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the dying curse (you are, as all of your kind, no more than a beast)

Chapter Text

 

A hundred years ago, the river Dyphne had marked the boundary between Temeria and what had then been Koviss. The king of Koviss had built keeps and watchtowers in the forest every five miles along the boundary, to keep watch and hold the line against the march of armies across the river. 

Not that it had done him any good in the end; strong kings were followed by weak ones, and mismanagement and famine had rotted the kingdom from the inside out. The kingdom had collapsed without a battle having ever been fought; the region dissolved into two squabbling pieces, the armies dispersed, and the forest keeps were left to sink into disrepair. The woods had taken them back. Timber rotted. Moss grew up over stones. Ceilings caved in. Brush and even trees had grown over the rotted piles as carelessly as they would any other hillock, and the keeps vanished from sight.

Unless, of course, one knew where to look.

Geralt remembered these keeps -- not strong and manned and alive, but when they were fresh-abandoned. They'd made good places to camp, patrolling the woods for draconids in the old days. Over time as ivy did its slow patient business of tearing down the walls and woodland creatures found their way in, they became less and less useful as campsites. But he still remembered them.

The wind changed its note as it passed over the stones and for a moment Geralt was sure he could turn around and see Jaskier at his elbow, picking his way over the weed-choked ruins with precarious balance and absolutely unsuitable footwear. He'd be complaining about the mess, probably -- unless he was hooked by the history of the place, either reciting it himself or demanding Geralt to divulge his own experiences. He never knew which particular place or song or subject would get Jaskier prattling away, although whatever history he'd learned at Oxenfurt seemed to bear little relationship to events Geralt himself witnessed. Respect doesn't make history,  Jaskier had said, but Geralt thought it might be the other way around.

But of course, there was no one there; the only music was the soughing of the wind. Geralt felt a momentary pang of sorrow; sadness-emptiness-regret all rolled into one cold weight that passed through him and went on. There was no more Jaskier at his side, probably never would be again after their last parting on the mountain. 

It was bound to happen sooner or later, Geralt told himself. Jaskier was mortal, human; some way or another, Geralt would eventually have lost him. Better for it to happen this way, something that Geralt could control and Jaskier could walk away from after. And if it was quiet, if it was empty, if it was flat and joyless without the bard -- well, there was the job to focus on instead. There was always the job. There would always be the job.

He kept his ears and eyes open as he picked his way over the ruins. To a careless passerby it would have looked like a peaceful forest scene -- but Geralt knew better. No sounds of rodents in the brush or birds in the trees, not for a mile in any direction. Even the plants were dying -- the moss and ivy already brown and crumbling, the trees who sank their roots between the stones wilting and sickened. A foul miasma crept from somewhere beneath the stones of the old abandoned castle.

If Geralt remembered the layout right, there should be a cellar. Cellar, storeroom, armory and dungeon, all dug out beneath the earth and heavily fortified with stone. Most of them had been sacked and stripped -- if not by the soldiers themselves, then by woodsmen and looters in the time since. What hadn't been sacked had no doubt rusted or rotted to nothingness long ago.

But Geralt had reason to suspect that this particular vault was not empty. 

Down at the end of the stairs he found a closed door. Wood, but freshly made, not rotted and weathered by all the decades of abandonment. Hm. Geralt abandoned the door for a moment to find a stone, the biggest one he could work loose from the crumbling masonry and carry down the steps. With a heave he sent it crashing into the wooden door: the door splintered and broke, the top half tearing away, and at the same moment a dark actinic flash of purple light snapped across the space and pulverized the stone.

He smiled grimly to himself and moved down, kicking the remnants of the door in before the ward had time to recharge. Found the rune carved into the stone wall next to the doorframe and slashed at it, obscuring the lines and destroying the spell.

Past the door and the trap on it, the stairway leveled out into a small landing before it dropped down to a long stone room under the keep. Not empty, not sacked, no. This chamber was occupied and had been for some time.

His eyes took in the details quickly, rapidly flicking from one to the next, unbothered by the dim light. Racks and racks of books, jars, bottles, apparata he didn't immediately recognize. Piles of clothing or bedding strewn around the stone floor. What looked like a bed over on the corner, a small table nearby hosting a large silver platter. Boxes and crates and barrels of storage, too fresh and new to be the old keep's stores.

An altar, over by the far wall, topped by an icon with a strange and twisted visage. On the stone dais in front of the altar, half a dozen sad little lumps of dark and bloody flesh.

"What --" a voice said from the shadows among the racks, then broke down into coughing. "Who's there! How did you find this place?" 

The sorcerer staggered out into the light, glaring at Geralt and shielding his eyes against the light that streamed in from the broken door behind him. 

"Wasn't that hard," Geralt drawled, falling into a nonchalant pose as he faced off against the man. He was well-built, healthy -- younger than Geralt, but then, most humans were. His head was bald -- shaved, by the pattern, to conceal a growing bald spot and receding hairline. Altogether unremarkable, except for the unearthly glowing green in the back of his eyes as he squinted towards Geralt. "Your kind is never as clever as you think you are, you know."

"What are you doing here? What do you want?" the sorcerer demanded, squinting at him suspiciously.

Geralt let a little heh   escape his lips. "I think you already know what I'm doing here," he said, voice heavy with meaning. He let it linger for a moment before he went on. "Garkain attacks in this region have risen exponentially in the last few months -- always targeting children. Two in Roggven, two in Riede, four  in Kareh --" He shook his head. "No surprise, really, that at least one of these villages would hire a Witcher to find out what's snatching their children from their porches and gardens."

The sorcerer twitched slightly, one corner of his mouth pulling down, but he tried to brazen it out. Humans always did, as if he couldn't clearly see their tells, couldn't plainly smell the stink of fear.  "What does that have to do with me?" he said flippantly. "Vampires abound in this region, there are no end of folktales around them. Monsters always seek out the weak and the young."

Geralt tilted his head slightly to the side. "True," he allowed. "But they don't   distinguish between boy children and girls."

The mage was silent. 

"That's a difference only humans care about," Geralt continued. "At least up until they're grown, monsters don't give a damn. I knew then that there was a human intelligence directing the garkain. I knew that only a mage would have that much power. After that, it was just a matter of triangulating the origin of the attacks, which brought me here."

"Oh, you think yourself clever. So clever," the sorcerer sneered. "But you're no more cunning than a beast! You're as blind and imbecilic as the rest of them -- they don't see what I'm trying to do, what I can   do, if only I can get the rest of the components I need for the ritual -- "

"I'll be honest," Geralt interrupted, voice casual and offhand. "I really don't care what   you're trying to do." He drew his sword, set it in front of him with his hand on the pommel. "But you're killing little girls, so that's going to stop."

The sorcerer hardly seemed to register the ultimatum -- the unveiled threat of the sword -- so caught up was he in his own furious monologuing. "They laughed at me! They all laughed. But I know the old ways. Thirteen hearts I need, the purest of virgins with nary a sin inside them. Then the gate will open, and he will make himself known -- Grazz't Azzagrat, the demon prince of hell!"

He flung his arm out towards the wall, gesticulating wildly towards the altar and the grotesque imagery there. Geralt followed the gesture despite himself, able to take in more of the scene now that he was closer. There were the eight, no, nine   dark little lumps of flesh -- another missing child that hadn't been reported with the others, for some reason. He tore his eyes away from them -- nothing he could do for them now, days too late -- to study the twisted symbol above the altar. Squinted at it, trying to place the odd symbol in his memory.

"That's... not a thing," Geralt said.

It was clear from the way he scowled that the sorcerer hadn't been expecting that response. He scowled. "You know nothing, ignorant dog! I've found the ancient tomes, read the forbidden lore! I know it to be true! I will be his chosen upon this earth, I will be rewarded beyond all dreams -- "

Geralt interrupted him. "You read a work of fiction,   and you're so fucking far from reality that you thought -- " He would have torn at his hair, if he hadn't been holding a sword in that hand. "That's not a thing.   I can't fucking believe this. You're killing real people, real actual children,   because of some fucking fairy tale?"

"It's no tale, swine!" The sorcerer sneered at him. "If you don't believe me, wait until I get the final heart, and then you will know the truth of it!"

"Yeah," Geralt said, and with a ring of steel lifted his sword to a ready stance. "Not going to wait around for that."

"Begone, then!" the sorcerer snapped, waving his hand as though he could just fucking dismiss   Geralt from his castle. "No! You know too much, you've come too far. I can't let you leave -- can't let you live!"

"I could say the same to you," Geralt muttered, and he lunged.

The sorcerer was no slouch; as soon as Geralt moved he recoiled, flung his hand out towards Geralt and a wave of invisible force spun out from his hand in a cone that Geralt could neither recoil from nor dodge around. The magic bit into him and he could feel the sting of chaos, a thousand pricks through his body as his muscles stiffened, his bones grew heavier.

But as soon as the man dropped his hand the magic sloughed off him and was gone; Geralt shook off the petrifying spell and completed his step forward, though his momentum was sapped. The sorcerer gawped at him in disbelief and Geralt favored him with a wolfish grin; "Not so easy to bewitch a witcher," he told him helpfully.

A moment later a body slammed into him from the side, sending him crashing towards the opposite wall of the laboratory with sharp claws digging into his hip and shoulder and thigh and vicious, jagged teeth seeking his neck. He grasped the strategy in a flash; if the spell had held him... he'd be dead, that fast. Even now, it had slowed him enough that he'd been caught flat-footed.

Filthy claws pawed at his chest and teeth snapped at his throat as Geralt staggered, struggling to recenter his balance and gain control of their momentum. He turned the stagger into a rush that slammed the dark body against the stone wall, crushing out a shrill inhuman scream. The strangling arms loosened and Geralt was finally able to get a hand up between its body and his, seizing it around the throat and pushing it back. The claws dug at his arm and hand, sinking deep into his armor until they pierced leather and skin and drew up blood, but better his arm than his fucking neck.

With some distance between them he could confirm; the garkain, fast and filthy and slavering but with an uncanny greenish glow in its eyes that matched the color of its master's chaos. With an effort, one-handed, he set away the steel sword and traded it for silver. A mutter and scuffle from behind him reminded Geralt not to let the man out of his attention for long; he threw himself and the garkain to the side just in time to avoid a withering blast of magic. He would have survived a hit, he was sure... but it would slow him down. 

"Filthy wretch!" the sorcerer spat from his corner of the room, and for fuck's sake, talk about glass castles. "My creatures will feast on your bones!"

"Yeah -- let's find out," Geralt said, the words ending in a grunt as he heaved with all his strength and threw the thing away from him. It rebounded with a terrifying screech and with all his reflexes he barely got his sword up between them in time. He could probably have come up with a snappier retort than that, but he didn't have the breath to spare at the moment.

The melee raged, a strange three-cornered struggle that neither could get the upper hand in. Geralt could have taken the garkain -- it was fast and nasty, but he'd killed nastier -- or he could have taken the sorcerer, but he couldn't take on both at once. Any time he tried to move on the human, the beast leapt on him from behind and raked gashes in his armor with its filthy claws; any time he got an angle to finish the garkain, a blast of magic from behind him slowed him and knocked him off balance. It wasn't enough to trap him in place -- or freeze him solid, or burn his blood, or whatever else the sorcerer was trying to do -- but it was fucking   annoying.

The one thing Geralt could manage, was to keep himself between the sorcerer and the exit. The witcher and the garkain, locked in ferocious combat, ranged back and forth across the room; shelves and benches were overturned, experiments smashed (Geralt wasn't quite able to get far enough into the room to smash that damned altar, although he had his eye on it) and reagents overturned. The mess blocked off most of the room from the exit, and any time the man tried to dart for the open air Geralt would be there to block his way. Geralt didn't know why he didn't just make a portal out, the way he'd seen other witches do -- maybe he didn't know that trick, or maybe he still thought that he and his little pet could win this one. 

Not if he had anything to say about it, Geralt thought grimly. 

At last he got the break he needed -- he had one hand free as the sorcerer's mumbled ranting began to rise in a powerful cadence, and he was able to twist around just far enough to form quen   with his left hand. The barrier of golden light sprang into existence just before the spell hit, and the chaos splashed off harmlessly on either side. The shield flickered and Geralt knew it wouldn't last -- but it granted him precious seconds of safety from any more magical assaults, just a few moments that he could turn his back on the sorcerer and focus fully on the garkain. 

Even as he turned back towards it, it lunged in past his guard and sank its mandibles into his arm, just on the top of the elbow. The grotesque swollen lobes on either side of its head pulsed with the sucking pressure as it sought to draw in his blood, draining him of strength even as it drew in sustenance. A hiss of pain forced itself past Geralt's teeth -- but for an instant the garkain was still, fixed in place, and that was enough for him to make his move.

Instead of pushing the garkain back, he lifted it into the air. Spindly legs flailed to find purchase on the ground, and its wish was granted as Geralt stomped a heavy boot down on one elongated, taloned foot. It screeched in pain, letting go of his elbow as it did so, and tried to pull back -- but with its limb pinned, it only managed an ungainly sprawl back onto the stone floor. Geralt let his weight fall on it on one hand, pinning its leathery ribs to the floor -- and at last, he had his clean shot --

A shout from the sorcerer, another withering magic attack; the shield flickered out, but it had done its work. Geralt brought the silver sword around in an arc that pierced the garkain's eye and straight through the back of its head. It screeched, high and cacophonous enough to make his ears ring -- and then it sank back to the floor, no more than twitches of life running through its limbs.

At last Geralt was able to turn his back on it, focus on his real target. He left the silver sword in place in the garkain's body -- with vampires, you could never be too sure -- and drew the steel as he stalked slowly forward through the tower towards his prey.

"How dare you!" the sorcerer raged, even as he backed away towards the wall. Another wave of magic buffeted Geralt, and then another, but they were weakening as the sorcerer himself faltered before that implacable advance. "No! Stay back. I am -- I am destined. Destined for greater things! Your base brutality is not meant for one such as me!"

"You are really," Geralt observed as he began to get his breath back a bit; "really, not as important as you think you are."

He surged forward, blade held lightly in one hand as his other spread wide, ready to grab the man if he made a break for it. Which he did, for all the good it did him; flinching back from Geralt's grasp he ran himself into the last standing set of shelves instead. Vials, books and stacks of paper slipped from the shelves to rain down around them, unintentionally blocking Geralt from a clean beheading swing.

Geralt changed the angle of his thrust -- from a sweeping overhead stroke to a smooth cut that came in from the side instead. He couldn't get as much force this way, but then again, he didn't need much. The sorcerer wasn't even wearing armor. Even at half-strength the blade cut into his chest from the side, cleaving through robes, muscles, ribs and lungs before grating to a halt at his spine.

For a moment the two men stopped, all motion stilled as they stared at each other. The sorcerer looked down at his body, at the sword buried halfway through his torso; then looked back up at Geralt in disbelief.

"You..." The sorcerer struggled to look up at him, dark blood beginning to fountain from his mouth as the spilled blood filled his lung and forced its way up his windpipe. He grasped at the steel blade with his right hand, the left hanging limp at his side. "No! I won't lose, not to one such as you! A dull.. grubby... peasant... no better... than a beast!"

"Hm," Geralt said, and didn't bother to stop the corner of his mouth that curled up with a dark, deadly satisfaction. "I'm a beast that got the better of you."

As far as Geralt was concerned, the fight was already over. He was already moving on in his mind to the next step; take a trophy off the garkain, search through the sorcerer's lair, see if anything could be salvaged and put to his own uses. Drag the man's body out for the woodland creatures to clean up, probably; no one would be interested in a trophy from it. It was very tempting to carve out the man's heart and leave it on his own altar in place of his victims, but probably unwise...

But although his wound was mortal, the sorcerer was not dead yet. He staggered back, still on his feet -- somehow -- and words rose up in his mouth accompanied by bubbles of air amongst the blood. "YOU ARE NOTHING!" he roared. "A mindless... beast... is what you are..."

Too late did Geralt realize the danger; too late did he see that the dark-red blood pouring from the wounds had turned darker, black as tar, thick and sticky as it oozed its way up from the mortal wound and onto his hand. When he tried to pull his sword back, he couldn't -- it was as though he had cleft his blade into the frozen heart of an oak, not into soft flesh and brittle bone. He couldn't pull it free, even as his movements gained force and desperation, his boots scrabbling against the blood-slick floor. This wasn't the ineffectual energy blasts of before -- this was something stronger, older, angrier.

Only belatedly did it occur to him to drop his sword -- keeping hold of his weapon had been literally beaten into him at Kaer Morhen all those years ago, and the habit that had kept him alive all these years was too hard to break. Perhaps it would have made no difference, either way. Black wisps of power rose up from the puddles of blood, black and unearthly green, twining together to stretch across that mortal gap and flow up Geralt's arm to envelop his shoulder, his torso, his neck, his chin, his mouth his nose his eyes -- 

"Oh, f --"

"And so shall it be!"   the sorcerer's voice thundered, an avalanche of darkness; it rolled over him, overwhelming him, and he knew nothing.




 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

The worst part about writing music for a living, Jaskier found -- well, aside from the lack of any guaranteed steady income, the requirement to always be on the road even in the worst   weather, the backstabbing from other performers and the everpresent risk of jeers and thrown vegetables from uncultured audiences, the -- the other worst part   about being a bard was that when you got one of your own tunes stuck in your head on loop for days at a time, you had no one to blame but yourself.

"And the story is this, she'll destroy with a kiss," Jaskier mumbled under his breath as he ambled down the road. He shouldn't have made it such a good meter for walking to, that was his mistake. "And the story is this -- and the story is this -- and the story is this --"

He cut off his verbal recitation, but the song kept on unspooling in his head all the same, fragments of the song chasing each other around and around. Red sky at morning, is bringing a warning, you fool -- you fool -- bringing a warning, you fool --

He had no idea why this particular song was nagging him now. He hadn't even played it recently. He hadn't seen its subject -- either of its subjects, for that matter -- in months,   not since that debacle on King Niedemar's Mountain. And while the lack of unhinged and hostile sorceresses in his life was all to the good... there was an accompanying lack of witchers, which was. Well. Less of a good.

In truth, Jaskier's life over the past six months has been entirely   free of paranormal shenanigans of any kind! No witches, witchers, drowners, draconids, djinns, curses, or hauntings of any kind! It really was amazing what a little bit of prudence and self-preservation could do to steer you carefully clear of such things, once you knew what to look for. 

Instead there had been bookings, and balls, and new ballads, and a stint lecturing back at Oxenfurt that had seen him through the winter at least. He probably could have stayed there longer -- really put the pin in the whole perfectly respectable scholar thing -- if spring hadn't come with a feeling of being increasingly suffocated under an avalanche of staff paper.

So here he was, back on the road again, ambling along winding country roads with sunlight in his hair and a song on his lips. Ah, the bohemian life! Playing each night for his supper and whatever coin kind strangers could spare; waking up in a new place every day, never knowing just what would be around the bend!

...Without Geralt.

And all right , maybe he was a little lonely, maybe his heart still ached from last autumn's bruising. Maybe he was still a little subdued from the discovery that the man whom he had pined after for twenty years -- two decades, Geralt! -- had apparently never regarded him as a friend at all. And all right , with Geralt's level of perspicacity he hadn't expected the Witcher to return his feelings or even realize them but -- friends,   at least, at the very least -- 

Jaskier had never really understood that metaphor, falling in love. Love had never felt like falling, for him. It was more like -- blossoming. An opening of his chest, his heart, leaves unfurling to drink in the bright sunshine of the other person's presence, flower buds untwisting to display his love for them. No, love had never been like falling.

Falling out   of love, on the other hand --

Not his own love. Falling out of the other person's love, though -- falling out of their regard, out of their care, out of their attention and interest and sight -- that   felt like a long cold plunge into nothing , a plummeting drop with no hands to help catch him because no hands cared.

That   felt like falling.

Well, life went on even in the face of heartbreak; at least he'd gotten a good song and several   decent poems out of it.

 

---

 

The next bend of the road led to a crossroad. Well, a bit skewed to be called a cross; the main road split off into two, one heading east and the other north-east, while a smaller track led off to the south towards well-sized farmyard. A board was propped up against the marker-stone at the crossroads, an arrow pointing off down the track, with a crude -- stylized, Jaskier corrected himself scrupulously -- depiction of a mug and plate. Placed here, no doubt, in hopes of attracting the coin of travelers like himself.

Jaskier allowed himself to be diverted off down the track. The track led to a sturdy-looking gate built into an even sturdier-looking fence -- meant to discourage thieves, no doubt, but there was an iron bell on a post and a rope hanging from it. Jaskier gave it a pull, and after a few minutes a red-faced farmwife opened the door and came bustling out.

"Aye, welcome sir, an what'll you have?" she said the local Temerian twang modulating to a pleasant softness in her voice. 

Jaskier found it easy to smile at her, to lean in and rest his elbow on the fence post, and let his eyes do the bargaining for him. "Well, that depends on what you've got!" he said. "What do you have that travels well?"

"Oh, anything on this board here, sir." She gestured to the further of a pair of slates tacked up against the fence. "This other one has all of my daughter's baking, my own jams and stews and fresh butter from today's churning, but we get enough travelers like yourself that we always keep cold goods on hand as well."

Jaskier took a moment to peruse the menu, noting that the items were listed by picture as well as by word, for the less-learned travelers no doubt. The prices were surprisingly fair. Goods were always cheaper at their source than once they'd traveled to a marketplace; he could afford to stock up for the rest of his journey, and he'd run out of space in his bag well before he ran out of coin to spend. Let's see. Bread, bread usually traveled well, and summer sausage was on the offing as well. Cheese, some local variety with a hard reddish rind that promised to keep well on the road. He passed over the selection of apple-related goods with some regret; at this time of year any apples would be old, withered things from last autumn's harvest, save for sweet preserves in sturdy glass jars that would alas be too heavy to carry. Ooh, ham!  

He chatted with the farmwife while making his selections, slipping easily into flirting when she smiled and giggled at the right lines. She was a lovely enough lady, the perfect embodiment of peaceful farm life with her sun-lightened hair tied back by a scarf, her apple-round cheeks and the plump curves filling out her dress; but when his innuendo turned to outright proposition, she firmly turned him down.

"Ah, you're a cute thing," she said, giving him a pinch on the cheek that smarted just a little -- he was coming up on forty, for Melitele's sake; was he doomed to be a cute thing for the rest of his life? -- and shook her head. "But I'm happy enough in my house, in my bed; my Filip has been true to me for twenty years now, and I'll not turn away from that devotion." 

His smile slipped just slightly, the memory of his own twenty years of devotion   a flash of pain behind his eyes -- but he shrugged it off soon enough. A woman happy in her marriage was a rare enough beast, who was he to endanger it? "Cruel matron," he said, "then I'll fill the cavern of my empty heart only with your finest baked goods, and sigh with the memory of you with every bite; and once I've eaten every crumb I'll remember them in song from here to Kareh!"

She giggled again, a bit of a blush rising in her cheeks at the praise. "That's too kind of you," she said, and then took on a more serious mien. "You're heading to Kareh, you say? Not back to Roggven?"

"Yes, I've just come from there," Jaskier replied.

"Well, if you'll take my advice, you'll take the further road to Kareh," the housewife said, pointing back past the crossroads-marker to the distant, north-eastern path. "It's a bit more winding than the forest road, follows the course of the river, but it'll get you there safe."

"Why?" Jaskier said, curiosity coming on alert. "Will the east road not   get me there safe? Is it full of potholes or something?"

She frowned. "It's a sound enough road," she said doubtfully, "but, well, it cuts through the forest on the way, and there's been... trouble thereabouts lately."

An old road, a dark forest, and dot dot dot trouble?   This was beginning to smell like -- Witcher bullshit. He was not going to ask, he was not   going to ask... "Trouble?" the word forced itself past his lips. 

"Aye," she said, the corners of her generous mouth now turning down, laughing eyes darkening. "More than one family along this road has lost their children, snatched from their backyards or even their porches; I daren't let my daughter out of my sight the past few weeks. One boy swore he saw the creature itself -- a terrible dark thing with spindly limbs and a deformed head, that hissed like a snake before it ran off into the trees."

"Trouble indeed," Jaskier agreed, the foreboding feeling growing stronger. He was not going to as -- oh, who was he kidding. "Have you considered finding a Witcher? They're able to rid the world of all manner of nasty beasts, so they say."

"Oh, so they say,"   the farmwife snorted skeptically. "You're not the first one who had such a notion. A few of the men from Riede had the same idea; contracted a Witcher to come out and kill the thing. He went into these same woods, and there's been no sign of him   in over a week!  Either he took the coin and ran, or the beast killed him instead."

"You don't think he might have killed the thing and then just... taken off?" Jaskier said, without much hope. Geralt had always gone to great pains -- often, significant real physical pain -- to take a trophy from the beast and bring it back to the town as proof. Unless this wasn't Geralt, but some other Witcher? Unless...

The woman shook her head, dashing his hopes. "No, for the beast still lurks in the woods, from what the hunters say," she said, and her voice dropped low. "Empty snares with scraps of flesh still dangling from the teeth; a terrible hulking shadow that moves between trees under the moonlight. Why, they found an entire cow lying along the verge of the road, not a wound on it, completely stripped of every scrap of hide!"

"Terrible business," Jaskier agreed, but made no further attempt to convince her of the merits of hiring in a Witcher. "Now, about that ham..."

In the end Jaskier left with a rucksack well filled and a purse not much lightened. She attempted to persuade him to take some buttermilk with him on the road; he declined, not without regret, for it wouldn't keep. He was weaker to the blandishments of a baker's dozen of honey-glazed rolls from the daughter's baking -- they wouldn't keep either, but that wouldn't be a problem if he ate them tonight or tomorrow.

"Take care of yourself, young man," she called after him as he started back up the track towards the road-marker. "And stay out of the woods!" He raised one hand behind him in an acknowledging wave.

Jaskier thought again of the farmwife's warnings of a beast in the woods. Took the description, sketchy as it was, and ran it down his own somewhat-sketchy knowledge of beasts and monsters. He had nothing on Geralt when it came to monster lore of course, but near on two decades of close calls and gruff, abbreviated explanations had given him some store to draw on. Dark and spindly   sounded like a vampire of some kind -- a lower vampire,   Geralt would have insisted, nasty pitiful things. But that didn't square at all with terrible hulking shadow, and vampires didn't eat animals. Unless there was more than one   monster, of course.

Mind you, one   monster would be more than enough for Jaskier traveling all by his lonesome without a Witcher by his side. What he ought   to do was take the nice woman's advice, follow the north-eastern road, and carry on to Kareh as quickly as possible. Keeping far, far away from witcher business.

It could be Geralt.

It could also not be Geralt, he reminded himself forcefully. And even if it were   Geralt, there was no reason to think he'd want to see Jaskier. Most likely Geralt was fine, had everything under control, and would be terribly displeased to be burdened with Jaskier's presence again. And if Geralt wasn't   fine -- which he was, he always   was fine -- then what in Melitele's name could Jaskier do about it? Fuck all, that was what; at best he would get in the way, at worst he would get himself eaten by a horrible little monster. And Geralt would probably stand by and let it happen.

No, Jaskier thought with a heavy despondency in his chest, no, that wasn't fair. Geralt would protect him because he always protected people, whether they deserved it or not (usually not.) Every day he rode out to get chewed on by monsters for the sake of the most ungrateful shitheads the human race could supply. He would do no less for a bard, no matter how obnoxious.

Really, it was Jaskier all along who had grossly misread the situation. It had been folly to think that Geralt's protection had revealed some kind of care   for him, the manifestation of some hidden fondness, rather than just the solid floor of decency that Geralt showed to everyone . Even those he despised. 

There was no reason, objectively speaking, to think that Geralt had ever cared. It was just Jaskier's nature to overanalyze, to see poetry and romance where there was nothing, to fabricate a whole book out of less than a footnote. And he had, he'd wasted reams of paper on his daydreams and romantic fantasies, never realizing just how one-sided his affection had been.

...And that would make a good song, wouldn't it? He could almost hear the melody, a slow melancholy tune humming along in his throat. You keep on turning pages for people who don't care, people who don't care about you...

A little morose for his usual crowd, but he'd try to remember it. It got that damn Sweet Kiss   song out of his head, at least.

All things considered -- the farmwife's warning, his own bad experiences, the appointment he still had to keep in Kareh -- he was thoroughly resolved to take the river road. There was simply no good reason to do otherwise, he told himself. No reason to buy trouble for himself any more; he wasn't a young shaver out looking for thrills any more. He'd only get himself in trouble, or even in the best-case scenario, more heartbreak.

Better to take the safe road, and avoid trouble altogether, he told himself. The Witcher in question probably wasn't   Geralt; and if it was, he'd be fine; and if he wasn't fine, Jaskier could hardly help.

And if he wasn't   fine...

Jaskier was twenty paces down the river road before he gave in, turned back with a groan, and backtracked his way to the road marker. "Julian Alfred Pancratz, you are a fool of the highest order," he grumbled, as he started off into the shadows under the wood.

 


 

he knows this place. he doesn't know this place. it's a forest. like the others. it had been dark. dark and stone and stink of death. now trees and light and flowing water for his thirsty throat. 

dark again. light and dark and light and dark and he's hungry. no food.

there are monsters in the woods. this he knows. monsters are... dangerous. he must fight the monsters. he must kill them.

there are humans outside the woods. he can smell them from afar. humans are dangerous. humans must not be trusted. this he knows. stay away.

there are doors in his mind. all shut. dark and clouded where once there was light. empty... corridors he wanders through. trying all the doors. shut and locked. empty.

dark and light and dark again. must fight the monsters. must not trust the humans.

he's hungry. this he knows.

hungry...




 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

For all the farmwife's dire warnings and his own melodramatic maunderings, Jaskier found nothing alarming on the forest road. The road was wide enough that plenty of sun filtered down between the trees, and bright light on the new leaves even lent the place a wide-open, sunny feel. A few puddles lingered in the shadier places, but there was enough of a grass verge that Jaskier didn't have to walk in the mud. 

He walked for the rest of the day and met no one else. No monsters, no witchers, not even a local farmer or traveling tradesmen. No doubt all the locals were wisely taking the river road instead. There was plenty of time for him to fine-tune his new song, munch on a brace of the sweet rolls the farmwife had pressed on him, and enjoy the fine spring air unmolested. It was clear, though, that even taking the shorter route there was no chance he was going to reach Kareh tonight; and so as the sun dropped below the trees, but before the light went for good, he looked for a place to set camp.

That gave him a bit of a dilemma. If there still was a monster in these woods, then wandering into the thick of them in the middle of the night seemed vastly unwise. On the other hand, Jaskier had also had enough experience with more mundane hazards -- bandits, footpads, or just louts looking to have a good time at the expense of a stray bard or two -- not to want to camp directly on   the road, either. He eventually compromised -- as he usually did when traveling alone -- by finding a place just off the road, a small grassy rise blocking the view from the road, to drop his blankets and set his fire.

Another one of the benefits of traveling with Geralt, he thought with some melancholy; simply being in his presence was enough to drive off most idle mischief-makers. Folks feared and hated Witchers -- at least, until Jaskier had been at them,   he thought with some pride -- but they didn't usually try to rob them, or otherwise torment them for sport. No, in Geralt's company he'd traded the mundane dangers for much more horrible ones, the Witcher himself seeming to be a magnet for ghouls, critters, and creepy-crawlies of all  descriptions.

He got his meager camp set up before the light went fully; set a small fire going to keep away regular beasts, had himself a dinner of ham rolls. Lay back on his blankets to stare up at the sky overhead, hands behind his head, wondering once again at the wisdom of this course.

Well, he hadn't gotten this far in life by exercising caution. Another scrap of tune had gotten caught up in his head and he went ahead and pulled out his lute, striking up a chord to play and sing for no better audience than the squirrels and dusk-owls. He'd had worse audiences, in time. 

" 'Beware the wild rushes,' my mother told me
'That grow on the bankside along the salt sea!'
But I being young,
I heeded her none.
And so to the wild rushes the wind carried me..."

Properly speaking the song really needed two people, one to sing the narrator and the other to sing the sweet voice calling out from the rushes. The last time he'd sung this one -- back in Oxenfurt over the winter -- Priscilla had sung along with him, but out here it was just going to be up to him to sing the siren's part as well as the luckless traveler.

" ' Come down, my little darling, come closer to me!
The water is warm, it is salty and free.
I long for your touch
But I won't ask too much'

And I, being foolish, walked in to my knees."

Jaskier had always liked this song, although Geralt -- being Geralt -- had picked it apart before Jaskier had even gotten to the second chorus. It was a good song even if it wasn't strictly   accurate; a song about youth and impulsiveness, about the entrancing lure of beauty even in the face of danger. 

" ' Come down, my little darling, and lay at my breast!
Oh, come a little closer and I'll do the rest!
I've waited so long
For a lover to come!'

And I, being foolish, walked in to my chest.

Also   a song about the folly of thinking with your cock and ending up dead in a horribly uncanny fashion, which, well -- Jaskier had never tried to lay with a siren but he could still relate.

'Come down, my little darling, O further come in!
The dee --"

Jaskier was so caught up in his playing that he didn't notice the horse until it nearly stepped on him. He yelped and rolled to the side, then got his hands under him and scooted quickly away, lute bouncing on his lap as he did. "Who's there?" he shouted, craning his neck to try to get a glimpse of the horse's rider. The beast was a dark silhouette against a darkening sky, and he couldn't make out...

No answer, but an equine snort that sounded strangely familiar. The horse stepped a little closer, solid hooves coming perilously close to his legs, but it didn't actually seem aggressive. It lowered its head to nose at his chest, and up the length of its neck Jaskier had a clear view to... nothing. No rider?

Another horsey whuff, and the familiar tone of it sparked a sudden suspicion in Jaskier. It had been six months since he'd heard that particular tone, left behind at the foot of the mountain before their ill-fated ascent, but -- "Roach?"   Jaskier said, disbelieving.

He got to his feet, threw more kindling on the fire in order to build it up and get better light. It was   Roach -- Roach the fourth, by Jaskier's count, but he'd traveled beside Geralt for long enough before that last disastrous quest to get to know her, know the white markings on her face and down by her haunches. She was still wearing her saddle, though the bags had been lost somewhere, and foreshortened reins trailed from a tattered and crusted bridle. "What happened to you, girl?"

She tossed her head when he tried to reach out and take the bridle, but went again with a singleminded determination for the sleeve where he'd stashed the rest of the honey rolls -- "What are you -- hey, stop that, those are mine," he said, trying to pull his arm away. Her ears laid back, she let out a rumbling snort, and went after them again with teeth. "Okay, okay,   just let me --" he barely managed to get them out of the square of waxed cloth they'd been wrapped in before she inhaled them, two at a time. "That hungry, girl? Is Geralt not feeding you?"

Actually, now that he looked -- 

The saddle wasn't so much loose-cinched as it was that the horse's belly had shrunk up underneath it. He could see her ribs and hips against her skin and that wasn't right, that wasn't right at all. Even when times were lean, Geralt always made damn sure that his horse got fed before he or   Jaskier got to eat. 

A horse set loose to wander in a forest could forage a bit on twigs and new leaves, but there wasn't much around here that would be within her reach. How long   had Roach been wandering?

Geralt had been here. Roach's presence was proof enough of that. But Geralt would never have let his beloved horse get this neglected. Jaskier took a more urgent grip on Roach's mane. "Where's Geralt, girl? Where's your master?" 

Roach pulled her head back, which broke Jaskier's grip quite easily. She shook herself, head to tail, then stood there for a moment, ears turning one way and another as her tail swished. Jaskier wasn't as good at horse body language as, say, Geralt   was --  but he thought she looked agitated, as though a fly were biting at her somewhere she couldn't reach. As likely to lash out at whoever was closest as to be helpful.

Then the horse turned and, as quietly as she'd first appeared, walked off into the woods. 

Jaskier stared after her. Had she understood his request? Was she leading him to where Geralt was? Surely she recognized the name, even if she didn't know any other words. If he followed after her, would he be heading towards his friend, or walking blithely into danger? This felt like a trap, although Roach was a horse, not a kelpie -- unless she was   part kelpie, he thought ruefully, that would explain a lot.

He had no other guide than a half-starved horse who might, or might not, be leading him astray. But Geralt was here, or had been here, not long before. And something was terribly wrong for him to have so neglected his horse.

"And I, being foolish, went in to my death," Jaskier muttered ruefully, and stepped off the path.




He did take the time to grab a flaming brand from his fire to use as a torch, and kick dirt over the remains before he followed after the horse -- because the only thing worse than stumbling around in the woods in the middle of the night was doing so completely blind.  Even with that source of light he still spent more time tripping over roots and into sinkholes, hissed oaths escaping between his teeth, than he did walking in a straight line. Roach didn't seem to be in any particular hurry; she moved at a steady walk, occasionally turning back to look at him as though to make sure he was following. Or just to enjoy the sight of him tripping over his feet, that was also possible.

The further he went, though, the less worried he was about his dignity and more about his surroundings. There definitely had been at least one monster in these woods after all, or Geralt wouldn't have taken the contract. And he had no guarantee that Geralt had managed to kill it. If the Witcher couldn't dispatch it, then what chance had a lowly bard swinging only a torch? 

He began to go slower, sweeping the torch out into the shadows before him, jumping at every cracking twig.  The only thing that kept him on the path was that Roach did not seem nervous, and he was so sure  that Geralt might be around here somewhere. Why else -- 

Oh, gods, was Roach leading him to a monster's den to be eaten? Was she even really Roach at all, or some kind of horse-doppler, who lured folks off the road to be eaten, was she really a kelpie all along?!   Or -- and this seemed bizarrely, horribly plausible -- was Geralt   the monster, somehow transformed into the form of a beast, and he and Roach had a partnership where she lured unsuspecting victims -- 

"If I die, I am absolutely going to haunt these woods forever," Jaskier announced to the surroundings and the receding rear-end of Roach. "They'll have to hire in three  Witchers to deal with my revenant spirit, I swear on all that is holy. I'm going to be a musical terror, serenading passersby with ohh that bush just growled at me."

He jumped back, muscles tensed to flee... but Roach was still standing there, calm as anything. He could still hear that bubbling, growling noise from beyond the next sagebrush, did she not hear it?

"Oh, fuck it." Jaskier strode forward, swept aside the brush as he brandished the torch, and --

Found himself standing face to face with Geralt of Rivia,  frozen in the act of standing up from a drink at the stream, water trickling from his cupped hands and from his chin. Oh.  It was the brook he'd heard, that was all; the same little streamlet that Roach herself was now lowering her head to drink at. And here was Jaskier, torch brandished high like a club, looking like an idiot.

It was incredibly   uncomfortable, but Jaskier always prided himself on his blithe disregard for that sort of thing. He pasted a bright smile on his face and spread his arms wide. "Geralt!" he beamed. "Fancy meeting you here. Here being the dark, threatening woods full of mons -- ah!"

That was as far as he got before Geralt lunged forward and seized his shoulders. Jaskier's teeth rattled a little from the suddenness of it. But, having grabbed him, all Geralt did was stand there and stare at him some more. At length Jaskier ventured, "I do hope I'm not interrupting important Witcher business with my presence here, am I? I'd hate to --"

He was interrupted again -- rude --   when Geralt abruptly pulled him forward into a hug. "Ah,"  the Witcher rumbled as he tugged him close.

For a good long moment Jaskier was just too stunned to respond. Geralt had never hugged   him before. Never. Gripped his shoulder, punched his arm (or his stomach,) hauled him up or down or back out of some trouble by the scruff of his neck, ridden double with him on Roach... the closest they'd ever come to an embrace was sharing a narrow inn bed for economy or a doubled-up bedroll for warmth, but those always came with justifications. Excuses. Geralt had certainly never, of his own volition, initiated an affectionate gesture with no other motive.

And this was a more than affectionate gesture. Jaskier had idly fantasized about the hugging power of Geralt's strong arms -- oh, plenty of times -- but this was no awkward side-clutch or manly back-pounding lean-in. This was... a full-body embrace,   right, Geralt got his shoulders and hips into it, Jaskier wasn't sure there was more than an inch of space between them anywhere. Geralt was solid and warm and it was really, really  tempting to melt into the embrace, if not for the little fact that he was still juggling fire.

Honestly Jaskier felt like the spoiler here, holding himself stiff and rigid from sheer surprise, awkwardly holding the torch out to the side so that it didn't set fire to Geralt's hair. He seemed remarkably unbothered by the danger of the sizzling fire only a foot away, nudging his nose into the crook of Jaskier's neck and breathing deep as his arms pressed Jaskier closer against his chest.

Of all the possible   ways Geralt could have greeted him after their estrangement, this one hadn't even made the top ten -- twenty! -- ranking even below the fantasy of passionate make-up sex. 

"Ah... Geralt..." At last Jaskier was able to respond, unfreezing enough to sling his arm around Geralt's shoulders in a tentative return hug. "It's, uh, good to see you too, but I -- Geralt! Are you sniffing   me?"

"Hmm."

He was , the intimate inhale against his neck turning into something more obvious, more deliberate; his clutch loosened enough to pull back from Jaskier and sniff up and down, and really,   that was a bit much. "Rude, you know," Jaskier chastised him with a scowl. "You aren't exactly a walking bath-house advertisement yourself. In fact," he hesitated as he had a chance to look the Witcher up and down, "you look absolutely terrible."

He did, in ways that Jaskier was only now able to take in now that he'd pried himself out of the Witcher's grasp. A certain amount of road dirt was par for the course for Geralt; not that he didn't take the chance to bathe when he could, but he was a practiced hand at ignoring it when he couldn't. Now, though, he had the look of someone who'd been dragged across a river bottom and climbed out through a drainage ditch. His hair was -- atrocious, his armor   was askew, buckles pulled and straps twisted against his sides in ways that looked horribly uncomfortable. There were small scratches all up and down what skin was visible through the muck, and his face was gaunt, his eyes hollow. "And I'm not just saying that for effect, Geralt, you look like you've been through hell. Rough day? Rough week?" He paused a beat, waiting for a response, before floating, "Rough year?"

Rough life,   he could almost hear the deadpan response; he'd set up the punchline perfectly, and Geralt didn't take it. Instead he released Jaskier and walked over to Roach instead, looping his arms over the horse's neck in an affectionate embrace that almost made Jaskier jealous. The horse whuffed against his ear, nibbling at his hair, but quickly turned to nosing against his pockets in a way that Jaskier recognized as a search for food. A futile one; clearly the Witcher had nothing on him.

"Actually, I'm quite cross with you, you know," Jaskier said, allowing himself to be indignant on the horse's behalf as he couldn't let himself be on his own. "What could have possessed you to let Roach get into this state? She very nearly ate me alive before I managed to stave her off with honey rolls. Now, before you criticize, I know   that bread is not good for horses, but I couldn't stop her, Geralt! She was determined! It was my bread or my hand, and I need my hands!"

That delivered with a dramatic flourish, and... no response. Geralt didn't even look at him, too busy nuzzling up to his horse. Jaskier let out a sigh, letting his shoulders drop. "All right, it's going to be the silent treatment, is it?" He meant that to be annoyed, indignant, but it mostly came out defeated.

Jaskier turned away, beginning to collect his things together enough to re-make his camp in this new location. There was no sign of Geralt's camp gear, come to think of it, which was weird. "I don't know what I expected, really," he said, keeping a running monologue as he went. He set the fire base and lit it, grateful to be able to put down the torch at last. "It's always the same with you, I don't know why I thought it would be any different."

He took a moment to compose himself, watching the flames catch, trying to swallow down his hurt and disappointment. He would be cheery good company,   he vowed, and he would not let on that Geralt's callous manner affected him in any way. 

Once the fire was good and caught, he turned back towards Geralt, who was looking at him with a perplexed expression. "You can share my fire and my rations if you like," he offered, that was the ticket, be useful;  if only Geralt would just "Say something, will you? Hello, how've you been, fuck off and die?"

"Hm."

Geralt wasn't even looking at him any more; instead he began pacing around the boundary defined by the campfire, looking nervously out into the woods. Was there a monster out there? Was it attracted to the fire? Was that why Geralt hadn't set a fire himself? If that was what was happening, then why didn't he say   something!?

"Geralt, is everything all right?" Jaskier finally thought to ask, catching up to Geralt in one of his circuits. "You're a mess -- more of an mess than usual, I mean --" 

He reached out to grab Geralt's hand, only to see the Witcher flinch and then turn on him with a snarl. "Shit! Sorry," he said, hastily dropping Geralt's hand. But even in that brief touch he'd felt the stickiness of blood, the hard edges of something that did not belong... He reached out to capture Geralt's hand again, gently cupped in both his own, turning it towards the firelight. Tooth marks riddled his hand, going up his wrist in regular three-corner tears, and a dull ivory glint from the center of one of the bites hinted at fragments of tooth still in   the wounds. "There are -- are those teeth?  What did you do, stick your hand down a selkiemore's gullet and pull out its liver?!"

Geralt followed Jaskier's gaze down to his hand, then back up; Jaskier lifted his head to meet Geralt's eyes in a steady gaze. "These need to be treated," he said firmly. "I know Witchers are tough, but this could fester -- this could get bad.   You aren't normally this careless, what's wrong   with you?"

The words, once said, seemed to hang a heavy weight in the air, and chills began to crawl their way down Jaskier's spine. This wasn't just Geralt's normal reticence, his usual carelessness towards the niceties of life. Something was wrong . Wounds untreated, armor askew, no camp or fire, man and horse both starving less than a day's walk to civilization -- something was seriously   wrong.

"What is   wrong with you?" he repeated. Geralt turned away, attention apparently distracted by something off in the woods. "Can you even hear me? Phweet!"

He let loose a shrill, sharp whistle and Geralt's attention immediately snapped back to him. Jaskier let out a shaky breath. "Okay, so you can hear   me," he said. "But you can't speak? What, did you sell your voice to a sea serpent in exchange for legs? Nod if you sold your voice to a sea witch." He was beginning to babble now, he knew it, his voice starting to tremble with the force of what he was trying to deny. "Shake your head if I'm being an idiot. Come on   Geralt, this isn't funny, say something!"

Geralt cocked his head to the side, a gesture so perfectly Geralt-like that he was already anticipating the snarky barb that would follow it... and nothing. Geralt said nothing. Not because he couldn't hear Jaskier, or because he had lost his voice, but...

"You can't understand me, can you?" Jaskier said softly. Geralt just stared at him, steady, wordless, empty. "You can't understand... anything."




~tbc...

Chapter Text

 

In some ways, this was like a thousand other nights he'd spent in Geralt's company: a forest clearing, a fire crackling merrily in a ring of stones. A horse -- named Roach -- with her reins wrapped around a tree branch and her head down in sleep. A truly unconscionable number of bugs attracted by the light, some he'd be pulling out of his hair for days. All very familiar, very standard.

What wasn't   familiar was this:

Geralt on the other side of the fire, tearing into Jaskier's store of sausage rolls as though he hadn't eaten in a week. Which, if Jaskier's understanding of the timeline was right, he hadn't. From what the farmwife had said, children had been going missing for over a month before someone at Riede finally got their shit together enough to hire on a Witcher. That had been ten days ago; since then there had been no more missing children, but a few days later stories started cropping up of a hulking beast  running wild in the woods. Just enough time for Geralt to have found the beast, killed it, and then... whatever happened then that made him like this.

The witcher's face was gaunt, his throat hollow. The sight was strange to Jaskier, unsettling; he'd never seen Geralt like this before. Oh, there had been hard times over the years -- times when neither Geralt's work nor Jaskier's play had been able to net enough money for food. But even then Geralt had usually been able to put some   food in their stomachs from hunting. 

Jaskier's mind jumped to images of emptied snares, torn strips of flesh all that the hunters could find. And he still had, a bit. But not enough.

"Okay, so here's what I don't get," Jaskier said, because he'd never held back from saying exactly what was on his mind at any other time in their relationship, so why start now? "Do Witchers need more   food than ordinary humans? Or less? I really feel like I ought to know this one by now, but somehow I'm never sure. When we're on the road you barely eat at mealtimes, just chew on that horrid mess of goat you call jerky all day -- but then we'll be in a pub somewhere and I get up to do a set and by the time I come back you've managed to make half a boar disappear all by yourself -- "

At this spate of rambling Geralt looked up at him, but said nothing; and when Jaskier didn't seem to need any kind of response he went right back to his food. It put a lump in Jaskier's throat for how familiar it was.

"Go on, eat up," he urged Geralt, not that the Witcher seemed to need his encouragement. Jaskier had been looking forward to those sausage rolls, really; sharp with spices and mellowed with cheese, heavy and filling on the tongue. Wrapped in layers of flaky puff bread, smooth and shining on the crust with the wash of egg and soft-white and yielding underneath -- and Geralt just wolfed them down like a griffin making short work of a steer (that had been one very   memorable morning.) The way Geralt was inhaling them Jaskier wasn't sure he even tasted them, which was a crying shame -- but anything to ease the gaunt lines of his face, the hollowness of his eyes, Jaskier would take it.

While Geralt decimated Jaskier's food stores, the bard went scrounging in his rucksack for what he needed. He found some cloths -- spotted from long use, but bleached clean for now -- and there, at the very bottom of the pack, a suturing kit that he hadn't very well needed   once he wasn't traveling with Geralt any longer. He prepared cloths and hot water and soap, wished for strong liquor, and approached Geralt in a routine he'd thought he was done with once and for all after the dragon hunt.

"Well, let's see what we can do for you," Jaskier said, with long practice at inserting a cheer into his voice that he didn't really feel -- a pretty fundamental bardic talent. 

Jaskier came around to Geralt's side of the fire and began looking over Geralt's mess of a kit. With enough practice at all the buckles and straps, he was able to pull one piece off at a time and pile the pieces carefully to one side, smoothing over the creases and abrasions with soft cloth and warm water. Geralt didn't seem to object -- he went where Jaskier tugged him, raised his arm obligingly when Jaskier pulled at it -- until he reached the witcher's right forearm, streaked with red and black filth and perforated with bite marks. 

As soon as Jaskier brushed against the wounds, Geralt jerked back with a snarl. His head whipped around towards Jaskier, teeth bared and eyes blazing, and Jaskier cringed backwards despite himself. "Shit!" Geralt had never really hurt him before, not when he was in his right mind... but this version of Geralt was more like a feral animal, and Jaskier just didn't know   right now how he'd react.

Geralt didn't follow up the warning growl, and slowly Jaskier's heart stopped threatening to beat its way out of his ribcage. He bit his lip and reached his hand towards Geralt's arm, damp cloth in hand. "Okay, let's try this again..."

Geralt growled when Jaskier took his arm, a flinch traveling up to his shoulder, but he didn't immediately shove Jaskier away. The bard turned his arm over as he sponged the dirt away, letting the light of the fire play over the wounds to try to get a good look at them. Now that he was closer up, he could see the pattern of them: a half-circle of punctures in the middle of the forearm, long dragging cuts that went up and down the arm from there. It really did look like he'd stuck his hand into some beastie's mouth and wrestled them two falls out of three.

Most of the wounds had healed on their own, if not cleanly; Geralt had always healed preternaturally fast. But there were two punctures up near the elbow that hadn't healed at all and close up he could see why: there were still fragments of something in the wounds, tooth or bone, preventing them from closing fully.

As soon as the cloth touched the wound Geralt flinched back and ripped his arm out of Jaskier's grasp, another snarl ripping from his lips. He shoved Jaskier back -- not exactly a blow, but it still sent him stumbling several feet -- and moved away, putting the fire between them.

"Geralt, please!" Jaskier could have torn out his hair. "I know it hurts but you have to let me treat the wounds, you have   to. Damn it all, of all the times for the big stoic witcher to admit he feels pain..." He stepped towards Geralt again, but the Witcher shied away, giving him a narrow glare as he reached out. 

Jaskier found himself at a loss. Geralt, when he was in his right mind, would have understood the necessity of enduring a little discomfort for medical treatment. Jaskier had helped cleanse or debride or suture plenty of wounds before when the Witcher himself couldn't reach them. But Geralt as he was now didn't understand, couldn't understand; all he knew was that Jaskier was hurting him. 

"Damn, I wish I had a bottle of wine right now," he grumbled. "Wouldn't even have to be the good stuff. Just, anything that could dull the pain and mellow you out a little bit. What about a song? Would a lullaby put you in a nice sleepy mood?"

It was a long shot but he was desperate; he didn't know what else to try. Without reaching for his lute he took a breath and launched into song.

 

"Hushabye, don't you cry,

Go to sleep my little baby

When you wake you shall have cake

And all the pretty little horses

Blacks and bays, dapples and grays

All the pretty little horses"

 

He half expected Geralt to ignore him, half expected him to speak just to tell him to shut up and not insult him with children's songs. To his astonishment, as the music reached his ears Geralt stopped pacing. His shoulders relaxed, his head tilted to the side, and his eyes trained on Jaskier were no longer fixed in a narrow glare.

Cautiously, hardly able to believe his luck, Jaskier approached Geralt again and steered him to sit beside the fire. He reached for water and cloths again and began to clean the dried blood and grime off Geralt's arm, singing all the time.

 

"Way down yonder in the meadow

Lies a poor little child

The bees and flies a-pecking at its eyes

Poor little child, crying for its mother

So hushabye, don't you cry,

Go to sleep, little baby"

 

Which he'd always thought was rather horrible for a lullaby but Geralt didn't seem to object to the lyrics, focusing entirely on the tone of his voice. It was astonishing and almost flattering, really -- and also a test of his focus to keep up the soothing stream of music while he also focused on digging the broken teeth (wolf teeth, he was almost sure, now that he got a clear look at them) out of the muscle of Geralt's forearm.

He would almost have thought that it didn't hurt except for the tension running up Geralt's arm to the line of his neck, the sharp way he breathed in through his nose. It hurt him but he endured it, not a snap or a growl, on nothing more than trust.

By the time he finished -- repeating a few of the verses, but his audience didn't seem to mind -- his voice was hoarse and his fingers were cramping. But Geralt submitted to the messy extraction, to the cleaning, to smearing with salves and wrapping with bandages, and that was all an exhausted Jaskier could hope to ask for tonight.






Two days later saw Jaskier to the low stone wall marking the edge of Kareh, a lute over his shoulder, a pair of reins in his hand. Roach clopped along behind him at a steady walk with Geralt up on her back, which could almost   have been normal except for the little detail that Jaskier was leading. 

He hadn't been sure at first whether Geralt could   ride. The past few days had been a long, painful trial-and-error as to what Geralt could and couldn't do. 

It became abundantly clear on the first night that he could neither speak, nor understand when Jaskier spoke; he hadn't even glanced at written text, as farfetched a hope as that had been. Although he clearly knew Jaskier and reacted to him, he didn't seem to know his own name -- he responded to the tone of Jaskier's voice, not the content of his words. He expressed his own feelings -- pleasure, annoyance, fear -- in a series of grunts and growls. (...Not completely unfamiliar to Jaskier, except that they'd expanded now to take over his entire vocabulary.) He was affectionate towards Roach, but didn't seem to know how to curry her or feed her or care for her tack; Jaskier had spent much of the first morning picking a week's worth of thorns and twigs out of her coat. He was wary of the darkness under the trees at night, but how well could he defend himself against them now? Jaskier really didn't want to find out.

Yet for all that, he didn't exactly act like an animal either. When Jaskier set a familiar tool in his hand or put his feet on the right path, muscle memory seemed to take over -- in a limited capacity at least. Geralt could   ride, once Jaskier had saddled and prepared Roach for him and coaxed him to mount; his heels found the stirrups and his posture rearranged itself unconsciously, and he stayed up on his own.

Which was a good thing, because Jaskier had no idea how he'd have gotten the Witcher here otherwise. Because one thing hadn't changed; Geralt did not   want to follow where Jaskier led. He was still as stubborn as a mule and twice as hard to drag where he didn't want to go.

The same was true for anything Jaskier tried to get him to do over the past few days. He'd been willing enough to take Jaskier's food and sit at his fire, even allowed the bard to touch his shoulder or his hair -- but as soon as Jaskier crossed a boundary, he was sure to let the bard know it with a guttural growl and a narrow-eyed glare. The only way Jaskier had found that worked to coax him into anything he didn't want to do was to sing to him.

For whatever reason -- Jaskier certainly didn't think it was because Geralt liked   his singing that much! -- singing would calm Geralt down in a moment, make him downright pliable . With that loophole he'd been able to coax Geralt to let him treat his wounds, wash away the worst of the filth, even take his armor off for cleaning. And this morning he'd let Jaskier manhandle him onto Roach, let Jaskier lead him down the forest path all the way to Kareh, even though it was clear that he wanted nothing to do with the town.

Jaskier didn't imagine what Geralt's problem was. --Well, he could probably guess; his imagination was pretty good. Towns were not always welcoming to strangers, not always kind to Witchers. Geralt had endured plenty of taunts and jeers and the occasional poorly-aimed missile even after Jaskier had started working to improve his reputation, and Goddess knew how much more -- and worse -- he remembered from before meeting Jaskier. 

Still, they didn't have much choice. They needed shelter, Jaskier needed an audience to make some money, and Geralt needed a bath. There was only so much he could accomplish in a cold silty stream or with grimy towels out of a cookpot. And Roach needed food. They'd stripped all a horse could eat from the fresh spring growth of the forest underlayer, found the bottom of Jaskier's sack of supplies by the end of the second night. A horse of Roach's size needed more feed than one poor bard out in the woods could supply, and so, to town.

Even from the outskirts of town the noise still reached Jaskier's ears; humans calling, shouting, talking, laughing, walking, doors slamming and carts clattering, horses and pigs and geese all adding their own notes to the clamor. And just under that -- a sound he only heard because he knew to listen for it -- a constant low-level growling from Geralt.

"Well, shall we then?" Jaskier said, faux-bright, clapping his hands together as he turned over his shoulder to beam up at Geralt. "Bustling Kareh awaits us! Behind us the dark, cold empty woodlands of beast and wolf! Here is we can find all   the comforts of civilization, a nice roof   over our head, a few coins spared from generous townsfolk, and most importantly of all, food."

Geralt snorted and for a heartbeat it was as though nothing had changed, nothing at all;   Jaskier's heart stuttered in its rhythm, like a foot feeling for a missing step in a familiar stair, waiting for Geralt to answer. To say something caustic or grumpy or tolerantly amused, ribbing Jaskier for his slavish habits or filling in some suitably horrifying story of his old travels.

But Geralt said nothing. Nothing, because he couldn't,   and as he shifted restlessly in his seat Jaskier took up Roach's reins and led the horse forward once more. It might have helped Geralt to calm down if Jaskier would sing to him but right now, he couldn't force a note out past the lump in his throat. 

Once past the outer stone boundary Kareh loomed up around them, buildings two and sometimes three stories tall quickly shutting out the horizon. Exterior walls were strapped vertically and diagonally with black-stained beams, the higher stories seeming to bulge out over the street as though straining against the wooden straps. The plaster between them, once white-washed, had been worn and stained by time to a grimy brown; the cobbles underfoot were coated by a thin layer of grime at best, unspeakable puddles at worst. Still, Jaskier had been in worse towns; there were no bodies sprawled in the gutters, for one, and here and there the windows of the upper stories sported dark brown boxes overflowing with bright flowers.

Constantly aware of Geralt's discomfort, Jaskier led them through the streets without stopping for any errands or even to acknowledge some of the stares they were getting. There was an inn -- actually there were three, but the one he had in mind was run by an older woman with a softer heart to bardly charms than the other two. He made his way through the twisting streets and stopped under the sign of two crossed brass forks. 

A quick negotiation with Zuza -- some very   fast talking, all told -- and a bargain was struck; he would play for the house for three nights and in return, she would comp the cost of the room, stabling for Geralt's horse, and a bath (he'd successfully argued the bath on the grounds that he could hardly draw trade to her inn looking like a grubby road vagabond, even if that was pretty much what he was.) If he wanted meals for the two of them or feed for Roach, however, he'd have to come up with the coin for it himself.

Jaskier was of two minds over the knowledge that Geralt's contract had been out of Riede, not Kareh. On one hand Geralt was in no state right now to present himself to the alderman to collect his pay; even if he were, he had no token of the dead monster to present as proof. On the other, Jaskier thought he would have... maybe a fifty-fifty shot that he could have wheedled payment anyway, and without it their purse was pretty dry. Jaskier still didn't know what had become of Geralt's gear -- he'd spent most of the previous day searching the woods for it, without success -- but the Witcher's purse, and the presumed half-pay he'd already gotten for the job, was no help to them now.

He saw Roach stabled, maneuvered her nervous master into the inn and up the stairs. "C'mon, Geralt," he coaxed the man -- not that his words would be understood, but tone of voice seemed to mean a lot. "Just a little further, then you can shut yourself in your room and ignore the rest of the world all you like. Better for all parties involved, really. No jobs, which means there's no reason to involve yourself with any of the townsfolk; room service will be provided by yours truly, a humble bard of continental fame. Up the stairs now..."

Once in the room -- narrow but clean, with one bed and the promised bath   already waiting -- Jaskier breathed a sigh of relief. He took his own bath quickly, focused entirely on getting himself presentable for the performance, while Geralt prowled the perimeter of the room and rattled the shutters against the window.

The hot, scented water felt like heaven on Jaskier's skin but there was no time to bask in it; he had to get downstairs, and coaxing Geralt into the bath would be hard enough without it being cold to boot. He dragged himself out reluctantly and dressed quickly, then called out, "All right Witcher, your turn. Get over here, would you?"

Geralt left behind his lurking post at the window and came over. Once again, Jaskier was struck by the strangeness of Geralt's condition. Most of the time his mind seemed like an animal's -- and yet not; with Jaskier's prompting he shucked his clothes with easy, unconscious movements. He let Jaskier guide him to the bath and -- once Jaskier maneuvered him in and pushed a sponge into his hand -- seemed to remember what to do in it.

The rising noise of the crowd from downstairs pricked at Jaskier's consciousness, and he knew he was late. "If I leave you here, can you do the rest yourself?" he asked Geralt. "You won't sink beneath the surface and drown, right?"

Geralt grunted, ignoring Jaskier in favor of scrubbing his chest with the sponge. A thick, handsome chest corded with familiar mighty thews was emerging from under the shrouding layer of filth; the days of deprivation in the forest had only made each muscle stand out, chiseled lines between each one. Pearly drops of water trickled down from the sponge, running in rivulets in the channels between each muscle, and for a moment Jaskier's irreverent thoughts told him: Goddess, I wish that were my tongue.

Jaskier swallowed hard, forced himself to tear his gaze away. Now was not the time to indulge in his favorite pastime of ogling the Witcher; not when Geralt didn't even know who or where he was and was completely dependent on Jaskier . The thought even made him feel vaguely slimy, as though his gaze had been caught instead by a maiden of too tender an age. "Well, I'm off to sing for our supper," he said, rushing away from the feeling and the responsibility both. "Don't wait up Geralt, just don't lock me out of the room, assuming you remember what locks are. Ta!"

By the time he made his way downstairs he'd regained his composure somewhat. Took a moment to fix his hair -- not to put it in order, but to tame the chaos to look like something dashing and windblown rather than a rat's nest. Sliding -- not effortlessly, but with long years of practice -- into the performance mindset, where any bad sad dragging thoughts and feelings were shoved into a cabinet in the back of his mind and locked away for the duration, replaced with bravado and cheer and -- this was the most important part -- energy.

(Sometimes he wondered if Geralt had a similar cabinet in his mind for tender squishy feelings he didn't want to get in the way when he   was on the job; and if, since he never ever ever let himself be off   the job, the latch to that cabinet had long since rusted shut and his tender feelings wasted away to dust in that cabinet.)

(Thoughts like that went in the cabinet, too.)

But for now: energy,   and focusing on the good things. He was under a roof and he'd had a bath today and he might get to eat a real fucking meal tonight, something that came on a plate  and he could eat it with a knife and fork instead of with his hands out of a shitty tin pot over a campfire, and there would be something to drink that wasn't disgusting river water, maybe ale   or cider   or heaven bless even wine, and all that was going to depend on how well he caught the attention of the crowd in the next twenty minutes.

So Jaskier scouted the room and picked his position and got situated. Sitting on a table with one foot on the chair and the other on the floor; high enough that everyone in the room could see him but not so much that he seemed to be putting himself above them. He caught sight of Zuza behind the bar at the other end of the room, nodding permission. The noise of the crowd quieted; faces turned towards him, skeptical, expectant. He arranged his face in his most winning smile, struck a pose, and then struck a chord.

He opened with something safe, a fairly tame ballad about tragic lovers that was popular in Temeria right now while he gauged the tone of the room. The man had gone away to war and come back afflicted with some tragic, though vaguely described, disease; his sweetheart vowed to nurse him back to health and kept her vow as the moon waned and then waxed again, all the while wasting away herself. Finally the lover was restored to health -- just in time to see his sweetheart drop dead of exhaustion beside his bedside. It was all terribly maudlin and, Jaskier privately thought, artistically simplistic; couplet rhymes and only two chords, for the Goddess' sake. But it was familiar and easy to sing along with, and people liked it.

The crowd was mixed, wives and even a few children in with the working men, and the mood more mellow than raucous. He mentally crossed the raunchier songs like the Fishmonger's Daughter off his repertoire -- at least until later in the evening, when the family crowd cleared out -- and instead transitioned into a sillier song about a duck and a hapless roadside merchant. That caught the whimsy of the crowd; after the first wave of laughter he was able to relax a little bit, knowing that he had them. 

Jaskier was four songs into his set and had at least one cluster of patrons singing along when he happened to glance up and saw Geralt of Rivia standing halfway down the stairs, streaming wet, and naked as the day he was (presumably) born. 

Standing in the shadows, one foot extended to descend from the stairs, he looked very   much like one of the statues in the courtyard at Oxenfurt, the marble ones that the new students all sniggered about and the professors insisted were classical art.   Jaskier absolutely could not   be blamed for fumbling his hand over the soundboard and all but dropping his lute mid-strum.

Thank the Goddess, the strap caught the instrument before it could actually leave his grasp. He still had to do some scrambling to retrieve the moment, turning his sudden movement into a dramatic slide off the table to land on his feet on the floor. He caught the melody mid-phrase and sang the rest of the line and the rest of the verse, pushing faster and faster until he reached the end of the chorus and cut off abruptly. "Thank you, folks, you've been wonderful!" he said as he edged as quickly as possible over towards the stairs. "Taking a break, going for a drink, back in ten!"

Jaskier managed to intercept Geralt -- just barely -- before he stepped out of the shadow of the stairwell into the inn's main room. He caught him with an arm across his torso and tried to propel him back up the stairs, but it really was like trying to move a fucking marble statue. Geralt narrowed his eyes at him, growling almost-but-not-quite loud enough to be heard over the noise of the crowd. "Come on, Geralt," he hissed, jittering on his toes, feeling like his heart was about to rabbit out of his chest. "Back upstairs! Shoo! Go! You can't be down here like this!"

People were turning to stare. Of course they were. Jaskier managed to block the most scandalous part of the view with his body, but he couldn't conceal the fact that the White Wolf of Rivia was standing fucking shirtless and sopping wet in the stairs in the middle of the inn. Geralt shifted his gaze to look at the staring crowd and his muscles went tense, his stance shifted, and Jaskier was pushed another helpless step back towards the main room.

Desperately he stretched his face into a smile, took a breath, and began to sing another little ditty. A nonsense song, more of a tone poem than anything else, but it worked to get Geralt to relax, to look at him again and less like he was about to launch himself into the crowd. With great effort he managed to chivvy Geralt back up the stairs, his own clothes growing steadily wetter as he attempted to herd the Witcher with his arms and legs.

Zuza met him at the top of the stairwell, her face thunderous. "What is this?" she hissed, gesturing to the still-naked Witcher with what Jaskier thought was a crying   lack of aesthetic appreciation. "You told me your pet Witcher would be no trouble!"

Jaskier smiled brightly at her, made little helpless gestures with his hands, thinking desperately of what to say. Of course he'd said that, what else was he going to tell her, the truth? "I wouldn't call this trouble   exactly," he started off, mind racing for what to say, "I mean, compared to a house fire, or a zombie attack, or an invading Nilfgaardian army, what is this really? A trifle. A small amusing interlude, which you can look back on in years to come with nothing more than a laugh at the remembrance --"

Zuza actually growled, which of course Geralt responded to in kind. "I've got goodwives and kids in the common room down there," she snapped. "If this freak is going to go stalking about in the altogether in front of decent folks, he's not welcome in my inn!"

"It won't happen again!" Jaskier said desperately. "Really, this is just a - a fluke, certainly nothing he would do in his right mind --"

He probably shouldn't have let that slip. The older woman squinted at Geralt, less angry, more wary. "What's wrong with him? Is it contagious?" she said suspiciously. "I'll not be having any kind of plague-carrying --"

"Nothing like that, nothing like that. He -- look, he was hired to hunt down the monster that's been stealing children from the villages around here -- you   heard about that, I'm sure --" 

Zuza gave a nod, her expression turning slightly less black. "Which mission he carried out successfully, of course,   but in the heat of the fight he took a -- a blow to the head."

"A blow to the head?" The innkeeper's hostility was almost faded by now, and she eyed Geralt appraisingly. "That can turn some people funny, I've heard."

"Of course!" Jaskier said hastily. "Fearsome thing that monster was, all hulking carapace and flailing legs, each the side of a tree limb, let me tell you! He cut at it with his mighty sword and the monster screeched   in pain --" he was getting into the swing of the storytelling rhythm now, and thankfully she was getting drawn into it as well -- "and it lashed out with its mighty limbs in retaliation! Knocked the Witcher flying through the air, a good twenty feet across the clearing, until his head collided with a solid oak tree, A blow which would have killed any hero less hearty, you can be sure, but for Geralt of Rivia, only knocked him loopy for a spell."

"Hmm." Zuza mulled over this while Jaskier stretched his most winning smile across his face, holding tightly to Geralt's arm and praying he didn't do anything else that would break it. "But he'll be back to normal by tomorrow, right?"

"Of course," Jaskier lied recklessly. "We were just going to bed down here for the night, and in the morning be off to the fine healers and bonesetters of Riede to cure the damage. So you can see, this really is a very small   problem in the grand scheme of things, easily remedied, soon to be swept away, and you don't need to worry   about it."

He wasn't sure how much she believed him, but at least she didn't kick them out, and Jaskier was left to shepherd Geralt back into their room and this time bar   the door.

"Well, you know I'm always ready to make a damn fool of myself," he said as he turned around, "but this is a new low for you, Geralt. Warn a guy next time, would you? I thought I would have a heart attack when I looked up and saw you standing there."

Geralt said nothing, of course. 

Jaskier sighed. "I don't know if I was even lying," he said. "Maybe you did   hit your thick Witcher head and get knocked a loop into the last century. Maybe there was some nasty critter that bit you and it had magic... horrible critter venom that did this to you. I don't know what else it could be. I don't know anything   that could do this to anyone,   I don't know how to..."

His voice died on his lips because even alone in their room, even with no one listening to understand, he can't bring himself to say it: I don't know how to help you.

What could have done this to Geralt? He'd always said he was resistant to magic, resistant to curses. But resistant didn't mean immune,   he remembered that well. 

Or something more mundane, but equally awful: a palsy-stroke, a brainstorm, the delerium like that which had taken his father's mind. The proud and noble Viscount de Lettenhove reduced in his last days to a vegetable, his nurses spooning broth into his mouth and dribbling down his chin when his mother couldn't bear to be in the room with him any more. He knew it could happen even to strong and healthy men, oh yes. And Geralt was -- he wasn't sure how old exactly because Geralt himself wasn't completely sure, but he had to be topping a hundred by now. What if...

But that took years, and this had set on so quickly. Geralt had been fine the last time they met on the mountain, he'd been taking jobs as late as a fortnight ago -- surely it couldn't be that. Surely Witchers were as immune to the diseases that afflicted mortal men as they were to the poisons they drank for their trade. But if not that, then what?

And what could Jaskier   do about any of those possibilities. What did he know about curses, Witchers, weird-critter venoms with horrible effects? If anything like that had come up under any other circumstances, the person he would have gone to for help wa s   Geralt.

Fuck.

This part at least could be not   a lie; tomorrow he'd drag Geralt to a healer if he had to sing him along every step of the way. If it was a head-blow, they could diagnose it; if it was a disease, perhaps they could cure it; if it was something else... well, he'd go on from there.

With that plan of action in mind, a spar to cling to in a storm of doubts and uncertainties, Jaskier manhandled Geralt into the bed and dropped down beside him, too exhausted to even change out of his costume.

 


 

Jaskier came awake in the darkness, rather rudely   shaken out of his sleep by the thrashing body in the bed next to him. Beside him, terrible noises, deep growling and animalistic sounds of pain. "What's --" was all he got out before something knocked into his face, sending him reeling away seeing stars for a minute. "Geralt!"

It didn't hurt, not really, but it was   dizzying; it took a minute for Jaskier to recover, to scramble out of the bed, to stumble blindly around in the dark room for the hooded lantern and turn up the wick, casting light back into the room. "What's going on? Are you -- are we being attacked?"

It was the middle of the night -- Jaskier couldn't hear any noise drifting up from the taproom below, which means it was sometime past first bell, but he couldn't tell more than that. The door was still barred, the window still shuttered, nothing in this room but the two of them. He turned the lantern up, raising it and shining the light in all the corners, looking for whatever had alerted Geralt. The growing lantern light reflected eerily from Geralt's eyes, glowing like a cat's in the dimness; but as the light appeared, his frenzied thrashing stilled. The Witcher's eyes were white-rimmed and his white hair wild, chest heaving for breath, lips peeled back from his teeth in a grimace; altogether painting an agitation Jaskier had almost never seen on the man.

The Witcher stood up, unwound himself from the bedclothes and paced around the bed towards Jaskier, who flinched back. Not that he thought Geralt would hurt him -- usually --   but he didn't understand what was driving him. "Geralt?!"

Geralt seized him by the arms, leaned in, nostrils flaring deeply as he sniffed the air rising off of Jaskier's skin. His pupils were huge in the dimness, pools of darkness against the golden yellow rims of his eyes. His hands squeezed at Jaskier's shoulders -- not in reassurance, he didn't think -- and then began to pat down his arms and chest and back even as he sniffed and snuffled. Checking him for injuries, Jaskier realized suddenly. Same as when he'd first met him in the camp, before. Geralt thought that Jaskier might be hurt. Why? They were safe, what here could hurt him? The room was sealed, they had both been sleeping --

Slowly the pieces began to show themselves, rising up through his bleary sleep-interrupted haze to assemble into a picture. They'd been sleeping and something had frightened Geralt enough to drive him into a frenzy, so far removed from the usual stoic reserve he held himself in the rest of the time.

Geralt had nightmares sometimes, Jaskier had long known it; some nights he'd wake up to find the Witcher unnaturally still, only his eyes wide open to the sky while his fists clenched and every muscle of his body strained in rigid control. Jaskier himself had seen enough horrors, enough twisted monster corpses, but he knew it was only a fraction of the horrors Geralt faced every day, every year, year after year after year

It was no surprise that the horrors followed him into dreams just like they had tonight, except unlike in the past he couldn't control his instinctive reaction. He didn't understand that what he was seeing wasn't real.

Jaskier's heart cracked, a little. Sometimes he wished that he could develop callouses on his heart like on the tips of his fingers, protecting it from repeated blows. But he never had, no matter how many times it was bruised; and it ached now for Geralt, ached for his friend, for the horror and misery he carried around in his memory and his anger at whatever man or creature or uncaring force of nature had taken his control from him. Taken away his context and his understanding but leaving this;  this helpless horror, this uncomprehending dread.

"Geralt," he said a third time, and he kept as voice as soft as he could, as warm and soothing as he could manage. The Witcher stilled in his frantic search; his head rose, his eyes wordlessly questioning. "It's all right, Geralt. I'm not hurt. I'm fine. You're fine. We're all right."

Which was a lie, but what was a bard for if not to tell pretty lies and make them true? With careful handling and gentle touch Jaskier led his friend back to the bed and sat him back in it -- Geralt refused the covers, kicking them restlessly away to keep his limbs free -- and then knelt down beside the bed. With one hand on Geralt's cheek he sang to him, the softest lullaby he knew, until the panic and rage and fear drained from his eyes and left him once more at peace.

 

"Hushabye, don't you cry,

Sleep, my lovely little baby.

When you wake you shall have cake

And all the pretty little horses

Blacks and bays, dapples and grays,

Coach and six white horses

Blacks and bays, dapples and grays

All the pretty little horses."

 

He stayed there until morning.

 


 

~tbc...

Chapter Text



this is a human place. hates it. humans must not be trusted. he endures.

the bard is here.

he knows him. he... remembers. the bard is here and that is good. the bard is human but he is -- trust. he is care. he is touch.

he must protect the bard. he must keep him safe. the bard is soft. the bard is easy to hurt. easy for the things in the night that fly in the dark and vanish. drive them away. look for wounds. no blood smell. no wounds, not this time. the bard is safe.

the bard is. singing. he does that. he does that when... when everything is right.

if the bard is singing, then everything is right. even in the human place. even with the pain. even with the monsters and the fear.

everything is right. 





As it turned out Kareh had not just one doctor but a variety of them in -- if the stories Jaskier had his ears blistered by were any indication -- fierce   competition. He was left to try to sort out which of them would be the best   healer for Geralt based on a number of unknowns, not least of which was whether they would carry any particular grudge towards Witchers. He needed a healer who was knowledgeable, experienced, perceptive, open-minded and,   most importantly, discreet.

...And having no real way to determine any of that, he'd mostly gone with this one on the basis that the doctor had an adorable cat in his front waiting room. He figured, a man who showed kindness to small critters would probably   extend the same kindness towards his patients, right?

The healer in question was a middle-aged, rangy man with a high forehead and a receding grey hairline. The cat in question was a frankly unbelievable unit of matching grey fluffliness, fluffing out to a neatly symmetrical roundness. It looked like a stray cloud had come to lounge on a footstool, like a dust bunny that had grown legs and eyes, and Jaskier frankly wanted nothing more in the world than to bury his face in its indolent stomach for some truly therapeutic fluffiness. Gods. Did the man keep the cat around for the sake of his patients, to calm and reassure them while he bustled about with his array of terrifying silver implements? Did he brush the cat and use the stray fur to disguise his own bald spot?

Alas that he never got a chance to pet the cat, because he had to keep a firm grip on Geralt's sword arm for the entire visit so that he didn't try to rip the doctor's throat out.

"Well, this is the strangest case I ever have seen," the doctor said as he sat back. "His pulse is abnormally slow, and his temperature far out of range. Frankly, I don't understand why he's not dead."

Jaskier had wondered that himself, on many an occasion. "I think that's just normal for Witchers," he said. "He's always been like that, long as I've known him." It made sharing bedrolls and body heat bloody impractical on some nights, a godsend on others.

"Interesting." The doctor set down the little notebook he'd been jotting notes in and stood, walking over to the padded bench on which Geralt and Jaskier sat. "I don't see any obvious cause for the malady. A blow to the head, you say?"

"Well, maybe," Jaskier hedged. "I didn't actually see the fight, I -- ah -- found him wandering in the woods afterwards." The doctor leaned in to peer into Geralt's silvery hair, and Jaskier sat a little more firmly on Geralt's hand as he tensed and tried to reach back to retaliate. "But I don't know what else it could be."

"And how long ago was this?"

Jaskier shrugged. "About a week, maybe ten days?"

"Hmmm." The doctor spent several minutes in careful examination, then straightened back up and shook his head. "I can't find any evidence of trauma to the head that could cause such a personality shift."

"None?" Jaskier wasn't sure whether that news was good or bad, but it was certainly surprising. "No old wounds at all?"

"Oh, plenty of those, but all much older. Years, I would say." The doctor waved those away. "So, seven to ten days. When was the last time before that you had seen him?"

"Last autumn, at King Niedemar's Mountain." Jaskier couldn't help the wince at the reminder. Six months hadn't done as much as he could have hoped to soften those memories, wash away the humiliation of that last meeting, that utterly comprehensive rejection.

"And there were no signs of mental degeneration then?"

Well, he dumped me,   Jaskier thought, but it wasn't really cause for joking. "No, nothing."

"Hmmm." The doctor glanced over at Geralt. "Can he smile?"

"You know," Jaskier said. "I've been wondering the same thing myself for twenty years."

The doctor's eyebrows lifted a little, but he didn't pursue the question. "Trouble seeing or hearing? Difficulty walking or balancing?" 

"Not that I've noticed," Jaskier said after a moment's thought. Geralt responded to the sound of Jaskier's voice, his golden eyes focused fine, and he walked with the same catlike grace he ever had. The problem wasn't in his body, but his brain.

The doctor leaned in towards Geralt and took hold of his arm, pulling it out, only to receive a snarl and a shove that sent him several steps back. "Can he raise his hands above his head?" he inquired of Jaskier instead.

Jaskier thought about it. He'd wrestled Geralt back into his clothes that morning and yes, he'd raised his hands above his head then. "Earlier today, why?"

With a thoughtful frown, the doctor picked up his notebook again and made more scratches. "One or more of those symptoms are usually present in the apoplexy."

Jaskier had feared just such a thing. "Do you think... that could cause this?" he said hesitantly. 

"High fevers, brainstorms, and apoplexies can cause many strange effects," the doctor said. "People can forget their own children's names, or lose their vision, or come to slur their speech, or a dozen other things. But if that were the problem I would expect more physical symptoms than this. The mind and the body are more connected than most people realize."

That it wasn't a brainstorm was a relief, but it left the question unanswered. "If not, then what?" Jaskier demanded. 

The doctor shook his head. "I'm afraid this is out of my area of expertise. I studied the biological sciences at Oxenfurt for six years, but I never came across a case like this. Given his line of work, I'm inclined to think that the cause could be uncanny."

Right. In the decades that he'd been trailing around after Geralt, Jaskier had learned only a fraction of what the Witcher knew about monsters. But even that abbreviated bestiary included fearsome creatures that could instill amnesia -- delirium -- a madness that could drive a woman to kill her children or a lord to butcher his whole household, either by bite or by blood or through some uncanny gaze. That he'd never heard the Witcher speak of a monster's bite that could cause a man to lose all his wits, didn't mean that such a beast didn't exist. "That does seem horribly plausible," he admitted. "Do you know where I might go to find out more?"

"Well, I don't know about such things myself," the doctor said with a shrug. "But there are a few hedge mages and apothecaries around the outskirts of the city who might be able to tell you more."

"Right," Jaskier said aloud this time, with a sigh. It was apparent there was nothing more to be gained here. "Well, thank you for your time. I suppose you'll be wanting payment."

"As I was unable to provide you with a cure or even a diagnosis, I can't in good conscience take your money," the doctor said, with a self-righteousness that fell just a little flat to Jaskier's experienced ear. "But... perhaps an alternate source of payment would suffice...?"

"Uh --" Jaskier barely concealed his wince. Great goddess, not this again. It wouldn't be the first time a professional had tried to lean on Jaskier for sexual favors in lieu of -- or addition to -- payment for a service. It wouldn't be the first time he'd accepted the offer, either, he had to admit. But what the fuck would he do with Geralt in the meantime? "Oh?" he said at last, promising nothing.

The man's expression turned eager. "I've never had a Witcher in my clinic in all my years. Perhaps a few small samples? Nothing harmful -- hair, nails, perhaps some emissions..."

"Right!" Jaskier shot to his feet, pulling Geralt along with him -- not that the Witcher needed the urging. He fumbled a pair of coins out of his pouch and slapped them down against the bench, not even waiting around for change. "Going now!" Hustling out of the shop he called back over his shoulder, "Don't worry, I'll compose a song telling everyone how great you are!"

Back on the street with an angry Witcher in tow, then, no closer to a cure than he'd started. And he never did get to pet that cat.






Finding the doctor took most of the morning; finding the hedge witch took most of the afternoon, so that dusk was falling before he found his way to the little shop tucked into the outer wall.

Jaskier had expected some withered old crone -- or perhaps one of the unearthly beauties of Aretuza -- but the wise woman who let them into her home was both young and plain-looking. She was also blind. She gazed unseeing through clear grey eyes; her dark-blonde hair was tied in a practical bun behind her head, and her dress was drab but perfectly-fitted. She moved around the little hut with a smooth gliding walk that never lifted her feet more than an inch from the ground, perfectly confident in her own space.

Honestly, Jaskier was kind of into it.

Geralt absolutely was not.   Jaskier thought it had been hard keeping hold of a restive Witcher in the healer's office; Jaskier thought he would have been much more at ease in the company of this young, slightly built, blind   girl. But there must have been something   that he could sense that Jaskier could not, which drove him to heights of nerviness that Jaskier had rarely seen on the man before. He kept pulling away, tugging towards the door; when Jaskier wouldn't let him go he practically tried to hide behind the bard,   which would have been funny if it weren't so shockingly uncharacteristic. He had to keep up a nearly constant crooning just to keep Geralt from bolting.

Not that the witch -- Ioreth, he thought her name had been -- was any more appreciative of his bardic talents than Geralt... had been, before. "If you can contain yourself, bard," she said after several minutes of struggling and humming. "What I cannot see, I must listen for, and your ceaseless noise is proving very disruptive."

Jaskier flushed; half from the insult, half from chagrin. Geralt, of course, reacted immediately to his dismay by trying an abortive lunge towards the door; Jaskier managed to get hold of his arm and pull him back. "Sorry, sorry," he said hastily. "Not just doing it for fun, though -- he gets -- hnnngsit down Geralt -- a little nervy around. Strangers."

"So it appears," Ioreth said, managing quite a judging expression for someone without use of her eyes.

"Singing calms him down," Jaskier said apologetically. "It's the only thing that does."

Ioreth hummed a discordant note. "Or perhaps it is you   that calms him," she said, "and if you can find a less noisy way to leverage that, I can commence."

Jaskier looked back over at Geralt, feeling helpless. The Witcher had waded into battle against beasts and monsters and angry mobs with barely a flinch. What was so much more frightening about one blind girl, blast it? If only Jaskier understood, perhaps he could do something to help...

...No doubt he could guess, the same guess he could make about why the town itself made him so antsy. Bad experiences.   Bad experience with magic, without question, much more recently than the rest. If it really had been a mage who had done -- whatever it was -- to Geralt, was it any wonder he would be angry and distrustful of the next one?

Not just angry and distrustful. Afraid.  

How could Jaskier convince him not to be afraid? Without words, or even without song?

He unwrapped his hand from around Geralt's arm and reached down to take his hand instead, threading their fingers together. Squeezing not hard enough to hold him back -- as though Jaskier ever could  hold him back through strength alone -- but just to reassure the other man of his presence. Geralt looked down at their joined hands, then back up to meet his eyes, and Jaskier put on the most charming, carefree, disarming smile that he could muster. Lead by example, that's what bards were good at; project the emotional tone you wanted your audience to have. Everything's fine, we're safe, everything's all right,  he radiated, and gradually Geralt's snarl flattened out and his muscles relaxed from their point of flight.

At least until the witch began, well, whatever witchy thing she was doing; speaking in words Jaskier only half-comprehended, smoke and chanting seeming to spin itself around the edges of the room in a vortex at the center. Then none of Jaskier's cheery reassurance meant a damn, and Geralt -- flight once again blocked -- tried to take shelter the only place he could find, under the crook of Jaskier's arm, burrowing his face against the bard's chest.

Jaskier petted the silver hair, feeling foolish and absurd and fucking angry   at whatever monster -- human or beast -- had done this to his friend. This was wrong, this was a fucking travesty.   Geralt should never be this afraid. No one should, but especially not the Witcher. He was a lover, not a fighter -- but if the cause of Geralt's malady had appeared before him in this moment Jaskier would have flung himself into the fray with the intention to kill, no matter how dire the odds.

When the ritual was ended -- or at least the humming stopped, and the candleflames returned to normal, so Jaskier assumed it was ended -- the wise woman's expression was grim and set below her glassy eyes. She glided over to the wall and cracked open a window, and the smell of smoke began to lessen a little. 

Jaskier felt his head begin to clear along with the fumes. Geralt was still tucked against his chest, one of his arms over the Witcher's back, the other still petting his hair. "So... what is the verdict?" he finally said, breaking the silence. "The healer back in town said that he thought it might be magic."

"Oh yes, he was right," the witch said. "A spell, a strong one."

Jaskier felt his heart jump with the sensation of hope, at having found an answer : "You're certain? Can you fix it?!" he demanded.

Ioreth waved one hand in a judicious gesture. "Certain, yes. As for breaking the spell... it is not so easy."

"How hard can it be, damn it all?" Jaskier's temper flared. "Aren't you a witch?"

Ioreth sighed, and for a moment she looked less like a mysterious wise woman and more like a tired, uncertain young one. "Yes, but -- only a feeble one," she admitted. "My aunt trained me up years ago, after the fever that took my eyes. It was a craft I took to well enough, one I could master despite that loss. 

"I know of the strange landscape that lies beyond what most human eyes can see; I know the old songs of the elders, what remains of them. I know charms for good fortune and cures for small ailments. I know how to propitiate the kindly monsters, and ward against the unkindly ones. And for most people, most of the time, that is enough; that is all most people will ever need. But this?" She gestured in the general direction of Geralt and shook her head. "This is no small magic. I have never in my life seen a spell so strong and so cruel. This curse was cast with heartsblood, I think. No magic under my command will suffice to break it."

"Oh. Well, that's... great!" Jaskier's tongue was thick with bitter bile, voice lashed with scorn. "That's just fantastic! Enormously helpful! Do you know who can?"

Ioreth remained unmoved by his sarcasm. "I know who might. The sorceresses of the Lodge, or the mages of Ban Ard --"

" I am not going to ask fucking Yennefer of Vengerburg for help!"  escaped Jaskier's mouth before he could stop it. Geralt stirred and sat up a bit, frowned at Jaskier's expression. Did he recognize the name? Jaskier wasn't sure to hope that he had, or that he hadn't.

"I don't know who that is," Ioreth said which, well, eased Jaskier's temper a bit. "But I know there is a sorcerer at the duke's court at Roggven -- Magus Terranova. We've never met, but he trained at Ban Ard under Master Stregobor, and likely knows more about this type of magic than anyone else."

Jaskier relaxed. A little. At least it gave him a destination, a next step. "Well, that's at least som -- did you say he trained under Stregobor?"

Ioreth tilted her head to one side. "I've never met either man, but so it is I've heard. Why?"

"I... I've heard that name before." He wasn't entirely sure where he had heard it, actually. It seemed to him that he'd heard it in Geralt's growling voice -- which made sense, Geralt was where he got most of his news of dreadful and exciting and uncanny things -- but he couldn't remember the context. Only that the name sent a frisson down his spine, something cold and unpleasant.

"Well, thank you for your time," he said, relegating the mystery to the back of his mind for the moment. If Roggven was the nearest Ban Ard-trained mage, then Roggven it was going to have to be. "How much do we owe you?"

"Well," Ioreth said, and she moved a little closer in that strange glide. Her posture changed, head tilted to one side as she brought up a hand to toy with a stray lock of hair. Her eyes gazed not quite at him, but with a frank enough interest that -- no, Jaskier was not mistaking this. "Normally it would be an oren for a reading, but I'm sure that we could come to an arrangement -- an exchange of favors..."

Oh, for fuck's sake.

It's not that he wasn't tempted -- he was. But this was, Jaskier just could not deal with whatever this was. Geralt would have told him to keep his cock in his pants around a witch, even a minor one. Jaskier likely would have ignored him, if only to be contrary. But Geralt couldn't   tell him that now, couldn't tell him anything, and because of that Jaskier... wouldn't. If nothing else, his friend's obvious unhappiness and terror was a serious   boner killer. He moved backwards, managed a smile, and reached for his purse. "An oren it is, then," he managed to choke out. "By your leave, lady."






As the stone boundary walls of Kareh -- together with the lights, noise, and smells of its inhabitants -- fell behind them, Geralt finally settled down. Every step Roach took further away from the town seemed to calm him another degree. To Jaskier, who had spent the entire day trying to handle him -- manhandling him, soothing him, singing to him -- this was a bone-weary relief. 

It was going to be a three-day trip back to Roggven, but if they started tonight they might just make it before sunset on the third day. Beyond that, though, he was loath to spend another night in town. Under any  other circumstances -- but no. It was too stressful for Geralt, which meant it was too stressful for Jaskier... and also, it saved them the cost of another night's stay at the inn.

Jaskier hadn't been able to replenish his purse in town the way he normally would, since Geralt couldn't be left unattended upstairs while he played down below. After paying first the doctor and then the hedge witch -- and with no jobs for either of them on the horizon -- Jaskier had decided to save their money for supplies. They just had to get to Roggven, he figured. If the mage there could cure Geralt... then he would gladly pay everything he had left, and the two of them could recoup their coin later. There was still that outstanding bounty to collect in Riede, after all. Yeah. Once they reached that point, it would be easy sailing from there.

Right?

Something about the names kept bothering him. Terranova,   that was a blank, he'd never heard that name before in any context. But Stregobor.   He'd heard that one, he knew it, but he just couldn't remember where from. He was absolutely sure he'd heard it from Geralt, not in any other context, but... what had the context been? Why did it make him so uneasy? Did it matter?

It might. Without Geralt's immense library of experience and Witcher lore to draw on, they were down to only Jaskier's wits among them. Not the sharpest of arsenals, it felt like right now. He didn't want to get into anything unless and until he could remember the source of that faint unease. For once in his life, he didn't want to rush in. He wouldn't have Geralt to bail him out if things went south.

The name continued to nag on him as they continued along the -- still empty -- road and the sky passed from sunset to proper nightfall. He called a halt before the very last gasp of light left the sky, building a fire base and fumbling to light it in near-darkness. 

Geralt was not much help in setting the camp, but at least he didn't get too much in the way; when he put the brush in Geralt's hand and put his hand on Roach's coat, he seemed to remember the motions of brushing and currying well enough and soon became absorbed in this task. For the first time all day he was calm, relaxed, his eyes clear and his face unworn by care. At peace.

Jaskier wished he could share in that peace, that the worries of yesterday and today and tomorrow didn't gnaw at his bones. He set up the rest of the camp -- not much to do, really; without any of Geralt's gear they would just have to share Jaskier's bedroll under an open sky -- and sat in front of the fire, gazing into it moodily as he threw in branch after branch.

Where had  he heard the name Stregobor before? This was driving him crazy. He knew   Geralt had told it to him -- as part of some longer story -- but what? With a sigh, Jaskier began to call on some of the mnemonic training they'd drilled into him in Oxenfurt, and began mentally going through every story Geralt had told him over the course of their acquaintance, grouped chronologically by song. 

It had to have been -- obviously -- sometime after he and Geralt first met. Which meant it post-dated Toss A Coin,   since he'd written that one practically on the first night. If he went through every song he'd composed for Geralt in order, then he might jog the association with that damnable name.

Toss A Coin   had been first. The next one after that was You Think You're Safe, written largely as a warning to the towns and villages that rejected the help of a Witcher and the dire fate that might befall them. Between the two there had been... not too many conversations really, Geralt still hadn't trusted him that much back then. What then? They'd parted for the rest of that fall and winter, and by the time they met again the next spring, he'd been working on Winter.  

Over that summer they'd talked more, he could vividly remember sitting under the beech trees eating turnip and rabbit stew in the moonlight. Geralt had told him a little more about the life on the Path, about his brother-Witchers and the different Schools, which had later been the inspiration for The Stars Above the Path,  but try as he might he couldn't match the name 'Stregobor'  to any of those conversations. Not a fellow Witcher then -- no, no that wouldn't make sense. 

Next one, next spring had been -- of course -- the song he'd written to try to help Geralt lure out that succubus, which he'd never played for anyone else, although he had reused the melodic line later for Elaine Ettariel... And after they'd done that succubus job together, Geralt had finally seemed to start to really regard him as more than a nuisance, finally begun to tell him more than what was public knowledge about Witchers. One bright noon fishing for dinner by a river he'd thought to ask Geralt about the strange brooch that decorated the handle of his sword -- only an idle curiosity, expecting to hear more interesting Witcher customs, but instead Geralt drained dry the flask they'd been passing back and forth between them and told him -- 

This was a task that took considerable focus, so Jaskier couldn't really be blamed that he didn't notice the danger until it was nearly on them. Roach   noticed, beginning to stamp and whinny uneasily, but Jaskier was so lost in concentration that he didn't think anything of it until the first rustle of wings in the darkness.

That   brought Jaskier back to the present in a hurry. 

"Geralt?" 

Geralt was pacing around the circle of the firelight, looking out into the shadows with a tense expression -- and he'd done this so much on the first night that Jaskier had stopped paying attention, hadn't bothered to think that there must be something out there that the Witcher was reacting to.   But now there was something   out there, by all that was unholy, and Jaskier was grabbed by the throat with the sudden sinking realization that just because he was in Geralt's company didn't mean he was safe.   Not now.

Because Geralt didn't have his Witcher magic and he didn't have his encyclopedic monster knowledge and he didn't -- and the truth of it hit him like a blow, watching Geralt making grabbing motions at his shoulders that grasped only air -- didn't have his swords.

How the hell   had he missed that? Geralt had never, ever let himself be parted from his weapons -- he and his swords were so closely entwined in Jaskier's mind that he had completely failed to notice that the iconic twin blades were nowhere to be seen.   He'd even taken the time to notice that the rest of Geralt's gear was missing, for the Goddess' sake -- dropped back wherever whatever it was   had happened to steal his mind away -- but he hadn't made the connection until right now that without his swords, Geralt was helpless.

Helpless.

Jaskier wasn't going to get to hide behind Geralt this time. He'd dragged them both out here, to the woods at night, without ever thinking ...

"Geralt," Jaskier said, and oh, he was supposed to have better control over his voice than that.   How could he expect to keep Geralt calm and steady with a crack like that in his voice? 

Geralt let out a warning call -- not a growl or hum, a full-throat vocalization, it could have been a word except that it lacked all sense. He grabbed Jaskier and thrust the bard behind him, hands twitching restlessly for the swords that weren't there.

They didn't have a damn weapon among them. Jaskier made a point of not going armed -- it had been his experience that being in possession of a weapon did things to a man's head, all too often drawing him to stand his ground and fight when it would be much wiser to keep his feet ready to run. The closest thing he had to a blade was his dining knife -- barely longer than his hand, it at least had sharp edges and a point, but it was made of ordinary steel. He fumbled for it all the same, palming the handle and taking a deep breath, before he put a hand on Geralt's shoulder and gently pushed him aside.

"Look, far be it from me   to cast shade on your prowess, but -- Geralt, you're in no shape to fight this thing," Jaskier said, tried his best to project calm and confidence. "I -- think it's going to be me this time, how hard can it be really, how, how big a monster can it be all by itself in the woods out here? I've seen you take down beasties of the night without breaking a sweat --"

Geralt gave him a flat-lipped, pinch-browed look of pure annoyance, and Jaskier almost laughed at how familiar it was. He shoved Jaskier backwards again, taking up his stance one more between Jaskier and the rustling in the woods, and Jaskier sighed. No, some habits couldn't be broken, not even by a dying curse.

"Here, take the knife," Jaskier said, starting forward to push it into Geralt's hand; goddess knew the Witcher would make better use of it than he would. Geralt put a hand behind him, still staring into the woods -- not to take the knife, just to hold Jaskier back --

And the thing dropped out of the tree above him, on top   of him, and the sky was suddenly full of heaving black hide as its weight bore him to the ground.

Razor-sharp claws grabbed at his shoulders, talons dug into his lower back, and he screamed in surprise and pain as he went down. The noise was echoed by a shriek overhead, twice as loud, ten times as loud -- it echoed in his head and he was stunned, the breath punched out of him, agonizing spikes of pain caging him on every side. 

Half-blind and panicked Jaskier struggled -- got one leg under him and heaved, trying wildly to throw it off him -- but it jostled its weight on top of him and pinned him down and a truly foul   cloud of stench rolled over his shoulder into his face, making him choke and gag. He tried desperately to crane his neck around, see what was on top of him, but all he got was an eyeful of horrid jagged yellow teeth, diving for his face --

A blur of darkness rushed in from the left and bowled the thing off him; Jaskier tumbled onto his back, dragged along for a foot or so by tearing claws in his arm before they ripped away. Lines of pain drew over his arms and seemed to double in size even as the claws left him, throbbing magnificently as hot blood began to well in the wounds.

He got his feet under him, shakily, not enough balance to run but at least he could see.   Geralt was wrestling with -- well, Jaskier had no idea what it was, but it was dark and man-size and horrible. It had a face, of sorts -- a flat triangular face that sprouted gross fleshy lobes from the corners that framed bulging red eyes and folded back around its head. Teeth, yeah, definitely big nasty pointy teeth. Long, long arms that jointed strangely in the middle, leathery flaps of hide hanging loose between its elbows and ribs. Paws -- or hands -- that ended in a set of awful curved claws, each one   longer and sharper than Jaskier's wimpy little knife. The knife -- was nowhere to be seen, it had gone flying when the monster jumped on him.

"Geralt!" Jaskier called out but then stopped, completely at a loss for what to say next. Geralt's arms were locked around its head, the muscles of his forearms and biceps bulging quite heroically as he held it back with sheer physical strength, but -- no sword. No sword and no silver and no magic, and the monster was wild with the taste of blood, what could he do? What could he do?

The thing's legs folded under it and heaved, and it leaped -- not enough to break free of Geralt's grasp, but enough to overbear him, knocking him out of his stance and onto the ground. Some instinct or training must have taken over because Geralt landed and then rolled, came up in control of the grapple. He had it pinned to the ground with both hands around its neck, but he didn't seem to know what to do with it once he had it. With no weapons he couldn't kill it, he could only hold it -- and not for long.

"Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck- fuck,"   Jaskier chanted, rapid-fire, as he jittered around like a mouse on a hot griddle. Moments, he only had moments before Geralt was overwhelmed, what could he do? Had to think. What would Geralt do? Decapitate it in one mighty blow with his silver sword, of course.   Failing that. What else? What else?

Well, he'd reach down into the plumbless depths of his scary Witcher training and pull up some obscure fact that would prove the key to defeating this particular type of monster. Which was what, exactly? "Drowner? No, no," Jaskier mumbled. "Ghoul? No. Saw one once. Not this." Necrophage? No. Fiend? No. Black, nasty, big teeth, red eyes, flew or at least had a hell of a jump. Vampire?

There's not just one type of vampire,   Geralt's cranky voice echoed in his head. The higher vampires can even pass for human -- no, that definitely didn't apply here. Lower vampire, then. Though still high enough off the ground to rip them both into mincemeat.

The monster -- vampire? -- shrieked again and slashed with its horrible little knife-hands, and Geralt's head snapped to the side, new gouges appearing along his face. They fell just short of his neck. They bled sluggishly, more slowly than the ones on Jaskier's arms, but they still bled. He could feel the blood pouring down his arms, pooling in the elbows of his doublets and -- and it was strange how that one sensation stood out against all the rest, against the pain and panic and desperation.

What, oh what   had Geralt said about that time he'd hunted vampires in Toussaint? What worked on vampires? Well, silver.   Besides that. Poison bombs? He didn't have those. Vampire oil? He didn't even know how you made that.   Black blood blessed unguent moon dust argentia fire --

Jaskier moved without thinking -- he lunged forward and snatched a log out of the fire, coals scattering and ashes puffing as the campfire collapsed and plunged the clearing into red darkness. But he could still see the black thing on top of Geralt, its back turned to him, and he raised the burning brand like a club and belted the thing as hard as he could across the head.

The log broke, coals scattering, but that definitely   got its attention; it rounded on him with an outraged scream and Jaskier dropped the brand and scrambled backwards as fast as he could. If it had gone for him immediately it could have had his throat out in an instant -- but instead it cringed back, little bits of burning wood breaking off against its wrinkled hide and leaving smoldering scars. 

Geralt rolled smoothly to his feet and was forward again in a flash, once more putting himself between Jaskier and the monster. "Geralt!" Jaskier called out, and when Geralt looked his way he grabbed another burning branch out of the fire and tossed it to him.

The Witcher caught it smoothly -- good   boy -- and in pure automatic reflex he brought it up in a two-handed stance that Jaskier could have drawn from memory. Geralt moved forward again, steps light and quick, and wielding the branch like a sword he slashed at the monster from shoulder to hip.

It didn't quite   work, of course -- the brand had no slashing power -- but the vampire definitely was not enjoying this. It retreated, screeching pitifully and attempting to shield its folded-back face from the heat and light of the burning branch. Geralt followed up without hesitation or mercy, and after a few more dodges and slashes, the monster finally lost its nerve.

With a powerful bunching of its legs, the vampire launched itself upwards into the darkness above the branches. Geralt gave it one last lunge -- scoring its legs and feet with a searing blow even as it scrabbled and scuffled to get away. Then it was gone, out of reach, and Geralt went a few more steps into the forest before stopping dead.

"Niya's rotting tits!"   Jaskier swore, just to relieve his feelings. He more or less collapsed on the spot, now that the panic of the moment had ebbed. "You certainly gave him   a thing to think about, eh, Geralt? Hah! Right upside his ugly mug! Gone off to lick his wounds -- I hope he dies of them!"

Geralt turned back towards him, dropping the branch like -- of course, it must have burned his hands too, Jaskier realized. His own palms were searing and itching from where he'd grabbed the branch out of the fire and he'd   only held it for a few seconds. Geralt was bleeding from long slashes, blotchy bruises on his face from where he'd been slammed onto the ground, palms smoking. 

"Oh, Geralt," Jaskier sighed, stepping towards Geralt with his hand held out, wanting nothing more than to calm his friends so that he could try to patch him up like they had so many times before. As the thrill of survival and victory faded, worry rushed back in -- and guilt. It was his fault, after all, that they'd been on the road after dark without even a weapon.

But instead Geralt rushed towards him, stopped in front of him with an expression of naked fear on his face as he grabbed Jaskier by the elbows. He breathed in deep, nostrils flaring, and his eyes were wide and white-rimmed around black, flaring pupils. Another deep inhale, and his breath leaked out in a grunt of anguish as he began to pat down over Jaskier's chest, his back, looking for -- Of course. He can smell the blood.

Just like the night in the inn, like the first night in the woods. Here he was, having just fought off a vampire with his bare hands   or close enough -- bruised and blistered and bleeding and he was only worried that Jaskier was injured. And, well. He was   injured this time, but honestly, it wasn't serious. The slashes were long but shallow, already clotting and sticking irritatingly to the shredded fabric of his sleeve, and he'd be fine. Except how the hell was he going to convince an overprotective Witcher of that?

Geralt was making little noises of anguish, half-grunt half-moans that tore at Jaskier worse than the claws had done. He took a deep breath, tried to calm himself, tried to tamp down the flush of adrenaline and pain and triumph -- he had no chance of calming Geralt if he was still panicking himself. When he thought he could control his face and his voice, he reached up and turned Geralt's face towards his, and smiled. "Geralt, I'm all right," he said, projecting absolute certainty into his tone. "It's fine. I'm alive. See? It's nothing serious, you don't need to fret."

The stricken Witcher stared back at him, and Jaskier regretted every wish he'd ever made that Geralt would be a little more emotive. His face was naked,   a study in misery and uncomprehending fear. Jaskier took another calming breath, took Geralt's hand in his left and guided his first two fingers to press against the side of Jaskier's neck. "I'm all right," he repeated. "Feel my heartbeat? Feel how strong it is? I'm not dying. You did great, Geralt. You protected me. You were... incredible. As always."

Geralt's chest heaved a little less, the awful noises died away to a dull rumble, and Jaskier dared to hope that it was working. He kept up his reassuring smile, his deep and steady breathing -- and after a moment more Geralt leaned in and picked him nearly up off his feet in an all-engulfing hug. 

Jaskier -- melted into it, honestly, it had been a hell   of a night and Geralt's familiar steady presence was the best medicine he could have asked for. Geralt smelled of sweat and char and not a little of blood himself, but Jaskier didn't mind at all. For a moment he could pretend that it really was   all right after all, that they were both fine and and sharing a moment of triumph after another close shave, and later he'd sing about it and Geralt would complain that he'd gotten the details wrong --

The hug ended sooner than Jaskier would have liked, really. Geralt took hold of his shoulders and pulled him back, golden eyes searching his face, the awful stress-lines relaxing back into his usual handsome visage. Jaskier was so busy admiring that face that he didn't realize what was happening until Geralt stooped down, leaned in and captured his mouth in a kiss as all-enveloping as the embrace had been.

For a moment Jaskier froze, feeling as punched-out as if another vampire had landed on him. He simply couldn't reconcile the reality of what was happening -- Geralt's breath blowing against the strip of skin beneath his nose, a moist warmth enveloping his lips, hot and salty with a nasty tang of blood. A surprisingly soft tongue, touching his lips and leaving a powerful tingle. His senses momentarily shut down under the flood of touch and smell and taste that was familiar-but-never-like-THIS -- 

And then Geralt pulled away, set his forehead against Jaskier's and heaved a wordless sigh of relief. He stood there for a moment more, swaying back and forth just slightly with Jaskier held in his arms, before some impulse roused him. The Witcher looked left, then right, then let go of Jaskier and headed back over to inspect the smears of char and ugly black blood over the ground, crouching with his head cocked to one side as though the marks were some language only he could read.

Jaskier was left standing there, standing very, very still and staring forward into nothing, with only one thought flashing over and over through his mind:

I am so fucked.




Chapter Text

The warm spring weather hadn't lasted. A bank of clouds had rolled in from the coast, raising fog from the river and plunging the lowlands into cold wet drizzle. A week out from Kareh, a week of cold, wet camps without fire or hot food, had brought them here, to the one place Jaskier had hoped he wouldn't have to go. 

He'd spent the last week dragging Geralt across the countryside, pillar to post, in search of a healer or mage who could help them, who could free Geralt from his curse. Every lead, every rumor he could find had run out to nothing in the end, and here they were. 

The Temple of Melitele. The end of the road.

He'd been here before -- last time he'd come to see Geralt, who was lying up recovering after some terrible fight or another had torn him up more than even a Witcher's endurance could bear. The sisters and priestesses here were kind enough, competent enough, but he knew that they had no miracle cures, no easy fixes for the dark magic that afflicted Geralt. That wasn't why he'd come.

He'd come because he was giving up.

With a sigh that seemed to drag from his toes all the way up to his throat, Jaskier urged Roach forward. The mare moved eagerly enough at the sight of shelter ahead, the promise of a warm stall and decent food, and stepped briskly across the short bridge to the gated entrance of the monastery. The front wall was high and blank, over eight feet tall, but lacked the defensive fortifications one would find in a proper castle. Geralt sat straight on the mare's back and looked around in frank curiosity, displaying none of the nervous tension that the other towns had fostered in him. Did he recognize this place, buried somewhere under the weight of the curse? Did he know this was where he needed to be?

No guards stopped him, but as he passed under the archway several robed and cowled figures came towards him, so he stopped Roach to wait for them. "Fair morning," he said, trying to summon a scrap of cheerfulness somewhere from the bottom of his bags.

"Jaskier," one of the cowled figures said in apparent recognition, though he couldn't place the man for the life of him. "And Geralt of Rivia. We did not receive word that you were coming."

"Oh, well, there was no point in sending a message when we'd be right behind it," Jaskier said. "Is Nenneke here?"

The second acolyte -- a young woman Jaskier had definitely not met before, he would have remembered that face -- shook her head. "The High Priestess is away meeting with the others at the hospital of St. Lebioda," she said. "She's not expected to return for a fortnight more."

Jaskier slumped a little in disappointment. While there was no love lost between himself and the goddess' high priestess -- she clearly thought he was a scoundrel, a rascal, a wastrel, and many other words ending with el,   and he thought she had a stick up her ass that was just as clearly giving her no enjoyment in the process -- Geralt trusted her. It would have been easier on Geralt -- easier on both of them if there had been someone at the Temple that Geralt knew and trusted.

But she wasn't, so they'd just have to make the best of it. He explained the problem -- to the best of his understanding -- to the two shocked acolytes, how he'd found Geralt wandering in the woods and suspected a curse. The female acolyte agreed to help right away, her round face shining with sympathy; her older colleague was a little more hesitant, but it didn't take too much persuasion to get him to agree as well. 

The witcher himself showed no sign that he recognized the temple, but neither did he show the red-lined tension of the town or the wary alertness of the forest. He was calm and interested in the new environment of the temple, exploring the courtyard and the little nooks off it, and Jaskier tried to salve his bruised heart with the thought that he would be happy here.

Geralt would stay here. The Temple of Melitele had long experience in caring for those who could not care for themselves, whether the infirmity was in the body or the mind. They would watch over Geralt, feed him and clean him and make sure he didn't get himself hurt or killed. And Jaskier -- Jaskier would leave.

He wasn't just walking away and abandoning Geralt, no matter how much it felt like it. He fully intended to keep on searching for a cure, or at least someone who knew more about the problem than he did. He would keep traveling, keep searching, keep on collecting coin and rumors and leads, and return to the Temple when he had something more to offer.

He wasn't just abandoning Geralt -- but it sure as hell felt like it.

Jaskier knew he wasn't the right person for this. He wasn't a hero like Geralt, or a mage like Yennefer, or a legendary warrior, or a scholar or a patron or anything worth having. He couldn't protect Geralt, couldn't fix   him, and now he realized he wasn't even the right person to care for him when he was defenseless. 

The problem was -- he'd been in love with Geralt for too long. Had wanted him for too damn long. There had been many occasions over the course of their acquaintance -- their friendship,   fuck it, he was going to use the word even if Geralt wouldn't -- when Jaskier had let his eyes wander more than they should. Geralt certainly had no shame when it came to bathing in a river or stripping down for bed and it had been a dram for his thirsty soul to let himself look, and wish, and imagine. It had always felt safe   to do so because Goddess knew that Geralt could enforce his own damn boundaries -- frequently did,   with no hesitation. However much he might have looked and longed, Jaskier knew perfectly well that Geralt would never let him get away with anything the other man didn't want.

Now, though -- now. Clearly, Geralt wasn't in his right mind. Clearly , Geralt couldn't enforce his own boundaries worth a damn. How could Jaskier trust himself to do so, after twenty years of indulgence? How could Geralt trust him now -- or ever again, if he let his desires rule him?

So he turned Geralt over to the care of people he could trust to look out for him, turned with a heavy heart towards the arched gate, feet dragging like the vines that overgrew the trellis. And at the archway, he met with  a little problem: 

Geralt was still trying to follow him.

The acolytes had Geralt well in hand, or so he'd thought; a simple lunch had been laid on one of the long tables in a cool room opening off the courtyard, and Geralt had seemed occupied by it. Jaskier thought he could slip away while the man was distracted -- but even in his reduced state, Geralt's hearing was preternatural. Or maybe he'd just looked up from his bread and soup and found Jaskier gone.

Either way, Jaskier hadn't made it past the trellised archway before the shouts of consternation and running footsteps sounded in the courtyard behind him, and he turned to see Geralt striding towards him, jaw set and brow furrowed. Jaskier, what the hell are you doing?   -- he could hear it perfectly in Geralt's voice, and it was another blow to his heart when he said nothing. The Witcher fetched up beside the archway; looked out towards the road, looked back at him expectantly. 

"Ah... no, Geralt, not this time," Jaskier tried to explain, feeling beset by a weird sense of dissonance as he did. Since when did Geralt follow him   out on the road? It was usually Geralt who snuck out in the mornings and Jaskier who scrambled to catch up, trailing after him on foot. "You have to stay here. It's a shame, I know, but just think of me when you're lying cozy in your bed and eating food off the best trestles, while I'm out in the wilderness sleeping in thornbrakes and eating my shoes for breakfast --"

Geralt did not budge, still giving Jaskier that expectant stare. And when Jaskier edged towards the entryway, Geralt went with him.

The attendants caught up at last, breathless from chasing Geralt across half the temple. "Sorry about that, Master Jaskier," the female attendant gasped, "we just looked away for a moment --"

"No, not your fault," Jaskier assured her. Very few people had ever been able to hold Geralt back when he wanted to go somewhere. Which was going to be a problem. "I don't -- he's been following me this entire time. I don't think he understands that he needs to stay here."

The female attendant did her best to capture Geralt's attention again, calling him like one would a standoffish cat, but Geralt refused to be distracted. A line of worry was beginning to pinch his brows, and his jaw had a stubborn set to it. Jaskier didn't know how much of the proceedings he understood right now, but he knew that Geralt was having none of it. He had no words, but Jaskier had long experience with reading his body language, and he knew that right now his Witcher was announcing in his equivalent of a parade-ground bellow that where Jaskier went, he went also.

"Well, this is a bit of a pickle." With the ease of long practice, Jaskier concealed sick dread with flippant sarcasm.

"It's best if you go quickly." The male attendant, older and more experienced than his colleague, set his mouth in a grim line. "We can undertake to keep him here. Perhaps, when you are out of sight, you will be out of his mind as well."

"Perhaps," Jaskier echoed, like the very thought of Geralt forgetting about him didn't make him sick to his stomach. It's for the best, it's for the best.  "But -- keep him how?"

"It's not the first time we've had to deal with patients being -- uncooperative," the man assured him. "It's better if the family does not get involved. We shall not harm him, Master Bard. But it's for the best to make the break clean. Go quickly, and don't look back. The more you linger, the longer it will take him to forget you."

It wasn't often that Jaskier was the one who walked away and left Geralt behind. The last time -- the last time had been on that fucking dragon hunt. The same awful sinking feeling that had pulled him all the way down the mountain settled in his stomach now as he shouldered his lute and his rucksack and walked out through the archway.

Don't look back . The acolyte said it was better not to, and he had to heed those words. Jaskier walked out of the temple of Melitele like the hapless hero who had gone to the underworld to plead for the life of his beloved in song, the agony of uncertainty wracking every step, not daring to look back.

It's for the best...

From behind him he heard the increasing sound of scuffling in the courtyard, the shouting of unfamiliar voices and the annoyed growls of an all-too-familiar one. They won't hurt him,   he promised himself. They couldn't, really. They don't have the strength.   

It's for the best...

Not physically, no, but -- the pain of being abandoned, left behind and cast aside, unwanted,   that hurt deeper than any physical wound. It wasn't the acolytes that would inflict that pain on Geralt, of course. Only Jaskier could do that.

It's the best thing you can do for him...

Behind him Geralt's grunts and growls became less annoyed, more urgent, shading towards frantic as Jaskier got further out of sight with every step. The voice got into Jaskier's heart until it was twisting, tearing,   and his breath came short in his lungs as it felt like his chest was collapsing on itself. Every step felt like he was walking through tar -- but he kept walking, one foot in front of the other; don't look back.

Is to leave and don't --

Geralt called out. Not with words. Just his voice -- wordless, senseless, but so full of confusion and longing and pain that all at once Jaskier's resolve snapped

-- look back.

He turned and ran the distance back to the temple in half the time it took him to trudge it the first time, his heart beating wild and unsteady in his chest, short breaths gasping in his lungs. Geralt was still in the courtyard, now with half a dozen of the acolytes hanging off him; hair disheveled, eyes wild. When Jaskier reappeared in his vision he shrugged off the others with a mighty shake of his limbs and lunged forward -- grabbing Jaskier into a hug, very nearly taking them both to the ground. Geralt's breath was blowing as though he'd just run a mile, his hands grasped at Jaskier's shoulders with desperate strength.

Jaskier fought for his footing, clung back to Geralt as fiercely as Geralt was clinging to him, the Witcher alternating between angry rumbling and distressed whines.  "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he choked out, on his knees next to Geralt, cradling his witcher's face in his hands. "I can't do it, Geralt. I can't walk away from you. I'm sorry."

He was dimly aware of the acolytes moving around them, hovering and making noises of disapproval and outrage. But there was no more question of leaving Geralt here, safety or no. He'd have to think of something. Else.

 




Klodzko didn't have much of a night life scene. It didn't even have a proper inn, not a place where travelers could sleep -- but it did have a bar, a place for the locals to gather and drink and talk at the end of the day. A place where locals could drink, talk -- and listen.

The bard stood up at the end of the pub, strummed once on his lute to announce the beginning of his set. The crowd quieted their chatter -- not to nothing, of course, but the chance to see a professional   performance didn't come along every day and most people were eager to hear him sing. Like most people living in these little off-the-roads towns, there was little enough entertainment that they would listen to just about anything. 

He set his face in a bright smile, arranged his fingers on the fretboard, and began to sing.

 

Have you heard the song of the wolf to the moon
'Come find me,' he howls, 'Come find me!'
It's a song of blood dripping down on the heath
Down from the sword left too long in its sheath
Come find me, come find me, come find me.

Have you heard the song of the bard on the mount
'Where are you,' he's singing, 'Where are you?'
Of the shadow of wings passing over the moon,
Of an ill-fated meeting; already too soon
Where are you, where are you, where are you.

Have you heard the song of the wolf to the woods,
'I need you,' he murmurs, 'I need you.'
Of lilac and gooseberries, dark in the night,
And a soft-creeping spell that no silver can fight,
I need you, I need you, I need you.

Have you heard the song of the wolf to the moon?
The plea of the wolf to the pale lilac moon?
Come find me, come find me, come find me.

 

The song was greeted with warm applause and a considerably less-warm patter of pennies to his table, which -- well, Jaskier would take what he could get in a backwater town like this. But already he could hear the echoes starting in the corner of the room; patrons humming 'Come find me, come find me, come find me' in a broken refrain. That had been the part he'd really wanted to get right -- to stick in the mind and invite rebroadcasting -- so he was glad to see it was working.

And if he wanted for them to keep it in their minds all night, to wake up in the morning with the refrain on their lips -- repeating it for everyone to hear and pass on -- then this had to be his last song for the evening, lest more music push it out of their minds. He packed up his lute and his case, counted the meager pile of pennies twice in hopes that the number would somehow change, and called a cheery good night to the bar full of patrons.

As soon as he crossed the threshold, the smile dropped off his face. He took a minute -- just a minute -- to press his palms into the hollows of his eyes, fingers curling into his hair. Blew out his breath, opened his eyes again and rearranged his face into the careful cheerful smile.

Halfway to Roggven the name Stregobor   had finally clicked -- the name slotting home with a few others torn out of the painful depths of Geralt's past. Renfri. Blaviken. Stregobor was the mage who had made Geralt into the Butcher of Blaviken in the first place -- his machinations that had drawn in the Witcher, trying to gain his help in killing the Black Sun Princess. Geralt had refused, but then had to fight to defend himself -- and Renfri had died, and Geralt was stoned out of the town, and Stregobor walked off with everything he wanted.

He remembered now that he'd started to compose a song for it -- people needed to know the truth, Geralt! -- but the Witcher had told him in a deadly tone to leave it. Only now, with over a decade more life experience under his belt, did it occur to Jaskier just how bad for his health -- and Geralt's -- it would have been to publish that song. To draw the attention, and the ire, of so dangerous a force. 

And it meant that the absolute last   thing he wanted was for Stregobor to get his hands on Geralt.  Given the wizard's fondness for vivisection  when faced with an exciting new abhuman to study, death would be the very best Geralt could hope for.

So Roggven was right out. He couldn't trust Stregobor, or any mage that Stregobor had ties with -- which let out pretty much all of Ban Ard, he realized with dismay. None of them were safe, none of them could be trusted with Geralt's wellbeing. And yet the need for a mage remained. He needed a mage who was powerful, who had reason to care if Geralt lived or died, and who ran entirely outside of the bounds of the great magic schools and their patrons.

He needed Yennefer . Yennefer of bloody Vengerberg. 

And the one time he wanted to see her, of course, he has no bloody idea where she was.

Hence: the new song. He'd been barking it at every public-house for the past week. Jaskier knew he was good at his trade, he knew how to make a catchy tune and encourage it to spread -- but he had no fucking clue when or even if  this was going to work. Who knew if Yennefer was even in the Northern Kingdoms right now, or going out in public, or listening to tavern songs at all? It was a roll of the dice to try to catch her attention before he caught someone less savory.

Even if she heard the song, she might not realize what it means. The message was obvious to him,   but he never knew how much a listener would really pick up on in terms of hidden meanings. And even if she heard it and   realized what it meant, she might well just decide to ignore it, or return the message only to tell him and Geralt to both fuck off together. It seemed entirely like her.

It was a long shot. But it was also absolutely the only thing Jaskier could think of to do. Keep singing, keep moving, and keep Geralt safe in the meantime.

He'd left Geralt in the stables this time. Jaskier was still on a hunt for a place he could stash the Witcher during these excursions into town where he wouldn't inevitably get in trouble. Make trouble, or draw trouble's attention to him -- it hardly seemed to matter which. A room above the inn, a back alley behind the bar, a corner in the kitchen with the cook paid off to keep him distracted with treats -- nothing worked. If Jaskier was gone for more than the time it took to sing a song or two Geralt inevitably came looking for him, and would let nothing stand in his way.

His last gambit was leaving Geralt in the stables with Roach. The horse   at least had the good sense to stay where she was put, and Geralt was attached enough to the horse that Jaskier hoped desperately he would stay put too.

Destiny - as usual - had other ideas.

As Jaskier rounded the building towards the stables, he saw a figure standing in the road -- three figures. One very, very much unmistakable Witcher, and two strangers. Locals, probably. Petty craftsmen, probably. Drunk and bored on a spring night and looking for whatever crude entertainment a patrol of the streets can turn up, almost certainly. Jaskier quickened his pace, but he was still a good way away.

"Hey!" the first man -- all Jaskier could see in this light was his silhouette, short and squat -- pushed his way into Geralt's space. "What are you lookin' at, huh? Mutant freak! You wanna start something?"

His buddy, tall and lanky, hung further back. "Kinda seems like you're the one starting things, Jak," he said.

Jaskier could see Geralt's face clearly in the lamplight and the Witcher's expression was... blank, reserved, the face he always put on when dealing with strangers. Only Jaskier could see the tension building in his body, the spring slowly winding to fight   or flight   as he looked between the two strangers who decided to accost him, then once again tried to move forward towards the pub.

Squat-and-stocky got in his way again, planting his hands on Geralt's chest and shoving him backwards. "Hey... hey... I'm talkin' to you, freak! Answer me when I'm talkin' to you!"

"Maybe he can't talk?" tall-and-lanky said with a careless shrug.

"Oh is that right?" The first one put his face right up against Geralt's, or as close as he could get with the height difference. "I guess witchers really are just like dumb animals huh?"

"We could have some fun with that,"   tall-and-lanky snickered.

Geralt's eyes narrowed, his shoulders tense, and Jaskier nearly sprinted the last few paces to arrive on the scene. "Excuse me   gentlemen," he said in a loud voice from right behind them, causing both of them to startle. "I'm trying to get to my horse and you are blocking the way."

He marched past them with his back straight and took hold of Geralt's arm, beginning to guide him back towards the stable. Geralt went willingly enough, but kept looking over his shoulder to keep an eye on the two strangers. "Hey!" the short one called out, footsteps following after them. "What's wrong with the mutant? Is he some kinda simp?"

Jaskier gritted his teeth on the half-a-dozen blistering retorts that he wanted   to throw back at the man in return for the insult. But he didn't want to pick a fight with these idiots, not here, not now. "On the contrary," he chirped instead, making his voice bright and bubbly. "Like all witchers, he has undertaken a vow of silence, to keep his focus trained on the terrible beasts he must battle."

"I never heard that about wizards," the thug said, voice thick with suspicion. He was still following them -- if he followed them to the stables, they'd be boxed in, and Geralt might decide they were really under threat.

"Well, you've heard it now, from the expert on the subject: Jaskier the bard!" Jaskier spread out his arm and bowed extravagantly in his direction. "Now, I'm afraid we're quite outside of autograph hours, so if you gentlemen would just clear out of the road and head on back to the nice warm tavern for a drink --"

The tableau hung for a moment, the mood wavering on the brink of belligerence; then the thug's friend stepped forward and took hold of his arm, much the way Jaskier's was linked with Geralt. "Let's just go, Jak," the guy muttered.

And -- thank Melitele! -- the two of them staggered off. Jaskier nearly went weak in the knees with relief. Seizing the opportunity before the hostile one decided to come back -- more drunk, or with more drunks -- Jaskier piled their luggage on Roach, urged Geralt aboard, and cleared the hell out of Klodzko.

 


 

On a farm track outside town they found an abandoned grain silo -- the floor still coated with dessicated barley husks, the droppings of rodents come to feast, the tracks of foxes and wildcats come for the second course. Part of the roof had fallen in and through broken boards in the sides they could see the encroaching forest out back, bushes and young trees taking over what had once been a fallow field.

It would do for the night. There was not even straw or hay to make a bed on, but the walls would trap at least some of the fire's heat and the partial roof would keep at least some of the wet off. Jaskier set a fire, boiled some water and portioned out a dinner out of the last of the jerky and what vegetables and last-year's nuts he'd been able to find along the road. Geralt didn't seem to mind the taste, and if he was still hungry when the poor meal was over with, he didn't show it. 

From where she was picketed outside the silo Roach grazed in the darkness, letting out annoyed horse noises at the sparse grass. He was worried about Roach more than anything, truth to tell. He and Geralt could go hungry if they had to -- they had before -- but Roach needed food. It wasn't fair on... well, none of this was fair,   but Roach had never had a choice about this.

The acolytes at Melitele's Temple had given them a sack of supplies when they left, but those were long gone by now. The handful of pennies he'd earned in the pub was the sum and total of all their liquid assets. Even sleeping rough and foraging what he could from the countryside, they were running dangerously dry. 

Geralt couldn't take contracts in the state he was in, couldn't even take part-work that made use of his strength and endurance, and Jaskier -- Jaskier couldn't perform, either. Not when he needed to look after Geralt pretty much constantly. He had yet to find a place where the Witcher could safely stay while he performed, so he pretty much had to do the one song and then clear out. 

It had been a week since leaving the Temple. Three weeks since finding Geralt wandering in the woods. In all that time Jaskier had barely gotten a full night's worth of sleep. Every night Geralt had night terrors, and every night Jaskier had to sing and soothe him back to rest. He had   to -- if left uncomforted, Geralt would lash out at the shadows in his mind, becoming a danger to himself and everyone around him. They'd been turned out of more than one tavern for the ruckus the pair of them made in the nighttime, even before they'd run out of money for lodging.

Jaskier could still feel the gnawing painful edge at the bottom of his stomach -- their meagre dinner hadn't fully sated it, and he knew it was only going to come back stronger.  The thought of tonight, of Geralt's inevitable nightmares, filled him with dread. The thought of tomorrow left him tired -- empty, dry, and a creeping tide of despair. There had to be some other way of making money, of getting food, of getting help -- but with his mind thick and clouded from little food and bad sleep, he couldn't think .

"Sorry you had to hear that -- that two-bit thug, Geralt," he said at last, unable to bear the silence a moment longer.  Jaskier said, as he inspected his lute carefully for wear and damage. One of the tuning pegs was slipping -- no matter how he adjusted it, the wood was just too worn down to hold. This would normally be the time to replace it, but with what   money? "Well, I suppose it didn't bother you. I guess it probably wouldn't have bothered you even if you could understand him -- it never seemed to, when people call you awful things to your face. But if he'd tried something -- if he'd taken a swing at you..."

Geralt, in his right mind, had taken some pretty astonishing abuse from people without raising his hand or his voice. Jaskier   was more likely to leap into a barroom brawl at an insult than the Witcher, because the Witcher knew that his enhanced strength and reflexes would more than likely end the fight with someone dead. But Geralt-as-he-was-now didn't have that self-control, and if the man had attacked him -- if his buddy had mixed in -- then Geralt would have defended himself...

And Geralt, when he regained his right mind, would have to live with the knowledge that he'd killed two men for stupidity.

"It's really astonishing how quickly you attract trouble, you know?" Jaskier said, trying to make light of it. "I wasn't in there for an hour. Half! And to think, you accused me of making trouble for you -- as though you didn't make enough on your own for three people."

Geralt, of course, said nothing. He sat before the fire with his hands clasped around his knees, studying it as intently as he would a new monster he had to tackle.

Jaskier frowned down at the lute in his lap. "That's the one thing I do still hold against you, you know. After all it's not like I didn't know I was a burden, not like I thought I measured up," he said bitterly. "But the law of surprise -- that was all you. You had no call to blame that on me. Even the djinn -- " He swallowed. "I didn't deserve that. I didn't. "

Geralt said nothing.

"I imagined our reunion so many times, you know?" These were words Jaskier never thought he would have the courage to say it to Geralt's face, but... why not? What was there to lose? It wasn't as though Geralt could understand him. "I had it all scripted out. A dozen different versions. Some more likely than others, of course. The one where I stab you in the heart after making a dramatic speech was a little self-indulgent of me. So was the one where you groveled at my feet and then made love to me on a four-poster bed with a feather down coverlet. 

"But I thought I accounted for every possibility. I thought maybe you might apologize, once you'd had time to cool down. And then maybe I thought you wouldn't, that you never learned how to apologize, that you never had a friend good enough to learn how to do things like that." He let out a laugh -- a harsh, bitter sound. "And you know what, in the end I was willing to throw every one of those scripts in the fire, I was willing to fall in behind you and pretend that nothing had happened at all, if it meant I could be by your side again. Pathetic, huh?"

"Do you know," Jaskier wrapped his lute away, struggling to speak against the lump that threatened to form in his throat. "I've been all over the continent, from brothels to throne rooms to battlefields, and you're still the best man I've ever met. You deserve to have someone who cares about you, you need   someone who cares about you, no matter what you think. I wanted to be that for you but you made it hard to be your friend Geralt, you made it so hard." His voice cracked, a little. 

Geralt looked up from his intent study of the fire, looked at him, and said nothing.

"I gave twenty years of my life to you, I gave you everything I knew how to give, and you kicked it back in my face! Now I wonder if I ever should have tried at all. If I was just fooling myself the whole damn time," Jaskier said, and bitterness drenched every word, it was all coming out and he couldn't stop it. Wasn't sure he even wanted to stop it. "And then you vanish off the face of the continent for six months! I didn't know if I was ever going to see you again, I didn't know if I would ever get another chance with you and now here we are. Here we are! And you aren't even listening!"

He jumped to his feet, the words bubbling up now almost faster than he could say them, pain and anger and frustration that he had pushed down and down and down into his stomach now come to a roiling boil, all spilling over in a shout . "You're so stupid, Geralt, do you know that? So fucking stupid! You think you know everything about anything, and you don't know jack shit about people! About how to be a person!"

Geralt looked at him, watching his temper rage, and said nothing.

"You think you can pretend away your own humanity if you just don't ever fucking admit you have it. You think you don't need anyone, anyone at all. And look at you now!" He swept his arms out in a grand, dramatic, sarcastic gesture, as though he was introducing Geralt at a ball. "The mighty Witcher, the White Wolf of Rivia! Can't fight! Can't hunt! Can't even take a bath without a lowly bard wiping his ass! A stupid, helpless , bumbling, worthless , incompetent, clumsy, USELESS BARD!"

Jaskier hit himself in the chest, to punctuate each word, pain flaring from his ribs the point of the impact but nowhere near   the pain he felt under them, the tearing grief that threatened to devour his heart. "I can't do this! I can't fix this! I'm the wrong person for this," he gasped out. "I don't know how to do this! I... I need you,   Geralt, and now you're the one who needs me." 

He didn't even realize he'd begun to cry until the fire smeared to a reddish glow, until Geralt's pale face and golden eyes blurred together. He saw Geralt get up. "I always wanted you to need me... just once," he said, and the tears came harder now, grief torn up by the roots and pouring out of him. "But not like this." God, not like this.   

In the dark of the night he had wondered, more than once -- was this his doing, somehow? Was there some awful fragment of djinn magic surrounding him, even after these years, to grant him that dark secret wish in the most awful of ways? If he had stayed with Geralt... if he hadn't fucked things up, on the mountain... could he have stopped this somehow? Is this all my fault?

Geralt had not reacted to any of Jaskier's dramatic display of anger, only watching him with bright eyes -- but at the sight of his tears, the sound of his sobs, the Witcher's attitude changed. He stood up and came around the fire, took hold of Jaskier's shoulders, urged him to lift his chin. The golden eyes searched carefully over his face, the hands patted down his shoulders while the Witcher made small, questioning noises under each breath. Checking for injuries, Jaskier realized in a burst of clarity, torn out of his selfish preoccupation for a moment. Geralt thought he was hurt.

And damn if that didn't just make it hurt worse. 

Geralt let out a little ah   sound as Jaskier flung his arms around him, pulled them close together and rocked them slightly. After a moment Geralt's hands slid up his back and the Witcher hugged him close, and the warmth, the smell, the solidity of him was still a balm -- a blessing   despite everything else in this shitty, shitty day.

Geralt still wanted to protect him. Even now, when Jaskier was running himself ragged trying to protect him   instead. Even ground down to nothing, stripped to the most basic level, Geralt still wanted to help.  

No wonder Jaskier had fallen in love with him. How could he ever have not?

"Look at you..." Jaskier's voice died in his throat, and he had to cough to get it back. "Fuck. You don't even know your own name and you're upset to think that I'm in pain." 

Geralt made another noise, a soothing hum, and nosed at the side of Jaskier's neck. He seemed calmer, now that he was reassured that Jaskier wasn't hurt, and the tears dripping down into his silver hair didn't seem to bother him at all. "I swear, Geralt, I'll find a way to help you," Jaskier said, his throat thick and tight, as high as his arms around his friend. No matter what it took, no matter how long, no matter how hard. "I will."






Dawn was slow to come the next day, doused in thick clinging fog. There was only a progressive lightening of the fog from charcoal to gray to white to show that daylight had come at all.

Wrapped in Geralt's arms, Jaskier was in no particular hurry to move. He roused when a loud crackle came from the nearby woods -- a deadfall, perhaps, or some large animal -- but settled back down after a few seconds. He didn't want to move just yet.

When he got up, the day would begin, and with it all its hardships -- no food, no fire, clothes and gear soaked through from morning dew. He would have to face down the increasingly daunting task that he had taken on, start again on the steep uphill climb of finding enough food and shelter for all of them, pick a new direction and start walking. But for now -- just for now -- he could just nestle down into the warm cocoon with Geralt, and let it all go for a little while.

He drifted into a doze, half-formed dreams seeming to wisp out of the fog and dance in front of his eyes. Roach whickered at something nearby, blending into dreams of riding. Maybe they could head west, stick to following the rivers till they emptied out in the sea. A man by the sea need never starve so long as he wasn't too picky about what he ate, he remembered that from his first year of wandering. From there they could make their way up the coast... find a place to stay, more pubs to play in... maybe... maybe he could -- 

"Isn't this just sickeningly adorable," a familiar voice drawled, and Jaskier came awake with a jangling, painful suddenness. "Are you two done? I can leave and come back later. Or just leave, for that matter."

He jerked upright in the bedroll, tangling in the blankets and Geralt's grasping hand, to stare into the beautiful eyes and thunderous scowl of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Who stood in the broken-down door of the ruined silo with old grain sifting over her fine silk shoes, dress trailing over the grass, hands on her hips with exasperation. 

Jaskier   meanwhile was lying burrowed up with Geralt in a tangle of limbs and blankets, eyes bloodshot with yesterday's outburst, face striped with grime, hair a bird's nest. Yennefer looked him over -- looked them both over -- and raised one utterly unimpressed, impeccably made-up eyebrow.

"Well?" she said. "You wanted me?"

 


 

~tbc...

Chapter Text

It was a lovely spring afternoon at an outdoor cafe in Lyria when she first heard the song.

She'd spent much of the winter tucked up at the estate of Lady Mirow, the Marquess of Buxhoeveden -- an aging scion of a minor noble house, now largely fallen out of power but still retaining all their old treasures. The family was most known for their increasingly rare wines, but in other circles even more famous for their generations-old library. Supposedly there were copies of manuscripts there that dated back to the Conjunction of the Spheres, and Yennefer had set out at the start of the season determined to get her hands on them.

Gaining access to the estate hadn't been difficult, only tedious -- she'd wormed her way into the confidence of the Marquess, and once she'd convinced Lady Mirow that she was her fast confidant and best friend she pretty much had the run of the place. Mirow was hardly the worst noble in Yennefer's long, long experience -- her eccentricities were mostly harmless. And aside from a habit of referring to Yennefer as "my lovely little girl," as though she weren't old enough to be the dowager's mother,   she wasn't terrible company.

But the library had proved useless. Oh, there were old and valuable tomes there all right -- but Yennefer had read them all before elsewhere. Everything relevant to her particular interest were leads she'd already chased down to dead ends. When she ran across the book earnestly touting the benefits of dragon's heartsblood   in curing intractable ailments, she had barely been able to refrain from burning the whole tome to a crisp in her hands. She'd stormed out into the garden and vented her frustration on the ugliest of the stone garden gnomes, instead.

It was impossible -- impossible! -- to think that the magic she sought did not exist out there somewhere.   With magic that could build towers or raze cities in a night, mysterious creatures that could shape and reshift their entire bodies according to a whim, there had to be something   that could correct a minor deficit in human anatomy. Somewhere! But, it seemed, it wasn't to be found here -- and every time she turned her eyes to a new page she thought she heard his   voice in her head, taunting her about falling for old wives' tales and baseless superstitions.

She gave the mental-Geralt a mental-obscene gesture and went back to hunt the library again. None of his damn business. Secret reserves of previously untouched books, alas, failed to reveal themselves thereafter.

Dead end or no, there had seemed no point in leaving the comfort of the old estate while the snow still fell; not until the leaves began to bloom did she give her farewell to the old Marquess and leave Buxhoeveden behind, taking a few of the nicer rooms with her as a souvenir. 

It was time to take a break from research, she decided. Better to put it to the back-burner for a while -- again -- and wait for the frustration to simmer down, for her mind to clear and new ideas to percolate. In the meantime she'd find something else to do. Set up shop as a hedge witch again, maybe; she didn't especially need money right now, but you could never have too much on hand. At least it would keep her occupied.

A few days later found her drinking wine over lunch at an outdoor cafe in Lyria, ignoring the attempts of a burly young man to get her attention and wondering whether he was going to take the hint before she was forced to turn him into a toad, when the bars of music floated over from next door. 

...lilacs and gooseberry, dark in the night,

A soft creeping magic no silver can fight...

And her first reaction was to think: for fuck's sake, this again.

There was only one   poet who would think to put lilacs and gooseberry   together with magic,   and he'd already written one unflattering song about her this year. (Though deep down, she kind of liked that someone had written a song about her, even if nobody else knew it was   her -- she knew. 

And -- it was kind of catchy.

Not that she'd ever tell him that.)

And now he'd done it again and her first response was aggravation. It was a mistake ever to give him his voice back, really -- he hadn't even been properly appreciative. Even if Geralt  had been --

She resolved to ignore it.

 


 

Which resolve lasted until all of noon that day, when the fragment of melody going round and round in her head proved so catchy that she spent the rest of the day trying to hunt out someone   in the city who knew the whole blasted thing and not just the chorus.

Once she put the whole thing together, her response shifted from impatience to curiosity. Not another angry break-up song, not this one; this song was clearly meant to be a message , one intended for her ears alone. Too many references to events that only the two -- three -- of them had been privy to. The chorus left no ambiguity as to the desired response: Come find me.   Not come meet me, not write back to me, but come find me. Why?

The rest of the song was not so clear, and the uncertainty was as intriguing as it was annoying. A soft-creeping spell   was obvious enough -- the 'wolf' was in some kind of magical trouble. But lines like blood over the heath   and shadow crossing the moon   meant nothing to her. Some kind of curse? Lycanthropy? Did the wolf   just mean Geralt, or was it something more literal?

The aggravating part of it was, it piqued her curiosity just   enough to outweigh her animosity. If Geralt or Jaskier had just sent her a damn messenger at the Marquess' estate, she probably would have slammed the door on them. No, she would have written Fuck you both   on the message, sent the messenger to bring the reply back to them and made them pay for the return trip. But now -- now she really wanted to know what was going on.

That was all it was that drove her to pack her luggage and check out of the hotel early the next morning, making her way to the Lyria city limits. Curiosity. Nothing more. She definitely wasn't worried about what might have happened to Geralt, what magical disaster could have befallen him that would move Jaskier to beg for help from a woman he mutually detested.

Definitely not.






Once she'd made up her mind to go, actually finding   Geralt was not terribly difficult. As much as she hated being bound to Geralt through the djinn's wish, it made any flow of Chaos between them a breeze. She opened a portal in the shadow of the walls of Lyria near mid-morning and stepped out into a misty copse of woods shortly after dawn. They must be somewhere significantly to the east of her last location then, though it was impossible to tell the kingdom from this soggy piece of nowhere.

The morning mist hovered right on the annoying brink between drizzle and fog, droplets beading in her hair and slowly starting to soak through her dress. With a curse under her breath, she channeled just enough chaos to warm her clothes and drive the soggy dampness away, then began to scout the area for her quarry. Portals over such a long distance were notoriously imprecise, but she couldn't be far from her target.

The silhouette of a broken-down tower -- no, a silo -- was the first building that caught her eye, so she slogged over towards it and the road. As she approached it a bulky shape came into view -- a dark bay horse with its head hanging down in sleep -- confirming her guess. She stepped out into the cropped circle of grass and took a moment to shake her skirts down, check her dress, make sure that she was still looking her best when she saw him   again -- this was ridiculous. She was doing them   a favor, she reminded herself firmly, and came round the door.

Yennefer wasn't entirely sure what she expected, but it wasn't a bundle of blankets on the dirty floor of the silo with two heads -- one dark, one light -- nestled close together. As she watched, Geralt -- definitely Geralt -- stirred in his sleep, let out a soft grunt that was all   too familiar, and pulled the other body closer into the circle of his arms. 

It was -- surprisingly tender, and she wasn't sure what to make of it, but she wasn't going to stand here in the rain all day, either.  "Isn't this just sickeningly adorable," she said, and had the satisfaction of seeing Jaskier jolt back into awareness with an expression of bleary panic. She folded her arms over her chest. "Are you two done? I can leave and come back later. Or just leave, for that matter."

He looked around, saw her, and his eyes widened in recognition and -- relief? Wow, they must   be in trouble. Jaskier squirmed his way free of the bedroll and climbed to his hands and knees on the silo floor, but instead of leaning over to shake Geralt awake, he stood up and made his way over towards her. "Well?" she prompted him. "You wanted me?"

"Yes, yes, but keep your voice down." He had the nerve to shush   her with his hands, a repressing downward motion. Yennefer never took well to being suppressed.

She crossed her arms and scowled at him. "Why?"

"Geralt's sleeping," Jaskier said, like she couldn't see that with her own two eyes. Jaskier ran a hand through his hair, which did nothing to put it in order. He looked, quite frankly, like shit. "Goddess. It's so hard to get him to sleep, I must have sung for an hour last night, I don't want to wake him up yet."

Yennefer was quite sure she hadn't come out here just to watch the witcher snuggling   with his bard, or listen to him rambling on about the same. "Just so we're clear, bard -- I'm here for him, not for you."

"Of course not." Jaskier rolled his eyes. "Wouldn't want to get ideas above my station. You got my message?"

"Why else would I be here?" she demanded. "Rather crude, I thought."

"Well, it seems to have worked," Jaskier said defensively. He hesitated. "Er... where did you hear it?"

"I was in Lyria, near Buxhoeveden."

Jaskier's eyes brightened. "Really! But that's over two hundred miles away!" he exclaimed. "I hoped it would travel, but -- wait, if you were in Lyria, how did you get here so fast?"

Yennefer smirked at him. "I can teleport."

"Hm." Some of the animation faded from his face, leaving him wan and chalky again. "Must be nice."

She hissed with impatience. "I didn't come all this way to stand around in this muddy barn to exchange pleasantries, bard. What. Is. Going. On?"

Her voice rose with every word, and Jaskier frantically shushed her again. "Shh!" He looked over at the Witcher who stirred on the muddy floor and reached out one searching arm, then leaned in to speak nearly in her ear. "Geralt's been cursed."

It was Yennefer's turn to roll her eyes. "Yes, I figured that, given the song. What kind of curse? He still looks human. Seems to have all his," she smirked a bit, "parts."

Jaskier took a deep breath. "Well, he's --"

He never finished the sentence. At that moment Geralt's sleeping brain registered Jaskier's absence, and a heartbeat later he was bolt upright and wide awake. Yennefer had one view of his face -- wide-eyed and shining with terror -- before his expression contorted with fury. A snarl ripped its way out of his throat, golden eyes narrowed on her, and he leaped

Even before the disaster on the mountain she and Geralt had not always been on friendly terms. They'd clashed over the dragon heart; they'd clashed over her ambitions; on their first meeting, she had enchanted him onto a rampage to get him out of the way of her plans. They'd spent as much time arguing as they had fucking but somewhere in Yennefer's mind, she'd never really believed that Geralt would attack   her. 

That was the only reason she didn't fight back, fling up a ward, as the feral Witcher sprang for her throat. Frozen in shock, in disbelief more than fear. But then Jaskier was between them, catching Geralt around the middle and staggering back as the Witcher's momentum nearly bowled him over. "Geralt, no!" he shouted. "It's Yennefer, it's Yen, she's fine! She's here to help!"

Yennefer stepped back -- she refused to think flinched -- and froze on a hair, ready to flee. To her surprise Jaskier was actually doing a fairly good job at keeping the Witcher contained -- but then, Geralt always had allowed his bard a ridiculous amount of influence over him. Whipped. Absolutely.

But the look on Geralt's face was almost as frightening as his initial lunge had been. Not just the snarl that contorted his face, she'd seen that often enough -- the little flecks of saliva foaming at his lips like a mad dog, the absolute vacancy   in his golden eyes. He struggled against Jaskier's arms with no finesse, no technique, no training at all, just the mindless jerking of a raging animal.

What was happening?

A new sound broke her paralysis, Jaskier's voice breaking high and humming through Geralt's animalistic growl. He was -- singing? Now?   But the words made no sense. " See a sea anemone, an enemy, an anemone. See a sea enemy, an anemone, that'll be the end of me, the end of me ," he recited, a desperate look on his face that was not at all apparent in his tone. 

And more astonishing than that it was working --   Geralt's movements became less frenzied, he slowed and stopped fighting against Jaskier's hold. Jaskier kept humming. " Be this animal, anonanimal, perfectly adapted to a music hall -- " he threw a look back over his shoulder at Yennefer. "Yennefer, you -- are you using magic? Right now?"

"What?" Yennefer was almost too startled to answer, until she remembered the rain-repelling spell she'd cast as soon as she stepped out of the portal. "Uh -- yes, I am, I'm --"

"Turn it off!" Jaskier interrupted her, with a tone she did not   care for. "The magic's what he's reacting to!"

That made no sense -- but nothing about this made sense, and Yennefer had no faith in Jaskier to hold Geralt back forever. She dropped the spell.

The change in Geralt was immediate -- he stilled in Jaskier's arms, the growl dying to a low hum, and the rictus of his face relaxed. Jaskier sagged in turn, and Geralt extricated himself effortlessly from the bard's grasp and began peering about the silo suspiciously. 

When his gaze landed on her she half-expected to be attacked again, but instead his eyes (familiar, golden, but so empty)   brightened, though he did not smile. He took a step towards her, then another, and she was prepared to fend off any attempt at an embrace or a kiss --

But not prepared for what he actually did, which was to grab her shoulders and thrust her behind him, placing himself between her and the door as he peered suspiciously at every corner of the silo. The low growl had never fully died, rising and falling in time with his movements as he scanned his surroundings for -- what? "What are you doing?"   she snapped, shrugging away from his grasp.

"He -- " Jaskier spoke up and Yennefer startled; she'd almost forgotten he was there. Jaskier was doing his best to right his appearance from the tussling match he'd gotten into, straightening his doublet and raking his fingers through his hair, though there was little hope to actually improve it under the circumstances. "He must have recognized you. As a friend. He's trying to protect you, keep you safe."

Yennefer gave him an incredulous look. As though she needed or welcomed Geralt's protection! Besides which -- "From what?"   she demanded.

"From the magic." Jaskier sighed. "Ever since the curse, just the presence of magic sets him off. He just wants to protect his friends, and I guess that includes you, from whatever the source of that magic was."

"Typical," Yennefer started to say, then changed tacks abruptly as she processed his words. "I am   the source of the magic!"

"I know that," Jaskier said, wearily raising his hands as if in truce. "But he doesn't... understand."

Yennefer looked from him, back to Geralt, who was now doing a slow patrol of the silo, gaze darting around like a hunting cat. No words, no explanations, no sense in his actions... no swords. The unease that had been building up in her since the moment Geralt woke up crested to a wave that threatened to overwhelm her.

"Explain," she snapped to Jaskier. " Now."






Over the next hour, shared out over soggy food and tepid water, Jaskier explained everything. How he'd come across Geralt wandering in the woods, witless and starving. The gradual sick realization of his debilitation. His attempts to coax Geralt into a town, his refusal to behave -- Yennefer laughed herself sick   over the story of Geralt and the bath, and felt a twinge of regret that she hadn't been there to see it.

At some point, Geralt must have concluded there was no magical threat out there after all -- or perhaps he just forgot what he was looking for -- and wandered back over to the two of them, sitting down next to Jaskier and practically cuddling up to him. Jaskier easily opened his arms to let Geralt lean against his side, nuzzling   into his throat, and kept on talking as though nothing at all was unusual.

The story grew progressively less amusing. The nightmares. The string of unanswered questions and unhelpful answers. The Temple, and Geralt's refusal to be left behind. Their dwindling funds. Jaskier's desperate gambit with the song. 

"And here you are," he finished. He gave her a look -- wary suspicion mixed with a terrible breathless hope -- that discomfited Yennefer in the extreme. She was not a person who solved problems   for other people, forays into hedge-witchery aside. For the most part, she'd left all that back on the beach after Aedirn.

"Here I am," Yennefer agreed, mouthing trivial banter while her mind raced.

She squatted in front of Geralt, not wanting to commit her buttocks to the slimy mud on the floor of the silo, and stared into his face. Geralt stared back at her, guileless and curious -- until some comprehension or memory lit his eyes, and a moment later he leaned forward and tried to kiss her. A liberty she would likely not have allowed even if   Geralt had been in his right mind; she fended him off with a hand pressed firmly over his mouth. "Eugh," she said.  "Absolutely not, no kissing for you, when was the last time you brushed your teeth? Has the bard even bothered to try?"

"We've had a bit more urgent things to deal with," Jaskier said in a brittle voice. "Like, oh, not starving to death."

Yennefer ignored him, focusing entirely on Geralt. Look until eyes become windows, windows become doors.   The Witcher's mind had always been tight-shut against her magic, difficult to trespass, but now -- now the corridors of his mind were dark and shadowed, doors closed and locked on every side. 

She had a suspicion, but -- "How long has this been going on, anyway?"

Jaskier didn't answer right away, carding his fingers through Geralt's stringy-looking white hair. "He's been like this for almost a month now," he said at last.

Yennefer tried to pretend that the sudden pang of dread in her stomach was annoyance. "Well... that's not good," she said. If it was   the spell she was familiar with, it should have faded on its own after two or three days. The fact that it hadn't...  "Why didn't you take him to another magic-user?"

"Did that. A hedge witch in Kareh. All she could tell me was that it was  magic." Jaskier grimaced. "Before that, I wasn't sure."

"Why, what else did you think it could have been?"

Jaskier shrugged. "I don't know. A brainstorm, maybe."

"Well, that was stupid," Yennefer said, and Jaskier glared at her. Glares from Jaskier were usually pretty unimpressive, but the dark rings under his eyes and the new gauntness in his face made it sharper. She went on blithely, "It's obviously a curse. But it's hellishly strong -- you should have called for me weeks ago."

"And how   exactly would I have done that?" Jaskier demanded. "It's not like you left a forwarding address!"

Yennefer rolled her eyes. "Triss Merigold knew how to get hold of me. Any of the witches of Aretuza, really. Why didn't you ask any other actual sorcerer for help, instead of just hedge mages who can't tell a curse from a cough?"

"Because I didn't know if I could trust any of them!" Jaskier exclaimed.

He... had a point. Damn him. "You know, I think that's the first intelligent thing to come out of your mouth."

"Excuse me!?" Jaskier surged to his feet, shedding Geralt off his shoulder, who looked moderately pissed off to have been so dumped. 

Yennefer gave him a look of disdain. "I've met   you, bard."

"Well, if you're so brilliant and powerful, then fucking fix him already!" he said. "What are you waiting for? An audience? A standing overture?!"

It galled her to admit it, a worse taste in her mouth than Geralt's -- "I can't," she had to admit. "There's blood magic at work here -- maybe even heartsblood magic. A dying curse."

"Oh! You can't!" Jaskier managed to pack an astonishing   force of sarcasm and withering scorn into just three words -- must have been a bard talent. He gestured wildly in the vague direction of Lyria. "You teleported two hundred miles to scold me for not being able to do something that you can't fucking do either!"

Yennefer growled, tried not to grind her teeth. "I can't just -- whip a cure out of my arsehole in five minutes," she snapped. "But if I have a place to work, and some time, then yes -- and even if it takes me another month, that's still more than you   would be able to do in the rest of your miserable lifetime!"

" You --"   Jaskier's face suffused with rage, but he hauled himself back with a visible effort of will and pasted a bright, fake smile over his face instead. "Actually, can we not do this? Can we just skip over the part where we snipe at each other like primary schoolers? I've spent the last fortnight trying to keep Geralt from dying in a ditch, I'm too tired for this --"

"Oh, I'm sorry, you're tired?"   said Yennefer, who of the two of them had traveled two hundred miles before breakfast. "What exactly do you think I do with my life, do you think I don't get tired? Do you imagine I spend all my time -- lounging around in my lingerie in a silken boudoir, making other people do all the work?"

"Based on a rather vivid first impression?" Jaskier said brightly. " Yes!"

Yennefer started forward, fingers curling with the desire to wrap them around the bard's collar and shove him up against the wall -- just to remind him of what else   she'd been capable of back in Rinde. She hadn't moved more than a few inches before another body stepped in her path and an instant later her feet left the ground, a startled oof   driven out of her chest as she was hauled up over a warm, solid shoulder. 

She was too stunned to put up any resistance as Geralt -- because of course it was Geralt -- carried her with brisk steps across the muddy grain silo floor, stepped over the rusted threshhold and set her firmly on her feet outside. She watched, bemused and blinking, as Geralt then turned around, went back in, and gave Jaskier the same treatment -- throwing the bard over his shoulder despite his squall of protest, carrying him firmly away to the far corner before putting him back down. He strode to the middle distance of the space between them, dug in his heels, and crossed his arms over his chest.

Jaskier and Yennefer looked at each other, wide-eyed, across the sudden distance that had been imposed between them. The ridiculousness of the situation crashed down on them at the same time, and Yennefer couldn't help the giggle that crawled its way up from her chest and popped in her mouth, even as Jaskier shook his head, a grin spreading over his face.

"He certainly has a way of making his opinions known, doesn't he?" Yennefer said, studying Geralt's stubborn jaw and set stance. "Even like this."

"Oh, you can bet," Jaskier said with a sigh. He stepped forward, and Geralt narrowed golden eyes at him. "All right, you're right, Geralt. No more fighting; we'll play nice. Promise."

Yennefer didn't plan to make any such promise, but if the bard would behave himself, then so would she. Geralt relented -- typical -- and followed Jaskier over to the door of the silo.

"But you did say -- that you could   fix it?" Jaskier said, his voice smaller, tentative with hope. "With -- with enough time, and space?"

Yennefer sighed. She wanted to say yes, but she'd also learned long ago the danger of giving too broad an assurance, too early on. "I will absolutely try," she promised. "But not here."

 




"Where are we, exactly?" the bard asked, warily, as he ducked (unnecessarily) through the canvas flap into the spacious rooms beyond. 

"Precisely where we were," Yennefer said briskly. "Some dire little hamlet in Temeria, I gathered."

Jaskier was inspecting the curtains. "These look like the Lyrian style," he said.

"Of course. The rooms are from Buxhoeveden." She'd spent the entire winter getting the decor just the way she liked it. The Marquess' estate had so many rooms left vacant there that they were unlikely to notice for a good long while that there were some doors in the eastern wing that no longer opened.

He looked confused -- kind of gormless, really. "You brought a castle all the way from Lyria?" he said. "Wouldn't that -- doesn't that seem kind of like overkill?"

"No," she said, very much enjoying his crogglement. "The castle is still right where it was. I'm only using the space inside it, right now."

Jaskier gave her a suspicious look, but didn't pursue the matter. Most of his attention was still on Geralt; the Witcher had been profoundly suspicious of Yennefer's spell, had planted himself outside the linen tent and refused to move a step closer. It had taken nearly ten minutes of coaxing from the bard to get him to cross the threshold, although once he had, his uneasiness seemed to vanish. 

There was a platter of food and wine waiting on the day table and the boys fell on it -- the food, at least, nearly inhaling the bread and cheeses in their urgency. Yennefer helped herself to the wine, settling into a comfortable chair and sipping delicately until they slowed down. Jaskier sat back on the bench with a contented sigh, and belched loudly.

"Classy," Yennefer said dryly.

"Yes, so   sorry, I've forgotten my studiously refined manners," Jaskier said. "Great Goddess. That's. The first solid meal we've had in -- going on a week."

"Yes, I could tell by the way you fell on it like a pair of wolves on a downed deer," Yennefer said. "Are you quite through?"

Jaskier groaned. "It must be nice to be a sorcerer," he said wistfully. "You can just -- twitch your fingers and away all your ordinary problems." He wiggled his own fingers, in what he apparently thought was an approximation of a spell.

"Leaving only the extraordinary ones," Yennefer murmured, and tipped back the rest of her wine. She set the glass back on the table and leaned forward, eyes on Geralt. 

The Witcher was back to prowling around the perimeter of the rooms much as he had the inside of the silo, some patrol schedule that only he knew the details of. It wasn't -- quite -- the mannerisms of an animal, which let out the first most obvious curse Yennefer had been thinking of. "So," she said. "Tell me more about this curse."

He gave her a confused look and gestured at Geralt's -- everything. "It's -- well, this," he said. "He's lost his words. His wits too I think, although it's hard to say how much of his mind is left when he can't speak it."

"You've had a fortnight to observe the effects of it," Yennefer said. "You'll have to do better than that. I can't remove the spell if I don't know what spell it is. Details, bard, I need details."

Jaskier frowned, brushing the last of the crumbs off his doublet as he considered it. "Well," he said slowly. "He can still see and hear. About as well as he ever could -- he reacts to things I don't hear at all. He seems to respond to tone of voice -- emotions -- more than anything else, really.

"He still knows what monsters are, and that -- I think he knows that he's supposed to fight him," Jaskier continued. "And he can remember some -- some muscle-memory, I guess, how to stand and hold a sword and swing it. He can eat if you put food in his hands, wash himself if you put him in a bath. But he doesn't seem to know how to do that on his own."

"And you've been the one putting food and baths in his path, I take it?" Yennefer said. "He seems quite enamored of you."

Jaskier shrugged, grimaced. "Yes, well, he seemed happy enough to see you too, before you started flinging magic about. But he won't respond to anybody else, whether they're kind to him or no."

"So he still recognizes his friends," Yennefer murmured. Her eyes narrowed in consideration. That winnowed down the field considerably...

"That may be," Jaskier took a deep breath, "but he must not -- can't have any memory of the last time we parted, or he'd be reacting very differently, I'm sure. He's lost all language. All his monster lore, all his battle-tactics and knowledge of fighting. All his skills -- cooking, medicine, firemaking. He doesn't even remember how to manage the buckles on his own armor. He doesn't understand the difference between waking and dreaming, for Melitele's sake."

Yennefer sat frowning for a moment, then sat up in the chair and snapped her fingers loudly. Geralt looked over in her direction, apparently alerted by the noise, but then went back to what he was doing once he saw it was her. "Geralt," she said sharply, but he didn't respond. "Witcher. White Wolf. Geralt of Rivia!"

"I don't think he knows that's him," Jaskier said helpfully.

That was bad, Yennefer couldn't help but think. Very bad. The name was very important knowledge, intrinsic to the self. Losing it was how you opened yourself up to magics that could completely remake you, leaving nothing behind.  "All right," she said. "I'm ready to give this a try."

Geralt came over when Jaskier called him and settled obligingly enough, kneeling on the thick rug in front of Yennefer's chair. As soon as chaos starting humming at her hand, though, he flinched back and scrambled to his feet.

"Geralt!" Jaskier exclaimed, grabbing his shoulders before he could retreat fully. "Come on, look, it's only Yennefer. She won't hurt you."

He might hurt me, Yennefer thought, but that wouldn't help the situation at hand. "Find a way to control him, bard," she said, her voice brittle. "If I get interrupted when I'm in his mind, he could be permanently damaged."

Sorceresses were formidable opponents, and Yennefer had spent more time fighting for her life than most -- but their strengths mostly lay in keeping their enemies at a distance, behind thick shields and at range for powerful bursts of magic. A berserk Witcher was a terrifying thing; she'd seen it before, turned it against her own enemies before. Witchers were resistant to magic to begin with -- Geralt moreso than most -- and he was already in arms reach of her. If he took it in his empty head to lash out... he could very well hurt her. Maul her, perhaps, before she could get out of his range. If she could get away at all.

She would be trusting her life to Jaskier's tenuous control over Geralt's feral instincts -- not that she had any intention of letting him know that.

But she'd never been one to let risk frighten her away from what she was determined to do, either. She took a deep breath, called her magic to her, and plunged forward into Geralt.

The curse stood out, with her altered eyes, strands of chaos wrapped around his head like wire. Thin filiments spun off into the ether, each individual one drenched blood-red -- but the mass of the spell was all tangled together, color darkening with its own weight into a deep black. It wouldn't budge, not for all the plucking and tugging of strings she could do. She knew the spell -- knew its shape, its affect -- but this was all wrong. Too strong. It shouldn't possibly be this strong. The one thing she could be sure of: the mage who'd cast this spell was dead. Blood magic cast with heartsblood, a dying curse... but even then it should have scattered long ago. What's holding it together...?

She couldn't see that from here. She forced her way deeper, inside Geralt's mind, into his memories. It felt, again, like standing in the darkened ruins of a castle, the floor underneath choked with trash, doors shut and locked at every turn. No words. No thoughts, not as she could understand them. Flashes of memory, pictures, sounds without meaning. She waded through them, trying to make sense of what she saw.

The one thing she could be sure of -- perhaps, the only point of experience she and Geralt had in common -- was Jaskier. He hung at the forefront of Geralt's mind, hovered in all his recent memories. No words, just pictures, accompanied by emotions that were at once alien and skin-crawlingly familiar. Oh, it was a lie that Witchers could not feel; they could, they did, it couldn't be held back even through this absolute magical mutilation.

Geralt -- the real Geralt, out in the real world -- stirred uneasily, and from far away Yennefer felt more than heard the harrowing growl.   More images stirred up from the trash beneath her feet, red-and-black chaos and pain and horror. Magic, magic had hurt him so badly, he was so, so afraid, and it didn't matter whether it was meant to heal or hurt, friend or foe. He couldn't tell the difference.

"Yennefer," Jaskier said, his voice full of a desperate warning. He went back to singing, crooning, rocking back and forth slightly as he tried his best to soothe and calm his friend -- she could see the stream of music flowing down like bright water through the darkened hallway, bringing reassurance and peace and calm.

But not enough. She felt the storm building -- in his mind, his body, a building red-murder violence in his limbs and muscles, and knew she didn't have much time. She snatched at fragments of memories as they flitted by her, tried to piece them into some understanding. Woods -- horse -- river -- ruined keep -- stairs -- a chamber, underground -- a stranger's face, a vampire's snarl -- a silver sword, a tide of blood and black -- one bright flash --  

She felt the attack a moment before he launched it, a sudden crystallized determination to protect, protect, protect.   Self and her and him and lashing out at other,   and before he could strike out at her she focused all her   magic in on the center of the mind. Cutting off his motion before he could begin it, burying it under a heavy soft tide of sleep, sleep, sleep.

The vision of his mind faded away, and Yennefer had to blind colored spots away from her vision. Geralt lay slumped on the floor of her suite, with Jaskier crouched over him, holding him by the waist. "Geralt?" the bard called out, nervousness growing to panic as the witcher failed to respond. "Geralt! What --"

"Don't make a racket, bard," Yennefer said, feeling suddenly exhausted. She slumped back herself, feeling the hard knobs and ridges of the fancy chair-leg digging into her spine. "He's fine. Just sleeping. Don't rouse him."

"Asleep?" Blue eyes narrowed at her suspiciously. "Did you -- hex him to sleep, or something?"

She gave a little shrug, rubbing at her eyes with the palm of her hand. "He would have attacked me if I hadn't," she said. "And then we both would have been beyond help."

Yennefer stood up and stretched, feeling some clicks and cracks in her limbs as she did. "You might as well get some sleep too," she said. "I can't accomplish anything more until morning."

"What exactly did you accomplish, anyway?" Jaskier said. "Aside from enchanting him. Again."

She grimaced. "I know what spell it is, now." 

"You don't sound happy about that," Jaskier observed.

She rubbed her eyes again. There was a headache behind them that no amount of pressure could ease. "It's a spell usually cast on mages, to keep them... powerless. Docile. Unable to focus enough to cast, without words to speak incantations."

"I sense a but   coming up next," Jaskier said.

She sighed. " But,   the spell in question only lasts three days, under normal circumstances," she said. "And even then it's only meant to confuse   the mind, not -- not cripple it. Not like this. I've never seen this spell cast so potently before, ever. And never for this long. The only thing that makes sense is that it's still bound to something -- an arcane focus, somewhere."

"Something?" Jaskier said. "Not some one?"

She shook her head. "The only way this curse could have taken on this much strength is if it was cast by heartsblood."

"What does that mean?" Jaskier exclaimed. "You all keep saying -- the witch in Kareh said the same thing. Is heartsblood some kind of... of dramatic name for an herb? Or what?"

"Or what," Yennefer echoed. She took a moment to hope that Aretuza's secrets were not going to wind up in the bard's next song, then decided she didn't especially care. "The strength of magic is usually limited by how much a mage can channel from outside her -- or how much of herself she's willing to sacrifice from inside. Magic cast with the mage's own blood is stronger, far stronger, than drawing on that of the environment. And magic cast with heartsblood is strongest of all -- but, of course, the casting kills you in the process. Which is why it's not used very often."

"Oh," Jaskier said, sounding gratifyingly shocked. "So whoever put this curse on Geralt is..."

"Dead. Almost certainly," Yennefer said. She had some suspicions about how he'd died, too. "But they've found a way to continue to be a nuisance from beyond the grave, it seems. The spell has to be tied to something that's keeping it going, or it would have faded long before now. We need to find the focus and destroy it. Then -- and only then -- I'll be able to lift the curse."

"Okay," Jaskier said after a moment. "Okay. But -- how will we find the focus thingy? With magic?"

"If only it were that easy." She grimaced, switched from rubbing her eyes to her temple. Gods, locking minds with a witcher was always an ordeal. "We'll have to backtrack Geralt's trail. Find the lair where he confronted the sorcerer. It will be there."

Jaskier frowned. "I searched the woods for a day and a half after I met Geralt," he said. "Looking for his gear. Any   of his gear. I didn't find it, I definitely didn't find anything like a lair."

"You didn't know what you were looking for. Geralt does," she told him. "I can -- if we can go back to the place you started, he'll lead us to it." Not that it would be that simple, exactly -- she'd have to find some way to make Geralt understand what was required of him, and going into his mind again to impart that was unbearable to think of right now. 

Jaskier sighed. "If that's the only way," he said. "But -- Yennefer, it's been a fortnight. It's a week's walk to where I found him in the woods."

At that she laughed, and the headache uncurled, just a bit, from around her temples. "Jaskier," she said teasingly, "I can teleport."

 


 

In the end, it was easier to leave Geralt where he lay than to try to move him. Jaskier didn't have the upper-body strength to haul his mass around; Yennefer could have done it with magic, but she was trying to conserve that for tomorrow. The rug was thick enough, the room was warm enough -- Geralt was a big boy. He'd be fine.

If only Jaskier had been so easy to deal with. The bard remained stubbornly awake and upright and all over her space. He spent as long fussing over his precious lute as Geralt usually did with his swords -- same principle, she supposed, tools of the trade. But all too soon that was laid out on a shelf to dry and there was nothing to distract the man from coming and pestering her with unending questions about how the rooms spell worked.

Yennefer had decided to answer his questions on the grounds that he surely would not understand the answers and his confusion was amusing -- but, to her disgruntlement, he grasped the basic principles behind it with barely more than a hiccup. They talked about chaos, entropy, conservation of matter, the interlocking connections of space and time, until Yennefer finally gave in and poured out some of her wine for him to share.

Some amount of wine later -- the bottle was enchanted for extra volume, so she wasn't entirely sure how much they'd downed between them -- found Yennefer in the big wing chair in front of the fire, Jaskier sitting on the floor slumped back against her legs. "I never knew there was so much... academia involved in magic," he commented. "So much theory, so much technique. I always thought you just, you know..." He waved his hand. "Did that and, and whatever you wanted would just happen."

"A lot of simple folk believe that," Yennefer murmured. Well, the Brotherhood of Sorcerers didn't exactly go around sharing the true cost with outsiders. 

"I don't think I could be a sorceress," Jaskier confessed, like it was some kind of grand secret. "Well, obviously not, for -- obvious reasons." He waved vaguely down his torso, which won a snort from Yennefer. "But, I mean, not a sorcerer either. It's all just too... too."

"Probably not," Yennefer agreed heartlessly. Though not, in truth, because he lacked the wits to be one. She might have thought him a fool before, but there was a brain hidden underneath all that frippery. No, what would hold Jaskier back from succeeding as a sorcerer was his fundamental goodness. He lacked ambition, lacked ruthlessness. Ban Ard would eat him alive, the way Aretuza had eaten her friends...

Somewhere in the last hour she had shucked her shoes and put her stocking feet on his chest, and he'd obligingly picked them up and rubbed at them with a truly skillful pair of hands. That was the only reason, she told herself, that she was still here, that she hadn't banished him to the rug beside the Witcher and taken herself to bed. Because he did have nice hands."

"You truly are exceptional, Miss Yennefer," Jaskier said to her feet. Yennefer snorted, because  there   was a song that well predated this particular bard. "You are beautiful... powerful... brilliant..."

"But I'm not nice," she reminded him.

"No. You're not." He shook his head, and strands of hair tickled over the tops of her feet until she kicked slightly. "But that's not all bad. Sometimes... you need people who are less nice. Like him." His gaze slid over to Geralt, a still slumbering form on the edge of the puddle of light. "When you have a problem with drowners or vampires you don't need nice. You need a Witcher. You need someone who can do what must be done... I can see why, you know. It's not like I couldn't see it."

Her attention had wandered back over to Geralt, as it so often did when her mental guards were down. Nothing particularly coherent, just a jumbled kaleidoscope of memories: passion and fury, intrigue and betrayal, and over it all the vague sense that it would be just too damn much of a shame for the world to lose a man such as Geralt. "See what?" she said absently.

"Why he chose you over me." The hollowness in Jaskier's voice drew her attention back, and she caught him staring morosely into the fireplace. "Every time. Who wouldn't?"

For just a moment, Yennefer considered playing dumb, too tired to have this conversation right now. But if not now, then when? She'd never been one to turn from confrontation, however ugly. 

Of course, the bard was jealous. He had been since the first day, the day that Geralt brought him to her. She'd found it funny, mostly, how obvious and petty he was about it, and funny that he didn't realize how very unnecessary it was. For just a moment, she considered telling him the truth about what she'd seen in Geralt's head, just how much of his currently-limited brainpower was devoted to running thoughts of Jaskier.

She wouldn't tell him that, of course. But she took pity enough to say: "And yet it is your music, and not my magic, that calms him when he's in a rage, and soothes him out of his terror."

"Mm." One corner of Jaskier's mouth twisted down. "Probably just because he's still traumatized from that mage using magic to fuck with his brain."

"Or perhaps, even as he is, he recognizes how well you care for him," she corrected him. "It surprised me, you know. I didn't expect such -- such devotion from you. You've done well with him."

He let out a bitter scoff. His earlier drunken cheer was sliding quickly to mawkishness. "Fat lot of good I did," he muttered. "Playing babysitter while waiting for the real help to arrive. If you hadn't heard my song, I'd have -- I don't know what I would have done."

"Ah yes, that song." Yennefer settled back in her chair with a gusty sigh, considered another splash of wine in her glass. But she'd have to offer one to Jaskier too, and he was maudlin enough. "It's not a bad song, you know. Certainly I liked it better than the last one."

Jaskier froze, and the whites of his eyes gleamed briefly in the firelight. "What last one?" he said, artfully affecting innocence. 

Yennefer gave a throaty laugh, then hummed a few bars. She didn't have much of a voice for singing but the chorus line was simple enough: " ''And the story is this, she'll destroy with her kiss...' That one?"

"You. Uh." Jaskier swallowed nervously. "Heard that one?"

"It was all over Redania, bard. I could hardly miss it."

He looked away from her into the fire. "Oh."

Yennefer leaned forward, feeling a surprising pang of hurt at the reminder. Maybe it hadn't mattered before, Jaskier's opinion. She wasn't sure why it mattered to her now. "Is that really how you see me?" she demanded. "As a natural disaster, out to destroy everything? Out to destroy him?"

"You hurt him," Jaskier said accusingly.

"He hurt me," Yennefer pointed out the -- to her -- obvious.

"You bring out the worst in him." Jaskier frowned fiercely, still looking away. "Every time you and he meet, it puts him in a foul mood for weeks. He does -- cruel things, that he'd never do otherwise."

"How typical," Yennefer said witheringly. "If a man behaves badly, don't hold him   responsible, just look around for a woman in his life to cast blame on."

Jaskier looked up at last, meeting her eyes with a glare. “What do you want from me, Yen?” Jaskier finally burst out. “I already know I can’t compete with you. You say you don't want him now, but it's impossible to hold a grudge against Geralt forever. I should know.” He stared into the fire, unwilling to meet the sorceress’ gaze. “Sooner or later you're going to decide that you want him, and you’ll take him, and he won’t even look back. I’m under no illusions about that.”

"That's putting the cart before the horse, now isn't it?” Yennefer said. "We still haven't settled things between us for what happened with the djinn. I'm not exactly hanging off his stirrups, clinging on his every word."

Jaskier laughed. "You won't stay mad at him forever. Nobody can, not even you," he prophesied. "He's yours, whether or not you're his."

Yennefer wanted to argue, to object, to tell him not to put words in her mouth. But she knew that the very fact that she was here -- and that Jaskier and Geralt were here, and not still shivering out in the soggy forest -- would give her the lie. "Perhaps... someday," she allowed instead. "But that's between me and him, not you and him. 

"If what you want – if what you need is for him to never think or care about anyone but you, then yes, you might as well trot yourself off now." She let her voice sharpen to an edge, honed steel to cut through all the bullshit.   "Just keep in mind that’s a choice you’re making, not one he made. I will not be blamed for Geralt's poor decisions, nor for your completely unnecessary lovesick pining."

Jaskier blinked up at her, blue eyes wide with astonishment. "I -- don't understand."

"Clearly not," Yennefer drawled. "What, exactly, is the block to your understanding?"

"I..." He blinked. Visibly took a moment to try to marshall his thoughts, past the haze of wine and self-defeating thought spirals. "You always struck me as a possessive kind of person. I can't imagine you sharing your toys."

He wasn't wrong, entirely. She was  possessive, in the sense that she knew what she wanted and she took what she wanted, and she didn't artificially limit herself on how much she wanted. But you couldn't own people . That was the one thing she'd always understood, intimately. "You do understand I am a sorceress, do you not?"

"Deeply," Jaskier said. "Acutely."

She rolled her eyes. "Look here, bard. Can you name the monarchs of each of the northern kingdoms, and their spouses?"

"Sure," he said. He actually brightened up a bit at the challenge. "I have a little mnemonic ditty I use to keep track of rulers and their heirs, I just have to update the names every once in a while. It's going to be a bitch when the current king of Cidaris dies, do you know how hard it is to find a rhyme for Morsztyn?"

She did, but that was a question for another time. "And can you name the court mages of the Northern kingdoms as well?"

"Ye..." Jaskier hesitated. "Uh... most of them...?"

"And their   spouses?"

The fire crackled while Jaskier visibly sweated, trying to pull on information that didn't exist. After a moment Yennefer relented. "Sorcerers don't marry, Jaskier. Ever."

"Why not?" He blinked up at her, astonished. "Is it forbidden? Some witchy code? I wouldn't think you'd let that stop you."

"It wouldn't," she agreed. "But it would be madness to promise the rest of your life to someone who will age and crumble in a handful of years."

He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it, brows drawing down in thought as he considered it. Really considered it.

"Why not another sorcerer then?" he said at last. "I mean, you all have that... going on," he finished, with a general gesture towards her all-thatness.

Yennefer shrugged. "Partly that there's just no need. There's no children," the words were as bitter as wine in her mouth, "so no need to worry about raising them, and no property -- our posts are appointed, not inherited, so there's little to worry about handing them down to the next generation. But more than that sorcerers simply don't... bind themselves like that, not to other sorcerers. Our lives are too long, too ever-changing. " 'Till death do you part' works when your eternity will be thirty years in a village you'll never set foot outside of. Not when you'll live a hundred years, changing into a person your younger self could never have imagined you would be."

Strange to think that she ever might have found herself in such a small horizon, confined to such a small time and place. Strange to think that at one time, that would have been the sum total of all her ambitions: to find a man who loved her, or at least could tolerate  her, and set up happy housemaking for him, never to set foot over the village boundaries. That she could have lived out her life and died there, laboring away for the comfort of others while her own vitality drained away year by year. No. Even then, knowing nothing, even then I wanted more.

She realized she'd been staring into the fire, brooding, when she came back to herself with a little jump to find him gazing at her intently. "Besides," she said with an awkward shrug. "Everyone is too committed to their own careers."

"That's... that sounds terribly lonely," he said softly. "And I always though the Path was bad enough... so there's no... goings-on at all?"

She laughed. "Oh, by no means! There's sex, certainly. There's one-night stands, and affairs, and makeups, and breakups, and no   end of gossip. It's simply that no one ever expects such affairs to last, or to be exclusive while they do last. Not when you're always so far away from each other," she sighed. "Sooner or later one person moves on, and the passion.. wanes. If they're lucky, former lovers can remain friends. If unlucky, they can become bitter rivals."

When she looked down, he was still watching her. "And which were you, with your lost love?" he said.

The question hit her like a gust of wind bringing rain to the face, ice-cold and startling. She gritted her teeth. Damn   the bard, for all his foolishness she'd forgotten how good he was with people. "Well," she said, trying to keep her tone casual. "We're not... enemies. But we're not exactly friends either. We just... drifted apart, over time."

"What's stopping you from looking up?" Jaskier propped up his face on his fist, leaning on one elbow to keep his head up. "As a friend, if nothing else? You can never have too many friends."

The bard was one to talk, Yennefer thought bitterly; he made friends everywhere he went, and Yennefer only ever seemed to lose them. "He's in nilfgaard, last I heard," she said, melancholy creeping into her voice. "Half a world away."

Jaskier began to laugh.

Yennefer turned a poisonous glare on him; she hadn't intended to reveal so much of herself to him in the first place, let alone have him laugh   at them. Kings and warlords had flinched at that frown, but he shrugged off her flensing glare like it was nothing. 

"Is that it?" he gasped out, when he was done laughing. "Long-distance woes? Yennefer, you can teleport."

Yennefer opened her mouth to hotly contest -- to argue -- to explain that the physical distance   between them was a pale second compared to the distance of years, of opportunities squandered and trust betrayed... but then the ridiculousness of it all sank in and she began to laugh helplessly along with him.

It took a good few minutes for the giggling to die away again. "What is this, are you getting into mage matchmaking now?" Yennefer demanded as she wiped away tears of laughter (yes, definitely of laughter, and she would fry anyone who claimed otherwise.) She kicked him in the chest -- gentler than it might have been without her shoes, more of a soft-footed nudge -- but he rolled over on his back anyway. "Trying to reduce your competition, hmm?"

Jaskier snorted. "Oh, as if," he said. He flopped over onto his front and propped his cheeks up on his fists, giving his smile a rather squashed look as he beamed up at her. "If you're telling the truth about the free-loving fraternity of mages, you certainly wouldn't limit yourself to just one   paramour. No, I am a bard at heart, lady, and hopelessly weak against stories of hopeless love."

"Neither hopeless nor love," Yennefer returned, but once the seed had planted, she couldn't quite dispel it. She could   look up Istredd, any time she chose. She just... hadn't chosen to, that's all.

Jaskier's smile faded along with the chuckling under his breath, until he was staring despondent out of the circle of firelight. Yennefer followed his gaze and felt her own stomach douse with a chill when they met with Geralt's silent, sleeping form.

"Besides," Jaskier said, his voice all too sober now. "It's all for nothing, isn't it, if we can't get him back."

Yennefer knocked back the last dregs of her glass, and set it back on the table with a little more force than necessary. "Of course we'll get him back," she said sharply. "Tomorrow we'll return to the little patch of woods you found him in, and we'll find whatever stinking hole the sorcerer was cornered in, we'll destroy the focus and lift this curse. He'll be back to his stupid, catankerous self in no time, more's the pity."

"I have to admit this would make a great story -- if it were happening to somebody else ," Jaskier admitted. "Mad mages and haunted lairs hidden in the dark forest -- this is the sort of thing I'd bring to   Geralt to fix. Not try to fix it for him. Do you really think we can do it?"

She stood up, drawing the edges of her robe around her with a defiant fluff. "I really think that I   can do it," she said firmly. "And you can tag along, if you like. Get some sleep, bard."

 


 

~tbc...

Chapter Text




Ljubica was out in the orchard by the gate, pruning back the apple trees to encourage them to put out new growth, when the bard came back.

They didn't get so many travelers that she didn't remember him -- the instrument case on his back stood out, as did his fancy clothes and debonair manner. He'd accepted half a weight of sausages and her best traveling advice, gone off down the road, and she'd figured that would be that. The road was safer nowadays, since the town council in Riede had gotten around to hiring that Witcher -- not that she intended to let Yuliya out of her sight anytime soon, no matter how much the girl chafed...

She heard a crackling sound, sharp and distinct in the quiet air of the farm, and the sound was enough to make her pause. That sounded like something breaking, but there were no large deadfalls left in the orchard -- and it hadn't come from the orchard, had it? She turned and peered over the wall to the road, towards the marker where the road forked, trying to make out where the noise was coming from --

-- And saw a horse step out of thin air.

She stared in astonishment. That was definitely an entire, full-grown horse, coming out of a flat swirling nothing   in midair. The horse was followed a moment later by a tall, broad-shouldered man in jet-black clothing, sinister and out of place in the bucolic farm lane, who glared at the space around him with ferocious yellow eyes that sent chills down Ljubica's spine. And he   was followed a moment later by a beautiful woman in a black-and-white dress, lustrous black hair tumbling down over her shoulders, face perfectly painted despite the humid spring air. A sorceress? Ljubica had never seen such a one before, not in her quiet little farm, but she knew the tales. And the man -- white hair, golden eyes, was he some kind of enchanted thrall?

The last one to step out of the whirling distortion in the air was the bard from a fortnight ago -- instantly recognizable by the instrument case and the bright, flamboyant clothing. He took a moment to adjust his tunic, stamp his boots, looked around at the woods and roads as though getting his bearing. His bearing brightened when he saw the farm gate and the posted sign, and after a short argument with the sorceress he hopped down and trotted over towards the gate.

"Excuse me, madam," he said, sounding far too cheerful and ordinary to be someone who had just dropped down by magic out of the sky. "How wonderful, perfect,   that our paths crossed with you again -- do you by any chance have another dozen of those exquisite summer sausages that I purchased the last time I was here? I'm afraid I've been talking them up so much that my companion does not quite   believe me, and it has now become a matter of honor between us. And, ah," he checked over his shoulder, where the black-haired woman was waiting with her arms crossed, foot tapping. "However many of those honey rolls as you have, please." 






Yennefer refused to admit the worth of the sausages, but she did   eat them, so Jaskier was about nine-tenths sure she was just being contrary. They argued over the matter for the next half-hour, which ended with Jaskier hounding Yennefer to name one -- just name one, Yennefer of Vengerburg! -- time she'd eaten one better. She'd named two -- Malleore and Skellige -- the latter of which Jaskier had actually been to and could  explicitly   call out as a lie, since Skellige never put meat into a sausage if they could bury it in a saltwater pit and let it rot over the summer. Melitele, Jaskier was glad to be shut of Skellige.

At the very least the argument had kept them both entertained and distracted from the awfulness they were walking into, which was nine-tenths why Jaskier had started it in the first place. But the further they went along the road, the more the teasing and bickering died down as Yennefer seemed to draw further and further into herself. Geralt, up on Roach, had ridden along with his head cocked attentively towards their voices at first, looking quiet and calm and even happy with the world for once. Now he was growing more and more agitated, twitching and trying to see all around himself in every direction. 

Jaskier kept up the mood of the party for as long as he could -- it was what he did,   and he thought he did it rather well. But once Yennefer turned abruptly off the road and started leading them up an echoing streambed -- mostly dry in this season, thankfully -- he simply had to ask. "Where are we going, exactly?" he said, scrambling along behind the mage and the witcher and already consigning another pair of footwear to dusters.

Yennefer glanced back at him. "You know where, bard," she said, her voice rich with that don't-make-me-repeat-the-obvious   tone that she and Geralt did so well.

"The sorcerer's lair. Right. Obviously," Jaskier said, navigating across a particularly tricky and slimy bed of rocks. "And, uh, you know where to find that... how exactly?"

A sly smile flickered across her face and was gone. "I could just say 'it's magic,' and you'd have no choice but to accept that, wouldn't you?" she said.

"I suppose so," Jaskier said. "But don't test me. I can be very   annoying when I want details. Just ask Geralt."

He'd been hoping for a laugh -- his own extravagant behavior was usually a good topic for that -- but no such luck. Yennefer shook her head. "I don't know where it is," she admitted after a long moment.

Jaskier did a double take, gesturing wildly around the overgrown woods. "Then --"

"But Geralt does," Yennefer interrupted. "I'm -- keeping touch with his mind."

"And he's guiding you, is he?" A hopeful note crept into his voice. "He understands? What we're trying to do for him?"

"Not... exactly." For such a clever trick, Yennefer didn't exactly look pleased with herself. "He has a memory of these woods. Full of fear and darkness. By using that fear as a guide, I can steer us towards the center of it -- whichever direction causes him the most pain, I know that's the right way to go."

Jaskier was aghast. "That's -- awful!"

"I know," Yennefer said, but she didn't stop leading the way further into the woods, using Geralt's distress like a fucking dowsing rod. "It's not exactly a nice thing to do. But you said it yourself, bard. Sometimes you don't need nice."

"Is this your revenge on him, for the djinn business?" Jaskier said. He couldn't help an edge of bitterness that crept in because she was right, she was always   right; they needed her, they couldn't do this without her.

She let out a short, humorless laugh at that. "Oh no," she said. "When I extract my comeuppance for that, he'll be in his right mind and know what's coming, believe you me."






They spent several hours thrashing through the woods, Yennefer in the lead. It brought them almost to the river road on the other side, much to Jaskier's annoyance; they could have taken that road from the fork and gotten here in half the time and a quarter of the sweat spent. As it was, the sun was past noon by the time Jaskier spotted something other than rocks, trees, and mud.

Well -- it still was rocks, trees and mud; but it was rocks and trees in a pattern that stood out from the random, natural landscape. Downslope and through the trees Jaskier could just pick out glimmers of light reflecting off the river; this site had a commanding view of the surrounding terrain, a good spot for an outpost.

"What is this place?" Jaskier asked as he struggled his way over the knotty roots of the trees that had grown up the side of the stone pile. The soles slipped over the mossy rocks; ugh, his shoes were absolutely not suitable for this kind of thing. Only hanging onto Roach's stirrup for balance let him keep his footing. "Or, well, what was it before it was an overgrown moldering ruin?"

"Haven't the foggiest," Yennefer replied absently, peering ahead. "Some local petty lord's castle, mayhaps. Whatever it was, it's been abandoned long enough for pests to move in."

"Move in where though? There's not a roof left standing," Jaskier complained. He made it up over a jumble of sharp-corner stones and ah, there   was solid ground, about time. He dusted down his trousers and looked around: it had the shape of an open courtyard, the sun slanting down and heating the stones and greenery to a moist heat. "There's no one here."

"Not here," Yennefer said. She wheeled around, dress and hair making a spiral around her (she always managed to fucking do that, making even the smallest of motions into a show, and Jaskier envied that level of extraness as much as he admired it.) She came to rest and pointed towards the corner of the courtyard, where an overhanging tree obscured a square of shadow. "There."

"Ah." Jaskier looked at the revealed staircase without joy. "An underground stone lair full of black magic. My favorite."

Geralt had been growing steadily more upset through the whole journey, twisting and fidgeting atop Roach's saddle. More than once Jaskier had seen him make the motion to grab for his missing swords, seen his hand twitch up in a gesture that he usually used for his shieldy witcher Sign -- Heliotrop, wasn't it? The gold, sunshiney one, that would make sense. Jaskier had, with great difficulty, persuaded him to dismount from Roach; he stood now with his hands tangled in her tack, face turned against her neck, trembling faintly. Jaskier tried all his best to persuade him to come away from the horse to the head of the stairs -- humming, singing, projecting as much cheer and confidence as he could muster -- but Geralt would not budge.

"Get him under control, bard," Yennefer snapped, rocking impatiently on her heels from the head of the stairs. "Or what else was the point of bringing you along?"

"He doesn't want to go in," Jaskier wheedled. "You just needed him to find   the place, right? It's all witchy magic stuff from here on in. Can't we just... stay out here?"

Yennefer's expression was stormy, just short of murderous. "As much as I would love   to go in and do all   the heavy lifting for this damnable quest you roped me into," she said, sarcasm dripping so heavily off each word that he could practically see it puddling on the ground. "Taking all of the risk and effort myself... I really do actually need some help."

That was fair enough, Jaskier has to admit. But -- "I can't," Jaskier shook his head. "Yennefer, he's terrified . Whatever happened to hurt him like this, it happened here. This place stinks of magic, even I can smell it and I'm no Witcher. I can't make him go down there."

"You must," Yennefer said. Heartless, implacable -- yet strangely gentle. "Or else we might as well just turn around and go back to town, and leave him like this for the rest of his life."

"Could you ask a burned man to stick his hand back in the fire?" Jaskier said angrily. 

"Could you ask a man scarred from head to toe by the claws and fangs of monsters to go out and fight them once more?" Yennefer riposted. She nodded over towards the Witcher. "And yet he does. He has the courage, bard, even if you don't. He just can't remember himself right now."

I know he does, Jaskier thought; but also, I never did. I was always the one who didn't ask that of him. I was the one who never wanted to ask that of him. Oh, he'd leaned on Geralt for favors over the years; borrow some money, scrounge his socks, go with him to a party to keep angry husbands off his back. But he'd never knowingly asked Geralt to go into danger for him. Never, ever asked him to slay a monster, let alone a dragon.

Singing wasn't going to do it any more. Magic wasn't going to do it. No tips, no tricks, no little shortcuts to get Geralt to budge. If Geralt couldn't make himself go back to the place where he'd been hurt so badly -- 

Then Jaskier would just have to go in his place.

"Geralt," he said, and with hands on either side of his head he turned Geralt's face towards him, locked their eyes together. No place for hesitation here, no room for cowardice. "Just -- stay here, all right? Stay close. Stay safe. I'll be right back."

And then -- for the first time since he and Geralt had reunited, in these very woods almost a month ago -- he deliberately let go of Geralt; turned his back; and walked away.

This time, Geralt didn't try to stop him. 

"This is, without question, the stupidest thing, I've ever done," he said to Yennefer, his mouth dry, his throat tight.

"I find that exceedingly hard to believe," Yennefer said dryly. Her eyes flicked from his face, over his shoulder to Geralt, but she didn't press again. "All right. Let's go."






The door at the bottom of the stairs was broken -- splintered in a way that Jaskier had definitely seen a time or two before, when Geralt wanted to make an entrance and didn't feel like waiting for keys. The bright spring sunlight that bathed the courtyard above cast the stairwell and the chamber beyond into stark, black shadow.

Yennefer went first, and as she did so she spoke a word that lifted the hairs on Jaskier's neck (or maybe that was the creepy, cold draft from the darkness beyond.) A cool, blue-white ball of light sparked into existence in the air and came to hover over Yennefer's shoulder. 

The witchlight was bright enough to illuminate the chamber beyond, although it sent weird shadows into the far corners that jumped and shifted as she walked forward. Thick cobwebs -- or perhaps tattered remains of curtains -- kept the light from quite reaching the corners and edges of the room. Her steps stirred up trash from the floor, and she paused to kick a little of it off her shoe before she moved on.

The floor was covered   in trash, actually, Jaskier realized as he stepped down from the final stair. Actually, the whole place was a wreck. In the blue-white glare of Yennefer's witchlight he saw tables and shelves, chairs and cots all thrown askew -- some broken, some just knocked around, their contents dumped onto the floor and smashed. A soft layer of rotting debris -- splintered wood, dissolving paper, or rotting cloth -- made drifts here and there on the stone floor, and ominous dark puddles stained the dips and depressions on the stone.

"Well, here we are. One evil mage's abandoned lair, appropriately nightmarish and filthy," he said brightly. He took another step -- carefully -- trying to find places to put his feet that didn't squelch, or worse, sink. A dozen tiny points of deeper blackness moved and scuttled across the floor and down the walls, insects fleeing the unaccustomed light. "Now what?"

"Somewhere in here is the arcane focus that the mage used," Yennefer explained. She moved over to one of the shelves, tilted crazily at an angle that had tipped all its books into a messy pile at one end, and began rummaging through them. "We find that, smash it, and then I'll be able to remove the curse."

Jaskier stared around. The room wasn't that big -- maybe twenty or thirty feet on a side -- but the amount of junk that was crowded into the shelves and recesses was a little overwhelming. It reminded him a bit of his family's attic -- the ones that went back generations, full of ancient and inexplicable and often disgusting old relics, and nobody ever bothered to throw anything   out -- except stuffed into half the size. "Can't we just start smashing things, and sooner or later we'll get the right thing?" he ventured.

Yennefer slanted a look at him from over the top of the book she'd picked up and opened. "Indiscriminately smashing things in a mage's workshop is a good way to get your head blown off," she said, "so no."

"Thanks for the tip," Jaskier said, and sighed. None of these books or relics or paraphernalia meant anything   to him; if the circumstances were different he'd be madly curious, but as it was he just wanted to get the job done and get out.

He couldn't make sense of most of what he saw, so he concentrated his search for things he could   understand. Breathing carefully through his mouth, he began to slowly poke through the drifts of trash on the floor for a familiar silver gleam. They hadn't found Geralt's swords anywhere in the woods on the route here, or in the courtyard above, which meant the only place they could   be was --

A familiar silhouette edged the light; Jaskier moved towards it. "Yes!" he crowed as the straight-edged shape came into view. Geralt's sword, Jaskier would know it anywhere, sitting straight up in the middle of the floor like the legendary sword in the stone. He wrapped his hand around the hilt, tried to move it, and only then realized what exactly it was lodged in. "Ooohhhand there's the monster corpse," he sighed, cringing at the sickening crunch   of flesh and bone as the sword came free.

"And here's another," Yennefer remarked from the far side of the room, and something in her tone of voice drew Jaskier over towards her.

The stench thickened as he moved around the fallen set of shelves to the far corner of the room, so he perhaps should have been prepared for the mess on the floor. He wasn't; he took one look and promptly lost his lunch in the remains of a bucket in the corner. "Charming," Yennefer said sarcastically.

Monsters, Jaskier knew from long experience traveling with Geralt, tended to shrivel up after they died, at least once they stopped actively bleeding. Humans did not, at least not in these damp conditions. The body on the floor was -- yes, Jaskier calculated, it would be just under a month old. Long enough for the blood to congeal, for the hair and nails to fall out, for the eyes to sink in pits back into the head and the rest of the flesh begin to slowly melt into a puddle on the floor. 

It wasn't actually   moving, as he'd first thought; that was just an illusion created by the carpet of maggots crawling along the sheets of blood on the floor. It didn't look like the gases had bloated and burst in the stomach, perhaps because of the enormous gaping wound that had been carved out of the side of that stomach to begin with. 

"Oh that's foul," Jaskier gasped, trying to catch his dizzied breath without actually having to breathe in the reek of that thing. 

"So is that," Yennefer said, and indicated something on the wall behind him.

It took a moment for Jaskier to tear his eyes away from the sight of the corpse, and a moment more to understand what he was seeing: the crude stone altar with its grotesque idol, the dozen little dishes half-filled with flaccid pools of decaying flesh.

"Sweet Melitele," Jaskier whispered. "What was he trying to do?"

"Something equal parts grotesque and idiotic -- no doubt," Yennefer said, and the anger in her tone was enough for him to tear his fascinated gaze away long enough to look at her expression. "I recognize him. Gareth of Brugge. He dropped off the face of the earth after he got kicked out of Ban Ard ten years ago."

"What for?"

"Killing one of the female novices," Yennefer said, and gave a disgusted scowl. "A privilege traditionally reserved for the senior   members of the council, the ones who've all written theses on it."

"Wow," Jaskier said, and found himself echoing Yennefer's words from a few months ago. "Charming bunch."

"You have no idea," Yennefer said. She crouched down, reaching for something and tugging -- Jaskier gagged, but had nothing more to bring up. When she straightened up, she had Geralt's other sword in her hands. "Just in case there was any confusion that Geralt made the world a better place with this sword."

"Oh, I had no doubts on that score whatsoever," Jaskier assured her. "But, now that we've established that, can we spend less time poking around the slimy corpse-puddle and more time looking for shiny magical focuses?"

"Foci," Yennefer corrected absently.

"Don't argue Classical declensions at me; I spent seven years at Oxenfurt," Jaskier said. "If it's a word used in the common vernacular it takes the vernacular ending --"

Yennefer rolled her eyes and shoved the steel sword at him -- hilt first, thankfully -- and he oofed   as he grabbed for it. Sticky black fluid all over the blade, now all over his hands, augh.   "Take this. I need to concentrate."

"Fine." Jaskier tried to juggle both swords at once without cutting himself -- no sign of the scabbards, of course, that would be too easy. He wondered if he could legitimately excuse himself long enough to take the swords outside to Geralt, who would doubtless be delighted to get them back -- maybe even feel brave enough to venture downstairs? He wasn't abandoning Yennefer here, he'd be right back...

Jaskier turned back towards the entrance -- and froze. On the wall to his left, where the gruesome altar had lain... something moved. Something much, much too large to be a bug.

At first he thought it was a flickering of shadows -- but it wasn't a shadow, it was a twisting, a distortion of light. Clear yet visible -- like a vortex underwater, it slid out from... around? Under? From inside   the festering corpse, and skittered up the wall like a cockroach.

The main knot of it seemed no larger than a dinner plate but the edges flickered and crawled, hard to pin down. It slid along the surface of the wall like a mouse running under a tablecloth and then... pushed through, out into the room as though solid stone were no more than paper and cobwebs. It took shape from   the cobwebs, pushing a layer of grime and rot and dripping filth ahead of it into the shape of... a face. Gaping eyesockets, sunken nose, a mouth barely held together by dripping strands of fiber as it yawned wide open. 

Throughout the lair -- not from the hideous face, but from somewhere that was all around them and yet nowhere -- echoed a hollow, hideous laugh. It moved, shifted, stretched further out from the wall and Jaskier recoiled; a spider scuttled out of one gaping eyesocket, running spooked for a safe corner, and a long dark beetle-like body slithered into its mouth.

"What the hell is that?" Jaskier had traveled with Geralt for many years and had seen all sorts   of ugly beasties, but this was a new one and a horror somehow uncompared. 

"How should I know?" Yennefer snapped. Things crashed and clattered as she backed away with her hand held palm-out before her, tried to get clear enough to cast. "Do I look like a Witcher?"

It looked a little like a rotfiend, but without any of its solidity; a little like a nightwraith, but without those things' eerie moonlit grace. "Is it -- is it a ghost?   Is that his   ghost?" Oh Melietele, hadn't it been enough that Geralt had killed the bastard the first time without having to do it again,   except twice as drippy and horrifying?

"No! At least --" Yennefer hesitated, stumbling over her words, and Jaskier had wished for something to burst her smug know-it-all bubble but this was not   how he wanted it to happen. "I don't -- no, I don't think so? No! It doesn't have any of his chaos, his energy to it. It's just -- just a thing that moved in here after he died. He left a damn summoning spell half-completed; it must have attracted something..."

"Great! Good to know! How do we --" -- the rest of Jaskier's words were lost in a yelp   as one of the books rattled up from its face-down sprawl on the stone floor and hurtled towards him. Caught flat-footed, he singularly failed to duck -- and while the book wasn't the sharpest missile that could have been flung at him, it was solid and heavy. The impact sent him staggering back towards the far wall, scrambling to regain his footing, and he ducked and flung his hands up to shield himself as a shower more of books followed the first. Books, and worse: ceramic cups bounced and silverware clattered off the barrier of his arms, driving him even further back. "Naya's tits!" Jaskier swore.

He managed to duck the next missile, a lead-glass flask that hit the wall behind him and shattered into a hundred shards. The contents splattered back from the impact and dripped sizzling down onto the floor below. "I thought you said it would be a bad idea to start smashing things in a wizard's lair?" he called out to Yennefer.

"It is!" she shot back, from the other side of the workbench where she was trying to do... something, he couldn't stop dodging to get a clear view. 

"Well, nobody told him   that!" 

The shadow lifted, peeling away from the wall and turning into a swirling cloud, a vortex of darkness in the vague shape of a human silhouette. It swallowed up Yennefer's blue-white light and reflected nothing back except occasional unsettling, oily glints of utter blackness. Jaskier thought of a shadow dropping from a tree, of a contorted face and red-glowing eyes. "Fire? Try fire?" 

"I know! I'm not an idiot!" Yennefer shouted back. "It's not -- working."  Flashes of flames sputtered from her hands, leaping up and then dying back without making a dent in the foul cloud.

"Try more fire!"

"I can't --" Her lovely face twisted with frustration. "We're in an enclosed space,   there's too much in here that might catch, that might burn --"

"Yes, and most of it's going to be embedded in my face if you don't do something!"   Jaskier said. He could barely see Yennefer any more, on the other side of the room and the other side of the specter, as anything other than a few points of white on her dress moving blurrily in the darkness. He heard her snap a word that crackled, red light flaring -- and then breaking off with a cry of pain.

And then a cluster of small, silver, sharp objects arced into the air, oriented towards him point-first, and flew at him in a deadly hail.

Decades of following Geralt around -- and getting things thrown at him by discontented crowds -- had honed his reflexes to a point, but unfortunately not so fine a point as those currently streaming towards him. He ducked and scrambled but there were too many missiles, covering too wide an area, and he couldn't dodge them all. A knife clipped through the sleeve of his tunic, barely grazing the skin beneath; what looked like a scalpel flew past his face, cutting the skin of his cheek, only to embed itself in the stone wall behind. A fork lodged itself in his shoulder, piercing two layers of shirt and doublet to dig into skin and meat, and Jaskier cried out.

Then suddenly another body was there -- someone tall and broad enough to momentarily block Jaskier's view of the room. All he could see was a back, the shoulders moving as the person struck the impromptu missiles out of the air, a collar over which flowed a ponytail of white hair -- Geralt. Of course. Who else could it have been? He must have heard the commotion, heard Yennefer's voice raised in a cry of pain, and that had been enough for him to overcome his fear. Of course it was enough.

Jaskier clung shamelessly to the back of Geralt's tunic as the hail of silverware hissed and rattled around them and finally petered out. Geralt turned to look at him, brows drawn down in worry, expression set firmly in a scowl. "Geralt, so good of you to join us, I mean   that, never been so glad to see your pouty face in my life," Jaskier said fervently.

Geralt said, "Hm," and grabbed his sword out of Jaskier's clutching hands. 

He turned back towards the spectre, falling into a battle stance -- and Jaskier could have thought that Geralt was restored to himself, except that "Oh for Melitele's sake," he gasped and grabbed at the hilt of the blade to wrestle it out of Geralt's grasp. "Wrong sword, Geralt, wrong sword.

Geralt held onto the weapon quite stubbornly until Jaskier shoved the correct sword -- silver, not steel, its gleam softer under the harsh lights -- into his hand instead. As soon as the switch had been made he went back to swinging with vigor at the specter hovering in the room beyond them. And for a moment, Jaskier dared to hope that that was it, that a Witcher's sword in a Witcher's hands was all it would take to dispatch the hellish thing.

But it couldn't be that easy. Of course   it couldn't be that easy. Geralt moved across the rubbish-strewn floor with a steady, confident stance, the silver whistled in an arc that struck dead-center into his target -- but the shroud of darkness only parted and flowed around his blade, dissipating for a moment into a cloud that streamed past him and reformed behind him, just as strong.

"Silver doesn't work, fire doesn't work, how the hell do we kill this thing?!" Jaskier said. He could feel the hysteria simmering in his chest, but he thought he was pretty damn justified in that.

"We don't have to kill it!" Yennefer said. Easy for her to say, she   had a magic shield that she was using to deflect the worst of the missiles from her face and chest. Her long black hair streamed out behind her, twisting in the filthy wind, and Jaskier did not envy her having to wash that later.

Assuming they survived, of course. "The hell we don't! It's trying to kill us!"

"This is a distraction!"  Frustration twisted her voice. "We have to find the fucking focus so we can destroy it and lift the curse. That's all!"

She was right, of course, as much as Jaskier hated to admit it. Geralt was slashing at the thing with all its might, but he might as well have been cutting water. Maybe some of his Witchery signs could have done something -- maybe had a special oil for this -- but he didn't have access to that now. 

With Geralt deflecting most -- well, some -- of the debris trying to pin Jaskier to the wall, he was finally able to take two seconds to catch his breath. To look out over the chaos of the scene and try to make sense of it.

The underground lair had been filled with trash, and it seemed like all of it was in the air now, swirling in the dark currents or slamming against the wall. But no, there were some things that stayed put. Some books stayed on the shelves, some vials stayed on the workbenches, some papers stayed scattered on the floor. 

Something about it nagged him -- why not? That crooked wooden wand looked like it would do terrible piercing damage, those tomes looked solid and heavy, the etched plates would cut like a knife. Why was the spectre ignoring those in favor of random pieces of paper or feather quills?

Or -- was it not that the spectre wouldn't move them, but that it couldn't?   Was there something about those items, specifically, some property that meant the monster couldn't touch them? It hadn't been able to move Geralt's silver sword either, only tugging at the steel one...

It can't move things that are magical.

The insight came to him in a flash, and although he had no way of confirming it, suddenly he knew.   Everything left on the ground in the storm of chaos had chaos embedded into it already. The books -- of course, the wands and jewelry, all magical. The only thing Jaskier could see that wasn't   obviously enchanted in some way was -- off to the side of the room, on the last shelf standing, a globe of clear crystal resting on a heavy cushion.

Jaskier stared at it, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. In the white-blue light of Yennefer's magic everything in the room showed up in glaring chiaroscuro; black stone or white metal, colors drained and dull. Except for that glass globe, which at first glance looked flawless and clear but on closer look reflected a shifting shadow of reddish black, moving about within the glass like a water-insect with long trailing feelers.

The only way this curse could have taken on this much strength is if it was cast with blood, Yennefer had said, and magic cast with heartsblood is strongest of all.

Jaskier lunged for the globe, even though it meant he left the shadow of Geralt's protection, and winced at the wind that assaulted him before he took two paces. It felt like stepping out into a sandstorm, the dark swirling gusts driving a dozen tiny points of pain into his skin -- but he kept going, grabbed for the shelf and hefted the glass globe in both hands. It was lighter than he expected and the difference made him stagger -- but warm under his hands, far too warm to have been sitting in this dark underground cave for a month with no sources of heat. "Yennefer!"

She looked at him, saw what he held, and understood at once. "I see it," she said. "I see it! Give it here!"

He passed it to her with shaking hands, nearly tipping it to the stone floor at the last moment. Wouldn't that do it, dashing it against the stone? Except if it had been that simple, surely Yennefer would have just told him to break it. 

The spectre screamed in rage and scorn, sending a new wave of missiles at them; part of a chair smacked against Jaskier's hip, numbing his leg and sending him staggering. " Yennefer!"

"I need thirty seconds!" she said through gritted teeth, hunkering down around the little glass globe. "Just thirty seconds with nothing being thrown at my head, so I can concentrate!"

"Oh, you want a distraction?" Jaskier muttered. He could certainly be a distraction. He was good   at being distracting. 

Which left only the question: how? "Hey!" Jaskier called out, running out from behind Geralt and waving his arms. Geralt took a step towards him -- no doubt intending to push him back to safety -- but a gust of foul wind sent him staggering back. 

Jaskier jumped up and down, feeling torn between foolish and pants-wettingly scared. Made his voice project, filling the small space and overflowing. Little missiles continued to strike and sting him, but his words didn't seem to be having much of an effect. "Fart-cloud, foul winds, what are you waiting for? Come and get me! Here I am, all bardy and toothsome and delectable! Don't you want some fresh meat?"

Not meat. In a flash he saw it; the thing unfolding from the pool of blood on the ground, sliding out from under the mage's decomposing body, smoke-thin trails from the sad dismembered hearts on the altar.

It wasn't hard to find something with a point. The specter had thrown so many things at them it was almost hard to find something that wasn't   sharp. He groped and found the nearest thing to hand, the scalpel that had nearly taken his ear off earlier -- yanked it out of the wall, and slashed it across his arm.  "Don't you want some fresh blood?"

Blood sprang up from the wound immediately, accompanied by a searing pain that made him immediately rethink this whole terrible, terrible   plan. But as soon as the smell hit the air the creature suddenly shifted its focus -- a face formed out of the filthy cloud, dark pits for the eyes and the nose and a gaping maw filled with jagged wooden splinters...

Well, if he'd wanted the thing's attention, he had it now. Jaskier cringed back, regretting all of his life's choices. He could almost feel its regard like a slimy touch on his skin, crawling up his arms, dripping down his face -- it made him want to scratch his own skin just to get the feeling off him, but his limbs seemed to be weighed down with a cold heavy sluggishness. He couldn't  move --

Except that he was   moving, fast, the breath knocked out of his lungs as he flew backwards. He slammed against the wall, an impact so sudden and shocking he barely felt it -- and a second later the tangled remains of the entire rest of the bookshelf crashed on top of him.

Metal bars pressed against his chest, his arms, laid across his throat and cut off his air. Jaskier tried to push back against them, but it was futile -- he had no leverage. His feet weren't even touching the floor, he realized after a few seconds of fruitless scrabbling; the force of the spectre's malicious fury kept him pinned.

Gravity was all wrong, he was lying on his back and the weight pinning him grew heavier and heavier; the metal bars and sheets began to bend and deform under the force pressing them back against the wall, pressing them back against him. He thought his ribs buckled too, pressing in against his stomach and lungs, and his left arm went numb. Black spots and colored motes began to strobe across his vision and he could get no air at all.

The bright light, Yennefer's light, seemed to dim around the edges of his vision. He saw a shadow fling themselves against the shelves, crashing again and again, and thought it might be the ghost -- no, it was Geralt, hair flashing silver in the failing light. Still trying to save him, even in the middle of the chaos. Go to Yen,   he wanted to say, if he could speak, if he could get air. That was the whole point... to buy her time.

Time. They both had so much time. The immortal Witcher and the unaging sorceress. No wonder they were drawn together, they were two of a time. But he was only a mortal; he could never have matched them for time... and now his time had run out.

Somewhere on the other side of the room, glass shattered.

A number of things happened then. In the last few glazed, unreal moments of consciousness they seemed to happen honey-slow, but somehow he thought they must actually have happened very fast.

Geralt staggered, clutching at his head; a crown of red-black energy surrounded him, then splintered into the air. Arched his back, face tilting upwards, and screamed a single word, the first word he'd spoken in almost a month --

" FUCK!"

The dark cloud reacted, seemed to pull itself back together -- less of a whirlwind, more of a shaky shrouded silhouette. It turned back to Geralt, Melitele knew why -- maybe attracted by his voice, or by the surge of magic around him, but either way it began reaching towards him with hands that stretched and elongated into snake-like tendrils of darkness. Jaskier hoped that maybe with its attention off him, he'd be able to get free -- but the pressure pinning him to the wall did not let up.

From her place hiding behind the table Yennefer began to stand up. Geralt whirled towards her, seized her hand, pulled her close against his side. Pulled her skin against his own, even as one hand raised above his head, tracing a Sign towards the sky. Really, Geralt?   Jaskier wanted to ask, teetering on the verge of darkness. Now?

As Geralt's mouth closed on hers, he finished signing aard.   A wave of force exploded from his hand into the ceiling, and the sky blasted apart.

Light burst into the room with the force of a hammer blow, bright hot sunlight streaming down from the courtyard above. Stone and dirt fountained up, then fell back down, adding to the swirling storm of chaos the spectre had raised --

But at the first touch of sunlight the spectre shrieked,   a sound of outrage and fury and hatred and, for the first time, fear.  The deadly cyclone burst apart, debris pattering to the ground all over the room; the cloud of shadow dispersed, churning in agitation as it sought a shadow to which it could flee.

The shelving fell to the ground with a clatter, and Jaskier slid down the wall; he couldn't feel his feet hit the floor, but he felt the shock that reverberated up his body and sent him crumpling to his knees. He wheezed, tried to draw in breath, couldn't get enough.

Geralt was still moving; as the roof fell in he pushed Yennefer away and dove towards the ground. Jaskier couldn't see what he scrabbled for through the dim blur that was overtaking his vision, only that it was something broad and flat that flashed as he brought it around. The beam of sunlight streaming through the roof caught the mirror and reflected, lighting up the stone walls as though a second sun had come under the earth.

The spectre fled and Geralt followed it, remorseless, with the light; caught it and pinned it in the farthest corner, and the shrieking wail of agony went higher and higher in his ears until he thought his eardrums would burst with it.

Then it was gone, only a foul-smelling smoke remaining; and Geralt dropped the mirror with a ringing clatter and turned towards him.

Something was very wrong with his throat, Jaskier realized; he tried to speak as Geralt stepped closer, and managed only a gasp. With his throat and with his ribs; the deadly pressure had eased, but the pain was only getting worse by the moment.

"Jaskier," Geralt was calling him, reaching for him. Taking his shoulders and shaking him, and fuck,   that hurt, it felt like his chest was splitting apart from the inside. "Jaskier!"

Talking, he was talking. And fighting, and using signs again, and he knew   Jaskier, knew his name. You're cured, Geralt!   he wanted to say, but his chest wouldn't heave and his throat wouldn't work so only his mouth moved; he tried to smile up at Geralt, and then he passed out.

 


 

~tbc...

Chapter Text



he knows her, the dark-light lady. 

she is pretty but she is sharp. she is angry. she is... dangerous. he wants to go to her, but she hurts him. so he stays away.

they go to the dark place. the bad place. bad things happen here. they want him to go back but he won't. he can't. he stays with the horse. she is safe, she is home. 

they leave. he stays.

but then he hears them down in the dark, the bard and the dark-light lady. cry of fear. scream of pain. he can't stay here. he has to go to them.

he sees the monster, black and oily and evil. he hits it but it won't die, it won't die . the wind hurts. the magic hurts. but he fights. he always has to fight.

the bard is hurting. the bard is... dying. he has to save him but he can't. there must be a way but he doesn't know , he can't see...

and then. glass breaks. and then.

and then it all came crashing back.






Light returned. Words returned. Sense returned.

And it found Geralt kneeling on the floor of a filthy dungeon with Jaskier's broken body cradled in his arms.

For a fortnight and more his only thoughts -- if they could be called thoughts --   had revolved around Jaskier; keep him close, keep him safe. Protect, protect, protect. And he had failed   and that damned poltergeist had hurt Jaskier, cut him, crushed him,   and Geralt hadn't been able to do anything to stop it. Anything at all.

Thought returned, but it might not have bothered, when the only words crashing around in Geralt's head were useless, pointless repetition: he's hurt he's hurt he'sHURTHE'S HURT --

Useless.

It was Yennefer -- and how had Yennefer even come to be   here, he hadn't been able to question before and he was too numb to start now -- who snapped him out of his trance, got him up off the filthy floor and out of the basement. She needled him with words and barked at him when his steps dragged, and she promised salvation for them both, if he could only get Jaskier up those stairs.

Somehow they got out of the godsforsaken basement and Yennefer pulled her magical tent out of the air and whisked them away. He'd have to go back later, he knew with a kind of glassy exhaustion. His swords were still in that basement along with the garkain's head that he wouldn't be able to cash in his payment for this gods damned job   without. But if they'd sat a month without being disturbed, a few more hours wouldn't make a difference either way.

It was hard to focus, hard to hold onto more than one thought at a time -- out of practice, perhaps, from the month he'd spent as a drooling idiot. His thoughts were freed from their cages but they rattled around in his head in such a cacophony that he almost regretted their restoration.

No, that wasn't true. He had his mind back, his mind. It was a miracle he wouldn't have dared to hope for, if he'd been able to hope -- a gift almost beyond price. 

Almost.   Because if the price was Jaskier's life...

He couldn't let himself think that.

The bard was laid out on the low couch in Yennefer's chambers, unconscious. Jaskier was filthy -- they all were, really, but Yennefer had been adamant about not wanting him in her bedsheets in that condition. Geralt wasn't about to push the matter. Not when Yennefer had spent an hour mixing and brewing and infusing herbs with her most potent magic, coaxing them down Jaskier's throat until his skin warmed from the ghoulish grey pallor, until his breath didn't bubble warningly in his lungs and rattle his half-crushed throat. Until he slept quietly, healing, recovering, safe.

It was all too much like the time with the djinn -- another time that had been his fault, though he hadn't known at the time just how much fault. He ought to be feeling something about that, he knew, an all too familiar storm of grief and guilt in his head. But right now, just now, all he could feel was numb. 

Yennefer sat down with a tired groan on the winged armchair before the fire. Geralt was perched on the footstool next to the couch. He was well-practiced at keeping his expression flat and stoic, but Yennefer looked at the way his hands clenched around the edges of the fabric and sighed.

"The bard will be fine," she told him bracingly. "He should wake before evening. The decoction I gave him will ensure he'll be feeling no pain."

Geralt nodded. He felt like he should say something, but the lump in his throat blocked speech, so he settled for a "Hmm."

"That's all you have to say?" Yennefer said sharply. " Hmm?   What was the point of restoring your speech if you refuse to use it?"

"You're angry." Geralt sighed. "Just say whatever you have to say, Yen."

"What a deduction!" Yennefer said. "Yes, of course   I'm angry!"

Geralt winced. "Is this because of the --"

"You had no right to do that, Geralt! No right!" Yennefer's voice overrode his. She pushed herself out of the wingchair and began to pace in front of the fire. "I am not yours to grab and manhandle, or force a kiss I didn't consent to. Do you not understand that?"

"It wasn't like that," Geralt protested. "The only thing that will kill a poltergeist is sunlight. I had to blow the roof out, and my signs alone wouldn't have the strength --"

"I am not a keg you can tap when you need a power-up, Witcher!" she interrupted him. "I am not your source, not yours or anyone's."

"I didn't have a choice," Geralt said through gritted teeth. "The geist was killing us, nothing we were doing was making a dent. Jaskier was dying --"

"Yes I'm aware of that, seeing as I was there," Yennefer snapped. "But you didn't ask!"

"There wasn't time!"

"Oh?" Yennefer's voice was dangerous. "There wasn't the five seconds it would have taken to say 'I need power, join with me' and for me to give the nod? Six words, five seconds? That was too long for you to wait?"

Geralt sighed. "Yen..."

His voice trailed off. He didn't know what else to say. Yennefer turned to face the fire, drew the edges of her mantle around her. "I think there was time," she said. "I think the reason you didn't ask was because you were afraid of the answer. You were afraid I wouldn't say yes, that my spiteful feelings   and my pride   would drive me to make the wrong choice.   So you took my choice away."

Geralt found himself at a loss. There was nothing he could say to argue that, because she wasn't wrong. Not that he had reasoned it all out in his head -- it had all happened in a mad scramble, in the heat of the moment -- but her words stung in a way that he knew from experience meant they carried more than a grain of truth.

What could he possibly say? "I -- I won't do it again."

"Oh yes, you will," she said. "You'll do it again the next time you think it has to be done. You always do what has to be done, don't you? No matter who you trample over in the process. And you're always so sure you know best, that nobody else can possibly know better."

He looked down. "I can't change who I am, Yen."

"You don't even try to change," she said, and she sounded not so much angry as resigned. "You haven't tried for years. You'd rather live in misery than face the effort of trying."

She wasn't wrong. She knew him far too well for comfort. But wrong or right, there was nothing he could say to that.

"I owe you a debt twice over now," he said instead, changing the subject. "Once for Jaskier's life in Rinde. And another for mine, today."

"What?" She scoffed, sounding surprised. "That wasn't a fatal curse, Geralt. It wouldn't have killed you, just made your life miserable for... however long it took the spell to wear out."

How long   would that have been? As a Witcher, it's not like he would have died of old age. But it was a moot point. "If I didn't starve to death in the woods, if I'd ventured out into the town as I was... then the townsfolk would have mobbed me, and I wouldn't have been able to stop them." Even in his reduced state he had still known that; somewhere in his idiot brain he'd still understood the danger that awaited him if the humans had found him in that state. But the patch of woods was too small to hide a beast his size for long; it had always been a futile effort.  "If I didn't starve and wasn't stoned to death, eventually the rumors of the monster in the woods would have circulated far enough abroad, and they would have hired another Witcher."

"What, one of your Wolf brethren?"

"Maybe. Maybe one of the other schools. Wouldn't matter." Geralt shrugged. "One way or another they'd have tracked me down, and once they saw the state I was in, they would have killed me."

"Oh -- that wouldn't --" Yennefer objected, startled. 

"It wouldn't be the first time a Witcher has had to be put down, Yen," he said. "We're too powerful to be allowed to run wild like that. Anyone else who came across me in that condition, a mad witcher -- would have put me down." And they would have been right to do so. He could imagine it so strongly, the image hung like a hallucination in his mind's eye: Eskel's face, his expression of grief and horror, the downward slash of the sword --

He blinked, shook his head to clear the vision away. It hadn't happened. It hadn't.

This time.

Yennefer huffed. "And am I also part of that 'anyone?' " she said. "You still believe that, even after today?"

Geralt winced. He'd been so caught up in his self-pity, he hadn't thought of what he was saying, hadn't thought of how his words would land. Again. Isn't that how you got yourself into this in the first place, Wolf? "No. No, you aren't," he said. "You didn't deserve that, and I'm sorry. But..."

"But what?" Yennefer said.

Geralt sighed, and lowered his head to rest on his hands. "You weren't there. He was."

The two of them looked over the unconscious bard. Geralt thought he saw her expression soften, her manner lose that brittle edge. Jaskier had that effect on people, he thought.

"He cares a lot about you, Geralt," Yennefer said softly.

As if he didn't know it. "And it almost got him killed, again."

"You know... I had a chance to talk to him while all this was going on," Yennefer said. Geralt felt a cold bolt of panic shoot down his spine at the thought, but Yennefer only chuckled and shook her head. "We understand each other better now. Mind you, I still think he's a loudmouthed fool --"

"No argument here."

"But he's got more qualities than I expected," Yennefer continued. "Intelligence. Determination. And... kindness."

"The world would be less, for losing him," Geralt said. He looked up at the sorceress. "Thank you for saving him. I owe --"

Yennefer made a vague, open-handed gesture. "Mm, don't need your thanks for that," she said. "I'm inclined to say I did it for him,   rather than for you. That won't count towards your debt towards me."

Geralt winced. "But the rest of it does?"

"Oh, you'd better believe   it does," Yennefer said emphatically. "I haven't thought of anything sufficient for you to repay me yet, but when I do, I won't hesitate to cash in."

Geralt wondered if she realized yet that she didn't need him to be in debt, to ask favors or help of him. He would always help her if he could -- however he could -- no less than he could have done for Jaskier. 

But if it made her feel more in control to have that leverage over his head, to have someone she knew couldn't turn their back on her --  "I guess I'll keep waiting," he said. 




Yennefer left, probably to take her own bed. Geralt was left sitting by the fire, staring into it, trying to put the last few weeks in some kind of order in his head.

So much of it was a blur -- the world seen through a heavy shaded glass, voices and sounds garbled into incoherent screeching. He couldn't remember awakening in the lair, dumb and mute, struggling back to the surface in the woods. He could barely remember running through the woods like an animal, eating raw meat with his bare hands and... wolves? He remembered there being wolves at one point, but he couldn't remember how that encounter had ended -- only staggering through the trees with his arm black with blood and throbbing with pain. He hadn't been able to make sense of anything until the bard appeared in his life again.

Despite everything that had passed between them last autumn, Jaskier had greeted him as a friend. He remembered that, remembered how painfully glad he had been to see him again. Jaskier had fed him and washed him and tended his wounds, sheltered and guided him when it became apparent just how mind-crippled Geralt had become. Days had piled into weeks and Jaskier had never left his side, never gave up on him. Not even when the money ran out, the food ran out -- he hadn't understood, it had all gone over his head, but with his mind restored to him he could look back over memories of increasingly scanty meals and poor lodgings and no jobs   and do the math. 

Geralt wasn't so deep in denial that he didn't know how badly he'd treated Jaskier the last time they'd parted. How much of it had been genuine anger, and how much a desire to drive Jaskier away before Jaskier was taken from him... he still hadn't worked out even six months later. Even now.

But he'd had plenty of time to seek the bard out, to make amends, and he hadn't. Hadn't even made plans to do so. Hells, he could have written a fucking letter,   and he hadn't. After such a remission Jaskier would have been well within his rights to turn him loose to fend for himself, to leave him to a well-deserved fate.

Instead, Jaskier had looked after him.

There was only one person in the world who would have sought him out and cared for him in his worst moments, who wouldn't have just ended his misery, and that was Jaskier. The bard was the only one who'd ever given a damn about him just for himself -- not for what he could do for them or what he was to them, but just for his own sake.

He was such a fool.

"Ger'lt?"

Geralt started out of his reverie. Damn, he'd been so sunk in himself that he'd all but lost sight of the outside world. He looked wildly around, trying to pin down the shifting shadows -- it was evening, going by the light from the windows, but not night. Yennefer was still resting in the next room. Jaskier -- 

Was awake. He hadn't moved, his eyes had barely opened, but his breathing had shifted. Jaskier turned his head slightly, squinting into the shadows. Was he in pain? Geralt narrowed his focus, trying to discern distress -- but Yennefer had been right, the herbs he'd taken allowed for none of that. He smelled muddled, faintly chemical, like blood and dirt... but not pain. 

"Jaskier," Geralt said, and tried to ignore how his voice threatened to crack. "Take it easy."

A small smile tweaked Jaskier's face. "You're you again.... good."

"Thanks to you." Geralt cleared his throat to steady it. "And Yen."

" 'M glad," Jaskier mumbled. "Missed you."

Somehow those two words -- spoken without artifice or intent to manipulate, just sincere and heartfelt feeling -- threatened to break apart the thin veneer of control he'd managed to pull around himself. His head pounded, his vision swam -- Jaskier blurred in the firelight, and he blinked fiercely and bit his knuckles, focusing on the pain to distract him. It was hard to breathe, even harder to speak without breaking down entirely. Missed you. Missed you. Missed you too.

"Geralt?" Jaskier's eyes opened a little wider, focused on him. "You okay?"

He cleared his throat again, then coughed and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. When at last he thought he could speak without breaking he said, "I'm fine." He lowered his hand. "Don't worry about it."

Jaskier scoffed -- apparently still able to see through his bullshit even sky-high on Yennefer's best herbs. "Not fine," he said. With a great effort, he raised his hand and flopped his arm over to the side of the couch, leaving open a sliver of cushion next to him. "C'mere."

"I -- no," Geralt said, and stuttered. "No, Jaskier, I've leaned on you too much already. I've taken too much of your friendship --"

"No such thing as too much," Jaskier murmured. His voice was raspy and blurred, a token of the damage the poltergeist had done to him, the heavy metal bars pressing across his throat, suffocating him. "Think you'd... know that by now."

He wanted to. That was almost the most frightening thing, that he really wanted to crawl into Jaskier's embrace and hide from the world there. The curse had really done a number on his self-control -- no, the curse was gone, he couldn't blame his weakness on it any more. Geralt was fine; Jaskier was not; it was absolutely unthinkable for him to ask more of Jaskier now.

"Don't be an idiot," Jaskier admonished, as he waffled. He flapped his hand a little, beckoning. "C'mon."

The burning in his eyes returned, and Geralt gave in. Who was he to deny Jaskier anything he wanted? He slid off the footstool and crawled forward until he was leaning against the edge of the couch, Jaskier's arm around his back. 

There wasn't really enough empty space for Geralt to actually lie down on the couch -- not without putting pressure on Jaskier's torso which he absolutely was not going to do. But he managed a sort of sideways half-slouch, his head resting against Jaskier's arm, Jaskier's hand on his back. 

"Better, hmm?" Jaskier said, when Geralt had finished his shuffling. His eyelids were already drooping, his mouth going slack, as the herbs took hold of him once more. Likely he wouldn't even remember this in the morning.

"Yeah," Geralt said. He took a moment just to breathe, then let out a sigh. "Yeah, this is better. Jaskier?"

He waited for an answer, but none came. Jaskier drew a deep breath, then another, which buzzed slightly on the outflow. Asleep again. 

As for Geralt... well, sleep was not going to be an option, not in this position, not after the day they'd just had. But he leaned into the warmth of the embrace, all the same, and let the tears go.





In the morning Yennefer reappeared from the bedroom, dressed in a trailing nightgown of pale violet gauze and black lace wrapped around with a heavy robe of crushed plum velvet. She caused breakfast to appear, somehow, but forbade Jaskier from eating or drinking anything more than weak tea while she checked him over.

"He'll be fine," Yennefer said briskly, standing up straight and dusting her hands off. "The swelling has gone down and his lungs sound normal. All that's left is the bones, but they'll have to heal at their own pace."

"Is there nothing more you can do for him?" Geralt said anxiously. The geist had tossed Jaskier around like a ragdoll; hard to say whether it was the impact with the wall or the remains of the metal shelf landing on him that had broken his ribs and shoulder, but the breaks were extensive. Geralt had suffered broken ribs and shoulders before, rarely at the same time -- it had not been an enjoyable experience. 

Yennefer shrugged. "You can thank me for the lack of kidney failure and collapsed lung," she said. "Crush damage would have caused his tissues to swell and organs to hemorrhage after a few hours left untreated."

The reminder that Jaskier could have died -- could easily   have died -- hit him like a body blow. Geralt thought he controlled his reaction to that fairly well, but the way Yennefer and Jaskier looked at him made him think he hadn't done a very good job. 

"But healing magic isn't my area of specialty," Yennefer continued. "I can infuse potions; if you want magical healing, find Triss Merigold."

Geralt considered this. "Do you think we could find her? Where is she?"

"I'm right here, you know," Jaskier said peevishly. "You could ask me   what I want. And by the way, speaking as someone who likes both my lungs and   my kidneys, thank   you, Yennefer."

"Sorry," Geralt mumbled. "It's just... humans take so long to heal. Especially bones."

"Well, excuse my petty mortal bones," Jaskier said.

"Decide for yourself where you want to go from here," Yennefer said sharply, "but decide today. I'll be going back to Lyria tomorrow, I have business I put on hold for all this mess."

Geralt couldn't help but wince at that, but it was only fair. Yennefer had already come far out of her way for this -- to save him, to help Jaskier, and what did they have to offer in repayment? He could count on her to safeguard their safety and well-being; not their convenience. "I understand," he said. "Thanks... Yen."

Yennefer accepted the thanks with a regal nod, then swept out of the room. Jaskier sighed as she went with some emotion Geralt couldn't decipher; envy? Admiration? ...Lovesickness? If Jaskier had fallen in love with Yennefer while he was out of it, he was in so much   trouble. He resolved to try to pay more attention.

"So," Jaskier said. He shifted on the couch, looking miserable; Yennefer had declined to give him another dose of the painkilling herbs this morning. He pulled his lute over to his lap -- mostly for comfort, Geralt expected, since he couldn't play with his shoulder broken. "Where are   we going after this?"

"Riede," Geralt answered immediately. "I've still got to collect the bounty that started all this. That will give us some traveling money, some margin without having to rely entirely on Yen. After that..." he hesitated. "Up to you, I guess. Wherever you want to go to heal." Was Triss still in Temeria? He could take Jaskier to her, help speed his healing... assuming Geralt wasn't still banned from the country on pain of death, that was...

"Oxenfurt, then," Jaskier said. "I can catch up on his paperwork, get a head start on next session's curriculum. I don't normally spend summers there -- Novigrad gets too hot, and the summer sessions are boring with so few students around... but I don't think I'll be up for much that's exciting or adventurous for the rest of the season." He grimaced. 

Geralt stared. Not that he disagreed with the plan to stay quiet and out of trouble, not by any means, but -- "Curriculum? I didn't know you were a teacher there."

"Professor, actually," Jaskier said with a shrug. "What can I say, you write enough manuscripts correcting errors in their natural philosophy texts and eventually they just throw the doctorate at you to make you stop." He glanced up, caught Geralt's expression, and his smile twisted wryly. "I do have a life outside you, you know."

He knew that, of course he knew that. He'd been counting on it, in fact, when he resolved to cut Jaskier out of his life last fall -- told himself that Jaskier would be happier among his own people, not trailing around the countryside after a Witcher, that he was really doing Jaskier a favor by forcing him back to a better life. But it was one thing to tell himself that in empty gestures and another thing to hear it from Jaskier -- that he'd spent a month hauling Geralt's useless ass around the countryside when he could have spent that time relaxing happily in an ivory tower. 

Professor. He could see that, was the worst part. He really could see it, Jaskier comfortable and at home in a hall lined with books or instruments, half a dozen younger and flightier bards in front of him, showering him with the attention he craved. Why, in the name of all the gods, would Jaskier prefer the Path to that life?

Jaskier had continued to ramble on while Geralt lost himself in his thoughts; he'd mostly tuned it out, but he gathered Jaskier was expounding at length on the dreariness of Oxenfurt in the summer. "It's boring," Jaskier finally concluded, "but -- I'll grant it this -- at least there are no horrible rot ghosts in the basements. Phew! What even was   that thing?"

Of course Jaskier would want to know; it had almost killed him. "It's called a poltergeist," Geralt said, glad enough to change to a topic he could actually contribute to. "Not dissimilar to other kinds of wraiths, but it has more in common with vampires. They're blood-drinkers. Incorporeal, which makes it hard for them to get the blood they want; so they throw things. Not the most dangerous of monsters, but a damn pain in the ass to kill."

Poltergeists were rare and Geralt hadn't encountered many in his time on the Path; he had to close his eyes to concentrate, dredge up the old page in the bestiary that he'd memorized decades ago. "Fire and silver don't work on them. Even most Signs only slow them down," he said. "The only things that are known to be effective against them are samum bombs -- which I didn't have -- or sunlight."

He opened his eyes to see Jaskier staring at him with astonishment. "What?" he said.

"Rather generous with the details this time, aren't you?" Jaskier said. 

Geralt withdrew a bit. "You always want to know," he said.

"No, no, I definitely want to know," Jaskier said. "The bit with the roof falling in and the mirror trick is going to make an absolutely smashing climax to the song I'm going to write. It's just that I usually have to work a lot harder to get you to give me anything, you know?"

Geralt looked away. "I... thought you deserved it," he said. "After everything you've done for me, I can give you as many words as you want."

He heard Jaskier sigh. "Geralt," he said. "I don't want you to force yourself to talk to me just because you think you owe me something."

"But I do   owe you," Geralt objected. My life, my mind, my everything.

"But I don't want that to be why you do it," Jaskier countered.

Stalemate. Geralt chewed over the problem, frustration building to anger, until at last Jaskier sighed. "I think I've seen enough of your innermost feelings to carry me a lifetime," he said. He carefully avoided looking at Geralt, looking instead down at his lute, fingers making melodic pings   as they worked the fretboard. "So I only want one answer. Just one, and we'll call it even -- and tell me the truth. Do you like being around me?"

It was a simple question but -- at the same time, not simple at all. How could Geralt explain to Jaskier when he couldn't even explain to himself -- this endless tangle of wanting and not-wanting, of longing and resentment, fear of loneliness and fear of loss? Jaskier brought music and color and joy into his life but also pain, because with happiness came the inevitable end of happiness, because Jaskier was human and would leave, because Jaskier was mortal and would die , because one day Geralt wouldn't be enough for him, because one day Geralt wouldn't be able to save him, because Geralt could never be anything else than what he was --

He couldn't explain it. But, he realized, none of that would even be an issue at all if the answer to Jaskier's question weren't blindingly obvious. "Yes," he said. Yes, Jaskier made his life more complicated but made it better,   and yes, Geralt liked him. Liked his life better when Jaskier was around.

Jaskier gave him a slow, sweet smile -- not one of his teeth-flashing radiant grins, but something much more gentle. "Okay then," he said.

Geralt took a deep breath. There'd be no better time. "I am sorry that I... took my temper out on you," he said, then winced. Gods, that sounded pathetic. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."

Jaskier kept up his gentle tuning. "Well that's good to hear," he said. "I'd have kept on being your friend even without an apology, but I do think I deserved one."

"You did," Geralt told him. "You do."





They stayed one more day in Yennefer's guest-rooms as cold rain pelted down outside. Geralt and Yennefer had made one more foray into the sorcerer's lair -- Geralt to collect his swords and his trophy at last, and Yennefer to sift through the dead mage's belongings for anything worth salvaging -- and afterwards she conjured enough hot water for all of them to bathe. It was a welcome reprieve but Geralt had to admit, by the end of the day, that the three of them in such a small space were rather badly grating on each other's nerves. Thankfully the next morning dawned fair, and they all made plans to part ways.

Before they left the lair with its basement of death and secrets behind, Yennefer lit the place on fire behind them with a magical, stone-searing fire. Foul smoke belched out from the entrance, heat radiating on all their faces, before the ceiling caved in. Geralt found it more than a little satisfying, he had to admit.

In the overgrown castle courtyard they made their last preparations to depart. Geralt walked Roach carefully down over the uneven mess of tumbled stones and ropy tree roots, letting her find flat footing before they attempted to load her up with their gear, trophies, and Jaskier. That left Jaskier and Yennefer to say their goodbyes behind him, although with his enhanced senses he could hear every word. 

"Do try to stay out of trouble," Yennefer said. "I don't want to see either one of you for another turn of the seasons at least. I have my own inquiries to see to, you know."

"Inquiries of the teleporting kind?" Jaskier said, his tone sly, although Geralt had no idea what he thought he was implying.

Yennefer scoffed. "None of your business, bard," she said. Then her voice became quieter, more serious. "The border with Nilfgaard is heating up again, you know. It may not be so easy to slip in and out of the country soon."

"Maybe not," Jaskier said. "But I have no doubt you can achieve whatever your heart desires, dear sorceress."

"Your faith in me is touching," Yennefer said dryly. 

"And does your heart desire a certain Witcher?" Jaskier said, more quietly this time.

"Perhaps," Yennefer said. "But there is one thing that you can be to Geralt that I can never be."

"What's that?" Jaskier said, voice apprehensive.

"There for him."

That was the end of the exchange; Geralt took his time coming back up, wondering as he did so whether they knew he'd heard every word. He heard fabric rustling, and thought the two of them might have exchanged an embrace; by the time he reached the courtyard, the two of them were standing apart, avoiding eye contact.

"Well, time to go," Jaskier said, sounding breezy and carefree as he ever did. "It's a beautiful day for traveling, isn't it?"

Despite his light words he moved stiffly and slowly, and Geralt had to support him on the unsteady climb down. By the time he looked back up at the courtyard, Yennefer was gone.




Walking was difficult for Jaskier; as soon as they reached a clear stretch Geralt helped him mount on Roach instead. Not that riding was exactly comfortable either, no matter how well bound and splinted his broken bones -- but it had to be one or the other until they could reach civilization. 

The mare was affable enough to the change in ridership; Jaskier was a familiar presence and had been tending her more than Geralt did for the last month or so, after all. Geralt walked beside her, holding the reins -- the exact reversal of how they'd been for the last month, Geralt riding while Jaskier led them both.

The irony of the switch was apparently not lost on Jaskier either. "Did you know," he said after they'd been going for a while. "Roach was the one that led me to you, the night I found you?"

"Clever of her," Geralt said with a grunt. He shook his head. "I didn't know; you just seemed to show up out of nowhere, and I didn't think to question it."

Jaskier gave him a curious glance. "How much do you remember, anyway?"

"Not much." Geralt frowned at the effort of memory. "It's all a blur."

The answer seemed to unsettle Jaskier, who kept looking at him askance. "So you don't remember," he said after a long pause. "The things I said. The night I lost my temper and yelled?"

"No..." Geralt tried to recall it; it was difficult to put events in order, they all seemed to have been jumbled together in a heap in his head. In all honesty, he tuned out most of Jaskier's words even when he was  in his right mind. But he remembered... a fire, a curving wall, Jaskier voice raised in strong emotion, yes. "I remember you were upset. I didn't understand why."

"Oh," Jaskier said.

Geralt considered the memory, the events of the nights distorted through the lens of the curse. He remembered vaguely wondering what Jaskier was reacting to, looking around for any sign of attack. It hadn't occurred to him at the time that it was anything to do with himself at all, though in retrospect it was obvious. "It can't have been easy, dragging my sorry ass around and cleaning up after me."

"Not easy, no," Jaskier agreed. "But I was glad to do it."

For a time they fell into the comfortable, relaxed rhythm of travel. Geralt set an easy walking pace for Jaskier's sake; at the pace they were making, they should just about make Riede by nightfall. After a while Jaskier began to hum softly. Horseback was no place to try to play a lute even if he'd had both hands to play with, and his bound-up ribs prevented him from putting any real breath behind his singing, but the tune was clear enough if quiet. If he was being honest, Geralt preferred it this way; he got the melody of Jaskier's voice without the pain that came from full volume.

It tugged at Geralt with an odd sense of familiarity, although he couldn't place where he'd heard it before. If anything it seized him with a weird urge to go and find   Jaskier, even though he was right there beside him.


'The very next day the soldier arose
He started to stand, in horror he froze
For there at the foot of the soldier's bed
He saw his sweetheart lying there dead
For the space of a moon she cared for her beau
Only to die with the cock of the crow'


He must have made some sound, because Jaskier glanced down at him and started to laugh softly, breaking off the song. "Not a fan of that one?" he said. "It's not one of mine, you know."

"I didn't say it was," Geralt grumbled. It sounded nothing like Jaskier's songs; his tended to go all over the scales, and often sacrificed exact rhyme in favor of better word choice. 

"What don't you like about it?" Jaskier sounded curious. "The rhyming scheme is rather simple, I always thought --"

"It's so senseless," Geralt interrupted. "Toiling over the soldier until she collapsed with exhaustion like that. The girl would have lived if she had just taken better care of herself."

"But then her sweetheart might have died instead," Jaskier pointed out.

Geralt shrugged irritably. "He was a soldier; he knew that was a risk when he went off to war," he argued. "But the whole point of going to war was to protect her. If she dies anyway, there's no point to any of it. She should have known he wouldn't have wanted her to neglect herself for his sake."

Jaskier hummed "Well, love can make people do strange things," he said. "Maybe she thought this was her battle to fight."

Geralt couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he just hmm 'd instead. That made Jaskier laugh again, and he launched into another ballad, this one a nonsense jumble of sounds and syllables that made no sense and yet, again, seemed naggingly familiar. It made a nice calming background at least as the road unraveled under their feet.

Jaskier went through that song, then another, before he fell off into silence. Geralt would have thought he was just resting his lungs, if not for the sideways glances he kept shooting towards him. "So," he said. "You said you don't remember much..."

Geralt sighed. As little as he wanted to talk about it, he'd hold to his promise from yesterday of telling Jaskier anything he wanted to know. "Not of things that were said. I didn't understand it, so it just flowed away like water."

"But you do remember other things?" Jaskier prompted him. "Like the night the vampire thing attacked our campsite?"

"The --" The memory bloomed in front of his mind almost immediately, vivid and scorching, full of fury and triumph and fear. "Yes. The ekimma." He'd smelled it, or something like it, every night he'd spent in the woods, yet for some reason it had waited until the two of them were camping out in the open to attack.

"Ek--what?"

"That's what they're called. The long claws, that's a dead giveaway," Geralt said. "They're tough, but they're weak against fire. You lucked out, hitting it with the brand like that."

"That wasn't luck, that was planning," Jaskier sniffed.

Geralt's mouth twitched towards a smile. "Of course it was."

Jaskier seemed to be wrestling with himself over what to say next. "And you don't -- remember anything else?" he said at last.

Geralt slowed his pace, trying to focus on his scrambled memories "I remember... you were hurt," he said. That stood out in his mind like a vivid red smear, the smell, the taste in the air on his tongue. "I remember there was blood. I was afraid, and angry at myself that I hadn't managed to protect you. Relieved... so relieved when you were okay after all. And then I -- " Geralt stopped dead.

Shit.

Roach went on for another pace or two, carrying her past Geralt's position before she stopped, whickering irritably at him. Jaskier had to twist around in the saddle, crane his neck to look at him anxiously. "You don't remember?"

"Well." Geralt had to clear his throat, never more glad that his face didn't show blushes. "I didn't, but I do now."

"Ah." Jaskier sighed as he righted himself in the saddle. "And I see I've made it awkward, as usual. My apologies."

"Why?" Geralt made himself start walking again. "Wasn't your fault. You weren't the one who kissed where you shouldn't have. For once."

"Rude," Jaskier said mildly.

Geralt took a minute before he could answer. "Sorry," he said gruffly.

Jaskier sighed. "Why, Geralt?"

"Why am I sorry? Because I --"

"Not that. I can guess why you're sorry and it's extremely stupid," Jaskier turned to look him straight in the eye, his blue eyes brimming with intensity. "Why did you kiss me then? Then, and never before? What were you thinking?"

"I wasn't thinking. That was the whole --" Geralt broke off, frustrated and embarrassed. "I kissed you because I wanted to, Jaskier. I wanted to, and with that damn spell on me I couldn't think of all the reasons why I shouldn't."

"I see," Jaskier said, and he reached out and took Roach's reins away.

"Jaskier?" Geralt asked, bewildered, as Jaskier pulled Roach to a stop in the middle of the road and then began the awkward process of swinging his leg over to the side without bending or moving his bad arm. "Jaskier, what are you -- " he broke off as Jaskier slid down from the saddle in blithe disregard of his injury, and Geralt had to rush to catch him before he fell on his face in the road.

It ended with them both standing in the road, Jaskier in Geralt's arms, their faces less than a foot apart; Geralt realized how compromised he had become and tried to disengage, but Jaskier reached out and caught his elbow and lingered, keeping him in close. "And what are those oh-so-important reasons, again?" Jaskier said, and he was close enough that Geralt could feel Jaskier's breath on his face.

Geralt swallowed. This close Jaskier was a palpable presence, his warmth and his scent and his breath and the sound of his blood rushing in his veins. He tried to think of the right words but he was assaulted by a mob of wordless feelings instead, echoes of the last month overwhelming his resolve. Song and scent and warmth and the taste of his lips against Geralt's own, the relief of having him safe, the gladness of having him close, the overwhelming contentedness that if Jaskier was there, everything was right.

"To be honest," Geralt said, his voice coming out choked, "I can't think of them right now either."

Jaskier grinned at him. "Neither can I," he said, and he closed the gap for a kiss.

Being kissed by Jaskier was a whole-body experience, Geralt soon realized; he got his chest and hips into it, sliding forward to slot his body against Geralt's, soft and hot and utterly inviting. His tongue -- sharp and wicked in speech, now turned to flirting with Geralt's mouth, flicking against his lips and inviting him in for more.

If he let this happen, Geralt knew, there would be no turning back; his relationship with Jaskier would be changed forever. But it already had been, by the events of the last month, by the events of last year. If he was willing to give Jaskier up for the rest of his life, could he be any less willing to take joy of him for the rest of the same?

Geralt decided, to hell with it,   and stepped through the door.





~end.