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Geralt woke with a start, the familiar crackling sound and acrid smell of a portal making him sit up straight, waiting for some sorceress or other to come down on him like a fallen castle wall.

It wasn’t Ciri’s magic, which smelled more like freshly-cut grass and the air before a storm. So whoever it was, they were bound to be pissed at him for some reason or other. They wouldn’t bother to come to him if they weren’t.

Geralt waited.

And waited.

He eventually got up to look, hoping that maybe it was Philippa and maybe she’d managed to have one of those fatal portal accidents every sorceress Geralt had ever met insisted were so rare as to be non-existent.

He found the source of it easily enough, but whoever had come through was by now long gone. Geralt followed the scent of magic for a while, back toward the tree he’d been sleeping under, but a strong breeze had spread it out too much to leave a defined trail.

He headed back to his little camp anyway, expecting to find himself in some amount of trouble for having walked away.

All he’d managed to determine was that it wasn’t Triss or Yen, because he knew the smell of their magic as well as he knew the smell of their perfumes. Which was almost a relief, except that it left a lot of other people who he really didn’t want to deal with.

The camp was empty and apparently undisturbed when Geralt got back to it.

For a moment, he wondered if maybe he’d imagined the sound and the smell of the portal, but then it had still been there when he went to investigate. Something really had happened.

But maybe it was nothing to do with him. Maybe it was just one of those random occurrences that happened sometimes.

Now that the North was welcoming mages back under Emhyr’s rule--and at Ciri’s insistence--magic just… happened, for the sake of happening.

And he’d just finished dealing with Gaunter O’Dimm, who definitely counted as magic that just happened for the sake of happening.

Hell, maybe he was imagining it. Maybe it was the stress of all that catching up to him, making him hear and smell things.

Geralt sighed and went to his bedroll.

His medallion started humming as soon as he lifted the blanket he’d been sleeping under.

In the light of the fire, he could just make out a small, curled-up shape in the middle of it. The shape remained still for a few moments, just long enough for Geralt to think it was too small to be a cat, and then looked up at him with shiny black eyes.

Geralt reached out and performed a sign to bring the fire back to life, and give himself enough light to see exactly what he was looking at.

A hedgehog?

Huh. He hadn’t even known they came in black.

“Cold, little guy?” Geralt asked, picking the small creature up carefully, smoothing its quills down.

His medallion vibrated even harder the moment he touched it, reminding him that he was still looking for a source of magic.

Which, obviously, he’d found.

“Oh, shit,” Geralt said, raising the hedgehog to eye level.

They didn’t come in black. Not naturally, anyway.

The glare the hedgehog gave him was as familiar in this face as it would have been in the one it usually had.

Despite everything, Geralt chuckled.

“Emhyr?” Geralt asked cautiously. Underneath the smell of magic, Geralt would have recognised that scent anywhere. It usually made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, although not so much this time.

The hedgehog kept glaring.

“Hey, I can laugh at you all I want,” Geralt said, which didn’t improve the glare. The hedgehog--which was definitely Emhyr var Emreis, Emperor of Nilfgaard, except currently about eight inches long and deprived of all the features that made him intimidating--said nothing, which was what hedgehogs normally did.

“You need my help. You’re lucky whoever turned you into this dumped you practically on top of me,” Geralt said, though he wasn’t stupid enough not to wonder if it was deliberate.

The hedgehog huffed, which was a whole-body maneuver at this size.

And, you’re lucky they had a sense of humour. Lots of things have a way worse survivability rate than hedgehogs. You’re even kinda cute like this,” Geralt said, because this was maybe his one chance to really insult him while Emhyr couldn’t do a damned thing about it.

Maybe he was still a little mad that Ciri had chosen Emhyr over him. He understood why. He knew she couldn’t have kept running forever, too. And he knew that it wasn’t really about Emhyr or Geralt, but about right and wrong, and right was doing everything she could for people, not hiding out for the rest of her life.

Geralt sighed, climbing back into his bedroll.

The little hedgehog shivered.

He sighed, and lifted the corner of the blanket. “I’ll try not to roll over on you,” he said, shuffling aside to leave Emhyr some of the space that had already been warmed by his body.

Emhyr hesitated, and then waddled--waddled, which was enough to make Geralt grin--forward and settled down just far enough away not to actually touch him.

Geralt let the blanket fall over his head, and decided that as problems went, this one would keep until morning.

***

Emhyr woke up a few hours later with his snout pressed firmly into Geralt’s belly, and immediately backed off, disgusted. Being all of four inches tall didn’t mean he couldn’t control himself.

He had no intention of executing Fringilla Vigo for this.

He’d think of something worse.

This was vastly worse than last time. He hadn’t ever expected to be grateful for having been incompetently cursed, but competent curses turned out to be much worse.

What had she said? Something about his being prickly--ha ha--too prickly to let anyone in? She had been angry, specifically, about having her clumsy and entirely unexpected--thus almost certainly insincere--advances scorned.

And then she’d said that this ought to teach him a lesson.

It had. It had taught him a very valuable lesson.

He should never have taken the dimeritium shackles off her once he’d managed to get them on.

He peeked out of the blankets to see that the sun was rising, but also to discover that it was much warmer nearer Geralt’s body.

Hedgehogs--proper hedgehogs--were simple creatures. They were concerned mostly with eating and being warm. The overwhelming need to be warm, when warmth was on offer, drove Emhyr back to Geralt’s side grudgingly.

It was all very well for Geralt to sleep the day away. He wasn’t suddenly trapped in the tiny, vulnerable body of a hedgehog, in the middle of nowhere, relying on someone who didn’t particularly like him to do something about it.

Emhyr huffed. He had limited other options.

Between Geralt’s trousers and his armour, there was a thin strip of skin exposed where his shirt had ridden up in the night.

One small weapon Emhyr happened to have was a cold, wet nose.

Day had broken. It was time Geralt focused on helping him.

He pressed his nose to the thin, exposed strip of skin without another thought.

Geralt yelped and jumped away.

Emhyr also jumped away, since he now had the nerves of a small creature that, while fairly well-defended by the spines on his back, was prone to being afraid of large predators.

His tiny hedgehog heart pounded in his tiny hedgehog chest, but at least pressing his nose to Geralt had gotten the desired outcome.

He could work with this. He was not entirely without resources. He’d just have to be clever about how he used them.

“You did that on purpose,” Geralt said, even as he wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, yawning widely.

He took a handful of nuts and dried fruit out of a pouch, and then, to Emhyr’s surprise, picked out a few of them and set them on a small piece of oilcloth in front of him.

Emhyr looked up at him.

Geralt shrugged. “I don’t know what hedgehogs are supposed to eat,” he said. “But I know they are supposed to eat. You can’t just starve until we figure out how to reverse this.”

Emhyr sniffed the offering. His stomach rumbled.

He had to eat something, and though he was loathe to accept that Geralt was being kind to him because he simply was kind, he started in on the offering.

Fringilla was going to suffer like no mage had ever suffered before.

***

The greatest irony of this situation, Geralt decided, was not that Emhyr was an actual hedgehog this time, which was probably what the last curse had been aimed at.

No, the real irony was that he’d passed half a dozen Nilfgaardian patrols on his way to Oxenfurt, and he’d had their emperor in one of his saddle bags, and if he’d told them that, the best outcome he could hope for was them laughing at him and assuming he was an old drunk.

No one was ever going to believe him.

Well, he was hoping one of the mages at the newly-reopened academy would.

The other irony, aside from the hedgehog thing--which was as funny this time as it had been last time, maybe even more so--was that Emhyr managed to be more trouble when he was small enough to hold in one hand than he’d ever been as a full-grown man.

He didn’t like being carried, so Geralt had let him wander around camp while he’d packed up--except that had led to half a dozen near-misses before Geralt had snapped and yelled at him to go stand out of the way.

The look Emhyr had given him made Geralt feel like an ass. He was tiny, he was clearly frightened--though he never would have admitted it, Geralt knew what fear smelled like, even on something like a hedgehog--and now he was, through no fault of his own, one misstep away from being a victim of Geralt’s boot.

It probably wouldn’t kill him if Geralt stepped on him, but it wouldn’t do him any good, either.

And probably, he was in some way at fault for this. People didn’t just get cursed. He’d pissed someone off to get here.

Of course, Geralt had also pissed off plenty of people who could have done this to him, mostly by accident.

So he had some sympathy, there.

“Sorceresses, huh?” Geralt looked down at Emhyr, who he’d put in a saddle bag within easy reach, in case anything happened and he needed to grab him quickly.

Emhyr made a soft grunt, which Geralt took to be agreement.

“Wonder what you did,” he said, and Emhyr grunted again.

He was kind of cute like this. It would almost be a shame to turn him back.

“Wonder which one of them it was,” Geralt said. “Guess there’s really only one way to find out, huh?”

Emhyr curled up into a ball, which Geralt took to mean he wasn’t interested in continuing the conversation.

Not that it had been much of a conversation, but Emhyr’s inability to make multi-syllabic replies was kind of working for Geralt in terms of how much he liked the guy. He was much easier to get along with when he couldn’t make threats.

He could still stare down his nose at Geralt, but it was a cute nose--even if it had been used to wake him up early--and it was hard to take him seriously when he was a small woodland creature.

Hell, maybe this’d be good for him. Teach him a little humility.

Geralt laughed to himself. Yeah, right. This would just teach Emhyr to ward himself a little better against magic. He wasn’t the kind of man who learned to be humble.

***

Life in Geralt’s saddle bags, as it turned out, really wasn’t all that bad. Emhyr was warm, and the rocking motions of a gently-cantering horse were soothing, and he felt reasonably safe and secure tucked away in the leather pouch he was currently curled up in.

The smells and sounds of the countryside as they passed were infinitely fascinating to him all of a sudden, but that saved him being bored while they travelled, too.

Geralt only occasionally talked at him, and was otherwise largely silent.

He still wasn’t happy about his current circumstances, but he was starting to allow himself to think of them as an interesting break from the weight of responsibility. He could sleep when he liked, and as much as he liked.

Geralt kept feeding him, which saved him from giving in to the temptation to eat every bug that came within striking distance.

He was warm and safe, which seemed to be the two things his little hedgehog heart held most dear at the moment. Hedgehogs were not complicated creatures, and did not need a lot to be content.

Aside from the fact that Geralt was so smug about all this, it could almost have been a pleasant holiday.

When they arrived in Oxenfurt, Geralt left his horse in the stables and carried Emhyr under his arm, just far enough to purchase a satchel that he could strap over his shoulder with enough room for Emhyr to be comfortable in.

He then went straight to a tavern, where he set Emhyr on the table and glared at the other patrons as he fed him bits of bread and stew, as if challenging them to say something about what must have looked like a witcher with a pet hedgehog.

A pet hedgehog who he kept talking to, and had apparently named after the Emperor of Nilfgaard.

Emhyr discovered quickly that sentiments about him were split neatly down the middle in Oxenfurt--the academics, and those who realised they relied on them for an income, were pleased to see sense and order returning to the land.

Everyone else was very, very bitter indeed.

He didn’t take any of it personally, of course--not even the commentary about his nose, or the assumed size of his intimate parts--but he did file it away in his mind, to be addressed once he was in a position to address it. The people here did not need to love him, but they needed to be satisfied enough not to rebel. Rebellions were ugly, and wasteful.

“No one’s mentioned you’ve gone missing,” Geralt said, apparently having been listening to the same conversation Emhyr had. “You’d think something like that would spread like wildfire, huh?”

Emhyr would indeed have thought that. He wondered why there wasn’t more of a panic, why he wasn’t being searched for yet.

Of course, it could just be that someone at the palace was smart enough not to send up a panic over his disappearance. He had an heir who he’d indicated was to take over from him. There was a chain of command in place.

Perhaps they were quietly looking for him, or perhaps they’d decided that as he was gone, he was gone, and it didn’t really matter.

He would decide on appropriate punishments later, depending on exactly what action had been taken.

For now, he was happy enough to listen, and learn. Perhaps there were benefits to his current predicament.

***

The most Geralt could get out of anyone at the academy was that yeah, this was definitely not a natural hedgehog, and was probably someone who’d been cursed, but unless he knew how or why he’d been cursed, well, there wasn’t much anyone could do.

… except for what one of the mages had described as an experimental procedure, which Geralt had a limited amount of confidence in. He’d consider it as a last resort, but he really didn’t want Emhyr splattered all over the academy walls.

Well. Not right now, anyway. He was almost charming as a hedgehog.

“You are Emhyr, aren’t you?” Geralt asked, looking down into the satchel.

The hedgehog nodded.

It didn’t really have any reason to lie about who it was. The only person who’d ever claim to be Emhyr var Emreis was Emhyr var Emreis. No one else would want to be him.

Besides, he just… felt like he was. Aside from the familiar glares and the fact that it was a glossy black colour, there was just something about this hedgehog. He knew what he was looking at.

“We’ll try Novigrad,” Geralt said. “More people, better chance someone might have some way of figuring out how to turn you back into… you.”

He was trying to sound confident, but really, if they didn’t know how or why Emhyr was cursed… there was no fixing it, other than by accident.

Still, at least in Novigrad he had somewhere to leave a hedgehog while he tried to figure it out.

***

Halfway to Novigrad, Geralt stopped, set up a small camp, and brought Emhyr down to a stream.

“I know you probably wanna wash by now,” he explained as he started undressing himself.

Emhyr sat at the edge of the water. He did want to bathe, but the stream was cold, and he wasn’t convinced hedgehogs could swim, and he wasn’t sure, entirely, how to go about it.

Geralt was already waist-deep in the water, apparently unconcerned by the possibility that someone might come along.

He was covered in scars. Emhyr hadn’t realised before now just how extensive they were. There was barely a patch of undamaged skin on any part of his body above the water line.

Emhyr stuck a foot in the water tentatively, pulling it back just as quickly as he determined that yes, the stream was cold--much colder than he would have preferred to bathe in.

Geralt would have laughed at him, he supposed. The witcher was obviously accustomed to washing in cold water, and he even looked like he was enjoying himself.

A cry overhead turned Emhyr’s stomach to ice. He looked up, nose twitching, and froze as he saw a hawk circling.

The hawk had also, clearly, noticed him.

Emhyr watched it begin to dive, frozen on the spot, his little hedgehog brain too overwhelmed with fear to do anything but stare at the large, sharp talons coming toward him.

Would his quills protect him? He wasn’t sure. They should have, probably, but the hawk didn’t seem to have noticed them, or didn’t seem to care.

This was it. These were his last moments alive before being eaten by a godsdamned bird, all because he couldn’t force himself to run or hide, because in this stupid, weak, awful body all he could do was stare up like an idiot, waiting for death.

“Hey,” Geralt shouted, and then suddenly there was splashing, and Emhyr was soaked. Geralt’s scarred chest loomed above him, blocking out most of the light, and the sound of a hawk screeching echoed in his ears at the same time as Geralt cried out in pain.

Emhyr’s heart was pounding so hard he was afraid it might give out. His head was spinning, and he was quickly discovering that hedgehogs were very capable of experiencing nausea.

And then the sound of ruffled feathers, and then great wings beating, told him that the hawk was gone.

Geralt stayed where he was for a moment, and then straightened up with a hiss.

He turned to watch the hawk go, and Emhyr could see long scratches on his back, bleeding sluggishly. Emhyr’s heart was still pounding, and he suspected that he wasn’t going to move voluntarily for a while. His legs ached with the strain of trembling, frightened muscles.

He was shaking.

He was going to put Fringilla in a maze, and have her chased down by something that was all teeth and claws. And then, just as she was sure she was going to die, he was going to have the beast shot.

And then he was going to have another one put in the maze until she died from the stress.

No.

That wasn’t nearly cruel enough.

“You okay?” Geralt asked, turning back to him.

Emhyr still couldn’t quite move. All he could do was stare wide-eyed at Geralt. He hated being weak like this.

As a human, he would have faced death with some amount of dignity.

As a small, largely defenseless animal, he was doomed to die at the teeth and claws of something bigger.

He hadn’t even had the presence of mind to curl up and protect himself, because he wasn’t really a hedgehog. So he was twice as pathetic.

“Not okay,” Geralt concluded. He paused a moment to wash out the scratches on his back, and then rose out of the water and picked Emhyr up, holding him close to his chest.

An hour ago, Emhyr would have wriggled his way free.

Now, he forced himself to listen to the steady beat of Geralt’s heart. He was safe. Geralt had shown that he was both capable of protecting him, and willing to do it.

Emhyr closed his eyes, focusing on getting his breathing under control.

Geralt carried him back to where he’d set up camp, tucking him into the bed roll and covering him with the blanket.

Emhyr breathed a sigh of relief. The warmth and darkness made him feel safe, and Geralt’s scent surrounded him, and he was beginning to recognise that as a kind of safety, too.

He curled up under the blankets and closed his eyes, falling asleep quickly.

***

Geralt sat staring into the fire, passing Emhyr tidbits of his trail rations and keeping an ear out for any other predators who might think of a hedgehog as a tasty snack.

Most of them would be smart enough to know that hedgehogs were difficult to eat. Geralt figured that the hawk hadn’t really known what Emhyr was, since he was black, and he’d been out during the day. Hedgehogs were nocturnal creatures, normally, and hawks weren’t.

Emhyr curled up next to his thigh after a few minutes, and Geralt's hand fell to his back automatically, scratching behind his ears as though he was a cat.

For a little creature covered in quills, he was surprisingly soft as long as Geralt stroked him from his head backward. His coat felt nice under Geralt’s hand, and it took him a few minutes to realise that he was petting the Emperor of Nilfgaard.

By then, Emhyr had started purring. There was no other description for the sound he was making, and Geralt had never even thought of hedgehogs being the kind of thing that purred, but it was adorable.

Adorable, and soothing, and a pretty clear indication that Emhyr didn't really mind being petted, apparently.

Geralt laughed to himself. If he'd even considered touching Emhyr like this while he was human, he would have been thrown in a dungeon somewhere.

Not that he’d ever considered petting a human Emhyr.

But as a hedgehog, especially one that had been through a brush with death today, he probably needed it. He seemed to have calmed down after a short nap, but Geralt had been able to hear his heartbeat, smell the fear coming off him, sour and unpleasant.

Emhyr's condition suddenly seemed much less funny. He was in serious danger at this size, with limited defenses and an equally limited lifespan. How long could hedgehogs possibly live?

The solution, whatever it was, couldn't wait. Aside from the fact that the emperor was missing and that wasn't something that could be hidden forever, Emhyr was at serious risk of an early death, whether through misadventure or old age.

Emhyr's heartbeat kept slowing until Geralt was sure he was asleep, but the purring didn't stop until Geralt took his hand away.

He tucked Emhyr into the bed roll with him, not wanting to risk him falling victim to any nocturnal predators, and fell asleep thinking of ways to break a curse he didn't know anything about.

***

“Are you sure this wee beastie is Emhyr?” asked the dwarf who was currently holding Emhyr at eye-level and squinting at him, as though that would somehow make it easier to determine who he was.

The dwarf’s name was Zoltan, Emhyr had gathered.

Emhyr already hated him.

“Pretty sure,” Geralt said, gently removing Emhyr from the dwarf’s too-tight grip. “I’m also pretty sure he still understands what you’re saying, so…”

“Don’t say nothin’ treasonous?”

“More or less.” Geralt shrugged, setting Emhyr down on a table.

Emhyr hadn’t wanted to be set down. Geralt’s hands were warm, and gentler than his dwarven friend, and this place was loud and, to a hedgehog, alarming.

“I don’t see it,” Zoltan said. “But I’ll take your word.”

“You kept Philippa Eilhart as a pet,” Geralt said. “You don’t get to offer an opinion on which animals are actually people.”

For the first time, Emhyr wished hedgehogs could laugh.

The idea of Eilhart being kept as a pet by a rough-looking dwarf for an unknown amount of time was enough to make him want to roll around on the floor, laughing himself sick.

He curled up into a ball and rolled around a little anyway, which had more or less the same effect in terms of expressing his mirth.

“Should he be doing that?”

“I think that’s the hedgehog equivalent of laughter,” Geralt said, apparently much better-versed in hedgehogs than Emhyr was, which was a strange kind of irony.

“Have you ever even heard of Emhyr laughing?” Zoltan asked, still clearly unconvinced.

When Geralt sat down, Emhyr waddled his way over to him and sat down near him, just far enough away not to be too obvious. He didn’t need Geralt knowing that, in Emhyr’s tiny hedgehog mind, he’d become his protector.

The hawk probably wouldn’t have eaten him once it realised he was covered in sharp quills. He knew that. But he’d still been frightened, and Geralt had still rescued him without a thought to his own safety, and Emhyr was grateful.

He was not the kind of man who had people lining up to take a crossbow bolt for him.

Or a set of talons to the back.

“Look, I just need to borrow a room for a few nights. I need somewhere I can leave him where I know he’ll be safe.”

“All yours,” Zoltan said. “But I’m not bowing to a hedgehog.”

“I don’t think he’ll mind,” Geralt said.

Emhyr huffed.

He understood the psychological importance of making people bow to him, and some part of him even liked it when they did it.

But that paled in comparison to the strange, visceral satisfaction he’d always felt when Geralt refused to. His enjoyment of Geralt’s complete unwillingness to yield had always been a wonderfully physical thing, but one Emhyr rarely allowed himself to think about.

For all of Geralt’s lack of appropriate deference, he was helping. He didn’t have to help. He could have left Emhyr in the woods and never told anyone he’d done it, and been rid of him for good.

But instead, he’d kept him safe, and healthy, and was trying his best to do something about it, even though they both knew that without knowing exactly what the curse had been--and even Emhyr didn’t know that, since he’d been so bored that he’d missed it--there wasn’t much they could do except hope that Emhyr would, eventually, figure out how to lift it himself.

If the answer was that he had to fall in love with Fringilla, he was going to be a hedgehog for the rest of his life.

Which, he suspected, would at least not be all that long.

Soon enough, Geralt started petting him again. Emhyr let himself relax, enjoying the warm touch of the witcher’s hand, and the absolute certainty that he was safe as long as he was being touched.

“Should you be doing that?” Zoltan asked. “I mean, if he is who you say he is…”

Geralt shrugged. “He doesn’t seem to mind. He could bite me if he didn’t like it. And I like the way his quills feel.”

Zoltan raised an eyebrow.

“What?” Geralt said. “Right now, I don’t know how to fix this. Emhyr could be stuck like this for good. Right now, he’s a hedgehog. They like being petted. Seems like the least I can do for him if I can’t get him back to normal.”

Emhyr wasn’t sure he followed that logic, but he wasn’t about to object, either. It was comforting to know that Geralt’s intention was to make him comfortable if he couldn’t lift the curse.

Ending up the strangely well cared for pet of a witcher was not how Emhyr had pictured his retirement, but it wasn’t the worst imaginable fate, either. He preferred having somewhere warm and safe to sleep and a steady supply of food to eat to being left in the wilderness to fend for himself.

“Careful Geralt,” Zoltan said. “Starting to sound like you’re growing fond of the wee bugger.”

“He’s not so bad when the worst he can do is press his nose against me,” Geralt said. “He purrs if you pet him long enough.”

Zoltan rolled his eyes. “I need a drink, and so do you,” he said, heading for the bar.

Emhyr watched him go, and purred for Geralt.

***

Geralt woke in the middle of the night to the sound of scratching against the bed frame, and rolled over to see Emhyr desperately trying to climb it.

He paused when he saw Geralt looking at him.

“You need something?” Geralt asked.

Emhyr paused, and then scratched bashfully at the frame again, looking away.

He wanted to sleep in the bed, Geralt realised.

He'd made him a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor by the fire, but Emhyr had abandoned that.

Maybe he was cold? Or scared again?

Geralt hesitated a moment, and then scooped Emhyr up and tucked him in beside him.

Emhyr curled up to him immediately, his back turned toward Geralt, but his body pressed firmly against him.

“I'm never letting you forget this,” Geralt said. “I won't tell anyone, but I'll know.”

Emhyr made a soft, snuffling sound that suggested he didn't care.

Geralt got the impression that he was getting the hang of being a hedgehog now. He reached out to pet him, hesitating on the first stroke, but Emhyr didn’t object.

On reflection, this was probably what he’d wanted.

“Still no word that you’re missing,” Geralt said. “Which is weird. I guess we can assume it’s being covered up.”

He was almost a hundred percent certain Emhyr could understand him perfectly, so it seemed polite to share his conclusions.

“I mean, that’s probably good for stability right now, but if we can’t get you back to normal soon, whatever story they’re telling people won’t last long. If I can’t find someone who’s got an idea of what to do in the next few days, I think it’s best to take you to Ciri. She’ll believe me, at least.”

Geralt sighed heavily. “And then maybe… I dunno. Even the most powerful mage can’t just break a curse. Not without knowing how it works. I don’t even know what I’m looking for.”

Emhyr huffed.

“I’m not a miracle worker,” Geralt said in his defense. “And I’m sorry about that. You’ve got no one else to rely on. I wish I could promise you that I know exactly what to do and I’m working on it.”

To Geralt’s surprise, Emhyr rolled over, showing Geralt the soft, fluffy fur of his underbelly.

Geralt hesitated, and then, as curiosity got the better of him, reached out to scratch his belly gently.

Emhyr burst into a loud, rumbling purr. It wasn’t quite like a cat’s, higher-pitched and kind of rattling, but everything about it radiated contentment.

Emhyr, Geralt realised a moment later, was trying to comfort him. Or was looking for mutual comfort, or something.

Well, whatever it was, the purring was nice. It worried him, a little, that Emhyr was starting to lose himself to his new nature, but Geralt doubted Emhyr would actually let that happen.

His willpower was forged from iron. There were some things he couldn’t help, like freezing up in the face of danger, but Geralt was willing to bet that wouldn’t happen a second time.

Besides, he’d had worse, and for longer. He’d be fine.

At least, that was what Geralt was telling himself.

***

Emhyr was bored. He’d never been so bored in his entire life.

The room Geralt had left him in was warm and comfortable, so he had no complaints there.

He had, more or less, everything a little hedgehog could possibly want, including a makeshift staircase of carefully-stacked books so he could climb up and down from the bed at will, which was surprisingly thoughtful.

However, the sun was barely at its zenith, and he’d already sniffed everything in the room--his primary means of investigation--and now he had nothing to do.

And Geralt had left him.

The satchel he’d been carried around in before may not have been the most comfortable place for a hedgehog, or the safest way to transport an emperor, but at least he hadn’t been bored.

Besides, as Geralt had said: it wasn’t as though anyone would believe he was actually Emhyr var Emreis. Even Geralt’s own friend hadn’t believed it.

Emhyr made a soft little grunt of amusement as he remembered the story about Philippa being kept as a pet. She would have hated the indignity of it.

It took him another moment to realise he was being kept as a pet, effectively.

Hmm. Aside from the boredom, it wasn’t too bad. And Geralt was still treating him more-or-less like a person.

A smaller, less competent person who needed to be watched constantly and couldn’t effectively communicate what he wanted, and had to rely on Geralt’s intuition and good graces to have his needs met.

So a pet.

But a well cared for one, at least.

This, Emhyr realised, was what Ciri saw in Geralt. The ease with which he showed warmth and even affection to those in need.

Emhyr started purring, quite unintentionally, as he remembered Geralt petting his belly.

Never being able to live it down was almost worth it for the soft, soothing touch he’d fallen asleep to last night.

Hedgehogs were not complicated creatures, and were apparently easily won over by being petted. Emhyr wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to not being a complex creature--or rather, being quite a complex creature, in the body and with the instincts of a simple one--but for now, it was a novel experience.

The sound of the door opening made Emhyr look up from where he’d snuggled into the bedclothes to await Geralt’s return.

His visitor was not Geralt. It was a small, blonde woman dressed in a gaudy outfit with bells fixed to it in various places.

“There you are,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

She came and sat down on the bed next to Emhyr, which was an entirely unexpected breach of his personal space, and enough to make him back away nervously.

One thing he absolutely loathed about his current predicament was his newfound tendency to get nervous. He wasn’t accustomed to nerves.

“It’s all right,” she said, still keeping her voice low, and something about the slightly rough quality of it made Emhyr suspect she had little other choice.

“I’m Priscilla. Geralt tells me your name is Emhyr,” she said, holding out a small sliver of dried meat.

Emhyr, who was hungry by now--and beginning to suspect that hedgehogs did little but eat and sleep with their lives--took a cautious step forward.

“I won’t bite,” Priscilla promised. “This is for you. Geralt asked me to make sure you had something to eat around noon.”

Well, if she was under instructions from Geralt, she must have been trustworthy.

He took another cautious step forward, and let Priscilla hand feed him. She smelled of wildflowers and apples, which was comforting.

“There we go,” she said, offering him another sliver of meat. “You’re not so bad, are you? They say you’re a tyrant.”

Emhyr huffed. He was not a tyrant, and the north was going to blossom under his rule. They’d see.

I don’t say you’re a tyrant,” Priscilla clarified. “I’ve never met you before, so I wouldn’t pass judgement like that.”

Emhyr nibbled on the morsel he was currently being offered. At this rate, lunch would take hours.

Not that he minded, exactly. He didn’t have anything better to do, and Priscilla was warm, and kind, and she was at least talking to him.

“Besides, how could something so sweet be as cruel as they say?” she asked. “No, I think you’ll be good for us, if that really is you. They’ve stopped burning non-humans. The mages are starting to come back. That has to be good.”

Emhyr made a pleased little snuffling sound. Priscilla was obviously a clever, insightful individual. She could stay.

***

Geralt slipped into his room in The Chameleon tired, frustrated, and starving, and found Priscilla sitting on his bed with Emhyr curled up in her lap.

Geralt was never, ever going to let him live this down. He was going to visit Nilfgaard regularly just to remind Emhyr of everything he’d done while he was cursed.

“Shh,” Priscilla said as Geralt opened his mouth to speak. “He’s sleeping.”

“He’s not really a hedgehog,” Geralt said, aware that Priscilla was one of few people who didn’t think he’d lost it. Even Dandelion hadn’t seemed entirely sure.

“But he’s so sweet,” she said. “And he’s behaved for me.”

“I can see,” Geralt responded, still surprised at the familiarity.

On the other hand, Priscilla was the kind of person who could probably soften even Emhyr’s heart.

Emhyr woke at that, raising his head, scenting the air, and then climbing delicately off Priscilla’s lap to stand at the edge of the bed, looking up at Geralt.

Looking for a report on Geralt’s progress. At least, that was what it seemed like.

Geralt found himself crouching down so he was as close to eye-level with Emhyr as possible. “Philippa Eilhart is apparently due here in Novigrad in a few days. I think she’s our best shot at solving this, short of knowing what the curse is. I know you’d probably rather be doing something, but I think waiting is our best option. You wanna try it?”

Emhyr paused for a second, and Geralt could almost hear the gears turning in his endearing little head.

After a few moments, he nodded.

Geralt breathed a sigh of relief. It was the best idea he’d had so far, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do if Emhyr hadn’t agreed.

“Great,” he said. “So I guess we’ll just…”

Geralt had no idea how to occupy an emperor who was also a hedgehog for a few days.

He watched as Emhyr turned, marched up the length of the bed, and then curled up on the pillow nearest the wall, yawning widely before he set his head down.

A nap sounded good to Geralt, too.

“Thanks for taking care of him,” Geralt said to Priscilla. “I think I can handle it from here.”

Priscilla smiled a warm, bright smile at Geralt as she stood, rearranging her outfit just a little. “Leave him with me anytime. I think we’re friends now.”

Geralt chuckled at that. The idea of Emhyr having a friend was bizarre.

“Thanks,” Geralt repeated. “Remind Dandelion from me that he’s lucky to have you.”

Priscilla grinned at him. “I will,” she said, heading for the door.

Geralt stripped down to his shirt and trousers, not necessarily planning on a long nap, and settled down on the room-side of the bed.

Emhyr regarded him with shiny black eyes.

“Don’t seduce Priscilla away from Dandelion, okay?” Geralt said mock-seriously. “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.”

Emhyr sighed, and Geralt wasn’t sure, but he got the impression he was rolling his eyes.

“You wanna hear a story? It’s about Priscilla.”

Emhyr hesitated again, as he was prone to doing right now, and then nodded.

Geralt figured he was probably bored.

“Well, right after I rescued Dandelion--wait, shit, I need to tell that story first, huh?”

Emhyr nodded again, more enthusiastically this time. He clearly was bored.

“Yeah, well, that one involves Ciri, so you’ll love it.”

Emhyr got up from the pillow he was sitting on, stretched, and then moved to curl up beside Geralt’s chest.

It hadn’t taken him long to realise that Geralt was warm.

“Okay, okay,” Geralt chuckled. “Storytime for good little hedgehogs.”

Emhyr didn’t even bite him for that, which must have meant he was seriously desperate for any entertainment he could get.

***

Emhyr was certain his cunning plan to trick Geralt into entertaining him had worked when he moved from the story about Dandelion and Priscilla into other stories, and hadn’t stopped talking for almost an hour.

He didn’t have anyone else to tell, Emhyr supposed, and there was some evidence to suggest that it was helpful to share the burdens of the past in the interest of not being ruled by them later.

Emhyr was in the habit of talking things through with advisors and other close confidantes, though very little of his life was as deeply personal as Geralt’s was. He was a man of the people. Almost everything he did, and had done for the past twenty years, had been of very little personal significance to him.

Geralt, being who he was, lived a life that was wholly personal. He cared primarily about those closest to him--and secondarily, himself--and after that, the plights of random strangers in need of help.

It was strange to think of, because Emhyr had never seen a need to think particularly deeply about Geralt’s existence at all. He had been something of a mythical figure to him, someone who only ever turned up in his life at times of crisis, and then…

And then Emhyr had the opportunity to spend more time with his daughter--something he had wished for long and often--and he had been confronted with the fact that he knew very little of the man who’d raised her, and as such, he knew very little of her. Ciri’s principles and instincts surprised him almost constantly.

Now, though, listening to Geralt’s stories, he was beginning to form a more complete picture of the man. Of the way he thought, and of the things he valued.

Geralt was a romantic, but a jaded one. He’d seen too much pain and suffering in the world for unbridled optimism, but he still stepped up whenever there was something to be done, whenever there was an injustice he could correct, a threat he could nullify.

In some ways, and Emhyr was loathe to admit this even to himself, Geralt was the man he very much wanted to be. His sense that wrongs could be righted appealed to the part of Emhyr that wanted peace and prosperity for everyone under his rule.

He would have made a stunningly useful political advisor, because he was one of few very clever people who still had their heart.

In the service of getting more stories out of Geralt, Emhyr rolled onto his back as Geralt seemed to be finishing up, and showed him his belly.

Geralt chuckled. “Even at this size, you’re not afraid to be demanding, huh?”

Emhyr made a soft sound of agreement, but his feigned indifference was somewhat ruined by immediately bursting into a loud purr the moment Geralt touched him.

He was trying not to think about why the act of intentionally making himself vulnerable--and being rewarded for it--was so intensely pleasurable. He was also trying not to think about just how much pleasure he could derive from Geralt while he was a small woodland creature.

Soon, he wouldn’t be a hedgehog anymore, and Geralt was highly unlikely to want to scratch his belly for him once that occurred.

Emhyr, never actually having had his belly scratched as a human, had no idea whether or not he’d even enjoy it.

But he was beginning to learn some uncomfortable things about how much he liked to be touched, and how long he’d denied himself the opportunity.

“You know, if we can’t figure this out, we could just put you back on the throne as you are,” Geralt said. “The people would definitely love you.”

Emhyr huffed again, but he was still purring. The purring didn’t happen in his lungs or throat, but somewhere else, and it was entirely involuntary.

When he felt safe, and content, and as though things were going right for him, he purred.

The fact that, so far, he’d only done it for Geralt should have been alarming. Mostly, though, he was glad to have an ally. Any ally, but especially one whose competence he didn’t doubt.

If Geralt said waiting was the best possible strategy, then Emhyr was content to wait.

***

Geralt woke to find Emhyr curled up in the middle of his chest, wet little nose resting against his exposed collarbone, snoring softly.

He looked so peaceful that it felt like a shame to move him, but Geralt needed to get up, and also, Emhyr had no particular right to sleep on top of him.

Actually, it was weird that he was doing it at all.

Although…

Geralt was starting to get the idea that he made Emhyr feel safe. Considering his defenses were currently severely limited by his size and inability to give comprehensive orders to people who had to listen to him, it made sense that he’d latch onto someone who was voluntarily trying to help.

It occurred to Geralt that the only real reward he was going to get for his efforts was the opportunity to torture Emhyr about it for the rest of his life, so he might as well let Emhyr do as many embarrassing things as he was inclined to.

Ciri would enjoy this story when Geralt got the chance to tell it. At least Emhyr would be obliged to let Geralt spend as much time with her as he wanted after this.

Geralt moved Emhyr off him carefully, trying to disturb him as little as possible, but Emhyr woke at the first sign of movement. Part of Geralt wanted to believe that was a hedgehog thing, but he suspected it had more to do with the general, looming threat of assassination that Emhyr lived under.

Sleeping lightly was a survival instinct. Geralt knew all about that, though he felt safe enough here, among friends, to sleep deeply.

Emhyr, he reflected, probably wasn't used to the concept of being among friends.

Geralt dressed, accepted breakfast from a young man who looked at him with wide eyes, and fed Emhyr by hand, as he’d seen Priscilla doing last night when they’d all sat down to dinner together.

He wasn't surprised she’d gained Emhyr’s trust quickly. She was sweet, and kind, and impossible not to like.

It took him until Emhyr started licking his fingers to realise what the hell he was doing. He froze as he felt the first touch of Emhyr's tongue, staring down at him.

Emhyr stared back up, horror in his eyes. He backed away a pace and sat down heavily, obviously not happy with himself.

Being a hedgehog was getting to him. Philippa couldn't arrive fast enough.

“I won't tell anyone if you don’t,” Geralt promised. This particular story was just as embarrassing for him as it was for Emhyr.

Emhyr nodded eagerly, obviously happy to forget the entire incident.

All the same, when Geralt went to leave, he heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet trailing after him.

When he turned back, Emhyr was looking up at him determinedly.

“You wanna come with me?” Geralt asked.

Emhyr nodded.

“You'll have to go in the satchel. I'm not risking losing you to a hungry beggar.”

Emhyr zipped over to where Geralt had left the satchel and scrambled inside.

Yeah, okay, he’d obviously been bored yesterday and he wasn't looking to repeat that experience today.

“Fine,” Geralt sighed, picking up the satchel. “Come on.”

***

Novigrad, Emhyr knew, was a city run entirely by its gangs--now that Radovid was dead and the witch hunters had been rooted out and dealt with, they were flourishing once more.

He had stacks of intelligence reports about the state of the place, and despite occasional whining from assorted officials that he should do something about the city’s lack of meaningful formal administration, it was obvious in person that he’d been right. Things here worked, and people seemed relatively happy, and the economy was functioning.

Geralt even went so far as to point out the new Nilfgaardian embassy, which Emhyr remembered insisting should not seem imposing, and if it hadn't been pointed out to him, even he might have missed it.

It was nice to see that his orders had been carried out the way he’d intended them. He’d have to remember to keep an eye on whoever had been responsible for choosing the position and signage of the embassy.

“They're supposed to be prepared for a visit from the emperor, you know,” Geralt said. “You want me to see if they'll take you?”

Emhyr gave him the best withering look he could muster and turned his attention elsewhere.

Now that he wasn't stuck alone in a strange place, and now that he believed there was an end on the horizon, he was even starting to enjoy himself. Novigrad was fascinating, and he’d never get the opportunity to see it like this again.

Geralt wound his way through the city, eventually stopping to speak to someone he called Éibhear.

Éibhear turned out to be a soft-spoken elf--perhaps a half-elf, it was hard to be sure--who beamed broadly at Emhyr when he saw him.

Strangers did not, generally, smile at Emhyr.

Few people, in fact, generally smiled at him. Few people ever had.

Geralt settled down to wait for repairs--on sword and armour, as it turned out--and Emhyr decided to remember that this elf existed and to see about offering him work. Discreetly, of course. He was unlikely to want to be seen working for Nilfgaard at this point, but he was also a non-human, and Emhyr could offer him a great deal if he was willing to listen.

A swordsmith who a witcher referred to as a master was worth employing. Geralt’s knowledge of what made a good blade was ultimately the most reliable indicator Emhyr had at his disposal.

The thought that he would have been terribly useful if he could be enticed to stay at court, somehow, occurred again. But there was nothing Emhyr could give Geralt that he might want. He was not a man driven by greed, or the pursuit of power and influence.

He was interested only in what he’d been made for--to maintain the balance between man and monster.

On the other hand, he did seem surprisingly willing to pet Emhyr, who was allowed--allowed--out of the satchel to sit on the bench beside Geralt and watch the world go by.

Aside from almost all of the circumstances, this was not by any means the most unpleasant morning of Emhyr’s life.

Indeed, in the little patch of sunshine he’d laid claim to, with Geralt’s fingers carding gently through his fur and quills, he was quite content.

And purring again.

Which the elven swordsmith seemed to think was delightful.

Emhyr had run out of energy to be offended at people being delighted by his presence. It was a rare enough occurrence that he was beginning to embrace it.

Even Geralt seemed to like him better like this. Not that Emhyr was dying to have either Geralt's approval or affection, but…

They also weren't the worst things he’d ever had. And, he was beginning to realise, he would feel the loss when he was restored to his old self.

He snuggled just a little closer to Geralt, telling himself it was in the pursuit of warmth, and sighed.

***

Priscilla had Emhyr eating out of her hand again at dinner, and Dandelion wasn't at all happy about it.

“I just don't think you should be hand-feeding the Emperor of Nilfgaard, is all,” he said, looking to Geralt for backup.

Geralt really didn't want to get involved, here.

Secretly, he didn't think Priscilla should have been doing it, either. He couldn't exactly articulate why, since Emhyr seemed to be fine with it, but something about it made him uncomfortable.

Maybe it was because he was still reeling from shouting get your hands off my hedgehog at a thief who'd tried to snatch Emhyr earlier.

The thief would eventually recover the use of their hands.

But Geralt had been struck with the thought that Emhyr was neither his, nor really a hedgehog, and he wasn't sure why it'd come out that way.

“He doesn't mind,” Priscilla defended. “He came over here of his own accord.”

I mind,” Dandelion hissed, clearly torn between raising his voice and not attracting attention. “I mind. First you had him curled up in your lap and now he’s eating out of your hand.”

“He’s a hedgehog,” Priscilla said, clearly confused.

“But he’s not! Geralt says he’s Emhyr. He’s a man.”

Priscilla set down the tidbit she’d been offering Emhyr suddenly, as though she’d only just realised that herself.

She knew, of course, but she was a sweet woman and she was looking at a small hedgehog who clearly liked being taken care of, and she’d just… taken care of him.

Geralt got it. It was hard to think of a small furry creature as Emhyr var Emreis.

Hell, he’d fallen into the trap of Emhyr suddenly being cute and approachable himself, and he knew Emhyr better than anyone else present.

“And I’m not allowed to befriend men?” Priscilla asked, her soft voice suddenly cold.

“Of course you are!” Dandelion said. “But not… I don’t think he’s interested in friendship. He doesn’t have friends.”

Priscilla looked at Dandelion with a gaze so sharp that even Geralt winced. “I’m not cheating on you with a hedgehog, Dandelion. Regardless of whether that hedgehog is normally a man or not.”

Emhyr had wandered over to Geralt and sat down in front of him with a huff, obviously unhappy that Priscilla’s attention had been taken away from him.

He probably wasn’t used to not being the centre of attention in any room he happened to be gracing with his presence.

“Told you not to try it,” Geralt said softly while Dandelion did his best to climb out of the hole he’d dug for himself.

Emhyr shuffled his way under Geralt’s partially-raised hand, and started purring immediately. It wasn’t as though he was limited to taking advantage of Priscilla’s kindness. He was also taking advantage of how much Geralt liked it when he purred.

When this was over, he was getting Dandelion a cat so he could come and visit it.

“See!” Priscilla said, pointing to Emhyr. “He does it to Geralt, too, and you can’t possibly think he’s interested in him.”

“Hey,” Geralt said, offended. “I may not be as pretty as you are…”

Priscilla snorted.

Dandelion, for his part, looked relieved. “I guess… I mean, that does seem unlikely. No offense, Geralt.”

“None taken,” he said. It was pretty unlikely that Emhyr was interested in anything about him other than that he provided warmth and comfort. Geralt had no doubt that Emhyr was in there, and aware of what was going on, but his willpower seemed to be slipping as time went on.

Which meant Philippa couldn’t arrive quickly enough.

The last thing the world needed was an emperor with the brains of a hedgehog.

***

“This is an ordinary hedgehog,” Philippa said as she held Emhyr up to eye level, peering closely at him. Her eyes were now exactly like Vilgefortz’s regrown ones, although Emhyr was willing to admit, privately, that they looked less unnatural on her. Quite pretty, even.

Emhyr huffed. He was a long way from being ordinary.

“Nice try,” Geralt said. “But I already had a mage at the academy confirm he’d been cursed.”

Philippa sighed. “So I suppose you won’t let me take him away so I can prod at him,” she said. “A pity. Influence over Emhyr var Emreis would really have been something.”

“Also not falling for that again,” Geralt said. “Just need to know what the curse was. I’ll break it myself. And pay you for your time.”

“You can’t afford the ransom on Emhyr,” Philippa responded.

Emhyr seriously considered pissing on her. The way she was squeezing him, he was having a hard time not doing it. The loss of his own dignity might well have been worth the injury to hers.

But she was, as Geralt had said, his best hope of returning to normal.

“You really wanna take the risk that we won’t find another way to break this and then have him come after you?” Geralt asked.

It was such a confident bluff that Emhyr was actually impressed.

Philippa finally set him down, which was, if nothing else, a great relief to Emhyr’s bladder.

“I suppose you did kill Dijkstra for me,” she said reluctantly.

Emhyr looked at Geralt, surprised. He’d known Sigismund Dijkstra had been killed, but Geralt’s part in it had somehow escaped his reports.

Hmm. Well, he wasn’t the first man Geralt had killed, anyway. The witcher was getting well and truly embroiled in political intrigue as he aged.

“Don’t look at me like you’ve never killed anyone,” Geralt said reproachfully.

“He does have a sort of innocence about him in that body,” Philippa mused. “I’d almost be tempted to get him a little cage and keep him.”

“I’m almost positive he understands what you’re saying,” Geralt warned.

“Yes, well, he’s the one who went and got himself cursed by Fringilla Vigo,” she responded.

Geralt’s mouth fell open.

“One of your ex-girlfriends, I take it,” Philippa said. “You really must learn to keep it in your trousers, Geralt.”

“Someone I thought Emhyr was smart enough not to trust,” Geralt said, shooting him a glare that would almost have made Emhyr cower, in his current state, if he hadn’t spent the last several nights curled up next to him.

It only occurred to him now how strange that was. He wondered if Geralt had consciously realised that he’d been snuggling up to him. He wondered if Geralt cared.

He hadn’t trusted Fringilla, but he’d promised the Lodge amnesty and more than a few privileges for their assistance in saving Cirilla, once and for all. She had been his guest.

He had simply assumed that she wouldn’t do something so phenomenally stupid as harming him, but it was becoming clear that his removal was part of a larger plan, since there was still absolutely no word of his disappearance.

“How do you know it was Fringilla?” Geralt asked.

“Because she’s been bragging about it.”

Emhyr made the closest sound to a growl he could manage, which came out as more of an annoyed click and a hiss.

He was going to have her put in a dimeritium cage, on display, forty feet in the air. Forever.

“And no one’s even bothered to try and help?”

Philippa shrugged. “She claims that even she doesn’t know where Emhyr ended up. Perhaps she was thinking of you when she opened the portal.”

Geralt shuddered visibly.

“Well, I’m assuming you won’t let me take him away and try a few things on him.”

“Nope,” Geralt said. “Not a chance.”

Philippa hummed, apparently not surprised by Geralt’s refusal at all. “Then I have little choice but to ask Fringilla what, exactly, she’s done. Is Priscilla around?”

Geralt blinked at the abrupt change in the conversation. “Uh. Somewhere? Why?”

“I’d like to say hello. I’m very fond of her.”

Geralt stared, looking between Emhyr and Philippa accusingly. “What is it with you two and Priscilla?”

Emhyr huffed. Priscilla had merely been kind to him, and he valued that kindness highly in his current, weakened state. Emhyr had carefully constructed a reputation for cruelty, but he knew who his allies were, unlikely as they may have been at the moment.

He would not forget what he owed everyone who’d provided for him over the last few days. He always paid his debts.

“The last time I visited this charming establishment, she treated me very kindly,” Philippa said. “And she’s so pretty.”

Geralt rolled his eyes. “Well, at least she’s not Cynthia I guess,” he said with a long-suffering sigh that suggested he was vastly more invested in Philippa Eilhart’s romantic pursuits than he really should have been.

Philippa wrinkled her nose, which suggested to Emhyr that his reports on the situation that had occurred in Vergen some years back were not entirely complete. Not that he gave a great deal of thought to Eilhart’s romantic life, himself.

“You,” she pointed to Emhyr. “Will owe me for this, and don't think for a second that I won't collect.”

Emhyr hesitated, but then nodded his agreement. He was happy to repay Philippa, as long as she was actually useful, but he would have liked to negotiate her reward beforehand.

It was just as well Geralt was involved in this, because it would now be his job to explain to Yennefer why Fringilla was going to be subjected to the most inventive punishment he could come up with.

“Then I will say hello to Priscilla and take my leave. I should have something for you by tomorrow,” Philippa said, heading for the back of the tavern.

Geralt sat heavily next to Emhyr, making him jump. It was hard to pick an ultimate worst thing about being a hedgehog, but the fact that he was suddenly prone to nervousness was definitely one of them.

“Happy with this plan?” Geralt asked.

Emhyr nodded. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, rolled onto his back to show Geralt his belly.

He might as well make the most of the few perks there were to this curse in the time he had left, after all.

***

 Whether or not Dandelion liked it, Emhyr had taken up what he seemed to think was his rightful place by Priscilla as they all sat and watched the evening performance, letting her scratch behind his ears and pass him small pieces of pork crackling, which probably wasn't good for hedgehogs.

Not that Geralt had learned anything about the dietary habits of hedgehogs. Besides, with any luck, Emhyr would be human again this time tomorrow and wouldn't have to worry about any of this again.

Geralt was already imagining marching him straight to the Nilfgaardian embassy and telling them he was their problem now.

Except…

Well, except that he was imagining it with the tiniest hint of regret. Which was ridiculous. Emhyr wasn’t actually his shockingly intelligent pet hedgehog, and he probably hated the fact that he was stuck being Geralt’s constant companion.

Geralt certainly hated it.

Except when he didn’t. Except when, with his suddenly limited array of ways to express himself, Emhyr came off as sweet and needy.

Geralt had always been a sucker for neediness. Neediness was his thing.

The worst thing about all this was that he really hadn’t hated it. He’d been, at worst, vaguely annoyed. Mostly, it’d given him something to focus on after the horror of dealing with a creature he never ever wanted to encounter again, so much so that he hadn’t even thought about it since he’d found Emhyr in his bed roll.

Shit, maybe that explained why he’d been so eager to snuggle with a warm hedgehog, regardless of who it really was.

No, not regardless. There was no point in lying to himself.

Geralt had always felt sorry for Emhyr. He hadn’t realised what he’d taken from him until the first time Ciri had taken his hand and looked up at him with love in her eyes, and on the one hand, it had been the happiest moment of his life.

On the other hand, he’d realised then how devastating it would have to be to Emhyr, who really liked to pretend he didn’t have any feelings but had shown Geralt, at least, that he did.

He hadn’t known what he was giving up when he promised to pay his debt to Geralt, and Geralt had just done what he’d been taught he was supposed to, and hadn’t thought twice about it until he’d been older and wiser and Ciri had been his daughter, in his heart, and he understood--really understood--what love was.

And what he’d taken away from Emhyr, who wasn’t perfect, but wasn’t by any means the worst ruler Geralt had run into.

All of which added up to Geralt feeling hopelessly guilty every time he was in Emhyr’s presence, but too proud to let it show, and the thing was: every time Geralt was sure Emhyr was about to disappoint him, he turned around and didn’t.

The conclusion he was slowly coming around to was that actually, he kind of liked Emhyr, and he’d never really been allowed to before now.

And now Emhyr was a small, fluffy critter who liked to be petted and demanded belly rubs and snuggled up next to him for warmth, and Geralt had all these feelings.

Feelings that amounted, basically, to the fact that once Emhyr was back to normal, Geralt would miss him.

Which was weird, and stupid, and not something Geralt wanted to think about a whole lot.

He’d get over it once Emhyr was Emhyr again. Definitely.

***

Faced with the prospect of a solution to his current problems, Emhyr couldn't sleep. His little hedgehog gut was tight with what he could only describe as anxiety, and he couldn't get comfortable, and the fact that Geralt had already fallen asleep was suddenly intolerably offensive to him.

He picked his way carefully up the bed and, after a moment's consideration, curled up as close to Geralt's neck as he could, soft little chirps that even he didn't understand the meaning of escaping him.

Emhyr liked to believe that he knew himself, much better than other men tended to know themselves. Unfortunately, that meant that he couldn't lie to himself about why he couldn't sleep.

He had enjoyed, over the past handful of days, the company of people who liked him, and who took care of him because it was the right thing to do instead of because they were obliged to.

At the centre of that was Geralt. Geralt, who could have chosen to ignore Emhyr’s need for help in the first place, who could simply have walked away and decided this wasn't his problem.

But who, instead, had taken care of him, and put up with the fact that he was entirely useless in this state, and even shown him a great deal of affection, which had been neither necessary nor earned.

Emhyr was afraid of going back to being human because he was inherently more likeable in his current state, and that would mean losing all the warmth and comfort he’d grown to enjoy.

Especially and most importantly--he would completely and irreversibly lose Geralt’s affection, which he’d come to want more than anything in his suddenly very uncomplicated life.

At the moment, all he cared about was whether or not he was cold or hungry, and whether or not Geralt was petting him, or planning on petting him in the near future.

And not even necessarily in that order.

The excitement and anticipation he felt when he knew Geralt was about to show him some simple physical affection was outright indecent. And some part of that was bound to be a direct consequence of his current body…

But the rest… the rest was something else. He was not afraid of losing something he simply enjoyed.

He was afraid of losing someone he loved. Someone he had fallen, quite by accident, deeply in love with.

Which was incredibly inconvenient.

He was suddenly very, very sleepy.

***

When Geralt opened his eyes the next morning, he jumped out of bed faster than he ever had in his life, crying out in surprise.

Emhyr var Emreis, no longer a hedgehog--but consequently, naked and curled up in Geralt’s bed--blinked sleepily at him, and Geralt watched his face as understanding dawned over it.

A normal person would probably have laughed, or jumped for joy, or run their hands all over their body checking to make sure everything was still where it should be.

Emhyr only stared at Geralt, narrowing his eyes as if trying to figure out exactly how he’d done this.

Geralt had no idea. He assumed that Philippa had managed to do something, though he was surprised it’d been so quick. Maybe Fringilla had just… released Emhyr?

It sounded unlikely, but Emhyr was back to being Emhyr-shaped, so…

He sat up slowly, and everything about the movement told Geralt that he was in pain, but trying not to show it.

No wonder, really. He’d just been a fraction of his size for several days. His newly-restored muscles were bound to ache.

“Trousers,” he said, and Geralt immediately remembered the naked part.

He went to his things, sorting through until he found a spare pair he’d, uh, acquired a while back, passing them over to Emhyr.

He turned his back in the interest of politeness, as though he hadn’t been looking at Emhyr naked all week. It was a little different when he was human.

While he was waiting, he dug out a shirt he’d been hanging onto for when the one he was wearing finally gave out on him. It… wasn’t quite the kind that he suspected Emhyr would prefer, but neither were the trousers, and he figured it was better than walking around naked.

The scar under Emhyr’s ribs had healed to a neat, silvery line, but Geralt still remembered a younger Emhyr only complaining once about getting stabbed and mostly being excited about finally getting to be with his beloved.

Emhyr accepted the shirt without a word, looked at it for a moment to figure out how to put it on, and then rolled his eyes at still having most of his chest exposed once it was on.

Geralt, unable to help himself, smirked.

“Breakfast?” he offered, starving himself and sure Emhyr was more than ready to eat with his own two hands.

“That would be most appreciated,” Emhyr said, leading the way out of the room and downstairs to the tavern below, where only Dandelion, Zoltan, and Priscilla were milling about in the main room.

Zoltan dropped the pen he’d been scribbling notes with, his jaw dropping as he saw Emhyr walk into the room.

Dandelion stared, equally amazed.

Priscilla offered Emhyr a shallow bow and a nod of her head, apparently unsurprised to discover that Geralt had been right, and also apparently convinced that they really were friends.

Judging by the way Emhyr simply nodded back, maybe they were.

“Your majesty,” Dandelion finally remembered himself, sweeping into a deeply respectful bow.

Dandelion was good with royalty and the nobility. Aside from being one of them, he liked them because they paid well.

“Please don’t…” Emhyr began, looking at his enrapt audience. “Don’t,” he finished.

Geralt snorted.

“I see no point in pretending that you haven’t all seen me reduced to a small, helpless creature in recent days,” Emhyr said. “I would value your discretion on the matter.”

That was enough to make Geralt stare.

Emhyr wasn’t issuing threats. He was asking, politely, that no one mentioned this. This event that would have been incredible if they weren’t all friends with a witcher.

He could have turned around and declared it treason to mention what they’d all seen. He could have been demanding to speak to whatever official was in residence at the embassy.

But he wasn’t doing any of that.

Hell, maybe being a hedgehog for a few days had been good for him, after all.

Before anyone could say anything else, Philippa burst in the door.

She looked vaguely hungover.

She stared at Emhyr with wide, confused eyes, which implied that she hadn’t had anything to do with this at all.

“Who could you possibly have fallen in love with?” Philippa asked.

Everyone in the room--except, notably, Emhyr--looked at Priscilla.

Priscilla’s whole face lit up pink.

Geralt felt for her. The embarrassment alone was enough to make him cringe in sympathy.

Dandelion looked close to tears, his jaw tight.

“What makes you say that I’ve fallen in love with anyone?” Emhyr asked, levelling his gaze at Philippa.

“You’re human, and the curse was quite specific,” Philippa said. “I gather you weren’t listening, and Fringilla is very upset about that, by the way, she was so sure she was going to have her own personal pet emperor.”

“The curse, if you please,” Emhyr said, ignoring the rest of it. And decidedly not looking at Priscilla.

He was probably just as embarrassed as she was.

“Required you to--and I quote--give up your prickliness and show your underbelly to someone, and allow them into your heart.” Philippa glanced over at Priscilla herself, breathing a heavy sigh. “I suppose if it was going to be anyone…”

Priscilla blushed all over again, and then mumbled an excuse to leave. No one even considered stopping her.

If Geralt had been standing between an emperor and a sorceress with a crush on him, he would have wanted to leave, too.

Emhyr was silent for several long seconds.

“Very well,” he said. “You will be compensated for your assistance. You will take the position Fringilla was vying for as liaison from the Lodge of Sorceresses to the Nilfgaardian royal court.”

“And Fringilla?” Philippa asked warily.

“Is to be made aware that if she ever comes within striking distance of Nilfgaardian territory again, she will be executed. Slowly.”

Philippa nodded, and Geralt suspected she was thrilled by this turn of events.

A loud crack sounded from the upstairs rooms, and the smell of cut grass and ozone filled Geralt’s nostrils.

He looked to the stairs just in time to see Ciri racing down them.

“I took the liberty of informing your daughter of your whereabouts,” Philippa said.

“You’re human,” she said. She sounded just a little disappointed.

“I’ll tell you all about what he was like as a hedgehog later,” Geralt said.

Emhyr turned to glare at him, but Ciri was already giggling, and his face softened.

“Your advisors told me not to make it public that you’d gone missing. They had me announce that you were ill. Was that… did I do the right thing?”

Emhyr turned to Ciri, offering her a small nod. “You prevented a panic that would have achieved nothing,” he said. “Stability is the best and most valuable thing you can offer your subjects. You have done well.”

Ciri surged forward, wrapping her arms around Emhyr’s neck, which obviously came as a surprise to him.

He didn’t seem to mind, exactly, though.

“I was afraid you were gone forever,” she said softly. Clearly, Emhyr wasn’t the only one who’d realised some things while he’d been a hedgehog.

After a few moments, his arms came up, and he squeezed Ciri tight.

“You must thank Geralt for my safety,” he said softly. “He has been surprisingly accommodating.”

“Kind of my job,” Geralt said, though they were both aware that his job didn't actually involve cuddling and he’d done that, too.

The strangeness of that was only just starting to dawn over Geralt, and he was glad that they clearly weren't about to discuss it.

“And you will be paid for it,” Emhyr said. “You will name your price.”

Geralt shrugged. “I’d like to come visit Ciri sometimes,” he said, which was true. It was what he’d planned to ask for since the beginning.

There was really nothing else he wanted from Emhyr. He could have had anything, and he knew it, but what the hell would he do with any of it?

“There will be a suite prepared for your exclusive use,” Emhyr said. “And I will ensure you have access to the palace whenever you wish. Whichever palace Cirilla is in residence at, at all times.”

Geralt blinked at him.

“I don’t need-”

“This is a question of honour,” Emhyr said. “And I will not have it said that I do not repay my debts.”

Ciri pulled away from Emhyr gently, and then looked at Geralt meaningfully. “Please accept?” she asked. “You could come and visit me whenever you wanted.”

“Okay,” Geralt said, since it was Ciri asking now. “Yeah, okay, deal. But don’t… be weird about it.”

Emhyr raised an eyebrow.

“You know what I mean.”

The eyebrow inched higher.

“I don’t want to be bathed and shaved by force every time I drop by,” Geralt said.

Ciri giggled, covering her mouth with her hand a moment too late.

“As long as you bathe voluntarily, I can’t imagine it being a problem,” Emhyr said.

Geralt didn’t so much mind the idea that baths were non-negotiable. He would have liked to have more of them, on balance, so it wasn’t the worst condition ever.

“Fine,” Geralt agreed.

“I could take you with us now, if you like?” Ciri asked.

Geralt shook his head. “No, I’ve heard about a few things that need seeing to around here. Besides, you’re about to make a dozen public appearances, right?”

“Indeed,” Emhyr said. “While you are welcome, as promised, Cirilla will be very busy over the next few weeks proving to the empire that I am still alive and much recovered.”

“Maybe in a few weeks, then,” Geralt said. “I’ll wander my way to Nilfgaard. Promise.”

Ciri nodded, putting a hand on her father’s shoulder. “You owe me so many stories,” she said with a smirk, and then disappeared in a blinding flash of light.

Geralt stared into the space where Emhyr had been a moment ago, and wondered why he didn’t feel relieved.

***

Within twenty-four hours of returning to Nilfgaard, Emhyr var Emreis did something he’d never done before.

He missed Geralt of Rivia.

***

Novigrad and surrounds proved to have a monster problem or two, and Geralt figured he might as well deal with them before he headed for Nilfgaard. In the interest of not having to rely on there being work available along the way.

Not that he was dragging his heels or anything. He was being sensible, and if Ciri actually needed him then she could come get him in a matter of minutes. No one would even know she’d been gone.

On the third day after Emhyr had left, Geralt collapsed onto a bench in The Chameleon and sighed, his muscles sore and his body exhausted.

Priscilla appeared at his side as though she had a special sense just for knowing when someone could really use her presence.

Geralt liked Priscilla. He got why everyone else did, too.

Which was why he hated that he had mixed feelings about her being responsible for lifting Emhyr’s curse, and he didn't even know why, which made it so much worse.

“I was just about to eat,” she said. “Join me?”

Geralt wet his lips, hesitating a moment, and then nodded. “Sure, yeah, I could eat.”

Priscilla nodded. “You sit, I'll get it.”

Geralt wasn't about to argue with that. Sitting was about all he was up to right now.

He’d been overdoing it a little.

Priscilla returned with two bowls of what turned out to be a rich chicken stew, and Geralt didn't even hesitate to start eating, his empty stomach in full control of his actions for the moment.

“So,” Priscilla said after a few moments, and Geralt should really have known there was A Talk coming, but he’d been tricked by the offer of food.

He looked up, showing that he was listening, and hoped like hell that this wasn't going to be a request for romantic advice.

“A messenger from the Nilfgaardian embassy came by earlier,” she began, and Geralt's stomach sank.

“Yeah?” he asked, trying not to betray his dread.

“Emhyr is giving me a lifetime stipend,” she said. “A… very generous one. To continue writing. With the condition that I never write anything about last week. And that I prevent Dandelion from doing so, as well.”

That… sounded like Emhyr, honestly. He wouldn't have threatened Priscilla for being kind to him. Finding another way to win her silence was more his style, and he’d found it.

“Generous of him,” Geralt said cautiously. “He’s not… inviting you to stay at the palace, or…?”

“No,” Priscilla said. “He did suggest having my work translated, though. Into Nilfgaardian. It was actually quite a sweet letter.”

Geralt wasn't entirely sure what to make of that.

“So he’s not trying to take you away from all this?”

Priscilla shook her head. “He said he could see I was happy and wanted me to stay that way.”

Now that part didn't sound like Emhyr. Not if he wanted Priscilla. He’d gone through hell to get to the last person he wanted.

“Geralt, I was thinking, about what Philippa said about the curse, and the thing is, Emhyr never showed me his belly. The only person I ever saw petting him like that was… well, you.”

Geralt’s ears were suddenly ringing.

“Curses aren't necessarily that literal,” he said, but even as the words were forming in his mouth, panic was rising in his throat.

Panic and a whole lot of other feelings he was going to pretend he wasn't feeling.

Priscilla looked insulted. “I'm not an idiot, Geralt.”

Unfortunately, that was true.

“Yeah, well…” Geralt sighed. “Maybe I am.”

To his surprise, Priscilla reached out and put her hand on top of his.

“What's the story with you two?” she asked.

Geralt hesitated. What was the story with them?

“Complicated,” he said eventually. “Emhyr is… complicated. Which makes what you're implying a little hard to believe, because it's complicated on his side, too. He’d have every right to hate me.”

“And yet he clearly trusts you,” Priscilla said. “And maybe, for an emperor, having someone they can trust, really trust to do them no harm and even to protect them from it… maybe that's enough.”

Geralt smiled wryly. “You sure I can't convince you it's you?”

Priscilla laughed, which was a pretty sound Geralt would have liked to hear more often. He needed to nudge Dandelion toward making things official between them.

She was the best offer he was ever getting, and he should have been grabbing hold of her with both hands.

“I’d make a wonderful empress, I think, but no. No, I'm happy here. But don't tell Dandelion I’d choose him over an emperor, okay? He doesn't need anyone boosting his ego.”

Geralt snorted. “Don't need to tell me. Secret’s safe.”

“So are you heading to Nilfgaard, then?”

Geralt poked at the remains of his stew. “Promised Ciri I would. This makes it a little more awkward, though.”

“I'm sorry,” Priscilla said. “But I thought it was better if you knew.”

“It is, probably.” Geralt sighed. “Why me?”

Priscilla shrugged. “You're very charming under all the dirt and gruffness. I might have been quite taken with you if I hadn't met Dandelion first.”

“You deserve better than me,” Geralt said. “But at least Emhyr probably doesn't.”

Priscilla raised an eyebrow. “I didn't say you had to do anything about it.”

Ah, there it was.

The thing was… Geralt was surprised, but he wasn't sure he hated the idea as much as he should have, and that was an even bigger surprise, and definitely not something he wanted to think about.

Except that his sharp and colourful witcher imagination was already working on it.

He absolutely could have fucked Emhyr, if for no other reason than that he’d like to see him reduced to need and want and feeling.

Love was a different question entirely, but he assumed that was where they’d start, and it might even be fun.

“I can see the way your thoughts are going from the look on your face,” Priscilla said, snapping Geralt out of it. “Really, Geralt?”

“Are you telling me you wouldn't be curious?” he asked, looking up.

Priscilla glanced away, suddenly fascinated by a knot in the wood of the table. “Perhaps a little,” she admitted. “Hard to imagine what a man like that would be like.”

Geralt wasn't really finding it all that hard to imagine at all, which was the problem. He didn't know whether he was right or not, but he definitely had ideas.

Which was new. He’d never even once thought of Emhyr like that before, but now that the idea had been planted in his head…

Curiosity threatened to get the better of him.

Witchers were like cats. Curious enough to die of it.

“So when are you leaving?” Priscilla asked, a smile playing around her lips.

“Not right away,” Geralt defended. “When the opportunity comes up.”

Priscilla snorted and went back to eating, a general air of smugness settling around her.

***

Emhyr var Emreis liked to think of himself as a patient man, but if he had to respond to one more enquiry about his health he was in serious danger of actually doing someone an injury, by his own hand, without entirely intending to.

Ciri had done the right thing. She’d been advised well. His sudden disappearance would only have caused panic, and that panic would have yielded no results.

The one thing he was certain he’d gained from this experience was the knowledge that Ciri would sit lightly on the throne and not struggle at all, which was heartening. His initial shock at the completely different way her mind worked from his had made him worry that this was not the place for her, that she would have to be married off to someone more politically cunning as quickly as possible, but… no.

No, Ciri was very clever, in the way Geralt was, Emhyr was coming to see, very clever.

He’d been reading old reports.

Something that he’d vaguely known but never quite thought of consciously was that Geralt always picked the winning side in a given conflict. He picked the side before they won.

Which, at the least, was an indicator that his political instincts were excellent. Or, alternatively, that he was in the habit of turning the tide of entire wars simply by being present. That whether or not his specific actions made it to a report--and they frequently didn’t, because spies were cowards by nature and would not fling themselves into the fray the way a witcher would--they clearly had an effect. A monumental effect.

And this was the man who’d trained Ciri, and taught her how to think, and until now, Emhyr had thought of that as a weakness to overcome.

Now, he was beginning to think of it as a strength.

Not just because Geralt had been kind to him, of course. But his kindness had driven Emhyr to take a second look at the witcher, and his history, and all the things he knew of him.

None of which had helped in the overall goal of thinking less about him. It had quite the opposite effect, to the point where Emhyr thought about him even when he didn’t intend to, even when he hadn’t set aside the time to do so, even when he was supposed to be thinking about other things.

It was maddening, and the harder he tried to fight it the worse it got.

“Am I boring you?” Ciri asked, and Emhyr blinked at her for a moment before realising that firstly, she was teasing, and secondly, she… had been talking to him.

“Not at all,” he said automatically. He didn’t want Ciri to believe, ever, that he was bored of her company. He had been denied it too long to want to risk it now.

“But you are thinking of something else,” she said, and Emhyr suddenly remembered with the faintest spike of anxiety the legend that witchers could read minds.

If Ciri could, she would have been clever enough not to let anyone know, least of all Emhyr. She still didn’t trust him, not entirely.

He hoped she would, one day. He hoped he’d have enough time to show her that she could, that he’d learned from the mistakes of the past and was now old enough and wise enough to simply want her to be happy. Like a normal father.

Like Geralt. Whose primary concern throughout Ciri’s life seemed to have been ensuring her safety and relative happiness.

He was a better man than Emhyr had ever even wanted to be, and the part of Emhyr that was selfish and greedy and desperately in need of affection wanted that.

“I learned a lot of Geralt while I was… in his company, recently,” he said, shifting a little at the smirk on Ciri’s face.

She was still disappointed that she hadn’t gotten to see him as a hedgehog. So much so that Emhyr was almost disappointed, since it seemed like something she would have liked.

And perhaps, like Geralt, and like Priscilla, she might have seen something different in him if she had.

“If you’re about to insult him, I won’t let you,” Ciri said warningly.

“On the contrary. I also learned a lot of you, through him. He spoke at length of your adventures together, and what he knew of your time apart, as well. I find myself floored by the things you’ve accomplished.”

Ciri blinked at him, clearly unsure where this was going.

She was trying, Emhyr knew. She was trying not to be put off by this strange, distant man she barely knew, and Emhyr was trying desperately not to be so distant, or strange, or unlike anyone she’d spent time with before.

“I never did anything special,” Ciri said.

“You single-handedly saved the world. Multiple worlds, even,” Emhyr said. “Even by my standards, that would qualify as special.”

Ciri smiled a genuine smile, and Emhyr realised immediately that he was going to become addicted to making her do that. That he would want her smiles enough to do anything for them.

His time as a hedgehog had been very good for his sense of pleasure. Not just in this, but in other things. A whole plethora of things that had given him no real joy in a long time suddenly seemed exciting and precious again.

But none more than this. Than simply being able to be with his daughter, to quietly love her, to enjoy her presence in his life.

“Not single-handedly. I had a lot of help,” Ciri shrugged. “I couldn’t have done it alone. No one could have.”

“I understood witchers to be solitary creatures,” Emhyr said, eager to engage Ciri in a conversation she could enjoy--and that he could follow, and learn from.

She chuckled in response. “They might like to think they are, but you haven’t seen them all piled up together after they passed out drunk.”

Emhyr raised an eyebrow. “A regular occurrence?” he asked.

“Not exactly,” Ciri said. “But sometimes, when all the… loss, all the misery got to them… they sort’ve… cuddled? I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she finished, looking away.

Emhyr’s heart sank. He hadn’t meant to steer the conversation in a direction that would make Ciri uncomfortable.

“I’m aware this will come as a surprise, but I have been cuddled with in my life,” Emhyr said.

Judging by the look on Ciri’s face, it did come as a surprise. She had the good grace to look embarrassed about that a moment later, though.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. A habit she would have to break, Emhyr thought, but with time and confidence that would happen automatically. It wasn’t something they needed to address unless it became a problem.

“And that wasn’t what I meant, exactly, it’s just… people think so ill of witchers, spit at them, treat them as though they’re little better than mindless monsters, but… they were always kind to me. Always. And they’re even a little soft-hearted under all that armour and all those scars.”

That, Emhyr had already learned for himself. “Geralt was exceptionally kind to me,” he said, because it was true, and Ciri deserved to hear that Emhyr didn’t hate him, not really. Couldn’t hate him, because for all that he’d caused him no small amount of grief, he was fundamentally a good man.

And not even a stupid one.

A rare creature indeed.

“He’s exceptionally kind to everyone,” Ciri said, confirming what Emhyr had suspected.

For Geralt, kindness had been automatic. Thoughtless. It was simply his default state.

For Emhyr, it had meant the world, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts, and, even more disappointingly, this conversation.

“I believe that means I am needed elsewhere,” he said, standing. “But if you’d like to eat with me this evening, I could stand to hear some of those stories from your point of view. Especially the ones Geralt wasn’t present for.”

“That’s a lot of stories,” Ciri said.

“Then perhaps you will indulge an old man and eat with him more often?” Emhyr asked, hopeful.

He’d had a taste of kindness and acceptance and being among friends, and unfortunately, the taste had been enough to make him crave more of it.

Ciri, to his relief, smiled again. “I’d like that, I think,” she responded.

“Good.” Emhyr nodded. “I will look forward to it.”

And he would look forward to it, and it would fill up the long-neglected parts of himself that wanted desperately to be loved, and he could forget all about the witcher and his soft, patient voice and his warmth and, most of all, his touch.

Which was for the best.

***

“What happened to your hedgehog, Geralt?” Éibhear Hattori asked the moment Geralt approached him.

“Oh, umm…” Geralt began, not having come up with an answer to that question in the event someone actually asked. “He, uh, went home?”

That was a terrible explanation, but Éibhear nodded anyway, and Geralt vaguely knew that some elves were in the habit of taking care of injured creatures from time to time, so he probably assumed that was what had happened.

“Of course,” Éibhear smiled at him, obviously happy to accept that. “I imagine you’re here for repairs, or…?”

Geralt nodded. “Just a few minor things,” he said.

“Right, well, actually, I had a favour to ask. Can we go inside?”

Geralt shrugged. “Sure, lead the way.”

He followed Éibhear into his workshop, wondering what the hell he could possibly need to discuss in private.

“I received a small order, in secret, from Nilfgaard. From the Emperor himself, actually,” Éibhear stuttered. “And he mentioned you spoke highly of my work?”

Geralt blinked.

He had, obviously. Emhyr had been right there when he’d sung Éibhear’s praises directly to his face, and had obviously been listening.

“Your work is beautiful,” Geralt said, hoping desperately that Éibhear wasn’t about to wonder when the hell he’d had time to talk to the Emperor of Nilfgaard about swords.

A faint blush coloured the elf’s cheeks.

“In any case, I have been offered a permanent position if this initial commission goes well. And while Novigrad is much easier to live in these days…”

“Emhyr likes elves,” Geralt said, knowing it was true. He’d betrayed them, too, but that was just politics. He personally liked elves, the way Geralt personally liked hot baths.

Éibhear nodded enthusiastically. “And he’s offering a fully-equipped workshop and assistants and a great deal of, uh, creative freedom. Which is why I’d like to enlist your help.”

Ah. This was why he’d been dragged inside.

“I will pay you, of course,” Éibhear said earnestly. “But, well… I can’t precisely hand my work off to the Nilfgaardians myself. Not with… certain attitudes toward them prevailing in the city, and being a non-human.”

Geralt nodded. Being seen to align himself with Nilfgaard before he could make a break for the south would have been a risky move, and Geralt liked Éibhear in one piece.

“So you want me to hand it over?”

“Ideally…” Éibhear began, glancing out the window nervously. “Ideally, I’d like you to take it all the way to Nilfgaard. Again… I can pay, and generously. Aside from all the other benefits, working for the empire is very lucrative.”

Geralt sighed.

Well, he’d been planning to head to Nilfgaard eventually, and he couldn’t drag his heels forever.

“I’ll go,” he agreed. “I’m heading that way anyway. You don’t need to pay me for it.”

“I would like to. You have been uncommonly kind to me.”

“Tell you what,” Geralt said. “I’ll come by again after sunset, and you can make me dinner and give me the delivery. Sound fair?”

Éibhear’s entire face lit up. “I would be honoured,” he said. “Thank you, Geralt. And I will have time to make those repairs, if you have elsewhere to be.”

“Yeah.” Geralt shrugged his swords off. He didn’t even need them in Novigrad anymore, which was a welcome change.

Nilfgaardian rule wasn’t all bad.

“I’ll come back for these later,” he said, passing them over. “If I’m going that far, I gotta see to a few things first.”

“You have no idea how much this means to me, Geralt,” Éibhear said. “Your kindness does you credit, as ever.”

“Yeah, well…” Geralt smiled wryly. “Don’t go telling people that. They’ll all expect it.”

“In this case, I will keep your secret,” he said. “But I will not forget it.”

Geralt sighed as he walked away.

He would have had to make the trip to Nilfgaard eventually, and he’d only been delaying the inevitable.

***

Even if he hadn’t already had several reports concerning Geralt’s imminent arrival in Nilfgaard, Emhyr could have guessed he’d turned up at the palace by the particular quality of the chatter and excitement going on.

As a side effect of having quarters set aside for Geralt, a rumour had quickly spread that he was a dear friend of the emperor, where dear friend in this case implied that Emhyr was fucking him, though no one was likely to actually say that aloud within earshot unless it was publicly confirmed.

It wasn’t so much that Emhyr minded the rumour. On balance, he would perhaps have preferred it was true, but aside from that, he couldn’t see it bothering him. It made him seem more human, and with a recently-expanded empire under his command, that was more than likely to be a good thing.

If he’d been more eager to avoid it than he was, he might not have put Geralt’s dedicated quarters so close to his own.

His stated argument was that they should be near Ciri’s, and that was his genuine motivation in choosing, but it hadn’t escaped his notice that it put Geralt quite near him.

That same selfish part that wanted Geralt close had, perhaps, had some say in the matter. There was little point in lying to himself about something so critical as that.

Geralt had been kind to him, despite the fact that he was clever enough to know better, and that, as it turned out, was Emhyr’s weakness.

To have someone see him as something other than a monster. Especially a man who had seen him as a literal monster.

What did surprise him was that Geralt was presented to him, still fully armed, and while he was clearly no threat, Emhyr realised that perhaps people had gotten the impression that they were vastly closer than they actually were.

Not only was he armed, but he was holding another sack full of swords.

“You’re lucky I don’t mind playing delivery boy,” Geralt said, without so much as a word of greeting, and it was too familiar, vastly too impertinent, and as usual, Emhyr was going to let him get away with it, because unfortunately…

He liked Geralt.

Quite aside from having fallen in love with him, at least to the degree required by his most recent curse. Emhyr had always liked him. Liked his complete lack of fear when it came to facing him, where most men would tremble and stutter.

The smirk on his face was enough, by itself, to make Emhyr’s cock stir. He shifted minutely in his chair, and waved at guards and attendants to leave them in peace.

“I take it these are from your elven smith,” Emhyr said, nodding to the collection of blades Geralt was carrying.

Geralt nodded. “He’s good at what he does and his loyalty is worth having. You should give him the job.”

Emhyr raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t come all this way to plead for an acquaintance, did you?”

“Well, I figured I had an open invitation.” Geralt shrugged, setting the swords on Emhyr’s desk. “There’s a dagger in there that I assume is for Ciri.”

Emhyr nodded. “Small enough to keep on her person in even the most, ah, ethereal of official garments,” Emhyr said. “Large enough to kill a man with a single strike, I should think.”

“For Ciri? She could probably take out two,” Geralt said proudly.

Emhyr smiled wryly. “Another man might be upset that you’d trained his daughter to kill so efficiently.”

“She’s alive because of it. A smart man would be grateful.”

“Then you will have to consider me a smart man,” Emhyr said. “If I hire your smith, who will make your swords?”

“He will,” Geralt said. “I’ll just have to come by this way to get them.”

“A long way to come from the northern reaches.”

“I haven’t seen much of the south,” Geralt said. “Thought I might explore down here a while.”

Emhyr wet his lips. It almost sounded as though Geralt was looking for an excuse to stay.

“Then I shall have word sent that his work is more than acceptable and his forge is waiting.”

“Without checking it?” Geralt asked.

“You’ve checked it,” Emhyr said. “And you know a good blade from a bad one far better than I do. I sent for a small commission to test whether or not he’d do it for me, and to save explaining why I suddenly wanted to personally hire someone I had no reason to even know of the existence of.”

“Well, he’s excited,” Geralt said. “You haven’t asked me about Priscilla.”

Ah. Geralt was, of course, still under the impression that Priscilla had broken the curse. It was hardly an unreasonable assumption.

“I have no need to. We correspond regularly,” Emhyr said easily, because that was the truth. He liked Priscilla. She wasn’t afraid of him, either, which was a dangerous quality in an entertainer. All the same, he believed that he could trust her to respect his privacy.

It did motivate him not to do anything that she might have cause to be upset by.

Having friends--genuine friends who didn’t particularly care who he was--was turning out to be more complicated than Emhyr had first imagined. It was only because the benefits outweighed the pitfalls that Emhyr persevered at all.

“I hear you’re funding the rest of her life,” Geralt said.

Emhyr raised an eyebrow. “Would you have me woo her away from your friend Dandelion? You did warn me not to.”

“I did,” Geralt agreed. “He’s been a whole lot more attentive since you left.”

“So I gather from Priscilla’s letters,” Emhyr said. They weren’t as personal as a private conversation, of course, but he had enough information to know that events had benefited her in a variety of ways.

“And you’re okay with that?” Geralt asked.

Why was he pushing on the subject? Emhyr understood that these were his friends, friends he undoubtedly held dear, but it seemed like more concern than he should have been showing.

Unless…

No. No, he couldn’t possibly…

“Obviously,” Emhyr responded. “I wouldn’t drag the poor girl away from a man she loves to suit my own whims. That would be intolerably selfish.”

Geralt sighed.

“Emhyr, I know,” he said.

Emhyr blinked at him.

“That it wasn’t Priscilla who broke the curse. She told me. She knows, too, by the way.”

Emhyr swallowed. He had suspected that Priscilla realised she was not, actually, the object of his affections, but he hadn’t thought she might have told Geralt as much.

“I won’t tell,” Geralt promised. “And I won’t… use you, or anything. I wouldn’t.”

“I am not quite pathetic enough to let you,” Emhyr said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

He wasn’t used to feeling awkward, but he was very quickly getting familiar with the sensation.

“I think one of the conditions on me staying here was that I’d bathe voluntarily,” Geralt said. “I should go and do that.”

“Of course,” Emhyr said, torn between disappointment at Geralt leaving and relief at the respite. “Someone will show you to your quarters.”

Geralt nodded, and left without another word.

Emhyr got the distinct impression that he’d made a mistake he wasn’t entirely aware of.

***

Geralt wasn’t exactly sure what he’d been expecting in terms of a greeting, but what he’d gotten… wasn’t it.

Hell, he’d expected Emhyr to at least seem pleased to see him.

Instead, he’d seemed… slightly put out that Geralt was still alive, which, to be fair, was how he always seemed.

Geralt had just expected things to be different now.

Maybe that was because he was an idiot.

He’d bathed anyway, and dressed in the least unacceptable clothes offered to him, and had dinner with Ciri.

She’d laughed at the clothes, but she’d also hugged him tightly and told him she was glad he was here, so the trip was worth it.

But now he was alone, in a disgustingly lavish suite, feeling vaguely as though things should have been different, somehow.

He didn’t want to admit that he was disappointed, but, well… he was.

He’d had a lot of time to think on the road. To convince himself of all of Emhyr’s good qualities, to imagine taking him to bed, to wonder what he’d be like after, to…

To fall in love right back.

Or at least to convince himself that he could, maybe. He’d imagined what it might be like, whether he could go along with it, and the answers had surprised him.

He had what he’d asked for. He could come and see Ciri whenever he wanted. He really did want to explore the south, having never had much of an opportunity, and he could always come back to the palace when he was feeling bruised and battered and like he could use a day or two off.

It was a good deal. He was lucky to have it.

And then in the morning Emhyr summoned him, handed him a small stack of contracts that the ink had barely dried on, all with Imperial seals and Emhyr’s signature at the bottom, assured him that he needn’t complete all of them, and sent him on his way.

Geralt didn’t realise until he was setting up to take out a noonwraith that this had been Emhyr’s idea of a gift.

Even more unsettlingly, he’d been right. Geralt had said he wanted to see the south. He was getting the grand tour of the villages within a day’s ride of the palace.

Emhyr was expecting him to come back every night, and bathe, and sleep, and just be there.

Because instead of saying he wanted Geralt around, he’d lured his favourite swordsmith away and given him a specific reason to stay, if that wasn’t quite enough to convince him.

And it was going to work, because Geralt really did want to see the south, and he really did want to stay close to Ciri, and to his complete and utter dismay, he wanted to at least consider the possibility of seeing where Emhyr’s idea of wooing him was going to go.

Panting and sweating in the aftermath of banishing the wraith, Geralt dragged himself up a hill to a vantage point, looked over at the palace, and decided that just for the sake of being difficult, he was going to stay away a few days.

There were things to do out here, and people to meet, and Nilfgaardian curses to master if he was going to hurtle headlong toward letting himself be Emhyr’s pet witcher.

If Emhyr wanted him back sooner, he’d just have to admit it.

***

The excitement of Geralt’s return to the palace had much the same quality as the first time he’d shown up, though it was a touch more subdued and happened in whispers rather than in stares and exclamations of shock.

Geralt was not presented to him this time, and it wasn’t as though Emhyr’s intention had been to make it so that he would be--he’d tried to make it clear that Geralt should be considered a resident, regardless of how much time passed between visits--but he was a little put out by it, all the same.

He’d been looking forward to seeing his witcher fresh from a hunt, returning flushed with victory.

His witcher.

Oh dear.

It was quickly becoming obvious to Emhyr that he had less idea of what he was doing that would have been desirable under the circumstances. His affections had, at this point, far outstripped his ability to express them.

He briefly reconsidered his policy on Fringilla Vigo, which was currently that he would leave her be as long as she never made her location known to him again, but then discarded the thought.

Geralt wouldn’t have liked it. Priscilla wouldn’t have liked it, either.

Emhyr wrinkled his nose. He was getting soft. Making decisions based on other people’s feelings.

But on the other hand, Priscilla continued to be kind to him--and entertaining, as well, and Emhyr was rarely entertained at all--and Geralt was here, regardless of whether or not he’d come straight to Emhyr’s office, and his relationship with Ciri was improving, and…

He was content.

Contentment was a dangerous drug. Ever since he’d felt it while he’d been recently cursed, he’d found himself chasing the feeling.

And on the one hand, it really wasn’t too much to ask for, and he was quickly discovering that when he approached the problem from the right angle, it didn’t require much at all. The affection of a small handful of people. Occasional rest. Warmth and safety, which he’d long had access to but only now appreciated for what they were really worth.

On the other hand, the feeling that he was being inexcusably self-indulgent hung over him as he curled up in bed, alone, and missed the incredible comfort and safety he’d felt when Geralt was no more than six inches away from him at any time.

It was an uncomfortable thing to want, and an even more uncomfortable thing not to have.

Emhyr rose from his chair, considering a moment, and then decided that he did have cause to collect Geralt’s report in person. The cause was that few other people knew how to manage him, and he didn’t need to subject anyone else to his impertinence.

Flimsy, as excuses went, but it would hold up well enough for Emhyr’s purposes.

“Send word to the witcher,” Emhyr said to his chamberlain, decision made. “That I will be arriving shortly to hear his report. But continue to treat him with the utmost respect, and do not insist on… anything,” he finished, never entirely sure which element of common decency Geralt would object to at any given moment.

That was, he reflected, approximately half of his appeal.

Geralt turned out to be fending off the dubious assistance of an attendant in cleaning a long scratch on his arm.

This meant, naturally, that he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

Emhyr had seen him shirtless, as a hedgehog, but it was an altogether different experience as a human. The full impact of the scars that covered his body hit Emhyr like a physical force, his mind comparing them immediately to the remembered pain of the small handful of them that he’d acquired himself.

He was sure most people wouldn’t have survived these. Blood loss or infection would have killed a normal man with Geralt’s injuries a thousand times over.

It was a timely, useful reminder that Geralt was not a normal man.

“Leave us,” Emhyr instructed the attendant, who’d been so busy fighting with Geralt that she hadn’t even noticed Emhyr’s presence. Her eyes widened for a moment before she bowed low and then scurried away, much to Geralt’s obvious relief.

Emhyr imagined the attendant felt approximately the same way.

“Thanks,” Geralt said, without looking at him, because he didn’t care at all that the Emperor of Nilfgaard had suddenly appeared in his bedchamber while he was half-dressed.

“Would you like to start your report with that scratch?” Emhyr asked.

“Horse threw me on the way into town when a band of your soldiers rode past me like their asses were on fire,” Geralt said. “My fault. Couldn’t calm him fast enough.”

“Your horse should be used to soldiers riding past. He is a military horse.”

Geralt shrugged. “He was under a lot of stress,” Geralt defended. “We cleared a nekker nest on the way back into town. You’re lucky you caught me after I bathed.”

“I’m gratified to hear that you’ve taken that part of our agreement to heart,” Emhyr said, and then, because he knew Geralt wouldn’t stop him, moved to sit down beside him on the bed.

It was the closest he’d been to the witcher in two months, and Emhyr allowed himself to indulge in a moment of feeling the heat roll off his body.

“Anything else of interest to report? You haven’t been hunting nekkers for three days,” Emhyr said.

“You know,” Geralt began, tying off the bandage on his arm with his teeth. “If you wanted to talk to me, it’s cheaper to just ask.”

Emhyr twitched at his cunning plan having been so easily seen through, though he knew a moment later that he shouldn’t have expected otherwise.

Geralt wasn’t an idiot, and he knew that, and he wasn’t entirely sure why he kept wanting to believe it.

Other than, perhaps, that it would have made all of this that much easier.

But if Geralt was an idiot, then Emhyr’s interest in him would have faded the moment he had full control of his faculties again. As it stood, reflection had only heightened his regard for the other man.

“You expressed a wish to explore the south,” Emhyr said. “I was merely giving you the means and opportunity to do so.”

“Yeah, figured that one out already,” Geralt responded. “I even appreciate it.”

“Do you like it here?” Emhyr asked, desperately wanting the answer to be yes.

“Sure.” Geralt shrugged. “The countryside is beautiful, and the people seem friendly enough once they know you can understand them. Weather’s nice, too. Haven’t been rained on yet.”

“The rains tend to come all at once. There are festivals,” Emhyr explained. “I imagine you’d enjoy them.”

“Might have to stick around and find out,” Geralt said.

Emhyr’s heart fluttered at the thought. Time was the thing he needed most in this, and Geralt was proposing to give it to him. He couldn’t be sure that was intentional, but he appreciated it all the same.

“There are sights around the city you ought to see as well,” Emhyr continued, encouraged by Geralt’s tentative appreciation for his home. He wanted Geralt to like this place. He wanted everyone to like it, but a man who’d seen as much as Geralt had was in a better position to judge.

“You gonna give me the tour? I gave you the tour of Novigrad.”

“I am not in a position to simply walk the streets,” Emhyr said, and even he could hear the note of sadness in his voice.

Geralt, as expected, raised an eyebrow. “But you’d like to.”

“Being an innocuous woodland creature gave me the opportunity to learn a great deal that I couldn’t otherwise have,” Emhyr said. “People paid me no mind, and were happy to be themselves in front of me.”

Geralt shrugged. “So come give me the tour,” he said. “If you were safe when all you could do was curl up into a ball, you’ll be safe when you can actually defend yourself against something human-sized.”

“The risk is that I will be recognised,” Emhyr said.

Once again, Geralt shrugged. “So we won’t leave until the sun starts to set. I mean… you’d stick out in the north, but people do actually look like you here. They mostly see you from a distance. And if anyone does recognise you, I can… convince them they didn’t.”

“I think it would be better if you did not threaten half the populace,” Emhyr said wryly.

“I don’t need to threaten them. I can… you know witchers have a little magic, yeah?”

Emhyr nodded. He knew that much, but not nearly enough beyond it.

“Well, one of the things I know how to do is magically convince people of… most small things. That I mean them no harm, that I’m not lying about something, that this man who bears a striking resemblance to Emhyr var Emreis really should go into business impersonating him…”

“But you have never done this to me,” Emhyr said, almost certain that was true.

“I’d only burn my fingers trying. It’d glance right off someone like you. You managed to communicate with me while you were a hedgehog and you seem to remember most of it.”

“All of it,” Emhyr corrected. He paused for a moment, and then spoke again, hesitantly. “I would quite rightly not be allowed to leave the palace without an escort, in any case.”

“You’ll have one,” Geralt pointed out. “And no offence, but probably the most capable one you’ve got.”

“None taken, but in my case, an escort means at least six men. And it would cause a fuss.”

“What I’m hearing here is that you want me to sneak you out of the palace so you can have a little fun for once in your life,” Geralt said.

Emhyr blinked at him. “You couldn’t possibly sneak me out.”

Geralt chuckled. “Tell you what. You tell your people you’ve got a headache and aren’t to be disturbed about an hour before sunset, and we’ll see if I can sneak you out. If we get caught, we’ll just say you wanted me to help test security in case someone tries to abduct you. If I get you out, I’ll even buy you dinner.”

Emhyr realised with a flash of insight that this was Geralt’s idea of giving him a gift. A gift he would appreciate, that no one else would be able to offer him.

A gift that came at great risk, but then… Geralt had protected him before. And curiosity was already getting the better of him.

“Fine,” he said, a rush of excitement welling up in his gut like he hadn’t felt in many, many years. “It should prove instructive either way.”

“Then I’ll see you in a few hours,” Geralt said.

Emhyr stood, his belly already tight with anticipation, nodded to Geralt, and took his leave.

***

Geralt panted as he hauled himself onto Emhyr’s balcony, wondering when he’d gotten so damned old, but catching his breath before he walked inside.

He knew he hadn’t been seen. Anyone sneaking in to the Emperor’s chambers would have raised the alarm immediately, and loudly. No one was going to be subtle when it came to Emhyr’s life.

“I hope your plan doesn’t rest on my ability to climb down there,” Emhyr said, obviously having watched Geralt scramble his way out.

“Nope. You’ll see.”

Emhyr looked doubtful, but he’d be proven wrong quickly enough.

To Geralt’s relief, he had actually dressed down. He could even have passed for a moderately successful merchant.

“Should I be disturbed to learn that you have reasonably free access to my bedchamber?” Emhyr asked.

“I’m not in the habit of dropping in uninvited,” Geralt said. “If you want me in here, you’ll have to ask.”

The faintest blush coloured Emhyr’s cheeks, but Geralt suspected it was kinder not to mention it. Emhyr, he was starting to see, just wasn’t great at the whole seduction thing.

So Geralt was going to have to do most of the heavy lifting. Which was fine, because the longer he left this, and the more he thought about it, the more he wanted this.

All because he remembered a sweet, needy Emhyr that he desperately wanted to see again. Even if he had been a hedgehog at the time.

“Are you ready to go?” Geralt double-checked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Emhyr said, and the faint hint of nervousness in his voice was unspeakably endearing, and if Geralt could have Emhyr like this, all the time, it would have been ridiculously easy to fall in love with him.

Geralt didn’t really have a hard time falling in love with people. He tended to fall for anyone who showed the barest interest.

Emhyr, as it turned out, was no different.

“Then follow my lead and try to be quiet,” Geralt said, heading back to the balcony.

***

Geralt’s vast overestimation of Emhyr’s physical fitness aside, their escape went about as well as Emhyr could have imagined.

And now they were sitting by a reflecting pool in front of the temple of the Sun, among a crowd of people that made the whole place feel like a living, breathing thing, and there was that contentedness that Emhyr had been chasing, despite the fact that his feet hurt and he was already exhausted.

And Geralt’s warm, reassuring body was beside him, and Emhyr wanted desperately to kiss him, and he could, and why shouldn’t he?

He reached out before the impulse could fade, before he lost his nerve to do it, and threaded his fingers deep into Geralt’s hair, tugging greedily, turning his face and watching his strange slitted pupils widen as he understood what was happening, and oh.

Oh, yes, this was what Emhyr had wanted for so many weeks now, what he’d barely dared to imagine. Geralt tasted of salt and sweetness, and his mouth was warm, and the stubble on his face scratched delightfully against Emhyr’s own, and warmth bloomed in his belly as Geralt responded, shifting toward him and cupping his jaw, holding him in place just a few seconds longer before breaking away.

Emhyr panted as the kiss broke, staring down at the faintly-rippling water of the pool ahead of him, his cheeks flushed and his heart racing.

Gods, he wanted this, and Geralt was fool enough to give it to him, and Emhyr was weak enough to let him do it.

Weak and desperate and needy, which were things only Geralt had seen in him.

Things Geralt had seen and was, obviously, not entirely repulsed by. He might even have liked them.

“Thank you,” Emhyr said as he caught his breath. “For allowing me this evening.”

Geralt laughed softly. “Evening’s not over yet. I promised you dinner.”

“I will be missed,” Emhyr said, his heart sinking.

“Maybe.” Geralt shrugged. “They handled it last time. And I’ll have you back by sunrise.”

“Sunrise?” Emhyr asked. What was Geralt planning to do with him all night--

Oh.

Oh.

The barest brush of Geralt’s fingers against his own startled him, but he allowed Geralt to cover his hand, and squeeze it, and silently promise that everything would be all right.

He followed Geralt through city streets he’d never seen, and Geralt was right--no one looked twice at him, no one seemed to even notice him next to a man as striking and unusual as a witcher, especially one with bright white hair, and for the first time in his life, Emhyr could see Nilfgaard as it really was.

So far, that only made him love it all the more. It was vibrant, and the people seemed happy, and there were children everywhere laughing and playing in the street.

“It’s not a bad place,” Geralt said, as though he’d read Emhyr’s mind. “The temple is beautiful, but… there’s something about the rest of it. About the markets and the taverns and… this,” he finished, gesturing around them.

“Yes,” Emhyr agreed. “It is the sort of place someone could quite fall in love with.”

Geralt hummed. “It does you credit. If you can do this to the north, they’ll build statues of you.”

Emhyr wrinkled his nose. “I’d rather they didn’t.”

Geralt laughed, and Emhyr wasn’t entirely sure why that was funny, but he liked the sound of it all the same.

The tavern Geralt eventually guided him into wasn’t wholly unlike The Chameleon, and Emhyr wondered if that was why he’d chosen the place, or if he’d known at all before they walked in what it would be like. The lighting was soft, and the chatter was a low hum, and Geralt had no trouble finding a table to settle at on account of being a large man with two swords strapped to his back.

“One thing I can tell you for sure is that the food’s better here,” Geralt said. “Fresher, better seasoned, hell, even cheaper. A man could get used to a place like this.”

“You have permanent rooms in the royal palace,” Emhyr reminded him.

“I slept ten hours the first night,” Geralt said, as though it was a bad thing. Emhyr would have given a great deal for ten hours of uninterrupted sleep.

“I normally only sleep four or six,” Geralt continued, obviously seeing Emhyr’s confusion. Not that his clarification actually… clarified anything.

“The bed’s too comfortable,” he concluded.

Emhyr took a moment to absorb that, and then snorted. “Only a witcher could possibly complain about comfort.”

Geralt shrugged. “I’m used to what I’m used to. After the first hundred years, you kinda get a little stuck in your ways.”

“I’m sure we could acquire a less comfortable bed for you,” Emhyr offered.

“I didn’t say I wanted that.” Geralt wet his lips. “I’m just saying… it’ll take me a while to adjust. If you want me to stick around.”

“I do,” Emhyr said, and it felt a little like stepping off the edge of a cliff.

It was too much to ask, and far too self-indulgent, and he shouldn’t have wanted Geralt at all, and yet…

And yet, this was a man who he’d allowed, more or less, to kidnap him for the evening, and he’d barely thought twice about it. He trusted Geralt so completely, with such certainty, that he was barely able to comprehend it himself.

Geralt would never harm him, and Emhyr was as sure of that as he was that the sun would rise tomorrow.

It was safe to love this man. Perhaps it was also selfish, but Geralt wasn’t complaining, and so neither would Emhyr.

He would take this small thing and have it for himself, and try not to hold it so tight that it slipped through his fingers, and hope that he would be allowed to keep it.

“Thought it’d take a lot longer to get that out of you,” Geralt said. “We can go back, if you want.”

Emhyr paused, looking around the tavern at the crowd that was completely ignoring them, and then shook his head.

“No,” he said. “No, I think I’d like to stay here.”

Geralt smiled a slow, knowing smile at him, and nodded. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

***

Emhyr’s body turned out to be everything Geralt wanted in a lover.

Every new inch of bared skin was a wealth of discovery, and Geralt took his time to trace patterns over it as he peeled Emhyr’s version of simple clothes off his unexplored body, pausing to take in every detail, memorise every curve and angle.

His shoulders were broad and his frame was solid, but his belly and thighs were just soft enough to be incredible, for Geralt to dig his fingers deep into Emhyr’s flesh and hold him tight, to rock between his legs in slow, luxurious strokes, to speed up and pound into him when he begged for it, and then to pull back again, slow down, and listen to him growl in frustration.

“Patience,” Geralt laughed into Emhyr’s mouth, and by now the power of speech had left him, and his short, neatly-trimmed nails were biting into Geralt’s skin, and his gorgeous silk-smooth thighs were wrapped around Geralt’s waist.

“I have been patient,” Emhyr complained, his voice straining with the effort. He panted harshly, which only made Geralt slow down a little further, pause to let him catch his breath.

Besides, they only got one first time, and Geralt was just barely a romantic enough soul to want it to be good.

“You can handle it,” Geralt murmured, swooping in to nuzzle Emhyr’s neck, the change of angle making Emhyr gasp under him, his whole body tightening up for a moment. He moaned, low and needy, and Geralt wanted more of that.

More of Emhyr giving up his self-control, willingly this time, and letting Geralt have all of him.

That was what would seal this. Emhyr really opening up, really letting Geralt in.

“I have thought of you even when I didn’t wish to,” Emhyr confessed, and Geralt knew immediately what that meant, and how much trust it took to say it aloud.

He caught Emhyr’s mouth with his own, more to shut him up than anything else, not ready to hear this yet. It was too much to be given, too much to hold in his hands right now, even as he felt himself wanting to reach out and take it.

The love of arguably the most powerful man in the civilised world wasn’t anything Geralt wanted, but he knew he had it, and he couldn’t help seeing the human Emhyr was underneath his hard shell.

Or sharp quills, for that matter.

And Emhyr the human being, the broken, lonely man underneath all the power and ceremony… that was a person Geralt could have loved right back.

He sped up his strokes again as Emhyr moaned under him, thighs tightening around his waist, cock leaking precome against his stomach.

Everything else aside, this felt good. Emhyr was warm and responsive and more than capable of taking whatever Geralt threw at him, even if he’d be sore in the morning, and Geralt wanted that. Some visceral, needy part of him wanted Emhyr to feel this tomorrow, not to be able to forget about it.

Because as much as he didn’t want to hear that Emhyr had been thinking about him all this time, he kind of did want to hear it. At least, the part of him that was just as affection-starved and needy and broken and lonely as Emhyr was wanted to, and maybe that was why he’d come all the way to Nilfgaard and then sneaked Emhyr out of the palace so he could have him like this, as an equal, as an ordinary person who was willing to show Geralt all his most vulnerable parts.

“Harder,” Emhyr demanded, as though he wanted to feel it, too, and Geralt gripped the head of the bed and gave him what he was asking for, each thrust making the bed creak at first, then bang against the wall as Geralt sped up, holding Emhyr in place with his other hand, letting himself take and take because this was what they both needed and it didn’t really matter why.

Except that it did.

Emhyr’s groan as he came seemed to come from the depths of his soul, a whole-body sound as he arched up off the bed, spilling hot over Geralt’s belly and his own, bringing Geralt racing toward the edge.

The feeling of Emhyr clenching around him as he finished, aftershocks still rolling through him, left Geralt crying out as he came as well, the feeling like being hit in the back of the head by a rock troll.

His head spun as he finished, lungs burning for air.

Wow.

They’d really just… done that.

Geralt collapsed onto the bed with his back to the wall, watching Emhyr’s chest rise and fall as he panted to catch his breath, a wave of tenderness washing over him.

“Thank you,” Emhyr choked out, still gasping for breath. “Thank you,” he repeated.

Geralt didn’t know what to say to that, so he settled on saying nothing, and instead splayed his hand over Emhyr’s belly and let himself close his eyes, scratching lightly as sleep threatened to overwhelm him.

***

Emhyr woke before sunrise with Geralt curled around him, held tightly to the other man’s chest, Geralt’s hands splayed over his chest and stomach possessively.

For just a moment, the feeling of being completely, utterly content made his heart feel so full it was in danger of bursting from the strain. The feeling was a physical thing, and painful in its intensity, and yet Emhyr would have done anything to keep hold of it, anything to stay on the crest of the wave as long as he could.

He had, by some miracle, exactly the thing he wanted.

It was a rare day when that happened. It was a rare day when he was truly sure of what he did want.

And Geralt had given it to him, like he had everything else, without considering for a moment that he might not. That he might withhold it until some condition was fulfilled, or find some other way to turn it to his advantage.

Geralt was a man who simply gave, without a second thought, and Emhyr could barely comprehend that, but he wanted it so badly he was trying not to breathe too heavily in case it woke Geralt up and he lost this perfect moment forever.

Unfortunately, Geralt woke almost the moment he’d had that thought.

“Do you always think so loud?” Geralt asked. “I can feel you plotting.”

“I am not plotting,” Emhyr said, though it was entirely possible that Geralt would consider that he was. After all, he was trying to decide on the best way to get this to happen more often.

Geralt had said he’d have to ask if he wanted him in his bedchamber.

Perhaps it was really that simple.

Perhaps it was worth trying, in any case.

“Ready to go back?” Geralt asked, his breath tickling the back of Emhyr’s neck.

“I suppose I must,” he responded. “Cirilla would be upset if I disappeared again so soon after the last time.”

“We can leave her a note and disappear into the wilderness if you want,” Geralt offered, and while he was joking, some part of Emhyr suspected that if he had asked, if he had sincerely wanted to do that, then Geralt would indulge him.

Which was far too much to be offered by a man who owed him nothing.

Not that Emhyr actually wanted that. One night as full-sized human in a bed that wasn’t his own, and he was sore in places he’d forgotten he had.

Although, at least some part of that was Geralt’s doing. Emhyr wasn’t about to complain about that part.

“No,” Emhyr said, forcing himself to roll out of bed and gritting his teeth to stop himself from groaning aloud.

He suspected he would never have heard the end of it from Geralt if he made his discomfort obvious.

Which was fine. From now on, he would have Geralt in his own bed, in his own bedchamber. At least, he sincerely hoped he would.

It occurred to Emhyr then that he didn’t know what this meant, that Geralt was in the habit of taking lovers as casually as he slayed monsters, and that perhaps this had all been an adventure for him.

On the heels of that thought came another: if that was true, it would break Emhyr’s heart. A heart which he’d only recently allowed to show to a select group of people.

Ciri, his own daughter, and Geralt. Geralt, who had no fear of or respect for him, who didn’t need him, who wasn’t his in any appreciable way except that, for some reason, he was here. He’d stayed. He’d gone out of his way to give Emhyr one of very few gifts no one else could have.

The impulse to own him, he realised, would destroy what he had.

No.

If Geralt’s presence in his life was going to be necessary to his happiness, he would simply have to trust that Geralt would stay, if he asked, because that was what they both wanted.

The whole problem required further thought. Geralt had told him, in his own way, exactly what he needed to do.

Now, Emhyr would have to decide whether or not to do it. Whether or not to open himself up to the possibility that Geralt would refuse him, or walk away, or go and get himself killed.

Because this was exactly the kind of risky, complex love that appealed so much to Emhyr, and it was why he’d fallen in the first place, but this final step… this final admission, that required more. That required courage he wasn’t sure he had.

His heart had been broken so many times already. That was why he never let anyone touch it in the first place.

Being four inches tall for an extended period had taught him a great many lessons, though perhaps not in quite the way Fringilla intended.

“Well, we’d better get moving soon, then,” Geralt said, stretching luxuriously as he stood. Emhyr wasn’t sure he was supposed to watch, but he did so anyway, because there was some chance that this was the last opportunity he’d get.

It was possible that he was too great a coward to reach out and take what was being offered to him, because once he had it, he risked losing it. Perhaps, when the moment came where he had to make a decision, he would falter.

In which case, he would want to remember this moment clearly.

“I will trust you to lead me back,” Emhyr said. “Though I would prefer the minimum amount of climbing this time.”

Geralt chuckled. “I took you out the hard way. Getting back in’s the easy part.”

Emhyr sighed.

Now that he knew about them, he would have to do something about these escape routes. They could too easily be used against him.

He would see his beloved city as an ordinary citizen just the once, and would have to be satisfied with what he’d been given. An impossibly rare, impossibly precious gift that Geralt had seen fit to bestow on him.

Geralt’s intentions were clear. Everything he’d said implied that he’d like to stay.

Now Emhyr had to decide whether or not he was willing to take the phenomenal risk of letting Geralt love him.

Of, ultimately, giving himself something to lose. Something that could be so easily lost, even by his own actions. Geralt would not tolerate many of his less agreeable qualities.

But then neither would Cirilla, or Priscilla. He already had things to lose.

“Emhyr?” Geralt spoke up, interrupting his thoughts. “Everything all right?”

Emhyr cleared his throat, suspecting he’d somehow given away half his thoughts already. Geralt had an uncanny ability to read him the way very few people did.

Geralt would stay. The tone of his voice, the barely-concealed concern spoke volumes. Emhyr knew him well enough to be sure, logically if not emotionally, that if he asked, Geralt would stay.

He’d already said as much, and he never spoke without reason.

“I will have an answer for you by sundown,” Emhyr said, knowing Geralt would understand what he meant.

Geralt nodded, holding the door open for him to go through first.

Sundown, then.

***

“So, where did you and Emhyr disappear to last night?” Ciri asked the moment she and Geralt were alone, which Geralt should have known to expect. It was impossible to get anything past her these days.

“What makes you say we disappeared?” Geralt asked, figuring he shouldn’t give himself away all the same.

Ciri smirked. “Well, first I went to see Emhyr and I was told that he had a headache and wasn’t taking visitors, which seemed odd, but I accepted it until I went to see you instead, and you were nowhere to be found.”

“That doesn’t mean I was with Emhyr,” Geralt said, knowing that he was sailing close to admitting it.

“Right, but Emhyr was also gone when I climbed up to his balcony to check,” Ciri said, and Geralt smiled wryly.

Of course she’d gone to check.

“Not an easy climb,” he said. “Made it myself last night.”

“I knew it,” Ciri said triumphantly. “So what were you doing? It’s not as if you kidnapped him.”

Geralt shrugged. “Kinda did,” he said. “He was taking me on the tour of Nilfgaard. We went to see the temple of the Sun, had dinner…”

Ciri blinked at him. “What?”

“While he was a hedgehog, he got to see Novigrad like a normal person. Well. A normal woodland creature,” Geralt said. “He’d never seen Nilfgaard like that.”

“So you abducted him?” Ciri asked, raising an eyebrow.

“He agreed to it!” Geralt defended. “I didn’t knock him out and throw him over the wall or anything. Although.” He smiled wryly. “That might have been easier.”

“I don’t think Emhyr pays a great deal of attention to physical training.” Ciri shrugged. “I’m missing something here.”

“Like what?”

“Like why you’re being nice to him,” she said, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.

Geralt wet his lips, weighed up his options, and then decided that the truth would probably come out eventually and he might as well tell it now.

“How much do you know about how we broke the curse?” Geralt asked.

“I thought Philippa found a way to do it, but I’m starting to think I’ve been misinformed.”

Geralt winced. If Emhyr had actually told Ciri a lie about what happened, then he’d probably done it because he didn’t want her knowing the truth.

He could have laughed at himself. He’d started to care about what Emhyr wanted.

All because he wanted so desperate to be loved that knowing he was seemed like the most precious thing in the world. Something worth protecting. Something worth having.

And because he’d seen a side of Emhyr that no one else had, and his goddamn witcher curiosity was getting the better of him. He wanted more of that. He wanted to see Emhyr as he was, instead of as he pretended to be, because it was one helluva puzzle to solve.

“Yeah, that’s not… exactly what happened.” Geralt sighed. How was he supposed to phrase this?

“Then what did?” Ciri asked, and Geralt knew that now that he’d have to come up with some kind of explanation now.

“The curse required Emhyr to fall in love with someone to break it,” Geralt said, figuring anything other than the simple truth would just come back to bite him later. “We all thought it was Priscilla.”

Ciri nodded. “She is very sweet. And so pretty.”

Geralt blinked.

Wow. Everyone really did love Priscilla.

“You should get Emhyr to tell her that in one of his letters.”

This time, it was Ciri’s turn to blink. “Letters?” she repeated, obviously not convinced.

“They write each other letters,” Geralt said. “They’re friends now.”

Ciri stared at him for a few moments. “That’s terrifying.”

Geralt chuckled. “Priscilla’s harmless and Emhyr seems to like her enough not to want to upset her. She’ll probably be great for humanity in general. He’s given her a lifetime stipend.”

“But you implied that he didn’t actually fall in love with her.”

“No,” Geralt said. “No, he was… keeping up appearances, because the person who really broke the curse, well…” he paused to scratch the back of his neck nervously. “It was me.”

“You?” Ciri asked, eyes wide.

“Me,” Geralt confirmed. “I know, it sounds nuts, but the wording was… kinda specific, and I’m the only one who fulfilled it. Besides, Emhyr agrees it was me, and he wouldn’t admit to that when he had everyone else fooled. Except for Priscilla, who figured it out.”

“Geralt, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“What could Emhyr possibly see in me?” Geralt finished Ciri’s sentence for her.

Ciri shrugged, her nose wrinkled as though she wouldn’t quite have phrased it that way. It was what she meant, though.

“No idea,” Geralt admitted. “I guess… we spent a lot of time together? I think he figured out that he could trust me, and maybe that’s what he likes.”

“Huh,” Ciri said, clearly considering the possibility. “I’m not saying you’re not… I mean, I have no idea what Emhyr’s tastes are…”

Geralt smiled wryly. “I think the other thing is that I’m not afraid of him. Or even in awe of him. That’s gotta be rare for an emperor.”

“So he likes you because of your insolence,” Ciri smirked, obviously quoting her father. “I could see that. He asked about you, when he came back. He’s been… kinder. Warmer,” she added.

“Kinder and warmer,” Geralt repeated, trying to picture that. Although… it didn’t seem impossible, at least not anymore.

“Maybe you’re good for him. Hell, maybe you’d be good for everyone. If he’s inclined not to upset you.”

Geralt snorted. “I’m not sure he’d go that far. I told him he had to ask me to stay, and he hasn’t done it yet.”

“Did he understand what you were telling him, though? Because you’re worse than a dragon when it comes to speaking in riddles.”

“They don’t do that,” Geralt said, though he wasn’t sure that his interactions with dragons so far were necessarily representative of the entire species.

“Well, you do.”

“Emhyr does, too. He understood,” Geralt said decisively. Emhyr had understood, and Geralt had been subtle because he knew that forcing a decision on him would only make him shut down all over again. “He said I’d have an answer by sundown.”

The worst thing was that he wanted Emhyr to tell him to stay. No matter which way he looked at this, it was something he wanted. He’d missed Emhyr when he’d left, even though he’d been human-sized again, because Emhyr was one of few people who actually seemed to understand him.

“Why would you want to stay?” Ciri asked. “Not that I’m opposed.”

“Well, there’s you,” Geralt said honestly. The chance to stay near Ciri was definitely in the pro column. “And there’s only so much work left in the world for a witcher.”

“Those are reasons to stay in Nilfgaard,” Ciri said. “Not reasons to stay with Emhyr.”

Geralt smiled wryly. Ciri wasn’t going to drop this.

“I guess my type is dark-haired, hard-to-please, powerful people,” he joked.

Ciri raised an eyebrow, waiting for the real answer.

“He’s a puzzle I could spend the rest of my life solving,” Geralt admitted. “That’s… it, really. I mean, I like him, I like his wit and his sense of humour and… okay so it’s not that he’s a puzzle, it’s that…”

“You’ve fallen for him,” Ciri supplied. “Why didn’t you just say that?”

Geralt shrugged. “It’s never been enough of a reason before. I’ve loved a lot of people.”

“But it’s never been a convenient time,” Ciri said.

She was right. That was what was going on here.

Geralt had no trouble giving his heart to people. He practically walked around holding it out in the hopes that someone would accept it.

And he got the impression that Emhyr was at least thinking about doing that.

And before that, he’d held his out to Geralt.

The fact that he’d been a hedgehog at the time didn’t really make a whole lot of difference. He’d been in control. He might have had an easier time giving in to what he wanted, because hedgehogs weren’t exactly pillars of self-control, but…

That just meant Geralt had seen what he wanted, and what he wanted was someone he could afford to be vulnerable around.

And what Geralt wanted was someone who felt safe being vulnerable around him. He wanted to be let in.

He wanted, for maybe the first time in his life, to reach out and take a heart that was being offered freely, knowing it was, for once, within his power to keep it safe. Because Emhyr didn’t need much.

All either of them really needed was someone to drop their guard around.

“Yeah,” Geralt answered eventually. “Yeah, I think you got it in one.”

Ciri nodded. “Go hit something,” she said, nodding to where his hands were already twitching with the nervous urge to do exactly that.

He liked to train when he was waiting for things to happen, and Ciri knew that.

“Sounds like a good idea,” Geralt said. “You coming?”

Ciri sighed long-sufferingly. “I have official duties to attend to,” she said, rolling her eyes dramatically.

Geralt could see her getting used to it, though. Enjoying it, even. She liked power--she’d have to, considering her upbringing--and this was a new kind to experiment with.

She’d have Nilfgaard on its knees in a month, and even Emhyr wouldn’t be able to stop her. Not, Geralt suspected, that he’d even bother to try. He was proud of Ciri.

They both were.

“I’d better not keep you, or I’ll get myself kicked out,” he said, taking a step back to let her move past him. “Be good. And if you can’t be good, be careful.”

Ciri’s laughter bounced off the beautifully carved stone walls of one of the many, many palace courtyards, echoing even after she’d disappeared from sight.

Geralt headed down to where the guards trained in the pursuit of finding something to hit.

***

Emhyr paused at the knock on his study door, recognising Cirilla’s soft but confident tap against it. Privately, he always smiled to himself at the way she was so sure she was entitled to his time.

She was, of course, but if she’d ever bothered to ask anyone they would have filled her head with protocol and schedules and how important and precious Emhyr’s time was. For whatever reason, a good number of his staff had come to the conclusion that slavishly following every instruction that they’d ever even vaguely overheard was the best way to find themselves in his good graces.

They were wrong, but they were reliable, which was a valuable enough trait to make them worth keeping around.

Ciri treated him exactly like Geralt did, as though his insistence on having other things to do was an intentional inconvenience to them.

As hard as he might have tried to dislike Geralt for it, he’d never quite managed. Ciri, he could never have disliked at all.

“Come,” he called, though he needn’t have bothered--Ciri knocked as a warning, not as a request. She would enter the room whether he told her to or not.

Like Geralt would have, left to his own devices.

She came to a halt opposite the desk, waiting while he finished signing the last of his stack of papers for the day with a flourish before drawing breath to speak.

“You are here about Geralt,” Emhyr interrupted.

She was bound to find out sooner or later, and he had been informed that she’d enquired after him last night, while he’d been gone. Ciri wasn’t a stupid woman, and would have easily pieced the puzzle together.

And gone straight to Geralt, who would have told her everything. Not because he didn’t have a talent for dissimulation, but because he would see no need to lie to a woman he considered to be his own daughter.

“How did you…” she trailed off, the way her eyes narrowed telling him that she’d followed the path of his own deductions as easily as he’d made them.

She was his daughter, too.

“What will you do?” she asked instead.

“You must know that I have promised my answer by sundown, and I have several hours yet to consider.”

“But you already know,” Ciri insisted, and under other circumstances, Emhyr would have been flattered.

Under these ones, he was forced to tell the truth himself. A habit, he was beginning to realise, that it would be difficult to get into.

“I do not,” Emhyr responded. “And that is the honest truth. If I had decided, I would have made my decision known by now.”

“He loves you,” Ciri said, something bordering on desperation in her voice.

She was still young enough to be a romantic. He hoped that wouldn’t get in her way.

“I am aware,” Emhyr said, because he was. He knew how Geralt felt, now that he’d had time to look back objectively. Geralt had cared for him when he had no one else to look to, and had given him the greatest and most thoughtful gift of his entire life, and touched him as though he was something precious, something worth remembering.

Emhyr, despite his doubts, was sure of Geralt’s feelings.

What he was unsure of was his own.

Magic could not be fooled, but love was merely one piece of a very large and complex puzzle when it came to compatibility, and not even the most important one.

What he wanted and what would be wise were often vastly different things.

He could love Geralt with all his heart--and to his dismay, did--but that would not make it wise to allow him access to it.

And yet the thought of doing otherwise filled Emhyr with a kind of dread he hadn’t felt in a long time. Not since he’d lost Pavetta.

“His love is worth having,” Ciri added, her voice gentle.

“Again, I am aware,” Emhyr said. Geralt’s love came with fierce, unconditional loyalty.

But it also came with the risk of losing him.

And Emhyr still hadn’t decided whether that risk was worth taking. As much as it was most of Geralt’s appeal.

“Then I don’t understand why it’s so hard to decide. Neither of you are getting any younger.”

Emhyr raised an eyebrow, but he couldn’t precisely deny what she was saying. The var Emreis line was long-lived thanks to elven blood, but he would not live forever, and he was no longer a young man.

Geralt also wouldn’t live forever. Geralt, in fact, was constantly in a state of being unlikely to see another sunrise. That was the problem.

Emhyr had lost. And lost. And lost. Having things only meant that he could lose them. It was simpler not to have them at all, not to have anything tangible to care about. It made hard decisions easy.

Or it had, until recently.

Now, it made them nearly impossible.

“You know what I mean,” Ciri said. “I think you’re being a coward.”

Emhyr snorted. He wanted desperately to be insulted, but Ciri was only speaking the truth. She’d seen through him.

Of course she had. Between all the people who’d raised her, she had every tool she needed to do so.

She would bring Nilfgaard to its knees under her rule, and they would love her for it.

Emhyr wanted to see that.

And he wanted to turn to Geralt, and smile, and be proud of their daughter. Together.

“Few people have ever accused me of cowardice,” Emhyr said. Ciri didn’t so much as flinch, which was no less than he would have expected.

She was not weak. She had more strength than anyone he’d ever met.

She did not flinch.

The pride Emhyr felt every time he spoke to her threatened to overwhelm him.

The sense that Geralt was important to him, that his life would be incomplete without the other man’s presence, felt almost exactly the same way.

“However,” he continued. “I am not inclined to say that you are incorrect.”

Ciri’s face fell.

“And you’re just going to let fear rule you? You’re supposed to be fearless.”

“Witchers are also supposed to be fearless,” Emhyr said. “But I’m sure you’ve realised by now that they aren’t. They merely promote the myth so people will not test it.”

Ciri’s entire posture changed, but something about it told Emhyr that this was a good thing, that perhaps she’d finally looked at him and seen the ordinary man hidden underneath his extraordinary circumstances.

When she walked around his desk and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, he was sure it was.

Geralt, it seemed, was capable of giving him gifts even when he didn’t intend to. This time, it was the gift of his daughter seeing him as he truly was.

It was a shame, Emhyr decided, that the curse had been lifted before she’d gotten the opportunity to see him as a largely-defenceless woodland creature.

But it did not mean that he could never be vulnerable again.

And it did not mean that he would never be rewarded for vulnerability again.

“I will make a decision by sundown. And I will inform Geralt of it. No doubt you will hear it from him one way or another,” Emhyr said, allowing himself to bask, just for a moment, in the warmth of Ciri’s arms around him.

“You should be happy,” Ciri said, a rare show of childlike innocence.

Emhyr opened his mouth to say that it wasn’t that simple, that happiness did not come easily to those in power, that he could not afford happiness, but…

Perhaps it was better to allow her to keep that spark of innocence.

Perhaps, if he was very brave, he might be able to let it catch in himself.

***

Geralt stared out from his own balcony at the roofs of Nilfgaard, painted orange by the failing light, and tried to think of anything but the fact that time was running out, that he could expect an answer soon, that Emhyr was nothing if not ruthlessly punctual.

And then all of this could be over, and he’d feel like an idiot for coming here in the first place, and he’d leave, and he’d never come back.

It wasn’t as though it was the first time he’d felt like this. He’d held out his heart plenty of times and been left with blood dripping down his hand.

Metaphorically.

The blood tended to drip down his face, usually from his nose, when the offer was taken particularly badly.

Emhyr at least probably wouldn’t hit him.

He probably wouldn’t even have him executed.

The fear that he might just send Geralt on his way with a stack of contracts and an expression that could almost be a smile settled cold in his gut. Because he’d take the contracts, and he’d use them as an excuse to cut down every monster and bandit in the entire south, and then…

Then what the hell would he do?

Movement on the balcony beside his own made Geralt turn and look, Emhyr’s familiar silhouette dark in the low light, the sun just barely peeking over the horizon now.

“Well?” Geralt asked, figuring there was no point in not facing this head-on.

“I had wondered,” Emhyr began. “If I could convince you to join me over here.”

Geralt glanced at the other balcony, thought for a handful of seconds, and then took a running leap, pushing himself off the wall of the palace to land, knees bent, a foot away from Emhyr.

He straightened up, trying to look as though he wasn’t going to pay for that in the morning, heart thundering in his chest.

“I guess,” he said, knowing that he wasn’t even close to coming off as though he didn’t care.

Emhyr, to Geralt’s surprise, actually smiled. A real smile, a genuine one.

Geralt filed it away for future reference, a reminder that it was possible to make him do that, and maybe even worth the effort.

“In future, you might use the door,” Emhyr suggested.

Geralt sighed, rolled his eyes, and grabbed a fistful of Emhyr’s surcoat with each hand to pull him in for a kiss.