There was a time when Eskel was one of the most respected mages in the Brotherhood. He lived in a palace. He advised kings. He helped decide the fate of entire kingdoms. He doesn’t often miss that life, though he does sometimes think back fondly on the abundance of feather beds and enormous bathtubs. Unfortunately, the beds and bathtubs came with a heaping side of backstabbing, assassinations, and political bullshit.
Right now, he would much rather be dealing with the petty nonsense of court life than this.
“For the last time,” he says, his perfectly polite tone starting to strain. “Love potions don’t exist and I can’t sell you one.”
The Oxenfurt student on the other side of his counter, who can’t be more than sixteen, scowls at him. “A friend of mine purchased a love potion just last week.”
“No, but I was told this was the finest apothecary in the city.”
“And that it is.” Eskel gestures around the room. “Have a boil on your arse, a headache that just won’t go away, or a rotting tooth, and this is the place for you. But no love potions.”
“And whyever not?” The boy juts his chin out.
Eskel sighs. “Human attraction is too individualized. You can’t bottle it. And even if you could, I’m not going to trap some poor lass with you.”
“She would be lucky to have me. My father—”
Eskel doesn’t have the time for this. “Yeah, I’m sure your father is mighty important. Are you going to buy something, or are you going to go?”
Somehow, the boy’s chin juts out even further. That can’t be good for his neck, Eskel thinks. He’s going to have back problems by the time he’s thirty. “I came here for a love potion and I intend to leave with one.”
The front door of the shop opens, but Eskel doesn’t look to see who it is, too focused on the brat in front of him. For an instant, he feels himself teeter on the edge of losing his temper. He’s a big man and with his scarred face, he can be plenty intimidating when he wants to be. But as a mage in Novigrad, with the Eternal Fire gaining more power every day, his position is already tenuous enough. With his luck, this little asshole’s father is friends with the Hierarch. He opts for Plan B: getting the boy out of his shop by whatever means necessary.
“Fine,” he says. “You caught me. I keep my secret love potions in the back.”
He stalks away without waiting for the boy’s reply, grabs the first likely-looking bottle he can find, and returns with it. Shoving it into the boy’s hand, he says, “That’ll be five crowns. Take a sip of this and you’ll be irresistible to the first person you make eye contact with.”
“Doesn’t look like much.” The boy examines the bottle like one would examine a fine bottle of wine.
“I’m sorry, were you expecting a heart-shaped bottle?”
The boy sniffs. “I’ll give you three crowns.”
Eskel takes the bottle back.
“Fine!” With a huff, the boy fumbles for his coin purse and slaps five crowns onto the countertop. Lip curling, he adds, “I bet you’re not even a real mage. Aren’t they supposed to be beautiful?”
Eskel was never beautiful, not even before the scars. When he stepped into Giltine’s workspace, he told the man not to change a thing, because Geralt loved him the way he was, and when he was an eighteen year old idiot, that was all that mattered. He smiles, aware of how it will make his scars stretch hideously, and is gratified when the boy flinches. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
The lordling gives him one last suspicious look and turns to stalk out of the shop. As soon as the door closes behind him, a deep voice says, “Love potions don’t exist.”
Eskel freezes. He hasn’t heard that voice in forty-two years, three months, and seventeen days. He never thought he would hear it again. Slowly, he turns around and finds Geralt standing there next to a row of fertility charms, watching Eskel with those bottle green eyes that Eskel spent so many days staring into. Like Eskel, Geralt is untouched by time, though he’s grown his red hair long and keeps it tied back into a ponytail. But everything else is the same— the freckles, the chiseled jaw, the broad shoulders. He’s as beautiful as the day they first met when they were fourteen, the first time they kissed when they were sixteen, the day they broke each other’s hearts when they were twenty.
“Wasn’t a love potion,” Eskel says, without anything else to say. “If he takes a sip like I told him to, he’ll get a bit of a stomachache. If he drinks the whole thing like he’s probably going to, he’ll have uncontrollable shits for days.”
Geralt’s eyes crinkle and the corners of his lips twitch up, which is the same as belly laughter on anyone else. Gods, Eskel’s missed that smile. Reminding himself that Geralt is probably here for a reason and that reason most likely has nothing to do with rekindling what they had between them, he turns to the only man he’s ever loved. “What brings you to Novigrad? Don’t find a lot of druids in the city.”
Geralt winces. “Good reason for that. Don’t know how you stand it here.”
“Cities have their own kind of chaos,” Eskel says. “You get used to it, after a while.”
From the look on Geralt’s face, he has no desire to get used to it. “I didn’t know you’d left Kaedwen. Didn’t even know you’d be here until I heard your name while asking around about mages in the city.”
“I relocated here about twenty years ago now.” Eskel really hopes that Geralt won’t ask about the scars. He’s not ready to have that conversation. “How’s Visenna?”
“Same as ever.” Geralt glances down at the ground. “I’m looking for someone.”
And that someone probably isn’t Eskel. He feels the hope he was trying so hard not to nurture die in his chest. “Oh?”
“I’m worried about him,” Geralt says. “He came to Novigrad a month ago and I haven’t heard from him since. Not even a letter since he sent one saying he got here safe, which isn’t like him. Have you heard about the disappearances?”
Eskel nods grimly. Since Saovine, non-humans have been vanishing all over Novigrad— elves, dwarves, dopplers, succubi, vampires, and more. The Eternal Fire controlled city guard doesn’t give any more of a damn about non-humans than they would about someone killing rats. If anything, speculation has run rampant that the Culler, as the residents of Novigrad have taken to calling the killer, works for the Eternal Fire. “I’ve heard.”
Geralt nods. “He was just supposed to come here to play at the Belleteyn Festival, but he never returned.”
“And who is he?” Eskel really doesn’t want to know the answer, and then feels like an ass for feeling jealous of a man who might be missing or dead.
“Jaskier,” Geralt says, and Eskel doesn’t have to inquire about the nature of their relationship, because Geralt says the name like it's something precious to him. It’s how he used to say Eskel’s name, back before Eskel ruined everything. “He’s a bard.”
“And he’s not human?”
“He says he is.” Geralt’s lips twitch, but his eyes are sad. “The glamour’s pretty good too. Just not enough.”
Of course not. Geralt’s a druid; they can sense these things. “What is he then?”
“My guess is fae, or maybe an elf. He’s never said, and I’ve never asked.”
“How long have you two known each other?” Eskel keeps his expression carefully neutral.
“Three years. Found the idiot about to wander into a leshen’s territory.” Geralt shakes his head in fond exasperation. “If I’d been two minutes later, he’d have been wolf food.”
“And you don’t think he could have just decided to stay in Novigrad?” Eskel asks as gently as he can. “It’s a good city for bards.”
Geralt’s jaw clenches. “He’d write to me, Esk. He wouldn’t just disappear. Jaskier isn’t like that.”
“Okay.” Eskel nods slowly. “But why come to me? If you’re looking for an in with the city guard, I’m not your man. Mages aren’t popular with the Eternal Fire.”
“You were the golden child of the Brotherhood. Thought if anyone could help me, it’d be you.”
“Not anymore.” Eskel gestures around. “I mostly sell tonic for gout these days.”
Geralt looks at him with worried eyes and Eskel knows that he’s not going to be able to deny the other man anything. “I don’t know where else to go. I can’t go home knowing Jaskier might be hurt.”
Eskel sighs. He has no business getting involved with this. He’s a shopkeeper; missing persons cases are not his forte. But Geralt clearly loves this Jaskier and Eskel can’t bear to see him hurting. Geralt has been through enough; he doesn’t need any more heartbreak. “Do you have something of his?”
Geralt reaches into his satchel and withdraws a doublet of shimmering green satin. “This is his favorite.”
Eskel takes it from him. He can smell the faintest traces of honeysuckle on it. “I’ll see what I can do. Flip the closed sign, will you?”
Geralt smiles at him then, a real smile, and Eskel feels his heart swoop in his chest. Forty-two years, three months, and seventeen days, and he will still do anything for that smile.
Julian isn’t used to moving through the world as a witcher. Quite literally; he keeps hitting his head when he walks through doorways and knocking people over with his shoulders. He forgot just how large he is without his glamour; it’s quite unwieldy. As Jaskier, he’s used to people smiling at him when he walks into a room. He’s used to admiring glances or people brightening at the sight of his lute. He’s not used to the stench of fear that follows him as he walks down the street of Novigrad, the looks of mingled disdain and horror thrown his way.
He ducks into an alleyway and slips the sapphire ring he keeps in his pocket onto the middle finger of his right hand. Immediately, he shrinks, his shoulders and hips narrowing, his fingers becoming long and delicate, his hair turning from white to brown and his eyes from yellow and slit-pupiled to blue. Jaskier turns his doublet inside out, replacing the black side with a more bard-appropriate bright red, then pats himself down to make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be, fingers lingering on his unscarred face.
“Hello, old friend,” he says and then knocks on the door in front of him three times.
“Who is it?” a nervous voice calls.
Jaskier sighs. “It’s Jaskier.”
“That’s exactly what a murderer would say.”
“No, a murderer would probably tell you they were Priscilla. You’re more likely to let her in.”
“Pris is already here.”
“And if I were a murderer, wouldn’t I already know that?”
On the other side of the door, Dudu is quiet.
“Just open the damn door, Dudu,” Jaskier says.
Dudu opens the door. Today, they’re in the guise of a nondescript, sandy-haired man with a long, thin nose. This morning, they were a statuesque redheaded woman. They have a tendency to change bodies frequently when they’re nervous, and they’ve had a lot to be nervous about lately.
“Where’s Pris?” Jaskier asks.
“She’s in the other room.” Dudu locks the door behind them and shoves a chair under the door handle. “Any news?”
Jaskier shakes his head. “Spent all day in the sewers. Didn’t find anything but a zeugl and a couple of drowners.”
“No sign of Valdo?”
“No,” Jaskier says with a sigh. “No sign of Valdo. Though he is a siren, so I doubt he’d willingly go anywhere near water as filthy as what’s in the sewers.”
It’s been a month since he received the frantic missive from Valdo. Someone is following me, Julian, and I fear that I may be the Culler’s next victim. I wake up in the middle of the night, sure that there was just someone standing over me. I can feel eyes on the back of my neck while I play. There are footsteps that echo mine as I walk home at night. I may be losing my mind. I pray to all the gods that I’m losing my mind.
Valdo has always been the dramatic sort, as most bards are, so when Jaskier came to Novigrad to check up on him, he was half-convinced that he’d find nothing amiss. Instead, he found a trashed apartment, a bloody handprint on the wall, the smell of salty terror heavy in the air. The freshness of the blood and the fear was the worst part. If Jaskier was just a little bit faster, if he hadn’t lingered to give Geralt just one more kiss—
But he can’t think about Geralt right now, not when he’s moving through the world as Julian the witcher more and more.
Priscilla slips out of the bedroom, pale and drawn. She’s not wearing her own glamour and her hooves clomp hollowly on the wooden floor. The succubus’ eyes land on Jaskier, and then flicker past him and Dudu, as if looking for the person that should be there. When she doesn’t find Valdo, she seems to shrink on herself a bit. “No luck?” she asks, no trace of hope in her voice.
“Not today,” Jaskier tells her gently. “But there’s always tomorrow.”
Priscilla’s lips press together. It would be easier, Jaskier thinks, if she were weepy. There’s nothing he can do for this stony despair. “It’s been over a month, Julek. If he were coming home, he already would have.”
“I told you I would bring him home, Pris,” Jaskier says. “And I’m going to.”
Priscilla glances at Dudu, then at Jaskier. “Zoltan and his family are leaving Novigrad at the end of the month. He asked Dudu and I if we wanted to go with him. We’re going to do it.”
Jaskier looks between them. “But you’ve lived here for years.”
Priscilla shrugs. “I’m not like Dudu, I can’t change shapes. People were going to notice eventually that I look far too young for a woman my age. And between the Culler and the Eternal Fire, Novigrad isn’t safe for us anymore. Anyway, it doesn’t feel like a home without Valdo.”
She looks away and Jaskier’s heart aches at the tragedy of it— two people who have loved each other for decades, but never quite worked up the nerve to tell each other, and now it may be too late.
Jaskier tries not to think of Geralt, because it’s not too late for him and his druid. He should write, he knows, but what would it say? Dear Geralt, I know your life’s work is devoted to preserving life and it turns out that I’m secretly a creature whose very creed is devoted to snuffing it out, including that leshen you’ve befriended. By the way, I fell in love with you the instant I learned you were the kind of madman who befriends leshens.
Jaskier pushes Geralt firmly out of his mind. “If Valdo is out there, I’ll find him.”
“I know, Julek.” A small, sad smile flickers across her face. “The problem is, I don’t think he is out there.”
Jaskier leaves Priscilla and Dudu’s home with a melancholy cloud hanging over his head. He walks back to the inn where he’s staying as Jaskier— there are no rooms in this city for Julian of Lettenhove, but plenty for Jaskier the bard. There’s only one thing to do when he feels like this, so he grabs his lute and heads down to the tavern to play. He sits in the corner and plays upbeat drinking songs, trying to soak up the energy of the crowd.
He’s halfway through his third song when he hears a hiss of, “Witcher!” His head jerks up, expecting to find that something has gone wrong with his glamour and now it’s hulking, scarred Julian playing to the crowd. But instead, he sees a slender, cloaked figure slipping through the crowd. He catches a glimpse of black and silver armor, long raven hair, a cat’s head medallion glittering around her neck. His mouth goes dry as she reaches the bar. Even if there were an abundance of female witchers on the Continent, he would know that walk anywhere.
“There aren’t any rooms for the likes of you here, witcheress,” the barmaid snaps.
Yennefer of Vengerberg draws back her hood and glares at the barmaid with slit-pupiled violet eyes. “I wouldn’t stay at this dump if it were the last inn on the Continent. Just give me a fucking ale.”
“Tell me about Jaskier,” Eskel says as he moves around the one-room apartment above his shop. It’s still so odd to see Eskel in this modest space with its single window, when Geralt has been picturing him in the glittering Kaedweni court, surrounded by courtiers, for all these years.
Geralt runs his fingers over the silky material of Jaskier’s doublet. Even after a month, it still smells a little bit like him and he has to stop himself from burying his face in it and inhaling. “He’s from Lettenhove. Don’t think he gets along with his family, though, he never talks about them. Says he went to Oxenfurt.”
“Says?” Eskel looks up at him sharply. “You don’t believe him?”
Geralt shrugs. “He walks around with a glamour. It’s hard to say.”
Someday, he likes to think Jaskier would have trusted him with the story of his past, but now he may never know. Geralt holds the doublet a little tighter. “He’s loud. The loudest person you’ll ever meet. Never stops talking. It drove me crazy at first. But he’s funny. He’s kind. He tries to act the idiot, but he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
“Sounds like a good man,” Eskel says, voice perfectly neutral.
“One of the best I’ve ever met.”
Eskel approaches Geralt and kneels down in front of him. Geralt’s eyes flicker to his scars, then away. They’re vicious, traveling down the length of the right side of his face. One notches his lip up at the corner, exposing a glint of teeth. Geralt wonders who could have done such a thing to sweet, gentle Eskel, and then remembers that Eskel was a court mage. Sweetness and gentleness don’t last at court; Geralt learned that the hard way.
“He’s a mage,” his mother warned him a hundred times. “Nothing is real with them. It’s all magic and illusions.”
And Geralt didn’t listen to her, because he was sixteen and in love and nothing mattered to him but the way Eskel’s hazel eyes lit up when Geralt walked into a room or the way he laughed.
“We’re going to try one more thing,” Eskel says.
Geralt nods and goes to put the doublet into the circle in front of him. They’ve already tried three tracking spells and nothing has worked.
“No, hold onto it this time.” Eskel pushes it back into his hands. “I think the problem is that Jaskier might like this doublet, but his emotional attachment to it isn’t strong enough.”
“And you think me holding it will help?”
“Can’t hurt. Think of Jaskier.”
Geralt closes his eyes and thinks of blue eyes and a beaming smile. He thinks of quick, dexterous fingers and lips pressed gently against the hollow of his throat. He thinks of the way Jaskier’s hands move when he talks and the outraged little “oh” his lips form when Geralt makes a joke at his expense. He thinks of the lean, soft length of a body pressed up against his at night, the way Jaskier curls around him while they sleep, almost protectively. After things fell apart with Eskel, Geralt thought he would spend his life alone, and then Jaskier came waltzing in with his lute and his brightly-colored doublets and changed everything.
He can feel the chaos flowing across his skin and he allows his heart to lift with hope. Maybe this will be the spell that brings Jaskier back to him.
The chaos dies in the air and Eskel says, “I’m sorry, Geralt.”
Geralt lets the doublet slide to the ground, not opening his eyes. “Why isn’t it working?”
“It could be that it’s been too long since he wore this doublet. Could be that he’s somewhere warded against tracking spells. Or…” Eskel trails off.
“Or he could be dead.”
“Don’t think like that.”
“Hard not to. It’s been a month.” Geralt doesn’t want to contemplate a world without Jaskier’s laughter, his light, his effortless warmth.
Eskel is quiet for a minute. “Do you have somewhere to stay for the night?”
Gerald nods. “The Kingfisher.”
“Good. Go back and get some rest. Tomorrow, we can poke around, ask some questions.” Geralt is surprised by the familiar feel of Eskel’s hand gripping his, calloused fingertips stroking his palm. “We’re going to find your bard, Geralt.”
After a day spent traipsing through a sewer, unsuccessfully looking for a zeugl, all Yennefer wants is to drink her ale in peace. She finds a table in the corner with only one chair and settles down, ignoring the glares and mutterings of the other tavern patrons. It’s early enough in the evening that no one is likely to be drunk and stupid enough to start a fight with a witcher.
Yennefer has just taken her first sip of ale, which surprisingly doesn’t have any spit in it, when someone drags up a second chair and plops down into it.
“Well, hello there,” the young man says. “While I hate to interrupt a good brooding session, I—”
“What part of me sitting alone at a table in a corner with only one chair made you think I wanted conversation, bard?” Yennefer flicks a dismissive glance over him— brown hair, big blue eyes, baby face, an offensively yellow doublet and breeches. She knows the type well, soft little lordlings who think they’re going to save her from the scary life of being a witcher. She has no time for it.
“Absolutely nothing,” the bard says cheerfully. “But I’ve never let that stop me. What brings you to Novigrad, Yennefer?”
Yennefer freezes with her tankard of ale halfway to her lips. “How do you know my name?”
“Well, there aren’t many female witchers out there, are there? And only one I’ve ever heard of with raven black hair and violet eyes. You’re Yennefer of Vengerberg.” When she doesn’t react, he adds, “My name is Jaskier the Bard, master of the seven—”
“I don’t care.”
“My lady wounds me.”
“I’m not your lady. Go away.”
“Bard!” someone shouts from across the room. “Are you going to keep playing, or hang around to get your balls torn off by that beast?”
Yennefer flashes her sweetest smile at the heckler, displaying her too-sharp teeth. The man is smart enough to go pale. To Jaskier, she says, “You should listen to that charming gentleman, bard. Go sing your little love songs.”
“Oh, Yenna, I know you wouldn’t tear my balls off. You’ve had plenty of chances, after all.”
Yennefer stares at him. There aren’t many people who call her Yenna, besides Aiden, Gaeten, and Dragonfly. Something about the tilt of the bard’s head and his cocky grin puts her in mind of someone else, someone she hasn’t seen in over a decade. The pieces click into place. “ Julian ?”
That smile widens. “Oh, good, I was hoping you’d recognize me.”
She leans across the table, peering into those blue eyes. The face shape is similar, as is the smile, but everything about the bard is smaller, more delicate. It must be a good glamour; her medallion isn’t even vibrating. “What the fuck?”
“I know this must be a shock—”
“You asshole,” she growls. “I thought you were dead. I looked for you after Lyria.”
“Well, in my defense, my dear Yenna, I never expected you to look for me.” His eyes hold little humor as he smiles at her. “You leaving me unconscious in a healer’s bed gave me the distinct impression that you wanted nothing to do with me. Not that I could blame you.”
“What happened with Queen Kalis wasn’t your fault,” Yennefer says.
He shrugs. “Agree to disagree.”
“I even hired a mage to track you.”
“I spent a small fortune on a ring to repel tracking spells.” He taps an emerald ring on his left index finger. “Worth every penny.”
“And probably another small fortune on that glamour too.”
“Oh no, that was a large fortune.”
“ Take it off.”
“I’m flattered, and I have so missed our time together, but my heart is spoken for these days, my dear.”
Yennefer ignores the pang in her chest. “Your glamour, you ass.”
“Ah.” Julian looks around with obvious trepidation. “I have a room upstairs, but I don’t think I’ll be able to keep said room if the proprietress learns that I’m anything but Jaskier the human bard.”
“Let’s go then.” Yennefer rises to her feet, ale forgotten.
Several people catcall as she trails Jaskier— or Julian — upstairs to his room. As soon as she closes the door behind them, he slips off the sapphire ring on his middle finger and instantly morphs into the white-haired witcher she knew so well all the years ago, still as bright-eyed and baby-faced as anyone can be when they’re roughly the size of a small ox. Yennefer tries not to visibly wince at the scars left by the krallach’s acidic venom, which start right under his left ear and span down his jaw and the side of his neck.
“It’s a good glamour,” she says. “Works on your clothes too, I see.”
“I had to go back later and get that added on. I kept ripping all my best doublets when I went from Jaskier to Julian.”
“Can’t have that,” Yennefer says. “Why are you walking around dressed as a bard?”
Julian’s lips twitch. “You were the one who always said I was a poor excuse for a witcher. I’m a far better bard.”
“That’s not saying much.” They met Julian’s first year on the Path, when he was still an idiot Bear cub who could barely brew a decent batch of Swallow. Every Bear Yennefer had ever met before Julian had been a miserable, solitary bastard and bright, effusive Julian was nothing like his schoolmates. Sometimes, Yennefer wondered if that’s why his instructors had sent him out so woefully unprepared for the Path. Maybe they hadn’t wanted such an odd Bear to survive his first year. And he wouldn’t have, had he not attached himself to Yennefer.
“If I ever meet one of your instructors, I’m going to feed them to a grave hag,” she would tell him every time he showed a lack of knowledge that any first year trainee should know. Julian would always laugh delightedly. She doesn’t think he ever knew just how serious she was.
Yennefer loved the idiot, right up until she failed him miserably in Lyria. After that, she didn’t feel like she deserved his bright smiles and easy affection, so she walked away. She’s regretted it every since.
“Why are you in Novigrad?” Julian asks her. “You hate this place.”
“There was a contract for a zeugl, but I couldn’t find the ugly fucker,” Yennefer says with a shrug.
Julian sniffs. “Ah, that’s why you smell slightly less delightful than normal.”
“You might be the size of a house, but I can still kick your ass.”
He chuckles. “Can’t argue with that, Yenna. And I didn’t realize there was a contract for the zeugl. More’s the pity.”
“You’re the one who killed it?” She arches an eyebrow at him.
“Don’t look so surprised. I am a witcher, your opinion of my talents notwithstanding. I can bring you to the corpse tomorrow, if you’d like.”
“We’ll see.” Yennefer really doesn’t feel like going back into the sewers, especially not for only a hundred crowns. “Why are you in Novigrad? The Eternal Fire isn’t fond of bards any more than they’re fond of witchers.”
The amusement in Julian’s expression abruptly dies. “I fear my friend, Valdo, may have fallen prey to the Culler. He’s half-siren, you see. He sent me a letter expressing fears that he was being stalked. When I reached Novigrad, it was too late. I’m trying to find him.”
“If the Culler has him, he’s dead,” Yennefer says bluntly. “Whatever they’re doing to their victims, no one’s come back, dead or alive.”
“Either way, his loved ones deserve answers.”
“Hunting down serial killers isn’t typical witchers’ work.”
“Well, I’m not a typical witcher, like you enjoy reminding me.”
“I’ve heard rumors that the Culler is working for the Eternal Fire.” Yennefer takes a step towards him. “Trust me, Julek, that’s not a fight you’re going to win. Get out of Novigrad and find somewhere else to mourn your friend.”
“I can’t leave the city until I know what’s happened to him.”
Of course he can’t. Loyal to a fault, Yennefer’s idiot Bear cub. He should have been a Wolf. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Maybe, but I hope I’ll bring the Culler down with me.” He reaches out to take her wrist in his enormous hand, his grip painfully gentle. “I really could use some help here.”
“I’m a witcher. My job is to slay monsters, not hunt down killers.”
“What’s more monstrous than someone snatching dozens of innocent people from their homes? The halfling that vanished the other day is only fourteen. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of letting children die.”
“Don’t,” Yennefer growls, remembering a tiny, silk-wrapped figure dead in the snow.
“Sorry.” Julian grimaces. “I’ve just been at this for a month and haven’t found any hint of what’s going on. The non-humans don’t trust Jaskier because he’s too human and they don’t trust Julian because he’s too…” He gestures at himself.
“And you think I’ll be a reassuring presence for terrified elves and dopplers? You think I’ll set them at ease with my gentle, womanly nature?”
“Fuck, no. I just think you’re part elf. They’re more likely to trust you than me.”
That is a good point.
“I need help, Yenna,” he says and fuck. Yennefer tries to tell herself that Julian isn’t her responsibility. He isn’t one of her fellow Cats. They haven’t been friends or lovers in over a decade. But in the ten years they knew each other, Yennefer dragged him out of more bad situations than she can count. It would be a shame to let all that hard work go to waste.
And though she hates to admit it, she’s missed him.
“Fine,” she growls. “I’ll stay for a day or two, see if I can help you find anything. But if the Culler is Eternal Fire, you’re on your own. I’m not dealing with that shit.”
She already knows that she’s going to regret this.
There’s no reason for Eskel to be so nervous when he meets Geralt outside the Kingfisher Inn the next morning, fresh from the bathhouse and wearing his nicest pair of breeches and one of his few shirts without any burn marks on the sleeves or stains. It’s not like this is a romantic outing; he’s helping Geralt search Novigrad for his lover . But it’s hard to remember when Geralt steps outside, looking as lovely as ever. Eskel’s heart aches at the sight of him. Even before he got his scars, Eskel could never match Geralt’s good looks.
“Morning,” he says, hoping none of his feelings show on his face.
Geralt nods a greeting. “I was thinking we could start with the taverns, see if Jaskier performed at any of them before he went missing. He’s mentioned some friends too, Priscilla and Valdo. I think they may be bards too.”
“Lots of taverns in this city,” Eskel says.
“Then one of them is bound to remember Jaskier. He’s memorable.”
It turns out that that isn’t the case.
“Lots of bards come through here,” the barkeep at the first place they stop says. “Everyone comes to Novigrad, thinking they’re going to be famous.”
“This one has brown hair and blue eyes,” Geralt says. “His name’s Jaskier.”
The barkeep shrugs. “Don’t remember him.”
“What about Valdo and Priscilla?”
That earns Geralt another shrug. “Don’t bother learning the bards’ names, not usually. They all go home after a few years when they realize there’s nothing but pox and rats here.”
It isn’t until the fourth tavern that the cheerful dwarf proprietress says, “Oh, Valdo and Priscilla! They were a lovely double act. Such a shame, what happened to Valdo.”
Eskel exchanges looks with Geralt. “What happened to Valdo?”
“He was taken by the Culler, or so they say. I haven’t seen him or Priscilla since last month.”
“Did they ever have a third bard with them?” Geralt asks. “Brown hair, blue eyes, named Jaskier?”
“Oh, yes.” The woman smiles, a fond glint in her eye. “He used to play with them quite often. Charming lad, but Priscilla told me he’d left Novigrad a few years back. Found love up north somewhere.”
Geralt closes his eyes. “So you haven’t seen him recently?”
“Oh no, not in years. A shame. He has a beautiful voice.”
“Any idea where we can find Priscilla?” Eskel asks.
He knows it was a mistake as soon as the woman’s expression shutters. “I don’t,” she says coldly.
Eskel takes a brief peek into her mind, just long enough to see that she’s telling the truth. As they leave the tavern, he says, “If Valdo disappeared around a month ago, that’s when Jaskier came to Novigrad, right? Think he came to town because something happened to his friend?”
“Then why wouldn’t he tell me?”
“I don’t know.” Eskel shoots his old friend a sidelong glance. “Were things… alright between the two of you?”
“Jaskier didn’t leave me,” Geralt says firmly. “Or if he was, he would tell me that that was what he was doing. He wouldn’t just vanish.”
“Of course.” Eskel glances away.
“Things were always easy with Jask.” A wistful note enters his voice. “There weren’t any lies or any bullshit. We just fit together.”
“Not like with you,” he doesn’t say, but Eskel can hear the unspoken words.
Eskel hesitates, but he’s been waiting over forty-two years to make this apology and there’s no time like the present. “I’m sorry for what happened after I went to Kaedwen. I’m not proud of the man I became when I was at court. I let power get to my head and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
Geralt is staring straight ahead, not looking at Eskel. “You were young and stupid. We both were.”
“Doesn’t make it okay.”
Geralt is quiet for a moment. “Why’d you leave Kaedwen? Didn’t think that was an option for you.”
Eskel has really been hoping that Geralt wouldn’t ask him about that, but his old friend deserves an answer. “The king of Kaedwen asked me to do something reprehensible. I did a lot of things in his service I’m not proud of, but this crossed every line I know of. I told him no and he had me punished.”
Geralt’s gaze flickers to his scars.
“Kings don’t like being refused.” Eskel shrugs. “The Brotherhood told me that I should have done what the king asked. That was my job, after all, and the person he wanted me to hurt wasn’t politically significant. I couldn’t stay in Kaedwen and I couldn’t go back to Ban Ard after that. So I left. Started a new life here.”
For several long moments, Geralt says nothing. “I’m sorry.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“For what it’s worth,” Geralt says hesitantly. “I think life in a herbalist’s shop suits you more than court ever did.”
Eskel lets the unscarred corner of his lips quirk up at that, because it’s true. Despite having to sell spoiled little pissants fake love potions and being asked to examine a frightening number of boils—despite his frequent insistence that he’s not a doctor—he’s happier here. He’s built a nice little life for himself in Novigrad.
“Come on, we’re near The Rosemary & Thyme,” he says. “I know lots of bards like playing there.”
The barmaid of The Rosemary & Thyme, a no-nonsense, stocky blonde, won’t answer any of their questions unless they both purchase an ale. Once she’s pocketed their coin, she says, “Who are you looking for?”
“Jaskier.” Geralt hasn’t even touched his ale. “Brown hair—”
“I know Jaskier. He’s been staying here since Belleteyn.”
Geralt’s eyes go wide. “Is he alright?”
“Oh, he’s right as rain, lucky for him. He invited a witcher up to his room last night, the little fool. Gave him a talking to this morning and he told me witchers are no more or less dangerous than anyone else.” She snorts disdainfully.
Geralt’s face goes horribly and abruptly blank. Eskel’s heart sinks. He’s only seen that expression once, on the night Geralt told Eskel he didn’t want to see him anymore.
“Is he staying here alone?” Eskel asks. For Geralt’s sake, he almost hopes Jaskier is being held here under duress.
“Yes,” the barmaid says, already turning away.
“And he doesn’t seem to be in distress?”
She snorts. “Hardly. Only when he gets booed off stage for singing too many sad love songs.”
Eskel opens his mouth to ask another question, but Geralt is already pushing himself to his feet. Without another word, the druid rushes out of the tavern.
The door slams in Yennefer’s face so hard that she takes a step back. Turning to Julian with a raised eyebrow, she says, “So glad that my part-elf nature could help you.”
Julian grimaces. “Like I had, the non-humans in this city are on edge.”
“On edge” isn’t what Yennefer would call the enraged mother of the young halfling who vanished only three days before, not that she can blame the woman. “This is a waste of time, Julian. We’ve been at this all day.”
“You’re not giving up yet, Yenna. I’ve been at this a month, you’ve only been doing this for a few hours. And I already told you, it’s Jaskier when I’m like this.” He gestures to his glamoured form.
Yennefer has a half dozen other things she’d rather call Jul— no, Jaskier, but she refrains. “Do you have any leads at all?”
“Not a one.” His lips twist into a grimace. “Like I said last night, I need help.”
A window above them opens and Jaskier yanks Yennefer out of the way right before a chamber pot is emptied right where she was just standing.
Yennefer wrinkles her nose at the mess. “You know, none of these people you’re trying to help would piss on a witcher if we were on fire.”
“Valdo would.” Jaskier gives her a surprisingly flinty-eyed look. “And since when do witchers do what we do for the gratitude?”
He makes a shockingly good point. “Where to next?” Yennefer asks in lieu of admitting that.
“There’s a brothel a few streets over where two succubi have vanished. I’ve already been there to check it out, but maybe you’ll see something I missed.”
“Doubtful,” Yennefer grumbles, but follows him anyway.
They find nothing at the brothel, or at the shop of the dwarven cobbler who vanished, or from the sobbing husband of a young woman who recently went missing. They’re just leaving the unfortunate couple’s home when Yennefer hears a male voice call, “Geralt!”
She wouldn’t pay it any mind, if not from the way Jaskier whirls around, eyes going wide. On the other side of the street, a large, dark-haired man with a scarred face is hurrying after a redheaded man. The redhead is admittedly pretty, tall and well-built with a chiseled jaw and an adorable smattering of freckles, but the way Jaskier stares at him in open-mouthed astonishment is a bit much.
“Focus, Jaskier,” she says, choosing not to examine her reflexive jolt of irritation.
“That’s Geralt.” He sounds strangled. “My lover.”
“Oh.” Yennefer… doesn’t know how she feels about that. She knew Julian had a lover; he said as much last night. He’s probably taken many lovers in the years since they parted ways, just as she has. There’s no reason for jealousy to curdle in her belly.
“I don’t know why he’s here,” Jaskier whispers, sounding a little frantic. “He’s a druid. He hates cities.”
“You’re fucking a druid? ”
Jaskier swells in indignation. “It’s not just fucking, Yenna. Geralt is half my heart. We love each other, body and— oh, fuck, he can’t see me here.” Seizing her by the arm, he drags her into an alleyway, out of sight of Geralt and the other man.
“Maybe it’s a misunderstanding,” Yennefer hears the scarred man say gently. “Maybe his letter telling you he was staying in Novigrad for a bit got lost in the mail.”
Yennefer turns to Jaskier with a raised eyebrow. “You didn’t tell him you were staying in Novigrad?”
“Or maybe I’m a fucking idiot, Eskel,” Geralt growls. “I’ve spent the last month worried he was dead. I kept picturing him burned alive by Eternal Fire fanatics or chained up in a dungeon. I thought he was scared and alone somewhere and it turns out, he’s living the life of a traveling bard in Novigrad and fucking witchers.”
“We don’t know that.”
Jaskier leans his forehead against the grimy brick wall of the alleyway. “ Fuck. ”
“If he’s half your heart, why didn’t you tell him what was going on?” Yennefer asks.
“Because when he fell in love with me, he thought I was a normal bard. And he’s a druid. He’s all about life and preserving nature, and my calling is guts and ichor. I don’t know if he’ll want me if he learns the truth, Yenna, and I can’t bear to lose him.”
“And you think you won’t lose him after vanishing to Novigrad for a month without so much as a note?”
“I didn’t think I’d be here this long.”
“Well, apparently he now thinks you were one of the Culler’s victims.”
“But my glamour!”
“You really think a druid couldn’t tell that someone’s using a glamour?”
Jaskier thunks his head against the wall and curses.
“I always knew this was going to happen.” Geralt’s voice is bleak. “Jaskier’s a bard. His life is music and joy. He belongs in courts, singing for royals. I’m just a druid. All I have is my cottage in the woods. It was never going to be enough for him. Wasn’t enough for you.”
“Geralt, you’ve always been enough for me,” Eskel says.
Yennefer peers around the edge of the wall to see Geralt and Eskel standing together, foreheads leaned against each other. Eskel has the back of Geralt’s neck cupped in one comforting hand. “Well, I’m not sure who that is, but he seems to be comforting your lover for you.”
Jaskier makes a pained noise. “I don’t know who he is, but he’s gorgeous.”
Yennefer can’t help but agree. She can appreciate a fine pair of shoulders and an even finer ass, and both men have those in spares.
“Come on, let’s go back to my shop.” Eskel’s voice is so low, that Yennefer almost can’t hear it over the other noises of the busy city street. “I’ll make some supper. We can open a bottle of mead.”
Geralt nods silently and the two men turn and walk away.
Yennefer looks at Jaskier. “Well, you’ve fucked up.”
Jaskier groans. “I well and truly have.”
Geralt should head back to the Kingfisher Inn after leaving Eskel’s shop later that evening, but his feet carry him back to The Rosemary & Thyme. It’s a different barmaid than the one he and Eskel spoke to that morning and when he asks her if she’s seen Jaskier, she just shakes her head and tells him that the bard isn’t there tonight. Geralt has no appetite, but he orders a tankard of ale and a bowl of stew and retreats to a table in the corner. He needs to see Jaskier with his own two eyes and reassure himself that the man he loves is truly okay before he returns to his cottage alone.
He ignores the ache in his chest at the idea of returning home alone. The smell of Jaskier has faded from his sheets by now, but there will still be hints of him around the cottage. His second-best lute, which he keeps at Geralt’s for safekeeping. A couple of torn-out pages of discarded lyrics that Geralt hasn’t been able to throw away. The green doublet that he left in his hurry to get to Novigrad. That may be all Geralt ever has left of him.
Geralt sits there for a long time, until his stew has gone cold and the barmaid has started giving him suspicious looks and murmuring to the burly man charged with tossing out unruly patrons. Geralt is suddenly exhausted. Exhausted from being in the city, so far away from nature— and really, would it kill them to tear down one of the thousand fucking taverns and plant a few trees? Exhausted from a month of being afraid for Jaskier. Exhausted from a day spent in the company of his first love, who is somehow as appealing as he was four decades ago. Exhausted from the sudden, excruciating knowledge that his heart is about to be broken all over again.
Geralt throws a couple of crowns down on the table and leaves, keeping his head low as he makes his way down the street. It’s started to rain and he didn’t bring a cloak, but he hardly notices that fat, cold raindrops splattering on his face.
A hand wraps around his upper arm. Before Geralt can open his mouth to shout, he’s yanked into an alleyway. Out of the glow of the torches lighting the street, he can’t see whoever’s grabbed him, but he hears rough raspy breathing. He’s slammed up against a wall, hard enough that all the breath is knocked out of his lungs. Geralt isn’t a small man and he can hold his own in a fight. He swings blindly at his attacker, but it’s like his fist passes through air.
“A druid,” a voice hisses in his ear. “Far away from your forest, aren’t you?”
Cold spreads through Geralt because this thing is right. There’s no nature to draw on here, save for the few weeds poking through the cobblestones. He’s as powerless as a human here. “What do you want?” he asks. There’s no point shouting for help. Why endanger an innocent bystander who might come running?
Something traces along his throat. It’s shaped like a finger, but it feels nothing like human skin. “To add a druid to my collection, of course.”
There isn’t a lot that frightens Geralt. He knows that many of the creatures that terrify other men— leshen and griffins and kikimores— are just animals like any other. The deep, dark woods hold no fear for him; when he’s there, men aren’t dangerous to him. The trees will defend him from anything that wants to harm him. But right now, he’s far from home and alone, pinned against a wall by something he can’t see or fight, and he can feel the fear gripping his heart.
“I’m not for your collection,” he growls, hiding terror with anger.
“You have no power here, and your mage friend isn’t here to save you. I’ve been following you all day. I know there’s no one coming for you. Not the mage who gave you up for power and not the bard who gave you up for music.”
Geralt closes his eyes. Fuck, he should have stayed with Eskel. He should have stayed home.
There’s a noise at the end of the alleyway. He feels, rather than sees, his captor turn to look. And then there’s a burst of fire that illuminates the alley. Geralt blinks at the sight of the thing in front of him. It’s man-shaped, but nothing but shadow. There are no features to its face— no nose, no eyes, just blankness. It shrieks and throws up an arm to shield eyes that aren’t there from the dancing flames, letting go of Geralt to reel backwards.
Geralt glances towards the source of the flames, eyes going wide. Standing there is the largest man he’s ever seen, white-haired and scarred. A witcher, Geralt realizes, taking in the slit-pupiled yellow eyes and the sign he’s holding in the air.
Something moves above him and he looks up in time to see a smaller, slighter figure leap from the rooftop. The person leaps onto the shadowy figure and a blade slices through the air. The shadow dissolves as soon as the sword touches it. The second person turns and Geralt gets the briefest glimpse of a beautiful woman with raven hair and slit-pupiled violet eyes before the flames die and the alleyway plunges into darkness.
“What the fuck was that?” the female witcher demands.
“Some kind of spell, I think,” the male witcher says, voice very close to Geralt. A hand touches Geralt’s shoulder and he can’t stop himself from flinching. “Hey, it’s okay now. You’re safe.”
Something about that voice is familiar, though Geralt knows he’s never met this man. He’s only met one witcher before, a scowly redheaded Wolf who tried to take on Geralt’s leshen and had a bad time of it. Geralt sent him on his way after several days of healing, largely in one piece. “Thank you,” he says hoarsely.
“Of course,” the witcher says, his enormous hand a comforting weight on Geralt’s shoulder. “Let’s get you somewhere safe, Geralt.”
Geralt is too rattled to realize that he never gave the witcher his name.
Julian is furious as he and Yennefer escort Geralt back to his friend, Eskel’s, shop. Furious at the shadow creature just tried to snatch the man he loves off the streets. Furious at whoever sent it to add Geralt to their collection. Furious at himself, because Geralt wouldn’t even be in Novigrad if it weren’t for him. Furious at Eskel for being the first person that Geralt wants to turn to after nearly being kidnapped.
But mostly really, really furious at himself. Geralt is right next to him, clearly shaken, the smell of his fear diminished but not gone. This is the moment that Julian should slip his glamoured ring back on and confess everything. He should get down on his knees and beg for Geralt’s forgiveness, tell him he loves him, tell him that he’ll never leave him again once he gets this Culler business sorted out. But he can’t, because he’s a fucking coward.
Bears don’t go feral, not like Cats do. Julian only saw Yennefer go feral once, when the krallach had him pinned down, its venom dripping down his face, burning him, and its scythe-like legs about to eviscerate him. She tore the beast apart with her bare hands without even seeming to notice the assassin dispatching Queen Kalis and her babe. Right now, Julian can almost understand what it was like for her. The memory of Geralt pinned and frightened is enough to make him feel a little feral.
When they get to Eskel’s shop, the door swings open before Geralt even knocks. Eskel stands there, looking sleep-rumpled but still devastatingly handsome, and Julian hates him a little. And also wants to climb him like a tree, just a bit. It’s a complicated mixture of emotions. When Eskel sees Geralt standing between two witchers, his eyes go wide.
“What happened?” he demands, stepping forward to grab Geralt by the shoulders, looking him up and down. “I could feel the magical residue on you from up the street.”
Ah, so Eskel is a mage, though he lacks the eerie perfection of most mages. It’s an improvement, in Julian’s opinion.
“The Culler happened,” Geralt says. “Or some kind of shadow creature sent by it.”
Eskel looks at Yennefer and Julian with a question in his eyes.
“This is Julian and Yennefer,” Geralt says. “They saved my life.”
“Happy to help.” Julian ducks into an awkward little bow, remembering halfway through that he’s a witcher and not a bard right now. Witchers don’t bow. This is the part where he should be making his excuses to slip away. Geralt is safe with Eskel and the longer Julian is here, the more likely he is to out himself as Jaskier.
But Yennefer steps forward, violet gaze intent on Eskel. “It seems like we have an enemy in common. The Culler.”
Yennefer can be a little shit sometimes. Julian really doesn’t know why he’s still a bit in love with her after all these years.
“What business do you have with the Culler?” Eskel asks in a guarded voice.
“Whoever they are, they’re a monster,” Yennefer says. “We hunt those. What business do a mage and a druid have with them?”
Eskel glances at Geralt. “We thought they’d taken a friend of Geralt’s. We were mistaken, but now that he’s come after Geralt…” The mage’s mild expression twists into a snarl. “Well, now I’m going to kill the bastard.”
“Fantastic, we agree on something.” Yennefer saunters into the shop without waiting for an invitation. “Let’s talk. A mage’s help could be useful.”
Julian bites back the reminder that Yennefer didn’t even plan on staying in the city past tomorrow if they had no new leads on the Culler. That plan seems to have gone by the wayside as soon as an opportunity to fuck with Julian arose. He really isn’t sure why he adores her so much.
“You said that there’s still residue on Geralt,” Yennefer says to Eskel, either oblivious to Julian’s distress or choosing to ignore it. “Can you use it to track whoever sent the shadow creature?”
“I could try,” Eskel says. His hands still haven’t left Geralt’s shoulders. Julian sees the moment he realizes he’s still touching Geralt; he jumps back as though burned.
“Good, then let’s get to it.”
“Uh, okay.” Eskel looks a little dazed, a common expression on people when they’re around Yennefer.
The four of them make their way into the shop, which is small and smells strongly of herbs. The shelves are lined with an assortment of charms and trinkets and Julian’s medallion hums as he makes his way inside. He positions himself by the door— better to keep watch from here, he tells himself— and watches as Eskel directs Geralt to sit down, then hurries to get the tracking spell together. For her part, Yennefer paces through the shop, pretending to be idly looking at the charms, when Julian knows she’s taking in every detail of the surroundings.
“School of the Cat?” Eskel asks her as he bustles about.
She flashes him a too-toothy smile. “What of it?”
“I used to work for the King of Kaedwen. He had one of your brothers on retainer.”
“Contracts on men tend to pay better than contracts on monsters,” she says with a shrug. “But you have no reason to fear me, mage. I don’t kill people for free.”
Eskel doesn’t look mollified.
“I’ve known Yennefer for twenty years,” Julian tells him. “I’ve only known her to kill people who deserve it.”
“Who decides who deserves it?”
“I don’t know,” Yennefer says, smile only growing more razor-sharp. “When you were the court mage of Kaedwen, how did you decide who deserved it?”
Eskel ducks his head, conceding the point, as he sets up a circle of crystals around Geralt. “This might feel a little odd, because the chaos is going to get drawn away from you,” Julian hears him murmur to Geralt. “But it won’t hurt you, I promise.”
“I know,” Geralt says. “You wouldn’t hurt me, Esk.”
Eskel’s face softens into the same expression Julian is sure he wears whenever he looks at Geralt. Of course the gorgeous mage is in love with Geralt. Who wouldn’t be?
“How do you two know each other?” Julian asks in what he hopes is a casual tone of voice. From the exasperated look Yennefer sends him, he doesn’t quite think he manages it.
Eskel doesn’t look at him, focused as he is on his attempts to draw the spell. “When I was at Ban Ard, I showed a natural affinity for healing magic. I was sent to live with the druids for a year and train with them. That’s how I met Geralt. We became friends and stayed in touch, even after I returned to Ban Ard.”
“And when did you start fucking?” Yennefer asks. She’s fiddling with one of her throwing stars, turning it over in her hand casually.
Eskel doesn’t react to either the throwing star or the crudeness of the question. “When did you and Julian?”
Julian lets out a delighted bark of laughter. It’s always fun to see Yennefer bested at her own game.
Yennefer arches an eyebrow. “It’s not polite to read peoples’ minds.”
“Not polite to ask personal questions either.”
She tilts her head to the side, conceding the point.
Julian’s delight quickly turns to horror. If Eskel has been reading Yennefer’s mind…
Eskel’s hazel eyes meet Julian’s. They’re only a few shades darker than Julian’s own golden eyes, he notices. The mage’s voice sounds in Julian’s head, as loud and clear as if he were speaking out loud. “So, are you going to tell Geralt who you are, or should I?”
It’s the way Julian looks at Geralt that gives him away. Geralt is a beautiful man and it’s not unusual for people to look at him with interest. But it isn’t simple lust in the witcher’s slit-pupiled yellow eyes, it’s the familiar kind of fondness of established love. There’s also the fact that he isn’t dressed as a witcher should be, save for the Bear’s head medallion around his neck. No swords, no armor, just the knife at his waistband. Eskel has met a handful of witchers in his day, and none of them wore fine silk doublets.
And then Eskel looks into the witchers’ minds and his suspicions are confirmed. Julian is Jaskier and he’s been lying to Geralt the entire time they’ve been together, a fact that has rage bubbling up inside Eskel. Because Eskel is under no illusions about how he behaved towards the end of his and Geralt’s romance. He put his own ambitions ahead of the boy he loved. He was largely absent, going weeks at a time without even bothering to send a letter. He looked down on Geralt’s simple life as a druid. He was, in short, an asshole. But at least he never lied to Geralt.
Eskel turns away from the shocked expression on Julian’s face, straightening up. “You’ll have to sit there for a bit,” he tells Geralt, handing him the final crystal. “This will glow red when the spell is complete.”
“Then what happens?” Geralt asks, weighing the crystal in his hand.
“It will start flashing when it moves closer to the Culler. The closer it is, the faster it will blink. When it reaches them, it will turn white.” Eskel turns to Julian. “I’m going to go check the wards around the shop. I’d appreciate someone watching my back, if you don’t mind.”
Julian nods, still looking like someone who just swallowed a lemon. He doesn’t seem to have much of a poker face for a witcher. “I’d be happy to.”
Yennefer arches an eyebrow, clearly knowing exactly what’s going on, but unwilling to do anything to help her companion.
Julian steps outside and Eskel follows him, turning to close the door behind him.
“I can explain.” The voice isn’t quite like Julian’s. It’s lighter and more musical. When Eskel turns around, he sees an impossibly pretty young man with brown hair and wide blue eyes. The shape of his face is the same and Eskel is sure Geralt would have figured out who he was eventually, once he got over his shock from his near-miss with the Culler. The most obvious difference is the lack of burn scars on his face and throat and the fact that he’s a good foot shorter and hundred pounds lighter than he is in his witcher guise.
Eskel watches as Julian— or Jaskier, Eskel isn’t really sure what to call him— shrugs off his fine black doublet and turns it inside out to reveal that it’s red on the inside. Jaskier pulls the doublet back on red side out, smoothing down imaginary wrinkles, and tucks his bear’s head medallion in his pocket.
“Why?” Eskel asks.
The bard/witcher grimaces. “Being a witcher wasn’t for me. I needed a change.”
“And why not tell Geralt?”
“Because he’s a druid. He values the very creatures I used to kill on a regular basis. Fuck, he has a leshen who lives practically in his backyard that he treats like a beloved pet.”
“You never gave him the chance to figure out if he’d be okay with it. You just lied to him.”
“I was going to tell him.”
Jaskier shakes his head. “I don’t know. I love Geralt. I’ve loved Geralt practically since the first day I met him. The longer I went without telling him, the harder it got. I didn’t want to lose him and I couldn’t bear to hurt him.”
“He almost got hurt,” Eskel snarls, stepping into Jaskier’s space. “He came here thinking you’d been taken by the Culler. You should have seen his face when he learned that you’d been living free in Novigrad and just hadn’t bothered to write. And then he nearly got killed. All because you couldn’t be fucked to tell him the truth.”
Jaskier is quiet for a moment. “Are you going to tell him?”
Eskel considers. “Not tonight. He’s been through enough. But you’re going to tell him once this shit with the Culler is through. I’m not going to let you keep lying to him.”
“Because you love him too.” There’s a note of accusation in Julian’s voice.
Eskel nods. “And I hurt him. I won’t stand by and let him get hurt again.”
Jaskier looks down at the ground. “You must think me the worst kind of bastard.”
“No,” Eskel says with a sigh. He wishes he looked at Jaskier and saw nothing but a lying asshole, but he can tell the man is genuine. Jaskier clearly adores Geralt. “But that still doesn’t mean I’m going to let you lie to the man I love. And if our situations were reversed, I’m sure you’d do the same.”
“It’s been so long.” Jaskier shakes his head. “I’m not even sure I know how to tell him who I am.”
“You have at least until the tracking spell is finished to figure it out.”
“And how long will that be?”
“Another ten, fifteen minutes.”
Jaskier lets out a humorless little laugh. “Listen, Eskel—”
But Eskel never learns what the witcher-turned-bard is going to say, before the shadows seem to surge up around them. Jaskier lets out a strangled gasp and Eskel opens his mouth to shout, but no sound comes out. The chaos pressing down on him feels as wrong and twisted as the magical residue he found on Geralt. Reaching out blindly, his hand finds Jaskier’s. Long, delicate fingers squeeze his.
And then everything goes dark.
Yennefer’s medallion has been humming incessantly ever since the tracking spell started. It sets her teeth on edge. She watches the pretty druid in the circle of crystals, absently listening to the conversation going on outside between the two men who love him. Julian’s really gotten himself into a bind this time, one that she can’t get him out of. She’s sure he’ll manage to talk his way out of it, but in the meantime, she’s enjoying the little comedy of errors playing out in front of her.
“You find this ritual interesting?” Geralt asks mildly.
Yennefer doesn’t react to being called out for staring. “Maybe I’m just shamelessly ogling you.”
She almost expects the druid to blush and look away, but he meets her eye levelly. “Are you?”
So maybe there’s a reason Julian and Eskel are both being stupid over him. She goes to lean against the wall facing him. “You don’t find a lot of druids in cities.”
“That’s because this city is shit.”
Yennefer can’t argue with that. “Then why are you here? You could have turned that shadow to dust if you were closer to nature.”
“I came here looking for someone… important to me.”
“Did you find them?”
“No.” And now Geralt does look away. “Starting to think I never really knew him.”
Yennefer feels a twist of sympathy, which is irritating. She’s supposed to be finding amusement in the messy love triangle, not feeling sorry for the center of it. And certainly not wondering if the druid’s hair is as soft as it looks. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll like the real him better than the man you knew.”
“I can’t imagine not loving any version of him,” Geralt says quietly, sounding very tired.
Yennefer opens her mouth to say something flippant, and then pauses. Outside, Eskel and Julian’s voices have gone silent. She’s across the room in a flash, throwing the door open. The air stinks of fear and Eskel and Julian are gone. As Yennefer looks around, she sees shadows retreating down the brick walls around her.
“Fuck!” she shouts, the sound echoing in the empty street.
“What’s wrong?” Geralt demands. From the tone of his voice, he already knows the answer.
Yennefer turns to face him, heart in her throat. “Eskel and Julian are gone. The Culler took them.”
Geralt’s scent spikes with fear and he starts to stand.
“Don’t.” Yennefer holds out a hand to stop him. “That tracking spell is the only way to find them.”
Geralt looks down at the crystal in his hand. “What would the Culler want with them?”
“I don’t think they have any mages or witchers in their collection.” Yennefer thinks of bright, smiling Julian and then she thinks of that twisted shadow from earlier. Something that feels oddly like terror grips her insides, but she’s a godsdamned witcher and witchers don’t have the luxury of feeling fear.
Geralt closes his eyes and lets out a string of curses. “Fuck, the Culler was here for me, weren’t they? They couldn’t get to me, so they took Eskel and Julian instead.”
“Not everything is about you, druid,” Yennefer says, but there’s no heat to it, because he’s probably right. If she loses Julian, if he gets snatched away from her when he was just on the other side of the door…
“They’ll be okay,” Geralt says, and she’s not sure whether he’s trying to reassure her or himself.
Yennefer glares at the crystal in Geralt’s hand, willing it to glow red.
“What?” she growls.
When she looks up, she finds the druid looking at her cautiously. “You alright?”
“I’ve heard the Cat School mutations aren’t always… stable.”
She bares her teeth into a snarl. “I’m not going to go feral on you, druid. I have more self-control than that.”
“Hm.” He doesn’t look convinced.
Yennefer remembers Lyria, seeing Julian screaming in agony while pinned under the krallach and everything going white. With a grumbled curse, she yanks a dagger from her thigh holster and puts it down in front of Geralt. “Just in case.”
Geralt looks between her and the dagger, raising an eyebrow. “Will that help?”
“Probably not, but it never hurts to be armed.” Yennefer takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, wishing that she’d ever been good at meditating. “I’m not going to go feral, not while Julian is still in danger. But if we find him dead… I can’t make any promises.”
“I understand. It’d be the same for me if it was Jaskier.” He’s quiet for a moment, then adds in an undertone, “Or Eskel.”
Oh, these idiots. Yennefer can’t even find any amusement in their obliviousness right now.
“Yennefer,” he says again, and there’s an urgency to his voice now.
Her eyes snap open. “What?”
He holds up the crystal, which glows red in his hand. “Tracking spell is ready.”
Yennefer grins viciously, half-expecting him to flinch away, but he doesn’t. “Then let’s go get them back.”
Jaskier comes awake in a rush, gasping. He looks around wildly and sees that he’s in a tiny, windowless room, tied to a chair. The floor around him is littered with pieces of parchment and the only light comes from a torch in the corner. All the doors and windows are bricked over and he has a terrible moment of wondering if he’s been entombed alive before remembering that they probably wouldn’t have bothered tying him up if they weren’t planning to come back for him. Still, he struggles at the ropes, cursing the fact that he’s wearing his glamour. He’d be able to tear through them with no problem in his witcher form.
There’s a grinding noise and a staircase appears in the wall in front of Jaskier. He tries to glare as menacingly as he can in this insubstantial bard form as two sets of footsteps come down the staircase. The first person to appear is Eskel, with dimeritium cuffs around his throat and wrists. His lip is split and his expression set. The second is a man that Jaskier has never met, a slender, fair-haired man with that untouchable beauty of most mages.
“Good, you’re awake.” He smiles pleasantly down at Jaskier, who recognizes the voice that emerged from the shadow creature that attacked Geralt. “I was worried you’d sleep all night. Wasn’t sure how fragile you were.”
“Not as fragile as I look.” Jaskier returns his pleasant smile with one of his own. “Who do I have the pleasure of being abducted by this fine evening?”
The mage puffs his chest out. “Sebastian of Hagge, at your service.”
Eskel snorts. “Yeah, I’d never heard of him either.”
Sebastian of Hagge scowls at the back of his head. “Well, you’ve been exiled from the Brotherhood for twenty years. You wouldn’t have.”
“I keep in touch with Triss Merigold and Istredd. They haven’t mentioned you.”
“Anyway,” Jaskier says, because Eskel may be a mage, but he’s a chained up and helpless one and Sebastian is looking decidedly murderous. “Is there a reason for this impromptu abduction, or were you just feeling grabby?”
“Well, I was there for the druid, but he was safe behind wards.” Sebastian shrugs. “But then I saw you and you looked… interesting. I can’t tell what you are and I couldn’t get the glamoured ring off.”
“No, it can’t be removed by force. I paid a pretty penny for that add on.”
“I’m sure. So, what are you? An elf? A fae? A siren?”
“I’m just a bard, I’m afraid. All the glamour does is hide this highly unfortunate mole right on my—”
Eskel lets out a pained gasp.
Jaskier falls silent, hands balling into fists behind him. “You can let him go, you know. You’re a mage. What use do you have for another mage in your collection?”
“A little extra chaos never hurts,” Sebastian says. “And you’re going to take off your ring, or I’m going to kill him.”
Eskel closes his eyes. His expression is barely concealing fear, but also a good deal of anger and sorrow. Jaskier wonders if he’s thinking of Geralt.
“My hands are quite literally tied, I’m afraid,” Jaskier says, keeping his voice light.
Sebastian flicks his wrists and the ropes fall away. “There you are. Take off the glamour.”
Jaskier makes a show of flexing his hands. “Why are you doing this? What’s the point of kidnapping all these people?”
“Oh, I won’t bore you with the details of my experiments.” Sebastian waves a hand. “Chances are, you wouldn’t understand them.”
A villain who doesn’t want to monologue. How disappointing. “Are they alive?” Jaskier asks. “The others?”
“Most of them. There have been a few unfortunate accidents, but I try to leave them alive for as long as possible.”
“Last month, you took a siren named Valdo. Does he live?”
“You’ll find out as soon as you join the others in the cages upstairs.” Sebastian does something that makes Eskel stifle another pained noise. “The ring. Now.”
"Jaskier, don't," Eskel grits out. "Just get yourself out. Don't worry about me."
"Be quiet," Sebastian snaps and Eskel's face screws up in pain.
Jaskier looks between Sebastian and Eskel and bursts into tears. “No, please! Don’t hurt us!” He covers his face in his hands.
Sebastian groans. “I already told you, no one needs to get hurt, so long as you do as I say.”
“Please! I just came to town to find my friend. I’m no one!”
“This is your last warning.”
Jaskier lets out a wail of despair. “ Please. I beg you, spare us.”
Sebastian loses his patience, shoving past Eskel and descending the steps towards Jaskier. Through the cracks in his fingers, Jaskier can see that his expression is thunderous. “Listen, you little—”
Jaskier slips his ring off his finger. For the rest of his days, he will savor the look on Sebastian’s face when the cowering bard in the chair becomes a nearly seven foot tall, scarred witcher. Julian smiles his most predatory smile. “Julian of Lettenhove, at your service.” He leaps to his feet, seizes Sebastian by a handful of his hair, and slams the mage into the wall with all his might. Sebastian goes down like a sack of potatoes.
Julian looks up at Eskel. “You alright?”
Eskel’s face has gone bright red. There’s a musky smell filling the air that isn't fear or despair. Huh, that’s interesting. “I’m fine,” he says a bit hoarsely. “You?”
“Never bet— oh, fuck.” Because now that Julian’s focus is no longer on neutralizing Sebastian or making sure that Eskel is unhurt, he notices the two people standing at the top of the stairs. Yennefer has a knife in each hand and the half-frustrated, half-relieved expression of someone who was about to throw herself into battle and now finds it unnecessary. Next to her, Geralt is staring directly at Julian with wide eyes.
“Uh,” Julian says, because apparently all his skill with words vanishes with the glamour. “How much of that did you see?”
“Jaskier?” Geralt asks.
“Ah, all of it.” Julian runs his fingers through his hair. “Listen, dear heart, I can—”
Eskel yells and Yennefer’s steel dagger comes sailing through the air, neatly burying itself in Sebastian of Hagge’s eye as the mage raises his hand to cast an undoubtedly nasty curse. He goes facedown in a pool of his own blood. She shakes her head at Julian. “You didn’t even check to make sure he was dead?”
“I’m a bard!” Julian doesn’t look away from Geralt, who stares back in astonishment. Eskel, Julian notices, is looking anywhere but at the two of them.
Yennefer looks between the three men. “As fascinating as this all is, why don’t we tend to the hostages first? There are a lot of people upstairs who need to be returned home.”
“Yes, an excellent plan.” Julian drags his gaze away from his lover. “Lead the way, Yenna.”
Upstairs, he finds a row of cages, filled with occupants. The entire place stinks of blood, waste, fear, and despair. Julian walks down the row of cages until he comes upon a tall, lanky figure crumpled in the corner of one of the cages, filthy blond hair obscuring the face. He kneels down in front of the cage and murmurs, “Valdo?”
A bright green eye stares at him from behind the curtain of hair. “Julek? Is that really you?”
The sound of his friend’s voice, hoarse and weak as it is, fills Julian with relief. “It’s me.”
“He didn’t get you too, did he?” Valdo looks around, as if searching for Sebastian.
“He did, which was a mistake. He’s dead now.” Julian grabs the door of the cage and yanks. With a horrible screech, it comes off its hinges and he throws it aside. There are some benefits to this witcher form of his. “Come on, Val, Pris and Dudu are waiting for you.”
Sitting at the tiny table in Eskel’s apartment, Geralt stares at the witcher who is also apparently his lover. Now that he’s looking for the similarities, he can see them in the shape of Julian’s face, the curve of his mouth, the warmth in his eyes. He may be the size of a small barn, with white hair and slit-pupiled eyes, but there’s something about him that’s so uniquely Jaskier that Geralt isn’t sure how he ever missed the fact that Julian and Jaskier are one in the same.
It’s past dawn and the apartment is silent, with everyone exhausted after an evening spent tending to the dozens of victims of the Culler. Most have been reunited with their families, though a handful are asleep downstairs in Eskel’s shop after the mage saw to their injuries. Eskel took visible pleasure in returning to the Culler’s hideout to reduce it to rubble after seeing to the victims, something that probably shouldn’t be as attractive as it is. Apparently, Geralt has a type.
Given that he keeps being distracted by staring at Julian by the sight of Yennefer cleaning the knife that she used to kill the Culler, he definitely has a type.
“So,” he says, turning his attention back to Julian. “Should I call you Julian or Jaskier?”
Julian’s smile is surprisingly soft for such a large man. “Julian when I’m like this. Jaskier when I’m wearing my glamour. It makes it easier for me to keep track of which form I’m in.”
“Got it.” Geralt nods. “You’re a witcher.”
“Technically, yes, but I gave it up about ten years or so ago to become a traveling bard.” Julian shrugs. “I’m a really shit witcher.”
“He is,” Yennefer agrees, not looking up from cleaning her knife. “He wouldn’t have made it a month on the Path if he hadn’t found me.”
Julian shoots her a fond look. “She’s right, I was about to be wyvern food the first time we met.”
Geralt works up the nerve to ask the question that’s been nagging at him since the moment he saw his sweet, flighty bard morph into a seven-foot tall witcher and smash a man’s skull into a wall. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Ah.” Julian grimaces. “Geralt, you’re a druid.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Geralt bristles.
“You devote yourself to preserving life. I kill things as part of my nature. I was afraid you’d hate me, or that you’d be scared of me. So many do and I couldn’t bear to ever see that look on your face. It would kill me.”
“Jask— Julian.” Geralt crosses the room to cup Julian’s face in his hands, which is an entirely different experience than cupping Jaskier’s face. “I could never hate you or be afraid of you. But I thought you were dead.”
“I know,” Julian says. “I am so sorry, dear heart. I didn’t know what to tell you, so I just didn’t write. It was selfish and cruel of me and I can’t apologize enough. I’ve been lying about who I am for so long, that I think I forgot how to tell the truth for a while there. But I swear to you, if you give me another chance, I will never lie to you again. I just hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you.” Geralt has to stand on his tiptoes to press a kiss against Julian’s mouth, and even then the witcher has to incline his head so Geralt can reach. Besides that, it’s just like kissing Jaskier; his lips are still soft, warm, and gentle.
The door opens and Eskel strides in. When he sees Geralt and Julian embracing in the middle of his sitting room, a series of complicated emotions flit across his face, settling on resignation. He turns away to put a kettle of tea on the hearth.
“How are the patients?” Yennefer asks.
“They’ll all live,” Eskel says. “Sleeping quietly. Should be able to send them back to their families tomorrow.”
“Good.” Geralt nods, watching Eskel move around. He thought he was going to lose him earlier. He almost did lose him.
Julian steps back from Geralt. “Can I ask what happened between the two of you?”
Eskel turns to look sadly at Geralt. “Court changed me. Geralt rightly told me to go fuck myself.”
Geralt grimaces. “I don’t know if I was right, Esk. Think I could have tried harder.”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Eskel says. “I let power get to my head. I’m not proud of the man I was back then.”
“But you’ve changed,” Julian says softly. “You’ve made amends.”
Eskel lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “I've tried.”
“It’s clear how much you two care for each other.” Julian looks between Geralt and Eskel. “I don’t want to get in the way of that.”
Geralt feels a surge of strange panic. “Julian—”
“I know you have plenty of room in your heart for both of us, my love,” Julian says. “I’m not the jealous type. I have no intention of competing with your first love. Because truth be told—” He turns to Yennefer. “—Yenna, I’m still in love with you.”
Yennefer looks at him like someone who was just watching an amusing play and got asked to participate entirely against her will. “Julek, don’t be an idiot.”
“No can do, I’m afraid.” Julian smiles at her crookedly. “I will always be an idiot when it comes to you, Yennefer of Vengerberg. I have been since I was eighteen. I should have searched for you after Lyria. The only reason I didn’t was my own cowardice. Because I know why you left me. You chose saving my life over saving those of the queen and the princess. You got me to a healer instead of hunting down the mage who killed them. You chose me over a contract and I know it terrified you.”
“There was no choice,” Yennefer says, all amusement gone. Her voice sounds strangely hollow. “I heard you scream and I went feral. I’ve never felt like that before. I’d heard my brothers talk about it, but I always thought I would never fall prey to it. But then you were hurt, and I lost control entirely. I don’t remember anything between the krallach pinning you down and coming back to myself surrounded by bodies.”
“Oh, Yenna,” Julian breathes and crosses to kneel down in front of her. “I am so, so sorry.”
She reaches up to touch the scar on his face in a surprisingly tender gesture. “No, I’m sorry. Leaving you was a shitty thing to do and I’ve regretted it for a decade.”
It’s a strange thing to watch the man he loves reunite with the woman he loves, Geralt thinks. Strange, but not unpleasant, because Geralt doesn’t think for a moment that Yennefer is replacing him, just like he never replaced Yennefer. And like Julian never replaced Eskel.
Geralt turns to Eskel, who is watching him with a strangely guarded expression. Geralt knows he should say something, but he can’t find the words.
Luckily, Eskel finds them for him. “I thought of you every single day for forty-two years, three months, and seventeen days.”
A lump rises to Geralt’s throat. “Esk—”
“Thought about finding you so many times after I left Kaedwen, trying to make things right. But I told myself you were better off without me, that you’d probably moved on and you didn’t need me anymore. But now that I’ve seen you again, I can’t go another forty-two years without seeing you again, Geralt. I want to be part of your life, in whatever way you’ll let me. Please.”
Geralt goes to take his hands, which feel warm and calloused and beautifully familiar in his. “You’ve always been part of my life, even when you weren’t around. I thought about you all the time. I never forgot you. And I never stopped loving you.”
Eskel makes a wounded noise and leans his forehead against Geralt’s.
“Perhaps,” Julian says. “We could come to an arrangement that would make all four of us happy?”
Geralt glances over at Julian and Yennefer and sees that both witchers are watching him and Eskel speculatively. “Together?” he asks.
Julian’s smile is almost predatory. “Well, I adore you and Yennefer. You and Eskel adore each other. I saw the way you looked at Yennefer earlier and Eskel is a very attractive man.” He glances at Eskel. “And if my nose doesn’t deceive me, you find me attractive as well, especially when I'm crushing skulls.”
Eskel flushes and nods.
“So, perhaps we could try to sort something out?” Julian looks around at the three of them. “If everyone is amenable?”
Yennefer leans back in her chair, looking at each of the three men with the air of a very satisfied housecat. “I think we can make this work.”
Six months after defeating the Culler, Geralt, Jaskier, Yennefer, and Eskel get ready to spend a winter together.
And we're back! Sorry for the long wait for this epilogue. I hope this pure domestic fluff was worth the wait!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Six months later
It’s early in the season, but a steady snow is already falling as Jaskier taps on the door of the Novigrad rowhouse that Valdo now shares with Priscilla and Dudu. He’s shivering something dreadful; he should probably be in his witcher guise right now, but he was afraid that someone would stop to chat if he walked around as Julian. While he and Yennefer never got any official acclaim for having been the ones to slay the Culler, word got out that they were the ones responsible and they’ve become minor celebrities amongst the non-humans of Novigrad. It’s all flattering, but dreadfully inconvenient when trying to get places promptly.
The door swings open and Valdo stands there, smiling. He looks largely back to himself after his ordeal. His beautiful golden hair, which was so filthy it needed to be shaved, now brushes his chin and most of his scars have healed thanks to Eskel and Geralt’s careful ministrations. From Priscilla, Jaskier knows that the siren still has nightmares, but he’s alive and as well as anyone could be after what he went through.
“Julek!” Valdo flings his arms around Jaskier’s shoulders. “What a surprise! In town to visit your mage?”
“And you, of course.” Jaskier squeezes his shoulders and steps back to appraise him. “You’re well?”
“As well as can be when the weather’s this dreadful.” Valdo shivers theatrically.
“Still taking the tonic Eskel gave you?”
Jaskier rolls his eyes. At least Valdo never lost his sense of humor.
Priscilla comes out of the bedroom, smiling. “Jaskier! I thought you’d already be up north with your druid.”
“Portaling up there this afternoon.” A smile spreads across Jaskier’s face at the thought. This will only be the second time that he’s been with all three of his lovers since the very pleasant week they spent holed up in Eskel’s tiny apartment after dealing with the Culler. Since Eskel, Geralt, and Yennefer all attended Jaskier’s triumphant performance at the Vizima Midsummer Festival, he hasn’t seen all of his lovers at once. He’s visited Geralt repeatedly, taken a couple of contracts with Yennefer (well, she took the contracts while he stood on the sideline and offered invaluable advice) and stayed with Eskel in Novigrad for a week around Saovine. But as delightful as it is to visit them individually, he misses having all of them together.
“Ugh, get that sappy expression off your face, or I’m going to be sick.” Valdo shakes his head.
Jaskier waves a dismissive hand. “Oh, like you two are any better.”
Priscilla laughs and slips her arm through Valdo’s. It didn’t take long after the unpleasantness with the Culler for the two of them to finally get their heads out of their asses and admit their feelings for each other. “About that. Valdo and I have something to tell you.”
“Oh?” Jaskier looks between them with interest.
A wide smile spreads across her face. “We’re getting married at Belleteyn.”
Jaskier whoops with delight and throws his arms around the two of them. “Oh, wonderful! It took you scamps long enough. Please tell me I can perform at your wedding. I won’t have the happiest day of my two dearest friends’ lives sullied by half-baked bardic talent.”
“That’s unavoidable if we invite you, my friend,” Valdo says, then yelps when Priscilla elbows him in the side.
Jaskier plants kisses on both their cheeks. “Not even your lack of good taste will sour my mood, Valdo. I can picture the setlist now—”
Valdo disentangles himself. “I’m going to go make some tea. I have a feeling you’ll be here for a while, Julek.”
“This is the fourth love potion I’ve bought from you!” the weaselly Oxenfurt student, who is looking distinctly green around the gills, says with a huff. “Not a single one has worked.”
“Can’t imagine why that would be.” Eskel keeps his voice as mild as he can when he’s wishing that one of his sword-wielding lovers were here right now. “I have told you every single time you come in here that love can’t be bottled, not in the way you want.”
“Then why do you keep selling me this shit?” The boy brandishes one of the false love potions in Eskel’s face, hiccuping.
“Feeling a bit under the weather, my lord?” Eskel asks. “We sell things for that.”
“After the foul sludge you’ve conned me into drinking four times , I wouldn’t trust anything you tried to sell me.”
Eskel sighs. Jaskier is due here any minute and he’d really like this brat out of his shop so they can portal to Geralt’s cottage without delay. But before he can think of some lie to spin so the kid will get lost, the front door swings open and a tall, regal man with thinning white hair and an impressive nose walks in. Eskel doesn’t recognize him, but the boy’s already sickly complexion goes gray.
“Dean Hawthorne!” he squeaks.
The man, Dean Hawthorne, peers down his nose at the boy. “Ah, yes, good to see you… Silas, is it?”
Silas nods, eyes enormous.
“What are you doing here?” The dean looks between Silas and Eskel. “Awfully far from Oxenfurt, and on a school day, too.”
Silas turns to Eskel with enormous eyes and Eskel fights the urge to grin nastily at him. He’s sure that there are rules against attempting to bespell one’s fellow students. No matter who Silas’s father is, the boy would be facing expulsion.
“I think you have everything you need right here.” Eskel taps the bottle in his hand. “There’s no need to come back. Or to visit any other apothecaries for the same reason.”
Silas shakes his head.
“Then run along.” Eskel waves him away. Silas practically sprints from the shop, pausing only to bob his head to Dean Hawthorne. As soon as the door closes behind him, Eskel turns to the dean with a grin. “Thanks, Dudu.”
A mischievous smile spreads across Dean Hawthorne’s face. “What gave it away?”
“There are plenty of respectable apothecaries in between here and Oxenfurt. Only the students who are up to something travel this far from the academy. How’d you know what the dean looks like?”
“I’ve taken a few classes at Oxenfurt over the years.” Dudu rounds the counter, not dropping the dean’s form. “I like it there. Always new people coming and going.”
“Well, I appreciate it. I was getting tired of that kid.” It was Jaskier’s idea for Eskel to hire Dudu as a shop assistant and while Eskel was hesitant at first, they’ve been invaluable. They’re good with customers, terrifyingly organized, and have an excellent head for business. And best of all, having them around gives Eskel time to go and see his lovers.
“Are you almost ready to go?” Dudu asks.
“Almost. I was finishing up writing down everything you need to know while I’m gone when I was interrupted.”
Dudu arches an eyebrow. “This isn’t the first time you’ve left me in charge of the shop.”
“Yes, but that was just for a week.” Eskel isn’t going to be gone the whole winter; he’ll portal back to Novigrad several times a week to check in on the shop and give Dudu days off. But he’s still going to be gone for most of it, enjoying what Jaskier has convinced him is a well-deserved vacation. And while he knows that Dudu has this well in hand, it’s still nerve-wracking to leave his shop in someone else’s hands.
“The shop is in good hands while you’re gone,” Dudu says. The usually anxious doppler is always perfectly confident when it comes to business. “Jaskier would kill me if anything happened.”
“You should be more worried about Yenn.”
Dudu shivers. “Trust me, I am.”
The door of the shop flies open and Jaskier comes flouncing in, bringing with him a wave of cold air and an impressive number of bags, given that he doesn’t have his witcher strength right now. A display of fertility charms rattles concerningly as he drops his things to the ground and throws himself into Eskel’s waiting arms.
“Darling!” the bard cries, peppering Eskel’s scarred cheek with kisses. “It’s been too long.”
Eskel huffs a laugh into his lover’s hair. “It’s only been a little over a month, Jask.”
“Too long! Oh, hello, Dudu. Is that Oxenfurt’s Dean of Students you’re wearing today?”
“They had to scare away an unhappy customer,” Eskel says.
“Was it that dreadful brat who keeps buying love potions? A pity I wasn’t here.” Jaskier takes off his enchanted ring and a moment later, the lithe bard in Eskel’s arms becomes a mountain of a Bear witcher. Eskel can’t deny the little thrill of heat in his lower belly at the sight of Julian towering over him. From the roguish grin Julian shoots him, he knows exactly what effect he’s having on Eskel. Eskel loves both his lover’s guises equally, but he can’t deny it’s damn sexy being the one dwarfed by a lover for once.
“Are you ready to go?” Julian asks. “I’m eager to see Yenna and Geralt after all this time.”
“I just have a few things—” Eskel starts to say, but is cut off by Dudu, who says, “He’s ready to go.”
Eskel sighs at his shop assistant. “I’m starting to think you want to get rid of me.”
“No, it’s Julian I want to get rid of,” the doppler deadpans.
“Honestly, Dudu, you’ve been spending far too much time around Valdo.” Julian’s huffy tone is belied by his contented smile as he wraps an arm around Eskel’s shoulders. “But I’ll get out of your hair whenever Eskel is ready to go.”
Eskel looks between Julian and his bags. “I may need two portals just to get all this shit to Geralt’s place.”
Julian gasps and places a hand to his chest. “By this shit, do you mean all the things that allow me to keep my youthful good looks?”
“You keep your immortality in a bag?”
“Oh, honestly, the cheek—”
Julian is still ranting as Eskel gathers his things, bids farewell to Dudu, opens a portal, and steps through.
Yennefer makes her way towards the little cabin in the woods, leading her mare by the reins. A light snow is falling, but it hasn’t accumulated enough to make their way treacherous. A hush has fallen over the forest, with all the animals hunkering down for the winter. It will be a pleasant place to spend the winter, she thinks, though a lot less quiet once Julian shows up.
She knocks on the door of the cabin. Almost instantly, the door swings open and Geralt stands there. He must be working on potions; despite the chill of the winter air, his forehead glistens with sweat and his cheeks are rosy.
“Did you know you have a leshen living in the woods behind your house?” Yennefer demands by way of greeting.
Geralt doesn’t seem offended by the lack of hello. “You met Roach the last time you were here.”
Yennefer hardly remembers anything about the last time she was at Geralt’s cabin. She was injured in an ugly fight with a kikimore and Julian dragged her here to heal. When she wasn’t unconscious, she was woozy from the fuck ton of healing tonics her lovers plied her with. “You named the leshen Roach ?”
“Got a better name for her?”
“Don’t kill Roach.” Geralt catches her wrist in his hand and pulls her into a kiss. And Yennefer should not be so easily distracted by kisses, but Geralt is a truly excellent kisser.
“We’re going to talk about this later,” she tells him.
She feels his smile curl against her lips. “I know.”
Her medallion vibrates as a portal opens up behind her. She turns, gripping the hilt of her knife where it’s sheathed at her waist, just in case, but it’s only Eskel and Julian that come stepping through, carrying what seems to be enough supplies to keep a small village clothed through the winter.
Yennefer makes a show of peering behind them. “Who else is with you? I didn’t know you were inviting at least a dozen others, Julek.”
“Oh, Yenna, it’s good to see you too.” Julian scoops her up into a hug, nearly lifting her off the ground. She allows it, because she missed the little shit.
“I’m surprised you can see anything over that pile of bags,” she says.
“Well, I am a great deal taller than you, my dear.”
She growls at him. From the spike of arousal in the air, it does nothing to dissuade him. Gods, she doesn’t know why she loves these idiots so much.
“Put me down, you oaf.” She elbows him in the gut.
He complies and turns to throw himself at Geralt while Yennefer greets Eskel. The mage’s embrace is much less obnoxious than Julian’s, but no less enthusiastic. Yennefer kisses him and looks around to see Julian spinning Geralt around like they’re star-crossed lovers reunited after decades apart. Geralt is trying to look long-suffering, though there’s a pleased little smile curling his lips. Eskel snorts in laughter and presses a gentle kiss to the crown of Yennefer’s head.
She sighs. “They’re ridiculous.”
“That they are.”
“We could portal somewhere warm and leshen-free and leave them to their own devices for the winter.”
“We’d miss them within a day,” Eskel says.
Yennefer really hates it when he’s right. “Are you two done?”
Julian pulls a face at her. “You’re just jealous that you can’t pick Geralt up.”
“Oh, can’t I?” Without missing a beat, Yennefer scoops Eskel up into a bridal carry and bears him towards the door.
“Now who’s being ridiculous, Yenn?” Eskel mutters.
Yennefer squeezes his ass in retaliation.
“Show off,” Julian says as Yennefer brushes by him and Geralt.
Geralt shakes his head, looking amused and fond and painfully happy. “There’s soup on the hearth. Should be ready soon.”
Yennefer looks between Eskel, who is flushing prettily in her arms, Julian, and Geralt. “Or the soup can wait.”
Julian smiles wolfishly. “Do you have some idea of how else we can pass the afternoon?”
“I have several,” Yennefer tells him, starting towards the bed. “Which I’m happy to tell Geralt and Eskel all about. You, Julek, can go get acquainted with the leshen.”
“ Yenna !”
“We’re going to need a bigger bed,” Geralt says much later, squeezed into what’s a perfectly serviceable bed for one or two people with all three of his lovers.
Eskel presses a kiss against his jaw. “I’ll see what I can conjure tomorrow.”
“I think this bed is perfectly fine,” Jaskier, who is sprawled across the other three with his legs draped over Eskel’s, his torso plastered against Geralt’s chest, and his head on Yennefer’s shoulder, says. Somehow, he manages to take up just as much space as a bard as he does a seven foot tall witcher.
“It would be if we made you sleep on the floor.” Yennefer’s acidic tone is belied by the gentle fingers she runs through Jaskier’s hair.
“No, thank you. I’m quite comfortable here.”
Geralt chuckles, closing his eyes in contentment. For the past few weeks, he’s worried about what it would be like when the four of them were together again. He worried that once the honeymoon period of lust and excitement wore off, that they’d be left awkward around each other and be in for an uncomfortable winter. Worse, he couldn’t help but imagine the other three realizing that he’s just a simple druid living in a cottage in the woods, not a witcher or a mage, and lose interest in him.
Jaskier lifts his head from Yennefer’s shoulder to nuzzle at Geralt’s cheek. “You brood beautifully, my love, but now isn’t the time.”
“Not brooding.” And it’s the truth. Within moments of his lovers’ arrival, Geralt realized that all his fears were for naught. The four of them fit together, better than four such different people ever should. “Just thinking.”
They’re all quiet for a bit, reveling in the feeling of being close after so long apart, limbs entangled and bodies pressed against one another’s.
It’s Yennefer who breaks the silence. “Did you know about the leshen in the woods, Jaskier?”
Geralt snorts and cracks one eye open to look at her. “Still not done with that?”
“I did tell you that we’d be talking about your pet leshen later,” she says.
“Not a pet. More of a neighbor.”
“Trust me, darling, I’ve tried,” Jaskier says. “Though in Roach’s defense, I’ve seen her scare off at least one angry mob. And I don’t think Geralt’s garden would bloom half as nicely without her influence.”
Geralt hums in agreement.
“You’re both hopeless.” Yennefer looks to Eskel for support.
“I’m staying out of this,” Eskel says mildly.
“We’ll introduce you to Roach later, Yenn,” Geralt says.
“Why would you introduce me to a leshen ?”
“Well, you can only stay if she likes you.”
Yennefer bares her teeth at him.
“Don’t mind Yenna.” Jaskier flashes a shit-eating grin. “She’s just being protective. It’s adorable.”
“I can think of seventeen ways to kill you without even sitting up,” Yennefer growls.
“Save the dirty talk for later, my love. I’m quite tuckered out from earlier— ack !” Jaskier shrieks as Yennefer wraps her legs around his waist and rolls them both right out of bed. There’s a thump and another shriek from Jaskier as they land.
While the two witchers tussle on the ground, Jaskier loudly protesting about the unfair ambush the entire time, Eskel pulls Geralt closer, tucking his face into Geralt’s shoulder. “Huh, we might not need that bigger bed after all.”
“You’re right. They’ll be at this all night, at this rate.” Geralt can’t put into words how good it feels to be in Eskel’s arms after the forty-two years they spent apart. With Yennefer and Jaskier only a few feet away, clearly both having the time of their lives despite Jaskier’s complaints and Yennefer’s mock fury, everything is fucking perfect.
“What are the chances Yenn and Roach will be best friends by the end of the winter?”
“High. Jaskier may have to sleep with one eye open.”
Julian leaps up from the ground in all his seven feet of witcher glory, spinning Yennefer around in his arms. She does her best to look like a disgruntled cat, but her eyes are sparkling with mirth. Geralt watches them for a moment, smiling, then pulls the blanket up around him and Eskel and settles against his lover’s shoulder, feeling more content than he has in years. He’s in his home, surrounded by the three people he loves best, and he has a whole winter with them ahead of him.
There’s nowhere on the Continent that he would rather be.
Thank you for reading! I'm 95% sure I'm done with this particular AU, as I've told the story I want to tell here, but I have more OT4 fics in the works!