Jaskier’s teeth are chattering.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been in the tub. Long enough for the water to go cold; long enough for the blood that had bloomed like a spill of ink to settle at the bottom, like a layer of rust, kicking up like sand on the sea bed when he shifts his feet. He stares dully down at the filth stuck stubbornly to his feet, thinks about grabbing the washcloth and wiping the grime away; decides against it.
The candle that Geralt had lit for him and settled on the far side of the room has burnt low, the flame barely illuminating the cracked porcelain of the tub, old and expensive and out of place in this derelict estate. Jaskier doesn’t know how Geralt had known it was here—he’s just grateful for it, for the enormous, if musty, bed, for the porcelain tub, for the safety they’re afforded by how out of the way this place is.
There’s blood under his fingernails. He can’t bring himself to scrub it away.
Every part of him hurts; he doesn’t know how much of it is actual injury, and how much is the bone-deep exhaustion that threatens to lull him to sleep. Were it not for the chattering of his teeth, the tremors beginning to wrack his frame, he thinks he already would have.
There’s a gently knock at the door, and then, “Jaskier?”
Geralt’s voice is so low and so careful that a few tears slip free, and he can’t bring himself to speak. He splashes his hand in the water a few times, watching with idle curiosity the water tension clinging to his hand before it breaks, sending ripples across the tub, and he’s engrossed enough that he almost misses the quiet snick of the door opening.
It sounds like something else, and he flinches terribly enough to send water slopping onto the ground. Geralt pauses where he is, then shuffles further into the room and sets one of the buckets of water onto the ground before closing the door behind him. Tension Jaskier hadn’t known he was carrying begins to bleed out of his shoulders as that dark corridor is hidden.
“You okay?” Geralt asks, low, and gentle, and it’s all Jaskier can do to shake his head. The silence feels sacred, somehow, like if he breaks it then something inside him will break, too, and he works his throat to hold in the sobs that threaten to spill over.
Geralt nods, and pulls another two candles from his pockets. He holds the wicks to the flame of the already-lit candle, lets the wax dribble onto a surface before setting the candles down, ensuring they’ll stay upright.
“Stand up,” the witcher says gently, and Jaskier thinks nothing of rising out of the water, shivering in the chill of the air, and Geralt helps him out of the tub and throws a cloak around his shoulders before beginning the arduous task of changing the water.
Several buckets of water and a few ignis later, the tub is full of clean, steaming water, and Jaskier is guided gently inside. The heat seeps into his muscles and he trembles at the feeling.
“Can I wash you?” Geralt asks, his voice rasping and low and so, so gentle, and Jaskier draws in a shuddering breath.
“Yes,” he whispers, his voice cracking. “Just—”
Geralt seems to understand. He kneels beside the tub, a washcloth in hand, and Jaskier has to look away when Geralt picks up his hand and begins to wipe away the grime and the blood and the—fluids.
Jaskier had expected to feel Geralt’s hands on him and immediately be transported back. That his brain and his terror wouldn’t allow this—that Geralt would push too hard on a bruise and Jaskier would be gone, back in that room, dim candles highlighting the sweat on the men’s bodies as they surround him, touch him, hurt him. That he would lose his friend.
Geralt has seen Jaskier at his worst—seen every break up with Valdo Marx; seen the aftermath of every self-destructive night of whoring and drinking and gambling Jaskier has ever undertaken; has been there every time Jaskier has stumbled, blind drunk, into the room they’re sharing at an inn, and Geralt has had to clean him up and get some food into him and hold his hair while he vomits up all of his bad decisions the next morning. Jaskier has seen Geralt when the witcher potions turned him into a trembling, overstimulated mess, his muscles seizing as the poison runs its course; he’s listened to Geralt’s quiet groans of agony as his wounds stitch themselves closed, while Jaskier stokes the fire and piles blankets around his witcher and makes sure he eats and drinks and wipes the sweat from his feverish skin.
They’ve seen each other. They know each other. Jaskier can bear this.
For a while, the only sounds are the quiet noises of the water, as Geralt makes his careful way up one arm, all the way to the shoulder, and then up the other. By the time he directs Jaskier to lean forward so he can reach his back, he’s feeling drowsy and loose and he just wants to crawl into a bed and hide his head under the blankets and fall into a dreamless sleep for a while.
At the first light touch to the lashes that score his back in red, angry welts, he jerks forward, twists, and grabs Geralt’s wrist in a bruising grip before he even really registers where he’s being touched. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), Geralt lets him. He waits, face impassive (not pitying, thank the gods) while Jaskier shudders through a tight chest and too-short breaths and ringing in his ears, and when he manages to get his breathing under some semblance of control, all Geralt asks is, “do you want me to stop?”
Jaskier thinks about it. Considers sending Geralt away, and working by himself on his wounds, his bruises, the various fluids staining his skin, ragged, sticky mop that is his hair. Considers how he’d feel if Geralt were to see everything that’s been done to him, and how he’d feel if he had to do all of it alone.
“Stay,” he croaks, and closes his eyes as more tears slip free.
Geralt stays. Gently, gently, he brings the washcloth to Jaskier’s back, and cleans the bruises and the welts with such tenderness that a fresh flood of tears wet Jaskier’s cheeks and his pulls his knees up to his chest and hides his face in them and just cries, quietly, because it’s such an antithesis to the last few days that he’s not sure how to deal with it.
“The skin’s only broken in two places,” Geralt murmurs, and Jaskier hitches in a sob and then nods his head. That’s fine. That means fewer chances for infection.
“Skin’s broken in plenty of other places,” he rasps, thinking maybe that he’s trying for a joke, except the words come out too bitter to be anything other than rage. Contempt, maybe. At himself, or the men who did this to him, he’s not sure.
“We’ll fix it,” Geralt murmurs, and Jaskier sighs and rests his head back on his knees. He believes him; Geralt has made his living in killing monsters, and Jaskier has just spent three days being used by eight of them, and he’s spent enough years by the witcher’s side to know that when Geralt says something like we’ll fix it, the monsters in question don’t stand a godsdamned chance.
There’s more silence while Geralt works. Jaskier can’t stop thinking about them—their faces, their voices, the feeling of their hands on his skin, inside him, the feeling of other things inside him, the terror and the panic he’d felt and the ropes cutting into him while he struggled. He tastes blood on his tongue and it takes him a moment to realise that Geralt has stopped, has a hand cupped around the back of his head, is speaking low and quiet and saying breathe, Jaskier, come on, it’s alright. Jaskier breathes.
“What did you do to them?” Jaskier asks then, out of some morbid curiosity. Maybe it’s the stinging of his back as Geralt cleans come and blood off of his lash marks. Maybe it’s the exhaustion that has loosed his tongue. Maybe it’s the fact that Jaskier wouldn’t let anybody else do this—wouldn’t let anyone else see him like this, let alone help—and he trusts that Geralt won’t lie to him, or try to make him feel better.
“Killed them,” Geralt grunts. Jaskier lets the silence stretch, and then Geralt sighs and says, “the three of them that smelt the most like you—I cut their balls off, tied them in the room where they hurt you, and left them there while I hunted the others down. The other five got off with slit throats. Then I set fire to the building.”
“With the three still inside?” Jaskier asks, and he should be feeling horrified, probably, but he just feels—empty.
“Yeah,” Geralt tells him. And that’s that.
Geralt isn’t cruel. He’s not a monster, no matter what everybody says about him. He doesn’t like killing, not really—he’s good at it, because he was trained to be good at it, but he takes no pleasure in it.
Jaskier suspects that he took just a bit of pleasure from watching that building burn; he knows that he would.
“…And they’re definitely dead?” Jaskier asks, just to be sure.
Geralt hums. He’s shuffled around to Jaskier’s front now, bringing the cloth up to his chest to scrub at the wiry hair that covers his chest. For a second, he meets Jaskier’s eyes, and then he says, “I listened until they stopped screaming. I’ll go back tomorrow to check for bodies.”
Jaskier lets his eyes slip closed, and listens to Geralt’s breathing as he cleans of Jaskier’s chest. He’s careful as he wipes the cloth over the raw, bitten skin around his nipples, careful not to break any of the healing scabs, careful and thorough and breathing louder than normal so that Jaskier can focus on that, rather than the twinges of pain that have him remembering exactly how those wounds had gotten there.
“When I was… forty, I think, maybe a bit younger, I was in some tiny, long-forgotten court in the north. I’d killed a wyvern, sold its eggs to the local wizard and collected my due from the ealdorman. The lord convinced me to stay another night in his keep, eat fine foods and sleep on a decent bed for once. Winter was hard approaching, and I was tired and still young, and I agreed.”
Geralt doesn’t look at Jaskier as he speaks, concentrating as he is on washing Jaskier’s hips, his thighs, down to his feet and then back up again. The water is cooling somewhat by now and Geralt pauses to reheat it before continuing, and Jaskier just parts his legs when Geralt reaches up to wash the claw marks, the bite marks, the rope marks, that litter the inside of his thighs, and maybe it’s that small bravery that induces him to speak, or maybe it’s the heady feeling of [unbreakable?] trust that prompts him to speak. Either way, Jaskier sits quiet and still and watches the range of emotion contort Geralt’s face, while trying to ignore just what, precisely, he’s cleaning off of his legs.
“That night, he came to my rooms. Asked me if I had the coin to pay for a bed in the palace, for the food he’d fed me earlier. I knew what he was doing, what he wanted, and I played along because I couldn’t fight him off—he’d have had his guards there in an instant, and executed me. He was human, and fragile, and I couldn’t touch him. So, I played along. And he tied me down and he conquered me, and he was the first, because lords and ladies love bedding dangerous, feral things, and being able to say they once tamed a witcher.”
His voice is hard and bitter and his hands are gentle and soft and Jaskier reaches up, grips his chin in one hand, and forces those golden eyes to meet his own.
“What are their names?” Jaskier asks, just a tad too seriously, and a smile quirks at the corner of Geralt’s mouth. It’s a sad one, but it’s still a smile, and at this point Jaskier will take what he can get.
“They’re gone, now,” the witcher murmurs. “Dead or old enough as doesn’t matter. It hasn’t happened in years.”
Thank fuck for small miracles; Jaskier tips his head forward, and so does Geralt, and they bump their foreheads together and stay there, sharing breaths, sharing pain, and the tight knot of shame and grief that has been shortening Jaskier for three days now unwinds, just a bit. The burden no longer on his shoulders alone. The idea that somebody understands, kind of, what it’s like to have that taken from you.
Jaskier is still bleeding, still wounded, and he’s not going to sit right or walk right for days or weeks, and he’ll carry the scars for the rest of his life—but they’ll fade.
Geralt brings a hand up to cup Jaskier’s cheek just as the washcloth drags up to clean at the apex of his thighs, and Jaskier hitches a gasp and grabs his wrist under the water with one hand and covers the hand cupping his jaw with the other.
Geralt freezes, and Jaskier slowly tugs the washcloth from him.
“You don’t have to explain,” Geralt pitches his voice low, and Jaskier shivers at the—at the love that he hears, the love and the understanding. He nods, and breathes out shakily.
“Stay with me,” he begs, tears beginning to break free again.
“Always,” Geralt murmurs.