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The screams stopped.

Eskel felt something inside himself creak dangerously, like rotten spring ice under strain. He'd lost an uncle to spring ice, so said his ma, when his ma was a girl and her brother was a babe, running out onto the lake that had been solid all winter but turned to chunks and slush under his little feet and he vanished into the black water. Eskel didn't remember the name of the uncle he never met, was already starting to forget the face of his mother, but figured that cautionary tale would always tie the squeezing sound of soggy ice to danger in his memory, even if he lived to be as old as Master Vesemir. 

Lying in the infirmary with the other survivors of his cohort, in the ringing silence where the screams used to be, Eskel thought he probably wouldn't live to be that old. He was pretty sure that when he saw the masters carrying Geralt away wrapped in a sheet, the rotten barrier in his chest would give way and something black and freezing and deadly would burst free and swallow everything. And then he would be put down. 

But when the masters came out from the laboratory, they didn't have Geralt with them, alive or dead. They came out, and they went back in, carrying more bottles and jars, more bundles and books, and after two more days they did come out with Geralt, not wrapped in a sheet, and put him on a bed in the infirmary. 

He looked terrible. His skin was bleached white like a drowned corpse, and his brown hair was falling out in patches and white at the roots where it was still holding on. And he smelled weird; Eskel's new senses hadn't been trained yet but he could still tell there was a new edge to Geralt's scent, like lightning and dirt. 

"He smells a little bit dead," said one of the other boys, and Eskel punched him, and then he wasn't allowed to stay in the infirmary anymore and had to go back to the dorms. He lay in the bunk under Geralt's empty bunk and he tried not to think about how he'd been jealous when Geralt bounced back so quickly after the first round of the Trial of the Grasses. 

(The first round. For every other witcher for two hundred years, it was the only round. He'd heard some of the men talking about it.)

He tried not to think too hard about anything at all, because almost everything made the frozen, rotten, dangerous feeling come back. He was a witcher now. He had to be careful of feelings like that. 

He still snuck into the infirmary every chance he got, to check on Geralt. They were brothers. They'd made up a super gross secret ceremony with blood and spit, and now they had a little bit of each other's blood in them and they were brothers forever, on top of the way the Wolf School made them brothers. 

(They'd been eight. Eskel had barely been at Kaer Morhen a year.

"Bitchin'," Geralt had declared, looking with satisfaction at the drying smears on their shins, where no one would notice one more cut. He'd been at Kaer Morhen for years and knew all the swears. 

"Yeah," Eskel had echoed, "bitchin'.") 

And brothers looked out for each other. Didn't matter if Geralt looked and smelled a little bit dead now. He gave Eskel the finger without opening his eyes when Eskel told him that, which made Eskel laugh for the first time in two weeks, and then he stopped giving a shit about the way Geralt looked or smelled.

He couldn't, quite, kill his worry over the way Geralt sounded. He breathed funny for days, wheezing and bubbling like his lungs were burned or bleeding (they might have been both). When he was awake his breathing was slow and deliberate, like it hurt and he was trying to be careful about it - although Eskel could hear his heart, and it was even slower than Eskel's own, so maybe some of the slowness was just how Geralt breathed now that he was a witcher. 

But he couldn't talk. At all. Early on, the first time he opened his eyes properly (cat-slitted gold, with eyeshine reflecting the lamplight, and it pleased Eskel that this was one way they still looked like brothers), he tried to. He went, "H-" and flinched, nostrils flaring. 

"Don't try to talk if it hurts," Eskel said quickly. It was the wrong thing to say and he knew it the second he couldn't take the words back. Geralt glared at him and tried again, puffed up his skinny chest and - made a horrible hacking noise that died into a gurgle, and he curled on his side and coughed into his hands, blood seeping through his fingers. The master who'd been studiously pretending he couldn't see Eskel at Geralt's bedside now shoved him away, thumping and tapping at Geralt's chest and back, looking for fluid pockets in his lungs. All the while Geralt was a knot of agony on the bed, his face screwed up like he should be crying but he couldn't. 

"Blew out your larynx in the Trials, probably," he said when Geralt had gone limp, panting and wild-eyed. "Happens sometimes. Listen, mutagens are better for healing than they are for scarring. Don't try to talk until you can walk again, at least, or you might never get your speech back at all." 

Eskel went back to the dorms that night and thought about how Geralt had been taken back into the lab and kept there, getting - he clenched his teeth until they creaked - fucking experimented on, for another two days after the screams stopped. He thought about how a mute witcher wouldn't last very long, out on the Path by himself. He thought about how thrice-damned stubborn and contrary Geralt could be. 

He showed up in the infirmary the next day with a piece of vellum, a pencil, and the smallest folding knife from Geralt's trunk. 

Geralt's eyes lit up and he made grabby hands for Eskel's presents. Fast as anything he scrawled on the vellum, fuck this shit. 

Eskel laughed. "At least you didn't blow out your brain too - any worse, anyways." 

Fuck you, Geralt wrote, slowly this time, in elegant script, but he was smiling. 

Scraping the vellum clean over and over got tedious fast, but Eskel had a plan for that too. 

"Signs," he said, "not witcher Signs, though I bet it'll make us better at them too. Just for words and letters." Before the rockslide, his nan had taught him a few finger-shapes, first because he was slow to speak, and then more because she herself was deaf as a post. 

Like the ones we used to cheat on that bestiary exam? Geralt waggled his eyebrows. 

"That wasn't-" Eskel hissed, and caught himself, and flicked his fingers, C-H-E-A-T-I-N-G. 

Fingerspelling wasn't much faster than writing on vellum, but they set to inventing signs for everything a witcher might need to say to another witcher (including, at Geralt's insistence, all the swear words). All one-handed, all to be as clear with the hand at the side or behind the back as near the face. 

The infirmary master knew what they were doing, and approved of it. "The dexterity will be good for your Signs," he said, "both of you. And a bit of silent communication can be a great boon on tricky joint hunts." Mostly he just seemed relieved they'd found a way to reduce Geralt's temptation to speak. 

That temptation was high, because Geralt's recovery was slow, and Eskel could see that he was going stir-crazy in that bed. He must have read through every book in the Kaer Morhen library, every bestiary and alchemy guide and dead witcher's journal. His feet and legs were in almost constant motion as he read, flexing and straightening as he strove to regain enough strength to go back to the dorms. 

Then came the summer's day when he went missing from the infirmary. It was Eskel who found him, in one of the pastures between the fortress and the woods. He was swaying on his feet, painfully thin, but upright under his own power, and taking great huffing sniffs of the wildflowers blooming profusely all around him. 

When he saw Eskel, he waved at the flowers, then tapped his own nose. Not me, he signed. 

Eskel had long since stopped noticing Geralt's altered scent, but he had a feeling Geralt's sense of smell was now more acute than even most witchers'. And he couldn't exactly bathe thoroughly in the infirmary. He must have stunk to himself something awful. 

"Want to throw a few of those into a bathtub?" He said it half in jest, but when Geralt's face lit up with longing Eskel filled both their pockets to bulging with flowers. 

Geralt leaned on him a couple of times as he wobbled back to the fortress, but when Eskel would have steered him back to the infirmary he shoved him towards the dorms. Bath, he signed, YOU said. 

Getting a bath going wasn't too hard, because Eskel had already mastered Igni. His Signs were really strong; the instructor didn't say it but Eskel could tell he was impressed, and if every time a new one bent sweetly into his hands he remembered his nan's withered fingers shaping his fat little ones, and her toothless smile when he told her something she could see - well. Not everything that made a witcher came from witchers, it seemed. It made him feel like he might be one who lasted a good long while on the Path, and it meant that his brother could damn well have a hot bath.

He scattered the flowers from the field into the steaming tub, feeling like he was preparing a giant pot of tea. Geralt lowered himself into it with shaking arms, and then melted against the tub wall, slack-jawed. 

After a few deep breaths, he croaked, "Fuck." His voice was wet and scratchy, and he frowned after he spoke like it had hurt to do it, but he didn't cough. 

"Of course that's your first word," Eskel said, "of course. It was probably your first word the first time around, too." 

Geralt closed his eyes and slid his head beneath the water, then raised one hand just above the surface and advised Eskel to go fuck a goat. 

***

What people said about witchers, that they couldn't feel emotions, wasn't completely a lie; Geralt knew he didn't feel fear in any ordinary way, certainly not for himself. But when Chireadan ripped open Jaskier's doublet, revealing a hideous, inflamed swelling that took up most of Jaskier's neck, Geralt felt his own throat close up, his blood rushing in his ears such that he could barely hear the medic talking.

Jaskier was a bard, his voice was his livelihood; he would be as crippled without it as Geralt would be without his sword arm. And his voice was - beautiful, rare, a gift to the world, exactly the kind of ephemeral mortal grace that it was the only point of Geralt's cursed existence to protect and preserve. The thought of it becoming a gravelly ruin like Geralt's own, or worse, silenced completely, made him feel sick to his stomach. It was obscene, and not in a good way, as Jaskier would say. 

Would say again, Geralt swore to himself as Roach raced for Rinde.

No, fear for himself had been burnt right out of him, but clearly he could still feel fear for others, especially if they'd wormed their way inside his defences. 

The mage - the sorceress - Yennefer was arrogant and bizarre and supernaturally beautiful, standard for sorceresses really, but Geralt came to her in all but naked desperation and she helped first and haggled later, and Geralt could feel it happening again: another person slipping inside his walls. He was powerless to stop it, always had been, except by running away which he was very good at. 

The whole mess with the djinn capped off a very bad and strange few weeks for Geralt, wherein literally everything was too much, precipitated by the realization his child surprise was roughly the same age Geralt had been when he was left in the ditch for Vesemir. When he woke up from - not the most comfortable nap of his life, on the floor of a destroyed basement with his cock out, but surely one of the most necessary, he wasted no time fleeing as quickly and quietly as he could. Which, when he put his mind to it, was very quick and quiet indeed. He would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for that meddling bard. 

"I know that walk," Jaskier said, falling into step beside him as he tried to slink away from what was left of the mayoral manor. "I've done that walk, although I think if I'd made a building fall down around my head with the force of my lovemaking I'd find it in me to strut at least a little." 

"Hm." 

"Feeling better?" 

"Mm." 

"Good, that's good. You had me worried there for a minute, my friend. And not just because you went and buttered the second most terrifying biscuit on the Continent. The first, of course, belonging to a certain governess I once ran afoul of in Novigrad..." Jaskier prattled on all through Geralt getting Roach and leaving town, speaking - and slipping into snatches of song, as he was wont to do - with complete freedom, like he'd never had his throat shredded inside, and Geralt let the sound of his voice wash around him and fill him with relief. 

***

"Fatherhood's a good look on you," Jaskier said. "I would not have guessed what you needed was more responsibility, but here we are." 

Strictly speaking, everything was a good look on Geralt of Rivia, especially rescuing a humble bard beset by bandits and then sweeping said bard into a rib-popping hug in the middle of the road. That was a very good look. But now, having made their pitiful camp for the night, sitting with their backs against a log and Ciri a snuffling lump at Geralt's other side, Jaskier had a spare moment to really study his friend. 

And he looked - well, objectively he looked like hell: gaunt and exhausted, wearing little more than rags, tensing visibly every time Ciri was out of his direct line of sight. But he'd lost the haunted air that had clung to him for the last twelve years. 

And he was much freer with his touches, see above re: hug. This also seemed to be Ciri's doing; the poor child had clearly had a time of it herself, and clung to Geralt like a limpet more often than not, and every time she reattached herself Geralt tucked her under his arm, or ruffled her hair, and once or twice Jaskier had caught him kissing the top of her head and then sniffing it in that way he had that he thought was surreptitious. Jaskier was not about to call him out on it, especially not with it yielding dividends like being snugged up against Geralt's enormous, warm side without needing to seduce him or get hypothermia first. 

"Here we are," Geralt agreed, seemingly oblivious to Jaskier's ogling (and he very well might be, after years of exposure). He stared into the fire for a long moment, taking one of his deep, impossibly slow breaths, then said, "Jaskier, I'm sorry." 

Jaskier winced. "You don't have to-"

"I do. I spoke to you in anger the last time I saw you, and you didn't deserve it." 

Oh, he hated Geralt in that moment, for exhuming the pain of that parting, a festering, wretched little thing. It made him petty. He said evenly, "Did that hurt to say?" 

"Yes." 

"You were a real asshole." 

"I know." 

Jaskier hated feeling petty. He was too old to get much pleasure in it; it just made him feel tired. He heaved his own deep breath and let it go again, the way he did back when it happened, after licking his wounds for a few days. "But you had literally just been dumped. I'm not at my best in those moments either." 

"Hm." There was a glint in Geralt's eye like he would normally be making a dig at that, but was restraining himself. It made Jaskier want to keep talking, not an uncommon impulse around Geralt, and not one he was in the habit of resisting. 

"And I know what you're thinking: how often has Jaskier been in relationships serious enough to get dumped? Well, I'll have you know, lots." He loved most of the people he took to his bed, actually, and a fair few who turned him down before they ever got there. Just because his heart healed and he kept going didn't mean he wasn't wounded by losing them in the first place. 

The list of lovers he'd stayed in love with, despite losing them over and over, was considerably shorter. Was, in fact, composed entirely of one (1) haggard witcher currently warming his side and fumbling his taciturn way through an apology. 

"If there's something I can - do, to make it right." 

There was something, actually. "More than one friend in the natural philosophy department at Oxenfurt has all but begged me on their knees to get you in for a guest lecture on monster biology." 

Geralt raised an eyebrow. "Natural philosophy department?" 

"At Oxenfurt University, yes. Where I'm a professor of music and folklore? Nearly every winter? Surely I've told you this." Come to think of it, he might not have. Professor Jaskier drew heavily on Bard Jaskier's experiences, but not so much vice versa.

"You didn't." 

"Well, I am. So, guest lecture? You'd have to stop growling for an hour." 

Geralt picked at a loose thread on his trousers. On anyone else, Jaskier would call it fidgeting . "I can't-" he said, almost uncertainly, then looked down at Ciri and went on in a firmer tone, "I can't. We're going straight to Kaer Morhen." 

"Of course," Jaskier said quickly, "I didn't mean right now. Just, someday." But Geralt was looking at him now, brow creasing. 

"People in Oxenfurt know you know me," he said slowly, in that way that meant he was thinking very hard.

Jaskier squinted. "Is that ghoul bite still affecting your head?" Ciri had pointed out the enormous scab with gruesome, childish excitement as they travelled, and Geralt had alluded to hallucinating vividly. "Most of my songs are about our adventures. Everyone knows I know you." 

"Hmm." Gods, Jaskier really didn't need to be pressed full-length against Geralt's side when he made those rumbling noises. It was egregiously hot. Geralt nodded shortly to himself, as if coming to a decision, then pinned Jaskier with his eyes. "Come with us to Kaer Morhen." 

"What?" 

"Shh, don't wake Ciri." 

"Sorry, sorry," Jaskier whispered. "What?" 

"Nilfgaard's hunting her. Too many people know she's mine by the Law of Surprise, too many people saw me in Cintra. They'll be looking for me as a route to her. Anyone who keeps company with me will be at risk. And you keep company with me more than anyone." 

More than anyone. Jaskier hugged that admission to himself, even as he protested. "I can't just disrupt my entire life to- to- what would I even do in a - secret mountain fortress in - Kaedwen?" He was almost certain Geralt had once mentioned it was in Kaedwen. 

"Survive. Not get taken, tortured, maybe killed." 

"That would be a greater disruption, true enough," Jaskier admitted, feeling nauseated. Physical courage was Geralt's forte, not his. 

"You could - meet my brothers, and Vesemir, and ask them as many questions as you want. You could help with Ciri's education." Geralt sounded eager, almost. Jaskier stared. "Hell, I'll - write up a packet from my journals for your natural philosopher friends." 

Jaskier's inner academic was already pounding its chest and howling at the moon, but it would probably have been enough just to know Geralt wanted him there. "Geralt, I-" 

"Please, Jaskier." Oh fuck, Geralt sounded raw. His pleading would be delicious if he didn't look so worried, and so tired. "I can't lose - anyone else." 

Enough. "Alright. Alright, I'll come." Geralt heaved a huge sigh of relief. "Though I'm still not sure it's a good idea." 

***

"I take it back," Jaskier panted a month later, thrusting so hard Geralt saw stars, "this was a fantastic idea." 

Geralt shuddered and tightened his shaking legs around Jaskier's waist, pulling him even harder into himself. He ached to knead Jaskier's shoulders with his hands, but he couldn't, because they were currently pinned to the mattress by Jaskier's hands. 

On my hands. Even Geralt got the symbolism there. He'd never enjoyed an apology this much. 

"Look at you," Jaskier crooned, leaning down hard on his arms. It was a surprise every time, just how strong (and hairy) Jaskier was under his foppish clothes; he dressed to appear more delicate than he was. He didn't approach a witcher's bulk, of course, but he had strength enough to bend Geralt nearly in half - with Geralt's enthusiastic assistance - and endurance enough to fuck until Geralt cried mercy. 

He also knew about Geralt's hair trigger, and his vulnerability to praise. It was a lethal combination. 

"Look at you, darling, so strong and beautiful all spread out for me like this, so brave to let me in and make you feel good." As if he'd known that was going to push Geralt over the edge again - he might have, he was so good at sex - he was already in position to kiss Geralt and swallow his deep groan as he came. 

"Fuck, you feel good. You're going to make me come soon, Geralt, with your perfect ass and how sweetly you move for me. It's all so - much of a muchness." Along with the telltale vagueness, there was a guttural tension in Jaskier's voice that said he was very close indeed. 

Geralt lifted his hips a bit higher. "Do it. Want to feel you," he ground out, and Jaskier's eyes crossed and he pounded into Geralt with additional, thrilling fervour for a few strokes before coming, his exultant shout echoing off the stone walls of the room. Geralt rode the wave of Jaskier's excitement, coming again, or still, maybe. He was fucked-out enough to be tracking poorly, because it was safe to be so, because he was home.  

This was a fantastic idea. 

Jaskier collapsed against Geralt's chest, breathing like he'd finished a long race with a sprint. His cock pulsed inside Geralt, warm and softening. He smelled happy and satisfied, and Geralt basked in more pleasure than he'd allowed himself in years. 

And then he lifted his head and started making out with Geralt all over again. Geralt whined through his nose. Jaskier chuckled. "You sound like you have more to give, my dear." 

"M'good," Geralt mumbled. 

"Ah, but you could be great. There is literally nothing stopping us." It was true. With the critical repairs completed before winter truly set in, tomorrow would commence the lazier phase of the season. Eskel was sleeping in Geralt's room tonight, keeping an ear out for Ciri. Geralt was long past caring if his fellow witchers heard what he got up to. 

But- "You're spent." 

Jaskier grinned. "My cock may be, but these hands can and do go all night." He looked to where he was still pinning Geralt's hands to the sheets. "We'll have to do something else with yours, though. Binding, or just hold onto that headboard?" Geralt grabbed the headboard, and Jaskier said, "Oh, very good," and the wood - built to support a witcher's heavy frame - creaked ominously as Geralt's arms bulged.  

Jaskier wasted no time pulling out of Geralt and replacing his cock with his fingers. "You're so wet down here, Geralt, can you feel it? Your oil and my spend, can you smell it?" He spread and moved his fingers, curling them with languid strength, and Geralt flushed hot at the wet, slick sounds they made and managed a tiny nod. 

"I wonder," Jaskier said, half to himself, "how many fingers it would take to make you loud? Shall we find out?" 

Geralt didn't like his own voice much more than his own smell, but he liked Jaskier's fingers in him, long and strong and skillful, and the prospect of more was enough to make him splay his legs a little wider, witcher flexibility on full display. Jaskier flashed him a brilliant smile and got to work. 

The answer, as it turned out, was four fingers, with the tip of Jaskier's thumb rubbing playfully at his rim, and something north of another - two? Orgasms? It all blurred together, Jaskier never quite letting him come down. Geralt's hair was drenched with sweat, his cock too sensitive to touch, twitching sometimes but not leaking more than dribbles of clear fluid. Jaskier's other hand played with Geralt's mouth, sometimes letting him suck on his fingers, sometimes sweeping aimlessly over his tongue and teeth, but mostly holding his mouth open as Geralt drooled and gulped air and moaned. The unrestrained sounds would be mortifying if Geralt hadn't been reduced to pure response. 

"Gods, I've never seen anything so beautiful," Jaskier said, hushed, in awe. "You're magnificent, truly. Look at you, taking me, your lovely bottom stuffed so full. And giving me such gorgeous noises, yes, love-" he twisted his fingers again, and it ached and throbbed and burned but it felt so good, too much and just right, and Geralt choked on a sob. Jaskier gasped and blurted, as if compelled, "Oh, good boy," and a new, bigger, hotter wave of sensation Geralt couldn't even name crashed over him. His ass clamped down around Jaskier's fingers and wood crunched under his hands as he threw his head to the side and roared into the pillow.

As if from a great distance, he heard Jaskier say, in a very different tone of voice, "What the fuck." 

Geralt couldn't answer, couldn't find his way back into his body from the cloud of bliss he was dissolving into, and didn't particularly care to try. He blacked out and hoped Jaskier and his body could sort things out without him. 

It must not have been very much later when he came to again, because the light from the window and the hearth were about the same as they had been, and the sweat hadn't quite dried on his brow. But his lower body and his face felt clean, and he was under a blanket, and Jaskier was lying beside him and looking at him with no small amount of concern. 

"Hello there, welcome back. Quick question, are you feeling alright?" 

"Mm. Great." 

"Are you sure? Because you just sprayed blood from your mouth." Out of the corner of his eye Geralt could, in fact, see a mark on one side of the pillow, misted with blood drops. Shit. He'd better volunteer for laundry duty next. 

Geralt shrugged. His arms felt a little more tired than the rest of him, probably from crushing the parts of the headboard he'd been holding onto. And his throat hurt, probably from - right. "Shouted." 

"Am I meant to infer that blood generally appears when you shout?" 

"Mm." 

"That can't be right. You yell at me all the time. Get down! Get behind me! Don't touch that!" Jaskier did a very passable imitation of Geralt's gruff bark. Geralt rolled his eyes, and Jaskier thumped him in the shoulder. "I saw that." He was silent a moment, then reflected, "It's always when a lot of things are happening. There tends to be blood around already. Would I notice some more on your teeth? I guess not." He rolled slightly on top of Geralt, the better to fix him with an interrogative stare and demand, "But why do you bleed when you raise your voice?" 

Geralt touched his neck. "Scarring, from the Trials. Healed that way. Lucky to have a voice at all." Lucky he'd had Eskel helping him, keeping him from going mad in silence until he snapped and screeched himself totally mute for the rest of what would have been a short life. It would have happened. He'd always had a temper. 

Slowly, Jaskier said, "So when I said you would have to stop growling if you were to deliver a lecture, and you said you can't, you meant you… can't. Your voice is like this all the time." 

"Mm." Dammit, self-consciousness was eating up his afterglow. Could a man not wallow for a minute in the wreckage of a truly legendary fuck? 

Jaskier, however, would not be swayed from his path of horrified realization. "And when I asked if it hurt you to apologize, and you said yes…" 

Geralt said nothing. He was not going to say anything unless required. His throat hurt from shouting earlier. 

"Geralt?" Jaskier's voice was small. "Does it hurt you every time you speak?" 

Fuck. "Only a little."

"Only a- fuck! Geralt!" 

Okay, it was required. "S'not a big deal, Jaskier. Sometimes I talk to Roach, just because I want her to hear me." He took Jaskier's hand, fondled the knuckles that were already a bit knobby and would only get moreso as Jaskier aged. "I've seen you play sore, play bloody." Those lute strings were fickle, could tear off a callus or part of a nail in the blink of an eye. "Lots of things that hurt are worth doing." 

"Playing my lute is voluntary. Basic communication is mandatory. This is horrible!" 

A smile tugged at Geralt's lips. This was why he liked Jaskier: all the monstrous things about Geralt fazed him not at all (not enough, when it came to hunts themselves, or Geralt's damned moodiness), and all the monstrous things that happened to Geralt filled him with more outrage than Geralt had energy for himself. He stood up for Geralt where Geralt backed down. It was confusing, but - nice. 

It was also nice to be so thoroughly well-fucked that he was falling asleep despite this awkward confrontation. "Night, Jaskier." 

"Oh, you aggravating, cagey lummox, I'm going to…" Jaskier muttered furiously to himself without any apparent need for Geralt to respond, which was another familiar and comforting Jaskier trait. He fell asleep to the sound of it. 

***

Eskel woke to the creak of the adjoining door in Geralt's room, but at the sound of little feet he kept his eyes closed and hid his smile in his arm. 

A rush of air, and then a slight weight landed on him. "Wake up, Eskel!" 

Eskel groaned theatrically. "I can't, I'm dead. The mighty witcher, brought down by the fierce cub! Oh, the tragedy!" 

Ciri's giggle was the best sound in the world. Eskel imagined the walls themselves leaning in to hear it, amazed: the laughter of a girl child in Kaer Morhen. "You're such a doofus. Come, I'm hungry." She said this last like a royal command. 

Eskel rolled up to a sit and swept her a bow. "As you wish, princess." 

He'd slept in his trousers, in case Ciri needed him in the night, so he only had to pull on a shirt to be vaguely presentable for breakfast. He nicked one of Geralt's rather than go all the way back to his own room. 

In the corridor, he glanced toward the door at the far end where the bard had all but dragged Geralt last night - not that his brother had needed much dragging. "Should we wake the lovebirds, or let them sleep?" 

Ciri wrinkled her nose. "Gross. They could be naked in there. Leave 'em." 

"You know, I'm 'gross' with your dad too sometimes."

"Eugh!" 

"And I hear that bard of his really knows how to party." 

Ciri clapped her hands over her ears and sang, "La la la la la laa, I can't hear you!" 

Eskel chuckled and hugged her shoulder briefly. "Okay, okay, I'll stop. What shall we hunt up from the kitchen for breakfast, cub?" 

They were just pouncing on their prey, a massive bacon and mushroom scramble, when Geralt stumbled in, sniffing the air. 

Eskel elbowed Ciri. "Secret witcher knowledge, girl: you can summon us by frying bacon." 

"This also works on bards," Jaskier announced, trooping in behind Geralt. He wound his arms around Geralt's waist from behind and yawned, "particularly when hungover, but anytime really." 

The collective fuck-fluff of their hair was astounding. Manfully, Eskel limited himself to a mild, "Sleep well?" 

Geralt narrowed his eyes; he knew when Eskel was taking the piss, directly or no. But he had his priorities in order, and loaded up a plate. His eyes lit up when he got a closer look at what Eskel and Ciri had cooked. "Cave mushrooms!" 

"I get extra," Ciri bragged. 

"Mmm." He reached across the table to snatch a few, and Ciri slapped his hand with her fork. 

"Back off, freeloader!" Her accent was suddenly pure Skelligen, and Eskel remembered that her grandfather was a jarl of the sea dogs. 

Geralt froze, and so did Ciri, her eyes going wide at her own daring. Eskel shattered the silence with a guffaw. 

"Thirty-two years," Geralt rasped, in his most aggrieved tones, "thirty-two years destiny has been hunting me down, and for what? Mushroom rationing and lessons in table manners." Eskel fell to the floor, howling. When he finally managed to climb back into his seat, wiping tears from his eyes, there were suspiciously fewer mushrooms in his plate of scramble, and Geralt was looking smug, with bulging cheeks. Oh, Eskel was not going easy on him in sparring today. 

"I'm twelve," Ciri said abruptly. 

"And I'm forty," said Jaskier, "but I've only known you for twenty-two years. Where'd you come up with that number, Geralt?" 

The mushroom thief swallowed his stolen mushrooms. "Ghoul bite vision quest." 

"So, hallucinations. While delirious." 

"Mm." 

Gods, Geralt's life was ridiculous. Eskel missed him so much on the Path. At practice, he made sure to blast him through two walls of hay bales with Aard, to show his affection. 

That afternoon, pleasantly tired from the morning's exertions and full from lunch, everyone split up to do whatever they felt like. 

Eskel was carrying some of Scorpion's tack up to his room when he heard Ciri say excitedly, "You mean like witcher Signs?" 

Jaskier laughed. "Let's leave those to the witchers, my dear. No, I mean sign language. Do you know, in Redania where I'm from, there's an entire valley, half a dozen villages, where fully a quarter of the people are born deaf? They speak Common, but they speak it with their hands, like this." Eskel peered around the doorway just in time to see Jaskier moving his hands in front of his face and chest, saying, "Hello - I'm - Buttercup."

"Ohh, it's a bit like Skelligen ship-semaphore, but for people!" 

Jaskier beamed. "Just exactly so, bright girl." His hands kept moving, slowly at first and then picking up speed. "Every child who attended the temple school had to take a class in valley sign. I wasn't very good, but I got extra credit for interpreting some songs in a way the deaf teachers liked." 

Geralt was in a corner of the room, armor forgotten on his lap, staring at Jaskier and Ciri at least as intently as Eskel was. Ciri appeared not to notice. Jaskier had to have noticed but was pretending not to.

"How would you say my name?" 

"Hmm, Cirilla, that means 'swallow', right? Like the bird? So," he showed Ciri, then shaped her hands with his. Eskel gulped hard against a sudden lump in his throat. "There. Swallow." 

Ciri repeated the sign, looking pleased, then dropped her hands into her lap with a sigh. "Grandmother would say learning Redanian peasant signs was a waste of time." 

"And I would disagree! First, no learning is ever wasted. Second, you never know where life will take you, but I think it will take you a great many places, second-generation Child of Surprise."

"Twice over," Geralt interrupted, "I was a child surprise, too." 

Jaskier boggled. "Seriously?" 

"Witchers are pretty much all either orphans or surprises," Eskel offered, entering the room properly and setting his tack down by the door. Unlike some other witchers he could name (Lambert) he had enough social graces to actually join conversations instead of just lurking. 

Geralt grimaced. "I suspect Yennefer's going to have my hide for not telling her that, when she turns up. It's probably relevant somehow." 

"Nevermind the sorceress, worry about the songwriter! You're lucky I'm in the middle of arguing a point." Jaskier turned back to Ciri. "Where was I? Ah. Third, being able to speak silently enables all manner of skulduggery." He said this last with relish, poking her and making her giggle. 

"Fourth, you can use it with me, right away!" He lowered his voice, as if confiding a secret. "Sometimes, when I sing too much, my voice gets tired and it hurts to speak. I would sign then, if I had anyone to sign with." He looked at Geralt. "It's just - good, when you can, to hurt yourself less." 

Geralt opened his mouth. 

Ciri wrinkled her nose. "Well, obviously." 

Geralt closed his mouth. 

Ciri turned to look at him. "Will you learn with me, Geralt? It could be like a secret language!" 

"Secret outside of Redania," Jaskier muttered pedantically. Eskel had no trouble at all believing the man was a professor. 

Geralt looked at Eskel. Eskel looked steadily back. Geralt nodded.

"If it's a secret sign language you're after," Eskel said, "we can do you one better. Right now only two people speak it." 

"The vocabulary could use an update, though," Geralt said, even more hoarse than usual. He and Eskel sat down at right angles to Jaskier and Ciri, creating a circle. "It's mostly stuff like water, pisspot, shitter, tired," He extended his arm into the centre, still about level with his knees but more obvious than if his hand had just been resting against his thigh. 

"North, south, east, west, cave, river, ghoul, drowner, wyvern, manticore," Eskel added, holding his hand out the same way. 

"Fuck this, fuck that, fuck everything, fuck this one thing in particular," Jaskier gasped, Ciri squealed, and Eskel reached over and flicked Geralt in the ear. 

"You - made up a sign language," Jaskier said. "You and Geralt." 

Eskel nodded. "Out of one I learned in my - in my family, before. It can be for our family, now." Jaskier beamed at him, worryingly misty-eyed. 

"We'll have to tell Vesemir, Lambert, and Coën what we're up to," Geralt grumbled, "dibs on not being the one to do that." 

"Ohhh, how do I say dibs?" Ciri said excitedly. 

Jaskier sniffed and cleared his throat. "This is the valley sign for dibs. Mountain style could be like… this, maybe?" 

"Dibs on making dessert instead of mucking out the stables!" Ciri all but shouted, throwing the sign down and bouncing where she sat. 

She and Jaskier devolved into (cheerful) arguing. For a moment, their voices and their rapid human heartbeats seemed to fade away as Eskel looked at Geralt looking at him. 

Profanity aside, they'd not made their boyish shorthand very expressive. It didn't need to be; its existence alone was a grand gesture, more solidarity than witchers were generally supposed to have for each other. But Eskel made do. In front of his chest, more like Jaskier's valley style, he shaped his hand: You. Me. Them. Us. We.  

Geralt gave him a slow blink, like a contented cat. He didn't need to sign anything about goat-fucking. Eskel knew in his heart it was implied.