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The Gift

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Iorveth had changed since Roche had last seen him.

For one thing, he had two eyes now. The new one was bright emerald, and glimmered with what Roche assumed had to be magic. Presumably a gift from Nilfgaard now that they were all friends again--at least, for the next ten minutes.

He was better groomed as well, shiny black hair hanging past his shoulders, a beautifully-tailored doublet taking the place of his previous collection of dead men’s armour.

Some things--like putting his ears on full display, like the permanent scowl that remained despite the best efforts of Nilfgaard’s healers to reduce the appearance of his scar--hadn’t changed at all.

The fact that he was still, somehow, despite everything, making Roche’s life miserable was the same as ever.

“Your Majesty,” Iorveth said, his deep bow mocking and insincere, as Roche expected it to be. That was at least more comfortable than if he’d shown any deference at all. “Foltest’s secret illegitimate brother. Who would ever have guessed?”

Roche narrowed his eyes.

“Go,” he said to the guards behind Iorveth. “He’s not quite stupid enough to kill me in a room with no escape route. Not in that outfit, anyway.”

Iorveth snorted, but as the guards hesitated a moment and then finally left when Roche fixed them with a glare, he made no attempt to move from the middle of the floor, where he was standing as though this was his office.

Roche was half-tempted to ask if he wanted it and wash his hands of the whole thing.

“Why has Emhyr sent you?” he asked, eyeing the large golden sun in the middle of Iorveth’s chest suspiciously.

“His Imperial Majesty Emhyr var Emreis-” Iorveth paused, glancing behind him to make sure they were really alone. “I’m not going to list the rest of his titles.”

“Thank the gods, we’d be here all day,” Roche said, genuinely grateful for the small mercy.

And for the the knowledge that Iorveth may well have been sucking Emhyr’s cock, but he didn’t mean it. Not when he was away from prying eyes, anyway.

His absolute certainty that Roche’s own lip service was precisely that was also comforting.

“I am a gift,” Iorveth said, his nose wrinkling ever so slightly. “The closest thing the remainder of the scoia’tael has to a princess to offer to the new king of Temeria as a sign of their commitment to peace between our people. And since peace between our people is so important to the Empire…”

Roche stared.

Then blinked.

Then stared some more.

“No,” he said.

“Unfortunately,” Iorveth continued. “Yes. Emhyr made it quite clear in his usual roundabout way that you are to accept me as your… consort,” he said, apparently unable to stop the growl at the end of the word. “Or face unstated consequences that I imagine to be quite serious.”

“No,” Roche repeated. “No, no, no,” he said, though he knew there was very little point in it.

His deal with Nilfgaard was fragile at best, and he damned well knew it. Emhyr might have adopted him as a cousin, might have worked a combination of Nilfgaardian and Temerian law into knots making sure that Roche would be the one to sit on the throne, but that did not mean they were safe.

On the contrary, putting a simple commander in charge of the whole damned lot had been his idea of sowing the seeds of instability. Instability would give him an excuse and an opportunity to come in and flatten Temeria once and for all.

“Short of slitting my own throat, I can see no way out of this other than to go through with it,” Iorveth said.

Roche looked up at him, having gotten lost in his own thoughts.

This was step two of Emhyr’s plan. Somehow.

He may only have been a simple commander, but he damned well wasn’t stupid, and he knew when he was being played, and he knew that Emhyr knew exactly who Iorveth was, both in general and to him.

Perhaps Iorveth was intended as a hostage, assurance that the scoia’tael wouldn’t move against Roche because he had one of theirs at hand to execute if he so chose. One who was important.

Or perhaps the plan was to assassinate him, and Iorveth had been sent because of his gleeful willingness to do the deed.

In either case, he wasn’t in a position to refuse.

“I did seriously consider it,” Iorveth continued. “But I will outlive you in any case.”

“And then you could sit on the throne. King Iorveth. Has a certain ring to it,” Roche said. That could have been Emhyr’s plan, too. A long game that would see him dead and buried--perhaps a little earlier than he might naturally have died--and an elf on a human throne.

He very much felt like he’d been backed into a corner.

“Mm,” Iorveth said. “Imagine what Temeria could be as a free elven kingdom.”

Of course, Emhyr wouldn’t actually allow that, either, and Iorveth was smart enough to realise it, too.

So why was he cooperating?

“Since I can see the question has finally entered your mind,” Iorveth drawled. “I am also not in a position to refuse. Seeing as I am very much a war criminal under Nilfgaardian law.”

Roche raised an eyebrow. “What did you do?”

Iorveth had done a great many things--so had Roche--but most of them had been under Nilfgaard’s orders, direct or otherwise. If anyone should have been thrilled with his exemplary service...

“I had the discourtesy to survive my execution,” Iorveth said boredly. “They don’t like it when you do that.”

“I suppose they wouldn’t.” Roche sat back, sighing heavily. “So. We would appear to have very little choice in the matter.”

“Marriage or death,” Iorveth said, which seemed to sum the issue up nicely. “And in death, we both lose Temeria.”

“Then I suppose I have to accept,” Roche said. “Please tell the Emperor… that I am honoured to be part of a union that will serve to symbolise the peace between the scoia’tael and the people of Temeria.”

Iorveth nodded, bowing very slightly. “Of course, your majesty,” he said, taking two strides forward and then leaning over the desk. “And Roche. If you even consider thinking that this entitles you to bedding me, I will cut your cock off and choke you with it. Understood?”

The mental image was vivid enough to make Roche wince, which he hated. He didn’t want to show any weakness in front of Iorveth.

But he also liked his cock where it was.

“Understood,” he said, since he’d never had even the slightest intention of doing so in any case. “You think vastly too highly of yourself if you imagine I’d care enough to try.”

“Are you quite done?” Iorveth asked.

Roche could, theoretically, have demanded some respect. Insisted Iorveth treat him with due deference.

But he was old, and tired, and he damned well couldn’t be bothered.

Besides, bringing Iorveth to heel no longer held any interest for him. Iorveth was an old enemy, one Roche had thought dead, based on the rumours, for quite some time.

If he couldn’t get out of this, he wasn’t inclined to fight Iorveth over it. Let him bark insults and empty threats. Roche would focus his attention on other things.

He could play Emhyr’s game as expected until he worked out where it was going, and deal with Iorveth later if and when it became necessary.

“Quite,” Roche said. “You are free to go.”

Iorveth bowed low again, mockery still dripping off the gesture, and took his leave, the doors of Foltest’s--now Roche’s--office slamming closed behind him.

***

The marriage ceremony had been cobbled together from bits of elven and human tradition, and that only served, Iorveth thought, to degrade both of them.

Human marriage traditions had a youthful sort of simplicity about them, practical promises about providing for one another both materially and emotionally that elves would simply expect of their kin. But then, there were rather more humans, and they tended to like each other rather less.

Even Iorveth didn’t hate it, despite the childishness, but when combined with the words of his own people, who didn’t really have any cultural arrangements that compared to a marriage at all, it made both sides feel hollow, dull, and vaguely offensive.

Which, he supposed, was appropriate, under the circumstances.

Iorveth wrinkled his nose when Roche’s coarse human stubble brushed against his skin as he kissed the back of his hand, revulsion making him want to shudder and pride the only thing stopping him.

If Roche could bear to do it, then he could bear to endure it.

At least, unlike almost all of the other flea-ridden humans milling about the palace on any given day, Roche had the courtesy to bathe regularly.

Ironically, if he was going to be stuck in close quarters with any of them, it was just as well it was Vernon Roche. At least he could enjoy hating him.

Although, much as Iorveth tried to dredge up the fire of hatred, give himself something to cling to, he couldn’t. He was too tired to hate. Too worn out and war-weary and sick to death of being angry all the time, of railing against everything only to have nothing change.

Except…

Except, if this changed things, if it brought peace to the other elves living in Temeria--maybe in other places, as well--then perhaps it was even worth it. Regardless of whatever Emhyr’s real plans were.

“You seem deep in thought,” Roche commented as they both stood and smiled for the people, who seemed thrilled by the entire affair.

That was a surprise.

“You’re not as pretty as my last chance for peace,” Iorveth said. “But you will do.”

“You’re very much prettier than Emhyr,” Roche said. “On balance, I’d prefer to be stuck with you than him.”

Iorveth snorted. “He adopted you.”

This time, Roche shuddered. It would have been imperceptible to anyone who wasn’t standing a hand’s-width away from him, but Iorveth caught it.

“Don’t remind me. When he kissed my forehead for that ceremony, it was like feeling the icy claws of death reach into my chest.”

“I didn’t know you aspired to poetry,” Iorveth drawled. It was a good descriptor of the general… air Emhyr managed to have around him. The feeling that if you so much as twitched in a way he didn’t like, execution was but a flick of his wrist away.

“I think the people have seen us together for long enough now,” Roche said, giving a final, not-quite-regal wave.

He tried, Iorveth could see. He followed all the procedures, knew all the protocols, but he was still a common soldier desperately hiding under silks and furs and hoping no one would notice that he was well and truly in over his head.

He could make exactly the same gesture Foltest would have, but he’d grown up brawling with other boys in the street, and Foltest had grown up knowing that any who laid a finger on him would be hanged.

It wasn’t that the boots were too large for Roche to fill, exactly. It was the opposite, if anything. They were too small for him to wear, too delicate for all his roughness.

Kings made plans and stratagems at the comfortable distance of the summer palace while their people fought and died for them.

Roche, if he issued a command, did so knowing he’d be in the thick of it when it was carried out.

Those were very different kinds of leadership.

So perhaps it was more accurate to say that the boots might as well have been made for an entirely different animal, and Roche couldn’t even conceive what to do with them, now that they’d been handed to him.

Iorveth was in much the same position, though at least he hadn’t been made to wear a crown.

Which looked utterly ridiculous on Roche’s close-shaved head, for the record.

“I plan to get very deeply drunk,” Roche said, turning to leave the crowds behind.

As plans went, Iorveth had trouble arguing with the wiseness of that one.

***

“I have received intelligence,” Roche pronounced carefully, choosing words he wasn’t likely to slur as he spoke to Iorveth.

Iorveth, who was standing on the opposite side of what was, laughably, their marriage bed. Poking the mattress with one long, elegant finger, as though he half-expected it to bite him.

Iorveth, who didn’t seem nearly as drunk as Roche was despite matching him drink-for-drink.

Damned elves. This was why you couldn’t trust an elf, Roche concluded. They didn’t have the decency to get drunk like a normal person.

He realised a moment later that he’d paused in the middle of his sentence and hadn’t ever finished it.

“I have received intelligence from a mutual friend of ours,” Roche said. So far, so good. That all seemed to make sense. “That Emhyr is counting on one of us giving in to the temptation to slit the other’s throat.”

Iorveth wrinkled his elegant elven nose, distaste written all over his elegant features.

Roche, in his moderately inebriated state, seemed to have forgotten all other possible descriptive words for Iorveth and settled on elegant.

It wasn’t untrue by any means, but it still seemed like an odd choice. He was also haughty, and cruel, and…

Very pretty.

And…

Roche focused on sitting down on the bed.

If Iorveth did slit his throat, at least this whole being king nightmare would be over. He’d never wanted anything less in his life.

“I wouldn’t murder you in your sleep,” Iorveth said. “That would be poor form.”

Roche snorted, kicking his boots off and reaching for the jug of water on the nightstand, drinking straight from it.

He was about to share a bed with someone who could be reasonably described as his mortal enemy. A little more sobriety was probably wise.

“How would you prefer to do it, then?” Roche asked, alcohol and apathy getting the better of him.

“I would prefer not to need to,” Iorveth responded, soft enough that Roche had to strain to hear him.

Roche turned to look at him, fingers clumsy on the catches and clasps of his disgustingly complicated outfit, quilted and gilded and all manner of other unnecessary, impractical things.

Iorveth, on the other hand, had been dressed in a simple embroidered robe, beautiful and vastly more regal, in Roche’s humble opinion, than the uncomfortably tight doublet he’d been forced into.

He hadn’t missed that it was unmistakably elven, either. Nor could he begrudge Iorveth wanting to hold onto his heritage.

Elves had precious little of it left, and Roche was not wholly without sympathy for that. Even for Iorveth himself, who didn’t want to be married to a filthy d’hoine any more than Roche wanted to be married to… well…

Anyone at all.

He’d never seen himself as cut out for it, really. But then, he’d never imagined anyone would discover his best-kept secret, and least of all Emhyr fucking var Emreis, right when he had the opportunity to use it for his own pompous, hawk-nosed gain.

“You seem surprised,” Iorveth said, and it took a moment for Roche to remember what he seemed surprised about.

“I am,” he agreed a moment later.

“I don’t enjoy killing people. Do you really imagine me as the monster your wanted posters paint?”

Roche blinked.

He didn’t. Not really. He knew that Iorveth was just a man--or, well, an elf, but the difference didn’t matter in this--doing what he had to do to keep his people alive. Forced by circumstances to do things that perhaps he wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to.

Which was why he always fought like a wounded, cornered animal. Iorveth wanted to live, truly wanted to live, like no one Roche had ever met before.

“No,” Roche conceded. “No, I don’t.”

If Iorveth was a monster, Roche himself was a worse one.

Sometimes, he did feel like one. But ultimately, if he was going to continue living with himself, he had to conclude that he wasn’t. Or he should have slit his own throat.

“How is Geralt?” Iorveth asked. “Our mutual friend with the intelligence, I assume.”

“Passed on by Dandelion,” Roche said. “In the form of a wedding gift. But yes, the information comes from Geralt. I know little else. He was… well, the last time I saw him.”

Roche decided not to mention that the last time he saw Geralt was when he’d assassinated Radovid.

Iorveth hummed. “I can just imagine the look on his face.”

“As can I,” Roche said. Shock, and then amusement, no doubt.

“Your eye,” he continued, emboldened by the civil way Iorveth was speaking to him. “Can you see through it?”

“I can,” Iorveth said, sighing heavily. “The price of peace with Nilfgaard.”

Roche raised an eyebrow.

“I earned that scar,” Iorveth said, bitterness creeping into his voice. “I earned it, and I survived it, and I wore it for a good many years. And now…”

“Ah,” Roche said, understanding dawning over him. It had taken away a part of who Iorveth was, and forcibly at that. Which, Roche realised through a haze of inebriation, was just as bad as gouging it out in the first place.

It was a little like Emhyr taking Roche’s hard-won name away from him. He was, strictly speaking, no longer Vernon Roche. He was a var Emreis now.

Every time someone called him by his official title, bile rose in his throat. Iorveth must have felt the same way whenever he caught his reflection.

All either of them had ever wanted was to be their own man.

Elf.

Whatever.

The point was, they were both stuck in this ridiculous situation because of one man. One man who, apparently, planned for them to kill each other.

And in doing so, destabilise Temeria so badly that Emhyr could sweep through, unhindered by guerilla forces, and fold it into his empire completely, instead of as a vassal state.

Gods only knew why he’d want that. Managing the damned place had taken the shine off Roche’s patriotism within the space of a week.

All the same, this was his country, and Emhyr could pry it out of his cold, dead fingers.

Which, obviously, was the plan. But that plan only worked if Roche…

No, if Iorveth didn’t outlive him. Iorveth would be next in line, now. So it was up to Roche not to murder him.

Which was fine. He didn’t have the energy to do it today, and thankfully, they only had to share a bed for one night to satisfy tradition.

“The only solution,” Roche began, hardly able to believe what he was about to say. “Is for the two of us to work together. To call a truce, at least.”

Iorveth blinked at him. “I’m about to climb into your bed,” he said, dressed down to a thin nightshirt. “I had taken the truce as implied.”

“Right,” Roche said slowly. “Yes, of course. I mean… tomorrow, and… the next day, and the day after…”

“I had come to accept that I was stuck being your trophy elf, yes,” Iorveth said.

Roche’s gut twinged at that. Iorveth was, as ever, on the losing side of this deal. If either of them could be said to have won.

He would keep that in mind. There was no point in making him miserable if their best chance of survival was to work together.

Roche had never had the head for politics. He’d always had someone else to lean on. Now, he was politics. His whole life was.

He should have let Iorveth kill him years ago.

But since he hadn’t, and Temeria’s freedom was at stake… he would win Iorveth over as an ally, and perhaps they didn’t need to be entirely miserable forever.

He’d think further on the point in the morning.

***

Iorveth was utterly, painfully, inescapably bored.

He’d been sent off to Roche like a damned ornament to be left on a shelf, and he was being treated that way, too. Endless free time. Servants to satisfy his every whim who were too young to understand who he was and be appropriately afraid of him.

At least in Nilfgaard they’d had the courtesy to cower.

Oh, and they loved Roche. They whispered about how kind and wise he was, and Iorveth might have thought it was for his benefit if it hadn’t been well out of human earshot.

They whispered about him, too, though nothing terribly surprising. Anything he did was a source of great fascination and apparently had to be elven custom, as though he could have no personality of his own.

He’d considered responding by doing intentionally unusual things, but been foiled in his plans by the fact that he wasn’t entirely clear on what would be unusual to them.

For all the time he’d spent watching humans, he understood little about them.

So for the first week of his new life as Roche’s beloved consort, he didn't see the man at all, and spent most of his time frustrated, all over again, by being kept like some kind of exotic bird. At least people had the decency to come and gawk at him in Nilfgaard, even try to win his favour, which had given him something to do.

Elves were commonplace enough in Vizima that no one really cared all that much. They knew nothing about them, but they also largely didn't want to.

When Roche finally did make an appearance, Iorveth was almost grateful to see him. At least he could talk to Roche and not be met with immediate acquiescence.

As much as Iorveth would have chosen almost any other company, he loathed eating alone. Eating alone was, in his experience, done out of desperation, in times when there simply wasn't enough to share and hiding what you had was the only way to avoid starving.

Doing it in a palace made him feel as though he had some contagious disease everyone else was afraid of catching.

“You look tired,” Iorveth said, unable to resist the jab. If Roche was going to be his only worthwhile company, he might as well make the most of it.

“I will choose to take that as concern for my wellbeing instead of an insult,” Roche said. “Because I can’t be bothered arguing about it.”

Iorveth snorted. “If you’re not going to argue, what good are you to me? It’s bad enough that you’re leaving me to rot in this gilded cage, now you won’t even entertain me when you bother to visit.”

Roche looked up at him, eyeing him carefully. “This is not a cage,” he said.

Iorveth raised an eyebrow.

“You are free to come and go as you please,” Roche said. “If you have other business to attend to, attend to it. You could even make yourself useful, if you wanted to, instead of sulking about not getting your way.”

Iorveth’s mouth fell open, but he could hear the truth in Roche’s words.

He’d won. That was the thing Iorveth had been trying to avoid thinking about. He’d effectively pacified the scoia’tael, and he’d done so without the need for further bloodshed. They’d laid down their arms peacefully, and Iorveth had thought of that as something Emhyr did, but it wasn’t. Not really.

It was something Roche had done. Had arranged, and asked for, and made sure was carried out and honoured down to the last letter of every provision.

Iorveth had been too busying being gawked at and prettied up in Nilfgaard to really see it, but… he knew. Deep down, he knew.

And the worst of it was that Roche was being gracious about it. He hadn’t tried to rub Iorveth’s nose in it once.

This was what Iorveth wanted. Peace. A warm fire to rest in front of and no fear of going hungry--not just for himself, but for all elves. For everyone who’d survived the war.

Here, at least, they had it. Or at least the same chance at it as any human. Roche was even picking the non-human ghettos apart, opening up housing for non-humans in previously human-only areas, banning businesses from refusing to serve them…

It was easy to think of those as things Emhyr was doing, but they weren’t. Not really. Roche was the one issuing the orders and signing the papers, and even if he was under direction from Nilfgaard, he was a cunning enough man to uphold the letter of the law while letting the spirit of it go to ruin in the gutter.

But that wasn’t what he was doing.

He’d won, and he was using that power to help.

“There are a number of non-human enclaves which could stand to be visited by someone with so much power and influence,” Roche continued, as though he’d followed the trail of Iorveth’s thoughts. “People who are still struggling to build lives and overcome prejudice and would benefit from having their stories and grievances heard.”

“And naturally, King Vernon doesn’t have time to visit individual citizens,” Iorveth said, anger at himself for not thinking of it first spilling over.

Roche was right. He’d been too busy sulking.

“I don’t,” Roche said evenly. “But aside from that, they don’t want to see me. I haven’t got the ears for it.”

“And I do,” Iorveth responded, his anger fading as he realised, again, that Roche was right.

In the past, it would have been ridiculously easy to get a rise out of Roche. Now, he’d… mellowed, perhaps.

Or more likely, he really was just tired. As exhausted by constant fighting as Iorveth was.

Perhaps they had more in common than Iorveth would have liked to admit.

“Fine,” Iorveth said after a pause. “I will begin my career in diplomacy.”

Roche snorted. “I’d like to see that. You being diplomatic, I mean.”

“I said you looked tired, didn’t I?” Iorveth sat back, finished with his meal, and sipped his wine. “I could have chosen a much less flattering word.”

That, finally, got a smile.

Something fluttered deep in Iorveth’s chest, a feeling not wholly unlike satisfaction settling there.

Any reaction was a reaction, he supposed. And he had no one else to talk to.

“I am tired,” Roche admitted, confirming Iorveth’s suspicions. “And you are…”

Iorveth waited while Roche regarded him thoughtfully, interested to know what he was, in this moment, to Roche.

“Gods, you haven’t aged a day, have you? In the… what, ten years we’ve been doing this? I’ve gotten old and you… you barely… you never change,” he growled, frustration finally slipping through.

Now they were getting somewhere. The thrill of an oncoming fight pounded in Iorveth’s veins, his muscles coiled in anticipation even though he had no intention of exchanging physical blows.

“But I’m an old man. And you’re all I have left,” Roche added.

The fight left Iorveth like the air out of a punctured lung.

Dammit.

Roche just had to say the one thing that Iorveth had been skirting around in his head, the thing he’d been avoiding thinking for fear that somehow, it would make it more true.

Roche was all he had left.

Everyone else who’d ever cared about him had moved on or died. And perhaps Roche hated him, but at least he cared, and that was something. They were both old men now.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

“I hate you,” Iorveth said automatically, but even to him it sounded pitifully toothless. Almost fond, under the circumstances.

“I don’t have the energy to hate you,” Roche said. “I’m just… tired, Iorveth.”

All of his hundred and thirty-seven years suddenly fell on Iorveth’s shoulders, the weight of them crushing.

He was tired, too. Exhausted.

And he was here, and the only person he had left in his life was Vernon fucking Roche, and he was stuck with him, lest the wrath of Nilfgaard come down on everything they’d been fighting over all this time, and…

There weren’t enough swearwords in both of their languages combined to quite express exactly how all of that made Iorveth feel.

Fine.

Fine.

There were things beyond his control, and there were things within his control, and he simply needed to focus on the ones within it. He could change lives. He’d always been willing to sacrifice his own for the good of his people.

He’d imagined that would involve actually dying, but this… well. Perhaps it didn’t have to be a fate worse than death.

Roche was no beautiful dragon queen, but he had the temperament for it at least. And, past actions aside, he was doing the right thing by non-humans.

Iorveth had made more distasteful alliances in his time. He didn’t have to like Roche to work with him, and he was, after all, the only person Iorveth had.

“Too tired to foil Emhyr’s no doubt carefully-laid plans?” Iorveth asked.

“Depends on what you have in mind,” Roche met Iorveth’s eyes without the faintest trace of fear or concern.

Like he always had.

But the hatred was absent now. The cold fire of his gaze had softened. He looked at Iorveth as an equal, but not as a threat. A peer, even.

That was an unexpected development, but it would work to both of their advantages.

“I propose an alliance,” Iorveth said. “Rather than a truce. I propose we see to it that Temeria prospers, and loves her king, and annoys Emhyr into an early grave.”

Roche raised an eyebrow. One corner of his lip turned up, a tentative smile turning into a dark chuckle, his dark eyes sparkling with mirth.

“All right, then,” he said. “An alliance it is.”

Iorveth nodded, raising his mostly-empty wine cup and just touching the edge against Roche’s. Not a boisterous toast or a resounding promise of friendship, but a start.

A start was better than he’d had before.

***

One of the many problems with his current arrangement was, as Roche had just discovered, that no one bothered to warn him that Iorveth was bathing.

So now he was stuck trying not to lose a battle of wills with a smirking, naked elf who was really very attractive, all told, and even more so when he was contentedly soaking in a warm bath and working on his new hobby of putting a meaningful dent in the palace wine cellar.

Hovering somewhere between looking at Iorveth and not looking at him took up most of Roche’s concentration. What little was left grasped for something to say, something that didn’t involve blushing and stammering like a startled maiden.

He was accustomed to seeing other men naked, of course. He could hardly have avoided it.

But not Iorveth.

Especially not when, instead of making him seem vulnerable, his absolute comfort only made him seem more powerful.

Elves, Roche thought. There was nothing else attached to it, just elves.

It wasn’t even all elves. Many elves were so human that with a decent hat it would have been impossible to tell they were anything other, but Iorveth was different. A relic of a time long past, one of the very last of the elves unspoiled by humans outside of Dol Blathanna.

At least, he was as far as Roche understood elves, which he was first to admit was not terribly well. He’d never needed to.

He’d been under orders.

In the intervening time he’d realised how meaningless that was, but there was no point in dwelling. He would do better. He would be better.

“I hear your visit to the non-human district went well,” Roche said.

Iorveth was yet to make any kind of report, and Roche doubted he had any way of convincing him to. He’d taken one guard, who he’d given the slip early on in the proceedings and disappeared, much to the young man’s distress.

That was what spies were for, though, and Roche had no shortage of them. He had learned a thing or two from Dijkstra.

“I burst into tears holding a newborn elf,” Iorveth said, as though it was nothing to be ashamed of.

It took Roche a moment to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, especially not for an elf. They weren’t afraid to cry.

Roche had often envied that. Having to hide his own tears since he was a child had never quite come naturally to him.

People would have laughed, he thought. Vernon Roche, king of the absolute bastards, having anything to cry over.

“It was a good idea,” Iorveth said after another moment. “A reminder of what all that bloodshed was for.”

“That wasn’t really the point,” Roche responded, though he could see the benefit of it, too. It was good to be reminded that not everything had been for nothing.

Iorveth snorted, which was a sound Roche was quickly getting used to. “Humans are pathetically bad at acknowledging and accepting their feelings, aren’t they?”

“Feelings are a luxury,” Roche responded automatically.

“Ridiculous. There’s no point in living if you can’t feel things. If you truly felt nothing, you might as well be dead.”

Roche winced.

He’d had that thought himself, and it stung to hear it from Iorveth.

“You have feelings,” Iorveth continued, as though he’d noticed the wince. He probably had. It was difficult to get anything past him. “Anger is a feeling. Frustration is a feeling. Hopelessness, despair, those are feelings, and ones which bear acknowledgement. Life isn’t all love and joy, nor should it be.”

“You know,” Roche interrupted. “I never really took you for a philosopher.”

Iorveth crossed one long leg over the other, ankles still resting on the edge of the tub.

“You have consistently underestimated me from the day and hour we met and you have the scars to prove it. Why should you stop now?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Roche didn’t really have a response to that. Iorveth was right, of course. Underestimating him had been Roche’s primary weakness, and he was still doing it.

Even a dog could learn from a repeated mistake, which implied unflattering things about Roche’s intelligence.

“Well, forgive me for being human,” Roche said, only realising a moment later what the words actually meant.

“A lot to ask of an elf,” Iorveth pronounced slowly, as though he was weighing every syllable. He sipped his wine again, humming softly as he rolled it over his tongue. “But you are beginning to earn it. Even elves are singing your praises out there.”

Roche was shocked to hear that, honestly. He never felt he was doing quite enough. “And you didn’t see fit to explain to them what a complete and utter bastard I really am?”

“They have hope,” Iorveth said. “Hope for a better future. It would be cruel to take that away from them.”

Hope.

What an incredible, fragile thing to have given them.

The cynic in Roche wanted to laugh it off, to comment on the futility of it, but…

The romantic in him wanted everyone to have that. He wanted all of this to mean something.

Iorveth had managed, simply by being his infuriating self, to shake quite a few things loose in Roche. The idea of finally being in a position to see Temeria prosper hadn’t even occurred to him, not really, until Iorveth had mentioned it.

He’d been too busy drowning in every small decision to see the bigger picture.

“Hope,” he repeated, as though saying it aloud would make it any more real.

“Mm,” Iorveth hummed, draining the last of his wine and reaching for the bottle. “Join me?” he offered, nodding to an unnecessarily fine goblet on a sideboard behind Roche.

Wine, as far as Roche was concerned, tasted strange coming out of a silver cup. He was used to the warmth of wood.

All the same, he was just about at the stage where he could use a drink. He grabbed the goblet and placed it on the small table Iorveth was using, keeping his eyes on a wall tapestry well and truly above Iorveth’s head, unwilling to take the risk that he might look into the tub.

There were enough suds--something Iorveth clearly enjoyed--that he wouldn’t have been able to see much, but Iorveth would catch him looking, anyway.

And he’d never live that down.

“This is practically civilised,” Iorveth said as he poured a generous measure of wine into Roche’s glass, having either forgotten that his alcohol tolerance didn’t begin to match Iorveth’s own, or not caring overly much.

Probably the latter.

Hell, maybe the idea was to get him drunk and drown him in the bath.

“What would civilisation look like to you, I wonder?”

Iorveth hummed. “Less walls,” he began. “Perpetual summer, if at all possible. A sunken pool, rather than a bath. A dozen other elves milling around naked. The usual.”

Roche snorted, not entirely sure whether or not Iorveth was serious. “I understand there are illusionists who specialise in that sort of thing.”

“You imagine that my idea of pleasure is so different from your own,” Iorveth said. “Why?”

As he was beginning to get used to with Iorveth, Roche didn’t immediately have an answer to that. Now that it had been pointed out, it seemed ridiculous.

Why shouldn’t Iorveth want what any other person did?

Although, Roche was personally very fond of walls. They kept the cold out, and were difficult to shoot through.

“I can’t help but notice,” Iorveth said after a pause more than long enough for Roche to have come up with an answer. “That you didn’t make any attempt to protest the idea that a dozen naked elves would make you happy.”

Roche opened his mouth, then shut it again with a click as he realised that he didn’t have an answer for that, either.

“I don’t think I can possibly respond to that without getting myself into trouble,” he said. “Either I object now and you take it as an insult, or I admit that I like looking at elves as much as the next man, and get a smug smirk in return.”

Iorveth, as expected, smirked. Smugly.

Having predicted that reaction didn’t make Roche feel any better about it.

He sipped his wine, hoping he was well enough in shadow that Iorveth wouldn’t see his suddenly-burning cheeks. That was the last thing this exchange needed.

“We ought to do this more often,” Iorveth said. “This is almost the most fun I’ve ever had naked.”

Roche drew a breath to make a comment about that putting Iorveth’s sex life in an unflattering light, but thought better of it before the words actually escaped him. Discussing--or indeed considering--Iorveth’s sex life was the thing he wanted to do least in the world.

He would have been faster to drink the bathwater, soap and all.

Of course, on the other hand, even this awkward, barbed conversation with Iorveth was the best option Roche had for company. He felt completely, utterly alone in his new position, and Iorveth was his only equal, socially speaking, and…

Roche, unfortunately, was beginning to like the bastard.

“I’ll see if I can accommodate you,” Roche said dryly, already knowing he’d be back.

Hopefully, Iorveth would be dressed next time.

***

“Harder,” Iorveth demanded, more a growl than a word, his breath catching as Roche finally found a sensitive spot inside him and hit it head-on with his cock. If he was going to fuck a human--and clearly, he was, and it was far too late now to pretend otherwise, with Roche’s cock so far inside him that he fancied he could have pressed down on his belly and felt it there--then he was going to get what he wanted.

Which was more. Harder. If there was one advantage Roche had over him, it was sheer physical strength, more powerful muscles than almost any elf would have, the ability to well and truly plough into him with force previously unknown to Iorveth.

And dammit, he liked that. He liked that Roche was willing to fuck him without pause or restraint.

When Iorveth had taken the tension between them and snapped it with both hands, surging forward to kiss Roche against every ounce of his better judgement, he hadn’t known how good this would feel.

Now, he was worried that he could never say so, because then Roche would be insufferably smug. Except his tongue kept getting away from him, and he couldn’t hide the way his own cock was straining up toward his belly, leaking freely, hard and desperate because this felt good. And it had been so long.

Human cocks were thicker, hotter, and if Vernon Roche of all people spoiled Iorveth for other elves then he would be eternally angry about it, but right now, in this moment, it was everything Iorveth wanted and more.

So here he was, one knee hooked over Roche’s shoulder, folded nearly in half and begging for more.

Roche would never let him live it down, and right now, he didn’t care. He was stuck here, and the fact that his only companion was willing to fuck him like he meant it felt like a small mercy.

White hot pleasure hit Iorveth like a club to the back of the neck, his back arching high off the mattress as the tension in his belly burst and the first wave of his orgasm washed over him, knocking the breath out of his lungs and leaving him gasping and panting, seeing stars behind his closed eyelids and hearing blood rush in his ears.

Roche barely paused, his hips still rocking against Iorveth’s, the rhythm of skin-on-skin barely faltering as Iorveth clenched his fists and rode out his pleasure. Then, finally, an answering groan and a rush of fluid told him Roche had come as well, his hips jerking to a stop.

As Roche rolled off to the side and collapsed onto the bed, Iorveth expected… guilt, or disgust, or some combination of the two to wash over him. For his momentary weakness and lust and loneliness to come with a price.

He waited, and waited.

Nothing but contentment settled in his chest. Only the warm satisfaction of being well and truly fucked for the first time in far too long.

He didn’t hate Roche. He wasn’t even disgusted by him anymore.

He was starting to like the bastard, for all that he’d done, and all that he hadn’t, as well.

There was no reason, Iorveth knew, that Roche had to be civil to him. They were too far from Nilfgaard for retribution, and Iorveth’s own position too precarious for him to kick up a fuss if he was unhappy with the way Roche behaved.

But for the most part, Roche had been courteous, and even kind, and now he’d been perfectly adequate in bed, as well.

“I’ve never had a human before,” he said aloud before he’d even finished thinking it.

Roche chuckled, still clearly out of breath. “I imagine you’ll tell me what you think.”

“Your cock is unnecessarily large,” Iorveth said, not sure Roche would take that as the insult it was meant to be.

For an elf, he was all out of proportion. Absolutely hideous naked.

All the same, Iorveth found pleasure in the power of his muscles, the size of his cock, the warmth of his body. Even the speed of his heartbeat, far too fast by elven standards, which explained why humans couldn’t shoot a real bow to save their lives.

It was strange to want such an unusual thing as a human, and yet, if Roche had rolled over and entered him again, he would have enjoyed it. Thoroughly, even.

Iorveth wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that.

“I take it you won’t cut it off and choke me with it after all,” Roche said, exhaustion creeping into his tone, slowing down every syllable. “Since you did start this.”

“I like it where it is,” Iorveth admitted, since he, too, lacked the brain power just at the moment to make even a moderately inventive threat.

If he couldn’t give Roche sparkling wit, he could at least give him honesty. It seemed like second-best, considering, but Roche had been honest with him more than once now.

Perhaps that was something they did. Perhaps they were honest with each other.

“Or rather, where it was a moment ago,” Iorveth added, a little of his bite coming back. “I don’t particularly care about your use for it.”

Roche snorted. “I wouldn’t expect any different,” he said, and then a handful of heartbeats later, “you are beautiful.”

And it wasn’t even the first time Roche had said it to him, but something about the words, the tone, the context--something--made Iorveth’s chest tighten, his heart flutter like an impressionable maiden’s.

He hadn’t been called beautiful for no reason in a long time, and not so sincerely.

“I’ve always thought so,” Roche added, something dangerously close to emotion in his voice.

Iorveth wasn’t sure what to say to that, and he wasn’t sure he could have said anything around the lump in his throat, anyway.

The sound of Roche snoring lightly saved him from having to respond.

Instead, Iorveth rolled out of the bed to clean up, grateful that the water in the basin wasn’t completely freezing. There were, he reflected, one or two benefits to fucking a king.

He hesitated, hovering by the bed with a washcloth in hand, to clean Roche up as well. On the one hand, he had no intention of going back to his own quarters tonight, and sleeping with a filthy bedmate would have been intolerable.

On the other hand, this would be too intimate. Too intimate by both elven and human standards, Iorveth thought.

Eventually, the urge for cleanliness overrode Iorveth’s concern about intimacy. He had just had Roche’s cock inside him. From a human perspective, at least, that was surely as intimate as it got.

Roche hummed in his sleep, leaning toward Iorveth’s touch, and there was that damned fluttering again.

For the first time, Iorveth could look at Roche and see a man who was very, very like him. Exhausted, and lonely, and unsure what to do with any of the power he’d been granted.

Which made it difficult to feel nothing at all.

***

Roche woke slowly to the sound of music, and for a few long moments had no idea where he was or what the hell was going on.

Eventually, his mind cleared enough to spot Iorveth by the window, playing a flute Roche hadn’t even realised he had, still completely naked. The early morning light washed his tanned skin gold so that he glowed, his otherworldliness never so obvious before as it was now.

Of course, strictly speaking, elves had been here longer than humans had. They were the strange otherworldly creatures of this land.

But humans were sturdy, practical creatures, and Iorveth…

Iorveth might well have been made of spider’s silk, a web spun in a precarious position with dewdrops hanging from it, as beautiful as he was delicate.

Not that delicate was a fair description. Iorveth may have appeared to be fragile and ethereal and as though a stiff breeze would have gotten the better of him, except for the scars he was covered in.

Some Roche had put there, some from other times, some probably older than Roche himself was.

The puncture wound on his shoulder where Iorveth had shot him once--a warning shot, he was now sure--twinged. But there was no anger to go with the memory. It was simply memory. A reminder of their shared past.

Iorveth was yet to acknowledge that Roche had woken, though he must have known.

It was a surprise that he was still here. That he seemed to be content to spend his morning playing in Roche’s chambers instead of disappearing back into his own and pretending the events of the previous evening had never occurred.

Roche allowed himself to stare as Iorveth came to the end of his song, something mournful and filled with a strange power that vibrated in the pit of Roche’s stomach, clenched around his heart like a vice. He had no doubt that, if he was an elf, and he understood the meaning of it, he would have been in tears.

“I never imagined you played seriously,” Roche said. He’d assumed the flute was used largely as a signal.

“If I never made time to enjoy anything, I would have given up a long time ago,” Iorveth said. “Even in the middle of a war, rage can only sustain a creature for so long.”

Roche hummed, turning that thought over in his mind. Iorveth, he was beginning to realise, often forced him to think. To look at things in ways he’d never bothered to before.

“That may be one area in which humans have you beaten,” Roche said.

“Oh,” Iorveth finally turned to look at him, setting the flute down on a table by the window. “The wrath of an elf can be a very powerful force indeed. But ironically, it does tend to burn shorter for its brightness. Whereas a human can hold a grudge from the first moment someone acts against them and not let go of it until they die.”

“I am sustained largely by spite,” Roche admitted. “Since at various times it would have pleased so many people to see me dead, and I would not give them the satisfaction.”

“I would never have been satisfied by your death,” Iorveth said, and Roche hadn’t really been thinking of him, but that still came as a surprise.

He raised an eyebrow, waiting for Iorveth to elaborate.

“You are a requirement of my existence,” he continued. “Which is not to say I need you to live, but to say that there is no Iorveth without Roche. There is no need for a Iorveth without Roche. And conversely, there is no need for a Roche without Iorveth. Not in the way we have lived this past decade, in any case.”

“Two sides of the same coin,” Roche said, understanding what Iorveth was getting at.

He’d had similar thoughts himself.

“Quite.” Iorveth nodded. “I would like to continue sharing your bed.”

Apparently, Iorveth wasn’t done surprising Roche this morning.

“I, uh.” Roche blinked at him.

He really couldn’t bring himself to object. Not only was Iorveth the most appealing bedmate on offer to Roche, there was something deeply satisfying about the two of them turning their focus to pleasure.

And he was painfully lonely, and Iorveth was the one person who eased that feeling. Distressing as that should have been, Roche didn’t have the energy to fight it.

He wished to be happy.

There was some part of him that believed Iorveth could give him that. If he was careful and patient.

“I am not accustomed to hesitation,” Iorveth said, though there was amusement in his tone. “I am generally in the habit of having my choice of partner.”

Roche snorted. But then, of course Iorveth was. He was prince and saviour to his people. They would have scrambled over one another to have him.

“You are welcome to, of course,” Roche said. “I am merely surprised that you wish to.”

“I have found a new use for you and plan to make the most of it,” Iorveth said, and though he clearly intended to sound aloof, there was the barest hint of hunger lingering under his words. He had enjoyed himself.

Perhaps for the same reasons Roche had.

“You know, that was almost flattering.”

Iorveth smiled the slow, cunning smile of a wolf circling prey.

The weight of the expression went straight to Roche’s cock, heat pooling in his belly, his body not objecting at all to the idea of Iorveth using him.

“I have duties to attend to,” Iorveth said, strolling across the room to collect his hastily-discarded clothing from the night before. “But I will expect you to be at my disposal from sundown onwards. As is my right as your consort, I believe.”

Roche vaguely remembered promising something along those lines, couched in less direct language. In any case, he wasn’t inclined to refuse.

“Sundown, then,” he agreed.

Iorveth dressed efficiently and left the room without another word.

His flute, however, remained where it was.

***

If Iorveth had thought having Roche’s cock inside him was good, it was nothing compared to the perfect searing heat and pressure of having his own cock in Roche’s mouth. Humans were so warm, and they were so eager to use their mouths for pleasure, and Iorveth was quickly beginning to see the appeal of them and the reason there were so many half and quarter elves in the world.

His short nails raked across Roche’s scalp, which only seemed to spur him on, soft moans vibrating around Iorveth’s cock as Roche sucked it into the back of his throat, swallowing around him with practiced ease.

A handful of days ago, Iorveth would have flung that back at Roche as an insult.

Now, he was sincerely beginning to enjoy their time together. Not just the sex.

Roche had proven himself an interesting conversation partner, a welcome companion at meals, and a surprisingly comforting presence to fall asleep beside.

Iorveth had not slept in his own quarters all week.

The sex certainly helped, but it was not the limit of Roche’s appeal now that they weren’t in a constant race to be the first to kill the other. Iorveth had always known they were similar people, separated by their own sides of the same cause, but he had never imagined himself desiring Roche’s company or looking forward to being left in peace with him at the end of the day.

He had definitely never imagined himself panting for breath, murmuring praises under his breath in a language Roche thankfully had little grasp of, right on the edge of coming down his throat.

And if he had, he had certainly never imagined that he would feel vulnerable doing it, as though this act which should have put him in the dominant position would feel like submission, something he was allowing rather than demanding, something that made him feel helpless and need and…

And more dangerously, wanted. Valued. As though Roche liked him, cared for him even, as though this was the act of a lover and not simply the best option either of them had for living lives not completely devoid of pleasure.

The first hot flare of his orgasm hit Iorveth deep in the pit of his stomach, his back arching off the mattress as the first wave of it washed over him, his fingers tightening on Roche’s head to hold him in place. Not that Roche seemed to mind--if anything, he only sucked harder, a low, rumbling groan sounding in the depths of his chest.

Biting down on his lip, Iorveth let himself come down Roche’s throat and tried to pretend that he felt as though he wasn’t in danger of completely giving himself over to the pleasure and comfort of perhaps the one man who could ever understand him, who would grasp the pain and the sacrifice and the strange loss of no longer having a fight to continue. Whose life was suddenly just as alien as Iorveth’s own, who was scrambling for meaning and familiarity and finding it in an old enemy.

Iorveth’s head spun as Roche sucked him clean, swallowing around him eagerly and catching anything he missed with his tongue.

Overwhelmed, he curled a hand around Roche’s shoulder and pulled him up, sealing their lips together, thrusting his tongue into Roche’s mouth to taste himself there, reaching down to curl his fingers around Roche’s cock.

Roche moaned into his mouth, his hips jerking into Iorveth’s hand for a quick handful of strokes before he was coming as well, hot fluid spilling all over Iorveth’s hand and his belly, and humans were messy creatures who produced at least twice as much fluid as elves did, and Iorveth had gone from hating it to feeling as though it was a comment on his desirability even as he knew, logically, that it was simply an anatomical difference.

They each lay flat on their backs on their own sides of the bed in the aftermath, panting too heavily to do anything other than focus on catching their breath. But Iorveth’s hand was just barely touching Roche’s thigh, and Roche’s toes brushed against Iorveth’s ankle, and that closeness was almost too much.

But it was also not nearly enough, and though some part of Iorveth wanted to be disgusted by how badly he wanted to be in contact with Roche in the aftermath, the rest of him…

… the rest of him gave in, rolling over to curl up against Roche’s side and bask in his warmth and listen to his heartbeat, one hand splayed over his belly.

And he hadn’t done this before and wasn’t sure how it would be taken, or if Roche would understand what it meant, why it was important, and he wasn’t sure whether he wanted him to, anyway.

Feelings, vital as they were, tended toward the complicated.

Iorveth often wondered if that was true for humans, as well, or if perhaps Roche was perfectly content with this situation and felt no awkwardness about it, and was not getting embarrassingly attached to an elf he’d spent a significant portion of his life trying to kill.

Something in Iorveth’s chest gave way, like a dam breaking or the support on a bridge collapsing, when Roche wrapped an arm around his shoulders and held him a little closer.

“I begin to understand the appeal of humans,” Iorveth said once he’d gotten his breath back well enough to speak.

Roche snorted. “I should hope so, or I’d wonder about your motivations for being here.”

“I have nowhere better to be,” Iorveth said, and it was the truth, but it was a very dishonest thing to say all the same.

He wasn’t spending his nights in Roche’s bed out of boredom, and it was perhaps not fair to imply that he was.

“You are a surprisingly competent lover,” he added, only realising after the word had escaped him what he’d said.

Lover.

Well. It was out in the world now, and perhaps Roche wouldn’t notice it, or would think nothing of it, or not quite grasp the subtle way their relationship was changing, from need to want.

In the beginning, Iorveth had needed this. He had needed not to be so painfully lost and alone that grabbing hold of the only familiar thing like an anchor in a storm had been his best option.

Now, he simply wanted to be here. He wanted Roche to want him.

“I’ll take that as the extremely generous compliment I know it to be and not insult you by wondering what you want,” Roche said wryly.

Iorveth breathed a tiny sigh of relief. It had gone unnoticed.

He would be more careful in future.

“A bath,” he said. “I wouldn’t object to you helping me wash my hair,” he added, keeping his tone as even as possible, as though he wasn’t asking for something that was, to an elf, thoroughly intimate.

Not that Roche would know that. Iorveth could indulge in the simple pleasure of feeling valued and wanted and cared for without Roche ever quite understanding the depths of what small things like this meant to him.

“You’d let me touch your hair?” Roche asked, obviously surprised.

Ah. Perhaps he knew more than Iorveth had given him credit for.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Iorveth asked, determined not to give anything else away, afraid he’d already revealed too much of himself.

“I understood that hair was very… personal, for elves. Perhaps I’m wrong,” Roche said, and dammit, he had to remind Iorveth of the worst part of all of this.

The part where he was trying. Where he accepted that he didn’t know everything but he ought to make an attempt to learn. A rare quality in any human, as far as Iorveth had seen.

Honesty, therefore, was the only fair option. “It is,” he said. “You’re right, I’m asking too much.”

“No. No, I’d be honoured,” Roche said, and Iorveth heard what he meant behind those words.

I could love you.

And no one, no one had ever both understood exactly what Iorveth was and still been able to love him. There were those who understood him, and those who adored him, but never both at the same time.

Knowing that the possibility of having both existed was almost too much to resist. He wanted it so badly that for a moment the thought of of it was overwhelming, the temptation to reveal vastly too much of his heart nearly driving him to say something very stupid indeed.

No. Not yet, and possibly not ever.

But he would take the offered comfort and care all the same. No one else was offering it.

“Then I will trust you with it,” Iorveth responded.

For now, that would have to be enough.

***

Roche woke with a start to the sound of frantic knocking on his door and shouts of your majesty, your majesty.

All of which he would have hated at the best of times. With Iorveth curled up beside him, impossibly vulnerable, he hated it even more.

Something had better have been on fire.

He slipped away from Iorveth’s side, careful not to disturb him. Roche knew well enough the value of a rare peaceful night’s sleep, and would not rob Iorveth of even one moment of it unnecessarily.

Although, he found that recently he’d slept much, much better with a warm body beside him, and perhaps an ex-nemesis shouldn't have been such a balm for his soul, but he was proving to be.

The explanation he allowed himself was that Iorveth, despite no longer seeming to have any desire to kill him, also wouldn't let anyone else do it first.

Roche dressed quickly, throwing a nightshirt over his head in the interest of not appearing completely naked in the hallway and opening the door of his chambers to a frantic-looking palace guard who seemed to have drawn the short straw.

“Your majesty,” the young woman said, flushed and panting. “Riots have broken out in the streets.”

Of course they had. Of course something was actually on fire.

“Over?”

The guard glanced past him nervously to where Iorveth was still fast asleep, and that told Roche all he needed to know.

He should have known the relative peace was too good to be true. He should have known that the moment rumours reached certain parts of the population that he was anything other than deeply inconvenienced by Iorveth’s presence, there would be trouble.

“Wake him,” Roche said, slipping past her into the corridor. “But gently. Have him meet me in… in my office, for now. With clothes. Esrid, isn't it?”

The guard’s eyes widened, obviously surprised that Roche knew her name. “Yes, your majesty.”

Roche nodded. “Once you’ve woken him, tell your captain that I want every uniformed guard we have on the streets as soon as possible. Ringleaders arrested, zero tolerance. Anyone who has an ill word to say about an elf is to be taken off the street immediately. Understood?”

“Won't that make it worse?” Esrid asked, and then her eyes widened as she clearly realised what she’d just said.

“The number of ex-scoia’tael living in the city will make it very much worse if the instigators aren't dealt with swiftly,” Roche said. “And I wouldn't even blame them for it. Trust that I’ve been through this often enough to know what needs to be done.”

Esrid nodded. “Yes, your majesty. My apologies.”

Roche paused a moment. “If you harbour any ill-will toward elves at all, it would be in your best interest to have someone else wake Iorveth. He will know, and he will not appreciate it.”

“I'm married to an elf, sir,” she said.

“Ah.” Roche managed a smile despite the circumstances. Undoubtedly, she was frightened for her spouse's safety at the moment, and a little kindness would not go astray. “Then you know what a nightmare it is to get them out of bed of a morning. I will leave him in your capable hands.”

“Yes, sir,” Esrid nodded.

Roche marched down the corridor, cold dread settling in the pit of his stomach.

He should have known better than to think any part of his life would remain easy for long.

***

“My people did not start this,” Iorveth hissed, slamming his fist on Roche’s desk and baring his teeth.

Aside from the stress of managing a city on the edge, Roche was now enjoying the added fear that everything that had been building between them had just shattered on the floor.

“I know,” he said softly, reading the fear and rage in Iorveth's eyes and understanding it.

He’d been there now. Pushed to the margins and made to feel vulnerable and frightened, and he could see it overwhelming Iorveth’s better judgement, and he had no idea how to help.

“But you want me to ask them to stop?” he growled. “Has this been the point of all your kindness? Do you imagine I'll side with your people over mine.”

“Dammit, they're our people,” Roche growled back, standing and leaning over the desk to face Iorveth at eye level. “I want you to help me keep them safe. I know that no elf started this. I know. But they mustn't continue it either or who knows where it ends?”

Iorveth looked at him coldly, and Roche’s heart sank. He could feel the fragile, beautiful thing that had been growing between them slipping between his fingers like so much sand.

“Fine,” he said, murder in his tone. “But I will go alone. And so help me, I will kill anyone you have follow me.”

“Fine,” Roche agreed, uncomfortable with the thought of leaving Iorveth to fend for himself out there. He understood why Iorveth insisted on secrecy--he knew who the elves with the most influence were, the ones which might have been inclined to lead a response, and he didn't want anyone else knowing it.

He could take care of himself, Roche knew. He had done so for more years than Roche had lived.

But he dreaded the thought of what might happen all the same.

Because as inconvenient as it was, he had quite fallen in love with Iorveth, and the thought of losing him now was too much to bear.

Iorveth stormed out of the room without another word, taking Roche’s heart with him.

Dammit.

***

Iorveth had hoped never to be covered in elven blood again as long as he lived, and yet he had been back in Temeria only a scant few weeks and he already was.

No one had died. They would all bear the scars of today, the loss of the hope that had been building in their hearts. Some more than others.

But no one had died, and Iorveth wished he was more grateful for that. He wished that his ears weren't ringing and his heart wasn't numb.

“Iorveth,” Roche murmured from behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Iorveth couldn't suppress an automatic growl fast enough, anger welling up in his chest.

Not anger at Roche, not really. Under the circumstances, he’d done everything he could to restore peace quickly. The palace dungeons were full of rioters and Iorveth had heard that every single one was human.

There was nothing more he could have done.

Iorveth was merely angry, with no real target other than the entire world in general, and Roche happened to be closest.

The touch withdrew immediately when what Iorveth wanted most was to be held and told it was all going to be all right.

If only he could allow himself that simple comfort in the light of everything that had happened today.

“I'm sorry,” Roche said. “And I know that isn't nearly enough.”

Iorveth stood and stalked to a washbasin, aware of Roche following him.

“There will be no retribution,” Iorveth said. “I have been called all manner of unkind things, but you will have your peace.”

“You don't want peace?” Roche asked, and Iorveth knew he was being unfair, but he was angry, and he was washing elven blood off his hands, and he’d been cursed and sworn at by his own people for siding with Roche, which wasn't at all what he was doing.

He was siding with them, because retaliation would only end badly. He had been to the place retribution went, and almost none of the young ones, the ones who were angriest at the injustice of it all, had done the same.

Those who had served with him, he suspected, backed him up out of loyalty rather than truly understanding why Iorveth trusted a man they’d all lived in fear of now.

Many of them saw him living in the palace, safe and sound and separated from all this, and had lost any faith that he was still one of them.

Iorveth had lost so many things today and was in the mood to keep the destruction going, because this was his own fault. He’d gotten complacent. He’d trusted.

He’d allowed himself to love.

And none of that ever worked out in his favour. It never worked out in the favour of any elf.

“Do you see this?” he nodded to the basin in front of him, the water stained red. “How many times will peace look like this? How many times will peace mean that elves must suffer and then have one of their number, one they used to trust, come and tell them that they must bear it, because humans cannot stand to be told they're wrong and cannot handle the consequences of their actions without further violence against the innocent? There are five children being tended to in there. Do you have any concept how rare children are to us? That may well be all of them,” Iorveth growled, tears welling up in his eyes.

No one had died.

But dammit, they could have, and who said they wouldn't next time, and why shouldn't he personally tear the entrails out of every d’hoine responsible for this right now?

Because Vernon Roche, now King of Temeria after all his sins, had asked him not to?

“Iorveth,” Roche said softly, and there was nothing but sympathy and warmth in his tone, and Iorveth hated it. In this moment, he hated that Roche was trying to comfort him, and he hated that he wanted to be comforted, and he’d lost everything else, so why shouldn't he simply tear this down, too, and stop pretending to himself that he could ever be anything other than an elf. That he could escape everything that meant.

“Touch me and I will break your hand,” Iorveth turned, glaring at Roche.

The hand he’d extended toward Iorveth dropped.

Iorveth stared him down for another few seconds and then pushed past him.

“Where are you going?” Roche asked, something like desperation in his voice.

“If you try to find out,” Iorveth said. “You will have to follow a trail of bodies. Am I clear?” he asked, pausing for an answer.

“Perfectly,” Roche said, his tone dead now.

Good.

As he’d said, feelings were a luxury. One Iorveth could no longer afford.

***

“And I imagine you don’t plan on telling me where he is?” Roche asked, knowing exactly what answer he should expect.

“No, sir,” Esrid said. “But he is safe and being looked after. I thought you’d want to know that.”

Roche sighed. He did want to know that.

Hell, he even wanted to be satisfied with that. If Iorveth didn’t wish to see him, then Roche didn’t wish to push him. He certainly wasn’t going to try and have him arrested.

Not least of all because it would have been a reckless thing to do to anyone who he sent for the task.

Esrid was probably taking a risk as it was.

“Elves,” he said, though he couldn’t even get the right inflection into the word anymore. He sounded defeated to his own ears, and no doubt twice as much to Esrid.

“Yes, sir,” Esrid said, offering him a small, tired smile.

“Your’s too?” Roche asked sympathetically.

He shouldn’t have been thinking of Iorveth as his.

But then, Iorveth had always been his. His elf. Even his own men had called him that right to Roche’s face, and Roche had never even considered until now that they might think anything of it. Of course Iorveth was his.

And now…

Well, now Roche had gone and fallen in love with the pointy-eared bastard.

Which, as it turned out, was a phenomenally stupid idea.

“Sometimes, sir,” Esrid agreed. “But it’s worth it for the rest of the time.”

“Mm,” Roche agreed. “Yes, well. I can’t argue there.”

Iorveth’s flute was still sitting on the nightstand by his side of the bed. Roche had glanced over at it every morning this week, and felt his heart sink into his stomach.

He would come back for it.

He had to.

“Thank you for reassuring me,” Roche said. “I am making no assumptions that you have a way of contacting him, but… if you did…”

What could he even say?

Other than that he’d like Iorveth to come back because things were a damned sight harder without him. Which wasn’t really that much of an enticement.

“Tell him you love him, sir?” Esrid offered.

Roche snorted. “I’m not entirely sure he’d appreciate that. But… yes. Unfortunately, that’s all I have to offer.”

“And that you miss him?” Esrid prodded.

“Of course,” Roche said. “I’d rather have him here shouting at me and insulting me and ordering me around like he owns the place than not have him here at all.”

“I get the feeling he’d appreciate that, sir. Is that all?”

Roche sighed again. “Yes,” he said. “Wait, no. Do you have any ambitions to rise through the ranks, Esrid?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Family tradition. We’ve always been palace guards.”

Roche nodded. “Once things settle, we will see about finding you a post more in line with your courage and competence.”

Esrid’s eyes widened. “Thank you, sir,”

“My motivations are entirely selfish,” Roche said. “Having the right people in charge makes my life easier and I would love to know what an easy life looked like.”

“Yes, sir.” Esrid smiled. “He will come back.”

“I damned well hope so,” Roche said. “Thank you for your help. I will not forget it.”

If nothing else, at least he knew there was someone in the palace he could count on.

***

“You ought to eat something.”

Iorveth looked up from where he’d been staring down at Aoife, lost to the world while he worried over her tiny future.

He hadn't seen a baby elf in an impossibly long time. This one seemed especially precious.

“You keep saying that,” Iorveth murmured.

“Because you’ve barely had a mouthful since you turned up on my doorstep last week,” Éibhear said. “If I wasn't confident that my cooking is fine, I’d be very insulted.”

“I remember it being a great deal.better than mine.” Iorveth sighed. “Perhaps later.”

“I will not let you waste away,” Éibhear scolded. “But I wonder if you might consider that you are the source of all your current problems, and not just the fact that your stomach is growling so loudly that I can hear it in the next room.”

Iorveth was fairly sure that was an exaggeration--he had eaten something every day, usually at the insistence of the pretty tailor Éibhear had made a home with.

Elihal was young and vibrant and brimming with confidence, and Iorveth had a hard time resisting him. He could see why his old friend had fallen so deeply for him.

If anyone deserved to have a family, Éibhear Hattori certainly did.

“Humans are, and always have been, the source of all my problems,” Iorveth said.

“Do you know why we moved here from Novigrad?” Éibhear asked, sitting down beside Iorveth.

“I don't think you've told me,” Iorveth said, the creeping sensation that Éibhear was about to make a point washing over him.

A point that was likely to be difficult to ignore, no doubt.

“Hope,” Éibhear said. “Plain and simple. Hope that Aoife would grow up knowing nothing of the misery you and I have known. Because of you.”

Iorveth raised an eyebrow.

“It's true,” Éibhear said. “A few angry elves do not speak for all of us. Your presence beside Roche has been a source of comfort for many, myself and Elihal included.”

“And you think I should go back for the good of the people, regardless of my own feelings.”

“Not at all,” Éibhear said, reaching out to let Aoife curl her tiny hand around his finger. “I think you should go back because you desperately want to, and I think you should stop feeling guilty for wanting to. Vernon Roche isn't perfect, but your hands are no cleaner than his. It is all right that you love him.”

Iorveth opened his mouth to object, to say that he didn't, that he couldn't, but the lie caught in his throat.

He could, and he did, and he hated himself for throwing away the strange solace he’d found in being with someone who'd seen him at his worst and was comfortable with sharing a bed--a life--with him.

Someone who had seen him as a monster and still treated him like a man.

Elf.

Whatever.

“It is all right,” Éibhear insisted. “And the few who are unhappy with you for it have no idea what you've done for us. You have given enough of yourself, Iorveth. You are allowed to rest.”

“I suppose I could eat something,” Iorveth allowed. “Before I go home.”

Home. Strange to think of a human palace as that.

No, strange to think of a human as that. And yet, after all this time, the one familiar thing Iorveth had was Vernon Roche.

And he was, contrary to all reason, home.

“Good,” Éibhear enthused. “I'll set the table and pry Elihal away from his work. You watch the baby for me.”

“I’d like to keep visiting her,” Iorveth said. “If that's all right.”

“We were hoping you might speak her name, when she’s old enough,” Éibhear said. “If that isn't too much for a humble blacksmith to ask of the prince-consort of the realm.”

“Never too much,” Iorveth responded, his heart contracting in his chest. “It would be an honour.”

“Good.” Éibhear smiled. “She could not ask for better.”

***

Roche’s mouth fell open as he walked into his bedchamber to see Iorveth sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed.

Especially as he’d been completely unaware of him returning to the palace.

“I climbed through the window,” Iorveth explained. “You ought to do something about that. Any sufficiently determined elf could get through it.”

“I…”

The window was at the top of a fifty-yard sheer climb, so it would have taken a very determined elf indeed.

Of course, the one who'd done it was easily the most tenacious creature Roche had ever met.

“I have a list of demands,” Iorveth said.

The relief of seeing him alive and well kept Roche glued to the spot, fear that he might evaporate if he so much as twitched stopping him from making any move toward him.

“Whatever you want,” Roche promised, and he only realised then how much he meant it.

“You may wish to hear me out first,” Iorveth said.

“Tell me,” Roche said.

“The city guard will take on non-human members in numbers at least proportional to their percentage of the general population,” Iorveth said.

“Done,” Roche agreed. That was only sensible, and something he’d considered himself.

If Iorveth was pushing for it, he might actually be able to convince non-humans to sign up.

“And their cultural needs will be respected and accommodated,” Iorveth continued.

“Naturally,” Roche agreed.

“Language schools are to be established for elves, part-elves, and any other non-humans or humans who wish to broaden their horizons.”

“Consider it done.”

“The palace will celebrate elven holidays,” Iorveth said. “I plan on hosting feasts.”

“As is your right in any case,” Roche said, fairly sure that was, in fact, what Iorveth was meant to be doing.

“And we have a naming ceremony to attend next month.”

Roche raised an eyebrow.

“It's important,” Iorveth said. “I can explain why later.”

“I know it's important,” Roche said. “I even have a vague understanding of why. I'm simply surprised that you’d allow me there.”

“You are going to offer this child your personal protection,” Iorveth said. “This point is non-negotiable.”

“I understand it to be an incredible honour,” Roche said, still shocked by the fact that Iorveth was here, and offering him the chance to fix things, and finally taking on the role he was meant to.

“It is,” Iorveth said. “Consider it an apology for walking away.”

“You were upset,” Roche said. This part of the conversation, he’d had a thousand times in his own mind. He knew exactly what he wanted to say here.

“Very,” Iorveth said. “But I am also three times your age and should be well and truly experienced enough to handle stress with grace.”

“Three times,” Roche repeated, his mental script completely forgotten.

“I felt as though my feelings for you were a betrayal of my people,” Iorveth continued. “That the simple act of having fallen in love with you was a crime against them.”

“Love,” Roche said, struck by how much the word meant to him. He didn't think of himself as a terribly sentimental man, but…

But to have this love, from this particular elf, who would have every right to hate him but was also the only person who truly knew him…

That meant a great deal. More than Roche had ever hoped for.

And of course, somewhere along the line, he’d fallen for Iorveth.

It was comforting not to be alone in that.

“I would have you as my own,” Iorveth said, meeting Roche’s eyes and holding his gaze steadily.

“You already do,” Roche responded, since it was in all possible ways the truth.

A smile--small, genuine, and impossibly rare--spread over Iorveth’s face.

“You asked me, once, to forgive you for being human,” Iorveth said. “I think… I think I could do that.”

“I’m not sure I deserve it,” Roche said, because that was true, as well. No amount of penance seemed like enough.

“I’m not sure you need to,” Iorveth said. “I think it’s enough that I’d like to stop being angry about it.”

Roche turned that thought over, accustomed now to the things Iorveth said forcing him to think before he responded.

“And I don’t think my affection for you solves every problem we’ll ever have,” Iorveth added before Roche had time to even decide if he agreed that forgiveness worked the way he said it did. “But I do think it’s a start. A foundation from which to build something stronger.”

That, Roche was sure he agreed with. A start was all they needed.

Luckily, it was also exactly what they had. They would both have been fools to do anything other than grab it with both hands.

“I would like the chance to build something with you,” he said.

“Then come to bed,” Iorveth offered his hand to Roche, beckoning him forward. “And in the morning, we can begin.”

Roche breathed a sigh of relief, warmth flowing through him the moment his own hand made contact with Iorveth’s.

Things, he was starting to believe, would be all right.

***

“They are inseparable. A united front,” Emhyr growled as he began removing his travelling cloak--a pointless affectation for portal travel, but one tradition dictated all the same.

“Nothing I could say or threaten or imply would drive a wedge between them. They are smitten. The palace is full of elves.”

Emhyr rounded on Geralt as he began chuckling from his position on the bed. “How did you know?” he demanded, eyes narrowed.

Geralt shrugged. “Thin line between hate and lust. Give into the lust often enough and you start to see one or two good qualities.”

Emhyr huffed. “It almost sounds as though you have some experience in the matter.”

“Why’re you mad about it? This is what you wanted. You should have come in here saying ‘thank you, Geralt, you’re a genius who single-handedly stabilised Temeria with an idea I thought would end in bloodshed,’ or something.”

“I do not like to lose a wager,” Emhyr said. “And I now realise you only made it to manipulate me into your plan, and I don’t like being manipulated, either.”

“Weird how you love to manipulate other people,” Geralt said. “If you hate it so much.”

“They usually don’t notice,” Emhyr pointed out, sitting heavily on the edge of the bed. “Thank you, Geralt. For seeing what I could not see and lending your expertise on the subject.”

“Was that so hard?” Geralt asked.

“Though I think to call your actions single-handed rather underplays the role your friends themselves have played in the stabilisation of Temeria,” Emhyr continued. “There are elves in guard uniforms patrolling the streets of Vizima. Dwarves greeting their human neighbours cheerfully. Gnomes! Gnomes being funded by the palace to research all kinds of things. Even the halfling farmers in the market looked happier.”

Geralt smiled a small, wistful smile. “I should go visit. Sounds nice.”

“You would like it. Your heart bleeds for non-humans,” Emhyr said, though there was fondness in his tone.

“I am a non-human,” Geralt said. “Kinda. To most people, anyway.”

“Yes, well, I imagine you’d be welcome. You could have come today.”

Geralt wrinkled his nose. “You would’ve made me dress up for it.”

“I have long since accepted that short of using physical force there is no way to make you do anything you don’t wish to do.” Emhyr sighed. “It is both your primary source of appeal and endlessly frustrating.”

“Emhyr,” Geralt said softly. “Take the rest of your clothes off and quit being mad that you got your way.”

Emhyr turned to stare at Geralt. It was difficult to argue that he hadn’t, ultimately, gotten exactly what he wanted.

Temeria would serve as the model for the rest of the North--and the South. It was something from which to build an empire of peace, prosperity, and stability.

And Geralt had been waiting in bed for him upon his return, because Geralt was pleased, as well, and a pleased Geralt was inclined to do all manner of enjoyable things.

“I suppose you plan to collect,” Emhyr said, trying not to sound too eager to have to make good on his wager.

Geralt hummed thoughtfully. “Tomorrow,” he said. “After you’ve had to think about it all day.”

Ah.

Well, perhaps even the emperor couldn’t have everything.

But Emhyr was, much to his own surprise, very satisfied with what he had.