desire for the privacy of his own mind was irrelevant. That Yen had remembered his objections and thought to hold off now, in the face of such obvious miscommunication, well, that mattered. Violations were expected from any sorceress, but forbearance was among them practically an unknown word. It was a gift he had not known Yen could grant.

And now she looked at him as he had always hoped she might, with a certainty that swept away the last of the brittle haughtiness she wore like a cloak, and replaced it with a more solid kind of pride. Seeing her this way reminded him abruptly that he was still naked on his knees before her… and that she would not thank him later for the way he was leaning against her and crumpling her skirts. He felt a warm stirring inside even as he eased back into a more proper posture. The feeling might have been arousal, were he healed enough for that, but as it was it confined itself to a sense of restlessness that left him shifting slightly on his knees.

Yen’s gaze sharpened at the tell and she smiled, fierce and wild, tense and free at once as a hawk stooping on a rabbit. Geralt was not accustomed to feeling like prey, and yet watching her he knew himself not merely hunted but caught. He shivered at the knowledge.

“I see what I missed earlier,” said Yen. “You gave me the ability to, when you let me in like that. I know exactly how hard you fought yourself to stay still and let me look my fill. I have you just where I want you, now that you let me understand how to push you. But this is enough for today. Time to see to what you’ve done to yourself. I don’t want things to get worse before it heals because you deny yourself treatment.”

Geralt instead picked the device up and turned it over in his hands, taking his first real look at the thing: two short, slender wooden staves sanded smooth, with a leather hinge on one side and a metal hasp on the other, and a shallow divot carved on the inside of each, right in the center so that they formed a narrow hole when the device was closed. Deceptively simple yet diabolically clever.

“Geralt,” Yen said, interrupting his thoughts, “you need to come with me now. Everything to treat you or make up one of those noxious draughts you still refuse to teach me is in my stillroom. I need you in there to decide what you’re going to do. We both know that if I leave it to you, you’ll still be telling me you’ll heal any moment even when your stones are swollen to the size of onions. I need you well if you’re going to be fit for my plans.”

“My plans” abruptly became two of the sweetest words Geralt had heard in a long time. Yen would make him squirm and never let him hide his discomfort long enough to disappoint her. For that, he would even let her see for herself that he had done himself no lasting harm. Though he did pause on his way out the door to put on his discarded shirt. The time for such vulnerability was, as Yen had said, over. It would keep until the next time, after he healed.