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Take It From the Top

Chapter Text

 

 

He paces back and forth, his fingers fretting the strings of his lute. Over and over, the thought plays through his mind: I should be there. I should be there.

And so he goes.

The battle is audible long before he crests the hill, and his heart stutters. He picks up his pace and before long he's sprinting, catching himself on scraped and scrabbling palms as his feet slide on loose stones but he never stops, never slows. As he reaches the top of the hill, Geralt comes into view, and with him the griffon, and the blood soaking the parched earth, and the glint of Geralt's sword far from his hand. Geralt is pinned and disarmed, and the griffon raises its talons to strike.

Geralt's name is torn from the bard's throat in a ragged cry. The griffon turns its head to look and Jaskier runs, not back the way he came, but onward...

 

He wakes, and that’s a surprise in and of itself.

Thought comes to Jaskier at a trickle at first, only acknowledgments of his surroundings. Bright, his inner monologue slurs as he takes in the cloudless sky. Hot, as the midday sun pins him down.

And then, more urgently, Hurt.

Bad.

Quite abruptly, the dam bursts and Jaskier is carried away in a flood of thought and sensation. Buzzing insects, dry mouth, he'd run towards Geralt, a pain like a pick axe in his head, he'd fallen, a strange heat in his right leg, the smell of blood, where is he, how much time has passed, where's the griffon, everything is spinning-

"Focus!" he grunts, and the sound echoes in his skull. He squeezes his eyes shut and forces himself up onto his elbows, letting his throbbing head loll onto his chest. The movement sends a wave of nausea through him and he trembles. A low moan escapes his lips.

"You're going to have to do better than that."

Jaskier's eyes are open in an instant, and there's the witcher standing over him, looking every inch the solemn warrior. "Geralt!" The name is almost as sob as relief floods Jaskier's suffering body. Geralt is here. Geralt is fine. Geralt will fix this. He waits for him to brush his hair from his face, to use those deft hands to check his injuries, to scoop him up into his arms and carry him away from here-

But it doesn't happen. Jaskier blinks as his friend stares down at him impassively. "Geralt, what's- I need help." His voice trembles as bewilderment crawls through his veins. "Help me, Geralt, please. I'm-"

"Hurt." The witcher's tone is flat. "More than you realize."

The bewilderment deepens into dread. Jaskier forces a dry laugh and tries to approximate his usual patter. "I... Geralt, you know I love to play these games with you, but is now really the time?"

Geralt smirks, eyes dark, and crouches down beside him. "Jaskier. Look at this place." He gestures broadly and the bard's eyes follow his hand. They seem to be at the bottom of some sort of canyon or ravine, steep sided and bone dry, though scrubby bushes and scattered tussocks of long grass suggest that water must flow here on occasion. Jaskier squints. The rocky hill where he'd witnessed the fight between Geralt and the griffon is nowhere in sight.

"Where-?" he begins to ask, but Geralt interrupts him with a laugh. Jaskier shrinks away in distress.

"Only you would be so slow as to think I hobbled my way down from a clifftop in mere minutes to drag you out of a ravine," Geralt scoffs. "And with my injuries? Don't be an idiot."

Jaskier stares, mouth working silently for a moment. "But..." He swallows, looking over Geralt's pristine, unbloodied form. "You aren't injured."

He doesn't see him move, but suddenly Geralt's face is mere inches from the bard's, their eyes locked. "But you are." Geralt slowly raises a hand to touch the back of his own head.

Tentatively, looking at Geralt with great suspicion, Jaskier mimics the gesture, running a hand over the back of his head. There's blood in his hair, a sticky cut in his scalp and-

A soft, crackling indentation in his skull.

His stomach roils in disgust and he barely turns his head before a gout of vomit spurts from his mouth, mostly water. He takes a moment to slow his breathing and wait for the nausea to subside.

Steeling himself, Jaskier stretches to look at the patch of dirt where his head lay. Blood stains the dust, but not as much as he expected. Squinting, he can make out a rock underneath, with a protrusion about the size and shape of a pecan.

About the size and shape as the dent in his head.

"Oh, gods." He shudders, gags, spews another mouthful of thin, sour vomit.

"You're wasting water," Geralt grunts, standing back again. "And there won't be more where that came from." He nods to Jaskier's side, where his ruptured water skin has given its contents to the thirsty dust.

Jaskier looks from Geralt to the waterskin and back. Then a giggle crawls from his throat, giddy and pained. He runs his bloodstained hand through his fringe. "Of all the Geralts I could have imagined, this one's more of a dick than the real thing!" At the witcher's unchanged expression, he snorts and redoubles his laughter. "I could have had you tender! Wouldn't that be a carnival, Geralt of Rivia fawning over little old Jaskier. Oh! Or imagine you without that stick up your arse. Fun Geralt! What I wouldn't give to see that. Dare I even imagine romantic Geralt, riding up on a noble steed, shirtless and breathless? Why I might swoon!"

"Jaskier-"

"Oh, piss off." Jaskier rolls his eyes. "Can't my own fantasy let me fantasize?"

"You've missed something." Geralt raises his eyebrows and flicks his gaze to Jaskier's right leg.

Remembering the strange heat of it, he looks down at the affected limb.

"Oh," Jaskier says quietly.

"Oh..." Jaskier breathes, his hand hovering over the injury.

Like the prow of some gruesome ship breaking through a wave, the bone of Jaskier's shin had thrust its way through his flesh, its jagged end tacky with drying blood and scraps of meat as it reached upward. A fly trundled its way across the bulging maw of the wound. In a daze, Jaskier shooed it away and let his arm fall back.

His lifted his gaze to the open sky, the unyielding sun, and felt a drop of sweat run across his temple. When he looked to Geralt, he saw him sitting cross-legged at his side.

"So." Geralt cocked an eyebrow. "What now?"

Chapter Text

 

Jaskier squeezes his eyes shut. Inhales. Counts to five. Exhales.

When he opens his eyes again, Geralt is no longer seated beside him.

The bard gives a shaky sigh. He may be injured and alone, but at least his hasn't lost his mind entirely. He brings his callused fingers close to the wound in his leg. Hesitates.

"And what do you think that will accomplish?"

Jaskier startles at the witcher's voice and whips his head to the left, gasping and swaying as the sudden movement sloshes his brain about his blighted skull. When the lights stop flashing, he blinks to bring the vision of his friend into focus.

Geralt is a stone's throw away, leaning against the wall of the ravine in the scant shade of midday.

Indignation stirs in Jaskier. "What?" He practically spits the word, irritable from pain and confusion. He gestures to his leg. "Too gory for the witcher? Getting some air to settle that queasy tummy of yours?"

No response aside from a raised eyebrow. Jaskier scoffs. Sniffles. Now that he's seen the wound in his leg, his body is catching up to his eyes, beginning to transform the dull heat into a piercing ache. "Well, glad to see you're enjoying the view. Good for you. I'd like to point out you've never paid this much attention to any of my performances."

This is patently false and Jaskier knows it, even if the witcher rarely looks at him while he plays. Years ago, Jaskier had noticed how, during a hunt, Geralt would turn an ear when tracking an enemy that was heard but unseen, rather than attempting to ferret it out with his eyes. From then on, Jaskier couldn't help but notice his friend assuming the same posture during the bard's performances: head tilted, one ear toward Jaskier for music, the other toward his audience for sounds of danger.

But so what if he tosses out a few of the caustic lies that creep into his heart in his weaker moments? It's not like it's really Geralt. "You know, if watching suffering is what gets you off, I must say you're in the right line of work."

Jaskier lays back, head facing towards not-Geralt to avoid putting pressure on the dent in his skull. This close to the ground, he can see the air shimmering with heat, as though it trembled beneath the sun's scorching gaze.

"That's good," he mumbles, rolling a pebble back and forth under his fingertip. "That can go in the song. Trembling 'neath its scorching gaze... Heat of a thousand summer days? Too many syllables. Something, something, blinding rays? I'll work on it."

"Speaking of the sun," Geralt replies, "you're getting burnt."

Jaskier squints at him in disbelief. "Thank you for your concern," he deadpans. "Where do you think sunburn should go on the list of injuries? Above shattered skull but below horrifically broken leg?"

"It will get worse."

"Well, when you think of a way to slay the sun, do let me know." Despite his scorn, Jaskier does lift a hand to shield his eyes from the glare.

"You can't lay out in the sun for hours. Not without water." Geralt paces closer, though somehow his features remain shaded even as he steps back into full light. "You need to move somewhere sheltered."

"Ohh, no. Oh, no no no no no." Jaskier sits back up gingerly, his voice tight with pain. "Need I remind you?" He tilts the toes of his left foot to indicate his broken leg. "Be the sun as it may, there's another, equally intractable force at play here."

"You can't be planning on waiting here for me to come and get you." Again that condescension. Jaskier bristles.

"Come off it, you won't abandon me," he asserts. "Your emotions may be as stopped up as a bottom at an orgy, but we both know you carry affection for me." Trial and error had shown Jaskier that throwing in a crass metaphor as a red herring would sometimes distract the witcher from debating him on the point of their friendship in favour of rolling his yellow eyes instead.

"You're an idiot, Jaskier."

"It's true, I-"

"Jaskier, think." Geralt's interruption is sharp. "Not even a witcher shakes off a beating like the one I just took. Not in a matter of hours. If I make it to you at all, it won't be for a long time."

"You don't know that. I don't know that," Jaskier insists. "Neither of us even remembers what happened. I mean, neither of me remembers. I mean... You know what I mean."

"You remember." Geralt's voice resonates in his chest and Jaskier suppresses a shiver. "Think."

As he reaches the top of the hill, Geralt comes into view, and with him the griffon, and the blood soaking the parched earth, and the glint of Geralt's sword far from his hand. One of the griffon's jagged talons is embedded in the meat of Geralt's upper arm, passing clean through to the other side and anchoring him to the dirt. The impact that brought him to the ground has left him blinking hazily and choking on air. The griffon raises its talons to strike.

Geralt's name is torn from the bard's throat in a ragged cry. The griffon turns its head to look and Jaskier runs, not back the way he came, but onward. With a screech, the monster rounds on him, tearing its serrated claw from the witcher's arm. It leaps...

It leaps...

It-

Jaskier surfaces from his memories with a hiss of pain. The effort it took to maintain his concentration has aggravated his headache. He presses his palms against his forehead and huffs in frustration. Squinting up at the witcher, he notes that the vision has changed: Geralt's left bicep is torn open, bone visible beyond leather and skin and muscle. Jaskier bites his lip. "Alright," he concedes. "So you'll be a while." As Geralt smirks, Jaskier snarks, "Yes, yes, Geralt knows best. Geralt has never exhibited questionable judgment. An absolute pillar of good sense, that Geralt." He dashes away the beads of sweat forming on his upper lip and grinds his teeth in thought. So he's on his own for now. He's been on his own before. Next steps, next steps...

Working with battered fingertips and chipped nails, Jaskier unbuttons his lilac dupioni silk doublet and eases his arms from the sleeves, and- oh, there are definitely bruises under the skin, his back is going to look like someone spilled merlot on him in his sleep. The points are more difficult to undo than the buttons; he usually keeps them tied for ease of dressing and over time the knots have cinched themselves into near solid nodules of fabric. By the time Jaskier untangles them and shakes the doublet free of his hose, he can feel the back of his neck reddening and sweat soaking through his linen chemise. He drapes the doublet over his head as protection from the sun and ties the sleeves beneath his chin to secure it, ignoring the sting as the fabric settles on the cut in his head.

He doesn't look over at Geralt's low chuckle. Jaskier knows he looks ridiculous, he doesn't need any smart comments about the pleats flaring behind his head, or about how he looks like a chipmunk with the stuffed shoulder bands pressed to his cheeks. "You were the one who brought up sunburns, here's the solution."

But the laugh morphs and twists, and it isn't Geralt's anymore; it's smooth like honey without the sweetness. Jaskier lifts his chin toward the sky, eyes closed. "No. Absolutely not. No. Crawl back to whatever fetid corner of my mind you dragged yourself from, and wither there."

"I don't know what he sees in you," Yennefer drawls, circling him. Opening his eyes, Jaskier glowers up at her. She's wearing a scarlet satin gown with a plunging neckline and long, diaphanous sleeves that stir in the non-existent wind. Her feet are bare yet perfectly clean.

"I could say the same thing to you, sorceress." It isn't a brilliant comeback, but it will have to do. His head is pounding.

"Oh, I'm sure." Yennefer's laugh is curt and derisive as she stands in all her finery, glowing like flame in the light of the sun. Jaskier curls his lip in self-disgust as his traitorous heartbeat quickens at the sight of her. "Love the hat, by the way. Really brings out the idiot in your eyes."

Jaskier can't tell if the burning in his cheeks is from the sun or from shame. "Well, even the prettiest among us need to prioritize when life and limb are on the line. Though of course, you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" He fixes her with a glare as she rolls her eyes. "You know, for all your boasting, I happen to be the one accompanying Geralt now. Not you. So who's really the idiot here?" It's a childish, petty squabble that reeks of jealousy and desperation, but sometimes Jaskier is childish and petty.

"Still you, bard," Yennefer says, tone cool and unruffled. "After all, I'm not the one arguing with myself in a ditch." She smirks. "That griffon dropped you like the Countess de Stael."

The griffon turns its head to look and Jaskier runs, not back the way he came, but onward. With a screech, the monster rounds on him, tearing its serrated claw from the witcher's arm. It leaps, hooks its talons into the fabric at Jaskier's shoulders, there's a blur of motion, his stomach drops-

-and his feet leave the ground. He watches the shrinking figure of the witcher struggle to roll over, to stand, as Jaskier dangles over the plateau, then the mountainside, then open air. Overwhelmed with the rush of motion, the intoxication of panic, the sound of powerful wingbeats buffeting his ears, he twists, reaches, sinks his fingers into a wound on the monster's leg-

"Fuck!" Jaskier gasps, clapping shaking hands over his eyes as his jackrabbit heart pounds against his bruised ribs.

"And now, you're going to sweat to death wearing your doublet on your head, when shade is mere yards away," Yennefer pouts, a mocking edge to her tone.

Jaskier takes a shuddering breath and drops his hands. "I can't get there. I can't." His eyes brim with tears.

"You mean, you won't." She crouches beside him, though he refuses to meet her gaze. "Because it will hurt."

He clenches his teeth. He won't give her the satisfaction of an answer.

"And there it is: some objective proof of your idiocy." She stands, stretching languidly. "Fears pain so much that he won't act, even when the circumstances are life or death. That's established now. Yet apparently, you didn't realize that waltzing up to a frenzied griffon might be a painful experience. Didn't realize, or didn't think."

His hands clench into fists. "I'm not stupid. Obviously it occurred to me, I just-"

"And how would you know what occurred to you?" she interrupts. "After all, Neither of us even remembers what happened." She speaks his words back to him in his own voice, and he shudders.

Of course he knew. He isn't stupid. Maybe he doesn't always stop to think, but that doesn't mean there aren't reasons for what he does.

On the other hand... He remembers the moment of decision, but not what he felt, not what he thought. Tentatively, he casts back, trying to reconstruct his mind, his reasons, his expectations.

He paces back and forth, his fingers fretting the strings of his lute. Over and over, the thought plays through his mind: I should be there. I should be there.

And so he goes, that single mantra blocking out any other consideration, a metronome for his steps.

The battle is audible long before he crests the hill, and his heart stutters. He picks up his pace and before long he's sprinting recklessly over the rugged pathways. He slips and catches himself with scraped and scrabbling palms as his feet slide carelessly on loose stones but he never stops, never slows; fear has lit a fire at his heels and erased his reason. As he reaches the top of the hill, Geralt comes into view, and with him the griffon, and the blood soaking the parched earth, and the glint of Geralt's sword far from his hand. Geralt is pinned and disarmed, and the griffon raises its talons to strike.

Before he can stop it, Geralt's name is torn from the bard's throat in a ragged cry. The griffon turns its head to look and Jaskier acts on pure instinct: he runs, not back the way he came, but onward. The monster leaps and its claws rake across his torso, shredding organs and gouging bone. It's agony like he cannot comprehend. Blood and viscera spill from him like burgundy from a slashed wineskin, and a horrified bewilderment fills him as he collapses and spams. He didn't actually believe this could happen. He thought he'd be fine. He thought he'd be fine. He didn't understand how-

"No." Jaskier says aloud.

Yennefer raises an eyebrow. "No?"

"No." His voice is steady. "If I'd been killed... I knew the risk I was taking. I meant it. It was worth it."

"What was?'

"I-" Jaskier breaks off as a sudden wave of dizziness overtakes him. The world tilts and he sways with it. He moves to catch himself but his arm buckles. The best he can do is to try to fall gently, though his body still cries out when the earth rises to meet it. Somehow he's on his back, watching the clifftops spin around the bleeding eye of the sun. "I..."

"You have to move."

Geralt.

He turns his head to see his friend beckoning from the shade, a brief infinity away. "You have to move."

"I have to move," Jaskier whispers. He's no fool. He's no coward.

He props himself up on his elbows and plants his left foot in the dirt. He braces. He pushes.

The instant he begins dragging his wounded leg, a firecracker of agony bursts in the shattered bone and crackles through him. His breath catches and he forces himself to exhale, inhale. Dread constricts his throat. He steadies himself, tries again.

This time he's prepared. It burns and it stabs and it screams at him, but when it threatens to overwhelm him, there's Geralt's voice calling his name. He pushes again, and again, and again, and gods, how is there still so far to go? He pushes again. He knows he looks like an idiot scooting backwards on his bottom, but he'd rather look an idiot than die one. He squeezes his eyes shut. He pushes. He pushes. He pushes.

And then his back hits solid stone. He gasps, eyelids fluttering open in disbelief.

Shade. He's in the shade.

It isn't cold here. It isn't even particularly cool. But it's sheltered. It's something.

Geralt nods at him solemnly, his form fluctuating. Vibrato, the woozy, half-focused thought drifts through Jaskier's mind. He sits a long time, breathing, hurting, smiling to himself.

It's no wonder he takes so long to hear the creature breathing.

Chapter Text

Jaskier is still too hot, but out of direct sunlight, his body has had a fighting chance to return to a more reasonable temperature. Slowly his head begins to clear; less of a soup, more of a light haze. Geralt sits beside him all the while, and in a strange way, it's nice. Well, aside from the whole open-fracture, dented-skull, desperate-thirst, socializing-with-a-hallucination aspects of the afternoon, but one can't be picky. Geralt is humming the tunes Jaskier wishes he could sing right now, and he has a rich baritone.

"You should hum more often," Jaskier mumbles, eyes half-lidded as he looks at the witcher askance. "Got a nice voice."

Geralt's lips twitch into that half-smile of his. "This? It's yours, just lower."

Jaskier nods sagely. "I stand by my statement. And anyway, 's not my fault I've got no real life example to go on." He lets out a long sigh. "Still. Could be nice. Have a few duets up our sleeves, crowd would go wild for that. I know, I know," he says, holding up a hand as Geralt opens his mouth to protest, "your image and all that. Just... a nice thought." He lets his arm fall to his side and his eyes slide shut. "You could probably handle playing spoons. Could have our own private band. Next campfire. We'll try it."

The ravine is perfectly still. Not a mouse skittering across the dirt, not a twitch of a leaf, not a breath of wind. It's a good place to wait for rescue. Jaskier settles into the rhythm of Geralt's humming, which has fallen into time with the sound of the gentle breeze.

Wait.

Breeze? He can hear the movement of air, but he can't feel it.

Before the thought can fully congeal, the centre of the ravine erupts, showering chunks of rock mere inches from Jaskier, who cries out in surprise. A hole yawns not ten feet away, and from it crawls a shaggy, grotesque mole the size of a draft horse, with massive clawed mitts and a wide snout ringed by wriggling tendrils. Jaskier can hear it breathing heavily as it sniffs the ground, moving towards the place where Jaskier had fallen. A long, sticky tongue snakes from its open mouth and licks the bloodied patch of earth.

Geralt whispers in his ear. "I told you about these." The creature apparently isn't satisfied with lapping up the leavings; it lifts its head and begins snuffling again. "Blind. Sensitive hearing. Hunt mainly by smell. With your chatter and perfume, I doubt you'll last long." The beast turns towards Jaskier and his heart leaps into his throat. "Think quickly, bard."

And so he does.

He wriggles his pen knife from his boot and flips it open. No time for fear. All the sensation he has in his wounded leg is pain anyway. With the tip of the knife, he extends the split in his skin another inch above the fracture before his hand spasms and forces him to drop the blade. He can tell from the flicking of the creature's ears that he didn't manage to entirely suppress the squeal that fought its way out of his throat. Shit. Working quickly, he pulls his doublet off his head and presses it to the cut, which is bleeding freely. Each time he shifts the fabric to soak a new portion, he bites down harder on his tongue to stifle the cries that threaten, until the taste of metal floods his mouth. Well, waste not, want not. He spits the mouthful of blood onto the doublet. The monster has begun its approach now, its tendrils vibrating as it scents the air. Jaskier pries a fist-sized rock from the cracked earth, falling back onto his elbows as it comes loose. The monster is moving more quickly now, and the ground shuffles as it lopes towards him.

"Stuff the rock in the sleeve, tie it shut." Geralt speaks as Jaskier moves, narrating more than directing. "Don't look at the monster, look where you're aiming." With a steadying breath, Jaskier takes hold of the doublet and begins spinning the rock-heavy sleeve over his head. "It can hear you, let go!"

He can smell the monster's breath now. When at last he can feel the weight of the stone straining the fabric taut, he releases it. The beautiful, marred fabric flutters across the ravine in a graceful arc, propelled by the inertia of the heavy stone. As it clatters to the ground a good thirty feet away, the monster skids to a halt and turns its ears to the sound. Then it lifts its nose and sniffs the air. All Jaskier can hear is his own pounding heart as he waits.

He waits.

Mercy of mercies, the creature turns and lumbers over to the blood-stained doublet, mistaking the fresh scent of Jaskier's decoy for a genuine meal. Jaskier releases his breath as slowly, silently as possible. But he knows the reprieve will be short-lived, and he's a sitting duck. He scans for shelter and sees only the hole from which the monster emerged, which seems to lead to a sort of tunnel. A slab of rubble forms a steep ramp only a few feet away. Bracing himself, he drags himself into position and slides down into the monster's half-collapsed tunnel, preparing to catch his full weight on his good leg.

There's an impact, and then he's lying face down at the bottom of the hole with no memory of falling. There's a sound like the shriek of a tea kettle in his ears and purple specks across his vision, but no pain. He knows without even looking that the bone of his shin has hit the ground, but that's a problem for later. He rolls over, vomits a mouthful of bile down his front, and pushes himself back to the tunnel wall. The burrow is filthy, and Jaskier's chemise is smeared with monster shit. Even with his shallow breathing, the rank smell stings his nostrils.

"It hunts by smell." Geralt's voice cuts through the whistling in Jaskier's ears. He stands in the depths of the tunnel, sweaty and ichor-spattered like when he finishes a hunt.

"It smells..." Jaskier tries to think around the twin drugs of terror and head trauma. "It smells blood." Hesitantly, he moves his hands to grip the bloodied fabric of his hose, preparing to tear it. He looks to Geralt for confirmation, but the witcher shakes his head.

"Your leg smells of blood. Your head smells of blood." Geralt crouches and meets his gaze intently. "But there are stronger smells."

Geralt has always been awfully good at battle plans.

It doesn't take long for the creature to realize that Jaskier's doublet is not, in fact, a tasty snack. Grunting and snuffling, it makes its way back to the ruins of its tunnel. The bard sits and waits, doing his utmost to slow his breathing.

"Like a performance, Jaskier," Geralt says. "Singer's breaths."

Jaskier tries, he really does, but the dread, the anticipation - it's overwhelming. "Fuck it," he sighs. "A performance, huh?" He gives Geralt a wicked, manic grin, then raises his voice in song. "Toss a coin to your witcher!"

Dry and croaky as his tone may be, the effect on the creature is instant and audible. Its scrabbling footsteps approach at pace and Jaskier swallows. "That's it, you bastard! Oh, Valley of Plenty!" The head crests the slope to the tunnel, tendrils waggling. "Oh, Valley of Plenty!" Closer and closer, snorting and drooling. "Come on, come on, come on... Ohhhhh!"

A blast of hot, damp air hits him as the creature thrusts its snout mere inches from his face. It opens its mouth-

-and Jaskier, holding fistfuls of the beast's own filth, shoves a hand into each of its nostrils.

The startled creature rears back, and Jaskier's arms come free with a wet popping sound. The beast gives a gurgling cry, and Jaskier uses the opportunity to scuttle to the side, the monster's own vocalizing covering the sound of his movements.

The beast staggers, swaying its head back and forth in an effort to locate the bard, but its snout has been successfully plugged. Without sound or smell to hunt by, the blind creature stumbles down the tunnel from whence it came.

Jaskier raises a sticky, trembling fist in silent celebration and turns to Geralt, beaming, awaiting his smile of approval-

-and finds Yennefer instead. His ire rises and his heart sinks.

"Oh, I get it now." Jaskier seethes. "You show up to knock me down every time I eke out a win, huh? Couldn't have Jaskier getting too happy."

"Your words, not mine." Yennefer shrugs and sits beside him, gestures to tracks of the mole monster. "Shame Geralt wasn't here to see that. Might have salvaged the day after the fiasco with the griffon."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Come, Jaskier," she murmurs. "We both know you'll do anything for applause. Follow a witcher so the drunks will clap. Fancy yourself a monster hunter so the witcher will clap."

 

He paces back and forth, his fingers fretting the strings of his lute as he imagine his friend, with a beast and no backup. Over and over, the thought plays through his mind: I should be there. I should be there.

And so he goes.

The battle is audible long before he crests the hill, and his heart stutters. He needs to hurry, before it's too late. He picks up his pace and before long he's sprinting, catching himself on scraped and scrabbling palms as his feet slide on loose stones but he never stops, never slows. As he reaches the top of the hill, he takes in the scene, observing and strategizing at once: Geralt, the griffon, blood soaking the parched earth, the glint of Geralt's sword far from his hand. Geralt is pinned and disarmed, and the griffon raises its talons to strike.

A distraction. He needs a distraction. He screams Geralt's name in a ragged cry. Just as planned, the griffon turns its head to look and Jaskier runs, not back the way he came, but onward, hoping a reckless charge will keep the beast's attention. With a screech, the monster rounds on him, tearing its serrated claw from the witcher's arm. Jaskier turns to shield his body as it leaps-

-and it falls sideways, a silver sword protruding from its neck.

As the creature dies, Jaskier lowers his arms from their protective stance and shoots a shaky smile at Geralt as the witcher retrieves his weapon.

"I though told you to stay put," Geralt grunts.

Jaskier rolls his eyes. "I thought I just saved your life," he replies, but there's no venom in his tone. There's only relief. And subtly, underneath, pride.

Geralt pauses, looks him up and down. "Hmm." And Jaskier knows that sound, that nod - they mean thank you.

"Now let's get that arm tidied up." And Geralt drops the sword because, actually, he couldn't have picked it up with the way it had fallen and still gotten there in time, and hadn't he only been semi-conscious moments ago, and-

 

The scenario falls apart. It had been mostly wishful thinking anyway. Yennefer was right about that, at least.

"I don't fight monsters, Yenn," he said simply. "I got lucky with this one, I could confuse it into giving up. But neither of us could kill that griffon. I couldn't help him and I knew it."

"Then why did you run?" She's close enough that he can smell her sandalwood perfume.

A cold star kindles in his gut. "Well, isn't that what you'd expect from a coward?" It's a poor deflection.

Yennefer's expression is blank and unchanging. "Why did you run towards it?"

The little star is becoming a nebula of dread. "I had to."

"Why?"

"Because I... I needed-"

"Why?" In a flash, Yennefer becomes Geralt once more, Geralt with that leaden tone and those unflinching yellow eyes. Eyes locked on Jaskier's own.

They sit there in silence for a long moment, the witcher and the bard, the air between them heavy and tense. Then Jaskier lowers his gaze.

"Good damn question, Geralt." The superhuman effects of fear are fading and Jaskier folds his arms tightly around his body as he starts to tremble. "Good damn question."

Chapter Text

 

 

He can't sit here forever. The monster is bound to come back. And with the filth and miasma of this tunnel, he's tempting illness the longer he stays. Most likely, the seeds of fever are already being sown in his blood.

But he's exhausted, and the pain that had politely stepped out for his encounter with the mole has now reclaimed his body and seems to be making up for lost time. His heartbeats pulse in his aching skull like a war drum, and a viol-player drags a bow across the nerves of his splintered bone and sets them vibrating with shrill, glassy agony. He suspects that the force of his fall may have chipped the bone, but when he manages a glance, the muck makes it impossible to tell on sight. He doesn't dare try to touch.

"You can't sit here forever." Geralt echoes his thoughts. The witcher is covered in blood from head to toe, but he seems unbothered so Jaskier doesn't ask.

"I could," Jaskier counters, voice thin. "It's nice and cool here. And I could get used to the smell; I travel with you after all." He reaches a hand up and stretches his fingers wide, closing one eye to gaze at its silhouette against the distant sky. "I could poke my fingertips up through the dirt and let them sprout flowers. Buttercups." He squints at Geralt. "That's what my-"

"-what your nickname means," Geralt finishes. "I know."

"What my name means." Jaskier corrects him, lowering his hand again. "And I know you know. Not like you've ever said anything."

"Like what?" Eloquent as ever.

Jaskier sighs. "I don't know, I... Nothing, I suppose." He flicks a pebble and it bounces off into the rubble. "I mean, you could have asked why. Seems like a reasonable question."

Geralt blinks at him, slowly. "Why?"

Jaskier rolls his eyes. "Well, now it just seems-" He breaks off mid-sentence and looks at Geralt, who's standing there with an open expression for once. Perhaps more blank than open. But he looks like he hasn't put this conversation in a box yet, isn't listening only to make up his mind. The real Geralt rarely looks like that. So he continues. "Buttercups are bright and shiny, and sort of everywhere. Persistent, sort of thing. And a little bit poisonous." He allows himself a smirk at that, but it fades a breath later. "I don't know, I- Well, it's a little like the White Wolf, I guess. Just... you know. How I wanted to be seen."

Geralt shrugs. "It doesn't matter to me how I'm seen." He isn't looking at Jaskier anymore; his eyes are fixed on a clump of grass above the bard's head.

"Oh, Geralt, can we not have that conversation now?" Jaskier rubs his face with the back of his trembling hand. "Again? Here?"

"We can talk about why you ran."

Jaskier grimaces. "Really not a great alternative there, my friend."

"What about when the mole comes back?" Still staring at the clump of grass.

Jaskier squints at the grass but can discern nothing special about it, so he chalks it up to his apparent delirium and moves on. "I'm not going to run towards the mole, if that's what you're implying." Jaksier thinks a moment. "Even if I could run."

Geralt blinks slowly. "Why not?"

Jaskier turns his palms up in a sort of exasperated shrug. "Well, because what the hell would it get me, Geralt?" he snaps. He's in pain and frustrated and doesn't want to talk right now. This chatty version of the witcher is insufferable. Is this how Geralt feels all the time?

"The same thing as sitting here." Geralt makes piercing eye contact with him. "Dead."

Jaskier crinkles his nose and speaks sarcastically. "Not exactly ideal then, is it?" He shivers.

"But it's what you want."

 

He paces back and forth like a man awaiting execution, his fingers fretting the strings of his lute tunelessly. He has no more songs. Over and over, the thought plays through his mind: I should be there. I should be there. This is the place.

And so he goes.

The battle is audible long before he crests the hill, and his heart stutters with sickly determination. He picks up his pace and before long he's sprinting, catching himself on scraped and scrabbling palms as his feet slide on loose stones but he never stops, never slows, carried by the momentum of decision. As he reaches the top of the hill, Geralt comes into view, and with him the griffon, and the blood soaking the parched earth, and the glint of Geralt's sword far from his hand. Geralt is pinned and disarmed, and the griffon raises its talons to strike the wrong man.

Geralt's name is torn from the bard's throat in a ragged cry. As last words go, he could do far worse. The griffon turns its head to look and Jaskier runs, not back the way he came, but onward. The monster leaps, and its weight bears him to the ground, and its talons open his chest as though his ribcage were a prawn's shell. It's agony like he cannot comprehend, and it courses through him and sets him alight. A last burst of sensation, and then-

 

Jaskier snorts with shaky laughter, diffusing the heavy, curdled feeling in his chest. It isn't even worth seeing it through in his mind's eye. The mere thought of his own mortality is enough to constrict his throat with fear.

"Geralt, I've been going through hell here to stay alive." He shifts against the rock wall, trying to stretch some stiffness from his shoulders and shake the lingering dread from his reverie. "The grave holds no appeal for me."

"Then climb out of it."

"Look at you, with a metaphor! Very nice, I-"

A squeal echoes from somewhere far down the tunnel. Geralt fixes Jaskier with a sardonic glare and the bard shrinks, equal parts nervous and sheepish as he speaks. "Right, point taken. Shall we?" He pauses, thinks. "Shall... I? Oh, whatever."

He looks about, trying to discern an escape route. The hole isn't terribly deep, maybe eight feet. With the rubble, he could clamber out easily had he the use of both his legs. But as it stands...

He suspects the natural ramp he slid down on is too steep for the backwards scuttle he's been using to move around, but what alternative does he have?

He closes his eyes and steels himself, feeling his muscles tremble at the mere thought of any further exertion. But a burrow is no place for a renowned performer-composer-lover-adventurer to die. To be fair, there isn't anywhere he would particularly like to die, being averse to the whole dying affair itself. But this filthy hole really would be beneath his dignity.

"Bit by bit, Jaskier," says Geralt, and Jaskier recognizes it as a memory, can hear the icy wind that was blowing at the time.

Geralt speaks again, this time in Jaskier's own voice: "It's too far." Petulant and shivering as he lay on the cracked ice, burning with cold and exhaustion.

But Geralt's voice is his own once more and he continues. "Not the shore. The next inch. You can move an inch. There you go. No, save your breath for moving. Next inch. One more inch. Now another. Keep your eyes on me." And he had. The witcher had met him halfway, where the ice was solid.

In this moment, in this stinking, sweltering pit, Jaskier looks up to see Geralt at the top in full winter gear, hair stirred by a stiff breeze and hand extended. "Next inch," whispers Jaskier. He twitches at the jolt of pain as he worms his way over to the ramp, but he makes it. The angle of the slope is strangely comfortable, and temptation to lie back and doze immense.

"Hey!" He startles at Geralt's sharp tone and his eyes snap open. "Keep your eyes on me."

Jaskier can't actually see Geralt anymore at this angle, but he's too immersed in dread to focus on antagonizing his friend. Still, he doesn't close his eyes again. He'll have to do this all in one go. If he stops, he'll slide down; if he rests, he'll lose his nerve.

"I need a beat," he says aloud. His right hand, which has trembled since the monster left, becomes steady as he places his palm against his chest. After a moment's thought, he begins striking his collarbone lightly with the joint of his thumb, the steady, muffled thump sounding not unlike a conductor's staff. The corners of his lips quirk up ever so slightly, and the set of his jaw softens as the familiar ritual of timekeeping focuses his faculties. With the beat firmly in his mind, he places his hand on the slope beside him for support in movement. It remains steady. Lying on his back with his left foot bracing him, he tenses in preparation and sings.

"One for aspen!" He pushes upward on the beat, digging his fingers into the dirt. "Two for elm!" A hiss of pain, but he takes another singer's breath and continues, staying in time. "Three for the tree where you laid your helm." Another inch. "Four for maple, five for pine. Six for the briar and the rose entwined." His arms are doing almost all the work as he drags himself upward. The muscles spasm. "Seven for cedar, eight for larch." Another inch, a wheezing breath. "Nine for the willow tree's graceful arch." His arms burn. How much has he even moved? "Ten for holly, green and red." His heart is overwhelmingly loud. He twists his neck to squint upward, and Geralt's outstretched hand is still so far away. "That mews up our secret-"

His foot slips.

"Fuck!" As he begins to slide, he closes his eyes and flings an arm above his head in a last ditch attempt to clasp Geralt's hand.

Pebbles clatter to the base of the slope. But Jaskier doesn't. He's being held, no, he's holding-

He looks up. His fingers are wrapped around the clump of grass Geralt had been so fixated upon earlier, and its sturdy blades and steadfast roots are supporting his weight.

Incredulous, Jaskier laughs, and it abruptly turns into a cough as his parched throat protests. But his smile is unbroken. The grass is rooted at the top of the hole. He can do this.

He can do this.

He brings his other hand up to grasp the strands of grass, and despite his awkward, supine position, he begins his climb anew.

"Ten for holly..." Hand over hand. "...green and red. Come on, Jaskier." His hand hits the base of the plant, and he maneuvers an elbow over the lip of the pit. "That mews up- our secret-" Panting, he brings the other elbow into position. "-marriage bed!" A final push and he heaves and scrambles and his arms give out from under him, but it doesn't matter.

He's made it.

He lies flat on his back on the dusty ravine floor, panting and coughing, mouth open and eyes closed. He's hurting and he's filthy and he's overheated and he's exhausted, but he's alive and he's free.

Geralt's hand is stroking his brow. He can tell whose it is even with his eyes closed; the callused fingers and rough, meaty palm are unmistakable. Jaskier gives a woozy smile and reaches up to grasp the hand, only to have his own drop heavily onto his forehead, triggering a nauseating burst of pain from his wounded skull.

Right. Hallucination and all that. Best to let it be.

And he does. Let it be, that is. He lies there for a long time, listening to the buzzing in his head and letting his mind sink into passive observation of sensation. The heat and the throbbing are strangely hypnotic, a beat in their own right, and his foggy minds endures them with a detached fascination.

"Not gonna tell me to move?" he murmurs. "Sunburns and all that?" He attempts to mimic Geralt's growling baritone, and with the state of his throat, he gets reasonable close.

"No sunburn if there's no sun." Hm. Geralt still does a better job of Geralt. Well, hallucination-Geralt does a better job of Geralt. Of course, in a way, that means that he, Jaskier, is actually doing the-

Wait.

He opens his eyes and is met with blackness.

Instantly, panic stabs a knife through him and his thoughts race. "Oh gods, I'm blind. I'm blind. Oh no, no, no, Geralt! Geralt, I can't see, I'm-"

"You're not blind, you coward," the witcher growls, leaning into interrupting his spiraling fear. "Blink." Jaskier flutters his eyelids desperately. "Slower!"

As forces himself to slow down and works moisture back into his eyes, Jaskier begins to pick out pinpoints of light in the darkness, a bright gash in the fabric of the sky, and these forms eventually resolve themselves into the stars and moon.

"Oh." Jaskier feels a flush of embarrassment in his cheeks. Or maybe it's just the afternoon's sunburns.

"See?" Geralt grunts. "You're fine."

But a weight is settling in Jaskier's chest as he pushes himself into a seated position. "No." His voice is calm, steady, and soft. "I'm not."

Night has fallen and he is alone.

Geralt didn't come.

Chapter Text

Breaking their fast has become Jaskier's least favourite part of the day. They aren't facing each other when they're walking. Sleeping provides the wonderful barrier of unconsciousness. And dinner means it's nearly time for bed. But breakfast...

Breakfast sets the tone for the whole day. And neither of them are at their best in the morning, with new aches and pains from sleeping rough, and an additional day's worth of unresolved grievances on their plates. And those grievances are piling up.

Neither of them had meant to bother the other at first. They were just tired. There was Roach's sprain, and the blocked path, and the detour through the mud, and Geralt's ruined gear, and the week of rain, and Jaskier's broken strings, and the underpayments, and the spoiled food. So they got snappish, and every slight each received made the next one they gave feel justified. It was the special kind of grating that only those closest to you can achieve, because you know that you can do better and so can they. And neither of you do. You just dig in your heels and tell yourself tasty little stories about why it's their fault.

And now the two are eating breakfast in silence. Again. And the day is sweltering. Again. And they're both miserable and much too proud. Again.

But Jaskier can feel a change in the dynamic between them today. Less aggressive, more... wounded.

Are you actually going to eat something, or are you going to stare at it until we break camp and then complain you're hungry?" Geralt speaks with the same cadence he's been using of late to needle the bard, but after all these years, Jaskier can tell his heart isn't in it.

Jaskier chews the inside of his cheek a moment, then eats a spoonful of his porridge. Eked out by some blueberries Geralt had gathered yesterday, it honestly isn't half bad. Jaskier gives a tentative smile. "Just... lost in thought, that's all." He dips his chin to indicate his bowl. "It's good."

Geralt eyes him with naked suspicion. "You can't have seconds."

Jaskier raises his hands as though showing he's unarmed. "No no, I just... It's a nice breakfast. Thanks."

The witcher holds his gaze a moment longer and Jaskier broadens his smile encouragingly. Geralt turns his head and grunts. "Hm."

And things are okay again.

They pack up their possessions with little discussion, feeling the tension drain away like sand through a sieve. Things are so much more relaxed that it's only minutes into their journeying that Jaskier strikes up a conversation.

"So!" He keeps he tone deliberately light, still wary of accidentally triggering another round of bickering. "Where are we off to today?"

"See that hill?" Geralt jerks his chin to the west to indicate the sizeable peak that dominated the scrublands. “Griffin’s been bothering hunters. Got a nest up there.”

Damn it.

Jaskier wants to argue that Geralt is tired, that they should at least stop by the hunting lodge and restock, that there is no rush. But the peace between them feels like it could shatter with the barest hint of contradiction, and he's missed this so terribly, this easy companionship.

So he smiles and says nothing until they reach Geralt calls a halt midway up the hill and tells Jaskier to wait.

"Are you sure?" Jaskier says, rubbing his thumb and forefingers together anxiously. "I mean... Never hurts to have backup, right?"

Geralt raises a snowy eyebrow. "I can handle this one." The witcher marches up the hill alone. "I'll be back soon. Don't go anywhere," he calls back to Jaskier.

"Of course," Jaskier says half to himself, smile fading. "I trust you."

And so he stays.

 

Jaskier awakens with a gasp.

He's splayed out on the dust, bathed in milky moonlight. The ravine was baking in the sun so long that, even at night, it's an oven. Still, gooseflesh pricks up across Jaskier's skin as a chill runs through him. He can't tell if he's trembling or shivering.

"Is there a difference?"

"Fuck, Yennefer." He runs a hand through his hair, not caring about the filth. "Can you let me waste away in peace?"

From his other side, Geralt speaks up. "Trembling could be hunger, thirst, exhaustion. Shivering is fever or overheating."

Jaskier snaps his fingers and points at the witcher. "There it is." He lets his arm fall back. "And with that information, I can do... fuck all." He closes his eyes.

"As usual." Yennefer's voice, to his right.

Before Jaskier can reply, Geralt cuts in. "He's useful. He keeps me company and cooks meals. He helps."

Yennefer laughs. "Yes, and a millstone would help you make flour, but you don't gad about in the woods with it weighing you down."

Jaskier sighs. This isn't their first argument. They'd been arguing before he fell asleep, though he can't remember what they'd argued about. Could have been the same thing, for all he knows. Back and forth, back and forth. His head starts to pound as their voices overlap, and he presses his palms against his temples, grimacing. It's a morass of sound and he doesn't want to hear it.

"In the green, green valley, there's a clear, clear pool," he sings under his breath, trying to block out their bickering. "Blow, breezes, blow!"

He'd hoped that perhaps they'd hear his singing and shut up, but no such luck. He scowls and sings louder, forcing the notes past dry, battered vocal cords. "In the green, green valley grows a white, white lily in a clear, clear pool. Blow, breezes, blow!"

"I suppose it must be gratifying to have a lapdog, but really it's-"

"I could have left him any time and I didn't-"

"In the green, green valley sits a bright, bright beetle on a white, white lily-"

"Then why don't you just-"

"You wouldn't understand-

"In the green, green valley-"

"-slowing the entire-"

"In every town, we-"

"-breezes, blow!"

"Wasteful-"

"-in a clear, clear pool-"

"-loyalty, for-"

"Shut up!" Jaskier screams, sitting bolt upright.

Silence. Blackness eats away at his vision but he resists the urge to pass out, taking shuddering breath after shuddering breath.

When his vision clears, Yennefer is stretched out languidly beside him, dressed in gauzy white. Geralt is nowhere to be seen. Wonderful.

Yennefer smiles at Jaskier as though he's a bug in a jar. "Finally realized that you can't cover up the truth with singing?"

"Watch me," he snaps, curling his shoulders in defensively.

She leans closer and trails a finger across his jawline, and he flinches away as another chill runs through him. "I suppose you can fool most people. 'Toss a Coin' and all that."

"You have no idea what you're talking about." His tone is flat and sullen, and he lowers his chin to his chest.

"Come, Jaskier," Yennefer purrs. "You're not exactly a man of hidden depths." She stretches to looks skyward at the star-spattered sky and gestures broadly. "At least you'll live on in your music. You're never dead while they sing your songs, isn't that what bards say?"

Yennefer's words turn his heart to lead. "Don't," he whispers, trying to breathe around the weight in his chest.

"What?" She turns to him, amused. "Aren't you the one saying you don't want to die? I thought artistic immortality would appeal to you."

"Oh, immortality, yes," he says, feigning a dismissive tone as he fights tears. "And sure, the music would live on. But here's an interesting fact, Yennefer: I'm not my music." He taps the dirt to punctuate the statement.

Yennefer runs a hand through his hair, and it feels like a mockery of those quiet moments when Jaskier has done the same for his witcher. "Aren't you, though? Tell me honestly, Jaskier, what would you be without it?"

"Devasted. And still me." He traces slow circles in the dust with his forefinger. "That's what you don't understand, and Geralt does. Because you? You are your magic. And it's left you hollow. Geralt and I are different."

Now Yennefer pulls back, laughing in earnest, and he hates how her derision makes his cheeks flush with shame. "You're nothing like Geralt."

He speaks defensively. "We both have our tools. I've got my music, and he's got his swords. But he isn't his swords, no matter how people see him. He just uses them to make the world the way he needs it to be." Jaskier leans forward to rest his elbows on his thighs. "I love my music. It's my joy. But it's also a tool to make the world the way I need it to be. More playful, or lighter, or more sincere, or merrier." He bites his lip. "Or better for Geralt."

"So you spin Geralt into a hero through lies."

"Geralt is a hero." Jaskier's contradiction is firm and immediate. "But not in the tidy way people want. I just... tidy it. Sometimes it takes a lie to get people to see the truth. But really, it doesn't matter if it's true. It's what he deserves. To be adored. He deserves it."

Jaskier sighs. Yennefer is still seated beside him, but he's no longer speaking to her. "The world can say what it wants about me. They can believe that I'm my performances and nothing else. But Geralt should be seen for who he is. The way I see him." His voice turns wistful. "Who knows... Maybe he'll even start to see it himself."

"And you're willing to make yourself and your work a caricature to make that happen." He blinks, remembering Yennefer's presence. He doesn't look over, but slowly he smirks, and there's an edge to it.

"Oh, Yennefer," he breathes, gazing into the black maw of the sky. "The things I'd do for him... You haven't even begun to plumb the depths."

And then suddenly her face is directly in front of his, breathing hot, dry air into his mouth. "Would you die for him?"

 

He paces back and forth, his fingers fretting the strings of his lute tunelessly to try and quell his mounting fear. Over and over, the thought plays through his mind: I should be there. I should be there.

And so he goes, danger be damned, because that's Geralt up there.

The battle is audible long before he crests the hill, and his heart stutters with dread. He picks up his pace and before long he's sprinting, catching himself on scraped and scrabbling palms as his feet slide on loose stones but he never stops, never slows, because he can't be too late, please, no. As he reaches the top of the hill, Geralt comes into view, and with him the griffon, and the blood soaking the parched earth, and the glint of Geralt's sword far from his hand. Geralt is pinned and disarmed, and the griffon raises its talons to strike, and Jaskier cannot allow this.

Geralt's name is torn from the bard's throat in a ragged cry, a sound riven with love and grief. The griffon turns its head to look and Jaskier runs, not back the way he came, but onward. It's no choice at all. The monster leaps, and its weight bears him to the ground, and its talons rend his organs, but Geralt is safe, and its beak crushes his bones, but Geralt is safe, and his body is meat, but Geralt is safe.

It's the heat that he feels, the wetness, more than he feels the pain. The wounds are mortal, clearly mortal, even as the griffin continues its butchery; a wide pool of blood is already seeping into the dust around him like a crimson halo, and chunks of gore spatter the creature as it digs ever deeper.

And then the weight is gone, and there are sounds of cries and clashing, but they're rather distant now over the river in his ears. Thought begins to slip away.

And then that hand catches his and that voice cuts through the fog.

"Jaskier, you fool, how could you-" Geralt is cut off by a thick sob that seizes his air. He presses Jaskier's soft, paling fingers between his scarred palms, and Geralt is whole and well and so, so beautiful. Gods, Jaskier would miss him.

"It's okay," he rasps, smiling tremulously. "I'd do it again." Of course he would.

"You... No, Jaskier. You shouldn't be- You have so much more life..."

"It's all yours, now." His eyes begin to lose their focus. Fear rises in him, and sorrow. But not regret. Besides, it's all dimming anyway.

"I'm here, Jaskier." Geralt's voice breaks. "I'm here. Thank you."

And with Geralt's gratitude like a lullaby in his ears, he-

 

No.

"I wouldn't die for Geralt." When Jaskier speaks, his voice is soft but steady.

Yennefer smirks. "Found the limit of your loyalty then?"

"The opposite." He closes his eyes. "I couldn't add my death to his consicence. Geralt doesn't want a martyr. As much as it would gut me..." Jaskier draws a hissing breath through his teeth. "I'd rather live without him than die knowing I'd put another burden on him. When he remembers me, it won't be with resentment."

"That's a convenient way to make your cowardice noble." Dark bags have appeared under Yennefer's eyes, and her skin seems to be flaking. "I almost pity you, pining after a man who doesn't care if you live or die. Has it occurred to you in your arrogance that Geralt might not become a wounded widower should you die in his defense? That he might count himself lucky and move along?"

"I know him, Yenn. He says so much, about me, about himself... But I see him. What he does. And that's how I know." He lifts his face skyward to the winking dawn. "He cares for me. And he won't abandon me now. He needs someone who sees him, almost as much as..." Jaskier trails off, heart quickening.

"As much as what?" Yennefer is gone and Geralt is standing over him, white hair limned faintly in pink by the rising sun.

"You can't see me." Jaskier breathes. "You'd have to come right to the edge of the cliff to notice me down here. And if you're hurt..." His eyes scan the ravine frantically, searching for something, anything that could-

His gaze lights on a tussock of grass.

Long, sturdy grass.

He's getting out of here.

Chapter Text

 

"Make a braid in the shade, Geralt's coming to my aid."

The little ditty doesn't have much of a tune and honestly isn't very good, but Jaskier doesn't care. He's been braiding grass for hours now and he's got a substantial length of rope. He can hardly believe how well it's going. His mood is so good that he barely even notices any pain when he has to drag himself over to another clump of grass. It's sometimes hard to remember why he's braiding, but he keeps going, secure in the knowledge that his purpose will wander back into his mind eventually. It always has so far.

Geralt is standing over him, brooding. As usual. The witcher has been helpfully pointing out errors this entire time, but even his dour presence can't dampen Jaskier's spirits. After all, he knows what to do now.

"You're on your way," he says to Geralt, slurring only a little, his tone quite chipper indeed. "I can just feel it!" His entire body is buzzing and a lightness in his head casts a veneer of unrealness over the whole situation. How strange it will be to escape this place!

"If I'm on my way, then you should stay put," Geralt growls.

Jaskiers tsks, waggling a scolding finger at his friend. "Now now, Geralt, we've been over this." He begins splicing in another length of grass as he speaks. "I need to be more visible. So I need to get to the top."

"The top of the thirty foot, almost sheer cliff," Geralt deadpans. "With a broken leg."

"And," Jaskier says, holding up his handiwork, "a rope. Don't need legs if you have arms and a rope." He flashes a bright grin from dry, cracked lips. "Come on, where's your faith in your old pal?"

"You aren't an athlete," Geralt counters. "And you aren't well."

Jaskier scoffs. "This is the best I've felt since falling in, Geralt. If I could fight a mole monster then, I can climb a rope now."

"Jaskier, think." Geralt paces in a circle around him. Jaskier tries to follow his movements, but the attempt makes his head spin so he closes his eyes. "How long has it been since you've eaten? Since you've drank? Slept rather than passed out? There's no strength in you."

Jaskier cracks open an eye to glare at Geralt. "You're standing on my rope." He tugs it over and continues braiding, squinting against the sun.

"You're overheating."

"Please." Jaskier rolls his eyes, feeling them drag across his lids like abrasive. "I'm not even sweating!" It's true. Though his skin is flushed, it's completely dry.

"Jaskier-"

"Actually, Geralt," the bard interrupts, annoyance flaring up in his chest, "I have rather a lot to do here. So unless you're going to start being supportive, you can shove off."

No reply. When he looks up from his braiding, Geralt is gone.

Oh.

"Good," Jaskier says loudly, voice trembling only slightly. "That's... Yes, that's what I want." His tone dwindles to a half-hearted mutter. "No distractions. Going to just... Right."

The work is strangely hypnotic, and he finds himself unable to dwell on Geralt's absence for long as he becomes captivated by the movement of the strands. Over, under, over, under... The fibres swim before his vision, seeming to twist and contort and wrap around each other, even when he pauses to grab fresh grass.

Overhead, the sun pulses in time with his heartbeat. In his excitement, his breathing is quick and shallow. He is excited, isn't he? He must be. Because he's...

The thought slips away. That's alright. He's got rope. He's made a rope. He's going to...

Tie a knot. No. Tie a slipknot. Because there's a branch.

"Going to pull it tight," Jaskier mumbles. "Tight around the branch." He frowns. "Because..." He looks around, looks up. The branch overhanging the cliff's edge ripples in the wind. Wind? Sun. "I need to climb!" Yes. That's it. Getting out of the ravine.

He wriggles into position beneath the branch. He can't feel he hands very well so it takes a few tries, but he manages a slipknot near the end of the rope. He leaves the loop wide to give him a better chance of making his target.

"Good idea, Jaskier," he grins. "Right. You can do this." Geralt was worried about nothing. He'll show him.

Jaskier winds up and pitches the rope. Not even close. "Heavier than I thought," he says aloud to himself. "Adjust."

He places his hand further down this time and starts by spinning the loop above his head. Closer. Seems closer, anyway. It thumps back to the earth, sending up a puff of dust.

"Once more, Jaskier." He drags it back, and the sound is like a hissing snake. "Once more."

This time, he spins it vertically, hoping the new angle would be an improvement. He releases it and it flies from his grasp, arcing upward-

-and then a hand bats it out of the air.

"Geralt," Jaskier growls at the man standing over him, blocking his view of the branch.

"Don't." Geralt's tone is flat, hollow.

"Geralt. Move." Jaskier's attempt to sound threatening is undermined somewhat by his being out of breath.

Geralt's eyes bore into Jaskier, seeming to grow larger in his head. "Don't."

In a fit of pique, Jaskier throws the rope.

Geralt hits it off course.

Jaskier drags it back. Throws it. Geralt intervenes.

Jaskier glares, fury pounding against his chest. "No. Stop. Let me do what I need to do." He grits his teeth. "I need... I need to do what you won't, Geralt." He slams his palm against the dirt. "Let me show you!"

And with rage coursing through his veins, electrifying his muscles, he throws the rope again. And again. Pitching forward, stretching and straining, panting and coughing. Geralt's form shimmers in front of him, becomes a silhouette, grows and shrinks, shines white-hot. Flecks of foamy spit cling to Jaskier's lips and he gulps in air and he doesn't stop. Again. And again.

Until he falls backward, shaking.

Did he fall asleep? The sun had dragged itself to its apogee last he remembered. Now it was beginning its collapse towards the horizon, drawing out mid-afternoon shadows in its wake. Jaskier blinks, looks for Geralt.

Geralt is standing on the branch. There is a rope looped around the branch.

There is a rope looped around the branch.

Jaskier's eyes grow wide and a fluttering giddiness bubbles through him. He sits up like a marionette and watches as his hands reach out and tug and the rope cinches itself tight.

Right.

Hand over hand. He's moving. He's arms begin to bear his weight. They're holding.

"Stop." Geralt's voice. Or maybe his own voice. He keeps going.

He clutches the rope tight to his chest. It drags along his face as he hauls himself up, and up. As his arms begin to tremble, his thighs wrap around and take some of the weight. He moves like an inch worm.

"The next inch," Jaskier breathes over the rushing in his ears. His arms are going numb.

"Stop." The sound echoes and echoes. He can't stop.

Hand over hand. Another inch. Another inch.

And his legs go limp.

No. He can't move them.

Fuck, his shoulders. His shoulders are on fire. "No," he gasps, gripping tighter.

And his arms give out. And his hands slide. And he's standing on air.

The mouth of the sky swallows him in flame.

 

If he'd known there were two, he'd have used a different strategy.

If he'd known there were two, he'd have paced himself. He wouldn't already be flagging.

He should have known there were two. He's made to hunt monsters. It's what he does.

Stupid.

He spins on the balls of his feet, putting as much momentum into the sword as he can, and not noticing at all the talon swinging towards him.

It catches him in the stomach, just below the ribs, and his feet leave the ground. Another heavy impact as he lands, slides on his back, pain blossoming in his head. His lungs burn but refuse to take in air, and his whole chest is screaming and his vision is swimming.

His vision is clear enough to see the griffon, though. It hulks over him and its dagger claw punches through his upper arm. He spasms, unable to breathe, unable to scream.

Stupid, stupid-

"Geralt!"

He feels the muscles tear when the griffon wrenches its talon free. As it bounds away, the bindings around his lungs snap and he chokes and coughs and sucks in a torrent of air. Bleeding and sputtering, he rolls onto his side, forces himself to his knees, sways, steadies, looks up-

-and watches the bard plummet.

Fuck.

And then the darkness swallows him.

Chapter Text

When he shivers awake from a unremembered nightmare, it is to overpowering misery.

Misery of a mind that has enough clarity to realize his foolishness but too little clarity to focus on anything else. Misery of a heart that aches with fear and sorrow, that longs for comfort and for company, but finds none. And misery of a body pushed beyond its endurance.

Perhaps that wording is rather melodramatic. If he were more sound of mind, he might roll his eyes at his own inner monologue. Then again, he would also probably feel that he's earned a bit of melodrama, that if anything is worthy of melodrama it would be this.

He failed. He's trapped. He's abandoned, even by his hallucinations

And when he fell, he fell feet first.

When he finally dared to look at his leg, his stomach heaved until he was breathless and weak, despite there being nothing to bring up. The force of his fall has twisted the bone aggressively, turning his foot with it. Now it's angled toward the left so that, although he's rolled over to lie on his back, his foot is parallel with the ground; any further and his toes would be pointing backwards. The surrounding flesh is stretched and torn where the bone forced its way through. It looks inhuman.

He turns his head to the side and feels his nose dripping. He'd thought he didn't have enough moisture left in him for tears. He squints. The drops aren't the clear mucus of weeping; they're a strange shade of yellow. They morph and shift into yellow eyes, gazing back at him.

"No," he whispers, voice thin and trembling. "Don't look at me like this. Don't see me."

The eyes blink. More open up across the ground and up the wall of the ravine. He curls in on himself as much as he can as they whisper and shriek.

"Little buttercup." "Shiny buttercup." "Poisonous buttercup." "Laughing buttercup." "Shallow buttercup." "Buttercup whore." "Buttercup fool."

And then, for the first time, it really hits him. "I could die here." Dread chills his heart. "And then they'll sing my songs and take my words and they'll say it's me when they don't even know me, and I'll be erased. They'll kill me again." He squeezes his eyes shut against tears he's too dry to even form. "I could die here and no one would know why. Not even me."

No tears fall, but still he sobs himself to insensibility.


Geralt saddles Roach. He'd hated to delay the search for the bard, but knew he wouldn't be any good to him if he bled out or developed a fever. He hadn't meant to sleep as long as he did, though; it's mid-afternoon. He must have hit his head harder than he realized. Weak, he thinks as he mounts the horse.

He pats her neck. "Come on, Roach." As she starts to amble down the path, he resists the temptation to urge her to move faster. It's too risky in this heat. "That's it, take your time." He sighs. "We aren't in a hurry." He knew better than that. They'd need to save their water.


Jaskier watches as Geralt drinks deeply from a bowl of water. Cool liquid flows from the corners of his mouth down his chin, caresses his neck, falls in heavy drops to the sun-baked earth. His eyes meet Jaskier's and he offers the bowl, but Jaskier cannot stand, cannot reach. He's too heavy. A soft, slender hand takes hold of the proffered bowl instead, and Jaskier can only watch as Yennefer slakes her thirst in greedy gulps. When she pulls away, her maw is soaked with blood. Geralt places his hands on the bowl next to hers, and together they pour a stream of blinding light onto Jaskier, and his scream is like liquid glass.


"We've got the lute, at least," Geralt says as they pass through a patch of tiny white flowers. They crumble under Roach's hooves. "We can give it to..." He trails off, uncertain who they'd give it to. The bard had no obvious next-of-kin. His social circle was as broad as it was shallow. Nothing to be done about it. Geralt moves on. "Hopefully he's next to the ravine, not in it. Don't know if these stitches would hold up to a climb." His self-surgery had been clumsy and he could feel the wound straining against the threads that held it closed.

At least he had the medical supplies with him. That's why he brought them: to tend to his arm should something happen. There was no other reason to bring them. It would be foolish to hope otherwise.

The mountain's shadow lengthens as he eats a light meal. He doesn't have the stomach for anything more.


The sun bears down on the horizon, closer and closer. It presses against Jaskier's chest and drives the breath from him with its ancient weight. His mind isn't crushed. His mind is light and wandering and helpless somewhere behind the sun, or maybe on top of it.


"Took the whole evening to peel the tar off him. Haven't been back to Ostraken since." He chuckles lightly to himself. "Never seen a man's eyes go so wide." The chuckle fades. "Probably missed our chance on the eyes, huh?" He shifts in the saddle. "Birds would have had those within the hour."

The closer they get to the ravine, the more foolish he feels. The bard's corpse is surely picked clean by now. And what would he do with the body anyway? He has to think practically.

But the bard, whatever else he may have been, was loyal. He owes it to him to search at the very least. Provide some sort of burial if he can. Especially considering the circumstances of his death.

He focuses his eyes on the horizon. It blurs before his eyes and he blinks to clear them. Foolish. Just keep moving.

The late afternoon slips into evening and the hardy little flowers of the valley begin to close.


He's a maypole in a bright field of buttercups. The people dance around and around until the ribbons squeeze and suffocate him, and then they take him down and roast him, and he cannot scream, he can only sing their praises. They put coins in his mouth until he chokes and they eat the flesh from his bones. Geralt stands nearby, blindfolded, and they feed him scraps of meat from Jaskier until his stomach swells and bursts and floods the field with blood.


Lucidity visits Jaskier again in the dying light. It's an unwelcome visitor.

He'd cut open the hose of his right leg long ago to give the injury room to swell, and swell it had. His lower leg is as thick around as a melon, the bone barely peeking out now with how the flesh rose up around it. The limb looks corpse-like, mottled in colour and smeared with dirt, and blood, and shit, and any number of other dried, crusty secretions. The edges of the gash have begun to rot in the heat, attracting swarms of flies that Jaskier no longer had to energy to fight off. As a result, the wound is now a teeming, yellow-white mess of clumpy, blood-tinged pus and wriggling maggots. It smells of decay and disease. Mercifully, he can feel very little beneath his knee now, only a pulsating sensation that morphs dully between heat, pressure, and ache. If he lives, he'll certainly lose the leg. It's spoiled meat now and nothing more. The thought inspires no particular dread in Jaskier, no particular emotion at all really, beyond a dispassionate, intellectual disgust at his own body.

"Toss a coin to your witcher..." The voice is clear and strong, and unmistakably his own. He turns his head and sees himself, dressed in his best finery, shining in the bloom of health as he strums his lute. He blinks.

The other Jaskier pauses in his playing and smiles. "Welcome to the finale."