Geralt was tired. Tired of running, tired of being separated from his only family, tired of the shit life that wouldn't fucking let him go no matter how many near death scrapes he had. Just fucking tired.
Lambert disappeared a few years ago. He was the only one among them who took contracts from Nilfgaardian nobility, collecting the last few specimens of the beasts still roaming the Continent. The monsters that men used to fear were nothing more than oddities now to be collected by the victorious Nilfgaardian generals and other royals. Sometimes, they hunted on their own, most times they hired Lambert. Must've taken the wrong contract, unable to deliver...
Last time he saw Eskel was five winters ago. His best friend, brother in arms deeper than blood, Eskel clung to the ruin of their home, staying at Kaer Morhen year round, their last safe hideaway. Geralt hoped to get back this year and maybe stay as well, but it was dicey, if he could get past the roving gangs looking for rare creatures to capture and sell to Nilfgaard. Such gangs never took kindly to a Witcher, seeing Geralt as competition for their payday.
Too many towns now spurned his services, they could make more selling an ice troll than paying Geralt to kill it. It didn't matter how many locals had ended up in the troll's stew pot, poor towns were always looking for a pay out. He wasn't necessary anymore, in fact, Geralt was a pest now, trying to destroy what small livelihood people started to scrape from the world. Any town he came across took one look at his eyes and the stones came out, his supplies were low, food gone, and he was just so very tired.
Roach died two seasons ago and he didn't have the heart to replace her. He could barely keep himself fed, let alone a horse who wouldn't understand why she was hungry. Traveling the world on foot was difficult, he didn't know how Lambert managed all those years... When did he start thinking of Lambert in the past tense? He wasn't dead, not for sure, the dark corners of Geralt's mind simply whispered such thoughts to him when he tried to meditate but couldn't calm his mind enough. Besides, meditation was dangerous now, never know who might come across a Witcher and decide to take out the competition.
A twig snapped and Geralt's hand flew to his sword, freeing it from its sheath. Once upon a time, he might have left it on his back, his hand merely gripping the pommel as insurance, but the days where he could be generous like that were long gone. Sniffing the air, Geralt's eyes and ears explored every inch of the wood surrounding him. Nothing... his fingers twitched to return his blade to his back.
A heartbeat, so low and slow he almost missed it in his half starved state, snapped him back to attention, but it was already too late. He turned, barely blocking the steel sword that came down on him. Inches from his face, Geralt's eyes flicked between the blade and the person wielding it. “Letho,” he growled.
The Viper smirked back. “Getting a little slow? Never thought I'd live to see the White Wolf make a mistake.”
Geralt pushed his muscles to the brink, but he was no match for Letho, hale and hardy right before winter. He clearly had a solid source of food keeping his ridiculous muscles up, while Geralt's cheeks were starting to hollow a little with hunger. Too many skipped meals, not enough rest, he couldn't push Letho away, and the Viper was gaining ground. Fuck.
With a quick headbutt, Letho staggered back, blood dripping from his nose. Geralt turned and ran. He never thought he'd see the day where he'd run from a fight with godsdamn Letho, but Geralt wasn't fit to fight, not with swords, not with fists, or even Signs. Running was his only option. And he hated it.
The sword in his hand slowed him but he couldn't risk pausing the sheath it, even half a step slower might mean Letho catching him. Catching him for fucking what, Geralt had no idea. He hadn't seen another Witcher in years and almost started to think he was the last, then Letho showed up, never a good sign. So he ran. He ran through the trees, not looking where he was going, listening for Letho's heavy boots crunching the late autumn leaves. How close was the Viper? How much longer could he run? Geralt's legs burned, his empty belly clawing at him, making his head swim.
With Letho down wind, he couldn't tell where he was. Geralt chanced a look over his shoulder, scanning the forest as he ran. He turned again just in time to see himself vaulting into nothingness, the ground under him dropping steeply. He couldn't stop his momentum, he wasn't strong enough. Closing his eyes, Geralt let his body fall down the ravine, covering his head and neck as much as possible. He couldn't decide if this was a better way to go than on the end of Letho's blade. There was no dignity in death, many years of watching friends die taught him that. Whether the tip of Letho's sword, or crumbled at the bottom of a ravine, it made no difference. This was the end of the line for Geralt of Rivia.
After a few harrowing seconds of free fall, his back struck the hard ground and he cried out, bouncing into the air and taking another hit. The ground leveled out under him and he rolled to a stop, head spinning, body aching, he blinked up at the sky, the fading daylight burning his eyes. Geralt was too exhausted, he couldn't even contract his pupils right...
A shadowy figure bent over him, reeking of sweat and dirt and blood. “Letho,” Geralt growled.
“Calm down,” Letho grunted back. “As much as I enjoyed the sight of the White Wolf going ass over tits, I'm here to help you, not kill you. Just fucking pass out already.”
Geralt didn't want to... his eyes closed anyway, his mind reaching out for the dark rest of unconsciousness. He was so very tired.
Another set of footsteps scratched at his ears, a body—a human—coming to a stop next to Letho. “Is this him then? The hair looks right, but I want to be sure.”
“Yeah, boss, this is him. Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf.”
“Excellent. Thank you for finding him. The others will be so happy,” the human said, a soft warmth in his voice. “There's just the three, correct? I don't want to leave any member of the pack out in the cold.”
“Just the three,” Letho confirmed. “And you've got them all.”
“Good. Good.” The human shifted, knelt next to him. Geralt felt warm, soft fingers brush the hair from his face. “Sleep now, I'll take care of you.”
Geralt gave over to his body's wants and let unconscious take him.
Water... Geralt smelled water nearby. Head still pounding, stomach clenching on nothing, he didn't want to open his eyes. He was still alive, somehow, and could smell water. His dry lips cracked a little more at the thought and he opened his eyes.
The low candle light was still too bright and he shut his eyes again, but he saw enough. Next to the bed, there was a small table with a bowl of fruit and a pitcher of water. His aching limbs protested as Geralt sat up and reached for the water. Slow, slow, or you'll make yourself sick, Vesemir's voice whispered. The Old Wolf, his mentor, the closest thing Geralt ever had to a father, was long gone, but his memory still made itself known when Geralt needed. He learned to ignore his own internal cautionary voice, but he listened to Vesemir's voice, even after all these years.
A glass sat next to the pitcher and Geralt poured the water. Taking slow sips, his hungry eyes focused on the fruit bowl. What to eat first? The juicy grapes, or the rich, red apple sitting on top. Geralt reached out, fingers shaking with hunger.
Wait, he thought. Where the fuck am I? He let the promise of food cloud his already fuzzy mind. Geralt had no clue where he was, who set out the food, or what part Letho had in all this. Was it a dream? No, the ache in his muscles from the fall and the smell of Letho's blood nearby were definitely real.
Tearing himself away from the fruit bowl, Geralt rolled out of bed, staying low to the ground. His armor was gone, exchanged for a clean tunic and loose trousers, his feet bare. His armor wasn't in good shape these days, been falling apart for months, not like it would protect him anyway. But his swords, where were his swords? The room was mostly empty, just a bed and a dresser, a mirror and a chaise lounge in the corner. A little more coherent after the water, but nowhere near full strength, Geralt listened carefully to the house around him. Dozens of heartbeats met his ears, most definitely human, but there were others, slow, like his... other Witchers? How was that—
The door cracked open and Geralt climbed to his feet, falling into a fighting stance, teeth bared. He wouldn't last in a fight against anyone, but he'd fucking go down swinging. Light flooded in from the hall and two people entered, their faces in shadow. Damn eyes, why wouldn't they focus? Geralt needed his senses now more than ever. At least his ears were still working, and he heard two slow heartbeats coming from the strangers, then, two familiar scents on the air: woodsy musk and the sharp spice of mulled wine on a cold night.
“Eskel, Lambert?” The names cracked in his throat, he didn't want to believe it, if this was some trick...
“Geralt,” Eskel's deep rumble of a voice said. Crossing the room in two great strides, familiar strong arms settled around him, holding Geralt together. Eskel's face swam into view, Lambert over his shoulder. Golden eyes and familiar scars made Geralt want to cry out in relief. He sagged forward into Eskel's hold, head falling to his shoulder.
Lambert's hand carded through his dirty hair, leaning into them both. “Fuck, Geralt,” Lambert hissed. “You're alive.”
“You're alive,” Eskel echoed, holding tight to Geralt. Holding him steady, more like, because suddenly, Geralt didn't have the strength to stand. The last few years... no, the last few decades crushed around him, weighing on his starved muscles until he could only cling to Eskel and Lambert, breathing in their smells, trying to calm the torrent inside his mind.
When Geralt managed to pull himself together enough to stand—it was an effort, more than he cared to admit—he pulled back, looking at his long lost brothers. With a hand on each, Geralt never wanted to let them go again. “How—where?” A million questions filled his mind, all vying to come out first.
Eskel shook his head. “We'll explain. You need to eat.”
While Eskel didn't look in top shape (muscles a little less firm, less defined under his shirt) he was a sight better than Geralt. Lambert too, both were well fed and getting back to their winter weights. Year after year, Vesemir stuffed them full of bread and as much meat as they could hunt, building up their muscles and fat stores to last any lean days. The memory of Kaer Morhen, the keep warm and filled with the smells of baking bread slammed into him and Geralt collapsed onto the stupidly comfortable bed.
Eskel was right at his side, keeping him steady. “You look like you haven't had a full meal in months.” Geralt didn't have to say it, they both knew by the look of him. Lambert approached with the bowl of fruit and Eskel took the bunch of grapes, holding it to Geralt's lips like he was a child. “We'll get you meat soon, start with this. Don't worry, it's all safe, no poison.”
With his brothers at his side—the two people he trusted the most in the world—Geralt ate. The juicy grapes exploded across his tongue, quenching his thirst with every bite. Eskel went slow, only allowing him one grape at a time. When the bunch was half picked over, Geralt started to feel queasy. He wanted more, needed more, but too much too fast was almost worse than starving in the first place. The bed dipped and Lambert settled on his other side, both of them unwilling to let go of Geralt.
“Where are we?”
“That's a long story,” Eskel said. “But first...” Warm lips settled over his, an insistent tongue licking into his mouth. Geralt opened his mouth as wide as possible, letting Eskel in. On his other side, Lambert pressed against him, nose finding his neck, waiting his turn.
Geralt wasn't usually in the middle like this. In the old days, before the world got too tame for Witchers, the humans too wild, they spent most of the winter gathered in Geralt's large bed, Lambert stuffed between him and Eskel. No matter how much time passed, Lambert was always the baby, the little wolf that needed their care and protection as they all rested for the season. With his chin on top of Geralt's shoulder, Lambert slept like a lamb as Eskel kissed Geralt deep, both of them hard, rutting against Lambert. They always settled him under the blankets and continued with each other, but they needed to feel him as well before Eskel's cock went about rearranging Geralt's ass for the winter. No matter what deep affection flowed between Geralt and Eskel, Lambert was theirs as well, theirs to hold and protect.
Well, it appeared Geralt needed the protection now. From what, he didn't know.
When Eskel kissed and licked his fill, he pulled away, nibbling lightly on Geralt's bottom lip before releasing him. “We'll get you fed good and proper,” he whispered. “You won't have to starve anymore.”
A scarred finger hooked his chin, pulling Geralt's gaze towards Lambert. “My turn,” he whispered before kissing just as deep as Eskel had. They both tasted of ale and meat, Geralt's stomach grumbling at the mere thought of food. But he sat still and let Lambert make his inspection, reconnecting with the body he hadn't seen in half a decade. With strong arms wrapped around him, Geralt relaxed as much as possible. It didn't matter where they were, Eskel and Lambert were with him, they were safe, not dead as Geralt feared. No matter what happened, at least they were together, the pack whole once again.
Lambert pulled away with one last small kiss and rubbed their noses together. “Hard few years,” he whispered.
“Hard few years.”
Geralt wanted more—more kisses, more comfort, just more after years of nothing—when a loud pounding on the door shocked him back to attention. He tried to spring to his feet but Eskel and Lambert held him down. “Are you going to fuck all day?” a familiar voice growled.
“Letho,” Geralt hissed.
He wanted to rush the door, give the Viper a piece of his mind and his fist, but still Eskel and Lambert held him. “We're coming!” Eskel shouted back. “Come on, we have to move. Can you stand?”
Geralt wasn't so weak that his legs couldn't support him, but he did struggle to his feet. Thank the gods Letho was outside the door, not here to witness his weakness. “Where are we?” he asked again. Geralt looked around for his boots and didn't see any signs of his clothes, armor, or what little gear he still had.
“Kerack,” Eskel said, a little unhelpful. Kerack wasn't a country, not anymore. Well, nowhere was a country after Nilfgaard won the war, just provinces with a few resisters still on Skellige. Ah, the Skellige Isles, they wouldn't go down without a fight, rather be slaughtered entirely than ever bend the knee to the Black Ones.
“Where in Kerack?” Geralt pushed. Lambert opened the door and looked down the hall. Letho was gone and they made their way through the large house (manor? castle? Geralt couldn't tell) unmolested. “And Eskel, if you say on the coast, I will deck you.”
A smile pulled at his scarred cheek. “You can try.” He took a breath and stopped them outside a large, ornate door, much more detailed than the other doors off the hall, this one had gold inlaid over the delicate scrollwork, shells, waves and a far too attractive mermaid making a very Kerack pattern, beautiful, but definitely thematic. “We're in the manor of Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove. He prefers Jaskier. This is his—” Eskel stopped, nearly biting his tongue. His jaw tensed and Geralt felt a simmer of anger pass through him. “This is his collection house.”
Before Geralt could ask more—he'd heard of collection houses of course, it's where Nilfgaardian royals like to keep the monsters they gathered—the door in front of them opened. Letho's smirking face appeared, one eyebrow arched, eyes roving over Eskel's hold on Geralt. Lambert growled before he said a word and Letho lifted a hand in surrender. “You Wolves and your pack, forgive me for intruding. Let's go.”
He turned—actually turned his back on three people who definitely wanted to kill him—and walked into the room. It was a sitting room of some sort, large and well appointed, with several doors leading to other parts of the manor. Geralt saw a solarium through one door, smelled a dining room through another. There was a large, open hall on the other side of the room and he saw the edge of a staircase heading down. His eyes went wide at the shelves upon shelves of books that rounded the room.
Eskel and Lambert led him over to one of the decadent silk couches, urging Geralt to sit. From this new vantage point, his eyes went wider still when he saw a person sitting out in the solarium. Dark skin, darker dreadlocks and eyes shimmering like a golden sun, she lounged in a warm ray of light, a book laying open on her lap. Geralt's mouth fell open. “Is that—School of the Manticore?”
“Yes, she is,” a new voice said, though not an unfamiliar one. A man swept in from the hall, blue eyes bright, lips softly smiling. “You've already met my Viper,” his eyes flicked over his shoulder to Letho, who stood close enough to protect, but not close enough to hamper. “There's a Bear around here somewhere, and a Griffin. I'm hoping a Cat will join us soon, but I have to find the right one.” He kept his distance, knowing full well how dangerous a Witcher was, but continued to smile at Geralt like they were the best of friends. “My name is Jaskier, welcome to my home.”
The Viscount de Lettenhove's collection house... a house filled with Witchers...
Reality slammed into Geralt all at once, and Eskel and Lambert's supporting hands around him became restraining. “Your home?” Geralt snarled. Lambert held tighter to his Sign hand. “Your home? Our prison!” He saw it now, below the bright sunny blue and sandy tones of the shore, a hint of black here and there, the Nilfgaardian crest placed tastefully on a bookshelf, unobtrusive to anyone but a Witcher. “Not longer satisfied with collecting beasts, Nilfgaardians are gathering Witchers now?” He was too weak, Eskel and Lambert too strong, Geralt could never hope to break free. Add in Letho lingering over the Viscount's shoulder like a good little guard dog and Geralt didn't have a chance to attack. He spat at his feet instead, the thick glob landing on a polished boot.
Jaskier didn't even look down. He smiled so softly, little crinkles at the corners of his eyes, his heart slow and even, calm. “It's hard at first, I understand. That's why I sent your brothers to you.” His eyes flicked to Eskel and Lambert. “School of the Wolf... you're not like the other schools, no lone hunters. You're a pack, a family, it would be cruel to keep you apart.”
“Cruel to keep us at all.” Despite the hunger gnawing inside of him, the exhaustion still filling his limbs, Geralt fought and spat. This couldn't happen, this was too far. Collecting sirens, or griffins, that was one thing, but sentient creatures? Gathering and penning up Witchers like they were lap dogs? No, this was too much.
Jaskier's smile turned down a little. He took a step closer to Geralt, Letho following in his wake like a good trained monkey. “Please don't think of yourselves as prisoners. Many of my peers see their collections as mere playthings, but I know better. Witchers are rare breeds, and I intend to keep you all safe and happy.” He gestured to Lambert and Eskel with a lazy flick of his fingers. “School of the Wolf, you are happiest in a pack, so I have brought you together. That has to be much better than cold, separated and on the run? Here you will have food, comfort, and family, and I expect nothing from you in return. I only wish for your safety.”
Though his heart was steady, Geralt smelled a lie. No one from Nilfgaard did favors out of pure altruism, this man—this Jaskier—wanted something. A private Witcher army? A fighting ring? His eyes flicked over his brothers, no marks or new scars, no injuries... Geralt couldn't figure out what Jaskier wanted from his house full of Witchers, but he wasn't going to accept this life, he wouldn't be kept like a pet wolf.
Taking Geralt's silence for calm, Jaskier's smile returned. “I'll let you get settled in. Eskel, Lambert, be good and make sure he eats. I don't like my Witchers starved.” He had the audacity to blow a kiss before turning and heading out towards the stairs. Letho followed as far as the hall doors, closing them behind Jaskier.
“You can let him go,” Letho said as soon as the doors were closed.
Geralt shook out of Lambert and Eskel's hold, stalking over and pinning Letho to the too fancy doors. Yes, he was weak, but Letho wouldn't hurt him. He definitely saw that now, too in Jaskier's lap to ruin the master's new toy. “Just when I thought you couldn't get any lower,” Geralt snarled. Letho didn't flinch. “You really put up with this? Being caged—kept by one of Nilfgaard's toadies? You were one of their toadies once, guess I shouldn't be surprised.”
With a snarl, Letho pushed Geralt back towards the others. The Manticore lounging in the solarium looked up from her book, eyeing the conflict before going back to her basking. “You think I'm the one with fucked up priorities? He offers food and a bed in exchange for a few hunts? Yes, I'm going to take that. I spent my life on the run, now that I'm finally safe, you want me to run again? Fuck you, Geralt. You're stuck here like the rest of us, learn to live with it. You think there's anywhere safer for a Witcher now that Nilfgaard rules the Continent? Not likely.” With one last huff, Letho turned, stalking through the hall doors after Jaskier, like a good little pet, Geralt thought with a sneer.
The anger drained what was left of his strength and Geralt almost fell to the floor. “We've got you,” Eskel whispered, pulling him back over to the overly fussy couch. “It'll be alright, Geralt, I promise.”
Geralt trusted Eskel with his life—more than that, he trusted Eskel to the end of the world. Yet for the first time in his life, Geralt doubted his words. How would anything be alright ever again? Trapped, part of a fucking collection, what could be worse?
At least they were together.