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Darling, you have just begun

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The players have built Jaskier a throne.

It’s their final night with the acting troupe (The Squabbling Ducks).  Tomorrow they’ll arrive at Ard Carraigh and split off, heading further north, up into the mountains.  Towards Kaer Morhen.  Towards home. 

Geralt is more than ready to be surrounded by the safe, familiar walls of the keep.  Though he would be lying if he said he wasn’t the slightest bit anxious about what his brothers will think of his River god and their Child Surprise.  When he had thought Jaskier was human, it was Vesemir’s opinion that he feared most of all.  But one of Vesemir’s greatest joys is adding new knowledge to the vast collection of witcher lore housed at Kaer Morhen.

Ever since his old mentor had worked out the name of Geralt’s Orisa, he’s been not so subtly hinting that Geralt should bring Jaskier to with him one winter.  Vesemir will be positively ecstatic to have Jaskier as his guest.  The bard will be lucky if the old witcher doesn’t just lock himself and Jaskier in a room together until he’s extracted all the knowledge in Jaskier’s head. 

His foster brothers are another issue entirely.  He’s fairly certain they don’t know anything about River gods, and if Jaskier doesn’t out himself, then Vesemir certainly will.  He doesn’t think his brothers will automatically think Jaskier is a monster, just because he’s not human.  But all witchers develop an inbuilt wariness of the ‘other’ on the Path.  They won’t simply welcome Jaskier into their home with open arms; Geralt doesn’t know how Jaskier, who expects to be  welcomed and fussed over wherever he goes, will cope with that.

There is also the teeny, tiny, insignificant detail of Ciri, and how he has completely failed to inform any of his fellow witchers how he acquired a Child Surprise almost thirteen years ago.  Though they’ll probably find that easier to accept than the River god thing.

Those are issues that will have to be dealt with at some point, but not tonight.  Not when the Ducks have decided a party is in order so they can send their new companions off north with cheer in their hearts and beer in their bellies. 

Not Ciri’s though.  Geralt’s keeping an eye on her and has already foiled three of her attempts to steal someone’s mug.  She pouts insolently up at him and tries to wheedle that Jaskier would let her have a small one.  Geralt replies that it is unfortunate for her that he isn’t Jaskier.  The bard is too busy, going round the actors and stagehands to thank them personally for all their help, to authorise any illicit alcohol consumption.

How this has developed into the actors setting up the big chair they use for a throne in their shows and pushing Jaskier down onto it, Geralt does not know.  But it doesn’t seem to be harming anyone and Jaskier is sitting there with a healthy flush on his cheeks that has been missing over the past few weeks.  The stress of their travels and protecting Ciri has worn him down.  Geralt doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that they’ve been almost within running distance of a river for most of their journey.

He strongly suspects Jaskier has been ready to bolt into the water with Ciri at the first sign of trouble.  Geralt can’t say he blames him.  He’s had one hand ready to pull out his sword ever since they left Lettenhove.  Luckily, Ciri has mostly remained oblivious to the anxiety of her two guardians, completely entranced with the mechanics involved in transporting a performing troupe from town to town.  The actors all call her their lucky charm, and it’s become a tradition for them to wrap an arm around Ciri for a quick hug before going on stage.

If possible, Geralt thinks the princess would be content to forget all about her royal past and spend her life performing and travelling with a group such as this.  She already knows most of the lines of the company’s current show, ‘A Midwinter’s Daydream’.

Confiscating yet another mug of ale from Ciri, he leaves her in the care of Melissa, who plays the Queen of the Gnomes, and makes his way over to Jaskier.

The bard beams up at him from his chair.  He’s not drunk; Geralt would smell it on him if he were, but there’s a giddiness in his eyes that makes him appear so.

“My Wolf!” he cries and grabs Geralt around the neck, hauling him down to bestow kisses on his face.  The witcher can’t help but bask in the easy affection he’s now allowed to enjoy.  He doesn’t resist the urge to press his own kiss to Jaskier’s willing lips before straightening again.  Around the throne, the actors dance, laugh and sing.  From here Geralt can feel a seductive undercurrent of raw power flowing from them towards Jaskier. It makes his medallion tremble against his skin and Jaskier slump almost bonelessly in his chair.

“How much of this is your doing?” he murmurs to Jaskier.

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jaskier stiffen slightly in his seat.  Geralt had once accused him of carelessly manipulating everyone around him, and it seems that the accusation has remained with Jaskier.  Geralt reaches out a hand to squeeze his River god’s shoulder, hoping Jaskier will accept that he’s just asking, not judging.  Jaskier relaxes somewhat.

“The party was all their idea; I just loosened up too much after the first drink.  I accidentally let the human mask slip a bit and the godliness peek through,” the River god admits.  “I didn’t realise how draining this journey had been.”

“So, they get drunk and celebrate around you, and you just… feed off the energy they let out?”  Geralt is genuinely curious.  Now that he’s got over his irrational fear of Jaskier manipulating him, he finds he wants to know more about what makes the River gods tick.

Jaskier hums thoughtfully.  “I guess so.  Celebration is just a form of worship.  It helps that they all have a genuine affection for me.  I don’t think this would have happened if they hadn’t.”

It might be the influence of the revelers around him, but an unusual playfulness comes over Geralt.

“Are there any other forms of worship you’d enjoy?”

He can hear Jaskier’s breath hitch and his heart speed up.  The red flush on his cheeks begins to travel, creeping slowly down his neck and disappearing under the hair at the top of his chest.  They’ve been taking things slow.  Rebuilding the trust that was shattered between them. 

Also, Geralt feels that with the amount of build-up it took to get this relationship off the ground, the first time they fuck should be more than a quick, quiet fumble in the dark, surrounded on all sides by performers and Ciri.  But everyone seems very preoccupied at the moment and there are enough rugs and furs in the props cart to create a semi-private, comfortable nest.

Jaskier chews his lip thoughtfully, eyes on Ciri.

“Quite a few, but perhaps we could explore them better at Kaer Morhen,” he says with obvious regret. 

Geralt is disappointed, but he understands.  He can’t begrudge the princess for being Jaskier’s first priority.  Especially not now he’s got to know the girl.  He realises now that he’d willingly throw himself in front of a sword to protect her.

It’s the way she sings, slightly off-key, along with Jaskier.  How she enthusiastically throws herself into caring for Roach and the other horses.  Roach is her favourite, which shows she has good taste, and the mare allows Ciri to brush her mane until it’s silky smooth and gleaming.  She’s realised she knows little of how the common world works, and with a determined look in her eye, has set out to rectify her ignorance.  It’s also the way she curls into Jaskier’s chest when she sleeps between them at night, Buttercup the horse clutched tightly in one hand.  Geralt will wake in the night to the sight of Buttercup smooshed against Jaskier’s face as Ciri’s limbs move in her sleep.  The bard seems to have learnt how to sleep through it.

That’s not to say she doesn’t have her moments.  She had taken great exception to Geralt’s obsessive lurking during their first week on the road.  Geralt had been feeling uneasy, too close still to Nilfgaard, and hadn’t wanted to let Ciri out of his sight.  She’d snapped quiet admonishments at him, and he had growled back reminders of the threats she currently faced.  Jaskier had smoothed things over.  Ciri was not to be alone, but as long as she obeyed this rule, she could choose her escort.  Having made friends with everyone in the troupe, Ciri was happy to agree to this stipulation.

Geralt had tried to compliment Jaskier on his handling of the situation, but Jaskier had just looked at him warily. 

“I’ve had to learn a few tricks since she came to live with me.”

Geralt decides to perch on the armrest of the throne and draws one of Jaskier’s hands between his own.  He doesn’t think he’ll ever get over the simple joy of holding Jaskier’s hand.  He likes to run his fingers along Jaskier’s slender ones and trace the lines on his palms.  He enjoys pressing kisses all over his bard’s hands, cataloguing the different skin texture (the back is soft as silk, but the calluses on Jaskier’s palms catch enticingly on Geralt’s lips).  Jaskier is turning him into a complete sap. 

He doesn’t care.

In the back of his mind there is a long forgotten song playing.  It’s old, and he can’t remember most of the words, but he’s found himself almost humming it recently.  He thinks his mother used to sing it to him.

 

‘Down by the river, among the rushes and reeds,

Sings a Kingfisher, with a song just for me.

With his handsome blue coat and his bright orange vest,

He promises sunshine, good cheer and long rest.’

 

* * *

Jaskier had known, logically, that a hidden witcher fortress was likely to be hard to find.  Experiencing this is another thing entirely.  If it weren’t for Ciri, he’d have headed straight into the Gwenllech and told Geralt he’d meet him where the keep was nearest the river.  Unfortunately, Ciri lacks the ability to become as one with the rushing water and can’t travel this way.  Jaskier has wondered, while huffing up yet another steep incline, whether this is something she could learn, or if it is a mode of transport unique to River gods. 

Geralt has proven himself to be remarkably patient with his travel companions,  but Jaskier can see how alarmed he is by their slow pace.  Winter is really beginning to set in, and it’s bitterly cold.  They now sleep with Jaskier wrapped around Ciri and Geralt behind him, enveloping them both.  Even with the fire and all the blankets and cloaks piled on top of them, it takes a while for Ciri to stop shivering enough to fall asleep.  The sooner they can get her to the shelter of Kaer Morhen the better.

Ciri stops to catch her breath by a giant boulder.  She takes one look at the jagged, broken path ahead and bursts into tears.

“Hey, hey,” Jaskier puts on a burst of speed so he can catch up, wrapping her securely in his arms.  “It’s alright, not long now.”  He doesn’t know if this is true, but he can’t think of any other comforting thing to say. 

“I can’t,” she gasps.  “I can’t Papa.”  His heart leaps at the name.  Ciri has called him such in the past, when they were in Lettenhove, but that was always when they were out in public and trying to avoid suspicion.  This is different; there’s no one else around to fool.  There’s just an emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted young girl who should not have to traverse this impossible path in fear for her life.

He can feel elated some other time. 

“Just take a moment Ciri.  Catch your breath. You’ll feel better once you’ve caught your breath and had some water.”  He brushes the tears from her cheeks, worried about them freezing on her skin.

He looks up ahead to try and get Geralt’s attention.  The witcher has been leading Roach, the poor horse laden down with all their supplies, including the waterskins.

Geralt has already started making his way carefully back to them, waterskin in hand.  Roach stands still, further up the path.  Geralt rubs Ciri’s back sympathetically as she shakily gulps down some water, tears still running down her cheeks. 

He passes the waterskin to Jaskier once Ciri hands it back to him.  “Come on,” he kneels before her.  “Hop on for a little bit.  Jaskier, you’ll have to lead Roach.”

Ciri doesn’t protest that she can manage, which shows just how exhausted she is.  She clambers awkwardly onto Geralt’s back and wraps her arms securely around him, burying her face in the top of his shoulder.  Geralt takes a moment to make sure he has a good grip on her legs and then hauls himself up, Ciri stuck like a limpet to his back.

The sight does something warm to Jaskier’s heart.  He presses kisses to Ciri’s head and Geralt’s cheek as he passes them, stumbling ahead to grasp hold of Roach.

Geralt doesn’t put Ciri down for the rest of the day.  He and Jaskier exchange looks as the sun begins to descend, and silently agree to keep going as long as they can.

It’s as the pink in the sky begins to fade away completely to a soft indigo that they round a corner and finally catch sight of  Kaer Morhen.  The keep is just a dark intimidating shape in the approaching darkness, but Jaskier can make out some towers rising high above the rest.

He nudges Ciri’s knee with an elbow.  “Look,” he encourages.  “We’re almost there.”

She barely raises her head for a glance, eyes heavy with exhaustion and still slightly wet.  She tucks her head back into the crook of Geralt’s neck and lets out a shuddering breath.  Geralt squeezes her legs in reassurance and starts walking again.

It still takes them well over an hour to get to the heavy portcullis that marks the entrance to the keep.  All natural light is completely gone, heavy clouds blocking out the starlight, and Jaskier has to hold up a torch to light the last couple of rocky miles to their destination.

The portcullis is raised and the heavy wooden doors behind it are propped open. It seems they’ve been expected, because a side door just inside the archway opens and a tall, broad shouldered man steps through.

“Greetings Wolf,” the man welcomes Geralt formally.  Geralt nods back.

“Greetings Eskel.”

So, this is Eskel.  Geralt’s favourite ‘brother’.  Jaskier strains to make out more of him in the torchlight and tries not to recoil when he catches a glimpse of the truly horrifying scars that mar almost half the witcher’s face.  Eskel looks lucky to still have two working eyes.

“Who have you brought?” Eskel asks, casting a curious look at Jaskier and Ciri.

Jaskier gives a bow with fewer flourishes than is usual for him when at a noble’s court, but much more genuine.

“I am Jaskier, bard and long-suffering companion.”

Eskel’s lips twitch upwards slightly in a smile, distorting the scarred side of his face even more.  “I think I’ve heard Geralt mention you occasionally…  Or a lot, is probably more accurate.”

Geralt lets out a displeased grunt but does not deny the accusation.  “This is Ciri.”  He hikes the slipping girl more firmly onto his back.  “She’s… ours.”  He looks so defiant and so vulnerable as he states this, that Jaskier just wants to wrap him up in soft furs and feed him cakes by a warm fire.  Mama knows just how much he loves his witcher.

The slight hitch in Eskel’s eyebrow is the only sign he gives that he is surprised.

Ciri pokes her head up at the sound of her name and lets out a small squeak of surprise at the sight of the second witcher, but bravely keeps her head up and tries for a timid smile. 

“Come on,” Eskel ushers them further inside the keep, pulling a lever to lower the portcullis behind them.  Jaskier’s tight shoulders sink a fraction at this.  They are finally somewhere safe.  There is no way Nilfgaard can easily find them here, even with a mage.  “I’ll see to Roach; you go and introduce your companions to the others.”

“Who else is here this year?” Geralt enquires as Jaskier hands Roach’s reins to Eskel. 

“Vesemir, of course, and Lambert as well.  He’s brought Coën with him, from the Griffin School.”

These seem to be familiar names to Geralt because he just nods and leads the way through the outer courtyard and towards the main building.  Ciri is fighting a losing battle with consciousness and slumps further against him, eyes fluttering shut.  Jaskier hovers next to them, ready to grab her if she starts to slip.

The keep is draughty, even when they get inside, but Geralt navigates confidently through a maze of corridors and into what must be the dining room.  Jaskier almost lets out a completely indecent moan as a blast of heat hits him when they step through the door.  It’s been hours since he last felt the tips of his fingers.

Three burly men stand up from where they’d been sitting around a game of cards.  The oldest one, with thick grey hair and moustache, must be Vesemir.

“You made it at last.”  Vesemir comes striding over to clap Geralt on the shoulder, stopping himself when he catches sight of Ciri’s sleeping form. 

“Vesemir,” Geralt greets him tiredly, then nods to the other two men in turn.  “Lambert.  Coën.  It’s good to see you again.  I’ve brought guests this year.  This is Jaskier.”  It may be the bard’s imagination, but he thinks he sees a hastily suppressed look of glee in Vesemir’s eyes.  “And this is Princess Cirilla of Cintra.  My Child Surprise.”  All three men stare in complete bafflement at the sleeping girl.  It would be comical if there weren’t a protective worry worming its way around inside Jaskier’s chest.  He wants to step in front of Geralt and hide Ciri from their curious gazes.

“I think that will have to be a story for tomorrow,” Vesemir announces carefully, taking in the fatigue on Jaskier and Geralt’s faces.  “We’ve readied your room Geralt, but we didn’t know you were bringing guests.  We can sort out rooms for them tomorrow as well.  They’ll have to sleep in yours tonight.”

“We just need a room for Ciri,” Geralt tells him, strong jaw raised in defiance.

Vesemir just snorts.  “Took you long enough, boy.  Get off with you.  The bard looks ready to collapse right here.”

It’s not an inaccurate assessment and Jaskier gives them all a nod before following Geralt back out into the draughty corridor, not paying the slightest attention to the route they’re taking.  He can figure out geography tomorrow when his brain is functioning again.  All he currently cares about is the large bed that is revealed when Geralt pushes open the door to his room.  Some kindly soul has lit a fire and the room is deliciously warm. 

They work together to quickly and silently unwrap Ciri from her cloak and remove her boots and the three extra layers they had bundled her into that morning.  They slip her gently under the covers before divesting themselves of their own outer layers and boots. 

Jaskier slides in next to Ciri and Geralt instantly plasters himself to the bard’s side, breathing in a lungful of Jaskier and sinking down next to him, warm and content.

Jaskier’s eyes are already sliding shut, and he can feel the irresistible call of sleep carrying him away.

“We made it,” he murmurs, barely staying conscious long enough to hear Geralt’s quiet reply.

“Of course, we did, little Kingfisher.”

Huh.  That one’s new.  Jaskier makes a mental note to tease Geralt about it in the morning.

Chapter Text

Jaskier is surprised to be the first to wake.  Geralt, the ridiculous mutant, seems to be able to survive on very little sleep and is usually the one to shake the bard awake in the mornings.  But, Jaskier reasons, Geralt’s been under a lot of stress recently and deserves a lie in.  The sun hasn’t even risen yet.

He wishes he could just curl up in this ridiculously comfy bed, safely ensconced with his daughter and his witcher, but there is an uncomfortable nagging sensation in the back of his mind.  It refuses to let up, to wait until a more reasonable hour.

Very carefully, he extracts himself from the warmth, pressing soft kisses to the tousled, sleeping heads.  Quickly slipping on some warm clothes, he ventures out into the hallway.  It takes him a good twenty minutes to make it back to the dining room.  The keep is a veritable maze!

“Where’s Geralt?” a gruff voice speaks up behind him, causing him to jump and spin round.  It is the scarred witcher from the entrance the night before.  Eskel.  Jaskier smiles his best winning smile at the witcher, but Eskel doesn’t seem taken in by it.

“Still sleeping.  Just thought I’d go for an early morning stroll.  My sister is convinced they’re good for you.”

“It’s dangerous to wander outside the keep.  There are monsters in these mountains, and they get desperate in winter.  They stray much closer to the walls than they’d normally dare.”

“Thank you for the warning.  I’ll be careful,” Jaskier promises.  Eskel does not look convinced, but another voice cuts across the room before he can try and dissuade the bard.

“Ahh, Jaskier.  I’m glad you’re up.”  It’s the oldest witcher, Geralt’s mentor, Vesemir.  Geralt only has good things to say about him, but Jaskier’s treacherous brain keeps reminding him that this is the man who’d trained hundreds of young boys for the Trials.  One quiet night around their campfire, Geralt had admitted to him that usually only three in ten of the boys made it out of the Trials alive.

He’d once shared the horrific statistics with Ina, trying to understand how Geralt could love this man.

“You said he was a swords master.  If he hadn’t taught them properly, then far fewer than thirty percent would have made it.  It may sound horrific to you, but from your witcher’s point of view, Vesemir is the man who taught him enough to give him a chance of survival.”

This is why he needs to stop sharing things with Ina.  She always tries to inject sense and reason into a conversation.  It’s no fun being dramatic with someone who insists on pointing out the logic of a situation.  He should have gone to Etta.

He pushes down his misgivings and gives Vesemir another of his smiles.  He’s going to be spending all winter here; best to try and keep things friendly.  

“The bard wants to go for a walk,” Eskel interjects disbelievingly. 

“What a splendid idea,” Vesemir shocks them with his easy agreement.  “I’ll go with you.”

“You said we needed to start repairing the east wall today,” Eskel reminds him, crossing his arms suspiciously and frowning at Jaskier .  Why is he being given such a look?  “You said it would take us all day and you wanted an early start.”

“Hmm…” Vesemir seems reluctant to go about his original plan.  His eyes are fixed almost greedily on Jaskier.  It’s rather unsettling. 

“Well, in that case, I’m sure I can manage without an escort.  If I could just grab a piece of bread or something for breakfast, then that would be much appreciated.”  The nagging feeling in his head is getting stronger and he knows it won’t leave him alone until he’s fulfilled his obligation.

He ducks round both witchers, snatches a bread roll from the basket on the table and waves cheerfully as he sets off.  His first obstacle is the portcullis.  He has no idea how to raise it.  He pokes at it ineffectually until a dark haired witcher spots him and comes over.

“It’s built to stop people from coming and going, y’know,” he drawls, arms crossed over his chest in an unimpressed manner.  “It’s kind of the point of the whole thing.”

“Ahh,” Jaskier remarks, regarding the witcher warily.  Apart from Vesemir, he’s sensing a bit of hostility coming from these new witchers and he’s not really sure what he’s done to deserve it.  Apart from crazy mages, most people think he’s an absolute delight on first introduction.  “I was hoping to walk down by the river.” 

At a pinch, he could dive into the well within the keep and follow the groundwater until he is able to emerge in the stream, but that would take a huge amount of effort.  He’s only ever done it once before, and that time he’d had Mama to guide him.  He’d been violently sick when he’d regained corporeal form.  Working his way slowly through cracks in the rock beneath the earth’s surface is complicated and exhausting!  There’s a very good chance he might put himself back together wrong when he emerged, or become lost forever in the cracks.

“Best follow me then.”  The witcher strides off and Jaskier has to run to catch up.

“Sorry,” he huffs.  “I don’t think we were properly introduced last night.  I’m Jaskier.”

“Lambert.”

Geralt has previously described Lambert as his much ‘pricklier’ brother.  Nevertheless, Jaskier manages to put on a genuine grin.  “Pleased to meet you.”

No acknowledgement.  He’s in a place where his usual godly charms have absolutely no effect.  Neither, it appears, do his personal ones.  When he had first met Geralt, this had been exhilarating.  Now, surrounded and outnumbered, he’s starting to feel a creeping sense of anxiety.  He forces himself to wrestle down the urge to let a bit more power seep through.  To try and encourage the witcher to accept his friendship.  He doesn’t think Lambert would take it well. 

He doesn’t like this.  Only one other person has ever succeeded in making him feel such unease, and she still haunts his nightmares.

Lambert leads him to an outer wall with a rather large hole in it.  This must be the wall Vesemir is planning to repair.  Lambert gestures Jaskier through, but does not cross himself.

“Are you really a River god?” he asks.  He’s looking Jaskier up and down, and he seems distinctly underwhelmed.  At this moment, Jaskier isn’t surprised.  He feels wrong-footed and out of his depth.  He wishes Geralt was here. 

“Yes,” he manages with as much confidence as he can muster.

“Huh,” Lambert continues to eye him like he’s a mutated kind of drowner.  “Thought you’d be more fucking impressive.”

Rude!

Lambert stalks off before Jaskier can come up with a retort.  It’s ever so tempting to collect the freezing water from the puddles on the ground and pelt it at Lambert’s head, but he grinds his teeth mulishly together and resists.  No hurting Geralt’s brothers; that would be bad.

The ‘path’ down to the river is steep, overgrown and deceptively slippery.  Jaskier is not looking forward to having to climb back up.  But he does make it to the river unharmed and without being attacked by any monsters.

He’s just begun to toe off his boots, teeth already chattering at the thought of exposing more skin to the frigid air, when he hears a suspicious rustle behind him.  It sounds very much like a heavy boot stepping on a twig.  One of the witchers has followed him.

He glances around, but he knows there isn’t much hope of spotting a witcher if he’s determined not to be seen.  He had once jokingly convinced Geralt to play hide and seek with him and had spent a frustrating couple of hours combing the woods in circles before being forced to concede defeat.  The witcher had then calmly emerged from behind a tree only six feet from where Jaskier had been sitting.  Geralt had mocked him about it for months!

Well, he grimaces, Lambert knows what he is, so it’s almost certain the others do too.  He hopes they appreciate the show.  He strips off the rest of his clothes, shivering uncontrollably, and dives into the Gwenllech. 

It’s such a relief to be submerged in the water.  The limb numbing cold dissipates as his body automatically adapts to the river.

‘I’m here,’ he calls out with his mind.  The nagging sensation that has been bothering him dims, and in its place he feels directions filtering gently into his brain.  He sets off upstream, powering through the water at a pace no witcher has a hope of matching.  Whoever has followed him had better not try to steal his clothes in revenge.

* * *

The dawn light peeking tentatively in through the window is Geralt’s first clue that he’s overslept.  The second is Ciri’s nervous shaking of his arm.

“Jaskier’s gone,” she informs him anxiously.  She’s sitting up in bed, hair tousled and eyes wide.  Her blonde roots contrast strikingly with the rest of her brown hair.  He and Jaskier haven’t kept up the hair dye since they parted from ‘The Squabbling Ducks’ but they’ll need to sort out something soon, or Ciri’s going to look very strange.

Sure enough, there is an empty space between them where Jaskier should be and Geralt feels a stab of panic.  Of all the times for Jaskier to be the first to wake!  Geralt had been relying on being the first one up, as usual.  He’d been hoping to snatch a few quiet moments with his brothers and Vesemir to explain some things.  Well, nothing for it.  He’ll need to go and see what mischief his River god has managed to get up to without his supervision.

Ciri’s stomach growls loudly and his own rumbles back in response.  They exchange sheepish smiles and he quickly tugs on his boots and a warmer outer layer before leaving the room to let her dress properly.  He waits for her patiently outside the door and when she emerges, she grabs his arm, huddling close to him.  It leaves a ridiculously warm feeling in his heart that she now trusts him enough to look to him for comfort.

Lambert, Eskel and Coën are in the dining hall, spooning porridge into bowls.

“Fucking finally!” Lambert crows when he spots them.  “Though you were going to sleep all day, you lazy bastard.”

Geralt bares his teeth at him, but without any attempt to intimidate.  This is just how Lambert interacts with anyone he vaguely likes.  Coën kicks Geralt’s brother under the table, eyes fixed on a nervous Ciri.

“There’s a girl present, you swine.”

Of all the witchers Lambert could have invited to overwinter at Kaer Morhen, Geralt’s glad it’s Coën.  He’s come across the bearded witcher on the Path several times before, and they’ve even completed the odd job together.  He’s a very decent sort and Geralt’s seen his soft spot for children in person.  Of all the witchers here, he’s the one most likely to put Ciri at ease.

“You must both be starving,” Eskel intervenes before Lambert can retaliate.  “Have some breakfast.”

Ciri obediently shuffles forward with Geralt, but seats herself on the side of him that puts him between her and the other witchers.  He can’t help but approve.  It’s good that she’s wary of strangers.

“So, Vesemir says you’re fucking a god.”

Both Eskel and Coën kick Lambert this time, as Ciri chokes on her first mouthful of porridge.  Geralt glares at him.  He knows he’s due an interrogation for dropping in here with two unannounced guests, but he’d foolishly thought even Lambert would have enough tact to wait until they could be alone.

“It’s Cirilla, right?” Coën smiles his least threatening smile.  It might be the smallpox scars that he tries to cover with a bushy black beard, but Coën has always managed to put ordinary humans more at ease than Geralt and his brothers.  Geralt suspects that the ugly proof of having suffered through such a human illness endears Coën more to them.  It’s like he’s a member of some sort of club.

“Ciri,” she mumbles, but tries for a polite smile.  Geralt keeps one thigh pressed against her own in a gesture of silent support.

“It’s really lovely to have you here Ciri.  Do you like books?”

She nods.

“Well, how about I show you the library after breakfast?  It’s got some books you won’t find anywhere else on the Continent!”

She darts a glance at Geralt, who nods encouragingly, and accepts Coën’s offer.

Geralt has the next ten minutes to prepare himself before Ciri finishes her porridge and is ushered out of  the room by the Griffin witcher.  Barely a second after the door closes, his two brothers round on him.

“What the fuck have you been up to?”

Why do they let Lambert speak?

* * *

She’s perched by the river at an entrance to a cave, wrapped in cosy looking white furs.  Jaskier elects to stay in the water where it can keep him warm, having no such protection from the cold himself. 

He’s never actually met his cousin before.  Mama’s brother, Uncle Buina, was a fairly frequent visitor in Jaskier’s youth, but he never brought any of his children with him.  Gwenllech is a solemn looking, albino woman with the palest blue eyes Jaskier has ever seen.  Well, that’s not entirely correct; his uncle has matching ones, but beside Gwen’s white hair and skin, they seem even paler.

“Jaskier, it’s nice to  meet you at last,” she gives him a small smile.  “Not many of our kind venture here apart from my father and siblings.  It’s lovely to know you’ll be spending the winter nearby.  Perhaps we could swim together sometimes?”

He dips his head deferentially.  “Thank you for letting me spend time on your territory.  It’s wonderful to finally meet you too!” 

She hums a reply and lapses into silence.  Jaskier fidgets.  He’s not good with silence.  He has a bad habit of filling it.

“So, do you often spend your winter here?  Or do you head downstream?  Your river meets the Buina at Yspaden, right?”

“I prefer it up here.  The city is so busy in the winter and I don’t really like crowds.  Plus, the witchers return here for winter, and I like to see which ones are left.  There used to be so many more of them.  It’s sad that there are so few left.”

It is.  It really is.  Jaskier doesn’t like thinking about just how many friends Geralt lost when Kaer Morhen was sacked by a bloodthirsty mob.  No wonder his brothers are so suspicious of unexpected visitors.

“Do you ever talk to them?”

“I used to,” she admits, slowly discarding her clothing and joining him in the water.  “But I got too attached to the young ones, and so few made it through the Trials.  It was easier to keep my distance.  Occasionally, someone would catch my eye, but not for a good few years.”

“It sounds lonely.”  Jaskier cannot imagine living such a life.  He loves being able to bound across the Continent in search of new places and adventure.  Even when compelled by Mama to stay by his own river, he’d taken advantage of Lettenhove’s busy streets and many entertainments.  Gwen seems more like his sister Vda, content to stick close to her own river and live a quiet life.

“I moved around a lot as a human.  My family were nomads, but when I became Gwenllech, I finally had a place to settle.  I loved my family, but it was something I’d always yearned for.  When I want company, I go down to Yspaden, and when I tire of the noise there, I  come back here.  The contrast makes the quiet of the mountains all the more beautiful.”

The view is stunning.  The rocky tree and snow-covered peaks tower above them, sweeping up to touch the clear blue sky.  From here, Jaskier can just make out Kaer Morhen, built into the side of a tall, jagged mountain.

“Father says you’re a wild one.  I think he enjoys hearing how much trouble you cause Aunty Yaruga.”

Jaskier shoots her an affronted look.  “I do not cause that much trouble!”

“Your brother visited me about eight years ago to warn me to watch out for a violet eyed sorceress.  He gave strict instructions on how she should be treated if she dared to try and step into my river.”

She eyes the scar on his shoulder, and it gives off a sharp stab of phantom pain.  She smiles apologetically at his grimace.  “I’m sorry, that was a bad example.  It was poorly done.”

He shrugs and tries to reassure her by his expression that he hasn’t taken offence.  He would really rather talk about anything else. 

“Did you ever hear about the elves I met in Posada?”

She graciously allows him to distract her from the topic of Yennefer.

“No, I don’t think I have.”

“Well, you’re in for a treat then.”  He settles himself more comfortably against the bank and spins out the slightly embellished tale of his and Geralt’s first meeting.  It is quite nice, he decides, to know that he has one of his own family up here while he’s visiting Geralt’s.  Puts him on a more even footing.

* * *

“Where’s Vesemir?” Geralt tries to delay the interrogation.  He’d much rather have to do this only once.

“He went off after that supposed ‘god’ you brought with you.  The idiot wanted to go for a walk by the river,” Lambert snorts derisively.

“I did try to talk him out of it, Geralt,” Eskel places a comforting hand on his arm, as though he thinks Geralt might be annoyed with them for not stopping Jaskier.  “I warned him about the monsters, but he was determined to go.”

“He’s fucking weird,” Lambert grumbles.  “What the hell is he?  All Vesemir would tell us last night was that he was an ‘Opisa’ or something.  I had to go look that up before bloody dawn.  Could only find one tiny fucking paragraph in one really old, dusty book that was shoved on a top shelf at the very back of the library.”

“How awful for you,” Eskel comments drily.  “And it was an ‘Orisa’, you moron.”

“What did you find out?” Geralt asks.  He’s slightly worried, remembering what his own initial research into River gods had uncovered.  It had turned out to be inaccurate and unflattering and he needs to disabuse his brothers of any false notions they’ve picked up as soon as possible.

“Not much.  Powerful nature spirit, blah blah, created using a human sacrifice, blah blah, enchants and ensnares, blah blah.”  Lambert’s tone is unconcerned and mocking, but his eyes are sharp.  Both he and Eskel are examining Geralt intently.

“They’re all people who drowned in their river,” Geralt corrects.  He still regrets his woefully inadequate response when he and Jaskier had visited the site of the god’s murder.  His ignorance at the time of Jaskier’s true nature does little to soothe the ache the memory has left behind.  “Jaskier’s not sure what singles them out to transform into Orisa, but there’s no slitting of throats and letting the river run red with blood, or any of that nonsense.  They , in effect, are the sacrifice.”

He doesn’t explain more.  If Jaskier wants to share his sad beginning, then that is his story to tell.

“He doesn’t come across as a powerful deity,” Eskel chimes in cautiously.  “Except for how he seems to have you and Vesemir wrapped around his little finger.”  He grabs Geralt’s face, looking deep into his eyes, searching for something.  “Are you sure he hasn’t bewitched you?

“No!  Don’t brush me off.”  Eskel cuts Geralt off when he opens his mouth enraged, ready to defend Jaskier.  “I want you to examine all your interactions with him and tell me honestly if you think he’s manipulating your feelings.  I’ve never seen you pine for someone the way you did for him almost eight years ago.”

That had been the winter just after Jaskier had been stabbed.  When he’d been confused and hurting and knew only that Jaskier was beginning to recover somewhere out of his reach.  He hasn’t had such a dark and depressing winter since, and he hopes never to have one like it again.

He’s furious at Eskel’s claim that he might be enchanted, even though he recognises how hypocritical that is.  He had had the same fear.  It had almost cost him Jaskier .

The trouble is, he doesn’t know how to assure them that he’s not bewitched and that Vesemir is just being unashamedly nosy .  Jaskier is better at explanations than him, but it’s not as if the bard’s account would be taken without a large pinch of salt.

“If I were bewitched, we would have been together years ago.  And I don’t pine .”

This does help break the tension slightly, as both Lambert and Eskel roll their eyes at him.

“I know what he can do.  I’ve seen him do it, but I trust him.  We’ve travelled together for almost twenty years and he’s never pushed me for more than I’m willing to give.”

This doesn’t exactly relax either witcher, but before they can continue to question him, Vesemir comes striding into the dining room, a disgruntled expression on his face.

“I thought you wanted us working on the east wall all day?”  Lambert was the only one with enough cheek to call Vesemir out so openly.

“It can wait until tomorrow.  Geralt has some explaining to do first.”

“Did you really follow him out?” Geralt raises an eyebrow incredulously.  His brothers and Vesemir are going to give Jaskier anxiety issues if they don't ease up soon.

“He dived into the river and swam upstream.  Have you seen how fast he can swim?  It’s extraordinary.  Do you think his biology has adapted to allow him to move with such speed through water?  How much does he weigh?  Maybe if his bones are lighter…”

“What’s the story with the girl?” Geralt is grateful for Eskel’s interruption.

He can feel the judgement in their gazes as he tells them of his first visit to Cintra, his foolish claim under the Law of Surprise and his resolute avoidance of the country since.

“Well,” Vesemir doesn’t sound very impressed.  “At least you stepped up when you absolutely had to.  The princess will be safe here.  We can train her up to be as fierce as her grandmother.”

He strokes his chin thoughtfully.  “We’ll start teaching her the basics tomorrow.  Some sword forms and how to move and dodge.  We’ll need to build up her physical condition too.  Ensure her diet is appropriate.

“Lambert, you can go out and gather the mushrooms and herbs we’ll need.”

“Why me?” Lambert complains. 

“Because I’m not foolish enough to believe you’ll actually be much help with repairing the wall.  Eskel and Geralt will help me with that.  Where is the girl?”

“Coën’s showing her the library,” Geralt reveals.

“Coën can no doubt entertain her until Jaskier gets back, then he can switch with you, Geralt, so you can give your guests the basic tour.  Understood?”

They all nod and a tight knot of anxiety in Geralt’s chest begins to loosen.  Things aren’t perfect yet, but at least his brothers seem willing to give Jaskier a chance, and they’ll help with training Ciri.  They have a plan.

Chapter Text

It’s not until their first evening in Kaer Morhen, when Ciri gives Jaskier a kiss on the cheek and heads up to bed in her own room, that Geralt realises the opportunity he’s been given. 

Jaskier had turned up late morning, hair dripping wet and had good naturedly offered to help Coën clear out and air a room for Ciri. He’d then spent the rest of the day helping in the kitchen.  He and Ciri had dashed all over Kaer Morhen that evening, Jaskier creating a game out of trying to get from point A to point B with minimal detours and dead ends.  Geralt had been sternly forbidden from helping them by the bard, though he had been favoured with a soft smile and a lingering kiss.

Their most enthusiastic discovery had been the natural hot springs housed in the basement of Kaer Morhen.  Ciri had insisted on a proper bath straight away, putting an end to their exploring.  Jaskier had stood guard outside, ready to head off any of the witchers who might want a bath while the young princess was bathing.  Geralt had joined him, feeling a small thrill at the ease with which Jaskier reached for his hand and leaned against his side.

“Where were you this morning?” Geralt had asked, playing with the fingers entangled within his own.

“Had to go down to the river.  It’s polite to check in with the local river deity if I’m going to be spending any length of time in their territory.”

Geralt had frowned slightly.  “I don’t remember you doing that before.”

Jaskier had shrugged.  “We were always on the move.  Never really stayed anywhere long enough to make a big deal of my visit.  Occasionally I’d go have a drink with them while you completed a contract, but Mama and Old Father Pontar are very relaxed about each other’s children wandering into their territories.  All the other major northern Rivers respect Mama as well.  So long as I didn’t cause any trouble, I was free to go about as I pleased.”

He had trailed off and Geralt had suppressed a wince as he remembered a certain incident on a mountain; one he would very much like to forget, one where Jaskier had only been able to save him from being impaled by defacing another River’s territory. 

“Not such a free rein now?” he’d hazarded a guess.

“No,” Jaskier had admitted.  “There’s now a general unspoken agreement that I check in more often.  Woke up this morning with an irresistible compulsion to go pay my respects.  I should probably go see Uncle Buina sometime soon too, but it’s Gwen’s river I’m planning on staying near for several months, so she took precedence.”

Geralt had considered questioning him further, but Ciri had reappeared and Jaskier had been charmed by Vesemir into playing for them.  Geralt needed to tell the older witcher to stop trying to butter up his partner.  His uncharacteristic welcoming of a stranger into the keep was putting everyone else on edge. 

Jaskier is going to be stuck with them for months.  Vesemir will have plenty of time to conduct his inquisition.

Still, the entertainment the bard had provided had gone over well, especially with Coën, and he had wisely avoided his more boisterous ‘Witcher Melodies’ and stuck to his far less controversial nature ballads.  Geralt had been content to sit quietly by the fire, Ciri pressed sleepily to his side, admiring the fine form of his River god.

Now, he is acutely aware that this is the first time since he kissed Jaskier in his own river, all the way back in Lettenhove, that they’ve been properly alone. 

With a bed.

And a door that locks.

And for the first time in many years, he’s feeling a very peculiar sort of vulnerability.  It’s a feeling he thought he’d left behind in his youth after his first tentative patronage of a brothel.  There have been many women, and a few men, he’s bedded since, and he’s not generally self-conscious about displaying his body.  He knows his physique makes up for his scars, and the scars even attract a certain type.

But none of these people meant anything.  They weren’t Jaskier.

Who, it should be pointed out, has seen Geralt naked more often than anyone else he knows.  So why does it feel so different now? 

Now that they’re alone in Geralt’s room in Kaer Morhen. With a door that locks?

“Hey,” Jaskier’s voice filters through his nervous inner monologue.  The River god is in just his shirt and trousers, the fire that’s been burning all day keeping the room at a respectable temperature.  He reaches out to tuck a fallen strand of Geralt’s hair behind his ear and crowds in close.  “Everything alright?” he checks.

Geralt lets out a shaky breath and nods, before ducking his head to catch Jaskier’s mouth for a long slow kiss.

“Mmmm…” Jaskier hums his approval when they break apart and dives in for another, wrapping his arms around his witcher’s neck and pressing the entire length of his body against him.

Geralt’s breath catches when Jaskier deliberately rocks his hips against him.  The room suddenly feels far too hot, and the scorching line of Jaskier’s body against his is almost too much.  He’s forced to break the kiss to take a much needed gasp of air, tilting his head back so as not to overwhelm his senses with all things Jaskier. 

But while Jaskier is many things, merciful is not necessarily one of them.  As Geralt vainly tries to collect himself enough to form a coherent thought, Jaskier twists his hips in a merciless tease.  Teeth nip at his earlobe and his head thumps against the wall as he jerks in shock. 

Is this how Jaskier had made all his previous lovers feel?  No wonder they looked ready to kidnap him. 

A hot tongue darts out to soothe the nip and, as Jaskier murmurs “You asked me on the way here what forms of worship I enjoy”, his breath against Geralt’s damp skin sends shivers through his body.

It’s only the way Jaskier is plastered against him that keeps him standing upright against the wall.  When he glances down, he can make out the clear, tantalizing stretch of Jaskier’s neck.  A primal part of him wants to sink his teeth into it, bite down and leave a clear mark.

“All worship feels good, but the one I enjoy most of all involves bare skin pressed against bare skin.”  His hands skim down Geralt’s sides and tug his shirt from his trousers before slipping underneath.  His palms burn like a brand against Geralt’s naked ribs and he can’t help but arch into it.

“Jaskier,” he groans, resting his forehead against the top of the bard’s head.  His hands hover awkwardly over Jaskier’s waist, unsure of what to touch first.  What Jaskier will allow him to touch.

“It felt so good to be worshipped this way.”  And Geralt forces himself to push away the spike of possessive jealousy he feels at that statement.  Luckily, Jaskier hasn’t finished speaking.  “But I can’t help wondering how much better it would feel if it were you, Geralt?  How it would feel to be so intimate with the man I adore?  Who swam in my river with me? Willingly.  Who’s already been a part of me?”

Geralt snaps.

He hoists Jaskier up into his arms as the god laughs and wraps his long legs around Geralt’s waist.  In this position he towers over Geralt and the witcher looks up into the river blue eyes he loves with every fibre of his being.

How he manages to get them to the bed without tripping over anything is nothing short of miraculous, because he can’t take his eyes off the spectacular, laughing deity clinging to him.  But he does, and wastes no time in divesting them both of their remaining layers.

The rest of the night is dedicated to discovering all the ways he can make Jaskier sing as Geralt loses himself in the sacred worship of his River god.  Devotion, he decides, is best shown with hands and lips, laughter and moans, sweat slicked skin and soft sighs.

Afterwards, he holds Jaskier close as the god sprawls half on top of him, one leg thrown possessively over both his own and his ear pressed against Geralt’s heart.  Fingers that have proven themselves very clever indeed, draw intricate patterns across his bicep and he occasionally raises his head to press an affectionate kiss to Geralt’s chest.

“I was right,” Jaskier mumbles sleepily.

“About what, little Kingfisher?”  Geralt carefully brushes the tangles from Jaskier’s hair with his fingers. 

“So much better than anything before.  Couldn’t you feel it Geralt?  It was like we were two streams merging into one river and our waters mingled and became one.”

“Hmm…”

Trust Jaskier to wax poetic at such a moment. 

The fire is just embers in the hearth, and he knows he should get up to tend to it.  But he can’t bring himself to break this moment.  Soon, the stickiness and the cold will become intolerable but, he closes his eyes and basks within that invisible connection he can feel tethering him to Jaskier, that is going to be very much a problem for future Geralt.

* * *

Personally, Jaskier is of the opinion that cheek kisses are severely under-rated.  They’re so versatile!  Appropriate in almost all situations.  A quick brush of lips on the cheek when meeting a fond acquaintance.  A slightly more loving peck for family.  And for lovers…

Well, the possibilities are endless.

A quick, easy, socially acceptable display of affection, a reminder of feelings, a lingering promise of things to come. 

A kiss on the cheek can be so much more than just a kiss on the cheek. 

Jaskier presses his lips to the soft skin just over Geralt’s cheek bone, which sits safely above the slight scratchiness of stubble.  He lets them rest there for just a moment before pulling back with a soft smacking sound and nuzzling his nose against Geralt’s cheek.  The witcher’s embarrassment at receiving such affection in front of his family is just an added bonus!

Across the table, Lambert shoots them a disgusted look.  Beside him, Ciri gags at them theatrically in mock disgust.

“You two are gross,” she complains through a mouthful of breakfast.  Jaskier considers half-heartedly scolding her for speaking with her mouth full, but he’s too happy.  Four months ago, he would never have believed the previous night could ever happen.  Not after the words they’d spat at each other at the end of the dragon hunt.

“Yup,” he beams at her.  “So, what’s the plan for today?”

“Winter preparations,” Eskel informs him, eying the rather spectacular bruise he’d managed to leave on Geralt’s throat the night before.  Witcher healing means that leaving any lasting marks is rather difficult; bruises tend to heal within a few hours.  Jaskier had diligently and repeatedly attended to that spot with his tongue and teeth to get the mark to stay.  He likes seeing proof of himself on Geralt’s skin.  He fully intends to investigate that same spot again tonight.

“Got to stock up on wood supplies, clean the common rooms and fix the walls,” Geralt explains, self-consciously trying to tug up his jacket to obscure the mark.  He doesn’t succeed.  Jaskier has made sure to leave it prominently right where his neck meets his remarkable jaw.

“I’m not sure how good we’ll be at fixing walls,” Jaskier muses, shooting Ciri a wink.  “But we can definitely help with the cleaning.”

“It would be appreciated,” Vesemir gives him a respectful nod from the head of the table.  The old witcher still has a gleam in his eye, but he’s toned down his more overt attempts to corner Jaskier.  Geralt had explained Vesemir’s fascination with him when they were getting dressed that morning and he’s resigned himself to sitting down with the old witcher at some point in the near future and trying to put into words what he can’t explain.

“If we work hard, Lambert will give Ciri a sword lesson this afternoon.  If there’s still enough light after that, Eskel and Geralt will take her round the Killer.”

Jaskier barely hears Ciri’s exclamation of joy as his head whips round to stare in horror at Vesemir.  “The Killer!” he splutters, with half a mind to drag Ciri away from this obviously deranged witcher.

Sensing his panic, Geralt grabs his hand, squeezing it reassuringly.

“It’s a nickname, Jaskier.  You know how dramatic young boys can be.  It’s a difficult trail that we use to increase stamina and improve movement.”  He turns to Ciri, well aware that she doesn’t like to be talked about and not included in the discussion.  “You’ll learn how to improve your balance and judge difficult terrain, as well as increase your speed.  Eskel and I will walk it with you today and explain how to deal with the tricky sections.”

“That sounds brilliant!” Ciri enthuses, determined to strain Jaskier’s heart.  She notices the wild look in his eyes.  “I’ll be fine, Papa.  Geralt will be there to keep me safe.” 

Jaskier doesn’t like it.  If he had his way, then Ciri would never need to pick up a sword.  She’d never have to fight for her life.  But if Lettenhove had taught him anything, it was that he can’t rely on himself alone to keep Ciri safe.  Knowing how to fight and defend herself will help her keep herself safe and allow her some independence.  And for some odd reason, Ciri wants to learn how to fight.  She’s interested in swords and terrifying paths that previous generations of potential witchers had nicknamed ‘The Killer’.

Doesn’t mean he has to like it.

He lets Geralt go off with his brothers and Coën after breakfast, before dragging Ciri to the kitchen to give it a proper scrub.  She grumbles throughout as he sets her to scouring pans that look as if they’ve been collecting dirt for decades.  But once he’s organised the kitchen to his satisfaction and helped her put away the ironware, he entertains her by throwing a bucket of soapy water over the floor.  They sit cross legged on the sturdy wooden table and watch as he makes it crash like waves over the stone, sweeping up all the dirt, before he forces it out into the courtyard, leaving a near spotless floor drying in its wake.

“How are you finding everything?” he gives her a little nudge as she slumps against him.  He’s been wanting to talk to her on her own.  To check in on her without an audience.

She chews her lip thoughtfully, eyes fixed on the gleaming floor.

“Alright, I guess.”

“You guess?”

She shrugs.  “I’m looking forward to learning how to use a sword.  Grandmother and Grandfather always promised to teach me, but they were always too busy.”  Her mouth turns down slightly with familiar sadness at the thought of her grandparents, and Jaskier wraps a comforting arm around her in silent support.  “And I really like Coën.  He’s very friendly and he says he’ll teach me how to play chess.  The others are a bit scary though.”

Jaskier thinks of Lambert’s brashness, Eskel’s silent inspections and Vesemir’s intimidating seniority.  He can see why she thinks so, but he doesn’t know what he can do to help.  Geralt is the one who knows these men and none (apart from Vesemir) seem all that fond of their River god guest.

“Do you want me to join you for your lesson with Lambert?”  He’s by no means a sword expert, but Trava had ensured he knew the basics (when in doubt make sure you hit your enemy with the sharp end).

Ciri considers this carefully, twisting a lock of hair round her fingers.  “No,” she decides.  “I don’t think he’ll respect me if I don’t face him on my own.”  It’s the kind of thinking that you learn in a royal court and Jaskier wishes with all his heart that Ciri could unlearn it.  Let herself believe that he is strong enough to hold them both above water.

“Are you sure?  I could just hide in a corner and be ready to jump in.”  She giggles but he’s completely serious.  He’d do it.

“No, I’m almost thirteen!  I’ll be fine.” 

Gods.  She’s almost thirteen.  How in Mama’s name has that happened?  He’d only looked away for a moment and she was almost a teenager.  Weren’t there rules about this sort of thing?  Can he just ban her from growing up?  Ina, he knows, spent almost twenty years being ten before she let herself start to age.  Could Ciri not do the same, for his sake?

“Papa?”  She peers up at him with large green eyes, oblivious to his internal crisis.  “Do you think Eyck’s alright?  Will he be managing by himself?”

“He’ll be fine,” Jaskier assures.  “I left Boxer in charge; he’ll look after him.”

“Papa!” Ciri’s unimpressed by his attempt at humour.  The truth is, he is a little concerned about his acolyte.  He doesn’t think any hostile force could gain entry into his house, but Eyck does like to take frequent trips up and down the Pankratz (rescuing animals and keeping the peace).  He hopes no Nilfgaardian or any other suspicious character is  bold enough to attempt to attack him on one of his trips.  Jaskier has asked his siblings to keep an eye on Eyck for him.

“He’s a good fighter,” Jaskier tries again.  “And he’s not going to go out of his way to attract a confrontation.”

“I miss him,” Ciri admits.  “And I miss Lettenhove.  It was nice to have a home again.”

“It will always be your home, for as long as you want,” Jaskier promises, pressing a teary kiss to the top of her head.

Chapter Text

Jaskier is lonely.

It’s an odd feeling for him.  He’s never really been prone to it.  Lettenhove was probably the first time he’d felt totally lonely.  With Geralt seemingly gone from his life forever, he’d been trapped in the city, far away from Ciri, unable to dip into his river on a whim and head off to visit his family.  He’d been utterly bereft.

Before that he’d never really experienced it.  Growing up, he’d always had Mama and Aunty Irina (and her girls).  His siblings were frequent visitors, there was almost always one of them at Mama’s.  When he’d grown up and started travelling with Geralt, he'd always had the witcher, while the inhabitants of almost every town they came across would flock to him.

Now there’s only Geralt and Ciri.  The former is busy with chores and training during the day. The latter is breaking his heart..

She is pulling increasingly away from his side.  The other witchers have taken to her in a way they haven’t to Jaskier.  Even surly, foul-mouthed Lambert has a soft spot for the young princess, though he tries to hide it with insults.  She’s increasingly joining them for weapons training, leaving Jaskier to mope about on his own in the keep.

He’d tried going down to watch, once, but he seemed to disrupt the flow of the practice and he’s not been back since.  Eskel and Lambert seemed particularly on edge, and Vesemir kept stopping in the middle of training to come over and ask Jaskier yet another question about River gods.

So Jaskier is finding himself spending most of his time down by the river with Gwen.  She doesn’t seem to mind his presence and enjoys listening to him gossip about the affairs of the other Rivers.  She’s a bit out of the loop, so he makes sure she’s all caught up on who’s fighting with whom (Ismena and Adalette’s little tryst ended badly and Ismena is currently persona non grata in Mama’s territory).

He brings his lute down and composes by the riverbank.  She offers praise and criticism where due but is mostly content to sit quietly and bask in the music.  It’s nice, and he really appreciates having a family member close by, but she’s only one, very quiet, companion.

Geralt, Jaskier admits, is doing his best.  In the evenings he tries hard to include Jaskier in discussions and draw him into games of dice and cards.  When all else seems to fail, he drags Jaskier back to their room and fucks him gently under the furs.  Contrary to his physical stature, Geralt prefers soft, sweet sex.  He likes to take his time, exploring every nook and crevice of Jaskier’s body with his fingers and lips, before rocking slowly into him and unhurriedly bring them both to completion.

That’s not to say Geralt doesn’t also appreciate it when Jaskier decides to take charge, hold him down and make him beg for mercy.

It’s just, and Jaskier realises how awful this is, he can’t help but slightly resent Geralt.

Ciri is spending more and more of her time with the witcher, basking in his guidance and subtle affection.  And Jaskier is thrilled that they’re developing a close bond.  Really . He is.

But she’s seeking him out less and less.

She adores swordplay and, while the weather allowed, she was excitedly telling him about her progress running the Killer, but it’s not an interest he can share with her.  They both know it, no matter how assiduously he listens to her tales.  He prefers the arts, and while she appreciates his music and the poems he composes for her enjoyment, she has no interest in learning his craft herself.

He wishes his family were here.  They seem too far away. 

Adalette would listen to him and soothe his fears, while Ina would call him a fool but still impart useful advice.  Vda would stand silently behind him in her usual manner of support, a constant trusted presence.  Etta, as always, would be loud and flamboyant.  She’d fill up this dreary keep with colour and revelry.

But it’s Trava he misses most.  The only two sons, they’ve always had a close bond (outnumbered as they are by their sisters).  Trava would help Jaskier smooth over whatever this anxiety is that the other witchers feel about him.  He’d be charming and friendly, but with an edge to him that would prevent the others from excluding them.  He may not be Mama’s oldest but he’s her right hand.  Her diplomat. 

Jaskier supposes, had things been different, he might have been jealous of the effortless way Trava appears to sail through life.  Except his brother has never hesitated to come to Jaskier’s aid and defence.

Jaskier wants Mama as well.  He’s not seen her since before the Nilfgaardian war.  The last time they’d been face to face, she’d banished him to Lettenhove and he’d hated her for it.  He doesn’t hate her anymore.  He just misses her.

He wants to apologise to her for (alright, he can admit it to himself) being a bit of a brat.  He wants to tell her he loves her and hear her say it back.  They didn’t say it the last time they parted, each too angry with the other, and it’s been weighing on him for months. 

More than anything, Jaskier wants her advice.  Because raising a child?  It turns out it’s hard and, as the youngest, he has no frame of reference.  His own childhood seems so long ago.

Rationally, he knows he should expect Ciri to display some mood swings, but are they supposed to be so extreme?  And is she supposed to be so aggressive?  Lately, the little nudges she gives him when he teases her have become much harder and she seems more irritated than amused by his quips.  There’s a truculent undercurrent to her now, and she’ll often try and wrestle one of the witchers to the ground in a surprise attack.  They encourage such behaviour.

When, out of the blue, she’d barrelled into Jaskier one morning, he’d almost tumbled down the stairs, only narrowly catching himself on the wall.  She’d apologised, but begrudgingly, while castigating him about the need to keep his guard up.

He’s worried, but when he’d tried to ask her if anything was wrong, she’d snapped at him and gone off to polish swords with Eskel.

He misses the little girl who used to climb him like a tree and get dirt all over his fine clothes.  The little girl who was entranced by his stories and always happy to see him.  His darling  little princess who adored his company.

She hasn’t referred to him as ‘Papa’ in a week.

Geralt thinks he’s overreacting. 

“She’s growing up, Jaskier.  It’s a difficult time for her and she’s surrounded by grown men.  It can’t be easy for her.  There must be… woman things, she doesn’t want to talk to us about.”

Jaskier laughs at him, as he curls in closer to Geralt’s side.  It’s moments like this, when they cuddle together late at night, which make all the other unpleasantness worth it.  “Woman things?” he muffles his snorts of laughter into Geralt’s neck. 

“You know what I mean,” Geralt grumbles, embarrassed.

“No, I have no clue,” Jaskier protests with false innocence.  “Please enlighten me Geralt.  What sort of woman things should we be on the lookout for?”

Geralt tries to shove him off the bed, but Jaskier clings to him like a limpet.

“I don’t know!  You’re the one with sisters.  There wasn’t exactly much feminine influence growing up here.”

Jaskier continues to tease him, but Geralt has sparked an idea that grows in the back of Jaskier’s mind.

He does have sisters. 

He briefly considers asking Gwen to help him with Ciri, but their relationship is too new to ask this much of her. 

Jaskier would love to invite Adalette to visit because she’s sweet and good natured and he defies anyone to sit down for a chat with her and not like her by the end.  But Ina is the sister with the expertise he needs.  So, he says goodbye to his pride and writes a suitably humble letter, begging her to come and talk with Ciri, and goes down to the Gwenllech to ask the River herself to deliver it.

Ina does not reply but, as Jaskier had fully expected, comes tearing up north to sort out her little brother.  She doesn’t come up to the keep but instead transmits a jarring greeting into Jaskier’s brain, leaving his ears ringing.  Perhaps she thinks all this time away from the Yaruga has made him deaf?

Ciri is not impressed when he requests her company that morning.  Geralt is no help either.  He’s been promising Ciri a turn with an actual steel sword instead of a practice wooden one and the previous evening had declared that she was now proficient enough to have a few swings.  Neither like the idea of her wasting what little daylight they have at this time of year to accompany Jaskier.

Ciri grumbles and whines and Geralt backs her up .  Jaskier has wanted to strangle Geralt many times during their long acquaintance, but never more so than just now.  It’s only the presence of the other witchers around the breakfast table that forces him to keep his temper.  He will be having a serious talk with Geralt about this later.

“Perhaps I should have been clearer.  This is not a request, Ciri.  Ina has come all this way to check up on us both and say hello.  You will not insult her by choosing sword practice over her visit.”

“Jaskier,” Geralt still tries to object, but Jaskier cuts him off.

“Geralt, Mama help me, if you keep this up, I’ll turn that hot spring you’re all so fond of cold every time you as much as dip a toe in it.  Don’t for a moment think that is beyond my powers.”

Lambert snorts quietly off to the side and mutters something no doubt rude and derogatory to Coën.

“This isn’t fair!” Ciri complains, her cheeks beginning to puff out in the beginnings of a truly epic tantrum.

“Tough,” Jaskier grinds his teeth.  “Go and get your cloak.”

She slams her fists down on the table as she stands, causing the tableware to tremble at the force of her blow.  Jaskier manages to get up more sedately to collect his own cloak, despite desperately wanting to follow her example and have his own meltdown. 

Ciri refuses to talk to him as they make their way down to the river, angrily kicking any stone that gets in her way.  She doesn’t even pretend that she’s pleased to see Ina, who’s wrapped up warmly and sitting primly on a felled tree trunk. 

Ina herself had been prepared to greet Jaskier with her usual rebuke (which all her family knows is her way of saying ‘I love you’), but instead, witnessing Ciri’s behaviour, she raises an enquiring eyebrow at her brother over the girl’s head.  He doesn’t even try to hide his desperation.

She begins by making some inane small talk, trying to cajole Ciri into calming down and making proper conversation.  Ciri irritably grunts back half-hearted responses.  Ina’s expression becomes more and more pinched and Jaskier fears he’s correct.  This is not just puberty rearing its ugly head.  Something is wrong with Ciri.

“Given the rather harsh environment up here,” Ina finally dispenses with polite conversation and gets to the real reason for her visit.  “I think it would be a good idea if I check you both over.  Ciri, you first.  Then you can get back to your sword practice.”  Ina knows how to coax the girl.  “Jaskier, go away.  Come back in half an hour”

Half an hour later and Jaskier is not sure which of the darling witchers back at the keep he’s going to behead first.

* * *

Geralt is worried about Jaskier.

His River god has been uncharacteristically withdrawn and has begun isolating himself from the rest of the group.  He knows this is partly his brothers’ fault.  They’re still suspicious and show it.  But he needs Jaskier to be his usual intrusive self and force them to spend more time in his company.  Not quietly withdraw.  When has Jaskier ever done anything quietly?  Why has he chosen to start now?

Lambert and Eskel will warm to him once they’ve spent enough time in his company to realise he isn’t altering their behaviour.  With them will come Coën, who is cautiously trying to stay on the good side of everyone. 

Jaskier will feel better once the tension eases.  Geralt just needs him to keep trying to accommodate his brothers in the meantime.  Dragging Ciri away this morning has not helped. Lambert grumbles at him and Eskel looks unimpressed.

“Are we to expect an invasion of Orisa this winter?”

Geralt looks at Eskel, unamused.  “Ina would have no issue with marching right into the keep if the fancy took her.  If she’s meeting Jaskier and Ciri by the river, it means she’s respecting our home.”

Eskel does not look convinced as he faces Geralt, sword drawn.  They clash, blocking and parrying, before Geralt manages to get in close enough to grapple, forcing Eskel to drop his weapon or have his arm broken.

“You’re distracted.  That was sloppy,” Geralt comments, handing Eskel his sword.

“I don’t like that there are a bunch of creatures I’ve only recently heard of with the power to swim up easily to our hidden fortress.  Who knows what trouble they could bring?”

“They’ve been around for centuries, without your knowledge,” Geralt points out.  “Why should suddenly knowing about them change anything.”

“Because you’ve decided to play happy families with one of them and open the door for him!” Eskel snarls in frustration.  “You’re raising a fugitive princess together, and I like Ciri (I really do), but you’ve painted a giant target on your backs. I don’t know him or his kind well enough to be sure they won’t sell us out when the armies after her start trying to hunt you down.”

“They’ve already rescued her from those armies once.  When I couldn’t .  You’re judging him to be weak and a coward without even giving him a chance!” Geralt refutes angrily.  Lambert and Coën stop their own practice to shamelessly listen in.  Vesemir has noticed their lack of activity from the other side of the yard and has started to make his way over.

“He makes me uneasy, Geralt,” Eskel insists.  “You can’t expect us to welcome him with open arms, just because he’s wormed his way into your bed.  Especially when you never mentioned what he was before turning up with him!”

“That’s not his fault, that’s on me .  You aren’t even trying to get to know him!”

“He smells weird!” Eskel snaps, bringing Geralt up short.

Eskel seems almost embarrassed by his outburst, pathetic as it sounds, but Coën pipes up in his defence.  “He’s right.  Whenever I try to catch his scent, I get… more than just a smell.  It’s strange.”

Geralt resists the urge to groan.  He knows what they mean, but he’s not sure how to explain it.  Until he took a dip in Jaskier’s own river with him, he’d never really understood Jaskier’s scent either (had ignored it, as he had ignored so many hints of Jaskier’s true nature).  It was only after that fateful swim that he realised that Jaskier didn’t just give off a particular smell, but also gave off flashes of… him.  Of his river.

When they’re alone in their room and Geralt lets himself bury his nose in Jaskier’s neck, he gets the expected scent of body odour and whatever perfume Jaskier’s currently favouring, but also senses something else.

He hears the thwack, thwack, thwack of the loom treadles as the hundreds of weavers create beautiful, extravagant cloth in Lettenhove’s warehouses.  His head is filled with the numerous plays performed in its theatres.  He can taste the smoked fish that hundreds of travellers catch and cook along the Pankratz’s banks.  He can feel the powerful webbed feet of hundreds of ducks frantically paddling below the water.

Before binding himself to Jaskier, he’d been unable to understand these strange sensations either (had not been able to fully concentrate on them).  Now he does.  Jaskier is not just a powerful water entity in a man’s body.  He is also the river .  He is every molecule of water that ever has or ever will flow downstream. 

It makes him both incredibly powerful and incredibly vulnerable at the same time.  If anything happens to his river, then Jaskier would…

Geralt doesn’t dare contemplate it.

“It’s a River god thing,” he tries to explain.  He has no idea how he’s going to take this forward, but that’s when the deity in question comes barging into the training ground, a squirming Ciri clutched tightly in his furious grip.

Geralt is vaguely aware of Ina trailing in after them, but his attention is wrested away by Jaskier’s livid expression.  He is also giving off a certain aura, the snow around them melting into steaming puddles and converging at his feet. 

“How could you ?” he fumes, blue eyes flashing.  The meltwater is creeping outwards, towards the witchers.  Lambert, Eskel and Coën automatically reach for their swords, readying themselves for battle.

“Jaskier?” he questions, putting himself between the god and his brothers.  He’s not really sure which of them he’s trying to protect.

How could you be such a moron? ” Jaskier shouts at him, shaking Ciri’s arm.  She looks up at Jaskier with tears beginning to form at the corners of her eyes.  Geralt reaches out a hand towards her, but the bard pulls her behind him with a jolt.

No!” Jaskier spits, saliva flying out of his mouth in his rage.  “I’m not letting any of you lay a hand on her!  Not after what you’ve done!”

“What the fuck are you on about?” Lambert yells over.  “We haven’t done anything to her!  Now let her go.  You’ll hurt her.”

“Back off Lambert!” Jaskier yells in fury, his voice echoing throughout the courtyard.

The water on the ground lunges threateningly towards Lambert.

“Jaskier, calm down.  We don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Jaskier rounds on him.  “No, you don’t!  And doesn’t that just speak for your utter incompetence!

“What I’m talking about, darling,” Jaskier snarls the last word, teeth bared.  “Is how you managed to poison her with your ineptitude!”

Chapter Text

Geralt’s eyes skim in alarm up and down Ciri’s trembling form. She’s red-eyed and teary, but she doesn’t seem to be in any pain.

“Poison?” he questions worriedly.  “What poison?”

“Those fucking salads you’ve been shoving down her throat!  I can’t believe I just let it go!  I can’t believe I didn’t question why she was eating extra greens!  I stupidly thought you were just watching out for her!  That you were trying to keep her healthy before winter really sets in!”

Salad?  This entire, dramatic confrontation is about salad?

He brings his hand to his head to try and massage the growing tension forming between his eyebrows.  At least his brothers have backed down, standing awkwardly on the sidelines as they unashamedly watch the spectacle Jaskier is putting on.

“It’s not poison, Jaskier.”  He tries to pull Jaskier to the side, to give them the illusion of privacy.  Jaskier slaps his hand away, refusing to be appeased.

You drugged her! ” he screams.  “Without telling me what you were doing!  You betrayed my trust and fed her stupid, secret, witcher enhancing herbs without my permission!”

“And they’re not hurting her, Jaskier!” Geralt snaps back, fed up with the accusations being hurled at him.  “We all ate them as boys when we were training.  They help her!”

“Help!” Jaskier’s voice reaches a pitch Geralt didn’t know was possible for the human voice .  “You call mood swings, bouts of sudden aggression and extreme irritability helping ?”

“You’re overreacting!” Geralt doesn’t think Ciri’s been that bad.

It is, absolutely, the worst thing he could have said.

The water may have been steaming at Jaskier’s feet, but when it hits Geralt in the face, it’s ice cold and aimed right at his eyes.

Geralt yells out in shock and, half-blinded, claws at Jaskier, who darts quickly back with Ciri still securely behind him.  The bard’s mouth is opening, no doubt to continue his diatribe, but that’s when Ina makes her presence known.

Enough! ” she declares, drawing the attention of everyone in the yard to herself.  “If you can both act like adults for a moment, then perhaps we can get to the bottom of this.”

No one moves or makes a sound.  Geralt’s not sure if it’s Ina’s godliness or just an effect of her forceful personality but no one dares interrupt her when she uses that tone of voice. 

“The main issue here is that you’ve been feeding Ciri certain mushrooms and herbs that, as far as I can tell, are meant to boost her metabolism and help her build muscle.”

“Which is hardly poison,” Geralt can’t help but point out.  Both River gods glare at him.

“As I was saying,” Ina stresses.  “The issue here is that these were previously fed to young boys who, around puberty, underwent the rather…” her mouth twists in revulsion.  “Extreme mutations, for which you witchers are famous.  I believe it was these mutations that helped you overcome the detrimental effects of these substances.”

An ice-cold feeling is settling in Geralt’s stomach and it has nothing to do with the water still dripping down his face.  What detrimental effects?

“I applaud you for wanting to feed Ciri a diet appropriate for the physical training she is undertaking.  But you’ve been feeding a young girl a diet previously only fed to young boys, many of whom would die in upcoming Trials. It’s clear to me you’ve never understood the full range of side effects these drugs can have on the human body, specifically, in this case, the developing female body.

“These include, when fed to a girl about to undergo puberty, mood swings and a worrying level of aggression.  If you continue to feed these to Ciri, the aggression and irritability are only going to get worse and you’re in serious danger of stunting her growth.”

A wyvern could have landed in the middle of the courtyard, set the roof on fire, and flown off, and Geralt doubts anyone would have noticed. 

What had they almost done?  

All the witchers look slightly shaken and are straining to catch a glimpse of the young girl they might have injured with their ignorance.  Vesemir, in particular, looks harrowed, the memory of every young boy he mentored who didn’t make it out of the Trials alive haunting him in this moment.

Jaskier shows them no mercy or sympathy.  He is still trembling with rage and keeping Ciri well out of their line of sight.

“Now,” Ina continues briskly.  “I can make some suggestions about a safe and appropriate diet for Ciri while she’s training.  That’s if,” her beady gaze lands on each witcher in turn, “this is something in which you gentlemen might be interested?”

“Of course,” Vesemir sounds slightly hoarse.  “That would be marvellous.  Shall we step inside?”

The others make to head back inside, but Jaskier stays put.

“Jaskier,” Geralt reaches out towards his lover.  He can feel the tumultuous whirlwind of Jaskier’s emotions, a never-ending cycle of grief, helplessness, desperation, and anger.  “Let’s go inside.  We can work this out.”

We ?” Jaskier’s furious glare pins him in place, hand frozen reaching outwards.  “We decide nothing.  You decided without me!  You went behind my back when you had no right to do so!  She’s my daughter, not yours!  You were the one who wanted nothing to do with her for twelve years!”

Geralt would have preferred it if Jaskier had physically struck him.  He reels back speechless and undeniably hurt.

But it’s true.

He had wanted nothing to do with Ciri before now.  He had actively tried to run from her, to forget her.  He had sought out a bloody djinn in the hope of breaking the bond he’d accidentally formed with her (and how ironic that all he’d managed to achieve was two new bonds). 

But that had been a mistake, and he was trying to make up for that now.  Jaskier knew that.  He’d encouraged it.

He can’t cry; the mutations he underwent make that impossible. But there’s a hot, tight lump lodged in the back of his throat that’s as close as he can get. 

Ciri is looking up at him with her large, green eyes. 

Distraught. 

They’ve never talked about where he was for most of her life.  He’d steeled himself for one day sitting her down and admitting his cowardice to her, but he’d never imagined that she’d find out like this.  That Jaskier would be the one to call him out so callously in front of her.

All the others have stopped, almost at the side door that leads into the main hall, turning to look at him.

He can’t stay here.

He can’t face them.

He can’t face Ciri.

He turns on his heel and practically sprints in the opposite direction.

* * *

Ciri manages to wriggle out of Jaskier’s hold the moment they get indoors and bolts off without so much as a backwards glance.  He ignores Ina’s calls to leave her be and follows her.

He’s sick and tired of everyone’s recent attitude towards him, and has felt very hurt by Ciri’s behaviour in particular.  Discovering that it’s partly the result of a secret witcher diet has cooled some of his ire towards her, but she’d still stomped and screamed at him when he’d dragged her back to Kaer Morhen earlier.

“Ciri,” he calls as he strides after her.  She may have been getting faster and faster after all her training, but his legs are still much longer than hers and he has no trouble catching up with her.

“Leave me alone!”

“No, we need to talk.”

“I don’t want to talk!  Everything was fine !  You ruined it!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”  He catches the door to her bedroom as she attempts to slam it in his face.  “Was I just imagining it when Ina warned us of stunted growth, potential tumours, likely heart problems and fertility issues?”

“But it was doing what I needed it to do!  It was making me stronger!  It was helping me fight!”

“You won’t be fighting when you have a heart attack!”

“That doesn’t matter!” she screams at him.

“Yes, it does!” and he’s screaming back at her.  “And if you can’t understand that, there’ll be no more sword fighting lessons!”

She stops, with her mouth wide open in obvious horror.

“You can’t !” she exclaims, completely aghast.

“I can,” he threatens.  “You think after this the witchers will teach you without my express permission?  If I say no, then that’s it.”

“That’s not fair!”

“I don’t have to be fair!  I’m your father!”

No, you’re not!

His breath catches in his throat, and they both stare wide eyed at each other in dismay.  Unable to pull back the words hanging in the air between them. 

Ciri lets out a sniffle, and Jaskier echoes it, then they’re both crying.  Great big ugly sobs erupt from them both, and suddenly they’re clutching at each other, tears streaming down their cheeks.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Ciri repeats over and over, muffled into his chest.  “I didn’t mean it.”

He fixes an arm around the top of her head, anchoring her to him.  Refusing to let go.

“I can’t Ciri,” he moans.  “I can’t let you do this if you’re going to deliberately try and get hurt.  I need you to stay safe.  Please, please let me keep you safe.”

They’re on the ground now, curled together against the wall, covered unashamedly in snot and tears.

“But I’m not safe,” Ciri wails.  “I can never be safe!  Not while Nilfgaard has Cintra.  I need to get it back.  I need to fight for it!  Grandmother would have fought for it!  I need to be a warrior, like her!”

Jaskier shakes at the thought, gathering her up more tightly in his arms.

He imagines her at the head of an army, sword drawn and charging into battle, and he instantly feels sick.  He doesn’t want that for her.  He wants her safe.  That’s all he wants.  He would give anything for it.

“I need to kill that man,” Ciri howls.  “I need to kill him!  For what he did to Cintra!  To me!  For making me afraid!”

Ice is seizing his limbs and panic is gripping his thoughts.  “Who?” he demands. 

“Him!  The man in black armour!  The black knight with the wings on his helmet!  He was hunting me!  I want him dead!  I need him dead!”

Jaskier swears to himself that he’ll grant her wish.  He’ll hunt this man down for her and slaughter him where he stands.  Wherever this knight is, Jaskier will find him.

“Don’t take the sword away!” she begs.  “Don’t take it away from me!”

He has to take a moment to breathe.  A huge, gasping lungful of air.  Trying to gather himself back together.  To get himself under control.

“Alright,” he agrees hoarsely.  “Alright.  But we do it properly, without secret witcher herbs.  We follow Ina’s advice and do it safely.  And if you’re serious about retaking Cintra one day, then every third day you put down the sword and come and take lessons with me.”

She pulls her face away from his chest, ready to object, but he cuts her off.

“You think just knowing how to fight is going to win you back Cintra?”

“It’s how Grandmother kept her throne!”

“No,” Jaskier refutes.  “It’s just one of several reasons Calanthe was able to keep a hold of her position.  She was known as a fighter, but the reason she was such a formidable opponent was because she knew how to direct armies .  She had the best battle tactics because she understood strategy. 

“The witchers can show you how to analyse a single opponent, maybe even a small group, but they don’t get involved in warfare.  They can’t show you how to analyse a battlefield full of thousands of men.”

“And you can?” Ciri asks doubtfully.

“No,” Jaskier admits.  “But your Uncle Trava can.  What I can teach you is politics.  Don’t make that face.”  He flicks Ciri’s nose as she shoots him a revolted look.  “You’re going to need to know how to make allies.”

“But none of the Northern Kingdoms like the Nilfgaardians!” Ciri complains.

“None of the major kings do,” Jaskier corrects.  “They’re worried about Nilfgaard trying to push into their kingdoms again.  But the merchants are rather fond of Nilfgaard.  They derive a lot of profit from it, and the kings can’t risk upsetting too many of the merchants.  The merchants will either up their prices or take their goods elsewhere, and then it’s the common man that suffers.  That’s how revolutions begin.

“Besides, let’s say a giant flood washes all the Nilfgaardians away tomorrow and you're set up as Queen.  What are you going to do then?  Wave a sword at every minister or diplomat who approaches you?”

“Grandmother threw a dagger at a Kerack diplomat once,” Ciri informs him seriously.

“Yes… Well, Kerack is a relatively minor, relatively new country without an awful lot of influence.  Yet .  If the diplomat had been from Redania, it could have turned out very badly for your grandmother.  She picked her fights carefully.”

Ciri still doesn’t look enthused about these new lessons. 

She scrubs at her face, still streaked in dried  tears and other less pleasant substances. 

“I need a bath.”  She rises slowly to her feet and holds out a hand for him.  He accepts and she makes a show of hauling him upright.

They leave the room together, but she pauses as she reaches the corridor that’ll take her to the baths.  She looks slightly scared and unsure of herself, but darts forward to give him one last hug.  “I love you, Papa,” she mumbles quietly.

“I love you too,” he breathes, the tension in his shoulders easing as she darts off, leaving him alone in the hallway.

He doesn’t want to join the others in the main hall.  Doesn’t think he’s ready to face them yet.

He’s still so furious with all of them.  They had made decisions about Ciri without him.  Excluded him completely and gone over his head, and in doing so almost caused her serious harm. 

The others may not like him, or even trust him, but Geralt should have known better.

He wanders back outside and onto the northern walls, staring blankly at the forest and snow-covered mountains stretching forever onwards in the distance.  This is where Ina eventually finds him, and she settles next to him and slips an arm into his own.

“You did the right thing, getting me up here,” she informs him, and he laughs brokenly (because Ina hardly ever acknowledges when he’s done the right thing). 

“Breathe,” Ina instructs.  “You spotted the warning signs; no permanent damage has been done, and I have instructed that Vesemir fellow on the proper care required for a young girl.  The other witchers have been suitably cowed and I’ve told that rude one that if he swears in front of me again, I’ll be washing his mouth out with soap.”

“I’d pay to see that,” Jaskier admits, and lets Ina turn him round to face her so she can wrap him in a strong hug.  He tries to tamp down a sob (he’s cried enough today) but now that he’s started again, he just can’t stop.  She reaches up to run a steady hand across his head and he basks in the much-missed familial comfort.

When he’s calmer, she pulls back, eying him critically. 

“I’d wash your face before you go back in.  Also,” she hesitates slightly.  “I wouldn’t let your witcher suffer for too long.  He messed up, but he didn’t deliberately set out to hurt anyone.  And Mama knows just how much that idiot loves you.”

“How much?” Jaskier sniffs, fishing shamelessly for reassurance.

Ina whacks him lightly on the arm.

“Get him to tell you about our first conversation,” she tells him.  “And Jaskier, do keep in touch.  We all worry about you.”

Chapter Text

It’s freezing outside on the wall and the tip of his nose has gone numb, but Jaskier can’t bear to go back inside.  He doesn’t want to have to talk to the witchers.  They have made their opinion of him perfectly clear and he’s not impressed with them. 

For a brief moment, he considers whether it would be possible to transport Ciri safely down the mountain.  Uncle Buina would ensure they were safe in Yspaden until spring came and then Jaskier could employ every scrap of influence his family possessed to keep her ten steps ahead of Nilfgaard.  He dismisses the thought quickly.  Ciri is trapped here for the winter, and as he has no intention of leaving her unsupervised among the witchers, that means he is too.

He’s just going to have to impose on their hospitality for a while longer, as distasteful as they seem to find him.

“Does being a River god protect you from your balls freezing off?”

Jaskier jumps as the voice behind him catches him by surprise.  He whirls around, heel catching on ice covered stone, and almost goes tumbling off the wall.

A strong arm catches his own and prevents his fall. 

Of all the witchers, it’s Lambert who has sought him out.  In the hand not holding onto Jaskier is a mysterious brown glass bottle.  It sloshes promisingly as he raises it.

“Vodka,” he announces.  “Brewed it myself in the alchemy labs here.  It won’t stop you feeling the cold, but it’ll make you care about it less.”  He releases Jaskier so he can open it, taking a hearty swig before handing it to the bard.

The smell is enough to make Jaskier’s eyes water, but he is cold enough to take a mouthful.  Lambert is right.  Drink enough of that and you won't care about anything ever again.

“May I suggest,” Lambert shivers.  “That if you insist on staying out here, we move along a bit to that handy brazier?”

“You don’t have to stay.”  Jaskier eyes him suspiciously.  Lambert was the very last of the witchers Jaskier would have expected to extend the metaphorical olive branch. 

Lambert doesn’t reply, just stamps his feet to get some warmth into them. After a moment, he stalks along the wall to light a fire in the nearby brazier, sighing in relief as he holds his hands up to the flame.  When he realises that Jaskier still has hold of his booze, he gestures impatiently for the god to join him.

“Do you know how I came to Kaer Morhen?” he asks after gulping down a good fifth of the bottle.

Jaskier shakes his head.

“My dearest fucking father handed me over to become a witcher without a second of hesitation.”  Lambert’s tone is filled with bitterness.  It seems this is a long-carried wound, one he’s been constantly picking at instead of letting time scab it over.

Jaskier takes the bottle for another drink instead of replying, encouraging Lambert to carry on.

“He was a drunk, and a mean one at that.  Beat me and my mam bloody most nights.  I kept trying to convince her we should leave, but she was too scared about what he’d do if he caught up with us.

“We almost got lucky.  The bastard was attacked by a monster when he was stumbling home one night.  Except, because the world’s sense of humour fucking sucks, a witcher stepped in to save him.  Course, my da can’t pay him, because he’s spent every copper we have on liquor.”  Lambert goes to take another drink, but he must realise the irony of drinking his own homebrewed booze when complaining about his drunk father, because the bottle stops just short of his mouth.

“So, he pulls that old trick Geralt is so fond of.”

“Law of Surprise?” Jaskier guesses correctly.

“Fucking right.  ‘Give me the first thing you see when you return home.’” Lambert laughs derisively.

“Should have been Ma.  She was the one pacing up and down the house, fretting, waiting for him to get back.  She heard his footsteps and started towards the door, but I leapt in front of her and opened it first.  Wanted to protect her, just in case he came in swinging again.

“He grabbed me by the collar, shoved me at the witcher and shut the door in our faces.  And Karl, the witcher, he was one of those mean bastards that ruined the reputation of witchers all across the Continent.  Beat me black and blue all the way to Kaer Morhen for slowing him down, then dumped me on the doorstep before he buggered off.”

Fuck. 

No wonder Lambert’s so prickly. 

“You know what the worst part is?”

Jaskier’s heart sinks as he realises the story is going to get even worse.

“I enjoyed my first few years here.  Yeah, the training was hard, but when someone hit me, I got to hit them back.  I was surrounded by boys my age, and most of them had pasts similar to mine.  I made friends

“But, they don’t bloody well spend all those years training you, then offer you the choice of participating in the Trials.

“First up, is the Trial of the Grasses.  They tie you down and inject you with the witcher mutagens.  Then you spend the next several days screaming and writhing in agony.  Fever, delusions, vomiting and haemorrhaging.  They just leave you there in your own filth until your body either adapts to survive, or you die, twisted, shriveled and deformed from the torture they just put you through.  Three in ten is the official statistic, but only six out of the thirty boys in my group made it out alive.”

Jaskier’s eyes burn with unshed tears that no one else will ever spill for those poor boys.

“And then they start work on your eyes with The Trial of the Dreams.  You see, they change shape and colour during the first trial, but our vision is shit.  So, they improve it.  Make it so we can see better than your average human and can see in the dark.  They make sure we’re sterilised while they’re at it.  Most of us already were after the first Trial, but they have to make sure.  Just one more choice taken away from us.

“I mean, I’d make a shit father and I can’t stand kids, but that should have been my choice to make.”

Jaskier doesn’t believe that for a second.  He wants to hold Lambert’s head under the water most days for the language he uses in front of Ciri, but even he cannot deny how good Lambert is with her.  He acts impatient and grumpy, but he’ll stay with her, repeating a move over and over again until she can do it well enough to satisfy them both.  And while he dispenses with table manners himself, he always scolds her when she tries to eat with her elbows resting on the table.

Lambert would probably be a good enough father, maybe even a great one.

“Then,” Lambert continues, unaware of the complicated feelings in Jaskier’s heart,  “If that weren’t enough, there’s the final Trial.  A kind of test, where they send us further up into the mountains, where it’s full of monsters, and see if we’ve learned enough to make it back alive.  I lost two more friends to that.”

“I’m…” Jaskier begins, voice thick with tears.

“Don’t say you’re sorry!” Lambert snaps.  “I didn’t say all that for sympathy.  I have a fucking point to make.

“The point is, that during all that, no one ever stood up for me.  No one thought to yell at the trainers that this wasn’t right.  No one cared that the training was brutal and deadly.  None of us had a parent willing to fight the witchers for us.  Most of us were given up without struggle or protest.”

He stares Jaskier straight in the eye, not making any attempt to hide his expression, his thoughts and feelings on full display.  He is openly admiring the River god.

“You did.  You were willing to rain hell down upon us when we fucked up, because she’s your daughter. 

“It doesn’t matter to you that she’s Geralt’s Child Surprise.  As far as any witcher is concerned, that gives him more rights than you.”  He laughs at Jaskier’s involuntary snarl.  “But you’ll set them straight.  You’ll protect her from anything.  Even us.”

“Damn right!”

Lambert salutes him with the bottle and takes one more gulp before giving it to Jaskier to drain.

“You’re not too bad for a god,” he declares.

“You’re not too bad for an arsehole,” Jaskier shoots back.  Not his best comeback, but that vodka was strong, and his head definitely feels a bit fuzzy.

Lambert roars with laughter as though Jaskier’s the greatest wit he’s ever met, so the witcher must be just as affected by the potent liquor.

“Can we go inside now, or are you still sulking?”

Jaskier hesitates, mind replaying the last thing he said to Geralt and guilt starts to gnaw at his insides, no doubt helped by the alcohol eroding his stomach lining.

He shouldn’t have accused Geralt of not caring for Ciri.  He knows that isn’t true. 

Geralt is still a complete idiot , and he still lied (even if it was only by carelessness and omission) but Jaskier should not have thrown Geralt’s reluctance to tear a young princess away from her family in his face like that.  Not in front of everyone.

“The others won’t give you a hard time,” Lambert assures him, misreading his reluctance. 

“Is Geralt there?”

“Nah, he skulked in about ten minutes before I came up here and went straight to his room.”

Jaskier nods and squares his jaw.  He needs to talk to Geralt.  Alone.

He gives Lambert a nod of thanks and makes his way apprehensively to his and Geralt’s room.  He hesitates for a moment outside (should he knock?) before deciding he is being foolish and pushing the door open. 

Geralt is sitting in front of the fire, head bent studiously over his sword, whetstone gripped tightly in his right hand.  Jaskier can see how white his knuckles are as the River god enters.  Both of them remain stock still, neither sure how to break the impasse.

“Geralt,” Jaskier eventually breaks the silence.  “Please look at me.”

The witcher shakes his head.

Please ,” Jaskier repeats.

Very slowly, with obvious reluctance, Geralt raises his head.  The witcher looks haunted.  Pain and regret are written into every line of his face.  From the furrowed line of his brow to the stressed crinkles at the corner of his eyes and down to the pronounced frown lines marring his handsome mouth.

“I’m…” his voice cuts off and he is forced to cough, clearing his throat of the emotions clogging it.  What idiots keep spouting that old ‘witchers don’t feel’ line?  Feelings are overwhelming this particular witcher.

“I’m sorry,” Geralt chokes out.

“Me too,” Jaskier admits.

Geralt looks at him in shock, then shakes his head mulishly. 

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for, Jaskier.  I’m the one-”

“Who loves our daughter, and I should never have implied otherwise.”

“I hurt her, Geralt’s voice cracks, and any lingering anger Jaskier has been feeling dissipates in this moment.  In the face of Geralt’s own self-loathing, he cannot bear to add any more to his witcher’s burden.  He wants to shoulder his share and split Geralt’s heavy load between them.

He falls to his knees in front of his lover and gently sets Geralt’s sword to the side.  He settles into the space left behind, between the witcher’s knees and reaches up to wind his arms around Geralt’s neck.  The witcher is forced to bend forward to accept the embrace, as Jaskier rests his forehead against Geralt’s jaw.

“You didn’t mean to,” he whispers.  “And we caught it in time.  She’s going to be fine .”

“I should have told you what we were feeding her.”  Geralt is trembling against him.

“Why didn’t you?”

“I didn’t think .  Those herbs were just what you ate at Kaer Morhen if you were training.  I didn’t realise it was something I should have told you.  I swear Jaskier, I didn’t know.”

Jaskier hushes him, unwinding one arm so he can cup Geralt’s face, stroking his thumb along the witcher’s cheekbone, Lambert’s tale of broken and bleeding boys still haunting him.

Of course, Geralt hadn’t seen an issue with what he did.  He didn’t know what a normal childhood felt like; he had nothing to compare with his own brutal upbringing.  Jaskier can’t help but imagine a small, vulnerable Geralt being strapped down, forced to mutate or die.  No one fought for Geralt.  Just as no one fought for Lambert.

“I love you,” he breathes into Geralt’s skin.  He needs his witcher to know this.  Neither of them have said it before.  They haven’t needed to.  Geralt had willingly bound himself to Jaskier when he lured Jaskier into taking a swim with him in their river.  It was a gesture that went beyond any words. 

But he needs to say it now.  Needs Geralt to hear his love. 

One of Geralt’s hands comes up to clasp the one against his face, anchoring Jaskier to him.

“You messed up,” Jaskier confirms, pulling his head away from Geralt’s jaw so they can look at each other.  “But I still love you.  And I know you love Ciri.”

Dry lips brush against his palm as Geralt turns his head.  “Not just Ciri.”  His words are muffled by Jaskier’s hand.

“I know,” Jaskier smiles at him, though Geralt can’t see it.  His eyes are closed as he breathes in the scent of Jaskier’s skin.

Ina’s last words to him echo through the bard’s mind.

“Geralt,” he begins hesitantly.  “Ina said something strange.”

An amber eye cracks open to peer at him incredulously.  “You want to talk about your sister now ?”

Jaskier flicks Geralt’s nose with his thumb and middle finger, enjoying the look of startled outrage this action earns him.  Geralt almost looks cute when Jaskier manages to surprise and bewilder him.

“She said I should ask you about the last conversation you had with her if I wanted to know… how much you love me.”

Geralt looks distinctly embarrassed.  Jaskier is intrigued.

“Must I?” Geralt pleads, pulling Jaskier up and onto his lap.  He wraps his arms around the bard’s waist and hides his face in Jaskier’s shoulder.

“Yes,” Jaskier informs him emphatically.

Geralt sighs and begins unlacing Jaskier’s fur-lined winter doublet.  It’s a good thing he does, because between the fire and Geralt’s unnaturally hot body, Jaskier is beginning to feel uncomfortably warm.

“It was after the mountain but before I found you in Lettenhove.”  Jaskier nods and helps Geralt slide the doublet off his shoulders.  The witcher raises his head only long enough to remove it, before burying his face back into Jaskier’s shirt.  Sword-calloused fingers reach for his wrist and begin undoing the small fiddly buttons that prevent his sleeves from riding up his arms.

“I missed you, but I was still paranoid about my feelings.  About what was real.”

Jaskier does his best to brush away the hurt that admission can still bring.  Geralt worked it out eventually.  That’s what matters.

“Your sister wasn’t impressed.  She made me summarise what it was about you that I loved the most.”

Geralt’s managed to roll up his sleeve and is running his mouth up his arm, leaving ardent kisses in his wake.  Jaskier scarcely dares to breathe.  Geralt has proven himself to be surprisingly adept at physical affection, but words like the ones he’s speaking now are much more rare.

“What was your answer?” he prompts breathlessly, when Geralt does nothing but continue to press kisses to the inside of his elbow.

Geralt mumbles something against his skin that Jaskier almost doesn’t make out.

“What?” he exclaims, wresting his arm from Geralt’s grip.  “My forearms ?  What’s so special about them?  Surely my voice or my smile should be my most attractive feature.  Lots of people have said so.”

No !” Geralt growls, seizing back the arm he’d just lost and sucking a bruise onto the skin halfway up said forearm.  “Those are for everyone to love. This,” he shakes the arm, “is mine .  You use these to look after me .  No one else.  I’m the only one you roll up your sleeves for!”

Jaskier is not sure he fully understands, but decides he will examine that declaration later, because Geralt has stood up, Jaskier still in his arms, and is moving towards the bed.

Jaskier is dropped onto the mattress with a soft thump and then Geralt is on him, kissing him hungrily as he rolls up the other sleeve of Jaskier’s shirt.

He pulls back suddenly, causing Jaskier to let out a pathetic whine of protest.  But it’s only so he can divest himself of his own clothing, before yanking Jaskier’s boots, socks, trousers and underwear off with brutal efficiency.  Jaskier tries to help, sitting up slightly and reaching an arm over his shoulder to yank his shirt off over his head, but Geralt’s hands are on his chest, pushing him back down.

“I want it left on,” the witcher confides, eyes burning as they take in the sight of Jaskier, flushed and panting, in only his shirt with the sleeves rolled up. 

Jaskier thinks he’s losing his mind because the next few moments are a blur of kisses and caresses.  Somehow, Geralt must find the oil without him noticing, because Jaskier’s not aware of any kind of preparation going on until Geralt straddles him and, oh fuck , sinks down onto him, leaving the River god to clutch the witcher’s hips for dear life. 

Geralt, his stoic, serious love, grins down at him like a schoolboy who’s successfully left an agitated frog trapped in the drawer of his least favourite teacher’s desk.  His eyes sparkle with uncommon mischief as he grabs Jaskier’s wrists and pins them with one hand above Jaskier’s head.

Jaskier groans, fingers flexing automatically as he tries to get hold of any part of Geralt.

Please,” he begs, and Geralt must be feeling at least slightly merciful, because he begins to move.

It’s safe to say Jaskier doesn’t last long.  He can’t.  Not when Geralt’s above him like this.  Riding him.  Jaskier is only a simple River god after all, and Geralt plays dirty (grinding down onto him with sinful twists of his hips and bending forwards to leave more bruises and bite marks all across Jaskier’s forearms).

Geralt doesn’t seem to mind (seems positively smug) as he brings himself to completion while Jaskier lies dazed and panting underneath him.

His shirt is filthy, so Jaskier sees no problem in whipping it off to use as a rag to clean up the mess they’ve made.  It saves one of them from having to go and get the wash basin.

Once they’re relatively clean, Jaskier settles down and wraps his arms tightly around Geralt, letting the witcher rest his ear against Jaskier’s still fast-beating heart.

“Alright,” Jaskier concedes.  “I believe you.  You really do love my forearms.”

“Mmm…” Geralt is practically purring as Jaskier’s hand automatically comes up to stroke his hair, fingers scratching lightly over his scalp.  “Not just your arms.  I love all of you, my Kingfisher.”

Jaskier’s heart swells with this admission, and he buries his face in Geralt’s hair as the witcher’s slow breathing lulls him to sleep.

Two hours later he is rudely awakened as the walls begin to shake.

Chapter Text

Geralt has heard this scream only once before, just over thirteen years ago, at a betrothal feast.

It’s ear-splitting, haemorrhage inducing and incredibly powerful!  His brain feels like it’s trying to liquify and leak out of his ears.

There is only one person at the keep able to produce a scream like this.

Jaskier has fallen off the bed and, failing to stand, is crawling painfully slowly towards the door.  Geralt forces himself to stumble out of bed, the pressure of the scream almost forcing him to his knees.  He hauls Jaskier to his feet, and once he has the bard upright, they battle their way into the corridor.  Ciri’s room is two doors down from their own, and only jagged splinters remain of the heavy wooden door that previously barred the entrance.

Eskel and Vesemir can be seen shakily emerging from their own rooms while the sound of doors being wrenched open behind Geralt signals the emergence of Lambert and Coën.

But it’s Jaskier who reaches Ciri’s doorway first and throws himself bodily inside.  Tears are trickling down his cheeks with the effort required to stay standing, but he’s two steps ahead of his witcher who is struggling behind him.

Blood is beginning to drip from Geralt’s nose, and he can see the red trails dripping down the River god’s face.

Ciri lies asleep in her bed, trapped under a mass of blankets and furs that weigh her down, kicking and thrashing and screaming.  She does not wake to Jaskier’s hoarse cries of her name. 

He falls next to her bed and grasps her by the shoulders, hauling her upright and shaking her roughly until her eyes snap open and fix upon him. 

The screaming stops.

There is none of the warmth in those eyes that Ciri usually displays when looking at Jaskier.  They are cold, hard chips of emerald. Her lips curl in a mocking sneer.

You’ve taken on a new form, Pankratz.”

Geralt shudders.  The voice is harsh.  Inhuman. 

This is not Ciri speaking to them. 

He listens in sick fascination as the voice continues, poisonous words spewing from Ciri’s mouth. 

“I remember watching you writhe and scream when they poisoned your waters.  You begged me to release you from your torment and end your suffering. 

“Where was your courage then, Pankratz?”

Jaskier’s mouth trembles.  “I am not the Pankratz to whom you refer,” he tells the voice coldly.

“Yes you are, little River god.  You are the Pankratz.  You are the river.  All it is and all it was .  You may not remember me, little godling, but I remember you.  I can see you in whatever form you manifest.   It is all the same to me!

“Who are you?  What are you doing in my daughter?”  Jaskier asks furiously, but the voice ignores him.

“How does it feel to wear the rounded ears of your enemies, Oath Breaker?

“I was there when you went willingly into the river.  Before the magic of your sacrifice brought power to its waters. You swore to rid the land of the human vermin invading your home.  You failed , Oath Breaker.  They poisoned you , and your former people lost their glorious war.

“Now you have returned as one of those you hated .  Now you protect this human princess.”

Before Geralt’s eyes, Jaskier shifts.  The tops of his ears become pointed, his hair lightens to a white blonde and grows until it hangs poker straight just above his shoulders.  His face lengthens and  becomes more angular, while his torso narrows to become even leaner.  The only memorable feature remaining is his eyes, which remain the blue of his river on a sunny day.

Geralt’s seen this elf before. 

Only once and very briefly, when submerged in Jaskier’s river.  He’d seen a flash of this figure overlay Jaskier’s usual image, just for a moment. 

The first god of the Pankratz. 

“Leave the girl be!  I command you!”

Even his voice is different.  Deeper and with different inflections and rhythms.

“You have changed your tune, Oath Breaker.  You would have cut her down like a diseased dog in the street when you were alive.”

“Perhaps so.  But I’m not who I once was.  Now release her!”

Ciri slumps, going limp in Pankratz’s grasp, and falls calmly asleep once more.

Pankratz stands, and only now does Geralt realise neither he nor Jaskier had grabbed any clothes when they forced themselves out of their room.  Both he and the River god are naked and while the god is not shivering, Geralt is beginning to.

Eskel cautiously enters the room and, never taking his eyes off Pankratz, he grabs a spare blanket from the chair by the door and drapes it over Geralt’s shoulders.

“Our charge is very special.”  Pankratz gives Geralt a warm, loving smile.  It is Jaskier’s smile, but on someone else’s face. It makes the witcher intensely uncomfortable.

“Where is Jaskier?” he demands. 

“He’s safe in here,” the elven man taps a long finger to his temple.  “I had to force him back so that I could help the girl.”

“But you’re dead!”

“A river can never truly die while its waters continue to run.  When you next see her, please give Mama my love.”

Pankratz lets out a full body shudder and his features morph back into Jaskier’s.  The bard stumbles forward on his newly regained legs and Geralt lunges forward to catch him.  Confused eyes search his face.

“Geralt?  What happened?”  Jaskier’s eyes widen.  “Ciri!” he whirls back round towards the princess, but the young girl is breathing deeply in a peaceful sleep.

Jaskier spins back, looking deeply confused and still wobbly on his legs.

“Come on,” Geralt whispers urgently, tugging him to his chest so they’re both wrapped in the blanket.  “Let’s get dressed and then we’ll go and get a hot drink.”

He catches Coën’s eye over Jaskier’s head and the other witcher nods understandingly and grabs Lambert by the arm and ushers the others away. 

When they enter their room, Jaskier sinks down onto their bed, looking lost.

“Geralt, what happened to me?  That thing was speaking through Ciri and then everything went fuzzy.”

Geralt’s tugging on clothes, trying not to look at Jaskier as he struggles to decide whether he should say anything to him about Pankratz.  He doesn’t want to worry Jaskier.  Not when he’s going to be worrying more than enough about Ciri.

“Geralt!” Jaskier sounds terrified.  The witcher has taken too long to respond.

“You… changed.  Into Pankratz.  The first one.”

“But he’s dead!”

Geralt shrugs, unsure of what to say.  He gathers up Jaskier’s trousers and kneels by the bed to tug his legs through them and up his hips. 

“Could it…” he wonders how he should phrase this and buys himself some time by pulling Jaskier’s shirt down over his head and helping him battle with the sleeves.  Geralt looks wistfully at the marks he’d left on Jaskier’s pale skin, now covered up and hidden from view.  It had turned into such a good evening.

Jaskier had told him he loved him.  Geralt had been able to say it back. 

“Is it possible a fragment of him remains?  Almost like a shadow?”

“I don’t know.” Jaskier whispers, sounding very young and very frightened.  “No one talks about the dead River gods.”  His fingers pluck nervously at his clothes and Geralt grabs Jaskier’s lute and places it carefully into the god’s hands.  Plucking on the strings always helps calm Jaskier down.

“We should go and join the others.  We need to talk about Ciri.”

He grabs one of Jaskier’s hands, curling their fingers together, and leads the god, still clutching his lute, down to the kitchens.

Whatever the others have been discussing before their arrival is silenced the moment they hear Jaskier and Geralt’s footsteps.  Two mugs of Vesemir’s homegrown mint tea are waiting for them.

“What the fuck was that?”

You can always trust Lambert to cut straight to the point during an awkward moment.

“Ciri’s mother, Princess Pavetta, had similar powers.  It seems her daughter has inherited them.”  Jaskier ignores his drink, plucking distractedly on his lute in a discordant manner.  “She mentioned that they’d emerged during her escape from Cintra, but they’ve never appeared while she’s been with me.”

“This sort of thing is something we should have been told about before she made the whole keep shake,” Eskel growls at the bard, who ignores him, still focused on his lute.  Geralt glares at his brother, but Eskel brushes it off with a roll of his shoulder.

“He’s telling us now,” Lambert interjects, which surprises Geralt.  Lambert has been making snide comments about Jaskier ever since he arrived. 

“I don’t get it,” Coën interjects.  “If she’s magic, how come she can’t manage any of the signs.  I’ve tried teaching her Aard plenty of times, but she can’t manage a single puff of air.”  He sees Jaskier’s stern glance and realises that trying to teach Ciri the witcher signs was absolutely something he should have run past her father first.  He glances down guiltily.

“Perhaps her magic requires more finesse than the signs.  They are very rudimentary,” Vesemir suggests, stroking his chin thoughtfully.  “Jaskier, could you teach her magic?”

The bard shakes his head wearily, setting his lute aside and leaning into Geralt’s side.  The witcher wraps an arm around him and presses a kiss to the top of his head. 

“My magic is connected to my river and the worship I receive.  Ciri’s magic is different.  It’d be like trying to teach her to play the lute by using the bagpipes.”  Jaskier grabs the tea, takes a sip and pulls a face.  “Any chance we have something stronger?”

“I’ll get the ale,” Coën agrees readily.

“So, we need a mage then?” Eskel asks.

Jaskier stiffens and Geralt is suddenly hit with a flash of pain (right in the shoulder).  He tries not to retch as the metallic taste and smell of blood fills his senses. 

“No,” he grinds out through gritted teeth before Jaskier can raise his own objections.  “I don’t trust them.”

“I know some trustworthy ones.  Well one… Triss Merigold is decent for a sorceress.” Eskel offers.

“I said no,” Geralt snarls.  He feels sick, and he’s not sure how much of that is due to Jaskier’s feelings leaking through their bond, and how much is due to his own memories (Jaskier almost dead in his arms, vomiting black bile before vanishing into the river and away from Geralt). 

“No sorceresses,” Jaskier agrees firmly.  He reaches a trembling hand across the table to grab an ale that Coën has just set down. 

“We’ve just agreed that none of us here have the skills required to help her control her magic!” Eskel protests.  “We need a mage!”

He’s squaring up, readying himself for a fight, and Geralt is prepared to give him one.  Eskel may be his favourite brother, but he does not understand the torment Geralt underwent when he wandered for months, unsure if he’d ever see Jaskier again.  Unsure if he was even alive.  Looking back, Geralt can admit he was already in love with Jaskier back then, though not even torture would have got him to admit it.

He will do anything to protect Jaskier from another sorceress. 

Triss, from the brief time he’d spent with her, seemed nice (lovely even), but how would that change when faced with the temptation of Jaskier and his power?  He will not risk it, and he will not have Jaskier feel uncomfortable living here.

“There are some methods we can try before we have to seriously consider a mage,” Vesemir intervenes.  “Meditation techniques and such.  That’s with your permission of course,” he looks to Jaskier, the lesson they all received earlier well remembered.  Jaskier nods his agreement.

“Fine,” Eskel concedes, then squints suspiciously at the River god.  “So, what the hell happened to you?”

To Geralt’s shock, Eskel winces slightly as someone kicks him under the table.  But it wasn’t him or Jaskier, and Coën and Vesemir are seated too far away from Eskel to reach.  Which means it must be Lambert.

When has Lambert ever exercised diplomacy?  Geralt is missing something.

“That was my dead brother… in a manner of speaking.  More accurately, he’s a dead version of me.”  Jaskier drains his ale and swings his lute back around in front of him, playing a slightly mournful tune.

“How so?”  Vesemir has actually fished a piece of parchment out of his jerkin and is searching his pockets for a stick of charcoal.  Geralt has never seen his mentor behaving so shamelessly.  Even Eskel is looking embarrassed on the older witcher’s behalf.

Jaskier shrugs, pausing to tune one of the strings.  “There was a god of the Pankratz before me.  He fought against humans during the initial wars for territory, so they poisoned him.  Then my grandfather drowned me in a river several hundreds of years later and I became the new Pankratz in his place. 

“I guess the two of us are not as separate as I thought.  He’s never made his presence known before.  Not to my knowledge.”

It’s said with a forced casualness that fools no one.  Jaskier is upset by this development and does not wish to be questioned on it further.  Unfortunately, Vesemir is too busy looking down at his notes to pick up on the subtleties of Jaskier’s expression.

“Fascinating.  Has this happened to other Orisa?  Are there others, like you, who are the new gods of a river with a previously deceased god?  I wonder if it’s like a kind of subconscious, collective memory.  Even though you weren’t born until much later, the fact that your river has been around so long may give you memories to the past spanning farther back than your actual existence.  Perhaps we could test-”

“It’s late, old man,” Lambert complains.  “Some of us would like to get back to bed before sunrise.”

“Yeah,” Coën agrees.  “If Ciri’s still up for it, then I’m supposed to be running drills with her tomorrow morning.  I’m going to head to bed.”

“Same,” Geralt grunts, and takes the opportunity to haul Jaskier to his feet and chivvy him out of the kitchen.  “Good night,” he calls back over his shoulder.

He gets Jaskier back to their room and they sag together against the door in relief and exhaustion.

“Thank you,” Jaskier leans against him and tucks his head into the gap between Geralt’s shoulder and chin. 

“What for?”

“For coming to my defence when the others wanted to get a mage up here.  For not suggesting Yennefer.”

“I wouldn’t,” Geralt vows.  “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Still,” Jaskier shifts his head to press a kiss to Geralt’s willing lips.  “I appreciate it anyway.”

“I’m sorry about Eskel.”  Geralt pauses briefly.  “And Vesemir” he feels compelled to add.  “I’ll just save time and apologise for everyone here.”

Jasker smirks.  “Even Ciri?” 

“We’ve got months trapped in this keep together.  I’m sure she’ll find some way to irritate you by the end.”

“No doubt.  I’ve told her she’s got to attend lessons with me as well now.  Wait until I try and explain the tax systems of various countries to her.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s classed as a form of torture,” Geralt tells him, glad he’s not required to take these lessons.  As far as he’s aware, as a witcher, he’s tax exempt. 

“She’s going to need to consider such things.  She wants to retake Cintra,” Jaskier confides in a hollow voice and dread begins creeping into Geralt’s heart.  He may be teaching her how to fight and how to defend herself against a small group of armed opponents, but taking back a country is something else.  That requires war

He doesn’t want Ciri on a battlefield, in the midst of thousands of bodies, all with swords and hacking at each other.  He wants her safe

But Cintra is her birthright.  Does he have the right to deny her the attempt to take it back?

“My thoughts exactly,” Jaskier smiles ruefully, inspecting Geralt’s agonised expression.

He gathers Jaskier closer to him, clinging on as he fears for the future.

“We’ll help her,” he promises Jaskier.  “If that is what she wants, then we’ll make sure she lives to be the best queen Cintra’s ever seen.  More valiant than Calanthe.”

“Wiser too,” Jaskier agrees.  “More merciful as well.  She’ll be magnificent.”

They stay leaning at the door for a little while longer, until the cold seeps from the stones and into their bones.  They burrow under the bed covers together, wrapped in each other’s arms. 

“Geralt,” Jaskier murmurs sleepily.  “You don’t need to apologise for your family.  They’re not too bad I suppose.”

“Even Vesemir and Eskel?” Geralt has to check.

“Vesemir’s enthusiastic.  It’s a little… tiring at times, but he’s been welcoming.

“And Eskel…  loves you very much.  I can appreciate that he wants you to be safe.  We’re the same in that regard.”

“He’ll come round eventually,” Geralt promises.

“Mmmm…” Jaskier is already half asleep.  “Course he will.  I’m a delight.”