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Cabinet of Curiosities

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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.

Chapter Text

Eskel couldn’t let go of Geralt. Even when his White Wolf settled on the couch and accepted the small roll of bread Lambert placed in his hands, Eskel still needed to have contact, fingers brushing lightly across his knee, thighs touching. The silence between them held a weight; Geralt’s anger simmered below the surface like an alchemist’s bubbling cauldron, but he had nothing to unleash it at. He was as trapped as the rest of them.

“Did he catch you too?” Geralt asked eventually; he chewed over another mouthful of bread and then looked morosely down at the remainder in his hand. Hunger overcame pride. Only just. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten something that wasn’t at least partially rotten.

“Letho?” Eskel posited, and then nodded when Geralt’s quirked brows confirmed it. “Yeah, he did. Both of us. Me first, then Lambert a few months later. I hoped that he wouldn’t catch you—either of you—but after a while, I—.” Eskel trailed off, his hand scrubbing over his face. “Not here.” Placing a hand under Geralt’s far too thin arm, Eskel led them back down the hall, towards the chamber Geralt woke up in.

Safely behind closed doors once again, Eskel led them over to the bed. “He—he knows a lot about us. Knows how Vesemir died, knows all about the history of the school, fuck, Geralt, he even knows about Deidre.”  The idea that their keeper had done so much detailed research made him more than a little uncomfortable.

Lambert wasn’t saying anything. He slipped down to the floor and leaned his head against Geralt’s knee; it was instinct to slip a hand through the mess of his short-cropped hair, fingertips massaging gently into his scalp until Geralt saw dark eyelashes flicker with pleasure. “Tell me,” Geralt whispered, “tell me how he caught you. And where. I want to know.”

Eskel sighed. “Me first, then.”

It was rare for Eskel to wander so far south. The closer you got to the Nilfgaardian empire proper, the closer you were to a really bad time. But with stores at Kaer Morhen depleted after a long, hard winter, he needed the money to begin building them up again for the following one; cold and starvation, even inside the walls of the keep, were more likely to kill him than a soldier or bounty hunter. And he could always hope that this year his family would make it back.

He met the contractor just outside Cintra; they chose a shoddy, rundown tavern with the windows hanging off the hinges and a prevailing smell of rotten food and human excrement. Ever cautious, Eskel took a seat with his back to a wall, didn’t bother removing his swords and kept one hand settled lightly on the edge of the table. “A wraith?”

His potential employer nodded slowly. He was a middle-class merchantman—aspiring nobility, something that had never existed before the unstoppable march of the Black Ones—with a neatly cut, greying goatee and shrewd blue eyes. Eskel hadn’t bothered to learn his name. “Yes. We think it may be the daughter of the previous owner,” the merchant replied blithely. “By all accounts her death was gruesome.”

“If it was at the hands of Nilfgaard, then there’s no doubt,” Eskel cast a quick, furtive glance around the tavern; he didn’t catch any eyes, but he was certain several were taking an unhealthy interest in him. “Payment?”

“One hundred florens upon presentation of evidence,” the merchant murmured. “Meeting back here, of course.”

“One hundred?” Eskel’s eyebrows almost disappeared into his hairline. One hundred florens was an obscene amount of money. Eskel’s curiosity, a blight to his very existence sometimes, got the better of him. “This house is really important to you.”

That is none of your business, Witcher,” the contractor narrowed his eyes. “Just get the job done.”

“One hundred florens for a wraith,” Geralt grimaced. “You should’ve seen through the ruse.”

Eskel huffed, defensive. “Perhaps, but I was hungry, half my equipment was near broken, and—.” 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come out like that,” Geralt stroked the backs of his fingers gently down Eskel’s cheek; he was tired, irritable, but Eskel didn’t deserve a single modicum of his ire. Tough decisions, with steep odds, had become a staple of their lifestyle. More so than ever before. “I know. It’s been a shit few decades. Tell me the rest.”

The mansion was essentially derelict. Creeping ivy choked the crumbling red brickwork, most of the glass had fallen out the windows and Eskel didn’t have to break any locks to get through the gates into the estate proper. Without a horse—Scorpion the third had died many years ago—Eskel had to carry his bags in with him, and he left them hidden under an overgrown set of perimeter bushes.

A wraith meant spectre oil, so he used the last of his bear fat stores and some clusters of arenaria he found in the fields outside the walls. As the white petals fell away in his hands and the sap leaked from broken stems, he was reminded of Geralt. Geralt. With his smell of fresh, mountain top snow and strong, warm hands scented with arenaria from brewing potions. It was always arenaria. He could feel them now; the graze of blunt fingernails on his shoulders as he moved inside his lover, coaxing guttural, needy moans. Despite the burning hunger in his stomach and the grim prospect of the hunt ahead of him, Eskel smiled gently to himself as the memories provided comfort.

He coated the silver blade with his decoction and then slid it slowly back into his scabbard. He’d long since stopped collecting the ingredients for explosives, so there was no moondust bomb to help him with this one. Time to get to work.

The house itself stank of damp and mould. Left to rot for some years, the front door practically fell off its hinges when Eskel nudged his way through. The first thing he needed to do was find the body. Old books on wraith-hunting talked of aspen stakes through the heart, the head placed between the knees; it was all overkill. You find the body. You find any artefacts attached to the body. You burn them, and then you kill the spectre that manifests near it.

It was a young woman and, listening between the lines as the merchant had retold the ransacking of this house, she'd been violated. Grimly, Eskel started in the living room, and then ascended the tall, winding stairs towards the bedroom.

That was when he walked into the first trap. Almost. Keen eyes spotted the tripwire across the steps before his ankle connected with it; he crouched down, forearms slanted across his thighs, and followed the line to a small pack of explosives. Eskel climbed up onto the banister and carefully detached the trigger mechanism. Samum bomb. Witcher. But why a samum bomb? If someone had tried to hunt the wraith previously, then trying to blind it was pointless. They were immune to it. Either said Witcher was a fucking idiot, or there was something more afoot.

Eskel drew a sword from his back and trod carefully as he progressed into the house. He found and disconnected a few more traps, extracting and pocketing their resources. Still no sign of a body. As he reached the eastern wing, the smell of burnt flesh clogged his nostrils, thick and sickly. He followed it into one of the smaller bedrooms and found the body he was looking for. It was already charred to a crisp. “What the fu—?” 

“Yeah, she was a pain in the ass,” said a familiar voice from the corner of the room. His senses crowded with charred flesh, Eskel had missed him, but he recovered quickly. The pommel of his sword span over his hand and he circled until his back turned to a window.


“The one and only, brother,” the Viper murmured, unfolding his arms and stepping out into the weak sunlight flooding the room. “You look like shit.”

“You’re no brother of mine.” Eskel growled dangerously. He was well aware of just how bad he looked. The biggest of the School of Wolf, his emaciation was all the more pronounced; he’d had to cut another few holes into the belt holding his trousers up and his gambeson moved out of place far too easily these days, but Letho looked good. His musculature was as pronounced as Eskel remembered; his eyes bright, and his skin clean. “What is this Letho?”

“Y’know, wraiths are probably the saddest creature we kill, aren’t they?” Letho didn’t reach for his weapon—not yet—and studied Eskel carefully; he could see just how weak his opposition was. It wouldn’t take much to lock him down should he need to. However, Letho also knew how strong Eskel was with Signs, and his fingers were twitching subtly towards a Quen shield. “They suffer endless, indescribable pain. They’re filled with anger; think they’ve been wronged and they envy the living. They can’t be harmed through traditional means. They’re not quite of this world, but not of any other either.”

“Not like you to wax poetic.” Eskel didn’t dare take his eyes off Letho; the Viper lived up to the reputation of his school in every way. Quick, sharp and lethal if he got a bite in first. “You still haven’t answered my question. Get to the point.” He turned just slightly, thus opening his peripheral vision to the grounds outside. Fuck. He could see silhouettes against the walls. Back up? How the fuck did a Witcher have back up?

“Point is, Eskel,” Letho took another slow step forward. “Witchers are a bit like wraiths nowadays. Drifting around the Continent without purpose—unwanted, despised—and bitter. There’s a better way. But I’m gunna’ need you to give me your swords and come quiet like. If you try and run, you won’t get far.”

What was happening here? Eskel shifted his attention very briefly to his peripheral again. Nilfgaardian livery. He hadn’t done anything wrong. No laws broken, no contracts abandoned or performed dishonourably. There were rumours though. Rumours that Witchers were now part of the menu when it came to noble collectors, particularly those that favoured humanoid creatures for carnal pursuits. Eskel tried to put it well out of his mind. No way someone would capture him for that anyway, not when there were plenty of pretty Cats to choose from. “Go fuck yourself, Letho.” Eskel let off an earth-shattering Aard and ran towards the window. 

Letho threw up Helitrop, but the kinetic energy still smashed him through the wall into the next room. With a long suffering groan he unfurled to his feet and sprinted after his prey. The wolf had landed badly on the overgrown gravel path below; he was now limping at a canter towards the walls away from the retinue of human hirelings that accompanied Letho’s employer. “Fuck.” A vain part of him had expected Eskel to come quietly; he was the most even-tempered, logical and intelligent member of the wolf pack. But no, of course not. 

The drop from the window was effortless for a Witcher in good health, and Letho was soon covering ground. He snatched the bolas from his belt and swung it above his head in wide circles to gain power before releasing it. It cartwheeled across the distance and wrapped around the fleeing Witcher’s legs, the weights binding around the cord; Eskel tumbled to the floor, kicking up dirt and clumps of grass as his momentum ground to a stop. Letho closed the distance, but Eskel threw himself up onto his back and his fingers curled into Igni.

“Oh fuck—,” Letho snarled and threw up Quen just in time. The inferno consumed him completely and the heat blistered through even his shield; the hirelings all hit the deck with their hands over their heads, some letting out high-pitched screams of terror. As the flames cleared, Letho dived forward and planted himself on Eskel’s chest, but not before swerving away from a steel sword hurled at him like a throwing knife. A strangled scream over his shoulder indicated its final destination in the stomach of one of his companions.

“You fucking traitor!” Eskel seethed as he swung for Letho’s jaw. The Viper snagged his wrist and pinned it down above his head. 

“Don’t make me knock you out. You’re meant to be the intelligent o—,” the air left him as Eskel managed to get a leg free enough to knee him in the bollocks; his captive squirmed onto his front, but Letho threw himself forward to crowd him into the floor again. Eskel couldn’t be allowed access to his hands, because if he kept throwing off dragon’s breath-level Signs, they’d never get him. “Just. Yield.” Letho grated out.

“You may be happy to be a Nilfgaard fuck toy, but I’m not,” Eskel snarled as Letho pinned him onto his front; he was running out of energy and fight, but they’d have to kill him. He wasn’t going alive. “Kill me now, or I swear to the gods I won’t stop until I gut you.” 

“You wolves are so melodramatic,” Letho chuckled and pushed both of Eskel’s wrists into the floor, weight planted in the small of his back. “Will you hurry up with the fucking muzzle?” He barked over his shoulder.

Now that it looked like Letho had the dangerous mutant pinned, the humans approached. They jammed a gag into Eskel’s mouth and tied it tightly enough to cause the broken nerve-endings in the right side of his face to spasm painfully. His two hands were bound up in two bags made of slyzard hide; the metal reinforcement at his wrists were secured with two padlocks, and then Letho yanked both arms to the small of his back. 

“Is all this really necessary, Letho?” A soft voice asked. Through his panting breaths, Eskel could pick out the scents of chamomile and honey; expensive lotions and bath salts. “You’re hurting him.”

“With all due respect,” Letho said it in a way that clearly indicated the minimal level afforded, “did you miss the volcanic eruption hiding in the palm of his hand?” Now that Eskel was trussed up good and proper—his legs still mostly bound in the bolas, his arms fastened at the small of his back, his mouth gagged—Letho stood. 

“Hmm,” the nobleman walked into view and Eskel glared fire and brimstone at him, imagining all the different, creative ways he was going to kill him as soon as his hands were free. “Hello, Eskel. You don’t need to be frightened, but I understand why you are. You’re going to come home with me. You’ll be safe there.” Eskel growled, low and feral, and kicked at Letho with a fitful spasm of his legs. 

“For f—Somne,” Letho curled his fingers and the Sign had immediate effect. “Sleep.” It would’ve had very little impact on a Witcher in their prime, but on one exhausted, malnourished and expended, it was enough. Eskel’s eyes flickered closed and his body went limp. 

“He used Somne on you,” Lambert asked, eyebrow raised. “Shit, he just knocked me out.”

“Hmm. Letho’s always had a begrudging respect for Eskel,” Geralt murmured, his smile not reaching his eyes. Just like him they’d used Eskel’s profession, and his own desperation, against him. 

“I assure you, it’s not returned,” Eskel grumbled, his arms folded. The next part was profoundly uncomfortable, because he wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about it yet, but this was Geralt. And Geralt, even if he’d never admit it, was frightened and uncertain. Eskel needed to show him the way. Like always. “I wasn’t the first. Jaskier already had Grayson and Ixora. Letho, obviously, and Coën.” 

Eskel woke in the middle of a huge bed. Furs and fresh linen sheets were draped over him and whoever had taken such care to make him comfortable had also removed his outer clothes; the soft cotton braies were new and he wiggled happily inside them before his consciousness had fully coalesced. Far too expensive to be his. His first thought was how snug and cozy it was; he loved soft things. The best part about being at home was curling up under soft blankets with his pack. The feel of the material on his skin—warm and comforting—eased him awake.

He flexed his fingers inside the slyzard ‘muzzles’ still encasing his hands. The memories of the previous day—or longer, he really didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious—began to filter through. Contract, wraith, Letho. Prisoner. A well of panic gathered in his chest and he squirmed up onto his knees. Had they—? He took careful stock of his body, but other than the usual dull ache throughout there was no blistering pain that indicated something untoward had happened while he was unconscious. 

The room itself was big, but the furniture was simple. Chaise lounge, a table, a large couch. The bed was the biggest thing with more space and blankets than a single person needed. He closed his eyes and listened next. The noises of a busy house—chattering servants, the grate of chainmail and halberds, guardsmen, fluttering heartbeats, and two very, very slow ones nearby—gave him no further information.

The door opened and he tensed, shoulders hunching forward. A familiar bald head and shit-eating grin swaggered into the room. “Welcome back, sleeping beauty,” Letho drawled. “Here. Food.” He placed the bowl of fruit and bread down on the bed at Eskel’s knee. “Boss’ll be along in a moment to get those off you.” He indicated the slyzard wraps keeping Eskel’s magic contained. “I’d suggest making logical choices.”

“Where am I?” Eskel bit out.

“Kerack. Collection house.”

A shiver of disgust shuddered up Eskel’s spine. “You sold me out to a slaver.”

“Mm. Not quite. He’ll explain when he gets here.”

“Where’re my clothes?”

“In the wash,” Letho folded his arm and leaned back against the wall. “You stank.” 

And he didn’t anymore, which meant—oh, fuck this bullshit. “You’re an asshole and a snake.”

“Ahh good, I didn’t pick up the wrong medallion this morning after all.” Letho had his eyes closed, which was completely fucking infuriating. Eskel was going to rip his fucking head from his shoulders and shove it up his—the sound of footsteps cut off his vengeful mental tirade and he held his breath as the door opened.

A slender, elegant figure stepped through. The curtained windows allowed enough dim light into the room for Eskel to pick out a foppish mess of brunette hair and startling blue eyes. The nobleman’s features were as cut and regal as would be expected, and his fine, violet doublet flaunted his athletic figure. Eskel wanted to kill him. “I’m sorry for the delay,” he smiled. “Eskel, I’m Jaskier. Welcome to my home.”

Eskel said nothing. His jaw clenched so tightly that his teeth threatened to shatter. Jaskier didn’t seem phased. “Letho has informed me that you enjoy reading, so I’ve brought you a couple of books to keep you occupied while you recuperate.” For the first time, Eskel looked down at the bundle in Jaskier’s arms; there were three tomes of impressive size, and he placed them carefully on a bedside table. “Now, I must present you with a choice regarding your hands. According to my research, you’re one of the most magically gifted Witchers to ever exist, so I had the slyzard guards made up. However, I don’t wish to keep you confined in that way. I’d like to unlock them.”

“What’s the catch?” Eskel glanced at the books stacked on the bedside table and the bowl of food on the mattress.

“No catch per se,” Jaskier dipped a hand into his doublet and pulled out a key. “No Signs in the house, or to be used offensively in any way. I’d like you to eat as well.”

“And if I decide to use Axii on a guard? Or if I burn your house to the ground?”

“Then I’m afraid they’ll go back on. Letho or I will have to feed you and assist you with your ablutions.” 

Eskel looked from Letho to Jaskier and then to the food on the bed. He could play the long game here. There was no immediate danger. No knives held to his throat, no chains, not really. And if Jaskier tried anything, then Eskel could cast Somne and put him to sleep. He’d never know.  “The food. I’ll know if it’s poisoned.”

“It’s not,” Letho said, clearly growing impatient. “I’ll eat it with you if you want. Just agree not to be a dickhead.” 

“Fine. No Signs.” Eskel felt far too vulnerable with his hands out of action. He turned on the bed as Jaskier approached to offer his wrists, but still kept the nobleman in his peripheral as he felt the locks work free. Jaskier was very careful not to touch him; his fingertips only brushed Eskel’s wrists once as he pulled the guards away. Eskel brought his hands to his chest once they were free and rubbed at the red marks; he noted Letho leaning forward with his fingers already half curled into the symbol for Quen. “Are he and I the only pets you have?”

“You’re not my pet, Eskel,” Jaskier said gently, tucking the guards under his arms. “Think of yourself as my guest. Like any host, I have rules; this is my house, but you’ll be well taken care of.”

“Is this my prison cell?” Not really that bad as far as a gaol went.

“No. For a few days, I want you to eat and rest, then I’ll introduce you to everyone else.” Jaskier gestured to Letho and they left Eskel alone with the food, books and his thoughts.

“It… makes sense. Eat, make yourself strong again, and escape,” Geralt sighed. “So, why are you still here? Not that I’m not fucking glad you are.”

“Him,” Eskel glanced down at Lambert who smirked right back. “And I… it’s actually not… Jaskier isn’t that bad.”

“So, you met the others, had the grand tour and then what?” 

Eskel let out a sigh of his own and folded his arms. “Well…”

Eskel did as he was told. He ate, meditated—because sleep was out of the question with the enemy so close—and when he wasn’t doing either of those he read the tomes Jaskier had provided. It was begrudging at first. As if picking them up was an acknowledgement of his captivity. The first was a book on the history of the Aen Seidhe, which he actually found quite interesting; the second was an examination of Skelligen poetry, which contained a few parts that made him chuckle. He didn’t get to the third before Letho arrived for his tour.

The estate was expansive and opulent. Jaskier was clearly exceptionally wealthy. But it was the other Witchers he was most interested in; Letho was allowed to carry weapons and was sent out on excursions. He had free reign of the house and its grounds even beyond that of the others. There was a Manticore and a Bear. Eskel hadn’t seen either in many years. After some prodding, Grayson—the bear—finally spoke to him about his experience so far. Other than Letho, he’d been here the longest. He was tall, broad—as was befitting of his school—with a large, well-maintained beard and a full head of dark, greying hair. In another life, Eskel might have taken a moment to admire, but now he just had questions. “So, he does want to fuck us?”

Grayson, clearly offended by the language, wrinkled his nose. “Jaskier is a man of voracious appetite.” And then he said nothing else. Fucking Bears. Letho wasn’t much more helpful, and the Manticore wasn’t a conversationalist, although she was probably distracted by Coën's little crush. The Griffin was absolutely smitten, and the only time he really talked to Eskel was to bounce poetry ideas off him. No real information to be gained. It was for this reason that he tried to avoid Jaskier when he could. Whenever their host appeared in the large, central room to speak with them, Eskel retired to his quarters and closed the door. He missed the wounded expression on Jaskier’s face each time, and asked for nothing despite prompting.

That all changed the day Lambert arrived.

Wounded, frightened—not that the git would ever admit to it—Lambert required a lot of care. Eskel curled around him and never wanted to let go; he stroked him, kissed him and spoke softly in his ear. It’s okay. I’ve got you. I’m here. Then the intrusive thoughts started. What if Jaskier took advantage of Lambert’s vulnerability? What if he offered Lambert something—freedom, or—? Eskel couldn’t let it happen. If Jaskier was going to satisfy himself with a wolf, then Eskel would make sure Lambert was off the menu.

The day he was summoned to one of Jaskier’s private rooms to 'spend some time with him', Eskel swallowed his pride and buried himself away in the back of his head. It’s fine. He’d done worse to protect his family. Much worse. With the books tucked under his arm as requested, he knocked politely on the door and stepped inside.

“Ahh, there you are,” Jaskier smiled from his desk. “Thank you, Letho. I can take it from here.”

“Are you—?” Letho began to ask, and then was silenced by the arch of an elegant eyebrow. Alright, that was satisfying. The Viper walked out with a deep sigh through his nose. And then it was just the two of them. 

Eskel placed the books down on the cabinet and reached for his trousers. “I don’t do piss or shit. It makes me gag, and I won’t be able to stop from vomiting on you. And I haven’t been fucked in a long time, so if you could use some oil—,” he growled, his eyes on the floor as he pulled his belt free. “—you can call me demeaning names, hit me, choke me, whatever. I don’t really care. Don’t try to force me to cum, you probably already know Witchers take a while.”

Jaskier didn’t say anything at first. His head tilted to the side, expression neutral. When he did speak, it was almost contemplative. “I’d like to wash your hair,” he said quietly, one manicured hand lifting from his lap so that he could examine his nails. 

“What?” Eskel paused with his hands on the ties of his trousers.

“Our bathhouse isn’t quite the hot springs of Kaer Morhen, but it's warm and comfortable. I think you’ll quite like it.” He stood and moved around the desk. “You’ve been avoiding me, so I haven’t been able to monitor your progress and health. This will give me an opportunity to do so.”

Eskel stared, his mouth open, words escaping him. Wash your hair. Was that some kind of—? No, he wasn’t that distanced from society. He’d know if—. It didn’t matter. Jaskier needed to be satisfied enough to forget about Lambert. “Fine. Do you—? What do you want me to do?” 

Jaskier smiled. Always so open, so gentle. It was difficult sometimes to remember he was essentially a slaver with pretty blue eyes. “Follow me. All the towels and everything have already been arranged for us.”

For us. 

The bathhouse was located in a separate wing of the house. It was tiled in clean, neutral colours, with mosaics of aquatic creatures hidden beneath the rippling waters; Eskel could just about make out a selkiemore in one. There were four pools in total—one cold, one lukewarm, one hot, one Witcher hot—and Jaskier pointed each out to Eskel as he passed him his towels. “I’m afraid you’ll have to content yourself with the hot one today,” he shrugged out of his doublet. “You and your pack are, of course, welcome to enjoy the hottest at any time. If you get undressed and make yourself comfortable, I’ll just be a moment.”

Jaskier left with another of those beaming smiles, disappearing into a separate room. Eskel stood mutely by the pool for some time. He’d mentally prepared himself for being used like a cheap whore, but this wasn’t exactly—that. Not yet, anyway, he reminded himself. He left his shirt, trousers and braies on one of the nearby benches and climbed awkwardly into the water. Oh fuck, it was good. Even though it wasn’t quite the skin-scorching temperatures he preferred, the warmth permeated the dull ache deep in the muscles of his back and legs that had remained stubbornly resistant to bed rest. His eyes slid closed and he rubbed his hands over his face. Needed to stay alert.

Easier said than done. Eskel leaned back and gazed up at the roof; it was a huge glass dome. The night sky beyond was a deep, satin blue, and Eskel mapped each constellation. It was oddly comforting. Perhaps it was because he hoped that Geralt was doing the same. Right now. Perhaps he was laying on his back near a fire, his arms tucked behind his head like he did when they were in bed chatting about random crap; his golden eyes soft with sleep as they traced the glittering outline of each cluster…

“Ahh, feels good, doesn’t it?” Jaskier spoke softly and Eskel sat up suddenly, back rigid. The Witcher looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see his host still mostly dressed; he’d stripped his shoes, doublet and stockings, and rolled his breeches a little way up his calves, but otherwise he was completely decent—maybe he wants me to strip him or something. Eskel tried not to think too much about it and waited patiently. “Right—,” Jaskier sat down behind Eskel and threw his legs out either side of his broad frame; bare feet dropped into the water and his toes wriggled in delight, “—lovely, now, your scars. Are they sensitive to heat?”

“They’re—it’s fine.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Jaskier leaned over Eskel, the fabric of his chemise soft against Eskel’s back, and filled a porcelain jug with water. “Will they be uncomfortable if I splash water or soap across them?”

“No. It’s just—stretching them, or scratching, or when I shave, it’s—,” Eskel fought the urge to touch them. It was a shitty habit of his, but he just couldn’t shake it. Whenever feelings of vulnerability or anxiety tapped at the edges of his consciousness, that’s where his hand automatically fled to.

“Alright. Give me a moment.” Jaskier sat up and tugged each of his rings off. The silver and gold tinkled gently on the tiles next to him, and he palmed them into a neat little pile. “There we are. I shan’t catch you by accident now. Lean forward for me.” A soft hand pressed over Eskel’s eyes to shield them from the water—a completely unnecessary display of care—and Jaskier poured over several jugs worth before lathering the soap in his hands. “Did you enjoy the books?”

“I—,” Eskel stuttered as Jaskier’s fingers pushed across his scalp, his eyes fluttering as they moved down behind his ears in firm, deliberate circles. “The discourse on Skelligen literature was… interesting. I also had a niece that… who was—hm, had Aen Seidhe blood, so—.”

“Ahh, yes,” Jaskier smiled. He could see the goosebumps erupting over Eskel’s shoulders; Witcher discipline was probably the only thing between Eskel and a little shiver of pleasure. “Cirilla. Our esteemed Empress many years ago. I’m always a little awed whenever I’m reminded about how much you’ve seen— experienced —the world could learn so much from you.”

“Mmm.” Eskel mumbled, because words were an abstract concept as Jaskier massaged the soap through his hair, and then when he went down his neck to his shoulders, air became slightly more challenging too. He swallowed a small gasp as Jaskier located a tight knot just on the inside of his right scapula. He hadn't been touched like this in a very long time. Lambert and Geralt hadn't managed to fight their way home in years; the first touches, kisses, shared with Lambert when he arrived had been a special level of bliss. Perhaps they'd softened his resolve, because his entire body was humming with enjoyment as gentle, reverent hands stroked across his scalp. When he spoke, his voice thick and low, the accusatory note to his question was almost lost. “Is that what you want us for then? A collection of relicts?”

“No—lean forward, please—I want to keep you safe, help you get strong again,” Jaskier’s voice softened still as Eskel hunched over. The soap rinsed easily from his hair; it was longer than some of the pictures Jaskier had seen, although those very same images did absolutely no justice to how handsome Eskel was in person. “I’m going to brush some oils through. Everything okay?”

“Yes, fine,” Eskel said, although he felt somewhat… sleepy. Embarrassing, really. Meditation was no substitute for proper sleep, and he’d fastidiously hoarded his tension to keep him alert and awake. Jaskier had just obliterated a huge store of it. 

“Alright, good, you’re doing well, Eskel,” Jaskier stroked the back of Eskel’s neck tentatively before he reached for the oil and the comb; this lovely mop of black hair would feel like silk in the hand when he was finished. “Are you happy to have Lambert with you?”

“Yes, don’t—please don’t hurt him, or—, I’ll be—,” Eskel swallowed and tried to find what he wanted to say, but Jaskier’s hands were back, the water was so warm, and his eyes were closing. “He’ll be good. He’s just—he can be—.”

“Oh, I know, Letho’s given me the full backstory.” Jaskier didn’t pander to Eskel’s fears. They’d only be disassembled with proof and physical evidence; Witchers were too long in the tooth to fall prey to pretty words and assurances. “Let me know if he needs anything. I’ll make sure he has it.”

“Right, uh, th - thank you,” Eskel was thoroughly out of his depth; the comb tugged gently through his hair, and every time it met resistance Jaskier picked up the lock and carefully teased it free. A far cry from the quick, brutal brush his hair got during the winter at Kaer Morhen. On the Path there was never any point. 

“There,” Jaskier placed the comb to one side and smoothed a hand up Eskel’s neck to his hairline—he earned a shiver this time—and circled a thumb behind his ear. “Now, I saw how much that gag hurt you, so I bought you a little something for your scars. If you wash your intimate areas, I’ll just go and fetch it. Here, cloth, soap. I won’t be a moment.”

Jaskier withdrew his feet from the water and padded away from the pool to leave Eskel staring blankly into space. The fact that he was semi-hard was neither here nor there. More shocking was that he’d been left with dignity. With his host out of the room, Eskel attended to the rest of his body; his limbs felt leaden and his mind wandered to the soft bed, with its plush furs and silky sheets. He might actually sleep tonight. There was no lock on the door, but he’d still be alert enough to—

“Ready to dry off?” Jaskier grabbed a towel from the bench and opened it out, arms spread. Eskel hadn’t even heard him return. He rose mutely from the water and stepped into the embrace that awaited him. Jaskier let him take the towel and wrap it around his waist in favour of carefully taking his hand and leading him over to a wooden bench; the surface was smooth and when Eskel sat down on it he found it warm too. “Here, if you lean back here, I’ll just sit here.” Jaskier guided him into the cradle of one high arm—it was essentially a waterproof chaise lounge—and sat close to his hip with a pot of salve in his lap. “You must let me know if this hurts at any time.”

“Okay.” Eskel murmured, gathering his towel protectively across his lap. This was it, right? This was the moment when Jaskier took what he really wanted. He just preferred Eskel to be clean first.

No. Wrong again. 

Those slender fingers lifted from the pot of salve to Eskel’s face. The Witcher tilted away instinctively, murmured through an apology and scrunched his eyes shut. He didn’t expect the tenderness, nor the subtle ebb of pleasure that wound down his neck to nestle at the base of his spine as soft fingertips explored each welt and valley. Eskel’s jaw slackened and his brow smoothed. Jaskier praised him in a whisper. “Good, well done. Remember, if it hurts, I need to know.” 

There were two people on the entire Continent that touched Eskel’s face. The scars symbolised so much; his failures, his nonexistent self esteem, his greatest vulnerability. But Jaskier was playing him like a finely tuned instrument and Eskel didn’t realise he was purring until he saw the affectionate lilt to Jaskier’s lips. He checked himself, falling immediately silent. The embarrassment flashed across his face and he gripped the towel a little tighter in hopes his other reactions had gone unnoticed; namely the swell of his cock, thick against his thigh. He’d prepared for being brutalised, not—not this. It was too much.

“Eskel, it’s alright,” Jaskier dropped his hand away, using the Witcher's name to bring him back to an even keel. “This is it. When I’ve finished, I’ll be sending you back to Lambert. You have my word.”


“Why what?” Jaskier coated his fingers again and returned to Eskel’s cheek; he was working his way down to the notches in his lip.

“Why are you doing this? It’s—I was expecting—.”

“I know what you were expecting,” Jaskier teased his thumb carefully over Eskel’s upper lip and lifted it slightly; his teeth were damaged beneath the scarring. It must have been so painful to eat at first. “I’m not a rapist. I would never take advantage of someone in my care. If intimacy of that nature is something you want or need at a later date, then I would of course be amenable. You’re a very attractive man. However,” he twisted the lid closed, “that’s not my purpose in hosting you. Come, you’re exhausted. Letho told me you haven’t been sleeping like I asked. You’re safe here. No one will harm you—not me, not Letho, nor my staff—please, sleep. ” 

Eskel headed back to his room—their room—and slipped into bed next to Lambert. He wasn’t asleep, but it didn’t take long once they were both nestled beneath the furs, because Eskel was relaxed and warm. They curled up in each other’s arms, with Lambert’s nose tucked beneath Eskel’s chin and their limbs wound together. If Eskel felt safe enough to sleep, then it was safe. Full stop. They slept soundly until morning, and Eskel nuzzled Lambert awake for a kiss.

“So, he didn’t demand anything of you,” Geralt asked carefully. “Just bathed you and sent you on your way.”

“Yeah,” Eskel shrugged. “He calls me over every now and then. I asked him whether he thought I smelled particularly bad, but he just laughed and said he’d noticed I like soft things, which was—odd.” Not wrong. His skin, especially his face, was sensitive. Eskel was used to discomfort, even pain, but when he had the opportunity to enjoy some luxury, he couldn’t resist. Soft furs, his own hair now that it was constantly the texture of silk, the towels that he wrapped around his waist when he sat on that bench, Jaskier’s hands— fuck, his mind wandered too easily. The last time Jaskier had washed his hair, Eskel almost kissed him. He was losing perspective, perhaps because of the happy contentedness of having his family with him. Safe.

“Yeah. Odd’s right,” Lambert grumbled. “Guess you want to hear how he caught the best among us?”

“I already know how he caught me,” Geralt shot back, giving Lambert a light kick. “Go on then, little wolf. Let’s hear it. How’d they net you?”

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Eskel sighed. “It gets more extravagant with each retelling.”

Eskel,” Lambert huffed. “Just the facts. Anyway—.”

Grayson, School of Bear

"The School of the Bear: little is known about it, yet one look at their custom armor reveals telling details of the Witchers who wear it. A hardy quilted gambeson, heavy mail extending to the knees, plate armor spaulders to protect the shoulders. A Witcher equipped in such gear would not leap from raking claws, nor sidestep a beast's gnashing fangs. There is no need, for he can endure the blows, and ensure a short distance from which he can exact his revenge. Unlike Witchers from the Wolf School – who possess strong bonds of friendship and brotherhood – those from the Bear School prefer a solitary lifestyle, away from the company of other Witchers. Should they encounter others on the path, however, rarely does it end without bloodshed. Bear Witchers often travel to the Skellige Isles – and this should come as no surprise. For the islands have no shortage of monsters and the Witchers get along rather well with the similarly brash, bearded locals."

Chapter Text

It had been so long since Lambert had a normal contract. “Good sir Witcher, please clear the golems and traps from the old mage's tower so we can sell the land, we'll pay you for your trouble.” He didn't have to trap the golem either, just kill it. No capturing creatures for some rich noble's collection, just a no fuss pest removal job. The coin was good too, but that happened when an entire village saved to hire a Witcher.

So why did it seem too good to be true?

As Lambert made his way towards the ruined tower, it all appeared on the level. Runes and a few magical boobie traps were still live, deactivated with a quick Aard and a clever side step over a pressure block. The tower itself was a ruin, stone crumbling before his eyes as he passed. No wonder none of the locals wanted to go in, this place might fall down on top of him. A better end than hunger, at least. He got to the top of a staircase, what used to be the inner sanctum, the most heavily guarded spot. He saw the golem—

In pieces.

The air shifted behind him and Lambert barely rolled away from the wide slash of a knife. Not as quick as he used to be—underfed, limbs shaking with hunger, pieces falling off his armor—but he was faster than that slow ass swing. Springing onto the balls of his feet, he saw the great bulk of motherfucking Letho leaning against the more solid of the crumbling walls.

The bastard smirked—actually smirked—at him. He pulled another knife off his chest, and flipped it in his hand. The blade gleamed, sharp and new, nothing like Lambert's dull and poorly maintained gear. It's not that he was neglectful, he lived and died by his swords, but the coin just wasn't fucking there, not for a long while now.

He waggled the hilt towards Lambert. “Gunna come quietly?”

“Pfft,” Lambert scoffed. “Don't you know anything?” He had less than a second to assess: this high up in the tower, the stairs were his only exit... or the window. Not optimal. If he was stronger, Lambert could land safely on the ground no problem, but his muscles wasted, reflexes slow, it wasn't a good bet. And Letho stood strategically between them both. Body relaxed, but still ready to strike in whatever direction Lambert attempted to go. He was trapped.

Well, if he was going to die, then Lambert was taking Letho with him.

He pulled his sword and lunged. Letho, always quicker than his size suggested, spun away, dodging instead of fighting. Huh. He bared his teeth, snarling in frustration. “I told him you wouldn't come quietly. I don't want to hurt you—under orders to avoid it if I can.”

“Orders?” Lambert spat and went in for another hit. Letho dodged again. Either he was getting faster or Lambert was slower than usual. What would Aiden say? All those times they trained, jumping from branch to branch in one forest or another, that bastard Cat always just out of reach—

No. Focus. Letho was... not trying to kill him, but do something, Lambert couldn't let his mind wander. He struck again, Letho deflecting with his blade and a quick turn. Before Lambert could turn and thrust again, a solid elbow hit the base of his skull. His vision swam and he staggered forward, barely catching himself. He swung again, wildly, unfocused, hoping to hit Letho because there was just so much of him to hit than actually aiming for him.

Lambert threw out a hand. “Aard!” It was a weak Sign at best—concentration and gesture, without the fucking concentration—but it was enough to knock some of the golem pieces and dust up into the air. Into Letho's eyes.

“Agh! For fuck's sake!” One eye squeezed shut, Letho swung wildly. Pain spiraled through his arm and Letho cursed. “Fuck, I wasn't trying to—” A thick arm wrapped around his neck, another around his sword hand. The grip constricted like a snake until Lambert's sword slipped from his fingers. He turned his head, tried to give himself more room to breathe, but it was too much, Letho too strong, and he was too weak. The arm pushed down next to his windpipe, starving his brain of blood for the moment. “Fucking passout already.”

Lambert fought to the very last second, thrashing and jerking in the hold until darkness overtook him.

The floor under him lurched and Lambert rolled, grunting as he hit the wall. Wall of a carriage? Blurred lights ringed his vision, his pupils contracting wildly. Nausea rolled through him and he gagged. “Fuck.” Letho. Again?

Rough hands grabbed him, rolling Lambert onto his side. He coughed and heaved, but there was nothing in his stomach to bring up. The windows of the carriage were covered in lacy cloth, daylight filtering through just enough to make Lambert want to gag as they rocked back and forth. The pounding in his head did not help. “Letho,” he rasped and started to thrash.

“Don't lose your lunch yet, we're stopping.” He pounded on the roof to signal the driver and Lambert squeezed his eyes shut, his head pounding in sympathy. The carriage came to a stop and Letho threw open the door. More light streamed in, but fresh air as well and Lambert took a deep breath. “Don't try to escape.” Letho leaned over and pulled at the irons around his wrists, then the shackles at his ankles, checking to see if Lambert was hogtied good and proper. “And don't make me choke you out again, I'm in enough trouble as it is.”


It was a valiant effort if he did say so himself. Trussed up like a roast, Lambert tried to throw himself out of the carriage, past Letho, and through the open door. What the plan was after that... he didn't know. Didn't get that far anyway, Letho caught him and shoved him back on the padded bench. His eyes adjusted just in time to see Letho's heavy hand coming down, then there was nothing.

“My apologies for his injuries.”

The soft voice—stranger, unknown, dangerous—shocked Lambert awake. Air filling his lungs, he sat bolt upright in bed and collided with a firm chest. He had the feeling he'd woken up before, twisting and groaning before getting put down again. This was the first time arms wrapped around him and a familiar scent curled into his nostrils; musky, woodsy, home, Eskel.

Panic and comfort warred inside his head, along with the throbbing pain in his skull and a sharper pain in his arm, Lambert started gasping, pulling in too much air, too fast, struggling against the arms around him. His eyes wouldn't focus, he saw a dark, blurred figure standing at the door and snarled.

“I'll leave you be. I have things to discuss with Letho.” The door shut, the stranger vanished and Lambert's alarm bells quieted a little.

“Eskel,” his voice cracked around the name.

“It's okay, I've got you, I'm here.” Eskel rocked him back and forth like a fucking pup having their first post-trial nightmares, a hand rubbing up and down his back. And yet, Lambert couldn't pull away. His head ached, his stomach clawed with hunger and he couldn't fucking let go of Eskel.

“Eskel—” he couldn't hold back the sob in his voice. It had been so long. “Where are we?”

“Safe.” Fingers carded through his dirty hair. Lambert probably stank to hell and back, but Eskel still kissed his ear, nuzzled his hair, puffing soft breath along his neck. “You're safe.”

Lambert didn't ask where 'safe' was. He didn't have words anymore, only the need to cling to Eskel. He smelled food close by, and hot water, but Eskel mattered most, the touch grounding him for the first time in, fuck, years. Jumping from one dodgy contract to another, Lambert felt so lost in the world now, the rhythm of his yearly trip to Kaer Morhen shattered by the relentless march of Nilfgaard, it wasn't safe to cross that much land, leaving him stuck around Cintra. School of the Wolf did not do well in Cintra.

But with Eskel wrapped around him, warm and soft and here, Lambert's mind calmed. School of the Wolf was a shadow of its former self, had been for more than a century, but Eskel, he pretty much was the school. Taking over after Vesemir died, there was no better sign post for Lambert to cling onto. So that's what he did, holding as tight as his tired muscles could manage, he wrapped around Eskel and did not let go.

The kisses and soft touches seemed to go on forever, whispered words of, “I love you, you're safe, I love you...” pressed into his dirty hair. His clothes were clean, and not his, someone obviously changed him (Lambert did not want to think about that) but he felt the layer of dirt and grime all over his skin and hair. And Eskel touched him anyway. He hoped he never let go.

Eskel took a shuddering breath and Lambert blinked. The shadow on the wall from the thick curtains looked different, the sun had shifted. How long had he spaced out for? “Can you stand?” Eskel whispered. “There's a bath.”

Lambert climbed to his feet, legs shaking. Eskel kept a supporting hand under his arm as his free hand pulled Lambert out of the new clothes. “I have more clean things for you. And food. Bath first though.”

“Bath...” Lambert took one step and started to fall. Eskel caught him, half carrying him to the tub.

“I've got you,” he whispered. This wasn't a wooden washtub in a tavern, this was an actual bath. Clawed feet, heavy, it probably took four men to get it in here. “I've got you.” Eskel said it over and over, when he lowered Lambert down into the near-scalding water, when he leaned down to kiss away Lambert's groans, “I've got you, I've got you...”

Once Lambert settled into the water, the heat soaking through his bones, a deep groan of pleasure slipped from his chest. His eyes drifted down to the red slash on his arm—already closed, mostly healed—and frowned at the sad state of himself. He could see his fucking ribs, and shivered when Eskel dragged a cloth over them, cleaning the layer of dirt Lambert had since... he couldn't remember his last bath. A dunk in a freezing river was never enough to get all the grime, the blood and the gore, but the hot water burned it all away.

Eskel dunked a jug into the bath and covered Lambert's eyes, pouring the water over his hair. He repeated the process until any visible dirt was gone, then reached for a bar of soap, one hand on Lambert the whole time. Eskel did not let go of him, which Lambert was more than grateful for. If Eskel stopped touching him... he might vanish. The odds that he was actually dead at the top of some crumbling mage's tower, Letho picking his teeth with Lambert's bones, were not impossible, no more impossible than Eskel tenderly washing his hair like they were back in the hot springs at Kaer Morhen.

Lather covered Eskel's hands, the soap almost fragrance free as he worked it through Lambert's hair. Strong fingers pressed into his scalp, scratching lightly, scouring for dirt. Lambert moaned anyway, tingling pleasure dripping down his back. “Yes, I'll take care of you,” Eskel whispered. Did he know he was still talking? Lambert didn't care, Eskel was here, touching him, loving him, for the moment, he wasn't bothered with the how of it.

A few more jugs of water to rinse the soap and the cloth returned, scrubbing Lambert's chest, over his nipples. He hissed softly, arching into the touch. It had been so very long. Prostitutes these days wouldn't touch a Witcher, not that Lambert even had the coin for that, and his skin ached for more, sparking to every small touch. And Eskel just kept touching, firm hands moving everywhere, like he was trying to assure himself that Lambert was real too. He shivered and shook, almost crying out a few times, whispering Eskel's name like a prayer.

The hot water chased away the stiffness from his limbs and Lambert melted into the tub, resting his head back on Eskel. Kneeling next to the basin, he pushed Lambert's head into his shoulder, reaching down into the water with the other hand and scrubbing. He cleaned Lambert's undercarriage with quick, efficient strokes. They'd get to that if Lambert wanted, right now, he was just moaning, enjoying the attention, and the smell of Eskel's musk thick in the air around him.

Now clean, Eskel helped him from the tub, wrapping him in a fluffy towel resting on the nearby chaise, along with some clean clothes. Eskel reached down for the braies and Lambert shook his head. “No. Can we... hold me?”

Lambert was still dripping. Eskel did his best to dry him off before carrying him back to the bed. The sheets were soft and cool in the height of summer and Lambert couldn't help his moan. He couldn't remember the last time he slept in a bed. Eskel arranged Lambert between his legs, leaning him back onto his chest, one hand combing through his hair. A patch of wetness soaked through the shoulder of Eskel's shirt, but he didn't care. After a moment, Lambert turned and wrapped his arms around him, holding them together, pushing his face into another too thin stomach. Eskel was still in better shape than him... how long had he been here? Where ever here was.

“Food,” Eskel said. Lambert jerked at his voice. He fell asleep. How exhausted did he have to be to fall asleep in some unknown house? Just because Eskel was here didn't mean they were safe. How did he let his guard down so easily? “Food,” Eskel said again, nudging him to sit up more. He lifted a roll to Lambert's lips, feeding him like a child. “Slow bites.”

“I know,” he grumbled but did as asked anyway.

He made it through the bread and a few pieces of fruit. Where the fuck were they? Who could afford fruit these days? Eskel pressed a goblet of water to his lips and the hungry shakes ebbed, replaced by a leadened exhaustion. “Sleep,” Eskel said, arranging them in the bed again, Lambert's head on his chest, ear pressed to his heart so the slow beats might make sleep easier.

“Eskel...” he whispered, eyes falling closed. “Where are we?”

“Safe. For now.”

Lambert closed his eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.

Eskel didn't leave his side for days. He heard growling, angry voices when some men came to get the tub. Lambert tried to lift his head and see, get any information about their location, but Eskel knelt in front of him, blocking the view. Cradling Lambert's head into his neck, Eskel's scent overtook him again.

The next time he woke, there was a tray of food gently steaming at the foot of the bed. Lambert smelled meat and his stomach growled. “Slow,” Eskel said, and started cutting pieces for him, feeding Lambert. Though he was starving, Lambert only finished half the meal before his stomach lurched. “That's good enough. We'll have the rest later.”

After enough rest and food, Lambert started to feel like his old self. He rolled his eyes. “We're a we now?” He bumped his head into Eskel's shoulder and they curled together again, smooth lips drifting down Lambert's throat, licking over his adam's apple. He shifted, cock twitching to life even as his stomach gurgled. Too empty for too long, it wasn't used to food that wasn't spoiled, or worse. “Can't now.”

Eskel's lips continued their trail down, across Lambert's collarbones. “Not that. I just... I need to touch you.”

“Yeah.” He tilted his head to the side, giving Eskel more room to kiss and rub, spreading his thick scent all over Lambert, claiming me, he thought absently. “I need you too.”

The first time he woke without Eskel by his side, Lambert started to panic. Said panic didn't get far, as the bedroom door opened less than a second later and Eskel slipped under the covers. “Shush, it's fine, I'm here.” Lambert cuddled up close, pushing his face under Eskel's chin. He smelled different... cleaner. They didn't leave the room and while Eskel made do with quick washes in the basin, now he was practically sparkling, his hair combed and everything. There was a healing slave across his scarred cheek, and the faint scent of chamomile and honey, the same scent that permeated the walls of wherever they were.

With Eskel wrapped around him once again, Lambert slept. More importantly, he heard his brother's breathing slow, evening out. Lambert wasn't paying the best attention, but he was pretty sure this was the first time Eskel slept since he arrived.

Maybe they were safe.

He woke the next morning with Eskel's lips sliding over his, trailing hungry kisses along his jaw. A few days of solid meals quelled the worst of his hunger, but he still saw his ribs when he looked down at his naked body, saw his wasted muscles. “I'm not—you shouldn't have to touch me like this,” he protested.

Eskel didn't stop kissing, licking up Lambert's cheek and placing one kiss over each eyelid. “I want to touch you, always. Lambert, you're the most beautiful sight I've seen in years.”

He chuckled softly and licked the tip of Eskel's nose, catching a finger in his mouth and sucking. “What kind of shithole places have you been hunting in?”

“Cintra.” Eskel growled softly, playfully, and surged forward, nipping at Lambert's throat. Any normal night (if normal still existed) he'd bite hard enough to bruise, but they were both fragile, Lambert more so, one too deep bite might be more pain than pleasure. His cock started to fill out and his hips twitched, rutting against Lambert.

“Ugh, Cintra. Fuck Cintra.” Lambert bit down on Eskel's shoulder, not as gentle but they both groaned all the same. Lining their hips up, the thick line of Eskel's absolute monster of a cock pushed against him. Lambert wanted more, he wanted to slide down and wrap his lips around it, cover himself in Eskel's scent. But there was no time for romance and they both simply needed. Thrusting against each other like animals, Eskel bit down on Lambert's neck, embedding his teeth into too thin skin and groaning.

“Eskel,” Lambert breathed, his cock pulsing in his now dirty braies. If Geralt was here, he'd lick them both clean, growling possessively at the thick taste of them on his tongue, filling his senses. If Aiden were here, he'd tut at Lambert for making such a mess... But they weren't here. At least Lambert wasn't alone.

The calm he saw in Eskel did not last. One morning, he woke to find Eskel standing at the door to their room (their cell?) arguing with someone on the other side. “He says you can stay in here, but he encourages you to come out. Fresh air, all that shit.”

“I don't give a damn what he thinks. Lambert is—”

“Oh, stick a cork in it. I'm not going to touch your precious baby wolf again, Jaskier was very clear on that. There's food for him in the upper salon. I'm not bringing it in.”

Eskel slammed the door with a growl and turned back to the bed, eyes softening immediately. He sighed, hanging his head for a moment before collecting himself. “Are you okay to go outside? Lunch is out there and you need to eat.”

We need to eat, Lambert mentally corrected. Eskel might look a sight better than him, but better was nowhere near fighting condition. “That's fine. I'll get dressed.”

Though Lambert had clothing provided (by whom, he wasn't sure, whatever mysterious person owned this house, the one Eskel wouldn't talk about but he kept coming back smelling like chamomile and honey) he hadn't worn any since he arrived. He hadn't left the room, and Eskel's fingers against his skin were as essential as food right now. Every touch made him want to sob and beg for more. Too long without his pack, far too long.

The simple, yet stylish black tunic fit a little loose on him but would've been perfect if he were the correct weight. Did Eskel give them his sizes or...? “Are you going to tell me where we are now?” It made sense to keep it from him when Lambert was recuperating. Not that he'd ever admit it, but last week, a firm wind could've knocked him over, he was barely mobile. Now he was on his own two feet, buttoning his own breeches and everything.

Eskel bit the inside of his cheek. “Kareck. Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove's collection house.”

“Collect—” Lambert ground his teeth together. “Fuck.” He heard rumors that Witchers were prizes now-a-days. It made sense, in the way that nothing made sense anymore, Witchers were already thin on the ground before Nilfgaard sent their storm troopers across the face of the Continent. It wasn't like Radovid and his zealots stamping out non-humans wherever they went; everyone had a place in Nilfgaard, everyone had a use, stay useful, stay alive. After the occupations turned into a regime change, some decided staying alive was overrated... “You trust him?”

Eskel balked at the question. “'Hasn't killed us yet' is a very low bar. I trust him not to slaughter us without reason. He's taking care of us and the others, at great personal expense it looks like. You don't put that much coin into a collection,” he spat the word, “just to destroy it at the drop of a hat.”

Lambert nodded, locking eyes with Eskel. He didn't need to ask, the other wolf was playing a long game, Eskel was good like that, and he didn't need Lambert spouting off at the mouth and fucking it up. “Others? How many Witchers does he have?”

“Almost one from each school—Letho, obviously, a Bear named Grayson, Manticore named Ixora, and a Griffin, Coën.”

“Coën, fuck.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. After the destruction of Kaer Seren—from an avalanche of all the stupid, fucking things—Coën spent some winters at Kaer Morhen. He helped train Ciri, and now he was here? Collected?

Blood pounded in Lambert's ears at the one school Eskel didn't mention. “Any Cats?”

“Not that I've seen. Figured they'd be the easiest to trap, they have the biggest numbers. Grayson is probably the last Bear, but he barely speaks, can’t tell you what’s going on with him.”

“Two Wolves, though. Breaks the pattern.”

Eskel met his eyes again, his lips turning down at the corners. “He knows we're a pack. More so than anyone else. He seems... very focused on our comfort.”

Lambert chuckled darkly. “Well, a comfortable prison is better than a sharp stick in the eye.”

“Come on, we better get out there. Before Letho comes back.” Despite the days of bed rest and regular meals, Lambert still needed to lean on Eskel for support. Or maybe, they both needed to lean on each other.

They walked out into the hall and towards the central area of the house. Lambert blinked at the morning sun streaming through the high windows, adjusting his pupils a little slower than usual. Eskel had a protective hand on his arm, moving him along a little faster than he liked. “I'll show you around later, food now.” He pointed across the large living space to two open doors. Lambert smelled food and walked faster.

“There you are,” a soft, not unfamiliar voice said.

Eskel's grip on him tightened almost painfully, whirling them around and pushing Lambert behind him. The growl turned to a full on snarl and his hand flew to the side of Lambert's face, creating a blinder, blocking out half the room.

That same voice sighed, the sound almost melodious. “I can see you're not ready. Very well. A meal is waiting for you both.” Light but solid steps retreated from them and finally, Eskel released his death grip on Lambert's arm.

They headed across to the upper salon, where a modest but by no means plain meal awaited them. No expense was spared, creamy yellow butter was slathered over baked potatoes, with herb and garlic crusted pork. For the first time in days, Lambert's stomach growled with interest and anticipation of the meal, not starvation. They ate in silence and returned to their room, stopping briefly at the solarium. The Manticore was elsewhere at the moment and it gave Lambert a chance to get some sun onto his pale, almost sickly skin. While Geralt and Lambert were never deeply tanned, the combination of scarce food, too many bad seasons, and staying indoors for a solid week took its toll on Lambert's complexion. Maybe they'd stay out longer tomorrow, let Lambert get a little color in his cheeks...

The next day went mostly the same, without the wake up call from Letho. Lambert and Eskel headed out into the main living area and Eskel stopped this time to let him take it in. The bookshelves, the open spaces. This time they noticed Coën lounging on a couch, his eyes fixed on the Manticore sunning herself in the solarium, his shoulders tense. They were about to walk over and greet the only other familiar face when the faint smell of chamomile and honey entered the room. Not looking, Eskel herded Lambert towards the smell of food, guarding the door as he ate.

The day after, Jaskier was ready for them. Waiting placidly outside the upper salon, his face fucking lit up at the sight of Lambert. He didn't stand in front of the doors, so technically he wasn't blocking their way. “Good to see you up and about.”

Eskel pushed Lambert behind him and let a low growl slip, baring his teeth. Jaskier frowned. “I came to apologize to Lambert.” Blue eyes flicked over Eskel's shoulder, where Lambert was half turned away. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw that soft smile, a man without weapons who stood in a den of Witchers, completely unafraid. Either this Jaskier was insane, or he had knackers the size of cannon balls.

In the face of such a fucking reasonable request, Eskel had no choice but to back down. With Lambert behind him, peering over his shoulder, he relented. “He needs to eat first.”

Lambert huffed. “I'm not a pup.”

“I do agree,” Jaskier said. “You need to eat. Shall we?” With a sweeping gesture, he stepped away from the upper salon doors, letting them through and then following behind at a respectable distance.

Like usual, Eskel sat in the chair closest to the door, putting himself between Lambert and Jaskier. Jaskier paid him no mind, making direct eye contact with Lambert in a way that wasn't creepy. How exactly he managed that was anyone's guess. “It's good to see you’re recovering your strength. My name is Jaskier, I welcome you to my home.” He nodded his head, it might've been considered a bow if he wasn't fucking keeping them locked up. A gilded cage was still a cage. “As I said, I wanted to apologize for Letho's treatment of you. He was under strict orders to not harm you unless it was unavoidable.” Jaskier pressed his lips together. “I was unconvinced his reasons were necessary. At any rate, he won't bother you again. No one will bother you here.”

The plate of food sitting inches away from Lambert was so tempting... but he held Jaskier's gaze, he had to show he wasn't intimidated by the soft man whose beautiful face probably hid fangs. “You don't expect anything?”

Jaskier shrugged, a casual, rolling movement that made the gold accents on his doublet shine in the light. “Just your happiness. If there's anything I can get for you, please, do not hesitate to ask.” A little sparkle entered Jaskier's eye. “I've heard you did some training with the School of the Cat?”

After the briefest sense of calm, Lambert's hackles shot right back up. “You heard?

Jaskier continued on like Lambert hadn't said anything, smiling that stupidly charming smile. “Very interesting, School of the Cat. They travel in a caravan for safety, but it's not like you, they're not truly a pack.”

“You've done your research.” What the fuck was Lambert supposed to say to that?

“I pride myself on knowing everything necessary about my guests.” Guests? Is that what they were? “How's your arm? I was told it wasn't a deep stab wound, nonetheless, I want to make sure you're healing well.”

Lambert blinked. He completely forgot about Letho's stupid knives stabbing him as he tried not to pass out. Vipers always fought dirty. He lifted his arm and showed the healing gash, it probably wouldn't even scar. “It's fine.”

“Excellent.” Jaskier smiled and gave that little head nod again. “I will leave you to your meal, I look forward to seeing you all hale and hearty once again. Let me know if you need anything at all.” And with that, he swept from the room, golden doublet shimmering a little.

As soon as he was gone, Eskel leaned in close to Lambert. Being outside their room like this, he didn't want to be too ostentatious with Lambert—Jaskier made such a big noise about their pack, Eskel was waiting for the other shoe to drop—but he needed to be close. Needed to protect the only way he could at the moment. Eskel had no keep, no high walls, no fucking mountain, but he had arms to wrap around Lambert and that's what he did. Lambert nuzzled into his scarred cheek, chancing a small lick before turning his attention to their meal. If Eskel was playing a long game, Lambert would back him, and they both needed their strength for that.

“So that's it,” Lambert said, his head now leaning on the inside of Eskel's thigh. “Eskel spent a few days growling at Jaskier, and now we're... I don't know. Assimilated?”

He buried his face into Eskel's thigh, so close to his cock. He wasn't trying to tease but recounting Eskel's attempts to shield him from the reality of being kept by a pretty slaver—something Lambert especially would hate—made him appreciate those first days even more. The only reason Lambert hadn't fallen to pieces at having his swords, his livelihood, and his freedom stripped from him was Eskel's presence. With Geralt by their side... it made him feel better. Somehow. As long as they had each other...

“I don't know,” he said finally. “I just don't fucking know.”

Eskel ran his fingers through Lambert's hair, smiling at how clean and fresh it was. At least there was that. “We'll get through this. We've survived worse.”

The problem was, Geralt couldn’t think of anything worse. They’d been in tight scrapes before, weaponless, or injured, cut off, never all three at the same time. He didn't voice his thoughts and reached down, gathering Lambert up and pulling them all into the bed. It was an expansive bed, more than big enough for the three of them. But he supposed Jaskier planned it that way. Having the two of them crushed against him loosened the tight fist around Geralt's heart. They didn't have their swords, their gear, or even their magic, but they had their wits and they had each other. He supposed that had to be enough.

“So,” Geralt said. “Where do we go from here?”

Chapter Text

A couple of days after Geralt’s arrival, Jaskier called for Eskel again. They didn’t bother meeting in his private rooms anymore—not after nearly five months of a similar arrangement—but Letho still escorted him to the door of the bathhouse and waited for him to step inside. He undressed at the bench, shirt, trousers and braies left folded neatly over the arm. Usually, Jaskier let him soak in peace for ten minutes before appearing from nowhere, but he called over from one of the separate rooms now. “Good evening, Eskel.”

They were well beyond false modesty by this point, but Eskel still felt a touch vulnerable as the Viscount padded over to him, bare-footed and shirt sleeves rolled up as usual. Those blue eyes always appraised him unabashedly, taking in the increased density of his body at every meeting; Eskel felt like a prize stud being evaluated for auction. His hands dropped down to at least partially obscure his prick from view, his chin tilted down as a small flush rose to the tips of his ears. “Good evening.”

“Please, don’t stand on ceremony, in you get,” Jaskier chirped, indicating the pool with a flourish of the hand. He took up his usual position straddling Eskel’s broad shoulders and smoothed his hands across them. After several months in Jaskier’s care now, he was starting to fill back out to his appropriate density, and the Viscount would be a liar and a cheat if he said it wasn’t an endless wish to touch him. “Tell me how the pack’s doing.”

“Lambert’s more settled and I’m keen for him to get some sun,” Eskel murmured. There was no point in lying. Besides, if he told Jaskier what he wanted to hear, then he might leave them well enough alone. “Geralt’s angry, although he’s beginning to realise he’s safe.” One of those soft hands covered his eyes as several jugs of water poured down over his head, and then those hypnotically talented fingers were massaging soap through his hair. 

“Mmhm, and you?” Jaskier rubbed his thumbs at the base of Eskel’s skull, and then slipped the rest of his fingers behind his ears. After several sessions, he knew which bits Eskel liked; the Witcher himself tried not to think too heavily on this level of attentiveness, but it was increasingly more difficult to ignore how good it felt. Jaskier had asked for nothing more than conversation, to wash his hair and then to attend to the scarring on his face.

“Fine—I’m fine.” Eskel murmured, his arms folding into his lap.

“Did enjoy the book on Broddr?” Jaskier guided the conversation back onto comfortable ground; he knew that Eskel was rather poor at talking about himself, including his own wants and needs. Asking him, little and often, would get him used to it, but more familiar territory needed to be feathered throughout.

“Hmm. One of the founders of Skellige. Very noble.”

“You know, he rather reminded me of you,” Jaskier slipped his hands down Eskel’s neck and across his upper back. They didn’t directly discuss the little shivers or the goosebumps, nor the way Eskel’s cock thickened beneath the surface of the water because he enjoyed being touched tenderly. Jaskier never pushed for more. “An extraordinarily good and fair man, he gave advice and helped all those that came to him. Loathed looting and deception, never told a lie. Paragon of virtue.”

Eskel huffed. “Well, I’ve definitely told a lie before, and I’m no paragon of virtue,” he closed his eyes as that palm covered them again, the warm water pouring in a pleasant cascade over his head and shoulders. “He got devoured by a whale when he was summoned before Hemdall. It ate his entire longship. I’m concerned about the direction of this analogy.”

“I don’t plan to feed you to any aquatic beasts,” Jaskier said, his smile audible in his tone. “You are, however, the leader of the School of Wolf. There are definite parallels.” He paused, but Eskel didn’t answer; it was clearly a sore subject for him, so Jaskier changed tac. “I have the entire set, you know. The next one is on Grymmdjarr, of course. The first lord of Ard Skellige. Would you like to continue the series?”

“I don’t think we have them all in Kaer Morhen,” Eskel said, quietly. The library was comprehensive, but much of the collection was so frayed and delicate that a simple touch would crumble them to dust. Jaskier had an extensive literary collection and the academic in Eskel wanted nothing more than to disappear into it for a few days. There were more important things at stake, however. 

He wasn’t yet being ushered out of the pool, but Jaskier’s hands were still on him, his caresses light and innocent across his shoulders and neck; he had to keep reminding himself that this was strictly business (of a type). The transaction of Eskel’s time and obedience for his family’s safety and unmolested freedom. “I’m surprised a man of your station within the Empire would be interested. Doesn’t the current Emperor see Skelligens as heathens? Along with most of the other old cultures.”

Jaskier was still smiling, but there was a tightness around his eyes now that Eskel couldn’t see with his back turned. “Hmm. There’s beauty in variety. It is also vital to understand our roots if we are to plot a meaningful future,” he disappeared from Eskel’s back moments later, but instead of beckoning him out of the pool to the bench, he slotted back into place with the pot of salve in one hand and the towel in the other. “I’m just going to dry your hair a little and then apply this. Would you like it cut, by the way? It’s getting quite long.”

“If you give me a knife, I can do it myself.” Eskel was slightly uneasy about the change of routine, squinting into the soft fibres of the towel as Jaskier rubbed it over his hair. 

“Ahh, I’m afraid we’re not quite at the stage of giving you potential weapons, dear heart.” Jaskier placed the towel behind him and popped the lid of the salve. It was running low, but there was still plenty for tonight. “Would you like me to bring in a barber or not?” He slipped a hand gently beneath Eskel’s jaw, waited out the flurry of tension that skittered across the Witcher’s shoulders, and then guided his head back to his chest. “Just tilt a little so I can see, there we are. Good.” The salve melted into a warm slick over his fingertips and Jaskier pressed them into the now familiar grooves of Eskel’s injury; amber eyes flickered and the firm jaw in his hand slackened.

“’m fine, don’ need a barber.” Eskel mumbled, trying to ignore the enticing simmer of Jaskier’s scent permeating the steam and moisture settling over his skin. This close, it felt like he was absorbing the Viscount through every pore, and when he returned to his pack they would snuffle at him, foraging across his body in search of his own musk. The unease would go unvoiced, as it always did.

“It’s not about need, Eskel,” Jaskier said softly. He could feel the puff of hot breath cross the back of his hand and fingers and, as Eskel’s eyes slid shut, he allowed himself to admire the truly impressive cock barely contained by the waterline. All of his Witchers were remarkable in their own ways mentally and emotionally, but physically they were all just as extraordinary. “Do you want a barber to visit? Do you want to have your hair neatly trimmed, perhaps a professional shave? They do head and neck massages too. You may not need those things to survive, but here you can allow yourself to want things just because they’re nice.” 

This was clearly one of Jaskier’s markers for progress. Eskel had noted how well-groomed Grayson was, and the others were always impeccably turned out. In comparison, the School of Wolf looked like a bunch of stray curs. “Alright. I’d—uh, I’d like that. Not a shave though, I—no one—razors on my face.” In his mind that had been a perfectly coherent sentence, but it spilled out in a garbled mess and he clamped his jaw shut.

“Alright,” Jaskier whispered, now cradling Eskel against his chest as he continued to stroke his cheek. Every inch of scarring was covered in soothing salve, but the time Jaskier spent attending to this most vulnerable area was increasing. Eskel was growing more trusting too, he tilted his head into Jaskier’s shoulder with his eyes closed; a wolf bearing his throat in the belief that it wouldn’t be bitten. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but that made it better. Jaskier stroked down to his chest, his palm resting flat over Eskel’s heart. “Is this okay?”

“Mm? Yeah, fine,” Eskel murmured, somewhat sleepily. Jaskier’s hands were so soft. He’d clearly never lifted a sword in his life. Not really necessary; Nilfgaard had fought and won all the wars. There was no more combat to be had. They smoothed over his skin now, circling in the dark hair of his chest, before slipping back up to his jaw again. Softer lips pressed over his scars in a tender kiss, but he didn’t jerk away, lost as he was in an odd haze of relaxation in the arms of a man he should, for all intents and purposes, fear and hate. Unwittingly, he’d slipped into meditation, lidded eyes completely unfocused; his mind tuned in only to the reverent hands petting him and the lilt of the voice gentling him.

“Was that okay?”


“Good. You’re doing so well, Eskel. Letting yourself enjoy being taken care of. You deserve it.” Jaskier spoke into Eskel’s skin, his breath warm across sensitive ravines, before slowly drawing away. He didn’t withdraw contact quickly, but guided Eskel upright and then carefully pulled his legs out of the water. “Stand slowly. I’ll get the towel.” 

Eskel didn’t realise the purpose behind Jaskier’s instruction until he rose to his feet and his vision swam. Fuck, he was going to sleep like the dead tonight. As usual, the towel was already open and waiting for him as he stepped out of the water; Jaskier folded it carefully around his chest and then rubbed his back through the material. Eskel wasn’t quite sure what came over him. Perhaps it was the proximity of those cherub lips— so pink, round, full, perfect, where his were the opposite—or maybe it was the soft glow in cornflower blue eyes, or—or—. His head tilted and he kissed Jaskier’s lower lip; it was chaste, dry, barely any contact, and he drew away quickly. Jaskier took his hand and guided him back, “It’s okay, Eskel. This is okay.” He said, gently, before returning the kiss with the same level of demure consideration. “Go get some rest. Let me know if Geralt needs anything before his tour.”

His clothes pulled on haphazardly, Eskel felt half drunk when he stumbled back into their shared quarters. Lambert and Geralt were dozing, wrapped in each other on the big bed, and for the first time it was Eskel that wanted to burrow in the middle of them. Lambert rumbled at him softly, immediately burying his face away in his chest as Geralt spooned up behind him. The White Wolf pressed his nose beneath Eskel’s ear and inhaled deeply. “You smell like him.” It wasn’t said like an accusation, just a statement, but Eskel felt it cut.

“You gunna’ fix that?”

“Hmm,” Geralt huffed a laugh, but took the invitation. One leg lifted and draped over Eskel’s thick thighs to bring him back. It took no time at all to stir himself to hardness, his soft prick pressing against the firm globes of Eskel’s ass and immediately swelling with interest. “Fuck. I forgot how good you feel.”

“Keep going.” Eskel husked, his arms wrapping tightly around Lambert to smother himself in the scent of spices and summer that followed the youngest wolf like a mist. They didn’t have any oil, but Eskel didn’t care, as long as Geralt was grinding on him and Lambert was squirming and flexing like the cock tease he was. Geralt squeezed his hips, thumbs kneading his ass, his thick cock sliding between his cheeks in a slow, sensuous rut as his teeth bit deep crescent moons into the meat of his neck. Eskel’s eyes rolled back in bliss, and his arms tightened on Lambert as he ground their hips together, one rough hand worming between them to align their pricks. It was harsh—almost raw —but Eskel needed it more than fucking oxygen.

The tension coiled at the base of his spine, his toes curled, and he buried his face in Lambert’s hair as his orgasm built lazily. He could feel Geralt’s rigid heat press past his hole and the slow glide of Lambert’s prick, lubricated by the precum dribbling from their slits, forced bitten off moans from his chest. Wound up by his time in the bath house, Eskel came first. It rumbled through him in a slow, dizzy wave and Geralt’s teeth bit possessively into his shoulder with a low growl. As Eskel’s body clenched, his cheeks pressing together, thighs bunched, Geralt peaked, his cum splashing across the small of Eskel’s back as he pressed his shaft into his lover’s cleft. The combined scents of their release drew Lambert with them; he pressed his face hard into Eskel’s chest for a hit of his scent even as his hand smeared their cum into Eskel’s stomach. 

Geralt purred, his own palm pushing through the spend on Eskel’s back. “Hmm. You need another bath.”

“No,” Eskel rumbled. “I feel cleaner now.”

He needed to… think about what he’d just done, what it meant, the choice he was making, but right now he just wanted to sleep, bathed in the scent of his pack.

Two days later, Letho arrived at their door and let himself in. They weren’t involved in anything, but his sudden arrival startled Lambert awake from his half doze and Eskel snapped his book shut quickly; Geralt glared from his post by the locked window. He was considering the drop down into the grounds and how quickly he could clear the distance from house to perimeter wall.

“It’s time for your tour, Geralt,” Letho drawled, thick arms folded across his chest. “Let’s get to it then.”

“Why can’t Eskel show me? He’s already had it,” Geralt growled back. “Less I see of your ugly mug the better.”

Letho smirked. “You can bring handsome with you, but the hedgehog stays,” he indicated Lambert with a jut of the chin, “I had enough of his attitude getting him here.”

Lambert opened his mouth for a snarky reply, but Eskel rubbed across his face, scars prickled pleasantly by the soft bristles of his beard and he pulled one of the furs over him, glowering at Letho until the Viper retreated into the corridor.

Both Eskel and Geralt ruffled Lambert’s hair—the only part of him still accessible outside his nest—before stepping out into the corridor. “And so begins the tour.” Letho threw his arms up and then flicked a hand in a gesture to follow.

The house was familiar to Eskel now. He’d been led across it to various locations over the course of five months, but he stayed close to Geralt’s side and followed his eyeline to each new room. The upper floor was split into two wings; the Witcher wing, and the Lord’s wing, which was where Jaskier spent the majority of his time. The library was in the south, but there were two more smaller book repositories on the ground floor. Letho led them downstairs and showed them the servants quarters and kitchens next, “You won’t need to come here much, in fact, just don’t. They’re scared shitless of us.”

In the west of the house were a billiards room, a games room, a dining room and other assorted drawing rooms and luxuries. Letho stopped by the trophy room so that they could both peer inside; Geralt counted a kikimore skull, a jar of wraith dust, various pelts and several horns. “He’s not above a normal hunt then.”

“I collected most of these for him.” Letho remarked, scratching his chin. “It’s not his favourite thing though. Mostly into books and relics. Oh, and Witchers.” He smirked. The final destination was the ballroom and starry salon. “There ya’ go. There’s outside as well, where the training grounds are, but I can still see you lookin’ for escape routes, so that’s some time off.”

“And what if I were to throw an Aard now and run?” Geralt glanced towards the heavy oak front doors.

Letho sighed. “I’d hunt you down like the dog you are, wolf. Any other stupid fucking questions?”

“What do we need to do? To get outside?” Eskel now, arms folded. 

“Prove to him you’re willing to play the game. It’s quite an easy one to play, even for the School of Wolf,” Letho scratched his head and then mirrored Eskel’s stance. “Just get over yourselves. Life’s good here. Loads of food, booze when you’re fit enough, training grounds are well-equipped. No one’s tryin’ to fuckin’ kill or hunt you. Oh, and if you’re interested, he’s partial to a Witcher in bed.”

“Even you?” Geralt raised both eyebrows.

“Nah, strictly professional arrangement,” Letho smirked. “Shame really. He’s got a pretty little face, don’t he?” 

Suitably disgusted, Eskel and Geralt returned to their rooms. Lambert rolled over, propping himself up on his elbow. “What did ya’ learn?”

“Guards everywhere. All exits covered. Letho’s quite eager for us to give escaping a go,” Geralt grumbled, and threw himself down on his back. “We need to find a way to convince him we’re not going anywhere, then we can get some freedoms like the others.”

Eskel nodded along with the explanation, but his mind was already elsewhere. Earn his trust. Hmm.

The following day, he sat reading in the smaller communal room. He was three books into the Skelligen series and actually found it quite interesting; the library at Kaer Morhen was missing the first half of them, so this was all new information. Lambert sat at his feet with some sewing and Geralt was leafing idly through a large bestiary. Just as Eskel reached the final chapter, Coën walked strode in with a fistful of flowers in his hand. “Good afternoon.” He bowed his head politely.

“Oh, mate, are those for—?” Lambert flicked his head towards the solarium. 

“Yes. I mean to begin courting her officially,” Coën puffed his chest.

I mean to begin courting her officially,” Lambert imitated in an officious voice, only to receive a slap upside the head from Eskel; he’d taken over the role of Lambert disciplinarian with gusto. “Ow, fuck.”

“Don’t be a dick,” Eskel growled. “Coën, that’s great. What’re you going to say?”

“Say?” Coën’s eyes widened. 

Geralt smirked. “Were you just going to go in there and shove them in her face?”

“I—uh, I hadn’t thought that far ahead. The flowers were Jaskier’s idea, maybe, I—.”

Eskel blinked. Their host was giving Witchers courting advice now. Clearly he wasn’t wholly interested in them for carnal reasons. Certainly, he’d never seen nor heard Jaskier go into Coën’s room. Only Grayson’s. “Alright, practice. Pretend I’m her.”

Lambert smirked and received another clout. “I didn’t fucking say anything!”

“I can hear your thoughts.” Eskel growled, and then leaned back. “C’mon, go. What’re you going to say?”

Coën cleared his throat, stepped up to Eskel and dropped to his knee. “Milady, I come bearing… blooms?”

“Blooms,” Geralt rubbed a hand over his face. “I’d go with flowers.”

“Oh, right,” Coën turned back to Eskel. “Milady, I come bearing flowers.”

“Now compliment my beauty,” Eskel said, arms folded, eyebrows quirked. Lambert was practically vibrating with the effort to keep his mouth shut.

“Your beauty compares to… a summer’s day?”

“Hmm,” Eskel tilted his head. “Try this. Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all: what hast thou then more than thou hadst before? No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call—all mine was thine before thou hadst this more.”

Both Geralt and Lambert stared at Eskel with open mouths, while Coën’s eyes glittered in open admiration. “Yes, that. Recite it once more. It’s perfect.” Armed with his short poem, Coën entered the solarium and presented his flowers, along with his profession of undying love. 

Ixora didn’t open her eyes at first, but took a deep breath through her nose. Her visitor hesitated, shuffling his weight from foot to foot, and slowly she turned to face him. “Hmm.” Rich amber eyes studied the flowers in his fist, before slowly reaching for them. “Some of these will be useful for my next decoction.” She took them from his hand, placed them down on the table next to her and closed her eyes again. 

Coën panicked. Had that worked? Had she accepted his expression of interest? Hands gathered in front of him, he twiddled his fingers, glancing between her—majestic, beautiful Manticore of the Zerrikanian deserts—and the rather sorry bunch of flowers. He turned to leave, proverbial tail tucked between his legs, and then paused. A vague memory floated to the forefront of his mind; a lecture from one of his Griffin instructors on courtly love. 

Knights will perform acts of devotion for their lady love; anything from the slaying of a forktail to a feat of sacrifice.

Well, he couldn’t very well go hunting, and there weren’t many huge feats of daring do he could perform within the Viscount’s grounds. Perhaps he should ask? Maybe there was something he could do. Coën cleared his throat, “Milady, is there anything you, um, you need?”

She sighed, eyes still closed, and bit back the cutting retort. The boy was sweet, but she wasn’t entirely assured by his motivations. In her experience, all men were after only one thing. “Nothing, Coën,” she murmured and then uncurled to her feet.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to disturb you, please, I’ll leave,” Coën stuttered and began to backtrack.

“It’s not you. It’s the tree. There are only a few hours a day when it doesn’t obstruct the sun. Have a pleasant rest of the day.” She paused by the table of flowers, picked out the four blooms she’d identified as useful, and then left the rest behind.

Coën waited for her to walk through the common area and disappear to her room before he stomped through himself. Eskel looked up from his book. “How did it go?” He received no reply other than a vague grumble about ‘some fucking tree’.

Half an hour later, all three wolves looked up at the sound of bark cracking and the long, anguished groan of something big, ancient and leafy collapsing to the ground. When Lambert padded out into the solarium to investigate the noise, he gazed down into the grounds below and spotted Coën standing over his felled prey—a very, very old oak tree—with a satisfied smirk, axe sloped across his shoulder.

“Well fuck, he’s pretty serious about this one.” 

When Jaskier summoned Eskel two days later, he knew what needed to be done. It didn’t make his skin crawl as it had done at the very beginning of his stay, however long ago that actually was. He’d lost track of time. So easy to do when your days were mainly occupied by dozing, reading and intimacy with your pack. In fact, the more he thought about his stay, the more he realised he was probably happier than he had been in years. The only negative was the continuous suffocation of being restricted. They weren’t allowed free run of the house like the others, nor were they allowed out into the exercise yard. When Eskel asked, Jaskier had said “it’s just until you settle”, which was a polite way of saying, “I don’t trust you not to try and break out”. 

If they were ever going to be able to conduct proper reconnaissance, then they needed the same liberties as the other Witchers. Then they could escape back into—

Back into a world of starvation, persecution and misery.

Eskel felt like a failure. What would Vesemir say? He’d been unable to care for the school; Kaer Morhen was falling down around his ears because he didn’t have the coin or resources to maintain it, and now they were trapped in a collection house, part of a menagerie of the rare and the wonderful. Failure. Too light a word. And yet. Lambert was starting to look better; his figure was filling out, his skin tan from time spent in the solarium and Eskel too looked better. More like himself. His definition was returning; he was starting to feel strong again. Stronger than he had in years. And the cost? The ability to walk the misery of the Path. Part of being a leader - the leader - was the responsibility to make difficult decisions. Sometimes that meant upsetting even those you loved. They might understand one day—

What was freedom if it meant suffering? 

Perhaps the best thing for his pack was to stay here. Just until they were fighting fit, just until they were well again. They spent every waking moment together. It was heaven on earth. Geralt just needed the collar to be loosened; he chafed at any kind of restriction. Always had. It was difficult for the White Wolf to see the long game sometimes, too invested in what was right and just. But here they could forget, just for a few months, what it was like to be lonely.

The leaves were turning on the trees Eskel could see out of the huge bay windows of the bathhouse; autumn was settling in. Soon it would be winter. The first winter he’d spent with his pack in many years. Warm furs, roaring fireplaces and plentiful food. His head tilted back against Jaskier’s shoulders as it was guided and he bit down on the rumble of pleasure as delicate fingers tended to his face. 

They weren’t the only scars Jaskier did now either; the bite mark on his shoulder, the lines across his back, the slashes across his biceps and the three knotted claw marks on his ribs all received attention. Other than his face, it was this last one Eskel enjoyed the most. He now associated the scent of chamomile and honey with pleasure and relaxation; when Jaskier leaned over him to rub salve into his torso, his nose was flooded with both and he took deep breaths of it. “How’re you feeling?” Jaskier’s voice floated to him from the otherside of consciousness.

“Good,” Eskel said, his eyes still closed. “My face hasn’t felt this good in over a century.” The tightness was all but gone; the occasional twinges no longer happened. Vesemir used to make him a salve to tend to them, but being the stubborn mule he was, he hadn’t used it often. Clearly that was a bit of an oversight.

“Ahh, at least it now feels as good as it looks,” Jaskier chuckled and tweaked the unscarred part of Eskel’s chin playfully. “Would you like a drink, Eskel? My scouts came across a very old bottle of Chateau d'Adam Chevalier Pinot Blanc Reserve during one of their expeditions. Unopened. I should imagine it’s aged quite finely.”

“And you’d share it with a Witcher?” Eskel’s eyes flickered open and he tilted his head across Jaskier’s shoulder to squint at him.

“I can’t think of a finer companion,” the Viscount replied. “I do have an ulterior motive. I’d like to show you a little poem, well, a song I’ve been working on. It’s—well, hmm. Perhaps you can provide me a short review?” 

“Wine and poetry,” Eskel smiled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say I’m being wooed.” Realising his mistake too late, Eskel’s pupils narrowed to slits and he swallowed audibly. Why was he forgetting himself? If he were too obvious, Jaskier would grow suspicious, but then he hadn’t even thought before he spoke.

Jaskier’s blue eyes glittered in amusement, and his lower lip jutted in an outrageous pout. “Is it working?” Rather than wait for an answer, he patted Eskel’s shoulder to indicate the joke and rose to his feet; he didn’t bother moderating his contact anymore, his legs brushing along Eskel’s arms as they left the water. “Here. Fresh clothes. Get dressed and we’ll head up.”

The lord’s quarters took up the entire western half of the second floor in much the same way as the Witchers took up the eastern. He’d only ever been to Jaskier’s office, but the Viscount led him through the upper salon, the lord’s dressing room and into the grey drawing room. So called, Eskel learned, for its neutral colour scheme and the portrait of one of Jaskier’s ancestors on the far wall. “Ahh, here we are. Please, take a seat.” Jaskier indicated one of the plush couches before the fireplace; he noted the flames were already high and well fed.

The room was as opulent as the rest of the house, but it felt more lived in than some of the other rooms. There were books and scrolls scattered over the low table and there was a lute propped up on the left side of the hearth. From the intricate design swirling across its body, Eskel could tell it was Aen Seidhe in origin. Jaskier arrived with two goblets of wine and passed one across to Eskel before he collected his instrument and parked his rear on the table. Lute slanted across his lap, he sipped the beverage with a pleased moan. “Oh, yes, lovely. They really don’t make wine like this anymore. Toussaint is far too urbanished these days.”

The wine was good. Amazing. A speculative sip turned into gulping mouthfuls and Eskel blinked down at the bottom of his goblet. “Mm. Yeah, it’s really good.” 

“Excellent, I knew you to be a man of refined taste,” Jaskier beamed and set his drink down at his hip; slender hands plucked at the strings of his lute, tweaking the tuning pegs to and fro until he coaxed an amenable note. “Now, you promise not to laugh.”

Eskel blinked. “Yes?”

“It’s just… I’ve always wanted to be a bard, it’s - well, it was a wistful ambition of mine. Alas, court politics, expectations, it all suffocates the dreams out of you after a while. I like to dabble now and then though,” he smiled wistfully. “To fantasise about what might have been. As soon as I knew you were coming, I just—I knew I wanted to play for you. So few people are—well, I’ll just play and see what you think.”

Eskel knew what that was like. To become a Witcher, you sacrificed your choices; there was only one Path for you to tread, and you did so until the day you died. In the darkness, alone. He had never thought of Jaskier as a young man, but looking at him now in the dim, warm light of the drawing room, Eskel could see no creases beyond the smile lines at the corners of his eyes. Their host could be no older than his mid-thirties at most. His skin was supple and soft—Eskel knew from feeling it against his—his eyes bright. He meant it. The desire to play for Eskel was genuine.

“Okay, so, just remember you’ve promised not to laugh,” Jaskier crossed one of his legs urbanely across the other to lift the lute a little higher up his chest and struck the first chord. “In southern lands beneath the Sun, in spring, flowers rise, the trees bud, waters run, and the merry little birds sing. / There it is, cloudless night and shuddering beeches hold the starry host, the white jewels, on their branching hair. / Here at my Path’s end I am lingering, in deep darkness buried. Beyond towers strong and high, beyond all mountains steep. / Above all shadows rides the Sun and stars always dwell. I will not say ‘the day is done’ or to the stars ‘farewell’.”

Graceful fingers fluttered effortlessly across the fourteen strings of the beautiful ornate elven instrument, and his voice was a marvel. Eskel sat with his lips parted, his ears perked and his eyes wide. The fact that his pupils had expanded to swallow more than half of each amber iris was neither here nor there. When Jaskier’s fingers stilled, his palm silencing the vibrating strings, he looked up tentatively. “Well. Three words or less?”

“I—,” Eskel had an extensive vocabulary, but it had all completely evaporated out of his bastard brain. He looked at Jaskier, with his hopeful, open face and iridescent blue eyes; a man that had just sung like a gods-damned angel. Who was he—a mere Witcher—to reflect on something as pure and beautiful as that? Eskel cleared his throat, “—was good. It was good.”

“Well,” Jaskier grabbed his goblet and the bottle to top up Eskel’s drink. “Here’s to my very first piece of critique. I’ll take ‘good’.” He shifted from the table to sit on the couch at Eskel’s side, legs stretched out so that his feet were closed to the warmth of the fire.

“The Sun, in your song,” Eskel started, gazing down into the rich claret of his drink. “Nilfgaard?”

“Yes,” Jaskier’s eyes flickered from the fire to his companion. “And, of course, an ode to the beauty of the south.”

“And the stars? The mountains?”

“Everyone else,” Jaskier whispered. “There was a time when Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms, unique and beautiful in their own right, lived amicably side-by-side. Yes, Nilfgaard were imperial overlords, but the world was still full of magic and wonder. Every part of the Continent was a feast for the curious. And now,” he rubbed his eyes, “now I’m reduced to rescuing Skelligen literature from burning pyres and Aen Seidhe instruments from the piles of firewood.”

“You’re a collector of all things.” Eskel murmured.

“Yes, my contemporaries call me The Collector - capital ‘t’, capital ‘c’; they do it half in jest, but it also means that, whenever they find something rare, exotic or beautiful, they come to me first before destroying it.”

The next question had to be asked. “So, Witchers fall into that category, do they?”

“Hm,” Jaskier curled his legs up onto the couch and rested his arm behind Eskel’s head. “You are rare, there are so few of you left; exotic, certainly, you all have unique characters and strengths, and beautiful—well, there’s really no question. You’re all staggeringly enchanting.” 

Eskel covered his mouth with his goblet and drained it in an effort to buy himself some breathing space. When he dropped it away, his lips must’ve been stained with droplets of red, because Jaskier’s thumb brushed across his lower, fingers splashed over his left cheek. “Your smile is ever so unique. Watching you with your pack as they get stronger, healthier, it’s an honour and a privilege. I can’t wait to see you in combat. I can’t imagine I’ll ever see something as graceful and ferocious in my lifetime.” His thumb still brushed gently over Eskel’s mouth, tracing the grooves and contours until the Witcher’s entire mouth was tingling. “May I kiss you again, Eskel?”


“Would you enjoy it if I did?”

Eskel’s eyes flickered and his answer tripped out without consideration. A gut instinct. “Yes.”

It started just as chastely as it had the first time; Jaskier’s mouth slotted over Eskel’s lower lip, drew away and pressed gently against his upper. The Witcher sighed, his hands hovering until they were guided to settle at Jaskier’s waist. Their joining deepened until Jaskier’s tongue swept invitingly into Eskel’s mouth tasting of wine and sweet promises. The dexterous fingers that had expertly navigated complex lute strings now carded slowly through Eskel’s hair, toying with silken strands before massaging the base of his neck. One palm slipped away to settle on Eskel’s chest, gliding just inside the material of his shirt to caress warm skin. 

“Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Eskel whispered, kneading at Jaskier’s waist as those kisses slipped down the line of his jaw to his neck.

“How about here?” Jaskier dropped his hands lower to tug at the hem of Eskel’s grey shirt, slipping beneath to trace the emerging contours of his abdomen and squeeze gently at the impressive meat of his chest. He moved a little closer, one leg sliding across the Witcher’s lap.


“Here?” A soft thumb brushed over one hardened nipple and Eskel let slip a low groan of enjoyment; Jaskier had inadvertently stumbled across another area of sensitivity, and apparently was not going to abuse it. Another circle around the areola preceded a gentle squeeze of the peak, and Eskel sucked in a gasp. “Eskel?”

“Mm. Yes.” 

“I’d like to kiss your chest and stomach, may I do that?”

“Okay,” Eskel’s voice was failing him now; rapsy and distant, he leaned forward as Jaskier tugged at his shirt and threw it to the floor. The goblet was removed from his hand and placed on the table behind them as Jaskier kneeled between his legs; his expression was reverential, as if he were about to utter psalms into Eskel’s skin. It was certainly a kind of worship; Eskel arched into the heat of his mouth as it started over one sculpted pec and worked across to tease a nipple, tongue curling and lips suckling. “Fuck.” Breathless.

“How does this feel?”

Good.” Eskel bit out, because it was difficult to admit. He hadn’t been with anyone in the intimate sense outside of Lambert and Geralt for—oh, fuck, his mouth was clever with more than just words. Eskel squirmed as deep, wet kisses travelled down his sides and stomach until cheeky teeth nipped at the skin just above his waistband. The impressive erection trapped inside Eskel’s trousers nudged up against his chin, pleading for release.

“Eskel, I’d like to take this somewhere a little more intimate. Would that be okay?”

More. Intimate? Eskel’s brain ticked over, and then he realised—of course, this was a drawing room—but all he could think of was that clever mouth, with its sweet questions and its delicious tongue, wrapping around his cock and sucking his soul out through it. “Yeah, uh—.” He didn’t need to say anything more, because Jaskier grabbed his hand and pulled him from the couch. The trip into the bedroom took all of three steps and then the door clicked shut softly at Eskel’s back.

He was a man now heading into his third century. Black hair was showing the first hints of grey, his smile lines were now more or less permanent, and he liked to think of himself as relatively seasoned in all areas of life, but when those eyelashes fluttered over Jaskier’s shoulder and his hand slipped back into his, Eskel felt damned nervous. Not the act itself. Sex was sex. It was the person. Because Eskel was a hulking goliath, graceless and ugly, but Jaskier was looking at him like he was some kind of— something. His mind failed to latch onto thought long term and Jaskier pulled him into another deep kiss, guiding him backwards until his legs hit the foot of the bed.

“Eskel, I’d like to look after you in every way. And tonight, I’d like to make you feel good,” he spoke softly as one hand settled on the buckle of Eskel’s belt. “May I do that?”

Even if Eskel didn’t need to gain the lordling’s trust, it would’ve been difficult to say no. “Yes.” He bit off the please, because he definitely was not going to beg. Rather than immediately set upon him, Jaskier moved away to remove his chemise, breeches and braies until he stood completely naked before his dressing table. Eskel ran his eyes unabashedly over the deceptively muscled figure; solid thighs, a defined back, a pert ass. When Jaskier turned, the view only got better, with a generous amount of hair covering a solid physique and a prick that stood up, thick and proud, from his body. Jaskier’s fine clothing, his polite vernacular, disguised how well built he was; nothing compared to the Witchers he kept, but impressive in his own right.

“You know, there is one thing I absolutely adore about Witchers to no end,” Jaskier said, with an amused lilt. He stepped up in front of Eskel again and teased open the buckle of his belt. “Your eyes.”

“Mm?” A question. The upwards inflection broken as Jaskier tugged open the ties of Eskel’s trousers and slid a hand around his cock, stroking from root to tip as he pulled it free. 

“They’re so expressive. Not all the same colour, either. Even amongst wolves. Geralt’s are almost golden, like someone melted a dragon’s hoard to forge them,” Jaskier pushed Eskel’s trousers down his thighs and then nudged him back onto the bed. “Lambert’s are like sunstones or the colour of buttercups. Bright and energetic. Just like him.” He nudged Eskel’s thighs apart once he was seated, one hand sliding along his sculpted jaw to tilt his head up, his own lowering closer. “And yours… amber. Warm, full of love and nobility. I imagine coming home to these eyes every winter was like sinking into a warm bath.” Their lips met and Eskel melted like the gold in Jaskier’s analogy; he moved up the bed when he was pushed, and paid little mind to the pot of slick thrown onto the mattress nearby.

Jaskier’s lips left his mouth and travelled back to his chest. This time he was firmer, sucking and nipping at sensitive skin and earning himself more bitten off sounds. His exploration carried him down to the huge prick he’d been admiring for months beneath the waterline of the bath and he wasted no time in swallowing it down. It tested the capacity of his mouth. The thick veins sat against his teeth and his tongue wriggled and flicked, savouring the generous spurts of salty precome escaping the bulbous head sat at the back of his throat. 

Eskel reached down with a tentative hand and pressed into the side of his cheek as Jaskier’s head bobbed, feeling himself in the hot confines of Jaskier’s mouth and groaning in awe. His fingers were guided away—laced through with Jaskier’s—while another hand took the base of his cock to hold it still. The head popped past the resistance of Jaskier’s throat and Eskel fisted the blankets with his free hand. “Fuck, fuck, nffgg.” Swallowing, and slurping, Jaskier worked him over expertly, breathing heavily through his nose and moaning quietly at the taste of Eskel on his tongue.

When Eskel’s shaft hardened further, his balls pulling tight, Jaskier pulled off. A long trail of saliva and precome connected the tip of his tongue to Eskel’s glans, and the Witcher watched him with his lower lip between his teeth. “Now,” Jaskier husked, throat hoarse. “You said two things to me five months ago. Firstly, that you hadn’t been fucked,” he raised a brow, “in a while, and secondly that Witchers take a long time to come.”

“Mm.” Eskel almost whined, his orgasm denied by the abrupt end, his hips bucked a little and he squirmed. “You want to—?”

“Yes. As I said, I want to look after you.”

“Right, yeah,” Eskel looked then at Jaskier’s prick once more; thick, straining. He wouldn’t be left unsatisfied. “But—I haven’t—so.” Jaskier plucked the jar of slick from the bed and wiggled it pointedly. “Oh.” Eskel swallowed. “How—?”

“Hush, don’t worry, just lay back,” Jaskier settled at Eskel’s side and slid an arm beneath his head. With a little bit of coaxing, their lips pushed together and Jaskier was able to gather one thick thigh over his hips, his hand navigating the mattress to find the jar after giving one ass cheek a little squeeze. Eskel lost himself in the kiss, his eyes sliding shut as Jaskier licked into his mouth with earnest passion. The slick fingers that pushed down his cleft were tender, and massaged wide circles at the furl of his entrance; Jaskier teased and tugged his rim until he was breathless and his toes curled in anticipation. The first finger slid in slowly, crooking and curling gently, “Feel okay, wolf?”

“Mmm.” Eskel rested his head against Jaskier’s bicep, one hand snaking down to bring their cocks together and slide them idly through his big palm. There was something to be said for being the receiving partner; he could be lazy if he wanted to. With Geralt and Lambert, his sole focus was on them; locating all the spots he knew they loved, teasing, licking, caressing, until they were a pliant mess beneath his hands. But, you know what, Pankratz? He was going to be fucking lazy tonight. “Oh fuck.” A second finger pushed inside once Jaskier topped up the slick coating them, moving in and out in a slow rhythm until Eskel was keening and ready for a third.

“So tight,” Jaskier whispered reverently into Eskel’s hair. “Gods, I’m looking forward to feeling you on my cock. You’re so beautiful, so strong. Do you like me playing with your hole, wolf? Do you like how it feels to be looked after for once?”

“Y—yeah, ahh. Mm, fuck.” Eskel wasn’t sure what he was agreeing to, but he wanted Jaskier’s hand to keep moving; his fingers bent in just the right way, tickling and circling across his sweet spot. His cock twitched between them and he had to move his hand away or risk embarrassing himself.

“Your body’s so eager,” Jaskier withdrew his fingers and readjusted. He coaxed Eskel back down the bed and took those two giant paws in his hands. “I want you to present yourself to me, wolf. I’m going to test your theory.” Purred with promise, he lifted Eskel’s legs for him and pinned them back until the Witcher took over. “Mmm. Beautiful.” Standing at the foot of the bed, that gorgeously tight ass presented for him, Jaskier gripped the base of his cock and pressed the head to Eskel’s hole, pink, slick and clenching eagerly. He wouldn’t make him beg—not this time—tonight was about making Eskel moan for him, to make him want to come back for more. “Look at me, wolf. I want to see you.” 

Ahh, ff -,” Eskel tried to bite back his noise as Jaskier eased inside. He was rendered breathless when Jaskier leaned over him and gazed lovingly into his eyes, admiring the helpless pleasure that blew his pupils wide. “Oh, gods. ” The only person that ever looked at him like that was Geralt; their gaze locked as they moved against each other. Lambert, their shared love, often closed his eyes in bliss, but Geralt—Geralt always wanted to see Eskel fall apart.

“Dear Melitele, you're holding me so tightly, such a good wolf,” Jaskier held himself at the hilt, his hips flush to Eskel’s ass. In this position he was deep, feet planted on the floor, his hands braced on the bed with his shoulders hovering behind the Witcher’s knees. Eskel would feel the pressure coil in his stomach with each rolling thrust. Jaskier started slowly, easing his newly claimed lover into the feeling of being so full. Those beautiful eyes couldn’t stay open; they rolled back in bliss when Jaskier angled his hips just right, plunging in deep and teasing across his sweet spot each time. “Always so brave, so strong for everyone else,” Jaskier half purred, half panted, the feeling of Eskel’s body clutching at him so needily almost enough to tease him over too soon. “So good for letting me worship you like this. I want you to come on just my cock, Eskel. Want you to remember how good it feels to let someone take care of you.”

Jaskier leaned closer, his forehead resting on Eskel’s chest as he snapped his hips forward; hard, relentless. Eskel was rocking up to meet him, gasping and moaning into the room, his fingers biting into the thick muscle of his thighs to keep them spread. His impressive member drooled thick lines of precum into the fine hair on his stomach, occasionally pulsing and flicking with the force of the thrusts fucking into him. 

Witchers last a while. This one was now coming all over his own stomach and chest, spine arched, legs falling free of his grip to wrap around Jaskier’s waist and keep him buried deep. He snagged two fistfuls of the bedsheets in desperate ecstasy as Jaskier kept grinding into him with subtle rolls of the hips. Amber eyes flickered open to watch Jaskier, sheened in sweat with a feral little smile on his face; he kept thrusting even when Eskel’s legs loosened, and the Witcher’s body shook through forced aftershocks until he felt the thick cock in his ass pulse. Jaskier’s head fell back, lower lip between his teeth, he stayed sheathed, revelling in the loose heat of a well-fucked lover. “You look so good right now.” 

“Mmph,” Eskel managed.

“Hm.” Jaskier withdrew slowly, reluctantly almost—from his experience thus far, Witchers made the very best cockwarmers—and lifted one of Eskel’s legs aside to admire his swollen pink hole, slightly agape and leaking his come into the bed sheets. It excited something primal in the back of his mind, to know he’d claimed such a majestic, powerful creature as his. After he’d admired his fill, Jaskier gently settled Eskel’s leg back in place, stroking an open palm over his thigh. “Would you like something to drink?”

“If there’s one goin’.” Eskel murmured, rolling onto his side and curling his knees towards him. A human had just made him come first. A human. Was there something in the wine? Or was it—perhaps he—? Fuck it. His body hummed in delight, the bed sheets were soft and the wine that Jaskier placed in his hand was sweet and refreshing. His keeper insisted on some aftercare and guided Eskel back to the top of the bed to lounge against the pillows, where he could coo over and pet him. But it didn’t take long for him to want to get back to his pack, and he moved off the mattress in search of his clothes.

“You can sleep here.”

“Thanks, but they’ll worry.”

“Of course,” Jaskier tucked his hands behind his head. “Do you remember the way, or would you like me to walk you back?”

Eskel tried not to make his pause too obvious. Make your own way back. “I know the way.”

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Eskel left, stopping only to grab his shirt from the drawing room, and did the walk of shame back to the Witcher’s wing. The guards glanced at him in passing, but they knew. And he felt a well of unhappiness ball in his stomach. He was a fucking concubine. No, he’d—it’d been mutual. It felt really, really good. To have someone touch him, kiss him, look at him like that outside his pack. Jaskier had asked every step of the way, and now he'd earned them some freedom. Or, so he hoped.

Jaskier stretched out beneath the blankets once the door shut softly at Eskel’s back. He smoothed a hand through the warmth the Witcher had left behind and smiled up at the ceiling. Pleasure, relief and happiness flooded through his chest. It had been vital to capture Eskel first for many reasons. The others would have fought and fallen apart without him; he was their anchor, their lighthouse in the darkness. Lambert and Geralt would follow his lead, no matter where that may be; Jaskier was just lucky he was a sensitive and intelligent man to boot. Showing him gentleness, kindness, recognising and validating his interests. It had all earned trust.

Now Eskel would return to his pack full of Jaskier; his scent, his seed, his affection. The others would nose him, touch him, perhaps they might want to replace the scent at first—the thought of Geralt, with his beautiful mane of white hair and fierce golden eyes, taking Eskel when he got back, using Jaskier’s come as his slick was enough for Jaskier’s hand to wander back to his cock—but soon they’d associate it with a happy, contented Eskel and another brick from their wall of resistance would crumble away. They were safe here. Safe with him. He needed their trust, their loyalty, otherwise… otherwise it was all for nothing.

Chapter Text

Assimilated. That's what Lambert called it. They were assimilated. Trapped in the comfortable collection house of a Nilfgaardian noble, and they had to assimilate to survive. They didn't talk about how Eskel disappeared some nights to have ‘chats’ with the man, or discuss how he felt when he came back—the way he clung to Geralt and Lambert all night, settling between them and grabbing, pulling, needing their touch to erase the memory of Jaskier. They didn't talk about the first time they smelled, then saw, Jaskier's come still dripping out of him.

Geralt let a feral growl escape his chest, then another when Eskel ducked his face away. “I'm sorr—”

“Don't you dare.” Geralt stripped away the rest of his clothes, looking over every inch of Eskel—no injuries, no marks, not even soft love bites—the smear on the inside of his thighs making Geralt growl again. “It's not your fault. It's his. You did nothing wrong.”

Geralt sealed his lips over Eskel's, pushing them both down into the bed on top of Lambert. He grunted and shifted, spooning up behind Eskel as Geralt nipped and bit at his mouth, working down his chest. Jaskier's come stained their sheets and soon got lost in the miasma of their smell, the one they filled the room with every possible chance. This wasn't their home, it was their prison, but fuck if their assigned quarters wouldn't reek of them. A thrill of satisfaction sang through Geralt whenever Letho intruded and wrinkled his nose at the smell; the servants came in to change their sheets regularly, but that gave them another opportunity to cover their sheets (and each other) with their spend.

Wherever he touched, Eskel shivered, little sobbing moans pushing their way from his chest almost automatically. “Yes...” Lips skated across his neck and he tangled a hand in white hair. “Yes please...”

Behind him, Lambert went about sucking a bite into the back of his neck while Geralt licked tenderly over a nipple. He smelled Jaskier here too, that honey and chamomile scent... he tried to block it out, focus on the moans he wrung from Eskel. “Yes.” Eskel's needy little moans turned growling and deep, his hips rutting against Geralt. “Make me smell like you.”

“Make you smell like us.” Lambert bit down on the top of Eskel's shoulder, adding his grunts to the symphony they were building.

While Geralt longed to be inside Eskel, filling him, chasing away their dear captor's smell, he didn't want to chance hurting him, physically or mentally. They had enough of both recently. Dropping one hand between them, he wrapped around their cocks, stroking wildly. It wasn't artful but it was effective and Eskel stiffened, thrusting into his hand and coming hard. Geralt followed a second later, covering Eskel with his seed, his smell, until only the smallest trace of the Viscount remained. Behind him, Lambert splashed across the small of his back, working more of their smell into Eskel's skin.

Lips softer now that the urgency had faded, Geralt kissed along his jaw before rolling from the bed. Fetching a clean cloth, he wet it in the washbasin and returned to clean between Eskel's legs and tender areas, removing only the evidence of what happened earlier. Eskel fell into a pleasant haze and rubbed more of them into his skin. They'd clean up, but he needed a moment...

With every last trace of Jaskier gone, Geralt fetched another cloth and cleaned them up properly. Eskel collapsed onto his chest, his head falling into the crook of his shoulder. After a long silence, he whispered into Geralt's skin, “I think... I think that's what he wanted. From us.” From me.

“You don't have to talk about it,” Lambert said. A firm, warm hand rubbed up and down his back while Geralt's fingers carded through his hair, it felt nice.

“Letho said,” Eskel grit between his teeth. Sure, this could wait until morning, he could just lay in Geralt's arms and pretend they weren't here, pretend his ass didn't still feel the shape and weight of Jaskier (pretend he didn't like that feeling a little). “He said play the game. Well, I'm fucking playing now.”

Jaskier made an appearance at least once a day, Letho always at his heel. He never sat down with them or directly invaded their space—because in reality, it was already his space—and made a point to chat with everyone in turn. The next morning, as Jaskier made his usual tour through the library, speaking to all of them individually, his eyes landed on the three wolves reading quietly on a set of couches. “You three are looking well, but I'd like to see you get some activity.” Long fingers fluttered towards the staircase. “If you want to use the training grounds, feel free to ask Letho to take you down. Must keep ourselves in shape.”

They were only allowed to go down one at a time, never Geralt and Eskel together and certainly not all three of them, and always under Letho's watchful and scowling eye. Eskel tried to appeal to Jaskier's want to get them to fighting fit condition. “Practicing alone isn't good. It only embeds your mistakes.”

Jaskier smiled, fingers softly carding through Eskel's hair in the bath. Jaskier still wore his breeches rolled up, still had his shirt on. The other stuff came later... “And you have a house full of practice companions. Coën, Grayson, Ixora, Letho even.”

“But no wolves.” Eskel tried not to shiver under his touch. He failed.

“No wolves,” Jaskier said. “For now.”

So Eskel still had some work to do gaining their host's trust. How long before Geralt's clean smell, or Lambert's spicy, summery mist weren’t enough to wash away how much he had to give to Jaskier?

Geralt started watching, paying attention to their surroundings and storing away information for a possible escape. Guard rotations, servant's schedules, the locations of doors and windows. Geralt noticed everything, he didn't know what would be useful when they finally escaped.

They had to keep up appearances, pretend to go along with Jaskier's premise: the Witchers weren't his pets, oh no, they were his guests. They had to act accordingly. When they woke up, they took a long moment touching and kissing, pressing their scent into one another's skin before heading out into the common areas to pretend they weren't trapped like bugs in a jar. Lambert, usually pressed between them, smelled like a mishmash of Geralt and Eskel—musky and spicy and fresh like snow all at once. The markings didn't matter, no one else cared and Jaskier certainly couldn't smell them covering each other, but it was important to them. When Geralt sat in the library and didn't have Eskel in his direct sight line, he could sniff, following his own scent trail to find the rest of his pack. It wasn't nearly enough, but it was all they had at the moment.

Eskel's hand on the doorknob, he stood still, letting Lambert's tongue swipe across his adam's apple while Geralt leaned into his back, nosing through his soft hair. In winter—back when they went home together—Geralt let Eskel wash his hair in the hot springs, combing it until it was silky smooth. Then, up in Geralt's room, he'd rub the soft strands across Eskel's face while Lambert put his mouth to better use around his cock. Eskel always loved soft things, and the fact that Geralt had something soft and beautiful for Eskel to touch made him happy. But now his hair was knotty and rough. Clean—they had a wash basin and rinsed every night before sleep, and sometimes Jaskier sent the large claw foot tub back up—but it was nothing compared to the bathhouse on the lower floor.

Eskel smiled sadly and reached back, running his fingers through Geralt's hair, hitting a tangle straight away. “Maybe we should... the bathhouse. It's good. We should use it.”

Geralt huffed. “Right. Have to pretend we're fucking docile house pets.” Ire stoked a little, Geralt grabbed Lambert by the back of the neck and pulled him into a bruising kiss before releasing him and rubbing their noses together. How he wanted to bite and mark, leave livid red love bites on Lambert, and all down Eskel's throat, marking him as Geralt's, so the next time Jaskier invited him down for a bath, he'd see who the other wolf truly belonged with... But he couldn't. Had to play along. The only time he could safely bite and mark was after Jaskier's little one-on-ones, when he wouldn't need Eskel for a few days, then Geralt was free to pretend Eskel still shared their bed alone.

One more kiss and Eskel ushered them through the doors of their room. As soon as they entered the main library area, they spread out, pretending to pursue their own activities for the day. With their new training ground privileges, Lambert preferred to go down to work off the tension of being cooped up. All those years jumping around the rafters at Kaer Morhen, using the old castle like an obstacle course, he needed room to run.

Geralt usually settled on the couch with a book, eyes carefully on the page as he watched the perimeter of the room out of the corner of his eye. Eskel didn’t stray far. Jaskier liked to pick out books for him to read, assignments. And he did so, sometimes chuckling or making soft, interested noises. Geralt didn't remember a single word from a single page that he read, he kept his attention on Eskel and the movements of the house. He just hoped he learned enough to get them the fuck out.

Jaskier came in for his daily visit. He stood next to Coën and they conversed in quiet voices about his little crush, Jaskier still encouraging it despite multiple setbacks. “She didn't like the flowers? That's a pity, I'm sure the next gesture you think of won't go unrewarded. Now, can we speak about that tree in the courtyard? I know you said it blocked the solarium, but really, you might have asked...”

He didn't speak much with Ixora, didn't ask her about her feelings for Coën, he simply wanted to know if the house was to her liking. “Zerrikania is much warmer than most of the Continent, please let me know if you need more furs, or any other comforts. It's starting to get quite nippy at night.”

She nodded her head then relaxed into her weaker beam of sunlight, the solarium wasn't as bright as it would be in the summer, and as soon as winter arrived, the glass would make it far too cold to sit in. “Thank you. I have no needs at this time.” The most Geralt heard her speak was in these little talks with Jaskier. She smiled patiently when she noticed Coën doing something to try and catch her attention, but otherwise, Ixora was content to sit in her sunbeam or train out in the open yard, her lustrous skin glowing in the daylight.

Jaskier crossed the library and stopped between Geralt and Eskel, perched on two separate couches, it was as far as they were comfortable being. If Geralt had his way, he'd never stop touching Eskel again, not as long as they both lived. Blue eyes flicked back and forth between the tomes in their hands, Eskel reading about Skelligen kings, Geralt running his eyes over a random bestiary he pulled from the shelves.

“How are you finding my books?” Jaskier asked, eyes settling on Geralt. “Is everything to your liking? I'm told that, while Kaer Morhen didn't have the largest library, its collection on beasts was unparalleled.”

“Does,” Geralt said, turning a page. “Kaer Morhen does have an unparalleled collection on beasts. It still stands. Even Nilfgaard hasn't marched that far North.”

“Ah, forgive me,” Jaskier said, resting a remorseful hand over his heart. “I meant no disrespect.” He turned a little and smiled down at Eskel. “I hope Lambert likes the training areas now that he's a bit stronger.”

“He is, much stronger. He enjoys holding a sword again. If only for a little while each day.” Eskel tried not to openly insult Jaskier's hospitality, that was Geralt's role. They all had a part in this game: Eskel was the reasonable family head, ready to accommodate and bargain; Geralt the stubborn stalwart slow to trust, a little rude and snappy; and Lambert was the Witcher who needed the most care. He hated being seen as weak, but it was necessary; if Jaskier thought the way to Eskel's heart was through Lambert, they'd give him that road to travel, let him feel safe as he walked through his den of wolves.

Jaskier pressed his lips together. “Yes, well, we can't have swords in the house. Wouldn't want a scuffle breaking out. It's my job to keep you safe, what kind of host would I be if I let something happen to any of you?”

“Mmm,” Eskel mumbled, returning to his book.

“Geralt,” Jaskier turned back to him, “while I'm glad you're happy to stay in your rooms, the house is open to you all. Perhaps a trip to the bathhouse? I have oils and soaps from across the Continent, any scent you like. That infamous hair deserves to be well maintained.”

Geralt said nothing. He turned the page.

Sensing they were clearly done with him, Jaskier bid them good day and headed over to the other side of the library, where Grayson sat on his own. After decades of reading expressionless Witchers, Geralt did not miss the small crinkle at the corner of the Bear's eyes. He didn't smile, his face barely twitched, but his eyes definitely told the story: Jaskier stood at a respectable distance as they spoke, his hips turning a little, trying to look natural, but the way Grayson's gaze traveled up Jaskier's solid form...

Geralt didn't like to listen in. He enjoyed his privacy (from everyone except Eskel and Lambert) and he wished to afford the same to others... but this was a fucking war. Any scrap of information might be crucial. He closed his eyes and listened to Jaskier's dulcet tones, and Grayson's gravely baritone.

“Do you have time tonight?” Grayson asked, his voice almost too low for Geralt to hear. Of course, he knew how Witcher hearing worked, he'd be on the look out for eavesdropping.

A melodic, lilting laugh tittered from their captor's lips. “For you, dear heart? I have all the time in the world.”

“I'd like to wrap you up tonight.”

Jaskier laughed again, almost a giggle this time. “Nothing would please me more.”

The Viscount turned—so smooth, so quick, Geralt almost missed it—and brushed a finger down the side of Grayson's beard. The gesture was so fast, Geralt blinked and Jaskier's hands were politely at his sides again. He bid them all goodbye and headed towards the stairs, he probably had a busy to do list of capturing more intelligent creatures to clap in pretty chains.

Geralt crossed Grayson on The Path exactly two times in almost three hundred years. Once was more than enough. Bears distrusted everyone, even those from their own school, and he wasn't happy to see another Witcher in the same town. As they were in a tavern, Geralt was keen to avoid a fight. “Here for food, Bear, not for a contract. I'll sleep on the road tonight.”

“Huh, fine,” Grayson grumbled. He spent the rest of the night ignoring Geralt completely, staring into a small mirror held in his palm and brushing through his hair with his fingers. Once he seemed to have it the way he liked it, Grayson gathered his swords and made his way over to the bar, leaning in close to an obvious prostitute. It made sense, if he couldn't find comfort among his own school, paid company had to suffice; learning to appeal to said paid company probably helped as well. With his armor neat and scrubbed, his hair and beard clean and combed, the woman agreed to his proposition, leading him up the stairs.

The next time he saw Grayson was in the middle of a road. His hair and beard were not so clean now, a few brambles caught in the thick hair, and what looked like a smear of blood or slime. Yellow eyes glared fury at him and Geralt dismounted from Roach, pulling her to the side of the road to give the Bear room to pass. They didn't take their eyes off each other for a second, both with a hand on their steel sword. And now, Geralt just watched that same Witcher proposition a fucking slaver Viscount, and make him giggle. Either the world had gotten too wild or Geralt was too old to keep up with it.

As they lay in bed that night, Lambert pressed between them both, Geralt stroking his hair while Eskel dozed on the other side of his sleeping form, Geralt heard an unfamiliar sound. The human heart—Jaskier—was usually on the other side of the house, the bulk of the other humans downstairs in the servant's quarters. Now that quicker heart beat passed right in front of their door before turning down the hall. A soft knock and a door creaked open...


“Jaskier. Come here.” The door shut quietly.

The flutter of silk through the air should never be so loud, and yet, Geralt heard the ripple of it falling. He heard rough hands grab soft hips and the hitch of breath, followed by a purr. “Gray, now, now.” But it was a tease at best, Jaskier clearly wanted whatever rough treatment Grayson visited upon him.

A growl, deeper than Geralt's own, vibrated through the air. “Come here,” he said again.

There was another little gasp and the groan of a bed. “Did, did you get the oil I sent?”

“Yes,” Grayson said. The pop of a stopper and the squish of oil came next, and Jaskier was fucking cooing. “You take care of us, let me take care of you. Let me wrap you up in the only fur coat you'll ever need.”

Geralt didn't want to close his eyes, not even to blink, if he did he'd surely see Jaskier's upturned ass, Grayson plunging two fingers deep inside him before mounting him, hips snapping. The next sounds confirmed his suspicions—another deep growl and those cooing little sighs, rising in pitch before deepening—the hushed cry of “Grayson!” following quickly after.

Hyper-vigilant in this house, their prison, Geralt couldn't block them out. He grasped his cock, thrusting into his hand and hating the moan this provoked. “Geralt.” His hand flew away so fast, he almost woke Lambert. Eskel's golden eyes looked back at him, all soft and understanding and perfect. He didn't deserve it.

Eskel reached over Lambert (still asleep, somehow) and gripped his shoulder. “It's alright. I can't block it out either.”

“How...” Geralt licked his lips and tried again, his mouth still dry. “How often does he go to the Bear's room?”

Eskel shrugged one shoulder, taking over stroking Lambert's hair when Geralt's hands were suddenly too shaky. “Whenever Grayson asks. I haven't kept track.” Eskel's eyes flicked away, settling on Geralt's hard cock. Sleeping naked in this house seemed dangerous, but feeling Eskel or Lambert's skin against his was about the only peace Geralt found now. “It's alright,” Eskel whispered. “I've—uh—I've done the same. 'Cept it was on my own, so, extra sad.” Eskel teased, trying to lighten the mood a little, as he took Geralt's hands and placed them on his chest. The steady beat of his heart—a heart that had and would always belong to Geralt—an anchor to the shore. “Listen all you like, just remember who's actually touching you.”

Eskel arranged himself a little, not moving enough to dislodge Geralt's hands from his chest. He slid one hand under Lambert's neck, fingers just close enough to brush Geralt's cheek. Licking his other palm, he rested his heavy arm on Lambert's hip and started stroking. A shiver rippled through Geralt, a gush of precome adding to the slick. It wasn't as smooth as oil, but it wasn't as rough as usual either, no quick hand or rut borne of need; Eskel stared deep into his eyes, biting his lip softly and rubbing his nose in Lambert's hair, stirring up their mingled scents to get Geralt going.

Letting his eyes fall closed, Geralt listened to Grayson's grunts, Jaskier's breathy pants, but in his mind they were in his bed at Kaer Morhen, Eskel wrapped around his cock, strong legs squeezing him like life as that heart beat strong under his hands. As a thumb passed over his slit, Geralt saw the curtain of his own white hair across Eskel's skin, sliding across his face, making him smile... he wanted that again, wanted to cover him in the silky locks they used to both enjoy.

Between them, Lambert stirred a little, cock hard but still asleep. He rolled his hips, adding another press of hot skin and Eskel thrust against the soft swell of his ass. Geralt squeezed his eyes tighter and remembered what Eskel's hole felt like, gripping around him so tight, a wall of muscle through and through. He wanted to feel that again, wanted to give Eskel someone else to remember. Kisses, licks and bites could only erase Jaskier's touch so much, Geralt wanted to claim Eskel for his own once again.

He came with a groan, spilling mostly on Lambert, some sticking to his own stomach where they were touching. Eskel let out a shivering sigh and his scent thickened in the air. Lambert stirred, his eyes fluttering open. “What?” he mumbled sleepily, then growled when he smelled what they'd been doing. “Isn't it rude to come all over someone who's not even involved in the sex?”

A little reluctantly, Geralt pulled his hands from Eskel's chest, stroking down Lambert's arm before sliding down the bed. “Depends. If you get the second round, it all evens out.” Tongue wide and flat, Geralt licked his spend from Lambert's stomach, chasing the last drops that rolled down before swallowing his cock, taking him deep. Lambert's fingers threaded through his hair as best he could without pulling on a snarl. The bed shifted behind him and Eskel moved as well, lapping at what he left on Lambert's back.

With two tongues trying to drive him mad, sleep still pulling at the edges of his mind, Lambert bucked, coming down Geralt's throat, groaning again when he felt the White Wolf swallow. “Fuck.”

Relatively clean (except for the trails of saliva that probably should bother them, but never did) they settled back, eyes closing in sleep. Geralt didn't hear Jaskier and Grayson anymore, but maybe his mind finally stopped paying attention. He hated giving up any modicum of awareness, but he didn't want to listen, didn't want to get off to Jaskier getting railed down the hall. He didn't care about the Viscount, he only cared about the two that shared his bed.

Mostly asleep, Lambert settled first, soft breath pushing between his parted lips. “We should get a proper bath. Tired of sticky thighs.”

Eskel licked the back of his neck just to needle him, then rubbed his nose in fragrant hair. His own hair was beautifully silky, the others... not so much. “Fine. We can go down to the baths tomorrow. Clean up.” He didn't want to take them to the scene of his... what, exactly? His violation? It never felt like that, but it had moved past the 'just business' stages as well. Jaskier defied words, and for Eskel, that was almost as infuriating as anything else that he and Jaskier did. He liked defining things, knowing where he stood in relation to them; Eskel and Geralt were probably the only two students to read all the way through Kaer Morhen's library, they knew it all, every last definition and potion ingredient. Jaskier couldn't be defined.

Jaskier's face lit up when he saw them walking together, heading towards the stairs the next afternoon. “We're off to the baths,” Eskel mumbled, putting himself between Jaskier and Lambert. It was part of their ruse: Jaskier had to think Lambert was protected, see that as his way in. One day, he'd offer Eskel something in exchange for Lambert's safety, revealing more about the Viscount's motives than Eskel's. And yet, the ruse only went so far before exposing Eskel's deep care for both Lambert and Geralt. He never wanted Jaskier to get that close.

“Excellent! Everything will be available for you down there—soaps, oils, towels—whatever you desire.” Jaskier's sharp eyes landed on Geralt's hair next, then Lambert's. “After you enjoy the baths, do you think it might be time to call the barber? Eskel? Wouldn't they look divine all cleaned up?”

Eskel grunted his agreement. “Yes. After.”

“Excellent!” Jaskier chirped again. “I'll make an appointment for tomorrow, bring the finest court barber to be found. Now, go, go, enjoy the baths.”

While they had every intention to do so—Eskel never got to test the Witcher hot pool and looked forward to it—when they arrived at the doors to the large bathhouse, they found Coën blocking their path. Placed in front of them like a sentry, he nodded politely before falling into a loose defensive stance. They didn't have any weapons, none of them did, unless he nicked a knife off Letho, but Geralt saw his hands twitch into fists.

“I don't wish to fight you, friends.”

“Coën,” Eskel sighed, entirely exhausted with the Griffon's strange behavior. He got it, Coën was in love with Ixora, he was happy to help any other time of the day, not when they needed the bathhouse too. “They haven't used the bathhouse yet, let us in.”

Eyes taking in the relaxed muscles on the wolves, their lack of fighting posture, Coën stood at ease again. He didn't step away from the door. “I beg your understanding, the lady deserves her privacy.”

Despite the glass walls of the bathhouse, there was a small entrance hall with a few benches and the pools were out of sight. Ixora could have slipped out and left Coën standing there like an idiot, Eskel wouldn't be surprised. But he definitely didn't want to fight, not if it risked losing what little trust he built up with Jaskier, they needed all the cache they could manage. “Fine,” Eskel said. “We'll be back tonight. If you're still here, she probably slipped out the back way.”

Coën's face fell and Eskel turned, hiding his smirk. “There's a back way?” Lambert started to snicker, earning him a slap from Eskel as they headed back upstairs. Another day of reading and doing fuck all... it was nice for a while but Geralt was getting restless. Eskel could always tell when he was close to doing something monumentally stupid. Hopefully a nice bath would help.

Reading in the library, casually nudging Geralt every hour or so to show him an interesting passage, was surprisingly engrossing. Eskel didn't notice the time until their dinner appeared. They were now onto heavier foods, thick cuts of beef with rich gravy, hardy potatoes with golden yellow butter. Jaskier even gave them a goblet of wine each—not as rare and fine as the vintage he served Eskel during their... whatever they were doing—but still amazing. Much better than even the oldest casks Vesemir managed to get at Kaer Morhen.

“Told you,” Letho said with a smirk. “Be good, get good prizes. Not that complicated.”

Eskel built up his tolerance over the past few weeks, and Geralt was always a big bastard, but Lambert with his lithe Cat-trained muscle had arrived in the worst shape; the rich meal and the wine together had his eyes falling closed as they walked back to their room. Settling him in bed, Eskel ruffled his hair. “We'll all go down tomorrow.”

“Mmm,” Lambert mumbled in his sleep, curling deeper into his nest of blankets and furs.

Geralt and Eskel returned to the hall, the house much quieter at night. They passed fewer guards, but still knew they were being watched. When they passed the last guard between the hall and the bathhouse, Geralt tangled their fingers together, squeezing Eskel's hand. “The hot spring will feel nice. Make us...” he trailed off, coming to a stop. His lips twitched, anger fluttering across his face, anger at himself. “Not the hot springs. I don't know why I said—”

Placing a finger over his lips, Eskel got as close as he cared out in the open. Only the 'privacy' of their room was safe, he didn't like to flaunt his love for Geralt where it might be used against them, but they both needed the closeness. Here in the quiet, darkened halls, it was an acceptable risk. “We'll return one day. When we do, I will spend the whole winter in those waters with you. Our keep isn't gone, merely out of our reach.”

“For now,” Geralt said.

“For now,” Eskel echoed. They continued down the hall, entering the bathhouse. A few low candles still burned, which made Geralt think the Viscount liked a late night bath, they had to be careful, couldn't be seen.

The heat of the room hit Geralt like a wall and he felt the tension in his chest already start to give. His hands flew to the ties of his clothes as they walked, nudity was suddenly necessary. “That one.” Eskel pointed to the farthest pool. “It's supposed to be Witcher hot. I haven't tried it yet.”

A low, pleased growl built in Geralt's chest. “What are we waiting for?”

Unlike his meetings with Jaskier, where he folded his clothes neatly on the chaise, Eskel threw his trousers and shirt on the floor, bounding over to the pool, laughing with Geralt like they were boys again, enjoying the first time their class was let into the hot spring without a chaperon.

They both sank into the scalding pool and almost cried out in pleasure. “Fuck,” Geralt sighed and leaned back, wetting his hair. “This is amazing.”

Eskel merely groaned in agreement. He saw the table full of oils and soaps, just out of reach. Fuck, he never wanted to leave the pool, the near skin-scorching temperature permeating his muscles, melting the tension that always returned the moment he left Jaskier's quarters and walked shamefully down the hall, spend dripping down his leg... No, he didn't want to think of Jaskier now, not when he had Geralt wet, glistening and glorious.

He grabbed Geralt's wrist and hauled him in close, pressing their chests together. He didn't kiss yet, the second he felt those perfect lips against his, Eskel wouldn't want to leave. “I'll be right back.” He rose from the pool and padded over to the table, grabbing half the soaps, and a few bottles of oil. One was clearly meant for hair, and the others, well... Jaskier would never know who took them. Eskel climbed back into the pool and groaned again. “This will never get old. Pick one.” Geralt sniffed at each soap and picked the dull yellow one, it smelled of coconut and a few softer summer scents.

Eskel wasted no time working up a lather and combing it through Geralt's hair, tugging a little roughly at the tangles. But it was fine, it was perfect, Geralt moaned at every touch, leaning back into Eskel's chest and silently begging for more. He tried not to think about how his fingers fell into the familiar patterns that Jaskier traced over his own skull when the Viscount washed his hair, Eskel was just happy Geralt enjoyed. Firm circles behind his ear sent tingling fire all down his neck, a shudder rolling through his shoulders.

Under the clear water, he saw the thick length of Geralt's cock, stoked by the heat of the water and the pleasure from Eskel's touching. “Mmm, Eskel...” Geralt whispered.

“I'm right here,” he replied. He didn't want to look for the pitcher Jaskier used to wash his hair and simply urged Geralt to lean back, dunking his head under the water. Hair like gossamer spread out on top of the water, a halo surrounding Geralt, shining and clean once again. Eskel licked his lips, gathering more lather and dragging the soapy cloth down Geralt's chest, over his strong muscles, not as firm as they had been, but definitely a promise for more soon.

He reached Geralt's cock and they both gasped. “Eskel...” Unable to hold himself in check—that's all they'd done, contain their energy, their rage, their Signs, their love, all of it bottled up, waiting to explode—Geralt turned, his hair flicking water onto the smooth tiles. He grabbed Eskel in a firm kiss, more heated than any other they'd exchanged so far. He pushed his tongue between Eskel's lips and felt a soft bite, followed by a growl. One large hand dipped below the water, wrapping around both of them, stroking slow and luxurious, a contrast to the biting, controlling kiss.

With his other hand wrapped around the back of Geralt's neck, fingers tangling through the softer hair, Eskel held them together. Their noses smashed together roughly, teeth clacked and Geralt tasted a bit of blood. He reached for the oil, inhaling deeply to get the smell of Eskel's blood into his lungs.

Everything slammed to a stop. Geralt's lips froze mid kiss, his breathing suddenly shallow, panicked. In the heat of the water, he forgot... they weren't home. They weren't safe, not as safe as they should be. This wasn't their hot spring and they couldn't do this here. He wanted to be inside Eskel more than he wanted to be free from this place, but not in this glass room, it was too open. The candles were still lit for fuck's sake.

Pulling away was as easy as pulling off his own skin, but Geralt did it. “When we get back upstairs. I promise. I won't have you where—”

“We can be interrupted,” Eskel finished for him. The small nick on the inside of his lip where their teeth collided was already closed, the fire inside cooling as reality asserted itself. “Yes. Yes.”

They finished their bath, soaping each other, getting caught up for a moment before remembering where they were once again. When Geralt's hair shined like Eskel's, they reluctantly left the blistering water, gathering their clothes and their newly stolen oil. They were in such a hurry to return to their room, neither noticed the flowing silk robe dangling from the upper mezzanine as dazzling blue eyes watched them leave.

Lambert had a similar reaction to the Witcher hot pool the next morning: a deep groan followed by a sudden erection. Across the bathhouse, Grayson was moving between the hot and cold pools—going through some elaborate grooming routine with his hair and beard—and glared at Lambert for his noise. Almost boneless with contentment, hanging between Eskel and Geralt, Lambert gave a halfhearted growl. “Fuck off, Grayson, we're not bothering you.”

It took a lot of prodding to get Lambert out of the pool but they had an appointment with the barber. “Don't want him to see your cock, do you?” Geralt teased.

Towels wrapped around their hips, Jaskier appeared with the shaking man, a black leather case with his scissors and other tools clutched tightly under his arm. Jaskier patted one of the padded, water resistant benches. “Eskel? You first, hmm?”

Brushing his shoulder against Geralt as he passed, Eskel sat where instructed—he was used to it. The terrified shakes disappeared the moment the barber held his scissors; Eskel appreciated a man secure in his trade. Jaskier stayed while the barber worked, his eyes bright, providing suggestions. “Maybe a bit shorter at the front? Don't want it to get in those wonderful eyes, what do you think, Eskel?” He couched his desires in the form of a request, but Eskel heard the intent under the words, I want you to look the way I prefer, and agreed to all Jaskier's suggestions.

The soft snipping and the general air of the bathhouse lulled him into a half meditation, his eyes closing... A rough brush across his scars made him hiss sharply. After weeks of nothing but tenderness, even the soft cuff of the barber's sleeve grated. He turned his head away and heard a snarl from Geralt.

“Ah!” the poor human shrieked, jumping clear across the bathhouse, scissors clattering to the floor.

Eskel opened his eyes to find Lambert with both arms around Geralt, who was still snarling, teeth bared. “Now, now,” Jaskier said in that too calming voice, like a Witcher in full attack posture was a trifle. “Mr. Rossa didn't mean to brush Eskel's scars. How about we roll up our sleeves, hmm? Keep any rough fabric away.”

The barber—Mr. Rossa, apparently—was still trembling. He tried to roll up his sleeves and finally Jaskier walked over to assist, whispering soft reassurances for a few minutes. “You’ve worked with soldiers? Same thing, they’re a little rough but they don’t mean to harm. There’s a good chap.” Once the man calmed, he returned, paying close attention to the cuffs of his sleeves.

When the barber finished, Eskel's hair felt much lighter. It was actually really nice... he spent a moment turning his head this way and that, feeling the air move through the locks. “Wonderful, so strong and masculine. Geralt, you next? I'm so happy to see your hair shining. Very regal.”

“Regal,” Geralt grumbled. While it was nearing winter, Geralt instructed the still petrified barber to cut the hair above his neck short. “Almost to the skin.” It was his usual summer look when he needed to keep cool, but after so long with his hair hanging in knots, Geralt needed the lightness the undercut brought. Shaking his head like Eskel did to feel the new lightness, he bound the remaining hair up in a tie. “Thank you.” A small apology for growling at the man.

Jaskier's eyes followed Geralt to Eskel's side. “A nice new leather tie for your hair, I think. I'll find something for you, don't worry.”

By the time Lambert sat down, Mr. Rossa looked ready to have a heart attack. But his hands were steady, taming Lambert's hair and overgrown beard. Lambert allowed him to trim the beard, cutting it close the way he liked. “M-master Julian asked that I bring some, some products for you.” Standing well away from the Witchers, he laid out a beard oil and another circular tin. “The oil will k-keep the skin under your beard, uh, soft. And, the tin is—”

“For my hair.” Lambert picked both up and twirled the tin in his hand. “Yeah, I can smell the beeswax, thanks.”

They left the bathhouse without saying goodbye to Jaskier. Eskel chanced a look over his shoulder and saw those blue eyes sparkling at him. He blew a soft kiss and Eskel turned away, holding tighter to Lambert. Up in their room, Lambert spread the oil through his beard, then combed the soft wax into his hair. He hadn't had enough coin for years now to get anything nice to slick it back and he preened for a moment. Just a moment...

Eskel and Geralt launched onto him, their noses ruffling the carefully arranged hair. No one could accuse Lambert of not giving as good as he got, and he reached back, tangling his fingers in Geralt's hair, scraping the shorter bristles of his undercut while Eskel rubbed his face over Lambert's beard.

They didn't leave their room until supper.

Lambert felt a little guilty eating up all their training time. Geralt definitely needed it too, the way his shoulders bulged, muscles cording whenever they spoke of past winters at Kaer Morhen, his body wanting to train so badly to rid itself of excess energy. It was their pattern, as the season grew colder, their bodies expected to hold a sword every morning.

But Lambert needed it, more deeply than the others. He couldn't spend the whole day reading like them, and he would not spend all winter sewing patches onto clothes Jaskier quickly replaced, stitching a wolf head into the corner of every tunic, wondering if stabbing himself with the needle might give him a thrill...

Almost every morning, after they left their room, Lambert headed down to the training grounds, Letho hot on his heels. Sometimes Coën came with him. Sometimes Grayson was already working and agreed—begrudgingly—to spar for a while. Lambert preferred Coën though, he knew him better. At least, he thought he did, before the fucker went all gaga for the Manticore.

After Lambert landed his third easy take down in a row, he sheathed his sword and sighed. “Are you even paying attention?”

“What sounds good with desert flower? It doesn't have to rhyme,” Coën said as he climbed to his feet. He lowered his own sword, lost in thought. “I've decided to write her poetry. She doesn't care to listen very long.”

Lambert pushed a hand into one eye to contrast the slight headache that appeared whenever he had to deal with Coën and his bullshit. There was acclimating to tolerable captivity, then there was whatever the fuck falling in love with a fellow prisoner was. “I don't fucking know, I'm not Eskel. I'm not the one for poetry.” Eskel didn't even direct poetry towards Lambert, he preferred to whisper sweet nothings into Geralt's ear before they started rutting like bulls, brushing against Lambert every once in a while while he slept nearby. “Can we get back to sparring? Please, I'm begging you.”

Though his muscles started to ache (too out of shape, needed to train more) Lambert was keen to spend as much time outside as possible. Eskel's skin carried Jaskier's scent into their bed and Lambert smelled it on himself now. It wasn't... unpleasant. Which was more of a concern. The fresh air made him forget for the moment, carrying chamomile and honey far away.

“Ah, don't you two look in fine shape?” Lambert stiffened, then turned to follow the voice. Jaskier stood at the edge of the training ground, watching. Now that he had their attention, he let himself through the fence that separated the training area from the rest of the courtyard. “Coën, you asked me to let you know when Ixora was in the solarium again, she just returned from her room.”

“Thank you.” With a quick nod, Coën returned his borrowed swords to the rack and quickly stripped his gear, heading back into the house.

And now Lambert lost his training partner. He hadn't been desperate enough to ask Letho yet, but needs must... He cast his eyes around for the Viper and didn't see him. He was always in the same spot, glaring at Lambert from the other side of the fence, but now he was nowhere to be found. Lambert was alone. With Jaskier.

Swords still on his back, Jaskier stepped closer, but stayed out of swinging range. Smart little slaver. “How are you doing, Lambert? Your hair looks wonderful. I can get you as much of that beard oil as you like, no trouble.”

“Thanks.” Lambert had never been alone with Jaskier. This was by design, Eskel didn't want the bastard tying him up with pretty words, and Lambert wanted nothing to do with the man who repeatedly marked the head of their pack, overpowering their scent with his.

“You've made good use of the training area. I'm pleased to see how in shape you're getting. Must get you strong again.”

“Yeah, sure.” Pinned down by those brilliant blue eyes, Lambert tore his gaze away and went back to the sword rack, sadly removing the twin scabbards.

“But I wonder, is this enough? You trained with School of the Cat. Correct me if I'm wrong, but they were more agility based, yes?” Jaskier fluttered a hand to indicate an empty area in his courtyard. “I might be able to build an obstacle course. Running, jumping—no climbing, I think—maybe some balance posts? If that would appeal to you. It's no trouble.”

Don't engage, Lambert thought to himself. But he couldn't stand there staring. “Uh, yeah, that might be good. Thanks.” Swords were fine, but he needed more. Running and jumping around didn't need a partner, Lambert could bounce around the courtyard the way he used to in the rafters of Kaer Morhen.

“Consider it done.” Long, dark eyelashes fluttered. Now that Lambert returned his swords to the rack, Jaskier got closer, the smell of chamomile and honey swirling through the air. Lambert closed his eyes and saw Eskel, then quickly shook the image from his head. “You know, I believe you're the only Witcher to cross train with another school. Learn other techniques. That must make you a very versatile fighter.”

“I do alright.” Every alarm bell in Lambert's head started ringing... yet Jaskier was so calm, so composed. He didn't attack or even try to take advantage of Lambert. They were just talking.

“I've collected etchings of some Witcher keeps—I have an image of Kaer Morhen and Kaer Seren. Oh, and Stygga. Beautiful fortresses, all of them. However, I don't have any sketches of the Cat caravan. It moves too much. I imagine you're the only one here who knows what it looks like.”

“It's not that impressive,” Lambert said. “The way Aiden talked about Stygga, you'd think it was a—” Lambert bit down on his tongue, but it was already too late. Aiden. He didn't mean to—fuck. He let his mind wander. Thoughts of Kaer Morhen, home, warm and comfortable as the winter air started to crawl in around him, he didn't think... And that's exactly what Jaskier wanted. He let himself get distracted and now...

Jaskier's eyes sparkled, his smile brightening just a little. “If you're interested, I can show you those etchings sometime. You can tell me if they do Kaer Morhen justice.” He stepped back towards the fence, back into the courtyard proper. “Lunch should be soon, roast pheasant today.” Jaskier turned and walked back to the house.

Letho did not appear again, apparently ratting on his best friend earned Lambert enough trust to be left alone. “Fuck.” He fell to his knees, fingers clutching the dirt. Jaskier didn't have a Cat yet, they were too slippery, too hard to find. They used false names, never stayed in one place for too long... and Lambert just handed Jaskier the key to getting Aiden's attention.

Tears choked his throat, dirt clinging to his sweaty skin. “Fuck.”

Residence of Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove
Collection House, Kerack

Chapter Text

Ixora gazed at the fresh bouquet of flowers arranged in the solarium for her. Their origin was in no doubt. Coën had included only the four useful plants she extracted from the previous collection; hellebore, bryonia, arenaria, and ginatia. She ran her fingers tentatively over the purple petals of the hellebore blooms and leaned back in her chair with a heavy sigh through her nose. The tree was gone too.

The silly boy had cut the damned tree down. He hadn’t asked Jaskier’s permission either. From her limited knowledge of Griffin training and culture, she had a vague idea that this was an attempt at courting, but she couldn’t shake the weight of her experience with men. In their eyes, she was a prize. Their goal was always suppression and ownership. Used grotesque terms such as ‘ebony princess’ and ‘exotic’ in the same sentence. Her stomach convulsed at the memories and she frowned into the grounds.

She expected him to look while she lounged in the baths. In fact, she’d deliberately sat with her breasts above the waterline and her arms splayed across the edge of the pool. Not an encouragement, but a test. Were these knightly values only skin deep? Were they simply a ruse? But he hadn’t. His back remained turned and she heard him turn away the pack of puppy dogs when they came looking for a splash. He’d taken her earlier dismissal as ‘give me space’ and not bothered her other than to smile, bow and wish her a lovely day, but continued to try and be of use; the tree, the bouquet of flowers, the fresh jug of water outside her room every morning. Trying to prove himself to her.  

The irony was that if he’d proposed a quick roll between the sheets, she would’ve probably said yes; just because she had a low opinion of the male species didn’t mean she had no use for them. It’d been a few damn years. She wasn’t precious. There was no virginal bud to maintain. But that wasn’t what he wanted, was it? He wanted something more. Sometimes she heard him rehearsing poetry; he spoke mostly to the scarred wolf, Eskel. Querying him on phrasing, metaphors and cadence. Eskel was a polite man and weathered it with a patient smile, despite his own inner turmoil. Oh, there was plenty going on beneath that mop of black hair, wasn’t there?

Ixora had lived with the Viscount for nearly a year and a half. His Viper found her half dead in the Blue Mountains; malnourished, wounded and only semi-conscious. When she awoke from her stupor, she was warm and comfortable in her current quarters, with a bowl of fresh fruit and a vase of roses on the windowsill. It was the roses that persuaded her of her safety. Who gave roses to someone they wished to kill? Although reluctant at first, the Viscount’s polite manner and his readiness to provide her with food, comforts and somewhere to train had convinced her to stay. He’d requested nothing of her, just that she stay within the estate for her own safety, “The world is an unfriendly place for Witchers, dear heart. I wish to give you a safe haven to heal in.”

She’d been alone for nearly two centuries. Not a single Manticore left. The fortress in Zerrikania sat crumbling and empty. Perhaps Merten was still out there somewhere, but he renounced the Path in favour of worshipping the Great Beggar. Idiot. She sighed, head tilting back, amber eyes sliding closed as weak autumn rays illuminated her face. There was no point in dwelling on ancient history.

The Griffin was amusing. Sweet, in his own way. She could humour him for a little longer, perhaps until he slipped up and revealed his true intentions. He entered the small communal room now; she felt his gaze briefly before he averted it and approached a bookshelf to return some tomes he’d taken to bed with him the previous evening. Slowly, she unfurled from her seat and stepped into the shadow of the room. There were a few more tests she needed to run. A few more assurances she needed to give herself; Ixora did not trust easily. And trusting someone with her heart, well, that had happened only once before. It hadn’t ended well. 

“Coën.” Her voice carried easily and the Griffin straightened, almost dropping a book in his haste to turn and face her.

“Yes, milady.” 

“Ixora, I’m not some silly courtly girl waiting to be deflowered,” she beckoned him towards the door as he flushed. “Come train with me.” 

“Train with you?” He asked, his tone slightly strangled.

“Would it be beneath you to train with a Manticore, noble Griffin?”

“Oh, no, no,” Coën chucked his last remaining book onto the shelf and practically tripped over himself in his haste to follow her out the door. “It would be an honour. A privilege, mi- uh, Ixora. Really. Would you like to practice Signs, or - ?”

Grayson, who’d been quietly reading in the corner of the room, rolled his eyes.

Geralt could feel the itch underneath his skin. Restlessness. It usually settled in towards the end of winter; when even the vast, open halls of Kaer Morhen felt claustrophobic. Until the passes cleared of snow, he occupied himself with rigorous training during the day and equally athletic sessions with Eskel and Lambert in bed during the evening. That couldn’t happen here. Not like it could in their home.

He’d slipped up in the bathhouse. The heat of the water and Eskel’s hands in tandem had transported him home; to safety and the familiarity that he hadn’t enjoyed in many years. The bars of the gilded cage faded away until his entire world consisted only of Eskel’s love and deep, rumbling laughter. When they returned from their brief excursion, they curled up around Lambert, listening to their own thundering heartbeats settle, and fell asleep. In the comfort, and the darkness, with the heat of the bath still permeating their muscles, it was effortless.

They lay sprawled in the huge bed now; Lambert was morose, feeling guilty for dropping Aiden’s name during conversation with Jaskier the previous day. Eskel tried comforting him, tried to dispel the notion that any of it was Lambert’s fault, and persisted despite Lambert’s refusal to acknowledge it.

“Stop beating yourself up,” Eskel said, for the fiftieth time. “He’s clever. He knows how to read people, read the room and he chooses his words to get the reaction he wants.” No one knew this better than Eskel, who continued to be wooed quite effortlessly in Jaskier's company now. Soft words whispered into his ear - praise, adoration - pleasured him more than the thick cock moving in his ass and the long fingers wrapping his prick. Outside Geralt, no one had ever wrung repeated orgasms from Eskel in a single session, but Jaskier abused his non-existent refractory period until he was shaken to pieces. One evening, Jaskier even went as far as to tie his own cock to prevent his climax, peaking Eskel repeatedly until he was an incoherent mess. He shifted his legs apart as the memories intruded.

“Yeah, easy for you to say, you didn’t just sell out your - ,” Lambert hesitated. “You didn’t sell anyone out.”

“They won’t catch him,” Geralt murmured, throwing the book closed. “You couldn’t even find him after all this time.”

Lambert grunted. Aiden hadn’t wanted to be found. That became clear the first three times Lambert had missed him by a gnat’s bollock. It took conscious effort to slip away from someone repeatedly. “Yeah, well. Letho managed to find us, trap us each in the best way.”

“Even if he does, Aiden will forgive you,” Eskel shifted from his seat by the window and flopped down on the bed at Lambert’s side. “Hey, maybe it’ll give you an opportunity to, you know.”

“You know what? ” Lambert looked up quickly from his sewing.


Now that Eskel was laying down on his back, Geralt could put a name to the scent. The room smelled like them anyway - they made a conscious effort to do that - but Eskel ’s arousal spidered through it; strong and musky. “That left over from the other night?”

Eskel glanced down at the tent in his trousers and smirked. “Yeah. You left me hard and wanting.”

“I left you hard and wanting? You fell asleep, old man.” 

“Coming from the wolf with the white hair.” Eskel folded his arms, head tilted, and Geralt took the challenge. He grabbed the pot of oil from where they’d tucked it under some clean clothing and shuffled up the bed on his knees.

Eskel’s hands flew to his belt, already pulling the supple leather free from the buckle. Geralt stilled him with a growl. “Let me.” Setting aside the pot of oil in favor of slowly peeling Eskel out of his clothes.

He pushed the soft tunic up over his belly, making sure the fine fabric caressed Eskel’s now somewhat more defined muscles. Still needed the layer of cushioning fat protecting them, but they all looked more or less how they did every year when they rucked up to Kaer Morhen after a regular season on the Path. They hadn’t had a regular season in so long, even being at a sort of healthy weight was a novelty.

Geralt tweaked one nipple before smoothing his hand back down, fingers sliding through the light trail of hair between Eskel’s belly button and cock, the one that dipped below his still buttoned trousers. He groaned, thrusting his hips up. “You said you wanted to do it. So do it.”

After all these years, Eskel still hadn’t learned that most important lesson: if he wanted the White Wolf to speed up, he absolutely should not tell him to speed up. “Mmm, what did I want to do? Remind me...” The finger stroking his chest slowed to a crawl, the other hand cupping his hip. Eskel felt the heat of Geralt’s palm through his clothing and whined. For once, Geralt took pity and started unbuttoning, sliding Eskel’s trousers over his hips, letting that beautiful, thick cock out into the light.

They slept naked every night. They bathed together every few days. They lived in the same room, spending as much time in proximity to each other as possible. Geralt had seen Eskel’s cock a million times, and every time, it was a show. The dusky colored shaft was already thick and full, that heavy vein pulsing softly. It twitched under the intensity of Geralt’s gaze and he licked his lips. It was easier to use their mouths now-a-days and Geralt had plenty of Eskel’s thick cock pressing down on his tongue; he meant to take him now that they had oil, push into him, make him groan and stretch, forget about where they were... but fuck if his mouth didn’t water at the thought of tasting salty precome across his tongue once again.

He took a few steadying breaths. He was mostly dressed, Eskel still had his shirt and trousers on (though both we bunched up, leaving nothing to the imagination) and Lambert watched with heavy eyes, his sewing still in his hand. “Lambert,” Geralt finally managed to force between his lips. “Why are you still dressed?”

Lambert blinked, setting his project aside—another wolf head for the corner of another jerkin—and grabbed the back of his collar, pulling his shirt off and discarding it on the floor. “I have no idea. Lick his scars, he likes that,” Lambert instructed as he unbuckled his belt, his own impossibly hard cock all but falling out.

“You bet he does,” Geralt whispered and leaned forward, dragging his tongue from Eskel’s lips all the way up to his eyebrow. The thick hair there was incredibly soft and Geralt took a second to run his nose the length of Eskel’s brow.

Eskel’s breath hitched and Geralt looked down to see Lambert’s hand wrapped around his cock, teasing strokes at first. He leaned in close and laved his tongue across Eskel’s earlobe, sucking the soft skin lightly. “Come on, wolf, take it off.”

Geralt threw his tunic across the room, his breeches following shortly after. He had just enough presence of mind to strip Eskel the rest of the way before settling between his spread legs—open wide in invitation. “Yes,” Eskel hissed. Chest against chest, he was already moaning. “Get the oil.”

The tin of oil slipped under the blankets and Geralt groped for a moment, fingers finally capturing the smooth metal. The sucking sound of the lid was strangely erotic, knowing Eskel’s ass might make similar sounds in just a moment. A long string of precome dripped from the head of Geralt’s cock, smooth and viscous, landing at the base of Eskel’s, then slowly dripped down over his balls.

“Fuck,” Lambert groaned.

Geralt threw the lid onto the floor, his fingers digging into the soft, greasy gel. While he wanted nothing more than to push two fingers into Eskel, watch him wiggle and writhe, it had been so very long... Tempering his impatience, Geralt coated one finger, making sure to cover it completely. After weeks of rough handjobs, he wanted his first stroke into Eskel to be as smooth as possible.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to... interrupt.”

All three startled at the soft voice. Lambert shouted “Fuck!” and rolled off the bed, grabbing one of their furs from the floor and throwing it over Geralt’s back, hiding him and Eskel. Eskel curled up, hands instinctively protecting his cock. Geralt’s lip curled back and he roared, hands curling into claws on Eskel’s skin.

Jaskier didn’t react to any of it. He stood at their fucking open door, eyes soft as ever, lips parted a little, hands tucked behind him. He didn’t even try to hide the firm line in his breeches. After holding his eyes on them for far too long, he finally dropped his chin. “I noticed you borrowed some... physical aides from the bathhouse. I thought you might like some more.” One hand appeared from behind his back and he set another tin of the same oily lubricant on the dresser, a much larger tin than the one they swiped. “If you have a need for anything, please, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Blue eyes flicked up towards them again, all frozen on the bed, halfway between attack and defense posture, Geralt still snarling quietly, blanketed over Eskel to hide him further. Geralt didn’t care for his own nudity, and it made no sense—Jaskier had already seen all of Eskel—but he could barely protect them here in this comfortable captivity. He had to do what little he could.

“I’ll leave you be,” Jaskier said after a too long moment of consideration. He turned, his silky doublet catching the light from their window, and closed the door behind him.

As soon as the door clicked shut, Geralt crumbled on top of Eskel, his heart hammering. He tried to get it under control, make his body listen... but the sweat beading on the back of his neck told him control was too much to hope for right now.

He did not hear Jaskier come in. He didn’t hear him in the hall, he didn’t hear him outside their door, and he sure as fuck didn’t hear when Jaskier opened their door. Weeks of listening to this house like their lives depended on it (and they very well might) and he dropped the ball. Too wrapped up in Eskel, his touch, his smell, the feel of his skin... he forgot where they were. Again. How many times could they slip up and stay safe?

“It’s okay.” Eskel’s arms were around him, stroking his back as he shook. Lambert moved in close, holding them both. “We can try again, when he’s sleeping. I want you, I won’t let him take that away from us.”

Geralt gave a shaky nod, sinking his teeth into Eskel’s neck, not to bite, just to reassure himself that he didn’t ruin everything. Jaskier hadn’t come to take Eskel away, they were still wrapped up together. All the same, Geralt didn’t close his eyes. He would not let his guard down again.

It took Letho a week to find Aiden. A name was a powerful thing. It opened both doors and mouths when mentioned to the right people. Unfortunately, capturing the fucking Cat hadn’t been quite as easy as the rest of them. Whereas the Wolves had been thin, malnourished and weakened, Aiden was still in good shape. His armour and weapons were worn and in need of repair, but physically he was robust. And that was a problem. 

The Viper, covered in deep, bleeding gouges and slashes across his face and arms, dragged his prey through the heavy wooden doors into the vestibule. Neither Somne nor Axii would work on a Witcher that was still more or less fighting fit, so he had to rely on his physical strength alone to contain the hissing, spitting feline; however, with blood soaking his hands it proved easier said than done. With the slyzard guards in place - worth their fucking weight in gold and then some, if anyone were to ask Letho, which they fucking wouldn’t - there was no fear of further scratches, but Aiden twisted around in his grip, shook his gag free and sank his teeth into Letho’s forearm.

“Ow, fuck, you whoreson!” The nerves in his hand contracted and Letho’s grip loosened. It was enough. Aiden slipped from his grasp and ran at full sprint away. It didn’t matter that it was further into the house; the Cat had lost his senses completely. The single focus of his mind and body was fight and run. These rages were an inherent flaw of their mutation. Their emotions hadn’t been removed, or left well alone, they’d been enhanced. Amplified to the point that they could spiral out of control at the simplest provocation. Letho snarled as fresh blood soaked down his hand, and sprinted after the escapee. Even with his hands bound, Aiden was agile and dangerous enough to cause havoc. The pursuit turned left through the ballroom and into the courtyard. Aiden ran into a line of Jaskier’s guards, halberds primed, black armour agleam and hissed. The only way was up and Letho burst outside in time to watch the Cat scale the giant statue of Emhyr van Emreis in the very centre. 

“There’s nowhere to run, you feral piece of shit,” Letho snarled. His patience was gone. Completely exhausted. Every injury stung and he was very aware of the kind of filth that accumulated beneath a Cat’s claws. Or any Witcher’s nails for that matter. And now that he looked, he realised Aiden had taken a small chunk of his forearm with him. “Come down, or I’ll blast you down.”

Aiden spat out the small piece of flesh in his mouth and let loose a low-pitched yowl. There was no reasoning with him. His eyes - well, the one that was still working - were wild, blown wide in fury; spittle seethed through gritted teeth as his legs tightened around the head of the statue. Oh, if Emhyr could only see his effigy now, hooked nose deep in a Witcher’s crotch and blood dripping down his white marble tunic. “Get fucked. Get fucked. GET. FUCKED.” Aiden screamed it, broken and on repeat, he looked around at the anxious faces of the surrounding humans and hissed, searching frantically for an escape route that wasn’t there.

“Fine,” Letho curled his fingers and propelled an Aard into the sky that would’ve made Eskel take pause. It smashed Aiden down from his perch, along with the head of the statue itself. There was a small element of triumphant irony; Letho finally got to behead the late Emperor of Nilfgaard as he had wanted to all those years ago after his betrayal. The Cat hit the ground hard and the marble head of the once great Emhyr Van Emreis, the White Flame Dancing on the Barrows of his Enemies, rolled across the cobblestones with him. 

The ruckus  had disturbed the Viscount from his work, and he appeared in the courtyard behind his staff. “What in Melitele’s name - ?” He glanced at the now headless Emperor in the middle of his courtyard, and then down at the semi-conscious Witcher groaning on the floor.

“He wouldn’t get down.” Letho growled as he hauled the Cat onto his shoulder.

Jaskier’s eyes narrowed at the vandalised effigy of one of the most respected Nilfgaardian Emperors of all time. “You’ve never liked that statue.”

“It’s an improvement.” Letho called back as he walked away.

The guards followed in his wake just to make sure the Viscount’s newest acquisition actually made it to his quarters. The Viper dumped Aiden unceremoniously on his bed, tested the bars on the windows he’d suggested be installed - because Cats were not above trying to smash through reinforced glass - and stepped out of the room just in time for Aiden to sit up. Jaskier followed at Letho’s heel and gestured at his staff to keep the other Witchers at a distance.

“Did you not tell him - ?”

“I didn’t get a chance to tell him anythin’, he tried to set me on fire and fucking ran,” Letho snarled, one palm leaning against the wall as he surveyed the damage on both his arms. “And then he went into one of his little hissy fits, and it all went to fuckery.”

“Will he calm eventually?”

“Fuck like I know, he can smash his brains out on the fucking walls for all I care.” Letho was in a lot of pain. Usually he moderated himself around Jaskier, but now he seethed and spat like his namesake.

“Very well. Bar the door as we discussed.” Jaskier murmured, and indicated the plank of wood and iron next to the frame. The brackets on either side had been installed at Letho’s insistence, but Jaskier had hoped not to need them. Once the door was secure, Jaskier stepped towards his Viper, pretending they all didn't hear the growls and screams coming from behind the door now that Aiden had fully recovered from his fall... or the thumping of ornaments hitting the walls. 

Jaskier lifted a hand to Letho's bleeding face, but he leaned away. “It's fine.”

“No, it's not.” With a little hiss between his teeth, Letho stood still as Jaskier ran tender fingers across the unbeaten skin, there wasn't much of it left. “I know you have potions in your room. I don't want you taking any of those, the side effects are beastly. Go to the bathhouse, I'll be down in a bit to tend to your injuries.”

Letho looked about ready to argue. When he was injured, he preferred to tuck himself away. Weakness meant death. It always had. But the cornflower blue eyes that stared at him now commanded obedience, and he dipped his head in a grudging nod.

Before he disappeared as instructed, he walked past the guards halfway down the hall and stood before Eskel and Geralt. Even Coën and Ixora were attracted by the spectacle created by Aiden’s arrival and stood in the doorways to their rooms. Grayson emerged slowly into the hall, his eyes on Jaskier. 

“Make sure that Cat doesn't get out and scratch the boss.” Letho spoke directly to Geralt and Eskel, ignoring Lambert, who in turn was ignoring the world; anything to dampen the sound of his best friend screaming and raging. Every howl of anguished rage cut through to his very soul. Letho continued, “Until I get my face sewn up and come back, you’re responsible for his safety.”

“Letho,” Jaskier whispered softly, but his heart wasn't in it, he was too focused on Aiden's room and the terrible noises coming from behind the door. For the first time since they arrived, Geralt saw Jaskier's happy facade slip. Just a fraction. It was enough for him to see a glimmer of genuine humanity; it wasn’t put on purely for the benefit of the others. One slender hand pressed his lips, blue eyes tight at the corners.

“Why us?” Geralt snapped back, his gaze focusing on Letho. The insanity of being responsible for the safety of their captor in the first place was beyond ridiculous; there was no point arguing with such insanity.

Jabbing a finger down the hall, Letho bared his teeth. “That is your baby wolf's fucking Cat. That's who he wanted, that's who I got. I told Jaskier no, Cats aren't worth the trouble, that one especially. But he wanted to make Lambert happy.” The usual malevolence is Letho's gaze was strangely absent. One eye puffed up, already ringed in dark purple, and blood continued to flow over his lips and down his arms. “Anything that happens from this point on is your responsibility.” With that, he stomped towards the small communal room to disappear into the rest of the house.

Jaskier, unsure on how to proceed for a moment, turned to the Witchers that remained. “We’ll give him some time to settle, and then - ,” he trailed off, his eyes alighting on Lambert and his desolate expression, “- then we can give him a tour, and you can catch up.” His tone brightened artificially, and he gestured for the majority of his staff to leave. Only two remained behind to flank either side of Aiden’s door.

Not for the first time, Jaskier found himself doubting. No. This was the right thing. A member of the School of Cat was necessary. They had skills, assets and links he would need in the future. This one would calm. He would. His Viper was already in the bathhouse when he arrived; a small bowl of water sat before his knees, the water already dyed a thick red as he rinsed the blood from his wounds. Jaskier grabbed another bowl from the towel cupboard, filled it with the hot water from the third pool, and knelt down in front of his bleeding Witcher. “Here, let me.” He guided Letho’s hands away, took the mostly soiled wash cloth, and set about dabbing at him with a clean one. “Will you let me call a physician?”

“I don’t need one.” Letho grated out, yellow eyes averted towards the windows and the grounds beyond.

“We’ve talked about this,” Jaskier murmured, holding one thick wrist as he washed a huge bicep. “In fact, we’ve spent three years talking about this. It’s alright to let someone help now and then.”

“Hm. I’m letting you, ain’t I?”

“You are, and I’m grateful,” Jaskier finished one huge arm, fingers pressing gently into the edges of each wound. “These are quite deep, but they’ve mostly stopped bleeding. I think you may need stitches.”

“I can do it.”

“And then I want you to have a few days off. My staff can handle guarding Aiden while you recuperate.”


“Don’t argue with me, Letho of Gulet,” Jaskier prodded the huge Witcher in the centre of the chest and received a dismissive snort in response, but his Viper didn’t say anything further. He sat passively as Jaskier mopped away the blood and inspected his injuries; his arms were the worst, with a broken nose and a missing tooth following in as close second. Aiden had been truly, staggeringly ferocious. Jaskier swapped the water twice and pulled out a third cloth, until finally Letho’s skin was free of blood and his Witcher mutagens set to work on clotting his wounds into weak scabs. “I thought my sources were exaggerated.”

“On what?”

“The rage, and - well, all of that. ” Jaskier carefully washed each of Letho’s hands, checking the joints and bones for breaks. “Not even Lambert was as feral. And from what you told me, I expected him to be the most difficult.”

“I told you it wasn’t. You didn’t listen,” Letho growled.

“I know, I know, and now you’re wounded,” Jaskier sighed and dropped the washcloth into the blood saturated water in front of him. “I just - the wolves are - .”

“Ungrateful fucking bastards. They’ve always been up their own asses. Nothin’ you do to appease them will have any impact, they’re stubborn and arrogant.” Letho uncoiled to his feet, hands flexing, shoulders rolling. “Just… don’t go into the room. He’ll rip your throat out with his teeth.”

“Alright. Three days. I don’t want to see you doing anything but sleep and eat. That’s an order, Viper.” 

Letho gave a mock bow. “Your Highness.” And then swaggered out of the bathhouse. 

Aiden didn’t calm down.

In fact, Jaskier could hear his screams and yowls through the night into the next day, and then into the second night. The guards informed him that the Witcher threw himself into the door, into the bars on the windows and into the walls. There probably wasn’t a single item of furniture left intact, but they hadn’t opened the door to check.

He was hurting himself, hadn’t eaten or drunk anything and wasn’t showing any sign of letting up. So, as the third day of Aiden’s stay drew to a close and they were looking at a third night of tortured howls, Jaskier approached Lambert in the communal room with a bowl of fruit and loaf of bread. Eskel looked up quickly, but Jaskier remained a respectful distance. “Lambert, I must ask a favour of you.”

The Wolf looked up from his book, his face drawn. He hadn’t been sleeping either. “I need you to go into Aiden. I understand that - .” Jaskier didn’t get to finish, because the Wolf was on his feet and reaching for the food. “There’s one more thing, and I’ll understand if you don’t want to do it, I won’t make you an unwitting accomplice. I’ve placed a sedative in the bread. He’s distressed, hurting himself...”

“There isn’t a sedative on the Continent that would work on a - ,” Eskel growled, and then trailed off, “unless you’ve sourced Lilvani’s tincture.” 

Jaskier smiled weakly. “I have. It took many months of searching to unearth the recipe, and then many more to source the material. The dose is very light. Enough to make him feel drowsy, nothing more.”

“You want me to drug him,” Lambert stated, his throat hoarse. He took both bowls from Jaskier anyway, and sighed. “Just let me see him.”

The sound of a body throwing itself against a wall became gradually louder as they walked down the corridor to Aiden’s room, accompanied occasionally by snarls and creative streams of expletives. The guards looked at Lambert hesitantly as they lifted the bar free from the iron brackets. The Wolf hammered a closed fist on the door. “Aiden,” he barked. “It’s me, you crazy fuck.” 

All movement inside the room ceased instantly. Jaskier held his breath and Lambert tilted his head to listen. Broken furniture scraped across the floor and then a thump echoed through the wall. “Lambert?” Aiden’s voice crackled around the two syllables; his throat must be raw, his chest aching.

“Yeah. Gunna’ open up, got some food, we’re gunna’ have a chat, you need to be calm though, alright?”

“What - ? How - ? Why’re you here? Where am I?” 

Jaskier’s lower lip rolled between his teeth. Aiden sounded so broken. 

“I’ll explain. Comin’ in,” Lambert grabbed the handle and twisted. He half expected Aiden to launch at him; they hadn’t seen each other in years. Nearly a century. Perhaps more. The years blurred together until time became an abstract concept. No attack came though. The room he stepped into had been completely shredded. Even though Aiden’s hands were still contained inside the slyzard guards, he’d destroyed every piece of furniture; the armchair, the desk, the chairs, the bed frame. Splinters of wood and scraps of material littered every available space. Somehow, he’d even managed to rip all the stuffing out of the mattress. Must’ve used his teeth. 

Once he’d surveyed the room, Lambert placed the food down carefully on the floor and studied Aiden. He was still slumped against the wall next to the closed door. His skin flushed and sheened in sweat, his eyes watery and bloodshot; one was its usual brilliant greeny-yellow hue, while the other was faded and milky, with a twisted scar running through the corner. His accident. Aiden was panting, as if he’d just run a sprint, and he looked at Lambert in open bewilderment. Like he was seeing a ghost. “It’s you,” he croaked. “It’s really you.” Aiden uncurled from the floor and staggered forward, bound hands outstretched as if he could somehow touch Lambert through the thick hide wrapping his fingers.

Lambert caught him in both arms as he collapsed.

Ixora, School of Manticore

"The School of the Manticore is one of the lesser known splinter factions of the order created by Alzur and Cosimo Malaspina in the 10th century. It emerged after the emigration of several Witchers to the Far East. Manticore School equipment is of medium weight and their discipline focuses around alchemy and bombs. Manticore Witchers appear to possess lower standards of social etiquette compared to other schools, which was mentioned in notes about one of their most famous members, Merten. He was a drunk and a whoremonger until he learned of Lebioda’s teachings while in prison and sought enlightenment. He embarked on a pilgrimage, renounced his old life as a Witcher and swore to spread Lebioda’s teachings far and wide.”

Chapter Text

Aiden lay across Lambert's chest for what felt like hours. He stank to hell and back, his arms bracketed around Lambert's face as the slyzard gloves bound his hands together; his chest fluttered in panic, heart moving way too fast. He let Lambert run his hands over his back and arms, apprising, seeing how much damage Aiden had done to himself in his efforts to destroy the room.

While his skin was tight and waxy with dehydration, Aiden was in far better shape than Lambert had been in just a few weeks ago. Scrapes and cuts mostly, a few splinters from destroying the furniture... Lambert swiped his hand down Aiden's side and frowned. Cats were built for agility, they didn't have as much bulk as Geralt or Eskel liked to carry around, but Lambert couldn't remember ever feeling Aiden's ribs. Three days without food...

“You need to eat,” he said, gently nudging Aiden up.

Anger shakes spiraled through him and Lambert had to help Aiden sit on the clearest patch of floor. The destruction was everywhere, not a single thing in the room survived. He tried not to think about it, reaching for the food and holding up a bunch of grapes for Aiden. “Eat.”

“Where are we?”

Lambert admitted, he wasn't the smartest Wolf. He didn't have Eskel's foresight, or Geralt's methodical nature, but he knew Aiden better than any person in the world. “You eat, I talk. Deal?”

Though he calmed a little at Lambert's presence, the feral light in Aiden's eyes was still there, even his blind eye crackled with malevolent fury. “Don't play with me, Lambert, I'm better at games than you are.”

“Yes, you fucking are. Like the 'lets avoid my best friend for a century,' game.” He pulled a few grapes from the bunch and held them under Aiden's nose. Without the use of his hands, Lambert had to feed him, at least like this he wasn't forcing them into Aiden's mouth. “Eat the fucking grapes.”

As with Geralt, hunger seemed to win out. Aiden snapped the grapes from his palm, teeth scraping. “Where are we,” he asked again, mumbling around the food.

Lambert sighed, pulling a few more from the bunch. “Kerack... collection house.”

His mouth dipping to eat another piece of fruit, Aiden stopped cold. Rage blazed in him again and he twisted away. “Fucking collection!” A feral snarl ripped from his chest and Lambert was barely fast enough to grab his shoulder, pulling him in close again. He threaded his fingers in Aiden's dirty hair, both comfort and to get a secure hold. While he hated to admit it, Lambert was really happy for the slyzard gloves.

Aiden writhed and struggled a little more, the fight returning to his already exhausted body. Finally, he slumped once again, his head laying limply on the bend of Lambert's shoulder. “How'd they get you?”

“I was weak, starving. So were most of the others. Geralt and Eskel are just getting back to good shape now.”

The admission got the desired reaction: Aiden chuckled. “Thought they were supposed to be the smart ones?”

“They are. The Viscount wants us healthy, strong. That's Eskel's plan: get strong, break out.” They'd been careful, hadn't spoken of their plan out loud, but right now, Letho wasn't close enough to overhear and rat on them, and the others probably didn't care about their plan. If anything, Grayson and Ixora probably laughed at their idea of escape, they were too happy here... part of Lambert was too. “You want to come with us? Eat the food.”

Rescuing the grapes where they fell on the floor, he brushed off the plaster dust and offered them to Aiden. He opened his mouth and ate. Thank fuck. “What does he want? The Viscount?”

Lambert shrugged. “Not sure. Not planning to stay long enough to find out.”

Eyes flicked over Lambert quickly, the one good eye very shrewd. “He hasn't... does he—” Aiden tripped over the exact phrasing. Does he hurt you? was a stupid question; if he wanted them strong, why would he physically abuse them? But not all abuse was about beating someone to a pulp.

Lambert swallowed thickly and went for the bread. He let his anxiety over Eskel's situation mask his anxiety over feeding Aiden the Lilvani's tincture. “Grayson, School of the Bear, he, uh... invites the Viscount to his room. And Eskel. That's part of the plan. If he cooperates, if Eskel cooperates, he'll let his guard down... let us get away. But he doesn't force anyone.”

Aiden chewed little bites of the bread, frowning now. “I know I've said things about them over the years—”

“Yes, you have. All Wolves, in fact. That we're too noble—stupidly so—and quick to trust. We fall ass backwards into wars we shouldn't get involved in—”

Aiden smirked and Lambert's heart felt a little lighter. “And I don't retract those statements. You're all stupid and a half sometimes. But Eskel... I've always respected him, even if it's not returned. He puts himself on the line for his school far too often.”

“Well, that's what he's doing now. It's our best way out.” Lambert tried not to notice how Aiden's eyelids drooped, less than half the loaf of bread left. He had to give him as much as possible. He'd confess later, let Aiden beat the shit out of him if that's what he wanted, but he couldn't go on like this, Jaskier was right about that at least.

When only the heel of the bread remained, Aiden started to sway, his eyes going as wide as possible. “Lambert, what...”

He caught Aiden as he fell, muscles going slack. “I'm sorry,” he whispered, voice tight. Lambert made sure to settle him on a clear patch of floor, or as clear as he could manage, sweeping any splinters or broken glass away. Heavy eyes watched him, all the anger gone, tension completely drained from his body.

A small smirk crossed Aiden's face and Lambert's heart squeezed in his chest. “Pretty wolf, always so nice to me.”

“Yeah, so nice.” Lambert tried not to let the sadness seep into his voice. From what he remembered of Lilvani's tincture, it was a hell of a sedative, but didn't do anything to memory. While Aiden would spend the next few hours blissfully hazy, as soon as it wore off he'd be sputtering mad again, this time, mad at Lambert. “Wait here a second, okay? Then we'll go for a little trip.” Aiden sighed softly, his eyes trying to follow Lambert as he stood up and walked back towards the door, then giving up and sliding closed.

Lambert rested his head against the door for a second before knocking sharply. There was a small gasp out in the hall at the sudden noise. “Jaskier, you out there?”

“Yes!” his muffled voice floated in through the small crack in the door. “How is he?”

“Spaced out.” For now. “Do you have another room available? He can't stay in here.” As much as he'd like to take Aiden to their bed (it was large enough for three Wolves and one Cat, no problem) he didn't think Geralt and Eskel would like it, or Aiden for that matter, when he stopped tripping.

“Yes, of course. There is a spare. But—I don't have a bar on the door. I'm sorry Lambert, until he settles, I can't—”

Though Jaskier seemed all soft and kind at first, Lambert got the impression he wasn't one to interrupt; something about the way he spoke to Letho, he accepted the Viper's suggestions but overruled any he didn't like. Obviously, if he went after Aiden against Letho's advice... Lambert cut him off anyway. “Don't worry about that, the tincture should last a couple of hours. I'll get him to sleep and you can install whatever you want at the door.” He moved away from the door and heaved Aiden up onto his shoulder like the droopiest sack of potatoes.

Aiden pretty much melted over Lambert's shoulder, his bound hands dangling down and brushing his ass. “Gunna carry me? Not injured... or am I?”

“Yeah, Aiden, you're injured. Going to fix you up.” He listened for the bar sliding away from the door and Jaskier stepping back.

He opened the door and walked into the hall. Geralt and Eskel stood off to the side, close enough to jump in front of Jaskier if Aiden wasn't as calm as Lambert thought, but still keeping their distance. It wasn't about protecting Jaskier, but about protecting them all. If Nilfgaard heard one of their loyal Viscounts got killed by his house full of Witchers, they wouldn't last much longer.

Jaskier pointed towards the other free room right across the hall. “That one doesn't have windows. And I made sure there was fresh water in the wash basin, if he wants to clean up. Fresh clothes as well.”

Lambert grunted, setting Aiden on the bed before returning to the hall. “How long until he can get the gloves off?” Aiden would never be happy here like Grayson or Ixora, and no way he'd be 'settled' like they were, but taking off the slyzard muzzle would go a long way to ensuring he didn't tear the house apart one board at a time.

Jaskier pressed his lips into a line, eyes going so fucking soft. It wasn't like his usual, almost patronizing “not until you're settled, dear heart,” line that he usually handed Eskel; his lips parted, and for a moment, no words came out. “Lambert... you have my word, that's what I want for him. I want Aiden—I want all of you—free to roam the grounds and use my house as you like... but he's, I don't know. My deepest apologies, but I do not have an answer.”

Their fucking captor looked heartbroken that he couldn't let his new prize roam around like the rest of them. The care and concern written across Jaskier's face was too much, so Lambert dropped his gaze. “I'll try to get him to calm down long term. I'm not promising anything. Aiden's not stupid, if he sees an upside for him, he'll agree. Let me work with him.”

“Thank you.” Jaskier's voice almost cracked. “Thank you, Lambert. Anything he requires, please don't hesitate to ask.”

“Right.” Lambert closed the door, chancing one last look at Jaskier's heartbreaking gaze. He rested his head against the smooth wood again and took a breath.

“Lambert?” Aiden's coo of a voice purred. He only got like that when they were really drunk, gathered around their campfire, eating whatever fish Lambert managed to bomb out of the river. Looked like that Lilvani's tincture was really doing its work. “Lambert come here.”

“Alright, I'm comin'.” Lambert walked over to the bed and lay down beside Aiden. It wasn't as big as the bed in their room, but there was more than enough space for them both to lay comfortably.

For some reason, Aiden decided 'comfortable' meant pressed close to Lambert, one leg thrown across his, nose rubbing up his shoulder. With his hands bound, it was hard to find a completely comfortable position, but Lambert let Aiden pillow his head on his bicep. “Good wolf,” Aiden whispered. “Best wolf.”

Lambert had his hands full with Aiden, leaving Geralt and Eskel... to do what, exactly? For the first time in so long, they didn't have to monitor his every movement through the house, he was safe with Aiden, especially in his mellowed state; the mere idea that Lambert was safer in the hands of a Cat than anywhere else in this house didn't bear thinking about, it was fucked up, like everything else about their lives right now.

Jaskier retired to his rooms after days of fretting over Aiden's condition. He started going pale over it, his heart hammering a little too fast. Geralt watched Jaskier almost as closely as he watched his brothers, and he'd never seen the man this upset. He said he was looking out for them, all he wanted for was their safety and happiness. Feeding their bodies wasn't difficult, providing food and medical treatment to a starved Witcher made them warm to you even a small amount. Aiden wasn't staved. Jaskier had nothing to offer him short of Lambert, and it looked like that was working at the moment. What would he do when Lambert didn't calm him enough? He didn't want to lock them up, but if that was his only choice...

Letho was resting for the next few days, probably as far away from Aiden's room as he could get. And Jaskier was nearly distraught, resting in his rooms. A very dangerous, very desperate thought entered Geralt's mind. Nudging Eskel's arm, he nodded towards the door of their room. Eskel followed with an arched eyebrow.

Once the door closed behind them, sheltering them in the relative quiet of their room where they could no longer hear Lambert softly shushing a drugged Aiden, Geralt inhaled deeply, taking a moment to think... He was always good at thinking, evaluating a plan from every angle, seeing if it held water, if it was too crazy to work. He'd been a part of many too crazy plans that went off without a hitch, and many solid, fool proof plans that fell apart at the last second. No strategy was perfect, if they had a chance, they had to take it.

“Geralt.” Eskel nudged him. “What's going on? What do you hear that I don't?”

With his head down, eyes closed, Geralt looked like he was listening for something. He straightened up. “I have a plan. It's not good.”

“Not good,” Eskel repeated. “Considering I've followed you on bad plans, and dangerous plans, 'not good' sounds like a walk in the park. What are we doing?”

Geralt took a small moment to appreciate Eskel, not as his best friend, or brother in arms, or even his lover, but Eskel himself: all they'd been through together, he stayed at Geralt's side, even when he shouldn't. He supported Geralt, just as Geralt supported him. One day, when they were free of all the nonsense of the Continent, he looked forward to endless days by one another's side, when they didn't have to make these kinds of choices.

“Jaskier's not in a good way right now,” he began. “You saw it, he's tired. Stressed. Distracted.”

Eskel’s lips parted as understanding hit. “And Letho is off duty.” Jaskier ordered the Viper take three days of rest, and they hadn't seen him slither out from whatever hole he hid himself in since. If they were going to do something, now might be their only shot. “What do you want to do?”

And this was the part of the plan Geralt hated. “Check his office. It's the only room we didn't see on the tour . If he's a good little Nilfgaardian noble, he'll have his own agenda, records, maybe communications from other government higher ups. You said he's The Collector? Maybe he has a list of other acquisitions he's looking to find... I don't know what we need to look for, we just fucking need to find something.”

Eskel had been at his side for so long, they were able to follow each other's train of thought almost effortlessly; Geralt had never hated that until this moment. “I distract Jaskier, you get into the office.” They both knew what kind of distraction Eskel had to provide. Jaskier was vulnerable right now, he'd let Eskel into his bedroom any day, today especially.

“Yes. I don't like it, but we have to—”

Eskel waved his concerns away, then stepped in close, his body aligning with Geralt's, one hand dropping down to cup his ass, squeezing playfully. Or what would've been playful if he wasn't planning on fucking Jaskier in a few minutes. “Better get me good and riled up, give me something else to think about when I'm with him.” Truth was, Eskel didn’t need Geralt’s help. The idea of Jaskier relaxing in his rooms, probably a little disheveled, in nothing but a silk robe... no, he definitely did not have trouble. But he wanted to think about Geralt. Whenever too soft fingers slid across his skin and blue eyes filled his mind, chamomile and honey swirling in the air, he wanted it to be Geralt.

While the reminder of what Geralt wanted, needed, Eskel to do for this to work made his heart ache, the smell of Eskel so near, his budding arousal swirled through the air, made Geralt ache in another way. Pulling Eskel flush to him, he claimed his lips with a biting kiss, teeth nipping almost enough to break the skin. Licking inside his mouth, Geralt spread his scent—his claim—all over. So what if Jaskier's human senses were too dull to notice? He'd know, and when Eskel returned to their room, Geralt would make him smell like them all over again.

Lips red and rosy, Geralt placed one last, almost chaste kiss before pulling back. “You go first, as soon as you've got his attention, I'll try to get into the office.”

“Yeah. I'll try to make noise too. In case you need to break something.” The plan set, they headed out into the hall, Geralt sitting in the living area and pretending to read as Eskel turned towards the Viscount's private quarters.

Eskel knew the house pretty well by now, all their planning and observing, he had every guard rotation memorized, every squeaky floorboard. The trip to Jaskier's private rooms... he knew that section of the house a little better than he cared to think about. Walking through the library to the upper salon, he passed the guard near the Viscount's dressing room. He didn't know if it showed the trust Jaskier had in all of them, or if the guards just knew who was fucking the boss, but the man didn't say a word, eyes glancing at him, then looking away as Eskel entered Jaskier's private rooms.

He didn't find a locked door until he reached the bedroom. He knocked softly. “Jaskier, it's Eskel. May I come in?”

“Eskel?” A few muffled footsteps and the door opened a crack. As usual, Jaskier smiled, but it didn't reach his oh so tired eyes this time. His skin wasn't as luminous as usual either, too many sleepless nights worrying about Aiden. “Is anything wrong?”

“No. I thought, with Aiden...” He bit his lip, shifting so Jaskier caught the glimpse of the hard line of his cock through the crack in the door. “The last few days have been stressful. I thought you might need some comfort.”

Jaskier's adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, eyes quickly skating over Eskel. “Yes, well, I—I apologize for my rudeness. Please, come in.” He opened the door wide enough for Eskel to slip inside, then closed it. “Yes, I have been a little concerned. I'm sorry if it's taken my attention away from the rest of you. I'm always here, should you need anything.”

“Do you need anything?” Eskel held his gaze for a beat before moving in close, crowding Jaskier into the door without pinning him. Simply reducing the space between their bodies. He let the man feel the heat of his chest, his cock still alert from Geralt's claiming kiss. “I know how much you want us to be happy here, and while it is a struggle, I appreciate you bringing Aiden for Lambert. He's about as close to a brother as Lambert has, outside of us.”

Jaskier's lips trembled before he bit down on one, trying to pull himself together. He slid a hand down Eskel's firm arm, feeling the muscles there. He did that often, checking to see how well he was doing, but also appreciating that beautiful body. “I do hope Lambert can calm him. All I wish is to take care of you.”

“I understand.” Eskel's hand moved down Jaskier's arm, fingers drawing circles over the back of his hand before trailing across his hips, running down the line of the erection straining fine silk breeches. “Yet I believe, at the moment, you need a little care as well. Unless you'd rather have Grayson?”

He leaned back a little, just a few inches, but it had the desired effect. Jaskier followed him, chasing him and pulling Eskel back in close, their lips almost touching. “No, please, I enjoy your company. Thank you for checking on me...”

“You're very welcome.” They were so close right now, Eskel let his warm breath blow across soft lips for another beat before capturing those same lips, licking insistently until Jaskier's mouth went slack, falling open and letting Eskel in.

While Jaskier was a solidly built man, Eskel was strong now, it was nothing to wrap him up and pull him over to the bed, laying him across the expensive sheets. Kissing down his neck, Eskel opened fussy ties with ease. It struck him, for a moment, that he'd never been the one to undress Jaskier. His first thought when he was alone, before he started falling for this man, was that Jaskier might want to be undressed, to have this Witcher serve him. It didn't feel like a service now.

He kissed over collarbones, from one shoulder to the other before stripping Jaskier's undershirt as well. He pulled back and knelt by the bed, rolling Jaskier's stockings down with great care and slowness, eyes never leaving his flushed face. “Eskel...”

“Shush, let me. Will you let me take care of you for a change?” He kissed the top of a newly bared foot, rubbing his nose through the sparse hair there.

A weight seemed to press down on Jaskier, pinning him to the bed. “Yes. I'd like that, thank you.”

Eskel removed the rest of Jaskier's clothes with the same amount of care, kissing softly as he went. The second his breeches and underthings were on the floor, Eskel stood up, taking in Jaskier's body from this new angle. While he enjoyed taking pleasure, being a lazy fuck as Jaskier did all the work, Eskel did wonder what it would be like to have Jaskier gasping and begging for his cock for a change. No time like the present to find out.

Leaning up on his elbows, Jaskier watched Eskel strip with lidded eyes. All the tension of the last few days was far away at the moment, Eskel the only thing on his mind. His chest had filled out with sword training, pecs rock hard and twitching as he moved. Jaskier licked his lips and let his legs fall open, a small smirk pulling at Eskel's cheek as he reached for the pot of slick on the bedside table.

Jaskier had felt Eskel's heat before, but there was something new about it as he settled between Jaskier's legs, slick fingers sliding up his cleft. “Is this alright?” he murmured. The tips of two fingers rested at Jaskier's hole, teasing and requesting entrance at the same time.

“Yes. Yes, please.” That Jaskier kept the shake out of his voice was a personal triumph, one that he savored as he fell apart under Eskel's fingers. Two together was almost as thick as a normal man's cock and he shuddered to think what might come next. One of the best things about his Witchers, they were all so gifted, so able to satisfy Jaskier, why he hadn't let Eskel satisfy him before was a mystery.

So lost in his thoughts of just how good Eskel felt, he didn't notice a change until something much larger pressed in, the wide head of Eskel's cock spreading him open. “Uh, sweet goddess!”

Eskel let out a louder than usual groan as he sank in. Slow, controlled despite his noises, he gave Jaskier time to adjust, rubbing his hands over the thighs wrapped around him. “You feel... fuck, you feel so good.” The noises Eskel made were divine, much louder than when Jaskier fucked him. He made a mental note to let Eskel treat him more, then promptly forgot all his troubles as his hips rolled, striking Jaskier's prostate dead on and making his whole body shudder.

When Jaskier rescued Grayson from the world, he wasn't starving or injured, he could've stayed on his own for a while longer before the wrong contract came along and finally cut him down. Or a mob. Being the last of his school was only interesting and novel for so long; Bears were solitary, but a solitary existence didn't have to be lonely. Jaskier rescued Grayson from his own loneliness.

Despite his desire for company, Grayson tried to avoid human settlements, they made it too likely he'd meet his end from a mob rather than a creature. But his supplies were low, and he couldn't remember his last hot meal. He ordered stew at the tavern. He didn't care if the cook pissed in it, as long as it was hot. He ached for a pint of ale, but only had enough coin for the meal.

A few of the fairer looking guests caught his eye but he ducked his head anyway. It had been too long since he had a brush to comb his hair, or anything like soap to take care of his beard. He'd never longed for touch so hard in his life, and here he was at his least presentable. Even if he had the coin to pay, no woman would touch him like this, nor should they. There was no point in trying to attract a partner tonight, no matter how much he wanted to.

“May I join you?” a melodious voice asked. Grayson looked up and saw two of the most beautiful eyes he'd ever seen, smiling down at him. Perfect bow lips were soft, his neck long and elegant. The man who stood next to his table was easily the most gorgeous man he'd ever seen.

He ducked his head again, feeling like a mangy beast sat in front of an angel. “Why would you want to waste your time with me?”

“Time spent with one such as you could never be a waste. May I sit?” Grayson nodded and the man floated into the seat, pushing a fresh pint of ale across the table to him. “I don't wish to deceive you, do you see my associate over there?” He inclined his head back over his shoulder and Grayson saw a very unwelcome sight indeed. Another Witcher. A Viper. “I have an offer for you, if you wouldn't mind joining me in my carriage?”

Grayson's eyes moved between the Viper, the ale in front of him, and Jaskier's oh so pretty face. Well, if this was a trap, there were worse ways to go than slaughtered by a Viper while staring at an angel. Grayson downed the pint in a few gulps, savoring it a little, though not as much as he wanted. He set the tankard on the table and nodded to the human. “Lead the way.”

The carriage was ornate and pretty, a pattern of seashells painted on the door and over the curve of the wheel wells. No bars on the windows or the door, not a prison transport, or built for long distances. Despite the Viper trailing in their wake like some sort of man servant, the human opened the door, bowing a little for Grayson to enter. The interior looked plush and soft, the upholstery expensive. At least Grayson might die somewhere nice.

He settled on the bench and the human right across from him, closing the door. The carriage did not start moving. “My name is Jaskier. As you probably noticed from the company I keep, Witchers are an interest of mine. I've read about all the schools, anything I can get my hands on.” His eyes traveled down to the medallion hanging around Grayson's neck. “Bears are so interesting. The dynamic between others from the same school is still a little adversarial. And yet...” His lips turned up into a small smile. “You, Grayson, enjoy the physical company of others quite a lot.”

Grayson grunted, his eyes devouring this Jaskier. The man was doing the same to him, so why not look his fill? It would be a nice fantasy to think on those lips tonight when he was forced to tend to himself. “Any man who doesn't is missing out on the better parts of life.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

Smooth and graceful like a cat, Jaskier went to his knees, resting both hands on Grayson's thighs before slowly moving up towards his belt. Grayson twitched away and Jaskier froze. “No—it's not.” He growled at his inelegant tongue. But Jaskier did not move away, he stayed between Grayson's spread thighs, eyes soft and understanding. “I'm in no good state for that.”

Jaskier's hands were on the move again, pulling his belt open. This time, Grayson did not protest. “We can see to that when we reach my estate. I hope you'll enjoy my bathhouse. For the moment, will you allow me?” Delicate fingers without a single callous rubbed over the already red head of his cock and Grayson tried not to shudder. Wrapping his hand around the edge of the bench, he nodded, watching as those long fingers encircled his sweaty cock, tugging effortlessly, blue eyes locked with his.

He'd be embarrassed at how quickly he spilled, his come staining those wonderful hands, but Grayson was too relaxed to care. Pulling a handkerchief from the inside of his doublet, Jaskier cleaned them both and tucked Grayson away before returning to his side of the carriage. He knocked on the ceiling and it started to move. “As I said, I have an interest in Witchers. I want to see them happy, safe, cared for. If you'd like that from me, we'll head to my estate. If not, I can drop you wherever you need.”

“The Viper.” Grayson didn't bother to learn the names of many other Witchers, even from his own school. The Path was a lonely and deadly place, making friends with the others who walked it made as much sense as getting to know a mayfly. “Do you have an interest in him as well?”

“No. He's more of a business associate. He helps me find others to take into my care. I've never...” his eyes skated down Grayson, his smile returning, a little more hungry, “Enjoyed him like that. I have no desire to.”

The estate was large and sprawling, after showing Grayson his room, Jaskier led him to the bathhouse. “Anything you need, you shall have. I'll take your clothes if you don't mind, deliver you fresh ones.”

Jaskier left him to bathe, his first proper bath in months, and the last one had been lukewarm, nowhere near as hot or as satisfying as this one. Grayson couldn't cut his hair, but a small pair of scissors was perfect for trimming his beard into some semblance of what it used to be. He liked to indulge in a trip to the barber now and again, he wondered if Jaskier might be able to arrange it.

The creeping doubt of where he was sank in for a moment: he knew of Nilfgaardian fetishes for rare creatures, Jaskier's stated interest in Witchers, it wasn't hard to figure out. But the Viper looked clean and healthy. A place to rest and relax was on offer, far from The Path that had given him no comfort in his life. This man, this Jaskier, was offering comfort of all sorts. Grayson had lived long enough, if he was going to die at the hands of some Nilfgaardian collector of things, his skin mounted on a wall like a bear rug, at least he'd die clean and pampered.

Jaskier returned with fresh clothes and demurely turned his back while Grayson dried off and changed. “Your beard looks beautiful. I have some beard oil, if you'd let me apply it for you... And I'll arrange a barber for tomorrow.”

Back in his room, Jaskier leaned in close, running his hand over Grayson's now combed and oiled beard. “Delightful.”

Grabbing his wrist, Grayson pulled Jaskier to his chest. “You offered comfort,” he whispered as his hand explored Jaskier's backside, the man melting into him. “I'd like to take you up on that offer.”

Jaskier's eyes fluttered closed. “Yes, yes...” Their lips met and Grayson surrendered to this new lover, the first permanent one he'd ever have.

Grayson spent the rest of the night covering Jaskier—kissing across creamy skin, nosing at his balls before flipping him over and blanketing over his back, hips thrusting. He put Grayson's stamina to the test, shuddering through orgasm after orgasm, and always letting Grayson go on, giving him more. After a night of slow, reverent fucks, Jaskier lay dozing on his chest, his fingers tangled in Grayson's thick chest hair.

The true scope of things unfolded soon after: Jaskier was a collector, The Collector to his peers, and while he didn't view Grayson and the Viper as his property, that's what they had to look like to keep up appearances. “I can't simply have you in the house without raising a few eyebrows,” Jaskier explained. “Please know, I don't see you like that, you are not an object to me, Gray, you are to be protected.” Grayson didn't care if he was considered property on paper—the conventions of men meant little to him—Jaskier truly cared about his happiness and well-being. And so, he had earned his loyalty.

And when he saw the White Wolf sniffing around Jaskier's office, he didn't stop the low growl that built in his chest. Setting his book aside, he walked over, stopping just out of swinging range. The Wolves seemed to know violence wouldn't get them anywhere, but Grayson wasn't stupid enough to trust a Witcher. “What do you expect to find in there?”

Geralt's hand twitched away from the door. “Nothing. Why do you care? Go back to your reading.”

He growled again, but kept his distance. “Don't give me orders, Wolf. You should show some respect. Jaskier is the only reason you and your pack are alive.”

Geralt's lip twitched, but neither was looking for a fight at the moment, perhaps the next time they shared the training grounds. “I thought he might have a book I was looking for. It's the last in the series, Eskel wanted to read it.” It was a lame excuse at best, and neither of them bought it, but it was enough to allow Geralt to walk away.

Grayson glared at him as he returned to his quarters. He'd have to keep a closer eye on those wolves.

A light dose, Jaskier said he gave Aiden a light dose of the tincture. Enough to make him drowsy. Lambert had seen Aiden drowsy, when they were drunk and swapping stories of their schools, Aiden laughing softly under his breath as his eyes fell shut. Sometimes, his hand might wander over, brushing Lambert's shoulder, petting him a little, or nudging him with his head and purring softly. He just put this up to how School of the Cat showed affection. Lambert jumped in bed with Geralt and Eskel every winter without reservation, Aiden rubbing against him was nothing compared to six legs tangled together.

This was a whole other level. Aiden didn't just rub, as soon as he threw a leg across Lambert (rather possessively) he started to thrust. Rubbing his face against Lambert's neck, he purred, hips moving slowly, the line of his now very hard erection pressed into Lambert's thigh.

Lilvani's tincture encouraged blood flow everywhere, Lambert reminded himself; thinking of dusty potions books was the only way to stop himself from reacting. The increased blood to the muscles made the body warm, relaxed. Aiden was simply reacting to the tincture, there was nothing else happening here. “Mmm, you smell nice.” Another deep, rumbling purr bubbled from Aiden's chest and he nudged his forehead against Lambert's shoulder again, glancing off to the right before laying his cheek on his chest.

Lambert's heart sped up and it took a frighteningly long time to slow it down again. “There's a - a good bathhouse here,” he said when he finally managed to make his brain work again.

“You smell nice,” Aiden said again. With his bound hands around Lambert's neck, Aiden couldn't do much; he still managed to pull Lambert closer, running his nose through his hair and licking the shell of his ear. “Smell real nice.”

“Yeah, well, uh, you don't.” It took a minute to untangle Aiden from around him, his leg heavy enough to pin him to the bed. He had to roll on top of Aiden, heat flooding his face as he did. Feet firmly on the floor again, Lambert took a few deep, slow breaths through his nose, trying to calm the similar heat in his body.

When he had himself together, he walked across the room to the washbasin. Throwing a clean towel over his shoulder, he picked up the empty basin and set it on the floor next to the bed, returning with the pitcher of fresh water. “How about a scrub? We can pretend we found a stream. You like it when I do your back for you.”

Another one of those rolling purrs and Aiden turned to face him, eyes heavy. “I like everything you do. You were so fun, the best laugh.”

“Good to know.”

With a task in front of him—make Aiden smell less like the working docks of Novigrad—Lambert shoved down any thought of what was happening. He and Aiden. It was always good between them, they had fun; fun drinking together, fun hunting together, fun running from towns together when Aiden got too angry over a game of cards. He wasn't serious like Geralt, he was good for a laugh and put up with Lambert's shit better than anyone outside of Eskel. Aiden was important to him, he didn't want to think about it any further than that.

“I’ll clean you up, make you smell nice like me.” Aiden's head lolled for a moment in what looked like a nod, and when Lambert reached to strip his shirt, he didn't stop him.

Okay, strip might be the wrong word. With the slyzard gloves, Lambert had to rip the garment off him, and he didn't even know how to get a fresh one back on, but at least Aiden already smelled a little better, most of the funk coming from his soiled clothes. He dipped the cloth in the clean water and wrung until it wasn't dripping, then pressed it under Aiden's jaw.

Kneeling next to the bed, Lambert carefully cleaned his friend, making sure to wipe away the dried blood from now healed cuts and scrapes. Aiden was like putty in his hands, turning when prompted so Lambert could wash the back of his neck, lifting his arms as best he could. Lambert tried to ignore the purr he got when he passed the cloth across his nipples. When he peered down, the bowl of water was more red than dirty, but Aiden definitely looked better.

Without thinking, Lambert unbuckled Aiden's belt and pulled his raggedy trousers off. He was so focused, so intent on cleaning Aiden up, he forgot, and the half hard cock that sprang up at him almost made him knock over the basin of water. “Uh, give me... give me a second. Need. Need more water.” Turning his back on Aiden, who was now naked, drugged and hard on the bed, Lambert returned the basin to the top of the dresser. Unsure of what to do with the dirty water, he just decided to wet the cloth directly in the pitcher.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, Lambert started wiping at the dirt on Aiden's thighs. “Tell me if you need me to stop,” he said.

The purring was almost constant now. “I never want you to stop.”

Lambert tried for yet another calming breath and ended up shuddering. “Fuck, Aiden...”

Once again, Aiden was perfect. Rolling when Lambert asked so he could reach the back of his legs and... just his back. When Aiden let his knees fall open, sweat beaded on Lambert's forehead, but he thought of Eskel, how he bathed him when Lambert first arrived. Using quick but careful brushes with the cloth, he cleaned the worst of the sweat clinging to Aiden's balls and between his thighs. Lambert reached the end of his tether and threw the cloth away, pushing the pitcher aside as well.

He sat on the floor with his hands pressed into his temples for a moment. And Aiden was still naked on the bed, smiling at him. “Right, clothes.”

Jaskier had a full outfit for him: shirt, tunic, underclothes, stockings and loose trousers. Lambert didn't know how to get a shirt over Aiden's trapped hands and decided to put him in the trousers and call it a night. Wrung out and a little exhausted, Lambert settled on the other side of the bed. “Better?”

Aiden rolled over, plastering himself to Lambert's side, throwing one leg and both his arms across Lambert's chest. “Better. Cleaner. You said bathhouse?”

“Yes, there's a bathhouse. I can take you down there. But you gotta be good, Aiden, no more hurting yourself.”

Aiden made a little noise that sounded like 'mrrp' and snuggled in closer. After so long watching his drugged out face smiley and soppy, Lambert's chest tightened when he saw the first frown lines form across his forehead, the corners of his lips turning down. Hushed scrabbling sounds came from inside the binding gloves as Aiden pushed them into Lambert's stomach. “Aiden, please, don't hurt yourself. I can't get to your hands the way they are.”

“No, not that.” A few more scratches and Aiden relaxed back into Lambert, the heavy gloves still digging in just under his ribs. “Trying to... trying to touch you.”

“T-touch me?”

“Yeah.” Aiden rubbed his face against Lambert's, a few days of stubble scraping against his own beard.

“Go to sleep, Aiden. Tomorrow, we'll talk more.”

Lambert listened as Aiden's breath slowed and evened out. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep but ended up meditating instead. Aiden wasn't starving like he was, did that mean Lambert made an even bigger fuck up than he first imagined? The last week, after slipping, giving Jaskier the name, he consoled himself with stupid thoughts like at least he'll be safer here, but Aiden always did fucking fine on his own. Now Lambert just had to hope Aiden didn't try to kill him when he found out.

The flutter of Aiden's eyelashes against his neck were the only indication he was awake. “Lambert, are we... where are we?”

“Kerack. It's a collection house.”

In the night, Aiden rolled almost completely on top of Lambert, the metal guard on the gloves digging into his skin. Lambert didn't try to push him away, he deserved the pain, living this life of comfort, he almost forgot what pain felt like. He wrapped a hand around the back of Aiden's head and threaded his fingers through oily hair as yesterday slowly came back to him.

Where Lambert expected explosive rage, Aiden merely took a deep, shuddering breath. “Do you know how they found me? I've been careful, use a different alias every season, never stay in cities too long. When I heard you were looking for me, that's when...” Aiden trailed off, his eyes slowly widening. “You weren't looking for me. You've been here.” Calm completely gone, Aiden rolled up to his knees, digging the harsh metal into Lambert's chest. “Did you give them my name?”

“I didn't mean to.” Lambert wanted to sob. He wanted to fall to his knees and beg Aiden's forgiveness, but he couldn't. This was his fault and now Aiden knew. Fuck, he didn't even have a chance to own up to it, Aiden just figured it out. “It slipped out, Aiden, I'm so sorry.”

“Sorry?” Aiden's eyes blazed, mania rising. “Sorry that you fucked us both? Why are you Wolves such idiots?"

Aiden lurched to the side, trying to throw himself off the bed, but Lambert was faster. Grabbing his shoulders, he rolled them over, clamping his arms and legs around Aiden and holding as tight as possible, pushing their chests together. Aiden thrashed wildly for a moment before slowing. His limbs spasmed sporadically, as if resisting the hold of another drug, but Lambert knew it was the weight itself. The pressure of having something firm and warm over him, holding him, cradling him. Aiden hissed in defeat, muscles relaxing. “Bastard.”

Lambert dropped his head onto Aiden's shoulder, holding tighter as the fight bled out of him, the soothing compression relaxing him. Years ago—fucking decades—on a quiet night when they were between contracts, Aiden whispered across the fire. “I know how I get, sometimes. If you ever need to... just, hold me tight. As tight as you can. That'll, uh... it feels nice. Makes me feel safe.”

“Safe,” Lambert responded, eyes half closed as he stared at Aiden through the flickering flames of their campfire. “I'll remember that.”

“It's safe here, Aiden,” Lambert whispered into his ear. He felt more and more tension disappearing from the body under him and it only made him want to hold tighter. “Every bastard in Nilfgaard and their mother wants to kill Witchers. But not him. Jaskier... he doesn't want to hurt us. And you don’t want to hurt him. You’re not a cruel man, Aiden. Neither is he.”

Aiden wanted to fight, he really did, but knew it was pointless. His body was responding to a base instinct provided by his mutagens. He closed his eyes and let the soothing weight of his friend—his best friend—calm his torrent of a mind as it had his body. “What does he want?”

“I'm not really sure. He mostly says he wants us safe and happy. You don't even have to fuck him. I doubt he'd let you get near him now.”

“Good,” Aiden hissed, but there was no fire in it, Lambert's weight on top of him, holding him in, filled his mind with blissful haze. “I want to see him. Hear this from his lips. If I'm going to be kept, I want to know the face of my keeper.”

Lambert paused. “We can ask. I don't know if that's possible... now. You might need to have the gloves on near him.” More scratching noises from inside the gloves. “We’ll work on it, I promise.” Though Aiden was calm beneath him, Lambert did not release his hold. And Aiden didn’t ask him to.

Chapter Text

It took a couple of weeks for Lambert to reason Aiden around. Without the influence of the tincture, Aiden was irritable and standoffish. He paced, sometimes smacked his head hard against walls, despite Lambert imploring him not to. He was a prowling leopard, unhappy with confinement, unable to exercise, and unwilling to trust his keeper. They argued for the first few days on a loop –

“I can’t believe you sold me out.” Aiden would snarl, or some variation. He wasn’t very creative; when Aiden was angry about something, his mind often fixated. It was one of the reasons they got into so many scrapes while out on the Path.

“I – I didn’t think, I’m sorry,” Lambert apologised again, and again, and again. Until eventually Aiden’s words faded into grumbles, and then the grumbles turned into questions about their position. When the food kept coming – wholesome, fresh – and his clothes were replaced – simple, but well-made and definitely on the expensive side – Aiden oscillated between suspicious and begrudgingly accepting.

Lambert couldn’t forget about what it was like to have Aiden against him though. The swell of his cock against his thigh, the ripple of his muscles as Lambert’s hand passed over them. And Aiden hadn’t forgotten either. He sat close to Lambert’s side now, and in the lull of conversation flopped onto Lambert’s shoulder with a deep sigh. “If I have to stay in here, can you get me more of the drugs?”

“You won’t have to stay in here.” Lambert murmured. “You just need to stay calm, and not lose your rag again. He doesn’t want to keep us locked up. That’s not his game.”

“Yeah, as you keep saying. Play the game. Get out. What if I don’t want to play his fucking game?”

“Then you get to stay in here, Aiden,” Lambert sighed. “Just—can you do it for me? I haven’t seen you in fucking years. I want to train with you, and sit with you in a room with fucking windows. I want to drink ale and shoot the shit. You know, like—like old times.”

Aiden sat in silence. Eyes closed, he took a huge hit of Lambert’s scent. A scent that’d soothed him through his rage more times that he could count. “Fine. For you then. First good chance I get, I’m getting my weapons and fucking off out of here. Cats don’t do well in cages. Gilded or not.”

“Can you—uh, can you promise me something else?”

“Depends what the something is.”

“Don’t get yourself hurt, I’d—look, I know you’re already planning how you’re gunna’ get out of here, but I’d—,” Lambert shuffled, fiddled, cleared his throat. “I’d like to spend a few weeks with you. I’ve—umm, I’ve missed you.” After a few centuries, it became easier to let some of the softer parts of yourself show to the people you… to the people you loved, but Lambert was still finicky in guarding the quantity he exposed outside his pack. Perhaps one day Aiden would become part of it and then he could show it all. He really wanted to, but would Aiden accept it?

Aiden sat in silence until Lambert looked up at him expectantly, and then he nodded. “Yeah, sure, I can—I’ve missed you too.”

A few hours later, Jaskier arrived with the key to Aiden’s gloves. He was careful to only touch the parts of Aiden’s wrists that were necessary, and then Letho provided some soapy water for Aiden to wash his skin. Most Cats enjoyed being well-groomed and clean, even if most of the time they had to tolerate looking like mangy curs. Allowing Aiden to finally wash himself, brush his hair, giving him well-made clothes that felt good against his skin; it all went some way to making him more amenable to his stay.

That didn’t stop some ancient, expensive vases meeting their end on his tour though. When the third miraculously fell from its pedestal, Letho squared up to him and issued his warning, “Stop being a prick, or I’ll put the guards and a gag back on.”

“Hiss hiss, snake-boy,” Aiden growled right back. “I know who has control of your fangs. Is he milking your venom too?” He returned with a black eye for that one, but as he closed the door behind him, Aiden could hear Jaskier berating Letho for his slip; don’t hit him, if you have a problem, then we can discuss it.

There was no question as to whether he was enjoying being around Lambert again. In the evenings when he returned to his wolf pile, Aiden could still snuffle around in his weighted blankets – because the damned Viscount knew about that little trick as well – and find his scent there. Falling asleep wrapped in Lambert’s smell was almost as good as falling asleep wrapped in the man himself. Fuck. When had he started pining to this degree? It was this house. When you had nothing else to focus on – contracts, survival, hunting – then of course you would start thinking on other things.

It was this very train of thought that made him realise what was happening. Why Lambert was so relaxed about his oldest brother—the man that he loved and respected—becoming a rich man’s sex toy. They weren’t being physically coerced; everything Jaskier did was geared towards emotional manipulation. Perhaps the wolves were just too exhausted to see it; he wouldn’t be surprised if they’d continued to rely on traditional contracts and turned up here malnourished and half-dead.

Aiden curled up under his weighted blankets scented with the man he—oh fuck, the man he loved, and glared at the wall. He’d make use of the time to be with Lambert, perhaps he might even probe a little deeper at these warm feelings spreading out from his chest. But that wouldn’t be all. Their captor had made the mistake of capturing a Cat; the most emotionally savvy, manipulative and cunning of all Witchers. Aiden would play the game. Oh yes, Master Pankratz. He’d play the game very well indeed.

“Oh, fuck, no, I can’t—ahh, oh my—.”

“It’s alright, Eskel. Just a little longer.”

“I’m gunna—nffhg, ahh, Jaskier, please—.”

Eskel gripped the bedsheets in shaking fists, his hips stuttering into Jaskier’s muscular thighs in an attempt to keep himself under control. The Viscount had been fingering him open for what felt like hours. The slick he was using dribbled down Eskel’s aching balls as three fingers glided slowly in and out of his hole. His thighs were spread wide, one knee tucked a little higher while the other was prevented from doing so by Jaskier’s body. At first, laying across Jaskier’s lap had felt humiliating, but gentle hands kneaded and massaged until he was content and almost purring, then the first finger slipped inside and Eskel was lost. 

He wasn’t sure when this arrangement had started to transition from something he was doing as part of a long play, to something he was actually enjoying. Even the begrudging element to it was beginning to weaken; he walked into the bathhouse without his serpentine escort, looking forward to having his muscles massaged, his scars tended to and found himself wondering for a moment whether Geralt would enjoy being bathed the same way. The Viscount was always tender; he always asked. Gods, and he was one of the prettiest damn men that Eskel’d ever clapped eyes on; with soft lips, a beautiful voice and clever hands. Clever hands that were now torturing him to within an inch of his tolerance.

“Tell me what you want, and I will provide.” Jaskier slid his fingers into the last knuckle again in one fluid motion, tips brushing across the spot that made Eskel tremor against his legs. Edging a Witcher was a special kind of challenge. Teasing them until their bodies were flushed with heat, their cocks twitching, their balls tight… and then easing off to allow them to plateau to just the right level. He’d played the game a couple of times with Grayson, but his Bear much preferred covering him. In more ways than one. His Wolf, however, seemed to quite enjoy being petted and stoked into a fervour.

“Let me,” Eskel growled, fingers clenching tighter. “Let me come. Please.”

“Of course, my darling Wolf,” Jaskier slipped his fingers out until the tips tickled around Eskel’s rim, making his entire body bunch, before pushing inside again. “Though you shan’t be coming on my cock today.”

“Wh—what?” Eskel didn’t mean to sound fucking desperate, but it slipped out. Probably something to do with the fingertips circling around his prostate in wide, slow movements; the pressure was just short of right and it was killing him.

“I interrupted you the other day. And I feel very bad about that indeed. Go and find your White Wolf.” Jaskier purred. Eskel tensed. His prick was so stiff it hurt, his balls were harder than fucking marble and Jaskier was slowly withdrawing his fingers again. This time they didn’t push back in. “Off you go. It’s late. There won’t be many people between here and your room.”

“Jaskier—,” Eskel whispered, his tone strangled; the pat on his backside informed him that his time was now up. His stomach dropped as a horrific thought occurred to him. “Did I do something wrong?” Because if he had, or Grayson had told Jaskier of their failed attempt to access his office a couple of weeks ago, then they were back to square one.

“My beautiful Wolf, you’ve been perfect,” Jaskier stroked a hand through Eskel’s silky mop of hair. “It will please me just as much to know that you’re enjoying time with your pack as with me. Up you get. Quickly. I’m sure they will be quite eager to take care of you.” 

Eskel slipped from Jaskier’s lap and pulled his clothes on with minimal coordination. The Viscount reclined back, and Eskel saw the magnificent curve of his prick emerge through the loose ties of his braies. His hesitation was rewarded with the flutter of fingers, and Eskel reddened, before heading out into the house. Jaskier was right about the staff; Eskel only passed one cluster on his way back to the Witcher’s wing. The room was dimly lit by a handful of candles when he arrived; Lambert must still be with Aiden, because only Geralt lay sprawled out on top of the covers.

“You alright?” Geralt tilted his head, and then the book fell closed when he scented the air. “Fuck— Eskel, are you—?”

“Harder than meteorite-infused steel. I need—, Geralt, please.” Eskel yanked his clothes off, leaving them scattered across the floor as he clambered onto the bed. His knees spread out across the mattress, his chest low and his ass presented.

“He hasn’t—?” It wasn’t accusatory or assessing, but surprised. Shirtless already, Geralt kicked off his braies and trousers before kneeling behind his splayed lover. “You’re already—.”

Geralt,” Eskel shimmied his hips and cast a baleful glance over his shoulder. His ass still prickled with the ghost of Jaskier’s fingers and he needed Geralt inside him. Not to erase the traces of Jaskier on him—in him—but to finish what the teasing little shit had started. “Please.”

The tortured entreaties, the way Eskel’s back arched and bunched, it was enough to stir Geralt to half-hardness. He teased a thumb around Eskel’s puckered hole—wet, relaxed—and bit his lower lip. The oil shined on the back of his balls, up the valley of his cleft; the view was breath-taking, and Geralt teased the blunt head of his cock through it all. Eskel moaned, loud, wanton, and tucked his knees higher to spread his ass further; Geralt couldn’t resist. He pushed inside and Eskel’s body opened effortlessly. “Oh, fuck.” 

Just like he’d wanted for the first time. Smooth and needy. Heavy balls nestled close, and Geralt pressed forward until his groin sat flush to Eskel’s ass and held it there as he savoured the heat of Eskel’s need. The scents of lust and happiness rolled off him in waves and Geralt smiled dreamily at the ceiling as he began to rock his hips. Eskel whimpered, dropping down to his shoulders and slipping a hand between his thighs to pump his cock in time with Geralt’s thrusts. 

The room filled with the concerto of their lovemaking; Eskel’s desperate, eager gasps and Geralt’s low, appreciative moans. He gripped Eskel’s hips and pounded him through his orgasm, earning sobbing cries of pleasure as the muscular body before him shuddered, spine arching. A come-slick hand clasped the back of Geralt’s fingers, encouraging him on with light, insistent tugs. When a second palm appeared and Eskel spread himself open, it lit something feral and bestial in Geralt’s belly and he growled his appreciation. He ground Eskel into the mattress, urged on by more gasping moans, until he forced his lover into another climax, and fell into his own. He squeezed Eskel’s ass as he came, pressing himself into the hilt, and when he drew out he looked down to watch the dribbles of his come fall from the swollen, gaping hole he’d plundered. “Mine.”

Eskel huffed into his forearm, “Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah.”

They folded into the bed, Geralt draped over Eskel’s back as he straightened his legs out and dozed for a few hours in the miasma of their shared euphoria. Occasionally, Geralt stirred to place slow, open-mouthed kisses across the back of Eskel’s shoulders, burying his nose in his mussed black hair. “Was that him?” He asked, finally.

“Mmm.” Eskel answered with a vague affirmative; he knew what Geralt meant.


“Said he felt bad about interrupting last time.”

Geralt’s stomach did a little backflip. Had Eskel just been prepared for him like a gift? Teased open, oiled, and presented gasping, begging. The thought made him tense and he coiled around his lover protectively. 

“Don’t do that, Geralt,” Eskel growled. “I fucking enjoyed it, alright? Maybe my head’s full of wool from nice baths, and good food, and a soft bed, and—just, being with you. But, I enjoyed every second. Fuck, I’d do it again, just don’t make me feel like a cheap whore, alright?”

“Alright, I’m—I didn’t mean to make you feel—,” Geralt wasn’t sure, so he simmered down and pulled Eskel closer instead. Sometimes defaulting back to his old ways—a man of action, not of words—was easier, and Eskel accepted the affection readily. Yet, for some reason, Geralt still felt uneasy. Eskel had enjoyed it, but Geralt was an unwitting accomplice to something—something he didn’t entirely understand. There was no way he could resist Eskel when he was whipped up like that; wet, wanting. Their captor probably knew that already. And that was just the cusp of the discomfort…

Lambert arrived sometime later and flopped down over them to snooze, and the completeness of their pack allowed Geralt to sleep too.

“So, Zerrikanian culture is matriarchal,” Coën stated, his tone thoughtful. He sat in a chair next to Ixora in the solarium, his legs crossed over at the ankle. “Is it true that there are still cults that worship dragons?”

“Tell me, Coën. What is the difference between a religion and a cult, hm?”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean to cause offence, I was just—,” he stuttered through his explanation, saw the small smile curling the edges of her lips, and trailed off, “oh.” She was toying with him. Again. It was slightly frustrating how she continuously made him feel like an idiot but, he mused, he probably did a lot of that himself through feelings of awkwardness.

“In answer to your question, yes. Particularly golden ones. They believe that dragons are the creators, and thus the natural rulers of the world. Zerrikanterment, the original golden dragon, was said to have burned the forests around Zerrikania to create a wasteland, protecting it from invasion from the Nordlings.”

“To be honest, it’s not much weirder than what Melitele worshipers believe,” Coën murmured, rubbing a hand across his stubbled head. “And the tse tse flies?”

“Will lay eggs inside human bodies, living or dead. Their bite can kill a man in moments.”

“Mmm. Think I’ll stick to the Northern Kingdoms.”

She chuckled and Coën damn near had a little heart attack. His chest fluttered and his ears perked, but he tried to play it cool and leaned back in his chair. Ixora lounged, deliberately arching her back to display the swell of her breasts, one leg lifting to flex a muscled thigh. His eyes averted instantly. Just couldn’t catch him out, this noble griffin. “I heard your school has nothing against killing dragons, unlike the others.”

“We tried to adhere to the knightly virtues of the original Order of Witchers,” Coën sighed. “That included killing dragons, rare as they are. Although, now I’m an endangered species myself, I feel bad about it.”

“How did your school fall?”

“A group of mages were angry we wouldn’t share our knowledge. We had thousands of magical tomes, all unique, like the Liber Tenebrarum, so they caused an avalanche. Destroyed Kaer Seren and several Witchers. Without a home, we all just kind of… disappeared. Yours?”

“A combination of idiocy, poor discipline and civil war,” Ixora sighed. “The last time I went home, the fortress hadn’t been visited in years. Not a single track, or imprint.”

“Well,” Coën leaned forward and poured two mugs of crisp, watered down wine; his companion accepted one and he toasted. “Here’s to the most intelligent, disciplined and diplomatic of the Manticores.”

She smirked, accepted the toast with a tilt of the goblet, before downing the drink. This Griffin was starting to grow on her.

Autumn faded into a crisp winter. The snow fell heavily, blanketing the grounds of the estate in a thick layer of untouched white. The fires were always stacked high and the Viscount began to provide them with mulled wine and cider to warm their bellies when they came in from training. Geralt watched as his pack went from strength to strength; their bodies solid, their hearts filled with warmth and laughter. It was difficult to focus on his nagging unease and desire to escape when Eskel constantly wore a huge dopey grin, and even Lambert appeared settled.

The Viscount continued to enjoy Eskel’s company, of course, but Eskel himself didn’t seem to see it as a chore. He enjoyed the books, the poetry, the music, and he even enjoyed the intimacy, even if he wouldn’t openly admit it. Eskel had low confidence—he had since Deidre savaged his face—so to have this beautiful aristocrat doting over him, pleasuring and playing with him, was stoking it high. Geralt wanted to be part of that process, even if that meant compromising with his own boundaries. He wanted Eskel to feel fulfilled, he wanted Lambert to smile, bicker and play with his Cat. And he didn’t want to force them back out into the cold.

Perhaps, perhaps, Geralt could play the game too.

When he was allowed out into the training yard, a blunted sword in his hand, it made it all easier. The challenge of facing other schools—the Bear particularly—and the dull ache of exertion made it far simpler to exorcise his unease and enjoy the simple pleasure of having his family near—happy, well-fed, safe.

Geralt began to see the Viscount less as a jailer, and more a forceful, stern caretaker. 

What was the harm in a few more months?

Winter faded into spring, and the Viscount requested their attendance in the large communal area, including their resident Cat. He’d calmed substantially since his arrival—Lambert’s attention had a lot to do with that—but there was still the odd vase or ornament that earned his ire. Just reminding his host what he thought about his captivity.

“Thank you all for your time,” Jaskier stood before them, Letho at his shoulder. “I’m hosting a ball in a couple of weeks’ time. Such things are a requirement of someone in my position. I regret that some of the individuals in attendance will be quite unsavoury, and I wish to remind you that this is your home. Your comfort comes first. However, I have a request to make.” He glanced down at Letho. “I wish to exhibit your strength and beauty to our visitors. I believe it’ll go a long way in dispelling some of the disrespect you suffer while walking the Path.”

Lambert could feel Aiden riling up at his side and gave him a nudge and a look; pause, deep breath, think it through. Eskel and Geralt exchanged a quick glance, but said nothing, while the remaining three listened passively.

Jaskier continued. “I’ve gone to great lengths to repair your armour and source replacement parts should there be any missing,” he glanced across at the three Wolves. “As there are three of you, I’ve had uniform suits produced should you wish to identify yourself as a pack, but I’ve also repaired your original pieces too. It’s up to you, of course.” He clasped his hands together. “I’ll give you the evening to consider it, if you could let myself or Letho know your answer by the end of tomorrow, then I’d be very appreciative.” And with that, the Viscount excused him with a smile, his loyal Viper striding out at his heel. 

“Think one day he’ll come in here without his escort?” Aiden growled, his fingers twitching. 

“With a Cat in residence, unlikely,” Grayson replied as he walked past, one eyebrow raised. 

“Oh, try me, you’ll make a fantastic rug for my fireplace.” The Cat hissed, but his opposition seemed unimpressed. 

“Aiden,” Lambert smirked. “Calm down, c’mon. I asked him for some dwarven ale from the Mahakham mountains. The good shit.”

“Oh, the good shit? Well, I wouldn’t even entertain the bad shit,” Aiden drawled, only to guffaw when he was snatched into a headlock, knuckles scrubbed into his hair. “Ow, you fuck!” The tussle devolved into a wrestling match on the floor; hands and limbs splaying, with several nipping bites finding their way in without either of them noticing. It was Aiden that ended on top, sitting triumphantly in the centre of Lambert’s back, “Bad Wolf.”

“Dickhead Cat.” 


Eskel rolled his eyes fondly, and then followed Geralt back to their room. “So, thoughts?”

“We should do it,” Geralt pulled his shirt over his head and flopped onto the mattress. “It’ll be an opportunity to overhear conversations, gather information. And you never know, an opportunity to escape might present itself.”

“Hmm,” Eskel lowered slowly onto the bed and rested at Geralt’s side. “Lambert needs more time. So do you.”

“But—,” Geralt opened his mouth to argue and then received a look. This look had clearly been passed down from leader to leader within the School of Wolf, because Geralt felt like he was staring into Vesemir’s face for a moment. Well, until those lips descended over his and he melted beneath them. “Mmm. You make a convincing argument.”

“The Path’s not going anywhere,” Eskel fell onto his back, big arms pulling Geralt on top of him so that they laid chest-to-chest, hearts beating in tandem. “At least here I can look after my family.”

“Eskel—,” Geralt sighed, wanting to offer comfort; reassurance that Eskel had and always would look after them, but his protest was soon consumed by another of those deep kisses. The pot of slick found its way onto the bed and soon Geralt was sliding onto that beautifully sculpted prick, his eyes rolling into the back of his head as he was pulled apart by expert touches; those big hands knew his body better than even he did. It was so easy to fuck like this now; effortless, fucking amazing. They were safe, together, comfortable. Geralt rode his lover with abandon, narrow hips rolling, body sucking greedily in search of its release. “Fuck, Eskel.

“Hmm. Moan for me, White Wolf.”

No expense was spared on the decorations, food or alcohol. The School of Wolf opted to don their own trademark arrangements, and Geralt felt a warm affection welling in his chest when Eskel stepped out into the corridor—red, tasseled and spiky—and Lambert followed—leather, crosshatches and plate. His own ensemble, an adapted version of the school’s most advanced armour. Beige and leather breeches, with a padded gambeson of dark red and blue, white shirt and overlaid chainmail. The rest of the schools had opted for their ‘uniform’; Grayson swept down the corridor with his coat tails billowing; Ixora and Coën looked very regal and—

“Lambert,” Eskel murmured, a smirk unspooling across his face. “Pick your chin off the floor.” Because the youngest wolf was staring at Aiden in all of his finery; the Cat usually had bare arms, which were perfectly fucking amazing to look at, but with the folded collar, studded belts and gloves he just looked—Lambert disappeared into the room to deal with something. Geralt and Eskel left him to it. “We’ll meet you in the main hall, alright?”

The arrival of the Witchers was heralded by a wave of murmurings across the heads of the Nilfgaardian nobility. Hundreds of eyes turned towards them as they descended the stairs into the ballroom. None of them cowered, and this was perhaps unexpected; when Geralt met several stares they averted in surprise. Jaskier, dressed in a forest green doublet edged in gold, with matching britches and soft leather boots, bustled over. “Majestic, beautiful,” his hands swept outward and then clasped over his mouth as he examined each in turn. When he arrived at the Wolves, he frowned. “Did Lambert not feel up to joining?”

“He’ll be along in a moment. Needed to do some readjustments,” Eskel offered a tight smile; he didn’t like being the centre of attention. Not when a number of the guests were unabashedly eyeing the scars on his face.

“Oh, of course. Well, please help yourself to food and all the drinks. Don’t feel you have to converse with anyone if you don’t want to, and if there are any problems, please do come and find me,” Jaskier stepped out of their way with a courtly half bow and a wide sweep of his arm, and the Witchers walked by into the crowd. Nilfgaardian nobility were known for their arrogance; they had been hundreds of years ago, and nothing had changed since then. Geralt and Eskel managed to clear themselves a path with a few pointed glares and a growl or two, but otherwise they had to dodge and weave around grotesquely large hats, bawdy dresses and ceremonial armaments.

Lambert appeared next to them twenty minutes later and neither of them commented on the lingering scent of his lust other than to cast him a quick smirk. The food was as good as they’d grown used to and they were left well enough alone outside of the studious, enthralled looks from the other guests. It looked like they would get out of this unscathed and untroubled. Well, until a late arrival was announced by the herald at the door.

“Lords and ladies, I present Declan Ros aep Maelchlad.” Geralt recognised the name. This man must be a descendant of the commander that attended Ciri’s first arena fight all those years ago, but it wasn’t the man himself that Geralt or the others were interested in. It was the wretched, chained creature he hauled along behind him. 

A Witcher. His clothes were tattered, although from the few markers and a squint at the medallion on his chest, he could be identified as a Cat. His head was shaven, a single scar running down from the corner of his sunken left eye. The dimeritium cuffs securing his wrists before him were linked to a collar at his neck, and the lordling pulled him along with firm, brutal tugs of the chain wrapped around his own fists. The name was on the tip of Geralt’s tongue—a vague memory of a butchered village and a pitchfork—but Aiden filled in the blank for him with a bewildered gasp, “Gaetan.

Before Lambert could grab hold of him, Aiden surged through the room, shoving nobles out of the way as he went. “Gaetan,” he called louder, and the other Cat looked up momentarily, caught sight of Aiden, and then lowered his head in shame. “Gaetan, look at me.” 

Declan Ros sneered. “Do not address what is mine without first addressing me, Witcher.” 

“What’ve you done to him? Why’s he in chains?” Aiden demanded, his heart accelerating in his chest, the rage coiling quickly from the pit of his stomach. Because Gaetan was emaciated; his bright, intelligent eyes were hollow and dead and his skin the colour of ash. There were bruises mottling every limb, despite his accelerated Witcher healing, which meant he’d been abused recently.

“Because he’s a dangerous animal. Perhaps the Viscount could learn from my example,” Declan Ros lowered his hand towards his belt as Aiden let rip a feral snarl, his fists bunching at his sides. He was going to rip this lordling apart with his teeth and his bare hands. And then Jaskier appeared at his side, with Lambert in tow.

“Ahh, your excellency, what a fine specimen you have there.” He turned briefly to Aiden, his voice dropping to a whisper—”go with Lambert, I will try my best to help Gaetan, please protect yourself first”—before gesturing towards the stairs. “As you know, I’m weak when it comes to Witchers. Perhaps we can take a closer look in my office?”

Aiden lurched forward, but Lambert’s arms were around him. “Aiden, please. Let him try,” he whispered. “Think. Think for a fucking second. He hasn’t hurt you, he hasn’t hurt me. He won’t hurt Gaetan.”

The Cat seethed as he watched Declan Ros yank at the chain around Gaetan’s throat and haul him off in Jaskier’s wake. Clearly he’d come to show off part of his own collection and the Viscount had presented him with the ideal opportunity. They disappeared up the stairs to Jaskier’s office and Aiden watched them until they vanished from sight. “What’ve they done to him? Gaetan’s got a tongue sharper than Aen Seidhe steel and an attitude to match. He’s fucking cowering. Won’t even look at me.”

As if out of nowhere, Letho appeared at their shoulder. Not even he was privy to this kind of negotiation. “You really don’t know, do you?” 

“What?” Lambert growled; he had very little patience for the Viper’s riddles and subterfuge.

“About a year ago the Emperor declared open season on Witchers,” his gaze flickered down to the youngest Wolf. “Money rewards for their eyes and their medallions. People were too scared at first, but now that they’ve figured out most of ‘em are half starved and dying, it’s a free for all.” He looked to the stairs again. “They’re still collectors’ items though. Noblemen are offering higher rewards for the whole Witcher. Alive. The rarer the better.”

“Hmm. Only one Manticore, one Viper and one Bear left though, right?”

Letho nodded. “Three Wolves. Few Griffins here and there, and I think there may be a few Bears hidin’ somewhere. Plenty of Cats,” he looked at Aiden. “You’re a pain in the fucking ass to capture though. So you’ve got that going for ya’.” 

“How’s your face?” Aiden raised an eyebrow, but rather than rise to it Letho rolled his eyes and wandered away. The Cat turned his own gaze back to the stairs. “Your Viscount has one chance, then I’m gutting his mate.”

My Viscount?” Lambert raised an eyebrow. 

“Oh yeah, he’d do anything for you, puppy dog. Including capturing a Cat. Haven’t you noticed?”

“I—,” Lambert blinked, and followed Aiden’s eyeline. It hadn’t occurred to him that Jaskier had chosen his specific Cat. Oh, fuck, where’d that possessive pronoun come from? One of the most skilled, ferocious and cunning of his school. Jaskier hadn’t just captured a Cat, he’d captured the Cat.

An hour passed and the guests became a little more friendly with their Witcher entertainment. Most of it involved questions to do with their Schools, the state of the monster population or their mutations. Eskel answered several questions about the scars on his face, which he brushed off with ‘werewolf got a lucky swipe in’, because like fuck was he going to air his dirty laundry. Geralt was more interested in listening to the murmured conversations; the ones that got whispered behind raised hands between sips of expensive wine. “Calling him the usurper… not the rightful Emperor… don’t let anyone hear you say that…visse deien aep Ceas'raet. N'et aen vaerb'tinnea, het aen creasa.”

When Jaskier appeared at the top of the stairs with Declan Ros, Gaetan wasn't with them. The Viscount looked somewhat drawn and disgruntled. When another noble approached him with a beatific, “glòir aen Ker'zaer,” Jaskier simply ushered him away with an impatient flutter of the hand. A snap of the fingers summoned several of the black liveried guards standing around the edge of the hall and he indicated Declan Ros. “Escort this man from my estate.” Declan Ros blustered, but the guards thumped their chest and insisted on the nobleman’s departure by seizing his elbows and hauling him out of the ballroom.

Then Jaskier made a beeline for Aiden, gesturing for him to come to the side of the hall where it was quieter. “My staff have taken Gaetan to the room opposite yours. They report to me that he fell asleep immediately, so he may not be very responsive,” Jaskier’s face was weighed down with sadness. “I’ve removed the collar, the cuffs. He’s—Aiden, I will help all I can.”

Aiden’s hackles rose and he turned his ire towards Declan Ros, who was now disappearing loudly through the doors into the grounds. The mixture of emotion in his chest was difficult to process. Not necessarily unusual for a Cat Witcher; their emotions were generally amplified to the point they become unwieldy. But this was different. Jaskier didn’t have to rescue Gaetan. His proverbial ‘Bingo’ card was full. As a collector, he had his pack of Wolves, he had his Manticore, his Bear, his Griffin and now his Cat. Gaetan wasn’t necessary. And yet… he tried to remind himself that this was Jaskier’s game. This was another… manipulation. But, it—Aiden couldn’t help but think—urgh, for fuck’s sake. “What did he do?”

“We can talk about it la—,” Jaskier stopped abruptly as a commotion to his right drew his attention. Coën was surrounded by three noblemen and looking profoundly uncomfortable.

“I’m really—no, please stop, I don’t—want, I’m not—,” he squirmed, trying to remain polite because it was Coën and polite was his thing. 

“Come on, Witcher. We all know what you’re here for. Stop making a fuss.” A clipped, Nilfgaardian accent chided the Griffin.

Coën’s face contorted in disgust. “No. Don’t touch me,” his fingers twitched towards a Quen shield, but he knew the moment he used a Sign he wrote his own death warrant. “Don’t!”

Something snapped inside Jaskier the moment Coën’s distressed pleas reached his ears. Aiden, who was standing closest, saw it in his face. The calm, polite Viscount evaporated and something entirely more feral replaced him. A dark cloud consumed those bright cornflower blues, and his upper lip twitched into a snarl. Swift strides carried him the short distance to the small group, and he drew a longsword from Letho's chest as he stormed by. Held up against the Viper, the blades looked like daggers, but in Jaskier’s hand it was intimidating enough to send people scurrying out of his path.

He yanked the first nobleman away and arrived in time to see the other’s hand lingering near Coën’s crotch. Because Witchers were less than human, weren’t they? Because if one said no, that could be ignored, couldn’t it? He spun the blade from his side in a downwards arc and severed the offending hand at the wrist. The Nilfgaardian screamed in a mixture of surprise and agony; stumbling back, he knocked drinks out of the hands of one spectator and fell into the arms of another. “Out,” Jaskier seethed it quietly at first, the corner of his eye twitching as he steadied Coën with his free hand. “Letho.” Barked over his shoulder. The Viper appeared at his side as if by magic. “I want these cretins out of my home. All of them. We’re done with hosting for today.”

“Yes, boss.” Letho’s smile revealed every one of his teeth, and he took his longsword from Jaskier’s hand, before flinging an Igni up into the air with the other. “You heard the man. Party’s over!” The Viper clicked his fingers and Jaskier’s staff of guards fell into line at his side; the guests screeched and yelled in alarm as they were herded out of the ballroom into the vestibule. Expensive gowns, foppish hats and flowing cloaks snagging on ornaments and beneath scrambling feet.

The other Witchers looked on in bewilderment. Eskel was the first to snap out of it and approached Coën with his hands up. “Hey, Coën, everything alright?” Because the Griffin looked profoundly disturbed, even though he was trying to school his expression.

“Yes, Eskel. Quite… fine, I’m—,” he turned to Jaskier, his eyes dropping to the blood soaking his right hand, and then the dismembered hand in its own pool on the floor. “This is the second time you have defended by honour.” The Griffin bowed low. “I thank you.” 

Remembering his etiquette, the Viscount returned the bow, and then lifted his clean hand. He didn’t make contact, but hovered it over Coën’s shoulder. “The honour is mine. Now, please, retire to the solarium,” he glanced up as Ixora approached, giving her a subtle nod. She offered her elbow to her knightly Griffin, who accepted with a bashful smile, and they headed towards the stairs. Once they were gone, Jaskier turned to the remainder. “Take as much food as you wish, and drink. However, I would recommend returning to your Wing to rest so that my staff can clean up here. Aiden, I’m sure Gaetan would appreciate some company.”

The Witchers headed back to their rooms, and Jaskier barked orders at his remaining staff to begin cleaning up.

For once, Coën was grateful that Ixora wasn’t a big talker. She sensed his desire to sit quietly and only interrupted his thoughts to ask whether he’d like more wine. They sat side-by-side in the solarium, gazing up at the stars glittering in the satin sky. There was another time when he’d felt like this while looking at the heavens for guidance.

A year and a half ago.

Seeing Gaetan had brought it all crashing down on him again, and then the attempt at abuse by the nobleman just twisted it deeper. Relief. It was almost… bitter in his mouth. To look at another Witcher—another human being—and realise that could’ve been him. Beaten, cowed and abused. Because Jaskier hadn’t found Coën wandering the Northern Kingdoms, hungry but free. Jaskier found Coën at an auction. They’d trapped him in Lyria, with a fake contract. Netted, restrained in dimeritium cuffs and thrown into a reinforced cage, they’d transported him south to Nazair to be auctioned as a slave and a collector’s item.

At the time, he’d seen other Witchers too. A Bear, a couple of Cats, and they’d all been starved, broken. With a heavy heart, he sat in the bottom of his cage, arms and hands bound, mouth gagged, and watched Nilfgaardian nobility bid on his life. Bid on his soul. One voice didn’t relent. It was gentle, melodious, and it kept throwing down higher and higher figures until the gavel fell. 

Coën’s fate was sealed.

He was surprised when another Witcher collected him. The money was thrown at the feet of his slaver, while the Viper took the chains and pulled him towards a carriage…

“Letho, remove those from him, he’s not an animal,” the Viscount stepped down from the carriage, and once the shackles dropped away, he bowed. “Sir Coën, School of Griffin, my name is Jaskier, Viscount de Lettenhove.” 

Instinctively, Coën bowed back. His knightly etiquette ingrained into his very soul. “I’m afraid they stopped knighting Witchers long before I became one, your excellency.” 

“A travesty, truly,” Jaskier stepped back and indicated the carriage. “I have some food and watered down wine. I’m sure you’re hungry. Perhaps you can eat, and we can talk?” It was a question. An offer. Not an order. First the bow, and now the choice. Coën stepped up into the carriage and sat down. The opulence of the velvet cushions and gold fillegry in the engravings made him feel all the more filthy, and he shifted uncomfortably. Jaskier noticed. “Now now, please. You’ve been through a lot. If you’ll hear what I have to say, then there’s a bath and a soft bed at the end of it for you. Please, eat.

“Is it—?”

“It’s not poisoned or tainted,” Jaskier smiled gently. “Now, Coën, you have probably already surmised I’ve not liberated you from that slaver out of charity,” he started, and lifted a hand at the fretful glance he received, “nor have I purchased you to be abused. I have a house, in Kerack, where I intend to keep a small collection of Witchers. Safe, well-fed, and well-cared for. They will want for nothing.”

“And what do you expect in return?”


“And why would someone such as yourself need the loyalty of Witchers, Viscount? I note that you already have a Viper in your employ.”

“Ahh, yes, Letho,” Jaskier smiled. “He’s been with me for some time now, and he can hopefully vouch for my good word. As for loyalty,” he considered the scenery as it flitted by the window outside, “one day I may need you. As a Witcher. I would hope to rely on you when that time comes.”

Coën remembered eating the food in silence. Jaskier allowed him to consider the offer as the carriage rattled across the well-kept roads of Nazair, heading north towards the far less well-maintained paths of the Northern Kingdoms. The choice was to return to the Path, where he would no doubt be enslaved again in time, or to give this Viscount a chance. The respect he’d been afforded thus far—treated like a person, not a creature—swayed it. He arrived at Jaskier’s Collection House in Kerack and was shown his room.

The courtly treatment continued. Jaskier provided clothes, food and as many books as he could wish for. In time, he began training in the grounds of the estate and felt his strength and pride returning. By keeping his word, by treating him fairly and with courtesy, the Viscount earned his desired loyalty. Coën had spent many decades enduring disgust, hatred and belittlement. But now he could hold his head up high again.

And then, a couple of months later, Letho carried a Zerrikanian angel down the corridor in his arms.

He smiled across at Ixora now. A dopey, bashful thing. But instead of raising an eyebrow, she smiled back. It was little, but it was just for him.

Chapter Text

Jaskier hadn't stopped shaking for hours. Though the guests left quickly—with a severed hand in the middle of the dance floor, and blood staining Jaskier's deep green doublet, Geralt wondered why anyone would want to stick around—Jaskier quickly grew frustrated with continued human interaction, shouting at his poor servants more than usual. Humans had caused them all great harm tonight.

Aiden had Gaetan bundled away safely in bed and Lambert fell into a loose guard at the door, pacing back and forth down the corridor. He hadn't even removed his newly repaired armor, Lambert, who was the most impatient to shed the trappings of the Path they all walked was too preoccupied to care about his discomfort, pacing the hall, protecting in what little way he could. Coën and Ixora were still in the solarium, the occasional murmur of voices or tinkling of wine goblets punctuating their shared silence.

Geralt and Eskel weren't concerned with Coën's well-being at the moment, Ixora had him in hand; Geralt turned his ears to Lambert, who was in turn monitoring Aiden and Gaetan. Eskel stood a few paces away, listening to the rest of the house, the servants downstairs cleaning up after the disastrous party—who would imagine the violence at a party full of Witchers would come from a foppish Viscount?—and Letho roaming the corridors as he did. They heard him doing that a lot lately, he didn't like being around Cats, not after Aiden gave him a few new scars on his face and tore a chunk out of his arm. But he was Jaskier's bodyguard, or something like it, he was responsible for guarding Jaskier in some capacity, so now he guarded the halls, making sure no other chaos disturbed the already turbulent night.

Grayson lingered at the door of his room, stripped down to his long, flowing gambeson, his eyes watching Jaskier shake even as he tried to keep his voice calm. No matter where their attention should be, they all ended up watching Jaskier, the always composed Viscount suddenly shattered apart.

The door opened and Aiden appeared. “He's still sleeping,” he assured Jaskier. Though Lambert stood by the door as well, Aiden made sure to close it behind him, barring Jaskier from getting even a glimpse of Gaetan. “I'll use the Lilvani's tincture if he gets restless. Thank you for offering it.”

“Good. Anything you need for him, you shall have. No request is too small, or too large.” Aiden's eyebrow arched and Jaskier's face fell. He held up a hand, trying to stop those thoughts in their tracks. “Before you ask for your freedom, tell me how you're going to get him better out there? How will you care for him? He's in worse shape than anyone, even Ixora, his emotional scars alone—” Jaskier cut himself off, face going somehow paler, the blood splattered across his doublet, neck and chest suddenly that much brighter in contrast. It took a moment for him to regain his composure. “This is the best place for you both right now, I promise. Please, get him well, and then we can... talk about the rest.”

Aiden opened his mouth, but his words stalled for the moment. “How did you... secure him?”

Jaskier closed his eyes and released a shuddering breath.

Earlier in Jaskier's office...

“Would you like a drink?” Jaskier indicated the tumbler of spirit on his desk as Declan Ros entered with his unfortunate companion.

“No, thank you,” the nobleman waved the offer away, and then yanked the chain wrapped around Gaetan’s neck. “I noticed you’ve already acquired yourself a Cat. Quite an unruly specimen. I can give you some tips on how to break and discipline it.”

The Viscount bit down on the snarl of anger that threatened to erupt from his chest, and instead plastered on his most sickly-sweet smile. “Certainly. But I’m rather interested in this Cat. His name’s Gaetan?”

“Yes. Quite the handful. It took a lot to break its spirit and gain its obedience. I ended up having to rip some teeth out to make my point.” Declan Ros took Gaetan’s jaw and dragged him over to Jaskier; a canine and several molars were missing from his mouth. The mutagens in his system had closed the gap, but the scarring was messy.

“And what other injuries do I need to know about? It will affect my offer, you understand. And if I find out after the fact—well, your reputation would certainly suffer.”

“Stay your threats, Pankratz. Its left shoulder has been dislocated several times; it’s just healed from a broken arm, and it has several broken ribs currently. The cur was too slow in obeying a command. Sometimes you have to remind them who holds the chains.”

It took everything Jaskier had not to grab the letter opener on his desk and ram it through Declan Ros’ eye. He couldn’t stop gazing at the Witcher; he was harrowingly thin, his cheeks and eyes sunken with wastage, his body should be wreathed in tight, athletic muscle—Cats were agile, swift and sure—but Jaskier could see the jut of joints and when Gaetan cowed away from his master’s threatening fist, he saw the first vertebrae of his spine at the top of his torn shirt. Whatever Gaetan had been through, whatever horrors he’d suffered, they’d completely destroyed him both physically and mentally.

“This Witcher could be a fine beast, but you’ve reduced him to a spectre,” Jaskier murmured, not bothering to hide the edge in his voice. “I’ll take him off your hands for three hundred Crowns.”

Declan Ros snorted. “That’s insulting. Six hundred.” 

“Perhaps if he were fighting fit like my Cat downstairs, but he’s not. And, as you’ve pointed out, I already have one in my collection. Gaetan would be an extra mouth to feed. It’ll take me months to undo this. Four hundred is as high as I’m willing to go,” Jaskier walked across his safe, twisted the dials, and pulled out a heavy pouch of coins. “You didn’t bring him here to show him off. You came here to rid yourself of him now you’ve had your fill. Take the money.”

“Very well, four hundred Crowns,” Declan Ros sighed and accepted the money placed in his hand; he passed the chains across and turned his back. “I’ll wait outside. We can return to the hall together.” 

As the door clicked shut at Declan Ros’ back, Jaskier turned his eyes to the Witcher before him. Those beautiful amber jewels remained downcast, the pupils no doubt narrowed to slits despite the dim light. “Gaetan, my name’s Jaskier. You’ll be living with me n—,” he trailed off, because the Witcher dropped to his knees at his feet; he tilted his head back and his mouth fell open expectantly.

Jaskier only realised what he was waiting for when those beautiful eyes flickered to the ties of his breeches, battered hands curled into shaking fists, stuttering breaths betraying anxiety. “Oh, dear Melitele. No. Gaetan, that is not—please, stand.” Rather than yank the chains, he reached down to a thin bicep; Gaetan flinched despite the gentle touch. “My staff will take you to your room. They won’t hurt you. They’ll remove these damned chains, and you may sleep for as long as you want. I’ll send Aiden to you.” 

“No,” Gaetan croaked; the first time he’d spoken so far. His throat sounded sandpaper rough. “Please. I beg you… spare me the shame. The Lord says I have a tight hole, you can use me—do anything you want, I won’t make any noise—I, but please don’t let him see me like this again.” 

Jaskier bit the inside of his cheek. Hard. The anger bubbled in the pit of his stomach. “You will need your family around you if you are to heal,” he spoke softly, partly because he was struggling to temper his disquiet, but also because he saw Gaetan flinching every time they conversed earlier. “Come. Let’s get you comfortable.” Jaskier placed the chains in Gaetan’s hands, returning a tiny sliver of his autonomy, and gestured towards the door.

Two guards and one of his servants led Gaetan away towards the Witcher wing. They had strict instructions to only touch him if it was absolutely necessary. Jaskier drew in a long, calming sigh to moderate his temper before he headed back to the ballroom.

“You don't want to know, not right now.”

Aiden prided himself on being a reasonable man, above what his school's mutations did to him. He nodded and started listing requests, necessities for Gaetan's care. “I need fresh water. A basin will do for now, it'll be better if you can bring up a bath tonight. I'll need it in the morning.”


“Send Grayson or Eskel, or even Letho to get it. No servants. No human is to enter this room, not even you.”

“Of course.” Jaskier agreed instantly, the shake in his hands slowly fading away. He was good at taking care of his Witchers, give him a request, even a small one, and he'd do everything in his power to make it happen. He found his strength is such gestures.

“I need the heavy blankets from my room. Lambert—”

“I'll go get them.” Lambert walked across the hall, disappearing into Aiden's room.

As soon as he was gone, eerie yellow-green eyes settled on Jaskier. Of all the variants from the mutations, Aiden's eyes were by far the most intense; even Coën with his sickly blood shot gaze didn't cut such a figure due to his warmer nature. Right now, Aiden's eyes blazed at Jaskier as he stepped closer, crowding him against the wall. “You will not touch him,” he hissed between his teeth.

Jaskier went impossibly paler. “Aiden, I'd rather cut off my own hand than lay a finger on Gaetan. He need not see my face ever, as long as he is comfortable, safe and happy, that is all I require.”

He'd heard Jaskier say the same thing a hundred times over, he “only cared for their safety.” Aiden never believed him, no one wanted something for nothing, especially when they were living in his home, costing him an exorbitant amount of money and now cratering whatever social status he had. He clearly got something from the other Witchers, Grayson and Eskel certainly, and Geralt and Lambert were casting newly soft eyes towards their dear owner. Aiden hadn't examined how he felt about that. Yet completely refusing to even see Gaetan if Aiden requested that of him... for the first time, he began to believe Jaskier's words.

Lambert walked back into the corridor and Aiden stepped back, taking the heavy blankets from him. “Lambert will get you if I need anything tonight. He should sleep until morning, then food.”

“You shall have it,” Jaskier said.

Aiden's gaze flicked away from Jaskier and settled on Lambert, his eyes softening. “See you tomorrow.” He retreated into Gaetan's room and shut the door.

As soon as Aiden was gone, Jaskier collapsed against the wall, held up by shaking legs. “I'm sorry.” Lambert was the only one nearby, all the others lingering down the corridor, but Jaskier seemed to be speaking to the world. “I'm so sorry.” Bloody hands clutched at his face, smearing the drying drops.

Lambert stepped in, pulling Jaskier's hands away before he did something he regretted. He hadn't—he didn't touch Jaskier. Not much. The past winter, there had been a few squeezes on his shoulder as Jaskier complimented Lambert's returning muscles, but Lambert never reached out. Solid wrists suddenly felt bird thin in his hands and Lambert pulled Jaskier to his feet. “You need to clean up.”

“Hmm?” His eyes darted to the clean, gloved hands around his bloody ones and Lambert heard his heart speed up. “Yes, oh yes, don't I look a sight?” The little trill of laughter in Jaskier's voice shook and Lambert sniffed carefully, scenting the slowly growing stink of panic. Did Jaskier not notice the blood? All night? He thought the Viscount was simply focused on containing the aftermath of the shit show downstairs, but if his mind was ignoring it...

Jaskier pulled away and Lambert let him go, the silky fabric of his clothing almost soaked through with cold sweat. “If no one needs me, I believe I will retire.”

They all watched him go, walking down the hall as if drunk, his gait heavy and swaying. When Grayson reached out, Jaskier waved him away, brushing his fingers across the Bear's palm. The stench of fear lingered in the hall for a while after he withdrew, some of it from Gaetan, but most coming from Jaskier.

“I told you,” Grayson's gravely voice murmured. Eskel and Lambert looked up, but Grayson kept his eyes locked with Geralt. “Jaskier is worthy of your respect. The matter of your capture was regrettable, yet you can see his care. He's gone to great personal risk for us, and short of sharing his bed, I don't know what else we all have to offer him. I know I will give what he asks.” With one last, mournful look towards the doorway Jaskier staggered through, Grayson sighed deeply and retreated into his room.

After stripping their armor—Geralt wanted to linger a little longer, he was surprised he missed the feel of the familiar leather against his skin, his armor used to be a sign of toil and pain, but now it was a reminder of days gone by when he was good at something, not just laying around a house all day—Geralt and Eskel walked down to the servant's washroom and retrieved the heavy bath. No one was around but they heard gossiping human voices in the servant's sleeping quarters, going on and on about Master Julian's mania... Now why did Geralt suspect that wouldn't turn out well for any of them?

“Letho,” Eskel grunted when they passed him in the corridor. “Be helpful for once, give us a hand. Gaetan needs to clean up in the morning and he's not well enough to come down to the bathhouse.”

While they expected a response of “I'm no serving wench,” Letho nodded silently and stood next to Eskel, supporting one end of the bath with him, Geralt at the other.

Between the three of them, they managed to make it up easily, bringing the claw foot tub into Gaetan's room. Once they set the heavy tub down, Letho stepped back to the threshold of the door, eyes lingering on the bundle of Gaetan sleeping on the bed. Of all the Witchers he'd dragged into this house—the willing ones, the injured ones, the starved ones, the feral ones—he'd never seen someone as broken as Gaetan, so utterly destroyed. Humans were shits, Witchers were shits, everyone was out for themselves, but for the first time he could remember, Letho felt for this poor Witcher, he wanted to make his abusers pay.

“Is he—” Letho cut himself off. “I'll bring water up in the morning.” He ducked his head and almost ran down the hall, back to stalk the lower corridors once again.

After all he'd been through with Aiden, Geralt never thought he'd see the day where Letho of Gulet showed anything less than open hostility towards a Cat Witcher. He shook himself and offered a similar promise to Aiden, “Let me know if you need anything,” then retreated to their room.

With Eskel wrapped in Geralt's arms, Lambert on watch, and the other Witchers falling into similarly restless sleeps, they all set about forgetting the chaos of earlier. Though Geralt knew they hadn't heard the end of it. How long until Nilfgaard came to inspect the Viscount's collection?

With the violent kitty taking care of the wounded kitty, Letho returned to stalking the halls. Jaskier wasn't in his room, and since it was technically his job to protect the little lordling (protect him, fetch him prizes and map fragments from old ruins, find mangy mutts and bring them home...) he followed the trail of chamomile, honey and blood. The chamomile and honey were familiar, the blood was definitely new.

The trail led to the bathhouse and Letho let himself in. He went most places in the manor without asking permission. He only paused when he saw Jaskier's party clothes in tatters on the warm tiles. Most of the ties and buttons were ripped clean off—too fussy for shaking hands—and the delicate undershirt with most of the blood on it was absolutely shredded.

He looked up to see Jaskier in the center of the hot pool, soapy cloth in hand as he scrubbed at his chest. Tears brimmed in his wide eyes, the rest of his face slack. He didn't speak, just scrubbed at his chest, the skin there turning bright red. Jaskier blinked and started on his arms, rubbing those as well, hard enough to scratch the skin.

Letho took a cautious step towards the pool. “Boss?” Jaskier didn't answer. Didn't even look over at him. “Boss, what's wrong? Can't sleep? Want me to get the kitchen to send something up to your room?” The servants were almost as shocked by tonight's events as the guests were, Letho probably wouldn't be able to convince any of them out of their beds to talk to him. If he had to, he'd make Jaskier some tea himself, probably mix some bourbon in to send the Viscount off to sleep faster.

Jaskier didn't seem to hear him. He had three different blocks of soap sitting on the edge of the pool, and while Jaskier was fond of using multiple scents in one bath, this seemed different. He grabbed the second block in the row and worked up a lather on the cloth, once again attacking his chest before scraping over his arms.

Letho tried one more time. “Boss... Jaskier.” No response. “Fuck.” He turned and left the bathhouse, peering over his shoulder one last time. Jaskier... didn't look well. Letho didn't want to examine when exactly he started to care about the pretty little human, they had a fucking plan, and he needed Jaskier in his right mind if he was going to be any sort of useful. He turned back down the hall and towards the stairs. He just hoped the wolves decided to be helpful.

The pounding fist on their door brought Eskel out of his light doze. Geralt's eyes fluttered open and they both heard Lambert growl from the other end of the hall where he stood guard outside of Gaetan's room. Eyes cast from liquid gold met his. Geralt had just fallen asleep and Eskel was about to join him, with Lambert otherwise occupied, they wanted to take advantage of their alone time, but all Eskel could do was hold Geralt close, the scent of human blood still fresh in their minds.

“Eskel!” Letho growled, banging on the door again. “Oh, shut up, Lambert, get Eskel to come out.”

“I'm going to kill him,” Geralt said as he watched Eskel get out of the bed and pull on a pair of trousers. “I'm actually going to kill him. Tomorrow morning. First light.” Geralt put a pillow over his head, blocking out the light from the hall as Eskel opened the door, and listened to their conversation.

Eskel opened the door just far enough to rest his head against the wood and glare out at Letho. “It's been a shit night. Why are you trying to make it worse?”

Letho licked his lips, his voice suddenly struggling to form words. “Jaskier. It's bad. He's down in the bathhouse. He won't answer me.” For all his bravado and stupid bulk that rivaled Eskel's form, Letho suddenly looked so small. He pressed the heel of a hand against his forehead and shook his head. “I'm not fucking him, that's not why I...”

“Care?” Eskel offered.

Letho growled. “Sure. I fucking care. Whatever. He's a good boss. I don't wanna see him...” Again, words failed. Grinding his teeth together, he slammed his fist against the wall, not hard enough to punch a hole—more property damage was the last thing they needed tonight. “Just help him. That's what you pack animals are good for, right? Helping each other?”

While Eskel was loathe to admit Letho had a point... he did have a point. Jaskier did not seem well when he left, he was still shaking a little, eyes too wild, and the scent of fear and anxiety rolled off him. Jaskier lived in a house full of the world's greatest predators and Eskel had never smelled fear on him, that said a lot. “If he's in any sort of state, fucking him is not going to help.”

“If I needed someone to fuck him, I'd wake the Bear. Go, comfort him or whatever the hell you wolves do. Lick his face, just make him better.” With a final glare that looked a little softer than normal, Letho stalked back down the hall. Even after he was out of sight, Eskel heard a series of doors slam and assumed the Viper was back in his own room. At the other end of the hall, Lambert growled; the noise was probably not helping Gaetan's very delicate condition.

Hanging his head, Eskel went back into the room and picked up a shirt from the floor. It was Geralt's, but it would do for the walk downstairs. “I'm going to go check on him.”

Geralt lifted the pillow off his face and nodded. “Can't have him drown himself in one of the baths.”

“Geralt,” Eskel grumbled. “He doesn't deserve that.” After what he did for Gaetan, after what he did for Coën... Eskel had softened to Jaskier more than he cared to admit and the display tonight seemed to reinforce the idea that there was more to Jaskier than met the eye.

Pushing himself up on his elbows, Geralt let all jest fall from his voice. “I know. Go. Make sure he's... I don't want to see him hurt.”

The words surprised Geralt, but Eskel nodded. “Neither do I.” He crossed the room and snatched a kiss before heading out, through the dark halls, down to where Jaskier was falling apart in the bathhouse.

Eskel passed more guards than usual. He was well aware of the night time staff, not just from Geralt's attempts at reconnaissance, but from his own journeys through the dark to meet with Jaskier, touch him, feel him, fuck him, and now, to comfort him. The guard outside the bathhouse was definitely new. When Jaskier invited Eskel down, it was never guarded, he wanted them alone. He recognized the man, didn't know his name, but the face was familiar, for one, he didn't tense up as soon as he saw a Witcher.

His relaxed posture straightened up as soon as he spotted Eskel. “The Viper, he asked me to wait for you, make sure no one else disturbed Master Julian.” He nodded to Eskel and returned to his regular post at the ballroom courtyard door.

Alone once again, Eskel entered the steamy bathhouse. He was used to the low candles at night, but they'd almost burned themselves completely down. “Jaskier?” He peered through the dark and saw a figure sitting in the hot bath. Eskel stripped his shirt, padding across the tiles and letting his trousers drop as well. “Jaskier.”

Jaskier did not answer him. He sat in the middle of the pool, soapy cloth scrubbing over his hands and arms. Though it was nearly dark, Eskel saw the angry red skin, along with a few scratch marks. “Jaskier, what are you doing?” He climbed into the bath and only then did Jaskier react.

Wide, almost blank eyes settled on him, still rubbing at irritated skin. “Eskel, dear heart, you shouldn't—you need to rest.” His voice had lost the steadiness of earlier, with no one to care for, nothing to focus on, Jaskier started to crumble. “Please, go upstairs, I'm—I'm fine.”

“Jaskier.” Eskel kept his voice low, soothing, as he reached for the cloth, pulling it from Jaskier's hand. He set it on the side of the pool and gathered Jaskier in close. As soon as Jaskier's hands weren't occupied, he started to shake, trembling against Eskel's chest. “Tell me what's going on?”

“H-have to clean up.” His voice finally cracked, tears welling hot and fast, dripping down his cheeks like he'd been waiting hours to break. He probably had. “The blood—I can't, can't have it. Cleaned the ballroom, have to see to the rest of the b-blood.”

Oh so carefully, Eskel lifted one of Jaskier's hands from the water and turned it over, examining it. The skin was almost raw, bright red from the rubbing and the heat of the pool, but Eskel didn't see or smell blood. He performed the same inspection on the other hand, placing them both on his shoulders when he was done. “There's no blood there, I promise you. I'd be able to smell it.” One broad thumb swiped up Jaskier's cheek, wiping away his tears as more started flowing in their place. “You're clean, Jaskier, I promise.”

“There was blood... so much blood.”

He let Eskel thread his fingers through damp hair starting to curl in the steam, let Eskel guide his head to his chest. His body tensed for a moment before releasing, ragged sobs falling from his lips. Eskel held Jaskier close for a long time, letting all the suppressed emotions of the night flow from him. The tile of the bathhouse might echo his sobs, but cradled in Eskel's firm chest, the muscle Jaskier helped him build—though his care, his insistence they get strong again—muffled any sound he made, making sure the guards down the hall couldn't hear their master falling apart.

When Jaskier's tears slowed and stopped, he didn't lift his head, the feel of Eskel's skin under his cheek grounding his mind as it tried to spiral away; he saw blood on his skin, staining his wrists, under his nails, but if Eskel said there was none there... The candles had long burned down, only one or two still going. Eskel could see just fine but Jaskier probably couldn't, he clung to Eskel like life, strong fingers digging into his arms, holding them together. “I am not a violent man. I've never hurt anyone, never—”

“You were protecting Coën.” Eskel wanted to let him get his emotions out—sometimes the only way to stop panic was to go through it—but Jaskier needed to know this. He always said he wanted to protect them, and tonight he proved just that. “He appreciates it, I'm sure.” He dropped his voice and nosed through Jaskier's hair, kissing just above his ear. “I appreciate it.”

“Eskel...” While he was no longer shivering, Jaskier wouldn't let go of him. It was fine, they could linger a bit longer. Eskel rubbed his hands up and down Jaskier's back, comforting, soothing him through the rest of it. With the normally sturdy human suddenly so fragile in his arms, Eskel couldn't help but think of the last time he held Jaskier...

He didn't like taking advantage of Jaskier's trust. It wasn't fucking worth it in the end, Geralt didn't learn a damn thing from the office and all it accomplished was making Eskel's skin squirm for the following week. He swore to himself, one day, when all of this was over and done with, he'd apologize to Jaskier for lying. It was a betrayal, it didn't matter what side of the line of their relationship he looked at—captor and pet, master and Witcher, lover and lover—it wasn't fair, even Geralt admitted that now. He couldn't apologize with his words just yet, so he held Jaskier close until his breathing returned to normal.

“Are you ready to go back upstairs?” he whispered. “The candles are all out.” Though the bathhouse was mostly dark, a few dim lights from the hall illuminated the surfaces of the pools; any other night, Eskel might remark on the magical glow to set the mood before Jaskier fucked him slowly, tenderly... but there was no magic to be found tonight.

“I suppose so.” Jaskier didn't move so Eskel lifted him from the water, carrying him across to the bench with the stack of fresh towels. He dried Jaskier, being careful with the irritated skin of his hands and chest. “Eskel, I don't, I don't want to make you weary of my company, but I don't think... I don't want to be alone tonight.”

“I'll take care of it.” Lambert would be anxious if Eskel didn't return to their bed, he wasn't just guarding the corridor for Aiden and Gaetan, but to keep an eye on his own family. Geralt wouldn't be much calmer. Eskel had an idea though.

Dressing Jaskier in his own loose trousers, he covered himself in a towel and they headed through the halls, back upstairs. Each guard they passed carefully averted his eyes, so, Eskel thought, they're all still loyal...

Up in Jaskier's room, Eskel practically poured him into bed, every muscle in his body limp, exhausted after the emotional toil of the night. “Stay here. Will you be alright for a moment?”

Watery blue eyes peered at him over the blankets tucking Jaskier into the bed. Day after day, Eskel marveled at how very young this man actually was, being a normal royal at the age of thirty was already fraught, but someone with the position Jaskier seemed to have, Eskel couldn't imagine the strain he carried around all the time. And tonight was enough to nearly break him. “Yes, I'll be alright.” Now why wasn't Eskel convinced by that? He tucked the blankets around Jaskier a little tighter, stuffing a few of the pillows in for extra comfort, and headed out.

Eskel never walked through the house this much—upstairs, downstairs, upstairs again, down the hall, to the other wing—it started to wear on him, too much movement after an already exhausting night when all he wanted to do was lay by Geralt's side and forget for a moment, pretend they were back in their bed in Kaer Morhen, the snows of winter swirling past the leaky windows.

When he knocked on Grayson's door, he heard the expected growl, lower, deeper than his own. Bears were like that. He knocked again and the door shot open. Hair a little mussed from sleep, he was naked, not caring to hide himself. A broad, hairy chest and an indecently thick cock met Eskel's eyes and he had to bite his tongue. Fuck, if he wasn't worried about Jaskier, he might draw this out to get a better look at all Grayson seemed to be packing.


The grunted question pulled Eskel's eyes back into his head. “Jaskier's in a bad way.” The angry creases around Grayson's eyes immediately softened and he opened the door a little farther, dropping back and pulling a robe from somewhere. “Can you spend the night with him? I can't, Geralt, he'll worry—”

“I'll take care of it.”

Grayson walked passed the wolf, ignoring him completely, his attention focused on the opposite wing of the house where he heard Jaskier's irregular breath. He barely remembered to tie his robe shut before he passed the night guards, flinging it away as soon as Jaskier's door closed behind him. “Jaskier? Are you alright?”

Covered in blankets in the middle of his bed, Jaskier tried to nod. “Yes, fine.”

Grayson frowned, untucking one side of the covers and sliding in. He found a few pillows shoved close for Jaskier to lean against—clever wolf, he made a mental note to thank Eskel for providing as much comfort as possible—but since he was here now, he moved them all away, pulling Jaskier into his arms. His head rested on Grayson's chest like it had so many times before, ear pressing right over his heart to listen to the steady beating.

He stroked through Jaskier's hair, squeezing him tight for a moment and feeling a release of tension from the surprisingly delicate man in his arms. “You will be now.” Grayson closed his eyes, but did not sleep. He listened to Jaskier's breathing even out in sleep, then extended his senses to the rest of the house. Slowly but surely, all the occupants began to calm, getting much needed rest before the harsh light of morning revealed what troubles they still had to face.

The morning light managed to bring at least a little calm back to the house. The ballroom downstairs was in perfect condition again, not a drop of blood to be found. When Eskel woke and headed out to check on Jaskier, he saw Ixora and Coën leaving the solarium and heading to their own rooms, Ixora looked as passive as ever, but Coën blushed furiously as his door closed behind him.

Before Eskel reached Jaskier's door, he heard Grayson murmur, “He's fine, Wolf, tend to your pack.”

For the next week, life was startlingly normal. Jaskier appeared the following morning, looking rested, rejuvenated and otherwise healthy, like his break down happened two years ago instead of two nights ago. He made contact with Aiden first thing. “How is Gaetan? Eating well? Has he spoken to you? I apologize for being indisposed these last days, please tell me someone has taken care of his meals and other needs?”

“Yes, Letho brought them.” It surprised even Aiden, but each morning, Letho knocked softly on their door and presented a tray of easily digestible food: soft rolls, thick porridge, and some good fruit. “Thank you,” he said as he took the tray, trying not to notice how Letho's eyes snapped to the bed, going less hard for a moment before he retreated again.

Lambert stayed on guard in the hall almost all day, retiring only when Eskel or Geralt came to drag him back. “You'll be able to hear Aiden's cries for help perfectly well from our bed,” Eskel chidded.

When Aiden deemed Gaetan well enough to move, he asked that Jaskier clear out the bathhouse, “No servants, no guards, no other Witchers.” Jaskier agreed easily. Lambert went with them, of course, standing outside the doors, his ears tuned to the movements of the house as much as to Aiden and Gaetan. He didn't listen to the specific soothing words Aiden whispered to his brother in arms—Cats weren't like the School of the Wolf, they didn't comfort each other much, and Lambert definitely saw Aiden stretching himself to make Gaetan feel better—and he heard snatches of, “The baths here are nice. You like coconut, right? I think there's some good coconut soap. Like what Cedric brought us when he did that job for the Redanian merchant. Yeah, here it is, found it.”

He heard them exit the bath and made himself scarce, following them upstairs only when Gaetan was properly dressed. Lambert became Aiden's shadow, protecting him as he in turn protected Gaetan. His devotion definitely did not go unnoticed.

Aiden settled Gaetan back in bed and walked out into the hall, stretching his arms and back. It was a little ritual he performed every day, whenever Gaetan was asleep, he took a moment for himself in the relative solitude of the hall, only Lambert there to see him. And boy, did Lambert see him. The dark circles under Aiden's eyes confirmed what Lambert only supposed: Aiden wasn't sleeping. Maybe not even meditating.

He rose from his crouched position next to the door and laid a hand on Aiden's shoulder. He was never sure the reaction when he touched Aiden, sometimes he shrugged Lambert off, other times he allowed it. He allowed it this time, intense eyes focusing on Lambert. “You need to sleep. Pretty sure you haven't had any rest since...” they didn't mention that night, “for a while. Come on. Bed.” Aiden put up a token resistance before he let Lambert drag him into the room across the hall. “I'll keep my ears out, wake you if he needs anything.”

“He's sleeping now.” Aiden all but collapsed onto the bed with a deep groan, only now realizing he hadn't slept in his own unfairly comfortable bed in too many nights. Squishing in with Gaetan wasn't bad, but Cats needed their own space; he sacrificed his preferences to make sure Gaetan had everything he needed. “He stays asleep pretty well, I'm not sure whether to be happy about that or more worried.”

“Worry later.” Lambert pulled the blanket from the foot of the bed and covered Aiden, making sure he was warm enough before turning and heading towards the door.

A soft voice called him back. “Lambert... I'm, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have punished you like that.” Whenever they spoke this past season, Lambert had the distinct feeling Aiden was simply talking to him because he was there, and there was nothing else to do. Some days, that was more than enough, and on others, Aiden ignored him completely as he combed through the mansion, taking out his fury on Jaskier's collection of antiques.

Aiden held out a hand, his eyes already starting to fall shut. Lambert crossed the room again and laced their fingers together, squeezing. “It's alright. If it was the other way around, I'd probably feel the same.”

Though he was tired, Aiden was still too quick, too strong. He tugged on Lambert's arm, yanking him into the bed. Lambert landed with a yelp, sprawled across Aiden, their chests pressed together. He heard a soft, rumbling purr, then a warm tongue swiped at his ear. “You were a dick, I was a dick, it's better now. Not mad at you anymore.”

Grabby hands started to push and Lambert got back on his feet, a little dizzy from two sudden changes in altitude. “Right, good. I'm glad you're not mad. I'll just be... outside.”

“Mmm...” Aiden was already half asleep when Lambert went back out into the hall, pacing between the bedrooms at the end of the hall, guarding his—for better or for worse—sleeping Cats.

They woke up in the solarium in the morning, sitting on their separate chairs, a respectable amount of space between their totally clothed bodies. Coën stammered out an apology anyway. “Ixora, I didn't mean to... I should have retired to my quarters, given you, uh, the space. My deepest—”

She silenced him with a finger across his lips. “You're fine, Coën, no offense taken.” They returned to their rooms to dress for the day, Ixora smiling at the furious blush on the Griffin's cheeks.

While Ixora did spend a lot of time with Coën—on the training grounds, where he seemed almost giddy every time she handed him his ass in a duel, or side by side in the solarium, discussing a book Coën had just finished—she had her alone time as well. But ever since the party, Ixora stayed with Coën almost all day long; they ate their meals together, they trained together, she even invited him to bathe with her—which he turned down. Whenever she turned towards him, dropping her legs open or lifted her arms to show off her fine muscles, he always glanced away while continuing to chat about whatever their topic was. You wanted me, fellow enchanted creature, come take what I am offering.

But once again, Coën proved to be too noble for his own good. She supposed she could nudge things along a little.

“Coën!” Ixora trilled. She peered through his open door where he was lounging on his bed. He was supposed to be gathering the books he borrowed to return to the library and ended up reading them again instead, there was a passage on flower language he was keen to memorize.

Book forgotten, Coën's eyes locked onto Ixora and he sat up, throwing the book aside. “Yes?”

She smiled softly at him, fluttering her fingers down the hall towards her chamber. “If I might have your assistance, my window seems to be stuck open and the kitchen courtyard below has some foul stench. I'd rather not break it, and I feel your hands might be more delicate. Would you mind trying?”

“Of course!” Coën sprang from the bed, bowing as he passed her, then again as she walked into her room, nodding her permission to enter. “Which window?”

Before Coën realized all of Ixora's windows were tightly shut, the door slammed. Two strong hands grabbed him by the shoulders, throwing him into the wall. Eyes like the sun roved over his face and their hips slotted together. A high pitched cry snuck out of Coën's chest and Ixora laughed, full and rich and as beautiful as she. “Oh, you are an interesting one, my Griffin. So noble, so good, such a fine... man.”

Faster than a pouncing lion, she pulled him again, throwing him on top of her bed and settling across his hips. The first stirrings of a substantial cock pressed up against her even as Coen squeaked again, his hands shaking. She guided them to her hips and started removing her top. “Relax,” she whispered. “I offer you my favor, Coën the Griffin, kindest of knights.”

Coën swallowed thickly and nodded, finally allowing his hands to travel over dark, silky skin. “Thank you, my Manticore, I shall accept it gladly.”

Chapter Text

Gaetan improved slowly. At first he wouldn’t come out of his room; every loud noise or the appearance of a black uniform caused a fear response that sent him scuttling into the corner. Terror hung around him in a sickly haze. Most of his days were spent burrowing under the blankets, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Lordlings lied. This was all an elaborate ruse. The abuse he’d suffered had sent his natural distrust of all into overdrive. 

But as the days went on and he saw neither the hide nor hair of his purchaser, Gaetan began to spend more time outside the blankets. He peered out into the grounds with interest, watching gardeners tend to the colourful array of blooms and the verdant plains of grass stretching out towards the perimeter walls. The origin of his food intrigued him too. Every morning and afternoon, another Witcher delivered it straight to his door; he was the size of a literal mountain, with huge arms and a v-shaped scar on his shaven head, but when he caught sight of Gaetan there was an odd softness to his gaze.

“Aiden,” Gaetan spoke for the first time since his arrival, and the other Cat perked up from the armchair. “Is that - the Witcher that delivers the food - is that Letho of Gulet?”

“Yes, ‘tis,” Aiden left his seat and approached the partially empty bowl; Gaetan had eaten some fruit and bread today. It was an improvement. “Don’t worry though. None of it’s poisoned. If he tries something like that, I’ll cut you a piece of him.”

“No need,” Gaetan murmured, and approached the bowl to collect himself an apple. “Vipers don’t trust easily. Worse than us. He’s the last one, right?”

“Yes,” Aiden, who was both delighted and relieved that Gaetan was talking now, took the apple gently from his hand and used the cheese knife to cut it into slices. The missing teeth made it tough for him to gnaw on larger morsels of food; they were badly healed and sore on occasion. The knife had been provided begrudgingly, and Letho checked the bowl fastidiously each time to make sure it was returned.

“Then maybe the Viscount isn’t like the others,” Gaetan toasted the apple slice when it was passed across to him, and then climbed back onto the bed. “If he can gain the trust of a Viper, then he can’t be all that bad, right?”

“Yeah, maybe. Or he’s got something over Letho keeping him in line.” Aiden smiled tightly, and left Gaetan to settle back down for another nap. He was exhausted. Not thinking straight. Letho could be bought. He’d been bought before, and - yeah, look how that ended for him. 

Two days later, Aiden managed to get Gaetan to venture into the solarium. It was quiet. The wolves were in their room doing wolf things; Grayson was outside training; Ixora and Coën were… elsewhere. The room should be unoccupied. Except they arrived to find Letho sitting in one of the chairs with his eyes closed, face tilted up towards the sun. When he sensed the weight of their gaze he looked around and started to get up. “All yours.” The rule was that he didn’t invade the space of the other Witchers. He could use the facilities as long as they weren’t present.

Gaetan lifted a hand. “No. S’alright, stay. Plenty of room for everyone.” Aiden shrugged when Letho looked across at him, and so the Viper lowered slowly back into his seat. The two Cats found a patch of sunlight near the windows and sprawled out on the thick fur rug. They laid on their front, legs sprawled out, arms curled and tucked beneath their chests as they propped themselves up on their elbows. Letho was reminded of two tabby cats sunning themselves on a garden patio; he tried to engross himself with the book he’d left briefly abandoned, but his gaze kept wandering back to Gaetan.

Why was he so fucking fascinated? If he lied to himself, he could fake ignorance. Just tired. Just lonely. Just normal bullshit. But he knew it was something more. Letho knew what it was like to be beaten and subjugated by Nilfgaard. He knew what it was to have everything ripped away from him, to feel empty and desolate, with nowhere to run and nowhere to turn. His abuse had been different. When Jaskier found him, he—no, not time to dwell on that. Not now. He could see Gaetan’s scars emerging above the collar of his shirt, scars that mirrored Letho’s own, scars that— fuck, focus on the book.

The two Cats spoke quietly between themselves. They focused on safe territory; contracts, the state of the Continent, some Cat in jokes that Letho didn’t really get. However, sometimes they stopped abruptly, and only when Aiden cut off midway through a sentence for the third time did Letho realise what they were fixated on. Every time a bird flew down from the roof of the house to the floor, or a nearby tree, the Cats followed it; their heads turned simultaneously, their ears twitched and their eyes went wider than saucers.

It was fucking brilliant.

A sparrow, a small blue tit, a rather large wood pigeon—he could’ve sworn Gaetan actually licked his lips at that one—all received the same rapt attention. Letho reasoned it had to be a quirk of their mutations. Just like their chosen position in the sun. Just like their hissing and biting. Cats were attracted to small, darting things that they could chase and pounce on. Even more amusing was that they continued to chat moments later as if the conversation hadn’t paused.

Sometimes Letho mused on his own quirks, but there was only one Viper left and it’d been so long he couldn’t really figure out whether they were just his own personality traits or not. The desire to curl tightly around lovers, his enjoyment of basking and his keen sense of smell and taste. Perhaps it was all a bit of both.

He enjoyed another hour or so with the partial company of the cats. Gaetan got up at one point and asked for some of the water at Letho’s elbow— politely, fuck— but otherwise they were content to just laze around. When Grayson and the Wolves appeared, Letho got up to leave. Gaetan tilted his head, “Hey Letho,” he paused long enough for the Viper to look round, “thanks for bringing me food.” 

Letho stood still, dumb with shock, and then slowly the words rose up his throat like syrup clogging a jar. “Yeah, sure. Welcome.” And then he fled—, no, just in a fucking hurry to check on shit. Gratitude for food? Just how badly had he been treated?

Despite his best efforts to focus on Jaskier’s latest task, Letho couldn’t shake the birds. How captivated the two Cats—especially Gaetan—had been. After everything he’d been through, Gaetan deserved a bit of fun, right? And if he liked birds then, well, Letho could… he could sort that. On the third afternoon of being distracted by thoughts of the small, runty Cat, Letho stepped into Jaskier’s office and cleared his throat to gain the Viscount’s attention.

“Ahh, Letho. Bit early for our daily report,” Jaskier smiled; he looked better. His skin had returned to its natural hue, his eyes were bright again, but the dark rings beneath them were still evidence. Not sleeping properly yet. “What can I do for you?”

“I, uh, I’ve come to ask for… some stuff.” Letho scratched his stubbled jaw. He’d asked Jaskier for precisely nothing since his arrival several years ago. Only the tools—weapons, intelligence, space, time—he needed to complete his agreed duties. 

It was no surprise then that Jaskier immediately threw down his quill and sat up. “Go ahead. Tell me what you need.” Years. It had taken years, but Letho was about to ask him for something. Something he wanted. 

“The Cats, they, uh—,” Letho gazed around the room, attention alighting on knick knacks, curiosities and fragments of the ‘old world’ in search of distraction, “they like looking at birds. Watching ‘em hop around and fly. Gaetan, especially. I, uh, need some wood and tools to build a bird bath, some feeders, maybe some boxes on the side of the house. Thought it’d be good to keep them occupied, y’know, out of trouble, not scratchin’ up the place.”

Jaskier sat in silence for a while, eyes soft, smile gentle. Letho disliked Aiden. Quite vehemently. He wouldn’t go out of his way—out of his comfort zone—for him. This was about their newest arrival. Rather than pry, or speculate further, Jaskier simply nodded. “Draw up your plans. Make a list. You’ll have everything you need.”

Letho spent the afternoon sketching out his plans and compiling a list as requested, and passed them across the head of staff by dinner. The supplies were available to him by the end of the following day, and he set to work in the grounds outside the solarium. A simple, wide-basined bird bath, with a number of feeders set up in the proximity to attract their feathered friends to their spa day. Jaskier didn’t keep any housecats on the premises, so the only felines the birds had to worry about were the two watching intently from the solarium. The Viper clambered up the side of the house and affixed several boxes near the gutters and windows to encourage nesting.

It was as he was securing one next to the solarium window that he caught sight of Gaetan. The smaller Cat was sitting on a window ledge, legs crossed, arms folded into his lap as he hunched over. Other than occasionally following the birds already pecking and fluttering at the feeders, Gaetan was watching Letho with interest. When the Viper caught him—looked around, blinking—the Cat smiled and dropped his head a little. What did that mean? Letho offered him a nod. No smile though, he wasn’t sure his mouth could do that, and returned quickly to work.

The next time the Cats interrupted his solarium time, Gaetan sat much closer.

Letho decided he—uh, he quite liked that.

"Was there more of that tincture in my food?" Aiden growled as he stretched out on the bed; he felt comfortable and relaxed after their bath. Gaetan was resting in his room beneath several heavy blankets, and a jug of water nearby, and seemed to be improving quite rapidly with constant rest and food.

"Nah. That's the feeling of knowing you don't have to watch your back while you sleep," Lambert smirked as he threw himself onto the bed at Aiden's side. "And the impact of a good bath. Not like the hot springs at Kaer Morhen, but pretty fucking close."

"Mm. Best thing you get following the caravan is the occasional fresh waterfall," Aiden propped himself on his elbow, head tilted to the palm of his hand. The Wolf looked particularly delectable at the moment. His hair stood on end, stuck out at various angles, his eyes were warm, his skin supple; he was ruffled and bath soft. Aiden's eyes travelled the low line of his shirt from his collarbone and down his chest, then traced the line of his linen breeches. They'd been dancing around each other since Aiden's apology; Lambert used the excuse of guarding them to be near. But that something was there, swelling stronger every time they were close.

With Gaetan now stable and healing, there was nothing else to distract Aiden from his wants; quiescent desires that had existed for centuries but never acted upon. The vague, uncomfortable feeling of being a token of appeasement remained, unsettling and bitter in the pit of his stomach; Jaskier had caught him as his way into Lambert - probably literally - of that Aiden was in no doubt. But if he denied himself something he'd wanted for centuries on account of Jaskier, then the Viscount was still winning in some way. This wasn't part of the game. This was Aiden and Lambert. Irrefutable. Bigger and stronger than any forced captivity. Aiden was determined to remove this piece from the board. "Although, there is another method some use."

"Oh yeah?" Lambert rolled his head to the side across the headboard, smirking.

"Yeah," Aiden pounced; his victim didn't put up much of a fight, his body pliant and relaxed from their extended bathing session as Aiden pulled him further down the bed. He even lifted his arms as Aiden yanked his shirt off, the Cat's fingers tracing the grooves of his defined pecs and abdomen. "Quite involved. Might take me awhile." Aiden straddled his hips, palms planted on his shoulders.

A glimmer of panic passed through Lambert's eyes; not the fear of being hurt, but the fear of advancing their precarious dance to the next level. This delicate balance they had on the edge of a precipice. Neither of them could see the bottom of the void and both were anxious about the impact when they reached the bottom. Would it be a soft landing, or would it shatter them to pieces? Aiden leaned forward, one hand slipping up through Lambert's beard as his lips drew close. Warm breath puffed across flushed skin and time creaked to a halt as sunstone eyes lost themselves in the verdant jewels above. Then they were kissing, the warm heat of it spreading through their chests like the lap of the bathwater they'd left barely half an hour before. Aiden licked into Lambert's mouth, teasing at his tongue to coax it into a languid dance that ended with the gentle nip of teeth. Aiden nudged Lambert's chin and whispered in his ear. "Taste good, baby wolf. Want to taste the rest of you. Get you nice and clean."

Every hair on Lambert's body stood on end in a rush of anticipation. His fingers clenched in the heavy blankets beneath them, and all he could muster was a weak response with a small, incredulous smile. "Already had a bath…"

"You've never had a bath like this." Aiden's voice slid over him like silk and Lambert's eyes closed at the first lap of his tongue up the arch of his throat. A Cat grooming his mate. One sharp canine caught on his Adam’s apple as it bobbed through a gulp, and the predator pinning Lambert to the bed purred briefly in pleasure. 

Oh fuck. Aiden worked lower slowly, taking his time to lap the hollow of Lambert's throat and chase the ridges of his collarbone. He swirled through the dark hair on his chest, and traced the curve of each pectoral to the dip of his armpit after urging his arms out of the way. His nose buried there, scenting pheromones and sweat at their origin, before grazing his teeth across tender skin. Lambert squirmed with a quiet grunt, and Aiden smirked into the flurry of goosebumps beneath his lips. “Ticklish?”

“Witchers aren’t ticklish,” Lambert grated, only to be proved wrong when blunt teeth nipped and grazed again in the same spot. “Fuck.” By the time Aiden reached them, Lambert's nipples were already hardened peaks, and he sucked one into his mouth. "Nngh, Aiden." Lambert arched a little off the bed, muscles bunching as sparks of pleasure skittered out across his skin. The only response was a deep, penetrating purr, like someone rolling a heavy marble over a wooden desk. 

Aiden worked his way across each bicep in small, tender licks, nosed his way down the underside of each wrist and kissed the fluttering pulse he found there. The Cat spread his legs a little wider to drop the bulge of his stiffening cock against the impressive swell inside Lambert's breeches. The smallest bit of friction earning a quiet, needy whimper from his lover below. Oh, shit, lover. Yeah, because Aiden wanted to make love to this snarky, irritating, disgustingly handsome, loving - fuck, more.  

"Patience.” Aiden husked, partly to himself as well as the man squirming below him, because he didn’t want to rush this. Not even after a hundred years or more of waiting. He shifted lower. His face hovered over his abdomen, nose pressed in the groove of his breastbone as his tongue slipped past his lips to taste Lambert’s skin once more. Lower, lower still, he left a trail of nips and kisses until he reached the waistband of the wolf’s trousers. He took the end of the ties in his teeth, eyes rolling up to meet the two wide eyes gazing down at him. With a light tug he undid the first knot, hands kneading desperately in the blankets either side of Lambert’s hips.



“You gunna’ fucking tease me all night?”

“Dunno,” Aiden pulled another tie, Lambert’s cock pushing free of its confines to brush past his lips. “Haven’t decided yet.”

“Shoulda’ known you’d - mmm.” Lambert stifled his moan as Aiden’s tongue licked over his groin, a bristled chin settled against his thickening shaft. He lifted his hips off the bed as Aiden pawed his breeches down his legs until Lambert could kick them off the rest of the way. Reverent hands stroked up his thighs, a broad chest settled between his knees, and that hot tongue was back, slurping over his balls. Aiden paused with their weight in his mouth, eyes flickering in pleasure as he suckled gently on one, urged on by a low groan of appreciation. 

He continued at his own leisurely pace until Lambert began to shake and pant. Long tongue leaving strips of moisture up his swollen shaft; tracing the uneven lines of thick veins, dipping back to swirl across his balls and slurping down the crease of his thighs; he urged Lambert’s legs further apart and pushed them back so that he could suck and lick down the length of his perineum, managing a few teasing flicks at Lambert's hole. “Taste so good, Wolf.”

“Aiden—,” Lambert wasn’t sure what he wanted—no, fuck it, he was. He wanted the weight of the cock he’d felt moments earlier against his again. Grabby hands left the blankets in favour of snatching Aiden by the shirt and hauling him up for another kiss, “trousers, off.” Slurred against damp lips, he kept a secure hold on his Cat so that he had to squirm and twist until he was naked from the waist down. Legs still splayed either side of Lambert’s thighs, Aiden slotted their cocks together, weight pressed down on the heels of his hands as he licked into Lambert’s mouth.

Their movements were slow and tentative at first; savouring the first few brushes of hot, velvety skin sliding together. The slick of saliva eased the friction and Aiden sighed in bliss against the arch of Lambert’s throat. “Mm. Feels so good. With you.”

“Yeah, fuck —ahh,” Lambert nuzzled into Aiden’s hair and breathed him in until his chest burned; his hips bucked up to meet each slow, deliberate thrust, hands slipping down to guide Aiden a little faster, a little harder. His Cat was not a quiet lover; his groans of pleasure stirred something feral and possessive in Lambert’s chest and he nipped and bit at the elegant curve of an exposed throat. After being teased so skilfully, Lambert came first, gasping into the soft skin beneath Aiden’s ear when he buried his nose away. Rather than ease up, Aiden ground harder; moans became ecstatic growls and Lambert whimpered in desperate pleasure as his oversensitive cock slid between them, and then snatched Aiden’s hips when he finally peaked with a very loud moan. 

“Oh, fuck,” Aiden flopped onto Lambert’s chest, pressing his face into the bristles of Lambert’s beard. “Why—haven’t we done that before?”

“Dunno,” Lambert mumbled. He slid his hand through Aiden’s mane of hair and pulled his head up. “Oh yeah, you kept running away from me.”

“I di—,” Aiden began with indignation, but it petered out; it was easier to accept hard truths when his body and mind were floating on a post orgasm cloud. “Yeah,” he sighed, “yeah, I did.”

“Why?” Lambert wrapped his other arm around Aiden’s chest, keeping him bound tightly. “Why did you run?”

“I just—after this bullshit,” he gestured towards his eye with a vague flutter of the hand, and then relaxed onto Lambert’s chest. There was no point in trying to curl in on himself. Post-sex heart-to-hearts weren’t usually his jam, but Lambert deserved this. And then some. “I didn’t think you’d—, you know, be interested. And you should never put your dick in crazy, and I’m a Cat so…”

Aiden.” Lambert growled, curling him tighter. “You’re a prick for making that choice without me. But I fucking—,” he ground his teeth, “I fuckin’ love you, alright? I have for… ages.”

“You love me?” Aiden did wiggle free now, their hips still flush, but his hands planted on Lambert’s chest. “Are you—is that—?” 

“The shit we’ve done together, what we’ve been through,” Lambert stroked gently circles on the backs of Aiden’s hands with his fingertips. “You used to be the only good thing in my life. And now I’ve got you back, you still are.”

There were many downsides to having rampant, unchecked emotions; the rages, the depressive episodes, the reputation. And Aiden discovered yet another. Cats started to blubber at declarations of love. Well, this one did. He drew in a quaking breath, lower lip quivering, vision blurring. “Well then—,” his voice broke, “‘spose that’s—yeah, okay.”

“You alright?”

“Of course I fucking am, don’t I look fine?” Aiden bristled, and then flopped. “I love you too.” Mewled— squeaked —like a tentative offering to a deity. Lambert held his usually suave, verbose Cat until he stopped shaking with the shock of it and, once he was recovered, flipped him onto his back to explore every inch of athletic muscle he could get his mouth on.

Geralt could feel it. The overwhelming sense of comfort and contentment in the eyes of his pack. Eskel had a permanent little smile; his body was firm, his eyes bright. Lambert too was back to peak condition and the permanent frown of malaise he’d worn when Geralt arrived had vanished. The youngest wolf made no secret of his burgeoning love affair with the resident top Cat, and they spent evenings basking in the solarium, sprawled across each other’s lap exchanging nips and kisses, before retiring to Aiden’s room. Lambert still spent time with Eskel and Geralt, keen to squirm and writhe between them. Aiden knew that was part of the deal. Gods forbid he try to break up the wolves of Kaer Morhen.

And that was half the problem, wasn’t it? Geralt realised one evening when the Viscount visited them; Eskel accepted an affectionate stroke to the jaw and Lambert regarded their keeper with a far softer gaze than he had before. One could almost call it… interest. Speculative, at the moment, but Geralt could read Lambert like a book after all these years. The youngest amongst them was clearly curious. Fuck. 

If Geralt wasn’t careful, they were going to melt into their new role of lap dogs, leaving him howling in the wind. This discomfiture manifested itself in a renewed desire to find information. The Viscount left one afternoon to conduct some business in town, leaving Letho and a retinue of guards to watch over his menagerie.  He encountered a surprise accomplice just outside the door of Jaskier’s office.

“Aiden,” Geralt murmured, voice low.

“Geralt, what a surprise,” the Cat replied, hinting that it wasn't a surprise at all. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”

“We don’t know each other very well.” Geralt lifted a hand to test the door handle, expecting it to be locked—he could already see Aiden pulling out a few bent pieces of metal he clearly intended to use—but the door swung open. “What—?”

“Easy, wolf. Lemme just check.” Aiden peeked around the frame, squinted into the dim light, seeking out traps and tripwires. Mainly because he was paranoid (Cat, dear reader), but found nothing as expected. “All clear.”

They slipped silently into the office and closed the door behind them to avoid any prying eyes. Jaskier was meticulously tidy. Geralt knew this from observing the Viscount go about his daily business. So he didn’t expect to find anything on his desk. He checked it anyway, and blinked at the cluster of papers. While he leafed through them, Aiden inspected the bookshelves, running his hands over ledges and tugging out books, clearly seeking a secret switch or safe. Nothing obvious, or within reach.

“None of these are addressed to him,” Geralt glanced up as the Cat walked over and offered out the letters. “Talking about a purge on Witchers, securing the current Emperor on the throne, arranged marriages.”

Aiden squinted at the top dispatch concerning the open season on Witchers. “This is dated over a year ago. Nearly two. Why would he have been looking at it before he left?”

“Hmm,” Geralt turned back to the desk and unrolled the huge scroll that sat near the centre. Using a letter opener and a paperweight, he kept it stretched open so that he coil scrutinise the contents. It was a vast family tree. The Nilfgaardian imperial coat of arms was carefully painted at the top and Geralt followed the lines until he found a familiar name. Emhyr. He followed the late Emperor’s line to Ciri and was surprised to find himself branching off from it.

Aiden smirked. “Doesn’t that line mean you were married to Emhyr?”

“I don’t think the practice of family trees takes the Law of Surprise into account.” Geralt didn’t bother rising to the jibe and instead continued down the line. After the first twenty years of her rule, Geralt was— frozen out seemed a bit too harsh a term. They lost contact. She was busy. Initially, she wrote to him as much as she could, sending crows and dispatches to Kaer Morhen, then matters of state had swallowed up her time. In their last communication, she said she’d fallen ill. Geralt mourned her—thought about her all the time—but he needed to continue moving. Everything ended.

“What can you see?”

“Someone’s changed this family tree,” Geralt glanced up, and then tapped an area of the tree with faded ink and scratches. “They haven’t even done it very well.”

“Geralt,” Aiden shifted uncomfortably. “This feels too easy.”

“What do you mean?”

“As a connoisseur of all things shady,” the Cat glanced towards the door, and then the window. “Unlocked door. Papers just left out on the desk. He wanted us to see this. This is another manipulation.”

Aiden wasn’t wrong. The unsettled feeling in the pit of Geralt’s stomach intensified, and he motioned silently for the door. Once they were through the library and back into the solarium, Geralt paused. “Game’s bigger than I thought.”

“More than just a collector with a Witcher fetish,” Aiden growled. “Eskel know much?”

“Eskel started off putting himself between us and him, but now I think Lambert’s—”

“Interested.” Aiden said it bluntly, his eyes downcast.

“Yeah. We do everything as a pack. Everything. Maybe he’s grateful for you, maybe—.”

“No. Don’t—don’t cheapen what we—just don’t.” Aiden waved him away. “Seems like you’re the only member of the pack not on the inside track."

"Oh yeah? And what did you get out of it?" Fuck, he was right. Didn't mean Geralt was going to give it to him.

"The office?" Aiden raised a brow. "In my experience, this," he waved his hands in the air around him, "is too good to be true. And he's too fucking good at what he's doing. It's too planned. There's more bullshit going on here than rich man's collection of fuck toys."

"Hmm." Geralt rubbed his chin. Couldn't argue with that.

"Catch you later, Geralt.” Aiden flicked his hand, and headed off to check on Gaetan.

Geralt couldn’t deny his attitude to Jaskier had softened. Eskel and Lambert were happy and safe, the Viscount had proved that he genuinely did have their comfort and safety at the very centre of everything he did. Someone who viewed them simply as possessions wouldn’t cut the hand off one of his peers for touching Coën. They were more valuable to him than his ornaments and tapestries. But Geralt couldn’t help but feel like he was still on the outside of what was going on. The dispatches, the family tree, Jaskier wanted him to find them. He wasn’t even discreet about it. Did he think he had that much power? That much control? Did he think Geralt was dense?

He was tired of this feeling of helplessness. Of feeling like he was driftwood being tugged along by a current he couldn’t control. There had to be a way to gain some agency back. To feel like he was in control again. He couldn’t do that on the outside though. Jaskier had Eskel. Jaskier was tightening his grip on Lambert. And, if Geralt truly reflected on his own feelings outside of the frustrated helplessness, it was only a matter of time before Jaskier had him too. The Viscount held an irresistible draw. His mannerisms, his motivations, his offers of comfort and happiness, his scent. The scent that mixed with Eskel’s and stirred a hunger deep inside every time Geralt caught a whiff of it.

The White Wolf stewed for the rest of the day and well into the evening. Only Eskel’s kisses, placed gently in an uneven path across his shoulders, lured him out of his head. He rolled over to gaze into those deep amber eyes and rested their foreheads together. Eskel had been doing this on his own for too long. They did everything as a pack from here on out. 

Jaskier arrived back from the auction empty-handed. His intelligence read ‘Griffin’, but there was no Witcher there when he arrived. Some very sorry looking fae, a dryad or two, but no Witcher. Perhaps Coën was the last of his school. A sad thought. The Viscount stepped into his office and immediately walked across his desk. The papers had been disturbed. Hmm. Which Wolf was it? Or perhaps his Cat? He tidied the dispatches and family tree away into their cabinet.

“Welcome back,” said a low voice from the library door. 

Jaskier turned slowly and smiled. “Ahh, Geralt. I hope you’re well. How can I help?”

The White Wolf stepped into the room, and then closed the door behind him. Jaskier reminded himself that Witchers could smell fear and inhaled a deep breath. None of his Witchers would hurt him. They were all too intelligent for that. That didn’t mean his heart didn’t tremor a little in his chest as his silver-maned beauty stalked towards him across the room. “I know you planted the dispatches.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, dear heart.”

Geralt drew closer. They were barely a metre apart now. “Don’t lie. I can smell a lie.”

“Now, that’s patently untrue. Witchers can smell many things, but—.”

“Accelerated heartbeat, expanding pupils, small whiff of stress hormones,” Geralt stepped closer still, crowding into Jaskier’s space. To his credit, the Viscount didn’t back down. “A lie.”

“Hmm,” Jaskier leaned back on the edge of his desk, the heels of his hands planted either side of his rear. “And what do you make of my lie, Geralt of Rivia?”

“No one’s called me that in a long time,” the Witcher growled. “Don’t think Rivia still exists.”

“Oh it does,” Jaskier tilted his head. “You earned that honorific fighting Nilfgaard. You should shout it proudly.”

“Hmm, is that treason?”

“No, that’s conjecture.”

“Sounds like treason to me.” 

Jaskier sighed. “Geralt, there is something you want. I know you’re not one for small talk. Please. Go ahead. Ask.”

“It doesn’t happen anymore,” Geralt bit it out, golden eyes set upon cornflower blues.

“What doesn’t?”

“You and Eskel. On your own.”

Jaskier raised a brow. “Have you spoken to Eskel about this?”

“No, I—,” Geralt took pause. Jaskier was good at things like this. He could easily talk Geralt right out of his office door and back into the communal area, and Geralt wouldn’t even realise until he was sitting in Eskel’s lap in search of affection. Jaskier smelled good this close. Chamomile and honey. The scents associated with Eskel, soft and relaxed, beneath him. “We do things as a pack. Together. We always used to mostly, but since Vesemir died it—it became more important.”

“I see. And when you say everything, you of course mean the time that Eskel and I spend together,” Jaskier schooled his face carefully; he didn’t want Geralt to think him insincere, or gloating, but there was an undeniable flush of excitement in his chest at the thought that his pack of wolves might be slowly coming to his side. “You wish to do that as a pack too?”

“Not—,” Geralt grit his teeth. “Not Lambert.”

“I’m aware you’re protective, but making his decisions for him is perhaps not a fair course of action.” Because Jaskier had noticed Lambert’s glances too; the gentle way he’d touched Jaskier’s hands when they were covered in blood, the nods, the smiles. The youngest wolf was opening up now that he was happy, comfortable, and accompanied by his Cat; now that he’d scented Jaskier on Eskel and begun to associate that with contentment and pleasure. “And he is a member of your pack.”

“Don’t rush things.” Geralt growled. “We—I need to be sure I can trust you with—with him.” The Viscount had done precisely nothing to hurt them physically, and Eskel was always very satisfied—and Geralt took his lead from Eskel in everything—but there was something about Lambert, their youngest, that still set Geralt’s protective streak alight. There was one small hurdle to overcome. He needed to see for himself. See that it wouldn’t— fuck, he wasn’t even sure. Jaskier’s lips were soft and pink, and he smelled really fucking good. Geralt could imagine those slender hands on Eskel’s body, playing him expertly until he made the most beautiful sounds. He saw the outcome—Eskel panting, begging, wanting—and now he desperately wanted to see the process.

Jaskier tilted his head the other way, examining Geralt closely. “I’m not in the habit of taking lovers that are disgusted by me, nor ones that are unwilling.”

And then Geralt was there. In his space. One knee slid between his slightly parted legs, their chests pressed together, and Jaskier could practically taste Geralt’s lips against his. Those golden eyes were wide; the pupils dilated. Geralt liked what he saw. “Do I look disgusted?”

Jaskier lifted a palm and rested it gently against Geralt’s chest, easing him back just a touch, before Jaskier stroked delicate fingers down his jaw. Those eyes were accompanied by parted lips; he drew a thumb across one. Slightly chapped, not as plump as Eskel’s and unmarred by the uniqueness of his scarring, but still just as beautiful. Just as perfect. “No, you do not. You look like you might want a kiss, White Wolf? Am I correct?”

“You seem to have all the answers. You tell me.”

“Oh,” Jaskier smiled, fingertips sliding back up the line of Geralt’s jaw. “And here I was thinking Lambert was the sassy one.”

Geralt growled and closed the gap. He tasted those rosebud lips, his tongue sweeping between them unabashedly, hands taking Jaskier’s waist to keep him still. It was good as he expected it to be, and even if his own grip was harsher, Jaskier cupped his face with gentle regard and toyed with a few strands of his hair. And then he pushed Geralt away with a light palm on his chest. “I’m an open man, Geralt. I make no secret of that. But, talk to Eskel. Now, I need to get to work. Have a good rest of the day.”

And just like that, Geralt was dismissed. Like an errant trainee from the instructor’s office. Why did he feel like he was still two steps behind?

Chapter Text

The School of the Griffin's teachings were a bit old fashioned, even they were aware of that fact. Not their fighting techniques, those were all as up to date as possible, tweaked to counter whatever beasts they might come across on the Path, but their social etiquette was practically a relic. Yet, they were still proud of it: “We are the direct link to the Order of Witchers,” he heard shouted over their heads as they trained in the rain, mud and blood streaming over their bodies, “We were cast as nigh immortal knights, we do not shrink from our honor!”

Coën lost his honor a few times over, first when he was captured on that false contract, then when he was clapped in chains, and finally when the gavel fell on his life, reducing him to a mere possession. Then, like a bolt from the blue dressed in silk, Jaskier handed Coën his honor back. It was one of two gifts Jaskier gave him: a life of comfort, free of scorn and danger, and now, a life of love with Ixora.

“Is there anything else you wish of me?” Coën asked. Ixora, his angel, lounged at his side, her fingers absently trailing up and down his chest, occasionally stroking lower, stirring his loins to life once again before drifting away, smiling softly at her teasing. He'd let her tease all she liked, his body was open to her as she wished, he already had a few bright love bites decorating his shoulders and one on his hip. “Anything you desire, you shall have it.” He kissed the top of her head and breathed in the hot scents that clung to her skin—sand and heat, like the desert itself made a home in her body—all she had to do was ask, and Coën would move the world to make it so.

Usually, Ixora sighed and said “I require nothing more than what you've already given me.” But today, she said: “Well, there is a ritual I'd like to perform.”

While some might see “ritual” as a course, peasant word, Coën knew the versatility of it. He went through a ritual each morning, rising with the sun and stretching, readying his body for the day ahead; he ritually oiled his swords (or, used to) before a contract, whispering to his silver and steel his hopes they might protect him if his strength proved worthy enough for them. And of course, he had his courting rituals, which secured him Ixora's companionship and hopefully, her love. It seemed only natural the Manticore had her own rituals to tend to with their new status.

“Yes, I will help with your ritual, if that's alright?”

A small smile curved her lips, her fingers circling his left nipple. “You will be most integral.”

And that was how Coën came to stand in front of Jaskier, requesting his... help.

The others were out and about around the house and grounds. School of the Wolf was making use of the training yard, sparring with Grayson and Ixora, and he passed Letho sitting in the library, his eyes on the Cats sunning themselves in the solarium (he did that a lot lately) with the exception of a few mortal heart beats, there were no ears in the Viscount's wing to overhear his request.

Coën knocked on the door to the grey drawing room “Come in!” Jaskier's voice trilled. Coën entered and shut the door tight behind him. “One moment, please.” Jaskier's eyes quickened across the page of his book, devouring the last few words before placing the bookmark and giving his full attention to his guest. “Hello, Coën, my apologies, I wanted to finish the paragraph. What can I do for you?”

And here, Coën's words faltered. He planned out what he wanted to say, went over it in his head for an hour before seeking out Jaskier, and now... it all sounded so painfully awkward. He had to do it, for his lady love, she requested it of him, Coën simply didn't consider having to look Jaskier in the eyes when he asked. He swallowed, trying to build up his courage again. “Ixora has a... request. I need your help fulfilling it.”

Jaskier smiled, turning on his chair and standing. “Of course, whatever you need. I am so pleased Ixora has accepted your courtship and I wish you both nothing but happiness, any way I can help in that happiness, please, let me know.”

“Well. Yes.” Coën cleared his throat as if that might summon the words. “Ixora doesn't remember much from her time with her clan before becoming a Witcher, but she says most clans have rituals to signal the end of a courtship, as it moves to... the next stage.” Marriage for anyone else, but probably prolonged companionship for two Witchers. “It requires some... ah.” Coën ducked his head, blushing so furiously it crept up over the top of his beard, almost his whole face turning red.

Jaskier shifted his hand over his mouth to hide his smile and let Coën continue. He'd read extensively on Zerrikanian customs before seeking out a Manticore—possibly the last Manticore on the Continent—and suspected Ixora was pulling Coën's leg about the ritual bit. Clearly, she was a woman who knew her own desires and the fact that Coën was here, asking Jaskier to help him fulfill those desires said so much about the courtly Griffin; now that he'd wooed his lady, he still endeavored to make her happy, no matter the possible cost to his standing with Jaskier. But Coën need not fear, if anything, Jaskier respected him even more at this moment.

The Griffin took a deep breath. “She requests a physical aide. For her to use. With me.”

Coën left it there and Jaskier arched an eyebrow, keeping his smile light. “Physical aide? Is she injured in some way?”

“N-no.” Coën started to stammer, the blush spreading down his neck and up to the tops of his ears. “The ritual requires a, uh... facsimile that her gender—that she does not physically possess.” He fully hid his face now, speaking to the floor. “Apparently, they are made quite well in Zerrikania. She requires the highest quality. And some oil to accompany.”

Jaskier had no lingering doubts over what Ixora requested of Coën, and of course, he was more than happy to provide for their pleasure... but watching Coën squirm was too good. “My deepest apologies, Coën, could you be more specific? Though I appreciate the male form above all, I am acquainted with women as well, and by my observations, there are several differences, each unique and wonderful. What exactly are you referring to?”

It was so quick, Jaskier might have missed it. Coën's hand curled into a circle and he gestured right in front of his crotch. Jaskier imagined he was blushing all the way to his toes now. “She asked for a phallus,” he whispered.

“Then she shall have it.”

Having secured Ixora her prize, Coën nearly ran from the room, mumbling a quiet thanks as he closed the door behind him. Jaskier waited for another moment before letting his laugh erupt, Coën was too easy to tease sometimes. When he first set his eyes on Ixora, Jaskier thought a little romance might distract from the chaotic world he carefully held on the outside of his walls, but as it turned out, she was the one who truly claimed Coën, and now she wished to do so in another way. Jaskier would see to it that she had the finest quality strap on his money could buy.

The moment Geralt kissed Jaskier, things... changed. He hadn't taken Geralt up on his offer yet— “we do things as a pack. Together.” —but there were more lingering glances. He thought Jaskier watched them like a hawk before, but now he knew how clearly mistaken he was. Where blue eyes used to glance over him as he sat with Lambert, now they looked their fill, licking his lips every once in a while when he saw Eskel or Geralt working out in the training yard.

In bed at night, Geralt let his hands rove over Eskel, sniffing his hair and for once, he didn't find a trace of the Viscount, not since they talked. “Jaskier hasn't asked you to visit him in a few days,” he said. It wasn't a question, Geralt knew Eskel's scheduled time with Jaskier like the back of his hand, every three days like clockwork, but it had been almost five nights now.

Eskel used to tense up when Geralt asked about Jaskier but now he just lay still on the bed, enjoying the soft touches from the other wolf. When had Eskel stopped reacting? “Yeah, I guess.”

“He's... you like being with him.”

Now Eskel did tense. Back pressed into Geralt's chest, he didn't turn around, and Geralt didn't stop stroking his hair, always silky smooth. “I know it bothers you.”

“I don't think it does. Anymore.”

Pushing Geralt's hand away, Eskel sat up and looked at him, lips parted in shock. “What are you saying?”

Geralt went over it over and over in his head—Jaskier had to know he tried to get in the office before, why else leave it unlocked? Jaskier was playing a game and even if all the information he found was false, he wanted Geralt to know something. Maybe it was time he stopped making his plans and started listening to Jaskier's. “He doesn't hurt you. I see how happy you are after you see him, how relaxed.”

Eskel's lips turned down into a frown. “Geralt—”

He held up a hand, he needed to get this out. “You smell like him. When you're happy. I know that's part of his plan, I smell him when I see you happy. I'm playing right into his lap, but fuck Eskel, you're not the only one who wants to see your family happy and taken care of.” Reaching out, Geralt dragged his thumb across Eskel's cheek bones and over his defined jaw, caressing the face he loved more than any other in the world. He loved Eskel, and Eskel loved him, but there were others in their lives as well. Geralt was happy to open their bed in the past, to Lambert, to Aiden if that's what Lambert wanted. He'd do it to make his family happy, he'd let Jaskier in too. “Maybe next time, he can come here... with us.”

Eskel's lips trembled for the barest hint of a second before he swooped down, opening Geralt's lips and kissing deep, his fingers tangling through his loose hair. Jaskier did indeed provide him with beautiful leather ties to keep it back, one in every color it seemed. They all lay quietly on the bedside table and whenever Eskel ran his fingers through Geralt's hair, scratching at the shorter bits of the undercut, Geralt was already starting to think of Jaskier...

He'd never admit it, not to Eskel, or even quietly in the deepest parts of his mind, but Geralt wanted to know this Viscount, know him like Eskel did. The contentment, the satisfaction that rolled from Eskel and Lambert every day, Geralt at least owed Jaskier thanks for that.

Jaskier tried to stay clear of the Witcher wing during the day to protect Gaetan's delicate nature (which threw Geralt for another loop; how did a man in possession of voracious appetites like Jaskier, deny himself the pleasure of seeing his lovers whenever he wanted, to allow a broken man space to heal? It was just a little too kind) and Geralt often saw him around other parts of the manor, watching the training grounds, coordinating new additions to the courtyard... lounging with Grayson in the hot spring.

With Lambert busy with Aiden, Geralt and Eskel headed down for an afternoon bath. Grayson was usually there when they were, minding his own business as they ignored each other, but he sometimes nodded to Eskel. Today, Grayson sat in the hot pool, with Jaskier in his lap, the human's arms wrapped around his neck. Jaskier was busy decorating Grayson's cheeks and nose with small kisses while the Bear lounged, his arms spread across the edge of the bath, fists strangely clenched despite the relaxing atmosphere.

Blue eyes flicked up to them. “Sorry,” Geralt said, taking a step back. “We can return later if you want privacy.”

“Nonsense.” Jaskier shifted on Grayson's lap and his fists clenched tighter. “Any part of my home is open, you know that. Please, have a soak with us.”

Jaskier watched them make their way across the bathhouse and slip into the Witcher hot pool. For a moment, Geralt swore he saw a slight frown cross Jaskier's face when they didn't actually join him and Grayson in their pool. But the frown soon disappeared as Jaskier switched his attention back to Grayson. He picked up a brush from the edge of the bath and began running it through his thick hair, the Bear’s eyes falling closed in pleasure.

Geralt tried not to overhear, he focused on Eskel, smiling softly at him as he turned, asking Geralt to wash his back before they set in to enjoy their soak. Yet he couldn't block out the whispered praise that floated over on the steamy air. “You're being so good, Gray, so still. I know what you'd like to do to me, but I'm enjoying myself so very much. Let me wash your hair like this. I want to feel what it does to you. Will you let me do that? Wash your beautiful hair?”

With a hard swallow, Grayson nodded. “Yes.”

“Thank you.” One last small kiss on his nose and Jaskier reached for the pitcher, dunking it into the water and pouring it over Grayson's hair, his free hand shielding his eyes, like the way he washed Eskel's hair. Some of the water spilled over the side of the bath and onto the floor, but Jaskier didn't seem to care, Grayson, somehow, didn't even notice.

“Grayson,” Jaskier said, a little louder, more conversationally. “You were telling me the other day of some Bear School techniques. Eskel, please pardon my intrusion, but haven't I heard that you use some of the same techniques for your contracts? I didn't think that happened much, borrowing from another school.”

“Yes,” Eskel said. Geralt had just finished scrubbing his back and he turned to repay the favor, appreciating the feel of hard muscles under his hands. “I use Rook before a fight, get it over quick. It's a Bear technique but I've found it works well with my fighting style too.” Though he wanted to watch Geralt, Eskel felt rude having a conversation while his attention was elsewhere. He leaned over Geralt's back, peering over his shoulder to look at Grayson and Jaskier.

“Isn't that interesting, Grayson?” Jaskier said. He worked up a lather on some floral scented soap and methodically worked it through Grayson's thick hair, the dark gray locks painted white with foam for the moment. “You know more about potions than I do, naturally. What does Rook do? It's similar to Thunderbolt, yes?”

“Superior to Thunderbolt,” Grayson said after a long moment of silence. He managed to pull his eyes open and focused on Eskel, his lips parted, breath a little rough. “All the power, none of the side effects, minimal toxicity. I'm surprised to hear you use it, E-eskel.” He closed his eyes again. “We were always taught that it, it is best suited for those who use Signs sparingly. I'm told you're quite gifted with S-signs.”

Grayson was sparing with his words, only speaking when he felt it necessary. Conversationalists like that tended not to trip over what few words they decided to use, and here Grayson was almost stuttering around them. Jaskier filled the pitcher of water again and rinsed the soap from his hair, cooing softly, his eyes fluttering for a second.

Geralt realized a second before Eskel did. “The fuck...”

Jaskier's soft smile went a little wicked at the edges, he wrapped his arms fully around Grayson's neck and rolled his whole body, pulling a groan from the Bear and a gasp from Eskel. “If I wanted you to leave, I would have asked,” Jaskier said before Eskel could make their excuses. “I've longed to have the both of you together, but I understand Bears don't play well with others. This will have to do.”

Grayson's noises got a little louder, now that Jaskier acknowledged their game. Sitting in Grayson's lap like he was, Geralt didn't know how he missed it. The steam spread the smell of Jaskier's arousal through the whole bathhouse, but that wasn't a new scent to any of them, the whole house smelled of Jaskier's adore, he was a surprisingly virile man by all accounts. The idea of Jaskier sitting there in front of them, speared open on Grayson's massive cock, casually using him for pleasure while they watched, stirred something in Geralt. He didn't mind it.

He turned around and grabbed Eskel, pinning him to the side of the pool and pushing in close behind him to bite at the back of his neck. “Geralt...”

“It's fine, Eskel, I want you to watch,” Jaskier said. He wrapped his arms tighter around Grayson's neck and placed a deep, claiming kiss on him, Geralt saw his tongue pushing between Grayson's lips from across the pool. His own grip tightened on Eskel's hips, his cock hard and wanting, resting against his cheeks.

He dropped a hand between Eskel's legs, slowly drawing his thumb over his balls. “Is this alright?” he whispered, too low for Jaskier to hear. Grayson's eyes opened for a second to watch them before he gave over to the tight body around him once again. His arms were still on the edge of the pool, muscles straining not to grab tight and fuck. Geralt didn't think about Grayson too much, but for the moment, he felt the other Witcher's pain, not being able to hold onto one's lover was a delicious sort of torment. Jaskier seemed to be especially adept at those.

The Viscount started wiggling with more abandon, letting soft moans and coos fall from his lips. Eskel's breath hitched as Geralt's hand circled his cock. “He never sounds like that with me, Grayson.”

“I'm well aware,” Grayson huffed. “He's all deep moans with you. And he's a gods damn vixen with me.”

Eskel wasn't sure if that meant Grayson listened in on his nights with Jaskier, or if Jaskier told him what they got up to. His cock twitched in Geralt's hand either way. “He really is.”

Jaskier gave another one of those cooing sighs and Grayson snapped, slamming one of his fists down on the edge of the bath. “Jaskier, fuck, will you let me—”

“Yes.” The word had barely passed Jaskier's lips when Grayson wrapped both arms around him, hauling him over to the side of the bath and leaning him against a suspiciously placed towel. Only their legs still in the water, Jaskier's cock was on full display. He arched, leaning back over the edge, his eyes finding Geralt's. He let his fingers wander down his chest and grasped his cock, face creasing with pleasure as a Bear went to town on his ass. “Do you like it?” he purred.

Geralt's strokes on Eskel sped up. Though he felt his love pressed against him, heart pounding in tandem with his own, he couldn't take his eyes off Jaskier. Grayson leaned over him now, sinking his teeth into the lordling's shoulder as one large hand cradled the back of his neck, keeping him from tipping onto the floor. Grunts and soft moans replaced any words, echoing off the tiles. Fuck, if anyone else came in right now... Geralt didn't know if he'd be embarrassed or more turned on. He sucked at the top of Eskel's shoulder, both of them watching Jaskier as his eyes fluttered shut, moans getting higher and higher until—

Grayson slammed his hips one last time and Jaskier came, loudly spilling all over himself. His cock pulsed and the growling Bear above him followed him over, both of them slumping at the same time. Geralt's hand tightened on Eskel's cock and he felt it twitch, a shiver running through his back. Rutting against Eskel's backside, Geralt was so close...

A little more together than the human, Grayson pulled him back into the tub and cleaned them both. Geralt did the same with Eskel, wiping the sweat from his brow. “You didn't finish,” Eskel whispered, hand diving below the water.

Geralt shook his head. “Upstairs.”

Dressed in a silk robe that was already starting to stick to his still wet skin, Jaskier stopped just next to the edge of their pool, smiling down at Geralt and Eskel, his eyes a little distant with bliss. “Eskel, Geralt, I'd really like both of you to meet me down here tomorrow. If that's alright? I feel we have many things to discuss.” The front of his robe was not tied and Geralt spotted Grayson's come slowly making its way down the inside of Jaskier's thigh. For a moment, he let himself imagine it were his.

“See you tomorrow night,” Geralt said.

“Excellent.” Jaskier turned and took Grayson's crooked elbow, floating out of the bathhouse.

As soon as they were alone, Eskel turned, grabbing Geralt into a tight embrace, pressing kisses up and down his throat. “Are you sure?”

“I told him, all of us or nothing. Time for me to follow through.”

He let Eskel kiss him for another moment, then pulled them from the bath. As soon as they were upstairs, Eskel threw him across the bed and climbed on, their tin of slick almost falling to the floor in his urgency, his need to have Geralt inside, both of them looking forward to tomorrow.

The candles were lower than usual when they entered the bathhouse, only every other one lit. It created an intimate atmosphere, which seemed almost redundant at this point. Though they'd never had sex in here, Geralt's fondest memories of their captivity started in the baths, Eskel's warm fingers cleaning him, pampering him... reminding him of their almost lost home. Jaskier probably knew that about them; Geralt might've started opening up to Jaskier, but he still wouldn't put anything passed him.

The man himself sat on the edge of the Witcher hot pool, his breeches and sleeves rolled up. As soon as blue eyes landed on them, he turned, placing decadently bare feet on the floor and striding over. Eskel began to strip out of his clothes before Jaskier even touched him and Geralt followed his lead.

“You're not joining us?” Eskel purred as Jaskier stroked a hand across his chest. He didn't touch Geralt yet, not until he was invited.

“Not in the pool, no,” Jaskier said. “If you don't mind, I'd like to watch you two together. The pack is so close, if you truly want to be involved with me, Geralt, I'd like you to connect with Eskel before I join.” He ran his fingers over Eskel's scars and down his neck, earning more soft, satisfied sounds. Where Geralt thought he'd feel jealousy—only he and Lambert touched Eskel's scars, only they were allowed to love him like that—warmth bloomed inside his chest. The little flutter as Eskel's eyes closed, his calm heart... Jaskier wasn't merely kind towards his bed partners, he was giving, damn near loving. Geralt would sacrifice all his pleasure to make Eskel happy, and it looked like Jaskier might do the same.

While Jaskier was lost in the softness breaking across Eskel's face, Geralt stripped the rest of his clothes and stepped up next to them, wrapping his arms around both. A surprised little breath passed between Jaskier's lips and Geralt smirked before burying his nose in Eskel's hair. The purring continued, Eskel nosing down to nip at Geralt's ear.

Geralt kept his eyes on Jaskier as Eskel continued to nibble at him, cock rising between them, his own starting to show interest as well (though it wasn't really difficult, not with Eskel naked next to him). One hand tangled in Eskel's hair, he reached out and stroked Jaskier's cheek, watching him try not to lean into the touch, composure cracking just a little. Geralt smiled. “You know how he likes it from you, now you want to see what he likes from me?”

“Am I, am I that transparent?” Jaskier did lean into Geralt's hand now, turning his head and brushing his lips along his fingers. He didn't kiss, not yet, chaste touches only... for now. “Please, indulge me?”

He slid his arm lower around Eskel's hips, pulling him into the bath. They both moaned at the heat, as they always did, ignoring Jaskier for the moment as he perched himself on the edge. They moved a little farther away to keep from splashing the scalding water on Jaskier. He turned his eyes away, arranging a few soaps of different scents on the edge of the bath as Geralt pulled Eskel down into the water, almost submerging them completely.

“Is this alright?” he whispered. “Me, him... us.”

“Yes,” Eskel breathed. “Now kiss me.”

The water covered them up to their chests, so Jaskier couldn't see those prize cocks rubbing against each other. Still, the view of Geralt licking into Eskel's mouth, tongue sweeping across his lips before pressing in, Eskel's soft little moans... Jaskier shifted on the hard tile, palming his cock through his breeches. He promised himself he'd let it build, wait until he was absolutely desperate for it before moving them upstairs, but Geralt and Eskel together, uh, they were just too much of a sight.

One hand still on Eskel, Geralt reached out and took up one of the soaps, his eyes locking with Jaskier as he did it. He worked up a lather on his hands and pressed them over Eskel's skin. It wasn't as efficient as a cloth, but fuck if it wasn't erotic as all hell. Soapy fingers sliding across tanned, toned Witcher muscles, the two of them together like mountains meeting. Jaskier longed to see Grayson's bulk pressed against Eskel, but now he knew Geralt was the truest companion for pleasing Eskel; they looked so much alike, ever with Geralt's white hair and Eskel's scars, it was as if they were cast from the same mold and decorated separately. Their cheeks were high and angular, leading down to plush, kissable lips and square jaws. Jaskier imagined seeing them together a hundred times, but his every fantasy paled to the reality.

Shaking himself, he palmed his cock one more time before sitting up, placing a tin next to the soaps. “Geralt, I have another request.”

Geralt continued to rub soap over Eskel, hands massaging as they went, tongues meeting in lazy, but heated kisses. “Yes?” he whispered into Eskel's lips.

“If you'd indulge me... I'd like to watch you open Eskel up for later.” He flapped a hand towards the tin of slick, already open and soft in the heat of the bathhouse.

Not for the first time, Geralt noticed the fluffy towels balanced on the far edge of the bath. After watching Grayson pound Jaskier over the edge of the pool yesterday, he had an idea what they were there for. He nudged Eskel towards the far side and retrieved the tin, meeting Jaskier's eyes again. “For later? You don't want me to have him here?”

Mouth suddenly dry, Jaskier shook his head. He thought by now he'd be used to yellow eyes watching him like they wanted to devour him, but fuck, Geralt's eyes were so new. He'd never seen the White Wolf focus the intensity of his gaze on him before and found himself staggering a little. “Later,” he managed to rasp out.

“As you wish.” Geralt went back to ignoring Jaskier, focusing all his attention on Eskel. He saw the towels as well and had no trouble leaning over them, his ass floating just above the water line, legs spread wide against the bottom of the pool.

Before he slicked his fingers, Geralt spread his cheeks with one hand, exposing Eskel's hole for Jaskier's hungry eyes. He'd seen it before, no doubt, but part of Geralt purred and preened at showing off his lover. He used to do it all the time with Lambert, half asleep in Geralt's bed, lazy smile on his face as Geralt twisted and turned Eskel, showing every angle he could think of before finally pushing in.

Dipping two fingers in the soft slick, Geralt circled around Eskel's hole, hearing two rough breaths—one from the body in front of him, one from the body across the pool. The heat of the water went a long way to relaxing Eskel and he accepted two fingers easily, Geralt taking a moment to work the slick in and out before going for more, adding a third finger this time and searching out Eskel's prostate. A gasping breath and a full body shiver told him he was in the right spot.

“I'd like him nice and relaxed,” Jaskier whispered, his voice almost shaking. “Take as much time as you need.”

“Not too much time.” Eskel leaned up enough to peer over his shoulder, meeting Geralt's eyes first, then Jaskier's. “Part of me wondered how you'd torture me once you came together.” Oh yes, part of Eskel dreamed of this, damn near longed for it. He wanted Geralt's heavy eyes on him, watching Jaskier taking him apart, grunting praise and critique in equal measure. Jaskier discovered Eskel's sensitive areas simply by touching him everywhere and fastidiously remembering what pleased him, but Geralt had literal centuries to learn him. If anyone could teach Jaskier how to ruin Eskel, it was Geralt.

More slick, and the tip of Geralt's little finger brushed the edge of Eskel's hole. “Oh, oh fuck.” He couldn't stop his shiver this time, despite the hot water. “Geralt, please, I need—”

“If you're ready, I'd like to take this upstairs.” Jaskier climbed shakily to his feet, smoothing his shirt and breeches, hand catching on the bulge of his cock.

Geralt did not move, keeping Eskel in place. “One more minute.” And then all four fingers eased inside, the generous amount of lubrication easing the way.

Eskel keened. His cock spent the entire time pinned against the soft towels below him, the fabric proving almost enough friction to bring him off... “Geralt, fuck, if you don't stop right now, I'm going to come.”

“Then come.” Geralt and Jaskier exchanged a look, neither sure who spoke first.

Both speaking together, their mingled smells carried on the steam, it was too much. With the barest jerk of his hips, Eskel came, spilling over the towels. He clenched around Geralt's fingers, the small movements of his body making them rub across his prostate, sending small jolts through his hips, prolonging his orgasm until he started to slump.

Geralt caught him with his free hand and removed the other, pulling Eskel into the bath long enough to clean the come from his skin. Warm lips pressed against his neck. “You ready for more?” There was something in Jaskier's words, the way he asked Geralt to get Eskel nice and loose... he had more plans tonight and Geralt was eager to be a part of them.

It took both him and Jaskier to get Eskel's limp body from the bath and dried off, slopping water all over Jaskier's clothes until the white shirt clung to his chest, the line of his cock even more visible now. Wrapped in only towels, they headed back upstairs, turning towards the Witchers' wing. Jaskier glanced over his shoulder. “I thought you might be more comfortable in your own bed. The first time.”

Recently, Lambert had been spending most of the night with Aiden, only returning shortly before sunrise. They had time, and Geralt appreciated a home turf advantage, which is probably why Jaskier offered it. With his arm around Eskel—who was still staggering like a drunk—Geralt nodded. “That's fine.” He wanted to be a part of whatever Jaskier had with Eskel—no more secrets—he supposed having the Viscount in their bed was part of that.

Eskel was quite happy to flop onto the bed, his body limp and sleepy from the bath, but his cock hard again. Geralt settled between his legs and he pulled him down on top of him, lips finding his ear. “Want you to fuck me all night,” he whispered.

Geralt smiled and kissed along Eskel's scars, drawing more purring moans. He was used to this: Eskel returning from a night with Jaskier, completely sex drunk and hungry for another, more lazy fuck. He didn't know when he started to like it, probably when Eskel came back from a bath smelling like Jaskier, and a hint or cedar. Eskel always had a woodsy must about him, but the cedar reminded Geralt of Kaer Morhen, specifically, the cedar closet off the armory, where they kept the thick blankets and spare winter cloaks. Almost everything at Kaer Morhen was falling apart but Vesemir was fastidious about keeping moths and pests away from what small comforts they had. Before every big storm, he and Eskel went in there to collect the warmest blankets, getting lost in the piles of wool and furs, sharing gasping kisses the way they had as children hiding among those same cloaks and blankets.

Jaskier was too smart by half, he knew sending Eskel back relaxed and smelling of him would build a foundation of trust, then sending him back smelling of Geralt's memories would make those foundations rock solid. He wasn't wrong.

But Eskel smelled like him now, Geralt's scent all over him, his lips, his back, his ass, only a few lingering traces of Jaskier. He rubbed his nose against Eskel's neck and hummed into his skin. “Mmm, I'll fuck you all night, then all morning if you want. I'll never stop.” It was a pretty dream, maybe it would become a reality again some day.

“Mind if I help?” His attention shifted back to Jaskier, who stood naked next to their bed, his wet clothes neatly folded and pushed out of the way. He arched an eyebrow and grabbed the base of his cock, as if offering it for Geralt to inspect.

It was a lovely cock. Not as long or thick as their own, but substantial by human standards. Add in Jaskier's wide shoulders and strong chest, lightly defined muscles and the grooves of his hips pointing like arrows to his cock... fuck. Jaskier had a pretty face, but pretty didn't open every door, that body probably took care of the rest. He lay down at Eskel's side, both of them watching Jaskier. “Bed's big enough,” Geralt said.

Leaning one knee on the bed, Jaskier's eyes slid to Eskel. He leaned forward, a hand trailing up the inside of his thigh. Eskel's knees fell open farther and Jaskier smiled. “Eskel, dear heart, do you remember what you told me? That fantasy you had...”

Eskel shuddered and Geralt tore his eyes away from Jaskier. “Fantasy?” In almost three hundred years of winters, he thought there was nothing left unsaid, no avenue unexplored. He remembered the night he wrapped his hands around Lambert's throat while Eskel sucked him off; tying Eskel to the bed so they could come back and fuck him all day, anytime they wanted; and that time they blindfolded Lambert, touching him all over to watch him shiver at the tickling kisses. Strong hands roving everywhere and a firm chest to lay their heads on were more than enough, but a little spice now and again didn't go amiss. “Why didn't you ask me? What is there that I won't give you?”

Eskel's head rolled back and forth, unsure of who to watch, Jaskier with his hand very close to his cock, or Geralt gazing lovingly into his eyes. “Knew we couldn't. Lambert never... he's never wanted my ass. Always afraid he'll hurt me.”

“He wanted both of you,” Jaskier said before Geralt could ask. He found Jaskier's eyes on him again, that soft blue gaze suddenly intense. “I offer myself as a humble substitution.”

“You mean—”

Eskel picked this moment to thrust into Geralt's side, precome dripping from the tip of his cock and smearing along Geralt's stomach. “You wanna try?”

Jaskier asked him to open Eskel up, make sure he was good and relaxed. “Fuck,” Geralt hissed. He grabbed Eskel's face and crushed their lips together. “Yes,” he mumbled into far too plush lips. “I'll give you whatever you want, always.” Another thing he and Jaskier had in common...

Jaskier started arranging them, setting Geralt on his back before urging Eskel to lay across him, pulling him up to his knees even as the rest of his body was still relaxed and pliant. Geralt's breath came faster as Jaskier grabbed for the oil. Eskel moaned and buried his head into Geralt's neck, kissing and breathing warmly against him. With their chest pressed together, every sound Eskel made vibrated through Geralt, making his own cock jump and twitch. Jaskier lingered right in his sight line, long fingers opening him more, eyes catching Geralt's every now and again.

There was no avoiding it. Geralt found himself looking deep into Jaskier's eyes as his hand slicked Geralt's prick and guided it to Eskel's hole. “Anything you need,” he whispered. “It's yours for the asking.”

Eskel moaned as Geralt sank inside. Teeth settled into his shoulder, but Geralt kept his eyes on Jaskier. Two fingers slid in next to his cock, then three... the pressure around him was almost too intense, and it just kept ramping up, finding new points to press and make him moan. The fingers retreated a second later and Jaskier adjusted, kneeling behind Eskel. Then Geralt felt the second cock head...

Eskel jerked, moan dripping with pleasure muffled by Geralt's shoulder. He tangled his fingers in Eskel's hair, holding him tight while he looked deep into blue eyes. Despite his cool confidence and his familiarity with Eskel's body, Jaskier was almost as wrecked. The glacial thrust of his cock, the slide of it right next to Geralt's, it was almost too much.

When he bottomed out inside Eskel, he released a shuddering breath and dropped his head between Eskel's shoulder blades. “Your body is amazing,” he hissed.

“Yes, it is.” Geralt couldn't help but agree.

Jaskier drew his hips back oh so slow, thrusting a little faster. It wasn't the bruising pace Grayson used the other day, but it was constant and overwhelming. Eskel tried to squeeze around them, his legs shaking where they were planted on the bed. Jaskier grabbed for his hips, holding him up as best he could while they all unspooled.

“I know you love him,” Jaskier whispered. Eskel was too incoherent to understand, panting and growling into Geralt's shoulder, so these words were for him alone. “What will prove that I care for him as well?”

Geralt couldn't think, couldn't form a coherent thought. So he said the first thing that sprang to his mind, his most basic thought when he looked at Eskel or Lambert. “Don't hurt them. Promise me.”

“I promise.” Sweat rolled down Jaskier's face and he bit his lip, clearly trying to hold himself back. He groped under Eskel and managed to get a hold of his cock, stroking until he stiffened, coming across Geralt's stomach. Geralt closed his eyes as his orgasm slammed into him, blue eyes the last thing he saw before floating away.

Eskel woke slowly, tired, sweaty and deliciously sore. An arm like an iron bar held him down. “Don't move too much. You had quite a night.”

He smiled into Geralt's chest and let the other Witcher roll him over to the other side of the bed. “You did too.”

Geralt hummed. “Yes. I think... I think I trust Jaskier. With you.”

Eskel smiled, already dropping off to sleep as the door opened and Lambert stumbled in smelling of Aiden. “That's something.”

“That's everything,” Geralt whispered back.

Eskel hummed again and closed his eyes. He felt the bed dip and Lambert settled between them. He nosed at Eskel before sniffing at Geralt. “Fuck, what happened.”

“Let me tell you. Come here.” There was a small yelp and the bed shifted again. Eskel opened an eye and saw that Geralt pulled Lambert up onto his chest, hand already working his cock. Lambert threw his head back and moaned, leaning into the touch.

When he came across Geralt's chest, Eskel breathed in deep. He heard Geralt doing the same, examining the mingled smells of their pack... and Jaskier. For the first time, it didn't feel like an intrusion.

Jaskier knew quite a bit about Zerrikanian culture. There was never a guarantee that an individual Witcher's culture overlapped with that of their homeland (taken as children, Witcher culture was almost a thing unto itself) but some traditions made their way deep into the collective subconscious. When Coën requested a phallus for Ixora, Jaskier knew exactly what she wanted. And he just so happened to know a Zerrikanian craftswoman who worked a few cities over...

She wouldn't want an actual phallus; Zerrikanian women liked to penetrate their partners, not ape male genitalia. A simple, tapered shape would do, with a spiral ridge on the outside. Oh, how Jaskier wanted to see Coën's reaction... but he made the Griffin squirm enough.

After he secured the item, he went to Coën's room and placed the box in the center of the bed. It was a lovely box too, the wood stained almost black, built to hold the strap on and the accompanying harness, which was made of dark leather that would almost disappear on Ixora's skin, making sure Coën only focused on what she was doing to him. Jaskier shook himself, he couldn't get too worked up over this, all the same, he intended to go find Grayson in a moment.

Patting the top of the box, he made sure the corner of the note stuck out from under it. Enjoy.

Chapter Text

Letho turned the chess board around and considered the next move for the white pieces. At the moment, they were the losing side; he was both too good and simultaneously not good enough to work his way out of this play. Story of his life really. His entire existence since arriving at the tall iron gates of Gorthur Gvaed in the Tir Tochair mountains had been characterised by intricate power plays and subterfuge. The School of Viper was—had been, he still caught himself doing that—the most secretive of all the Witcher schools. Rumour had it that they were first conceived to try and beat the Wild Hunt. Letho’s knowledge of the Aen Elle was probably unparalleled. In fact, he mused with a wry smirk, his knowledge on most things probably surpassed a lot of even the greatest minds the Nilfgaardian Empire had to offer.

He picked up a pawn and moved it forward a square to trap a knight into a losing play, turned the board again and considered the white king opposite from the perspective of the black pieces. Hmm. The moment the Vipers had refused to join the Nilfgaardian army, the usurper, the first one, had razed their home to the ground. The remaining students scattered across the Continent, forbidden from entering major cities. Humiliating.

And despite that betrayal, Letho and his brothers had still agreed to work for Emhyr all those years ago. Over a century. Fuck, time went quickly when you were having fun, didn’t it? He smirked. And that alliance had gone just as ‘well’ for him. Having performed his role to the letter, Letho’s reward was a year of running from bounty hunters. Loads of ‘em. Endless. In the end, he’d faked his own death and spent some time at Kaer Morhen of all places. Frigid wasteland of a keep.

But what was the rule? Oh yeah. No rest for the wicked. Here he was again…

“Hey Letho,” said a now familiar—and welcome—voice from behind a bookshelf, “Letho number two has you cornered there. Maybe I can help out?”

The Viper looked up from the chess board. He hadn’t even heard the little bastard enter. Gaetan slinked out from his hiding place and indicated the chair opposite. He was looking a lot better than a couple of weeks ago. Less scrawny, but still… small. The Cat made Letho feel like a frost giant. “Sure. Take a seat.”

“Thanks,” Gaetan perched on the edge of the chair and flexed his fingers across the pieces. “My move?”

“Mmhm.” Letho leaned down and picked up the tankard of ale on the floor next to his foot while watching Gaetan make his decision. He shielded the king with a bishop without sacrificing his queen. Hmm. How had Letho missed that move? 

“All you,” Gaetan leaned back, fingers intertwining over his stomach. They said nothing for a little while, exchanging moves on the board until pieces began to gather at the edges. Eventually, Letho looked up though, because Gaetan was studying him real close and it was… distracting.


“Just thinkin’.” Gaetan shrugged.


“I know why the others are here. Can’t figure you out though. Few pieces still missing.”

“They’ve all told you, have they?”

“No, observation,” Gaetan took one of Letho’s rooks and deposited it at the side of the board. “The Griffin must’ve been in an even more dishonourable position to accept captivity—I’m thinking slavery, but he’s not damaged enough, probably found him fresh at an auction,” he looked up at Letho’s face but found it completely passive; hmm, a challenge. Purr purr. “Alright. The Manticore was probably neck deep in some trouble, or injured. They get in scrapes all the time ‘cause their social etiquette isn’t up a nordling’s standard. She's happy to watch and see how things unfold; she’s probably grateful to have a warm bed and some food. How am I doing?”

“Your queen’s exposed,” Letho didn’t take his eyes off of Gaetan. It was rare that he met someone as good at reading people as he was. It was fascinating to watch in action. “Go on.”

“The Bear came of his own accord. He loves it here. Has the mega hots for the Viscount, so I’m sure all his highness had to do was offer him a hairbrush and a good shag,” Gaetan moved his queen out of danger and cornered one of Letho’s knights. “The Wolves you had to capture. They’re only now just warming up. Not the original plan but you couldn't afford for them to fall into the wrong hands. My guess is he caught the big guy first, and then the others. Viscount’s been working the big guy over to get to his lackies. Wolves are all about pack, but they’ll follow their leader. Play a few mind games with them and you’ve got them in the palm of your hand. S’why the White Wolf gets into so much bullshit. None of them are very good at politics. Am I still on track?”

“And you got all of this through observation?” Letho leaned forward, the chess now the last thing on his mind. “Colour me impressed. What’ve you worked out about me so far?”

“Hmm.” Gaetan placed his elbows on the table, chin resting on laced fingers. This was his thing. Reading people. He was one of the smallest Witchers out there, but what he lacked in brawn he made up for in intelligence and empathy. Letho, the lucky bastard, had loads of both. “Only Witcher allowed to carry weapons. You call him boss and you’re not allowed to mix with the others. Means you’re his employee, maybe also a little bit his possession, but that’s probably just a legality. You go out and source all of his information. Doesn’t matter what time of night he summons you.” The Cat tilted his head. “You captured all the other Witchers for a Nilfgaardian, which means there’s some higher cause here. No fucking way you’d capture Witchers for an Empire that’s fucked you over twice, and you wouldn’t throw another Witcher under the bus without either good cause or, more likely, a bigger plan. You’re not shagging him, so it’s not love, but you are loyal.”

Letho moved a piece to keep the game moving, but he unwittingly left his king wide open. Gaetan spotted his move a mile off and reached forward. “Which means he’s offered you something you’ve always wanted. Something that’s been eating at you for a long time. A chance to get back at Nilfgaard. A chance to destabilise, to reap revenge for all the bullshit they’ve put you through. And the Viscount wants the same, because he’s said some mighty treasonous things. Won’t even hail the Emperor like the others. So, in summary, you’re here for one purpose and one purpose only. Political espionage and assassination. He’s going to use you to take down the usurper, because you’re good at it, the perfect choice; there’s no one that’s done what you’ve done, knows what you know,” Gaetan moved his knight. “Because you’re Letho of Gulet, kingslayer. ” The Cat took Letho’s king, snatching it from the board and slamming it down hard at the edge. The silence sat heavily as they stared at each other; it wasn’t menacing or hostile, but an equal consideration.

Letho tilted his head and considered Gaetan’s triumphant expression. “Impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“Other Cats beat you up a lot during your training years?”

“All the fucking time.”

“Hm.” Letho felt it. A smile. His lips twitched upwards ever so slightly, and he ran his hand down the sides of his jaw, feeling the muscles working in an unfamiliar way. Gaetan still cowered whenever the house guards got too near, or he heard Jaskier's voice. Yet around his fellow Witchers, he was clearly comfortable. Letho remembered what it was like in Grayson's first few days. They hadn't exactly spoken much, but just having another of your kind nearby after so long on your own was just… it was just fucking nice. The familiarity of his own kin allowed Gaetan's personality to creep out of hiding.

"C'mon, don't leave a Cat hanging. How'd I do?" Gaetan batted at some of the pieces, and Letho caught them as they tipped off the edge towards the floor. 

"Almost one hundred percent."

"Almost? Who'd I get wrong?"

"Me," Letho began placing the pieces back onto the board. "You only got about half the story."

"Huh. I knew it."


"More to you than your reputation, isn't there, Viper? Alright, I'm listening."

Letho smirked. "Forward little runt aren't you? Could get you killed one day."

"Curiosity and all that." The saying was so tired he didn't even bother with it. The others hadn’t figured it out—or even thought it though—because they were too distracted. The Wolves by each other and the desire to escape; Grayson and Ixora both wanted to be here; Coën was infatuated with Ixora and Aiden by Lambert. The Viscount had played his cards well. Not only that, but Letho shrouded himself in a reputation that dissuaded too many questions and encouraged a certain stereotype. But Gaetan didn’t have anyone, or anything, to distract him from surviving. His ability to observe and learn quickly had kept him alive this long. That meant looking past the surface—the obvious, the blatant—and snooping around underneath. So now Gaetan waited patiently to see whether his snake would rear and strike him like a cobra, or roll over onto its back and—did snakes roll onto their back? Hmm. “How’d you end up here, Letho?”

Letho tilted his head, considered the current situation, and then inhaled a deep sigh. Well, there was no harm in telling this part of the story…

Four and a half years ago…

The prison in Ebbing was located just outside Claremont. Jaskier remembered reading something about the School of Cat being housed in Stygga at some point in the distant past, but his reading on Witchers so far was limited. He knew enough to reach the next stage of his plan. To achieve his goals, he needed a man on the inside. Someone with knowledge of Witchers and the past—before Nilfgaarf ruled supreme—to help him navigate effectively. That man had been imprisoned for the last fifty years.

They hadn’t executed him. He knew too much. Was too useful. And clever. Occasionally, he let slip a little tidbit or sliver of knowledge. Enough to remind them that he was still too valuable to send to the noose. They kept him under lock and key in the basement; he probably hadn’t seen daylight in decades. Too dangerous to be exercised with the other prisoners. Jaskier had already secured the prisoner’s release under the guise of adding him to his personal collection of the weird and wonderful. Despite his youth, he’d already carefully cultivated a reputation as The Collector. Good. He’d need it.

The newly minted Viscount leaned out of his carriage window so that the guard on the gate could examine his papers, and was then promptly waved through. They didn’t bother checking him over for weapons—he was a member of the nobility after all—before showing him down into the very depths of hell. Jaskier was certain they’d descend for an eternity, and by the time they did reach the bottom of the stairs, he was breathless. “Here,” the guard passed him a torch and pointed down a dark corridor, “he’s right at the end.”

“Aren’t you going to escort me the rest of the way?”

The man, with his golden crest proudly displayed upon his chest and a dirk on his belt, shook his head. “Nah, we only go down there to feed it, otherwise we stay well clear. I’ll be up the top if you need me. There isn’t anyone else down here.” And with that, Jaskier was left alone in the damp darkness. The rot of abandoned furniture and the ceaseless drip of broken pipes had allowed mould to creep across the floors; he slipped several times on his way to the cell at the very end.

“Letho of Gulet,” Jaskier tried to sound as officious as he could and lifted the torch a little higher. The light danced through the shadows, but failed to penetrate the very back of the cell where a hulking form lurked. “My name’s Jaskier. I’m here to make you a proposition.” From his research on this Witcher, he knew being forthcoming and honest would go a long way. He could get Letho out the cell, into his carriage, and then he’d be dead before the damned thing got past the border unless he had Letho’s agreement. The Witcher needed to be onside before those shackles came off. In the future, when they collected others, it wouldn’t matter. He’d have Letho at his side to ensure his safety.


Jaskier thought this might happen. A man that had been locked up for the best part of a century wouldn’t trust easily, so Jaskier continued, “As you know, there’s a usurper on the throne. Under his hand, the Continent is suffocating,” he kept his voice low, barely above a whisper; the man at the other end of the cell, if his reading was correct, would still be able to hear him. “He—that needs to change. The rightful heir must be restored. I wish to offer you a chance at freedom, a chance to get revenge on the Empire that’s wronged you. I need someone with the—the experience, and the know-how to get the job done, I need—,” Jaskier paused, “I need the kingslayer.”

Movement in the darkness. Jaskier stood his ground as someone very big unfurled from the floor. The metal rungs of chains jangled and dragged across stone and slowly Letho stepped into the light. His eyes reacted badly and he tilted his head away from the torch until they recovered. Dressed in only a tattered pair of trousers, Jaskier could see evidence of every wound and injury that’d been inflicted on him in the past week. The scars across his shoulders betrayed the extent of his punishment over the last few decades ; perfect hatches from a hand trained at using the lash. Letho walked right up the bars and peered down at Jaskier with intelligent, calculating eyes. 

“You make an interesting proposition, and you’ve risked a lot, I could say no and tell my guard everything you’ve just said,” Letho’s voice was hoarse, but it still rumbled through the silence like thunder. Despite his solitary confinement, despite the neglect and the horrendous conditions he’d endured, he was still sharper than the whip that struck his back every week.

“I know you’re bluffing, you never tell them anything genuinely useful. Anything that will destabilise the Empire you leave unsaid. You know I’m being sincere, and even if you don’t want any part of it, you’ll know someone’s doing something to cause mayhem. Despite your attempt at malice, I know you to be an honourable man.”

“Nilfgaardians do say such pretty things. All honour and frippery. But when it comes down to it—the nitty gritty—their hearts are as dark as their uniform.” You don’t know shit, boy.

“Why do you think they chose the symbol of the sun? It’s all propaganda.” Jaskier breathed.

“You say ‘they’, do you not mean ‘we’?”

“I choose my words carefully.”

“Indeed,” Letho paused. “Some of the words you’ve used today would see you hanged; your lands confiscated, your title stripped from your heirs.”

“I’m prepared to sacrifice everything for this cause.”

“Hmm. Many have noble causes to justify their endeavours, but they’re never the tipping point , just the rationale. Very few are truly willing to make the sacrifice play. So, Jaskier,” the Viper leaned his forehead against the rusting metal bars. “What’s your tipping point? What motivates you to risk everything to come talk to a half-dead Witcher in the bowels of hell?”

He saw it then. The young man shook; the hand around the torch clenched until his knuckles bleached white, his blue eyes brimming with tears, and he spat the word out through gritted teeth. “Revenge.

“Revenge?” Gaetan raised an eyebrow. “Now, I didn’t see that coming.”

“Hmm.” Letho leaned back, his tankard balanced on his stomach. “I don’t trust noble causes. They’re just another pretty dress for ugly truths.”

“So, you agreed to help him get his revenge? Why? What if it was all a trick?”

“I was in that cell for nearly fifty years. The only time I left it was to be hauled into interrogation or flogged. Death was too nice a punishment, apparently. If I’d stepped out of that prison and been killed instantly, then it would’ve been a pleasant change of pace.”

“How’d you stay sane? How’d you not… break?” Gaetan shifted uncomfortably in his chair. After three years, he’d had every shred of fight beaten from him.

“Meditation, spite,” Letho touched his chest subconsciously. “With my school dead, I’m the last of my kind. Too useful to let die perhaps.”

“But… they let the Viscount take you?”

“Hmm,” Letho sighed. “Still accessible. Not a drain on resources. Win win.”

“Huh.” Gaetan nodded. “They… you said they flogged you?”


“Is that why you keep staring at my shoulders?”

Letho blinked and then averted his gaze.

“No, no. It’s alright. I just… the way you look at me sometimes, it’s, uh—,” Gaetan realised he’d just made his Viper coil up defensively, so changed tac. “But revenge for what? Why does he need an army of Witchers? And why did he have to have the Wolves? They’re a pain in the ass.”

“No, Cats are a pain in the ass,” Letho growled, although Gaetan noted there was no real bite to his tone. “I told him no Cats, and he agreed. Probably just to shut me up.” As he spoke, the Viper stood and tucked his chair in. “Some of us have work to do. Got everything you need?” Meant in more ways than one.

“Only thing about to go missing is decent company, guess I’ll have to make do with the lesser beings,” Gaetan smirked, especially pleased by the glimmer of surprise that passed over Letho’s face. “I know you’re not meant to be around the others—I figured that out pretty quickly too—but, uh, can I come eat dinner with you in the courtyard? You don’t have to tell me anythin’, we can just sit. I like Aiden well enough, but he’s gone all googly-eyed over his puppy.”

“Hm,” Letho huffed in quiet amusement. “Alright. See you at dinner.”

It was a pleasant evening. Gaetan sat close to Letho’s side and they ate mostly in silence. Occasionally they talked about the old days; annoying contracts, annoying people, annoying… things, and by the end of it Letho was feeling oddly nostalgic in a way he hadn’t for many years. Letho asked Gaetan about the birds; it was a trick of their mutagens. Just something they dealt with. Oh, and Gaetan liked pigeon; it was tasty. Letho found out his teeth hurt him still; they’d been ripped out without anaesthetic with a pair of surgical tweezers as punishment for biting his master. They tried not to dwell on the past.

At times, Letho wasn’t sure whether Gaetan was flirting with him, or just in search of a kindred spirit. His doubts were thoroughly obliterated when the Cat brushed his head lightly across his shoulder as he left; a gentle glide of the jaw where a real feline’s cheek glands would be. It was so slow, so gradual and relaxed, that none of Letho’s defences rose. He just stared at Gaetan’s back as the Cat walked towards the Witcher’s wing.

Well… fuck. 

Coën adjusted the flowers for the fiftieth time, turned the candle dishes on Ixora’s cabinet and then went to stare at the box again. He’d looked. Of course he’d looked. Seen the thick design with its spiralling ridges, and immediately closed the box in fright. He hadn’t been specific with the request, but Jaskier had clearly been quite creative with the design choices. As far as Coën could tell, it was made out of a thick, tempered glass and it clipped into the black harness the same beautiful shade as Ixora’s skin.

Right, well… he could worry about that later. The wine was in place. He’d bathed three times today, just to be sure, and now he waited for her return.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Uncaring of the servants, Ixora always walked from the bathhouses wrapped in a towel with her clothes folded over her arm. She stepped through her bedroom door now and smiled that bright, beautiful smile she reserved only for him. “Good evening, my Griffin.”

“My lady,” Coën stood off the bed and headed over to the wine. As he turned to give her a glass she was already there; naked and gorgeous. His eyes ran down over her breasts and the sweep of her narrowed waist to the muscled thighs that he could be crushed between and die a happy man. She took the glass from his hand and sipped lightly before placing it aside. Her gaze slid across to the flowers, and the ornate box that contained their entertainment for the evening. Coën followed her gaze and she felt his shoulders tense under her hands. Ahh, her noble Griffin was a little nervous. 

Without a word, she took his glass and placed them both back on the cabinet, before leading him over to the bed. By the time the backs of her knees touched the mattress, his lips were locked to hers and his breeches slipping down his thighs. The hot, velvet skin of his shaft sat heavily in the palm of her hand, thick, wanting, and she teased her fingers through the curls at the base. “Hmm.” She smiled into his neck as she pulled him down on top of her, arms draped across his broad shoulders as her legs wrapped his waist. The head of his cock slid down between her lips as he moved his hips gently, teasing up over her clit as he nudged the side of her jaw and pressed reverent kisses beneath her ear. 

“You’re so beautiful.” He whispered, one hand leaving the mattress to palm her breasts, thumb circling a nipple until it stood erect and needy. She was never one for extensive foreplay. Very much like her acceptance of his courting, she liked to get straight down to the crux of the matter. One day she might let him worship her for an hour or so. But who was he to deny the lady her wants and desires?

“Then worship me as I deserve.” She growled at him, nipping little bites into the muscle of his shoulder as he continued to tease his cock across her. When he finally pushed inside, her body took him eagerly; she bit her lip and arched her back, legs tightening to pull him closer. He was always so gentle, so loving, and it drove her crazy. Part of her loved it—he cared enough to treat her like this precious thing; a jewel, a goddess—but the other part of her wanted him to throw her down and leave bruises as evidence of their passion. Perhaps one day she’d coax the lion out of her Griffin yet.

She lost herself to the sensual roll of his hips, the perfect angle he seemed to find by instinct that conjured jolts of pleasure that pooled in her groin. It was the thickness that did it for her most. The way he stretched her open with each deep thrust, his own soft pants interlaced with deep, rumbling moans and utterances of veneration. Her nails dug into his skin, one hand dropping away to find anchorage in the blankets as his pace quickened, bottoming out with the wet slap of his hips against the firm muscle of her ass and thighs. Her orgasm crested, a warm glow that spread through her as if from the tip of his prick; her body gripped him tightly, and she gasped as he took the final few thrusts to reach the peak of his own pleasure.

Coën drew back, the heat of his softening cock against her thigh, his lips pressed over the left side of her chest. “Hmm.”

Hmm.” She repeated, and tightened her grip. With a quick flick of her hips and a well-placed elbow, she flipped him onto his back and folded her forearms across his chest. “Are you comfortable with this?”

“Of—of course,” Coën, still coming down from his high, flushed and cast a glance across the box. “I—this is an important part of your, uh…”

“Coën,” she nipped his chin. “If you are not comfortable, I would not do it even if the great dragon himself demanded it. So, I ask again. Would you like to try it, or not?”

“Well, I’ve asked him for it—,” he trailed off as her eyes narrowed down at him. “Yes, I’m not really sure how to—,” his hands flapped at her sides, “go about it.”

“Hm. Leave it to me,” she grinned, a flash of brilliant white teeth, before slipping from the bed to attend to the box. “Get comfortable.” 

How one got comfortable for this type of thing was beyond Coën. He pulled his shirt over his head, did a little bit of wiggling on the bed, posed, thought better of it, and ended up just sitting cross-legged looking sheepish. Ixora returned to the bed with a pot of slick, her weapon of choice and a broad smile. “Right, how’d you want me?”

She chuckled. “There’s a procedure and a set of rules for everything with you, isn’t there?” The toy itself was beautifully made, with strong, clear glass, a bulge like a cock head and shallow ridges down the length. She knew it would drive Coën wild, but he looked at it now like she was waving a knife at him. 

“Uh, not for this.” Coën sounded like he was admitting a serious failing of his school and Ixora’s heart fluttered with affection. She tucked the toy beneath her body—to warm it, of course—and scooped him close to her side, long limbs draped across his broad frame. She tilted his head down and kissed him, slow and deep. A light touch here, a gentle brush there, a few nibbles down his jaw and he was soon hard again. Featherlight fingertips teased down the length of his prick from root to tip, before gliding back down beneath to stroke across the swell of his balls. She loved the feel of him; perfectly formed, long and thick. And she knew he liked the softness of her skin against his; her breasts against his chest as she toyed with him, the heat of her sex pressed against the muscle of his thigh. 

She pulled his leg between hers as she popped the cap of the jar and smoothed her fingers through the salve. Two big amber eyes watched her hand as it dropped back to his balls; she cupped them against her palm, two fingers sliding down his perineum. Light at first, her head tilted to the side, she watched his reaction as she retraced her route with a little extra pressure. He gasped, arm tightening around her shoulders. “Hmm - that, ahh. ” She circled back across the same spot until the heart below her other palm began to speed up.

“Why is it that all the men I have ever known have never taken the time to explore all their body has to offer?” She asked softly, watching his pupils expand as he rocked into her hand.

“It’s—ahh, mmm. Just—practical to—,” he trailed off as she reached his rim; the first gentle touches made him tense as she drew her hand away to top up the slick on her fingers. “So, how much does it usually hurt?” Now that he could get his breath back.

“You think your wolf friends would do it all the time if it hurt them?” She rested her head on his shoulder, listening to his heart, his breathing, his quiet whimpers and gasps as she began to circle his hole. She knew he’d cleaned relentlessly throughout the day; it would’ve been foolish to try and interrupt him—whatever made him comfortable—and now she could smell the expensive bath salts leaching out of his skin with his sweat. Mixed with the musk of their lovemaking, it was a heady combination. “Breathe, Coën.” She tilted her head briefly to place a kiss on his chest.

When he did start breathing again, and his body relaxed beneath her hand, she slipped one finger into the first knuckle. He clamped down on her immediately, unused to the intrusion, and then slowly eased as she rocked her hand. Slowly, with lots of gentle kisses and gentler encouragements, she worked him open until she could push two fingers inside and curve them. He was moaning now, trying to remain dignified as he did when he was focused on her, but losing the battle. “Ixy—,” he gasped as she found his prostate—the sweet spot she’d be abusing for pretty much the entire evening. “Oh, fu—.” He bit it back. Coën didn’t swear. It was one of the many adorable things she loved about him. Oh, that word kept sneaking into her head.

“Feel good?”

“Mmhm.” Lips clamped shut, because he was trying to remain controlled.

“I’d like to hear it if it does,” she readjusted, propping herself up on her elbow so that she could slide her fingers a little deeper and flutter her eyelashes at him, imploring. It worked flawlessly and he finally unclenched his jaw to gasp and moan as she moved her fingers inside him. “Who knew Griffins could sing so prettily?”

“Ha-aah,” Coën gasped.

“One more. Keep singing to me, pretty bird.” She eased a third finger inside him, pausing as he acclimated, before moving slowly again. It was tempting to make him come like this; she hadn’t even touched his cock for a while and it was twitching and leaking with every languid circle of her fingers. No. Far more fun to be had. She slipped her hand away and rolled over to pluck the harness from the box. Jaskier had thoroughly outdone himself; the leather was supple—soft against her skin—the buckles discreet, and the dildo itself clicked easily into place. Coën was biting—no, gnawing —on his lower lip as she climbed between his legs. 

“Umm—this, uh—well,” he shuffled a little, legs kind of… hanging in the air as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. They stayed there while she smothered the length of the glass in slick, and then stroked the excess gently across his shuddering hole. Yes, right, okay. This was going to happen. All perfectly fine. As planned. So why was he so nervous?

She leaned down and nipped his nose playfully. “You’ll probably want to wrap them about my waist,” his calves settled over the small of her back and she reached down to line the head up. “It might feel like quite a lot at first. Just breathe. And tell me if you need me to go slower.”

“Yes, right, fine,” he bit out and then she eased forward. “Ah! No, it’s too big—I—.”

She bit back her amusement. “Coën, the tip’s not even in yet.”

“Oh.” He flushed.

Rather than go any further, she leaned down to kiss him again. His lips were so full, so expressive; usually she’d have to go and find a woman to enjoy a mouth so fine. The muscles of his thighs relaxed at her waist, his hands pushed through the braids of her hair, across her shoulders, down the arch of her back. She moved her hips slowly and felt only a brief resistance as his body yielded. The Griffin shivered and she held, tucking her face beside his, listening to his heart, his breathing coming in quiet gasps. “Okay?”

“Y—yeah, thanks for, y‘know—warming it up.” He murmured; hadn’t even thought of that himself. You know, glass was cold, and— sweet gods above. She pushed a little deeper; he could feel the ridges passing over his rim, igniting the nerve-endings in a way he’d never really… considered before. As she pushed deeper, his legs tightened, his palms pressed into her back. “Ahh.” 

“Feel okay?” She purred, because he looked so beautiful; mist-eyed, ruffled and vulnerable.

After a little bit of internal panic, he managed to wrestle his body under control; it was odd, but not painful. Not like he’d expected. “Yeah. Good.” Coën smiled and wrapped his arms around her, legs lifting a little higher. When she withdrew he took a breath, and let it out again when she slowly pushed back inside. It felt better that time. Then she adjusted her angle and slid across the spot she’d found earlier and a shocked gasp broke out of his chest. “Oh, yeah, please.”

She grinned—he was even polite with a strap buried in his ass—and settled into a slow, gentle rhythm that allowed him to enjoy the catch of each of the ridges, and the long, smooth rub of the length over his prostate. His grip on her loosened as his body melted, and she slid a hand between them to stroke his cock. As his pleasure crested higher, his noise level matched it, and she bit her lower lip in amused adoration as he threw his head back and moaned her a symphony prettier than any found in a musical hall. Moans and gasps mixed with the occasional growl—ahh, there was the lion part—and she pushed him a little harder. “Ixy, yeah, yeah, please—.” Soon her hips were slapping against him, his body rocking to meet hers, his head thrown back as he was lost to the ecstasy of it.

His back arched; she felt the muscles below her contract and his cock twitched and hardened in her hand. She fucked him through it, easing the pace only slightly when his whimpers became a tad desperate. His spend coated her fingers, pooling in the dips of his stomach, and he dropped his hands away to claw at the bed sheets instead of her skin. 

Coën had never felt anything quite on the level of what trembled through his body in that moment. It wasn’t pooled solely in his groin and over in moments, but seemed to last forever and spool out through every limb. It whited out the edges of his vision and sent his mind spinning off into the ether. Even his gods-damned toes tingled. What? “Oh my—.”

“Oh my?” She drew out gently, her hand dropping back to unclip the buckles.

“Let me—let me find—some words,” he tried for a glare, but it ended up looking so thoroughly meak, and he flopped back into the pillows, legs splaying out as Ixora left the bed to clean Coën’s new favourite toy. It wouldn’t be the last time they’d use it tonight, but she had standards. 

By the time she returned to the bed, Coën was recovered enough to grab her by the waist and haul her onto the mattress. She chuckled, hands stroking across his shaven head as he placed kisses across her collarbone and down her chest. “Hmm. I take it you enjoyed that.”


“Don’t you want to rest?”

“Ixora,” he looked up from where he’d been worshipping the topography of her stomach. “I’m a gentleman. And gentlemen do not leave their ladies wanting.”

“Oh, I’m a lady, am I?” She nibbled her lip as he sunk lower, those broad shoulders nudging her thighs apart as his lips reached her groin.

“The strongest, most intelligent, wondrous lady on the Continent,” he whispered to the top of her lips before sinking his tongue between them to lave a long, warm lick across her clit. She wiggled happily, those muscular thighs flexing under the restraint of his hands. He quickly reduced her to shivering gasps with his mouth alone.

“Close the door behind you, Letho.” Jaskier didn’t look up from the dispatch before him. The feather of the quill brushed thoughtfully beneath his chin as he considered his next sentence. It was a simple acknowledgement of an official visit, but every word counted in this delicate tightrope he walked. He finished eventually with a flourish and put the paper aside to dry. “Update?”

It was three days since his chess match with Gaeten. Letho had left the estate to conduct a litmus test of the current political situation. “We need to start moving.”

“What? No, it’s too soon,” Jaskier lifted from his seat and gestured vaguely at the cabinet near his desk. “Geralt didn’t even fill in the blanks. He asked me about treason, he has no idea they even exist.

“Should’ve thought of that before you cut a nobleman’s hand off in your own fucking ballroom,” Letho growled. “That dispatch informing you of an official visit?”

“Well, yes, I’m assuming you have a bit more information.”

“One of the general’s retinue is partial to a brothel. Sees it as a personal mission to visit one in every major town of the northern kingdoms,” Letho rubbed the back of his head. “Paid a whore. She teased him into bragging. They’re suspicious of your little Witcher army.”

Jaskier scoffed. “Nine Witchers is hardly an army, we’ve kept it discreet, as you said—.”

“We haven’t though, have we? Because one of us is thinking with our brain, while the other is thinking with his cock,” Letho growled. “You’ve been so distracted with bedding them that you lost sight of the bigger picture.”

“You said I needed to gain their trust. We agreed that the Wolves would react to scent, they’d follow Eskel’s lead, the quickest way to do that was to—.” Jaskier planted his hands down on his desk, shoulders square, eyes narrowed.

“Eskel. You had to bed Eskel. But you needed to go for the fucking hattrick, didn’t you?”

“I think you’re forgetting your place, Letho.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Jaskier knew it as soon as the words left his mouth. The knife left the back of Letho’s belt in a blur of motion; the steel caught the flicker of candlelight as it embedded itself in the wood of the desk… right between Jaskier’s fingers. “It’s right here. Doing all the bloody, dirty work while you’re bouncing on Grayson’s cock in the bathhouse and tag-teaming your Wolves.”

“You could’ve cut my fingers off,” Jaskier wheezed, his heart hammering in his chest.

“No. I couldn’t. Because I have absolute control over myself. I measure every breath, every movement. Everything I’ve done since you recruited me out of that gaol cell has been calculated,” Letho seethed. “I told you no Cats for a reason. I told you we needed one of each of the others for a reason. Strength, alchemy, magic, knowledge. They’ll need all four. And what’ve you done since we got the Wolves here? You’ve almost derailed everything we’ve worked for.” He yanked the knife out of the desk, leaving splinters of wood to scatter over the back of Jaskier’s hand.

“I’m—,” Jaskier lifted his palm and rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry, I—the incident at the ballroom shook me more than I realised. I needed comfort, I needed—,” he grit his teeth, “I lost sight of the bigger goal. That’s why I needed you from the very beginning.  With Coën I allowed my heart to rule my head, with the Wolves, I—, well, the same. I knew this would happen, please, forgive me.” There were so many things about the Wolves of Kaer Morhen that drew Jaskier in, not least their family dynamic. Their closeness. Their protectiveness of each other. Everything Jaskier had lost.

The Viper slipped the knife into the sheath on the back of his belt and squinted at the Viscount thoughtfully. When they first started working together, he could never pin Jaskier down. At first, he’d been yet another rich little lordling with delusions of grandeur in Letho’s eyes, but Jaskier had proved him wrong in that regard. Their first year was spent learning. Letho showed Jaskier where he could find the information about Witchers, about the Continent’s past. A lot of the information had already been right here . One of the many reasons Jaskier had chosen this brand of revenge. “As I said, we need to get moving. We’ll get through the visit, but then act two begins.”

“Very well,” Jaskier sighed. “This all seemed like such an abstract concept a couple of years ago. Only when you found them did I realise that this could potentially happen—we could make this work.”

“Don’t count your chickens,” Letho rubbed a hand over his face. “I had two heads in the bag the second time and shit still went wrong.”

“Hm. It won’t go wrong this time, Letho. I promise. I’ll do better. For everyone’s sake,” Jaskier pulled the dispatch back towards him and folded it over. “How’s Gaetan?”

The Viper tensed. “Why’re you asking me?”

“Well, if I go near him myself our resident top Cat will probably tear my throat out with his teeth, and secondly, you’re clearly quite taken by him. I’m many things—some not so brilliant—but one of my finer attributes is the ability to read people. Isn’t that why you agreed to stay?”

Rather than answer the far deeper questions that were being asked of him, Letho went with the first. “His teeth are hurting him. Whoever tore them out didn’t do a very good job. If you could get him some gel, or salve, it’ll give him some relief.”

“I wish we had time to get a barber surgeon in to take a look—.”

“Yeah, well, we don’t. Not anymore. So, just get the salve.” And with that, Letho was gone.

Two days later, the Viper stepped out of his bedroom and kicked a basket that had been placed carefully just outside his door. He crouched down to inspect the contents closely. It was a rather large wood pigeon; plucked, gutted and washed. Ready to be cooked and eaten. There were a few pieces of fruit placed around it. No note, but there was really no question as to the origin of this little gift. Gaetan had braved the rest of the house—the staff, the guards with their black uniforms, Jaskier—in order to say thank you. 

Letho had never treasured a dead bird so much in his life.

Chapter Text

Jaskier had done so much to ensure the comfort of his Witchers, and he'd go farther, give them more, he'd do almost anything for them. When Aiden cast a doubtful eye at the healing salve Jaskier provided for Gaetan's mouth—salve Letho requested, but he was away at the time and couldn't deliver it—he rubbed some on his own gums to prove it wasn't poison and spent the better half of the day with a numb mouth, drooling slightly while Grayson kissed him. He let Geralt grunt and growl at him as he sank into Eskel, allowing the Witcher to somewhat claim his territory as Jaskier stepped into it, holding absolutely still as Geralt got behind him, grabbing his hips as they pushed into Eskel's already shaking body. He made sure Ixora and Coën were still stupidly happy after their 'ritual,' Coën didn't sit too comfortably the first morning but the awkward smile on his face soon became dopey and content after a few more days; Jaskier overheard Coën and Eskel talking quietly in the bathhouse, “I understand now, what you wolves see in it...”

Jaskier did so much, sacrificed so much—his coin, his own restful sleep, parts of his house—for his Witchers, ensuring they were safe and strong and loved, by each other and by him. So the day a shiver ran down Jaskier's spine and he turned his head to see more black in his courtyard than usual, his stomach dropped. They were finally out of time. Running from his office, he searched out the Cats first.

There were still a few hours of sunlight left in the day and he found them in the solarium, as usual. He stepped up to the doorway, careful not to fully enter the room or block the door. Even in his haste, he stayed well back. “Aiden,” he said, his voice low and calm.

Gaetan twitched into a ball and Aiden sprang to action, rolling in front of his brethren, blocking him from Jaskier's view with a low hiss. “Take Gaetan to his room, stay there with him until Letho comes to get you.” Jaskier disappeared from the door as quickly as he appeared and walked through the rest of the communal areas.

Ixora and Coën were twined together on one of the couches, the Manticore doing her best to distract him from the book he was reading, a playful smile on his face. Grayson sat on the other side of the room, quietly dozing, a book open flat on his chest. Wolves, wolves, where were his wolves...

Three happy voices echoed down the hall, and they appeared, walking and talking happily, about to turn towards the stairs and head down for a bath. Jaskier cut them off, laying a soft hand on Eskel's shoulder. When Eskel stopped, the others stopped, all their attention on Jaskier. Soft amber eyes smiled down at him and Jaskier ached to take Eskel's beautiful face in his hands and kiss every inch of that smile. “I need... I need everyone's attention.”

Jaskier kept his voice low but he soon had the attention of every Witcher in the house, even the Cats, who were safely hidden in their rooms. “I know I don't ask a lot of you, but we have a visitor coming and I need everyone to act casual. Go about your days as normal, don't let anyone get under your skin, don't react.”

“Jaskier,” Eskel asked, reaching out and taking his hand. Jaskier squeezed his fingers, hoping Eskel understood his meaning. “Don't react to what?”

They all heard it at once, sensitive Witcher ears picking up the sounds of heavy boots heading up their staircase. The normal guards didn't make that much noise when they changed posts, these boots were heavier, and there were more of them. “That,” Letho said.

Jaskier had seconds to regain his composure. He squeezed Eskel's hand again and whispered, “I love you all,” before stepping away and turning, face a placid mask as more black armor than they'd all seen in a while entered the library.

“Ah! General Maciej de Wett!” Jaskier greeted, his courtly smile well in place. “What a surprise. Your letter said tomorrow. I feel remiss that I haven't prepared a lunch for you and your Lieutenant.”

The General waved a black gloved hand, his eyes already sweeping the room, lingering on one set of yellow eyes after another. “We will not stay long, I hope. This is... quite the collection. I have heard talk, of course, especially after your spring coming out.”

Jaskier's lips turned down, but his eyes remained light and happy; he was good at walking the fine line between 'concern' and 'vacantly amused.' “Yes, I admit, things did get out of hand. Would you like to step into my office so we could talk without disturbing the others? My Wolves were just heading down for a bath. You sure you can't stay long? We have a lovely bathhouse here, I'd love to extend my hospitality.”

Another flick of his fingers, pushing the offer away. “No, I shall not have time. And these... wolves.” His eyes lingered on Geralt, taking in the infamous white hair. “If you do not mind, I prefer your collection stay where my men can see them. We will not be long.”

The general's (heavily armed) men dispersed around the room, casting glances at the Witchers. Coën curled a protective arm around Ixora and Grayson's eyes were open now, following each soldier around the room. Letho followed Jaskier and the General towards his office, closing the door behind them. He caught Eskel's eyes for a moment and shook his head. Get ready, puppies, he wished he could say.

With the door closed, Jaskier sat behind his desk, offering a seat to the General. He declined. Of course the bastard declined, preferring to stand there glaring down at him like a naughty school child. Letho set up by the door, hands held carefully behind his back. They planned to show him unarmed for the General's visit, but they were early. What kind of self respecting Nilfgaardian showed up early. As a culture, they were stupidly punctual, but this one had to be fucking early. He tried to think of everything he knew of General de Wett while also paying attention, bored smile pleasantly on his face. Time was, the de Wett family was not in good standing with the Emperor, his grandfather (or was it great-grandfather?) was even part of a plot to kill Emhyr. Over the past six or seven years, he'd shot up in rank, going from a no name Corporal in the Third Army, to a General living in the capital, having tea with the newest usurper.

“Once again, my apologies,” Jaskier said. “We did not expect you until tomorrow.” He picked up the dispatch on his desk, eyeing it to give himself more time to think. “Ah well, all that matters is you're here now. May I offer you a drink?”

“Thank you, no,” de Wett shifted, glancing back at Letho before addressing Jaskier again. “I will get straight to the point. There are concerns about you. You attacked a member of the Nilfgaardian gentry.” He left the statement hanging, waiting for Jaskier's response.

Jaskier shrugged. “You, yourself are a collector, are you not? Rare spirits and wine, last I heard. How would you feel if an invited guest walked into your wine cellar and poured an entire shelf down the drain? I imagine you'd have trouble controlling your temper as well.”

De Wett paused for a moment. “We're not discussing my temper, we are discussing yours. Yes, I agree with protecting one's valuables, it is your method we dislike—erratic, unfocused—you are too emotional about the things you collect, it clouds your judgment. Dare I say, you are starting to behave too like your father. We had a similar conversation with him. Though it was a shame he passed before he could mend his ways.”

Heat welled in Jaskier's stomach. His father's unfortunate passing, yes, that old lie. But he was supposed to be the foppish son who mourned his father appropriately then went about spending the family fortune on sex slaves, Jaskier picked his role carefully when he decided to take his revenge and his perfectly placid smile did not slip one inch despite his great desire to stab the dear General with the scissors sitting on top of his desk. “General, I'm afraid you have me at a loss. My father collected antique maps, a few manuscripts here and there, and the odd illuminated text. I have all his things downstairs mixed in with my own collections—sentimental value, you understand—what danger did his maps pose?”

Antique, I believe, is the word to watch for. Old Redanian maps with a Redanian crest, parchment inked with the Temerian Lily. Such things are undesirable to the Emperor, and yet your family seems to find them precious.” He turned his head, eyes sliding to Letho for the first time. “Your collecting habits are trending towards that same end.”

“I'm sure I have no idea what you're speaking of.”

De Wett's lip twitched and Jaskier had to keep his smile oh so neutral. Making a controlled Nilfgaardian lose their cool truly was an extraordinary high. “Seven Witchers I saw, we have records saying you own nine total. Looks like the beginnings of an army.”

“Ha!” Jaskier burst out laughing. The General did not seem amused. “My apologies, General, but nine does not an army make. You marched in here with what looks like your entire garrison, I fear for the structural integrity of my house after all those well made Nilfgaardian boots have gone.”

“Nine Witchers can do substantial damage,” he said. “Especially the way you are keeping them.” He glanced back at Letho. “You insist on getting them fighting fit. I wonder why.”

His own words said to that human shit stain Delcan Ros thrown back in his face. Jaskier schooled his expression, did not react. He peered over the General's shoulder at Letho. “Letho, be a dear and fetch Grayson and Eskel.”

“You got it, boss.” General de Wett arched an eyebrow at Letho's less than formal address, but said nothing more, watching with careful eyes as the Witcher left, and returned with two more.

“Ah, Grayson, Eskel, thank you for joining us.” Jaskier rose from his desk and walked to them both, stroking Eskel's cheek before scratching Grayson's beard, making little kissy noises with his lips, much to the General's disgust. “You'll forgive me, General, I know what sort of company your retinue prefers—half starved country girls sending their wages home from the city bawdy house—but I prefer a little cushion on my bedwarmers.”

Without another word, Jaskier grabbed the belt around Grayson's tunic and eased it free, dropping it on the floor. The tunic followed shortly after, leaving just Grayson's undershirt, which soon joined the pile. A little sparkle in his eye, Jaskier hummed happily, dragging his fingers through thick chest hair and over firm muscles before starting on Grayson's trousers.

“Pankratz, stop,” the General said, stepping away from the Witchers.

Jaskier didn't stop until he held Grayson's half-hard cock in his hand, displaying it like any other object in the cases downstairs, just another curiosity Jaskier owned. He lay his other hand on Eskel's shoulder, rubbing thick muscles barely contained by the fine fabric. “Magnificent specimens, aren't they, General? These two are my favorite. And I can assure you,” he gave Grayson's cock half a stroke, making the Bear bite down on a moan, “while they look fighting fit, that will never be their purpose again. If you pardon my vulgar Northern tongue, I like them fucking fit.”

Jaskier leaned in, pressing a filthy kiss to Grayson's lips—letting the General see his tongue—before leaning over and doing the same to Eskel. Unfortunately, Eskel wasn't as good of an actor, nor did he like being used as a prop. He almost backed away but Jaskier's steady hand on his shoulder kept him in place. Eskel kept his eyes open through the kiss and saw cornflower blue looking back at him, concern creasing the corners. “Mmm, really,” Jaskier mumbled against his lips. “You haven't lived until you've had a Witcher warm you cock all night.”

“Enough of this,” the General spat. “There is a time and a place to fondle your collection.”

“Yes, there is.” Jaskier released Grayson's thick cock and stepped possessively in front of him. “It is in my house, whenever I want. I'm a good subject, General, I pay my taxes, I keep to the ways of the Empire, all I ask is that I am left in peace to collect and enjoy my relics.”

General de Wett's brow tightened, lip curling. Grayson was still naked, his breathing a little tight, even for the relaxed Bear, a hard cock in front of an armed man was not an easy thing to be comfortable with. “Your relics are not the same as your father's, a Witcher is not an old map or an out of date text. They can be dangerous if not correctly contained.”

“I make every effort,” Jaskier said.

The General said nothing for a moment, his teeth grinding together. Clearly, he planned to show up and take Jaskier in on some violation or another—giving swords and weapons to dangerous beasts—only to find all his beasts lounging like sleepy cats. And he'd seen Grayson's armaments up close, nothing to be worried about...

“Shall I see you out?” Jaskier offered brightly.

“No. I shall see myself to the door.” Brushing past Eskel—de Wett didn't want to touch a Witcher at all, but a clothed one was better than a naked one—and stormed out of the office. Letho shut the door behind him, following the General out.

“I'm sorry.” The words burst out of Jaskier like they'd been fired from a bow. “I am so sorry, Grayson, Eskel. I promise, I will explain later. For now, get dressed, go back to the library. Please.”

Grayson recovered quickly, brushing close to Jaskier as he collected his clothes. But Eskel... fuck. He turned towards the door, hiding his face. Why? After so long, so many times with Jaskier promising and promising they weren't mere things to him, they were guests, he loved them, wanted to see them happy... This one was the lie, he was sure of it. His relics, just his things to be collected and used, it was a lie. But fuck, why did it feel so real this time?

Eskel opened the door, hot shame burning his face. He saw Geralt sitting close by and ran into his arms. “What happened?” Large, familiar hands patted him down and Eskel shook his head. I will explain later, Jaskier promised.

Standing at the window, Jaskier watched the General leave through the front gates, a sea of black following him. He saw his own guards stand up straighter, their uniforms neater than they had been just an hour ago. The General's early arrival was complicated for everyone, all the way down to his staff. Well, it wouldn't be a problem much longer.

“Letho,” he said, soft, voice not even carrying past the doors of his office. But Letho heard him. Witchers were good like that.

He heard the door open and his Viper slid into place next to it. “We're out of time.”

“Yes.” Jaskier scrubbed a hand down his face, running a finger over his lips, tasting Grayson and Eskel still there. He hated using them for a display, but that didn't make the kisses any less special. “I suppose we are.” He watched until the gates closed and the first half of the black mass turned up the road. He wanted to wait until they were truly gone, but Jaskier suspected they didn't even have time for that.

Finally, he turned and looked at Letho, his perfect hunter, the kingslayer he so desperately needed to make any of this work. “Are they strong enough?” Through his own observations, Jaskier would give a resounding yes to that question, with the small exception of Gaetan, who was never supposed to be part of the plan. The Wolves were fighting fit, Ixora had completely recovered from her injuries, and Coën's wounded heart had mended under Ixora's care; Aiden was still distrustful but that was one of the more useful attributes to Cats. And Grayson... Grayson was always in fit shape, no question there, but watching him lapse back into the lonely life Bears told themselves they preferred... Jaskier didn't want to think about it.

Letho nodded. “I'd say so. With the exception of the Cats, but like I said, they are not part of this plan.”

“Aiden can be useful—”

“Aiden doesn't trust you.”

“Do any of them trust me?” Jaskier asked in all sincerity. Getting them healthy was half the battle, he needed their trust as well for any of this to work. Eskel trusted Jaskier with the safety of his family, but did Geralt? As usual, the White Wolf truly was the linchpin here and Jaskier did not want to see it snap the moment he took his eyes off it.

Letho shrugged. “Doesn't matter, we have to move. Tonight. The General saw right through you and he'll be back. Before first light if he's smart.”

Jaskier shook his head. “He's not. All the words he said, all his threats, someone else gave him that information.” The assassination of Jaskier's father was a closely held secret within the current emperor's ranks. Jaskier had never heard even a hint of gossip about it, which spoke volumes; to keep tongues from wagging, the circle of a secret had to be small, the more people one added, the quicker it got out.

He closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples, trying to fight the tension building behind his eyes. “Geralt looked at the family tree, but he said nothing about it. He doesn't know Ciri had children. He doesn't know them, they don't know him.” Years of planning, all about to fall apart because of his own rash actions. Fuck.

“He's just gunna have to buckle up, ain't he, Buttercup?” He heard the smirk in Letho's voice. While Jaskier had been dragging his feet to get to this moment, Letho had waited for it with bated breath. He was ready to be unleashed, to do the damage he owed Nilfgaard.

Jaskier sighed and looked up. “I suppose I will. Gather them all together in the main library. Cats too. You can stay near Gaetan,” Jaskier said. Letho didn't need to ask, and he'd been so careful to stay away from the Cats up until now... but they were all truly out of time.

Jaskier walked from his office, bright smile back on his face. Eskel peered up at him, then dropped his eyes, leaning into Geralt's shoulder instead. I'm sorry, my love, Jaskier desperately wanted to say. I'm sorry my words hurt you. He focused instead on his own guards, walking over to the man standing by the main staircase. “Duncan, could you do me a favor? Have your men clear the residence floor for the moment.” Jaskier massaged his temples, making a show of the poor noble with too much to worry about. “The General's visit was... stressful, on my Witchers. I'd like some time alone to calm them. Letho will be with me.”

Duncan had been head guard in the Viscount's home for two years now and while he had his concerns about the Witchers, most of them seemed to enjoy Master Julian's hospitality (and then there were those who truly enjoyed it). Some might call Duncan a fool for giving a Witcher the benefit of any doubt, but with the Viper lingering behind Master Julian, his sharp eyes taking in the whole room like a good body guard should, he nodded. “Yes, Master Julian, the Viper will do fine for now. Don't hesitate to call us back.”

Jaskier smiled. “Of course, I thank you so much for your help.”

It took far too long to clear the guards. While Jaskier expected the General tomorrow, he took the precaution of setting more around the house in a visible show of strength, hoping General de Wett would see he was keeping a careful eye on his collection. It hadn't worked, but Jaskier was prepared for setbacks.

When the library doors closed, Jaskier looked up to see everyone gathered. Letho stood at the back, lurking protectively behind Gaetan, Aiden in front of him, lip twitching as he glared at Jaskier. He tried not to look directly at Gaetan, he'd made such great strides towards health, but the sight of the Witcher on his knees, mouth open... Jaskier shook that horror from his mind and focused on Eskel, who still leaned in close to Geralt and Lambert. Coën and Ixora were sat together, but Coën hadn't let go of her since the black ones first arrived. Normally, she'd push away his fussing but this time she stayed still, letting him protect her the way his instincts demanded as she eyed up the visiting soldiers for the best place to stick a knife, as her instincts demanded. Grayson, normally stoic and still, paced in small circles on the other side of the library, his eyes on Jaskier.

Jaskier gave him a small, sad smile when he noticed his shirt was still mussed from the earlier display. “I'm sorry,” he said, voice low. “I'm sorry I had to use you like that, Gray, and Eskel... I'm sorry to you all.” Jaskier took one last moment to let his eyes wander the room, to drink in the sight of his Witchers healthy and beautiful, their skin unblemished, their hair perfectly combed and cared for, muscles all they should be.

He took a moment, and then he hardened his heart for what had to come next. “Pack a bag. We're leaving. I know Witchers give politics a miss, vow of neutrality and so forth. This is bigger than all that. This is about restoring balance.”

“Balance. What's out of balance?” Coën asked.

Everything. The only way to stop Nilfgaard from destroying us all is to put the rightful heirs on the throne once again. And to do that, I’ll need you all to fulfill certain roles. And yours,” his eyes flicked to Geralt, “is the most important of all.”

The armor chafed like it never had before, and Eskel fucking hated it. Geralt was on the other side of the room, carefully going through their belongings and deciding what they needed to take. They'd never had belongings before, not like this, not the bottle after bottle of sweet-smelling oil for his hair that Jaskier gave him, or the books he loved so much Jaskier told him to take them from the library, “They're yours now, I'll get another if I need it. I want to see you happy.” That was the worst of it. Eskel was happy, so were Geralt and Lambert, happier than they'd been in so fucking long. And now they had to leave.

He threw things into a bag, he didn't know if they were things he needed or just things to sell later now that Nilfgaard turfed them all out on their asses. A strong hand on his shoulder made Eskel jump. “It's alright,” Geralt said. “I'm going to miss it here too. It was... nice. To have no worries for a time.”

“But you were right,” Eskel couldn't help but growl. “There was something bigger. I was too fucking stupid to see it!” He slammed the bag he was loading onto the floor, pushing down the urge to kick it away. Jaskier was playing everyone, playing him, and he fell for it, dragging the rest of his family down with him.

Strong arms wrapped around Eskel and their armor groaned as Geralt pressed them together. He was very familiar with that sound, he heard it all the time in the old days when Vesemir was still alive, when they arrived home for winter and embraced for the first time in so long. Now, Eskel didn't have to wait for an embrace from Geralt, or Lambert, they were across a room and he could see them, touch them, whenever his heart desired. But it was over, once again, they were being torn apart and Eskel was a fucking idiot to think it wouldn't happen.

Geralt pressed his nose into what little of Eskel's neck he could reach. “I didn't know what the fuck I was right about. But I do know that this isn't the end, far from it. We're strong now, we can get our lives back. When this is over, you and me and Lambert, we'll all go back to Kaer Morhen, fix it up, and fuck our brains out for a year straight. I promise.”

“I've had enough promises,” Eskel said. “Don't give me another if you're just going to break it.”

“I'm not going to break this one. Jaskier's right. No one's better at tracking Ciri than me, I can find her rightful heir.” Geralt closed his eyes and relaxed into Eskel's back. Relief washed over him for perhaps the first time since he was captured. Yes, his fears and anxieties slowly melted away as he learned to, not trust Jaskier, but he no longer distrusted him, and now, the last lingering bits of doubt were almost gone.

Geralt's heart was going too fast all morning. First with the sea of black washing through the house, then the pain etched across Eskel's face with no visible source, and now... Ciri. Part of him knew her death hadn't been natural. It all seemed too sudden, too clean, and when he went looking, slammed doors in his face quickly turned to swords threatening him to fuck off Witcher, none of your concern. He should've pressed harder, but when the choice became between searching for information and staying alive, well, he couldn't fucking learn anything if he was dead. Then the base of survival filled his mind, the only thing he could focus on for too long, even here. And now, Jaskier handed him all the information he needed on a silver platter. Geralt liked having a plan, a direction, he couldn't see the direction before trapped in this golden cage, but he had it now. And like a hound with a scent, he'd follow the path ahead of them.

“You've done so much already,” he whispered to Eskel. “You made sure we were healthy and strong. Now it's my turn to protect us. I will see our family whole once again.”

Lambert disappeared with Aiden the moment Jaskier set them all into the house and left to take care of a few final affairs. Gaetan shook at the sight of Jaskier, but Letho stepped up, offering his arm for the small Cat to lean on. “I got him,” he grumbled to Aiden. “Go fuck, make it quick.” Lambert and Aiden both growled, but took him up on the offer anyway.

Ixora and Coën made their own preparations and Grayson withdrew to his room, coming out a while later dressed in his armor—as Jaskier requested—his hair perfectly combed for possibly the last time, and a traveling bag over his shoulder. “Grayson,” Jaskier called from his office. “A hand please?”

Grayson set his bag down and went into the office. He enjoyed being called to Jaskier's office most of the time (not earlier today, not really) and looked fondly at the small chunk missing from the corner of the desk, from when Grayson fucked Jaskier so hard, his nails tore off a piece of the wood in their passion. He was going to miss this house.

Jaskier stood behind the desk, the portrait of the estate sitting on the floor by his feet, the door to the wall safe wide open. Stacks and stacks of papers looked ready to spill out, along with heaping bags of gold. It wasn't anywhere near the amount of money Jaskier had to his name, but given the visit earlier today, those accounts were probably already seized. He expected this... just not so soon.

“Jaskier,” Grayson said.

Jumping a little, he recovered quickly, stepping out from behind the desk. He came to a stop in front of Grayson, but did not touch him; his fingers twitched to do so, to bury themselves in that beautiful hair, but Jaskier already did enough non-consensual touching today. “I'm sorry, Grayson. For earlier. I respect your bodily autonomy and I never, ever want to touch you without permission—or treat you like an object—but it pains me that it was nec...necess... fuck.” Jaskier hung his head. He couldn't get the word out. Necessary. It was necessary to paw at Grayson and strip him for show, ignoring the hard cock in his hand that Jaskier so wanted to worship with his lips... but that wasn't his fucking roll. And Eskel, the betrayal on his face. “Fuck,” Jaskier hissed out.

Tears started to roll down his cheeks as Grayson gathered him close, one solid thumb brushing them away. “There is no room for tears on the Path, and that's where we must now go.”

“Yes.” Jaskier hiccuped, trying to regain his control. This is what he was waiting for, the day they planned for, he simply didn't think ripping nine people out of their comfort would be this hard, because he was a fucking idiot.

“What do you need?” Rubbing their noses together, Jaskier shivered, melting a little into Grayson's arms, just for one moment more.

Jaskier kissed him, letting himself taste the ale from lunch and the fresh wine they shared the night before as Grayson slowly fucked into him. Then he pulled his shitty emotions together and got back to the plan. “Give these to everyone.” Jaskier returned to the safe and fetched every bag of gold, along with several of the papers.

Grayson looked them over. Letters of credit. “Will these still be good?” Jaskier had the right instinct, gold was heavy, they couldn't carry too much out on the road, not if they were to finish the missions Jaskier assigned them, the letters of credit were a good addition to those finite resources, but there was a risk they might be canceled.

“Oh yes, Nilfgaard can do a great many things, but topple Vivaldi's bank isn't one of them. The last time they tried to take over, Vimme had all the gold in the empire melted into bricks and buried under the Mahakam Mountains. That was almost three generations ago with the first Usurper, the resulting credit bubble nearly destroyed the empire. No, these are good. More importantly, any bank will take them.”

Grayson took the coin and the credit slips, lingering for a moment to stroke Jaskier's cheek—possibly the last tender touch they'd share—and returned to the others, handing out their portions. Geralt examined the bag of gold and the five thousand crowns worth of letters of credit the Bear handed him. “Is he fucking serious?”

“I've never known him to be less than serious when it comes to us.” Grayson nodded and left Geralt and Eskel alone once again.

Geralt placed the bag of gold with his things, handing a few of the notes to Eskel before tucking the others into the secret pocket Jaskier built into his armor. “I will say this for him, he sure as hell knows how to plan big.”

Shortly after sunset, they needed to make their move. It was down to Letho to prepare the way—things always came down to Letho, but here he was more than happy to comply. Finally, the action was starting.

He walked down the corridors towards the bathhouse, tapping each guard on the shoulder. A little too on edge from their day of excitement, most of them jumped, even the ones who were used to Letho's presence. “Master Julian wants privacy. Clear this hall. Your new post is at the courtyard entrance. Off ya pop.” He dispersed the guards around the house, clearing the path to the bathhouse.

Standing at the bottom of the stairs, he closed his eyes and listened to the servants in their quarters. “M-master Julian,” Frederic, the house manager stammered, “this is entirely too much. I beg of you, we can transition to any new house—”

“And you know I'd be happy to have you, but I'm afraid I shall be quite indisposed for the foreseeable future. As for the payment, I find it more than fair. Please, ask your staff to continue work for at least three more days, then you can consider your service to me finished. Take as much food as you like when you all leave. Letters of recommendation are already in your quarters.”

Letho tried to convince him just to disappear. Servants who suspected something talked, servants who were paid off talked more. But Jaskier had faith in his staff for some reason. “Besides,” he always countered when Letho tried to bring him around to his idea, “if I simply disappear, they'll think all my savage Witchers made off with me. Nilfgaard already has one bounty on yellow eyes, let's not make it two.”

Letho bounced on the balls of his feet, waiting for Jaskier to finish speaking. When he pacified Frederic's worries, the door to the servant's quarters opened and Jaskier joined Letho at the foot of the stairs. “Now, Wolf,” he whispered under his breath, knowing three sets of ears were pricked for those words.

Ixora and Coën led the group down the stairs, the Wolves in the middle protecting the Cats—Letho's breath caught when he saw Gaetan in his armor, he wasn't strong enough for a fight, but it would protect him on the road—and Grayson bringing up the rear. During the party, Letho didn't have time to inspect them in their armor, he didn't really care, but after so long alone, the last Viper, something warm stirred inside him. Seeing Witchers of any school stand tall and proud, no longer starved or injured, kitted out properly, it made Letho... fuck, he wasn't good with words, but damn if he didn't like the sight of all of them together. Yeah, he liked it. And he liked the idea that this would be the last sight for a lot of Nilfgaardians.

“Quickly,” Jaskier said, and led them towards the darkened bathhouse. With their unwanted guests today, no one had time to light the candles, which was all the better for their purposes.

Over in the far corner, passed the benches covered in fresh towels, hidden behind a table filled with soaps, scents and oils, Jaskier pressed his hand over one of the tiles. Letho moved the table out of the way just as the wall slid open, revealing a downward staircase. Stale air and the smell of damp earth floated up at them and Jaskier took a second to adjust his traveling cloak. “Alright, single file, nice and easy.” Letho stepped in front of Jaskier and let the human hold onto his shoulder for guidance in the dark. Darkness wasn't a problem for Witchers.

The stairs led out into a tunnel and at one point, everyone turned sharply at the sound of the door scraping closed behind them. “No going back now.” Letho smirked.

They stopped half way down the tunnel and Letho pointed to a niche in the wall. “Arm up. You've all been useless long enough.”

“Fuck yes,” Lambert growled, pulling two swords from the rack. As usual, Jaskier went to great expense to make sure every detail was correct, three sets of School of the Wolf Swords, one Manticore, one Griffin, one Cat. Gaetan wasn't strong enough for swords yet, but Jaskier had no doubt he'd be safe with Aiden. With their armor and their weapons returned to them, the Witchers were finally whole.

The tunnel wasn't too long, and let out on the other side of the estate, away from the beautiful coastal vista they saw through the bathhouse windows and towards the lush forests on view from the solarium. The staircase took them down the hill the manor was built on, hiding them under the treeline, still close, but undetectable.

They all burst out into the clearing and for a moment, Jaskier's heart seized. Will they run? Geralt and Eskel walked to the farthest edge of the small clearing, breathing in deep, getting the smell of the forest in their lungs again. There were trees ringing the estate, the smells and sounds of nature, but behind walls and a gate... even the most open and beautiful home felt so far away from the real world. Jaskier looked around and saw all his Witchers taking a second to bask, casting half curious looks to the wagon and horses waiting for them.

“Everybody good? Smelled the dirt enough?” Letho called. No one answered. “Good, assignments. Ixora, Coën, you're headed South. There's a base of operations there we need you to secure.”

“Yes, I remember,” Ixora said. “I already have the map.”

“Good. Better get on it then.” He watched with his flat snake eyes as she curled her lip at him, then turned away, Coën following close behind. Less than three seconds later, they were gone, completely hidden by the trees. Letho didn't like putting his faith in other people, but Ixora knew her shit, and Coën would follow her lead to the letter. Their team was solid.

“Wolves, Grayson, you're with the boss. Get in the wagon.” Grayson arched a bushy eyebrow at being ordered around, but went anyway. Geralt, Eskel and Lambert didn't move, gathered together as far away from the house as possible, they seemed in the middle of something.

Jaskier tugged on Letho's elbow. “Give them a moment.”

“Fine.” Letho rolled his eyes and looked away, giving them their stupid privacy to lick each other, or whatever Wolves did. As he turned his head, his eyes fell on Gaetan, still so close to Aiden, it looked like he wanted to climb into the other Cat's armor. Nervous eyes darted to Jaskier, then softened when they met Letho's. Something twisted in Letho's chest, but it wasn't pain, pain was familiar and expected. It was...

“Yeah, uh, I need a minute too.” Letho walked across the clearing, ignoring Aiden's hiss. “Can I have a second?” he asked, eyes still on Gaetan.

“Aiden!” Jaskier called, coming in just as Aiden was about to tell Letho to piss off snake boy. “May I have a word? I made arrangements for you and Gaetan.”

Gaetan flinched as he heard Jaskier speak his name, but shook his head. “Go, Aiden, I'm fine. Letho's... good.” Casting one more dark look over his shoulder, Aiden begrudgingly marched over to Jaskier, brand new swords close to hand. As soon as they were alone, Gaetan shuffled closer. “So, no more chess I guess.”

“Oh, shut up.” Before Letho knew what he was doing, he leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Gaetan and lifting him into the kiss. Crackled lips met his and every thought in Letho's head dimmed.

The conversation between Jaskier and Aiden— “It's a safe house. No one will find you there. Here's the key.” “You sure? You just got burned by Nilfgaard. What says they aren't waiting?” “They aren't, just take the fucking key and get him better.” —he was supposed to be paying attention. If the feral kitty didn't want to play, it wouldn't hurt their plans, but it might hurt Gaetan. Letho wanted to listen in, make sure Aiden put aside his bullshit, but he couldn't think... Gaetan's lips parted and Letho swept his tongue inside.

A million new thoughts filled his head. Lazy afternoons in the sun, Gaetan curled into his side and purring; long nights thrusting into that too small, too tough body, nails like claws raking over Letho's shoulders as Gaetan panted, yes, please, more; then, after, he'd curl around, holding him completely, keeping him safe. But he'd never have any of those things, all he had was this. So Letho curled tight around Gaetan now, scrappy legs gripping around his hips as he squeezed, trying to melt them together for the moment.

Gaetan so wanted to rub his nose along Letho's cheeks, rub his face over his neck, lick his scar. But he was held so tight, so fucking secure, all he could do was kiss, breathing in the sweat and leather smell that clung to him. Gaetan had spent too much of the past few years held prisoner, used, abused, bound and chained until he couldn't stand it and he broke. Cats weren't meant to be restrained, and yet, with Letho's tree trunk arms around him, Gaetan didn't feel restrained. He felt safe.

“Fine. Thank you,” Aiden's voice drifted over and Letho slowly lowered him to the ground.

“Go,” Letho said. “Be safe.”

Gaetan nipped his bottom lip softly. Aiden took a moment to pounce on Lambert, kissing him furiously, so Gaetan leaned into the heat of Letho's arms. “After all this is over, I'm coming back for the rest of that kiss.”

Gaetan pulled back before Letho could snatch another kiss, falling in next to Aiden, who finished tonguing Lambert and turned them towards the woods. Gaetan was too weak to fight, but he could travel. At least they'd be safe together...

Letho shook the fog from his head. He had a job to do now. Glancing at Jaskier, he gave him a little salute. “See you again maybe. Unless this all goes to shit.”

Jaskier tried to smile, but his jaw shook a little too much. “If it all goes to shit, I'm sure I'll be in the cell right next to you.” Jaskier didn't lie often, but Letho knew he was trying to spare his own feelings here; if they weren't successful, Nilfgaard would execute them in the middle of some forest, drop their bodies in the sea, no record of an attempted coup...

“Keep an eye on him!” Letho called to Grayson and the Wolves. He didn't wait for their answer, just turned and ran through the trees, towards his objective. Finally, time to do what he did best.

Only Geralt, Eskel, Lambert, Grayson and Jaskier remained. Grayson, already sitting in the cart, offered Jaskier a hand up. Nodding, Jaskier joined him and let the Bear put a strong arm around him. In a moment, he'd have to drive, only he knew where they were headed, but he wanted to be close, one last time. “I wish I had one more night with you,” he whispered in Grayson's neck. “All of you.”

A few feet away, Eskel twitched and Geralt and Lambert stepped in closer. “It's a good plan. Cut the heads off the hydra, put the Swallows back in power.”

“If they're still out there.” Now that they were free—from the house, from Jaskier's direct control—Geralt thought he'd be happy. Sure, he'd learned to accept Jaskier's company, saw how happy he made Eskel, enjoyed the Viscount's wicked tongue... But he knew he was missing something. He just didn't know it was this big. He'd feel guilty about it later, right now, they needed to get as far away from the manor as possible.

One hand on Eskel's shoulder, they all walked to the wagon and climbed in. Jaskier took his position in the driver's seat and for the first time, Geralt realized how much Jaskier trusted them. He had no power over them any more, no means to keep them in line save the insane fucking plan they all had a hand in. Yet, he willingly turned his back to the men he collected, then armed. If Geralt wasn't sure of Jaskier's resolve before, he sure as hell was now.

The wagon started to move, heading off into the trees, away from comfort and happiness and towards the unknown.

General de Wett returned the next morning with twice as many men, all armed to the teeth, expecting a fight with nine Witchers completely loyal to a treasonous Viscount.

He arrived to find an empty house.

Chapter Text

“I don’t feel comfortable with this,” Coën whispered from their vantage point in the bushes. Three days of travelling and they finally reached their destination in southern Temeria. Their target was an ailing, elderly Nilfgaardian general. Jaskier’s instructions had been quite clear; make it quick and painless.

“Jaskier said he is a dead man already,” Ixora stroked her fingers through Coën’s beard as the Griffin crouched down next to her, his eyes pensive. “We are simply quickening the process.”

“Where are all the guards? The servants? The place is empty.”

“He retired to solitude but for a handful of people. Hasn’t been seen in court for at least two years. Won’t be missed. Jaskier said there wouldn’t be any house staff here when we arrived.”

Coën sighed. “Very well. Let’s get this over and done with.”

This was not his role as a Witcher. Assassination contracts were the realms of Cats and Vipers. His gaze kept sliding across to Ixora as they traversed the grounds under the cover of darkness. There was a single occupied room in the modest, two-storeyed dwelling; weak candlelight flickered and wavered in the wind spilling through the cracked window. Ixora went first, scaling the creaky trellis frame with ease, before peeking through dirty glass. A silent flick of the hand gestured Coën up after her and they slipped silently into the house.

The general lay in bed, his dark hair plastered to his forehead with sweat; his skeletal arms rested on top of the blanket pulled up to his narrow chest. From the size of his shoulders, Coën could tell that this was once a tall, formidable man, but now he’d been reduced to a wraith; a mere shadow of what he had been.

Ixora approached the bed silently and slid a knife from the back of her belt. She wouldn’t make Coën do this part; he already felt bad enough with his complicity. Watery green eyes flickered open and shifted to her slowly, as if even looking was an effort. There was no fear, no anger; just a passive acceptance, like he expected them. The mottled column of his throat bobbed as he swallowed, but from the smell pouring out of his mouth there was no moisture to warrant the gesture.

“Wait, stop—,” Coën put his hand up as Ixora shifted the blade in hers, “look at these veins.” He gestured to the man’s pale neck; there were dark, sickly green lines spidering up it ending just below the jaw. “This isn’t a natural death. I can smell the poison in him.”

“Nilfgaardians are always poisoning and murdering each other,” Ixora sighed, impatient. “This should be no surprise to you, my Griffin.”

“He’s suffering…” Coën murmured, because he could smell the pain too; the body before him was just too weak to express it in anything other than shallow, shuddering sighs. “Fine. End it for him.”

As instructed, the general’s death was quick and painless; Ixora slid her knife quickly through his temple and the last clinging embers of light faded from his eyes. They wrapped his body in the linen sheets and blankets soaked in sweat and other miscellaneous bodily fluids, and they burned it all. The night was so dark that not even the silvery light of the moon and stars could highlight the black smoke that curled up into the sky. 

The rest of the house was empty. The pantry was completely bare but for some salts and seasonings. Every item of furniture was either quilted in dust or swamped in a sheet to protect it. “It’s like he was expecting the end.” Coën said as he peered into yet another barren room, devoid of life or character. With the grounds and the building secure—Coën spent some time fixing locks and locating all of the entrances—they headed out into the wilderness to find food. After two days, the pantry was stocked with cured meats, wild fruits and nuts, some root vegetables and a collection of pelts.

They chose a room near the front of the house and Coën made love to Ixora on the four poster bed, her muscular legs wrapped about his waist, her lips branding his skin with demanding kisses as he moved inside her. He nosed down her neck and into her hair, seeking out the rich scent that reminded him of a desert oasis; a haven in a life characterised, until recently, by emptiness and hardship. She unpacked their favourite toy—hastily thrown into her bag when preparing to depart Kerack—and with the windows and doors closed, the surrounding countryside quiet, she turned Coën over onto his front and pressed inside him again; pushing deeper, moving faster. His moans of pleasure were music to her ears, imploring her for more, scrambling at the bed sheets. No other had ever brought him such pleasure, and she revelled in undoing him so.

On the fourth day, it was time for her to leave. She placed a lingering kiss on his forehead, and they embraced; arms wrapping tightly around solid, powerful bodies that somehow didn’t seem powerful enough given the task ahead. “Come back to me, Ixy.” Coën whispered, nuzzling her one final time.

She drew back and traced the craggy lines of his face, her thumb gliding over his brows and then down his cheek to the line of his beard. She was a woman of few words, but their shared moment didn’t need something as base, as naive, as sweet utterances. Their foreheads pressed together, eyes briefly closed, and then Ixora pulled away to disappear into the surrounding woodland.

Coën would protect the house. She had other appointments to keep.

Letho watched his first target for three days. There were four on his list before he finally reached the neck he really wanted to wring; the usurper himself. The problem was that while the Emperor was a standard, uninteresting specimen of humanity, his puppeteers were not. The very same puppeteers that had convinced him to issue a kill order on all Witchers over a year ago.

So, this was very personal. 

The first sorcerer was a keen alchemist. He sat up in his laboratory working late into the night on most days and because he was arrogant—assured of his invincibility as both a sorcerer and adviser to the Emperor—he always allowed his guards to retire at the stroke of midnight. Something about their breathing being impossibly loud in the silence of a sleeping world.

Letho climbed the outside of the tower, sticking close to the cracked masonry to avoid detection. Although he was a big man in every sense of the word, he was agile and stealthy as befitted his school. He slipped in through the skylight—a wide, open section of roof that allowed the moon to bathe the experiments in a silvery aura—and hid in the shadows as the sorcerer shuffled noisily around his workspace. “Imbeciles. I gave very clear instructions—why can no one follow simple instructions?”

His target, although several hundred years old, was staggeringly beautiful in appearance. His shock of black hair was slicked back with expensive oils, his keen green eyes bright and clear, his pale skin smooth and unblemished. Almost a shame, really.  Letho waited until the sorcerer was hunched over a workstation before he dropped down silently from the rafters, his boots stashed in a nearby thicket along with his bags, his bare feet made no sound as he covered the distance between them.

He monitored the fall of his shadow, but the high point of the moon meant that he didn’t have much to worry about. The knife slid silently from the sheathe across the back of his belt, and he spun it around to point the blade to the floor. One big hand secured around the sorcerer’s mouth first; he felt teeth bite into the leather palm of his glove but a moment before the blade itself slid into the side of his victim’s neck, cutting ligaments, cartilage and flesh as if it were butter on a dinner plate. 

Blood erupted out over his hand as he kept the hilt flush until the fitting body against his chest stopped fighting. He lowered the sorcerer down onto the worktop and wiped his blade on satin robes, leaving behind streaks of dark crimson. Now to make it look like an accident. Letho had chosen the laboratory for many reasons, not least because it was far easier to locate enough chemicals to make a big explosion. Luckily for the Viper, his target had been experimenting with fulminating gold, and because he was a lackey of the Emperor—or rather, vice versa—there was a lot of it lying around. 

Letho gathered as many of the beakers together as he could, and then built the beginnings of a small fire beneath the table; it was made of wood itself so wasn’t exactly an obstacle. He found a rope to use as a fuse, and dipped it in lamp oil before tucking one end beneath the pile of wood and dousing that in fuel too. There were plenty of other combustible materials in the workshop; the fulminating gold would be the very tip of the iceberg. A highly explosive iceberg. He climbed out of the window facing away from the main street and ignited the rope once he was hanging from the windowsill.

The hemp ignited with a small Igni and the flame ate its way rapidly towards the source. By the time the heat had built enough to detonate the laboratory, Letho was already several streets over with his bag thrown over his shoulder and his shoes back in place. Locals sped past him with buckets full of water, but with his hood pulled up, broad frame shrouded in a cloak, he might as well have been a statue or lamppost. 

It was always best to leave town immediately upon the completion of a “contract”, so Letho headed out of Vizima’s gates into Temeria proper. Without a horse, he had to travel by foot, but he preferred it that way. Horses required care—maintenance—whereas he could get by on very little of either. His first few nights in the wilderness had been oddly difficult. While living with Jaskier he’d often missed the simplicity of camping under the stars, of hunting for his food and tending to a fire through the night to avoid freezing to death. Locked up in the lonely prison cell, it was the stars he missed the most. No windows, no ‘yard time’ with the other prisoners, he’d almost forgotten what they looked like.

Now he looked at the stars a lot while he camped. He traced the constellations and watched meteors streak across satin blue. Usually Letho would use this quiet time to retrace his plans, recite each step carefully to ensure he didn’t make a misstep. Not this time. This time he thought of a little, runty Witcher with bright yellow eyes full of cunning intelligence that saw right through him. He thought of the missing tooth that just made him look—Letho’s entire being convulsed as the word ‘cute’ rose unbidden in the back of his mind.

Thick fingers traced across his lips, tongue lapping out to wet them as if he could still taste Gaetan. His palm dropped to his chest as he memorised the feeling of Gaetan’s too small, tough as coffin nails, beautiful body against his, the way he’d melted—oh fuck. The Viper ran both hands down his face and kicked irritably at the dirt. Centuries. Centuries. And this had never happened. Yet a handful of months with a beaten up, scraggly stray and his heart decided to make an appearance.  If only he’d had a few more weeks. Maybe another month. A kiss could have become holding him at night, arms wrapped around his shoulders, hands soothing scarred skin; he’d feed him and then soothe his mouth with salve and gentle kisses, and—

Letho growled and threw himself irritably down onto his bedroll. At first he folded his arms and tried to go back through the machinations of the next stage of the plan, but his mind stubbornly wandered back to his imaginary evening on the fur rug before the fire. Gaetan’s ass was small enough to sit in his hand, his body would be tight, probably timid. It might take months to get him comfortable enough—relaxed enough—to take Letho’s cock. Maybe Letho would take his instead, trap him between his thighs and ride him slow until he was hissing and spitting with frustration. Cat eyes from a Cat Witcher smiling up at him, breathy little pants curling through his ears as he eased down, rocking his hips, clawed hands suddenly soft as they held on for dear life, Letho’s cock hot and heavy across that tight stomach...

“Fuck,” Letho snarled and rolled onto his back, picking open the ties of his trousers to free his cock. It was heavy and flushed, the leather and metal of his gambeson cold as he lay it over his stomach. He liked to start slow, circling his fingertips along the bottom, base to tip, mapping the veins from memory. Usually he pretended it was some pretty thing from a nearby town; a stablehand with a nice jaw, or a barmaid with bright eyes. This time it was Gaetan. His—fuck, yes, his —Cat running tentative fingertips across Letho’s cock, exploring, perhaps pausing every now and then to arch up for a kiss. He licked the pad of his thumb and circled the crown, imagining a wet tongue. Small licks, feeling, tasting his way around.

Maybe Letho’s fingers would be inside him while he was doing it; massaging, stretching, teasing. That little ass would wiggle, wouldn’t it? No fucking way Gaetan wouldn’t writhe and tease. Perhaps he’d use that clever mouth and suck along Letho’s shaft, that purr would rumble up Letho’s spine and gather like a warm heat in his chest. The Viper pulled his glove off with his teeth and finally wrapped his shaft in a firm grip, eyes sliding closed. He’d spread Gaetan out on that rug, legs as far as they’d go, glistening hole eager and gaping already, but still not entirely prepared for what was about to come. He’d ease the head of his cock in real slow, watch as that little body opened wide for him; Gaetan moaning, pleading for more, nails clawing at the rug as Letho held his hips still. Take what you’re given, moggy. 

Would he be noisy? Or silent? Definitely noisy. Letho had never met a Cat that was quiet outside of stalking prey; they were all purrs, growls, chirps and rumbles. Purr for me. He’d be so tight—Letho clamped his hand around his shaft and thrust up into it—so needy. Gaetan was lithe, Letho knew there’d be a bulge in his stomach and he imagined placing his hand there to feel the head of his cock pressing through defined abdominal muscles. Would have to be gentle at first, but it wouldn’t matter because Gaetan’s body would grasp him so tightly as he thrust into him. “Ahh, fuck. ” Letho came with a low snarl, come erupted over the edge of his fist and pooled on the soil as he tilted his hips. 

His fingers would tease over his hole, perhaps dipping inside to tease through all the come painting his insides; he’d hold their bodies together, mix their sweat and their pheromones, and kiss his Cat until he fell asleep. 

What could have been. 

Letho sighed, tucked himself away and turned over to sleep. Or try to.

It was a hunting lodge. Unused for many years by the looks of it, but Aiden still conducted a brief reconnaissance before he beckoned Gaetan out of the bushes. The furniture was covered in white dust sheets and the cupboards were empty but for a few rotten herbs and seasonings. They hunted together and came with a rabbit and a pheasant apiece and Aiden piled the hearth high. This far out the smoke wouldn’t attract any unwanted attention.

“Where’re you going from here?” Gaetan asked finally; he sat on a low bench at what passed for the dining table in the kitchen area. The whole lodge was only about four rooms; two bedrooms, a bathing area and an open plan kitchen and living room with a workstation for prepping kills.

“Every instinct I have is telling me to forget about this bullshit and just return to the usual,” Aiden murmured as he cut through the rabbit’s hide with the hunting knife; it was blunt when he found it, but using the last slither of whetstone from a drawer it was as good as new. “But once you’re feeling better, then I’m heading out after Lambert.”

“You love him,” Gaetan examined his nails. It was a statement, not a question. “That’s gonna’ get you killed and you know it.”

“Don’t lecture me, I’m nearly twice your age, I know—,” Aiden circled the knife in Gaetan’s general direction, before chucking it down on the table and ripping the fur from the rabbit’s carcass. “I stayed away from him because I thought I’d get him killed, and a ton of other shit that just seems completely… minor now. I’m not losing him again.”

“Yeah, didn’t you used to wear an eye patch?”

“It got torn off during the fight with Letho, and you know what? It’s fucking liberating not wearing it.”

“Huh,” Gaetan dropped his chin into his palms. “He said it took him a week to find you, with just a name. Pretty good for someone outside the school.”

Aiden glanced up from his work with a smirk, but said nothing more. The attraction between the two of them had been obvious even before the kiss. Long stares exchanged over the room, Gaetan’s insistence that they go into the solarium whenever Letho was there and then there was the day he snuck out to hunt a bird, despite his terror. After that little outing, he’d curled up under the weighted blankets for a few hours. You didn’t put yourself through your own brand of hell without some pretty strong feelings.

“You know, he’s a really private man. Holds everything close to his chest, and then—,” Gaetan trailed off, his fingers brushing across his lower lip. Everything he’d observed about Letho contradicted that single act of emotional outpouring. His Viper was quiet, reserved; his emotions were something that belonged only to him and he didn’t like sharing them with others. Someone with that level of emotional moderation didn’t let it slip. Not for a second and certainly not in front of others.

That meant he didn’t think he had anything to worry about anymore. Perhaps he didn’t expect to see those people again, or he didn’t need to maintain that reputation anymore, which meant—

Oh fuck.

Which meant he didn’t expect to survive this? The thought crashed over Gaetan like a bucket of icy water. It chilled him through to the very bones and he sat up straight suddenly at the table.

The kiss had been a dying wish. 

He didn’t mention any of this to Aiden. They ate together and discussed some inane bollocks about katakans and the many uses of their fur, then Aiden bedded down near the fire and sent Gaetan to sleep on the bed. It was covered in dust and the room smelled of damp and mildew. It didn’t matter, because the moment he heard soft snores from the main room, he grabbed the hunting knife, slipped out of the window and disappeared into the night.

Time to hunt a Viper.

The wagon rattled slowly through the countryside. They were following paths known only to Jaskier, but Eskel found himself caring less and less. A deep melancholy had settled over him and not even Geralt was able to shift it. When they made camp, he sat outside the firelight and stared into the night, lost in thought.

He was angry.

At himself, at Jaskier, at Geralt. 

He was angry at himself for a variety of reasons that all cut deep in the cold light of day. For thinking he could keep his pack safe under someone else’s roof, for allowing himself to feel comfortable and happy rather than seeking out the truth, for using his body like a cheap whore to gain favour. The latter wouldn’t be such a problem if everything had stayed as it was. It was… fuck, it was nice. Being shared between Geralt and Jaskier, having them both at the same time. But now, out in the real world, it made him feel cheap.

The anger at Jaskier was easy to pinpoint. He’d made a promise, and now it was in tatters. Keep you safe. Won’t have to fight anymore. And yet here he was again, an old man with two swords strapped to his back, walking into the darkness as if it were a hundred years ago again. He refused to ride in the wagon, preferring to watch the rear of their little vanguard; Lambert tried to entertain him with shitty jokes and Geralt tried to reassure him that everything would be fine but—well, Eskel was pissed off at him too.

Because Geralt was right. Again. Geralt was always fucking right. Perhaps if Geralt had been Vesemir’s chosen replacement, they would’ve fared better over the last few years. Geralt probably wouldn’t have given his body over, he’d have found a better way to deal with it, or—, well fuck him. So Eskel didn’t want to look at or talk with him either. Every reassurance was just a reminder of his failure. 

The trail rumbled on and Jaskier watched his wolf disappear into himself, his heart breaking.

Gaetan retraced the trail back to the house and found it empty. The Nilfgaardians had been here. He could see the marks left behind by hundreds of boots. The house was in good repair; Nilfgaard didn’t believe in wanton violence, particularly if something could be an asset at a later date. They’d probably stripped out Jaskier’s collection and burned it all though.

It didn’t matter. He wasn’t here to suss out Nilfgaardian motives, he was here to pick up the trail of a Viper. Having overheard some of Letho’s role in this little endeavour, he knew to head south into Temeria, and picked up some information in a handful of taverns about a tall, foreboding Witcher passing through. Letho could be as discreet as he wanted, but there were some things you just couldn’t hide or diminish. 

There was a charred husk in Vizima that Gaetan observed fondly from a rooftop. The smell of chemicals still hung heavily in the air; the explosion had been strong enough to blow the roof off the damned tower. The citizens of Temeria would be breathing the ashes of that particular sorcerer for months to come. The trail went cold just outside the walls and Gaetan spent a few days wandering aimlessly; he realised he was hungry and had to stop for food and rest.

On the third day, he stumbled across the remnants of a campsite. It hadn’t rained in weeks—the height of summer—so the traces were still relatively fresh. All the traces. No animals had wandered through so the evidence of Letho’s presence hadn’t been snuffled away either. Gaetan crouched down, ran his fingers through darkened soil and raised an eyebrow. Hmm. 

From there, it was relatively simple to follow his Viper’s trail. He had to stop a couple more times, his body complaining and the sudden demands placed upon it after all this time. Eventually he ended up in Maribor. Deadbeat town, with no real claim to fame other than a few historical massacres. There was a large manor house just outside and this was where Letho’s trail ended. A few solitary lights flickered in darkened windows, but Gaetan saw no large shadows pass across that would indicate the presence of his Viper.

He crossed the grounds swiftly and silently, clambered in through a downstairs window and hunkered in the shadows. The house itself was practically silent; there were a few booted feet walking around on this level, but otherwise everyone was asleep. Gaetan stayed low as he snuck from the first room and up the stairs, following his instinct. Most of the doors were open, the rooms empty, but there was one that was closed. Back pressed to the wall, he outstretched his hand and twisted the handle. The door opened slowly, hinges creaking, but there was no noise on the inside.

Gaetan held for a moment longer, and then slipped through into the darkness. A giant hand encircled his throat immediately, and he felt the bite of steel press into the side of his neck. A cool nose pressed into his temple, and then a familiar rumble, “Gaetan. What the fuck—?”

The room was dark, but Gaetan’s eyes adjusted quickly. There was a man—nay, a corpse—in the centre of the bed. It wasn’t breathing, face choked blue, huge tongue lolling out a gaping mouth. Suffocated. It had to look like an accident though, and Gaetan couldn’t see any bruises; Letho must’ve smothered him and then forced something down his throat. “Effective work, Viper.” Gaetan wheezed, the fingers around his throat loosening.

“Why’re you here?” The Viper growled, his voice no more than a whisper, but it still vibrated through his chest and nestled warmly in the centre of Gaetan’s. The vice grip fell away, knife removed from the side of his neck, so Gaetan turned and immediately climbed Letho like a tree, knees braced just above his thighs, long fingers wound through the straps of his armour. 

“Came for the rest of that kiss.” 

So, their second kiss was in the darkened bedroom of a dead man’s mansion, with said corpse lying nearby. It felt oddly… appropriate.

Chapter Text

The fire crackled gently in the middle of their camp site. They were traveling light because they had to, but it was the way all four Witchers preferred it. To be honest, the fire in the height of summer was for Jaskier's benefit, the southern boy who hated the south wasn't used to the cool nights of the north.

“I'm sorry,” he said to no one and everyone. The Jaskier of their travels was not the smooth Viscount they'd come to know. He deferred to their expertise, he was quiet, only speaking when necessary, a little withdrawn into himself, sitting and driving the wagon for hours on end before Geralt insisted they switch off to give Jaskier a rest. He was unobtrusive and kept out of their way, even when he was going over the finer points of their plan.

Jaskier's collection wasn't the only part of his plan to get revenge. Nilfgaard, in their haste to make the death of Alfred Pankratz seem like an unfortunate illness, did little to inspect which antique maps Jaskier's father was collecting. These weren't just old, weathered pages with the names of other countries, other faiths, other gods, written across the crinkled parchment, these weren't human maps at all. Most looked normal enough: a coast line drawn incorrectly after a group of surveyors took a wrong turn and cut out an entire cove, novelties to the untrained eye. But Jaskier's eye was very well trained indeed, and he knew the importance of the sketchy little roads winding through the mountains with no names. Roads that only the Aen Seidhe and the dryads knew about, roads that weren't roads, but underground rivers, or a single birch tree every half mile, set up like markers for those keen enough to follow the natural trails.

In Jaskier's dedication to his revenge, he grew a new host of special skills, some which blended with his own: bards often sang of the beauty of other humans, Aen Seidhe bards sang of the beauty of nature, and of the secrets humans were too dense to notice. He collected these songs in his mind rather than in a case, humming and whispering the strange, beautiful lyrics to himself as he led them along, the words that showed them safe passage. “Pass the white rock and you're already there, leaves of gold sweep through your hair; rest and sleep, yet not so deep, for the ground may well fall and meet...” He maneuvered the wagon a little around a crack in the poorly maintained road, the nearest town too far away to bother with it. “Detour here, I'm sorry. This cliff is known for falling rocks. But there's a good stopping point up ahead.”

“I'm sorry.” He said that a lot. Between the soft songs that they sometimes leaned in close to hear, and other muttered directions, “I'm sorry,” was the sum total of Jaskier's vocabulary since they left the house. He stayed away from them all the first few days, or as far as he could get without leaving the safety of the group. He ate his meals in the wagon while they gathered around their bedrolls, head down, shoulders slumped as he read and reread a map he'd undoubtedly looked at a thousand times. Sometimes, Geralt caught him looking sadly at Eskel, who was off in his own cloud of harsh emotion. They were all shrouded in thoughts, but Eskel and Jaskier seemed the most affected.

The Wolves said nothing of it. Lambert was too broken up over separating from Aiden, a low shimmer of worry across his skin all day as they traveled and all night as sleep came fitfully. Some nights, all he could do was meditate for rest. That's when Geralt would kneel next to him, whispering quietly, “Aiden is safe, I promise you. He's clever, he won't let anything else happen to him.”

“I'm the reason he got caught in the first place,” Lambert replied. Still in his meditation posture, he couldn't find that deep calm they were supposed to tap into. It was always harder for Lambert, and now, it felt almost impossible. “I'm the reason he's even part of this.”

“Aiden probably doesn't see it that way,” Geralt replied. “Next time you see him, make sure to ask. He might surprise you.”

Lambert smiled softly and nudged Geralt. “I thought Eskel was supposed to be the emotionally available one.”

They both let their eyes slide to the other side of camp, where Eskel lingered just out of the fire light. “Yeah, I thought so too.”

“He'll come around.” Geralt knew Lambert didn't believe his own words, but it helped all the same.

Lambert found it easier to mediate with Geralt by his side, sleep came easier as well when they huddled close together. At least they hadn't lost that when they lost the house.

Mostly, Geralt was wrapped up in all the things he never knew, Ciri's heirs, Nilfgaard's plots, it was maddening and vindicating at the same time. He was right, he just had no clue what he'd been right about and now, it was so much worse than he imagined. But they were on the right track, on their way to find Ciri's heirs, carefully hidden away from the world that wanted to destroy them. Jaskier still hadn't told him many specifics, he wanted to get as close to their destination as possible before revealing the whole situation. Geralt was more inclined to believe him, now that he had hard evidence in his hands.

Geralt spent their nights pouring over the carefully preserved bundle of letters Jaskier presented him on the first day of their journey. “It took a lot to get my hands on these,” Jaskier said, not to brag or make Geralt grateful to him, that Jaskier was long gone. He simply needed them to understand the depth of the conspiracy he'd spent years unraveling. The rot in the Nilfgaardian court was so deep and so poisonous, they’d stopped the Empress' mail.

“Thank you,” Geralt said and started leafing through, smiling at Ciri's beautiful hand. Raise a girl in a castle full of Witchers, and they still hadn't managed to remove the last vestiges of nobility in her, nor did they want to.

He showed the letters to Eskel and Lambert, and even Eskel managed a smile, the scent of their niece still somehow clinging to the paper. But these were not happy documents. Ciri was afraid for her life. She didn't say it outright, choosing her words carefully as she spoke of her growing illness, 'We hired a new cook and yet my troubles persist. Must manage the gardens better... ' Gardens, poison. She knew. But she couldn't fucking get word to Geralt and ask him for help, her own advisers betraying her. With the relief of seeing Ciri's long lost words came the guilt of not being by her side; Geralt should've surrounded her with Witchers from day one, as soon as that crown hit her head. Moved all his belongings from Kaer Morhen and claimed a room in that palace, just to stick it to whatever courtiers might try to challenge him, maybe have Eskel and Lambert spend a season there as well. He should have protected his daughter. Yet, would the wall of Witchers surrounding her have made her look weaker still? Too many unanswered questions, Geralt couldn't focus on what might have been, he had to focus on the future. On Ciri's heir.

While Lambert stewed in his worry, and Geralt focused on his duty, Eskel continued to let his anger consume him. He had his reasons, and they were more than justified. Geralt watched him fall into their well taught habits of surviving on the land; he hunted with Geralt and Lambert, brought back food and cooked it without complaint. But at night, when he sat alone with what remained of the healing salve for his scars, Geralt saw his sadness, his frustration.

One night, it was finally too much. Days and days of silence, Grayson was even bothered by it and started talking with Lambert of all people. Whatever Eskel's issues, he was going to talk to Geralt. Crossing the camp, he sat down next to his best friend, his oldest and most dear companion. No matter what the last years had brought, they'd never lose that connection.

Eskel's fingers shook as he tried to apply the salve, using as little as possible to make it last, but once it was gone, it was gone forever... like the home he thought they all had with Jaskier. Geralt quickly took the tin from his fingers and did it for him, tracing the grooves of his scars with as much tenderness as Jaskier had all those times before. “It's fine to be angry,” Geralt whispered, soft enough that not even Lambert wouldn't overhear.

“I'm angry at myself. Getting used to the cage... I was stupid. I thought he—” Eskel bit off his words, clenching his jaw and allowing Geralt to finish touching him, soothing the most obvious of his injuries while leaving him to wallow in his mental pain. Eskel wasn't ready to let go of that yet.

“You got used to the comfort,” he corrected, screwing the top back on and putting the salve carefully away. “There's no shame in it. You think yourself responsible for all our safety—”

“I am,” Eskel growled, their eyes meeting.

Geralt continued, his voice low and calm. “You think you have to do everything Vesemir did, keep Kaer Morhen running, make sure we're safe all winter, but fuck Eskel, times have changed. We don't hold you to the five hundred year old standards Vesemir created for himself, I just want you fucking alive.”

He grabbed Eskel's arm, squeezing the hard muscle there. When they were young, he watched their muscles grow together, get strong as they trained and fought and stole kisses under the bed sheets. Geralt didn't see what state Eskel was in when Jaskier picked him up and he was glad for that. This was his Eskel, strong, resilient and a little sullen; he never wanted to see him emaciated and defeated, and Jaskier made sure he was healthy, Geralt couldn't ignore that fact and neither could Eskel. “Yes, we've lost the comfort and the hot baths, and I will miss them, but we will get it all back again. It'll be better because it will be ours again, not laying around some noble estate like spoiled house pets. The next time we fuck, I want it to be in our bed, and it will be.”

Eskel smiled whenever Geralt mentioned their bed, he couldn't help it. Winters long ago spent pressed together, hot skin no more than a breath away whenever he wanted to kiss and touch. The room at Jaskier's manor, it was nice and it was a bed they shared, but it wasn't theirs . “I can't wait for that either,” Eskel said.

His shoulders slumped, some of the tension bleeding out of him. Geralt leaned forward as well, pressing their foreheads together. “When will you forgive yourself?” he asked.

“Probably never.” It was an honest answer, the answer Geralt expected. Eskel carried too much worry for his own good, and that was before all this. “You should've taken over. I told Vesemir a hundred times whenever he tried to talk to me—you're the best, it needed to be you.”

Geralt shook his head. “Best hunter, tracker, fighter, yes. Give me a ledger and ask me to take care of anything bigger than a horse? I'd burn the keep down in a month.” Wrapping an arm around Eskel, he held them tight together, as they always should be.

It got a little better after that. Eskel walked closer to the wagon, he let Lambert tell him stupid jokes, but he still ignored Jaskier. That was an anger Geralt couldn't mend.

Grayson took Jaskier's distance the hardest.

After the immediate retreat from the house, the specter of Nilfgaard far behind them for the moment, Grayson reached out to comfort Jaskier, sitting by himself in the wagon as the others enjoyed their small camp. His jaw hardened, but his eyes were a little more wet than usual as he turned away. “Grayson—I have no right to touch you.”

No Witcher would ever force themselves on someone and he stepped back, feet on the ground, hands braced on the sides of the wagon as he looked at Jaskier, scrunched into a ball in the corner. The once proud man, so sure of himself, his confidence infectious, now wouldn't meet Grayson's gaze. “You used to consider my preferences when bedding me. Why is now suddenly different?”

Jaskier shook his head, hiding his face between his raised knees. He looked so very small. “I made you so many promises. I never thought...” He bit down on the words. “Please, leave me be.” With a nod, Grayson returned to camp, joining the Wolves as they ate their dinner and planned.

He tried with Jaskier every night, not seeking sex, merely to hold the man; the loss of his home, the loss of everything, clearly weighed on Jaskier’s mind. During the day, Jaskier was calm and collected, focused on their plans, sure that what they were doing was right—find Cirilla's heirs, restore the proper monarchy, make the corruption in Nilfgaard suffer for the pain they caused—but at night, that confident man disappeared and the crush of reality set in. No matter the outcome, if they succeeded or failed, Jaskier's life was gone, as was the life he promised his Witchers. Grayson watched these thoughts take over his lover and he did not like it.

Jaskier finally allowed him close when the temperature started to drop in the night. With a thin blanket wrapped around his shoulders, his shivering and chattering teeth echoed across the campsite. Without a word, Grayson rose and walked to the wagon, climbing in and wrapping securely around Jaskier, the bulk of his body already heating him up. “No excuses,” he grumbled, taking brief advantage of their position to rub his nose through Jaskier's hair. “None of this is worth it if you freeze to death.”

He waited until Jaskier was asleep to start stroking his hair, whispering softly, “When I came to you, I thought you'd show me my end. I was content to die, life held little pleasure for me. You gave me my pleasure back. I willingly followed you towards death, and I will do so again.”

Grayson's eyes flicked over to the Wolves and he found only Geralt looking back at him. He arched an eyebrow, a challenge. Geralt merely shook his head and returned his attention to Eskel. Grayson liked Eskel, only as much as any Bear could like another Witcher, and he understood the betrayal he felt. But it wasn't Jaskier's fault. Whatever comfort he gave them, promised them, he lost it as well. He risked everything for them, for the Wolves' family. If Eskel didn't understand that, Grayson wouldn't waste his breath to convince him of it.

It took another few nights of cold none of them felt for Jaskier to allow Grayson to pull him into the camp. They lit a fire, Eskel sat on the opposite side as Grayson curled around Jaskier tightly. “I'm sorry,” Jaskier whispered. It was all he ever said to them, and after a few nights, they realized he was saying it to Eskel most of all.

Their silent nights were broken when they got close to their destination. Geralt, Eskel and Lambert knew more about Kaedwen than Grayson, but even Jaskier's knowledge of the natural paths surprised them. He stopped the wagon in the middle of the forest and got out, walking around and inspecting every tree. Lambert fidgeted, anxious to get going. They were close to the blue mountains, and even in summer, their instincts were whispering you're on the way to Kaer Morhen, going home...

After Jaskier inspected what seemed like every tree in a twenty foot radius, he returned to the wagon and picked up the reins again. “We're close.” Close to what, he didn't say.

Eskel bristled a bit next to Geralt. “Still not allowed to know the fucking details,” he hissed under his breath. Geralt nudged his arm and they carried on, ignoring the dark cloud hovering over Eskel for the moment.

When they made camp that night, Jaskier walked right over to them, he didn't fuss over his bags in the wagon and wait for Grayson to pull him towards the fire, he simply marched towards them, rolls of parchment stacked in his arms. They sat quietly, watching as he laid out the maps and a few books, opening them to the correct pages.

Taking a deep breath, Jaskier sat back. He closed his eyes and touched the map in front of him, tracing his fingers over the trail they were on like he'd memorized it... he probably had. “Nilfgaard killed my father. He was a monarchist, he believed in Cirilla's rule, saw her as good and just, a fair Empress after so many years of disastrous usurpers. He was intelligent enough and involved enough in court politics to notice when things looked amiss. Cirilla got sick, and she stayed sick. There were rumors of a pregnancy, but with her Elder blood, no one could be sure about it.

“By the time my father collected enough information about the bastards trying to kill our Empress, it was too late. She hadn't been seen in public in years and he feared the worst. But,” Jaskier slid his hand over to one of the books, the pages in a delicate hand, a mix of runes and Elder. A code of some sort? “The contacts he built up getting information about Cirilla's condition proved useful in tracking her children. At least, for a while.

“We know they're in the Blue Mountains, have been most of their lives. She had to send them away at a very young age. They're in the care of dryads, a few Aen Seidhe, hidden from the world.” Jaskier's eyes flashed up to Geralt's and Geralt actually drew back at first. This was the first time Jaskier had looked at him in days. All the guilt, the fitful sleep, the long days of travel, he wore it on his young face, the circles under his eyes just the start of it. Jaskier's once luminous skin was dry and tired, a little pinched around his eyes and lips. His hair wasn't as styled, though his clothes were still good quality, they were plain traveling wear. This simple Jaskier had been with them as they traveled, and for the first time, Geralt saw the intent in him; he would do anything to see this through, had done anything. The foolish noble was truly long gone.

Holding Geralt's eyes, he pointed down the path ahead of them, which curved and disappeared around the next hill, trees obscuring it from view. “They don't know me, they don't know anyone, but those children have known your name since they were born. Their mother's last instruction for them: wait for Geralt of Rivia, Geralt of Rivia will come for you.”

Jaskier's voice caught in his throat and he took a few breaths to steady himself. He turned the pages of the book. “There will be a series of trials, to make sure it is really you and, most importantly, that you're worthy to take the responsibility from their current guardians. From what information Letho was able to gather—” Eskel huffed, and Jaskier blinked, pulled out of his detailed research for a moment, “—from what we've found of similar tales, it's going to be three trails: strength, intellect and empathy. Still, we can't be sure exactly what's going to happen. This part is all down to you.” Jaskier's hands fell away from his maps and he sighed, slumping a little. “I hope you're able to make it through.”

They were silent for a moment, only the sounds of the wind blowing and the nearby wild life going about its business swirling through the air. It was strangely beautiful; Witchers were used to the solitude of nature, traveling the Path alone, with only their horse and their own thoughts for company. Then, a soft grunt cut through the relative peace of the world.

“You hope?” Eskel whispered. Jaskier flinched, leaning back a little. His mouth opened but no words came out, the pure, burning anger in Eskel's gaze stealing them away. Hands clenched into fists, Eskel shook where he knelt next to Geralt. He shook his head. “You hope ? You did all this—captured us, kept us, made us rely on you, then fucked us over—on a hope?” He flicked a hand at the map, ruffling the side and making Jaskier twitch again. “I thought you had a plan. That's what I had to tell myself: you had a plan. Why else would you lie to us? Manipulate us? Break your promises? You had to have a plan, if you don't then what the fuck is this all for?”

“Eskel,” Lambert said. “This is a plan. Look, Geralt just needs to—”

“Follow a trail on a map we can't read, and impress some dryads who might not even be there, with children who have never seen him. What the fuck kind of plan is that?” Eskel climbed to his feet, pacing in angry circles.

His tension simmered for days, he thought he was over it; Jaskier lied and he fell for it like an idiot, fine, Eskel had done worse in his too long, exhausting life. But he wasn't over it. Jaskier promised them safety, happiness, and Eskel was stupid enough to believe him, bargaining his family's lives in with it. And this is what he got? Fucking hope?

“Eskel,” Jaskier said. It was the first time he'd spoken to Eskel since they left the house. “I understand your frustration, it sounds like a load of shit, but my research—”

“Your research,” Eskel growled. He was still pacing at the edge of the camp, his hands combing roughly through his hair. He wouldn't look at Jaskier again, if he looked at that too soft face, he'd probably want to punch it. “Ciri died, what? Fifteen years ago? Your father snuffed it when? How long have you had to find these kids, her only heirs? And this is all you have? Maps and fucking hopes?”

He threw his arms out wide, gesturing to the world. “I'm just a simple Witcher, I don't get involved in politics, School of the Wolf doesn't overthrow governments!”

“Eskel, it's Ciri—” Lambert started, but a sharp glare cut him off.

“No. It might be Ciri's heirs. We hope.” Eskel's eyes slid to Jaskier again, the warm amber almost burning. “I have already given you so much of my hope and my belief. I believed you when you said you'd keep us safe. You fucking promised my family would be happy and safe. I couldn't fucking do it on my own, but you swept in with your pretty promises and I fucking fell for it, and now it's all a lie. I don't think I should believe you again.”

“Eskel,” Grayson grunted. He was mostly silent during their travels, asking a few questions but mostly trying to keep Jaskier from dropping too deep into despair. There was a time when he and Eskel might be united in that task, but not any more. “Jaskier has your family in mind, even now. Ciri's children are Geralt's kin.”

Eskel shook his head, jabbing a finger towards Lambert, who hovered nearby, too wary of touching Eskel and making his anger rise. “That's my family. Lambert and Geralt, they are all I care about, all I've needed for three hundred years. You're a fucking Bear, you'd sooner stab your own brother than look at him. I don't want to go on a wild goose chase for something that might not exist and risk losing what little I still have.”

“What about my family?” Jaskier whispered. “My parents were good and kind, but since my father didn't toe the line of corruption like the rest of his peers, we were outcasts. I grew up alone, and I hated it, hated him for it until I learned the truth. I never had...” His voice caught, eyes flicking between all three wolves. “I never had friends, or brothers in arms, no one to be with me when I was low. I learned about Witchers—learned about your school—and I just...” Fisting his hands in his hair, Jaskier tugged at the once silky brown locks now covered in road dirt. This wasn't the plan, he didn't want to expose himself like this, not until the real work was done. They were so close, and now they were ranting and shouting at each other.

Slowly, Jaskier took deep, calming breaths. His hands fell into his lap and he met Eskel's eyes once again. “I couldn't save my family. I didn't know what was happening until it was too late. But I can save yours. I didn't lie about that. I want you healthy and comfortable and safe, and fuck, I'm angry I can't provide for you anymore. It's tearing me up. I don't know where Ixora and Coën are, I know where they're supposed to be, but did they make it? I won't know until they don't show up again, and then I will have to grieve them. Are Aiden and Gaetan safe? I don't fucking know and I am sick with it. And Letho! I don't know if he's still alive and it haunts me.”

Once again, he pointed down the path that curved away into the unknown, towards dryads that might hold Ciri's children safe from the world of men who wanted to destroy them. “This is the one thing I do know. The dryads promised to keep Cirilla's heirs safe until Gwynbleidd came to collect them. Three trials stand between you and the rest of your family. Please, go get them.”

Jaskier slumped forward, all the fight vanishing from him. He scrubbed a hand across his face and leaned back into the dirt, suddenly exhausted.

“Right,” Geralt said. Though he wanted to support Eskel, go to his brother as he mourned the loss of their safety, Geralt had to go. After they followed Jaskier, stayed with him, let him drag them clear across the Continent, so close to their home, if he stopped now, it was all for naught. Ciri's children were waiting for them. He wouldn't make them wait much longer.

Not caring for Jaskier or Grayson's presence, Geralt marched over to Eskel and Lambert, pulling them both into his arms and resting their foreheads together. “I'll be back.” With your family, he didn't say, Eskel was still too raw for that. Lambert accepted the stubbled cheek rubbing against his and Eskel returned the gesture. Though Geralt wanted nothing more than to hold them both forever, they didn't have time, this small touch would have to do.

He grabbed a bag of supplies and threw it over his shoulder before heading down the path. It looked perfectly normal, like any other road they'd walked to get here. But dryads were talented at hiding in plain sight. With his swords at his back, Geralt was prepared for whatever he had to do to bring Ciri's children home.

Novigrad wasn't the only supposedly free city on the Continent, though they were “free” in name only now-a-days. Or perhaps they'd never been truly free at all. Ixora only knew what she needed to know of the Continent and its ways, their men were more cruel than those from her home, they didn't see anyone as their equals, not even a woman with a knife at their balls.

She stayed to the edges of settlements as she completed her missions and part of her ached at what she saw there. What few elves remained in society were pushed out to the edges of it, along with dwarves, halflings and other non-humans. Races with nothing in common but their otherness banded together as Nilfgaard slowly pushed them further and further towards their own destruction. Ixora thought open genocide might be better than this, a quick death, instead of the slow, agonizing decline. Children with less food each winter, more likely to starve next year even though they'd made it through their first tender years, their parents getting weaker and weaker as the work got harder and the pay less. Death by a thousand cuts, a thousand injustices.

Ixora's heart clenched at the sight of the children the most. Though her skin and eyes would make her stand out more if she stuck near humans, the residents of the slums noticed her for her healthy muscles and clothing that wasn't threadbare. A halfling woman bounced a toddler on her knee and the little scamp threw out a hand to catch Ixora's cloak, halting her movement. He didn't want to steal from her, only to feel the warm fabric, but the woman panicked like he'd tried to pick Ixora's pocket.

“Begging your pardon.” She yanked the child's hand off Ixora's cloak and he began to cry. The bouncing got faster to soothe even as the woman shuddered and shook. “Please, he meant no harm... please...”

Ixora thought about moving on for a moment, leaving this poor woman in peace. Instead, she knelt in the filthy street, opening her bag, first showing that it contained no weapons (well, none that weren't concealed at the moment) before pulling out a scarf Coën gave her back at the manor. It was a pretty thing and he said the deep golden yellow flattered her skin; she had no use for pretty things, but wore it to make him happy.

Waiting for a nod from the mother, she dragged the silky material across the babe's hands, smiling softly when his tears stopped and he began to giggle. He took it when she offered it and rubbed the scarf against his face, drool and snot soiling the fine fabric. Ixora's gaze settled on the mother. “Don't sell it. It's worth more to keep him silent and happy. Wrap it around his favorite toy.”

Though she shook a little, the woman smiled, bouncing her baby as he played. “It is his favorite toy.”

She didn't have much with her, but Ixora gave the woman the rest of her food. She could hunt for more as soon as she left town, or steal something from her target's home. “Share it. With as many as you can.” The woman's eyes went wide at half a pheasant and two whole rabbit haunches. Before she could stutter her gratitude, or go on about how she couldn't accept it, Ixora was gone, disappeared through the crowded, shit stained streets.

Just before she entered the city proper, a notice tacked to the bricks caught her eye.

Only humans beyond this point.

So they weren't even hiding the fact that there were ghettos outside the city walls. What used to be slums for 'the poor' were now exclusively non-human, and they were declaring it out loud in the streets. Her eyes drifted down to the official signature and seal at the bottom of the proclamation. “Hmm...” The name matched the man she was here to dispose of. All the better.

While Manticores weren't trained assassins like Cats or Vipers, they knew how to improvise. “Make it look like an accident.” Jaskier's only instruction. So she found the bastard in his bed, wrapped around some woman who did not look like she was totally willing, and Ixora made it look like an accident.

Creeping through the window when the sorcerer took his leave to go fetch himself some wine, Ixora held a finger to her lips to silence the scared girl. She pulled the sheets over her chest to hide herself and sunk deeper into the bed. Ixora didn't make a sound as she made her way down the hall, saw the man drunkenly swaying, two empty bottles in his hand already. His foot landed heavily on the top stair and seconds later, his head cracked against the bottom step, eyes blank, neck turned unnaturally. Ixora smiled to herself. Good, no more clean up.

She stole back to the bedroom to find the woman exactly where she left her. “Do his servants know you're here?”

She shook her head. “He, he snuck me in. S-said no one was to know...”

Good, the girl wouldn't be blamed then. Searching around, Ixora found a coin purse and handed it to her. “Get dressed and leave quickly, do not go out the front.”

She turned to the window when a frantic voice caught her, a hand suddenly around her wrist. “Wait! You saved me. I can't begin to thank you.” She tilted up, the smeared rouge on her lips still inviting.

An old need welled in Ixora's stomach. Time was, she'd easily allow this girl—a professional who merely got more than she bargained for with this john—to show her gratitude. But with Coën waiting, so worried for her safety... Ixora cupped the girl's jaw and pressed their lips together, tasting the remaining wine from the drunk sorcerer. It soured the kiss a little.

She pulled back, the girl's eyes wide and a little dazed. “In another life, beautiful one, and today I have presented you with another chance. Take his money, become a washer woman, a shop girl, anything but this.” With one last quick kiss, the girl's restraining grasp fell away and Ixora climbed back out the window, over to the terrace on the house next door, onto her final target a few towns over. It would take another day, maybe two, but then she'd be back in Coën's arms, kissing the lips she wanted most of all.

As soon as Geralt left, their camp grew quiet. Eskel refused to look at anyone and even shrugged away Lambert's attempts to comfort him, so the youngest wolf paced anxiously around the perimeter of their camp site.

Drained from the argument, the planning, just drained from everything, Jaskier cleaned up his books and maps and accepted Grayson's hand when it was offered. He collapsed into the wagon, the scope of it all finally hitting him. In truth, this wasn't the the final stretch, they weren't even around the first turn yet. They had to get the children, take them to Nilfgaard, and get them to the court safely. Who knows how many spies and assassins were between them and the throne? They got north just fine, as undetected as possible, but maybe that was the plan. The next test was getting south again... Jaskier didn't want to think about it and buried his face in Grayson's shoulder. He let himself be selfish one more time and seek comfort in one of the people he betrayed the most.

“I'm sorry,” Jaskier whispered.

Once Eskel cooled down, he and Lambert set up camp. These mysterious trials might take time and they needed rest. Lambert set out to get some firewood when the snap of a twig called them all to attention. Swords in hand, Eskel and Lambert pressed back to back, watching as much of the tree line as they could. A broken branch caught Lambert's eye and they turned, snarling at the intruder.

Familiar eyes found Lambert's face, one brilliant yellow-green, one milky and sightless. Covered in dirt, twigs in his hair, sap stuck to his cheek, Aiden almost fell into their camp. He climbed to his feet and dusted himself off, meeting Lambert's eyes. “I've had a hell of a day.”

Chapter Text

The last time Letho travelled with someone, it’d been a sorceress, a wonder child—briefly—and members of his own school. It hadn’t gone particularly well, but he’d owed Geralt at the time. Travelling with another member of his kin was… pleasant, but he was also very aware of how tense Gaetan was. He jumped at every sound and found it difficult to settle down for camp. In the end, Letho threw caution to the wind and dragged Gaetan out of his cloak and onto his bedroll. The Cat resisted briefly—by instinct—and Letho hushed him. “It’s alright, ain’t gunna’ do anythin’.”

“I know,” Gaetan cast a small smile over his shoulder, single canine jutting out briefly over his lower lip. “Don’t think you have it in you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it.” He shuffled in the embrace of those big arms and pushed his head up beneath Letho’s chin. “You’re squeezing pretty tight, though. Struggling to breathe.”

“Oh,” Letho swallowed audibly and loosened his grip. “Sorry, it’s a—.”

“A Viper thing? I figured.” Gaetan rested his ear against a thick bicep, drew in deep lungfuls of air saturated with Letho’s scent and felt even more at ease. When had this happened? When had Letho come to symbolise safety and easy affection? It didn’t matter; Gaetan hadn’t felt this in years. A warmth that spread out through his entire body until it hummed with the simple pleasure of being close to another. He didn’t even realise he was wiggling along with his loud, deep purr. 

“You need to stop squirmin’,” Letho growled, trying to angle his hips away, because his prick was filling out, responding to the constant nudge of Gaetan’s rear against it. 

“Way past that, scales. How’d you think I tracked you so easily? Almost lost you for a bit and then stumbled across your camp outside Vizima.”

“It doesn’t mean—I’m not gonna’—.” 

Gaetan rolled onto his back, head still on Letho’s arm and looked into the craggy face creased with a combination of worry and mild embarrassment. “I’m flattered, really,” he paused, gazing above them through the tree canopy. “I’d offer to help out with it, but I—umm, I don’t feel quite…”

“You’re not ready,” Letho murmured. “And that’s okay. After everythin’ that happened, I wouldn’t be that interested either.”

“I’m interested. It’s just—I just need some time.” With another little shuffle, Gaetan rolled over to press their noses together and examined Letho through crossed eyes. “Not gonna’ blame you if you want to bash one out though.” A wry smirk.

“You want me to wank,” he said, deadpan. “Right next to you. Gonna’ watch, are you?” Letho tried not to think too much on how his prick swelled a little harder at the thought of it. “We’ve kissed twice.”

“Hmm,” Gaetan squinted, tilted his head and kissed Letho again.

He pressed close and Letho could feel the truth in his declaration of interest as it rubbed against his thigh. Even if Gaetan didn’t want to act, it was still rather flattering to know that he wasn’t just feigning attraction for some as yet unidentified motive. Because that was a fear that Letho had; that this was all an elaborate ruse. The most distrusting part of him wondered at how easily Gaetan had dropped into their laps—relinquished by his lord for a third of his worth—but every other part of him analysed the facts. The Cat was beaten, weak, abused and clearly harboured a severe fear and dislike of Nilfgaardians. You couldn’t fake that level of abject terror.

So, Letho decided he would trust this little runt. Hold him close, feel his tongue lap into his mouth and his smaller hands rest gently on his chest. When Gaetan pulled away, slightly breathless, he grinned. “Three times now,” he glanced down. “Fucking hell, that’—you should probably sort it before it breaks your trousers.” Part of it was interest; in Letho and in himself. Would he see another man’s prick and want to run in fear? He’d seen Aiden’s—they’d shared quarters—and that hadn’t triggered anything. And he was a damn sight more interested in Letho, with his big… everything.

“Nah, not here. In a few days’ time, we’ll be in the safe house and then we can talk about it again,” Letho placed a kiss on Gaetan’s forehead and bound him close to his chest. “I’ve got one more stop to make. Be easier if I can go there before dropping you off. There’ll be lots of black uniforms. You up for it?”

“Will there be a chance to stick the boot into some Nilfgaardian toadies?”

“If all goes entirely to plan, then no, but none of my plans ever go entirely as I intend them to,” Letho idly scratched his chin as he thought about the last two-ish centuries. Yeah, his track record wasn’t that great all things considered.

“Fuck it, got nothing on at the moment,” Gaetan flopped over so that his back was to Letho’s warm bulk as the cloak rested over them both. With his knees tucked to his chest and his head resting on one huge bicep, it was so easy to fall asleep. Letho couldn’t help but stay awake a little while longer, because every time he stroked the top of Gaetan’s head, or down his neck, or his arm, that purr intensified, lulling when he moved his palm away, and then growing louder when he returned. The Gaetan was an instrument he’d very much like to learn to play properly.

Their destination was a small manor house in Sodden, or, more specifically, in Sodden Hill. The Niflgaardians were obsessed with the fucking town; the location of the deciding battle in the first Nilfgaardian invasions. In this small manor house, with its skeleton crew of guards, was one of the most valuable symbols of the Empire. 


The Usurper had worn it at his hip for a few months after his ascension to the throne, but banished it to the backwater of Sodden Hill when the weight of its legacy was too much of a reminder of what he’d done; he didn’t even have to look at it. It was safely stored at a location that symbolised Nilfgaardian strength and domination. No one knew it was there so there was no need for a huge guard detail.

Well, no one knew it was there until very recently. 

Letho and Gaetan crossed the grounds under the cover of darkness; the moon barely a silver shard in the satin blue sky. Despite Letho’s impressive size, he slipped through the darkness as fluidly as his namesake, and Gaetan felt like he was hunting at the side of another Cat. They broke in through a roof window after scaling a rickety drain pipe and then descended through the house, dipping into alcoves and empty rooms whenever they heard footfalls. Letho broke through the heavy chain wrapping the handles of the doors, and they stepped into the musty darkness. 

The room was crowded with dark, looming shapes blanketed in dusty. It was held with some of the Empire’s many stolen artefacts. Too precious to destroy, but too much of an irritant or not useful enough to have close. Reminders of what had been stolen; elven statues made of aged marble, precious dwarven gems dug from the Mahakham mountains, skulls of the last remaining specimens of certain monsters. There wasn’t any particular order to the eclectic mixture of objects, which spoke volumes of the low esteem with which these objects were regarded.

They didn’t speak. Letho knew what he was looking for and Gaetan stood by their exit, idly leafing through a few dusty books while keeping the majority of his attention on the door. The Viper muttered quietly now and then, but otherwise he moved each artefact reverently aside. It was as he knelt down near the door, his back turned and both hands occupied by a large vase, that it opened. “Didn’t know someone was doing invento—.” 

Letho missed the footsteps. Probably because he hadn’t slept properly for nearly a week; tired, hungry. But it didn’t matter, because he had a Cat watching his back. The intruder didn’t get an opportunity to finish; he saw Letho crouched on the floor and immediately reached for the longsword at his hip. Gaetan slid around the side of the door blocking his path and sank his knife into the side of the Nilfgaardian’s neck. His death was swift and soundless. 

The fountain of arterial blood spattered over his face and across the wall, but he wasted no time in dragging the body inside the room and shutting the door. Letho stood slowly, examining the body as Gaetan wiped the hunting knife in his hand on his trouser leg. “I didn’t even think to fucking arm you.” He whispered.

“Not your job to arm me,” Gaetan replied, and then glanced at the sheath now clutched in two big hands. “That it?”


“Let’s get out of here.” 

They slung the chain through the door handles as they left, retracing their steps through the house to the roof. The room hadn’t been disturbed for a very long time, so only the smell of a rotting corpse or a gap in the roll call would indicate the presence of the dead guard in there. As they clambered out into the fresh air, Gaetan turned to slide down the roof but was stopped by a large hand that snagged the collar of his gambeson. “Letho, what the fu—?”

Kiss number four. It tasted of human blood because some of it had dripped down over Gaetan’s lips, but it really didn’t fucking matter; Letho pinned him to the roof tiles, their chests and hips crushed together. When the Viper drew away he rubbed the side of his face into Gaetan’s cheek, and then sat back on his heels. Framed by the weak moonlight and with his sensitive eyesight, Gaetan could see the blood of his kill on Letho’s face and it lit something fierce in the pit of his belly. “Murder turn you on?”

Letho grunted and turned to gaze off into the grounds and for a moment Gaetan was worried he’d said the wrong thing, but then the Viper spoke, his tone quiet and tentative. “No one’s given a shit enough about me to save my life in—,” his eyes flickered as he tried to calculate, but a figure proved elusive, “a long time.”

“Ahh, you woulda’ gutted him a second later…” Gaetan rested his hands on top of thick thighs, one thumb circling.

“Ain’t the point though, is it?” That craggy face became pensive, and Gaetan tilted his head, eyes squinting, as he dissected the expression. Best thing about being a Cat? Emotional literacy. Developed emotional literacy.

“You worried about that?”

Letho sniffed. “I like you a lot,” he paused. “You know that. Last time I liked someone a lot, they didn’t survive for very long.”

“Ahh, you have orbit of doom syndrome,” Gaetan propped himself up on his elbows, and then continued when Letho looked confused. “Because you live a dangerous life, with dangerous people, you see a lot of people around you getting hurt. You see enough of it, over a long period of time, you can’t help but think it’s proximity to you that’s the problem.” His voice no more than a whisper; he was still conscious of their current location. “You said somethin’ about a safe house?”

“Yeah,” Letho stood, grabbed Zireael and offered his hand down to his Cat. “C’mon, you can dissect my head from the comfort of an armchair and a fireplace.”

“Oh? Spoiled.”

“Yeah,” Letho smirked. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Strength. Intelligence. Empathy. 

Not a lot to go on, and Geralt walked down the canyon with a map in one hand and a sword in the other. The sunlight and warmth drained from the world as the cliff edges closed in above his head. It felt like he was walking for hours, the pathway dry and rocky underfoot and then… 

He reached a deadend.

Geralt sighed and checked the map. No. This was right. He squinted at rockface more closely and realised there was an inscription in Elder Speech scrawled across it. As he drew closer, his medallion began to hum. An enchantment. The hand that reached out settled on a hard surface—so, not an illusion—so he stepped back and read the text. 

His Elder Speech was a little rusty. It’d been years since he’d so much as picked up a book in Kaer Morhen, but after a little bit of murmuring he managed to hash out a meaning. “It can't be seen, can't be felt, can't be heard, and can't be smelt. It lies behind stars and under hills, and empty holes it fills. It comes first and follows after, ends life, and kills laughter.”  

A fucking riddle. 

He stepped forward again and touched the inscription. It wasn’t that old. Certainly not as old as he was. His medallion continued to vibrate against his chest, and he wrapped a hand around it. So, if this was a riddle, then how did he answer? Golden eyes flickered around the edges of the inscription, but saw nothing, so he turned on the spot. Still nothing. “Fuck.” His medallion pulsed in his hand, and then settled. Had it reacted to his voice, or the word? He doubted the Aen Seidhe would think that fucking couldn’t be heard or ended life, and if they did then they were doing it wrong. He tried something else, “Ciri.” Another pulse.

So, his voice then. 

He read through the inscription again. Fucking riddles. Whenever Ciri and elves were concerned, there was always some kind of fancy incantation, prophecy or poem for him to decipher. The first line meant it was something non-corporeal. Perhaps an abstract concept. Ends life and kills laughter. Behind the stars? 

The Wild Hunt? Death? 

Geralt tilted his head back and stared up at the top of the canyon. What he’d give to feel the sun on his face, but it would’ve set by the time he got back—if he got back at all—then he’d feel nothing but—


Behind the stars, kills laughter—Ciri certainly hated it when she was young—empty holes—comes before and after—life, the sun—

“The dark.”

The entire canyon tremored. The quiet hum of his medallion intensified and he took a large step back as the rockface containing the inscription began to shift. Pebbles and dust tumbled down from around the edges and Geralt’s gripped the hilt in his hand a little harder as a damp, musty smell poured out from the cave mouth revealed behind it. “Great.” Dungeon crawling.

With one final, resigned sigh, Geralt headed into the darkness. The stone rumbled closed at his back and he struck up a small flame in the palm of his hand as he walked deeper into the cave. He could smell and hear a waterfall somewhere in the cave complex, and he paused to check the map in his hand; it didn’t offer much help anymore so he stuffed it into the back of his belt. 

The path was straight and even for the most part, with a few tall ledges not unlike the passages guarded by Old Speartip in Morhen Valley, and he soon tucked his sword into its scabbard to free up both hands. Then, just as he was starting to believe he’d never escape and be doomed to walk the darkness, listening to distantly tumbling water forever, Geralt saw literal light at the end of the tunnel.

The cave opened suddenly into a huge cavern containing a small grove and Geralt could see the sky in sporadic openings in the roof. It was damp and stale. He must’ve passed through the mountain itself. Something wasn’t right. Something set Geralt’s teeth on edge, raised the hairs on the back of his neck; his shoulders bunched and he lifted a hand for the hilt of his sword again. His gaze swept around the glade, inspecting craggy surfaces and dark shadows.

Too quiet.

Seconds later a root whipped out from the soil. With a grunt, he rolled away to the left and watched the Leshen emerge from the backdrop of trees and foliage that had camouflaged it from view. Geralt had nothing useful for fighting a Leshen. Just a vial of Blizzard and Tawny Owl—chucked at him by Letho shortly before his departure, so he knocked them both back in between dodging branches, vines and ensnaring roots that writhed around his ankles. After so long without potions, he should’ve predicted the rush of nausea that punched him in the stomach and almost cost him a limb. The leshen vanished into a puff of smoke and Geralt hunkered close to the ground in preparation for its attack.

He didn’t have to wait long. The leshen flooded towards him from a small thicket and lashed out with gnarled claws. He felt the tips rake through his back as he dipped into yet another roll; he twisted back to his feet and unleashed a roaring Igni that ignited the frail leaves clinging to the forest creatures branches. The flames ate their way up to its deer skull helmet and it screamed in rage. 

Despite being immolated, the leshen continued to lash out, keeping him at bay with wide, sweeping vines. Every time it vanished into smoke he crouched close to the ground, ready to roll away rather than parry—what he’d give for a fucking moondust bomb right now—and landed several glancing blows across extended limbs. 

Blood soaked through his shirt—the leshen had clawed its way through his gambeson with little difficulty—and the impact of Blizzard began to ebb away. Panting, bleeding. This was no ordinary forest spirit. It shrugged off some of its charred parts and continued coming for him. Like it was somehow reinforced, or enchanted. It hadn’t called in any support—crows, wolves—which was unusual. Another Igni, a well-placed Aard, and finally Geralt swooped in close and rammed his silver blade through the deer skull.

The wooden body creaked and groaned, before toppling onto the mossy, blood-slick floor. His blood. “Fuck.” The deer head tumbled onto the floor and he yanked his sword free. Most of the damage was in his left shoulder; his fingers tingled with a slight loss of feeling, but he didn’t have time to sit and tend to it. His mutagens would take care of the bleeding for now, as long as there weren’t any more leshens waiting for him down that dark, foreboding tunnel.

Intelligence. Strength. That left empathy.

He had to sheath his sword again and drag himself up several more ledges. His arms and shoulder ached, and several times he sprawled out on his back to stare at the ceiling. He was getting too old for wild goose chases across the Continent, let alone the fucking obstacle courses at the end. 

But he’d do it for Ciri at the drop of the hat. Now, then and forever. And if Jaskier was right—if she had children, and then had to send them away for their own safety—then Geralt had failed in his role as her guardian. As her father. It didn’t matter how much political machination lay between them.

Geralt traipsed down yet another tunnel and then stopped abruptly as he rounded a corner and nearly walked into a stone pedestal. Beyond it hung a thick cloud, noxious green in colour, and it didn’t take a Witcher’s senses to smell the poison in it. He considered casting Igni to dispel it, but in such a confined space he’d end up setting fire to himself, and if it was explosive then he’d bring the mountain down on anyone within a three mile radius.

On top of the pedestal sat a small box. His medallion remained inert; no magical barriers or boundaries. He crouched down and investigated the perimeter as far as he could without walking into the toxic haze before him. No tripwires, no indication of triggers. His final test was to nudge the box with the tip of his hunting knife to see if it set off a trap, but the wood scraped across the stone lamely.


Knife tucked into his belt, Geralt stepped up to the box, gloved fingers teasing across the golden latch. The hinges creaked as he lifted the lid, and he peered down at the contents with a furrowed brow. Three vials with small pictures on them, beautifully illustrated with faded colour—a snowman, a Gwent card and a wooden training sword. He picked up the letter and his breath caught in his chest.

Dear Geralt,

If you’re reading this letter and I’m not at your side, then I’m dead. It happened slowly. I didn’t even realise until suddenly I couldn’t teleport anymore, and my visions became hazy. The mages are taking over. They control everything in court now.

I think they’re blocking all my letters, so you probably don’t even know they exist. My children—Rennes and Lauren—lay beyond this toxic cloud. I had to protect them; the people working against me are not above infanticide. I handed them to the Aen Seidhe rebels with a plea to keep them safe. They honoured the Elder Blood.

You’ve passed the test of intelligence, the test of strength, and now you must prove you are Geralt. Empathetic, honest. My father. In this case there are three vials. Only one of them will protect you from the cloud. After drinking, give it two minutes to take effect. Each picture represents a memory we shared. My first day training at Kaer Morhen, playing Gwent on the road with you and a snowball fight in the courtyard.

Which was my most treasured memory? Which meant the most?

Only Geralt will know.

Love you,


Geralt’s eyes burned. His hands shook. Decades ago he might’ve lied to himself and said it was the blood loss—the exhaustion of the fight—but he could feel the misery knotting in his throat and he couldn’t stop the tears rolling down his cheeks. Hearing the words from Jaskier—a man he still only begrudgingly trusted—hadn’t really brought it home. But Ciri had been murdered. She’d been on her own, surrounded by hissing snakes seeking her downfall and unable to call for help. And Geralt hadn’t been there for her. He’d accepted the sporadic letters that informed him of boring court politics and been swept up in survival. No dreams, nothing to summon him to her side when she needed him the most.

There was nothing he could do for her now. But he could be there for her children. Lauren and Rennes. Geralt smiled. Her ancestor and the leader of the School of Wolf before Vesemir. She’d honoured her roots in her offspring.

His eyes dropped to the vials and he ran his fingers over each. Her training at Kaer Morhen was a fond memory—she spoke of it often when they walked the Path together briefly—and she’d mourned the loss of that family when Vesemir died. Her love of Gwent was legendary, and she was bloody good at it as well. 

But it wasn’t either of those.

It was the snowball fight. A single event preceding a battle that she hadn’t expected to survive. A moment with her family that reminded her she was loved as more than just a vehicle of destiny, that they had faith in her, that they would always be there. Geralt snatched the vial wrapped in a small image of a snowman, tore the cork out and downed the contents.

It could’ve been poison. It could’ve been a trap. In that moment, he really didn’t care. He felt it burn its way down his throat and pool in his stomach and began to count. Two minutes. As he counted, he recalled all the other memories of Ciri buried in the recesses of his mind; her first training years at Kaer Morhen were fraught. Her visions came in slowly, but when they had everyone worried over their violence and frequency. Eskel had begged Triss for assistance—kissed her hand, been his polite, dashing self—and in the end they showed her some control. On the Path together, time at Toussaint. So many memories. 

Two minutes wasn’t enough.

Geralt reached zero and didn’t drop dead. Only one thing for it. He took a final deep breath and stepped into the toxin. Rather than wait for any negative effect, he strode through, taking in short, sharp breaths as he went. But he needn’t have worried. As the cloud stretched beyond his lung capacity, he realised it smelled really bad and clung to his skin in long, damp tendrils, but otherwise he remained unaffected. 

The right vial. 

Sunlight flooded through a cave opening, and he surged towards it, eyes hazy. Toxins? Blood loss? He wasn’t sure. He stumbled out of the cavern and fell to his knees, coughing and spluttering as whatever decoction he’d consumed began to run out. His limbs felt leaden. He lifted his head and watched dark shapes emerge from a distant treeline. Must be beyond the mountains now. How long had he been walking? How far had he come?

He lifted a hand for the sword on his back, but his vision swam and he slumped to the floor.

A booted toe nudged his shoulder. “Well, it’s definitely him,” said a dwarven voice.

“Is it—? It’s really him, isn’t it—?” Zip. “I can’t believe it—,” pop. “He looks exactly like they described.” Ping. “Is he awake yet?”

“Rennes,” said a long-suffering young woman. “Sit still. You’ll teleport into a wall again.”

“Don’t lecture —,” zap - thunk. “Ow, okay, point taken.”

Lauren sighed and nudged Geralt’s bicep. “I know you’re awake you know,” she said softly. “I can tell.”

Without opening his eyes, Geralt hummed. “Ciri never could tell.” He immediately clenched his teeth. Right, bring up their mother on the first meeting. Golden eyes flickered open, pupils twitching wide and then narrowing as they adjusted to the flood of sunlight through the open door of the… hut.

Lauren smiled. “The Aen Seidhe have a game called sleeping tigers. They learned it from some Zerrikanian traders and all the children play it,” she stood up from the edge of the bed. “You’re not a very good sleeping tiger, Geralt.”

“More a wolf,” he pressed his hands into the pallet mattress below him and managed to sit up. His shoulder felt stiff, but he could tell by the tug of the skin that there were stitches in the wound. Rather than demand answers, he took a moment to study the two children. Both had Ciri’s emerald eyes with ashen hair; Lauren wore hers plaited down to the small of her back, and Rennes’ was cut scruffily around his face. He was already growing into a handsome young man, and Lauren was the spitting image of her mother. Beautiful. “There are two of you.” Of course. Jaskier had been saying ‘heirs’, not ‘heir’.

“Hmm, did you knock your head in the cavern? You sound a bit… you know, dumb.” Lauren tilted her head. 

Well, he’d already noted yet another similarity. “You’re not surprised to see me.”

“No,” Rennes popped again, the green slither of energy he left behind a replica of his mother’s, and then he finally sat on the edge of the bed. “They’ve told us since we were little. Geralt of Rivia will come for you. The White Wolf. And you’re him. No one else would’ve got by all the traps.”

“All set up for a Witcher to pass.” Geralt murmured.

“A specific Witcher,” a deep voice echoed from just outside the door, and suddenly the sunlight was blocked by a tall man, with striking blue eyes. An Aen Seidhe. An elder, judging by the streaks of grey in his dark hair. “Children, I require a moment with the Witcher. Leave us.”

“Yes, sir,” they said in unison, and sidled past him into the sun. There was no argument, no sass. Ciri would’ve given him a few choice pieces of feedback on his manner.

“You’ve got them well-trained.”

The elf sighed. “Out here disobedience and poor discipline can cost your life,” he sat down slowly on the foot of the bed. “They’ve grown up in a world pitted against them. Have been taught who to trust and who to suspect.” He paused and considered the swords propped up against the far wall. “If I’m honest, Witcher, I was rather hoping you’d fail. The leshen was ancient. The magic on the door waning.”

“You’ve told them all their lives that I was coming, you didn’t think it might be a problem if I didn’t turn up? If they’re the rightful rulers of Nilfgaard, then they deserve the right to—.”

“Face murderers and thieves at every turn? Battle through court politics steeped in subterfuge and lies?” Blue eyes blazed with righteous fury, and then the elf seemed to remember himself. “Forgive me. I—my name is Tirlath. I’ve raised these children as if they were my own. The thought of sending them into a nest of vipers to be consumed is almost more than I can bear.”

Only one Viper. Geralt shifted in discomfort, probing fingers investigating the stitched wounds on his back. “—to choose. They’ll have back up,” his hand dropped away and he swung his legs over the edge of the bed, bare feet resting lightly on the floor. “There’s a Viscount. Turned traitor. He’s gathered a small collection of us, to stand guard, to escort them to court.”

“And then what? What happens once they’ve made their triumphant return? Will you leave mere children to face the machinations of a cruel adult world?”

“I—,” Geralt blinked, forehead creased again. “I don’t know.” Geralt hadn't thought about what would happen after. His entire life over the last few decades had been about today—living in the moment. He’d fallen into that pattern even now and not thought to question it.

“The folly of men,” Tirlath stood, arms folding across his chest. His clothes were simple; a linen shirt and hide breeches with thick boots. Now that Geralt studied him closely, he could see the dirt on his skin and the weariness in his face. “I cannot argue with destiny. It was their mother's dying wish that they be entrusted to you when the time was right. But I don’t have to be happy about it.”

“They’ve inherited Ciri’s abilities?” 

“Partially. Rennes has her ability to teleport, perhaps, in time, to other worlds too. Lauren has her visions and potentially other untapped abilities. They’ve been taught control,” he flinched as Rennes sneezed and ended up in the branch of a large tree, “well, mostly.”

Geralt smiled. “I remember trying to teach Ciri some control. It took an entire team of us and she still preferred the wild unknown.”

“The epitome of chaos.” Tirlath said, thoughtfully. 

“Yeah.” Geralt stood slowly and rolled his shoulder. “How long have I been out?”

“Not even a day. We tidied your injury, put salve on it, you should be battle ready again in a day or two,” the elf glanced towards the swords and armour propped against the wall of the hut. “This Viscount. Do you trust him? Do you believe he will do what’s right by the children?”

Geralt knelt down to pick up the first pieces of his armour. In the beginning, when he first woke up in a strange room, surrounded by strange scents, with an aching body and head, he would’ve said no. Not in a million more years. But now? After seeing Jaskier’s heartache, watching him sacrifice everything for this cause? There would be no going back for him. His old life was dead. “Yes, I believe he will.”

“Then on your head be it. I’ll prepare the children to leave.”

“Back through your toxic fart cloud?” Geralt grumbled as he pulled the straps of his armour tight over his gambeson.

Tirlath raised a brow. “Are you always so eloquent?”

“No, you’ve just caught me in a good mood.”

As he stepped into the sun, Geralt squinted around the clearing. It was a small village—tiny, really—huddled inside the arms of ancient, towering trees in the shadow of the Blue Mountain. The huts were ramshackle and in need of repair, but the children that ran around his feet in the wake of Rennes and Lauren were happy and well-fed. Amongst the Aen Seidhe he spotted dryads and dwarves; they had been banished yet again to the very edge of the world.

Geralt watched Tirlath herd the twins towards him and then into one of the little huts. The elf’s shoulders were hunched, his face sad. Geralt thought his time of taking children away from parents was long behind him. And yet here he was again. 

He wouldn’t fail them. 

“He gave you the slip?” Lambert smirked across the fire.

“Yeah, fucked right off out the window,” Aiden frowned, and then glared. “Look, I tried following his trail.”


“Yeah, then I ran right into the open arms of half a Nilfgaardian battalion on their way home from a tour of duty,” the Cat huffed. “You’d have thought I was a prize buck the way they ran for their horses.”

It was Eskel’s turn to frown now. “How’d you get away?”

“Wit and guile,” Aiden grinned, but the two wolves just stared at him. “Fine, I ran into a rock troll. Literally. And he had friends. The soldiers weren’t stupid enough. Problem is… the trolls thought I was with the Nilfgaardians so they dragged me through the forest by my ankles for a bit.”

“Why the fuck didn’t you just cast Axii?” Lambert was finding this all very amusing.

“One got a lucky hit in with a club, I was unconscious for a while. I woke up with a mouth full of dirt, hair full of twigs—.”

“Lucky you didn’t have an ass full of cock. Those trolls can be frisky.” 

Eskel rolled his eyes. “Lambert—.”

“He’s got a point.” Aiden nodded sagely, and then tackled Lambert from the log he was sitting on for a quick tussle on the floor. It inevitably devolved into loud, wet kisses, punctuated by rumbling purrs, and Eskel turned to face the fire, chin in his hands. He was aware of two blue eyes watching him from the wagon, but ignored them. Jaskier had his comfort now and Eskel was—well, he was just used to this. Yes, this.

He still felt adrift. The two swords over his lap like an unwelcome reminder of the hardship that was yet to come. A numb resignation was beginning to settle over his heart. An acceptance that he’d simply been foolish, that, yet again, he had made poor choices. Now it was time to just… get on with it. It was far easier to just— forget.

A day and a night went by and Eskel started to fret. His heart hammered in his chest, his head ached; anxiety, panic. Where was he? Should it take this long? Jaskier didn’t have any answers, which only made Eskel more irate; rather than snarl and growl, he paced at the edge of the camp and suffered in silence. With Lambert wrapped up in Aiden and momentarily content, Eskel only had one thing to worry about. 

As the sun began to rise on the second day, Eskel looked up suddenly when a small collection of darkened shapes emerged from the canyon path. His hand strayed immediately to the swords strapped to his back, but fell away when a familiar face emerged from the shadows.

Geralt. Two elves—armed with bows and longswords—and two mini Ciris.

Chapter Text

Letho and Gaetan reached the safe house in one piece. It was touch and go a few times, like when a battalion of black armor camped by the river they needed to cross. Letho held Gaetan in a nearby cave as he shook. They had to be close enough to hear when the bastards moved on, but still far enough away to hide, for a Witcher, that was a lot of space but it was understandably too close.

“You're alright,” Letho whispered, holding Gaetan tight to his chest. Probably too tight, but he wasn't complaining about it this time. His breath came in sharp little wheezes no matter how hard Letho squeezed, but the stink of anxiety dulled somewhat when he held them tight together, so Letho held tight. “You're alright.”

The soldiers cleared by the next morning and they were on the move. Gaetan relaxed again when they were closer to their destination, but that didn't stop Letho from holding him at night, feeling that rumbling purr vibrating against his chest, letting his hands stroke from the top of Gaetan's head to the base of his spine.

When they reached the stolen safe house, Coën met them in the front hall, the frown on his face deepening for a moment before he tried to greet them. Letho didn't have to ask. “I know, I know, we're not Ixora. Don't worry about her. She had the easier stops.” At the beginning of Coën's little infatuation—fuck, it felt like a life time ago—Letho scoffed at the Griffin softening over a pretty piece. But now, with Gaetan by his side, the Cat's heartbeat as familiar to his ears as his own... yeah, Letho got it now. “She'll be back.”

“I have no doubt,” Coën said. “This house is more modest than... than the last one. Two to a room, I think, else we'll run out of space.” His eyes met Gaetan's. While he tried not to think on that terrible night that accelerated Jaskier's plans and threw them all back out into the world, Coën felt for Gaetan and was cheered by his improvement. It could've been him, he did not take that luck for granted. “There's a room at the back, a little small, yet with only one window, it's easy to secure.”

Gaetan nodded. He liked Coën, what little he saw him back at the old house; he seemed a decent fellow, and in another life, Gaetan might've made fun of him for that, Griffins and their honor were a joke to most Cats... but not anymore. It was almost nightfall and they turned in, leaving Coën to pace the front hall, waiting for Ixora to return.

Letho swung by the kitchen and grabbed them some food before they headed up. “At least Coën hasn't been sittin' on his ass,” he mumbled as he sniffed the very fresh venison they had for dinner.

They ate their meat and cheese, and Gaetan started to settle. With one door and one window, it was easy for him to keep an eye on both at the same time, easy for him to feel safe and in control of his surroundings. It was important after what he'd lived through. And Letho helped, of course, his presence made it easier for Gaetan to breathe.

There was a clunk from downstairs that made Gaetan jump, but the noise was quickly followed by, “Uh, Ixy...” which told them all they needed to know.

Letho rolled his eyes and leaned back on the bed. “Here's hoping they get it out of their system before we have a house full of rugrats.” Jaskier was cagey about Cirilla's heirs, insisting Letho know only as much of the plan as he needed to fulfill his part, but he knew it was heirs plural, born sixteen years ago, or thereabouts. So, not rugrats, still not appropriate for Ixora to mount Coën in front of them.

“Hmm,” Gaetan purred and stretched himself along Letho's side. They shucked their boots and sat on the bed to eat, the heat of Gaetan's too warm skin radiating out from under his thin shirt. “Maybe we should... get it out of our system too? The offer still stands.” A pretty pink tongue flashed out to lick his lips as cat eyes traced over Letho. “I don't wanna stop you from... enjoying.”

“And you're good with that?” Letho kept his hands firmly away from his prick, didn't even go for his buttons even though they both saw the hard line of his cock expressing interest. Fuck, Gaetan could probably smell his arousal. Just because Letho put the breaks on anything they might get up to did not mean his cock stopped reacting. Gaetan's smell, his skin, those slim hips and tight ass, that fucking little tooth that peeked out over his lip, it was all so devastatingly sexy.

Gaetan nodded. “Yeah. I think so.”

Mmm, not good enough. The last thing Letho wanted was to chase Gaetan away, it had been too long... well actually, it had never happened. Letho never had anyone he gave a fuck about, not like this. Friends and other Vipers, he cared about them yeah, he mourned when they passed. But Letho wouldn't watch the sparkle in Gaetan's eyes dim when he realized he didn't really want Letho's touch, when it was too much and he pulled away, suddenly afraid of the only other person who brought him comfort. Letho couldn't handle that. They were too important to risk messing up.

Letho shook his head. “I don't think I want that. Not yet.” Gaetan's face fell, and he tried to pull away, but Letho was too fast. He hooked a finger under Gaetan's chin, bringing him back, their lips a scant inch away from touching. “We could do this again. What number are we on?”

Gaetan's lips twitched up into a smile and that little fang was back. “Number four, I think.” He leaned forward, brushing their noses together before capturing Letho's bottom lip, sucking the chapped skin. “That's five.”

Letho ran his nose up the side of Gaetan's jaw before pulling the other Witcher into his lap. Their lips met again with a more practiced ease, they took a moment to lick slowly, tongues meeting and tangling together. “That's six,” Letho whispered.

Leaning back, Gaetan stripped off his shirt then came back in for kiss number seven, hands cupping the sides of Letho's face, thumbs brushing the shell of his ears. “Eight,” he whispered when he pulled away.

It was Letho's turn to strip, throwing his shirt onto the floor with the rest of their stuff. Normally, he was neat and organized (hard to kill people if you didn't know where your shit was) but he could clean up in the morning, the purring kitty in his arms was more important. “Just that,” Letho said. “No more tonight.”

“More kisses though? I have a good feeling about number nine.”

“So do I.”

Gaetan opened his mouth right away, inviting Letho's tongue in, an invitation he gladly took. The rumbling purr in his chest grew louder and louder the longer they kissed, and soon, Letho lost count. He maneuvered them onto their sides, Gaetan pressed up against him like all those nights camping under the stars, only now he had a view of tight abs and dusky nipples that he just wanted to lick and suck until Gaetan keened.

Baby steps, Letho reminded himself. Nice and slow...

His heavy hand wrapped around the small of Gaetan's back, pulling them flush together, his other hand coming down to pet up and down that scarred back. An equally hard cock met his and Gaetan's hips twitched a little, then stilled. He hooked a leg around Letho's waist, but there was no thrusting, no desperate rutting need for more, the kiss was enough, the feel of Letho against him was enough.

And it was more than enough for Letho too.

Once again, Jaskier let his selfishness to the fore. He couldn't help it, waiting for Geralt, not knowing exactly what he sent him to face, Jaskier let his confidence crumble and collapsed into Grayson's chest. The Bear wrapped around him, carding fingers through Jaskier's dirty hair, the scent of sweat and travel and too many layers blocking out the sweet smells he remembered from his home... their home.

He tried not to watch Eskel pace anxiously through their camp, but with Lambert in Aiden's arms, accepting kissing licks and getting into playful scuffles, Eskel was on his own and Jaskier's eyes were drawn to him again and again. He gripped tight to Grayson's arms around him, suppressing the urge to reach out and try to fix everything. He couldn't fix this, he was the one who broke it. And so they waited.

Then came the moment when Eskel stopped pacing. Dozing in Grayson's arms, Jaskier registered the shift in the noise around them and perked up. He followed Eskel's eyes to the path ahead, the one Geralt disappeared down two full days ago.

He didn't have a Witcher's keen eyes, but those shoulders were unmistakable, as was that ashen hair walking next to Geralt, shining in the light of the rising sun. “Oh my,” Jaskier gasped. He jumped from Grayson's arms and stumbled to his feet, leaning on the wagon as his legs started to shake. His father's dream, his dream, return rightful rule to the just line of Cirilla, and here they were.

Five figures approached the camp site: Geralt a little tired and walking like his body ached, but not outwardly injured; two Aen Seidhe, one with his bow drawn, the other walking with the bearing and grace of an elder; and finally, two children, one of them bouncing and dancing as he walked. The boy tugged on Geralt's arm every few steps, while the girl held herself at bay, trying to be more serene and controlled than her brother. But her body betrayed her excitement as she leaned in, her shoulder brushing Geralt's arm as they walked, her beautiful emerald eyes glancing up at him, like she couldn't believe he was real, their White Wolf had finally arrived.

Recovering his strength, Jaskier met them at the end of the path. His father's memory and the deep respect he instilled in Jaskier—respect for the rightful rulers of Nilfgaard—came to the fore of his mind and he bowed low, leg extended, hand flat, head down, chin to chest, just like his parents taught him. “Your Highnesses, my name is—”

Pop. Before Jaskier could finish his greeting, a streak of green sliced through the air. He looked up to find a teenaged boy—the rightful ruler of his country—standing not two inches from him. “So you're the traitor Viscount!” he declared with an indecent amount of glee.

Leaning back so as not to crowd, Jaskier over balanced and fell onto his ass. Peels of laughter echoed through the morning air, a few nearby birds took flight from a tree. Pop. The boy crouched right next to him and Jaskier skittered back, thumping his head into the wagon. “Ah, fuck! I mean—”

The boy laughed again. Zip. He appeared next to his sister, leaning their heads together the way the wolves did from time to time, must be a family trait. “I like him, even if he is a traitor.”

“Rennes,” the older elf cautioned. “That's enough.” The boy, Rennes, easily fell into step with the group again, staying close to his sister. Jaskier climbed to his feet and tried to reclaim what was left of his dignity.

Though the Aen Seidhe guard stopped at the edge of camp, the kids followed Geralt as he made his way over to Eskel and Lambert, his fingers absently rubbed over the girl's long braid and he squeezed Rennes' shoulder.

They barely made it through introductions when there was another crack, and Eskel had an arm full of teenager. “Uncle Eskel!”

Lauren rolled her eyes and calmly walked to Lambert, presenting her hand for a shake. “It's nice to meet you, Lambert. Our mother was very fond of you all, we have letters she wrote and—ah!”

Lambert wrapped his arms around the girl and pulled her in, lifting her feet from the ground and spinning. “You look exactly like her!”

With Rennes popping and zipping around Eskel, and Lauren trapped in Lambert's arms, Geralt stepped back and smiled. He let himself have the moment, this small bit of happiness before they had to pull these children into the jaws of fate. Nilfgaard killed Ciri, one of the strongest women he'd ever known. He wasn't there to protect her and now, he was about to deliver her children—his grandchildren—into those same jaws. Geralt put it from his mind and watched his new family play happily with his old one. Maybe together, they'd get it right this time.

After exchanging hugs and a few greetings, Tirlath called their attention back. “Children, to me please.”

Just as before, they pulled away from Lambert and Eskel and fell in at Tirlath's side without a word of protest. Lambert went to follow, but a shake of Geralt's head stopped him. “Give them a moment. They're his family too.”

They exchanged a few quiet words, the Witchers tried not to listen in. When all was said and done, Tirlath handed them each a traveling bag and pulled them in close, one last hug before sending them into the unknown. Aen Seidhe were all about Destiny and being attuned to Chaos, but Geralt did not begrudge him his emotions.

While the kids collected themselves, Geralt glanced at Aiden. “How did you get here? Aren't you supposed to be with Gaetan?”

Aiden leaned tighter into Lambert. “Gaetan did a runner, hoping he followed Letho's trail. You're going to where Letho is, so...”

“Right.” So, this was it, every last healthy Witcher on the Continent against all of Nilfgaard. Fuck, when he thought of it like that...

A little more subdued now, Rennes and Lauren made their way back to Geralt. They watched with sad eyes as the elves, their only family for so long, turned back up the path, disappearing around the hill. “We'll see them again,” Lauren whispered. “Once we fix what's been broken. The steel in her voice and the resolve in her eyes, she'd never looked more like Ciri than at that moment.

For the first time since they'd met, Rennes shared that somber expression. He reached down and squeezed his sister's hand. “We'll make it right.”

“Well,” Jaskier said, his voice wavering a bit. “Shall we head off?” He imagined the faces of his Emperor and Empress a thousand times; would they look anything like Cirilla's portraits—the ones his father carefully collected and stored away safely out of Nilfgaard's hands—or would they have the coarse features of their southern ancestors? He was happy to see they were the spit of their mother, and yet, he hated himself a little more as he looked upon their bright, determined faces. Just like his Witchers, Jaskier now had to lead Lauren and Rennes into the belly of the beast.

They packed up camp and headed out, back towards Nilfgaard. Jaskier kept his eyes on the road as he drove the wagon, trying not to let the sounds of a happy family around him cut too deep.

Though the first hours of their journey were somber and silent, Lauren and Rennes reflecting on what they'd lost, how their lives were about to change, their bright mood soon returned. Jaskier offered them a seat in the wagon, but they were too excited and couldn't keep still as they began the journey south. They chattered with Eskel, Lambert, Geralt and even Aiden, begging for stories of the Path and their lives, Rennes popping between them all and tripping over ruts in the path quite a few times before Geralt put a stop to it.

“We have to keep a low profile. We don't know what might be standing between us and getting you back to the safe house.”

“Fine,” Rennes pretended to grumble, but they were both ecstatic, eyes wandering around the forest as the landscape changed around them.

“We've never been anywhere,” Lauren said, walking close to Geralt's side. “We had to be protected.”

“And we will protect you still,” Eskel said. “No matter what comes.” Geralt caught his eye and smiled. The tension that radiated from Eskel ever since they fled Jaskier's house was suddenly gone. His eyes brighter than they'd been in days, he almost smiled as he watched Lauren and Rennes run about towards the trees. A sharp whistle from Geralt called them back to the path and they started questioning Eskel now, looking at him like they were seeing the sun for the first time. Geralt remembered Ciri had that same look, and now, another generation of his family was bonded together. He saw it in the way Eskel and Lambert wrapped their arms around the children as they walked. Any Wolf would die for you, Geralt thought to himself, and we will see you in your rightful place once again.

Lauren and Rennes safe with his brothers, Geralt dropped back and jumped into the wagon. He nodded to Grayson. “A moment?” The Bear grunted and walked forward to keep up with the kids; their boundless enthusiasm for the world was infectious and even Grayson smirked when they asked him to tell them about Bear Witchers. Soon enough, he and Eskel were comparing notes about fighting styles and potions, two sets of green eyes totally focused on them, enraptured.

As the rest of the party walked a little ahead of the wagon, Geralt turned his attention to Jaskier. Dark circles ringed his tired eyes, which flicked back and forth between the road, and the two children currently running rings around Lambert, their energy showing no signs of waning. “Is it all you hoped for?” Geralt asked.

Jaskier shook himself, pulling from the stupor exhaustion and too much time on the road had lulled him into. “Ask me again when they are safe on the throne, leading Nilfgaard towards balance once more.” He closed his eyes for the barest hint of a second, the reins almost slipping from his hands.

“Why don't you rest? I can drive,” Geralt offered.

Jaskier shook his head. “No, I'm alright. I'm used to pushing myself.”

“Why is that?” Geralt spent so long fighting against Jaskier, he never stopped to consider why he was doing any of this. His father's murder made sense, but there was more. If he'd learned one thing about the Viscount, it was that he held so much inside himself; under that pretty face beat a heart of steel, hard enough to do what needed to be done—after all, Geralt had seen him cut off a man's hand for the crime of mistreating a Witcher. The lonely life he only hinted at... for the first time, Geralt expected this man knew what it was like to be a Witcher more than anyone else on the Continent.

His lips turned down. “I was barely fifteen when Cirilla died. I watched how hard it hit my father—like he'd lost his own daughter. Though I resented him for keeping our family apart from our peers, I'll never forget what he taught me. Chaos is better than controlled destruction, Nilfgaard likes to pretend their order is more peaceful than little wars springing up all over the Continent, but they kill more in a single genocide than Temeria or Redania could in a decade of war, wipe out whole villages to prevent a larger famine when shifting resources would be better in the long run. My father always said Nilfgaard was too short sighted, it'll lead us to ruin. Letting the world sort itself out naturally... that was his philosophy.”

Jaskier paused and Geralt watched his eyes pass over Lauren and Rennes once again. A small smile returned to his lips. “They will sort the world out, of this I'm sure, let it heal again. Pull the black armies back from every settlement they don't belong in.”

“No one better to teach them about letting the natural world be than the Aen Seidhe.”

“I can only hope.” Jaskier's shoulders slumped, his smooth face impossibly tired.

“Jaskier, let me drive the wagon for a bit. You need to rest.”

For a moment, it looked like Jaskier was going to refuse again—for a man who surrounded himself in comfort, he was so keen to be as uncomfortable on their journey as possible—but he sighed and nodded. “Yes, I'm no good to you if I drive myself—and all our supplies—into a ditch.”

Signaling the others, they stopped long enough for Jaskier to climb into the back and make himself comfortable among their meager provisions. The gold he provided at the beginning of their journey was nowhere near depleted and Geralt made a mental note to stop when they got close to a town, buy some fresh food, blankets to line the hard wagon for Lauren and Rennes to sleep in at night... and Jaskier.

“You've done a lot of good for us.” Geralt never thought he'd say those words to the man he once believed to be his captor, but with his family happy and whole in front of him, he found it difficult to hold the past months against Jaskier. They all did what they needed to do... Jaskier included.

“You don't have to be kind, I know what I did was wrong. Even if it was for the right reasons. It's, it's how I got this far. My family were social outcasts, how do you think I got all that trust back? I bartered my body for favors, it was the only social currency I had...” He buried his head into a pile of their packs, exhaustion making his tongue loose, saying the dark thoughts that clouded his mind out loud for the first time. “I'm not looking for absolution, forgiveness, I don't deserve it. I used your bodies the same way I used myself, became a monster to stop the monsters tearing the world apart.”

“You're not a monster, Jaskier, take it from someone who hunts monsters professionally. As for forgiveness...” Geralt would never tire of the sight of his family, lightning could strike him dead and he'd die happy. Lambert's fingers twined with Aiden's, his other arm around Rennes' shoulders, Eskel walking on the other side with Lauren hanging on his arm, even Grayson was starting to belong, mumbling in agreement whenever Eskel mentioned a battle tactic the Bear approved of.

As usual, Geralt found his eyes drawn to Eskel as he threw his head back, laughing at some Aen Seidhe joke he hadn't heard in a century. He was radiant, face incandescent with laughter, the face that had seen Geralt through so many hard times. “I don't remember seeing Eskel this happy. Ever. No matter what he feels now, he will forgive you eventually. You returned his family to him not once, but twice, that counts for something with the School of the Wolf.”

Geralt said nothing more, kept his eyes on the road, leaving Jaskier alone with his thoughts. “You should sleep,” he said finally. Jaskier did.

Normally, Letho would take the ever loving piss out of Coën when he saw the dopey look on the Griffin's face as he sat gently in the kitchen for breakfast. But now that Letho was just as much of a fucking fool for love, he couldn't say a damn thing, especially not with Gaetan leaning against him, fucking purring, almost every moment of every day.

Loud sex aside, Ixora and Coën were good company, they kept to themselves but talked strategy whenever necessary. Letho wanted to wait for the others, size up their ranks again (who knows what happened with the elves, might've just killed everyone and kept the kids...) but the days of waiting started to get to him. He found an old chess board in the library and started pushing the pieces around with Ixora, testing possible strategies for when they finally took the capital.

The day the noisy wagon arrived, the stillness of the house broke, exploding into manic, teenaged chaos. Ixora's eyes went wide when she saw the ashen-haired children unloading the wagon along side the White Wolf. “Beautiful little hatchlings,” she whispered. “Worthy of the Great Dragon himself.”

“Hatchlings?” Coën whispered back, squeezing Ixora's hand. “The Griffins, we used to call—whenever a new Child Surprise arrived—we called them hatchlings.” Ixora smiled, squeezing his fingers in return. Coën didn't have time to examine his memories, or the sudden, torturous vision of Ixora holding a child, their child, because he suddenly had a face full of wolf pup, the boy, eager to introduce himself to the whole house.

No matter how long they'd been traveling, the twins had endless energy. Geralt and the others were a little worn around the eyes, but happy for the rest. There were introductions all around, Coën bowed low as always, and even Ixora tipped her head. “Zerikkanians know how to treat royalty, as long as they are worthy of the title,” she said.

Gaetan made himself stay long enough to greet them before slipping away. He didn't know if he'd ever be totally okay around humans again, but there was something about these two... they were practically glowing. He went upstairs to bury himself under their blankets and now it was down to Letho to corral everyone. Perfect.

“Food's in the kitchen, don't take too long. All combatants, meet in the library in half an hour. We got shit to plan.” His eyes darted towards the kids. “Uh, sorry... Someone find them a room.”

They settled into the house, Eskel and Geralt claiming a room together after getting Lauren and Rennes settled. Though it was a decent sized house, they were now packed in and short of beds. “Take our room,” Coën offered Lambert and Aiden. “Ixora and I shall keep watch tonight, the others need the rest more.”

“Thanks.” Lambert and Aiden took the offered room, leaving Jaskier and Grayson to share the last one.

Geralt peered down the hall to watch Grayson tangle his fingers with Jaskier's, pulling him in close. “Stay with me tonight?” he heard the Bear whisper.

“Alright, thank you.”

Room sorted, they trooped into the kitchen for a meal, then the war council began. Some of the faces were new, but with Lambert and Eskel planning, twin Ciri lookalikes adding their knowledge of Aen Seidhe battle tactics, fuck, even Letho, Geralt couldn't help but let his thoughts travel back to the battle of Kaer Morhen. No matter how much time had passed, things always stayed the same; once upon a time, he brought his friends and allies together to save his daughter's life, and now Geralt brought allies together to save his grandchildren. It felt poetic, in a way... here's hoping it wasn't a tragedy.

In the end, there was only so much planning they could do. There were always going to be variables the Witchers couldn't control, unknown players, unknown obstacles. Jaskier gave all the information he spent years gathering, renovations made in the royal palace, possible guard rotation schedules (Nilfgaardians loved their schedules) and Geralt tried not to imagine a young Viscount—sharper, more hopeful—offering a night in his bed to get this information. Jaskier had given more to this cause than Geralt fully understood at first, it would probably take years more to know the true depth of it.

“The best thing we can do now is rest,” Geralt said.

“Agreed.” Letho started to twitch about an hour ago, his eyes darting up towards the ceiling, where Gaetan was huddled in their bed. “Alright everyone, lights out.”

Geralt knew, as soon as they reached the safe house, they had to move fast, this was their last night of safety before... well, before everything. He kissed and hugged the children that might as well be his now, who'd become his as they traveled farther south, and left them under Ixora and Coën's watchful eyes. No harm would come to his family tonight, not when they were surrounded by Witchers.

Slowly, everyone said goodnight and tried not to make it sound like goodbye, then retreated to the arms of lovers. The last thing Geralt saw before shutting himself and Eskel away was Lauren and Rennes hugging tight to Jaskier.

“Thank you,” Lauren said, pulling away and following Coën to their quarters. “I'm sorry we won't be able to do more.”

“It's alright, Your Highness, I understand.” Jaskier gave one last bow before shutting his door, Grayson no doubt waiting...

Geralt closed his door as well and leaned his head against the cool wood. “Fuck,” he hissed.

Hands settled on his hips, Eskel's chin resting on top of his shoulder. “I thought so, yeah.” Blowing warm breath across Geralt's neck, Eskel kissed the sweaty skin, ignoring the musk of travel that still lingered all over them. They didn't have time to clean up.

Geralt smirked and turned around, taking Eskel into his arms and tipping his head, baring more of his neck to nipping teeth. “We should sleep.”

“Fuck sleep.”

“Gonna fuck you.” Shoving Eskel back onto the bed, Geralt pinned him in place with a glare. “Stay.”

Eskel snarled playfully before laying back, hands starting to strip his clothes. Normally, Geralt liked doing that, unwrapping Eskel like a present... but not tonight, tonight he wanted open skin for as long as possible. Screw teasing, screw sleep, he wanted Eskel. Geralt had exactly one tin of slick left over from Jaskier's house, thrown in his bag in the vain hope they might live long enough to use it and tonight was the night they'd empty it.

He pulled it from his bag and showed it to Eskel, who growled, tipping his chin towards the end of the bed. “Don't make me wait, Wolf.”

Geralt tossed him the tin then started stripping out of his clothes. “Get started. I want you all night.” The slurp of the tin opening shouldn't be that erotic, and yet, Geralt's cock jumped. He pulled at his shirt, kicking his boots off and sending one across the room.

He was on the bed, pressed against Eskel just as the other Witcher pushed two slick fingers into himself, their noses rubbing together, eyes locked. “You're beautiful,” Geralt said, watching the pleasure wash over Eskel's face. So many days, a handful of touches by the fire, a few stolen kisses, Geralt forgot how much he loved the feel of Eskel's body against his.

Eskel wasn't doing much better either. Though the angle was awkward, he got three slick fingers inside himself, ready for Geralt to claim him. “It's been a while since it was just you and me... think you can live up to the memory?”

“Just you watch.” He stole the tin back from Eskel and slicked his cock. Their bodies fell into the steps they'd memorized decades ago, Eskel's legs fell open, letting Geralt settle between them, hips tipping up, ready for the first slow slide of that thick cock.

The scent of Eskel mixed with the familiar smell of the salve filled Geralt's mind. He closed his eyes and he pressed inside, moaning at the feel of it all—Eskel's body hot around him, strong legs flexing and squeezing him—and when Geralt opened his eyes, he half expected to see Jaskier lounging next to him, watching Eskel fall apart on Geralt's cock.

Jaskier liked to watch them more than anything. He usually let Geralt go first, take Eskel apart and make him melt before taking his turn, the two of them together working to reduce Eskel to a moaning, panting mess in their bed. The scent of the oil made him think of that house, that bed they shared, where they were a pack once again, and now with Eskel wrapped around him and Jaskier absent...

“I think I miss him.” The words fell from Geralt's lips before he thought to say them, but it was the truth. Just as Lambert laying next to them while they were wrapped together felt natural, Jaskier's eyes on Geralt as he worshiped the body they both loved was as familiar as breathing.

Eskel's moans stopped, but his legs tightened around Geralt, urging him to continue. “I don't—I don't want to talk about Jaskier. Just kiss me.”

Geralt leaned down, brushing their lips together, hips rolling as his tongue explored Eskel's mouth. “You can't hate him forever. I don't think I do anymore. He gave me my family back. He gave me you.”

A broken sob spilled from Eskel's chest, but he held Geralt tighter still, nails scratching down his back. “Please, not tonight. Just you, only you...”

“Alright, I'm sorry.” Geralt trailed kisses down Eskel's neck in apology, his thrusts getting erratic as he lost their rhythm in his passion. Next time, he'd take it slow, he'd make love with Eskel all night, as long as he was allowed, until the sun rose on their destiny for possibly the last time. “I love you,” he hissed as he came, sinking his teeth into Eskel's neck.

Aiden and Lambert decided to take advantage of the bathing facilities, even if they had to fill the tub themselves. “Fuck,” Lambert sighed, his back aching after lugging buckets of water across the house. It was worth it when he sunk into an Igni heated bath, Aiden curling around his sore muscles. “Say what you will about that collection house, but I am going to miss those baths.” The Witcher hot bath, specifically, the water almost scalding, enough to take the edge off any strained muscle.

Warm, slick hands ran down his chest, rubbing between his legs. Lambert's cock perked up, breaking the surface of the water. “Upstairs,” Aiden said before Lambert got any ideas. He followed it with a nip to Lambert's ear. “You're getting two baths tonight.”

His cock jumped again. “Fuck.”

They cleaned up as quickly as possible while still enjoying the hot water, but really, Jaskier's bathhouse had ruined Lambert for anything short of the Kaer Morhen hot springs. He shut the door to their room and pushed Aiden against it, pulling his towel away and rubbing their tacky, bath fresh chests together. “If we live through this,” Lambert growled, “you're wintering at Kaer Morhen. No excuses.”

Aiden purred, his hand drifting down to wrap around Lambert's cock, tugging lightly. “I thought Cats weren't allowed? Something about our ethics, or mortality or whatever.”

“That was Vesemir's rule.” He nipped at Aiden's neck, pulling him towards the bed. “Eskel's in charge now, and he can't say no to me.” At least, that's how it used to be. Lambert was the youngest, the baby, Eskel and Geralt gave him anything he wanted and more, then wondered why he was such a shit. Good times... times he hoped to revisit one day. “You mentioned something about another bath?”

One day, Lambert would get used to Aiden's cat quick reflexes, but today was not that day; he made a deeply embarrassing sound as Aiden pushed him back onto the bed, climbing between his legs. Unlike the first time he bathed Lambert, he didn't start at his neck, getting right to the meat of things. He licked two long stripes, one on the inside of each of Lambert's thighs, before licking over his balls, tongue dipping down almost far enough to tease his hole... but not quite.

“Uh, Aiden...”

Aiden wasn't listening. He pushed Lambert's legs up and back, opening him up. That wicked tongue lapped at his hole before moving back up. “Gotta get you all clean,” he purred, making Lambert's balls vibrate. He was pretty sure they weren't supposed to do that.

“Aiden.” Lambert was fucking whining now, but as much as he loved Aiden's face between his legs, licking up his shaft and sucking the head like a sweet, he wanted to look into those eyes. “Aiden, we might die tomorrow.”

The licking stopped, Aiden's tongue stilled on the side of his cock. He pulled back and pressed soft kisses up and down the length of it, making Lambert shiver once again. “I know,” Aiden said after a too long moment. “And if Nilfgaard manages to kill me tomorrow, I want the taste of you on my tongue.” Rubbing his cheek against the inside of Lambert's thigh, Aiden started purring, and he knew his Wolf couldn't resist.

Slumping back on the bed, Lambert groaned. “Fine, lick away. But I'm getting my mouth around you too. Gonna—fuck...” Aiden's mouth fully settled over his cock, taking him deep right away, no more build up.

Just as fast, the heat disappeared and he ran the tip of his nose up Lambert's cock. “Tell me. Tell me what you're going to do. Let's make a list.”

So, Lambert made a list. As Aiden sucked away at his cock, popping off every once in a while to lick his balls or bite at the insides of his thighs, Lambert made a list of everything. Not just for tonight, for all the nights in the future, because anyone would tell you, Lambert was a stubborn bastard, and even if they died tomorrow, he'd find a way to spend the rest of his life with Aiden, having all the feelings they spent too long ignoring. So when Lambert said he’d kiss every inch of Aiden's body, it wasn't a fantasy, it was a fucking promise.

It was an old habit, a ritual one might call it, or a compulsion, but whenever Jaskier knew he was going to court, he carefully picked his clothing the night before, spreading them out on the dresser so they were the first thing he saw when he woke up. Blue silk doublet with a silver-gray undershirt, silver gray breeches, supple leather boots, and his father's signet ring, all laid out neat for the day ahead... Only he wasn't really going to court. This wasn't his tenth birthday when his father brought him to see Cirilla, watch her float into the room, smiling as she greeted her subjects and took her place on the throne to hear their grievances. He was going to walk into a throne room soaked in blood and offer a solution to their sudden lack of a monarch, a traitor to the false Emperor, but an ally to the new rulers... He hoped.

Or, Geralt might just turn around and kill him the second they were done. Possibly Eskel. Either way, his blue doublet would have blood on it soon enough, but fuck if Jaskier wasn't going to look presentable. He let his fingers stroke the soft collar, the only good clothes he had left.

“Jaskier.” The soft rumbling voice pulled him out of his trance. His fingers twitched away from the smooth fabric and he found Grayson staring at him from the bed, his half-hard cock curving gently in the bend of his thigh. He extended a hand, beckoning Jaskier. “You've punished yourself long enough. Come to bed.”

Jaskier let his weakness overcome him and fell into Grayson's arms, that firm chest under his forehead. “I'm sorry,” he whispered.

“Enough of that.” Grayson rubbed a hand down his back, coming to rest on Jaskier's ass, finger sliding up his cleft before moving back up. “You saved me. You saved us all. I heard your little talk with the White Wolf.” Jaskier tensed in his arms but Grayson continued to slowly stroke his back, straying a bit lower before traveling up again, the touch soothing Jaskier's fractured mind. “You used all your resources to avenge your family and return the rightful heirs to power, it is a noble goal carried out with a noble spirit.”

Despite his cock hard against Grayson's warm skin, Jaskier felt fear well up inside of him. All the nights he'd spend in a general's bed to get a look at secret plans, each time he spread his legs for a duke with the ear of the Usurper to get himself invited to the palace so he could scout... tomorrow morning, it was all worth it, or it fucking wasn't. Jaskier watched his control slowly bleed away the moment Nilfgaard marched into his home and questioned his collection, looking at his Witchers like objects of war, when they had always been so much more.

“Jaskier,” Grayson whispered, lips brushing his ear, hand wrapping around his cock. “Please. Let it go.”

So Jaskier let it go. He let Grayson roll him over and settle between his legs, his hands wandering all over, stroking hot human skin. He let the Bear lick between his thighs, over his balls and down his cleft, a deft tongue circling his hole. They didn't have anything to ease the passage, but Grayson was very skilled with his mouth and fingers. One hand around Jaskier's cock, he lapped between his cheeks until he came, then did it again.

Soon, Jaskier was a shaking, shivering mess, Grayson covering him completely. “Let me,” he panted, groping around for the thick cock he'd touched so many times.

“Not yet.” Grayson let go of him and got up on his knees, stroking himself slowly. Jaskier peered over his shoulder just in time to see Grayson's balls draw up, come arcing from the tip of his cock, landing on Jaskier's smooth cheeks and the small of his back.

Grayson leaned forward, blanketing himself across Jaskier's back and pulling him in tight. The spend across his skin stuck to them both, making Jaskier smell claimed, if only for the moment; it's what Grayson missed most about the house, smelling himself on Jaskier's skin, maybe a bit of Wolf thrown in... He pushed his face into Jaskier's neck and inhaled deeply before blowing out a satisfied breath. “Come what may, whatever tomorrow brings, I am glad I met you, Jaskier.”

“Oh, Gray—” The rest of Jaskier's words were lost to desperate moans as Grayson's large hand wrapped around his cock once more. Yes, one last night to be selfish, one last night to love one of his Witchers.

And then, to war.

Zireael sat atop the small dresser in the room they claimed. Letho told himself not to stare at it, he knew he needed to get some rest—gotta be sharp to kill the Usurper in the morning and maybe escape with his skin—but he didn't want it to come to any harm, and he didn't want to fucking forget the most symbolic weapon in the history of Nilfgaard. So there it sat... and Letho stared at it.

“Hey.” Gaetan sat across his lap, blocking Letho's view of the damn sword. A calloused hand cupped his jaw, making sure the Viper's eyes stayed where Gaetan wanted them. He wasn't as shaken by the house full of people as Letho thought, but he wasn't as settled as when it was only Coën and Ixora fucking a few doors down. With the concert of moans and groans bleeding through the walls, Gaetan had been twitchy all night, his eyes lingering on Letho more and more. “Stop thinking about tomorrow.”

Letho chuckled and leaned into the hand, licking softly at Gaetan's fingers. “Can't help it, I've been thinkin’ about tomorrow for almost five years.” Longer probably, since they threw him in that prison cell.

That's one of the first things he asked Jaskier: did Dear Cirilla know he was in jail? Apparently not, the conspiracy to keep her in the dark on her own empire started early and went deep. Fucking humans, give them the Lady of Time and Space to usher in a century of peace and they lied to her face, then stabbed her in the back.

Gaetan leaned forward, their lips meeting. They lost count of the kisses, but damn, they were still amazing. Most nights, Letho had to dunk himself in cold water before bed to dampen the arousal Gaetan provoked in him, and tonight, with the rest of the house fucking like the world was about to end...

As soon as Gaetan broke the kiss, his hand settled on Letho's stomach, just above the fucking obvious bulge between his legs. “I know you didn't want to, when we first got here. But tomorrow... you might not come back.” He managed to keep his voice steady, barely. “I wanna see you. I know you think it'll be too much for me—”

“Shh, shh, no, that's not why.” Letho brought his hands up to cup Gaetan's face, pressing kisses all over that stupidly cute mug of his. The corners of his lips, his eyelids, his nose... Letho had never felt like this before and it was turning him into a fucking sap. He leaned their foreheads together, gazing into his kitty's eyes, the lowest, softest purr starting to build. “I'm worried I can't handle it. I know some of what you've been through, an' if, seeing me brings it all back...” Letho closed his eyes. “Fuck, I feel like such a baby.”

“I'm not scared of you. Nothing you can do, nothing about you, will scare me away.” A quick kiss to the tip of his nose, then Gaetan's fingers brushed his cock again. Fuck, he felt the heat through his clothes... “I wanna see you. Please?”

Letho swallowed thickly and nodded, pulling at the ties of his trousers, his shirt long gone. “Alright.”

Gaetan crawled off Letho's lap just long enough to strip his shirt before settling across his thighs again, giving him enough room to... you know. He pushed aside the last pieces of cloth keeping his cock from the world and Gaetan's eyes went wide. “Whoa...”

He knew it would be big, he felt it, pressing against him at night as Letho mumbled apologies and excuses about body heat. But fuck, he didn't know cocks came that size. Letho was a big Witcher, strong arms perfect for holding Gaetan tight against his chest; whenever Letho picked him up and Gaetan's feet left the floor, he almost felt normal again. But fuck. Just... fuck.

He must've said all this out loud, because Letho shifted, making like he was going to tuck himself away again. “We don't have to, it's fine—”

“Are you kidding me?” Gaetan caught his hand, but didn't touch his cock. Looking was one thing, touching though... yeah, he definitely wasn't ready for that. But he would be, he knew that now. Some day, he'd be ready to let Letho take him apart. “No, I wanna see you. I want you to feel good.”

“Fine.” Situating himself against the head of the bed, he slid a pillow behind his back and started stroking, teasing at first. “Don't have any slick. It's gonna be a little rough.”

“Rough is okay.” Gaetan's eyes were wide, transfixed on that thick cock. Was thick even the right word? Letho's large hand barely wrapped all the way around it.

Precome welled at the tip and Letho's thumb swept it away, adding a little slide to his strokes. He'd lick his hand in a minute, but for now, he was enjoying Gaetan's eyes on him. He'd never been watched before—when he had sex, sure, whatever—but when he tended to himself, no one cared about Letho's wanking habits enough to watch them.

The heated gaze actually had weight to it, and Letho felt every little flick of those sharp eyes as they took in the scene. After a moment, Gaetan sat back a little farther, rubbing his hands over Letho's thighs, careful not to get too close. The touch was surprisingly erotic and Letho's strokes sped up. He didn't even need the spit anymore, precome dripped from his slit almost faster than he could wipe it away.

Gaetan licked his lips and it was over. Letho bucked, biting down on his lip to stifle his groans. He managed to catch his spend in his hand before slumping back. “Fuck,” he sighed. Leaning against the headboard of their bed with a palm full of his own spunk, Letho looked at Gaetan and he'd never been fucking happier.

Maybe he wouldn't die tomorrow. He didn't want to miss coming back to that face.

Chapter Text

Ixora stirred the porridge oats and goats’ milk as it bubbled away over the hearth. The children rose with the sun and, while the others were resting after their journey, she pulled Coën from the comfort of the furs before the fireplace to keep the hatchlings occupied. She was taken with them immediately; their easy acceptance, their almost courtly etiquette with a few rough edges. Coën could see the glimmer in her eye and he started to think about what she’d look like with a child.

“So, you’re a Manticore?” Rennes asked through a mouthful of honey-seasoned porridge. “From Zerrikania. Is it true they still have dragons?”

“Dragons walk among us, hatchling,” Ixora said gently, stroking a hand over his ashen hair. “But they have long learned to keep themselves hidden from humanity.”

“When we’re Emperor, they won’t have to,” Lauren replied as she stirred her breakfast. “No one will.”

Coën smiled at Ixora across the kitchen as he carried two mugs of fresh water to the table. Together, they’d guarded the twins as they slept, occasionally sitting in silence nearby to just… dream. In another world—another life—Coën would’ve been able to give Ixora her own hatchlings. Their own hatchlings. Perhaps in a year, maybe two. But destiny had other plans for them; she’d ripped away their chance of children centuries ago, but perhaps this was another opportunity.

“That’s quite a big promise to make,” Ixora smiled as she took a seat at the end of the table. “You’ll have to overcome many obstacles, including people that may wish to hurt you because they believe in different things.” Explaining the evils of the world to a child was always difficult, and the machinations of Nilfgaardian politics were beyond even Ixora to dissect.

Rennes considered this with a furrowed brow. “Tirathal said it’d be hard, but it was our duty to make things right again,” he glanced at Coën, and then looked back at Ixora thoughtfully. “If we had you to help, then maybe it’d be easier?”

Rennes.” Lauren elbowed him. 

“Hmm,” Coën leaned back against the kitchen counter top. “No, he has a point.” Ixora looked at him expectantly, so he continued. “Well, there are so few monsters left in the world, there won’t be much need for us out on the Path. When I was captured, it’d been weeks since I’d had a contract.” 

Ixora bit her lower lip and petted her hand across Lauren’s hair. She’d plaited it for her; a tight braid down the centre of her back to keep it from her face. Could it be possible for her to do it every morning from then on? Was this something she could have? She tilted her head. “Is that something you would like?”

Lauren considered it as she mulled over a mouthful of porridge. “Yes,” she brandished her spoon at Rennes. “And as we’ll be in charge, we can decide who stays with us and who goes, right?”

“Right.” Rennes grinned and then disappeared briefly with a pop. He knocked some pans off a shelf and scrambled to catch them before they all clattered to the floor. “Uh… sorry.”

Coën smiled and crouched down to help Rennes tidy. “And we’ll have to continue working on your control. Can’t have you sneezing and ending up halfway across the Continent.”

The others woke slowly as the sun crept higher above the treeline. Last night was their final few hours of peace in each other’s arms and today was about saying their first goodbye and preparing to leave the safety of their halfway house. If all went well, they wouldn’t need to return; if all went badly, then this would be a safe haven to regroup. Letho needed a day’s headstart and left first thing in the morning. Jaskier and Gaetan were there to bid him farewell.

“I hope this won’t be the last time, Letho.” Jaskier offered his hand although his first instinct was to pull the Viper into an embrace. It had all started with Letho. Everything. If the Viper had said no all those years ago, then Jaskier would’ve accomplished nothing. Still a minor lord buried in his fairy tales and myths, or worse, in the family crypt alongside his father. “I’m sorry you have to do this final stretch on your own.”

Letho gazed briefly at the offered hand before clasping it in his palm. “S’how I work best,” he murmured. “Others tend to get in the way.” Or killed. His mind conjured images of Auckes and Serrit, unhelpfully, and he felt his chest tighten briefly. Yeah, solo was the best way to be.

Or so he kept lying to himself. Because as Jaskier left with a final pat on the back of his hand, Gaetan stepped forward. His big amber eyes studied Letho’s craggy face and the Viper suddenly felt very seen. They didn’t need to discuss the danger of what he was about to do, nor did they need to voice the obvious worries written over each of their faces. The Cat pressed against his chest, palms settling over the buckles of his sword belts, in silent request. The kiss was so gentle, so warm. Letho could feel the familiar gaps in Gaetan’s teeth, taste the sweetness of the honey from his breakfast, and he wrapped his Cat up in an embrace so tight that neither of them could breathe. Gaetan tapped out, thin lips tilted in a smile. “Come back to me, scales.”

“Yeah,” Letho replied, and meant it. Five years ago, he’d reasoned that this would be his end game. There were only so many kings you could kill before balance had to be restored. He’d been lucky to escape execution the last few times. But now that he had Gaetan—a small sliver of something so pure, so precious—he knew he needed to survive. It was difficult to pull away. He pressed his forehead to Gaetan’s, eyes closing as he drew in a shuddering breath filled with his scent. “Be good.”

“No promises.” Gaetan licked the tip of his nose and then shoved him in the chest. “Go on, piss off before I tie you up and stop you going.” The Cat watched his Viper disappear into the treeline and tried to ignore the knot of misery that built in his throat.

Letho sat on the walls of Metinna with a flagon of ale and watched the day fade. The late summer colours sprawled out across a darkening azure sky and as he sipped the watered down swill in his hand, he tried to not see two feline eyes in the warm yellows bleeding out from the sun. Zireael sat across his lap and he tapped it lightly on the hilt as the last dregs filtered over his tongue.

With a travelling cloak wrapped around his shoulders, Letho slipped through the immaculate city streets, fading into the general populace despite his impressive size. Nilfgaardians were so assured of their own immortality that they remained oblivious even when a predator walked in their midst.

Under the cover of darkness he crouched behind a small outbuilding and tucked his bags and cloak beneath some thick bushes; he knew the guard rotations and patrols by heart. The information was easy enough to memorise from the notes he’d secured from a contact. There was always the chance the patterns would change but it all came back down to those feelings of invincibility. He waited until the patrol marched by—on time, had to love Nilfgaardian discipline—and then slipped into the moat. The chill of the water reminded him of Demavend III’s assassination all those years ago. He’d bested Anselm and Himsbach, the king’s own champions, and his mage Abelard. The Usurper would be flanked by a handful of guards at best. This was child’s play in comparison to destabilising the northern kingdoms.

Letho scaled the craggy, uneven surface of the keep wall, sticking to the shadows cast by the moon and the bushy ivy clinging to the rough stone. The good Emperor was eating his evening meal in seclusion with only a handful of servants clustered around to appease his every demand. Rather than enter the throne room immediately, Letho pulled himself up into the hallway just outside. The windows were open to allow for air circulation. It’d been a close summer’s day and the halls were still stuffy and thick with the odour of armoured bodies.

Letho crouched behind a broad statue—exactly where he expected it to be—the base just enough to obscure him in the shadow it cast while the scheduled patrol trundled by. As the clatter of boots faded into the distance he made his move. The two guards standing outside the throne room lasted only a handful of seconds; he drove twin blades up through their helmets and carried the bodies with him through the doors across his shoulders.

Four soldiers in the throne room as expected. Letho ducked beneath a wide swing and beheaded the first, deftly snatching the blade from his adversaries hand to throw it like a spear into the helmet of the next. Efficient and brutal. He gutted the third in a swift, tight arc while the fourth faltered under Aard, executed by the sword that pushed down through his skull while he was on the floor. It was over in a matter of minutes. He paused long enough to allow the terrified servers cowering behind the throne to flee by him, before he closed and bolted the doors, muffling the shouts of alarm echoing down the corridors.

He didn’t have long.

The Usurper was a middle-aged man that still retained a boyish youthfulness that belied his dark, greedy soul. Yet he wasn’t the true villain of this story, just the symbol. The real ones were already long dead. This was the final domino that needed to topple to trigger the succession crisis. Letho had never seen him up close. His blonde hair fell in ringlets around narrow shoulders as he stared, slack-jawed, at the death and carnage visited upon his evening meal. The Viper hopped up onto the dining table and strode its length. Platters and cutlery skittered out from beneath his booted feet and he drew Ziraeal from the sheath on his back. The Emperor waffled a plea in Nilfgaardian, his hands lifting to cover his head, but Letho wasn’t listening. 

And so he stood there, the last of the Vipers, and stared down at yet another leader to fall below his blade, he took pause. How many times had he been here? How many times had he slain royalty only to return back to having nothing again? It didn’t matter. He’d come this far. There was no choice. Just like all the times before. Well, there was one difference. This time it felt personal. This time two betrayals, decades of running and even longer locked in a prison cell bubbled to the surface and anger knotted in his chest. “Glòir aen Ker'zaer.” He snarled, and shoved the blade through the Emperor’s skull with such ferocity that it erupted out the other side of the throne.

The huge dining room doors rattled as royal guards threw themselves against it. Letho hopped down from the table and headed towards an open window. The plan was to drop down through the stable roof below and disappear into the streets, but there were a couple of problems. Firstly, there was an entire battalion assembling in the courtyard below, their eyes primed up towards the dining room. Letho hadn’t realised - or factored into his plan - the early return of a unit from their patrol through Nazair. There were three times the number of soldiers in the city than there should be.


The hinges of the door groaned under the strain of the onslaught and Letho reached for the hilt of his sword. Well, he knew he wasn’t going to survive this, so might as well go down fi—

Make sure you come back, scales. 

If Letho fought, then he’d die. One Witcher versus hundreds of soldiers. There was no competition. If he surrendered, they’d capture and torture him to find his co-conspirators, but he would survive. There was no guarantee for how long though; if Jaskier and his Wolves failed, then Letho was looking at execution within a month. A century ago there’d be no question. Die fighting. Trust his fate to no one but himself. But he couldn’t shake those two pretty eyes and that little canine poking out of a shy smile. He needed to take the chance.

With a snarl of irritation, Letho returned to the throne. He yanked the sword free and kicked the late Emperor onto the floor. His crown sat near his right hand ; Emhyr had never bothered keeping it close, neither had Ciri, but the fake needed it to reinforce his own feelings of control. Blood dripped from his fingers as he swiped it up and placed it on his head.

The guards shattered through the door and found the assassin sprawled in the throne with the crown on his head, the murder weapon across his lap and a goblet of wine in his hand. He toasted them as they rounded the end of the dining table. “E'er y glòir.” And downed the last decent drink he’d have in a fucking while…

Piling the children back into the cart, Geralt tried to ignore the pressing feeling of unease weighing on his shoulders. The more he thought about it, the more he was having to fight the desire to whisk them away to Kaer Morhen and hide them from the world. At home—his home—they’d be safe from the evils of politics and humanity. He could raise them as Witchers, and—

But Ciri made her choice over a century ago. She could’ve chosen the Path, but instead she chose responsibility. She chose to make the world a better place and he could tell by the fire in the eyes of her children that they intended to do the same. It was their destiny.

Destiny was a pain in the fucking ass. 

Jaskier was just as quiet—just as gaunt and drawn—as he had been since they’d left his house. He explained what they’d arrive in Metinna to find; a court plunged into chaos, traitors and loyalists alike scrambling to protect their assets and find a suitable replacement for their fallen Emperor. Without the mages to pull the strings behind the scenes, there would be no one to coordinate the search. They could use the chaos to their advantage.

As the house disappeared on the horizon, Geralt sought comfort in Eskel. He walked at his side without saying a word, but he didn’t need to; a gloved hand swayed out from beneath the folds of his cloak and brushed across his fingers. I’m with you. When they set up camp for the night—more than halfway to their destination—they bedded the children down between them. Lambert and Aiden took first watch, and Geralt allowed himself to relax into Eskel’s arms. 

For a long while, he couldn’t sleep. He watched their sleeping faces, illuminated by the flickering firelight, and saw the reflection of his daughter in their peaceful features. Just babies. Older than Ciri when he collected her, granted, but no less innocent. No less unprepared. Eskel’s hand slipped beneath his shirt and settled over his heart. “Stop panicking,” he whispered in a sleepy rumble.

“Can’t help it. We’re going to feed them to a nest of forktails,” Geralt replied, head tilting back to Eskel’s shoulder. “Are we doing the right thing? Tell me. I’ve never been any good at choosing the right course of action. Always get it wrong.”

“S’not about you, Geralt,” Eskel nuzzled into his hair with a deep sigh. “It’s about them. They’ve made their choice. We’re just the vehicle in which they get to their destination.”

“Mm.” He could still hear the faint traces of bitterness in Eskel’s voice. The most mature, kindest and gentlest of all of them, Eskel had taken to the children immediately, but he was still hurting. The wounds inflicted on his heart wouldn’t close up overnight, not even with the added salve of an expanding family.

“Get some sleep. Your watch is in a couple of hours.” 

Geralt tried, but sleep escaped him.

The following day they covered the remaining miles to the outskirts of the capital city. Ixora, Coën, Grayson and Gaetan stayed with the children at the wagon, tucked away safely in the woodlands about a mile outside the city walls. The Wolves and Aiden would escort Jaskier into the keep. Fully armoured, with their weapons primed, they strode towards the city gates.

The city itself was calm. Geralt expected it to be overrun with riots; burning buildings, corpses piled high in the streets, pillaging and looting. But the vast majority of the population were going about their business. They met the first waves of resistance as they drew near the keep. A small retinue of guards tried to stand between them and the doors of the main entrance, but the Witchers cut them down before their swords left their scabbards. Jaskier requested they kept bloodshed to a minimum—dead bodies created animosity—but it proved difficult as they entered the corridors of the keep and encountered more black uniforms with their sun-emblazoned livery.

“Head to the throne room and its antechambers,” Jaskier barked across the sound of clashing steel. They worked their way through the corridors, leaving bleeding and unconscious soldiers in their wake, until they walked through the heavy set doors of the cavernous hall that had witnessed the downfall of the Usurper a handful of nights before. The chaos of the halls died away, revealing a new form of panic, exactly what Jaskier needed.

A figure dressed in an expensive robe paced the chamber, papers fluttering in his hands—maps, family trees, it looked like anything he could get his hands on—shouting at the other gathered nobles. “This isn't good enough! You want to replace him with a fucking third cousin that's not even related on the male side? Do you want another murder?” He slammed the papers down on the table, tearing at his hair. “Fifteen years, we didn't have to deal with any coups, where did this come from? Did anyone know? Hear about anything?”

“Yes, because plotters typically spell out their plans in court,” someone else snapped.

Jaskier took a moment to walk around the room, blending with the rest of the frantic nobles. It was truly remarkable, not a single one noticed the Witchers standing where guards had once been, swords dripping with blood. Jaskier asked Letho to sow chaos, and the Viper had done his job perfectly.

When two lords looked close to strangling each other, a family tree now ripped in half between them, Jaskier softly cleared his throat. “Excuse me, my lords, I couldn't help but wonder what vexes you so.”

The first courtier whirled around, gnashing his teeth at Jaskier. Or at least, trying to. After living with Witchers, Jaskier knew what true intimidation looked like, and these puffy, pale, spoiled men were about as intimidating as a dandelion. “Are you fucking serious? Do you not know what's going on? A mad Witcher slew the Emperor! The council's gone too, no one knows how that fucking happened. We’ve barely had time to torture the information out of the Witcher.”

Jaskier smiled, but it was the kind that showed the knives behind his eyes, and the slow, sticky death he wished upon every man in this room. “A Witcher, you say? Like those Witchers over there?” Jaskier inclined his head and took immense pleasure watching the man's face contort in horror. He reeled back, stumbling and slipping on the papers all over the chamber, falling hard on the stone floor.

With a glare, the others retreated, allowing Jaskier to drop in close. The Witchers moved in as well, their swords dripping ruby red keeping the panicked lords at bay. “Trying to find a new puppet for the throne?” Jaskier asked, voice calm and collected. “I believe I can help you with that—give you more than just a warm body, an actual ruler.”

The man's mouth shifted from a grimace of horror to one of anger; it didn't do anything for his looks. “You! You had a hand in this!” Oh yes, they recognized him now. Word of Jaskier's antics at his home spread far and wide (it wasn't easy keeping dismemberment a secret) but with the Witchers at his back, they could do exactly nothing about it. “You've destroyed our country!”

“You destroyed it,” Jaskier growled. “I've saved it.” A little dramatic, yes, but the moment seemed to call for it. All he'd been through, all he'd done, to make sure the bastards who sat by and watched as their Empress died truly saw the error of their ways. Whether they repented like men or found forgiveness at the end of a rope was not for Jaskier to decide.

He flapped a hand at the table filled with useless charts and maps, not a single one with Lauren or Rennes' name on it, no one knew they existed. “I have what you need—I have the true heirs, Cirilla's heirs. They will take her throne as is their birthright. Are you going to stand in their way?”

The man opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Jaskier glared around at the other panicked, confused nobles, challenging them to speak. No one did. “Good, you gentlemen are making the right choice. Now, before we begin, tell me about the Witcher you're keeping in the dungeons. Did I hear someone say torture?”

They gathered all the nobles who had yet to flee, Ixora was stalking through the halls to flush out more. They couldn't let a single Usurper loyalist fall through the cracks.

This was going to be hard, it was going to be slow and long, the court was theirs now, but still filled with rats and snakes, just waiting for their chance to strike as soon as the blade left their throat. “I offer you the true monarchs,” Jaskier said to the assembled. “Will you accept them? Or plunge the empire you claim to love into another bloody succession crisis?”

No one spoke for a long moment, men once gripped in panic and constant motion now standing still and silent. Finally, a duke Jaskier half recognized raised his head. “You swear they are the true heirs?”

“On my own head.”

A murmur of assent swept through the room. Even if they had their own ideas of who should rule—ideas the Witchers would soon correct them on—the men were glad to have their crisis handled for the moment. “Bring them to us.”

Before the sun set, Lauren and Rennes walked through the doors of their throne room, flanked by Ixora, Coën, Grayson and Gaetan, the Wolves and Aiden close by. With their heads high and their shoulders straight, they easily walked to the front of the room and stood there like the palace belonged to them. There was only one throne, a fact to be rectified soon, but the over-gilt chair didn't matter at the moment. They had succeeded, finally, they were where they belonged.

“How is it this easy?” Coën whispered.

“It isn't,” Jaskier whispered back as his eyes flicked around the room. A glare here, a curled lip there, it would take weeks—months, perhaps years—to root out the rot here. But this was a start. Lauren and Rennes were preferable to chaos, and Nilfgaard despised chaos. They were safe for the moment, but tomorrow, the real work began.

Once the children arrived, they were presented to the remaining members of the council who looked at them like they’d sprouted two heads. Gaetan could feel the anxiety welling up in his chest and he stuck close to the other Witchers as they passed the scornful eyes of Nilfgaardian soldiers. The mere sight of them brought back the memories of chains around his wrists and throat; the weight of the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of men that wore the same expressions and emblems.

There was one thing that kept him focused through the haze of terror threatening his self control. Letho. He was meant to be here, wasn’t he? If all went well, Jaskier said he’d be there waiting for them. It was as one of the council members turned back to the huge conference table that he heard him mutter. “I suppose this means we’ll have to release the Witcher in the dungeons.”

Gaetan had fingers around his throat in an instant. The others lurched towards him, their hands outstretched to keep him at bay, but Aiden stepped in first. “Gaetan. Enough.

“They’ve got him in a dungeon,” Gaetan seethed. “Take me there. Now.” 

“Fine, but I’m coming with you so you don’t do anything stupid,” Aiden grumbled; Gaetan had levelled an entire village in the past for stabbing him with a pitchfork. Who knew what he’d discover in the pits of the keep and how he’d react. They followed the terrified aristocrat and three soldiers into the bowels of the keep. The dungeon was damp and musty, the smell of blood and sickness hung thickly in the air as the heavy doors groaned open.

The majority of the cells were full. Each successive prisoner looked worse than the last—starved, broken—and Gaetan’s heart knotted in his chest. They reached the very end and he stepped up to the thick, rusted bars to peer into the darkness. “Get this door unlocked. Now,” his voice trembled with rage, and when the soldiers didn’t move fast enough, he roared. “Now. ” 

The cell door creaked open and Gaetan stumbled inside. Letho was hanging from the ceiling in chains, his feet barely touching the floor. Rivulets of blood ran down his arms and bare torso, clotting in the fine hair on his chest. Just two days. Two days . They’d tortured him. Trying to find the names of his co-conspirators, no doubt. His body was a network of shallow gashes created by a lash and deeper wounds inflicted by something sharper and harder. Gaetan slipped two hands beneath his jaw and tilted his head up, and hazy yellow eyes flickered open to meet his. Letho growled, his throat hoarse. “Y’alright, moggy.”

“Damn sight better than you,” Gaetan whispered, and then nuzzled into the side of his neck. “Gonna’ get you out of here.” He stepped back only long enough for the Nifgaardians to undo the shackles, and it took the joint effort of both Aiden and Gaetan to hold the Viper up until feeling returned to his limbs. Someone would pay for every mark on his body, but for now Gaetan focused on the single-minded intent of getting Letho somewhere safe, somewhere comfortable, to tend to his wounds.

The twins took one look at the beaten Witcher that stumbled into the throne room and issued their very first order as Emperor and Empress; Letho was to be given the finest room in the castle, as much food as he wanted and, “a beer,” the Viper rasped, eyebrow quirked. 

They ended up in the Emperor’s very own quarters. Letho flopped onto his bed without even commenting on the irony and, with Gaetan nearby to watch over him, immediately fell unconscious. His Cat stripped away his soiled clothes, soaked with blood, sweat and the filth of the dungeon, and cleaned every inch of skin with just a cloth and bowl. He was tender around the angry welts and leaned over to place kisses on bruises and cuts. When the last of the dungeon had been washed away, Gaetan pulled those silken sheets over Letho’s body and curled up at his side.

Only once the silence settled over them, the noise of the castle fading into the background, did Gaetan allow himself to shake. The fear overwhelmed him and he drew in a stuttering breath edged with tears. He couldn’t stay on the outside of the blankets as he’d intended—Letho was completely naked, he might not want it, or, you know, consent—and burrowed beneath them in search of the now familiar heat of Letho’s body. 

His clothes came off in fits and starts next, ejected from their warm cocoon with fitful flicks of his limbs, until he was completely naked. The touch of Letho’s skin against his, the mixture of their scents melding together, gradually calmed his racing heart. With the covers pulled up over his head, Gaetan reached out and traced the lines of Letho’s torso, fingertips seeking out the grooves of his abdomen and the edges of his injuries. He tucked his nose to the side of Letho’s neck and closed his eyes, arms draped over the Viper’s broad chest.

It didn’t matter that they were in the enemy’s stronghold, in a strange bed, with strangers prowling the halls, because for Gaetan, Letho was now home.

For a well-oiled usurper machine, the current court records were in a state of utter chaos. Jaskier couldn't contain his indignant squawk when the guard led them to a room filled with overflowing tables, scrolls and pieces of parchment covered in illegible scribbles spilling onto the floor. One wrong step and Jaskier might wipe out the last record of some great dynasty.

“How long has it been like this?” he snapped at the guard. He'd been doing that a lot lately and saw Coën frown, and Jaskier hated himself a little more. He already hated that he had to have a Witcher escort, taking an essential set of golden eyes away from the young rulers. Geralt, Lambert, Eskel, Grayson and Ixora guarding them day and night should be enough, but with spies and toadies still lurking, he hated dragging even one Witcher along with him.

He took a breath, and opened his eyes, really looking at the guard to the records room. This wasn't a high priority location—the mess made that obvious—and the man at the door was more a boy, his soft country village face a little too delicate for a traditional Nilfgaardian soldier. New recruit or a poverty soldier, joined up to get coin for his family.

“My apologies, it's been a rough few weeks. Are the records usually in this condition?” Or did some angry courtier toss the place as soon as they took over, then beat a hasty retreat? Weeding the snakes out of the court was always going to be difficult, but there were fewer snakes than Jaskier imagined, meaning some headed for the hills shortly after Letho's rather dramatic regicide. They'd need to find them all, they couldn't risk someone else worming their way close to the new rulers and dispatching them the way they did their mother.

The guard nodded. “Mostly, sir. The Emperor, uh, that is to say, the former emperor, he'd come in here from time to time and look for something. Not sure what, he never let me in the door to help.” His throat bobbed, swallowing down his nervousness at having a Witcher so close; most of the guards got used to them in the past weeks, but Nilfgaardian soldiers were accustomed to a great many things, weak, shuffling rulers for one. He raised a hand and pointed towards the back of the room, a shelf that was somehow neater than all the others. “Whenever he came in, he'd throw different scrolls over there. Don't know why, never took a look. He spent most of his time over there, though, after he got done throwing things about.”

Jaskier looked at the shelf and saw neat rows of scrolls and other documents stacked together. It looked a damn sight better than anything else. “Thank you. You can return to your post, I will call if we need anything.” Jaskier gave a little bow, a simple incline of his head, but it was more courtesy than most guards saw. The Usurper, it seemed, was only kind to his close allies, and with his advisors essentially pulling his puppet strings all these years, there was little care given to treating the palace guards like actual people. Along with a list of loyal nobles, Jaskier had to review which guards could be trusted. They already culled the die-hards, now onto the opportunistic ones. So much work, so much risk, one wrong move and they'd—

He put the thoughts out of his mind and walked back to the shelf. Jaskier spent the next minutes pulling down scroll after scroll emblazoned with familiar family names and crests. Von Rohen, Giller, Von Honenheim... Jaskier recognized these names, he knew them from childhood: his parents' friends. Or, their friends before his father became a bit too angry about Cirilla's demise and they were shunned from court. He found more names, more family trees and deeds of land holdings; it appeared the Usurper was tracking down those he felt disloyal, doing a half decent job of it too, as most of these families were the exact ones Jaskier was going to recommend to their Royal Highnesses as they gathered allies. Most families loyal to Cirilla kept their mouths shut and their heads down, allowing them to keep their good standing as they waited for the Usurper to pass. Jaskier didn't blame them. Look where being ostentatious about it had gotten him.

He and Coën spent hours with the records, not just searching out potential allies, but traitors as well. The names that were missing were just as important, sly counts and dukes who stole in here to remove themselves, so they could quietly slip back into court when the heat of a hostile takeover died down. They probably should’ve addressed this sooner, some of the worst offenders might be too far away, out of their grasp, avoiding swift punishment. But there was so much to do in setting up a rightful court. Purging the household staff of die hard Usurper loyalists; clearing out the dungeons; settling in themselves; protecting the young rulers around the clock; getting word out to the rest of the empire without the whole thing falling to pieces... So much they had to do, so much more still ahead of them.

“I think this is it,” Jaskier said, rubbing a hand over his eyes to chase away the ache of too long staring at delicate calligraphy. “These are all the names I know we can trust, and this,” he lay his hand on top of the significantly larger pile of documents, “is the list of people who need to be executed or thrown in jail immediately.” They weren't personal vendettas, Jaskier got his revenge for his father's murder, he didn't have any more scores to settle. Now, it was about Rennes and Lauren's safety, if Jaskier couldn't put a rope around the neck of everyone who sat by and watched Cirilla slowly die, then by all the gods, he'd make sure her children knew who to punish. “I will make my recommendations to the Emperor and Empress before I leave.”

“Of course,” Coën said. They gathered up the documents and returned to the council room for the meeting. Jaskier's last meeting, he supposed.

The once dark and dank chamber—decked out in Nilfgaard's heavy handed aesthetic—was now as airy and bright as they could manage. Leaded windows had been cleaned, letting the sunshine through, the black drapes changed for a lighter blue. The young Empress basked in the soft light, her regal face turned towards the windows, but her keen ears pricked to the rest of the room, listening for any change in tone. Rennes was much the same, though he stood next to the tall windows, letting the light bathe his face, standing tall and strong, the very image of an Emperor coming into his role. The happy, bubbly children Jaskier first met had mellowed in their new court; they already understood the importance of looking the part to play the part. Though he was happy to say he still heard laughter in their private quarters, when they were speaking with Geralt or any of their other Witcher guardians.

Jaskier peered around and saw Letho sitting next to a door, hand on the blade at his hip. He was still heavily bandaged and should not be out of bed. Coën placed the documents he carried on the large council table and walked over to Ixora, taking his place at her right side as she stood with the new rulers; Geralt, Eskel and Lambert were on the other side, their sharp eyes monitoring every inch of the room, while Grayson and Aiden paced in front of the big main doors. The two servants waiting quietly in the shadows were the only other people in the room, despite the castle full to bursting with courtiers, locked in their rooms, awaiting their fate.

So , Jaskier thought, this is my last council meeting after all. He'd hoped he was just being fatalistic.

Straightening his shoulders, Jaskier bowed to his rulers. “Your Highnesses.”

Opening their eyes, Rennes sat back down next to his sister and they both acknowledged Jaskier. Lauren was better at hiding her emotions—just like their mother—and Rennes' eyes told the story... just like their mother. Though he sat and gave Jaskier his attention, there was a sadness around his eyes. “Thank you for bringing us your recommendations. Please, go ahead.”

Jaskier addressed the smaller pile first, allies. “These are the names of families I personally know who were loyal to Cirilla—may she rest in peace—they weren't ostracized like my father because they didn't speak out, but they are good people. They will be happy to support the rightful claim to the throne.”

He placed a hand on top of the larger pile, sliding a few hand written notes along the table. “These names should be treated with caution, if not outright suspicion. Many might be dead, and hopefully that's the end of it, but they shouldn't be trusted. I also made a list of records conveniently missing. Those families should be destroyed. They will bring you nothing but pain and grief and I wish to save you that sort of anguish.”

Jaskier closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting the scent of the room fill him up. Stone and metal and dust, but also the sweaty musk of the Witchers he'd come to trust with his life, even if he didn't deserve it. He'd played his part. He was done with it.

“I took the liberty of adding my name to that pile. In doing my duty to the future empire, I have trespassed against the former. You don't—” Jaskier's voice caught. Fuck, he was trying to be dignified for the very last time and he couldn't even get the words out. “You can't have any traitors around you, no matter their stripes. I will take my leave of court with your permission.” He bowed again but did not leave. He hadn't been dismissed and if this was the last time he got to pay fealty to his monarchs, he was bloody going to do it right.

“Thank you, Viscount,” Lauren said, always formal and precise. “We still have much to discuss. Please wait in your quarters.”

“Of course.” Jaskier rose from the deep bow, pretending he didn't see the tight lips and shining eyes on both Lauren and Rennes. They were too sweet to him, he only hoped surrounding them with silver and steel would protect them. He'd done as much as he could.

Grayson opened the chamber door for him, deep, loving eyes locking with his. Jaskier so wanted to tell Grayson how much he appreciated his support, but you need to help them now, my sweet Bear, they deserve your love more than I.

Walking through the halls, Jaskier passed guard after guard, all of them standing straight at attention, like the last few weeks of upheaval hadn't happened at all. Just another day in the Usurper's court, only there were two on the throne this time. He desperately hoped they'd make it, but they had to be on their own now, Jaskier's army of Witchers now their army. Just as it should be.

By the time Geralt knocked softly on the door, Jaskier was mostly packed. He didn't have much with him to begin with, though they wrangled a few sets of clean clothing from the court tailor. The last few weeks had been so frantic, no one really cared that Jaskier only had two doublets. Now, it seemed like a luxury, two doublets, three pairs of breeches, some clean underthings, his father’s ring, and enough soap to last a few weeks, these were the sum total of Jaskier's possessions. Add in the notes of credit, he had enough to float him for a little while...

“Come in,” he called, smoothing the flap of his traveling bag shut. Silent as a cat—or silent as a Witcher—Geralt slid into the room. “Here to tell me their decision?” He already knew, but he wouldn't take that power away from his monarchs; they had the right to pronounce his sentence.

“I'm sorry,” Geralt said. “They're grateful, of course they are, but they—”

“Can't have an actual traitor sitting happily in their court?” Jaskier turned and smiled softly at Geralt. How he ached to touch him, comfort him as the White Wolf's life changed rapidly around him, but he knew he didn't have that privilege anymore... perhaps he never should've had it in the first place. “I know Geralt, believe me, I know. It would send a bad message—that they were in cahoots with all my plans, they only wanted to grab power and will reward those who assist—it's weakness they do not need to project and I would rather throw myself in the Great Sea before dooming their rule before it even starts.”

A small smile pulled at Geralt's cheek. “I don't think you need to go that far.”

“How far do I need to go?” Though he wanted nothing more than to make Geralt smile, give him the happiness life had stolen from him again and again, Jaskier had to be real about this.

Geralt straightened up and delivered the proclamation. “Stripped of your title and lands, and banished from the capital. The rest of the world is yours, you won't see your face on any wanted posters, no sheriff or guard will ever come for you.”

“But I can't return here.” He suspected as much. He suspected much more—exiled entirely, the north the only realm he was allowed to walk—but simply banished from the capital? From court? Jaskier had his fill of court and would go gladly. He'd had his fill of so many things.

“You can depart in the morning. We won't drum you out at dusk, leave you to fend in the darkness.”

“We?” Jaskier had to smile at that. “Already feeling part of the team, then? That's good. They're lucky to have you.”

“Yes.” Geralt shifted uncomfortably. Though their time as part of Jaskier's collection wasn't ideal, he hated the court even more. Heavy stones, heavy leaded windows, it lacked the airy openness of Jaskier's house. For being a beautiful cage, Geralt never actually felt stifled there, here, it was like every wall or too stuffy room wanted to steal his breath. But he'd get through it, Lauren and Rennes needed him, needed them all. “Is there anything you need? Lauren and Rennes will give you whatever you require, they don't—” words failed him again.

They don't want to send me away, Jaskier didn't say out loud. That was never an option, why put it in Geralt's head where it would only cause him pain? “Can you pass them a message? I was so focused on the rot in the court, I forgot my other recommendations.” An oversight on his part, really, he wanted his last advice to be good and he forgot half of it.

Geralt smiled again, shaking his head. “The Emperor and Empress your family sacrificed their lives and standing for just banished you, and you're still working to help them? Ha!” Jaskier hadn't heard Geralt laugh like that in a long time—too long—and he could no longer contain his smile. “Fine, yes, please tell me more.”

“All my old guards and servants, I recommend you bring them here. I didn't get them from the Nilfgaardian stock, they're all from Kerack, loyal to me and my family. I won't be around to tell you who can be trusted, but I vouch for my former servants. Letho can as well.”

“Mmm, yes, he can.” Geralt hadn't thought of that. So many things about statecraft he had to learn; Lauren and Rennes were naturals, but still young, Geralt and the other Witchers had to be a line of defense between them and the world who still wished them harm. “Thank you, Jaskier. For everything.” Geralt couldn't think of the right words, words were never his strong suit, and yet, he was still putting together just how much they all owed the former Viscount, despite his shitty methods.

Jaskier gave an exaggerated bow. “I know I don't deserve it, but I shall take it, thank you.”

“What will you do now?”

Jaskier closed his eyes, remembering his first night with Eskel. It seemed so long ago now, but he still remembered how Eskel's eyes lit up as he sang, lips stained with wine, body warm and soft... Before Jaskier ruined everything. Oh, to go back to those days.

“I shall do what I've always wanted: I'll become a bard.”

The next morning, a good pair of walking shoes on his feet, bag on his back, Jaskier set out. No one came to see him off, which was as it should be, banished traitors didn't deserve a guard of honor. Yet he whistled while he walked, planning like always. One step at a time. If he truly wanted to become a bard, he needed an instrument. Instead of focusing on the crushing despair of having everything finally stripped away, Jaskier began to plot how to secure a lute before the day was out.

Chapter Text

Jaskier's life had been meticulously planned for almost as long as he could remember, the last six years, doubly so. Being free for the first time—no plan, no destination, no solid goal—was liberating. And terrifying.

After securing a lute—for which he paid a tad too much, but it reminded him of the elven lute that was probably reduced to a pile of ash along with all his other belongings, perhaps objects had destinies as well—Jaskier promptly reached the end of his plans. That was it, the last one. Build up his reputation as a foppish playboy (done) secretly recruit Witchers to his cause (managed that) find Cirilla's rightful heirs and restore the divine monarchy of Nilfgaard (check) buy a lute (lute secured). He didn't know what came next. Well, he did: start singing, write songs, earn coin. But those were... nebulous. Goals one only realizes they've accomplished after achieving them. Nothing solid. No strategy.

Jaskier wasn't very good without a strategy.

He spent the first few days strumming his new lute, remembering all the songs he heard in his youth, when he ran into town to listen to the traveling bards play before his mother pulled him away. He lapped up those songs, dreamt of singing them himself one day, so of course he knew every word. Now to put those words to notes.

His fingers picked up the familiar strumming patterns quickly, all the times he practiced for himself, and then when he finally performed for Eskel... Jaskier didn't know what made him do it, but he started singing that same song again.

“In southern lands beneath the Sun, in spring, flowers rise, the trees bud, waters run, and merry little birds sing. There it is—”

“Oi! Shut it!” Someone yelled. Jaskier looked up just in time to dodge the spoon lobbed at his head. “No one wants to hear about the bloody southern sun!”

“You're a long way from the black ones, best keep your thoughts of them to yourself,” someone else snapped.

More eyes glared at Jaskier. He sat up straight, bowing his head a little. “My apologies for the old song, soon, I will have more tunes of the Twin Suns that now guard our—”

Pieces of half eaten bread sailed through the air and hit him before falling to the floor. Jaskier frowned down at them. Breakfast. He bent and scooped them up, tucking the food into his bag and playing it off with a bow. He wasn't playing, just sitting quietly and singing to himself, but he supposed walking around with a lute, looking like a fancy city bard, there were going to be expectations. “Thank you for your feedback, good people. I shall take my leave.”

Jaskier went upstairs to his room—the smallest, cheapest one they had—and sat down on the dirty pallet, nibbling at the bread. How he longed for a good hot dinner, roast boar with creamy potatoes and garlic, or fresh caught fish just out of the sea that morning... He wasn't desperate, not yet, sure his shoes were a little shabby now from all his walking, his clothes dirty from travel, but he couldn't splurge on niceties, he had to save for winter.

All his thoughts of traveling from court to court as a bard, entertaining his former peers while dining lushly to pass the season were dashed as soon as he was banished; he never should've entertained such thoughts to begin with, but Jaskier was a dreamer at heart. The rumors were already starting, and he tried to pick them up wherever he went: “Did you hear about Viscount Pankratz? Hostile takeover, put children on the throne! Can you imagine!” Even if the nobility managed to keep their heads, he doubted he'd be welcome in any court ever again, nor should he be.

The bread was mostly stale and Jaskier struggled to swallow it. They'd all see soon enough, Lauren and Rennes were already shaping up to be good rulers, the roads he walked were bubbling with talk about the new Emperor and Empress, cities much more alive. Time was, a new usurper on the throne brought another wave of crack downs, but not this time. In the scant few weeks Jaskier was there to help, he saw them falling into the role like they were born for it. Because they were.

He traveled north—which probably wasn't the best idea, what with his lack of proper clothing and low tolerance for the chill—but it seemed logical. He needed to see how the northern territories were reacting to the changes. At first, people grumbled all the same, “Children? Fuck, there'll be another usurper before Yule...” But slowly, Jaskier's ears started to pick up positive chatter.

Sitting in the corner of a tavern, the stew thick and warm and all he could afford if he wanted to get his breeches fixed by the town tailor and buy a good traveling cloak, Jaskier overheard the mayor crowing. “Ten years we've had a request to repair the bridge! Ten years! Was about to hire a troll to do it, then I get word.” He flapped around a letter with an official seal on it. “They're sendin' builders! Dwarves too! Ten years, not a peep, and now we have help on its way.”

“Promises don't mean a damn thing,” someone else said. “Let me know when these builders actually show up, then I'll be impressed.”

The mayor shook his head. “I don't fucking care, ten years and not a word, but three months and they promise to help? I don't care if there are babes on the throne, at least they're changing shit for the better.”

Jaskier smiled into his stew.

He stayed in town until the builders arrived, a mixture of dwarves and men. The dwarves looked around the human city with cautious eyes, tools held firmly like cudgels. “Ye got a bridge needs repairs?” the foreman asked.

“Right this way!” The mayor led the group out of town, towards the sorry bridge Jaskier knew to be a former trade route. The pitted roads were too difficult for most merchant cards and the stone bridge was necessary; the Usurper let smaller trade routes like this one die off, he didn't care enough to keep them going, he didn't really care about the empire, only his power. Lauren and Rennes cared, and now the people were starting to see it.

Jaskier returned to that same town a few weeks later, making his way towards a bardic competition he hoped to watch, he didn't think himself good enough to enter, but watching might be fun. Traders' wagons filled the streets, along with happy faces on the local people. Small changes didn't seem to have an impact on the scale of the empire, but this little corner of it was better off for one silly bridge.

He tried singing of their Emperor and Empress more often and mostly got indifferent grunts, a few black eyes and bloody lips from small scuffles, but the more he sang of the Twin Suns bathing the land in the light of Cirilla, the more smiles he saw. Pointed ears and sharp cheekbones started appearing in taverns once again, groups of elves and dwarves coming into towns for trade, no longer shunned or stoned for trying to earn a decent living. The poor country people never really cared who they did business with, the prejudice came from the top, and the top right now was doing its best to change everything, root out the rot that infected the empire long before they were even a thought. They had a big responsibility ahead of them, but Jaskier had the utmost confidence in his Emperor and Empress.

Though, the more he sang of them, the more he thought of them, the more he thought of their company... the guard of Witchers surrounding them, keeping the new rulers safe. Of Eskel's beautiful scars and how they felt under Jaskier's fingers and lips. Of Geralt's possessive, biting kisses, showing JaskierI allow you here, but this is my pack in a way that sent a shiver of lust through him every time. Of Lambert's shy eyes, following Jaskier as he walked through a room, a pink tongue darting out, oh what could have been, if they only had more time... Grayson's soft hair and deep growl as he bit and kissed at Jaskier's neck, hips snapping, breaking him to pieces. He even missed Letho's dry humor, Aiden's calculating eyes, Ixora laughing as Coën bent over backwards to please her and win her heart. Though he didn't have much interaction with Gaetan, Jaskier missed him as well, he wondered how the poor Cat was doing, had he recovered? Jaskier just hoped he was happy... He hoped they were all happy.

As the chill of the year's end set in, Jaskier found himself lingering in taverns longer, trying to get away from the cold. He had a good cloak now, good boots, but his earnings as a bard were mostly enough to keep himself fed and boarded. And unfortunately, after too many nights playing the same room, locals got tired of him, the coin stopped and he was forced into the cold again. What he wouldn't give for the stability of a warm hearth and a happy hall to receive his songs, maybe some northern courts didn't know his face, surely he could find a position...

Too risky, the little voice in his head whispered, the one that always made him err on the side of caution. It was the voice he ignored the night he cut off a man's hand for the truly vile crime of touching Coën, and while Jaskier would defend Coën to this very day, that one miscalculation on his part led him here, cold and alone, sitting in the corner of a tavern trying to mend a rip in his spare shirt.

His fingers fumbled with the needle he borrowed from the tavern owner's wife. Sewing was not part of a royal upbringing, not a boy's royal upbringing at least; Jaskier knew how to fence, how to hunt, shoot a bow half decently, ride a horse, but the small, domestic things he had to take care of on his own... well, he'd just have to learn. With his supply of coin going to food and a bed, he had to take care of the other expenses himself.

He cursed softly as he stabbed his finger again, the shirt now covered with more blood than he cared to look at. There was a soft laugh and Jaskier looked up to see the tavern owner's wife. “I'm not done yet, my apologies,” he said, almost forgetting his manners in his frustration. “If you need the needle back, could you point me to someone who can sew? Who might finish the mending in exchange for a song?” He didn't have anything else to offer.

She didn't answer for a moment, looking him up and down. “Where're you from? You look too fancy for these parts.”

Jaskier shrugged. “Around. Traveling bard, you know how it is.” He'd been asked enough times to have his answer ready. No one outside of the southern courts knew his face, but he could never be too careful.

She squinted at him, then nodded towards the terrible mending in his hands. “I could teach you, if ya like. Sewing's a good skill to have on the road.”

She's being kind, Jaskier thought to himself. And you don't deserve it. He ducked his head. “That's very kind of you, but I don't think I can stay long. Probably don't have enough coin to keep renting the room.” He shouldn't admit such things to the owner's wife (probably find himself tossed out on his ass in the morning) but it was the truth.

She nodded again. “Folks think winter is a slow season, but we get all kinds through here, what with the main road. I've been tellin' the mister for years that we need to get a bard in for the season, keep the customers drinking. What would you say to room and board in exchange for playin' through the cold season? Maybe helping out a bit. Can ya hunt?”

“Yes, my father and I—” Jaskier cut himself off. Couldn't say too much. “My father taught me, it's been a few years, I'm still a decent shot with a bow.”

In the early days, when it was just Letho in on his plans, they'd while away the long nights strategizing in the training yard, firing bolts at targets, Letho challenging him to games of skill. “Show me what that fancy upbringing taught you,” the Viper joked.

“Right, you play at night, keep the customers thirsty, hunt with my boys in the day, and I'll teach you to sew, and any other little thing you like. You can keep the room you're in, it's the smallest, won't lose me much.” Hmm, the way this woman spoke about the tavern, it was almost like she managed it, her husband just the face of things. That seemed common in a lot of places, women didn't get their proper respect. Hopefully, with Lauren on the throne, that might change soon.

“You're very kind.” Jaskier knew what false kindness looked like, rich men and overfed ladies with gold in their smiles to hide the sharp tongues ready to ruin a reputation, or worse. This woman looked sincere. But what could she ever want with a man like him? She didn't know what he'd done, didn't know anything about him. “I don't think you'd want me in your establishment long term.”

She shrugged. “I know a thing or two about bards, buggery doesn't bother me as long as you keep it away from my boys.” Jaskier choked on his drink, but she kept going. “Besides, folks gotta help each other out now, just like the new little Emperor and Empress keep sayin'.”

Jaskier's heart caught in his chest. He'd heard, Lauren and Rennes were making proclamations of accepting one another and loving one's neighbor. He thought such things would ring hollow, or be easily dismissed as the folly of youth, but they followed up their hopeful words with action, directing aid and assistance to corners of the empire long ignored by the Usurper. Jaskier saw it in the faces of the people as he went from place to place, the constant grind of life was no longer so grim, he didn't know if that was completely dur to Lauren and Rennes, but he wouldn't be surprised.

“My name is Lauren Helma, me husband's called Donner.” She smiled as Jaskier's jaw fell open. “I was a little wary of our new Emperor and Empress at first, 'til I heard her name, good strong name. They'll go far, those young ones.”

Jaskier stayed the season, playing at night, watching Lauren and Donner smile as passing traders bought an extra round to wet their throats and sing along; Jaskier spent the past months learning the most popular modern ballads and he could set anyone's toe tapping, and he knew older ballads to calm the crowd, bringing the most hardened men to tears as he sang of the coast and drowned lovers. During the day, Lauren taught him how to sew and mend, cook a little and clean. He went hunting with her two sons, bringing in game to cook and to eat. They said Jaskier was a good shot, but a shit tanner. By winter's end, he knew how to do that too and had some lovely furs to keep him warm.

As soon as first thaw hit, Jaskier left. He didn't want to impose on these good people for too long, not to mention their eldest son—Dev—had been casting eyes at Jaskier. His soft brown hair that flopped into his face just right, intense but soulful eyes, they reminded Jaskier of times long past, and if he stayed any longer, he might be tempted to break his promise of no buggery. He had to move on, couldn't let his own selfishness ruin yet more lives.

“I don't want to burden you with my company much longer,” he said. “Thank you for keeping me this season.” There were proper clothes on his back, a few extra coins in his pocket, and now his name would be on lips from Redania to Cintra.

“You did a good bit for us too,” Lauren said with a smile, tying a scarf tight around Jaskier's neck. “A lot of nobles lost everything these past months, be glad you didn't lose your head.”

Jaskier's blood ran cold. “What? I, uh, no—you have me—”

She flapped a hand at him. “Please, don't lie to me, bard. You're a decent shot and can hunt for your dinner, but can't clean the kill? Your cook probably did that part for ya. At least you've landed on your feet.”

“Thank you. For everything.”

Jaskier set out, heading... he didn't know where.

Though monsters were scarcer these days, Jaskier still saw contracts posted on town notice boards. The pang in his heart he tried desperately to ignore made itself known whenever he saw one, Beast in the woods, killed three local boys so far. See Alderman Font for further information SERIOUS INQUIRIES ONLY. There were no doubt many brave adventurers who'd take such contracts, but it never went well for them, this was Witcher's work, too bad every Witcher Jaskier could lay his hands on was busy guarding the future of the empire. As it should be, but his heart went out to the poor towns that still suffered at the edges of the wild world.

Imagine Jaskier's shock when he came across a Witcher in that same town, asking after the contract. The door to the tavern opened and Jaskier's fingers froze mid-strum. White hair, familiar white hair. Yellow eyes, black armor shined and maintained to perfection, Geralt of Rivia walked in, nodding to the barkeep. “Alderman Font around?”

Jaskier didn't hear the conversation, the blood pounding too loudly in his ears. Fuck, but it was good to see Geralt again, handsome and healthy, hair pulled back, shorn close at the bottom, one of the leather ties Jaskier gave him holding it secure, looking every bit the powerful, capable Witcher, here to save the day. And there Jaskier sat, in the dusty green doublet he'd mended twice with the wrong colored thread, his boots scuffed, hair hanging in his eyes. At least his lute was in good condition, no expense spared there. He did alright, made more than enough coin to eat and pay for his rooms, but it had been a while since he had enough extra for a bath.

Jaskier ducked his head as soon as Geralt lifted his, and he missed the small smile on the White Wolf's lips. Heavy boots made their way across the room and stopped at his table. Any word Jaskier might think to say died in his throat. He was banished from the capital, from court, that didn't mean he could never see any of his—no, not yours, never really yours—Witchers again, but Jaskier never expected to see them out on the Path, it held nothing for them, not with Geralt's family needing protection on the throne.

“Mind if I sit?” that warm, almost rough voice asked.

Jaskier nodded. He didn't speak, didn't trust his voice not to break, and slid his composition book back so Geralt could set two tankards on the table, sliding one over to him. He swallowed and tried to sound fine. “How are you?”

All seeing eyes flicked over him. “Good, a sight better than you. Drink.” Jaskier drank. It was the good stuff too, not the watered down piss he had to buy when he wanted to numb himself a little for the moment. Geralt didn't just look good, he was healthy, strong. And there Jaskier was... dirty and a little underfed. He wasn't starving, not by a long shot, but he wasn't perfect anymore, nothing like the facade he spent years creating. He didn't like that facade, but having it now might save a little of his dignity as one of the people he wronged most smiled at him like they were friends and not... he didn't know what they were.

He dropped his gaze down to the tankard, watching the top of the liquid swirl, it was better than watching those eyes appraise him and find him wanting. “What are you, I mean to say... I didn't expect to see you. Any Witchers, out on the Path.”

“Lauren and Rennes' idea, a good one too, though you'll never find me saying that to their faces. Witchers are a visible presence in court now, they want us to be visible in their empire as well. If you see a Wolf out in the world, you see the Crown as well.” He shrugged one large shoulder and drank his ale. “Rennes' words. He's become quite the poet king.”

“They sent you out,” Jaskier said. A pit formed in his stomach, souring the first taste of good drink he'd had in a very long time. The rulers—barely seventeen now, still vulnerable, still surrounded by monsters that wished them harm—sent their best line of defense out into the world to spread their good will. A noble endeavor, to be sure, but... “Are they. Are they safe? Without you?” Had all of Jaskier's work been undone in less than a year? He trusted Lauren and Rennes, they understood the power they had, even if they couldn't totally control their mother's magic, but did they let a little success make them overconfident? He dearly hoped not.

Geralt smiled again. “Relax, Jaskier, they are protected. I wouldn't leave them on their own. Ixora, Coën, Letho, Grayson, and even Gaetan support them, guard and advise. They sent me, Lambert and Aiden back out into the world. It was the right thing, having a family member watching over their shoulder projected weakness. But they are safe, you have my word on that.”

“Thank you.” Jaskier noticed he did not mention Eskel's name.

Jaskier finished his drink in silence, not looking at Geralt while that's all Geralt did. Jaskier's hair was not as well cut or styled, and his skin was rough in a few places, but there was a hint of sun on his face from his travels. He looked tired, and a pang in Geralt's chest made him slide his hand across the table, brushing his gloved fingers across the back of Jaskier's hand.

He twitched and almost pulled away. “Geralt, I don't—”

“Don't deserve it, yes, I remember.” The trip north to collect the children from their Aen Seidhe guardians seemed like a lifetime ago, yet Geralt remembered it like it was yesterday. Jaskier's sad eyes, he didn't deserve them, he was sorry. He'd had almost a year to reflect and understood a few more things now, Jaskier it seemed, was still stuck in his guilt. “I have a room. We can talk there.”

Jaskier should say no. He should find a different tavern and try to play there, earn enough coin on his own, like he was supposed to... but fuck, he was tired of being alone. Winter staying with the Helma family... it made him miss Geralt, Eskel and the others even more. He had to right to expect their company, but fuck, he was a weak man.

Nodding mutely, he let Geralt pull him upstairs. He locked the door behind them and set his bags on the floor next to the bed, then ducked out of his sword belts and started removing his armor. Jaskier stood silently, unsure of... well, everything. He could still leave, bolt right now and get out of town. Geralt couldn't catch him very well without his boots on.

“Jaskier.” The soft voice startled him and he looked up to see Geralt standing in his shirtsleeves, feet bare. He walked over and slid the bag from Jaskier's shoulder, placing it aside gently before doing the same with his lute, then rested his hands on Jaskier's hips.

He was frozen, completely pinned under those eyes, now soft and relaxed when they used to hold only contempt or fire when directed at Jaskier. “It's alright,” Geralt said. He moved his closer, thumbs brushing under Jaskier's shirt to stroke his stomach, making him shiver. “It's alright to want things.”

A broken sob erupted from Jaskier's chest and he didn't have the strength to stop it, not when those beautiful eyes were staring into his soul, liquid gold pouring from the mold down into him, drowning him. “L-last time I wanted something, I used you shamelessly. I don't—I don't deserve—”

Geralt silenced him with a kiss, pressing his thigh between Jaskier's legs and letting the human grind against him. It was a desperate movement, almost involuntary and Geralt purred to see Jaskier's pleasure. He'd seen Jaskier take his pleasure before, even share it with Geralt, but this was... new. They weren't quite on equal footing, he supposed they never would be, but it was good, it was better than before. Geralt spent the last months coming to terms with his new life and he found allowing himself happiness was easier than wallowing in pain. Jaskier still needed to learn that lesson.

“Neither of us deserves anything.” Geralt kissed down Jaskier's jaw, fingers plucking at his clothes until he felt warm skin under his palms. “I'm not pure either. I'd rather be happy and comfortable than hate what I am. I'd like you to do the same.”

Jaskier let Geralt strip him, let Geralt take him to the bed and kiss down his stomach. He squirmed a little when lips brushed over the head of his cock—he hadn't had a bath recently, couldn't afford one—but it was good, it was so good. He remembered this, touching, and pleasure, a Witcher's hot lips against his skin... “Fuck,” Jaskier cried out and spilled far too early. “S-sorry. It's been... been a while.”

Geralt simply chuckled and kissed him again. “Stop apologizing.”

He didn't have any oil, but Geralt did, and for the first time in so very long, Jaskier stopped worrying about what he deserved.

“Travel with me,” Geralt whispered into his hair. Sweaty and sated and still tangled together, Geralt hadn't let go of Jaskier. “I've heard your songs, they're good, good enough that others are singing them.”

Jaskier smiled, burying his face in Geralt's chest and breathing him in. “How do you know they're mine?”

“Twins Suns of the south. No one knows what to make of Lauren and Rennes yet, no one but you.”

“They're starting to.” Things were changing slowly, people were a little kinder to one another, broken communities coming back together after all the non-human bans were lifted.

“Yes, they are. I'll help you write some more. Come with me.”

Jaskier didn't deserve their forgiveness, not one little bit. But Geralt's arms were warm and he kissed so deep, Jaskier almost tasted Eskel, remembering when everything wasn't so shit... “Alright.”

They set out the next morning after Geralt handled the contract he came to town for. Geralt had a new horse—Roach, he said when he introduced Jaskier—who nibbled at his shoulder before accepting his company. Jaskier walked while Geralt rode, which suited him just fine, and made their way west. “Heard of sheep going missing a few towns over, my guess is griffin,” Geralt said.

They traveled together through the spring and summer, Geralt leaving for a few weeks to visit Lauren and Rennes. Jaskier couldn't follow and stayed in Oxenfurt, soaking up the culture and song of the place. Geralt's adventures—their adventures—gave him more to sing about than their benevolent rulers and soon enough, Jaskier heard his songs sung in taverns from lips other than his own.

Geralt got injured from time to time and Jaskier learned how to heal him, sewing him up when necessary. “Good skill to have,” Geralt grunted, rolling his shoulder to examine Jaskier's work. “If you're traveling with Witchers, you'll need it.”

Geralt continued to touch him and make love to him, which Jaskier didn't deserve, but he allowed it to happen. He fucking wanted it to happen. He still loved them all, he knew that now, it wasn't just selfish lust or the need to possess, he loved his Witchers and now Geralt was here, wanted to be with him and travel together. Jaskier was too weak to turn that away.

Slowly but surely, his name spread almost as far as Geralt's. Jaskier had more extra coin now, new clothes, a better case for his lute, they were doing alright. The quiet nights sitting around their fire, Geralt maintaining his weapons while Jaskier plucked at his lute, part of him felt like this was how it was always supposed to be. In another life, the life Jaskier was meant to have.

He started asking about the others. At first, he kept his questions to himself, but his mind burned to know. How are the Emperor and Empress? Are they safe? Are they happy? He knew the political situation as well as any person on the street—new era of peace, good changes already being felt—but how were they really? Power sat heavily on all shoulders, and it threatened to crush the young most of all. But soon enough, the ache to know was too great, Jaskier couldn't just pretend he didn't care anymore. He wouldn't pretend, because one thing was for damn certain, no matter what he'd done in the past, no matter all the morally dubious choices he had to make, he still cared for the Witchers he brought together, and the glorious rulers they all placed on the throne.

“How are things at court?” Jaskier whispered, fingers idly strumming. He hadn't been playing for the last few minutes, preferring to listen to the soft sounds of the night around them.

Geralt smiled, sitting up a little, golden eyes reflecting the light of the fire. Jaskier so wanted to kiss him, he had that thought a lot these days and was only starting to believe he deserved to have it. “As far as I can tell, good. Ixora and Coën are as protective as any Wolf, which I approve of. Grayson took a while to settle in—too many people, I think—but he's solid now. He and Letho go beat the shit out of each other on the training grounds when it becomes too much.”

“Good. I'm happy to hear that.” Jaskier wanted to curl into a ball and hug his legs close, but he forced himself to stay sitting upright, fingers brushing the strings of his lute. You want them to be happy, dummy, he thought it himself, even if it's without you. “And Gaetan?”

“He was still weak when I last saw them, but he's getting used to people again. Letho is good for him.” They all saw it back at the house, Letho's strange interest in the Cat, it seemed a mystery to everyone except Geralt, who'd watched Lambert fall deeper and deeper in love with Aiden over the last hundred years. There was a magnetism to the School of the Cat, no doubt about it.

It wasn't just Letho responding to Gaetan's need for protection, in their quiet moments, they moved together like they'd been doing it all their lives; Geralt ran into them in the halls late at night sometimes, Letho's eyes tired as Gaetan sprinted around, too much manic energy seizing him, but his arm swung out at the correct moment to catch Gaetan before he fell flat, suddenly drained from his cat-like leaping and bounding. “Night,” Letho grunted to Geralt, arms filled with Gaetan. He saw the little kitten licks over some of Letho's scars when they thought no one was paying attention to them, and the way the Viper beamed when Gaetan presented him with a pigeon he caught because he was bored. It might look strange and off putting to a human, but to a Witcher, it looked like love. Jaskier gave them all a chance to find love, whether he meant to or not.

Geralt rolled up onto his knees and crawled over to Jaskier, pressing against his side, lips sliding over his ear. “I'm not the person to tell you to stop hating yourself, I've done far too much of that on my own. I will say: you look sexy tonight and I want to fuck you.”

Jaskier smiled, setting his lute aside. “Who am I to deny such a polite request?” He turned his head and their lips brushed together, Geralt already pushing Jaskier back. He let Geralt undress him, pushing between his thighs and kissing everywhere, before a slick hand wrapped around his cock. Jaskier closed his eyes and gave himself over.

Nights like that became more regular, Geralt told stories of court, Lambert and Letho taking bets on who would catch a bird first—Aiden or Gaetan—while Ixora rolled her eyes at them all and shot the thing out of the air with a slingshot she made for the children. Grayson teaching Rennes sword combat, apparently the young Emperor was getting more wide in the shoulders, muscles sprouting like weeds; Lauren was better with a bow and a dagger like the Aen Seidhe taught them. They sounded happy. And Jaskier was happy too. With Geralt at his side, singing of their adventurers, life was good, truly good.

They were headed towards the coast, “Big merchant ship wrecked,” Geralt picked up the rumor in a tavern recently, “means drowners and treasure.”

“What are we waiting for!” Jaskier was almost more excited for their adventures than Geralt was now.

They headed towards the coast, and Jaskier didn't realize where they were until it was too late. The light caught the glass dome Jaskier was oh so familiar with, he spent many an hour with his head tipped back, looking at the sky as the sun or moon moved across it, the hot water of his bath penetrating deep into his body.

Movement seized his feet and he ran up the hill, Geralt's voice calling him back seemed so far away. Lute case banging against his back, Jaskier pushed through the overgrown hedges no one was taking care of and broke into the courtyard, coming to sudden stop. His heart clenched in his chest as he looked upon dirty windows, some broken, others simply in need of a wash; the remains of a bonfire scorched the earth and he knew which of his possessions probably met their terrible fate there.

The bushes rustled behind him and Geralt jumped out. “Fuck, Jaskier, don't run off like that.”

“They didn't burn it down.” The cool breeze from the water felt like ice on his skin and Jaskier couldn't help but shiver. Nilfgaard—the old Nilfgaard—wasn't about wasting assets, of course his house still stood, only a few windows falling to the elements, but it had been stripped completely, nothing left of his life. He fabricated most of his life, yes, it wasn't truly him, just an air he was trying to cultivate, but the rare instruments saved from fires, his father's books and maps... Jaskier cared for a great deal of it and now it was all gone, for good. He fell to his knees in the dirt as it all hit.

When they left—in a flurry of panic and movement, new swords gleaming on the backs of the Witchers—Jaskier knew he'd never see it again. He knew Nilfgaard would happily take a torch to his belongings, but didn't have time to save anything. In his mind, he knew this would happen. Seeing it was... so much worse. A solid hand settled on his shoulder and Geralt let Jaskier stare at the empty shell of his house.

Passed the tears welling and blurring his vision, out of the corner of his eye, Jaskier saw the bird nesting boxes Letho built for Gaetan, a little crooked without maintenance but twigs and other nesting materials were visible, even from the ground. There was maybe life there, still finding use for the home Jaskier never thought he'd see again. He supposed that was a fitting use for the place.

“I'm alright,” he said after another moment. He managed to gather himself and climbed shakily to his feet, leaning against Geralt. “I want—I want to go inside.”

“Jaskier, I don't think that's a good idea.”

“I want to go inside.” With Geralt sticking close to him in case Jaskier fell (he was still shaking, tears drying on his face, all his energy drained from their travels, the run, and finally the stress of seeing his home empty) but he let the bard do as he wanted.

They made their way around the side towards the front doors, already broken open. The grand vestibule was filthy, caked with dirt blowing through the open doors, and streaks of dried mud from heavy boots stomping through. All the paintings were stripped from the walls, leaving faded squares on the paint, showing where they'd hung for years. Geralt followed Jaskier as they went room to room on the ground floor, the servant's areas mostly untouched except for the stripped cupboards. Jaskier managed to find some preserves far in the back of the pantry and slipped them in his bag, mumbling something about “The cook knows these are my favorite, she made them special for me...”

Geralt frowned when Jaskier turned towards the bathhouse. “Jaskier.” He knew his words wouldn't stop the human, but this might be too much. “Jaskier, wait.”

“You don't have to come.”

Yes, I do, Geralt didn't say out loud, and followed Jaskier.

The pools were empty, the candelabras pushed over, one of the shelves filled with soaps and scents broken, and the door to the secret passage was smashed, but compared to the rest of the house, the bathhouse was relatively untouched. No smashed windows, only a few dirty boot prints.

Jaskier's eyes lingered on the empty pools and he tried to remember which was which, finding he couldn't. His memories of this place felt like another life now, like they belonged to a completely different person; he thought he'd be alright with that, and maybe he would be, if he came back to a house that was whole and beautiful as if it were sitting under a glass dome, untouched by the evil Jaskier brought upon himself. But it wasn't untouched. Someone had been in his old home, tainting his memories to the point where he didn't even want to try and repair them.

A strong arm wrapped around his hips. “Want to experience the Witcher hot pool? Come on.” Geralt tugged him across to the bathhouse, over to the farthest pool. Setting their bags and gear down on the floor, they climbed over the edge and sat in the empty pool, the tiles suddenly harder and colder without the water.

Jaskier started to squirm before Geralt pulled him in close, settling his head on his shoulder. “We can stay here as long as you like.”

“We don't have to,” Jaskier whispered even as he curled in closer. All the emotions he thought he was over, the terrible things he'd done to the Witcher next to him, it all started flooding back, mixed in with the good memories. Well, good for him. He never truly knew if any of them were happy in his care...

“I miss it here too,” Geralt said. “Yes, I fought and spat, I disliked feeling captive, but—” Geralt tightened his hold on Jaskier before he could curl in on himself from shame, “—there was good here too. You brought my family back to me. I'm not going to be angry at you for that.”

Jaskier closed his eyes, memories of soft light and earthy musk carried on hot steam filling up his senses. Beautiful amber eyes glittered up at him, scars twisting a handsome face, adding to the rough, roguish visage they all had down so well. Eskel... Jaskier's first Wolf...

He leaned into Geralt's chest so hard, it almost hurt, but he couldn't let go. “You never talk about Eskel,” he whispered. “Is he... is he alright?” Jaskier didn't have a right to know, he shouldn't ask questions, not when he'd wronged them all so deeply, Eskel most of all in some ways. They were both using each other, but Jaskier had all the power, he played with Eskel's emotions and now his heart was sick remembering what he'd done.

“As far as I know,” Geralt said. “Lauren and Rennes wanted School of the Wolf walking the Path, and Eskel decided there should be a school to go with it. He headed back to Kaer Morhen.”

“By himself?” Eskel did not do well on his own, Jaskier had seen that first hand, when he was the only Wolf in Jaskier's fucking collection. Another stab of pain made him curl up tighter.

“Mmm, yes. That's why I went south for a few weeks to see them, I'm planning to winter at Kaer Morhen, make sure Eskel doesn't kill himself trying to do everything on his own.” Soft lips brushed across Jaskier's jaw and he inhaled sharply. The tenderness here in this place, it was almost too much. “I won't lie to you, he was in pretty bad shape after all that happened, but that's Eskel. He bottles. Come with me this winter, help me pull Eskel's head out of his ass.”

“I shouldn't.” Jaskier gasped, his cock filling out from the soft touches and the knowledge of where they were—his bathhouse, where he touched and seduced, gave pleasure—it was almost too much and not enough at the same time. “Does he—he won't want to see me.”

“I didn't think I wanted to see you until the moment I did.” Kisses continued down his neck, Geralt's hand unlacing his breeches and laying hot across Jaskier's cock, not stroking yet, just touching. His hips jerked and he couldn't stop the moan that spilled from his lips. “I remember how happy you made him, he felt warm and safe and loved. Do you know how difficult that is? To make a Witcher feel loved?

“Part of me wishes we were still here. I didn't have enough time to take you apart. Pin you in our bed and show you how grateful I was.” He bit at Jaskier's throat, raising a small love bite. “Just imagine it, Eskel holding you down, hands wrapped around your hips, my cock brushing your lips.” Geralt licked across his bottom lip, and Jaskier's mouth fell open. He wanted that so badly, wanted Geralt and Eskel to touch him and fuck him, wanted them both once more. “Or I could watch,” he started moving down, kissing Jaskier's throat and opening his shirt, licking the newly exposed skin, “Eskel and Grayson both have you. Do you remember who was bigger? Together, they'd ruin you.”

Sprawled across the warming tiles of the empty bathing pool, Jaskier couldn't help but let Geralt go on, whispering dirty words into his skin, making him forget... just fucking forget everything. He wasn't sure if he deserved that but fuck if he was going to ask Geralt to stop.

Breeches open, a warm tongue lapped at Jaskier's cock before Geralt's hot mouth settled around him. He bucked up into the wet heat, groaning when strong hands pinned him down again. Once Jaskier was suitably still, Geralt dropped one hand down to stroke his sac, the flat of his tongue pressed against that heavy vein as he tried to suck Jaskier's soul out through his cock. The White Wolf could have it if he wanted.

Arching like a bow, Jaskier came, spilling down Geralt's throat, before falling back onto the tiles, his chest heaving. He dimly felt another hard cock pressing against his leg. He grabbed for it lazily, mind still hazy. “Let me... I want to, I want to touch you.”

“Upstairs.” Geralt kissed up Jaskier's throat, putting his clothing back to rights and hauling them both out of the pool. “There has to be one good bed left.”

Most of the bedrooms were intact, just the valuables stripped away. They didn't even try Jaskier's bed, turning down the hall towards their old room, the bed where he and Jaskier shared Eskel for the first time. Falling onto the soft mattress, Geralt quickly stripped them, producing a pot of salve he found in the bathhouse. He'd comb through again before they left, the familiar scents and balms reminding him it wasn't all bad here... Geralt had learned, after what felt like a lifetime of hurt, that one could still love something, even if it once caused pain. Geralt loved Kaer Morhen, loved his home, his pack, and the memories of the winters they all shared there. But Kaer Morhen also saw his torture as a child, his blood, pain, and the trials. He remembered seeing that old table Vesemir kept for some fucking reason and trying to hold his memories at bay. Kaer Morhen was a place that lived in the light and dark parts of Geralt's mind, he suspected this house would be the same.

Bare skin under his hands, Geralt squeezed Jaskier tight, his fingers leaving a few bruises. They’d done it like this before—a little hard, a little rough, Jaskier seemed to like it, enjoy the power Geralt had—but he made sure to kiss those plush lips with all the softness he had inside him. Jaskier's face was a work of art (he and Eskel had that in common) and Geralt would no sooner mark it up than he'd smash a stained glass window. Pretty pink lips, enchanting eyes, there was so much between them, he wished he was better with words, but he just had to show Jaskier with his actions, it's alright, I forgive you... maybe Eskel will too.

The smell of the familiar salve filled the air as soon as Geralt opened the tin and they both moaned. Scent was tightly tied to memory, even for humans, and as he pressed two fingers inside Jaskier—like he'd done dozens of times by now—they both dreamed of Eskel sitting beside them, waiting for his turn to take Jaskier.

The second the head of his cock notched into Jaskier's hole, Jaskier wrapped his legs tight around Geralt, pulling him in. “Yes, please,” he panted. Cock hard once again, he stroked in time with Geralt's thrusts, the quivering and twitching of his body pulling Geralt over.

“Fuck,” he groaned, burying his face into Jaskier's fragrant neck. Honey and a touch of chamomile... to smell that on Eskel once again. “Come with me,” Geralt whispered. He was still inside Jaskier, cock still twitching a little. Part of him never wanted to leave. “I can't speak for Eskel, but I want you this winter. I want... I want to see what it could be like.”

“If you found a bard on the Path instead of getting kidnapped by a lustful noble?” Yes, Jaskier wondered that as well. “Alright. I'll go with you.”

They spent the night in their old bed, Geralt could still smell the faintest traces of Eskel and Lambert on the sheets and it quieted his mind. They set out the next morning and headed north. Though Geralt seemed happier than he'd been in a long time—which really was saying something, the Witcher was a damn ray of sunshine these days—Jaskier tried not to let his fear show. He wanted to see Eskel, wanted to touch him again, get down on his knees and apologize, what little good it might do. And if Eskel's response was to throw him off the mountain... well, Jaskier might just deserve that.

Chapter Text

When the twins decided it was time for the Wolves of Kaer Morhen to return to the Path, it felt only natural for Eskel to head for Kaer Morhen. He still had the pouch of coins handed to him by Jaskier before their abrupt departure from the house and knew he should use them to stock the castle. Yet, he couldn’t help but see the evidence of Jaskier’s lies reflected back at him in every coin. Did he really want to rebuild himself on such a foundation? As he handed over each coin in return for resources—a cart, seeds, tools, a draft horse sturdy enough to make it up the Witcher’s trail—he told himself that this was logical. What he was feeling was completely irrational and self-absorbed; he needed to get over it—himself—and move on.

While Geralt had thrived in the court—bonding with his grandchildren, joking with Lambert and Aiden—Eskel had spent the majority of it in the training yard with whomever would spare the time. It was Grayson mostly. The huge Bear missed Jaskier. It was clear in the way he carried himself with slightly hunched shoulders and a heavy sadness in his eyes. Eskel couldn’t bring himself to offer comfort. He was still dealing with his own reticent feelings on the matter at the time. Finding the twins, restoring them to the throne, achieving their goal, made it all feel a bit more worth it. But the betrayal had left its mark; the shards of Jaskier’s many broken promises remained embedded in his heart and soul.

Having Geralt and Lambert in his arms, feeling their firm bodies beneath his hands, his lips; watching them smile and joke; it helped him paper over the bitterness. He buried it deep, far beyond his reach and attention. There was nothing he could do to heal it, or lessen it, so it was best left ignored and forgotten. With any luck, he’d never see Jaskier again anyway. He was banished from the courts, from Nilfgaardian society, and without the trappings of civilisation and wealth, he wouldn’t last long. The Continent was a brutal, unforgiving place, and it’d eat a fragile nobleman whole. Except, Jaskier wasn’t fragile, was he? He was hardy enough to stage a coup, to wield a sword and sever the hand of another in his own ballroom and to walk into a nest of snakes with no assurance of victory. Perhaps he would survive, perhaps he wouldn’t.

The thought haunted him for weeks; the idea that Jaskier… wouldn’t. It hung in the back of his mind as he watched the former Viscount walk out the city gates; it dogged his footsteps as he prowled the opulent halls of the palace and it occupied his thoughts even as he rode through Kaedwen on his way to the Witcher’s Trail.

Bury it. Ignore it. Dismiss it. 

Just the vestiges of what they used to have; a dream of what could have been. Every time those bright blue eyes floated in his memory he could feel the ghost of his hands on his skin; the scars on his face, his chest, his hips. He could feel the brush of soft lips, the comb of slender fingers through his hair. The afterglow of love, affection and trust. But that’s all it was. The after. A shadow; the leftovers. The pain would fade along with the memories. Just like the pain of Deidre over a hundred years ago; the pain of Vesemir’s brutal death at the hands of the Wild Hunt; the pain of every other time the world had sunk its claws into Eskel and torn away a piece of him. It would numb, hastened by repression and the focus of hard work inside the walls of his keep.

He travelled north and the impact of the twins’ reign seemed to follow him. New roads, new bridges, new officials; the old, the corrupt, flushed out by a wave of good intention. The optimist, still clinging on desperately inside his heart, hoped that it would last. The nihilist—stronger, bigger, better fed—expected it to last only a handful of decades. It was difficult to appreciate the light when his mind seemed determined to hold onto the grey. Still, it was pleasing to see elves, dwarves and halflings walk freely through the streets of the major cities he passed through. The few contracts he took in the smaller villagers around the outskirts were well paid and the wary glances he received lacked the malice of the last two decades. 

The villages at the foot of the Blue Mountains hadn’t changed. Familiar faces greeted him in the shopfronts and at the market stalls, happy to take his coin in exchange for the goods he needed. They were surprised by his presence—thought he’d been captured, was dead, good to see him again. The cart wheels rattled over the uneven stones of the Trail. He passed elven camps and endured one bandit attack; the slow spread of the twins’ control had tightened the grip of law on the settlements at even the furthest frontiers, forcing the shadier members of society into the wilderness. The stragglers in question thought better of their chosen target after he leapt down from the seat of the cart and cut down the first two members of their crew effortlessly. No one else bothered him.

The gates of the keep were still sealed shut when he arrived. The only intruder that had troubled the keep was nature itself. The creeping vines of the surrounding woodland were beginning to choke the walls, brittle stone crumbling over dark green leaves; ample footholds for any ambitious thief. He’d have to cut those down. Eskel scaled the walls and opened the gates fully for the cart. The first chore was to patrol the perimeter and check its security. He discovered another huge hole in a north facing wall ripped by a landslide and spent the afternoon repairing the roof of the stable to house the horse given to him by the twins and his huge draft horse companion. Once the animals were comfortable, stocked with oats and hay, Eskel finally took a deep breath and entered the keep.

The interior was just as he remembered it. Cold, with a stale tang to the air in the grand hall where the doors had been closed for so long. He unpacked his few belongings into their appropriate locations; the tools into the armoury, the books into the library—still mercifully free of damp and wood mites; his ongoing battle with both apparently worthwhile in the long run—and his clothes in the bedroom. 

He thought he’d be fine. Told himself it was just like before. But the first night, as he lay in his bed—his bed, not Jaskier’s—he only stared at the ceiling. His eyes remained dry, but the misery clawed at the back of his throat and the chill of the winter settled into his bones despite the roar of the fire. When he managed to doze, he reached out for the warmth of his family and found only empty space, jerking awake in fear that they’d somehow been snatched away while he was unconscious… only to realise they’d never been there in the first place. He was on his own. 

The following morning, Eskel moved his clothes, bedroll, armour and weapons down into the kitchen and locked his bedroom door for good. He couldn’t sleep in a bed. Not on his own. At least on the floor in the kitchen, with his bedroll, travel cloak and a few furs, it was like being on the Path. And on the Path, you were meant to be on your own. He could trick his mind into making peace with the isolation. 

As the sun crested above the snowy caps of the mountains beyond, Eskel headed out into bailey to review the remains of his crops. Nature had, as expected, seized back the majority of his small field and greenhouse in the middle. If it hadn’t perished due to lack of maintenance, then it’d been choked or overwhelmed by hardier weeds. He stood in the centre and stared around with a heavy weight in his chest. It would take a lot of work to clear away the brambles and get seeds planted by the beginning of summer. If he’d been at home, then his usual cycle would have continued almost effortlessly. Eskel rolled his sleeves up, grabbed the machete and set to work. In the first four days he made good progress, the sight of the dark soil beneath the knots of vines and prickly leaves a welcome relief.

As the fourth day drew to a close, the sun disappearing behind those same distant peaks, Eskel headed inside and reached for his wash kit. Four days of work and sweat clung to his skin and he was desperate to rinse it off. He walked down to the springs on autopilot, ignoring the smell of warm damp that coiled up the darkened corridors. Only when he was undressed and climbing in did his mind finally catch up with his actions; the hot water lapped up his calves and he looked around the empty pool.


The memory of the springs at Jaskier’s mansion cut through his heart like a knife; the tender hands that stroked over his face and through his hair, assuring him that he was safe and that he could let go; the first time Geralt and Lambert joined him, their bodies wrapped around his, his lips against their skin and the scent of their need filling his head. The absence of all those things—those men—that he loved in a place where they should be was too much to bear. Eskel stumbled out of the water and fled, hoping to leave the cold, desolate feeling that welled in his chest behind.

Eskel didn’t go to the springs again. Instead, he cleaned in the kitchen by his bed roll using a bowl full of melted snow warmed by Igni. The springs were too much. Too raw a reminder of everything he no longer had. There was no guarantee that they’d make it back this winter. He couldn’t allow himself to nurse that hope. 

Once the agricultural grounds were clear and the seeds planted, Eskel set to work on repairs. The landslide took him a month to clear by himself. Huge boulders and tons of earth that challenged even a Witcher’s strength. He stocked the furnaces in the armoury and cut the appropriate sized bricks, then hauled them outside one by one. Some of the materials could be reused, but the rest he had to retrieve from the quarry… which was now full of kikimora again. The hatchery seemed to be endless; he was pretty sure there was a nest somewhere in the bowels of the mountain that kept branching out, but no Witcher had ever been brave enough to head in the abyss to find it. They got a few lucky scratches in, and so Eskel had to spend a few days on his bed roll in the kitchen until the wounds healed enough for him to continue working.

It was easy to get lost in the monotony of it. The work was backbreaking and endless, but he could wholly focus mind and body on each task. As spring melted into summer and summer fell into autumn, Eskel retreated into himself and found solace in his training. Witchers don’t feel. Witchers can choose not to feel. Witchers

The first snows hinted in the grey skies beyond the mountains and Eskel began to stock the pantry with dried meats, herbs and the vegetables that had managed to take root in the bailey behind the keep. He stored the seeds he retrieved ready for the next season, cured fresh furs and hides from the animals in the surrounding woodland, and began to plan a project for the coming winter—probably the library; it was a labyrinth of forgotten knowledge. He should probably make some kind of index, or—

It was by sheer chance that he looked out towards the perimeter walls when he did. Many decades ago, Vesemir would spend his days at the start of winter in the highest towers to maintain a view over the entire Witcher’s Trail. From the right vantage point, he could see for miles and catch sight of each of his pups as they began the final stretch of the journey home. Eskel had stopped doing that after the first few years of isolation, so he missed Jaskier and Geralt as they traipsed up the overgrown path to their winter quarters. But now, he saw two cloaked figures atop chestnut mares waiting patiently at the gates. 

His heart stopped. 

His brothers. Home for the winter.

Eskel dropped the pile of sewing in his arms and nearly fell down the stairs in his haste to get to the grand hall. He didn’t bother with his own cloak, his gambeson or his swords—for all he knew two bandits awaited him at the castle gates—and burst out into the bailey at full sprint. His hands shook as he grabbed the heavy wooden bar holding the gates closed, steadying only when he took hold of the iron rungs and wrenched. 

The scent hit him first.

Geralt—winter snows, arenaria—but there was no spiced cider. Lambert wasn’t here. There was another familiar scent though, one that burrowed deep into his chest and bit at his heart with vicious fangs. He thought he was good at schooling his expression—years of practice—but he could see in Geralt’s eyes that every emotion crowding into his head passed over his features in quick succession. Anger, hurt, sadness, frustration—then nothing. Cold steel. 

Eskel swallowed and dropped those amber eyes away, before stepping to the side with a sweep of the arm. “Welcome home.”

Jaskier knew it would be hard to see Eskel again. He knew that beautiful face, with its warm eyes and full lips, would make his heart swell with love and guilt, but he really wasn’t ready for the reality of it. The warring emotions made him feel sick as he gazed down at Eskel from the back of his mare. The trip up the Trail had been hard. Geralt told him that it’d clearly crumbled from disuse; the woodland and weather had reclaimed huge swathes of it with plants and landslides. But the moment his eyes met Eskel’s, that was truly the most difficult trial he’d faced thus far.

Geralt rode forward first and Jaskier followed in his wake, keeping his distance as the White Wolf dismounted and pulled Eskel into a tight embrace. Eskel hesitated before returning it, and Jaskier watched Geralt draw away to settle their foreheads together and force eye contact. “It’s good to be home. I’ll explain over dinner.”

"I… uh, yeah, I didn't realise you were on your way. I'll have to get something sorted. Your room's clean, and…" Eskel glanced at Jaskier, words momentarily lodged in his throat. "Will you be requiring your own?"

He knew the answer. Jaskier's scent permeated Geralt's skin, mingling with his own familiar notes of fresh snows and arenaria. Eskel tried to pretend it didn’t bother him—to himself, to the concerned eyes that watched for the emotions struggling across his face—but he couldn’t help the lump that rose in his throat. “It’s too cold for Jaskier to sleep alone,” Geralt murmured as he took Roach’s reins and those of the second chestnut mare. “You know that. Head inside, I won’t be long.”

Geralt took the horses towards the stables but kept a keen ear primed on the courtyard. Nothing happened. Eskel picked up some of the bags from the frozen cobblestones and carried them inside without a word. He didn’t even look at Jaskier, his shoulders tense and hunched, his gaze averted. Jaskier followed several paces behind, his lute slung over his shoulder, a bag clutched in his hand. Dinner was an equally fraught affair, not least because Geralt walked into the kitchen to find the bare bones of Eskel’s belongings tucked around a folded bedroll. Eskel had clearly tried to tuck it out of sight beneath stacked shelves, but his scent was too thick in the room for it to go unnoticed. 

“Why’re you not sleeping in your bed?” Geralt asked quietly just as Jaskier walked down the stone steps and settled on the bench.

Eskel glanced up from the stew, wooden spoon stirring through lumps of vegetable and darkened meat. “Conserving fuel. Easier to heat just the one room.”

Unconvinced, Geralt just hummed and poured some of the wine they’d brought up from the foot of the mountain. Jaskier accepted one of the goblets with a smile; he’d yet to say a single word. Even while they waited for Geralt, Eskel didn’t even look at him, just helped him up the stairs with the bags and into a—Geralt’s—room. It was just as Jaskier expected. Densely packed with books and artefacts, bearskin rugs on the floor, with a huge, expansive bed soon to be covered in blankets and pillows. Eskel packed them away to keep them free from damp and dust. 

Jaskier longed to see Eskel’s room too. It was probably just as crammed with the evidence of his adventures; trinkets, scrolls and skins from all over the Continent. Perhaps Jaskier could write a song—Eskel probably hadn’t heard ‘Toss a Coin’ yet, one of Jaskier’s more popular songs, people liked hearing about Witchers now that the court was full of them, but if he’d been holed up in the keep for the year, he might’ve missed it. A shame. Every time he went to open his mouth though—I’ve missed you, I’m sorry, please look at me—the words lodged themselves in his throat and died there. So now he sat at the kitchen table, in a keep that he’d only ever read about in books, unable to enjoy the majesty of his surroundings or the sweet relief of seeing Eskel again; alive and well, if a little bedraggled from working himself too hard. Geralt had warned as much. 

The stew was predictably delicious. The meat tender, the vegetables still firm enough to be enjoyable and the seasoning provided a pleasant palette of taste. Conversation was stilted; Eskel was desperate to talk to Geralt. Jaskier could see it in the way he kept glancing up from his food, jaw twitching, but they didn’t get beyond the basics. “Journey alright?” Eskel asked quietly, picking over a thick crust of bread.

“The Trail could do with some clearing,” Geralt studied Eskel’s face, brow furrowed, amber eyes concerned. “We can do that when the snow thaws again.”


“Staying in the south for the winter. He and Aiden are going through one hell of a honeymoon period. Doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon.”

“Huh,” Eskel smiled; it was the smallest flicker of his lips, but news of Lambert’s happiness ignited the warm embers behind his eyes and Jaskier couldn’t help but stare. He’d forgotten, somehow, just how beautiful his wolf was. Here, within the walls of his castle bathed in firelight, he was staggeringly majestic. 

You’re beautiful, Jaskier wanted to shout. I love you. Please. Please let me love you again. But he didn’t—he couldn’t. The wounds were clearly too raw still. He needed to prove himself somehow. Prove that, even though he’d lied about some things—obscured the truth, led them along with false hope—that his love for Eskel was real. And it hadn’t faded now he’d achieved his goal. Seeing Eskel in his keep, magnificent but oh so very lonely, with his bedroll laid out before the fire in the kitchen, his beautiful smile and bright amber eyes muted, Jaskier yearned now to make amends, to make Eskel smile and laugh again. 

“Jaskier’s travelled with me on the Path this year,” Geralt glanced up from his food. “He’s been spreading our good name as a bard. Never would have thought it.”

Eskel looked up quickly, gaze settling on Jaskier, before slipping back to his meal. He’d achieved all his dreams then, even the one believed forever out of his reach. Jaskier caught the look and cleared his throat, speaking for the first time. “Perhaps you’ve heard some of them? There’s Song of the White Wolf, quite popular with bleeding hearts, but Toss a Coin to Your Witcher is probably the most prolific.”

Geralt rolled his eyes, good-naturedly. “You’re telling me.” For a moment, Jaskier forgot himself and gave Geralt a light thump on the arm; it was the easy, gentle camaraderie they’d developed over the last few months of travelling together. 

But it held more weight to it in front of Eskel, who pretended not to notice. Instead, he placed his spoon down in his bowl. He’d barely eaten anything, despite his portion already being much smaller than what he offered to his two guests. “Sorry, I haven’t heard them.”

“Well, perhaps he can sing them for you.”

“Tomorrow,” Jaskier cut in quickly, because he could see the coil of discomfort in Eskel’s chest; the first person he’d told of his desire to become a bard outside of his own damned family. The first person to hear him sing one of his own songs. Perhaps Eskel had nursed hopes of—oh, he wasn’t even sure. Either way, singing to him would only scratch open unhealed wounds. “Tiredness and cold plays havoc with my throat.”

They finished dinner and Eskel tidied the bowls away into a wash basin. Geralt helped clean, searching for Eskel’s eyes but finding them reluctant to meet his gaze. Once everything was back as it should be, he indicated the stairs up into the Grand Hall. “Heading to the springs. Meet you there?” 

“Uh, I’ve got to stack some firewood in your room, there are a few other bits and pieces I need to do,” Eskel tensed. It was an excuse. He didn’t look at Geralt because he knew it was an excuse. But with the fatigue of the Trail only just behind him, Geralt decided that tonight he would allow Eskel the time to orientate himself. Pushing too hard too quickly always led to one result; Eskel disappearing inside his own head and running off to a kikimora den. It’d happened after their Trial, with Deidre, and Geralt would be damned before he allowed it to happen a second time.

“Alright. Make sure the fire’s nice and high in yours,” Geralt called over his shoulder; a pointed comment, part demand. You can skip out the bath tonight, but you’re not sleeping in here. With a little gesture to Jaskier, who was still looking at Eskel with wide, forlorn blue eyes, Geralt disappeared into the keep.

“He won’t even look at me,” Jaskier whispered as he sat next to Geralt in the pools. The hot springs were breathtaking. The ceilings and walls glittered with precious minerals buried beneath a damp layer of condensation. The water was the purest blue he’d ever seen outside of an artificial pool and the heat bore down to his very bones.

“You knew this would be difficult,” Geralt murmured, one arm sliding around Jaskier’s waist to pull him close; he buried his nose beneath his ear and breathed deeply as he spoke. “He’s still hurting. He’s been up here on his own all this time. Long enough to stew in his own thoughts.”

“When I was younger, I’d read tales of knights winning their lady love,” Jaskier smiled ruefully. “Somehow, I don’t think Eskel will accept flowers or riches as recompense for my actions, and I can’t even offer him a life free of hardship, or...”

“Hey,” Geralt pulled away and tucked a finger beneath Jaskier’s chin. “The fact that you were caring for his family was the reason Eskel opened his heart to you, but it wasn’t the reason he allowed you to stay.”

“It wasn’t?” Jaskier hadn’t even considered that. Everyone he’d ever known, loved, fucked… they’d all done so because he’d been able to offer them something. From the lords that took him, tender and young, to their beds, to the young ladies that had doted on him in hopes of having access to his extensive wealth and estate through marriage. It’d never occurred to him that someone could love him for being… Jaskier. 

Geralt placed a chaste kiss on Jaskier’s cheek and then drew away. “He liked the way you held him, spoke to him; he liked the fact that you listened when he talked back, and when you touched him it was with genuine love. Eskel’s not a shallow man, Jaskier. He saw the good in your soul from the outset, before anyone else did.”

“And I want to give that to him again, I just need to prove that—.”

“No, not prove, just show. But he needs to have his eyes open to see it. He does this… this thing, we all used to do it, but he was the worst. He closes off to the world to protect himself from it, and then he misses all the good things too.”

“You said we? Did you?”

“Yeah,” Geralt smiled sadly. “When I was younger, I thought I was… undeserving of love, of anything, really. Lambert too. It was Eskel that used to pry us open—,” he smirked, “—literally, when we got home. He made us smile, held us, but it just disguised that he was the most… in need out of everyone.”

Jaskier sighed, hands lifting from the water to rub down his face in despair. “How? How am I going to make it up to him?”

“Don’t change anything,” Geralt reached behind him for the soap and washcloth, body pleasantly tingly from the hot water and pruning up nicely. “Just be you. Eskel’s built for affection, not hate, or despair. He’s so naturally inclined to love and care for things—for people—that he won’t be able to help himself.”

“Right,” Jaskier squared his shoulders, chin jutting, expression officious and determined. “By the end of this winter, I will have made progress on winning his heart back.”

Geralt smiled, scooped up some water in a chipped jug and poured it over Jaskier’s head. It rather put a dampener on his mission face.

Jaskier’s task was simple. Show. Geralt always chose his words carefully. It was one of the things that Jaskier liked most about him. If you were trying to prove something, usually you were working hard to build an image that wasn’t there. Show meant that it already was, it just needed to be demonstrated. Geralt genuinely believed Jaskier’s love for Eskel—for all of them—was pure and genuine. He just needed Eskel to see it.

It became clear that Eskel hadn’t really been looking after himself very well; he was a little more gaunt, his skin reddened where the sun had burned it during long hours working outside and it took Geralt physically moving all of his belongings to get him sleeping in a comfortable bed surrounded by pillows, blankets and furs. “Living at home should have its perks, idiot.” Geralt grumbled, before pulling him close and falling asleep sprawled across his chest.

It had to be a two-pronged attack. During the day, Jaskier took to all of the chores allotted to him with gusto. Eskel seemed surprised when Jaskier listed off all the skills he’d honed during his time ‘in the wild’. His first task was to repair some blankets, sew some furs together to refresh the ones in their rooms and patch up a few old shirts. His needlework was precise and he took care to keep the threads neatly, so when Eskel came to check in on his progress he would be able to see the love and attention. The reaction was surprise, and then hesitant approval. “Hm, good. I need you in the kitchen.”

Jaskier had become a good cook. Dicing ingredients, preparing game, separating the skin to become something useful at a later date. In the end, Eskel ceded control of mealtimes to him in favour of maintenance on the outside of the castle; the walls were crumbling, the roof was caving in and the windows let in a truly horrific draught. Because it was the castle that Eskel truly cared about; the cobblestones and mortar that represented everything he valued most. His family, his lost brotherhood, decades of his memories. 

As Jaskier mused over how he could get his delicate hands on Eskel’s beloved keep, to tend to her in the way that he wished to tend to her master, Geralt worked a more covert angle. He had to strike a precarious balance between showing Eskel he’d not been abandoned and replaced, understanding his conflict, reinforcing their own love but also not pandering to his continued melancholy. Eskel needed time, but he also needed to be willing to allow the rifts to heal, rather than continuously finding reasons to scratch them back open.

Most nights he started with Jaskier. They made love in the comfort of Geralt’s bed, with the roaring fire at their back and the softness of the furs beneath them. Once his beloved bard was sated and sleepy, he kissed him gently on the forehead and slipped out to Eskel’s room. He was always awake, sometimes gazing at the ceiling and others trying to read, still semi-dressed. Geralt wrapped around him, pulled his face close to his neck, his chest, everywhere that Jaskier had kissed and brushed against. 

It was a cruel trick, perhaps. The same one that had been played on Lambert and Geralt in those early months, but Eskel’s desperation to be near, to be in Geralt’s arms, overcame his reluctance effortlessly. He buried himself against Geralt every night, nuzzling into the mingled scents as Geralt’s fingers ran through his hair, rubbed his neck, his back. The love, the safety, none of it’d gone. It was all still there, waiting for Eskel to reach out and take it. Life would never go back to how it was before. 

“How did he win you over?” Eskel asked finally, on the ninth evening together in his bed. “You were right. Right about everything he was up to, right about him.”

“I wasn’t right about everything,” Geralt stroked the backs of his fingers down the rough lines of Eskel’s scars; they were weather-beaten and sore again, no doubt. “Over the last year, his actions… he’s… shown a different side of himself. Back at the mansion we never got to see the real him, not all the time. There were glimmers when he was with you. I could see it… but he was always wearing a facade. I’ve seen him stripped down to nothing. Mask torn away. And instead of building himself a new one, he’s decided to become who he’s always wanted to be. He’s not pretending everything’s fine, not hidden away, I’ve seen the man he really is.”

“And you believed it worth a second chance,” Eskel murmured, his eyes closed as tender fingertips traced each sensitive groove. He could deny himself many things; his own bed, food, the hot springs, comfort. But he could never deny himself Geralt. Not after all those years without him.

“Yes,” Geralt nuzzled into Eskel’s hair, humming contentedly. “You need a bath.”

“I had a wash this morning.”

“No, a bath, a proper one.”

“Geralt, I—.”

“Don’t wanna hear it. This is my first winter home in years. I want to bathe in the hot springs, with the man I love. So shut your mouth and go to sleep.”

Eskel leaned into Geralt’s chest and closed his eyes. If Geralt had found reason to forgive Jaskier, then perhaps Eskel could find a way too. It just felt like an impossible mountain to climb.

The next day was filled with more chores. Eskel took Geralt into the grand hall for a brief bout of training, and Jaskier watched them from a bench, wrapped in a thick, fur-lined cloak. It felt good to be training again. Familiar movements testing stiff muscle, the clash of steel drowning out the wind that whistled through the hollow halls. Geralt put Eskel on his ass in the end, flat of his blade resting on his shoulder. “Getting slow old man.”

“I’m not the one with white hair,” Eskel grumbled, slapping the sword away as he rose to his feet. “Think that’s enough for today. I’ve got to get started in the library. Been putting it off for a few years.”

“You owe me a bath first.”

Eskel tensed. “Maybe later, I—.”

“No. You stink worse than Lambert after that one time he slept in the goat pen,” Geralt sheathed the blade in his hand and grabbed Eskel by the elbow. “I already ran the stuff down there this morning.”

“I can make a start in the library,” Jaskier placed his sewing aside and hopped to his feet. “What’s the project?”

“Uh,” Eskel swallowed audibly. “Just… finding some kind of order.” 

The smile flashed at Eskel was beautiful. Jaskier’s blue eyes glittered as if Eskel had just professed his undying love just by talking to him. It was too much. Eskel dropped his gaze away, but before he could do much more than clear his throat, Geralt was hauling him across the hall towards the winding staircase, and they headed into the bowels of the keep. The smell of heat, damp and minerals filled Eskel’s nostrils and that same apprehensive knot formed in his chest as before.


Except, not empty. Geralt was here. The hand on his elbow slipped down until their fingers intertwined, and then they were standing at the edge of the pools. Geralt shrugged his clothes off and left them in his usual haphazard heap and Eskel followed him into the water. It lapped up his calves as it had before, but this time he sank into it, straight into Geralt’s waiting arms. The sob welled up from his chest before he could stop it. He wasn’t sure where it’d come from, only that it hurt his throat, shook through his limbs, and prompted Geralt to hold him close. “It’s alright.”

“No, it’s not,” Eskel growled, trying to pull away, only to find those strong arms bound tightly around his chest. “Geralt—.”

“Stop,” Geralt squeezed tighter, gripping onto his own wrist to keep those powerful shoulders from wriggling free. “You need to stop. What’re you punishing yourself for, Eskel?”

The question had the desired effect. Eskel froze, his chest still heaving with laboured pants. He allowed Geralt to pull him down into the water; the heat enveloped them until just their shoulders and heads remained free. The arms pinning him in place only loosened when his breathing eased and his body staggered; suddenly they were propping him up rather than holding him down. “I let myself be tricked, I—.”


“I thought if I could—I thought—.”

“Easy, take a moment,” Geralt sat down on one of the underwater ledges and pulled Eskel down into his lap, back to his chest, head on his shoulder. Amber eyes turned towards the dome of the ceiling as gentle fingers stroked down the arch of his throat and across his collarbone.

“I thought I’d finally done it, managed to keep my family safe, and I was just being used,” Eskel whispered hoarsely. There was no point trying to struggle away from Geralt again; he didn’t want to, didn’t have the energy too. “And then I thought—,” Eskel scowled, embarrassed, the next part said so quietly only a Witcher could possibly hear it, “I thought he genuinely loved me.”

“He does.”


“And you love him, or you wouldn’t still be hurting,” Geralt slid his palms down Eskel’s chest beneath the water. It was impossible not to explore. Eskel’s thick chest, his stomach with its defined muscles padded lightly with a healthy layer of winter storage; the soft hair under his palms and the gorgeously muscled thighs spread out over Geralt’s lap. “You didn’t want to sleep in your bed because it was empty, didn’t want to use the springs because it reminded you how much you enjoyed being cared for. It’s all there for the taking again. You just need to let yourself have it.”

“He put you in danger, and Lambert, I don’t think I can.”

“Hmm, just making excuses to stay angry now,” Geralt murmured against the back of Eskel’s shoulder; his fingers circled gently over Eskel’s inner thighs and goosebumps erupted beneath his lips. “I want him in your bed tonight. I’m tired of going between you, and he gets cold. He’s only human and my room has a draught coming from somewhere.”

“Then stay with him, I’ll—.”

“Sleep in the kitchen like a dog. No.” 




“Don’t do that. I can see you burrowing away,” Geralt reached behind him and grabbed the soap from the grey bag on the edge of the pool. “You’ve been scenting him on me for the last two weeks. You smile in your sleep with your nose pressed to my neck. You want him close.”

“You don’t know what I want, nngh,” Eskel arched as Geralt massaged his balls, hands dropping to latch onto his wrist, but it was too late. He was already hard. Two fingers stroked up the underside of his cock, and then circled just behind the head, callused pads toying with the sensitive join of skin in the very centre. “Geralt.


“You’re not being fair,” Eskel hissed through gritted teeth as his grip on Geralt’s wrists loosened; he could feel the thick swell of his cock rubbing into the cleft of his ass, the head nudging beneath his balls. They hadn’t made love yet. And Eskel’s body ached for it. Months without seeing a single person, of seeing to himself whenever his mood lightened enough for him to feel anything but morose apathy. The pressure in his stomach wasn’t a desire so much as an all-consuming need. He sighed with pleasure when Geralt took him properly in hand, his second hand palming Eskel’s balls gently out of the way so that two fingers could massage his hole. “Ahh.” The touch was just right; his foreskin sliding slowly over his head beneath the surface, the pressure along his shaft pulsating and the two fingertips probing his rim exciting sensitive nerve-endings. He came with a low moan, cock emptying into the hot water.

Geralt smiled against his neck. “Been a while, has it?”

“Fuck you,” Eskel growled, without malice. It was more a breathless rumble. Geralt was still idly stroking him, making his body twitch and spasm with sensitivity. “Oh, gods. Geralt, please, I really—.”

“Want to make love to you here,” Geralt whispered. “In our springs, in our home. Going to do it every winter forever from now on.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Eskel’s head tipped forward and Geralt’s mouth worked across the nub at the top of his spine, and then across his left shoulder.

“I never do.”

Words faded to moans. Geralt moved Eskel from his lap and pushed him against the edge of the pool; his mouth worked over that thick chest he loved so much, tongue leaving damp swirls in his chest hair as he sucked and laved at a nipple. Eskel nudged at him, pushing for a kiss and moaning softly into his lips as Geralt’s cock brushed over his. He knelt on that ledge as Geralt reached for his washbag and found the almond oil Jaskier had insisted they buy in Ard Carraigh. It was meant to be for the sensitive skin on Eskel’s face, but it could be repurposed. Eskel spread his knees and canted his ass back into the caress of Geralt’s fingers. When one slipped inside his body seized on it, pulsating in unexpected pleasure. 

“Forgot how sensitive you can be,” Geralt breathed as he thrust in a second, moving both slowly in and out. He admired the suck of Eskel’s body as his hand drew away, his other rubbing down Eskel's cock to make his body clench sporadically.

“Geralt, Geralt please—please, I need you,” Eskel growled, his nails scraping across the stone as he rocked back into the thrust of Geralt’s fingers. He needed Geralt to feel complete. They were two halves of one spirit. Eskel always felt empty—broken—when they went too long without each other. Having him again in Jaskier’s house had been a dream come true. Years separated, years of feeling like a pitiful fragment of something whole, and then there he was. They were safe. Together. With Lambert tucked between them, protected. Then he’d lost it all again. The safety of his pack just an illusion. 

But here he was. Geralt. With him, in their springs, in their home. When Geralt’s cock pushed inside, Eskel groaned and slumped forward, his chest resting on the cool stone at the edge of the pool. Geralt stroked him—his back, his hips, the curves of his ass—as he thrust languidly. The water rippled around their thighs, the soft squelch of lubricant mixed with the distant thunder of running waterfalls in the bowels of the mountain. Geralt leaned over him, his hands planted near his shoulders and ground in deeper. “I love you, Eskel. I love you so much.”

Whole again. Smothered in Geralt’s scent, the warmth of his body, Eskel felt the tension and the misery drain away into the mountain beneath his hands. The slow rub of Geralt’s cock, the press of his heavy chest against his back, the puff of hot breath against his neck, Eskel’s eyes closed and he lost himself to the euphoria of it all. His second orgasm was slower. Just like Geralt’s warm palms running over his body, it spread through him with soothing languor, his body clutching onto Geralt’s cock in an effort to keep him deep through every aftershock. His eagerness was rewarded when Geralt groaned loudly into the back of his shoulder, teeth grazing the scarred bitemark mottling his skin, as he came. His hips stuttered to a halt, pressed flush to Eskel’s ass, and he laced sloppy kisses over his back. 

They stayed bound together, Geralt’s cock softening slowly as Eskel’s body relaxed, loose and wet. When they drew apart, they slumped into each other’s arms; lazy kisses alighted on necks, chests and faces as they soaked. At some point they remembered to wash, and Eskel was reminded of the floral smelling soaps Jaskier had used in his bathhouse, but he didn’t comment. It didn’t hurt as much as he expected it to. The reminder of what had been more muted; a dull ache rather than a stabbing pain. Eskel was reminded of a healing injury rather than a gaping wound; it still had a long way to go, was perhaps liable to tear back open, but had at least stopped bleeding. Stopped hurting so damned much. 

Swaddled in their towels, they ran through the freezing corridors of Kaer Morhen with their clothes bunched under their arms as they had done when they were boys. Geralt jokingly tugged at Eskel’s towel so that it fell loose from his hips and left him clutching it to his groin. Two centuries ago, Geralt would’ve waited until some instructors rounded a corner, but now it was done more out of nostalgia and a desire to be a gods-damned irritant. Eskel folded his clothes across the back of an old armchair before crawling into bed. Geralt arrived moments later with an apprehensive Jaskier in tow; he was dressed in his chemise and braies, with a blanket draped around his shoulders to shield him from the cold. 

Eskel said nothing, he rolled over onto his side and tucked his arm beneath his head. Relaxed and sated from his time with Geralt, he didn’t have the energy or fortitude to hold onto his anger, but that didn’t mean he was ready to kiss and make up. Sensing this, Geralt slid into bed first and pulled Jaskier in on the other side. The moment of tension passed and Eskel took a deep breath as his eyes closed. At some point that night he rolled over and spooned into Geralt’s back, his nose buried in the mane of white hair splashed over the pillow, and if his hand fell onto Jaskier’s hip as he dreamed of their time spent lounging around on top of each other in the solarium, then it didn’t actually mean anything.

The moment Geralt came to collect him from bed and drew him into Eskel’s room had been… nerve-wracking. Jaskier knew Eskel to be a gentle soul—he’d stopped fearing for his life after only their third meeting together, the first being the moment of his capture—and so his physical wellbeing was never in question. But a single wounded look from the Witcher’s beautiful amber eyes? It had the potency to stop Jaskier’s heart dead in his chest.

They were sad and hesitant when he entered, but not wounded. Not like they had been. He rolled to face the wall and Jaskier’s heart sank, but remained beating. Just. The bed was huge, easily enough room for another two or three people, but Geralt held him close. When he woke randomly in the middle of the night, as one did when sleeping in a strange place that made strange sounds, he found a large, familiar palm resting gently on his hip and nearly sobbed in relief. In his deepest sleep, at his most vulnerable, Eskel had reached out to touch him. It was small. So very small. But it was something for Jaskier to cling onto.

For the next few weeks he worked himself to the bone on every task Eskel set him. The library was an endless, monotonous task, so Geralt pulled him out to help with other things. Repairing tapestries, moving resources, preparing the skins from the animals they hunted when the blizzards abated for a few hours. He even tried his hand at some masonry, slender hands struggling with heavy tools, nails breaking, skin splitting, and it was Eskel who took the mallet away and sent him into the kitchen so that Geralt could wrap his palm in a bandage.

The tension eased. Eskel began looking at Jaskier, talking with him; they even shared a quiet joke when Geralt allowed the chickens to escape the pen inside the grand hall, and they had to trawl the entire keep in search of wayward hens. At the end of each day, Jaskier felt a rewarding ache deep in his bones and sank gratefully into the soft mattress of Eskel’s bed. He longed to curl up between his two wolves, to feel both their hands on him and place his palms of each of their strong, beating hearts, but he didn’t want to push Eskel away. The sleepy hands that rested on his hip, his shoulder, sometimes wrapped as far as his own chest, had to be enough.

The winter exhausted itself and the snows began to melt. Geralt and Eskel headed out to clear a few monster nests that emerged from the ice and the slush, but soon Geralt would return to the Path. Soon they’d leave Eskel behind in his cold, mountainous home with no one to keep him company but the goats and the forktails high on the cliff edges. The very thought made Jaskier’s heart ache. Their relationship was still brittle, but those gentle smiles were starting to creep in when Eskel thought he wasn’t looking. No. Jaskier couldn’t leave Eskel to work himself back into a dark hole, not now that he was emerging back into the light.

It was three days before they were due to leave. Eskel was growing quiet again and Jaskier broke the silence at dinner. “I’m going to stay here.”

Both Witchers looked up suddenly. “What?”

“I’m going to stay here, Geralt. I… I thought I was cut out to travel the Continent, but I felt like I was a ball and chain slowing you down last year, and my songs are sung by every troubadour from Poviss to Nazair,” he turned his goblet around slowly on the table before him. “I think I can be of more use here, helping Eskel maintain the castle, you know, doing my bit.” 

“You’ll get bored,” Eskel spoke up, his cutlery clattering onto the plate. “There’s nothing here but hard work and loneliness. You should go with Geralt.”

“And that’s precisely why I must stay,” Jaskier looked between the two of them. “If I go, if we leave you alone up here, I… I can’t even stand the idea of it. All those years, Eskel. Months without seeing another living soul. No one should endure that. Not when there’s another option.”

“You’re making a mistake,” Eskel looked away. “I don’t want you here. I forbid it.” Without the steadying influence of Geralt, Eskel was terrified of what he’d have to face alone. Perhaps it was cowardly, perhaps his emotions were all over the place and he wasn’t sure where he was on the scale of hatred and forgiveness. No. In his heart of hearts he knew he was so close to forgiveness, and that scared him more than anything else.

Geralt sighed. “Jaskier, claim sanctuary within the walls of Kaer Morhen.”

Eskel looked up suddenly and Jaskier blinked. “What?”

“Claim sanctuary and he can’t turn you away,” he sipped his wine and raised both eyebrows. “I think it’s a good idea that you stay. Someone needs to keep an eye on him and make sure he and the castle are in a decent shape for when we come home.”

Jaskier’s mouth opened and closed dumbly. He’d been about to back down, his tail tucked between his legs—he had no right to force his way permanently into Eskel’s home—but Geralt’s resolve seemed to have worn off on him, and he remembered his vow at the start of the season. By the end of this winter I will have made progress on winning his heart back. He’d made some progress, but not enough to leave. Not yet. “I claim sanctuary within the walls of Kaer Morhen.”

“Will you turn him away?” Geralt looked at Eskel, whose jaw was clenched along with his fists. A tense silence followed in which Eskel stared at Geralt, who gazed passively back, occasionally sipping his wine. It almost reached an intolerable level of discomfort before Eskel cleared his throat.

“Kaer Morhen’s doors are always open to Witchers and their allies in times of need,” his voice crackled and he shoved his plate away. “I’m—I’ll go get the fire started for bed.”

Jaskier moved to reach out but Geralt settled a hand on his arm. Once Eskel had ascended the stairs, Geralt stroked a gentle hand down Jaskier’s cheek. “Thank you.”

“For upsetting him all over again?” Jaskier croaked, tears brimming in his eyes. “He doesn’t want me here.”

“Oh, he really does,” Geralt gathered the plates, and then leaned in to kiss the tears from Jaskier’s cheeks. “And that’s what scares him the most.”

“Huh,” Jaskier sniffled. “All those rumours about Witchers not having emotions… I’ve spent a whole winter trying to wade through Eskel’s and I haven’t even scratched the surface.”

“Welcome to my world. More wine?”