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A Wolf Among Lilacs

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PROLOGUE

“Look, all I’m saying is that one of us has to do it, and it’s sure as hell not going to be me.”

Lambert tossed the folded paper carelessly on the table between them. They’d been fighting for nearly two hours now, though Geralt had done his best not to interject, to leave the others to it. Political debates were the last thing he expected to come out of being a witcher, even when the entire continent was boiling, on the brink of war. He’d resolved to stay out of it. He’d thought the others had as well.

But politics was all they’d been talking about since they got the letter—an invitation to teach self-defense workshops at Oxenfurt Academy, printed on thick cream-colored paper and, for some reason, sealed in wax. Geralt supposed, though rather reluctantly, that there was no one better for this kind of work than a witcher. Their years of rigorous training ensured that. No, this debate was entirely ethical. Their qualifications had been the one thing they’d agreed on.

“I don’t know if any of us should,” Eskel said cautiously, though he wasn’t treading ground they hadn’t already walked. Lambert, sensing retaliation, pressed his fingertips against his forehead, and Geralt couldn’t help but silently agree: this had gone on far too long. “Much as I hate to admit it, we’ve got the reactions of the other schools to think about. We don’t know if they got this invitation; they might accuse us of selling out. And we can’t just toss witcher neutrality to the side—”

“Fuck witcher neutrality!” Lambert exclaimed, not for the first time, although now he accompanied it with a slap of his palm on the table that echoed off the walls. “And fuck what the other schools think. We have to take this. This job will pay more in a month than any of normally makes in a year.”

None of them could deny that. The unfortunate truth was that, since the advent of new technology, witchers were becoming increasingly obsolete. Most of the larger cities were walled in and well-guarded; those who lived in smaller towns knew how to defend themselves better than they did a hundred years ago, even. They still got contracts fairly regularly, but they were barely paid enough for travel expenses and weapon repairs, not to mention upkeep on Kaer Morhen, which was all but falling apart around them. The keep itself was the last dying relic of an old time, but Vesemir refused to move. Lambert complained about it almost nonstop. Geralt, however, refused to outright take sides—much like he was currently trying to do.

He hadn’t given any of them more than monosyllabic answers for the past hour, after Vesemir left. He’d been firmly against the idea, but Lambert wouldn’t back down, and there was only so much he could handle. Vesemir was the eldest, the most set in his ways, but with him gone, Geralt was the oldest there. His opinion technically mattered the most, though he didn’t want to admit that or bring attention to it. He had other things to worry about.

“The money shouldn’t be an issue,” Eskel sighed for the third time. “If we would just move somewhere else, somewhere smaller that needs less repairs—”

“But that’s not going to happen!” The outburst was accompanied by another smack of the table as he leaned forward. “He won’t move, and we all know it. And don’t say the rest of us should move, either, because we can’t just abandon him. There are only four of us left, and who knows for how long?”

A heavy silence fell. None of them wanted to think about it, though the discontinuation of the Trial of the Grasses made it near impossible to ignore. The mutations slowed the aging process, but they didn’t make them immortal. It was only a matter of time before a contract gone wrong knocked their numbers down to three, and the other schools were faring much the same.

“Geralt,” Lambert said suddenly, turning towards him. The expression he wore, full of hidden malice,  made Geralt wary of what he might say. “You’ve been awfully quiet over there. Go on, what do you think we should do?”

There was the slightest mocking edge to his tone. Geralt grimaced—this was exactly what he’d been wanting to avoid.

“I think,” he said slowly, weighing each word, “that we need to think a lot more about the outside world. There’s about to be a war on, and I’d rather not get caught in the middle of it.”

“Didn’t you say a while ago that you were all for neutrality?” he countered almost immediately. “Besides, you’ve got friends in high places. I’m sure they could help you find your way out of any trouble.”

“Just because I did some work for Dijkstra once—work that didn’t even involve politics, because it’s not supposed to—doesn’t mean he’d be willing to stick his neck out for me if it came to that. Besides,” he added, frowning deeply, “we all know who’s really in charge there. And when did this purely hypothetical situation come to involve me?”

“Well—” He stopped, looked at Eskel. It was clear they’d been discussing this without him. The thought made his blood boil, but he kept his mouth shut for the time being.

“Well,” Eskel picked up, in a much calmer tone, “you’ve really got the best temperament for it out of all of us. I mean—look how well you did with Ciri. A class that covers the basics would be no problem for you after that.”

“I see. You forget that Ciri was a completely different case, considering she’d only train with me for the first few months she was here, not to mention that she’s one person, not twenty. And I’d love to hear how you were planning to convince me of this.”

There was a booming knock at the door before they could respond, and when it became clear no one else was going to answer it, Geralt stood from the kitchen table resignedly. The door was a fair distance from where they’d been sitting, and despite the fact that he was staunchly against leaving Kaer Morhen, he found himself irritated by the walk. He pulled the heavy wooden door open, but before there was a gap even a couple of feet wide, Triss Merigold had slipped inside.

“What are you doing here?” he said in lieu of a greeting. It was raining outside, and her chestnut-colored hair and clothes were damp. He could see her car parked on the dirt path leading to the steps, and he realized she must have been planning this—it wasn’t a spontaneous visit, or she would’ve portaled.

“Nice to see you too,” she teased, dropping her purse on the floor and shrugging off her jacket. “I come all the way up from Novigrad and all I get is what are you doing here…not even a nice to see you, Triss, I sure missed you—”

“It’s good to see you, really,” he replied, allowing a small smile to creep onto his face. She did always know how to lighten the mood. She hung her coat on a hook driven into the stone wall and slung her bag over her shoulder again. “But that doesn’t answer my question.”

“I was invited. By Eskel.” Triss led the way back to the kitchens. She knew the twists and turns of Kaer Morhen as well as any of them—not much of a surprise, considering how she’d often stayed there for months at a time, back when Ciri still lived there. “Besides, I was already in Aedd Gynvael…visiting. It wasn’t exactly a huge detour.”

He raised an eyebrow. “If you were in Aedd Gynvael, you just went the opposite direction of Novigrad to come here.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her flush.

“Okay, well maybe I just wanted to see you? Is that so hard to believe?”

“Yes,” he said as they entered the room where the others were and sat down. Eskel and Lambert were watching them with perhaps a bit too much curiosity, especially since it seemed like they knew she was coming. “You always seem to have an ulterior motive.”

She chuckled, but it sounded forced. “Fair enough.” He sighed, relieved she’d apparently taken it as a joke like he intended, without reading too much into it. “But when you put it like that, I suppose I do have some news…”

“What is it?” Lambert asked in a way that clearly said he already knew. Geralt clenched his fists under the table. Her cheeks turned a darker shade of pink and she stood abruptly, going to the sink to fill a glass of water.

“I…I’m doing an apprenticeship. Finally,” she announced. He wasn’t sure why she was so anxious to say it. This was par for the course for a sorceress, though admittedly a bit late—most did them immediately following graduation from Aretuza. Triss, swayed by a colleague and an adamant offer from King Foltest, had gone straight to a career in politics.

“That’s great, Triss!” Eskel recovered faster than Geralt, while Lambert sat there, still looking incredibly smug. Did they both know? Did neither of them? He wasn’t sure what was going on anymore. “Where at?”

She was turned away from them, gripping the counter so hard that if it had been one of them, it would have broken. “At Oxenfurt Academy.”

Geralt pressed his hand to his forehead and groaned. No wonder she’d been invited here—probably by Lambert, despite what she'd told him only minutes ago. There was only one person more likely to convince him than Triss, and the fact that she was here probably meant they couldn’t get in touch with her.

“And Geralt,” she said, spinning to face him as she rummaged around in her bag, finally pulling out a slightly crumpled envelope. “This is for you. I hope you don’t mind it’s already open—well, it wasn’t actually addressed to you, but given the circumstances she asked me to pass it on—”

“Thanks, Triss,” he interrupted, hoping to cut her off before she started rambling too much. She grinned, embarrassed, and passed him the envelope. On the front was a street address in Aedd Gynvael, and he recognized the scratchy handwriting almost immediately. Ciri. He pulled out the hastily folded paper and read it, his brow furrowing in disbelief. Once he’d gone over it three times, having finally decided it wasn’t a joke, he looked back up at them—Triss, slightly shamefaced, Eskel, just as confused as before, and Lambert, smugger than ever, still wearing that shit-eating grin.

“So,” he said, “do you need some time to think about it or have you changed your mind?”

~

One month earlier, Thanedd Isle

Generally speaking, mages convened on Thanedd twice a year, but it had been nearly seven since he attended. Before that, the number had nearly reached twenty, despite his work being constantly published and circulated. No one had ever noticed; he wasn’t the sort to dabble in politics, and that was all these gatherings were about, even if they were held under the guise of presenting research. Until recently, he’d made a point of not interacting with those kinds of mages. He probably still would, if some of those people weren’t also her closest friends.

He knocked on the door of the suite she was staying in cautiously, still amazed by the luxury accommodations given out for a few days when the conferences happened (especially to a certain group of sorceresses). In his head, he prayed she was awake and would answer herself, but he knew it was unlikely—if the messages he’d gotten yesterday were any indication, the welcome gathering had lasted well into the night and if she didn’t get out of bed until noon on a normal day, he could only imagine what she was like now. She wouldn’t be up; he could only hope no one else was either. That hope was nearly immediately dashed when the door swung open and his least favorite of them was standing behind it.

“Val,” said Philippa Eilhart, more than a hint of disdain in her voice. She stepped back to let him in, heels clicking on the wooden floor. He could smell her perfume as she shut it behind him, cinnamon and muskroot. Very, he thought, appropriately bitter. “You know, when she said you might actually come this time, I’d hoped she was joking.”

“Nice to see you too.” He didn’t need to look to know she was rolling her eyes. He’d known her for nearly ten years now and she’d never bothered to mask the fact that she disliked him. As he followed her to the kitchen, she resumed pulling her hair away from her face, pinning it behind her head with a golden, feather-shaped clip. “Where is she?”

“Asleep—or I’d assume that’s where she is, since I haven’t seen her for, oh, about ten hours or so.”

“You always were so good with directions, Philippa. So wonderfully exact.”

“There are two bedrooms over there.” She pointed one red-lacquered nail down a short hallway. “Two adjoining bedrooms. If you don’t know where she is based on that alone, I’d question the wisdom of getting engaged so soon.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call seven years ‘soon.’” He opened the fridge and pulled out a glass bottle as she sat back down at the counter, steadfastly ignoring his actions as usual. The surface was entirely covered in papers, and she didn’t look up as she addressed him.

“I would be ever so grateful if you’d find out whether or not she plans to sit in on the Council meeting in two hours.”

He tried not to hear the sarcasm dripping from her words, but it was all he could think about; that and his distaste for mages’ politicking, which had grown stronger in direct proportion to her involvement. Philippa was clearly trying to provoke him. On any other day it wouldn’t have worked—but being here had already made him so agitated that he found himself pausing with one foot down the hallway, turning back around to face her.

“I’d be ever so grateful if you told me what, exactly, I did to warrant the way you treat me.”

“To me, personally?” She held uncomfortable eye contact with him as she took a long drink of the iced coffee in front of her. “Absolutely nothing.”

~

There was a lamp on in the corner of the bedroom, shining dimly next to a softly humming white noise machine. She always slept with a light on; he’d long ago given up on asking why. Most of the furniture was shoved to the side in order to make room for a massive bed, covered by a thick quilt and several blankets. Peeking out from the top, barely visible, was a mess of black curls.

He sat on the edge of the bed carefully, placing the glass bottle on the nightstand. “Yenna,” he whispered, and the blankets stirred, a low groan issuing from them. He waited for a minute, but the movement stilled, and he could hear her breathing even out once more. He sighed quietly. She had always been like this. Resignedly, he walked over to the small table and shut the noise off with a click.

The silence rung in his ears. After a few moments of waiting with bated breath, she pushed the blankets away, violet eyes angry but still half-closed. The diamonds in her obsidian pendant sparkled faintly—he’d only learned to notice it after four years of knowing her, though he’d long been hearing about how it was one of the most impressive graduate projects Aretuza had seen in recent years. Apart from the choker, she had nothing on. His throat tightened. He wondered what exactly had been going on before he got there.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, voice still scratchy from sleep, “that you enjoy coming up with new and terrifying ways to wake me.” He allowed himself to smile a little as she sat up, his fingers running lightly down her arm. When they drifted up to her shoulder, across her back, she jerked away violently, shifting to the other side of the bed to stretch. That was another thing she’d never told him. Philippa’s words surfaced in his mind, but he shoved them back forcefully.

“Brought you this,” he said instead of responding, handing her the bottle when she straightened back up. She opened it and drank half of it in one swallow, then handed it back, stretching her arms above her head. He tried and failed not to look down.

“Thank you,” she said, though it seemed more like a basic courtesy than genuine expression. “I think I was about to die of thirst.”

“No need to be melodramatic.”

“Please,” she scoffed, finally turning to face him. There were dark circles under her eyes, nearly permanent from constant late nights. “If you think I’m melodramatic, you haven’t met my associates.”

It was true enough. She liked to show off, but in a more subdued way than most of her colleagues. “Unfortunately, I have. Speaking of which, Philippa wants to know if you’re shadowing today.”

“Of course she does.” She laughed, but there was no humor in it. “I suppose I am. If rather reluctantly.” He waited, hoping she would elaborate, but she didn’t say anything more on the subject. All she did was get up, pulling on a black robe that had been carelessly discarded on the floor, and walk into the half-bath to splash cold water on her face. If there was one thing he knew for certain about Yennefer, it was that she was decidedly not a morning person.

Behind the other door in the bathroom, he heard the sound of a shower starting. Yenna sighed and, water still dripping from her face, walked to the door and rapped on it. The sound died off suddenly.

“Yeah?”

“Five minutes, please?” She sounded annoyed. He wondered if she was just playing it up because he was there.

“….okay,” Triss Merigold replied after a moment’s hesitation, closely followed by “Is he here? Did he actually show up?”

He could hear the barely-suppressed laughter in both their voices. “Yes, he’s here. Right here.”

If he heard any more of this it would only make him angry, so he followed her in, pulling the crumpled envelope from his jacket pocket. Most of the drive there had been spent deliberating over whether to even bring it up, but he knew if he waited, the backlash would be that much more severe. She’d find out inevitably.

“You don’t have to confirm the rumors for me,” he said dryly. He saw her shoulders tense but she didn’t look at him, preoccupied with examining herself in the mirror. “I already knew about them.”

“I was under the impression you didn’t care.” He knew what she was getting at, the agreement was years old, but still it irked him.

“I care if there are strings attached, Yenna.”

She turned and met his gaze sharply, much in the same way Philippa had only minutes ago. They were too much alike, those two. They’d known each other too long. “If you want to judge a relationship by the number of strings attached, you’ll be gone before she is.”

When he didn’t immediately respond, the corners of her mouth turned up in a triumphant smile and she leaned against the counter, tilting her head to the side. He didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of conceding, but she was right and they both knew it. His position in her life, even after all this time, was far more precarious than almost anyone else’s.

“This came to the house for you the other day,” he said instead of a real reply, holding out the envelope. She took it without even bothering to dry her face. Her mouth opened the slightest bit in surprise as she looked at the front, but she quickly schooled herself into a more neutral expression.

“And you waited this long to tell me?” she replied coolly as she slit it open, pulling out a poorly-folded paper. He watched her closely as she read it, hoping to see some change in her eyes, but she gave away nothing. Even when she folded it back up and said “interesting,” her tone was blank.

“What’s so interesting?”

She set it carefully on the counter and turned back around, reaching for a glass bottle. When she opened it, the scent of lilac and gooseberries filled the room.

“It seems as though our living arrangement will require some imminent changes.”

“Is this about what we discussed last time I saw you?”

“It is.” She knocked on the door again and this time Triss opened it, wrapped in a towel, her hair disheveled. He hated the way they sized each other up, hated the tension he’d never seen around anyone else, the ambiguous nature of their relationship. “You’re going to visit him soon, aren’t you?” she asked without preamble, and when Triss’s face turned bright red and she tried to stammer out a reply she said “We both know ‘coming to visit me in Aedd Gynvael’ is a horrible excuse.”

Triss nodded. They didn’t quite meet each other’s eyes, but something felt off all the same. “Why? You finally going to join me this time?”

“I don’t think so.” She was still smirking as she handed over the envelope. Triss read it quickly, her eyebrows knitting together, showing more emotion in that one moment than Yenna had all morning. Fear, concern, confusion, resignation.

“Is this—” She broke off and looked up, eyes flitting to him for the barest of seconds before refocusing on the curls falling heavy over Yennefer’s collarbones. “Might this have anything to do with the offer we got a while back? If there's nowhere else for her...”

He wanted to leave. He would’ve left if she hadn’t seen him. He could guess what this was about now, and the whole thing felt wrong. “I’ve been thinking it’s time I accepted.”

Chapter Text

PART ONE: LONGING/REGRET

When all was said and done, the Academy gave him a far better deal than he’d been expecting to get. They offered him a substantial salary, freedom with his lesson plans and plenty of time to attend other lectures at his leisure. They’d also recommended housing in an apartment complex right outside the gates that was generally occupied by faculty, and it had been easy for him to secure a spot there. They lumped him in under the Department of Medicine and Herbology, by the convoluted logic that what he was teaching was exercise, which was related to health and therefore medicine. He didn’t complain—there was nothing for him to feasibly complain about, besides the loss of neutrality. At the very least, he was being paid and housed, he wouldn’t have to worry about where they would fund the upkeep of Kaer Morhen, and he wouldn’t be completely alone.

As he was wont to do, Dandelion found out all the details of Geralt’s contract without ever speaking to him about it. He finally called a few days before Geralt was due to pack up and move, and offered the news that he’d be lecturing as well, with the Department of Trouvreship and Poetry. (It was somewhat fitting, he thought; the name was just as ostentatious as the man himself.) They weren’t living together—Geralt had a one-bedroom apartment, for which he was eternally grateful, although now that he knew Ciri would be in Oxenfurt (though he still wasn’t exactly clear as to why), he wouldn’t have minded living with her; it wasn't like they hadn't done it before, though Kaer Morhen was considerably larger than any apartment they'd be able to find in the city. But she’s already made plans to move in with Triss, who was doing her apprenticeship in the Alchemy department, and under someone incredibly renowned, by the way she talked about it, though she’d only done so vaguely. Whenever he tried to ask further she shied away, saying he’d find out eventually. He wasn’t sure why she was being so cagey.

“It’s a bit nepotistic if you ask me,” Ciri had said on the phone when he finally managed to get ahold of her, nearly a week after he received the letter. “That’s why she’s not telling anyone the specifics of the thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m excited for her, but just humor me for a minute—”

“I’ve been humoring you nearly your whole life.”

“Very funny. Just listen. They’ve known each other for over a decade. They lived together at Aretuza. And when Triss graduated and joined the Brotherhood, it’s no secret who sponsored her. There’s going to be backlash when this comes out—”

“Ciri,” he’d interrupted, the phone pulled slightly away from his ear. His sensitive hearing made him painfully aware of every change in volume, and the murmuring in the background was distracting. The fact that she’d managed to catch him in the middle of a night of drinking with Eskel and Lambert didn’t exactly help things. “Slow down. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t? What am I saying, of course you don’t. Do you even know how hard it is to get the same information out to both of you? I can never talk to you at the same time. It’s like having divorced parents but it’s worse, because you’ve never met.”

Things clicked in his head. His most questionable decision as Ciri’s guardian. It had turned out well enough, but he tried not to think about it too often. “Right. You’re talking about—” His mind was clouded, he'd drank far too much vodka, and he’d had about enough of whatever Lambert was yelling next door. “Shit. This is going to sound terrible, but I can’t remember her name.”

“You can’t—Geralt, are you drunk?” Ciri made a choked sound that he hoped was a laugh. He heard her cover the receiver with her hand and shout “Hey! He just told me he doesn’t remember your name!” A cacophony of voices followed, closer than he thought; he wasn’t aware they’d been in the same room. One, a bit farther than the others, went “Who did?” while a second he recognized as Triss yelled “That’s Geralt, isn’t it? Hi, Geralt!” and a third that sounded disturbingly like Philippa Eilhart said “I don’t remember her name either—in fact, I’ve never seen that woman before in my life.” They all started to talk over each other, though he couldn’t make out what they were saying anymore. Ciri must have moved.

“Sorry about that.” He could still hear them in the background; he wondered if she realized how irritating it was. “I probably should have gone somewhere else in the first place. But the contract—you’re going to take it, right? I haven’t seen you in years.”

It was a poor excuse to take any job—both of them knew that. But he never could say no to her. “It looks like I am.”

He thought he heard her jumping a bit in excitement, gentle thudding on a carpeted floor. He couldn’t blame her; the only good thing about this offer was that if she was staying in Oxenfurt, they could see each other at last, and frequently at that. Sadly, the catching up would have to wait—Lambert had been trying to get his attention for the past five minutes—so they reluctantly said their goodbyes and went to hang up.

“Geralt, wait!” he heard her yell as his finger hovered over the end call button. Much to Lambert’s annoyance, he pressed the phone back to his ear. “I almost forgot,” she said breathlessly. “When you get up there you can’t call me Ciri, all right? Call me Falka. It’s a long story; I’ll explain it later.”

He frowned in confusion, and was about to ask what she meant when another flurry of yelling erupted in the background and she hung up with another rushed goodbye. He supposed this was what he got for not keeping up with her better, but even with all the recent technology at his disposal, being out on the Path tended to cut him off from anyone besides other witchers—and Dandelion, who frequently accompanied him for up to months at a time, even though he always complained constantly. “It’s good song material,” he said every time Geralt asked, and judging by the sales of his newest album—which Geralt still refused to listen to—he was right.

When he asked Dandelion about what Ciri had said as they met up in Oxenfurt, outside the apartment complex where they were both staying, he looked incredibly offended. “You mean you hadn’t been paying attention this whole time? Do you even know what your daughter’s been doing for the past few years?”

He raised his hands defensively, pausing in the middle of removing his bags from the bed of his truck. “Look. She’s an adult now. I can’t exactly stop her from doing anything, and I don’t need every detail of her life. We keep in touch as often as we can, and I trust her. As long as she’s happy, that’s good enough for me.”

Dandelion remained strangely quiet as Geralt carried the last of the bags into the tiny one-bedroom apartment. He didn’t exactly have a lot thanks to constant travelling, so it had only taken a couple trips and he could get the unpacking done quickly, maybe even in less than an hour. The place had come furnished as well, which was another bonus. He was glad to not have asked anyone else for help.

“Did you know she’s got tattoos now?” Dandelion blurted out, as if this was incredibly important information he just couldn’t keep to himself. “At least three, last time I heard.”

“She has—Dandelion, why are you telling me this? You know she can do what she wants, right?”

“Just thought you might want to know.” He had that look on his face, the one that meant he was planning something. Geralt hated that look. It always precluded bad things, like the time Dandelion tried to throw him a surprise party and had ended up in the hospital because Geralt had punched him reflexively and broken his nose. Geralt also hated surprises. And parties. “You should check and see if she’s here yet.”

“….okay.” He shut the door and locked it behind them, slipping the key into his pocket. “Not until I’ve gotten my parking sticker, though. Rather not get a ticket the first day here.” Dandelion looked annoyed, but followed him to the front office nonetheless. As he neared the small building, he thought he could hear arguing coming from inside. One of the voices sounded oddly familiar.

“I don’t understand what’s taking so long,” it complained as Geralt pulled the door open. Through the glass, he’d caught a glimpse of a head of straw-colored hair that he knew all too well. “She’s already filled out all the paperwork. She’s moving in her furniture right now. Yet I’ve been here twenty minutes and you can’t even scan my drivers’ license.”

“Ma’am, I can’t help that the copier’s broken—”

“Perhaps you should’ve thought of that before you put it in there.” She turned when she heard them sitting down in the uncomfortable plastic chairs behind her and her eyes widened. “Geralt,” she crooned, tilting her head so her hair caught the light flatteringly. He couldn’t help but notice the seductive tone that had crept into her voice, the way she angled herself to show off the cut of her dress to its best advantage. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Keira Metz.” He hoped he sounded amused instead of mildly annoyed, which was what he actually was. He didn’t hate her by any means, but their previous encounters weren’t exactly something he remembered fondly. “Wouldn’t have ever pegged you as a teacher.”

“Neither would I.” She grimaced. In all reality, Keira was the last person he would’ve thought would teach in any capacity. She didn’t have the most generous or caring personality, and she was one of the least responsible people he’d ever met, second only to Dandelion. “But I’m only to teach one section, and they’ve agreed to fund all my research while I’m here. As well as any…expeditions I might go on to collect that research.”

Of course they had. Geralt got the impression that she made most decisions based solely on her personal gain. “It’s as good a reason as any,” Dandelion interjected, probably to stop Geralt from saying something that might offend her. “What brings you here, though?” He motioned to the office, to the frazzled man behind the counter, who was desperately trying to fix the copier while throwing terrified glances at the back of Keira’s head. “Last I heard, you already lived here. No need for new paperwork.”

Leave it to Dandelion to know everything about everyone. He spent, in Geralt’s opinion, more time on social media than any one person should. “I was,” Keira replied with a long-suffering sigh. “But I’ve got a roommate now, which means a new apartment and significantly higher rent.”

To say Geralt was surprised would be an understatement. “How in the world did someone convince you to share an apartment with them?” It was no secret that Keira liked her space (except when it came to him, it seemed), and it was hard to picture her even living in an apartment, let alone sharing it with someone else. That research must have been important.

“A ridiculous amount of money. Not to mention she’s paying for everything else.” This time he barely stopped himself from commenting. She laughed a little. It sounded bitter. “It’s the only way I could be convinced, all things considered. I’d assumed we were done being roommates about thirteen years ago, but she showed up unannounced and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

He must have looked confused, because she sighed again and explained. “We used to live together at Aretuza. They paired us her first full year. I assume they thought we’d get along, but nothing could be further from the truth. I can’t stand her. We’re nothing alike.”

Dandelion laughed heartily. “Ah, so that’s who you’re talking about. Rest assured, Keira, you’re more alike than you want to admit. Well, at any rate, this makes things interesting for you, Geralt.” He elbowed him in the ribs, and not gently, either. Geralt was beginning to think broken-nosed Dandelion was a large improvement over this mysterious version.

Keira’s lips turned up in a smirk as she ran her fingers over the ankh on her necklace, tracing its outline absentmindedly. “Right. I forgot about that. That daughter of hers—I guess that daughter of yours as well. Does that mean you’ll come visit me?” The door opened with a chime behind him, but he didn’t break eye contact. “I’m more fun than she is, anyway.”

“Debatable.” He looked over to where Triss had walked in, holding the door open behind her as if waiting for someone to catch up. She didn’t exactly look thrilled to see Keira, and the feeling was clearly mutual. When she caught sight of Geralt, though, she smiled and her face turned a very interesting shade of red.

“Or outright untrue.” The expression on Dandelion’s face when Philippa Eilhart followed Triss in would have made him laugh if he wasn’t just as confused, though considerably less angry. True, she had as good a reason to be in Oxenfurt as any (he knew the Redainan Secret Service was headquartered above the Dean’s office, which he suspected he shouldn’t know), but what she was doing in the lobby of an apartment complex reserved mostly for professors was beyond him. She took the seat next to him, drinking iced coffee out of a plastic cup and smelling strongly of cinnamon and muskroot. Without looking away from Keira, she set a black duffel bag on the floor at her feet.

Visibly uncomfortable, Keira turned around and glared daggers at the man behind the counter as she spoke “Lovely. If I’d have known all three of you would be here, I wouldn’t have taken that deal.”

“Yes, you would’ve.” Philippa sounded incredibly bored. Geralt saw her glance at her phone—waiting for a call? “Your self-interest truly knows no bounds.”

“Right, and you’re a shining example of a bleeding heart.” The copier finally stuttered to life and began printing something. Keira relaxed visibly, probably relieved that she’d soon have an excuse to leave. “You kept being her sponsor even after—”

“Keira.” Triss’s voice was like broken glass. Geralt had seen her get angry before, usually at Lambert, but he’d never heard her sound like that. “She’s not even here. You don’t need to bring her into this like that.”

“The only reason she’s not here is because her paperwork scanned just fine. But suit yourself.” She turned her back to them and bent over the counter, scrawling her signature several times with an exaggerated flourish. Triss and Philippa exchanged a loaded glance as she dropped the pen and shoved her phone and keys back into her purse. “Let me know if you’re not busy tonight, Geralt,” she said over her shoulder as she pushed past Triss, her intentions unmistakable.

The two waited until she was a fair distance away before they started laughing. “Is it bad,” Philippa said between long sips of coffee, “that I’m actually looking forward to this?”

“Absolutely.” Geralt had nearly forgotten Dandelion was there. Normally he would be far more interested in the meaning of those words, but it seemed distaste for Philippa outweighed his love of gossip. “But a better question might be what are you doing here?”

Her phone chimed as she rolled her eyes, and she didn’t look up when she answered. “I work here. In the Department of Most Contemporary History.” The sarcasm was evident, but it had clearly been lost on his friend.

“More like the Department of Comparative Spying and Applied Sabotage,” Dandelion muttered under his breath. Geralt stood and went to the counter, intent on getting his parking permit as he’d originally been doing. He hadn’t wanted to get in the middle of an argument. The man seemed very relieved that Geralt wasn’t also yelling at him.

“That’s hilarious, really. Did you spend all morning thinking of that one?”

Geralt sidled over to where Triss was still standing by the door. “You seen Ciri yet?” he whispered, remembering her cryptic comment about not using her real name.

Triss nodded. “She got here before I did. She’s back at our place now, unpacking the rest of her stuff. I’m supposed to send you there the second I see you.” She gestured towards the front desk, frowning. “I’ve still got some paperwork to finish up, though. If you guys want to go up without me, that’s fine.”

Dandelion was shaking his head vigorously before she’d even finished the sentence. “I wish I could, but I’ve got some unpacking to do myself. Besides, I’ll be seeing you all later.” It was a flimsy excuse to not be around Philippa, and he clearly knew it. If she noticed (and he had no doubt she did) she didn’t say anything. Dandelion aimed a very intense stare in Geralt’s direction as he left. The look clearly indicated he wanted to speak, but he’d ignore it as long as he could. Seeing Ciri mattered more right then.

Philippa slung the bag back over her shoulder as she stood and left, and Geralt followed reluctantly. If she’d come here with Triss, she knew where she was going and he didn’t, considering he’d gotten here less than an hour ago. This whole thing felt like a mistake, still; none of them had ever done something like this before. Hell, he hadn’t even had a hand in the education of any witchers-in-training except for Ciri. How had he let them talk him into this?

“You’re brooding so loudly it’s giving me a headache.” When he looked over, her dark eyes stared back sharply. Right. Triss usually had the decency to not go digging around in his mind. Most other sorceresses weren’t so polite.

“Maybe if you didn’t read everyone’s minds, that wouldn’t be a problem.” Her lips twitched. It almost looked as if she were going to smile, but she simply responded with “touché” and kept walking. Ciri and Triss had rented a two-bedroom on the upper level, number twenty-five, and for a moment he thought she was going to go in as he followed her up the stairs, the air getting more and more humid as they ascended. But when they reached the top she shoulder open the door of twenty-seven across the landing.

“Any particular reason I’m the one carrying all your things when you could easily make someone else do it?” she yelled to someone inside as she vanished from his line of sight.

“Because I’m busy, Philippa.” The voice that responded sounded oddly familiar—the other person that had been in the room when he called Ciri. She sounded notably calmer than the last time he had spoken to her, though that had been years ago.

“That doesn’t mean you couldn’t have shoved it on someone else. Or portaled them in. Would’ve been a lot quicker.”

“And waste all my energy? I’d rather not.”

His curiosity was piqued enough that he was considering following her in, but then a voice that was all too familiar to him yelled “Geralt!” and when he turned around suddenly Ciri was hugging him.

She was so tall, he thought as they pulled away to size each other up. Even in her flat sneakers he had only a few inches on her. The t-shirt and shorts she was wearing showed she hadn’t been slacking on her training; her arms and legs were just as lean as they had been during her days at Kaer Morhen, though he had no idea what she’d actually been doing. She kept her ashen hair pulled behind her head, minus a few strands that her fallen out, and her shocking green eyes were rimmed in black liner.

There was a long angry scar dominating the left side of her face.

His brow furrowed as he touched her cheek gently, inches away from the line. She stepped back, refusing to make direct eye contact with him. “It’s not pretty, I know. But you’re probably more concerned with how I got it.” She laughed. He could hear it in how nervous she was. “It’s a long story, but I’ll tell you soon, I promise. Maybe over some food? I haven't eaten all day.”

She looked so hopeful that he didn’t have the heart to refuse her, even though there was a faculty dinner he was technically supposed to be attending. After all, they hadn’t seen each other since she was thirteen. “Of course. But…you should’ve told me.” He knew how isolated he could get form the rest of the world, especially when he spent months at a time on the Path, but if something of this magnitude had happened, he would’ve expected to at least get a phone call.

“I know. I’m sorry.” She glance up at him, expression downcast. “I just…didn’t want you to worry about it. You were out, and I didn’t want to be in the back of your mind when you were off killing monsters. Besides, at this point it looks a lot worse than it is, or was.” They paused for a minute. He could hear it coming a mile away, but he didn’t interrupt. “And I can take care of myself.”

There it was. “Never said you couldn’t,” he shot back, raising an eyebrow. “Though I’m starting to question the company you keep.”

“You mean Philippa?” This time the laugh was just a laugh, and he smile too, glad to see her happy. “She’s not so bad once you get to know her. The talons retract a little. I think I’m one of the few people who’ve seen her act like a normal human being. I’m honored to be in such esteemed company. Besides, she’s not nearly half as bad as most of my friends.”

“You realize that only proves my point.”

She waved off his halfhearted protest as she turned to walk into her apartment. He followed her and settled on the threadbare couch in the living room as she sat on the floor among several half-empty boxes. The silence returned, and it stretched on comfortably. It reminded him of the years she’d spent at Kaer Morhen, of nights by the fireplace where she’d sit at his feet and read while he cleaned his weapons. He wondered if he would ever get to feel that peacefulness again.

“Hey, Geralt?” He looked over from where he’d been letting his gaze wander the apartment. She had a wistful smile on her face that likely mimicked the one on his own. Before he could respond, she said, in a slightly choked-up voice, “I missed you.”

He felt oddly emotional too. With Ciri here, he felt more at home in a strange place than he ever had before. He smiled again as she moved to sit on the couch next to him. “I missed you too.”

Chapter Text

Oxenfurt seemed livelier every time he visited it, though he suspected that was largely due to the fact that he spent most of his time alone, or at Kaer Morhen. Any place with more than a few people in it felt crowded to him. He had a special hatred for large cities, though—the mass of bodies, all the sounds and smells, were hell on his enhanced senses. Dandelion told him every chance he got that he thought Geralt would probably settle in a big city for good, and while he couldn’t deny they were excellent places to pick up contracts, he couldn’t see himself being happy in a place like this.

Ciri had clearly picked up on his discomfort, because she led him around the outskirts of the city to a small tavern called the Alchemist. Aside from them, there were only a few other patrons, and the man at the bar waved happily to Ciri when they entered, almost as if he knew her.

“You come here often?” Geralt asked as they sat down at a table by the windows. The shutters were closed, but light still seeped through them, even though the sun was beginning to set.

Ciri nodded. She picked up a menu from the rack on the side of the table and flipped it open. “We stay here sometimes when we’re travelling. He’s got rooms upstairs. It’s better than sleeping in an RV, anyway.”

“Right. With your…band.” When she’d explained to him on the walk over, he wasn’t sure if he’d heard her right. He still wasn’t sure. For the past few years he’d tried not to think too hard about what she was doing—as long as she was safe, he wouldn’t press too much, especially since she’d done nothing but insist she could take care of herself. But I joined up with a bunch of vagabonds and we formed a punk band was very low on the list of the things he thought would come out of her mouth when he asked what she’d been up to.

She rolled her eyes as the waiter came by and they both ordered very large burgers. “Yes, with my band. Why do you find that so hard to believe?”

“First of all, the last time I saw you, you didn’t know how to play any instruments.”

“I was twelve the last time you saw me, if I remember correctly. And I can play three now, thank you very much.”

“That is the least of my confusion over this.”

Ciri sighed loudly. Anyone watching would think she was genuinely annoyed, but he knew better. He could tell she was happy to see him, and besides, she’d always skewed towards the dramatic. “What’s confusing you, then?”

“How you ended up on the road in the first place.” Why you ran away from Aretuza. It hung in the air and though he didn’t dare say it out loud, it was clear she knew what he meant. “You don’t have to be afraid to tell me—”

“I’m not!” she exclaimed indignantly. Their food arrived and she gladly took advantage of the opportunity to delay the conversation. She took her time eating, and didn’t start to answer until Geralt had nearly decided to drop the whole thing altogether. “It’s just…I don’t want to be a sorceress. I know,” she hurried on as he opened his mouth to reply, “that you were never trying to pressure me into anything like that. Nobody was, actually. But I could feel it—everyone assumed that’s what I would do. Go to Aretuza, graduate in a decade or so with a final project as good as my heritage. Yennefer would sponsor me. Triss, maybe, if they wanted a nice straight line. A nice, straight, nepotistic line.” She rolled her eyes as she pushed her plate away. “But that was never my plan. You only sent me away so I could learn how to control…it. I can do that now. Actually, I can’t even feel it anymore. I don’t need anything else.”

He nodded. There wasn’t much else to say; he understood the reasoning behind her actions. Still… “There were ways to get out of it without worrying us so much.”

He wasn’t sure which ‘us’ he was talking about. The witchers at Kaer Morhen? The lecturers at Aretuza? Him and Yennefer of Vengerberg, whom he’d spoken to approximately once on the phone and had never seen in person? That thought made him rethink his last comment—he’d made his fair share of poorly-thought-out decisions, though he’d been backed into a corner on that one. “I know that, too.” She looked back at him, seeming truly apologetic. “But…I was only fourteen, Geralt. At the time, it didn’t feel like I had many options.”

This was the part of being her guardian he had never been very good at. In fact, he’d never been good with emotions at all—they’d been stripped from him years ago, and his capacity to feel was extremely limited. He cared for her, that was true, but it was cold comfort.

“Wasn’t trying to accuse you of anything, or make you feel bad. But…next time you want to do something like that, a heads-up would be appreciated.”

She smiled widely and squeezed his hand over the table. “Of course.”

After that she changed the subject for a while, very quickly and without explanation. She asked Geralt everything she could think of about his past few years on the Path. He answered as thoroughly as he could, and though she seemed satisfied, there was still an air of wistfulness about her. When he’d first taken her in, nearly ten years ago, she was insistent on becoming a witcher. For all he knew, that was still what she wanted. But as she got older and her magical abilities grew stronger and more unpredictable, controlling them became their top priority.

He had initially wanted her to train with Triss. They’d known each other for a few years after meeting through a mutual friend, and she’d become fairly close to Ciri as well, almost like a sister. She was young, true, but Geralt had trusted that she'd be a good teacher, and Ciri would listen to her. But when an offer to train as an advisor on Foltest’s royal council arrived on her doorstep—an offer she would’ve been hard-pressed to refuse—they were forced to alter their plans. It was too dangerous to wait any longer, so just before Ciri’s thirteenth birthday, they sent her to Ellander to stay at Melitile’s temple with Yennefer, who had been highly recommended by Triss (though judging by what Ciri had said on the phone, he had to wonder how much of a biased decision it had been).

They’d corresponded a few times over email, always very professionally, always about Ciri. He knew almost nothing about her besides what Triss had said, and her qualifications had been impressive enough. He knew now that Ciri loved her, considered her a mother, and that was enough for him. As far as the plans to take her to Aretuza, he’d been in the dark until he got the call that she’d run off. It was the only time he’d heard her voice, the only time the stark wall of cordiality between them had been breached.

They searched for her independently for about a month before she got in contact with them both via payphone to let them know she was okay. She hadn’t given many details about where she was—not to Geralt, at least—and at the time he’d been too relieved to press for them. He’d never exactly been good at being strict; he always left that to the others, no matter how much they teased him for it. As long as she was safe and happy, he could deal with being somewhat in the dark.

They spoke as frequently as possible, considering his long stretches of time on the Path, and up until a couple of years ago, when she’d dropped off the radar almost completely, he'd invite her to visit Kaer Morhen in the winter and stay for a month or so. She always refused, which meant he hadn’t seen her in person for seven years. Even after all that time, it had still felt off to not have her wandering around the keep—but she was here now, in front of him, the only thing that felt real on this otherwise incredibly odd day.

“You still haven’t told me exactly what you’re doing here,” he pointed out as they paid and started to walk back in the direction of the apartment complex. Ciri grew quiet, and the setting sun slanting through the buildings illuminated the sudden tension in her face, the lines that had formed between her eyebrows. She looked as though she was trying very hard not to cry. Geralt immediately regretted asking.

“We were supposed,” she began, softly and hollowly, “to be working with Dandelion. He got in contact and offered to help us record some things. Get out name out there. We were broke, so of course we took him up on it.” She had slowed down considerably, and Geralt did his best to keep pace with her, match her shorter strides. “Then, a few months ago….we were driving through Aedirn. We’d been all over for a while, you know, trying to drum up some popularity. Or make enough to eat, at least. And a semi hit us head-on. Didn’t look where it was going, I suppose, or maybe we didn’t look.” She stopped, leaned heavily against the side of a building. “At any rate, I was the only one who made it out.”

Her arms were crossed, and she gripped her elbows tightly. Without thinking, Geralt put his arms around her, pulling her closely to him. He felt her shudder against his shirt, holding back tears. “I’m sorry, Ciri,” he whispered.

“It’s alright,” she sniffed, rubbing her eyes as she stepped back. Her knuckles came away black with eyeliner, though the makeup still on her face looked undisturbed. “There wasn’t exactly a lot you could’ve done.” The laugh that escaped as she started walking again, just a little faster than him so she wouldn’t have to meet his gaze, was brittle. “It’s funny, isn’t it? I was going to be a witcher. I wanted to protect people. But I couldn’t protect them in the end.”

Her voice was cracking, and all he could feel was remorse. He hadn’t wanted her to be a witcher. He’d only begun training her in the first place because it was the only thing he knew how to do. But as he grew fonder of her, so too did he become more unsure about his choice. Sending her to Yennefer had seemed the best thing—she had the innate ability and besides, a mage’s life couldn’t possibly be any more dangerous than a witcher’s. But if it had led to this…

“You shouldn’t blame yourself,” he said, completely at a loss.

“That’s what everyone’s been telling me,” she replied sourly. “But given the circumstances, it’s kind of hard not to.”

She sounded very much like she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so he didn’t push her. But there was still one thing confusing him. “You still ended up here, though. How?”

This time, when she chuckled, there was a little mirth in it. “I spent a month or so in the hospital. Got a lot of injuries, including this, from glass.” She gestured to the scar dividing the left side of her face. “Couldn’t really talk—couldn’t talk at all, in fact, and my phone was shattered. So I wrote to Aedd Gynvael. I didn’t know where exactly either of you were, so I figured my best bet would be to make sure Yennefer’s stupid fiancé got it. She came down when they discharged me, and I stayed with her in Vengerberg for maybe another month. But…” She swallowed thickly. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I hadn’t made any contingency plans. But the Academy had been trying to get their hands on her for years. So she called Oxenfurt, accepted their offer conditionally, and arranged for me to move in with Triss.”

“You realize that raises more questions than it answers.”

“Like what?” she huffed. “I’ve told you the whole story.”

Perhaps it felt that way to her, but he still knew almost nothing about the past few years, except that she’d contacted Yennefer far more often than him. The idea made him oddly jealous. “Like a lot of things. That scar, for instance.” Her hand flew to her face, feeling along its ragged edges. “You say you got it a few months ago, but it looks like you’ve had it for years.”

“Because it is only a few months old. Philippa’s been giving me creams and such for it. I don't know what she puts in them but they’re quite good, actually. She does it for—wait, I probably shouldn’t tell you that. It’s none of your business.”

“Thought you said you weren’t friends with Philippa Eilhart.” Despite that, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the concept of them being around each other in any capacity. He’d only met her a handful of times before that day, mostly in Dijkstra’s company, but she wasn’t the easiest to get along with, that much had been immediately evident.

Ciri scoffed. Above them, the sun lengthened their shadows. “I’m not. If I had my way I wouldn’t be around her at all. But she sponsored Yennefer. From what I can tell they’re fairly close, actually. They weren’t supposed to be, but something happened right before she graduated, or so Triss says. Anyway, I’m kind of stuck with her.” She shrugged as they passed the row of hedges that surrounded the apartment complex. “It’s funny. If you knew them individually, you’d think they would hate each other. There are probably a million universes where they do. But we live in this one.”

The more she talked, the less sure he became that Yennefer of Vengerberg was a person he actually wanted to meet. “Based on what you said earlier, I’m not sure Yennefer has the best judgement when it comes to choosing friends.” Though, taking Dandelion into account, he might be a bit hypocritical.

“What, are you talking about Istredd?” He looked over just in time to catch her rolling her eyes again. “He’s not actually an idiot. He’s brilliant. He’s also annoying and condescending and he doesn’t like me. Lucky for him, the feeling’s mutual.”

“Why doesn’t he like you?”

“Fuck if I know. I think he just hates anyone Yennefer likes that isn’t him. He really doesn’t like Triss.” She laughed a little. Geralt didn’t understand why that was funny, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer. It was becoming clear that he’d missed far more than he thought.

They walked in comfortable silence for a few minutes, aimlessly wandering the parking lot, neither of them wanting to admit they had other things to do and should probably go.  He still had to unpack the large majority of his things, and he supposed it wouldn’t kill him to at least dip in to the faculty welcome. What Ciri was doing, he wasn’t quite sure, but it seemed like she didn’t know either. As they grew closer to his building’s door he spoke up, suddenly remembering something he’d heard earlier.

“Dandelion mentioned something to me this morning. About you having tattoos? He seemed to think I’d be scandalized by it, but I don’t know why.”

“Oh!” She seemed considerably more excited than any of the other times he’d asked her about things in the past hour. Slowing to a stop a few doors away, she started to roll up the right sleeve of her shirt. “He was probably thinking about this one. I was going to show it to you anyway, but I guess now’s as good a time as any.”

She turned and offered a view of her arm. On her shoulder, in thin black lines, was the recreation of a very familiar wolf-head medallion. He smiled at her, and she looked visibly relieved. Had she really been worried about his reaction to this? Though, considering his reactions to other things, he couldn’t truly blame her. “Impressive,” he said, and she beamed. “But he said you had more than one.”

The smile slipped a little as she pulled the right sleeve back down and started to roll up the left. “Yeah, I’ve got this one,” she said, showing what appeared to be a star surrounded by…small circles. He wasn’t quite sure of its significance, and she didn’t pause to explain as she tugged on her sleeve. “The other one…I’d rather not talk about right now.”

He let her be silent. He knew what she meant. They stood in front of his doorway, not quite making eye contact until the quiet was broken by the phone ringing quite insistently. “Sorry,” she mumbled sheepishly as she fished it from the pocket of her shorts and pressed it against her ear with a very annoyed “hello?”

Where are you?” The voice that scratched through the receiver, which he could only just hear, was melodious and slightly accusatory. Ciri looked up exaggeratedly, hand over the phone as if whoever was on the other end would be able to hear her. “You said you were going to be at the dinner.”

“I’m with Geralt! I haven’t seen him in years; I saw you this morning! Besides,” she said, her voice lowered but barely disguising laughter, “we can’t all be department heads. Some of us aren’t even on the staff at all.”

“I’m only a department head because they’re trying to bribe me into letting them publish my research before anyone else.” The voice sighed. “But that’s beside the point. Triss wants to know when you plan on removing all the boxes from the kitchen.”

“Why didn’t Triss just call me herself and ask, then?”

“She’s misplaced her phone. As usual.” Someone was trying to talk to whoever was on the other end, and the voice was growing more and more agitated as she continually tried to cut them off. “I—can you just do it before people get there? I can’t talk right now. I’m sorry.” She hung up and the call ended as abruptly as it had begun. Ciri slipped the phone back into her pocket. She looked defeated.

“Guess I have to go move some boxes now.”

“So do I.” There wasn’t much unpacking to be done considering his few possessions, but he’d been intending to put it off as long as possible. Part of him didn't want this place to feel like a home. It seemed, though, that he’d exhausted nearly all his other options. There was still one person he could call, a way to distraction, but that was a decision he’d have to weigh carefully before making.

“I don’t suppose you’d come with me?” They’d stopped just inside the entryway of his building. Ciri turned her bright green, hopeful eyes on him. He almost didn’t have the heart to tell her no, but the thought of running into Triss, who was probably more than a little drunk, was just as unappealing as the stack of boxes waiting for him.

“Probably shouldn’t. If you still talk like you used to, neither of us will get anything done.” She smiled a little, but it barely hid her disappointment. “It won’t be that bad. I’m right down the road if you need anything.”

She nodded, and then rather suddenly threw her arms around him. He only had a moment to return the embrace before the pulled back and dashed off with only a hasty ‘goodbye’ thrown over her shoulder. Apparently she still hated parting as much as she used to. He went inside and shut the door behind him, but the sight of the stacked boxes and bags on the floor gave him a headache and his phone was burning a hole in his pocket. Semi-reluctantly, he pulled it out and keyed the number in. He had one last distraction left. He might as well use it.

Chapter Text

If someone had asked him right after he accepted the offer what he’d be doing that night, sleeping with Keira Metz probably wouldn’t have been anywhere on the list, but that was what he found himself doing. It wasn’t the first time, either. They’d known each other several years now, and when he saw her he swore he wouldn’t go down that road again. His resolve, apparently, was weak, easily broken down by the smell of (surprisingly) clean linen and whatever it was she’d been drinking. It was the only thing about Keira that was clean in the slightest. He knew that, had known it a while, but he came to her bed nonetheless.

She wasn’t one for cuddling—or emotions at all, really—so after they lay in her bed, which dwarfed the room, side by side without touching. She’d painted the walls a light blue (the lease forbade it, but he was certain that didn’t bother her in the slightest) and hung them with tapestries that fluttered in the breeze coming through the open window. “She made me take the smaller room,” she griped as she blew a strand of hair off her face and pulled the quilts up. Geralt suddenly remembered why he hadn’t wanted to pick back up with her in the first place.

“Why wouldn’t she? She’s paying rent. And utilities. And a rather sizable bribe, if what I heard is right.” Keira stared at him disdainfully. He knew it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. She liked to be right, and she liked when people agreed with her. He was fully aware of that, so he wasn’t sure why he felt the need to defend a woman he’d never met, especially in bed with another. Obviously, she was thinking the same thing.

“All I’m trying to say is she’s the one who showed up looking for a roommate.”

“And you were the one who accepted her offer and the circumstances that came with it. You’re not entitled to anything except what she said she’d give you.” He didn’t look over, but it was as if he could feel the anger radiating off her in waves. He knew he’d made a mistake, but considering how he felt (or, more accurately, didn’t feel) about her, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. If this was the last night he spent in her bed, so be it. He wouldn’t exactly be heartbroken.

“Geralt,” she said all of a sudden, turning onto her side so she pressed against his arm. When he glanced down she had her gaze lowered, shielding herself with her lashes in an attempt to make her look more innocent. He wasn’t fooled. “I don’t suppose you could get me a glass of water?”

Of course. As a general rule, Keira was only nice when she needed something. But he didn’t have anything better to do and he couldn’t stand the way she was looking at him, so he stood resignedly and mumbled “fine” as he pulled on his boxers. If it had been easier for him to slip out unnoticed and return to his own apartment he would’ve done it, but it would be too obvious now. Surely she’d question if he got fully dressed to go to the kitchen. He’d just have to deal with it.

Once he was out into the main area, he could see the source of her frustration. Aside from the fact that he felt like he’d been smacked in the face with something that reminded him of the scent of lilac and gooseberries, there wasn’t a hint of Keira in the whole room—not in the ivory couch, the grey-stained dining room table, the small shelf made of black metal and the same grey wood that was covered in framed photographs. Everything was crisp, clean, all sharp edges. Unfamiliar.

He could hear people in the other rooms of the apartment—the sudden silence of the shower being turned off in the bathroom, the click of someone typing in the bedroom. Though his senses surely had picked up the noises, he hadn’t paid them any mind until now. It was unlikely Keira had gotten up, though he wouldn’t put it past her—she’d been known to do things like that for no other reason than to annoy him—and besides, she couldn’t possibly be in three places at once. After a moment or two had passed without any further incident, he shut off the faucet and, against his better judgement, wandered over to the shelf in the corner of the living room, setting the full glass down on the coffee table. It felt off, it felt somewhat intrusive, but everyone had been talking around her all day and, except for snippets here and there, vague memories of old photographs Ciri had sent him, he wasn’t even quite sure what she looked like.

His decision to snoop solved at least one of those problems, because she was in nearly every picture, except for one of him and Ciri. He was surprised to see it there, but then again, he knew Ciri had at least two copies of it—it was seven or eight years old by now. She was in the rest of them; he recognized slightly younger versions of Triss and Philippa, and in another was a man with brown, shoulder-length hair that he assumed was her fiancé, judging by the casual way he’d draped his arm around her. He looked to be about forty, though he could’ve been far off. It was a common age for sorcerers to slow or stop the aging process; sorceresses started much earlier than that. He wondered, not for the first time, how old she actually was. She couldn’t be that much older than Triss if they’d lived together, but then again, the age range of students at Aretuza was fairly sizeable, and she could very well be much older.

There was something tucked behind one of the frames, and though he knew he shouldn’t, he carefully moved the picture out of the way to grab it. It was a book, a copy of The Poisoned Source that was extremely tattered and had several page markers sticking out of it. The name sounded familiar, but it wasn’t something he’d ever read. He turned it over, examining the worn leather cover, and started to flip it open.

A shocked noise made him stop halfway, and he hurriedly shoved the book back and repositioned the frame. When he turned, the bathroom door was open just a crack. A shadow danced across the sliver of light being thrown on the floor.

“I was hoping,” said a very annoyed voice from behind the door, “that when I told Keira I didn’t want any strange men here when I returned, she might actually listen to me."

A moment later the door swung open, and he was immediately arrested by an amused pair of violet eyes. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised—she lived here, what had he expected?—but he found himself there anyway, and she didn’t hesitate to pick up his slack. “But you’re not a stranger, are you, Geralt of Rivia?” she said, the corner of her mouth turning up ever so slightly.

His first thought, after years of not knowing her personally, only hearing about her through others, was that Yennefer of Vengerberg was…small.

Perhaps he’d been building her up in his mind, but it seemed as if all the personality he’d heard of wouldn’t be able to fit in that body. Her skin, slightly damp, was even paler than his, and under the black robe that had clearly been tied hastily he could see hints of curves that he tried not to look at too long. She drew up next to him and turned to look at the shelf. Her inky hair was piled messily on top of her head, showing off a triangular face, sharp cheekbones. She pressed her lips together and didn’t look back at him.

“Truthfully, this isn’t at all how I imagined we’d meet.” Her hand reached up to her neck, slender fingers tracing the outline of an obsidian star, surrounded by diamonds, which hung on a black velvet ribbon that encircled her throat. He recognized it immediately from the design on Ciri’s left shoulder. “But here we are.”

“You imagined it?”

“You didn’t?” She turned her penetrating gaze on him. He felt as though he were drowning in her scent, which had only intensified in the time he’d been there. No, he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t thought about it, though he’d also assumed it would be more formal, and that they would be more clothed when it happened. And she wouldn’t be staring at him like that. “I see where she gets her nosiness from,” she said, nodding towards the shelf.

The book. If he still had the ability to blush, he would’ve. “Not exactly private if it’s sitting out in the open.”

“You’re not wrong,” she replied. One of her sleeves had slipped partially off her shoulder, framing her body in a most fascinating manner. He suspected she knew he was staring. “But if you need to move other things to get to it, it’s not out in the open, is it?”

“Sorry.” Was she always like this? No wonder Ciri had run away—though from the way she’d spoken earlier, it seemed the two of them were close. There had to be something to her, some redeeming quality, because all the seemed now, despite her obvious beauty, was blunt and somewhat cold.

She waved off his apology with an all-too-familiar gesture that Ciri had used on him not even a few hours before. There was a ring on her finger, a silver one, set with a sizeable black diamond. He hadn’t intended to say anything about it, but the words slipped out before he had a chance to think about them. “Is he here?”

“Who, Val?” She held her hand out flat, examining the way the stone caught the light. Her fingernails were painted a perfect, glossy mauve. “Yes, he’s here, but only for a day or so, until classes start up. The offer to stay didn’t extend to him.”

“But it extended to Triss.” The whole thing seemed off to him, though he wasn’t sure why. He raised an eyebrow and she met his stare head-on, hitching the robe back over her shoulder and resting her hands on her hips in one fluid motion.

“It’s a complicated situation, one that you know nothing about. And if you don’t know anything, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything.”

She was right, of course, but he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of admitting it out loud. So he remained silent, turning back to the shelf. A few moments passed in silence. He heard her walking to the kitchen, the fridge opening and closing, what sounded like a bottle being opened. It took a lot to render him truly speechless, but she’d managed to do it in a manner of minutes. He had the distinct feeling that she would dismiss anything he tried to say anyway.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” He didn’t turn but he could feel her hovering at his side, pausing to take a drink of whatever she was holding. “The first witcher I’ve met in person, and it’s you. The famous White Wolf.” There might’ve been a mocking edge to her voice; he couldn’t quite tell. “Among other things.”

He sensed a question coming, and he shifted to meet her eyes, only to be stopped short by her cool fingertips on his face. She traced over the scar that cut across his eye with startling gentleness. “This scar,” she murmured. Her brow furrowed, her lips parted slightly. “It’s new. Where did it come from?”

He’d been asked that question more times than he could count. Never before had it caught him so off guard. “A cockatrice.” The star on her neck was pulsing in a very distracting manner against the pale column of her throat. She nodded, her eyes moving over his other visible scars, down his chest, though her hand stayed in place. “What?” he said, spurred on by the way she looked at him, like she could divine his life story from the marks on his skin. “Never seen one before?”

Her lips turned up in a smile that didn’t look entirely friendly. He didn’t know why he’d felt the urge to prod her further. Keira was waiting for him; he had an easy excuse to leave. But there was something about her. “A cockatrice? No, I’ve not.” Her voice was soft and somewhat threatening. “But I’ve also no reason to have seen one.”

“Thought you mages knew everything.”

She dropped her hand quickly, curling it around the edge of the wall instead. He felt the loss, the warmth where just seconds ago her fingers had been. “Some think they do. But I’d thank you not to take all your frustrations about other sorceresses out on me.”

She suddenly sounded very tired, and Geralt couldn’t help but be grateful, because he’d all but run out of things to say. “Well, it’s been lovely, Geralt of Rivia, but I’m afraid I’ve got other things to do. Besides, I’m sure Keira is anxiously awaiting your return.” After one more long, penetrating look at him, she left the room. He heard a door click shut behind her, voices speaking too quietly for him to make out what they were saying—he was sure she was doing it purposefully. Picking up the glass from the table, he resignedly headed back into the other bedroom.

“It’s about time,” Keira snapped as he climbed into the bed, handing the water over. “I see you’ve met her.”

He nodded and slumped back. He felt exhausted. “Remind me again why you don’t like her?”

“I’d think speaking to her would be enough to answer that question,” she said sourly. Putting the glass down, she curled up next to him in an uncharacteristic show of affection. It seemed almost impossible, but he thought she might actually be jealous. “But fine, I’ll tell you. We lived together her first full year at Aretuza, but you already knew that. We also graduated together. Whatever, you’re thinking, right? We don’t have to interact, and we don’t, for the most part. But in the last few months when you’re looking for apprenticeships, it’s incredibly hard to find decent ones when some upstart sixteen-year-old is getting all the attention. And I haven’t even mentioned—”

“Wait. Sixteen?” Surely she’d misspoken. The average age to graduate was anywhere from nineteen to early twenties, depending on when the student had started and how fast they progressed; he’d learned that when he’d found out Yennefer had been planning to send Ciri there. Of course, there were exceptions (if he recalled correctly from the small amount of research he’d done, the youngest recent graduate was Philippa Eilhart, who had been eighteen), but sixteen seemed far outside the realm of possibility.

“Yes, aren’t you listening to me? Anyway, it’s not that, or at least it’s not completely that. She’s got this attitude, like she can do whatever she wants, like she thinks she’s better than everyone else.”

That wasn’t at all the impression he’d gotten from her, but he let that slide. He doubted she wanted to hear about their little exchange. “From what I’ve seen, that’s not entirely unjustified.”

Keira groaned very loudly and rolled away. The voices from the other room, he noticed, had stopped, though he could hear other noises now. “You’re impossible. I can’t even try to explain anything to you.” When he didn’t immediately respond, she reached over and flicked the light off. “Good night.”

“Keira—”

“I said good night, Geralt.”

She fell asleep quickly, and after an hour or so he got dressed and slipped out as quietly as he could manage. He could hear the soft humming of a white noise machine from somewhere to his left, but he shoved thoughts of that room and its inhabitants away. He still had some unpacking to do.

Chapter Text

 

“I still don’t understand why you decided this was a good idea.”

Yennefer paused, looking away from her reflection to meet his gaze in the mirror. “Why I think what is a good idea?” She blinked slowly, then resumed filling in her eyebrows with a pencil. She’d been steadfastly ignoring him for the past ten minutes as she went about her morning routine. It wasn’t anything new—she never liked to be disturbed then—but there was tension hanging in the air between them. It had been there last night and it was there now, stronger than before. If he stopped to think about it, it had been there for the past year or so, but neither of them wanted to acknowledge it.

“This.” He swept his arm out, encompassing the whole room in the gesture. “The whole…you know as well as I do that you’re not exactly going to be the best teacher.”

“No,” she agreed, “I’m not.” Turning away from her reflection, she walked over to the closet, considering a large array of black and white clothing. “But they don’t give a damn about my teaching ability. They care about my research.” She pulled out a dress and examined it for a moment before sighing and putting it back. “And my ability to keep a department full of men in line.”

There it was—his other big concern, though he knew better than to voice it outright. If there was anyone who could make a department of men (and Keira Metz, though she certainly wouldn’t be of any help) listen to her, it was Yenna. But she already had enough to deal with without that extra weight on her shoulders. “And you think you can do that?”

She didn’t stop buttoning up the white shirt she’d settled on, but he could tell by the sudden force of her movements that she was angry. More and more often he felt he should just keep his mouth shut about his worries, but then she’d accuse him of hiding things. As if she hadn’t been doing the same thing. He remembered Philippa’s snide comment about how well he really knew her, and he wished he hadn’t.

It had been like that from the start. The three of them, always together—or rather, Yenna and the two of them, because he’d noticed that Triss and Philippa didn’t get along so well. At first he’d found it annoying, how protective they were of her, but he’d learned to keep his observations to himself. Every time he asked her about it, she would fold in on herself, lips pressed together, shaking her head, staring at something half a world away. It was frustrating—words couldn’t express how frustrating it was—but one night she had turned to him and begged him with looking-glass eyes not to ask her again, that it hurt too much to tell.

So he stopped asking. But he never stopped wondering.

“Do you really doubt me that much?” She pulled on a black skirt, stepped into a pair of heels, and walked back over to the mirror. In a few minutes he would have to portal back to Aedd Gynvael, because she’d made it very clear she didn’t want him to stay. It felt as if she were building a family here—her daughter, who didn’t like him, Triss Merigold, who despised him, and soon enough, he was sure, Geralt of Rivia. He’d heard her talking to him the night before, and though he wasn’t quite sure yet where he fit in the equation, he had a sinking feeling he was being pushed farther and farther out of it.

“Not you. Never you,” he said. She scoffed at her reflection, pushing her hair aside to put diamond studs in her ears. The more active stones I’ve got on me, she’d told him once offhandedly, the better. “You know I wouldn’t. They’re the ones I don’t trust.”

He saw her purse her lips and exhale slowly in a way that clearly said she was trying to calm down. “Can we stop having this conversation now?” Without waiting for a reply, she picked up a green jar from the vanity in front of her and unscrewed it. Her scent filled the room as she smoothed its contents over her forearms, and he was suddenly filled with the desire to keep her there, not let either of them leave. Judging by the way she made a show of putting the jar back and grabbing the glass bottle that held her perfume, she knew.

The mood dissipated almost immediately, though, when, after carefully placing the bottle back where it had been, she turned to the side and started to examine her silhouette in the mirror. He tried to keep his annoyance internal. He knew what she was doing and why, and after nearly eight years, it was beginning to grate against the edges of his nerves. Standing carefully so as not to disturb the precise arrangement of things she’d laid on the bed, he drew up behind her, slipping his arms around her waist. He could feel her hipbones under his fingertips. She met his reflection’s eyes, her own expression unreadable.

“Don’t dwell on it,” he said as he pressed his face into her hair, trying his hardest to memorize its softness, the scent. He didn’t know when he’d see her again after this; she’d said herself she wasn’t sure when she’d get a break. She laughed a little, albeit resentfully, and rested her hands on top of his, wrapping her cold fingers around his wrists. They both knew it was pointless for him to say these things, that she would keep thinking about it no matter what he told her, so she didn’t respond, just turned so her face pressed into his chest. He shifted one of his hands to the back of her head, and she sighed into his shirt.

“You’re not terribly good at sympathy,” she said, her tone a little lighter than it had been. Her fingers came to rest on his chest, and he pressed his lips to her scalp. It was these moments where he felt the gaps between them painfully acutely, where he started to get the feeling that he didn’t know her nearly as well as he should. He’d been thinking it for almost as long as he’d known her, far before their relationship had become romantic, but things like this brought it to the forefront of his mind. She knew, he was doubtless, how he felt about it, but that had never changed her mind about keeping her secrets.

“I was under the impression you didn’t want it.” She hummed a little in amusement as she tried to pull away, but he kept her in place with his hand, fingers twined in her hair. When their eyes met he could sense slight irritation, but he was suddenly struck with the fear that if he let go now he would never get her back.

“That’s ridiculous,” she whispered. He sensed her probing at his thoughts and didn’t complain. Anything to make her see. “If I were going to leave, I would’ve done it by now. Besides…” She slid her hand along the juncture of his neck and shoulder. The setting of her ring, twisted slightly on her finger, scraped against his skin. “I thought we’d already cleared things up.”

The scent of her perfume clouded his thoughts and he kissed her, trying to imprint her in his mind—the softness of her lips, the way they slid against his own, how she sighed quietly into his mouth and wound her fingers into his hair. There was no space between them and he didn’t want any space. He kissed a trail down her throat, right above the velvet ribbon that encircled her neck, satisfied by the way her breathing became shallow even as she pushed him back, smiling regretfully. He let her return to the mirror, and when she left he opened a portal home, not saying anything about how she’d taken a piece of him with her.

~

Geralt realized quickly that the job wasn’t going to be at all like he’d thought. He had planned to keep the class mostly physical—demonstrate, pair the students up, walk around and correct them, much as Vesemir had when he and Eskel had been training. He didn’t consider himself good at giving lectures, but that much he could handle. That plan went to hell the second a few of the students figured out who he was. From that point on he was bombarded with so many questions about his profession that he hadn’t actually taught them a single thing when their time was up. Hours later, when he relayed the story on his way to lunch, Dandelion laughed so hard he almost fell over on the sidewalk. Triss was polite enough not to say anything outright, but he saw her trying not to snicker when she thought he wasn’t looking.

“Well, what did you expect?” Dandelion choked out as he tried to catch his breath. Geralt stared down at the concrete as he walked, squinting his oversensitive eyes against the early afternoon sun. “You may not like it, but everyone knows who you are.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with the class,” he grumbled.

“But it’s why they brought you here.” Next to him, Triss dug through her purse, sighing in annoyance when she couldn’t find what she was searching for. The breeze pushed her emerald-green dress against her legs, and a few minutes earlier she’d tied her hair up because she couldn’t deal with it whipping around her face. “The same thing happened to Yenna this morning, if it makes you feel better. She got it under control fast enough, though. It probably helped that a lot of the questions she was getting were…of a personal nature.”

“The difference,” Dandelion said with his usual exaggerated air of authority, “is that Yennefer actually enjoys her fame.”

Triss snorted, covering her face with her hand, and when Dandelion turned to look at her, offended, he ended up having to spit out a mouthful of his own hair when the wind picked up. “If you think that, you clearly don’t know her very well. All Yenna wants is to be left alone. She might accept her notoriety, and she certainly knows how to use it, but she hates it just as much as Geralt.”

The look on Dandelion’s face indicated he didn’t believe her, but he let it go for the moment. “Where is she, anyway?”

“She left already. I’m pretty sure ‘getting a table’ is what she said, but she really just wants to talk numbers with Regis before the rest of us get there.”

“Re—what?” Geralt was beginning to figure out that he was being left out of the loop more often than he thought. “Regis is here too?”

Triss turned to him with a bewildered expression. “He’s been here the whole time. He’s you department head, Geralt. Don’t you check your email?”

Before he had a chance to respond, Dandelion stopped and directed them through the door of a rather inconspicuous-looking diner. He craned his neck to look around as they made their way to the counter, and he finally spotted them, the sole occupants of a large corner booth. They were bent low over the table, black hair against grey, though they were equally pale. He kept an eye on them while he ordered and, when Dandelion and Triss had also paid, they made their way over, sidling around the mess of other tables in the center of the room.

“We’re here!” Dandelion announced loudly and unnecessarily as he slid into the booth after Triss, who had moved all the way over to sit next to Yennefer. Regis stood for a moment and hugged Geralt, clapping him on the back a little too harshly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yennefer gather up most of the papers they’d been poring over and slide them into her bag, out of sight.

“Hello, Geralt of Rivia,” she said as he sat down next to Dandelion, more or less directly across from her. There was a slight sheen to her lips and her hair, unfettered, reached halfway to her waist in glossy black curls. She barely glanced up at him as she said it, focusing instead on another pile of papers that had appeared in front of her.

“Hello, Yennefer of Vengerberg.”

He hoped that was a grin he’d seen flit across her face, and not an expression of annoyance. “It just doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely, does it?”

“Yenna, are you grading already?” Triss interrupted as Geralt began to answer, and he was secretly grateful; he still wasn’t quite sure what to do around her. “You’re going to work yourself to death. It’s one section. Take a few hours, at least.”

Yennefer exhaled slowly as she looked at the stack in front of her. “Do you know what, Triss? You’re absolutely right.” With an exaggerated flourish to rival Dandelion, she picked them up and put them on top of the styrofoam container that held Triss’s food. “You’re my assistant. You should be doing this.”

Triss’s mouth formed a small O as Dandelion burst out laughing, and Geralt bit the inside of his cheek to hold back a laugh of his own. The action seemed very much like something Ciri would do. He wondered if Yennefer had been like that before they met, but he already knew better than to ask. Instead he turned to Regis, who was chuckling as he looked over his own notes. “Didn’t know you two knew each other,” he said, so softly that hopefully Regis and only Regis would pick up on it.

He must have, because he replied in near silence. “I’m not surprised. Most people don’t.” For a moment he paused, staring at the numbers in front of him as if that alone could make them behave. “But yes, we know each other. Have for…oh, a decade or two. Time does tend to get jumbled.”

It seemed to him as if the longer he stayed there, the messier things became. All of his friends knew each other, had connected already in ways he would never have anticipated. Being on the Path for so long had made him miss more than he thought. “And what do you think of her?”

He glanced to the side, but the other three were embroiled deeply in another conversation, more or less ignoring them completely. Still, they were too close. “Later,” he mouthed, and Geralt nodded, opting to ask instead what he’d been up to in the several years since they’d seen each other last.

“Oh, I’ve been all over. Mostly farther to the south,” he replied vaguely, eyes darting back down to his notes. It was clear there was something he wasn’t saying, something he couldn’t say there. “I don’t know that you would find it at all inter—oh!” Without looking away from the pages in front of him, he grabbed a felt-tip pen in his right hand and Yennefer’s forearm in his left. She started as she turned to him but, surprisingly, she didn’t pull away as he uncapped the pen with his teeth and started to write something very complicated-looking down the length of her skin. It seemed to him a very Regis thing to do. He’d always been excited about research, whether his or other people’s, and had talked about his finds even when no one else around could understand what they meant. It was refreshing to see that that, at least, hadn’t changed.

Yennefer watched his scribbling with great interest, turning her head to better read the equation he scrawled on her skin while Dandelion and Triss looked on in confusion. She pushed her hair behind her ear with her free hand. There were shadows of bruises on her neck that he suspected only he could see; she’d concealed them so expertly that no one else would be able to tell they were there. Regis let go of her wrist and she stared at it for a very long time, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” she said finally, taking the pen and writing over his work, crossing things out as she went along in neat, slanted handwriting. “Well, perhaps for someone with a higher tolerance for magical healing. For someone like me, though…” She finished her revisions with a large X across most of the numbers. Triss pressed her lips together and focused on her food unwaveringly. She looked upset, though Geralt didn’t see what she had to be upset about. Regis picked up her arm again, examining the corrections very closely, and Yennefer smiled tightly, aware that the whole table’s focus was on her. He nodded after a minute, conceding to whatever it was she’d written.

“What’s the research for?” Geralt asked. They both looked up at him—Regis concerned, Yennefer’s expression unreadable. Dandelion still looked bewildered, and Triss was noticeably becoming more and more uncomfortable. He knew he’d made a mistake. He didn’t know what the mistake was.

“It’s fine,” she said softly—she must have been reading his mind, and it must have been extremely subtle for him not to notice. At the moment, he didn’t particularly care anyway. When he met her eyes, her stare was less piercing than it had been the night before. “I’m researching full-organ regeneration. With or without the use of magic, at this point.”

“And how’s that working out for you?”

Triss’s head snapped up as she stared at him in shock. Even Regis looked a bit stunned, and it only took a second for him to realize the idiocy of the question. Yennefer, to her credit, just smiled again, though a bit sadly, as she slid her arm under the table, hiding what was on it from view. “Not very well, Geralt of Rivia. Actually, not well at all.”

Triss made a choked noise as she pushed the remains of her food away and grabbed her purse. “I can’t listen to you talk about this anymore,” she muttered, forcing Geralt and Dandelion to stand as she shouldered past them out of the booth. The other stood too, and Yennefer called after her, but she didn’t look back as she left.

Yennefer swore under her breath and started to gather the rest of the papers still on the table. “Apologies for the unceremonious exit,” she said, looking mostly at Geralt, “But really, I’ve got to talk to her about this. She’ll stew in it all day if I don’t.” She threw a glance at Regis that, he thought, said more than every word she’d ever spoken to him, and then with a wave of lilac-and-gooseberry perfumed air she was gone, the only proof she’d been there the looks of utter bewilderment on Geralt and Dandelion’s faces.

“Well.” Regis clapped his hands together, seemingly unfazed. “These things happen. Shall we return to the campus, then? I’ve some things in my office you two might be interested in.”

“If you mean what I think you mean, I’m all in.” In less time than it would’ve taken Geralt to cross the room, Dandelion was back to his normal self, chattering excitedly as they exited. He appeared to be the only one to even remember what had just happened. He had a feeling that would become a pattern.

“Geralt!” Dandelion said, pulling him out of his thoughts. “You’ve got a decent phone now, right? Oh, this is great! We can finally add you to the group chat!”

“Wait—the what?”

Chapter Text

“I met her shortly after her official admission to Aretuza,” Regis said, pausing to take another drink. They’d made their way back to Geralt’s apartment with several bottles of Regis’s famous mandrake hooch, deciding that it would be best because he was the only one without a roommate to annoy. It had made sense in theory—but in hindsight, it probably would’ve been better to have someone to keep them in check. Dandelion had already thrown up twice, and was sprawled out on the floor singing quietly to himself and occasionally mumbling “that’s a good idea…I should write that down” to himself without actually writing any of his good ideas down. Geralt and Regis sat on the couch. Geralt’s entire body felt heavy and his head was tipped back so he was staring at the ceiling because if he tried to look at anything that moved, it would end badly. So he didn’t look at Regis as he spoke, but nodded as much as he was able.

“She must have been…oh, thirteen or so at the time,” he continued. He’d probably drunk a whole bottle of the stuff on his own and wasn’t showing even a single sign of discomfort; though, Geralt thought, it only made sense for him to have a stronger constitution than the rest of them. “Not an uncommon age for incoming students—at the younger end of the spectrum, but not uncommon—but under unusual circumstances, to say the least. Hovering on the brink of death, she was, for more reasons than one. Well, even with proper treatment it would’ve taken time to reverse what had been done to her, and then on top of that she—well, never mind. But the corrective magic was taking its toll on her; they couldn’t use more of it to help her heal after the fact. So they brought me in.” He finished off his glass and set it on the coffee table with a clink. “As far as working together in a professional capacity, that happened a few years later, when she contacted me personally about a project. I’ve been helping her with it ever since. I daresay it almost feels like my own project now,” he laughed.

Geralt tipped his head to the side so he could look at Regis. The small motion made him dizzy and he dug his nails into his thighs to try and distract himself. “Would she like that you’re telling me all this?”

“Probably not, but someone had to.” He sighed, poured himself another drink. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you’ve no knowledge of her. And there’s much to tell. She talks around things, but it doesn’t seem right that you don’t know at least a little. You do share a daughter, after all.”

“I’ve noticed,” he replied dryly. “Are you saying you will talk about it?”

“Well…” In his hesitation Geralt found his answer, but Regis continued nonetheless. “I’ll tell you what I can tell you, but that’s not much. A lot of it is of the extremely personal variety. I only know most of it from direct involvement.” Geralt felt Regis take his glass out of his hand, refill it, and put it back. He didn’t respond right away. Instead he thought about Yennefer. The inky waterfall of her hair against her skin, violet irises under eyelashes the color of soot, the noticeable dip of her waist, which he’d seen accentuated by the hasty way she tied her robe days before. No, he didn’t have any problem believing she had something to hide. He didn’t know a single sorceress who came from a happy life, except perhaps Triss, who always said she was lucky compared to most of her peers. Still, it was odd that it would be talked around even now. “Is it recent?”

“In the grand scheme of a mage’s life? Very.” Against his better judgement, Geralt tipped his head forward and downed the contents of his newly-refilled glass in one go. Regis smiled a little and raised his own as he continued. “In the grand scheme, she’s younger than you think.”

“So when did she stop aging?”

“Oh, I think she was about twenty-seven or so.”

“And how old is she now?”

His smile widened as Dandelion sang choppily in the background, and took another drink. He wasn’t going to respond, Geralt knew, and frankly he felt a bit ridiculous for asking, though he wasn’t sure how much control he still had over what came out of his mouth.

“You asked earlier,” Regis said after a few moments, “what I’ve been doing these past few years. I didn’t answer earlier, but I suppose there’s no harm in telling you now.”

When Geralt looked back, Regis’s expression was drawn, upset. He wished he hadn’t asked. “There was…an incident, down in Toussaint. A dear friend of mine went on…a rampage, so to speak. Murdered several people. Attacked Beauclair, not without help. I went down to try and stop him. Things did settle down, got under control, but the damage had already been done. The duchess’s sister is dead.”

Geralt sat up straight and looked over, shocked. Despite being relatively cut off from the rest of the world during his time on the Path, he still should’ve heard about something of this magnitude. “How long ago did this happen?”

“Two years. They’ve kept it under wraps, as much as was possible at the time. I’ve been here ever since. I fought him—I had to, to get him to stand down. Others…didn’t take kindly to that.”

He filled his glass again, and frowned when the bottle came up empty. “It’s true, I didn’t kill him, but it was enough to anger them. So I fled here. Detlaff found me later, of his own accord. He’s staying here as well, though I couldn’t tell you why. I did threaten to kill him, after all.”

Dandelion groaned loudly. Geralt heard him stagger into the bathroom, retch for a third time. He made a note to himself to make Dandelion clean it up tomorrow. “Sounds like a charming guy.”

“Oh, very.” He laughed a little, and unlike what he’d heard out of Yennefer earlier it sounded genuine, despite the look on his face. “Actually, I think you’d get along quite well. He also likes to brood.”

“Hey!” He sat straight up again, prepared to defend himself, only to slump down immediately when it made his stomach churn. “I don’t brood!”

“Yes you do!” Dandelion yelled from the open door, his voice slurred. “You’ve been brooding all day!”

“I’m annoyed because no one’s telling me anything. There’s a difference.”

Regis was still laughing. The sound rocked back and forth in his ears. Unlike Dandelion, he could hold his liquor, but he was going to be miserable tomorrow, he already knew. “If you asked, they’d tell you,” Regis said, and it was clear who he was talking about. “But I’ll offer you some advice: don’t ask about the research again, Geralt. And don’t, for the love of the gods, ask her why she’s doing it.”

~

“You gonna clean that off anytime soon?” Triss set a glass of water on the coffee table in front of her and looked over at the large round chair in the corner where Yennefer sat, covered in a blanket and staring at the writing still on her arm. She’d transferred all of it onto paper hours ago, the original and her corrected version, but left the ink on her skin untouched. Triss had been trying not to say anything—especially after the argument they had earlier—but she was starting to worry. She feared being in an academic setting wouldn’t be good for Yenna, who didn’t know how to do anything besides work herself too hard. Everyone here would push her. She was a department head on top of that, had been brought in specifically by the Academy, and was expected to produce a substantial body of research. The last thing she needed was to be pushed.

“Mmm. Later tonight, perhaps.” She tilted her arm, letting the lamplight slide over the pen. “He might be onto something here.”

“What could he have possibly turned up that you haven’t already tried?” she asked, exasperated, as she sank back into the old sagging couch. The air smelled faintly of lilac and gooseberries and fresh paint. Yenna didn’t look at her. “It’s been eleven years,” she murmured. She hadn’t wanted her voice to crack. But it did.

“Eleven years,” Yennefer repeated, and though she stayed perfectly still, her tone had softened. “A blink of an eye in a mage’s life.”

“But a long time in yours.”

She hummed softly in response, then fell silent. After a few minutes Triss picked up the remote and turned the TV on, unable to stand it. It had always been like this between them. She had the feeling she knew Yenna better than anyone else, but she still couldn’t understand her fixation on the research. Things had happened. They were in the past. But Yenna had always had difficulty moving on.

I worry about you, Triss thought very loudly in an effort to make sure she would hear. Yenna sighed, so faint Triss didn’t know whether or not she’d imagined it.

“I know.” Yennefer closed her hand around her wrist, covering some of the ink. She still seemed intent on not meeting Triss’s eyes, though her gaze had shifted to a spot on the wall, close enough that anyone else would've thought they were looking at each other. “But you don’t have to.”

Her dark hair had fallen from behind her ear to cover most of her face, and Triss felt in her bones that the conversation was over, that if she tried to press further she wasn’t going to get anywhere. Her throat closed up around her protests. No matter how insistently she voiced them, Yenna wouldn’t listen.

~

Ciri woke in a cold sweat, trying to hold back the strangled scream lurking somewhere on the roof of her mouth. It took a moment for the sleep to clear from her eyes, for her to realize where she was—a bed. An apartment. A city. Not the middle of nowhere. Not there.

If she concentrated hard enough she could still feel the shards of broken glass embedded in her arms, blood trickling hot down her fingers. She could hear the sirens, could smell smoke, antiseptic. The beating of Yennefer’s heart as Ciri cried into her shoulder. The quiet cadence of her voice. Her scent.

Without stopping to think about it too much, Ciri rolled out of bed, standing on shaky legs as she wrapped a blanket around herself, and grabbed the spare key from the nightstand. She prayed Triss wouldn’t hear her creeping through the living room, the quiet click of the deadbolt, her fumbling as she unlocked the door on the other side of the landing. She was glad she’d brought the blanket when the cold air enveloped her, though she supposed she’d be getting back under the covers soon enough.

Yennefer’s bedroom door was shut, but it opened easily under her hand. The familiar hum of the white noise machine immediately helped to calm her restless heartbeat, and the dim light she’d left on in the corner illuminated where she lay, only half of her face visible above the black-and-white quilt. Yennefer hated sleeping in the dark. Carefully as she could, Ciri lifted the quilt and snuck her way under it, settling down on the free side of the bed. There wasn’t much room, she had to pull her legs up to comfortably fit, but after a minute or two of hesitant shifting she was satisfied she hadn’t woken Yennefer up—until she turned her head to the side and saw the light reflected in a pair of very open eyes.

“Dammit,” she muttered, mostly to herself. “Thought I had it that time.”

“You’re going to have to try harder than that.” Even thick with sleep, her voice had a certain musicality to it, a way of sounding blithe even when she wasn’t. And she couldn’t have been—she had to know why Ciri was there, though she didn’t say anything about it. After the first few times, Ciri had asked her not to. Instead her hand crept over and found Yennefer’s, squeezing her thin fingers tightly. She looked concerned—Ciri could see the furrows in her brow—but all she said was “You should’ve been there today, when all of us were there.”

“Oh yeah?” Ciri exhaled softly in relief. She hadn’t wanted to be the one to broach another topic. “What happened? What do you think of Geralt?”

“Hmm.” Yennefer bit her lip, looked at a spot above Ciri’s head. “He’s…well. I would’ve been fine with him being your father, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“You—no! That’s definitely not what I wanted to know!” She let out a choked laugh, all too conscious of the fact that they weren’t alone in the apartment, and she didn’t want to cause another in the series of fights with Keira that had been going on for days. Yennefer was laughing too, her face pressed halfway into the pillow, eyes closed.

“There was a time I never thought I’d be able to get you to laugh.” The words came out of Ciri’s mouth before she had a chance to think about them, and she turned her gaze away as Yennefer looked at her, though she could still feel her stare.

“So did I,” she said after a very long time. Her voice was quieter, and Ciri could tell she was hovering again on the edge of sleep. “Besides, when we first met…at Ellander…you didn’t even like me.”

She waited a few minutes, expecting there to be more to the thought, but it became clear enough that Yennefer had fallen back asleep, which, when they first met, she would never have done in Ciri’s company. She felt something twist in her chest at the thought of her and Yennefer and Geralt, all in the same place for the first time. There was a rightness about it, one that she suspected neither of them had yet seen.

“You’re right,” she murmured, pulling the blankets up to her chin as she stared at the light, flickering in the corner. “I didn’t.”

Chapter Text

Much to Geralt’s relief, once the initial shock of his presence wore off, the students didn’t seem to much care who he was. In fact, most of them didn’t seem to care at all, though they appeared to be paying attention. After the first class he was able to return to his original plans with minimal interruptions. Pair the students up, let them work on their own after he demonstrated. It felt like surprisingly little work on his part, so similar to the way he himself had been taught at Kaer Morhen that it was almost second nature. A few days in, he even started to find himself enjoying it, though he tried not to let himself become too comfortable.

Some of the others didn’t seem to be as lucky. Regis, who as a department head taught only upper-level classes, seemed perfectly happy, and all Dandelion did was talk about how his students were the best in the department, though the only criteria seemed to be that they were taught by him. Triss, on the other hand, was almost always visibly stressed. “You’d think,” she complained to him at lunch one day, “that by the time they get to this level they’d have an understanding of basic alchemy, but none of them do. And I’m the one getting all the questions because they’re too intimidated by Yenna to even look in her direction.”

He didn’t have any trouble believing that. Though Yennefer was constantly shrouding herself in an almost unnatural veneer of calm, Geralt was slowly learning to tell what days she taught by the tenseness of her shoulders, whether she wore her hair up or down. She was never horribly talkative either way, and unlike Triss, she never said anything about her students. When she did complain, it was invariably about Keira. Once, Dandelion got annoyed enough to ask why they even lived together if they hated each other so much. “I have my reasons,” she replied curtly, and though he continued to press she ignored him steadfastly (Geralt had to admit he was impressed with her capacity to ignore Dandelion). It seemed that he had yet to learn what Geralt had managed to pick up on in less than a week: that it was pointless to ask Yennefer direct questions; the likelihood that she would respond equally directly, if at all, was slim to none.

“What she means is that she doesn’t want me anywhere near her research,” Triss told him later, when the group had split off and they returned to campus alone. “Me, specifically, or else we would just live together and that would be that. Not like we haven’t done it before. But I’m the only one who tries to actively dissuade her from what she’s doing, so she doesn’t want me around too much.”

“Why would you do that?”

Triss pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger and looked up at the tops of the buildings they walked past. “She’s on a path to self-destruction, I think,” she said. “But no one else seems particularly concerned about it, or if they do they don’t show it. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard it’s her own business what she researches. But it’s my business if it doesn’t work—because it won’t, and when she finally figures that out…”

She paused, breathing heavily, like the conversation had sapped all her energy. It felt as though she were talking more to herself than to Geralt, and he didn’t intercede. He wanted to know what she would say. “I don’t think it would be as bad as it was last time, but…I don’t know. All I can do is hope that she’ll think twice, what with Ciri and everything.”

He didn’t exactly see what Ciri had to do with anything Triss had said, but she looked so distraught about it that he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. They came to a slow stop outside the building that housed the alchemy department and se rocked back and forth on her heels, like she felt like she needed to say something more. But he must’ve imagined it, because as she turned away with a smile there was nothing about her demeanor suggesting anything but calm. Still, he couldn’t shake her words as he continued up to his own office a few buildings away.

He hadn’t wanted an office, and he’d made it very clear when he was negotiating with the dean—but, thanks to what he suspected was Regis’s influence, he had one anyway. It was on the highest floor of the department’s building, tucked into a corner. Despite his initial reluctance, he was beginning to like having a place to work that wasn’t his apartment, which Dandelion seemed to think was the social hub of Oxenfurt, judging by the way he knocked on Geralt’s door frequently and at ungodly hours of the morning, wanting to go out. Geralt had made a point of not telling him where the office was, and it was quickly becoming the only place he might get some peace and quiet.

It didn’t sound quiet behind the door as he approached, though. He heard music, drifting quietly from behind the door's frosted-glass window. For a moment he was angry, thinking someone had told Dandelion anyway, but the feeling faded when he opened the door and saw Ciri, splayed out on the couch the office’s previous owner had left and that Geralt hadn’t bothered to move. She was playing something through the speakers of her phone, and she lifted her head up as he entered, shutting the door behind him. It seemed to take her an immense amount of effort, though she’d always had a flair for the dramatic.

“How’d you get in here?” was the first thought that made its way out of his mouth, and she rolled her eyes as she pushed herself to a sitting position, pausing the music and putting her phone down. Now that he was looking closely, now that the sun shone through his window at exactly the right angle, he could see the ghosts of other scars on her arms and legs, ones that had healed far better than the one on her face, so light he wasn’t surprised he didn’t notice them before. Even though she changed stances smoothly, it was clear she was tense.

“You really think I don’t know how to pick a lock?” she scoffed, pulling her legs up and crossing them.

“Where did you—? Never mind. I don’t want to know. Suppose a better question would be what are you doing here?”

“Everyone’s gone,” she said. Geralt dropped his key ring on the desk and pushed the chair around from behind it so he could sit near her, since she was still managing to somehow take up the whole couch. She tipped her head back so she was staring at the ceiling. “You teach all day. You and Yennefer and Triss. And I…I don’t have anyone else, not anymore. So I’m stuck.”

She shrugged in an attempt to appear indifferent. “It feels like…I don’t have a purpose anymore. That ever since—well, you know.” He listened to her draw a quick, shaky breath and reached over, covering her hand with his. She didn’t look at him, but she flipped her hand over and squeezed his fingers tightly. “I don’t know what to do,” she finished timidly. It was one of the only times he’d ever heard her so unsure.

“Thought you wanted to be a witcher,” he said as softly as he could manage. He knew he was taking a risk—it might not be what she wanted to hear. But she only made a choked noise and shifted a little closer to him.

“I did. But I figured my chances of that happening vanished the second I ran away.” With her free hand, she pulled a thin silver chain from under her shirt, tugging it back and forth around her neck. There was a heavy-looking ring on it, set with an emerald that she rubbed her thumb across. He’d never seen it before, but he’d seen its like on Triss more than once, and now that he thought about it, on Yennefer as well, though it looked far smaller on her slim fingers. “Didn’t even know if I’d see you again.”

They fell quiet for a moment. Outside, Geralt could hear people talking, doors opening and closing. The sounds grated at his ears and his nerves. “Did you ever…think about going back?”

He didn’t elaborate, and he didn’t need to. She knew what he meant—he could tell by the way that she exhaled through pursed lips, pulled her knees up to her chest. “I’ve thought about it,” she replied, weighing each word carefully. “But…I mean, it would cause more problems than it would solve. Any powers” —the disdain that dripped from the word was obvious— “that I might’ve had are long gone now. And I kind of like it that way.”

She meant the dreams. He remembered all too well the nights she’d wake up in a cold sweat, screaming, unable to calm down until he was there. From what he knew, they stopped after her first month or so with Yennefer—or, at least, if they were still happening, he didn’t hear about them anymore.

“Well,” he said, “what are your other options?”

“I don’t know!” She pressed the heel of her free hand against her forehead, dropping the ring so it came to rest just under the hollow of her neck. “I mean, how many places can I realistically go without being recognized as the runaway Cintran princess?”

“You managed it for—what, five years?”

“Five years of never staying in the same place for more than a few days, and even that was risky. Five years of hiding my hair under hats so no one could see it, and darkening my eyebrows. When—” Her breath hitched, and she paused for a minute to compose herself. “When the accident happened, Yennefer paid off all the reporters that showed up to say there were no survivors, and it wasn’t a small bribe, either. My options are pretty limited. I can’t even legally drive—anyone who saw Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon on a license would turn me in without a second thought.”

He hadn’t considered it that way—hadn’t considered it at all, in fact. To him she’d always been just Ciri, the surprise child who’d somehow made a home for herself at Kaer Morhen. There was nothing of royalty about her, except perhaps her attitude. He and the other Wolf School witchers were probably the only ones who thought that way, though. Anyone else would only see Cirilla, heir to the Cintran throne.

“I’m stuck here,” she repeated, just as he was beginning to accept her conclusion. Her head drooped forward and she slouched over, the fingers of her free hand brushing the tips of her sneakers.

“Have you talked to Yennefer about this?”

“Yes.” She didn’t move; her voice was muffled by her own legs. “She said the same thing you did. Why not simply return to Aretuza, Ciri? You’ll be safe there. Like I haven’t already run away once, not to mention all the other problems with that idea. But at this point…it feels like it’s either that or stay here.”

Geralt remained quiet. She needed to work things out for herself now, and he didn’t want to interfere with what should be her decision and hers alone. Yennefer, it seemed, did not share this sentiment—though based on what Regis and Triss had told him, he wondered whether he should be judging her so harshly. It seemed there was far more he didn’t know than he’d initially thought. He couldn’t help but wonder how much Ciri knew, but it would’ve been a bad idea to ask—he knew word would get back around to her quickly.

“I’ll think about it, I suppose,” Ciri sighed after a while. She pulled the elastic band from her hair, which was disconcertingly long compared to when he’d last seen her, and started to wind it around her fingers. “But if I do decide to go back, it’ll be on my own terms.”

“As far as I know, no one’s asking you to do it on theirs.”

She nodded, pleased by his response, and straightened up a little. “Well, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice at all. But it’s better than nothing.”

~

Geralt was woken hours before he had intended to get up by an insistent, near-frantic pounding at the door. He stood unsteadily, leaning against the bed frame for a moment before making his way to the front of the apartment. Based on years of past experience, he had a fairly good idea who was there, and to say he wasn’t happy would be an understatement. When he pulled the door open, dragging the bottom across the carpet, he was met with Dandelion, who looked more cheerful than anyone had the right to be at an hour like this. Lurking a few feet behind him, leaning against the doorjamb of the apartment opposite his, was Regis. He seemed to be staying a fair distance away on purpose. Obviously, he understood Geralt’s morning tendency towards irritation more than Dandelion cared to.

“What do you want?” he snapped, though the force of it was diluted by the sleep that still hung heavy in his throat. Dandelion didn’t seem to notice—or, at least, he didn’t comment. He simply pushed past Geralt, ignoring his startled grunt, and disappeared into the bedroom faster than his tired mind could comprehend what was happening. It would be easy to stop him. Even among ordinary men, Dandelion wasn’t the strongest. But his aversion to unnecessary violence, coupled with complete and utter confusion, kept him rooted firmly in place.

“You haven’t heard?” Dandelion yelled from somewhere outside Geralt’s line of sight. He heard drawers being opened and closed, but that, at least, didn’t surprise him—he was used to Dandelion going through his things without so much as a warning. Regis, to his credit, looked sympathetic, and waited until Geralt motioned him inside to come in. He stood in the middle of the living room, his expression somewhere between amused and mildly annoyed.

“Heard about what?” When Geralt returned to the bedroom Dandelion was, indeed, rummaging around in his dresser. He’d already managed to locate a duffel bag, into which he was throwing seemingly random clothes at an alarming rate.

“About the dragon! They’re leaving within the hour, and I’ll not miss it! How didn't you know? They sent out a high-importance email about it—the Academy wants people there to make sure it gets a cut of the spoils, or better yet for their research, a cut of the dragon. And I know you wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to spend several days wi—”

“Dandelion. Stop.” Geralt passed a hand over his forehead, pushing his hair back. “If you want any chance of me caring you’ve got to start at the beginning, because I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, alright, but we haven’t much time.” He paused his packing to sit down on the bed dramatically. “Do you want it in verse or in normal speech?”

“Normal speech. And quick normal speech.”

“If that’s how it is, fine. Concise. No metaphors.” He looked disappointed. “A week ago, a dragon landed on one of the farms outside Barefield.”

“That’s a load of bullshit, Dandelion.” He felt Regis enter the rom behind him, and when he looked over he’d schooled his face to be carefully neutral. There was something more to this, Geralt thought, something that Dandelion wouldn’t tell him until the end of the story, if at all. “No one’s seen a dragon in that area for years now—maybe even decades. It was most likely a common or garden dracolizard. Some species have been known to get as big as—”

“Don’t insult me, Geralt.” Dandelion straightened up and puffed out his chest in a manner that, had Geralt been awake, would’ve been quite funny. “I know what I’m talking about. I happen to have spoken with an eyewitness, who got video of the whole thing.”

“Well, all right. Get on with it then. Was it big?”

“Enormous! Bigger than three of that truck of yours. Not taller than one, but much wider. Sand grey.”

“So…green.”

“Yes. From what I heard, it landed right in the middle of a flock of sheep, killed more than a dozen of them, gulped down four and flew off.”

Geralt shook his head. His body suddenly felt very heavy. “And that’s it? No more?”

“Of course there’s more! It came back the next day and swooped down on a group of women who were sitting on the banks of the Braa, gossiping. I’ve been told watching them bolt away was quite amusing. Anyway, it went after the sheep again, and caused mass panic. You see, despite video evidence to the contrary, no one had believed any of the eyewitnesses the first time. The mayor called everyone he could think of—I even heard some of them talk of hiring one of you witchers—but the citizens took matters into their own hands first.”

“Really? And how did they do that?”

“In a rather forceful manner. A local carpenter by the name of Sheepbagger came up with the plan. He killed a sheep and stuffed it full of hellebore, deadly nightshade, poison parsley, brimstone—well, you get the idea. They set it up among the flock and held it up with a stake. No one thought it was going to work, but it did. The idiot dragon went right for it, ignoring all the living sheep, and swallowed it whole.”

“And then what?” Geralt asked when Dandelion’s dramatic paused stretched on a few seconds too long. “Go on.”

“What do you think I’m doing? Listen to the story, dammit. In less time than it would take you to get Keira Metz out of her clothes” –he heard Regis snort with suppressed laughter behind him— “it started to roar, smoke coming out both ends. It somersaulted around a few times, tried to take off, then collapsed and was still. Two volunteers set out to check whether or not it was dead—a groundskeeper and the local idiot, the result of a union between a woodsman’s daughter and a squad of soldiers who marched through during Warlord Nelumbo’s rebellion—”

“Now you’re just lying.”

“I’m not lying,” Dandelion said, looking extremely offended. “I’m merely embellishing.

“Well, stop embellishing and get on with it. You’re the one who said we were short on time.”

“That we are. Well, anyway, the groundskeeper and the idiot went off to examine the dragon. I’ve been told that their funeral was quite lovely.”

“So,” Regis interjected quietly, far calmer than Dandelion, “the dragon was still alive.”

“And how!” Dandelion exclaimed. “Yes, it was, but it was also weak enough that it didn’t devour either of them. All it did was lap up their blood—and then, much to everyone’s disappointment, it took flight again, though not without some difficulty, and left. Every so often it would fall, but it didn’t stop moving, though it occasionally had to walk. A few daring individuals even followed it, kept it in sight—but you know what?”

Geralt heaved a sigh and sat down heavily on the bed. The alarm clock on his nightstand told him it was just after four in the morning. “What, Dandelion?”

“The dragon vanished! The whole thing disappeared into the ravines of the Kestrel Mountains! By all accounts, it’s hiding out there now!”

“…alright,” Geralt said after a long few minutes. Dandelion, apparently satisfied, got up and resumed shoving Geralt’s things in the bag, after pausing to throw a shirt and a pair of jeans at him. He set them to the side—he had every intention of going back to sleep once this was over. “It makes sense now. The dragon’s probably lived in those caves for centuries, in a state of torpor—I’ve heard of cases like that. Rare, but not impossible. And its treasure hoard must be there too. Someone wants it. But I still don’t see what this has to do with the Academy, or with any of us.”

“You’re right,” Dandelion confirmed, “someone does want it, and that someone is Niedamir of Caingorn. Oh, don’t look at me like that,” he said as Geralt raised an eyebrow at him. “I know I’m famed for my imagination, but I don’t think even I could make this up. The whole of Barefield’s hopping mad—they think that dragon and its hoard are rightfully theirs. But no one wants to cross Niedamir. He’s still young, true, but he’s already made it clear that’s a bad idea. And he wants that dragon like nobody’s business, which is why he reacted so quickly.”

“He wants the treasure, you mean.”

“No, he wants the dragon. He’s got his eyes on the kingdom of Malleore, you see. A—a young princess, shall we say, was left there after the prince died suddenly and unexplainably. The noblemen there aren’t fond of Niedamir; they know he won’t allow them much freedom, unlike the princess. So they found some dusty old prophecy that says the girl’s hand belongs to whoever slays the dragon—no one’s seen a dragon in these parts for so long, they thought they were safe. Of course, Niedamir paid no attention to the ‘prophecy’ and took Malleore by force anyway. But when he heard about the dragon, he realized he could make the nobility eat their words. If he shows up with the dragon’s head, none of them will dare say anything. It’s a massive stroke of luck on his part.”

“So he aims to shut out the competition.” Geralt’s head was beginning to hurt from the amount of effort it took to keep up with the waterfall of words pouring out of Dandelion’s mouth. Even so, he was beginning to realize where the story was going, and it didn’t bode well for him.

“Exactly—well, and the people of Barefield. But here’s the thing: he, or a member of his staff, at least, has been sending out messages with letters of safe-conduct attached—they’ve blocked the bridge, you know—to anyone he thinks could actually kill the dragon. He’s no intention of doing it himself, so he’s drafted the most renowned dragon slayers he could find—you might know some of them, actually. Anyway, one of these messages was sent to the dean of the Academy, with instructions to forward it to any faculty he felt might be competent and provide them with the letters. There were a couple of people he asked for by name. You’re one of them.”

“Of course I am.” He pressed his fingers to his temples. Though he would never admit it, part of him had been looking forward to taking some time off the Path. Doing less physically demanding work. He hadn’t come here to slay dragons, and he didn’t intend to leave the city until classes stopped for the holidays and he could temporarily return to Kaer Morhen. Dandelion was well aware of that, but he didn’t seem to care as he went systematically through Geralt’s bathroom cabinets, grabbing anything he might have needed had he actually planned on going along with this ridiculous idea. “And who are some of these other dragon slayers I ‘might’ know?”

“Well,” Dandelion said slowly, returning with a smaller bag that he shoved into the first one, “as far as I know—as far as any of us know, really—these messages have only gone out in the last few hours or so. None of the faculty who received the forward know who else the original message has gone out to. We’ll be meeting up with those people tonight, at an inn not too terribly far from our destination, and setting off again in the morning. The only person I know for certain has already agreed to help is Eyck of Denesle.”

This was the first thing Geralt had heard that genuinely surprised him, and he let out a low, soft whistle. “I’ll be damned. The pious and virtuous Eyck, a man without flaws, in person.”

“Do you know him, Geralt?” Regis asked. Until then, he had clearly been content to stay out of the conversation, but now he looked curious. “Is he truly the scourge of dragons?”

“Not just dragons, but any monster. Manticores, gryphons. He’s good. But he’s putting us witchers out of business—refuses to take a single crown for his work. Why would they even need me if they’ve got him? I’d be expecting payment, after all—if I agreed to this.”

“Oh, what does it matter?” Dandelion said cheerfully. “Now hurry up! We’ve only got a few minutes! Where do you keep your weapons? Never mind, I’ll find them. You’ve only got so many closets after all.”

Geralt waited until Dandelion had left the room before he looked over at Regis, who stared back with a close-lipped smile. “Why do you both seem so certain I’ll go?”

Regis picked up his phone from where he’d placed it on the bed, locating the email faster than Geralt would have even known how to turn it on. “Because he wants you to read this,” he said, holding it out. “He wasn’t exaggerating, you know. They really did ask for only two faculty by name.”

He read it. And then read it again. He stared at it for what felt like a very long time, wondered at the lack of articles in the name—though the concept wasn’t unfamiliar to him. These days, it was difficult to obtain any sort of official documentation without something that at least sounded like a last name. He could feel Dandelion staring at him, having returned with another bag, the one he kept his weapons safely stored in. He didn’t want to ask how he’d found it.

“Oh, alright,” he said, doing his best to ignore their slightly triumphant smiles. “Give me a moment to get dressed.” 

Chapter Text

“So let me get this straight. We’re going…dragon hunting…in a minivan.”

“It was the best we could do on short notice,” Regis said, smiling apologetically. He was accompanying them as well, he explained as Geralt packed, if for no other reason than that it was probably a good idea to have a highly trained medic on site, especially where Dandelion was involved. He still didn’t understand how Dandelion came to be involved in the first place, but there he was, sitting in the passenger seat sporting a wide grin, and Geralt decided it was probably best for his sanity if he didn’t ask. He wasn’t quite sure, even, why exactly he was doing this. He wanted to chalk it up to pure curiosity, but he knew—and he suspected the others did, too—that wasn’t all. There was something else at play. Something more.

“And you’re going to make me sit in the back of the minivan?”

“Not in the back back,” Dandelion said through his open window, as if that somehow made it any better. “Just the middle.”

There was no point arguing with him, and Geralt certainly didn’t want to try so early in the morning, so without another word he set his bags on the floor of the van and settled behind the driver’s seat, pushing his own back as far as it would go. By simultaneous agreement—it was the only thing they had agreed on the whole time—they’d decided Regis would be the one to drive. He was the most difficult to throw off, and in a car with Dandelion, that was an important quality to have. Geralt was, at this hour, too irritable to drive, and they all knew it. “Is it just the four of us then?” he asked as he leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes, trying and failing to catch up on lost sleep.

“It would appear so,” came Regis’s voice from somewhere in front of him. “I don’t blame anyone who got the email and didn’t show up. Most academics aren’t cut out for dragon slaying.”

“Last time I checked, there were only three of us,” Dandelion interjected sourly. “Does she always take this long to get ready? She’s had more time than the rest of us combined.”

“It’s probably because she knows you’re here.” Geralt couldn’t tell whether or not Regis was joking.

“What’s she got against me?”

Before either of them could even begin to answer that question, Geralt heard the distinct sound of a portal opening nearby. He opened his eyes and looked through the open door by the seat next to him. There was a flash of blinding light and then she was there, considerably more disheveled than the last time he’d seen her, though she still looked more put-together than any of them. “Drive, please,” she said before she was even all the way in the van, tossing a black bag on the floor in front of her. Regis hit the gas and she pulled her door shut seconds before someone rounded the corner, running quickly towards them and looking very upset. Geralt recognized him immediately from the photo in Yennefer’s apartment, and even if he hadn’t he would’ve been able to guess. Clearly he realized he’d already lost whatever battle they were fighting, because he stopped and simply watched as they pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Yennefer rested her forehead on the back of Dandelion’s seat and sighed loudly.

“How long,” she said, her voice hoarse from lack of sleep, “does an engagement have to go on before it becomes socially acceptable to break it off?”

“First of all, you realize that, as a sorceress, the rules of human society don’t apply to you.” He could hear laughter in Regis’s tone. Yennefer didn’t move, her eyes stayed closed, but she smiled with the corners of her mouth. “Second, if Philippa heard you say that she would probably start crying from joy. Third, what did he do this time?”

They ran over a bump on the road, and her head hit its perch in what looked like a painful manner, but she didn’t react. “He’s been here for three hours trying to dissuade me from doing this. Do you know what it’s like to hear him talk at you for three hours?”

“No, but I imagine it’s not pleasant. He didn’t want you going off to fight a dragon alone?”

“Not alone.” She leaned back, pulled her bag onto her lap and began to unzip it. After a moment of silence that passed far too quickly for his liking, she turned to him. “Hello, Geralt of Rivia. You’re looking wide awake today.”

“Hello, Yennefer.” He didn’t have the energy to pretend he was anything even remotely resembling happy. She smiled at him faintly. There was something almost conspiratorial about it, something that seemed to say yeah, me too. He could’ve been imagining it, though, because a second later she was focusing on her bag again like it hadn’t happened. Her nails were painted a very light grey, the sleeves of her leather jacket rolled up because her arms were too short for them. He found the sight strangely endearing. Out of the bag she pulled a pillow and a blanket, which she tossed into the backseat.

“Wait.” Dandelion twisted around in his seat to look at her. In stark contrast to the both of them, he had never seemed more awake. “If you don’t want to listen to him talk for that long, why are you still engaged?”

“There are a lot of complicated reasons,” she huffed, “and none of them are your business.” She shifted to the backseat with practiced ease, considering the lack of space, and laid down, pulling the blanket up over herself. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and get those three hours back.”

Dandelion frowned. “Don’t you want to darken the windows or—?”

“No,” Yennefer and Regis said simultaneously. He heard her mumble something in Elder Speech and a moment later his view of her grew fuzzy, as if she’d draped a screen between them. He could see the outline of her, the dark waterfall of her hair, the blanket the color of rust, which he’d remembered seeing in Ciri and Triss’s apartment a week or so before. He still hadn’t figured out how exactly all their lives overlapped—there seemed to be a myriad of ways, and he was privy to none of them. Despite that, he still hoped he was making some headway, even if in small increments. She had to at least think him tolerable if she had come with him. Right?

As they merged onto the highway, Dandelion’s voice snapped him out of his reverie. It was going to take them most of the day to get there—they’d be lucky, Geralt thought, if they made it to the hastily-thrown-together dinner where they were to meet Niedamir officially. If most of those hours were going to be spent listening to Dandelion talk, then he was beginning to sympathize with Yennefer more and more. He’d never met her fiancé (and if any of what he’d heard from various sources was true, he didn’t really want to), but if he was anything like this…

Geralt sat back in his seat and closed his eyes. He doubted he’d be able to sleep, but perhaps he could meditate for a while. His hands loosened on the armrests and he tried to tune out everything but the sound of the engine, the tires rolling on the pavement. He drifted off gradually, Dandelion’s chatter fading to a buzz in the background as he slipped into dreams that smelled faintly of lilac and gooseberries.

~

Yennefer slept until midafternoon, and when Geralt was roused a couple hours before her by Dandelion’s singing, he found himself impressed that she was able to sleep through it. The ward seemed to have softened; he could see details he hadn’t been able to before—the mark under her lips, the way her eyelashes laid against the tops of her cheeks. She looked for more relaxed than when she was awake, brow unfurrowed, lips slightly parted, hair fanned out behind her. Half of her face was pressed into the pillow, and the way she laid exposed the line of her neck, broken only by the thin velvet ribbon encircling it. If he looked close enough, he thought, he could see the steady thrum of her pulse, hovering somewhere above her collarbone. He shouldn’t be looking at her that long, or that close, but he couldn’t help himself. She was, in a way he wasn’t sure how to describe, utterly bewitching.

For the next two hours, he watched her out of the corner of his eye as Regis and Dandelion talked. Occasionally he would join in halfheartedly, though it was probably clear his attention was elsewhere. The second she started to move, he dropped out of the conversation completely, unable to tear his gaze away as she stretched, moaning quietly in a way that would linger in his mind for days to come. Her eyes fluttered open and immediately locked with his, and despite his quick reflexes he was too surprised to look away. She smiled for a moment, startlingly genuine, before the ward fogged back up and he could only make out her outline.

“Are you having a nice time back there?” he heard Dandelion ask, mildly annoyed.

“Oh, yes,” Yennefer said. When Geralt turned back again he could see, though not clearly, the pallor of her skin as she slipped her jacket off, then her top. “Geralt of Rivia has been wonderful company.”

He was suddenly very glad that the Trials had taken away most of his ability to physically express embarrassment, because he was already distracted enough by what was going on behind that ward. He couldn’t make out any details, but that didn’t stop him from wondering if her skin would feel smooth and cool under his fingertips, if she would taste anything like she smelled—and those were thoughts he had to shove away, to ball up and throw out the window. There was something enticing about her, he couldn’t deny it (and, in all the ways that mattered, she was Ciri’s mother, which added an extra layer of awkwardness to their barely-there relationship), but she was already engaged, not to mention likely considerably younger than his nearly half a century. Whatever it was that had interested him so, he needed to learn how to ignore it. For both of their sakes.

“What are you even doing?” Dandelion was fully turned around now, squinting in an effort to see through the ward. Geralt felt a hot wave of jealousy sweep through him, though he was sure that Dandelion couldn’t see any more than he could—perhaps even less. “Why keep the ward up if you’re awake? Don’t like us that much?”

“Just you, actually.” He could barely make out her sweeping the hair off her shoulders, sliding out of her jeans. When he turned around, he saw Regis looking at him in the rearview mirror. His eyebrow was raised. Geralt clenched the armrest and look away quickly. “But in case you haven’t realized—and I’m sure you haven’t—we’re to meet a king in just hours, even if a young one. I’d like to be presentable, at least.”

“I know that!” Dandelion said loudly in protest. Geralt felt his medallion vibrate as the ward around Yennefer thickened, obscuring her completely. “Why wouldn’t I? Just because they ‘didn’t send me an email,’ that doesn’t—hey! What’s going on?”

“She can’t hear you,” Regis said, barely concealing his amusement. “The ward, I think, was made to react to your voice, getting thicker when you speak. It seems to have worked spectacularly well.”

For the first time in his life, Dandelion seemed to be at a loss for words. Geralt pressed his lips together to hide a smile. He thought he could hear her laughing behind him, though it sounded half a world away.

“Don’t take it personally.” A moment later the ward dropped entirely and she reappeared, climbing into the seat next to Geralt. A small mirror hovered in front of her, a makeshift vanity of sorts, and he watched as she pulled a pencil out of the smaller bag she now held and started to fill in her eyebrows with it. “I’ve simply had my fill of men talking today.”

“But you’ll start talking to Regis in five minutes! And you’d talk to Geralt if he ever actually talked!”

“Yes,” she admitted. The sunlight flashed through the windows as they drove, glinted off her jewelry. The ring she wore on her right hand, nearly identical to the one Ciri had on a chain around her neck, was set with a sparkling purple stone. He let his gaze drift elsewhere and swallowed thickly. She’d changed from what she was wearing earlier into a tight, long-sleeved black dress. If she were standing it would’ve fallen to midthigh, but the way she sat had pushed it nearly to the tops of her legs. He was struck with a sudden, intense desire to run his fingers over her skin, right up to the hem, see if she would make those noises again. “The difference is that Geralt and Regis both understand when to speak and when not to.”

For a moment, Dandelion was quiet, opening and closing his mouth like a fish as he thought of things to say, then discarded them. “We also know,” Regis said, smiling, “that it’s pointless to argue with someone who knows she’s right.”

“Hey! Who says I’m not right?”

Yennefer sighed, but not without some small amount of mirth as she coated her eyelashes in mascara. If he hadn’t seen her do it, he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. She didn’t need it. “You’re not,” she said, “but fine, I’ll humor you. You’re the town gossip. Surely you know who else will be…accompanying us on this little adventure?”

Mollified, Dandelion sat up a little, puffing out his chest with pride. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard about Eyck already.”

“Unfortunately, I have.” Geralt looked over at her in surprise, and when she met his eyes the corner of her mouth turned up in a gesture that seemed to say ask again later. “Who else?”

“Isn’t that all we know?” Geralt interrupted.

“No, I found out some more while you were…sleeping. That the Crinfrid Reavers are going to be there, for example.”

Geralt snorted, and when Yennefer looked at him questioningly, he explained, “The dragon’s done for, then. I don’t even know why they’d need any of us. Those three…they fight dirty, but effectively. They’ve rid Redania of forktails and dracolizards entirely, in addition to three red dragons and a black one. Is that everyone, then?”

“No. Six dwarves, commanded by Yarpen Zirgen.”

“Hmmm…I don’t know that name.”

“But you’ve heard of the dragon Ocvist, from Quartz Mountain?”

“Yes, and I saw some of the gemstones from its hoard.”

“Well, Zirgen and his dwarves killed it. Someone even wrote a song about it—mind you, it wasn’t me, so it was terrible. You’re not missing anything if you haven’t heard it.” Behind him, Yennefer rolled her eyes dramatically.

“…right. So that’s everyone?”

“Yes. Not counting us, of course. And I’ve heard rumors of some sorcerer being there, but no confirmed reports.”

Regis locked eyes with Geralt in the mirror once more. Yennefer, he noticed, had turned pale as a sheet—an impressive feat, considering there was barely any color to her in the first place. “You don’t think—?” Regis started to say.

“No.” Her hand was shaking as she dropped the tube she was holding back into her bag and zipped it up. There was a shine to her lips that hadn’t been there before. Geralt tried not to see it. “I just saw him this morning. In Oxenfurt. He wouldn’t…would he? I mean there’s no way he could’ve gotten a safe-conduct that quickly…”

“You’re the one who should know the answer to that, aren’t you?” Dandelion supplied unhelpfully. Yennefer dug her fingers into her thighs, demonstrating far more self-control than Geralt would have been able to. After a moment, she relaxed somewhat, though there was something akin to fear left in her eyes.

“Well,” she said resignedly, “I suppose we’ll soon find out.”

~

The sorcerer, when they arrived at the appropriately-named Pensive Dragon, turned out to be a man named Dorregaray of Vole, who was not Yennefer’s fiancé, but who knew him, and her as well. She looked extremely relieved to see him and immediately left the rest of the group, putting on a display of kissing up to Niedamir the likes of which Geralt had never seen. He had to remind himself that she frequently advised in the Aedernian court, that she clearly had learned how to make royalty like her and that shouldn’t affect his view of her at all. Dandelion too left them, his social nature calling on him to table-hop, leaving Geralt and Regis alone in a corner table, which suited them both just fine. With the exception of a brief introduction to Niedamir, they passed the time catching up on the past few years. Geralt ordered a few beers more than was necessary, and despite his tolerance being significantly higher than the average man’s, he was starting to feel a buzz in the back of his head when they finally made their way across the street to their hotel.

Apparently they would all be sharing a room, and Geralt knew without asking that he’d have to sleep next to Dandelion, which he wasn’t looking forward to—he snored as annoyingly as he sang. When they got there, the first thing the man in question did was lock himself in the bathroom. Geralt could hear him retching as he sat heavily on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. Yennefer, it seemed, had vanished completely.

“Perhaps you should check for her outside,” Regis suggested an hour or so later, when Geralt brought it up. He didn’t have anything better to do, so he wandered the parking lot until he found her, wearing her clothes from earlier that day, perched in the open back door of the van. There was an assortment of bottles and jars spread around her, and she was drawing dark liquid into what appeared to be a small syringe.

“What are you doing?” he asked as he approached, leaning up against the passenger side door. She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t look terribly surprised to see him.

“Halting the aging process. Slowly, mind you.” She held the syringe up, examining it closely. Geralt suddenly remembered what Regis had told him weeks ago, about when she'd stopped aging. Gods, she was younger than he’d thought, though in a way, it only made the things she’d managed to accomplish in eleven years that much more impressive.

“You look…far too comfortable with that,” he noted as he watched her insert the needle into the crook of her elbow. He wondered if this was how it worked for all mages—Triss, who had stopped aging years ago, had never given out any of the details.

“Alchemy may not have been my main field, but I did study it extensively.”

“What was your main focus, then?”

She put the empty syringe down and leaned forward, a very serious expression on her face. “I’m an extremely skilled necromancer, Geralt of Rivia. Extremely skilled.”

When it became clear he wasn’t going to laugh, she allowed herself a small smile. “No accounting for humor, I see,” she said as she packed her things away. “Very well. Regis sent you here because I wished to speak to you privately. You see…” She trailed off for a moment, staring at something across the lot. Geralt couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. “Ciri is considering returning to Aretuza.”

“I know.” He knelt down on the pavement, resting on his heels so he could be closer to her eye level. “She told me a few days ago.”

“More seriously now.” When she met his eyes he was again arrested by the intensity of her violet gaze, much as he had been when they first met. Her hand reached up, fingers tracing the outline of her star. The stones within it seemed to pulse brighter under her touch. “She’s going to visit the school in the next couple of days. Philippa’s taking her.”

“You sure that’s wise?”

She sighed, pulled her knees up to her chest. “It’s not ideal,” she admitted. “But she can get the time off easier than Triss or I. Especially now.” She sounded genuinely regretful. He remembered that conversation with Ciri, how he’d thought Yennefer didn’t want that decision to be made on her daughter’s terms, and immediately felt guilty about it. “In a way, though…it might be better that neither of us are there.”

He didn’t want to say she was right, but she was, and they both knew it. Instead he nodded silently. There seemed to be nothing more to it. The idea of losing Ciri, even if only figuratively, hurt in ways he’d hoped he would never have to deal with. Though, he thought as he looked at the woman beside him, watching as she cast her gaze upwards to the light behind their window, perhaps he’d found something as well. 

Chapter Text

They slept, at Regis’s insistence, with a small lamp on, and he refused to turn it off even when Dandelion complained. Geralt knew it wasn’t for his benefit—Regis could see in the dark better than even he could—but he kept his mouth shut about it; it didn’t make a difference to him. He woke early to shower and go downstairs, intending to take full advantage of their free breakfast. Dandelion joined him shortly after, and they made the rounds. He found himself being introduced to nearly everyone, though he doubted he’d remember any of their names when it came time to divide back up again. The socializing was already beginning to tire him out, and the second he had a change to get away he did, settling again in a corner table as he was accustomed to do.

He drank a glass of water slowly as he watched the room fill up. When Yennefer entered, dressed in a plain white shirt and black jeans, her hair pulled up behind her head, she didn’t acknowledge him, but he could smell her perfume as she passed by, only a few feet away. They had sat so close for so long the night before that he wondered whether or not he’d ever be able to get it out of his clothes—his skin, even. He’d watched her as she watched the window, so quiet he could hear her breathing, the steady flutter of her heartbeat. “You’re refreshingly silent, Geralt of Rivia,” she’d said when she finally stood to go inside, tugging the van’s door shut behind her and looking at him for several long seconds before she turned away. Even now, he could still feel that gaze.

“Geralt!” He forced his stare away from Yennefer and to the table in front of him, which had suddenly become far more crowded. To his left sat Regis, and on his right was a man with thick, curly chestnut-colored hair, who was dressed far more casually than anyone else there. Next to him, one beside the other, were two women in tank tops and tight jeans that showed off extremely muscular frames. There was something vicious about them, something off-putting, though he suspected that was mostly because of the tattooed stripes that ran from the corners of their eyes to their ears. He tried not to stare too long; it wasn’t difficult when he could redirect his gaze to someone far more interesting across the room.

“Geralt,” Regis repeated, and he could tell he was annoyed. “This is Borch, also known as Three Jackdaws, and his…girls, Teá and Veá. We happened upon each other in the elevator and got to talking. They’re going to be accompanying us from here on."

We have to fit three more people in that van was the last thing Geralt wanted to hear, but he shook Borch’s hand, introduced himself, and hoped it didn’t show. “Geralt,” the man said in an accent he couldn’t quite place, turning towards him. “Regis tells me you’re a witcher. As I understand it, what that means is you wander from one end of the world to the other, and if you happen upon a monster, you kill it. And people…pay you for it. Am I describing it accurately?”

“More or less.” He didn’t feel terribly inclined to explain the intricacies of it—the stationary nature of his current contract, the fact that he had a daughter and ever since that happened, his stints on the Path had grown shorter and shorter. That the thought of spending another century on the Path—maybe two, if he was lucky and didn’t get killed—made him sick to his stomach every time it surfaced.

“And have you ever been summoned somewhere specifically? For a special contract, say? What would you do then? Go and carry it out?”

“It depends on who asks, and why.”

“And for how much?”

“That also depends.” Geralt shrugged. He heard the muffled sound of boots on carpet, and even though he didn’t turn his head, he felt Yennefer sit down next to Regis. The scent of her perfume crept back into his nostrils. “Prices are going up, and we’ve got to live.”

“A selective approach, then. Practical. But there’s something at the heart of it, I’d say. The conflict between Order and Chaos. I’d imagine your mission is to defend people from Evil, always and everywhere, without discretion. In this conflict, you stand on a clearly defined side.”

“The forces of Order and Chaos. Awfully high-flung words, Borch. You want to put me on one side of a conflict that began long before us, and will endure long after. But where does the average person stand? What defines the border between the two?”

“A very simple thing,” Three Jackdaws replied, tone low and serious. Geralt became uncomfortably aware that everyone at the table was listening intently. “The thing that represents Chaos is menace, aggressiveness. It is the threatening side, and Order is the one being threatened. It is the one in need of a defender. But you yourself aren’t keen to be placed on either side.”

“That’s right.”

“But you can’t escape the conflict. You go into an abandoned building and emerge with a slaughtered basilisk. You take your payment and hurry off to kill the monster you’re asked to. But say a fierce dragon is wreaking havoc on—”

“Bad example,” Geralt interrupted, “and not just for the obvious reasons. You’ve already mixed up the two. Because I don’t kill dragons, and dragons clearly represent Chaos.”

“But why?” He raised his eyebrows. Geralt couldn’t tell whether or not his surprise was feigned. “Dragons are the most bestial monster there is! They attack people, breathe fire, carry off virgins. It seems impossible that a witcher such as yourself wouldn’t have killed a few.”

“I don’t kill dragons,” Geralt repeated, irritated. He was starting to tire of this conversation, though he seemed to be the only one. “Forktails, sure. Dracolizards. Flying drakes. But not dragons—green, black, or red. Take note, please.”

“You astound me, Geralt,” Three Jackdaws said cheerfully, “and I’m eager to continue this conversation, but it seems we must change venues.” He gestured to the room around them. Many of the tables, he noted with surprise, were already empty, and Yennefer had somehow slipped off without him noticing. He stood resignedly and kept pace with Regis as they walked outside. He’d been hoping to get a decent seat for the remainder of the trip’s driving portion, but as he neared the van he heard Dandelion complaining loudly. When it came into sight Yennefer was already sitting in the front, reading a book and ignoring him completely. Geralt sighed to himself. It was going to be another long day.

~

“Aretuza,” Philippa said commandingly, voice and heels echoing in the entryway, “has a fairly sizeable student population. Given the varying ages at which young mages enter and leave, up to several hundred students can be housed here at a time, and it’s not uncommon to have that many. The building we’re in now, Loxia, is purely residential, and it’s also the only building on the campus that normally admits visitors, though you’re an exception. There are five levels and seventy-six suites, each of which can house at least two people. Generally, all are in use except one—though I suppose that’s the one you want.”

“Yes,” Ciri said without hesitation. “Or it would be the one I’d want. Remember, this is my choice.”

“I’ve been reminded more times than I can count,” she replied dryly, and Ciri rolled her eyes. If she’d had her way, Ciri knew, Philippa would’ve locked her in Aretuza and kept her there until she’d figured everything out. She didn’t care about Ciri the same way Yennefer did—though she did care about Yennefer, and given their history it made sense. She had no such history with Ciri. “Anyway. The five floors are split between levels of study. Novices, apprentices, adepts—and the top two levels for those who choose to pursue higher levels of study. You’d likely spend a few years on each of the first three floors.”

“And Yennefer—”

“Yennefer spent one year in each level of study, but don’t expect yourself to be so lucky. She possesses an incredible amount of raw power; I’ve never seen anyone rival it, not even far older and more experienced mages, not to mention that she spent the vast majority of her time working in the first place. You, on the other hand, have no work ethic and no access to your power at all.”

Ciri swallowed an angry retort and looked down at her sneakers, which seemed out of place against the marble entryway. She was beginning to question the purpose of this visit more and more. After the first month or two they’d been together, Yennefer had slowed down her studies considerably, had become more sympathetic to the pain that came with an education in magic. She wouldn’t get that kind of personal attention here. Besides, she still wasn’t sure this was what she wanted. She still felt like a witcher-in-training more than anything else—like she should be back at Kaer Morhen, weapons in hand. But every time she thought about it a knot of guilt twisted itself in her stomach, and she forced herself to put that behind her now. She couldn’t go back.

“Why even come then?” she said sourly, scuffing her shoe across the tile. Philippa turned and glared at her as she held open a door that Ciri followed her through, one that led to a large, circling stairwell. Light filtered down from thin, high windows placed sporadically on the tower’s walls. “What can they do that I haven’t already tried a million times?”

“You’d be surprised.” Philippa began to climb the stairs in front of her, and Ciri had no choice but to follow. “Yennefer is brilliant, true, but she doesn’t know everything.”

“Neither do you,” Ciri muttered under her breath. Thankfully, her voice didn’t carry up the circling stairwell. They climbed for what seemed like forever, until they reached the third floor, and once they were in the hallway, the building became startlingly modern. Plain, thin carpet, white cinderblock walls, grey suite doors covered in decorations. Next to the doors were silver nameplates, two for each two-bedroom suite. The number of people in a suite, Philippa explained as they advanced down the hall, went down as one got older—novices were six to three bedrooms, apprentices two to two, and only adepts got their own room, mostly to aid in keeping their research private during the thesis stage. On rare occasions, the system would pair two girls of different levels to room together, in which case they’d live at the higher level, but it barely ever happened. Only once in recent years, with disastrous results (though, she admitted, that hadn’t had much to do with them living together).

“Normally, a request like yours would be denied,” Philippa continued. “The point is to earn the privilege of a bigger, more private space. But no one’s used the room since, and you’re her daughter, so…”

She shrugged as they stopped in front of a door that was a more faded shade of grey than the others, lacking several coats of fresh paint. “Why haven’t they let anyone else use it since she graduated?” she asked curiously as she rubbed her sleeve over the nameplates, cleaning them off. Triss Merigold, the top one read, and underneath that, Yennefer von Vengerberg. Alphabetical, even though she was older. She’d probably hated that.

“Technically, that’s not true.” Philippa pulled one key from the others on her ring and unlocked the outside door. “Triss stayed here until her graduation a few years later—but she didn’t want another roommate, and given the circumstances, they granted her request.”

“But why won’t they let anyone stay here anymore?” They stepped inside, and Philippa flicked on the awful fluorescent lights as the door swung shut behind them. The small common space was bare, and the lights reflected off the grey tile that led into the bathroom door to her left but stopped short at the two doors on the wall in front of her. The room was cold, and Ciri shivered as she drew her oversized denim jacket tighter around her.

Philippa sighed. For the first time since Ciri had met her years ago, she looked genuinely disconcerted. “It’s no secret that students die here,” she said finally. “Try as the faculty might to help them, some who show initial aptitude can’t handle the full Force that they would need to become true sorceresses. But all those deaths are accidental.” She looked at the leftmost bedroom door, which seemed to have taken on a foreboding aura in the seconds since Ciri had last looked at it. “And action that’s…deliberate…leaves a very strong magical imprint.”

Ciri swallowed again as Philippa offered her the key. Her footsteps echoed on the tile, and it took her several tries to actually unlock the door. It felt as though her stomach were condensing, closing in on itself. Everything was still there. Exactly as she’d seen it in the memories.

“She asked them not to clean the carpet,” Philippa whispered. “When she left a month later, she only took her personal effects—clothes and the like. She didn’t want any of the rest of it, so they left it here. No one would even dare set foot in the room for months.” She laughed a little. It sounded incredibly forced. “Triss was the only one who could stand it—remember, whatever you’re feeling now is eleven years old. The air in here was a lot nastier at first.”

And she could feel it, something sorrowful and angry, lurking in the corners, on the bloodstains. “I can handle it.” She tried to sound confident, but she was sure Philippa noticed how her voice quivered, how she clenched her fists a little too harshly.

“I don’t doubt that you can. But you have to keep in mind, she thought she could handle it too.”

The words were heavy, and it took Ciri a moment to let them set in. From any other mouth it would’ve been an insult. Philippa, however, only sounded regretful. It was the only scrap of true emotion she’d ever seen out of her.

“So,” she said after a minute, tone filled with false enthusiasm as she stepped out of the room and took the key from Ciri. “Shall we continue the tour?”

~

“Look,” said Boholt, the oldest of the Crinfrid Reavers, as he tossed an apple into the air and caught it again effortlessly. They’d driven until the vans and trucks they travelled in could no longer fit on the paths, and it was there that they stopped to pitch camp for the night, with the understanding that from then on they’d be travelling on foot, carrying their things in backpacks and a couple of large carts that Dorregaray had conjured up specifically to hold weapons. Geralt, assisted by Eyck and the (reluctant) Reavers, had set about building a very large bonfire, and now nearly all of them were crowded around it (though Eyck himself had vanished).

“So,” Boholt continued. “Niedamir didn’t turn you away, like I thought he would—though who am I to question a king’s decisions? So it’s good you’ve joined us here, the three of you, I suppose. Now, just between us, what did you and the king talk about?”

“We’ve barely spoken,” Geralt replied shortly. Dandelion was sprawled next to him, strumming a guitar he’d somehow managed to cram into the back of the van. Regis was on his other side, though he appeared to be lost deep in thought. “And he wouldn’t turn me away. He requested me by name.”

“Well, I think,” the second Reaver said, pausing to take a long drink, “I don’t think he should’ve asked for you at all. I mean, lookit how many people’re after the dragon now. It’s not a hunting party no more, it’s a funeral procession. I need room when I’s fighting.”

“Oh, fuck off, Gar. The more the merrier,” Boholt declared. “There’s always swarms of people after a dragon. But you know who’ll be left standing at the end? Us. Besides, it’s only after the dragon’s dead and the treasure up for grabs that the heads start to roll. Right, Geralt? Am I right? Hey, witcher, I’m talking to you.”

“I’ve heard of cases like that,” Geralt replied unenthusiastically.

“Heard of. Hearsay, must be, because I’ve never heard of you fighting any dragons. Which makes it strange that you’re here.” He made eye contact with Geralt for an uncomfortably long time. “See, we know each other, the witcher and I, and up until now we’ve stayed out of each other’s way. If I wanted to disrupt his work, he could kill me in an instant, right?”

No one said anything. “Right,” Boholt continued after a moment. “The more the merrier, as I said, and the witcher may yet be useful to us. If we run into any frightener, ilyocoris, or striga, he can take care of it. That’s your specialty. But dragons aren’t your specialty, are they?”

Again, everyone remained silent for several minutes. “Well, Regis and Lord Three Jackdaws here are with Geralt, and that’s enough for me. So what’s bothering you, Gar? Beanpole? Can’t be Dandelion, can it?”

Yarpen Zigrin barked out a laugh as he passed around a bottle of unidentified spirits. “Dandelion always manages to show up whenever something interesting happens. He doesn’t help, doesn’t interfere, and won’t slow us down, so what do we care?”

The dwarves that had accompanied Yarpen laughed and yelled in agreement as the man in question took a long drink, then passed the bottle on, gasping for air. “Bloody hell, that’s strong! What’s it distilled from, scorpions?”

“There’s still one thing bothering me, Geralt,” Boholt continued, ignoring Dandelion completely, “and that’s you bringing those mages along. We’ll never get anything done with them around.”

“He’s right,” Yarpen agreed loudly. “We need that Dorregaray like a pig needs a saddle. And don’t even get me started on that witch. The noble Yennefer.” He groaned in disgust, and several others joined in. Geralt dug his fingers into his legs very tightly.

“Yes,” Boholt said, “there are too many sorcerers here. Two too many, to be precise—and they’re a bit too close to Niedamir. Just look at us! Sitting outside, sleeping under the stars, while they’re warm in the royal tent, plotting and probably gorging themselves, too. And what are they plotting? How to cheat us, that’s what!”

He paused, out of breath, scratched his neck a bit, then picked back up. “That Yennefer,” he said, pronouncing her name like it tasted foul on his tongue, “is a nasty, mouthy bitch. Not like your girls, Lord Borch. They’re quiet and agreeable. I’m glad they’re here, but not her. All she does is scheme. We’ve got to watch out, or else we’ll get shit-all from our agreement.”

“What agreement?” Geralt fought to keep his tone neutral, even though he was a few more wrong words away from breaking Boholt’s jaw.

“Should we tell him, Yarpen?”

“Don’t see any harm in it. Go ahead.”

“There’s no more booze,” Dandelion interjected sadly, turning the bottle upside-down. Once again, he was ignored.

“Well,” Boholt said, “we came up with this idea, because the truth is we can handle the dragon without Niedamir, but he can’t handle it without us. So we’ve made it fair—whoever does the beast in gets half the loot. Niedamir, considering he’s royalty and all, gets a quarter no matter what. The rest, provided they help, will split the last quarter equally. What do you think about that?”

“Well, what does Niedamir think about it?”

“He didn’t say anything either way, but he’d better not put up a fight. He won’t kill the dragon himself; he’ll have to rely on the experts—us, the Reavers, and Yarpen and his lads. We’re the only ones who’ll face it head-on. The others—including the mages—will get a fair cut if they give honest assistance.”

“Who do you include in the ‘others?’” Dandelion asked curiously.

“Certainly not poets,” Yarpen cackled, along with the rest of his men. “We include those who fight, not laze about.”

“Ah.” Three Jackdaws, who had until then remained quiet, raised his eyebrows, casting his gaze up to the sky. “So what will the carpenter Sheepbagger and his rabble contribute?”

“They know the area,” Boholt replied smoothly, “and will act as guides. It seems reasonable to allow him a share. But it…wouldn’t be a shame if something horrible happened to him along the way.”

Geralt saw movement out of the corner of his eye—a petite figure in a dark jacket entered the circle of light thrown by the fire noiselessly. Yarpen Zigrin wrinkled his nose. “What reeks so much in here?” he asked, pretending not to see her. “It’s not brimstone, is it?”

“No.” Boholt glanced to the side, sniffing pointedly. “It’s musk, or some other scent.”

“No, it’s…” Yarpen grimaced. Geralt gritted his teeth tightly. “Why, it’s the noble Lady Yennefer! Welcome, welcome! Please, sit down! Kennet, move your ass, give the good lady a proper seat.”

“By all means,” Yennefer said, her voice cool, “don’t inconvenience yourselves for me.” She came fully into the circle of light and sat down next to Regis, crossing her legs underneath her. Geralt saw her move her smallest finger over his, felt his medallion vibrate faintly—telepathic communication. Her eyes swept over the company slowly, finally coming to rest on Geralt. He smiled faintly.

“From what I heard,” she continued in her melodic voice, “you gentlemen are talking business. Without me?”

“We didn’t dare trouble such an important personage,” Yarpen muttered.

“Quiet, Zigrin,” Boholt snapped, clearing his throat. “Let’s hear what Lady Yennefer has to say. I’m sensing she’s got an offer for us, and I’m interested to hear it, so long as it doesn’t involve her killing the dragon herself, with spells.”

“And what if it does?” Yennefer tilted her head, dark hair falling flatteringly over her collarbones. “Don’t think it’s possible?”

“Oh, I know it’s possible. But it’s not profitable for us, you see, because you’d demand half the dragon’s hoard.”

“At least half,” she replied coldly. Dandelion had stopped strumming and was now watching them with great interest.

“And that’s why we’ll kill it ourselves, without spells or your help.”

“Are you sure about that? There are limits, Boholt, to what is possible.”

“Maybe there are, but I’ve yet to encounter them. No, we’ll kill it ourselves—especially since spells are sure to have their own limits which, unlike our own, we don’t know.”

“Brilliant. Did you come up with that yourself? Or did someone put you up to it?”

“No one did. Listen, Lady Yennefer,” Boholt said slowly. “We’ve given Niedamir our terms, but he hasn’t provided an answer. We’re patient, we’ll wait until morning, and continue on if he agrees. If not, we’ll leave.”

“Us, too,” Yarpen snarled.

“So take it or leave it, good lady. I shouldn’t need to mention that a deal would be good for you and Dorregaray as well. We’ll give you the carcass—anything you might need for your sorcery. We’ll not stand in your way on that.”

Yennefer stood, sighed angrily, and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Niedamir won’t wait until morning. He’s already agreed to your terms. Against my and Dorregaray’s advice, mind you.”

“Then it seems,” Boholt drawled, “that he’s displaying surprising amounts of wisdom for someone so young—which includes turning a deaf ear to foolish or insincere advice.”

“That’s what you say now.” She drew herself up, put her hands on her hips in a gesture that Geralt was already far too familiar with. “But you’ll be saying something else when the dragon’s broken half your bones. You’ll be begging for my help then. I know your kind. I know them all too well.”

She turned sharply and left, and without giving much thought to the action Geralt stood and followed her, leaving so quietly that no one even noticed until Dandelion said, several minutes later, “Hey, where’d Geralt go?”

~

“Yennefer.”

She stopped several feet in front of him and turned around slowly, illuminated only by the floating ball of light she’d conjured above her right hand. It glinted off the star on her neck, off a row of piercings up the shell of her ear he hadn’t noticed before. She looked tense. He could imagine why. “What? Come to apologize for them?”

“I can’t do that,” he said, and she relaxed visibly, letting her fingers open just a little bit more. When he caught up with her, she turned and kept walking towards where they’d parked. It didn’t take much effort for him to keep up with her. “But…the things they were saying about you—”

“I’m used to it.” She smiled wryly, sharing a knowing look with him. “The mage community hasn’t ever exactly been fond of me, either. I break their unspoken rules too often for their liking.”

“Rules like what?”

“Like don’t sponsor your best friend. Among others.” It was clear he’d crossed a line, and he desperately sought a way to change the subject as they reached the van. Yennefer slid the middle door open, climbed into the seat and faced him, letting her legs hang out the door. He was surprised that she didn’t immediately close it on him, but she seemed, for the most part, content to sit with him in silence.

“You didn’t answer my question last night,” he said when it became too much to bear. She looked up at him, lips parted slightly in confusion. “About you specializing.”

“Oh.” She smiled with the corners of her mouth. “I did answer your question, Geralt of Rivia. Just not seriously. I’m guessing you want a serious answer, though, if you're asking again.”

He nodded, and the smile widened. “I didn’t have one. I did a little of everything. But I’ve been told I’ve got a knack for enchanting stones. Here, hold out your hand.”

He did as she asked, despite his initial hesitations, and she reached to the back of her neck, unfastening and catching the velvet choker with one hand as the other grabbed his. She placed the obsidian star in his palm and closed his fingers around it. Her own were startlingly cold. “Do you feel that?” she asked, and he nodded again. He supposed she was referring to his own medallion pulsing in response to hers, but he could feel far too many things right then. “There are twenty active diamonds in there. Each one has a different enchantment on it. It was a tricky thing to get right, took me almost a year. Some enchantments, you see, react volatilely to others, so placement was important. Some of those stones are there simply to neutralize adverse reactions between others.”

He looked back up at her, at the way her hair had fallen from behind her ear to cover part of her face, how her neck looked longer without the ribbon circling it and he wanted to know what the skin there felt like under his fingers, his lips. He hoped desperately she wasn’t reading his thoughts as other mages were prone to doing. “It’s impressive,” he said after a moment’s pause.

“I’m glad someone thinks so.” She pulled her hand away before he was ready for her to, swept her hair to one side so she could refasten the choker. “It was my thesis. Nothing groundbreaking, truly—though on a larger scale than others had done with similar projects—but considering I was expending so much energy on…other things…” She stopped, cleared her throat, staring at something in the distance. “Well, the committee was impressed, to say the least.”

The silence, once comfortable, had now grown tense around them, “I should probably get back,” Geralt said. “They’re likely wondering where I’ve gone. You’re just going to stay here, then?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” she said dryly, “but there are few women in this camp, and it’s already been made clear how most of the people here feel about me. I’d prefer to stay here, yes.”

She had a way of rendering anything he might have said unnecessary, so for what felt like the thousandth time that night Geralt nodded, and turned away. As he made his way back to the main camp, he heard her, though faintly, like she was whispering the words to herself and not to him. “Good night, Geralt of Rivia.” 

Chapter Text

“Careful up there!” Boholt yelled, turning briefly to look behind him at the rest of the group. They’d been walking for hours, winding their way up the cliffs on a narrow, rocky path. To their side was a steep ravine, and below them the River Braa churned furiously. There was enough room for several of them to walk side by side, and for the carts full of weapons that the Reavers and Yarpen’s men dragged behind them, but Geralt stayed as close to the rock wall as he possibly could. He’d spent most of the time by himself—Dandelion was up at the front of the group, and Regis and Yennefer had dropped back some time ago. He could hear them if he tried, speaking very softly and quickly in a language he didn’t understand, probably to prevent any eavesdroppers from actually understanding what they were saying.

At the front of their caravan was Niedamir, whose appearance left much to be desired, especially in comparison to his reputation—he was clearly young, thin and freckled, though he’d already mastered the condescending sneer that Geralt had never seen a ruler without. And Niedamir himself wasn’t the only reason he avoided the royal party; a chancellor, Gyllenstiern, who had accompanied the king, had already complained to him at length about what he perceived as the changing moral code of witchers, and had warned him to stay away from Dorregaray. Geralt couldn’t see what was so horrible about the mage (except, perhaps, that Regis had said the man’s attitude reminded him far too much of someone Geralt would rather not think about), but he pretended to take Gyllenstiern’s advice to heart and immediately dropped back to the middle of the group.

“He doesn’t like you much, does he, Geralt?” the man in question said an hour or so later, speeding up to keep pace with Geralt. He was nodding at Eyck of Denesle, who had been studiously ignoring him for the entirety of the trip, except to throw tight-lipped glares at him every so often.

“I don’t think many do,” Geralt replied offhandedly.

“Competition? You’ve got similar professions—but Eyck’s an idealist and you’re a professional, though I’m sure it’s a minor difference to the creatures you’re killing.”

“I’d rather you not compare me to him. I don’t know who you intend to wrong with that comparison, anyway.”

“Well, all right—but for the record, I despise you equally.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. I, witcher, think calling killing a vocation is loathsome. Our world is in equilibrium. To kill any creature inhabiting it upsets this equilibrium. And a lack of equilibrium only hastens the inevitable end.”

“A druidic theory.” Geralt raised an eyebrow. He wondered how many people there secretly wanted to stab him—the number was likely quite high. “I know it—an old hierophant in Rivia expounded on it to me at length once. Two days later, he was killed by wererats. I didn’t notice any difference in equilibrium.”

“Because the world,” he repeated emphatically, “is already in natural equilibrium. All species have their own enemies. The killing of humans’ natural enemies, which you devote yourself to, threatens the degeneration of the race.”

“Do you know what?” Geralt snapped. “One day, take yourself to a mother whose son has been killed by a basilisk, and tell her she should be glad, because thanks to that the human race has escaped degeneration. See what she says to you then.”

He heard a short, sharp laugh, and when he looked back Regis and Yennefer had caught up to them. She’d swapped out her boots for flat shoes, and Geralt, who had only once before seen her without several-inch heels, was struck by the difference, though it didn’t make her any less imposing, less eye-catching. He could just barely make out the shine of pins in her dark hair. “Interesting argument, Geralt of Rivia,” she said, glancing at him and then away quickly. She had barely made eye contact with him all day. “And Dorregaray, you ought to be careful what you say.”

“I’m not accustomed to concealing my views.” Geralt locked eyes with Regis, who already looked mildly exasperated. It seemed neither of them wanted to be caught in the middle of a fight between mages.

“I’d start concealing them immediately,” Yennefer replied coolly. “Especially around Niedamir and the Reavers. They already think you want to interfere in their killing the dragon. If you only talk, they’ll think you harmless. If you try anything, they’ll kill you before you could even blink. And besides,” she continued, ignoring the condescending smile that had appeared on Dorregaray’s face, “by saying those things you damage all of our reputations.”

“How so?” Geralt didn’t like the tone of his voice at all, but a warning glance from Regis made him keep his mouth shut.

“You can apply your theory to all sorts of creatures, Dorregaray, but not to dragons, the greatest enemy of man. And I’m not talking about man’s degeneration, but its survival. In order to survive, one has to crush one’s enemies. Enemies that might prevent survival.”

“Dragons aren’t man’s enemies,” Geralt interrupted. Yennefer didn’t look at him.

“Perhaps you should leave that judgement to the humans. Your role is to get a job done, not to judge,” Yennefer said icily. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to upset her so much, besides disagree with her, but he doubted she’d tell him. It was a far cry from how she’d treated him the night before.

“Yennefer,” Dorregaray said, that awful smile still on his face, “for a woman of your intelligence and education—not to mention the esteemed company you keep—you really are saying some ridiculous things.” Yennefer turned towards Regis, at such an angle that Dorregaray wouldn't be able to see her, and rolled her eyes dramatically. “Why, in your mind, have dragons become the greatest enemy of mankind? Why not another species, one that’s killed a hundredfold more? Forktails, manticores, amphisbaenas, gryphons? Why not wolves, for that matter?”

“I’ll tell you. Man’s fight for dominance was won when the necessity for nomadism was eliminated. Only in towns, surrounded by walls and other defenses, can mankind thrive, as human children are dependent for a great deal of time, and need a place to be raised safely. And now we come to dragons—the only monster with the ability to threaten a large city. A dragon attack would force people to disperse—the fire would mean hundreds of victims and great destruction. That is why they must be utterly wiped out.”

Dorregaray hadn’t stopped grinning the whole time—in fact, Geralt thought the smile had actually widened. “Do you know what, Yennefer?” he said slowly. Geralt couldn’t help but be impressed by the way she held his gaze. “I’d love to see the day this idea of yours comes to fruition—when people like you will occupy their due place in nature. Fortunately, it won’t happen. You humans would rather slaughter each other in pointless wars, instead of trying to cure the ails that plague you. Because it’s that, Yennefer, that threatens your precious cities, where women can have children once a year if they so choose, yet those children still die far more often than they should. So take up bearing them yourself, my dear; it’s the most natural pursuit for you. It will occupy the time you’re currently wasting on pointless research. Farewell.”

He sped up rather comically, considering how fast he’d already been walking to keep up with Geralt’s long strides, and Geralt helped him by slowing down to keep pace with Yennefer, whose mouth was open slightly in shock. There was anger building behind her eyes. Regis grabbed her arm, gently but firmly, and made her look at him. “He’s not worth it,” he said quietly, glancing up ahead. “There’s no way he could’ve meant it like that—he doesn’t know.”

“Thought you were friends,” Geralt interjected. She kept her face turned away from him, but he could hear her steady deep inhale, trying to calm herself. Her hands were tense at her sides, white-knuckled.

“He’s Val’s friend,” she answered shortly. “He can’t stand me.”

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a sorcerer who does like her,” Regis said, turning to Geralt. The corner of Yennefer’s mouth tilted up slightly, partially hidden behind strands of hair that had fallen out of their band to frame her face. “Most are upset because she’s accomplished more in a decade than they have in centuries.”

Yennefer scoffed. “Please. The fact that I’m young and a woman is a far more likely reason.”

“And all that means is you’ve got more to lose by reacting badly.” The two of them looked at each other as they walked, a conversation Geralt clearly wasn’t meant to be a part of. By that time they had fallen nearly to the back of the group, though they could’ve caught up easily. After a few minutes Yennefer shook her head and walked away from them, keeping to the far edge of the road so as not to cross paths with Dorregaray. Geralt wanted to go after her—the sight of her picking her way along the edge of the ravine made him sick to his stomach—but Regis stopped him with a gesture similar to the one he’d used on her not even five minutes ago. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” he said. “It’s pointless trying to talk to her when she gets this way.”

“What way?” he asked, but Regis only shrugged, and Geralt was forced to content himself with the fact that that was the only answer he would probably get.

~

“I saw it,” Ciri said, taking a long slurp of the milkshake in a styrofoam cup in front of her. They’d returned from Aretuza less than an hour ago, and she was sitting in a low, round chair in the corner of her living room, the one that Yennefer would sometimes fall asleep in if she didn’t feel like arguing with Keira that day. Triss was sitting on the nearby couch, looking at her in obvious disbelief. Philippa had gone outside—Ciri suspected she didn’t want to have to hear about it a second time. (She had, Ciri noted, reacted very strongly on-site.)

“That’s…surprising,” Triss replied slowly, tucking her legs up underneath her. There were shadows ringing her eyes—she’d been taking on her own work and Yennefer’s for days. Ciri herself hadn’t even known about the dragon until she’d returned, and now her chest ached with worry for the both of them. Triss, it seemed, had other things on her mind.

“I haven’t even seen it, and…I was there.” Perhaps Ciri was exhausted and imagining things, but she could’ve sworn she heard a note of jealousy in her voice, though it was well-masked in layers of sadness. She understood why; she knew how Triss had become involved in the whole thing. But sometimes she got the idea that Triss cared more than she ought to. More than a friend should.

“I mean,” Ciri said, shifting in the chair and suddenly wishing they had something else to talk about. “It’s pretty heavily warded. I’m surprised it let me in in the first place.”

“Because it’s meant to be hidden.” They both turned as Philippa stepped back inside, pressing her fingers to her temple as though she couldn’t believe they were still discussing it. “The point of warding it in the first place was so no one would even know it was there except her, and her blood. At the time, we thought it was foolproof.” She laughed humorlessly. “It’s not like she was having any children. But it let Ciri in.”

She sat on the couch, as far away from Triss as she could get, and tugged at the black agate bracelet around her wrist. The light slanting through the blinds threw stripes on her grim face, her hair that she’d pushed back behind her shoulders. “I—” Ciri didn’t know what to say. They looked at her expectantly but not impatiently; a moment later Philippa’s eyes darted down to check her phone. The discomfort grew in the air like a living thing, lurking in the corner.

“This whole thing was probably a mistake,” she finally said, her voice trembling faintly. She looked at her similarly-shaking hands. She was the one who had started this; she was the one who hadn’t known to leave well enough alone, to mind her own business. If it hadn’t been for her, they would all be farther down the path of moving on. “I’m sorry.”

“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” Triss said quietly, and Philippa nodded, though she wouldn’t look at either of them directly. “And if you really feel like you need to, we’re not the ones you should be apologizing to.”

They fell silent. Ciri wished Yennefer were there—she’d intended to go straight to her when she got back. It felt wrong not to be with her now that she knew. Now that she’d seen.

“Truly, you didn’t do anything,” Philippa said, still staring at a scratch on the wall. “You’ve helped her quite a bit, no matter what you think. I doubt she would’ve recovered so quickly if you hadn’t shown up at the right time.”

“Yeah.” Ciri sighed. She had entered Yennefer’s life nearly four years after the fact, but it seemed pointless to mention now. “That’s what she tells me, too.”

~

“Hey, Beanpole!” Boholt yelled, irritated. The entire party had come to a halt in front of a bridge connecting two edges of a chasm. It clearly showed age, but it was made from thick pine and supported on a quadrangular pier, and to Geralt it looked sturdy enough, though it seemed their resident carpenter had some concerns, as did the youngest of the Reavers. “Why’re we stopping?”

“Dunno if the bridge’ll hold,” Beanpole said, eyeing it suspiciously.

“Why did we even take this road to begin with?” said Gyllenstiern, whose nasally voice Geralt was quite tired of hearing. “Sheepbagger! Why did you lead us this way, and not by the trail?”

“Road’s shorter this way,” the carpenter replied, not looking at him but instead directly at Niedamir, who looked incredibly bored. “The trail cuts around some ruins, but we can avoid them entirely by taking the bridge.”

“And you’re sure it won’t give way?” Boholt asked, peering over the edge of the chasm. “That drop…”

“It’ll ‘old.”

“Right, then.” The simple answer seemed to have appeased Boholt, because he motioned ahead in an exaggerated movement. “After you, then. We’ve a custom of letting the bravest go first.”

Geralt thought that was a ridiculous idea—if he feared the bridge would snap, he should’ve gone first, when it hadn’t held anyone else’s weight—but before he could even begin to think about voicing that opinion, the earth started to shake, and an audible rumbling began to emanate from the rock wall beside them. Boholt cursed loudly at the same second Yarpen yelled “Landslide! Out of the way!” and shoved as many people away from him as possible in a mad dash across the bridge.

All hell broke loose. Geralt tried to stand back as the Reavers and Yarpen’s men crossed, dragging the carts full of their weapons behind them, and Eyck followed. If not for the tight set of his lips, the sickly pallor his skin had suddenly taken on, one would think he hadn’t even noticed the rocks that were beginning to fall around them.

“Witcher!” Dorregaray yelled, motioning him towards the bridge as he began to cross it himself, but his ear was caught by another sound—a cry behind him. He turned. One of the men still on their side of the bridge, who was now running towards it, had pushed Yennefer aside so forcefully she stumbled and fell, rolling with the blow and flattening herself to the ground, arms over her head. He ran back towards her without pause, jumping over the gaps opening beneath his feet to grab her arm and yank her upright. Her eyes were wide, staring at the rock above them, and a trickle of blood was running down her cheek.

“You have to move!” he yelled at the same time she cried “Look out!” and he twisted to see an enormous, flat block of stone plummeting towards them. He dropped immediately, curving his body protectively over hers, feeling her lungs fill and empty with ragged breaths. At the same moment the block burst, turning into a million particles of dust that stung when they landed on him.

“Quickly!” Dorregaray called again, spelling several more of the larger rocks to pieces. “Onto the bridge!” A hazy blue half-sphere suddenly enveloped them, sparks flying dangerously from Yennefer’s fingertips as stones hit the light and melted away. He grabbed her free hand and they ran, the bridge rocking disturbingly beneath them.

A moment later, it snapped.

They half they had just crossed broke off, crumbling into the water, and they both quickly realized the surface they were running on was becoming vertical at an alarming rate. They were falling with it, digging their fingertips into cracks in the wood in a desperate attempt to hold on—but Yennefer couldn’t. She shrieked and dropped. Geralt, gripping the wood with one hand, pulled a knife out of his pocket with the other and plunged it into the boards, gripping the handle with both hands. He felt his muscles straining as Yennefer, who had grabbed around his waist, tugged him down, trying to grab a hold wherever she could. The bridge was almost vertical.

“Yennefer,” he panted, unsure if she could even hear him. “Do something…cast a spell or something!”

“How can I?” Her breath was hot against the small of his back, muffled and furious. “I’m hanging on!”

“Free one of your hands!”

“I can’t!”

“Hey!” he heard Dandelion yell from somewhere above them. “Are you okay? Can you hold on?” Geralt didn’t bother to reply. Yennefer’s face was pressed into his shirt, and he could hear her panting, feel her warm breath. “Someone throw down a rope!” Dandelion screamed. “Quickly, dammit!”

“Wait,” Boholt said, so softly he was sure Yennefer couldn’t hear him. “She’ll fall soon. Then we’ll pull the witcher up.”

Suddenly, Geralt found he had far more strength to hold on than he thought. “Yennefer?” he said, just loud enough for her to be able to hear. Her name felt awkward and heavy in his mouth. “Can you find a hold? With your legs? Anything?”

“I can,” she panted, “swing them around.”

Against his better judgement, Geralt looked down at the river churning beneath them. He could see her knuckles turning white, her fingers digging uncomfortably into his hipbones. “Can you hold on?”

“I…I think so, yes…”

“You’ve got to pull yourself up. You’ve got to find a foothold.”

“I can’t!”

Throw down a rope!” Dandelion bellowed again, louder this time. “Are you all crazy? They’ll both fall!”

“Is that really so bad?” Gyllenstiern said. Geralt clenched his teeth tightly.

“Yennefer…” he said

“Shut up…and stop wriggling about…”

“Can you hold on?”

“No.” She’d stopped struggling, and simply hung from his back, a lifeless weight. Her breathing had evened out against his back, deep and resigned. He felt her fingers starting to slip.

Something slipped downward over the broken bridge—a rope, shining dimly, that wound itself around his torso, under his armpits, and tied itself into a loose knot. Yennefer moaned, sucking in air. He thought she was going to cry. He was wrong.

“Okay, we’re going to pull you up!” Dandelion said. “You there! Pull!”

The rope constricted painfully around him as they slid upwards, flesh scraping on the rough wood. Her grip on him loosened the farther they travelled. At the top, Yennefer was the first to stand.

Chapter Text

“Only one of our supply wagons was saved, Your Majesty,” said Gyllenstiern, “not counting the one the Reavers brought. Only seven soldiers remain from the troop. The road on the far side of the chasm has vanished completely—we’ll have to take the long way back.” Niedamir didn’t answer, barely even glanced in his direction. Eyck of Denesle was staring around their party with wide, shining eyes.

“The ire of the gods chases us!” he yelled, lifting his arms to the sky. “We have sinned, King Niedamir! This was to be a sacred expedition! The dragon—it is evil, and I will not simply pass by evil! I’ll annihilate it! Just as the gods and the Holy Book demand!”

“What on earth is he talking about?” Regis whispered. Geralt had been immensely relieved to find him on the other side of the bridge, but he’d had barely a moment to catch his breath before the argument broke out.

“I don’t know,” Geralt replied, cleaning his knife carefully with the bottom of his shirt before tucking it back in his pocket. “I can’t understand a single word.”

“If he keeps it up I fear we may have another fight on our hands.” He nodded at Yennefer, who was standing a few feet away and pretending Eyck didn’t exist as she repinned her hair behind her head. She looked considerably worse for wear—her clothes stained with dust and the blood that had dripped from her forehead onto her white shirt, scratches up her arms from where they’d dragged against the splintered wood. He thought he saw a flash of silvery skin right before she tugged down her shirt, which had ridden up ever so slightly above her hips—scar tissue. He frowned. Mages weren’t supposed to have scars.

“The Holy Book,” Eyck continued, so loudly that Yennefer visibly winced, “says the seven-headed dragon will ride forth from the abyss! And on its back sits a woman in purple and scarlet, holding a golden goblet, and on her forehead is the sign of ultimate whoredome!”

“Could you speak in a language we can understand?” Boholt drawled, raising an eyebrow lazily.

“One should act against evil,” Eyck replied self-importantly, “with a good heart and conscience. But who has assembled here? Dwarves—pagans, who are born in darkness and serve those dark forces! Blasphemous mages with unnatural powers and privileges! A witcher, an aberration! Are you surprised, then, that this punishment has befallen us? The divine grace of the gods is being tested! I call on you, gracious King, to purge the filth from our ranks, before—”

“Not a single word about poets,” Dandelion interrupted disappointedly. “And I try so hard.”

Geralt grinned tightly at Yarpen, whose hand was wrapped around the handle of an axe hanging from his belt. Next to him, Regis and Yennefer exchanged exasperated glances. “I think you’re exaggerating just a bit,” Dorregaray said, visibly angry. “You’ve no reason to make your views known—they are neither polite nor chivalrous. Besides, they make no sense considering you were the one grabbing a magical rope to save a witcher and a sorceress when, by all rights, you should’ve been praying for them to fall.”

Geralt and Yennefer looked at each other, startled, and then away quickly. “Is that true?” he whispered to Dandelion. “He threw it down? Not Dorregaray?” Dandelion nodded. He heard Yennefer curse under her breath.

“And why was that?” she asked sweetly, turning to Eyck with a smile that was very nearly friendly. “I’m blasphemous, but you save my life?”

“You are a lady,” Eyck said, tilting his head reluctantly towards her in something that resembled a bow. “And your lovely and honest face allows me to believe you will one day turn from this vile sorcery.”

Boholt snorted loudly, and Regis chuckled, though there was considerably less menace behind it—he sounded merely amused. “I thank you, then, Sir Eyck,” Yennefer said dryly, much to most of the party’s amusement, “and I’m sure Geralt of Rivia does as well.”

“I’d rather drop dead,” he replied frankly. Yennefer turned to look at him, eyes sharp and cold, but before anyone had the chance to comment, a cry of “look out!” issued behind him, and he turned to see Sheepbagger and a few soldiers, who had been sent ahead to scout the path, running back at full speed.

“What is it?” Gyllenstiern asked as the carpenter ground to a stop in front of him. “Spit it out, man!”

“There—beyond the gorge…a dragon!”

No one wasted any time. Boholt, the Reavers, and all of Yarpen’s men were immediately scrambling for the carts of weapons they’d managed to save. It was the incident on the bridge all over again, though with less of a threat of imminent death behind it. The group went flying to where the gorge ended, gently sloping into a grassy field. As Geralt neared it, he could hear Boholt swearing loudly in disbelief. Yennefer, who had somehow ended up at the front of the group, leaned around one of the larger blocks at the edge of the gorge (Regis hovering behind her rather nervously), then pulled back, violet eyes blinking furiously.

“What?” Dandelion yelled as he caught up with the rest of them. “What’s going on up there?”

“The dragon,” Boholt said. “It’s…golden.”

It sat only a couple hundred yards away from them, on a low gradual slope, its neck extended, tail curled around its front feet. There was something graceful about it, accentuated by the way its scales blazed gold, the same color as the eyes that stared them down. “A golden dragon,” Dorregaray whispered, his own eyes impossibly wide. “A fable, in the flesh!”

“There’s fucking no such thing as a golden dragon,” one of the Reavers pronounced. “And I know what I’s talking about.”

“Then what’s that?” Dandelion asked, pointing at the dragon.

“An illusion! Some kind of trickery!”

“It’s not an illusion,” Yennefer said, unable to tear her eyes from it.

“No, it’s a dragon,” Gyllenstiern said. “A genuine golden dragon.”

“Golden dragons don’t exist!”

“Shut up, all of you!” Boholt yelled. “There’s no point arguing, we can all fucking see it. And what fucking difference does it make, anyway? It’s not that big. We’ll take it down in no time. Who cares if it’s golden or not?”

“There is a difference, idiot,” Beanpole snapped. “That’s not the dragon we’re after. It’s not the one poisoned outside Barefield. This one’s just sitting there. It’s not of any use to us.”

“Not any use?” Yarpen said. “The damn thing’s golden, don’t you understand? We’ll get more for its hide than we would for its whole hoard!”

“What’re we supposed to use to kill it?” Gar shouted, rummaging through the wagon where the Reavers had stored their equipment. “What d’you think that thing spits? Fire? Acid? Steam?”

“I’ve not got a fucking clue,” said Boholt. He sounded slightly worried, though he camouflaged it well. “Hey! Dorregaray! There anything in your fables about how to kill a golden dragon?”

“You kill it the usual way!” Sheepbagger said. Beside him, Geralt heard Yennefer exhale slowly. “Give us an animal, we’ll stuff it full of something poisonous and feed it to the beast!” Dorregaray looked askance. Dandelion turned away, grimacing, and Yarpen smiled nastily, hand back on his axe. “What?” the carpenter continued. “Stop staring, we’ve got work to do! We need to decide what substance will kill it quickest. It’s got to be something very toxic, poisonous, or rotten.”

“Well,” Yarpen said slowly and gleefully. “What’s poisonous, foul, and stinks here? Because it looks like it’s you.”

“What?”

“You fucking heard me. Get lost.”

“Dorregaray.” Boholt walked over to the edge of the group where the sorcerer was standing self-importantly. Yennefer huffed, annoyed, under her breath. “Tell me, what do you know about golden dragons?”

“Not much,” he said in a way that Geralt supposed was meant to sound humble, “but I’ll tell you. What I know is that what sits before us now is a living legend—probably the last of its kind to have survived your slaughter. And I will not allow you to touch it, understand? You can all pack your bags and go home.”

“I would remember,” Gyllenstiern said, surprisingly calm given the circumstances, “to whom you are speaking. King Niedamir can order you to do whatever he wants, but not the other way around. Is that clear?”

“No,” Dorregaray said haughtily. “I will not be ordered around by someone with so little true power. Do you know, I could wave my hand and change you into a flea, or something far worse. Is that clear?”

Gyllenstiern never got a chance to answer—Boholt grabbed Dorregaray and spun him around, the other Reavers looming ominously behind him. “I’d think twice about opening that mouth again. We’ve come too far for you to fuck it up with your fables and your prohibitions.” Dorregaray didn’t respond—he was too busy staring at the mace hanging from Boholt’s belt. “Good. Stay out of our way. Gar, Beanpole—let’s get on with it. The thing’s not going to hang around forever.”

“Doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere,” Dandelion observed, but right as he said it the thing stretched its jaws wide, lifting its head.

“King Niedamir!” it bellowed authoritatively. “I am the dragon Villentretenmerth! I see the landslide I sent down didn’t stop you, and there are only three ways out of this valley. You can take the east road to Barefield or the west to Caingorn. I will not allow you to take the northern road. However, if any of you wish to challenge this, you may do so in an honorable duel. With conventional weapons, and to the defeat of one of the sides. I await your answer through a herald, as the old custom dictates!”

For a moment they all stood perfectly still. Geralt looked over at Yennefer, whose lips were parted slightly. She didn’t take her eyes off the gorge.

“It can talk,” Boholt breathed. “Bloody hell…”

“That it can.” Yarpen frowned. “Anyone know what a confessional weapon is?”

“A non-magical one,” Yennefer said. Geralt was made uneasy by the way Boholt looked at her as she spoke. “But…with a forked tongue, it shouldn’t be able to talk. It’s using telepathy. Be careful, it works both ways—he can read your thoughts.”

“Well, it’s completely fucking mad,” Beanpole said, “if it thinks we’re going to duel one-on-one with it. We should attack it as a group!”

“No.”

They turned to see Eyck, standing tall behind them and dressed in what appeared to be a full set of armor. He looked ridiculous—even Geralt, a witcher, only owned bits and pieces of armor, and he hadn’t brought a single one of them with him. The sword on his hip looked far more familiar, though still somewhat out of place. “No,” he said again. “Over my dead body will honor be insulted in my presence. Whoever insults honor insults me, and it will end in bloodshed. The dragon wants to duel? I will fight it! Let divine judgement decide our fates! I have faith and righteousness on my side! I—”

“Shut up, you’re making me sick,” Boholt said among the annoyed muttering of the others. “If you’re going to fight, get on with it!”

“Wait,” one of the dwarves hissed. “Remember the agreement? If he kills the thing, he gets half the spoils.”

“Oh, please. He’ll be happy if Dandelion writes a song about him.”

“Fine,” Gyllenstiern sighed, hands to his temples. “Sir Eyck will fight the dragon. But the dragon requested a herald. Who will do that?”

“I could,” Dandelion offered, trying very hard not to sound overly excited.

“We need an announcement, not a song,” Boholt said. “Yarpen can do it. He’s got a voice like a bull.”

“Just speak courteously,” Gyllenstiern cautioned.

“You don’t have to learn me how to talk.” Yarpen climbed up onto the highest boulder and stood proudly, chest puffed out. “Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, you fucking dragon! Listen here! The first to fight you is the knight Eyck of Denesle! He’ll stick his sword in your belly, according to the holy custom, for the joy of virgins everywhere and the glory of King Niedamir! And it’s to be a fair fight, understood?”

The dragon raised its head and hurried down to level ground. Despite its speed, it looked bored. “I understand!” it called back. “Let Sir Eyck of Denesle enter the fray, then! I am ready!”

Eyck, who had already clambered down into the valley, slammed down the visor of his ridiculous helmet and ran forwards, sword aloft. Geralt heard the others snickering around him, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of what was going on below. “Look at him go!” Yarpen whooped as Eyck neared the dragon, who, contrary to Geralt’s expectations, flattened itself to the ground and rushed straight at the knight.

“Hit him!” Yarpen screamed. Though Eyck and the dragon had been heading straight for each other, Eyck changed direction at the last second, nimbly rolling out of the way of the dragon’s blow and striking out with one of his own.

It was over in seconds. The dragon darted out of the way of Eyck’s blow and reached its claws down at his legs. The next thing they knew Eyck was several feet in the air, spinning horrifically. His breastplate detached itself from his body moments before he hit the ground.

“The knight Eyck of Denesle may now be removed from the battlefield, as he can no longer fight,” said the dragon Villentretenmerth. “Next, please.”

“Oh, fuck,” Yarpen said into the ringing silence.

~

“Both legs,” Yennefer said, standing and taking a cloth Regis had pulled from his bag of medical supplies. She wiped her hands on it one finger at a time, paying special attention to the skin around her rings, the stones themselves. “His spine, as well. His armor’s dented like someone hit him with a pile driver. It’s hard to say if he’ll ever even walk again.”

“Professional hazard,” Geralt said under his breath. Yennefer raised an eyebrow as she moved closer to him, lowering her voice.

“Is that really all you have to say?”

“What else would you want me to say?”

“That dragon, it’s—it’s incredibly fast. Too fast for a man to fight it.”

“Ah.” He understood. He wished he hadn’t. He wish he’d never come at all. “No. Not me.”

Her lips twisted spitefully. “Morals, then? Or just everyday fear?”

“One of those. What difference does it make?”

“None.” She was very close to him now; he could smell the last vestiges of her perfume under the blood and sweat they were covered with. “Both can be broken, both can be overcome. Kill that dragon, Geralt of Rivia. For me.”

He waited a few moments before he responded. He couldn’t have possibly heard her correctly. “For you?”

“For me. I want it. In one piece. All for myself.”

“So? Just cast a spell and kill it.”

“No. You kill it, I’ll use my spells to hold back the others.”

“You’ll kill them, Yennefer.”

“And why should that bother you? You deal with the dragon, I deal with the people.”

“Yennefer.” He swallowed around her name; he didn’t want to admit that she could convince him far easier than she thought. “I don’t understand what you would even want with that dragon. From what I understand, you’re already fairly well-off. You’re famous. So why?”

She was silent for a moment, pressing her lips together and letting them pull apart, pointedly not looking at them. He focused on the mark under the corner of her mouth, and she ran her thin fingers along the edge of her star. “I—well, it’s rather personal. But I’ve got a…condition, so to speak, and all my life I’ve been told there’s nothing I can do about it. But I’ve recently come into contact with someone who might be able to help me. Reverse what’s been done to me.”

He frowned. Yennefer shifted her weight, wrapped her arms loosely around her midsection, locked eyes with him. “It’s…a complex procedure. Costly. But in exchange for a golden dragon…”

The expression on her face, guarded but somehow nearly vulnerable, almost had him. It was the most emotion he’d ever seen out of her, not to mention that there were very few conditions that could affect someone supposed to have been magically made perfect, though what he’d seen earlier called even that into question. “I understand,” he said, and found he had to break her gaze. “But I can’t. Not for someone I barely know, and for reasons I don’t know either. I’m sorry.”

He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Anger, perhaps. Indignation. So it surprised him when all she did was bite her lip, blink several times, and turn away. “Fair enough, Geralt of Rivia,” he heard her say, and her voice trembled slightly. He looked over at Dandelion, who was doing a horrible job of pretending he hadn’t been eavesdropping, and Regis, whose brow furrowed deeply as he watched Yennefer slowly rejoin the group.

“Well,” Boholt was saying when Geralt finally started to listen again, “the knightly honor thing didn’t work. It was a shitty idea anyway. But I say we’ve killed two birds with one stone. And now the Reavers will sort out this damned dragon. By ourselves.”

“What about the agreement?” Gyllenstiern interjected.

“Fuck the agreement.”

“This is ridiculous!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands up in frustration. “King Niedamir—”

“What about him?” Boholt’s hands went to the sword at his hip. “Is he going to suddenly take on the dragon himself? Are you? Because in that case, we’ll gladly wait. But you had your chance. It’s too late. There’s no one left to fight for you.”

“That’s not true!” Sheepbagger cut in. Geralt groaned internally; he’d forgotten the man was there. “The men from Barefield will arrive any moment, you’ll see! We’ll find out who the brave ones really are!”

“Shut the fuck up,” Boholt said calmly, “or I’ll punch you so hard it’ll shove your teeth down your throat.” Sheepbagger’s eyes went wide, but the words had their intended effect—his mouth remained closed.

“King!” Gyllenstiern called, turning to Niedamir, who suddenly seemed far less bored. “What do you command?”

The boy stood, his nose scrunched up. “So you’ve finally asked,” he said shrilly, “instead of deciding to speak for me? Good. Let it stay that way. Get together the men we have left and find a way to transport Sir Eyck. We’re returning to Caingorn.”

“Sire!”

“Not another word, I said. Farewell, noble lords. Lady Yennefer.” He inclined his head towards her. He seemed to be quite taken with her. Apparently whatever she’d done on the first day had worked. “I’ve learned a great deal.” And he set off down the western road, the remaining soldiers scrambling behind him in disarray. Gyllenstiern was still stuttering his disapproval, but considering most of his party was already moving, carrying the unconscious Eyck between them, he had no choice but to follow. In the valley below, the dragon had bent its head and was licking something grey-green in the grass beside it.

Geralt pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and turned to Dandelion. “What do you think of all this?” he said. The poet seemed surprised to have even been asked.

“Well,” he said carefully. “I’ll tell you one thing—reptiles of any kind, they terrify me. But that dragon…” He tilted his head as he looked down at it. “It’s pretty.”

He nodded, and unzipped the front of his hoodie enough to tighten the belt holding his sword by two notches. He’d been trying to keep the blade hidden, but he wouldn’t have been shocked if someone had noticed—Yennefer, whose face had been inches away from the edge of it, had to have noticed. “Geralt!” Dandelion gasped, his eyes wide. “Are you going to—?”

“Yes.” Geralt reached to check the hilt’s position, trying to loosen the jacket as surreptitiously as possible. “I’ve had enough of all this. Are you going or are you staying?”

Dandelion looked around at the others, then straightened up. “I’m staying. There’s enough for a whole album here.”

“It could be your last one.”

“Geralt? Can you—don’t kill it, please. At least try?”

“I’ll try. That’s all I can promise.”

When they turned back to the group, Dorregaray was laughing. “Do you see that?" he said, pointing down the western road. “Niedamir is gone. Gyllenstiern no longer gives orders here.” He drew a wand from his coat that looked even more ridiculous than Eyck’s armor; Geralt knew well enough that any truly powerful mage didn’t need any sort of instrument to cast. “I’d start writing this down if I were you, Dandelion, because soon everyone will know about how the sorcerer Dorregaray chased away those who would kill the last golden dragon. Hands off that axe, Yarpen! Yennefer, darling, don’t you move a muscle. And begone, all of you! Anyone who makes one wrong move will end in ash!”

Dorregaray!” Yennefer hissed. Geralt saw her left hand tense slightly.

“My lord,” Boholt said, hands in front of him, “is there any way to—?”

“Shut up. And no one touch that dragon. Now turn and go.”

Yennefer, who had been moving her fingers into position slowly as Dorregaray turned to Boholt, shot her hand forward, and the sorcerer was suddenly encircled in blue flames that erupted from the ground around him. At the same time, Gar jumped into the ring and punched his face, hard. They’re going to kill him, Geralt thought, and though he didn’t particularly want to, he drew his sword and plunged into the fray, meeting Boholt head-on to the sound of clashing steel. He fought well, but Geralt had the upper hand—or at least, he thought he did, but the longer he fought, the more he felt himself going numb, until he finally collapsed, unable to move.

“Tie them up,” he heard Yennefer say. “All of them.”

Dorregaray and Geralt, both paralyzed, were restrained easily, tied to the weighed-down carts with zip ties Boholt had pulled out of his pocket. Regis, who didn’t seem concerned in the slightest—probably because he knew he was stronger than everyone there, and even all three Reavers at once would be no threat to him—went quietly, but Dandelion struggled and protested until he was subdued with a punch to the face.

“Why tie ‘em up?” Sheepbagger said. “They’s traitors! We should club ‘em!”

“Shut up,” Yarpen said. “And get out of here.”

“Awfully brave, aren’t you? We’ll see how you act when my comrades show up! Any moment now! You’ll—” He was interrupted by Gar kicking him into the grass, one blow after another, until he started to crawl away, limping slightly even on all fours. “You’ll be sorry!” he began to threaten, but with one step forward from Yarpen’s men he was up and running. They laughed until he was well out of sight.

“Right,” Yarpen said, clapping his hands together. “Now for the dragon.”

“Actually,” Yennefer said, “the only thing you’ll be doing is leaving right after him.”

“Excuse me?” Boholt said threateningly. “Mind repeating that?”

“Leave. I’ll take care of the dragon myself. Using unconventional weapons. And you can all thank me on your way out, because if not for me the witcher would’ve killed you. Go on, now, before I become considerably less generous. I could do any number of terrible things to you. All I’d have to do is raise a finger.”

“Is that right?” Geralt was become less fond by the second of the way Boholt moved towards her—almost predatory. “Well. In that case I may also need some unconventional weapons. I won’t point fingers, but a certain witch is going to get a sound thrashing.”

“Go ahead and try. You’ll make my day.”

“Why?” Yarpen asked reproachfully.

“Perhaps I simply don’t like sharing.”

He smiled. “It’s nice to see such recognizable human emotion out of a sorceress. Because neither do I.”

Before she could even blink Yarpen had whipped a small steel ball out of his pocket and sent it flying at her. It hit her square in the forehead, and the next second she was being held up by Gar and Beanpole while Yarpen tied her wrists and ankles tightly. Yennefer screamed, thrashing helplessly, but one of Yarpen’s men pulled his belt from its loops and gagged her with it, muffling the sound.

“So, Yennefer, how are you going to do those horrible things to me now? When you can’t lift a finger?” He reached up and tore her shirt down the center effortlessly, ignoring her cries, the sudden fear Geralt wondered if only he had noticed. He tore what was under it too, and Geralt had to turn away, unable to watch whatever Boholt was doing that was making them laugh so hard. He could flip the cart—it would take a fair amount of effort, but he could—but Dorregaray was tied to the other side, and Geralt didn’t want to be responsible for his death. Instead, he tried to distract himself by thinking of all the ways he could kill them after this. It didn’t help much.

“There’s no time now,” Boholt said as they bound a heavily-breathing Yennefer to the wagon on the side nearest to Geralt, “but just wait. Once this dragon nonsense is sorted out, we’ll have some fun. In the meantime, no one fucking touch her. We’ll figure out the order based on who does a good job with the beast.”

“I’d watch out if I were you, Boholt,” Geralt said quietly. “You won’t live to regret this.”

“And if I were you I’d keep quiet. Yours is a threat I’ve got to take seriously, witcher. You may not live at all.” Boholt stood from where he’d been threatening Geralt. “Gar! Beanpole! Get ready!”

Dandelion was mumbling some nonsense about how he shouldn’t have gotten caught up in all this, while Regis stared down Boholt’s back, possibly even angrier than Geralt, and Dorregaray watched the blood drip from his nose. Geralt couldn’t take his eyes off the suddenly-exposed skin above the waistband of Yennefer’s jeans, where there was, in fact, a scar, though it was old enough to barely be visible. “Would you stop staring!” she yelled when she finally saw him, twisting around even though it was futile—her shirt was nearly in tatters. Geralt turned away. Dandelion did not.

“Damn,” he said, laughing. “How much mandrake elixir did you use on that, Yennefer? You’ve got the skin of a sixteen-year-old.”

“I’m twenty-seven, you fucking idiot!” The only remained implied. She didn’t need to say it. Dandelion’s grin faltered, but only for a second.

Several feet away, Boholt was checking the catches of the extra padding he’d fastened over his clothes. The other Reavers were dressed much the same, and they all held two-handed greatswords at the ready. “Right,” Boholt called. “Let’s go.”

“Oh, no,” a deep, terrifying voice bellowed. “I’ve come to you!”

The dragon’s head emerged from behind the rock, horribly large, staring with unsettling reptilian eyes. “I tired of waiting in the open. Though it seems there are fewer and fewer challengers.”

“That’s enough!” Boholt yelled. “Stand and fight!”

“I am!” The dragon lowered its snout and pushed something towards where they were bound—the green-grey creature they had seen earlier. Then it wasted no time striking at the oncoming Reavers.

“What is it?” Yennefer asked as the small creature stumbled towards them.

“It’s what the dragon was protecting from us,” Geralt said. “A dragonling, one that hatched from the egg of the dragon Sheepbagger poisoned.” The creature in question, having reached them, stood on its tiny hind legs, squealed, and immediately latched onto Yennefer’s side. She sighed loudly, an odd look on her face. “It likes you,” Geralt murmured.

“It’s young, but it’s not stupid.” Dandelion grinned widely. “Look where it’s stuck its snout! Dammit, I’d like to be in its shoes—”

“Stop it!” Dorregaray yelled. “Look over there! They’ve got him, the bastards!”

The Reavers did not appear to be faring well—Gar was pinned to the ground by a fallen boulder, Beanpole was crawling away towards the shelter of the rock wall, and Boholt laid motionless on the ground, much to Geralt’s delight. But Yarpen and his men had it surrounded, and were trying to ensnare it with nets they’d seemingly procured out of nowhere. It shredded the first few easily, but soon enough it became overwhelmed, twisting and roaring. And something replied to its roars—a high-pitched cry. And then, out of the gorge, came—

“The Zerrikanians!” Geralt said, struggling against his bonds. Try as he might, there was no way he could break them without flipping the whole cart over.

“Shit!” Dandelion yelled. “Geralt! Do you understand?”

The Zerrikanians charged into the fray, clashing sabers with Yarpen’s men, some of whom were forced to abandon the nets. Geralt was focused intently on the battle until he heard a short, sharp “Oh!” next to him. Yennefer turned and, in a surprising show of agility, showed her legs under the cart so her bound ankles were next to Geralt’s hands. “The Igni Sign!” she panted. “Cast it!”

“Without looking? I’ll burn you!”

“Make the damn Sign! I can take it!” She turned away, pressing her lips together tightly. Next to her, the dragonling squealed and flapped its wings.

It took a moment for the plastic of her bonds to give way, and by that time the smell of burned skin had grown so strong that Dorregaray, on the other side of the cart, groaned and fainted. But Yennefer didn’t waste a second. She pulled her newly-freed legs out from under the cart, waved her foot in the direction of the fight, and yelled something hoarsely. The nets covering the dragon dissolved in a cloud of yellow smoke, and it sprang free with a roar. Yarpen’s men stumbled back as Yennefer continued to shout spells, turning them into a veritable menagerie of animals, seemingly at random. The Zerrikanians finished off the rest. Yarpen himself was running with a speed that belied his stature, but it wasn’t fast enough. Geralt turned away, and heard only a terrible crunching. Dandelion yelled in disgust, nose scrunched up. Yennefer, whose face had become several shades paler, turned to the side and, because she hadn’t eaten a thing since they began their climb, started dry-heaving violently. When she finally stopped spasming and looked up, Veá was standing over her, blade in hand. Yennefer, still shaking, raised her leg.

“No,” said Borch Three Jackdaws, who was sitting on a nearby stone, holding the dragonling. Behind him, Geralt felt a cold hand near his, and then his bonds gave way. Regis. They locked eyes for a brief moment, and Geralt saw the concern that must’ve been evident in his own gaze mirrored there.

“We’re not going to kill Lady Yennefer,” Villentretenmerth said. “Actually, we’re going to thank her for her assistance. These…Reavers, however…”

Veá stepped away from Yennefer, grinning wickedly, and left. “Geralt!” Dandelion exclaimed quietly from his side as he tried to revive the unconscious Dorregaray. “Do you understand? There’s an ancient ballad about a golden dragon. The ballad says it would be able to—”

“Assume any form it wishes,” Geralt finished. “Even that of a human. But I never believed it.”

He stood, rubbing at his chafed wrists. Next to him, Regis was kneeling in front of Yennefer, dressing her badly-scorched ankles with gauze and bandages from his seemingly never-ending bag of supplies. Yennefer herself had her head tilted back and was mumbling something. It wasn’t until Regis answered in an equally low voice that Geralt realized she wasn’t casting. Her hands fluttered around, trying vainly to pull together what few scraps of her shirt remained. Without pausing to think too hard about the reasons, Geralt shrugged off his hoodie and offered it to her. She stared at him for what felt like eternity before she took it.

“Thank you, Geralt of Rivia,” she murmured, smiling slightly as she put it on. She didn’t even need to zip it for it to fall closed over her small frame. The fact that Regis and Dandelion exchanged loaded glances while it was happening didn’t go unnoticed by Geralt, but he was too tired to comment.

“What now?” Dandelion asked as he fanned Dorregaray with his hand ineffectively.

“Stay here,” Geralt said. “I’m going to talk to him.”

“Wait.” Yennefer stood up, pulling a face as she did so, and slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. Her fingertips were cold. “I’m coming with you. Please.”

“With me? Are you—?”

“It’s fine. I’m fine.” When he looked at her he saw only sincerity, and he gave in. They walked over slowly—Yennefer, leaning heavily on Geralt’s arm, was limping noticeably. Her grip on him tightened when they stopped. It seemed a struggle for her to even stay upright.

“Three Jack…Villentretenmerth…” Geralt stuttered.

“When translated into your language, my name means Three Black Birds.” When the dragonling saw Yennefer, it squealed again. She was smiling tightly when Geralt glanced at her.

“Chaos and Order,” said Villentretenmerth, stroking the dragonling’s long spine. “You remember, don’t you, Geralt? Chaos is the aggressor, Order that which protects from it. And that’s worth rushing to the end of the world, isn’t it? Especially if the pay is good, and this time it was. The dragon Myrgtabrakke, whom Sheepbagger poisoned, flew away as you were removing Sir Eyck from the battlefield. She left me her treasure hoard as payment.”

“So you—and…” Geralt found himself struggling for words. “And the goal…the destination at the end of the road?”

“This is it.” Villentretenmerth gestured to the dragonling flapping its tiny wings on his arm. “Because of him, I will survive. I’ll prove there are no limits of possibility. One day, you will also find a similar purpose. Farewell, Geralt of Rivia.”

He paused and turned to Yennefer, who tensed imperceptibly. “Forgive me my bluntness, Lady Yennefer,” he said. “It’s written all over your face. I know why you’re here, and I cannot give you what you came for.”

With his free hand, he reached into his pocket and drew out a small pouch, which he offered to her. She briefly let go of Geralt’s arm to open it and peer inside, then looked back up, startled. “That is all I can offer,” he said. “But you must be aware that nothing will come of it. Nothing. I’m sorry.”

“I know,” Yennefer replied softly. “But I would also like to believe that there are no limits to what is possible. Or, at least, that they are very far away.”

He smiled, nodded, and then suddenly the man was gone and the dragon in his place, rising gracefully with the dragonling clinging to his back. Neither of them were able to take their eyes off him until he was a spot in the distance, wings dazzling in the sun.

When they rejoined the others, Dorregaray was awake, and the blood coming from his nose had been staunched. “Ah,” he said, looking at them but not quite meeting their eyes. “I hate to ask this, but—well, as you see, I’m not in the best shape to portal. I don’t suppose…I would be able to return to Oxenfurt with you?”

They all turned to look at Yennefer, whose face remained impassive as she watched him. It would be so easy, Geralt thought, to leave him there. But he didn’t think she would. Despite how she presented to others, she wasn’t that cold.

“Fine,” she said after a moment. “A favor for a favor, Dorregaray. You’re not going to tell him anything.”

Chapter Text

The drive back to Oxenfurt seemed far shorter than the drive from it had been, though Geralt attributed that partially to the anger still pulsing through him, blurring the hours together. They didn’t trek back out of the ravine—Yennefer opened a portal and they went through one by one, despite Geralt’s complaints. He had offered to drive, to satisfy his need to do something with his hands, get his mind off things. “Yennefer,” he’d said, “do you want to—?”

“Yes,” she answered immediately, pulling herself into the passenger seat with disconcerting speed. She had discarded her tattered shirt for a black tank top, though she kept his hoodie on, pulling her hands inside the sleeves as she curled up on the seat, and he didn’t have the heart to ask for it back. Regis and Dandelion sat in the middle, and Dorregaray in the back, fuming silently. Geralt wasn’t sure what reason he had to be upset—they hadn’t killed the dragon, after all—but he thought it would be better if he didn’t ask.

She didn’t say anything for most of the drive, just stared out the window, running her fingertips over her wrists in silence. There was already a sizable welt raising between her eyebrows, a few shades darker than the rest of her skin. She’d kicked off her shoes and pulled her legs up underneath her, wincing when the movement tugged at the bandages around her ankles. Halfway through the drive, Dandelion put on music through his phone and started singing. It only took a couple of poorly-timed songs for Yennefer to throw up a ward between them and the rest of the car.

“Thank the gods,” Geralt said. “I’ve been waiting for someone to do that for as long as I’ve known him.”

Yennefer made a choked sound that he hoped was a laugh. In the absence of background noise, she drummed the tips of her fingers along the center console. “But you’re still his friend.”

“Once you get to know him, he’s not so bad.” Geralt wasn’t quite sure why he felt the need to defend him, considering the things he’d been saying about her—to her—only a few hours ago. “He’s just—”

“Insensitive? I'd figured that much out.”

They fell silent. Yennefer rested her head on the window next to her, letting herself be jostled by the bumps in the road. He tried to focus on what was in front of him, but he found his gaze continually drawn back to her—her tired, somewhat vacant stare, the way she ran her fingers along the edge of her star, something he’d noticed she did often.

“Are you alright?” he asked after a few minutes, unable to stand the way she looked. She blinked a few times, like he’d startled her out of something, but she didn’t so much as glance over.

“Truly?” He nodded. A smile curved along the edge of her lips. “I’ve never been better.”

He didn’t know what she meant, and she offered no explanation—just pulled the hood up on his jacket, leaned her head back against the window, and appeared to fall asleep for the remainder of the drive. The ward she’d put up slowly faded and dissolved, and he was surprised to see Dandelion, looking slightly regretful, sitting quietly behind Yennefer. Regis, when he caught a glimpse of him in the mirror, looked worried (he’d looked worried for the past several hours), and Dorregaray had an expression on his face Geralt didn’t like at all. Whatever he was planning, it couldn’t possibly bode well for him.

They pulled into the complex’s parking lot just as it was getting dark, but he could still clearly see Triss, rocking back and forth on her heels as she waited outside the door to their stairwell that led up to her apartment, and Yennefer's. A look of relief crossed her face when she saw them, and the van had barely stopped when she was at the passenger side door, opening it and pulling a tired Yennefer to her feet. They embraced in a motion that should have been clumsy but was instead the opposite, and he was surprised, given the tension he so often sensed between them, at the unaffected way they curled around each other, ignoring the slamming of doors around them as everyone else stood. He could hear them whispering softly, but the moment went as quickly as it had come.

“Did one of you call Val?” Triss said as they pulled apart. Yennefer’s mouth opened slightly, closed again, and she leaned back against the car with her hand over her forehead, eyes closed. “Because he and Phil and Cir—Falka,” she corrected herself, looking suspiciously at Dorregaray, “are all in my apartment and they’re about to rip each others’ throats out.”

She remained silent for a few seconds—Geralt saw the diamonds on her neck pulse brighter, briefly—and then she straightened up and turned to Dorregaray, eyes blazing. “I don’t know, did one of us call Val? Even when I specified not to?”

“He would’ve found out anyway, my dear.” Geralt had a sudden, intense desire to re-break Dorregaray’s nose, but before he’d even moved Regis had a hand on his arm, casually holding him back—and he had the strength for it, too. “Better to tell him now.” He spoke in a way that made it clear he thought Yennefer knew nothing about the man she was engaged to, which Geralt thought was ridiculous. True, he’d never heard her speak about him, but he’d assumed that was for other reasons, and she hadn’t seemed overly fond of other people asking about him, either.

“Actually, it would’ve been better for me to tell him later than for you to tell him now,” she sighed, picking up her bag and slinging it over her shoulder. She pushed past Geralt without look at him directly and pulled open the door somewhat violently. His medallion vibrated slightly—it was as if he could feel the anger radiating off her in waves. She clearly wasn’t going to wait for any of them, so Geralt followed her up the stairs and through Triss’s door, which she opened in much the same way as she had the previous one.

And without warning, without even a second to breathe, they were accosted by Ciri.

“You’re back!” she shouted, and put one arm around each of them, pulling them impossibly close. He could hear Yennefer’s quickening heartbeat, her surprised intake of breath; he could smell her perfume. After a moment Ciri pulled away from him and embraced Yennefer even tighter, a gesture that spoke volumes, as did Yennefer’s hands coming up to tightly grip Ciri’s shoulders. Geralt wondered what had happened while they’d been gone—there was a tension in the set of Ciri’s jaw that he hadn’t seen before.

“You were gone longer than we thought you’d be,” Philippa said, far more calmly, as Regis and Dorregaray filed into the room behind Geralt. Dandelion, it seemed, had vanished, but Geralt’s attention was suddenly held by a man in the corner of the room, who’d stepped forward as Ciri let go of Yennefer. His brown hair was tied up so it would stay out of his watery grey eyes, and Geralt recognized him immediately, even though he didn’t want to. He grabbed Yennefer’s hand, tugged her back gently so her shoulders rested under his arm. A possessive gesture, one that made her tense up, though he had nothing to worry about. If that was what he was like all the time, it was no wonder he’d never heard Yennefer talk about him.

“We ran into some trouble.” Anyone who didn’t know Regis well wouldn’t have heard how he was trying to sound nonchalant, but Geralt did, and he knew Yennefer did too. She shifted her weight and looped her arms around herself, around where the tear in her shirt had been. The action clearly hadn’t gone unnoticed by Val, whose eyes grew narrower the longer he looked at her—her stance, the bruises and cuts that dotted her skin. Geralt’s jacket, which fell to the tops of her thighs. He must’ve known where it came from, or guessed.

“It seems you did.” He reached up and brushed a fingertip across the cut on Yennefer’s forehead. She jerked away quickly, but that didn’t deter him from continuing to scrutinize every scratch he could see. “What happened? I know…some things” —he paused briefly to lock eyes with Dorregaray— “but I haven’t heard the whole story.”

“And you won’t,” Yennefer said shortly. It seemed as though everyone else in the room had stepped back, not wanting to be in the middle of the argument. Triss was chewing on her bottom lip nervously. “It’s over. The project failed. And we’ve both got work to do. So we put it behind us.”

He looked surprised at her evasiveness, and Geralt had to hold back a satisfied grin. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out what kind of person Val was—the same as every other sorcerer he’d met, and most of the sorceresses too (compared with most mages, Yennefer was the picture of humility). That clearly didn’t discourage him, though—Geralt had the feeling he could find any number of things about the situation worthy of complaint. “You should’ve at least let me come with you, Yenna. Things would’ve gone more smoothly then.”

“Yes,” Yennefer replied dryly, “then we’d both be lying at the bottom of a ravine because you don’t have anything even remotely resembling physical strength.”

Things were quiet for a moment, and then Ciri started laughing so hard she had to sit down. Most of the others, he noticed, were at least smiling somewhat, and he could read amusement even in the tilt of Yennefer’s lips, but Dorregaray, standing against the wall, was frowning deeply, and Val had closed his hand around Yennefer’s arm tightly, just below her shoulder. He spoke to her softly, using the other-language trick Geralt had seen her employ with Regis a number of times, but he didn’t need to understand the words to see how angry they were making her. She responded irately, at a normal speaking volume, and everyone fell silent. Regis had his eyebrows raised in surprise. Geralt wondered what she’d said.

Ciri’s eyes were wide, and so were Val’s, but before he could even try and respond, they were interrupted by someone furiously honking their horn outside. “Hey, asshole!” a very familiar voice yelled. “Don’t park here if you don’t live here!”

“I think he means you,” Yennefer said into the ringing silence that followed, looking at Val. For a few moments, they stared each other down, but when the noise started back up he reluctantly dug out his keys and left, muttering something about how he’d be back in a few minutes. Dorregaray followed him, and a wide grin broke out on Yennefer’s face as the door clicked shut behind them.

“Thank you, Regis,” she said, laughter on the tip of her tongue, and Geralt realized who the voice belonged to—Dandelion. He was curious to know what Regis had said to get him to do it. Regis himself only nodded, sharing a knowing look with Yennefer. “Did he happen to say how long he’ll be here?”

“Until he’s sure you’re okay.” Philippa rolled her eyes, and Yennefer swore quietly.

“That means at least a week. Well—excuse me a moment, then. I’ve got to move some things.”

She left, and a second later Geralt heard her unlock her own door. Those who remained looked at each other uncomfortably, eyes flitting from person to person, until Triss finally said “Do you think we should tell her?”

“She’ll find out eventually, whether we tell her or not,” Philippa replied.

“Tell her what?” Regis asked.

Ciri and Philippa looked at each other for a long few seconds. “We went to Aretuza,” Philippa said slowly. “Ciri and I. And, well—the room’s still in terrible condition; at this point I doubt there’s anything anyone can do about it. The blood ward, however, remains quite strong, and it also let Ciri right through it.”

“Did it really?” Regis turned to Ciri with a look in his eyes Geralt had only seen before when he talked about his research. “That’s fascinating. So what you’re saying is it somehow recognized the bond between you despite no actual shared blood?”

“That has to be it. There’s no other way it would’ve—”

She stopped as the door opened again and Yennefer appeared, holding a long, flat box, which she reluctantly handed off to Triss. It was grey and unmarked, and she didn’t offer any explanation as she retreated to stand a few feet away from Geralt. “What did I miss?” she asked calmly, but he saw how her hands shook.

“The ward let Ciri through,” Triss said quickly, like she was trying to get it over with. He knew the look of surprise that would be on Yennefer's face—he’d seen it often enough in the past few days—but not the way her eyes shone for a moment before she recomposed herself.

“It did?” Ciri shifted, turning around on the couch so she could face Yennefer, and nodded. “I haven’t been there since…since it was put in place, I suppose.” She bit her lip, pushed her hair behind her ear. “What’s it like now?”

Ciri waited a minute to answer. There was a tension in the air now, one that everyone seemed to recognize except Geralt. They were all looking at her expectantly. “Cold,” she finally said.

Yennefer let out a short laugh. “It’s the middle of autumn.”

“That doesn’t matter! If you can construct a barrier that strong, you could at least make it warm in there!”

“Tissaia put it up, not me.” Yennefer briefly turned away from most of the group, but the angle at which he stood meant Geralt saw her smile, just for a second—a real smile, not one of the close-lipped, almost painful grins she frequently directed at him. He was stunned by the difference it made on her—on her whole being. But the expression passed quickly, and she withdrew back into herself. “You’re welcome to ask her about it, though.”

The door opened at the worst moment. He’d just seen her face shift before, but seeing the way she changed now—suddenly far more closed-off, guarded—hurt. So when Val came back in, sans Dorregaray, Geralt slipped out, and nobody said anything as he left. The landing was empty, but Yennefer’s door was still open, and as he started to go down the stairs he was stopped by Keira calling him in a tone that somehow sounded both seductive and annoyed. He hadn’t seen her in weeks, hadn't answered her messages, and he wasn’t sure if he should even acknowledge that he’d heard her, but the unidentifiable anger coursing through his head made the decision for him. After all, he thought, he had to do something.

~

“How long until he realizes you’re not coming back?”

“Oh, he’ll figure it out soon enough.” Yennefer had never had any problem making herself at home wherever Regis happened to be living, and this apartment was no exception. There was a distinct lack of beds on the place, considering neither he nor Dettlaff needed to sleep, so she’d constructed a nest of blankets on the large armchair and ottoman in the corner of the living room. They both knew she would have to move in the morning. Val would figure out where she’d been, and he already liked him the least of Yennefer’s friends. He knew something had happened in the past. He didn’t know what, but her reluctance to talk about it, and the fact that she’d been sixteen at the time, had clearly led him to assume the worst. Regis almost found it amusing—nothing could be further from the truth.

“So,” he said, leaning forward on the couch, elbows on his knees, fingers laced. “You’re going to go through with it.”

Yennefer looked up from the notebook she’d been doing calculations in for the past hour or so. She’d started the moment she realized financial ruin was going to be less of a worry than she thought, and hadn’t stopped since. It would, she acknowledged, set her back a great deal, but by now she was willing to pay any price. Besides, she’d make up for the loss quickly, with the steady stream of clients her practice brought in. Women she would give the one thing she herself couldn’t have.

She flipped the notebook closed and sat it on the end table beside her, pulling her knees up to her chest. “I don’t feel,” she said carefully, weighing every word, “like I’ve got much of a choice at this point. We’ve been at this for what—ten, eleven years? And we’re still no closer than when we started.”

He raised an eyebrow. “That’s not necessarily true. We’ve discovered quite a bit.”

“But nothing that will help me.” She sighed, tipped her head back to stare at the ceiling. “Perhaps…perhaps it’s time we tried a different route.”

He never knew quite what to do when she was in one of these moods, and it was even more difficult to figure out after what had happened, now that she had some small sliver of hope. He didn’t want to be the one to dash it, but he knew no one else would be willing to bring it up. “Have you ever considered moving on to something else altogether?”

When she looked at him incredulously, he held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Let me finish,” he said, and after a tense minute she nodded. “We’ve been at this for eleven years. And in all that time we haven’t found anything that could even come close to undoing the magic used on you. It’s strong, Yenna. Stronger than anything you can do to it.”

They knew that painfully well—Yennefer had more innate power than any mage he’d come across, but even that was no match for the complexity of this particular spell. “But what if that’s where we’re going wrong?” she protested. “What we need might not require magic at all—”

“You said you’d let me finish.”

She smiled a little, and tugged on the sleeve of Geralt’s hoodie, which she hadn’t taken off. He wasn’t sure if she’d kept it on purely to annoy Val or for reasons she didn’t want to admit, even to herself. He did know she wouldn’t give it back unless Geralt asked, and that Geralt wouldn’t ask. “I never said that,” she replied, a lilt in her tone that reassured him she wasn’t as angry as he’d expected her to be. “But go on.”

He cleared his throat. “Right. Well. As I was saying, if we haven’t been able to make any headway, I doubt any ordinary doctor will either. And if what I heard from Philippa earlier is true…then it appears you’ve already got a daughter.”

She laughed bitterly as she slid down in the chair until she was laying in it, her hand over her face. The movement tugged at her tank top, pulling it up around her waist, but unlike earlier, she didn’t hasten to pull it back down. She didn’t much care if he saw the scar—he was the one who’d put it there. “I know,” she said, and in those words was more pain than he’d ever heard. “Gods, I know. And I worry constantly about how this must affect her.”

He’d been in this realm for hundreds of years—so many he’d almost lost count. But what had happened all that time ago, what he’d seen Yennefer go through, had been his first true experience with human fragility; at the least, it was the first to have such a personal impact. He’d helped plenty of Aretuza girls before—Tissaia kept his secret in exchange for his help—but none of them had been as close to death as she had been when he’d first seen her. When he’d seen her again three years later, tasked with being the one to tell her what had happened.

“She knows why you’re doing it,” he said gently, reaching over to cover her hand with his. “And she knows not to take it personally. It’s been going on long before she entered the picture.”

“Mmm.” He couldn’t see her face, but he could imagine the look on it. “If only some others could see it that way.”

Triss. He knew enough to know that meant the conversation was over. She wouldn’t talk about that, even to him. He stood, looked over at where she lay staring up, refusing to meet his eyes.

“Well,” he said, despite the fact that he was treading dangerous waters, “you’ve got all the time in the world to figure that one out.”

She didn’t respond, but he saw the corner of her mouth turn up, and it would have to be enough. He wouldn’t get any more out of her now. She’d have to deal with Val in the morning anyway; the whole thing had become a big, complicated mess. He turned off the ceiling light as he left the room—but, as always, he kept a lamp on.

Chapter Text

True to Yennefer’s prediction, Val stuck around much longer than anyone wanted him to. During those days, Geralt only caught glimpses of her—it was almost painfully obvious that she was actively avoiding him. There was no reason for him to stay, but he did, and worse, he’d taken to showing up uninvited to their daily outings in the hopes of finding her there. He never did, and each time Geralt found himself growing more and more irritated about the whole situation. It felt as though none of them had any room to breathe. He understood, then, her adverse reaction to having him there.

On the fifth day, they were also joined by Philippa, which Geralt took as a sign that things were fast reaching a boiling point. She’d been around, though always in the background; he got the impression Yennefer had been staying with her for the past few days. There was something about Val in particular that set her on edge, even more so than the rest of them. Something had happened, and Geralt was beginning to tire of being left in the dark.

“She’ll come around,” Val was saying confidently to no one in particular. At this point, it was entirely possible he was only trying to convince himself. “She’s always been like this. All she needs is a couple more days.”

“She’s been gone for five already,” Triss pointed out. She was propping her head up with her hand, and she looked exhausted. All of them did—except Dandelion, who had nothing to do with any of this. Geralt, on the other hand, had been the subject of more intense glares over the past few days than he cared to count. He suspected he knew what was bothering Val, but he kept quiet—he didn’t want to be around him, or interact with him, any more than necessary.

Val waved a hand as if brushing off the words, and it seemed meant to be casual, but Geralt could see how the muscles in his jaw were clenched. “Because she’s being ridiculous. She’s got no reason to be angry with me.”

Philippa rolled her eyes, tapping her fingers on the table. Despite how tense she was, she’d demonstrated a remarkable tolerance for whatever bullshit he happened to be currently saying. “She’s got plenty of reasons to be mad at you. You came here even after she told you not to, for one.”

“If you think she doesn’t actually want me here, you don’t know her as well as you think.”

She let a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort, covering her mouth with her hand. “Now I understand why she stays with you,” she said once she’d regained her composure. “For your sense of humor.”

It shut him up—or, at least, stunned him into silence long enough for Dandelion to start talking, after which it was impossible for him to get in a word edgewise. For once, Geralt was glad for Dandelion's incessant chattering, but he had a sinking feeling he was about to get accosted, and he was right. Val stopped him as they left the building, trying to surreptitiously hold him back enough to let the others get a few feet ahead. His hand on Geralt’s arm was disturbingly cold—it reminded him of Yennefer’s thin fingers on his face the first time they’d met, but this was different, far less pleasant. Unsettling.

“I don’t know,” he said in a low voice as he dropped his arm and they started to walk, “what’s going on between you and Yenna, but it needs to stop.”

It took him a moment to even comprehend what he was saying. “There’s nothing going on between me and Yennefer.” For some reason, the sound of him referring to her by that name annoyed him to no end. He wasn’t sure why; he’d heard the others use it on a large number of occasions, but it sounded wrong coming out of his mouth.

“Others might believe you when you say that. But not me.” He walked stiffly, and that rigidity was mirrored in his voice. When Geralt looked over, he was staring straight ahead. “I know Yenna. I know when she’s acting differently. And she’s been acting very differently.”

“How would you even know that if you’ve been around as little as it seems you have?”

He sighed condescendingly. “That’s one of the most interesting things about you witchers,” he said in a tone Geralt recognized all too well, the one that said clearly the speaker only viewed him as a mutant, an abnormality. Yennefer had never spoken to him like that. “You don’t understand human emotion at all. Of course, I don’t have to see her every day to know how she feels. That’s what happens when you know someone long enough—you don’t need to ask.”

“Sounds like you’re making an awful lot of assumptions.” It was true Geralt had only known her for a couple of months, but it seemed even those who had been in her life far longer sometimes found Yennefer difficult to read. “And if you’re going to judge understanding of emotion by perceived level of humanity—you’re not fully human either.”

“No.” He nodded briefly, though somewhat reluctantly, in acknowledgement of the point. “Though I’m still more human than you.”

Based on the brief moments when the wall she’d put up around herself had chipped, Geralt truly couldn’t comprehend how someone like Yennefer would want to spend the rest of her presumably-endless life with someone like that. True, she wasn’t completely devoid of the pride most associated with mages, but what she lacked he more than made up for. Geralt remembered the vulnerability in her face when she’d asked him to kill the dragon. He doubted she would ever allow Val to see such a display of emotion.

“Look,” Geralt said, staring at the road in front of them. “I don’t know what your actual problem with me is, but let me make one thing clear. Whatever you think there is between Yennefer and I? I can guarantee you it’s not there. We’re both here because we have to be, and what happened on the trip hasn’t changed that.”

“I’d find it far easier to believe if I actually knew what happened.”

“Whether she wants to tell you or not is her decision. I’ve got nothing to do with it.” He suddenly found it difficult to think about—he had everything to do with it, but Val didn’t need to know that. Instead of trying to further convince him, he sped up in the hopes Val wouldn’t follow, or try to read his mind. He didn’t feel safe until he caught up with Philippa, nearly a block ahead. Surely he wouldn’t think a look into Geralt’s mind worth spending any time around her.

“A word of advice, witcher,” Philippa said casually, looking at him sideways with her dark eyes. “If he tries to draw you into another argument, don’t take the bait. Actually, just don’t listen to him in general.”

“Not sure why he thinks he needs to be constantly breathing down her neck,” he grumbled. “Or what he thinks I’ve got to do with it.”

“It’s simple. He doesn’t like you because she does. He’s had that problem since they first became…romantically involved. Every friend is a threat.” She paused, but Geralt knew better than to think that meant she was done. “Initially, they spent a great detail of time isolated. That’s the root of it, I assume.”

“Must’ve been a lot of time.” The thought of it rubbed him the wrong way. He didn’t like the idea of her spending even one night alone with him. He seemed the kind of man to anger easily.

“Yes. About three years.” When he looked over at her, she sighed impatiently. Apparently Val wasn’t the only one who didn’t actually want to talk to him. “Well, they weren’t together during that whole time—not in that sense, anyway. Not physically at all, really, except when they needed to be. She had her own quarters, a small private lab—there are specific rules about accommodations when you apprentice someone, you know, to make sure they’ve got adequate room for their own research—”

“Wait.” He stopped on the bridge connecting the Academy to the rest of Oxenfurt, stepping to the side, and Philippa reluctantly followed. “Please tell me I’m misunderstanding that.”

“I wish you were.” She grimaced. “It’s a complicated situation, one I’d recommend you not ask her about.”

“Why?”

She started walking again without checking to see if he’d follow, but even if he hadn’t he would’ve been able to hear her. “She gets defensive. Probably because she knows just as well as anyone else how fucked up it is.”

~

Somewhere around the sixth day that Val had overstayed his welcome, Ciri left the apartment. She didn’t particularly care how dangerous it was—he spent most of the day hanging around and she was sick of it. So she tucked all her hair up inside a black beanie, used a pencil Yennefer had given her to turn her eyebrows dark, and went to the Alchemist.

The place was more or less deserted during the day, which she found herself incredibly grateful for as she made herself comfortable in a booth in the corner, listening to the music drifting down from the speakers. She’d stay until they kicked her out—and even then, it would take a convincing argument to get her back in the apartment. Previously, she’d hoped Val’s intense dislike of her would keep him away (not to mention his even more intense hatred for Triss). But it didn’t work—he’d been there the day before grilling her about what had happened with Geralt and Yennefer on the trip. It had been clear that he didn’t believe her when she said she had no idea.

She had no desire to know, either. What went on between them was their business, though she couldn’t help but hope it would work out in her favor. Any scenario in which Yennefer was no longer attached to Istredd was a good one.

“Stop it!” she heard someone yell, and when she looked over she was met with a shattering sound as she watched one of the men in a booth across the room push his glass off the table and it broke into a million fragments on the floor. Ciri stood at the same time he did, and even from a distance she could hear him threatening a red-haired waitress, seemingly over a price dispute. It was a stupid thing to be breaking glasses over, Ciri thought, but apparently he didn’t agree, and when his friends started to stand too, she was across the room before she even fully realized what she was doing.

“Is there a problem?” she asked as she stood next to them, drawn up to her full height, hands on her hips. She was taller than all but one of them, but she was also thin, dressed in loose clothing that hid her muscular frame, and it was clear they weren’t intimidated by her in the slightest, though she did notice one of them looking uneasily at her scar.

“Nothing you need to worry your pretty face about,” the one who’d broken the glass said, leering at her. The other woman, who’d stepped back from the table, stared wide-eyed.

“Really? Because it seems like I’m already involved.” Ciri nodded at the woman. “If you’d kindly leave my friend alone.”

They looked at each other for a moment, then the men burst out laughing. “Yeah?” the tall one said. He took a step towards her, and the rest followed suit. Ciri tensed. “And what’ll you do if we don’t?”

Before he’d even had a chance to blink Ciri’s fist lashed out, connecting squarely with his nose. He yelled in pain and stumbled back. By the time his friends realized what was happening she’d immobilized them both with heavy blows to the stomach. The first stood back up, but when Ciri raised her fists again they ran, nearly tripping over each other in their haste to get to the door. She smiled in satisfaction as it swung shut behind them.

“You okay?” she said, looking back at the woman, who was watching her with a mixture of suspicion and awe on her freckled face. A few strands of her hair had fallen out of the plait running down her back, and Ciri noticed how her hands shook, hovering unsteadily at her sides.

“I’m alright,” she replied in a tone that was strained in how hard it tried to be casual. She brushed off the front of her black apron and eyed the shards of glass on the floor. “Truth be told, I probably could’ve managed on my own.”

When Ciri raised her eyebrow, the girl whose name tag red Bea insisted “I could’ve! Not the first time it’s happened!”

“Do angry patrons normally break the glassware?”

Bea looked ready to argue for a moment, then she sighed, reaching up and rubbing the back of her neck. “No,” she admitted, grinning sheepishly. “Guess I owe you my thanks, then. Can I get you something? A drink? On the house, of course.”

“That’s okay.” Ciri shoved her hands in her pockets. “Some company would be nice, though. Don’t suppose your shift ends soon, does it? I mean, if you’re not opposed to sitting with a stranger. I plan to be here a while.”

“I’m not. Especially you.” Was Ciri imagining it, or was Bea blushing? “I’m technically done already. Just…let me clean this up and I’ll join you.” She motioned to the glass on the ground. “And don’t even think about trying to help me.”

Ciri didn’t want to sit back down—why would she, when she could be doing something?—but she did, smiling faintly. The idea of talking to someone who wasn’t stressing out about Valen Istredd’s mere existence was the best one she’d come across in a while. The pool of people she normally talked to was very limited—it had to be considering she rarely ever left the apartment. She spent the majority of her time with Triss, or Yennefer (who stayed in their apartment more than she seemed to stay in her own), and occasionally with Geralt, though she hadn’t seen him nearly as much as she’d hoped. She could feel herself growing more and more impatient as she waited, idly scrolling through her phone but not really paying attention to anything. When Bea finally came over with two beers, one of which she set down in front of her, Ciri tried to hide her excitement.

“I know you said not to bring you anything,” she said. “But you looked like you need it.”

“Was it that obvious?” Ciri laughed a little and took a long drink. “I guess you’re right, though. There’s a reason I’m sitting by myself here instead of at home.”

“Don’t suppose you’d tell me what it is? I mean, you already know what’s troubling me.” She swept her arm around in a wide gesture that encompassed the whole room. Her fingers were very thin, Ciri noticed, but covered in small burns, probably from working with the equipment in the back.

Ciri nodded, shifting to rest her back against the wall so she could stretch her legs out on the bench in front of her. “My—” The word was barely out of her mouth when she stopped. Who was Val to her? Someone she didn’t particularly care to talk about—but also the root of most of her current problems. “My mother’s fiancé is in town,” she said finally. “He…doesn’t like me that much. And the feeling is mutual.”

“Why?” Bea tilted her head curiously, lifting her own drink to her lips. “Because you’re not his kid?”

“Oh, he couldn’t care less about that.” She remembered all too vividly the first time they’d encountered each other, at Melitile’s temple when she’d first begun taking lessons with Yennefer. They hadn’t spoken, but she’d been able to sense his dislike of her, and it had only grown since then. “To him I’m just one more person to compete with for her affection.”

Bea frowned deeply. “That’s…ridiculous,” she proclaimed, twirling the end of her braid around her fingers. “Love’s not a contest, and if they’re engaged he should know she loves him.” In the brief silence that followed, Ciri drained the rest of her drink. “She does love him, right?”

Ciri chewed on her lip as she looked at a spot on the back of the booth, slightly to the left of Bea’s face. It wasn’t exactly as if she spent a lot of time around the both of them, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen them be truly affectionate towards each other, if there had even been a time in the first place. And, especially lately, the frigidity seemed to be largely one-sided. “I think she did, once.”

~

It took eight days for him to get her alone—far longer than it normally did. It wasn’t uncommon for Yenna to need two or three to cool down. She’d always been quick to take offense from him, though he was willing to admit that, in earlier years, it was more often than not because he pushed too hard concerning things she didn’t want to talk about. This time, it was something else, and it was obvious by the lengths she went to in order to avoid him. He knew for a fact she’d spent two of the past few nights in Montecalvo. He wasn’t sure where she’d been for the rest, and he had a feeling he didn’t want to know.

But on that eighth day, he returned to her apartment and, by some miracle, she was there—he heard the shower running. He knew it was her and not Keira; he could smell her perfume heavy in the air. She wouldn’t come out for another ten minutes at least, and he didn’t dare go in. It would only make her angrier in this state. Instead he waited in the living room, looking at the pictures on the shelf in the corner. There was one in particular that kept drawing his gaze. It had been taken a week or so after he’d proposed to her, when she finally said yes. It was a bit hard to tell, considering half of her face was pressed into his chest, but she seemed…happy. Or content, at the very least. He wondered if things would be different if he’d insisted on an answer right away, hadn’t given her time to think about it. He suspected he knew how her decision would’ve changed.

The door behind him swung open, casting a ray of light on the carpet, and when his eyes met hers, he thought he saw a flash of disappointment in them before she composed herself, drawing the black robe around her more tightly closed. “You’re incorrigible,” she said, and where once before there might have been amusement there was only annoyance. He was sure, then, that something had shifted. When he didn’t immediately respond, she rolled her eyes and retreated back to the bedroom, and he followed. She must have realized he wasn’t going to give up that easily, because as she sat in front of the mirror she said “If we have this argument now, will you leave in the morning?”

“I’ll leave if you want me to,” he responded quietly, perching on the edge of the bed closest to her. His whole being ached to touch her, pull her to him, but she’d react badly if he tried. “But I haven’t seen you in months, Yenna. Can’t we just—?”

“You saw me eight days ago,” she interrupted, sliding the robe off—she was already partially dressed under it, he noticed, which said to him that she had been expecting him—and reaching for a vial on the table in front of her. “For several hours, if I recall correctly. Most of which we spent alone.” He felt her gaze on him through the mirror, giving him a slow, uncomfortable once-over.

“Yes, and then you left in the middle of the night and didn’t come back,” he said. She let her hair out of its clip behind her head and it fell in glistening black waves down her back. “You ignore me every time I ask you to visit for a weekend. And most of the time besides.”

“Val,” she said, putting a couple drops of liquid from the vial on her palms and running her hands through her hair. “The last time I checked, we didn’t need to spend every moment together.”

“The last time I checked, we’d spent the last ten years living together,” he snapped. “Forgive me for having trouble with that transition.”

She was quiet for a long time. He watched her open a green glass jar and spread its contents over the scar on her stomach, the one that never quite seemed to fade no matter what she did. “Three of those years don’t count,” she finally said, dipping into the jar again and rubbing her forearms. She no longer sounded upset, merely pensive. “If I sequestered myself in the quarters you’d given me and only talked to you when absolutely necessary, it wasn't really living together, was it?”

He stood and walked over to her, resting his hands on her shoulders gingerly. She didn’t react—she’d propped her elbows up on the table and was staring at her wrists—but he thought he felt her relax slightly. “But I knew you were there. How could I not? That last year…I thought about you every day, Yenna.”

This wasn’t the time for him to get sentimental, but he couldn’t stop the words from pouring out. He knew she would look for ways to put him in the wrong—hell, maybe he was. At the same time, however, he could feel his grip on her loosening. There had to be something he could do to make her remember why she’d chosen him.

“What’s on your mind?” He looked down at her arms, a little unsure what was so interesting about them. She shifted under him, shrugged his hands away and stood.

“Blood magic,” she said, and offered no explanation even after the concerned look he gave her. The noise machine clicked on as she climbed into bed and he knew his time was running out—if he wanted to say anything, he needed to do it now. But she had already settled herself, wrapping the blankets around her. The lamp in the corner dimmed, but didn’t turn off.

“Seems like you’re the one with something on your mind,” she murmured, her face pressed partially into the pillow. He laid down next to her, facing her. His fingertips slid down the side of her neck, her shoulder, her arm. She closed her eyes, exhaled deeply, leaned into his touch. He didn't want to let himself get too comfortable, despite her favorable reaction.

“I do,” he admitted. She opened her visible eye and stared at him. “I…you still haven’t told me what happened while you were gone. I know you don’t want to talk about it,” he hurried on before she could interrupt, “but I’m worried about you.” His hand made its way back up to run along her jaw; she bit her lip. "And I don’t know what’s going on between you and that witcher, but—”

“I,” she said, eyes blazing, “don’t see what Geralt of Rivia has to do with any of this.”

There it was—a sensitive spot. Exactly what he’d been afraid of finding. He had hoped he’d get no reaction at all. That he’d mention it and she’d say nothing, kiss him, brush it off. He should’ve known; it had been clear in how the witcher had been looking at her when they returned. Protective, though his eyes, more than once, strayed to her lips, her throat. His jacket, the one she'd been wearing when she returned, hung over the back of the chair at her desk. She saw his eyes go to it and frowned. “I keep thinking eventually you’ll figure out how your…clinginess…hurts me.”

She turned so her back was to him as she said it, moving like it pained her, and all he could see was her hair spread out behind her. “You’ll keep your promise?”

Once, years ago, he’d made the mistake of asking her where the scar had come from. After vehemently refusing to tell him, she locked herself in her private study for a week and didn’t speak to him. This felt like that—there weren’t literal walls between them this time, but he felt locked out all the same. “Yes,” he said, and this time when he rested his hand on her arm and she didn’t pull away, it didn’t feel like love. It felt like resignation. “I’ll leave in the morning.”

Chapter Text

Ten days.” Triss closed the lid on her food as forcefully as it was possible for someone to shut a styrofoam container. “She’s been in there for ten days and none of you seem even the slightest bit concerned!”

“Perhaps because she can take care of herself.” Regis didn’t look up from the papers in front of him. Yennefer’s more than conspicuous absence meant he was the only one at the table who wasn’t eating, and the sight of the empty space next to him was setting everyone on edge. At first, Geralt had gotten the impression that this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. When Istredd left, rather abruptly and in a terrible mood, no one seemed surprised that Yennefer had also disappeared. But as the days wore on, he started to see the worry that etched into their faces, how Triss glanced at her phone every few seconds, waiting for a message that didn’t come.

“I know that,” she responded tersely. “But she’s never been gone this long before, either. If it were four or five days, I wouldn’t be worried. It’s been ten.”

She drummed her fingers on the table, nails clicking against its surface. The sound was visibly grating on Regis—Geralt could see how tense he was. “If you’re that worried, then by all means take it up with her yourself.”

“You don’t think I’ve tried? She doesn’t pick up the phone, she won’t respond to messages. And my key to her study has mysteriously stopped working.”

Geralt couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Triss this agitated, if there ever had been one. She’d spent a summer at Kaer Morhen once to help with Ciri, right before she went into her final year at Aretuza, and, with one or two exceptions, had remained almost unnervingly calm despite everything that had been going on at the time. (It was easy enough for him to see, now, where she’d picked that up from.) But now, she was fidgeting; now she didn’t want to look anyone directly in the eye. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, but it seemed to him that anything that made Triss act like that was cause for concern.

“Did it ever occur to you,” Regis said shortly, “that you trying incessantly to care for her is the reason she’s ignoring you?”

Triss didn’t respond right away, and the table fell silent. Geralt and Dandelion eyed each other nervously, neither wanting to be the one to run the knife through the tension that settled thick around them. Finally, she stood, slinging her bag over one shoulder, and Geralt let out a barely-audible sigh of relief. “Yeah,” she said, giving Regis one last, long look before she turned and left. “Yeah, I did.”

After she was gone, the rest of them packed in silence, all somehow sensing that the time for socializing had disappeared along with her. Dandelion was the first to slip out the door, which surprised Geralt—he normally loved to be where the conflict was. Geralt waited until Regis had finished meticulously gathering his papers before he said “You mind telling me what that was about?”

“Ah.” Regis signed as he held the door open, letting Geralt pass through ahead of him. “Yennefer has an…unfortunate habit of getting into fights and taking entirely too long to cool down form them. Ten days ago she had an argument with Val, the morning he left—quite a nasty one, to hear her tell it. She locked herself in her study and has yet to come out.”

Geralt raised an eyebrow. Based on what he knew of her, that seemed somewhat out of character—though considering how he’d felt after talking to Val, he could understand her desire to let off steam. “Why bother, though? If he’s already gone, not much point in trying to avoid him.”

“I fear it’s not him she’s avoiding, but us.” He was doing his utmost to sound light and casual, but Geralt could hear the worry sneaking in at the edges of his words. “This isn’t an uncommon thing for her to do. They’ve been fighting for years, far longer than they’ve been happy. There have been times she’s disappeared for a week after one of their more intense fights. But Triss is right. Ten days is unusual, to say the least. Especially here.”

“Why does location matter?”

“Have you ever been to Aedd Gynvael?” Geralt didn’t see what that had to do with anything, but he shook his head. “It’s an isolated city—large, yes, but isolated. And she’s isolated there when she stays with him. It’s much easier to avoid people when they can’t physically knock on her door.”

“Seems kinda dangerous to just assume nothing’ll happen to her, if she’s really that upset.” He remembered the way she’d seemed to collapse inward on herself when they returned from the mountains. He hadn’t wanted to leave her then, and he didn’t now, despite not having seen her for over two weeks.

“Not as much as you’d think. I’d be able to tell if something was seriously wrong.” He ignored the questioning look Geralt threw his way and continued. “Besides, it would be pointless to try and see her. The place is so heavily warded that none of us could get in—except…”

He trailed off, but Geralt knew that expression all too well, the one he wore when he got a particularly exciting idea. “Except what?” he prompted after they’d walked several minutes in silence. “What are you hiding?”

“Except perhaps you.” He dug around in the pocket of the coat he’d begun wearing as the air grew colder, even though, in truth, he didn’t need it), finally pulling out a small silver key, which he handed to Geralt. Even though there was nothing suspicious about it, he still took it hesitantly. Attached to the key was a black tag which read YRV. “She’s got no reason to ward against you. Geralt, I—I’ve been trying not to resort to this. I know she doesn’t want anyone checking up on her. But considering the…nature of the fight, someone should. And she’s not likely to react too negatively towards you.”

“…alright.” Geralt turned the key over in his hands, as if it would give him the answers he needed. “Say all that’s true—and I’ve got some doubts about it. What’s my motivation, then? Why would I want to go see her if she’s in as foul a mood as you claim?”

“Because you care about her,” Regis said simply. “Whether you want to admit it or not.”

When Geralt didn’t respond, Regis sighed again and stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Look. Take the key. If you decide not to go, you can return it to me tomorrow, no harm done. But do at least think about it.” Geralt nodded. He could see very clearly in his mind’s eye the look on her face when Ciri told her what happened at Aretuza. He tried, perhaps far too hard, to push the image away.

“I’ll think about it,” he conceded. Regis, apparently satisfied, pulled his hand back and started to walk again. As they made their way to campus, he felt compelled to add “But that’s all I can promise.”

~

True to his word, Geralt thought about it. He thought about it for a very long time, though he tried his best not to, in nearly every way he knew how. He planned his lessons through the end of the semester. He painstakingly cleaned his swords. He’d even briefly considered seeing if Dandelion wanted to go out, but immediately thought better of that. Before he knew it, it was nine o’clock and he’d been staring at the key for the better part of twenty minutes. He could always see if Keira was home—she’d never say no to spending the night with him. But when he thought about how he actually wanted to spend those hours, another face was in the forefront of his mind.

Yennefer had an office on the top floor of the alchemy building that, when he unlocked the door, turned out to be at least twice the size of his, and very neatly arranged. The heavy wooden desk that sat in the middle of the room was clean, the books on the shelves clearly organized. In the back left corner was another door, which he assumed led to her private study. Theoretically, the key he held would open this one as well, and it fit snugly in the polished lock. Swallowing any lingering doubts, he opened it and stepped inside.

He wasn’t quite sure what he’d been expecting, but what he was met with was another spacious room that seemed half study, half laboratory, the two sections divided by a black curtain that was pulled partially open. The whole room was lined with bookshelves—on the side he stood on, they were weighed down by an impressive collection of grimoires, as well as hardbound notebooks whose spines were labeled with runes written in a cramped hand. Cluttering the shelves on the other side was an array of things suspended in jars, which he decided not to look at for too long. There was a large armchair and ottoman on the study side, covered with blankets. Clearly, she’d been sleeping there. Also on the chair was a very familiar-looking piece of fabric, and he was about to move towards it when the sound of something shattering came from behind the curtain, along with a volley of cursing that would put even Lambert to shame. He ducked around the curtain without pause and she was there, standing over a scorch mark on one of the tables that was still smoking slightly. Her brow furrowed when she saw him.

“I—how did you—?” She paused, shook her head. “Regis. He gave you his key, didn’t he? Well, no matter. You can tell him I’m fine. Though I’m beginning to suspect someone’s working with dimeritium in one of the downstairs labs.” She turned back to the table and gripped its edges tightly, trying to disguise the shaking of her hands. “It would explain a lot.”

“Like what?”

“Like why I’ve been sleeping so terribly, for instance. And why this is the fifth crystal today to explode on me.” She gestured towards the mark. There was a ring of nearly-healed bruises around her upper arm that looked disturbingly like fingerprints. No one else would have been able to see them, but once he noticed it was difficult to tear his eyes away. He surreptitiously clenched his hand into a fist at his side in an attempt to relieve the sudden fury it brought forth.

“What it doesn’t explain,” she continued, eyes narrowing, “is why you’re here.”

“Thought you’d already figured that one out.” He had a feeling she knew what he was looking at. To distract them both, he fished the key out of his pocket and held it up. Yennefer came forward and took it from him, slipping her forefinger through the ring and gripping it tightly.

“That’s how,” she said. Instead of returning to where she’d been standing, she leaned up against the closest table. His proximity to her, the way she’d tied her hair out of her face, meant he could tell how deep the circles under her eyes ran, how when she swallowed she did so thickly, as if she was in pain. “Not why.”

“Yennefer, when was the last time you ate?”

Confusion flashed in her eyes, but she kept it there, not letting it seep into her expression. “You’re dodging the question, Geralt of Rivia.”

“So are you.”

“I asked first.”

He raised an eyebrow, but stayed quiet. He was sure she could sense the worry rolling off of him in waves, that it was putting her off. Eventually she huffed in annoyance and rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. I can sustain myself if need be.”

“It does matter, and that’s not an answer.”

She sighed and turned away from him, resting her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. “So that’s why you’re here? To argue about my eating habits?”

“Everyone’s worried about you.” I’m worried about you, he thought, and though he didn’t say it aloud, he also didn’t try and fool himself into thinking she hadn’t heard him. “You could at least let me get you something to eat. I can tell the others I couldn’t get in, if you want to be left alone.”

“For the last time, I’m perfectly fine.”

“Then why are your hands still shaking?” He saw her open her mouth as if to answer, but he didn’t give her then chance. “Yennefer, we both know I could drag you out of this room if I wanted to, and you’re in no condition to put up a fight. I don’t want to, because we’re both better than that. But I won’t let you stay in here and work yourself to death, so if you won’t come with me willingly, I’m afraid I’ve no other option.”

Her shoulders tensed, a barely perceptible movement, and he immediately regretted having been so harsh. Still, even though he knew the best course of action would be to back down, apologize and leave, he was rooted there—by a resistance to failure, perhaps, or something else, something he shouldn’t acknowledge.

She sighed and pushed herself up, not looking over at him as she answered. “Fine. But give me a few minutes, at least. I shan’t leave looking like this.”

~

A few minutes turned out to be closer to twenty, as she retreated to the study side of the room and threatened him with any number of unpleasant things should he try and open the curtain. He spent the time sitting at one of the tables and trying very hard not to look at the things on the shelves. When she finally pulled back the curtain and motioned for him to leave the room ahead of her, she was wearing different clothes and she’d brushed her hair out. The circles under her eyes seemed far less prominent, and it was hard to tell, but he thought even the prospect of leaving the place seemed to have lifted her mood a bit.

“You know all witchers have x-ray vision, right?” he said as she locked the office door behind her and pocketed the key.

Yennefer scoffed. “Please. You should be so lucky.” When he turned he was startled by the coolness of her hand on his face, fingertips pressed near his cheekbones. “There is something about your eyes, though,” she said quietly, looking at him in a manner that should’ve made him incredibly uncomfortable, but didn’t. “Your pupils—do they automatically adapt to light or can you narrow and dilate them according to your will?”

“I didn’t come here so we could discuss my eyes,” he said calmly. He had, he reminded himself, to be patient with her. Based on the way Regis had spoken about it earlier, simply convincing her to leave was an accomplishment unto itself. He didn’t want to push her too far.

The corner of her lips twitched upwards as she dropped her hand and started towards the side staircase. “Of course. Forgive me my professional curiosity. The mutations are…of particular interest to me.”

“Because of Ciri?” He kept a close eye on her as they descended several flights of stairs, ready to catch her if she fell, though his carefulness proved unnecessary.

“No. Because of your extraordinary healing abilities.”

He wanted to ask more, but the tone of her voice told him he was unlikely to get any answers. Instead they left the campus and headed in the general direction of the Alchemist in a silence that was surprisingly comfortable to both of them. The place was smoky and crowded when they entered, but rather than try to brave the throng of people, Yennefer made eye contact with the bartender before nodding in the direction of a staircase in the corner, which she then led Geralt towards.

“They know me well here,” she explained as they took a seat in a booth on the upper floor, which was almost completely empty. “Through Ciri. She used to frequent the place before…well.”

He nodded. He knew what she meant—Ciri herself had told him. A red-haired waitress came by, and when Yennefer only asked for a water and a salad, Geralt frowned at her.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “Maybe it’s not much for a witcher, but…it’s been a few days. And I believe you’re already aware that I have an adverse reaction to most forms of higher magic being used on me. Including what I’ve been using on myself as of late.”

“Seems kinda dangerous.”

“It is if you don’t know your limits. Luckily, I know mine.” She was quiet for a moment, tugging her sleeves down over her wrists. “I would’ve come out soon, anyway. If you hadn’t…”

She was looking at him very strangely, her head tilted slightly to the side. He didn’t dare try to prompt her on; something told him she wouldn’t have any of it. “I suppose what I’m trying to say is…thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” He cleared his throat awkwardly as their drinks arrived, glad to have an excuse not to talk for a moment. “You would’ve done the same for me.”

“I’m touched by your certainty.” Yennefer smiled tightly. It looked as though she wanted to say more, but her phone, which she’d set to the side of the table, lit up with an incoming call, and they both looked over at it. He recognized Val’s face on the screen, and felt a tightening in his gut when he did. Apparently Yennefer wasn’t very excited about it either—she groaned softly and pressed her fingers to her temple.

“This is the tenth time he’s called me in the past six hours,” she said at Geralt’s questioning look. “He only does this when he thinks I’m mad at him. And it’s ridiculous—as if I haven’t already made it clear enough that I want space. I’ve told him that several times, but he refuses to listen. He’s so stubborn; he gets it in his head hat he’ll do something and he won’t let it go—”

“Wait. Are you mad at him?”

“Yes, but that’s not the point.” She took a long drink of her water and glared at her phone when the notification for a new voicemail came up.

“I don’t understand how that could be anything but the point.”

They were interrupted again, briefly, by the arrival of their food, and Geralt ate ravenously while Yennefer only picked at what was in front of her, visibly upset—he could see it in the set of her lips. After a few minutes she set down the fork she’d been holding but not using and looked up at him.

“Do you remember,” she said, “what I asked you for that day in the mountains? What I wanted?”

He didn’t even have to think about it to remember, but he still waited a moment to answer. “The…procedure,” he replied, and she nodded.

“I said before that going ahead with it would almost certainly mean financial ruin for me, but my circumstances have recently changed. So I’ve arranged to have it done. But it’s…presented a few problems, to put it mildly.”

“Such as?”

She pushed her plate a few inches away. Geralt thought he saw a thin white line of skin where she’d pulled her sleeve back up, but she moved her hand back too quickly for him to be sure. “The only specialist I know of who can perform the surgery and is willing to is in Novigrad. It’s not a problem in and of itself, I know; Novigrad isn’t terribly far from here—but I can’t go alone. Portaling afterwards would pose too great a risk, as would trying to drive myself, considering I don’t know how this will affect me. And Val has flat-out refused to go with me.”

Geralt couldn’t say he was surprised—based on the few interactions he’d had with the man, he’d gotten the impression that he didn’t care much for Yennefer as a person, just the idea of her. Still… “I thought being engaged meant you automatically agreed to those kinds of things.”

“You’d think.” She laughed a little, but it was bitter, and he saw how she drew her jacket tighter around herself. “But Val’s never been like that. He’s not terribly affectionate in the first place, and this—this he doesn’t understand at all. He thinks it’s stupid and pointless, and I shouldn’t be wasting my time trying to fix something every other sorceress learns to accept.”

Geralt ran a finger through the ring of condensation that had formed around his glass. “I take it you’re not going to tell me what that something is.”

“I think I did mention before that it’s rather personal.” She shifted, pulling one of her legs up underneath her. He found it incredibly interesting, how she never quite managed to sit still. “Besides, you’re only supposed to be worried about getting some food into me.”

“Which I still am,” he pointed out, looking down briefly at her barely-touched plate. She raised her eyes to the ceiling and picked her fork back up, though he thought he saw her smile. She took very slow, small bites, and he realized too late that he was probably making her uncomfortable by watching her so closely. “Can’t someone else just take you, then?”

“It’s not quite that simple—gods, I wish it was.” Even though he was now staring at a point just above her left shoulder instead of directly at her, he could see her press her lips together and let them pull apart slowly. “I don’t even need to ask Philippa or Triss to know that they’d both refuse. There are…certain things tied up in this that neither of them want to acknowledge. Triss especially likes to worry about it. And I don’t blame her.” She eyed her phone as if the mere mention of her would bring about another message. “She’s called nearly more times than Val has.”

“So I’ve heard. She made her concern obvious at lunch earlier.” One of Yennefer’s shoulders, he noticed, was slightly higher than the other. For some reason, it struck him as incredibly endearing. “What about Regis? I don’t know the whole story, but it seems like he’d be willing.”

She grimaced. “He would, which is exactly why I won’t ask him. He’s helped me so much already, I’d rather not ask for anything further. Not to mention he worries as much as the rest of them, though he’s a bit less overbearing about it.” He wondered, then, if she truly had any other options, apart from potentially endangering herself by going alone. She didn’t seem to have many close friends, and he would guess that an even smaller number than that knew of her situation, whatever it was.

“Ciri would take me,” she said quietly. He didn’t know that he’d ever seen anyone look so defeated, though her expression had barely changed. “She would, without question. But I can’t risk bringing her into Novigrad. I won’t.”

“I could do it.”

He wasn’t sure what had possessed the words to come out of his mouth, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know, either. Yennefer’s brow furrowed, her lips parted just a hair, and she set her fork back down slowly.

“You told me before,” she said, “that you weren’t going to help me without knowing exactly why I wanted your help. Yet now you expect me to believe you’ve had a sudden change of heart?”

He couldn’t think of a reply. He shrugged.

For several minutes she didn’t say anything. The waitress came by and Yennefer paid for both of them, glaring at him when he feebly tried to protest. He put his coat back on and followed her out in silence. It seems as though she wasn’t going to say anything at all, and they would end up right back where they started. He was of a mind to apologize, entreat her to forget that he’d said anything, when she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, less than a block away from the apartments. A few paces ahead, he turned back to her.

“Why?” she said. Her gaze was fixed not on his eyes but on the scar that ran across his face, in much the same way he’d been trying to avoid her stare earlier. She’d shoved her hands into her jacket pockets and stood almost defensively. “What’s in it for you?”

“Absolutely nothing.” It was easy to tell the truth about that, at least—he had a feeling that helping her would only leave him with more problems. Still, now that the thought had been voiced, he was already beginning to warm up to it.

“Then why offer?”

“I…” It was a reasonable question, and he had no good answer for it. She must have known—her eyes narrowed, but there was something akin to amusement in them. “I don’t know,” he finished lamely.

He’d had the obvious excuse right in his grasp. Ciri cared deeply for Yennefer, so he would do his utmost to keep her safe, for Ciri’s sake. He knew she would likely say the same thing if he asked. It was easy. It was simple. But somewhere in the Kestrel Mountains, things between them had stopped being simple—or perhaps, he acknowledged reluctantly, they never were.

Yennefer exhaled very slowly and deliberately. “All right, Geralt of Rivia,” she said. There was less apprehension in her tone after that, though her posture as she caught up to him was still guarded. “I accept your suspicious offer. I expect we’ll be gone a few days, though, so you’ll have to find someone to cover for you in the meantime. Since you so gracefully volunteered for this, I’m assuming that won’t be a problem.”

He shook his head. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind, but it would be easy enough to get Lambert or Eskel to step in, especially if he explained where he’d be. They could draw their own (incorrect) conclusions from there.

“Good.” She sounded tired, and his own exhaustion was starting to catch up to him. “Well…I suppose I’ll see you soon, then. I’ll get in touch about the details.” She hesitated for a moment, as if unsure of how to say goodbye, then abruptly turned and headed towards her apartment. He watched until she was safely inside before trudging back to his own. He wanted nothing more than to collapse and sleep for a day—but when he stepped inside Regis was there, sitting on the couch like he’d been waiting a long time.

“I’d like to guess,” he said in a tone that was far too cheerful for how Geralt felt, “that things went well.”

Geralt sat down heavily and put his head in his hands, letting out a low groan. “Actually, I don’t know what the hell I just got myself into.”

Chapter Text

“Hang on—you’re going to have to repeat that, because there’s no way I heard you correctly. You’re going where with who?”

“To Novigrad.” Geralt sat on the couch with his head in his hands, rubbing his temples with his fingers. He had thought that Eskel would be the safer choice as a substitute. Lambert had too short of a temper to be teaching anyone anything, and he was far less likely to follow the plan Geralt had painstakingly laid out. Eskel would do that—but Geralt had also thought he would ask fewer questions. Clearly, he’d been wrong. “With Yennefer.”

Eskel shook his head slowly. His eyes went from Geralt’s defensive posture to the half-packed bag on the living room floor and back again. “You’re going to Novigrad,” he said. “With Yennefer of Vengerberg, who you met in person maybe three months ago at best. For some mysterious reason you’re now refusing to tell me.”

“For the thousandth time, yes.” He’d been trying not to let his frustration at Eskel’s probing show, but it felt as though he’d been answering the same questions for hours. “It’s not exactly my reason to tell.”

“Meaning you don’t even know.” When Geralt raised his eyes to glare, Eskel held his hands up defensively. “Come on. I’ve known you too long for that to work on me.”

“And you should know that if this is truly as personal as she’s making it out to be, I’m not going to ask. Not like there are plenty of things I haven’t told her.”

“If she’s gotten you to drag her all over Redania in pursuit of this—whatever it is—then you’ve at least got the right to know what it is.”

“Well.” Geralt sighed heavily. The argument had been going on for the better part of an hour (though it felt like far longer), more or less since Eskel arrived in Oxenfurt. He hadn’t asked any questions when Geralt had called and begged him to fill in for him, didn’t complain about the expense of a last-minute plane ticket or make him feel guilty about all the other contracts he could be taking instead. But now that he’d arrived, questions and complaints seemed to be all he had. “She’s also got the right to keep it from me, if that’s what she wants. Not much I can do about that.”

“You sure?” Eskel raised an eyebrow in a way that Geralt wasn’t entirely sure he liked the implications of. “Seems as if she’s taken a liking to you. If you’re the one she asked.”

“She didn’t ask. I volunteered. And I’m certain the only reason she took me up on it is because no one else would or could.”

Geralt stood, uncomfortably aware of the way Eskel was watching him, and walked into the kitchen for a bottle of water. He didn’t want him to be able to see the uncertainty on his face, uncertainty that had only grown since the last time he'd seen her. They would leave the next morning—she’d somehow gotten ahold of his number (though Ciri insisted she’d had it the whole time) to give him the details. The whole thing had taken on a surreal quality, and there had been times over the past several days he’d almost forgotten, only to remember suddenly. But he no longer had space to forget. In less than eighteen hours, they would be on the way to Novigrad.

The drive would take several hours, and they’d have to leave fairly early to make the time she’d set up for the procedure, one that would keep her as far removed from the public eye as she could be. She had told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted to be in and out of the city as quickly as possible, to avoid unwanted attention. He agreed because of the apparent urgency he sensed from her, though in a place like Novigrad he doubted it would truly help. The city was far too large, and Yennefer was one of the most easily recognizable people he’d ever met. Unless she planned to cover her entire body, someone would recognize her.

“If no one else would go with her, it doesn’t sound like something you should be involving yourself with. Sounds…dubious.”

There was something off about Eskel. There had to be. Geralt couldn’t see any other reason he would be so vocally against this. “I don’t know what you’re implying,” he said through gritted teeth. “But I wouldn’t have sent Ciri to her if I didn’t trust her.”

“You sent Ciri to her because you trust Triss, and Triss told you you could trust her. And I’ll say now what I said then—have you ever considered the possibility that Triss is biased?”

Geralt paused with his hand loosely wrapped around the fridge’s door handle. No, he’d never considered the possibility, though he didn’t want to admit it to Eskel—but it seemed he already knew that. Geralt heard him stand, make his way over to the kitchen door and lean against it. “Guessing you didn’t know,” he said quietly, and Geralt reluctantly nodded. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“There have been…some rumors. About the reason they decided to break one of the Brotherhood’s more important rules. About why Yennefer sponsored Triss.”

He didn’t need him to say what the rumors were. He could guess. It was apparently common knowledge they’d lived together; it was easy enough to see what kind of gossip would stem from that. Geralt wasn’t exactly sure why it mattered at this point. It was far too late to change his decisions—and besides, anyone who bothered to look would see how much Ciri and Yennefer cared for each other. All things considered, it had turned out fine.

“Even if they’re true, I don’t really care.” Geralt didn’t look over as he spoke. He opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water. He would need to leave soon, to give his last lectures before they set off. That would be the end of that conversation. “Nothing any of us can do about it now, anyway. I’ve made my choice.”

“I know.” There was a sort of resignation in Eskel’s voice, the same kind that had been there when Geralt had agreed to take this contract in the first place. He understood—Eskel’s goal had always been to stay as far away from politics as possible—but it still grated on his last nerve. “Just don’t expect me to feel sympathy for you when you finally realize you made the wrong one.”

~

“You could’ve just told me,” Triss said, pulling her legs up underneath her. She’d made herself comfortable on top of one of the dressers (or as comfortable as one could be sitting on a dresser) and was watching Yennefer, cross-legged on her bed, sort through a box of papers, looking for a copy of her birth certificate. Triss hadn’t even been aware that she had any copies of it, though to hear Yenna tell it, the original was in a safe somewhere in her Vengerberg townhouse. It seemed there had been a lot of things lately that Triss hadn’t been aware of. “If I’d known what was going on, I would’ve come with you.”

“Would you have?” Yennefer looked up from the papers and raised an eyebrow, her hands stilling. “Or would you have come here to give me another lecture, much as you’re doing now?”

“If you’d been honest with me, I wouldn’t feel the need to lecture you in the first place.”

Triss hated fighting with Yennefer, both because it always made them tense for days afterwards and because Yenna always won. It had been like that for as long as they’d known each other—she needed to have the last word, and not just with Triss. More often than not, she got it, too. “I didn’t realize it was any of your business,” she said icily, but their eyes didn’t quite meet, and after a moment she looked back down at the box next to her.

“It’s…it’s not, I suppose,” Triss conceded. It was the only thing she would give her. “But really, what did you think was going to happen if you just left without telling anyone? If you took off to Novigrad alone?”

“I won’t be alone.” It was painfully obvious how hard she was trying to sound nonchalant about the whole thing. Triss watched in silence as she set the paper she’d been looking for aside and packed up the rest carefully. She stood and tucked the box away in the back of the closet. To say Triss had been surprised to see her take it out for any other reason than to hide it from Val would be an understatement—knowing what it was, she thought she’d never see the day that Yenna looked through it willingly. Everything in it had gone straight in when she’d left Aretuza and, to Triss’s knowledge, hadn’t come back out; if it had, now it was just one more item on the list of things Yenna was keeping from her.

Still—and she hated to admit it, even to herself—the idea that she wasn’t the first person Yenna had gone to, like she would’ve been once, made her feel like she’d been punched in the gut.

“Really?” she said, mimicking her tone. “Who did you ask to go with you, then? If not me?”

She was being petty and they both knew it, but surprisingly, Yenna didn’t immediately call her out on it. Instead she returned to the bed, sitting down next to her half-packed bag and pulling out a folder that she slid the paper into. Her fingers were a little paler than normal—she was gripping it tightly. “I didn’t ask anyone.” The edges of her words were sharp as knives; the question had struck a nerve, and Triss already regretted asking it. The whole thing was a sensitive subject, one everyone who knew about it also knew to broach with caution. She should’ve tried a gentler approach, but it felt as though the words were leaving her mouth without being filtered through her brain first.

“That doesn’t answer the question, Yenna.”

“It does.” She put the folder back in the bag and zipped it up. The diamonds in her star were visibly pulsing—she was putting extra effort into making sure Triss couldn’t read her mind, even though the star itself was already the strongest moveable barrier she’d ever seen. “You wanted to know who I asked, and I told you—no one. Can that be the end of this argument, please?”

“I don’t know.” Triss stood agitatedly, then sat back down. She had nowhere to go. “It’s pretty clear you’re keeping something from me. I’d rather not leave until I know what it is.”

Her lips twisted in some vague approximation of a smile. She put the bag on the floor, ran her fingers over the black-and-white quilt, looked at it like it was the most fascinating thing in the world. “You always were observant,” she murmured. “Sometimes far too much so for my liking.”

Triss exhaled a laugh. “Might not be as observant as you think. I mean, I didn’t even know you were doing this until you told me earlier today.”

“I didn’t tell anyone—well, I told one person, I suppose. Or two people. But no one was intended to know. Aside from Val. I wanted him to go with me, originally. But I didn’t even get a chance to actually ask before he refused.”

“Well, what did you expect?” She laughed again, though she realized soon after how insensitive she was being. “He’s never exactly been quiet on what he thinks about the idea of you having children. Gods, he doesn’t even like the daughter you’ve already got!”

Yennefer sighed and looked up. There was a tenseness in the set of her shoulders, the way she laced her fingers together in an attempt to keep them still. It was better, Triss thought, than what she used to do to distract herself, but not by much. “I know,” she said. “But theoretically, it would’ve been best to involve him now rather than later, especially if things go well. I’ve got to convince him somehow.”

“Did you really think that involving him early would somehow make him change his mind?” Neither of them wanted to say it, but they both knew how it would end. He didn’t want what she did, and if he wouldn’t give it to her, she’d find someone who would. It was no wonder he was so strongly against it.

Yenna smiled faintly. “I suppose not.”

Silence fell. The subject of Val had always been a sore one between them, ever since the two of them showed up at Triss’s commencement and she saw how he hovered over her, protective, possessive. Yenna had slowly but steadily been pulling away from her ever since. Triss watched her worry her bottom lip and wondered when, exactly, they had stopped telling each other things. When the gap between them had grown so wide that they only ever dared to breach it physically. “Can I ask who is going with you, then?”

“You can.” She tugged her sleeves down over her wrists in a manner that closed her off as much as the blankness in her words did. They would go their separate ways in the morning, she knew, and Yenna wouldn’t speak of it again unless someone else had already brought it up. Maybe not even then. “But it’s unlikely at best that I’ll answer.”

~

Geralt woke an hour before he and Yennefer were due to leave and cleaned out his truck more vigorously than he had in years. The sheer amount of time he spent on the Path meant he’d created a nest of sorts for himself in the backseat—easier to sleep there than try and find a hotel every night, not to mention more cost-effective. He pulled out all the blankets and dumped them in a pile on the living room floor. He’d wash them when they got back. There wasn’t time for much else except gathering up the various food wrappers he’d let accumulate over the months and vacuuming. It would have to do. He got in the truck, bag stowed in the back, and started it so it would be warm when she got there. And he waited.

It didn’t take long before he saw her in the rearview mirror, slipping outside and making her way across the lot with her head bowed low. The way she held herself made her reflection look off-puttingly small, and he realized belatedly that he probably should’ve done something to make it easier for her to get into his truck. When she pulled open the door and set her bag on the floor, he could only see her from the waist up. He was about to apologize and offer to help her, but before he could even open his mouth she had pulled herself up into the passenger seat in a surprising show of agility for someone of her stature. He tried not to let that thought show as she pushed her hair back from her face and turned to him.

“Please tell me,” she said seriously, though there was something of laughter in her eyes, “that you’re not one of those men who thinks having a big truck makes them manlier. I may have to rethink this whole venture if you are.”

He shook his head, awkward under her penetrating gaze, and started to drive. “Easier to carry trophies,” he explained as he guided them out of the parking lot. “Most people want proof I actually killed the thing they hired me to kill.”

“Ah.” She paused, scrunched her nose up. “Sounds…gruesome. I shouldn’t ask what’s back there, then, should I?”

“Right now there’s nothing. Haven’t taken on a contract like that in months.” When he glanced over at her, she was looking out the window. She’d foregone wearing any makeup, and as a result the dark circles under her eyes were worryingly prominent. The black top she wore under her jacket had a high neck, so instead of the usual velvet ribbon, her star hung from a thin silver chain.

“Rough night?” He immediately regretted asking—gods know the ways she could take offense to it—but she didn’t seem to mind the question. She shrugged, but didn’t answer right away.

“Suppose you could say that. I didn’t sleep much.”

“Why? Nerves?”

She smirked, and her hand came up to rub the side of her neck. “Something like that.”

They fell silent. Surprisingly, Yennefer turned out not to be one of those people that made him feel like he needed to fill every gap with idle chatter. She seemed perfectly comfortable in the silence, and after a while he began to relax as well. He could tell, though, that she was still tense—why wouldn’t she be in this situation?—so he didn’t try to force her into conversation. If she wanted to say something, she’d say it. And she did.

“Have you seen Ciri lately?” she asked, and behind the question was something that said he should already know what she meant, if he’d been paying any attention at all. He doubted she meant to guilt him, but he felt it anyway.

“Not really,” he admitted sheepishly. “Considering how rarely she leaves the apartment.”

“She leaves it more often than you think.” She rested one hand lightly on the center console. The fingers of the other were tightly gripping her thigh. “You should ask her about it the next time you see her.”

“…all right. Mind telling me what this is about?”

Yennefer frowned. “It’s not really my place to tell. I just—well, I thought you already knew.”

She didn’t say any more on the subject, and he got the impression she regretted bringing it up. The minutes ticked by on the dashboard clock, and one hour without speaking became two, then three. At some point she started drumming her fingers softly on the console, pulling her bottom lip between her teeth. The closer they got to Novigrad, the more visibly agitated she became.

He didn’t know what possessed him to do it. Maybe he’d just gotten sick of the noise, or his needless worry over her had finally reached a boiling point. But the reason didn’t matter—all he knew was that, for one of them or another, he felt compelled to reach over and cover her hand with his own. She froze; he sensed the sudden stiffness in her arm and debated pulling away—and then he felt her flip her hand over, lace her fingers with his. When he looked over she smiled, albeit tightly, and they stayed like that until the gates of the city came into view.

Yennefer had insisted they go the long way around the city instead of through it. The few opportunities people had to recognize her, the better. As they drove under the massive stone walls, he couldn’t help but agree with her. The hospital was on the edge of town, and at the least, it cut back on the amount of traffic he had to drive through.

Vilmerius Hospital was not only very small, but in a neighborhood far from the opulent wealth at the center of Novigrad—exactly the opposite of what he’d expected from Yennefer. But it was the workplace of a specific man, she informed him as they parked in a dimly lit garage. A former lecturer at Oxenfurt that she had met through Regis. He had agreed to perform the procedure despite possible risks, but in doing so hadn’t given her a choice in venue.

He followed her in silence through a series of sterile white hallways until they found a reception desk, from which they were led to a small, curtained-off room. It seemed that Yennefer already knew exactly what was going on, and Geralt tried not to listen too closely as a nurse came in and they went over a packet of papers, several of which she signed in a scrawling hand. The nurse left them for a few minutes and, after a moment, Yennefer sighed, looking around the room distastefully. She perched on the edge of the bed—it was almost as if she wanted to touch as little as possible—and pulled a small mirror out of her bag. A few whispered words had it hovering in the air, level with her face, and she began to slowly and methodically remove all the piercings from her ears.

“Nervous?” he said, watching as she dropped the earrings one by one into one of the bag’s smaller pockets. Her rings came next, and then the star, which she took off incredibly reluctantly. The thing itself seemed like it didn’t want to leave her body, and he wondered what enchantments were on it that attached it so strongly to her. She slid off her jacket, folded it neatly in the bag, and looked up at him.

“I think you asked me that already,” she said dryly. If there had been any amusement in her voice before, it was certainly gone now. He wanted to say more, but the nurse returned, this time with a gown that Yennefer looked at with more disgust than she had anything else. The nurse nodded at it and stepped back outside. Geralt could feel her waiting only a few feet from the room, along with someone else; the surgeon, most likely.

“It appears,” Yennefer said, “that we’ve reached the part where you have to leave.” Her smile was wry but he could sense her discomfort, and he wished there was something he could do to ease it, though it would’ve been difficult without knowing what exactly she was nervous about, which he didn’t. Instead he stepped forward wordlessly and took her hand again, squeezing gently for a moment before letting go. She blinked, startled, and looked up at him for a moment before she turned away, which he took as his cue to leave.

He pulled the curtain open only as much as he needed to slip out, then started to make his way back to what he assumed was the waiting room—but he was stopped by a hand on his arm. The hand belonged to a balding man with a grey moustache who introduced himself as Joachim von Gratz. Now that he’d heard the name, he wasn’t as surprised; he was sure he’d heard Regis mention the man once or twice. He inclined his head in the direction of the room Geralt had just left.

“Pardon the intrusion,” he said in a low voice, “but if you’re here with Lady Yennefer, I must ask how the two of you are related.”

Geralt must have looked confused, because after a moment he continued, a resigned look on his face. “We’ve a strict policy here, you see—generally, only family members are allowed to stay with the patient, especially with a procedure like this. I’m aware that Lady Yennefer has few living relatives and doesn’t wish to see any of them. If you’re a close friend of hers, I’m willing to make an exception, due to the circumstances, but that’s something I need to know now in order to make sure you can be taken to the room where we usually have the family wait.”

“I…” That had been one of his bigger reservations about this plan. He had no idea how to answer that question. He got the impression that Yennefer had let him closer than most people, but considering that he could count on one hand the number of people she would likely consider friends, that still wasn’t very close. But he did have something that linked her to him, something that no one else could claim, and while he wasn’t sure he wanted to reveal as much to a stranger, he had the feeling it was the only thing he could say that would convince von Gratz to let him stay. “I’m…her daughter’s father.”

The man raised his eyebrows for a moment before he schooled his face into a more neutral expression. “I see. She did mention that it had happened…after. Well, in that case, of course we’ll let you stay.” He dropped his voice even lower than before, though Geralt had no trouble hearing him. “My apologies. To be honest, we were expecting someone completely different. It seems the situation is a little more complicated than we thought, eh?”

He laughed casually. Geralt had no idea what he was talking about, and he didn't want to ask, either, so when von Gratz motioned a receptionist over to show him where he needed to go, he didn’t say anything. “You’ll likely be here several hours,” she said, showing him into a room filled with the most uncomfortable-looking chairs he’d ever seen. “We’ll have Lady Yennefer’s things brought to you as soon as we can, for safekeeping. In the meantime, try not to think too hard about it. Things will be fine.”

He nodded mutely, unsure of what, exactly, he’d gotten himself into. Yes, everything was going to be fine.

Chapter Text

It took nearly a week for Ciri to get the apartment to herself for a night. Triss had been reluctant to leave her alone—understandably, Ciri supposed, given the circumstances, but it was more than a little annoying. Finally, though, she managed to get her out, and ironically enough, Triss herself had given her all the material she needed for a convincing argument. “You could’ve at least told me you wouldn’t be here,” she said as Triss walked in that morning, hair loose, yawning and rubbing the side of her neck. Ciri watched smugly as she stuttered, as her face turned a very interesting shade of red, and she eventually agreed to stay out another night, and most of the day as well. Ciri suspected it was mostly due to guilt—Triss knew how she felt about what they were doing; she’d never exactly made it a secret—but she wasn’t going to complain. She had too much to do.

She spent the vast majority of the day cleaning the apartment more thoroughly than either of them had in months. Usually most of the straightening up was done by Yennefer, who had always made sure that wherever Ciri was staying was cleaner than her own house, which was in a perpetual state of disarray. Yennefer was in Novigrad, though, so Ciri took matters into her own hands, and by the time the evening rolled around and a knock came at the door, the apartment was nearly spotless. Ciri herself had been standing in front of the bathroom mirror for ten minutes, methodically trying to darken her eyebrows in the most natural-looking way she could. Her hands had been shaking so much it was nearly impossible to concentrate, and when she heard the knock she was so startled she dropped the pencil she’d been using. She swore quietly as she picked it up, tucked it away in the cabinet and anxiously made her way to the door.

Bea was smiling when she opened the door, but Ciri saw how the smile changed as she saw her, how she tried to hide her surprise. “You look…nice,” she said, her voice straining just the slightest bit. Ciri suddenly felt worried about how she’d spent perhaps a bit too much time lining her eyes, worn a shirt a little tighter than she what she usually did, been especially careful about the way she tucked up her hair. Had she been reading things wrong the whole time? They’d been messaging back and forth since they met—gods, she’d feel so stupid if she hadn’t meant what she thought. But that reaction gave her confidence—enough, at least, to smile back unaffectedly, though she realized a second too late that she was blocking the door.

“Oh—I—you can come in,” she stammered, trying not to let the grin falter as she stepped aside and let Bea pass, closing the door behind her. Ciri watched her eyes sweep the room and followed her gaze, afraid she’d missed something. She’d tried to remove anything that could give even the slightest indication of who she really was, especially photos. Most of Triss’s things had been left alone, but there had been some she had to move. She was starting to wonder, as Bea shrugged her coat off and hung it over the back of a chair, if this had actually been a good idea, but it was too late for that now. Hopefully she wouldn’t be this nervous all night.

“You’ve got a nice place,” Bea said, thankfully interrupting Ciri’s current train of thought. She sounded as if she meant it, too, and it wasn’t just idle small talk. “Roomy, for just two of you. You’re lucky—I still live with my family. Including three brothers.” She frowned. “Haven’t saved up enough to leave just yet.”

“I’m sorry.” Ciri sat down on the couch and motioned for Bea to join her, making sure to keep just enough distance between them, trying to disguise her nervousness. “I used to live in an RV for a while. There were seven of us total. I know all about not having personal space.” She laughed a little, hoping she didn’t sound insensitive. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d found it so difficult to simply talk to someone. With Mistle, things had always been effortless.

“Really?” Bea’s eyes widened; she tilted her head to the side inquisitively. “Why? Were they your family?”

Ciri shook her head. “No, just friends. I haven’t lived with either of my parents for a few years now.”

“So you’re an only child? And your parents aren’t together?”

Ciri knew she didn’t mean to pry, but she hadn’t thought this far ahead either, and she hoped Bea couldn’t tell how anxious the questions were making her. “Yes to both. They were never together, actually. I was…something of a surprise.”

That much was true, at least. Neither had exactly been expecting her, though one had certainly been ready for it. She couldn’t help but notice that, when she’d looked out the window earlier, Geralt’s truck had mysteriously vanished, on the same day Yennefer left for Novigrad—and her car was still in the lot. She wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but she could hazard a guess, and she hoped desperately she was right. They’d only all three been in the same room once before, but it was enough for her to see how they looked at each other. That is, if it wasn’t just wishful thinking on her part.

Bea must have realized Ciri didn’t want to talk about it, because she didn’t pursue that line of questioning any further. Instead she asked for a glass of water, and Ciri was all too happy to oblige, if for no other reason than a chance to turn her back for a moment, to compose herself. She tried not to look over her shoulder as she stood at the sink waiting for the glasses to fill, not wanting to give off the wrong impression. But she heard movement from the living room and when she finally did look, Bea had stood and walked over to the bookshelf in the corner, and was examining the photos on it.

“Who’re they?” she asked, gesturing to one of a clearly much younger Yennefer and Triss. (It was easy to date photos of Yennefer, based on how much she was smiling in them.) Ciri was secretly relieved she didn’t seem to recognize them. Still, the idea of saying it out loud gave her pause, though there was no way of avoiding the question now. She took the cups over to the shelf and gave her one.

“That’s my roommate there,” she said, indicating Triss in the picture. She wasn’t certain, but she thought it had been taken when Triss graduated from Aretuza, or around that time. They both looked young enough, and Yennefer’s hair was far longer than she wore it now—the way it had been when Ciri first met her. “And, uh…my mum.”

She hadn’t thought it was possible for Bea’s eyes to get any wider, but they did. “Really?” she asked incredulously, and Ciri nodded. “Huh. I see where you got your looks from.”

Ciri smiled and hoped she wasn’t blushing too much. Wait until Yennefer heard that.

“I—sorry.” Bea was smiling casually, but either Ciri was imagining things or she was just as nervous as she was; it was evident in the way she tugged at the end of her braid. “If I’m being too nosy, you can tell me to stop. I’ve had it happen before.” She laughed.

She was, but Ciri didn’t want to say it out loud. What she actually said was “No, you’re fine,” accompanied by a nonchalant wave of her hand. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be going. They were supposed to be watching a movie—Bea had expressed a great deal of surprise at how few Ciri had seen and insisted on showing her one of her favorites. Ciri didn’t get what the appeal of staring at a screen for ninety minutes was, but she agreed, mostly because it meant they would get to sit next to each other in a dark room the whole time, and she couldn’t say no to that.

They sat less than a foot away from each other, but they didn’t touch, and Ciri was too afraid to breach that gap. If she held her hand, Bea would see her white knuckles; if she put her arm around her, Bea would feel her shaking. Mostly they watched in silence, though Bea would occasionally make a comment or point out her favorite parts. By the time they reached the end of the movie, Ciri realized she’d barely paid attention to it, though she remembered nearly everything Bea had said.

“Well?” she asked, looking at Ciri expectantly. There was a pit of guilt forming in her stomach. She shouldn’t have let herself get so distracted by her. “What did you think?”

Ciri swallowed thickly and grinned. She couldn’t let Bea know she didn’t remember a thing. “It was good,” she said weakly. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”

Trying not to register the surprise and hurt on Bea’s face. Ciri stood and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her and leaning heavily on the counter, her face in her hands. She was beginning to feel as if she had no idea what she was doing, even more so than she had earlier. But she couldn’t do anything about it now. If Yennefer were here, she’d say Ciri was being ridiculous, that she was better than her self-doubt. Ciri had never once seen her plagued by that same self-doubt, though she knew it was there. It had to be. And if Yennefer could hide it that well, so could she.

Ciri turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on her face, hoping to get rid of any redness caused by her nerves. When she stepped back into the living room, it was empty, and her bedroom door was open. Her stomach dropped as she hurried over to it. Bea was standing inside, looking at a string that Ciri had hung all her pictures from. She turned to her with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

“Apparently there’s a lot of things you haven’t told me,” she said.

Ciri felt as if someone was gripping her throat tightly. The only thing she could think to do was turn it into a challenge. It had always worked before. “Yeah? Like what?”

Taking Ciri completely by surprise, Bea stepped over until they were only inches apart—then reached up and pulled Ciri’s hat off. It took the pin underneath with it, and her hair fell loose around her shoulders. Her fists were tightly clenched at her sides. Bea took one pale strand in her fingers, examining it for a moment.

“Like this,” she said, and kissed her.

~

Night had nearly fallen by the time the nurse that had spoken to Geralt that morning returned and motioned him out of the room. He felt a weight lift off his chest as he closed the book he’d been reading and stood, pulling his bag over one shoulder and Yennefer’s on the other. True to their word, someone had brought her things to him less than an hour after they parted, and he’d been resisting the urge to look in her bag ever since. It would have, at least, been some small distraction from the worry that steadily ate away at him the whole time, but he wouldn’t let himself do it. The relief he felt when he was called away was enormous, but it didn’t entirely eclipse that worry.

“Did something happen?” he asked as soon as they were in the hall, pitching his voice low enough for no one else to be able to hear. “Is she okay?”

“She’s fine.” The smile on her face was clearly meant to reassure Geralt, but it was doing the opposite. When it became clear he wasn’t convinced, she added “She’s awake, and asking for you” as he trailed her through the halls. The idea of her waking up and asking where he was in a soft, raspy tone made him tighten his grip on the bags, but he didn’t say anything. What would he even say?

The hospital’s recovery room looked more or less the same as the one they’d been taken to when they arrived, though there were only curtained-off areas instead of actual smaller rooms. The nurse gestured to one near the back whose curtain was partially open and said “She’s in there. You can go on ahead. We’ll have you both moved within the hour.” He pulled out his phone and sent a message to Eskel, updating him on the situation (though he doubted he actually wanted to know), then stepped inside, pulling the curtain all the way shut.

She looked, somehow, even smaller and more fragile than usual lying there, as if the place itself had sapped the vitality from her. The gown, patterned with an unfortunate combination of off-white and pea green, was clearly too large and had slipped slightly off one shoulder, enough for him to see clearly how her collarbones jutted out. There was a tube across her nose, and another snaking out of the back of her left hand, taped firmly in place. A grey blanket was pulled up over her stomach, and the fingers of her free hand drummed over it lightly. Her eyes had been closed, but she opened them when she heard the curtain close. He couldn’t tell whether or not she was happy to see him.

“Geralt of Rivia.” She smiled a little, but it looked pained, and he understood why, though he couldn’t tell what about her had changed. “Fancy seeing you here.”

He set all the bags down on the floor and pulled one of the chairs up near the bed before sitting in it. He wanted to be able to see her up close, as if that would somehow reassure him that she was really okay. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better. But all things considered…” She sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. “I’m sorry to keep you so long. There were…some complications. Not ones we weren’t prepared for, but they took extra time to resolve nonetheless.”

“That’s not very reassuring.” She turned to look at him, and her hair spilled heavy over her shoulder. It seemed she’d only just noticed it wasn’t covered, because she pulled her sleeve up slowly, wincing when the movement tugged at the needle in her hand. “Did it go alright besides that, though?”

“Yes. Though there’s a very high chance it didn’t actually work.” Her expression didn’t change, but out of the corner of his eye he saw her fingers tighten, and he knew how much the idea upset her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, but she let go of the fabric to wave the words away in a gesture that clearly took a great deal of effort.

“Don’t apologize. It might turn out I’m wrong, and then where would we be?” She was doing an impressive job of sounding nonchalant, but after what he’d just seen, he didn’t buy it. It would be insensitive of him to call her out on it, though, so he chose to ignore the comment. They could revisit it later. Her eyes were drifting shut like the simple conversation had sapped all her energy, so he sat back and waited. If it would take a while for her to talk about it, he didn’t mind.

~

True to her word, the nurse returned twenty minutes later to move Yennefer to a private room, and Geralt followed with their bags. Yennefer herself slept through both the transition and most of the next day, only waking when someone came in to check on her. Geralt settled on one of the uncomfortable armchairs and tried to read, but ended up spending most of the time observing her instead. He found something about her endlessly fascinating, even when she wasn’t doing much of anything. And while he was looking, he noticed a lot of things.

He noticed how her nose was just the slightest bit too long, her top lip a little too thin, how the way she laid accentuated her uneven shoulders just enough. How her brows furrowed just the slightest bit when she slept, like it took all her effort, and sometimes her finger would twitch, or she’d turn her head restlessly. He noticed how she had far more beauty marks scattered across her face than he was normally able to see, and he catalogued the location of every one. He found it nearly impossible to take his eyes off her.

Near the end of the second day, he was interrupted by Philippa Eilhart showing up quite unexpectedly in the latter part of vising hours. He made no secret of his surprise, and it seemed as though Yennefer hadn’t known she was going to be there either, because the first thing out of her mouth was “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Look. I know I said a lot of things about how this procedure was a terrible idea and you would regret having it done and I wouldn’t support your decision if you went through with it. I still stand by all of that.” Yennefer rolled her eyes as Philippa unceremoniously pushed the blankets aside to sit next to her legs. “But I’ve got news, and I’d rather give it to you in person than have you find out about it when you get home.”

“Why?” Yennefer narrowed her eyes, and Geralt was confused by the gesture until he saw the guilt in Philippa’s expression. It threw him off guard. He never thought he’d see the day she felt guilty about anything.

“To explain myself,” she said, then abruptly turned to Geralt. “Could you wait outside for a moment?”

“Having him wait outside won’t do any good,” Yennefer said. “He’ll be able to hear us anyway.”

Geralt felt awkward watching the two of them talk about him when he was sitting right there. “I can leave if you want,” he offered. “Take a walk or something. Just tell me and I’ll go.”

Yennefer looked at him for a very long time, and Philippa’s eyes darted back and forth between the two of them. “You can stay,” she said finally. “But not a word of what we say leaves this room.”

Geralt nodded, and Philippa took it as a cue to reach into her jacket and pull out a thick, cream-colored envelope, addressed to Yennefer in perfect script. She took it cautiously, as if she expected it to bite her, and pulled out a letter written on the same paper. As she read farther down, her expression became more and more distraught, and when she finished she set it face-up on her lap. Geralt couldn’t make out the words from the angle he was at, but he saw several large signatures scrawled across the bottom.

Yennefer stared down at the letter for several minutes. Her hands, though she was clearly trying to control it, were shaking. “This,” she said slowly, “is a nomination for a seat on the Supreme Council.”

Though he kept his facial expression neutral, Geralt couldn’t help but be surprised. He knew enough about how the Brotherhood of Sorcerers was structured to know the Council was one of the highest-ranked bodies within it, second only to the Chapter of the Gift and the Art. That Yennefer, at such a young age, was even being considered for a position in it was no small feat. He didn’t understand why she looked like Philippa just told her someone had died.

“I know it is.” Yennefer clenched her hands around the blanket as Philippa spoke. “I know. But you’ve got to let me explain—”

“There’s nothing to explain.” Yennefer tilted her head back, eyes shut, and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. “And you didn’t even try to say anything about it, did you? Even though you know I want to stay as far away as possible from—”

“How would I have done anything?” Philippa interrupted, trying to defend herself. Every word either of them said only confused Geralt more. “How was I supposed to tell them you would want to reject the nomination without telling them why?”

When Yennefer opened her eyes again, she was looking at Geralt. He’d never seen her look so nervous—he’d never seen her look so anything. Whatever it was, it was bad, if she was truly afraid of it. But a moment later the expression was gone, and she seemed mainly indignant again. “Allow me to venture a guess—Tissaia didn’t say anything either.”

“No. For the same reasons.” Frowning, Philippa picked up the letter and folded it back into its envelope. Yennefer seemed glad to see her do it. “Besides, that would also involve admitting her perfect system failed, which she would never do.”

For a while, no one said anything. Geralt felt very much as if he were intruding on someone’s private grief—the way Yennefer laid her hands over her stomach, arms draped loosely around herself, said far more than any words. “I’m sorry,” Philippa eventually sighed. “If I’d known things would play out this way, I wouldn’t have talked you up so much in previous years.”

“This would’ve happened whether or not you did that,” Yennefer said, but she didn’t look directly at her, and it was clear she was still upset. “But…I think you should go now. I need time to process this.” Philippa nodded and went to grab the letter, but Yennefer stopped her. “Leave it.”

She stood resignedly, like she didn’t want to actually go, like something terrible would happen if she did. Before she left, she stopped just inside the door and stared at Geralt for several long seconds. It felt like she was asking him to do something, but he didn’t know what the something was. She was gone before he could figure it out.

Geralt turned back to Yennefer, who was staring at the wall with an unreadable expression. “What now?” he asked, and she slumped down in the bed without looking at him.

“Now I’m going to sleep.” The way she said it brokered no argument. It would probably be a good time for him to try and get some sleep as well, or at least meditate for a while. He forced her gaze away, closed his eyes, and unsuccessfully tried to think of anything but her.

When he woke up a few hours later, she was shivering.

It was a small movement—barely perceptible, but just enough for his eyes to make out. As for why, that he couldn’t tell. She could be cold; it wasn’t exactly the warmest room, though they brought her heated blankets every couple hours. It seemed far more likely to him that she was having a nightmare. After what had happened earlier, he wouldn’t be surprised, because whatever they’d been talking about had clearly distressed her a great deal. No matter the cause, it was almost painful to watch, and he found himself unable to do nothing about it.

There was still room on the bed from where she’d moved to accommodate Philippa, and it was just enough for him to lay down on his side, facing her. He draped one of his arms over her, and the other rested between them awkwardly, pressed up against her side. She was freezing, at least compared to him; the skin of her arm, when he touched it, was like ice. His head was above her, so he couldn’t see if the look on her face had changed. He hoped it had.

She stirred under his arm, and when he looked down she’d tilted her head up so she could see him, her eyes half-open. “You’re warm,” she said drowsily, and closed them again, though he knew she was still awake.

“And you’re beautiful.” He didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until he heard her laugh softly, saw the corners of her lips turn up. Suddenly, he was very glad he couldn’t blush.

“Flattery will get you nowhere. Especially now. Don’t move, though.” She turned her head, pressing her forehead against his chest. He could hear her heartbeat thrumming somewhere under his arm, perhaps slightly faster than normal. “Good night, Geralt of Rivia,” she murmured, and he could feel her lips moving over his shirt.

He didn’t know what to do with himself. The reason he’d agreed to this in the first place—why he’d offered himself up for it—was starting to make itself clear, and he didn’t like where it was going at all. It was messy. It was complicated. And he couldn’t bring himself to stop.

He pressed his face to the top of her head, inhaling the scent that had somehow managed to linger, feeling the silk of her hair. He’d have to move soon. She’d wake up and she wouldn’t want him there. But he was there now, the only place he wanted to be, consequences be damned. And he’d stay until she told him to go. “Night, Yen.”

Chapter Text

They were there for another full day before Yennefer had recovered enough for the nurses to be able to move her for scans, to find out whether or not the procedure had actually worked. They let her know a few hours in advance, and though she didn’t respond any differently than she had to anything they’d said before, Geralt saw the sudden nervousness in how she sat a little straighter than she’d been. Since it seemed to work so well the last time, he slid his hand to cover hers (it more than covered hers—he’d become painfully aware of the thinness of her fingers), but this time she only looked at him, smiled a little, and pulled away. He’d been starting to wonder whether or not her apparent distaste for casual physical contact had stopped applying to him, and in that small action he had his answer.

She had one more visitor, who arrived only a few minutes before she was to leave, a man with black hair and a pale, drawn face. Geralt didn’t recognize him, but Yennefer did, and seemed surprised to see him there. “Of all the people I thought would show up here,” she said, laughing quietly, “you…well, you weren’t even on the list.”

“I hadn’t planned on coming either,” the man said, taking a seat in the chair Geralt wasn’t currently occupying. “But I’m here on Regis’s behalf. He wanted to be here himself, but considering the news you gave him last night, he wasn’t sure that was the best idea.”

Geralt had been around when she made the calls to Regis and Triss that morning, though he’d been unable to make out what their responses had been, which he suspected was due to her magically blocking him from hearing them. When he asked her about what was going on, she’d said “Nothing you need to know about, except that it’s very bad.” He was starting, more and more, to understand why Eskel had been so annoyed by her hiding things from him, but he did his best to stay patient with her.

“Why? Didn’t think he’d be able to keep control of his temper?” She said it lightly, almost teasingly, but her voice was strained, and the man didn’t seem fooled.

“Something like that.” He leaned forward, fingers steeped in a gesture Geralt must have seen Regis make a hundred times. This, he realized, must be his roommate, the one who had caused so much trouble in Beauclair a couple of years back. It would also explain, to a certain degree, how he knew Yennefer, though not why she felt so comfortable around him. “He wanted me to tell you that if you wanted to…be under the radar for a while, he’s happy to help you do that.”

Yennefer laughed a little, and didn’t meet his eyes. “That might be overreacting just a bit. Besides, it would raise more problems than it would solve.” She leaned back on the bed and sighed. She’d been doing that a lot over the past day. “I’ve got to accept the nomination. People would ask too many questions if I turned it down.”

“Why does that matter?” He shook his head. Geralt remembered that not all vampires were as comfortable with human interaction as Regis was, and didn’t understand the societal norms as a consequence. Adding the politics of mages on top of that must have confused him to no end. He wouldn’t see why she felt the need to keep up this front, but Geralt did, and with every passing minute he grew more and more apprehensive about the situation she was putting herself in.

“It matters because my reasons are private and need to stay that way.” Yennefer didn’t sound upset, merely tired. “If the wrong people found out about them, it would ruin me. Not to mention Triss, and Philippa, and Tissaia—my entire branch. And if I end up going down, I’d rather not take all of them with me.”

He nodded. Yennefer’s gaze shifted until she locked eyes with Geralt, and they looked at each other for several long seconds without saying anything. Something imperceptible had shifted between them, and that made him nervous. He didn’t know if she’d heard what he said the night before. He hoped she hadn’t, especially now that she already had so much to deal with.

The man looked as if he wanted to say more on the subject, but he was preempted by several people coming into the room to take Yennefer for scans. One of them was von Gratz, who awkwardly avoided eye contact with Geralt for reasons he didn’t entirely understand. Yennefer looked nervous as they moved her, though he doubted anyone else would have noticed, and he tried to smile reassuringly even though he knew it would fall flat. A moment later she was gone, and the two of them were left alone.

The other man didn’t seem much interested in talking, and Geralt was all too happy to remain silent. He pulled out his book and tried to read, but instead he ended up staring at the place where she had been. The room felt strangely empty without her—too large, almost. Nearly an hour passed before the man stood and excused himself. Geralt only grunted in acknowledgement. He didn’t have the energy for anything even remotely resembling small talk.

Another hour went by with no news of Yennefer, then two. Sometime during the third hour he got a message from Triss asking about her. He didn’t respond—he didn’t know what he would even say. She messaged him two more times before she appeared to give up. Part of him felt guilty for ignoring her, but he didn’t know what else to do. He’d never been in this situation before.

He remembered when Ciri had first come to stay at Kaer Morhen, back when the dreams still plagued her near-nightly, when more often than not she’d wake up screaming. There were some nights they wouldn’t come right away, and Geralt would stay up in horrible anticipation, waiting for the moment her cries would begin. This felt like that, but far worse. He could always predict the outcome of Ciri’s nightmares. He couldn’t do the same here.

When it had been five hours since they took her away, they brought her back. Nothing looked particularly different about her, except for the fact that, as they shifted her back to the bed, she wouldn’t quite look him in the eye, and she pressed her lips together more tightly than usual, like she was trying not to say something. He knew without needing to ask what they must have told her, and as they left the two of them alone, Geralt pulled one of the chairs up next to her, much like he’d done before. She didn’t turn to him as she had; she simply stared at the wall. Her eyes looked nearly glassy, but he somehow knew she wouldn’t let herself cry.

He put his hand on the edge of the bed, not moving any closer to her, just letting it rest there. After a few moments she reached out and took it, almost reluctantly. It felt like she didn’t want to admit she needed the support, though he hoped she knew he was the last person who was going to judge her for it. Her hand felt smaller than it had before, like she was shrinking in on herself.

“I knew,” she said hollowly, “that there was a chance it wouldn’t work. A very high chance.” She swallowed; he could hear her breathing deep, trying to stay in control of her physical reactions. For the most part, it seemed to be working, though her grip on his fingers had tightened. “I knew that everyone who told me this was a bad idea was right. But I did it anyway.”

She had her star back, he noticed. He could see the chain she’d been wearing it on, though the thing itself was tucked under her gown. He couldn’t remember her getting it back, but there was a decent chance he’d grabbed it out of her bag in one of the few brief interludes he’d actually left the room, to shower or get food. There was nothing preventing her from walking, though it was probably painful for her. But she wouldn’t be wearing it if they hadn’t given her the go-ahead, which meant either good or bad news. It was obvious then, if it hadn’t been already, which one it was.

“I have a penchant for making bad decisions, Geralt of Rivia,” she continued. There was something soft and cracked about her voice; it sounded like she was having trouble forcing the words out. “It’s an unfortunate trait. One I hope I haven’t passed on.”

“You haven’t,” he said without pause. It was true that Ciri was impulsive, and always had been, but that had been there long before Yennefer entered the picture and besides, Ciri had turned out fine. There was something missing, something he felt he should’ve known by now, but after the news she’d just gotten, he’d be surprised if she so much as looked at him until they were back in Oxenfurt. Even now, she stared slightly to the right of him, her now-free hand curled loosely in a fist.

“I’d like to leave soon. Within the hour. They’ve cleared me to go; all I’d need to do is sign the paperwork.” She paused, looked over at her bag, which sat next to the chair Geralt had more or less been occupying nonstop for the past two days. “You’ll have to give me a moment.”

He nodded, and stood. Movement felt foreign to him; the only times he’d left the room, besides to make use of the small private bathroom (which he felt didn’t count—they were attached, after all) was to get food from the cafeteria a floor below, and he’d tried to do that as little as he could get away with. He worried about her being alone for too long. He was worrying about it now. “Yennefer—”

“Don’t,” she interrupted, wincing slightly, “say anything, please. Just…give me a moment.” She repeated it so insistently that he felt he had to comply, much as he didn’t want to. As he stepped out of the room and shut the door, he focused his senses, placing all his attention on what was happening inside.

He didn’t hear anything that he would have considered out of the ordinary. That was what worried him most.

~

It took three days of her not answering his calls to decide that the situation warranted a surprise visit to Oxenfurt. He knew that Yenna didn’t like the frequency with which he messaged and called her, knew that she thought he should be giving her more space and trust, but she’d always answered, no matter how annoyed she might be, or at least acknowledged his efforts in some way. And she wasn’t purposely ignoring him either—she had absolutely no qualms about hitting ‘ignore’ before the first ring had even finished. No, something had happened. Something that prevented her from answering.

He portaled into her apartment in the early afternoon, landing in her bedroom, and what he saw when he looked around only confirmed his suspicion that something was wrong. The room itself was nearly spotless. Yenna wasn’t a messy person by any means, but every time he’d visited before (not that that had been often) there was always something, some small detail that made it clear the place was lived-in. There was nothing like that now; everything appeared in place, which seemed suspicious to him.

But everything wasn’t in its place. Some things were missing, as a second closer sweep of the room revealed to him. Small things, but important ones, like the green jar of glamarye that normally sat on the vanity. He’d never known her to go anywhere without it—but as he hurried into the front room to look out the window, her car was still in the lot. So she’d either portaled a fair distance, which was unlikely, or she wasn’t alone.

The thought made him grit his teeth and he wasted no time leaving the apartment, locking the door with the key she’d reluctantly given him. He knocked on the door across the hall and waited, rocking back and forth on his heels in an effort to do something to release the sudden anger. It didn’t work. He was about to knock again, louder and more insistent, when the door swung open and Cirilla was standing behind it.

She clearly wasn’t happy to see him, an expression that was certainly mirrored on his own face. “Yennefer’s not here,” she said shortly, and moved to close the door. He stopped it with his foot, and she looked at him incredulously—gods, how many times had he seen that same expression over the past eleven years?

“Where is she, then?” he demanded. She rolled her eyes and opened the door again, just enough so that they could see each other, though she kept her hand on the knob. Wary of him. And she should be. They both knew what would happen if Yenna stepped too far in the wrong direction.

She huffed in exasperation. “She’s in Novigrad.”

There it was—his worst fear confirmed. He’d assumed that, after he’d made it clear how he felt about the whole thing, she would drop it. She wouldn’t make the appointment. She knew full well how ridiculous she was being about the whole thing. It was an impossible dream, and a nonsensical one at that. By now, she should have accepted that to get certain gifts, she was required to give up others.

“Alone?” He tried to keep the anger out of his voice, let only the worry remain, though he had a feeling she’d see right through him. “You expect me to believe you all let her go off to Novigrad alone?” Her eyes narrowed; he realized triumphantly he’d struck a nerve. “That seems irresponsible of you,” he continued, raising an eyebrow. “Considering you claim to care so much about her—”

“She’s not alone,” the girl snapped, her grip on the door frame tightening. “Do you really think anybody here would do that? Most of us have known her longer than you.”

“You haven’t.” She didn’t seem particularly fazed by him pointing this out. She had to know that the length of a relationship didn’t always match the quality—why was she acting like it did? Instead of any expression indicating she agreed with his point, she was smirking slightly in a way that was all too familiar to him.

“No, I haven’t,” she said, tilting her head to the side just the slightest bit. “But I’m the only one.”

For a moment he was speechless. It seemed to him that Yenna should have taught her better by now, that she would know not to talk to him like that. Before he could think of a response, she shoved his leg back forcefully until he could only see her through a small crack. “Go bother someone else,” she said, and shut it in his face.

He stood, trying to process what had just happened. With a sinking feeling in his stomach came the realization that they were alike, she and Yenna, in all the worst ways. He could remember quite clearly how things had been in those first few months after she moved into the third floor of his home in Aedd Gynvael, under the guise of an apprenticeship. She’d made it quite clear that she wanted to be around him as little as possible, and though her desire for solitude seemed to worry others (Philippa Eilhart in particular had told him to check in on her far more frequently than even he would have), he felt he needed to do as she asked. Whenever he tried to strike up a conversation with her that didn’t revolve solely around research she would cut him off, and she’d never had any qualms about doing so rudely. He saw that now, in this girl she called her daughter.

But with Yenna, things had become different. With Yenna, something had changed—as something changed now, though this time for the worse.

He pulled the key back out of his pocket and unlocked her door, thankful that no one else was in her apartment. He’d have to leave soon, but not before he figured out some way to get in contact with her, one she’d be hard-pressed to ignore. And there were ways; she might be good at appearing calm no matter what was thrown at her, but he knew her too well. He knew what would get to her. And everything would return to normal. It had to.

He grabbed a pen and a piece of paper from her desk and started to write.

~

They stopped only once on the way back from Novigrad, at a fast food restaurant barely a mile off the highway. She looked over at him with one eyebrow raised as he parked and shut off the car, and he understood her unasked question. The haste with which she’d dressed and packed told him clearly how little time she wanted this to take. He wouldn’t admit it—he didn’t want her to know—but his intention was to draw the return trip out as long as he possibly could. The idea of getting back to Oxenfurt and leaving her completely alone made something in his chest tighten with worry, and he suspected that she was aware, at least, of that much.

“I’m hungry,” he said in response to her penetrating gaze. “And I need to stand. We’ve been driving for hours.”

She didn’t say anything, just bit her lip and turned away. After a moment, she nodded, and he got out of the truck, locking it behind him. He had wanted her to come with him—thinking that, maybe, the air, the movement, would do her good—but as he ducked inside, he found he was relieved to have a few moments to himself. He pulled out his phone and dialed Triss’s number.

She answered before the first ring was even through. He wondered if she’d been waiting for him to call back. “Geralt?” she said breathlessly, more than a hint of worry in her voice. “Is everything okay? What’s going on?" A brief pause, as if she was trying to catch her breath. He heard a voice distantly on the other end that sounded like Philippa—he wouldn’t be surprised if she was listening in. “You’ve got news, I assume?”

He sighed and stepped out of the way of the people coming in behind him. “Yes. But it’s not good news.”

There was another pause long enough for him to order his food, and as he stood waiting for it, Triss said quietly “I thought that would be the case. We all did.” He could hear her pacing, her footsteps moving from carpet to tile and back again. She was in her apartment, probably waiting for them to get back. “How is she doing, then? Can I talk to her?”

“She’s not here.” Someone brought his food to the counter and he accepted it with a nod of thanks. “We stopped for a minute, and she’s still in the truck.”

“You really think it was a good idea to leave her alone?” There was something in her voice that made him uncomfortable, something that seemed to say you wouldn’t know if she’s upset, despite evidence to the contrary. Could it be possible that Triss was jealous? Had she wanted to be the one here? The things Yennefer told him made it sound like no one had wanted to. The idea of her lying didn’t sit well with him.

“You don’t have to worry,” he said, trying not to let the irritation he was feeling seep through into his tone. “She’s fine.” He shouldered open the door and his eyes immediately went to her, staring out the window, facing away from him. He could see the side of her face, and he almost couldn’t believe how sad she looked. It was there, in her body—her lips pressed together, her forehead resting against the glass. “We’ll see you soon,” he said, and though he heard Triss starting to protest, he hung up anyway.

Yennefer looked at him incredulously as he pulled his food out of the bag and handed the rest to her. “You need to eat something,” he insisted as she opened it and looked inside hesitantly. “I’m not going to let you argue me on this.” Without waiting for a response, he started the car and got back on the highway. The rest of the drive was quiet, with the exception of the paper bag’s occasional rustling as she ate its contents slowly, letting salt crystals collect on her lips. He tried to look at her as little as possible—he worried he would anger her—but every so often he found his eyes drawn back to the passenger seat.

Once, when he looked, she was looking back. He blinked, stared resolutely at the road, or tried to. As he pulled off the highway and into Oxenfurt he could see her tongue dart out and gather the salt from her lips. He swallowed thickly, and his grip on the wheel tightened. Once in the parking lot he had intended to take a moment, compose himself, but she was out of the truck almost before it had stopped, pulling her bag up onto her shoulder. She shut the door heavily behind her, and it was all he could do to keep up with her as she took the stairs to her landing two at a time.

“Are you going to be okay?” he blurted as she fit the key in the lock. It was the question he’d been trying to avoid, but now that he was being forced to leave her alone, he couldn’t help but ask. She paused, tugged on the hem of her shirt. He heard her heartbeat speed up slightly, her breath huff out through her nose.

“I’ll be fine.” He couldn’t tell whether or not she was annoyed as she stepped inside, pausing briefly to look back at him. He thought she was going to say more. Thank him, perhaps. It wouldn’t surprise him as much as it once would have. But she just smiled sadly and shut the door in his face.

For several minutes he stood, unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong, though he knew she wouldn’t tell him or even answer if he tried to get in. The worry had made itself a home in the pit of his stomach and to try and ease himself, he went across the landing and knocked on the door. Hopefully, Triss was there, and he could convince her to keep Yennefer company. He didn’t think it would be hard. But Triss wasn’t the one who answered the door—it was Ciri, wearing an oversized t-shirt that fell nearly to her knees and rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“Geralt?” she asked, confused. He briefly contemplated apologizing for waking her and then leaving, but he almost immediately thought better of it. If Triss could have helped, Ciri likely could even more so. He cleared his throat quietly.

“Do you have a minute?” She tilted her head and looked at him curiously. “It’s about Yennefer.”

Something changed in her demeanor—he couldn’t quite tell whether it was her posture, or the look in her eyes, or something else entirely, but it was there. She stepped back and gestured inside, throwing a glance at the door across the landing as she did so. “Of course I do,” she said in a manner that indicated he hadn’t even needed to ask. “What is it?”

Chapter Text

The room was already hot enough that steam had begun to condense on the mirror by the time she shut the door behind her. She set the small pile of clothes on the counter, slowly peeled away the bandages beneath her ribcage. The stitches in the cuts under them had dissolved, but the wounds were still angry and red, standing out starkly against her pale hipbones. She’d have to spend hours the next day getting rid of them, but for now, they would have to stay. For now, she had more immediate, pressing concerns.

She drew in a sharp breath as she stepped into the shower and pulled the curtain closed. The water was, perhaps, a bit hotter than it needed to be, and within a few minutes it had already begun to carve paths down her skin that she knew would burn when she got out. She wrapped her arms around herself and stood, staring down at the evidence of her mistakes, utterly alone.

She could call Regis. Out of everyone, he would be the most likely to listen and not judge. But he’d also made it clear how he felt about her making these decisions, that he thought it was high time she took a break from this research and moved on to something less painful, something without so many memories attached to it. It was likely that, soon enough, he’d stop helping her entirely. No, if she wanted help without guilt, she couldn’t call Regis.

She could call Triss. Triss had already proven time and time again that she was willing to put aside her own feelings in order to be there for her. She’d been doing it for years. But Triss had ulterior motives that she wouldn’t let go of, and inviting her here would inevitably lead to one thing or another—things she didn’t think she could handle in this situation. No, if she wanted help without sadness, she couldn’t call Triss.

The idea of saying even the slightest thing to Val, she rejected immediately. He’d already made it incredibly obvious how he felt about this, and some part of her considered it a miracle that he hadn’t tried harder to talk her out of it. This time had felt different—this time he’d let her off suspiciously easy, though if things had gone the way she planned, he wouldn’t ever know she’d done it anyway. He didn’t need to. And if she wanted any kind of help at all, she couldn’t call Val.

Her breath caught in her throat as she shifted her weight, tugging at the fresh scars and reminding her far too viscerally of old ones. She splayed her hand against the tile wall, noticing for the first time how her ring was just a bit too loose around her finger, which she was sure it hadn’t been days before. Everything felt wrong, everything felt off-balance. She tried to breathe deeply but the motion pulled at the skin and she ended up half-gasping as her fingers curled, seeking purchase she knew she wouldn’t find.

She could call Philippa. It was the same thing she’d done that first day—at the time, she’d been the only person she trusted enough to tell. (Where else would she have turned, she thought bitterly, at Aretuza, with a secret like that?) Philippa would listen, and she would do so at least somewhat sympathetically, but she’d also never had a problem telling her that she thought her choices were the wrong ones. She’d done it eleven years ago, and she’d do it now, were she here. And with that would come a lecture on how this would get her nowhere. She knew, deep down, that this was her way of caring, of trying to make sure she was happy, but if she wanted help without anger, she couldn’t call Philippa.

She could…

She could call Geralt. She’d be lying if she said the thought hadn’t crossed her mind more than once, though it had never come on quite as strongly as it did then. He’d already proven himself willing to listen without judgement—he’d proven far more than that. He also, she reminded herself, didn’t know the reason she had done this, and she didn’t know whether or not she could trust him with that. There was a high chance he would jump to conclusions about what it meant in regards to her relationship with Ciri (and he should—how was he to know the thought was agonizing to her?), and it seemed she’d only just gotten on his good side. But there was something about him that made her feel like he was trustworthy, though the less he became a stranger, the more she felt she had to pull away.

Yes, she could. But she wouldn’t.

The places where the water hit her skin were starting to go numb and there was an empty space in her, one she knew she wouldn’t be able to fill no matter how hard she tried. She knew, though she still couldn’t figure out why it hurt so much after all this time. But she’d have to bear it alone, at least tonight. She inhaled deep, held her breath, stuck her head under the water so trails of it dripped down her face, scalding. She couldn’t cry. She wouldn’t let herself. This was good enough. It had to be.

~

“Geralt.” Ciri sat up straighter on the sagging couch, looked at him intensely. “I’m telling you this as someone who loves you, so don’t get all defensive. But…you’re a fucking idiot.”

He sighed and looked down at his hands, fingers laced together in midair, elbows on his knees. He’d been sitting like that the whole time; for some reason, the idea of looking at her as he relayed the events of the past few days made him uncomfortable, though he couldn’t pinpoint why that was. It was apparent she already knew what was going on, or, at least, he surmised that much from the fact that she hadn’t been stopping him to ask questions every few seconds. He left out as many details as he possibly could, focusing only on the major events and the way Yennefer had been acting on the drive back. This was the first time he’d looked at Ciri since he finished the story, but her expression had been so incredulous that he almost immediately looked back down.

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to leave her alone like that?” she continued, flipping her hair back behind her shoulders. She must have been sleeping before he knocked—she almost never wore it loose otherwise. “If she was really acting the way you’re describing, even that dumbass fiancé of hers would have known something’s wrong.”

“I know.” He tried to keep his voice level, but the idea that something could be happening, now, because he hadn’t insisted on staying with her, was setting him on edge. “But what else was I supposed to do? Just walk right in? We’re not exactly close.”

“She likes you more than you think.” When he looked back up again Ciri had raised an eyebrow, looking at him in a manner that all but reinforced what she’d said moments ago. Of course, if anyone would be able to tell something like that, it would be her; he could always hear, when she talked about the times they’d stayed together, how close they were, and he himself had found that the more time he spent around Yennefer, the easier she became to read, though some of her reactions still remained a mystery to him. “And she clearly trusts you—look at what just happened.”

“Right. Maybe she does.” Ciri rolled her eyes at the word maybe, but kept quiet and let him continue. “But that still doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know what any of this is about, much less how to bring it up to her without her immediately shutting me down.” Which was all she’d been doing for the past day, though he was no longer angry at her over it, just concerned.

“You don’t need to know. And she probably wouldn’t tell you anyway. All I’m saying is I don’t want her to be alone. And I don’t think you do either.”

She looked at him penetratingly until he finally gave a short, sharp nod, then she was up, disappearing into her bedroom and leaving the door swinging behind her. He heard what sounded like a drawer opening, heard her rummaging around, and she returned with something clutched in her fist. She sat back down heavily and grabbed his hand with her own, forcing his fingers open.

“This,” she said as she folded the object in them, “is a key to her apartment. And you’re going to go over there right now and make sure she’s okay.”

“Ciri, I don’t think—”

“Don’t think about it.” She huffed and stood again, pulling the door open and gesturing across the small landing. “Just go. Before I go myself and tell her everything you just told me.”

He looked down at the key, which was strikingly similar to the one he’d used to get into her lab what had to have been a week ago at most, though it felt like years. The same silver key ring, the same chain. He wasn’t quite sure what he was afraid of, only that the worry hadn’t left him since they pulled out of the parking garage in Novigrad. It would be easier, he thought, to just ignore the whole thing—he couldn’t help but feel that she would be fine, she was resilient enough to handle something like this—but Ciri was looking at him so insistently and the guilt gnawing at him told him he would regret staying out of it. So he stood resignedly, ignoring her triumphant grin (a familiar one, if he stopped to think about it), and stepped out onto the landing. She closed her door behind him the second he’d crossed the threshold, like she was trying to stop him from changing his mind, though he knew he was already in too deep to go back.

The lock on Yennefer’s door gave way easily, and the apartment was dark when he stepped inside, nearly spotless except for her bag, which was sitting open on the dining room table. As with the last time he’d been there at the same time as her, the bathroom door was closed, and he could hear the shower running, though it shut off a moment later, and he was suddenly worried she’d heard him come in, that she would be angry. But as minutes passed, stretching on far too long, he relaxed more and more. He found his eyes drawn back to the shelf of framed photos he’d been looking at the first time they met, and wandered over to it. Nothing had changed since the last time he’d seen it, but this time he focused less on the others in the pictures and more on her—the details of her face, her body, the expression he’d seen her wear so many times, a quarter of a smile. Something in his chest tightened when he looked at her, something that made his breath short in ways he didn’t want to think about.

The door opened. He heard her before he saw her, because it took him a few seconds to work up the nerve to look over. He immediately wished he hadn’t. Her hair, still slightly damp, fell loose around her shoulders, across the white sweater she was wearing, stopping several inches above what he hoped were just very short shorts, though he knew better than to think that was actually the case. Her black socks stopped just over her knees and he lingered, perhaps, a little too long on the skin above them, flushed from the hot water. Her face was flushed, too, and she looked surprised to see him there, though there was something else in her gaze, in the part of her lips.

“It seems,” she said after a moment, her voice unsteady, “that you have a habit of getting into places that you shouldn’t be.”

“Not sure what you’re talking about.” He held up the key. “I got in through the door, like everyone else.”

Yennefer swore quietly, and he thought he heard her mumble Ciri’s name. “Of course you did. Well, there’s no reason for you to be here. I’m home. I’m safe. You aren’t needed anymore.”

He was startled by the way she seemed to take offense at his very presence—she’d been more than tolerant of him the past few days, to the point where he’d started to get the impression she actually wanted him there. He’d thought things were starting to settle down between them, fall into something that could even be considered normal, given the circumstances. He let out a breath, shoved the key in his pocket, slowly made his way towards the door as she passed him to sit down on the couch, stretching her legs out in front of her. Her fingers gripped the arm tightly, and he couldn’t help the sudden hope that she didn’t actually want him to go.

“Right. Well.” He turned away from her. The silence curled around his lungs, stole the breath from him. He’d known this would be a mistake. “I’ll see you around, then.” When she didn’t respond, he clenched one hand in a fist to still its shaking, reached for the doorknob with the other.

“Geralt.”

He stopped. Turned back to her slowly. She was looking at him, but not quite at him, and he’d never before seen someone so visibly try to force back their own pride. There was nothing in her posture indicating a struggle, but he could see it in her eyes—a moment later, when she bit her lip. She met his gaze, eventually, despite all it seemed to cost her. “Would you stay?”

His throat, he felt, had dried out completely, and he nodded instead of answering out loud. He didn't know what had caused her to change her mind so quickly, but he wasn’t going to argue with her about it. After pausing briefly to take off his shoes and drop the key on the table, he sat down next to her. There was a space between them, a foot or so that felt at once much too large and stiflingly small. He wondered if she could even see him well—it was dark enough that most people without his enhanced senses would only be able to make out a blurry outline. It appeared that she had a solution for that, though; she picked up the remote and turned on the television, turning the volume down so only the light flickered over them. She didn’t seem much interested in actually watching it, and he didn’t either. So they sat in silence.

There was a tension in the air between them, one that felt far different from what had been there the first time, though it wasn’t quite uncomfortable. They didn’t talk. He didn’t feel like he needed to say anything, at least for a while. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, studied her silhouette, and every once in a while he would catch her looking back at him. She didn’t look away as quickly as she might have once; in fact, several times she would stare back, the corner of her mouth turned up, some near-emotion there she wouldn’t fully express.

He wasn’t sure quite how it happened. The most likely explanation was that their occasional shifting was bringing them physically closer to each other. But over the minutes that stretched out like hours, the gap between them shrunk. They ended up right next to each other, his arm brushing against hers, and he hoped he couldn’t feel the sudden tension in him as the memory of the last time they’d been this close came flooding back. A few minutes later, she sighed softly and laid her head on his shoulder.

“Geralt?” He grunted quietly in response. He didn’t think he’d be able to say anything if he tried. She didn’t respond for a moment—and then, barely audible, “Distract me. Please.”

He could immediately think of a million ways he’d want to do such a thing, but he doubted she’d care for any of them. He’d have to come up with something else. “Heard about the time Ciri and I went ice skating?”

She huffed out a breath that he thought might have contained a laugh somewhere in it, though it was hard to tell without being able to look at her. “No. Not that I recall.”

“One of the first winters she trained at Kaer Morhen.” He realized a few seconds into the story that telling it was going to make him look like an idiot, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. “Couple months in, she started complaining I was too harsh a teacher. Brushed it off at first. Then she asked me to go skating with her. Didn’t really want to. I’d never been before. But she insisted.”

He took a few seconds to breathe, and he felt her tilt her head up slightly, though they still couldn’t look at each other, the angle was all wrong. “Soon as we hit the ice, she started skating circles around me, hollering No, not like that! Footwork! One, then the other! Crossover! No, wrong! Brake with the heel of your skate, not the toes!

She was laughing—or, at least, he hoped she was; the sound was so soft and breathy that he couldn’t be sure. “Needless to say, from then on…” He trailed off. A moment later, she pulled away, turned to face him, propping her head on her hand. She looked at him for a long time and didn’t say anything.

“She really cares about you, you know,” she finally said. “It’s easy to tell. You were practically all she talked about when we stayed in Ellander.” She bit her lip, and he let her hesitate. He got the feeling these displays didn’t happen often.

“What I’m trying to say is…thank you. For taking such good care of her.” It almost sounded like she was choked up; he could hear the slight change in her voice, one he wouldn’t have been able to pick up on months ago. Any guilt over his doubts as to whether or not she truly cared suddenly increased tenfold, because it was obvious now that she did.

“I should be the one saying that to you,” he confessed. He’d been thinking it for some time now, though he’d doubted he’d ever get to voice it. “You’ve done a lot for her that I wouldn’t have been able to do.” Before he’d even finished the sentence she was shaking her head sadly, but he didn’t let her interrupt. “You should hear the way she talks about you.”

“I’m not sure I want to.” She laughed, strained, and tilted her head. “There are a large number of terrible things I have no doubt she’s said about me. We haven’t always gotten along.”

He tried to hold her gaze, and it seemed to be working, though her eyes flicked away from him and back every few seconds. “If she has, I haven’t heard any of them,” he said gravely. “There’s only been good things.”

There was a smile trying to force its way out of her, and he hated watching it, hated the way she pulled it back in. She tilted her head to the side in such a way that her hair fell to partially cover her face, and before he’d even realized he was doing it his hand moved to brush it back, tuck it behind her ear. Once his thoughts caught up to his actions he froze there, his hand halfway cupping her jaw, the closest they’d been. Their stares locked and for a moment he couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, as her eyes moved slowly down to his mouth and back again.

In the end, he wasn’t sure which of them leaned in first. All he knew was that she kissed like she was trying to swallow him whole and, in that moment, he would’ve let her.

Gods, he couldn’t have even said how long he’d been wanting it—the pressure of her lips soft against his, her hands in his hair and there was a hunger about it, like maybe, just maybe, she’d been wanting it too. She was restless, fingers running across his jaw, his neck, the front of his shirt, never once breaking contact with him. He only barely registered the fact that they were slipping down until she laid half on him and the weight of her, however slight, overrode any lingering reservations he might have had. His free hand slipped under her sweater to press against the bare skin at the small of her back; he brought his leg up between hers and swallowed the noise she made.

A moment later they pulled back to breathe, foreheads still pressed together, lips still brushing, and though his ability to form a coherent thought was somewhat clouded, he knew he had to try, had to address this before things went any further because there was so much wrong with it, but he never wanted to stop, and he had to assume by the way she’d responded that she didn’t either. “Yennefer—”

“Don’t say anything, please,” she murmured, and kissed him again.

~

He dreamt about Ciri often. It wasn’t something he liked to acknowledge and had never admitted to anyone else, but ever since that day when she ran from Aretuza he couldn’t shake the thoughts that dogged him, the fear that something terrible would happen and he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. The dreams didn’t come every night, but that night was one of them, and he jolted awake in a cold sweat, trying to push away the crowd of indiscernible terrors that lingered in the back of his mind. The fear was made worse by the fact that, initially, he wasn’t quite sure where he was, but after a moment, the unfamiliar surroundings began to fall into place, and he remembered.

In the end, she had been the one who pushed him away, only a few minutes later. She whispered those words to him and he kissed her and kissed her and kissed her, barely stopping even to breathe after that first interruption. Her mouth fit against his in the most dizzyingly perfect way, and he’d wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of the night drowning in her, in every way he could, but his own carelessness had cut the thing short. His fingers, which had been wandering her body, brushed against one of the scars on her stomach and she pulled back incredibly suddenly, nearly gasping with the intensity of her breathing, opening her eyes only after another minute had passed. When he tried to apologize she waved the words away, and cut off his every attempt to speak after that. But she didn’t, he noticed with painful clarity, separate herself from him completely; she laid down next to him, her forehead against his shoulder in a manner that reminded him of how they’d been the night before. He didn’t want to push her, so he said nothing. Words wouldn’t have done much, anyway.

After his heart had settled down to a considerably more normal rhythm, he chanced a look over his shoulder, at the end of the couch behind him, and she was there, sleeping, curled in on herself. He felt something constrict in his chest at the sight of her, so different from the last time he’d seen her sleep, far less worried-looking. He wished he could just close his eyes again and stay there, but he knew he wouldn’t fall back asleep, not after everything that had happened, not after the dream. No, he had to go, but the longer he looked at her, the worse he felt about leaving her alone. There had to be something he could do, and after a moment he figured out what it was.

~

Ciri’s key was missing. Triss figured this out early in the morning when she went to look for it and found the nightstand drawer empty. Triss herself didn’t have a key, so she resorted to unlocking the door to Yenna’s apartment magically and hoping she wouldn’t be too terribly mad when she realized what she’d done. She stopped short when, in the living room, she saw the missing key on the table, though Ciri herself was nowhere in the apartment—she was in her own bedroom, sleeping so soundly that she hadn’t even stirred when Triss let herself in. It was entirely possible that she’d gone to see Yenna after she returned and forgotten to take the key back with her, but she still felt a knot of apprehension in her stomach as she pushed open the bedroom door.

The sound of the door opening roused Yennefer, and Triss sat down on the edge of the bed cautiously as she stirred, stretched her arms out above her head, the only part of her visible beneath the blankets. She’d always done that—bury herself under as many of them as possible—and Triss remembered, somewhat guiltily, how she always used to poke fun at her for it, until she learned why she did it. A few minutes later she pushed them back, blinked against the light coming in through the blinds. She still appeared to be fully dressed, at least from what Triss could see. That was…odd. Very odd.

“How long have you been here?” she asked, her voice slightly hoarse as she turned to look at her. Triss swallowed back any angry retort she might have made. If it had been any other day she wouldn’t hesitate to say them, but she knew without having to ask that her early return heralded bad news. So she left the subject alone. They’d come back to it later, she was sure.

“Not very long,” she replied instead, letting her gaze drift over to the nightstand, on which sat a perfectly folded piece of paper, unmarked. But when she saw Yenna’s eyes narrow, she became defensive, and added “The lights were off.”

That had apparently been the wrong thing to say. “They were?” Triss nodded. Yennefer looked around at the room, but the confusion in her eyes cleared a moment later, replaced with something she couldn’t name, something that looked like a very odd mixture of longing and regret. She laid back and threw her arm over her face, decidedly not looking at Triss.

“Yenna, what—?” She stopped herself halfway through the question. She wasn’t sure she actually wanted to know what was going on, or why she looked like that, or why there was a spare key in the living room. “Are you okay?”

She pulled her arm back slowly and opened her eyes even slower, and when she did, she wouldn’t look at Triss, just at the ceiling, as if she was seeing something in it that wasn’t there. “No,” she said so quietly that Triss had to strain to hear it. “No, I’m not.”

Chapter Text

PART TWO: HOPE/FEAR

Something was different about him.

Triss had noticed it almost right away, the second she saw him at lunch—a gathering from which Yenna was conspicuously absent. She’d asked Triss to leave quite unceremoniously that morning and with the exception of one terse message confirming that yes, she was fine, she hadn’t heard from her since. It worried her more, even, than how Geralt was acting worried her, which was quite a lot. She hadn’t expected her to be happy when she returned, but there was unhappy and then there was this, whatever it was. Alone, on its own, not coinciding with anyone else’s behavior, she might have brushed it off; at the least, it wouldn’t have consumed her waking thoughts. But when she saw Geralt that day, it was the only thing on her mind.

He seemed distant, and from the moment she sat down to the one he left, he didn’t say a single word. Geralt wasn’t normally the most talkative person to begin with, but there was something off about his silence. It felt less like he was still listening attentively and more like he was deep in thought about something. She couldn’t help but notice, a couple of days before, that his car had been missing as well, while Yenna had been gone. It set a pit of fear coiling in her stomach, one that his leaving all but confirmed.

“Are you all right?” she asked hesitantly during their walk back to campus, on which they’d unfortunately ended up alone. Regis had pulled Dandelion up ahead, out of earshot, and Triss had a feeling it was deliberate—he was giving her an opportunity, whether she wanted one or not. “You seem quiet.”

“Do I?” He didn’t look over at her as he answered. Triss noticed he was checking his phone every few minutes. Another action to add to the list of unusual ones. Normally, getting him to answer a message was nearly impossible. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets, hunched over slightly. “Guess I’m a bit tired.”

“Are you sure that’s all?” She didn’t want to feel like she was pressing him, but the words were coming out of their own accord and she didn’t know how to keep them in. Her phone went off in her pocket and Geralt started, hands going to his own for a moment before he realized it wasn’t his. The strength of his gaze on her as she fished the thing out made her blush, but thankfully he pretended not to notice. Her brow furrowed as she read the message. That he saw.

“What’s going on?” he asked, moving closer to her as she walked, though he kept a certain distance between them. He pushed his hand through his hair, which he’d uncharacteristically left down (another sign) and she thought for a moment she saw something poking out above the collar of his shirt, but soon the white strands fell forward to cover it again. She blinked, swallowed, and looked back at her phone.

“Yenna’s in Aedd Gynvael,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady, to not betray her surprise. She wasn’t sure whether or not Geralt knew anything about what had been going on with Yennefer—she had to assume no, because there was no way they were already that close, and no reason for her to tell him besides. It was frustrating, not being able to complain to anybody about it, to worry out loud to someone who would listen. Yenna wouldn’t listen, if she’d even been around to hear what a stupid idea Triss thought it was for her to go to Novigrad and now to Aedd Gynvael alone. Not when she could’ve gone with her.

But when she looked back over at Geralt, she was immediately pulled from her own thoughts. His facial expression hadn’t changed at all, but his jaw was clenched, his shoulders tense under his jacket, and the worry in his eyes had hardened into anger. Something about this was making him upset; even more so, perhaps, then it was making Triss. The feeling surfaced again, the one that told her he was hiding something, and she pushed it back violently. She couldn’t bear to think about that now.

“Wasn’t she just off somewhere?” he asked gruffly. The tension evident in his body was mirrored in his voice, but she had to be imagining it. She had to be. The only reason he had to even care about Yenna a little was Ciri, and she wasn’t involved in this at all. Unless, that is, she’d missed something—and she didn’t even want to think about what she might have missed.

“She just got back from Novigrad,” she replied lightly, looking away from him and down at the sidewalk in front of her instead. The early winter chill was seeping into her boots, through her tights, and she knew how much colder it would be in Aedd Gynvael, how Yenna probably hadn’t set foot outside since she got there and would portal back in the morning to avoid the weather, in long sleeves and jackets. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. It’s been making the rounds.”

“Well, we’re not exactly close.” The tightness in his voice almost perfectly mirrored what she’d heard from Yenna only a few hours ago, and she found herself clutching the straps of her bag tighter as she hiked it back up on her shoulder. “We probably shouldn’t even be talking about it—and enough about that, anyway.” When she finally tore her eyes away from the pavement, he was looking at her, and she flushed faintly despite herself. “You okay, Triss? Seems like something else is bothering you.”

Triss sighed and forced her gaze away from his. A gust of wind pushed around the collar of his jacket and she thought she saw, for the second time, a darker patch of skin, just for a moment, before it fluttered shut again. “There is,” she admitted, rubbing her hand over her own neck. “But I don’t know if…if this is a good time—”

“And it’s already been brought up.” He slowed so they fell even further behind the others. Now that she’d mentioned it, he wasn’t going to drop it. She couldn’t help but think the idea shouldn’t have even entered her head at all.

“I, um—” She paused, cleared her throat. “I don’t know how much you know about this, but there’s a…conference of sorts, that mages have twice a year. And there’s a banquet they have on the first night, before the actual debates and presentations and such start. And...I was hoping you would maybe go. With me.”

She could see the distaste in his expression before she had even finished her question, and she hurried to continue before he had a chance to interrupt. “It’s—I know you hate these kinds of things, but it’s just that—well, Yenna and I usually go to them together. Or we both go alone.” She hoped she wasn’t blushing. She didn’t want to give him any ideas, even the right ones. “Val almost never goes because he hates socializing. But we were just sent a list of those who research got accepted to present at the conference, and he’s on it. So they have to go together, or people will talk.”

She completed her plea slightly out of breath, and by the time she’d steadied herself the look on his face had gone from confused to angry to something closer to indifference, though she could tell it was feigned. The transition had happened around the time she brought Val up. It was understandable—she could count on one hand the number of people she thought genuinely liked him, and it was even doubtful that his own fiancée was included on that list—but there was something else behind it, something she would’ve called possessiveness had it been anyone but Geralt. No, it was more…protective. But other than the obvious reason, why would he feel the need to protect her?

“Alright,” he said slowly, still a little suspicious. “But you could bring anyone—another mage, or at least someone who understands their customs better than I do. So why me?”

He knew, she was sure of it, but she couldn’t admit that in front of him, to him, not in a situation like this. Luckily, she had another excuse on hand, one she hoped would placate him. She bit her lip. “I know you know about Yenna’s Council nomination. She told me you know.” What Yenna hadn’t told her was how and why Geralt knew, but she let it go for now. “And it would be…unfortunate if they ultimately choose her, considering there’s someone on the Chapter that she’s—” She stopped, tried to ignore his questioning looks, which were becoming more and more pointed. “It’s better if they’re separated, I’ll leave it at that. And we were hoping to have several people there who could keep an eye out for anything that could go wrong. If it came to that.”

He huffed out a breath and turned, starting to walk again, and she followed him, clutching the strap of her bag tightly. “You really can’t think of anyone else you could bring?” he asked, voice clipped. “No one who knows her better?”

“Everyone else I could ask is already going to be there.”

“Then why do you need me?”

“I—” Triss had to pause for a moment, frustrated, though she wasn’t sure if it was with Geralt or her own inability to express her thoughts. “I don’t know if there’s an explanation I can give you without telling you a lot of things you shouldn’t know. But I think all of us would feel better about the situation if one more person were there. Yenna included.”

She had added the last part somewhat reluctantly, but she could already tell it was having an effect on him, on the way he was thinking about things. “I’ll consider it,” he said finally. “But that’s all I can promise right now.”

“That’s all I’m asking.” It wasn’t, but she let it go. Geralt could be stubborn at the best of times, she didn’t want to push him now. They walked together in silence, but his mind was clearly elsewhere. She didn’t think she wanted to know where that place was.

~

Something was different about her.

He first started suspecting it when he returned home from the site he was currently excavating and was greeted with the sight of her bag on the counter. At the top of the stairs, the bedroom door was open. He frowned as he set his things down and took the stairs two at a time. She hadn’t told him she’d be coming, and lately getting her to stay in Aedd Gynvael for even a night was like pulling teeth. Alarms were sounding in his head as he entered the room and shut the door. Something was wrong. It had to be.

When she heard him come in, she closed the book she’d been reading and set it aside, pushing herself up to a seated position. She was only wearing one of his shirts, or at least that was how it looked to him, and he took his time letting his eyes run up the length of her legs before he tried to meet her gaze—but she wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes were fixed on a folded piece of paper on the nightstand.

“You know,” she said dryly, “there are several far easier ways to get ahold of me.”

“You weren’t answering your phone.” He should’ve known this was what she’d be mad about. They’d never quite seen eye-to-eye on methods of communication; she largely preferred to be left alone, and he had always felt the opposite. “And you know how I feel about hospitals.”

That caught her attention—she looked up, and her eyes narrowed. “Who said anything about hospitals?”

“Don’t try that.” He walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. She tensed immediately, fingers curling around the ends of the shirt she wore. He gestured to the paper. “Clearly you’ve read it. I know you went to Novigrad. Even though I said you shouldn’t have.”

Yennefer rolled her eyes and stretched her legs out in front of her. The movement caused her to wince slightly. “Yes. You did. And I went anyway. Your opinions aren’t the end-all-be-all of my decision-making process.”

He grit his teeth as he looked at her, head tilted upwards, as if she were challenging him to say something more. It was too late to change her mind; the thing was already done, and he had to assume it had ended badly. She would still be here if it had worked, but for far different reasons, and she would’ve failed then as well. He’d told her time and again how he felt about the whole thing. If he wanted to get any useful information out of her, he’d have to try a different approach.

“Who was with you?”

The right question to ask, it seemed, though the wrong one for her. She blinked a few times in surprise, her fingers gripping the fabric even tighter. The diamonds in her star pulsed brightly for a moment, and he was unpleasantly reminded that she’d never once trusted him with her thoughts. They’d always been closely guarded, hers and only hers. “No one went with me. I was alone.”

“Really?” He shifted closer to her. His hand slipped over hers, tugging her fingers loose. Her skin was freezing against his; he held her firmly. She didn’t try to move. “That’s interesting. Because I spoke with Cirilla the other day and she said something quite the opposite.”

He couldn’t be entirely sure in the dim light of the single lamp she’d kept on, but he thought he saw her face whiten just the slightest bit; it appeared he’d struck more than one nerve. Despite that, she retained her composure remarkably well, though he could feel her pulse pounding against his tight grip. “And you believed her?” she said, arching one eyebrow. “I told her that so she’d feel better about it. You know as well as I do that no one would have gone with me.”

She was lying. He would’ve bet the house on it. But the more he thought about it, the more he began to see some truth in her words. After all, if he hadn’t wanted to take her, who would? It seemed that all of her friends thought it was a bad idea as well; most would have no problem voicing that opinion to her. There were still holes in her story, though—how she’d gotten to and from Novigrad without a car, after such an invasive procedure, for one. He frowned and slid his hand up her arm, curling it around her shoulder.

“I know that,” he said, voice pitched low. “I also know you must have seen that letter last night, when you supposedly got home. Yet you’re only now here.”

“I didn’t see it last night.” She was looking away from him staunchly, trying not to allow him an opportunity to read her expression. “I was a bit distracted, as I’m sure you can understand.”

He let go of her shoulder and she laid back, throwing her arm over her closed eyes. The movement pulled at the shirt she was wearing, tugged it up above her hips, where he could see fresh scars that she hadn’t bothered to get rid of yet, and—

“Yenna. What is that?”

She moved her arm slowly, barely opening her eyes to look at him. “What is what?” Wordlessly, he pointed, and she shifted up to look—bruises, small ones, dotted across her hipbones and her sides, suspiciously finger-shaped. When she saw them her mouth opened briefly, then closed again, and she got a strange look on her face, nearly a smile but not quite. “Ah. That’s nothing.”

“And that’s not a good enough explanation.”

“That’s too bad. Because it’s the only one you’re going to get.”

Slowly, he placed his fingertips over the darker patches, fitting his hands to them and watching her eyes slip shut. “Well.” He pressed down and she inhaled sharply, her free hand digging into her thigh. “I’ll find out eventually, then.”

She smirked, still not looking directly at him. “You really think so?”

Things were beginning to fall into place in his head, and it was a place he didn’t like at all. She wasn’t responding to him as she normally did; it had used to be only here that she let go of her feigned indifference, demonstrated any emotion towards him at all. And she was certainly demonstrating emotion now—he just wasn’t sure he was the one eliciting it. “I know so.” He could feel her shifting towards him and away from him simultaneously, as if she couldn’t decide exactly what it was she was feeling. “I’ve got my methods.”

~

“Well, what do you think we should do about it, then?”

Ciri shifted on the floor, adjusting her head and leaning up against Yennefer’s thigh. She’d been sitting in front of the couch for the better part of two hours, listening intently as the three of them went through a potential guest list for a party they were throwing. It was something they did every year, rotating from Montecalvo to Triss’s home in Novigrad to Yennefer’s Vengerberg townhouse. This year, it was being held at the latter, and Ciri had been able to feel Yennefer gradually becoming more and more tense as they made their way down the list, an alphabetized roster of the entire Brotherhood of Sorcerers and then some. They were planning to invite nearly everyone on the list, with a few notable exceptions that they’d already crossed off—but they hadn’t hit any major problems. Until now.

“Don’t invite him,” Triss said, sighing and leaning forward on the couch to stare at the paper. She’d remained mostly quiet up to that point, leaving Yennefer and Philippa to do most of the work. It appeared this was the only invitation in which she had a stake or even wanted one, and she had suddenly become very interested in what was going on in the room. Before that, she’d been just as lost in her own thoughts as Ciri was, though paying decidedly less attention. “It’s that easy, really.”

“The fact that you think that means you don’t actually understand the situation,” Philippa said, rolling her eyes as she mimicked Triss’s posture. Ciri heard Yennefer sigh deeply, but she didn’t move. She had been half-laying on the couch the whole time, ever since she returned from Aedd Gynvael in a far worse mood than she usually did. She’d been running her fingers over her sides and responding to everyone else only when it was required of her. It made Ciri curious about what had happened the night before.

She had seen Yennefer earlier that morning, before she left to see Istredd, and there had definitely been something off about her, something different about the way she was carrying herself. Now, she’d been staring at the ceiling for the past hour or so, tugging at the bottom of her white sweater and sliding the tips of her fingers along her star, which pulsed brightly. She was actively enhancing the enchantments she’d put on it; that more than anything else had convinced Ciri that, after she’d sent Geralt over to her apartment, things had shifted. Whether that was for the better or for the worse, it was too early to tell.

“If we invite everyone in the Chapter and Council except for him, it will look suspicious. People will talk. Especially since the list of candidates for the open Council position hasn’t exactly been kept a secret. The last thing any of us should want—especially you—is to draw more attention to this than it’s already gotten. How long would it take for people to get suspicious?”

“Not long,” Triss admitted sourly. “But I don’t know if keeping up appearances is worth just letting him in her house, Philippa.”

Yennefer sighed again, this one more like a huff than the last, and ran her hand across Ciri’s head, in her hair. The gesture relaxed them both, it seemed; her fingers were thin and gentle, and Ciri sank a little further into the divot the cushions created by Yennefer’s leg. She looked over at the list on the coffee table, dotted with notes in Philippa’s steady hand, and stared at his name for a moment, becoming angrier the longer she looked at it. If it were Ciri’s decision, she’d make sure he stayed as far away from Yennefer as possible—but it wasn’t. And when she finally decided to speak up, Ciri knew what Yennefer would say.

“At least if he’s there, we can keep an eye on him.” Philippa sat up straighter, staring Triss down uncomfortably. “If we leave him out of the loop, we won’t be able to have any control over what he does. At least this way, we’ve got a fighting chance.”

“I don’t care what he says!” Triss said loudly. Against her cheek, Ciri felt Yennefer tense; her hand stopped moving and rested on the crown of Ciri’s head. “We can deal with that, just like we’ve dealt with other rumors. It’s not anything new to us. But is no one thinking about the emotional effects? About what this would mean to her?”

“Apparently only one of us is thinking about that,” Yennefer said sharply, “and it’s not you.”

She moved her hand off of Ciri’s hand and pushed herself up so she was sitting, leaning forward slightly, her arms wrapped loosely around her midsection in a posture that was nearly defensive, protective. Triss pressed her lips together into a thin line and didn’t immediately respond. Philippa, on the other hand, locked eyes with Yennefer and smiled faintly. Ciri knew that was where the argument had been heading; it happened nearly every year since they decided to start throwing these parties. It didn’t usually involve Yennefer so strongly, since she insisted that they be held at the others’ homes as often as possible. But this year, with the Council nomination hanging over her head, things had become more complicated.

“He has to be there,” Yennefer continued, softer now, but no less certain. “For the same reason that I accepted the nomination in the first place. Philippa’s right—we can’t afford to raise suspicions.”

“Yenna.” Triss was obviously trying not to let slip how upset she was, but it was creeping through anyway, in her tone, in the way she was looking at her. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to put yourself at risk so that everyone else will ignore you—”

“Yes. I do.” Yennefer leaned forward, buried her head in her hands. Ciri bit her lip and watched. She agreed with Triss, but she didn’t want to say it; she knew she would get a negative reaction, although Yennefer would be more inclined to believe that, from Ciri, it came from a place of genuine worry. She looked down at her ragged fingernails, tugging at the hair band looped around her wrist and listening to Yennefer’s unsteady breathing. “Put him on the godsdamned list.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t want to sound smug, but I’m pretty sure I told you this was a bad idea before you even left.”

“I know you did.” Geralt clenched his hands tighter around the steering wheel as he drove. He’d been listening to Eskel say similar things for the past day, and he’d found himself becoming more and more glad that they were finally driving back to the airport. They wouldn’t see each other again until after Yule at the earliest, and he wasn’t even sure he would spend his time off at Kaer Morhen like he’d originally been planning. The idea of staying in Oxenfurt was steadily gaining appeal to him, especially since it now meant he wouldn’t have to deal with the others pressing him about Yennefer. He was certain Lambert knew something about the situation, but exactly how much, he wasn’t sure of. What he was sure of was that if he ended up alone with Lambert, he would never hear the end of it.

“You told me it was a bad idea,” Geralt continued. “In no uncertain terms.” He paused, pulled into a parking spot. “But I never said that I regretted it. Just that things are different now.”

“Different in what way?” He sounded skeptical. Geralt didn’t blame him—if their roles were reversed, he would likely be doing the same thing. But they weren’t, and he was the one in this position, and he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Yennefer since he kissed her. It had only been a day, true, but he was already certain that she was avoiding him. She hadn’t shown up to lunch at all and she’d apparently been acting odd enough that Triss was already worried. And when he thought about what she’d told him—that Yennefer was in Aedd Gynvael—it was enough to make his blood boil. He hated it, he hated that she’d gone there to see him after what had happened between them less than a day ago. But he knew, in the back of his mind, he shouldn’t judge her too harshly. He was struggling with it too.

“Don’t you have a plane to catch or something?” he asked gruffly instead of responding to Eskel’s question. He didn’t want to respond—it was far too early to tell what the answer would be; that much they both knew. But Eskel didn’t say anything, at least not right away, for which Geralt was grateful. Instead, he reached behind his seat to grab the plain black duffel he’d brought with him. Eskel had always lived simply, even for a witcher. Geralt wondered when his own life had stopped being similarly simple.

“Yeah, I do.” He opened the door but didn’t get out. “And you’ve got a reality you need to face. She’s a sorceress, Geralt. The only thing she wants from you is to use you—and that’s if you’re lucky. Gods help you if you get dragged into mage politics.”

“Seems awfully presumptuous of you to say,” Geralt replied flatly. He’d been dreading driving Eskel back to the airport for this very reason. “You’ve never met her.”

“I know enough. And I saw her in person before you did. But fine. If that’s not enough of a reason for you.” He got out of the truck and paused for a second before he shut the door, making direct, uncomfortable eye contact with Geralt. “She’s already engaged. Remember that when she’s making you sneak around.”

He had to sit in the parking lot for a moment before he could ease his white-knuckled grip on the wheel enough to comfortably drive. He’d nearly bitten the inside of his cheek bloody trying not to respond to the various insults Eskel had been hurling in Yennefer’s direction for the majority of the trip. There was no good reason, at least none that he could think of, for him to be saying those things—unless he knew something Geralt didn’t, which he didn’t even want to begin to think about. There was some truth in his words, though he hated to see it. The only sorceresses he knew better than a passing acquaintance, up until a few months ago, were Triss and Keira, and knowing one of them alone had been enough to give him an idea of why mages had the reputation they did. Ruthless in their pursuit of knowledge and power, and Yennefer was no different—except she was.

He got the impression that she didn’t want anyone to know there was any kind of softness to her, any sympathy, and for the most part she did a good job of hiding it around others. But he had known it was there before he even met her, based on nothing but the way Ciri talked about her. Geralt swore quietly to himself as he drove. If Eskel had been able to hear his thoughts and not just his words, he would’ve stayed for another two hours to lecture him.

Geralt knew, to some extent, that he was being ridiculous. They still barely knew each other, even after these last few months, and it truly didn’t make much sense for him to be thinking about her as constantly as he was—not to mention that everything Eskel said had been right. He was secretly thankful he had decided not to ask Lambert to fill in for him after all, because he could only imagine the things he would have said (the same things, but far harsher). He didn’t know how he would be able to get what had happened off his mind, but he had to. For both their sakes, he had to forget about it. Nothing would be made easier for either of them by him remembering. She was clearly already moving on.

When he pulled back into the parking lot in front of his building, the light in his apartment was on. He frowned and shifted into a more defensive position as he unlocked the door, his free hand tense, ready to fight if need be. It was, he knew, most likely someone who had his express permission to be there—Regis, for instance, who would’ve been able to get in even if Geralt hadn’t given him a key, or—

“Ciri?”

She turned around as he shut the door behind him, grinning widely as she rested her chin on the back of the couch. “I was wondering when you would get back,” she said. He dropped his keys on the table and sat down next to her.

“Well, I’m wondering what you’re doing here.”

She rolled her eyes. He knew what she must be thinking, that she didn’t need a reason to be here if he had given her the means to be. For the most part, he didn’t want to press her too hard about it. He could only guess how mind-numbingly boring it must have been for her to have almost nowhere to go day in and day out, and he didn’t actually mind her being there. But the expression on her face said that she was there with a purpose, one he wasn’t sure he was going to like.

“I want to know what you’re getting for Yennefer, idiot.” She rolled her eyes, as if this should have been incredibly obvious to him. He blinked a few times and tried to hold back a frustrated groan. Of course, just when he had decided it was best to forget about her, she was the first thing Ciri would bring up.

“I—Ciri, what are you talking about?”

“You mean she really didn’t tell you?” When he shook his head, confused, she sighed and stood, walking into the kitchen. He could hear her rummaging through his fridge.

“We don’t exactly talk much.”

“I don’t know what you mean. You’ve had plenty of time to talk in the last few days.” She was raising her eyebrow at him when she walked back into the room, in a gesture that had already become so familiar to him that he had to look away. She was holding a bottle of water in her hand. He was surprised; he hadn’t thought there was anything left in the fridge, considering he’d been gone for days.

“Well, we didn’t,” he said, perhaps more harshly than he intended, because her lips twisted into a scowl for a moment before she opened the water bottle and took a long drink. He doubted she was actually that upset, but he felt guilty about it all the same. He remembered what Yennefer had said about how he needed to talk to Ciri, when they had been on their way to Novigrad, and the weight of how long they had actually been apart fell on him yet again. “So it would be helpful if you explained.”

Fine.” She rolled her eyes in an exaggerated motion, letting him know she wasn’t angry. “There’s a Yule party in a few days. This weekend. In Vengerberg. And you’re going.”

“What makes you say that?” This was the first he’d even heard of it, not that he was surprised; considering how much time they’d spent alone over the past several days, he and Yennefer hadn’t actually done that much talking. Ciri seemed to be under the impression that they were closer than they truly were, when in fact it seemed they were beginning to drift apart.

She huffed and took another drink. “You’re going because I say you’re going. And now you’re going to tell me what you’re getting her.”

Geralt leaned forward and put his head in his hands. Even if he’d actually had time to think about this, he wouldn’t have had any idea where to start. Yennefer seemed like the kind of person that was impossible to get a gift for, the kind of person who already had everything (except for something he didn’t know about, something that apparently even one of the best surgeons in Novigrad couldn’t give her). “I don’t know. I didn’t even know this party existed until two minutes ago.”

When he looked up she was grinning wickedly, and he had to hold back another groan. He was beginning to realize that this was probably all part of some elaborate plan of hers to get him and Yennefer to get along. He wondered how much she knew about what had happened the night before. It likely wasn’t much.

“I’m guessing you’ve got some sort of plan,” he said, and she nodded.

~

Things had become markedly different between her and Bea since that first night they saw each other. Once that first wall had been broken, the rest followed quickly, and by this time she was spending several nights a week in Ciri’s apartment, something that was good for both of them. Bea wanted to get out of her crowded house, Ciri didn’t want to be alone, and they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. They hadn’t yet fought once, which Ciri thought was suspect, though she also realized that her perception of romantic relationships was, perhaps, a bit warped. Yennefer and Val fought nearly constantly. Mistle, while she was still alive, had always been eager to pick fights with anyone, and Ciri was no exception to that, even when they were involved. Never before had she experienced such a long period of peace.

It seemed, though, that Yennefer wasn’t experiencing a similar period, and Ciri could gauge that by how often she woke up to find Yennefer in the living room, her work spread over the table and her hair pulled back messily. Ciri was far too familiar with the sight. She’d been seeing it intermittently for years, every time she stayed with Yennefer, and she’d grown less and less fond of it as those years wore on. It used to be nearly charming, a sign that perhaps she wasn’t as ethereal as Ciri had once thought, but now it was just an annoyance, another cause for worry.

This morning was one of those, though Ciri and Bea were the first ones out in the living room, curled up against each other with the TV on in the background. She heard the other bedroom door open and turned her head, expecting to see Triss and getting Yennefer instead. She looked far more put-together than she usually did on these kinds of mornings, though still not enough to go out—dressed simply, with no makeup, the dark circles under her eyes standing out more than usual. She stopped when she saw them, in the middle of pushing her hand through her hair, and eyed them uncertainly for a moment. Ciri didn’t say anything, and after a moment Yennefer smiled tersely and walked past them to the kitchen. Bea sat up and watched her go.

“I will never believe,” she said in a hushed voice once Yennefer was out of the room, “that that woman is old enough to be your mother.”

“It’s because she’s not,” Ciri whispered in reply, untangling herself from the nest of blankets they’d made and standing. “It’s a long story. Excuse me for a minute.”

Yennefer was standing at the counter, gripping the edge of it tightly with pale fingers, her head tilted down so her hair spilled around her face. Ciri walked up behind her and hugged her. She was tall enough that she could rest her chin on the top of her head, and she did. She felt Yennefer laugh quietly and grip Ciri’s hands with her own. She felt worryingly small, though Ciri had long ago grown taller than her.

“I thought you would’ve left already,” Ciri said softly. She didn’t dare ask her how she was holding up. She wouldn’t get an answer if she did. Talking about the party, which was finally happening that night, seemed like a far safer bet, though it came with its own set of risks. Her stomach wrapped around itself in knots whenever she thought about what might happen, and that she wouldn’t be able to be there for her if anything went wrong. It was too dangerous. Someone might recognize her. She understood, but resented all the same.

“I’m portaling over later,” Yennefer replied lightly, looking up and out the window. “Triss left already. With Regis, and Dettlaff.” A pause, a quiet breath. “And Geralt. I assume that was your doing.”

“I’m worried about you,” she said instead of a direct answer. There were other reasons she had wanted Geralt there, but she would be lying if she said that hadn’t also played a role in her decision to tell him about it. “And if I can’t be there, I want someone else who can keep an eye out for trouble to be.”

“I see.” She was tense. Something about Geralt had set her on edge, and Ciri was determined to find out what it was. “So you don’t think that anyone who was already going to be there is capable of doing that?”

Ciri took a moment to think before she answered. She knew she was going to have to make her every word count, far more than she would have to with someone else. She needed enough of the truth in her response that Yennefer wouldn’t suspect anything; at the least, that she would be able to put it out of her mind. “That’s not it. I know that any of them could help, if things came down to it. But…it’s different when it’s your own house. Not like when it’s in Novigrad, or Montecalvo. There are so many more opportunities for him to try something, to get inside your head.” She stopped, drew in a deep breath. “Not to mention the possibility that you could see—”

“That’s not going to happen,” Yennefer said sharply. Her grip tightened around Ciri’s wrists for a moment, before she seemed to realize what she was doing and her hand went slack. “There’s no way they would even know about this in the first place. It’s not as if they’ve been keeping track of my whereabouts.” She moved her hands back to the counter’s edge, fingers curled around it so tightly that there would likely be red marks on her palms when she pulled them away. “You don’t need to worry about it.”

“Sorry.” And she was, though more for the obvious discomfort it caused her than for bringing it up in the first place. Yennefer shrugged slightly and kept looking forward, unmoving. She wouldn’t move, not until Ciri did, and the more she thought about her leaving the more she didn’t want to let go.

“You know,” she said, the words coming out before she could stop them, “I don’t think you need another daughter.”

She felt Yennefer tense up again and immediately knew she’d said the wrong thing, that she’d upset her. It had always been an awkward subject between them, one they were both hesitant to broach around each other. No matter what she said, Ciri got the feeling Yennefer would never quite believe that Ciri was okay with what she was trying to do (though she was definitely going about cheering her up the wrong way, she realized—there was no way she sounded like it). She was about to leave, to apologize and make her retreat, when she felt cold fingers brush against her own.

Yennefer sighed. “Perhaps you’re right, my ugly one,” she said, lacing her fingers with Ciri’s, dangerously close to the place where, until a few days ago, there had been fresh scars. “Perhaps I don’t.”

~

The drive to Vengerberg took nearly all day, following the roads that snaked alongside the Pontar until they could cross into Aedirn. By the time they entered the city proper Geralt thought he might go mad from the confinement, from having to spend so long in such a cramped space with minimal breaks—they stopped for only a few minutes at a time every couple of hours, barely long enough for him to stretch his legs and take care of any other needs. It was made all the worse by the fact that they had taken Regis’s car, which was smaller than any car had the right to be, and there were two others in it besides—Triss, who stayed quiet for the most part, and Regis’s roommate, who Geralt recognized from his visit to Yennefer in the hospital. His name was Dettlaff, and he and Regis spent the drive conversing softly in a language Geralt didn’t understand.

Geralt himself didn’t say much—nothing at all, really, unless he was asked something. He stared out the window, occasionally responding to a message from Ciri or Dandelion and patting the small box in his coat pocket, as if to make sure it was still there. Like it would’ve gone anywhere else; it was as stuck in the car as he was. He’d never been more relieved to get out of a vehicle in his life. Not even all the times he’d had to spend straight days driving before he found a contract worth taking measured up to the sheer awkwardness of this journey. He’d notice Triss throwing glances at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, and he had to wonder what he’d done to irk her.

They parked, according to Regis, a block or so away from Yennefer’s townhouse, and when the others got out and began to head in that direction, he hung back, half turned the other way. “You go on ahead,” he said when Regis stopped and looked back at him. “I need to walk around for a minute. Stretch and all that.”

Regis frowned. “You know how to get back?”

“This isn’t my first time in Vengerberg. I think I’ll figure it out.”

He hesitated for a moment, then nodded and turned away to follow the others. Geralt walked for several blocks before he came upon what he supposed would be considered downtown, an odd conglomerate of sleek modern buildings and the occasional piece of elven architecture that had been miraculously left untouched. There were only a few days left until the beginning of Yule, and the sidewalks were crowded with groups of people he had to try very hard to avoid. This was exactly why he hated cities, and for all he complained about Oxenfurt’s loudness and business, Vengerberg was ten times worse. He’d hoped the fact that the sun was nearly set, combined with the chill in the air that said snow wasn’t far off, would mean less people on the streets, and he was less than happy to find he was mistaken.

As he entered the main square, one of the few places that remained free of roads cutting through it, he heard something drifting to him through the air. It sounded like music. His curiosity piqued, Geralt wandered to the other side of the square, where, in front of what appeared to be a church, was a small group of people singing, conducted by a tall, thin man dressed in all black. Despite the weather, they’d managed to draw a sizeable crowd, and there were more than a few crowns in the buckets they’d put on either side of them for donations. A few feet behind, by the doors of the building, were two braziers dancing with bright flames. The Eternal Fire. He grimaced distastefully, but didn’t leave, instead stepping back in an attempt to blend in with the crowd, hoping that the dim streetlights wouldn’t illuminate his eyes too much. The last thing he needed was for someone to see them and panic.

“I think you’ve gone the wrong direction,” a soft voice said beside him, and he stiffened a little, turning to see Yennefer there, looking up at him sideways, the corner of her mouth tilted. She had her hands in the pockets of her black coat, and through the slightly open collar he could see her star, shining faintly in what little light there was. “My house is that way,” she said, inclining her head in the direction he had come from.

It took him a moment to collect his thoughts enough to answer. This was the first time he’d seen her, let alone been in close proximity with her, since that night, and now that she was here, now that he could see the slight sheen on her lips and smell her perfume, the memory came back, almost painfully clear. “You mean the place you’re supposed to be right now?”

She laughed quietly and turned towards the choir, watching then with interest. “Yes, that place. I’ve only stepped out for a moment—I had to pick something up.”

She didn’t at all look like she’d picked anything up, though Geralt didn’t let that fool him. It wouldn’t be difficult for her to conceal anything on her person, given the amount of power she possessed. He nodded instead of commenting on it. It seemed the smart thing to do. Several yards away, the small group ended their song, to a smattering of applause, and began another a few moments later.

“I didn’t realize that the Church’s practices had spread so…far,” he said, not bothering to disguise the contempt in his voice. Considering their hatred for witchers and mages alike, he doubted her opinion of them was much different than his, and it seemed he was right.

“You shouldn’t be. The Eternal Fire burns quite brightly in Vengerberg. It has for some time now.” Yennefer reached up and tucked her hair behind her ear, quickly putting her hand back in her pocket. She was wearing a ring on her index finger he hadn’t seen before, a swirling silver one that nearly blended in with the paleness of her skin.

“You talk like you’re familiar with it.” He immediately regretted the words when he saw the expression on her face, angry and, he thought, nearly afraid, though he wasn’t sure what someone as powerful as her would have to be scared of. She blew out a breath through slightly pursed lips and didn’t look at him.

“My father was—is, I suppose—a deeply religious man,” she said, so quietly that if he hadn’t been a witcher, he never would have been able to hear it. He suspected she knew that. “He believed strongly, often to the point of extremes. It’s why—”

For a moment she was quiet as the music drifted around them. Geralt wanted to press, ask her to continue, but he knew she would shut him out in a heartbeat if he did. Snow had begun to fall around them, but still she didn’t move. Some of it got caught in her hair, and when he looked at her, Geralt felt strangely as if he couldn’t breathe.

After several long minutes she exhaled sharply and stepped closer to him, slipping her hand into the crook of his elbow. It would look to anyone else like he was leading her, but in fact it was the opposite, her grip firm as she guided him back across the square and down the street. “That’s enough of that,” she said, trying too hard to sound cheerful. “Last I checked, we were here to enjoy ourselves.”

He couldn’t bring himself to reply, but when she looked expectantly over at him he nodded in agreement as they walked. He could tell which house was hers before they even reached it. Lights shone brightly from nearly every window, and despite the temperature, the porch above the half flight of steps that led to the front door was crowded with people. As she deliberately pulled away, Yennefer made a small noise, one he thought sounded unhappy, and they climbed the steps. She reached forward to open the door, but before she could, someone’s hand closed around her wrist. He heard someone say “Yenna!” in a voice that was melodic and far too cheerful and when he looked up there was a man in front of them, tall with dark hair, smiling widely at her. Yennefer herself looked startled for a moment before she composed herself. She nodded at the man by way of greeting, smiling tightly.

“It’s good to see you,” she said. Her voice didn’t waver at all but Geralt could tell she was uncomfortable. He could see the outline of the hand still in her pocket, curled tightly into a fist.

“Oh, come now,” the man said, “is that any way to greet an old friend?” By now they had gotten the attention of the other two on the porch, an older couple who were watching them with a great deal of interest. Yennefer glanced over at them for a moment and then away quickly. She had, barely perceptibly, paled.

“My apologies,” Yennefer said. “But as I’m sure you can understand, I’ve got quite a few people to greet. We’ll have the chance to talk at length later, if you wish.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” He winked at her, his smile widening, and Geralt suddenly had the feeling that the two should in fact be kept as far away from each other as possible. “Once you’ve made your rounds I’ll have to introduce you to my friends as well.” He nodded towards the other two. Yennefer pulled the door open and motioned for Geralt to pass through ahead of her, all without missing a beat. He heard her say something to the man before she stepped in behind him and shut it, but he had stopped paying attention to the conversation. Right up until the door obscured his view, he was watching one of the others, a woman who stared back at them with incredibly familiar eyes.

Chapter Text

“Seven years,” Yennefer said, pacing back and forth in a circle around the room. As soon as they had gotten properly inside she’d found Regis and all but dragged him up the stairs along with Geralt. They ended up on the third floor, which was entirely dedicated to her bedroom and what he assumed was a master bath, behind a door. The roof sloped high above their heads, beams visible, and light from the street shone faintly through the frosted-glass windows. Geralt and Regis had sat down on a small sofa in what looked like a sitting area, but Yennefer was unable to keep still. “Seven godsdamned years in this city and I hadn’t run into them. Not once. And now everything’s gone to shit.”

“Not everything,” said Regis, who was notably calmer than either of them. Geralt still wasn’t quite sure why he was there in the first place, except that he was there when the incident took place. He didn’t even know who any of those people were, though based on what he’d seen he could hazard a guess. “We need to step back and look at this. You don’t even know whether or not they recognized you—”

“There’s no way they didn’t.” Yennefer stopped and looked over at them, pressing her lips together, her arms wrapped loosely around her midsection. The sudden absence of her boots clicking on the wood floor was nearly startling. She’d pulled the sleeves of her black sweater down over her wrists, to the point where they almost covered her hands completely. “A lot of things about me changed at Aretuza, but my face wasn’t one of them.”

She exhaled heavily, reaching up to toy with her star, which he’d noticed she only did in situations like this. Uncomfortable ones, though this had surpassed uncomfortable completely and gone straight to something heavier, something worse. Geralt saw the tension in her neck as she clenched her jaw, the way she shifted for a moment before she started to move again, even more agitated this time. She reached for the swirling silver ring and twisted it around her finger.

“If we’re lucky, they won’t stay long,” she said softly, almost as if to herself. “He’ll realize he’s in a house full of mages and leave. If we’re not…”

She was quiet so long that Geralt briefly considered asking if she was okay, even though he knew he would probably get yelled at for it. “Well,” she said finally. “Perhaps it’s a good thing you’re here after all, Geralt of Rivia.” He clenched his teeth surreptitiously. He’d thought they were past that.

“I just need to act like I didn’t even notice.” She looked over at the windows and bit her lip. “If he’s trying to get a rise out of me, it won’t work.”

“That’s about all you can do now.” Regis was doing a good job at appearing positive, but Geralt could tell he was just as tense as Yennefer, if not more so. “I’ll keep an eye on them, try to keep them away from you. Dettlaff as well, if you wish—”

“I don’t,” she said sharply, digging her nails into her arms. “I’d prefer for as few people to know about this as possible. If you must tell someone, tell Philippa. She’ll keep her mouth shut about it.”

She looked over at Geralt, meeting his eyes for the first time since they’d gotten upstairs. Her gaze was, somehow, pleading and closed off at the same time. “I assume you’re also going to keep your mouth shut about it.”

He nodded, and she held his gaze for a moment longer before she turned sharply, back to Regis. He seemed to understand what she wanted without her needing to say it, because he stood and left, not catching Geralt’s questioning look. Yennefer didn’t look at him again either, just stared out the window until a few minutes had passed. She was tugging on the bottom of her sweater, pulling it farther down over the tops of her thighs, and he felt himself growing more apprehensive as the seconds passed.

“I’m going back downstairs now,” she said finally, drifting hesitantly towards the staircase. “I’ve got to host, and people will notice if I’m gone much longer, if they haven’t already. But they’ll also notice if you accompany me back downstairs. So you’ll need to wait here a few moments more, then come down.” Her hand curled around the balustrade. Her nails were perfectly manicured, painted a green so dark that anyone without his eyesight would likely think it black, but the whiteness of her knuckles belied her anxiousness. “Please try not to snoop too terribly much,” she said, and then she was out of his line of sight, and he heard the clicking of her heels on the stairs.

He waited a minute before he stood, intending to take a good look around before he left, though not one that was close enough to upset her. He didn’t want to pry, but he had to admit he was curious about how she lived outside of a shared apartment. All of the floors in the townhouse were a dark-stained wood, and the walls were paneled halfway up in it as well, in a style he’d seen in several other larger cities farther north, notably Novigrad. The ceiling was open to the sloping roof, exposing the beams and effectively making her bedroom the biggest room in the house.

He looked briefly around the latticed divide that separated her actual bedroom from the small sitting area he’d been in, just long enough to catch a glimpse of what was possibly the biggest bed he’d ever seen. There was no way that someone that small actually needed that much bed. Most of the furniture was dark wood as well, glass-topped tables and intricately carved dressers with large mirrors above them. The couches in the sitting area were off-white and had been surprisingly comfortable when he was sitting on one. His gaze landed on a folder sitting on top of one of the sideboards and he walked over, picking it up curiously.

It was plain, slightly heavy in his hands, and he flipped it open to the first of the stack of papers inside. It took him only a moment to realize what it was—her records from Aretuza, from her time as a student. Something inside him froze over and he knew that if she found out he’d seen them, that would be the end of any chance he had with her (not that there’d been much of one to begin with). But now that he had them in his hands, he couldn’t put them down. He had the feeling that, just maybe, he could finally find some of the answers he’d been seeking.

He couldn’t figure out whether he was relieved or disappointed when he flipped through all but the last few pages and didn’t discover anything he didn’t already know—that she was brilliant, had moved up the ranks at a faster pace than the vast majority of her peers, that the recommendations she’d gotten from her former teachers when she was looking for apprenticeships were nothing short of glowing. He wasn’t quite sure what he’d expected to find there in the first place; what else would be in educational records? He was about to close the folder and put it back where he’d found it when he caught the header on one of the few pages he had left to look at. Medical records. What Regis had said about being called in specifically to help her swam to the forefront of his mind, and he turned the page.

The dense nature of the text, the descriptions of what corrective magic had been done on her, were hard for him to wade through. He would freely admit he had no idea what most of it was saying; he’d never bothered to familiarize himself with the particulars of magic, seeing as he didn’t need to know them. But he could piece together enough of the terminology to figure out most of what had been done—notably the straightening of her spine, something that had caused her so much internal trauma that Regis had been called to stabilize her. He swallowed thickly. He hadn’t been under the impression that she had gone into Aretuza looking as she did when he’d first met her, but he didn’t know that the problems had run this deep. He wondered what else about her had been changed.

That was the majority of the medical part of the file; other than that, it seemed, she had been mostly healthy, and he wasn’t surprised, given the access she would have had to potions to stave off illness, and the ability to heal minor injuries on her own. There were a few entries about injuries she’d gotten through magic, or alchemy, ones that she wouldn’t have been able to heal herself, but they all seemed minor, considering the space they’d gotten was so little. But when he flipped to the last page, he stopped, and had to put the file down and grip the sideboard tightly to try and control the surprise he felt at seeing a record of recovery from two separate suicide attempts.

He didn’t want to admit that it made sense to him, that when he stopped to think about it he could see the vestiges of what should have been so obvious in her behavior, in her reluctance to talk about any aspect of her past. What she’d said to him in the main square was the most he’d managed to get out of her in regards to her background, and the things he’d heard from others weren’t much different. He flipped the folder closed, repositioning it as closely as he could get it to where he’d found it. To keep the peace, at least until the party was over and he had an opportunity to ask her about it (if he could work up the nerve to do so) he would have to push it out of his mind. He couldn’t take the risk of her reading his thoughts and finding out that he knew. In fact, he was beginning to believe he shouldn’t ever tell her that, let it slip. She’d never forgive him if she found out.

After another moment to steady himself, to make sure the folder was perfectly positioned and his mind was as empty as he could make it, he ventured back downstairs.

The first floor of Yennefer’s townhouse, the one he’d entered on, had been dedicated entirely to a sitting room full of couches and chairs and tables identical to the ones in the room he’d just left. It was being used, mostly, to house a makeshift rack that held guests’ coats, though a few people lingered there, chatting idly. Geralt wasn’t one of them. He stopped on the second floor, which was the kitchen. The whole house was narrow and cramped, though every trick had been used to make the rooms inside it look spacious, and they were working. The kitchen was lined with cabinets whose dark wood nearly matched the floor and in the center was a large, marble-topped island, and it was there that he found her, with a wine glass in hand, looking like nothing had ever happened. If she saw him come in, she didn’t acknowledge him.

Philippa was standing next to her, a lipstick-stained glass on the counter in front of her, and she was, to Geralt’s eyes, notably tense. Her eyes kept darting over to the staircase leading down—Geralt had to assume that the people he’d seen when he came in were down there, and that thought lent him a certain amount of relief, but not much. They could come up at any minute, and only the gods knew what would happen then. If it had been his decision, he would have called the whole thing off, with no regard for how it might look to the others in attendance. But he knew how mages worked; he knew that none of the hosts would even consider that a possibility, so the best thing he could do was stay.

“Geralt!” He turned and Triss was standing there, in dark jeans and an emerald-green sweater, her hair curling loosely around her arms. She was smiling, but, as with Philippa, it was easy for Geralt to see that something was wrong. It was even more obvious with Triss, who he’d known far longer. “You enjoying yourself?”

He looked briefly over at Yennefer, who was talking to a sorcerer he didn’t know and grinning with the corners of her mouth. Her hand was tight around the edge of the counter, rings glinting in the light. He looked away.

“I guess,” he responded, for lack of anything better to say. He was only wearing a long-sleeved shirt (the whole thing had been so last-minute that he refused to put too much thought into how he looked; the stereotypes about witchers ran so deep that he doubted it would change anyone’s opinion of him if he did care), but it felt like it was tightening around his neck, choking him, and the box hidden in the pocket of his jacket seemed as if it weighed a million pounds. He had been hoping to steal a moment or two alone with her, give it to her. Now he doubted that would happen any time soon.

Triss glanced around, then edged closer to him, leaning so her lips were close to his ear. He could smell alcohol on her breath. He wondered how long she’d been drinking. “Do you know what’s going on with Yenna?” she asked. “And don’t try and act like you don’t know. I saw you come in here from upstairs.”

Geralt sputtered helplessly. “You really should’ve known someone would see you,” Triss said. “You should just hope no one else did.” She laughed a little, quietly, somewhat harshly. “Now tell me what’s going on.”

He sighed reluctantly. “I don’t really know much. I’m not lying,” he said in response to her incredulous look. “All I know is there are some people here that she doesn’t seem particularly excited to see. I don’t know who they are, or what they did to her. She was talking around it.”

“Like she always does.” Triss rolled her eyes. “Okay. Guess I’ll have to find out for myself, then. Thanks, Geralt.” She gave him a lopsided smile as she pulled back, turning to walk away, further into the crowd. Geralt followed her even though he didn’t want to. He would look far too suspicious if he stayed on the edge of the crowd. He’d been invited, the least he could do was act like he wanted to be there.

It didn’t take long for him to find Regis in the middle of the crowd, a few yards away from Yennefer even though his eyes, like Triss’s, darted over to her every few seconds. He had a glass in his hand that was half-full, but Geralt knew he wouldn’t have actually drank any of it. Someone else had. “You’re not going to tell me what that was about either, are you?”

“She didn’t?” He didn’t sound particularly surprised, though his tone was casual. “The man is Vilgefortz of Roggeveen, a member of the Chapter. Its head, more or less. He was the one who nominated Yennefer for Council membership.”

Geralt had almost forgotten about that, but now that it had been brought back up he remembered all too clearly the look on her face when she’d first read the letter with that news, how similar it was to the expression she’d been wearing only moments ago, when they’d come in the house. He wondered if Vilgefortz had been the one she’d wanted to stay as far away from as possible. It certainly seemed like it now. “And the others?”

“The others…” Regis sighed, glancing over at the stairs. Geralt wondered if they were still on the porch, if they would even come in at all or if they thought their work was done. “The others are her only living relatives.”

“Ah.” He didn’t know what else to say. Like the file, it explained so much, things he wasn’t sure he was supposed to know. Regis hadn’t said how exactly the two were related to Yennefer, but he could guess. “Why bring them here, though?”

“Vilgefortz and Yennefer have…a history, so to speak,” Regis said. “One of them wants it acknowledged and one of them doesn’t. So he does this instead.”

None of it made sense to Geralt. On some level, he understood the political games mages participated in, started, even; personal ones, however, seemed on a different plane entirely, the kinds of things that should be played out in the shadows, not so overtly. He hoped the banquet he’d reluctantly agreed to attend with Triss would be calmer than this, though he knew it was a futile hope.

“I’d leave it alone if I were you,” Regis said. “She wouldn’t be happy if she found out I told you any of this. She’s been trying very hard to keep this in the past.” Geralt nodded, his throat tight, and Regis took that as his cue to step away, make his way through the crowd. He stopped where Dettlaff was talking to a small group of mages, effortlessly inserting himself into the conversation. Geralt tried not to look at Yennefer, and failed—only to realize she was looking back.

She picked up her glass from where she’d set it down next to Philippa’s and excused herself from the conversation delicately. No one even noticed; he supposed that being one of the hosts gave her a certain amount of leeway to flit between groups as she wanted. She slowed down next to Geralt and tugged at his sleeve discreetly, getting him to lower his head so she could put her lips to his ear.

“If you look around and you don’t see me here, go downstairs. All the way downstairs, to the clinic,” she murmured. He scrambled to focus on her words; the smell of her perfume was overwhelming his senses. “I’ve got something for you.”

He blinked rapidly a few times, but before he could begin to formulate a coherent response she was gone, leaving a wave of lilac-and-gooseberry-scented air in her wake. It was difficult to breathe in it—he had the sudden desire to inhale and keep the breath there, in his lungs, to take some small part of her with him until the time came that he could be alone with her again, though now it seemed that time wasn’t far away.

~

Geralt stayed at the party for two more hours before he scanned the second floor and didn’t see any sign of Yennefer. He kept to himself, mostly, nursing a glass of wine Triss had brought him and not speaking much to anyone except her and Regis, when they occasionally circled back around to him. He wondered whether or not Yennefer was purposely avoiding him until she slipped out, if she worried about how things would look if they stayed near each other too long. She was putting too much thought in it if that was the case. No one here knew about what had happened, and he doubted any of them would find out.

The first floor was empty when he went down the stairs, and he glanced out onto the porch, now also empty, before he opened the door that led down another flight of stairs and into her private clinic. The stairs opened up into a narrow hallway with doors branching off of it, and he followed it until he emerged in a larger room, which he assumed was some kind of waiting room—it had a door that opened to the front of the house, and a couple of couches and chairs around a low table.

Yennefer was sitting on one of the couches, one leg crossed over the other, another glass in her hands. He sat down next to her, trying to leave as much space between them as possible. She didn’t look at him, but instead towards the table, where sat what looked to be a long black case of sorts. He couldn’t have even began to guess what was inside.

“Did Triss tell you to come?” she said quietly, unsure.

Geralt shook his head, but a moment later, when she didn’t look at him, he said “No. Ciri did.”

She laughed a little, but it died out quickly, and she bit her lip. “That doesn’t surprise me at all,” she said. “She’s not exactly happy about the fact that she can’t be here. But she knows why.”

“Right,” he said. “Too risky.” A moment passed. Part of him felt he should be quiet, let things fall where they may, but he didn’t want to chance anything like the last time they’d been fully alone. He didn’t think he could bear it if that happened again, and she did the same thing. “How have things been going upstairs?”

She didn’t look at him, but her fingers tightened slightly around the stem of her glass. “Fine. As fine as can be expected at these sorts of things. Regis is introducing Dettlaff to people as an old friend who just arrived from Nazair.” Something about the tone of her voice seemed to indicate that she found that amusing, but since he’d only spoken to Dettlaff for a grand total of roughly five minutes, he didn’t get the joke.

The air between them was so thick that he felt it would take him hours to reach through it, lay his hand over hers. He watched her brush her hair back from her face and thought about what it would be like to run his fingers across her jaw and have her not pull away, not retreat. He could, now, if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to risk putting her off. He was about to reach into his jacket pocket and give her the box when she put her glass down on a side table and gestured towards the case.

“For you,” she said, glancing over at him finally, one eyebrow raised. When he looked at her incredulously, she smiled, in that way she seemed to only direct at him. “That is why I told you to come here, isn’t it?”

“It is.” He slowly moved so he was sitting on the edge of the couch and he could reach the clasps of the case easily. He took his time undoing them, needless anxiety rising in his throat as he opened it and was met with a pair of gleaming swords.

He had to stare at them for a couple of minutes before he fully understood what he was looking at. The two swords were laid facing opposite directions, so the tip of one lined up with the hilt of the other, and the dim light of the various lamps she’d lit gleamed off the blades. He picked one up and held it up closer to his face, the steel glinting. The other one had to be silver, he knew without even having to touch it. At the top of the case, nestled in its own small compartment, was a tube which, when he picked it up, turned out to hold scrolls—diagrams of the blades he now held.

“I had a little help,” Yennefer admitted. “Ciri was the one who found the diagrams, when she was traveling. She brought them to me to have them made.” A pause. When he looked over at her, the lights shone off her hair like spilled ink. “I suppose that makes them from both of us.”

The corner of her mouth tilted in a way that made him draw in a slow breath, swallow thickly. He couldn’t decide whether or not this was an opportunity for him. If he reached over and took her hand, would she pull hers away? Or pull him closer? He stared at the place where her black sweater, folded down to leave her shoulders bare, met her skin, and wondered if she was cold.

“Yennefer, I—”

“You don’t have to say anything,” she interrupted quickly, her fingers curling against her leg, vainly seeking purchase. “It’s fine. Just…” She gestured towards the case with her free hand. “Take them.”

He nodded, closed the case and redid the clasps, thinking about how her fingers must have done them up carefully, how she would have laid the blades in the case, rolled up the plans and left them in there too in case he would want them—of course she’d think of that. His throat closed up and before he could give himself time to reconsider he’d pulled the small box out of his pocket, offered it up. “For you,” he said when she looked over at him, confused. She pressed her lips together, took it from him, and he stared intensely at the table as she opened it.

She was tense beside him, silent for several minutes, and he couldn’t bring himself to glance sideways, to see what she was thinking. “I know this is probably coming out of nowhere,” he said hoarsely. “To be honest, I wasn’t planning on coming at all. I didn’t know it was happening until Ciri told me about it, and this whole thing was her idea and—”

“Geralt.” He looked up finally and she didn’t meet his eye, staring down at the open box with an expression he couldn’t read. “You don’t have to explain yourself,” she said, finally smiling, crooked, confused—or he thought she was confused. “It’s—well—”

She trailed her fingertips across the silver band, looped closely enough to fit tightly around her wrist (he hadn’t asked Ciri how she’d gotten the measurements so quickly—he wasn’t sure he wanted to know how much preparation she’d put into this before even bringing it up to him), then over the small emerald hanging from it. Unobtrusive—Ciri had made that clear in no uncertain terms. “There’s no enchantment on it or anything.” He cleared his throat. “Figured you’d want to do that yourself.”

Yennefer exhaled quickly, making a sound not unlike a quiet laugh. “As opposed to what? You doing it for me?”

“You know me. Always enchanting things.”

The whole exchange felt a bit too close to flirting for his taste—she’d already made it clear how she felt on that count, and he didn’t want to get his hopes too high. There were a million reasons why a thing like that would never work. Yennefer closed the box and set it on the small table beside her, next to the glass, which remained nearly untouched. “Thank you,” she said, barely more than a whisper, as she stared at the dark wood floor.

“It’s nothing,” he replied, equally low. He wanted to reach over, put his hand on her arm and see if she would let him. He wanted to feel her against him, the press of her cool fingertips on his neck, his shoulders—and he was sure she knew all of that. He wouldn’t be surprised if, after what had happened only days ago, she’d been keeping tabs on his thoughts all night.

“I—” He stood and cleared his throat again, unsure as always of what to say around her. The room suddenly felt stiflingly hot, crowded even though it was just the two of them. He had stepped too far. She was too close. “I should probably go.” He heard, as though from the other side of a wall, her say his name, startled, but he was already out in the hallway, heading towards the exit he’d seen when he came in, to the half-flight of stairs that would deposit him back at street level. He needed to clear his head, but simply rejoining the crowd didn’t seem like it would be enough—though at this point, he thought, any breath of air that wasn’t tinged with the scent of lilac and gooseberries would do him good.

~

Yenna was upset about something. Val could tell, as he could always tell, just from looking at her, at the way she’d drawn in on herself that no one would notice but him. At the same time, he knew she wasn’t going to actually tell him what was wrong. He’d resolved not to start a fight about it—these parties left her in a sour mood more often than not—but it was eating away at him steadily, had been for hours. He was worried this went beyond her typical post-party bad mood; he couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, Geralt of Rivia was involved.

He’d seen him come down from her bedroom several minutes after she had, and though they seemed not to interact with each other for the rest of the night, the sight had been enough to set him on edge. There was something about him that he didn’t like, the same thing he didn’t like about Cirilla, who Yenna called her daughter; the same thing he didn’t like about most of her friends. Things were calmer when she stayed with him in Aedd Gynvael; things were less hectic. It would never be like that with the others around, and the situation had only gotten more complicated since the witcher entered the picture.

“Are you sure you want to stay?” she called from the other side of the slightly-cracked bathroom door. If he looked through at the right angle he would be able to see her, standing in front of the mirror, rubbing glamarye on her forearms like she always did at night. But he wasn’t looking—he was standing in front of one of the couches in the small sitting area off her bedroom, too agitated to sit down. “I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to portal home.”

She was trying to get rid of him, he just knew it. On any other night, she would’ve welcomed the company. “I’m fine,” he replied, trying to keep his tone neutral, not to betray any of his suspicions. “I wouldn’t want to leave you alone. You looked upset earlier, Yenna.”

“Did I?” He kept quiet—he wanted to let the weight of his words sink in, to let her realize that even though he wasn’t intending to comment further on it, he had noticed. “Well, I’m not.”

When a few more minutes had passed and she didn’t come out, he took to pacing, circling the same path around the room over and over again until he thought he might forget about everything, lose himself in the monotony of the routine. Sometime after his twentieth circle, he noticed something—a folder on top of one of the sideboards, one that he could’ve sworn hadn’t been there when he’d been upstairs hours ago, before the party started. Out of nothing more than idle curiosity, he picked it up and flipped it open.

It was full of records from her time at Aretuza, and it immediately caught his interest. She rarely spoke about what things had been like for her before they met, somehow managing to give him the impression that those things were both incredibly painful and of little to no consequence. Most of what he was seeing in the records seemed to back up the latter theory; he wasn’t surprised to see exceptionally high marks or glowing notes from professors on the various larger projects she’d done. At the back were medical records. Those, too, seemed to contain nothing of interest, until he got to the last page and—

“Yenna?”

There must’ve been something about his tone that made her suspicious, because it only took a moment for her to pull the door open and step into the room, pushing her hair back behind her ear to keep it out of her face. “Yes?” She raised an eyebrow and he motioned her over silently, handing her the folder when she was close enough. She took it, initially confused, but as soon as she realized what it was, her expression hardened, her fingers tightening around the paper.

“Where did you get this?”

“It was sitting there, on the sideboard.” He pointed to the spot he’d picked it up from, watched her eyes follow his hand. Something about the statement only seemed to upset her more. The longer he looked at her, the more difficult it became to speak. “Yenna.” His voice was hoarse now, barely audible. She was keeping things from him, that he knew—but he’d never expected anything of this magnitude. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it wasn’t any of your business.” She shut the folder, waved her other hand discreetly and then it was gone, vanished to who-knows-where. “It’s in the past. It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter. Yenna—”

“I think you should go.”

The tone of her voice brokered no argument but he hesitated anyway. She wouldn’t look at him in the meantime, going over to the dresser in the bedroom proper and pulling a tank top out of it. In another moment she was out of his line of vision, throwing her robe over the top of the screen that separated the two areas. He wanted to cross that barrier, make her look at him and tell him the truth, the whole thing this time because there was clearly something he’d been missing. “No,” he said, any previous resolve not to start an argument forgotten. “Yenna, we can’t just not talk about this—”

“We can, and we will.” She rounded the corner fully dressed, grabbing a small box from one of the other tables and shoving it in her pocket. Her movements were fluid but strained, matching her voice, and he watched in pulsing silence as she raised her arms, opening a portal. “And if you won’t leave, I’ll do it for you.”

He didn’t even have time to ask why she was doing it, leaving him alone in her house when she could have easily forced him out—it wasn’t as though she didn’t have the power to do so. All he could do was watch the shaking of her hands, the way they clenched and unclenched at her sides, as she stepped through the portal and was gone.

Chapter Text

She hadn’t created the portal with a destination in mind, but when she stepped out on the other side, she found herself in the hallway that led to her private quarters in Montecalvo. It was as good a place to end up as any, she supposed, especially considering that Val was unlikely to follow her there—even if he’d gotten to the portal by the time it closed (which was unlikely, since it hadn’t spat him out behind her), he wouldn’t want to stay here long. He wouldn’t think the risk of running into Philippa worth it, though she wondered if Phil would even be home now. The rest of them always seemed to stay out later than Yennefer herself did. She had never been one for crowds.

The sound of her heels clicking on the tile echoed off the stone walls as she shouldered the door open and flicked on the lights in what had become her room. The castle was big enough for her to have her pick of the vast majority of its bedrooms, but she’d purposely chosen one far off in a secluded, rarely-used wing. It was only ever even remotely crowded when they held their yearly get-togethers here and many of the guests chose to stay over—the grounds were massive as well, and the place itself far more secluded than a townhouse in Vengerberg or Novigrad was. She had always liked it here, if for no other reason than how easy it was to shut herself away. Phil would leave her alone if she told her to; she seemed to be the only one around who respected that decision when she made it, except perhaps for Regis.

The room wasn’t huge, but it was large enough for her to not feel cramped, and she’d always kept some of her things here, ever since the first time she stayed. It was the easiest place for her to go if she wanted to get away from everyone for a few days, though she wondered if this particular escape route would work this time—she’d never had to deal with a fight of this magnitude, and there would be a fight, she knew, the next time she saw Val. It didn’t matter that she knew he’d been trying not to start one; what he’d seen effectively assured it. There was no contingency plan for him finding out about this. He wasn’t ever supposed to. It had been a while since he asked her about what things had been like before she met him. She’d hoped to convince him that it didn’t matter, and it had seemed that he bought it—at least until now. There was a pit of dread festering in her stomach, a voice in the back of her mind that whispered now that he knows this, it’s only a matter of time before he finds out everything else.

She had no idea what to do with herself. She called Regis.

“Val knows,” she said before he could even get a word in. She sat on the bed and leaned forward, resting her forehead on the heel of her hand. He couldn’t see her. It was probably better that way—not a single one of those closest to her had ever liked Val, not even Philippa, who had been the one to introduce them, and she didn’t need to give them more fuel for that fire by letting them see how this had affected her. Her voice was steady and she needed to keep it that way, to not betray her emotions. Perhaps she should’ve called someone else. Regis, more than anyone else, was likely to see right through her. But calling Triss or Philippa would only end in a fight. Ciri would probably want to fight him, and though the thought was immensely gratifying to Yennefer, it wouldn’t do anyone any good at the time. And Geralt—

She shoved the thought away forcefully. She wasn’t calling Geralt. Not after he’d left like that earlier. Left, after those things he’d been thinking

“Val knows what?” Considering the situation, Regis sounded surprisingly calm. The soothing sound of his voice helped her steady her own breathing, and she realized that, perhaps, he had been the right one to call after all. He knew what Vilgefortz had done just a few hours ago, he could handle this.

“There was a file, in my rooms,” she said quietly, standing up and crossing the room to step outside onto the balcony. At first, she had just wanted to check if any of the other lights in the place were on—she didn’t want to have to deal with Philippa walking in on the conversation unexpectedly, though she undoubtedly knew Yennefer was there—but after a moment she closed the door behind her and stayed. The air was frigid, but there was something soothing about it. In a few days Yule would begin, and she would be forced to return to Aedd Gynvael, however reluctantly, to ready herself for the conference at Thanedd. The holiday itself had always been more or less background noise to her; Philippa only ever used it as an excuse to throw parties, something that had been going on for years before Yennefer, only fifteen at the time, had entered the picture. Now, it was an excuse that had immeasurably complicated things. “My student file. From Aretuza.”

“Ah.” Regis was silent for a moment after that, and she pulled her sleeves down to partially cover her hands, leaving only her fingertips exposed. One of her hands brushed the box in her pocket and she gripped it tightly for a moment, only to remember what it was and why she was gripping it, a thought that sent a flush of heat and anger creeping up her throat. She let go of it like it had burned her.

“Is there…” He paused, cleared his throat quietly, like he was about to say something that would upset her, though she doubted it could get any worse than it already had. “Is there anything in the file about—?”

“No.” She said it quickly, too quickly, and even from miles away she could tell he didn’t believe that she wasn’t ruffled by this. “Not that I know of, I suppose,” she continued. “I didn’t look at it beyond the medical records. But there’s nothing about it in the official file; nothing that had to do with that would’ve gone to anyone there. It was all done through you.” She still had those records, reports and recommendations in his neat, cramped handwriting, tucked away in a box in the back of her apartment’s closet. Specifically hidden, so Val wouldn’t have been able to find it. The file that had been in his hand when she saw it was clearly a copy, and she had a feeling she knew who had slipped it there.

“That doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t have gotten their hands on them,” Regis said gently. “Especially someone like Val. I know you’ve tried to keep it away from him, but at some point he was bound to—”

“He didn’t get it from the box.” She swallowed, clenching her hand in a fist around her shirt, then flattening her palm over her stomach. Her fingers slid over the ridge of her scar, and she sucked in a breath that she doubted went unheard. “It was copied.”

She didn’t think she could get any more words out. Her throat had closed up around them. After a minute of silence, Regis sighed. “You think it was put there?”

“It’s entirely possible.” Unable to stay still any longer, she started pacing back and forth across the empty stone balcony, letting the occasional breeze blow her hair around without much care. “He was at the house while I was out picking up the plans for the swords. He would’ve had any number of chances to sneak up there and place it. And if he did that while I was gone—”

She stopped. She couldn’t go on any farther. It hadn’t occurred to her until then—though she’d been trying not to think about it—but if he was the one who put it there, and he’d done it when she was out of the house, when there would have been one less set of alert eyes to watch out for, then it would have been there when she went upstairs with Geralt and Regis later, even if she was too distraught at the time to notice. He would have been counting on that. And it would have been there after, when she went back downstairs to the main room and left Geralt there alone.

“Yenna?” Static caused by the breeze made it hard to hear him, but she could tell he was worried at how abruptly she’d cut herself off. “Are you alright?”

“Perfectly fine,” she said. It felt as if someone else was speaking; she could hear the words, could feel them coming out of her mouth, but she wasn’t connected to them at all. “I just—I have to go. I have to figure out what to do about this.”

That was why she’d called him in the first place, and he clearly knew that when he started to protest, but she hung up anyway, sinking down onto the balcony to lean against the wall by the door. He had to have seen it. She could deny it all she wanted, but she knew it had to be the reason for his hasty departure earlier. He hadn’t returned to the party either. She had spent the rest of the night surreptitiously watching for him, only for him to not show up. At the time, she had thought it was because of what had happened when they were alone, because he realized she’d been reading his thoughts—because he didn’t understand she wanted the same thing he did, though now she found herself wanting it less and less.

He knew, and he’d already jumped to his own conclusions about it. Letting him invade her thoughts any longer would only end badly for everyone involved—and there were already far too many people involved. The best thing for her to do would be to put Geralt of Rivia out of her mind. She had been thinking it for days, but now she finally had an excuse. And she needed one. He wouldn’t have left her thoughts otherwise.

~

It had been another two hours after he left Yennefer’s townhouse before Regis decided to call and ask where he was. Before that, he’d fielded several unwanted calls from Triss (though in this case ‘fielding’ meant ‘not answering’) and even a message from Yennefer herself, asking if he was alright. He could sense the distance in it without even having to be there. He’d pushed too far and now he was paying the price. He was going to have to have a serious talk with Ciri when he got back to Oxenfurt.

He’d given Regis some sort of flimsy excuse, and it had been painfully obvious that he didn’t buy it, but thankfully, he didn’t ask any more questions. The drive back was just as silent, if not more so, than the drive over, and he clearly wasn’t the only one in a bad mood—Triss stared out the window the whole time, barely speaking except to acknowledge a comment directed at her with a soft noise of agreement. He wondered if something had happened after he left. There had to be a reason she was acting like this; Triss was normally better at hiding her more unpleasant emotions. He didn’t want to ask, though.

A few hours into the trip, Regis got a call. Geralt, sitting diagonally from him and behind the driver’s seat, saw him pull his phone out of his pocket and check the caller ID, his brow furrowing. He pressed the button to answer and held it up to his ear, but before he could even say anything, a voice on the other end said “Val knows.”

Yennefer. He felt his breath constrict as the worried look on Regis’s face became even more prominent. Regis turned around more fully to make eye contact with Triss, who seemed to be paying attention for once, because she nodded and muttered something under her breath. A moment later the crushing sound of static replaced what little he’d been able to hear coming out of the phone. He tried to swallow back any anger he might’ve felt at what she was doing, or the thought that Yennefer would want her to. The only two other passengers besides her and Regis both had superhuman senses, and he knew Yennefer well enough to know she liked her correspondence kept private.

“Val knows what?” Regis said into the phone, turning back around to look out the window himself. Through the side mirror, Geralt could see Dettlaff eyeing him curiously. He wondered if Triss’s spell was even working on him. Higher vampires had to have some kind of resistance to things like that. Yennefer’s reply was fuzzy, but he could hear enough to tell that something was still off about her tone, that she was worried about something.

It was incredibly likely, he realized with another nervous jolt, that it had something to do with the file he’d found in her rooms earlier, when she’d left him alone. If it had been there for him to see, it would’ve been there for Istredd to see as well. No one had been up there to move it. Besides that, he couldn’t think of anything else that could possibly have her so upset. But the thought was ridiculous—if they cared for each other enough to get engaged, then he would’ve already known this. Right?

“Ah.” Though Yennefer’s voice was muted, Regis’s was still clear, and he started drumming his fingers across his leg, a clear sign that he was agitated. “Is there…” He cleared his throat. “Is there anything in the file about—?”

Another burst of static. This time it felt like a hush had fallen over the car, and when Geralt looked over at Triss, she seemed to be focusing the spell; he could tell by the intense look of concentration on her face, the way she gripped the door handle just to anchor herself to something. He’d seen her do it a million times. When Regis started to speak again a moment later, Geralt couldn’t hear any of it. He’d been shut out of the loop completely.

A few minutes later, when Regis hung up and Triss let the spell drop with a sigh of relief, he didn’t seem to want to talk much. Geralt didn’t press him, though he was dying to, and Triss didn’t immediately say anything either, which he found unusual—normally she seemed to care more about Yennefer than nearly anyone else. He thought about trying to call Yennefer himself, but rejected the idea almost immediately. She wouldn’t pick up. After his unceremonious exit earlier, he doubted she’d even want to talk to him.

“How is she?” Triss asked after a moment, leaning her head forward so it rested on the back of Regis’s seat. “From what I heard, that didn’t sound too good.”

“It wasn’t.” Regis turned, trying to look at Triss, but without twisting around fully, he would only be able to see Geralt.  “I think you should ask her about it yourself, though,” he said, and Geralt wondered if it was deliberate or not when Regis looked straight at him as he said it. He already knew asking her about anything would be a terrible idea.

Triss hummed softly in agreement and closed her eyes, looking as though she would fall asleep any moment. “I’ll do that, then,” she said. “Although if it has anything to do with what happened earlier…”

Silence, for a few moments. Triss sighed. “The Chapter and Council are going to vote next week on which of the people they nominated will fill the vacant spot. And they’ll announce the new member at the banquet, before the start of the actual conference. Philippa told me—I’m not supposed to know, though, so you should all keep your mouth shut about it.”

It was a given for Geralt—who would he tell that would care?—but he didn’t like being ordered around like that; something about it rubbed him the wrong way, especially tonight. “Why? If the outcome is as inevitable as it seems?”

Triss turned to him, surprised. “How do you know what we’re talking about?”

“I was there when she got the nomination.” He remembered her shielding her calls from him the next morning, making sure he couldn’t hear what the others’ reactions were, much as Triss had done only moments ago. He wasn’t sure if any of them had even known he was there—she hadn’t exactly advertised that he was going to Novigrad with her. “She didn’t seem very happy about it.”

“She’s not.” Again, he had to wonder why Yennefer had not seemed at all excited about a chance to advance her position in the politics of mages, especially since most of the people she was closely connected to were already involved—Philippa, a member of the Council, and Tissaia de Vries, who was a member of the Chapter and had sponsored Philippa (he didn’t know how closely she was linked to Yennefer; he’d never heard her talk about her). “But we all might as well face facts: she’s going to be picked whether she wants to be or not. Unless Phil has somehow managed to divert the vote in another direction, but I don’t see how she could do that without raising suspicions.”

“No, she’ll be stuck there,” Regis agreed tersely. Geralt saw a sign out the window, proclaiming that Oxenfurt wasn’t far, and was glad that soon he’d be able to get out of the car, out of the gloomy atmosphere that had suddenly engulfed it and everyone inside. “There’s no way Philippa could suddenly back down from years of talking her up without everyone questioning it.”

“I know, I know.” Triss pulled back to lean her forehead against the window now, likely so she wouldn’t have to look at any of them. “It’s just wishful thinking.”

~

Geralt had considered going straight to Yennefer’s apartment when they returned, if for no other reason than to check up on her, but he decided soon after that no, she would hate that, and so he spent the next week thinking about her but not seeing her at all. He gave a final for the one section he was teaching—a written one, because he didn’t think he would be able to focus on students giving demonstrations long enough to actually grade them. At least this way he could let his thoughts drift off in his own apartment. And his thoughts drifted off frequently, mostly to when he might be able to see her again. He was nearing a breaking point, the point when he’d no longer be able to shrug off whatever was happening between them as nothing.

Whether she’d reached a similar point, it was nearly impossible for him to say.

When the time finally came for him to accompany Triss to the banquet on Thanedd that opened the mages’ conclave, he found himself dreading it more and more. He’d never liked big parties, and he’d never liked mages—were it not for the fact that he’d been assured others he knew would be there, he wouldn’t have gone at all, no matter how much Triss begged. But Regis would be attending as well; officially, he’d be Philippa’s plus one, but he’d already let slip to Geralt that the actual reason he was there was to ‘keep an eye on things.’ He hadn’t gone into any further detail, so Geralt had assumed it had something to do with the open Council position, and put it out of his mind.

He packed lightly, since he only planned to be there for the banquet and whatever breakfast they offered the next morning. Despite his frequent and loud objections, Triss had decided to teleport them there (“If we drove it would practically take a day! Geralt, I don’t have that kind of time!”), and she would send him back via portal as well, once all was said and done. Just another thing he wasn’t looking forward to about the whole trip. Even worse was that Triss had insisted he wear a full suit, instead of the dress shirt and pants he’d been planning on wearing. He hated formal occasions, and just that small thing would have made it infinitely more bearable for them, but he should’ve known better than to think it would be possible. Mages’ get-togethers were nearly always formal.

Geralt tugged uncomfortably at the collar of his shirt as he pulled open the door leading to the lobby Triss’s apartment branched off of and took the stairs two at a time. He knocked and then stood as far back as possible, trying very hard not to look at the door across the hallway. She probably wasn’t even there; knowing Yennefer (which he admitted he only barely did), she’d probably arrived in Gors Velen hours ago to get ready. Even before he officially met her, she had seemed like the type who needed to have everything under control. Her reactions to whatever it was that had been going on between them all but confirmed that.

The door to Triss’s apartment unlocked from the inside, and he forced his thoughts back to the present as it swung open. Ciri was on the other side, slightly flushed, pulling the hem of her shirt down even though it was already a size too big on her. “Geralt,” she said, as though she were surprised to see him. He’d thought Triss would’ve told her what was going on, but considering that the Academy had just finished their exams and Triss likely had to do most of the grading, it was entirely possible they hadn’t seen much, if any, of each other. “You look…nice.”

“Thanks.” He tugged on his collar again. “Triss didn’t leave already, did she?”

“No, she’s getting ready.” Ciri laughed a little. The way she was shifting almost made it look as though she were trying to block him from seeing past her—like she didn’t want him coming in. “Did you really think she’d go without you?”

“I guess not.” When he stepped to the side, she mimicked him, and he raised an eyebrow at her. “Do I not get to come in?”

“What? You—I mean, you do, but—” She pushed her hand through her hair, laughed nervously. “Yes. Come in.”

This time when he moved forward she didn’t stop him, instead stepping back to let him walk past her. He set his bag on the floor beside him, but he was caught off-guard by someone else in the room. Sitting on the couch was a red-haired woman, who had turned around to watch them curiously. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t place where he’d seen her, if at all.

“Geralt…” Ciri gestured towards the woman. Her hand was shaking slightly, as if she were nervous, though she didn’t have anything to be nervous about. “This is Bea.”

“Very nice to meet you,” she said, smiling, and Geralt suddenly remembered where he knew her from—the Alchemist. She’d seen him and Yennefer there, before the trip to Novigrad. He could only hope she didn’t remember it. “I’ve heard so much.”

At that point, he was used to hearing things like that. People made their own assumptions about him, especially after the incident in Blaviken nearly a decade ago, and he’d found it was easier to let them, though he doubted this had anything to do with that. “Really? What, for example?”

Ciri leaned against the back of the couch, fidgeting. She’d always had a hard time staying still, especially in situations where she felt awkward. “For example,” Bea said, “how you’ve saved her from woe so many times she’s lost count. And how you always know how to make her laugh.” A brief pause. He could hear Triss moving around in her bedroom, the sounds of a suitcase zipping. She’d be out soon. “That’s Ciri, of course. Other ladies, however…”

“Bea!” Ciri’s face turned red. Geralt was unperturbed. Thanks to Dandelion, he had something of a reputation anyway; again, it was easier to let folk jump to their own conclusions. “I’m standing right here!”

“All right, all right,” Bea said, grinning widely. “I’ll lay off. He’s already spoken for, anyway.”

Ciri tilted her head towards the ceiling and groaned loudly, pushing herself up from her perch on the back of the couch as Geralt looked at her, confused and a little worried about the implications of that sentence. “Well, good, you two have met. Geralt, we can wait out in the hall for Triss,” she said over Bea’s quiet laughter.

“I’m not even going to ask what that was about,” he said as Ciri pulled the door behind her, leaving it open just a crack. His bag was still inside, but Triss would see it and grab it. If not—well, he’d had to wear more uncomfortable clothing overnight before. He’d manage. “So…Bea.”

“What about her?” Ciri pushed her hair back behind her ear. Her other hand was shoved deep in her pocket; she was trying to keep still.

“She seems…nice.”

Geralt.” For a moment it seemed as if she were going to lean back against the door and send herself tumbling back into the apartment, but she caught herself at the last minute, swaying to the side instead so her arm hit the wall, and she turned her face so she wasn’t looking directly at him. “You’re terrible.”

“What’d I say?” He smiled, hoping she would see, hoping that the awkwardness of the situation and not worry over what his reaction might’ve been was what was bothering her. It was clear what was going on. He was surprised he didn’t notice it sooner.

Ciri shook her head and sighed, trying to look annoyed, but he could tell she was trying not to grin back. The look faded after a moment, though, as she stared at the closed door behind him, across the landing. “You should know…” she started, uncertain, then with more conviction, “that Yennefer was looking for you earlier.”

He tried not to let that rattle him, but his mind immediately jumped to the conclusion that she realized what he’d seen, that she wanted to make sure he didn’t remember it. It didn’t matter that her trying would be nearly useless; she was powerful, true, but the amount of magic it would take to incapacitate a witcher would likely be beyond what she was willing to do. “She was? Did she say about what?”

“No, but she looked agitated.” When Ciri finally looked over at him again, she was chewing on her lip. “She almost always looks agitated lately.”

He wanted to dive deeper into that—to see if she knew whether or not he was the reason for that—but he was stopped by the sound of a door opening. Behind him, not in front. He turned to see Keira, who had stopped short in the doorway at the sight of them. There was a bag slung over her shoulder, and another she was holding behind her back. When he tried to look past her, hopefully discreetly, the apartment appeared empty.

“Geralt!” She sounded surprised to see him, though he didn’t know why. He spent as much time as he could get away with in Ciri’s apartment. “You look…nice.”

“He’s going to the banquet,” Ciri interjected before he had a chance to respond. He’d been hoping she wouldn’t say anything about that. “So I’m sure you’ll see him there.” She grinned widely. Geralt tried to glare at her without Keira noticing.

“Is that so?” She lowered her gaze, looking up at him from under her eyelashes. Months ago, it might’ve worked on him. Now, it had no effect. “I’ll be sure and look for you, then.”

She shut the door, locked it behind her, and headed down the stairs, probably to teleport outside, where it was less cramped. Geralt leaned his head back against the wall and sighed. It was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

He hadn’t expected to see her at the hotel. After what had happened in Vengerberg, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d decided not to show up at all. But when Val arrived and went to the front desk he was surprised to find that someone had already checked into their room—and there was only one other person who would’ve been able to do that. The room they had booked was on the fifth floor, but he took the stairs instead of the elevator, too impatient to wait for it to come down to him. His hand was shaking slightly as he unlocked the door, though he didn’t know why. He had nothing to be nervous about. After all, it was her who owed him an explanation.

The room itself, when he entered, looked immaculate, as if nobody had yet been in it—but he saw Yennefer’s suitcase tucked in a corner, the garment bag that held her dress in the small, open closet. There was a light on in the bathroom to his right, and the door was cracked slightly. She knew he’d be there. He set his bag down on the floor and pushed the door open fully, not wanting to give her any more time to realize he’d arrived and figure out some way to avoid him. She’d drawn a bath in the massive tub and was sitting in it, the clouded water up to her shoulders. She opened her eyes and watched him as he came in and knelt next to her.

“I wasn’t sure if you were going to be here,” she said quietly.

He cleared his throat. “To be quite honest, I was wondering the same thing about you.”

“Please. I wouldn’t have been able to get out of this even if I’d wanted to. I’ve been nominated for the Council.”

“If you’d been intent on staying away you would’ve been able to—wait. What?” He hadn’t heard anything about a Council nomination. There was an open seat, everyone knew that, but the process by which the remaining members elected a new one was quite secretive, and for good reason. It was put in place to prevent people outside the group lobbying for candidates and allowed them to choose one based solely on their merit. And Yenna would be an excellent choice, there was no denying that—if she had any interest in politics at all. He suspected it was Philippa’s doing. She’d been talking her up for years.

Yennefer sighed, sitting up and turning to face him, resting one of her arms on the lip of the tub. Water dripped from her fingers and onto the floor. “I’m not supposed to be telling you this at all,” she said. “Considering they might not even elect me. At this point, though…” She pressed her lips together, let them pull apart slowly. She wouldn’t meet his gaze. “It seems likely they will.”

He had been hoping, though rather vainly, that he would be able to talk to her about what he’d seen at her townhouse—about the file—but he knew now that wouldn’t happen. He wondered how long this had been taking up space in her mind, how long she’d known but hadn’t mentioned it. “Did Philippa drag you into this?” he asked, a bit harsher than intended. “You should really talk to her about how often she—”

“She had nothing to do with this.” Her voice was tight, as were her fingers around the tub’s edge. She had always been one to let her hands do the talking, whatever it was that meant at any given time. “From what I’ve been told, actually, she tried to speak out against giving me the position. None of the others would hear it, not after she spent all this time promoting me.”

He frowned. Yenna didn’t exactly have any other friends on the Council, or the Chapter for that matter. It could’ve been Tissaia de Vries, considering they were part of the same line, but she was known to be choosy when it came to these elections, and she wouldn’t throw her weight behind a candidate for nepotism alone. Besides, the position normally required a background in mage politics, and despite the fact that she was extremely well-rounded educationally—more so than most mages—Yenna didn’t have that.

“If it wasn’t her,” he said slowly, “then who—?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.” It wouldn’t be worth it to argue; despite her choice of words, her tone quite clearly said I won’t talk about it. There was no point in pushing her. It would only exhaust them both. “Besides, I thought you’d come to talk about something else.”

It was surprising to him that she was willing to broach the subject at all, but now that she’d given him an opening to do it, he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. Still, when he opened his mouth to speak, nothing came out at first. How did he broach such a sensitive subject? “I—I just—” He exhaled, reached up and covered her hand with his. Surprisingly, she didn’t pull away. “You’ve had ten years to tell me, Yenna. Why didn’t you?”

“I’ve had seven years to tell you.” She looked down at his hands, at how he griped her wrist; tight, insistent, but not enough to hurt her. She hadn’t taken her rings off.  “And it wouldn’t have been worth it to tell you in the first place. It doesn’t matter now.”

It doesn’t matter now. How many times had he heard her say those words, trying to brush something off, expecting that it would be enough for him? It was what she’d told him every time he tried to have more than a surface-level conversation with her for three years, while she stayed in self-imposed isolation on the third floor of his house. Even after those initial barriers between them had been broken—in rather spectacular fashion, given the circumstances—it remained her default answer, the one she used to tell him that she didn’t want to talk anymore. It hadn’t used to bother him as much as it did, but then she’d returned from a sudden trip to Toussaint with a new scar and increased reluctance to talk to him about anything that didn’t involve him directly. He’d proposed to her only a few weeks later, thinking it would bring them closer again. It had not.

“Sounds an awful lot like it does.” She made a noise that might have been a laugh and smiled a little. They’d rarely agreed on anything. Until now, it hadn’t been a hindrance to either of them. Now, all he thought about when he saw her was whether or not they would fight again.

“Well.” She sighed, turned her hand over to lace her fingers with his. The gesture surprised him more than it should have. Indications of her affection had grown rare. “It doesn’t. But if you want to talk about it later, we can.”

For a moment, he was too surprised to speak. He’d never gotten a concession like that out of her, not once in the ten years they’d known each other. He didn’t understand why it would be less painful for her to talk about something like that, as opposed to whatever was going on with her Council nomination, but he’d take what he could get. “You mean that?”

“Yes. But listen.” She was sitting up straighter now, gripping his hand tightly. A few strands of her hair had come loose from where she’d pinned them at the top of her head. If she noticed, she didn’t care. “Everyone’s going to be watching us tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been rumors circulating since the last conference, considering you didn’t stay.”

He knew it was considered a faux pas to show up to only part of the conference. If one was going to be there, it was expected that they’d stay for the duration. But it had only taken one day for him to tire of the constant politics, so he’d left. A mistake. “Yenna, you know I—”

“Hate these things, yes, I know. That wasn’t intended as a judgement on you. But it means there will be a lot of eyes on us now.” She was looking at him directly for what felt like the first time in months. For all he could remember, it might very well have been. “For both our sakes, you need to pretend you’re enjoying yourself. And if, gods willing, I get elected to this position, at least try to look happy for me.”

It was a lot to ask, and they both knew it. He wasn’t exactly the best actor, and he’d made no secret of his distaste for these formal gatherings. But she was looking at him so insistently that he found he couldn’t say no. He nodded, and she relaxed visibly.

“Well. Now that that’s settled.” She stood suddenly, reaching for a large towel from a rack on the wall and wrapping herself in it. As she did so, she eyed him up and down critically. “You’ve got quite a bit of getting ready to do.”

~

“Remind me again why I agreed to go to this thing,” Geralt grumbled, tugging on the sleeve of his suit jacket. He’d been wearing it for less than an hour and he was already dying to take it off; there weren’t many occasions for a witcher to dress up, and he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d worn a suit, let alone for this long. All he could hope was that the banquet wouldn’t last into the night—or, at least, if it did, it wouldn’t be considered a breach of etiquette for him to leave early. Mages were always concerned about those sorts of things.

“If I knew, I would tell you.” Triss had seemed as surprised at his sudden acceptance of her invitation as he himself was; more, if that was possible. But she’d taken it in stride, even expressing relief that she wouldn’t have to go along as ‘Yenna’s third wheel,’ a role she was all too familiar with. The two of them were standing outside the entrance to the main hall, off to the side, as people streamed in. Many of them cast sideways glances in his direction, but he tried his best to ignore them. “But it’s good that you did. One more person to keep an eye on things, at least.”

The Council seat. He’d nearly forgotten about it, only to remember as he was packing that it was, theoretically, the reason Triss had asked him. They wanted as many people in her corner there as possible, without drawing too much attention. But as she stood across from him, her chestnut hair partially pinned back from her face, dressed in a gown that was, perhaps, a little more low-cut and close-fitting than what he’d thought she would wear to this sort of thing, he had to wonder if she didn’t have an ulterior motive.

“We should go in now,” she said. “It’s rude to linger outside for too long. But first—” She reached into the very small bag she had brought and pulled out some kind of small pendant, set with a stone, which she tucked into the pocket of his jacket. His medallion pulsed sharply once it was settled there. “To keep the others from reading your thoughts,” she explained. “Technically, manners would forbid it at a thing like this, but since you’re not part of the crowd that usually attends, people might think it’s safe to try something, and we can’t have that. We don’t want anyone knowing the reason you’re actually here.”

He nodded in agreement—no, he didn’t want anyone to know that, even if his own real reason was different from the one Triss thought it was. They were all part of the same thread. “Thanks, Triss.”

“Don’t thank me.” She smiled a little and slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow as they started to make their way into the main hall. “I’m horrible at enchanting stones.”

He didn’t have time to ponder the implications of that sentence, because the spectacle of the main hall had caught his attention. It was easily one of the most massive rooms he’d ever been in, with ceilings so high he couldn’t make out what was painted on them, and stained glass windows that seemed to take up most of the walls. There were a few wide, shallow steps at the other end, leading to what was presumably a stage, albeit a low one, and he could make out the sound of a violin somewhere in the room, though it was dim under the chatter of what had to be at least a hundred people. Most of them milled around the various tables placed around the room’s perimeter, which were piled high with various foods. There wasn’t a single chair in sight.

“So we’re banqueting standing up, then?” he asked Triss quietly, picking up a glass of wine from a tray proffered to him by a man standing near the door, likely for just this purpose. Triss nodded.

“The whole point of these things is to talk to people. Easier to do that when you’re not assigned a seat.” She took a glass as well, smiling in thanks and gently tugging on his arm to get him to move further into the room. He didn’t see anyone he recognized as he looked around, which only made him more thankful for the charm Triss had given him. Regis would be there sooner or later—he probably already was—but he would have no trouble blending in effortlessly with this crowd. Geralt wondered if he attended the banquets regularly; he was under the impression that he’d been working on research jointly with Yennefer, so it seemed likely.

“Speaking of talking to people,” he muttered as they walked, trying to scan the room, “did you happen to see—?”

“Oh, finally, there you are!” They turned to see a very disgruntled and impatient Philippa Eilhart in a deeply-cut red gown, the neckline of which was lined with conveniently placed flowers. Despite this, based on his glance around the room, it still seemed less showy than what three-quarters of the guests were wearing. She grabbed Triss by the arm, barely even sparing a glance at Geralt. “We’ve been waiting for you. There are photographers here, and they want all four of us.”

“Of course they do.” Triss rolled her eyes. “And Yenna’s okay with this?”

“She’s going to have to be.” Philippa lowered her voice, and Triss leaned in slightly. Geralt didn’t have to, but he focused on her words more intently all the same. “Listen—I don’t have any actual proof as of now, but I’ve a strong suspicion that someone leaked the list of potential candidates for this open seat, because people have been sucking up to her since the second she walked through the door.”

“Fantastic. Exactly what we needed right now. Well, I suppose I’d better go over there, then.” She looked guiltily up at Geralt. “Sorry for leaving you so early. I’ll be back as soon as we’re done, though.”

“It’s fine,” he said, though fine was the last thing it was. He hated mages (with a few specific exceptions), hated politics, and mixing the two together was something he’d hoped he’d never have to deal with. “I’ll just go see if I can find—”

“Regis is over there,” Philippa said, nodding towards a table on the opposite side of the room. “Be warned, though—he’s got company.”

And with that they were gone, the only proof that they had even been there the lingering scent of cinnamon and muskroot. Geralt stared after them for a moment, then sighed and headed off in the direction Philippa had indicated, hoping he didn’t get stopped. He could sense several pairs of eyes on him, could even feel his medallion vibrating every once in a while as someone brazenly tried to read his mind. Whenever it happened, he sensed a slight warmth coming from the amulet in his pocket. Clearly, it was doing its job.

He hadn’t been certain what Philippa meant when she said ‘company,’ but when he finally spotted Regis, now two tables down from where he’d initially thought, he was unpleasantly surprised to see Istredd there as well, talking to him. From a distance, it looked like any other conversation, but as he approached he could tell they were both tense. He could only assume that they’d put aside whatever problems they had with each other for that night.

Regis, at least, looked happy to see him, embracing him and clapping him on the back after Geralt set down his untouched wine glass on the nearest table. He was dressed in more or less the same thing Geralt was, but he looked infinitely more comfortable in it. Geralt wondered if it was because he came to these things often or simply because he’d had hundreds of years to learn how to deal with uncomfortable clothing. “Have you been here long?” he asked, turning to look at the food on the table.

“Since this morning,” Regis replied. “Most of us were here early, given the circumstances.”

He cast his gaze over to Istredd, who was watching him intensely and suspiciously, as if he knew something that even Geralt himself didn’t. The last time they’d spoken, Geralt had reassured him that there was nothing to worry about considering his relationship with Yennefer—but that had been before Novigrad, before Vengerberg, before whatever it was that stirred in his chest if he so much as thought about her. And he’d been thinking about her all evening. He wondered if Istredd would be so bold as to try and read those thoughts while Geralt was standing only a few feet away.

But he didn’t. Not that Geralt knew, at least, and he would have known. “Witcher,” he said coldly, nodding in Geralt’s direction. He returned the gesture with a slight tilt of his own head, but surreptitiously tried to keep an eye on the people around him. “When Yenna said there was a chance you would be here, I nearly didn’t believe her.”

His throat tightened at the idea of Yennefer talking about him to other people, but his voice was smooth as he replied. “Why’s that? You really don’t think she would lie to you?”

“No. Of course she wouldn’t.” He looked offended that he would even suggest such a thing. “But you didn’t give me the impression you would care much for get-togethers like this.”

“You don’t either,” Regis interrupted, to Geralt’s everlasting gratitude. It had only been a minute or two and he was already beginning to tire of Istredd and his condescending attitude. He’d already made it clear what his opinions on witchers in general, and Geralt in particular, were. “So you’ve not much room to speak.”

“Quite true.” From the way he looked at him, Geralt was beginning to wonder if Istredd liked Regis even less than he liked him. Considering how closely he worked with Yennefer, it was entirely possible. He didn’t seem to like anyone who was close to Yennefer. “But what I do have is a reason to be here. I know about the announcement that might very well be made later.” He turned back to Geralt. “You, however, don’t have any excuse.”

I heard about the nomination before you did, he wanted to say, but he kept it to himself. He wasn’t sure how much Istredd knew about Yennefer’s excursion to Novigrad. Given what had happened between them afterwards, he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn she’d told him she went alone. She hadn’t exactly hidden the fact that he didn’t want her to go at all. “I’m here because Triss asked me to be here,” Geralt said, trying to disguise his anger. “And that’s all the excuse you need.”

“Of course,” he said smoothly. “If you’ll excuse me.” He set his own glass down on the table and left. Geralt tried to hide his relief initially, but when he saw Regis looking the same way, he couldn’t help but chuckle.

“He doesn’t like you much either, does he?”

“Not a bit. He has certain misconceptions about my relationship with Yennefer.”

“Such as?” Geralt picked up several prawns from the table and shoved them into his mouth one after the other. He wasn’t sure if it was from magical enhancement or simply because he hadn’t eaten for several hours, but he thought it might be one of the best things he’d ever tasted.

“She first contacted me about matters outside of her studies when she was sixteen. We were…working quite closely at the time.” He couldn’t quite place the expression on Regis’s face, but it definitely wasn’t a pleasant one. “You can see how he drew his own conclusions from there.”

“Ah.” He could see it, all too easily, at that. He could also see how it would be more than a little hypocritical of Istredd to be making those judgements, given the gap between him and Yennefer. But he didn’t want to talk about that now—in fact, he’d love to just forget that Istredd existed and spend the rest of the evening focusing on other things. “So when will they…you know?”

“Any time now.” Regis frowned as he picked up Geralt’s abandoned wine glass, clearly with no intention of drinking it. “As soon as the rest of the Chapter and Council are here, they’ll likely have someone announce it.”

“What do you think are her chances?”

He sighed. His eyes had suddenly become fixed on something behind Geralt, a few tables down, but he was hesitant to turn and find out what it was. “When you take into account the people who are actually part of these groups…good for her. More than good. Unless she’s got some very fervent opponents, she’s going to get the spot.” There was another unreadable expression creeping up on his face as he nodded in the direction of whatever it was he was looking at. “Then again, you could always ask her yourself.”

His breath caught in his throat as he turned and there she was, standing only a table away now, talking to another dark-haired sorceress. She was dressed, compared to most of the others he’d seen, quite modestly, in a long and very detailed black dress that only left her shoulders and arms partially visible through the sheer fabric. He wondered if she was trying to call attention to herself or divert it. When he thought about how she’d reacted to the news of her nomination, he was inclined to believe the latter—she’d want as little attention as possible tonight. But now that he’d seen her, he was positive he wouldn’t be able to take his eyes off her, especially when she waved her hand in response to something the other woman said and Geralt caught a flash of silver on her wrist.

He turned partially back to Regis, making sure she stayed in the corner of his vision. He didn’t know if he’d get a chance to actually speak to her. “She’s…”

He’d had no idea how he was going to finish the sentence, but Regis seemed to take it in stride. “Yes, it appears that in trying to blend in, she’s only managed to stand out more. I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone assumed that she already knew the position was hers, and dressed accordingly.”

Geralt was about to reply when, as if summoned by them talking about her, Yennefer turned, and locked eyes with him. She looked him up and down critically, raised an eyebrow, and turned to the woman she’d been talking to, who was wearing a far more revealing black dress and also staring at him, but in a much different way. After what he had to assume was some sort of hasty goodbye, Yennefer came over to them, holding a wine glass that was far emptier than Geralt’s had been.

“Someone definitely leaked the list,” she said to Regis with absolutely no greeting whatsoever. “I just had to spend ten minutes fending off Sabrina Glevissig’s not-terribly-subtle questions about how I’d even been considered in the first place.”

“You have to have expected this,” Regis said, not without sympathy. It seemed as though everyone knew what the problem with the situation was except for Geralt, as usual. He had stopped being fazed by it. “Tissaia is a member of the Chapter, and Philippa is already on the Council. It’s the same situation you and Triss have been dealing with for years. People talk.”

“It’s a bit different being on the other end of the situation.” She raised her glass and took a very long drink. Surprisingly, it looked as though she hadn’t drank any when she lowered it again. “I don’t know how she does it.”

“But you know why. And that makes all the difference.”

Yennefer lowered her eyes for a moment, then turned away from Regis abruptly. “Yes. Which is why I’d rather not discuss it here. Hello, Geralt.” She tilted her head as she looked him over again, biting her lip briefly. “Lovely outfit. You look…dashing.”

“Thank you. You’re…” She smiled a little as he tried to think of a word that would somehow adequately sum up what he’d felt when he first saw her. “Dazzling.”

He could’ve been imagining it. It could’ve been his own desires playing tricks on him. But he thought he saw her blush, ever so slightly, before she lifted her glass to her lips again. Geralt looked at it, confused. If she’d been drinking wine, he’d have been able to smell it, considering their close proximity. But he didn’t smell wine—he didn’t smell anything at all, besides lilac and gooseberries. “That wine—”

“Is illusory,” she said, cutting him off as she tilted the glass. “Philippa’s quite good at them. I don’t drink. I haven’t in quite some time, actually. But it makes one look out of place here.” She looked around at the crowd, which had suddenly begun to part—the Chapter and Council would be coming in at any moment, he had to assume. “Though sometimes it feels as if getting drunk would be the best way to cope with everything that goes on here.” She eyed his empty hands, a question that she didn’t need to ask.

“I’m not gonna drink,” he said, unaware of when he’d actually made that decision. “Why dull my senses when I’m in such pleasant company?”

She raised her eyebrow at him again, this time with considerably more skepticism. “Do you plan to compliment me all evening?”

“I plan to tell you what I think.”

He wasn’t sure where the words had come from, but he knew somehow that they were the right ones, as she raised the rim of her glass to her lips to hide her expression. He wanted to say more—though if he’d already rendered her speechless, he probably didn’t need to—but at that moment a smattering of applause caught his ear from the doors, and it rippled down the room in waves as the people who he could only assume were the Chapter and Council filed in, in groups of two or three. The crowd had left them a clear path to the raised stage at the far end of the room. He turned to Yennefer as they began to process past them. “Mind filling me in?”

“Not at all.” Her expression barely changed, but it seemed as though she was relieved at the distraction, though still tense. She nodded towards the two leading the others: a middle-aged man in modest clothing, next to a tall, sharp-featured woman with dark hair. “The man is Gerhart of Aelle, sometimes called Hen Gedymdeith, the oldest living mage. Beside him is Tissaia de Vries, former rectoress of Aretuza. Among other things.” There was something tight in her voice, but he ignored it and moved his attention to the next pair—a golden-haired woman in a grey-green lace dress, on the arm of Vilgefortz of Roggeveen. “Francesca Findabair, also known as Enid an Gleanna, the Daisy of the Valleys. And I believe you’ve already had the pleasure of meeting Vilgefortz.”

He nodded, still looking at Francesca. “She’s a member of the chapter? She looks…very young.”

“She’s a pure-blooded elf.” Sometime during the quiet introductions, Triss had slipped up beside Geralt, and she squeezed his arm gently in a gesture of apology. Yennefer was looking strangely at them, but didn’t say anything about it, only continued.

“The man walking behind Vilgefortz is Artaud Terranova, and those five are the Chapter. The three at the end are Fercart of Cidaris, Radcliffe of Oxenfurt and Carduin of Lan Exter. And you already know Philippa, of course.”

By the time she finished, the procession had reached the stage, and they filed on one by one to stand in a perfectly straight line several feet back from the edge—all except Vilgefortz of Roggeveen, who stepped up to a podium that definitely hadn’t been there when Geralt first came in. Around the same time, Istredd joined the small group that had congregated around Yennefer. The crowd fell nearly silent. Beside him, Yennefer drew in a quiet breath.

“Good evening,” he said in a tone that was presumably meant to be amiable, though to Geralt it only sounded fake, sugar-coated, like the way he’d talked to Yennefer at her house in Vengerberg. Nearly everyone else in the room was riveted by him. “I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re glad to see so many of you here. We’ve got an excellent lineup of speakers and presenters over the next several days—people who are pushing the boundaries of magic and science to their absolute limits.” He paused and looked around the room. It seemed like his eyes stayed on Geralt a moment longer than they should have, but his gaze had moved on before he could even begin to think about what that could mean. “But I know you’re all here tonight for only one thing.”

Another pause. He was stringing the audience along. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yennefer slip her hand into Istredd’s and grip it tightly. The sight made him burn.

“It’s been no secret that ever since Sheala de Tancarville resigned from her Council position, the rest of us have been in talks regarding who will fill that spot. It’s been difficult, and there were many promising candidates, but after much deliberation we’ve found someone we think fits the bill quite nicely.”

There was light, overly polite applause at this, and he waited for it to die down before he continued, a small smile on his face. “As I’m sure you all know, the focus of the Council, as well as the Chapter, is split equally between politics and research. Sometimes this balance is difficult to keep. Sometimes a member leans too far to one side, and tips the scales for everyone else. Despite this, we thought it was best if, considering the open position was left vacant by an academic, it be filled by an academic, and out of every person whose name was put forth as a possibility, only one seemed to truly fit that position. In fact, we found there was no need to look farther back than just over a decade—to the youngest Aretuza graduate in recent history. I hope you’ll all join me in welcoming Lady Yennefer of Vengerberg to the Supreme Council.”

Yennefer sucked in another near-silent breath beside him as heads started to turn in her direction. Geralt clenched his jaw. The crowd was applauding again, though it seemed somewhat subdued this time. There had to be some who were upset by this. Yennefer was young even by mage standards, and they’d likely passed up several people who might have been more qualified, not to mention more interested in politics. But that didn’t matter now. She handed her glass of illusory wine to Istredd and began to make her way up to the stage, a look on her face that anyone else might have mistaken for a smile.

She only looked back once. When she did, it was at Geralt.

Chapter Text

“This is ridiculous,” Keira grumbled as she lifted a glass of wine to her lips and drank half of it in one go. She’d found their little group only a few minutes after Yennefer had disappeared with the rest of the Council and Chapter into a back room Geralt hadn’t even realized was there, for a reason he didn’t know. It had taken a while for the applause to die down, hesitant though it had been, and she’d been forced to stand through it all, next to Vilgefortz, pretending to be happy when Geralt—and everyone around him—could tell that she wanted nothing more than to leave and not return. He could only imagine the things they were saying to her back there; he’d rather not think about it, actually. Even focusing on Istredd, who’d been glaring at him for the better part of the past several minutes, was preferable to that.

“What’s ridiculous?” Triss, clearly, was already tiring of Keira’s complaints, especially since they’d been nearly nonstop, and seemed to center around Yennefer. They were visibly grating on Regis’s nerves as well, but he at least had the good sense to keep to the edge of the conversation and not address them directly. As far as Keira was concerned, he wasn’t even listening; theoretically, Geralt and Triss were the only ones who knew he would still be able to hear them, even turned away and talking to Istredd, which he seemed none too happy doing.

“That.” She pointed at the door next to the stage, which had just opened, allowing the Chapter and newly-full Council to spill back into the hall. There was a small crowd surrounding them almost immediately, Yennefer in particular. If she couldn’t stand the way people were trying to talk themselves up to her when her position was based in rumors, she’d be absolutely miserable now. “This whole thing. They’ll put anyone on the Council these days, I guess.”

“Yenna is perfectly qualified for the position,” Triss said tightly. She seemed more upset than anyone else about the whole thing—anyone, perhaps, except Yennefer herself—so Geralt was surprised at how calmly she was handling Keira’s bitching. “Besides, what were you expecting? For them to suddenly elect you? We all know that’s not likely to begin with.”

Geralt blinked several times in quick succession, mildly shocked, and Keira did the same, before huffing and turning to leave. It was a relief to have her gone, and neither of them tried to hide it as Triss looked back over at Geralt, her eyes now reflecting nothing but concern for her friend.

“They’ll make their away around to us eventually,” she said. “Until then, we just have to act like nothing’s wrong. Everyone on the Chapter will be watching us. A couple of them in particular.”

True to her prediction, the group did eventually circle around to them, though by that time it had grown significantly smaller. Geralt was personally introduced to every member of the Chapter, but the Council was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t want to think too hard about the implications of that, so instead he focused on the conversation going on around him, which seemed to be mostly useless small talk until Vilgefortz of Roggeveen stepped closer to him.

“I wonder,” he said, “if I might have a word, Witcher?”

Triss and Regis were looking at him with barely-disguised worry as he waited a moment, then nodded. There wasn’t much more for him to say, and it wasn’t like he could refuse a direct invitation from a Chapter member. That was probably considered the biggest faux pas of them all. In silence, he followed Vilgefortz out of the room and down a large hallway that opened up into what seemed a rather spectacular art gallery.

“Have you visited here before?” Vilgefortz asked, and Geralt mutely shook his head. There was a purpose behind this, he knew it, and he wished that they could just skip all the formalities and get straight to it, but Vilgefortz didn’t seem like a man for blunt honesty. Based on the way he’d spoken to the crowd, Geralt could tell that he’d talk his way around whatever it was for as long as possible, until he got to the important part. An offer he couldn’t refuse, probably.

“Well, then. What an honor to be the first one to show you around.” He gestured to the hallway around them, the walls of which were covered in paintings, arranged in odd formations, almost like a family tree. Some had such sprawling arrangements that they took up entire walls and then some. Geralt remembered a conversation with Triss once where she’d mentioned that mages took sponsoring very seriously. He hadn’t realized just how seriously until that moment.

“There used to be another gallery here,” Vilgefortz said. “The Gallery of Glory, dedicated to illustrating the history of magic. But recently the higher-ups decided to swap its place with the gallery where they display all the sponsorship lines. It seems they care more and more about staying on alumni’s good side as the years go on.”

“You’d think some wouldn’t be happy about them switching the galleries.”

“Some weren’t. But mages, as a whole, are vain. I’m sure you’ve noticed.” Geralt kept an eye on the walls as they progressed through the rooms slowly, wondering if he would see anyone he knew. “Personally, I find these far less interesting than the paintings in the other gallery—excepting a specific few, mind you. They’re so much more…dynamic. Full of life. These aren’t.”

The portraits were connected, he supposed, by thin lines on the wall drawn between them, though as a whole the arrangement didn’t look messy. Quite the opposite, in fact. Geralt was no expert in art, not by a long shot, but he couldn’t help disagreeing with Vilgefortz—perhaps for no other reason than to disagree with Vilgefortz. “Don’t know how you can say that. They’re people, every one of them. Doesn’t that make something about them intrinsically alive?”

“I suppose. That’s an interesting point of view to take.” They were both silent for a moment, the tension growing thick. Geralt was about to say something when Vilgefortz suddenly asked “Geralt, did you ever think about becoming a sorcerer?”

The question caught him so off-guard that he answered a bit more honestly than he’d intended. “Yes. Years ago. Why?”

“But you didn’t? You were never attracted by the Art?”

“I was. But I decided it would be better to follow the voice of good sense. Besides, I’ve seen firsthand the kinds of trouble mages can get themselves into. And most of the other witchers at Kaer Morhen had a stronger magical presence than I do. I would’ve been lousy at it.”

“That’s quite fascinating. All things considered.”

Geralt stopped suddenly and turned to face him. With those words, things were beginning to fall into place, and he knew why Vilgefortz had wanted to speak to him privately. “I get it,” he said. “I should’ve guessed. You’ve been digging around in my history. Well, it won’t do you any good. Just because my mother was a sorceress doesn’t mean I’m automatically talented, or even interested.”

Vilgefortz was looking at him rather strangely, with something that seemed almost like triumph, or eagerness, or some mix of the two. He wanted something, and he clearly thought he was going to get it. “We have that in common, you and I,” he said slowly. “My mother was a sorceress as well—or, at least, I have good reason to believe she was. It’s strange how those things happen. In most cases, mages shouldn’t even be able to conceive.”

They started walking again, slower this time, and Geralt didn’t say anything—he knew Vilgefortz would circle around to his point soon enough if he just stayed quiet. And sure enough, after another moment he spoke again. “Let me tell you a little something about mages, Geralt,” he said. “It requires a fair bit of background knowledge, but I hope you’ll find the payoff worth it.”

He remained silent, still, but nodded when Vilgefortz looked over at him. There was something like dread seeping into the pit of his stomach, up his throat, and he couldn’t help but hope that someone would come looking for him, get him out of whatever was about to happen.

“I don’t know who my parents are,” Vilgefortz said. His voice had adopted the tone he’d used on the audience in the main banquet hall—the one that would captivate a crowd, and it might have worked on anyone but him. “Some druids from the Kovir Circle found me in a gutter in Lan Exter. They took me in and raised me to be a druid myself. Some years later, my gifts began to reveal themselves during certain druidic rituals, and it was then that I began to understand my origins. I was conceived, unplanned, by two people, and at least one of them was a mage. Perhaps even both.”

They crossed through a doorway and into the next section of the portrait gallery. The paintings, Geralt noticed, looked newer and newer the farther along they walked.

“The person who discovered my abilities was, of course, a sorcerer. He offered me what, to his mind, was a tremendous gift: a chance at an education, at self-improvement, with a view to joining the Brotherhood of Sorcerers.”

“And you accepted,” Geralt said quietly. If this was all there was to his story, he didn’t understand why he was telling it, but Vilgefortz looked briefly annoyed at that—Geralt must have interrupted him.

“No. I rejected it. Quite rudely, in fact. I wanted him to feel guilty, him and his entire magical fraternity. For the gutter in Lan Exter, for the fact that one or two detestable mages—bastards without hearts or human feelings—had thrown me into it at birth, and not before, when I wouldn’t have survived. He didn’t understand. As was to be expected. He shrugged and went on his way. By doing so, he branded himself and his fellows with the stigma of insensitive, arrogant whoresons, worthy of the greatest contempt.”

This had to be going somewhere, Geralt thought. There was no way Vilgefortz had brought him all the way out here—presumably away from prying eyes and ears—just to talk about his distaste for mages when he was one himself. No, there was something hidden in his words, waiting to make its way out. A snake, looking for the right moment to strike.

“By that time I’d grown sick of druids. So I left them and set off into the world. I did a variety of things, some of which I’m still ashamed of, but eventually ended up a mercenary. My life, as you might imagine, unfolded rather predictably after that. Victorious soldier, defeated soldier, marauder, robber, rapist, murderer, and finally a fugitive. Fleeing the noose, so to speak. I ran to the end of the world—which, it just so happens, is right here. In Gors Velen. And here, at the end of the world, I met a sorceress.”

They came to another stop, far more deliberately this time, and Vilgefortz turned to look at the paintings on the wall to their right. Geralt followed his gaze, but froze when he realized what he was looking at: a sponsor line that, near the top of the wall, started with Tissaia de Vries. Her painting was clearly far older than the rest of them, and a thin line connected her portrait to Philippa Eilhart’s, and then Philippa’s to Yennefer’s. He was sure it was no coincidence that they had stopped here, and he didn’t have to read the small placard under the frame to know it was her. He’d recognize her anywhere, even over a decade younger—her eyes, her profile, the way her hair fell over her shoulders, were all still exactly the same. She wasn’t quite looking at the artist, or the camera that had taken the picture it was painted off, but her gaze landed somewhere to the side, a small smile playing on her lips. Another thing that hadn’t changed.

Gods, she’d been young when she left the school. It hadn’t fully hit him until then.

“I’d be very careful,” Geralt said softly, “with your choice of words now. Be careful that the similarities you’re so desperately searching for don’t lead you too far.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Vilgefortz. “I’m only telling you what happened. You needn’t know who it is, because it doesn’t matter. She was young, enough so to still be in classes—and, like most young sorceresses, she was promiscuous, arrogant, spiteful, unfeeling and cold. She’d only been seeking a distraction, and came out of the situation with more than she bargained for. So she left.” He paused briefly, eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “For a while I was pathetically hung up on it. I couldn’t cope with the things I felt for her, and assumed that the only thing to do was try and win her back. But she refused, and there was no way for me to see her. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the school is incredibly well-warded.”

Geralt nodded, jaw clenched. He could pretend all he wanted that he didn’t know who Vilgefortz was talking about, but if he took a stab at asking and was correct, he was certain the woman’s version of events would be quite different.

“A few months later, I found out why she’d been so unwilling to let me back in. And I realized that what I felt for her wasn’t love at all. It was hate. So I left on my own after that. I went straight to Ban Ard and enrolled in classes. You should be able to fill in the rest of the story from there.”

Geralt wasn’t sure he could trust himself to speak without saying something he’d end up regretting. What he actually wanted to do was punch Vilgefortz in the face, quite hard, but he held that impulse in check. “And what was it that made her want to keep you away?”

“Ah.” He sighed, his gaze roaming across Yennefer’s portrait, accounting for every detail. “She’d tried to keep from me what was rightfully mine.”

It wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting, and he’d barely even had time to process it before a voice behind them called out “Oh, there you are!” and when he turned it was Philippa, looking, if possible, even more agitated than she had before. “Everyone’s looking for you,” she said to Vilgefortz. “You know how it is at these sorts of things. Besides, I need to borrow the witcher for a minute.”

She slipped her hand into the crook of Geralt’s elbow, much like Triss had, but her grip was far tighter, much more insistent. Vilgefortz looked between them for a moment, an unreadable expression on his face, and then nodded. He had only gotten a few steps away when Philippa called out to him again, and he stopped, his back still turned to her.

“Just so we’re clear, she was never yours to begin with.”

There was no response from him, not even a moment of hesitation as he started walking again, back towards the main hall. Philippa tightened her already vise-like grip on Geralt’s arm and dragging him in the opposite direction.

“I suppose I should be thanking you,” he said as she pulled them through a doorway that led to a tower, circled by a spiral staircase. She hiked her dress up to her thighs and started taking the stairs two at a time. Wherever they were going, she was clearly in a hurry to get there.

“You should,” she said, without even looking back to see if Geralt was following. “But you can save that for later. There’s more important things to discuss.”

They climbed until they reached the third floor, and then Philippa led him down a hallway lined by rooms that must have been dormitories, because there were plaques with what he assumed were students’ names next to the doors, and decorations on the doors themselves. He hadn’t expected the place to look so modern, but it did, and there was a coldness about it as well, though perhaps that was just the grey carpet, the cinderblock walls painted a stark white.

“Well, in that case, could you tell me why exactly we’re here?”

“Because it’s the only place I can be assured no one will try to eavesdrop.” They reached the end of the hallway, stopping in front of a door that looked significantly worse for wear compared to the others, and lacking a few coats of fresh paint. He was surprised, when he looked at the plaques next to it, to see Triss’s name, and Yennefer’s underneath that. It seemed there would be no shortage of things to surprise him that night. “No one likes being in here. Myself included. But it’ll do for this.”

She reached into the front of her dress, and Geralt looked away, embarrassed, but she was only pulling out a small silver key, which she used to unlock the door. They stepped into a stark, tiled room that must have been some sort of entryway or common room, because it was completely devoid of furniture, or of any decoration at all, save for a whiteboard on the wall. There were two more doors on the opposite wall, and she went to the one on the left, unlocking it with the same key. His medallion vibrated as he stepped inside, and once he’d gotten a good look around the room, he realized why.

“What happened here?” There was nothing in there apart from the furniture he would expect to see—a lofted bed over a small couch, a desk, a dresser, a wardrobe—but leading from the doorway to the couch was a veritable trail of bloodstains, and they looked to be all over the couch itself as well, though the black fabric hid it better than the grey carpet. All the while, as he took this in, his medallion was pulsating sharply. Something had gone on here, something so bad that the echoes of it could still be felt years later.

“It’s not my place to tell you,” she said. “But surely you’ve guessed that her time as a student here wasn’t easy.”

He nodded. The high standards that most mages were held to meant that no one’s time at an educational facility was easy, but he got the sense that Yennefer had had it worse than most—or, at the very least, it had left her still wanting something. Wanting it desperately enough to accept his offer of taking her to Novigrad without thinking too much about the potential consequences. And look where they’d ended up.

Philippa huffed and splayed her hands out on the desk, which was blessedly clean. She had her back turned to him, but Geralt didn’t mind. Whatever was going on here had to be awkward for her as well; he didn’t think they’d ever spoken one-on-one like this.

“I’m worried about Yenna,” she said finally, almost hesitantly, like she didn’t want to admit it. He’d never seen her hesitant about anything. If he hadn’t been there when Yennefer had received the nomination in the first place, he would’ve been confused, but having seen that, he felt the worry tighten in his own chest, especially after hearing it so prominently in another voice.

“Because of the Council? I think we all are.”

“It’s not just that.” She turned to face him, leaning up against the desk now instead. Her fingers gripped the edge tightly and for a moment her posture looked so much like Yennefer’s that he was startled by it. “I’m nearly certain you would’ve had the chance to hear her complain about the sheer number of people who are trying to get on her good side now.” He nodded. “As you can imagine, that’s only gotten worse since the announcement. She could barely move a few feet without someone accosting her. So she left.”

It wasn’t what he’d been expecting to hear. That she was upset, he could understand, but for her to take such drastic action? It seemed unlike her. “What do you mean, she left? Left the castle? The grounds?”

“No. Just the room. Luckily, I think I know where she is. But I won’t be able to get in there.”

“Then why are we here?”

She sucked her bottom lip in between her teeth, once again looking uncharacteristically nervous. “Because I have a feeling that you could.”

He blinked a few times, unsure he’d heard her correctly. “What makes you think that?”

“Geralt, don’t ask questions you know the answers to. It makes you look stupid.” She waited, but when he continued to look dumbfounded she rolled her eyes. “You were with her in Novigrad. And I know you’re the one that talked her out of her study before that.”

“She told you that?”

“She didn’t have to. My point is, you’re closer to her than either of you want anyone to believe. It’s about time you owned up to that.”

The conversation felt remarkably similar to the one that he’d had with Ciri on the night they returned from Novigrad. It seemed everyone thought he was close to Yennefer except Yennefer herself. But just like that night, he found himself unable to come up with a reason he shouldn’t—or, perhaps, he didn’t want to.

“Fine. So where did she go?”

“I don’t know exactly where it is—”

“That’s not very helpful—”

“Would you let me finish? Gods, I’ll never understand what she sees in you. I don’t know the place’s exact location, but it’s somewhere in this building. I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it, and her.”

“Why?”

She pressed her hand to her forehead for a brief moment before standing up and pulling the door open. “Do use your head for once. Some of those mutations of yours were designed specifically to enhance your tracking skills. I’m sure you’ll figure out something.”

Geralt found himself at a loss for words for what felt like the millionth time that night, so he stood there as she walked to the outside door, pausing once, briefly, just outside the room. “And if you’ve really no idea where to start,” she said, “she came here first.”

~

“So you said your parents are separated?”

Ciri looked up from where she’d been resting her head on Bea’s shoulder. They’d been lying there, in her bed, for most of the night, after everyone else had left for the banquet. Originally, the idea was that they’d take advantage of the fact that they’d have the apartment to themselves for the night; that rarely happened, especially considering how overprotective everyone was of her. But once the place was empty, save for the two of them, Ciri had found she wanted nothing more than to drop the pretenses, the lies about who she was, and just be.

And Bea, surprisingly, had been all too happy to accommodate that, so instead they laid there, half on top of each other, talking about anything and everything. Bea related the struggles of being the only daughter in a large family, and Ciri countered with heavily-edited tales of her time with the Rats, as well as what it was like to be, for all intents and purposes, an only child. She’d seemed particularly fascinated by that - she’d never been an only anything - and had spent the past several minutes asking questions about Geralt and Yennefer in particular, and how they’d brought her up separately.

“It’s...a little more complicated than that,” she admitted, as honestly as she could. It would take a lot of thinking for anyone to figure out that she was the runaway Cintran princess, especially someone like Bea, who had confessed that she didn’t pay much attention to politics, but she still wasn’t willing to chance it. “They were never really together.”

“Ah.” She felt Bea turn her head, felt lips brush her temple. She blushed. “So you were - ”

“ - a surprise.” She smiled a little, even knowing full well she wouldn’t be able to laugh at her own joke. Bea wouldn’t understand, and Ciri didn’t need her to. They’d gotten this far without her recognizing either of them, and she preferred to keep it that way. “It’s worked out just fine, at least this far.”

“You don’t think…?” She trailed off, and Ciri looked up to see her biting her lip nervously. “No, never mind.”

“I don’t think what? It’s okay. You can tell me.”

“You’ll think it’s ridiculous.” Ciri rolled her eyes and gestured for her to continue. They were both sitting up fully now, shoulders still brushing. “Oh, alright. You don’t think it’s possible that they’re...seeing each other without you knowing? Behind your back?”

Ciri let out a sharp breath, a laugh lost somewhere in the middle. She was glad she hadn’t been eating or drinking anything; that could’ve been disastrous. “Geralt and Yennefer? Being around each other that much voluntarily? Not likely. Besides, Yennefer’s engaged.”

“Which you said yourself hasn’t exactly stopped her before.” That much was true, Ciri admitted reluctantly to herself. There were reasons that the engagement had gone on for two years with no end in sight, and not all of them were because Val was an asshole.

“....okay. Yeah. Any particular reason you’re bringing this up now?”

Bea sighed and pushed a hand through her hair, which had come loose from its usual braid. Ciri liked it better this way. “When you introduced me to Geralt earlier, I recognized him. I saw him at work, a few weeks ago. Fairly late at night. With Yennefer.”

“You’re sure it was her?” Of course Ciri had considered the fact that, at some point, they’d had interactions that didn’t involve her at all. They’d been in the Kestrel Mountains for days hunting down the dragon, and besides that they had so many mutual friends that Ciri was sure they saw each other frequently. But to her eyes, it had never looked as though they’d gotten along that well. The only proof she had to the contrary were the things that Geralt had told her the night they returned from Novigrad, but they had only seemed to be the words of a concerned friend, not a lover. Besides, they would’ve told her. Right?

“She’s not exactly easy to mistake for anyone else,” Bea said dryly. “Anyway, it was late, and they were sitting on the second floor, and you know full well that no one ever sits on the second floor. And it looked like they were pretty...comfortable with each other.”

For a minute she was silent, trying to take in what she’d heard. She knew that Geralt had gone to Novigrad with her, but she’d assumed that, like so many other things, he’d done it for her sake, because it was important to her that Yennefer be happy, and not for Yennefer herself. They’d only known each other in person for a few months, and as far as she could tell from listening to Triss or Dandelion talk about how things usually went when they all got lunch together, they barely even spoke to each other. But still...he had seemed awfully concerned that night, and Yennefer had been acting cagey for days afterwards. And she’d enlisted help with getting him the swords. And when Triss had mentioned earlier that day that Geralt had accepted her invitation to go to the banquet, Yennefer had gotten a very strange look on her face, and left shortly after.

None of that had to mean anything. But Ciri couldn’t help thinking it wouldn’t be that bad if it did.

“You’re right,” she said, resting her head on Bea’s shoulder. “I do think that’s ridiculous.”

~

After stopping several times to backtrack, as well as inordinate amounts of hesitation, Geralt finally found himself in front of the door to the room he was nearly sure Yennefer had to be in. He’d paced up and down the hallway for several minutes after Philippa had left, and finally caught the scent of her perfume, which had led him all the way back down the stairs and through several hallways, each one taking him farther and farther away from where the banquet was taking place. Nobody else would have been able to find her here. A good place to go, then, if what she wanted was to get away from them.

The door itself was made of diamond-shaped panes of frosted glass, and it was impossible for him to see through it. The place behind it looked muddied, more than the glass should have made it, and he couldn’t even see enough color to hazard a guess on what was there. But she was. He knew it. And he knew that going into wherever it led would only end up causing more problems. She had enough to deal with already. They both did.

After a moment of deliberation, he decided he didn’t care, and pushed the door open.

 

Chapter Text

The door, it turned out, led into a rather spacious courtyard, one he didn’t think would’ve been able to fit in the space between the hallway he’d just been in and the next one, though he supposed in a school of magic anything was possible. The sky overhead was dark and clear, and a few lamps illuminated the space—paved with cobblestones, except for a small grassy area in the middle. There were benches around the courtyard’s perimeter, and he suspected that if Yennefer were here, he’d find her on one of them, but it was something at the foot of the tree that held his interest. Two somethings, shaped oddly like headstones. He took a step forward.

“Geralt?” He stopped and looked to the side and there she was, on one of the benches as he’d thought, and looking just as breathtaking as the last time he’d seen her—even more so, if that was possible, now that she was on her own. But the worry and fear that had been in her expression earlier hadn’t gone away; in fact, it looked stronger now than ever. And it seemed to be aimed squarely at him. “I—how did you—?”

“Get in?” he finished for her, only realizing a moment later when she pressed her lips together that this probably wasn’t the time to be doing such a thing. “Through the door. Which I’m assuming is how you also got in.”

“Yes, I’d surmised that much.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her legs, hands clasped in front of her, twisting at the rings on her fingers. “But you shouldn’t be here.”

He had expected the words. Anticipated that she might want to be left alone—that she most likely did, considering she’d gone all the way across the school for a chance at solitude. But they stung all the same. “Right.” He hesitated slightly, starting to turn back towards the door. He knew this would be a mistake. There was no one to blame but himself.

“You—” Yennefer looked surprised she’d even spoken, locking eyes with him directly. “You don’t have to leave,” she said softly. “It’s just that you shouldn’t have even been able to see the door. There are…wards in place.”

He understood, then, why Philippa had thought he’d be able to find her when no one else would. He was, after all, the one able to bypass the wards around her study, even using a key that wasn’t his own. How exactly that worked, he couldn’t say, but it meant something. It had to.

“I want you to stay,” she said, barely audible this time. She wouldn’t look at him for too long now; her eyes flicked to the tree and back again, and he took the opportunity to turn back there himself, walking close enough to tell that the things he’d seen when he came in were, in fact, headstones. They were relatively small, but still looked out of place compared to everything else in the courtyard, and especially compared to Yennefer herself. He would freely admit he didn’t know her as well as everyone seemed to think he did, but she had never seemed the type to dwell on death. Not when she herself was still very much alive, and would remain so for a long time.

“I don’t…” He cleared his throat, shoving his hands in his pockets. The way she watched him from the corners of her eyes made him nervous. “I don’t suppose you’d answer if I asked about those?” He tilted his head in the direction of the headstones. “Or are they just here, and you don’t know their origin?”

“I do.” She spoke at normal volume this time, but there was something tense about it—about her whole being—and he instantly regretted asking. “I knew them both personally.”

He turned and walked over to them, kneeling down to inspect them more closely and steadying himself with a hand on the ground. If he got dirt on his suit, he’d never hear the end of it from Triss. The first one, on the left, looked slightly older, though not by much, and had significantly more engraved in it.

“Dea Westheimer,” Yennefer said. He didn’t look back at her. He was afraid of what he would see. “A roommate of mine. After Keira, but before Triss.”

“Didn’t know you had a third roommate.” He realized, after saying it, that it didn’t mean much. He knew almost nothing about her life before teaching Ciri, besides what he’d found in the file in Vengerberg—which he’d promised himself he wasn’t going to think about. Whatever had happened then, no matter what it was, he couldn’t let it affect what was going on now, not when it felt like he was so close to something with her.

“She—” Yennefer stopped, cleared her throat softly. He could almost picture her, sitting there staring at his back so intensely he was glad he didn’t look. “Sometimes, a person shows an aptitude for magic early on, but when they’ve studied it enough and lived with it enough that it starts to change them, their bodies reject those changes.

Geralt had heard of such cases before, though he’d been under the impression that they were rare enough it wasn’t considered a serious issue. But the dates on the headstone would put her at seventeen when she died, which was a common age for mages to still be in school. People like Yennefer were the outliers. “That’s what happened to her?”

“Yes. Halfway through the year.”

There was something in her voice he hadn’t heard there before, something almost bordering on pain, and he focused his attention on the inscription under the dates, wondering if it would distract her. “This is in Elder Speech?”

“It is.” He looked back at her, and she was grinning slightly. “Dearme, baeg cerbin. Esseath me evellien.”

“You gonna tell me what that means?”

The smile widened. She shook her head. “You should’ve studied foreign languages.” A small pause. He stood before she said anything, turning to face her fully, though not before he got a good look at the other headstone, which was blank except for the initials D.R.V. “That was the last thing she said to me.”

“I…” He took a hesitant step towards her. This was the most he’d heard her say about herself since they met—at least, in terms of things that mattered. He’d gotten so used to the silence that surrounded her that sometimes he forgot how much weight was in every word she spoke. “I’m sorry.”

 “It’s fine.” The only thing in the smile now was regret, as he closed the rest of the distance to sit down next to her. There was still a foot or so between them, an unbreachable wall she’d built around herself. “It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now.”

That sounded to him like something of a boldfaced lie, especially since she’d crossed the school to be alone here, but he let it go. “And the other one?”

He knew immediately that it had been the wrong question to ask; he didn’t look over fully, but he saw her stiffen. She crossed her arms over her torso loosely, but he noticed how her fingertips dug into her sides. “A long story,” she said. “And a very depressing one at that.”

“Right.” For a few moments, they were both silent. He watched her out of the corners of his eyes as the grip of her arms tightened, almost as if she were cold. It would be cold here, he realized, for anyone except him, especially since they were outside. That was so easy to forget in a place like this.

He reached up to unbutton his suit jacket and she watched him curiously, tilting her head to the side as he shrugged out of it and draped it around her shoulders. Her sudden stillness made him wonder if he should’ve done something else, but she looked…grateful. Or amused, at least. He wasn’t sure which one would be better.

“I’m not sure,” she said quietly, “whether I should thank you or ask if you were just dying to take that off. You looked quite uncomfortable in the main hall.”

“Damn thing was chafing my armpits,” he muttered, and she laughed quietly. “And it feels like they sewed wires into the thing.”

“When was the last time you’d worn a suit, Geralt?”

He was quiet as he thought about it, trying as hard as possible to call up an answer that sounded even remotely plausible when she was sitting there, looking at him like that. “I don’t know.”

She laughed again, wrapping her fingers around the edges of the jacket. “That doesn’t surprise me. It’s not the first time you’ve done this, though.” She looked at the space between them, at his hands, nervously still at his sides. “Why is that?”

There were a million reasons, caught in the back of his throat along with his voice, but he didn’t want to say them. Because she was important to Ciri, because he’d seen firsthand the shit she had to go through, because he desperately wanted to kiss her again but didn’t know how to tell her, though it would shock him if that had somehow slipped by her. “I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t.” Before he could even begin to consider what that might mean, she followed up with “I heard Vilgefortz was looking for you. Wanted to talk to you.”

Geralt cleared his throat, shifted so he was angled towards her, watching one of her hands drop to the stone bench, fingers skimming the surface. “He did. Pulled me into one of the portrait halls. We had…an interesting conversation.”

She raised an eyebrow in a manner that he assumed was meant to be nonchalant, but he saw how her hand stilled. “Really? I don’t suppose you’d tell me what about?”

“I wasn’t able to make too much sense of it.” That was true, for the most part. He did have his suspicions about who, exactly, Vilgefortz had been referring to when he told his story, but he wouldn’t voice them. It wouldn’t exactly help his chances of staying on good terms with her if it sounded like he was accusing her of anything—and he wasn’t, anyway. He was skeptical as to whether even half of what Vilgefortz had said was true. “He more or less dumped his entire life story on me. Spent a lot of time talking about some mystery sorceress who broke his heart.”

Her expression didn’t change, nor did her posture, but the attention that she paid his words, and the care with which she chose her own, told him he’d been right. “What exactly did he say about this mystery sorceress?”

“Not much other than that she broke it off.” He paused, trying to recall anything he could about the conversation. It was difficult, considering he’d already begun the process of trying to block it out. “I believe the exact words he used to describe her were promiscuous, arrogant, spiteful, unfeeling and cold.”

Unfeeling. That’s a new one.” A wry smile played at the edge of her lips, and she moved her hand over her skirt, laying it across the other one. “The description gets more and more detailed every time. It’s incredible, how he keeps managing to come up with new adjectives.”

He couldn’t help but chuckle, though he didn’t say anything else for the time being. If he was silent, he thought, more would come from her, and he was right. “Did he happen to mention the fact that she was sixteen when this happened?”

He shouldn’t have been shocked by that, but he was. For some reason, the two facts, even though he knew both of them, hadn’t connected in his mind. He shook his head.

“Unsurprising. That would change the story a bit too much for his purposes, I’m sure.”

The time to stop pressing further would’ve been then. He was fully aware of that. But he couldn’t stop himself from asking all the same. “Yennefer, I—I mean, if it wouldn’t be too prying—”

“It would.” There was nothing but sharp edges in her voice, broken glass that he could cut himself on if he wasn’t careful, though none of her anger seemed to be directed at him. “But yes, he’s talking about me. He likes to think he’s subtle.”

It made everything make sense, in ways that Geralt wished it didn’t—the fear in her eyes when she’d first found out about the chapter nomination, her apparent eagerness to escape the hall after. The way Vilgefortz had spoken about it made it clear that these weren’t just the feelings of a scorned ex-lover. There was something far deeper at play. “Why did you…”

“Leave? I suspect that talking to him one-on-one sorted most of that out for you. But the short version is that he wanted to go a different direction than I did. And he…complicated things. Immeasurably.”

She was wearing the bracelet that Geralt had given her—he’d noticed it briefly earlier, but now he was focused on it, on the way she twisted it around her wrist. She was almost always fidgeting in some way. Always on edge.

“He never stopped calling,” she said, looking not at him but straight ahead, at the tree, at the headstones. “But eventually, I stopped picking up.”

“Even now?”

She let out a sharp exhale—maybe a laugh, maybe a sound of pain, maybe both. “Even now.”

There wasn’t going to be getting any more out of her, then; she said the words with an air of finality about them, as if she were determined to stop speaking or even thinking about it. So they sat there. By now he was used to the silence that seemed to envelop them whenever they were alone, but it was strained now. He never should’ve brought it up, never should’ve asked about the stones or even followed her down here in the first place—

“Don’t say that.” He looked over at her as she pulled his jacket off her shoulders, folding it neatly in the space between them. She left her hand on it, something like an invitation, one he wasn’t sure he should take. “Or think it, I suppose.” After a moment’s brief hesitation, he reached over and covered her hand with his. He thought he heard her heartbeat quicken, thought he heard her draw a deep breath. He was probably imagining things. “I’m glad you’re here. Truly.”

The knowledge of her being so close, her skin, cool under his fingertips, made him wonder how she could even get anything comprehensible out of his thoughts. She had to know what he wanted, could probably feel the desire rolling off of him in waves. There was no way it had slipped past her. He stroked his thumb along the back of her hand, watched as her lips parted slightly before she looked up to meet his eyes.

“Geralt,” she said, barely a whisper, full of something he couldn’t name. “We can’t.”

“Why not?”

Another soft breath. “Do you really want to do this again?”

He knew what the answer was already, and he didn’t doubt that she did too. He moved his other hand up slowly, keeping an eye on her reaction as he brought it to the back of her neck, threading his fingers through her hair. Her eyes fluttered shut. “Yes.”

There it was—out in the open, and she had every chance to refuse him, tell him to leave. She didn’t. She stayed perfectly still. This time, he was the one to lean in.

He was—gods, it was almost ridiculous how nervous he was as he closed the distance between them, barely even brushing her lips at first, testing the waters to see how she’d react. He felt her fingers tense up under his, and then all of a sudden her other hand was tracing lightly over his jawline and she was kissing him back. It was different than the last time—slower, calmer, but no less insistent, and all he could do was hope that this would be it, the breaking point where they would finally have to face whatever was going on between them.

Like the last time, he should have known better.

When her hand slid down to his chest and pushed lightly he drew back, just far enough that he would be able to open his eyes and look at her. She kept hers closed for a moment longer. “We can’t,” she repeated, softer now.

“Any particular reason?”

A laugh that sounded almost genuine escaped her as she opened her eyes, though she seemed reluctant to look at him. “Geralt, I…” She bit her lip and leaned back. He let his hand fall back to his side, and she did the same. “If you were anyone else—if we were anywhere else—I wouldn’t give it a second thought.” Her gaze left him, but only for the few brief seconds it took her to look around the courtyard. “But we’re here. And you’re you. And that…”

“Complicates things immeasurably?”

The wrong words. It seemed as though everything he said to her was wrong. She turned away, slim fingers gripping her leg through her dress. “I think you should go.”

“Yennefer—”

“I think,” she insisted, quite loudly, “you should go. Please.”

He nearly couldn’t believe it for a moment, though it was no different, in essence, from what had happened before, and besides, he couldn’t help thinking it would’ve been better not to get involved at all. He tried to think it loudly, not even sure how to go about such a thing, as he put the suit jacket back on and stood. When he paused once at the door, looking back, she hadn’t moved.

But that was fine, he tried to convince himself. They were better off like this anyway.

~

“Yenna, could you please explain where we’re—?”

“I will.” She sounded more than a little annoyed, and her grip on Val’s hand tightened as she led him through the hallways. “In a moment.”

She’d slipped out of the banquet early—early enough for people to take notice, and right after she’d told him not to do the very same thing. And it hadn’t been just for a moment, either. She was gone for at least an hour, maybe even more. He would freely admit he hadn’t been keeping an eye on the time. But as everyone was starting to leave, to get enough sleep for the first actual day of the conference, she had shown up, looking rather agitated, and dragged him out of the room without so much as a greeting, not to mention an explanation. They were nearly across the school now and she still hadn’t told him what was going on.

Just know that it’s important to me, she’d said the first time he asked, and all the rest had been met with the same types of non-answers. But when she stopped in the middle of one of the hallways, he looked at her expectantly, relieved that he would finally get some real ones.

She pointed at a spot on the wall and looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “What do you see here?”

“I—Yenna, what’s going on? It’s just a wall.”

Her expression faltered for a moment, before she pressed a hand to her forehead and let out a barely-audible string of curses, most in Elder Speech. “That’s exactly what I was afraid you’d say.”

Chapter Text

He found her alone in the morning, as Yennefer expected him to. After the events of the previous night, she hadn’t even bothered trying to convince herself that she would be able to avoid him for the remainder of the conference, especially considering that the Chapter and Council were expected to remain a group for the vast majority of it. That afternoon, they’d attend the commencement ceremony for adepts from Aretuza and Ban Ard who had completed their final projects and passed all the other required exams. It was the only thing required of them for the day, besides the setting up that needed to be done by those who were presenting their research the next morning. Every year past, she had been grateful for the reprieve, for the excuse to stay across the bridge in Gors Velen all day and not have to bother with any of it. Now, that blessing had become a curse.

She remembered her own commencement in far more detail than she wanted to—being stared at by hundreds of curious people, trying to keep a straight face, in a black dress with long sleeves because she couldn’t show even the slightest sign of what had happened to her. What she’d done. Anyone there would pounce on it if they knew; it had been bad enough that Tissaia had stepped down at the end of the year and left the rectoress position open. There had been speculation surrounding that; she hadn’t wanted to make it worse. So she’d gone through the ceremony and all the attention that came with it with as much of a neutral expression as she could muster. Afterwards, later that night, things had gotten worse. But if she had made it through that, she reasoned, surely she could survive this.

They were on one of Loxia’s many balconies, where most of the conference’s attendants who had stayed overnight had gathered for breakfast, though most had dispersed by the time he showed up. Val had wanted to spend as little time around the others as possible, so she went alone, trying for all the world to look like she wanted to be there. That in itself wasn’t difficult; she’d been doing it for years, and by now it had become second nature. No, it was the particular circumstances of the conference that lingered at the back of her mind now—the knowledge that he was here somewhere, waiting for a moment where he could get her alone, and that Geralt was there too, likely confused by her sudden refusal the night before—

She pushed the thought away. She would not think about Geralt now.

“I thought I’d find you here,” said an all-too-familiar voice from behind her, and then Vilgefortz entered her field of vision, sitting down at the empty chair across from her. Most of the others who had greeted her on their way into the room had apparently realized that she wanted to be left alone, but he had never particularly had any respect for her personal space. He had done this every year since he graduated from Ban Ard, since he’d quickly risen through the ranks to be appointed to a recently-vacated Chapter position. This year was no different.

(She remembered the first time it happened with painful clarity—how she had slipped out immediately after the ceremony, ignoring all of Val’s questions and protests, and barred herself in Triss’s hotel room for the rest of the night. She had thought, despite all the pain that had come from the whole situation, she could find a small blessing in that she would never have to see him again. It stung to be wrong.)

“You know, it’s been eleven years since I had even the slightest interest in talking to you,” she said, looking not at him but down at her own hands, proud, at least, that they did not shake. “You really should find a new hobby.”

When she looked back up at him he was raising an eyebrow, his own hands folded neatly in front of him, the picture of decorum. “Not at all?” he asked, not even waiting for a response. “You don’t even want to thank me for securing you a Council position?”

“I would thank you if I’d actually wanted it.” As it was, her newfound power had caused more problems than it was worth to her, especially considering that—though she’d been told she had a knack for negotiating—her interest in politics was slim to none. That realm of magic was best left to Philippa, if anyone, and now the blame was going to fall squarely on her and Tissaia for putting Yennefer in this position. A role she hadn’t even wanted. No one would believe that Vilgefortz was the one who had wanted to see her in it so badly; by most accounts, they barely even knew each other. Only a select few were privy to the truth.

He frowned, pressed his lips together. Secretly, she enjoyed it—forcing him to realize that he didn’t know her quite as well as he thought, that she wasn’t the same girl she’d been at sixteen, not so easily swayed. He’d likely assumed that the sudden power he’d given her would make her think of him more favorably. He hadn’t stopped to consider that she might not have any interest in it. “What do you want, then?”

Yennefer was looking, not directly into his eyes, but somewhere over his ear. She didn’t think she could bear what would happen if she met him head-on, especially considering what had happened the night before. “I already told you. To be left alone.”

Alone?” She nodded, and for a blessed moment he was quiet. Even though he wasn’t speaking, she knew he had to have some kind of backup plan, something else to try and bribe her with in the event that the Council position wasn’t enough. All she had to do was wait for him to present it to her.

“I spoke to your witcher last night.”

Well. That was certainly not what she’d been expecting.

“If you think that Geralt is anyone’s witcher, much less mine, you’re sorely mistaken.” She tried to keep her tone dry, her voice steady, but under the table, her hands splayed on her thighs, fingers digging into her skin. It came to her, then—he had seen the two of them together at the Yule party and drawn his own conclusions from there. Incorrect conclusions, as far as he was aware, and she needed to keep it that way, for both their sakes. Gods forbid he find out about Ciri somehow, connecting dots that most people didn’t even know were there.

“What was he doing with your friends, then?”

She forced a laugh. The only way she could get by was by acting like she found the whole thing ridiculous. If she was lucky, he wouldn’t realize how close to right he was. “We have several mutual friends. We share a workplace. That’s all there is to it.”

“Then why were you both absent from the banquet at the same time?” He was getting frustrated, she could tell; no one else would have noticed it, but the tense set of his jaw gave him away. Perhaps she was closer to getting him to leave than she thought—or, a voice in the back of her head whispered, making her stomach lurch, he’s still got one more ace up his sleeve.

“Really, you jump to the most ridiculous conclusions. I wasn’t aware he had left. I left because I didn’t want to talk to you. Which I still don’t.”

She was just beginning to wonder how many times she would have to say it before he took the hint and left (though by this point it was less a hint and more her throwing the words in his face) when he stood, rounding the table so he could linger next to her chair. She lifted her arms and crossed them so he wouldn’t see how anxious his questions had made her. She could affect indifference. She’d done it every year before this.

“You say that,” he murmured, bending down so he was uncomfortably close to her ear. “I know better than to believe you.”

Another few seconds and he was gone, leaving her alone on the balcony and taking a great deal of her tension with him. She let herself slump slightly, let one arm drop back to her side while the other went to the star at her neck, more an automatic reflex than anything else. As she moved, she was startled by the cold slide of metal against her wrist. The damned bracelet. She’d almost forgotten she was still wearing it. She’d been trying quite hard to forget, or at least not to think too long on what it meant, what the implications were.

She had meant what she said to him the night before. If all he had wanted was to get her into his bed, she would’ve agreed without a second thought. Sex without emotional strings attached was one thing—but there had been strings before they even met, and now they were hopelessly tangled. It was hard to tell, when he was around her (and he projected his emotions so strongly, even if he didn’t realize it), where his longing ended and her own began. She only knew that it was too much. He wasn’t supposed to do this to her.

The last time she had felt like this, she’d made the biggest mistake of her life. She didn’t intend on making it twice.

~

After listening to several minutes of Triss’s insistent begging, Geralt finally agreed to accompany her to the commencement ceremony, the only thing he would stay for before he made her open a portal back to Oxenfurt. He hadn’t been planning on it—some part of him knew she would ask him to stay, and he’d been ready to refuse her—and then she said “If you’re not here it’ll just be me and Val and Regis, and they hate each other,” and the despairing tone that came out of her when she even talked about the possibility had been enough to convince him. Not to mention (and this was more of a deciding factor than he wanted to admit) he might get the chance to talk to Yennefer again. Try and figure out what, exactly, this thing between them was.

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” Regis had said when Geralt asked him about it, trying to sound as casual as possible. “She’ll have to sit with the rest of the Council up front, and there will be so many people trying to talk to her after that I doubt she’ll have a moment to herself. Leaving the banquet so early only made people more insistent to get a minute with her now.”

He couldn’t help but wonder, as they sat down in a row of chairs near the back of the banquet hall, which had been filled with them to accommodate the crowd, whether or not Regis knew anything about all of this. He and Yennefer were close, though Geralt still wasn’t sure what their history was, and it seemed likely that if she were to say anything to anyone, it would be him. Regis liked to talk, but he could hold his tongue when it mattered. Would he say anything to Geralt himself, though, if he got the notion he was involved?

“Is she..?” He paused, cleared his throat. “I mean, did you see her last night after she left?”

“No. I saw her this morning.” Just like the banquet, Regis fit in effortlessly here, to the point where a few people had even greeted him as he came in. By contrast, Geralt felt ridiculously out of place. Triss had assured him that nobody would think twice about it, but he knew better. Witchers were an oddity anywhere else, why not in a room full of mages? “She didn’t look well.”

On Geralt’s other side, Triss sighed, twisting her hands nervously around each other in her lap. “She’ll get over it eventually, I think,” she said quietly, glancing around at the people filing in as if to make sure they couldn’t hear, though he doubted anyone would be trying to eavesdrop. “But she hates the attention. She always has.”

He didn’t need her to tell him that—it had been plain enough to see the night before—but before he could say anything about it Istredd was there, stepping past all of them to take a seat on Triss’s other side. He didn’t look happy about it, and Geralt had to wonder what it was that made him look at the three of them and decide that was the seat that would bother him the least. As he passed Geralt, he didn’t spare a glance for him, but Geralt imagined he could feel the suspicion rolling off him in waves. If he had even the slightest indication of what happened…

“He sits here because, according to most, it’s the place he should be,” Regis said to Geralt, soft enough that no one else would be able to hear. “With Yenna’s friends. Any time he showed up before, she would be with him and no one would even notice. But now there’s a spotlight on him too.”

It was no secret to Geralt that what Yennefer and Istredd had—whatever it was at this point—was considered highly unusual to most mages, who tended not to engage in anything more than casual partnerships, especially as they aged. To have publicly committed to each other so early, in Yennefer’s case particularly, had drawn a fair amount of unwanted and negative attention. He couldn’t be sure whether or not that was the reason she stayed, or if it was something else. Try as he might not to pry, he could tell she wasn’t happy there.

He must have given off the impression that he wasn’t in the mood for talking, because Regis didn’t speak again, and Triss didn’t either, though that was probably because Istredd was sitting next to her; in most cases, it was hard to get her to stop talking if she was nervous. They stayed like that until the ceremony started, when most of the crowd stood to get a good look at the students as they processed down two at a time, sizing them up. Geralt didn’t care about that—he was more interested in the people who came first. The Chapter and Council, paired one from each group, leading the students.

She was there, the last Council member to enter, and something in him burned to see that not only was she walking next to Vilgefortz, but she’d slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. She gave no indication that she was uncomfortable, but knowing what he knew now, she had to be. Vilgefortz, for his part, just looked smug. Not for the first time in the past day, Geralt had the sudden urge to break his nose.

“That’s smart,” Regis whispered, and Geralt looked at him in confusion and dismay. What about this picture could possibly be considered smart? “By physically associating herself with him, she throws suspicion off of Philippa and Tissaia and puts it on him. No one thinks she got this position based on her academic merit alone, Geralt.”

Right. Even with a perfectly reasonable answer right in front of him, he still couldn’t comprehend it. She had done plenty of things she wasn’t comfortable with, but this…this was on another level, and publicly besides. He watched her separate from him and sit down on one of the chairs set up for the Chapter and Council at the back of the small stage. She didn’t once give the slightest indication of any discomfort.

The ceremony seemed to drag on for hours, though in reality it couldn’t have been more than two, and he spent most of it staring at her, trying to get her to catch his eye. It seemed she was deliberately looking anywhere but at him. It was frustrating, the way she pulled back so insistently after she felt like they’d gotten too close—it wasn’t the first time she’d done it, after all, but at least the first time she hadn’t been so harsh about it.

It would be best, he decided as the newly graduated students began to file back out of the hall to a smattering of applause, to put it out of his mind. She clearly had, at least if the way she avoided his gaze was any indication. There would be no point in dwelling any longer on something that was no longer a possibility.

~

By some miracle, she managed to get through nearly the whole day avoiding Val completely. Yennefer had woken up earlier than him in order to slip out of their room unnoticed, and his general dislike of crowds had apparently been enough to stop him from trying to find her sooner. But she knew it would only last for so long, and if they had to have this conversation (because she knew he wouldn’t have forgotten about what she promised), they would, at least, have it on her terms.

She managed to find a quiet spot, this time not on a balcony but outside the palace walls completely, leaning against the railing that circled the island and staring out at the sea. It wasn’t the best place to do things, in retrospect, but she knew they wouldn’t be interrupted. Rumors had been flying around about what had happened here for years, though for the time being they were just that. No one had yet managed to connect them back to her, and she hoped it would stay that way.

“Do you come here often?” she heard him ask, coming up to stand beside her. He didn’t try to touch her, not yet, and she was grateful for that small concession. She laid her hands on the railing. Wide enough to stand on, but sloped, brought to a dull point in the middle. Easy to lose one’s balance. She had hoped that would be a good enough excuse.

“No. I did, once.” She didn’t look over at him. Part of her couldn’t believe she was even doing this. She’s tried so hard to keep everything about her past from him, even the most inconsequential things, but he already knew. There would be no harm, she supposed, in giving him that much, though she wasn’t sure what she would say if he tried to press further. “The view is…lovely.”

“Yes, it is.”

She had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. It was rare that he complimented her, rare that he said anything that could be interpreted as even vaguely romantic, but there he was, and she could feel him staring at her, waiting for a response. For her to acknowledge it, perhaps. She couldn’t bring herself to. “More so from this angle, I suppose.”

She couldn’t help but lean forward the slightest bit, just enough to see the bottom of the cliffs, the slide down to the sea. The memory was visceral, full-body; she could feel every injury as if she’d just gotten it, though there was no physical evidence left of any of them, save the one, and that had already been there. It took him a moment to piece her words together, but when he did he stilled beside her. He put one of his own hands on the railing, next to hers, but not touching it. She could read too much into that if she let herself.

“Can—” This was new. In the ten years they’d known each other, she didn’t think she’d ever once heard him at a complete loss for words. Quite the opposite—he usually had far too much to say for her liking. “Can I ask why?”

“You can.” Her voice was softer than usual; some instinct had kicked in, one that screamed at her that she couldn’t be overheard. She wondered if he felt it too, or if he was too shocked to even consider the possibility. “But I don’t know if I’ll answer.”

It clearly wasn’t what he wanted to hear, especially considering she’d told him they would talk about it, but surprisingly, he didn’t press that particular statement. “I—how did you—how are you here?”

She did laugh at that, just the slightest bit, and the sound seemed to put them both at ease. Val could talk around whatever point he was trying to make for hours if someone let him; he had chosen a good time to be refreshingly blunt. “I got very lucky,” she said, and this time it was her who slid her hand over to cover his. “And there was already a surgeon here.”

Another point she hoped he wouldn’t ask further about—there was no way for her to explain that the surgeon also happened to be a higher vampire, and if it hadn’t been for that particular fact, he wouldn’t have been able to save her. Val already disliked Regis enough for ridiculous reasons. She didn’t need to give him a perfectly valid one.

When she finally looked over at him, he was staring out at the water with his lips pressed together tightly, an expression she usually only saw when he was working on some particularly difficult project. Though, she supposed, she had been difficult of late. Their relationship had never been easy, but the last few months had complicated it immeasurably. “Is…” he started, then trailed off for a moment, like he was afraid to ask, to hear what she might say in return. “Is that why you were staying with me in the first place?”

“Yes,” she admitted, and though his expression didn’t change, she could tell he wasn’t happy with her answer. “But it’s not the reason I’m here now.”

She prayed he didn’t ask what that reason was. He could fill in whatever blanks he wanted as long as she didn’t have to tell him that she truly didn’t know what that reason was anymore. A sense of misguided gratitude, perhaps, or the desire to finish what she had started by accepting his proposal two years ago. Whatever it was, she was grateful for it now. Val was no great romantic, and they fought more often than they got along, but he was comfortable. Safe. He’d only hurt her in ways that didn’t matter, and he didn’t make her heart feel as though it didn’t belong in her chest. After all this time, he didn’t make her feel much of anything.

When he moved his hand from under hers to wrap his arm around her shoulders, she let him, let herself be pulled into him. It was her own concession, her own small way of admitting she needed him—more now, perhaps, than he realized.

Chapter Text

She went back once, on the last day of the conference, hours before she would have to return to Oxenfurt and pack. Everyone was so caught up in their insincere promises to keep in touch that they didn’t even notice her slipping out, and they wouldn’t have been able to find her once she was away from the crowd either. The only other person who might have known where she would be was long gone, and that was for the best; at least, that was what she told herself. Easier for everyone that way.

It was cold in the courtyard but she hadn’t brought a jacket, and she let it bite at her shoulders until she slid her hands up to rub away the sensation. How long had it been since she’d even thought about coming here voluntarily? How many times had she stood in front of the door, hesitating, ultimately deciding she didn’t have the strength to go through with it? And the one time she did was the worst time possible, the only time there had been anyone to see through her ruse.

Gods, when had everything become such a mess?

Her eyes stung from lack of sleep, from how long she’d forced them to stay open for fear of what she might dream, what thoughts would slip away from her control. She couldn’t afford to lose her grip on anything now, not when the dust from the Council announcement had finally settled and things with Val were going—if not well, at least amicably, peacefully—for the first time in years. Any variable, any unknown quantity, could throw the entire thing off-balance, and where would she be then?

She didn’t know the answer to that. But she could get answers about some other things, at least.

~

“Who is that ward actually meant to let in?”

Philippa blinked a few times, startled at the sudden question that had broken minutes of silence. She had been surprised, to say the least, when Yennefer had asked to talk with all three of them before she left. She usually wanted to get away from these gatherings as quickly as possible and would take her leave without even a brief goodbye. It had never bothered Philippa—she’d see her again sooner or later anyway—but others had always taken note. This year, more so than any other, she’d assumed Yennefer would try to slip out undetected.

Next to her, she saw Tissaia tense up, barely perceptible to anyone who wouldn’t have been looking for it. She knew what this was about. They all did; they’d all been there when it was put in place. That she was actually bringing it up, of her own volition, was unusual, though. As far as any of them knew, she hadn’t been back there since the day the ward went up. She barely even stayed in the palace for conferences as it was. But Philippa remembered the brief conversation she’d had with Geralt a few nights before and started to wonder if, perhaps, she’d been right.

“I’ve told you before.” Not for the first time, she marveled at how Tissaia was able to keep a straight face in the most uncomfortable situations. Even now, when Yennefer’s normally infallible composure was faltering, she didn’t flinch, didn’t betray any sign of discomfort as they stared each other down. “Only those bound to you by blood—”

“I know that’s not true,” Yenna interrupted, clenching her hands into fists at her sides and releasing them, flexing her fingers out. A nervous habit, of which she had many. Despite her obvious anxiousness, she kept her voice down, though there was no one else in Tissaia’s office that would have been able to hear them. “I was willing to believe that a ward like that would let Ciri in,” she continued, barely above a whisper. “But not—”

A pause. A rough exhale. So her plan had worked after all, Philippa thought, and she was right about whatever might be going on between her and the witcher. No one else would have seen—based on the few times she’d observed them around each other in public, they were both surprisingly good actors—but when she had gone to the hospital in Novigrad to find that she wasn’t alone, it told her everything she needed to know. Geralt of Rivia was, quite possibly, the worst person who could have accompanied her on that trip, but she had asked him anyway. She never would’ve made such an irrational decision if there weren’t feelings involved.

“Not anyone else,” Yenna finished quietly. Triss, who had been silent until then, watching impassively, looked over at her.

“Who else could possibly get in there?” she asked incredulously. Perhaps she was imagining it, but Philippa thought she detected a note of jealousy in her tone. She knew there was a time when the two of them had been each other’s closest allies, but that time had passed, though Triss stubbornly refused to acknowledge it. Not even now, when all the evidence was staring her in the face, but she was too caught up in her own ideas to put the pieces together.

“That’s not important right now,” Philippa said, and Triss turned to glare at her suspiciously, but she dropped the issue, electing not to say anything further. Yenna looked over, and Philippa could see the gratitude conveyed in her otherwise neutral gaze. “You still haven’t answered the question,” she said, this time directed back at Tissaia, who was straightening her sleeves in a gesture that would have looked nervous on anyone else. On her, it carried the same unflappable calmness that all her actions did.

“The ward on that courtyard is the same ward that is on all the others,” she said, slightly slower than usual. Philippa wasn’t sure if it was for their benefit, or because she felt guilty for keeping it a secret for eleven years. “It allows access to those with strong emotional ties to the people buried within.”

“And you didn’t even once stop to consider what a risk that was? De—” Yennefer paused to draw in another deep breath. Philippa raised one eyebrow in surprise. It was the closest anyone had ever heard her come to saying that in the time since it had happened. “She had other friends.”

“None who would have kept visiting after a year. Besides, you complicated things.” She doubted the words were meant to sting—Tissaia was practical above all else, and not cruel without reason, even to someone who had broken one of her most sacred rules—but she saw the effect it had on Yennefer anyway, how whatever had been even slightly open in her expression suddenly closed off, her mouth hardening to a thin line in a way it only did when she was trying to hold herself in check. “Immeasurably.”

If not for the look on Yennefer’s face, Philippa would have said that of course they could measure it—in the number of years she’d spent trying to get back what she’d lost, in the number of people she’d told and people she hadn’t, in the two who had managed to get through the ward, the only others who would even be able to see it. As it was, she held her tongue. She didn’t need to make this situation worse, especially seeing as it had already been worsened in ways none of them had even anticipated.

As much as she disliked Istredd on a personal level, Philippa could admit he was a reasonable choice, and possibly the safest one she had. Yennefer had managed to keep him unaware, for the most part, of anything that had happened before they met, and she felt nearly nothing for him, which made it less likely that he would seriously hurt her. Besides that, he’d be able to provide her with safety. Stability. Something she hadn’t had before, and something she knew had been reassuring when she first moved away from Aretuza. He was well-respected academically, and though most didn’t know him well, they didn’t dislike him, either. In all aspects except those that mattered, they were a perfect match. Yet Philippa didn’t even need to ask to know that no matter how much he loved her—or thought he did—he would have never been able to see that door. In over a decade, he still hadn’t gotten close enough.

Geralt of Rivia had somehow managed to do it in a matter of months. And that, more than anything else, more than a decision that had been made that far in the past, was the issue.

“Of course,” Yennefer said in a voice like ice, a current running through it that said the conversation was done. “It was only me who complicated things.”

~

The last time Triss had spent even a moment alone with Yennefer in a manner that wasn’t at least mostly professional had been months ago, so to say that she was surprised to hear from her at all was something of an understatement. Triss had been under the impression that Yenna would pack up, go to Aedd Gynvael, and stay there until the beginning of the next term, ignoring everybody in the process. It wasn’t an unusual thing to do—when she stayed there for any extended period of time she seemed to think herself remote, an untouchable island, and it was rare that she’d reach out to anyone or try to see them. Part of it, she assumed, was just because she knew that most of her closest friends didn’t like Istredd in the slightest, but recently she couldn’t help but think there was some other reason. That she was running from something.

That wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary, either, and it wasn’t until the night of the banquet that Triss had seriously started to worry something was wrong, and those suspicions had all but been confirmed after the conversation that had happened on the last day. Something was going on. She wondered if it had anything to do with Yenna’s recent trip to Novigrad, though she hadn’t spoken about it except to briefly say that nothing had come of it, and the physical evidence was long gone. Triss had assumed that it would be like after all her other attempts at finding a solution; that she’d shove away any disappointment and move on so quickly it was almost like the previous experiments hadn’t even happened. Clearly, there was something else going on here.

They didn’t talk much when they were together. For the most part, they didn’t have to. Triss had learned quickly that Yenna wasn’t one to waste words, to fill the empty spaces in the air with them simply because the silence made her uncomfortable. If there wasn’t something important to say, she’d rather not say anything at all. On rare occasions, though, Triss could get her to open up, if only a little, and when she got the message that Yenna wanted to see her, she’d hoped that tonight would be one of those times.

“Yenna?” She turned her head when Triss said her name, but the rest of her didn’t move. She’d been laying there, resolutely staring at the ceiling, for the better part of twenty minutes, and hadn’t looked like she was going to stop anytime soon. Far too deep in her own mind, or, at least, that’s what Triss thought. She had always been like that. When she finally turned to look at her, though, the intensity of her stare almost made Triss regret speaking up, because she knew what she was about to ask would only upset her more than whatever she’d been thinking about already had. Yenna raised an eyebrow, urging her to continue.

“Who did you take with you to Novigrad?”

The question wasn’t even fully out of her mouth before Yennefer sighed in annoyance and turned away again. Whenever she looked at her, Triss thought she could discern some softness in her features, some affection, but her profile was all sharp lines and harsh edges. Seeing her like this, it was no wonder why, despite her small stature, so many found her intimidating.

“Like I’ve told you a thousand times,” she said, drawing out each word so Triss would know exactly how irritated she was at being asked again, “I went alone.”

“And I still think that’s bullshit.” The sound that came out of her then was very nearly a laugh. Triss could make her words count too, when it came down to it. “You really mean to tell me you looked at all the people who would’ve willingly taken you and decided none of them were good enough?” None of us, she wanted to say, and she knew Yenna would hear it even if she didn’t voice it. She hadn’t exactly thought the procedure itself was a good idea, but…she wanted to be the one Yenna came to with these things. She had been, once, years ago. And you betrayed her trust, a voice in the back of her head whispered to her. You did the one thing she begged you not to do.

“I looked at them and decided none of them would take me willingly. You needn’t sugar-coat everything.”

She was right, much as Triss hated to admit it, even to herself. Regis would have gone, but made his opinion on the venture known in no uncertain terms. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Philippa would have flat-out refused. Ciri couldn’t go at all. Even though it had been nearly ten years since she left Cintra, even with the scar that barely anyone had seen, there was still too high a chance anyone in such a massive city wouldn’t recognize her. They were having a hard enough time keeping her hidden in Oxenfurt as it was, though that was also partly due to Ciri’s own restlessness, her desire to keep moving when something happened that hurt her. They were alike in that way.

Triss would have taken her, had she asked, though she wouldn’t have been thrilled about the reason they were making the trip. There had been a time, years ago, where she felt they had been each other’s only confidantes, when they would sit on the couch in Yenna’s room (perhaps a little closer than they needed to be) and talk about anything and everything—when she could actually get her to talk. After a few months, when it was becoming more difficult and draining for her to hide, she’d told Triss her secret. She was one of the very few who had known when it happened. And ever since then, they’d been slowly but steadily growing apart.

“I’m not trying to,” Triss said. She wasn’t sure if her voice actually cracked or if she was just imagining it had, if she’d been so afraid it might that she’d willed herself to hear it. “I’m just saying you had other options besides doing that yourself.”

“I—” She stopped, looked briefly to the other side so all that Triss could see of her was the spill of her dark hair against the quilts. Gods, how familiar was she with that sight? How long had it been since she’d seen it? Since they had a conversation about anything that mattered, one that didn’t invariably end with Yennefer shutting her out? She was starting to think that things might be easier if she just mirrored her actions; if she let herself drift away from her, tried to stop caring as much. Even as she thought it, she knew she’d never be able to actually do it.

“Phil was there. For a bit.” A bit. It was the most Triss had been able to get out of her so far, in every variant of this argument they’d had, and even that was barely anything. It had been at the back of her mind constantly—what about this was so different from everything else she’d tried? What made her think she had to guard every detail so closely?

“A bit didn’t help you get there. Or back.”

“No.” Another small concession. She turned back to face her, reaching up to brush away a few strands of her hair as they fell across her face. Her fingers froze there for a moment, her brow furrowed, before she smoothed her face into careful neutrality and let her hand fall back to the blankets. “But it was enough. I wasn’t alone when I got back, either, so you can stop worrying about that.”

“Really?” This, too, was new information. She wasn’t sure exactly what was making her want to divulge all of this, but she wasn’t going to say anything for fear of making her shut down. “Who was with you?”

“Ciri.” The pause was so brief, so well-camouflaged, that no one else would have even known it was there. But she knew—she knew, and it ate away at her, curling somewhere behind her lungs. Yenna was lying to her.

This wasn’t the first time it had happened. There had been instances over the years they’d known each other that she hadn’t been completely honest, but for the most part, Triss had taken them in stride, tried not to worry too much about them. Considering what had happened to her, she had every reason to be selective about what she revealed, even to those closest to her. Triss’s actions had certainly given her cause to be wary. Somehow, this small deception felt worse than all the rest. And yet….

Ciri’s key had been on the table in Yenna’s apartment when she went to check on her, the morning after she’d returned from Novigrad. It was possible, she supposed, that she was telling the truth, and Triss was reading things into it because she was the nervous one—because she was so afraid of losing that friendship that she kept trying to find reasons that made sense. Maybe there simply wasn’t one. Maybe they had both changed so much that they wouldn’t be able to get back what they’d had.

But that didn’t stop her from wanting it.

~

“I’m worried about Geralt,” Ciri said, resting her head on the back of the couch as though it had become too heavy to hold up any longer. In an effort to not be in her own apartment, she had somehow ended up at Regis’s, along with Dandelion, and the three of them were sitting in the living room, not saying much of anything. Triss had been moping for the past several days, and it was getting on Ciri’s last nerve. She knew exactly why, too—Yennefer had been over one night and left for Aedd Gynvael the next morning without so much as a goodbye. That sort of thing had been happening for years, and Ciri didn’t understand why Triss still got so upset about it every time, when it had more or less become par for the course. She didn’t like to tell people when she was going to stay with Istredd because no one except her liked him. It was as simple as that.

Whatever had Geralt acting so strangely, though, didn’t seem simple at all.

“So am I,” Regis said gravely, and hearing the words come out of his mouth only confirmed what Ciri had feared. If he was acting strangely enough that multiple people had taken notice, it had to be no small thing. The dread in the pit of her stomach only intensified when Dandelion nodded along.

“He hasn’t been himself lately. We’ve gone out together a couple of times—well, more like I had to drag him out, because he’s the least sociable person on this side of the Pontar, and getting him to do anything where there are more than two or three other people involved is like pulling teeth—not that I’d know personally, I’ve never done anything like that—”

“Dandelion.” Regis had the fingers of one hand pressed to his temple, and he looked considerably more disheveled than usual, though that wasn’t saying too much. He’d told Ciri earlier that he was spending the break between terms working on some new research and that it had been, so to speak, keeping him up at night. Ciri took that to mean he hadn’t changed clothes in several days, not that it mattered much for someone like him. “The point, please.”

“Right. The point is that he’s been even surlier than usual, and that’s quite the accomplishment.”

Ciri frowned. He had been more withdrawn than normal, that much she’d seen, but she was surprised it had extended to what little of a public life he had. Geralt wasn’t the best actor—though it might have just been the fact that she’d always been able to see right through him—but he could at least pretend to be neutral when he needed to be, even if he was miserable somewhere. He didn’t want any more of a reputation than he already had, and the best way to accomplish that was for no one to notice him.

“You don’t sound particularly worried,” she said to Dandelion, sitting up just a bit so she could prop her head on her hand. As soon as she said it, she wondered if it hadn’t meant anything at all. Dandelion never sounded particularly worried about anything—and this, too, he waved off with a grin.

“I’m not,” he said, and Regis raised an eyebrow at him. “Whatever’s going on, he’ll get over it. Especially now that there’s—well—distance.”

So he knew, she thought. He knew, and he wasn’t telling her, which made her angrier than she had the right to be. She recognized that she wasn’t entitled to every detail of Geralt’s private life—she certainly didn’t want all of them—but she had hoped that, if it was something that was affecting his behavior this much, he would tell her what was going on. She remembered, suddenly, what Bea had told her the last time they’d been fully alone, when most of the others had been at Thanedd. The idea of her parents having an affair with each other had been ridiculous at first, but now that she was sitting here, hearing Dandelion mention distance, she couldn’t help but wonder, not for the first time, if that had something to do with it.

“Besides,” Dandelion added, in a confident tone of voice that usually only accompanied his worst ideas, “I know exactly what will make him feel better.”