Eskel hadn't wanted anything to do with Diedre. He had politely told her parents so when he learned what was to be his "payment" for saving the Caingorn prince's life, and then he told her in person that he would never take her away from her family when she was still a child. He only grew more resolved to have nothing to do with her when he heard the rumors of her mental imbalance and political troubles.
Unfortunately, she shoved herself into his life, begging Vesemir to let her stay at Kaer Morhen and protect her from her brother. Eskel was relieved that Julian was at Oxenfurt because Diedre was unstable.
It was a mess, and when it ended the right side of Eskel's face was a bloody mess. Lambert took him into the castle. Geralt could hear Eskel asking if it was bad enough that Julian would be disgusted, and contacted Yen to ask her to please bring Julian home.
"So you're the Witcher Bard."
Julian looked up from packing his lute and noted the sharp intelligence and stern mouth of a beautiful woman. "That's what people who don't know any better call me. I prefer to be called Julian. May I help you?"
"A mutual friend asked me to seek you out."
"What mutual friend could I share with a such a dangerous woman?" In his experience the only women who wore trousers were women who weren't afraid to get their hands dirty. And with the way her trousers fit every curve, it looked like she was trying to lure fools so that she could get her hands bloody. She looked like a temptress with fatal intent.
"Oh, Gerald!" Julian said in a plummy voice. "The man who farts tunes. Quite a popular act, though too low-brow for my taste. How would a lady like yourself be acquainted with such an entertainer?" He liked to poke at powerful people; it made life more interesting.
She actually seemed to find this amusing. "Is there actually a such a man?"
"He truly is called Gerald," Julian said. "But I suppose you are really referring to the much less muscially-inclined witcher."
"Quite," she said. "He asked me to take you to Kaer Morhen. Eskel has been hurt."
Julian was afraid but didn't panic. She was letting him waste time, after all. He pulled the strap to his lutecase over his shoulder. "I suppose we aren't taking horses?"
She tilted her head and smirked, her black hair curling over her shoulder.
"I must let the Dean know." There were students at the tavern and he recognized one. "Shani, if I may borrow your paper and quill? There is an emergency, and I would appreciate if one of you could pass this note to the Dean." He scrawled a note and signed it with a flourish as the medical student acquiesced. "Thanks, darling."
He turned back to the sorceress. "I assume you are going to open a portal. Is there a place you would prefer to depart from?"
"The alley outside will do, if you don't need to fetch any belongings."
He followed her to the tavern's entrance. "May I have your name, please, and how you know the White Wolf."
"I am pleased to see that you are not a complete simpleton," she said. "My name is Yennefer of Vengerburg. Geralt is my... long-term and occasional lover."
He asked her a few simple questions that verified that she did, at least, know Geralt, and she gave him a precis on the situation at the School of the Wolf that Geralt had relayed to her before she summoned a portal.
Julian was relieved when they did, indeed, arrive at Kaer Morhen. "Thank you, my lady. I do appreciate you taking the trouble to fetch me. Hopefully we will have time to get to know each other better, but I would like to see to my Bonded as quickly as possible." He had always told Eskel that there was usually time for manners, but he did rush through them a bit. It had likely taken the sorceress a lot of energy to portal them here and he was grateful, but Eskel was of more importance.
Geralt was standing in front of Eskel's door like a prison guard. His face softened when he saw Julian, and that made something clench in the bard's gut. "Is the injury that bad?"
"Disfiguring, but not dangerous."
"Thank the gods," Julian said, letting his spine sag in relief. "And thank you for sending your friend." He moved to open the door but Geralt grabbed his arm. "What?" He said, trying to pull his arm away but failing.
"He is afraid that you will reject him. Do not do that. If you repudiate him, I will hunt you down."
Geralt's intensity surprised but didn't scare Julian. His eyebrows rose as he examined Geralt's expression and body language. "Huh," he said. The white-haired witcher actually cared deeply for Eskel.
"Stop threatening my companion, Wolf," Eskel said. "Did you forget that I have ears?"
Geralt finally released Julian and the bard opened the door and moved to kneel down next to the bed. He grasped Eskel's hand and then lay his other palm gently on the unbandaged side of his Bonded's face. "Hello my darling. I've missed you. Don't be too upset at your friend, he sent a sorceress to portal me here."
Geralt closed the door to give them privacy but stayed to listen, something inside of him craving to hear the soft exchanges that he used to listen to in their youth. He could hear Eskel tell the abridged story to Julian, and his companion made understanding noises. When Eskel said that he would like to stop talking because of the pain, Julian began to sing what he said was his newest composition softly to him. It was a love song, about distance not existing between two hearts.
When Eskel confessed after that his fears that Julian would be repulsed by his new scars, Julian soothed him with phrases that Geralt would never have imagined one person would say to another. "My heart, what does the appearance of the body matter when we are one soul? If you lost your eyes I would still have your hands. If you lost your tongue I would still have our heartbeat to know what you felt. If you lost your cock you would still have your hands and tongue, and you know I would be having those on a daily basis." That made Eskel chuckle, but Julian continued.
"We Chose each other. Your blood is in my veins. I would hate myself before I could hate you. This will just be another scar, and have I ever minded those?"
Geralt's eyes burned and he had to close them. When he opened them Yennefer was there, watching him with a knowing expression. It was a kind one, for her. She silently held out a hand and led him to another corner of the keep where Eskel wouldn't hear them.
"Whatever that bard has that you want, I must admit I do not nor ever will possess it. Or is it your brother that you are pining for?"
"Both," Geralt admits, ashamed. "Since they Bonded."
Yennefer nodded. "We have passion and love, perhaps, but little tenderness or devotion. If you need to find that compassion from another, you should. From what I gathered while interacting with the bard, he seems to type to be unselfish with gentle words. I do not know your Eskel. Is he a jealous man?"
"No," Geralt said. "We were close friends long ago, before I changed."
"I think you have convinced yourself that you have changed more than you have changed. You like to believe that you have no emotions and convince many people that is the truth. But we know better. You long for a quiet and steadfast kind of love."
"I don't need it," Geralt said, trying to make both of them believe.
"Dear heart," Yennefer said, unknowingly making Julian's voice echo in Geralt's mind. "I do not find it a flaw. Do you find me weak for not wielding a sword? We were simply made differently. You should let your brother heal and then approach him with openness and explain everything. If he is still your friend he will be relieved to know your feelings."
She touched Geralt's face in a rare display of affection. He had to hold her hand to his cheek and savor the sensation, closing his eyes to keep her disdain from ruining the moment. As she let him keep her there for several seconds, he finally looked at her. She wasn't disgusted, but she was verging on discomfort. He let her take her hand back.
"You need more than I can give. I'm not saying we are over; I am giving you permission to seek out more." She stepped back, her heeled boots making a sound of finality that Geralt tried not to equate with the toll of a death knell. "I must get back, but do keep in touch." She flicked her hair and her violet eyes burned with intensity as she spoke the Elder words that created the portal then she was gone.
Julian stayed home with Eskel. It had been years since they had shared their room at Kaer Morhen, and it brought back memories of them as youths, trying to be adults between bouts of giggling and screwing.
There weren't many left of the Wolf School. The attack had happened after they had been on the Path for several years, and the ranks of older witchers-- the scholars, the instructors, and the mutagists-- had been wiped out except for Vesemir. The matrons and the potential companions had been the first casualties, then the trainees. There were only a handful of them left now, to be the final carriers of their tradition.
Vesemir hadn't been one of Eskel's main instructors, but the two men had grown close. Vesemir's own companion, Kalina, spent most of her time in the garden, still room, and distillery. Lambert and his partner Marcin were two of a kind in their interests of fighting, cards, and women, but the companion could often cool the witcher's quick temper.
Honestly, Julian often felt that the destruction of his home had been a cleansing; most of his fellow companions had been slaves to their witchers. The witchers who were the cruelest often died first on the Path, and Julian wondered why the Guild kept letting the mean ones go through the trials. He supposed it was because higher numbers of surviving witchers made everyone feel better; if some trainees had been forced to drop out it would have saved lives but made the odds of creating new brethren much lower. Julian didn't consider himself a particularly good person: he had been upset enough to wish death to Hubert, Pawel, Ignacy, and Tymoteusz over the years because they had abused their companions like they were playthings made specifically to take their lust and rage. (Which companions were, to an extent, with their matching mutations taken from their witchers' blood making them durable, quick-healing, and hard to kill.)
Julian couldn't comprehend how anyone could treat one-half of their own soul so poorly; he and Eskel couldn't exchange feelings or perceptions, but there was a blood-and-bone deep connection that made the idea of hurting Eskel as unthinkable as cutting off his own arm.
The siege had ruined most of his home, and it was a shock to see the damage the few times he and Eskel had returned over the years. Now, with only seven of them left, it meant a lot of work to keep up the small inhabitable portions.
Eskel's healing injuries didn't excuse him from work for very long. Geralt had gone to finish Eskel's task of ridding the caves of kikimores, and Vesemir put him to work on riving wood into slats to repair the portcullis. It was painstaking work but not enough to make Eskel sweat and aggravate his wounds.
Julian and Marcin were put to work mixing masonry lime and salt with water and applying the whitewash to the stables. Julian knew that Marcin thought he was a scholarly layabout, and enjoyed proving that he could keep up. He had long ago come up with a game to amuse himself using words that the man wouldn't know the meanings of but wouldn't ask definitions for. Marcin liked to use the words himself to sound educated, but, of course, they never made sense. Thus far, the highlights were Marcin's "existential hunger" and his preference for "wenches with prosaic tits."
After supper one night, Geralt and Eskel went off and left Julian with Lambert, Marcin, and their gwent games. He was curious, but didn't give the matter a second thought until Eskel never returned downstairs. He found his Bonded in their room, staring into the fire while he was ostensibly mending some armor.
"Important business with the White Wolf?" Julian asked, as he sat down nestled close to his witcher.
Julian knocked their shoulders together. "Now you're starting to sound like him." He gave his other half the time he needed to mull over whatever thoughts was working through and read through some of his old composition books trying to find some metaphorical wheat in all the chaff.
"Geralt talked to me tonight. It was quite... a revelation," Eskel finally said. "He thinks you don't like him."
"He didn't seem to hold you in much regard when we were younger. He's a brooding loner who creeps around and watches us."
"There seems to be evidence for why you think that. He's jealous, and he does."
"Jealous of me?" Julian said. "I guess you have mentioned being friends before the trials."
"I think he's jealous that I have you."
"He had his chance," Julian said without sympathy.
Eskel put aside his armor and awl. "You don't realize how special you are. Do you know why I picked you?"
"You liked my singing and I wasn't a bitch like what's-her-name."
"You started by saying how everyone thought you talked too much. Then you realized that you weren't making yourself sound like a good choice and so you started talking up your talents."
"What talents did I think I had? I don't remember any."
Eskel shook his head with a small smile to encourage Julian to stop interrupting and to listen. "There was a desperation that you wanted to be loved. I related to that. And then, when you sang, I got goosebumps. I realized that I didn't need someone with me to just make hot meals or keep my bed warm-- I needed someone who would always remind me that I should be kind and show compassion. You would keep me in touch with my emotions by making me laugh and cry. Which you have. You have kept me human for almost fifty years."
"Well, you still had plenty of personality for me to work with," Julian demurred, though he was blushing. "And I suppose that is in my nature; as a bard I want to invoke feelings in my audience."
"So let me tell you what Geralt told me," Eskel said. What he related completely changed Julian's perspective of the other witcher. Geralt's reticence was from fear instead of contempt. He had withdrawn from Eskel because he didn't think that his friend would accept him when no one else in Kaer Morhen had. He was broken not because he didn't have emotions but because no one had taught him how to express those emotions. He hadn't wanted a companion because he couldn't stand the thought of going through another agonizing mutation as well as inflicting the pain onto someone else.
Julian wasn't a fifteen-year-old boy with a boundless sea of sympathy for everyone in the world; he was almost 63 though he looked like he was a human in his mid-thirties. He and Eskel shared a romantic soul, though, and Eskel's regrets for letting his friend leave him behind while he suffered alone for half a century showed in his body language, making Julian's heart ache for the both of them if this was all true.
"He said that he listened to us when he could, when we thought we were alone. Not to hear us have sex, but because you said things to me that he wanted to hear someone say to him."
Julian nodded, understanding completely. He had the courage (or lack of shame) to spout the deepest thoughts he held for his Bonded, and a tendency to use poetic phrases. He was puzzled that someone like Geralt had a soul that seemed to long for the same language of love. But, thinking about that, Julian could see that his own prejudice had tainted his perception of Geralt. Julian had met hide-tanners and prison guards who wept like babes over love ballads and had accepted the tender hearts that dwelt inside incongruously brutish bodies. He did not have any excuses except youth and jealousy to have written off Geralt as another prick of a witcher, and he was too old to hang onto those opinions any more.
"I should talk to him," Julian said. "But first, you need to talk to me. What boundaries should we keep between us and him?"
Geralt was anxious as he waited for the repercussions of his confession to Eskel. He didn't know what to expect. They didn't leave him lingering in agony for very long, though. Julian forced a confrontation the very next morning, by slipping next to him as he cleaned Roach's stall.
"Hello Geralt." Eskel's companion must have noticed how his posture stiffened with anxiety, because he followed up his greeting quickly. "Thank you for sharing yourself with Eskel last night. He has been missing your friendship since the trials."
Geralt felt a lump in his throat. The bard seemed to be waiting for him to respond, and he scrambled to think of something. "I hated the trials. I hate being different."
"Oh, darling, I believe you. I'm sorry I was blind for so long."
The witcher couldn't belive those words were for him. He turned his head the least that he needed to in order to make sure Julian wasn't talking to someone else. Roach, for example. But he was looking straight at Geralt with serious blue eyes. He still had to face him completely to believe it.
Hope rose, but he couldn't trust this yet. "Please don't talk to me like this if it's a lie. I would prefer that you continued to hate me than you pretending."
Julian's jaw firmed and his eyes grew a bit harder-- not mean, just determined. "I wouldn't manipulate anyone like that. If endearments make you uneasy, I can stop."
"Endearments?" The witcher wondered. "Oh, the names. I don't know."
"You don't trust me. That's fine, we can work with that. We should do this slowly. Get to know each other, all three of us." Julian was nodding like Geralt's uncertainty made sense. "Do you want to get to know Eskel first, or me, or should all three of us try together?"
The three of them sounded like what Geralt wanted, but he wasn't sure if this was a test. Or a joke. "All of us," Geralt dared to answer.
Julian smiled at him. "We can start at lunch. Meet at the gate at mid-day and take food out for a picnic. Does that sound good to you?"
Geralt nodded, feeling like an animal or an idiot, his mind moving thick and slow like a river of molasses while Julian's leapt along nimbly.
He was relieved, at noon, to see that it was likely not a prank. Eskel and Julian waited at the gate with food tucked into bags and baskets and greeted him with smiles. Even Eskel's smile, with its new scars twisting one side of his mouth, looked kind. Geralt wasn't sure that he could smile like that, nice and happy. They didn't seem to mind that he didn't smile, though.
"Let's head across the stream," Eskel suggested.
Geralt was going to walk behind them, but Julian hung back and took his hand. "Is this all right?" He nodded, swallowing because his mouth had gone dry.
Eskel could discern Geralt's stifled delight even with his back turned. He felt another stab of guilt that he hadn't noticed his brother's unhappiness for so long. He himself would be lost at trying to mend their relationship (let alone try to create something deeper), but they were lucky that Julian was there.
For probably the millionth time he thanked the witcher tradition of companions. He would say that he couldn't imagine what his life would be like without Julian, but he knew he would be like Geralt: stiff and lonely and unafraid of anything except everything inside of himself.
Eskel mostly watched as Julian expertly divided his touches between the two witchers. The bard kept everything casual and light, like he was just providing Geralt a sample of what interpersonal relationships could be. Geralt looked slightly stunned the entire meal, so Eskel decided that Julian's assessment of taking this slowly was exactly what his brother witcher needed. Julian did indeed have good instincts, particularly about people.
All three of them were surprised at how adept Julian seemed to be at coaxing words and emotions from Geralt. A couple times Geralt said something then froze as if he regretted the words, but Eskel and and Julian only accepted everything with kindness.
Geralt's tension had eased considerably by the time they had eaten their fill. Julian yawned. "Any plans for the afternoon?" Both witchers shook their heads, so Julian said, "Great. Join me for a nap or meditate or stand guard or whatever. He then winked at Eskel then put his head on Geralt's lap. "Is this okay for you, sweetheart, or should I move?"
Geralt's eyes were wide with uncertainty and a stunned lack of belief that this was happening. He finally nodded, and the companion shifted so that he was more comfortable lying on his side and nudged his shoeless feet into the side of Eskel's thigh. "I've forgotten how beautiful it is up here in the summer," he said."Mmm, Geralt if you would be so kind as to gently scratch my head, I like that. Don't do it if it's too much for you, though."
Eskel pretended not to watch as Geralt lifted a hand to gently sink his fingers into Julian's brown hair. The companion closed his eyes and started snoozing almost immediately.
"He could sleep for most of the day," Eskel said. "He is like a cat."
"Cats all seem to hate me. I've only met one since the mutations who didn't hiss or yowl at me." Geralt said.
"They always scared me," Eskel confessed, laughing quietly. "Julian teases me about it. But I think there was an incident with one when I was a child. Before."
"You remember things from before Kaer Morhen?" Geralt asked. His surprise at that statement was the only thing that could have lifted his gaze from Julian's head laying so trustingly in his lap. He watched Eskel nod.
"Not much. You don't?"
Geralt shook his head.
Eskel checked again to make sure that Julian was still really asleep before he asked, "Would you have chosen him?"
"I remembered him when you brought him back. Remembered thinking that he was too noisy. I was determined not to have a companion."
"You've regretted not having one?"
"Yes. The Path is even more lonely than it is for me here."
Eskel mulled that over for a few minutes as Geralt continued to run his fingers in Julian's hair. "Have you been saving money again? Geralt nodded in surprise and opened his mouth to tell Eskel he would be happy to give it to him if he and Julian needed some, but Eskel prevented him from speaking by smiling and saying, "Another 'few hundred crowns' I'm guessing. I'm not asking you because I want you to part with it for anything but your own sake." Eskel suddenly seemed shy and rubbed very gently at his new scars. "If you wanted to, we could travel together for a while. Drop Julian off at Oxenfurt and then spend some days or weeks going wherever we can find contracts. Probably won't make enough for the both of us, which is why I asked if you had some savings...."
Geralt looked at Eskel in awe. "Witchers don't do that. Don't travel together."
Eskel blushed and shrugged. "I don't care about what we are supposed to do. Look at the companion I picked: everyone said he was a bad choice, but I haven't regretted it. And I know now that you see the value that I see him him."
"He will never be a witcher," Geralt said, which rather did sum up Julian's best qualities in Eskel's opinion.
Eskel nodded with a fond smile. "He is so unapologetically human, but only the best parts of them. Loyal and emotional, kind and generous."
"Keep going," Julian's voice prompted, though he kept his eyes shut.
Eskel shoved his feet away. "Not humble, though."
Julian sat up with a bright grin. "Every time I have tried to be humble you just start praising me and bundle me off to the closest bed. I have given up trying to downplay my virtues."
Eskel plays along, pretending to be annoyed. "I may have said you have the best parts of humans, but you also got the some of the worst traits of witchers. Laziness, inflated ego..."
Julian cuddled next to Geralt and wrapped his arms around one of the witcher's. "Are you going to allow him to slander me like that?"
Geralt was enjoying watching their interaction but didn't know how to play along. Luckily Julian sensed that and covered up the pause quickly with a kiss on his cheek that made Geralt blush. "I think I have missed having a quiet witcher around," he said pointedly, with a glare at Eskel that was belied by how he couldn't keep a straight face.
"It's not slander if everyone knows that it's true," Eskel said, lacing his fingers together and falling back to rest his head on them.
Julian made a rude gesture at him and then turned back to Geralt with a smile. "It will be nice to have someone to go to who is actually gentle with my poor head."
Eskel grumbled something about Julian having a hard head and the companion just added, "You know how to touch fragile things. I bet you could pick up an egg without cracking it."
""You're already cracked," Eskel muttered with fake disgust. This caused Julian to giggle and Geralt could feel himself smiling.
"Look at that," Julian cooed, "A smile. I can't call you Grumpy Geralt anymore. Should I rename you Gentle Geralt?"
"Yes," Eskel said, rolling up and snickering. "Do that!"
"Definitely not. At least, not when Lambert can hear," Julian said.
Geralt found that he actually liked the idea of the companion calling him something nice like that. "Not in front of Lambert or Marcin," he corrected.