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Ciri’s been wondering about Jaskier for a long time, before she decides to ask. She’s not scared to, exactly. It’s hard to be scared of Jaskier. But for all he talks (and talks, and talks) she knows that there are some things he guards quite carefully. Her grandmother and grandfather never bothered to hide their feelings or leave things unsaid, but that wasn’t true of many people in the court. She recognises the signs, can see it in the way Jaskier’s eyes slide to Geralt sometimes, the way he brushes close to him but never quite touches, the way he and Yennefer exchange looks like they’re having a whole conversation in the roll of an eye.

So there are plenty of things Jaskier isn’t saying, and she’s noticed other mysteries too. He’s vain about his clothes, but he doesn’t complain if he has to get his hands dirty making a fire or stitching one of Geralt’s wounds. He whines about not getting enough sleep, but not about walking for hours without a break. And his accent suggests wealth, but he never seems to have money, and he barters hard for every room or meal they get along along the way.

She’s curious, that’s all. It’s easier to be curious about Jaskier than Geralt and Yennefer, whose lives stretch so much further back, who are so much harder to read.

They’re camping outside one night, slowly moving towards Kerack, where there’s a book about Sources Yennefer wants to consult in the university’s library. Ciri is fairly sure that ‘consult’ means ‘steal’ but she doesn’t mind that. Better for Yenn to have it than anyone else. Jaskier’s been moody about their destination for days. First he wanted Yenn just to portal in and take the book; then he suggested he detour to one of the towns nearby and wait for them in a tavern he knew; today he spent several hours listing all the things he dislikes about Keracki food, culture, architecture, and courting rituals. No one else really bothered to respond to any of his suggestions, though Yennefer did explain again that she was fairly certain large magics were being tracked, and it was best to use them sparingly, so no portals, Jaskier.

Anyway, Yennefer is in her tent, and Geralt’s gone off hunting (or just to have some time alone, he does that, Ciri’s worked that one out), and Jaskier is staring morosely into the fire strumming discordant notes on his lute. It seems as good a time as any to ask.

“Jaskier,” she says, and he looks up, makes an effort to grin at her. “Where are you from?”

The grin stays, but something shifts in his eyes, his look goes distant. Then he blinks, and she’s no longer sure what she saw. “Where am I from?” he asks, mock offended. “Princess, you’re talking to Jaskier the travelling bard! The road is my home, the crowds are my family, I sleep amidst fields of flowers and live off the generosity of strangers—”

“Yes, but,” she interrupts, because when Jaskier starts getting poetic you have to do that, “where are you really from? You must have been born somewhere.”

“Not me,” he tells her, and twirls one hand in the air in a flourish. “I sprung fully formed from the spirit of music and mischief, didn’t you know?”

“Jaskier!” she cries. “Everyone’s from somewhere. I’m from Cintra, even though no one can know it, and Geralt’s from Rivia, and Yennefer’s from Vengerberg. So where are you from?”

“Nowhere,” Jaskier says, looking away from her again, into the fire. His tone has just enough of a snap to it, an edge she’s not heard before, that she decides to leave it be. For now.

She doesn’t stop wondering, though. But she’s not sure Yennefer knows, and she’s fairly sure if she asks Geralt he’ll just grunt, so she tucks it away to think about later.

 

The plan, Jaskier is relieved to learn when they arrive in the woods outside Kerack, is that Yennefer will disguise herself and go into town, and he and Geralt and Ciri will wait at the camp rather than risk being spotted. It’s a good plan. He likes the plan.

Ciri hates it, he can tell, because she’s a child and she’s bored, and she didn’t want to walk for days only to not be allowed to see something new at the end of it. He has some sympathy with her. If it were anywhere else, he’d probably sneak off with her when Geralt wasn’t looking. He understands why Geralt is so overprotective, of course, but it’s going to backfire on him one day. Unless he makes Ciri stay behind when he travels, she’s always going to want to be part of the adventure. Jaskier knows that feeling better than anyone.

Yennefer leaves for the town around dusk, planning to sleep in an inn overnight, visit the library first thing in the morning, and be ready to leave the same day. Ciri goes to sleep early – it’s exhausting, sulking, Jaskier remembers that clearly – and then it’s just him and Geralt by the fire, like it used to be. He doesn’t regret Ciri, or even Yenn, most of the time; it’s a strange family to be part of, but it’s better than any other family he’s ever known. It’s just nice, sometimes, to sit with Geralt in silence and pretend their lives are still simple, that their only problems are contracts and coin rather than the fate of nations.

“She’s angry,” Geralt says, after a while.

“She’ll get over it,” Jaskier tells him. “She’s young. She wants to take risks.”

“She can’t,” Geralt says, a slight tone of panic in his voice. Jaskier leans against his shoulder and pats his leg reassuringly.

“And she knows that,” he says. “Doesn’t stop her being pissed about it.”

“You’re good with her,” Geralt says, and Jaskier finds himself blushing a little.

“I used to be a lot like her. Always pushing my luck and causing trouble.”

“I bet you were a terror,” Geralt says, with the fondness he lets himself have, now, occasionally.

Jaskier swallows. It’s all a little too close, with Kerack just over the hill. The chances of this all going horribly wrong are slim, but still, he doesn’t want to think about the trouble he used to get himself into. “My pranks were renowned,” he says lightly, “for many leagues, and parents used to tell their children, beware you don’t follow his example, or you’ll be run out of town before the sun sets.”

“Nothing’s changed then,” Geralt says, and Jaskier swats him, idly, and relaxes further into the warmth of his body. He’s hardly going to tell Geralt the truth. Not on such a lovely evening, with Ciri sleeping quietly nearby, and Yennefer away, and no one to see that they have their bedrolls a little closer than normal, or that before they go to sleep Geralt will kiss him, almost chastely, on the corner of his mouth.

It’s such a lovely evening that Jaskier shouldn’t be surprised that when he wakes up Ciri is gone. It’s like a fundamental balance the world requires, to have everything turn to shit just when he thought it might not.

Geralt is more panicked than Jaskier can ever remember seeing him, almost tearing the camp apart in an attempt to figure out whether Ciri left of her own accord, which direction she went in. Jaskier knows exactly what happened, the little brat, but he lets Geralt get the adrenaline out of his system for a few minutes before sighing and catching him by the arm.

“She’s gone to town,” he says. “Geralt. Geralt! Stop acting like you’re about to stab the air and listen to me. She wanted to see Kerack, so she’s gone to see Kerack, and you can have some extremely stern words with her about it later, but for now, I’m going to go find her and bring her back.”

Geralt’s breathing calms a little, not enough for Jaskier’s liking, but at least he’s standing still. He says, “I’m going to kill her.”

“Sure,” Jaskier says, “that sounds like good parenting, very Calenthe of you. But she needs to be here to be slain, so why don’t you sharpen your swords in readiness, and I’ll head into town.”

“It should be me that goes,” Geralt says. Jaskier rolls his eyes.

“In case you’d forgotten, you’re being hunted across the Continent and you’re hardly able to sneak in undercover. Ciri would have had the sense to disguise herself, and so can I. It’ll be fine, love. You won’t even notice I’m gone.”

He’s pulling off the chemise he slept in as he speaks, raiding Geralt’s bag for something nondescript in black. It’s a terrible colour on him, but needs must. He pauses as he pulls the shirt over his head. Is he really doing this? Apparently he’s really doing this. It’s Ciri. And anyway it’ll be fine, he just said so. He’d give himself a lecture about the odds, but he’s superstitious enough not to risk it. Instead he kisses Geralt quickly, clasps his hand briefly, and leaves.

He’ll regret that, later. The speed with which he said goodbye.

 

Kerack is everything Ciri hoped it would be. She left at first light, her hair tied back and her hood over her head, and was in the queue at the gates when they were opened. She’s not been in such a large town for months and months. The sea air is brisk and tastes of salt; there are languages from all over the Continent surrounding her; people of all shapes and sizes and colours and styles. It almost, unbearably, feels like home. She wanders the market, barters for a pastry and a finger ring made of smooth black stone that she thinks Yennefer will like, goes to the port to look at the ships, and circles the castle pretending it’s hers, that she’s surveying it for weaknesses. She manages to pretend for hours that she’s just a normal girl with a morning off to explore, and the lightness in her chest is worth all the yelling she has to look forward to. Jaskier will yell, anyway; Yennefer will just say something cutting; and Geralt will look worried and sad. After a time, thinking of that starts to dampen the enjoyment, and she supposes that means it’s time to go.

She’s made her way back to the market square when something alerts her; a kind of tension in the air. She’s learned to pay attention to those feelings, slows to a steady, unremarkable stroll, and rests casually against a wall on the side opposite the town hall.

For a moment she can’t pinpoint the source of anxiety. Stalls, traders, the usual hustle and bustle she thought she would be safe to get lost in and then – there. Over to her left, a small bubble of silence. A rich man, swathed in furs; bodyguards on either side and behind him; and standing idly a couple of feet away, one hand tapping a tune on his leg, is Jaskier. He must be looking for her, though he’s facing in entirely the wrong direction. He can’t see her, but he also doesn’t seem to have noticed the men right by him, moving towards him, all their focus on him.

She pauses. She could run to him, create some kind of diversion – she could scream – she could try and alert Yenn – but the market is full of people, and the city gates are a mile distant, and if either of them get recognised, she’s not sure they’ll make it out.

And while she’s still frozen, trying to think, it abruptly becomes too late.

The man in furs says something. She’s too far to hear, but it has the cadence of a name, something with the intention to alert a listener. And Jaskier reacts. His head lifts with the sudden jerk of an animal at bay, and he turns to face the speaker. Ciri’s close enough to see the shudder that passes through him and the way he holds himself after, poised as if to run. His mouth is moving, easily, the way it does, but she can tell whatever he’s trying to do isn’t working because the man’s bodyguards are circling him like beasts. One lands a hand on his shoulder, one grips his other arm. Jaskier lifts his hands, a familiar enough gesture that she can guess at what he’s saying: “my friends, there’s no call for this, I’m coming quietly” but then the rich man steps forward and slaps him across the face.

The sound is barely noticeable above the hubbub of the market but Ciri feels it like she’s the one who’s been struck. She watches Jaskier shake his head, slowly, grin a little and say something – sharp, biting, she can see it in the twist of his lips. The rich man hits him again, in the gut, and this time Jaskier folds a little, till the bodyguards haul him up. One of them pulls his arm behind his back, the other maintains that heavy grip on his shoulder.

They start to move. They’re walking her way, and she withdraws into the alley, letting the shadows claim her except for a flash of her cape. Jaskier sees her, as he goes by; sees her see him, and shakes his head slightly, warningly. His lip is bleeding, just a little. With the hand he has free, held clutched to his stomach, he moves his fingers into the sign of quen, and she nods to say she’s understood. Get help. Get Geralt.

She waits until they’ve walked on far enough that they won’t notice any movement behind them, and flees towards the gates.

 

All Jaskier can think of, as they march him towards the castle, his gut aching, is that he knew going to Kerack was a bad idea. He tried to tell them.

Well.

He didn’t really try to tell them, because that would have been a long, involved conversation that he’s never particularly wanted to have. He did try to get out of it, but trying to get out of things when Geralt is involved is like running into a wall made of disinterest and deafness over and over again. He’s never been sure if Geralt is pretending to ignore him, or literally not hearing him.

Anyway, he’s been proved spectacularly right about it being a bad idea, and it’s only a shame that he’s likely to prove it with his life. Of all the people to run into, why did it have to be fucking Ferrant? They never liked each other, even as children.

Also Ferrant is next in line to inherit Jaskier’s title and lands, and he’s definitely always been willing to kill to ensure the succession. It’s the main reason Jaskier’s stayed far, far away from sodding Kerack this whole time.

Fucking Geralt of fucking Rivia, dragging him here. Lots of people want to kill him, of course, but it’s mostly not personal.

At least he saw Ciri, saw that she was safe. And Ciri is going to get Geralt, and Geralt and Yennefer will do what they do best and get him the hell out of this… pickle. That’s all it is, a temporary blip, nothing to worry about.

He manages to fool himself into believing this all the way to the dungeon. The dungeon makes him realise this might be serious. The iron bars on the cell they dump him seem plenty serious. So do the manacles they lock him into, cold steel around his wrists, connected to the wall by a long chain.

“Oh come on!” Jasker yells at Ferrant’s departing back. “I know you’ve never liked me, but really! We’re family!”

His cousin doesn’t turn around. Jaskier slumps down to sitting. There’s straw on one side of the cell, a small barred window set in the wall above his head and a drain stained dark in the centre of the floor. It’s cliched, is what it is. If Jaskier was the torturing petty noble sort, he’d at least put some effort into it.

He should possibly have told Geralt why he didn’t want to come.

He hopes he’ll get the chance to explain. But as he feels the walls press in around him, he can’t say he’s certain of it.

 

Geralt is brushing Roach when he hears it. Roach doesn’t need brushing, but it’s something to do to distract himself from the worry and the anger. Ciri knows better. Geralt’s going to have to do something authoritative, scold her in some way, though he’s not sure how. He wouldn’t inflict the punishments of Kaer Morhen on anyone, and from some things Yennefer has said, he suspects Aretuza was no better. And there isn’t much in the way of freedom or luxuries in her life to deny her. Ah, well, he’ll think of something. Jaskier might have an idea.

Then he hears it: Ciri’s heartbeat and her footsteps, both thundering as she races up the hill towards him. There’s no echo, no double pattern. It’s just her.

For a moment he lets himself believe that it’s fine, that Ciri has made her own way back and after a time Jaskier will too. Then Ciri comes close enough for him to see her face, drawn and tear-stained, and he moves towards her, like a repeat of their first meeting, catches her in his arms and lets her sob desperately into his chest.

The story is confused, muddled in between choking breaths, but he gets the gist. Jaskier’s been arrested, or something like it. Geralt should have known there wasn’t a city in the Continent where the damn bard hasn’t pissed somebody off. But usually he’s not shy about mentioning it, counts his various conquests as jewels in his possession rather than things to be ashamed of no matter how badly they end.

It doesn’t matter, though. There’s no prison which can hold Jaskier if Geralt has anything to do with it, no person who can keep them apart.

They’ll wait for Yennefer, because magic is always useful, and then they’ll go back to Kerack and get Jaskier, and everything will be all right.

But when Yennefer returns just as the sun begins to set, she comes through a portal rather than on foot, and the expression on her face makes Geralt realise that things might not be so simple, after all.

 

They leave him to stew for several hours, which would be more intimidating if it weren’t so transparent. Jaskier’s no stranger to intimidation attempts, or jail cells for that matter. He leans back against one of the corners, and closes his eyes.

He’s woken by a pitcher of water to the face. Not much of it gets into his mouth, which is a shame; he’s parched. He barely has time to regret it before one of the guards is pulling him to his feet, roughly, and marching him out of the cell, down the stone corridor and into a larger space where his cousin is waiting. It’s at the opposite end of the building to where he came in, lit only by a few sconces. A squarish room with a post in the middle, a trough at the far end, a bench on one side, and a desk at the other. Ferrant is sitting at the desk, for all the world like a bureaucrat faced with an unpleasant bit of business. Jaskier decides to focus his attention on the absurdity of this, rather than look at what lies on the bench to his right.

They attach his manacles to a chain on the post, leaving his hands just above eye level. He leans his head into his forearms, against the post, and says, “I was asleep, if you must know.”

He hears Ferrant shift. He used to love winding his cousin up, as children. Ferrant was the poor relation, back then; Jaskier could get away with an awful lot of shit, so he did. He rather thinks Ferrant is looking forward to it being the other way round.

“What were you doing in my city, Julian?”

That bloody name. No one’s called him it for years. Jaskier uses it occasionally, when he wants to be particularly ostentatious, but people mostly think he’s joking. It’s like a stage name, useful for a certain purpose, but not real.

Jaskier shrugs, which makes the chains rattle. “It’s a nice city,” he says.

“It’s not had the pleasure of your presence in some time. Why today? And why not let me know?”

“Perhaps I wanted to get to Skellige,” Jaskier says. Anything that gets them looking in the wrong direction. “And it’s not as if we’re friends.”

“You wound me, cousin,” Ferrant says. “Though I do hear you’re keeping rather more interesting company these days.”

Jaskier’s not entirely sure he manages to hide his flinch at that. Ferrant did always like to know things, collecting information and gossip and rumour the way a magpie picks up trinkets. No doubt he’s kept the habit up, on a much larger scale. “I fear your information is out of date,” he says.

Ferrant gets up and moves to stand behind him. He fists one hand in Jaskier’s shirt. “Really?” he asks. “This seems like something a witcher would wear. Not your style at all.”

Fuck. “I was trying to pass without notice,” Jaskier says. “My usual attire wouldn’t have been much good for that.”

There’s a blade pressed at the back of his neck. He feels the cold, sharp edge of it against his skin. Then it moves away from his flesh as Ferrant starts to cut the fabric. He can feel a slight breeze, the warmth of his cousin’s fist holding the material taut so it tears better. Poor Geralt. This might be his only spare. “It’s odd,” Ferrant says, conversationally, his words punctuated by the sound of cloth ripping under his knife, “that a traveller, on his way to board a ship, would have no bags, no coin, no lute, even. I would have thought a bard such as yourself would keep his instrument close by.”

Jaskier allows himself a small measure of amusement at the disgust with which Ferrant says the word ‘bard’. It’s a little like talking to his father. Then he starts lying again, though he’s not sure why either of them is bothering. Perhaps it’s just the etiquette of situations like these. “I was robbed on the way to the city,” he says. “You ought to do something about the bandits on the road, cousin. What are the fine people of Kerack paying their taxes for?”

“They pay me to protect them,” Ferrant says sharply. “And I wonder what they’d say if they knew the notorious Butcher of Blaviken was close by.”

“I imagine they’d say they had a monster they could do with killing,” Jaskier says, yawning. “That’s what usually happens, in my experience.” The last of his shirt is gone, now, and the air is cool on his back.

“And you have lots of experience.” Ferrant steps away. Jaskier resists the urge to turn and look at him.

“Mmmm,” he says. “Though not, sadly, for some time.”

Ferrant laughs. “Where is he, Julian?”

“The last I saw of him was two years ago in the Dragon Mountains. If you want more recent information, you’ll have to seek it yourself.” He lets bitterness seep into his voice. The wound is healed, but he can draw on the scar it left if he needs to.

“Strangely, I don’t believe you.” Ferrant must make a sign, because there are other footsteps, now. Someone approaching the bench on his right.

“The stranger thing is why you should care,” Jaskier says. “I wasn’t aware you took much interest in my doings.”

He hears the crack of the whip a second before it lands and it hurts like burning, knocking him hard into the pillar. He clenches his teeth and forces himself to stand up, steadying his feet under him. There’s a sharp line of pain across his lower back, a warm trickle of blood on his skin, a dull ache in the muscle around it. He makes himself catalogue the feeling, relax into it. It’s only this. This is endurable.

“I don’t, especially,” Ferrant says. He’s retreated back behind his desk. He never did like to get his hands dirty; Jaskier imagines he’d hate to have blood ruin his fine furs. “But I have some, shall we say, friends, who’d like nothing better than to get hold of your witcher. Apparently he has something that belongs to them.”

Oh, fuck no. Jaskier makes his voice stay light and steady. “Geralt’s possessions amount to two swords, two changes of clothes, an incredibly surly horse, and whatever monster bits he’s not managed to sell yet. I can’t see who would covet any of that.”

Ferrant must nod, again, because there’s the crack, again, and a new line of pain opens up. He hisses against it, pushes his forehead hard into his arms, keeps breathing.

“Don’t play dumb, cousin. It doesn’t suit you.”

“Funny,” Jaskier says, hating the way his voice wavers a little against his will. “Playing traitor against the crown suits you down to the ground.”

“It’s a new world out there,” Ferrant says. He’s moved closer again, leans in right against Jaskier’s ear. “Seems to me like you can’t rely on the old order. Seems to me a smart man would make sure he’s owed a few favours, for when power changes hands.”

“Seems to me,” Jaskier says, “only a fool would waste time torturing a bard who knows nothing.” It’s not his best comeback. It’s getting a little harder to think.

“But I’ll enjoy it either way,” Ferrant says, his voice low, almost yearning. “So not wholly a waste.” And Jaskier barely has time to shudder before the next blow falls.

He loses count at ten, and decides to start screaming not long after. He could stay quiet, if he wished, despite the relentless burning, burning, burning pain. He could. He chooses not to.

After all, if he’s screaming, he can’t talk.

 

They pass the night in silence. Ciri sleeps, eventually. She cries for a long time, in Geralt’s arms, but in the end the tears die down into exhaustion, and then she’s out like a light. Next to them, Yennefer is as taut as a bow string, anger keeping her rigid. Geralt’s never been sure exactly what she feels about Jaskier, but he knows she counts him as part of her circle, now, and Yennefer is fiercely possessive about things she considers hers. All three of them are similar, in that way.

“Go over it again,” Geralt says. “Explain to me why we’re just sitting here.”

Yennefer sighs. “If it’s true that this royal instigator is selling secrets to Nilfgaard, then we have to assume he took Jaskier as a bargaining chip. Which means he’s confident he can withstand any assault from you. Which means we have to be sneaky.”

When she’d come bursting through the portal, hours earlier, it was because she’d just learned that this Ferrant, the king’s man, had instructed the gatekeepers to watch out for a tall man, wearing black, with silver hair. She planned for them to move immediately, assuming someone had spread word that they were nearby. She hadn’t realised that they already had Jaskier, already had proof that Geralt of Rivia was in the area.

“Sneakiness isn’t my main skill,” Geralt says. He strokes his fingers through Ciri’s hair. No need to punish her after all, he thinks, idly, awfully. She blames herself, and until Jaskier’s safe, that will keep tormenting her. He told her that there was nothing to forgive and then that he forgave her, that Jaskier would forgive her, that all would be well, but he could tell she didn’t believe him.

“That’s what you’ve got me for,” Yennefer says. “I’ll go back at first light, find out where he’s being held, what defences they have. With any luck, I’ll be able to get him out myself before this Ferrant de Lettenhove is even awake.”

“What?” Geralt asks sharply, and Yenn glares at him.

“I am capable of getting into a building and out again without your help, Geralt—”

“No, the name. What did you say?”

“Ferrant de Lettenhove?”

Geralt clenches his fists. “That’s Jaskier’s name,” he says. “Lettenhove. That’s where his family’s from.” The family he never, ever speaks of. The place he’s never been back to, in all his wanderings, as far as Geralt knows.

Shit. All that time on the road, all the reluctance and complaining and suggestions that he sit this one out. Geralt never thought it meant anything real. But he’s looking back, and realising that Jaskier wasn’t lazy, or bored, or teasing. He was scared. Why hadn’t he said something?

You know why, he thinks. Because it’s got better, but there’s a part of Jaskier, still, that treads carefully around him. Trying not to be a nuisance.

Ciri’s not the only one who has something to reproach themselves for.

“You think it’s personal?” Yennefer asks.

“Personal, business, doesn’t matter,” Geralt says. “We’ll find him, we’ll rescue him, and then we’ll never set foot in this dump of a city ever again.”

Yenn’s eyes burn a little brighter in the firelight. She takes his hand. “Sounds good,” she says.

Geralt tries to believe his words. Tries to sink into meditation, where things are blank and easy and he doesn’t have to worry. Doesn’t have to feel.

Dawn is a long time coming.

 

They wake him with a pitcher of water again.

It was a long night, and he’s not sure, now, if he really slept at all. He remembers seeing the moon rise through the barred window, then he would blink, and the light would be different, blink again and it would only be stars. Sleep or unconsciousness, one or the other. Either way, he’s not rested. His back is a solid shriek, pulsing with a new wave of pain every time he breathes. The manacles are heavy round his wrists. It’s cold.

About the only thing he’s proud of is that he managed to piss in a corner before he passed out.

He really hoped Geralt would have done something clever by now, found a way to reach him. Or more likely Yennefer. But if Nilfgaard is in the picture, they have to get Ciri safe first. So it’ll be today, maybe. He can hold on for today.

The four guards lead him back into the room. There’s a chair in front of Ferrant’s desk, and the guards haul him towards it. Ferrant holds his left hand up, doesn’t stop writing with his right. “Strip him first,” he says, flat, almost bored.

Jaskier would struggle, but what’s the point? That’s what Ferrant wants. It’s all about power, about who blinks first. He stares off into the middle distance while they unbutton his breeches, tug off his boots and the rest of his clothes until he stands bare as the day he was born. Ferrant looks up, nods, satisfied, and they push him into the chair. The slats scrape against his back and he draws in a sharp breath.

The guards retreat a few steps. Ferrant returns to his correspondence. Jaskier determines to stay silent until spoken to.

Ferrant is wearing a fur-lined cape, his chain of office over it. His doublet is rich, dark velvet. He smiles a little as he works. Eventually he stops writing, signs his name with a flourish and passes the sheet of paper to one of the guards. “Have them post the notices around the town,” he says. The guard bows, and leaves. Now there are just three of them, Jaskier wonders whether he should make a run for it. But even Ferrant isn’t stupid enough not to have reinforcements, locked doors.

His cousin looks up, finally. “Sleep well?” he asks.

Jaskier shrugs. “It was a little cold,” he says. “And the catering leaves something to be desired.”

“I thought you’d grown used to roughing it on the road,” Ferrant says. “I can’t imagine your witcher is one for luxury.”

Jaskier rolls his eyes. “He’s not my anything,” he says. “I thought we covered this yesterday.”

Ferrant smiles. “My friends were most intrigued by my news,” he says. “I received a message this morning. They’re sending a party north to be ready when the rescue you’re so desperately anticipating arrives.”

“Last I saw Geralt of Rivia,” Jaskier tells him, “two years ago, he told me he’d count it a blessing if I was taken off his hands. Funny to consider you a blessing, Ferrant, but the world moves in strange ways, I suppose.”

Ferrant stretches back in his chair. “You can persist in this charade as long as you like,” he says. “If your songs are to be believed, the witcher is an honourable man. He’ll come for you.”

“You’d believe my songs?” Jaskier laughs. “How adorably gullible of you. I wonder if all the common rogues in the market know how easy it is to trick you. You’ll not gain anything with Nilfgaard from selling me to them, and you won’t get Geralt either. So I’m not sure what you want to achieve, here.”

“Money, power, influence,” Ferrant says. “Your title, after you die. The usual.”

Jaskier’s very tired. “You would have had that anyway,” he says. “I’ll never claim it. You could have had that any time you wanted.”

Ferrant scoffs at that, disdain crossing his face. He never had any imagination, Jaskier thinks. He’d never believe someone could walk away from their lands. “And say that were true, cousin,” Ferrant says, “what do you want?”

He pretends to consider that for a moment. “Some water would be nice,” he says, eventually.

The scowl on Ferrant’s face is entertaining, briefly, before it’s replaced with calculation. Gloves off, then, Jaskier thinks. He’s been waiting for it. “Water,” Ferrant says, nodding at the guards behind him, who haul him out of the chair and across the room to the stone trough, and Jaskier has just enough time to take a breath before—

Cold. Stinging against his eyes, roaring in his ears, and he convulses, the manacles cutting into his chest as he thrashes against the stone, and he takes a breath and inhales water and chokes on it, and there’s no air, no air—

They pull him up, and somewhere, a long way away, Ferrant says, “hold him still, for gods’ sake, look at the mess—” and then they push him back down and he can’t even cry out and then—

He’s back in the chair. Soaking wet and shivering. Ferrant is crouched before him. He has a curious, cruel look on his face. Jaskier wonders how many men he’s had tortured. Whether he calls it is his duty, or knows it’s his pleasure. He remembers him as a child, on hunts, always a little too slow to put the beasts he caught out of their misery.

“Hello again,” Ferrant says. “I’m afraid you passed out for a while there.”

Jaskier blinks, muzzily. The world is a little off-kilter. The roaring in his ears hasn’t quite gone away. He catalogues his pains: an ache in his chest, from coughing, from the lack of air. The burning of his back, though that feels very distant now. The weight of the steel on his wrists. A second weight on his right hand. He looks down, and feels the dread rise in him like a wave.

“No,” he says. He wasn’t intending to. It just slipped out.

“I think yes,” Ferrant says. He takes Jaskier’s hand in his, almost gently. One of the guards moves to hold him down, one arm around his chest, pinning him to the chair, the other holding his left wrist down. Jaskier struggles, kicks, can’t gain any purchase amidst the panic running through him.

Ferrant strokes the skin along his knuckles, just below the iron encasing the three middle fingers of his right hand. “It’s such a simple contraption, isn’t it,” he says. “For something with such power to harm.” He looks Jaskier in the eye. He doesn’t look quite human, any more. Not quite sane.

Geralt always said men were the worst monsters.

“Please don’t,” Jaskier says. “You don’t need to do this. I won’t tell you anything, Ferrant, there’s no point, please.” He’s crying, he realises distantly. He thought he could hold on, and he could, surely, but not for this. Not his hands.

“Ssshhh,” Ferrant says, mildly. He turns the screw a quarter turn. Enough for the iron below and above his fingers to start pressing into his flesh, a steady ache. “I wrote your death warrant this morning, when you came in. You’ll be hanged at dawn. A nice, public affair for your witcher to try to prevent.”

Geralt isn’t coming, Jaskier thinks, dully. He can’t breach the keep, or he would have done it by now. He won’t walk into a trap, or risk Nilfgaard finding Ciri.

“I don’t need anything from you, Julian,” Ferrant says. He turns the screw again, and the ache increases, a bruising pressure now. Not crushing. Not yet. “Not the truth, not Geralt of Rivia’s whereabouts, not your title, not your name. I’m going to take it all anyway. This? This is just for fun.”

His hands are holding the thumbscrew steady. His face is bright with something approaching lust.

Jaskier closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to see it done.

 

The sun is shining, on the hills above Kerack, and Yennefer’s been gone for hours. Ciri is standing by Roach, braiding her mane with trembling fingers. Geralt is sharpening his steel sword, violence a raging fire in his gut, waiting to be released.

Yennefer walked, this morning. He knows she’s saving her strength, and chooses not to think about the reasons she might have to call on her magic, later.

It means he has some warning, when she approaches. The woman who comes over the hill is plain, blonde, hearty, but Geralt knows the rhythm of her steps, her heartbeat, too well to be fooled.

The expression on the woman’s face doesn’t sit right. She ought to look cheery. Instead she looks pained.

“Geralt,” she says, in Yennefer’s voice. She passes one hand over herself, removing the glamour, thrusts a notice at him with the other. “They’re putting them up all over Kerack.”

He reads it, and feels the barely banked anger within him surge up. It tastes bitter in his throat. He looks away, and Ciri storms over, grabs the parchment before he can stop her. She reads it out loud: “For crimes against the state, the spy Julian Alfred Pankratz, viscount of Lettenhove, also known as the bard Jaskier, to be hanged at dawn—” She breaks off, appalled. “Geralt, they can’t!”

Yennefer meets his eye, and shakes her head, slightly. “I went all round the keep,” she says. “It’s warded eight ways; guards ten deep on every entrance. I can’t get in, and nor can you.”

“I could,” he grunts. He thinks, viscount? Ciri is staring at him, with that faith that persists despite everything she’s learned about how shit the world can be. He thinks about taking her hand, returns to the sharpening of his blade instead. It’ll prove more useful.

“All right, you could,” Yennefer says, and rolls her eyes. “And you’d be injured – badly – and have to carry him out, against all the reinforcements. Don’t be stupid. They know you’re not going to risk it, that’s what this little charade is for. It couldn’t scream more obviously of a trap if they’d written trap on it in big letters.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Geralt says.

“Of course it matters!” says Yennefer. “It’ll hardly help if both of you die on a bloody scaffold!”

Ciri winces, and Geralt gives up on utility and takes her hand after all. “It’ll be all right,” he tells her.

Her eyes are shining; he knows she’s not going to cry again, she won’t let herself do that. But if she were anyone else. “I don’t want any more people to die for me,” she whispers.

“They won’t,” Geralt says. He stands up, faces Yennefer. She speaks into his mind, always unnerving. A picture: the square, crowded with people, crowded with soldiers, archers on the roofs, mages, maybe, if they’ve prepared properly.

You know you can’t win this.

What would you have me do?

She laughs, suddenly, and it seems to Geralt that even the air in the chill clearing lifts slightly. “One thing I’ve learned over a long, long, lifetime,” she says out loud, “is if you don’t like the rules your opponent has set, cheat.”

“What’s that supposed to mean,” Geralt mutters. He’s not good at cheating. It’s complicated. He’s better with simple things, like silver and steel, and yet since Destiny saw fit to favour him (or fuck with him, depending on your point of view), every damn thing is complicated.

“It means they don’t know about me, which gives us an advantage. And I have a plan,” Yennefer says. She sighs. “But you’re not going to like it.”

She’s right. He doesn’t.

 

The cuts on his back are bleeding again. He can feel it, distantly, when he blinks his way into consciousness, the wet against the cold floor. Unless he’s pissed himself. That was a distinct possibility, at the end there. And anyway, blood, piss, cold, all fade against the roaring pain in his hands.

He thinks about moving. All he can see is the dark stone of the ceiling, and it isn’t very inspiring. Moisture gathers on it, forms into little rivulets, falls. He watches them awhile. A little later, when the roar of pain has – not diminished, but faded into background noise, been accepted as his new reality – he rolls over on to his side. One hand brushes against the floor, and darkness swallows him whole once more.

When he wakes, it’s equally sudden; a shift in his body triggering a wave of hurt that snaps him into consciousness. Neat trick, he thinks. From where he lies, he can see the door, a shaft of light piercing through. It doesn’t reach him though. Figures. If he could crawl, he could reach it. But he’s not sure about crawling, unsure about putting any weight on his hands.

Don’t think about it.

Time passes. He watches the moonlight through the window.

The cell is so cold he isn’t even shivering any more. It feels like the stone and the damp have become part of his aching flesh.

He doesn’t sleep. How could anyone sleep the night before their death? Well, Geralt could, possibly, that would be like him; he’d just say hmmm, and rest, and then escape in the morning in some ridiculous feat of strength and swordplay.

Jaskier doesn’t think he’s going to escape in the morning. Geralt hasn’t come, and hasn’t come, and this is the second night he’s watched the moon rise in this pit. If they were going to risk a rescue, it would have happened by now. And he’s glad, he is. Because Geralt has Ciri to look after, and Jaskier knows that Ciri is going to save them all. He’s always known he’s living in a fairytale, his whole life has been about spinning stories of monsters and righteous men. And so he understands that it’s only the protagonists that Destiny cares about. The men and women who die so fate can work as it’s meant to don’t get songs.

So Geralt will save Ciri, and Ciri will save the world, and Jaskier’s part in their story will cease. And that’s not great, obviously, because he really wants to know how it ends. And also he was hoping to get a few more songs out of it, if he’s honest. But it’s the way it has to be.

He can’t quite figure out if he really means this. He often doesn’t know what he means until he converts it into music, but he can’t feel his fingers at all anymore, and trying to work out a song that he’ll never play just seems exhausting.

It’s still dark when Ferrant arrives. Jaskier’s sprawled on his side, watching the stars through the high window, pretending he’s lying in a camp by the woods, and that any minute he’ll roll over into the warmth of Geralt’s slumbering body and go back to sleep. The pain in his back and his chest and the constant numb ache of his ruined fingers makes it hard, but he’s trying.

“Cousin,” Ferrant says. He sounds a little awkward, which is oddly pleasing.

“Cousin,” Jaskier responds. “Having second thoughts? Not every day you get to murder your kinsman, I suppose, but it will make the next ball my parents attend an uncomfortable occasion.”

Ferrant’s response is to kick him in the ribs, which Jaskier can’t help but feel is a bit over the top, in the circumstances. His cousin nods at the guards, who pull him to his feet. One man holds him steady, the other dresses him, roughly, pulling his breeches up over his legs, manoeuvring his arms into a dark brown shirt. The cloth is harsh against his back and he wavers again, almost falling. He’d say he wouldn’t be seen dead in such an outfit, but, well, it’s not like he has much choice.

The guards half drag, half haul him through the bitterly cold corridors. His bare feet stumble on the uneven flagstones. He remains uncooperative, pretending to himself that this is something he’s doing on purpose rather than because he’s too hurt to stand.

“No breakfast for a condemned man?” Jaskier asks, idly, because if he doesn’t talk he’ll probably scream. “Your standards of hospitality are slipping. I remember the last feast I came to, you recall, that dancer you had your eye on, it was so kind of you to waive your rights when she made up to me…” Ferrant slows, but doesn’t rise to it, so he continues, “you know, I did try to write a murder ballad but it’s very hard to find things to rhyme with Jaskier. Ferrant on the other hand: cant, plant, pissant…”

His cousin stops walking, bringing them all to a halt. He scowls and takes a handful of his hair, pulls him forward so they’re eye to eye. “I’m going to pull the lever on you myself,” he hisses, “but not till you watch us cut your witcher down in front of you. We’ll make it slow.”

And Jaskier laughs, unforced, because this is priceless, truly. “You always were an idiot,” he says in between the gasping laughs that his ribs will allow him. “Ferrant, he’s not coming, of course he’s not coming. He’s dumb in lots of ways but he’s not stupid.”

“He’ll come,” Ferrant insists. There’s a curl of fear to his voice, which Jaskier can’t quite get for a moment before he realises—

“You told Nilfgaard you had him, didn’t you? Oh cousin, cousin, surely you’ve been told not to make promises you can’t keep to murderous despots, it’s right up there with not eating green meat as a survival strategy.”

There are spots of colour high in Ferrant’s cheeks. He’s right, the idiot has promised them. So at least Jaskier can die in the knowledge that when Geralt doesn’t show, Ferrant’s going to have to deal with some very stabby, very angry men not long after.

The thought is enough to cheer him until they unbar the door to the square and push him out into the crowds pressing in on all sides. It’s an impressive number, for that time in the morning, and Jaskier’s not sure whether they’ve been suborned, or whether they think they’re about to see some epic fight, or whether they just hate him. They’re oddly silent – normally hangings are a festive affair, with food stalls and music; Jaskier’s even played at a few when coin has been truly short, though it’s not an experience he ever relished. Even less so now he has the starring role. He keeps his eyes on the cobbles, slick with the morning dew, because that’s better than braving the hostile, staring faces, or the grim shape of the scaffold he caught, briefly, out of the corner of his eye.

The sun’s just rising. When he looks up, the sky is rosy, though the light hasn’t yet reached over the houses that line the square. Still, it’s nice. He thinks: a shadow walked through shadows, before the sun was high, a man who thought of nothing, on the day that he must die.

Not bad. Needs a stronger third line. But they’re at the platform steps now, so he’s running out of time to find one really. The world’s going a little wavy at the edges. He’s been scared before, and hurt, and tired, but this is something different, he doesn’t have the words for it. It’s too big to feel properly. He stumbles up the steps in a blur, supported by the guards; it’s hard to balance when your top half feels like it’s on fire and your hands are in chains. He blinks and they’re setting the noose around his neck, a heavy, scratchy weight; blinks again and they’re reading whatever charges they’ve listed against him. He doesn’t pay attention. It’s not important.

He looks out over the crowd. Geralt’s not coming, and he doesn’t want Geralt to come, but he realises now that there was a small, scared part of him hoping, all the same.

He becomes aware, slowly, that nothing is happening. They’re waiting, of course, for an attack that is never going to come. He laughs again, high and hysterical, and turns to Ferrant and spits in his face, because that look of constipated outrage is a better last sight than the crowd gathered below him that does not contain Geralt of Rivia. “I told you, you moron, you feckless inbred tone-deaf arsehole, I told you what I was worth to him, so what the fuck are you waiting for, get on with it.”

Ferrant snarls, wordless, and gets on with it.

And Jaskier falls.

And does not land.

 

The noose is tight around his neck and there’s a sound like a sword overhead, and he’s grasped, hard, every part of his bruised body screaming in protest. There’s a rush of sound in his ears, the pulse of his own heartbeat and his gasping, struggling breaths. Someone says, “hold him, we have to move again,” and there are strong arms heaving him up. He’d scream if he could get the air but he can’t so he mewls instead and everything shifts – flashes of worlds, bright lights, he screws his eyes up – and the breeze hits his face from a different direction. And someone says, “again,” and he’s choking, can’t breathe between the pain in his chest and the constriction around his neck and the way everything is moving around him.

And then, just as he thinks he’s going to shake apart, it settles.

He’s lowered to the ground, and someone is cutting the noose and wrenching at the manacles on his wrists, someone is stroking through his hair, and growling in a way that anyone but Jaskier would probably find terrifying. He reaches out blindly with his broken fingers, touches leather, smells his own blood and sweat, and manages to open his eyes long enough to see golden ones looking back at him, white hair, a scowl. Geralt, who didn’t come.

“I didn’t believe it,” Jaskier manages to say, “about life passing before your eyes, but I guess I was wrong.”

Geralt’s scowl deepens. “Jaskier—”

“Don’t listen to me,” Jaskier says, “I’m dead.” The world seems to be staying in one place but it’s getting really dark and it seems easier not to be in it anymore. He lets go.

 

It’s one of the hardest waits in Geralt’s life, the time on the hill outside Kerack. They’d moved Roach and their belongings a couple of miles off, to allow them a faster exit; they would need to portal at least twice in case they were being tracked, the first to collect their things, the second to take them out of the country. Back at their original campsite, Yennefer positioned him under the tall oak at the crest, hissed “do not move,” and left in a gust of purple magic, leaving him to endure it.

Ciri’s sitting on the ground not far away, plucking blades of grass and discarding them over and over. Geralt feels like he should say something reassuring but he’s all out of the few words he has hoarded. Instead he faced the east, waits for the sunrise.

When the sun hits the hill and nothing happens, his slow heart stills further. He thinks: it’s gone wrong. But before the panic has time to set in he feels the edge of magic and the portal opens above his head, and Jaskier falls through it. He lands in Geralt’s arm like a dead weight – don’t think it – and Geralt has barely enough time to reassure himself that he’s living (breath, blood, sweat, heartbeat) before Yennefer bursts through a second portal to the side. He holds Jaskier one handed, sweeps the sword to cut the rope hanging above in mid-air. He can hear the yells of the crowd coming through before Yennefer shuts the circles down, and then everything is confusion as they jump, and jump again, Ciri leading a reluctant Roach.

Jaskier doesn’t move, doesn’t speak.

They land after the second shift, and Geralt lies him down, carefully. Now he’s paying attention he can feel the heat coming off his body, smell raw flesh and pain. He strokes Jaskier’s hair away from his forehead and pulls apart the steel around his (broken) hands. Jaskier reaches for him, mutters something about life, and death, and then passes out.

The world comes back in flashes, slowly: Yennefer and Ciri kneeling by his side, the sound of Jaskier breathing. “His fingers,” Geralt says, and Yennefer sighs.

“I’m depleted; I don’t know how much I can fix.”

“His fingers, Yenn. Please.” He tries to imagine Jaskier without music, without the nimble plucking and strumming of lute strings.

She sighs, and holds her own hands above the bard’s. Geralt can feel the effort she’s making, dragged from the earth around her. The grass withers in a perfect circle as Jaskier’s hands heal.

“That’s all,” she says, tipping into him slightly. “Maybe later I can do more.”

“Yenn,” he says. “Thank you.” He reaches one hand to rest on Jaskier’s face, still tense in sleep, and moves his other arm to circle Ciri. “See, child? It’s well,”

“He’s so hurt,” Ciri says. He can hear the guilt in her voice.

“He’ll be fine,” Geralt promises. “We need a fire, hot water, something to clean him up a bit. Could you…?”

Ciri rolls her eyes at him; and he supposes it’s transparent, his desire to have her elsewhere while he starts to investigate the damage. But she carries too many burdens for him to add this one too.

Jaskier’s wearing clothes that surely aren’t his, and Geralt can’t imagine he’ll want to see them again, so he takes no care in getting rid of them. There’s a bruise forming above Jaskier’s ribs, and his flesh is cold to the touch, but the main damage, now Yenn has fixed his fingers, is on his back: lines of broken flesh, surrounded by bruises, some deep enough for stitches.

Geralt waits till Ciri returns with water, heats it with igni while she sees to the fire, and starts to clean out the wounds. Yenn draws Ciri away when he brings out the needle; he can hear them a little way off, talking about which of Yenn’s many stolen properties they should go to, which Jaskier might like best.

He’s almost finished when Jaskier finally stirs. Geralt holds his hand, and Jaskier squeezes it back before his eyes fly open, and he surges up. “Geralt,” he says, voice hoarse.

“We’ve got you,” Geralt says. If he were another man, perhaps he could say something better. But he isn’t. And Jaskier has never seemed to want him different, after all.

Jaskier lifts his hands to look at his fingers, something like wonder on his face, before he gasps, almost in tears. “I’m dreaming,” he says.

“I’m an excellent mage!” Yennefer calls, crossly.

The smile on Jaskier’s face rivals the sun. “You’re an excellent mage,” he calls back, softly, and then he falls forward into Geralt’s arms and shakes so hard Geralt can barely hold him.

 

Ciri told Yennefer to take them to her nicest house, with the biggest garden, and Yennefer did. It’s not a grand mansion, it’s a small cottage with two bedrooms upstairs and a large open space downstairs, a lean-to on one side where the workshop is. Outside there’s a rolling lawn bordered by flowerbeds that always seem to be blooming. On the second day, Geralt set up a target to practise archery.

Jaskier mostly stays in the room upstairs. He sleeps a lot. Geralt and Yennefer don’t seem worried. Geralt says it’s tiring, being scared; Yennefer says it’s tiring, being hurt. As ever, Yennefer is more honest, and Geralt more kind. Ciri likes both ways.

On the third day, she gathers tulips and roses and snowdrops and daffodils, arranges them in a jug and takes them upstairs.

Jaskier’s dozing, but he rouses when she enters, though she was trying not to wake him. He smiles at the flowers, smiles wider at her. “Princess!” he says, and slowly moves so he’s sitting. “What’s this offering in aid of?”

“I’m so sorry!” she blurts out, and Jaskier frowns at her, reaches his hand out to pull her to the bed. She huddles next to him. “You got hurt, looking for me. This wouldn’t have happened, if I hadn’t been so stupid.”

“Ah, well,” Jaskier says. “I’ve been stupid many times. It usually turns out all right. You couldn’t have known this would be one of the times where it didn’t.”

“I thought you’d tell me it’s not my fault,” Ciri whispers. “Geralt keeps saying it’s not my fault.”

Jaskier sighs. “And do you believe him?”

“...no. Not really.”

“Well, it’s not your fault,” Jaskier says. “It’s only the fault of the people hunting you, and the people who hurt me. But if you want to know the truth, there’s lots of things people do that make things happen, and there are definitely things we could have done differently.”

“We?” Ciri asks. Jaskier doesn’t pretend to wisdom, much, but she knows he’s taught before and this is probably his teacher voice, careful and considered.

“Yes, we,” Jaskier says. He glances at the door, and shouts, “Geralt, stop lurking!”

There’s a pause, and then Geralt comes in, followed by Yenn. He leans against the wall, and Yenn sits on the edge of the bed. Jaskier says, “Now we’re all here, I’ll recommence the lecture. Ciri, sweetheart, you could have been clear with us just how much you wanted to see the city, and we could have talked about it without you running off and tried to find a way to make it happen. I could have told you all that I was trying to avoid the city because I didn’t want to be anywhere near my appalling cousin. Any of us could have asked either of us what was wrong. Here endeth the lesson.”

Ciri says, “I’ll remember, next time,” and Jaskier pats her head and says, “then that’s all the apology I need, cub. I’ll remember too.”

“I was flawless as ever,” Yenn says airily, and Jaskier makes a rude gesture at her. Ciri laughs.

“I understand why you didn’t want to say where you’re from now,” she says. Jaskier’s hand stills in her hair, briefly, before he starts stroking it again. She glances up; his face has gone blank again. “You can be from Cintra instead if you want.”

It works. Jaskier blinks, and smiles at her. “Can I?”

“Well I’m Queen now,” Ciri says, swallowing down the sadness that comes when she thinks of her grandmother, “so I can grant you citizenship of my country if I like.”

“I’m honoured, your highness,” Jaskier says, solemnly.

Geralt clears his throat. “I’m not actually from Rivia,” he says. They all stare at him. He shrugs. “What? I had to pick somewhere. It sounded decent.”

“Vengerburg,” Yennefer says, examining her nails, “is a complete shithole.”

“Fine,” Ciri says, rolling her eyes at the ridiculous adults she seems to have got landed with. “You can all be Cintrans too.”

Jaskier winks at her. He looks delighted. She takes his hand, and winks back.

 

When Geralt joins him again later, Jaskier can tell there’s something he’s not saying. It’s in the slow way he undresses, the way he’s not quite looking over at the bed.

“Come on,” Jaskier says eventually. “I gave this whole speech about honesty, earlier, weren’t you listening?”

Geralt smiles: a slight lift at the edges of his mouth, a crinkle round his eyes. You have to pay attention to see it, but it’s one of Jaskier’s favourite things. He lies down on the bed, and Jaskier shifts to sprawl half on top of him, his head on Geralt’s shoulder, his arm across his chest.

When Geralt speaks, Jaskier can feel it all along his body.

“Yennefer says the royal instigator of Kerack died in an unfortunate hunting accident today,” he says, and Jaskier goes still. In his head, he’s picturing those eyes: gleaming, inhuman; remembering the slow relentless sensation of his hands being crushed between iron.

He comes back to himself with Geralt repeating his name, carefully, the pressure of Geralt’s fingers around his a warm weight to banish the memory. He clears his throat. “Kerack, Nilfgaard or Yennefer?” he asks, and feels Geralt shrug. It doesn’t really matter, he supposes.

“So, you’re a viscount,” Geralt says after a while, and Jaskier laughs a kind of choked off giggle.

“Not really,” he says. “Not anymore.”

“You never told me,” Geralt says. “And I imagine there’s a reason for that. But if you wanted to speak of it…”

Jaskier closes his eyes and thinks of empty rooms and long silences and disappointed faces. “Once upon a time,” he says, “there was a noble boy who didn’t much like doing what he was told, with a family that didn’t much like him. They tried words, and warnings, and when that didn’t work they tried locked rooms and canes, and when that didn’t work they took all his instruments and his notes and made them a bonfire. And then the boy ran away and swore never to return.” He’s not sure how much more he can say, how much more he can share. Not at the moment, not when he was so close to dying over something he’s never wanted, would give away if he could. “I’m not that person anymore. I haven’t been him for decades, and I don’t miss him.”

 

Geralt is certain there’s more to the story than that, but there’s time for Jaskier to tell him, when he wants. “I’m glad he lived,” he says, instead of pressing it further. “I wouldn’t have you, if he hadn’t existed.” He pulls Jaskier a little nearer, where he’s nestled into his side.

Jaskier is quiet for a moment. “I didn’t like the life I was born to, and I chose something different,” he says. “I’m aware that’s a luxury not everyone has.”

Geralt strokes his back, lightly, conscious of the still-healing marks that mar his skin. They’ll scar, Yenn said, but not too badly. His hands are unscathed, but Geralt catches him looking at them, occasionally. He knows they’re both remembering crushed bone and swollen flesh.

Jaskier hasn’t talked about it, yet, but he shakes in his sleep at night sometimes, only ceasing when Geralt wraps him more tightly in the blankets and holds him close. Most of the scars on Jaskier’s body are Geralt’s fault. He reckons these are mostly, too, but he’s not sure Jaskier would see it like that.

Staying in the cottage while Jaskier heals is oddly like a holiday. The sun shines, and Ciri runs about the garden like the kid she never had a chance to be, and he and Yenn talk, quietly, and Jaskier rests. It’s rare, these days, that they have the chance to lie together, indulge in time with no purpose other than to be. The world is waiting for them. Geralt can feel it, some days, their Destiny drawing near. He says, “I didn’t choose my Path. And though I’d never wish it different, both Ciri and Yenn came to me through fate and magic in different ways. All my life, I’ve followed the road that was laid out for me.”

Jaskier nods, reaches an arm over Geralt’s chest to hold his hand. Geralt feels him wince, slightly, at the pull on his back, and turns to drop a kiss into his hair.

“You are the only thing I’ve ever chosen,” Geralt tells him. “The only choice I’ve ever got to make. The only reason I wouldn’t come for you is if I was already dead.”

Jaskier’s grip tightens on his hand. He says, “you do know how to comfort a man,” but the way he presses his face into Geralt’s neck tells a different story. And after a moment’s silence, he says, “good, then. That’s good.”

And Geralt holds him in the hazy afternoon sunlight and allows himself, just for now, to feel at peace.