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when morning comes but the nightmare remains

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Mourning does not come naturally to their species, that much Regis knows. Nothing is lost forever. Only the truly ancient vampires, the ones old enough to recall a time before the Conjunction of Spheres, know what loss is. 

Or so it goes for most higher vampires. But Regis has never quite been an ordinary higher vampire. 

As a youth, he chose to ignore the parts of himself that yearned for genuine connection. He made a reputation as a rabble-rouser, someone good at creating superficial ties between vampires who didn’t quite fit in–they were the lonely ones, the wild ones, the ones who took to drinking in excess, pouring drinks in favor of talking about anything important at all. The superfluous charm he had as a storyteller, a vampire whose drunken escapades were revered and shunned in equal measure, made it so he always had someone, some company to entertain. He was never alone with his thoughts so he never had to face the consequences of his actions, the families he destroyed, the ugly addiction that made him irritable and callous when sober. 

And then he died–or came as close as he could to death. Dismembered and buried under layers upon layer of dirt, all he had to pass the decades of slow healing was his mind. His memories repeated over and over behind his eyes an innumerable amount of times. Burned villages. Empty bassinets covered in blood. Laughter–his own, he knew it had to be his own, but it sounded unfamiliar. Foreign. As if his sense of self had been neatly cleaved in half. There was the monster that he was before his regeneration, and then there was the monstrous man who took its place. Not a monster–not anymore, but perhaps still the relic of one. A relic of monstrosity learning to be a person, something not quite human, but as close as his distinct biological structure allowed.

In the years that followed he felt the burden of his prior choices, allowed them to age him, to steal the dark from his hair, to mark his face with lines and age-spots. The first step to being something human, he surmised, was to age. So he did. It suited him, Regis thought, to wear a different appearance after his regeneration. One that more easily brought to mind that of a kindly barber-surgeon. 

He traveled the continent for centuries, acting as a barber-surgeon on the battlefield (because there was always a war somewhere, wasn’t there? bloodshed somewhere. a constant reminder of what he denied himself floating through the air, as sweet as honeysuckle, as pungent as copper.) and a door-to-door physician at whatever village he chose to settle down in as winter took hold once more. Regis preferred to travel the human way, using a donkey that he always gave a rather obvious name to, and he would not lose a good animal because of frozen roads and waist-deep snow. 

It was during the particularly long and chilling winters that Regis felt the cold sting of loss. Humans could die in so many horrifically tragic ways. He had helped bury babies and mothers and young children and young couples and elderly widows and everything in between. But in the winter, it was as if Death walked amongst them, pacing the doors of the young and old with equal ferocity. First, the livestock died. Then, as the snow continued to fall, as the ice grew more solid and insidious, the weeks turning into months, food storages dwindled. People grew hungry. Disease spread. And Regis could do nothing but act as a comforting hand, a gentle voice in the dark once the tallow ran out, nothing to make candles from. There was no cure for hunger or cold in those days, not when there weren’t any animals around for miles, when Regis spent most of his waking hours at dying people’s bedsides, watching as the life trickled out of them, heard their heartbeats slow and slow until everything grew silent. He thought he might grow mad–so many deaths in so little time, people he had joked and played cards with in the fall, whose homes he had been invited into with the promise of a hot meal and stimulating conversation, were now cold and dead, gone to a place he could not follow. 

And then, just when he thought he had enough of it all–humans die so quickly; why did he think it was worth it? this pain? this bone-deep ache when they inevitably took their last shuddering breath? his penance was never abstaining from blood; it was this wellspring of grief he felt at every severed connection, every life cut short in a world that damn well seemed devoted to inflicting as much agony as it could before finally pulling them into a shallow grave–he met Geralt and his company. 

He knew he shouldn’t get close. He could taste their deaths in the air–knew that they would likely be gruesome, drawn-out events. Deaths that would never leave him, not entirely. He knew that if he lingered, allowed himself and his damnable curiosity to take hold, he would never be able to leave. A logical vampire, one that traipsed through society in the shadows, who only formed bonds with other vampires, would have let Geralt and his company get drunk on mandrake moonshine and leave them there in his home amongst the ruins of the elven graveyard. He had thought about doing that. Saw their pink, dozing faces, saw how easy it would be to lull Geralt into a deep, dreamless sleep. 

(He also saw how easy it was to love them. Geralt and the brilliant mind he hid underneath a facade of indifference and stoicism. Milva and her golden heart–so strong, so lovely, so dedicated to living life as free as a red kite, a bird of prey. Dandelion’s passion for art, for music, for all the beautiful things that humans could make–a scholar, a romantic, and a loyal friend, this much was obvious to Regis.) 

That was why he left Dillingen, wasn’t it? Not because of the encroaching war (though the thick scent of blood nowadays only made his spine curl in revulsion as he associated the scent with loss, his days of playing the demon long behind him). But because he was tired. He wanted solitude. Peace. A time to heal. A time to devote to his studies. A silence not gifted by death. 

But if Regis had what would eventually be called a fatal flaw, it was this: from the beginning he had been drawn to humans in a way most vampires were not. He hadn’t known it in his youth, so blood-drunk and warm, so far gone out of his faculties, that he would have been just as satisfied with a night-long conversation with any of the charming humans he encountered then a goblet of their blood, or their body sprawled in his lap, drinking his fill and more. 

He hadn’t really ever seen humans as beneath him–even when he killed them. Their deaths were just an unfortunate price to pay for their sweet, addicting blood. Something he had not been able to stop drinking until his head was severed from his neck. 

Now, knowing that he would likely lose his new company much too soon, Regis joined in their journey to rescue Geralt’s daughter. He wanted to do something good. He wanted to make friends, to have people to share stories with, to eat with, to doze with in front of a small campfire. A sense of belonging, even if brief, was better than centuries of living in the dark, cold and alone. He’d brave anything for that warmth. 

Or so he thought.

He had survived the Hansa’s death at Stygga–it had taken blood and time and the hope that, at the very least, Geralt and Yennefer had survived, had saved Cirilla, and made a home for themselves somewhere. And for once, fate was kind to him. He reunited happily with Geralt and Yennefer, and Cirilla, now a young witcheress, no longer bound by the destiny in her blood. He had even gotten to see Dandelion and Zoltan again, his visits to the Chameleon his favorite holidays away from Beauclair. 

In fact, the years after the events in Beauclair, after tempering Dettlaff’s fragile state into something that could, one day, trust humanity again, were the most peaceful years of Regis’ life. Beauclair was a warm, wine-drunk place, almost as if out of a fairytale. It made him complacent. Lax. Lulled into a sweet daydream.

Regis had forgotten that he wasn’t living in a fairytale. It was what made the tragedy all the more painful. 

He was here now, in front of a single gravestone. 

There were a string of lilacs surrounding the grave, as well as a wooden sword, the size a small child might wield. Regis placed his own offering: the last bottle of moonshine they had shared together. 

The vampire surveyed the graveyard, looked at the cloud of ravens that had flocked to him in his grief, their dark, questioning eyes boring into his prone figure as they perched in the pines above. Regis waved them away with a hand. He did not want the company. Not now. Perhaps never again. 

He felt his bones creak as he moved to sit behind the gravestone, leaning his back against it. If he focused hard enough, he could almost pretend that it was him, not a cold slab of rock. 

“Hello, Geralt,” Regis says, knees curled up against his chest, fingers toying with the strap of his satchel. 

He was met with silence–not that he expected anything else. 

“I’m… I’m not sure if I believe in an afterlife,” he starts, because what else was there to say? Geralt was dead–it would always be a one-sided conversation now. For eternity. “But I hope there is one. Wouldn’t that be grand? You could see everyone again. Milva, Cahir… even dear Angouleme.” 

The last name drove another achingly sharp stake into his heart. “So young, they were all so young. I failed you all then. At Stygga. I couldn’t keep them safe. I’m immortal and I can’t even keep one human safe.” A weak chuckle escapes him. 

What was the point of power if you couldn’t use it to protect those you cared for? It was a sad thought–how they should have all been at their safest with him beside them; but they had died as he flew across the battlefield, their deaths part of what sent him into a whirlwind of rage when he spotted Vilgefortz. Why he had gone for the mage’s eyes instead of his throat–he had wanted Vilgefortz to suffer. To feel even a passing inkling of the pain Regis had felt as he flew to protect Geralt and Yennefer from the mage’s wrath. 

The memory only increased the pain. “Wherever you are–or aren’t–know this, my dearest friend: you are so deeply loved. You thought yourself a monster, well, here is the truth. You had a monster weep for you. I miss you, already. It’s only been a few days, but time moves so slowly. I sometimes think of coming to Corvo Bianco, to sit out on the porch with you and Yennefer like before. She’d be pretending to read a book, you would be sharpening a blade–or perhaps attempting to write a letter to Cirilla. I would be regaling you both with some tale or another. You’d sigh that familiar sort of fond sigh that means ‘Regis, I wish you’d shut up already,’ while Yennefer would try to hide her smile behind the pages of her book. And then, just as it started to grow dark, the sun making its slow descent below the horizon, Marlene would call us all inside for dinner. I wish I hadn’t taken those days for granted. If only I had known just how little time we’d get. Years, yes, may seem long to some–but for me, it was like the blink of an eye.” 

He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the approaching hooves. Didn’t hear as the rider swung off their horse, their footfalls growing louder and louder as they drew closer to him.

“Regis…” a voice called to him sweetly, their tone achingly gentle. It reminded him of how he spoke to patients on their deathbed, when they had but only a few moments and he comforted them as best as he could. 

(”It’s safe now. You can rest. That’s it, I’ll be right beside you. Close your eyes, my dear. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”) 

“I didn’t get to say goodbye,” Regis replies, hollow. He would cry, if he had the strength to. If it were possible to cry anymore than he did after seeing Geralt’s lifeless body at his crypt door. Still, it was almost a selfish thing to say; no one important to Geralt got to say goodbye. He regretted saying the words immediately. 

“I know.” Cirilla crouches down beside him, their knees knocking together as she mimics his position. If she is offended, she doesn’t show it. Her green eyes are lidded with grief, their usual bright spark dulled by a death none of them expected. But when was death every expected, really? Even the old expected to wake the next morning from their sleep. 

“I wish I had. If I could go back in time–if I could have stopped him from taking that contract…” he trails, biting at his lip. 

Ciri shakes her head sadly. “There’s no point in thinking like that, Regis. You couldn’t have known what would happen. You can’t blame yourself.” 

“But I can. Did you know that when I woke up that morning, I had the oddest sense of dread? I couldn’t shake it at all. And then the sun was setting and I was feeling relieved because nothing bad had happened. Then, just as I smiled to myself, I heard the thud outside. The sound of Geralt falling in front of my door.” 

“That still doesn’t change the truth. You are not to blame. No one is,” she paused, voice going soft again. “Regis, I know what you did. I saw his body before it was burned.” 

The vampire’s gaze fell to the ground. “Then you know that I failed him–both as a friend and as a barber-surgeon. He could have survived if I had been just a few moments earlier. He was still warm. If I had gotten a raven to alert Yennefer faster, if I hadn’t spent precious moments in a state of panic over the sight of him, then… then perhaps… perhaps he’d be here. Sitting with us. Not laying in the dirt below us.” 

(Ciri had seen it–the extent at which Regis had tried to bring Geralt back to life. The way he had performed chest compressions again and again, creating a series of post-mortem bruises across the man’s otherwise pale skin. How he had then tried to massage the heart into beating, to coax out a rhythm as he reached into the exposed chest cavity. How he had no human blood on hand to replace the blood Geralt had lost so he ripped open his own veins, pouring his own blood into the witcher’s mouth from his wrist.) 

Regis startles at her touch, at the gentle hand covering his own. This was the first time he could ever recall being comforted. His occupation as barber-surgeon usually had him taking on the role–but here Cirilla was, mourning her father, and she had chosen to carve out her time into comforting a centuries-old vampire. 

“Regis, it’s alright. We know you did all you could. We’re not upset with you. And I know Geralt isn’t upset with you either. Although, he’d probably be upset to see you moping by his grave so much.” 

Regis laughs and it almost sounds happy. “You are certainly right about that.” 

They are silent, for awhile. Regis listens to the sound of the leaves skirting over the ground, he listens to Cirilla’s heartbeat, its steady rhythm a balm of sorts. Geralt was gone. He wasn’t going to come back. But he still lived on, in a way. In the bonds he forged. The family he chose. In the way Cirilla stood up abruptly, dusting off dirt from her trousers, sporting a familiar grin, one hand offered to him.

“Now, come on. I came to invite you to dinner at Corvo Bianco. Yennefer will be upset if I come back empty-handed. And, Regis… you’re allowed to grieve with us. We’re a family. It wouldn’t be right for you to grieve alone. Not when we’re all still here.”

Regis, smiling, takes her hand and lets himself be lead back home. The ache in his heart is dulled, somewhat, and for now, it is enough. It has to be.