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i wouldn't know what i have lost (i'll be howling for you)

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When Geralt descends from the mountain, less a longtime lover and with nothing to show for it, he does not call Roach to him.

Over the balance of his long life, he has become accustomed to briefly-interrupted solitude, himself and Roach and, once in a great while, the unspoken loneliness of Kaer Morhen. The few that remain, alone together, surrounded by ghosts and self-sufficiency.

Geralt was taught to be efficient. The Roach before this one was efficient. The current Roach is not, because Geralt will not call her to him. He could, he knows, and she would trot her way to him wherever he stood, because this is the way of Roaches. He will not, because this Roach has always waited with—

—and some part of him, some foolish part not yet trodden down by—

Death, Destiny, heroics, heartbreak?

—still does not call her to him as he trudges down from the mountain, half-expecting her to be waiting with a man who has long since deserted Geralt.

He will not return to Caingorn easily. Destiny, if it exists, has ensured this. Caingorn feels like Blaviken, like the blunted ache of loss smoothed over by mutagens and White Honey.

(A memory: He came back to the only home he knew, littered with the unburnt dead and the remains of its proud walls. He discovered, then, that grief was toxic. From there, it was a simple matter.)

"Roach," he murmurs to her, placing one hand gently on her strong shoulder. She has three delicate little braids scattered through her mane, woven through with withered white myrtle blossoms. She lips at his hair as he undoes the plaits, tossing the flowers to the ground. "We're going south," he continues. "Who wants to be in fucking Caingorn, anyway?"

Roach leans in to bite his ear. Geralt dances out of the way, slanting her an arch look and a skeptical hum. "Maybe we'll go to Redania. You need to walk off the sugar cubes."

It is as he stows his supplies—looted from Eyck and the Reavers, or else gathered on his wending way down—that he notices something amiss. A leaf of parchment, tucked away in a saddlebag between whetstones and small bundles of armorer's tools.

He extracts the grease-smudged parchment carefully, unfolds it. Roach sniffs at it. Geralt follows suit. It smells of animal skin, linseed oil and lavender, and Geralt knows whose looping script to expect even before he reads it.

G.,

Left behind at Rinde: A New Treatise on the Prosody of Skelligen Battle-Epics, with a Critical Apparatus for the Appraisal of Manuscripts Thereof.

Enclosed: 82 crowns, as much celandine as I could find, and one half-vial of chamomile oil.

With my Warmest Regards,

J.A.P.

Geralt forces each tense muscle in his body to relax, a deep sigh breathed out in fits and starts. Celandine and chamomile, as promised, waft up from a different saddlebag.

One moment, just one brief moment of weakness, then, of realization, as he allows himself to bury his face in Roach's neck. Catalogues exhaustion, numbness, and a long-dormant something stirring behind his ribs, threatening to burst out and overwhelm.

He counts to ten, steeping himself in Roach's familiar scent and warmth. It comforts—no, grounds him. He is grounded, by the time he reaches ten.

"It's as good a contract as any," he declares, turning south, leading Roach back toward Hengfors. "See, Redania. I told you. You’ll be slim as a willow."

***

Rinde is miserable this time of year, pissing rain with the occasional hailstone for flavor. The house Yennefer brought down has been demolished, the lot left vacant for the five years since he was here last. He stands beside Roach, alone, and watches the rain work rot into the wood. Each heavy breath fills his lungs with the smell of mildew and damp.

The overcast day turns to night as he keeps his soggy vigil, replaying Rinde in his mind. Yenn's body against his, desperate affirmation of life, the scent of blood and magic all around them. Confusion, Yenn's voice, Just a friend? The weight of Jaskier in his arms, his choked pleas, Geralt's name thick in his throat. Fatigue and fear and clutching Jaskier to himself; the frantic refrain of not yet, because Jaskier is mortal, so beautifully, fragilely mortal, but Geralt is tired and scared and not ready yet.

The innkeep at Rinde is the daughter of the last innkeep. "Plague," she says shortly when Geralt asks, and, "Merchant by the name of Sijur. Collected everything from that house. Follow the main road west to the signpost." She takes the coin he offers, enough for a room and a meal and a bit extra, and thunks down a tankard of ale in front of him. The meal he receives is simple and savory, and he retreats with it into his room, stowing away his belongings before eating.

There is a notice board on the main road between inn and signpost. Geralt collects three contracts, tarrying in Rinde long enough to dispatch a noonwraith and two ghoul nests. He refuses a farmer's coin for the last nest; the field he clears has lain fallow for years, infested as it is with necrophages, and Geralt cannot accept coin from a man who has so little.

It is three days before he seeks out the merchant Sijur, glancing at his little stall of wares. "Looking for something in particular, Witcher? Got a fresh shipment of spirits in."

"A book," Geralt grunts, not meeting the merchant's eyes. "From the witch house." The innkeep had called it that, and Geralt held his thoughts carefully inside his head—that there was never a witch there, only a djinn and a sorceress and a witcher and his bard caught, as ever, in the fabric of Geralt's poor decisions.

"Aye, got books from that place, say it's haunted, they do," Sijur rambles, bending behind the counter to lift out a hefty pile of leather-bound books. "Foreigners interested lately in these ones. Hardly been two weeks past since the last customer."

Geralt runs his fingers down the spine of each book in turn until he finds the one he seeks. A New Treatise on the Prosody of Skelligen Battle-Epics, it declares itself in gilded serif, with a Critical Apparatus for the Appraisal of Manuscripts Thereof. "Not a foreigner."

"Come again?"

"The bard. He's from Redania. Not a foreigner."

"Don't know any bards, sir Witcher. 'Twere a professor came through, perused the wares, sat a bit and read."

"Buy anything?"

"Traded. Three rabbit pelts for honeysuckle and hellebore."

Geralt nods, schooling himself into neutrality even as his jaw aches and his head threatens to do likewise. "This one," he says, tucking the poetry book under his arm and counting out coins. "Farewell."

"Don't let it get too soaked," the merchant replies, as Geralt turns back toward the inn.

***

Another piece of parchment, folded in half widthwise, falls out of the book when Geralt flips idly through. The folios flutter and flowers fall out—honeysuckle and hellebore, pressed between the pages. Under it all, the parchment still smells of lavender and linseed oil.

G.,

I do not apologize here for being in your hands, as it were. I think—I do think—that if you wished me out of them, I would not be in them at all. You saved me, here, years ago; I understand now your gorgeous, twisted noblesse oblige, Witcher, and I no longer take the deed as more than that. You see in humanity something to be protected, no matter how it tries to destroy you. You are a study in poetic irony.

I thank you, regardless. For Rinde, for realization. I do not forgive you.

Left behind at Cintra: Preliminary Scenes from the Life of an Intertextual Heroine, or, an Analysis of Dowry in Elegy Centric on the Feminine.

Enclosed:

With my Warmest Regards,

Julian Alfred Pankratz

***

In the two decades of their acquaintance, Geralt had never thought to learn Jaskier's name. He knows, in the abstract, that any bard or troubadour takes a stage name as they embark on a career; he knows, as well, that Jaskier had not sprung a fully-formed master of the liberal arts from the bowels of Oxenfurt.

He has spent so long as Geralt of Rivia, attempting to cast off a yoke built of history and destiny, that he forgets how compact a human life can be. Jaskier came to him at eighteen, bursting forth with poetry and grit, so vividly realized already and determined to make Geralt the same.

Everything about Jaskier begged to be admired at face value, analyzed in itself only as he presented it.

As Geralt dismounts outside the gates of Cintra, he makes a chivalric oath to himself: He stops making excuses.

"I didn't know because I didn't care," he confesses to Roach as he works her over with a curry comb, stalled safely at the nearest inn. "I still don't care. He never shut up. If he didn't tell me, it probably mattered even less than every other fucking thing he said."

He isn't fast enough this time, and he groans as blunt herbivore teeth sink into the cartilage of his ear, warped with ancient scar tissue. "That fucking scar. He asked what happened to my ear. I said a vengeful spirit possessed my fucking horse and she bit the shit out of it. 'Vengeful spirit' being your sparkling personality." She lunges again and Geralt leans out of the way. "Yeah, I know. You're pissed."

Geralt stows the curry comb away and spares a thought for his brothers. He wonders, idly, if they feel so abjectly alone as he does, now, or if this is just what becomes of those touched by Destiny. Roach quiets, sensing his mood.

"I feel it too," he admits, and, "I'm sorry I don't give you sugar cubes."

She huffs. He leaves, collapses in his rented bed, and sleeps.

***

The Royal Library at Cintra is a garish thing, decked out at every turn with lions and portraits of Calanthe. Here, Calanthe in battle. There, Calanthe presiding over court. There, Calanthe knighting a kneeling noble. Geralt presses his lips together and makes his way deeper in.

He hears, with aching fondness, lute strings plucked softly from one of the nooks to his left. A woman's voice sings gently over it, and Geralt recognizes it as one of Jaskier's—Geralt knows it as "The Heart of a Violet-Eyed Maiden," though Jaskier called it simply "Wolven Storm."

"You flee my dreams come the morning, your scent berries tart, lilac sweet…"

A trite love ballad, he dismisses it, tamping down the keen longing that threatens to rise from the depths of him. He stomps up to a peaky librarian behind a polished counter. "I'm looking for a book."

The woman raises one eyebrow behind her thick spectacles, making a little gesture as if to say 'look around you.' "A specific book?" she asks, unimpressed, and Geralt grunts.

"Preliminary Scenes from the Life of an Intertextual Heroine," he manages, staring resolutely at the whorls of wood on the countertop.

"What does a witcher want with the work of Pavo?"

"It's—research. For a friend." The librarian makes a little unconvinced hum, but tells him to follow her all the same.

Together with the librarian, Geralt takes a winding path up three flights of stairs and into the south wing of the library. The librarian stops at the propped-open door to a room full of books and explains, "These are works of analytical poetics. Alphabetical. You'll find Pavo on the center wall." With these instructions, she leaves him to it.

Geralt finds the book quickly and pulls it from the shelf, steeling himself to the lingering scent of lavender and linseed.

He rifles voraciously through the folios of Pavo's work; four white myrtle blossoms, a leaf from a balisse plant, and two pieces of parchment greet him, this time.

Stowing the folded parchment safely away, Geralt all but jogs down the stairs and out of the library, back to the relative safety and quiet solitude of his room at the inn.

Two parchments, this time. A letter, as usual, and a poem.

The letter, first.

Geralt,

Heartbreak deserves a song. A little song for a little heartbreak, and so on, until one fears that the best work may be composed on one's deathbed, having experienced the heartbreak of a lifetime. I don't profess to know your heartbreaks or your lifetimes, Witcher, but I transpose your heart to mine and sing of her. This small absolution is all I can offer; I hope it is enough.

The trobairitz Calonetta gives a beautiful rendition of 'Violet-Eyed Maiden,' does she not?

Were I granted three wishes, my first would be to wish Valdo Marx's voice turned to that of a raven. My second, that I find a welcoming audience wherever I go.

My last wish would be to have truly known you, Geralt of Rivia. It would have been an honor.

Left behind at Posada: A draft of The Poetry of Jaskier the Bard.

Enclosed: Balisse leaves and white myrtle; a heart laid bare.

As always,

With my Warmest Regards,

Yours,

Jaskier

The parchment crumples, Geralt’s fingertips clutching desperately to the edges. The desperation grows to fill the empty spaces inside him as he tries deliriously to smooth it out, pressing it to the cramped writing desk and running the heel of his hand down the edges, over and over, unnaturally slow pulse pounding in his ears. Alone, it beats into him, alone, alone. The parchment tears.

Geralt’s eyes are hot. His breath comes on a single sob.

He stands, trembling, over the parchment. The ink runs in two places. Geralt ruins Jaskier’s letter and shakes apart, sitting on the edge of the bed with his head between his knees, longing for a dose of White Honey and resisting. He deserves to feel this; he has run to the edges of Destiny, thrown off everything it held out to him, cast away the one thing he chose for himself.

His heartbreak, he has found, is a quiet thing.

***

The poem, entitled "White Honey." A draft, perhaps, of what would become "Wolven Storm."

This heart long has yearned for your callous caress
To bind our fortunes, damn what the stars own
Rend my heart open, then your love profess
A winding, weaving ballad to which we both atone

You flee my sight come the morning
With your scent—silver sharp, leather sweet
To dream of grey-drenched locks entwisted, stormy
Of golden eyes, shining as you weep

The wolf I will follow into the storm
To find your heart, its passion displaced
By ire ever growing hardening into stone
Amidst the cold to hold you in a heated embrace

I know not if fate would have us live as one
Or if by song's blind chance we've been bound
The wish you thundered, when it ran its course
Did it rot away a love you might have found?

-JAP Jaskier, 1262. Caingorn.

***

Geralt reaches Dol Blathanna as summer yields to autumn.

Lower Posada is much the same as he left it. Perhaps fewer people hiss pejoratives at him under their breath. He takes on a contract for a grave hag. The alderman, in turn, takes "toss a coin" too literally.

The contract serves its purpose, though, spreading the news that a witcher is in town and ingratiating him to the populace. When Geralt asks the herbalist where to purchase books in Posada, she obligingly directs him to a shop just east of hers dedicated to such wares.

The bookseller, apologetically, has never heard of The Poetry of Jaskier the Bard.

"A draft," Geralt insists. "It would be a draft. Not published."

He heard Geralt the first time, and no, there’s no Poetry of Jaskier the Bard here, draft or otherwise. "Perhaps the professor might assist you, though," the bookseller concedes.

Geralt’s heart drops. "The professor?"

"Oxenfurt type. Greying, wears a lot of silk. Says he teaches songwriting."

"And where is he located?"

"The inn back up the road, the one troubadours go through. Sparrow’s Perch."

Geralt bids a hasty farewell to the bookseller and collects Roach from where she waits patiently outside the shop. They set off down the road, Geralt cleaving close to Roach as his hands flutter nervously on the lead. She snorts as if to mock him, meeting his nerves with steady calm.

"Roach," he whispers, in time for one last confession, "I don’t know what to do." In the face of his mistakes, he feels at once ancient and so very, very young.

Roach, for her part, makes a little snuffling noise into his hair, the horse equivalent of a shrug.

The sign for Sparrow’s Perch is metal, roughly shaped into a songbird. Geralt pays the stablehand in advance and brushes Roach down, gathering the last six months of searching to himself, hoarding them jealously as a wyvern’s baubles against the constant feeling of alone. "Roach," he sighs one last time, presses his face to her neck, inhales.

It comforts him.

The innkeep at Sparrow’s Perch remembers Geralt and sings a few bars of "Toss a Coin" for good measure. Geralt suffers this with his accustomed good cheer, asking after the professor. "Does he take his meals downstairs?"

"Nay, in ‘is room upstairs. Bath every third night as well."

"Can you tell me which room is his?"

"Nay, but ‘e left this for ye." She pulls out a scrap of parchment. "Reckon ‘e can tell ye which room’s ‘is."

G,

Second floor, third room on the left.

- J

Geralt nods, buys an ale, downs it and buys another. He sips at the second, staring at Jaskier’s handwriting as if to divine some hidden message. It reveals nothing, even at the bottom of his second tankard, and he leaves the bar with a screech of chair legs.

Second floor, third room on the left. The green paint peels away from the wood of the door.

Geralt knocks. "Yes, yes, come in." Distracted. His voice rips away another piece of Geralt’s heart.

Jaskier looks up from his writing as the door squeaks open, and he sets down his quill decisively. His eyes are so, so blue, so gentle and tender, as he sighs, "Geralt," and holds out an ink-stained hand.

Geralt allows himself this: One moment, just one brief moment of weakness, of realization. He falls to his knees in front of Jaskier, turns his face into the press of Jaskier’s hand on his cheek. "Jaskier," he chokes out, and rough fingertips thread into his hair, massaging the ache at his temple, the heat under his jaw.

"Geralt," Jaskier repeats, a prompt this time. The desk chair creaks as he leans forward.

"I would—I would have you—"

With patience tempered by his years, Jaskier waits. He strokes his hands softly over the parts of Geralt he can reach, face, shoulders, back. "You’re shaking," he murmurs, and, again, "Geralt."

"Know me," Geralt blurts. "I would have you...know me."

Jaskier clambers off the chair to wrap Geralt up in his strong arms that smell of lavender and linseed, kissing his forehead once before hiding Geralt’s face in his neck. "Oh, darling," he hushes, arranging himself around Geralt in the way he always has. This time, he arranges Geralt around himself, too, until they are a tangle of limbs on the floor. "It will be an honor."