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The pitter-patter of light steps on stone is his only warning before the door bangs open.

“Geraaalt!”

Groaning, the witcher considers simply rolling over and pretending to sleep – it feels like he only caught an hour or two of rest, and judging by the barely-there light crawling its way up the wall, that's exactly how much he got.

“I know you're awake, y'know”, says Ciri somewhere beyond his carefully closed eyelids. “Breathing's too even. And your acting skills are shitty as always, so–“

Yellow eyes snap open, “Language”, Geralt grumbles as he laments his time in the comfort of his bed a moment longer. He sits up slowly. “Besides, I'm a witcher, not a damn actor. Much less at”, he squints out the window, “six am or so. Something wrong? ”

Ciri snickers. “Five thirty, actually.” A pause. Her smile fades a little, her gaze falling to her shuffling feet. “Do you know what day it is?”

Geralt pretends to think, rubbing his bearded chin. “Well, yesterday was April 30th...”

“Yes. And...?”

“... otherwise known as May Eve...”

Ciri's arms are crossed, her impatient huff a full-body experience. “Aaand?”

“... and today is May 1st...”

“Geralt!”

A grin pulls at the scar on his face. “Which means it's your birthday. So: Congratulations, many happy returns, may you live till you're old and wrinkly and bitter–“

“And become like you? Never!”

She squeals the moment Geralt lunges at her with an offended, “Hey!”, and quickly dissolves into laughter as her sides are tickled mercilessly.

“Yield! I yield!”

He releases her with a ruffle to her hair, “Yeah, you better”, and starts rooting around the room for a clean shirt. As Ciri's grown older – and bolder – Geralt has taken to sleeping in his breeches to anticipate such middle-of-the-night ambushes.

“What's the plan then?”

“Huh?” Ciri turns from the swords hanging on his wall with some delay. They've always fascinated her, those relics of times long past, and it makes something warm bloom in Geralt's chest.

“Oh! Yeah, let's, uh, go on a walk!” Some of Geralt's surprise must've shown on his face because she sticks out her tongue, “I'm special today so you gotta do it”, and nods, approving of her own genius.

Geralt shrugs. “Uh huh, sure. Before we do that though–“

He reaches under his bed to pull out a flat crate, and pulls away the fabric covering its contents. Before he can further explain what's inside, though, Ciri gasps and pushes his hands away to pick it up herself.

“Is this–?!”

Geralt chuckles. “Careful, kid, that's steel. Dull but still quite heavy.”

His words seem to fly in one ear and out the other; features alight with excitement, Ciri fixes her grip around the sword's hilt and points it to the ceiling. “A real sword”, she whispers reverently. Suddenly she leaps up and hugs Geralt, ignoring the way he sucks in a breath to avoid getting poked in the stomach.

“Careful, I said–“

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Oh, wait till I show this to Vesemir, I'll finally be able to train properly and fight and–”

Her happiness is contagious – Geralt feels his mouth move into a soft smile. He squeezes her shoulders for a moment and pulls back, brushing a few wayward strands of white hair behind her ears.

“There's a gambeson and some leather gloves in there, too. 's my old training gear so it's a bit worn, but it should fit you now. And look”, he kneels, unfolds the sturdy garment. “Dyed it red.”

“Like your armor!”

“Exactly.”

Ciri seems a little dazed by then, delighted to the point of being overwhelmed. Then she straightens up – struck by an idea, maybe? – and drags him a few steps toward the door, sword still in hand.

“The walk! C'mon, we gotta hurry– Oh wait, take the thing with you. Yes, that. Go go go!”

And Ciri's out the room. Geralt laughs to himself, shakes his head.

“Right behind ya.”

*

She's waiting for him beside the main hall's door, easily spotted due to her white hair.

“What took you so long?”

Geralt jogs the last few paces. “What's the rush? Here, by the way.”

The gambeson he carried for her is swiftly pulled over her head. Both it and the gloves are a little big but not gravely so; she resembles any other witcher-to-be now. Geralt answers her expectant look with a satisfied nod.

“Cute.”

“Urgh, stop.” Her nose wrinkles in disgust. “'Cute.' Seriously.”

She insists on opening the heavy gate herself – shooting Geralt a warning glare that makes him raise his hands, a silent gesture of I'm not pushing, I swear – and leads him out towards Kaer Morhen's entrance, scurrying to and fro between the many walls and buildings of the keep.

Quick glances over her shoulder ensure Geralt follows closely and still the question remains what the damn hurry is. Ciri clearly wishes it to be a secret. “There”, she mumbles under her breath; they round another corner and Geralt slows down, taken aback.

The other witchers are waiting – ever-patient Vesemir and Eskel with that indulgent glint in his eyes and Lambert a bit to the side, clearly in the middle of pacing – and none of them seems surprised to see them. Heard them coming a mile away, most likely.

“Finally”, Lambert huffs, his good mood only apparent by the relaxed set of his shoulders. “Lookin' good, kiddo. Dragged your old man out of bed for this, hm?”

“What's with the old jokes today”, Geralt complains without heat while Ciri puffs her chest in pride.

“Yeah! And look what I got!”

The sword is met with the appropriate oohs and ahs, or in witcher terms, it passes from person to person to be inspected closely and nodded at in approval. “I remember this one”, says Eskel, catching Geralt's gaze and smirking in that unique way of his. “I knocked it out of your hands countless times.”

Geralt snorts, “Yeah, right. I remember beating you countless times.”

Regardless”, Vesemir cuts in, immune to their squabbling after decades of experience, “this'll do fine for some more advanced training. What do you say, Ciri?”

She cheers, “Fuck yes!”, and Geralt opens his mouth to correct her again – then he gives up with a glare in Lambert's direction. It's no secret where Ciri's picking this stuff up; judging by the grin on the younger witcher's face, he knows it, too.

Bastard.

With her gear successfully shown off, Ciri takes her sword back and puts it aside. “So”, she starts, addressing the whole group but turned towards Geralt. “There's, um, something I want to give you, too.”

Geralt's eyebrows rise the slightest bit. “...Did I miss something?”

A light blush on her cheeks, Ciri suddenly seems quite nervous; she fiddles with her gloves, eyes everywhere but on him. The other witchers are no help at all, their expressions instantly blank and unreadable.

Geralt tells himself to wait before jumping to conclusions. It's... harder than expected.

“Um. Okay, so... The other day I was trying to remember your birthday, and I couldn't, so I asked the others if I had missed it, and they said I didn't because you in fact don't have one, and I found that more than unfair, since we always celebrate mine”, and at this point she takes a deep breath, and Geralt bites his cheek to keep his face neutral despite the way his heart is melting, “so I decided. Today's your birthday too. And to make up for all those other missed birthdays, I got you a gift. A big one.”

A beat of silence.

“Well, they got you the gift. But it was my idea!”

It takes a moment or two to ensure he doesn't sound too affected when he eloquently replies with, “Okay. And where is it?”

“Geralt”, Vesemir chides and Geralt quickly adds: “Thanks. Of course.”

Ciri doesn't seem bothered by his rudeness either way – being around witchers does that to people after a while – in fact, it seems to calm her down.

“This'll sound weird but can you whistle?” She places her thumb and index finger on her bottom lip. “Like this.”

Geralt copies the gesture and blows once, hard. A loud, clear whistle sounds. Then he blinks.

“And now?”

Before anyone present can answer his question, the dull sound of hooves on packed dirt arises – and from beyond the iron gates of Kaer Morhen a brown horse trots towards him, ears pointed and nostrils blown wide.

Geralt stares, uncomprehending. “From where...?”

Ciri giggles. “She's your new Roach!”

And indeed, the mare comes to a stand right in front of him, a curious look in her big equine eyes. Words fail Geralt; he offers the back of his hand for the animal to sniff, and Roach's nose bumps against his fingers, soft and warm.

There's an uncanny intelligence to her gaze as she pulls on the collar of his shirt, gentle enough not to rip anything. A worthy successor. Geralt hums, quietly charmed.

“Will you look at that: Geralt is speechless”, he hears Lambert chuckle from the sidelines, and Eskel's amused hmm.

Then there's Ciri, “You think he likes her?”, she asks Vesemir, and the uncertainty in her voice draws Geralt's attention back to her.

“She's perfect, Ciri. Thank you – all of you.”

For once, there are no snarky comments or teasing jests; Ciri beams while the other witchers seem pleased that their gift did its intended function, and with their jobs equally accomplished, they disperse, each going back to their usual morning duties.

In the end there's only Geralt and Ciri, with Roach standing patiently at their side. The witcher traces the white outline on the horse's face absentmindedly, distracted by the tingling feeling in his chest.

“Hey, Geralt?”

He shakes himself out of it, glances at her. “Hm?”

Ciri scratches her neck, trying for casual. She notices him watching, and drops her arm again. “Next year's present, I wanna pay from my own pocket! So it might not be, like, another horse. But I'll get you something, definitely.”

Geralt's smiles, wide enough the corner of his eyes crinkle.

“Lookin' forward to it, kid.”