Actions

Work Header

We could be wolves

Chapter Text

Age 4

“There are wolves in the mountains,” Julian’s stepmother, Elisa, tells him one night when she’s tucking him into bed. She likes to tell stories on the nights where his father lets her.

“Wolves are scary.” He thinks of the stories he’s heard of wolves eating little girls who walk through the woods alone to visit their grandmothers and huffing and puffing to blow houses down.

She brushes his hair out of his eyes. “Not these wolves. They keep Lettenhove safe. They keep the whole Continent safe.”

That winter, Elisa dies giving birth to Julian’s little sister, Izabela, and no one will talk to Julian about the wolves anymore.

***

 

Age 6

The first time Julian meets one of the wolves who live on the mountain, he’s trying to sit very still at the dinner table. He gets rapped across the knuckles whenever he squirms too much or talks too loudly. Izabela is allowed to wriggle and babble, but she’s two, still a baby. Julian’s new stepmother, Marta, is as still and quiet as Julian is trying to be, one hand resting on her swollen belly.

“What do you want, witcher?” Julian’s father asks in a harsh voice. Julian tries not to flinch, because that voice isn’t directed at him, for once. “You’re interrupting our dinner.”

“You called about a wraith problem.” The wolf doesn't look like the wolf in Julian's book of fairy tales; he looks like a man, the largest man Julian’s ever seen, enormous and gray-haired with a scarred face and yellow eyes. There are two swords strapped to his back. Julian can’t stop staring.

“Out by the old temple. Surely you don’t need me to tell you what needs to be done.”

The wolf’s jaw clenches. Julian is very good at telling when people are angry, even when they're trying not to show it. He starts nervously fiddling with the gold ring on his finger, then stops. His father doesn’t like it when he takes the ring off and Julian doesn’t want to get hit with the belt again.

“Of course, my lord,” the wolf says.

“Then get to it.” Julian’s father waves an imperious hand.

The wolf leaves without another word.

***

It’s not the first time Julian has snuck out. The nice thing about no one wanting him around is that they don’t notice when he’s gone, especially if he waits until after he’s supposed to be asleep. He knows where the old temple is; it isn’t fair from their estate and Elisa took him there once on a walk. He misses Elisa. She had pretty blond hair and she smelled nice and she wouldn’t let his father hit him with the belt. For a second, Julian is so sad that he thinks he might cry, but then he remembers that he’s on his way to see the wolf fight a monster.

Something is screaming in the temple. The sound makes Julian shiver, but he keeps moving. He’s almost to the temple when one of the stone walls crumbles and the wolf comes flying out, landing in the debris with a groan. The thing that emerges from the temple is horrible. It looks like a woman, but with its skin gone. Julian can see its ribs under its thin white dress and its teeth are bared into a grimace.

Julian screams and both the wolf and the wraith look up. The wraith flies towards him and Julian can’t move. He can’t run. He can’t yell for help. He’s too scared. He squeezes his eyes shut and waits.

And then the shrieking abruptly stops. When Julian opens his eyes, the wraith is gone and the wolf is walking towards him.

“Alright, pup?” The wolf’s voice is low and gravelly.

Julian blinks. “Where did it go?”

“I incinerated the body,” the wolf says. “It’s gone. Are you hurt?”

Julian shakes his head. His eyes are starting to fill with tears, much to his embarrassment.

“Just scared?”

“I’m not scared. I’m six!”

“Of course not.” The wolf crouches down in front of him. “What are you doing out here?”

“I just wanted to see,” Julian says with a sniffle.

“You’re Lord Julian’s son, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

“Julian,” Julian whispers.

“Of course. All Julians in your family. I’m Vesemir. Let’s get you home.”

Julian takes a step, but his legs are all wobbly and he nearly falls. Vesemir scoops him up into his arms. Julian’s father has always told him that he’s too big to be held, but Vesemir doesn’t seem to have any trouble holding him. He smells like smoke and leather. Julian likes the smell. He decides that he likes Vesemir too.

“Are you a wolf?” he asks Vesemir. “I thought you’d be hairier.”

Vesemir chuckles, which Julian likes. When people laugh when Julian talks, they’re not normally so nice about it. “I’m a witcher from the School of the Wolf. We’re no more or less hairy than any other man.”

“What’s a witcher?”

“We fight monsters like that wraith.”

“Can I be a witcher?”

“No, pup. This isn’t the life for noble lads.”

Julian frowns. “But what if I don’t want to be a noble?”

“You’ll always have a warm bed and a full belly. That’s not something you should give up lightly.”

“I want to be a witcher or a bard. There was a bard at my father’s wedding last year and he wore a funny hat and had a nice voice. He got kicked out, though, because they caught him and my stepmother—”

Vesemir coughs. “You’ll make a fine Earl de Lettenhove one day.”

Julian frowns because he’s not sure exactly what he’ll do as the Earl de Lettenhove and he’s not sure if he wants to find out. From what he can tell, his father just yells at his steward a lot and makes Marta cry. “Maybe.”

He must fall asleep at some point, lulled by Vesemir’s warmth and his slow, steady strides. When he wakes up, he’s in his own bed.

The next day, when his father is done dolling out his punishment for sneaking out and Julian has new bruises on his back, the earl says, “You’re lucky, Julian. Witchers normally eat disobedient little boys.”

That doesn’t make any sense to Julian, because surely if Vesemir wanted to eat him, he would have taken Julian up the mountain when he asked.

His father’s lips twist into a nasty smile. “There’s a reason that most of the boys who go up the mountain don’t come down again.”

***

 

Age 7

Julian likes to wander, even when it earns him punishment. He gets bored easily, especially since his latest tutor left and his new little sister, Sonja, was born. Marta is already pregnant again and she’s so sick that Julian never sees her anymore. No one ever seems to notice Julian, unless he’s being bad, so he spends a lot of time sneaking into Lettenhove to see all his friends. He plays knucklebones with the village children. He convinces the baker to give him sweets. He watches the blacksmith at work, fascinated.

He also likes to wander around his family’s estate, especially the stables. As soon as he's taught how to ride horses, no one can keep him away from them. When he’s not sneaking the horses apples and carrots from the kitchens, he’s playing with the barn cats and following the stable master, Ben, around and asking him questions.

Vesemir is an occasional visitor to the stables, looking to purchase horses for the witcher school, and Jaskier is always thrilled when he shows up. Ben is always less thrilled. He’s never mean to Vesemir’s face, but as soon as the old witcher turns his back, Ben always spits and makes a sign to ward off the evil eye.

“Never let that freak get you alone, Julian,” he tells Julian once as soon as Vesemir leaves with two geldings. “They perform sick experiments on the boys up the mountain. Mark my words, nothing good happens up at that keep. The whole place should burn.”

Julian decides that he really doesn’t like Ben. That doesn’t stop him from spending his days in the stables though.

One summer morning, Julian is playing in the back garden when he spots a familiar piebald gelding trotting towards the stables. It’s Vesemir! Julian jumps to his feet to call out, but stops. Vesemir isn’t alone on the horse; there’s a boy in front of him. The boy is about Julian’s age, but smaller than Julian, and he’s holding a bucket of water in his lap. He has light brown hair, brown eyes, and a miserable expression on his face. Julian can’t figure out why the other boy looks so sad. He’s with Vesemir. He should be happy.

Julian has questions. So naturally, he decides to go get some answers.

***

The man’s eyes are yellow, with slitted pupils that remind Geralt of the old gray cat he and Ma used to have. The eyes are kind, even when the man is telling Geralt that Ma isn’t coming back for him. Geralt tries not to cry, because he’s seven, not a baby anymore, but he can’t stop the fat teardrops from running down his face. Ma sent him to get water, so he got her water. Did he not get her enough? Was he too slow? He hasn’t let go of the bucketful of water, even though his arm is sore and his hand hurts from clutching it.

The man doesn’t say anything as they ride through a town. It’s loud and dirty and Geralt doesn’t like it at all. People glare at them as they pass and Geralt feels himself shrinking back into Vesemir.

“It’s alright, pup,” Vesemir says softly in his ear. “Nothing to be afraid of.”

Geralt feels afraid of everything right now. Even when they ride out of the town, he’s still shaking. They ride until they get to a big house. Geralt looks up at it with wide-eyed wonder, but the horse trots right by the house, past green fields filled with more horses. Geralt cheers up slightly at the sight of a baby horse with its mother, then remembers his own mother leaving him. Tears start threatening again and he sniffs them back.

“Here, pup.” Vesemir pulls his horse to a stop in front of a stable and helps Geralt down. “I need to see a man about a horse. Wait here. Don’t go wandering off.”

“Yes, sir.” Geralt’s voice wavers. He can feel snot running from his nose, so he wipes it away. Vesemir goes inside and he hears the rumble of another man’s voice, sounding annoyed. Geralt presses his back against the wall and waits, squeezing his eyes shut to keep back the tears.

“Why are you crying?” a voice asks.

Geralt opens his eyes and finds himself face-to-face with a pudgy dark haired boy with big blue eyes. The boy is standing very close to Geralt.

“Are you crying because you spilled your water? Because there’s a well nearby.”

Geralt looks down and sees that the bucket tipped sideways in his grasp and is only half-full now. He can feel the tears threatening again.

“Or are you crying because you’re scared of Vesemir?” the boy asks. “Because you shouldn’t be. He’s nice. He came to my house last year because there was a wraith killing people in the woods. My father says he’s a mutant freak, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m Julian, by the way. What’s your name?”

“Geralt.”

“That’s a good name. I don’t really like the name Julian. It’s my father’s name. And my grandfather’s name. And probably my great-grandfather’s name, but I never met him. That’s too many Julians.”

Geralt just blinks at him.

“You shouldn’t be scared of Vesemir,” Julian says. “Witchers don’t actually eat little boys. Vesemir didn’t eat me when I followed him into the woods to watch him kill the wraith. He even carried me home.”

“Julian.” It’s Vesemir’s voice. Geralt flinches in surprise, spilling more water. “Did you wander away again?”

Julian beams up at Vesemir. “I saw you coming! You need to tell Geralt that witchers don’t eat little boys. I think he’s scared. I don’t want Geralt to be scared. He’s my new best friend.”

Geralt doesn’t know what he did to earn the title of Julian’s best friend. Whatever he did, he kind of wishes he could undo it.

“Witchers don’t eat children,” Vesemir says. “Geralt is going to come to Kaer Morhen to become a witcher, like me.”

Geralt looks up at Vesemir. He’s enormous, with armor and two swords strapped to his back. Geralt doesn’t think he’ll ever be that big or that strong.

“Will you kill wraiths too?” Julian asks Geralt.

Geralt shakes his head. “I don’t want to kill anything.”

“That’s silly.” Julian wrinkles his nose. “Wraiths are scary and they kill people. I want to be a witcher, but my father says I can’t because I’m a viscount.”

“What’s a viscount?” Geralt asks.

“I don’t know. It means I have to learn how to sit properly and what fork to use and pay attention in all my lessons, even though they’re boring.”

Geralt doesn’t know what to say to that, but before he can decide, a large, warm hand rests on his shoulder. “It’s time for me to take Geralt up the mountain, Julian,” Vesemir says. “And it’s time for you to run on home.”

Julian sticks his lower lip out in a pout. “But home is boring!”

“Straight home.”

“Okay.” Julian draws the word out into a whine, but then he smiles at Geralt. “Nice meeting you, Geralt. Maybe next time I see you, you’ll be a witcher!”

And then he turns and runs back towards the big house, leaving Geralt staring after him in befuddlement.

“Come on, pup.” Vesemir squeezes his shoulder again. “Let’s get you back to the keep.”

***

 

Age 10

Most of the time, Julian isn’t sure what he does to make his father so angry. Sometimes it’s the way he sits. Humming to himself during dinner. Being caught playing with kittens in the stables. But usually, all Julian has to do to make his father angry is exist as the part-elf bastard his father never wanted. And since the Earl is on his third wife, Hanna, and only has two daughters, a half dozen stillborn children, and two wives dead in childbirth to show for it, Julian is the only heir, which makes his father hate him even more.

He knows he’s not supposed to take off the gold ring that he wears on his right hand, but it’s grown too tight. The night is a warm, sticky one and the ring is uncomfortable. Julian only plans on taking it off for a minute as he sits in the back garden, away from the prying eyes of his family and the servants.

But of course, his father chooses that minute to come outside.

It’s not the worst beating Julian has ever gotten, but it leaves him with a bruised back and a split lip. As usual, it’s his father’s words that leave the worst marks. Useless. Lazy. Stupid. Soft. Good for nothing. Mongrel. Half-breed. Nothing that Julian hasn’t heard before, but every lobbed insult is like a blow.

“Should have sent you up the mountain to die as soon as you were born,” is the last thing his father snarls at him before he leaves Julian kneeling among the flowerbeds.

Julian has never done what his father wants a single day in his life. But as he tastes the blood from his split lip, he decides that if his father wants him to go up the mountain, that’s exactly what he’ll do.

***

The Trial of the Grasses ended two days ago and Geralt can still hear the screams. For a week, the screaming and sobbing echoed through Kaer Morhen ceaselessly. He kept thinking that the boys’ vocal cords had to tire out eventually, but they never did. Thirteen boys went into that room and only five came out, and that was a good year, according to the masters.

But Markus, who was always kind to Geralt, who stopped the bigger boys from picking on him and comforted him when he was punished for daydreaming when he was supposed to be learning how to hold a sword, was one of the eight who didn’t make it. Geralt couldn’t look at the body when it was loaded onto the pyre and set aflame.

“Markus was too gentle for this life,” Geralt overheard Vesemir tell Varin, and he went cold all over. Because Varin has told Geralt the same thing over and over again. Geralt is too gentle. Too soft. Too weak.

In eight years, he’ll undergo the Trial of the Grasses, and he’ll die just like Markus. Geralt doesn’t want to die. He wants to go home to his Ma, even if she doesn’t want him anymore.

The boys are warned that the mountain is dangerous at night, but it can’t be any more dangerous than staying at Kaer Morhen and letting them kill him. He slips out of the bunks in the dead of night. He almost wakes Eskel up to say goodbye, but then Eskel will want to come with him, and that won’t be fair to Eskel, who is the best student in their cohort. Geralt won’t ask Eskel to give up the future he was born for.

So Geralt descends the mountain alone in the dead of night, taking nothing but a dagger and the clothes on his back. He tries not to think of the things the witchers say lurk on the mountain. He knows that one of the older boys, Henrick, tried to escape before the Trials and was brought home in pieces, torn apart by a forktail. He didn’t get a pyre; his body was thrown into an unmarked grave. Geralt is small, the smallest in his cohort. If a forktail gets him, there probably won’t be enough of him for even an unmarked grave.

He hears a rustling in the bushes and he freezes. His grip on his dagger tightens. There’s another rustle, then the sound of heavy breathing.

“Who’s there?” Geralt demands, trying to make his voice sound deep and commanding, like Vesemir’s. Instead, it sounds like he has a head cold. He’ll have to work on that.

The rustling abruptly stops.

Geralt reaches into the bush, finds a fistful of silk, and yanks.

“Ow!” The voice is young and human. The boy is about Geralt’s age, but he still has puppy fat clinging to his cheeks. The moon is full tonight, allowing just enough light for Geralt to make out dark hair and wide blue eyes. The boy is wearing fine silks and carrying a knapsack over one shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” Geralt demands. Even though the other boy is bigger and taller than Geralt, Geralt has no doubt he could take him in a fight. Everything about this boy is soft.

To his surprise, a wide smile spreads over the boy’s face. “Geralt!”

When the boy throws his arms around Geralt, Geralt quickly has to withdraw his dagger to avoid impaling him.

“I asked Vesemir about you the last time I saw him and he said you were doing fine and nobody ate you and you eventually stopped crying. But he doesn’t come around as much anymore, not since my father wouldn’t pay him for killing a rusalka. I haven’t seen him in ages.”

Something about the combination of the earnest smile on the other boy’s face and the rapid-fire speech stirs something in Geralt’s memory. “Julian?”

Julian nods so eagerly that his entire body bounces with it.

“What are you doing here?” The people of Lettenhove never come up the mountain. Most of them like to pretend that Kaer Morhen and its inhabitants don’t exist, even though Vesemir and some of the older boys go down to the village once a month for supplies.

Julian puffs out his chest. “I’m here to become a witcher!”

Geralt stares at him. “No you’re not.”

“Why not?” Julian looks hurt.

“I just found you hiding in the bushes.”

“Because I heard something coming! I didn’t know it was you.”

“Witchers don’t hide when they hear something coming.” Fury surges through Geralt at this soft, stupid boy with his stupid clothes and his stupid smile. “You wouldn’t survive training.”

“Yes, I would!”

“Bullshit,” Geralt snarls and Julian steps back. “Do you know what they do to turn you into a witcher? They give you a potion that makes your insides melt. Almost everyone dies. If you seriously want this, then you’re an idiot.”

Julian’s eyes go wide. “It’ll still be better than home.”

For the first time, Geralt notices the line of dark red on the other boy’s lower lip. It’s an injury he’s familiar with; his lip has been split during sparring many times. He feels sick at the sight.

“It may be bad, but it won’t kill you,” Geralt mutters. “But the Trials will. Go away.”

“Is that why you’re running away?” Julian asks.

Geralt is glad it’s dark so Jaskier won’t see his cheeks color. He doesn’t answer.

Julian crosses his arms over his chest. “Why did you come here if you didn’t want to be a witcher?”

Geralt glares at the other boy. “I didn’t have a choice. None of us did.”

Julian opens his mouth to reply, but is cut off by a snarl from the bushes that raises every hair on Geralt’s body. Slowly, he turns. A hulking figure is moving towards them, its features obscured by the darkness. All Geralt can see is that it’s big and it walks on four legs.

“Is that a wolf?” Julian’s voice shakes.

“Not a wolf.” Geralt watches in horror as the creature rises to stand on two legs. “A werewolf.”

“What do we do?”

They die, Geralt thinks, though he doesn’t say it aloud. All he has is his dagger, which isn’t even silver, and he doubts Julian thought to bring a weapon. They’re not going to survive this fight. The werewolf is going to tear them to shreds.

“We should run.” Julian grabs his hand.

Geralt doesn’t have a better plan, so he turns to flee, dragging Julian behind him. They crash through woods. Geralt can’t tell if the werewolf is following them; all he can hear is his heart thundering in his ears and the whistle of Julian’s breathing. Suddenly, Julian screams and his hand jerks out of Geralt’s. Geralt whirls around to see the werewolf has Julian by the ankle and is dragging the struggling boy backwards.

Geralt reacts without thinking and hurls the knife at the werewolf. The blade embeds itself in the monster’s shoulder. The werewolf roars with rage, releasing Julian’s ankle, and lunges at Geralt. Geralt finds himself pinned to the ground under the werewolf’s bulk, with a clawed hand wrapped around his throat. Its breath smells like rancid meat. Maybe this is a kinder death than the Trials, but it’s hard to be reassured by that when he’s trapped and mindless with fear.

“Let him go!” Something strikes the werewolf in the back of the head and it releases Geralt. Julian stands behind it, holding a tree branch that’s longer than he is tall. When the werewolf turns on him, he flinches, but he doesn’t try to flee. He holds the ridiculously large branch like a club, but he has to know as well as Geralt does that he doesn’t stand a chance.

The werewolf takes a step towards Julian and Geralt lunges, leaping onto the monster’s back. He grasps the hilt of the knife that’s still sticking out of the werewolf’s shoulder, but before he can tug it free, the werewolf seizes him by the arm and throws him. Geralt lands on top of Julian and they both go sprawling to the ground. Geralt hears the werewolf howl behind him and throws himself over Julian’s chest and head, trying to block the other boy as much as he can with his skinny frame. Over the werewolf’s howls and his own thundering heartbeat, he doesn’t hear the hoofbeats approaching.

And then the werewolf’s howl ends in a choked off whimper and there’s a wet thunk. Shaking, Geralt looks up to find Vesemir dismounting from his horse to stand over the werewolf’s corpse, a blood-slicked silver sword in his hand. Behind him, Varin sits astride his own horse.

“Are either of you hurt?” Vesemir asks.

Geralt shakes his head, just as Julian cries, “Geralt, your neck is bleeding!”

Geralt reaches up and touches his neck. His fingers come back slick with blood. “Oh.”

“Oh?” Julian sits up, nearly throwing Geralt off of him. “Are you dying? Are you going to turn into a werewolf? Can werewolves be witchers?”

“He’s not going to turn into a werewolf, pup,” Vesemir says gently. “Bites and scratches don’t transmit the werewolf curse. It’s a myth. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Would serve him right, though,” Varin snarls. He reeks of vodka. “Cowardly little shit. What did you think you were doing, running down the mountain in the middle of the night?”

“Varin, I’ll talk about this with Geralt when we get back to the keep,” Vesemir says calmly.

“I say we let him keep going down the mountain. He wants to run away, he can run away. See how long he lasts in the real world.”

Geralt feels perilously close to crying. He hasn’t cried since his first night at Kaer Morhen. He quickly learned that such displays of weakness aren’t tolerated. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, clambering to his feet.

“Sorry? Your brothers’ funeral pyres are still warm and you shame their memory like this?” Varin jumps down from his horse and lurches towards Geralt, hand raised.

“Stop!” Julian stands up and pulls Geralt back, like he honestly thinks he can protect Geralt from a full-grown witcher’s wrath. “He saved my life.”

“And who the hell are you?” Varin demands.

Julian puffs out his chest. “Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove.” Somehow, he manages to make his squeaky little voice sound authoritative.

“Viscount or not, you listen to me, you little shit—”

Vesemir steps between his fellow swordmaster and the two boys.“I’m sure the Earl de Lettenhove will handle his own son’s discipline.” Just like that, Julian deflates. Something flickers in the old witcher’s expression and he says, “Varin, take Geralt back up the mountain. I’ll be escorting young Julian home.”

Geralt cringes. He doesn’t want to be left alone with Varin. Julian seems to be thinking the same thing, because he reaches out and takes Geralt’s hand. Geralt looks down at the hand holding his in mild bewilderment. Julian’s hands are very soft. He’s wearing a ring and the metal is warm against Geralt’s palm.

“I don’t answer to you, Vesemir,” Varin snaps.

“You also don’t want to make an enemy of me.”

Vesemir and Varin stare each other down. “I’ll be talking to Rennes about this,” Varin grumbles finally.

“Feel free.” Vesemir turns to Geralt. “You’re to go straight to bed as soon as you get back to Kaer Morhen. You and I will talk in the morning.”

“Yes, sir,” Geralt says meekly.

Vesemir reaches out and clasps Geralt on the shoulder. “I’m glad you’re alright, but there will be consequences for this. You could have gotten yourself and Julian killed. Julian, what on earth are you doing here anyway?”

“Oh, I ran away from home to become a witcher,” Julian says brightly. “Though I don’t know if I want to be a witcher anymore. I don’t really like werewolves, and witchering probably involves a lot of werewolves.”

Varin snorts and casts a disdainful glance in Geralt’s direction. “He wouldn’t be the worst student in the keep.”

Vesemir sighs. “Come on, Julian.”

Geralt’s eyes meet Julian’s. “Thank you,” he says quietly. He’s not sure what exactly he’s thanking Julian for. Distracting the werewolf with the branch? Protecting him from Varin? Being kind to him, when Geralt himself hasn’t been very kind?

Julian squeezes his hand and smiles. “What are friends for?”

***

“Why do you want to be a witcher, Julian?” Vesemir asks as he ties his horse to the front gate of the Pankratz estate.

Julian shrugs, embarrassed. After coming face to face with the werewolf, it all seems like a silly dream. And with every step they get closer to his house, the more he dreads what he’ll have to face inside. “My father told me he should have sent me up the mountain to die when I was born.”

“Is that why you wanted to come up the mountain? To die?”

“No!” Julian shakes his head. “ I don’t want to die, I just want to make a difference. I want to see the world outside Lettenhove.”

“Pup.” Vesemir crouches down so they’re at eye-level. “There are easier ways to see the world than becoming a witcher. Have you ever heard of the Trial of the Grasses?”

Julian shakes his head.

“It’s the procedure that gives us our mutations. Every four years, a group of trainees undergo it and only three in ten survive. The most recent Trials finished two days ago and we lost eight boys.”

Julian swallows. “Why?”

“Because that’s what must be done to turn us into witchers,” Vesemir says. “To face some of the things we face, we need to be near-invincible and that doesn’t come easy. This life is a lonely, violent one. Every year, we lose more of our brothers to monsters or human treachery. We’re despised by most of the humans we protect. Witchers are necessary to keep the Continent safe. That being said, I sincerely hope to live to see a day where we’re not needed anymore and we can stop putting young men through the Trials.”

Julian thinks of Geralt, with his sad dark eyes and his serious face. "I hope so too."

Vesemir smiles grimly. “You will make a difference someday, pup. But don’t try to sneak up the mountain in the middle of the night anymore. There are worse things than werewolves out there.”

“Okay.” Julian nods.

As they approach the front door of his house, Julian can feel his shoulders creeping up towards his ears. The guard on duty is watching them with an exasperated expression.

“What did he do now?” the guard asks Vesemir, ignoring Julian entirely.

Vesemir looks down at Julian, his eyes focusing on the cut on Julian’s lip. He turns to the guard and makes a complicated sign in the air. “You’re going to bring Julian to his room. Make sure you’re not seen. You’ll tell no one about this. Understood?”

The guard’s face goes slack and he mumbles, “Understood.”

Julian gapes at Vesemir. “What was that?”

“Axii. Best go with him before it wears off. I never quite mastered using it on humans. Much easier on horses.”

“Thank you,” Julian whispers.

Vesemir squeezes his shoulders. “Your father isn’t happy with his life, Julian. Don’t let him make you unhappy with yours too.”

***

No one will talk to Geralt the day after his attempted escape. The other students and the masters act like he doesn’t exist, except for the occasional whisper of “coward” and “deserter.” Even the healer who stitches up the cut on his neck left by the werewolf doesn’t say a word to him, wearing a disgusted expression on her face the entire time she works. Eskel is the only one who will talk to him, even if he’s just as angry at Geralt as everyone else.

“You could have died,” he tells Geralt during their morning sparring session. “They never found the forktail that killed Henrick. You’re lucky all you ran into was a werewolf.”

Geralt doesn’t say anything. He can feel Varin’s eyes boring into the back of his head.

Eskel lowers his voice. “Why didn’t you take me with you?”

Geralt looks up at the bigger boy with wide eyes. Eskel is a year older than Geralt and can beat most of the trainees in a fight, even the boys in the older cohort. “Do you want to leave?”

“No,” Eskel says. “But I wouldn’t have let you go down the mountain by yourself. You shouldn’t have been alone.”

Before Geralt can process that Eskel would have given up being a witcher to protect him, Clovis comes up behind him and snarls in his ear, “Coward.”

Geralt tenses.

“Leave off, Clovis,” Eskel growls.

Clovis is a year younger than Geralt, but almost as big as Eskel. His freckled face is twisted into a sneer. “They should have let that werewolf eat you. Everyone knows you’re useless anyway. Is that why you ran? Because you know you won’t survive the Trials?”

Eskel turns on Clovis with a thunderous expression and Geralt resigns himself to having to back Eskel up in this fight, when Vesemir calls, “Enough, boys.”

None of them even noticed the old witcher approaching. Clovis and Eskel step away from each other hurriedly.

Vesemir stands at the edge of the training yard, arms crossed over his chest. “Geralt, a word.”

Geralt’s face heats with embarrassment as every boy in the yard turns to watch him follow Vesemir. Most of the gazes are hostile, but a few are pitying, which is worse. Neither Geralt nor Vesemir say a word as they make their way up to the top of the highest tower in the keep. If it were Varin, Geralt would think he was being brought here to be shoved off the roof. As it is, he keeps his distance from the edge as Vesemir surveys the scenery.

“You’ve done wrong, Geralt, but I think you already know that,” Vesemir says.

Geralt stares at the floor. It’s windy. That’s why his eyes are stinging. “Yes, sir.”

“Varin, Rennes, and I have decided that six months of stable duty are in order.”

It’s better than Geralt was expecting, to be honest. He was braced for privy duty.

“You aren’t the first boy to run, Geralt and you won’t be the last. But every single boy who has run and actually survived the trip down the mountain has come back. Do you know why?”

Geralt shakes his head.

“Because this is their home. And it’s yours too. I know it can be hard to remember that after the Trials, but these boys are your brothers.”

Geralt swallows. “I just don’t want to die.”

“Oh, pup,” Vesemir says gently. “No one does.”

***

 

Age 11

Over the following months, Geralt trains harder than ever. He’s still the smallest and skinniest of their cohort, but he learns to use that to his advantage. He even beats Eskel in a couple of matches, earning both Vesemir and Varin’s praises. He may not survive the Trials. He may not even survive training. But while he’s at Kaer Morhen, he’s going to prove that he has the right to be there.

Nearly a year after his ill-fated escape attempt, Vesemir asks Geralt to accompany him down the mountain on a supply run. It’s a chore normally reserved for older students, but Geralt doesn’t mind all that much. He enjoys spending time with Vesemir and he’s all too happy to get away from the keep for a day.

Geralt remembers being terrified of Lettenhove the first time he was here, seven years old and refusing to let go of the bucket of water Ma had used as a ruse to get rid of him. It seemed like a massive city at the time. And maybe it is closer to a city than the muddy little hamlet where he lived with his Ma, but it’s still an ordinary town, filled with ordinary folk that watch him and Vesemir with undisguised suspicion as they make their way through the town square.

Geralt has heard the witchers talk about how much humans fear and despise them, but he wasn't expecting it from a town that should be used to the inhabitants of Kaer Morhen. He keeps his horse close to Vesemir’s, ducking his head to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.

“Is it always like this?” Geralt asks quietly.

Vesemir keeps his face straight ahead. “Not always. There are plenty of people in this town who appreciate what we’ve done to keep them safe. The ones who don’t are just… louder about it.”

“Geralt! Master Vesemir!” A voice calls.

“Luckily, we have some loud supporters as well,” Vesemir says with a smile.

Julian comes bounding towards them. He’s wearing blue silks the same color as his eyes, with puffy sleeves bigger than his head. “Did you turn into a werewolf?” he asks Geralt. “Because you belong to the Wolf School, right? It would kind of make sense for you to be a werewolf too. You would be double the wolf. Ben says witchers can turn into wolves anyway. Is that true? Probably not, because he also says you steal virgins from their beds and drink their blood, and I think he may be getting you mixed up with vampires.”

“No one here is a werewolf or a vampire,” Vesemir says.

“Oh, good. Pretty horse.” Jaskier reaches for the mare Geralt is riding and nearly gets his fingers taken off for his trouble.

Geralt tightens his hold on her reins. “She bites.”

“That’s okay!” Julian says brightly. “I would probably bite too if I had someone riding on my back all day. Do you like horses, Geralt?”

“Yes?” Geralt does like horses. After cleaning out the stables for six months as punishment, he continued with the chore voluntarily. He’s come to know and love every single one of the horses at Kaer Morhen.

Julian looks up at Vesemir with enormous blue eyes. “Vesemir, can I bring Geralt to meet my family’s horses? Please?”

Geralt expects Vesemir to say no. After all, this isn’t a day off. He’s here to help Vesemir. But Julian’s puppy dog eyes must work, because Vesemir says, “Go on, pup. Leave your horse with me. I’ll come and get you when it’s time to go back home.”

Before Geralt even knows what’s happening, Julian is dragging him away.

***

Julian is starting to realize that he doesn’t have as many friends as he thought. The village children only let him play knucklebones with them because their parents tell them they have to. The baker has only been giving him pastries for years because she’s afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t. The blacksmith, whose shops he’s spent so many hours in, finds him annoying. The older he gets, the more he realizes that Ben the stablemaster is a mean old drunk. Julian’s jaunts into town and around his family's estate are getting less and less enjoyable with each eye roll and curled lip he sees aimed at him. He’s a pest. A bother.

Useless. Lazy. Good for nothing. Half-breed.

So Julian is determined to make Geralt his friend, and what better way to make a friend than introducing him to a bunch of horses?

“That’s Marta,” he tells Geralt as they walk through the stables. “She’s named after my father’s second wife. I don’t think he meant that in a nice way. And that’s Peaches. That’s Brown Horse, which is a dumb name for a horse, especially since he's not even brown, he's chestnut, but he’s Izabela’s horse, so she got to name him.”

“You have a lot of horses.” Geralt’s voice is soft and reverent.

“My family breeds them. It’s how we make our money. Nobles aren’t supposed to have to do anything to make money, but Lettenhove isn’t a very big town.”

“Which one is yours?” Geralt asks.

Julian bounds over to the nearest stable. “This one. His name is Buttercup. Everyone tried to tell me that I couldn’t name a boy horse after a flower, but he’s a horse. He doesn’t care what his name is. Anyway, I like buttercups. They’re pretty. You can’t eat them though. I tried once, because I thought they’d taste like butter, and they made me sick. They didn’t even taste like butter.”

Buttercup, a small dun gelding, snorts into Julian’s hair in agreement.

“He’s beautiful,” Geralt says quietly.

“You can pet him! He’s friendly.”

Geralt reaches out a hand and strokes Buttercup’s nose. The horse lips at his fingers and to Julian’s surprise, Geralt giggles. Julian realizes that he’s never seen the other boy smile or laugh before. It’s a nice sound.

“He likes you,” Julian says. “Want to give him a sugar cube?”

Geralt nods and Julian hands him one of the sugar cubes he always keeps in his pocket. He notices a long, thin scar on Geralt’s palm and asks, “What’s that from?”

Geralt looks surprised, like he forgot he had the scar. “Training accident. Sword slipped in my hand.”

Geralt has a scar on his chin too, probably from the werewolf attack. Julian remembers what Vesemir told him the year before about the lonely life of the witcher. Geralt seems nice; Julian doesn’t want him to be lonely.

“You can come visit Buttercup any time you want,” Julian tells Geralt. The “And me too” remains unspoken.

Geralt’s lips curl into a shy smile. “I’d like that.”

And just like that, Julian has his first real friend.

***

 

Age 12

Geralt starts accompanying Vesemir almost every time he goes down the mountain to get supplies from Lettenhove and every time, Julian is waiting for them. While Geralt is supposed to be helping Vesemir, Vesemir always sends him off to spend the afternoon with Julian. And it’s nice. Some days, they go to the stables to see Buttercup and the other horses. Some days, they go to sit by the Gwenllech River, on a large, flat rock on the riverbed where Julian says he likes to go to think. Julian is like no one else that Geralt knows: loud, exuberant, and endlessly enthusiastic about everything. The other boy talks a lot, so much that Geralt hardly gets a word in edgewise.

He thinks that Julian might not have many other people to talk to. Slowly, he realizes that Julian is lonely, possibly even more lonely than Geralt is. At least Geralt has Vesemir, Eskel, and the other witcher trainees. Julian has no one, and he seems to latch onto anyone who shows him the smallest kindness. Julian trying to run up the mountain to become a witcher makes sense in light of this revelation. Vesemir has always been kind to Julian and Julian seems to adore the old witcher.

“I leave for Oxenfurt next month,” Julian tells them one miserably hot summer day, while they’re sitting in their spot by the river. Over the last few months, Geralt has stopped thinking of it as “Julian’s spot” and started thinking of it as “their spot.”

“Where’s that?” Geralt asks.

“Redania. It’s a school where I’ll learn to be a proper noble.” Julian rolls his eyes. “Like I want to be a noble. I’d rather be a traveling bard.”

“You have to get good first.” Geralt nods to the lute in Julian’s lap.

His friend flicks a pebble at him. “I’m just learning, you ass!”

“Could you learn quieter? It’s hurting my head.”

“Big strong witcher, can’t handle a little headache?”

“I’m not a witcher yet.” Or big and strong, though Geralt doesn’t say that. He’s still the smallest person in his cohort. He’s even smaller than Julian. “How long will you be gone?”

“Until next summer,” Julian says.

Geralt doesn’t reply. He didn’t realize that this was the last time he was going to see Julian for nearly a year. And maybe it will be better for Julian to be away at school, with other noble boys. He knows the Earl de Lettenhove isn’t kind to his son. Last month, Julian had a black eye when he greeted Geralt and Vesemir at the base of the mountain. Geralt hasn’t met the Earl de Lettenhove yet. When he does, he hopes he’ll be a real witcher so he can show the man how much black eyes and split lips hurt.

Thinking things like that is dangerous, Vesemir would say, but Geralt doesn’t care. Witchers hunt monsters, not humans, but what kind of human punches his son in the face and sends him away to a school in another kingdom?

“Geralt?” Julian asks.

Geralt realizes he hasn’t been paying attention to a word Julian’s said. “Hm?”

“I’m sorry. I should have told you earlier. I just didn’t want to ruin today. And I… I wasn’t sure if you would miss me or not.”

Geralt looks at Julian. The other boy is smiling, like always, but there’s a forced quality to it. He’s looking a little to the right of Geralt’s face, not straight at Geralt, like he’s afraid what he’ll see there.

“Of course I’ll miss you,” Geralt says softly. “We’re friends. Right?”

“Yeah, we are.” Julian’s voice is a bit choked. He’s suddenly looking intently at his lute. “You’re my best friend in the world.”

Geralt swallows. "You're mine too."

***

Julian loves Oxenfurt. He loves his classes and his professors. He loves the town. For the first time in his life, he has all the friends he could possibly want. And Oxenfurt seems to love him too. People like him, and not just for his money, because everyone who goes to Oxenfurt has money. People laugh at his jokes and listen to his attempts at music.

He writes letters to Geralt at least once a month. He never gets a reply, but he doesn’t need one.

There are a lot of Julians at Oxenfurt and most of them start using nicknames. Julian’s fondness for buttercups is well known, and so his classmates start calling him Jaskier. It’s the first time he’s ever had a nickname that was nice.

Julian Alfred Pankratz is a scared, lonely halfling whose father beats him and whose mother didn’t want him. Jaskier is a happy, sociable student with a good group of friends, decent grades, and a natural talent for music.

It’s not hard to figure out which one he’d rather be.

***

 

Age 13

Geralt is nervous when Julian comes back from Oxenfurt. All year, he’s been getting letters from Julian, recounting classes, outings with his friends, and hijinks. Geralt always wants to write back, but he’s never sure what to say. His days are a cycle of training, eating, and sleeping. There’s nothing there that Julian would want to hear about. So he reads and rereads Julian’s letters and keeps them tucked under his mattress. Clovis makes fun of him for it when he finds out, and Geralt gives him a black eye.

Geralt can’t shake the fear that Julian won’t want to be friends with him anymore when he gets home.

But as soon as he sees Julian, it’s like no time has passed at all. Julian runs up to him with his normal smile and throws his arms around Geralt. Geralt returns the hug, surprised but pleased. They go to visit Buttercup, and then retreat to their spot by the river, just like they did last summer. Geralt has been struggling with his Quen shields and Julian seems to delight in helping him practice by throwing pebbles at Geralt so he can deflect them.

“You know, my friends at Oxenfurt call me Jaskier,” Julian tells Geralt when the sun is lowering in the sky and Geralt knows Vesemir will be coming to get him soon.

“Like a buttercup?” Geralt asks. “You want to be named after your horse?”

“He’s a noble steed. Anyone would be lucky to have such an honor.”

Geralt snorts, then thinks about buttercups. Pretty, poisonous, pop up all over the place, whether they're wanted or not. “It suits you.”

“Thanks,” Julian says with a grin. “I think so too.”

“Do you want me to call you Jaskier?”

“I like it better than Julian. I don’t like being named after my father.” Julian’s voice drops at the last words, like he’s afraid the Earl de Lettenhove will slip out of the trees.

“Then your name is Jaskier,” Geralt says simply and the smile Jaskier gives him leaves a warm little glow in his chest.

***

Jaskier has grown taller and thinner in the last year and the gold ring on his finger is loose, always slipping down over his knuckle. He knows he needs to get it resized, but he hesitates to bring it up to his father. He doesn’t want to do anything to draw his father’s attention. Hanna just gave birth to twin girls, Agata and Anastazia, and the earl is in a fouler mood than ever. Julian has taken to feigning headaches so he doesn’t have to eat dinner with his family, with Izabela sneaking food up to his room at night. Anything, even making eye contact with his father for a beat too long, can set the earl off when he’s in this kind of mood.

It’s towards the end of summer, not long before Jaskier will leave for his second year at Oxenfurt, when Jaskier and Geralt are wading through a shallow part of the river. Jaskier is teasing Geralt about his hair, which he’s grown longer and is now wearing in the exact same style as Vesemir, when he looks down just in time to see the gold ring slip off his finger and into the water.

“Fuck!” Jaskier yelps and drops to his knees, fingers scrambling frantically. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. My father is going to kill me.”

“Jask, it’s fine,” Geralt says. “I got it.”

Jaskier freezes. Slowly, he looks up at Geralt.

No one has seen Jaskier without his glamour since he was a child. Jaskier knows what Geralt is seeing— eyes that are a brighter blue than any human’s, luminous skin that glows in the sunlight, facial features that are a bit sharper than normal. And the long, pointed ears that peek out from under Jaskier’s head of brown curls.

Jaskier is suddenly terrified in a way he’s never been terrified before. Because Geralt could ruin his life with one word. Geralt may be his friend, but that doesn’t stop Jaskier’s heart from racing and his hands from shaking as he holds them out for the ring.

Geralt deposits the ring into Jaskier’s palm. “Nice ears.”

Jaskier smiles weakly. “Thanks. They’re the latest fashion in Oxenfurt.”

It’s a dumb joke, but it makes both boys dissolve into giggles and the tension immediately breaks. Jaskier slips the ring back on his finger and feels the glamour take hold.

“No one knows except for my dad,” he tells Geralt. “Not even my sisters or Hanna. If anyone found out…”

Geralt’s brows knit together. “I’m training to become a witcher, Jask. I don’t care that you’re part-elf. And I’m not going to tell anyone.”

Julian isn’t sure what he did to deserve a friend like Geralt. But he’s so, so glad that he did it.

***

“Are you trying to memorize that letter?” Eskel asks Geralt.

“Hm.” Geralt is rereading Jaskier’s latest letter for the third time. It’s probably the last letter he’ll get before the first snowfall hits and making the trek down the mountain becomes impossible. Jaskier writes all about the song he's composing for the school bardic competition that spring. He wants to be the youngest student to ever win it. His excitement seems to pour off the page.

“You guys are close, aren’t you?”

Geralt shrugs. “He’s my friend. Like you.”

Eskel and Jaskier are both his best friends, in their own ways. Geralt knows that he would kill or die for either of them, without a moment’s hesitation. Every time he remembers Jaskier’s abject terror when his glamour slipped, he’s tempted to go down the mountain and kill the Earl de Lettenhove himself. But the way he cares about Jaskier is different from the way he cares about Eskel. He just doesn’t know how to explain how.

“You would like him,” he tells Eskel. “He likes to read, like you.”

Eskel smiles. “Maybe I’ll meet him one of these days.”

Geralt nods. “You will.”

***

 

Age 14

Geralt had almost forgotten how terrible the sounds of the boys undergoing the Trial of the Grasses were, but now he remembers in vivid detail why he ended up fleeing Kaer Morhen four years ago. It’s the third day of the Trials and the screams are endless. Training has been all but abandoned. No one can focus on anything; they can only sit and listen to their brothers suffer and die in the laboratories below the keep.

Geralt lies awake and listens to the screams. He knows that no one else in the dormitory is sleeping. Several boys are crying. He’s pretty sure Clovis is one of them. If Geralt weren’t so heartsick and horrified, he might find it in himself to be an asshole about that.

“Geralt?” It’s Eskel’s voice from the next bunk over.

“Yeah?” Geralt whispers.

“Can I…”

Geralt scoots over without a word and Eskel slips into the bed next to him. The bed is hardly big enough for Geralt; it’s way too small for both of them, but Geralt doesn’t care. They haven’t done this since right after they both got to Kaer Morhen, since Geralt was seven and Eskel was eight and they were both terrified and alone in the world. Geralt is fourteen and maybe he should feel embarrassed about cuddling with his friend like some kind of baby, but not this week.

“We’re next,” Eskel says in a low voice.

Geralt has been trying not to think about it. Four more years, and his cohort will be undergoing the Trials. It’s so far away, and yet too close.

“Do you ever wish you got away that time you ran?”

They never talk about Geralt’s escape attempt these days. Geralt has spent the last four years trying to make up for his temporary cowardice. “No. I wouldn’t have made it down the mountain alive.”

Eskel lets out a long, slow breath. “If I don’t survive the Trials, remember me. Name your horse or your dog after me or something.”

“I’ll name the ugliest ghoul I meet after you.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

Geralt smiles, even though he knows Eskel can’t see it. “You’re going to make it, Eskel.”

“Please.”

Geralt swallows. “I will, if you do the same.”

“I’ll always remember you, Geralt,” Eskel says softly.

There’s nothing else to say after that.

***

Geralt looks exhausted when Jaskier sees him, with dark shadows under his eyes and a grim set to his mouth. They don’t say a word as they walk down to the river. Geralt doesn’t even comment on the fact that Jaskier is wearing a heavy coat on a hot summer’s day, which is normally the kind of thing he would tease Jaskier about. As soon as they sit down, Jaskier pulls out the bottle of vodka he’s been hiding under his coat.

“Thought you might need this,” he tells Geralt. It’s a small consolation, but it’s the best he can offer.

“Thanks.” Geralt takes a swig, then chokes.

Jaskier snorts. “It’s vodka, not ale. You’re supposed to take small sips.”

“Fine, show me how it’s done.” Geralt shoves the bottle back at him.

They pass the bottle back and forth for a bit in silence, before Jaskier asks, “How many?”

“Two survived out of eleven. It was a bad year.” Geralt shrugs like it doesn’t matter. Like these aren’t his friends and brothers he’s talking about.

“Gods, I’m sorry.”

“We all know the odds.”

Jaskier doesn’t want to ask the question, but he knows he needs the answer. “When are your Trials?”

“They happen every four years. My cohort’s next.”

Jaskier closes his eyes. “Do you have to go through them?”

“If I want to be a witcher.”

“Do you want to be a witcher?”

Geralt doesn’t answer. “Didn’t you want to be a witcher a few years ago?”

“Because the hunting monsters part is awesome. But this…” Jaskier trails off. “If you weren’t training to become a witcher, what would you do?”

Geralt looks puzzled by the question. “I’ve never thought about it.”

Jaskier passes him the vodka. “Come on. You have to have some secret dream. Horse trainer? Pirate? King of Kaedwen?”

“Not worth thinking about, since it won’t happen.” Geralt shakes his head. “What about you? What would you do if you weren’t a viscount? Be a bard?”

“Of course. And you, my very best friend in the world, would be my muse.”

Geralt scoffs. “I’d be a shit muse.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.” Jaskier frowns. “There has to be a better way to make witchers, right? One that doesn’t kill so many kids.”

“They’ve tried,” Geralt says flatly. “There’s no gentle way to break down every cell in your body and rebuild it.”

“You don’t need to be rebuilt, Geralt.” Jaskier looks away so his friend doesn’t realize that Jaskier is already grieving for him.

***

All of Jaskier’s letters that year mention someone named Valdo. Valdo said this, Valdo sang this duet with Jaskier, Valdo helped him with this funny prank. Valdo, Valdo, fucking Valdo. Geralt doesn’t know who he is, but he hates him. He can’t explain the twist of jealousy in his gut every time he reads the name. It’s not that Jaskier has another friend; he never wants Jaskier to be as lonely as he used to be again. But Jaskier seems to worship Valdo, and that doesn’t sit right with Geralt.

Vesemir gives him some paper and ink so he can write back to Jaskier. Geralt writes a few lines, then rips the paper up. The only thing more clumsy and inelegant than his handwriting are the stilted sentences he writes. He keeps picturing Valdo— who, in his imagination, looks a lot like Clovis— leaning over Jaskier’s shoulder and laughing at Geralt’s terrible spelling.

He bets that Valdo has immaculate fucking handwriting.

***

 

Age 15

It’s the early days of summer when Geralt goes with Vesemir, Eskel, and Gweld to clear out a nest of drowners that have made their home in an old beaver dam on the Gwenllech River, only a half a mile from his and Jaskier’s spot. At least four villagers have died, a group of young people out for an evening swim that turned deadly. These aren’t the first monsters Geralt has killed and the hunt itself is easy. But when they find the bloated, half-eaten bodies of the victims, his heart turns over. One of the bodies is facedown and all Geralt can see is that the victim was male and had curly brown hair.

Gods, no, no, no.

Geralt can’t move. It’s Gweld that picks the corpse up and Geralt sees that the dead boy is older than Jaskier, with a thinner face and hazel eyes. It’s only then that Geralt remembers that Jaskier isn’t even expected home from Oxenfurt until later that week.

“Alright, pup?” Vesemir asks mildly.

Geralt can’t bring himself to speak, so he just nods.

***

“Why is it so hot?” Jaskier drags his forearm across his forehead to wipe away the sweat.

“Because it’s summer,” Geralt says mildly.

“Why, thank you, O Wise Scholar. I hadn’t noticed.”

Geralt snorts. “You’re cranky when you’re sweaty.”

“I’m not sweaty. I’m glistening.

“I can smell your glistening from here.”

Jaskier makes a rude hand gesture and begins to peel off his breeches.

“What are you doing?” Geralt demands, voice cracking. Jaskier loves it when that happens, but Geralt is so self-conscious about his changing voice that Jaskier doesn’t have the heart to mock him for it.

“Going for a swim.”

“Don’t go in the water. We cleared out a nest of drowners just last week.”

“Seriously? That’s awesome! How many were there? Is it true that they’re the undead corpses of people who drowned?”

“About eight and no, they’re necrophages. People just think that because they’re drawn to dead bodies. And they killed four people.”

“Oh.” Jaskier’s excitement dies. “That’s not so awesome.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

Jaskier slides off the rock into the water. It’s deliciously cool against his skin and he ducks underwater before resurfacing. He looks up to see Geralt staring at the sky with an exasperated expression on his face. “What? You said you cleared them out!”

Geralt is looking anywhere but at him. “We could have missed one.”

“Don’t worry, Geralt,” Jaskier says teasingly. “If a drowner gets me, you can have Buttercup.”

“Hm.”

Jaskier slurps up a mouthful of water and spits it at his friend in a perfect arc. Geralt deflects it with a Quen shield.

“Not fair,” Jaskier whines. "You weren't even looking at me."

Geralt rolls his eyes. “You know how many things have probably decayed in that river?”

“The circle of life, my friend.”

“Tell that to the dead bodies we pulled out of the drowners’ nest.”

Jaskier winces. “My, you’re in a good mood today.”

“Seen too many corpses lately to be in a good mood.”

Jaskier wants to demand why Geralt even bothered coming down the mountain then. He’s not even here on a supply run with Vesemir; he’s finally old enough to leave the keep on his one free day a month. Jaskier is flattered that Geralt chose to spend his free day with him, when he could be meditating or whatever it is witchers do for fun. That being said, he thinks some quiet meditation would have done Geralt some good.

But he doesn’t want to start a fight, so he lets himself float on his back and be pulled along by the gentle current of the river. With the water cooling him down, he’s able to appreciate the beauty of the day: the blue sky, the fluffy white clouds, the birds chirping in the trees. It’s the kind of day that saccharine poems get written about.

Jaskier looks up and finds Geralt watching him. Not for the first time, he’s struck by how lovely his friend is. The sun brings out the golden streaks in his hair and his face and arms are tanned by days spent training outdoors. Geralt is a beautiful boy who’s turning into a beautiful man and Jaskier tries to ignore the stirrings he can feel in his gut, the ones he sometimes get when he sees Geralt’s shoulders flex when he lifts something heavy or listens to him murmur sweet nothings to Buttercup and the other horses. He has to repeat the same mantra to himself: he’s your friend, he’s your friend, don’t scare him away, don’t fuck this up.

“Ducat for your thoughts?” Jaskier asks lightly, because Geralt’s expression is inscrutable and he’s a little afraid of what his own expression might hold.

“Hm.”

“I want my ducat back.”

“Hm.”

Jaskier rolls his eyes and begins to swim in lazy circles.

“Jask, get out of the water.”

Jaskier looks up and sees that Geralt is standing up on the rock. “I told you, it’s fine.”

“Get out of the water, now!”

“What?” Jaskier asks stupidly, just as the skeletal green face of a drowner emerges from the river.

***

Geralt pulls Jaskier out of the river right before the drowner’s claws can close around the other boy’s throat. He shoves Jaskier to safety with one hand while driving his knife into the monster’s eye with the other. Black blood splatters on the riverbed as the drowner falls. Geralt stands there for a long moment, breathing heavily and watching the water for any signs of more danger. His heart is thundering in his chest and he has to work to control his breathing.

He keeps thinking about that dead boy with the brown hair in the drowners’ nest. Jaskier comes here all the time without Geralt. That easily could have been Jaskier, dragged underwater by grasping hands, opening his mouth to scream and sucking in lungfuls of water instead.

When he’s certain that nothing else is going to crawl out of the river, he turns on Jaskier. The other boy is still lying in the mud where Geralt threw him. He has mud and drowner blood splattered on his cheek and he’s looking up at Geralt with an awed expression. He isn’t even a little bit scared and Geralt wants to shake him.

Jaskier laughs breathily. “That was incredible! Shit, Geralt, you moved so fast—”

“Are you stupid?” Geralt snarls. “I told you to get out of the damn water!”

The smile doesn’t leave Jaskier’s face, but something in his eyes dims. “You didn’t tell me there was a drowner coming.”

“Why else would I tell you to get out of the water?” Geralt is so angry that he can feel himself shaking. He’s not sure why he’s so mad. It can’t have anything to do with how before the drowner attacked, when Jaskier stripped down to his smallclothes and jumped into the river, Geralt felt a pleasant heat settle low in his belly. No, it’s because Geralt can still smell the rot of the drowners’ nest.

“I thought you were just being grumpy.” Jaskier clambers to his feet.

“You could have died!” For the first time, Geralt realizes that he's nearly as tall as Jaskier. Last summer, he barely came up to Jaskier's shoulders. Now, his eyes are level with Jaskier's mouth, which is wet from river water.

Jaskier's tongue darts out over his lower lip nervously. “But I didn’t, because you were here.”

“I won’t always be here.” In three years, Geralt will probably be dead and there won’t be anyone to pull Jaskier out of rivers when there’s a drowner coming. “You don’t have any survival instincts at all!”

“That’s not fair!”

“First a werewolf, then a drowner—”

“The werewolf almost killed both of us, not just me.”

“Who’s going to stop you from dying when I’m not here?”

“It’s not your job to stop me from dying!”

“You’re right, it’s not.” There are droplets of water glistening on Jaskier’s shoulders and collarbone and Geralt can’t look at him anymore. He stalks away, ignoring the plaintive way Jaskier calls his name.

***

It takes him a week to realize that he overreacted and that he probably needs to apologize to Jaskier. Next time he goes down the mountain, he’ll steal a bottle of vodka from Varin’s stash as a peace offering. He’ll make things right. He still doesn’t know why he got so angry, or why he keeps dreaming that he wasn’t there and that Jaskier got pulled under the water by the drowners and died alone and scared.

The day before he’s supposed to accompany Vesemir into town, he’s running the Killer with Eskel and Gweld when he missteps, gets hit in the chest by one of the swinging pendulums, and goes flying. His leg hits a tree and he hears the snap before he even feels the excruciating pain. His leg is broken in two places and while the healer does what she can, she firmly tells Geralt that he’s not to put any weight on it for at least two months. There’s to be no training, no horseback riding, and definitely no going down the mountain.

By the time his leg is healed and he’s finally allowed to go down the mountain, the leaves are turning red and orange and Jaskier is already gone to Oxenfurt for the year.

This year, he doesn’t get any letters from Jaskier.

***

The first time Jaskier saw Valdo Marx, there was an instant where he thought the other boy was Geralt. Valdo and Geralt are about the same height and build and both have light brown hair, but Valdo’s eyes are hazel, not brown, and his features are more delicate than Geralt’s. He talks more than Geralt, almost as much as Jaskier, and he has a quick sense of humor that can occasionally verge on the cruel. But Jaskier likes him. They’re in music class together for the second year in a row. Valdo's lovely tenor contrasts nicely with Jaskier's deeper, richer voice and when they sing duets together for class, they bring tears to their professor’s eyes.

Valdo kisses Jaskier for the first time only a week into the school year. They’ve snuck into one of the upperclassmen dorms for a party. Valdo tastes like vodka and garlic, but Jaskier doesn’t mind. It’s Jaskier’s first kiss. His second kiss is a couple of months later, again with Valdo, during a festival for Saovine. His third, fourth, and fifth kisses are with Valdo too.

It’s the fifth kiss that gets Jaskier in trouble, because he’s stupid enough to kiss Valdo in their empty music classroom, right as their professor walks in.

“Deviant behavior,” the administration of Oxenfurt calls it, and it’s a expulsion-worthy offense. Valdo sells Jaskier out in a heartbeat. He didn’t know Jaskier was going to kiss him, he tells everyone who will listen tearfully. Jaskier just jumped him when they were in the middle of an innocent discussion of musical theory. It was disgusting. The professors and administration eat it up, because Valdo is the golden child and Jaskier is the rascal who talks too much in class and breaks into his professors’ lodgings to put their beds on the roof. Never mind that Valdo was normally egging Jaskier on from the sidelines.

Jaskier wouldn’t blame Valdo for saving his own skin, if it weren’t for the look of barely suppressed glee the other boy shoots Jaskier as he leaves the dean’s chamber. Valdo has always been competitive, but he seemed genuinely happy for Jaskier when he won the school bardic competition two years in a row. It couldn’t have been a set up. Valdo couldn’t have gotten Jaskier expelled on purpose, could he?

His father’s steward comes to collect him. Jaskier arrives home in Lettenhove just as the first snow starts to fall.

***

The winter is a long one. All winters are long in the mountains, but this one comes early, making the trail down the mountain impassable so only about half of the normal witchers are able to return to Kaer Morhen for the winter. At least, everyone hopes it’s just the deep snow keeping them away. The keep normally gets loud in the winter, with twice the normal amount of people there, but it’s quiet this winter.

Lambert is the newest trainee, brought in as a child surprise by one of the witchers right before the first snow blocked the roads. He’s eleven, older than most new trainees, and a cranky little asshole. He spits and swears at anyone who gets too close to him and deliberately does poorly during his training sessions, like he thinks if he fails, they’ll send him home. Geralt feels bad for the kid, especially since Varin has decided that it’s his mission this winter to break Lambert.

So when Geralt hears the crying on his way back from the privy one night, he almost walks in the other direction. It’s late and he should be in his bunk. He rounds the corner and sees Lambert curled up in a corner, face buried in his knees, his little shoulders shaking. Lambert is small and skinny, shrunken from years of malnourishment. He hasn’t noticed Geralt and Geralt could leave without anyone being the wiser, but he’s suddenly reminded of cowering outside of a stable with a bucket of water in his hands and trying not to cry. And then Jaskier— brazen, happy, ridiculous Jaskier— running up to him to demand to know why he was crying.

Geralt sits down next to Lambert. The younger boy doesn’t look up or even acknowledge Geralt’s presence, other than shifting his weight a bit so he’s pressed against Geralt’s side. Neither of them say a thing. Jaskier would know exactly what to say. Even Eskel would. But Geralt just sits quietly until Lambert’s sobs have turned into quiet sniffles.

“I don’t want to die,” Lambert says quietly.

Geralt remembers saying those same words to Vesemir five years ago. He could assure Lambert that he’ll be one of the ones to survive the Trials and it will all be fine, but he won’t lie to the kid like that. “None of us do.”

Lambert is still an annoying little shit after that, but he’s Geralt’s annoying little shit. When he gets mouthy with Clovis one night at dinner and Clovis punches him in the face, Geralt beats the absolute shit out of Clovis. He’s stuck on privy duty for a month, but it’s worth it.

***

Age 16

When the snow melts, Geralt and Vesemir travel down the mountain for a much-needed supply run. Food is getting scarce and everyone in the keep is restless. Geralt knows that Jaskier won’t be home from Oxenfurt for months, but that doesn’t stop his feet from carrying him towards their spot by the river. When he finds Jaskier sitting cross-legged on the rock, strumming sadly on his lute, he thinks he’s hallucinating for a moment. Jaskier looks terrible. His doublet is discarded in the dirt next to him without regard for wrinkles or stains. He’s pale with dark circles under his eyes. He’s obviously drunk; Geralt can smell the vodka from here. Worst of all, under the thin white silk of his chemise, he’s covered in fading bruises. His chest, his shoulders, his back, his neck are mostly purple and yellow.

Geralt must make some sound, because Jaskier startles and looks up. When he sees Geralt, he doesn’t look pleased. If anything, the unhappy lines of his face become even more pronounced. “Hello, Geralt.”

“You’re supposed to be at Oxenfurt,” Geralt says.

“So I’ve heard.” Jaskier’s shoulders sag and he suddenly looks much older than sixteen. “I got expelled.”

“Why?”

“It doesn’t matter. None of it fucking matters.” Jaskier’s eyes are red-rimmed, which makes them seem even bluer.

Geralt has gone over his apology for their fight over and over again in his head, but in his imagination, he was always talking to a happy, smiling Jaskier. Not this weirdly diminished version of his friend. “What happened to you?”

“What do you think, Geralt? Daddy dearest isn’t exactly thrilled that I got sent home from Oxenfurt in disgrace. This is nothing. You should have seen me when I first got sent home.”

“I’ll fucking kill him.” Geralt doesn’t recognize the voice that comes out of his mouth. It’s low and cold.

“Please don’t,” Jaskier says flatly. “I’m not ready to be an earl yet.”

Geralt settles down next to Jaskier on the rock, moving slowly, like Jaskier is a horse that will startle. He lies back so he can look up at the cloudy sky with Jaskier. “Do you have anywhere else you could go?”

He’s never asked about Jaskier’s mother. He knows that she wasn’t any of the three Countesses de Lettenhove and he assumes she was at least part-elf, but that’s all he knows about her.

“No,” Jaskier says miserably. “I don’t even know my mother’s name. All I know is that she and my father fell in love when he was on his post-Oxenfurt tour of the Continent that nobles love so much. He brought her back here to marry her, but she left right before the wedding. My guess is she realized what an asshole he is. She only came back six months later to drop me off at the front gates. She didn’t want me.”

The pain in Jaskier’s voice causes a lump to rise in Geralt’s throat. “Her mistake.”

“No, I think she made the right call.” Jaskier scrubs a hand over his face. “I got caught kissing another boy. That’s why they kicked me out. For deviant behavior.”

The silence hangs between them, heavy and awkward, for a long moment. Jaskier is looking anywhere but at Geralt.

Geralt’s mouth has gone dry. “Valdo?”

“Oh, so you did read my letters. Good to know.” Jaskier laughs without humor. “Yes, Valdo fucking Marx. I’m pretty sure he set me up so he would have a chance at winning the school bardic competition this year. Next time I see him, I’ll… well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but it will be something really terrible.”

“Like kiss him again?” The words come out before Geralt can think about them and he freezes, thinking he may have crossed a line.

But instead of being furious or starting to cry, Jaskier throws back his head and laughs. Jaskier’s laugh is always a wild thing: bright and unrestrained. If there’s the slightest bitter edge to it right now, it doesn’t take away from its musical quality. Geralt smiles, because he always smiles when Jaskier laughs like that. Jaskier rolls over to press his face against Geralt’s shoulder and laughs helplessly until he can only wheeze.

“He wasn’t even a good kisser,” Jaskier says when he can speak again. “That’s the worst part. I ruined my future for someone whose breath smelled like an alghoul.”

“Your future’s not ruined, Jask.”

“I’m never going to be a proper bard now. You need a degree from Oxenfurt to get a position at any respectable court. Not ever going to be a proper viscount either. I never got around to learning those skills.” Jaskier heaves a sigh. “Hanna is pregnant again. If this one is a boy, I’m getting disowned. I always knew that if he ever had another son, I wouldn’t be the heir anymore. I was okay with that. I’d make a shitty earl. But now, he’ll really kick me out with nothing. I’ll be alone.”

“You’re never going to be alone,” Geralt tells him. “I won’t let you be alone.”

Jaskier makes a little gasping noise in reply. Geralt pretends not to notice the tears that begin to soak through his shirt.

***

Geralt is nervous the first time Eskel and Lambert come down the mountain with him and Vesemir. Jaskier is Geralt’s best friend and Eskel and Lambert are Geralt’s brothers, but this is the first time they’ll meet. There’s nothing to be nervous about, not really. He knows that Eskel and Jaskier will like each other. Everyone likes Eskel and Jaskier doesn’t seem to have trouble making friends. As for Lambert, the kid is an acquired taste, but Geralt has a feeling that Jaskier will appreciate his sharp tongue and quick wit.

But Geralt needs Eskel to like Jaskier because he promised Jaskier that he would never be alone. And if anyone is going to survive the Trials, it will be Eskel. Eskel is one of the most promising students Kaer Morhen has seen in years; all the instructors say he was born to be a witcher. If Geralt doesn’t survive the Trials and Eskel does, Geralt wants Eskel to be there for Jaskier.

It turns out that there’s nothing for Geralt to worry about because as soon as Jaskier is finished greeting Geralt with his customary rib-crushing hug, he turns to Eskel with his beaming smile. “You must be Eskel. I bet you have so many embarrassing stories about Geralt. Please tell me all of them.”

Eskel laughs and he and Jaskier are instantly friends.

Lambert takes a little more convincing, surprising no one. “You’re a viscount,” he says almost accusingly when the four of them have retreated to Geralt and Jaskier’s spot by the river.

“I am.” Jaskier is lounging luxuriously with his feet dangling into the water. Geralt is trying to keep an eye on the water to make sure there’s not another drowner incident, but he keeps getting distracted by the sight of Jaskier’s calves. Only because they’re surprisingly hairy.

Lambert eyes him dubiously. “What’s a fucking viscount?”

“You know, Geralt asked me that same question in a far less colorful way when we first met,” Jaskier says with a grin. “It means my father is an earl, and someday I’ll be one too.”

Now Lambert turns to Geralt. “Why are you friends with a viscount?”

“For his money,” Geralt deadpans.

Jaskier reaches over and swats him on the arm. “I saved him from a werewolf and I could never get rid of him after that.”

Geralt cocks an eyebrow. “You saved me?”

“Don’t you remember, dear heart? I was downright heroic with that branch. After I was finished crying and pissing myself, of course.”

Geralt’s heart stutters. Jaskier has called him many things over the years, but “dear heart” is new. Geralt doesn’t hate it. “I think it was more heroic when you stopped Varin from hitting me.”

“Oh, is that that old witcher’s name?” Jaskier wrinkles his nose. “I’ve never liked him. Now that my father and Vesemir no longer get along, he’s always the one who comes calling when there’s a monster problem.”

“He’s a prick,” Lambert says hotly and Eskel makes a noise of agreement.

“That he is.” Jaskier nods.

Lambert is looking at Jaskier with something akin to respect. “You stopped him from hitting Geralt?”

“I was on a heroic streak. Couldn’t risk ruining it.”

Apparently, that’s all it takes for Lambert to decide Jaskier is worth knowing, because he takes it upon himself to teach Jaskier how to hold a knife, demanding, “Fuck, Geralt, you’ve known him for how long and he still doesn’t know shit about defending himself?”

“One of them is going to lose a finger,” Eskel says quietly, watching Jaskier and Lambert with unabashed amusement.

“Probably Lambert.”

“I heard that, dickwad!” Lambert calls.

Eskel lowers his voice. “He’s not what I was expecting.”

“Lambert? Yeah, he’s a disappointment to us all.”

“Oh, fuck you!” Lambert mimes throwing his knife at Geralt.

“You know who I mean,” Eskel says softly.

Geralt watches Jaskier smile down at Lambert, clearly delighted by this small, foul-mouthed boy who has decided his life is worth preserving. “What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know, someone stuffy and noble. You’re different with him too. You talk more. I haven’t heard you say ‘hm’ once since we got here.”

“Hm.”

Eskel snorts. “I like him.”

Jaskier looks up and grins at them. Geralt can feel his heartbeat pick up in his chest. “He’s not bad.”

The easy smile on Eskel’s face vanishes instantly and he stands up, reaching for his own knife. “Jaskier, Lambert, get over here.”

Geralt looks around and spots what Eskel saw and he missed— six men striding through the trees towards them. He recognizes most of them; they’re some of the people who always glare and spit at him and Vesemir when they walk into town. He realizes with a sinking feeling that almost all of them are armed with clubs and knives. With the river at their back, Geralt and his friends have nowhere to go.

Jaskier pushes Lambert behind him. Lambert gives an outraged squawk at the indignity, but Jaskier holds him in place with one hand, Lambert’s dagger clutched in his other. “Is there a problem, gentlemen?” he asks in a voice Geralt has never heard from him before.

The man who Geralt recognizes as the local blacksmith grins at his friends. “Told you this is where the witcher whelps spend their time.”

Well, fuck.

“There are no witchers here,” Jaskier says in that same commanding voice. “Whatever ridiculous bigotry you hold towards the inhabitants of Kaer Morhen, you won’t find your revenge today. Turn around, and this will be forgotten.”

One of the other men, the son of the town alderman, laughs. “Little shit already thinks he’s the earl.”

Jaskier stands up straighter. “No, but I will be one day. You’d do well to remember that.”

“Not from what I heard,” the alderman’s son said. “I heard your father is desperate for a new heir. I heard he’s going to disown you as soon as he gets a son who isn’t a cocksucking bastard.”

Jaskier doesn’t flinch, but Geralt sees the muscles in his neck tighten. Geralt starts to step forward, but Eskel stops him with a hand on his chest. Geralt meets his brother’s gaze and Eskel shakes his head minutely. Geralt knows what Eskel is thinking; of the four of them, Jaskier is the only one these men will face actual consequences for killing. Eskel, Geralt, and Lambert are nobodies, but only an idiot would murder a viscount, even a bastard viscount.

“Do you want to bet your lives on hearsay?” Jaskier asks coolly. “What do you think the penalty for attacking me would be? You’ll hang.”

“You think anyone will miss you, boy?” the blacksmith demands.

“Not a damn soul,” Jaskier says. “But that won’t save you from the gallows.”

There’s a long, tense silence. For a moment, Geralt thinks that will be the end of things and that these men will retreat to the safety of their village. But then stupid, brave little Lambert has to go and run his mouth. “You heard him, assholes. It’s time for you to fuck off.”

The blacksmith’s face goes purple. “What did you say to us, you little shit?” He steps towards Jaskier and Lambert, brandishing the club in his hand. Geralt hears Jaskier’s sharp, scared intake of breath and he thinks of all the times an angry man has been bearing down on Jaskier and Geralt wasn’t in a position to help him. Geralt’s here now.

Geralt rips out of Eskel’s grasp and crosses the space between him and the blacksmith in three strides. The man is twice his size, but he’s not a trained fighter. Geralt is. The man tries to swing his club and Geralt grabs his wrist and twists. The blacksmith drops the club and aims a punch at Geralt’s face. Geralt blocks it and drives his fist into the man’s throat, knocking the wind out of him, and then his nose. Cartilage crunches under his hand. As his opponent reels backwards, he’s aware of the other five men closing in and Eskel rushing forward to defend him.

“Enough!” Vesemir’s voice cracks through the air like a whip and everyone freezes.

Vesemir stands at the treeline and his face is thunderous in a way Geralt has never seen before. “You attack your lord’s son and innocent students? You come armed with clubs and blades after children?”

“Nothing going on up at that school is innocent,” the alderman’s son says, but his voice is too shaky to hold any conviction.

“I once pulled your grandfather out of a kikimore’s jaws, Viktor. You wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Kaer Morhen. All of you, leave, or death by kikimore will sound merciful.”

“We’re not scared of you, witcher,” a man Geralt doesn’t recognize growls.

Vesemir’s lip curls. “Then would you like to fight me?” He steps out of the shadows of the trees. The swords strapped to his back glitter in the sunlight.

The men don’t need any more convincing than that. They flee. As soon as the sounds of their footsteps crashing through the woods vanish, Vesemir strides towards Geralt and takes Geralt’s face in his hands.

“Are you alright?” he demands.

Geralt nods. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

“You did well, pup.” Vesemir looks past Geralt. “Eskel? Lambert? Jaskier?”

“We’re all fine.” Jaskier takes a shaky step forward and leans against Geralt. Geralt can feel Jaskier’s heart hammering against his back. “Fuck, I thought they were going to kill us.”

“Didn’t act like it.” Eskel claps Jaskier on the back. “That was a good lordling act you put on. I almost believed you could have those men hanged.”

Jaskier grins weakly. “Well, what’s three and a half years’ of Oxenfurt education worth, if not for teaching young nobles how to act like entitled pricks?”

Geralt shakes his head and lets Jaskier lean against him until the other boy’s legs stop shaking. Jaskier is his friend and needs reassuring. It’s the least he can do.

***

Vesemir doesn’t let Geralt, Eskel, or Lambert go down the mountain with him for the rest of the year, instead taking his fellow instructors or one of the older trainees who have already gone through the Trials. Not as a punishment, he assures them, but because the men who cornered them will be angry, embarrassed, and looking to lash out. Best to give everyone time to cool off. Geralt is worried about Jaskier, who has no one to protect him but his worthless father, but Vesemir assures him that Jaskier is keeping his head down.

Geralt keeps remembering his promise that Jaskier wouldn’t be alone. He’s also very aware that there will only be one more full summer after this before the Trials. He’s losing months that he could be spending with Jaskier.

In the early fall, Vesemir returns from Lettenhove with news that the Countess de Lettenhove has given birth to the earl’s fifth daughter, named Lena, and Geralt breathes a sigh of relief. At least he doesn’t have to worry about Jaskier being cast out in the cold while Geralt is stuck on the mountain.

When the winter comes, it’s almost a relief. Because snow means that spring is only a matter of months away and he’ll be able to see Jaskier again.

***

Chapter Text

Age 17

As if to make up for the endless winter the year before, the snow melts early this year and Geralt is able to travel down the mountain a month earlier than normal. He knows that Jaskier won’t be expecting him, so he checks their usual hangout spots, including the stables on the Pankratz estate and the spot by the river, with no luck. To his surprise, he finally finds Jaskier at the tavern. Jaskier has never shown much interest in taverns, preferring to drink stolen vodka by the river with Geralt.

Geralt figures out the reason for Jaskier’s change of heart immediately. Jaskier is at a table in the corner, leaned in close to a pretty, curvy redhead. Their fingers are intertwined on the tabletop and Jaskier is wearing a smile that Geralt has never seen on his face before. It makes something hot shoot through Geralt. He almost turns to leave, but Jaskier looks up and catches sight of him. His expression changes to one of unabashed joy and he leaps to his feet.

“Geralt!” His voice rings through the tavern, turning heads, and Geralt would be humiliated to be the center of so much attention, if he weren’t distracted by Jaskier rushing towards him.

It’s been nine months since Geralt last saw Jaskier. It’s not the first time they’ve been separated for that long, but it seemed so much longer when he knew that Jaskier was just at the bottom of the mountain, and not all the way in Redania. Jaskier has gotten taller and broader through the shoulders. His hair is in even more of a disarray than usual, like someone has been running their fingers through it. Geralt has a feeling that the now-pouting redhead is the culprit.

Jaskier pulls Geralt into a hug. “It’s been too long. I was worried Vesemir would keep you on the mountain again this year.”

“I’m sorry,” Geralt says. “I couldn’t—”

“No, I understand. Viktor and his ilk were out for blood. It was safer for everyone for you to stay at Kaer Morhen. I just missed you, is all.”

Geralt squeezes him and lets go. “I missed you too.”

Jaskier nods towards the bar. “A drink?”

“What about your friend?” Geralt nods towards the redhead.

“Oh, Liliana? She’ll understand. She sees me every day. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all.”

It feels strange, but in a good way, to stand at the bar with Jaskier, mugs of ale in front of them, and catch up over the events of the last nine months.

“I’m glad you made it down the mountain early this year,” Jaskier tells him. “I’ve been going out of my mind with boredom without you. And just in time for my birthday, too.”

“When’s your birthday?” Geralt has always known that Jaskier’s birthday was at some point during the winter, but never the exact date.

“Today. I’m seventeen. A man now. Time to start taking my responsibilities seriously.” Jaskier’s voice drops at the last part, like it always does when he’s mimicking his father.

“Next round’s on me, then,” Geralt says.

Jaskier toasts him with his half-empty beer mug. “Birthdays are a glorious thing. The one day of the year where it’s all about you.”

“Wouldn’t know.”

“What do you mean? When’s your birthday, Geralt?”

“Not sure.”

Jaskier’s jaw drops. “What do you mean, you’re not sure?”

Geralt shrugs. “Witchers don’t have birthdays.”

“That’s not acceptable.” Jaskier shakes his head. “I’ve decided. From now on, we have the same birthday.”

A smile curls Geralt’s lips. “I thought this was the one day a year where it’s all about you.”

“I’m more than willing to share my special day with you, Geralt,” Jaskier says, draining the rest of his beer with one gulp. “Now, how about that second round?”

***

A couple of months later, when Geralt comes down the mountain, Jaskier is waiting for him, eyes alight with mischief. “I have something for you,” he tells Geralt. “A birthday present.”

“You know it’s not my actual birthday, Jask.”

“Yes, I know. Big, strong witchers don’t need birthdays. Guess what? You’re getting one anyway.” At Geralt’s eye roll, Jaskier’s smile only widens. “We may not know your actual birthday, Geralt, but we know for sure that you’ve had at least ten of them since we first met. Call this a decade’s worth of cumulative gifts.”

“Hm.”

“Please contain your gratitude, dear heart. You’re making me blush.”

Geralt snorts in response.

“You always sound like a horse when you do that,” Jaskier tells him.

“You always sound like an ass when you say things like that.”

“Oh, Geralt, why do I always spend the winters missing you?’

Geralt shrugs. “No idea.”

They make their way through town to the sprawling Pankratz family estate. Geralt has never been inside the house, but he knows the grounds by heart. Jaskier leads him to the stables, stopping to give Buttercup a pat on the nose before heading towards a stall containing a chestnut mare with a white star on her nose, who watches Jaskier and Geralt approach with dark, placid eyes.

“This is Duchess Penelope.” Jaskier feeds the horse a sugar cube, smiling when she lips at his fingers.

“She’s beautiful.”

“Good, I’m glad you think so. Because she’s yours.”

Geralt blinks at him. “What?”

Jaskier ignores him. “Three years old, excellent racing stock, does beautifully with a saddle. A perfect horse, if I do say so myself. Second only to my Buttercup.”

“You can’t give me a horse, Jaskier. It’s too much.”

“I told you, this is ten years’ worth of birthday presents. And you’re my best friend. I could give you a stable full of horses, and it wouldn’t be too much.”

Gently, Geralt holds out his hand to the horse. She noses at his palm, her breath soft and hot. “Witchers’ horses need special training.”

“Which I’ve discussed with Vesemir. He’s been helping me supplement her training.”

“You’ve talked to Vesemir about this?”

“Of course I did. I needed to make sure there was room for her in Kaer Morhen’s stables, and that another mouth to feed wouldn’t break the budget.”

So Jaskier has actually thought about this, which surprises Geralt. “Will you get in trouble for giving away one of your father’s horses?”

“Oh, she isn’t my father’s. I bought her with my own money.”

Damn it, Geralt can’t turn down a gift that Jaskier purchased himself. “Thank you."

Jaskier smiles at him warmly. "Anything for you, dear heart."

Geralt can feel his face flushing and he has to look away. "Duchess Penelope is a stupid name for a horse.”

“Excuse me? It’s a noble, lovely name befitting a noble, lovely lady!”

Geralt rubs the horse’s velvety soft nose. “I’m going to call her Roach.”

Jaskier’s jaw drops. “Roach? Like the bug?”

“No, like the fish. The star on her nose looks a bit like a fish, doesn’t it?”

“Oh no, absolutely not. I’ve changed my mind. I’m taking her back.”

“That’s not how birthday presents work.”

“It’s not even your birthday, Geralt.”

“What do you think, Roach?” Geralt asks the horse. “Do you like the name?”

Roach snorts in his face and it’s all the answer he needs.

***

Jaskier is almost certainly in love with Geralt.

It was only a matter of time, he thinks gloomily. He’s always found Geralt attractive, but then the last thing Geralt did before disappearing for nine months was protect Jaskier from a large, angry man coming at him with a club. Over the winter, Jaskier had a lot of time to think. A lot of time to brood, insofar as he’s capable of brooding. A lot of time to fantasize.

He loves Geralt, because he’s never met anyone so worthy of love. No one else who is as brave, or as noble, or as kind. But it doesn’t change anything. Jaskier has no desire to do anything about his stupid, ridiculous crush. He may have only another year left with Geralt, and he’s not going to do anything to risk ruining it. They already lost an entire summer due to a handful of assholes; Jaskier won’t be the asshole that ruins this summer.

So Jaskier acts completely normal, like a good friend would. When he sees Geralt after nine months apart, he pulls Geralt into an entirely platonic hug. He buys him an entirely platonic drink. He definitely doesn’t forget all about Liliana, the girl he’s been courting all winter. He buys Geralt an entire fucking horse, because that’s absolutely the kind of thing someone would do for a dear friend that they love in a completely fraternal fashion.

He’s an idiot, but it’s completely worth it for the dopey smile on Geralt’s face as he saddles Roach up.

“I’ve never had anything that belonged to me before,” he tells Jaskier, and Jaskier’s heart breaks into a million pieces.

Jaskier watches him take Roach on a trot around the paddock in a completely platonic way. If he spends most of the time watching the way the muscles in Geralt’s thighs flex, it’s only because Geralt has magnificent form. Anyone could learn something from him.

And before Geralt and Roach head back up the mountain, with the horse Geralt rode down from Kaer Morhen led along next to them, Jaskier asks in a completely platonic fashion, “Are you thinking of coming to the Belleteyn festival this year?”

Because that’s what friends do. They invite their good friends to an ancient celebration of love and fertility. Fuck.

Geralt blinks down at him from Roach’s back. “Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Why not? It’s fun. There’s food and drink and girls.” The last one is a test. Geralt has never shown any interest in girls, not that there are any girls at Kaer Morhen. He’s never shown any interest in boys either. Does he just not want to tell Jaskier about it, or is he just not interested in anyone?

Geralt shows no interest in food, drink, or girls, which isn’t helpful, as Jaskier knows he likes at least two of those things. “People don’t typically want witchers at a celebration of fertility. We’re bad luck.”

“You’re not sterile yet, dear heart.” Fuck, sometimes Jaskier really wishes an evil enchantress would come along and render him mute. But he’s made himself nervous and when he’s nervous, he babbles. “After the mutations, can witchers, you know…”

“We can’t father children.”

“I know that, but can you… can you slide the sword into the scabbard, if you will.”

Geralt gives Jaskier an exasperated look. “Yes, Jaskier.”

“Oh, good. Excellent.” Jaskier can feel his face turning red. “But you should think about coming to Belleteyn. It’s lovely.”

“Won’t you be busy with Liliana?”

“Oh, no. That ship has sailed, I’m afraid.” It turns out that when one abruptly leaves a girl in a tavern to go spend time with a friend and then whispers that friend’s name at an… intimate moment a few days later, it leads to some heated conversations.

“Hm.”

“I’m going to be performing,” Jaskier says. “It will be my first time singing for a crowd since Oxenfurt. It would be nice to have you there. You could bring Eskel too.”

And now it’s definitely platonic, because there’s no way Jaskier would ask Geralt to bring the man who’s practically his brother with him to Belleteyn if it wasn’t.

“I’ll be there,” Geralt says. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“Never call sex ‘sliding the sword into the scabbard’ again.”

“Yes, I think I can do that.”

***

“Why are we doing this?” Eskel asks as they ride their horses down the mountain.

“Because Jaskier asked us to.”

“People don’t like witchers at Belleteyn. They say we’re bad luck.”

“That’s what I told him. He pointed out that we’re not sterile yet.”

“That’s nice of him.”

“Hm.” Geralt doesn’t mention the “sword into the scabbard” comment because a week later, he’s still trying to wrap his head around it. He’s thought about sex. Of course he’s thought about it. There was a visiting Griffin witcher at Kaer Morhen a few years back who always took his shirt off during sparring and Geralt could never look at him without blushing. Sometimes, there’s a pretty girl in the village who will catch his eye, but he’s never acted on it, because there hasn’t been a point. He’ll most likely die in a year, and he doesn’t want to cause any more hurt than he has to. And it’s not like any of the village girls would want a boy on his way to becoming a mutant.

But something in the way Jaskier looked at him when he asked…

Wishful thinking, Geralt tells himself firmly.

“He got you a horse,” Eskel says carefully.

“Hm.”

“Quite a gift.”

“Said it was ten years’ worth of birthday presents.”

“Witchers don’t have birthdays.”

“I tried to tell him that too. Jaskier does what he wants.” But Geralt pats Roach’s neck fondly. He’s already attached to the sweet mare.

“I’ve noticed.”

Geralt takes a deep breath. They don’t talk about the Trials, especially now that they’re barely a year away from them. It’s a looming shadow over Kaer Morhen. “Eskel, I need to ask you a favor.”

“Anything,” Eskel says.

Geralt feels that stupid lump rise in his throat, because he knows Eskel is telling the truth. “Next year, if I don’t survive, look out for Jaskier for me.”

“Is that why you wanted me to meet him?”

“Yes. And I knew you would get along. You’re both insufferable, in your own ways. He’ll need a friend. Jaskier doesn’t have many of those. I’m worried about what will happen to him if I’m gone. And his father is cruel to him. Violently so. I’m afraid it will escalate.”

“I’ll watch out for him as long as I can, but I’ll have to go on the Path eventually.”

“I know.” Geralt has been trying not to think about that either. Even if he survives the Trials, he will only stay in Kaer Morhen another three years to finish his training before he sets out on the Path. He’ll leave Jaskier behind, and then what? He’ll return to Kaer Morhen every winter that he can, so he might see Jaskier once or twice a year. But they’ll grow older. Jaskier will have a wife and children. Geralt will have more scars and more dead monsters to his name.

Whether or not Geralt survives the Trials, he loses Jaskier in the end.

“I’ll watch out for him,” Eskel says. “And when I’m gone on the Path, I’ll pass the torch on to Lambert. Jaskier will always have a friend in Kaer Morhen.”

Geralt nods. “Thank you.”

They reach the bottom of the mountain in silence and find Lettenhove a transformed town. Flowers are hung from every building. Flickering strands of candles are hung between rooftops, threatening to burn the entire damn town down from one strong breeze. The scents of roasting meat and flowers are heavy in the air. People are dancing and singing, kissing their loved ones, and laughing with their families.

Geralt has never liked much about Lettenhove, besides the fact that Jaskier lives here. It’s small, dirty, and the people are largely assholes. But for the first time, he sees beauty in it. No one seems to notice Eskel and Geralt as they walk through the festival. No one spits on them or calls them names. A little girl runs up to them and offers them flower crowns. Smiling, Eskel kneels down so she can place one on his head. After a moment’s hesitation, Geralt takes a crown from her and places it on his own head.

It’s not hard to find Jaskier; they just follow the crowd of people. They find him sitting in front of the maypole, strumming his lute and singing a slow, melodic song full of yearning. Geralt realizes that he’s never really seen Jaskier sing, not like this. He has a beautiful voice— deep and warm. The sunlight glints in his hair. He is wearing a loose-fitting white shirt, nothing like his normal peacock-colored silks, and he has buttercups in his hair. There’s a knot of swooning girls around him. As he changes to a jaunty, innuendo-filled jig, he sends a wink at a pretty, plump blonde. The girl dissolves into giggles.

Geralt realizes that he’s standing frozen in the middle of the crowd of people, staring at Jaskier. He can’t move. He can’t look away.

Fuck.

A lot of things make sense now.

“Geralt.” Eskel’s voice is soft. “You didn’t know, did you?”

Another girl, a lovely brunette, comes up and places a wreath of flowers around Jaskier’s neck. He captures her hand in his and presses a kiss to her fingers. She blushes prettily. He looks happy and so full of life. But here Geralt is, a boy with death hanging over his head. He’ll either die in a year, or live long enough to bring death to others.

Jaskier has suffered enough in his life. Geralt doesn’t want to be another thing that brings him grief.

“We should go,” he says quietly.

Eskel looks so sad that Geralt wants to hit him. “Geralt…”

Geralt turns away. “You were right. We don’t belong here.”

He doesn’t look back at Jaskier, though he can hear his song all the way out of town.

***

All of Belleteyn, Jaskier keeps an eye out for Geralt, but his friend never appears. Jaskier drowns his disappointment in mead and the attentions of a pretty blonde named Zofia. If she’s not the person he’d rather be celebrating love with, well, that’s not her fault. Jaskier slips out the window in the morning, before he can catch a beating from her father or brothers, and makes his way back to the estate.

His father catches him sneaking in. It goes as expected.

Two days later, he’s nursing an ale in the tavern when Eskel finds him. Eskel takes one look at Jaskier’s bruised face and asks, “What happened?”

Jaskier doesn’t answer. “Where’s Geralt?”

Eskel’s expression softens. “Going through some things. You might not see him for a bit.”

“Oh.” Jaskier tries not to let his hurt show. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No, not at all. We all deal with the Trials in our own way. Geralt is dealing with them by finding the most remote tower in Kaer Morhen and brooding right now. We’re just leaving him to it.” Eskel’s eyes flicker back to Jaskier’s face. “Did your father do that?”

Jaskier bristles. “Did Geralt say something?”

“Do you want to learn how to defend yourself?”

Jaskier stares into his drink. “I think if I try to fight back, he’d actually kill me.”

Eskel’s lips twist into a shockingly vicious smile. “Then we need to make sure he doesn’t get the chance, don’t we?”

Eskel becomes a regular presence in Lettenhove throughout the summer. He teaches Jaskier to fight with his fists and his knife. He’s occasionally accompanied by Lambert, who is as adorably profane as always (not that Jaskier would ever call Lambert adorable to his face. He doesn’t want to get stabbed.) But Geralt never comes with him and Jaskier stops asking, even though he feels the ache as the days get shorter and the nights get colder. Another summer, their last summer before the Trials, is almost gone, and he didn’t get to spend any of it with Geralt.

At least he has Eskel, who becomes a friend in his own right. Jaskier trades books in his father’s library for the self-defense lessons and Eskel seems endlessly delighted by subjects that seem as dry as dirt to Jaskier. They stay up late into the night discussing poetry, history, and politics. Sometimes, Jaskier thinks things would be so much easier if Eskel, with his kind green eyes and easy displays of affection, were the one he was in love with.

One night, he drinks a bit too much mead and leans in for a kiss. Eskel stops him with a gentle hand placed against his chest.

“I know I’m not the one you actually want to kiss, Jask,” he murmurs. “So let’s not complicate things.”

Jaskier is mortified and certain he’ll never see Eskel again, but his friend shows up for their normal lesson two weeks later and the ill-advised attempted kiss is never mentioned again.

Jaskier’s father must learn of his friendship, because he’s waiting for Jaskier, drunk and angry, when Jaskier gets home from hanging out with Eskel one afternoon. They’ve been sparring and Jaskier is sweaty, with disheveled hair and his doublet slung over his arm. He knows what he must look like. When the earl sees Jaskier, a vein in his forehead pops.

“Bad enough that you were one witcher’s whore!” he roars. “But now, you’re cavorting with another one? You’ve made a laughingstock of this whole family!”

It’s a special kind of torture, Jaskier thinks, being labeled a witcher’s whore without having enjoyed any of the pleasurable activities that could lead to such a moniker. He doesn’t have much time to dwell on it before his father comes at him with fists flying.

The instincts that Eskel has spent an entire summer teaching him take over. Jaskier has no memory of how it happens, but he ends up with his father pinned against the wall, his forearm pressed against the earl’s windpipe. Up close, he realizes that he’s grown taller and broader than his father. The Earl de Lettenhove is getting old. There are deep wrinkles around his eyes and mouth and his eyes are glazed with cataracts. He’s not the fearsome figure who haunted Jaskier’s childhood. He’s just a sad man approaching the end of middle age.

“You’re not going to do that anymore,” he tells his father coldly.

The earl splutters. “You whoreson—”

Jaskier presses harder against his throat. “You’re not going to do that anymore. Understood?”

His father nods, eyes wild. When Jaskier lets go of him, he lunges.

It only hurts Jaskier’s fist a little when he punches his father hard enough in the jaw to crack teeth.

The Earl de Lettenhove doesn’t raise a hand against his son again.

***

Vesemir finds Geralt where he’s meditating on top of the highest tower, where he spends most of his days when he’s not actively training right now. Geralt keeps his eyes closed, even though he recognizes the tread of Vesemir’s footsteps.

“I’m only going to say this once,” Vesemir says. “There’s a reason we discourage witchers from forming bonds outside the brotherhood. It makes things complicated.”

Geralt doesn’t reply.

Vesemir takes a deep breath, like he’s gathering his patience. “You don’t want to go into the Trials with any regrets, pup. Because once the pain starts, it will be too late. If you think you’re sparing your friend’s feelings by avoiding him before the Trials, try to see things from his perspective. How would you feel if Eskel stopped talking for you for the next year?”

Geralt’s eyes snap open. “I’m not—”

“Avoiding Jaskier? Bullshit.”

Geralt looks out over the landscape sprawled in front of Kaer Morhen. The leaves are starting to turn and the mountainside looks like it’s awash in fire. Jaskier would love this view. “I’m trying to make this easier.”

“For him or for yourself?” When Geralt doesn’t answer, Vesemir shakes his head. “Like I said, that’s all I have to say on the matter. Whatever you decide to do, decide soon. Winter’s almost upon us.”

As Vesemir turns away, Geralt asks, “If witchers are discouraged from forming connections, then why did you let us spend time together? You didn’t let any of the other trainees else wander around Lettenhove with villagers. You wanted Jaskier and I to become friends.”

“You were two lonely young boys who needed each other,” Vesemir says. “I’ll admit, I figured you’d be playmates for a few years and then you’d grow apart, like many childhood friends do. I never expected your friendship to become so intense. I definitely never expected you to fall in love with him.”

Geralt looks at him with wide eyes and Vesemir chuckles.

“I’m two hundred years old, Geralt. I notice things.” Vesemir reaches down to clasp his shoulder. “Do yourself a favor. Don’t wait until the last minute to make things right. It will just cause more pain for both of you.”

***

It’s almost the equinox when Jaskier sees Geralt again. He’s at their spot by the river, fishing, when he hears footsteps approaching. Expecting Eskel, or maybe Vesemir, Jaskier looks up with a smile. To his surprise, it’s Geralt standing there. His friend looks years older than the last time Jaskier saw him before Belleteyn. There are shadows under his eyes and he looks haggard. Jaskier hasn’t seen him like this since after the last set of Trials. He hovers at the treeline with his hands jammed into his pockets, like he’s afraid to come closer.

“Eskel told me you beat the shit out of your father,” he says by way of greeting.

“Not really.” Jaskier shrugs. “It only took one punch. Turns out, people who beat up little kids usually can’t take a hit to save their lives.”

“Wish I had been there.”

“Well, you weren’t.” Jaskier turns back towards the river. Even though Geralt doesn’t say anything, he can feel his friend’s presence behind him, heavy and brooding. He sighs and puts the fishing rod down. “Will you tell me what I did wrong, Geralt, or am I supposed to guess?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Really? Because I haven’t seen you in months.”

“It wasn’t… it had nothing to do with you.”

“Ah, the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech. A classic.”

“I’m sorry,” Geralt says.

Jaskier turns to face him and sees his friend’s expression contorted in misery. It does nothing to his heartstrings. Nothing at all.

Geralt stares at a spot over Jaskier’s shoulder. “I saw you on Belleteyn.”

“You came to Belleteyn?” Jaskier demands.

Geralt nods. “Me and Eskel. I saw you and you were happy. You were surrounded by girls. I didn’t want to ruin that.”

Jaskier cocks his head to the side. “You didn’t want to ruin my happiness by attending the festival I had asked you to attend?”

Geralt makes a frustrated noise. “I thought it would make things easier.”

“Easier.”

“I’m training to become a witcher.”

“Ye gods, I had no idea.”

Geralt still isn’t looking at him. “That means even if I survive the Trials, I’m going to be walking the Path, Jaskier. I’ll be gone and you’ll be here and you’ll have a family. There won’t be room for me in your life.”

“You idiot.” Jaskier jumps to his feet and stalks towards him. “You absolute fucking idiot. There will always be room for you in my life.”

“The Trials are less than a year away,” Geralt says. “I may die. I don’t want to be something you have to mourn.”

Jaskier looks at him sadly. “Geralt, it’s way too late for that. You’re my best friend. You really think a couple of months of not talking to you will magically make me not be sad if something happens to you?”

Geralt doesn’t say anything.

Jaskier steps closer, closing the gap between them. “If you honestly don’t want to be friends anymore, just tell me. I’ll respect your decision, even if it’s the wrong one. Just please, tell me what you want.”

"You, Jask." Geralt slips an arm around his waist and leans in. His hand is large and warm on Jaskier’s lower back.

“Hold on,” Jaskier says when their lips are so close that he can feel Geralt’s breath tickling his chin.

Geralt’s eyes widen and he starts to pull away, but Jaskier grabs the front of his shirt and holds him in place.

“If you freak out about this and vanish up the mountain again, I will come track you down. If I get eaten by a werewolf, that will be on you.”

Geralt’s eyes search his face. “Do you want to—”

“Gods, yes. Yes. But I need to know that this isn’t going to ruin our friendship.”

“I’m yours for as long as you want me, Jask.”

“Thank sweet Melitele.” Jaskier drags Geralt towards him and kisses him. Geralt’s lips are soft and he tastes like apples. He’s tentative, kissing like someone who doesn’t quite know what to do with his tongue, and Jaskier realizes that this is probably Geralt’s first kiss. He cups Geralt’s face in his palms, resisting the urge to let his hands wander. Geralt lets out a low, contented hum and deepens the kiss, following Jaskier’s lead. Jaskier melts into him.

“I tried to kiss Eskel,” Jaskier says when they come up for air, suddenly anxious. “I feel like I need to tell you that before you kiss me again. In my defense, I was drunk and I missed you.”

Geralt cocks an eyebrow. “Did he try to kiss you back?”

Jaskier shakes his head. “No. He told me it would make things too complicated. I’m sorry. Are you angry?”

“Hm. At least your taste has improved since Valdo fucking Marx.”

“You never even met Valdo.”

“I hated him the second I read his name for the first time. You kept writing about him.”

Jaskier laughs, delighted. “Geralt, were you jealous?”

“Yes.”

Jaskier kisses him again. They don’t come up for air for a long time.

***

On the surface, things between Geralt and Jaskier don’t change all that much. They still spend the days Geralt is in Lettenhove sitting by the river or in the stables. They still laugh, talk, and goof around. Jaskier still rambles and rolls his eyes when Geralt answers one of his monologues with a quiet “hm.” Eskel and Lambert still accompany Geralt sometimes and Eskel and Jaskier spar while Lambert provides unhelpful commentary.

What changes is the way Geralt can now squeeze Jaskier’s knee under the table when they’re in the tavern or pull Jaskier into his lap and kiss him when they’re sitting by the river together. Every time they spend a day together, Geralt learns a new thing to appreciate about Jaskier. The soft, happy noise Jaskier makes when Geralt comes up behind him and wraps his arms around his waist. The feeling of the pulse in Jaskier’s neck under Geralt’s lips. How his long, callused fingers tangle in Geralt’s hair. The way he presses his whole body against Geralt’s when they kiss, warm and trusting.

If this ends tomorrow, it will be worth it, Geralt decides one lazy afternoon, when Jaskier falls asleep next to the river with his head pillowed on Geralt’s thigh and his ring sitting on the rock next to him. Geralt cards his fingers through Jaskier’s hair, thumb tracing over the point of his ear, and watches the steady rise and fall of his chest. Geralt should have left Lettenhove an hour ago to ensure he’s back to Kaer Morhen before dark. He’ll get a talking to from Vesemir when he returns, but nothing can make him disturb Jaskier when he’s like this.

After he finally does kiss Jaskier awake and makes the journey back to Kaer Morhen, he does get a talking to from Vesemir of the likes he hasn’t experienced since he was twelve. “If your cock gets you eaten by a forktail, I’ll make sure you go down in history as the most foolish trainee to ever grace the halls of Kaer Morhen.” Lambert and Eskel both cackle when Geralt repeats that line to him and Geralt goes to bed smiling, thinking of the sleepy joy in Jaskier’s eyes when he blinked awake to find Geralt next to him.

When he wakes up in the morning, the mountain is covered in a foot of snow and the trail down to Lettenhove is now impassable.

***

 

Age 18

Hanna gives birth to a baby boy in the dead of winter. The babe is six weeks early and no one expects him to survive the night, but he defies the midwife’s expectations. The earl names him Julian and Jaskier’s long-held certainty that his name would be struck from the family record books as soon as another son came along is confirmed. He imagines they’ll keep him around for another year or so, just to make sure that Little Julian survives infancy, but then Jaskier knows he’ll be forgotten. Maybe Izabela will miss him, but Sonja and him have never gotten along and the twins and Lena are so little that they probably won’t remember him.

But Jaskier has known this was coming for years. He’s been saving up money. He has maps of the Continent memorized. He has a whole notebook filled with songs ready to be performed for adoring crowds. Jaskier isn’t going to wait for the Earl de Lettenhove to kick him out like a stray dog someone found sleeping in the stables. Jaskier is going to walk out of Lettenhove of his own volition with his head held high.

Sometimes, he likes to imagine that he and Geralt will walk out of Lettenhove together. In some of those dreams, Geralt is a witcher. But most of the time, he’s the brown-eyed human Jaskier adores. They travel the Continent and go on adventures together. The terror of the Trials no longer hangs over their heads. It’s a foolish, hopeless fantasy, but Jaskier treasures it. It stops him from sinking into despair as the winter drags on endlessly and he misses Geralt with every fiber of his being.

He will see Geralt again, he keeps telling himself. The Trials won’t happen until around the solstice. They’ll at least have two or three months together before that. It won’t be enough— no amount of time will ever be enough— but it will be something. Months that Jaskier will be able to spend being touched and held like he’s the most precious thing in the world. Months where the sound of Geralt whispering his name in his ear will make him shiver. Months where Jaskier will devote himself to memorizing every scar and freckle on Geralt’s skin and pray that he gets more time to learn.

The first morning Jaskier wakes up to hear birds chirping, he feels equal parts elation and fear. Because while spring means he’ll get to see Geralt soon, it also means that the Trials are close.

***

When Geralt makes it down the mountain after the snow melts, he finds Jaskier in the tavern. They barely make it out of sight of the town before Geralt pushes Jaskier up against a tree and kisses him breathless, then grinds his hips against Jaskier’s until they both come in their breeches. It’s not the tender greeting he had planned, but it’s entirely worth it for the way Jaskier gasps his name and digs his fingernails into Geralt’s shoulders. When they’re done, Jaskier sinks to the ground at the base of the tree. His cheeks are pink, his hair is mussed, and his eyes are full of laughter.

“Fuck, I missed you,” he says warmly.

In that moment, Geralt loves him so much that he can barely breathe.

***

“I have a little brother,” Jaskier tells Geralt later as they sit by the river. “His name is Julian.”

Head resting on Jaskier’s shoulder, Geralt snorts. “Not one for subtlety, your father.”

“The one thing we have in common.”

“What are you going to do?”

This is the part where Jaskier should tell him his plans to leave Lettenhove. But it will become a discussion. Possibly even an argument. And they’ve had such a nice day that Jaskier can’t bring himself to ruin it.

“I have no fucking clue,” Jaskier says.

Geralt hums in response and they leave it at that.

***

With just over two months left until the Trials, tension hums through Kaer Morhen. There are fourteen boys in Geralt’s cohort, and most of them will be dead in a manner of weeks. Some of them approach their end with the gallows humor of men standing on a scaffold. Others go grim and silent. Some, like Eskel, insist on proceeding with business as usual, like this is just another summer and the Trials will be just another test. Some, like Clovis, pick fights with everyone who makes eye contact with them. As for Geralt, he just feels resigned whenever he thinks about it.

He’s known this summer was coming for twelve years. He’s been braced for it. So he trains extra hard. He runs the Killer every morning with Eskel and Gweld. He eats the extra portions of the special mushrooms the trainees have to eat (in the month before the Trials, they'll be restricted to a diet of solely mushrooms and water, which Geralt dreads nearly as much as the Trials themselves.) He steals whatever moments he can with Eskel, Lambert, Gweld, Gascaden, and the others. He enjoys the feeling of sun on his face and the fizzle of ale on his tongue.

He worries about Jaskier, more than he would ever admit to the other boy. Jaskier seems to anticipate being disowned and left penniless by his father within a year and Geralt is terrified of what will happen to him. The world is a dangerous place, especially for a sheltered noble. If he doesn’t fall under a bandit’s blade, he could die in a monster’s jaws. Geralt lies awake at night and pictures Jaskier dragged into a lake by a drowner or savaged by a werewolf. He pictures his throat slit by bandits or his skull cracked open in a tavern brawl. Geralt would undergo the Trial of the Grasses a dozen times if it meant protecting Jaskier from that.

One night, he’s sitting with the rest of his cohort at the top of one of the towers, passing around a jug of mead and trying not to dwell on those fears.

Clovis, a shockingly cheerful drunk given his normally surly disposition, is the one who asks, “If you weren’t training to be a witcher, what would you be? I always figured I’d be a blacksmith, like my Da.”

Geralt has known Clovis for eleven years and is just now learning that his father was a blacksmith. They go around, each boy answering. Mathias would be a butcher, like his father, while Gweld would like to run a tavern. Gascaden has no ambition other than wiling away his days in a brothel. Erik would have been a soldier, Sam a doctor, Piotr a teacher.

“Probably a mage,” Eskel says, when it’s his turn.

The boys all nod. Eskel has always been the best of them at signs; it’s well known that he has magic in his blood.

Everyone’s gazes turn to Geralt and he remembers having nearly this exact same conversation with Jaskier, probably two or three years ago. “Come on. You have to have some secret dream. Horse trainer? Pirate? King of Kaedwen?” He didn’t know what to tell Jaskier then, and he doesn’t know what to tell his brothers now. When he pictures a future without the Trials, all he can think of is Jaskier. Traveling the Continent, watching Jaskier sing in smokey taverns, endless days spent in bed together.

“I’d be the king of fucking Kaedwen,” he says and the other boys laugh. Only Eskel watches him with thoughtful eyes, like he can see all the things Geralt can’t say written on his face.

***

“I’m thinking of leaving Lettenhove,” Jaskier tells Geralt the third time he sees him that spring. They’re sitting against a tree on the outskirts of the Pankratz family estate, with the remains of the picnic lunch Jaskier pilfered from the kitchens spread before him. Jaskier leans against the trunk of the tree with Geralt sitting between his legs, Geralt’s back pressed against his chest.

He feels Geralt stiffen.

“I want to leave of my own volition, before my father kicks me out,” Jaskier says. “A final fuck you to the old bastard. It might send him to an early grave, gods willing.”

“When?” Geralt asks.

Jaskier takes a deep breath. “Well, that’s up to you, dear heart.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you want to come with me.”

Geralt twists so he’s looking at Jaskier, brow furrowed. “My training doesn’t end for at least three years after I finish the Trials. It will take time for me to adjust to the mutations.”

Fuck, Jaskier had a whole speech planned, and he’s bungling it terribly. “I was thinking maybe we could leave before the Trials.”

A beat of silence, then a long sigh. “Jaskier.”

“We could just go,” Jaskier says. “Really, what’s keeping us here? A deal your mother made with Vesemir eighteen years ago? There’s a whole Continent out there we haven’t seen. I would love to take you to Oxenfurt and Novigrad. I’ve always wanted to go to Touissaint. And Skellige!”

Geralt doesn’t say anything.

Jaskier swallows. “I can’t lose you, Geralt. I knew what I was getting into when we started this, but last year the Trials seemed so far away. And now they’re almost here and I can’t picture a life without you. I don’t know what I would do.”

“I’ve talked to Eskel,” Geralt says. “If I don’t make it, he’ll look out for you.”

“I don’t want an interchangeable witcher bodyguard. I want you.”

“I can’t just leave.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re my family, Jask. The only family I’ve ever had.”

“They’ll still be your family, even if you don’t go through the Trials.” Jaskier has been doing everything over the past few months to hide his fear and grief from Geralt, but he can feel it bubbling up in him now. “I don’t want to live in a world without you. Please, please just think about it.”

Geralt is silent for a long time and Jaskier thinks that this is it. He’s ruined everything. He always knew it was going to happen, but he’s not ready for this to be over. To his surprise, Geralt turns around to face him and cups Jaskier’s face in his hands, brushing away the tears Jaskier didn’t realize he was crying. Geralt doesn’t look angry. The look in his eyes is something akin to hope.

“When do you want to leave?” Geralt asks.

***

The plan is simple: Geralt will head down to Lettenhove at dawn to meet Jaskier, like he always does on his monthly free day. There’s a satchel with his few possessions hidden under a rock about a half mile from Kaer Morhen. No one will know anything is wrong until Geralt doesn’t return to the keep that night. Jaskier will leave a letter for Vesemir so the swordmaster doesn’t think something horrible has befallen them. And then Geralt and Jaskier will just… go. They don’t really have a destination in mind, other than a vague plan to head south towards Aedirn. There are so many things they’ll need to figure out, but they can all wait.

On his last night in Kaer Morhen, Geralt tries to act like everything is fine. He eats and laughs with his brothers. He almost gets in a fight with Clovis. He teases Lambert. If he catches Vesemir watching him a bit more intensely than normal, he chalks it up to a guilty conscience. Witchers can smell anxiety and fear, but everyone in his cohort is anxious right now. He doesn’t know the extent of witcher senses, but he doubts his own anxiety smells different than anyone else’s.

He feels a surge of guilt when Lambert makes some smart ass remark and Eskel roars with laughter and throws an arm around the younger boy. He may never see Eskel again. He could be leaving his brother to die alone. Hell, Lambert will undergo the Trials in four years. He may never see Lambert again either. They could both die in the Trials, and Geralt would never know, because he’ll be halfway across the Continent.

But who is he kidding? Even if they both survive the Trials, Eskel and Lambert will never want to see Geralt again. He’ll never be welcome back at Kaer Morhen after this. He’ll be a traitor to the Wolf School and a stranger to the men he once called his brothers. The thought leaves him aching.

Eskel’s eyes meet his and Geralt laughs along with the joke he didn’t hear.

In the morning, he slips out before anyone else is awake without saying goodbye.

***

Part of Jaskier doesn’t believe Geralt will actually go through with running away until he spots Geralt and Roach descending the mountain. The sight of them fills Jaskier with such relief that it takes everything in him not to launch himself at Geralt and pepper the other man with kisses. He tries his best to look casual as they ride out of town side by side. After all, the sight of Jaskier and Geralt together shouldn’t strike anyone as suspicious.

It’s not until they’re a mile from Lettenhove that Jaskier leans over, grabs Geralt by the sleeve, and hauls him in for a kiss. “I can’t believe we did it. I can’t believe we left.”

Pain flashes across Geralt’s face and Jaskier remembers that he may be leaving a loveless family and a town that never accepted him, but Geralt is leaving people who care about him, including the closest thing he’s ever had to a father.

“It’ll be okay, dear heart,” Jaskier says softly.

Geralt’s jaw clenches. “Come on, we need to put as much distance between us and Lettenhove as we can before dark.”

They ride all day, keeping the horses at a brisk but manageable pace. Jaskier isn’t sure whether they’ll be pursued or not, but he can’t stop himself from checking over his shoulder every few minutes. Just in case, they take a circuitous route, heading west towards Redania before cutting south towards Aedirn.

It’s the longest Jaskier has ever spent in Geralt’s company and he soaks up every minute of it. Geralt doesn’t have to worry about getting back up the mountain before dark, so they have all the time they need. When they finally find a place next to a stream that Geralt deems safe to camp for the night, they catch and cook some fish for dinner before dousing the fire and curling up on their bedroll to sleep.

Jaskier never thought he would get to fall asleep next to Geralt. Nestled against the man he loves, with his arm around Geralt’s waist and his face pressed into Geralt’s shoulder, Jaskier may be the most comfortable he’s ever been. He may be sleeping on the ground instead of on his feather bed back in Lettenhove, but none of that matters. The stars are bright above him, the woods around them are peaceful, and in the morning, he’ll wake up next to Geralt. When he drifts off to sleep, he’s perfectly content.

***

Geralt has slept outside many times; the instructors at Kaer Morhen take the trainees camping at least once a month year-round to acclimate them to surviving in all climates. He’s slept outside in the midst of torrential downpours, snowstorms, and nights so cold he thought he would lose all his fingers. At least he’s currently warm and dry. But he’s used to being surrounded by other trainees and witchers when he’s sleeping outside and knowing that every single one of them could defend themselves if push came to shove. Not Jaskier, who fell asleep as soon as his head hit the bedroll and is dead to the world, making little whistling noises as he breathes.

All Geralt can hear are the normal sounds of the woods around them— owls hooting, small creatures rustling in the bushes, the shriek of a fox in the distance. Jaskier jerks at the shriek, but doesn’t wake. Geralt smiles as Jaskier presses closer to his side, even though Geralt thought he was already close as is humanly possible. Some of the tension releases in his shoulders as he looks down at Jaskier’s peaceful face.

Then he thinks of his empty bunk back at Kaer Morhen, and Eskel’s bunk next to it. Is Eskel out searching for him? Is he lying awake, worrying about Geralt and Jaskier? Geralt feels a surge of guilt. He should have told Eskel what he was planning. He shouldn’t have left without saying goodbye. Suddenly, Geralt is desperately homesick. He misses the training yard, the Killer, the way Vesemir calls him “pup,” laughing with Eskel, and giving Lambert a hard time. He misses his cohort. He even misses the mushrooms.

He wonders if he did the right thing and then reminds himself that it doesn’t matter anymore. He left. He’s gone.

It takes Geralt a long time to fall asleep.

***

They cross the border into Aedirn the next day. Dark clouds hang low in the sky, promising rain, so Jaskier suggests they find an inn to stay the night.

“We need to make our coin last,” Geralt says, though he looks exhausted.

“One night at an inn won’t break us,” Jaskier says. “Plus, I can sing for our supper.”

“We should put as much distance between us and Lettenhove as possible.”

“But, dear heart.” Jaskier flashes a coy smile. “I want you in a bed as soon as possible.”

It’s quite flattering how quickly Geralt changes his mind.

They end up in a little town in eastern Aedirn called Upper Posada, in an inn that’s only a step above a hovel, but the stew they’re serving smells amazing and when Jaskier asks if he can entertain the other patrons, the proprietress agrees. Well, she laughs and says, “Good luck, bardling,” but Jaskier takes that as all the encouragement he needs. This is his first night as a real traveling bard and he’s going to put his heart and soul into it.

He lasts two songs before the heckling starts. By the third song, food starts being thrown.

“Oi, fuck off!” Jaskier calls to the group of men who spearheaded the assault, scurrying back to his and Geralt’s table with hands filled with thrown dinner rolls. Only a few have bites taken out of them. “Well, dear heart, I told you I would sing for our supper. Never let it be said that I don’t keep my promises.”

The bread is a bit stale and a bit dusty, but it’s fine with the serving of stew they split between them. Jaskier hardly tastes the meal or hears the mocking voices of the men on the other side of the room. The reality of the fact that he and Geralt will finally be alone with a bed hits him. From the way Geralt’s looking at him across the table suggests that the other man is thinking the same thing.

As soon as Jaskier takes his last bite of bread, Geralt stands up. “Upstairs?”

Jaskier grins stupidly up at him. “Thought you’d never ask.”

The room is small, with only a narrow straw mattress on the floor and a small table. The bath Jaskier ordered is no more than a large bucket of lukewarm water, but Jaskier is too happy to have access to soap and water to complain. He doesn’t think he makes the most erotic sight as he stands in the bucket and uses a cloth to wipe off the dirt and sweat accumulated after two days on the road. But when he bends over to wash his legs, Geralt makes a strangled noise. Jaskier looks over his shoulder with a grin.

“Like what you see?”

Geralt is sitting on the mattress, watching Jaskier with eyes that look almost black in the flickering candlelight. Jaskier shivers.

“Um, you next.” Jaskier steps out of the bucket, very aware of his own nakedness. Behind him, he hears Geralt’s clothes fall to the ground and the slosh of water. He turns around and his eyes widen. He’s seen Geralt shirtless plenty of times and has gotten him out of his breeches a couple of times, but this is the first time he’s seen him completely naked. Geralt isn’t quite as tall or broad-shouldered as Jaskier, but his arms and legs are thick with muscle. Jaskier tracks the movement of a droplet of water as it trickles down Geralt’s back to his incredibly lovely ass, mouth suddenly dry.

“Like what you see?” Geralt’s voice is low and husky.

“Yes. I would like it even more if you would hurry the fuck up and get on the bed.”

“Impatient.”

“I’ve been patient. So patient that Melitele herself would be proud of me.” Their riverside rendezvous have never gone past breathless kisses and hands down breeches. And while both activities are enjoyable, Jaskier thinks he might actually explode if he doesn’t have Geralt’s mouth and his hands and, most importantly, his cock on him right now.

Geralt takes his time bathing and by the time he finally steps out of the tub, Jaskier is hard and aching. Geralt crosses the room in two strides, heedless of the water he drips all over the floor. He grabs Jaskier around the waist and pulls him close, kissing him hungrily. Jaskier gasps into his mouth as one of Geralt’s hands wraps around his cock while the other one cups his ass.

“What do you want?” Geralt asks softly.

Jaskier is having trouble forming coherent thoughts, never mind sentences, as Geralt’s hand starts stroking up and down his length. “You. All of you.”

He reaches out and takes hold of Geralt’s cock and the sound Geralt makes may be the most beautiful thing he’s ever heard.

“You’re so fucking gorgeous,” Jaskier says. “Gods, Geralt, I—”

Geralt pushes him back onto the mattress and climbs on top of him to keep kissing him. Feeling a little desperate, Jaskier grinds his hip upwards so their cocks rub together. He thinks he might come from that friction alone.

“Have you done this before?” he asks Geralt.

Geralt shakes his head. “Who would I have done this with?”

“I don’t know, a keep full of strapping lads trapped together for long, lonely winters…”

“Those lads are my brothers.” Geralt nips at the skin under Jaskier’s ear. It’s shockingly erotic. “Maybe not in blood, but in all the ways that matter.”

“Oh well, there goes all my most treasured late-night fantasies.”

“Hm, sorry.” Geralt’s grin is lopsided and a little shy. Jaskier wants to give him the world.

“I don’t need late-night fantasies, dear heart,” Jaskier says. “I have you.”

He wraps his legs around Geralt’s hips and flips them over so Geralt is lying on his back on the mattress and Jaskier is straddling him. Jaskier kisses his way down Geralt’s neck to his broad chest to his smooth, flat stomach. He nuzzles at the trail of dark hair under Geralt’s belly button, gratified when Geralt moans. When he gets to Geralt’s cock, he hesitates, letting his breath tickle the head. Geralt’s cock twitches.

“Is this okay?” Jaskier asks Geralt.

“Yes.” Geralt’s voice is almost a growl.

Jaskier licks a stripe up the length of Geralt’s cock. Geralt’s hips buck and Jaskier grabs them to hold them still before taking Geralt’s cock in his mouth. Geralt tastes like salty precum and soap. Jaskier uses his tongue and his lips to make Geralt moan under him. When Jaskier slicks his finger with the precum leaking from his own cock and slips it in Geralt’s ass, Geralt makes a noise that’s half-moan, half-shout and comes. Jaskier swallows it down and peppers Geralt’s thighs with kisses, finger still circling lazily inside Geralt.

“Jask,” Geralt says hoarsely. “Fuck me.”

Jaskier has a lot of things he would like to say to that. What comes out of his mouth is a garbled croak as he nearly falls flat on his face while he scrambles to get the oil out of his saddlebag. In his haste, he sends most of the contents of his saddlebag scattering over the floor. Cursing, he chases after the bottle of oil as it rolls away, managing to bang his knee on the bucket of water and nearly impaling his hand on his own knife in the process. When he finally straightens up, breathing heavily, Geralt is watching him with a cocked eyebrow. They both burst out laughing and Jaskier sinks down into the bed next to Geralt, giggling uncontrollably.

“Julian Alfred Pankratz, master of seduction.” Jaskier flourishes an arm.

Geralt kisses him. “Yeah, you are.”

Jaskier nuzzles at his jawline. “Turn over.”

He takes his time opening Geralt up, gratified by the little gasp and moans Geralt makes. Geralt is facedown on the pillow, ass in the air, and Jaskier is worried he may not even make it inside of Geralt. He might come from the sight alone. But when Geralt finally growls at him to “just do it already,” Jaskier takes it as all the invitation he needs. Slowly, gently, he works his way inside of Geralt an inch at a time. Geralt feels incredible and it takes everything in him not to start thrusting. Instead, Jaskier starts to gently roll his hips.

“Jaskier,” Geralt groans and Jaskier leans down to kiss the meat of his shoulder. There’s a scar there, thin and white against Geralt’s tanned skin.

“I love you,” Jaskier whispers against the scar.

Once he says it, he can’t stop. He whispers his love over and over again as he deepens his thrusts and reaches around to take Geralt’s half-hard cock in hand. He says it as he kisses the back of Geralt’s neck and his shoulders and his back. He says it as Geralt comes with a whimper, and then he says it as his own orgasm follows. When they lay side by side afterwards, both gasping and sweaty, he presses a kiss to Geralt’s jaw and murmurs it again.

Geralt turns and captures Jaskier’s mouth with his. “I love you too.”

No one has told Jaskier that they loved him since Elisa died when he was three years old. Jaskier has to close his eyes against the too many emotions that wash over him. When he opens his eyes, Geralt is watching him with a concerned look.

Jaskier smiles at him shakily. “Well, there goes your maidenhead, dear heart. We will, of course, be wed at dawn—”

Geralt shoves him off the bed.

***

They spend most of the next day in bed, only leaving to grab a quick breakfast in the tavern downstairs. Geralt learns all the ways he can touch Jaskier to make his lover gasp and moan under his hands. He lets Jaskier fuck him again and he fucks Jaskier, marveling at the way Jaskier’s body clenches around him. Around midday, they take a nap and Geralt wakes Jaskier up by kissing his way down Jaskier’s body and taking his cock in his mouth. Jaskier writhes underneath him and arches in pleasure.

“How did you get so good at that?” Jaskier whispers when Geralt is done, eyes bright and cheeks flushed.

Geralt wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and smirks. “A couple years ago, Eskel and I found some dirty books that some past trainee had hidden in the library. They were… informative.”

“Gods, I hope someday I can meet that trainee to thank them.”

“Hm. Probably died in the Trials.”

The mood in the room immediately sours. Geralt has been trying not to think about Eskel, Lambert, Vesemir, and all the things he left behind at Kaer Morhen. He’s been trying not to think about Eskel going into the Trials without Geralt, alone and screaming in what could be his last days alive. Every time he starts to think about it, he distracts himself with Jaskier’s long legs and his chest hair and his cock and the way he tilts his head back and moans when he comes.

Jaskier kisses him sweetly and Geralt leans into the distraction, relieved.

It’s well past dark when Geralt finally stands up and cleans himself off with the cold water from last night’s bath. “I’m going to go downstairs and get us something to eat.”

“Want me to come?” Jaskier is stretched out on the bed, skin flushed and hair rumpled. He looks debauched with bruises on his hips from Geralt’s fingers and a hickey that Geralt sucked on his throat.

“No, I’ll bring it back up,” Geralt says. “I want you to stay right there. Don’t put any clothes on.”

Jaskier grins wickedly. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

The mood in the tavern is subdued when Geralt makes his way downstairs. People are talking in hushed voices, heads bent together. The proprietress who sneered and scoffed at Jaskier’s expense the day before takes Geralt’s order for two bowls of stew, two ales, and some bread with a guarded expression. It’s not until Geralt turns away from the bar that he sees why everyone is so on edge.

Vesemir sits at a table in the corner, dressed in full armor, two swords strapped to his back and medallion around his neck. When he sees Geralt, he nods towards the chair across from him. “Sit down, pup.”

Feeling like somewhere between a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar and a condemned man walking to the gallows, Geralt slowly approaches the old witcher. He knows that he probably smells like Jaskier and sex. Vesemir’s expression doesn’t change as Geralt lowers himself into the seat across from him.

“I’m not coming back,” Geralt tells him.

“And I have no intention of dragging you back to Kaer Morhen if you’re not willing.”

It’s not what Geralt was expecting Vesemir to say and it leaves him flustered. “Oh, well, good.”

Vesemir’s lips twitch. “Did you expect me to drag you out by the ear?”

“Varin would.”

“There’s a reason I came, not Varin. I won’t force you to do anything, Geralt, but I’d like you to hear me out.”

It’s the least Geralt can do for him, so he nods.

“Why did you decide to leave?” Vesemir asks.

“Jaskier’s father was going to disown him. He wanted to leave Lettenhove and he asked me to come.” Geralt clenches his jaw. “I don’t want to die in the Trials and leave Jaskier. I won’t.”

“Did he know how much it hurt you to leave?”

“It didn’t—”

“I’ve been following you since you left Lettenhove, Geralt. I saw your distress when you knew Jaskier wasn’t looking.”

“You were following us?” Geralt wracks his memory for any sign that he and Jaskier were being pursued. “I didn’t see you.”

Vesemir snorts. “Of course you didn’t, pup.”

Color rises to Geralt’s face. “I’m not hurting. This is what I want, to be with Jaskier. Even if I survive the Trials, I won’t be the same person. I won’t feel the same.”

“You can’t possibly believe the lie that witchers don’t feel emotion.”

“Varin said—”

“Varin excuses many of his own personal failings on being a witcher. You will still feel after the Trials. Your emotions will be a bit more muted and you’ll have an easier time compartmentalizing them, but they’ll still be there. No Trial can excise love.”

“It doesn’t even matter,” Geralt snaps, flustered. “I’ll probably die in the Trials anyway.”

“You can’t know that. There’s no way of knowing who will live and—”

“Who will die. So you’ve said.” Geralt drains the ale on the table, remembers it was Vesemir’s, not his, and goes red. “Fuck, sorry—”

“No matter. At least three different people had spat in that ale, so you did me a favor.”

Geralt coughs.

“You’ve been working your whole life for this, Geralt,” Vesemir says. “Part of you seems to think you’re still the small, terrified boy who couldn’t even lift a sword. Now you’re one of the best in your cohort, second only to Eskel.”

“That doesn’t mean I’ll survive.”

“It doesn’t. But it means if you do survive, you’ll be a great witcher. Possibly one of the best Kaer Morhen ever produced, and not just because you’re quick on your feet and good with a sword. You have heart, Geralt. You care about people and you want to protect them. That’s something that can’t be taught. Tell me, what’s your plan?”

“My plan?”

“What will you do if you’re not a witcher? Surely you can’t plan to just follow Jaskier and watch him sing. I saw his performance last night. He has potential, but he’s not a natural showman yet. It will take time before he’s able to make enough coin to support himself, never mind the both of you. So, what will you do to earn coin?”

“I don’t know.”

“What are your skills?” Vesemir asks. “You can fight. Will you become a hired mercenary? Kill men instead of monsters? Hunt down peasants who haven’t paid their taxes or drag fugitives to the gallows?”

“No!” Geralt is horrified at the thought.

“Then what will you do, Geralt? Become a farmer? You’ll need money to buy land. Take up a trade? You should have started apprenticing years ago. Breed horses? Again, you’ll need money, land, and connections to get started. Freelance monster hunting is always an option, but without mutations, you won’t be able to fight the creatures that make real coin.”

Geralt can’t think of anything to say.

“If I thought you truly wanted to leave, Geralt, I wouldn’t have followed you,” Vesemir says. “But right now, I think you’re trying to do what will make Jaskier happy.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Of course, you, an eighteen year old boy, are the first person to ever fall in love. Foolish of me.”

“Have you ever been in love?” The words come out more accusatory than Geralt intends.

“Yes.”

Geralt is taken aback by the answer. “What happened?”

“She was human. I could protect her from men and monsters, but not old age. She died, I buried her, and I returned to Kaer Morhen to become an instructor. That’s another thing, Geralt. What do you know about elves?”

“Not much.” Geralt shrugs.

“They can live for thousands of years. Halflings don’t live quite that long. Jaskier’s mother was half-elf, so he will probably live for three or four hundred years. He’ll look the way he does now for decades. And without witcher mutations, you’ll live a normal human lifespan.”

Geralt knows what Jaskier would say if he were sitting here. “Better to have sixty more years together than nothing.” But Geralt pictures himself growing old and gray while Jaskier remains young and spry. He pictures his bones growing too frail for him to continue traveling and having to be left behind while Jaskier goes on adventures without him. He pictures Jaskier weeping over his grave, still looking eighteen and beautiful. If Jaskier even loves him at that point, because what beautiful young thing would want an old man as a lover?

“I can’t drag you back to Kaer Morhen,” Vesemir says. “You’re a grown man and you weren’t a child surprise, so I have no true power over you.”

Geralt’s head jerks up. “I wasn’t a child surprise?”

“No, you weren’t.”

“So my mother gave me up willingly.” That shouldn’t hurt, not eleven years after Ma left him on the side of the road, but Geralt feels the pain shooting through his heart.

“I met your mother after a fight with a fiend sixteen years ago,” Vesemir says. “I was lying in a ditch, my guts ripped out and both my legs broken when she found me. She had you strapped to her back. You were a wee thing, only two years old, and didn’t wake up once the whole time she was working on me. She was a sorceress.”

Geralt frowns. “But sorceresses can’t have children.”

“Normally, they can’t. I’m not sure how she managed it. My guess is a lot of time and a lot of power. You were a wanted child, Geralt. A loved one.”

“Then why the fuck would she give me up?”

“When I asked her what I could give her in exchange for saving my life, she asked me to take you to Kaer Morhen in five years’ time and train you to become a witcher. She cried while she asked me, but she said she had looked into your future and saw that it was the best path for you.”

Geralt swallows the lump back in his throat. “How could this be the best path for me?”

“Because you have a family. You have a home. You found love. I can’t promise you’ll survive the Trials, Geralt, but I also don’t think your mother would have given you up if she didn’t think you had a good chance.” When Geralt doesn’t say anything, Vesemir says, “There are no rooms for witchers here, but I’m sleeping in the stables tonight. I leave for Kaer Morhen at dawn. I hope you’ll come with me.”

“I can’t just leave Jaskier. And he won’t come back to Lettenhove.”

“I think Jaskier will be just fine, Geralt. But you should make the decision that’s best for you.” Vesemir stands. “I hope I see you in the morning.”

Geralt watches him leave, then goes to get his tray of cooling stew and warm ale from the disapproving proprietress. When he returns to their room, he finds Jaskier sound asleep, facedown on the bed. He looks peaceful in sleep, face slack and mouth slightly open. Geralt pulls the blanket over him and settles down on the edge of the mattress with his face in his hands.

Later, when Jaskier wakes up, Geralt pretends to be asleep. He can’t bring himself to look into Jaskier’s eyes right now, not when he’s thinking about leaving him. He listens to Jaskier eat his dinner and then settle down behind Geralt, pressing his face against Geralt’s back. Geralt lies very still until he hears Jaskier’s breathing become slow and even. He tries to slip into a meditative state as he turns over everything Vesemir told him tonight, but his mind won’t stop working and he can’t find the peace necessary to achieve meditation.

He doesn’t realize he’s made a decision until the wee hours of the morning, when he slips out of bed and rips out a page of one of Jaskier’s notebooks. He writes the longest letter he’s ever written. His handwriting is sloppy and his word choice is clumsy, but he e pours his heart into the letter before folding it up and placing it on the pillow next to Jaskier’s head. He packs his things, leaving Jaskier all his coin and his silver dagger, and then pauses to gaze down at Jaskier. He memorizes the curve of his jaw and the graceful line of his neck, the point of his ears. He wants to kiss him so badly, but he doesn’t want to wake him.

“I love you,” he whispers to the sleeping man, and then he goes to find Vesemir in the stables.

***

The worst part is that Jaskier isn’t truly surprised to wake up alone. He finds the letter on his pillow and reads it several times before the words sink in. The handwriting is sloppy, but legible, and Jaskier reads the words of apology and love that Geralt left for him with a mixture of fury and denial. He wants to tear the parchment up and shove it in the chamberpot where it belongs. He wants to cry. Instead, he can only sit and stare at the last words Geralt will probably ever say to him until it’s too dark in the room to read.

***

Geralt expects to return to Kaer Morhen to icy silences and furious glares, like the last time he tried to escape. But instead, he’s greeted with relief. Clovis and Varin have a lot to say, and Rennes assigns him to clean out the privies for the next month, but that’s to be expected. Even Lambert, who can hold a grudge like no other, is only angry for a couple of days before he calls Geralt a dickhead in a slightly friendlier way than usual, which is the closest Lambert gets to extending an olive branch.

It’s Eskel’s reaction that Geralt was most worried about. But Eskel comes running towards him as soon as Geralt and Vesemir ride through the gates of the keep and practically pulls Geralt off Roach into a hug.

“I didn’t think I’d see you again, you fucking idiot,” he says into Geralt’s shoulder, voice thick with emotion, and Geralt’s heart breaks for the second time in as many days.

***

After twelve years of waiting, when the Trials come, it’s almost anticlimactic. Geralt wakes up, eats his breakfast of mushrooms and water, and proceeds down to the labs with the rest of the boys in his cohort. No one speaks. Geralt notices that Eskel’s hands are shaking and he moves closer to his brother, hoping to provide some comfort. Eskel has been so stoic these past few months while Geralt brooded and fretted over Jaskier. Now it’s Geralt’s turn to be the reassuring one.

“See you soon, Geralt,” Eskel tells him as they’re strapped to the tables.

Geralt offers his brother a small smile. “See you soon.”

Anything else there is to say has already been said, so Geralt closes his eyes and opens his mouth as the first potion is poured down his throat. He takes a moment to imagine an alternate version of him, sleeping under the stars somewhere in Aedirn with Jaskier. He pictures blue eyes and a wicked grin. If he’s going to die, that’s a good last thought to have.

At first, it doesn’t seem too bad, just an odd twist in his stomach. Then Eskel starts screaming and seconds later, pain wipes away every conscious thought in Geralt’s head. He doesn’t know how long it lasts. Time is meaningless. There’s just endless, mind-numbing pain. He doesn’t know his own name. He doesn’t know the names of the boys he can hear screaming and dying around him. Geralt screams and writhes and begs for someone, anyone to put him out of his misery, but no one comes.

When he finally wakes up, Eskel is sitting by his bedside, something smells terrible, and everything hurts. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he’s the one who smells like shit. Once he’s capable of holding a conversation, he learns that he did so well during the Trial of the Grasses that the powers that be decided to try out a second round. No one knew what it would do, or if Geralt would survive, and Geralt wishes he could lift an arm to sink his fist into someone’s face. He also learns that he, Eskel, Gweld, Gascaden, and Clovis are the only ones who survived. The others’ funeral pyres were burned while Geralt was still undergoing his second Trial of the Grasses.

Geralt never dared dream that both he and Eskel would survive. He would cry with relief, if he were still capable.

The Trial of the Dreams is painful, but bearable, and the new witchers come out of it with yellow, slit-pupiled eyes and heightened senses.

The Trial of the Mountains is pleasant in comparison, a month spent alone in the mountains with no company but his thoughts and the occasional wyvern. Geralt sleeps under the stars, hunts rabbits and deer for food, and spends a lot of time meditating and trying not to think about that alternate Geralt who is in a tavern somewhere, watching Jaskier sing or in a room at an inn with Jaskier’s legs wrapped around him.

When the Trials are done, Rennes hands Geralt, Eskel, Clovis, Gweld, and Gascaden their silver wolf medallions and just like that, they’re witchers. There’s no ceremony. Witchers aren’t big on those.

It’s not for another couple of months that Geralt catches sight of himself in a looking glass. He freezes, staring at the strange reflection. His hair is growing in pure white at the roots, contrasting his normal brown. His skin is paler than it was before, nearly leached of all color. His face is different, sharper and crueler with a scar over his right eye, a souvenir from an angry griffin during the Trial of the Mountains. It’s the face of a monster. For the first time, Geralt is relieved that Jaskier is on the other side of the Continent. He’ll never have to see Geralt like this.

***

Jaskier once told Geralt that Geralt would be his muse one day, and he wasn’t wrong. The first time Jaskier makes any noteworthy amount of coin while singing in a tavern, it’s after belting out his heartbreak in song. A teary-eyed older woman drops a handful of ducats in his lute case. After that, Jaskier leans into his pain. Every song he sings— the mournful ballads, the sweet love songs, the saucy little jigs, the songs where he shouts out his anger and confusion— have pieces of Geralt in them.

He travels from tavern to tavern, singing his heart out and drinking far too much ale and spending his evenings in the beds of various men and women. He hardly ever has to pay for a room these days, which is just as well. Most of his performances only earn him a handful of ducats, if that.

Some nights when he can’t find anyone to take him to bed, he couldn’t afford to eat that day, and he’s sleeping in a stable with Buttercup or in the woods, Jaskier thinks about going back to Lettenhove. The thought of crawling back to his father turns his stomach, but he’s tired, hungry, and terrified of the future. Without Geralt, this adventure is significantly less adventurous.

Geralt. Jaskier tries not to think about him these days. The Trials should be done by now and Jaskier has no idea if he survived. Geralt could be burnt to ashes on a pyre right now, or he could be a yellow-eyed stranger.

Either way, Jaskier will never see him again.

***

 

Age 19

Training doesn’t slow down now that the Trials are finished. If anything, it gets more strenuous. The new witchers are struggling to adjust to their new capabilities: heightened speed, strength, and agility, as well as sharpened senses. The first few months are overwhelming, with Geralt able to hear the heartbeats of every person in the keep and hear animals rustling in the woods miles away. Some days, the sound of his own breathing is so overwhelming that Geralt finds himself holding his breath until he nearly passes out, just for a few minutes of silence.

As a full-fledged witcher, he has his own room for the first time since he came to Kaer Morhen. It’s hardly bigger than a closet, with only a narrow bed as furniture. He gets up at the break of dawn every morning and goes to bed at the end of the night exhausted, too tired to even dream.

He doesn’t think about Jaskier.

***

By the time he turns nineteen, Jaskier is thinner, his smiles sharper, and his songs sadder.

The winter was a long, hard one, with people getting stingier with their coin as it dragged on. Jaskier had to sell Buttercup to a farmer in Redania shortly after Yule; he could barely afford to feed himself, never mind a horse. The gelding neighed plaintively as Jaskier walked away and he barely made it out of sight of the farmer before he started to sob. His last friend in the world, gone. At least Buttercup spent his winter well-fed and safe, while Jaskier was trying not to freeze to death in barns.

He hasn’t even been on the road for a year, he realizes one night. He feels like he’s aged a decade in less than a year. He orders another ale and goes back to trying to ensure he can go home with the strapping older man next to him at the bar.

He doesn’t think about Geralt.

***

That summer, a bruxa starts preying on the people of Lettenhove. When Geralt goes to see the earl about the problem. the man doesn’t look him in the eye. The earl’s younger son, Julian, sits on his knee, pudgy and dressed in overly formal clothes for an eighteen month old. The boy has the same big blue eyes as his father and Jaskier. He watches Geralt with open-mouthed fascination. There isn’t a single bruise on him. Geralt decides that if that ever changes, he will kill the earl himself, consequences be damned. No one else will go through what Jaskier did.

The bruxa is a hard battle and Geralt gets a new scar, a bite mark right over his heart. When he runs his hand over the raised flesh, he closes his eyes and pretends it’s Jaskier’s fingers touching him.

***

Jaskier doesn’t know if he’ll survive another winter on the road, so he endeavors to find a patron. It’s not an easy task for a no-name bard without a degree from Oxenfurt, but he manages to talk his way into performing at a wedding in Sodden and ends up catching the eye of Katarina de Stael, a widowed countess from Cintra. After three nights of pulling out all the stops to please her, both in the bedroom and out, he earns an invitation to spend the winter with her.

The Countess de Stael is a beautiful, worldly woman and in her home, Jaskier finds himself relaxing for the first time in over a year. He gains back some of the weight he’s lost and begins singing more love songs. He’s almost happy.

The Countess always wears a diamond pendant around her throat. One night, she takes it off and Jaskier watches in awe as her ears sharpen to points and her eyes become inhumanly green. When he takes off his ring, she laughs.

“I thought so,” she says.

It’s the first time he’s ever met another part-elf and Jaskier is fascinated.

“How old do you think I am?” she asks him later when they lie curled together in her bed.

Jaskier blinks stupidly, sensing a trap. He’s never asked, but he estimates the Countess’s age at being about forty. “My lady surely can’t be older than twenty-five.”

Her laugh is high and tinkling. “Oh, you sweet little liar. I was born in 1080. I’ll be a century old next autumn.”

His jaw drops.

“Elves can live for thousands of years,” she says. “My mother was a quarter-elf, so I’ll probably live for another century. Do you know how much elf blood you have in you?”

Jaskier shakes his head.

“Well, if she was a full elf, you could live for a thousand years. Even if you only have a drop of elven blood in you, you’ll most likely live for at least a hundred years.”

The thought should fill Jaskier with elation. Instead, he’s just very tired. A thousand years is a long time to be heartbroken.

***

 

Age 20

In the early days of spring, the Countess goes to a banquet and comes home with a fresh-faced new lover. She kindly gives Jaskier until the end of the week to pack his things.

"You're a delight, Jaskier," she tells him warmly. "But when I make love to someone, I want them to be making love to me, not to the memory of a love they lost."

Jaskier can't argue with that, so he leaves the next morning. It’s almost a relief to be back on the road again. The nights are colder and the meals are fewer, but at least he doesn't have as much time to get lost in his thoughts. He spends the spring and summer traveling through Temeria and Lyria before making his way north through Aedirn.

That autumn, he finds himself back in southern Kaedwen for Saovine, in a tiny village that reminds him too much of Lettenhove. He would move on, were he not invited to perform at the Saovine festival. Jaskier sings his heart out and his lute case fills with more coin than he’s had since Belleteyn. In the crowd of people watching him, his eyes fall on a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair and lovely brown eyes. The man is watching him with a familiar glint in his eye and Jaskier sends him a wink. The man grins.

His name is Hans and Jaskier spends two nights in his bed.

“You don’t act like any traveling bard I’ve ever met,” Hans tells him on the second night while they sit in Hans’ room, drinking wine. “You belong in a court.”

Jaskier is tipsy and he likes Hans, who has kind eyes and dimples. “That’s because I’m a viscount.”

Hans laughs. “Seriously?’

“Sure am, dear heart. The Viscount de fucking Lettennhove, at your service.”

The next night, when Hans brings Jaskier back to his room after dinner, there are five other men waiting for them. Jaskier thought he knew what true fear was before that moment. He was wrong.

***

“My father won’t pay you a single ducat in ransom,” he tells Hans later when he’s tied to the back of a horse, spitting out a mouthful of blood. He’s pretty sure he’s missing a couple of molars.

“That’s what they all say.” Hans flicks one of Jaskier’s pointed ears. They took Jaskier’s gold ring, along with all the coin he made at the festival. “We could cut one of these off and send it to him.”

“Go ahead. You still won’t get your money. I told you, I’ve been disowned. You may as well just take my coin and go.”

Hans sneers. “You forget, you’ve seen our faces. You’re not going anywhere.”

Jaskier already had a pretty good idea that these men would kill him no matter what, but that just confirms it. Cold terror crawls down his spine.

“Can’t believe you fucked an elf, Hans,” one of the other men scoffs.

Hans’ face goes red. “I didn’t know what he was. And I only did it for his coin, anyway.”

Knowledge of his own impending death has made Jaskier reckless. He knows that nothing he says or does will save his life. “Ah, yes, that’s why you slit my throat and took my coin as soon as you got me alone, and didn’t spend the better part of three days with my cock in your ass.”

Hans hits him for that. It was worth it.

***

Geralt is meditating in his favorite spot when Lambert finds him. Geralt never told Lambert where his favorite meditation spot was, but the boy has a knack for finding out these things. Even with his eyes closed, Geralt recognizes the tread of Lambert’s footsteps and the sound of his heartbeat. “You’re supposed to be guarding the gate,” he says without opening his eyes.

They never used to bother guarding the gate. After all, no one ever comes to the keep. But Kaer Seren was destroyed by mages over the winter and there are rumors of similar attacks at Stygga Castle and Gorthur Gvaed, so the entire keep is on edge.

“There’s a girl here to see you,” Lambert says.

Geralt frowns. He can’t think of a single girl who would be looking for him. Or any boys, for that matter. “You sure she’s looking for me?”

“Said she was looking for Julian’s friend. Figured it was either you or Eskel. She’s upset. Think you got her pregnant before the Trials?”

Geralt would dearly like to shove him, but he still often miscalculates his own strength post-Trials and he could end up pushing Lambert off the tower. Not that the little shit wouldn’t deserve it. “No.”

“I tried to get her to stop crying, but she’s real upset. She’s at the gate.”

Given Lambert’s natural knack for comforting people, the girl has probably fled in tears by now, but Geralt grunts and climbs to his feet to go investigate. Lambert follows, the nosy little bastard. They find a weeping girl on horseback at the front gates. Geralt doesn’t recognize the girl, but he recognizes the horse. Brown Horse, the exquisite chestnut stallion whose name always made Jaskier grumble. The girl on Brown Horse is short and a bit stocky with long blond hair, but her baby face and big blue eyes are all Jaskier.

Geralt inclines his head. “Lady Izabela.”

The scent of her fear sharpens at the sight of him, but she leaps down from Brown Horse’s back. “You’re Geralt?”

“That’s me,” Geralt says cautiously. He’s never met any of Jaskier’s sisters. “Is Jaskier—”

She seizes his hands. He holds very still, shocked. Humans don’t normally touch him unless they need him to carry them out of an arachne nest. “He’s been kidnapped,” she says tearfully. “They’re going to kill him. Please, you have to help him.”

Geralt’s head fills with white noise as soon as he hears the word “kidnapped.”

“What happened?” It’s Vesemir, who strides towards them, accompanied by a concerned-looking Eskel.

Izabela is now surrounded by three witchers and a witcher trainee. The poor girl’s knees are shaking so badly that she can hardly stand, but her voice is steady. “Bandits caught him in southern Kaedwen. They tried to demand a ransom for him, but my father laughed in their faces and said he won’t pay them a single ducat.” She turns to Geralt with wide, tearful eyes. “They say that if they don’t get their money by nightfall, Julian dies.”

***

The witchers of Kaer Morhen don’t get involved with human affairs, Rennes decrees. The kidnapping of a disowned viscount by a group of bandits isn’t witcher business. Geralt has never had a problem with the Wolf School’s leader. Rennes mostly keeps to himself, leaving the day-to-day interaction with the students to Varin, Vesemir, and the other instructors. However, Geralt would gladly wring the old man’s head from his neck right now.

Geralt stalks out of Rennes’ office in a fury and heads straight to his room to get his armor and weapons. All he can think of is Jaskier alone and afraid at the mercy of cutthroats. When he throws open his door to leave, he finds Eskel and Lambert standing there, both already geared up.

Lambert scoffs at his surprised expression. “You didn’t seriously think you were going alone, did you?”

“You don’t have to—”

“It’s Jaskier,” Eskel says, in a tone that allows for no argument. “We’re coming.”

Vesemir is waiting in the stables, already astride his horse. Roach, Eskel’s gelding, and Lambert’s mare are saddled and ready to go. “What took you boys so long?” the swordmaster demands.

***

They make Jaskier dig his own grave.

In the two days he’s been the bandits’ captive, he’s managed to keep himself in good spirits by annoying the shit out of them. Bursting into song when they’re trying to sleep, opining loudly and at length about Hans’ skills as a lover, telling them gruesome tales about the forktails and giant centipedes that make their homes in the mountains where they’re hiding. He figures if he’s going to die, he may as well die as he lived— pissing off everyone in earshot.

But as the late afternoon sun beats down on his neck and his hands blister from holding the shovel, he can feel his ability to keep a brave face slipping. Nightfall is only hours away, and he knows that the ransom they’re waiting for won’t come. He keeps singing the most obnoxious songs he knows and hopes no one notices how his voice wavers. He won’t give these fuckers the satisfaction of knowing how bone-shakingly terrified he is.

One of the bandits, a truly nasty piece of work named Marek who is just waiting for Jaskier to die so he can cut off his ears and wear them as a necklace, throws a rock at Jaskier. “Shut the fuck up, elf, or you won’t live to see nightfall.”

Jaskier winces and touches his forehead, where the rock hit. It was a small rock, but his forehead is still bleeding. “Careful, my father won’t pay for damaged goods. Oh wait, he won’t pay at all, and you miserable fuckers have wasted the last two days of your miserable fucking lives. Kind of like the two days I wasted pretending to enjoy myself in Hans’ bed.”

Hans looks up from where he’s been cooking a rabbit over a fire. “I’m going to cut your lying tongue out of your head before you die, boy.”

“It wouldn’t be the worst crime you’ve committed against a tongue recently, Hans. Where did you learn to kiss, from watching a jousting tournament?”

“You’re going to die at sundown if your father doesn’t pay up,” Hans says. “Shouldn’t you be begging for your life?”

“Would it help?”

Hans scoffs. “No.”

“Then no thank you.” Jaskier flashes his most radiant smile and starts singing “Fishmonger’s Daughter” for the fourth time in the past hour.

***

Roach thunders down the mountain like she knows it’s life or death, Vesemir, Lambert, and Eskel’s mounts on her heels.

***

“That’s deep enough,” Hans tells Jaskier as the sun dips lower in the sky.

Jaskier is exhausted, but the shovel in his hand is the only weapon he’s going to get. He swings it at Hans’ kneecaps. The bandit grabs it and wrenches it out his hands. Jaskier tries to pull himself out of the grave, but receives a kick in the face. He tumbles back into the grave, falling awkwardly on one of his ankles, and screams in pain as the bone breaks.

***

Geralt can hear Jaskier singing from miles away. It’s a jaunty tune, filled with innuendos about cocks, as most of Jaskier’s favorite songs are. His heart twists in his chest at the thought of Jaskier singing to try to keep himself calm, like he used to do when they were boys. When the noise stops, Geralt frantically looks to the horizon. The sun is still a pink line in the sky. It’s not nightfall yet. It’s not too late.

A pained scream rends the night air and Geralt’s witcher slow heartbeat speeds up to a nearly human pace.

It can’t be too late.

***

“No luck.” The last two bandits, a pair of ugly brothers whose names Jaskier never bothered learning, return to camp as the sun sinks behind the mountains. “No one came to the drop site.”

Sitting in his own grave and clutching his swollen ankle, Jaskier braces himself. He knew this was coming. There was no chance his father was ever going to pay a ransom or send someone to save him. Part of him was holding out hope that there would be someone out there who would care if he died and who might come to his rescue. But Julian Alfred Pankratz, the former Viscount de Lettenhove, is going to die alone and unmourned, just like he always knew he would.

With the sun set, the mountain air has grown frigid and the sweat Jaskier worked up while digging the grave has chilled on his skin. That’s the only reason he’s shaking as the six bandits surround him. Jaskier knows he should try to rise to his feet and face his death like a man, broken ankle be damned. He can hear his father’s voice in his head. “Pankratzes die on their feet, boy, not cowering in the dirt.” How fortunate for him that he gets one last opportunity to disappoint his father.

He won’t stoop to pleading for mercy, he tells himself, even as Hans picks up the shovel. It won’t do any good. It will just give them something to laugh about as they sit around the campfire later. He expects Hans to swing the shovel at his head and bash his skull in. Instead, Hans scoops up a shovelful of dirt and dumps it on Jaskier’s head. They’re not even going to let Jaskier have a quick, dignified death. They’re going to bury him alive and let him suffocate under the dirt.

Jaskier can’t stop a small, frightened noise from escaping his throat. He’s shaking so hard, he can hear his teeth chattering. Fuck, it isn’t like his life was so great. Why should he be so scared to leave it behind?

Hans must see the utter terror in his eyes, because his smile is triumphant.

Jaskier closes his eyes as another shovelful of dirt hits him in the face. “Geralt,” he whispers, half-prayer, half-plea. Maybe wherever he goes after he dies, he’ll see Geralt again.

There’s a horrible scream and when he looks up, Hans’ severed head is lying in the grave next to him and the world is on fire.

***

Geralt can smell Jaskier’s fear and hear his frightened whimper, too soft for human ears to discern. When they burst into the clearing and find six bandits surrounding a grave, Geralt sees red. One of the bandits is holding a shovel and throwing dirt into the grave. They’re burying him alive.

“Geralt,” he hears Jaskier whisper, small and terrified, and any thoughts of trying to resolve this without bloodshed are gone.

Geralt leaps off of Roach’s back, steel sword already drawn, just as Eskel casts Igni. One of the bandits is immediately engulfed in flames and four of the others scatter. The only one still standing by the grave is the one holding the shovel. He turns to Geralt with a stunned expression.

Geralt decapitates him with one stroke.

The other four bandits are screaming. One has a crossbow, which he points at Lambert. Geralt hurls his sword at the man, hitting him in the throat. The bandit falls and one of his comrades throws himself at Geralt. Geralt breaks the man’s neck with his bare hands. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lambert run another bandit through. Five down, one to go.

“Drop your weapons, or he dies.”

Geralt looks down to see the remaining bandit kneeling by the grave with his knife to Jaskier’s throat. Jaskier’s eyes are closed and his breath comes out in shallow gasps. His face is twisted in pain, though Geralt doesn’t see any visible injuries.

“I said drop them, you mutant freaks,” the bandit growls. “Or I kill the mongrel.”

“There are four of us and one of you.” Eskel’s voice is low and calm. “Even if you kill him, you won’t leave here alive.”

The man’s eyes flicker between Geralt, Eskel, and Lambert. “What the fuck do you care about a filthy elf?”

“Filthy?” Lambert snorts. “When’s the last time you bathed, asshole? I can smell your breath from here, and I'm not even a witcher yet.”

Geralt draws his silver sword, relishing the way the man flinches. “You have a choice. You can die quickly, or you can die knowing what your spine looks like outside your body.”

“I’d choose the first one, if I were you. It’s not the worst way to go, but it’s probably up there.” Eskel turns to Geralt, face carefully neutral. “How long do you think someone can survive without their spine, Geralt?”

“Seconds, maybe, if that. Want to find out?”

“I always had an inquisitive mind.” Eskel looks back at the bandit and smiles viciously. It’s the first time Geralt has ever thought Eskel looked intimidating. “Want to place a bet?”

“I wouldn’t. You won’t live to collect your winnings,” Geralt tells the bandit.

The sharp smell of urine fills the air. Eskel and Geralt both wrinkle their noses.

“I swear to Melitele.” The man’s voice is shaking. “I will—”

From behind him, Vesemir runs his sword through the bandit’s chest.

***

Jaskier keeps his eyes closed through the entire battle, listening to the screams of the bandits as they die. He doesn’t even open his eyes when Marek holds a knife to his throat and his rescuer’s calmly discuss ripping Marek’s spine out. His eyes don’t open until Marek grunts, there’s the splash of blood on the back of Jaskier’s neck, and Marek’s corpse collapses on top of him, pinning him to the floor of the grave.

Marek was a heavy man and Jaskier is struggling to free himself when someone drops into the grave and shoves the corpse away. Jaskier looks up into Vesemir’s golden eyes. Jaskier has managed to keep himself calm and composed for the last two days, but as soon as he sees Vesemir, his shoulders start to shake with desperate, heaving sobs. If Vesemir’s here, he’s safe. He’s going to be okay.

“Sh, pup, it’s okay. You’re alright.” Vesemir kneels down next to him to examine him for injuries. When he comes to Jaskier’s ankle, his hands still. “This is broken. You’re not going to be able to put any weight on this for a while.”

Jaskier nods jerkily. He’s as good as dead. If he can’t walk, he can’t earn any coin and he’ll be an easy target for any bandits or monsters that stumble across him. Unless he begs his father to take him back in, and the thought of that turns his stomach. More than likely, the earl will laugh and slam the door in his wayward son’s face.

“Let’s get you up.” Vesemir lifts Jaskier into his arms as easily as if Jaskier were a babe. “Eskel, take him.”

Another pair of arms takes Jaskier from Vesemir and Jaskier looks up into Eskel’s wonderfully familiar face. Eskel’s eyes are gold now, not green, but his smile is the same as always when Jaskier wraps his arms around Eskel’s neck and hugs him.

“You lived,” he says into Eskel’s shoulder.

Eskel squeezes Jaskier gently and puts him down so that Jaskier can lean his weight against Eskel. “I lived.”

Lambert’s there too, a gangly sixteen year old instead of the small, skinny fourteen year old he was last time Jaskier saw him. Jaskier pulls him into an one-armed embrace, laughing as Lambert squirms.

“I know you have a thing for witchers, but don’t make this weird,” Lambert grumbles.

“Oh, you little shit.” Jaskier shoves him away. “I missed you.”

Lambert’s cheeks turn pink. “Missed you too,” he mutters, like it’s something to be ashamed of.

There’s another witcher stalking around the campsite, Jaskier notices as Eskel sets him down against a tree. Jaskier can’t see his face; his shoulder-length, pure white hair obscures it. Jaskier doesn’t think he knows this witcher; he must be one of the other instructors. Sitting on the ground, Jaskier watches as the three witchers and Lambert burn the bandits’ bodies and rifle through their things. When he sees the white-haired witcher carrying his knapsack and lute, Jaskier gasps.

“My lute! Oh, thank the gods, I was so worried those uncultured swine would—” Jaskier glances up into the witcher’s face and freezes.

Geralt has grown taller than Jaskier and broader across the chest and shoulders. White hair frames features that have grown harder and sharper. Yellow eyes stare down at Jaskier impassively. There’s a scar over the right one. Jaskier knew that the Trials would change Geralt, but this is an entirely different person from the one who left Jaskier in Upper Posada two years ago.

“What happened to you?” Jaskier whispers.

Geralt flinches. It’s slight, but it’s there, and Jaskier immediately feels like the worst person alive. “The Trials,” he says gruffly. Even his voice has changed, lower and rougher than before.

“But your hair…” Eskel’s hair is still brown, so why has Geralt’s turned white?

Geralt shrugs. “They did some experiments.” He crouches down in front of Jaskier and holds out Jaskier’s gold ring. “Found this on one of the bodies.”

“Thanks.” Jaskier slips the ring back on his finger, unable to take his eyes off Geralt. Part of him wants to reach out and touch Geralt— memorize the new planes of his face, see if his white hair is as soft as it was when it was brown, feel the raised flesh of the scar over his eye. But then he remembers what it was like to wake up alone in a strange kingdom and he lets his hand fall to his side.

“Where’s Buttercup?” Geralt asks. “I didn’t see him with the bandits’ horses.”

At the thought of his horse, Jaskier’s shock turns to anger. It may not be Geralt’s fault that he had to sell Buttercup, but damn if it doesn’t feel satisfying to direct his anger and disappointment over the last two years at the man in front of him. “I had to sell him to a farmer outside of Oxenfurt so we wouldn’t both starve to death,” he snarls. “It turns out that traveling on your own is difficult and dangerous, Geralt. I wouldn’t recommend it. Though you have scary swords, so you’ll be fine.”

Geralt’s face falls. “Jask—”

“You didn’t even say goodbye.”

Geralt closes his eyes. “I didn’t want to see the look on your face when I told you I was leaving.”

“What do you think my face looked like when I woke and all I found was a cold bed and a note?” Jaskier demands.

Geralt makes a wounded noise. “I’m sorry, Jask.”

“Sorry isn’t good enough.” Jaskier’s voice wobbles embarrassingly. “You left me alone. You were my best friend and the love of my life. You were the first person who ever made me feel like I was worth something, and then you were just gone without a word. You broke my fucking heart, Geralt.”

Vesemir, Eskel, and Lambert are all pretending not to listen to them with varying degrees of success, but Jaskier can feel their attention on him.

“I thought you would be better off without me,” Geralt says. “I don’t know how to do anything but kill things. I thought I would just be another mouth to feed, dead weight.”

“And if you had fucking used your words and told me that, I would have told you that was bullshit!”

“Leaving you was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“I’m sorry to have caused you such heartache.” Out of instinct, Jaskier tries to push himself to his feet, not wanting anything to do with this conversation anymore, but pain shoots through his ankle and he falls with a gasp.

“Careful.” Geralt reaches out to steady him, then freezes with his hands hovering over Jaskier. Jaskier can feel the heat radiating off of Geralt. Geralt always ran warm, but he’s like a furnace now.

If Jaskier is tempted to burrow into that warmth and forget why he’s so angry at Geralt, it’s only understandable. He’s had a tough couple of days.

“We should go.” It’s Eskel, looking supremely uncomfortable as he hovers near them. “Jask, will you be okay riding horseback?”

Jaskier grimaces at the thought. “I guess I’ll have to be, unless you want to carry me back to Lettenhove.”

“We’re not bringing you back to Lettenhove,” Eskel says. “You’re coming to Kaer Morhen with us.”

***

Chapter Text

Geralt can’t take his eyes off Jaskier, who rides on Roach’s back while Geralt leads the mare by the reins. Jaskier has grown thinner in the past two years, almost painfully so. He still has the same baby face he’s always had, but it’s covered in dark stubble. His fine silk doublet has multiple patches and the fabric is worn thin. He looks diminished somehow, not like the brilliant young man who was ready to take on the world two years ago.

“It turns out that traveling on your own is difficult and dangerous, Geralt.”

Jaskier was supposed to be better off without Geralt’s dead weight. He was supposed to travel the Continent, sing songs, and fall in love with beautiful people who deserved him. He wasn’t supposed to have to sell his beloved horse to survive. He wasn’t supposed to get kidnapped and held for ransom by bandits. He shouldn’t have ended up with a broken ankle, defenseless against the dangers of the world.

None of this is right, and it turns Geralt’s stomach. He should have been with Jaskier, keeping him safe.

“Are you sure I’ll be welcome at Kaer Morhen?” Jaskier asks, directing the question to Vesemir, not Geralt. He hasn’t so much as looked at Geralt since they left the camp.

“You let me worry about that,” Vesemir says softly.

“I don’t want to be a bother.”

“Where else would you go, pup?”

The scent of anxiety rising off Jaskier sharpens. “You wound me, Vesemir. I have friends who would fight each other for the honor of hosting me while I heal.”

It’s not even a convincing lie, but no one brings it up.

“You need rest and a healer,” Vesemir says. “You won’t get either of those things in Lettenhove. You’ll stay at Kaer Morhen until you can walk again.”

Rennes and Varin aren’t going to like it, but Geralt doesn’t plan on giving them much of a choice. Jaskier won’t be alone again.

Jaskier’s expression is painfully vulnerable. “Thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do.” Vesemir’s voice goes gruff. Geralt is sure he’s remembering the role he played in Jaskier being left alone in Upper Posada.

They ride all night. The trip up the mountain is dangerous in the dark and Geralt keeps one hand on the hilt of his sword the entire time. Nothing will touch Jaskier again. Their pace is slow, as they don’t want Jaskier to jostle his ankle and Geralt is on foot. Still, they reach Kaer Morhen without incident, just as the sun starts to rise.

Jaskier stares up at the keep with undisguised awe. “This is it?”

“This is it.” Geralt tries to see the keep as Jaskier must see it, a massive stone castle built into the side of the mountain. He can see the look in Jaskier’s eye that says the bard is already composing a ballad or ten.

“It’s beautiful.” Jaskier smiles at Geralt, like he’s too overwhelmed to remember that he’s angry.

Geralt smiles back at him helplessly. “Welcome to Kaer Morhen.”

***

Jaskier has spent most of his life wanting to visit Kaer Morhen and it’s everything he imagined— beautiful, austere, and dangerous. He loves it immediately. From a distance, it appears to be a part of the mountain, like the keep itself was whittled out of the rock by the hand of a giant. Up close, it’s a bit barren, a bit drafty, but somehow even more beautiful because of it. Jaskier wants so desperately for it to be his home.

But it isn’t.

No one will tell him as such, but he knows his arrival at the keep caused a fuss. He saw the furious looks Varin gave him for days after he showed up, as well as the cold disapproval of the head of the Wolf School, Rennes. He’s not sure what Vesemir had to do to ensure he could stay, and he doesn’t want to know. As long as he doesn’t know the details, he can pretend that he’s a wanted guest, and not a broken bard with nowhere else to go.

The keep’s healer, a no-nonsense sorceress, tells him he’ll need to stay off his left foot for the next couple of months and gives him a pair of crutches. He’s directed to a small bedroom with no furniture but the narrow bed, a standard room for witchers. Being given a witcher's bedroom is flattering, until he learns that there are no guest rooms in Kaer Morhen, because Kaer Morhen never has guests.

For the next few weeks, he hobbles around the keep and tries to make himself useful to the best of his ability, which usually means helping whoever’s on kitchen duty chop vegetables. He tries his best to make friends with the inhabitants of the keep, to varying levels of success. Besides Vesemir, the half a dozen instructors seem perplexed and annoyed by Jaskier’s presence. Most of the trainees are ambivalent to him. Gweld and Gascaden are friendly enough, though they treat Jaskier more as an amusing mascot than anything else. Clovis is as terrible as he expected.

He would like to stick with Eskel and Lambert, but they almost always seem to be with Geralt, and Jaskier is trying to avoid Geralt, something that should be easy in a keep the size of Kaer Morhen. But despite its size, there are only about forty people living there and Jaskier’s moving slowly these days. Running into Geralt constantly is inevitable and it never gets less awkward. Geralt always looks like a whipped dog whenever he and Jaskier make eye contact.

But if Jaskier ends up finding spots to sit and compose during the day that happens to overlook the training yard, it’s just a coincidence. It has nothing to do with getting to watch Geralt train with his fellow witchers. Geralt was always physically impressive, but post-Trials, he’s a fucking marvel. Watching his muscles ripple as he trains is a revelation and Jaskier often finds himself wondering why he’s angry at Geralt. One day, he completely gives up the pretense of composing while he watches Geralt spar with all nine members of Lambert’s cohort at once. It’s Lambert that gets the lucky hit to the back of Geralt’s head that takes him down. The pride in Geralt’s expression is heartwarming.

Then Geralt vanishes for two weeks. Jaskier doesn’t care where Geralt’s gone, of course. It’s just that new witchers normally only take contracts within a day’s ride of the keep and they rarely venture out alone. And when Jaskier asks Eskel about it, Eskel gets downright flustered. Jaskier wants to press the issue, but then it would look like Jaskier cares and he doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. Even though winter is right around the corner and the thought of Geralt being trapped outside Kaer Morhen fills Jaskier with dread.

He’s helping Gweld chop potatoes one afternoon when Eskel comes into the kitchen and says, “Jaskier, there’s something for you outside. A surprise.”

“Huh?” Jaskier blinks at him. He’s been at Kaer Morhen for just over a month and no one has shown any inclination to give him things. “My birthday isn’t until March.”

“It’s not a birthday present. Come on.”

Jaskier lets Eskel pick him up and carry him outside. It’s a bit humiliating, being carried around like a child when he’s actually a fairly tall, well-developed man in his own right. But he’s determined to have his ankle back in working order by spring, so walking up and down Kaer Morhen’s steep staircases is out of the question, even with the crutches. To Jaskier’s surprise, Eskel carries him to the stables.

“If this is the beginning of a very amusing prank where you throw me into a pile of horse shit, can you not?” Jaskier asks. “This is my one doublet left that doesn’t have any holes in it.”

Eskel snorts. “Who do you think I am, Lambert?”

“Fair enough. Has Rennes decided to make me sleep in the stables, because I’d prefer the privies, honestly. At least I’d be inside and—” He falls silent when Eskel carries him over the threshold of the stables. In the stall next to Roach, he sees Buttercup.

Gently, Eskel sets Jaskier down and hands him his crutches. Jaskier can’t even speak to thank him. Buttercup snorts impatiently as Jaskier makes his way towards the horse. Jaskier never thought he would see his beautiful little gelding again, but here he is, cranky and demanding sugar cubes that Jaskier doesn’t have, then snorting into Jaskier’s hair as if to reassure him that all is forgiven. Jaskier leans his face against Buttercup’s nose and tries not to cry. It’s not until he hears someone clear their throat behind him that he realizes that Eskel is gone and someone else is standing behind him.

It’s Geralt.

Jaskier blinks at him with watery eyes. “You brought him back.”

Geralt nods. “The farmer was only too happy to part with him, for a price. Seems like he never wanted to let anyone ride him.”

“He’s always been a one-man horse,” Jaskier says with a chuckle. “That’s where you’ve been for the past two weeks.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t have the money to pay you back.”

“You don’t have to pay me back, Jask,” Geralt says softly. “You don’t owe me anything.”

Jaskier swallows. “Thank you.”

They regard each other cautiously for a long moment. Jaskier doesn’t remember there ever being this kind of uneasy tension between them, even when they barely knew each other and Geralt still found him annoying.

Buttercup breaks the tension by headbutting Jaskier gently.

“Here.” Geralt draws a handful of sugar cubes from his pocket. “I think this is what he wants.”

Jaskier takes them gratefully, but nods to Roach, who is watching the exchange with a baleful eye. “You may want to double check with the duchess and make sure it’s okay.”

“It’s good for her. She’s getting fat and spoiled.”

“Cover your ears, sweet girl,” Jaskier coos at Roach. “You don’t deserve to hear such slander.”

Geralt laughs. Even if his voice has changed, the rumble of his laugh hasn’t, and Jaskier feels it all the way down to his toes. For an instant, they’re seventeen again, back in the Pankratz family stables, and the world is a much simpler place. And then Jaskier looks into Geralt’s face and finds yellow eyes instead of brown, breaking the moment. Geralt must sense what Jaskier is thinking, because the smile falls off his face.

Jaskier turns back to Buttercup. “Thank you, Geralt. This was—” The kindest thing anyone has ever done for him. “—Very nice of you. Thank you.”

“Hm. I’ll send someone down to help you back up to the keep in ten minutes.”

“Thank you.” Jaskier doesn’t watch him go, but busies himself with lavishing Buttercup with love (and Roach too, because the poor girl looks pathetic watching another horse get the sugar cubes that are rightfully hers.) He does his best to ignore the heat in his cheeks and the too-fast thrum of his heartbeat.

He doesn’t want to still be in love with Geralt. He wants that to all be in the past.

Jaskier rarely gets what he wants.

***

In the weeks before winter, the wolf witchers who arrive every year trickle into the keep. Normally, they get about a dozen visitors per winter, but this year, nearly twenty witchers return to Kaer Morhen. Geralt is on guard as they arrive, unsure as to how they’ll react to Jaskier. After all, witchers on the Path spend the year being hated and feared by humanity; Kaer Morhen is their refuge. But here Jaskier is— a part-human making himself at home among witchers. To Geralt’s surprise, most of the witchers seem to like Jaskier. After dinner, Jaskier sits with them, listens to their stories, and sometimes even plays his lute.

Geralt has given up on not staring. Jaskier has gained back some of his lost weight. He’s still more lithe than he was when they were younger, with broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist. He’s stopped wearing his ring and his pointed ears and too-blue eyes are on full display. He’s off his crutches now and hobbling around in a boot reinforced with steel to keep his ankle immobile. Even with the boot, there’s a grace to the way he moves. Geralt can tell that at least a few of the witchers would like to take Jaskier to bed and he keeps a careful eye on them, making sure that no hands wander. Jaskier is a guest here, and Geralt won’t allow anyone to make him uncomfortable.

He’s always aware of Jaskier, even when he’s not trying to be. Jaskier has been at Kaer Morhen for nearly two months now, and it’s been torture. It’s worse at night. Jaskier’s bedroom is only two down from his, with Eskel’s in between them, and he can hear Jaskier’s heartbeat while he lies in bed. He can hear it when Jaskier gasps awake after a nightmare. He can smell it when Jaskier takes himself in hand and wonders what Jaskier is imagining. Until the night that he hears Jaskier whisper his name as he comes and Geralt can only slip his hand under the covers and stroke himself to completion, remembering how Jaskier whispered his name like that when Geralt was buried deep inside him.

Even if it’s the brown eyed-boy that Geralt used to be that Jaskier is imagining, and not the ghost of humanity Geralt has become.

Even during the day, Jaskier is everywhere: helping chop vegetables in the kitchen, in the stables with the horses, laughing with Eskel in the library. And the composing. The sounds of Jaskier playing his lute and singing to himself are ever-present. No matter how cold it gets, he seems to enjoy spending his mornings sitting on the tower that oversees the training yard while the trainees and the witchers spar.

Geralt knows that Jaskier isn’t actually watching him. If he sometimes looks up to find Jaskier’s eyes on him, it’s only because Jaskier is probably searching Geralt’s face for hints of the friend he loved and lost. There’s a reason Jaskier looked horrified when he first saw Geralt. Geralt is a bastardization of the boy Jaskier grew up with, scarred and leached of color

There’s a light snow falling one morning while Geralt spars with one of the witchers, Micah. Micah is one of the younger witchers who returns to the keep every year; he had just gone through the Trials the year before Geralt arrived at Kaer Morhen. He’s a good fighter and even the fact that he lost an eye to a basilisk a few years back doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s a very handsome man, and a kind one at that. Geralt has always liked him, except for the fact that he’s one of the ones who seems to be eyeing Jaskier as a potential bedwarmer.

And of course, Jaskier is there on his usual tower. It’s too cold for him to play his lute; Geralt is sure his fingers are frozen solid. But he’s still watching the training with a dreamy expression, like he can hear the music without being able to play it. Geralt notices that his gaze keeps traveling back to Geralt and Micah. From the smug expression on Micah’s face, Geralt guesses that the older witcher notices too.

Geralt begins to move faster without realizing it, trying out more complicated movements. Micah responds in kind. The resulting match is far showier than what is normally seen in the training yard at Kaer Morhen. Other matches grind to a halt as the witchers and trainees stop to watch Geralt and Micah. Micah’s skills are sharper than Geralt’s after over a decade on the Path, but Geralt’s extra mutations have made him stronger and faster than any of the other witchers. Finally, Geralt tires of the dance, seizes Micah by the front of the shirt to lift him up in the air, then slams him to the ground, placing his sword against the other witcher’s throat.

Micah laughs, his gaze flickering towards Jaskier’s tower. “I yield, lad. Point received.”

Breathing hard, Geralt looks up at Jaskier and finds his friend grinning. Jaskier’s cheeks are pink from the cold and his eyes are bright. He looks delighted by the show. But when he sees Geralt watching him, he quickly looks away. Heart sinking, Geralt averts his eyes.

“Good match,” Geralt tells Micah, helping the other witcher to his feet.

Most witchers would be humiliated to be beaten by a pup not even out on the Path yet, but Micah takes it with good humor. Moreover, word spreads through the other witchers and Geralt notices a lot less flirting going on during Jaskier’s nightly card games with the other witchers. He tries to pretend not to be pleased by that.

***

Geralt moves like he’s dancing when he fights, all elegance and barely contained fury. Jaskier can see that he outmatches all his fellow witchers by far. Whatever experiments they performed on Geralt have turned him into the perfect weapon. It should be terrifying, but Jaskier can’t look away. He’s given up the pretense of composing when he sits on the tower and watches Geralt train every morning. Certainly all the other witchers and trainees must know exactly what he’s doing, but Geralt remains oblivious. Whenever Geralt looks towards him, Jaskier pretends to be very busy studying the stone gargoyles that perch on the top of the towers.

The winter cold deepens, with snow blanketing the mountain. It’s cold as fuck in the keep and Jaskier needs to wear a heavy fur cloak at all times to stop from freezing to death, but it’s worth it for the truly stunning views of the snow-covered mountain peaks afforded by the towers of Kaer Morhen. He would very much like a witcher to keep him warm at night, but the half dozen flirtations he had going on all cooled abruptly. He likes to think it has something to do with Geralt kicking Micah’s ass in the training yard, but more than likely, he said something to offend everybody.

So his nights stay lonely. Most nights, he dreams that he’s back in his grave, screaming and begging for mercy while shovelfuls of dirt are dumped on his head. Most of the time, it’s Hans, Marek, or one of the other bandits burying him alive. Sometimes, it’s his father. But the worst is when it’s Geralt holding the shovel— either the brown-eyed boy he loved or the yellow-eyed witcher who saved his life. When he jerks away from those, he’s normally shaking and sweating, his face damp with tears, and the urge to walk two doors down to Geralt’s room is overwhelming.

But he can’t stand to have Geralt reject him all over again, so Jaskier stays right where he is.

***

It’s Gascaden that spots the wyvern, a sickly and clearly starving adult male that flies too close to the keep for comfort. It lists to the side as it flies, most likely having sustained an injury to its wings. Sick and starving, it’s even more dangerous. The younger trainees and Jaskier are ushered inside for the day and Geralt, Eskel, and Clovis ride out to hunt down the wyvern and kill it.

It should be a straightforward hunt. A wyvern, especially a sick one, is no match for three witchers. But Jaskier was sitting in his favorite spot when the wyvern flew over the keep, and the thought of what could have happened if the creature caught sight of him knocks Geralt off-kilter. Eskel is the one who strikes the killing blow, stabbing the wyvern right through the mouth when it lunges for him. Geralt should know better than to be standing so close to its tail. He knows about the venomous spikes in a wyvern’s tail. He’s smarter than that, but all it takes is one moment of inattention.

As it dies, the wyvern’s thrashing tail catches Geralt across the chest. The spines cut deep.

The last thing he hears before he loses consciousness facedown in the snow is Eskel shouting his name.

***

When Eskel and Clovis arrive back from the wyvern hunt with an unconscious Geralt thrown over the back of Eskel’s horse, there’s a horrible moment where Jaskier thinks Geralt is dead. He’s so pale, so still, and covered in so much blood that there’s no way he could possibly be alive. No one, not even a witcher, loses that much blood and survives. But as Eskel lifts Geralt down from his horse, Geralt’s eyes flutter open and look right at Jaskier, hazy with pain but still alive.

Jaskier’s knees almost give out in relief. He follows Eskel and Clovis as they carry Geralt to the healer’s chambers and hovers in the doorway, shaking, as she binds Geralt’s wounds and tips a bottle of Golden Oriole down his throat. The venom would be fatal to a normal human, Eskel assures him, but with the Golden Oriole and Geralt’s natural healing capabilities, it will be no more than a nuisance. A very painful nuisance. He’ll spend a few days sleeping it off and he’ll be fine.

“Witchers survive worse than this every day,” Eskel says and the worst part is that he means that to be reassuring. Jaskier doesn’t want to see Geralt survive worse than this.

He stays by Geralt’s bedside for the two days it takes Geralt to regain consciousness.

***

When Geralt wakes up, Jaskier is asleep in a chair by his bedside.

It’s been well over two years, closer to three, since Geralt last saw Jaskier asleep. He’s as peaceful as Geralt remembers, eyelashes fluttering and chest rising and falling gently. Suddenly, he jerks awake and nearly falls out of his chair. When his eyes focus and he sees Geralt watching him, he jumps to his feet.

“Sorry.” Jaskier scrubs a hand over his face. “Fuck, sorry. Eskel and Vesemir said you were going to be fine, you just needed to sleep it off, but you’ve been asleep for two fucking days, Geralt, and not even the healers seem to know how your added mutations interact with the potions, so I was afraid…”

“It’s fine.” Geralt’s voice is weak and raspy. “You smell scared.”

Jaskier laughs. “Your gift for flattery hasn’t changed, dear heart.”

Geralt’s breath catches in his chest. Jaskier hasn’t called him “dear heart” in a long time. “You shouldn’t be scared. I’m fine.”

“I can see that.” A smile flickers across Jaskier’s face.

Jaskier has been at Kaer Morhen for months— going on three, Geralt realizes— and this is the first time they’ve been alone in a room together. “I was stupid. I got distracted. The wyvern got too close to you.”

Jaskier frowns. “The wyvern was nowhere near me.”

“It was on the same mountain as you. Too close.”

Color floods Jaskier’s face.

Geralt closes his eyes, because he can’t look at Jaskier when he’s being that cute. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m so fucking sorry, Jask. I wish I knew how to fix this.”

A hand rests on Geralt’s shoulder, so gently that Jaskier is barely touching him. “I never should have asked you to leave this place. Your family. That was selfish of me. I’m sorry for that. I was just so scared of losing you.”

“You were just trying to save my life,” Geralt says.

“I was, but I didn’t stop to think about how much it would hurt you. We were both eighteen and stupid. I’ve spent years angry at you and I can’t be angry at you anymore, so you’re forgiven. But my heart is still broken. It still hurts to look at you some days. And other days, you’re the only thing I can look at.”

Geralt opens his eyes and forces himself to look at Jaskier’s raw, vulnerable expression. “I should have said goodbye. I’ll hate myself forever for not saying goodbye.”

“Please don’t hate yourself.” Jaskier strokes a thumb along Geralt’s jawline. “There are a lot of people out there who are going to hate you. Don’t be one of them.”

The feeling of Jaskier’s skin against his, even if it’s just the pad of his thumb, makes Geralt shiver. “You deserved better than that.”

“I did,” Jaskier says. “Why did you leave, Geralt?”

There’s no anger in his voice, but Geralt grimaces. “Vesemir found us. He’d been following us since we left Lettenhove, and I hadn’t even noticed. He reminded me that I didn’t know what I wanted to do if I wasn’t a witcher. No other way to make money. He also told me about my mother.”

“What about her?”

“She was a sorceress. She sent me to Kaer Morhen because she looked into my future and she decided this would be the best life for me. I wasn’t a child surprise and I wasn’t abandoned. This is where I was supposed to be.”

Jaskier’s eyes are too bright. “Of course it is. I’m sorry I didn’t realize that earlier.”

Geralt wants to tell him that he’s supposed to be with Jaskier too, in any way Jaskier wants him, but he doesn’t know how to put that into words. He settles for saying, “I’ve missed you, Jask.”

“I’ve missed you too.” Jaskier sounds choked. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I still… I want you in my life.”

“Then be my friend again,” Jaskier says. “That’s all you need to do to make it up to me. Be my best friend again.”

“I’ll always be your friend, Jask.” Friend. It’s not enough, but Geralt will learn to live with it.

***

It’s amazing how quickly Jaskier and Geralt slip back into old habits. Heading down to the stables to visit Buttercup and Roach, staying up late to play knucklebones and drink vodka, playfully ribbing one another. While watching Geralt spar every morning, Jaskier calls down purposefully unhelpful suggestions and Geralt responds with rude hand gestures. Geralt starts helping Eskel and Lambert with Jaskier’s self-defense lessons. Whenever they aren’t busy with chores or training, they’re together, and it’s wonderful. With Geralt by his side, Kaer Morhen is starting to feel like Jaskier’s home, more than Lettenhove ever was.

One night, when he gasps awake from a nightmare of his father burying him alive, he wakes to find Geralt slipping into his room. “You’re safe, Jask,” he whispers as he climbs into bed next to Jaskier. “No one’s going to hurt you here.” Jaskier falls back asleep quickly with Geralt’s arm around his waist and Geralt’s broad chest pressed against his back. When he wakes up, Geralt is gone and Jaskier wonders if it was all a dream. Geralt never brings it up and Jaskier never asks.

If sometimes, Jaskier hates himself a little for asking Geralt to be his best friend again, when what he really wanted to do was get down on his knees and confess his undying love for the other man, he’s learning to live with it. Being friends with Geralt is better than the years of not having Geralt in his life. He never wants to go back to that endless, uncomfortable silence between them. If having Geralt as his friend is the only way to have Geralt, then it will just have to do.

Jaskier has spent most of his life yearning for Geralt, in one way or another. This is no different.

***

 

Age 21

On the morning of Jaskier’s twenty-first birthday, a snowstorm dumps another foot of snow on the mountain. Vesemir joins Jaskier on the tower to watch training. “There will be no traveling down the mountain for at least a month,” Vesemir says and Jaskier pretends not to be delighted by this news. His ankle is completely healed and he knows that once the snow melts, he’ll have no excuse to stay in Kaer Morhen. Geralt and his cohort will set out on the Path and Jaskier will go back to trying to survive as a bard.

The thought makes Jaskier feel achingly lonely. It’s been a good winter, the best of Jaskier’s life, and he’ll be sorry to leave it behind.

To his surprise, after dinner that night, Eskel produces a jug of honeyed mead and announces they’re going to celebrate Jaskier’s birthday properly. Jaskier wasn’t expecting a celebration, since witchers don’t do birthdays, but his friends seem more than willing to make an exception for him. To his even greater surprise, it’s not just Geralt, Eskel, and Lambert who gather on top of one of the towers to drink honeyed mead around a fire and play Gwent. Vesemir is there, along with Clovis, Gweld, and Gascaden, most of the visiting witchers, and several of the trainees from Lambert’s cohort.

Jaskier remembers telling Geralt four years ago, “Birthdays are a glorious thing. The one day of the year where it’s all about you.” It was pure wishful thinking; no one has ever made a big deal out of his birthday. Most years, most people didn’t even remember his birthday. If his father was in a particularly good mood, Jaskier might get a cake, but those years were few and far between. This may be the first birthday celebration he’s had since he was a small child and Elisa was still alive.

Tipsy on honeyed mead and having won three rounds of Gwent in a row, Jaskier drops a kiss on Geralt’s cheek. “Happy birthday, dear heart.”

Geralt grunts. “Not my birthday.”

“Remember, the year I turned seventeen, I told you we shared a birthday now. Did you think I forgot? We’re both twenty-one today.”

“Hm. Maybe let me win a round of fucking Gwent then.”

Jaskier cackles and kicks his ass for the fourth time in a row.

As the night wears on, another jug of mead and a bottle of vodka begin making the rounds. The witchers tell stories of their exploits and Jaskier makes up a song about Micah’s fight with a succubus that’s shit, but gets plenty of laughs. They trade stories and laugh and Geralt finally wins a round of Gwent. As the evening wears on and Jaskier starts to lose all feeling in his nose, despite his fur cloak and the fire, the others start to slowly trickle away. First is Vesemir, then Lambert’s fellow trainees, then the witchers. Soon, it’s only Geralt, Jaskier, Eskel, and Lambert sitting on the tower.

Without all the warm bodies, the tower is even colder. Jaskier shivers and Geralt starts to put an arm around him, then freezes.

“No, it’s okay,” Jaskier murmurs and snuggles back into the waiting arm. Gods, when did Geralt’s biceps get so huge? “I’m fucking freezing up here. I would snuggle that wyvern you killed last month.”

Geralt chuckles in his ear. “I’m a lot less bitey than a wyvern.”

“How disappointing,” Jaskier says, then blanches and takes a swig of mead. He’s not even drunk, for Melitele’s sake. He should be way drunker if he’s going to say things like that.

Eskel stands up and stretches. “Time for bed, I think. Come on, Lambert.”

Lambert looks up at him blankly. “What, do you need someone to tuck you in?”

“No, it’s just past your bedtime. Training in the morning, remember?” Eskel’s eyes flicker to Jaskier and Geralt in a way that’s not nearly as subtle as he probably intends it to be.

Lambert follows his gaze and guffaws. “Come on, if they were going to fuck, they would have done it months ago.”

Gods, Lambert.” Eskel grabs the boy by the arm and hauls him down the stairs.

There’s a beat of silence. “Guess they don’t teach the fine art of stealth up here, do they?” Jaskier asks, determinedly keeping his voice light.

“Oh, they do.” Geralt just sounds tired.

“I think Eskel needs a refresher. Lambert may need the whole damn lesson again.”

“I’ll say something to Vesemir.”

Jaskier shifts closer, leaning his head against Geralt’s chest. He’s sleepy and just tipsy enough to lower his inhibitions. “Want to know a secret?”

“Hm?”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Jaskier chuckles. “I don’t want this winter to end. I want it to snow forever, so I don’t have to leave. So none of us have to leave.”

“You want to know a secret?” Geralt asks in a low voice.

“Of course, Geralt. I’m incorrigibly nosy. You know this.”

“I used to ask Vesemir if you could come to Kaer Morhen to live with us at least once a year. I would get so mad when he’d say no. He said stealing the heir to the earldom would get the keep burned down.”

“He’s not wrong,” Jaskier murmurs, though he feels a jab of sorrow for his younger self. Eleven year old Julian would have had a very different childhood if he grew up here.

“I used to think about coming down the mountain, gutting your piece of shit father, and dragging you back to Kaer Morhen. You should have been alone with that fucker for so many years.”

“I wasn’t alone, Geralt. I had you. I had Eskel and Lambert. I had Vesemir. He couldn’t steal me away, but he did what he could. I think he had a talk with my father after I tried to escape to Kaer Morhen when we were ten. The beatings got better for a while, at least until I got kicked out of Oxenfurt.”

Geralt stares intensely at the fire. The flickering light reflects in his golden eyes. “Wasn’t enough.”

“Maybe not.” Jaskier snuggles closer. “You know, I hate to interrupt when you’ve got a really good brood going on, because I know how hard you’ve worked to refine your craft, but it’s our birthday, and brooding isn’t allowed on birthdays.”

Geralt’s laugh vibrates in his chest. “You’re the only one who can do that.”

“Do what?”

“Get me out of my own head.” He turns his head so his breath tickles the point of Jaskier’s ear. “I used to wonder how you did it. No matter what life threw at you, you always seemed so fucking happy.”

“Fifty percent of it was pure bravado.” Jaskier shrugs. “The other fifty percent… Vesemir once told me that just because my father was a miserable bastard, it didn’t mean I had to be too. I took it to heart.”

“Good. You’re better than your father. Always will be.”

Jaskier wants to kiss him so badly, but they’re friends. Just friends. “Are you ready to go out on the Path?” he asks, because monster hunting is a safe topic that won’t make him want to stick his tongue down Geralt’s throat.

“Yes,” Geralt says. “I’ll miss it here, but it’s time. I’ve been training for this since I was seven.”

“You’re going to be a great witcher. Watching you fight is like watching the world’s most deadly waltz.” At Geralt’s confused silence, he adds, “Because you’re so graceful. And gorgeous. Really fucking gorgeous.”

“Still?” Geralt’s voice cracks and Jaskier’s heart breaks.

“Yeah, Geralt.” Jaskier turns his head so that they’re nose to nose. “Always. You were perfect before, but you’re fucking exquisite now.”

For a moment, the only sounds are of the wind and the fire crackling in front of them. And then Geralt kisses him and it’s like no time has passed at all and they’re seventeen again, making out by the river. Geralt kisses Jaskier hungrily, all teeth, tongue, and desperate need. Fuck, he’s gotten much more assertive about this. Geralt pulls Jaskier onto his lap and Jaskier finds himself straddling Geralt with their chests pressed together, his fingers buried in Geralt’s hair. Geralt’s hair is just as soft as he remembers.

“Fuck, sorry.” Geralt pulls away. “I shouldn’t have done that. I know you just want to be friends.”

“Are you joking?” Jaskier lets out a peel of laughter. “Geralt, I have been kicking myself for the past month. You’d just been mortally wounded—”

“Hardly a scratch.”

Mortally wounded and I’d heroically sat by your side for two days and nights and it would have been the perfect time to lay it all out and confess my love and instead, I asked you if you wanted to be my fucking friend.”

Geralt grins. “Want to give it another shot?”

Jaskier kisses him. “Without the wyvern?”

In one fluid motion, Geralt rises to his feet, bringing Jaskier with him. He holds Jaskier with one arm around Jaskier’s waist, the other one under his thighs. Jaskier should feel ridiculous, given that he’s nearly as tall as Geralt. Instead, he’s ridiculously aroused.

“Without the wyvern,” Geralt says and carries Jaskier to the bedroom.

***

Geralt can admit to himself that the only reason he carries Jaskier downstairs is that he spent two months watching Eskel carry Jaskier up and down stairs when Jaskier was too weak to climb staircases himself and the jealousy nearly killed him. And from the musky, almost sweet smell of arousal pouring off of Jaskier, it’s working. As soon as Geralt carries Jaskier over the threshold of his bedroom, he kicks the door shut behind him and dumps Jaskier on the bed. Jaskier lets out a gasping laugh as he hits the mattress and begins to scramble out of his clothes. He looks up at Geralt, pupils huge, and Geralt remembers that Jaskier can’t see in the dark. He uses Igni to light the candle on the bedside table.

Jaskier laughs again. “You’ve gotten good at that. A few years ago, the keep would be burning down around our ears.”

“Hm.” Geralt doesn’t have the brainpower for banter; he’s too focused on the delicate slope of Jaskier’s rib cage, the jut of his hip bones, and the length of his cock. With Jaskier naked in front of him, Geralt is suddenly acutely aware of his own strength. It would be too easy for him to thrust a little bit too hard, or grip a little too tightly. His large, scarred hands don’t belong anywhere near Jaskier.

“Fuck, Geralt, whatever you’re thinking too hard about, stop.” Jaskier grabs Geralt by the wrists and tries to yank him towards the bed.

Geralt resists. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You just carried me down three flights of steps. I’m no delicate flower. Nor am I opposed to some sexy manhandling.”

Gods, he’s beautiful. Geralt can’t take his eyes off him. “You’ll tell me if something hurts?”

“Dear heart, have you ever known me to suffer in silence?”

Geralt doesn’t have it in him to resist any more. He lets Jaskier drag him down on top of him and kisses him. Jaskier tastes like mead and he smells like soap, arousal, and smoke. He’s everything that Geralt has spent nearly three years missing, and more. Geralt kisses him until Jaskier is squirming frantically under him. Jaskier tries to grind his hips against Geralt’s, but Geralt leverages himself up so he’s hovering over Jaskier, just out of the other man’s reach. Jaskier whines into his mouth.

“Geralt, it’s my birthday.”

“Hm. You should take it slow then, old man.”

“Oh fuck you, we’re the same age.”

Geralt chuckles and gently rolls over, lifting Jaskier up so that his lover is straddling his hips. It’s partially so he won’t accidentally crush Jaskier, partially because the sight of Jaskier on top of him goes straight to his cock.

“Fuck, I’m a huge fan of witcher strength,” Jaskier says breathlessly. “But you’re wearing too many clothes.”

Geralt can feel the evidence of Jaskier’s appreciation pressed against his belly. “We’re focusing on you right now.”

Jaskier makes a strangled noise. “Geralt—”

Geralt grasps Jaskier by the hips, lifts him up so Jaskier is straddling his shoulders, and takes his entire cock in his mouth. Jaskier moans and leans over Geralt, bracing his arms against the wall. Geralt licks and sucks, reveling in every breathy sound of pleasure he draws out of Jaskier. He’s pictured doing this nearly every night for the last three years, but he forgot just how vocal Jaskier is in bed, the way his hips twitch when he’s trying not to thrust too hard, the way his thighs tremble. With one hand, Geralt reaches down his own breeches and begins to stroke himself.

Jaskier reaches out and grabs his forearm. “Geralt.” His voice is strangled. “I have been dreaming of getting my hands on that glorious cock of yours again for years. Don’t you fucking dare do my job for me.”

With that, the last of Geralt’s self-control snaps. He seizes Jaskier by the hips with both hands, digging his fingers into the softness at his waist, and thrusts Jaskier’s length into his mouth. Jaskier wails and arches his back as he reaches his peak, then collapses on top of Geralt.

“Melitele’s sweet tits, you’re still fucking fantastic at that. Glad to see you haven’t gotten rusty.”

“Hm.” Geralt presses his lips against the trail of hair under Jaskier’s belly button. “Found more books in the library.”

Jaskier stills. “No personal experience?”

Geralt shakes his head, glad the mutations make it so he can’t blush. “Tried going to brothels a couple of times, but the whores always smelled scared. And none of them were you. It didn’t seem right to fuck someone when all I could think about was you.”

“Oh, dear heart.” Jaskier shuffles down so their foreheads are pressed together. “You’re a better man than me. I tried to fuck away the memory of you with every pretty girl and brown-eyed boy on the Continent. All that happened is I broke my own heart every time I woke up and the person holding me wasn’t you.”

Geralt runs a thumb over his cheek. “How do you feel about yellow eyes?”

Jaskier kisses him. “I fucking adore them. Now, enough serious talk. Take off your thrice damned pants, before I do it for you.”

“You need to work on your threats.”

The sound of Jaskier’s laughter is one of the sexiest things Geralt has ever heard, second only to his moans. Geralt strips off his own clothes methodically, watching as Jaskier’s eyes go wide. For a moment, Geralt wonders if Jaskier is horrified at what the mutations have done to his body, until Jaskier’s eyes rake up and down him with undisguised lust.

Jaskier reaches out and smooths his hands over Geralt’s shoulders, down his arms and chest. His fingers linger on the scar over his heart. “What happened?”

“Bruxa.”

“Is it dead?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Jaskier kisses the scar. Geralt gasps when Jaskier’s tongue flicks over his nipple. “I have missed you so fucking much. Have I mentioned that?”

Geralt nuzzles at the curve of Jaskier’s throat. “I missed you too.”

Jaskier’s hand wraps around Geralt’s cock. “Can I?”

Geralt nods mutely. After the first time he caught sight of his witcher visage in a mirror, he gave up hope that anyone would ever want to touch him like this again. But Jaskier pushes Geralt down so he’s lying on his back, peppering every inch of him with kisses. When his mouth finally closes around Geralt’s cock, Geralt’s mouth drops open in silent pleasure. Jaskier uses his tongue and his hands with remarkable skill and Geralt can only dig his fingers into the bedsheets and hang on for the ride. When he finds his release, he lies there, panting, as Jaskier curls up next to him.

Geralt loops an arm around Jaskier and pulls him close, burying his face in Jaskier’s hair.

“I love you,” Jaskier whispers into his shoulder.

“Even after everything?”

“I don’t think there’s anything you could do to make me stop loving you, Geralt,” Jaskier says, then pauses. “Don’t take that as a challenge, though.”

Geralt grins. He’s so fucking happy, he feels like he’ll burst with it. “I love you too. Pretty sure I’ve loved you since we were eleven. I just didn’t know it.”

“What changed?”

“The year you invited me to Belleteyn. Watching you sing.” Geralt closes his eyes, savoring the memory. “I couldn’t look away.”

“It was one of my better performances.” Jaskier sounds unbelievably smug.

“What about you?” Geralt asks.

“I always thought you were attractive, because I have eyes, but it was probably the day those men attacked us outside of Lettenhove that changed things. I thought I was about to get my face smashed in, and then you were just there.”

“Wouldn’t let anything happen to your face.” Geralt drops a kiss on the face in question.

Jaskier smiles. “And then you were gone for nearly a year and I had plenty of time to daydream about you and realize that none of my daydreams were even a little bit platonic. As soon as I saw you again, I knew I was in love with you.”

Geralt pulls him closer and for a moment, they lie there in calm silence. With a jolt, Geralt realizes that he never wants to give this up. He doesn’t care where he is— Kaer Morhen, shitty inns, bedrolls under the stars. All he wants is to fall asleep next to Jaskier every night. He wants Jaskier in his arms, a warm, comforting weight pressed against him.

“When I leave on the Path in the spring,” Geralt says. “You could come with me.”

Jaskier doesn’t say anything. Geralt hears his heartbeat pick up.

Fuck, this was a dumb idea. “If you don’t want to, that’s fine. We could pick a place to meet up a few times a year, if you want to.”

“Of course I’ll come with you.” Jaskier’s voice is thick with emotion. “You’ll be my witcher and I’ll be your bard. I’ll sing of your exploits and you’ll stab anything big and toothy that gets too close to me.”

“It won’t be an easy or a glamorous life. It might be dangerous.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jaskier says. “I want you, Geralt. You’re all I’ve wanted since I was too young to understand how I felt about you.”

Geralt doesn’t know what to say to that, so he closes his eyes and leans his face against Jaskier’s, breathing in the scent of him. He’s so content, that he doesn’t notice the sound of his medallion humming until Jaskier asks, “What’s that?”

Geralt sits up, suddenly alert. Lying in his pile of discarded clothes, the medallion is vibrating.

“Magic,” he says.

“One of the healers?”

“No. Not that kind of magic.” Geralt reaches for his swords.

There’s a thunderous roar and Geralt just has time to throw himself on top of Jaskier and cast Quen as the ceiling collapses on top of them.

***

With the candle extinguished and no windows, the room is pitch black. Jaskier can’t see a thing, not even Geralt’s body on top of him. The air is thick with dust and smoke, making him choke. This is what being buried alive must feel like, he thinks, and feels his body threatening to seize up with panic at the thought. “What the fuck was that?” he manages to gasp.

“Part of the keep just collapsed.” Geralt’s voice is a growl in his ear.

Jaskier thinks of the massive stone castle and all of that weight crushing down on him and he feels like he may vomit. “How?”

“We’re being attacked.” Geralt pushes himself off of Jaskier. Jaskier can’t see what he’s doing, but he can hear the sound of rubble being blasted out of the way. Something hits his face and he flinches, before he realizes it’s his own breeches and chemise.

“Get dressed,” Geralt says.

Jaskier scrambles to comply, clumsy in the dark. “The others?”

“Some alive, some not. I can’t tell who.” Jaskier can hear the pain in the tightly controlled tone of Geralt’s voice. “If it’s like what happened at the other keeps, there will be men and mages. You should stay here.”

“And wait for the rest of the ceiling to fall on my head? No thank you.”

“Jask—”

“I don’t have witcher senses, Geralt. I can’t see shit.” Jaskier hates how terrified he sounds. “If I stay here, I’m dead. The first angry mage who comes along, I’m royally fucked.”

Geralt curses under his breath and there’s a burst of fire, illuminating the room as he uses Igni to light the candle. Jaskier can now see that most of the ceiling is gone. The bed where he and Geralt were curled up only moments before is covered in rubble. Geralt stands in front of him, already fully dressed in his armor and with his swords strapped to his back. His eyes have gone completely black, with dark veins crawling down his face. Jaskier feels his own eyes go wide as Geralt hands him the candle.

“It’s a potion,” Geralt tells him. “Helps me see in the dark. Try not to point the candle at me.”

“Sorry.” Jaskier shields the candle with his hand, not taking his eyes off Geralt. In another scenario where he wasn’t terrified, he thinks he would be very into this look.

“Eskel’s hurt,” Geralt says. “I smell his blood.”

Jaskier’s heart plummets into somewhere in the region of his belly button. “How bad?”

“Don’t know. His heartbeat is strong.” Geralt shoves a knife into Jaskier’s other hand. “Take this and stay close to me.”

The hallway is filled with more rubble, completely blocking off most of it. Jaskier swallows back the horror in the pit of his stomach when he realizes that most of the visiting witchers were staying in the area that looks like it’s completely collapsed. The path to Eskel’s door is clear and Geralt shoves his way into the room. They find Eskel sitting on the ground next to his bed, clutching his face in his hands. When he looks up, Jaskier gasps.

“You’re okay,” Eskel says, voice thick with pain and relief. A swath of skin on the right side of his face, from his eyebrow to his jaw, has been scraped off, revealing bone. Only Eskel would be worried about Jaskier and Geralt’s safety when he’s the one with part of his face missing.

“You’re not,” Geralt says. “Where are your potions? Most of mine are crushed. All I had was Cat and Tawny Owl.”

“Under my bed. I have Swallow.”

“Good.”

Eskel catches Jaskier staring and forces a shaky smile. “No need to look at me like that, Jask. I’m not dying yet.”

“And you’re not going to,” Jaskier says firmly and puts down the candle to cut off a piece of the bedsheets to wrap around Eskel’s face. It’s a rudimentary bandage, but it will hopefully quell some of the bleeding.

“Head wounds always look worse than they are,” Eskel says, like he should be the one comforting Jaskier.

“Good, because this one looks pretty fucking bad.”

Eskel laughs weakly as Geralt shoves a bottle of Swallow into his hand. “This is like Kaer Seren, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Geralt says.

“Any idea how many?”

Geralt closes his eyes, a pained expression crossing his face. “I don’t know. I can hear lots of human heartbeats, but I can’t tell which ones are our trainees. There are witcher heartbeats too, but not as many as there should be. People are shouting. There are kids crying. But it’s too much.”

“Hey.” Jaskier touches his cheek. “Don’t strain yourself. It’s okay.”

“People are trapped in the rubble,” Geralt says in a hollow voice. “I can hear them moaning.”

Jaskier shudders at the thought. “Melitele preserve them.”

“Melitele isn’t here right now. It’s just us.” Shakily, Eskel climbs to his feet and starts pulling on his armor.

“The fuck do you think you’re doing?” Jaskier demands.

It’s hard to decipher the expression Eskel is giving him under the makeshift bandages, but Jaskier decides to go with fond exasperation. “Getting ready for battle.”

“You’re bleeding. A lot.”

“And I’ll be bleeding even more if the bastards attacking us have their way. We all will. I can hold a sword. That’s all I need.”

That doesn’t seem like a sound survival strategy to Jaskier, but there’s no time to argue. Shaking, he wipes his bloody hands on his breeches and climbs to his feet. “What do we do?”

To his relief, neither of them say a word about leaving him behind. The thought of being left alone in the dark terrifies him more than any murderous army could. “You’re going to need to put out the candle,” Geralt says gently. “Our one advantage here is that we can see in the dark and they most likely can’t.”

“We won’t let you run into anything,” Eskel adds when Jaskier hesitates. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

Jaskier looks up into Geralt’s black-eyed face, so different from the face he’s come to known as well as his own, yet so strange, and hopes this won’t be the last time he gets to see it. Then he nods and blows the candle out, plunging the room into complete darkness.

***

The smell of smoke, Eskel’s blood, and Jaskier’s fear is overwhelming. As Geralt moves through the keep, sword clenched in his hands, he’s aware of every movement Jaskier and Eskel make behind him. Jaskier’s heartbeat is far too fast and his breaths come out shallow and sharp. His hand is fisted in the back of Geralt’s shirt. Eskel’s breathing is labored and Geralt knows he’s in pain. He knew as soon as he saw Eskel’s face that this isn’t a wound that’s going to heal easily. All he can do is find the people who hurt his brother and do ten times worse to them.

By unspoken agreement, Geralt and Eskel are bringing Jaskier to the dormitories to shelter with the trainees. He’ll be safe with Lambert and the others in his cohort. Lambert would sooner chop his own arm off than let anything happen to Jaskier, not that he would ever admit it.

But as they get closer to the dormitories, Geralt hears the sounds of shouting and steel against steel. “Fuck. Eskel, cover Jaskier.”

He doesn’t wait for Eskel’s reply. He runs, feeling a momentary surge of guilt for leaving Jaskier behind, but then he hears a familiar voice shout in pain. He rounds the corner and finds Vesemir standing in front of the door to the dormitories, holding off five armed men. The men are most likely trained mercenaries; their armor and weaponry are professional and their movements practiced. There’s a circle of bodies on the ground, both human and witcher. Geralt catches sight of Varin’s bloodied face, yellow eyes empty of life.

One of the attackers slashes Vesemir across the arm and the older witcher stumbles back, his back hitting the door. The coppery scent of Vesemir’s blood fills the air and Geralt loses the last vestiges of his control. With a roar of fury, he attacks. The men aren't expecting him. Two die quickly, one with a sword thrust through his spine, the next one decapitated. The third lunges for Geralt and Geralt parries his blow and runs him through. Vesemir finishes off the fourth one while the fifth turns to flee. Geralt would let him, if he weren’t heading in Jaskier and Eskel’s direction. He pulls a knife from his belt and hurls it at the bastard, who falls without a sound.

“Alright, pup?” Vesemir asks.

Geralt nods. “How many?”

“At least fifty humans, a mix of trained soldiers and ordinary folks. A few of them are from Lettenhove. They have at least two sorceresses.”

“How many of us are left?” Geralt doesn’t want to know the answer to that question, but he needs to know. All of the dead witchers on the ground are Vesemir’s fellow instructors.

“Rennes is most likely dead. His tower is the one that collapsed on the keep. Any of the witchers who were in their beds are beneath the rubble. Luckily, half of us were down in the kitchens playing Gwent. Clovis, Gweld, Gascaden, and the other survivors are outside, trying to prevent the rest of the attackers from entering the keep. Both healers are dead. The labs and their chambers were incinerated. Of the trainees, we’ve only lost Nathaniel and Milo.”

Nathaniel and Milo were in Lambert’s cohort, both only sixteen. Geralt nods, jaw working.

Vesemir visibly hesitates. “Eskel and Jaskier?”

“Alive, but Eskel’s hurt.”

As if on cue, Eskel and Jaskier come around the corner. Jaskier is clinging on to Eskel, eyes huge as he looks around. Even though it’s pitch black in the hallway and he can’t see anything, he’s still trying to find Geralt.

“I’m here, Jask,” Geralt calls softly. “Vesemir too.”

Jaskier’s face crumples in relief and he starts to run towards him, trips over the body of the man Geralt stabbed in the back, and nearly falls on his face. Eskel just manages to grab his arm to keep him upright. Under the terror and pain, Geralt feels a surge of fondness for him. He steps forward and catches Jaskier in his arms. He’s glad it’s too dark for Jaskier to see the bodies, especially the ones of the men Geralt killed.

“Come on, pups,” Vesemir says and pushes open the door to the dormitory.

The room is lit by flickering candlelight, causing Geralt and Eskel to wince. The seven surviving members of Lambert’s cohort are lined up in a row, all holding swords at the ready. The younger ones are huddled behind them. A few of the little ones are weeping. Lambert stands in the center of his cohort. Geralt doesn’t miss the little gasp he lets out when he sees Geralt, Eskel, and Jaskier alive.

“The fuck happened to your face?” he asks Eskel.

Eskel doesn’t miss a beat. “A ceiling fell on me. What’s your excuse?”

Lambert’s answering grin is shaky.

“You should stay here,” Geralt tells Jaskier.

Jaskier frowns, his grip on Geralt tightening. “What about you?”

“I need to go fight. You’ll be safe here.” Over Jaskier’s shoulder, Geralt meets Lambert’s eyes. Lambert nods.

“But what about you?” Jaskier asks again. “They just brought half a fucking castle down. Whoever these people are, they’re dangerous.”

“And that’s why you’re staying here.” Geralt drops a quick kiss on his forehead. He should tell Jaskier he’ll be back, but he doesn’t want to make any more promises he can’t keep.

“Geralt—”

Geralt, Eskel, and Vesemir’s medallions all begin to hum.

“Incoming!” Vesemir shouts, just as a portal opens up in the middle of the dormitory and twenty men come pouring into the room, followed by a sorceress. Most of the men are in the same armor of the mercenaries Geralt killed in the hallway, but Geralt recognizes a few of them. He sees Viktor, the alderman’s son who attacked Geralt, Eskel, Lambert and Jaskier years ago, as well as the blacksmith. Geralt just has time to shove Jaskier behind him as four of the mercenaries lunge at them.

Around Geralt, the room dissolves into chaos as the attackers clash with the witchers and the trainees. The smell of blood and fear fills the air and Geralt doesn’t stop to think about whose blood it is. His focus is solely on his opponents and stopping them from getting anywhere near Jaskier, who stands behind him, armed with nothing but a knife. He hears a yell and turns to see Jaskier grappling with the blacksmith. Jaskier slashes at the blacksmith with his knife, causing the man to stumble backwards into Geralt’s sword.

But it’s a moment of distraction Geralt doesn’t need. He feels a sharp sting in his side and looks down to see a knife sticking out of him.

“Geralt!” Jaskier shouts, fear spiking in his scent.

Geralt yanks his sword out of the blacksmith’s body and decapitates the man who stabbed him. Wincing, he yanks the knife out of his side, causing Jaskier to yelp.

“No, don’t, the bleeding—”

“It will heal.” Geralt’s eyes lock on the sorceress. She’s small and blonde, and hardly looks older than Lambert, despite most likely being centuries old. The sorceresses are the ones who brought down the keep. They’re the ones who portaled all these men up the mountain. If the witchers can take out the sorceresses, they win this fight.

The sorceress’s eyes meet his and she must know what he’s thinking, because she comes straight at him, fire dancing in her palms. Geralt shoves Jaskier back and casts Quen to deflect her spell. She sends another spell at him and this one sends him flying backwards, slamming into the wall with enough force to knock all the breath out of his lungs. Stars dance in front of his vision. The sorceress rounds on him, summoning a handful of fire, and Geralt just has time to realize that he’s about to die.

“No!” Jaskier slams into the sorceress and brings her to the ground.

***

As a rule, Jaskier doesn’t love the idea of fighting with someone half his size, especially when she looks barely older than Izabela. But he can feel the chaos crackling in the air around the sorceress and he knows that in a room full of witchers and armed mercenaries, she’s the most dangerous one here. And there’s no way he’s going to let her lay a finger on Geralt. He seizes her wrists and pins them to the ground to stop her from casting any spells.

She smiles up at him, unconcerned. The fact that she’s not struggling against his grasp worries him more than if she were trying to curse him into oblivion. “What’s an elf doing in a keep full of mutants?”

“What’s a sorceress doing, attacking children in the middle of the night?”

“They hardly count as children anymore.” She casts her eyes disdainfully at the trainees.

Jaskier remembers Geralt at seven years old, crying for his mother. Ten years old, throwing himself on top of Jaskier to protect him from a werewolf. Fourteen years old, terrified of the upcoming Trials. This woman would have killed him without hesitation. Jaskier wonders if he can reach for his knife and end this before she has time to cast a spell. He wonders if he has the strength to stab someone, even if that someone is reprehensible.

The sorceress’s eyes flicker to Geralt, who is fighting his way through the mercenaries trying to block his path to the sorceress and Jaskier. “Oh, I see.”

One of the mercenaries slashes his sword over Geralt’s knife wound. Geralt grunts in pain and Jaskier flinches.

It’s all the opening the sorceress needs. Suddenly, Jaskier is flat on his back, with the sorceress on top of him. Her surprisingly strong hands are wrapped around his throat. He reaches for his knife, but she bats it away without even looking at it. He hears it skitter across the floor.

“Did you know that elves all have chaos in their blood?” she asks conversationally as he sputters and gasps. “Even if hardly any of you have any magical abilities yourselves, you can come in handy as sources. It’s considered unethical, of course, but I’m not at Aretuza anymore.”

Her grip tightens and the keep around them begins to shake. Dust begins to rain down from the ceiling. Jaskier claws at her fingers desperately, wheezing. The floor seems to be bucking under him and he’s aware of people— witchers, trainees, and mercenaries alike— scrambling to find purchase. This crazy witch is going to bring the whole building down with everyone, including her allies, in it.

A chunk of the ceiling falls down, landing perilously close to Jaskier’s head. He hears Geralt shout his name, the terror in his voice mirroring Jaskier’s own fear. Jaskier is going to go on the Path with Geralt in the spring, he tells himself. They’re going to start a life together, a witcher and his bard traveling the Continent. Jaskier isn’t going to die here at the hands of a no-name fanatical sorceress and her band of armed assholes.

He reaches out, grabs a hold of one of the rocks that just fell from the ceiling, and smashes it into her temple. The sorceress shrieks and lets go of him. Jaskier shoves her off of him and scrambles backwards, just as Geralt lunges at the sorceress. The sorceress raises her hand to cast a curse at Jaskier, who braces himself. Geralt steps between them and cuts her head off with a single swing of his sword. The keep stops shaking and a heavy silence settles over the room.

Jaskier looks around and sees fallen bodies everywhere. The mercenaries are all down, most of them dead. The handful that are still moaning are being efficiently finished off by Vesemir with a blade to the side of the neck. Lambert is kneeling next to one of the members of his cohort, hands pressed against a wound in the boy’s throat that has stopped bleeding. Lambert’s eyes are wide with shock as he stares down at his friend’s body. Eskel is with the little ones, checking for wounds and talking in a low, reassuring voice. The knot of terror in Jaskier’s chest loosens a little.

Geralt pulls him to his feet and drags him into a hug. “That was stupid,” he murmurs into Jaskier’s hair. “You shouldn’t put yourself between me and angry sorceresses.”

“You're welcome, dear heart,” Jaskier replies."Though if I have to keep saving your lovely ass, I’m going to start charging witcher rates."

Geralt snorts. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” Jaskier touches his bruising throat and winces. “You?”

“Nothing that won’t heal.” Geralt looks down at the wound in his side, looking more irritated than worried. “It’s over. I think the fighting outside is done too.”

“Did we win?” Jaskier asks hesitantly.

“We’re alive, so yes.” Geralt glances at the body of another dead trainee and winces. “Well, most of us.”

It’s good enough for Jaskier right now, so he wraps Geralt up in his arms and holds his witcher close, reassured by the slow thrum of his witcher heartbeat against Jaskier’s chest.

***

There are too many funeral pyres in the days that follow: Rennes, Varin and the other instructors, four members of Lambert’s cohort, both of the healers, and well over half of the visiting witchers, including Micah. They burn the mercenaries’ bodies in a mass grave after pillaging their armor and weapons. It takes Geralt weeks before he stops smelling smoke and burnt flesh.

The western half of the keep, where the laboratories, the library, and most of the visiting witchers' rooms were located, is uninhabitable. Geralt and Jaskier move into one of the late instructors’ rooms (which seems to creep Jaskier out until Geralt asks him whether he would prefer they sleep outside. Jaskier gets over his discomfort quickly after that.) Their new room has a bed that fits them both comfortably and a fireplace, which also helps.

With the deaths of Rennes and the other instructors, Vesemir becomes the de facto head of the Wolf School, something that seems to fill him with dismay. A week after the attack, he calls the surviving witchers and the trainees to the training yard, where he delivers the news.

“When the laboratories and the library were destroyed, so was all our knowledge of how to create witchers,” he tells them. “The potions for next year’s Trials were already created and they survived. I know enough to administer them. After that, there will be no way to create new witchers at Kaer Morhen.”

“Can’t we use the existing potions to make new ones?” Gweld asks.

“Our healers made that near-impossible so that not just anyone who got their hands on a potion could create more witchers,” Vesemir says. “I suppose we could try to find a mage who is willing to try. Though I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not inclined to trust any strange mages right now.”

There’s a heavy silence.

Vesemir turns to the younger trainees. “You will be given the choice. Some of you may want to return to your families. Some of you may want to take up a trade and find an apprenticeship. I will do whatever I can to make that happen. If any of you will want to stay here, this will be your home as long as you want it to be. I may not be able to give you the mutations to make you a witcher, but I can still train you.”

Several of the youngest boys begin to sniffle.

Vesemir directs his attention to Lambert’s cohort. “Kaer Seren, Stygga Castle, and Gorthur Gvaed are gone and their schools decimated. We’ve received no words from the other schools, but we can assume that they’ve undergone similar attacks. Being a witcher will be harder than ever with so few of us left. I won’t force anyone to undergo the Trials. So you have a choice. You may undergo the Trials next summer. If you choose not to, you have the same options as the little ones. This will be your home for as long as you want it to be and I will do everything I can to prepare you for the world as a human.”

Four of the boys immediately say they’ll undergo the Trials. Lambert is the only one who hesitates, his gaze flickering to Geralt and Eskel. Geralt keeps his face carefully neutral. He doesn’t want Lambert to have to undergo the torture of the Trials and possibly not survive. Human or witcher, Lambert will be his brother. But a small, selfish part of him also doesn’t want to watch Lambert grow old and die. He wants centuries of being annoyed by the little shit.

“I’ll do it,” Lambert says. “Last five years would be a fucking waste if I didn’t, right?”

Geralt doesn’t know whether to be horrified or relieved.

***

“I think I’m going to stay here another year,” Geralt tells Jaskier that night as they lie curled up in bed, the embers in the fireplace burnt low. Jaskier is a warm, comforting weight in Geralt’s arms.

Jaskier doesn’t reply, but he props his chin on Geralt’s chest and peers up at him, silently urging him to continue.

“The keep needs rebuilding,” Geralt tells him. “I don’t want to leave Vesemir and the trainees to do it by themselves.”

He hates the thought of leaving Vesemir alone with the trainees. Every time he pictures going out on the Path, his vision of sleeping under the stars with Jaskier is tempered by images of Vesemir sitting in a half-ruined keep with no other instructors for company.

“If you want to go, it’s okay,” he tells Jaskier, because he knows Jaskier must be eager to get out on the road and go back to seeing the world. Jaskier, who is warmth and light, doesn’t belong in a drafty old ruin. He’ll probably be bored out of his mind. He’ll probably…

Jaskier kisses him. “Of course I’ll stay.”

Some of the tension in Geralt’s shoulders releases. “But will you be happy here?”

“As long as you’re here.” Jaskier nuzzles closer. “It takes more than a castle nearly falling on my head to get rid of me, dear heart.”

“I just don’t want to hold you back.”

“You’re not holding me back,” Jaskier says softly. “Wherever we go, we go together, Geralt, always.”

***

 

Age 22

Geralt and Jaskier stay at the keep for another year, along with the rest of Geralt's cohort and a handful of the older surviving witchers. It takes most of the spring and summer to rebuild walls and make the surviving wing of the keep habitable.

As winter approaches, witchers from other schools begin to trail in. Griffins, Cats, and Vipers, all of whom had their own keeps destroyed and need a place to go for the winter, at least until they can rebuild. No one has heard from the Bear, Crane, and Manticore schools, but one of the Cats tells Jaskier that those schools were already so small that an attack like the one that nearly leveled Kaer Morhen probably would have wiped them out.

It’s a good winter, surprisingly enough, full of equal parts mourning and camaraderie. Jaskier spends his days learning as much as he can about all the new witchers he meets and his nights in Geralt’s bed, learning every inch of his lover’s body.

By the time spring comes, they’re only months away from the Trials. While Clovis, Gweld, and Gascaden set out on the Path with the majority of the older witchers, Eskel, Geralt, and Jaskier can’t bear to leave Lambert. The boy has become even surlier in the last few months, which Jaskier knows is just his way of covering up the mortal terror he’s experiencing

The Trial of the Grasses is awful. Jaskier spends the better part of the week trying not to weep in Geralt’s arms. The thought of Geralt suffering through this four years before turns his stomach. He mourns for those killed in the attack— of course he does. Even Varin. But part of him is glad that this will be the last set of Trials, and that no other boys will fill the halls of Kaer Morhen with their dying screams. Of the five that go into the Trials, two survive: Lambert and another boy named Aubry. When they burn the bodies of the three dead boys, Jaskier looks at Vesemir’s grim face and thinks that the old witcher may be just as relieved as he is that this is the last time.

After the Trials conclude, Geralt and Jaskier debate staying another year, as summer is drawing to a close, but Geralt worries that the longer they stay, the harder it will get to leave. And Jaskier can tell that Geralt is getting restless. He immediately jumps at any contract that pops up within a day’s ride and he’s spending more and more time meditating at the top of his favorite tower.

But Jaskier has one thing to do before they go.

It’s a rainy morning when he makes his way back down to Lettenhove. It’s the first time he’s stepped foot in the town in years. People turn to stare as he walks by, looking like they’ve seen a specter, and Jaskier takes the time to smile and nod at each of them. He’s sure that they all heard that he was slaughtered by bandits and he’s sure not a single one of them gave a damn. He makes his way to the Pankratz family estate, whistling a jaunty tune all the way. He only pauses at the gates, looking up at the imposing stone home where he spent the first eighteen years of his life. After living at Kaer Morhen for two years, it suddenly seems a lot less impressive.

“Who are you?” a small voice asks.

Jaskier looks down. Julian is four now, pudgy and blue-eyed. He actually looks a lot like Jaskier did at that age, except for being fair-haired like their father. He’s wearing a ridiculous ruffled shirt that makes him look like a small magistrate and stiff leather boots that probably pinch. It’s an outfit that no one would have forced Jaskier into at that age, because the shirt would have gotten muddy and he would have tossed the shoes in a ditch somewhere.

“I’m Jaskier,” Jaskier tells him.

“Like a buttercup?”

Jaskier grins. “Like a buttercup.”

“I like buttercups. They don’t taste like butter though.”

“So I’ve heard. Is your father home?”

“He is, but he’s in his study. He doesn’t like being disturbed in his study.”

Jaskier remembers the one time he made the mistake of knocking on the door of the earl’s study. “That’s okay. He’ll make an exception for me.”

Julian’s eyes get big. “I might get in trouble.”

Julian doesn’t have any visible bruises on him, but that doesn’t mean their father hasn’t found other ways to make his displeasure known. “I think I’ll be in trouble for the both of us, little one. Show me inside?”

The boy considers for a moment. “Okay, but if he asks, tell him it’s Agata who let you in.”

Jaskier snorts. “I’ll be sure to do that.”

He doesn’t knock on the door of his father’s study. He finds the Earl de Lettenhove sitting at his desk, already deep in his cups, even though it’s not even midday. The earl looks up at Jaskier with red-rimmed eyes, which go wide with shock when he sees Jaskier.

“Yes, I know.” Jaskier kicks the door closed behind them. “I’m supposed to be dead in a shallow grave in the mountains. Fortunately for all of us, not everyone is as shitty a person as you are. I’ve been at Kaer Morhen for the last two years.”

The earl recovers himself enough for his lip to curl in disdain. “Being passed around by all the witchers now?”

“Gods, I wish.” Jaskier grins lasciviously.

His father chokes, which turns into a coughing fit that lasts for several long moments. When the earl recovers, he demands, “What do you want, boy?”

“Can’t a son come home to his loving father?” Jaskier cackles. “Sorry, couldn’t say that with a straight face.”

A vein is popping in his father’s forehead. It’s a beautiful sight. “You’re no son of mine. You’re a changeling your whore of a mother dropped on my doorstep.”

“Is that what you told the king so he would make Julian your official heir?” Jaskier asks. “You know there are mages who can verify things like that, right? I met several on my travels. One strand of hair from each of us, and we’d know once and for all if I’m really your son.”

The earl’s hand strays to his balding head. “You—”

Jaskier slips off the ring on his right finger, letting his glamour drop. It’s the first time he’s worn the glamour in the two years since he arrived at Kaer Morhen.

That gets the earl on his feet. “Put that back on, before—”

“Before I shame the family. Yes, I know. The king is getting up there in years, isn’t he? And from what I’ve heard, the crown prince isn’t a big fan of elves. What do you think would happen if he found out that not only did you plan to marry a halfling, but you fathered her child and made him your heir for eighteen years? I think there wouldn’t be a title or an estate for anyone to inherit after that.”

The earl starts around the side of his desk. It takes everything in Jaskier not to flinch back.

“I wouldn’t do that.” Jaskier is proud of how steady his voice is. “Because there’s a witcher within earshot of us who has wanted to murder you since we were eleven. I wouldn’t give him any added incentive.”

He didn’t tell Geralt what he was planning on doing today and certainly didn’t invite him along, but that didn’t stop Geralt. He doesn’t think he was supposed to notice that Geralt followed him down the mountain, but his lover isn’t nearly as subtle as he thinks he is.

The earl freezes. “What do you want from me, boy?”

“My childhood back,” Jaskier says. “A father’s love. Not to flinch whenever someone raises their hand in front of me. Since I can’t have that, I’ll take your money.”

“You don’t deserve a ducat of my fortune.”

“I think the court in Ard Carraigh would disagree. I’ll fight for my inheritance if it comes to it, and you know I’ll win. But then I’ll be an earl and you’ll be a laughingstock and we’ll both be miserable. So let’s make this easy on us.”

When Jaskier walks out of his father’s study twenty minutes later, there’s a spring to his step. To his lack of surprise, he finds Geralt kneeling in front of the house while Julian sits cross-legged on the grass in front of him, extolling the virtues of each of his father’s hounds at length.

“Julian!” Jaskier didn’t realize the earl had followed him and he winces at the raised voice behind him. “Get away from that mutant!”

Julian looks up at his father with wide blue eyes. “But Papa, Geralt is nice!”

“Don’t make me tell you again.” The earl’s fists clench and Julian comes scrambling over obediently.

Jaskier grabs his father’s arm, surprised at his own audacity. “One more thing. You should know that I will be returning to Lettenhove every winter with Geralt. I will be checking in here. I also have friends at Kaer Morhen who will stop by. If Julian ever has so much as a skinned knee, the witchers will be the last fucking thing you need to worry about.”

The earl’s face goes purple. “Are you threatening me?”

“I’ve been threatening you for a half an hour, man. Keep up.”

He hears Geralt snort. When he glances over his shoulder, the witcher’s face is set in a scowl.

Jaskier’s father draws himself up. “Julian is a true Pankratz and a boon to the family name. I would never raise a hand to him.”

That doesn’t sting. Not even a little. “See to it that you don’t.” Jaskier turns away. “Nice to meet you, Julian.”

“You too,” Julian says in a small voice.

“So that’s it, then?” the earl calls after Jaskier. “You’re content to go off and be a witcher’s whore?”

Jaskier glances at Geralt, who looks dashingly menacing with his armor, his swords, and his scars. “It’s a tough lot in life, but I’ve learned to accept it.”

Geralt’s lips twitch.

“You disgust me,” Jaskier’s father says.

“Another lot in life that I’ll learn to live with.” Jaskier closes the distance between him and Geralt and kisses his lover with every ounce of passion he can muster. When he reaches around to grab a handful of Geralt’s ass and squeeze, he hears his father make a choking noise and the sound of the door slamming. He doesn’t pull away from Geralt for several more long, glorious moments.

“Was that necessary?” Geralt murmurs when Jaskier finally comes up for air.

“Very necessary.”

“Did you get what you came for?”

“Sure did.” Jaskier slaps the full coin purse into Geralt’s hands. “If we budget, stay at the shittiest inns we can find, and hunt for most of our food, that will last us about a year.”

Geralt frowns. “I didn’t want you to have to take his money.”

“It’s my money, Geralt. My inheritance. And it will piss him off for years that he had to give it to me.”

“Not years,” Geralt says. “Your father is sick. I could smell it. He won’t make it to Belleteyn.”

Jaskier doesn’t feel sad at the news, but feels the strange hollowness where sadness should be. “All that threatening, for nothing.”

“Hm.” Geralt’s eyes flick to the house. “I still want to kill him.”

“He doesn’t deserve the honor of dying at your hands.” Jaskier lifts Geralt’s hand to his lips and presses a kiss against the scar on his palm. “I can think of much more exciting things you could do with your hands, dear heart.”

Geralt’s answering smile is downright wolfish.

***

Geralt, Jaskier, and Eskel leave Kaer Morhen a week later. It feels strange, leaving only Vesemir, Lambert, and Aubry with the handful of young former trainees that couldn’t be brought back to their families or placed in apprenticeships. Geralt is used to there being more noise at Kaer Morhen. Even over a year after the attack, the ringing emptiness seems wrong. As Vesemir and Lambert see them off at the front gate, Geralt ignores the lump in his throat. New witchers typically don’t return to Kaer Morhen for several years after setting out on the Path. It will be a long time before he comes home again.

“Take care, pup.” Vesemir pulls Jaskier into an embrace. “And you two take care of each other.”

Jaskier grins at Geralt over the old witcher’s shoulder. “We always do.”

“We know,” Lambert says. “We all hear you two taking care of each other every damn night. I’ll finally be able to get some fucking sleep.”

“Oh, Lambert.” Jaskier turns to manhandle the younger man into a hug. Lambert grumbles, but doesn’t resist. “Never change, you little shit.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Lambert mutters into Jaskier’s shoulder.

“Your brother already performs that duty admirably.”

Lambert shoves him away in disgust. Geralt has to catch Jaskier to stop him from falling over. Lambert’s still adjusting to his heightened strength.

Geralt looks up at the keep, trying to focus on the part that’s still standing, and not the heap of rubble that they never quite finished clearing away. “Will you be okay here?”

“We’ll be fine, pup.”

Before he realizes what he’s doing, Geralt pulls Vesemir into an embrace. It’s the first time he’s hugged the old witcher in the fifteen years he’s known him.

“Be well,” Vesemir says softly. “Be safe. And remember that this is your home. Yours and Jaskier’s.”

Geralt swallows thickly and steps back so Eskel can hug Vesemir. “We will.”

Eskel, Geralt, and Jaskier camp together that first night in southern Kaedwen. In the morning, Eskel announces his plan to leave for Brugge, where he’s meeting up with a Griffin witcher he befriended the winter before.

“Where will you go?” Eskel asks Geralt.

“Haven’t decided yet.” Geralt shrugs. “Wherever there's a need for a witcher and a bard, I guess.”

“There's a need for a bard everywhere.” Jaskier strums his lute for emphasis. “You save their lives, I enrich them.”

“Hm. We’ll see about that.”

Jaskier is loudly indignant and storms off in a huff, which Geralt knows is really just his excuse to give Geralt and Eskel a chance to say goodbye to each other. When Jaskier returns to their campsite, Geralt and Eskel are both composed and stoic, as witchers should be. Most witchers don’t survive their first five years on the Path, but Geralt knows that this won’t be the last time he sees Eskel. They’ll both find their way home eventually.

“See you soon, Geralt, Jaskier,” Eskel says before he leaves their campsite.

Geralt smiles at his brother’s retreating back. “See you soon, Eskel.”

He and Jaskier spend one more peaceful night under the stars. The next day, when Geralt asks Jaskier where he wants to go, he receives a mischievous grin.

“I know a charming little village called Upper Posada,” he says. “The inn has great bread, if a bit dusty.”

Geralt snorts. “Don’t know if there will be a room for a witcher there.”

“Oh, they’ll make room for the White Wolf.”

Geralt cocks an eyebrow at him. “The what?”

“The White Wolf,” Jaskier says airily. “That’s what I’m going to call you in my songs. Defender of the innocent, slayer of beasts, breaker of fair maidens’ hearts. You’re going to be famous.”

“Sounds like a crock of bullshit.”

“How dare you.” Jaskier takes a deep breath and Geralt knows he’s going to start singing even before he starts belting out his song.

“The call of the White Wolf is loudest at the dawn,
The call of the stone heart is broken and alone,
Born of Kaer Morhen, born of no love
The song of the White Wolf is cold as driven snow.”

“A bit dramatic,” Geralt says mildly.

“Of course it’s dramatic, Geralt. No one wants to hear about happy, well-adjusted heroes who spend their evenings in the arms of their bard lovers. They want tragedy. They want heartbreak.” Jaskier grins at him fiercely. “People are going to adore you, dear heart. We’re going to change the way the world sees witchers. What happened to Kaer Morhen and the other keeps will never happen again, as long as I have breath in my lungs to sing.”

And despite everything, Geralt believes him. He leans over to place a gentle kiss on his bard’s mouth. “Lead the way then.”

***

 

After

A lot changes in a century. Kingdoms rise and fall. Wars rage. Monsters are slain. People are born, grow old, and die.

Through it all, a witcher and his bard travel from town to town. The witcher is called the White Wolf and his songs are known all over the Continent. Throughout the years, he accumulates new scars, but he’s always recognizable by his white hair and wolf medallion. The bard he’s with never seems to age. He sings multiple songs on the topic. The most popular one in taverns is the one where he gave Melitele herself such a fantastic night of lovemaking that she decided he could never die, lest the women of the Continent be deprived of his virility.

The witcher covers his face with his hands every time the bard plays that song. People would think he was laughing, if witchers laughed.

The bard and the witcher see the world ten times over, and it always finds new ways to surprise them.

In the town square of a shitty village called Blaviken, the bard talks an exiled princess into putting down her sword. Later that night, the town wizard dies mysteriously in his bed, but the witcher and the bard don’t know anything about that. They make a valuable friend that day.

They meet a band of elves in Dol Blathanna who have been exiled from their homes. The bard takes off his ring, revealing his pointed ears, and he and the witcher talk the elves into retreating to safety. The bard writes a song so the locals will think the elves were killed in battle. Much to his dismay, it becomes his most famous song.

At a wedding in Cintra, the witcher accidentally claims a child surprise. As they leave the wedding feast in disgrace, the bard is heard sniping at the witcher, “Melitele’s sake, Geralt, we passed four orphanages on the way here. If you wanted a baby, you only had to ask.”

There’s some unpleasantness with a djinn outside Rinde, but they make another friend that day, a sorceress who will become dearer than a sister to both of them.

In the Blue Mountains, they meet a dragon for the first time. The bard cries when he sees how beautiful it is. The witcher and the bard walk down the mountain hand in hand.

A war breaks out with Nilfgaard and there are some dark years, but the witcher, the bard, the sorceress and their child surprise make it through. They aren’t quite the same as they were before, but they’re alive and they’re whole.

And eventually, there’s a contract in Toussaint that ends with someone handing them the deed to a vineyard. The bard is finally starting to grow faint lines around his eyes and his temples are touched with gray. Most people would guess that he’s no older than forty. He looks up at the gorgeous house in front of them and the sprawling lands and shrugs. “Bit of a hovel, but I can work with this.” The witcher laughs and kisses him.

In a century, some things don’t change at all.

Every winter, the witcher and his bard return to the mountains of Kaedwen, to a little town called Lettenhove. The bard’s brother grew up to be an earl who embraced the presence of the witchers on the mountain and urged his people to be just as accepting. For the most part, they were. And when the earl eventually grew old and died in his bed, he passed on the same acceptance to his son and grandson (both named Julian, to the bard’s dismay.)

And when they make their way up the mountain to Kaer Morhen, there’s always a gray-haired old witcher, as well as a kind, quiet witcher with a scarred face and a loud witcher with sharp eyes and a sharper tongue. Others come and go, but they’re the three who are there every year. Some years, there’s a purple-eyed sorceress and a girl who can level cities with a scream waiting for them. Once a decade or so, there’s even a quick-tempered former princess who put down her sword because the bard asked her to.

No matter where they are, Geralt and Jaskier always ride up the mountain— Geralt on a chestnut mare named Roach, Jaskier on a gelding with a name that Geralt always thinks is silly— side by side. When they return home, it’s always together.

***