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When she’d been hired for the job, she’d been told there was another Witcher involved--

“The first one we hired ran off,” he said, followed by what may have been a scoff or may have been a hiccup.  “With half our coin, too, so you’ll have to take a lower rate.”

She raised an eyebrow, not looking up from counting the measly collection of coins in her palm.  “If you say so.”  She’d been shorted before, backwater townsfolk overflowing with superstition and the presumption that her ability to throw a wagon over her head meant she was dumber than a box of rocks, that she could be manipulated, that they could knit together some sob story about treachery and dishonest witchers leaving them high and dry.  But she  wasn’t in a position to argue; her horse needed rest and a warm stable after weeks on the road, and she could use a roof over her head for a night.  

“Cowardly little runt they were, too,” he muttered.  He swallowed another half of his ale and she considered breaking the tankard over his head.  “You get the rest when you finish the job.”

“This is barely ten percent.”  She pocketed the money anyways.  “Half now, half after.”

“The rest after.”  He glared at her as if he had some leg to stand on and she couldn’t hold him up by his ankles and shake the rest of the money out of him, and she sighed.  Tavern brawls were only half as fun as they sounded, and rarely as lucrative.

“Fine.”  

 Across the table, the man smirked, smug and drunk, and she rolled her eyes, stood abruptly, stared down at the way his eyes bulged when her knee shoved the entire table into his ribcage.  He made a noise like a dying cat and she shoved the table a bit harder and then knocked his ale into his lap, just for good measure.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you alcoholism isn’t a substitute for a personality?” 

--but she hadn’t taken it seriously.  She’s been roaming alone for decades, taking jobs where she needs to and settling into a quiet, solitary experience, and she hasn’t seen another witcher in forty years.  Her kind has slowly been dying out, their longevity not the immortality some seemed to think it was, their lives dangerous, and she’s skirted the edges of civilizations enough to know that she’s one of the last left.  

Longevity, unsurprisingly, has always had drawbacks.

Blake knows that she’s likely the last, and it aches, somewhere deep and untouched for close to a century, but it’s calming to know that some hurts, some wrongs, have finally faded from the world.  She takes the measly upfront portion of her payment and stables her horse, has her weapons cleaned and cared for at the blacksmiths, and is left with enough to pay for a room at the inn or a meal at the tavern, and elects for the food.  

It’s been weeks since she slept under an actual roof, and she wraps her cloak around herself and burrows down in the hay in the stall with her horse and sleeps better than she has in months.

It’s early when she sets out in the morning, fog snaking through the streets and half the town still asleep.  She leaves her horse and spends the last of the money she has on paying the stablehands to stow the gear she doesn’t want to take with her, straps her swords to her back, and sets off to the north side of town.

There’s little happening in the town, the sun still holding low behind the mountains to the east, but smoke curls out of the chimney at the inn, the smell of fresh bread tangling with the cold damp of early winter.  The door to the inn opens and a woman pauses, then darts out across the muddy road and offers Blake a half loaf of bread, cold enough to not be freshly made but soft enough to not be more than a day old, folding it into her hands before disappearing back inside.

“Another one?” Sounds from inside, rough and masculine and exasperated, and Blake pauses, looks down at the bread, carries on.  The bread lasts her the walk through town and into the woods, and she’s just polished off the last crust with the water she’d brought with her when she hears raised voices ahead and draws up to a halt.

There shouldn’t be anyone in these woods.  The people of the town had been petrified when they hired her, ostensibly sure that some monster or another had been luring men to their death and eating them alive; the magistrate had banned anyone from crossing the treeline without an escort, posting guards along the town’s borders, and Blake had been hired by a local guild to solve the problem so they could get their businesses back up and running.  

And yet, here she is, a mile past the treeline in one direction and twenty miles in the other from the next closest town, and there are raised voices ahead of her.  One eyebrow skids high, and she stoppers her canteen and loops wide, creeping towards the voices, climbing closer.  Witcher strength and swords or no, sometimes stealth was her best asset.

She finds a sturdy oak and starts to climb.

 


 

“Who,” Yang says slowly.  “Are you?”

“Who am-- who are you ?”  

Yang hadn’t expected to find anyone out here, much less for some shadowy figure to snap shrilly at her far too loudly for this early in the morning from deeper in the treeline.  It doesn’t help that for all she can see at this point she’s being yelled at by a child, more or less, and children are at best an irritation and at worst the sort of problem that try to run away from home and follow her on her adventures, and neither are options she’s in the mood to deal with today.  She just wants to finish her job, collect her payment from the magistrate, and be on her way, because she may be functionally immortal but that does not, in fact, mean that she’s not tired.

Longevity is exhausting.  She can live for-fucking-ever, practically, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want a nap .

“I asked first, you know.”  She tucks her hands into her belt, lets her shoulders drop casually.  She’s been wandering this earth long enough to know that there isn’t much , all told, that she can do to make herself seem less threatening to a complete stranger, because her shoulders are approximately as wide as a wagon and try as she might, even a century past the witcher trials she hasn’t been able to shake the way her feet always find the same defensive stance, forever ready to protect herself, forever ready to fight.  Even when faced with what is, in all likelihood, an uppity twelve year old merchant’s brat.

“Is that supposed to matter?” There’s a dangerous edge to the question, and Yang frowns, because she’s been all over this continent, has fought monsters and mages, razed kingdoms and built countries from scratch, and she knows power when she hears it, and this, somehow, is power.

“Why don’t you stop hiding in the shadows and come say hi?” She finally says instead of answering, giving up on her casual posturing and instead folding her arms over her chest.  “I don’t bite.”

“You think I’m scared of you?”  There’s a laugh, flat and unamused, and something that almost feels like offense coils tight in Yang’s stomach-- she’s not sure, actually; she hasn’t been at a point where she felt like she could be offended by something in approximately fifty years, but, rusty as she is, it sure does seem that it’s here, rearing its head again-- and then immediately disappears when, out of the shadows, steps the absolute tiniest actual adult she’s ever seen.

That she’s dressed almost exactly the same as Yang-- well-used leather armor that moves like a whisper, boots as suited to foot combat as to riding, sword strapped to her back just like Yang’s and a dagger along one forearm instead of the shorter sword hanging at Yang’s hip, an expression that’s equal parts weary and irritated-- tilts the entire situation from odd to outright absurd, and Yang laughs for what might be the first time in six years.

“What,” she gasps out, hands dropping onto her knees.  “Are you supposed to be?”

“If you have to ask.”  The other woman folds her arms over her chest, chin tilted up, and Yang’s sure she’s nearly a foot taller than this woman but somehow feels like she’s being looked down on.  “Then you probably aren’t what you’re pretending to be.”

“Pretending to be,” Yang says, swiping at tears in her eyes.  “Me.  I’m pretending-- you-- you think I’m pretending to be a--”

“Witcher,” she says thinly, and there’s a weight to her voice, a danger to it, the power Yang had heard earlier.  “I was hired by a local guild to--”

“Fuck the guilds,” Yang says dismissively, upright again and now circling slowly around.  “The magistrate hired me.”

“The magistrate is a pompous bag of shit.”

“Accurate.”  Yang shrugs, still circling.  It seems impossible that this woman’s a witcher.  She’d only ever met one other female witcher, in all her time, and it had been half a century ago; it had been almost twenty years since she’d seen any other witcher at all.  They were dying out, all of them, and if there’d ever been one with skin like royalty and a frame this small, Yang would surely have heard of her by now.  “All magistrates are pompous shitbags.”  

She raises an eyebrow at the woman and is rewarded with one in return.  It pulls at a scar the tracks from her forehead to her cheekbone, the only witcher thing about her, and Yang smiles, shakes her head, keeps circling.

“I still don’t buy it.  A mascot, maybe.”  She reaches out, hooks a hand into the back of the collar of the woman’s armor, and lifts.  If this woman’s actually a witcher, she can only do this once, but it’ll be worth it.  She’s heavier than she looks, as much from armor and weaponry as from a body made exclusively of solid muscle, but Yang refuses to admit to being impressed.  “What are you, a witcher for toddlers?”  

She barely dodges the dagger that comes flying back towards her ribs and turns, twists, uses all of the power imbued in her bones from the last century of walking the earth and putting down monstrosities, and send her flying through the woods.  Yang stumbles forward with the force of the throw, catching herself in a crouch, and watches as the woman twists in midair and lands in a crouch of her own at the base of an oak tree.  

“Hm,” Yang says.  She stands up straight and dusts off her hand, because now she has an angry definitely-a-witcher charging at her with a broadsword in one hand and a dagger in another.  It’s impressive, really, that someone that size can somehow wield a broadsword as tall as she is in one hand.  Technically it shouldn’t be possible, but three minutes ago Yang also had thought it wouldn’t have been possible that anyone who was all of five foot nothing of slight build and delicate features could have survived the witcher trials, and Yang’s nothing if not willing to admit when she’s wrong.  

She draws her own swords and cracks her neck, smiles wide, because she hasn’t had fun in years and this, at least, should be fun.  There’s a shocking amount of power behind the first strike she parries, and this close when she’s not focusing on the armor or the weaponry, the perfectly balanced stance or the scar over her eye, Yang can see that her eyes are shockingly blue, the only color in this whole godforsaken forest in the middle of this godforsaken continent in the middle of this godforsaken winter full of gray clouds.

“So,” Yang says conversationally as she twists one blade free and barely manages to stop the dagger from sliding between her ribs.  “Hired by the guild, yeah?”

She doesn’t get an answer, save for an extremely efficient series of parries to the alternating strikes she tries and, then, a boot straight to the ribs and the hilt of the dagger to her jaw when the first hit doubles her over.  Air bursts out of her lungs and she stumbles back a step and, for the first time, something other than anger flashes across the other woman’s face, satisfaction flickering in her eyes as she flips the dagger in her right hand lazily and waits, cocky and assured, for Yang to catch her breath.

“Sneaky,” Yang mutters.  She dabs at her lip, shaking her head when her knuckles come away flecked with blood.  “You know, I don’t think anyone’s landed a hit on me in a good ten years.”

“I can say for certain no one’s called me a mascot in the entire time I’ve been doing this job,” is the only response she gets, followed by this absolutely tiny hurricane of a witcher settling back into a crouch and then launching forward, blades first, towards her.

Yang has only a split second to consider-- that she’d been sure she was the last of her kind, that she hasn’t seen another female witcher in decades, that this town’s politics had set them against each other for no reason, that there’s no reason for them to fight-- and, abruptly, she holds her hands up, presents the hilts of her swords, and surrenders.

Blue eyes go wide and the blades coming at her freeze in midair, sword barely an inch from her throat and dagger already butting up against the leather of the armor over her belly.  

“What--”

“My name’s Yang,” Yang says pleasantly.  “Civilized chat, witcher to witcher, maybe?”

The swords stay where they are, blue eyes narrowing, and Yang rolls her eyes and sighs.  “I thought I was the last of us left,” she says by way of explanation.  “It’s been a while.”

There’s a long stretch of silence, Yang raising her eyebrow and tilting her chin up challengingly, exposing more of her throat to the sword hanging near it, until there’s finally a sigh and she’s released from her frozen posture.

“I’m Weiss,” is all she gets in response, and Yang grins widely and sheathes her sword.

“I would say it’s a pleasure, but you did try to kill me,” Yang says cheerfully.

“You called me a mascot and threw me into a tree,” Weiss says, but there’s not as much bite to her words as there could have been.  She sheathes her broadsword, which Yang still cannot understand how she can hold, but keeps the dagger in hand, flipping it lazily from one hand to the other as she paces the small clearing they’re in.  “You said the magistrate hired you?”

“I did.”  Yang leans against a tree and folds her arms over her chest.  “Less out of concern for his citizens and more out of not wanting to pay for border security anymore, I presume.”

“As if he’s paying border security,” Weiss says with a snort.  

“Oh, what, you illustrious guild is paying for this because they just really care about the good of their neighbors?”

“Hardly.”  Weiss says calmly, points with the hilt of her dagger towards Yang.  “They want business to open up.  But they also suspect that the magistrate is the reason all of this--” she gestures generally with the dagger to the woods around them.  “--is a problem.”

“This,” Yang drawls out.  “You mean whatever’s out here killing people.”

“I’ve been here for a month ,” Weiss says, ignoring her, still pacing, still flipping the dagger.  Yang watches, palms itching, interest building in her chest, stomach twisting, because she hasn’t been interested in something in years and had expected this job to be like any other one-- kill the monster, collect the payment, ignore the glares and stares, carry on her way with enough supplies to take her to the next job, the next monster-- but now she’s faced with another witcher and, if she’s hearing right, a potential conspiracy.  “The guild hired me before the magistrate hired you.  Presumably he only hired anyone at all because the town’s reached a breaking point.  But the first half dozen people who were killed were political rivals in some way.”

“Just to be clear,” Yang says, holding on hand up, because Weiss may have been in this garbage town for a month but Yang’s been in it for two days.  “You think--”

“She’s right,” comes a new voice, and both of them move suddenly, hands filled with swords and facing the figure that’s suddenly dropping out of the trees.

“You have got to be joking,” Weiss mutters, and Yang’s inclined to agree, because there’s absolutely no way-- none at all -- that she’s seeing straight.  There’s no way she’s looking at another witcher, except that she absolutely is, black hair pouring down her back and skin dark under the pale tint that both Yang and Weiss also carry, armor solid and well-worn, power and strength rolling off of her in waves, the same exhaustion and anger-- the kind that only comes out of surviving the witcher trials with body and mind as intact as possible, for a given value of whole and sane, haunted and shattered but still breathing-- that Yang sees in Weiss’s eyes, knows burns in her own.

“Well,” Yang says eventually.  “Shit.”

 


 

“And who,” Weiss snaps out.  “The hell are you?”  

Asking questions helps.  Being angry helps.  She spent decades trying to stay calm, to keep her anger constrained, because anger in her childhood was a lack of control, a danger, an unquantifiable variable.  It took her decades to learn that anger was only dangerous when she let it control her, that it could center her, ground her, keep her from being swept away in uncontrollable situations.

Not that she’d found herself in too many uncontrollable situations after too long.  By her third decade alone, she’d settled into almost a trance, slipping through the world as a whisper, an impossible witcher no one believed in.  She did the jobs and took her payment and made her way, holding herself separate from the world even by witcher standards, and watched silently as the rest of them slowly disappeared from the world.

And in the span of fifteen minutes she’s run into not just one, but two of them.

Beside her, Yang’s still in a tense guard, swords in hand, and the other woman in front of them-- the other witcher -- has her hands up easily, crossed swords still sheathed at her back, head tilted cat-like and calm.

“My name’s Blake,” she says, as if that’s even remotely helpful, as if she’s even supposed to exist, because Weiss did her research , Weiss knows that only one in twenty witchers ever survived to walk in the world and only one in a hundred children sent to them in the first place were girls anyways.  The odds were nearly impossible of finding another female witcher, much less two, much less at the same time.  “I was also hired by the guild.”

She tilts her head towards Weiss.  “They think you ran off with their money.”

That, annoyingly, is enough to derail Weiss’s runaway thought process at the idea of finding two witchers in one morning, and she grinds out a curse that would make the rudest sailor blush.  Blake raises an eyebrow at her and Yang lowers her swords and whistles.

“I told them I would investigate the-- that short-sighted imbecile --”

“Did you really expect a collection of backwater barter hogs with more balls than brains to understand anything beyond instant gratification?”  Blake says it like she knows Weiss, like she’s ever met her before, and a thrill of irritation races down Weiss’s spine, which is something she’ll have to lock away and not inspect for at least half a decade after she’s never seen Blake or Yang ever again.  

Instead of dignifying it with an answer, Weiss sheathes her sword and dagger and pinches at her nose.  “Can you-- just to clarify--”

“Maybe we just all back up and start from the beginning,” Yang suggests.  There’s a whisper of leather and metal as she sheathes her weapons as well, and Weiss sighs, drags a hand down her face, throws her hands up.

“Why not,” she mutters.  She paces away, drags her hair up off the back of her neck and ties it up because it’s winter, yes, but anger makes her flush and uncertainty makes her angry.  She hasn’t been uncertain in more than thirty years, and she’s not enjoying it.

Behind her, there’s the sound of Yang offer her name, obnoxiously cheerfully for someone who clearly went through the same torture and trials that Weiss did, and Blake, responding flatly, which is at least tonally appropriate for someone also cursed with an unnaturally long life of thanklessly helping people by killing monsters and being treated like a monster for it.

“That’s Weiss,” Yang says behind her, and Weiss rubs at her forehead.  She’s too old for this.  “The guild hired her a while back.”

“And, what, you decided to build a vacation home here first?” Blake says, slow and drawling, and Weiss’s knuckles ache with the effort of not flinging her dagger across the clearing and straight into Blake’s throat.  Something tells her Blake could probably deflect it anyways.

“It-- seemed worth researching first,” she says, finally turning around, hands settling at her belt for lack of anything better to do.  Yang’s back to leaning against a tree, shoulders roughly as broad as the oak behind her, and she shrugs in an unsettlingly eloquent manner.

“It’s a kludde,” Yang says bluntly.  

“I-- of course it’s a kludde,” Weiss snaps out.  “That’s not what I meant.”

“You meant the magistrate,” Blake supplies, and Weiss blinks away from wondering if strangling Yang will get that obnoxious grin off her face and then immediately regrets it, because Blake is smug .  

“Yes,” Weiss says, and deserves a mountain of credit for not adding an insult to them.  “Obviously.  All of this clearly started as a way of dealing with political rivals, but the magistrate is hardly a political genius and this town isn’t exactly strategically situated on any trade routes.”

“So you decided to...disappear with your deposit to do your research?” Blake’s drawl shivers down Weiss’s spine and honestly it’s hard to tell what’s more infuriating, that her voice is having an effect at all on Weiss or that the fact that it’s having an effect on her is throwing her off-kilter.  She looks over to Yang, as if that’s helpful, because Yang’s looking from her to Blake and back again, lavender eyes sharp and intelligent, mouth tilting up into a smile.

“It doesn’t make sense, what’s happening here,” Weiss says after a long moment.  “I told them I would get to the bottom of the issue.  I never gave them a timeline.  I just need to figure out why someone’s putting any effort into manipulating the politics of some useless rural--”

“There’s an old mine,” Yang says easily.  She tilts her head deeper towards the woods.  “Ore.  It’s why the town was settled originally.” 

“No one said anything about a mine,” Blake says.

Yang shrugs.  “I slept with one of the barkeeps.  People are very chatty after a turn or two.”  She offers a wink, broad and cocky, and Weiss makes a disgusted noise because she doesn’t know what else to do with the fact that she’s been on some self-imposed celibacy for fifteen years for reasons she can’t exactly pinpoint but probably land somewhere between stupidity and frigidity, that she’s always labelled as just general side effects of her being a witcher, but apparently Yang’s been off fucking her way across the continent, witcher or no.

She glances over to Blake, who has the audacity to not even look mildly perturbed, and finds that even more annoying.

“Anyways,” Yang carries on.  “There was a collapse about sixty years back, and they couldn't get back in.”

“And?” Blake says, expectant, and Weiss is glad that she’s not the only one failing to make the connection, because Yang’s looking at them like they’re idiots.

“Oh, see, then,” Yang says, slow smile curling at her lips.  “Final piece of your little puzzle and it comes from the one hired by the magistrate .  Imagine that.”

“Must you be so obnoxious?” Weiss sighs out, because it’s easier than punching her and also because she hates not knowing things.  It’s been decades since she felt at a loss around anyone, and between Blake and Yang right now she’s floundering and desperate for any piece of driftwood to grab onto.

“The Kingdom of Lyria wants to expand their industrial production,” Yang says, one hand waving uselessly.  “Cintra’s overreaching and Lyria wants to push back, but their resources for arms production are running low.  They’ve been putting out feelers for off-books mining deals.”

“The mine’s impassable,” Blake says slowly.

“Not with enough mages,” Yang counters.  She holds her hands out open and shrugs, and Weiss sighs and drops her head back.  

“Of course,” she mutters.  It always comes back to war.  “Wonderful.”

“So!” Yang says cheerfully, as if she hadn’t just solved a puzzle Weiss had been working at for a month in between bedding local bartenders and being generally infuriating.  “Now what?”

“Now,” Blake says.  “I’m going to go kill this thing, collect my bounty, and also go collect a reward from the Cintran government for letting them know that Lyrian forces are cutting deals with their own people.”

“Hey,” Weiss snaps out.  “Wait a second.”

Blake raises an eyebrow at her, gaze raking up and down Weiss’s frame, and Weiss tells herself that the way it makes her skin burn is because she’s angry and absolutely nothing else at all.

“I took this job first.  It’s my bounty.”

“You had a month to collect.”  Blake shifts casually, hands falling to her hips, ostensibly far enough away from the hilts of her swords to not be a threat, but there’s something in the coiled tension in her body that reads the exact opposite.

“If you go running to the Cintrans, they’ll take things out on the town,” Weiss snaps.  Her hands curl into fists, skin humming, and now it is anger, familiar and grounding, guiding, comforting.  She stalks forward, the weight of the hilt of her dagger comforting in her hand, and one side of Blake’s mouth curls up into something that could be a smile and could be a snarl, could be either or could be both, baring teeth and inviting Weiss forward as steel flashes into her hands.

“Hey,” Yang says suddenly as Weiss stalks by her and readies to stab Blake as many times as she can.  Fingers brush against the back of Weiss’s neck, unexpectedly gentle along the six points of branded tissue exposed by her tied up hair, and Weiss freezes in place for a heartbeat.  

“Is that--” Yang leans closer, and Weiss reacts completely reasonably by smashing the her elbow right into Yang’s face.  “Ow!”

“You had to see that coming,” Blake says, lowering her swords once more.  “Worth it?”

Yang tilts her head back, pinching at her bleeding nose, and eyes Blake beadily for a long moment before pointing dramatically, blindly at Weiss. 

“Schnee,” she says thickly, and Blake, gracefully, drops one of her swords.

 


 

“You’re-- really?”  Blake gapes, even though Blake never gapes, because she hasn’t been surprised in at least a decade.

“For the love of--” Weiss cuts off with a sharp breath.  

“I thought that entire dynasty died off a century ago,” Blake says slowly, and Weiss rolls her eyes, gestures to Blake, to Yang, to herself.

“I’m sorry, how old are you ?”

Blake flushes, because she should know better.  At her side, Yang laughs at her, blood in her teeth, and Blake feels stupider than she has in decades.  

“The Schnee family was royalty,” Blake says anyways, because if she’s going to feel stupid she can at least learn why .  “They-- dynastic royalty don’t become witchers.”

“Yes, well,” Weiss says with a scoff.  She produces a rag from inside one of her gauntlets and offers it gruffly to Yang.  “First daughters can be married off for political gain, and any son can inherit, but middle daughters serve little political purpose.  Middle daughters who talk back to their kingly fathers are particularly not useful.”

She reaches towards the scar over her eye and then redirects to touch the back of her neck, sighs, turns until Blake can see the six-point snowflake, a brand of scar tissue old enough to have flattened into her skin, shiny and immutable.  

“I talked back a lot,” she says after a long moment.  “My father got tired of punishing me after a while.”

“So he sent you to be made a witcher ?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Weiss snaps out, and Blake nearly recoils.  Blake doesn’t recoil from anyone, because she hasn’t been bested by anyone in as long as she can remember, but there’s a power to Weiss that’s magnetic and intimidating even to Blake, just as there’s a strength to Yang that’s fascinating.  “He sold me.  Then I ran away.  Then I got caught up with the witchers.”

She clears her throat and settles her shoulders more square, looking Blake dead in the eye, challenging, aggressive, and Blake breaks immediately, looks over to Yang instead.  Yang’s no help, staring at Weiss with blood still on her face, rag forgotten in her hand, mouth turned down and forehead creased.

“I joined a team of bandits when I was nine,” Blake blurts out.  It drags the attention back to her, which is the last thing she wants, but words spill out of her anyways.  “My village had-- taxes, and a few bad seasons, the whole crop had died and everyone was arrested, more or less, for failing to pay proper tithe.  My parents were sentenced to hard labor and didn’t last, and I escaped the quarry and joined the bandits in the countryside.  They said they were helping people like my parents.”

She shrugs, drags a hand through her hair.  “I was nine,” she repeats.  “I learned better, got out, landed with the-- you know.”  She shrugs again.

There’s an uncomfortable silence to the clearing, Blake staring at her feet, unsure of where to look, unsure of anything, because she’d taken this job certain of her place in this world alone and now she’s unsure of just about everything, the entire universe turned inside out by the two witchers-- two of her own, living and breathing, the tired beating hearts and shaking nightmares-- standing right here in her reach.

“Raiders,” Yang says after a moment.  She pauses, dabs at her bloody nose.  Blake offers her canteen without meaning to, doesn’t speak when Yang dumps water onto the rag and scrubs at her face blindly.  Weiss rolls her eyes and yanks the rag away, grabs the collar of Yang’s armor with one hand and pulls until she can set to cleaning the dried blood away.  

Blake watches, feeling superfluous, feeling intrusive, because Yang towers over Weiss but is bending towards her like gravity’s pulling her there, firm and unwavering.  

“Raiders came through when I was a kid,” Yang says quietly.  “They were taking kids from every family.  Our mom was gone, she died when we were little, and my dad was crippled from the elven wars, and my sister--”

She winces when Weiss presses too hard at her lip.  Weiss pauses, but doesn’t apologize, waits until Yang’s breathing settles, unwavering.

“My sister was only eight.  So I let them take me.”  She shrugs, broad shoulders moving the armor in Weiss’s hands.  “The rest is history.  Merchant trains, daring escapes, trusted the wrong people, voila.  Witcher.”

Weiss finally lets go, satisfied with her work, and there’s a long second where she’s still up on her toes and Yang’s still leaning towards her before Yang straightens up and clears her throat, and Blake blinks for the first time in what feels like hours.

“So,” she says belatedly, uncertain.  “Now that-- now what?”

Certainty has vanished.  She’d been sure she knew how to handle this, even with the information about political machinations Yang and Weiss provided, but now-- now she has no idea.  For the first time in a century, Blake is unsteady.

“Kill the kludde,” Blake says anyways, because that, at least, is simple.  Monsters are simple.  Humans are complex, but monsters, always, are simple.

Weiss’s eyes flash over to her, blue and sparking, and the forest floor wavers under Blake’s feet.  “And then what?” she says, razor thin, hand already curling towards the knife sheathed at her forearm.  “Three bounties.  One kill.”

Blake looks from her to Yang, to the way Yang seems carefully neutral but there’s a tension to her wide shoulders, hands loose and ready to move.

“We can figure something out,” Blake starts to say, and Weiss moves immediately.  Blake grabs for the swords at her back, yanking them free, and she’s fast, she’s always been fast, but Weiss’s dagger is at her forearm and there’s no way to beat that, and by the time Blake has the swords in her hands Weiss’s blade is already at her throat.

Then, suddenly, Weiss is a foot taller, Yang lifting her easily by the throat.

“Behave,” Yang says casually, and Weiss, to her credit for someone technically hanging by her windpipe, doesn’t even let out a sound and instead just swings her glare over towards Yang instead, dagger following and holding easy and ready at Yang's throat.  Yang points at Blake sharply, glancing sideways until she sighs and sheathes her swords, holding her hands up pacifyingly.  “Weiss?”

Weiss grabs at her arm, fingers digging into muscle but not grappling, calm and methodical, as if she’s considering if it’s worth the effort to fight even while Yang cuts off her airway, and then finally pulls her dagger back and holds her hands up.  

“Glorious,” Yang deadpans, and she lowers Weiss with a flourish.  Weiss sheathes her dagger and folds her arms, glaring up at Yang for long seconds.  Blake, uncertain, forever uncertain now, because apparently the universe decided to let her be complacent for decades just so it could dump a cumulative sixty years’ worth of uncertainty onto her at once, because the universe is a bitch.

Yang stares down at Weiss, arms folded to match her posture, head tilting playfully, apparently the only one of them handling this situation well.  

“Play nice, will you?”  she says.  “We can-- we’ll figure this out, in a way where we can all get paid, the town won’t get ruined, and no one else has to die, all right?  And, ideally, without any of us stabbing each other.”

Weiss, throat violently red from Yang’s grip, kicks Yang in the shin.

“Fucking ow ,” Yang yelps, hopping on her other foot and nearly falling over.  Blake blinks rapidly, because surely Weiss, a witcher, a trueborn princess from one of the last great kingdoms in history, didn’t just kick Yang, one of the strongest witchers Blake’s ever come across, in the shin like a seven year old bickering over a toy.

And yet .

A laugh bubbles up from deep in her belly, big and bright, the first she can remember in years, and before she knows it her hands on her knees and her eyes are watering and Yang’s laughing too, bright enough to make a dreary winter day feel like a summer morning.  Weiss, even, finally breaks, dropping her head into her hands and laughing quietly.

“Fuck,” she says quietly into her hands, laughter gasping out of her.  “This is not how I thought my day was going to go.”

“Can’t believe you didn’t see this coming,” Yang says with a snort, slapping at Blake’s shoulder, and it burns through her shoulder, through her chest, because no one touches a witcher like a friend.  Her hand stays, though, palm warm and burning at her skin, and Blake relaxes into it, just for a minute.  She can have a moment.  The whole day is upside down anyways.

“I can give up the bounty,” Weiss says suddenly.  She’s not laughing anymore, but there’s something different to the set of her mouth, the way her posture's folded in on itself and her hands are crossed to their opposing shoulder and hip, an incomplete latticework of diagonals and squares, the ineffectual armor of a lady of court instead of a warrior, and Blake sobers immediately.  “I can help with the kludde, but I can make my way without the money.”

She lifts one shoulder in a shrug.  “They already think I ran off with it anyways, and you two have contracts that don’t compete.  It’s the simplest approach.”

“Simplest,” Blake says slowly, not looking away from Weiss’s shifted posture, not even for the way Yang’s hand’s tightened on her shoulder, the way the air in the clearing’s suddenly charged between the three of them.  There’s more tension now, somehow, than there had been when Weiss had a knife to Blake’s jugular, than when Yang had held Weiss  by the throat not two minutes ago.  They’re witchers; the expectation of violence has been shoved upon them for so long that it’s simple, always, even when it isn’t ideal.  It’s everything else that’s complicated.

“And then what?” Yang says, fingers digging into Blake’s shoulder.  

“Then what,” Weiss echoes flatly.  “What do you mean, then what?”

“What do you--” Yang lets out an aggravated exhale.  “How long has it been before either of you met another witcher before today?”

Blake’s quiet, because she doesn’t like thinking about the witchers she’s met over time.  The ones who’d done their best to help the world and died, painful and alone, for it; the ones who’d gone mad with their pseudo immortality; worse, the ones who hadn’t, leveraging their longevity and strength for cruelty and power.  Humans weren’t made to live for so long, the loneliness of it crumbling forever at the edges of sanity and kindness until nothing good was ever left.

“A long time,” Weiss says finally, quietly.  “Decades.  I-- thought I was the last one.”

“Me, too,” Blake says.  She catches Weiss’s gaze, melts under it without meaning to, because Weiss has been around as long as she has, maybe longer, and there’s a care for a town of strangers in her that had her pulling a knife on Blake, a keen edge to her mind that caught onto the political machinations that Blake had only seen the blurry edges of.  

“Yeah,” Yang says, with a sense of victory, of finality.  Yang, whose father was crippled in wars that ended a century and a half ago, who’s been walking alone as long as either of them, who still has a bright smile and a good heart, who of all of them is the only one strong enough to let herself connect to people-- barkeeps or no-- who she’ll outlive by decades.

Longevity, Blake is sure of it, met its match in Yang and Weiss.

“So here’s a thought,” Yang says.  Her hand tightens on Blake’s shoulder, yanks suddenly, and it’s only the approximate century of combat experience and preternatural grace that keeps Blake from falling flat on her face.  Yang slaps her other hand onto Weiss’s where she’s still holding her own shoulder, manhandles her around until they’re both in front of her.  Blake’s shoulder crashes into Weiss’s and her hand goes out automatically to steady the both of them, finding Weiss’s where it’s curled tight still at her own waist, and immediately feels a blush that she’s certain reaches from her ears down to her fingertips.

Weiss, for all that she’s staring steadfastly forward at Yang, doesn’t protest the way Blake’s calloused fingers slide between her scarred knuckles or wind between her fingers.

“Why do witchers walk alone?” Yang says, hand tight on Blake’s shoulder.

“Is this a rhetorical question?” Blake says, because Yang is overbright and overwhelming, and there’s only so much of that Blake can handle without sinking into a defensive posture, except her usual defensive posture involves more swords and less holding of Weiss’s hand, so sarcasm will have to do.  

“Because everyone around us dies,” Weiss says softly.

“Yeah,” Yang says, quiet, serious, solid, and her hand tightens at Blake’s shoulder and Blake’s hand tightens on Weiss’s, a ripple effect passing through the circuit of them.  “But we don’t have to be.”

She steps in, halving the distance between them and crushing Blake and Weiss closer together, close enough that there’s body heat leaking into the entirety of Blake’s side.  

“The world doesn’t need witchers,” Yang says firmly.  “We’re-- people don’t want us.  There won’t be any more of us, and no one’s upset about that.  We don’t owe the world anything else.”

“What are you suggesting?” Blake says, because it sounds like something, something unrealistic, something she’s never let herself consider, alone or with anyone else, especially not two people she’s known for half an hour, and she can’t be the one to say it.

“Retirement,” Yang says.  She nods once, sharp and sure, eyes volleying between Weiss and Blake, and Blake chances a look to her left and finds Weiss’s eyes, wide and uncertain, waiting for her.  “Not here because-- fuck this entire muddy shithole.  But we’ll find somewhere quiet.  Build some houses, plant some crops.  No one will bother three witchers.  And we can all just-- live.”

“You want to retire ?” Weiss says, as if Yang had just suggested they punch the sun.  

“Don’t you?” Yang challenges, and Weiss’s mouth snaps shut, shoulders sagging, and Blake breathes in slowly because she does.  She does.

“Yes,” Weiss says eventually.  Her eyes slide shut, lips pressing tight together, and she breathes in deep through her nose.  “I-- yes.”

“Blake?” 

Blake snaps to attention, as if she hadn’t just been caught staring blatantly at the line of Weiss’s jaw, the curve of her neck, the edges of the brand on her skin.  Her cheeks burn hot and Yang smirks, cheeky and knowing, and the heat in Blake’s face races down her spine.  

“Yeah,” she says, raspy and telling.  “I do.

“Great,” Yang says brightly.  She slaps each of their shoulders, steps back, unsheathes the truly, obnoxiously oversized sword at her back, blows them both a kiss.  “Let’s go kill this bastard and get some money, babes.”

Weiss sighs and it sounds almost dreamy, and Blake’s attention bolts over to her.  

“What?” Weiss says sharply, as if she’s not flushing scarlet.  She draws her own sword, then her dagger, and clears her throat.  “You heard her.  Let’s go.”

She stalks off after Yang, the tips of her ears bright red against the white of her hair, and Blake stays rooted to the forest floor, watching them go.  Yang, golden and broad, light and strength; Weiss, a flicker of power faster than Blake can keep up with, sharp and bright.  She draws her own swords, twirling them absently in her hands, and sets off after them, ready to claim a kludde claw for a retirement gift.

 


 

one year later

“Do you think,” Blake says slowly, distractedly.  “That we should tell her?”

Weiss is silent at her side.  There’s plenty of room on the steps of the small porch of the house, enough for four people at least to sit-- or one Yang to sprawl and the cat they’d adopted to curl into the corner-- but Blake is pressed into the railing at one side, Weiss crowded into her side, arm low around her waist and head on her shoulder.

“What?” Weiss says after a long silence.

“Do you think we should tell her?”  Blake doesn’t look at her, staring out into the meadow that makes up their front yard.  The house they’d built is isolated, on an empty cliff with a view of the ocean and an enormous meadow stretching miles to the treeline.  Too far from any town for anyone sane to want to settle, but perfect for three retired witchers; it had only taken a few bandits to try their luck before word had spread, and no one had tried to approach them since.

“Tell her what?” Weiss says distractedly.  Her free hand’s curled absently along Blake’s knee.  

Another stretch of silence, and then Blake finally speaks.  “That we have enough firewood for the next two winters, probably.”

They’re quiet again as they watch Yang lift the ax and bring it back down, splitting a log cleanly.

“Absolutely not,” Weiss says after a moment.

Blake laughs, low and quiet, and finally moves, sitting up straighter.  

“Hey!” she yells out, ignoring the irritated slap from Weiss it earns her.  “Weiss is ogling you.”

“I will murder you in your sleep, Belladonna,” Weiss mutters when Yang responds by grinning wide and bright and poses with the ax, and Weiss’s foot slips off its perch on one of the steps and she nearly falls over.  Yang flexes her bicep again, dramatically, and then makes her way over.

“Is she now?”  Yang leans against the ax, flexing deliberately.  “Do tell.”

“I’ll kill you both,” Weiss informs them, properly offended.

“But then you’d be lonely,” Yang says with a winning smile.  She tosses the ax away and steps closer, and closer still, deliberately slowly, until Weiss has to crane her head back to look up at her, forever stubborn.  Beside her, Blake leans against the railing lazily and watches silently as Yang’s hands land on Weiss’s knees, skidding up towards her hips and back down again, deceptively gentle, until she suddenly yanks Weiss up over her shoulder.

“Onwards, Blake,” she shouts over her shoulder, marching inside and ignoring the way Weiss yells at her, laughing loud and sunny as she does.

The house is small, one story, little more than a main room and a bedroom big enough for three.  Yang stomps through dramatically, taking the longest possible route because it makes Weiss yell more, even though Weiss could break her hold fourteen different ways without breaking a sweat and lets her get away with this ,every time.  Blake’s waiting by the time they make it into the bedroom and she drops Weiss onto the bed, with all the grace and ceremony of a collection of people who became who they were through surviving years of torture and violence, and kisses her and then Blake in turn.

Longevity, it seems, found its match in the three of them together.