They say witchers are heartless.
Cold, without emotion or remorse. A couple of coins away from killing whatever they're pointed at – monster, human, woman, child – and in times of war, some find this comforting. Most, a nightmare.
“Ploughing mutants”, hushed whispers say, “stealing our children and fucking our women”, and at the end of every tale stands a witcher, silver sword drawn and bloodied.
Hidden by bushy brows, Zoltan's sharp gaze rises from the contents of his tankard to a rowdy bunch on the other side of the bar spewing this and more. A long sip douses the anger burning up his spine to the tips of his beard, it feels like.
Not even one fucking beer can be had in peace, these days, without some dimwit ruining it with the rotten shit that comes out of their mouth. But such is life in Novigrad: Business not going your way? Blame the mages, those pyres must be burning for a reason. Wife left you? Surely it was that witcher that came to town the day before, soulless whoreson he is.
Alas, Zoltan has had it. One thing is what is said on the streets and another in the Chameleon, on their turf, where that pig crap shouldn't matter. None of it fucking matters, actually, but having to deal with Cleaver and the King of Beggars and whoever else likes to play criminal enterprise in this accursed city every day has effectively gotten to Zoltan's infamous patience.
Or maybe it's not hearing neither peep nor fart from one certain witcher that's got him so tense. Bastard just packed his things – which, with the precious little he has, was a fairly short endeavor – and took off in the early morning hours without a word, sights set on Skellige.
Which is nothing out of the ordinary. Witchers travel, being on the Path and such, and Geralt was never the most talkative of people to begin with; it's just a little hard to stay relaxed when the ship he took never came back, with or without him, and rumors are the damn thing sunk or was attacked or... something.
If town gossip was a person, Zoltan would've strangled them long ago.
The truth remains that Dandelion's right. Being friends with a witcher is tough, and since their witcher happens to be the most daring and famous of them all, they all got their work cut out for them.
Yeah, Geralt will get quite an earful when he's back. If he comes back. Zoltan frowns.
As far as he's concerned, this is part of said work. His mood's been lousy all week, and those fearmongering mouthbreathers are practically screaming for a little chat with his axe. He swirls the last of his beer before mumbling “Where's Dandelion when ye need 'em?” and finishing it off, and slams the tankard on the counter this side of too hard.
“With the missus, I'm certain.”
The barkeep places two shot glasses between them, giving Zoltan a pointed look as he pours. “One's on the house.”
“An' the other?”, Zoltan wonders, and drinks; it's corn schnapps, the kind that cauterizes every living cell on it's path down.
The guy tosses the other down like it's nothing, “'s mine”, he deadpans, “for being the poor sod to clean up the mess when yer done bringin' out the trash.”
Zoltan grins, salutes lazily.
He's washing off the last of the human blood on his knuckles when the owl by the door crows, feathers puffed up in agitation. Zoltan's head snaps up, there's only one regular customer that garners that sort of reaction–
And indeed, it's Geralt standing in the door, brows slightly raised after a passing glance at the bloody heap of unconscious men outside.
His gruff voice is hard to make out over the clinking of glasses, chatter and general bustle the early evening brings, but the dry humor in it is apparent. Zoltan feels the knot of anxiety in his chest ease. Yeah, it's him alright.
Geralt's finally back.
“Well, ye know”, he stretches, his back popping with a satisfying crack, “Wanted to have the place nice an' clean for yer return, witcher.”
“Awfully kind of you.”
As always, reading Geralt's expression is nigh impossible; he seems a little pleased underneath all that apathy, mostly exhausted, and Zoltan figures it's enough, for now. Wordlessly, he offers to carry some of his things – and equally silent, Geralt dumps his weapons in his waiting arms, rolling his shoulders with a heavy exhale.
Zoltan eyes him critically. “How long did ye ride for?”
“All night”, the other throws out casually, already peeking into his usual room to see if it's occupied.
It isn't. They kept it tidy and ready since he left. After all, with witchers you never know in what state they come back. And when they'll drift away again.
Zoltan takes note of where Geralt places his bags – near the bed, in easy reach – and the pieces of armor he takes off. Just enough to be more comfortable without losing too much protection.
Not a long visit, then. Zoltan frowns some more.
“Need to ask you some–“
Mild surprise registers on Geralt's face. He blinks.
“... Okay. Why?”
“Yer gonna rest first”, Zoltan huffs, “Catch a wink or two, eat somethin', and then we talk whatever business ye got.”
And he's out the room before the other can start his usual bartering of circumstances, a smug smirk on his lips as Geralt calls after him:
It's a compliment in Zoltan's eyes. If Vesemir can wrangle a whole pack of them, he muses and nods to himself, one lousy witcher won't be too much of a problem.
He gives Geralt an hour to prove him wrong.
It's late night by the time the man slinks into the empty spot next to Zoltan, cat-like irises instantly trained on the filled plate in front of him.
There's no point in standing between a witcher and what he wants – food exchanges hands, not before Zoltan plucks off one of the sausages the kitchens put aside just for him. A rare delicacy these days, even this far from the front.
“Oh don't be greedy, Wolf, I left ya some”, he grumbles back, pointing at it with his half-eaten exemplar. “Better dig in while Dandelion's not here or ya won't get around to it anymore. Got a lot of questions, we all do.”
“Hm”, is Geralt's only answer. Zoltan lets him eat while he goes to procure some beer, motioning to the barkeep for a steady supply, and slides the first tankard towards his friend.
With barely enough space between bites to breathe, Geralt shakes his head. Zoltan raises an eyebrow.
A light shrug, “Can't ride with a muddled mind”, and that makes the dwarf snort so loud it turns heads at the neighboring table.
They pretend to look elsewhere at Zoltan's snappy “Ye mind?”, which mollifies him somewhat. Old dwarf's still got it. To Geralt he says:
“I've seen ye do things drunk nobody'll believe me are possible, so. Don't even try. And yer not going anywhere tonight.”
His freshly invigorated ego takes a direct hit when Geralt merely looks... bored. He takes his sweet time swallowing his last bite.
“'cause. Ye looked 'bout ready to keel over earlier, and whatever yer lasses say, it's not a good look on ye, Geralt.”
Somewhere along the way, Zoltan's tone has lost all levity – a detail that hasn't slipped past Geralt either, his head tilting to the side like a hawk eyeing a mouse. It's like he forgets to act human, sometimes, that glint of warmth in his gaze flickering out, smoothing over into perfect indifference.
Then Geralt looks to the side and away, watching the people around them with narrowed eyes, an instinct he can't quite suppress. Some'd say it's annoyance but Zoltan knows better.
Geralt is tired, and visibly so.
Thus he leans back and waits, takes a sip of his beer. Still distant, Geralt does the same, clearly distracted enough not to question it.
Zoltan smiles, just a little. Getting there.
“Can't linger, Zoltan”, the witcher finally says, the rasp of his voice carrying some strain. “Ciri's moving fast, faster than me. And the Hunt... They don't tire, they don't rest. They won't give up until they have her. That's not an option.”
Ah. Smile gone, Zoltan nods, “Fair enough” – and pushes Geralt's tankard towards him. “Drink some more.”
Brows lowered, mouth flat with tension: definitely annoyance, this time. The dwarf is aware he's walking on mighty thin ice, and presses on regardless.
“Don't 'Zoltan' me, witcher. Like it or not, yer only human” – and now it's Geralt's turn to scoff – “ye are, and yer doin' nobody a favor runnin' yerself ragged 'fore ye catch up to the kid. Ever thought about what ye'll do once ye get there?”
“Crossing that bridge when I get to it”, Geralt snaps without hesitation, and Zoltan glares.
“The Wild Hunt 's not just some bridge. It's the bridge. Ye need a plan.”
“I have a plan.”
“Oh? Enlighten me, then.”
There's better ways to talk about this than squabbling like an old married couple, Zoltan is aware, but an angry Geralt is an honest one, and if time is truly of the essence then he'd rather cut right to the chase, quite literally.
Judging by the fact he hasn't caught himself a punch to the face, Geralt knows he's trying to help. Hopefully.
“Got a lead on her current position. Hunt can't get to her there, or so I'm told. I can.” A pause. “We'll need somewhere safe to make a stand, afterwards. Kear Morhen. 's run down but Vesemir's there, Eskel and Lambert too.”
Zoltan hums, vaguely impressed. “An' me, when the time comes.”
Geralt's gaze is back on him. He nods. “I owe you.”
“Oh, bugger off”, he retorts with some fondness, “As if I'd let those fuckers get their bony hands on one of our own. We'll keep Ciri safe or die tryin', you know that.”
Yet it's only now that some of the tension bleeds out of Geralt's posture; he leans back a bit, tapping a gentle rhythm against his tankard. Restless but less stressed, at least.
Their eyes meet, and slowly, a grin spreads on Zoltan's face. Geralt scowls, even huffs a little... and finally lifts it to his lips, downing half its contents in one go.
“See, now yer talkin', Wolf!”
Barely have they finished their drinks, new ones appear at their elbows, courtesy of the barkeep who greets Geralt with a polite, “Master witcher.”
Said witcher reins in the sulky resentment coming off him in waves long enough to return the gesture. Zoltan winks at him from across the table.
And so the night goes on, two beers quickly turning into three, then four; Dandelion joins the fray at some point, reluctant to leave Priscilla's side for too long but the promise of seeing his elusive friend luring him out nonetheless, and somewhere between one story and the next, Zoltan catches Geralt chucking off his chain mail.
A small yet satisfying victory. He can drink to that.
The way up the stairs was decidedly easier the first time around.
It helped that the steps were even, and nothing was swaying. As it is, Zoltan's having a hard time putting one foot in front of the other – judging by the clamor behind him, the others are facing a similar problem, and that makes it more bearable.
“And then, then she said, 'But Dandelion', and I am not jesting, she whispered, 'May I not see your... maypole?' and–“
The rest goes unheard amongst bouts of laughter, even Geralt barely holding himself upright against the wall.
“Stop, stop!”, Zoltan begs, holding his stomach, at the same time the witcher announces, “I'm gonna puke”, but then doesn't, by some miraculous show of sheer will power. Dandelion is wiping tears from his eyes, purple hat hopelessly askew on his head.
The last steps to the door seem endless but somehow they make it, piling into the guest room as one loose-limbed bunch. Zoltan groans as Geralt's knee lands on his thigh, too close to his own maypole, and the thought makes him giggle even as he pushes the heavier man off to the side.
“Get off, 'm not one of ye sorceresses...es”, he proclaims with conviction and Geralt makes a mournful noise that suspiciously sounds like, “Better company than a hairy dwarf”, to which Zoltan doesn't take offense because his beard is exquisite, everybody knows that.
Suddenly Dandelion climbs to his feet – or tries to, and succeeds on the third attempt – and starts mumbling something about Priscilla, which Zoltan has ample practice tuning out, so he does, and watches the wooden panelling of the ceiling swim in and out of focus for a moment (or a while, it's hard to tell).
Sleep must've claimed him then and there: the next time consciousness graces his mind, a timid ray of sunlight is peeking through the window but it might as well've been a dagger stabbing his temple for all it helps with his oncoming headache. With some effort, Zoltan rolls over and on his belly, well versed in ignoring the nausea that roils in his guts.
To his genuine surprise, Geralt is still there; and unlike him, he somehow managed to drag himself into bed and is fast asleep, one arm draped over his face to keep out the light. The rest of him is very much bared and very much naked. Zoltan rolls his eyes at his friend's typical shamelessness.
“A disgrace to all of witcher kind, ye are”, he grumbles, tugging the blanket from underneath Geralt's legs to drape it over him. “Had double the drinks and only half the hangover, I'm sure. Lucky bastard.”
The pitiful moan of “Fuck” that comes from the pile of fabric says differently. Zoltan pats what he guesses is his arm, not the least bit sorry for him.
“Still early, don' worry. Take yer time, I'll tell the lad to ready Roach.”
A sliver of gold appears over the rim of the blanket. Despite the obvious destruction the night before caused, Geralt seems... calmer, relaxed even. For his standards, that is.
Zoltan opens his mouth, hesitates. Then:
“Don't worry too much 'bout Ciri, Geralt. A tough lass, that one.”
The witcher sits up silently, scratching his neck just above the faded tattoo. He says nothing.
“See ya at Kaer Morhen, aight? An' don't forget yer weapons, I put them over there.”
It makes Zoltan pause, half-way out the room. He leans back in. “Hm?”
“Thanks. I mean it.”
“Going soft on me, witcher?” He chuckles, shakes his head. “Just come back in one piece, you and yer daughter, and we'll figure something out.”
Geralt's smile is fleeting, but there.
“Yeah. We always do.”