Axii was the last sign they were taught. The others they started on in the year after the Trial of the Grasses, even if their progress was slow, but they weren't taught Axii at all until after the Trial of the Dreams.
When they first learned it--once they'd gotten beyond the stage where they cast it on thin air while Master Corbin stood behind them and critiqued their form--they cast it on animals. Each of them stood before a rat or a squirrel in a cage and cast Axii, trying to make the wild thing calm, almost tame, for the moment before the sign wore off.
When they'd mastered rodents--which Eskel did in the first week, and Geralt next after him--they moved on to Kaer Morhen's cats. Those they had to track down themselves, and then cast Axii on their target well enough to bring the cat back to Master Corbin.
Kaer Morhen's cats were the result of two hundred years of cats teaching their kittens to avoid and resist being bothered by witchers. It was several kinds of training in one, and not even Eskel got through it without losing some blood.
Interspersed with cat practice was horse practice. Horses were easier because they were prey animals, and naturally wanted to follow someone's lead, unlike the cats whose wills were slippery and always opposed to anyone else's. Horses were, however, much larger and more apt to break bones if the Axii wore off at an inopportune time, so they could be quite as perilous as the cats.
They began to learn that way, how to tilt Axii one way or another--to keep it gentle and coaxing for a horse who wanted to be persuaded, how to be sharp as steel with a cat who would resist if given an opening.
They had been practicing for more than a year when they were allowed to cast Axii on other people. They all had to start by casting it on Master Corbin, who generally just looked thoughtful and then gave an evaluation of what the sign felt like when cast on him.
Geralt's was "prickly, but not ineffective." Eskel's made him smile, just for a moment, and after that he only said, "Hm. Good."
After Master Corbin, they were each assigned one of the others to try casting Axii on--which also meant that they all got to feel what it was like to try to resist Axii. They'd be set some task with a reward for the first to finish, to make sure they were motivated to resist.
It was more fun than the other signs; they all tried to convince their targets to do ridiculous things once they'd cast Axii--crow like a rooster, do a handstand, spin around until you fall down, sing a hymn with all the lyrics changed to dirty words. A successful Axii session meant the courtyard was filled with witchers in training acting out all the harmless dares they'd traded as children, since Master Corbin would put a stop to anything really dangerous. They all succumbed fairly often at first. Eskel was best at casting the sign, he was no better than any of them at resisting it, at least to begin with.
Geralt learned that knack fastest, and that was probably why he noticed first. He didn't say anything about it during sign training, not in earshot of Master Corbin, not even when any of the other boys were around. He waited until he and Eskel were alone, having slipped away to meet at their favorite of the little mountain pools when they were supposed to be gathering herbs for Master Alwyn.
Well. He waited until they'd spent some time swimming and ducking each other, which turned inevitably into rubbing up against each other under the water, and then continuing the rubbing when they got out of the water.
But when they were both lying on the grass, stretched out together naked and panting and letting the sun and wind dry their skin, then Geralt squinted up at the sky and remembered what he'd been thinking he should ask Eskel.
"Hey," he said. "Have you noticed we never cast Axii on each other? When we're practicing?"
Eskel looked over at him, squinting against more than the afternoon light. "It'd be stupid, wouldn't it?"
Geralt frowned. "Why?"
Eskel rolled his eyes, and waved a hand back and forth between their bodies, naked but for their medallions on short-knotted cords around their necks. "We already like each other pretty well. Be hard to tell if it worked or if we were just playing along. Worse than horses."
Geralt frowned. "Yeah, but it's not like we don't like to compete. If you cast on me I'd want to show you I could resist it, and same for you."
Eskel made a thoughtful noise and looked up at the sky again.
"What I've noticed," he said after a moment, "is it's never reciprocal. He always changes the pairs before we cast it back--never right back on the person who just cast it on you."
"Huh," Geralt said. He hadn't noticed that part, but now that Eskel mentioned it...
"So something happens if two people cast Axii on each other," Eskel concluded. "Maybe just something that'd confuse the practice, but maybe..."
Geralt snorted. "Maybe something Master Corbin doesn't want us getting up to in the courtyard?"
Eskel shrugged, but there was a little smirk at the corners of his mouth.
"Okay," Geralt said, sitting up decisively. "What do you think, you cast it on me, then tell me to cast it on you? Or we cast on each other on the count of three?"
Eskel sat up too, considering. "I'll cast first, so we can see if it's already weird when you cast on a friend, and then if you're all right I'll tell you to cast on me."
Geralt nodded agreement, brushing his fingers over his medallion as he did. He saw Eskel do the same, darting a look around--but they were close enough to Kaer Morhen that it was pretty safe here; they hadn't brought more than work knives with them to gather herbs. Nothing was going to attack them while they were distracted with whatever they were about to do to themselves and each other.
"Ready," Geralt said, focusing on Eskel again.
Eskel grinned and cast, only mouthing the word as his fingers shaped the sign.
Geralt took a deep breath in, his whole body flushing warm, and then he flung himself across the short distance between him and Eskel. All his skin felt extra-sensitive, extra good everywhere he touched Eskel, not like sex now, but just... good, happy, right. He rubbed his face against Eskel's throat, and vaguely heard himself making happy little noises like a cat who'd decided to let itself be petted.
Eskel was laughing, and that was good, Eskel should always be happy and laughing in the sunshine, always right here with Geralt.
"Hey, hey, okay, now me--cast it on me, Geralt."
Geralt picked his head up, eager to do whatever it was Eskel wanted from him.
"Axii," Eskel reminded him, smiling, miming the shape with one finger. "On me."
"Yes," Geralt agreed, because then Eskel would feel like this too, feel good, and want to make Geralt feel good, and Geralt could make him feel good by feeling good and--
Geralt cast, pronouncing "Axii" out loud, as he still did when he wanted to be sure of getting a sign right. He was close enough to see Eskel's slit pupils flare wide, the amber iris nearly disappearing into blackness.
"Ohhhh," Eskel said, and arched up against him, running his fingers through Geralt's hair.
"Yeah," Geralt sighed in agreement, and got back to plastering himself against Eskel as tightly as he could. He started giggling after a little while, and Eskel was giggling back and they rolled each other over and over, touching and rubbing and laughing.
They splashed right into the chilly water, and it made Geralt's head go unpleasantly clear, like sobering up too fast. He rolled Eskel the other way and said breathlessly, "Me again, Axii me."
Eskel did it, and it felt even better this time, warmer and easier, and Geralt cast it back on him without waiting for Eskel to ask, because he knew Eskel would want it.
Eskel moaned happily, rubbing his cheek against Geralt's shoulder, and Geralt sank back into the fuzzy sunlit pleasure of it. There was nothing in the world but Eskel and making Eskel happy because Eskel wanted him to be happy.
Time had lost all meaning, stretching like melted candy and looping around and around on itself, by the time Geralt became aware of something that was decidedly not Eskel.
"Fucking hell," a familiar voice said grimly. "All right, you two, that's enough. Stand up."
A different feeling crashed over Geralt, washing away the warm-close-happy-Eskel fog. He scrambled to his feet as Eskel did the same at his side, which left them both standing naked facing Master Vesemir in the twilight.
Vesemir just looked at them for a long moment, long enough for Geralt to feel the scrapes and scratches all over his skin--they must have rolled onto every rock and rough spot within reach--and to notice that he was desperately thirsty.
"Axii loop," Vesemir said. It was not a question.
Geralt nodded, and saw Eskel nodding in his peripheral vision. They were still in perfect sync, even without the Axii sign flowing back and forth between them.
Vesemir stared for another few seconds and then shook his head. "I'll not bother asking whose clever idea that was. Drink your fill and then come back to the keep."
Geralt nodded again and finally looked away from Vesemir to try to see where he and Eskel had left their clothes and boots.
"I believe you'll find your things waving from the battlements," Vesemir said drily. "Several of your fellows spotted you and took some time to, ah, assess the situation before telling anyone that there was a problem."
Geralt gritted his teeth, as much at the thought of walking all the way back to the keep barefoot as at the thought of the retribution he and Eskel would soon be visiting upon the assholes who'd stolen their clothes while they were out of their heads on Axii and each other. Not that Geralt would have done anything differently if he and Eskel had found two of the others in that state, but there were still going to be consequences.
"Well, let that be a lesson," Vesemir said, shaking his head and turning away. "About picking your time and place better, if nothing else."
Geralt nodded and then turned and ran to the mountain pool, Eskel at his side, to fill his hands with water, drinking frantically. It had been early afternoon when they'd cast Axii on each other, and summer days were long in Kaedwen. They'd been rolling around naked in the sun for hours.
When they came up for air--knee deep in the water, dripping and panting--the first thing Geralt said was, "So behind a locked door next time, you think he meant?"
Eskel just grinned, and Geralt grinned back. They didn't need Axii to feel exactly the same delight right now.
They headed off along the trail back to the keep then, walking close enough that their shoulders brushed with every step, already making plans.