After decades on the Path, most of the monsters Geralt encounters are much like monsters he's seen before. One of the keys to surviving those decades has been to react quickly and decisively to threats; when he sees nekkers bearing down on him, he doesn't waste time wondering whether they might be different from every other nekker he's ever seen. He simply launches the same sort of attack that has worked before.
That's his only shred of an excuse for how badly he misreads things with Emhyr--because the only thing he isn't wrong about is how easily Emhyr var Emreis could destroy him if he chose to. Geralt has already left him far too many openings.
He's been in Nilfgaard for a few weeks, the night when he gets everything wrong. It's not his first visit; he'd stayed nearly a month when Ciri first traveled there, making sure that she was safe and settled as a princess. He'd been uncertain, the entire time, whether he was there to discourage her from changing her mind and taking to the Path, or if he lingered because he was waiting for her to do exactly that.
But eventually Yennefer's patience with his time away from her had begun to grow thin, and Ciri had opened a portal and sent him back to the love of his life. And after some uninterrupted time together, well, that had gone about as well as Geralt probably should have expected it to, given what their love--and their lives--had been so far.
After Yen sent him away--seeming as sure as Geralt was that this was the last time, although much less bewildered than he was by that fact--Geralt had spent some time out on the Path. Killing monsters still made sense, at least. One sword or the other sorted everything right out.
And if he scrupulously avoided all his friends--if there was one particular friend who he kept most careful track of in order to avoid him most effectively--well, Geralt had a lot to deal with. The love of his life... wasn't, anymore, and he likely still had a hell of a lot of life ahead of him, and no idea who he might spend it with. He needed some time to get used to the idea, and killing monsters always helped him feel like he knew what the hell he was doing.
He'd been at it for a few months when Ciri appeared at his side as he was trudging down a road in the middle of fuck-knew-where. He was leading Roach, because she'd started favoring her left foreleg an hour earlier, and Geralt didn't want to aggravate the injury before he found somewhere to make camp and check it properly.
"I heard two months ago," Ciri announced without looking at him, just stretching her legs to match his stride.
She was dressed much like he was, in leathers and armor, a sword on her back, her ashen hair in a long neat braid. It took Geralt a second look to notice how fine and perfect her clothes and gear were; even her hair was better-behaved than it used to be. He felt as glad to see her as always, a sudden startling burst of joy in the midst of the grayness his days had become.
That almost instantly faded into worrying in several directions at once, but he only replied to her words with a not-totally-discouraging grunt, studying her out of the corner of his eye. She didn't look like she meant to be on the road for long, but it wasn't as if that meant anything, with Ciri, since she could shorten any road to the length of a stride; and, judging from her new gear, she could afford to outfit herself however and whenever she liked.
"Not from Yen," Ciri went on. "She's not speaking to me, which is fine because I'm not speaking to her either. Everyone says she's the one who threw you out, not the other way around."
Geralt grimaced, shrugging one shoulder. The memory hadn't dimmed, exactly, but the pain was something he'd gotten used to working around, and the shock had long since faded. He still didn't understand why it had gone the way it did, but understanding was a lot to ask for when it came to Yen. "She gave me a choice. I made it."
Ciri said nothing for a while longer, and then, "I thought you'd come back to me, if you weren't with her, at least to let me know. Or I thought you would send a message; I didn't give you my courier seal for a memento. Or I thought you'd go to Corvo Bianco. I looked for you there."
Geralt nodded agreement to those statements of fact, since she hadn't asked him a question: he did not doubt that Ciri had looked for him at his fancy villa on his fancy vineyard in Toussaint. He knew she had given him her personal seal so that Nilfgaardian couriers would carry messages from him to her as swiftly and securely as possible, including transmitting the contents by megascope if he marked the message with the right codes.
He had not made himself easy to find, and he had not sent a message to tell her anything at all in the last few months. He hadn't even let Nilfgaardian couriers catch sight of him on the road; he knew couriers carried their own observations as much as the messages entrusted to them, and he hadn't wanted them to have observations of him to report.
Ciri had been so happy, sending him back to Yennefer. She'd thought he was safely settled in a new life off the Path, just like she was.
"Geralt," she said finally, stopping there in the middle of the road. "Come on. Stop this. Come home."
He stopped too, a couple of strides later, and turned to stare at her, letting her see that she'd surprised him with that last, and that he had no idea what to say to it.
"Anywhere I have a hearth is a home for you," Ciri said, like it was something he should have known. "Anywhere I have a roof, or a fire, or a loaf of bread, a crust, you have to know--"
Geralt raised a hand to hush her before she worked up to any more alarmingly impassioned declarations. "It's not like I thought you wouldn't let me stay if I turned up, Ciri. I just..."
Geralt looked at the road under his worn, dusty boots, and at Roach, standing patiently on three legs, thinner than she should be after being ridden hard all over the North in the last few months. He realized that he was, in fact, tired of this--much too tired to defend his choice to anyone, let alone Ciri.
"Kaer Morhen used to be home," Ciri said softly, coming a half-step closer. "Not just when we lived there--for so long, it was the place you always went back to. You told me that."
Geralt nodded. It was no wonder he'd found himself there, when he returned to the world; he was just lucky that he'd been found by--
Geralt cut that thought off. He still wasn't ready to think too much about Eskel, even if it seemed like every memory led back to him somehow. Not for the first time recently, Geralt found himself a little nostalgic for the straightforwardness of total amnesia.
"And it can't be your home, now," Ciri went on softly. "You thought it was going to be with Yen. It could be Corvo Bianco, maybe, but I know you well enough to know you'll never feel at home away from the people you care about. That villa won't ever be home unless you have someone to share it with."
Geralt finally met her eyes, and let her say softly, "But it could be Nilfgaard. It could be me. Couldn't it?"
Geralt blew out a breath and nodded, offering Ciri his free hand, and wrapped Roach's reins more firmly around the other.
Ciri smiled, and held onto his hand while she opened a portal for them. Roach huffed and flattened her ears, side-stepping a little, but she was too tired to express her displeasure beyond that. She let Geralt lead her through after Ciri, into the sunlit summer warmth of the palace stableyard in Nilfgaard.
People were awaiting them: a groom and an older man in cleaner clothes, probably some sort of stablemaster, stepped forward at once to take charge of Roach. Two women, one dressed like Ciri but less armored, another in a flowing gown, were waiting to collect Ciri. A footman stood by, probably there for Geralt just as the groom was there for Roach: to see him fed, watered, cleaned up, and put away.
They were all as irrelevant as fireflies when he saw Ciri look up and followed her gaze to an arcaded walkway above the stableyard, and the people walking there. All of them were focused on the Emperor, but Emhyr was looking past them, returning Ciri's attention. Maybe, Geralt thought for a dislocated second, returning Geralt's.
Then Emhyr turned away and walked on, evidently satisfied with what he'd seen, and Geralt let the palace swallow him up.
He has the same rooms as he did the first time; he suspects that they were kept just for him, cleaned and aired but never occupied by any other guest in his absence. He's not sure what to think of that, exactly, but it's clear that Ciri meant what she said. She wants him to have a home here.
Geralt spends his first day or two sleeping, and by the time he's up and around again the idea has begun to take root. He won't stay here always, of course--probably not even whole winters as he used to at Kaer Morhen. But there's a different kind of pin in his mental map now, not just Ciri but an anchor for himself, something he knows he'll return to.
There's not much going on by Nilfgaardian standards, which is to say that the place is like an entire palace built of beehives, constantly buzzing with purpose in all directions. But no one's actively trying to kill Ciri or Emhyr, the Imperial armies don't look to be gearing up for another invasion, and Emhyr's abdication and Ciri's subsequent coronation have been tentatively set for a year or so in the future.
Ciri's working hard at her apprenticeship to the throne, and what's better, she has to work hard at it. She's impressed by Emhyr--not his Majestic Imperialness or his wealth or any of that bullshit, thankfully, but, "I think sometimes he holds the entire Empire in his head, Geralt. Not just a map, not even just the military--trade, and crops, and taxes, and roads, and all the nobles and all their conflicts and alliances, and every time I think I'm starting to get a grip on it, he shows me some whole other layer to everything!"
It might sound despairing, if Geralt didn't know that Ciri's worst trouble in settling to anything had always been that she got a grip on it and then got bored.
Ciri has training time built into her days, so that she won't get too restless to listen or read after too many hours in a row. Today it's sword training; usually she spars with the officers of the Imperial Guard, but today she's insisted on Geralt joining them. That means he's sparring with her and the officers are pretending not to stare while they get on with their own training.
This whole princess thing is working out for her, Geralt can see; she's in good form with her sword work and in every other way he can gauge. She's building a life for herself, making Emhyr's plans for her fit the person she actually grew up to be while Emhyr wasn't looking.
Geralt does get bored, though he does his best not to. He visits Roach, and once she's had a few days' rest he takes her out for rides around the palace grounds and in the miniature forests dotted through the city--because apparently Nilfgaardians have to go so far to find actual wilderness, and it's such a novelty, that they've built their own imitations of it. There are a few places where a wide well-beaten track allows him to give Roach a decent gallop, if he circles around and around instead of actually going anywhere. That seems to be what visiting Nilfgaard is all about, so he tries not to dwell on it.
He works on keeping himself in condition, as well as Roach; at some point he's going to leave here and get back to earning his living, and he can't let himself go soft. He practices the forms in his rooms, since there's enough space to do it without destroying anything and he'd rather not invite more eyes on him than he has to. He does go to the training yard at the hours when it's less crowded, and of course whenever Ciri is there.
The training yard is one of the few places he actually gets to see her with any regularity, though even that isn't every day. Ciri spends most of her time with Emhyr, which of course is what she's here for, and when the two of them aren't doing secret Imperial business, there are endless formal occasions for her to attend in her official capacity as Crown Princess. Those occupy most of her evenings and nights, and some entire days.
Still, he's gotten to have a little time with just her--a few late suppers alone, and once she came to his room at midnight, slightly drunk and still wearing some sort of elaborate gown. Ciri perched on the end of the bed, talking and plucking pins out of her braided hair, until she fell asleep halfway to dawn. He moved her to a comfortable position and meditated until one of her ladies--Julena, the one who wears trousers anytime Ciri does, and watches sword training like she's memorizing it--came looking for her.
There have been a few other nights when she's asked him to come have dinner, or late drinks, with her and Emhyr; he does, because it's not like some stupid grand party, and because honestly he'd go to the stupid grand parties if Ciri asked him to. He's already taking at least one bath every day and mostly wearing the Nilfgaardian clothes that keep appearing in his rooms; after the first week he even shaved--himself--without wasting much time pretending that it was because his beard didn't suit the heat of a Nilfgaardian summer, rather than because of the way people's superior gazes at him flick sideways to Ciri when they're together.
It's strange, being alone in a room with her and Emhyr in what is clearly, for all its alien luxury, their home, where they get as close as they ever do to just being people. It's even stranger to see that it's not strange to Ciri; she's had enough time to get used to seeing Emhyr as a man with a job--which, Geralt supposes, is probably something most people wouldn't be able to imagine witchers being, either.
Still, Geralt doesn't say much at those little gatherings. It's not that he wants to crush Ciri's obvious hope that he and Emhyr can both be family to her at the same time, in the same room, despite one of them being the Emperor of Nilfgaard and the other not owning a single suit of clothes he can wear in public without embarrassing her in Nilfgaard.
It's just that seeing Emhyr like this makes him a stranger all over again, and getting friendly with this stranger-who-isn't is a problem Geralt has no plan of attack for. Even worse, he knows he doesn't dare be too friendly, and has no idea where exactly the line might be. Geralt thinks he might even be starting to like the guy Emhyr seems to be in those hours, which doesn't make it any easier to guess.
Nor does the way Emhyr's gaze lingers on him, the first time he turns up dressed entirely in new clothes, clean-shaven.
So Geralt talks to Ciri, and listens to Emhyr talk to Ciri, and tells himself that either he'll figure out how to go on here, or the time will come for him to leave.
He doesn't think too much about which is likely to happen first. He sleeps most nights instead of meditating, because he has all this time, and a really nice bed, to fill. He has no idea what he's doing in Nilfgaard other than being one less thing for Ciri to worry about, and seeing her for an hour here and there. He supposes he wouldn't have been any more use to anyone if he were still spending most of his time keeping Yen satisfied--well, he'd have been of use to Yen, at least.
He hopes she doesn't miss him. He doesn't miss her, exactly, not in the way he'd miss anyone else he cared about if he thought he'd never see them again. Not the way he used to, when something more than their own love and desire bound them to each other--so maybe what was between them was always more the curse, and less himself and Yen, than he ever wanted to believe. He misses the certainty, and the sex, but he doesn't find himself wanting to tell her things, to share every absurd discovery he makes about his decadent new life in Nilfgaard.
He thinks, I've got to tell Eskel about that, half a dozen times a day. But that's no different from any other time he's been away from Eskel, and they've spent a hell of a lot more of their lives apart than together, so that's nothing new. It's not even something he should notice. He probably wouldn't, if he didn't have so much idle time and nothing to fill it.
Geralt considers spending some of his vast quantity of free time figuring out how a stray witcher goes about getting laid in Nilfgaard, but he's not at all sure he has the lay of the land well enough for that.
He's confident he could find a whorehouse readily enough, or even a woman in the palace--a servant, a lady in some variety of waiting--willing to be charmed by the future Empress's barbaric foster father. What he has no idea of is how such an encounter would get back to Ciri. He has no desire to be an embarrassment to her, or a weak point, and he has no doubt he'd manage to fuck up some of the arcane rules of fucking Nilfgaardians.
When he thinks about it, he realizes that it would be even more complicated than just finding someone to fuck without reflecting badly on Ciri. He's the only witcher in Nilfgaard, and most of Nilfgaard must have heard some version of the tale of him and Ciri by now. Geralt is pretty hard to mistake for anyone else, and people see him now as a lot more than just the White Wolf. Who could he sleep with who wouldn't be angling for something from Ciri through him? How could he ever be sure?
Once he's started thinking about it, and with nothing at all to distract him, he can't stop. He starts spending a lot of time in his bed and taking extra baths for entirely different reasons than he did before. He's stopped judging the threat level of every person he encounters, because he can't stop being distracted by the thought of what they'd be like in bed.
Sharing the training yard with the guard officers while he spars with Ciri becomes downright dangerous and therefore his favorite part of the day. A few of them have started asking to spar with him, and Ciri's branched out again to test herself against them, so between and during bouts Geralt has a whole crowd of men to watch exerting themselves, studying their movements and thinking about how they'd fuck.
He starts to imagine that he can tell what they'd be like, though he knows better. That one would be tender, that one rough. That one would push back against his advances and struggle with him for dominance; that one would go pliant at once. That one--
That one, Geralt realizes, one particularly mortifying day when he's spent several seconds between bouts watching the back of one particular swordsman without seeing anything higher than his sturdy shoulders or lower than his arse, is Emhyr var Emreis, getting in some sword practice of his own with his officers and Ciri. Geralt doesn't even bother to stop looking, or to try not to think of it, at least for the length of Emhyr's bout.
It's not the first time it's ever crossed his mind; Emhyr's aura of power is unmistakably arresting to a man who's gone to bed more times with sorceresses--and witchers, if he's thinking of men--than ordinary folk. Emhyr is strong, graceful, not a dazzling swordsman but thoroughly competent, precisely aware of his own strengths and devastatingly quick to find his opponent's weaknesses.
Geralt watches him best two of his guards, defeating speed and strength with tactics and his pure will, and then he doesn't let himself cast another glance in that direction until Emhyr is gone. Geralt might watch, might think of it, but it wouldn't be good at all to be caught at it.
That night--when a soft knock at his chamber door just barely precedes Emhyr walking through, feet silent in embroidered slippers, the shape of his body alternately hidden and revealed by his rich dressing gown--Geralt realizes that he's an idiot. He stood there today, watching Emhyr size men up and take them down, finding their weak points and rendering his own absolute power unassailable against all their mere raw strength. And yet, somehow, Geralt still hadn't expected this.
Emhyr's presence here--at night and seemingly unattended, in a state of dishabille Geralt's never seen before--makes it perfectly obvious what he's come here for. If Geralt somehow missed those signs, there's no mistaking the look in his eyes. The desire in them is unguarded, and Geralt realizes he's had glimpses of it before. He hadn't wanted to see it, and Emhyr had never forced him to, until now.
Well. At least this solves the problem of getting laid.
Geralt turns half away as Emhyr shuts and locks the door and takes another step inside. He clears his throat, but Geralt doesn't want to hear what words he's going to put around this. He doesn't want to know whether Emhyr will lead with threats or start with an offer, if he'll try to make it sound pleasant or just state what he requires like it's any other contract he's summoned Geralt to undertake.
Geralt doesn't look at him. He's down to a pair of loose trousers himself, shirtless and barefoot; he's far more naked than Emhyr is. He was sitting in an improbably soft chair by the room's hearth when the knock on the door brought him to his feet. He won't sit again, but he eyes the last of the liquor in the glass on the side table consideringly.
He can't make himself turn his back any more than he can sit, but he only watches Emhyr in his peripheral vision as he declares his surrender. It's hardly any effort to sound just weary and bored. "My cocksucking skills are probably a little rusty, but a witcher's always virgin-tight. Up to you if that's a drawback or not."
Emhyr says nothing, and Geralt feels a little vicious satisfaction at wrong-footing him, even if it's pointless. He's not going to follow up with anything like an attack, after all. Emhyr's got him disarmed and surrounded, holds Ciri as a hostage and knows just how helpless Geralt is before any threat to her.
And now he's come to get what he wants, like plenty of asshole noblemen before him who thought fucking a witcher was just like bagging some particularly impressive trophy on a hunt. If it's the chase he wants, or the struggle, Geralt can't be arsed to give it to him. It's not even like he'd mind going to bed with Emhyr, if it were somehow possible to go to bed with a version of Emhyr who didn't bring the full might of the Nilfgaardian Empire along with him, crushing one more Nordling as he has the rest of the North. Geralt can take a lot, but that's going to leave bruises even on him.
"Bed?" Geralt inquires, when Emhyr still doesn't speak or come farther into the room. "Up against the wall? On my knees? You can have what you want, we both know that, but I'm not going to guess how to please you like your newest concubine on her first night."
"Geralt." There's something odd, something he's never heard, in Emhyr's voice. Geralt has to look, even if he would rather do almost anything else.
The desire is so thoroughly gone from Emhyr's expression that Geralt could almost believe it had never been there--except that there's still no other reason Emhyr would have come here like this, in the quiet of the night. Geralt doesn't know what it is in Emhyr's eyes now--something very cold and dry, searching. Perhaps probing for one last weakness, when Geralt's trying his fucking best to give in without a fight, so he can get out of this as unscathed as possible.
Geralt knows there's only one thing left for him to surrender, one tiny shred of a defense that he never actually would have used to shield himself. The words are bitter poison on his tongue, waking a little actual anger from his mostly-numb resignation, for all that he gets them out quiet and flat.
"I won't let on to Ciri, not in words or any other way. I won't blight her happiness here."
Ciri wants him to come back here, to keep coming back. To think of this as his home, for all it's a thousand miles from anywhere he can be of any use. And he will, for Ciri, but that means he can't even strike this place off his route in future, refuse to deal with Nilfgaard and so avoid putting himself back in this position again.
He'll have to leave to keep his word, though. He won't be able to hide this from Ciri as soon as tomorrow. He'll go to Corvo Bianco for a while, so she can check in on him if she's worried. That way she won't suspect too much. She must be waiting for him to get restless and leave anyway, but he feels no urge to rush right back to the Path when this is over.
Geralt will stay in one place for a while. He'll let Eskel come and find him if he cares to; Eskel's surely tracked his whereabouts through the last few months as carefully as Geralt has tracked his. Geralt thinks of that, building the image in his mind: a big, clean bed he's never shared with anyone, and in two or three weeks, dust rising on the road, heralding a familiar rider.
He doesn't really notice that he's closed his eyes, already half escaped into that consoling future, until Emhyr says, with a slightly different inflection, "Geralt?"
Geralt is forced sharply back to the present, and looks over to confirm what he can already tell from the sound: Emhyr is still standing just inside the door, now with his arms folded across his chest and a frown wrinkling his brows. Geralt gives in to the urge to roll his eyes; if he provokes Emhyr more than usual, maybe it will move things along that much faster.
"You're not the first," Geralt says with a stiff little shrug. "I get it, I know how this goes. I'm a witcher but you can still bring me to my knees. I'm sorry if I'm not conforming to whatever your fucking plan was for this little conquest, but if you'd just get on with it--" He doesn't know how to end that. Emhyr won't particularly care what Geralt wants, at this point, and Geralt's not going to offer him anything beyond whatever he demands.
Geralt's eyes skip away from Emhyr's face to trace the line of Emhyr's shoulders, which he'd so enjoyed watching earlier in the day. They're good shoulders. Too bad they belong to Emhyr var Emreis, Emperor of Nilfgaard, who--
Who turns, without another word, and unlocks the door and walks out. He does hesitate, just on the threshold, but doesn't look back. He only says, very low, so that Geralt wouldn't hear him from across the room without a witcher's senses, "Lock the door again behind me. Bar it. No one will trouble you."
Geralt stares, baffled, as Emhyr draws the door shut behind him. He walks up to the door and listens to the whisper of softly shod feet walking away. Far down the corridor--but only down one corridor, because Ciri gave Geralt rooms in the family's wing, and there's not much family to fill it--he hears Emhyr's door open and close. And then nothing; no guards mustering, no shouts, no courtesan summoned to satisfy Emhyr in his place. Nothing at all.
Geralt's almost tempted to go after Emhyr and ask him what the hell just happened, except he has a very strong feeling that he doesn't want to know.
He thinks of getting out of the palace, out of the city, but he already knows he can't leave like this, in the middle of the night. He won't upset Ciri--all the more so when there's no real reason for him to feel he has to leave. Nothing actually happened, after all. He feels nearly as unsettled as if it had, as if he somehow managed to get fucked by Emhyr without Emhyr lifting a finger to actually do it.
Geralt locks the door and bars it, and does the same with the balcony doors. He doesn't even attempt to look at the bed, with his head full of all the times he got fucked by powerful men and women who definitely didn't shy away from touching him to do it. He walks back into the sitting room, snags a few bottles from the neat little arrangement on a sideboard without checking what they are, and sits down on the least ornate chair in the room.
It's still astonishingly soft and comfortable; he can lean it back on two legs and feel as if he's suspended in air, touched by nothing at all. He opens a bottle and starts to drink.