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A Choice Made

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The metallic clunk of the latch sliding into place sounded like music to the witcher’s ears. Turning away from the wooden door, Geralt languorously began to make his way across the dimly lit room to the plain but oh-so-tempting bed that awaited him in one corner, shrugging off numerous layers of armor and clothing on the way. Scabbards holding his steel and silver sword, sash and attached pouch for alchemical ingredients, potions, bombs and other kinds of what he liked to call ‘useful junk’, his newly acquired Armor of Ysgith, leather boots, gloves, everything but his trousers and trusty medallion was carelessly discarded to the floor.

Several pounds lighter at last, Geralt gingerly allowed his sore back to sink against the soft linen sheets with a drawn-out groan of satisfaction. He placed a hand over his steadily pulsing forehead and shut his eyes, the flickering light of the candles continuing to dance behind his closed eyelids. For one blissful moment, the witcher lay listening to the quiet serenity of the night drifting in through the open window, and all seemed well in the world.

It was not long before he was unceremoniously torn out of the oblivion he had so welcomed – which, as expected, had little to do with his physical injuries. Sure, his body was battered, bruised, and aching something awful, but nothing a good night’s sleep or two and a couple of potions would not fix. He had definitely had worse – and suspected he would again. No, his agony was hardly due to causes of the flesh. And, consequently, considerably less easy to mend.

I should know, I keep trying.

Countless stifling thoughts were whirling inside Geralt’s head, hammering against his skull and eyelids, until it nearly made him sick. The witcher smiled wryly to himself. If only they were just that – thoughts. Indeterminate, hazy, ephemeral fancies of the mind.

No such luck, eh?

If there was one thing Geralt could not wrap his head around, it was why – after so many years, so many exploits and encounters, so many disappointments – a secret part of him still clung to the illusion of a thing called proper endings. The illusion that with the conclusion of a job, no matter how grand or trivial, came something much less tangible yet infinitely more valuable than coin. The feeling of self-worth by having done what was right. A sense of completion and justness. Closure and acceptance. That fabled notion of a struggling hero eventually coming to terms with himself and his place in this world.

In short, the kind of thing a certain poet was so fond of cramming into his alcohol-addled ballads.

A fairytale.

Geralt slowly reopened his eyes and vaguely stared up at the ceiling, unseeing, while images flashed before his mind’s eye.

A titanic, magnificent, fire-breathing dragon, possibly one of the last of its kind, fatally impaling itself upon a broken tree. His own gloved hand caressing along the scaled ridge of the proud head. The calm resolution in the once fierce yellow eyes as he prepared to end the beast’s suffering. The gut-wrenching sound as he extinguished hundreds of years of memories with a single swipe of his blade.

Having Henselt of Kaedwen at his mercy – slaughterer of nonhumans and soldiers, murderer of the Temerian Blue Stripes, Sabrina Glevissig, and countless others. Rapist of women. Nightmare of husbands, wives, mothers, and children. Geralt’s own words, and his words alone, keeping Vernon Roche from letting his dagger taste the vile tang of royal blood. A life debt which did nothing to humble the spiteful, power-hungry monster that somehow carried the title of king.

The mighty kingdom of Temeria, once the strongest in the North, forced to its knees before Radovid of Redania. Safety and stability, at the expense of freedom and dignity. One might argue that noblemen tearing the country apart like rabid dogs, with their incessant quarrels for dominance, would be an even worse fate. One might put forward that Anaïs La Valette would one day rise to restore the kingdom to its full glory. In the end, however, none of these considerations would bring any alleviation from the Redanian yoke that was certain to burden the shoulders of Temeria and its citizens for at least a decade to come.

Being responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of three fellow witchers who had once been his allies, his friends. Finally facing Letho of Gulet, the elusive Kingslayer, but not without first accepting the offered vodka in an attempt to drown at least some of the pain. Because the confrontation, though inevitable, had evoked old memories and opened up long-forgotten wounds. Standing opposite one another and staring into those glowing eyes so much like his own… that was when Geralt was forcibly struck with the uselessness of it all, and genuinely found himself wishing their paths had crossed in a different way.

In better times.

Always quick to mock those old folk tales saying that something was ‘meant to be’, even Geralt’s own cynical self had to admit that a final duel was the only way to settle things once and for all. Too much had happened between them. He knew it, and he could tell by the resigned look in Letho’s eyes and his unwavering tone of voice that the other man knew it, too. Perhaps even welcomed it.

Never before had Geralt of Rivia consented to a fight to the death without his heart being in it. He hoped he would never have to do so again.

Unsurprisingly, his eventual victory over the bulkier witcher had left an exceptionally nasty taste on his tongue.

There had been more decisions. More consequences. The fleeing of Dethmold and Síle de Tansarville, one a despicable pig in every way, the other a cold, ruthless strategist. The deaths of Cedric and Derae. To name a few.

And the best part? Time and time again, I have chosen the lesser evil.

Geralt almost laughed. Almost.

Thus ended the grand and noble tale of the Assassins of Kings. Of the famous White Wolf setting out for the monstrous kingslayers on a quest for vengeance and justice. An epic journey which had brought him from a towering military camp on the verge of battle to the ancient ruins of a magical elven city. Only to bring more death and suffering to an already fatigued world, which had long since begun to show the first signs of permanent decay and corruption. An anticlimax.

An achievement worthy of nothing but disappointment, anger, and bitterness.

Admittedly, matters were hardly improved by the fact that the witcher was currently all by his own miserable self in some puny, godforsaken settlement somewhere at the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Instead of engaging in the one infallible distraction from the dark mood that was wont to overcome him on occasion – a buoyant, ale-filled celebration with his friends at a nice tavern or brothel – Geralt found himself alone in a shabby room in a shabbier inn, with only his melancholic broodings to keep him company. And why did this place – the room so dense it was almost suffocating; the dingy, musty corridors with the dimly flickering torches on the walls; the muffled shouting of men downstairs the only sound breaking the silence – have to remind him so strongly of an underground dungeon?

It’s my own damn fault I ended up here, anyway.

And it was. Following the fateful culmination of events at Loc Muinne, Triss Merigold and he had inconspicuously slipped away together through the majestic gates, leaving the white ruins and the summit of mages behind them. Had the sorceress had her way at that moment, Geralt’s present torment over possible distractions from his gloom would have been the furthest thing from his mind. He could all but hear Triss’s hopeful voice in his head, suggesting the two of them make the most of their ‘stolen moment’; that they make up for lost time after their inadvertent and lengthy separation.

Obviously, things hadn’t quite played out that way.

Even then, there had been things that the witcher had needed to think about. Even fresh out of his vicious battle with Letho, with the adrenaline and potion-induced rush temporarily suppressing any and all regrets over his past decisions, Geralt’s heart had been heavy – due to memories of a different kind altogether.

Nilfgaard. The Wild Hunt. Yennefer.

Don’t dwell on them again. Not right now.

All the same, the musings had proven sufficiently powerful a drive to come up with excuses not to keep Triss by his side. Put that way it sounded cruel, and he supposed it was.

In a dubiously smooth fashion, Geralt had convinced the sorceress of the importance of attending the remaining talks at Loc Muinne, and whatever aftermath there was sure to be. Even with the fate of Temeria decided, there was the reinstitution of the Council and the Conclave to reckon with, the delicate relations between the mages and the two remaining Northern monarchs, the newly evoked tensions – to put it mildly – with the Nilfgaardian Empire, as well as the full explanations regarding the kingslayers, which were still unknown or fragmented to most. The fate of the known world was being shaped and twisted to fit molds hitherto unseen. As a sorceress, Triss had no choice but to witness the discussions at first hand – and perhaps subtly nudge them in a direction which might give Temeria that little glimmer of hope it was in dire need of.

Geralt’s highly uncharacteristic wisdom and consideration for politics had made Triss look him over rather funnily, but at last she had consented, albeit reluctantly. Furthermore, it took Geralt only one sarcastic tilt of an eyebrow to make her swallow her proposition that he accompany her to the summit. As much as the witcher despised his current loneliness, it was still preferable to dealing with that preachy bunch of manipulative, self-important bloedzuigers. Hell, back in the amphitheatre, he had almost welcomed the dragon.

Thus sorceress and witcher had been obliged to part ways once more, the latter watching the former disappear through a self-created teleport before starting out for the nearest village himself. Still, Geralt was confident they would meet again soon. He only hoped he would be better company when that time came. It was only fair to Triss.

For the time being, however, he had to content himself with lamenting his past actions and resenting the solitude he had so craved earlier.

Good thing I’ve had a lot of practice over the years in that respect.

Feeling rather sorry for himself, Geralt got up from the bed and walked over to the open window. Even though it was a clear and cloudless night, the fragile rays of the new moon proved too weak to disperse the all-consuming darkness that hung over the area. The gentle breeze drifting in from outside felt cool against his bare skin, and the witcher took a deep, refreshing breath through his nose while he gazed over the thick forest fringing the village to the jagged shapes of the Blue Mountains.

Geralt sighed. Maybe he should just go to Oxenfurt to meet up with Dandelion, possibly pick up Zoltan along the way, hit the road together, and leave everything behind him for a while. Get away from politics, and restrict himself to more traditional kinds of monsters for a change. Back to the simpler life he had once–

“Geralt!”

What the–

His head snapped down instinctively even before his brain had time to register the familiar timbre. His eyes widened in recognition at the figure presently emerging from the black night and stepping into the faint circle of light below his window, thrown about by one of the torches on the outside wall.

There was no mistaking that blue gambeson and eternal chaperon.

Vernon Roche.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Geralt spluttered, hardly believing his eyes. Frankly, when he and Roche had bid each other farewell in Loc Muinne earlier, he had been somewhat surprised to see the special forces captain not simply vanishing on the spot in a haze of mysterious black smoke, or something to that effect.

“Nice to see you too, witcher. Mind if I come in? Not that getting my boots soggy at the edge of a foreign and untamed forest in nigh-complete darkness doesn’t hold any appeal to me, but I am still a fugitive wanted in half the North, you know.”

Not waiting for his answer, Roche turned around to drag a ladder out of his earlier hiding spot. Taking care not to make any noise, he placed it against the window sill and swiftly proceeded to climb the rungs.

Watching the other man, Geralt felt a small smile grace his tired features.

“What?” Roche asked with a frown as he glanced up at the window.

Geralt shook his head. “Nothing. Just… I’m sure Iorveth would be more than happy to let you join his unit now. Public enemies number one and two – you’d make quite the pair.”

Roche shot him a glare. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

The witcher stepped back to allow the other man inside the room. Whatever the doom scenario that had caused the commander to come and fetch him in this village at the edge of the world, Geralt could not help but secretly feel grateful for the distraction from his glum thoughts. Leave it to Roche to get his timing right.

Not that he would admit that out loud.

Roche slipped into the room by climbing over the window sill, before straightening his jacket and dusting off his sleeves. At least the man did not look as if he came fresh out of an ambush by a hidden remnant of the Salamandra, or an attack by the verbose yet malevolent wraith of Shilard Fitz-Oesterlen, Geralt was relieved to note. Frankly, he did not know what to expect anymore.

“What are you doing here, Roche? Where’s Anaïs?”

“She’s safe. Ves is with her. After you and I parted ways, we made our rendezvous in the mountains. Tenacious though they were, Radovid’s men had no hope of following our trail out there. It’s where we found a place to shelter for the night, too – unaccommodating, but as much as we can hope for under the present circumstances. We’ll set off again by the first rays of the sun tomorrow. I reckon we can all use some rest first.”

“Where are you off to?”

“I’m taking the royal child back to the La Valette Castle. It’s as good a place as any.”

Roche started to slowly pace to and fro, as he often did while talking. Geralt followed him with his eyes.

“As Radovid told us earlier, Foltest’s death has served the noble family rather well, and given the precarious situation in Temeria at present, their fortress shall provide better protection than most other places in the kingdom. Plus, the baroness and her entourage will do a much better job at raising a future queen than I ever could. Before long, the heiress to the Temerian throne will be back where she belongs.”

“And then what?” Geralt asked in a soft tone that left no doubt as to what he was referring to.

Roche lowered his eyes for an instant, uncertain, and took a few more wandering steps before fixating back on the witcher’s face.

“I… I don’t know,” he admitted at last. “So far Ves has refrained from asking me that same question, but I can tell she’s dying to do so. And when she does… shit, Geralt, I honestly don’t know what I’ll say to her.”

Geralt had no idea what to say, either. Roche, however, barely seemed to notice the silence that fell between them, having averted his gaze to absently stare out of the open window.

It was common knowledge that serving Foltest and commanding the Blue Stripes had been Roche’s life. And even after the two things that mattered more than anything to him were brutally and irreversibly torn away, the Temerian’s insatiable bloodlust and desire for revenge had kept him going like a man possessed. But now that internally raging fire had devoured everything it possibly could on its path, and Geralt feared there might be little left to keep it ablaze.

It’s not bad enough I have my own existential crisis to deal with, now the damn disease is spreading.

Subtly moving over to lie back down on the bed, the witcher decided to employ a tried-and-true technique in cases like this – change the subject.

“How did you find me, anyway?”

Roche turned his head toward him, taking the bait.

“Give me a little more credit than that, witcher. In what other direction could you have gone? This is the only place remotely resembling a human settlement for miles around. At the very least you would have passed through here, and your appearance doesn’t exactly go unnoticed. First guard I asked told me about ‘a fellow with eyes like a deovel and hair as white as the hand of Death itself.’ When it turned out you hadn’t departed yet, I figured my best chances were at the local inn.”

“I could have teleported with Triss to a more… hospitable place,” Geralt offered.

“You could have. Still, it was worth a–”

They were interrupted by a tentative knocking on the door. Hand instantly flying up to the hilt of his sword, Roche spun around, evidently ready to face whatever unspeakable horrors were lurking in the shadows just outside their sanctum.

Geralt, on the other hand, lacked the energy and the paranoia, and did not so much as stir from the bed.

“Who is it?” he called out, forcing himself to swallow the Get lost that was on the tip of his tongue.

The high-pitched voice of a child answered from behind the wooden door. “We are here with the hot water you requested, Master witcher, sir.”

Oh, sweet Melitele. Finally.

Geralt momentarily closed his eyes in relief. Up until then, he had mostly ignored the dull aches which were consistently throbbing through every fibre of his body, alternated only by the occasional flash of pain whenever he moved in the wrong way. Now, however, the prospect of a soothing bath effectively chased all other ideas from his mind.

“All right, I’ll be right there.”

Determinedly, the witcher attempted to sit up, only to find himself falling back against the sheets with a grunt, his weary bones flatly refusing all further cooperation.

“Or maybe not,” he muttered.

Roche shook his head with a sigh and briskly made his way over to the door, mumbling something to himself about ploughing civilians unfit to serve as cannon fodder. As Roche’s left hand busied itself with unlocking the bolt, Geralt noticed with a mix of amusement and concern how the right one seemed to unconsciously wander back toward his sword.

The door was opened at last to reveal a small boy of about ten years old standing in the glowing torchlight of the corridor, carrying a clean towel in one hand and a small tray of bread and cheese in the other. Behind Roche and the boy, Geralt could just make out the face of a young, red-haired woman, whom he recalled as having served beer earlier that evening. Presently, she was struggling to hold up a fairly large wooden basin filled with hot water, clouds of steam rising up from the brim and swirling about her delicate features in a rather alluring fashion.

Both visitors looked up with wide, slightly fearful eyes at the menacing figure of the Blue Stripes captain blocking the doorway. At least Roche was gracious enough to lower his hand from his sword.

“Good evening, soldier,” the girl greeted politely, quickly recomposing herself while the boy drew back to partially hide behind her skirt. “Forgive us, we seem to have picked the wrong room. We were told a witcher was staying here.”

“He is,” Geralt spoke up, meanwhile having propped himself up against the headboard and feeling as though he had just run through a field of hungry giant centipedes.

Perhaps he would follow Dandelion’s advice for once and take a long, much-needed vacation filled with nothing but rest and cheap entertainment.

The girl smiled in obvious relief at Geralt’s words, then turned back to Roche with a sense of urgency in her voice. “Would you please step aside, sir? This is really quite heavy, and I’m afraid my arms won’t be able to hold it for much longer.”

Geralt could only see Roche’s back from his position on the bed, but he had a feeling the Temerian was warily eying the boy as he asked harshly, “What’s underneath that towel?”

“A– a bar of soap?” came the boy’s terrified reply.

“Show me.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Roche,” Geralt snapped impatiently, his already low tolerance for bullshit now close to nonexistent. “Just let them pass already and pick on someone of your own mental instability for a change.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed in a sudden burst of energy.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Roche reluctantly stepped aside and allowed the young woman to clumsily manoeuvre into the room while she tried not to spill any of the water, the boy at her heels.

Ignoring the sulking commander for the time being, the witcher instructed them to put the basin and other items down on the cabinet beside his bed. The girl especially obliged only too gladly, her cheeks slightly flushed from the effort. Geralt handed both of them a handful of orens, and the two gratefully retreated out of the room after casting one last apprehensive glance at Roche, who had been observing them quietly from a dark corner.

Once the dull clunk of the door closing signalled that they were alone once more, Geralt irritably looked over at the other man. “Do you have to do that?”

“I’ve learned the hard way to never let my guard down,” Roche said, stepping forth from the shadows and unfolding his arms before venturing, “Something eating you, witcher?”

Said witcher had already opened his mouth to spit back a venomous retort when the questioning look in the other man’s face told him that the words were not meant to provoke or mock him. He was simply asking.

Vernon Roche: commander of the Blue Stripes and spare-time priest.

Great. He had to be conspicuous as hell if even Roche decided to pretend to care and bring up his dark mood. Then again, Geralt was not exactly killing himself trying to hide it.

A little annoyed, he grumbled a dismissive, “Nothing. Everything.”

“As in, ‘There’s this empty feeling inside of me, the exact cause of which eludes me but greatly burdens my mind nonetheless?’” Roche offered.

“As in, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’” Geralt subtly hinted.

To his surprise, the curt retort caused the shadow of a smile to appear on Roche’s usually stern face – which was probably as close as the man would ever get to showing amusement.

“Fair enough,” he conceded with an appeasing gesture, before moving over to secure the door bolt back in place.

The witcher refrained from commenting upon the stupid precaution. Instead, he mumbled a gruff “Why would you even care?” to Roche’s back, more to repel the topic definitively than out of actual interest.

One hand on the metal latch, Roche paused at the words. “You did,” he eventually countered in a strangely soft voice.

Geralt had the decency to avert his eyes when the captain turned around, embarrassed by his own deliberate snarl when it was not met with the cold, inured animosity he had expected on Roche’s part.

How about taking a step back from the cynicism?

The witcher forced himself to raise his chin, settling firm eyes on the other man’s face. “I still do.”

Roche inclined his head, a small smile of satisfaction tugging at his lips. “I know you do. But we can all use a reminder sometimes.”

With that, he walked over to the cabinet to help himself to a few chunks of bread and cheese, leaving a slightly bewildered Geralt to ponder the uncharacteristic piece of wisdom.

With a shake of his head, the witcher wrung out the washing cloth floating atop the warm water, and turned to his marred chest with the intention of scrubbing some of the blood and dirt off. An experimental swipe over the cuts caused him to give a sharp hiss in pain, his body flinching away from the contact.

Roche frowned as he took a proper look at the amount of damage his upper body had sustained over time. “Surely you witchers have some sort of potion for those scars?”

Geralt gave a humorless snort as he started to dab at the bright red marks on his pectorals with a little more caution, grimacing occasionally as he did so.

“Funnily enough, we don’t. We have potions that allow one to become practically immune to pain, that replenish even the most extreme of blood loss, that cause bleeding wounds to coagulate instantly and speed up the body’s natural regeneration process… but none of those will prevent scars from forming, let alone make old ones disappear.” As an afterthought, he added dryly, “In case you hadn’t noticed.”

“It could be you merely decided to keep them,” Roche countered. “As a reminder of mistakes made, perhaps. Or for simple bragging rights.”

Geralt snorted again. “Trust me: I didn’t.”

The witcher proceeded to meticulously clean the wounds and wash the dried blood off his skin, assessing the full extent and severity of his injuries in the process. Just as he had concluded before, they weren’t too bad – nothing that required attention from a healer, that is – but it was a fair bet that one or two fresh scars would soon be adorning his already heavily damaged flesh.

I’m really getting too old for this.

Roche, meanwhile, easily leaned back against the wall and watched him with mild interest. He drew his wooden pipe from one pocket and lit it with the aid of a nearby candle, before taking a long drag and slowly breathing out. The wisp of pearly grey smoke that left his lips quickly dissipated in the night breeze coming in from outside.

Keeping calm eyes on Geralt, a thought seemed to occur to the commander. “On the subject of witchers… do you know what has become of the Kingslayer? Did you succeed in tracking him down?”

I’m just not going to get out of this, am I?

Geralt let out a sigh, albeit one of resignation rather than frustration. He resolved that actually broaching the topic he refused to acknowledge could not possibly be as torturous as his continuous and ever-failing attempts to keep skirting around it.

Plus, if I have to discuss murder and regret with someone… perhaps Vernon Roche is just as well.

“I did,” Geralt granted at last, still running the warm cloth over the numerous cuts and stabs on his chest. “Though, technically, it was he who found me. Or rather, was waiting for me.”

“He wanted to kill you,” Roche filled in.

“No.” The witcher absently rinsed out the rag as he considered the words. “No, he… wanted to talk to me. Explain himself and his actions. And, ultimately, present me with a choice.”

Roche raised an eyebrow at him. “What kind of choice?”

His movements halting unwittingly, Geralt’s mind was once again invaded by visions – memories – of his final stand-off with Letho.

What kind of choice, indeed.

A quick, sharp stab of the blade as opposed to a slow withering of time.

A bright burst of crimson blood or the dull fading away of all color into grey.

The promise of everlasting tales, ballads and legends versus an imperceptible descent into oblivion.

Either way, the choice of death.

Eventually, Geralt settled for a grim, “The kind with no good options.”

He was grateful when Roche did not press him for details or, worse, made some half-hearted attempt at vindication for his actions. Instead, the man remained silent and took another contemplative drag of his pipe. After a long pause, he indicated the basin on the cabinet.

“Your water’s cooling down,” he pointed out.

The witcher broke into a smile at the forced but welcome lightening of the mood, for some reason feeling as if a weight had been lifted from his heart.

Refocusing on the washing cloth he had dropped into the water earlier, Geralt wrung it out once more and tossed it over to Roche, who caught it by reflex.

“Would you mind giving me a hand with my back?” Geralt asked, keeping his tone casual even though he knew it was an odd request. At that point, he could not care less about propriety if it meant getting this over with. “I think a couple of Nilfgaardians got a little overzealous on me with their swords.”

Roche’s gaze darted from the cloth in his hand to the witcher’s face. “Sure, if you like,” he shrugged. “Although I’m more adept at inflicting wounds than at tending to them.”

Geralt rolled his eyes. “Same here. But surely even the Temerian special forces know how to use a washcloth, don’t they?”

“You get smart with me and I’ll show you just how many uses for an ordinary washcloth a soldier of the Temerian special forces can think of,” the other growled, although Geralt liked to think there was no real heat in it.

Still, one could never tell for certain with Vernon Roche.

Roche put his pipe away before swiftly removing the shoulder belt holding his sword, as well as his black fingerless gloves. Dropping them to the floor, he sat down beside Geralt on the bed, the damp rag at the ready.

With some hesitation and a good deal of apprehension, the witcher turned away to present his brutalized back to the commander. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth to brace himself for the inevitable sting the contact was sure to bring.

When no sensations at all – including any unpleasant ones – came to assault his body even after long seconds of agonized waiting, Geralt chanced a questioning glance behind him.

“That bad, huh?” he half joked.

Roche was gazing at his back with a strange, faraway look in his eyes. He did not so much as blink when the witcher turned his head toward him.

“Erm… Vernon?” Geralt pressed, a little disconcerted.

The captain did meet his eyes then, his expression unusually blank.

“These are mine, aren’t they?” he asked quietly, his fingers ghosting over several healed streaks running crosswise over the whole of Geralt’s back. “These whip lashes, I mean.”

The La Valette Dungeon.

At once, the witcher remembered the sickening sound of leather slapping on skin, the echoes reverberating around the moldy stone walls of his cell. The almost intolerable pain as the sneering guards mercilessly landed strike after strike on his back, taking their sweet time in between floggings to interrogate him or – more often – simply to insult and ridicule him. One of the bastards, to the jeering laughter of the others, had gone so far as to spit on his open wounds.

Geralt turned his head back around and closed his eyes for a moment, suddenly wishing the commander had just gone and slapped the rag on his skin.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you never–”

“The prison guards were under my command at the time, Geralt,” Roche interrupted softly but forcefully. “I told them to do it… I told them – I ordered them – to do anything which might get you to divulge information… anything.” The Temerian’s musings seemed to have turned inward.

Geralt remained silent, knowing better than to deny any of these statements. In fact, at the outset of their voyage just a few months back, the issue had been weighing quite heavily on his own mind.

Yet, somewhat to his own surprise, all the witcher felt at present was a strong and genuine urge to ease the other man’s conscience.

“You had valid reasons for believing I was behind Foltest’s murder at the time.”

“No, I didn’t,” Roche answered in that same quiet tone. “It never made any sense. I was convinced that you were guilty, nothing more. And I was ready to accept or reject any proof just to be able to maintain that conviction – and act on it.’

“Roche…” Geralt sighed.

He knew it was true. He vaguely recalled having accused the commander of similar, even fouler things back then. But for some reason, none of it seemed to matter anymore.

“A lot has happened since,” he said simply.

“So there has,” Roche agreed, and Geralt suddenly felt the warm, very gentle touch of a wet cloth on his back. It burned a little, but less so than he had expected. “Though I daresay these events only serve to worsen my case.”

“They don’t.” He meant it.

The cloth momentarily ceased its delicate path along his shoulder blades.

“I’ve done many things in my life I’m not exactly proud of, witcher. As commander of the special forces, one is obliged to make certain decisions. Trade-offs. Sacrifices. And as much as I want to say that these choices come back to haunt me in my dreams at night, they don’t. Whether this bespeaks my unshakable integrity rather than severe mental derangement remains to be seen. Fact is, they’ve never troubled me much.”

Roche paused, pensively returning to Geralt’s injuries. When he spoke up at last, his voice sounded almost emotional.

“But what I’ve done to you… I want you to know that I am deeply sorry.”

Geralt barely noticed the faint stinging of his ever-protesting wounds while he mulled the Temerian’s words over in his head. He had seldom witnessed the man this earnest.

Call me crazy, but I have a feeling I’m not the only one whom this journey has affected in strange ways.

“And, Geralt?”

“Hm?”

Roche faltered briefly before adding, “Thank you.”

Geralt glanced behind him again to meet the other’s eyes, and the two men nodded at each other.

It was all that needed to be said.

Roche was the first to look away, plunging the bloodied rag back into the water before returning to the cuts covering the witcher’s skin. Geralt felt him shift a little closer, no doubt to tend to some of the smaller wounds and smudges of blood.

Feeling a little drowsy, Geralt let his chin sink to his chest. Apart from a steady tingling of the fresh sword marks, he found the warm water to be very soothing and relaxing. He even went so far as to drift off a little, concentrating on nothing but the physical sensations brought about by the gentle caressing of the cloth along his spine. His damp skin felt cool where Roche’s breath fell across it, but it was not unpleasant.

“You know, you never did tell me why you’re here,” he suddenly remembered, not opening his eyes.

The voice that answered him was soft, but it sounded closer than before. Even though the gesture was not as ill-boding as it usually was with Roche, Geralt could not help but shiver slightly.

“I just wanted a proper goodbye, I suppose. Our hasty farewell in Loc Muinne hardly seemed like a fitting way to end our, shall we say, mutually beneficial association.”

Probably had something to do with you being pursued by the entire Redanian army at the time.

“Why, I’m truly honored.”

The witcher had meant for his reply to come out mockingly, but he was distracted by the cloth that unwittingly slid to his flank when Roche leaned forward to speak, and the last words left his mouth with a gasp even as his eyes flew open.

What the

Instead of putting some distance between them, an oblivious – or so he assumed – Roche brought his lips even closer to the witcher’s ear. In the temporary silence of the room, Geralt found himself matching the Temerian’s slow breathing, while the rag almost imperceptibly inched its way around the side of his now slightly tense body.

As soon as the wet trail brushed over his abdomen, Geralt let out a barely audible moan. In some remote corner of his brain, he was aware that something was horribly wrong. There was absolutely no reason why Roche should concern himself with his already clean front – especially not in this highly unusual position – but he simply could not bring himself to tell the man to stop.

Quite the opposite.

Even though he was unable to see Roche’s face, Geralt could tell that the commander had picked up on his reaction when he heard – and felt – his breathing become a little strained.

“Fuck, Geralt,” Roche uttered incredulously. The cloth in his hand continued its ministrations across the witcher’s scarred midsection, never failing to elicit faint quivers on its path.

This is wrong. So fucking wrong.

Head spinning a little and chest rising and falling rapidly, Geralt watched the other man’s every motion as if transfixed, each passing second making it harder to think clearly. His skin was so damn sensitive to touch right now. And part of him was yearning for a form of human contact that involved gentleness and warmth instead of cold, hard steel heralding only blood and death.

“You like that?” Roche breathed in his ear, hand never ceasing its delightful touches.

Geralt almost heard the snap inside his own mind.

“Yes,” he finally whispered, leaning back slightly to allow the Temerian better access to his trembling body.

During their lengthy travels together, the witcher had witnessed more than once just how skilful Vernon Roche’s hands could be, but never once had it occurred to him that this aptitude might extend to more… civilian practices.

Somehow, he doubted even the commander himself had been privy to that knowledge before now.

Before he could second-guess himself, Geralt almost feverishly tore the wet rag from Roche’s grasp and tossed it to the floor without another look. Roche halted, confused.

“Don’t stop,” Geralt pleaded.

His heart was racing as he shakily placed his own hand on top of the other man’s and gently but firmly guided it downward to the rim of his trousers.

Roche inhaled sharply when he understood his intentions. Tentatively, inch by inch, he let his fingers slide down the supple garment.

Geralt knew the commander was bound to come across the growing bulge between his legs. He felt his heart speed up even more in anticipation.

When Roche’s unsure hand finally, finally skimmed over his clad crotch and lightly cupped the swelling, a sigh escaped Geralt’s lips. It was not enough – not nearly enough – but he would take anything the other man was willing to give.

Seemingly encouraged by his reaction, an entranced Roche experimentally traced the outline of his erection with his index finger, and it was all Geralt could do to hold himself upright. Compared to some of his past experiences Roche had barely touched him at all, yet the witcher could not recall the last time he had been this aroused. Hell, his entire frame was practically shuddering with need as the other man played him with one finger.

And he knows. The bastard just knows.

Geralt was panting now. “Vernon, I had no idea you felt this way, but – if you would just…”

“Just what, exactly?” the other asked seductively, his warm breath ghosting over Geralt’s ear again.

In a sudden moment of frightening lucidity, the witcher was hit just by what they were doing and what he was on the verge of asking. He took a gulp of air, unsure whether the ensuing dizziness in his head was due to revulsion or excitement.

Or possibly revulsion at his excitement.

Roche prompted another moan by giving a rough, almost painful squeeze with his hand, and refused to slacken his hold when he leaned forward to hiss in Geralt’s ear again.

Tell me,” he demanded in a suddenly threatening voice.

His tone sent Geralt’s mind reeling back to the interrogation cell of that cursed dungeon. It was only the hint of teeth on his earlobe that reminded the witcher their current situation was somewhat… different.

A shiver ran through him that had nothing to do with the chill draught coming through the open window.

“Make me,” Geralt heard himself growl in response.

“Be careful what you wish for, witcher.”

Roche’s free hand moved with impressive speed and grace, and all of a sudden Geralt was keenly aware of cold steel pressing against his throat. His eyes widened and his breath caught in realization.

His dagger.

The witcher could feel his own rapid pulse where the flat side of the blade was ever-so-slightly digging into his skin.

“Now I understand why you never used that goddamn thing on me during our little tête-à-tête in the dungeon,” he spoke huskily. “It turns you on, doesn’t it?”

He was not even sure whether his tone was accusatory or hopeful.

“Is that what you think?”

Behind him, Roche gave a dark chuckle as he let the dagger glide cautiously along Geralt’s throat, barely even touching him. His tone was calm, almost disturbingly so.

“You’d be surprised how seldom I have to use this dagger during interrogations. Or any other tools, for that matter.”

Geralt swallowed at the slight contact of the blade, finding it increasingly difficult to stay coherent.

“Right… That’s why I had the pleasure of personally witnessing your admirable collection.”

“You’re not listening.”

“I’m a little distracted.”

Roche did not reply, but the hand between Geralt’s legs loosened its hold, allowing the fog in the witcher’s brain to clear a little.

“I don’t deny owning my share of weapons, but I’m hardly ever forced to use them… outside of combat, that is,” the Temerian finally admitted.

He raised the dagger in front of Geralt’s eyes in order to contemplate the ornamented steel.

“Resorting to any kind of instrument in order to gain intelligence or a confession is the mark of the novice. Those incompetent fools from the La Valette Dungeon – the ones you had the misfortune of being subjected to – are only too illustrative.”

Well, I wanted to wait around for the expert and all, but those poor guys just looked so eager. To think of what I’ve been missing out on, huh?

Geralt was about to remind him exactly what those novices had done to his back, when he felt a casual finger trail up and down his length. It was all he could do to stop himself from gasping and thrusting up into that excruciating touch.

“Let me explain,” Roche rumbled, evidently revelling in the power he held over the other man. “Flogging, knives, hot pokers, denailing… they’re both sloppy and ineffective. A true master of interrogation knows nothing is more evocative than suggestion.”

By now Roche’s voice was nothing but a hot caress that shot straight to the witcher’s groin.

“Do you know torture is a lot like sex, in that way?”

“You don’t say?” Geralt barely recognized his own voice.

“Oh yes,” Roche whispered readily. The previously playful nipping at Geralt’s ear became even more distracting as the commander began to emphasize his words with his tongue. “Both torture and sex are commonly believed to be purely physical affairs, while they are anything but. It’s all in the head, witcher.”

“Never – ah – took you for an expert on the latter.”

Until now, that is.

Roche ceased his tantalizing strokes for a moment, letting his fingers rest lightly against the fabric covering Geralt’s erection. Before the witcher could decide whether to be relieved or frustrated, a new whisper drove everything else from his mind.

“I’m not. But years of witnessing men when they are at their weakest, their most vulnerable, their purest cannot but teach you a thing or two about the human psyche. And one thing I have learned is that an addled brain is capable of conjuring up images that make reality pale in comparison.”

As if to illustrate his point, the commander slowly started to move his dagger down Geralt’s heaving chest. The witcher could not tear his eyes away as the sharp tip came within an inch of his quivering skin without ever making contact.

Judging from the other man’s soft panting, Geralt was not the only one who was enjoying this far too much.

“Eerie, isn’t it, how two processes meant to achieve almost opposite emotional responses can be so similar in essence? Be it to inflict the greatest mental or physical torments, or to stir up an intense, base, predatory lust – above all one has to create the right atmosphere. It starts with dimming the lights, allowing you to play off the shadows. Then you draw out the process of anticipation, deceive the senses, apply subtle but methodical touches, hint at what is to come without entirely lifting the veil… and watch as the mind slowly but surely starts to devour itself, haunted by the very spectres it has so masterfully conceived.”

How on earth does he pull it off to speak of torture in a lyrical way?

Roche’s teeth tugged at his ear once more. “Which brings us to the power of speech, though I do believe this requires little elaboration. Except…”

He hesitated before continuing, and when he did, his voice came out almost shakily.

“I will have you know that daggers don’t turn me on. But sometimes – just sometimes – blood does. Not always, and not with everyone, but… when I have the rare luck to find a ploughing lecher in front of me… a husband or a father who has abused his power – his trust – to physically and psychologically molest those he is supposed to protect… when I slowly drag the point of my dagger over his filthy cheek and apply just the right amount of pressure to make the skin split, and dark blood starts trickling down his face while the whoreson snivels for mercy… when I can lick that blood of my blade and taste his fear… that, witcher, does things to me you cannot begin to imagine.”

Gods, touch me.

“What’s that?” The dark smile in the other man’s voice was practically audible, but Geralt was past the point of caring about his pride. Long past.

“Please Roche, fucking touch me,” he pleaded – this time deliberately.

An unmistakable moan of arousal fell from Roche’s lips, and Geralt heard a clunk when the dagger was dropped to the floor. The Temerian’s nimble fingers slowly sneaked back up to the waistband of Geralt’s trousers before stilling altogether, as if waiting for him to change his mind.

He didn’t.

The witcher concentrated on taking slow, even breaths while he watched, mesmerized, as Roche used both hands to undo the knot at the front. His control failed him completely when one of said hands slipped past that final barrier that separated skin from skin, the calloused fingers going where no man had ever been allowed before.

And doing things only the better courtesan has ever managed to do to me.

When Roche’s firm hand at last skimmed over the bare flesh of his aching cock, Geralt’s eyes snapped shut again, his head falling back against the other man’s shoulder.

“Yes… oh fuck, yes.”’

Roche’s breathing became irregular as his fingers resumed their rapt exploration, this time sliding directly over the engorged flesh.

Geralt began to rock his hips insistently, craving the contact. Feeling positively intoxicated, he turned his head and pushed the side of that damned chaperon away with his nose, bringing his mouth to the commander’s ear.

“Come on,” he growled.

Despite his instigations, Geralt was unprepared for the sudden jolt of pleasure that shot through him when the hand covering his length curled into a tight fist. Impulsively, he let his lips touch Roche’s ear, eliciting a groan of surprise from deep down the other man’s throat.

“Fuck, do that again,” Roche gasped.

Geralt smirked before swirling his tongue around the Temerian’s earlobe in an almost obscene fashion. Trembling fiercely, Roche cursed when Geralt proceeded to gently suck on the sensitive skin, rewarding him by starting to move the hand that was still keeping a firm grip on his cock.

The witcher allowed him to set the pace, only moving his hips in time with the strokes to increase the friction. Roche’s deft hand met his thrusts perfectly, so that quiet sounds of encouragement were soon spilling from Geralt’s lips.

“Oh, that’s good, Roche… so fucking good,” he breathed in the other man’s ear before giving it another lick.

Panting a little himself, Roche was visibly struggling to keep his gaze focused on their joint motions, his eyes fluttering closed at Geralt’s verbal and physical ministrations.

Suddenly – madly – the witcher wondered how the Blue Stripes captain would respond to being touched elsewhere on his body.

Completely overcome by the crazed thought, and his fogged-up mind no longer giving a damn about the consequences, Geralt managed a shakily whispered “Fuck, I want to feel you.”

Roche’s hand stilled abruptly and his breath hitched at the sensuously spoken words.

Geralt pressed a kiss to the other man’s ear. “Lie down, Roche,” he prompted, turning around in his arms and urging him down to the bed.

Roche obeyed with some hesitation, his chest heaving as he uncertainly stretched out on his back. His gaze was burning with unprecedented delirium and trepidation as he stared up at the figure looming over him.

Geralt, in turn, kept wild eyes fixed on the man below him as he spoke hoarsely, “Take off your clothes.”

Never one to be intimidated, Roche’s eyes defiantly locked on Geralt’s. His ragged breathing was the only thing betraying the commander’s excitement as his hands settled on the belt around his waist, fingers working to unfasten the strap.

Even though Geralt knew a few more layers of clothing would remain, he unconsciously licked his lips, heart pounding in anticipation.

Go ahead, tease all you like. You’ll be begging me before I’m done with you.

Once he had unloosened the belt, Roche’s practised movements undid the red string securing the gambeson around his upper body, and the garment easily slipped off his shoulders.

He then made to sit up, no doubt intending to pull the steel hauberk over his head next.

Geralt withdrew but a little and watched as if hypnotized while their faces were brought closer together, until mere inches separated them. He could feel Roche’s hot breath on his slightly parted lips, and a strange glint came over the other man’s eyes as they got caught up in each other’s ardent stare.

In their desire to disarm the suddenly tense situation, two pairs of hands simultaneously moved to relieve the commander of his mail tunic, removing his Temerian medallion in the process and letting it join the other pieces of clothing already littering the floor.

Geralt could not help but find it oddly symbolic.

Roche lay back down, now clad in nothing but a cotton shirt, a pair of greaves and leather trousers which left little doubt as to the extent of his arousal. The contours of a straining erection were evident through the black fabric, and Geralt imagined it had to be hurting from the lack of attention.

He decided it would be cruel to test the man’s stamina any further.

Scooting closer to hover over him, the witcher lightly ran the fingers of one hand up the inside of Roche’s thigh. The dark eyes glazed over with lust when Geralt reached the bulge in his groin and proceeded to undo the knot of his trousers. Before long, Geralt slipped his hand inside and took hold of the commander’s flesh.

“Oh, f–”

Roche whimpered at the sudden contact, his eyes screwing shut and hands shooting out to clench the linen sheets in a death grip. The witcher watched in utter amazement as the other man spread his legs and unwittingly bucked up into his hand, completely at his mercy.

He’s leaking already.

As he slowly began to jerk him off, Geralt bent down and lowered his mouth to Roche’s ear.

“How long has it been?” he asked softly, genuinely curious. His head was spinning at the feel of the other man’s moist, hardened cock sliding between his fingers.

The captain tilted his head to the side and gave a low moan, struggling to answer the question.

“I– I don’t know,” he panted, hips meeting the witcher’s strokes urgently. “Can’t – fuck – can’t remember. Sometime before I – became captain of the Blue Stripes.”

Geralt’s eyes widened a little, and his hand faltered for a moment.

“Four years?” he asked in disbelief.

“Fuck, don’t stop,” Roche pleaded, hand instinctively reaching down to guide the witcher’s.

A groan escaped Geralt when he felt foreign fingers settle atop his own, forcing him to keep up his movements between the other man’s legs.

“Never – cared for it much,” Roche continued with some difficulty. “Sex, I mean. In a way, it was a relief, becoming a soldier – having a valid excuse not to concern myself with such – trifles.”

Geralt thought he was going to be sick at the mere idea. “But… four years,” he repeated dumbly.

Roche chuckled before their intertwined hands caused another gasp to fall from his lips.

“I did – oh yes – help myself – occasionally – as most in the military do. It’s always been enough for me.”

“Has it, now?” Geralt whispered seductively. He nipped at the commander’s ear while letting his index finger trail slowly over the head of his cock.

Trembling fiercely, Roche gave a violent, involuntary thrust.

“Geralt, wait…”

When his plea went ignored, he tried more forcefully, “I don’t want to – not yet… not like this…”

Geralt knew he had not heard wrongly when he looked into the other man’s raving eyes.

At once, Roche reached up to grasp the witcher’s shoulders and easily flipped them both over, swapping their positions and straddling Geralt’s waist while strong arms kept his wrists pinned to the bed. Roche’s face assumed that evil, smirking, almost sadistic expression so feared by his enemies.

Geralt had never been so turned on in his life.

The commander relinquished his hold on his opponent and raised himself in order to slip his shirt off. Geralt never even stirred, barely aware of the renewed stinging in his back as his eyes were riveted upon the man on top of him. His gaze appreciatively travelled all the way from Roche’s lightly scarred chest over his muscular stomach to the tempting swelling between his legs.

“Like what you see?” Roche asked in a low voice, growing bolder by the minute.

How about I show you just how much?

Geralt sat up briskly, visibly catching the other off guard. One arm quickly sneaking around Roche’s waist in support, the witcher bent his head forward and started to press hungry kisses to the skin in front of him.

With a drawn-out moan, Roche slightly leaned back in his arms, his heart pounding against his chest as he surrendered himself to the other man.

“Geralt…” he sighed, eyes falling closed in pure bliss.

Incited by his reaction, the witcher traced a slow path from Roche’s pectorals to his neck, gently biting at the skin where the captain bared his throat to him. The low sounds that spilled from Roche’s lips in response positively made his cock twitch.

Geralt gasped against the pulse of Roche’s throat when the man shifted on top of him and managed to lodge a knee between his legs. Maintaining their sitting position, Roche unconsciously began to rock his still-clad hips against Geralt’s thigh, creating a delicious friction. Without thinking, the witcher heatedly thrust up against the leg pressing against his groin, physically and verbally encouraging the other to do the same.

“Yeah, that’s it, Roche,” he panted, noting the hint of urgency in his own voice. “C’mon, move.”

Quickly falling into a natural rhythm, the two men roughly pushed up against each other, clinging to one another tightly in order to maintain their shaky balance. Every twitch or spasm from one sent waves of pleasure through the other, and Geralt knew there was no way they would be able to keep this up for long, given the flustered state of them both.

Fuck, I need to come. Badly.

Frustrated at their limited ability to move, Geralt effortlessly dragged Roche down with him as he let himself fall back to the bed with only a brief grimace of pain.

A shiver ran through him at the feel of Roche’s bare chest and rapid heartbeat against his own.

Spreading his legs to accommodate the man on top of him, the witcher anxiously rolled his hips to directly rub their erections together, the coarse fabric of their trousers providing an edge to the stimulation.

When Roche buried his face in his neck and met his frantic thrusts with a growl of approval, Geralt’s hands impulsively travelled down to the man’s ass, their fierce grip silently begging him to keep moving.

“Fuck… oh fuck,” Roche choked out against his skin, far past the point of coherency.

He’s close.

Dazed, the witcher immediately slipped his right hand inside the front of the commander’s trousers and began working his cock swiftly and firmly. His thumb smeared pre-come all over the head, slickening the movements.

Roche’s whimpers soon grew desperate, his thrusts becoming increasingly irregular. “Don’t – I– I’m–’

Geralt turned his head toward him.

“Let it go, Roche,” he rumbled in a low voice, expertly twisting his hand.

It took mere seconds before a strangled cry fell from Roche’s lips, and he finally spilled himself into the pumping hand, violent convulsions overtaking his entire body as he clutched to Geralt for dear life.

The witcher watched the man on top of him in awed fascination while his fingers gently guided him through the powerful orgasm, the pure rapture on the Temerian’s face like nothing he had ever seen before.

When the last drop had been milked from him at last, Roche collapsed half on top of, half beside the other man. His labored breath was hot against Geralt’s neck as he started to come back down from his intense high.

At that point, the witcher’s own animalistic need drove him to simply take care of himself. However, he had barely slicked his erection with the same hand he had used to assist Roche seconds earlier, when he felt the captain’s fingers push his own away.

Looking to the side, he noticed Roche gazing at him with sated but determined eyes while able fingers swiftly ran along his still painfully hard length.

With a wanton groan, Geralt threw his head back and screwed his eyes shut, thinking of nothing but his own primal need for release as he gave himself over to the other man, bucking up into the fist around his cock.

Then, unexpectedly, Roche’s deep voice was at his ear once more.

“Do you have any idea what you look like right now, witcher?” he whispered. “Panting and thrashing under me like it’s all that keeps you from dying, that faint sheen of sweat on your body… gods help me, the things I want to do to you.”

There was only one thought in Geralt’s head, repeating itself over and over like a mantra.

Yes, please.

The witcher cursed loudly, fingers clenching the sheets and hips shooting uncontrollably off the bed as his climax completely swept him away. Wave after wave of white-hot, almost painfully bright pleasure rippled through his shuddering body, rendering him absolutely powerless as he exploded all over the Temerian’s steadily-stroking hand.

“Roche… oh, fuck, Roche…” he blurted, everything driven from his mind but that man and what he was doing to him.

When the spasms subsided at last, Geralt limply fell back against the sheets, utterly spent and for an instant unable to move.

Roche’s lustful stare lingered on the man beneath him for a moment longer before he slowly, almost reluctantly, slipped his hand out of his trousers. After wiping his fingers clean on the linen, the commander shifted idly to drop face-first beside Geralt onto the narrow bed, chaperon draping around his head.

Chest still heaving, Geralt stretched his arms above himself and gave a content sigh, a blissful peace descending over him even though his heart was still thudding madly against his ribs. Basking in that wonderful post-orgasmic glow, he even no longer felt the burn of the numerous cuts and bruises marring his body.

“Wow,” he finally uttered, amazed by his own eloquence.

Beside him, Roche merely gave a grunt in reply, lazily turning his head to the side to look at him.

“You know, I guess you were right,” Geralt mused, once he had regained the ability to form and voice coherent thoughts.

Apart from a little creasing of his eyebrows, Roche could not be bothered. “Right about what?” he muttered, still prostrate on the bed.

Geralt smirked. “Our farewell in Loc Muinne was rather hasty.”

The commander’s face broke into a grin of exasperated amusement. “I hardly meant – ah, never mind.”

A congenial silence settled between the two of them.

The witcher was suddenly reminded of the words he had spoken back in Loc Muinne, during their audience with Radovid. Of his offhand reply when the king of Redania had expressed his surprise at the unique sight of the Blue Stripes captain and the White Wolf having joined forces.

Vernon Roche is a friend. He’s in uniform, sure, but that’s meaningless.

At the time, all parties present had far more important and pressing issues to worry about than semantics, but now, gazing at the half-naked figure comfortably stretching out beside him, the witcher realized the truth in his words.

Somewhere along the line, he had come to think of Roche as a friend.

What had started out as an uneasy alliance born out of plain necessity had been allowed through time, trust, and mutual respect to slowly but surely develop into something more.

And as he found himself unable – unwilling – to look away when their eyes met, Geralt understood that whatever had happened between them tonight had done nothing to change that.

Not in a bad way, at least.

His expression changed when he let his eyes stray from Roche’s face to roam over the man’s dishevelled, all-too-telling body. Geralt could not stop his pupils from dilating a little as they travelled over the muscled shoulders and the enticing curve of his back, taking in every battle scar along the way.

Roche was conscious of his stare and calmly but intently watched him in turn. His dark eyes appreciatively flicked over Geralt’s upper body while he allowed the witcher to drink in the sight in front of him.

No, definitely not in a bad way.

After a while, Roche broke the heavy silence by clearing his throat, and fixated back on Geralt’s face with a confused frown.

“I… I propose we do not speak of this.”

The witcher gave a hasty nod, not particularly keen to address the awkward subject himself.

“I think that’s probably for the best.”

Roche nodded absently to himself before getting up from the bed. Picking up the discarded bath cloth off the floor, he turned toward the wooden basin and once again plunged it into the water.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, witcher,” Roche said, taking the wrung-out rag with him as he sat back down beside the other man. “It’s just that… why spend what little time we have left together crying – or gabbling – over spilt milk.”

In other circumstances, Geralt would have made an obligatory remark at the poor choice of phrase – especially since Roche chose that precise moment to slide the wet cloth inside his own trousers and clean himself up – but as it was, he merely frowned.

“When are you leaving?” he asked. The words came out more quietly than he would have liked.

“In a couple of hours, at the most.”

When the witcher said nothing, Roche glanced up and gave a resigned sigh.

“I have a task of great importance to fulfil, Geralt. The future of Temeria to look after. And, one way or another, I will continue to do so until the day I die.”

As long as men like Roche are around, there is hope for Temeria’s rebirth.

Remembering Triss’s speech with a misplaced sense of bitterness, the witcher watched in silence as Roche moved to rinse out the cloth. Turning to him next, the commander appeared to hesitate, but Geralt spread his legs a little and looked from his groin to the other man in silent approval.

The corners of Roche’s mouth quirked upward, and he began to wash off the final traces of their… escapade. Geralt hummed agreeably at the gentle touch of the now lukewarm rag on his skin. Mutant or not, he was nowhere near ready for another round, but that did not mean he could not enjoy the contact.

One last time.

The witcher wryly suspected it would take him a while to get used to no longer being around Roche, after everything they had been through together.

Part of him hoped the feeling was mutual.

And once their paths had diverged, well, who knew when and where they would meet again in these turbulent, ever-changing times. Especially since the commander’s current state of employment was precarious at best, not to mention the fact that he was wanted in half – if not all – of the Northern Kingdoms…

Geralt froze abruptly.

Hold on just a second.

His face split into a mad, almost idiotic smirk as it suddenly dawned on him, a hint of excitement audible in his voice when he eagerly asked, “Roche?”

Unsuspecting and still a little glum from their earlier conversation, the Temerian flung the dirty rag back into the water and turned toward him.

“Hm?”

“How would you feel about a trip to Nilfgaard?”

* * *