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shrug off the shroud

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Love
is the manna

that falling

makes you
see

the desert

surrounding you
is a desert.

frank bidart


After Geralt turns him away, Jaskier gives himself three weeks to grieve. It’s an absolutely adequate amount of time to mourn the dissolution of a relationship. It’s very nearly indulgent.

Of course the three weeks allotted does not include travel time from the mountains of Hengfors back to Oxenfurt. During this time he must still make coin, and one cannot effectively grieve while working. So he bounces from tavern to tavern singing jaunty jigs and somber ballads and all the crowd pleasers that do not mention the great White Wolf. He camps more often than he usually does when travelling alone, and he drinks himself into a stupor before he can gaze too long into the fire’s crackling light.

On the long empty stretches of road, though, he wanders through memory. He can’t simply stop, as much as he wishes he could. Not when his ears prick up at every sound of hoofbeats behind him.

There are these moments in his memory, turned over and examined thousands of times, known the way the river knows a pebble in its bed.

Age thirty-five: In early spring, a wyvern in the northernmost reaches of the continent hauled Geralt off his feet and flapped sloppily a hundred yards into the sky and dropped him in a lake. Geralt drained his body of energy, pulling the thing from the sky with magic and killing it with his sword. He returned to camp, soaked, freezing, and monosyllabic, so wordlessly Jaskier stripped them both. He pulled Geralt atop him in his bedroll and rubbed the witcher’s great broad back until the heat returned to his muscles and he slept.

Nineteen: Geralt dispatched a group of bandits who’d made the mistake of ambushing him—but not with his blade, with his words and glare alone. Afterwards he’d insisted Jaskier obtain some sort of weapon, and spent a few hours teaching Jaskier how to handle a knife, and then a sword. The first—but not the only—time he’d wielded Geralt’s steel blade.

Twenty-eight: Belleteyn.

That’s the one that hurts. The one he’s tried desperately to drive from his memory.

Geralt had broken a striga’s curse just days before the festivities and so of course the farming town of Pivka had insisted they stay to break bread and celebrate. It was the festival of joy, harvest, and fertility, after all, and Geralt had done what they thought was impossible: rid them of the striga without killing it. The girl was recovering.

Jaskier, the stupid fool, had convinced Geralt it was worth sticking around. He always missed the festivities, Jaskier had said, and when he didn’t, he was in some stodgy city performing in a court (Belleteyn coin was unparalleled), never out with the people where it meant something. And Geralt, once he’d been promised food and drink, had stiffly agreed.

The townsfolk built a great fire in the town square and folks from every house brought meat and roasted vegetables and wine; the women hiked their skirts up to dance; the men wore their shirts open. Jaskier, of course, wound up with a wreath of bishop’s lace flowers around his shoulders and played with the band. Not just lute, but drums, horn, washboard, whatever he could get his hands on, while Geralt stood in the shadows at the edge of the crowd and watched. And Jaskier sang and sang, songs of love and splendor and gratitude, and he sang them to Geralt even if Geralt wasn’t listening, and he drank wine until his body was flushed hot with it, and he was happy.

Under the light of the full moon the young folk were ushered away from the band. The elders played, then, a pounding drum song that thrummed in Jaskier’s veins and demanded his heart match the beat. He didn’t know the rituals. So he did what he always did. He followed the witcher.

“Geralt.” He unwound the wreath of small, fragrant white flowers from his shoulders and draped it around Geralt’s instead. “You haven’t moved an inch.”

“I’m enjoying the sights.”

“Not the dancing? Don’t worry, darling, I’ll teach you the steps. Come.”

A small smile quirked Geralt’s lips. He pulled the wreath of flowers off and tossed it aside carelessly. “You’re drunk.”

Jaskier gasped, offended, at the wreath on the ground—only to see it was surrounded by many others. “And you’re not? Geralt, it’s Belleteyn.”

“Takes a lot more than homebrewed wine to get me drunk.”

“You’re simply not trying hard enough. Dance with me.” Jaskier smoothed his hands down the front of Geralt’s black cotton shirt, as if he were wearing a fancy tunic that mustn’t get wrinkled.

“Jaskier,” Geralt said in a low, warning tone. His golden eyes caught the firelight.

“Look.” Jaskier brandished his arm around the town square, which was slowly emptying as people paired off and snuck away to celebrate love in their own ways. “No one will see. I won’t sing of the dancing witcher. Or if I do, it will be a private song, just for us.”

Geralt cast his gaze about the square, the same way he did when tracking prey across a landscape. Then he gripped Jaskier’s undershirt—he’d opened his doublet in the heat of the fire long ago—and stepped backwards, further into the shadow, into the wall of the bakery behind them.

Jaskier stumbled forward with a small “oh,” nearly falling against Geralt’s chest. Geralt released his hold on Jaskier’s shirt and wrapped it around Jaskier’s shoulders instead, pinning him close to his chest.

Jaskier swallowed. Geralt’s heart pounded unnaturally slow and steady as Jaskier’s rabbited.

“I will not dance.” Geralt tipped his head forward so his words were a low rumble in Jaskier’s ear, setting the very marrow of his bones alight. “If I were to dance with you, bard, it would not be to a song like this—not a battle song, not war drums. It must be one of your songs. They are the only ones I know well enough.”

There have been very few times in Jaskier’s life when speech has eluded him.

“You have given me the customary gift of Belleteyn.” Geralt pressed his face into the crook of Jaskier’s neck and inhaled deeply. “You still smell of it, beneath the woodsmoke. Wild carrot. Chosen for its similar appearance to hemlock. Like love, a risk both to give and to receive.”

Jaskier’s hands flew to Geralt’s body and clung to his shirt near his ribs. The hold Geralt had around his shoulders felt unbreakable, yet he didn’t want to press his hands to Geralt’s body, lest he break whatever spell this was.

“So I will give you the customary response. As is tradition.” Geralt raised his head and nosed at Jaskier’s jaw, then his cheek.

Jaskier closed his eyes. His knees quivered and threatened to give, though it wouldn’t matter, not with Geralt’s hold on him.

Geralt’s lips barely touched Jaskier’s and Jaskier melted against him, mouth open, his breath a shivering sound of desire. Geralt kissed him slowly, sweetly, even, fitting Jaskier’s lips against his, then tracing the shape of Jaskier’s lower lip with his tongue, then setting his teeth into it just barely.

How long did it last? Jaskier would’ve stayed there for an eternity, just like that, in Geralt’s arms, sharing his breath, kissing unhurriedly in the flickering light of the Belleteyn bonfire.

When Geralt broke the kiss, he met Jaskier’s gaze. The pupils of his odd witcher’s eyes were so large the rich darkness nearly consumed the gold. He released his hold. Suddenly there was distance between them and Jaskier swayed on his feet like he couldn’t stand without Geralt’s support.

“Come, bard,” Geralt said. “Fetch your lute. We must leave early tomorrow if we want to make the next town by dusk.”

In their shared room at the inn, they laid down side-by-side on the bed as they always did. Geralt slept. Jaskier did not.

The next morning over a breakfast of bread and a half-eaten roasted chicken Jaskier said, “Geralt—last night—”

“We have celebrated the traditions of Belleteyn,” Geralt said curtly. “Venerated Melitele as is the way in these rural parts.” He flicked his hard gaze to Jaskier as he tore another hunk of bread from the loaf. “Was it not satisfactory?”

“Well—it—Geralt—the wreath—no one told me—”

Geralt’s mouth twitched.

Realization fell over Jaskier like a bucket of cold water. “You absolute bastard,” he squawked. Heat rose fast in his cheeks. “You knew I didn’t know.”

“Shameful for a man who calls himself a bard to not know the basic traditions of Belleteyn. It is the festival of love, after all. And I believe you consider yourself a connoisseur of such things?”

“Unbelievable.” Jaskier stormed away from the room’s small table and began packing their things. “You just let me act so foolishly. What if I’d given my wreath to the town elder or something?”

“Then you would’ve been in for quite a shock.” Geralt shrugged. “Or perhaps you would’ve enjoyed it. You were quite drunk.”

“Geralt!” Jaskier threw Geralt’s bracer at his head.

And then they never spoke of it again. When Belleteyn rolled around, they were often parted—Jaskier in courts earning, Geralt on the road. In the years they were together, when they were invited to stay, Jaskier agreed, and Geralt always, always, always refused.

*

Through a series of hangovers and lucky rides on the backs of passing wagons he makes it to Oxenfurt. The town has grown since he’s visited last, the colored roofs of its buildings stacking up atop each other, and new rickety docks spilling into the Pontar, which surrounds it on all sides. Jaskier hops off his latest hitched ride as it rolls through the gate of the western bridge.The town—more like a city, now—bustles with activity, its narrow cobbled streets walked by nobles and bohemians and ruffians alike.

He fit in here, once. It’s louder than he remembers. Or perhaps he’s just grown used to the stillness of the forests. No use wondering. He’s here now, where he has connections, easy work, and easy access to coin.

He makes his way to the Academy, charms the absolute pants off the dean, and secures a small room in a boarding house and a contract to teach some sort of fancy folklore and music course.

The room is all he needs. More than, honestly. It has a small hearth, a slanted ceiling, a window, a desk, a bed.

He drops his lute and pack on the dull hardwood, then toes his shoes off, and starts a fire in the hearth. The mattress is thin but firm when he tests it.

So here he is. Oxenfurt.

*

How do you grieve a man you followed for twenty years? How do you mourn someone who sent you away?

Jaskier has three weeks to figure it out. Perhaps for Geralt two decades is barely a ring in the sturdy trunk of his life. But Jaskier is edging out of his youth—out of his thirties—and beginning to look across the horizon at forty, and then fifty, and then however many more years the fates deign to give him.

Does Geralt even know that? Does he think of the inexorable march of time, how it’s begun to strip the color from the hair at Jaskier’s temples and deepen the crow’s feet at his eyes?

He can’t even muster any anger at the thought. Of course Jaskier has never thought the depth of feeling Geralt had towards him was anything close to the devouring love Jaskier carries for Geralt. Jaskier is a romantic. He’s not delusional. It’d been more than tolerance.

Jaskier lies back on the bed and presses the heels of his hands into his burning eyes. With no travelling to do, no logistics to sort out, no money to make, the dam holding back his grief cracks and bursts. Forget Belleteyn in Pivka. Forget love. Forget the fantasy.

There’s always been an understanding that their paths will continue to cross. Geralt has always softened when it’s just the two of them. Never before had he turned that blazing gaze on Jaskier like he had on the mountain. Never had it been so definite, so vicious, so enraged.

He doesn’t long for what he never really had, no, that old pain long ago calcified into a forgettable ache.

He misses his friend.

Who else will shoo Jaskier away when he tries to build the campfire? Who else will step in his path, unthinkingly, when an inn patron looks like he might lob something heavier than a tomato? Who else will open the seams of the world and show Jaskier all the wonders that lurk in its darkest places?

He became a bard, all those years ago, as it seemed the only way to slake his thirst for the novel. His curiosity was—still is—the defining motivating force in his life. (Well, that, and love. But he’s trying not to think about the latter.) Geralt led him endlessly to new things: new places, new people, new stories. That was the appeal, initially.

Then, unfortunately, Geralt began to reveal himself as an endless source of discovery. He began to slowly open the book of his life for Jaskier’s eyes only. And in every murmur, every flash of his golden eyes, every subtle shift of his stoic expression, there was that rush of new.

Jaskier sees him in a way no one else does—or can. And it’s that crack of openness in Geralt that guides Jaskier to flood his own songs with heart and truth.

He has no songs for anyone else.

He fears he might never have a song again.

*

For twenty-one days he does exactly what he’s planned to do. He takes his meals in his room, sleeps until midday, and rarely leaves the boarding house. As soon as the sun dips in the sky he pours wine and packs a pipe of rich, expensive tobacco. He talks to himself. He writes long, rambling, repetitive letters: to himself, sometimes, himself of different ages and experiences, a handful to Yennefer, even one to the Countess de Stael. But of course the vast majority are to Geralt.

The letters heave under the weight of the sentiments he could not express. All the anger, desire, despair, longing, self-pity, betrayal. He allows it to spill forth unfiltered until the paper is thickened with words and their scratching-outs. In the morning he reads the letters, then tosses them in the fire.

It’s a bloodletting. A debriding. Dark and shameful and disgusting.

He wakes up on the twenty-second day. There. You’ve had your time to wallow. He feels—not good, no, but lighter. He still has no interest in composing, but he does find he’s hungry for company again. He craves the simple, meaningless back-and-forth of tavern conversation, an easy dance of wit and riposte.

And even if he can’t compose, he can still play.

First it’s the taverns, where he drinks with strangers, sings a bit, even shares a few laughs. Then he progresses to leaving his room during the day to prowl the salons where the academy students share poetry and philosophy and critique each other with the unflinching brutality that only mid-twenties eggheads can. Still, it charms him.

Then, before he’s ready—well, honestly, Jaskier would never feel ready for this—he’s standing in a classroom in the Academy with rich wood floors and vast glass windows and he’s supposed to teach six sharply dressed kids about folklore and songwriting and whatever-the-fuck-else. He can’t remember.

“Gods above,” Jaskier says as he walks into the classroom a few minutes late. He’d gotten lost on the campus. “The academy has far too much money. I hardly recognize any of these buildings.”

Six pairs of eyes land on him. The students all look to be in their early to late twenties, each with a notebook and their instruments. The communal table is pushed to the back wall, and instead the students sit in chairs in a half-moon facing the podium at the front.

Gods, they look young. Did he look like that when he first struck out on his own? What the fuck was Geralt thinking letting a baby-faced fool like him tag along?

“Well, hello,” Jaskier says, a bit awkwardly. “I admit I thought there’d be more of you.”

A girl with dark skin and long braids wound into a bun atop her head raises her eyebrows. “Did you not look at the requirements?”

“Uh, no.” Should he have?

“Five instruments,” she says.

“At least six but not more than fifteen published songs, poems, or narratives,” another student says.

“Four prerequisite courses, with top marks in each.” A redheaded girl crosses her arms.

“And of course, a very impressive letter of recommendation.” The girl with the braids sighs. “They made it quite hard to get in.”

“Well, there’s no need for all that,” Jaskier grouses. “I hardly know a thing about any of this.”

The students cast hesitant looks at each other.

“We’ve all studied your songs,” the girl says. “You’re the only modern performer who has created folklore in this generation.”

Jaskier flushes. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

“It took some digging.” The girl opens her pack and rifles through her notes, eventually unearthing a few faded pages. “But there is record of Geralt of Rivia known as the Butcher of Blaviken. But no one uses that moniker anymore—or if they do, they don’t connect it to the White Wolf.”

“As well they shouldn’t.” Jaskier presses his lips together. He’d known this course would center mostly on the songs he’d crafted about Geralt, which is not ideal. But still, hearing these students refer to his work as ‘creating folklore’ lights a fire inside his chest. Recognition and coin was one thing, but this felt… Different. He figured his name would die in Geralt’s shadow, and he was fine with that.

But perhaps at the Academy he could develop this legacy of his own.

“I suppose it boils down to what your audience wishes to gain from their folk narratives. In times of darkness and despair songs of darkness and despair will flourish as mirrors but may not dig deep roots because they don’t tap into some unfulfilled need. A village half-eradicated by devourers will not sing a song of the Butcher of Blaviken because it removes their agency from the narrative—why would they invite a monster into their midst? But if one can transform the monster into a hero, suddenly the townsfolk have a hand in their own salvation. They didn’t tolerate a bloodthirsty monstrous witcher, they summoned a hero. But if they can see this little bait-and-switch you’re pulling, it won’t work. It has to happen subconsciously.”

The students are taking notes.

Interesting.

*

The class fills his days. The students are bright, and talented, and keen to learn not only stories of his travels and exploits but of the tricks he’s developed over the years. They don’t just want to hear about Geralt slicing through a selkiemore’s ribcage to crawl out. Why that chord progression, they ask? Why this meter? Why this word? They’re interested in construction, and their own styles develop over the course of the half-year.

He throws himself into teaching and loves it in a way he never expected. Days at the academy, weekends at the salon, nights in the tavern—it’s a good life. A decent life, rich with community and laughter and song.

If there is an emptiness at the core of it, it’s bearable.

By the end of the class, he’s composing again. Not drinking songs or travel songs, but just for himself. Short, complicated songs he won’t sing for anyone else.

Once he finishes The Hemlock Wreath, he slides the music into the back of his songbook, and doesn’t play it again.

*

By early autumn, he’s been in Oxenfurt nearly nine months. The air is brisk but not too cold, and the streets are full of vendors selling winter clothing and brightly-colored squash and tokens for good harvests and safe evenings.

On a particularly chilly night, Jaskier wanders down to the tavern to sit by the roaring hearth and drink wine and thumb through the students’ applications for his winter course. Though he’s not interested in company, not right this moment, he still finds comfort in the dull noise of the tavern, the laughter and the drinking and the heartbeats.

Hanifa, his former student, doesn’t see him when she skids into the tavern, her long braids loose to her waist. Her friends are already present, drinking merrily, and she slaps their table so hard their tankards rattle.

“Have you heard?” She flashes a gossiper’s secretive grin. “The White Wolf’s gone mad.”

“Gone mad?” one of her peers says. “I thought witchers were born mad. What’s the story?”

She slides into a seat at the students’ table. Jaskier’s pen stops moving on the paper as he strains his ears. He feels his heart has stopped beating and will not restart, lest the pounding overtake his hearing.

“There’s a traveller from Brugge at the Ox’s Foot who claims the witcher came in to address a vypper problem at an outpost near Brokilon forest. But instead of killing the vyppers, he went into the forest and returned with rusalkas at his back, and together they ransacked the outpost. Burned the entire place to the ground.”

“Psh,” one of the men at the table says. “Sounds like the dryads just got into his head. Not even the White Wolf can withstand the charms of Brokilon.”

“But why’d he go in the first place?” Hanifa asks. “Vyppers are easy to lure out, especially if they’re already congregating at a place where they’ve found easy prey.”

“That’s a reach.”

“There’s more.” Hanifa grins. “The drifter said he’d warned the villagers not to call for the White Wolf. There’s been stories coming up from southwards. They say in Toussaint he brought a live wyvern down from the mountains and gutted it in the town square. In Forgeham he drank aracha venom as a show of strength to frighten the villagers into paying him more. In Thurn” —she lowers her voice— “he was contracted to kill a striga. Instead, he released the striga into the town and let her gorge herself on flesh. I heard he travels with her now. Like a companion.”

“Codswallop.” Eimear, the redheaded bard from his course, rolls her eyes. “This is what happens when there’s no good bard with him. Stories just devolve into ridiculousness.”

“I don’t know,” an unfamiliar male student, blond and bright-eyed, says. “I heard at the docks that he’d been recalled back to Kaer Morhen for the winter.”

Murmurs around the table. “That’s not uncommon, though, is it?” Hanifa asks.

“As far as I know, witchers stay there by choice if they have nowhere else to go. My mother used to threaten me with that if I didn’t behave. Do your chores, Tanner, or you’ll spend the winter with the witchers in Kaer Morhen!” He shrugs. “Rumor has it he’s been ordered. I don’t know who exactly can order a witcher to do anything, but...”

As the conversation turns to topics not pertaining to the witcher’s supposed madness, Jaskier attempts to return to his applications, but finds he can’t focus.

It doesn’t sound like Geralt. Gutting a wyvern in public? Loosing a striga like a wild dog? Burning an outpost? These are the behaviors of a beast, not a man. And for all his mutations and oddities and long, long life, Geralt is still a man. Jaskier knows that much. His hunts could be gruesome, but they were always just.

But at the same time, the rumors are so specific. Stories of witchers meant to frighten and titillate are never nearly so detailed. And all rumors contain a nugget of truth at the core.

He’s sticken then by a familiar ache. It’s not the despair of grief, nor the longing with which he’d grown so comfortable.

Ah, fuck. No point staying here if he’s not getting work done. He slips out of the tavern thankfully unnoticed and returns to his room at the boarding house. With a sigh he drops his half-read applications on his desk then prods at the dying embers in the fire. He tosses a log on to coax it back into a flame.

The crackling fire. The ache in his chest.

He half-expects to turn his head and see Geralt sprawled on the room’s narrow bed, lost to a healing trance, his white hair splayed around his angular face like a halo. That’s what the pain is—the pain of knowing the one he loves is hurt. At least when they travelled together he could do something about it. Even just little things like patching his wounds, cleaning his sword, working the tangles from his hair seemed to ease Geralt when things got especially bad.

Witchers were created to withstand pain. Geralt is fine! Of course he can endure whatever the contracts require. Apparently he’s out there making quite a bit of coin. He doesn’t need a bard to do it, he made that much clear.

But it just feels… Off. The unnecessary brutality of it is so unlike the man he remembers.

Would he really drink aracha venom? It has to be hyperbole.

Or is this just what happens when a witcher is friendless?

It can’t be. Geralt didn’t behave like this when they first met.

He must be cursed, or somehow ensorcelled. If he’s truly been recalled to Kaer Morhen for—whatever they do there—that would make sense.

Jaskier undresses and crawls into his bed. Life in Oxenfurt is fine. He has everything he needs. There’s no reason for mention of the White Wolf to drive a spike into him like it has.

Life here is fine. Unfortunately, Jaskier is greedy. Fine is just simply not enough.

*

He tries to put it out of mind. For any other man it might be easy. Pish posh, he should say, however Geralt chooses to do his witchering is none of my business.

But as the days pass the rumors won’t leave his mind, niggling at his mind like a splinter in his palm. It’s not just concern or—or whatever else that drives him. It’s his bloody curiosity.

Jaskier belongs in the narrow space between story and truth. Perhaps that’s the reason Oxenfurt doesn’t satisfy him, not like travelling does. He’s following the story’s breadcrumbs instead of dropping them himself.

After three days of trying to think about anything else, he gives up and succumbs to his desire the way a gutter-dweller succumbs to the bottle. He starts following the whispers of the White Wolf’s madness. A few rounds of gwent at the Ox’s Foot leads to dice at the docks, then a coin in a gate guard’s palm takes him back to his own gods-damned landlady.

“Beatrice!” Jaskier bursts through the door of the boarding house. “We’ve a tenant from Ban Ard?”

“No.” Beatrice doesn’t look up from where she’s finishing setting the communal table for dinner. “I’ve a tenant from Ban Ard. And you’re not to trouble her. You know the rules about relations in the boarding house.”

“Oh, your majesty.” Jaskier snatches a biscuit off the table under Beatrice’s narrowed eyes. “You wound me. Do save me a plate, I’ll be in much later.”

The gate guard had mentioned the girl from Ban Ard. The city was in Kaedwen, not far from the mountain pass that led to Kaer Morhen. Jaskier opens a bottle of wine in his room and knocks on doors until he finds her. She’s young—younger than he is, late twenties, Jaskier guesses—but peers down her sharp nose with an air of suspicion suggesting she isn’t one to get fleeced. The room behind her is still fully packed, save for the desk, which is spread with bottles, small boxes, dried plants, mortar and pestle, and tchotkes Jaskier doesn’t recognize.

“Good evening, pardon my interruption, it’s just I heard you may have seen an old friend of mine,” Jaskier says. He holds the wine up as a peace offering. “Tall, white hair, yellow eyes, two swords, sort of a brooding energy about him…”

She says nothing, but her dark eyes flick to the bottle.

“I assure you I’m not interested in invading your privacy,” Jaskier says. “The journey from Ban Ard to Oxenfurt isn’t easy. I have plenty of wine. And tobacco. And there’s a part of a roof accessible from the top floor with a lovely view of the river. All I ask is to know if you’ve seen him.”

“You’re his bard,” she says.

Something about her discerning gaze, her low voice, her dark hair reminds him suddenly—and, to his surprise, painfully—of Yennefer. This whole endeavor is making him barmy. In what world would he long for the cutting words of Yennefer of Vengerberg?

“I’m not his bard,” Jaskier says with a huff. “Since his reputation is my doing—well, the good parts are—it’s more accurate to say he’s my witcher.”

The girl watches him with some interest.

He winces. If that ever were true, it hasn’t been for a long time.

She agrees to sit with him on the flat edge of the boarding house’s roof, accessible only from the upstairs hall window. They share wine and tobacco. The girl shares her name (Etreya) and her profession (herbalist) and not a thing else.

“He was passing through Ban Ard as I was preparing to leave.” She pulls her knees to her chest and gazes out over the river. The night sky is flecked with pinprick stars and the orange glow of windows. A few small ships drift in silhouette on the river—night fishers, most likely. “I’ve sold to witchers plenty, being so close to their keep, but never the White Wolf. As far as I knew, he didn’t often venture into the northeast. Only the songs reached us. Your songs, I suppose.”

Jaskier hums and focuses on the warm burn of the smoke in his lungs.

“He looked bad,” she says. “Most witchers do, you know. They’re all sallow and injured, yet they just keep on working. Or at least, that’s how they look when they come to me, looking for herbs or salves or potions.”

Geralt didn’t look sallow and injured. Not when they traveled together. He looked tired, sure, but never—never ill.

“He wanted kava and opium. Bought out my stores. I asked him what for—Insomnia? Chronic pain? Simple pleasure? But he wouldn’t answer.”

Sleeplessness, Jaskier is sure of it. He remembers those restless nights, when Geralt had electrified his nervous system with potions and then was trapped, anxious and snapping his teeth, in the comedown. When they travelled together, it was manageable. If they had the luxury of a room, a bath would help ease Geralt through the worst of it, with Jaskier muttering nonsense and working his fingers through that tangled white hair. At camp it was a little harder, but with some encouragement Jaskier could convince Geralt to sit by the fire so the heat loosened his tense muscles. Jaskier would soften his palms with just a few drops of chamomile oil and work his thumbs down the back of Geralt’s neck, press his weight into Geralt’s trapezius muscles and deltoids, and eventually the witcher would settle enough to rest.

“Then as he left,” Etreya says, “I wished him well as I do all witchers. ‘Walk your Path with honor and may your contracts be plentiful.’ He laughed and said to save my breath. That there’d be no contracting with him, and good luck dealing with the remaining witchers.”

Jaskier passes the pipe. “He went north, didn’t he?”

She nods, inhaling. “Yes. I believe he’s to Kaer Morhen. Strange.” She fixes her gaze on him. “You didn’t know this.”

“No,” he says. “As I said. I’m not his bard.”

“I know what they say about witchers,” she says. “That they’re unfeeling, brutal monsters, bred only to maim and kill the things that would otherwise kill us. And it’s true, there is usually something disinterested and cold about them. They want their wares quickly and to be on their way. But Geralt of Rivia…”

Jaskier presses his lips together at the sound of Geralt’s name in someone else’s mouth. It’s been a long time since he’s heard it anywhere other than his own mind.

“He seemed to be… Bracing for something. There was a dark humor about him. I’ve seen it in soldiers preparing to go off to a battle they know they’ll lose. He was a man preparing to walk into the underworld.” Etreya pauses, sips her wine. “I see why he interests you. He is unlike other witchers.”

Jaskier hums. What was at Kaer Morhen for Geralt? He’d spoken of the place with a disdainful sneer, when he’d spoken about it at all. What drew him back now?

And a very small, stupid part of him thinks: I know where he is.

“Will you go to the witchers' keep?” Etreya asks.

“What?” Jaskier takes a long pull of the pipe. “Of course I won’t. That’s not a place for men.”

“I agree,” Etreya says. “Perhaps for that reason your witcher should not be there either.”

Jaskier’s throat clenches, trapping his voice.

“Follow me,” Etreya says. “In return for the wine and the company I’ll fix you a tincture. Something for your travels, should you choose some time to leave.”

*

The opaque bottle sits on his desk untouched. It takes Jaskier two weeks to burn through his resolve.

Fine. If the fates wish him to seek the truth of the White Wolf’s recent exploits, he’ll do it.

And if the rumors turn out to be true—if Geralt has gone mad—

Jaskier packs away the gut-churning dread accompanying that thought. Geralt’s well-being is very much not his responsibility. It never was. Regardless. The tale should be recorded accurately.

*

Travelling is easier now that Jaskier can afford luxuries like a thick, fancy bedroll, a cloak, and a small gray gelding regretfully named Ham-Hock. He almost leaves his lute and his songbook in his room at the boarding house, but honestly, it feels wrong to travel without them.

The trek from Oxenfurt to the northernmost reaches of Kaedwen takes nearly two weeks, and by the end of it he’s quite sick of travelling, thankyouverymuch. “You’re a dour companion, Ham-Hock,” he says to the horse idly chewing weeds a few paces from the campfire. “You match Geralt in conversation skills, at least.” He sighs and plucks a chord on his instrument.

In the morning the great mountain pass beckons. He stables the horse at the closest village and promises to return. Ham-Hock is unenthused. The jagged limestone cliff faces loom against the gray sky, and the river that carved them flows fast and threatening. Of course this is the way. Geralt and his compatriots couldn’t have a lovely home on the warm coast of Cidaris or anything like that, it had to be a big spooky castle that requires scrambling over boulders just inches away from a hungry river. Jaskier sighs and adjusts the pack heavy on his shoulder.

He pulls the opaque bottle from his pocket and examines it carefully, as if he looks closely enough, he’ll know its contents.

Huh. Perhaps this is how Geralt feels with his potions. Just plug your nostrils and hope for the best.

He drinks the tincture in one long swallow. It tastes mildly bitter and a lot alcoholic, and he feels nothing but a shiver down his spine like he does when drinking wine gone vinegar with age.

So it’s just a fluke. A placebo. He fastens his cloak tighter around his shoulder and heads into the pass.

*

Here are all the things that go wrong.

First, he steps on a wet rock and skins his palms raw. Then he twists his ankle on a different wet rock. Then it starts to rain. Then the icy wind comes howling through the pass like a living thing and burns his cheeks badly as a flame. And then, of-fucking-course, a giant centipede crawls from a crack in the limestone on the other side of the river, and all Jaskier can do is press his back against the limestone on his side and pray the river roars loud enough to mask the tremors of his rapidly beating heart.

When the enormous chittering beast finally creeps away, the sun is low on the horizon. Jaskier knows what kinds of things lurk in this valley and he very much does not want to be stumbling around on these rocks in the dark. And who knows what kind of things a lantern may attract?

Finally, just as he’s about to decide to doom himself to a horrible night of camping on the banks of the Gwenllech, he sees the trail. It’s carved into the limestone and runs in switchbacking stairs, winding up the cliff face and disappearing over the edge.

He looks up… And up… And up.

Well. Better hurry, then.

By the time he’s hauled his exhausted, heavily-laden body up the limestone stairs and then down the beaten path to the doors of Kaer Morhen, it’s nearly pitch-black, and he’s still too anxious to light his lantern.

The keep itself is carved directly into the mountain. It’s large, and beautiful, and decrepit—its outer walls crumbled so badly Jaskier climbs through the wreckage with ease. If not for the few windows glowing dimly in its ancient mottled walls Jaskier might think this had all been a fool’s errand.

It's likely a fool’s errand already. But he’s made it this far. Might as well approach the great wooden door and … And what? Knock?

Staring at the iron wolf’s head mounted on the door, he supposes that’s what he’s to do.

He grips the ring hanging from the wolf’s mouth and knocks.

The sound rings out so loud he fears the force of it may bring the castle down around him. The silence that follows is deafening.

Then, slowly, as if the keep itself was deciding, the doors open.

Jaskier steels himself and steps inside. The entry hall is vast, dark, and empty. The columns reaching from floor to ceiling are riddled with dust and cobweb, and his heels echo loudly on the stone floor. There are stairs to a second floor, and few hallways, but they appear to only lead to darkness. Only the fire in the hearth across the room suggests the place is occupied.

“Hello?” Jaskier calls. He winces at the astonishing echo of his own voice. Gods, this place has stellar acoustics. A crazy part of him wants to sing. “Hello? I’m looking for Geralt of Rivia? I heard he may be here? I’m, er, I’m an old friend, I suppose.”

“You seek Geralt of Rivia?” a low voice booms from across the room.

Jaskier nearly leaps back. “Ah! Fuck!”

A man emerges from the shadows by the hearth—was there a door there or something? Where did he come from? “Come. Sit.”

“Er— Pardon my forwardness as I realize I’m, er, not exactly invited, sir, I’m called Jaskier, and you…?”

“Sit.” The man points at the chair.

“I, er. Certainly. Your hospitality is much appreciated.” Jaskier crosses the room briskly, wincing again at each crack of his heel on the floor.

The man sits and motions for Jaskier to do the same. He looks to be middle-aged, with a full white beard and white hair. His face is scarred and lined, and he wears heavy leather clothes that looked somewhat armored despite his place in the keep. “I’m called Vesemir,” he says. “Tobacco?”

“Well.” Who’s he to turn down a lovely offer like that. “If you would be so kind.”

Vesemir lights a pipe, then hands it to Jaskier before lighting his own. Gods, the warmth of the smoke in his lungs after all that stupid travelling is enough to make him relax into the musty old cushions.

“Geralt of Rivia is not here,” Vesemir says. “I am the only witcher at Kaer Morhen.”

Jaskier’s curious mood sours so fast it’s like he’s just thrown himself from the cliffs into the river below. “Well, that’s just lovely, since I’ve spent weeks riding a completely useless horse here, and I spent the past, I don’t know, fourteen hours climbing those awful stairs to even find this place. You do quite the job of keeping this castle annoying to access, I’ll give you that.” He sighs and takes another puff of the pipe. “Fuck. Ah, fuck. Terribly sorry to intrude. I have all the things I need. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble I’ll just unfurl my bedroll by this fire here and be gone in the morning. I’ve seen one enormous bug today and I’m sure there’s plenty more out there tonight.”

“You are welcome to stay.” Vesemir’s eyes narrow curiously. “Though, Jaskier, how did you find this place?”

How could he be so bloody stupid as to think those rumors had any nugget of truth? Geralt was probably gallivanting merrily down south, killing basilisks and werewolves and fucking his way through every whorehouse he could find. He wasn’t mad, he was simply doing what he did best—killing monsters and not giving a fuck about anyone else. “Ah, the pass, and the stairs, and the trail,” Jaskier says with a distracted wave of his hands.

“This place is shielded to the eyes of men,” Vesemir says. “Only witchers know the location of the stairs.”

Jaskier blinks back into reality. “What? They’re just stairs. They were visible.”

“Did Geralt of Rivia tell you about accessing this place?”

Jaskier almost rolls his eyes, but doesn’t, because if this witcher kicks him out of the keep he’ll most certainly be eaten by something out there in the valley. “I’m sure Geralt of Rivia wants nothing to do with me,” he says. “Just a silly misunderstanding. I travelled with him for many years, you see, and there’d been some, er, unsettling stories going around about him. I consider him my friend even if” —his heart twists— “he doesn’t consider me his, and I wished to know he was well. Word from Ban Ard was that he was to Kaer Morhen so I came to find him.”

“Ban Ard,” Vesemir says. “You didn’t see a herbalist there, did you?”

Jaskier puffs his pipe again to stall. “Not in Ban Ard. In Oxenfurt.”

Vesemir’s mouth twitches in a way that Jaskier recognizes as a witcher’s amusement. “Etreya grows drunk on her power,” he says with warmth. “First opium for the witchers, and now the potion of seeing for the bard. Jaskier.” Vesemir pulls out a bottle of wine. Where is this guy squirreling all these things? “I know you travelled with Geralt for many years. He was here. Would you like some wine?”

“Here? Geralt was here, in Kaer Morhen?”

“Yes. What stories did you hear that brought you to seek him?”

“Absolutely mad things.” Vesemir hands Jaskier a glass—okay, seriously, what the fuck—and Jaskier takes a long drink. The wine warms him from the inside, settles his nerves a bit. “That he burned an outpost outside Brokilon Forest?”

“He did.” Vesemir’s expressions darkens. “Though not without reason.”

“Gutted a wyvern in a town square?”

“Again, not without reason.”

“Drank aracha venom?”

Vesemir hums and takes a sip of his own wine. “That one I do not know.”

“He was here.” Jaskier glances around the vast room like he could capture an old shadow of Geralt somewhere in the darkness. If he hadn’t waited around Oxenfurt—if he’d just ridden here right away—Gods, he could fucking slap himself. “Why? When did he leave? Where did he go?”

“You must be hungry,” Vesemir says. “Finish your pipe. I’ll answer your questions to the best of my ability over a meal.”

The keep’s kitchen is immense, but only one corner appears to see any use, in which a cauldron sits in the hearth and a small table is laid out with a bowl and a loaf of canvas-wrapped bread. Vesemir abandons him for what feels like an eternity before he returns with an odd grimace on his face. He ladles stew into two roughly hewn bowls, and they sit at a low wooden table like old comrades.

This is not how Jaskier imagined the great Kaer Morhen. If he’s being absolutely honest, he’d almost expected a dramatic reunion with Geralt. Sharing a sad stew of unknown meat and wilted vegetable with an old witcher was not exactly in his list of possible scenarios.

“Geralt returned to Kaer Morhen for additional training,” Vesemir finally says.

“Additional training?” Maybe it was the journey to arrive here, or the sheer misery of the space itself, but the stew is palatable. “He’s been a witcher for ages. What else is there to learn?”

Vesemir sips his wine, slow and thoughtful. “Jaskier, I know you are a friend of Geralt, and I speak to you as a friend of his as well. To journey the distance you have is no small feat. Few men have attempted it. Fewer have succeeded and seen beyond the walls of Kaer Morhen.”

“Just a bit of a hike, honestly, it could be worse.”

“Geralt feared his control was slipping.” Vesemir’s fingers twitch around his spoon. “He considered his decision making rash and thoughtless. He experienced anger too deeply. He struggled to let his emotions pass through him like a wind. They lingered, he claimed. He sought my counsel to address this vulnerability.”

That just sounds like Geralt. He always felt deeply and richly. It always affected his decisions—it made him righteous. Why would he want that gone? Did he wish to be the monster people once thought he was?

“Retaking his final exams, you mean,” Jaskier says. “Did it work?”

“I could not guide him to the outcome he desired. There are no skills he lacks. There is no witcher beyond him. But” —Vesemir pushes his bowl away and pulls out his pipe instead— “he is lost. Unnerved, perhaps.”

“Unnerved?” Jaskier stares at Vesemir like he’s grown a head. “As in, scared? He’s a witcher. I heard him refer to a bloedzuiger as an ‘overgrown tick’.”

“I have great respect for the bardic arts,” Vesemir says in a tone that suggests perhaps he doesn’t, “And you in particular, Jaskier, know many truths about the witcher’s Path. But it’s hard for a man to understand the length of a witcher’s life. The Path can lull one into complacency. At the heart it’s a simple and fulfilling calling, a call we are honored to answer. Witchers are not often surprised.”

“And humans are?”

“Yes. Do you disagree?”

Annoyingly, he doesn’t. The richness of life is in its surprises. Does that wear off after a few lifetimes? Or does the witcher’s training simply remove the sheen? He presses his lips together.

“Something has shaken his footing,” Vesemir says. “I do not doubt he will find it again. But it won’t be here.”

Great. So this has become a chase, where a normal man with a slow horse chases a mutant monster hunter with literally endless stamina and some sort of faerie-like bond with his speedy mare. Why did he do this, again? “And you wouldn’t happen to know where he was off to next, would you?”

“I do not.”

“Excellent.” Jaskier rubs his hand across his forehead.

“I’ll give you this.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a simple metal ring, a perfect circle nearly eight centimeters in diameter, like a single link of chain. He places it in Jaskier’s palm. Its heft is unexpected. “An item like this has not left Kaer Morhen for a long, long time. Keep it safe.”

“I’m sure it’s quite scary and powerful, Vesemir, but what exactly is this?”

“You are familiar with the medallion he wears?”

Familiar. He knows it nearly as well as he knows the fastenings on Geralt’s armor. He knows how the wolf’s head design captures the firelight, how it seems to hold heat easily, how the chain glints on the back of Geralt’s neck. He knows it hangs to his solar plexus and never leaves that place. “Yes.”

“This link is cut from the same metal. It won’t help you track him, but if you wear it close, the link will know when the medallion is nearby.”

Jaskier feels like his chest is collapsing. This little piece of metal affects him like a blow to the back. He closes his palm around and is gripped by the sudden knowledge—slamming into the front of his mind like a prophecy—that he will find Geralt.

The rumors in his tavern. The herbalist in his building. The link in his palm. The fates push him ever forward.

“‘Nearby’? Can you be just a pinch more specific?” Jaskier asks. Even when his heart is spinning in his chest it only seems to make his mouth run worse. “Will I know within a kilometer? Two kilometers? Stone’s throw? Who’s throwing the stone? Will it shock me, or burn me, should I be worried—”

“Jaskier.” Vesemir narrows his eyes and he looks so like Geralt in that moment Jaskier almost laughs. “It’s been many years since these have been used. It will—hum, I suppose, same as the medallions do. The closer its companion, the stronger the sensation. It will not burn you.”

It won’t burn.

Jaskier might.

*

That night, with his fancy bedroll unfurled by the fire and doing fuck all to stop the cold stone floors from sucking the heat from his bones, Jaskier dreams of his witcher. He dreams of their medallions, twinned now, humming in unison when he pulls Geralt’s head down into the crook of his shoulder and cards his fingers through his hair, as he’s done before, and can only hope he’ll do again.

*

Ham-Hock has forgotten who Jaskier is. The journey back to Oxenfurt is annoying and long, as he has to convince the horse to walk instead of pausing at every interesting looking flower and weed.

“Unbelievable,” Jaskier complains as he tugs ineffectively at the reins. They’ve only a few miles to go, and Jaskier is selling this stupid horse to the butcher. “I should’ve taken you into the pass and fed you to the centipede.”

Then, the link hanging around his neck begins faintly to hum.

It’s a cross between a vibration and a warmth, like a note he can’t hear but can feel travelling in his bones.

“Ham-Hock, you daft cow, if you don’t move your absolutely useless arse—”

Then it’s gone.

Jaskier curses. He leaves Ham-Hock to the weeds and walks in a spiral out around the gelding, off the road and bushwhacking through the brush, but the hum doesn’t return.

No matter. No fucking matter! He kicks at the dirt.

There’s no fucking way to find Geralt anyway. Geralt’s the one that goes cavorting about the continent being all murderous and mad. Jaskier’s not going to zig-zag the land seeking him out. Jaskier is not a mysterious person—he’ll be out noisily barding somewhere, or he’ll be at Oxenfurt. A master tracker could easily find him.

That is, if he wants to.

“Fucking gods-damned witcher,” he mutters, and urges Ham-Hock back towards Oxenfurt. He has a class to teach, a herbalist to harass, and a talisman to forget about.

*

Two days after he returns, he’s attempting to enjoy a leisurely meal in the tavern and perhaps finally choose his students when Hanifa bursts through the door so strongly Jaskier thinks she may tear it off its hinges.

“Jaskier! Thank the gods you’re back.” She skitters across the room and drops into the seat across from him. “Where were you, anyway? Listen—the White Wolf was in Oxenfurt.”

“You’re joking.” He slams his tankard of ale onto the table hard enough to slosh liquid over the edge. Un-fucking-believable. Seems like he was completely wrong about the fates wishing for him and Geralt to cross paths again—more like the fates wished to drive Jaskier into his own madness with whispers of Geralt’s presence and never a glimpse of his face. As if he doesn’t see it every night behind his eyelids.

“Nay. He was looking for a herbalist. Was at the Ox’s Foot asking about her. I was there shooting dice with Tanner and Eimear—Tanner was very drunk, and a bit starstruck, and approached the witcher quite brazenly. He suggested that it was not a new stash of potions and herbs that he needed to cure his, er, ailments, but a new travelling companion to ease the way.”

Jaskier’s meal turns to sawdust in his mouth.

He’d never considered that after all these years, Geralt might want a different travelling companion—younger and spryer, pretty in that farmboy way Tanner is, unused to all Geralt’s annoying quirks and habits, still eager to fall flat as his feet for any scrap of story or praise.

If Jaskier went to Kaer Morhen only to return to word of Geralt leaving Oxenfurt with a teenage bard at his side he’s returning to the keep and completing its destruction himself.

“The witcher was unmoved, until Tanner mentioned your name.” Hanifa sighs and snatches Jaskier’s tankard off the table to take a swig. “He gut-punched him. Hard. At the time it was funny, but he’s still laid up, poor bloke.”

Something in Jaskier’s chest eases slightly. That’s probably not a great reflection on his character. “And the witcher?”

Hanifa gives him an odd, knowing look. “I don’t know if he found his herbalist, but he was asking about opium. A lot of opium. Curious.”

Curious indeed.

*

Shaken his footing.

Bought out my stores.

Gone mad.

Jaskier can’t sleep. If only, a small vicious part of him thinks, he were able to just shut off his capacity to care like Geralt could, leave the witcher to his incomprehensible plans, and go about his lovely life as an esteemed professor of the academy.

But he can’t. He can’t just stop caring about Geralt.

Who else knows the furrow in his brow that appears when he aches from the comedown off Swallow? Who knows the grimace that means internal bleeding, versus the grimace that means ‘Fill the silence, distract me from the pain’? Who knows the map of scarring across Geralt’s back—the ones that are forgettable, and the deep raised ones that still pull and ache with the memory of wounds?

It’s not that Geralt’s mad. The nauseating realization hits like a sudden poisoning. Geralt’s trapped. Trapped in his body, trapped on his Path—he’s been caged by the isolation the witcher’s training requires. Jaskier had the audacity to open the cage and wander merrily (thoughtlessly?) inside. He’s been kicked out, sure—but now Geralt can see the bars.

Poor fucking melodramatic sod.

He wouldn’t do something mad, though, right? Beyond what he’s already done.

Would he?

Jaskier sits up in bed and presses the heels of his hands to his eyes.

If he does—and Jaskier even had the smallest, faintest, mildest idea—well. Then they’d be the two of them together again, melodramatic sods side-by-side in the grave.

He gets up, dresses, walks the stairs to the herbalist’s room. She answers his knocking surprisingly quickly; a fire roars in her hearth and her discerning brown eyes are ringed with dark circles.

“Sorry to bother so late, Etreya, dear. Bit of an odd question for you. How much, er” —Jaskier grimaces as he tries to shape the words in his mouth, as if speaking them will manifest the reality— “how much opium, exactly, would it take to kill a witcher?”

Her expression pinches. “So it crossed your mind, too?”

*

He spends the rest of the night on the outskirts of Oxenfurt, walking as close to the river as he can, willing the link around his neck to hum. It doesn’t.

*

Each day he crosses one of the city’s bridges with Ham-Hock and rides as far as the gelding can go in a half-day. Still the link hangs heavy and silent.

*

On the sixth day he crosses the western bridge and rides south. He’s close to giving up. Geralt doesn’t want to be found—or maybe his bloated body will wash up in the river someday. Even in the mid-morning sun the thought chills Jaskier to his core.

Then, after hours of riding, when he’s moments away from turning Ham-Hock back towards the city, the link emits the softest vibration he’s felt. But it’s there, humming against his sternum.

“Quick.” He digs his heels into the horse’s flanks. “It’s not been for naught, my friend.” Ham-Hock begrudgingly quickens his pace and and Jaskier winds south, then southwest, then west, then south again, following the ever-increasing hum of the link.

Then, as the sun lowers in the sky, the hum increases. Ham-Hock stops walking and stamps his hooves, his gray ears pricked forward, his dark beady eyes flicking across the horizon. Jaskier grasps at the link and tugs it away from his skin. It’s growing louder, and louder, vibrating into his bones and overriding the very beat of his heart, a powerful roar like the sign of Aard rushing ever toward him.

Geralt steps out of the tree-line and into the path.

The hum ceases. Jaskier inhales sharp and sudden like he’d been underwater.

He’ll speak. He will. He can already feel the words churning in his gut like bile and they’ll spill out momentarily. But for a moment he just has to look.

Gods, it’s been nearly a year. Geralt’s golden eyes flash, his nostrils flare—he stands in a wide stance like he’s bracing for an attack. He’s still so broad, and angular, even with his dark clothes stained and poorly mended and his skin sallow; his white hair is matted with dirt where it hangs half-loose to his shoulders.

Gods, it’s good to lay eyes on him. Jaskier is flooded with warmth and terror simultaneously. He’s alive, and he’s here, but he looks so far away and so savage. Jaskier dismounts Ham-Hock. He aches to move toward Geralt. He can fix this, whatever it is, he can soothe away the furrow in Geralt’s brow and the sneer on his face if Geralt will stop being so fucking bullheaded and let him.

Geralt bares his teeth. “Stop following me.”

Oh. So that’s out of the question, then. “Follow—Following you?” Jaskier sputters. “I’m following you? You’re the one who came to Oxenfurt!”

“Yes. And I left. Stop following me.” Geralt turns and stomps back into the treeline.

“Geralt—Geralt, wait.” Jaskier follows Geralt on foot. It’s always like this, isn’t it? Geralt leaving, and Jaskier following pathetically behind.

He pauses. Geralt’s dark form moves with silent grace through the brush and into a small clearing.

No, no, it’s not always like this.

What about the nights they shared an inn bed and Jaskier awoke in the middle of the night to Geralt’s arm looped around his body and the witcher’s warm, slow breaths against his nape?

Or nights by the campfire when, after a long day of travelling on foot, Geralt would press his thumbs into the soles of Jaskier’s bare feet?

Or once, in some nowhere tavern in some nowhere town, Geralt had cocked his head at a patron, raised his eyebrows, and Jaskier had suddenly recognized the patron’s resemblance to a different man, in a different tavern, five years ago, the one who had tried to convince Geralt to stay in town and work in the brothel as a whore—he’d turned out to be a vampire, and it’d all been a right mess, but the memory had sent Jaskier into a breathless fit of laughter. Even Geralt’s mouth had twitched in amusement as he’d watched Jaskier.

It wasn’t just travel and murder and back rubs. It was humor, cheer, meals, laundry, nights and days, arguments and laughter. It was Jaskier learning to use a whetstone. It was Geralt stashing lute varnish amidst his potions.

The pain is easier to understand if he rewrites the story so he never belonged. But he did. He does. Why Geralt doesn’t see it is a mystery.

“How did you even know I was following?” Jaskier pushes into the brush and follows Geralt into the campsite. “My steed is quite slow and quiet, much like myself, and I picked up some tracking skills over our years together—”

“I can smell you.” Geralt kneels at his campsite and busies himself boiling water on the campfire. He keeps his back to Jaskier.

Jaskier so badly wants to see his face. He stands at the edge of Geralt’s meticulously arranged campsite. “You can smell me,” he echoes.

“It’s nearly as annoying as your presence itself. Go back to Oxenfurt.”

Jaskier steps closer. If he reached out he could touch Geralt’s shoulder. “In Oxenfurt they say you’ve gone mad.”

“And what if they are right? You would follow a mad witcher alone into the woods?”

“No.” Jaskier shifts his weight from foot to foot. “I’d follow my friend.”

Geralt’s shoulders tense, then drop, then tense again. The water on the kettle boils, then he adds a few drops of dark liquid from a small bottle. “Scent is keenly tied to memory,” Geralt says. “Your memory troubles me.”

“My memory?” Jaskier feels as if he is walking through the limestone pass again—each step a risk, a challenge. “Geralt, I’m right here.”

“We cannot travel together.”

He halfway wishes he was still in that mountain pass. He’d rather face a centipede than this. “Yet you won’t tell me why. You blame me for your misfortunes, send me away, then I hear stories of you terrorizing people in all the ways I thought you despised? Gutting a wyvern publicly? Burning down an outpost? Drinking aracha venom? I’ll leave you alone, you bullheaded oaf, if you’ll just tell me what in the name of Melitele’s curved arse is going on with you.”

“I’m fine. My duties are better done alone.”

“Vesemir says you’ve lost your footing.”

It’s a cheap shot, sure, but it works. Geralt rises to his feet like Jaskier lit a fire beneath him. He turns, golden eyes blazing, and even when it’s anger Jaskier basks in his attention. “What do you know of Vesemir?”

“I was looking for you.” Jaskier crosses his arms over his chest. “Word was you’d been ordered back to the keep, so I went.”

“You.” Geralt gazes at the sky like he wishes to be struck down. “You travelled to Kaer Morhen?”

“Yes. Just Ham-Hock—my lovely horse—and I, together. Vesemir told me you weren’t ordered back, thank the gods, but that you’d been seeking some sort of additional training. If you couldn’t find it in Kaer Morhen I don’t know why you think you’ll find it outside of Oxenfurt in a kettle of opium tea.”

Geralt’s face shutters closed. He steps closer and snarls a hand in the front of Jaskier’s chemise where it peeks through his doublet, jerking him close. “This is why,” he says. “Why the fuck would you go to Kaer Morhen? You could’ve been killed—not only by the journey, but by the creatures that lurk in the valley, or the witchers that pass their time in the ruins. You just throw yourself mindlessly into danger, Jaskier, like a fucking fool, and it—it affects me.”

Jaskier’s heart beats rabbit-fast in his chest. He folds his hands gently over Geralt’s where it’s fisted in the fabric of his shirt. He rubs his thumb gently over the knuckles, thick with calluses. “It affects you?”

Geralt’s nostrils flare like an animal’s. “I—I—” His gaze darts hungrily across Jaskier’s face, from eyes to lips to throat and back. “I am more effective without you.” He releases his hold.

Jaskier immediately wants it back. Instead, he smooths the wrinkles from his shirt. “Not to belabor the point, but the opium tea suggests otherwise.”

“Fuck you,” Geralt growls. “I went to Kaer Morhen because you” —he snaps his teeth like he’s fighting back some bestial part of himself— ”challenge my control. Yennefer left and I realized you—if you—” He curses violently and pours the dark tea from the pot into his canteen. He takes a swig and grimaces. “I am more effective without you,” he repeats. “I must walk my Path alone, Jaskier.”

Frustration burns in Jaskier, pounding in his ears like he’s beneath the ocean waves. “So are the stories I’ve heard true? Is this your new effective witchering Path? Loosing a striga? Burning down an outpost? Drinking aracha venom in a tavern?”

“I did those things,” Geralt says. “The stories are poorly crafted.”

“Oh, well, I’m sure you can’t think of a solution to that. These are your strategies? This is how you want to live your life? Creeping around in the forest, begging herbalists for opium and avoiding your best friend so you can, what, kill more drowners?”

“Witchers are few!” Geralt roars. “My Path is my own. People rely on me. You of all should know this.”

“And I, of all, have never discouraged you from walking your Path.” It’s pointless, doing this. Geralt has made his decision, and though Jaskier can see his frayed edges and bowstring-tight muscles, he knows Geralt won’t change his mind. So he might as well do a little bloodletting here. “But you seek not only the destruction of monsters but of yourself. I understand how it can be jarring to feel loss when you believed you’d beaten that sensation out of yourself. It only proves you are a man.” Jaskier wants so, so badly to touch him. “You will walk your Path, witcher. Can I not walk it with you?”

Pain flashes across Geralt’s face like a lightning strike—brief, intense, and then gone. “It’s not so simple.”

“It can be.” Jaskier winds his fingers around Geralt’s wrist to feel the slow beat of his pulse. If he can just get Geralt to understand. To see what he sees between them. “I know it can. I—do you remember, in Pivka—”

“Stop.” Geralt closes his eyes. “Do not speak further. Go back to Oxenfurt.”

Jaskier feels like he’s been cleaved. It’s just so fucking foolish, to have Geralt’s wrist in his hand, trying to coax this great odd thing in between them out of the shadows and into the light, and Geralt just won’t fucking have it. He’d rather sit in his sad little campsite and brood and get high and invent new ways to violently maim monsters like his best friend won’t fucking worry about that. He releases his hold on Geralt’s wrist.

The strength of his anger shocks and energizes him like a rush of adrenaline. “What did I do to deserve this? To be tossed aside so callously? All I did during our travels together was venerate you, clean your wounds, draw your baths. I loved you.” He wants to stomp his feet, scream it, yell it at the sky. “I never asked for anything more than your companionship. And you tell me you turned me away because suddenly you realized existing in the world brings with it the risk of pain and loss? It’s not just for us measly humans, Geralt, you get it, too. You aren’t special.”

Geralt stands by his little campfire, motionless, his gaze burning through Jaskier.

“I came to help you,” Jaskier says. “I wanted to know you were all right. I was going to try to make amends for something I didn’t even do. But you’re so bullheaded, and so dead-set on suffering. Fine. Choose your suffering. When you throw your life at the feet of some great beast, or gods forbid the fucking poppy, I’ll write the song and I’ll mourn you terribly. But at least I’ll know it’s what you wanted.”

*

This is not like his three weeks’ recovery.

The room. The hearth. He tears the link from his neck and leaves it on his desk. Time expands and collapses simultaneously—it doesn’t matter. This is not his grief carefully weeded from his soul and set out to dry. This is grief that drops from the sky like a rainstorm to drown him in its torrent.

*

darkness

*

like a shroud

*

or a grave.

*

He pulls The Hemlock Wreath from its place in his songbook and tosses it into the fire.

*

Etreya fixes him tinctures of valerian root for his own sleepless nights. It does not soothe him to think of Geralt in the woods similarly stricken with wakefulness. But he can’t use it because it gives him dreams: golden eyes flickering in the firelight, a low voice in his ear, a kiss from a decade ago. A kiss that won’t happen again.

*

Jaskier wakes in the middle of the night to the now-familiar thrum of the link. Even though it’s not on his body, its vibration still seems to work its way into his bones, rattling him from the inside out.

If it didn’t require leaving his bed he would throw the gods-forsaken thing into the fire. Likely Geralt is simply in Oxenfurt again looking for drink or contract or opium. Jaskier pulls the covers over his head.

The thrum builds. And builds. And builds.

He stuffs his head under his pillow and pulls it tight around his ears like he could shield himself from the link’s cry. It’s no good.

Then, just when Jaskier thinks his teeth are about to vibrate from his head, the hum ceases.

He can feel him—sense him, the way a horse senses a thunderstorm. Geralt’s presence is a silent weight in the room. A cold wind blows through the open window and cuts through the hearth’s warmth.

“Jaskier.” His voice low and careful.

Jaskier pulls the pillow tighter around his head. “Piss off.”

A long silence.

Then: “Jaskier. Forgive me.”

His heart leaps immediately to his throat. Gods, he is weak. He emerges from beneath the covers to narrow his eyes at Geralt’s figure standing in his room like a wraith. He’s unarmed—well, as unarmed as a trained monster-killing mutant can be—wearing his dark cotton shirt and pants, and his feet are bare on the floor of Jaskier’s room. Instead of his typical half-up look, he’s tied his hair all the way back into a neat bun, and Jaskier can’t help but let his eyes wander across the sharp line of his jaw and the column of his neck.

His eyes catch the dying light of the fire.

Jaskier could fucking cry. It’s not fair. Geralt can just stand there and look at him and make him feel like this. He can’t even grovel. There’s nothing for which to beg. “That’s a shit apology.”

“Hm.” Shadows dance across Geralt’s scarred, angular face. “Can I?” He nods at the bed.

Bastard. “No.”

Geralt doesn’t move. Behind him, the window is open, and another cold burst of wind cuts through the room, rustling the fabric of Geralt’s sleeves and the strands of white hair that hang free around his face. He’s so still—inhumanly still, still in a way that makes Jaskier feel simultaneously like he knows Geralt so fucking well, like he could craft a song for the angle of his jaw, the solidity of his shoulder, the knotted muscle of his calf, the fine round bones of his ankle, the curve in the arch of his feet; and like he doesn’t know a fucking thing about him. No matter how many times he feels that slow heart pound beneath his palm he won’t understand it.

But it’s the bare feet on the floor that do it. There’s dirt on his toes. He’d scaled the building to reach Jaskier.

“Fine.” Jaskier scoots over on his narrow bed.

Geralt lays down next to him, atop the blanket. Jaskier turns his head away. Geralt presses the length of his muscled body against Jaskier’s, and even with the barrier of the blanket and the clothing between them, the contact burns.

Geralt presses his nose to the exposed skin at the nape of Jaskier’s neck and inhales deeply.

Jaskier shudders hard. Oh, it’s terrible. It’ll kill him.

“Jaskier. I’m sorry.”

“Not enough,” Jaskier says, though it’s hard to force the words out, when so much of him wants to just sink into the contact and forget any of the past year ever happened. “Explain yourself.”

Geralt rests his arm over Jaskier’s body and holds him like he fears Jaskier will change his mind. He noses again at Jaskier’s nape. For a long moment Jaskier only hears the cry of the wind and the beat of his own heart in his ears.

“You scare me,” Geralt says, finally.

A pause, like Geralt wants Jaskier to cut in, or exclaim, or otherwise fill the silence that Geralt so willingly leaves. So Jaskier says nothing.

“I know death.” Geralt’s voice vibrates into his back. “I walk with it daily. I know the… The fragility of living things. But I didn’t understand what it meant. To lose things. Because I am the one who brings the loss. I— I decide. That day on the mountain, when Yen walked away, I was powerless. And when I turned around and saw your face I thought: I cannot lose this too. And that is a weakness.” Geralt exhales hard.

Still Jaskier says nothing. He has told the story for so long. Let Geralt tell it himself.

“To form such attachments is… Dangerous. The Path is the priority. I couldn’t… The thought of losing you—be it to death or by your choice—was unbearable. Better to send you away. To be in control. And walk my Path knowing you were out there, safe, without me.”

“You’re a fool,” Jaskier murmurs.

“Didn’t make it any better, sending you away. I felt pain. Loss. Anger. Things a witcher should not feel. Things I learned to expel long, long, long ago. And suddenly” —he noses the blanket down to expose Jaskier’s shoulder, nudges at the skin there like he wants to get closer, closer— “the things I learned at Kaer Morhen no longer worked. Not meditation, nor potions, nor magic. Instead, when I tried to work contracts, my anger… Consumed me.”

“The stories I heard.”

“What do you want to know? I will tell you.”

Jaskier pulls away from Geralt’s grasp. He rolls onto his side to face him and props himself up on his elbow. The blanket falls to his waist, and Geralt’s gaze tracks hungrily down his neck and bare chest. “The wyvern in the town square.”

“A man was accused of killing his son. The son’s body was inside the wyvern. I cut it open on the gallows.”

Something in Jaskier’s chest releases the barest amount. He reaches out and brushes a strand of white hair from Geralt’s face. “The striga in Thurn?”

Geralt frowns. “The cursebreaking didn’t work, for how badly she was treated. As if she refused it. I let her have her revenge. Then I killed her.”

“The outpost at Brokilon?”

“They were driving vyppers from the forest because they were tearing it apart for resources. I allowed the dryads to protect their territory.”

“And drinking aracha venom?”

“Hm.” Geralt reaches out and taps his calloused fingers to the hollow of Jaskier’s throat, like he’s mesmerized. “It was after that I went to Kaer Morhen.”

“You wished to die?” Jaskier catches Geralt’s fingers in his hand.

“No.” He blinks. “Yes. I don’t know. I wished to cease feeling. I lacked options. Once I recovered from the venom” —Jaskier winces, tightens his grip on Geralt’s hand— “I went to Kaer Morhen. Vesemir had no help for me.”

“But the poppy did.”

“Some,” Geralt admits. “Some.”

“And now you’re sorry,” Jaskier says.

“A witcher’s training cannot dispel what I feel for you,” Geralt says carefully. “But it can dispel the fear.”

Jaskier’s heart pounds hard in his chest.

“I’m sorry I left,” Geralt says. “As if not being in your presence would change the way you haunt me. As if that has ever been true.” He closes his eyes. “Wherever I go, they sing your songs.”

“Sorry.”

“They’re good songs.”

“I know.”

“I cannot lose you,” Geralt says, so quietly it’s almost lost to the wind.

“You will.” Jaskier lifts Geralt’s fingers to his lips and kisses them, just pressure, and a crease forms in Geralt’s brow. “You know you will. I’m human. But you’ll bear it.”

“I won’t.”

“I’ll teach you. There’s so much good, Geralt, so much richness, and humor, and joy, and love, it makes the losses so very worth it. Painful, yes. But you are a witcher, you know pain.”

“Not like that.”

Jaskier releases his hand. “Be grateful, then, that a lowly bard can train you in ways the great minds at Kaer Morhen cannot. And when I am gone, I won’t be gone, not really.” He hums a bar of Toss A Coin. “You won’t ever escape it.”

Geralt’s mouth twitches the barest amount. “That song is a curse.”

“It’s made you quite a lot of money.” Jaskier softens. “It’s not all bad, is it, though? The memories?”

Geralt furrows his brow in a way that Jaskier knows means confusion.

“It’s not all painful, right?” Jaskier asks, a little desperately. “There are some that bring you solace?” His throat clenches around the words. “Like Pivka? It should hurt, I know it should, but it’s just—it’s so cherished to me, when I miss you I return to it, over and over, so much I wonder if it was just a drunken dream.”

Geralt's hands flex around nothing where they rest at his abdomen. He touches his thumb to the pads of his fore and ring finger where Jaskier's lips were. “In the woods, you told me you loved me.”

Jaskier grimaces. “I did.”

“A witcher. A monster.”

“Fool.” Jaskier places his hand over Geralt’s beating heart. “You try to teach your just heart to be monstrous. And when it doesn’t work, you see yourself a failure.”

“Treacherous heart.” Geralt moves swiftly, suddenly. He takes Jaskier’s wrist and then pushes him down, so Jaskier lies flat on his back, and Geralt hovers above him. “Do you love me still?”

“Like the moon rises.” Another strand of Geralt’s hair slips free from the leather strip. Moon-colored. Oh, gods above, Jaskier thinks his heart might beat straight through his ribcage. “Sometimes full, sometimes a sliver, sometimes blacked out.”

Geralt’s face does something complicated. His nose wrinkles like he wants to bare his teeth. “Speak clearly.”

Jaskier closes his eyes. “Yes, Geralt, I do.”

Geralt lowers his head and noses at the soft skin behind Jaskier’s ear, then at the place where his neck and jaw meet. “I think of Pivka often,” he says. “I think of how you smelled. The fresh wild carrot mixed with your sweat and the woodsmoke and the lute varnish. And how your cheeks were ruddy with wine, and how you sang and smiled at the same time. And then you walked away from those people who adored you so openly. You walked up to me. You” —Geralt huffs a laugh into the crook of Jaskier’s neck— “you asked a witcher to dance. And you gave me your wreath.”

At some point Jaskier’s hands fall to Geralt’s waist and tangle in the fabric of his shirt. He tips his head back slightly, offering his throat to Geralt to speak his low vibrating words into. He could shatter. He could cry.

“I knew you didn’t know the tradition. It’s old and outdated. But I thought. Just once. Just once, then I’ll know, I’ll have done it, and I can be released.”

“Please tell me,” Jaskier chokes. He has to hear it, like this, with Geralt’s lips near his throat. “Tell me. Tell me you feel the same.”

“Forgive me,” Geralt murmurs. His lips press against the skin at Jaskier’s throat. “I love you. Forgive me.”

Then, as natural as breathing, Jaskier turns his head.

His witcher, as still and strong as marble, shivers.

Ten years is a long time.

Geralt kisses him.

Oh, gods above, oh gods his heart, oh, he winds his arms around Geralt’s waist and pulls him flat atop him, that body he knows as well as his own, pressing so sweetly against him, oh, he’s home.

The kiss is slow, lingering, luxurious; Geralt breathes into it, his entire body coiled with tension; he bares his teeth like it hurts.

“Darling,” Jaskier murmurs into Geralt’s mouth, “What is it?” He slides a hand over Geralt’s shoulder and down his back.

Geralt shudders, hard. “I don’t— Jaskier.” Geralt kisses him again, sets his teeth into Jaskier’s lower lip. “Jaskier. I can’t—I want to devour you.”

Oh, Jaskier realizes, with a sharp sudden jerk of arousal that runs through him like a spell, Geralt’s overwhelmed. “You won’t hurt me. You can’t.”

“Naive,” Geralt says.

“Smarter than you.”

“Hm.” Geralt kisses his jaw, his neck. He skates one hand down Jaskier’s body, tripping over his ribs and setting firmly on his flank, over the soft cotton pants he sleeps in. He scrapes his teeth gently against the tendon leading to Jaskier’s shoulder.

Jaskier would be content like this possibly forever, with Geralt’s weight pressing down and Geralt’s breath hot against his skin, but the witcher himself is just so desperately wound up, like he needs something, but doesn’t know what it is, or is too afraid to ask.

Jaskier grips the back of Geralt’s neck—hard—and Geralt stutters an inhale.

“Gorgeous,” Jaskier murmurs. “Here. Let me help.” He guides Geralt’s head down, until his lips hover over the firm muscle of Jaskier’s pectoral. “Bite, darling.”

“Jaskier.”

“Don’t bare your teeth all scary at me and then pretend you don’t want to.”

Geralt hums. He kisses Jaskier’s chest, gently, then noses at his skin, exploring, chasing Jaskier’s scent from his sternum to his axilla, pausing there to inhale deeply. It’s—raw, animal, a little bit desperate; it makes Jaskier’s toes curl into the sheets.

“Flirt,” he says, low.

Geralt simply hums again, then he moves back to Jaskier’s pectoral, exhales, and then bites down hard.

It’s not pain, per se, it’s like—like his nerves have all awoken from a long slumber, exploding into sensation under Geralt’s ministrations. Jaskier tosses his head back and arches up as much as he can under Geralt’s weight. It’s like the bite sent a signal straight to his cock, and suddenly the kiss is not enough, he needs more, he needs Geralt’s hands, and mouth, and that gorgeous cock of his, and he needs it now, and he needs it forever.

“Gods have mercy,” Jaskier growls. “You gorgeous creature. Fuck.”

Geralt rears back. His eyes track Jaskier’s face carefully, then down to the bite. He smooths his palm over it. He seems settled, somehow.

“You see?” Jaskier grips Geralt by the back of his neck again and tips their foreheads together. “You have me.”

“I have you,” Geralt echoes. His eyes are closed. His forehead creases.

“Where are you?”

“Hm?”

“You’re still distressed.”

“I’m not. I’m— I have you. For now.”

“‘For now,’ he says, very dramatic. You have me. I have you. End of statement.” Jaskier uses Geralt’s own trick and flips them, so Geralt lies flat on the bed. Jaskier kicks free of the blanket and straddles Geralt’s hips, and he can feel the hard line of Geralt’s cock in his trousers.

“Lesson one.” Jaskier leans down and kisses him, gently. “Be here. With me. Not in some unknown future. Pain will come eventually. No need to endure it before it arrives.”

“Is it so easy for you?” Geralt cards his hand through Jaskier’s hair as Jaskier wrestles with Geralt’s shirt, pulling it free from where it’s tucked into his pants. Stupid tight pants.

“Depends on the day. Take this off.”

Geralt obliges.

Jaskier takes a moment to skate his hands over the broad scarred plain of Geralt’s chest, dusted with white hair, his medallion gleaming at his solar plexus as always. A body he’s touched, but never like this. “When you’re witchering, do you ever find you don’t have to think about it? You just know what to do. No conscious decisions. Just each breath, each movement. Body and mind and magic in unison.”

“Yes.” Geralt’s eyes flicker closed.

“Love can be like that,” Jaskier says. “With practice.”

“Show me.”

Jaskier lies down and presses his bare chest to Geralt’s, so he can feel every rib-expanding breath and slow heartbeat. He keeps his knees astride Geralt’s hips and then rocks his own hips down, and even with Geralt’s breeches and Jaskier’s sleeping pants between them, the pressure of their cocks together is enough to draw a groan from deep in Geralt’s chest. Geralt’s hands fly to his body, one pressing between Jaskier’s shoulder blades, the other gripping his arse. Geralt thrusts back to meet him, and they’re rocking together like teenagers, like they’ve never touched before.

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, his face tucked into the crook of Geralt’s neck, “Oh, darling. Like that. Gods. I dream of this. I dream of you. For this, Geralt, I’d do anything, anything at all, I’d walk the continent with you” —he’s babbling, he knows he is, but the heat is building in his spine and if he just lets the words build up inside him he’ll fucking explode, and Geralt doesn’t seem to mind, not with the way he’s grinding hard against Jaskier, clinging to him like he could absorb Jaskier into his own body, panting hot and desperate into his ear— “I’ll sing, I’ll dance, I’ll fight, by the gods I’ll kill or die but have fucking mercy on me, Geralt, and don’t fucking leave me again.”

Geralt answers with a kiss, deep and claiming, and he grinds hard against Jaskier and comes with a low groan.

The vibration of Geralt’s chest against his has Jaskier gasping, close, and he rocks his hips once, twice, and Geralt growls, “Yes. Beautiful.”

That does it. Jaskier comes apart in Geralt’s arms, his release wild and overpowering as a river’s current. He gasps into Geralt’s mouth as he spills, untouched, still clothed.

Geralt soothes Jaskier through the aftershocks. Then he disentagles himself from Jaskier’s boneless limbs, stands, shucks off his pants—a sight so familiar that Jaskier’s heart clenches. He motions for Jaskier to do the same. He does, and Geralt tosses their dirtied clothes into the corner.

“Close the window,” Jaskier says.

“Must I?” Geralt’s so fucking gorgeous. The moonlight seems hesitant to touch his pale skin, leaving shadows and angles untouched, painting him in chiaroscuro. And he’s smiling. “I’ll keep you warm.”

“Oh, gods, Geralt, stop standing around naked and get back into bed, you shameless brute.”

*

The next morning, as he dresses, Geralt glimpses the link on Jaskier’s desk. “What is this?”

“What, that?” Jaskier’s in the midst of pulling on a clean pair of trousers. It’s so easy having him here—it’s so natural to wake up at his side and fall into their morning routine like they’d never been parted at all. The only difference is the kiss he got upon waking, and his cartwheeling heart. “It’s my souvenir from Kaer Morhen: a Geralt of Rivia dowsing rod. Vesemir gave it to me. Hums when you’re nearby. Doesn’t seem to work if I lay eyes on you, though.”

“Vesemir gave this to you.” Geralt picks the link up and turns it over in his palm. “You didn’t steal it?”

“Wha—Geralt, how would I steal it? How would I even know what it is?”

“Do you know where this is from?”

“Vesemir said it was made of the same metal as your medallion.” Jaskier shrugs. “Honestly, it didn’t really help me find you. It just helped me get close enough for you to smell me and get annoyed.”

Geralt lifts the link to his own medallion. The two nest perfectly. The medallion was cut from inside the link. “Exactly the same metal,” Geralt says. “This is powerful magic. And the first of these to leave Kaer Morhen.”

“The first?” Jaskier blinks. “What does that mean?”

“It means.” Geralt shakes his head slightly, and his lips twitch the barest amount. “Damn that old witcher.”

“Oh, bloody the altars, was he matchmaking?” Jaskier throws his head back with a laugh, feeling suddenly, gloriously giddy.

Geralt sits down in the chair at Jaskier’s desk and stares at the link in disbelief.

“This is phenomenal. I have to write this, you know that, right? You went to Kaer Morhen looking to fix your ailment. And even jolly old Vesemir knew.” Jaskier, half-dressed, takes a moment to straddle Geralt’s lap. He cards both hands through Geralt’s loose hair and kisses him in the sweet morning sunlight. “I’m the cure.”

“Don’t let it go to your head, bard.”

“Too late, witcher.” He smiles into the kiss. “No matter, though. I need you just as much.”

A beat. Geralt hums, sets his hands on Jaskier’s hips. “Do you? You did not seem so affected by our parting.”

Jaskier loops his arms around Geralt’s neck. “What makes you say that?”

“You have a life here. Students. Friends. Some prestige. You’ve made a name for yourself in Oxenfurt.”

“If only it were so easy.” Jaskier tugs at the hair at the base of Geralt’s skull and Geralt’s eyes go half-lidded. “Just because I wasn’t out drinking aracha venom and opium draughts doesn’t mean I didn’t hurt. I’m human, Geralt, and a bard, I know heartbreak. I know how to survive.”

Geralt hums.

“I was fine, Geralt. I wasn’t happy.” He kisses him. “I’ll teach you the difference.”

*

Autumn edges into winter. Geralt has time for one more contract, maybe two, before the snows end his travels until spring.

Jaskier helps him pack his things and strap on his armor. Then, together, they walk to the stables. Jaskier tightens his cloak around his shoulders and mounts Ham-Hock to escort Geralt across the western bridge.

“You really must change that name,” Geralt says. “It’s no name for a horse.”

“Your horse is named after a fish,” Jaskier points out.

“Hm.”

They reach the start of the tree-line, where the trail narrows so riders must travel single-file. Jaskier dismounts, and Geralt does the same.

“I’d rather you join me,” Geralt says.

Jaskier’s stomach twists. Rarely does Geralt speak so openly. But now… Now perhaps he’ll hear it more. “I’d rather the same. But I’ve a class to prepare for.” He finds it hard to meet Geralt’s sharp gaze, and busies himself checking the fastenings on Geralt’s armor, even though he knows they’re perfect, because he’s the one who fastened them. “You’ll be back, though. Before the snows.”

“I will.”

“You’ll winter here, in Oxenfurt.”

“Yes.”

“And then in spring, it’s back to our usual nonsense. Except this time I’ll have a horse.”

“Ham-Hock is not invited.”

“Yes, he is.” Jaskier reaches up and grips the back of Geralt’s neck. “Please, just tell me.”

“I’ll be back,” Geralt says firmly. “Before the snows. I’ll winter here, in Oxenfurt, in the boarding house with you. You’ll teach your course. I’ll repair my gear and refresh my stores.”

“But not with opium.”

“But not with opium. And then, in spring, we’ll return to our usual nonsense. We’ll travel. I’ll take contracts, and you’ll write songs. And this time, you’ll have a horse.”

Jaskier kisses him deeply. Then Geralt climbs astride Roach smiling. Jaskier watches him until he rounds the curve and disappears.

*

A few weeks later, the augur says the snows are due.

Jaskier is in the tavern. He’s finally settled on his roster for his winter course—Hanifa will be there, as will Tanner, the brave soul. Jaskier is sharing wine with Etreya. She’s balancing her books, preparing her stores for another long, cold winter. Jaskier’s fiddling with the meter on a song. It’s based off an old song, a song he threw in flames before he knew any better. It’s coming out well. He might even perform it in the spring.

He sits back in his chair, picks up his lute, and strums a few idle chords, testing the song’s melody.

Against his sternum, the link begins to hum.


If Death should follow the scent of the wreath
He fears not the predator’s prowl.
He prays: A quick strike. A blade from a sheath.
It’s worth it. I love you. I’m sticking around.