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In The Embers

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“Mister witcher, sir!”

At first Lambert thinks it the beginning of the usual insults thrown his way. He doesn't pause for it, mounts his horse in one swift move, his hand clenched to a fist around the reins. No matter how much time passes, the omnipresent hatred for his mere existence gets marginally easier to bear–

A boy jumps in his way, practically in front of his horse's hooves, and only a call of “Aiden, halt!” prevents him from eating dirt.

“Hey, watch where you're–”

“Sir”, the other persists, determined now that he has the witcher's attention, and Lambert squints at his gangly limbs and the patchy fuzz on his chin. Not quite a boy, then, and courageous at that.

Still. He almost gave Aiden a heart attack and Lambert is in no mood to look for a new horse or to entertain some peasant kid, for that matter. “What do you want? If it's monster trouble, post a damn note, I'm busy.”

The boy doesn't move an inch, despite Lambert's best glare. His hands are shaking, though, as he roots through his bag for something. Finally, a crinkled envelope is held out to him.

“'s a letter, sir, from Novigrad. Sent by a bard named–“

“Give me that.”

Lambert snatches it away before the kid can react. Brow furrowed, he confirms it's from Dandelion; there's a suspicious lack of decor to it, however. “And you're sure you got the right witcher?”

“Absolutely certain, sir”, says the boy. “Was told to look for black hair and scars and a sour face a-and, um...”

Definitely less courageous now, with his features pale as the moon, and Lambert finds some mercy in him after all. He waves him closer, gives him some coin for a warm meal and some mead, if he strikes a good deal. He'll manage. Seems like the clever sort.

Dandelion, however... Regardless of what this is about, the witcher will have his revenge. Sour face, hah. He hasn't even seen Lambert angry.

Coins in hand, the boy practically leaps away with a hasty bow in Lambert's general direction. Clearly unused to his kind, if his first instinct is to treat him like a knight.

Lambert chews on that for a moment before making quick work of the envelope. Worry makes itself known in the back of his mind. If Dandelion went through the trouble of tracking him down, then–

The paper is clumsily folded, and stinks of fear. No, stress. Concern. Not good – Lambert's heart pounds faster. He skips the greeting, skims the hastily written words and–

Ciri is dead.

Lambert reads it, and then reads it again, eyes going wide as their meaning sinks in. His thoughts, frozen in a brief instant of shock, fly in all directions at once.

A tug of reins makes Aiden turn sharply, the press of Lambert's heels at his side urgent; and Lambert doesn't notice the wind whipping through his hair or how the world goes blurry around the edges.

Geralt, he thinks, and pushes on ever faster.

*

It feels like years until the forest around him turns familiar, deeply so, and the witcher turns to the rapidly approaching mountain range for orientation.

Nevertheless the last leg of his journey goes by in a flash; the shadows grow longer under the setting sun, and soon Kaer Morhen towers over him, its high walls taking the last light with it. On any other day, Lambert would've stopped and stared, would've given himself a minute or two to take in the sight of the crumbling keep once more.

He doesn't, however. The tense coil wrapped around his heart won't allow it, the storm swirling in his mind rendering any focus other than finding Geralt impossible, and finally Lambert understands.

There's no doubt his eyes carry the same hunted look he had, that time they met in Novigrad. No wonder Geralt had pushed himself and his beloved Roach to her limits in his search – uncertainty is it's own kind of torture, and even the strongest might break under the weight of what if.

Lambert actively stops himself from reaching for the letter again. He knows it by memory now, not that it contained much to begin with:

Ciri, gone. Geralt, missing without a trace.

His fame and relative sociability belies his skill to remain in the shadows if he so wishes – and once a witcher of Geralt's caliber decides to disappear, there's not much to be done. Contacting Lambert had been Dandelion's last resort, but even he couldn't pick up a single solid lead on the White Wolf.

Yet Lambert refuses to let him go like he did Aiden, hell, even Vesemir; turning his back after everything was said and done felt natural then, it's what the Path demanded of him. Never attached, never sticking around... But something about Geralt makes him want to try, that same fire he showed for Ciri burning within him, too.

They're family, not by blood but by choice, and he'll be damned if he fails him like he failed the others.

Thus Lambert doesn't hesitate, and he doesn't cower under Kaer Morhen's heavy gates. Something – his senses, or maybe a rare bout of optimism – tells him this old keep isn't abandoned just yet.

Maybe fate is on his side, this time.

*

The first lit lantern inside the ramparts proves his hunch right, and it's not hard to guess who ignited it when he brings Aiden to the stables and finds two other horses in their respective boxes.

Lambert recognizes Scorpion easily enough – there's only few mounts black as night, and hours of listening to Eskel's equivalent of swooning made sure he won't forget it – and Roach is curious as ever, gently bumping her nose against Lambert's shoulder.

“'fraid I got nothing”, he murmurs and rubs the white spot between her eyes, glancing her over. Small cuts and scrapes interrupt the white markings on her legs. Nothing too grave, though.

“Had a rough journey, hm? Good girl. Things're gonna be okay, you'll see.”

Even the hardened heart of a witcher can't resist the concentrated effort of all three horses to plead with their eyes; Lambert sighs, hunts down some hay that's safe to feed amongst all the moldy bales left behind after the battle.

It's the least they deserve for their hard work.

Leaving them and their contented munching behind, the few stone steps to the keep's entrance are quickly climbed. Suddenly, the wolf medallion around Lambert's neck stirs: a gentle hum at first, barely noticeable through the thick layers of his armor, yet the closer he gets, the stronger it vibrates.

Magic? Lambert's hand goes to his silver sword by instinct, his enhanced senses picking up some movement–

“Drawing your sword on me? Not the warm welcome I expected.”

Amber eyes flash in the dark, the faint moonlight catching on pale skin and the clawed scars marring it. “Stop creeping in the shadows like a damn ekimmara and I might reconsider”, Lambert huffs, nonetheless sheathing his sword.

“I see you beat me here, Eskel.”

They shake hands, Eskel's crooked smile a little smug. Lambert lets him have it. Just being around the older witcher soothes some of the restlessness inside him – there's little in the world that can break Eskel's calm nature, and out of anyone, he's the one who's known Geralt the longest.

All too soon, the warm feeling of seeing a friendly face runs cold; Lambert nods to the closed door, “Is he...?”, and watches the other closely as his expression notably dims.

“Mh. Can't say I recommend going in there, though.”

Eskel exhales slowly, sitting down on a piece of broken masonry. The way he carries himself is... defeated, almost, similar to the last time they parted after Vesemir's pyre had burned down to embers.

The sudden weight on his chest denies Lambert a proper breath. “That bad, huh? Shit.” He shakes his head, rubs his neck. For a moment, the rasp of his beard against the worn leather of his gloves is the only sound. Then:

“I just hoped–“

“Yeah. Me too.”

More silence. His medallion is still trembling, so too is Eskel's – and after weeks of travel and hundreds of miles crossed, waiting even for a second longer is the last thing Lambert feels like doing. Frustration seethes within him, making him pace with his eyes fixed on the keep.

Finally, he can't take it anymore. Hissing “Fuck this” under his breath, Lambert is half-way past Eskel when a strong grip wraps around his wrist.

“Lambert.”

“What?!”, he snaps back, tense under the other's unexpected touch. “We can't sit around and leave him–“

“You're right.” Eskel's eyes seek his, gaze steady and yet soft with concern as he lets him go. “Just... Be careful. Geralt– I've never seen him like this.”

The anger leaves Lambert in an instant; he nods, hesitating before he briefly rests his hand on Eskel's shoulder and squeezes. Then he's past him, only the cracked wood of the door stands between him and Geralt.

Lambert steels himself and opens it.

Darkness surrounds him the moment he steps inside. The dull light from outside barely spills past the threshold, but it's the near-oppressive presence of magic hitting his senses like a physical punch that staggers him: even the very air tastes of it, and Lambert's unease grows.

“Geralt?”

His voice carries far within the keep's stone walls, but no answer arises. Great. Eskel's warning fresh in his mind, Lambert ventures into the darkened room like he would a monster's lair – with his senses on high alert and ready to cast the Quen sign if need be.

Despite the years and decades since his training, Kaer Morhen's halls remain fundamentally the same; any witcher raised here could walk them blindly, and finding a candelabra that works is merely a matter of trial and error. A few candles ignite on Lambert's command, their timid flames reaching towards the center–

He catches a flash of white before his medallion lurches and something comes flying towards him. Lambert's fingers move without conscious thought; the golden glow of Quen lasts but a split second before it's shattered again and the crash of splintering wood sounds behind him.

Lambert doesn't take his eyes off his target though, even if his lips pull into a joyless smirk. “Did you just throw a table at me?”, he calls out, letting some indignation slip into his voice. “That what you did to Eskel, too? Poor guy's not faring well out in the doghouse, Geralt.”

The icy glare from across the room makes him reconsider not drawing his sword. “Leave”, Geralt growls. It's pretty clear it's not a suggestion.

Lambert hums, eyeing the surrounding destruction, then the witcher who caused it in barely-there glances. His chest is bare and practically dripping with sweat, hair wild, muscles taut, trembling with exertion. Geralt's been at it a while, it seems.

Not good at all.

“Nah. Just got here an' it's cold as balls outside. If you want to toss around some more furniture, I suggest the chair to your right. Still in one piece, that's a plus.”

Step by small step, he forces his stride to be casual as he approaches – Geralt's eyes never leave him, pupils narrowed to thin, angry slits, and Lambert doesn't miss the positioning of his arm, ready to strike again.

“Look. I get it, company's probably the last thing you want right now but–“

Maybe it's his calming tone of voice, or the placating show of hands; Geralt grinds his teeth hard enough Lambert can hear it, the chair goes flying, Lambert's countering Aard push only doing so much in blocking the blow.

Sheer wind pressure knocks him back, flattens him against a pillar, and for a moment Lambert sees stars as all the air in his lungs is pressed out in one strangled breath. Blinking away the dark spots, he can only pant in a desperate attempt to get oxygen back into his body.

Somewhere behind his unresponsive lungs, the witcher's pulse starts to race. Shit shit shit. If Geralt's serious about this – and by the way he's stalking closer, he is – there's no way Lambert's living through this. Just the thought of fighting his friend, his brother, with all he has makes his stomach churn.

Lambert holds out his hand. “Geralt–“

“That's enough!”

Like thunderclap, the words seems to freeze time itself for the blink of an eye. Lambert barely recognizes Eskel underneath the absolute wrath in his voice, and before Geralt can as much as turn around, a blast of Aard blows him clean off his feet and into some debris behind him.

The sight of Eskel's back in front of him makes that remnant of fear, that small part of him that is still scared of loud voices and fisted hands deep inside ease, and Lambert can breathe again. “Eskel, stop”, he rasps. “I'm alright, he didn't–“

“He intended to, that's reason enough.”

Somewhere ahead, the rustling of moving rubble goes ignored by Eskel who helps the younger witcher to his feet. “Smacked that pillar pretty hard”, he mutters, anger replaced by worry; Lambert pushes him away.

“'m fine, head's fine, ribs're fine, get out of my face.”

Even now, that petulant tone draws a fond look from Eskel, however brief. “Alright, you're snapping at me, we're good. Geralt?”

He doesn't raise his voice, there's no need to: the third and last Wolf is standing a few paces away, expression unreadable yet Lambert doesn't miss the short glance his way. “Could've pulled that punch a little”, says Geralt at last, without the usual dryness or humor.

Eskel shrugs. “Payback's a bitch and you deserved it. Wolf school witchers kicked out of Kaer Morhen by one of their own – Vesemir would have our heads, no matter the reason.”

There's more than a little venom in Geralt's hissed “Vesemir's dead”, and it's in that moment that Lambert steps between them, pushing them apart.

“Okay, that's the line. Let's all just shut up, get our shit, pool whatever booze we have and drink till we forget this ever happened. Deal? Good. Eskel, with me.”

He doesn't check for Eskel's or Geralt's reaction; instead, Lambert walks out in measured strides, eyes closing in relief when another, heavier gait soon follows.

They don't talk while they gather their many packs, weapons and saddle bags, even though there's a lot to be said about... whatever the blazes that was: first and foremost, how it's possible that Lambert is the rational one in all this – but he watches Eskel forcefully grab his gear to head inside, expression cold and eyes distant, and thinks that Kaer Morhen might've stayed the same but they haven't, and maybe, time has changed them more than they want to admit.

If only Vesemir wasn't–

Lambert sighs quietly to himself.

Yeah, if only.

Chapter Text

Eskel can't remember a time without Geralt.

Technically, he knows of early childhood years spent elsewhere; they are a blurred memory at best and utterly unremarkable compared to what followed after his calling, yet the moment he and Geralt crossed their wooden swords for the first time shines brightly in his mind.

It's a time Eskel likes to return to, every now and again. Still brown-haired and energetic like a young hound, the other witchers used to joke they were like two sides of a coin: Eskel was the lighthouse to Geralt's storm, a point of serenity to the chaos that followed his would-be-brother's every step.

Oh, if only they knew – at least half of the trouble they caused was Eskel's idea. Geralt's execution was simply less... subtle and thus he got most of the blame.

Until they went through the Changes. The Trials.

Until Geralt was singled out and taken and returned, hair white as snow and eyes dark with the horrors he faced in solitude.

He never talked about the experiments, and Eskel never asked. Instead he stayed by his side, through meals Geralt barely touched and nights they spent awake, Eskel's quiet voice keeping the shadows at bay with every story he could remember, and some he clumsily made up. Eventually the absent stare gave way to wary half-smiles and bone-dry wit.

It took years for that mischievous glint to return to Geralt's eyes; it was rare, well-hidden. Eskel recognized it regardless.

Almost a century later, they sit side by side again but with a foot of distance that feels like miles, and even the warm glow of the hearth in front of them can't banish the blankness from Geralt's expression.

Eskel recognizes that one, too.

They haven't spoken a word since their heated confrontation – clash? – hours before; even Lambert is quiet, withdrawn as he first tends to the fire and then starts preparing what smells like stew, and while the cagey look in his eyes is gone Eskel's heart grows heavy. As a kid Lambert's way to cope with conflict was to invest all his energy in being helpful, useful tasks and duties that kept his hands steady, and it's not hard to deduce where that habit came from.

It was Geralt who had nudged Eskel's knee with his own and nodded to where the new apprentices sat, all grouped up and eating like a ravenous pack of wolves except for one. By then Eskel knew what that face meant, the pensive twist to his mouth and the deepening of the worry line between his brows – and Eskel took in the too-thin arms and the yellowed bruises on pale skin and shrugged, idealistic enough to brush aside the odds.

Yet Lambert had survived, and while he grew bitter and spiteful about his fate as a witcher, he followed their every step until they left for the Path, one by one.

A deep sigh is trapped in Eskel's lungs, swallowed down along with the anger still simmering within him. It has nowhere else to go, really: like the world is tilted just so, spinning further and further from its axis without control, and the only thing that could right it is a miraculous return of what's missing.

Idealism won't save them this time. Ciri can't be saved, not anymore – and the man who tried his damnedest to do it anyway is utterly still beside him, devoid of life if not for the dull beating of his heart.

“Here”, a low voice says. He nearly startles. The haze of his thoughts clears: Lambert is calmly waiting for him to take the steaming bowl in his hand, too calmly, and Eskel reaches for it, careful not to touch skin. “Thanks.”

It's indeed stew. Eskel's stomach rumbles, gone ignored for so long; his first thought goes to Geralt, however, and he can't find it in himself to be surprised to see Geralt's portion set aside.

“Geralt.”

In the seconds that stretch on without movement, Eskel's gaze wanders from the prominent line of Geralt's cheekbones over the sharp jut of his clavicle to fingers that look fragile in the flickering light. Finally, the witcher's head turns enough to indicate he's listening, eyes still fixed on the flames ahead, still out of focus.

The bowl scrapes against wood as its pushed further along the bench.

“Eat. Please.”

Geralt looks up then, like he just remembered they still exist – and there is guilt in his eyes, almost as old as its bearer, and the impassive mask cracks a little. A quiet breath passes through his lips, or maybe a word too indistinct to understand even by witcher standards. He nods at Lambert after the first bite, “It's good”, he murmurs a little louder, and Eskel can practically feel Lambert's relief.

The snappy response of “Don't get used to it” elicits a soft snort from Eskel and Geralt's slow blink, too, could be mistaken for an eye-roll.

They eat, the resulting silence close to relaxed, filled with the crackling of fire and clattering tableware. Around them, Kaer Morhen's stony chill gradually yields; already done with his portion, Eskel gets up on silent feet to rummage through the pile of assorted belongings for his own bag. Only once his searching fingers meets the stiff leather of his second set of armor is he satisfied, and on second thought he also grabs a bottle of White Gull.

The latter is tossed straight to Lambert, who's expression considerably brightens, while the former is shaken out and promptly dumped on Geralt's bared shoulders. “You'll catch something”, Eskel answers the other's raised eyebrows. Returning to his spot, he spreads out more comfortably, now thigh-to-thigh with Geralt, and pretends not to notice how he leans into the touch.

Of course Lambert doesn't have such reservations. “Uh oh, Mama Eskel is back”, he comments around a slug from the bottle, “Better wipe that sad look off your face or he'll be your second, more helpful shadow all night.”

Eskel is about to shoot back when Geralt tugs the edges of the too-big jacket tighter around himself and shrugs, “I don't mind”, and doesn't avoid Eskel's warm look.

Lambert rolls his eyes, drinks some more. “Urgh, I forgot how disgustingly close you two are.”

“Stop complaining and give me that.”

The bottle wanders to Eskel and then Geralt, who takes the liberty to polish off half its contents in one go. They exchange a glance over his head before Lambert mumbles “Alright then” under his breath and goes to get more.

Everything looks decidedly fuzzier by the time they run out of supplies: bottles with all kinds of labels, from self-made brew to high-quality wine from Toussaint, occupy half the table, and if there's one thing Eskel's certain of it's that tomorrow's hangover will be murderous.

While Lambert mainly looks sleepy – guessing by when and how he arrived, he must've ridden day and night to reach Kaer Morhen in time, something Eskel can relate to a little too well –, Geralt's slurred speech and clumsy movements tell a worrying tale altogether different.

It's Eskel who shakes the last dregs at the bottom of his flask and announces it's bed time. Lambert blinks awake and shuffles to follow wordlessly; yet Geralt stays where he is, the line of his shoulders suddenly tense.

Previous hesitation melted away by the alcohol coursing through his veins, Eskel automatically places a hand on the back of Geralt's neck, a grounding touch. “You coming?”, he asks softly, and there's something almost pleading in the glance Geralt throws his way.

That's a no, then.

Eskel doesn't suppress his sigh this time, and out of the corner of his eye he sees Lambert sit back down as well, on Geralt's other side. “Gonna nap though”, he grumbles before swiftly passing out with his head pillowed against him; and while Geralt seems startled by this, Eskel watches the tension bleed out of him little by little.

A fond chuckle is huffed between scarred lips. “Hasn't changed a bit, has he?”, says Eskel, low enough not to disturb the sleeping witcher. “Skittish as a cat whilst sober but get a few good drinks in him and he's the polar opposite.”

Geralt hums. “A cuddly drunk. Something to keep in mind.”

“Yeah.”

After a beat of silence, Eskel takes a deep breath and finally gives voice to the question burning on his tongue:

“Why?”

And going by Geralt's unmoving expression, he already expected it. Again his eyes grow distant – struggling through his drink-addled mind, perhaps, or in search for words.

“I...” His throat clicks as he swallows once, heavily. “She's there. In my dreams.”

Eskel clenches his jaw to prevent himself from reaching out, barely breathes, in fact. It's an unwritten rule amongst the Wolves never to press Geralt for more than he's ready to give; Gods know he struggles to trust anyone as it is. There's no need to add their names to the list, as well.

Yet Geralt continues without prompting, drawing his face into a pained grimace: “It's– There's a portal. She is there, and so is Avallac'h”, he spits the name out, anger coloring his words for a brief, helpless moment, “and I try to stop her but–“

And it's the crack in his voice that spurs Eskel into action. Without thinking he's sliding his fingers inbetween Geralt's clenched ones, prying apart the fist with gentle pressure. Geralt stills then exhales shakily.

“But she won't listen. And it's not enough, I'm too late, too fucking late to save my own fucking daughter–“

“Stop.” Eskel's thumb brushes over Geralt's knuckles. The pulse he feels there is rabbit-quick, stressed to its limits. “Nothing about this is your f–“

“But it is”, Geralt cuts in. “It is. She didn't trust me with the truth, I– 's something I said, or did. Maybe from the start, I don't– Gods–“

The last word is but a strangled whisper. Geralt's back bows, his grip on Eskel's hand turning crushingly hard as a low whine forces it's way out out his throat, one even the trembling hand on his mouth can't stop.

Eskel's vision mists over as Geralt shatters into pieces in front of him. Close to a century of existence, and still he feels like that scared clueless little boy that tried to keep his only friend alive, one day at a time. “We're here”, he says, again and again, forehead pressed against Geralt's shoulder that shakes and shakes and shakes.

“You're not alone, brother.”

Somewhere far away, he hears Lambert repeat his words – Eskel catches sight of wet tracks shining on his bearded cheeks, eyes that were tiredly drooping now bright with moisture and stubbornly fixed on Geralt.

How long they listen to Geralt's dry sobs, Eskel can't say, just that by the time it stops he's slumped against Eskel, delirious in his exhaustion. Eskel's mouth is moving, a constant murmur of meaningless platitudes muffled against Geralt's hair, gaze on the distant fire as it burns low and eventually goes out.

In the glow of its embers, Geralt finally gives in to sleep. And without saying a word, Eskel and Lambert stay awake and keep watch.

 

Chapter Text

Geralt comes to slowly, sluggishly, almost.

His eyes open to complete darkness. Fully dilated, they catch but sketchy lines of rock and wooden beams above him – his mind, somewhere between sleep and consciousness, supplies home and safe and mine until it reaches Kaer Morhen, and Geralt shifts, sinks deeper into the covers.

They're warm and smell of his brothers – home, safe, mine – and only then does his drowsy senses register soft movements: an arm slung across his waist, a slack hand over his heart, two sets of lungs breathing aside of his own, deep and even. Slumbering still.

Geralt smiles without thinking.

It's been years, decades, since he woke up like this. It brings memories of cold winters and anxious mornings, the kind brought on by rapid change and a body that's unlike him, now – but also of long nights spent with wild tales and hushed laughter, three pairs of golden eyes glinting in the dark.

Vesemir used to scold them for staying up till the break of dawn. Despite the harsh words, his gaze had been fond, amused even.

Geralt lingers on that memory, longer than he could before; the expected ache in his chest is... less, out of reach if only barely, and so are the thoughts of the previous day. Lurking, ready to pounce.

Carefully, the witcher turns his head until his chin grazes short hair – rough, calloused fingers twitch against his side, then tighten. “Can hear you thinkin'”, Lambert's voice is low, heavy with sleep. He scoots closer and under Geralt's arm, plastered shoulder to hip against him.

“T'morrow, 'kay?”

To his right, Eskel stirs as well; light as a bird's feather, his lashes flutter against Geralt's skin. He rumbles “Go back t' sleep” into the crook of his neck, his knuckles rubbing over the center of his chest.

And Geralt does, the dual heartbeat to either side of him assuring no dreams will come.

*

“Ah, finally! Sleeping Beauty comes down from his tower.”

Geralt yawns heartily and rubs his eyes to soothe the headache throbbing behind them. Too much sleep, too little food, residue alcohol – his body is abuzz with signals of week-long deprivation. Geralt ignores them.

“Aren't you mixing metaphors?”, Eskel asks lightly from where he leans against a pillar, methodically shoveling what looks like oatmeal gruel into his mouth.

Lambert points his dripping spoon in Geralt's direction. “Maybe. Hair's almost long enough to fit both, though.”

There's ample left in the quickly-cooling pot. Geralt sniffs it, “Hm. Made by Eskel”, he notes idly, serving himself some.

Eskel's squinting at him when he starts eating. “What's that supposed to mean?” His tone is defensive to the point of sounding petulant. Geralt is intelligent enough to change the subject.

“How long was I out?”

Mouth full of gruel, his words come out a little messy. Neither of them particularly minds.

“All day”, Lambert answers before Eskel can. “Hogged the blankets, too.”

“I was cold.”

Eskel raises an eyebrow, his scars pulling taut. “Horseshit. You think witcher's would've settled here if we minded the cold?”

Geralt huffs. The phantom feeling of frost crawling up his neck makes his hands turn to fists, a desert of blue-ish ice flashing in his mind. “Perhaps.”

The rest of his meal is finished in pensive silence; around him, Eskel and Lambert keep bickering, until Lambert's voice rises, “Oh c'mon!”, and Eskel crosses his arms, gaze firm.

“The keep's stores are empty and whatever was left behind is rotten or worse. We need supplies.”

Fine. I'll take fishing, you go hunt. Another day in the saddle and I'll go fucking insane.”

Eskel shrugs. “Fine with me. Scorpion's legs could use a stretch anyways.”

Cracking his neck, Geralt rejoins them. “I'll come with”, he says, and doesn't miss the short glance between them. This time he does roll his eyes. “Cut it out, I'm not gonna fucking break. That boat of yours still working?”

The question is aimed at Lambert, who smirks. “Of course. I built it, remember?”

Eskel nods. “Then it's decided. Be back by nightfall?”

“So long”, Geralt replies automatically, Lambert already off to search for their gear.

*

The sun is high in the sky when the lake comes into view, the pleasantly warm temperature carrying along the last vestiges of summer.

Despite his earlier complaint, Lambert had agreed to take the horses even if just to give them something else to look at other than the dusty stable walls. Roach had let out a joyous whicker upon Geralt's entrance, playfully nibbling at his hair – he ruffled her mane and greeted her also, mumbling sweet nothings that made Lambert scoff from where he was preparing his own horse.

There was no snarky follow-up, however. Still tiptoeing around me, Geralt noted silently, mulling it over on their way down the valley.

The water is near-translucent, bouncing off sunlight on glinting waves; dismounting Roach, Geralt blinks against the sudden brightness in front of him, so distracted the mare pulls at her reins impatiently, eyes and ears pointed at a juicy-looking patch of grass.

“Okay, okay, I got it. There.”

Lambert chuckles from where he's taking their fishing rods and a suspiciously rounded satchel out of his horse's saddle bags. “Aiden's the same... Greedy beasts, them”, he comments as he dumps it all into the boat that awaits them, firmly tethered this time.

There's a moment of hesitation on Geralt's part before he quietly asks, “Aiden, huh?”, and Lambert's gaze drops down and away.

“...Yeah. Hurry up, the bombs are getting stale.”

An echo from a lifetime ago, drop 'em in and scoop up whatever floats to the surface, and Geralt cracks an involuntary smile.

“Wait, you actually do that?”

As if nothing happened, Lambert mocks, “'You actually do that?'”, giving him a disbelieving look. “We've known each other for how long again? C'mon Wolf, give me some credit. It works. End of story.”

“Huh.” Geralt shrugs. “How 'bout we fish, y'know, like normal people, and then blow everything up? Don't feel like eating a side of gunpowder later.”

“Always gotta nag, don't ya? You have such a talent to turn anything fun into some boring, normal people, old man chore–”

“It's called 'common sense'. Look it up sometime, could blow your mind, though.”

Lambert's annoyed grimace is severe enough to show his teeth.

“Ugh just... shut up and get in the boat. Else I'll have to deal with two nagging old witchers tonight, and that's too cruel a fate even for me.”

*

A short while later finds them all set up in the middle of the lake; bait in the water, Geralt makes himself comfortable for a long wait, legs crossed, knees touching the railing, eyes roaming the view of the mountains to the North. The horizon is a sharp line between snowy white and spotless blue.

Something inside him softens. I missed this.

“Beautiful, isn't it?”

Lambert's voice is, for once, free of sarcasm or bitterness. After spreading out as far as his half of the boat lets him, he cautiously leans his back against Geralt's and relaxes when he balances his weight automatically, readily accepting the touch.

“Yeah. Must've forgotten to look last time I was here. Damn mist didn't make things easier.”

“Not to forget that whole saving-the-world business.”

“Little hard to forget that”, Geralt muses grimly. He exhales, then, resting the back of his head on Lambert's shoulder. Clouds drift by, pushed along by a gentle breeze.

“Why do we keep doing this?”

“What do you mean?”

If Lambert is surprised his measured tone doesn't show it. Geralt tosses and turns words in his mind, looking for the right ones to express the vague feeling of not-quite-right in his gut.

“Witchering, I guess.” He hums to buy himself more time to think. “Leaving Kaer Morhen. Being on the Path. Accepting contracts. Different faces, same monsters, over and over. Helping people and getting nothing in return. It all seems so... pointless now.”

The last part is a quiet murmur but it's heard regardless. “Money”, says Lambert with a shrug, and it's not the reaction Geralt expected. “Gotta survive, keep moving. 's a shitty life but it's better than the alternative.”

“Which is?”

“Dying.”

Quick, without hesitation, like a viper's strike. Geralt forces himself to pause, to consider his words despite the way his stomach drops.

Lambert shifts, slow as to not dislodge him.

“Look. I might not be the biggest fan of the job, 'kay? That's more Vesemir's thing.” A pause. “Was. Whatever. My point is: Killing monsters, taking coin for it – that's why we're here. Doesn't mean that's all it's gotta be, though.”

He sighs loudly. Getting annoyed, or steeling himself? Geralt waits.

“When Aiden and I were, hm, partners? I don't know... No, shut up, let me finish.”

Geralt's mouth shuts again.

“Thanks. So, two witchers, double the coin, right? Means we got the real nasty shit. A pair of archgriffins here, ancient leshens there. Some sick fuck wanted us to catch a fiend, for some reason. A huge one, too. We tried, pissed it off, almost died, ended up killing it. Didn't get paid, of course.”

Lambert huffs, shakes his head.

“Anyways. After a while Aiden must've gotten tired of my bitching because he said the exact same thing I'm telling you now. Got all in my face like, and yet you live, so stop complaining and make it worth the while”, his voice lowers an octave, an imitation but a fond one.

“Then he dropped my ass in front of the inn and rode off.”

“Were you pissed?”

Lambert's laugh is strained.

“Oh, you bet. Fucking furious, in fact. Still waited up all night for him; stared out the window like some grieving widow but he didn't show. He left me to stew on it for a full week. And when he returned, I finally got what he meant. You know?”

He remembers sitting by a fire on an abandoned island, barely blinking as he took in green eyes and ashen hair and a wound faded to a thin scar–

Geralt closes his eyes and nods.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Go back to that when you lose your way. Every single day, if you have to.”

There's grief in Lambert's voice, out of hiding and clear as day; but there's strength there, as well, and stubborn determination, the back pressed against his refusing to bow down a single inch.

Sudden, fierce pride warms Geralt's chest. His little brother has gone a long way since they met – maybe he doesn't need them anymore, him and Eskel, but Geralt's grateful that he came back for him all the same.

And that he stayed, after Geralt–

“Lambert.”

“Hmm?”

“I'm sorry. For going after you when–“

Lambert moves, leans forward and Geralt's hand shoots forward to catch himself against the railing. Glancing over his shoulder, he finds the other witcher smiling sweetly, golden eyes glinting with sly mirth.

And then he's pushed off the boat in one big, graceless splash. Geralt is quick to swim back up, already glaring through wet strands of hair before he even broke the water's surface; elbows on the railing, Lambert's head is pillowed on his arms. The picture of innocence.

“Okay, I deserved that.”

"Yup. We're even." Lambert lets out an amused breath. "And sadly, all the fishes are now gone. Eskel will be angry. Unless–”

“–We use the bombs, yeah, yeah. Am I allowed back on the boat now or...?”

“Guess.”

Geralt groans. “Right. See you back on shore.”

*

Days pass, then a week.

Life in Kaer Morhen comes easy to the witchers: countless winters they spent here, and the longer they stay, the more likely it gets they will remain for the one to come, as well.

At least Geralt will.

He doesn't really have anywhere else to go – there's Novigrad, sure, and as much as he'd like to see Zoltan and Dandelion again, the past months haunt him enough without retracing his own steps. He said as much in the letter Lambert bullied him into writing. “We wouldn't have known otherwise”, Eskel concurred, and his somber tone was the final blow to Geralt's resistance.

Once he had climbed the many stairs to the keep's highest point and sent a pigeon – one of the pitiful few that survived by themselves –, some of his restlessness had fallen away. The bird had gradually disappeared, carrying Geralt's words on swift wings.

The air starts to taste of snow: the valley is due to freeze over soon, and while his brothers glance at the heavy clouds now and then, none of them makes a move to leave. Instead, they take turns gathering supplies and patching up Kaer Morhen's crumbling walls, the memory of those they lost a physical presence in every stone and wooden plank keeping it all together.

It's... easier to bear, in a sense, every drop of sweat and every second invested a tribute to their sacrifice. Yet the keep was made for dozens of them, not just three – some days are wasted together, sitting and drinking and soaking in each other's company until hunger drives them out the gates again.

One of such days, Eskel watches Geralt tend to his swords, every movement executed with experienced hands. “What happened there?”, he asks eventually and Geralt stills. His gaze follows Eskel's.

Ah.

Running two fingers over the notches in otherwise flawless silver, Geralt answers, “Eredin, I think. Put up a tough fight. I wouldn't be here without this”, and lowers the sword so Eskel can take a closer look.

“Huh. May I?”

“Go ahead.”

Every witcher has their own way of trying out a sword: Geralt usually goes through a few of Vesemir's old routines to check the weight and balance; Eskel checks the sword's length and manoeuvrability, however, quick strikes and switching hands according to his more sign-based style.

“Got some fine work there. Wolven design, right?” Eskel appreciates the twisted wolf heads that make up the pommel. “Think you can get it repaired? Real shame to let it go to waste.”

“Hope so.” Geralt shrugs. “Got it made from this blacksmith in Novigrad. Owe him a visit next spring anyways, armor needs some patching up as well.”

“Might tag along, then. Treat myself to some new gear.”

They share a smile. Geralt takes the offered sword back. “Sure.”

Getting back to work, it only takes a few minutes to finish oiling both weapons. The steel sword goes through a similar trial by Eskel, gaining his approval also – Geralt reaches for it and Eskel's grip tightens on the hilt, the positioning close to a fighting stance.

“Rematch?”

Geralt's brows rise along with the corners of his mouth. His mind jumps years back, when Eskel had asked the exact same question, and the countless times before that.

“Again?”

The sword bobs in a come hither motion.

“Fine. Get your own sword, though, that one's mine.”

A second longer and Eskel flips it over, the symbol of their school pointed at Geralt. “Meet you outside, White Wolf.”

*

Heavy boots stir the thin blanket of snow over the courtyard. Tightening the broad leather strap across his chest, Geralt rolls his shoulders now covered by his armor; after months of constant wear, it's an extension of his body, even if it's the first time he's donned the full set in a while.

Eskel is similarly dressed, cracking his knuckles before he draws his sword with his right. “Signs or no signs?”, he calls over.

“Signs.”

Eskel's sword switches hands. “Sweet.” He waits. Geralt takes his own weapon in hand, falling into a defensive position by default. He nods.

Not a second later Eskel is upon him, right hand alight with Igni – Geralt's Quen takes the brunt of it and breaks, its golden fragments giving him a window to strike. Eskel parries and backs off, grinning.

Not a single word passes between them as they clash again and again, swords singing along to their dance; Geralt is faster but only by a narrow margin, the advantage countered by Eskel's powerful blows carefully measured to keep opponents on their toes without burning too much energy.

Then, with their panted breaths clouding in the cold, they circle each other like hungry wolves, slitted pupils dashing left to right, looking for an opening. Geralt's vision narrows on Eskel's side, the backhand carry of his sword leaving it momentarily unprotected; he makes his move in one, two, three rapid strides–

A distant boom crashes through his focus, eyes widening, muscles freezing up. Geralt's head snaps up, towards it, I know that sound

A prick of pain blooms on his stomach but to Geralt it's a distant sensation: his thoughts tumble apart, his mind a constant chant of Ciri Ciri Ciri that steals his breath.

“–wrong? Geralt! Snap out of it!”

“It's her”, Geralt whispers – and everything falls into place as he runs, sword dropped and forgotten, the sharp sting of snow against his heated body spurring him on. An instant later the smell of magic hits his senses as his medallion jerks, warns him of a danger he'll wholeheartedly embrace if only–

The frozen ground below is slippery, making him stumble around the corner; Geralt rights himself against the bars of Kaer Morhen's gate, looking up, searching, near-frantic–

The air flickers where a portal is closing, in its midst a shadow stepping into the light – green eyes and ashen hair and a fading scar – and Geralt's knees buckle, the beat of his heart leaping into his throat, choking him.

“Geralt? Gods, Geralt–“

His world shifts, aligns itself as something – someone, Ciri, Ciri – barrels into him and they tumble down together. Geralt's arms wrap around her on instinct, crushing her close, face buried in the space between her neck and shoulder.

She laughs, breathless and wet with tears, before she starts to shake. “Sorry, I'm so sorry, I tried, I couldn't, Geralt–“

Geralt shushes her, “'s okay, 'm here”, one hand on her back and another in her hair, steadying her and himself, “You're home now–“

And with his brothers at his back and his daughter in his arms, Geralt is too.